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The Villain's Guide to Becoming a Plot Irrelevant Character

Chapter Text

“You look terrible.”

Meng Yao looked up from his textbooks and gave his roommate a wry smile. He accepted the coffee that his roommate passed over and took several sips before setting the mug aside again.

“Finals are over. What are you even studying?” his roommate asked as he sat down on the edge of Meng Yao’s bed and leaned towards the desk.

“I’m reviewing,” Meng Yao massaged his forehead. He lifted up his notes. “Compiling my notes from the semester.”

His roommate stared at him. The look on his face grew more and more disgusted. “Today was the last day of finals. You’re a free man—why are you doing this now?”

“Is being a free man going to stop the next semester from starting?” Meng Yao questioned. He placed the notebook back down onto his desk.

His roommate reached his hand out, but it was quickly slapped away by Meng Yao. His roommate pouted and slid down until his chin touched the desk. He knelt down beside Meng Yao. “Yaoyao, let’s go out to play.”

Meng Yao glanced at his roommate and looked away. “Not interested.”

“Oh, come on. Just a dinner with some friends,” his roommate pulled Meng Yao’s pen from his grip and tucked it behind his ear. He grinned when Meng Yao looked over. “Just a dinner.”

Meng Yao lowered his gaze and then glanced back at him. He plucked the pen from behind his roommate’s ear. “Can’t. My shift starts in half an hour.”

“You’re working today?” his roommate slumped. “Yaoyao, stop being so hardworking! Come on, just take the day off and come play with us.”

“Are you going to pay?” Meng Yao asked with a scoff.

His roommate straightened. “I’ll pay! I’ll pay. Come with us.”

“I meant for my living and schooling expenses,” Meng Yao said. He smiled. “Can you afford that?”

His roommate pouted. “Isn’t your scholarship enough…?”

“It’s enough until a certain point. But aren’t I graduating next year?” Meng Yao quirked an eyebrow. “What should I do then?”

His roommate grew quiet again.

Meng Yao’s situation was well known within their floor.

He was an orphan that worked hard until he finally got a full ride scholarship to go to the city’s best university. He didn’t have anyone to rely on and there was no one that could be considered close friends with this young man. While they knew of his situation, it was only what they could guess through the little tidbits that Meng Yao revealed to other people during some of their rare get togethers.

His roommate glanced at Meng Yao. “What are you going to do over break?”

Meng Yao thought for a moment. “Mm, probably rent a small studio. I’ll be working all winter break.”

“You’re not going back home?”

Meng Yao laughed. He was already older than eighteen. Whatever “home” he had had at the orphanage would not welcome him back now.

“What are you doing over break?”

“I’ll be heading back to my parents’ place,” his roommate said. Hesitation flashed across his face. “If you want, you can come too?”

Meng Yao shook his head. He was never one to burden people. “Thank you for offering, but I’m fine.”

His roommate hummed. He remained, kneeling on the ground for a moment longer.

“Don’t you have to go meet up with the others?” Meng Yao asked.

“Are you shooing me away?” his roommate quirked an eyebrow.

“I’m only reminding you,” Meng Yao chuckled. He glanced at the clock and began packing up his textbooks. “I should be heading to work.”

“Oh, then, I’ll walk down with you,” his roommate said.

The pair made their way downstairs and, once they got to the front of the dormitories, split ways.

His roommate watched Meng Yao for a moment before he called out to the young man.

Meng Yao turned around, confusion showing in his bright eyes.

Meng Yao was actually an extremely good-looking youth. His features were in all the right places. They were neither too large, nor too small. His face was rounded, but not too feminine. There was always a gentle aura about him, even down to the way he moved and interacted with others. The first impression he gave to people was always a good one and, unless you wronged him, you would continue to have a good impression of Meng Yao.

If it weren’t for the fact that Meng Yao was so detached from everyone and refused to become anything more than acquaintances, there would be many who would throw themselves at him with confessions of love.

Meng Yao’s roommate stayed silent for a moment, as he watched the light snow gently powder Meng Yao’s clothes and the top of his head.

Meng Yao waited for more words, but none came. He smiled in confusion and tilted his head. “What’s wrong?”

“You…”

“Hm?”

“…It would be fine if you wanted to rely on us more,” his roommate said.

Meng Yao’s eyes widened just a fraction. For a moment, the young man seemed to take the words to heart. Maybe his roommate finally got through to him.

But that type of illusion was quickly shattered by Meng Yao’s bright laughter. “Yeah, alright. I’ll see you tonight.”

His roommate watched Meng Yao leave and continue down the powdery snow road.

Without his roommate knowing, the smile on Meng Yao’s face faded as quickly as it had come.

His eyes lacked the usual, gentle brightness that they contained when he was with others. His expression was frosty and blank. The heart that sat in his chest felt as if it had been squeezed and Meng Yao was disgusted by such a feeling. It was a type of longing pain that only others could hold over him. It was not something that Meng Yao could inflict on himself.

A light laugh escaped his lips as he waited at the crosswalk.

Reliance only led to disappointment. And Meng Yao much preferred it if he was the only one that disappointed himself.

Meng Yao’s job was not too far from university grounds. It was a small coffee shop that was tucked in a nondescript corner. The shop was owned by a grandmother and a grandfather. The two bought it solely for their own enjoyment. When they felt like coming, they would sit awhile, but otherwise it was run by the few youngsters that worked there. The one who was there the most often, was a young woman who had been trying to get her life together for five years now.

Whenever anyone asked her about it, she would tell them that she will leave once something better calls to her.

Meng Yao doubted she would ever leave.

“Did you finish it?”

Meng Yao looked up at the young woman who could be considered his manager. “Finish what?”

“The story I told you to read.”

“Ah,” Meng Yao threw his towel over his shoulder. “The Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation?”

“Yes! Did you finish it?”

“I did.”

“Did you like it?”

Meng Yao’s brows furrowed.

The only reason he had been convinced into reading it was because this manager told him there was a character that shared the same name as him. He had only picked it up as something to do when he was in between jobs and classes but, in the end, he had finished it one sleepless night.

To put it simply, it was good. The characters all had their faults and their strengths. The innocent was not spared, but each event was set in such a way that it didn’t feel superficial.

It had even been to the point that, after some analysis, Meng Yao could somewhat understand some of the villainous acts.

But there were two things that didn’t sit well with Meng Yao at all.

“It was good,” Meng Yao nodded.

The manager narrowed her eyes. When Meng Yao spoke like this, there was always a follow up.

“But I dislike what the author did with Lan Xichen and Nie Mingjue.”

“What? Why?”

Meng Yao leaned against the counter and propped his head up with his hand. “Aside from Lan Wangji, those two characters were the ones that were the most heroic.”

“…Not Wei Wuxian?”

“I meant in the righteous sense. Naturally, the protagonist is the most heroic. But in the way where they place morality above all, yet still try to save the common people,” Meng Yao said. “Nie Mingjue wasn’t wrong. Xue Yang should be punished for what he did. He also wasn’t wrong in trying to convince Jin Guangyao to confess. True, he may have been too stubborn to see things in Jin Guangyao’s way, but did Jin Guangyao have to retaliate in such a way?”

“Nie Mingjue was in his way,” his manager pointed out.

“I suppose,” Meng Yao said. “But couldn’t Jin Guangyao have seen it in Nie Mingjue’s way? People praise Jin Guangyao for being a brilliant villain, but I feel that he was far too impatient and careless. There definitely could have been other ways to go about things.”

Meng Yao paused. “Though, I suppose it could also be because of his naivety at the beginning of his story.”

To actually trust that a man who abandoned him and his mother in such a wretched place would take him back was really too naïve.

His manager nodded her head. “Then, Lan Xichen?”

Meng Yao fell silent once more.

Lan Xichen was a character he had many mixed feelings about. He was the definition of a man with a saintly halo—maybe he was even a white lotus character. Time and time again, he forgave Jin Guangyao, ignored the signs, and almost pleaded for Jin Guangyao to tell him it wasn’t true. And if Jin Guangyao had? Then Lan XIchen would have most likely believed him. All Lan Xichen wanted was for his brothers to get along, for his real little brother to be happy, and for his sect to be safe.

There really wasn’t anything wrong with Lan Xichen’s values, but what irked Meng Yao the most was his trust for Jin Guangyao.

Why? Just because he saved Lan Xichen? Because they were in contact during the Sunshot Campaign?

How come Lan Xichen chose to trust Jin Guangyao over Nie Mingjue—a man he had had a friendship with for over half his life?

This was something Meng Yao couldn’t understand.

Nie Mingjue was someone with strong morals. If Meng Yao knew someone like him, he felt that he would at least try to see what Nie Mingjue meant when he expressed his dislike for a person.

The manager saw Meng Yao’s clouded expression. “So, you didn’t like Jin Guangyao?”

Meng Yao let out a scoff. He pushed himself from the counter and began wiping down the tables that had yet to be cleaned. “Why go so far as to drive yourself insane, just so you can seek the approval of someone who treats you as lesser than dust?”

Meng Yao’s manager nodded her head. That is a good point.

While the ending of this story could be considered a happy one, everyone innocent and those uninvolved were dragged through the mud, shoved into a pit, and then spit on. From Wei Wuxian’s innocent martial sister, to a young man who only showed up at the beginning to offer up his body. And those who hadn’t been innocent were innocent to begin with—a child who only wanted his father’s approval; an orphan who only wanted some candy.

And from a real-life perspective, what kind of trauma would end up with the protagonist? Sure—it was a happy ending, but how happy was it really?

Meng Yao thought about Nie Huaisang, who successfully got his revenge but now lacked friendship, respect, and his older brother. And then he thought about Lan Xichen, whose blind loyalty cost him the lives of both of his closest friends.

His manager had long gone to take care of other customers.

Meng Yao’s hands stopped moving on the table and he stared outside into the wintery evening.

But life was just like that. It was cruel and many would never get the taste of that fairytale “happy ending”.

The rest of Meng Yao’s shift passed by in a mundane way.

Meng Yao greeted customers, exchanged small chat, cleaned tables, washed dishes, made drinks, and, by the end of the night, he was the one that locked up.

The other employees and his manager had gone home an hour before. Many were let off work early to catch a train or a plane or a bus to head home, as many were students that went to school at the nearby university.

Now, it was only Meng Yao.

Meng Yao stared ahead of him at the near empty street.

This city and this area could be considered more of a college town. When school was out, there were fewer people on the streets and even the shops opted to close earlier.

Meng Yao let out a soft sigh, causing his breath to flow up past his eyes and fog his glasses a little.

He turned and began to walk down the street, his neck buried in his scarf.

As he walked, he continued to think about the characters in the back of his mind.

The more he thought, the more depressed he found himself feeling.

“What do you even get in the end?” Meng Yao murmured allowed as he waited at the crosswalk.

Loneliness?

A sigh escaped his lips.

If he was Jin Guangyao, he would definitely do things differently. No matter what his mother said, he wouldn’t contact his dad. No matter what others said about him, he would just ignore them. No matter how friendly others became, he would just keep his distance. It was just three things, but if executed correctly, Meng Yao felt that living in such a cultivation world wasn’t too bad.

The light at the crosswalk turned green.

Meng Yao let out another sigh before he began to walk across the street.

There was little he remembered after this.

He remembered that it was extremely bright. There was a loud, rambunctious honk. A pain that was indescribable spread across his body. He remembered flying through the air, landing heavily on the ground, and he might have rolled a few more times. The snow that smeared across his body was cold, but it began to melt rather quickly because of the blood coming from his body.

He saw a shadow hovering over him but the shadow ran off.

Meng Yao wanted to let out a contemptable laugh as his consciousness faded.

He worked this hard and only managed to live until he was twenty. He felt that in his next life, he should definitely take it easier.

Just as his eyes closed—just as the sound and senses faded from his body—Meng Yao heard one last sound.

An electronic ding.

Chapter Text

The cold was already enough to suck the breath from Meng Yao, but the pain that dug through every inch of his body made Meng Yao want to convulse. However, no matter how he felt, the pain did not stop. It continued with full force and with each strike, Meng Yao’s vision seemed to receive a shock.

He felt his chest heave and he heard a cough. His vision momentarily focused, revealing a splatter of red against the pavement that was lightly dusted with snow.

“I dare you to move again!” an obnoxious voice came from above.

Meng Yao wanted to protest. From start to finish, he hadn’t struggled nor had he moved an inch. He reacted like a punching bag would—he only moved because of the force used to move him.

But this also wasn’t right.

Meng Yao had gotten hit by a truck on the eve of his winter vacation. A truck of that size, mixed with Meng Yao who was already skinny and short for his age, should result in a mess of guts and blood. Not to mention, Meng Yao distinctly remembered the truck driver had ran off after seeing the disaster he had caused. So, even if by some miracle, Meng Yao had a chance of surviving, the road had been cut off by this irresponsible driver.

So, could anyone tell Meng Yao why he was currently curled against the pavement, suffering insults from a pitched voice that seemed to belong to a teenager going through puberty?

The sounds began to blur together until the adolescent’s words sounded like blub, blub, blub.

Just as his hearing began to fade, the sounds of the voice were mixed with something even stranger. Like the sound of a computer booting up, Meng Yao felt that he had suddenly gone crazy. But then he heard an extremely distinct ding. Following that was silence, aside from the garbling of reality. However, very soon, Meng Yao heard another sound. It was like he was wearing headphones. The sounds were extremely close to his ears, giving him almost the feeling that he was sitting in an IMAX cinema.

Eventually, Meng Yao heard a voice.

[System starting. Attaching to character: Meng Yao. 70% complete…80% complete…82% complete…90% complete…98% complete…]

Meng Yao listened to this mechanical voice booting up in his mind.

It was over.

Meng Yao truly had gone crazy.

The hit from the truck hadn’t killed him, but now he was stuck in a coma and was living out a dream world where he transmigrated into…into…

Into what?

A character named Meng Yao?

The realization that there was indeed a character that shared his own name hit Meng Yao. He began to have a disgusted taste welling up in his mouth—and it was not the coppery taste of his own blood.

As long as this was a dream, Meng Yao felt that he would be fine. As long as this wasn’t reality, Meng Yao wouldn’t mind living in this fucked up cultivation world. Maybe he would live here until they no longer had money to keep him on the IV or fund his treatment. He was an orphan with no one to pay that sort of money, after all. And his savings were really too meager. At most, it would have lasted him another two years after graduation. And that was only if he continued to spend as thriftily as he was currently.

His hopeful thoughts were dashed away by a mechanically cheerful: [100% complete. World successfully synced.]

There was a bit of a congratulatory song before the mechanical voice returned.

[Welcome, Host to the “They deserved a Happy Ending too” System. Host is part of the lucky one hundred that was selected to test our new program. Because this is a new program, we would like to warn Host that there will be bugs along the way. There may be plot holes that did not happen. There may also be blind spots that the System cannot detect. Examples of this include ethereal beings that have not been registered into the system, gaps in knowledge of the world, mix ups of prizes and rewards, as well as inconsistency of character as compared to what is stated within the plot. We hope that Host will be understanding. If not, you can now opt out of our program to keep from harsh feelings that may develop in the future.]

Meng Yao ignored the pain that continued to spread in his abdomen. “If I reject, what will happen?”

[If Host rejects, Host will be sent back to his original world.]

Meng Yao’s lips curved into a wry smile. “And what am I like in the original world?”

There was a long pause.

[As of Tuesday, 12:13AM, Host was pronounced dead at the cross section of—]

“I accept.”

The sound of rebooting occurred once more.

[Congratulations Host, for accepting your role as “Meng Yao” in the novel, The Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation.]

So it was that story.

Meng Yao felt bile crawling up his throat but before he could throw anything up, the yelling finally stopped. There was one final kick and Meng Yao was left, half-dead against the pavement.

Meng Yao was about to open his mouth to ask if the System planned on having him die a second time so early on in the plot. But, before he could ask, the memories of the original Meng Yao, thus far, were quickly and painfully forced into his brain.

Meng Yao curled in further into himself as his head was forced to the point of near explosion.

He was currently in Yunping City—the small city in Yunmeng that was filled with the hustle and bustle of life. Unsurprisingly, he was also still a child of a prostitute. That much had not changed.

Meng Yao was forced to watch the original’s life until the point that he had transmigrated over to. The bile that Meng Yao had managed to swallow down spilled out and mixed with the blood that already dyed the pavement. Meng Yao forced himself to sit up and shift away from his own vomit as he began to process the information further.

He was currently still a child. He was not yet fourteen and Meng Shi had yet to pass, though she was already often abused.

The reason he had been dragged out into the streets and beaten to a pulp was because he had bit the arm of a wealthy man who was trying to take advantage of his mother while she was not feeling well. As per expectation, the malnourished seven-year-old Meng Yao was no match for the full-grown men who were bodyguards for the rich patron.

Even if he was a child, the guards of the man did not show him any mercy and no one helped him.

At this, Meng Yao really wanted to scratch his head.

A seven-year-old child! How can people turn their eyes to this? Was it because it was in ancient times, or was it because it was part of the world plot to build up an evil antagonist?

Either way, Meng Yao did not focus on this plot point any further. He had now confirmed and reconfirmed that he had, indeed, transmigrated into Jin Guangyao.

He was here before Jin Guangyao became Jin Guangyao, so there was still some leeway. Though…

“System?”

[Host, please refer to me as 404.]

…That’s really inauspicious.

“I…don’t really want to,” Meng Yao admitted.

The system fell silent.

“I’ll call you Tongtong…alright?”

After a while, the system made a sound of consent.

Meng Yao wasn’t sure what went through this AI’s data, but he was sure it was something like “Well, at least it’s still a nickname. It is less alienating than System.”

Meng Yao shook himself out of his silly thoughts and turned back to the business at hand. “Tongtong, earlier you said that you’re the…’They also deserve a happy ending’ System. What does that entail?”

Meng Yao thought about the transmigration stories he had read throughout his years. A majority of them featured a naïve and/or determined person that was hooked up with a system that forced them to go with the plot line. In the end, they would deviate because of their love for their love interest and everything would end up fine because that was the story and they were the protagonist.

Meng Yao didn’t dare think of himself as a protagonist.

Oh no. Not at all. He was but a stinky antagonist—a bonafide cannon fodder, if you will. This world’s protagonist was Wei Wuxian. Even if Meng Yao was an outsider that transmigrated in, the world would still see Wei Wuxian as the protagonist. The perks of a protagonist, like a protagonist halo, trouble of finding him wherever he went, a devoted love interest, loyal friends, amazing talents, etcetera etcetera, did not belong to Meng Yao at all. Not at all.

Instead of thinking it was a shame, Meng Yao even felt that it might be better this way. If he didn’t have to follow the plot line, maybe Meng Yao can simply finish his mission and then fade to the shadows for the rest of his life.

Without realizing that it had actually attached to such an unambitious Host, Tongtong was revving up for their grand introduction speech.

[As the System has informed Host previously, you are part of the one hundred that was selected to be part of this beta program entitled “They deserved a Happy Ending too”. The mission of the Host is to ensure the target or targets receive a happy ending. In the original world, or the original story, the characters did not receive a happy ending. The activation of this program is caused by mass hysteria among the fans and a feeling of injustice for the fate of these characters. According to the program ranking back at headquarters, this program can be considered one of the easiest to pass programs as it also wants the Host to reach a happy ending in the end.]

Meng Yao was listening to Tongtong ramble when the last sentence caught his attention. “What were the requirements of selecting a Host?”

[The requirements to select the Host is a person whose life was filled with unfortunate events and disappointments. They become a candidate because the god of Host’s world feels the Host deserves a second, better chance.]

Meng Yao fell silent. After a moment, he said. “I think my life was fine.”

[According to my analysis, Host, you are currently performing a lie.]

Meng Yao’s eyes widened a fraction. He let out a laugh and wiped the blood and pile away with the back of his hand. “Don’t invade my mind.”

[It cannot be helped, Host.]

Meng Yao let out a soft sigh. “Continue on your little speech.”

[The Host must also share the same sentiment as the majority and wishes for the characters to receive a happy ending, or a better fate.]

Meng Yao nodded slowly. “So…it’s like…a fix-it fan fiction?”

[The System is unable to comprehend what the Host is trying to say.]

“…Maybe you should spend some more time on the internet in my world,” Meng Yao said.

[The System will as soon as Host is finished with his questions.]

Meng Yao thought for a moment. He thought about the author’s other works. “Am I rewriting the story of my world then?”

[No, Host. In the universe, there are many worlds. Attached to these worlds are alternate universes. In your world, the story of Wei Wuxian may be a book, but in actuality, it is another world by itself that you are peering into. What Host is doing now is creating an alternate reality to the world that treats Wei Wuxian as a protagonist. While you are still restrained by the personality of your character and the will of the world, the will of the world is much more flexible.]

“So, the plot line can be changed?”

[Host’s goal is to change the plot line to allow the characters a happier ending.]

Meng Yao nodded and silently mulled over the system’s words. “How much can it be changed?”

[As much as Host desires. So long as Host does not personally kill the protagonist of this world, so long as the targets receive their happy ending, and so long as none of the others suspect Host is an outsider, Host will not suffer backlash nor will he be kicked out of the world.]

Then there was a lot of leeway.

Meng Yao could even kill the protagonist indirectly.

The Jin Guangyao that Meng Yao had transmigrated into was currently a seven-year-old. That is to say, he has not yet contacted any important characters in the story and only had contact with Meng Shi and the other prostitutes within the brothel. Once Meng Yao turned thirteen or fourteen, Meng Shi will die and the last person to know Jin Guangyao will also be gone. At that time, Meng Yao would have completely taken over Jin Guangyao’s life and, technically, he could begin to live as he would like and not by Jin Guangyao’s rules.

“So, I can OOC?”

[There is no need to worry about such a thing. Host and the original Jin Guangyao has similar personalities.]

“…That’s rude.”

[The System is speaking the truth.]

Meng Yao scoffed.

As if sensing its Host’s displeasure, Tongtong added another sentence: [However, Host lacks ambition. Host is more like a salted fish—to use a human analogy.]

Meng Yao felt his useless pride pinched, but he really couldn’t refute the system’s words. Sure, he was a salted fish. That’s how he wanted to live anyway, right?

Meng Yao looked around. He had been dragged into an alley by the rouges at some point. He looked out and watched as the people flickered by.

“Tongtong?”

[Yes, Host.]

“Who’s my target?” Meng Yao asked.

The question had two answers as a possibility. It could be either of the Nie brothers that Meng Yao sympathized with, or it could be Lan Xichen, whom Meng Yao held a mild dislike for.

[Host, your target for this world is Nie Mingjue.]

Meng Yao let out a small sigh of relief.

[And Lan Xichen.]

The relief was swept away by despair.

Hold on, hold on.

Not only was he supposed to make Nie Mingjue happy, but also Lan Xichen? This meant he had two targets! Not just one.

[Host, I sense your emotional levels are fluctuating drastically.]

“I have two targets?”

[Yes, Host.]

“Why?”

[Unfortunately, there are a lot of characters who had unpleasant endings in this world. As you have transmigrated into a person whose fate is closest to both characters, Host holds the responsibility to fix their unfortunate ending and bring about their happiness.]

So, the same spiel.

Meng Yao took a breath to calm down. He began to rationalize. Actually, this was fine. At least it wasn’t as if he were running from north to south. These two targets were actually rather convenient. If he had been assigned characters like Jiang Cheng and Mo Xuanyu for some reason, that would have given him more of a headache. At least these two were somewhat related to each other and to Jin Guangyao.

Meng Yao rubbed at his face, that was simply baby fat, and stared ahead a little blankly.

The author had been extremely vague in terms of age range, as well as the timelines, but if Meng Yao had to calculate, he should be around the same age as the protagonist and his love interest. Which put Nie Mingjue six years older than him. According to that, Nie Mingjue had yet to lose his father but Lan Xichen had already lost his mother a few years ago.

The world currently was at peace, though the Qishan Wen Sect still loomed in the back. Their shadow had yet to grow, but people were aware of their presence.

The Qishan Wen Sect.

Thinking of the actual plot made Meng Yao’s headache get worse. He shook himself and shakily stood.

“Tongtong, is there a way to make my body less broken?”

[Does Host want a healing elixir?]

Meng Yao thought for a moment before sitting back down. “Actually, Tongtong, tell me about yourself a little more. This system—how does it work? How come I can get a healing elixir?”

As Tongtong explained, Meng Yao drew an analogy with common items in his own world.

Basically, Tongtong was the same as a video game system. Meng Yao could call up a system interface and he could see his points—which could be converted into currency to buy items in a shop. As far as video game interfaces go, Tongtong’s was relatively simple. There was no instruction manual, no save button, and no control guide. There were only the system points (that had a bunch of different categories), two target progress bars, a world progress bar, and a system store.

[As Host’s body was heavily damaged upon entering the world, the system has a free healing elixir to prevent Host from dying or bleeding out.]

That’s very kind, Meng Yao thought with a roll of his eyes.

The elixir was placed into Meng Yao’s hand. It was as if he had really pulled it from his Qiankun bag.

The elixir was in the form of an energy drink—similar to that of Redbull. To keep from attracting strange gazes, Meng Yao quickly opened the can, downed the drink, and tossed it back into the system space.

“Can you package the items to fit the environment next time?” Meng Yao asked as he slowly pulled himself up again.

Although he was still in pain, and the healing elixir seemed to be burning his insides, Meng Yao’s legs were no longer broken and tender as he walked. He could also feel the pain in his chest and abdomen ease slightly.

[Yes, Host.]

Meng Yao swayed out from the alley and took several steps before he ran into someone.

Meng Yao saw purple robes flowing in front of his eyes and he slowly looked up to see a pair of clear, bright eyes.

[Ding. Congratulations. Host has made contact with Jiang Yanli. Currently downloading character information. Please hold.]

What luck.

Meng Yao stared at the ruddy face before that was pink from the winter cold.

The young girl had an astonished expression.

Even if Meng Yao had taken the medicine, he was still bloodied and bruised. The medicine had only worked to fix Meng Yao’s internal injuries and ensure he wouldn’t die. And even that didn’t mean that he wouldn’t have to continue to suffer a few more weeks.

What felt like an eternity was only mere seconds. The system made another sound, signaling that it had finished downloading the character information, and Meng Yao slowly spoke to it again.

“This is the protagonist’s shijie?”

[Yes, Host.]

Meng Yao’s brain began to do somersaults as he stared silently at the growing concern on the young girl’s face. Everything starts and ends with the protagonist. If Meng Yao wanted the major players of the world to be happy, shouldn’t he first make sure he had a connection to the protagonist?

A pained expression emerged on the young boy’s face. He swayed slightly as he took a step back. His head was lowered humbly and his shoulders trembled slightly, as if he feared that he would be reprimanded for dirtying the young miss’s robes.

“F-forgive me, young miss. I…”

Jiang Yanli moved forward to support Meng Yao, but the boy moved back with a frightened jump.

She flinched as well but remained where she was and cautiously reached out still. “I—sorry, you…how come you’re so—”

“Excuse me,” Meng Yao bowed his head in shame and tried to walk around the older girl. But, unfortunately, his legs didn’t listen to him and he fell forward onto Jiang Yanli’s shoulder.

Jiang Yanli’s heart jumped. She felt the unnatural warmth spreading through her clothes onto her shoulder. She reached up and touched Meng Yao’s forehead. She inhaled sharply at the heat that touched the back of her hand. Without hesitating, she pulled Meng Yao onto her back and began to head off in a certain direction.

Meng Yao reacted with alarm. Despite the pain in his body, he thrashed. “Miss—”

“I’m bringing you back to Lotus Pier,” Jiang Yanli said softly. “Wait a bit, okay?”

“I…My mother…”

“I’ll send your mother a message,” Jiang Yanli reassured Meng Yao. Her voice was soothing and calm in her own respect. She smiled and patted the side of Meng Yao’s leg lightly. “Don’t worry. You’re okay.”

Hearing such reassuring words, spoken by such a lovely voice, Meng Yao felt his body subconsciously relax. He limply laid against Jiang Yanli’s shoulders and rested his head near her neck. The warmth from her body became a source of comfort and Meng Yao could barely hear the frantic conversation that the girl was having with someone nearby.

As the threads of his consciousness faded away from him, Meng Yao couldn’t help but notice the stableness of Jiang Yanli’s entire person. He blinked slowly as one thought passed through his head: Everything around him felt too real.

Chapter Text

Perhaps in the original world, Jiang Yanli had also been on an outing in Yunping City with the disciples and Jiang Fengmian. Perhaps, if Jin Guangyao had dawdled and laid about like Meng Yao had, he would have been able to run into the Yunmeng Jiang Sect too. However, that fate had not meant to be. The stars were not aligned and Jin Guangyao, this villain, would not be allowed to meet with Wei Wuxian, the protagonist, at such an early stage.

But now was different. Meng Yao had taken over and he was an outlier to the equation.

Meng Yao’s eyes slowly opened to an empty, but well decorated guest room. He let out a soft sigh of relief when the system informed him that there was no one nearby.

He was seven, but he naturally already knew about the great sects. If it was the Jin Guangyao of the future, perhaps he would take this chance by the throat and beg to be a part of the sect. But, at this point, Jin Guangyao did not have much ambition. The thing on his mind right now would be his mother.

With that conclusion, Meng Yao slipped into the shoes before him.

He paused a moment and looked down. He was wearing the purple uniform that belonged to the Yunmeng Jiang Sect. They must have tided him up while he was asleep.

He moved away from the bed and picked up the bronze mirror that sat on the table and he gently touched his face. The face was extremely familiar. It was one that he had glanced at in mirrors for several years of his life before he shed the baby fat.

Meng Yao placed the mirror down again and glanced around the room. Although the room was small, it carried a sense of home and didn’t seem like a separated space at all.  

Meng Yao walked over to the tea table and ran his hand against the designs on the edge of the table. “Wow.”

Tongtong perked up.

“If this was a historical drama, the production cost would be a fortune. Look at all of this,” Meng Yao wandered back over to the bed and touched the fabric. “This is real silk, isn’t it?”

[…]

Meng Yao stared around in fascination. As a modern man who enjoyed historical dramas, this was certainly a feast for the eyes.

“Since this is a cultivation world, I don’t have to worry about the dirty things I would have to if I transmigrated into a piece of regular historical fiction,” Meng Yao nodded in approval.

Now that he wasn’t screaming in pain, Meng Yao could finally settle down and think about his situation.

Really, it wasn’t bad. He just had to perform as he always did with his jobs—with precision and determination. Hadn’t he gotten out of that disgusting orphanage the same way? He even got into the top universities of the country with a full ride scholarship. Right now, he was a child again. This would give him a lot of time to adjust to this new and strange world.

The system could only produce another series of ellipses. When the world god had nominated Meng Yao as a candidate, the system could only see that he was very hardworking with a similar personality and face to the original Jin Guangyao. But, looking at it now, they were quite different. Not only was Meng Yao a salted fish, he was also strangely optimistic.

As if reading Tongtong’s mind, Meng Yao spoke again.

“Right, I forgot to ask earlier,” Meng Yao said. “What happens once I finish the mission?”

[Once Host completes the task of giving Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen their happy ending, Host may choose to return to his old world, continue to another world, or live out the rest of Host’s life on this plane. If it is the last option, the system will completely uninstall from Host and allow Host to live freely.]

Meng Yao’s eyes lit up. Naturally, he was not going to return to his old world. He had already died there. If he continued to another world, he would have to suffer through another bout of emotions that did not belong to him and live a life that was not his.

Meng Yao wasn’t a fool. Although seeing different universes seemed fun, he also had the mind to consider what traumatic experiences he was going to face even just in this world. He wasn’t the type to burden himself if he could take the easy way out.

Once he finishes his mission of giving Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen a happy ending, he will just hang up his mantle and retire on a peaceful mountain far from the main cast of this story.

Again, Tongtong, an AI, was made to be speechless.

[Host does not even want to find a cultivation partner?]

“What for?” Meng Yao asked.

Tongtong hesitated. [This world is full of beauties. As long as it is not Wei Wuxian or Lan Wangji, Host can try with anyone he desires.]

Meng Yao scoffed. “Love? Me? Tongtong, I don’t believe in something like that.”

[But yearning for love and affection is innate in human beings, whether it be platonic or romantic.]

Meng Yao thought for a moment. “You said that my world’s god nominated me to be part of this program. Did you get to see my life?”

[The system does not have jurisdiction to access that without the Host’s permission.]

“Oh, that’s nice.”

[We here at the Multiworld Space value the Hosts’ privacy.]

The system sounded quite proud of itself despite its mechanical voice. Meng Yao couldn’t help but smile. He felt that the little AI was quite cute.

“Well, if you had seen it, you would see why I don’t care much for love and affection,” Meng Yao said. His hands brushed against the silky covers. “My personality doesn’t allow for people to get close to me. Even if someone did, I doubt I’d be able to reciprocate their feelings. I’d only end up hurting them.”

Tongtong was silent. It silently reanalyzed the available and hidden data of its Host’s life and then ran them through the Human Emotions Program before coming out with the results.

[Host, according to my analysis of your life and your emotions, you are deserving of love. In fact, the easiest way to reach your ideal happy ending is to find someone you truly love.]

Meng Yao paused. His fingers curled into the sheets and his eyes seemed to glaze over. It was as if he was back in the dark living room that contained a sofa with broken springs and a hard cushion. A familiar face stared back at him, illuminated by the light of the flickering TV.

“I lie a lot,” Meng Yao murmured. “People don’t like liars.”

Noticing the emotional fluctuation of Meng Yao, Tongtong fell silent and didn’t continue to speak again. Sometimes, some people didn’t react well to comfort. It would only dredge up the darkest memories that they hid in the furthest parts of their heart.

In the end, Tongtong let out a short hum. Despite how mechanical Tongtong was, Meng Yao somehow sensed some sadness in Tongtong’s response.

His lips curved slightly and chuckled. He chose to lay down on the bed for a moment while reviewing the plot once more. It would be a long time before the plot officially started, so he had a lot of time.

“I can change anything, right?” Meng Yao asked.

[So long as it does not cause the world’s collapse.]

And the world’s collapse simply meant Wei Wuxian’s death.

“So, hypothetically,” Meng Yao rolled around. He basked in the feeling of his legs not quite reaching the end of the bed despite laying in it the short way. “If I simply…avoided Lan Xichen and Nie Mingjue, that would be acceptable.”

The system fell into radio silence. The static noise filled Meng Yao’s head. He found it quite amusing and decided his way of going about things was probably unconventional. If his reading of the transmigration stories in his world told him anything, it was that most hosts would stick their hands into the plot and change all sorts of things around. They would actively solve problems—they wouldn’t just sit around passively to allow the problems to fade away.

[After some analyzation, it seems that Host’s method is indeed acceptable.]

Meng Yao grinned. His initial poor mood faded and he sat up. “Because Lan Xichen and Nie Mingjue’s misfortunes were all due to Jin Guangyao’s greed for recognition and power. I don’t want Jin Guangshan to recognize me at all. If I avoid Jin Guangshan, Lan Xichen, and Nie Mingjue, then the mission would be eighty percent complete, wouldn’t it?”

And the rest would be left up to fate.

However, Meng Yao’s smile soon faded. But there were the other characters…

[Host only needs to worry about Lan Xichen and Nie Mingjue. If everything else in the plots continue as is, Host could still successfully finish the mission of this world so long as Lan Xichen and Nie Mingjue receive their happy endings.]

Meng Yao hummed, but the thought sat heavily on his mind. He was so spaced out that he didn’t hear the knock on the door until it creaked open and two round heads peered in.

[Ding. Congratulations, Host. You have made contact with Jiang Cheng. Character information is currently being downloaded.]

“You’re awake,” Jiang Yanli smiled and stepped in. Behind her followed around grape with a tight frown and narrowed eyes.

Meng Yao watched the round grape with fascination, but his stomach caught onto the strong aroma of food. He looked at the tray that Jiang Yanli was holding and looked up at the nine or ten year old girl and wondered if she had personally cooked it herself. As the food drew closer, Meng Yao was less convinced of that fact. It not only smelled good but also looked presentable.

“I asked the nanny to make you something to eat,” Jiang Yanli said gently as she placed the tray and the bowl down. She glanced at Jiang Cheng before turning back to Meng Yao. “This is my little brother, Jiang Cheng. My name is Jiang Yanli.”

Meng Yao looked between the two children with slight distrust. He shrank a little further away, but his eyes lingered on the bowl of lotus pork rib soup.

Jiang Cheng eyed the boy in front of him. He wasn’t sure why his older sister decided to bring him back. Not only was he small and shriveled, he didn’t look very good either. His head was bulbous and swollen and he was dirty all over. He smelled worse than the three puppies that Jiang Cheng raised and the way he looked at himself and his sister made him angry for some reason.

Jiang Cheng pressed his lips together, as if he wanted to say something, but felt his older sister’s hand against his head. He swallowed back whatever words he wanted to say and harrumphed before turning his head away.

“One look and you can tell he’s a spoiled little master,” Meng Yao said to his system.

“It’s okay,” Jiang Yanli said softly, her voice similar to when she coaxed an injured animal. She lowered herself and smiled at Meng Yao. “We’re not going to hurt you.”

“I want to go home,” Meng Yao spoke in a raspy voice. His large eyes blinked slowly as if each movement, no matter how small, brought on a bit of pain.

“Okay,” Jiang Yanli smiled. “Where’s your home? We’ll take you back.”

Meng Yao opened his mouth to say and then hesitated. He looked at Jiang Yanli distrustfully again. “Just bring me back to where you found me. I can walk home.”

“Your legs are injured. The doctor said that if you don’t properly rest them, you might be crippled in the future,” Jiang Yanli said.

“I’ll be fine,” Meng Yao assured her in a gruff voice. He glanced around the room and then looked back at Jiang Yanli. He lowered his head and appeared more obedient once more. His voice even softened. “Young Miss, I really can’t be gone for too long. If I do then…then my mother will worry.”

It sounded more as if the child was worried for his mother than fear that his mother would worry. Jiang Yanli was a smart child. She listened to Meng Yao’s tone and felt that something wasn’t quite right. She appeared a little troubled, as if she were trying her best to choose her words properly. Jiang Cheng watched her curiously and then looked back at Meng Yao with a slight frown.

“Little brother, is your mother in some type of trouble?” Jiang Yanli asked carefully.

Meng Yao froze up. He pursed his lips and the distrustful look in his eyes only grew.

Seeing Meng Yao so aggressive riled Jiang Cheng up. He stood in front of his older sister and glared at Meng Yao. “Why are you staring at my sister like that? She’s the one that saved you! Not only are you ungrateful, you’re also so aggressive. You—”

“A-Cheng,” Jiang Yanli tugged her little brother back. She glanced back at the other child who had lowered his head. “Little brother, you don’t have to mind him. He—”

“Forgive me for my insolence,” Meng Yao said softly, his voice losing the initial edge.

Instead of appearing humbled, Meng Yao, instead, seemed defeated. Jiang Yanli pursed her lips and gave her little brother a reprimanding look before turning back to Meng Yao. “Little brother, you eat first. Whatever else, we’ll talk about after.”

Meng Yao carefully took the bowl and began eating. His eyes lit up and he spoke to the system. “Wah, it’s actually good.”

Meng Yao controlled the pace at which he ate, but it was still a little faster than usual. When he was much younger, he had always eaten very fast for fear that others would steal his food. However, as he grew older, he would get more stomachaches from doing such a thing. Mixed with stress, the hard-earned food would just go to waste, leaving him hungry at night. Eventually, Meng Yao learned to slow down his eating so as to hold down his food better.

Tongtong watched in silence and felt that this human was quite pitiful.

“Eat a little slower,” Jiang Yanli said softly.

Meng Yao glanced up, his ears burning a little red. However, his movements slowed. Once Meng Yao finished eating, he placed the bowl down and softly thank Jiang Yanli again.

“The doctor said you shouldn’t be moving around much the next few days,” Jiang Yanli patiently explained. “So, for now, we can’t bring you back to your home. You’ll have to stay here for a bit.”

Meng Yao’s eyes widened. “I-if I stay here, I won’t have any money to repay you.”

“You don’t need to repay us,” Jiang Yanli said hurriedly. Her gaze progressively softened. She glanced at her little brother who seemed a little troubled as well.

All the children Jiang Yanli and Jiang Cheng interacted with were from well-off and affluent families. No one around their age had ever spoken to them with such respect, nor had ever lowered themselves to such an extent. Even the disciples around the sect treated Jiang Yanli and Jiang Cheng just as their younger siblings. And the servants were quite casual.

“We just want to help,” Jiang Yanli emphasized. “You don’t have to worry.”

The body Meng Yao occupied was still a child, but from what he had seen from his memories this child should already know that there’s no such thing as a free meal. If he wanted a patron to leave his mother alone, he’d have to bribe another prostitute to take on the job. If he wanted an extra bowl of rice for his mother, he’d have to offer to wash more bowls, serve more dishes, and do more chores. If he wanted his mother to be reassured and rest, he wouldn’t be able to play around with the kids around the street. He’d have to sit obediently at his desk and study nonsense.

That meant, even if the person who saved him was nice and seemed to genuinely want to help him, Jin Guangyao—or, Meng Yao, at this time—would still feel as if something would have to be exchanged.

The two Jiang siblings watched Meng Yao hesitate.

“Then…then, after I’m better…I can do work for free,” Meng Yao suggested. He looked at them hesitantly. “B-but only after I see my mother again.”

Jiang Yanli wanted to reject this offer. The door behind the two children opened, revealing two adults. One was handsome and elegant while the other was beautiful and imposing. Jiang Yanli and Jiang Cheng stood in the presence of their parents and greeted them obediently.

“This is the child you brought back?” Yu Ziyuan’s brows furrowed upon seeing Meng Yao.

Meng Yao shifted, suddenly aware that he was quite dirty.

San Niang,” Jiang Fengmian gave Yu Ziyuan a pointed look.

In fact, Yu Ziyuan wasn’t being critical, but how was a child supposed to know that. The look of disdain that was directed towards those who injured a child made the child think she was disgusted at his appearance. Realizing her mistake, Yu Ziyuan tucked her expression away, though she still appeared rather harsh.

Jiang Fengmian approached him carefully and crouched down. “Child, what’s your name?”

“…Meng Yao.”

“I see,” Jiang Fengmian smiled. “Xiao Yao, we brought you back without your family knowing. You can’t leave for now because we’re afraid your injuries will get worse, but we still need to tell your family where you are. Can you tell us about where they live?”

Meng Yao pursed his lips. He glanced between the four people in the room and lowered his head. “My mother is at Jasmine Ladies.”

The child was very clear in his heart—this world didn’t pity those who fell into prostitution. They didn’t care that most of the people didn’t want to be there and were sold in, they just felt that these men and women who wanted to survive were the dirtiest beings in the world. If these people were truly kind, then they would continue to help him. If not, then they would look at him in disgust and throw him out. At any rate, it wasn’t as if Meng Yao wasn’t used to being tossed aside with injuries still on his bodies.

To his surprise, Jiang Fengmian merely hummed. He lifted his hand to pay Meng Yao’s head, but froze upon seeing the boy shrink back. He smiled instead and allowed his hand to fall back to his side. “What’s her name? We’ll send her a message.”

“…Meng Shi.”

“Alright,” Jiang Fengmian stood. He patted Jiang Cheng’s head and Jiang Yanli on the back.

The family of four left Meng Yao’s room and closed the door silently.

Meng Yao’s tense posture released and he sprawled on the bed. “How was my acting?”

[9/10.]

Meng Yao’s brows furrowed. “9/10? Can’t it be a little harder? Tongtong, think about it from my perspective! I’m a twenty-year-old who has to act like a frightened seven-year-old. I think it’s quite impressive that I’ve managed to capture the essence of Jin Guangyao to this extent.”

Hearing the student’s plea for a higher grade, Tongtong fell silence. [9.5/10.]

“Why am I still missing half a point?” Meng Yao asked in disappointment.

[Host forgot to act as if he were injured. Host’s injuries have healed a great deal, but the Jiang family does not know.]

“Maybe I just have a high pain tolerance. Doesn’t that add sympathy points to the character?” Meng Yao grumbled.

[Host is correct.]

“…So how about that extra half of a point?” Meng Yao insisted.

[If it makes Host happy, then I will change it to 10/10.]

Meng Yao clicked his tongue and he sat up again. “I don’t like this type of empty victory. Next time, I’ll make sure to get 10/10 without question.”

Tongtong let out a hum of acknowledgement and returned to silently observing Meng Yao. From afar, the system had deemed Meng Yao to be unapproachable. His friendliness was merely a façade. But only interacting with him for a day taught Tongtong that that had been a poor evaluation. Meng Yao was indeed friendly. It was just, within his friendliness, was something else.

As for what, Tongtong couldn’t quite place its finger on it.

Chapter Text

Jiang Fengmian returned to Meng Yao’s room later that day. He had a smile on his face as he informed the child that his mother had been okay with him resting here. He omitted how tired Meng Shi looked and forwent telling him about the fresh wounds around her neck. When the servant had returned with such a description, Jiang Fengmian began to worry. He glanced at the child again, who was still recovering from his bruises, and couldn’t help but let out a soft sigh.

There were many unfortunate people in this world.

As if completely naïve to Jiang Fengmian’s worries, Meng Yao relaxed. He hesitated. “Uncle, is my mother, okay?”

“Mn. The servant said she seemed well-rested, although a bit worried,” Jiang Fengmian lied.

Meng Yao’s expression eased even further. He nodded and snuck a glance at Jiang Fengmian. “Uncle, when I’m better, I’ll help out around your home. I-I know you probably have enough servants…but if there’s anything in particular you need me to do, I can do it.”

Jiang Fengmian’s heart softened. He gently patted Meng Yao’s head, his hand barely even making contact. “Then Uncle will think about it. You just focus on resting for now, okay?”

Meng Yao shrank away from Jiang Fengmian’s hand but still nodded enthusiastically. Jin Guangyao had grown up with a bit of aversion to men touching him. Although he had eventually grown out of it, this type of habit was embedded into Meng Yao’s bones.

Seeing this, Jiang Fengmian made a mental note not to reach out to the boy again. He stood, gave a few more words of caution, and left the room.

Meng Yao remained where he was and frowned slightly. “Is it just going to be like this until the plot starts?”

The System, which had been dozing off, woke up at Meng Yao’s question. [Yes, Host. As of now, the protagonist has not entered the plot. According to the system’s calculations, it will take about another two years. For now, Host has nothing that is needed to be done.]

“Nothing, huh?” Meng Yao murmured.

He had already decided that he would do his best to lie down and do absolutely nothing to rock the boat. Concerning Lan Xichen and Nie Mingjue, although he had a strong attraction to those two characters while he was reading, that didn’t necessarily mean he wanted to meet them. A story told from the perspective of one person was naturally different from reality. Although it might seem as if the book allowed you to know everything about the person, no matter how three dimensional and well-written, a real person would be different.

For the sake of the mission and for Lan Xichen’s and Nie Mingjue’s future happiness, it would be best if Meng Yao simply stayed out of their lives. That didn’t mean that he didn’t want to be involved in the plot though.

In this world, the protagonist was Wei Wuxian, an orphan boy born of the son of a servant, Jiang Fengmian’s best friend. He entered the Jiang Sect a few years after the death of his parents and was raised alongside Jiang Cheng and Jiang Yanli as Jiang Fengmian’s children. Although the life he lived was lonely in some aspects, he still had food to fill his stomach and a warm roof over his head to shield him from the storms. When he was old enough, he went to the Cloud Recesses to study and met his future love interest, Lan Wangji. Being a hotheaded and curious youth, Wei Wuxian caused all sorts of trouble during his studies and was eventually kicked out six months prior to the agreed date of return.

As with any type of xianxia or wuxia genre story, there was a big villain who vied for power. The Qishan Wen Sect became nearly omnipotent around this time, causing bigger waves than they had before. It wasn’t until after the discussion conference at the Qishan Wen Sect that the main plot took off.

Wei Wuxian’s story was a fall from grace, a rise to power because of his unfortunate circumstances, ostracization from the entire world, and an eventual fall from grace once more. If the author had simply ended it there, it would have been a classic heroic tragedy, brought on by the main character’s hubris. However, it didn’t stop there. Instead, a deranged young man, forced into dire straits by society, sacrificed himself under the coaxing of those with more power than him who had a cause that was bigger than him. And then, Wei Wuxian returned.

Hidden inside the seams of the storyline was a tale of betrayal between brothers, a heart wrenching and tragic love story, a tale of deception, a story of evil corrupting and ruining good, and an intricate plan for vengeance. These small stories were all interlaced with the clues Wei Wuxian found along the way to weave the background of a world that Wei Wuxian had been absent from.

Although Wei Wuxian had seen and heard bits and pieces thanks to the magic from this world, he was still an outsider. What people felt and why they did what they did was shown through his perspective. Even Nie Mingjue’s brief connection was somewhat unreliable due to the chaotic energy already within the man.

Not to mention, Wei Wuxian himself had been an unreliable narrator even within his own story. When he fell for Lan Wangji, why, and how he truly felt about Jiang Cheng in the end were all omitted. Would the story of The Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation reflect in reality? How much would be changed? What would be changed?

Meng Yao was an outsider occupying the body of one of the most crucial characters in the plot line. Even if he had a god’s view of the situation and the coming thirty years, he had to be careful. He wasn’t naïve enough to think that his existence wouldn’t cause a butterfly effect and that the reality of this world would a hundred percent reflect the novel.

Not to mention, the system did say that there may be bugs that affected the storyline.

Still, according to the system, this world was quite easy. The main objective of the system was to pursue happiness, so it wouldn’t go out of its way to make Meng Yao’s life harder than it should be. That still did not take away the possibility that the world itself was already difficult.

The feeling of Jiang Fengmian’s warm hand as well as Jiang Yanli’s thin back appeared in his mind. He lifted his hand and pinched himself hard. The pain was enough to tell him that he was awake.

This wasn’t a game. It was reality. If he died, he might have a second chance in another instance, but if anyone else died in this world, they would truly be dead. The lives of at least twenty people were settled in his hands right now. If he decided to help them, they may survive, but if he let go of the reins the plot would continue on a similar direction as it did in the novel.

Meng Yao was human. He wasn’t cold-hearted and his heart also wasn’t made of stone. The world taught him the truth about human nature, but that didn’t mean he believed the entire world was rotten. Some people were still innocent.

Meng Yao let out a long sigh. “We’ll just go with the flow.”

Tongtong was silent throughout Meng Yao’s thought process. It felt strange listening to Meng Yao. Of the other hosts it and its other system friends had had, no one had ever cared so much about the characters in the story or, if they did, it would be very late game but only because they had grown a personal attachment. To them, these worlds were games, not reality. Their reality was a place far away, even if they had already died. Their reality was the cold system space they would return to whenever they finished a world. Perhaps it was because Meng Yao was a rare case that had already decided to settle in this world. Maybe that’s why he treated as real so early in the plot.

Otherwise, Tongtong couldn’t think of a reason.

Tongtong tried to figure out ways to comfort its host. In fact, these details were not too big of a deal. If people died, then it would have just been following their original fate. The system would not allow people who were not originally destined to die to suffer a wrong death in the first place. The level of their system was low, meaning the world was tightly controlled.

However, something told Tongtong that Meng Yao wouldn’t care and, instead, would feel less reassured.

Night soon descended onto Lotus Pier. A servant visited Meng Yao to deliver his dinner and to see if the child needed his wounds redressed. Meng Yao politely declined the latter offer and looked at the food hesitantly.

“What do I do with the dishes once I’m done?” Meng Yao asked.

The servant, seeing Meng Yao’s unsure expression, smiled gently. “You can just leave them outside the door in the hall. Someone will come to pick it up later.”

Meng Yao nodded and thanked the servant before starting his meal. He was used to eating in silence, so he didn’t bother staring up conversation with Tongtong. Because of the silence around him and because of the quietness of the night, the barking sounds that came closer and closer to his door was hard to miss.

Meng Yao lifted his head. He heard the frantic voice of a young child trying to calm down the dog just outside his door. He saw the vague shadows and, a moment later, the doors were pushed open by a dog and on the dog’s back was a boy.

Meng Yao paused. Jiang Cheng looked up at Meng Yao with wide eyes and pressed a finger to his lips as the dog barreled excitedly in. The first thing Jiang Cheng did was to close the door and grab the dog by the collar and pull it back from Meng Yao.

“No, you can’t! He’s injured,” Jiang Cheng hissed.

Meng Yao slipped off the stool he was sitting on and carefully approached the dog. Jiang Cheng inhaled sharply and watched Meng Yao hold out his hand to the dog. After getting a sniff, the dog willingly let Meng Yao pet it until it laid obediently on the ground with its belly up. Upon seeing this, Jiang Cheng let out a long sigh.

“Where did you find this dog?” Meng Yao asked curiously.

According to the plot, Jiang Cheng’s dogs that he had to send away were still puppies. There was no way a dog this old would be able to appear here now.

Jiang Cheng wobbled over on his knees and happily ran his hands over the dog’s fluffy fur. “One of the servants brought his dog over for me to play with.”

He paused and glanced at Meng Yao. “…My older sister and parents told me to be nicer to you, so I brought Little Black over to play with you.”

Meng Yao met Jiang Cheng’s gaze and couldn’t help but smile.

To Jiang Cheng, dogs and puppies were the best things in the world. When he was sad, they’d cheer him up. He was a child that was unsure of how to get along with others and was even more unsure of how to cheer someone up, so he could only bring over the thing he loved the most.

“Thank you, Young Master Jiang.”

Jiang Cheng listened to Meng Yao’s soft voice and straightened up again. “You can just call me Jiang Cheng. Oh, right. I didn’t catch your name earlier.”

“My name Meng Yao.”

“Meng Yao,” Jiang Cheng repeated. He puffed out his chest. “You look a little weak even though we’re the same age. Since that’s the case, I’ll protect you from now.”

Meng Yao paused. He hesitated before asking, “Young…Jiang Cheng, how old are you?”

“Six.”

Jiang Cheng’s expression became strange upon being questioned. He looked at the skinny bean sprout up and down and raised an eyebrow. There was no way this guy was going to declare he was older right.

Against his expectations, Meng Yao sheepishly said, “I’m seven…b-but it’s okay if you still call me Meng Yao. I…I don’t exactly need your protection either, but we can…I can play with you.”

His words were sloppily rearranged in his moments of panic. Hearing how frazzled he sounded, the child blushed a deep shade of red. Jiang Cheng, who was originally embarrassed, no longer felt embarrassed. He scoffed.

“Isn’t it just a name and an age? You’re older than me, so I should still call you ge!”

“…It’s just one year,” Meng Yao said awkwardly.

“No! Father always taught me that I had to treat others with respect,” Jiang Cheng said. “If you’re older, I should call you ge.”

Meng Yao wanted to lecture the little young master about the importance of hierarchy in the ancient world, but held back. He looked at the pudgy-cheeked child and almost couldn’t hold his anxious expression.

Jiang Cheng saw Meng Yao’s “hesitation” and drew himself taller. “If I say that I will call you ge, just accept it!”

Meng Yao pressed his lips together and found it harder and harder to hold back a smile. He eventually forced himself to nod his head. “Alright.”

Jiang Cheng smiled triumphantly. He scooted a little further away and guided Meng Yao’s hand to touch the fluffy dog. He looked at Meng Yao seriously. “Petting fluffy things will make you feel better.”

If Meng Yao had to hide his smile anymore, he felt that his face would cramp up.

Although he did have a hard time in his childhood, he had always gotten along with the younger kids in his orphanage. Seeing Jiang Cheng like this reminded him of one of the little boys that would tail him every day. A sincere smile spread across Meng Yao’s face as he played with the dog with Jiang Cheng.

It wasn’t until later that the door was knocked on and Jiang Fengmian appeared with an amused, yet troubled look on his face.

Jiang Cheng stood abruptly. “Dad.”

“A-Cheng, what are you doing here with Little Black?” Jiang Fengmian easily lifted Jiang Cheng up and brought the dog to his side. He looked at Meng Yao. “It’s getting late. You should sleep.”

It had been a long time since he had been reprimanded by an adult to sleep. Meng Yao stood and dusted his robes before nodding. He looked at Jiang Cheng’s reluctant expression and showed him a smile. “We can play again tomorrow.”

Jiang Cheng’s expression lit up. It was difficult to tell whether Meng Yao was being comforted or Jiang Cheng was being comforted. Jiang Fengmian turned to the servant and told her to send Jiang Cheng and the dog back before turning back to Meng Yao.

“I’m sorry, we didn’t keep a close enough eye on A-Cheng. He disturbed your rest.”

Meng Yao shook his head firmly. “I enjoyed playing with Young Master Jiang.”

Meng Yao observed Jiang Fengmian and didn’t hear the rest of his words. He clicked his tongue internally in dissatisfaction. “Tongtong, is there a way to replace this world’s parents.”

[Unfortunately not, Host.]

“Why are all of them more scum than the last?” Meng Yao grumbled.

Tongtong was silent for a moment before speaking up again. [Nie Mingjue’s parents and Wei Wuxian’s parents are good.]

How brilliant. The two sets of good parents had been killed for plot before the main plot even started. 

Although there was nothing outwardly wrong with Jiang Fengmian’s words, it was obvious that he was used to placing the blame on his own child. It almost seemed like, no matter how innocent Jiang Cheng was, or whatever he did, there was a fault within his actions.

After talking to the man a bit more, Jiang Fengmian finally left Meng Yao alone in his room.

The following day, the physician returned to check on Meng Yao’s condition. Upon finding that he was healing quite well, he amended his previous advice and said that Meng Yao would be fine in another day or two.

Hearing this, Jiang Fengmian was pleasantly surprised, while Yu Ziyuan was somewhat skeptical. It was strange that a child who was supposedly on the verge of dying was able to heal so quickly. From this, Meng Yao learned that he shouldn’t rely on the system too much or else he would arouse suspicion from the people of this world.

On his third day there, his wounds had sealed and the bruises were near faded, save for the ones on his chest. After eating a full three meal course for two days, his complexion seemed a bit better too. Despite being raggedy from being beat up, Meng Yao in general was no unkept. He lived in a brothel, meaning that they cared very much about appearances, even if they were just the appearance of a servant. After all, if someone ugly and dirty came walking by, it might ruin the appetites of the patrons.

Seeing his clean face that was a lot less swollen, the servants and disciples quickly took a liking to this small, cute child.

Meng Yao couldn’t help but sigh as he quietly held the hand brazier between his hands and looked out into the courtyard.

“Good looking people always have a better advantage.”

Tongtong sent out a series of ellipses. [Host, your current appearance is 90% similar to yours in the previous world.]

Meng Yao rubbed at his face. He couldn’t deny that. In this world, he had lost his birth mother’s effeminate features that didn’t mix well with his angular face. He wasn’t bad looking, but because of the slight disharmony, he wouldn’t quite be considered the most handsome. Now, his facial features worked well together. It was as if he now permanently had a beautifying filter over his face. He suspected that, when he grew up, he would look much more like he did in his original world though. He had really only looked “strange” as a child.

“Do you think I would be taller or shorter when I grow up?” Meng Yao asked curiously.

In his original world, he was 160cm—a whole ten centimeters shorter than Jin Guangyao. Because he didn’t have the best environment to grow up in and, eventually, skipped meals in order to save money for tuition, Meng Yao hadn’t grown up to be that tall despite having decent genes. If he could be 170cm, then he would be glad. In his heart of hearts, he even hoped to be a 175cm.

[Host could always buy a height changer.]

“That’s different. That’s a cosmetic change. I’m talking about naturally,” Meng Yao sighed emotionally. He glanced at the snacks the servants gave to him and ate a few more. “I have to eat more to grow taller.”

Tongtong wasn’t sure what to say in response to that, but it did have a question. [Host, what are you planning on doing after leaving?]

“Leaving?” Meng Yao resisted the urge to toss the nuts up into the air and catch them in his mouth out of sheer boredom. “Who said I was leaving?”

[Hosts wounds are healed.]

Tongtong understood that Meng Yao wanted to remain close to the Jiang family—he had already subconsciously made the decision to help the misfortunate characters after all—but didn’t have a reason to stay any longer, what would he do?

“Didn’t I say I would repay them by being their servant?” Meng Yao asked. “There’s nothing to worry about.”

Meng Yao obediently ate the nuts as Jiang Cheng came sprinting over. “Besides, if they end up truly sending me back, I still have this little young master.”

“Yao-gege!”

Meng Yao immediately handed over his snacks the moment Jiang Cheng approached. Jiang Cheng took them happily and sat down with them resting on his lap. He looked at Meng Yao carefully and the smile on his face only widened when he saw Meng Yao wasn’t as sickly as he was previously.

“Yao-gege, are you feeling better?” Jiang Cheng asked concernedly.

It didn’t take long for a child to get close to someone. Meng Yao had been playing with Jiang Cheng diligently the past few days despite his injuries and the child wasn’t spoiled enough to not notice such an effort.

“A lot better,” Meng Yao smiled. He extended his leg. “I can do this now.”

“That’s good,” Jiang Cheng breathed out a sigh of relief. He still was unsure as to why Meng Yao had gotten so injured but his parents had told him not to ask, so he just barely managed to hold his tongue. His eyes brightened. “Once you’re all better, we can go out and play! Yao-gege, I’ll take you through the woods.”

Meng Yao looked slightly alarmed. “I…”

Despite being one year older, Meng Yao still had more worries than a well-off adult. The child fidgeted, seemingly unsure of what to say and how to express his words. Jiang Cheng watched him with his large, round eyes, waiting for the other to formulate his thoughts.

“I’ll visit,” Meng Yao reassured Jiang Cheng.

Jiang Cheng appeared confused. Wasn’t Meng Yao staying?

“I still have to attend to my mother,” Meng Yao explained.

“Isn’t she in Yunping City? That’s far from Lotus Pier,” Jiang Cheng said.

In fact, it wasn’t all that far. But for a child to travel back and forth frequently, it would definitely get tiring.

“There’s no need to worry. It isn’t that far,” Meng Yao reassured Jiang Cheng with a bright smile.

The smile entered Yu Ziyuan’s eyes. Her brows furrowed as she recounted the words just said. She turned around without approaching the children and left in silence.

Chapter Text

Meng Yao’s pace was a little quicker than Jiang Fengmian’s and Yu Ziyuan’s as they waved their way through the crowd. The two adults, along with Yu Ziyuan’s maids and Jiang Fengmian’s servants, were in a bit of a scramble to keep an eye on the child. Meng Yao, for the first time since he had met the Jiang Family, didn’t seem to care too much about them. His eyes were set ahead and his body trembled with excitement, as if he couldn’t wait to see his mother.

Tongtong, on the other hand, could sense that it wasn’t excitement that was causing Meng Yao to walk faster and produce this strange psychological reaction.

[Host, are you okay?]

“I’m fine,” Meng Yao reassured his system.

Tongtong had gotten along with Meng Yao well the past few days but it knew that if it were to mention his emotional fluctuation, Meng Yao would most likely turn cold again, so it kept its audio to itself and stopped talking.

Meng Yao looked to the ground as he was tugged back by Yu Ziyuan to walk beside them. His eyes portrayed excitement, but internally he was filled with dread.

“Tongtong, you said you didn’t have access to my childhood, right?”

[We are allowed to see certain events.]

“What kind of events?” Meng Yao asked.

[For example, the system knows that Host was sent to an orphanage your mother’s passing and that Host was mistreated growing up.]

“That’s really vague,” Meng Yao commented.

[It is to protect the privacy of the Host.]

“That’s good,” Meng Yao said, though his heart didn’t seem to be in the conversation.

He remained in a daze until the group stopped before the brothel. Yu Ziyuan’s brows furrowed at the promiscuous environment. She shot a look at Jiang Fengmian, who seemed completely unbothered and unenchanted by the beautiful women throwing looks his way.

Meng Yao stepped into the brothel without any qualms and looked around somewhat excitedly. He was just about to run up the stairs when a voice familiar to the original body stopped him.

“Oh, look at this, the little rat decided to come back,” a light giggle touched Meng Yao’s ears.

Meng Yao froze on the first steps. He looked back and found that most of the prostitutes had turned in his direction. To him, they seemed like the birds of a forest at night—perched upon the branches and leering down at him.

“You’ve only been gone a few days, but your complexion looks so much better,” Anxin reached out and ran a long-nailed finger over Meng Yao’s cheek. Her eyes narrowed as she revealed what should be a seductive smile. “You have your mother’s genes.”

“Auntie Anxin,” Meng Yao called out obediently.

Anxin’s expression morphed. “What auntie? Didn’t I tell you to call me jiejie?”

Meng Yao pursed his lips and amended his way of address with a hint of difficulty.

“Where’ve you been for so long?” Anxin quirked a brow. She glanced up the stairs. “Your mother has been so worried recently that she hasn’t been able to serve anyone properly.”

There was a hint of gloating in her expression. Meng Yao’s complexion immediately paled. He looked at Jiang Fengmian and Yu Ziyuan with a look that was half questioning and half betrayal. He abandoned his two benefactors as well as Anxin and the crowd hoping to watch a good show, and bolted up the stairs to his mother’s room.

He followed the original’s memory to the second largest room at the end of the hallway. His feet came to an abrupt halt at the door and his hand froze just before pushing the door open.

The sound of false laughter and dishonest promises filled the air. It was mixed with the strong scent of alcohol, giving rise to a sickening feeling in Meng Yao’s stomach.

“…Tongtong.”

[Yes, Host?]

“…She…Meng Shi—do you think she would look like my mother?”

Tongtong was just about to answer when the door before Meng Yao was pulled open.

Meng Yao took several steps back. His eyes widened and he tripped over his own two feet, landing him on his bottom. His head was lowered as he broke out into a cold sweat. His fingers curved into his palm, scrapping the floorboards subtly.

He heard a light gasp and watched as the shadow approached until the fabric of a colorful, gauzy robe appeared into his line of sight.

“Yao’er, did Mother scare you?”

Meng Yao’s taught muscles slowly relaxed. The voice wasn’t the same. He forced himself to slowly look upwards. First, he saw a pair of pale, slender hands, and then a rather revealing set of robes. His gaze trialed up the woman’s neck and finally settled onto her face.

Meng Shi’s elegant brows were knitted in concern. Her lips, though still seemed to carry a hint of a smile, were pressed into a tight line. She reached out and carefully pressed her hand against Meng Yao’s forehead. She felt the way Meng Yao flinched and her frown only grew. She reached out and pulled Meng Yao into a tight hug. Her chin rested against his shoulder. Her hand was warm as it patted Meng Yao’s back comfortingly.

“Mother is sorry. Mother couldn’t protect you properly.”

They’re not the same, Meng Yao thought in relief. Not their voice, not their face, not their mannerisms.

This woman was not his birth mother.

Meng Yao’s entire body relaxed into the woman’s embrace. He brought his arms up and hugged her back tightly.

The child’s nose soured and Meng Shi soon felt tears against her neck. “M-Mother, Auntie Anxin said t-that you were being mistreated while Yao-er was away. I-Is that true?”

Meng Shi’s gentle expression became twisted. Messing with her was fine, but why did that woman always have to provoke her child as well. Meng Shi felt as if someone was twisting her heart. She pulled Meng Yao even closer to herself and gently stroked his back.

“Mother was fine. I was a little unwell the past few days, so I actually didn’t accept many customers,” Meng Shi reassured Meng Yao.

This startled the child even more. He pulled away and gripped her arms. His tears were roughly wiped away as he observed her. “Is Mother unwell? How? Did you take medicine?”

Because of how roughly Meng Shi was often treated her health had slowly deteriorated throughout the years. Instead of warding off customers, however, her weak state that was reminiscent of a frail flower only served to excite them. In this time period, Meng Shi attracted patrons who didn’t know what respect was and knew even less what morals were.

Self-blame was written clearly over the boy’s face. He blamed himself for getting so hurt and being unable to accompany his mother. The more he thought about it, the more wronged he felt. His little face became scrunched up, but he refused to cry anymore. Meng Shi had already wiped his face of tears, which meant he should already stop crying.

Jiang Fengmian and Yu Ziyuan watched this scene form not too far away. Sisi, another prostitute of the brothel, let out a soft sigh.

“That child is too tactful for his age,” Sisi murmured. She glanced at the two proper looking people and lowered her head once more.

“He…is he always treated like this?” Jiang Fengmian asked slowly.

Sisi nodded. She smiled a little bitterly. “Sir, selling smiles and our body is part of our job. Giving birth is not only a strenuous activity on the body, it is also a strenuous activity on the mind. It is not a wise choice if you want to continue living here for a few more years. Besides, none of us are naïve enough to think that, just because we now have a child, our lives would get any easier. Those who get pregnant will abort the child as soon as they realize. It was just Meng-jie who was…special.”

Sisi hesitated. “It was just because she was cheated by a proper looking gentleman.”

Yu Ziyuan’s brows furrowed. She glanced at the mother and son duo again. “What was Meng Yao’s father like?”

“I don’t quite recall,” Sisi said. She smiled sheepishly. “Madam, this is a brothel. We have many clients in just one day. Even if we’re close enough to call each other sisters, unless the other mentions a client and points them out, it is rare that any of us will remember them.”

“She never said anything about him?” Yu Ziyuan asked.

“Not at all,” Sisi shook her head. “She’s very hush-hush about her private affairs. It’s understandable though. It’s difficult to trust anyone in this type of environment.”

At some point, Meng Shi had noticed Jiang Fengmian and Yu Ziyuan standing beside Sisi. She stood and pulled Meng Yao over before kneeling down. “Please accept my bow—”

“No need,” Yu Ziyuan quickly intercepted her. “We only did what we should.”

Meng Shi smiled softly, but allowed Yu Ziyuan to help her up. Her head remained lowered. “If it weren’t for you, my son may already be dead. Not only did you save him, you made sure he was completely healed before bringing him back. Perhaps the Lord and Lady does not know this, but such deeds are rare in this world. Your kindness will be remembered by me for the rest of my life.”

Meng Shi paused her words and looked troubled. “However, I do not have any possessions to repay you and I cannot even repay you with my body.”

Her voice trailed off quietly. A dark look crossed over Meng Shi’s face. Meng Yao couldn’t help but tug slightly on her sleeve. Although he didn’t have much of an attachment to this woman, the original body obviously still felt something. His heart ached slightly and he wanted to comfort her, but any words he could think of felt useless in this situation.

“There is one thing,” Yu Ziyuan said.

Meng Shi’s brows furrowed. She couldn’t help but sneak a glance at the woman. “What could that be?”

“Your son,” Yu Ziyuan said. She glanced at Meng Yao. “He’s not bound to the brothel by a slave contract, is he?”

Meng Shi’s eyes widened. She unconsciously brought Meng Yao closer to her but her grip slowly loosened.

Jiang Fengmian frowned and looked at his wife. “San Niang, what are you—”

“This child got along well with A-Cheng while he stayed over. A-Cheng was also really sad when he had to leave,” Yu Ziyuan explained. “I think we could bring him back to be a playmate for him.”

The child shrank into his mother slightly, only to feel her shift away. He looked at Meng Shi and saw a hollowed look in her previously clear eyes. Fear arose in his heart. He tightly gripped Meng Shi’s robes. His knees weakened and he collapsed to the ground.

“M-Mother, don’t leave,” Meng Yao said tremblingly.

“You say he’ll be your son’s playmate?” it was as if Meng Shi hadn’t heard Meng Yao at all.

Yu Ziyuan nodded. “For now, he can be A-Cheng’s playmate. We can also hire him as his servant. The pay will be good. It can be sent directly to you.”

Meng Shi shook her head. “What would I do with that money? Just give it directly to the child.”

“M-mother?” Meng Yao’s voice was quiet. He tugged hesitantly on Meng Shi’s skirt. “Mother, I don’t want to go with them. I-if Young Master Jiang misses me, I’ll go visit when I’m free. I don’t necessarily have to live with them. Mother, I want to stay with you. You’re still unwell, I have to take care of you. You—”

“They saved your life,” Meng Shi said softly. “Your mother has nothing of worth. To repay them, you must go and work for them.”

Meng Yao pursed his lips. “…Mother…I don’t want to leave you…”

Meng Shi closed her eyes and took a deep breath. When she opened them again, there was a cold glint in her eyes that barely concealed an immense amount of grief. “But I don’t want you.”

Meng Yao looked as if he had been struck by lightning.

Meng Shi stepped back, careful not to touch Meng Yao. But to the child, it only seemed as if she were disgusted by him. “Do you think it’s easy to have a child while living at a brothel? I have a lot to worry about myself—how to please customers, how to feed myself, whether or not I’ll make enough money to order a new set of clothes. Then I also have to take care of you.”

Meng Shi’s lips parted as if she wanted to add another phrase, but she refrained from it.

Meng Yao felt numb all over. His ears rang. He was unable to react. The words were so much milder to what he was used to hearing yet, at the same time, they were far too familiar. He felt himself trembling. His body stiffened as if he were bracing himself to be hit at any minute. However, when he looked into Meng Shi’s eyes, when he looked at her face, he remembered that this wasn’t his mother.

He forced himself to calm down as fat tears rolled down his cheeks. He bawled like an abandoned child would and crawled closer to his mother, only to have her walk away. Over his own cries, he heard Meng Shi’s watery voice request that Jiang Fengmian and Yu Ziyuan take him away.

Meng Yao suddenly became weightless. He struggled and thrashed against the strong pair of hands that held onto him. He felt the gazes of prostitutes and patrons as he screeched and screamed for Meng Shi. The crowds just outside watched in utter shock.

It wasn’t as if they didn’t know Meng Yao. They had seen the intelligent child run in and out several times. The stall owners who set up nearby often saw the tragedies that came upon him as well.

Seeing the robes of the people who took him away, the rare people who looked upon him kindly felt that this was truly a blessing. The child didn’t have to grow up in such an environment anymore. But, at the same time, they knew that for Meng Shi it was the start of a terrific nightmare.

On the journey back to Lotus Pier, Meng Yao suddenly fell silent. It wasn’t a natural silence either. It wasn’t one that a person fell into after growing tired from crying or from running out of tears. Jiang Fengmian and Yu Ziyuan glanced worriedly at the child, whose head was lowered with a blank expression on his face. The tears had stopped abruptly. He only stared ahead in silence.

[Host, are you okay?]

“Hush, I’m acting,” Meng Yao said.

Tongtong hadn’t been referring to the current scenario, but it tactfully retreated into the background again.

“…A-Yao, it’s okay,” Jiang Fengmian comforted. “When we get back, Uncle will tell the kitchen to make you pork rib lotus soup, okay? Didn’t you really like eating it?”

“Mn,” Meng Yao murmured. After a moment of silence, he added, “Thank you, Sect Leader Jiang.”

Jiang Fengmian glanced at Yu Ziyuan, whose brows were furrowed in a rare depiction of pity. He looked back to Meng Yao. “A-Yao, why are you suddenly calling me sect leader? Just call me uncle like you used to.”

“Meng Yao is now a servant of the Jiang clan. Meng Yao doesn’t dare refer to Sect Leader Jiang as uncle,” Meng Yao said. His voice was nasally, but kept a resolute edge to his voice.

It almost felt as if the abandoned child grew up in a matter of a few hours. However, when Meng Yao was met with Jiang Yanli and Jiang Cheng again, he beamed brightly and hid the words his mother said to him from the two children. This type of sensible child saddened the few people who knew of his current situation.

Over the next few weeks, Meng Yao grew accustomed to life at the Yunmeng Jiang Sect. He became the number one helper of the servants. He cleaned and he cooked. He did well in preparing for lessons for the disciples. He even made time to accompany Jiang Yanli and Jiang Cheng to play. If it weren’t for servants reporting to Jiang Fengmian and Yu Ziyuan about what the child was doing when not with their children, they would have thought that he was merely acting as a playmate.

His obedient appearance worried the Jiang couple. An obedient child was obviously good, but an overly obedient child wasn’t. Children should be screaming and crying and experiencing their emotions to the fullest, yet this one, when alone, sat in silence with a blank look on his face.

Whenever someone asked him if he wanted anything, Meng Yao would shake his head obediently. When asked if he wanted his mother, Meng Yao shook his head again. Not even Jiang Yanli and Jiang Cheng knew what their friend liked or disliked. No matter who coaxed him, Meng Yao would only show a perfunctory smile and assure them that he had no preference or that he was really fine.

Jiang Fengmian voice his uneasiness to Yu Ziyuan, only to have his wife dismiss him.

“Isn’t it good that he’s so obedient?” Yu Ziyuan said.

“But he isn’t like a child,” Jiang Fengmian protested. “Even an adult wouldn’t be so understanding.”

“He’ll be fine once he becomes comfortable. Right now, he’s only acting like that because he’s unaccustomed,” Yu Ziyuan said. “If you have time to worry about him, you can worry about your own children.”

Jiang Fengmian listened to his wife’s lecture until she became tired of speaking to him. He left her side absentmindedly and resolved to find Meng Yao in the morning. According to the servants, the child had a very routine schedule. He would wake up around dawn and help the cooks prepare breakfast. Afterwards, he would sweep the fronts and backs of Lotus Pier meticulously. He would also help the servants draw baths for disciples. Later, if there was nothing else to do, he would accompany Jiang Cheng and Jiang Yanli until they children had to attend lessons. And then, Meng Yao would go off by himself to a gazebo or somewhere near the pier. He would always have a book in hand and his brows would be furrowed in concentration.

In the afternoon was when Meng Yao’s schedule became more ambiguous, so Jiang Fengmian had to catch him in the mornings.

Just as the servants said, he found Meng Yao sweeping early in the morning. Today, the disciples were pulled up bright and early to do training. As Jiang Fengmian approached, he noticed Meng Yao mimicking their stances. His feet moved particularly smoothly in the formation the disciples performed. Jiang Fengmian’s eyes lit up. His steps slowed and he watched Meng Yao’s mimicry.

Whenever there was a step that Meng Yao missed, he would always manage to catch himself properly. Although there was a bit of frustration in his eyes, there was more excitement at having accomplished so much already.

Because his movements were usually small, Yu Ziyuan and the others had never noticed Meng Yao imitating them before.

“Do you want to become a disciple?”

Meng Yao froze at the voice. He flinched and took a step back. The child lowered his head and pursed his lips, as if he was afraid he was going to be scolded.

Jiang Fengmian lowered himself in front of Meng Yao. “A-Yao, are you interested in cultivation?”

Meng Yao’s gaze flickered to the man and looked away again. After he had been brought back, he immersed himself in the role of a servant. The few times he ran into the masters of the house was when he was playing with their children. Aside from that, other than saluting in greeting, Meng Yao no longer communicated with the couple.

“You can tell me,” Jiang Fengmian said softly.

Meng Yao seemed to be wrestling with himself. After a moment, he nodded. “…My…mother said that my father was a cultivator. She’s always wanted me to be a cultivator too…”

His voice was so soft that Jiang Fengmian could barely hear it. However, after confirming the child’s desire, Jiang Fengmian let out a sigh of relief. He smiled. “Then, how about we do just that?”

Meng Yao finally met Jiang Fengmian’s gaze.

“You’ll be my first disciple,” Jiang Fengmian ruffled Meng Yao’s hair. “How about that?”

Chapter Text

Meng Yao yawned and stretched out leisurely on the bed. He had slowly become accustomed to the harder surface of the ancient beds and now found it very comfortable. A smile was stretched across his face as he recalled the events of earlier that week and let out a content sigh.

“Am I good at this or what?” Meng Yao grinned.

[Host is truly powerful.]

“Pitiful people who do not ask for help are the ones that people want to help the most,” Meng Yao sighed as he snuggled under the blankets. “See? Wasn’t I right? If I hadn’t done all this and I had just asked to become a part of the sect, do you think I would have such good treatment? Yu Ziyuan would probably find reasons to pick on me too.”

Now, not only had he become a disciple, he was also Jiang Fengmian’s first disciple.

“Though, this spot should have belonged to Wei Wuxian,” Meng Yao murmured.

[According to system evaluation, this plot point only has 0.05% plot relevancy. Host needn’t worry.]

“When he comes, he’ll be the second direct disciple and when I leave the Jiang Sect, he can go back to being number one,” Meng Yao hummed.

[Host, you’re planning on leaving the Jiang Sect?]

“Or else? Should I stay here forever and set out my roots?” Meng Yao asked with a hint of sarcasm to his voice. “This isn’t my world.”

It wasn’t his world and this wasn’t meant to be his life. At most, he’ll help the main cast avoid the horrors of the Sunshot Campaign as best he could. Once that plot line was over, Meng Yao would just leave.

“I’ll pull at the threads of the plot just enough,” Meng Yao yawned as he closed his eyes. “That’s the most I can do.”

Tongtong remained silent as its host fell asleep. It let out the most emotional sigh that an AI could release. It was true that the world plot would move on without Meng Yao’s intervention. It was even truer that without the character Jin Guangyao, Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen would lead rather peaceful lives. But what about the Host? Was he really willing to live out such a dull, colorless life for the next twenty odd years?

But the system didn’t know Meng Yao well and of course, Meng Yao was willing.

People used to say that he was an overachiever, but if he hadn’t been, could he survive? He was a kid with no one to rely on. Being an overachiever was the only way to survive in that world. So, in his eyes, he had done just enough. At the moment, he lived as if he had in the 21st century. He did what he should—nothing more and nothing less.

His life in the 21st century had always been dull. There was no splash of color and Meng Yao was not a thrill seeker. The only bit out of the ordinary had been that silly roommate of his. Therefore, even in the novel world, Meng Yao wasn’t very ambitious. He really just wanted to survive.

Another few months passed by in a flash. Since Meng Yao was still a servant, he received pay from the Jiang Sect. On top of that, he was now a disciple, so he was allotted a bit of allowance. All of this money was collected and, whenever a servant would take a longer trip to buy something, Meng Yao would pull them aside and give them money to deliver to his mother.

The Jiang couple knew of this, but said nothing to the child. They mainly focused on his learning.

Meng Yao had been smart since he was young. He always had a great memory and after reviewing topics a few times, he would have a good grasp of them. He was witty and quick on his feet. When it came to athletics, despite not being as healthy as other students, he wouldn’t lose out by much either. If one looked upon Meng Yao, they would call him a talent and a prodigy, but to Meng Yao, these were just the results of years of tempering and practice.

Such an outstanding disciple was worthy of praise. Even Yu Ziyuan, the woman with a dirty mouth, was unable to find a fault in Meng Yao.

Meng Yao happily continued this monotonous lifestyle as he looked onward to the day that the protagonist would arrive.

A full three years like this passed in the blink of an eye.

Meng Yao, who had eaten well and slept even better, had finally grown into a child that many would look at and say “that is a ten-year-old”. Despite still being shorter than Jiang Cheng, who was younger than him by a year, Meng Yao was actually quite happy with himself. He felt that, in this life at least where he didn’t have much, he would at least be able to be taller than he was in his last life.

This type of small wish and unambitious happiness made Tongtong’s data ache.

Meng Yao and Tongtong had reached an understanding that he was still just a child, so there was no need to rush anything. It was fine to eat well and sleep well. But…but! Tongtong, who had been coaxed day and night by Meng Yao, still felt that it knew its Host the best!

It just knew that once Meng Yao was old enough, once he came in touch with the plot, Meng Yao would simply turn his nose to it and walk off. They had gotten along together for three years! You can’t lie to this system any longer!

It’s indeed been three years, so Meng Yao had gotten tired of coaxing his family’s system. If you already know the truth, then stop bothering him about it. There was no reason to expect Meng Yao to be an extraordinary transmigrator when he just wanted to learn about cultivation and, otherwise, sleep like a salted fish.

In this aspect, Tongtong was a tiny bit happy that Meng Yao at least became interested in the world, but it still couldn’t stand it. It felt that it had to do something.

With the appearance of the protagonist fast approaching, Tongtong easily found a way straight to the targets!

Meng Yao was still unaware about what his family’s system was planning. He was currently eating watermelons as he watched Jiang Fengmian and Yu Ziyuan’s too far away to hear argument.

Shijie,” Meng Yao called out to Jiang Yanli.

Jiang Yanli looked up at Meng Yao smiled. “What’s wrong, A-Yao?”

“Where has Sect Leader been going recently?” Meng Yao asked curiously.

Jiang Yanli looked up at her father who was leaving the sect. She lightly shook her head. “I’m unsure of where he’s been going as well. However…”

However, Yu Ziyuan seemed a bit upset.

“Tongtong.”

[Yes, Host?]

“Has Jiang Fengmian caught wind of Wei Changze and Cangse Sanren’s deaths?”

[Yes, Host.]

 Meng Yao let out a long sigh in his mind. He glanced at Jiang Cheng, who was happily eating the melons that Jiang Yanli was placing in front of him. He scooted over and snatched the melon slice away. Jiang Cheng’s eyes widened. He sat up and glared at Meng Yao.

“Yao-ge, give it back!”

“Why?” Meng Yao asked in a rare bout of mischievousness.

“I—jiejie gave that slice to me!” Jiang Cheng pouted.

“Oh. But there’s still so many melon slices. Why are you just after this one?” Meng Yao asked unreasonably.

“B-because jiejie personally gave me that one,” Jiang Cheng said with pursed lips.

“A-Yao, if you want more watermelon, just take from over here,” Jiang Yanli said, though her voice was soft. She obviously found it quite amusing. “Why are you deliberately bullying A-Cheng?”

“I just remembered a lesson from when I was younger,” Meng Yao said. “I figured I should teach A-Cheng.”

Jiang Cheng paused. He hesitantly looked Meng Yao up and down before glancing at the watermelon slice. He was always interested whenever Meng Yao started giving out “lessons” because that meant he would tell stories. Meng Yao had a knack for that, after all.

Finally, the child forfeited the watermelon slice. “What lesson?”

Meng Yao smiled. He held up the watermelon slice. “This was yours, right?”

“Mn,” Jiang Cheng nodded.

“Then, why did you let me have it?”

“…You stole it from me,” Jiang Cheng said irritably.

“Yes, but you could have fought for it. I haven’t bitten from it yet,” Meng Yao said.

“Why would I fight you? We’re friends!” Jiang Cheng said.

“So, because we’re friends, even if I take something that’s yours, you won’t fight me?”

Jiang Cheng nodded.

“Is that the only reason?” Meng Yao quirked an eyebrow.

“Well…well, there’s still more,” Jiang Cheng said.

Meng Yao smiled. “So, because of loyalty, you’re willing to give up what was yours since, reasonably, you still have others.”

Jiang Cheng nodded.

“Now, think of it like this. This isn’t a watermelon slice,” Meng Yao said gravely.

The Jiang siblings listened with great rapture.

“This is…a person,” Meng Yao said. Seeing their confused expressions, he continued. “And these other slices are also people who love you a lot, but you care about this one specific person more.”

They nodded.

“Say, this person,” Meng Yao bit into the watermelon slice. “Was taken by someone else. They care about someone else more over you.”

Jiang Cheng pouted. “Why?”

“There are many reasons, but let’s not talk about that,” Meng Yao swallowed. He held up the watermelon slice. “I’ve eaten it. Now what?”

“…I’ll just take one from here,” Jiang Cheng said hesitantly.

“It’s like that with human relationships too,” Meng Yao said. He finished off the watermelon slice and placed the cleanly eaten watermelon rind in front of the child. “Sometimes, the person you care about will be taken by another person. It’s okay to feel sad, but you should still remember that there are still other people who love and care about you more than the one who left you.”

Jiang Yanli watched Meng Yao carefully. After growing up a little more, she eventually learned about Meng Yao’s situation from the servants. She asked her mother and her mother had told her a bit more. Despite his pitiful past, she never thought that Meng Yao was any different from her and Jiang Cheng but, now, she felt that Meng Yao was a lot more mature than her little brother and even herself.

He must have noticed the increasingly longing way Jiang Cheng had been looking at their father recently and, coupled with his excess absent, decided to comfort Jiang Cheng.

“…Oh,” Jiang Cheng still appeared a bit confused.

“I’m a bad person who took away your watermelon slice, but there’s always someone else who will give you another one,” Meng Yao looked at Jiang Yanli.

Receiving her cue, Jiang Yanli passed another over to Jiang Cheng.

“And I can give you one too,” Meng Yao said with a smile. “Like this, you won’t miss the one I ate, right?”

Jiang Cheng looked at the two watermelon slices in his hands and then nodded with a smile.

Meng Yao wanted to reach out and squish the child’s cheeks. Unfortunately, before he could, a looming shadow approached the three children. They paused their movements and looked up at a displeased Yu Ziyuan.

“You three are always eating. Every time I find you anywhere, you have something in your mouth,” Yu Ziyuan glared down at them.

“Mother, do you want one?” Jiang Yanli offered a watermelon slice, but Yu Ziyuan declined.

“I have to go somewhere,” Yu Ziyuan said, her brows knit into a tight furrow. “The eldest son of Sect Leader Wen is having a coming-of-age party. Since your father has irresponsibly left sect matters to me, I will be going in his place. A-Li, could you stay here and watch over the sect?”

Although she said this, Jiang Yanli was fully aware such a task was nominal. She nodded obediently.

“You two are coming with me,” Yu Ziyuan said.

“Ah?” Jiang Cheng stared at his mother with a pair of big round eyes. He pursed his lips. “Mother, I don’t want to go to Qishan…”

“You have to go. If you don’t go, how will I explain? It’s a birthday banquet, not a regular banquet. If the children don’t come, people the Qishan Wen Sect will take it personally.”

“Why? Every other banquet you don’t bring us,” Jiang Cheng continued to grumble.

“I said we’re going, so we’re going!”

Jiang Cheng shrank back behind Meng Yao with a begrudging expression.

“This wasn’t part of the script,” Meng Yao said.

[As state previously, because this is a new program, there will be glitches, such as an additional plot line. However, this also does not discount the fact that this is reality, so events and happenings will naturally differ from the plot of the novel.]

Meng Yao thought about it and found this situation reasonable at any rate. The fact that every child grew up in a prominent family, yet no one knew of each other or knew each other aside from Lan Xichen and Nie Mingjue was a bit absurd.

Before Meng Yao could say anything more, a triumphant tune sounded in his head, making him nearly drop his watermelon slice.

[Attend Wen Xu’s birthday banquet: Accept or Decline.]

“…”

So, this was an NPC mission.

It seemed that, regardless of plot relevance, the system would make small missions to help guide Meng Yao.

“What happens if I decline?”

[Fifty points will be deducted.]

Meng Yao paused. “How many points do I have?”

[One hundred.]

“And if I reach zero, do I die?” Meng Yao thought about the previous transmigration novels he had read.

[No.] Tongtong sounded offended. [The punishment for reaching zero is that Host has to accomplish a system mandated mission to get out of the negatives. If Host continues to refuse, it will be released every day until Host is out of the negatives.]

“This…” Meng Yao frowned, obviously reluctant. So, it wasn’t that he would directly be killed, but that he would eventually be annoyed to death.

[Host can treat this as a game. Besides, it isn’t as if Host is particularly doing anything important at the moment.]

That was true. It was just attending a banquet, wasn’t it?

“Will it be considered mission accomplished once I go?” Meng Yao hovered over ‘accept’.

[In order to complete the mission, there will be a list of mission requirements that will be stated after Host accepts the mission.]

“In RPG games, the mission requirements are listed before the player accepts the mission,” Meng Yao said. “Along with the reward.”

Tongtong paused. [The System will take note of Host’s review and will send it to the main system for future reference.]

Meng Yao was hoping to haggle out some clues before he actually decided whether to accept or deny. He let out a sigh and reluctantly clicked accept. Something so simple didn’t require too much thinking anyway.

The next moment, another fluorescent screen appeared in front of Meng Yao, making him regret his previous bold statement.

In white, neat script across the top were the words “Mission Requirements” and, further down below some bullet points, were the words “Mission Rewards”. Out of sheer curiosity, Meng Yao glanced through the mission rewards first. Upon finishing this mission, he would be rewarded two hundred store points and gain ten experience points.

Just like a game.

“What’s the experience points for?” Meng Yao asked. This had never come to his attention before, but he recalled seeing a tiny XP bar hidden below all the other more important bars.

[Unlocking more levels allows Host access to more of the store as well as more tips and skills that the system will provide for free.]

Meng Yao hummed in understanding and raised his gaze to look at the mission requirements and froze.

In this world, connections mean everything. For this mission, please get to know the young masters and misses of the cultivation world. Requirements: Make at least one friend with the promise to spend time with them after the banquet at a later date. Also, note: if Host is able to make contact with either Lan Xichen or Nie Mingjue, there will be a bonus reward.

Bonus Reward: Truth serum.

“Can I retract?”

[If Host gives up on the mission, then a hundred points will be deducted.]

Meng Yao bit down the urge to curse out the system. “But Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen will be there!”

[This is a good chance for Host to get close to the mission targets.] Tongtong sounded very optimistic.

“The point of my existence is that I’m keeping Jin Guangyao away from them! Why would I want to get close to them!?”

[But you aren’t Jin Guangyao.]

Meng Yao…wasn’t sure how to argue with that. He angrily finished the rest of his watermelon. Since he hadn’t rejected the invitation, Yu Ziyuan had taken it as a tacit agreement. The triumphant tune sounded in his head again and Meng Yao grumpily stalked back to his room to pack up some belongings.

[Host, the bonus reward is particularly good.]

“Truth serum?” Meng Yao quirked an eyebrow. “What’s it do?”

[Host will have to earn it to find out.]

Meng Yao gripped his clothes tightly and nearly ripped them. “Forget it. It’s in the name! Why would I ever need a truth serum?”

Stupid system. Stupid Tongtong. He wasn’t going to fall for it! He had a plan and he will stick to it!

Chapter Text

Because of Jiang Cheng’s reluctance and his grouchy attitude, Yu Ziyuan was in a particularly bad mood on the day of departure. Meng Yao was tasked with staying by Jiang Cheng’s side and taking care of him. There was also the secret side task of keeping him from Yu Ziyuan’s sight and keeping the travel party quiet and happy.

“If I make Jiang Cheng my friend, would that count?”

[According to the system’s data, he already is your friend.]

Meng Yao looked at Jiang Cheng and squished his cheeks between his hands to relieve some of his irritation. Jiang Cheng looked up at Meng Yao with mild confusion, but allowed him to knead his cheeks at will.

Seeing the child sit there obediently, allowing him to squish him, Meng Yao sighed emotionally and hugged Jiang Cheng tightly. Jiang Cheng wasn’t used to such sudden, intimate contact. He froze for a few seconds before patting Meng Yao’s back.

“Yao-ge, are you scared? In fact, there’s nothing to be scared of. I just don’t really like Wen Chao is all,” Jiang Cheng whispered. He wrinkled his nose. “And I don’t want to see Jin Zixuan.”

“Who’s Jin Zixuan?” Meng Yao pulled away and looked at Jiang Cheng curiously.

Jiang Cheng scoffed. “Someone you don’t need to know about.”

Even at just a glance, once could see how displeased the little young master got upon hearing Jin Zixuan’s name.

Meng Yao tactfully changed the subject, allowing the grumpy look on Jiang Cheng’s face to recede.

The trip took no longer than six days. Since there were children with them, they had to travel mainly by foot and carriage. When they reached Nightless City, they were first escorted to their rooms to settle down. Afterwards, Yu Ziyuan left to greet Wen Ruohan and left the children with the servants.

Meng Yao looked around curiously and decided that he liked Lotus Pier better. Nightless City was extravagant, but in that extravagance was a cold hollowness that belonged to an empty vase. While it looked pretty on the outside, there was nothing in it. It was only there as decoration, serving no real purpose.

The children were allowed to explore, but Jiang Cheng made the decision to stay in their guest courtyard instead. He seemed to have zero interest in finding other young master’s to play. This didn’t surprise Meng Yao. In the three years they had gotten to know each other, Meng Yao concluded that Jiang Cheng was difficult to get along with. It wasn’t that he was spoiled to the point of arrogance, but he was quite stubborn in his own ideals and how he wanted to get things done. As the only son of the Yunmeng Jiang Sect and the sole successor, Jiang Cheng, at a young age, was raised already to have strong ideas.

Thus, the two children spent their time with each other until the day of the banquet.

There was one large banquet that extended on until the dead of night. The children were there to give their well wishes, but to actually attend the banquet was not allowed. They were eventually taken out to the gardens to play as the adults conversed and put on an air of getting along.  The teenagers were given the option to either stay behind or come out to watch over the children. Only a handful of teenagers chose the latter choice. After all, they were soon to be given responsibilities, so they had to learn what it was like to be an adult already.

Meng Yao took little interest in the teenagers that followed them out. He just noted that Wen Xu, the star of the party, had remained behind. His gaze were mainly concentrated on the little young masters and misses running on excitedly ahead. Even Jiang Cheng were roped into having fun with them. Amongst the crowd was the inconspicuous Wen Chao, who had been the loudest from the start. Following that, Meng Yao pinpointed Jin Zixuan.

He looked about for a small stone-faced dumpling but saw no one. It seemed that Lan Wangji hadn’t come to the party. Neither had Nie Huaisang.

However, it made sense, Meng Yao thought. The only reason Jiang Cheng was forced to come was because Jiang Yanli was unable to come. If Jiang Fengmian had been at home, he most likely would have brought along Jiang Yanli instead of Jiang Cheng. Likewise, Jin Zixuan most likely only came because he was an only child.

“There’s fishies in the lake!” one child exclaimed excitedly.

“Of course, there are!” Wen Chao said with a puffed-out chest.

Meng Yao lingered slightly towards the back. He watched the children run about and play. They ranged from being seven years old to ten years old. Those that were over twelve hung back with the teenagers, though they didn’t quite say too much. Then again, neither did the teens.

Despite being “ten”, Meng Yao hovered between the two crowds. After all, it was just his body that was ten years old. If you counted the years after his death, Meng Yao would already be twenty-three. He had no reason to run around idiotically with a group of children.

However, seeing him stand so far away caused the kids to show an interest in him. A few of the girls began to gather around Meng Yao and observed him. Meng Yao’s head remained lowered as he listened to the girls compliment him.

“He’s so pretty!”

“Your eyes are so round!”

“Wah, he’s like a little doll!”

The commotion caught the attention of the teenagers standing nearby. One of them laughed. “Looks like this little quiet guy is the star of the show.”

Another glanced at Wen Chao. “The little devil’s getting angry.”

Among the crowd was a teenager who was slightly taller than his peers. Despite only being fifteen, he already had stern features, but this sternness didn’t detract from his handsomeness. Paired with his olive-colored robes and the lethal saber, the youth appeared quite valiant. At this moment, his brows were furrowed as he observed the situation.

Obviously, the little fellow didn’t like the attention, but, perhaps out of politeness, he didn’t speak out like regular children would. However, this subtle rejection was nothing but tacit acceptance in Wen Chao’s eyes.

To have the thunder stolen from him in his own household was outrageous! Wen Chao clenched his fists and stomped over to Meng Yao.

“Uh-oh,” one of the teenagers whispered.

“Should we do something?” another asked.

“It should be…fine. They’re only kids,” another reassured the rest.

Wen Chao stopped outside the ring of girls and glared at Meng Yao. He looked Meng Yao up and down and scoffed with his arms across his chest. “What’s so good looking about him? He’s so scrawny! His face is just like a little girl’s. Not manly at all.”

A few of Wen Chao’s servants and another few young masters who didn’t look kindly at Meng Yao immediately agreed.

Jiang Cheng’s brows furrowed. “What are you trying to say?”

Wen Chao glanced at Jiang Cheng. “What? Is he your person?”

“He’s a member of my sect,” Jiang Cheng said, glaring at Wen Chao.

“A member of your sect?” Wen Chao looked at Meng Yao again and smirked. “I see, so he’s just a servant.”

“He’s my father’s disciple,” Jiang Cheng defended.

“Isn’t that just a nicer way to say he’s your servant?” Wen Chao rolled his eyes. He stepped forward and nudged Meng Yao. “Look at him. He’s not even reacting when I push him. Is he stupid?”

“You—”

“A-Cheng,” Meng Yao’s clear voice interrupted the argument and quelled the boiling anger in Jiang Cheng’s stomach. “There’s nothing wrong with being a servant.”

Such a thing was admitted like this so quickly. It surprised even the handsome youth in olive clothing. At this age, no matter how sensible, children would still want face. Yet, this child, who was insulted already, admitted it without any hesitation.

The handsome youth’s brows furrowed further.

“Is that so?” Wen Chao scoffed, obviously not believing Meng Yao’s words. “Well, then, servant, will you do whatever us young masters tell you to do?”

“Wen Chao, don’t go overboard,” one of the girls stood out to glare at Wen Chao.

“Yeah! He hasn’t done anything to you, so why are you provoking him?” another girl asked.

The teenagers held their heads and sighed. Maybe if the little girls hadn’t said anything, Wen Chao’s anger would be quelled after a few more words. However, now that they defend the poor servant boy, Wen Chao’s anger exploded.

“I’m just asking!” Wen Chao said defensively. He glared at Meng Yao. “Well, would you?”

Meng Yao lowered his gaze, seemingly weighing the pros and cons. “Tongtong, how come I’ve gotten caught up in a schoolyard bullying scenario?”

[…You can do it, Host.]

Meng Yao let out a long, internal sigh. He had already grown up once, yet he had to go through this type of thing again. And, this time, he was in an even more disadvantageous situation.

“If Young Master Wen asks,” Meng Yao agreed.

“Yao-ge!” Jiang Cheng bit out his name through gritted teeth, but Meng Yao didn’t even look at him.

The teenagers began to feel a little worse for the servant boy. One of the younger teenagers tugged on the sleeve of the olive-clothed youth.

“Nie-xiong, shouldn’t we stop them?”

Nie Mingjue hummed and stepped towards the group but, before he could interfere, Wen Chao asked a servant to grab a blindfold.

“Then we’ll play blindfolded tag and you catch us!”

This…was quite tame.

Nie Mingjue settled back into his place. The boy in the white Gusu Lan robes breathed a sigh of relief.

“Alright,” Meng Yao agreed easily. He took the blindfold and tied it expertly around his eyes himself.

“You have to spin ten times!” Wen Chao demanded.

Jiang Cheng glared at Wen Chao, but Meng Yao did as he was told anyway.

He would just let the spoiled young master let out some steam so he wouldn’t complain to daddy later. After spinning ten times, Meng Yao began to move. He followed the voices of the children that were running further and further away. Because Meng Yao was moving slowly and cautiously, the children often ran back and taunted him before running off again.

The teenagers followed behind this group of children worriedly.

Meng Yao managed to catch a few of the girls, Jiang Cheng, and Jin Zixuan. All that were left were those that seemed to support Wen Chao. Jiang Cheng watched on with a tense frown as they moved further away. Jin Zixuan glanced at Jiang Cheng curiously and turned back to watch as well.

“I’m over here!” Wen Chao shouted. “How come you’re so slow! I’m just right in front of you!”

Meng Yao wanted to sigh. He was currently blind to the world. If he ran around, wouldn’t he just fall and hurt himself? Although he wanted to appease the young master, he didn’t want to injure himself on purpose.

Meng Yao continued to follow the voice of the young master and eventually managed to pat him on the chest. An unsettling feeling began to overtake him. Despite knowing that there were three more people to catch, Meng Yao lifted his hand to take off his blindfold. However, before he could, his hands were roughly grabbed and he was also shoved from the back.

He heard the alarmed shouts of the others around him before he flew forward and…landed with a splash.

Jiang Cheng’s eyes widened. He ran towards the pond, but was held back by Wen Chao’s cronies. “You—let go of me!”

Although the situation was unexpected, he wasn’t exactly alarming. After all, everyone knew that those of the Yunmeng Jiang Sect were strong swimmers. At most, the harm that was done would be the child might catch a cold from having to walk around in wet clothing.

However, Jiang Cheng’s frantic reaction startled everyone.

“Why do you care so much about a servant?” Wen Chao asked. His tone of voice was demeaning, but he was obviously actually curious.

“He’s not a servant, he’s my friend!” Jiang Cheng shrugged Wen Chao’s goons away from him. Jin Zixuan joined to pull them off as well.

Nie Mingjue watched from the sidelines as the children struggled, but his expression grew darker and darker. Without giving a word of warning, Nie Mingjue pushed his sword towards the teenager closest to him and sprinted towards the pond. The children who were still fighting froze and watched in shock.

Jiang Cheng was on the verge of tears. The only thing keeping him together was his pride and his reluctance to cry in front of Jin Zixuan of all people. Despite this, he gripped Jin Zixuan’s sleeve tightly. In fact, he was currently very, very terrifed.

The moment Meng Yao fell into the pond, he felt as if the entire world had gone still. In fact, if he just kicked up a little, he would probably be able to bob to the surface, but he couldn’t. It was as if his limbs had gone stiff. The darkness was even more alarming. He thrashed, but didn’t put enough strength into his limbs. He tried to breath, but ended up inhaling a mouth full of water.

He felt as if there were hands around his neck, holding him down, pressing him further and further into the bottom of the pond. He wanted to scream and cry out, but that resulted in only more water entering his mouth.

Just as he was on the verge of fainting, he felt a warm hand wrap around his wrist and pull him forward. Another comfortingly pressed him against a slender chest. Meng Yao reached out and grasped onto the other person like he was his last life line.

When Nie Mingjue resurfaced, Jiang Cheng’s cheeks were already streaked with tears. It was only now did Wen Chao realized he messed up.

Nie Mingjue placed the child onto the ground and pulled off the blindfold. He pressed his hands against the child’s chest, hoping to force the child to cough up any water he may have swallowed. After several pushes, the child finally coughed and spluttered everything out. However, his face was very pale and he shivered despite the summer heat.

Meng Yao’s gaze drifted towards the youth that saved him. His brows furrowed in confusion, but his hands still clung to Nie Mingjue.

Nie Mingjue raised his head and told a servant to call for a doctor before turning his attention back to Meng Yao. “You’re okay, you’re safe.”

Meng Yao’s lips pressed into a tight line. He wanted to lift his hand to touch the familiar face but his head felt heavy and his limbs were weak. He barely heard what Nie Mingjue was saying before the darkness reached out towards him again and consumed him whole.

What followed after was a fiasco. After learning what happened, Wen Chao was lightly reprimanded by his father. Jiang Cheng was crying and screaming at Wen Chao once he was in his mother’s arms. Upon hearing what happened, Yu Ziyuan’s expression darkened immensely.

Everyone in Lotus Pier knew that Meng Yao had a fear of water. On his second year there, Meng Yao had accidentally been pushed into the water by a larger dog that Jiang Cheng had been taking care of. At first, everyone thought that Meng Yao would resurface—the water wasn’t too deep after all. But, against their expectations, Meng Yao thrashed frantically in the water. After the servants fished him out, he suffered a fever for three days.

No one knew why and Meng Yao never offered an explanation, but, since then, they made sure to keep an eye out on Meng Yao if he was ever close to water.

Nie Mingjue frowned and glanced at the child who was still holding onto his robe tightly. The child’s forehead was beaded with sweat. He was obviously having a horrible nightmare yet, no matter what, he didn’t seem as if he could wake up.

After the doctor left, Yu Ziyuan tried to pry Meng Yao off the young master of the Nie clan, but Nie Mingjue shook his head. “It’s okay, Madam Yu. I can sit with him until he wakes.”

Yu Ziyuan pursed her lips but reluctantly nodded in the end. Together with Sect Leader Nie, Yu Ziyuan left the room, leaving only Nie Mingjue and the boy clothed in white in the same room.

“Why are you here?” Nie Mingjue asked in amused tone.

Lan Huan let out a sigh and lifted the saber he was hugging to his chest. “Isn’t it because Nie-xiong pushed this onto me?”

“Oh, that was you?” Nie Mingjue reached out his unoccupied hand to retrieve the sword. Lan Huan walked closer with it. “Isn’t your uncle going to be angry that you ran off?”

“I told him where I was going,” Lan Huan said. The poise and demeanor he held while he was in public had completely melted off. He reminded Nie Mingjue a bit of an energetic puppy at this moment. However, the energetic puppy looked at the child worriedly. “Is he going to be okay?’

“He should be fine,” Nie Mingjue said, though he wasn’t sure himself.

It was just falling into a pond, yet this child had such a reaction.

Meng Yao suddenly convulsed.

Nie Mingjue’s eyes widened and he moved to stop Meng Yao from biting himself but found the boy’s eyes suddenly flew open.

[Ding. Congratulations. Host has made contact with Nie Mingjue. Ding. Congratulations. Host has made contact with Lan Xichen. Currently downloading character information. System functions will be temporarily unavailable.]

Nie Mingjue…Lan Xichen…

Meng Yao slowly came back into himself, but his eyes did not leave the teenager’s face.

From the eyes to the nose and the lips—everything was familiar, albeit more immature and obviously sharper. Meng Yao had this seen face for four years of his life, day and night, so it was unmistakable.

Wasn’t this his silly roommate?

Chapter Text

Seeing Meng Yao stare at himself so intently, Nie Mingjue was at a loss for what to do. He glanced at Lan Huan beside him and the child softly cleared his throat.

“Um…Young Master Meng, are you feeling okay?” Lan Huan asked cautiously.

Meng Yao blinked at the two of them blurrily and looked around. A tight frown was on his face and he moved away from Nie Mingjue. He lowered his head. “I seem to have bothered these two young masters. I apologize.”

“No! No need to apologize,” Lan Huan said, slightly flustered. He had never been apologized to be an ill person before. “You weren’t bothersome at all.”

“Right…right, you weren’t bothersome,” Nie Mingjue followed up after Lan Huan nudged him. “Right, um, I’m Nie Mingjue. This Lan Huan.”

“Young Master Nie, Young Master Lan,” Meng Yao bowed his head even lower.

“You don’t have to refer to us as young master,” Nie Mingjue said. His heartstrings were tugged by this child who was around the same age as his younger brother. “Just call us gege.”

Ge your ass, Meng Yao thought irritably. The entire novel had a cast of over eighty characters, not to mention the world was so vast. It was just his luck that the only two people he wanted to avoid would appear in front of his eyes after fainting. Since he didn’t want any contact with them in the future, it would be best if he simply closed his eyes and ears and pretended to be antisocial.

“That wouldn’t be proper,” Meng Yao murmured drowsily.

“Why wouldn’t it be? You’re not a servant—you’re the disciple of Sect Leader Jiang. Besides, even if you were, we could still be friends.”

I don’t want to be your friend, Meng Yao roared in his heart. On the outside, he compliantly nodded. “…Nie-gege, Lan-gege.”

Nie Mingjue bit back his laughter at the reluctance in his voice. Lan Huan fidgeted beside Nie Mingjue, his eyes staring directly at Meng Yao. With this appearance, he looked a lot like Lan Zhan.

“Are you still uncomfortable anywhere?” Lan Huan sat directly on the bed. He held Meng Yao’s hand and frowned. “Your fever is quite high.”

It was spring, so falling into the warm pond would normally not affect a person this badly. Meng Yao’s fingers fidgeted in Lan Huan’s hand. “It’s nothing. It happens whenever I fall into water.”

“Every time?” Nie Mingjue asked concernedly.

Meng Yao hummed. He didn’t know how to tell these two that it was a stress response. Due to a traumatic event, whenever he was forced to go into the water, he would always develop a fever afterwards. Usually, it wouldn’t be bad to the point of fainting, but it just so happened that, this time, with his lack of sight, Meng Yao was unable to calm down and think properly, resulting in him spending more time in the water than he initially would.  

“I’ll be fine after resting a few days,” Meng Yao reassured them. “There is no need to worry.”

Nie Mingjue and Lan Huan felt their hearts tighten at the same time. Even Lan Zhan wasn’t this sensible. Although he acted like a mini adult, Lan Huan could always tell that Lan Zhan would want him by his side when he was ill. Nie Mingjue felt even worse. His little brother threw tantrums even when he wasn’t feeling ill. Yet, how could this child sit so quiet right now. He even reassured them so they wouldn’t worry.

“You still haven’t told us your name,” Nie Mingjue said.

Of course, the two boys already knew his name, but it was always better to introduce yourself. Meng Yao lowered his head again, but Nie Mingjue gripped his shoulder.

“Don’t lower your head. You’re a man. Men don’t lower their heads,” Nie Mingjue said.

Meng Yao found this phrase funny and turned his head around to hide his laughter. When he looked at Nie Mingjue and Lan Huan again, there was a light to his eyes and a small smile on his lips. “My name is Meng Yao.”

“A-Yao.”

“Yaoyao.”

Meng Yao stared at the two who decidedly called him a nickname on their first meeting. He especially looked at Nie Mingjue.

“Yaoyao” always sounded too girly to Meng Yao. Growing up, while he never rejected it, he also never quite accepted it. Many opted to call him “A-Yao” instead to avoid stepping on his toes, except for one persistent person.

[They are not the same people.]

“I know. Why would he show up here anyway?” Meng Yao reasoned.

After his initial shock, Meng Yao was able to pick out the differences between Nie Mingjue and his silly roommate. They only looked similar, but they were still different. On top of that, already from what he saw, Nie Mingjue’s personality was different. He was more awkward in his speech, despite being just as outgoing.

Seeing Meng Yao’s blank stare, Nie Mingjue laughed. He roughly messed up Meng Yao’s hair. “What’s with that look on your face?”

Meng Yao lowered his head and allowed his hair to be tousled into a mess. Lan Huan let out a sigh and carefully tried to untangle it. “Nie-xiong, why would you mess up his hair like this?”

“The look on his face was too cute, I couldn’t help myself,” Nie Mingjue grinned. “Sorry, Yaoyao. You wouldn’t get mad at me, right?”

The level of lethality in that handsome face, mixed with those words, was enough to render Meng Yao speechless. He let out a long sigh. “Never mind. Tongtong, he’s really similar to my roommate.”

Because of this thread, Meng Yao didn’t seem as defensive around Nie Mingjue and Lan Huan anymore. It was only when Yu Ziyuan came in that the two boys reluctantly got up to leave. Nie Mingjue glanced back at Meng Yao, who sat quietly and obediently in bed like a little doll. He couldn’t fight the feeling that this child was quite lonely. He reached out and messed up Meng Yao’s hair again.

Meng Yao looked at him quietly for his next words.

“Next time I go out on a night-hunt, I’ll stop by Lotus Pier and bring you out to play,” Nie Mingjue grinned.

[Ding. Congratulations, Host has completed the task “Attend Wen Xu’s Birthday Banquet”. The system will now give Host the rewards.]

Meng Yao hummed softly and watched Lan Huan and Nie Mingjue leave. Yu Ziyuan glanced back at the absentminded child.

“Can you move? If you can, we’re going to head back to Lotus Pier tonight.”

“Mn,” Meng Yao nodded. “It’s just a fever.”

Yu Ziyuan told him to gather his things before leaving the room.

Meng Yao was suddenly alone again. He glanced at the empty stool beside his bed and the wrinkle in the sheets that Lan Huan was sitting on. He stood and slowly moved about the room to gather his things before meeting Yu Ziyuan in her room.

The trip back was slowed, due to Meng Yao’s fever. Although Meng Yao didn’t complain, they still took more rest stops and made sure Meng Yao’s fever didn’t escalate. The entire time, Jiang Cheng hovered beside him worriedly. Yu Ziyuan said nothing to scold her child as she usually would. Most of the days, Meng Yao would sleep and he would have nightmares, only to wake up to see Jiang Cheng peering down at him curiously.

Meng Yao never thought he would be so glad to return to Lotus Pier. He was sent straight back to his room and he wasn’t even upset. Jiang Fengmian looked at him curiously and asked Yu Ziyuan if something happened, only to be yelled at. The sounds of their one-sided argument could be heard the entire way back.

Meng Yao pushed the door to his room open and closed it tightly. He crawled into his bed without taking off his robes and pulled the blanket over his head. He pressed his hands to his ears and allowed the drowsiness to wash over him again.

When he woke up again, he felt a bit thirsty but the thirst was soon replaced by hunger when a familiar scent entered his nose. He felt a warm, thin hand gently push him awake. Meng Yao opened his eyes and tugged the covers down to see Jiang Yanli’s gentle smile.

“A-Cheng told me you had a fever,” Jiang Yanli said. She sat down and held up the bowl of pork rib lotus soup. “Have some of this. I made it lighter this time.”

Jiang Cheng stood nervously behind Jiang Yanli. Since Meng Yao had been pushed down, he seemed to have gotten quieter again, just like he had been three years ago. In fact, Jiang Cheng blamed himself quite a bit. If he had reacted faster or if he had been firmer when he stood up against Wen Chao, then Meng Yao wouldn’t have had to fall into water. He felt that Meng Yao probably blamed him for not defending him properly.

Jiang Yanli carefully wiped the cold sweat from Meng Yao’s forehead, her brows furrowing. “Did you have a nightmare?”

Last year, when Meng Yao had fallen into the water, he not only developed a fever, but also had nightmares for weeks on end. Even though he hadn’t said anything at first, anyone could see the tiredness in his eyes. After being asked, Meng Yao had confessed honestly, but he still acted as if he were used to it.

Meng Yao initially felt a little cold, but after taking the bowl, the warmth spread from his hands to all over his body. He managed to find his smile. “I’m fine. I just feel a bit sore everywhere still.”

“It’s my fault,” Jiang Cheng murmured. He shifted over guiltily. “I should have volunteered to be blindfolded.”

Meng Yao chuckled. “You didn’t know what he wanted to do though. Everyone thought he just wanted to play.”

Jiang Cheng pouted as Meng Yao patted his head.

“Don’t be upset. Aren’t I fine now?” Meng Yao reasoned.

Jiang Cheng glanced at Meng Yao and felt a bit frustrated. His Yao-gege had always been like this. He was never angry and always patient. He never threw tantrums and was always quiet. He knew that his mother wanted him to be more like Yao-gege, but he also knew that Jiang Fengmian was always worried about Meng Yao because of his disposition.

The person who should feel indignant was calm, yet the person who was in the wrong was on the verge of throwing a tantrum.

Jiang Yanli moved to quickly soothe her little brother’s emotions. The pair of siblings accompanied Meng Yao until he finished eating.

Afterwards, their days continue smoothly. Jiang Fengmian went out more often, leaving Jiang Cheng at a bit of a loss. As the spring months passed into summer, Lotus Pier received a rather unexpected guest.

There was a light knock on the door. Meng Yao looked up from his homework and invited the person in. The door opened and a teenager poked his head in. Seeing Meng Yao’s wide eyes, the teenager’s smile only grew. He stepped in and held out a carefully wrapped box containing Qinghe’s delicacies.

“Yaoyao, I came to fulfill my promise,” Nie Mingjue carefully set the box down and sat down on Meng Yao’s desk. He turned himself slightly and looked at the books Meng Yao was reading. “Are you studying? Why?"

Meng Yao pulled the books away slightly. “I’m reading ahead so that I don’t get confused during lessons.”

“Reading ahead?” Nie Mingjue repeated. He recalled the scenes he saw on his way over and pointed out the door. “Your junior martial siblings are all out there playing, but you’re in here studying? You aren’t a scholar. What’s the point of studying so hard?”

Meng Yao opened his mouth to explain but soon closed it again. What was the point of explaining his thought process to a fifteen-year-old?

Meng Yao’s disdainful expression made Nie Mingjue want to laugh again. He reached over and pinched Meng Yao’s cheek. “Hey, are you looking down on me, kid?”

“No,” Meng Yao lightly pushed Nie Mingjue’s hand away and began to sort out his notes.

“Don’t study anymore,” Nie Mingjue said. He slid off the desk and crouched down beside Meng Yao. “Let’s go play.”

Meng Yao glanced at the sunny youth. When he was smiling, the sternness in his brows completely dispersed. “Let me organize this first.”

Nie Mingjue watched Meng Yao silently. “Even the little young master of this household doesn’t study as diligently as you.”

“I like learning,” Meng Yao said.

Nie Mingjue hummed at the reasoning. Even little children would have their own hobbies.

After Meng Yao was finished, Nie Mingjue reached out to pick Meng Yao up, only for the child to move to the side.

“I can walk,” Meng Yao said.

“What are you embarrassed about?” Nie Mingjue scoffed. “You’re about the same age as my little brother and I carry him all the time.”

“I’m not your little brother.”

“Come on,” Nie Mingjue scooped Meng Yao up anyway. “I’m taking you on my sword. You’re so small—if you stand by yourself, you might fly off.”

Nie Mingjue emerged with Meng Yao in his arms. The few servants around glanced over and tactfully looked away as Meng Yao’s expression turned darker and darker.

[Host, you’re a child currently. Just bear with it.]

“At heart I’m a twenty-three-year-old man!” Meng Yao bellowed. “Besides, even as a child I have my own dignity! When have I ever been carried around Lotus Pier? I’m embarrassed to death.”

Tongtong looked at Nie Mingjue’s happiness bar and refused to answer. Who knew the future strict, no nonsense sect leader of the Qinghe Nie Sect would take so much pleasure in teasing a child right now?

“Let’s see,” Nie Mingjue hummed. “What do you want to do? There’s a theater house in Yunping that’s pretty popular. We could go there.”

“Aren’t you here on a night-hunt?” Meng Yao finally asked.

“You want to watch?” Nie Mingjue glanced at the child’s clean round face and shook his head. “Children shouldn’t see such things. Wait until you’re older.”

It’s not that he wanted to watch, it was just that he felt that Nie Mingjue should be doing other things. Why was he here playing with a child?

“Hm, what else is there?” Nie Mingjue wondered. “We can go to the night market tonight. That always has nice things to look at.”

It was only when this was brought up did Meng Yao suddenly think of something. He looked at Nie Mingjue. “Did you ask Madam Yu to bring me out?”

Nie Mingjue nodded. “She was quite enthusiastic about it. She said you stay inside too much.”

Meng Yao tried to imagine the word “enthusiastic” and Yu Ziyuan together. He looked at Nie Mingjue with a hint of distrust.

“It’s true,” Nie Mingjue said upon facing Meng Yao scrutinization. He stroked the back of Meng Yao’s head with a smile. “She said that she thinks it’s a good idea to bring you out to play.”

As for the actual contents of the conversation, Nie Mingjue didn’t bother telling Meng Yao.

When he arrived, Yu Ziyuan had been perplexed, but after Nie Mingjue’s explanation she calmed down a little. She let out a sigh and agreed to his proposition right away. She even suggested, perhaps, bringing him towards Yunping, Meng Yao’s hometown. She said that the child might miss his mother without adding much else.

Nie Mingjue glanced at Meng Yao’s face when he suggested going to Yunping and didn’t see a hint of longing in the child’s expression.

Eventually, Nie Mingjue decided, on his own volition, that they would first go to Yunping before traveling back down for the night market. The entire time, Meng Yao sat comfortably in Nie Mingjue’s arms, though his expression seemed slightly uncomfortable.

“Nie-gege,” Meng Yao eventually called out.

Nie Mingjue looked at Meng Yao who was looking up at him with a puckered expression. “What’s wrong?”

“Let me down,” Meng Yao tugged on the front Nie Mingjue’s robes. “I can walk on my own.”

Nie Mingjue looked around and hummed. Yunmeng was far more populated than Qinghe was. It was much easier to kidnap a child in such surroundings. After a moment of deliberation, he set Meng Yao down, but tightly grasped his hand. Meng Yao’s expression showed displeasure.

“What if you get lost in the crowd?” Nie Mingjue asked. “If you don’t want to hold onto my hand, then hang onto my sleeve.”

Nie Mingjue wasn’t dressed properly for martial arts activities today. Instead, he wore casual robes with a set of wide sleeves, looking completely like the young master of a prominent family. Still, his saber hung inconspicuously by his side, deterring anyone who may want to stir up trouble with him.

Meng Yao weighed his options. If he decided to hang onto Nie Mingjue’s sleeve, he would have to exert force. If he allowed Nie Mingjue to hold his hand, he wouldn’t have to do anything. After sighing internally, Meng Yao didn’t kick up a fuss anymore. He passively allowed Nie Mingjue to hold onto his hand as the teenager brought Meng Yao to various places.

“Are you hungry?” Nie Mingjue asked as lunch time approached.

Meng Yao blinked up innocently at Nie Mingjue and shrugged.

Such an action, when coming from an adult, would be considered indolent and rude. However, from a cute child, it only made one want to squeeze them.

Nie Mingjue held back and brought Meng Yao to a nearby restaurant. He asked Meng Yao what he liked to eat, but just received another passive response. Nie Mingjue raised an eyebrow at the child.

“Do you like eating spicy food? Sweet? Savory?”

It wasn’t that Meng Yao was trying to make it difficult for Nie Mingjue, but that he truly had no preference. He grew up eating whatever was given to him. If it was too spicy, he would deal with it, if it was too bland, he’d eat it anyway. Many of Meng Yao’s classmates said that his tastebuds were broken, but, to Meng Yao, that just meant his stomach would be filled easier.

Faced with the unresponsive child, Nie Mingjue ordered what he would usually eat and food that his little brother enjoyed eating. He turned back to Meng Yao after he finished ordering and observed the child silently with one hand cradling his cheek.

Meng Yao glanced at Nie Mingjue and looked away again. His eyes turned towards the pedestrians on the street and he began to count the women that wore pink.

"Yaoyao,” Nie Mingjue’s voice pulled Meng Yao back in. “Do you want to visit your mother?”

Meng Yao’s eyes widened. He pursed his lips and lowered his gaze. It was the first bit of emotion that Nie Mingjue saw on the child other than mild irritation.

“You don’t like your mother?” Nie Mingjue asked.

A child who lived away from their parents most likely had some type of special circumstances. Although Yu Ziyuan didn’t tell Nie Mingjue what kind of person Meng Yao’s mother was, he sensed that her identity was a bit special.

“No, I like her,” Meng Yao recalled his only interaction with Meng Shi. She had been pleasant and warm. She was everything Meng Yao thought a mother should be. He hesitated. “She might not want to see me though.”

“What kind of mother would refuse to see her own child?”

Meng Yao had to bite back the sarcastic smile that nearly surfaced onto his face. True, Meng Shi would want to see Meng Yao. But this would never apply to his birth mother.

For Nie Mingjue to bring him out to Yunping and then bring up his mother, Meng Yao felt that Yu Ziyuan must have said something to him. According to his character settings, he was a filial child who sent money back to his mother every time he received allowance, so he would definitely long to see his mother. Besides, Meng Yao was a “sensible child”. He would have long figured out his mother’s true intentions of sending him away. That was why he stopped throwing tantrums and became obedient.

If he didn’t see Meng Shi today, he might be OOC’ing.

Meng Yao glanced at Nie Mingjue. He seemed to be battling his own reasoning. He deliberated until the dishes came out, but Nie Mingjue did not rush him. Halfway through their meal, Meng Yao finally spoke, but he spoke so quietly that Nie Mingjue nearly missed his words.

“…But Nie-gege can’t come with me.”

Nie Mingjue looked up in surprise. “Why not?”

“It’s…” Meng Yao pursed his lips. “It isn’t a place you should go.”

Nie Mingjue’s brows furrowed. A place he shouldn’t go? “What sort of place?”

Meng Yao’s grip tightened on his chopsticks. He glared at Nie Mingjue resolutely. “You can’t go there.”

“Where’s a place I can’t go?” Nie Mingjue asked. He thought about it and couldn’t find any place unsuitable. “A nunnery?”

It was the opposite of a nunnery.

Meng Yao puffed out his cheeks childishly. “I’m going to go by myself though.”

“You’re still a child. How could you go anywhere by yourself? What if you get stolen?” Nie Mingjue asked as he continued his meal.

“I wouldn’t,” Meng Yao said. “I used to run around by myself all the time when I was younger. No one ever stole me then.”

Nie Mingjue glanced at Meng Yao. Finally, he let out a sigh and hummed. “Fine, then. Suit yourself. Then, after eating, I’ll stay right here and you can go see your mother. When you’re done, come back here to find me again.”

Meng Yao’s cloud expression lit up. He nodded excitedly.

“You have to finish eating first.”

Meng Yao nodded again and began eating once more. The pace at which this child ate was normally very sluggish but, at this moment, he devoured everything quickly, putting more into his mouth before he had even properly swallowed. Nie Mingjue watched Meng Yao’s ecstatic way of eating and sighed in his heart.

This child really cared about his mother.

Chapter Text

Although Nie Mingjue said he would let Meng Yao go alone, he still tailed the child. With his level of martial arts, it was easy to follow someone without them noticing, much less a child. He was the one who said he would bring Meng Yao out to play, so he was responsible for watching over him. On the off chance that anything really happened, Yu Ziyuan would most definitely blame him. Even if Meng Yao wasn’t her child, he was still a disciple under her husband.

However, the further Nie Mingjue followed Meng Yao, the more he felt something wasn’t right. It wasn’t until Meng Yao entered a brothel did Nie Mingjue realize why Meng Yao was so adamant about Nie Mingjue not following him.

Meng Yao stepped into the brothel a little nervously. It had been three years since he had been here, but nothing had changed. Everything was still so wretched. A few lingering patrons from the night before who spotted the child stared at him incredulously and began asking why a child was here. The newer prostitutes were equally as alarmed, but the majority didn’t seem shocked in the slightest.

“Oh, if it isn’t Meng Shi’s little twat,” one prostitute hummed. She bent down and pinched Meng Yao’s cheeks. “What’s wrong? Did you miss your mother too much?”

Meng Yao pursed his lips. Since it was still early in the day, not many people were here and Meng Shi normally wouldn’t be attending to any customers. He nodded honestly and glanced around.

Jiejie, is my mother still in her same room?”

The prostitute who took the initiative to talk to Meng Yao suddenly showed an awkward expression. She cleared her throat. “Little brother, are you hungry? How about we get you something to eat first?”

Meng Yao felt an ominous premonition in his heart. “I’m not hungry. I already ate. Mother should be in her same room, right?”

Hearing the same question asked again, the veteran prostitutes were unsure of how to answer the child. One of them went to find Sisi, who was closest to Meng Shi.

The prostitutes who still retained their heart continued to talk to Meng Yao, but Meng Yao began to grow restless.

“Tongtong, Meng Shi’s in her room, right?”

[…She is, but, Host—]

Meng Yao broke away from the prostitutes and felt the blood rushing to his head. Perhaps it was the feelings of the original soul or, perhaps, Meng Yao didn’t want to see an innocent woman harmed, the feeling of urgency made him dizzy. He pushed away the hands of the prostitutes that tried to rein him in and ran up the stairs to Meng Shi’s room. He heard the crying from within and immediately threw the doors open. He ignored the large guards that tried to grab at him and ran in.

He grabbed the robes from the bed and threw them over Meng Shi’s bruised and cut body and glared at the man who seemed to have just finished.

The man stared at Meng Yao in surprise and then angrily turned to his guards. “Who let this child in!?”

Meng Shi trembled and slowly raised her head. She was met with Meng Yao’s face, filled with hatred. Her heart pinched but terror slowly gripped her. “What are you doing back here?”

“Get this kid out of here!” the man shouted again.

Meng Yao refused to move. When a guard reached out for him, he bit the man’s hand until he bled. He held tightly onto Meng Shi and glared at the man.

“This stinky bastard, ruining my fun,” the man stepped forward and grabbed Meng Yao by the arm. He jerked Meng Yao away from Meng Shi and attempted to throw him out the door.

Meng Yao took this opportunity to kick the man just below the abdomen. The man yelled in pain and dropped Meng Yao. Meng Yao tried to go back to Meng Shi to help her up, but he was pulled away by the guards again.

[Host, calm down.]

Meng Yao couldn’t hear the system though. He felt as if his whole body was on fire. He thrashed angrily and screamed as the guards of the man took him out of the room. They flung him down the stairs, but that still didn’t stop him. He charged forward again, only to be directly kicked out of the brothel.

A small body flying from the doors of the brothel hadn’t been seen in a few years, so the surrounding pedestrians were exceedingly surprised.

Nie Mingjue’s eyes widened upon seeing the sigh and moved forward.

[Host, calm down. You have to control your emotions.]

Meng Yao was held down by the guards again. He felt the first punch land square in the gut, but he still managed to put up a fight. After the second hit landed, his entire being suddenly felt lighter. He was pulled up. He tried to hit the person in front of him, but the person held his wrist gently and shook him lightly.

Meng Yao looked at Nie Mingjue through a cloud of tears.

“What happened?” Nie Mingjue asked softly.

It would have been fine if Nie Mingjue had used a sterner tone to talk to him, but the soft voice shot straight into Meng Yao’s heart. It was as if years of grievances poured forth. He saw Meng Shi’s bloodied body and remembered another in her place. His heart wrenched and he blamed himself for his inadequacy. The sounds of police sirens blared in his mind but at that time there hadn’t been anyone who asked him what was wrong.

It had just been streams of people, running back and forth. He watched as the body of the young woman was loaded into the ambulance. He never saw her again. When someone spoke to him again that night, it was accompanied by a heavy slap across his face and words of reprimanding. He wasn’t yelled at because he had been unable to protect the young woman, but because he had stuck his nose in business that didn’t concern him.

He hadn’t been able to eat that night and he was locked out of the apartment until the following morning.

Meng Yao sobbed bitterly, but he didn’t hold out his arms for Nie Mingjue. He stood alone, his arms by his side as his shoulders shook. His lips moved to produce words, but nothing came out.

Nie Mingjue reached out and pulled the child into his arms. He lifted him up and then glared at the guards who had brutally pinned the child to the ground.

“Who are you?” one of the guards asked. “Do you know this child?”

Nie Mingjue ignored them and stepped directly into the brothel. His nose wrinkled at the smells of perfume, alcohol, and something else. He looked around until he found someone.

“Who’s his mother?” Nie Mingjue asked.

The prostitute shrank back slightly. Nie Mingjue was a good-looking teenager, but when he wasn’t smiling, he would look a bit older. On top of that, right now, he had a very murderous aura in his eyes.

“M-Meng Shi.”

“Bring your boss and Meng Shi to see me,” Nie Mingjue said coldly.

Nie Mingjue was led to a private room and, moments later, a bruised woman was led in by a few servants and a woman dressed rather extravagantly. The woman held a fawning smile, but Nie Mingjue ignored her and glanced at the woman who seemed to be on her last breath.

“How much?”

“What?” the woman who had been talking froze.

“How much is her slave contract?” Nie Mingjue asked.

The woman let out a confused laugh. “Young Master, if you want to buy a prostitute, there are many beautiful young women. There is no need to pay attention to her. She—”

“This is how you speak about humans around here, huh?” Nie Mingjue scoffed. “Disgusting.”

The woman had been in this line of business for a long time. She often saw heroic young men be conned by the prostitutes to pay for their slave contract. She could tell between who truly cared and who only wanted to bring back a woman to pay. It was obvious that Nie Mingjue had no intention of “browsing.”

Meng Yao was leaning stiffly in Nie Mingjue’s arms. He had calmed down at some point and was only now registering what was happening. He looked up at Nie Mingjue and grabbed him suddenly.

Nie Mingjue looked down. The stern expression on his face eased and he stroked Meng Yao’s back. “It’s okay.”

Meng Yao shook his head. “It’s a lot of money.”

“I have money.”

Meng Yao still had half the mind to stare at Nie Mingjue incredulously. What kind of domineering CEO line was that?

Being in such a business, the mistress of the brothel naturally valued her life over money. She saw the way Nie Mingjue had easily handled the guards and was threatened by the imposing aura he exuded. Coupled with the sword by his side, the woman sold the slave contract at a price cheaper than she would a regular customer. Still, the price was quite high. However, to Nie Mingjue, who grew up in an upright household, no price was too high for a human life.

The first thing Nie Mingjue did was take Meng Shi to an inn. He told Meng Yao to stay where he was and left to call a doctor.

Meng Yao sat dazedly at the tea table and finally poked Tongtong. “What just happened?”

[Nie Mingjue bought Meng Shi’s slave contract.]

“But why?” Meng Yao looked at the woman with shallow breathing. He moved a little closer to her and took hold of her cold hand. His throat suddenly felt dry again.

[He saw you in distress.]

“We barely know each other. Most people would think twice before saving a prostitute, no matter the circumstances, much less one that he has no use for.”

[That’s just how he is.]

When Nie Mingjue returned, he carefully coaxed Meng Yao away from Meng Shi to allow the doctor to examine her. He brought Meng Yao out into the hallway so he wouldn’t have to see the wounds on Meng Shi’s body and sat with him in the hall.

“I’ve seen it all before,” Meng Yao said. “We don’t have to wait outside.”

Nie Mingjue glanced at the child and pinched his cheeks. “I’m the one that doesn’t want to see it. Is that okay?”

Meng Yao nodded and fell silent again. “…Nie-gege.”

“Hm?”

“…I don’t have money to give back to you.”

Nie Mingjue looked at Meng Yao incredulously and laughed. “I don’t want your money.”

“Then, are you going to take my mother with you?” Meng Yao questioned.

Nie Mingjue reached into his robes and pulled out the slave contract. He put it into Meng Yao’s hands and brushed his hands together. “This is yours. Do whatever you want with it.”

Meng Yao clenched the sheet of paper tightly. He felt uncomfortable in his chest. He stared intently at Nie Mingjue, who returned his look with a light smile. “I can’t give you anything in return.”

“I didn’t just buy property, I bought a slave contract. That’s a person and that person is your mother. I just saved a person. I don’t need anything in return.”

“People always want something in return,” Meng Yao said firmly.

Nie Mingjue was shocked by Meng Yao’s words. He looked at the boy’s swollen face and cut up fists. From beginning to end, he hadn’t cried at all because of his wounds. He had been crying because someone hurt the person he cared about. Even when he was this injured, he didn’t make a sound of complaint. It was just like when he fell into the pond.

A sense of pity rose up in Nie Mingjue.

He shook his head. “I really don’t need anything.”

Meng Yao fidgeted uncomfortably. He couldn’t even offer himself up as a servant. Not to mention his goal had been to stay as far from Nie Mingjue as possible. How come they were just getting dragged closer together?

[Isn’t this a good thing, Host?]

“How is this a good thing?” Meng Yao snapped.

[Host was originally planning on getting the Jiang family to help Meng Shi get out. Now Host does not need to think more on the subject.]

“I wanted to get the Jiang family to help her, not to get Nie Mingjue to help her,” Meng Yao said irritably. “If it’s the Jiang family, I can just pledge my loyalty. What am I going to do with Nie Mingjue? Promise him my heart and body?”

Meng Yao felt a heavy hand on the top of his head. His head was lightly pressed down as the hand applied pressure. He heard a light chuckle from above. “If I had to name something I want then…it’s your friendship. Can I have that?”

Meng Yao looked up at Nie Mingjue. Why would a teenager want to be friends with a child? This was obviously just pitying him again.

“If you need something in the future, just tell me,” Meng Yao decidedly said. He hesitated for a moment before adding, “When I’m an adult.”

Nie Mingjue smiled. “Alright. If I ever need something when you’re an adult, I’ll come and ask you.”

The words were said without any weight. Meng Yao looked the teenager up and down. Fine. If you don’t come find me, then I’ll just go find you.

The doctor soon came out with a diagnosis. Most of the wounds were flesh wounds, though her arm had been slightly fractured. It would be best for her to not move around much so as not to agitate the wounds. Nie Mingjue signaled that he understood and gestured for the doctor to look at Meng Yao, but the child dodged him.

“It’s just flesh wounds,” Meng Yao said. “Nothing’s broken.”

Nie Mingjue frowned. “Really?”

Meng Yao nodded.

He glanced at the doctor, who shrugged helplessly. Nie Mingjue let out a sigh and turned back to Meng Yao. “If you feel uncomfortable the next few days, be sure to tell Sect Leader Jiang or Madam Yu.”

Meng Yao nodded obediently.

Once everything was settled, Nie Mingjue carried Meng Shi back to Lotus Pier.

The appearance of a beaten woman surprised the servants, but the sight of a beaten Meng Yao alarmed them more. Nie Mingjue quickly filled the servants in on what had happened and a few of them scurried away to report this incident to Madam Yu while another group went to ready a room for Meng Shi to sleep in.

Nie Mingjue frowned worriedly as he followed Meng Yao to his room. “Would Madam Yu allow her to stay?”

Meng Yao remained silent. Soon, a storm would hit the Jiang Sect. He wasn’t sure if having Meng Shi stay here was the best choice. She had already lived a hard life. There was no need for her to suffer Madam Yu’s misdirected wrath.

“I’ll find her a place to live,” Meng Yao said.

Nie Mingjue glanced at Meng Yao. “You?”

Meng Yao nodded. “I’ve been giving my mother money for the past three years and she hasn’t spent any. I also have some more. Besides, if I ask for Sect Leader Jiang for a loan, he most likely would comply.”

“You really think a lot with this little head of yours,” Nie Mingjue reached out and messed up Meng Yao’s hair again.

“You touch my head a lot,” Meng Yao grumbled angrily as his hair was messed up even more than it already was.

“What can I say? Your face is just like a ball. It makes me want to mess with you,” Nie Mingjue shrugged.

Meng Yao glared at Nie Mingjue and turned away indifferently.

Ill-tempered, righteous, and loyal—these were the qualities that described Nie Mingjue in the novel perfectly and these were the qualities that Meng Yao admired. However, right now, all Meng Yao could see was a rambunctious, obnoxious, and irritating teenager. He hoped that he could quickly deal with the Meng Shi business and quickly send this scourge away.

Nie Mingjue ended up staying in Yunmeng for a few more days before finally heading off. He made sure to give Meng Yao’s face a few more squeezes before he finally took a few steps away. During his stay, Meng Shi had repeatedly said that she would repay him, but the teenager had good-naturedly waved her off. Even when Madam Yu offered to pay, Nie Mingjue had dismissed her.

The “good guy” card was now pinned firmly onto Nie Mingjue’s head by Meng Shi, so when she saw him treat her son with such rough affection, she only smiled sweetly.

“Don’t forget me,” Nie Mingjue said.

Meng Yao rolled his eyes. “Why would I?”

“I don’t know! Children are just like that. If you don’t seem them constantly, they won’t remember you when they grow up,” Nie Mingjue said. “But you have to remember. So, you can remember to repay me when you’re an adult.”

“I know already,” Meng Yao said, no longer bothering to hide his irritation.

“Or, how about I come visit you?” Nie Mingjue grinned.

“No n—”

“If Xiao Jue wants to come visit, I’m sure A-Yao wouldn’t mind,” Meng Shi said.

“Mother,” Meng Yao stared at his mother incredulously.

Nie Mingjue let out a bright laugh. “Then, I’ll come visit another time, Yaoyao!”

Without waiting for Meng Yao’s response, Nie Mingjue had already mounted his sword and taken to the skies. Meng Yao turned to Meng Shi with an aggrieved expression.

“Why?”

Meng Shi let out a bright, tinkling laugh that reminded Meng Yao of wind chimes. He felt her gentle hand carefully caressing his head and couldn’t help but step a little closer. “Since when have you ever let anyone call you ‘Yaoyao’? Now you let that gege call you that so often and all the time. Obviously, you care about him a little.”

It turned out Jin Guangyao had also disliked being called “Yaoyao”. Meng Yao let out a soft sigh and left things at that.

But that hadn’t been the only reason. Meng Shi knew her child was more sensible than others his age and he seemed to have grown even more in the past three years. It was just when Nie Mingjue was teasing him did Meng Yao look a little more alive.

The following days were allotted to finding Meng Shi a suitable home to stay in. Because of extended abuse, Meng Shi’s health had deteriorated faster than it had in the novel. Although she didn’t quite need constant care, she wouldn’t be able to do any extraneous activity. Because of this, Meng Yao decided to find her a quiet home near Lotus Pier. Although it was a bit more expensive than what Meng Yao had initially hoped for, he still had enough to pay for a majority of it. The remainder was paid by Madam Yu.

“You don’t need to worry about the money,” Yu Ziyuan said.

Meng Yao remained silent and lowered his head.

“If I said you don’t need to worry about it, then you don’t need to worry about. Why are you making me repeat myself? If there’s nothing else, then scram!”

Meng Yao hesitated a moment longer before turning around and leaving Yu Ziyuan’s study.

Jiang Yanli and Jiang Cheng stood worriedly outside.

“A-Yao, if Mother doesn’t want you to repay her, then just don’t worry about it,” Jiang Yanli comforted him quietly as they walked away.

Meng Yao hummed and nodded absentmindedly.

Yu Ziyuan and Nie Mingjue—he had to figure out ways to repay them both later.

Chapter Text

Because of Meng Shi, Meng Yao became busier than he had been previously. Without the system’s constant reminders and dinging, Meng Yao would have long forgotten that he was still in a novel. The novel had become his reality and Meng Yao no longer bothered discerning what was “real” and what was “the plot”.

Soon, summer approached and wiped away the softness of spring. It was during this season that the Jiang couple’s fights became more constant. It was also during this time that Meng Yao brought Jiang Cheng and Jiang Yanli out of the sect more often to avoid hearing the adults’ harsh words.

“It should be soon,” Meng Yao said.

[Yes, Host.]

“After he arrives…” Meng Yao stared blankly ahead. His hands had stopped moving and the laundry floated limply in the water. He thought about Jiang Cheng and let out a sigh. “There’s only so much you can shield a child from.”

[But if Host causes Jiang Fengmian to be unable to meet Wei Wuxian, that would change the trajectory of his life.]

“I know, I know. I’m not cruel enough to do such a thing to an orphaned child,” Meng Yao scoffed. “Let that man bring him home. I’m not going to touch that plotline anyway.”

Tongtong didn’t point out that Meng Yao was obviously worried about Jiang Cheng. It kept its thoughts to itself as it always did and listened to Meng Yao as he sighed about his daily inconveniences.

The dreaded day arrived eventually.

At night, Jiang Fengmian returned with a dirty child, embraced tightly in his arms. Upon seeing this, a flash of hurt passed over his expression. This was not missed by Yu Ziyuan, who immediately turned to the dirty child and began yelling at Jiang Fengmian.

Jiang Cheng and Jiang Yanli shrank back at the noise, but Meng Yao remained calm as he watched the two adults argue. Only when the conversation hit a lull did Meng Yao step out.

“Sect Leader, Madam Yu.”

“What?” Yu Ziyuan snapped. “What do you want?”

“This child needs to be bathed,” Meng Yao said. He glanced at the small boy who shrank into Jiang Fengmian’s embrace and looked back at Yu Ziyuan. “It’s already so late. If there’s anything that needs to be said, can it be said after everyone’s more rested?”

Meng Yao’s voice was clear and particularly nice to listen to. It had an unexplainable soothing charm to it. Such reasonable words, spoken with that nice of a voice, made Yu Ziyuan slowly lower her grudge. She glanced at Wei Wuxian, then at Jiang Fengmian, before scoffing and tossing her sleeve.

“Meng Yao, you take care of it.”

“Yes, Madam Yu,” Meng Yao bowed. He looked to Jiang Yanli and a distraught Jiang Cheng. “Shijie, A-Cheng, you two should get ready for bed first.”

“Oh…” Jiang Cheng took Jiang Yanli’s hand and glanced back longing at his father and the dirty child. A jealous flame was lit in his heart.

Meng Yao turned back to Jiang Fengmian. “Sect Leader, I can take care of the child.”

Jiang Fengmian let out a long sigh. The tiredness between his brows was evident. “You’re still the most sensible.”

Asshole. Meng Yao smiled lightly.

“When you’re done, tell A-Cheng to make some space in his room. We’ll prepare a separate room for A-Ying tomorrow,” Jiang Fengmian said as he set the child down. He looked at Wei Wuxian. “A-Ying, this is Yao-gege. You listen to him well, okay?”

Wei Wuxian nodded obediently. Jiang Fengmian patted him on the head before turning and heading for his own quarters.

The notification for Wei Wuxian’s character information had long been downloaded but, as usual, Meng Yao neglected to look at it. He approached Wei Wuxian with a gentle smile. “My name Meng Yao. What’s your name?”

“Wei Ying,” the child said softly.

“Can I call you A-Ying too?”

Wei Ying nodded. He glanced at Meng Yao shyly and quietly followed him as Meng Yao ordered some servants to draw a bath.

“The older girl from early is named Jiang Yanli. You can call her Li-jiejie. The other boy is named Jiang Cheng. He’s about your age, so there’s no need to be polite with him,” Meng Yao said. “The angry woman from earlier should be addressed as Madam Yu. You should be more careful around her. She doesn’t take well to people.”

Wei Ying nodded repeatedly as he attempted to memorize the information given to him.

Suddenly, a triumphant music blared in his head. Before his eyes the words “Help the Protagonist Settle In: Accept or Decline” appeared. Meng Yao clicked “accept” and was faced with another set of words.

[The Protagonist has finally arrived! Act as his guide through his first few days. Your objective is to help him become acquainted with his surroundings and, most importantly, help him become familiar with the two Jiang siblings as they will be crucial to his character development later!]

Meng Yao didn’t bother reading through the rewards and closed the window. He looked at Wei Ying. “You’re going to be staying with A-Cheng for a bit. He’s…got a bit of a temper like his mother, but he’s actually a good child. I’m sure you two will get along.”

Wei Ying nodded again. He glanced at the good-looking boy and lowered his head, anxiety still filling his heart.

After bathing, Wei Wuxian’s face peered out from a curtain of clean hair. He was dressed in the junior disciple’s uniforms and looked far more presentable now.

Meng Yao brought Wei Ying towards Jiang Cheng’s rooms, but his steps soon halted. He heard Jiang Fengmian’s voice from inside that was nearly masked by Jiang Cheng’s wretched cries. Meng Yao’s brows furrowed. Without knocking, he pushed the doors opened and looked between the father and son. Jiang Fengmian turned to look at Meng Yao and glanced back at Wei Ying. The irritated expression on his face faded and he reached out to hold Wei Ying, only for Meng Yao to stand in the way.

Jiang Cheng ran over and grabbed Meng Yao’s arm. He let out a series of tearful, garbled words and only calmed down after being hugged by Meng Yao. He glared at Wei Ying, who was hiding behind the boy.

“A-Cheng, don’t glare at people,” Meng Yao said. “Tell me what’s wrong.”

Jiang Cheng’s expression puckered again. “F-Father wants to give away my puppies…”

The puppies were just given to Jiang Cheng not too long ago and he had already grown an attachment to them. He had begged Yu Ziyuan for so long and finally managed to get three but now, suddenly, his father had returned with some wild child and told him that he had to give up the puppies! Just because this child was scared of dogs! Jiang Cheng couldn’t understand it at all. The anger and jealousy from earlier exploded and he yelled at his father, only to be reprimanded harsher.

“Sect Leader, A-Cheng likes those dogs,” Meng Yao said innocently.

“A-Ying is afraid of dogs.”

Meng Yao looked back towards the child that held onto a corner of his sleeve. He wanted to roll his eyes at Jiang Fengmian. Instead of compromising, he forced his own son to make all the harsh decisions. What a great father.

“But you don’t need to give them away,” Meng Yao reasoned. “We can just keep the dogs in another part of Lotus Pier. Lotus Pier is so large, hiding a few small dogs won’t be a problem. A-Cheng can just take them out when A-Ying isn’t around.”

Jiang Cheng wanted to argue. His dogs were obviously here first, why must they hide?! If there was anyone who needed to hide, it was this strange kid.

Sensing Jiang Cheng’s displeasure, Wei Ying lowered his head further to decrease his sense of existence.

Jiang Fengmian’s brows furrowed. “How could that be? Dogs bark and howl at night.”

Meng Yao glanced at Wei Ying, who was shrinking further into his back. “A-Ying.”

Upon being addressed, Wei Ying looked up.

“You really don’t like dogs?”

Wei Ying seemed reluctant to answer, but Meng Yao already knew.

He turned to Jiang Cheng. “A-Cheng, for now, how about we let the puppies stay at my mother’s home? You can visit them whenever.”

“But—”

“It’s like how I’m afraid of water,” Meng Yao said. “A-Cheng, would you make me go into the water?”

Jiang Cheng thought about all the times Meng Yao had fallen into the water by accident and felt a chill run up his back. He quickly shook his head. “No! I would never!”

“A-Ying is afraid of dogs just like how I’m afraid of water,” Meng Yao explained. “We can help him become a little less afraid, but we shouldn’t force him to be around things that he’s afraid of. A-Cheng, you’re a good boy. You wouldn’t want to scare someone like that every day, would you?”

Jiang Cheng glanced at Wei Ying. The boy was curled in like a shrimp, looking extremely stupid and cowardly. Forget it. Jiang Cheng was the bigger person. He wouldn’t be petty enough to pick a fight with a coward.

Jiang Cheng eventually nodded.

“A-Ying,” Meng Yao turned to Wei Ying. “I’m going to bring the little puppies to my mother’s house tomorrow. If there’s any barking tonight, just deal with it, okay?”

Wei Ying nodded obediently.

“If it gets really scary, just hide under the blankets. They won’t be able to get you that way,” Meng Yao reassured him.

“Really?”

“Mn!”

Jiang Fengmian breathed a sigh of relief. He turned to Jiang Cheng. “Another thing. A-Ying will live here until we sort a room out. You clean up some of your belongings.”

“What—”

“A-Cheng.”

Jiang Cheng clenched his fists tightly. Not only were his dogs being sent away, but now this guy was trying to claim half his room! Jiang Cheng glared at Wei Ying with burning hatred in his eyes.

After a few more words, Jiang Fengmian departed from the scene, leaving Meng Yao to clean up the mess.

“Forget it! I’m not letting him stay here!” Jiang Cheng shouted angrily. He grabbed the blankets that Jiang Fengmian had put down onto his bed and threw them at Wei Ying.

Wei Ying stumbled to catch it and fell down onto his butt. Instead of crying, he simply stared at Jiang Cheng in shock.

“A-Cheng, calm down.”

“No! First, he steals my father, then he makes my father send away my dogs, and now he’s trying to take my room!” Jiang Cheng huffed angrily. “I don’t want to see him! I hate him!”

Meng Yao breathed out a small sigh. “You don’t mean that.”

“I do! It’d be better if he never came here!” Jiang Cheng said. He grabbed the blankets that Wei Ying dropped and began to push him out. “Get out! Both of you!”

Meng Yao stumbled out along with Wei Ying. The door was slammed in both of their faces. Meng Yao scratched his cheek awkwardly. He turned to tell Wei Ying to stay in his room, only to find a pile of blankets resting beside him. The child was nowhere to be found.

“Oh Heavens, why must I deal with this tonight?” Meng Yao asked.

[Host, it’s part of the plot.]

“I know the plot,” Meng Yao snapped as he gathered the blankets into his arms. He knocked on Jiang Cheng’s door.

“No!”

“I haven’t even said anything.”

“I’m not letting him stay!”

“He left.”

“…What?”

The door slowly creaked open. Instead of joy, Jiang Cheng looked a little alarmed. “He ran?”

“Mn. He ran,” Meng Yao said. He pointed into the direction of the woods. “He ran that way.”

“Th—Yao-gege, why’d you let him run away!?” Jiang Cheng asked in alarm.

“What could I do? He’s far too fast for me,” Meng Yao said. “My legs are short.”

“Wh—b-but what do we do now?”

“Your legs are longer than mine, you should chase after him,” Meng Yao said.

“O-oh, okay,” Jiang Cheng didn’t question Meng Yao’s reasoning and ran in the direction that Meng Yao had pointed.

Meng Yao let out a sigh and placed the blankets back into the room. He sat on the bed for a moment before standing to find Jiang Yanli. He told her of the situation and made an excuse that he would stay behind to make sure Jiang Fengmian and Yu Ziyuan didn’t find out their three children were missing, before settling back in Jiang Cheng’s room and beginning to tidy up the child’s room a little.

Meng Yao laid around like a dead fish until Jiang Yanli returned with the two crying boys. She looked at him with a hint of amusement but didn’t fault him for laying around like he did. Jiang Yanli soon returned with a few bowls of pork rib lotus soup and handed the bowls to the two boys. She looked at Meng Yao apologetically.

“There was only enough for two bowls.”

Meng Yao stretched lazily and suppressed a yawn. “I want to sleep soon anyway. Eating again right now would not be good for my stomach.”

It was rare to see this muddled and relaxed version of Meng Yao. In a rare moment of indulgence, Jiang Yanli reached out and squished Meng Yao’s cheeks. Seeing that it was Jiang Yanli who dared to do such a thing, Meng Yao acted as a stress ball and didn’t move the entire time. If it was Nie Mingjue, he would have smacked him away already.

As expected, after eating the midnight snack, Wei Ying and Jiang Cheng began to bounce off the walls again. Meng Yao sleepily curled into the corner of the bed and closed his eyes. Jiang Yanli let out a sigh and tried to get the children to calm down enough to go to bed, or at least to not wake Meng Yao up. Regardless of what happened in the past and what was going to happen in the future, Meng Yao fell asleep thinking that this scene in front of him right now was quite warm. He was a bit reluctant to let it go.

The next day, Jiang Cheng went with Meng Yao to bring the puppies over to Meng Shi. Meng Shi, who had never raised animals in her life, was a bit flabbergasted. Thus, Jiang Cheng spent an entire afternoon teaching the woman how to properly take care of and play with the dogs.

“The back courtyard is large enough for them to run around,” Jiang Cheng said. “If they seem bored, just let them run there. Auntie, you have to be careful of the poop though. You can use this to pick it up like this.”

Meng Yao sat off to the side, eating a chilled desert that Meng Shi had made and watched Jiang Cheng teach his nominal mother.

“What an amusing scene,” Meng Yao noted. He prodded the system. “Hey, where are my rewards?”

The system dinged. [Congratulations Host, on helping the protagonist settle in. Here are the rewards.]

The dinging sounded several times in his mind. He thought about it and put his head down on the table before opening up the system inventory. He scanned over his belongings. It was another round of experience points and another round of store points. There was nothing out of the ordinary this time around, so Meng Yao closed out of the window and actually closed his eyes for a nap.

It was only when Jiang Cheng nudged Meng Yao awake did he realize it had already gotten so late. He stood and said goodbye to Meng Shi.

“You aren’t staying for the night?” Meng Shi asked.

“I have to take A-Cheng back his house. Tomorrow, I also have to get up early,” Meng Yao explained. He hesitated and then heard himself say: “I’ll come by tomorrow.”

Meng Shi smiled happily. She held out her arms and let Meng Yao hug her himself. She pressed a kiss against his temple and stroked his back a few times before letting him go. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Meng Yao nodded. He took Jiang Cheng’s hand and brought him out. They were greeted by a few servants of the Jiang family and began their walk back.

Meng Shi’s lingering warmth stuck with him until he took a bath and changed into a fresh set of robes for sleep. He got into bed and pulled the covers up to his chin.

“Tongtong.”

[Yes, Host?]

“Does Meng Shi have to die?”

The question surprised both the system and himself. It had been something that had been bothering him for a few days, but he had kept it in his heart. After saying it out loud, it was just as stupid and childish as he had thought it might be. However, the question was already out there and he really wanted an answer.

“I don’t want an explanation,” Meng Yao said. “Just a yes or no.”

[…Yes.]

Meng Yao’s heart dropped. He let out a soft laugh and closed his eyes. He turned to his side and curled in on himself. “I knew it.”

[It’s because the author did not specify Meng Shi’s reason for death. They only said it was an illness. The illness is marked as incurable in this world, so it is so even with the help of medicine of cultivators.]

“I said I didn’t want an explanation,” Meng Yao murmured.

Tongtong felt a bit helpless. This was the first time Meng Yao had expressed attachment to a character from the novel. Even if it wasn’t human and was only made of a series of codes, Tongtong currently felt as if its codes were all jumbled together. It felt extremely uncomfortable.

[However, any other death of the characters of the novel is not set in stone. Aside from Meng Shi’s, everyone’s death can be avoided as they are mainly manmade.]

“Oh.”

The disinterest in Meng Yao’s voice made Tongtong dispirited. It watched Meng Yao’s mood plummet and was unable to think of a way to cheer up its Host.

“Nie Mingjue’s father is supposed to die soon, right?”

[Yes, Host. In spring of next year.]

Meng Yao’s mood plummeted further.

[…Host…]

“I’m sleeping.”

But even sleep couldn’t save Meng Yao from his thoughts.

When he woke up the next morning, it was clear to everyone that there was something weighing on his mind. Wei Ying approached Meng Yao cautiously and was treated kindly, as he had been the previous days, but there was a clear disconnect in Meng Yao’s expression to what he was saying to people.

Eventually, Yu Ziyuan confronted Meng Yao. “Why are you so absentminded? Did something happen?”

Meng Yao wasn’t sure how to go about telling Yu Ziyuan anything. He knew that Meng Shi’s mysterious illness was a one-way road to death, but the subject of death reminded him of Nie Mingjue’s father. Last night, he even had dreamt about the sunny, righteous youth who decisively saved a prostitute from her dreaded life because he had an acquaintanceship with her son. His mind then showed him the brooding, ill-tempered sect leader of the future and, when he woke up, he felt a bit of loss.

Yu Ziyuan watched Meng Yao cautiously. Even if Meng Yao showed his true emotions, he would always do so alone. However, Jiang Yanli and Jiang Cheng had both protested that something was wrong with Meng Yao this morning. Even the little rat Jiang Fengmian brought back circled Meng Yao worriedly.

“Is it your mother?” Yu Ziyuan asked, her voice softening.

Meng Yao clenched his jaw and nearly showed a bitter smile. “It’s nothing, Madam Yu. I apologize for making you worry.”

Yu Ziyuan’s brows furrowed.

Their conversation ended and Meng Yao was dismissed. However, the small figure lingered by the doorway for a moment. He finally turned around and looked embarrassedly at Yu Ziyuan.

“Madam Yu, is there a way…I can send letters to Qinghe?”

Chapter Text

“Eldest Young Master, there is a letter for you from Yunmeng.”

Nie Mingjue looked up at the hurried servant. He held out a hand and received the letter. With his other hand, he easily held his little brother away from him. He shifted so that he was using his elbow to keep the child away as he pulled the envelope open.

Da-ge!” Nie Huaisang’s voice was sticky and whiny as he called out to his older brother.

“If you were a good child then da-ge wouldn’t have to hold you like this,” Nie Mingjue spoke absentmindedly as he kept his palm against Nie Huaisang’s forehead.

Nie Huaisang let out a huff and sat down angrily. He glared at Nie Mingjue and reached for the letter again, but a larger palm easily pushed his hand aside.

“Who do you know in Yunmeng?” Nie Huaisang stood from his seat and tried to take a peek.

Nie Mingjue easily pulled him back down and tapped the workbooks in front of him. “Finish this and I’ll let you read.”

Nie Huaisang puffed out his cheeks but settled back down. He looked bitterly at his older brother.

The contents of the letter were short and to the point. It included a brief introduction, asked how Nie Mingjue was, wrote one sentence about how the sender was (“good”) and the remainder of the letter was yet another thank you. Nie Mingjue read through the short letter several times and pinpointed the heart of the letter to the second sentence.

“How are you, Nie-gege?”

Nie Mingjue’s lips slowly curved into a smile. Nie Huaisang watched his brother and scooted closer again. “Da-ge, did you find me a sister-in-law while you were in Yunmeng?”

Nie Mingjue scoffed and pinched Nie Huaisang’s cheek. “Just who raised you? Father and I aren’t like this at all, yet your tiny brain is filled with all sorts of strange thoughts every day.”

“Hey!” Nie Huaisang slapped Nie Mingjue’s hand as he shrieked. “Help! Help! Someone’s trying to kill his own brother!”

As per usual, none of the servants even glanced over.

“Heartless, all of you,” Nie Huaisang settled back down with a huff.

“If you weren’t so dramatic all the time, they would actually pay attention to you,” Nie Mingjue said. He turned to one of the servants. “Bring me another brush and some paper as well as an envelope.”

“Yes, Eldest Young Master.”

Nie Huaisang held the brush in his pen and watched silently. “Who sent the letter?”

“A little friend.”

“…A little friend?” Nie Huaisang repeated the series of words with confusion. “Why are you caring about a child?”

“He’s smarter than you are,” Nie Mingjue said.

Despite knowing his brother was teasing him, Nie Huaisang still pouted indignantly. “How can that be? Bring him out! This young master will compete with him.”

“Stop acting like a peacock flaunting his feathers,” Nie Mingjue rubbed Nie Huaisang’s head again. “He’s a good child. About your age. I’ll find a chance to introduce you two. I think you’d benefit from having a friend like him.”

Nie Huaisang scrunched his nose. “Is he cute? I only make friends with good looking people.”

“I say, where did you get that mouth of yours?” Nie Mingjue clicked his tongue again.

“Life should be lived surrounded by beauty,” Nie Huaisang said with a glimmer in his eyes.

Nie Mingjue stared blankly at his brother. “You’re nine years old.”

“So?” Nie Huaisang tilted his head. “Isn’t it a good thing that I know what I want?”

Nie Mingjue rolled his eyes exaggeratedly and accepted the brush and paper the servants brought over. He pulled back his sleeve and carefully dipped the brush into his brother’s ink before composing his letter.

Nie Huaisang looked over and shook his head. “How horrendous.”

“So long as you can still read it,” Nie Mingjue ignored the quip Nie Huaisang made about his calligraphy.

Nie Huaisang had finished all his assigned work, but Nie Mingjue was still deliberating about his words. “What are you even thinking about? He barely wrote a page! Just write something casual and send it back.”

“What do you know?” Nie Mingjue scoffed. “He’s a sensitive child. If my words seem aggressive, he’ll think I dislike him and he won’t send letters again.”

“When have you ever cared about people’s feelings?” Nie Huaisang asked.

“Just because I don’t care about yours, doesn’t mean I don’t care about anyone else’s.”

Nie Huaisang sighed dramatically and raised his voice. “What’s the use of having an older brother? All they do is treat strangers as brothers and their own brothers as strangers!”

The servants nearby bowed their heads to hide their smiles.

“Making a mountain out of a mole hill again,” Nie Mingjue scoffed.

“Or could it be the poems are right? Those that are pitiful garner more sympathy,” Nie Huaisang said. He leaned closer to his brother. “Has your heart been moved?”

“He’s a child.”

“When he’s older you can…” Nie Huaisang tilted his chin.

“Whatever happens in the future is not for me to care about. If you’re so interested in him, then you go find him and fall in love with him,” Nie Mingjue was growing tired of his little brother’s nonsense.

“If you’re willing, then I’m willing. But if he grows up pretty, don’t blame me in the end. Hmph,” Nie Huaisang jumped back in time to avoid Nie Mingjue’s hands.

“Stop saying inappropriate things.”

“Fine, fine. I’ll stop,” Nie Huaisang sat back down and glanced at the letter. “Isn’t this just a diary?”

“He asked me how I was,” Nie Mingjue replied.

“So, you’re really telling him? Maybe it was a perfunctory question.”

“He wouldn’t send me a letter just to thank me again,” Nie Mingjue said. After writing a few more lines, he concluded by asking if something had happened. He carefully waved his hand and waited for the ink to dry before folding it up and slipping it into an envelope. He handed it to a servant to be delivered.

Nie Huaisang watched the letter he wanted to read get taken away. He reluctantly turned back to his brother. “What’s his name anyway?”

“His name is Meng Yao.”


Meng Yao sneezed.

“Yao-gege, are you feeling unwell?” Wei Ying asked in alarm.

“No, no,” Meng Yao sniffled. “I’m a bit allergic to dogs.”

Meng Yao’s allergies were actually quite mild. Although it was annoying, it never got to the point of bothersome. However, being trapped in a small space with three puppies the entire night made Meng Yao’s sinuses act up. His eyes were a bit puffy and watery today and he sneezed a lot more than normal.

“You are? How come I never knew?” Jiang Cheng asked in alarm.

“It’s not that big of a deal,” Meng Yao said.

He didn’t even realize that allergies can follow you across dimensions.

After sending a letter to Nie Mingjue, Meng Yao still felt a bit anxious. The more he thought about it, the more he doubted that he would be able to find a way to stop his father’s death. There was no way to stop Wen Ruohan’s envy, after all. Even if Meng Yao found a way to show the saber’s oddity before Sect Leader Nie used it, Wen Ruohan would just find another way to get his revenge on embarrassment that was not even caused by the Nie clan.

Meng Yao stayed up several nights restlessly. He asked Tongtong about its functions. Of course, interfering with the plot directly was out of its scope of activity.

“Don’t worry, Host. Even if Nie Mingjue’s father were really to die, it is still possible to achieve a happy ending!”

Meng Yao smiled bitterly. Naturally, he knew that. Death would happen no matter what, especially when they practiced such a dangerous way of cultivation. It was just delaying the process was all.

In The Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation, those who lost their parents all lost them young. Even if in ancient times, someone at fifteen and sixteen couldn’t be considered a child anymore, it went without saying that, until they got married, they would still heavily rely on their parents. And marriage wasn’t exactly a strong motif in this story. In this novel, parents and adults were worthless and useless other than acting as a catalyst for character growth and development.

Meng Yao felt that it was almost useless to save any parental figure at this rate. If he tried to save all of them, wouldn’t his hands be full? He couldn’t even do anything about Meng Shi.

[If Host is truly worried, at the time of Sect Leader Nie’s death, Host can just accompany Nie Mingjue.]

Meng Yao wanted to scoff. Why would he be worried about Nie Mingjue? He only had the thought to save the other’s father because he was kind enough to save his nominal mother.

“That has nothing to do with me,” Meng Yao stated coldly.

Despite these dismissive words, Meng Yao persistently continued writing letters to Nie Mingjue for the next year.

In that year, both Meng Yao and Wei Ying had grown healthier and fuller again. Meng Shi carefully brushed her hand through her son’s hair and smiled at the children across the table.

“Eat slower,” Meng Shi said softly.

“Mn! Auntie’s hawthorn cakes are the best!” Wei Ying said as he happily stuffed his face.

“Auntie just told you to eat slower, didn’t you hear?” Jiang Cheng swatted at Wei Ying.

Wei Ying swallowed his large bite and began to take small nibbles. The resentment directed at Jiang Cheng was evident.

Meng Shi looked back to her own son. “Writing to Young Master Nie again?”

“Mn,” Meng Yao carefully dragged the brush across and lifted it to take a look at his own writing.

“Yao-gege’s writing is really pretty,” Wei Ying said, his voice lowered to a whisper as if he were afraid of disturbing the characters resting on the page.

Jiang Cheng nodded. He had studied calligraphy for a few years himself, but his writing was still not as stable as Meng Yao’s.

Meng Yao smiled wordlessly. Of course, his writing was nice. Not only did he have Meng Shi to teach him and the original’s memory, he also wasn’t really an eleven-year-old child.

“What do you write to him anyway?” Wei Ying asked curiously as he stared blankly at the words he didn’t completely recognize.

“About life,” Meng Yao said as he began writing again.

Wei Ying gaped at Meng Yao. He felt that Meng Yao was quite an amazing person.

“I tell him what I’ve done in the time the letter has taken to get to me and he tells me the same,” Meng Yao explained.

“Like lovers.”

“Like—no,” Meng Yao looked at Wei Ying strangely. “No.”

“My mother said that when they were younger, she would always send letters to my father to…to…to court him,” Wei Ying said. He grinned. “My father was always embarrassed whenever my mother talked about it. His face would get as red as a hawthorn cake and he would tell her to stop.”

Meng Shi giggled. “Your father must have been shy.”

Wei Ying nodded happily. “He was! She would even tell me the contents of the letter. It sounded really romantic.”

He let out a soft sigh and chewed on the hawthorn cake bitterly. He glanced at Meng Yao’s letters. “I want to send letters to my sweetheart when I’m older.”

Jiang Cheng scoffed. “Practice your writing first. It looks like complete chicken scratch right now.”

“So, what if it looks like chicken scratch?! At least you can read it,” Wei Ying tilted his chin up defiantly.

“If your handwriting looks nicer, then the words will seem more sincere,” Meng Shi said.

“Really?” Wei Ying froze.

Meng Shi nodded. “Love poems are art, both visually and literarily. If you would like, I can teach you.”

Wei Ying looked at Meng Yao’s handwriting again and brushed his hands together. “Mn! I wanna learn!”

“A-Cheng, do you want to learn too?” Meng Shi looked to Jiang Cheng.

Jiang Cheng brushed his hands together and nodded obediently.

“You two go wash your hands first,” she paused. “I’ll go with you so the dogs don’t pounce.”

Wei Ying shuddered a bit. Although he had gotten used to the barking of dogs, his legs still weakened at the sight of them. He still felt he was doing much better. At least, now, he could watch them from a distance without wanting to wet himself. Jiang Cheng no longer badgered Wei Ying about being a scaredy cat. He had enough courage to try to overcome his fear, so Jiang Cheng felt it was enough.

Meng Yao placed the brush down and carefully fanned the letter. He smiled slightly when he glanced at Nie Mingjue’s letter and read it over once more. It was mainly complaints about his little brother, Huaisang. He spoke briefly, and fondly, of his father and the pranks they pulled on Huaisang just a few days before he received Meng Yao’s letter. The family of three was filled with warmth and happiness.

The soft smile entered Meng Shi’s eyes as she brought the two children back. She felt her heart constrict, but she said nothing as she sat down and began to teach the two children.

When night fell, a servant came to pick up Wei Ying and Jiang Cheng. Meng Yao stayed behind with Meng Shi and carefully took care of her needs until it was time for bed. Meng Shi brought Meng Yao to bed and tucked him in. She patted his arm rhythmically to lull him to sleep and slowly stopped.

Meng Yao paused and glanced back at Meng Shi. “Mother?”

“A-Yao, do you hate Mother?”

Meng Yao’s eyes widened. He shook his head. “No. Why?”

“For birthing you into this type of life. Not only do you not get to enjoy a comfortable childhood, you always have to take care of me and others. You must be tired.”

“I’m not,” Meng Yao sat up and looked at Meng Shi worriedly. “Mother, why are you suddenly talking about this?”

Meng Shi smiled bitterly. Even in the dim light provided by the full moon, Meng Yao could make out the redness in Meng Shi’s eyes.

“I just realized today that I’m not the best mother. I can’t even give you new clothes or new shoes,” Meng Shi said softly. “Today was the first time I saw you smile so sincerely in a long time.”

Meng Yao froze slightly. Hadn’t he always smiled? What did she mean by her words all of a sudden?

“To me, you’re already the best,” Meng Yao said as he hugged Meng Shi. “You don’t need to give me anything. You’re kind and patient with me. You don’t hit me. You always hug me and kiss me. You give me warm meals to eat. If I wake up from a nightmare, you’re always there to comfort me.”

Meng Yao felt his nose sour a little as his hold tightened on Meng Shi. “Mother, to me you’re already the best. You don’t need to be anymore.”

Growing up, Meng Yao hadn’t wanted much. Because of his birth mother, he had always disdained the riches of the world. The glamor of the entertainment world he had been invited into disgusted him. The people who tried to lure out his heart with money only gained his resentment. In the end, it was only sincerity and every day gestures of kindness that won him over. That was why, although he kept his distance, he never pushed away his roommate and the manager of that café. In his life, those had been the only two people who treated him sincerely.

But now, there was Meng Shi and the children of Lotus Pier. To say he wasn’t moved was a lie. To say he wasn’t attached was untrue. And hearing this woman, who taught Meng Yao what having a mother was like, to cry that she wasn’t good enough made Meng Yao truly resent the novel’s world for the first time.

Hearing the child’s sensible words, Meng Shi only grew sadder. She tightened her grip on Meng Yao and let out a shaky sigh.

“I’m sorry, A-Yao.”

“It’s already enough,” Meng Yao said softly. “It’s really…really already enough.”

Chapter Text

The letters stopped arriving. The gnawing feeling on Meng Yao’s heart grew day after day as he checked with the servants to make sure there really hadn’t been a letter. When news of Sect Leader Nie’s passing arrived, the first one Jiang Fengmian told was Meng Yao.

Meng Yao stood, stunned in place. He knew that it was going to happen soon, but it still didn’t feel real. Just a few weeks ago, Nie Mingjue had written about how his father had been tricked into eating spicy food by Nie Huaisang. Instead of getting angry, the man had just laughed as he tried to cool the heat in his mouth. Nie Mingjue had promised to bring Meng Yao over to meet him at some point (“Maybe when the flowers bloom”), but that chance would never come.

“Can…can I go to the funeral?” Meng Yao asked quietly.

“You can come with us. We have to pay our respects,” Jiang Fengmian said.

Meng Yao nodded slowly. He took a step back and walked out absentmindedly.

“Tongtong.”

[Yes, Host?]

“What’s Nie Mingjue’s happiness value?”

It had been four years since Meng Yao had transmigrated into this world. Not once had he ever brought up his mission. The things such as happiness values and chance at a happy ending were percentages and bars that Meng Yao didn’t so much as glance at. Being asked so suddenly, Tongtong wasn’t able to give an immediate response.

[Reporting to Host, currently it is at -10 points. Chance of a happy ending has decreased to 30%.]

“Why is it so low?” Meng Yao asked in alarm.

[This is because Nie Mingjue is currently having dark thoughts. But do not worry, Host. The chance of a happy ending is always fluctuating depending on the mood of the target. Once he accepts the death of his father, it will naturally rise up again.]

This did not comfort Meng Yao. Just what type of thoughts was Nie Mingjue having for it to drop to below the acceptable line?

In the next few days, Jiang Fengmian gained a new tail. Meng Yao followed him silently, but with obvious anticipation in his eyes. Because the funeral was not going to take place for another few days, Jiang Fengmian hadn’t been thinking about heading over earlier. However, seeing Meng Yao’s anxious expression every time he turned around, Jiang Fengmian finally conceded. He told Yu Ziyuan to watch over the sect as he took Meng Yao and a few other disciples to give his condolences to the new sect leader of the Qinghe Nie Sect.

When they arrived, Jiang Fengmian first went to an inn to book a room. Since they were early, they would have to wait outside for a bit. Meng Yao tugged on Jiang Fengmian’s sleeve.

“What’s wrong, A-Yao?”

“Can I go visit Ming-gege?” Meng Yao asked sweetly.

Jiang Fengmian frowned. “Young Master Nie is most likely very busy right now. It wouldn’t be proper of you to visit him.”

Meng Yao lowered his head as if he were thinking. “But…but he has a little brother, doesn’t he? If Ming-gege is busy, I can play with his little brother.”

Jiang Fengmian pursed his lips, but he was inevitably unable to convince Meng Yao. He ended up taking the child to the Unclean Realm. He was soon greeted by and old steward and was brought inside to wait. The servants were still courteous, despite busily setting up the funeral venue. Meng Yao watched in silence and felt a bit forming in his stomach.

“White is much more jarring than black,” Meng Yao noted.

In modern day, because of western influences, many funerals were black while weddings were white. White originally wasn’t a happy color. Now, set against this somber atmosphere, it seemed rather desolate.

After waiting for a few moments, Nie Mingjue stepped out. He wasn’t wearing the robes family members wore yet, but his clothes were white unlike his usual Qinghe Nie Sect uniform. His eyes were a veiny red, either from anger, tiredness, or sorrow. The bags beneath his eyes were rather prominent and he seemed to have slimmed down a lot. He no longer carried the sunniness that Meng Yao remembered from last year and, instead, seemed like a walking god of death.

“Sect Leader Jiang.”

Jiang Fengmian smiled awkwardly, as if unsure as to how to address Nie Mingjue.

“I have not been officially instated as the new sect leader yet,” Nie Mingjue said helpfully.

“Hello, Young Master Nie,” Jiang Fengmian had one hand on Meng Yao’s shoulder as he gently nudged him forward. “We apologize for coming early. You must be very busy. However, this child was worried about you.”

Nie Mingjue looked down. His eyes widened in surprise. He hadn’t noticed Meng Yao at first but now that he had, his gaze seemed to soften.

“Would it be alright if he stayed for a few days?” Jiang Fengmian asked. “He can keep the second young master entertained while you are busy.”

“Yes, that would be fine,” Nie Mingjue nodded.

“Then, apologies for the inconvenience.”

“It’s no inconvenience at all,” Nie Mingjue gently patted Meng Yao’s head.

Jiang Fengmian clasped his hands and left the somber household.

Meng Yao watched his retreating back. Only when Jiang Fengmian was far enough away did Meng Yao turn to the tired Nie Mingjue.

“Ming-gege, is there anything Meng Yao can help with?” he asked.

Nie Mingjue’s lips spread into a smile. He ruffled Meng Yao’s hair. “What can you help with? You’re so small, you can’t even lift anything.”

“I can help with a lot of things,” Meng Yao murmured in displeasure.

“Then, can you accompany me to eat lunch? I haven’t eaten yet,” Nie Mingjue said. He thought about it and added, “I can introduce you to my brother.”

Meng Yao nodded and followed Nie Mingjue. He kept his eyes forward and didn’t look around curiously.

“Should I arrange a room for you? Or will you go back to Sect Leader Jiang tonight?” Nie Mingjue asked.

Meng Yao looked up at Nie Mingjue. “Whatever is most convenient for Ming-gege.”

Nie Mingjue met Meng Yao’s gaze and smiled. “Just stay here then.”

Meng Yao nodded.

They soon reached the back gardens where lunch had been hastily set up. A child sat at the table with a dull, uninterested look in his eyes. When he heard footsteps, he looked up. A flash of curiosity passed through his eyes when he saw the other child dressed in purple. He looked at Nie Mingjue and then back at Meng Yao with a hint of excitement. He looked as if he wanted to run over, but refrained and, when Nie Mingjue and Meng Yao were close enough, he leaned forward.

Da-ge, who’s this?”

“This Meng Ya—”

“Meng Yao!” Nie Huaisang exclaimed. He stood and looked Meng Yao up and down before frowning. “How come you’re so small?”

“…I got my height from my mother,” Meng Yao said.

“Ah,” Nie Huaisang nodded in understanding. Women were usually shorter than men. “What are you doing here? Were you worried about my brother?”

Nie Mingjue nudged the two children onto a seat before settling down himself. Their household didn’t have a rule of not speaking while eating, just to not speak with your mouth full. He raised his chopsticks and began sorting the dishes into the two children’s bowls as they spoke.

“Mn,” Meng Yao answered honestly. He glanced at Nie Mingjue who appeared absentminded now that they had stopped moving.

“You were really worried about my brother?” Nie Huaisang’s voice rose, as if he were trying to catch Nie Mingjue’s attention, but the youth had other thoughts on his mind.

“I was,” Meng Yao said. He moved his chopsticks to pile food into Nie Mingjue’s bowl in an act of childish retaliation.

“You’re very nice,” Nie Huaisang said. He began to shove food into his mouth to keep his bowl from overflowing. Once the damage had been lessened, he turned back to Meng Yao. “You seem to like my brother a lot. Normally, people are scared of him because he looks like a big wolf. Aren’t you scared of him?”

Meng Yao gave Nie Mingjue a perfunctory glance. “He looks like a husky.”

“Husky?” Nie Huaisang glanced at his brother and looked him up and down, then turned back to Meng Yao. “Husky?”

Meng Yao hummed. “A type of dog.”

Huskies normally looked noble, but because of their stubbornness, they were rather disobedient and often looked coldly upon their owners. Not only that, they were high energy and became silly when they were too excited. Nie Mingjue was just like a husky. Silly, but noble.

Of course, Meng Yao would never say this to the man’s face, so he left it at that.

“Husky,” Nie Huaisang repeated. He glanced at his older brother again and bowed his head to quietly eat.

“Are you calling me a dog?” Nie Mingjue asked with a slight furrow in his brows.

“Wolves are dogs,” Meng Yao said. “They look so similar. They’re basically the same.”

Nie Mingjue frowned slightly, but couldn’t quite refute the child’s words.

Meng Yao took a few more bites and pointed his chopsticks at Nie Mingjue’s bowl. “If you don’t eat, things are going to spill out.”

Nie Mingjue began eating again.

“If my brother’s a husky, then what am I?” Nie Huaisang wondered to himself.

Meng Yao chewed silently as Nie Huaisang spaced out in his own world. After swallowing, Meng Yao spat out one word: “Pekingese.”

Nie Mingjue choked and began coughing. He set his bowl and chopsticks down and turned away from the table as the servants moved forward to pat his back and offer him tea.

Nie Huaisang saw his brother’s reaction and let out a bright, ringing laughter. He was not at all insulted and nodded in approval. “The Pekingese is such a noble dog breed. Of course, that’s what I would be.”

Nie Mingjue’s laughter escaped him as soon as he recovered. He held his forehead and shook his head as he looked at his little brother’s gloating reaction. Meng Yao smiled to himself, not at all realizing how proud he looked at having coaxed a laugh from Nie Mingjue.

“Stupid, he called you such a tiny dog, yet you’re still happy.”

“Didn’t Meng-xiong say that dogs are related to wolves? Even if I’m a tiny Pekingese, I’m still related to a wolf. What’s there to be picky about?” Nie Huaisang argued.

Meng Yao gave Nie Huaisang a thumbs up in his heart. So young, so already so good at arguing.

Nie Mingjue laughed again and finally turned to Meng Yao curiously. “Then what about you? Are you still a dog?”

“Me?” Meng Yao thought about it. “Mm…probably not. I don’t have enough energy.”

“Meng-xiong would a cat with long white fur,” Nie Huaisang nodded.

“I’d be a cat, but one that doesn’t look too elegant. One that’s orange with short hair,” Meng Yao amended.

“Why’s that?” Nie Mingjue asked.

“I’m not born for riches,” Meng Yao said. “But I am quite lazy at times. And I like sunbathing.”

Nie Mingjue wanted to beg to differ, but the words never arose from his mouth.

After eating lunch, Nie Huaisang happily tugged Meng Yao along to play. As for Nie Mingjue, he somberly returned to his duties. Meng Yao watched Nie Mingjue before turning to Nie Huaisang, who didn’t seem as energetic as a moment ago. He let out a sigh and sat down on the ground as he began to pick at some flowers.

Nie Huaisang pursed his lips and sat back with the flowers in his lap. He was silent as he fiddled with them. Meng Yao plucked several more flowers and found some twigs and grass before settling back down to weave them together. Nie Huaisang glanced over curiously and rolled over towards Meng Yao.

“What are you doing?”

“Making a flower crown,” Meng Yao said with a concentrated look on his face.

Nie Huaisang stared at him blankly and turned back to the flowers in his hands. “Where’d you learn to do this?”

The orphanage Meng Yao had been sent to was low on funding. It was the type of orphanage you would see in movies and think that they didn’t exist in real life. The director didn’t care for the children, the workers barely gave them a second glance. Funding was low and everyone there seemed as if they were just dragging through life. Since there was barely anything to eat, naturally there would be little to play with as well.

Because of this, Meng Yao had learned how to create things from the grass and leaves and flowers outside. They were crude and not well made, but the children always had fun playing with them.

“I just saw it once,” Meng Yao answered vaguely.

Once finished, Meng Yao placed it on Nie Huaisang’s head. As if already forgetting his sorrows, Nie Huaisang begged Meng Yao to teach him. As a result, an hour later, Nie Huaisang was able to make one that looked much nicer than the one Meng Yao made for Nie Huaisang.

Meng Yao touched his nose, a tad embarrassed.

“Let’s make one for Da-ge!” Nie Huaisang said excitedly as he placed the flower crown on Meng Yao’s head.

“You make it. If I make it, it’ll just look like a bird’s nest,” Meng Yao said.

“No! We have to make it together,” Nie Huaisang said persistently. He pulled Meng Yao’s hand over and handed him the flowers.

When Nie Mingjue merged from his study, he was informed that the two young masters were still awake. Because of Nie Huaisang’s explosive personality and the servants’ habitual pampering, no one had dared told Nie Huaisang to sleep. Nie Mingjue frowned and told the servant to bring him over.

For Nie Huaisang to stay up was one thing, but for Meng Yao to stay up this late was another. If he had been forced by his little brother, then he and his little brother needed to have a few words.

The bedroom was dimly lit by only a few candles. Nie Mingjue approached softly and listened to the whispers of the two boys before knocking lightly. The conversations inside froze. Soon, Nie Mingjue heard footsteps and watched as the door opened. Nie Huaisang smiled brilliantly at Nie Mingjue.

The two boys were already ready for bed, yet they were still up for some inexplainable reason.

“You two—”

Da-ge, come in! Yao-ge has something to give you.”

Meng Yao stared at Nie Huaisang. Obviously, it was the child who wanted to make it. Obviously, it was the child who wanted them to stay up. How come now it was suddenly Meng Yao who had a gift to give?

Meng Yao grabbed one of the better looking flower crowns and held it out to Nie Mingjue. “Th—”

“No, not that one!” Nie Huaisang sighed in exasperation. He took the one he made from Meng Yao’s hands and handed over one that Meng Yao made. He grinned proudly. “Da-ge, Yao-ge made this one!”

Meng Yao wanted to bury himself into the ground. He could only comfort himself by saying that he was currently a child. It didn’t matter. When they were all older, no one would remember this night anyway.

With this mindset, Meng Yao was able to shyly hand over the flower crown.

“This is what you were doing all day?” Nie Mingjue had been informed that the two children had spent the entire day in the garden.

“Mmhm! Do you like it?” Nie Huaisang asked with a bright grin.

Nie Mingjue looked at the crown in his hands and then glanced up towards Meng Yao’s bright red face. A small smile began to form on his face. He patted Nie Huaisang’s and Meng Yao’s heads. “Mn. I like it.”

Nie Huaisang’s eyes lit up upon seeing his brother’s smile. As if he were encouraged, he took Nie Mingjue’s hand. “Da-ge, let’s sleep together tonight, okay? Yao-ge already promised that we can sleep together. You sleep with us too!”

Nie Mingjue wanted to reject. He still had some things to do. The only reason he stepped out was solely because he wanted to check on his little brother. However, before he could reject, he felt another hand grip his sleev.e He looked over and found Meng Yao looking up at him.

“You need to rest,” Meng Yao said softly.

“Alright.”

Nie Mingjue was soon rushed out to get ready for bed. When he returned, the two boys were already laying down on the large bed. Nie Huaisang was mumbling incomprehensibly and Meng Yao was still listening to his nonsense with rapt attention. Nie Mingjue couldn’t help but smile again. He blew out all the candles and got into bed with them.

The bed was large enough to fit two full grown men. With a teenager and two boys, there was still a bit of space to spare. However, Nie Huaisang had horrible sleeping habits. Once he truly fell asleep, he managed to roll from between Nie Mingjue and Meng Yao, over to Nie Mingjue’s other side. Nie Mingjue could only scoot closer to Meng Yao to give his little brother more room.

He heard a soft chuckle beside him. Nie Mingjue glanced over at Meng Yao’s back. He tugged the covers a little higher and patted Meng Yao’s shoulder rhythmically a few times before pulling his hand back and closing his eyes to sleep.

Despite the warm covers and the heat radiating from beside him, the Meng Yao who was currently dreaming, felt that it was extremely cold.

He looked around in the darkness. The sun had just set completely, immersing the small apartment in darkness. The television flickered with the melodramatic dramas that tended to play around this time of night. Despite the winter chill, Meng Yao did not dare turn the heater on. He only pulled another jacket around himself and hugged the husky plush closer to his chest.

His stomach growled, but he didn’t have to check the fridge to know that there wasn’t food. That women never went shopping for groceries anyway. His eyes slowly trailed over to the door. The television had flickered off at some point, drowning the room in a loud silence. It filled his ears and threatened to strangle him slowly.

He wondered if he would be able to eat tonight. Sometimes, if she was in a good mood, she would bring home a hot, unneatened meal. When she wasn’t in a good mood, she’d bring home leftovers. But that was better than the nights when she didn’t come home at all.

Meng Yao’s fingers stroked the plushie in his arms as if it were a real dog. His chin rested gently atop his head as he curled in tighter on himself. After another few hours, he had the thought to sleep until he was awoken by the slamming door, but the slamming door arrived first.

A feeling of dread washed over him. He stood up. The blankets pooled around his feet. He wanted to say something, but the husky was ripped from his hand and thrown onto the couch. He felt a heavy hand land against the side of his head and he fell back, his hip slamming against the coffee table. The words from the woman’s mouth became garbled noise that mixed in with the ringing in his ears that became louder and louder.

He watched the hand come closer and braced himself for the next impact.

But it never came.

Instead, a warm hand pulled him closer, guiding him against a sturdy chest. Meng Yao awoke with a gasp. He could feel the comforting pats against his back, completely different from the touches that were in the dream he just had.

“You’re even quiet when you have nightmares,” Nie Mingjue murmured. “When A-Sang has nightmares, he screams and kicks…you just scrunch into a ball.”

The warm hand left his back and gently massaged the back of his neck. “If you curl in like that, you’ll have a crooked neck.”

“…Did I wake you?” Meng Yao asked softly. There was guilt in his voice.

“No,” Nie Mingjue said. “I couldn’t fall asleep.”

The short silence was filled with Nie Huaisang’s quiet snoring.

“There’s a lot,” Nie Mingjue murmured. He let out a soft sigh. “I thought I was prepared to be sect leader, but it turns out I know nothing.”

Meng Yao looked up at Nie Mingjue, whose expression was pulled taut. The emptiness in his eyes startled Meng Yao. He shifted so he wasn’t as firmly in Nie Mingjue’s embrace. He felt Nie Mingjue loosen his hold on him.

Nie Mingjue pulled himself together again and was about to coax Meng Yao to sleep when he felt a set of small fingers, lightly massaging his furrowed brows. He looked down at Meng Yao’s worried expression.

“Ming-gege is really smart,” Meng Yao said. “Even if it’s hard now, I think you can be an amazing sect leader.”

Nie Mingjue chuckled. “How well do you know me? How can you say so confidently that I’ll be an amazing sect leader?”

Meng Yao looked at Nie Mingjue seriously. “I just know you will.”

It was like that in the plot, so it had to be true. Although Nie Mingjue wasn’t the most outstanding, he quickly became the most powerful. He provided the people in his territory a safe environment to thrive and to grow. Despite not being all that wealthy, at least the people of Qinghe were happy. And, in the future, Chifeng-zun would become a well-respected figure in the cultivation realm. So much so that, when he made a call to action about the Qishan Wen Sect, many of the smaller sects had been moved.

In the future, Nie Mingjue would be powerful, but right now, he was a sixteen-year-old teen who had just lost his father. Even if Meng Yao knew he wouldn’t fall into a despair that would ruin his future prospects, the 30% chance of a happy ending and the -10 value still scared him.

A child’s blind confidence was different from an adult’s. With an adult, you know, at least, that they had evidence to back it up. It was because they saw the way you wielded the sword or heard the way you spoke about politics. However, with a child, it was just that—confidence. When a child believed in you, you would have to work to prove them right.

“Alright,” Nie Mingjue smiled gently. “Then, I’ll do as you say.”

Chapter Text

In a person’s life, they will see a lot of deaths. Some might have arrived sooner than it should while others came at just the right time. The world works on a timetable, but the people living on it will never know its secrets. As someone who has a rough estimate, this only separated Meng Yao further from this world. It didn’t offer him any respite. Late at night, he’ll wake up in a cold sweat when he thinks about Jiang Yanli and Jiang Fengmian and Yu Ziyuan. The latter two died cruelly, after their core was melted, while the former died protecting the loose threads that was left of her family.

At times, he will even be haunted by ferocious spirits of another world, coming to remind him of Wei Wuxian’s bitter end. In the darkness, he’ll feel as if gnarled hands had latched onto his soul, pulling it apart piece by piece until nothing was left—until his consciousness was only a fleeting speck of dust in the rotation of the universe.

After these nightmares, Meng Yao would be especially quiet. He never told anyone what these nightmares entailed, but those that knew him and knew him well would know that he had them often. After these nightmares, Meng Yao would sit quietly beside the trio of Lotus Pier and watch them with a set of detached eyes. These pair of eyes seemed to see right through them, yet see nothing at all.

At first, Jiang Fengmian and Yu Ziyuan had questioned Meng Yao and asked him what was wrong, but as usual, Meng Yao failed to form a proper answer. As months trailed to years, the two adults eventually forgot to care. It was as normal as Meng Yao staying far away from water now.

In nights when it was especially quiet, Meng Shi would wake up to find Meng Yao staring blankly at the ceiling. When she asked what was wrong, he would only smile and tell her not to worry. And that was all she could do.

As the time between the present day and when Nie Mingjue’s father passed grew longer and longer, the letters exchanged between the two of them soon fell down to once every several months. Nie Mingjue had become busy. He was no longer the carefree teenager that was able to respond to everything quickly. Despite putting Meng Yao’s letters as a priority, he still had things that he must deal with before his own feelings.

Eventually, Meng Yao became busy as well.

Between cultivating, learning martial arts, and attending to Jiang Yanli, Jiang Cheng, and Wei Wuxian, Meng Shi had mysteriously fallen sick. Several doctors had been invited to see her, but they all wrote it off as a common cold. None were able to give him a proper explanation.

Meng Yao became more reticent.

“A-Yao, I’m fine,” Meng Shi said reassuringly. “You don’t have to come visit me every day. I know you’re busy as well.”

Now thirteen, the child in front of her had grown quite a bit. Before he had been far too skinny. Every day, there seemed to be a new bruise on his face. His hair was always fried at the ends, and despite the bright, childish look in his eyes, there was already a hint of maturity between his brows. Now, he had grown much taller. He was no longer as skinny. His hair was silky and healthy, but his smiles were no longer as bright. His eyes were always hidden in a fog of wariness. Whenever he looked at Meng Shi, she could only see his barely hidden sadness.

“I like spending time with Mother,” Meng Yao replied honestly.

Whether it was because Meng Yao sometimes craved the pastries Meng Shi used to bake, or whether he still cherished the warm way Meng Shi stroked his head, he still enjoyed being around her. He didn’t mind running back and forth. In fact, this type of labor helped him sleep at night anyway.

Meng Shi pursed her lips and watched as Meng Yao took the basin of laundry to hang up. “A-Yao.”

Meng Yao paused by the door and turned back with a smile. “What’s wrong?”

“You really aren’t curious about your father?”

It was this topic again. Since Meng Shi had found out she was sick and would most likely not recover, she would bring up this “father” every now and again. However, Meng Yao had made it clear from the very start that he would have none of it.

“I don’t have a father. I only have Mother,” Meng Yao repeated.

A hurt flashed through Meng Shi’s eyes.

Meng Yao chose to ignore it and stepped out into the small courtyard.

[Host is not going to see Jin Guangshan?]

Meng Yao smirked. “And what? Get kicked down the stairs? No thank you. I hope my affinity with the staircase ended with that last kick I received a few years ago. Besides, I’m not a masochist. Why should I dive in head first when I just know I’m going to be insulted?”

[Then, the plot…]

“We don’t need Jin Guangyao’s plot. I’m sure my hands will be full whether I charge in to become a villain or not. Isn’t there still the Wen Sect? And there’s also that Xue Yang I haven’t forgotten about.”

Ideally, Meng Yao would have intercepted and found Xue Yang before he had lost his pinky. However, he was still a child. There would be another two years before Meng Yao could move about freely. Once he turned fifteen, he’ll choose to see the world. This way, he can find Xue Yang and he could also help Lan Xichen.

He had wanted to adhere to his original plan of ignoring Lan Xichen, but after thinking about it, it was a bit too risky. Lan Xichen wasn’t a main character. In this world where the protagonist halo was the strongest, and everyone else was basically cannon fodder, Lan Xichen had a much higher chance of dying if Meng Yao removed the clearest route to Lan Xichen’s safety. And if Lan Xichen died, Meng Yao would have to follow him to the grave.

No matter what, his two targets had to at least outlive their original lifespans—and to do so happily. That was the rule set by the system. If they died before the full plot ended, Meng Yao’s mission was considered a failure, no matter how happy they had been just before they died.

“Even if it’s her last wish, I won’t follow it,” Meng Yao said. “The main reason she had wanted Jin Guangyao to find him in the first place was for her son to live a better life. Aren’t I living perfectly fine now? If she keeps insisting, I’ll reason with her. Jin Guangshan isn’t anything good at any rate.”

When Meng Yao reentered the room, he saw Meng Shi hastily wipe her tears. His steps slowed.

[…Host, you’re unfilial.]

“Shut up,” Meng Yao moved towards Meng Shi and sat down in front of her. He unhurriedly took her hands. “Mother…”

“I know,” Meng Shi sniffled. “You don’t like your father because he left us for so long. But trust me, he really is a good—”

“Who is he?” Meng Yao asked, despite already knowing.

“…Jin Guangshan.”

Meng Yao’s expression tightened. “Then I refuse. I don’t need a father like him.”

“A-Yao—”

“Mother, you don’t know this because you aren’t apart of the cultivation world, but Jin Guangshan isn’t a good person,” Meng Yao said with a clenched jaw. “He’s from a bright and prominent sect, but he doesn’t know how to handle himself with a shred of propriety. He’s already married and he has a son about my age. What kind of good person would cheat on his wife?”

“A man who has a few wives and concubines isn’t uncommon,” Meng Shi said.

Meng Yao’s expression morphed. “Having them pass through the door and giving them a title is one thing, but that’s not what he’s doing! Mother, if he truly loved you, he wouldn’t have left you in such a place. If he loved you, he wouldn’t have made you wait thirteen years without coming back to see you even once. Mother, wake up a bit, he’s not my father! He’s just some scoundrel that cheated you of your heart.”

The silence in the small house was heavy. Meng Shi pulled her hands away from Meng Yao’s. “I’m not feeling well. You leave first. I’ll rest.”

Meng Yao felt as if his heart had been squeezed. “Mother—”

“I don’t want to talk right now.”

Meng Yao stared at Meng Shi a moment longer before standing. He bowed his head, but didn’t leave quite yet. He went into the kitchen, brewed the medicine and made a few dishes. Only when all was done, did he leave without another word.

He pushed open the door and glanced to the side.

Wei Wuxian looked up at Meng Yao with a sheepish smile. He waited until Meng Yao had closed the door before he walked over. Wordlessly, the two boys departed down the dirt path back into the city.

“How much did you hear?” Meng Yao asked.

“…Um…enough to be considered a target to silence,” Wei Wuxian said. He glanced at Meng Yao, but didn’t see his usual smile. He lowered his head and brushed his finger against his nose. “This…Yao-ge, you didn’t seem too surprised.”

“Since young, Mother put special emphasis on Lanling Jin Sect whenever she taught me about the sects. I’ve long guessed it was him or someone closer to him,” Meng Yao said.

Wei Wuxian hummed in understanding. “So, you aren’t…?”

“My mother single handedly raised me since I was young and I’ve never seen even a shadow of that man. Why would I run to him now and admit I’m his son?” Meng Yao smiled viciously. “A-Xian, you’re smart. If someone who indulged in frolic and wealth day in and day out suddenly had a random child walk over to him and tell him he’s his son, would he just accept it?

“Not only that, I’m not a child of a respectable family,” Meng Yao said. “I’m just the son of a prostitute.”

Wei Wuxian pursed his lips, unable to find an argument within him. In fact, there was nothing to argue. Wei Wuxian already had a poor impression of the Lanling Jin Sect. His shijie and their young master were affianced, yet the young master always acted rather presumptuous.

A sect that could churn out a young master that acted that spoiled was enough to convince Wei Wuxian that none of them could possibly be that great.

“That’s fine! You don’t need to be a part of the Jin Sect. You’re a part of our Yunmeng Jiang Sect,” Wei Wuxian smiled. He threw an arm over Meng Yao’s shoulder. The boy was already taller than Meng Yao by a bit. “You’ll forever be our da-shixiong.”

“There’s no such thing as forever in this world,” though Meng Yao showed a small smile on his face.

“If there isn’t such a thing as forever, then I’ll make it!” Wei Wuxian said. He proudly puffed out his chest. “I’ll make it so that forever is possible at Lotus Pier. It’ll be a place where we can always be friends, where we can always eat whatever we want and drink whatever we want, and where we can feel safe and at home. Every new year, there will be lanterns above the pier, and every holiday, there will be a big gathering!”

“As expected of the protagonist,” Meng Yao sighed softly.

“Pro—huh?” Wei Wuxian raised an eyebrow.

“You’re still far too naïve. Too young,” Meng Yao sighed emotionally as he walked ahead.

Wei Wuxian let out a light scoff and threw his arm over Meng Yao’s shoulder again. “Yao-ge, I only call you ge because you take care of us so much. Don’t forget, you’re only a few months older than me!”

“But when I reach fifteen, I’ll still be fifteen for a few months longer than you. By that same logic, when I was born, there was a few months I was breathing before you were out of the womb, so it’s justified that you call me ge,” Meng Yao said.

“Wh—what sort of reasoning is this?!”

“Twisted reasoning,” Meng Yao said righteously.

Wei Wuxian couldn’t hold back his laughter upon seeing Meng Yao’s serious expression.

“What are you laughing at? Let me laugh too,” Jiang Cheng pounced on the two boys and wedged himself in between them.

“Oh, then by that reason, Jiang Cheng should call me Xian-ge!”

“Hah? What sort of nonsense are you two spouting?” Jiang Cheng froze, suddenly feeling as if he was at a disadvantage.

“I’m older than you by a few days, so you should call me ge.”

“What? No way. A few pity days and you want me to call you ge? You sure have beautiful dreams,” Jiang Cheng scoffed.

“I have more life experience anyway. You wouldn’t miss out if you called me ge,” Wei Wuxian grinned.

“Scram, scram, scram! Who wants to call you ge?” Jiang Cheng spat out irritably. He removed his arm from Wei Wuxian and leaned towards Meng Yao. “The only person I’ll call ge in this lifetime is Yao-ge.”

“Ah, that hurts! I’m at least your shixiong, aren’t I?”

Shixiong and ge are different. Isn’t that right Da-shixiong,” Jiang Cheng turned to Meng Yao for affirmation.

Meng Yao thought about it and found that it could be as Jiang Cheng said as well, so he slowly began to nod.

“See!”

“Yao-ge!”

“Alright, alright. Stop arguing, you two. My head is starting to hurt,” Meng Yao waved down the two enthusiastic twelve-year-olds.

After returning to the sect, a servant approached Meng Yao and handed over a letter from the Unclean Realm. Meng Yao’s eyes widened. He pulled away from the two boys and stepped back. “I’m going to go take care of this first! You two play by yourselves!”

Watching Meng Yao run off, Wei Wuxian sighed with emotion. “Another love letter.”

“…Is there a hole in your brain? That’s from Chifeng-zun.”

“So?”

“Chifeng-zun is a man!”

“So, what? Man or woman, they’re both good. As long as you like them, just like them,” Wei Wuxian shrugged suavely and began to walk away with his arms pillowing his head.

Jiang Cheng clicked his tongue and ran after Wei Wuxian with the heart to lecture him on his frivolous words.

On the other side, Meng Yao had entered his room and closed the door behind him. He sat down at his desk and opened the envelope. He spread the letter out on his desk as he began to grind the ink. His eyes trailed down the powerfully written words.

“His handwriting’s gotten better again,” Meng Yao noted with a small chuckle.

Although Nie Mingjue had increasingly less time to write, his letters were never sparse. This one had four pages to it, all documenting every annoyance he had run into the past few months. The focal point of these letters were always the sect, the people, and his brother. There were rarely about himself and what he had done, but Meng Yao didn’t mind. It was most likely more interesting to read about other things anyway.

Today’s letter especially focused on Nie Huaisang, the boy who was the same age as Meng Yao. Most of it questioned where he went wrong. He had heeded Meng Yao’s advice of being soft rather than hard, yet Nie Huaisang still dodged all responsibilities as if he were avoiding an emperor’s cup of poisoned wine. Nie Mingjue was at his wit’s end and finally just decided to send his unruly brother to Gusu, where Lan Xichen and his uncle, Lan Qiren, could watch over the child.

Meng Yao softly shook his head. Even in this life where Meng Yao tried to help him, Nie Huaisang still couldn’t escape the fate of being send to Gusu.

Upon finishing, Meng Yao lifted his brother and wrote back an appropriate response. He said that Nie Huaisang was still young, there was nothing wrong with letting him live as a pampered young master for a few more years. He also made sure to remind Nie Mingjue to take care of himself repeatedly. Do not drink too much alcohol, do not cultivate for too long, do not use your saber for too long, do not strain yourself and rest. This was how Meng Yao ended most of his letters. He sat back and looked at it with satisfaction. He glanced at the letter again and his eyes focused on the words “You’ve only been reading my woes, but you haven’t told me anything about yourself recently. How are you?”

Meng Yao scratched his cheek. He wrote some words down. “I’m fine. There isn’t really much to say, since my life is so mundane. If there is something, I suppose I would say that my mother—”

Meng Yao’s brush stopped. He had already written the word “mother” without realizing it. He hesitated before continuing.

“My mother wants me to find my father, but who would want to bother with such scum? It isn’t a big deal, but she has been a bit unhappy with me recently. It will blow over soon.”

[Host, you aren’t going to tell him?]

“I’m the one that’s here to make him happy and give him a good ending, not the other way around,” Meng Yao said as he wrote his name. He fanned the pages. “He doesn’t need to know about my personal business.”

Tongtong deflated despite itself. And here it thought that Meng Yao had developed genuine feelings for a person. It turns out it had just been tricking itself the past two years.

The pages were folded neatly and slipped into an envelope. He brought it out to the post and handed it to a disciple who was in charge of sending letters.

“Qinghe again?” the disciple looked up at Meng Yao with a suggestive wiggle of his brows. “Are they love letters, Da-shixiong.”

“What love letters? I’m not even fifteen yet. I don’t have the mind to pay attention to things like love,” Meng Yao tossed his hair over his shoulder with disdain before walking away from the slightly older boy.

When night fell, Meng Yao prepared for bed once more.

He stared blankly up at the ceiling for a while, as he usually did, and eventually closed his eyes.

Thirteen. He had until his next birthday before Meng Shi would leave him. Then, he would just be another orphan once again.

Chapter Text

It took several days before Meng Shi was pulled from her depressed stupor. She hated to admit that Meng Yao was right, so she didn’t say anything. However, she never brought up the issue of Jin Guangshan again.

The seasons flew past in the blink of an eye. The woman who was as beautiful as a luminous pearl slowly faded each day. It was harder for her to move and every breath she took was laborious, even when she was laying in bed. In the last days of her life, she only showed Meng Yao soft smiles and spoke gentle words. She hugged him as tight as she could and sometimes, she would look upon him longingly. Meng Yao pretended as if he saw none of that, only going about his business the same as always.

When he woke up one morning, the body beside him had already cooled. Meng Yao sat up calmly and looked at Meng Shi.

“When did she pass away?” Meng Yao asked.

[…Late last night.]

“Oh,” Meng Yao stared at her. There was a soft smile on the edge of her lips. If it weren’t for her lack of breath, one may even believe she was still sleeping.

Meng Yao sat still for an hour as the sun pulled further into the sky. When he got up, he went to handle the procedures to arrange a funeral without much expression on his face. When he returned to Lotus Pier, he requested a few days trip away.

Yu Ziyuan raised an eyebrow. “Is your mother’s condition worsening? We can try and hire another doctor.”

Meng Yao smiled and shook his head. “Thank you for Madam Yu’s kindness, but there’s no need. I just need a few days to handle the funeral procedures.”

Yu Ziyuan’s movements stopped. Jiang Fengmian looked up at Meng Yao and Jiang Yanli froze as well.

“She…Madam Meng…”

“Last night. She passed away rather peacefully, I think. I wasn’t even awoken,” Meng Yao laughed softly, though there was no mirth in his eyes nor on his face. “I apologize for any trouble my absence may bring.”

“Silly child, why are you talking about that right now?” Jiang Fengmian stood. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” Meng Yao said. “She was quite happy when she died. At least she had a few years of peace.”

Meng Yao bowed his head to the three members of the Jiang family and left Lotus Pier. His retreating form did not betray any sadness. However, several days passed, and nothing was heard of from Meng Yao.

[Host…]

“I’m fine. Aren’t I just packing up for a journey?” Meng Yao chuckled. “Besides, she wasn’t my real mother. Even when my real mother died, I didn’t cry.”

Meng Shi had outlived her life in the novel by one year. Now, Meng Yao had turned fifteen. The previous years, he had spent his birthday with Meng Shi and the children, but this year he spent it arranging Meng Shi’s headstone.

[Host, you’re leaving just like this?]

“Otherwise?” Meng Yao questioned. “Lotus Pier can flourish without me. I still have Xue Yang to worry about.”

[If Host leaves, then Host cannot participate in the Cloud Recesses arc. There’s a lot of rewards.]

Meng Yao thought for a moment and hummed. “Isn’t that next year? I’ll come back in time.”

Tongtong fell silent and acquiesced as it watched Meng Yao clean up the house.

Meng Yao took another week to sell the house. What remained of his relationship with Meng Shi was represented in a few set of her most worn clothes and her most beloved jewelry. Upon returning to Lotus Pier, Meng Yao carefully hid away Meng Shi’s things and went to find Jiang Fengmian and Yu Ziyuan.

“I think I should go explore the world,” Meng Yao declared. The couple stared at Meng Yao blankly. “I’m already fifteen. It should be fine, right?”

“You’re already all packed up,” Yu Ziyuan said. “Can we say no?”

“Of course, you can,” Meng Yao smiled gently.

Jiang Fengmian and Yu Ziyuan glanced at each other before looking back at Meng Yao. The youth was not wearing the Yunmeng Jiang Sect uniform but was, instead, wearing white robes. He carried a bag over his shoulder. Within his wide sleeves, wrapped around his wrist, peaked out the hilt of his soft sword. Standing like this, the couple had the illusion that the youth before them had already grown up without them noticing in the slightest. Or, perhaps, he had always been this mature and this sensible.

“Fine. Do whatever you want,” Yu Ziyuan grumbled.

“Remember to contact us if you ever need anything,” Jiang Fengmian reminded.

“Of course. I just want to go out and see the world a bit. I will return in a year’s time,” Meng Yao reassured them.

After settling his business there, he went to find that Jiang siblings and Wei Wuxian. The trio looked up apprehensively upon his arrival. Their gazes fell on the bag on his shoulder.

“You’re leaving?” Wei Wuxian was the first to break the silence.

“Mn. For a year,” Meng Yao patted Wei Wuxian’s shoulder. “You be the da-shixiong while I’m gone, okay?”

“Where are you going?” Wei Wuxian stood. “Let’s go together! We can treat it as a learning experience.”

Meng Yao chuckled and gently pulled Wei Wuxian’s hand away. “Even if I allow it, I doubt Madam Yu will let you come.”

“Why’s that?” Wei Wuxian grumbled as he scratched his nose.

“Where are you planning on going?” Jiang Cheng asked. Although he wasn’t as enthusiastic as Wei Wuxian, anyone could see that he was concerned.

“Around. I haven’t been out of Yunmeng before, so I’ll go visit various places,” Meng Yao shrugged casually. “It’s about time I get to see the world.”

“Are you going to go to Lanling?” Wei Wuxian asked.

Up to this point, only Wei Wuxian knew who Meng Yao’s father was.

“Maybe. Or not,” Meng Yao gave Wei Wuxian a subtle look on his last words.

Wei Wuxian nodded in understanding.

“Have you packed enough clothing? When are you returning?” Jiang Yanli asked concernedly.

“In a year. I’ll be back the first month,” Meng Yao smiled. He looked at the three of them. “There’s no need to worry about me. Aren’t I the best at fighting?”

“Yao-ge is amazing!” Wei Wuxian agreed. “You work so hard, how can you not be?”

“But we’re not concerned about your safety. More…that we’re going to miss you,” Jiang Cheng amended his words half way through.

Meng Yao knew what Jiang Cheng really wanted to say, but was too lazy to expose him. After passing a few more reassuring words to them, he decided to write one last letter to Nie Mingjue. Even if their communication had grown sparse, Meng Yao didn’t feel comfortable at the thought that Nie Mingjue might worry about him for more than a few months.

The letter’s contents were simple, saying that he would be traveling now that he was old enough and to not send anymore letters.

Meng Yao sealed the letter into an envelope and passed it over to the disciple managing the post. After making sure everything was in place and he had everything he needed, Meng Yao got on his sword and left Lotus Pier.

He headed straight for Yueyang.

The trip took less than two days with Meng Yao sleeping in forests and taking shelter in caves along the way. As he traveled, Meng Yao instantly felt invigorated. His first eight years in this world were filled with mundane things, and he had to even act as people’s servants for a period of time. Although he had experienced the magic of this world when he first started cultivating, and he had felt a bit heroic while learning how to fight, it was only now—while he was flying through the air and sleeping in caves—that he truly felt the novelty of being in a xianxia novel.

“This is really cool,” Meng Yao admitted as he landed his sword smoothly. He flicked his wrist and the soft sword wrapped around his wrist once again. “Did you see that? Wasn’t that awesome?”

Tongtong gleefully sent out a few pixelated fireworks to express its excitement.

“This sword was also a good choice,” Meng Yao happily stroked the hilt of his sword. “Good thing you spotted it Tongtong. I bet never in a million years would anyone have thought to use a soft sword with the Jiang’s cultivation technique.”

[According to my calculations, Host, the soft sword both suits yours and Jin Guangyao’s personalities well.]

As stated before, it was soft, which allowed for the wielder’s flexible movements. Not only that, this sword just so happened to be similar Hensheng, the one Jin Guangyao wielded in the novel. It was made of a sturdy material that could easily cut through rocks with little effort exerted by the wielder. Not only that, the sword had the ability to wrap around objects, crushing them with just a flick of the wrist. As for what it could do to spirits, corpses, and humans…well, cutting them up wouldn’t take much more effort either.

Unlike Jin Guangyao, however, the swords name was not “Hensheng” but “Líhèn (离恨)”—the sorrow in parting.

“Tongtong, I don’t know if you’re trying to insult me or if you’re trying to compliment me,” Meng Yao let out an emotional sigh as he made his way towards the dimly lit city by foot.

[It’s a compliment. The only difference is that Host is much stronger.]

“Oh? I’m stronger?” Meng Yao chuckled. “I don’t know. If I lost the only thing I had and was repeatedly shoved into the mire by people I thought I could trust, perhaps I would also lose all rationality and strive only for power.”

Tongtong fell silent. [Is that so?]

Meng Yao hummed. “Think about it, wasn’t Jin Guangyao like me before?”

[But Host’s life experiences can be considered just as bad. That’s why the celestial system picked Host—because you two were the most compatible.]

Meng Yao chuckled. “Another jab, huh?”

[It’s the truth.]

“From what I’ve observed, Jin Guangyao is just a me from another universe. I wouldn’t be surprised if our experiences truly our similar, but I think I was luckier than him. And he had it worse than me,” Meng Yao said.

[Why is that?]

“Why?” Meng Yao looked up at the starry night sky. “Since I was young, I already knew that humans aren’t anything worth trusting. All they do is lie and cheat—there’s only greed and self-preservation on their minds. But Jin Guangyao had Meng Shi and Sisi to protect him. Later, even though he was looked down on, he still found Lan Xichen. And then there was also Nie Mingjue, who was willing to make an effort to be friends with someone like him.”

Meng Yao paused as he continued to walk in the darkness alone. “In fact, Jin Guangyao was extremely lucky. It’s just a shame that he had been too obsessed in gaining his father’s acknowledgement. Otherwise, he could have eventually lived a decent life.”

Meng Yao rubbed at his eyes and yawned. “Tongtong, do you see any caves nearby? It’s not going to rain, is it? I can probably just sleep outside otherwise.”

[If Host continues down this path, there will eventually be a cave to the left.]

“Tongtong is still the best,” Meng Yao let out a bright laugh and continued down the same path.

He allowed the conversation topic to meander as he began to think about something else, however their conversation was cut short by a loud scream.

Meng Yao’s brows furrowed. His hand reached for the hilt of his sword and he flew towards the direction of the noise. The sword left his arm. He managed to block a hit from the fierce corpse. He sent his spiritual energy through his sword and allowed it to wrap around the creature’s neck. In the next second, the sword was torn away and directly pierced the chest of the oncoming monster. He pulled his sword out and gave a neat kick as he flew into the air. His sword wrapped around the neck of the last fierce corpse and severed it cleanly.

He landed on the ground softly, the wind carrying away the fallen leaves beside him. He looked up and jogged over to the travelers.

“Are you all okay?” Meng Yao asked as he returned his sword to his sleeve.

“We’re okay,” the oldest of the group knelt down and bowed his head to the ground multiple times. “Thank you, daozhang for saving us!”

His group echoed the old man’s sentiment. Meng Yao quickly dismissed them and helped the elderly stand up. He frowned. “Why are you all out here in the middle of the night? It’s dangerous.”

“We were traveling back to Yueyang when night fell. We came here to seek shelter, but didn’t realize that there would be monsters nearby,” one of the younger men informed Meng Yao.

“It was a good thing daozhang was here, or else we would all have died,” the old man said emotionally.

Meng Yao looked around for any other trace of resentful energy. Upon deciding that it was safe enough, Meng Yao helped the group into the cave and settled in for the night.

When morning came, Meng Yao helped the group the rest of the way to Yueyang. The men, who had been transporting a batch of medicine, were extremely grateful.

“Young Master Meng, will you be staying in Yueyang for a spell? If so, I can get you a discount at a nearby inn. My friend works there and is extremely close with the owner.”

They had originally intended to offer up their own homes, but after seeing how distant Meng Yao acted during their travels, it felt inappropriate to do so.

Meng Yao smiled at the offer and readily agreed.

After getting himself a room at the inn, Meng Yao happily stretched out on the bed and let out a soft sigh. Yueyang wasn’t big in the slightest. It was, in fact, a little smaller than Yunmeng. However, no matter the size, it would always be difficult to find a person without knowing where they lived or how they even looked like. All Meng Yao had was a name and he wasn’t even sure if Xue Yang was still in Yueyang at this point.

From the plot, Meng Yao could infer that Jin Guangyao had met Xue Yang perhaps during his time at Qishan. Xue Yang was said to be a ruthless teenager when he had killed the Yueyang Chang Sect, so he was most likely no more than ten years old at this moment.

A ten-year-old child—where could he possibly be?

[Perhaps around toy…stalls.]

Even before Tongtong finished its sentence, it felt unintelligent. Meng Yao didn’t fault it though and let out a sigh. “Maybe. If our little Yangyang is infamous enough, maybe we’ll get a lead. If not, I’ll have to travel between and around Qishan and Yueyang to find him.”

[Host, is it really that important to find him? In fact, he had nothing to do with the main plot. If he never meets Jin Guangyao, he most likely wouldn’t even have the ability to kill the members of the Chang clan.]

“You think so?” Meng Yao’s eyes flashed imperceptibly. “I think otherwise.”

Many readers and fans considered Xue Yang a poor imitation of Wei Wuxian, but Meng Yao didn’t feel that way. Xue Yang, a mini villain, was indeed a foil to Wei Wuxian, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t intelligent. His character settings was to be cruel and vicious. He felt nothing and understood less about emotions.

In this xianxia novel, demonic cultivation was something developed and made popular by Wei Wuxian, but Meng Yao did not doubt that Xue Yang would have the capabilities to follow in Wei Wuxian’s footsteps. But it wouldn’t be for survival, it would be for pleasure.

“If I don’t pick him up, what if he runs into Wen Ruohan’s hands?”

[By the time he’s old enough, Wen Ruohan should already be dead.]

“That’s the novel, this is reality. How much can we really rely on the book anyway? Not only are there no timelines for anything, even the ages of the people and the locations of these cities in reference to each other are ambiguous as hell.”

[Does Host want information? The author has done several interviews.]

“Forget it. Like I said, that’s their imagination—their novel. But this is reality. Not only that, it’s an alternate reality to the original novel, meaning anything can happen or change. I’m just saying that treating the novel as the gospel truth will lead to my demise sooner or later.”

Tongtong found what Meng Yao said to be reasonable. It added a few more admiration points for Meng Yao in its data. It had never met a host chosen for a low-level world that was this aware. Usually, they were silly and stupid—that was why they were in a low-level world in the first place.

But even with this in mind, Meng Yao treated his time in Yueyang as a vacation. His eyes observed everything like a hawk. Although his outer appearance was calm, only Tongtong knew how much he screamed and shouted. It was only now that Tongtong learned that Meng Yao really liked historical dramas back in the 21st century. The realistic architecture, the clothes that the people wore, even the long hair that got in his way was endlessly fascinating.

It was only now that Tongtong could see a hint of the twenty-year-old Meng Yao that he usually hid so deeply.

“I need to earn more money,” Meng Yao said seriously. The words cut through Tongtong’s thoughts.

[Why is that, Host?]

“There’s so much food I want to try, but I still need money to rent rooms,” Meng Yao sighed. He reached for his waist and froze. He turned around rapidly and his gaze fell on a little ten year old boy.

[Ding. Congratulations Host. You have encountered character: Xue Yang. Character information is currently being downloaded. Please do not interrupt the process.]

Meng Yao’s legs were long enough to cover a large expanse of area as he walked. With a bit of a sprint, he managed to catch onto the child’s arm and give him a tug backwards. When the kid looked back, Meng Yao only had one thought: What a cute child.

However, the cute child didn’t look kindly upon Meng Yao. He opened his mouth and began crying. The crowd around them stilled and they looked at Meng Yao strangely.

“Let go of me! I don’t want to go with you!” the child began to bawl. “I don’t want to be sold off!”

Meng Yao stared at Xue Yang, completely stunned. Where was the innocent child who only wanted candy? Where was the bloodthirsty murderer? This was neither! This was an impish, impudent little thief!

“I…” Meng Yao appeared at a loss. If it had been anyone who looked uglier, perhaps the people would have already pounced on him, but because of Meng Yao’s elegant looks, they hesitated. He cleared his throat awkwardly. His smile was a bit like a grimace. He turned to everyone and awkwardly bowed. “There seems to have been a mistake. Sorry, my little brother is upset at me for not letting him eat anymore candy. My apologies.”

The crowd all hummed. Few people found it amusing while a few others lingered behind to make sure it was true.

Xue Yang glanced at Meng Yao with narrowed eyes. He let out a harrumph and turned to leave, but Meng Yao grabbed him by the scruff of his clothes and held onto him. “You took my wallet.”

“I took your wallet?” Xue Yang threw a glare over his shoulder as he scrambled to get Meng Yao’s hands off. “Where’s your evidence? Did you see me?”

“No, but I know it was you,” Meng Yao said. “You’re the only short one around here—if it wasn’t you, who else had brushed against my leg like that.”

Xue Yang flailed. “You’re short! Your entire family’s short!”

“Oh. How did you know?” Meng Yao gasped, as if truly surprised. However, he had already grabbed Xue Yang by the waist and began to walk away with him.

“Let go of me! Help! There’s a kidnapping!”

Meng Yao rolled his eyes. The casual way he was treating the situation made people feel as if it was an elder brother teaching a bear child a lesson. Xue Yang quieted down and glared at Meng Yao. He knew he shouldn’t have targeted someone like this. Next time, he would go for the ugly ones—the ones that looked like they were a stain on society!

“You have two choices,” Meng Yao said once they reached a less crowded place. “Either you give me my wallet back, or I keep carrying you around so you become my wallet.”

“What the fuck is wrong with you? Do you have a hole in your brain?” Xue Yang flailed again, but Meng Yao was surprisingly strong.

“Children shouldn’t cuss,” Meng Yao said, seemingly scandalized. He set Xue Yang down and held out his hand. “Wallet.”

Xue Yang glared up at Meng Yao angrily and reluctantly pulled out the pouch that had been personally embroidered by Jiang Yanli. He shoved it into Meng Yao’s hand. “There! I didn’t take anything from it.”

Meng Yao opened the wallet and stuffed his hand in. After feeling around a bit, he opened the other pouch at his side and tossed his wallet in. Xue Yang watched with keen interest. He inched a little closer.

“Hey, how come it didn’t expand?”

“Why would I tell you?” Meng Yao scoffed childishly. He turned on his heel to leave, but felt a tug on his sleeve. He glanced back.

Gege, are you a cultivator?”

His mouth suddenly turns so sweet, Meng Yao scoffed. “What’s it to you, little thief?”

Xue Yang’s eyes lit up. His grip on Meng Yao’s sleeve tightened and he shifted a little closer. “Gege, I’ve always admired heroic cultivators such as yourself.”

“Oh?”

“Would it be possible for me to come along with you? I’m just a poor orphan child with no one to rely on. I won’t bother you much. I just want to see what you do,” Xue Yang said sweetly.

If this child hadn’t snatched his wallet and cussed out his ancestors on the way over, maybe Meng Yao would have really believed him. Instead, he scoffed. “I’d be a fool to believe you.”

Gege,” Xue Yang dragged the word out.

Meng Yao shuddered and pushed the child’s hands away. “I haven’t accumulated enough karma in my past lives to be your gege. If you want to follow, then follow. But if you want to cause trouble, I’ll tie you to a tree by the street and leave you there.”

Xue Yang nodded, happy to have caught onto this big koi fish. “Don’t worry, daozhang-gege, I won’t cause you any troubles!”

“…My name is Meng Yao.”

“Then, Yao-gege,” Xue Yang amended. “My name Xue Yang!”

“Mn, Xiao Yangyang.”

Meng Yao was delighted by the way the rascal’s complexion flickered between a few colors. He didn’t wait for Xue Yang to recover and promptly walked off. He just knew the kid would follow anyway.

Chapter Text

The little rascal put down his day job of being a thief and took up the mantle to be Meng Yao’s little brother. He became exceedingly cute and obedient, helping Meng Yao with everything he needed and even things he didn’t need. His little face always held a bright smile, but Meng Yao had been around enough people in his life to see the mockery in Xue Yang’s eyes.

On his fifth day at Yueyang, he had been helping an old couple find their cat. When he came back to the tea stand he had left Xue Yang, he found that the child was enviously eyeing the candy a younger child was holding. Meng Yao’s steps slowed. He looked at Xue Yang and felt a rare moment of compassion.

He turned around and left. When he returned, he put down a bag of individually wrapped candy next to Xue Yang and sat down before ordering a cup of tea for himself. Xue Yang looked over and saw the bag. He glanced at Meng Yao suspiciously and opened it. He stared at the round objects inside and took one out. When he saw that Meng Yao didn’t reprimand him, he opened it and then stared at the candy inside the wrapper.

“You were staring at the candy, so I bought some for you,” Meng Yao explained. “It’s a thanks for being such a good boy the past few days.”

Xue Yang looked from the candy to Meng Yao and back again. “This…is for me?”

“The entire bag. Don’t eat it all at once though. Your teeth will fall out,” Meng Yao warned.

Xue Yang looked at Meng Yao again. “This is for me?”

“Mn.”

“All of it?”

“All of it,” Meng Yao nodded. “I don’t particularly like candy.”

Xue Yang’s eyes widened. He stared at the bag as if he was holding the world’s treasures in his hands. He put the piece of candy in his mouth in astonishment. A moment later, he looked at Meng Yao with a genuine smile.

“Thank you, Yao-gege!”

Meng Yao was a bit stunned, but then he remembered Xue Yang’s character settings—a pitiful child who only wanted candy. He hesitated for a moment. Although the Xue Yang he knew was really a brat, the one smiling at him now was a bit cuter. He reached up and rubbed Xue Yang’s head.

“Mn. If you run out, tell me. I’ll buy you more.”

Xue Yang looked stunned by the favor.

“Right,” Meng Yao lightly coughed. “I’ll be leaving in a few days to help other places. Are you going to come with me, or will you stay here?”

Was that even a question? Xue Yang shook his head. “I’ll come with you.”

There was anticipation and glee in Xue Yang’s eyes. It was just like a child who was finally gifted the toy he had been staring at for the past year—there was even a hint of worship. The look made Meng Yao shift uncomfortably as he sighed.

“Was candy really that important to him?” Meng Yao asked Tongtong. “You just give him a bag and you’re suddenly his god.”

[Host, Xue Yang is the most volatile character.]

Tongtong’s reminder didn’t shock Meng Yao from any delusion he was holding. He was well aware of the circumstances as they stood now. The Xue Yang now was not as psychotic as he would be in the future, but that didn’t mean he was completely innocent. However, he was still a child. He hadn’t yet gone through all the scheduled trials that would turn him into a deranged murderer in the future.

Still, this Xue Yang was a ticking time bomb. Saying that he wasn’t currently, didn’t mean he wouldn’t be in the future.

Meng Yao didn’t have much attachment to Xiao Xingchen and the others of the Yi City arc, but he did feel that their ending was a bit of a shame. And Xue Yang was the evil seed that Jin Guangyao planted in the future, which made Meng Yao feel at least 40% responsible for him. If Jin Guangyao hadn’t allowed Xue Yang to live, or if he hadn’t allowed Xue Yang to cultivate, then the events that followed might have never happened.

Meng Yao transmigrated into the novel to right wrongs, after all. He might as well strap this ticking time bomb to his own chest too.

Right now, he was inserting himself in the role that Xiao Xingchen had been so “honorably” given, as the person who could potentially help Xue Yang to the light or kick him to ruin once and for all. At any rate, Meng Yao didn’t have a grudge or feud with Xue Yang. There was no need to kick him into the abyss in the future and no need reject his existence. They could just establish a brotherly bond and call that the rest of their lives.

After deciding they would leave Yueyang, Meng Yao spent the next day preparing what they would need on the road. He thought about it and nearly bought a horse. However, Xue Yang stopped him.

“I can walk.”

“But I don’t like walking,” Meng Yao said.

In front of this child, Meng Yao’s lazy personality was exposed.

“I have enough money for a horse.

“But what about later?”

“We can just make more money later,” Meng Yao said.

Xue Yang stared at the wallet in Meng Yao’s hand, as if wanting to burn a hole through it. He looked at Meng Yao with pain in his eyes.

“What? Are you constipated?”

“Can’t I just fly on your sword with you? I’ll hang onto you,” Xue Yang said.

Meng Yao thought about it. Swords were like horses too—it depended on their strength to be able to carry their passenger. In the novel, Jiang Cheng’s sword had been too weak, almost allowing Wei Wuxian to plummet back into the water ghosts’ whirlpool if it hadn’t been for Lan Wangji’s swift save. As for his own sword…

“Fine,” Meng Yao put his wallet away and gestured for Xue Yang to follow him.

Xue Yang released a breath of relief and dutifully followed Meng Yao.

“Have you ever climbed a tree before?” Meng Yao asked as they left Yueyang.

“Have,” Xue Yang nodded.

“Alright,” Meng Yao pulled out his sword. He stepped up and pulled Xue Yang up with him. “Now, imagine climbing a tree, and then being shoved off perpetually.”

“Wh—”

Xue Yang’s next words were cut off by a surprised shriek.

In fact, they were going at a leisurely pace. It was just that a person who had never experienced flight before wouldn’t be able to accept this type of movement at a moment’s notice.

“If you throw up on me, I’ll hang you out to dry,” Meng Yao said cruelly.

Xue Yang clamped his hands over his mouth and kept the rising bile in the back of his throat.

The flight was short, but they covered the mileage of half a day. As soon as their feet touched the ground, Xue Yang ran to the nearest tree and began to throw up. Meng Yao sighed emotionally and tucked his sword away.

“Didn’t I say we should have gotten a horse? Now we’re just going to have to walk,” Meng Yao grumbled out his complaints.

Meng Yao walked to the farthest tree from the one Xue Yang had marked his territory and leaned against it with his eyes closed. A holographic map appeared in his mind. There were many towns, cities, and villages that was of no note to the plot. The ones mentioned would have naturally appeared since the beginning, but as Meng Yao traveled, more location names began to pop up on this holographic map. They had left Yueyang and headed away from Qishan. This brought them closer to Ganquan, where Wen Ning would later meet his demise.

Meng Yao took one glance at the wretched place and let out a soft scoff before bringing his gaze eastward. Unknowingly, he lingered on Qinghe for a few moments.

[Does Host plan on going to Qinghe?]

“Why would I?” Meng Yao scanned the surrounding towns and cities. “I have an entire year and I want to cultivate well so I don’t lose out during the Sunshot Campaign in the future. The Wen Sect is sloppy in how they deal with monsters, ghosts, and fierce corpses, while the smaller sects have less hands to help. I’ll just linger around in this area.”

The place he circled was the triangle between Qishan, Qinghe, and Yunmeng.

“And I’ll stay away from here,” Meng Yao scrunched his nose in distaste as he circled Lanling.

He was planning on spending next year in Gusu at any rate. There was no rush to head in that direction.

“If you see me getting close to Lanling, shout at me to leave, alright?”

[Yes, Host.]

“I refuse to get kicked down the stairs again in this life,” Meng Yao said grumpily.

“You can even sleep standing up?” Xue Yang’s voice pulled Meng Yao from his thoughts.

He opened his eyes and looked at the child before him before reaching out and pinching his cheeks. “I can. Do you want to see?”

“Ah! Let go of me, bastard!”

Meng Yao froze before chuckling. He rubbed Xue Yang’s cheek. “How could your words be so accurate?”

Xue Yang’s anger was replaced by surprise, but before he could ask what Meng Yao meant, the teenager had already turned and called on him to follow. The night was long—it wouldn’t be bad to do some hunting.

The next few days, the two boys traveled by foot. Whenever night fell, Meng Yao would find a place for Xue Yang to sleep and head out to do a thing he called “night-hunting”. He wouldn’t return until the sun had risen and would only sleep a few hours before pulling Xue Yang to continue moving again.

Xue Yang attempted to offer a few words of concern, but Meng Yao reassuringly told the child that he knew his own limits and not to worry. When he felt a little too tired, Meng Yao would sleep at night instead of going out. In these times, he would sleep until the afternoon before getting up groggily to wash himself and eat whatever food he had hunted the night before.

This type of life wasn’t leisurely, but it was peaceful to say the least.

“Can I come with you?” Xue Yang finally asked.

Meng Yao glanced at Xue Yang. It had been nearly a month since he had picked up the little street rat. Xue Yang acted obedient and sensible without throwing a tantrum or disturbing Meng Yao in anyway. After their initial spat, Meng Yao had let bygones be bygones and treated him as he would normally treat others again. Seeing Xue Yang’s sparkling eyes, Meng Yao hesitated before agreeing.

“You can come,” Meng Yao looked at him seriously. “But do not get in my way. You’ll get seriously injured if you come too close.”

Xue Yang nodded. “I understand.”

“Good,” Meng Yao patted Xue Yang’s head and brought the child out with him. Like this, they could even continue their travels.

During these night-hunts, it wasn’t as if Meng Yao never saw people. It was just that, when the crowd got too big, Meng Yao would duck his head and turn the other way. He saw robes that he recognized and didn’t recognize. There were even a few times he had seen Qinghe Nie Sect’s uniforms, but he had never seen a familiar person.

Tonight, there were more cultivators than there were on regular nights. Irritation fermented in Meng Yao. He let out a sigh and decided that they would just continue their travels tonight. If there were too many people, it was easy for cultivators to steal each other’s prey and Meng Yao didn’t have the patience to argue over something as brainless as that.

However, that didn’t mean he wasn’t curious. He pulled aside a rogue cultivator and inquired on the happenings of this area.

The rogue cultivator glanced at Xue Yang curiously before turning back to Meng Yao. “This brother must not be from around here then.”

Meng Yao nodded his head in agreement. That was nothing to hide.

“Recently, there’s been a three headed fire hawk that’s made its appearance in this region. One of its feathers costs a fortune and many people have been camping out here to hunt it down,” the cultivator informed him. He lowered his voice. “There has also been a rumored appearance of a drought ghost that has been plaguing the unprotected villages, so many also came here for that. If you can capture and kill this drought ghost—” he let out a low whistle. “—Young man, you would definitely become well-known in this generation.”

Meng Yao smiled. The cultivator was a bit older and had obviously come for fortune rather than fame. This could be considered looking after the younger generation. He said his thanks and pulled Xue Yang away.

Gege, you aren’t going after that hawk or that ghost?” Xue Yang asked curiously.

“I’m only night-hunting to gain experience and cultivate,” Meng Yao said. “Fame and fortune have nothing to do with me. I’d rather fight twenty fierce corpses than scramble for one ghost with twenty cultivators. It’s just a waste of time.”

When you’re dead, fame and fortune are worth nothing. It was still much better to make sure you survive.

Xue Yang nodded in understanding and quietly followed Meng Yao.

The further into the forest they went, the more people they saw. Xue Yang looked around with interest. There were all sorts of traps that Meng Yao pulled him away from. Some glimmered with gold while others were near invisible talismans.

“If it weren’t for you, I would already be strung up,” Meng Yao grumbled.

Tongtong was as enthusiastic as always—maybe even more so recently now that Meng Yao’s temper had gotten shorter. [It’s my job to guide you, Host!]

“Ah!” a loud scream surprised the nearby cultivators.

Although there were a lot of them, most of them were crouching silently in wait. No one was idiotic enough to scream like this. The cultivators who had yet to know the reason for this scream grew irritated. They emerged from their hiding spots, only to find a swirling mass that was shaped similarly to a human before them.

The creature had long, black nails and skin that was dried and pulled taut across their skeleton. There was remnants of robes across the person’s body, but it swayed loosely like a curtain and didn’t hide the thing’s bones in the slightest.

A harsh, dry wind whipped the leaves and branches around the surrounding area and began to kick up a dust storm.

“T-that’s the drought ghost!” someone shouted.

“It’s got hold of the young master from the Jin Sect!”

Meng Yao pulled Xue Yang behind him and watched the scene in front of him. It was indeed the famous peacock youth, Jin Zixuan.

[Ding. Congratulations Host. You have encountered character: Jin Zixuan. Character information is currently being downloaded. Please do not interrupt the process.]

The disciples of the Lanling Jin Sect surrounded the ghost, but they only held out their swords trembling. One could only see that Jin Zixuan had made a valiant effort, but he had not been strong enough to deal with the ghost. If the members of his sect weren’t so cowardly, maybe he would have been able to recover, but who knew what they had eaten earlier? Everyone’s knees shook and bent together.

A few onlooking cultivators hopped in to help, but were mercilessly thrown aside after a few hits. It was clear that most people weren’t looking for death, but were searching for this hawk. The cultivators in this surrounding area were not strong enough to take on the ghost.

With the help of a few cannon fodder, Jin Zixuan managed to break from the deadlock he had been in with the drought ghost and surged forward again for another fight.

Meng Yao watched the intense battle and was quite awed.

“Tongtong, do I look this cool when I fight evil?” Meng Yao had never seen an actual battle before. He had only been fighting in them.

[Mm…Host is cooler!]

“Kiss ass,” Meng Yao’s lips curved at the compliment. He glanced around and found a female cultivator. “May I trouble you in watching over my little brother?”

The female cultivator froze, seemingly captivated by Meng Yao’s smile. “I—oh, yes—yes, I’ll watch him.”

“Thank you,” Meng Yao grinned before pulling his sword from his sleeve and flying into battle.

“He can even hide his sword in his sleeve?” Xue Yang asked in awe.

The female cultivator watched Meng Yao for a moment and made her inference. “Your older brother uses a soft sword. This kind of sword can be hidden by wrapping it around a person’s arm or waist. This is most likely his habit as a cultivator.”

Xue Yang hadn’t wanted to talk to this woman initially, but found the information interesting. He let out a hum in response and decided to ask a few more questions.

In terms of battle strength, the drought ghost was much more powerful than regular fierce corpses that could easily be cut open with a few well-placed flicks of the wrist by an experience cultivator. Not to mention, Jin Zixuan had just recently turned fifteen and was just now out seeing the world. Although he had a lot of technical training, there was nothing to be said about his real combat ability. He wanted to gnash his teeth at the few disciples that had been forced upon him as he left the sect. They were so useless that the drought ghost didn’t have to make its move to kill him—he would just be frustrated to death instead!

Jin Zixuan was rapidly trying to find a get away route, but the ghost had already gotten a taste of his blood. It would be difficult to shake the creature off now, even if he were to successfully flee.

It was at this moment that another sword glinted from the corner of his eyes. He rolled out of the way from the ghost’s attack. He lifted his head to see a sword wrap its way around the drought ghost’s outstretched arm.

The sword seemed to glow. With a flick of the wielder’s wrist, the arm was cut cleanly into several pieces. The ghost howled in pain and quickly became enraged. It changed targets and charged at Meng Yao.

For all it was worth, Meng Yao had experience fighting and had always been a good student, while it had been theoretical or practical. This type of ghost carried heavy resentment and also heavy corruption. Just resolving its resentment wasn’t going to do anything, though it was lower its power by only a fraction. Meng Yao decided to bypass the so-called purification process and jumped straight into eradication.

He fished talismans from his sleeve and threw them out first to subdue the ghost. The talismans froze in the air around the ghost in the form of a circle. As Meng Yao murmured out a spell, the talismans began to spin rapidly, eventually closing in on the ghost and tightening its hold like a set of chords. This held the ghost back, but didn’t stop its attacks.

Meng Yao’s footsteps were light as he evaded the ghost. His sword worked on the defense as he pulled out more talismans. His forehead began to bead with sweat. He could only curse his bad luck in choosing this path to walk today.

Because he was in a panic, Meng Yao’s expression cooled even further.

“He’s so cool,” a nearby cultivator whispered.

Jin Zixuan snapped out of his admiration and looked at Meng Yao clearer. The youth in front of him carried a cold expression. His feet moved like petals, gracefully and lightly floating through the air, as if pushed by a light spring breeze. Each time he touched the ground, it was like a petal grazing the surface of a lake. Without settling for too long, he would be moving once more. Although his sword movements appeared light, there was an obvious weight to each strike and hit. Not to mention, the previous move of the sword wrapping around the ghost’s arm had yet to disappear from Jin Zixuan’s memory.

But as his adrenaline began to fade, Jin Zixuan finally noticed something—this youth’s fighting style was similar to that of the Yunmeng Jiang Sect.

The fight lasted late into the next night. The drought ghost had managed to break from Meng Yao’s array and rushed forward again. Jin Zixuan, who had recovered his energy, jumped back into the fight but, this time, collaborated with Meng Yao and protected him as Meng Yao worked on the array.

It wasn’t until the moon was high in the sky once more did they finally succeed.

The array was set into place, completely blocking the ghost’s movements. Meng Yao drove his sword through the ghost, slapped the final talisman onto the ghost’s forehead and muttered a spell. He moved backwards to avoid the spraying that the ghost produced after it was killed.

A trail of blood trickled down his cheek. Meng Yao reached up and rubbed at it with a furrow of his brows. To the onlookers, he looked amazing and awe-inspiring, but internally, Meng Yao was screaming.

“Oh my god, I almost lost my head!” Meng Yao shouted. “What’s this? It cut me?! Is it poisonous?”

[Reporting to Host, it was the wind that cut you, not its nails, so it isn’t poisonous.]

“Oh, thank goodness I avoided its nails then. Tongtong, if you hadn’t been there to yell at me, I would have definitely lost my life. What’s with these Lanling Jin Sect disciples? Are they scarecrows? Why are they just standing there and watching me? Even the other cultivators had jumped in to help!”

Meng Yao disregarded himself and looked around at the few people who tried helping but had gotten injured in return. Thankfully, none of them had encountered the nails either, it was just a damage of internal energy. Although it would be a hassle, it wasn’t life threatening.

“May I ask what this young master’s name is?”

A clear, attractive voice sounded from behind Meng Yao. He straightened and turned around to look at Jin Zixuan. His golden robes had become dirty and torn apart, though Meng Yao knew his own appearance was probably just as unappealing, so he didn’t laugh.

Meng Yao subconsciously pushed his stray hair back from his head. He clasped his hands together around the hilt of his sword and bowed. “This humble one’s last name is Meng, name Yao.”

“My name Jin Zixuan of Lanling Jin Sect,” he said. His gaze combed over Meng Yao. “You…could you be a disciple from the Yunmeng Jiang Sect?”

“That’s right,” Meng Yao hadn’t been planning to hide his origins. There was no value in doing so, at any rate. “I’m the eldest disciple of the Yunmeng Jiang Sect.”

The surrounding cultivator’s eyes glimmered with pleasant surprise. Xue Yang, who was brought back to Meng Yao’s side, glanced at the other curiously.

“So, it is Yunmeng Jiang Sect,” Jin Zixuan’s eyes widened. “I felt that your footwork was familiar. Turns out, I wasn’t mistaken. Why have you wandered all the way out here? You aren’t even wearing your uniform."

Meng Yao smiled humbly. “I wanted to come out by myself to see what I could do. I didn’t want to live the remainder of my life sheltered in the sect.”

The surrounding cultivators nodded in approval in their hearts. It was rare to see a youth from the prominent sect with such heroic ambitions. In this era, many simply wanted to remain in their place and not mess with the status quo.

Meng Yao’s words also attracted Jin Zixuan’s attention. He wanted to talk more, but the useless disciples of the Lanling Jin Sect came bounding over.

“Young Master, are you okay?”

Suddenly, a heavy pressure surrounded the area. Jin Zixuan turned around and glared at the disciples one by one. “Do you think I’m okay?”

Chapter Text

The couple of Lanling Jin Sect disciples had stood around like chickens hanging onto their last breath. When they helped, it was the same as poking the ghost with a toothpick. It wasn’t until the last few hours did they finally regain some energy back actually try to attack, but even then, they had been swatted aside. It was clear to anyone with eyes and a brain that they had been trying to pit Jin Zixuan.

Meng Yao glanced at Jin Zixuan’s furious expression. The surrounding cultivators had been shooed away by the Lanling Jin Sect servants after medicine money had been given out. Only Meng Yao and Xue Yang remained.

“Young Master, we really didn’t mean it! We were so shocked by the drought ghost, that we weren’t sure what to do.”

“If you weren’t sure what to do in such a situation, then you should have remained in the sect for another ten years. Why the hell did you come out with me? Huh? To watch me die?!” Jin Zixuan shouted at the disciples angrily.

Xue Yang watched in silence before glancing at Meng Yao who had an at ease expression on his face. He turned back to the group and decided not to make judgement on this young master. Meng Yao didn’t seem to find anything wrong with his words at any rate.

The disciples trembled. They had, in fact, come out to make trouble for Jin Zixuan. They wanted him to get hurt and be tossed around a bit. After all, this young master was over all unpleasing to the eyes and ears. He was prideful and boastful. Not to mention he was spoiled from the heavens to the earth by his parents, so he knew little of manners when it came to interacting with his peers. They just hadn’t thought that the drought ghost would be so powerful.

“Even a stranger has more loyalty than you!” Jin Zixuan gestured towards Meng Yao. He sent the disciples a glare and turned to a nearby servant. “Escort them back to the sect and report what happened to Father. I want them kicked out or unable to walk properly for three months.”

Jin Zixuan’s words were scared the disciples to the bone. If they were kicked out, they wouldn’t have to think about entering a prestigious sect again. Even the small ones would shun them. This meant that they would only have to bear with the pain for three months.

Jin Zixuan didn’t bother giving them another look as they sluggishly walked off. His chest heaved in anger. He turned to Meng Yao and smiled bitterly. “Young Master Meng has seen me make a joke of my sect.”

“Not at all, not at all. In fact, I find it commendable that Young Master Jin can give out punishment to those who deserve it. It’s refreshing,” Meng Yao complimented. He coughed lightly and held his chest.

Jin Zixuan’s expression tensed. “Young Master Meng, are you alright?”

“I’m fine. Just suffered an injury. It isn’t as bad as Young Master Jin’s,” Meng Yao said, his eyes scanning the other worriedly.

Jin Zixuan looked himself up and down and then at Meng Yao. A light laugh left his lips. He patted Meng Yao’s shoulder. “Today’s meeting can be considered fate between the two of us. If Young Master Meng doesn’t mind, we could return to the inn I’ve rented a room at in the city nearby.”

“That wouldn’t be too good,” Meng Yao said perfunctorily.

“How could that not be good? You saved me—I should at least pay for your food and board. Besides, a heroic youth such as Young Master Meng, I still want to know better.”

Meng Yao seemed hesitant before he finally nodded.

Xue Yang was tugged along with the two teenagers. He didn’t have a chance to ask a thing to Meng Yao and smartly chose to keep his mouth closed.

Because the two teenagers hadn’t slept for an entire night and day, they were quite tired. Upon entering the city and returning to the inn, Jin Zixuan assigned Meng Yao a room that had been abandoned by his sect’s disciples, and suggested they turn in for the night. Meng Yao didn’t have any rejections to voice. He was equally as tired and felt that he would faint from exhaustion at any moment.

Seeing Meng Yao’s heavy eyelids, Xue Yang held back his questions again and went to sleep after eating a light dinner.

The teenagers only woke up when the sun was setting. Xue Yang arranged a light meal for Meng Yao and watched him curiously. “Is it that tiring?”

“Tiring,” Meng Yao murmured as he blinked his eyes hard. “Has Young Master Jin come over?”

Xue Yang shook his head. “His servant came over earlier to check on you. He’s still sleeping.”

“That’s good,” Meng Yao yawned.

Tongtong hovered by anxiously. It had a belly full of questions, but since Meng Yao had muted it to sleep properly, it hadn’t gotten to ask a thing. Sensing its anxiety, Meng Yao graciously unmuted it and listened to the questions.

[Host, didn’t you want to avoid the Lanling Jin Sect at all cost? Why are you suddenly talking to Jin Zixuan like you’re old friends?]

“Isn’t he affianced to my shijie?” Meng Yao asked.

Tongtong froze.

“I’m just trying to create a happy atmosphere. This is in character, isn’t it?” Meng Yao said.

It could be seen by anyone just how much Meng Yao treasures his shijie, Jiang Yanli. The two grew up together, side by side. When the boys caused trouble, they would lecture them together. When Jiang Yanli was unhappy, Meng Yao would listen. When Meng Yao was tired, Jiang Yanli would help him. It had gotten to the point that Yu Ziyuan had been concerned that Jiang Yanli would fall for Meng Yao, but Jiang Yanli had reassured her mother that that wouldn’t happen.

In this world, Jiang Yanli was the only one who knew Meng Yao liked men.

In the blink of an eye, eight years have passed. Having to live together every day meant Meng Yao would develop good feelings one way or another. Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian acted like wild little monkeys, so the only person who could be a friend rather than a child to Meng Yao was the sensible Jiang Yanli.

Though it shouldn’t be surprising, Tongtong had to take a bit to recover.

“I’m only befriending Jin Zixuan because of Shijie. Otherwise, I wouldn’t give him a second glance,” Meng Yao said. “The further I stay from the Jin clan the better.”

When night fell, Jin Zixuan invited Meng Yao and Xue Yang to a restaurant for dinner. The private room he booked over looked the city and the food on the table was luxurious and fragrant.

“Eat as much as you want,” Jin Zixuan said. He glanced at Xue Yang before looking at Meng Yao. “Young Master Meng, do you drink?”

“A bit,” Meng Yao nodded.

Jin Zixuan waved his servant over and whispered a few words before turning back to the two of them. “I haven’t been introduced to your friend.”

“This is Xue Yang. He’s my…little brother,” Meng Yao rubbed at Xue Yang’s head.

Xue Yang glared at him, but didn’t bite back like he normally would and ate obediently.

Jin Zixuan let out a soft sigh. “How nice. I wish I had a little brother.”

“Some things can’t be wished for in this life,” Xue Yang said quietly.

“Yangyang.”

“I said don’t call me that.”

“Mind your manners,” Meng Yao said sternly.

Xue Yang rolled his eyes but didn’t say anything else.

“In fact, Young Master Jin, you have some younger brothers, don’t you? A-Cheng and A-Xian could be considered your younger brothers,” Meng Yao smiled warmly.

Jin Zixuan’s expression slowly stiffened. He had been so excited about Meng Yao’s skills and heroic spirit, he had completely forgotten they were related to each other in ways other than their side by side fights.

Seeing Jin Zixuan’s cold expression, Meng Yao lowered his head and ate a few bites. “I heard Young Master Jin is displeased with my shijie. May I ask why?”

“We shouldn’t talk about unhappy things during a meal,” Jin Zixuan said shortly.

Xue Yang glanced at the golden peacock in front of him. He lowered his head and quietly gloated to himself—Yao-gege really had his ways. Now this cocky asshole was looking uncomfortable.

“Isn’t getting married a joyous occasion? How could it be unhappy?”

Meng Yao’s words provoked Jin Zixuan’s irritation further, yet when the youth looked up to scold Meng Yao, the words were stopped at his throat. The reason was simply because Meng Yao looked too gentle, too elegant, and too mature.

They were clearly the same age, yet he was losing his temper while this person kept his composure. It wouldn’t be too good to explode at this moment.

Jin Zixuan reined his emotions back in.

“How can a forced marriage be anything happy?” Jin Zixuan grumbled as he poured himself a cup of wine.

“There are many marriages that end up well because they are arranged marriages. What’s needed between husband and wife is just mutual respect,” Meng Yao reasoned.

Jin Zixuan scoffed. “What I want is love, not just mutual respect. Besides, I haven’t seen a single arranged marriage that has worked out well.”

Meng Yao was unable to deny that. Every pair of parents in this novel were arranged marriages, save for maybe Nie Mingjue’s parents. Anyone else was dead and not worth talking about.

“But my shijie isn’t the same,” Meng Yao said. “She would definitely treat you well.”

“It doesn’t matter how well I’m treated if I don’t like the person. We’ll spend the rest of lives in a muddled relationship, being neither too warm nor too cold to each other. At some point, the other person will feel bored and possibly go off to find someone they truly love. The one remaining will only feel hurt,” Jin Zixuan said. “That’s how it always goes.”

“Could it be that this preconception of yours is preventing you from getting to know my shijie?” Meng Yao asked, his voice somewhat gentle.

Jin Zixuan snuck a glance at Meng Yao.

The other youth was eating with the elegance that belonged to the upper class. His movements were careful and neat. Even when the way he lifted his hand to take a sip of wine was attractive. Jin Zixuan watched him a daze. This type of elegance was reminiscent of a dancer—each move calculated and intriguing to look at.

“I understand what it feels like to be trapped in a position,” Meng Yao sighed. “It’s difficult to swallow, especially someone of Young Master Jin’s position, who is used to living freely.”

Jin Zixuan lowered his gaze, finding some shame in Meng Yao’s words.

“However, I do believe Young Master Jin is a reasonable person,” Meng Yao said. “The matters of the engagement was arranged by the older generation. If you dislike such an arrangement, then speak to your father and mother. It isn’t good to say displeasing words about a girl. It may ruin her good reputation.”

Jin Zixuan fell silent.

Xue Yang snuck another glance at the young master. He was waiting for the youth to blow up in anger. It seemed that his servants were too. However, Jin Zixuan seemed to hold Meng Yao in a place of respect. He sincerely listened to Meng Yao’s words, which were somewhat hard to swallow for a prideful person like him, and slowly nodded.

“Young Master Meng is right. My actions from before may have been overboard. I’ll speak to my parents about breaking off the engagement.”

“But there’s no need to move so fast,” Meng Yao smiled. He poured Jin Zixuan a cup of wine. “Although my shijie may not have the beauty of a celestial fairy, she’s still a good woman. How about, before that, you two try and get along to see if feelings will develop.”

“Get along? How?” Jin Zixuan asked.

Meng Yao thought for a moment. In the novel, it was after Jin Zixuan realized how meticulous and caring Jiang Yanli was that he began to like and pursue her. Meng Yao didn’t expect this spoiled young master to be enlightened all of a sudden, but it would be nice if he at least acknowledge Jiang Yanli as his fiancée.

“Perhaps, Young Master Jin can go to Lotus Pier and request to go on an outing with her. I think she would like that,” Meng Yao suggested.

“Wouldn’t it…be too sudden?” Jin Zixuan showed an awkward expression. He had spent several years voicing his complaints over Jiang Yanli. To suddenly turn around and ask her to spend time with him…even if she accepted, she most likely wouldn’t be too comfortable in her heart.

“How about this? Tomorrow, I can write a letter. You can go to Lotus Pier with the excuse of delivering that letter to them. While you’re there, Madam Yu will definitely ask you to spend time with her daughter.”

“So sure?”

“You two are engaged, are you not?” Meng Yao chuckled.

That was true. And Madam Jin always hinted that Jin Zixuan should visit Jiang Yanli.

“But what would we do?” Jin Zixuan asked slowly.

“My shijie doesn’t like things like hunting or violence. She prefers talking over a meal or taking a walk down the night market. It just so happens that the night scene in Yunmeng is a sight to behold. If you ask her for a tour, I’m sure she’ll give it to you,” Meng Yao smiled.

Jin Zixuan ate silently as he absorbed the information. Without realizing it, Jin Zixuan had been completely baited by Meng Yao.

Tongtong gave Meng Yao two thumbs up in its heart. [Host is so awesome!]

“I don’t need a cheerleader,” Meng Yao scoffed, though he still let out a sigh in his heart.

After eating dinner, Xue Yang excused himself to go back to the inn. Jin Zixuan allowed a servant to walk him back. Before leaving, Xue Yang gave Meng Yao a knowing look that said “Good luck”. The two youths remained at the restaurant even after the table was cleared. More wine was called in and the two began their drinking competition.

After the roughest topic was forced through, Jin Zixuan began to relax. Even Meng Yao let go of himself a bit more than usual. The two youths discussed the fight. What did they do well? What could have been done better? The two youths had a nice time exchanging pointers.

“I knew I should have just gone out by myself, but my mother insisted on me taking a few disciples. Now, where does that bring us? I nearly got injured because of their incompetence,” Jin Zixuan grumbled drunkenly. He paused and shook his head. “No! Not even that. It was just because they were petty and disliked me.”

Meng Yao chuckled. “Then, Young Master Jin is really detestable.”

“How could you say that?” Jin Zixuan scoffed. “If I’m that detestable, why’d you help me?”

Meng Yao leaned his mouth against the back of his hand and pointed at Jin Zixuan and slurred, “Your face is good looking. I didn’t want to see it bloodied.”

Jin Zixuan stared at Meng Yao before laughing. “I take after my mother.”

“What a coincidence?” Meng Yao leaned forward and tapped his cup against Jin Zixuan’s. “Me too.”

Jin Zixuan found this commonality amusing. He laughed sillily. “Not your dad?”

“No,” Meng Yao scrunched his nose. He reached out for a bottle and pulled it over. Only after pouring did he realize there was no wine.

Jin Zixuan turned around and shouted for a waiter to bring more before turning back to Meng Yao.

“I’m glad I don’t like anything like my dad. If I did, I would have clawed this face of mine apart,” Meng Yao said.

“That bad?”

“His looks…unsure. But his heart is black,” Meng Yao murmured.

“You don’t know what he looks like?” Jin Zixuan asked in surprise.

Meng Yao grinned. “Is this enough to make Young Master Jin not want to be friends with me?”

“How could that be?” Jin Zixuan clapped Meng Yao on the back. “Young Master Meng is a great person! It can be seen that your mother was an excellent woman to raise you like this.”

Meng Yao laughed at the irony of his words, but his smile froze on his face. The image of Meng Shi flashed through his mind. His smile fell and he hummed as the waiter rushed in with a few more bottles. Meng Yao grabbed on and directly drank from it.

“She’s great.”

The conversation shifted away from their mothers and landed on their families. Despite being drunk, Meng Yao luckily still knew what world he was in. He grinned goofily as he told the most embarrassing stories Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian had to Jin Zixuan. The two youths had never gotten along with Jin Zixuan before, so hearing their stories not only made him laugh, but softened his impression of them.

“A-Cheng’s dogs are this big now,” Meng Yao gestured with his hands. “They returned to Lotus Pier…two years ago? They still stay on the opposite side of the manor from A-Xian, but whenever A-Xian hears them, his legs start to shake and he can easily climb a tree in five seconds.”

Jin Zixuan laughed. “I never would have thought he would have such a fear.”

“Blame it on his poor childhood,” Meng Yao sighed. “It’s a good thing Sect Leader Jiang found him. Right, do you like dogs?”

Jin Zixuan nodded. “I actually have a spiritual dog named Feifei.”

“Feifei,” Meng Yao laughed. “You and A-Cheng would get along.”

“Is there something wrong with the name Feifei?” Jin Zixuan reached out and put Meng Yao into a headlock.

Meng Yao laughed harder and leaned back as Jin Zixuan lightly jostled him around. “Your naming senses are so similar—”

“Say that one more time, I’ll break your neck,” Jin Zixuan pinched Meng Yao’s cheek.

Meng Yao only giggled more, rendering him limp again Jin Zixuan. Jin Zixuan eventually nudged Meng Yao away and allowed the other youth to fall onto the table. Once Meng Yao had laughed enough, he grinned up at Jin Zixuan, who was drinking “grumpily”.

“That’s great though,” Meng Yao murmured quietly.

“What is?” Jin Zixuan raised an eyebrow.

“You and Shijie and A-Cheng and A-Xian can be a happy family,” Meng Yao smiled.

Jin Zixuan froze at Meng Yao’s words. Who knew if it was because the alcohol was beginning to take effect, but Jin Zixuan felt that Meng Yao’s current appearance was quite lonely. He was laughing, but there was a trace of sadness in his smile. Paired with his slightly moistened, red eyes, it seemed like he was almost about to cry.

“I can be your family too,” Jin Zixuan reached over and rubbed Meng Yao’s hair until it sat up like a bird’s nest.

“Ah, fuck off,” Meng Yao pushed Jin Zixuan’s hand away good-naturedly as he sat back up.

“I can be your older brother,” Jin Zixuan smirked with a quirked brow.

“We’re the same age—why are you trying to be someone’s older brother?” Meng Yao rolled his eyes.

“I’m taller than you.”

“Is height comparable to age? That’s nothing. Just because I literally have to look up at you doesn’t mean I’m going to be your little brother,” Meng Yao’s words stuttered out halfway through as he fell into giggles again.

“How about this? The first one to pass out tonight is the older brother.”

“It should be the first one who passes out to night is the younger brother,” Meng Yao corrected with an incredulous expression.

“No, I meant what I said,” Jin Zixuan gathered the full bottles and sorted them out into two piles. “I can definitely win this.”

“You just want me to drink myself to death then!” Meng Yao laughed.

“Don’t complain just because you have a good alcohol tolerance!” Jin Zixuan said. “That’s a curse you brought onto yourself.”

Jin Zixuan called for his servant outside and told him the bet that he had just set up. The servant stared at his normally prideful young master and then glanced at the out of breath Meng Yao. He let out a sigh of an old father. It was rare to see Jin Zixuan in such high spirits, so who cared if this bet was beyond preposterous.

The “bet” ended within the next two hours. Jin Zixuan could barely keep his eyes open, yet Meng Yao still had the energy to watch Jin Zixuan as he hiccupped out giggles with a hand over his eyes.

Jin Zixuan lifted a hand. “You promised…”

Meng Yao wrapped his hand around Jin Zixuan’s finger and laughed harder. “Mn! I promised. You win, da-ge.”

The servant let out sigh again and lifted Jin Zixuan up as the young master promptly fell into a daze. He looked back at the seated Meng Yao. “Young Master Meng, will you be leaving with us?”

“I’m gonna stay back first,” Meng Yao slurred. “The sky looks nice…I want to look a bit longer. Don’t worry about me, I can get back myself. It’s not too far.”

The servant hesitated, but then agreed. If anything, he will come back to check if Meng Yao was still here in another hour and bring him back himself.

The room soon emptied, leaving Meng Yao alone.

Tongtong had left about an hour ago, saying that it had a meeting among the systems to attend. It had repeatedly informed Meng Yao that if danger occurred to slam the panic button and it would be right back. However, it also reassured Meng Yao that everything should be fine. The celestial system purposely chose times of lull in the hosts’ plots to call the systems out for meetings.

With this in mind, Meng Yao was quite relaxed as he walked over to the balcony. He sat down on the table set up outside and stared up at the sky. He had never seen so many stars before in his life. For the past eight years, his head had been down as he worked and worried about the protagonist and Meng Shi. It had been a while since he had stopped to appreciate the night sky.

Meng Yao laughed at himself. Then again, when had he ever stopped to appreciate anything.

Tonight, was probably the first time in his two lives that he had played this hard with a person, and that person ended up being his half-brother, Jin Zixuan, someone he had wanted to avoid.

In the silence, without anyone other than himself, Meng Yao finally felt his nose souring and his eyes watering

“Mother,” Meng Yao spoke softly, his words were quickly carried away by the night wind. “Actually, I miss you a lot.”

He lowered his head and laughed at himself. “They say a mother knows their child best…I’m not even your real son, but you still knew me well, didn’t you? Knew that I’m a liar, that I keep everything to myself, that it’s hard for me to accept anyone’s sincerity. I couldn’t say anything to you before because I wasn’t completely alone, but now that I am, I can finally say a few words.”

Meng Yao let out a soft sigh. “I’m actually quite scared, but you helped ease that fear. I was expecting to be born into nothing again and, like last time, I’ll just leave with nothing. But now I have your kindness and the Jiang children’s sincerity. Honestly, I don’t want much else, but I think I also have Jin Zixuan’s friendship now.”

A small smile pulled onto his flushed face. “This life is just…borrowed time. I’m quite fortunate. I’ll spend it well…I’ll make you proud. Make you not feel as if those few years you raised me have gone to waste.”

Meng Yao stayed quiet as the night breeze carded its way through his hair. His chin was tilted upwards, as if he were waiting for a response. But as he stared into the starry sky, as the wind embraced him, he never received a reply.

Chapter Text

“Really lazy.”

Xue Yang’s voice drifted over to Meng Yao’s ears. His eyes were closed as he rested. He lifted his hand and waved it. “If you’re going to complain, then go back to Yueyang. Ge works so hard to provide for you, yet you can’t even row a boat without blabbering.”

Xue Yang rolled his eyes to the heavens and glared at the teenager, who was sprawled out on the boat in front of him.

It had been a month since they had met Jin Zixuan. The young master kept to his promise and left to Yunmeng. Since then, Xue Yang and Meng Yao had continued their journey, jostling between the triangular area between Qishan, Qinghe, and Yunmeng. They were currently trailing closer to Qinghe, which meant that they would see more and more disciples from the Qinghe Nie Sect, but Meng Yao wasn’t nervous. There was no need to be, after all.

“You don’t believe I’ll toss you off this boat?”

“If you toss me off, I’ll really die,” Meng Yao said lazily. “I can’t swim.”

Xue Yang scoffed. “Someone from Yunmeng can’t swim?”

“My hometown is Yunping—they’re different places,” Meng Yao replied righteously.

“How different? Aren’t they both surrounded by water?”

“Yunping has more buildings, less water. Yunmeng has less buildings, more water.”

Xue Yang stared at Meng Yao. He had a strong suspicion that this teenager was just speaking from his ass. He wanted to say something else when a loud scream could be heard from a nearby boat. Xue Yang glanced over and dropped the paddle. He scuffled over to Meng Yao and patted the youth on the chest several times.

“What?” Meng Yao opened his eyes irritably just in time to see the boat become sliced in half by a resentful ghost.

Without hesitating, Meng Yao threw their belongings into Xue Yang’s chest. He jumped up onto the roof of their boat and flipped off. He kicked the side of their boat, sending it further away from the scene of carnage before turning and running towards the entertainment boat.

At this moment, the passengers that were previously on the entertainment boat were scrambling to shore or for a piece of driftwood to cling onto. When Meng Yao made his appearance, they were both startled and elated. A majority of those on the boat had been the children of rich merchants, while there were only one or two cultivators. At this moment, the one who was a cultivator was standing leisurely on his sword, not too far away and not too conspicuously with his servant by his side.

“Young Master, what should we do?”

The youth, donning a gold crown, closed his fan with a snap before tilting his chin back to shore. “Go back first. We’ll see if this gentleman can handle himself. If not, I’ll send a distress signal to my brother.”

Meng Yao had no knowledge of this exchange.

He remained calmly balanced on his sword as he pulled talismans out from his sleeve. The talismans flew out and quickly captured the ghost into an array. The spell was murmured out from Meng Yao’s lips in an attempt to purify the ghost, but instead, the resentment only grew. It broke from the array and lurched for Meng Yao.

Meng Yao jumped from his sword and plucked it from the air. He nimbly landed on the roof of the sinking boat and blocked the ghost’s attack. He jumped upwards and wrapped his sword around the ghost’s body, constricting it and restricting its movements. He threw out another talisman that landed on the ghost’s forehead.

Lihen tightened its grip around the ghost. He pushed his spiritual energy through the sword and flicked his wrist. The ghost dispersed into a cloud of smoke, but before it was completely killed, it managed to lash out one last time at Meng Yao.

The attack didn’t land, but Meng Yao slipped.

“Fuck,” Meng Yao gritted his teeth and plummeted into the water below.

[Host!]

“I’m still alive, it’s just water,” Meng Yao forced himself to remain calm. He listened to Tongtong’s stupid elevator jingle as he pushed himself back to the water’s surface.

Although he couldn’t swim, he managed to keep himself afloat thanks to Tongtong’s instructions. He looked around and angrily shouted. “Xue Yang! Where the fuck are you!?”

The small boat was paddled back over, showing a disgruntled child at the front. “I came all the way back for you, yet you’re cursing me out.”

Meng Yao reached out a hand. “Pull me out.”

Xue Yang noticed just how pale Meng Yao had become and didn’t waste time in doing so.

Meng Yao sprawled out on the boat and stared up at the blue sky as he caught his breath. Xue Yang watched him carefully and inched over. “Yao-gege, are you really scared of water?”

“Scared. Scared to death,” Meng Yao shuddered. He reached out and patted Xue Yang’s thigh. “I’m about to pass out. Row us to the other side, alright.”

Xue Yang jolted in alarm, but Meng Yao didn’t allow for another word. He stood and quickly grabbed the paddle to do as he was told.

When Meng Yao woke up again, the sun was setting. The sunlight fell directly into his eyes, making him squint uncomfortably. He hard a bright laugh from beside him and sluggishly turned his head to look at the youth speaking with Xue Yang.

“Oh, he’s awake,” the youth opened his fan with a loud snap.

Gege,” Xue Yang crouched down beside him. “How are you feeling?”

“Shit,” Meng Yao groaned. He sat up and rubbed at his eyes. “Grab our stuff. I need somewhere to sleep.”

“If you need somewhere to sleep, how about coming to my house, Young Master?”

Meng Yao paused. He turned to look at the other youth and eyed him suspiciously. “Who are you? Why are you here?”

The youth paused and smiled. He cupped his hands together. “This humble one is surnamed Nie, name Huaisang. What might your honorable name be?”

“Nie Huaisang,” Meng Yao repeated.

Nie Huaisang laughed. “That’s my name.”

Meng Yao ignored him with a small smile. “This humble one is surnamed Meng, name Yao.”

Nie Huaisang’s brows furrowed for a moment before his eyes grew wide. He gasped and took wide steps to stand in front of Meng Yao. “Meng Yao? So, it’s you!”

“What? You’ve grown big, so you don’t want to call me ‘ge’ anymore?” Meng Yao grinned.

“How shameless,” the fan snapped open. “You calculate for yourself how many months apart we are and then ask your conscience if I should still refer to you as ‘ge’,” Nie Huaisang laughed.

He let out a long, frivolous sigh. “Unless you married my brother and became my brother-in-law, don’t dream about me calling you ‘ge’ again in this lifetime.”

Meng Yao scoffed. “Who wants to marry your brother?”

“Many people.”

“Oh?”

“…There’s at least one,” Nie Huaisang said after clearing his throat.

Meng Yao laughed. He glanced at Xue Yang and then back at Nie Huaisang. “Were you serious about offering us a place to stay tonight?”

“Of course! Our Unclean Realm is opened to you at any time,” Nie Huaisang grinned. He sighed and clicked his tongue as he ushered the two boys off the boat. “You don’t know how worried my brother was a few months ago when he found out you were going off on your own.”

“What does he have to be worried about?” Meng Yao laughed.

“He said that you’re normally so responsible, it makes no sense for you to suddenly leave at such a short notice. And it turned out he was right,” Nie Huaisang quirked an eyebrow. “Something had happened.”

Meng Yao’s smile froze. “…Did he…ask Sect Leader and Madam Yu?”

“Mn. And then he got very angry for a few weeks,” Nie Huaisang sighed. “That temper of his sure is getting worse and worse. But now that you’re here, he’ll probably mellow back down.”

Meng Yao laughed. “What did he get mad for?”

“He was angry that you never told him anything,” Nie Huaisang’s smile faded a little and he looked at Meng Yao seriously. “Upset that you didn’t think to rely on him.”

Meng Yao held Nie Huaisang’s gaze for a moment before chuckling. He looked away as he rubbed at the hilt of his sword, hidden in his sleeve. “Everyone has their own problems in life, why bother others with your issues?”

Nie Huaisang watched Meng Yao silently for a moment. He knew how much his own brother ranted to Meng Yao. There had been a few times where he had caught a peek at the letters. It was mainly vague sect matters with a lot of it being about himself. Sometimes, Nie Mingjue would even talk about someone who was trying to throw themselves at him that week. Meng Yao’s responses were along the same vein. It wasn’t too courteous and wasn’t distant, so it made it feel as if the two had a mutual dependance on each other.

But in the past two years, it turned out Meng Yao’s mother’s health had been deteriorating and Meng Yao had been silently enduring it himself.

“It’s not bothering, it’s just relying on someone when you aren’t at your best.”

“Who said I wasn’t at my best?” Meng Yao tilted his chin haughtily. He smiled. “Don’t be so serious, A-Sang. It doesn’t suit you.”

At those words, Nie Huaisang began to smile again, though what he was really thinking had already been buried deep in his heart.

By the time they made it back to the Unclean Realm, the sun had already set below the horizon. The servants and disciples greeted Nie Huaisang with a joyful expression, but before they could even cross the threshold of the main hall, a loud bang resounded, silencing the surroundings of the Unclean Realm.

From the back hallway, a tall man emerged. His expression was dark as his eyes focused in on his younger brother. The man wore crisp olive robes, lined with gold. His hair was pulled back into a topknot by a golden crown, much like Nie Huaisang’s. It was unknown what he had been doing previously, but his robes sat about his waist, revealing only the darker underrobe. Sweat gleaned his jawline and the ferocity in his gaze was enough to make one’s knees weak.

However, Nie Huaisang greeted this ferocious man with a smile.

Da-ge!”

“What da-ge?” Nie Mingjue glared at him. “I told you to go on a night-hunt and go practice, but you actually went on a pleasure boat?! What are you doing back so early? It’s just gotten dark. You better take your ass outside right now and bring back a head for me to see before you come back and call me your brother!”

Nie Huaisang clicked his tongue and sighed. “Da-ge, why are you acting so ferocious for? I told you before that I wasn’t going to go on a night-hunt, why would you even think otherwise. And I really was going to spend the night out, since you insisted, but I found someone so I decided to bring them back.”

Nie Mingjue hated iron for not becoming steel. He swallowed back a bellyful of anger and turned his attention to the two guests his younger brother had brought over. The first was a child, who couldn’t have been older than ten. The child was just the type of company Nie Mingjue expected his brother to keep, shifty-eyed and impish. However, the teenager…the teenager…

Nie Mingjue’s anger dissipated in the blink of an eye. “Yaoyao?”

“Five years and you can still recognize him,” Nie Huaisang murmured. “Who knows if he’d even recognize his own brother in five years?”

The only reason Nie Mingjue recognized him was because Meng Yao bore a strong resemblance to his mother. If it weren’t for that, perhaps Nie Mingjue would have to be prompted several times. After all, Meng Yao’s temperament had changed from innocent to calm. His eyes no longer carried the enlivened spark and his lips simply curved into a gentle smile.

“Ming-ge,” Meng Yao smiled. “It’s been a long time.”

Nie Mingjue stepped forward and looked him up and down before glancing at Nie Huaisang. “How could you end up shorter than Huaisang?”

The smile on Meng Yao’s face faltered. He heard Xue Yang’s snicker and felt Nie Huaisang’s awkward gaze.

“For A-Sang to be this short when you’re that tall is already a feat in itself. There’s no need to ask me how I grew shorter than him,” Meng Yao bit out.

 “Wait—why are you dragging me into this? I wasn’t the one who called you short!”

Seeing Meng Yao’s prickly appearance, Nie Mingjue’s lips began to curve, but he soon frowned again. “Are you okay?”

“Me?” Meng Yao looked at Nie Mingjue quizzically. “I’m fine.”

Nie Mingjue observed Meng Yao closely. Finally, he sighed and gave his hair a ruffle. “Alright. If you don’t want to talk about it, then you don’t have to.”

Meng Yao began to tense under Nie Mingjue’s hand. It had been a while since he had last felt another person’s warmth. Since Meng Shi had grown sick, the contact they made grew less and less. Even when she did hug him, it had been as if a soft wind was blowing by. For a moment, Meng Yao wanted to draw closer and place his forehead against Nie Mingjue’s chest.

In fact, he was very tired. He had just fought a ghost and then traveled by sword to the Unclean Realm. To say his spiritual energy was near depleted wouldn’t be an over exaggeration. Not to mention, his head was throbbing. Without even having to find a doctor, he knew that he had developed a mild fever again. His throat was parched. His limbs ached. He didn’t feel like smiling and almost wanted to throw a tantrum.

However, his head remained lowered as Nie Mingjue’s hand rested on his head. Then he felt it move to his forehead.

“Why are you so warm?” Nie Mingjue’s brows furrowed.

“Huh?”

Nie Mingjue frowned and compared Meng Yao’s temperature to his own. Nie Mingjue normally ran warmer than regular people, but even then, Meng Yao felt hotter than him. “You’re running a fever.”

“Fever?” Nie Huaisang looked at Meng Yao in alarm.

“It’s nothing,” Meng Yao dismissed it easily, but after a wound was point out, it would always feel more distinct. The discomfort in Meng Yao’s body seemed to flare after his own acknowledgement.

“Could it be when you fell into the water earlier?” Nie Huaisang asked worriedly.

“You fell into the water?” Nie Mingjue felt his heart sore.

The worry in his voice didn’t match the weight of a few simple words. It was summer—what did it matter if he had fallen into the water?

“I’m fine,” Meng Yao reassured them.

Seeing this, Xue Yang frowned in dissatisfaction. “If you were fine, you wouldn’t have passed out for an hour.”

Nie Mingjue’s expression grew grave. He turned to a servant. “Call for a doctor.”

“Where is there going to be a doctor at this time of night?” Meng Yao argued.

“Where would there not be?” Nie Mingjue questioned back. “The night is still early.”

“You don’t need to find a doctor, it’s just a mild cold. I’ll be fine after some rest,” Meng Yao said.

“If it’s a cold and if you’re ill, you must see a doctor.”

“I didn’t catch anything, it’s a psychological response due to having fallen into the water. It happens. I’m fine,” Meng Yao insisted.

The servant hovered between the two men, unsure of whether to call for a doctor or not.

“Meng Yao, don’t argue anymore. Isn’t it just a doctor? Seeing him once isn’t going to hurt you. If you keep arguing, then my brother is going to get angry,” Nie Huaisang tried to persuade him.

Meng Yao didn’t want to see a doctor, because then he would be prescribed medicine. What was the point of drinking medicine when the fever would just go away in a day or two? It was a waste of money and a waste of time. However, upon seeing Nie Mingjue’s expression, Meng Yao decided to swallow his words and just allow for the man to call for a doctor. At any rate, it wasn’t his money.

Meng Yao was taken to a guest room and Xue Yang was given his own room. Nie Huaisang and Xue Yang seemed to have other things to discuss, leaving Nie Mingjue to watch over Meng Yao until the doctor came.

Nie Mingjue handed over a cup of water to Meng Yao, who reluctantly took it and began to take small sips.

"You were so obedient as a child. Are you going through a rebellious phase?” Nie Mingjue questioned.

“Just take it as a I am,” Meng Yao said.

Nie Mingjue sat down beside Meng Yao. His gaze softened as he placed the cup on the side table. He turned back to the other and observed him silently. After reflecting, it really wasn’t a surprise that a “sensible” child would refuse to throw a fuss just because he felt sad and uncomfortable. A lot of the times “sensible” just meant that a child was taught that they were not allowed to express themselves. As they grew older, they would remain quiet even if they were hurt, even when their opinions needed to be heard.

“I heard about what you did.”

Meng Yao glanced at Nie Mingjue. “What did I do?”

“Your name has grown in popularity,” Nie Mingjue said. “Especially after that drought ghost.”

“Oh, that?” Meng Yao lowered his head again and picked at the blanket covering his legs. “People really have nothing else to gossip about recently. Wasn’t it only a few fierce corpses and a couple of ghosts? What’s there to talk about?”

Nie Mingjue suppressed a smile. “You really think it’s nothing of note?”

Meng Yao hummed. “So many people night-hunt every day. What makes me different?”

“There are few who help every person they come across.”

“Don’t you do that?” Meng Yao asked.

“…And just what kind of person am I now?”

A sect leader—someone with a title who was respected by all.

Meng Yao was too sleepy to answer. He wiggled under the blanket and began to close his eyes. “Ming-ge, when the doctor comes, wake me up.”

Nie Mingjue smoothed the straw hairs down on Meng Yao’s head. “Mn.”

Meng Yao opened his eyes to glance at Nie Mingjue. “Are you going to sit here?”

“Why not? You’re feverish.”

“…I’m just going to sleep.”

“It’s better to have someone by your bedside when you’re ill.”

“You don’t need to.”

Nie Mingjue frowned and ruffled Meng Yao’s hair again. “Really, where did the obedient little dumpling go? All that’s left is a cheeky teenager who only knows how to reject my kindness.”

Meng Yao resisted the urge to swat Nie Mingjue’s hand away. Why did this man like messing up his hair so much? Of everyone in his two lives, only Nie Mingjue was daring enough to touch him. He had always been regarded as an unreachable flower, and untouchable male god. Who would have ever dared to be this intimate with him?

Nie Mingjue watched the growing irritation in Meng Yao’s eyes with a hint of interest. The child that resolutely hid his emotions behind a façade was slowly poking his head out.

“What? Angry?”

“I wouldn’t dare,” Meng Yao smiled flatteringly.

This type of smile came so naturally that Nie Mingjue was temporarily thrown off guard. It was sweet without a hint of artificialness. If it weren’t for Nie Mingjue taking into account the last few seconds of their interaction, he would definitely believe it.

Instead of further pursuing this matter, Nie Mingjue brought his hand away from Meng Yao’s head and remained where he was by his bed. Meng Yao watched him silently until his eyelids began to droop again. He curled into the blankets until it was only the back of his head peeking out.

When the doctor arrived, Nie Mingjue pressed a finger to his lips and stood to allow the doctor room to diagnose Meng Yao. However, because Meng Yao was curled too tightly on himself, it was a bit difficult to access his wrist at first.

The doctor let out a small sigh. “The only time I’ve seen anyone sleep like this were those orphans that would come to my son-in-law’s school for shelter.”

Nie Mingjue glanced at the doctor.

“When a person feels unsafe, or is insecure, they will normally adopt such a tight sleeping posture in order to protect themselves,” the old doctor shook his head. He stood and packed up his things. “He only has a slight fever. Keep him cool, and give him the medicine twice a day after a meal.”

Nie Mingjue nodded and called someone to see the doctor out. He waved down another servant and asked them to bring over a water basin and a towel, before returning to Meng Yao’s side. He settled down and gently tugged the blanket from Meng Yao’s clenched hands.

The youth shifted uncomfortable, but eventually turned back over. His brows were knit tightly and his jaw was clenched to the point that Nie Mingjue could hear him quietly grinding his teeth.

Nie Mingjue reached out but was unsure of what to do. He gently pushed at Meng Yao’s jaw, hoping to loosen up his grip. He wasn’t sure if it worked, but perhaps the sudden touch broke Meng Yao from whatever nightmare he had been embroiled in. His jaw slowly relaxed, but his brows were still tightly furrowed. He moved away from Nie Mingjue, only to be turned back onto his back once the servant came with a basin of water.

Meng Yao felt a cold towel be pressed against his forehead. His eyelids fluttered open and he looked at Nie Mingjue with narrowed eyes.

“Did I wake?” Nie Mingjue asked.

“Isn’t it late? Go sleep,” Meng Yao patted the towel on his forehead subconsciously.

“You sleep first.”

Meng Yao pulled the blanket higher up so it nearly covered his mouth. “Ming-ge, I’m fine. It’s just a fever.”

“You don’t have to be embarrassed. You’re still a child, so you don’t have to act so strong.”

Who’s acting strong? Meng Yao wanted to roll his eyes. Since he was five, he had been taking care of himself. When it came to fevers, colds, or any other illness that most children would throw a tantrum about, Meng Yao had learned to calmly sleep and drink water until everything passed. When he was in college, there had even been a time when his fever ran so high his roommate nearly took him to the hospital, but it had been winter break then and he needed to catch a flight. After reassuring his roommate he would be fine, his roommate really left. Meng Yao didn’t end up going to the hospital and after a few days, he was perfectly fine again.

To be fussed over because of such a small fever…Meng Yao felt out of sorts.

“Take it as me wanting to spoil you then,” Nie Mingjue saw Meng Yao’s wooden expression and finally conceded. “I’m used to taking care of my little brother. If I don’t take care of someone, I feel uncomfortable.”

Meng Yao laughed. He relaxed back against his pillow and slowly closed his eyes. “You should still go to sleep.”

“I’ll go after you fall asleep.”

“…Mn,” Meng Yao allowed his sleepiness to get a grip around him again.

He was too tired to insist anymore.

Chapter Text

The husky stuffed animal in his arms had been thrown aside once more. It hit the glass doors that led out to the balcony and pitifully slid to the floor. Meng Yao’s eyes widened and he scrambled for the toy, but was yanked back by his wrist as the woman’s hysterical cries entered his ears. She was repeating her same, drunk, hysteric speech again. What was special about it? She reprimanded him for being an animal, called him a bastard, insulted him and made remarks that shouldn’t be said to a child to begin with.

Meng Yao had heard these all before. He had been hearing them since he was old enough to understand Mandarin. He ignored the pain around his wrist and tried to fling it off, but he kept getting dragged back. He felt the slender hand land a heavy slap across his face. Even before it registered, he could already feel it swelling.

“Why do you keep going for that stupid stuffed husky!? Is it because of what that stupid woman said?” the woman holding on to his wrist picked the husky up, her hand tightening around its neck as if she wanted to strangle it.

Meng Yao opened his mouth and release a few short grunts, but wasn’t unable to form a proper sentence. He dug his nails into the woman’s arm and tried to reach for the stuffed animal.

“Just because someone shows you a bit of kindness, you think that they actually like you? That they actually care about you?!”

The unresponsive child finally began to cry. Meng Yao’s expression pinched tightly as he shouted for his toy. “Mom! Mom, give it back!”

“Finally willing to talk?” the woman shoved Meng Yao against the couch. “Let me tell you, that stupid bitch is dead! She’s not coming back, so stop waiting outside her apartment every day! It’s embarrassing!”

Meng Yao watched as the husky was thrown back onto the ground. He remained where he was until the woman shoved her feet into her heels and left the apartment for who knows where.

He scrambled for the husky and hugged it closer to his chest. He pressed his nose against the back of the husky’s head and suppressed his crying. Of course, he knew the pretty lady wouldn’t be back. He had seen how badly her patron had treated her, but wasn’t that woman fine after even her worst guests? If she was fine, why couldn’t someone as nice as the pretty lady also be fine?

Meng Yao huddled closer into himself.

If you’re ever too scared, then hug this, okay? Huskies are extremely loyal and silly dogs—he’ll definitely protect you.

The child’s trembling breathing soon evened out. The tears receded. The room fell into silence. In fact, he really wasn’t stupid enough to think a toy could protect him. But there hadn’t been anyone who said that he had protection before, so it was just nice to indulge a little. But after indulging, a person would eventually have to wake up.

In this world, the only person who could protect you was yourself.

Meng Yao felt a hand gently patting his chest. His brows furrowed and he groaned.

“Yaoyao,” a deep voice entered his dreams, dredging him from the darkness that he had eventually slipped into. “Yaoyao, wake up.”

Meng Yao’s consciousness returned before he had even opened his eyes.

He had already died once, now he was living on borrowed time.

His eyes flew open and looked up at Nie Mingjue. The sun hadn’t risen yet and the room was enveloped in darkness. Meng Yao’s gaze drifted down to the ground. He looked at the blankets and the pillow beside his bed before looking back up at Nie Mingjue.

“You were screaming,” Nie Mingjue said. “Did you have a nightmare?”

With the fever, there were always nightmares. “Mn. I’m fine though.”

Nie Mingjue watched him silently. “I’m fine” and “I’m fine though” were probably the words Nie Mingjue had heard the most since he met Meng Yao again. He sat down on the edge of Meng Yao’s bed.

“Do you want to talk about it?” Nie Mingjue asked. “Whenever Huaisang talks about it, he sleeps better after.”

“I was deluding myself,” Meng Yao heard himself say.

“…Deluding yourself?”

“Mn,” Meng Yao lifted a hand to feel his own temperature as he tossed aside the towel. “Someone once told me a silly toy could protect me and I pretended like I believed them. After growing up, I feel that maybe I shouldn’t have even pretended.”

Sometimes, when you continuously lie to yourself, the thing you hope will happen will come true. However, most of the time, when you repeatedly deceive yourself, what remains is still a lie and you’ve done nothing but make yourself a fool.

“Why are you sleeping on the floor?” Meng Yao pulled his knees up to his chest and rested his chin against them.

“I wanted a change of scenery,” Nie Mingjue said.

“Sleep on your own floor then,” Meng Yao suggested.

“I happen to like this floor better.”

“Oh,” Meng Yao blinked at him silently before turning away again.

Nie Mingjue scoffed. “How’s your fever? Is it gone?”

“Gone,” Meng Yao stuck out his head for Nie Mingjue to check himself.

“It’s still a little warm,” Nie Mingjue murmured. “It’s better to drink some medicine in the morning just in case.”

“That’s so troublesome.”

“It’s your own body, you should take care of it,” Nie Mingjue said. “If Jiang Cheng refused to drink medicine, would you let him?”

“Of course not. When A-Cheng runs a fever, it gets really bad,” Meng Yao said. “Without drinking medicine, it won’t dispel. But I’m not like that.”

“Mm-hm. You’re so powerful, just so great,” Nie Mingjue rolled his eyes.

“What kind of attitude is that?” Meng Yao grumbled. “I’m being serious.”

“Oh, is that so?” Nie Mingjue quirked an eyebrow.

Meng Yao closed his mouth and lowered his head. He felt that, in his discomfort, he had already revealed too much of his true self in front of Nie Mingjue. But his gentle image had already been destroyed, so there wasn’t much else he could do about it. It felt nice not having to act like he wasn’t grumpy when he was sick, so he will just continue until the fever is finished.

A slight pout emerged on Meng Yao’s face. He looked up at Nie Mingjue with furrowed brows. “You’re so mean to a sick person.”

The one sentence sent an electric shock through Nie Mingjue. A short laugh escaped his lips. “I’m worrying about you.”

“You’re mean about it,” Meng Yao continued to express his dissatisfaction. He puffed out a sigh. “I miss my shijie. She’s so much gentler when she coaxes me to drink medicine.”

Hearing Meng Yao’s nasally whining, Nie Mingjue’s heart began to feel less tense. “Apologies, I don’t have the gentleness of a sweet girl.”

“You don’t have to be a girl to know how to coax a person. I coax people all the time,” Meng Yao whined. “You’re just bad at it.”

“I only know how to fight and yell at people—where would I ever learn to coax people?”

“Prickly,” Meng Yao clicked his tongue. “How are you going to find a wife in the future if you can’t coax someone?”

“Then, I’ll have to find someone who doesn’t want to be coaxed.”

“Mm…that’s a good plan,” Meng Yao approved. “Maybe there is hope for you.”

Nie Mingjue bit back his laughter. “Besides, in order for people to know to coax someone, the other party needs to be willing to show some weakness.”

“Aren’t I? Ming-ge, my throat is dry,” Meng Yao tugged on Nie Mingjue’s sleeve pitifully.

Nie Mingjue stood and poured him a cup of water. He returned and handed it to Meng Yao, who took it with two hands.

“Hm…I supposed there are people who like this type of straightforward action,” Meng Yao nodded. “But you definitely can’t find a whiny girl. She’ll be heartbroken and you’ll be annoyed.”

Nie Mingjue finally couldn’t hold back and laughed. How could Meng Yao say such absurd things when he was sick?

“I don’t even plan on getting married,” Nie Mingjue said. “Why are you already planning things for me?”

“Why not? Isn’t it nice to have a family?” Meng Yao asked. He rested his cheek on his knees as he looked up at Nie Mingjue. “I think you would be a good husband. Or a good dad.”

“Can’t be both?”

“Or both,” Meng Yao shrugged.

“Will you get married?”

“Me?” Meng Yao thought about it. His gaze growing distant. He shook his head. “I wouldn’t be a good partner.”

“Why?”

“Too distant,” Meng Yao recalled some things his ex-boyfriends had told him. “I can act like I’m in love, but my eyes are always dull.”

Nie Mingjue raised an eyebrow at such specific criticisms. “Has someone told you that before?”

“It’s something I thought up,” Meng Yao replied with a hint of mocking in his tone.

“Well, you are a bit distant. We write letters to each other so often, yet you didn’t even tell me when…”

“That’s different,” Meng Yao said.

“Oh?”

“You’re a sect leader. You have your own matters to deal with,” Meng Yao said. “Why should I trouble you with my own issues?”

“We’re friends,” Nie Mingjue said. “Friends rely on each other. Besides, it wasn’t something childish, like you had been bumped into while going to the market, how could you just keep your silence like that?”

Meng Yao snuck a glance at Nie Mingjue. The man was obviously getting worked up.

“Unless it was my one-sided friendship.”

[Ding. Host, Nie Mingjue is getting angry. As he has a special constitution, it is advised that Host proceed with caution.]

Tongtong hadn’t appeared in quite a few months, so its sudden appearance startled Meng Yao. He was brought back into himself with several reminders: One—this was a novel that he had transmigrated into. Two—this was his mission target.

“How could that be?” Meng Yao pulled on his professional face again. He straightened up and appeared somewhat indignant. “I think of you as my older brother!”

Nie Mingjue watched Meng Yao with a raised brow.

Meng Yao bounced back and forth. “Tongtong, am I too old to act cute?”

[Nie Huaisang does it all the time.]

“But that’s his real brother, I’m only his penpal!”

[Host, if it helps you make a decision, you are much cuter than Nie Huaisang.]

Meng Yao reached out and meekly tugged at Nie Mingjue’s sleeve. His voice softened several degrees. “You don’t believe me?”

He lowered his head and decided to act pitiful. What was there to lose? His body had just turned fifteen this year, and Nie Mingjue always had a soft spot for those around his brother’s age. If he could earn back his target’s love and affection—wait, that’s not right—if he could earn back his target’s trust and friendship, then Meng Yao was willing to even whine a few times.

He had placed so much effort fostering a relationship with Nie Mingjue the past five years—if he gave up now, he’d rather be a dog!

“I’m just not used to having someone to tell things to,” Meng Yao said, burrowing his head further into his robes. “Although I have A-Cheng and my shijie and A-Xian, technically I’m still a servant. I have to take care of them. My mother is a good woman, but I never wanted to worry her. And Sect Leader Jiang, although he’s technically my shizun, our relationship isn’t much closer than it would be with an outer sect disciple.

“Ming-ge, you’re…the first person I can wholeheartedly consider my friend. I didn’t want to bother you when you were busy enough already. There’s not much time for you to read my letters…I didn’t want to fill them with sad things.”

As expected, Nie Mingjue’s big brother heart was melted into a pile of goop. He threw his arm over Meng Yao’s shoulder and gave his head a hard rub.

“What kind of lousy excuses are you making up?” although his words were harsh, the tone he used was gentle.

[Ding. Congratulations Host, Nie Mingjue’s favorability value has risen to 50.]

Fifty was entering the threshold of a close friend or what one would feel for their siblings. Meng Yao hid his surprise and leaned reliantly against Nie Mingjue. His headache was returning and he didn’t want to move around too much.

“They’re not excuses,” Meng Yao weakly protested. He glanced at Nie Mingjue. “But…does this mean if I ever encounter troubles, I can come to you?”

Nie Mingjue scoffed. “Would you actually? From what I see, with your personality, you would just shrug it off and say you’re okay.”

Meng Yao grinned. “If there’s someone around me that I can rely on, naturally I would start relying on them more.”

Like hell he would.

Nie Mingjue pinched Meng Yao’s cheek. “Of course, you can come to me. In fact, I wish you would come to me.”

Meng Yao allowed his cheek to be pinched, but after pinching, Nie Mingjue concernedly checked Meng Yao’s temperature again. “How come its risen?”

“Fevers do that,” Meng Yao said with a careless shrug.

Nie Mingjue paused. “You…did you get fevers a lot as a child?”

Not in this life, Meng Yao thought to himself. “Children get sick all the time. It’s nothing strange.”

Meng Yao couldn’t read Nie Mingjue’s expression in the dark, but if he could, he would feel at a loss. This sect leader was obviously filling in all his knowledge gaps about Meng Yao by crafting a pitiful backstory that explained why he didn’t like relying on others and why he always kept his troubles to himself.

In cases like this, sometimes ignorance was bliss. One person didn’t know the other had misunderstood while the other answered his bellyful of questions by himself.

“Sleep now,” Nie Mingjue patted Meng Yao’s chest as he tucked the teenager in. After a moment, he added. “I’ll be here if you have another nightmare.”

Meng Yao glanced at Nie Mingjue’s silhouette in the darkness and closed his eyes without another word.

When he woke up in the morning, he was greeted by a table full of breakfast and a bowl of medicine. Xue Yang watched him intensely with his rounded eyes. Although it shocked him, Meng Yao was also reminded of a stray cat that always hung around their dormitory. Whenever his roommate would forget to close the window, the cat would jump in and lay on his chest to stare at him, just like this.

“Yangyang, you’re awake?”

Gege, if you’re awake, you should get ready for the day. I’m hungry.”

So that was why he was being stared at so intensely.

Meng Yao let out an absentminded hum. He stood and allowed Xue Yang to drag him around and help him get ready for the day. Only when the pair were seated at the table did Meng Yao regain himself. He watched Xue Yang curiously and glanced around.

“Once you finish eating, you have to drink medicine,” Xue Yang said seriously.

“Oh.”

“If you don’t, I’m going to tell Chifeng-zun,” Xue Yang grumbled as he bit at his chopsticks.

Meng Yao narrowed his eyes. “Hold on, when did you become a tattletale?”

Xue Yang reached into his sleeve and set down a bag of candy before he turned back to his breakfast.

Meng Yao scoffed and set his bowl down. He grabbed the embroidered pouch and shook it. “How come it’s filled to the brim?”

“A liar told me that he would refill it once we made it to our next destination, and our next destination was reached, but there was still no candy, so I went to go find some once we arrived here,” Xue Yang grumbled unhappily.

He was just like a cat.

Meng Yao sighed and placed the pouch back down in front of Xue Yang. “So, Ming-ge got you candy, and now your allegiance is with him?”

“Am I that cheap? Just a bag of candy?” Xue Yang puffed out his chest. He smirked slyly and lifted another bag. He shook it. “Do you hear that?”

Meng Yao gasped and reached out to snatch it, but Xue Yang was faster and quickly hid it. “You scheming—how did you get so much money!?”

“Allowance money from Sang-gege,” Xue Yang smiled sweetly as he batted his eyelashes. He shoved a bite of fish into his mouth. “In fact, I’m also doing this for you, ge. Aren’t you always complaining about running out of money? Now you can just lay around like…what was it?”

Xue Yang tapped the plate of fish. “Like a salted fish. You don’t have to work for money anymore. Aren’t I the best?”

“Best my ass—give the money back to them after this.”

“No,” Xue Yang snorted. “Returning a gift is rude. Why should I listen to you anyway? You fall in the water and get sick—weakling.”

“You—”

“Bleh,” Xue Yang stuck out his tongue like a petulant child and harrumphed. “Who the hell says they want to be a salted fish anyway? Is it good to say you want to be a corpse? You must have smacked your head as a child and gone crazy.”

“Wah, you—your tongue is just wiggling all over the place today, isn’t it?” Meng Yao placed his bowl and chopsticks down. “If you weren’t a kid, I’d beat you up!”

“Beat me up—do it,” Xue Yang tilted his chin.

Meng Yao stood and rounded the table.

“Wait, don’t actually—ah!”

The horrified scream reached Nie Mingjue’s and Nie Huaisang’s ears. The pair of brothers glanced at each other before pushing the door open without knocking.

Meng Yao had Xue Yang by the waist and had slung him over his shoulder. “Are you going to apologize?”

“Who’d apologize to you?! Crazy motherfucker!”

“If I’m a motherfucker, then what are you? A saint?” Meng Yao rolled his eyes and shook him a few times. “Apologize or not?”

“Not apologizing!”

“If you don’t apologize, I’ll tie you to a tree and steal all your candy.”

“Do it, you won’t,” Xue Yang bit Meng Yao’s back.

Meng Yao screamed and dropped Xue Yang onto the ground. “What are you dog?! Why are you biting?”

“Are you a gorilla? Why are you grabbing people?” Xue Yang scrunched his nose. He glanced at the open door and ran over to Nie Huaisang. “Sang-gege, Yao-gege is bullying me!”

Meng Yao rolled up his sleeves. “I save you from the streets and you do this as soon as you’re bribed.”

“Sang-gege, Yao-gege is so scary,” Xue Yang buried himself in Nie Huaisang’s sleeve.

Nie Huaisang laughed, thoroughly entertained by these two self-proclaimed brothers. He rubbed Xue Yang’s head and tried to coax Xue Yang from his sleeve to no avail.

Nie Mingjue glanced at them helplessly and then looked at Meng Yao.

A small smile sat on his face as his hands hung at his side. He watched Xue Yang with the same tenderness he used to look at Jiang Cheng when he was younger.

“This is how it should be,” Meng Yao sighed. “Just like a regular child.”

[Ding. Nie Mingjue’s favorability value has risen to 53 points. Please continue your hard work, Host.]

Chapter Text

“…Why? I haven’t done anything,” Meng Yao looked up at Nie Mingjue, who had been watching him concentratedly.

[…Perhaps it’s Host’s innate charm.]

“Innate charm? What the hell is that?” Meng Yao panicked. “No, no. This is bad. Fifty is fine—fifty means that he kind of trusts me, right? Like, we’re friends?”

[Fifty doesn’t exactly constitute as friendship. It is more that he has good feelings.]

“Yeah! Yeah, that’s…how do I stop it?” Meng Yao quickly averted his gaze.

[…You’d have to make him hate you, Host.]

Meng Yao froze. But if Nie Mingjue hates him, then he would most likely meet an unfortunate end when he inevitably has to…Meng Yao shook his head. “Fine, whatever. Let him keep liking me then. It’s not like anything is going to come out of it.”

Thankfully, Meng Yao’s illness came and went like the flicker of a candle flame. Although he had been exceedingly hot the night before, he was perfectly healthy again once he awoke. Hearing this, Nie Mingjue was comforted, but still insisted on having Meng Yao stay a few more days.

“There’s no need,” Meng Yao said with a small frown. “All I need to do is avoid water again. Besides, Ming-ge is so busy, I wouldn’t want to disturb you.”

“You aren’t disturbing me,” Nie Mingjue said. He patted Meng Yao’s shoulder. “Just stay a few more days and rest. If you don’t, then I’ll be worrying about you.”

Meng Yao hesitated. Aside from grabbing Xue Yang, Meng Yao truly had no other plans. He had only thought to wander around, take in some sights, and to train. However, remaining at the Qinghe Nie Sect felt a bit…

“Are you that reluctant to stay?” Nie Mingjue asked, sounding slightly hurt.

Meng Yao met Nie Mingjue’s gaze. Just last night, he had tried to mend their relationship. If Meng Yao cruelly said “no” now, Nie Mingjue would probably be upset, wouldn’t he?

“…I’ll stay. I’m just worried you won’t have enough food to feed that kid,” Meng Yao tilted his chin towards Xue Yang.

Nie Mingjue glanced back at Xue Yang and looked at Meng Yao again. “Our sect isn’t poor—we’ll be able to feed another child. By the way, how did you…”

“He stole my wallet and I caught him,” Meng Yao said. He fell silent for half a beat. “Afterwards, I thought he seemed pitiful, so I bought him clothes, bought him food, and asked if he wanted to cultivate.”

“So, you’re his shizun?”

“As if,” Meng Yao scoffed. “But, from what I’ve taught him, I can tell that he’s got a high aptitude.”

Meng Yao glanced at Nie Mingjue and smiled. “Do you want to take him?”

Nie Mingjue looked back at Xue Yang, who was reading Nie Huaisang’s homework with furrowed brows. He chuckled. “I’m not in the position to teach anyone. But he seems like a good kid.”

“Tongtong!” Meng Yao screamed out in his heart. “Did you hear that?!”

[Yes, Host.]

In the novel, Xue Yang was a scourge that Nie Mingjue was determined to be rid of but, right now, at this moment, to the young sect leader, Xue Yang had been stuffed with the title “good kid”. What was this earth shatter reversal!?

Meng Yao couldn’t control his emotions in time and revealed a proud look for a split second. Nie Mingjue caught sight of it and looked away with a smile.

“It’s probably because he has someone good to teach him,” Nie Mingjue continued.

“Someone good?” Meng Yao appeared confused. Xue Yang was an orphan that happened to tag along with him. Who in the world would be “good” enough to teach him?

Meng Yao met Nie Mingjue’s gaze. Nie Mingjue raised his brows slightly and Meng Yao let out a short laugh. “No—no, Ming-ge, don’t be mistaken. I haven’t done anything. He’s just…he’s just like that.”

[Host, it isn’t good to lie.]

“Then what am I supposed to say? I sit down with him every night and inject chicken noodle soup into him? What kind of fifteen year old normally does that? I’m not Buddhist.”

Tongtong fell silent, but couldn’t find the words to refute.

However, no matter what Meng Yao said, Nie Mingjue had already crafted his own story again. The gaze he used to look at Meng Yao appeared gentler.

“…He doesn’t really think I’m Guanyin, right?”

[…Amitabha.]

Meng Yao directly muted Tongtong and made his way over to Xue Yang under Nie Mingjue’s observant gaze. He sat down and glanced at what Xue Yang was looking over. “What’s this?”

“Sang-gege’s homework,” Xue Yang said. He pushed it to Meng Yao. “Yao-ge, you can do this, can’t you?”

It was a series of questions, mainly asking about cultivation. Meng Yao raised a brow and looked around. “Where’s your Sang-gege? Why’d he leave you alone with his work?”

“He said he wanted to drink some tea, so he ran to the kitchen,” Xue Yang explained.

Meng Yao stared at Xue Yang blankly. It wasn’t likely that Nie Huaisang had expected Xue Yang to complete his work, but if Xue Yang had held onto Nie Huaisang’s homework, he would be able to get out of doing it. Meng Yao looked up at Nie Mingjue, who had brushed aside his robes to sit down beside Meng Yao.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” Meng Yao pushed the work back to Xue Yang and pretended as if he didn’t see through the little ploy. “Ming-ge, don’t you have work to do? Is it okay for you to accompany us?”

Nie Mingjue sighed. “I do have work, but…”

Meng Yao raised a brow.

Nie Mingjue leaned closer and whispered, “I don’t want to do it right now.”

Meng Yao leaned back and looked at Nie Mingjue incredulously. In his impression, Nie Mingjue always appeared to be a workaholic. If this had been a modern day novel, perhaps Nie Mingjue would fit the domineering CEO archetype. Even in the letters they had exchanged, Nie Mingjue was always hardworking, never taking a break even when he was allowed to.

Nie Mingjue didn’t allow Meng Yao to process the information just now. “Actually, Xichen is arriving soon. Since Huaisang is here, and the Unclean Realm is rather safe, how about the three of us…”

Meng Yao met Nie Mingjue’s gaze.

“We can call it a night hunt.”

“Call it a night hunt”—wasn’t that implying that they weren’t actually going on a night hunt?

“Xichen is…but Ming-ge, I’m not familiar with Zewu-jun.”

“It’s always good to make friends at your age. Besides, the age gap isn’t that big,” Nie Mingjue said. He rubbed Meng Yao’s head. “If we can be considered friends, it’d be easier for you and Xichen to get along.”

Meng Yao hesitated. He glanced at Xue Yang and then at Nie Mingjue.

“Really, who knew the valiant Chifeng-zun had this side to him?”

Meng Yao remembered to unmute Tongtong. [Host, this is a good chance to get to know Lan Xichen. It wouldn’t hurt to go.]

“I suppose, but—”

[Ding, congratulations Host—you have triggered the side mission: A Summer Night. Accept or reject?]

…Meng Yao really regretted unmuting the system.

When night had fallen, Nie Mingjue stepped out to receive Lan Xichen, who had agreed to come to help soothe Nie Mingjue’s inner demons.

Nie Huaisang excitedly went to find Lan Xichen to talk, but was instead given a befuddled Xue Yang. He watched as his older brother grabbed Meng Yao along with Lan Xichen and shouted over his shoulder.

“Watch over the Unclean Realm while I’m gone.”

“What? Wait—Da-ge, where are you going?” Nie Huaisang took a few steps forward. Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen had already flown off, dragging Meng Yao behind him. Nie Huaisang remained slack jawed at the sight and could only sigh and pull the ten-year-old child by his side away. He had resigned to the idea of babysitting.

Meng Yao had still been tossing between accept or reject all day. The moment he was pulled away, the words “accept” glowed and the mission statement appeared in front of him. It said a few poetic lines, before stating that Meng Yao must spend time with Lan Xichen and Nie Mingjue to “cultivate good feelings” and “achieve a bond of brotherhood”.

“If I really achieve a bond of brotherhood with these two, I’ll be the one to kick them into their graves.”

[Host, you aren’t Jin Guangyao and you aren’t nearly as ambitious. Befriending them is fine.]

“This young master just doesn’t like making friends! What can you do about it?” Meng Yao snapped with a scowl on his face.

Nie Mingjue glanced at Meng Yao and laughed.  He pinched Meng Yao’s cheek. “Yaoyao, what’s with that expression?”

“Ming-xiong, you’re holding Young Master Meng like that, of course, he’d be displeased,” Lan Xichen sighed helplessly.

“Who told him to not move quickly enough. In that situation, you have to move swiftly to get out of there! You could totally tell that kid was going to ask questions. What would I have said? You’re not supposed to lie to children,” Nie Mingjue said righteously.

Meng Yao, who was being carried like a sack, could only laugh hollowly. “Ming-ge, you’re really good with your words. Now that we’re far enough away, could you put me down?”

“Why? Isn’t it good like this?” Nie Mingjue teased. He frowned slightly and touched Meng Yao’s waist. “How can your waist be so thin though? I can practically feel your ribcage—do you not eat enough?”

Meng Yao’s head exploded into fireworks. He squirmed slightly but was held tightly against Nie Mingjue’s side, so that both of them wouldn’t fall to their deaths. Lan Xichen looked at the youth sympathetically and turned to Nie Mingjue.

“Ming-xiong, isn’t this far enough? Let’s just land for now.”

Nie Mingjue was surprisingly obedient towards Lan Xichen. The swords were landed and Meng Yao jumped away like a frightened cat.

[Host, your heart rate has spiked.]

“I hate when people touch my waist!” Meng Yao exclaimed, not even bothering to retain any semblance of composure.

Nie Mingjue was too busy trying to decide where the three of them would go to eat dinner to notice Meng Yao’s distressed expression. Lan Xichen glanced at the youth and moved a safe distance closer. He smiled gently.

“Hello, Young Master Meng. I don’t know if you remember me, but I’m Lan Xichen.”

“Zewu-jun,” Meng Yao appeared hesitant. “We’ve…met before?”

“Mn. A long time,” Lan Xichen said. “You don’t have to call me Zewu-jun. You can just call me…”

“Call him Xichen-ge. That’s what A-Sang does.”

Lan Xichen glanced at Nie Mingjue and back to Meng Yao.

Meng Yao was obviously a person who was reluctant to get close to others, yet Nie Mingjue was oblivious to this. However, Lan Xichen thought of his own little brother and glanced at Meng Yao. He had always hoped for an outgoing person to help pull Lan Wangji from his shell, so maybe a similar method would work for Meng Yao. But, observing his expression, it was obvious that Meng Yao would only erect more walls if he were pushed too heavily.

“Call me Lan-xiong,” Lan Xichen smiled.

Meng Yao glanced at Lan Xichen and nodded politely. “Tongtong.”

[Yes, Host?]

“If we were in the 21st century, all the girls at my college would love him,” Meng Yao sighed. “Elegant and handsome—does Lan Wangji look like this too?”

[He should look similar.]

Meng Yao clicked his tongue in his mind. “That rascal is sure going to live a good life.”

[If Host is envious, you could--]

“He’s not my type. I don’t like people who treat me too gently,” Meng Yao smirked to himself. “I’m too used to be abused.”

Hearing the conversation taking such a turn, Tongtong deafened itself and went back to the system space. It really couldn’t deal with Meng Yao when he was in such a mood.

Without getting a response, Meng Yao turned his attention back to reality. He found himself being tugged ahead by Nie Mingjue, whose rough hand was wrapped tightly around his wrist. Lan Xichen was talking to Nie Mingjue about the happenings of the Gusu Lan Sect while Nie Mingjue bemoaned the mountain of work he had to do back at the Unclean Realm.

Meng Yao silently watched the two men who would later be highly respected in the cultivation world and felt a bit in awe. One was only seventeen this year while the other had just turned twenty. They were both still young and, in some ways, still naïve. In another few years, they will see the bloodied battlefield and will become hardened. These easy days of their youths will become mere memories—a time they will be unable to return to.

“Yaoyao.”

“Yes?” Meng Yao looked up.

The two men had turned back to look at him. At some point, they had made it into the city. The lanterns above cast a warm glow above their heads, allowing the redness from various decorations nearby to reflect against their skin and robes. One’s expression was concerned, while the other was questioning. Both looked at him as if waiting for his response.

“My apologies, I wasn’t listening,” Meng Yao said.

“I was asking if you wanted to go to this restaurant or the one further down,” Nie Mingjue said. “There’s honestly nothing different, unless—Oh! Yaoyao, can you drink?”

“I can,” Meng Yao nodded.

“In that case, let’s go to the one further down,” Nie Mingjue grinned. He nudged Lan Xichen. “Xichen, we’re not in Gusu.”

“The rules should be followed even if we are not in Gusu,” Lan Xichen said helplessly. “Besides, if I don’t drink, I can watch over the two of you when you drink yourself to bed, right?”

“Drinking too much is harmful for the body,” Meng Yao said to Nie Mingjue.

“I’ll just drink a little. There’s nothing wrong with a little bit,” Nie Mingjue shrugged.

The three men got a private room in the restaurant and ordered just enough for them to be full. Lan Xichen turned out to be an amazing storyteller, though most of his stories revolved around Lan Wangji. Meng Yao listened with great rapture at this man with a brother complex. He had never met Lan Wangji, but from the novel, the youth supposedly had little facial expression and spoke even less. How Lan Xichen could narrate and change their lives to have such vibrant colors was beyond him.

When Lan Xichen bragged about Lan Wangji, Nie Mingjue obviously stepped in to complain about Nie Huaisang. These two older brothers bantered back and forth, saying who was worse and who was better, comparing their little brother habits that had changed since the last time they had seen each other, and enjoying their time together.

Lan Xichen turned to the quiet Meng Yao. “Meng Yao, how is Young Master Jiang doing?”

“A-Cheng?” the name slipped from Meng Yao’s lips without a second thought. The moment Jiang Cheng was mentioned, Meng Yao’s expression softened. “He’s doing well. Before I left, he and A-Xian were still trying to determine who was the better winner.”

“A-Xian? Is that…Young Master Wei?” Lan Xichen asked.

“I see that his name proceeds him,” Meng Yao sighed with a shake of his head. “That kid—if we’re not watching closely, he always finds an excuse to run around and make trouble. Only his shijie can control him.”

“Is he that mischievous?” Lan Xichen asked in wonder. “What’s he like? I’ve only heard his name mentioned a few times.”

Meng Yao shook his head with the weariness of an old father and began to tell Wei Wuxian’s future brother-in-law about all his misdeeds. The stories of Wei Wuxian sneaking out late, kidnapping Jiang Cheng to attend various festivals, skipping out on duties, angering Madam Yu, and his impish nature were all revealed to the two men. Of course, Meng Yao didn’t forget to sprinkle in Jiang Cheng’s “good deeds” too. As the person who followed the two youths for several years, Meng Yao was the clearest about their nature.

“A-Xian is a bad influence,” Meng Yao shook his head helplessly. “But I can’t say too much about A-Cheng. The two of them are like birds of a feather.”

He lowered his head and rubbed at the cup. “I’m glad that A-Xian came though. If A-Cheng remained the way he was, I think…”

Meng Yao’s voice trailed off. He didn’t finish the thought and only drained the cup of its contents.

“When are you planning on heading back?” Nie Mingjue asked.

“Mm…not until the beginning of next year. I’ll go back for New Year’s,” Meng Yao smiled into his cup. “New Year’s at Yunmeng is the most beautiful time. I wouldn’t want to miss it.”

Meng Yao’s mind felt a little foggy. He leaned against his hand as he listened to Lan Xichen and Nie Mingjue resume their conversation. The warmth from the window, as well as the warmth from the surrounding candle light, lulled Meng Yao into a false sense of security. He found that the two men’s voices were quite nice to listen to—particularly Nie Mingjue’s. He felt that if the two men were to do a podcast together, it would garner a lot of attention.

He tried to stay awake, but his mind wandered to what his roommate often told him after they had finished an exam or were at the beginning of a break: “In a few years, those plain memories of us just eating lunch together will be enshrouded in a soft blur, and you’ll end up thinking those were the best years of your life. So, why don’t we just create more special memories, so you actually have something to remember?”

Meng Yao puffed out a laugh.

Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen glanced over.

In fact, although it had happened so naturally that it didn’t seem possible, Meng Yao had already had six bottles by himself. His head sank lower as he curled in on himself. The soft smile from before was replaced by a tightly furrowed brow.

Nie Mingjue pursed his lips and reached over to pull Meng Yao a little closer. As if attracted by the warmth, Meng Yao shuffled closer on his own, but didn’t dare lean on him.

“He drank a lot,” Lan Xichen whispered. “Did something happen?”

“…I hear his mother died,” Nie Mingjue murmured. “Not to mention, he fell into water recently. I’m not sure what it is, but whenever he falls into water, he gets a high fever. The doctor said it might be stress induced, so there may also be poor memories attached to that.”

“Ah,” Lan Xichen pursed his lips. “How pitiful.”

Nie Mingjue hummed. He adjusted himself and allowed the struggling Meng Yao to lean against him a bit more. “He’s quite pitiful.”

Lan Xichen watched him silently. “Ming-xiong.”

“Hm?”

“You should spend a bit more time with him when he’s here. I think he’d like that,” Lan Xichen smiled.

Nie Mingjue’s eyes widened for a moment before he scoffed. “You’re just trying to get me to not work, aren’t you?”

Lan Xichen’s smile widened. “Is it that obvious?”

Nie Mingjue rolled his eyes and began to admonish Lan Xichen.

But it really wasn’t just for Nie Mingjue. When Lan Xichen saw the way Meng Yao slept before Nie Mingjue approached him and after, Lan Xichen felt that the two of them could have a mutually beneficial relationship.

Chapter Text

“Yaoyao!”

Meng Yao snapped awake from his thoughts and looked up at the handsome young man, taking long strides in his direction. The young man held up a plastic bag, filled to the brim with beverages and snacks. The bag was placed down in front of Meng Yao, without regard to his belongings, and the young man sat down as well.

He grinned. “Look, I got your favorites!”

Meng Yao accepted the cream filled bread and the bottle of pear juice. He glanced down and then back at the young man. “How much was it?”

“Forget it! We’ve been roommates for three years now—what are you still going on about paying me back?” the young man grinned. He leaned closer. “Your gege has a lot of money.”

Meng Yao suppressed the urge to roll his eyes and unscrewed the bottle. “Thanks then.”

He felt a well-proportioned hand roughly mess up his hair. “That’s a good boy. Oh, right! Why are you still studying?”

Meng Yao watched his notebook leave the table and land in the hands of his silly roommate.

“You know, when you’re dating, you should devote some attention to your partner,” his roommate sighed emotionally. He held up the neat notes. “Even when you’re studying, you should invite them out!”

Meng Yao’s expression fell slightly. He reached out for the notebook. “Give it back.”

His roommate clicked his tongue. He sandwiched it under his arm as he reached into his own backpack. “Hold on, I’ll give it back after I copy the notes down. I missed Professor Luo’s class because I had to take my sister to the airport.”

Meng Yao let out a quiet sigh and went back to eating the bread he had gotten.

His roommate glanced up at him as he pulled out a pen. “But seriously—I can see how much you like that Song guy. It wouldn’t hurt to spend a bit more time with him, since the relationship is still fresh. Even if it’s just studying, I’m sure he would enjoy it. Next time, you should also invite hi—”

“We broke up.”

The young man froze. He looked up from his writing and stared at Meng Yao incredulously. “You broke—why?! Weren’t you two just fine last week?”

“It’s been a week.”

“I—I guess? But…but you liked him so much, how come you guys suddenly…” his roommate’s words trailed off. He lightly slapped his mouth. “I won’t ask anymore, okay? I won’t ask, so don’t look so sad.”

Meng Yao looked away. “When did I ever look sad?”

The young man lowered his head and continued to copy the notes in silence. Meng Yao turned to pull out his laptop, his movements heavier than usual. It was obvious he was in a bad mood.

After another twenty minutes, the young man slipped the notebook back over and smiled from behind Meng Yao’s screen.

“What?”

“Yaoyao, in fact, I’m not in a great mood today. Can we go out tonight?”

“I have work tonight,” Meng Yao said.

“Then, we can go out after. The bars would still be open after your shift,” his roommate said with a smile. “Come on, Yaoyao. You’re my only friend—let’s go get some drinks.”

Meng Yao looked up at his roommate and finally let out a sigh. “…Fine.”

Later that day, Meng Yao’s silly roommate didn’t just pull him to a bar, but also out to karaoke. Of course, most of the talking was done by him, while Meng Yao listened in a drunken stupor. He couldn’t remember when they returned back to the dorms, but by that time, it was already very late, and they had somehow managed to sneak in.

That night, Meng Yao neither cried nor whined. He had followed his roommate silently, but drank much more than he usually did. In the blurriness, he vaguely remembered reaching out for his roommate and then…

Meng Yao’s eyes abruptly opened.

Lan Xichen blinked in Meng Yao’s field of vision. He watched at Lan Xichen pursed his lips and lightly licked them, as if he were trying to register what the new feeling just was. Meng Yao’s eyes widened further. He shuffled back, feeling utterly mortified as a hand lifted to cover his own mouth.

“…In fact, there’s nothing to worry about,” Lan Xichen laughed good naturedly.

“I…”

“It happens when you drink too much,” Lan Xichen said.

“No, I—” Meng Yao’s turned redder and redder.

Lan Xichen slowly pulled his gaze away. A quiet hum came from the back of his throat as he tried to change the subject. His eyes soon wandered back to Meng Yao’s frozen expression. “Right! Uh…who’s A-Zhuo?”

“H-huh?”

“…Never mind,” Lan Xichen failed to change the subject and even made Meng Yao more flustered. He turned to look at the sky before let out a short, suppressed laugh. “It’s actually funny, because Ming-xiong’s birth name is ‘Zhuo’—”

The stool clattered onto the ground.

Lan Xichen looked up and realized he had said the wrong thing again. Meng Yao had taken several steps back. The composure he had shown during the night was completely replaced, but it didn’t seem out of place. The more flustered he was, the more Lan Xichen felt that it suited his age. In fact, if Meng Yao didn’t always act like a mature adult, Lan Xichen felt that Meng Yao would certainly become the type of person people liked to tease.

Nie Mingjue paused at the door. He looked between Lan Xichen and Meng Yao. One looked wronged while the other…Nie Mingjue shook his head. He was imagining things.

“What happened? How come you’re suddenly awake?” Nie Mingjue settled back down on his seat. “We were just wondering how we would get you back.”

“I-I…I…” Meng Yao stared at Nie Mingjue and then looked at Lan Xichen for help.

“He hugged me in his sleep,” Lan Xichen smiled. “I guess I didn’t feel like the person he was looking for, so he woke up.”

Lan Xichen was trying to suppress his laughter. “In fact, A-Yao, there’s nothing to be ashamed about. When Ming-xiong used to drink a lot, he would also hug me.”

So, in other words, Lan Xichen was just used to being taken advantage of by his drunk friends.

Meng Yao stared at Lan Xichen’s expression, which was the perfect imitation of the smile emoji, and felt himself calm down. He fumbled for his seat and sat back down awkwardly. He murmured out an apology, eliciting a laugh from Nie Mingjue. He felt the heavy hand land on his head and rub a few times.

“Xichen has a good temper. Something as simple as this isn’t something you need to worry about,” Nie Mingjue said.

Meng Yao glanced between Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen. He wondered which one was too naïve and which one was too straight.

The remainder of the night passed without much more embarrassment or surprise. Meng Yao felt that he shouldn’t drink again for a long time. He shot a glance at Nie Mingjue, who was laughing at something Lan Xichen said, and felt his cheeks warm up again.

He reached up and lightly smacked himself.

What was that dream? Why did he suddenly think about that again?

“…Tongtong.”

[They aren’t the same person.]

“Then how come they have the same name?” Meng Yao asked.

[Don’t you also have the same name as Jin Guangyao?]

Meng Yao fell silent.

[Nie Zhuo isn’t Nie Mingjue. You aren’t Jin Guangyao—it’s as simple as that. In fact, you might end up meeting others in this world who seem similar to the people you knew in your world, but are very different.]

“…I see.”

Tongtong watched Meng Yao’s emotional fluctuations and couldn’t help but ask a question: [Host, you and Nie Zhuo…]

“We were just roommates,” Meng Yao said. He glanced at Nie Mingjue’s side profile and averted his gaze again. “If I were to say more, I suppose I could say that it was one-sided.”

If someone spent three years treating you kindly without asking for anything in return, it would be difficult to not develop good feelings for them. But Meng Yao never acted on it. He was never someone to treat himself poorly and it was apparent that, although his silly roommate treated him well, there was never that intention. To top it off, just few weeks before he died, that Nie Zhuo had found himself a girlfriend and the pair were as suitable together as a pair of mandarin ducks. The man had always been as straight as they come.

By the time of Meng Yao’s death, his feelings for his silly roommate had faded. They were just friends. As for that dream…

Well, in the end, it was only a dream.

“Yaoyao.”

Meng Yao looked up at Nie Mingjue groggily. “En?”

“Should we stay out or head back?” Nie Mingjue asked.

Meng Yao stared blankly at Nie Mingjue. “Why…why would we stay out?”

“We still have to do a night-hunt,” Lan Xichen said. “Or we’d be lying to the kids.”

“But it’s already this late.”

“We’ll do it tomorrow,” Nie Mingjue said.

“So, we’re heading back—”

“I think there’s an inn this way,” Nie Mingjue turned and began to guide them down the busy street.

Meng Yao looked perplexedly at Lan Xichen, but gained no new information from the smiling man. He followed behind the two men with complex feelings in his heart.

“Tongtong…”

[Yes, Host?]

“I think I know now why they say ‘never meet your heroes’,” Meng Yao said. He stared at the broad backs of the two men. “I think it also applies to your favorite fictional characters.”

Coming from a prominent family meant that the two men were not stingy with their money. Without even asking for Meng Yao’s opinion, they split the cost of three rooms together between the two of them. Meng Yao stood with his wallet out and a mouth full of words forming that he couldn’t find it within him to say out loud. He just silently accepted the key that was stuffed into his hands and followed the two men up a flight of stairs.

“It’s still early,” Nie Mingjue said.

“It’s past nine,” Lan Xichen corrected.

Nie Mingjue gave Lan Xichen the side-eye and then turned to Meng Yao. “Yaoyao, are you tired yet?”

In fact, Meng Yao was still groggy from the alcohol, but he found himself shaking his head. Lan Xichen chuckled. “Ming-xiong, if you want to go out, then just go out. Why are you trying to drag the two of us to go with you? Besides, A-Yao is still young. He needs a lot of sleep or he won’t grow.”

Nie Mingjue stared at Meng Yao’s stature and then glanced back at Lan Xichen. The implication was “no matter how much he grows, he won’t get that much taller”.

Meng Yao felt his sore spot rubbed and looked at Nie Mingjue in dissatisfaction. “Actually, Lan-xiong is right. I’m actually extremely tired. I think it’s my body trying to grow.”

Nie Mingjue pursed his lips to keep from laughing as Meng Yao walked by him. The youth didn’t even reach his shoulders yet, making the scene much more comical. He reached out and held Meng Yao’s arm.

“Yaoyao, I didn’t mean it like that,” Nie Mingjue was quick to coax the teenager. He had a smile on his face as he spoke, showing that there was little sincerity in his apology. “I’m sure you’ll grow up to be really tall in the future.”

Meng Yao’s expression darkened further. He bit back the poisonous words on his tongue and lightly tugged his hand away. “May it go as you say.”

“What do you really want to say?” Nie Mingjue asked with amusement, his steps following closely behind Meng Yao.

“Nothing,” Meng Yao replied breezily as he unlocked the door to his room.

“Really nothing?” Nie Mingjue held the door to prevent Meng Yao from closing it.

The posture and the height difference made Meng Yao’s heart flutter a little. He smiled politely up at the taller man. “I just wanted to say that growing so tall is useless when your brain never caught up with that growth.”

The door was slapped in Nie Mingjue’s face.

Lan Xichen let out a “pft” from beside Nie Mingjue and turned to the room across the hall, only to be pulled back by Nie Mingjue.

“Don’t look at me. You’re the one who called him short.”

“You brought it up first!”

“I said he would grow, you implied he wouldn’t,” Lan Xichen patted Nie Mingjue’s arm. “Settle down and try to sleep early. It’s better for your brain development that way, Ming-xiong.”

Nie Mingjue faced two doors being closed in his face and stood dumbly in the middle of the hall. He soon found himself again and dragged his way to the remaining room, his mind filled with the mocking smiles of his two friends until he woke up again the next day.

When night fell again, the three young men had gone out again—this time, however, with a more heroic purpose.

Any cultivators that had thought to night-hunt in the surrounding area immediately conceded. The moment they saw Baxia and Shuoyue’s sword light cutting through the darkness, they realized that this night’s hunt would leave them empty handed. When they saw a third sword, wrapping tightly around the throat of a fierce corpse and slicing it into pieces with just a flick of the wrist, they bowed their heads without another word and walked off.

With Chifeng-zun, Zewu-jun, and the up-and-coming Meng Yao all in one area, there wouldn’t even be a small fish left for them to fry!

“There’s no one around today. How strange,” Lan Xichen sheathed his sword.

“Maybe it’s because there’s so little ghosts and corpses to deal with,” Nie Mingjue landed beside Lan Xichen.

Meng Yao looked between the two men again and silently shook his head. “Tongtong, can you believe these two?”

[Host is also contributing to the lack of cultivators in the area.]

“…I am?”

The oblivious Meng Yao was dragged by Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen deeper into the forest.

“Yaoyao, if I remember correctly, the Jiang sect uses long swords—how come you’ve got a flexible sword?"

“I thought it looked nice,” Meng Yao said.

Nie Mingjue was stunned by such a childish answer and ended up laughing. He rubbed Meng Yao’s hair into a mess again before releasing him with a satisfied smile. “What an unexpected answer!”

Meng Yao’s face flushed.

Although he hated to admit it, his tastes and Jin Guangyao’s tastes were always about 80% similar. Perhaps he was still influenced by Jin Guangyao’s soul, or perhaps it was because they were different versions of each other from other universes. Therefore, for Meng Yao to be attracted to a flexible soft sword was actually within Tongtong’s calculations.

“Don’t laugh at him. You’re embarrassing him,” Lan Xichen was quick to side with Meng Yao again.

Nie Mingjue scoffed. “This is to thicken up his skin. When he goes out into the world, he’s going to hear all sorts of bad things.”

“What you’re saying isn’t even anything bad—you’re just teasing him.”

“What? Do you want me to insult him then?” Nie Mingjue glanced at Meng Yao and tilted his head. “But even if I tried, I don’t think I could find anything.”

“There’s a lot,” Meng Yao blurted out.

Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen froze. In the end, it was Lan Xichen who spoke first. He smiled gently, “For example?”

Meng Yao hadn’t even full comprehended what he said. He was currently shouting at Tongtong. “Do you think my IQ fell down because I’m in the body of a teenager?”

[…It’s more than likely.]

Meng Yao had spent so many years as a child. Since the body was a child, naturally his habits and his tastes had also become childish. To say his IQ hasn’t progressed wouldn’t be stretching any truths, but he still kept the rationality of an adult.

“My family background,” Meng Yao said.

“Only petty people look at that,” Nie Mingjue scoffed.

“My current status.”

“Being a disciple under Sect Leader Jiang isn’t too bad,” Lan Xichen said.

“My height.”

“It’s cute,” Nie Mingjue shrugged. “You’ll grow taller.”

Meng Yao stared at the two men and fell silent. “There’s a lot.”

“You say there’s a lot, but you’re not saying anything substantial,” Nie Mingjue rolled his eyes.

“It’s because if I told you, you wouldn’t be friends with me anymore,” Meng Yao said jokingly. He looked at Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen with narrowed eyes and a slight smirk. “I’ll have you two know, I’m actually a pretty horrible person.”

Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen glanced at each other.

Before Meng Yao could react, Nie Mingjue had already reached out and pulled Meng Yao towards the two of them. He roughly rubbed Meng Yao’s head again as Lan Xichen worked to swat him away and pull Meng Yao back to his side.

“Stop messing up other’s hair. It’s so difficult to clean up every time,” Lan Xichen sighed.

Nie Mingjue laughed and pinched Meng Yao’s cheek. “Yaoyao, you saying things like that only makes me more curious. Besides, who cares if you’re a horrible person?  Xichen’s a pure saint and I’m a heroic bastard. If someone like you, a heroic villain, joins us…well, that would balance us out perfectly, wouldn’t it?”

“What are you saying?” Lan Xichen gave Nie Mingjue a disapproving look. “You aren’t a heroic bastard, you’re a brainless hero. And A-Yao isn’t a heroic villain. He’d be…mn, I know. He’d a misunderstood protagonist.”

Nie Mingjue clicked his tongue. “Isn’t that the same?”

“How is it the same? Villain implies that his heart is already blackened. Our A-Yao has a pure heart,” Lan Xichen undid Meng Yao’s hair and began to retie it with practiced ease.

Meng Yao felt the slender fingers unknotting his hair and listened to the nonsensical conversation around him. His heart felt as if it had been pinched and his nose inexplicably soured.

Nie Mingjue, who was standing in front, caught a glimpse of Meng Yao’s despondent look. He frowned. “Yaoyao, are you okay? Are you feeling unwell?”

It would be fine if Nie Mingjue hadn’t pointed it out, but once he did, the urge to cry became even stronger.

“…Look what you’ve done, you’ve made him cry,” Lan Xichen quickly finished up tying Meng Yao’s hair to take a glance at his face.

“I…” Nie Mingjue was stumped for words. He had never made anyone cry before other than his own brother. “I—I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking.”

Nie Mingjue’s fast admittance made Meng Yao laugh, but his heart seemed to ache even more. He placed his head in his hands and shook his head quickly.

Lan Xichen frowned. He softened his voice, “A-Yao, what’s wrong?”

“I,” Meng Yao held back his words. He closed his eyes tightly and looked up at the night sky before breathing out slowly. “I just…I don’t know. Hah—I just suddenly…wanted to cry.”

Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen glanced at each other.

“It’s okay, don’t cry anymore,” Lan Xichen said gently. “How about letting Ming-xiong give you a hug?”

“What am I? A pillow? Why are you offering me up so casually?”

Despite his words, Nie Mingjue had already reached out and pulled Meng Yao into his embrace. Meng Yao’s fingers twitched at his sides before he reached up and hesitantly placed his hands on Nie Mingjue’s back. He felt the pair of strong arms give him a squeeze and slowly relaxed against the familiar embrace. His heart quickly calmed down again but he resisted the urge to tighten his hold on Nie Mingjue.

 When Meng Yao pulled back, Lan Xichen smiled. “Feel better?”

Seeing Lan Xichen’s smile, Meng Yao’s initial sadness was whisked away. He stared at the gentle man for a moment and suddenly wondered just what did this man think he knows.

Chapter Text

A saint, a brainless hero, and a pure-hearted villain went back to the inn that night. The pure-hearted villain thought they would be returning home the next day but, much to his surprise, the saint and the brainless hero had other plans.

Meng Yao was pulled from his bed at the crack of dawn and forced to bathe and change. The two men, who were not only older but also taller, managed to successfully capture the pure-hearted villain and brought him to a place that was further from the Unclean Realm and almost outside the realm of Qinghe.

Meng Yao stared around in surprise. He looked at the two men. “Don’t we have to head back?”

“What’s the hurry? It’s been so long since we’ve come out,” Nie Mingjue threw his arm around Meng Yao’s shoulders. “Let’s have some fun.”

“But…but don’t you have business to attend to and,” Meng Yao looked at Lan Xichen. “Xichen-ge you said you had to head back to help your uncle with the disciples…”

Lan Xichen coughed lightly. “I’m sure Uncle can handle it without my presence. Besides, Wangji is also there. He’s more help than I can ever be, if I’m being honest.”

“Ming-ge—”

“Huaisang is back at the sect, isn’t he? I know he’s smart—he just likes to pretend like he’s a headless chicken,” Nie Mingjue clapped Meng Yao on the back reassuringly. “It’s okay! If anything urgent happens, Huaisang and Teacher Lan will naturally contact us.”

Meng Yao lifelessly allowed Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen to steer him into the gates of the bustling city. He called out to his system, who answered with a cheerful ding, and hesitantly asked, “Did I do this?”

[What makes you think so, Host?]

“Well, aren’t Lan Xichen and Nie Mingjue supposed to be the most responsible and morally straight people in the whole novel? That’s why they felt a sense of comradery, and yet, they’re here…slacking off…playing hooky…”

[Host, what you saw were characters—these are people made of flesh and blood. They are also at the age where they would want to slack off and play hooky. To say you influenced them is too far of a stretch as well.]

Even if Meng Yao liked to lie around listlessly, in front of others, he was always hardworking to the extreme. At this moment, it was more like these two older brothers were misguiding the younger Meng Yao.

“It’s fine, it’s fine!” Nie Mingjue sang out as he squished Meng Yao’s cheeks. “Come on, I heard the Osmanthus cakes in this town are the most famous.”

“We should also stop by some stationary stores and painting stores before we head back,” Lan Xichen said. “They sell really famous paintings here.”

“Don’t spoil Huaisang anymore! All he does is collect those useless things,” Nie Mingjue grumbled. “His room is filled with paintings and fans. What can those do? Will they protect the sect.”

Meng Yao was only half listening to the two men argue until this point. He straightened up between Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen, startling the two of them. They looked down at him questioningly, only to find a pair of sparkling eyes directed back at them.

“Actually, Ming-ge, you told me to help Huaisang with his studies, right?” Meng Yao’s voice turned sticky, just like a child’s would when they wanted something from their parent.

“I did. Why? Did he say something?”

Meng Yao shook his head. “In fact, I had the honor of catching a few glances of the Qinghe Nie’s cultivation technique. Of the few lines that I glimpsed at, I felt that Huaisang’s temperament doesn’t suit the cultivation method.”

Nie Mingjue’s brows furrowed. “How so?”

“The Qinghe Nie method relies mainly on the cultivator’s inner fire. The fighting style is aggressive and fierce, requiring a great strength to even wield the dao. You could try to train Huaisang as much as you’d like, but a person’s physique isn’t that easy to change. Huaisang is naturally petite. In the future, he may gain inner strength, but his body might not be able to keep up with this method and could easily break,” Meng Yao spoke out his truest thoughts.

Nie Mingjue listened carefully. Each of Meng Yao’s concerns were valid, but that didn’t keep his frown from growing deeper.

“But Ming-ge is right—Huaisang is smart and quick on his feet,” Meng Yao said. “He remembers everything that’s taught to him and he’s even better at me when it comes to analyzing situations, but only if it’s up to it. His personality is carefree and his attitude towards things is like the wind, flowing endlessly and weightlessly, never quite touching anything.”

Nie Mingjue nodded. What Meng Yao was implying was that Huaisang was the complete opposite of what the Qinghe Nie method required.

“Since ancient times, no matter the technique of the clan or the sect, so long as the cultivator feels that this technique does not suit them, they will carve their own path,” Meng Yao lifted his hand and showed his wrist, where his sword stayed curled around it. “As is what I did and what many cultivators have done before me.

“The Yunmeng Jiang Sect technique relies on agility, which is swift and fierce, but I am someone who cannot face my opponent head on,” Meng Yao explained. “Because of this, I leaned more towards defense. I went behind my enemy to their blind side, which is different from the technique the sect teaches. With this new method, it was easier for me to wield the soft sword rather than the long sword.”

“Are you implying I should allow Huaisang to develop his own method?” Nie Mingjue asked with interest.

“Something similar,” Meng Yao nodded. “All great geniuses learn to carve their own path when they are pushed into a corner. But if you push them too hard, even the best of the best will give up. At the moment, Huaisang is being cornered with no escape route, but if you loosen your grip and guide him to another path, he might take it. It may not be the Qinghe Nie’s way, but a least he will have a way to defend himself and, in the future, protect the sect. In the end, isn’t this what Ming-ge wanted?”

Nie Mingjue mulled over Meng Yao’s words and eventually nodded in agreement.

“A-Yao, what brought this up?” Lan Xichen asked curiously.

“Huaisang has an interest in collecting paintings and fans,” Meng Yao explained. “A long time ago, I had the fortune to come across a book that spoke of an old technique that used fans as a weapon. Although swords are the more popular choice of weapon now, our ancestors never limited themselves to this. If even a musical instrument can be used as a weapon, why can’t fans?”

Meng Yao frowned and thought for a moment. “The most important thing is control over one’s spiritual abilities and I have faith that Huaisang can do so.”

Lan Xichen and Nie Mingjue glanced at each other, then back at Meng Yao.

Meng Yao heard a sound board version of applause sounding in his head. He wanted to mute his system, but didn’t have the heart to and could only deal with the ruckus as he continued his staring contest with the two men.

“Yaoyao,” Nie Mingjue was the first to speak, “Do you want to be my little brother?”

“…Pardon?”

Lan Xichen sighed. “A-Yao, how long have you been thinking about this? Everything is detailed and near flawless. I even found myself nodding along. In the future, you’ll definitely be one of the stars of the cultivation world. You should come to Gusu with me.”

“Forget that,” Nie Mingjue rolled his eyes. “Yaoyao would choose me over you any day. Isn’t that right, Yaoyao?”

“…Tongtong, I think these two have brain holes,” Meng Yao sighed.

[They do not, Host.]

Nie Mingjue ruffled Meng Yao’s hair, much to Lan Xichen’s disdain. “I’ll think about it when we get back. You do make a good point.”

“I told you to stop messing with his hair,” Lan Xichen mumbled, already working to retie Meng Yao’s hair as they moved. “It’s always me who fixes the mess you make.”

“You seem like you like tying people’s hair, so I’m just helping you,” Nie Mingjue grinned.

The trio moved to the side of the street. Meng Yao obediently waited for Lan Xichen to finish tying his hair. He met the eyes of an old woman running a street stall. She smiled at him.

“You have two good older brothers,” the old woman remarked.

Meng Yao smiled. “I do, don’t I? They’re very kind to me.”

Lan Xichen patted Meng Yao’s shoulder once he had finished and the three men continued on their trip, touring the famous foods and going into stores whenever one caught their eye.

A week past like this, with Nie Mingjue dragging them one direction and Lan Xichen dragging them the other. Along the way, they didn’t forget their duties as cultivators, so rumors began spreading of a youth from Gusu Lan, someone from Qinghe Nie, and another who wore the Yunmeng Jiang bell at his side were traveling together, defeating evil and defending the common people as they went.

By the time the week was up, the trio became famous, solely through word of mouth, successfully tying these three sect’s names together, as well as the three people, whom the cultivators managed to dig out the identities of.

Meng Yao had his head lowered as he listened to the gossip in the cultivation world. He buried his head deeper into his food as he listened to the happy jingles his system played in celebration. Not only did he not avoid any plot points when it came to him meeting Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen, but he seemed to have rushed forth the concept of “sworn brothers” and smacked the entire cultivation world in the face with it.

The other two men involved didn’t seem at all disturbed by the gossip. They focused solely on their food with grim expressions. Only Meng Yao knew that these expressions weren’t because of any bad news, but because they had to go back to work in a few hours.

Lan Xichen looked at the youngest and sighed. “A-Yao, do you want to come back to Gusu with me?”

Meng Yao met Lan Xichen’s gaze and slowly shook his head.

“Yaoyao wants to come back to Qinghe with me,” Nie Mingjue interjected.

Under Nie Mingjue’s gaze, Meng Yao slowly shook his head again. “After we return, I’m taking my leave as well.”

“Why?” the two men blurted out.

“Are you going back to Yunmeng?” Nie Mingjue asked.

“No,” Meng Yao rubbed his index and thumb together. “I’m going to continue training.”

Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen glanced at each other.

“Night-hunting with you two for a week has made me realize a lot of things about my own fighting style,” Meng Yao said, his eyes were glazed over, but deep inside was a bright spark, rearing to burst. “I need to put the things I learned into practice. If I remain in Qinghe, or if I go to Gusu, I fear I cannot experiment freely. I hope you two understand.”

In the week they got along with each other, Meng Yao’s nature had been revealed bit by bit. He was cunning and agile. He had the ferocity of the Yunmeng Jiang technique, but because he never faced his enemies straight on, it made him an even deadlier opponent. Meng Yao’s only downfall was that he had a blind spot he didn’t guard well when he maneuvered around his opponents. When he fought with allies, he was unstoppable, but by himself he was vulnerable. While his calm disposition and gentle appearance may trick his enemy for the first few moves, once the battle really started, Meng Yao would be at a greater disadvantage.

Meng Yao had a strong strategic mind and an ambition to match. Where that ambition stemmed from was hard to tell, but Lan Xichen and Nie Mingjue never doubted him nor bothered asking. To them, Meng Yao was only a hotblooded youth. It was naturally for a hotblooded youth to chase after fame and prestige.

To this point, both of them were a bit concerned.

“Cultivation needs to be taken one step at a time,” Lan Xichen said gently. “You can’t push yourself too hard, or you’ll fall into your heart demons.”

Nie Mingjue nodded seriously. “Practicing is good, but don’t strain yourself.”

Meng Yao stared at the two in surprise. “I’ll pace myself.”

His stunned look made Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen sigh in unison. The worst thing isn’t a lazy person, but a hardworking person who didn’t even know they were hardworking.

“Remember your health is first. Whatever else should come second,” Nie Mingjue said.

“I should be telling you that, Ming-ge,” Meng Yao said. “Pace yourself.”

Lan Xichen nodded. “You should really pace yourself too.”

Lan Xichen looked between the older and the younger men and let out a worried sigh. These two—one was enraptured by his saber while the other was enthralled by knowledge. It really made one concerned.

The worry consumed Lan Xichen for the rest of the trip. Like a nagging mother hen, Lan Xichen began lecturing Nie Mingjue. When he was done, he’d shift to Meng Yao. He went back and forth this way until they reached the Unclean Realm.

“Cultivation is about clearing the mind and focusing on the inner self,” Lan Xichen ignored the two men’s quickening pace and followed after them tightly. “Swordsmanship is secondary and the self is first.”

“I get it! I get it,” Nie Mingjue finally couldn’t take it. “We traveled for six hours and you actually nagged us for six hours!”

Meng Yao laughed. “Xichen-ge, aren’t you thirsty?”

“If my thirst can help you two remember to take care of yourselves without me here, it would be worth it,” Lan Xichen let out a mother’s sigh.

“Don’t you have to go back to Gusu?” Nie Mingjue asked. “You should head back now, or it’ll be late by the time you return and you won’t be able to get in.”

“Whatever I say just goes in one ear and out the other, doesn’t it?” Lan Xichen looked at Nie Mingjue sadly.

“I listened,” Meng Yao smiled sweetly, as if he were fishing for compliments.

“At least A-Yao listens,” Lan Xichen mumbled, seemingly comforted. He looked at Nie Mingjue and sighed disappointedly.

Nie Mingjue stared at Meng Yao, the little traitor, unable to muster up any words. Meng Yao smiled slyly, resembling a fox. He silently stuck out his tongue behind Lan Xichen and avoided Nie Mingjue’s hand when he finally provoked him.

“Xichen-ge, Ming­-ge is being unreasonable,” Meng Yao gasped.

Lan Xichen’s puppy dog eyes made Nie Mingjue stop.

He waved a finger at Meng Yao. “You little—this is what I get for being nice to you, huh? For raising you?”

“When did you raise me?” Meng Yao mumbled. “At most you just shaped my world view of the cultivation world a little bit.”

“You—”

“Alright, alright, stop fighting,” Lan Xichen waved the two of them down.

Meng Yao’s smile only grew. He looked between Lan Xichen and Nie Mingjue and felt his heart pound harder for several beats. He really didn’t want this time to end.

But good things were fragile—with a little too much pressure, it would crack, but if you didn’t hold onto it tightly enough, it would disappear. Such a thing was difficult to hang onto so, to Meng Yao, it was better to never have it in the first place.

When Meng Yao told Xue Yang they were leaving, the child took one look at Meng Yao and seemed to understand what was on his mind.

The two of them were similar—both were abused as children and both secretly harbored a darkness towards humans and the warmth that came with kindness. Xue Yang had been pampered by Nie Huaisang during this week too, but instead of feeling happy and settled, he only felt discomfort and, by the end of the week, had actually become more distant from the young master.

Nie Huaisang was perplexed and wanted to know what he’d done wrong, but before he could coax an answer out of Xue Yang, the two youths claimed that they would be leaving.

“Leaving? Just like that?” Nie Huaisang looked at Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen. “Just like that?”

“Or else, what?” Nie Mingjue raised a brow. “Were you slacking while I was gone?”

“I wasn’t! Just ask Yangyang,” Nie Huaisang stood behind the small child with a helpless look.

“Sang-gege did everything he was supposed to,” Xue Yang vouched for him seriously.

“Then it’s fine, right? What are you nervous about?” Nie Mingjue scoffed.

“But,” Nie Huaisang’s gaze fell on Xue Yang.

Xue Yang wasn’t even looking at him. His gaze was focused on somewhere far off and was tinged with something unreadable.

Meng Yao patted Xue Yang’s back and smiled at Lan Xichen and Nie Mingjue. He cupped his hands together and bowed low. “Thank you for taking care of us. I’m sorry for inconveniencing you again, Ming-ge, Xichen-ge. In the future, I’ll definitely find a way to repay you both. And Huaisang.”

Meng Yao glanced at Nie Huaisang’s downcast expression and Lan Xichen’s forced smile. His gaze settled on Nie Mingjue’s troubled look and his smile only grew. “We’ll meet again very soon.”

Meng Yao straightened his back once he heard the echoed farewells. He scooped Xue Yang up onto his back. While carrying the child, he stepped onto his sword and flew off into the clear skies.

Xue Yang placed his chin on Meng Yao’s shoulder and glanced at him. “They’re nice.”

“You didn’t get attached, did you? Should I turn around and go back? You can be a member of their sect,” Meng Yao joked.

“They’re nice, but I don’t like it there,” Xue Yang’s grip tightened around Meng Yao’s shoulders.

“Why’s that?”

“They make it seem like they expect us to be together forever,” Xue Yang said.

“And I don’t?”

Xue Yang’s charming little face twisted into a smirk. “From the moment you picked me up, when has there ever been a moment you promised me forever?”

Meng Yao lowered his head and chuckled. “If forever is eternity, I’d rather not live it, so let’s just treat forever as an instance, alright?”

Xue Yang fell silent. He mulled over Meng Yao’s words and leaned comfortably against his back again.

Anything can change in an instant—Xue Yang much preferred this type of tumultuous existence.

Chapter Text

A youth, about fifteen, sat atop a tall tree. In his mouth was a blade of grass that moved in time with the youth’s bobbing foot. His eyes were closed and the sun hit his tanned face at just the right angle, allowing his appearance to embody that of a sunny, fresh-faced teen. His handsome face caused a few young girls below to glance up and point at him. He was especially noticeable in his vibrant purple robes. The bell that hung at his side swayed gently in the soft breeze, yet still made no sound.

He lifted a hand to his mouth and shielded it as he yawned. His eyes opened lazily and he felt around for the bottle of liquor he had bought just a few hours before. He hugged it close to his chest and stared up at the clouds moving above.

“A bottle of wine and a smile from a blushing beauty,” the youth glanced indolently to the pier beside him and smirked at the blushing girls below. “This is the life.”

“Is it?”

Wei Wuxian’s eyes widened. He sat up and turned abruptly to look at the figure sitting on the branch behind him. He watched as the other youth dropped a few stray leaves onto his head.

“If Madam Yu found you slacking off all the way out here, would she be angered to death first, or would she beat you to death first?”

“Y-Yao…Yao-ge!” Wei Wuxian’s afternoon sleepiness was washed away by the appearance of his long-lost friend.

He lunged forward to hug Meng Yao, but the other youth was quicker. With a swift kick and an elegant arch of his back, Meng Yao landed back on the ground beside a child, who looked no more than eleven years old. Wei Wuxian quickly abandoned his seat and followed Meng Yao down. He gripped Meng Yao’s shoulders and turned him this way and that.

“It’s really you!”

“Hands off,” Meng Yao gently swatted at Wei Wuxian’s hands. “Where do you think you’re touching?”

Wei Wuxian laughed happily and straightened his back. He smirked. “Hey, Yao-ge, looks like you haven’t grown very much, whereas I have…”

“Have what?” Meng Yao asked with a sweet smile.

Wei Wuxian swallowed back his words and circled Meng Yao flatteringly. “Have not grown to be as handsome as Yao-ge! Not only has Yao-ge become handsome, but also heroic! We’ve heard about your deeds even in Yunmeng.”

“Sweet mouthed,” Meng Yao rolled his eyes. He nudged Xue Yang. “Call him Wei-gege.”

“Wei-gege,” Xue Yang repeated obediently.

Wei Wuxian froze. He stared at Xue Yang and then turned to Meng Yao. “This…?”

“I found him on the streets. His name is Xue Yang,” Meng Yao explained.

“Xue Yang,” Wei Wuxian repeated. He laughed. “He doesn’t look like a little sheep at all. His eyes tell me he’s a little wolf.”

Xue Yang smirked. He looked as if he wanted to say something, but with one look from Meng Yao he let out a harrumph and turned away.

Meng Yao turned back to Wei Wuxian. “What were you doing in Yiling?”

“Just strolling,” Wei Wuxian shrugged. “There’s nothing to do back at home anyway, so I said I was going on a night-hunt and left.”

“Where’s A-Cheng?”

“Back home,” Wei Wuxian said. He threw an arm over Meng Yao’s shoulders. “Let me tell you, ever since you left, Madam Yu has been focusing her attention on our A-Cheng. She wants to make him into the best sect leader the world has ever seen. The men among men—giants among giants.”

“She’s been losing her temper a lot,” Meng Yao concluded.

“So much. I got tired of it so I had to leave,” Wei Wuxian slumped against Meng Yao. “Yao-ge, since you’re here, does that mean you’re returning soon? You said New Year’s, right? It’s almost the new year.”

“I was just heading back,” Meng Yao knocked a knuckle against Wei Wuxian’s head. He reached out to tug Xue Yang closer to them as a carriage rolled by. “But I heard that there was a fierce corpse infestation nearby, so I wanted to take a look.”

“Yao-ge, no wonder people are starting to say you’re an immortal descended to earth,” Wei Wuxian sighed.

“Who said that?” Meng Yao stared at Wei Wuxian.

“Well, it’s not as if you hide your appearance when you help others, right? After seeing how much of a beauty you are, people began saying that you’re not only beautiful on the outside, but you have a heart of compassion on the inside.”

Xue Yang guffawed. “Heart of compassion!”

Wei Wuxian glanced at Xue Yang strangely, but looked back to Meng Yao. “You’ve really become a role model to everyone in the sect. It’s hasn’t even been a full year, yet you’ve grown so much.”

“Stop trying to butter me up,” Meng Yao raised a brow. “What is it? Do you want me to vouch for you when we get back?”

Wei Wuxian rubbed his head against Meng Yao’s neck. “It’s still Yao-ge that knows me best!”

Meng Yao pushed Wei Wuxian away uncomfortably. They’d been apart for nearly a year, yet this child still acted like a sticky rice ball.

“By the way,” Wei Wuxian was unperturbed, “Is it true you’re friends with Zewu-jun and Chifeng-zun?”

“You’ve even heard about that?”

“Of course! A few months ago, there was a week where the cultivators around Qinghe were too scared to go out because they said they’d run into Chifeng-zun,” Wei Wuxian laughed. “After listening some more, we figured that you were the third person with the bell at his waist.”

“Cultivators sure love to gossip,” Xue Yang grumbled.

“Just like a group of aunties,” Meng Yao agreed.

“What can we do about it? When you travel so much, it’s naturally to try and find a common ground for everyone to stand on. That common ground just happens to be the world’s gossip,” Wei Wuxian crossed his arms behind his head as he walked. “I wonder what it would be like to be the center of gossip. Yao-ge, is it thrilling?”

“It’s hilarious,” Xue Yang said. “They make him out to be some outrageous prodigy, but in fact he—”

“Xue Yang,” Meng Yao interrupted him.

Xue Yang met Meng Yao’s gaze and pursed his lips. He spread out his palms and shrugged.

“In fact he what?” Wei Wuxian leaned over to Xue Yang curiously.

Xue Yang shook his head. “Can’t say.”

“What can’t you say? Xian-gege will protect you,” Wei Wuxian grinned and patted his chest.

Xue Yang looked at the unreliable smile and still shook his head. He’d seen the way Lihen could wrap around its opponent and tear it to shreds with a single flick of Meng Yao’s wrist. If he really did try to provoke Meng Yao, he was scared he’d be sent down to the Yellow Springs before he even got his own sword.

“A-Xian,” Meng Yao’s honey-soaked voice came from behind Wei Wuxian. “It’d be better if you gossip less. Gossiping affects the mind and will harm your cultivation.”

Wei Wuxian felt a chill go down his back. He looked at Meng Yao’s soft smile and gentle gaze, but somehow felt that he was being stared down by a hungry wolf. He tripped over his two feet and stumbled forward. Xue Yang and Meng Yao reached out immediately to try and grab a hold of Wei Wuxian, but the youth slipped and fell backwards.

Xue Yang closed his eyes to avoid seeing the scene. Meng Yao retracted his hand and let out a sigh.

It wasn’t that Meng Yao didn’t want to help, but there was actually someone behind Wei Wuxian.

The scene of Wei Wuxian crumbling into a stall didn’t happen. Instead, he fell softly into another man’s embrace. The man smelled lightly of perfume and incense, making Wei Wuxian’s nose twitch. When he tilted his head back, he caught a glimpse of gold robes, and when he looked up even further, he found himself staring into a disgusting face.

Wei Wuxian jumped up, shuddered, and ran to hide behind Meng Yao’s back. He gagged. “Why’d you catch him!?”

Jin Zixuan’s hands were still outstretched. He scoffed and crossed his arms over his chest. “Still unbelievably rude as always, aren’t you? I saved you from falling, yet you’re still trying to pick at me.”

“Who asked you to save me? Isn’t it just falling? I’m not some delicate maiden,” Wei Wuxian flicked his hair over his shoulder.

“You would have ruined people’s business,” Jin Zixuan snapped.

Wei Wuxian glanced at the stall he had nearly fallen into and awkwardly cleared his throat. “Then, thanks!”

Jin Zixuan rolled his eyes, but his gaze fell upon Meng Yao and Xue Yang, who stood as protective shields in front of Wei Wuxian. His eyes lit up and he stepped forward. “A-Yao, you’re here?”

“A-Yao?” Wei Wuxian repeated. He looked at Meng Yao for an explanation. When his gaze was simply returned, Wei Wuxian’s eyes widened further. He looked at Meng Yao imploringly and tilted his head towards the golden youth beside him, only for Meng Yao to shake his head to say he didn’t understand.

“If you have something to ask, just say it to my face,” Jin Zixuan glared at Wei Wuxian.

“There are some things that outsiders shouldn’t know,” Wei Wuxian snapped back.

“Outsiders? A-Yao and I have gone through life and death together. I would hardly ever consider him an outsider.”

“Yeah, but have we gone through life and death together, Zixuan-gege,” the normally respectfully title was turned to mockery by Wei Wuxian’s tone.

“A-Xian.”

Wei Wuxian closed his mouth and stepped back behind Meng Yao, his purple robes fluttering slightly. Xue Yang glanced at the taller boy and smiled to himself. He liked this guy.

Jin Zixuan rolled his eyes in disgust and irritation. “Think what you want, Wei Wuxian. Does A-Yao need someone to look over who he decides to be friends with?”

“If it’s the like of Chifeng-zun and Zewu-jun, then of course not! But if it’s the likes of you?” Wei Wuxian sneered. “Most definitely.”

“Wei Wuxian, don’t you think you’re going to far? What do you mean the likes of me?” Jin Zixuan’s face grew progressively redder.

“I mean the type that wears gold robes, puts fancy accessories in their hair, and is surnamed ‘Jin’,” Wei Wuxian said. “Those likes. Our Yao-ge is far too good for anyone from the Lanling Jin Sect. He shouldn’t even have to associ—”

“A-Xian,” Meng Yao sighed. He looked at Wei Wuxian. “I’ve only been gone for a year, how come you’ve become so unreasonable.”

Wei Wuxian pursed his lips and averted his gaze. He felt a soft tug at the edge of his robes. When he glanced over, he found Xue Yang giving him an approving smile. Oddly, Wei Wuxian felt a mixture of comfort and discouragement.

“Young Master Jin—”

“Young Master Jin?”

“…­Da-ge,” Meng Yao corrected himself. “If you could—”

Da-ge?!” Wei Wuxian looked like someone had stepped on his wolf’s tail. “Yao-ge, have you—”

“You two talk too much,” Xue Yang mumbled.

Wei Wuxian and Jin Zixuan turned to look at the child that stood behind Meng Yao. Xue Yang looked between the two youths with an innocent smile, his round eyes curving into adorable crescents. “Gege, you normally like it quiet, but you actually made friends with these two who won’t shut up.”

“A-Yang.”

Xue Yang stuck out his tongue at the two youths.

Meng Yao suppressed a sigh. A brilliant smile lit up his face as he turned back to Jin Zixuan. “What are you doing in Yiling? Are you heading to Yunmeng?”

“I am,” Jin Zixuan’s attention was dragged back to the topic at hand. He lowered his gaze, seemingly shy. “I came to see Yanli.”

Wei Wuxian’s face grew darker than a pot. He rolled his eyes to the sky, but suppressed any words he may have to say in the presence of Meng Yao and Xue Yang.

“Are you and shijie close now?” Meng Yao asked.

“Close,” Wei Wuxian couldn’t help himself. “This guy comes over every few months with a new excuse. He even has a room at Lotus Pier now. He’s totally making himself at home.”

Meng Yao smiled. “That’s great.”

“Gre—” Wei Wuxian shut his mouth. He huffed. “It sure is great.”

Wei Wuxian followed Meng Yao and Jin Zixuan silently, his gaze shifting between the two of them. Xue Yang kept his gaze concentrated on Wei Wuxian, only occasionally looking at Meng Yao and Jin Zixuan in front of them. Xue Yang reached out and tugged on Wei Wuxian’s shirt. Wei Wuxian glanced over and raised a brow at the child.

“This ­gege, why do you keep look at Yao-gege,” Xue Yang asked sweetly.

Wei Wuxian narrowed his eyes. “Because the big brother in gold next to him is a bad man.”

“Is he?” Xue Yang looked back at Jin Zixuan. “He seems a bit silly.”

“Silly?”

“Mn! Just like you can scam him of his money if you give him a sob story,” Xue Yang said. He looked back at Wei Wuxian. “Like a goofy young master.”

“Goofy…” Wei Wuxian lifted his head and glared at Jin Zixuan. “How could that be? He’s arrogant and insufferable.”

“He has a strong sense of loyalty though,” Xue Yang hummed.

“Loyalty?” Wei Wuxian stared at Xue Yang.

“Yup! I watched him fight beside Yao-gege—he’s quite loyal,” Xue Yang said.

Wei Wuxian frowned imperceptibly. “Still. I don’t think Yao-ge and he should be friends.”

“Why?”

“It’s not something for you to know,” Wei Wuxian grumbled, seemingly in a bad mood.

“Why?”

“Why are you asking so many questions?” Wei Wuxian asked.

“Why are you not answering any of my questions?” Xue Yang shot back.

Wei Wuxian and Xue Yang held each other’s gazes.

“Are you two bickering?” Meng Yao asked over his shoulder.

“No!”

“No, we’re getting along perfectly fine,” Wei Wuxian rubbed Xue Yang’s head. He narrowed his eyes. “Little wolf cub.”

“If I’m a little wolf cub, you must a really old, really ugly wolf grandpa,” Xue Yang provoked.

“How am I old? Where am I old? I’m fifteen!”

“Marriable age,” Xue Yang shifted his feet back, as if getting ready to run. “Yet you’re not married. That must mean you’re not only old, you’re also so annoying that no one wants you.”

“You—you little brat!” Wei Wuxian’s hand clenched into a fist. He rushed after the child, but the child was quicker, already weaving through the crowds.

Jin Zixuan, who had been knocked into, stared at the purple robes, flashing through the crowds, and looked back at Meng Yao. “Is that okay?”

“Mn, it’s okay. No matter how rough A-Xian plays with that little wolf cub, it’s okay. They’re the same breed anyway,” Meng Yao said. “They won’t hurt each other.”

Although the trip from Yiling to Yunmeng was just a matter of blinking an eye to the cultivators, they still decided to stay the night. With Xue Yang back at the inn with Jin Zixuan’s servant, the three youths went into the forests, where there had been reports of vast amounts of resentful energy. The moment the youths stepped into the forest was the time they had their swords drawn.

It had been half a year since Wei Wuxian had last seen Meng Yao and it had been a few months since Jin Zixuan had witnessed Meng Yao’s fighting style. Even in the midst of battle, the two youths managed to catch glimpses of Meng Yao, flashing through the crowd of fierce corpses. Corpses that could be purified were lured over to Jin Zixuan, while those that could not were flanked by Wei Wuxian and Meng Yao.

At this moment, the corpses couldn’t be considered too much to handle by the three outstanding youths. The only unfortunate thing was that there was far too much. However, unlike other cultivators their age, they didn’t fret. Meng Yao, in particular, moved methodically. Every slash, every twist of the wrist was impeccably calculated. With one swish, he’d turn and stab behind him. Like a whirlwind, Meng Yao moved to get rid of any obstacles that stood in Wei Wuxian’s way.

It stunned Wei Wuxian and Jin Zixuan. The textbook way of fighting didn’t seem stiff but, instead, carried its own form of elegance. The jabs had the aggressiveness of the Yunmeng Jiang Sect, but the steps had the flow of the Gusu Lan Sect. The way Meng Yao gripped his sword was at times like how one would hold a flexible sword, at other times how one might wield a saber. Although methodical, there was also a sense of chaos within his movements.

It was apparent to the trained eye that Meng Yao didn’t fight with the spirit of good competition, but the fierceness to survive.

By the time the fierce corpses were eradicated, the sun had already begun to peer over the horizon. Wei Wuxian and Jin Zixuan ran over to Meng Yao’s side.

“Yao-ge, are you okay?” Wei Wuxian asked.

Meng Yao flicked his sword and wrapped it back around his waist. He gave Wei Wuxian a gentle smile, “I’m okay. Are you two fine?”

Jin Zixuan and Wei Wuxian nodded.

“That was really cool,” Jin Zixuan praised, his eyes sparkling.

“It was! The way you ran through the corpses like it was absolutely nothing!” Wei Wuxian spun around on his toes and struck a fighting pose. “Yao-ge, when did you get so good at fighting?”

“For someone who goes on night hunts relentless every day for the past six months, it’d be a miracle if he didn’t improve,” Jin Zixuan said. “Did you do what he did?”

“Of course, I didn’t,” Wei Wuxian scoffed, “but Yao-ge’s speed of improvement is just way too impressive!”

Amidst the praising, Jin Zixuan and Wei Wuxian eventually realized that the person in question had not said a single thing. They paused and looked over their shoulder. At some point, Meng Yao had stopped walking.

Under the moonlight, his honeyed skin lacked its usual luster, making him seem lifeless. He stared dully ahead at the two of them, seemingly looking at them, yet right through them. It was the same look that Meng Yao had used during the time Meng Shi had gotten horrendously ill. Seeing that look again startled Wei Wuxian. In the half year Meng Yao had been gone, Wei Wuxian had hoped he would have felt better—perhaps gotten a little happier, at least—but now, he felt his heart sour.

“Yao-ge…?”

[Host…]

The two voices sounded at the same time.

Meng Yao snapped back to attention. He smiled gently and walked forward. “Sorry, I spaced out for a moment.”

“What are you spacing out for?” Jin Zixuan asked, his voice cautious.

“Nothing,” Meng Yao laughed. He paused and then threw his arms over the boys shoulders, dragging them down to his height.

Both the boys bent down with a grunt, making Meng Yao laugh louder.

“I was just thinking, if you two could get along and live brightly and happily for a very long time, then I could probably die without regrets!” Meng Yao shouted.

“Do we have to get along?” Wei Wuxian tilted his head to look up at Meng Yao quizzically.

“Yes, that’s a requirement,” Meng Yao pinched Wei Wuxian’s cheek.

“That’s not even what you should be asking about, idiot! Why are you dying? You’re also going to live for a long time,” Jin Zixuan swatted at Wei Wuxian.

“Hey—that’s right! Yao-ge is going to live until his hair grays and until he sees Shijie and this guy’s grandchildren!”

“Our grandchildren’s children,” Jin Zixuan corrected.

“Would I want to live that long though?” Meng Yao laughed.

“We’ll all be a couple of old guys night hunting like this,” Wei Wuxian nudged Jin Zixuan’s arm.

“It’ll be a miracle if you don’t die young, Wei Wuxian,” Jin Zixuan rolled his eyes.

“If you actually live longer than me, I’ll cut my own head off and then deliver it to you at the Yellow Springs,” Wei Wuxian stuck out his tongue.

Meng Yao squeezed both of them tightly. “If you two die before me, I’ll drag you two straight back up from hell. Who are you two to leave Shijie alone, hm?”

[Host.]

“What is it?”

[…The System is detecting great amounts of emotional fluctuation.]

Meng Yao’s smile only widened as he released Jin Zixuan and Wei Wuxian. He watched the two youths jump from his arms and swat at each other as they traveled back into the town. “Tongtong.”

[Yes, Host?]

“…I really can’t watch them die.”

Chapter Text

“We’re back!”

Wei Wuxian’s voice echoed throughout the corners of Lotus Pier. The disciples that had been practicing and the servants that had been working stopped what they were doing and flooded into the main courtyard. Jiang Fengmian poked his head out of his study curiously and his eyes widened when he saw who was standing beside Wei Wuxian.

The disciples who hadn’t seen their da-shixiong in half a year rushed up to Meng Yao. Xue Yang was pulled aside and shielded by Jin Zixuan as Meng Yao got hounded by the excited disciples. Servants eagerly asked whether Meng Yao had been eating well while he was gone. It was clear to the two outsiders just how beloved Meng Yao was at Lotus Pier.

Wei Wuxian watched happily, his entire body trembling with excitement, as if he wanted to run through the entire sect to annoyance Meng Yao’s arrival. However, a low throw clearing interrupted the noise.

The disciples and servants parted, revealing Yu Ziyuan and Jiang Fengmian. Behind them was Jiang Cheng, while Jiang Yanli had yet to come out.

Meng Yao looked at the two adults and smiled. He cupped his hands together and bowed. “Sect Leader, Madam Yu, I’ve returned.”

“Mn,” Yu Ziyuan dragged out her tone.

“It’s good that you’re back,” Jiang Fengmian smiled.

“Yeah,” Yu Ziyuan looked him up and down. “Welcome home.”

Her gaze shifted to behind Meng Yao. At first, her eyes settled on Wei Wuxian, but then they shifted to the child at Jin Zixuan’s side. “Who’s this?”

Jin Zixuan looked down at Xue Yang. “Um…”

“My little brother.”

Your little brother?” Yu Ziyuan looked at Meng Yao. “When did you get a little brother?”

“Half a year ago. I found him and picked him up,” Meng Yao smiled.

“What, is he a puppy? You can’t just pick up any kid off the side of the street,” Yu Ziyuan’s brows furrowed.

“Isn’t that what we did with Wei Wuxian?” Jiang Cheng mumbled.

“Nonsense! He was your parents’ friend’s child,” Yu Ziyuan scolded. “This—Meng Yao, do you even know his parents?”

“How could I know? I met him when he was trying to steal my wallet,” Meng Yao’s smile grew as if he were talking about the weather.

“And you brought him back to our sect?” Yu Ziyuan stared at Meng Yao. “Who’s going to feed him and teach him?”

“I’ll feed him and teach him as I have been for the past half a year. Madam Yu does not need to worry about a thing,” Meng Yao’s smile remained gentle and his tone remained clear. There was not a hint of frustration or anger in his entire person. “Xue Yang is a good a child—his tongue his sharp and he’s rude, but he’s quick-witted and has a talent for cultivation. I promise that he won’t bring trouble to your sect.”

Meng Yao looked over his shoulder at Xue Yang. “Isn’t that right, A-Yang?”

Xue Yang had been lazily standing beside Jin Zixuan. However, after meeting Meng Yao’s gaze, Xue Yang immediately straightened. He felt a cold sweat on his back. This was the eyes Meng Yao would use to look at the fierce corpses.

“That’s right,” Xue Yang said quickly. He flashed Yu Ziyuan a charming grin. “If I cause any trouble, I’ll just run off and be a feral child again. There’s nothing wrong with that kind of lifestyle.”

“A-Yang.”

“However, for as long as Madam Yu is willing to allow A-Yang to stay, A-Yang will do his best to remain quiet and obedient in your care,” Xue Yang said smartly.

Yu Ziyuan’s eyes narrowed as she seized up Xue Yang. Jiang Cheng glanced between them nervously and then at Wei Wuxian, but it was obvious that Wei Wuxian had no explanation.

“This child has quite the mouth on him. I’m afraid he’ll grow up troublesome,” Yu Ziyuan said.

“If he does, then I’ll make sure the trouble won’t fall unto the sect,” Meng Yao said.

“You’re so confident you can do that?” Yu Ziyuan raised a brow at Meng Yao.

“I’m confident,” Meng Yao smiled.

“If you’re so confident, then have a fight with A-Cheng,” Yu Ziyuan said.

San Niang, A-Yao just got back, so he must be tired. If you want them to duel, you can wait another time. Besides, Zixuan is here,” Jiang Fengmian said.

“If you win, the kid can stay. If you lose, the kid has to go,” Yu Ziyuan said.

“But,” Wei Wuxian spoke up. He shrank slightly under Yu Ziyuan’s gaze. “But…Yao-ge is stronger than me and Jin—Young Master Jin.”

“Then let him fight,” Yu Ziyuan scoffed. “We’ll see just how much he’s improved in this half year.”

Meng Yao smiled helplessly. Xue Yang ended up by Meng Yao’s side as they made their way out to the field.

“Are you gonna kill him?” Xue Yang asked, his voice not lowering at all.

“A-Yang,” Meng Yao’s voice was filled with tired scolding, as if they had been over this many times before.

"If you’re not gonna, just say you’re not gonna. Why are you sighing like an old grandma?” Xue Yang rolled his eyes.

“I really should have just left you on the roadside,” Meng Yao’s voice floated to Jiang Fengmian’s and Yu Ziyuan’s ears.

“It was Gege who insisted on bringing me along. It’s too late to throw me back out,” Xue Yang looked up at Meng Yao with a pair of narrowed eyes. “If you do, I’ll drag you out with me.”

“I’d like to see you try. Would I drown first or would you die first?”

“You’re afraid of water. Of course, you’ll drown first.”

“My sword is faster than you.”

“If I die, I’ll haunt you until you go crazy,” Xue Yang showed a wicked smile.

“Stop talking—every time you two talk, I feel like I’m reading a horror story,” Wei Wuxian shuddered.

Jin Zixuan sighed dramatically. The two youths had been traveling with Meng Yao and Xue Yang the past few days and were still not used to their way of interaction.

“I’ll haunt you as well,” Xue Yang reached out his hands and touched Jin Zixuan’s and Wei Wuxian’s backs.

“Ah! Stop that!” Wei Wuxian jumped and ran over to Jiang Cheng. “Jiang Cheng—the kid is so scary!”

“He’s just a kid! Stop screaming!” Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes and swatted Wei Wuxian away.

Jin Zixuan discreetly wandered over to Jiang Cheng as well, putting himself furthest away from the child.

“You too!?”

Xue Yang giggled happily, the sound only sending chills down Wei Wuxian and Jin Zixuan’s spine further.

Jiang Cheng glanced back at Xue Yang and Meng Yao and slowed his steps until he was beside them. He looked tentatively at Meng Yao. “Yao-ge.”

“A-Cheng,” Meng Yao smiled. He looked Jiang Cheng up and down and sighed. “Even you’re taller than me.”

“Wh—even? What do you mean even?” Jiang Cheng pouted immediately.

Meng Yao reached up and tried to measure their height difference. He dropped his hand and sighed disappointedly. “I was hoping to grow taller.”

Jiang Cheng felt a bit guilty somehow. “…W-well, it isn’t exactly your fault. Sometimes it depends on parents and…and how well you’re fed…?”

Meng Yao looked at Jin Zixuan’s back with envy. “It definitely wasn’t my parents. It’s probably nutrition.”

Wei Wuxian suppressed his laughter. His face convulsed, making Jin Zixuan look at him strangely.

“I’ll definitely become taller than you,” Xue Yang sang confidently.

Meng Yao looked at Xue Yang with a darkened gaze. He reached out and pinched the kid’s cheek when he remembered his height on the character profile. “I should just starve you.”

 “You could try,” Xue Yang dared him with a devious glint in his eyes.

Jiang Cheng looked between the two of them and suddenly realized why Wei Wuxian and Jin Zixuan held a fear towards the two boys.

The training field was just an expansive field of dirt with dummies and various weapons to fight with, along with several pillars that stretched up to the sky. Bows and arrows hung on a wall, ready to be used at any time. Swords, sabers, and spears were haphazardly placed in racks. There was armor to be worn by children just beginning to train with one another, but otherwise there was no protective gear for people older than the age of six.

The servants had been shooed back to work while the disciples made their place nearby anxiously as Yu Ziyuan established the rules.

Spiritual energy could be used. The only objective was to knock the opponent out of the ring drawn, or to push the opponent down for five seconds or more. Internal injuries were not allowed, so the two were not allowed to go all out in this fight.

Jiang Cheng shuffled hesitantly on the other side of the field, his fingers flexing around the handle of his sword. The purple Yunmeng Jiang Sect robes billowed softly in the window, the soundless bell swayed on his waist.

Meng Yao smiled at Jiang Cheng. He had yet to change out of his casual robes and back into his uniform. He was currently wearing plain brown robes, made of cheaper material. His hair was tied back by a simple black cloth. Despite his appearance, he still had the grace befitting of a young master.

“A-Cheng.”

“Huh?”

“Don’t be scared—it’s just a friendly fight,” Meng Yao said.

“O-oh,” Jiang Cheng nodded, his nervousness decreasing by a few points.

Yu Ziyuan counted down from five. When she reached one, Meng Yao didn’t wait for Jiang Cheng to feel him out and flew right in.

His sword, which had been concealed, flew out of his sleeve. It unraveled itself first and shot out, only to be grabbed at the hilt by Meng Yao later. The attack was sudden and Jiang Cheng almost wasn’t able to dodge it. At the last moment, he managed to push away Meng Yao’s sword and circle around him to avoid being pushed out of the ring.

Meng Yao’s steps were light, as if he were stepping on clouds. Every move he made was quick and decisive. The longer the fight was drawn out, the more Jiang Cheng was suppressed. It wasn’t just in his moves, but also in spiritual pressure. Although Meng Yao didn’t do any of his flashy moves, the spiritual energy that radiated from his body was at least two levels strong than Jiang Cheng, already putting Jiang Cheng at a disadvantage.

Jiang Fengmian and Yu Ziyuan observed the fight with furrowed brows.

Meng Yao’s fighting style could hardly be called the Yunmeng Jiang Sect technique.

The decisiveness of the boy was learned through many fights and battles. It wasn’t the type of movements that would be used during a regular spar that could cause no harm. Even disciples that had gone on night-hunts wouldn’t fight like this.

When Meng Yao fought, he didn’t fight with emotion. He fought with wit and skill. While his opponent panicked, he searched for every weak spot and hit them consecutively without rest. As the battle drew on longer, it was clear to Jiang Fengmian and Yu Ziyuan that if this were a real battle, Jiang Cheng would have been dead long ago. The only reason it had gone on for this long was because it was practice and Meng Yao only wanted to tired Jiang Cheng out.

About ten minutes later, Jiang Cheng fell to the ground.

Meng Yao stood with his sword pointed to Jiang Cheng’s neck. Six seconds passed. He withdrew his sword and helped Jiang Cheng up with a smile.

He turned to Yu Ziyuan. “Is this enough?”

“…Enough. It’s good enough,” Yu Ziyuan nodded, her gaze complicated.

Jiang Cheng leaned against Meng Yao as he panted. “Yao-ge, you—you’re really awesome!”

Meng Yao laughed and clapped Jiang Cheng on the back. “You’re not too bad yourself.”

“How could it be the same?” Jiang Cheng exclaimed.

The disciples rushed over excitedly, praises spilling from their mouths. Meng Yao smiled and answered each and every question they had.

Xue Yang watched Meng Yao and softly clicked his tongue. “Look at me.”

Wei Wuxian glanced at Xue Yang. “What do you mean?”

“He’s obviously the same as me, yet he can pretend to be like you guys so well,” Xue Yang tore his gaze away and looked at Wei Wuxian. “Gege is a great actor.”

“…The way you talk makes me uncomfortable,” Wei Wuxian ruffled Xue Yang’s hair.

“Does it? But I like Xian-gege a lot,” Xue Yang shifted closer and smiled flatteringly.

“…Jin Zixuan—”

“I’m going to find Yanli,” Jin Zixuan left immediately, as if he was unaware of the troubles of Wei Wuxian.

When the excitement was all over, the youths were once again left to their own devices. However, Jiang Cheng had his own work to do, under Yu Ziyuan’s intense drilling, leaving only Wei Wuxian alone with Meng Yao and Xue Yang. But Xue Yang, who was as lazy as always, climbed onto Meng Yao’s bed and refused to get out.

Wei Wuxian borrowed a boat and dragged Meng Yao along. When they were far into the middle of the lake, Wei Wuxian finally spoke. “Yao-ge, does Jin Zixuan know you two are half-brothers?”

Meng Yao glanced at Wei Wuxian. He handed over a nicely sliced apple and smiled. “You still remember?”

“Of course! That’s a secret you and I share. Of course, I’d remember it,” Wei Wuxian stuffed the apple into his mouth. “So, does he know?”

“He doesn’t know,” Meng Yao shook his head. “Don’t let it slip around him either.”

“Tch, I wouldn’t even think about it,” Wei Wuxian shook his head. He sighed and leaned back. “But how ironic is it that you ended up calling him da-ge anyway?”

“It’s almost as if the Heavens are playing a trick on me,” Meng Yao smiled.

Wei Wuxian shifted closer. “Yao-ge, if you really end up getting discovered, would you go back?”

“If I end up getting discovered…I wouldn’t,” Meng Yao shook his head. “There’s no place for me there. If I go, I’d only be making Young Master Jin’s life hard and his mother’s life hard. Not to mention, my own life. And Jin Guangshan…I don’t care for him. He already made the choice to cast us aside. If I go, it’ll only stir up the waves.”

Wei Wuxian nodded. “That’s true. And you have that kid with you now. I bet if he went into the Lanling Jin Sect, they’d want to beat him black and blue.”

“They’d have to have the skill first,” Meng Yao chuckled. He met Wei Wuxian’s gaze. “A-Xian, I’m warning you—if there comes a day where Xue Yang leaves my side and you meet him on a narrow path, you should turn and leave. Don’t even acknowledge him.”

“Why’s that?” Wei Wuxian raised a brow.

“Because if he’s left my side, that means we’re at odds,” Meng Yao stuffed another apple in Wei Wuxian’s mouth. “He’ll treat those at his side well, but if you’re his enemy, he’s the type to chop you up and throw you out to the wolves.”

Wei Wuxian gulped. “He’s just an eleven-year-old child…there’s no way he’d do something like that, right?”

“Not now, but maybe later,” Meng Yao said.

“Yao-ge, since you know that’s his temperament, then why’d you adopt him?” Wei Wuxian asked.

“So, I can look after him and make sure he doesn’t commit any wrongs for as long as I can,” Meng Yao said. He looked at Wei Wuxian. “A-Xian, what do you want to do in the future?”

“The future?” Wei Wuxian hummed as he chewed on the apple slice. “I want to stay in Lotus Pier! When Jiang Cheng inherits the sect, I’ll be his right-hand man. Every new year’s, we’ll release lanterns; every Mid-Autumn festival, we’ll eat mooncakes; every Winter Solstice, we’ll gather together and eat tangyuan. Every day will pass joyously until the end of time. It’ll be all of us together.”

“Even Madam Yu and Sect Leader?”

“Mn!” Wei Wuxian laughed. “Even them. And you.”

Meng Yao smiled. His gaze lowered and what he thought of was unclear. Wei Wuxian shifted closer and placed his chin on Meng Yao’s knee. He looked up at him. “Even if you don’t want to stay forever, you still have to come back to visit.”

Meng Yao hummed. “But A-Xian…”

“What?”

“The future might not go as you plan it to,” Meng Yao said, the back of his hand brushing away the loose strands of Wei Wuxian’s hair. “In the future, if you feel that it’s too hard or there are any difficulties, come tell me. Or find someone you trust to confide in. Don’t be overly arrogant and don’t be cocky. It’s impossible that the entire world is against you—there will always be someone who cares at your side.”

Wei Wuxian stared at Meng Yao silently. “You too.”

“Huh?” Meng Yao looked at him in surprise.

“You too, Yao-ge. There will always be someone by your side who cares about you,” Wei Wuxian said. “So, don’t hold everything in. You aren’t alone.”

Wei Wuxian plucked the apple slice from Meng Yao’s hand and happily chomped on it. “If not me or Jiang Cheng or Shijie, there’s still Jin Zixuan and Xue Yang.”

He hesitated and then lightly nudged Meng Yao. “Or Chifeng-zun.”

“Chifeng-zun? Why’d you suddenly bring him up,” Meng Yao raised a brow.

“You two exchanged loved letters for so many years and your two names are also brought up so often nowadays. You two must be great friends,” Wei Wuxian smirked.

“They weren’t love letters,” Meng Yao corrected. “And we’re not even that close.”

“Oh. Alright,” Wei Wuxian nodded, though he didn’t seem convinced.

“This kid…when he starts flirting with Lan Wangji, I’ll be the first one to blow it up and parade it around the Cloud Recesses,” Meng Yao grumbled.

[If Host does that, perhaps the love plot will advance faster.]

“…You think?”

[It is my own thought. I have no guarantees what the system will think.]

“I should try it. The progress bar for the world has stayed stagnate at 5% for so long, I’m getting a bit sick of it,” Meng Yao sighed. “When do you think we’ll be heading to the Cloud Recesses?”

[According to the timeline, it shouldn’t be too far away, Host.]

“Once we go to the Cloud Recesses…then the official plot will start.”

Chapter Text

Meng Yao looked up at the approaching sign and lowered his head to hide his smile. Their steps were still brisk as they marched up the stone steps. Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian still had enough of their breath to argue with each other and shove each other about, but they left Meng Yao alone to his own thoughts.

Meng Yao pulled up the system interface and looked at the grayed out words that said [Locked], accompanied by the main mission which was white and said [A Romantic Meeting]. Meng Yao felt his own heart flutter as he tried to compose himself.

“It’s finally happening.”

[Yes, Host.]

“After ten years, I finally get to see them interacting in real life,” Meng Yao breathed out. “I can’t believe I had to wait a whole decade before I could see my favorite pairing together in real life.”

[It will be worth it, Host.]

“With how annoying Wei Wuxian is in real life, Lan Wangji would probably be irritated out of his mind,” Meng Yao glanced at the person he had already deemed to be his little brother and shook his head. “He’s untamable.”

[Will Host do anything to change the plot line?]

“Well, I could make plans, or I could watch it play out. I’ve realized that even if I make plans, they never work out, so why don’t I just sit back and watch this time? If it ends up involving me, then I’ll stick my head in. Otherwise…well, otherwise, I think their relationship development in the story is already quite good,” Meng Yao said. “Thought, if A-Xian isn’t dead for thirteen years, their relationship will probably be different—I’ll probably help them out then.”

[There are side missions, Host.]

Meng Yao paused. “Concerning the two leads?”

[Concerning Lan Xichen. May Host please work hard in the next coming months.]

Meng Yao sighed. “This is just digging a pit for me again, isn’t it? I’ve finally come back to the main characters side, yet now you want me to be an outstanding cannon fodder. Tongtong, I just wanted to be the nameless background character.”

[As the original Jin Guangyao was heavily involved in the plot, it is hard to rid him from this world’s System’s eyes. Host can only be an ‘outstanding cannon fodder’.]

“…Fine. Fine, then, let’s just try not to die,” Meng Yao grumbled.

[I will work hard to ensure that does not happen.]

“Work hard? Have you grown attached to me, Tongtong?” Meng Yao perked up. “I just knew you wouldn’t be a cold unfeeling AI. We’ve been together for so many years, of course you wouldn’t just let me die.”

[I have gotten used to a certain standard of working and Host is the only one who can uphold that for me.]

Meng Yao froze.

[Host, you aren’t hurt, are you?]

“You can tell whether I’m hurt or not,” Meng Yao grumbled, dragging his feet as he followed Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng to the gates.

Tongtong’s awkward rambling continued in Meng Yao’s mind as the three of them were led to their own rooms and were given uniforms to change into. Meng Yao quietly listened to Tongtong as he thought about the upcoming plot. On the first night, the boys would gather together and Wei Wuxian would sneak out to get some wine. Of course, if Meng Yao was around, Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian wouldn’t dare do such a thing, so the only reasonable thing was to…

“I’m going to find Zewu-jun,” Meng Yao said.

Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian glanced at each other. They looked back to Meng Yao.

“Yao-ge, you’re already tired of us?” Wei Wuxian smiled.

“How could I be?” Meng Yao pinched the cheeks of the two future heroes of the cultivation world. “I just left them on a sour note, so I have to make sure Zewu-jun isn’t upset with me.”

“Yao-ge,” Jiang Cheng straightened and called out to Meng Yao before he could leave. “Could…you introduce us to him later?”

Meng Yao raised a brow but nodded slowly. As he left down the cobble path, Meng Yao prodded Tongtong. “Are there good feelings?”

[Feelings of admiration.]

“Oh,” Meng Yao thought about Lan Xichen and Jiang Cheng together. Maybe not now, but if they were both responsible sect leaders then…if Meng Yao squinted, he could see it.

Meng Yao wandered and wandered until he felt he was deep enough into the Cloud Recesses before he started asking around for Zewu-jun. Seeing his guest disciple robes, a lot of the disciples were unsure of whether they should answer him or not, but others happily pointed the way to where Lan Xichen was last seen.

“Tongtong, is it possible that Lan Xichen isn’t even in the sect?” Meng Yao could only vaguely recall the contents of the story.

Lan Xichen’s whereabouts weren’t spoken about until after Wei Wuxian had received punishment. If Meng Yao recalled correctly, Lan Xichen should have gotten back to the sect at that point and had only come to find Lan Wangji to help with the water ghouls.

[According to the system, Lan Xichen is still at the sect.]

“Where is he? Can you tell?” Meng Yao resisted the urge to pick up his pace.

[He is getting ready to leave. Host should hurry.]

Meng Yao squeezed out a sigh. He wanted to hang off Lan Xichen until Wei Wuxian could make his big mistake. How could Lan Xichen decide to leave right now!? If he left, wouldn’t Meng Yao have to head back? Would Wei Wuxian miss his chance with Lan Wangji?

As Meng Yao thought this, his pace quickened and he headed to the reception room where Lan Xichen supposedly was. Only when he neared it did his steps slow back down. He took a few huffs of breath and glanced around, seemingly a bit lost. He was just about to turn around when he heard an “A-Yao?” from behind him.

Meng Yao paused. He looked over his shoulder. His face first showed surprise and then showed relief.

[10/10.]

“Thank you, thank you,” Meng Yao gratefully walked over to Lan Xichen and then froze when he noticed an elder by his side. He bowed low, “Zewu-jun…”

“This is my uncle, Lan Qiren. You can call him Teacher,” Lan Xichen quickly assessed the situation upon seeing Meng Yao’s robes. “But you shouldn’t be calling me Zewu-jun.”

“Teacher, Xichen-ge,” Meng Yao raised his head sheepishly.

“Uncle, this is Meng Yao, the one I told you about before,” Lan Xichen said.

Lan Qiren looked Meng Yao up and down as if he were appraising a priceless vase. Slowly, a small smile emerged on his face. “I’ve heard a bit about you, Young Master Meng.”

“I wouldn’t dare to be referred to in such a way by you, Teacher. Just Meng Yao is fine,” Meng Yao said quickly.

Lan Qiren chuckled. He glanced over Meng Yao’s robes. “You are part of the Yunmeng Jiang Sect?”

“That’s right,” Meng Yao lowered his head. He clasped his hands together, “The two young masters of my sect are still young and hotheaded. If they offend Teacher in anyway, I hope Teacher can forgive them and properly educate them.”

“If they were taught alongside you, I’m sure they are both outstanding individuals,” Lan Qiren praised.

“Not at all, not all.”

Meng Yao breathed out a long sigh in his mind. “Tongtong, even my professors never praised me this much. Just what did Lan Xichen say to him?”

[Host, to use the terms of your era’s internet, you are quite “OP”. It isn’t surprising that Lan Xichen would praise you to this extent.]

“Am I? I feel like I’m still a salted fish. If I end up in a real battle, who knows if I’d die or not,” Meng Yao said.

“Oh, right, A-Yao, how did you end up over here?”

“I was looking for you to say hi, but I ended up getting a bit lost,” Meng Yao said sheepishly.

“You two should have a lot to catch up on,” Lan Qiren tactfully started his retreat. “I still have some things to do, so I will take my leave first.”

“Yes, Uncle.”

“We’ll see ach other tomorrow,” Lan Qiren said to Meng Yao before turning to leave.

Lan Xichen waited for his uncle to walk far enough before turning to Meng Yao. “Have you ever been to Gusu?”

Meng Yao shook his head.

Lan Xichen’s smile turned a bit mischievous. “I’ll give you a tour. It just so happens I was planning on going to Qinghe for a spell.”

“Qinghe?”

“Do you want to come?” Lan Xichen’s demeanor relaxed greatly around Meng Yao.

He hadn’t noticed it at first, but there truly was a difference between the honorable Zewu-jun and young man, Lan Xichen.

“I can’t. I have to watch over the two rascals,” Meng Yao sighed.

“Is it difficult? I saw you were quite good with Xue Yang,” Lan Xichen said.

“Xue Yang is different—he’s independent and he just treats me as someone who feeds him. Those two kids at the sect? Even with Shijie around, I can barely handle them, much less now I’m on my own. They’re similar to Huaisang, only they have the guts to do what Huaisang won’t do.”

“That does sound quite troublesome,” Lan Xichen hummed. “Maybe you should have sent them to Qinghe instead of Gusu.”

“Well, their rowdiness is what makes them lovable,” Meng Yao said. He looked at Lan Xichen. “Xichen-ge, what’s your brother like?”

“Mine?” Lan Xichen frowned. “He’s quiet and responsible. He doesn’t like talking to many people and keeps to himself. He enjoys cultivating and he’s a prodigy. He’s perfect in every way, I just…”

“Just?”

“Sometimes, I just wish he would make some mistakes, but he never does. He walks the straight path and has never stopped once or stepped off once,” Lan Xichen said. He fell silent for a moment. “I’m not hoping he would run into any big trouble, but if maybe he spilled ink once in a while, that would also be fine.”

Lan Xichen smiled. “Imperfections means you’re human, doesn’t it?”

“And it feels like he’s striving to not be human?” Meng Yao asked.

Lan Xichen nodded. He chuckled to himself. “It’s silly. I should be happy that he has a good head on his shoulders.”

Meng Yao fell silent. “No, you’re right. People should be allowed to make mistakes. There shouldn’t be a shame in it.”

Meng Yao had spent his entire life, making sure there weren’t any mistakes. After living so long, he had grown tired of it. It was draining, trying your best not to provoke those around you. It was hard trying not to be a burden. It was tiring to pour over every detail of every project, just to perfect it to the point that even professors would be unable to pick something out to lecture him about.

His entire life after his birth mother had died had been picture perfect to the point that it was unnatural. And it wasn’t without a cost.

Meng Yao breathed a small sigh of relief. It was good that Lan Wangji met Wei Wuxian when he did. He wouldn’t have to be suffocated like Meng Yao had been.

“Have you ever made any mistakes?” Meng Yao suddenly asked.

“Me?” Lan Xichen thought for a moment. “I wouldn’t say they were mistakes, but I have been reckless.”

“Doing what?” Meng Yao looked at Lan Xichen.

“There was one time I snuck my brother out to see fireflies,” Lan Xichen smiled. “There was another time when I lied to my uncle about where I was going because I wanted to get him a birthday present. The most recent time was when I stayed in Qinghe longer than I was supposed to because I wanted to spend more time with you and Ming-xiong.”

Meng Yao almost felt his nose souring. “Xichen-ge.”

“Hm?”

“How are you so wholesome?” Meng Yao asked.

“Whole…wholesome?”

“Mn. Xichen-ge, you’re a great person,” Meng Yao said sincerely.

Lan Xichen felt the roots of his ears begin to burn. “A-Yao, why are you suddenly complimenting me?”

Meng Yao felt a bit aggravated. “He’s too cute. How could Jin Guangyao even bear to do anything that would hurt him?”

[It’s good that Host is here now.]

Meng Yao shoved down his urge to squeeze Lan Xichen’s face and smiled. “I just think you’re quite good.”

“A-Yao is also quite good,” Lan Xichen confusedly complimented as well.

The two youths made their way out of the sect. Lan Xichen brought Meng Yao to a restaurant that he claimed to be one of his favorites and ordered a few dishes he thought Meng Yao would like. As he did so, Meng Yao’s gaze fell on the small liquor store down below. A small smile graced his lips as he sipped his tea.

“A-Yao, are you interested in wine?” Lan Xichen asked.

“It smelled good, as we walked past,” Meng Yao said. “I’m sure A-Xian and A-Cheng would want a taste.”

“Emperor’s Smile is quite popular,” Lan Xichen nodded. “I should bring one for Ming-xiong.”

Meng Yao hummed quietly. His mind began to drift as he and Lan Xichen began to engage in a conversation again. He wondered just how he would be able to keep out of Wei Wuxian’s way for him to get Emperor’s Smile. The amount of time he was out of the sect was probably enough for those two gremlins to hatch up some plan. If Meng Yao went back and retired early, that would give Wei Wuxian time to escape.

Once the dishes were served, the topic of conversation switched from their little brothers to things about Gusu compared to Yunmeng. It was only when the sun was beginning to set that Lan Xichen said that he had to leave for Qinghe.

Meng Yao glanced out hesitantly and nodded. He followed Lan Xichen to the liquor stall and waited for him to buy a few jars for Nie Mingjue. When they had finished this task, Lan Xichen turned to Meng Yao.

“I hope you enjoy your stay,” Lan Xichen smiled. “I will be out for a bit. My uncle may be strict, but he honestly means well.”

Meng Yao chuckled. “I’ll keep that in mind. I hope by the time you return, my family’s two little young masters are still able to study at the Cloud Recesses.”

Lan Xichen laughed. “Take care of Huaisang and my brother while I’m gone.”

“If I have the honor to,” Meng Yao lowered his head.

Lan Xichen said a few more words of pleasantries before he left Gusu and Meng Yao headed back to the Cloud Recesses.

His steps were quick as he went past the gate. He rushed back to his own room and quickly closed the door. It was not yet dinner, but Meng Yao wasn’t planning on leaving for that either. He checked the time and then went to Jiang Cheng’s and Wei Wuxian’s rooms.

The two boys were holed up in one room and looked up at the sound.

“Yao-ge, you’re back?” Wei Wuxian hopped up and jogged over to meet Meng Yao at the door.

“Mn, I just came to say I’ve returned. I’m a bit tired though,” Meng Yao said. “I can’t play with you two tonight.”

“Ah? Why?” Jiang Cheng frowned.

“I’m just a bit tired,” Meng Yao chuckled. “We traveled a while.”

“Yeah, just let Yao-ge rest,” Wei Wuxian looked back over his shoulder at Jiang Cheng.

Meng Yao wasn’t sure what Wei Wuxian did, but Jiang Cheng’s expression turned perplexed as he stared at the other youth. He slowly nodded and then looked back at Meng Yao.

“Then, Yao-ge, you should rest. We still have class tomorrow,” Jiang Cheng said worriedly.

“That’s right, Yao-ge! Don’t get ill, or that Xue Yang kid will skin us both alive,” Wei Wuxian gripped Meng Yao’s shoulders and turned him around, as if getting ready to escort him out.

Meng Yao drove his heels into the ground and unexpectedly stopped Wei Wuxian from moving him another inch. He looked up at Wei Wuxian. “Wuxian.”

“Hm?”

“Wei Wuxian, you’re not planning something, are you?” Meng Yao turned around and looked the youth up and down.

“Me? Planning something?” Wei Wuxian laughed. “Yao-ge, what could I possibly be planning? We’re not in Lotus Pier, but the Cloud Recesses. Even if I wanted to cause trouble, I wouldn’t know where to go!”

Jiang Cheng scoffed. “Do you need a location to cause trouble? You don’t even need to pick a time to!”

Wei Wuxian shot a glare to Jiang Cheng and then turned back to Meng Yao. “Yao-ge, I promise I’m not trying to cause trouble.”

“You promise?”

“Promise! If I do cause trouble, then I promise I won’t get caught!”

“And if you do cause trouble and if you do get caught, what do I get in return?” Meng Yao asked curiously.

“You…you’ll get,” Wei Wuxian hesitated. He rubbed his neck. What would Meng Yao want? “Um…”

“You can wash the toilets back at Lotus Pier. Each time you cause trouble and get caught, you wash for another week,” Jiang Cheng leisurely suggested from the bed.

“You—”

“That sounds like a good idea,” Meng Yao nodded.

Wei Wuxian whipped his head back over to Meng Yao. “Yao-ge!”

“What? Just don’t get caught,” Meng Yao patted Wei Wuxian’s shoulder like an understanding elder. “You can live your youth, but remember that your actions have consequences.”

Meng Yao looked at Jiang Cheng. “And A-Cheng.”

“Yes?” Jiang Cheng sat up.

“Remember to live your youth and forget about the consequences a little.”

Wei Wuxian stared at Meng Yao. “That’s completely different advice! How come I get punished, but he can do whatever?”

“Because you already know you can do whatever, but A-Cheng acts like a mini sect leader,” Meng Yao said. “That’s the difference between you two. Balance each other out, okay?”

“Okay,” Jiang Cheng sat back relaxedly again while Wei Wuxian fumed in dissatisfaction.

“I’m sleeping,” Meng Yao let out a realistic yawn. He stretched his waist and waved lazily to the two boys.

He went back to his own room and threw himself onto the bed. He rolled on to his back and hugged the blankets to his face.

The events that would take place tonight…he was excited to hear about it the following morning.

Chapter Text

When a group of young masters gathered, it was natural that strangers soon became friends. It wasn’t rare, especially since, with the cultivation world, even if a person didn’t know another personally, they would have heard their name or seen their faces around. Adding onto the rumors and stories, Wei Wuxian quickly became the most popular, but that didn’t mean anyone was ignored. By the time they made it halfway to the classroom, the young masters had become fast friends, without leaving behind any exception.

Meng Yao had arrived at the classroom a bit earlier since he had slept much earlier than everyone else. He was energetic and ready to face the day. However, when he arrived at the classroom, he found that the teacher wasn’t there yet, but there was already a snow white figure sitting by the window.

This would be the scene Wei Wuxian and his group of newly found friends would happen upon when they reached the classroom a few minutes later.

Meng Yao’s steps slowed. His energetic gait turned into a more elegant walk. He lowered his head and stepped into the classroom without much noise.

However, despite his best to remain quiet, the lashes of the youth sitting by the hollowed window still trembled. Meng Yao felt a fleeting glance on him as he took a seat near the front and didn’t bother looking back.

Just as Meng Yao’s butt had warmed up the seat, he and the youth heard the rumbling chaos come closer. Meng Yao suppressed a sigh and lowered his head as he listened to the abrupt silence that followed. He could already tell the conversation went similarly to what had happened in the book.

Wei Wuxian had most likely bragged about running into Lan Wangji and getting into a scuffle with him. Just as Wei Wuxian doubted that Lan Wangji would come after him, they realized Lan Wangji was sitting in the classroom. As soon as such a thing happened, the other youths scattered, fearing for their lives. And—there it was. Meng Yao could hear Jiang Cheng whispering something to Wei Wuxian.

He listened to the soft footsteps of the disciples taking their seats. The shifting of cloth was especially loud in this silent space, but before Wei Wuxian could say a word, Lan Qiren entered the room.

Meng Yao’s back straightened as Lan Qiren walked past his desk. There was a pause where Lan Qiren seemed to glance over, but after that, there was not another hint of acknowledgement.

As soon as Lan Qiren stood at the podium, the guest disciples knew that they were about to be in for a treat. Without disappointing them, Lan Qiren unfurled the large scroll in his hand. Meng Yao glanced at the middle row and watched as the scroll rolled out the entire stretch of the room.

Meng Yao swallowed back a gasp. “Tongtong, there’s so many words.”

[Host needn’t worry—the system can easily memorize the rules for Host.]

“Well, we’re not going to have a quiz on it, right?” Meng Yao waited for a response, but he was only faced by an air of uncertainty. “Fine, memorize it. Just in case.”

Meng Yao stared straight ahead and listened attentively as Lan Qiren began to ramble about the rules of the sect. In fact, he was quite used to this type of boring tone. A lot of his professors adopted such a tone when giving a particularly boring part of lectures.

In order to keep from falling asleep, Meng Yao had adopted the habit of taking notes. If he was unable to take notes, then he would simply stare ahead and think deeply about every word his professor said. Did they say something about literature? Then Meng Yao would think hard about literature. Did they talk about a piece of history? Then Meng Yao would think up questions about such history.

Lan Qiren spoke about the rules regarding eating meals, so Meng Yao silently imagined what it would be like to eat a meal with those rules. It was horrible. He didn’t want to think about it anymore.

Eventually, Lan Qiren slammed the scroll down and smiled bitterly at the students. It seemed that everyone was falling asleep, save for Meng Yao and Lan Wangji.

“I was only repeating the rules one by one since nobody reads the rules carved in the rock wall. Hopefully, after this, no one will use the excuse of ignorance to violate the rules again. However, I see that even if I do this, there will be some people who do not pay attention, so I will talk about something else.”

Meng Yao felt like he was back in high school when the teacher was reluctant to call out specific people, thus made the entire class feel awkward.

Maybe ancient times and modern times weren’t too different.

“Wei Ying.”

Meng Yao’s back straightened as if he had been the one who had been called on.

“Let me ask you; are yao, demons, ghosts, and monsters the same thing?” Lan Qiren’s voice rang over the silent classroom.

Meng Yao could hear the smile in Wei Wuxian’s answer, “No.”

“Then, how are they different?”

Yao are formed from living things, non-human beings; demons are formed from living humans; ghosts are formed from unalive humans and monsters are formed from dead non-human beings.”

Meng Yao listened intently as Lan Qiren continued to question Wei Wuxian. He felt the palm of his hands grow clammy as the main question appeared. Silence descended on the classroom. Wei Wuxian still hadn’t answered. The classroom grew restless and Lan Qiren’s voice boomed over the youths.

“Why are you all looking at him for? Think about it as well—and don’t use your books!”

After a few moments of silence, Lan Qiren’s eyes scanned the guest disciples below. Only Meng Yao seemed relaxed. The oppression in his eyes slowly gave way as he walked up to Meng Yao. The surrounding disciples held their breath, their eyes focusing on Meng Yao’s back.

“Meng Yao.”

Meng Yao straightened. “Here.”

“What should be done?”

“Is there a right answer?” Meng Yao asked.

The response surprised the young cultivators.

Meng Yao had arrived before any of them and had sat silently in the classroom with Lan Wangji. Even before, when Lan Qiren was rambling about the rules, Meng Yao was also the only other person to pay attention. Everyone had already marked Meng Yao as the second star student, only after Lan Wangji—no one had expected him to ask such a question.

Not even Lan Qiren.

“There is.”

“Then, I don’t know,” Meng Yao replied.

“You don’t know? Explain.”

“I don’t know what the right answer is because I don’t believe there would be one correct answer,” Meng Yao said. “Therefore, I do not know what the one answer Teacher is searching for is.”

“Guess then.”

Meng Yao urgently poked Tongtong. “Tongtong, if we miss this plot point, how high is the chance of the romantic plot getting derailed?”

[Reporting to Host, the system calculates about ten percent.]

“Ten percent!?”

Meng Yao showed an uncomfortable expression.

“Well?”

Meng Yao unconsciously fiddled with the hilt of his sword, hidden in his sleeve. “Kill it.”

“Kill it? Just kill it?”

Meng Yao smiled at Lan Qiren. “That’s my guess.”

Lan Qiren held Meng Yao’s gaze for a moment before turning to Lan Wangji. “Wangji, you tell them what they should do.”

Tongtong rushed forward to comfort Meng Yao. [It’s okay, Host. You yourself know that you knew what to do—other people’s opinions don’t matter.]

“What’s the point of knowing the answer yourself but never telling it to other people?” Meng Yao groaned. “Those two stupid kids in the back are going to think I froze up and forgot the answer too. Goodness, I lost face today.”

The remainder of the scene proceeded as scripted with only a few variations in the wording. At the end of class, Lan Qiren angrily told Jiang Cheng to tell Wei Wuxian to receive his punishment and, unexpectedly, told Meng Yao to stay behind.

Meng Yao’s steps slowed at the top. Nie Huaisang and Jiang Cheng looked back worriedly, but Meng Yao simply waved them off before walking back in.

He stopped in front of Lan Qiren’s desk.

“You knew the answer, but why didn’t you say it?”

“I…” Meng Yao lowered his gaze and let out a soft laugh. “I have no explanation, Teacher.”

Lan Qiren’s brows furrowed. “Is it because you didn’t want to out show Wei Ying?”

“That’s certainly not the case,” Meng Yao laughed. “I just froze, is all.”

“Lying is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses.”

Meng Yao lowered his gaze, his eyes tracing the patterns on the wooden floor.

“You knew the answer. Why didn’t you say it?” Lan Qiren asked again.

Meng Yao remained silent. He adopted the posture of not opening his mouth even if he was beaten to death. He heard Lan Qiren sigh.

“I’ve heard of your accomplishments,” Lan Qiren said, “You’re a rare talent of this generation. Young Master Meng, no matter your position or your birth, you shouldn’t lower yourself and think that you’re as inferior as they say you are.”

“I understand,” Meng Yao said.

“Or, is it that you think that since you’ve accomplished so much that my lessons can’t teach you anything else?"

"Not at all!” Meng Yao instantly refuted, his head shooting up. “My mother always taught me to keep an open mind. Once I grow cocky is when I miss all the chances I have to gain knowledge. I think coming to the Cloud Recesses is a very valuable experience.”

“But you still won’t explain why you wouldn’t answer my question?” Lan Qiren asked.

Meng Yao closed his mouth again and lowered his head. “I apologize, Teacher. I have no explanation. If Teacher wants to punish me, then feel free.”

Lan Qiren let out a sigh. “I understand. Then, you stay here for three hours and do a set of handstands in that corner.”

Meng Yao nodded in understanding and headed to the corner as he was instructed to.

It was the end of the day and there were no more lessons. Lan Qiren left after he finished tidying up any papers. It was nearly sundown by the time a disciple came to inform Meng Yao that three hours was up. Meng Yao rolled over himself, panting slightly as he thanked the disciple.

The moment he let himself down, he heard the sound of hurried footsteps. When he looked up, he found Jin Zixuan, Jiang Cheng, Nie Huaisang, and Wei Wuxian crowding around him.

“You could have just answered the question,” Jin Zixuan clicked his tongue as he helped Meng Yao up. He patted Meng Yao’s arms, “Does it hurt?”

“You try doing a handstand for three hours and then as again if it hurts!” Wei Wuxian smacked Jin Zixuan’s hand away from Meng Yao.

“Yeah, stop asking stupid questions,” Jiang Cheng said.

Meng Yao sighed. He pulled his arms from the three youths. “Only my arms are numb, my legs are still fine. And don’t talk so loudly. Do you all want to be punished too?”

“I’m already being punished,” Wei Wuxian mumbled.

Meng Yao glared at him. “Are you proud of that?”

Wei Wuxian immediately closed his mouth.

Meng Yao let out a distressed sigh. He wanted to pinch the bridge of his nose, but his arms were far too sore to even move. “What did you even say? ‘Spiritual energy is energy, resentful energy is still energy’? It’s fine if you say that in front of us, but in front of Lan Qiren? Would you dare to say that in front of Madam Yu?”

“No…”

“A-Xian,” Meng Yao looked at Wei Wuxian with furrowed brows. “You’re talented and you’re so smart. I admire you a lot for your brazenness, but there are also times I wish you knew when to lower your head and not cause trouble. ‘Attempt the impossible’ isn’t asking you to go against the Jade Emperor or to fight against King Yanluo—it’s telling you to help those in need even when others won’t. It’s saying that if others can only touch the leaves of a tree, that you will try to touch the moon.”

Meng Yao moved away from Nie Huaisang and Jin Zixuan, stepping closer to Wei Wuxian. “There’s a time and a place for your rebelliousness and your audacity that will benefit everyone. It’s not a bad quality, but here—in this place—it would be nice, if you don’t act on your impulse.”

Nie Huaisang slipped between Meng Yao and Wei Wuxian. “Alright, alright, Wei-xiong understands!”

“That’s right,” Jiang Cheng cleared his throat. “I already lectured him. Yao-ge, aren’t you tired? Let’s go eat and then you can go rest.”

Jin Zixuan glanced at Wei Wuxian’s lowered head and felt a twinge of sympathy.

As the group of boys made their way down the steps, they suddenly heard Wei Wuxian’s giggle.

“Yao-ge,” Wei Wuxian cheekily tugged on Meng Yao’s wide sleeves.

“What?”

“But…did you think I was wrong?” Wei Wuxian boldly asked.

Jin Zixuan and the others looked at Wei Wuxian as if he had a hole in his brain. Hadn’t Meng Yao just advised him to stop courting death?

“You didn’t say I was wrong though,” Wei Wuxian continued, his fingers rubbing the fabric of Meng Yao’s sleeves together. “In all honesty, you thought it was a good point, right? You’re just angry that I talked back to Lan Qiren, right?”

Meng Yao turned his head to look up at Wei Wuxian’s shy smile. He raised a hand and knocked his knuckle against Wei Wuxian’s head. “Use your brain better.”

Wei Wuxian’s smile grew. He happily threw his arms around Meng Yao and turned his nose up to Jiang Cheng. “You see? I told you Yao-ge is the best.”

“Yao-ge,” Jiang Cheng clicked his tongue.

Nie Huaisang fanned himself with a light laugh. “So, it turns out that you also raised Wei-xiong like this? No wonder Xue Yang is as mischievous as he is.”

“Don’t blame me for that kid,” Meng Yao shook his head. “He was born that way.”

He turned back to Wei Wuxian and gave him a nudge. “And you—I wasn’t done.”

Wei Wuxian withdrew his hands. “What else is there?”

“I saw the way you were looking at Second Young Master Lan,” Meng Yao pointed a finger at him. “Don’t think about it.”

“What would I think about?” Wei Wuxian let out a lengthy sigh. “I’m not thinking about anything.”

“And that’s the bad thing,” Jin Zixuan mumbled.

Wei Wuxian gave him a glare, but before he could jump into a fight, Meng Yao pulled his attention back.

“If you want to be friends with him, then be friends with him, but don’t mess with him,” Meng Yao said. “I’m friends with his brother—if you bully his little brother, then you’re just embarrassing me.”

Wei Wuxian clicked his tongue and patted his chest. “Yao-ge, I just want to make a friend! How could I go around messing with him? Besides, he looks like such a good boy—how could I bear to bully him? And am I the type of person to bully people? Am I?”

He looked to Jin Zixuan, Nie Huaisang, and Jiang Cheng for backup, but all three averted their gazes. The sky was suddenly very appealing and cobbled grounds were suddenly very dangerous.

“Mm-hm, mm-hm, he’s a good boy, so don’t play with him too hard, okay?” Meng Yao said. He waved them all a bit closer, “In fact, Zewu-jun said that it would be nice for Second Young Master Lan to have a few more friends, so you should all also…”

“But he’s like a big iceberg,” Nie Huaisang straightened with a shudder. “How are we supposed to get along with him?”

“You’ve known him the longest, so it’ll certainly be easy. With quiet people like this, it’s always good to softly approach. Gently,” Meng Yao said.

“A-Yao, you say it like this, but someone like Second Young Master Lan is truly on another level,” Jin Zixuan said.

“Try! We can all try. If it doesn’t work out, then it doesn’t matter. But I know you three love playing around, so just invite him along sometimes. Make sure it’s not anything like drinking or gambling,” Meng Yao said.

“Well, if Yao-ge wants us to, then I guess we don’t have any thing else to say,” Wei Wuxian said with a shrug.

Meng Yao smiled, though he was already thinking that the Lan Wangji of this universe is definitely going to have his hands fuller than he did in the original novel. Just looking at Huaisang and Jiang Cheng, Meng Yao already knew they would be almost if not just as difficult to handle as one Wei Wuxian. If you added Jin Zixuan to the mix, along with himself, he was afraid the Jingshi wouldn’t be so quiet anymore.

But, for now, none of that mattered.

The next day, Wei Wuxian went on his merry way to receive his punishment with Lan Wangji. With the absent of the troublemaker and Lan Qiren’s best student, the anxious young masters turned to Meng Yao to answer all the questions. Halfway through the second day, Lan Qiren finally exploded and forced the others to answer, lest he enact the threat of a test.

That was why, at lunch, Meng Yao suddenly became extremely popular.

“Yao-ge,” Nie Huaisang slide up next to Meng Yao. His sleeves were tied back and his hair was tied in a sloppy bun. He had a brush in his hand and his book in the other, his fan was shoved against his back rather precariously, making him look more like a slob than a scholarly young master, “What’s this supposed to be?”

Meng Yao glanced over at the book. “In the case of yao, they can come in many forms. It’s important to keep a clear mind, or else they can dredge up your heart demons and lead you down an immoral path.”

“Heart demons?” another disciple leaned against the table. “Hey, Yao­-ge, I’ve heard about heart demons before, but I never really understood it. Is it just any bad thought?”

Meng Yao took a few bites of rice as he thought about how to explain it. The concept of heart demons is taught briefly when a person begins cultivating and it only becomes important around the time they touch fifteen. However, unlike other cultivation novels, The Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation’s emphasis was less on cultivation, but much more on world building and plot. If not for the strange monsters and the flying swords and the demonic cultivation, Meng Yao might have even classified it as a wuxia novel in his mind.

“Heart demons doesn’t have to be bad things,” Meng Yao said after he finished his lunch.

The disciples perked up their ears, eager to learn and listen. Even Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng peered over curiously.

Meng Yao looked at this bunch of rascals. If they were good at studying, their parents wouldn’t have sent them to Gusu for Lan Qiren to look after. After thinking about it a bit longer, Meng Yao managed to come up with a straightforward enough answer.

“In ancient times, when mortals first discovered cultivation was a possibility, they only had one way of cultivating—that is to detach themselves from worldly affairs,” Meng Yao said. “Cultivation has always been linked to the Dao. In order to reach immortality, one must separate themselves from restraints, however, what makes one mortal are these restraints—the restraints of the one’s responsibility to the state, to the people, to your neighbors, and to your friends and family. But once you are detached from the mortal realm, then what is left of your person? You have removed yourself from those you care about and, therefore, cut off your seven emotions and six desires—that is why, the most base way and the hardest way of cultivation is named the Way of the Heartless.

“Few have successfully cultivated in this way, but once you have, you stand at the pinnacle of life and you can reach immortality,” Meng Yao said. “However, many have failed because of these heart demons. Just hearing the name, you may think it’s bad, but in reality, it isn’t.”

“But heart demons make you lose your way,” Jin Zixuan said. “How could it not be bad?”

Meng Yao smiled. “Are any of us here truly striving for immortality?”

The young cultivators fell silent.

Many were fifteen and had barely even thought about what they would be doing in another few years, much less forever. A human life was a hundred years, if you cultivated well, then you could live for maybe two hundred or even five hundred. But if you were immortal…none of these teenagers could even fathom what that would be like.

“Heart demons are bad in cultivation,” Meng Yao said, “but it proves that you’re still human. It’s normal for humans to have obsessions, to have grudges, and to experience love beyond words. The heart demons that attack the regular cultivator are grudges, if you move closer to the immortal realm, then it would be obsessions. If you cannot bypass these heart demons, then, in the best case scenario, you won’t be able to break through, but in the worst case scenario, you will go mad.”

“Isn’t this just the case with the Way of the Heartless?” Wei Wuxian asked. “How come it’s still applicable now?”

“It’s true that the Way of the Heartless is the most extreme, but because this was the first way of cultivation, other cultivation methods are based off of it,” Meng Yao explained. “However, there are exceptions.”

Nie Huaisang scratched his head with the butt of the brush, “For example?”

“Demonic cultivation,” Meng Yao said.

The table fell silent. Luckily, the dining hall had few people and they sat too far away to hear. However, when the bustling group of guest disciples stopped talking, a few of the Gusu disciples looked over.

“Demonic cultivation often times feeds off of these obsessions—lust and power are the two strongest sources,” Meng Yao said. “However, many of the demonic ways will lead to corruption, eventually ending in your own destruction. It’s best not to take this path.”

The disciples all let out nervous laughs.

“Yao-ge, don’t joke around,” one of the disciples said. He tilted his chin around the table, “Which one of us would dare to touch that kind of thing?”

“That’s not true! Didn’t Wei-xiong bring up that thing about resentful energy?” someone laughed.

“You don’t think he’s actually going to do it, right?” another rolled his eyes.

“That’s right,” Wei Wuxian sucked on the end of his chopsticks. He grinned cheekily, “I’m already such a powerful cultivator—there’s absolutely no reason for me to fall into the demonic path.”

Meng Yao smiled. He wanted to say something else when he felt a looming presence just behind him. He glanced across the table at the disciples and found that they had all begun looking down and shoved food into their mouths.

“But I still think the concept of utilizing resentful energy is interesting,” Wei Wuxian wiggled about as if something was biting his butt. “Think about—if there’s an army of fierce corpses and you’re outnumbered, what can you do? You can’t fight them off, but you don’t want to die! At that moment you can just—bam—control their resentful energy and—”

“Wei Wuxian.”

Wei Wuxian’s mouth automatically closed. He pulled his hand back against his chest and sheepishly turned around to look at the youth behind him. “Wangji-xiong…did you come here to eat lunch?”

Lan Wangji’s face had blackened to the point of noticeability. “You…”

Wei Wuxian shot up. “You’re wrong! You heard wrong! You—you only heard the second half of the conversation.”

“Then, pray tell, what was the first half?” Lan Wangji asked calmly.

“The first…the first half,” Wei Wuxian glanced at Jiang Cheng, but only received an eyeroll. He looked to Jin Zixuan and Nie Huaisang, but was ignored by both. His gaze finally fell on Meng Yao, but he only heard a disappointed sigh from behind him.

“Three days.”

“H-huh?”

“Three days are added,” Lan Wangji said. He turned around, the edges of his robes, and his wide sleeves just barely brushing against Wei Wuxian’s hand.

Wei Wuxian instinctively reached out and held onto it. “Ah! Wait, Lan Zhan!”

“Let go.”

“No, wait, I still need to explain!” Wei Wuxian hurriedly followed Lan Wangji out of the dining hall without finishing his lunch.

Meng Yao watched them leave and smiled to himself. “They get along quite well.”

When he turned back around, he found that the boys were all giving him the same look: Just what the hell are you talking about?

Chapter Text

It was only in the afternoon that Meng Yao was able to experience some peace and quiet. He laid in the grass with his eyes closed as he enjoyed the soft breeze against his face. Jin Zixuan sat beside him with a book in his hand as Jiang Cheng helped Nie Huaisang desperately study somewhere a bit out of earshot. Jin Zixuan glanced at Meng Yao. He rolled up his book and lightly smacked Meng Yao’s forehead.

“Ah, da-ge,” Meng Yao groaned. He rubbed his head and turned to his side.

Jin Zixuan laughed. “You’re normally so spirited, but why is it when you’re alone, you’re so lazy?”

“It’s all an act,” Meng Yao mumbled. “This is how I really am.”

Jin Zixuan uncrossed his legs and scooted closer. He nudged Meng Yao again. “Say, have you actually been sleeping well?”

Meng Yao froze.

[He’s perceptive.]

Meng Yao ignored Tongtong. “What makes you ask that?”

“Well, you seem a bit paler recently,” Jin Zixuan said. “When no one’s talking to you, you space out more. You…are you okay?”

Meng Yao looked over his shoulder and up at Jin Zixuan. “Is that why you’re hanging out with us today? Because you wanted to know if I was okay?”

“Well…no, I was bored just sitting in my room. And I miss my mother and Yanli and Feifei, so I thought spending time with others would help—”

Da-ge,” Meng Yao interrupted the youth’s words.

Jin Zixuan froze. He turned to Meng Yao. “What’s wrong?”

Meng Yao stared at Jin Zixuan unblinkingly.

Jin Zixuan hesitated for a moment and smoothed back Meng Yao’s hair like his mother had done to him when he was younger.

Although he and Meng Yao really weren’t that different in age, Jin Zixuan really considered Meng Yao to be his younger brother. Like Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng, Meng Yao was someone Jiang Yanli treasured as her family and treated with care. After getting along with Jiang Yanli for the past year, he had heard a lot of things that the girl would normally keep to herself. He heard about Wei Wuxian’s brashness, Jiang Cheng’s ambition, and Meng Yao’s loneliness.

Meng Yao was his age, but he wasn’t spoiled in the slightest, meanwhile he still threw tantrums at home, whether he was willing to admit it or not. When faced with Meng Yao, Jin Zixuan felt a responsibility that a brother-in-law would feel to the younger generation. If Jiang Yanli wasn’t here to take care of Meng Yao, then Jin Zixuan would help him in her place.

Meng Yao stiffened under his touch. His eyes widened, but he didn’t move away. He let out a soft sigh and lowered his head. His forehead lightly touched Jin Zixuan’s knee, exchanging the smallest bit of warmth.

“It’s nightmares,” Meng Yao mumbled. “I can’t sleep very well.”

Jin Zixuan frowned. “Is there a way to alleviate them? What are you having nightmares about?”

“About…” Meng Yao couldn’t say.

Jin Zixuan watched Meng Yao’s hands tighten into fists and his frown deepened. He glanced back at Jiang Cheng. “Do Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian know?”

“Don’t tell them,” Meng Yao mumbled. “Even if they knew, they won’t be able to help.”

Jin Zixuan wanted to refute, but Meng Yao continued.

“I just want them to grow up well and safe. That’s the most help they can give me,” Meng Yao said.

Jin Zixuan swallowed his words. He looked at Meng Yao and remembered what Jiang Yanli had told him: “A-Yao doesn’t say much about how he’s feeling, but if you pay very close attention, you can easily tell. If you sense that he’s sad or he’s tired, just try and distract him. He likes distractions more than offerings to help.”

Jin Zixuan scratched his cheek. “A-Yao.”

“Hm?”

“If you exercise, you’ll feel tired.”

Meng Yao glanced up.

“Want to spar?” Jin Zixuan held up his sword.

A smile slowly emerged onto Meng Yao’s face. He sat up and tilted his chin. “Sure, let’s spar.”

Nie Huaisang looked up at the sound of clashing swords. He sighed. “Oh, youth.”

Jiang Cheng stared at him. “You could play too if you’d just got the information through your brain.”

“You can’t talk like that Jiang-xiong! I’m already trying this hard! I just can’t get it into my head,” Nie Huaisang sighed.

“It’s not that you can’t, it’s just that you refuse to. If you keep thinking you can’t, then naturally you can’t!” Jiang Cheng snapped.

“Ah, fine, fine. What were you talking about just now?” Nie Huaisang asked.

Jiang Cheng shook his head. “Let’s stop for today. I’m tired.”

“What?! We can’t just stop! What if I fail this next test?” Nie Huaisang sat up.

“Well, you don’t want to learn.”

Nie Huaisang tossed the book aside. “You’re right. Let’s just stop for the day.”

Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes as Nie Huaisang stretched out on the grass and rolled around for a second.

“By the way,” Nie Huaisang nudged Jiang Cheng’s foot.

“What do you want now?”

“How’s Xue Yang?”

Jiang Cheng glanced at Nie Huaisang. “Xue Yang? Why are you asking about that little rat for?”

“Little rat?” Nie Huaisang sat up. “He’s not a little rat!”

“Not a little rat,” Jiang Cheng repeated. “Then, we must be talking about two different people.”

“He’s the kid that follows Yao-ge around all the time.”

“Why do you want to know about him all of a sudden?”

“It’s not sudden,” Nie Huaisang said. “I’m just…wondering about how he is.”

“…He didn’t offend you?”

“Not at all. Instead, I’m afraid I might have offended him,” Nie Huaisang mumbled.

“Why do you even care? He’s just a bratty kid.”

“He’s not bratty! He’s plenty cute,” Nie Huaisang said. “Have you tried putting sweets in front of him?”

Jiang Cheng stared at him dully. “No. Why would I do that?”

“Do it! You’ll see his eyes light right up,” Nie Huaisang laughed. “And then he’ll stuff his cheeks and look at you like you’re going to steal his food away. He’s also really fun to tease.”

Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes. “Of course, you’d have this kind of weird taste.”

“What do you mean weird? I’m sure Yao-ge also finds him cute.”

“Are you kidding me? He and that kid argue all the time,” Jiang Cheng said. “One day Xue Yang threatens to cut up Yao-ge’s clothes. The next day, Meng Yao threatens to throw out all of Xue Yang’s candy. That’s the type of relationship they have.”

“That sounds like they have a good relationship then,” Nie Huaisang said.

“What do you mean? Yao-ge’s normally such a patient person, but that Xue Yang kid drives him up the walls! How could that be a good relationship?”

“Siblings argue all the time, but that doesn’t mean they have a bad relationship. Don’t you and Wei-xiong also argue? I know my brother and I argue a lot,” Nie Huaisang said. “I think being able to argue like that shows that you have a good relationship.”

Nie Huaisang paused and glanced at Jiang Cheng. He smiled. “Not that you and Yao-ge don’t have a good relationship—”

“I know! God, you’re so annoying today,” Jiang Cheng grumbled. He turned away from Nie Huaisang. His gaze settled on Meng Yao and he felt an uncomfortable knot forming in his chest.

After the youths ate dinner, those that needed to bathe, went to bathe, and those that had already done so went back to their rooms to rest.

Meng Yao had just changed from his outer robes and was beginning to let his hair down when he heard a light knock on the door. He walked his door and opened it.

Outside, there was a light drizzle of rain. Jiang Cheng stood awkwardly at the door, still dressed in the guest disciple’s uniform. His belt was a bit crooked, and his chest was revealed more than usual. It seemed he had quickly tossed his robes on and hurried out.

Meng Yao reached over instinctively to fix Jiang Cheng’s clothes, only for the youth to block his hand. Meng Yao’s hands fell back to his side and he smiled. “A-Cheng, what are you doing here?”

“I…It’s raining.”

“Mn, it’s raining,” Meng Yao laughed lightly. He glanced around. “But it’s not thundering. Besides, you aren’t afraid of thunder. Did you come to me for something else?”

“No, I…” Jiang Cheng frowned.

“If there’s nothing, then you should go back and sleep soon or you won’t get up in the morning,” Meng Yao said worriedly.

“…”

“…Is there really nothing wrong?” Meng Yao asked.

Jiang Cheng finally looked up at Meng Yao, his brows furrowed deeply. “What type of person am I to you?”

“…Huh?”

“Like, what’s our relationship?”

“Brothers,” Meng Yao said.

“I’m the younger brother?”

“Of course, you’re the younger brother. Just because you’re taller than me doesn’t mean you were suddenly born first,” Meng Yao laughed.

He tugged Jiang Cheng in and closed the doors. He relit a few candles and sat down at the tea table with Jiang Cheng.

“What brought this up all of a sudden?” Meng Yao asked.

“It’s nothing,” Jiang Cheng mumbled.

“It’s really nothing?” Meng Yao leaned against his hand.

“…Huaisang said something earlier and it was on my mind,” Jiang Cheng said.

Meng Yao clicked his tongue. “Don’t listen to what that kid says. His brain is full of worms and he never thinks before he speaks.”

Jiang Cheng glanced at Meng Yao’s drooping eyelids. “…Yao-ge.”

“Hm?”

“…We…”

“Hm?”

“…Can we be friends?”

“Mn…huh?” Meng Yao opened his eyes wide again. He looked at Jiang Cheng and laughed. “We’re already friends, aren’t we?”

“But…are we?” Jiang Cheng averted his gaze. “…Yao-ge, you’ve always taken care of me really well, but I feel like to you, I’m more of a junior that needs to be taken care of.”

He hesitated, but when Meng Yao didn’t respond, he continued, “Wei Wuxian’s a handful and Xue Yang’s a brat, but I feel like you’re more relaxed around them. You seem to get along with that Jin Zixuan well too. I was just wondering if…I’m too much of a burden, is all.”

Meng Yao blinked at Jiang Cheng sleepily and sighed. He reached over and patted his head. “A-Cheng, you’re not a burden. I take care of you, because you’re my master and you’re like a little brother to me. At the end of the day, I’m still a servant of the Jiang household. It would be unfit to be so close to the little young master."

"That—who cares about that? No one thinks you’re a servant!” Jiang Cheng straightened indignantly.

Meng Yao chuckled. “No one?”

“Well…I don’t…at least,” Jiang Cheng mumbled. “And my sister doesn’t.”

“Mm, what a nice and sensible child,” Meng Yao smiled. He laughed at Jiang Cheng’s incensed expression. “I take care of you because I want to, I don’t tell you about my problems because they’re my own problems, so I should take care of them. That’s all there is to it. I don’t think you’re a burden and I’m not doing so because it’s an obligation.”

Jiang Cheng looked at Meng Yao unsurely. “Really?”

“Mn, really,” Meng Yao patted Jiang Cheng’s shoulder. He smiled gently. “Is there anything else?”

“…Mn. One more thing.”

“What is it?”

“Could you treat me…a bit more like you do with Wei Wuxian?” Jiang Cheng asked awkwardly. “Just a little closer is good.”

Meng Yao looked at Jiang Cheng helplessly. “Alright. But, A-Cheng, just know that to me, both you and A-Xian have the same position.”

Jiang Cheng glanced at Meng Yao. “But you like me a little better, right?”

“Of course. You cause a lot less trouble,” Meng Yao laughed.

Jiang Cheng finally showed a smile, but it quickly fell back down. “Um…can I sleep here tonight?”

“Why?” Meng Yao looked out. “It isn’t really because it’s raining, right?”

“Um, yeah. I don’t like the lightning,” Jiang Cheng said.

“Alright, then,” Meng Yao smiled. He stood. “I’ll clean up the daybed.”

“No need. We can just share the bed. It’s big enough for two people,” Jiang Cheng waved his hand.

Meng Yao yawned and stretched out. “Suit yourself. Less work for me.”

Jiang Cheng laughed and followed after Meng Yao.

Once the two were settled down, Jiang Cheng glanced over at Meng Yao.

The young man had fallen asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow. He breathed deeply, but after a bit longer, his brows became furrowed. His lips were pursed into a line and he scrunched in on himself. Jiang Cheng turned on his side and reached out to pat Meng Yao softly. Upon receiving this bit of contact, Meng Yao’s expression smoothed out.

Jiang Cheng let out a soft sigh and listened to the sound of rain, splattering against the grounds outside. He pulled the blanket higher and continued patting Meng Yao until his own eyelids grew heavier.

That night, Meng Yao didn’t have any dreams, and when he woke up, Jiang Cheng had already left to get ready for the day.

The next few days passed by quickly. When Wei Wuxian was finally released from his sentence, Lan Qiren had already left for Qinghe. With his new found freedom, Wei Wuxian was like an uncaged monkey. He jumped around sporadically and spoke as loudly as he was allowed to in the Cloud Recesses.

Meng Yao blindly followed the trio until they came upon Lan Wangji and Lan Xichen. As soon as Meng Yao laid eyes on them, a system prompt popped up.

[Caiyi Town mission: Accept or decline.]

“Am I really needed though?” Meng Yao asked lazily. “It’ll be enough with Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian.”

[Host does not want to watch their development?]

“I know what’ll happen,” Meng Yao said. “Besides, if I go, won’t I end up saving Wei Wuxian from plummeting? I better not. I might accidentally ruin the plot.”

[Host needn’t worry. Even if this plot point is missed, there are others that can make up for it.]

“But those are side missions, aren’t they?”

Tongtong didn’t answer.

“No need to scam me, Tongtong. I know how these things work now. It’s been ten years! I’m already a veteran,” Meng Yao said.

Tongtong let out a reluctant sigh. It was indeed getting harder and harder to make Meng Yao accept side missions.

By the time they reached Lan Xichen and Lan Wangji, Wei Wuxian had already hyped himself up and ready. The conversation proceeded as within the novel, with the addition of Lan Xichen asking if he and Nie Huaisang would be coming.

“I…shouldn’t,” Nie Huaisang groaned. He looked at them tearfully. “You all have fun without me.”

Meng Yao chuckled. “I’ll stay behind with you, Huaisang.”

“You will?” Nie Huaisang looked at Meng Yao excitedly.

Meng Yao nodded. He turned to Lan Xichen, appearing rather sheepish. “I’m afraid of bodies of water. I fear I’d only be a burden if I came along.”

Lan Xichen nodded. “I understand.”

He turned to Lan Wangji and the others, “You all head down the mountain first. I have something to say to A-Yao.”

Lan Wangji threw Wei Wuxian an irritated glance and turned away. Wei Wuxian looked as if he received the greatest favor and excitedly followed, dragging Jiang Cheng along.

Nie Huaisang looked between the two of them. “Should I go first?”

“You can wait in your room. I’ll come in a second,” Meng Yao said.

Nie Huaisang nodded and left for his room, leaving Meng Yao with Lan Xichen.

“What’s wrong, Xichen-ge?”

“Ming-xiong told me to give you this,” Lan Xichen pulled a letter from his sleeve and gave it to Meng Yao. “He also asked how you were doing.”

“What did you say?” Meng Yao asked.

“I said ‘the same’ and he said ‘you don’t know, huh?’.”

Meng Yao laughed. “How could that be? Aren’t I doing perfectly fine?”

 “But could I say that? If I did, it would sound perfunctory. Ming-xiong knows you better than I do, so he’d know I was just unsure anyway,” Lan Xichen said.

“I’m not that much of an enigma. Why is everyone acting like this recently?” Meng Yao mused.

“Everyone?”

“There are others,” Meng Yao looked down at the unopened letter.

Lan Xichen chuckled. “It seems that there are a lot of people who care about you.”

Meng Yao’s hands froze. He looked up at Lan Xichen and let out a short laugh. “I suppose.”

“Well, I’m heading off first,” Lan Xichen said. He tilted his chin at the letter in Meng Yao’s hands. “Read it well.”

“Alright,” Meng Yao smiled and watched Lan Xichen leave before he pulled the letter out of its envelope.

He began to scan it over as he walked back to Nie Huaisang’s room. The letter was standard. It told Meng Yao how they had been for the few months they hadn’t seen each other and then asked Meng Yao how he was doing.

He pushed the door open to Nie Huaisang’s room after giving it a light knock and sat down. “Your brother’s handwriting isn’t as nice as yours.”

“I know, right?” Nie Huaisang looked up immediately. “Look at mine! It holds the essence of a scholarly spirit.”

“Now, if only that essence actually meant something.”

“Ah, Yao-ge, don’t tease me,” Nie Huaisang grumbled. He slumped in his seat and began to draw circles on the paper, smearing the ink everywhere. “I don’t get why my brother wants me to learn this stuff. He’s still alive and well, isn’t he? I just want to be a carefree young master and not have to worry any about sect duties or cultivation. Fighting just isn’t my style.”

Meng Yao felt the letter underneath his fingertips burn slightly. “You never know when something might happen.”

Nie Huaisang glanced at Meng Yao. “What do you mean?”

“Living is hard. Even if you want to keep living, sometimes the Heavens won’t allow you to,” Meng Yao said. “Your brother’s just worried that something might happen to him and you’ll be all alone. Besides, isn’t it better to know how to protect yourself? That way, when you travel, it’ll be easier for you.”

“I suppose that’s true,” Nie Huaisang sighed. He looked back at the books and groaned. “But I really don’t want to do anything!”

Meng Yao patted Nie Huaisang on the back. “Chin up, alright. I’ll help you study.”

Chapter Text

The peaceful morning was disrupted by hurried steps. Meng Yao turned over and pulled the covers over his head, ignoring the noises outside his door. He knew that it was abnormal for there to be so much noise in the Cloud Recesses, but he couldn’t bring himself to care. Because Lan Qiren was still attending the conference in Qinghe, the guest disciples weren’t heavily supervised, so if Meng Yao wanted to sneak in a few more minutes of shut eye, he would be able to.

Unfortunately, the door to his room banged open and was followed by a series of hands digging Meng Yao out from his bed.

He groaned, not yet ready to put on the aura of a senior, and angrily looked at the panting Jin Zixuan and Nie Huaisang.

“We don’t have lessons today,” Meng Yao said.

“Something’s happened!” Nie Huaisang said hurriedly.

“What?” Meng Yao scratched his head. He looked at Jin Zixuan. “Ge, why are you also here?”

“Hurry and put your clothes on,” Jin Zixuan pulled Meng Yao from the bed. “Your family’s A-Xian has gotten himself into trouble again!”

“Again?” Meng Yao froze. He sighed and flung his arm around to get rid of Jin Zixuan and Nie Huaisang’s hands. “So, what? He always gets into trouble. Let me sleep a bit more. Just ten more minutes.”

“It’s serious this time! Lan Wangji burst into the room and dragged Wei Wuxian off to receive punishment."

"Punish…”

[Host, it’s that plot point.]

Meng Yao finally got out of bed. He threw his robes on and hurried out after Nie Huaisang and Jin Zixuan.

“Tongtong, why didn’t you tell me?”

[Host wanted to sleep in longer.]

“And when have you actually allowed me to sleep more than I’m supposed to?” Meng Yao asked, his hands moving quickly to tie up his long hair.

[Host has gotten good at handling your hair.]

“Don’t just change the subject,” Meng Yao scoffed.

[The AIs had a meeting last night while Host was sleeping. The higherups said that they have received complaints that we have not been taking care of the mental health of our hosts.]

Meng Yao paused. “So, you’re saying that I have the ability to file a complaint?”

[It was from the transmigrators of higher level worlds, but yes, Host, if you have any complaints, we can file one.]

“I don’t have any, but I was just wondering,” Meng Yao said. “So, like, what’s a part of taking care of the mental health of the hosts? Letting them sleep in longer?”

[To be more considerate of the Host’s feelings.]

“Are the systems normally not considerate?” Meng Yao asked. “I think you’re really good to me, Tongtong.”

Tongtong fell silent. Meng Yao was barely listening to Nie Huaisang’s blubbering ramblings and only waited for Tongtong to speak.

“Tongtong?”

[…Host, I believe I feel touched.]

Meng Yao couldn’t keep the smile from curving onto his lips. “Touched? Why? I should be the one who’s grateful.”

[No one has ever said that to me before.]

“Aw, Tongtong, are you going to cry?” Meng Yao laughed. “Don’t cry, Tongtong. You’re the best system I could ever ask for.”

[Host, I’m going offline.]

“What? Why?” Meng Yao wanted to pull Tongtong out by the tail and tease it some more. “Tongtong, come back, we can watch Wei Wuxian suffer together.”

Meng Yao heard what could be categorized as a sniffling sound, followed by a sound of agreement. Meng Yao proceeded forward in a good mood. His family’s system really was the cutest.

However, this good mood faded a little when he heard the pained screams from the punishment hall.

Meng Yao had never understood why people liked watching others be in pain. Boxing was never a sport he enjoyed watching, neither was hockey. Whenever he saw someone in pain, he would feel the same pain in where they had just been hit. It was never a pleasant experience. Now, as he watched Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji receive punishment, Meng Yao couldn’t help but sigh and shake his head.

“After having not received a beating too long, I fear that I would be afraid of pain,” Meng Yao sighed. “Tongtong, since you guys are taking care of the mental health of your hosts now, will pain suppressants be free?”

[They have always been free, Host. However, if you take too much, it would have the opposite effect.]

“Why’s that?”

[A person’s pain is a signal to when it’s too much. If Host’s pain receptors have been completely suppressed, you might not be aware of when you’re about to die.]

“I guess that’s true,” Meng Yao mumbled. His expression didn’t change as he watched Wei Wuxian, but Tongtong could easily tell the reluctance in his heart. “Ah, I’m not looking forward to it.”

[Host just has to avoid pain.]

“If it were that easy, then I wouldn’t be worried,” Meng Yao laughed. “But isn’t there a war coming up? I’m not arrogant enough to think I’ll remain unscathed. Even if I avoid the Wen Indoctrination, I’ll still have to fight in the war.”

Tongtong fell silent. Meng Yao could feel the turmoil of the system that turned into grievances. He couldn’t help but chuckle. It had been a while since he had time to talk to Tongtong like this, with the other returning to the system space more often during this lull in plot, but now that Tongtong was back, Meng Yao couldn’t help but feel reassured again.

When he first transmigrated, he had never spent so long with another person before, but after nearly ten years, Meng Yao was used to the chattering in the back of his mind. He was used to it and he even sought for it. When, one day, it was time for Tongtong to leave, Meng Yao wasn’t sure how he’d readjust to a life of silence.

For now, Meng Yao didn’t have to worry about that. Instead, he couldn’t help but shoot a glare at the groaning Wei Wuxian.

“We’re in the Cloud Recesses. Would it kill you to keep it down?” Meng Yao finally snapped.

Wei Wuxian pouted. He turned to look at Meng Yao. “But it really hurts!”

“It’s fine to cry about it, but what you’re doing right now is just making a mountain out of a mole hill,” Meng Yao said grouchily.

“Speaking of, Second Young Master Lan didn’t scream at all,” Jin Zixuan looked at Wei Wuxian skeptically. “Does it actually hurt that much?”

“You—”

“Someone who’s used to pain naturally won’t cry out,” Meng Yao said off-handedly.

However, after this comment fell, Wei Wuxian suddenly stopped making any noise.

Still, the plot proceeded as in the novel and their previous ruckus had attracted Lan Xichen’s attention.

“What’s happened here?”

The events were recounted and Lan Xichen showed a worried expression. However, Meng Yao, who had gotten to know Lan Xichen, saw amusement shining in his eyes. He watched as Lan Xichen’s gaze gained a mischievous twinkle and heard the words he spoke.

“In fact, there’s a place for Young Master Wei to heal his wounds without worry,” Lan Xichen said.

Meng Yao had to hold himself back from laughing. When the script was finished, Lan Xichen glanced at Meng Yao and the two shared a knowing look.

After this incident, the days at the Cloud Recesses were passed relatively peacefully. Wei Wuxian would still stir up trouble, but it was nowhere near enough to be as earth shattering as the first few times. After a while, they were sent out on night hunts and, because Jin Zixuan’s relationship with Jiang Yanli was good, the scene where Wei Wuxian had to be punished and sent back to Lotus Pier didn’t happen. As such, a year passed peacefully.

Though, during this year, there were some people who were less than happy.

Xue Yang stared out at the lake of lotus flowers and felt a bit stuffy. Although he received letters from Meng Yao from time to time, he felt restless. His hands itched and every night, he wanted to run away and head back to the streets. He fiddled with his wooden pinky silently and glanced at the letter at his side.

The letter wasn’t from Meng Yao, but was from Nie Huaisang. It was filled with some coaxing words, but it generally asked how he was doing and carrying on in Lotus Pier. Xue Yang scrunched his nose and tore the letter up before putting it back to his side.

He heard a set of soft footsteps approach him from behind and he made room for Jiang Yanli to sit down.

“What’s wrong, A-Yang?” Jiang Yanli asked. “You aren’t happy?”

“I’m fine.”

Jiang Yanli gave the child a helpless smile and handed him a plate of cakes. “I made this earlier.”

“Thank you,” Xue Yang lowered his head and silently nibbled at the cakes. The only sign of his happiness were his swaying legs.

“Do…you miss A-Yao?”

“No,” Xue Yang answered briskly and cleanly. There was not even a shift in his face. “I’m just bored.”

“Bored?”

“En,” Xue Yang didn’t offer up any more information. He quietly ate and found that, although it was good, the restlessness in his chest still didn’t subside.

He wanted to find someone to argue with, but he’d feel bad if he tried to provoke Jiang Yanli. As for Madam Yu and Sect Leader Jiang, well, although Xue Yang didn’t mind getting kicked out, he had promised Meng Yao he’d remain a good boy and not cause noticeable trouble. If there was anything Xue Yang wanted to do right now though, it was to run away from Lotus Pier and go back to his hometown to get into fights and pick pockets.

“If you’re bored then…do you want to come to Lanling with me?”

“Lanling?” Xue Yang looked up at Jiang Yanli. “Why are you going to Lanling?”

“Madam Jin invited me over to see the gardens and attend a tea party. It would be boring for you to go, but if you’d like, you can bring a servant out with you to tour around Lanling,” Jiang Yanli offered.

“…Would I be able to go around by myself?” Xue Yang asked.

“Mm…”

“I’m used to it,” Xue Yang straightened. “I promise I’ll be back by a certain time! I won’t get in trouble and I’ll stick close to wherever you need me to be near.”

Jiang Yanli observed Xue Yang. According to Meng Yao, the child had been abused and then abandoned. He spent most of his life running around and taking care of himself. If Meng Yao hadn’t found him when he did, who knows what other sorts of trouble Xue Yang would get up to. Before leaving, Meng Yao had told Jiang Yanli that Xue Yang was a wild wolf cub that can’t be tamed. However, he could be coaxed and reasoned with.

“Alright, but if it’s like this, let me go around with you first so that we know which places are safe for children and which aren’t,” Jiang Yanli said. “Is that okay?”

Xue Yang nodded immediately. “Yes! That’s fine!”

Jiang Yanli smiled and patted Xue Yang’s head. “Then, go back and pack. The journey will be a few days since we’re traveling by carriage.”

Xue Yang stood up and handed the plate of cakes back to Jiang Yanli. The smile on his face was brighter than anything else she had seen him have on all year.

Thus, it was settled that Xue Yang would be going with Jiang Yanli to Lanling.

Xue Yang remained obedient as they traveled. To get to Lanling from Yunmeng, all they had to do was take the waterway. However, just because it was convenient to travel through the water didn’t mean that it would be comfortable. Therefore, they only went partway before renting a carriage with some horses and heading down that way. By the time they reached a village to stay in, the sun had already set.

The village was small, but still managed to have an inn for them to stay in. Although it was crowded and unremarkable, Jiang Yanli didn’t say a word of complaint. Instead, it was the servant she brought along that wrinkled his nose in disgust. Xue Yang happily found a corner of the room he was to share with the male servant to sleep in, but as night fell and silence gave way to the creatures of the night, Xue Yang’s eyes opened.

He looked at the servant who slept happily on the bed and slowly stood up. He went into his bags and pulled out a knife that was nearly the size of his forearm and slipped it into his robes. He tided up his clothing, pulled back his hair, and hopped out the window, soundlessly landing outside the door.

The moon hung high up in the distance and the eleven-year-old child moved nimbly through the shadows. His thumb caressed the knife, finding comfort in the item that Meng Yao had given him.

As soon as he made sure no one was around, Xue Yang began to walk about more confidently. His eyes fell on the closed shops and the empty streets. A faint, hot wind blew through the night, stinging Xue Yang’s cheeks as he ventured curiously.

He had heard some rumors as he was wandering the streets earlier with Jiang Yanli. This village head was old and had fallen ill recently, leaving the inheritance of the title to his first daughter and her husband. The family drama of this family was endless and Xue Yang had listened with interest. They say that dirty laundry is not meant to be aired in front of strangers, but it was obvious the servants of this manor had loose lips and loved to gossip.

One story was about how the first daughter of the official wife had thrown a tantrum recently over the inheritance. The villagers said that this first daughter had a horrible temper, but her father spoiled her endlessly and her beloved was too much of a coward to interfere with her actions. It was fine if she was horrible by herself, but if there came a day that she actually managed to conceive a child, the villagers already knew that it would be just as entitled, if not more spoiled than herself. However, luckily, she and her beloved had only recently gotten engaged. It would still be a spell before she had a child. 

Another story spoke of a rumor that the manor was actually haunted. Every once in a while, they’d hear the sounds of a weeping woman. Those in the know rolled their eyes and said it was just the Second Daughter, but others denied it. It was fine if she was a second daughter, but she was still part of a rich and prominent family—why on earth would she be crying so bitterly in the night? On top of that, there were rumors that if one came out past midnight, they’d be able to see a child staring at them from underneath the magnolia tree just outside the back courtyard.

Tonight, Xue Yang’s goal was to see this ghost child.

He didn’t harbor any heroic spirit like Meng Yao did, but he was curious. A woman wailing? A child? He wanted to see what was up. If it wasn’t a real child and was, in fact, a demonic spirit or a ghost, then he still had his knife. Meng Yao had scribbled enchantments all over it. Even if he can’t wield it, it would still be able to repel low to mid-level entities. And Xue Yang highly doubted anything more powerful would appear in such a rundown town and just pretend to be a poltergeist.

As Xue Yang walked down the streets, he listened for any wailing women, but heard nothing. Occasionally, he’d hear the dog who lived with the old man running the tea stall barking and howling, but that was about all the sound he heard from this sleepy village.

When Xue Yang caught sight of the manor, his steps slowed. He looked around before choosing an area to slowly sneak to the back entrance of the manor. He stayed close to the shadows and, as he moved, his feet made no sound.

The magnolia tree was in sight and Xue Yang had his hand against the hilt of his knife. But he soon lowered his guard.

He let out a loud sigh, causing the child beneath the magnolia tree to look up. He stepped from the shadows with his arms crossed over his chest and his head tilted as he frowned. The moonlight hit his face and directly illuminated his disappointed expression as he stopped just below the magnolia tree.

“It’s a real kid.”

The boy stared up at Xue Yang with wide eyes. He hiccupped through his suppressed tears and quickly wiped away any stains on his face. He shakily pushed himself up, so as not to let himself be at a disadvantage, and glared at Xue Yang.

“W-who are you?”

“Why do you care who I am?” Xue Yang looked the boy up and down. He sighed and scratched the back of his neck. “I stayed up this late to see if I could see a real ghost, but it just turned out to be a crybaby.”

“Wh—who are you calling a crybaby?” the boy seemed to have forgotten his grievances. He glared at Xue Yang, his small fists were tightly clenched. “I-I’m not a crybaby!”

“You’re not a crybaby, but you’re a little stutterer,” Xue Yang laughed.

“I—I don’t normally stutter,” the boy paused and pursed his lips.

Xue Yang tilted his head and took a closer look at the boy who had stepped more into the moonlight.

He was beautiful. Just like a doll or the depictions of child gods. One could even say he had been meticulously carved from jade. His features had a feminine softness, which matched his petite stature, but he was still unmistakably a boy. When he grew up, he would be handsome with a soft temperament. Yet, the only stain on the little beauty were the bruises on his arms and the swelling on his pudgy cheek.

“Did you get beat up?”

The boy’s initial defensiveness turned into coldness. He tilted his chin arrogantly. “It’s none of your business.”

“It isn’t,” Xue Yang agreed, “but I’m just curious. I walked all the way out here and there’s absolutely nothing interesting, at least talk to me a bit.”

The boy scoffed. “What’s you voluntarily wasting your time got anything to do with me? Was I the one who told you to come out here?”

“No, but you lured me out. There’s always talks about how there’s a boy sitting under the magnolia tree, so I came to find a ghost,” Xue Yang said. He looked the boy up and down, “I guess you’re fine too.”

The boy sat back down and turned away from Xue Yang. It didn’t seem like he would be leaving yet.

Xue Yang sat down beside him and looked at the boy again. He recalled how the boy had just looked while he was crying and then looked at him again as he was angrily pouting. It really made him want to bully him some more.

“What’s your name?”

The boy glanced over. “…Mo Lan, courtesy Xuanyu.”

“Courtesy name too? You look like you’re at least five years younger than me, how do you already have a courtesy name?”

Mo Lan reacted as if his tail had just been stepped on. “Five years? Please! Unless you’re telling me you’re fifteen with your tiny body, I think we’re the exact same age, alright?”

“So, you’re ten?” Xue Yang grinned. “Sorry, kid, I’m still older by a year.”

Mo Lan’s face turned red. He whipped his head away and grumbled, “A year. Who cares if it’s a year? What’s a year older anyway?”

Xue Yang’s smile grew wider. He turned away and hummed, “Mo Lǎn(懒)? Does that mean you’re really lazy? What kind of parents would name their kid that?”

Mo Lan glared at Xue Yang again. “Are your ears going out? I said my name is Mo Lán(兰) not Mo Lǎn(懒)! It’s the “lan” in orchid (兰花; Lánhuā), not the “lan” in lazy (懒惰; Lǎnduò).”

“Mo Lan? Isn’t that even worse? You’re a boy, but you’re named after a flower.”

“My dad gave me that name!”

“Is your dad the one beating you?”

“No!” Mo Lan’s face became redder again, but his expression suddenly evened out. “Then, what’s your name, huh?”

“Me?” Xue Yang had been quite giddy, seeing Mo Lan’s reaction, but when he was faced with the sudden question, he blanked out. “Oh. I’m Xue Yáng(洋)!”

“Yáng(羊)? Are you sure your parents didn’t misname you? Instead of Xue Yáng(羊), they should have named you Xue Láng(狼).”

“Xue-láng(郎)? Is this a proposal?” Xue Yang’s grin widened.

He watched Mo Lan’s triumphant expression become confused and then watched as his round cheeks slowly reddened. Mo Lan jumped up and shook his finger at him.

“Pervert!”

“How am I perverted?” Xue Yang laughed as he stood as well. “You’re the one that’s suddenly declaring your love to me! Who called you to call me your beloved (郎君; Láng jūn)?”

“W-when did I?! You’re the idiot that misunderstood! I was talking about the wolf (狼; Láng)!”

“Oh, is that so? Then, it really is my bad.”

Mo Lan’s racing heart slowly calmed down upon hearing Xue Yang’s admittance. However, this peace completely vanished again upon hearing Xue Yang’s next words.

“And here I was, getting all excited. I thought I got myself a little bride.”

“You—pervert!” Mo Lan shouted. He swung for Xue Yang’s face, but the boy nimbly dodged as Mo Lan stumbled to the ground.

Xue Yang laughed loudly. He managed to dodge Mo Lan’s next attack, moving swiftly just like Meng Yao would in the face of an enemy. His laughter grew louder as Mo Lan hurled weak words of abuse towards him.

“Little young master, if you want to cuss someone out, you should use bigger words! What are all these tame phrases?” Xue Yang laughed.

Mo Lan’s face grew even redder, seemingly like it would turn purple any moment. He stood up again and brushed his hands of the dry grass and bits of sand. He opened his mouth to yell at Xue Yang again when the both of them heard the back door creak.

Xue Yang caught a glimpse of Mo Lan’s terrified expression. He glanced back at the door that was still opening and grabbed Mo Lan by the scruff of his robes.

By the time the irritated servant came out, the two boys had disappeared from the magnolia tree.

Xue Yang held a hand over Mo Lan’s mouth. He peered his head around the corner and waited until the light of the lantern retreated back into the manor. He felt Mo Lan trembling under his grip and turned back to the boy.

“Hey, do you want to run away with me?”

Chapter Text

The boy shoved Xue Yang off of him. “Are you crazy? Why would I run off with you?”

Xue Yang stumbled back a few paces and shrugged. “Just an offer. You don’t have to get so defensive.”

Mo Lan looked Xue Yang up and down and tided up his robes again. He glanced back at the door and then back to Xue Yang. “…Thanks, though. For that.”

“So, you really do live in this house?” Xue Yang tilted his chin at the humble manor.

“Mn.”

“Then, is your mother the second daughter that was abandoned by her husband?” Xue Yang asked.

Mo Lan glared at Xue Yang. “If this is what you’re going to talk about, then I’m leaving.”

“What? You’re gonna go back in and let them punch you around a few more times?” Xue Yang rolled his eyes. He threw an arm over Mo Lan’s shoulder and patted his chest. “Buddy, do you want to learn to fight with me?”

Mo Lan shrugged Xue Yang’s arm off. “I really have to go. My mother might wake up in the middle of the night to look for me.”

Xue Yang crossed his arms over his chest. “So? Let her look, it’s not like you’re far anyway. Besides, do you really want to just get beat up your entire life? You have a mom, don’t you? You don’t want to protect your mom?”

Mo Lan frowned. He looked down, his eyes catching a glimpse of the bruises that peered out from under his sleeves. His fists clenched tightly.

“So, do you want to learn?”

“…Want to.”

“Good! I’ll teach you a few moves for blocking tonight. Are you ready?”

Mo Lan nodded.

The boys tumbled around for close to two hours before they deemed Mo Lan’s moves good enough. It might not be enough to fend off a full adult the entire time, but he at least wouldn’t be as injured. Mo Lan glanced over at Xue Yang, who was still panting to catch his breath, and felt his heart slightly moved. However, the moment he felt a little fluttery, he immediately turned cold.

He lowered his head unnaturally and gripped his robes.

Xue Yang laughed. “For someone as tiny as you, you’re quite fierce! Like a cat!”

“…Who’s a cat?” Mo Lan mumbled.

Xue Yang looked at Mo Lan and leaned his head against the wall. “You really don’t want to run away with me?”

“…I can’t. I have my mother to look after. If I run off, then people won’t just make fun of her for her husband running away, they’ll also say even her son doesn’t want her,” Mo Lan placed his chin against his knee.

For a child to seriously consider running away from home, it could be clearly seen that Mo Lan was not in a good place. Setting aside his nature for a second, Xue Yang fell silent. He thought of when he had been roaming the streets and had accidentally chosen the wrong target. From a starving wolf cub to a well-fed tamed puppy, Xue Yang found that he was quite glad that Meng Yao had snatched him off. If he hadn’t met Meng Yao when he did, he’d still be on the streets. And he would still be thinking of those that hurt him and just how he would get back at all those people when he was older.

The nub of his missing pinky suddenly ached.

Mo Lan was bitter—that much was certain—but more than that, he was scared. Xue Yang wondered when the last time he felt scared was. It had been a long time since he had felt fear at the thought of someone harming him. If a regular person, like his father, were to harm him, he now had the ability to kill them. That was his first thought—kill. Not to cower, not to hide away and cry, but to get rid of the root of his problems.

But Mo Lan wasn’t like that—not yet. He could still feel fear. He could still consider other factors. He still hid away his wounds and cried when it got too much.

He wasn’t numb yet. He wasn’t abnormal.

“…Hey, Little Orchid,” Xue Yang nudged Mo Lan. “If…If I managed to get you away, but still preserve your mother’s dignity, would you?”

Mo Lan met Xue Yang’s gaze with wide eyes. “What…what do you mean? How would you do that?”

“Do you know about cultivators?”

Mo Lan nodded. “My dad’s one!”

“I mean real cultivators.”

“My dad’s a real cultivator,” Mo Lan frowned.

Xue Yang rolled his eyes and waved his hand. “Alright, alright, let’s not get into another fight, I’m being serious.”

“…So, what? You’re saying you’ll impersonate a cultivator and bring me away? You’re too young to be a cultivator,” Mo Lan looked at Xue Yang’s clothes. “And you’re not even wearing a uniform.”

“I won’t be impersonating anyone,” Xue Yang said. “Actually, my gege is a cultivator from a prominent sect—one of the big five. He’s really weak willed and loves to help people. If I tell him about what you’re going through, he’ll definitely come help. Even if he can’t take you away, at least they’ll know to not bully you again. How does that sound?”

Mo Lan frowned. “…Really?”

“Mn! Really!”

“Then, what sect is your gege a part of? What’s his name?”

“He’s part of the Yunmeng Jiang Sect. His name is Meng Yao,” Xue Yang said.

Seeing how quickly Xue Yang answered, Mo Lan knew that Xue Yang wasn’t lying. But he still shook his head. “You shouldn’t.”

“Why?” Xue Yang stared at Mo Lan, stunned. He knew that if someone had come and told him they would take him away from his dad when he was younger, he definitely would have followed them without a second thought.

“It won’t happen. He’s not with you right now, right? You’ll have to wait to see him again. By that time, you’ll just forget and I would have gotten my hopes up for nothing,” Mo Lan said.

“I wouldn’t forget!” Xue Yang sat straighter.

“It’s fine. How could I possibly leave my mother anyway?” Mo Lan mumbled, his head turned away from Xue Yang. “My aunt is so evil and she’s going to inherit the family soon. As soon as my grandfather dies, my mom won’t even have a place to stand. I have to be around for her.”

“But you can be a cultivator,” Xue Yang said. “You can be a disciple!”

Mo Lan pursed his lips. He shook his head. “I won’t. It’s fine, Xue Yang. Thanks for trying to help, but I’m really okay.”

Mo Lan stood, his back still facing Xue Yang. “Thanks for talking to me tonight. And teaching me how to defend myself. It was nice meeting you.”

“Wait—”

“I’ve never had anyone interact with me as normally as you did,” Mo Lan’s voice became watery. He took a short breath. “You’re annoying, but I guess you have your good points.”

“Hold on,” Xue Yang followed Mo Lan tightly. “Do you really think I’m lying to you? I’m not, though! I’ll tell my gege as soon as he gets back and we’ll come for you.”

“It’s fine, Xue Yang,” Mo Lan turned around to look at the other boy, his eyes filled with tears. He hesitated for a moment before pulling Xue Yang into a tight hug. “You’re a really good person, but it’s really fine.”

Before Xue Yang could react, Mo Lan had already torn away and sprinted back into the manor. The door closed and Xue Yang heard the lock fall into place.

Xue Yang stood, staring at the backdoor and eventually went back to the inn.

He took his robes off and laid back down in bed. He let out a soft sigh and buried his head in his covers.

Mo Lan was the first person to gift Xue Yang the “good person” card, so how could he possibly let Mo Lan continue to suffer?


Meng Yao let out a sharp sneeze.

“Are you okay?” Nie Mingjue asked.

“Mn, I’m fine,” Meng Yao sniffled.

“You can’t be catching a cold in the summer, right?” Lan Xichen asked worriedly.

“No, that isn’t it. That brat, Xue Yang, is probably talking bad about me behind my back,” Meng Yao sighed.

Lan Xichen laughed. “What could he possibly be saying behind your back to garner such a reaction?”

Meng Yao paused, as if he were really thinking. He looked to Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen seriously, “That I’m soft hearted and too kind.”

Nie Mingjue snorted and Lan Xichen had bit down on his lower lip to keep from laughing loudly.

“It’s true. He’s told me that before. According to him, those are my worst traits,” Meng Yao thought for a moment. “No. In fact, he would say ‘weak willed’ instead of soft hearted.”

Lan Xichen couldn’t hold back and laughed directly. It was a good thing Nie Mingjue had the foresight to enact a sound barrier, or else Lan Xichen might be the next person to visit the hall of punishment.

“It’s a bad trait and a good trait,” Nie Mingjue nodded.

“In fact, I don’t even know where he’s coming from. Since when have I been kind and soft hearted?” Meng Yao sighed. He sat back and looked down at the homework he had finished and finally set the brush down. He stretched his waist and leaned against Nie Mingjue’s arm. “I’m finally done!”

“I’m already this old, but I still have to do homework,” Meng Yao bemoaned

[Knowledge is for any age group. Besides, age isn’t what matters. It’s maturity that determines a person’s true age.]

“…What are you trying to say?”

Tongtong stopped responding, leaving Meng Yao without a place to vent.

He felt Nie Mingjue’s wide palm against the back of his head and looked up at the other man. “Good job, you’re all done.”

Meng Yao felt his heart skip a beat. He sat up and waved the wet parchment. “It’s not the homework itself that’s tedious—it’s just the process of writing it. My hand is all cramped up.”

“Do you want a massage?” Nie Mingjue jokingly held out his hand.

Meng Yao placed his wrist against the man’s palm and sighed, “If you insist.”

Nie Mingjue rolled his eyes and tossed Meng Yao’s hand from his own. Lan Xichen snorted and clasped a hand over his mouth. Nie Mingjue looked up at his childhood friend.

“Xichen, the barrier’s up, you don’t have to hold back.”

“We’re still in Cloud Recesses. The rules should be followed,” Lan Xichen said.

Meng Yao shook his head. “This is why I miss Yunmeng. I was waiting for A-Xian to get in trouble so I could get sent back home with him, but he’s behaving himself now. How strange.”

“I saw him following Second Young Master Lan around,” Nie Mingjue said.

“I know, he’s behaving himself so well. Instead of inconveniencing everyone, he’s just inconveniencing one person,” Meng Yao said. He pinched the bridge of his nose and sniffled. “What a blessing. It seems like we’ve finally found someone that can handle our A-Xian.”

Nie Mingjue stared at Meng Yao, seemingly perplexed.

“If you’re willing to hand off your family’s precious child to our Wangji, it would be more than an honor,” Lan Xichen said.

“Oh, Xichen-ge, no it would be our honor if you allowed your family’s white cabbage to be swept away by our little piglet,” Meng Yao sighed.

Nie Mingjue stared ahead for a moment. He appeared to be working up the courage to say something before finally saying, “Is that also okay?”

Lan Xichen and Meng Yao looked at him.

“…Two men. That’s also okay?”

“Of course,” Lan Xichen nodded.

“Why not?” Meng Yao asked.

Nie Mingjue looked at his teacup, seemingly still wrapped up in his own thoughts.

A while after the topic had shifted, Lan Xichen and Meng Yao heard a soft, “That’s right. If it’s possible between two women, why can’t it be possible between two men?”

Lan Xichen and Meng Yao stared at each other before turning to Nie Mingjue, curiosity screaming loudly in their eyes. Nie Mingjue realized he was being watched and looked up at his two friends. He nodded seriously. “I understand now.”

“No, no, go back?” Meng Yao wiggled in his seat.

“Two women?”

“…Family things,” Nie Mingjue mumbled.

“Family—” Lan Xichen’s words stopped.

“My parents all got along,” Nie Mingjue said.

Meng Yao drained the rest of his teacup and Lan Xichen let out a soft cough.

“That’s also good. It’s good to have a harmonious relationship between spouses,” Meng Yao nodded seriously.

Nie Mingjue glanced at Meng Yao for a moment and then quickly looked away. However, the moment he looked away, he caught Lan Xichen’s eyes.

“W-what?”

“I was just wondering,” Lan Xichen smiled.

Meng Yao let out a soft snort. Whenever Lan Xichen smiled this way, Meng Yao imagined that this was how Madam Lan was when she teased the young Lan Wangji. It was devious, with a hint of pampering. While it was a beautiful sight to behold, one might wonder what the other party was planning.

“Wondering what?” Nie Mingjue raised an eyebrow.

“Did you reach enlightenment?”

Meng Yao turned away, to hide his laughter. He stood, wobbling a few steps, as he left the gazebo the other two men were resting under.

“Ah? A-Yao, where are you going?” mirth filled Lan Xichen’s voice as the sound barrier faded away.

“I—one moment,” Meng Yao pressed a hand over his mouth as he leaned against one of the pillars.

Nie Mingjue’s face shifted between embarrassment and sheer horror. He looked at his innocent friend, but was unable to say anything.

“In fact, it’s nothing to be embarrassed about,” Lan Xichen smiled kindly. “It’s better to find out later than never.”

At this, Meng Yao couldn’t help but release his bellyful of laughter.

Nie Mingjue’s face turned even redder. He glared at Lan Xichen. “Then what about you?”

“Me?” Lan Xichen smiled in the gentle way he always did. “Both is fine.”

Nie Mingjue whipped his head towards Meng Yao. “What about you?”

Meng Yao trembled with the laughter he forced himself to swallow. “Men. Men—”

Before Nie Mingjue could scold the two younger men for teasing him, he heard a faint “Yao-ge!” in the distance. Lan Xichen and Nie Mingjue turned and watched as Wei Wuxian tugged Lan Wangji and Jiang Cheng along with him. As for Nie Huaisang, the youth was nowhere to be seen.

Ge, Ge,” Wei Wuxian happily grabbed Meng Yao’s arm and tugged at his sleeve. “Guess what I made?”

In the few minutes they took to arrive in front of Meng Yao, Meng Yao had already regained his calmness. He tilted his head curiously and looked between the three boys. “What’d you make?”

Wei Wuxian’s lively eyes curled into crescents as he pulled something out from behind him. “Ta-dah!”

Meng Yao stared blankly at the box. “What’s this?”

“It’s not the box. It’s what’s in the box,” Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes.

Wei Wuxian excitedly slid the panel back to reveal what was inside.

“A hairpin?” Meng Yao pulled the rosewood hairpin from the box and looked at Wei Wuxian quizzically. “Why?”

“Well,” Wei Wuxian glanced at Jiang Cheng and then looked back to Meng Yao. “We just felt like it!”

“Felt like it?” Meng Yao turned the hairpin in his hand. “What’d you two do? And why did you drag Second Young Master Lan over as well?”

“W-we didn’t do anything!” Wei Wuxian said hurriedly. “Lan Zhan was coming over to find his brother and we happened to bump into each other. Right, Lan Zhan?”

“Mn.”

“You did nothing, yet you gave me a gift?” Meng Yao raised a brow. He looked between the two boys. “How long have we been brothers? When have you ever given me a gift just on a whim?”

“We—”

“It’s because we never celebrated your birthday!”

Wei Wuxian looked at Jiang Cheng with wide eyes. He smacked his arm, but Jiang Cheng waved him away.

“It’s just…” Jiang Cheng looked back to Meng Yao. “…Auntie passed before you turned fifteen and she was unable to give you a courtesy name. You spent that year by yourself. We know that you don’t like celebrating your birthday, but fifteen is a step into adulthood, and we never even got you a gift.”

“It’s a bit late, but we wanted to give you something,” Wei Wuxian concluded. He tilted his chin at the hairpin. “It isn’t a gift from an elder, but we put a lot of thought into it! Jin Zixuan and Huaisang helped too.”

“You’ve been using the same pin for such a long time, so we figured it’d be nice to get you a new one for this new chapter of your life.”

“And it’s not just a regular hairpin! I coated it with talismans,” Wei Wuxian said.

“Talismans?” Meng Yao turned the pin over in his hand.

“Mn!” Wei Wuxian’s eyes sparkled. He gently took the pin back from Meng Yao’s hand as he counted through the talismans he had painted onto the hairpin. “It’s a defensive and an offensive weapon.  The talismans are all for defense and it can withstand up to a hundred hits by a cultivator’s sword. In case of emergencies, you can plug it into the ground and it’ll create a shield around you to ward off any demons, monsters, or devils! On top of that, if you twist it like this—”

Wei Wuxian twisted the top. A thin line appeared on the head of the hairpin that had not been there before. He pulled and a needle the length of Meng Yao’s finger appeared.

“It’s a secret weapon,” Wei Wuxian said excitedly. “But not only that, it’s thinly coated with a sleeping concoction. If you stab someone with this, they will fall asleep for several hours, making for an easy escape.”

Wei Wuxian carefully slipped it back in and handed it to Meng Yao.

Meng Yao turned the hairpin in his hand and smiled. “Why does it seem like you think I’m going to be in danger?”

“It’s all precautions!” Jiang Cheng said. He smacked Wei Wuxian on the back. “This guy has too much free time on his hands anyway! It’s not bad to let him work on some things.”

“So, is that why it took so long?” Meng Yao asked.

Wei Wuxian appeared sheepish. “I wanted to put a lot more things on there, but they were afraid the material wouldn’t be able to handle it. Oh! And Jiang Cheng was the one who designed it. Do you like it?”

Meng Yao hummed, his finger rubbing over the lotus design.

Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng glanced at each other and then back to Meng Yao’s lowered head.

“Yao-ge,” Wei Wuxian tentatively called out.

“…Hm?”

“…We really didn’t do anything. This really was just a very late birthday gift, we—”

Wei Wuxian’s words stopped. He held out his arms to catch Meng Yao between him and Jiang Cheng. He felt himself get pulled into a tight embrace by the shorter man, his forehead leaning against the other’s shoulder.

“I like it,” Meng Yao said. “I really like it. Thank you.”

Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng froze. Meng Yao’s voice sounded hoarser than usual, but when he pulled back again, he was smiling as he usually did.

He pinched the cheeks of the two boys. “You two are all grown up, huh?”

“Ah!” the boys groaned and pulled themselves from Meng Yao’s grip.

Meng Yao chuckled. He looked back down at the hairpin and then turned back to Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen. “I’m going to go find Zixuan and Huaisang to thank them.”

Lan Xichen smiled. “Mn, go ahead!”

Meng Yao nodded to Lan Wangji and walked off, his footsteps steady.

Nie Mingjue watched him for a moment. As the others became immersed in another conversation topic, Nie Mingjue stood up.

“I need to use the restroom.”

Chapter Text

The approaching footsteps were light against the dry grass and fallen leaves. Meng Yao quickly wiped away the wetness against his cheeks and stood. He brushed away any foliage against the edges of his robes and was readying to walk away when he felt a warm hand wrap around his wrist.

“Yaoyao.”

Meng Yao froze.

“…Are you okay?” Nie Mingjue released Meng Yao’s hand.

“I’m fine,” Meng Yao felt his nose souring again. His hand tightened around the hairpin. “Why? Did they say something?”

“No. That’s why I came,” Nie Mingjue stood a respectful distance away. He glanced at the conspicuous flecks of moistened dirt amongst the dryness and looked back up at Meng Yao. “…Do you want to talk about it?”

Meng Yao clenched his jaw.

Tongtong had gone out for another meeting. Without it monitoring his emotions, he hadn’t realized that he had let them get away from him until it was too late. His nose had already soured and he was beginning to feel tears well up at the edges of his eyes. It was silly, but he suddenly found out that he couldn’t hold it in. Like the night-hunt last year that he went on with Lan Xichen and Nie Mingjue, the tears suddenly wanted to flow.

“Or, we can just sit here,” Nie Mingjue gently tugged Meng Yao over and guided him down to the ground. He leaned against the tree and looked up at the sky, somewhat obscured by the leaves overhead. “I won’t say anything.”

Tears silently rolled down Meng Yao’s cheek again.

A long time ago, Meng Yao had already gotten used to crying without a sound. The only indication that there were tears was the soft dripping whenever a tear would hit the back of his hand, or the dry leaves below.

“…I don’t like celebrating my birthday,” Meng Yao said, his soft voice interrupting the stillness that had formed around them.

Nie Mingjue said nothing and only waited silently for Meng Yao to continue.

“It makes me feel like I owe something to people,” Meng Yao continued. “If they tell me happy birthday, then I owe it to them when their birthday rolls around. If I forget, then I’m the bad guy. If they buy me a present, I’ll have to give them one in return. If they forgot my birthday or if they didn’t know, they’ll ask me ‘why didn’t you remind me?’ and then they feel guilty. And I owe it to them to make them feel better.”

Meng Yao fell quiet again. “Whenever my birthday rolls around, I always ask myself why I was born. I don’t normally care, but that was the day I hear it the most from others. ‘Why were you even born?’ I also don’t know. It’s not like anyone asked me to be here. It’s not like anyone wanted me. I was just a burden to my parents and everyone around me seemed to always leave.”

He laughed. “When I was younger, I even thought ‘if I’m useful, then they won’t leave me’. But they always do. Even if they don’t want to, they do. And I just got used to it. To them, I’m just a soft shade for shelter that they’ll move away from once they feel well-rested again.”

And eventually, he was used to them leaving, so he no longer held any expectations. If they wanted to leave, then they could leave. He was used to being alone and it was never lonely. In fact, it was more uncomfortable if there was always someone sitting by his side, wanting to know him more and to listen to him more. He learned to dislike talking. He learned to enjoy the silence.

After lying to himself for so long, he finally believed it.

Meng Yao heaved a heavy breath. He buried his head in his hands. “But what do I do now?”

Nie Mingjue sat up in alarm. “Yaoyao—”

“I’m actually not used to it anymore,” he laughed. “I don’t like the silence anymore. I hate being alone now. I’m scared.”

Nie Mingjue’s hands hesitated around Meng Yao, as if the moment he reached out, the person in front of him would fully shatter.

“I’m scared of being alone again,” Meng Yao said softly. “…What am I going to do this time?”

Nie Mingjue reached out and pulled Meng Yao tightly against his chest. He patted Meng Yao’s arm gently as he rested his chin against the top of the other man’s head. “What do you mean what are you going to do? No one’s going to leave you.”

Meng Yao was silent.

“No one’s going to leave you,” Nie Mingjue softened his voice as best he could. “We’re all here for you—your brothers, me and Xichen, Huaisang and Young Master Jin. We all care so much about you. We won’t just leave you.”

Meng Yao smiled. “You’re right.”

Nie Mingjue tightened his grip. He had gotten along with Meng Yao for so many years, how could he not guess what the other man was thinking. He felt a stir in his chest that was more than just pity for another person. It felt like his own heart was being torn to shreds. He wasn’t sure how to reassure the other, and he was beginning to feel panicked.

He felt Meng Yao slowly pushing him away and he wanted to grab him back tightly, but he found his own grip loosening. When his hands were halfway back to his side, he pulled Meng Yao towards him again.

Meng Yao fell against Nie Mingjue’s chest with a soft thump. He laughed. “Ming-ge, I’m fine now. I was just being silly earlier, you don’t have to—”

“It’s fine.”

“What?”

“It’s fine to cry in front of me. I do want to hear more about how you feel, whether you’re happy, or angry, or distressed, or sad. I don’t mind any of it. As long as you’re willing to talk to me, I really don’t mind,” Nie Mingjue said. “I’ll stay by your side. I’ll listen to you and I’ll keep you company. Don’t push me away. We’re friends.”

Meng Yao’s fingers dug into his palms.

“I’ll be your shelter,” Nie Mingjue’s speech became more hurried. “This time, you can just use me until you feel well-rested. You can leave me any time you want. You can be the one to throw me aside, and I’ll stay here. How’s that?”

Nie Mingjue felt Meng Yao relax into his embrace. Simultaneously, he also felt his heart calm down.

Meng Yao resisted the urge to press himself against Nie Mingjue. He felt his heart hammering against his chest as he felt the warmth of the other person against the side of his head. He wanted to pull away, but he also wanted to get closer. He despised the way his heart felt, but he also wanted to revel in it. He realized a small part of his mind already put full faith in Nie Mingjue’s words, but reason made him calm back down, because he knew the plot.

He knew Nie Mingjue wouldn’t stay by his side. He also knew that Nie Mingjue would be the first one to leave.

“Ming-ge, if you talk like this, I’ll mistakenly think you’re confessing to me,” Meng Yao chuckled.

Nie Mingjue’s face burned. “Should I add an ‘until our hairs turn gray’ in there as well?”

Meng Yao laughed. Nie Mingjue felt him shifting against his chest and couldn’t help but smile.

“Whoever really gets to stay with you forever would be one lucky person,” Meng Yao savored the warmth a moment longer before pulling away.

Nie Mingjue suddenly felt that his arms were a bit too empty. He looked up towards Meng Yao, who was undoing his hair to replace the hairpin.

He knew that Meng Yao didn’t believe him, but that was fine. They had a long life ahead of them. If Meng Yao didn’t trust him now, then he could always slowly earn his trust later.

In fact, in their hearts, there was already a small hope planted—he really wanted to stay by this person’s side.


Autumn passed to winter and winter dissolved into spring. Their time at the Cloud Recesses had come to an end. Nie Mingjue’s brief visit and Meng Yao’s breakdown were just a small droplet of water, in the near overflowing ocean.

The moment the boat docked and Meng Yao’s feet touched the ground, he felt a weight barrel into him. Meng Yao steadied himself and held the small body in his arms. He realized that the child in his arms had grown taller and sturdier. His cheekbones were covered by a layer of fat now and when he looked at Meng Yao, there was a rebellious spark in his eyes.

“A-Yang, did you miss me that—”

“Let’s go to Mo Village!”

Meng Yao froze. “…Where?”

“I took him to Lanling with me,” Jiang Yanli appeared behind Xue Yang with a helpless smile. “He met a new friend there and he’s only been talking about him ever since.”

“So, you want to visit?” Meng Yao asked, looking back down at Xue Yang.

Xue Yang glanced at Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng and then back at Jiang Yanli. He nodded. “Yeah. I want to visit.”

Meng Yao narrowed his eyes but didn’t expose Xue Yang. He patted Xue Yang’s back. “Alright, I’ll take you to Mo Village.”

“Yao-ge, we just got back,” Wei Wuxian said. “You’re going out again so soon?”

“It’s fine. From what I remember, Mo Village shouldn’t be too far anyway. Besides, I’m not exactly tired,” Meng Yao said. He turned to Jiang Yanli. “Tell Madam Yu and Sect Leader that I am leaving for a spell. I will be back in a few days.”

“Alright,” Jiang Yanli looked at Xue Yang. “Do you need to pack anything?”

Xue Yang hesitated by Meng Yao’s side before sprinting back in to get a change of clothes and his candy.

“Stupid kid,” Jiang Cheng mumbled. “We haven’t seen him for a year, and he’s gotten brattier.”

“A-Yang is a good kid,” Jiang Yanli said. “You two should be nicer to him. Children are like adults—if you treat them well, they’ll be nice. If you treat them poorly, naturally, they won’t show you a good attitude.”

Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng pouted.

“Yes, Shijie.”

“Yes, Jie.”

Meng Yao smiled. “Then, I’m going to check on Xue Yang. I’ll see you later.”

Meng Yao quickened his pace once he was far enough.

“Did the little villain find Mo Xuanyu?”

[It’s possible. What does Host plan to do?]

“First, I’ll figure out what he wants to do. If he wants to save Mo Xuanyu, then I’ll help him. If it really is to just visit—well, there isn’t much we can do afterwards. But since Xue Yang and he are friends, I could use this as an excuse to visit,” Meng Yao sighed. He massaged the back of his neck. “But what should we do if we do bring back Xuanyu?”

[What do you mean, Host?]

“Things around going to get busy in another few months,” Meng Yao said. “I can’t do what I want to if I’m bringing around two kids with me. If they end up dying, that would be a worse fate than in the novel. At least then, they got to live around their late twenties.”

[Host is planning on leaving them?]

“I don’t want to,” Meng Yao said. He smiled bitterly, “But can you imagine? If I have two kids with me while facing the Wen Sect, they’ll definitely take them away to threaten me.”

[…Host still plans on going to the Wen Sect?]

“Haven’t I already told you?” Meng Yao asked.

[Host, Nie Mingjue’s favorability value is at 60.]

“So?” Meng Yao was calm. “That doesn’t stop the plot. The war didn’t drag out because of Jin Guangyao in the original novel—that much can’t be ignored. The probability of more people dying because they don’t have a spy on the inside is higher. I can’t risk changing too much of the plot points during the Sunshot Campaign.”

[Host, you are putting your life in danger.]

“I already died once. It doesn’t matter to me if I die a second time,” Meng Yao said. His steps slowed to a stop. He looked up at the bright blue sky and felt the soft heat against his skin. “At least this life I have a purpose. I’d be dying to protect something.”

[Host—]

“Tongtong, besides,” Meng Yao continued walking. “With you here, would I die so easily? If I end up having to fight Wen Ruohan one on one, you can just give me a potion and I’ll slice him up like sashimi. There’s nothing to worry about.”

Tongtong was silent. Meng Yao knew that it was in a bad mood.

“…Tongtong,” Meng Yao called out to his system again. “I’m not saying I want to die. I’m just saying that if I did, it wouldn’t really—”

[Host, this isn’t a high-level mission world. Self-sacrifice is unnecessary. As long as Host commands, the system can run through the easiest route for you to take that would ensure minimum damage.]

Meng Yao smiled softly. “But only to me and the two targets, right?”

[Host should still reconsider.]

“Don’t worry! I’m just talking about the worst-case scenarios!” Meng Yao energetically reassured it.

Tongtong fell silent again and didn’t respond even when Meng Yao called out to it multiple times.

Xue Yang came running towards Meng Yao by the time he had reached the appropriate courtyard. Meng Yao picked Xue Yang up on his back, stepped onto his sword, and flew off to Mo Village, as Xue Yang instructed.

“So? Who’s this friend and why do you want to see them again so badly?”

“His name is Mo Lan, he’s about a year or two younger than me. His family’s abusive and they’re mean to his mom. His mom isn’t all right in the head, so she can’t even take care of him properly. He looks like a little fairy, but he’s covered in scratches and bruises, so I want to take him in,” Xue Yang hugged Meng Yao’s neck. “You like taking care of people, don’t you? You’ll take care of Mo Lan, right?”

Meng Yao rolled his eyes. “Am I nanny? Isn’t it enough to take care of you? Why am I taking care of another kid?”

Xue Yang kicked his legs around. “Gege! You’re supposed to be a hero! Everyone always talks about how amazing and great you are! How could you turn away when you know a child is being abused!”

Meng Yao’s sword swerved dangerously. “Alright, alright! I was joking! Don’t move around anymore, or we’ll die before we get to your Mo Lan!”

“He’s hardly mine,” Xue Yang settled back down and squished Meng Yao’s face. “How’s Huaisang?”

“Huaisang-gege,” Meng Yao corrected.

“Why are you calling him ‘gege’?” Xue Yang asked.

“I’m telling you to call him that,” Meng Yao rolled his eyes. “He’s fine. He just barely passed this year. Honestly, I wish he would try a bit harder. He’s not stupid.”

“Maybe he is but you and his brother have too high of expectations for him,” Xue Yang said. “Maybe you should reevaluate your standards.”

“Are you speaking up for him? Right, he said he sent letters to you. Why didn’t you send anything back?”

“Can’t read. Can’t write,” Xue Yang shrugged.

“Wasn’t there still shijie? You could have asked her.”

“Too troublesome,” Xue Yang placed his chin on Meng Yao’s shoulder. “Then I would have to think of things to send back to him. I don’t have anything to say to him.”

“He was so nice to you while we were in Qinghe, and you actually say you have nothing to say to him?”

“What? He’s nice to me, so I owe him? Like I said—gege, but you need to reevaluate your standards.”

“…I’ll throw you off my back right now.”

“Murder of a child is a big crime,” Xue Yang said.

“We’re in the air. Laws don’t apply here,” Meng Yao replied.

“And they call you a living Bodhisattva. They don’t see how poorly you treat your younger brother,” Xue Yang sighed as he swung his legs. “Would you believe me if I said I’d take you down with me?”

“I’d believe it,” Meng Yao said.

“Really?” Xue Yang’s legs stopped.

“Mn.”

“Why?”

“You’re just like me,” Meng Yao said, shifting so that he could move Xue Yang higher up on his back. “You refuse to go down alone.”

After a pause, Xue Yang laughed joyfully. He happily and obediently sat back on Meng Yao’s back without moving anymore. Occasionally, he filled in Meng Yao with the events of Lotus Pier that he had missed, but otherwise, he remained quiet.

“How’s Xue Yang’s mental state?” Meng Yao asked.

The system took a moment to respond. [As usual.]

“As usually demented?” Meng Yao asked.

When Xue Yang asked the previous question, Meng Yao could tell that he was being serious. It wasn’t outside of his calculations that his parents’ potential abuse and the hardship he had suffered during his years as a homeless orphan hadn’t done anything to his mental state, but Meng Yao still held out hope that he had prevented the worst in Xue Yang. Now, he knew that his hopes were for naught and Xue Yang might still be the same as he had been in the novel.

[Worry not, Host. The events of the novel will not happen. Although Xue Yang seems to still have unnatural tendencies, so long as he doesn’t feel as if you had abandoned him, he will remain stable and will not go astray.]

“But what about when I have to go to the Wen sect?” Meng Yao groaned. “Wouldn’t he think I left him then?”

Tongtong was quiet again. [Host should treat the situation delicately.]

Meng Yao wanted to throw a tantrum, but he paused. “No! Mo Xuanyu will be with him. Even if I’m not there, Xuanyu will be there, right? Then, Xue Yang wouldn’t do anything impulsive.”

[Host, Mo Xuanyu is still a child. Not to mention, he was the one who summoned Wei Wuxian.]

“Yeah, but that was because all of the abuse and humiliation led him to that decision! He was someone who was so naïve that he trusted Jin Guangyao,” Meng Yao said. Granted, Jin Guangyao had always had a certain way with words.

One system and one host silently pushed through the possible scenarios. Meng Yao finally broke the silence. “Anyway, he’ll be a good kid! At least, he’ll be an easier kid to handle than Xue Yang, that’s for sure. And he’s my little brother! No matter what, I should save him from this hell hole.”

Tongtong silently agreed. No matter what, it would be better to removed Mo Xuanyu from his fate. Without a “horrible demon” Wei Wuxian and without a vengeful Nie Huaisang, even if Mo Xuanyu managed to avoid the fate of having to meet Jin Guangshan, he would still spend the rest of his life in the horrific Mo Manor. Even if his mother doesn’t die, Mo Xuanyu would live an abusive life, filled with heartache and torture.

By the time they made it to the Mo Manor, it was already getting late. Xue Yang pulled Meng Yao along as soon as they landed.

“It’s late already. Whatever you want to do, just do it when the sun rises again.”

“What if he’s dead by the time we get there?” Xue Yang looked over his shoulder.

“A perfectly healthy child—why would he suddenly die?” Meng Yao shot back.

“I told you already! His family beats him!” Xue Yang rolled his eyes to the sky.

“If we march up there right now, do you really think that they’ll give him up?” Meng Yao asked.

Xue Yang stopped and looked at Meng Yao. He released Meng Yao’s sleeve and crossed his arms. “So, what do you think we should do?”

Meng Yao smiled. “Wait a few days, okay? Be a little patient for me.”

Chapter Text

Unlike with Meng Shi, Jin Guangshan hadn’t exactly been covert when he had been courting Mo Xuanyu’s mother. He had flaunted his face around, helping the villagers, and even staying until Mo Xuanyu was four. Four might not seem old, but children already understood things by that age and remembered things decently. For Jin Guangshan to stay that long, perhaps he did have a bit more of what was considered “love” for Mo Xuanyu’s mother than he had had for Meng Shi.

Going off of the fact that the rumors all said Mo Xuanyu’s mother had been in love and even had a child with a cultivator from a prominent family, Meng Yao made a rough “guess” that this cultivator was the playboy, Jin Guangshan. He drew up a rough portrait (as per Tongtong’s instructions) and asked around a few of the more middle aged villagers, who were sure to remember what this cultivator looked like. After receiving confirmation, Meng Yao left Xue Yang in Mo Village and rushed to Lanling, where he managed to bump into Jin Zixuan at the “right” moment (thanks to Tongtong). He put on a troubled expression as soon as he saw Jin Zixuan.

Jin Zixuan, who had gotten home a few days ago, was more than surprised to see Meng Yao in Lanling. The other had adamantly refused to visit before, but now he had suddenly showed up by himself.

“Did something happen to Yanli?” was Jin Zixuan’s first assumption.

“No, no,” Meng Yao paused and looked over Jin Zixuan’s shoulder.

There were a few Lanling Jin Sect disciples who had come out with Jin Zixuan to patrol the surrounding city. Seeing Meng Yao’s subtle hint, Jin Zixuan dismissed the disciples before allowing Meng Yao to pull him aside.

“What happened?”

Meng Yao let out a troubled sigh and gave Jin Zixuan the watered down version of what happened. He felt a bit guilty was he watched Jin Zixuan’s expression turn from interest to horror and then to annoyance and disgust.

“There’s actually such a thing?” Jin Zixuan huffed. “My father never learns, does he? There’s always some woman or child who comes up, seeking his approval—it’s fine if it just disturbs him, but imagine the heart break these women go through. They genuinely like him!”

“I have to say, your father has a way with words,” Meng Yao mumbled.

Jin Zixuan looked as if he wanted to say a few other things, but zipped his mouth. Children should not speak ill of their parents. He sighed and then looked to Meng Yao. “And so? You wanted to borrow me to get Mo Lan away from this abusive household?”

Meng Yao cupped his hands together. “If Da-ge doesn’t mind.”

“How could I mind? After all, he’s…he’s my brother, isn’t he?” Jin Zixuan mumbled. He let out another sigh and turned back to Meng Yao. “I’ll meet you at the entrance of the city. I have to return first to tell my parents.”

Meng Yao nodded in understanding. After parting ways, Meng Yao curiously roamed around the city for a spell before heading towards the gates.

However, as Meng Yao walked, he happened to catch the attention of a certain group of men.

In a restaurant balcony room, far above the noise of the bustling streets, a few men sat around a table, drinking their cup of wine. One of the men, leaned against the railing, his eyes landing on the young man who was walking in their direction. His eyes lit up, a strange interest overtaking his gaze. He unconsciously gulped and reached over to pat one of his friends.

The man in gold robes looked over at the other’s perverted expression and knew that he had found someone of interest.

“What is it?”

“That…boy,” the man said.

The others rolled their eyes, but moved closer to look.

“Doesn’t that boy remind you have the Number One Beauty in Yunping?” the man asked.

Jin Guangshan narrowed his eyes, his gaze falling on the youth in tan, wide-sleeved robes.

There was no other word to describe the youth other than “attractive”. He had a set of unassuming, naïve eyes, that still managed to glimmer with intelligence. A shallow smile sat on his face as he meandered through the crowd. His gait was elegant, like a breezy willow, yet one could see the practiced caution behind each step. He was a scholar, yet at the same time a formidable opponent. Only an idiot would try anything on him.

“He does look like that Meng Shi,” another one of his friends said. They leaned a little closer to the railing. “Could they be related?”

“Nonsense. Her family was all killed, weren’t they? That’s how she ended up in prostitution,” someone said, rolling their eyes.

“Well, this one could be her son.”

“If he were her son, he would have been sold as a catamite. How could such a beautiful boy walk around free like this?” the perverted man asked.

Jin Guangshan pulled his gaze away and took a sip of tea, his mind wandering a bit until he heard a gasp.

“Ah! Sect Leader Jin, isn’t that your son?”

Jin Guangshan froze. He whipped his head back to the scene below and watched his own son, still clothed in the golden uniform of the Lanling Jin Sect, throw himself onto the back of the Meng Shi lookalike.

The perverted man laughed. “Looks like son and father have a similar taste in appearance.”

Jin Guangshan felt his face slowly redden. “My son is already engaged and he’s quite happy with his fiancée.”

The ones who knew not to offend him were silent, but the perverted man merely chuckled. “Come to think of it, isn’t that purple tassel at his waist what the Yunmeng Jiang Sect disciples wear? Could it be that, instead of visiting his fiancée, he had been visiting that boy?”

Jin Guangshan’s complexion switched between red and green. Their friends rushed to soothe the sparking flames, but before this group of scoundrels could come to any sort of conclusion, Jin Zixuan and Meng Yao had already left Lanling.

 

The night was deep, but in the silence, a muffled sniffle reached Xue Yang’s ears. His steps quickened as he neared the magnolia tree. A small smile spread on his face as he saw the small dumpling beneath, dressed in his white sleep garbs with only a small cloak draped over his shoulders. He softened his steps and crouched down the moment he reached Mo Lan’s periphery.

The child jolted and nearly slammed his head against the trunk of the tree, but Xue Yang was faster. He cushioned Mo Lan’s movements with his own hand and gasped at the sting that came from his knuckles.

Mo Lan’s eyes widened, the last of his tears rolling down his cheeks as he stared at Xue Yang.

Seeing such an expression, Xue Yang could no longer feel the pain in his hand. He only laughed and pinched Mo Lan’s nose.

“What’s with that look? Did you see a ghost?”

“Y-you—how are you here?!” Mo Lan exclaimed, sitting straighter as he leaned forward. He looked Xue Yang up and down and quickly became excited. “Did you come back to visit me?”

“No. I came back to visit a puppy.”

Mo Lan’s excitement faded. He looked at Xue Yang in confusion. “What puppy?”

“A gullible puppy,” Xue Yang laughed as he pinched Mo Lan again.

“Ah, stop it!” Mo Lan smacked Xue Yang’s hand away. He happily scooted to the side and looked at Xue Yang. “Why’d you come again? Are you heading to Lanling again? Or are you going somewhere else?”

Xue Yang shook his head. “My ge returned, so I can visit you easier now. He’s my own personal driver.”

Mo Lan laughed before letting out a soft sigh. He placed his chin against his knees. “I wish I had an older brother. If I had an older brother, then no one would be able to bully me.”

“That’s not true! If there’s no one to bully you, then your older brother will bully you. He bullies me all the time!”

Mo Lan stared at Xue Yang. “You probably do something to him, don’t you?”

“I do not!”

“Just look at your face. I’d be a fool if I believed you,” Mo Lan rolled his eyes. “I bet your brother is so nice to you and you’re just ungrateful.”

Xue Yang scoffed. “You’ll see! He bullies me all the time…but, he’s the only one who bullies me. Whenever anyone else is mean to me, he defends me right away.”

Mo Lan sighed. “See? That’s what I’m saying. I wish I had a big brother.”

Xue Yang smiled. “Well, maybe my Gege will also be your brother?”

“How could that be?” Mo Lan grumbled. He suddenly thought of something and sat up. “Wait, you snuck out, didn’t you? What if your brother finds out? He’ll be so worried!”

“Oh, please, how could he be worried? If he’s worried, he’d be more concerned with who I’m disturbing. Besides, he isn’t here. He left earlier this morning, saying he needed to go find his friend for help or something. He won’t be back until tomorrow, I bet.”

Xue Yang didn’t believe that Meng Yao would fly right back. Knowing his personality, he’d probably find an inn to stay in and then fly back at a leisurely pace.

“So, he’s not here?” Mo Lan relaxed.

“Mn! He’s not here. So, you can—”

Xue Yang’s words stopped. He heard a familiar sigh and then the habitual click of the tongue. He looked up at the two youths that stood in front of him and Mo Lan. Meng Yao smacked Jin Zixuan’s chest.

“You see? I knew I shouldn’t have worried about him,” Meng Yao said, his brows furrowed tightly.

Jin Zixuan glanced at Meng Yao.

They had landed not too long ago. Meng Yao immediately went into the room that he had rented with Xue Yang, but after seeing that the child was gone, he had paled to the extreme. Jin Zixuan had never seen Meng Yao in a frantic state before, but wasn’t surprised when he quickly ran out in search for the child. Luckily, Mo Village wasn’t very big, and after looking around, they heard the soft whispering from the two children, leading them to the magnolia tree.

G-gege,” Xue Yang smiled. He stood and gestured to Mo Lan. “Gege, this is Mo Lan! The one I told you about.”

Meng Yao looked like he still wanted to lecture Xue Yang some more, but seeing as there were strangers, he held himself back. He turned to Mo Lan and smiled. “Hello, Mo Lan. My name Meng Yao. This is my friend, Jin Zixuan. He…”

“I’m your half-brother,” Jin Zixuan said. He paused. “A-Yao told me what was happening, and asked if I could help him tell a little lie. You wanted to leave the Mo Manor, right?”

Meng Yao hadn’t expected Jin Zixuan to be so straightforward and Xue Yang hadn’t expected Meng Yao to have come to such a shocking conclusion. Mo Lan, on the other hand, was staring at Jin Zixuan’s robes. He could vaguely recall something similar in his memory, so when he looked up at Jin Zixuan again, he didn’t have a doubt.

“…Father isn’t coming to ask for me back, right?” Mo Lan asked softly.

“…He isn’t,” Jin Zixuan said. He coughed lightly. “But even if Father doesn’t want you, I’ll still call you my half-brother. If you ever need me, you can send a letter for me to Lanling. If you agree to go with Meng Yao, I’ll most likely be able to see you more often too.”

Mo Lan stared at Jin Zixuan.

The youth was tall for his age, but it didn’t seem off putting. His features were handsome and when he pulled such a serious expression, it could easily send one’s heart into a frenzy. Mo Lan absorbed the feeling of witnessing an immortal under the soft moonlight and then timidly turned his gaze to Meng Yao. Even this older brother was quite handsome.

Meng Yao couldn’t read minds. He saw Mo Lan’s imploring gaze and couldn’t help the smile that came onto his face. “Da-ge is right, you don’t have to worry about propriety around the two of us. Just treat us as if we were your older brothers.”

Mo Lan looked between the two, as if he were trying to weigh the worth of their words. After a moment, he spoke softly, “Then…may Mo Lan call you da-ge and you er-ge?”

The two teenagers sucked in a breath. The child before them was adorable, coupled with the fluffy cloak he wore, he looked a bit like a rabbit. Jin Zixuan resisted the urge to reach out and squeeze him. He only nodded stiffly. “Of course.”

Xue Yang looked between the brothers and finally scoffed. “You’re both getting fooled by him.”

“I still haven’t spoken to you,” Meng Yao turned to Xue Yang. “It’s in the middle of the night. What if some bad people came to take you away?”

“They’d dare?” Xue Yang’s eyes turned fierce.

Meng Yao sighed. He reached down and lifted Xue Yang up.

At age twelve, Xue Yang had already grown a lot. Meng Yao estimated that he wouldn’t be able to carry the other like this in another few months. Still, for the time being, Xue Yang still obediently rested in Meng Yao’s arms, a pout on his face. Meng Yao resisted the urge to tease him and continued his lecture.

“You’re capable, but there will always be someone stronger than you. Don’t wonder off by yourself in the middle of the night. If something happens to you,” Meng Yao’s voice trailed off.

Xue Yang, Jin Zixuan, and Mo Lan watched him silently, but Meng Yao didn’t continue.

Under the pale moonlight, they could see his surprised expression, as if he had just come to a realization.

His chest tightened inexplicably and he even began to feel his eyes sting. He pursed his lips and looked at Xue Yang as he pushed back the emotions that suddenly surged forth, leaving him barely any room to escape.

“If something happens to you, I’ll go crazy.”

Xue Yang observed Meng Yao.

In the past year or so that Xue Yang had interacted with Meng Yao, he found that Meng Yao was never one to be truthful. He lied all the time and, although the lies were woven beautifully, with honied words and carefully decorated sentences, they were lies nonetheless. They were lies to others, to the world, and to himself. Xue Yang could see in the way he interacted with Jiang Cheng, Wei Wuxian, and the other members of the Yunmeng Jiang Sect, that he had never told a single word of truth.

But that was also fine. Xue Yang himself loved to lie. Rather than it being a habit, it was a hobby. Although Xue Yang didn’t know if Meng Yao’s words were true, he could at least see the emotion flickering in and out of Meng Yao’s eyes. It was strange—almost unrealistic. Xue Yang wanted to look closer, but it quickly disappeared again.

After saying a few more words, they left Mo Lan and returned to the inn. Meng Yao gave his room to Jin Zixuan and bunked with Xue Yang. Silence settled over the rooms in the quiet night, but Xue Yang still had not fallen asleep.

He sat up and walked over to where Meng Yao was sleeping. He stood silently over him as he watched the youth’s chest move rhythmically, up and down.

Meng Yao’s brows were furrowed. His fingers dug tightly into the sheets of his bed as a light sheen of sweat trickled down his forehead. His lips trembled and he seemed to flinch every once in a while. If you were to move closer and listen, you’d be able to hear Meng Yao call out for a person.

Sometimes, it would be Meng Shi, other times, it would be a pretty older sister. However, today, Xue Yang heard a different name.

“Ming-ge…”

“Nie Mingjue,” Xue Yang’s lips curved. He crouched down and watched the tears trickle down from the corner of Meng Yao’s eyes.

“…Don’t…” Meng Yao’s voice cracked, his grip tightening against his sheets.

“Don’t what?” Xue Yang asked curiously.

“…Leave…”

Xue Yang tilted his head. The usual childish glimmer in his eyes had disappeared. He watched Meng Yao emotionlessly and sat down on the ground. He let out a soft sigh and slipped his hand into Meng Yao’s, replacing the sheet that Meng Yao was holding on to.

Upon feeling the warmth of another human being, Meng Yao’s mood quickly calmed down. His brows unfurrowed and his tears ran dry.

Gege,” Xue Yang reached out and brushed away the remaining tears against Meng Yao’s cheek. “People like us shouldn’t open up our hearts to those who are still alive. They’ll all eventually leave.”

He stood and slipped into Meng Yao’s arms, his forehead pressed against the chest that housed a healthy, beating heart. He felt Meng Yao naturally hug him back, and heard a soft grunt above him.

“A-Yang…?”

Gege.”

“Did you have another nightmare?” Meng Yao asked, pressing his cheek against the top of Xue Yang’s head.

Xue Yang smiled to himself and hummed. “I had another nightmare.”

Meng Yao hummed drowsily. He patted Xue Yang gently on the back. “Don’t be scared…don’t be scared, I’m here.”

“Mn,” Xue Yang laid obediently in Meng Yao’s arms. “I won’t be scared, because Gege is here.”

Xue Yang knew there was nothing to be scared of anymore because Meng Yao was here—because Meng Yao would definitely protect him. Although he knew that he shouldn’t open himself up to the living, it was already too late. He much preferred the Meng Yao who had a strong, beating heart.

 

Chapter Text

In fact, persuading a greedy person like Mo Xuanyu’s aunt and a lovelorn woman like his mother was quite easy. The surprising barrier was, actually, Mo Xuanyu’s grandfather. Although Mo Xuanyu’s mother had been treated poorly as a servant’s child, his grandfather surprisingly looked kindly upon Mo Xuanyu. Perhaps it was because he was his first grandchild and was a son at that, the old head of the Mo Village was reluctant to part with Mo Xuanyu, even clinging to the child’s hands when he had come to say his farewells.

Mo Xuanyu—oh, well, it should be Mo Lan—for one, didn’t seem too attached. From a young age, he already knew to distinguish good from bad. Although his grandfather cherished him, he had treated his mother poorly. Although his grandfather was reluctant to part, he still turned a blind eye to his aunt’s abuse. Mo Lan was grateful for what had been given to him, but to say that he would bend after a few sweet words was far too preposterous.

“He will visit,” Jin Zixuan said stiffly.

The old man looked at Mo Lan sorrowfully. A person knew themselves best and he knew that he only had limited time. Perhaps it was one last reflection on his life before his passing, but the old man sighed and patted the top of Mo Lan’s hand. “Xiao Lan, from now on, you’ll embark on the path of a cultivator. You have to be good and listen to your big brother and your father, okay?”

Mo Lan nodded obediently.

The old man sighed again. He sat up shakily and stood, with the support of Meng Yao. They watched him shuffle around and kneel on the ground. He finally stood and turned back to Mo Lan. He placed a box into Mo Lan’s hands.

“It isn’t much, but it’s still a piece of my sincerity,” the old man laid back down with the help of Meng Yao. “We don’t have much, but if you ever need something from Mo Village again, don’t be afraid to come back and ask. I will make sure your aunt takes good care of your mother while you are away.”

Mo Lan nodded, his fingers digging into the sides of the box.

“And if she doesn’t listen, just bring that back,” the old man looked at Mo Lan with a glimmer in his eyes. He sighed again and closed his eyes. “I owe your mother and her mother far too much. Far too much.”

Without saying anything else, the old man fell into a restless sleep.

The youths left the room, said one last farewell to Mo Lan’s mother and his aunt and her husband, and left Mo Village.

Xue Yang looked at the box in Mo Lan’s hand. “Are you gonna open it?”

Mo Lan stared at the box and shook his head. “I’m not going to open it.”

“Why not? The old man gave it to you. What if it’s the deed to the house?” Xue Yang asked excitedly. “Maybe it’s the will and your name is all over it!”

“Mo Lan is going to be a cultivator in the future—what use does he have for material things?” Meng Yao scolded. He looked at Mo Lan and patted the boy’s head. “We’ll find a way to get your mother out as well. We’ll have to wait until your grandfather has passed though. Whatever is in that box will be important, so, at least we’ll have a bit of leverage.”

Mo Lan felt tears welling up in his eyes. His steps abruptly paused. He turned to face Meng Yao and Jin Zixuan and bowed low. Tiny puddles formed at his feet.

“Wh—straighten up!” Jin Zixuan’s face reddened. “What are you doing?”

“Thank you!” Mo Lan shouted. “Thank you so much! I don’t know how I would ever repay the both of you. If you want me to be a servant, I’d even be willing! Please, just say anything and I’ll do it!”

“D-don’t be like this,” Jin Zixuan stuttered. He looked over at Meng Yao and tilted his head towards Mo Lan.

“Mo Lan, raise your head,” Meng Yao approached Mo Lan and knelt down in front of the boy.

Mo Lan rubbed his eyes and looked up at Meng Yao, his lower lip quivering.

“I’m going to tell you something that you can’t tell anyone else, alright?” Meng Yao asked.

Mo Lan nodded.

Meng Yao carefully brushed aside Mo Lan’s tears. “In fact, Gege was just like you when I was younger.”

Jin Zixuan and Xue Yang looked at Meng Yao. Mo Lan sniffled and rubbed away his tears even harder.

“When I was younger, there was no one that was nice to me,” Meng Yao said. “Everyone ridiculed me and everyone hated me. There was no reason for it, other than my mother’s origins and her profession, so I know how you feel. But there was one person who was really nice to me.”

Mo Lan blinked at Meng Yao silently as he tried to hold back his tears. Meng Yao gently wiped away the tears that rolled down his cheeks.

“I didn’t know why. It’s never happened before, you know? I thought she wanted something from me, just like all those other people,” Meng Yao’s eyes turned dull. He chuckled and shook his head, “But she didn’t. She just thought I was pitiful, so she helped me. When I was hungry, she gave me food. When I was sad, she’d give me a hug. When I was lonely, she gave me a toy. It was…overwhelming. She was also in a bad situation, but she still did the best she could to help me. But, one day, I realized it couldn’t continue like this, so I asked her how I could help her. Do you know what she said?”

Mo Lan shook his head.

“She said,” Meng Yao took a deep breath, “’Just be yourself’.”

Mo Lan, Xue Yang, and Jin Zixuan stared at Meng Yao, unsure of what to make of such a vague phrase.

“She said, ‘The only way you can repay me is to continue to live the life that you want to live’. She said…’No matter what anyone says, no matter what they want you to be, just ignore them. Walk your own way and carve your own path. As long as you’re yourself, that’s your repayment to me’.”

Meng Yao squeezed Mo Lan’s shoulders and smiled. “We saved you, so you might think you owe us, but you don’t. We just want you to be able to grow up in a safe and warm environment, so that you can grow up to be your best self. Can you do that for us?”

Mo Lan sniffled loudly. He nodded emphatically and threw his arms around Meng Yao. He sobbed loudly—louder than he had ever cried before in his life. He felt the warm embrace of the youth in front of him and listened to the soft cooing sounds he made to comfort him. He held on tightly, refusing to let go, and forced Meng Yao to carry him.

The child was inconsolable, but Meng Yao didn’t seem bothered. Soon, the two youths carried the children with them as they made their way back to Yunmeng.

At some point, Mo Lan had fallen asleep. Xue Yang, in Jin Zixuan’s arms, had also drifted off.

Jin Zixuan glanced at Meng Yao, who stared vacantly ahead and softly cleared his throat. “The woman that was nice to you…how is she now?”

Meng Yao smiled, though it was one that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “I grew up in a brothel.”

Jin Zixuan listened intently.

“Naturally, she was also a prostitute,” Meng Yao said. “She died. A long time ago. And I still owe her.”

Jin Zixuan’s brows furrowed. He lowered his gaze and took a deep breath before looking forward again. “Then, I hope you can repay her someday.”

Meng Yao chuckled. “I hope so too.”


“And then? How did they react?”

Meng Yao bit into the red watermelon. “How else? Madam Yu threw a fit, Sect Leader Jiang tried his best to appease her. Shijie spoke some consoling words and A-Xian and A-Cheng tried their best not to fan the flames. Da-ge just stood there like a stiff piece of wood, unable to say anything.”

Nie Mingjue spat out the watermelon seeds in his mouth. “Isn’t that over reacting? It’s just another child.”

“That’s what Sect Leader Jiang said, and then Madam Yu got even angrier,” Meng Yao shook his head. He spat out a few of the seeds and licked his lips of the watermelon juice. “I said I would take responsibility for Mo Lan and then Madam Yu turned and yelled at me and asked me why I was in such a hurry to become a father.”

Lan Xichen laughed. “Madam Yu certainly has a way with words.”

“You could say that,” Meng Yao mumbled. “But, to her credit, even if she yells and screams and kicks up a fuss, she’ll still let them stay. It’s just another shidi for A-Xian to look after anyway. It has nothing to do with her.”

“That’s good,” Nie Mingjue said with a sigh. He looked at Meng Yao. “If you ever need a place to stay, I can take you in.”

Meng Yao chewed on his piece of watermelon thoughtfully before nodding. “I’ll take you up on that offer some time.”

Nie Mingjue’s expression lightened. He took another chomp of his watermelon, seemingly very pleased about that answer.

The weather in Qinghe was getting hotter as it slowly crept towards summer. Meng Yao’s sleeves and pants were rolled back and his hair was tied up into a bun. Nie Mingjue was in a similar position while Lan Xichen had just opted to tie his hair up.

“Have you guys been doing anything of interest?” Meng Yao asked.

“Preparing for the Discussion Conference,” Nie Mingjue wrinkled his nose.

“Us as well.”

Meng Yao froze. The watermelon seeds dribbled from his tongue. He swallowed his excess saliva and looked between the two men. “Is it soon?”

“Of course, it’s soon,” Nie Mingjue said. “We have another month. Why? Did you not know?”

Meng Yao licked his lips. “No, I just lost track of time.”

Nie Mingjue chuckled. “Well, that would make sense. Our Yaoyao is so preoccupied with everyone else.”

Meng Yao laughed and soon fell silent. He barely heard Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen’s voices as he fell into his own thoughts.

“Tongtong.”

[Yes, Host?]

“Tongtong,” Meng Yao whined.

[Yes, Host?]

“Do you think I’ll be flayed by Wen Ruohan?”

Tongtong fell silent.

“Don’t avoid me, I’m actually worried!” Meng Yao screamed. “Aahh, what am I going to do? I’m getting butterflies! Do you think my plan is going to work? They all trust me, don’t they? Tongtong, how’s my acting recently? Do you think I’ve leveled up?”

Tongtong hadn’t heard Meng Yao speak so much since he had first arrived in this novel world. It was obvious that Meng Yao was genuinely worried, so it set aside its reluctance and decided to speak to Meng Yao.

[Host’s acting has reached 9/10, with the negative 1 point docked off for involving too much emotion. However, it is enough to convince others that Host is telling the truth and is not lying. As for Host’s plan, the System’s advice remains the same—it is risky and not to do it.]

“But how else are we going to make it to the end? Think about it, okay?” Meng Yao said. “If I don’t do anything, then wouldn’t Nie Mingjue die? If my target dies, then I’ll also die! At such a risky conjuncture, it’d be best for us to follow a similar route, don’t you think?”

[Hosts logic is not flawed.]

“It isn’t!”

[However, there is still a chance that Host will get flayed by Wen Ruohan.]

Meng Yao wanted to bring Tongtong out and throw it against the wall. However, before his wishes could be actualized, he felt a cold, watery object press against his lips. When he looked up, he was met with Nie Mingjue’s fathomless eyes that carried a hint of a smile.

“What are you thinking about, Yaoyao?”

Meng Yao felt his face heat him. He took the watermelon and took a few bites. “Just…wondering how the conference will go.”

“You’ll definitely place in the top three,” Lan Xichen assured him.

Meng Yao smiled stiffly. Please, if he placed in the top three, he would become one of Wen Chao’s targets! He still had to save Lan Xichen, so he mustn’t attract any attention.

“If you’re concerned, we can always practice now,” Nie Mingjue dusted his hands together. “Let’s head to the training field.”

“Wait! No, no,” Meng Yao threw his weight on Nie Mingjue, pinning him down. “I don’t need practice. I’m fine.”

Nie Mingjue raised a brow, but obediently sat back down. “Then, what’s on your mind?”

Meng Yao froze. He looked between Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen. Unknowingly, at some point, he had become quite relaxed around these two men. With Nie Mingjue, perhaps it was because he had never talked to anyone so much before, and perhaps because Nie Mingjue had already seen his most vulnerable side, Meng Yao no longer felt it necessary to restrain himself. With Lan Xichen, although he didn’t change much, it almost felt like Lan Xichen could read him even with a slight quirk of his lip.

He shifted slightly and nibbled on the watermelon.

“If you don’t tell us, then we’ll…” Nie Mingjue thought about it.

“We’ll tell Young Master Wei and Young Master Jiang what you’re like when you’re drunk,” Lan Xichen said.

Nie Mingjue nodded. “We’ll do that.”

Meng Yao coughed. “Xichen-ge, that’s a bit too much, don’t you think?”

“What? How come I don’t know what you mean?” Lan Xichen asked innocently.

“We can compromise then. Is what you’re concerned about to do with your well-being, or is it something else?” Nie Mingjue asked.

“It’s…” Meng Yao sighed. He hesitantly glanced at Nie Mingjue. “…What do you two think about the Qishan Wen Sect?”

Nie Mingjue’s expression became clouded. Lan Xichen frowned slightly.

“Why do you ask? Did Sect Leader Jiang say anything?” Nie Mingjue asked.

“No, I’ve just heard some rumors here and there. I was wondering…if they were possibly true?” Meng Yao sighed. “You two know about A-Xian and A-Cheng. They’re both so reckless, I’m afraid that they’ll run into trouble during the Discussion Conference. Especially A-Xian—what if he somehow offends them?”

“You have nothing to worry about,” Nie Mingjue said. “Even if the Qishan Wen Sect has gotten more preposterous as of late, they wouldn’t do anything to outright attack members of the prominent clans. They wouldn’t have the guts.”

Meng Yao still appeared hesitant. “But don’t you think we should at least prepare?”

Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen exchanged glances.

“Nothing much, but maybe an escape route,” Meng Yao said. “One that only trusted disciples know of. So, in Yunmeng, it would be Shijie or A-Cheng or A-Xian. And in Gusu it would be Xichen-ge or Second Young Master Lan.”

“Do we need to raise that type of alarm?” Nie Mingjue still seemed reluctant.

“We don’t have to be afraid of certainty, but we have to be afraid of possibility,” Meng Yao said. He looked between the two of them. “In fact, I recently brought it up to Sect Leader Jiang after hearing some of the rumors. He said that he would think about it. I think…even if there is never a use for it, it would be beneficial to at least have something. With what they’re doing, it feels like it’s only a matter of time until something explosive happens.”

Lan Xichen nodded slowly. He looked at Nie Mingjue. “A-Yao is right. The Wen Sect was already bold enough to send their water ghosts into our territory, just last year, and they’ve only gotten more outrageous since. It wouldn’t hurt to have some type of failsafe.”

Nie Mingjue sighed. He nodded. “You’re right. But if it ever comes down to that, I’d much rather fight to the death and take out as many Wen Dogs as I can.”

Meng Yao looked at Nie Mingjue’s darkened appearance and couldn’t help but sigh a few times to Tongtong. However, not to his surprise, Tongtong had already blocked him off. It didn’t want to hear his useless groaning.

Meng Yao looked up and just happened to meet Lan Xichen’s gaze. Lan Xichen tilted his chin towards the distracted Nie Mingjue, but Meng Yao didn’t seem to understand. Lan Xichen stared at Meng Yao, as if wondering how he had become so stupid, and mouthed a sentence.

“Comfort him.”

Meng Yao frowned. Why would he come to comfort him? He appeared confused, but still turned to Nie Mingjue. He patted the other’s arm awkwardly.

Nie Mingjue looked at Meng Yao.

“…It’d still be better if you don’t die,” Meng Yao said.

Lan Xichen cupped his mouth and looked away upon experiencing the secondhand embarrassment.

Meng Yao held Nie Mingjue’s gaze and finally sighed. He lowered his head as he wiped his hands clean.

“Isn’t it nice to wake up and see the sun streaming in every morning?” Meng Yao said, his mind unconsciously drifting. “If there is a war, I want to see everyone again on the other side.”

Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen watched Meng Yao in silence.

Nie Mingjue’s gaze unconsciously fell on the soft sword that rested at Meng Yao’s side. The words “Lihen (离恨)” looked back up at him—a hatred of parting.

“I’m not against revenge,” Meng Yao hugged his knees to his chest as he looked over the rolling grasslands and as the leaves blew softly in the wind, “but if it’s at the risk of your own life, I would rather you sit with hatred for the rest of your life.”

Meng Yao turned and looked at both Lan Xichen and Nie Mingjue. His expression was vacant—nothing like what he had been wearing recently. It plunged their hearts into an ice bucket, making it difficult to breathe and making them unable to speak.

“Just because you kill someone doesn’t mean the one you loved will return. And if you get hurt, you’ll have people who worry about you,” Meng Yao said. He smiled softly, “I’m one of them.”

Lan Xichen smiled, “We worry about you too.”

“That’s right,” Nie Mingjue scoffed. “Who are you to say you worry about us when you’re the most worrying of us three?”

“Are you going to be like this again?” Meng Yao imitated Nie Mingjue’s scoff.

“Yaoyao, you know exactly how you are with things. If anything were to actually happen, forget about making an escape route—Xichen and I would be too busy worrying whether you were actually fine or if you were fake fine.”

“If I actually need help, then I’ll say it,” Meng Yao mumbled in discontent. “Ah!”

Nie Mingjue squished Meng Yao’s cheeks. “Say that again. What did you do last time? How come I didn’t hear a peep out of your mouth?”

“Last time was—that was different!” Meng Yao protested. He struggled with the large man crouched over him and reached out to Lan Xichen. “Xichen-ge, Ming-ge is trying to kill his friend!”

“That wouldn’t happen. You don’t have to be so alarmed,” Lan Xichen smiled sweetly.

“You tell me, how was that different?” Nie Mingjue asked. “You always bottle everything up inside and you never tell anyone. Do you think we don’t know?”

Meng Yao managed to slip from Nie Mingjue’s hands and hid behind Lan Xichen. “Then, I’ll just tell you everything from now on, can’t I?”

Nie Mingjue and Meng Yao were at a standstill.

Since that time Nie Mingjue had found Meng Yao crying, the two had gotten considerably closer. However, Nie Mingjue still understood that Meng Yao wasn’t the type of person to let others see his vulnerable side. What had happened then was by chance, and it would most likely not happen again. What he and Lan Xichen were afraid of was that Meng Yao would keep everything to himself and eventually hurt himself.

Nie Mingjue shook his head. He stepped forward. “No, we can’t do it like this. The three of us have to make a pact this moment—right now.”

Lan Xichen looked up. “What pact?”

“The three of us can’t hide anything detrimental from each other,” Nie Mingjue said. “Whoever does…whoever does will be forced to write ten pages of ‘I apologize’.”

“What are we? Children?” Meng Yao stared at Nie Mingjue incredulously.

“It’s not a bad punishment, is it? Besides, why would you be afraid unless you’re planning on hiding something?” Nie Mingjue raised a brow.

“I think it would be more difficult for you to carry out this pact, alright?” Meng Yao straightened. “This means you can’t push yourself and hide your body’s condition from us.”

Nie Mingjue patted his chest. “I, Nie Mingjue, am an honest and truthful person. Even without this pact, I wouldn’t have hid it.”

“Oh, really?”

“Of course!”

Lan Xichen sat quietly in the middle as the two men yell at each other over his head. He let out a soft sigh and finally looked up again. “So, are we making the pact or not?”

“Making it!” Nie Mingjue and Meng Yao shouted in unison.

A cultivator’s pact was actually quite simple. All they had to do was prick their finger and press the small wound against the others. Because this one wasn’t about taking one’s life and was actually something so childish, it was even more simple.

The pact was created and the three men signed their names. Nie Mingjue folded the paper up neatly and held it up to Meng Yao. “You can’t lie.”

“I won’t lie,” Meng Yao bit out these three words with strong conviction.

“Good,” Nie Mingjue tucked the pact away and sat back down. “Hmph.”

“Hmph,” Meng Yao tossed his hair over his shoulder and sat down as well.

Lan Xichen looked between his two best friends and softly sighed to himself. One was shrewd and the other was as stubborn as an ox. It was only 10 pages—Lan Xichen highly doubted that either men would confess their lies if they really had to hide something.

Chapter Text

“Let’s all act well and with manners today.”

Meng Yao’s words made the disciples all unconsciously stiffen. They looked over their shoulder at Meng Yao, who was dressed in pristine Yunmeng Jiang Sect uniform. The bell, symbolizing his direct connection to the Sect Leader, sat proudly at his side. His sword could only be seen by a glimmer at his waist and his hair, which normally sat in a half-bun was pulled back tightly into a topknot. His gentle expression was stern as his dark eyes scanned the crowd of disciples. His eyes fell onto Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian in particular.

“The competition starts in an hour. If there’s anything you need to do, do it now, but I want you all back ten minutes before then,” Meng Yao said. “Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, Da-shixiong.”

“Go,” Meng Yao tilted his head. He watched as the disciples scattered, like ants that were set on fire. He let out a soft sigh and turned to report to Jiang Fengmian.

The walk up the steps was short, but by the time he had reached the stands, the group seemed to have fallen silent. Meng Yao ignored this oddity and went to Jiang Fengmian after a polite greeting to the present sect leaders. He whispered a few words and turned to leave the viewing area, but was stopped by a sudden voice.

“So, this is your eldest disciple?”

The voice was unfamiliar, but when Meng Yao turned to see who had spoken, he felt a shiver of disgust run down his spine. His clear eyes met Jin Guangshan’s gaze. The man’s eyes were unreadable, as he looked Meng Yao up and down.

“I hear that he’s quite remarkable for his young age—even comparable to the Twin Jades. Is this true?”

Jiang Fengmian looked at Meng Yao before letting out a humble laugh, “Sect Leader Jin is overpraising. How can A-Yao be compared to Zewu-jun and Second Young Master Lan?”

“I wouldn’t say that,” Jin Guangshan said. He turned to Nie Mingjue. “I hear that Chifeng-zun and Zewu-jun have a brotherly bond with Young Master Meng. Not to mention, my own son has sung praises about his swordsmanship and his knowledge in cultivation. It isn’t absurd to say that Young Master Meng is an outstanding figure among the youths.”

Nie Mingjue’s brows furrowed. It was rare for Jin Guangshan to talk, but whenever he did it was always to spew out a loud of nonsense. He wasn’t sure just what Jin Guangshan was trying to pull this time by bringing Meng Yao up so blatantly in front of the other sects.

“And Young Master Meng,” Jin Guangshan met Meng Yao’s gaze again, “has quite the fine appearance.”

Jiang Fengmian and Nie Mingjue both straightened, as if on alert. It wasn’t any secret what type of person Jin Guangshan was, but no one had ever said anything about him liking men. This situation had suddenly turned…

A deep laugh interrupted the conversation below. The sound of robes shifting and settling reached their ears as the figure that sat above settled down. The other sect leaders lowered their heads as the man leaned his chin lightly against the back of his hand.

“What’s this? Have I walked into a show?” Wen Ruohan’s voice dragged out lazily.

Meng Yao felt his heart thump against his chest. The pressure Wen Ruohan exuded, although subtle, was almost skull crushing. It took all his will power to step forth, cup his hands together, and bow.

“Greetings to Sect Leader Wen,” Meng Yao said monotonously.

Wen Ruohan’s eyes narrowed with interest. “Look up for me.”

Meng Yao slowly lifted his head, but his eyes still remained on the ground.

“What was your name?”

“My name is Meng Yao.”

“No courtesy name?”

Meng Yao smiled, his face softening by several degrees. “This humble one’s parents passed before they could give me a courtesy name.”

“No courtesy name? Sect Leader Jiang, how could you allow your eldest disciple to go without a courtesy name?”

“Meng Yao is a disciple in name, but a servant in truth,” Meng Yao explained. “Sect Leader Jiang saved my small life when I was younger, so I chose to stay by his side to repay this debt.”

Wen Ruohan laughed. “How interesting. So, you’re saying, if anyone happened to save your life, you would owe them a debt?”

Meng Yao smiled. “Sect Leader Wen knows how to jest. Naturally, there are stricter conditions.”

“Such as?”

“The situation where my life is put in danger must not be caused by the person who then comes to save me,” Meng Yao said. “I must also find this person worthy of my loyalty.”

“Worth of your loyalty, hm?” Wen Ruohan echoed. “Meng Yao, come a little closer.”

Nie Mingjue twitched in his seat. He looked across at Jiang Fengmian, but the other was only watching helplessly as Meng Yao walked up the steps to stand in front of Wen Ruohan. The rest of the conversation was unclear, even to their ears.

“Who is worthy of your loyalty?” Wen Ruohan asked.

Meng Yao kept his head lowered, but Wen Ruohan clicked his tongue.

“Look at me.”

Meng Yao lifted his head, his gaze meeting Wen Ruohan’s sharp eyes. Still, in the face of the monster, Meng Yao smiled gently. “Someone who treats me well.”

“So simple?”

Meng Yao shook his head. “Sect Leader Wen, may I be frank?”

“Please.”

“Meng Yao came from the lowest of the low, so I was heavily mistreated as a child. Who is good to me, who harbors ill intentions, and who is merely using me is something I’ve been able to see through clearly from a young age. Therefore, if I think someone ‘treats me well’, then it is something truly of weight.”

Wen Ruohan’s eyes flashed with something dangerous. “How curious. Then, let me ask you this, what if everyone who treated you well had actually been using your kindness this whole time? If they betrayed you and tossed you aside, what would you do then?”

Meng Yao lowered his gaze. In the shadows of the canopy, Wen Ruohan detected a sharp killing intent. “Then, I would just kill them all.”

Wen Ruohan threw his head back and laughed. He slapped his hand on the table and poured a cup of wine. He placed it in front of Meng Yao with a smirk. “Ruthless. I like that. When your debt for Jiang Fengmian has been paid in full, how about joining me?”

Meng Yao looked at the cup of wine in front of him. If the wine was poisoned, Meng Yao wondered if it would be bitter.

He lowered his head and clasped his hands together. “Forgive my transgression, Sect Leader Wen, but I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

“Why is that?” Wen Ruohan raised a brow. “I respect your kind of character. I think you would be a good seedling.”

“The Jiang clan took me in when I needed help. I do not think I will be leaving their side for a lifetime.”

“You treat them like family, but they treat you like a servant,” Wen Ruohan said. “Didn’t you say so yourself? You’re merely a servant.”

Wen Ruohan watched Meng Yao’s brow twitched. He smiled and leaned forward. “Say, I hear that Yu Ziyuan has quite the temper. How does she treat you?”

“…She treats me quite well,” Meng Yao said, though his expression had already darkened.

“Just think about it,” Wen Ruohan lifted the wine cup and placed it into Meng Yao’s hands. “You don’t have to get back to me any time soon. Just when the time is right.”

Meng Yao stared at the cup in his hands. After a moment, he lifted the cup to his lips and drained it of its contents. He placed the cup back down amidst Wen Ruohan’s joyous laughter, bowed one last time, and made his way down the steps.

He stood straight backed and dignified seemingly confident, however the face that was shown to the sect leaders below was one filled with suppressed humiliation.

Nie Mingjue’s hand twitched at his side. He watched Meng Yao walk down the last set of steps and then glanced around for Lan Xichen. However, curiously enough, the young man was nowhere to be found. Nie Mingjue sat until Wen Ruohan stepped off to rest again. He stood on the excuse of having to use the restroom, and rushed off to search for Meng Yao.

There was about thirty minutes before the start of the archery competition.

Wei Wuxian had run off to who knows where and Jiang Cheng had gotten antsy. Meng Yao calmed him back down and told him to watch over everything before he went off to find Wei Wuxian himself. Obviously, Meng Yao wouldn’t be going to find Wei Wuxian. Instead, he went to use the restroom himself and began to wander as if he had gotten a bit lost.

“That was terrifying.”

[Host held up well.]

“I thought he was going to kill me!” Meng Yao screamed. “How am I going to face him when he actually wants to kill me? Should I fall to my knees and call him daddy?”

[Wen Ruohan is straight.]

“Is he? Are you sure?” Meng Yao rubbed his cold hands together. He gave a slight shudder. “Maybe I should just run away and forget about the plot.”

[Host wouldn’t.]

“Otherwise, I can try to seduce Wen Ruohan and stab him in his bed.”

[He’s straight.]

“That kind of man is perverted!” Meng Yao jumped about in his mind. “Think of all the things I’ll have to do just to earn his trust! I’ll have to—”

Meng Yao’s thoughts were interrupted by a crack of a tree branch behind him. He stopped and whirled around. The sword that had been resting at his waist was suddenly pointed to the nose of the man behind him.

“It’s you?” Meng Yao frowned. He took a step back and tucked his sword away. “Sect Leader Jin, do you have any business with me?”

Jin Guangshan raised a brow. He looked Meng Yao up and down. “You’re so polite to everyone else, yet you seem quite rude to me. Why is that?”

“Why indeed,” Meng Yao mused. “I do not mean to be impolite. I’m in a bad mood today, so I hope you can forgive me.”

“Is that really why?” Jin Guangshan took a step closer. “Or is there another reason?”

“I don’t understand why Sect Leader Jin means,” Meng Yao said. “The competition is starting soon, so we should head back, lest it be delayed.”

Meng Yao turned to walk back to the site of the competition, but he felt a hand yank him back by the wrist and throw him against a tree. His back screamed in pain and he glared at Jin Guangshan, who stood directly in front of him.

“Why are you getting so close to my son? What are you trying to do?”

“Excuse me?” Meng Yao flung Jin Guangshan’s hand from his wrist.

“I already know you’re Meng Shi’s son,” Jin Guangshan pinched Meng Yao’s jaw and tilted his head this way and that. “You look exactly like her after all. So, what is it that you want? Money? Or a position at the Lanling Jin Sect?”

“Psycho,” Meng Yao scoffed and pushed Jin Guangshan away. He sneered. “I don’t know what my mother ever saw in trash like you.”

“So, you admit it?”

“I have nothing to hide,” Meng Yao said. “It’s you who would suffer if news gets out that I’m another one of your bastard sons.”

Meng Yao smirked, “But what to do? It turns out the bastard that you abandoned has more talent than your biological son. Would your wife faint if she found out? You’d become a laughingstock, wouldn’t you?”

“You—”

“What?” Meng Yao felt a bellyful of anger brewing in his stomach. “Are you scared? If you’re so scared, you shouldn’t sleep around then! You should have been more responsible. Not only did you fool around behind your wife’s back, but you fooled around with people’s feelings and even impregnated them. Do you not have a sense of shame?”

“I don’t need to talk shame with a prostitute’s bastard son,” Jin Guangshan flung his sleeve, sending Meng Yao flying back against a tree. He pointed at Meng Yao. “Listen, you little bastard, don’t you think about getting close to my son again. If I see you around him one more time, I’ll finish what I started.”

Meng Yao swallowed the blood that had risen in his throat. He slowly pushed himself up. He rotated his wrist and found that it had been sprained. That was perfect. He wouldn’t have to participate in the archery competition.

Although he had been found out by Jin Guangshan, at least he found a way to let the rest of this plot point go smoothly.

After standing, Meng Yao leaned against the tree and slowly sank to the ground again. The anger turned into a suppressive, stuffy feeling. He felt his nose souring as he thought of Meng Shi again.

“…Mother,” Meng Yao called out to her softly, but no one answered.

[Host, someone’s—]

“Yaoyao.”

The rustling leaves parted way to show Nie Mingjue’s frazzled form. He knelt down in front of Meng Yao, his eyes first landing on the swollen wrist and then to Meng Yao’s slightly messed up hair.

“Yaoyao, you—”

“Did you punch him?” Meng Yao asked.

Nie Mingjue froze. “…What?”

“Did you punch him?” Meng Yao repeated. “Did you punch Jin Guangshan?”

Nie Mingjue clenched his fist and moved it behind his back. “I…”

“Did you hear everything?” Meng Yao asked.

Nie Mingjue hesitantly nodded.

Meng Yao leaned forward and placed his forehead against Nie Mingjue’s shoulder. “I’m having a shit day.”

Nie Mingjue sighed. He reached out and pulled Meng Yao into his arms. “I know.”

“I knew it wasn’t going to be good as soon as I woke up,” Meng Yao lifted his hands and clung softly to Nie Mingjue’s sleeves. “Do you know how long I’ve been avoiding that asshole? I even refused my mother’s dying wish, yet he still…I’m so frustrated.”

Nie Mingjue patted Meng Yao’s back gently. “It’s okay.”

“He hit me,” Meng Yao said.

“I hit him back,” Nie Mingjue said.

Meng Yao’s nose soured further. He felt like a crybaby, but he liked the way Nie Mingjue hugged him whenever he was upset. He liked the way Nie Mingjue’s voice softened whenever he was sad.

He scooted a little closer. “You didn’t hit his face, did you?”

“I hit his ribcage.”

“That’s good,” Meng Yao murmured, his voice muffled against Nie Mingjue’s shoulder.

Nie Mingjue smiled. “Were you worried about being found out?”

“Mn,” Meng Yao breathed in the soft scent on Nie Mingjue. A sense of comfort washed away the uneasiness that Wen Ruohan had brought and the irritation that Jin Guangshan had given rise to. He smiled to himself. “Ming-ge.”

“Hm?”

“Thank you for coming to look for me. And for always taking care of me,” Meng Yao said.

“If I don’t take care of you, then who else will? No one else seems to notice that iron heart of yours is fake,” Nie Mingjue lightly pinched the back of Meng Yao’s neck.

The action made Meng Yao yelp in surprise, but the spot he was touched inexplicably burned. He wanted to pull away, but, for this moment, he let himself sink further into Nie Mingjue’s embrace.

Nie Mingjue held him silently against his lap and didn’t move a centimeter. He glanced down at Meng Yao. The young man’s eyes were closed and the furrow in his brow had disappeared. He appeared content and warm. If it weren’t for the fact that they had to go back soon, Nie Mingjue wouldn’t mind letting Meng Yao fall asleep too.

“…Yaoyao, we have to go back.”

“Carry me,” Meng Yao slipped his arms around Nie Mingjue’s neck.

Nie Mingjue felt his cheeks began to warm up. He resisted the urge to fling Meng Yao off, for fear that his injury might worsen. “You hurt your wrist, not your ankle. Why would I carry you?”

“I’m sleepy,” Meng Yao rubbed his head against Nie Mingjue. “I don’t want to move.”

“If I carry you back, what would become of your reputation?” Nie Mingjue nudged Meng Yao.

“Actually, when Jin Guangshan shoved me, I might have sprained my ankle,” Meng Yao rubbed at his ankle. “What to do? I can’t hold a bow and I can’t walk. Now I can’t even go back. Ming-ge, just leave me here. Someone will come find me eventually, and then—”

Nie Mingjue looped his arm under Meng Yao’s legs and hoisted him up. Meng Yao gasped when he was suddenly brought into the air. He held onto Nie Mingjue’s neck and looked up at the other man.

“You better have actually sprained your ankle,” Nie Mingjue mumbled.

Meng Yao watched him for a moment longer before lowering his head with a soft smile on his face.

However, by the time the pair made it back to the encampment, Meng Yao’s face was a black as coal and his arms were at his side. The Yunmeng Jiang Sect disciples rushed over.

“W-what happened?” Jiang Cheng asked. “You said that you went to look for Wei Wuxian! How come he came back before you?”

“I fell,” Meng Yao said grimly.

“…Fell?” Jiang Cheng glanced at Nie Mingjue.

“Mn, he fell,” Nie Mingjue nodded.

“How could Yao-ge fall?” Wei Wuxian asked incredulously. He looked at Meng Yao’s swollen wrist and the shoe that he was holding in one hand. He scratched his neck. “How are you supposed to compete now?”

“Well, I can still try,” Meng Yao patted Nie Mingjue to be let down, but the moment his foot touched the ground, he swayed and fell into Jiang Cheng. His face turned white with pain, but he balanced himself to stuff his foot back into his shoe.

“You—you can’t compete like this!” Jiang Cheng exclaimed, his face just as pale as Meng Yao’s.

The other disciples began to fuss over Meng Yao. He normally stood straight-backed and proud. They knew that their Da-shixiong wouldn’t collapse like this unless it actually hurt.

Meng Yao waved his hand to calm down the disciples. “Let’s just have someone else compete in my place. A-Xian, you’ll represent us instead. Come with me to tell Sect Leader what happened.”

Wei Wuxian nodded. He acted as a crutch to help Meng Yao up the steps.

Lan Qiren straightened when he saw the sight, his brows furrowing tightly. Jiang Fengmian stood and walked over to the boys.

“What happened?”

“I fell,” Meng Yao said stiffly.

“You…fell?” Jiang Fengmian echoed, finding incredulous.

If Meng Yao had been part of a prominent family, he would be ranked in the top three in terms of swordsmanship. A swordsman had to have steady feet, yet he came up to Jiang Fengmian to tell him he fell. However, seeing his disheveled appearance and the sprains on his wrist and ankle, Jiang Fengmian couldn’t deny it.

“Then…then A-Xian, you’ll be taking his spot?”

Wei Wuxian nodded. He glanced at Meng Yao. “I’ll have to since Yao-ge is like this.”

Meng Yao smiled. “Sorry, A-Xian, I think you’ll have to take over for the rest of the trip.”

Nie Mingjue stood off to the side, listening to Meng Yao’s charade. It took all his composure to keep from laughing. When he met Lan Xichen’s worried expression below, he almost completely lost his composure.

“Then, I’ll take you back to your room,” Jiang Fengmian reached out, but Nie Mingjue had already taken Meng Yao into his arms.

“Sect Leader Jiang needn’t go. I can go,” Nie Mingjue lifted Meng Yao again.

“That wouldn’t be proper. He isn’t a member of your sect,” Jiang Fengmian said, seemingly at a lost.

“Meng Yao and I are close brothers—what wouldn’t be proper about helping a friend out?” Nie Mingjue asked.

Jiang Fengmian folded at the explanation and nodded. “Then, I will have to trouble Chifeng-zun.”

“It’s no trouble at all,” Nie Mingjue bowed his head with his usual stern expression.

The three men descended from the steps. Nie Mingjue met Lan Xichen at the bottom of the steps. Lan Xichen looked at Meng Yao’s pale face and then at Nie Mingjue.

“What happened?”

Nie Mingjue shook his head. “I’ll tell you later.”

Lan Xichen hesitated. “A-Yao, are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” Meng Yao smiled. “Just concentrate on the competition, okay?”

Lan Xichen nodded. He stepped back worriedly and watched Nie Mingjue and Meng Yao leave the competition.

Chapter Text

“I just noticed that you don’t smile when you’re outside,” Meng Yao said.

“I look younger when I smile. If I scowl all the time, people will take me more seriously,” Nie Mingjue said.

Meng Yao tilted his head to look up at Nie Mingjue.

“I noticed that you’re quite the actor,” Nie Mingjue lowered his head to whisper.

Meng Yao pushed Nie Mingjue away from himself. “It’s like you—survival instincts. You scowl, I lie.”

Nie Mingjue scoffed. “How could that be the same?”

“Isn’t it? You’re scowling to make everyone scared of you, so that they’ll listen to you. I lie so that people trust me, so they’ll listen to me. In fact, I think my method is better. What’s so good about scaring people all the time,” Meng Yao said.

“Lying isn’t good. If you keep lying, when you want to tell the truth, no one will believe you,” Nie Mingjue said.

“I have a clear conscience. Who cares if people believe me or not?” Meng Yao reasoned.

Nie Mingjue’s brows furrowed. “Yaoyao, that attitude is going to get you in trouble one day.”

“Are you worried about me?” Meng Yao raised a brow. “If I got in trouble, would you stand on my side or the side of justice?”

“If you got in trouble and you weren’t in the wrong, then your side would be justice,” Nie Mingjue said.

“Justice isn’t decided by the accused, it’s decided by the accuser,” Meng Yao said. He turned away and patted Nie Mingjue’s chest. “This should be far enough, you can let me down.”

“You sprained your ankle.”

“It wasn’t that bad.”

“Spraining something is a big deal. If you don’t treat it properly, you’ll be left with recurring injuries,” Nie Mingjue tightened his grip on Meng Yao. “And we aren’t done talking. What do you mean justice isn’t decided by the accused but the accuser?”

Meng Yao paused. “Justice doesn’t exist in this world. Whatever the majority says is right is the correct way. Even if you had a reason to do the things you did, as soon as you are condemned by the majority, nothing will change the fact that what you did was wrong.”

“If you were innocent to begin with, the truth will come out eventually.”

“But will they believe the truth?” Meng Yao asked.

Nie Mingjue fell silent.

“My mother was a prostitute because she needed a way to live. She didn’t do it because she wanted to and she couldn’t leave even when she wanted to,” Meng Yao said. “At some point, she was the treasured miss of a rich family, but because others called her a prostitute, a whore, and less than trash, then that’s just what she was. From the top, to the lowest of the low. She was used, then abandoned and she deserved it.

“If she didn’t want to be cheated of her heart, she shouldn’t have been a prostitute to begin with,” Meng Yao said. “Is that right?”

“That’s enough.”

“I’m just saying,” Meng Yao looked at the ground below, “You shouldn’t look at the face surface of anything. Blind righteousness and justice will only give yourself gratification. It doesn’t help the innocent at all.”

Nie Mingjue let out a long sigh. He opened the door to Meng Yao’s room and stepped. He nudged the door close with the toe of his foot and went to set Meng Yao down on the bed. He helped Meng Yao take his shoes off and placed a spare pillow at the foot of the bed for Meng Yao to rest his ankle.

“I’m going to find something to put on that sprain. You—”

Meng Yao caught Nie Mingjue’s sleeve before he could leave.

Nie Mingjue froze and looked down at Meng Yao’s expressionless face. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m the bastard son of a prostitute and a sect leader of the prominent sect. I’ll do whatever it takes to climb the ladder to gain power so I can seek revenge from my father, even if it means betraying the ones who saved me and treated me well. If someone told you this, would you believe them?”

“…Did you do any of those things?”

“Say I did.”

Nie Mingjue frowned. He gently removed Meng Yao’s hand from his sleeve.

Meng Yao lowered his head. His fingers curled into his palm. He scoffed internally. It was exactly like this. What did he expect would be different? Even if Nie Mingjue and he were friends, so long as he stepped one toe on the line, it would all be for naught.

[Host—]

“Don’t say anything to try and comfort me,” Meng Yao said. “It’s better this way. It’ll be easier to leave once the plot is—”

“You must have had your reasons.”

Meng Yao’s lashes fluttered.

“You’re not the kind of person who vies for power and even less for the approval of others. You’ve never put anyone in your eye,” Nie Mingjue said. “If someone told me you did all these things, then I would think you must have had your reasons and I would ask you what happened. Though…you probably wouldn’t tell me. In that case, Xichen and I would protect you first, and then ask questions later.”

He was always more loose-lipped when he felt that he owed others.

Nie Mingjue sat down and leaned closer, “But if you’re saying this kind of stuff now, you must be thinking about doing something. What is it?”

Meng Yao’s eyes widened at the abrupt contact. He moved back and averted his gaze. “It’s nothing.”

“Nothing again, huh?” Nie Mingjue scooted even closer. “Tell me. If you tell me, I might be able to help you.”

“It wouldn’t make sense if I told you,” Meng Yao mumbled, his face getting redder.

“Are you planning on doing something to Jin Guangshan?”

“I’m not.”

“Then, what did Wen Ruohan say to you before?” Nie Mingjue asked. “You’re not planning on getting close to him, are you?”

“I’m no—can you sit back?” Meng Yao placed his uninjured hand on Nie Mingjue’s shoulder.

“Yaoyao, Wen Ruohan is a dangerous person. He’s volatile and he can kill you at any moment. Whatever you’re planning, just forget about it, alright?” Nie Mingjue refused to budge.

“I think you’re more dangerous right now,” Meng Yao felt his heart hammering against his chest. He refused to look at Nie Mingjue, but he knew the other man had a clear view of how red he had become.

Nie Mingjue silently observed Meng Yao. A small smile played at his lips at how flustered Meng Yao was but, at the same time, he felt his own heart flutter. Still, he didn’t move.

“Yaoyao, answer me.”

“I—honestly, is it fun to be this close to another man?” Meng Yao whipped his head over and glared at Nie Mingjue.

Nie Mingjue’s smile grew. “Only if the other man is you.”

Meng Yao’s expression turned from anger to embarrassment. He looked away again and pursed his lips together. “…Stop it…”

Nie Mingjue chuckled. “Just say you’ll stay away from Wen Ruohan.”

“Nie Mingjue,” Meng Yao’s voice was filled with warning.

Nie Mingjue frowned briefly. He lifted his hand to smooth down a few stray pieces of hair on Meng Yao’s head, “Then, say you’ll let me protect you.”

Meng Yao felt the other’s hand against his head and felt that he really might melt.

“Let me protect you, so you don’t get hurt,” Nie Mingjue mumbled. “None of us want to see you hurt.”

Meng Yao gripped the covers tightly. He eventually forced out a nod.

Nie Mingjue smiled. He sat back and watched Meng Yao slowly relax. “Yaoyao.”

“What?” Meng Yao snapped.

“I quite like you. I just wanted to tell you that.”

“I quite like you. I just wanted to tell you that.”

Meng Yao felt his heart fall to the pit of his stomach. He looked at Nie Mingjue’s soft expression and avoided his gaze.

He really was just an alternate version of Nie Zhuo. Even their weird ways of expressing affection to their friends were the same. Though, he had to admit that Nie Mingjue’s expression wasn’t quite right.

[Ding. Nie Mingjue’s affection level for Host has risen to 70 points. Congratulations.]

Seventy—Seventy points?!

Hadn’t it been resting at 50? Why did it suddenly shoot up by twenty?

“Tongtong—”

[There is no mistake, Host.]

“Yes, but—” Meng Yao looked at Nie Mingjue cautiously. “No, turn off the affection meter. I don’t want any alerts about it from here on out.”

[Yes, Host.]

“Shouldn’t you head back to the competition? If you continue to stay here, they’ll start saying that you’re playing hooky,” Meng Yao said.

“You don’t want me here anymore?” Nie Mingjue raised a brow. “If you don’t want me, then I’ll go.”

“Can you say that without looking like a puppy I’m abandoning?” Meng Yao asked. “I’m tired, so I’m going to sleep.”

“Are you the type of person to use someone and throw them away?” Nie Mingjue laid his head against Meng Yao’s hand. “Yaoyao, I don’t want to go back and talk to those stuffy old men.”

“Sect Leader Jiang isn’t that bad.”

“But he doesn’t talk,” Nie Mingjue sighed.

“Ming-ge, if you don’t head back, Sect Leader Wen is going to be offended.

“As if I care,” Nie Mingjue murmured.

“Ming-ge,” Meng Yao’s voice became stricter.

Nie Mingjue looked up at Meng Yao. “Are you really okay?”

“I’m fine.”

Nie Mingjue sat up and ruffled Meng Yao’s hair. “Then, I’ll head out first. I’ll come back to check on you tonight with Xichen.”

Meng Yao nodded.

After Nie Mingjue left, Meng Yao slipped under the covers and fell silent.

“…Tongtong.”

[Yes, Host?]

“…Tongtong,” Meng Yao whined a little louder.

[What is it, Host?]

“Tongtong, I have bad news.”

[Yes?]

“…I think I like him.”

[Host can omit the word “think”. Whenever Nie Mingjue gets close, Host’s heart rate becomes abnormal. Not to mention, your favorability value towards him is actually more than that of a close friend or family member.]

“Does this mean you knew that I liked him a long time ago?”

[According to the AI’s guide, true “like” doesn’t come until the human themselves realize it. That is why I didn’t say anything.]

Meng Yao felt his face heat up further. He wanted to scream, but knew if he did, then he might be attracting some type of attention. He shifted so that his wrist and ankle were in a more comfortable spot.

“Then, what should I do?”

[Host needs to be more specific with that question.]

“I mean, like,” Meng Yao felt his heart hammering against his chest. He reached up and pressed his hand against it, as if that would stop the strange phenomenon. “How do I stop it?”

[Host doesn’t want to like Nie Mingjue?]

Meng Yao shook his head. “I can’t. I’m going to betray everyone, remember? If I keep liking him, then when he leaves me, then…”

A similar face flashed through his mind, causing a slight tremble to course through his body. The shock and the disgust were so obvious on his face.

“I don’t want to see what he looks like when he hates me,” Meng Yao said softly.

Before Tongtong could answer, there was a soft knock on the door. Meng Yao poked his head out from underneath the covers. He took a moment to compose himself before standing and limping towards the door.

He opened it and was faced with a shockingly familiar face.

The woman in front of him was dressed in the white and red uniform of the Qishan Wen Sect. Her hair was tied up into a neat half bun, with the remainder of her hair cascading down her back. At her side was a medicinal box that complimented her quite well.

Meng Yao stumbled back, knocking against the side of a cabinet.

The woman moved forward and quickly managed to catch Meng Yao around the waist, taking care to avoid his injured areas.

“Are you okay? I’m sorry if I surprised you,” the woman said quickly.

“Mana—Miss,” Meng Yao quickly pulled himself away. He hissed at the stinging pain from around his ankle.

The woman frowned and held Meng Yao’s elbow. “Young Master Meng, it would be better if you sat down for now and don’t move around. My name is Wen Qing, I was sent by Sect Leader Wen to see to your injuries.”

Wen Qing.

Meng Yao heard the system’s notifications, but he was too enraptured by her face.

This face was the same as his manager’s at that café.

However, the name was much more different than his or Nie Mingjue’s was from his own universe. His manager had been surnamed Pei. She had a brighter personality and, although she had mentioned medical school several times, she more wanted to be a vet if she had had the money.

But Wen Qing, the woman in front of him, carried a serious expression. Her aura was imposing, as if she dared you to question her skills as a doctor. While the two shared the same face, Meng Yao didn’t doubt that they were two different people.

“Young Master Meng?”

“Miss Wen, please, just call me Meng Yao. I don’t deserve to be called ‘young master’ by you,” Meng Yao had soon recovered himself. He smiled politely. “It’s merely a bit of a sprain. It was too much for you to be called over.”

“Not at all,” Wen Qing sat down beside Meng Yao. “A cultivator’s wrists and ankles are their lives. If they don’t work properly, how would you fight?”

Meng Yao laughed. “I suppose that’s true.”

After a round of checking, Wen Qing seemed relieved. “It isn’t bad. Your ankle was just twisted slightly. It should be fine after a few days of rest. Your wrist is a bit more of a problem. May I ask which is your dominant hand?”

“That would be my left.”

Wen Qing nodded. “That makes things easier. Avoid using your right hand for now, but don’t forget to stretch the sprains. If they become too stiff, it’ll be harder to take care of in the future. Rest for a few days, and then try stretching. You’ll have to pay more attention in strengthening up your wrist and your ankle in the future to prevent the injury from occurring again.”

“I understand. Thank you, Miss Wen,” Meng Yao smiled.

Wen Qing returned the smiled and stood.

“Miss Wen,” Meng Yao stopped Wen Qing before she could leave. He observed her face one last time. “May I ask what your mother’s surname was?”

Wen Qing raised a brow, beyond perplexed. “She…was surnamed Pei.”

Meng Yao furrowed his brows. “Do you have any distant relatives?”

“Not that I know of.”

Meng Yao breathed a small sigh. “You look a bit like a friend I knew a long time ago.”

Wen Qing watched Meng Yao silently.

She had heard of Meng Yao before she ever met him. He was a talented youth with an unknown origin. He said he was indebted to Jiang Fengmian, but the truth of the matter had never been disclosed. Some say that he was an orphan child, but there were rumors that he did have a mother, but no matter his origin, there was no one in the world that could deny his talent. In one year, he went from only fighting low-leveled fierce corpses to directly tackling the likes of drought ghosts and water ghosts all alone.

Not just that, but he had a strong sense of comradery with Chifeng-zun and Zewu-jun, which was further proven today at the conference.

As a youth who had barely turned seventeen, Meng Yao was already exceedingly outstanding. Therefore, when she heard Meng Yao claim that she looked like his old friend, she didn’t think much of it. There was no reason for this youth to lie.

She smiled kindly. “Unfortunately, I do not know anyone from my mother’s side.”

“I see,” Meng Yao appeared disappointed.

For a brief moment, Wen Qing’s heart pinched. She was suddenly reminded of her own little brother. “I could ask around, if you’d like.”

“Oh no! No,” Meng Yao was flustered. “I—forgive me. Just take that as me rambling. It’s fine, really. Um, I have disturbed Miss Wen enough. Forgive me for not being able to see you out.”

The corner of Wen Qing’s lips curled. “It was no disturbance. Then, I wish Young Master…I wish you a speedy recovery.”

Meng Yao smiled and thanked Wen Qing again.

When she left, Meng Yao limped back to his bed and laid down.

So, she was also in this universe.

Meng Yao giggled sillily to himself. If his manager knew that Wen Qing from the novel looked exactly like her, she would be happy, wouldn’t she?

But Meng Yao’s smile soon fell from his face.

The Wen Remnants…what sort of fate will they suffer this time around?

Chapter Text

The trip to the Discussion Conference passed without anymore accidents. What should have happened, happened, and the details that could be ignored were quickly swept under the rug. Meng Yao was not the protagonist, after all, so his disappearance from the event became inconsequential, and everyone returned to their respective sects without knowing of the storm that was brewing just above their heads.

As soon as Meng Yao got back, he pulled Sect Leader Jiang and Madam Yu aside to discuss the escape passage that he had asked them about just several months ago.

Jiang Fengmian was silent, as Yu Ziyuan looked Meng Yao up and down skeptically.

“Why are you so insistent on getting an escape passage?” Yu Ziyuan asked. She frowned. “Even if something were to happen, it would be silly to attack the us first. As soon as Wen Ruohan targets one of the prominent sects, he knows what’s going to happen.”

Meng Yao lowered his gaze. “How are you sure?”

Yu Ziyuan and Jiang Fengmian exchanged glances.

“When there is war, nothing is predictable,” Meng Yao said. “Wen Ruohan has been gaining power more and more year after year. He’s suppressed smaller sects, manipulated the common people, and has established himself in the seat of power. After so long, has anyone done anything? Did anyone make a move when he plotted against Sect Leader Nie’s father?”

“That’s circumstantial,” Jiang Fengmian said. “We don’t know if he was actually the one that tampered with the saber.”

“Circumstantial,” Meng Yao laughed hollowly. “Then, riddle me this—why are there rumors?”

Neither Jiang Fengmian nor Yu Ziyuan could refute.

Meng Yao looked up at the two adults in front of him. They were taken aback by the rebellion in his eyes. His normally gentle and subservient temperament had disappeared, revealing a side that they would have never guessed laid beneath.

“If the Wen Ruohan at that time could get away with killing the sect leader of a prominent sect, then the Wen Ruohan now can get away with razing Lotus Pier to the ground,” Meng Yao said. “War is inevitable and you’d have to be blind to be unable to see it.”

“You—”

“A-Yao, we’re not saying we’re not going to build the passage, it’s just we’re afraid this might blow things out of proportion.”

“They can blow things out of proportion, but we can’t?” Meng Yao asked. “This is for the safety of the sect. It’s to prevent lives from being lost.”

“We understand, it’s just—”

“If they dare attack us, then we can just fight back!” Yu Ziyuan snapped. “What’s the point of running? I don’t believe that they would be able to burn down the entire Lotus Pier with the two of us here!”

Meng Yao’s finger nails dug into the palm of his hand. His heart hammered against his chest as the anger threatened to surge past his throat. He lowered his gaze.

“If that is how you truly feel, then so be it,” Meng Yao said softly. He turned around without bowing to the heads of the Yunmeng Jiang Sect. However, before he made it to the door, he stopped. “It seems that members of the prominent sect are still made of skin and bones. Rather than using your brain, it’s easy for pride to get to your head.”

“You—”

San Niang!”

“Didn’t you hear what that bastard said?!”

Meng Yao closed the doors behind him. He looked to his left at Mo Xuanyu and Xue Yang, who sat huddled against the wall. The coldness on his face dissipated. He smiled and pulled the two boys up.

“Come on, we’re going somewhere.”

“Are you running away?” Xue Yang asked, loud enough, certainly, for the two cultivators inside to hear.

“No, but I’m going to take you two to a safer place,” Meng Yao patted the boys’ heads. “Let’s leave before it gets too dark.”

Because there were two children with him this time, Meng Yao had already called for a carriage. He threw their luggage into the trunk and had already pulled himself up, when he heard his name being shouted from just inside the gates. He turned and watched Wei Wuxian, Jiang Cheng, and Jiang Yanli sprinting towards him.

“Yao-ge!” Wei Wuxian grabbed onto the side of the carriage. “Yao-ge, are you leaving?”

“Where are you going?” Jiang Cheng asked. “You’re not leaving permanently, are you?”

“Mother and Father are just a bit stubborn, A-Yao. I’m sure if you talk to them a bit longer, they will agree to whatever you had in mind,” Jiang Yanli said.

Xue Yang and Mo Lan poked their heads out of the carriage.

“Who are you all trying to convince? Do you really think Gege is that petty?” Xue Yang scoffed. “Besides, if he really did throw in his uniform and left, I personally wouldn’t blame him.”

“A-Yang,” Meng Yao’s tired voice interrupted the two sides. He smiled warily at the Jiang children and Wei Wuxian. “I’ll be back. I’m taking A-Yang and A-Lan to a safer place first.”

“What place could be safer than Lotus Pier?” Jiang Cheng asked apprehensively.

“Qinghe,” Meng Yao said. “Chifeng-zun will look after them.”

“But isn’t it perfectly fine in Yunmeng?” Wei Wuxian asked.

Jiang Yanli was silent, but she watched Meng Yao with the same anxious set of eyes.

What they were thinking, Meng Yao was perfectly clear. Since Meng Shi had died, Meng Yao had created a bit of a distance between himself and the Jiang family. It was only in the Cloud Recesses had he briefly set aside the master and servant relationship he had imposed on himself and them. He knew that Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng saw him as their friend and that Jiang Yanli treated him as her little brother, but if he had to do what he had to do later, he couldn’t take them to be his family any longer.

Meng Yao’s smile became more forced. “I’ve burdened the Jiang clan long enough.”

“We’re your family!” Wei Wuxian kept a tight hold on the wheel. “How could anything that you do or say be a burden to us?”

“Yeah! On the flip side, who’s Chifeng-zun?” Jiang Cheng asked. “You two are just friends with little contact with each other. How could he compare to us?”

“A-Cheng,” Jiang Yanli chided.

Jiang Cheng’s face flushed. “W-what I mean is—”

“I will stay by the Yunmeng Jiang Sect until the very end,” Meng Yao said. “You don’t have to worry. Trust me, even if I die, I would return as a ghost of the Jiang Sect. You’ll have to exorcise me to get rid of me.”

“That—Yao-ge, don’t say anything unlucky!” Wei Wuxian exclaimed.

Meng Yao released the reins on the horse. He jumped down and patted the heads of Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng.

“Since you two are acting as if I’ll never come back, let me leave you two with a few words first, okay?” Meng Yao smiled. “You two are big now, so make sure to take care of your sister while I’m away. Don’t argue so much and learn to work together. If Madam Yu says one thing, don’t be so fast to fire back, A-Xian. No matter what happens in the future, you two will still be members of the Yunmeng Jiang Sect and no one can change that. Keep your chin up and keep a clear heart. So long as you remain true to yourself and not the expectations of others, everything will turn out okay.”

Wei Wuxian gripped Meng Yao’s arm tightly. “Yao…Yao-ge, you…”

“Yao-ge, can’t you just tell us what’s wrong? You aren’t really going to…the rumors, are they true?”

Meng Yao laughed. “What rumors? The rumors between me and Jin Guangshan?”

Mo Lan straightened at the sound of his father’s name.

“Is it surprising? He sleeps around all the time and my mother was a prostitute,” Meng Yao said. He patted the shoulders of the two boys and wrinkled his nose. “Trust me, I’d rather sell myself before I go to Lanling Jin Sect.”

Meng Yao glanced at Jiang Yanli, giving her the signal to hold onto the two boys. He jumped back onto the carriage and gripped the horse reins.

Jiang Yanli immediately caught onto Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian’s sleeves.

“I’ll be back in a few months,” Meng Yao threw back a smile as he urged the horses forward. “Be good while I’m gone!”

Once on the road, Mo Lan and Xue Yang poked their heads out.

Gege,” Mo Lan called out softly to Meng Yao. “Are you also…?”

“I don’t know how it even managed to get out,” Meng Yao sighed as he leaned back against the carriage. “I’m willing to bet that old man decided to throw out the information first so I don’t have the upper hand. I just wanted to live a peaceful life and retire in a few years, but now I have this big pot to carry.”

Meng Yao irritably scratched his head. “Everything’s just going wrong recently.”

Mo Lan shifted forward and gripped Meng Yao’s sleeve. “Gege, so you’re actually my real brother?”

Meng Yao glanced back.

Xue Yang clicked his tongue. “Knowing you, you must have known a mile away, huh? You just never told anyone?”

“What’s the point of telling anyone? Can you eat it? Does it smell nice?” Meng Yao pinched Xue Yang’s cheek.

“Ah! Well, at least Mo Lan would have something to be happy about!” Xue Yang smacked at Meng Yao’s hand until the latter was willing to release him.

“Are you happy?” Meng Yao looked at Mo Lan.

Mo Lan’s eyes lit up. He nodded. “Happy! Of course, I’m happy. Someone like Gege is actually my half-brother…”

Meng Yao smiled. It really was nice to have a little angel at his side. He scooped Mo Lan onto his lap and gave him a big hug. “I’m also happy! I have a cute little brother like you.”

Xue Yang stared at the two of them. These two really were a pair of brothers. Their outsides were pure white and fluffy, while their insides were charred and black. He thought back to the legitimate Jin child and sighed. Something must have gone wrong in his childhood. His father was horrible, his two brothers are also demented, yet this was the only guy who was a little silly and a bit stupid.

Xue Yang ducked his head back into the carriage and closed his eyes. “Call me when it’s time to get down! I'm going to take a nap.”

Mo Lan shifted in Xue Yang’s lap. “A-Yang, if you sleep now, then you won’t be able to sleep tonight!”

Xue Yang snored loudly in response.

“A-Yang!” Mo Lan shouted.

“Just ignore him. He’ll just go walk around like a stray cat,” Meng Yao said.

Xue Yang clicked his tongue and turned to find a better position to sleep.

Mo Lan looked up at Meng Yao and then settled back against the young man’s chest, a content smile resting on his face.

The group stopped at an inn to rest later that night. Although Meng Yao had rented two rooms, Mo Lan and Xue Yang snuck over in the middle of the night and piled onto Meng Yao’s chest. Meng Yao’s brows furrowed. He was slowly stirred from his sleep by the giggles. He reached over and ruffled the boys’ hair.

“What’s wrong with you two? Scared of the dark?” Meng Yao groaned.

“Mn!” Mo Lan chirped happily and burrowed himself into Meng Yao’s arms.

“You two are already twelve, why are you two still clinging to me,” Meng Yao shifted into a more comfortable position and started to fall asleep again.

“That’s not true. Mo Lan’s eleven and I’m thirteen,” Xue Yang whispered.

“Mn, mn,” Meng Yao patted their backs. “Just sleep. I need sleep.”

Xue Yang beamed in the darkness and no longer spoke or move, allowing Meng Yao to drift off into a much needed, deeper sleep.

When the trio woke up in the morning, Meng Yao briskly gathered their things, bought some food, and tossed it into the carriage for the two boys before he started on their journey again.

Since they woke bright and early and they had stocked up on food, Meng Yao didn’t make any unnecessary stops, unless the boys claimed they needed a bathroom break. At some point in the middle of the afternoon, the boys were lulled into a soft sleep by the gentle rocking of the carriage.

Tongtong came out to keep Meng Yao company as silence descended on the traveling party.

[Host, would you like to hear some gossip?]

“AIs gossip?” Meng Yao wondered.

[Some with higher intelligence do. At the AI office, there is what humans could consider to be a “break room” and the AIs with higher intelligence gossip about their hosts.]

“Let’s hear it then. What do they talk about?” Meng Yao asked with keen interest.

[In the higher plains, there is actually a devil that is running amuck. The officers are trying to catch him, but he’s too powerful. At some point, they are planning to just throw him into an alternate version of his reality to keep him occupied.]

“Really? Is he like, a real devil? The type with horns and red eyes?” Meng Yao asked.

[Host might actually be familiar with this person.]

“…I would be?”

[Yes. He is a character from Mo Xiang Tong Xue’s other story—Luo Binghe.]

“Luo Binghe?” Meng Yao paused. “…But…”

[Every work of fiction is its own world, Host. Remember?]

“Yes, but…from what I remember, Luo Binghe wouldn’t be a devil…unless,” Meng Yao gasped. “It’s Bing-ge?”

[I have no idea what you are talking about, Host.]

Meng Yao shifted excitedly in his seat. “Say, then does that mean in terms of the System Space, every fictional character is real?”

[Yes, Host.]

“Would I get a chance to see it?” Meng Yao asked.

[Only if Host becomes a high level transmigrator. If not, then there would not be a chance.]

“Ah,” Meng Yao pouted in disappointment. “I wanted to see what Luo Binghe was up to. Is there anymore information you can give?"

[Not at the moment, Host.]

“But be sure to keep me posted,” Meng Yao smiled. He thought for a moment, “Then…if the story follows the original novel, where would Mo Xuanyu go?”

[In the original plot, Mo Xuanyu’s soul dispersed. However, in a different timeline, it is possible that Mo Xuanyu also became a transmigrator.]

Meng Yao let out a sigh. The world is much vaster than he had ever known before. He watched as the skies began to redden and the sun began to slowly sink below the horizon.

“Say, Tongtong,” Meng Yao called out softly to his system.

[Yes, Host?]

“If I die, where do I go?” Meng Yao asked.

Tongtong didn’t answer immediately.

The carriage rolled over the uneven grounds. The sound of horse hooves clopping against the ground filled the space between them. The chirping of birds sang in time, creating a lovely song that swirled in the air and wrapped around them.

“Because there’s that possibility, right? That I don’t succeed,” Meng Yao chuckled. “So, where do I go?”

[Host will have two options: Host can become a transmigrator, going from world to world to complete missions and earn another chance at life again, or Host can accept his fate and rest in peace.]

“Rest in peace, huh?” Meng Yao echoed.

The wind brushed past his hair. A pair of birds flew low and narrowly avoided hitting the head of the horse. Meng Yao leaned back against the carriage.

“I’ll only choose the first option if you continue to be my system,” Meng Yao said.

[Of course, Host.]

Meng Yao wasn’t sure if he was imagining it, but he thought he heard a hint of sadness in Tongtong’s mechanical voice. He silently wondered whether or not AIs could develop emotions—after all, Tongtong wasn’t just a regular piece of data. But he didn’t ask and Tongtong, who could sense Meng Yao’s thoughts, didn’t offer up any information.

The journey continued on in a peaceful way. Meng Yao stopped briefly to stock up on their food and to allow Xue Yang and Mo Lan to stretch their legs.

As they waited for the food, Meng Yao glanced over at an older gentleman, who strolled down the street as if he didn’t have a care in the world. His head was held high and he carried a whimsical smile on his face. Every once in a while, he’d stop to talk to a stall owner, creating quite the peaceful image.

Meng Yao sighed. “I want to be like that when I retire.”

Mo Lan looked up at Meng Yao. He looked down at the hand that held his and shifted a little closer. “Gege.”

“Hm?”

“Would you let Mo Lan stay by your side?”

Meng Yao glanced down. He smiled and rubbed Mo Lan’s head. “Of course. Why would I abandon you?”

“If you’re taking him along, then I’m also coming,” Xue Yang came jogging back over. He held onto a corner of Meng Yao’s sleeve. “You’ll take me along too, right?”

“Will I be able to get rid of you?” Meng Yao asked in return.

Xue Yang laughed and smiled wickedly. “Of course not.”

“But if Gege really wanted to, I could get rid of him for you,” Mo Lan whispered sweetly.

“As if a half-baked chicken like you could even try,” Xue Yang scoffed.

Mo Lan smiled at Xue Yang, but said nothing else.

Meng Yao laughed at the two children and received the bag of buns.

The remainder of the trip lasted another few days, continuing on in this way, until they finally reached Qinghe.

The sun was high in the sky and the streets were peaceful, as they usually were. Meng Yao rode the carriage up until they reached the Unclean Realm. Only when they were at the gates did Meng Yao hop down from the carriage and greet the guards who stood at the iron doors.

The guards naturally recognized Meng Yao, after seeing him so frequently in the past year or so. They opened the gates, took the horse and the carriage to the stables, and allowed Meng Yao to go in.

The youth and the two boys sat in the main hall and waited for Nie Mingjue to come out to greet them. Luckily, they didn’t wait for long.

Nie Mingjue and Nie Huaisang both arrived at the same time. One appeared flustered while the other seemed confused.

Meng Yao stood and greeted the two brothers with a gentle smile.

“Meng Yao, why’d you come?” Nie Huaisang asked. He glanced at the two children behind him. “Why’d you bring the kids?”

“Did something happen?” Nie Mingjue asked.

Meng Yao lowered his gaze. “Something…I suppose something did happen. Could you watch over Xue Yang and Mo Lan for a while?”

Nie Mingjue and Nie Huaisang exchanged glances.

“I know I’m asking a lot,” Meng Yao said, “but I won’t be able to look after them for too much longer.”

Mo Lan’s eyes widened. Xue Yang frowned and smacked Meng Yao’s hand that was just hanging at his side. “What are you talking about? We’re staying here without you? You didn’t tell us about this!”

Meng Yao ignored Xue Yang. His eyes were focused on Nie Mingjue. “Ming-ge, could you please?”

“Hey, Meng Yao,” Xue Yang stepped forward, but Mo Lan grabbed onto him. Xue Yang glared at the child that hugged his waist and looked back at Meng Yao. “Now you’re ignoring me? Have you asked us what we wanted?”

Nie Mingjue glanced behind Meng Yao to Xue Yang and Mo Lan, then looked back towards Meng Yao. “Yaoyao, did something happen at the Jiang clan?”

It wasn’t like Meng Yao to suddenly spring up with such a huge favor.

“The two boys haven’t been taught well by me,” Meng Yao said. “I was just hoping the Qinghe Nie Sect could straighten them out a little.”

Nie Huaisang looked between Meng Yao and the kids, then back to his brother. He coughed lightly and walked over to Xue Yang and Mo Lan. He gently placed his hands onto the shoulders of the two boys.

“How about I take the kiddos out to play while the adults do the talking?” Nie Huaisang offered.

Xue Yang whipped his head around. “You—”

“The three of us can do some talking too,” Nie Huaisang smiled. He looked over to a nearby guard and began to walk out of the hall.

The guard easily swept Xue Yang and Mo Lan up. Although Xue Yang continued to protest, the guard did nothing to let him back down and, soon, the trio had already disappeared off to the gardens.

“What are you planning?”

Meng Yao smiled. “You think I’m planning something?”

“Aren’t you? Why else would you put Xue Yang and Mo Lan into my care?” Nie Mingjue asked. He held Meng Yao’s shoulders. “Tell me. I can help you.”

“The most help you can give me is to watch over the two kids,” Meng Yao said. “And I’m going to have to trouble you a bit more.”

“What is it?”

“Would you allow me to stay here? For a month or two. I want to help them settle in first before I head back to Yunmeng.”

Nie Mingjue’s brows knitted tightly. His grip on Meng Yao hovered between a tight grip and a careful cradle. It was almost as if he feared that anything more, Meng Yao would shatter, but anything less and he would escape.

“Yaoyao,” Nie Mingjue forced the name out of his mouth. “Whatever you’re doing…isn’t going to endanger you, right?"

Meng Yao’s smile became brighter. “Are you worried about me?”

Nie Mingjue felt his chest constrict. Meng Yao wasn’t lying to him, but he was also refusing to answer his simple question. He felt uneasy, but there was nothing he could do but stare at Meng Yao like he was doing now.

“Ming-ge, can you promise me one thing?”

“…Yes.”

“Before you get angry at me in the future, could you listen to my reasoning? Really listen to it. Then, you can pass judgement however you see fit.”

“Yaoyao—”

“You’re not going to like me in the future,” Meng Yao said with a serene smile. “But I hope you at least won’t be disgusted by me.”

Chapter Text

Nie Mingjue stared at Meng Yao but couldn’t find the right words to say. The words that would come out would be too harsh, or not filled with enough meaning. He wanted to take the person into his arms and protect him from the world and himself, but the person would never let him. If not protection, then it would be nice if he would at least share the burden. But even then, that was far too intrusive.

For the first time in Nie Mingjue’s life, he wanted to ask a very stupid question.

“What am I to you?”

Meng Yao didn’t seem to have expected this response. He stared at Nie Mingjue for a long time. His brows creased and he was smiling once more. “The most important person in my life aside from my mother.”

Nie Mingjue’s hands trembled, but he felt the other person pull away.

“I’ll take that as you promising me to take care of them,” Meng Yao laughed. “Don’t worry, I’ll come back for them. Actually, I bet if I waited long enough, even if I didn’t come back for them, they would naturally come find me themselves. That Xue Yang, you have to keep an eye on him. Who knows what type of trouble he’s going to get up to without me around? And Mo Lan, he—”

Meng Yao was pulled forward. His forehead hit Nie Mingjue’s chin strangely, but the other man didn’t release him. He was held tightly against the sturdy chest. He heard the other’s unsteady heartbeat and felt the anxiety surging through the other person. The smile that he had always been so good at holding on to slowly disappeared.

“I won’t ask any more questions,” Nie Mingjue said hoarsely. “But don’t let anything happen to you.”

Meng Yao placed his hands against Nie Mingjue’s back.

“Promise me. This is the one thing I’m asking for,” Nie Mingjue insisted.

“But what if I accidentally break that promise?”

“Then, at least you’d still be alive,” Nie Mingjue gripped Meng Yao tighter. “If I don’t make you promise me, you might work yourself till you’re dead.”

Meng Yao laughed. His arms tightened around Nie Mingjue. “Alright, I promise. I won’t let anything happen to me.”

Nie Mingjue didn’t let go. For the first time in his life, he felt fear.

When his father died, he was at a lost. What would he do from then on? How was he supposed to raise his little brother? The path was unclear and unanswerable, but at least, at the time, Nie Mingjue knew that there would be a day where the sun would rise again. When he knew that his cultivation was unstable, Nie Mingjue hadn’t batted an eye. What would come would eventually come, even if you were afraid of it, so why not just face it head on? Whether he lived or died wasn’t important. It was just important that he was able to live life with a clear conscience.

Nie Mingjue was never scared. It’s how he was seen as dependable by his little brother and his best friend. He was never scared because, even in the face of death, he always felt that he had some semblance of control.

But now?

Nie Mingjue felt the warmth in his arms and shuddered.

There was no one in this world who could control Meng Yao.

Meng Yao remained still and allowed Nie Mingjue to hug him to his heart’s content. In fact, his face had long been burnt until he looked like a tomato. His heart hammered crazily against his chest, but he didn’t want to move. He knew that if he did, another chance like this wouldn’t come by again. He smiled contently to himself and enjoyed the sensation shamelessly.

Tongtong, the only bystander to witness this, had no words to share.

Nie Mingjue finally managed to calm himself. He reluctantly pulled away and looked down at Meng Yao’s smiling face. He felt a small irritation growing in his chest. He just wanted to grab Meng Yao and—and…and what?

Nie Mingjue’s thoughts fell short. His heart skipped a beat, but where his mind wanted to wander was blocked. He looked back at Meng Yao and sighed.

“You’re staying for a few months?”

“Mn,” Meng Yao smiled.

“Then, stay,” Nie Mingjue said. “I’ll have the servants prepare a room for you. We can all eat dinner together so Xue Yang and Mo Lan don’t get angry at you later. Also you—”

“Ming-ge,” Meng Yao called out.

Nie Mingjue stopped. He looked at Meng Yao. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m glad we were able to be friends in this life,” Meng Yao said.

Nie Mingjue was stunned. He laughed and lightly smacked Meng Yao’s shoulder. “Are you kidding me? You make me and Xichen worry so much, and this is all you can say. Forget it, I don’t need your pretty words, alright? I just want you to get out with your life. That’s all I’m asking for at this point.”

The heaviness in Meng Yao’s chest eased. He nodded gratefully. “Of course.”

 Nie Mingjue coughed lightly and turned away. He called from some servants and allowed Meng Yao to follow him to his study while they waited.

However, while the two men had settled everything, Nie Huaisang had his grip tightly on Xue Yang’s wrist.

“Let me go! Release me!” Xue Yang tried to shove Nie Huaisang away, to no avail.

Nie Huaisang sighed and tugged the child back. “Where do you want to go? Confront Meng Yao?”

“He—he didn’t tell us that he was just leaving us here!” Xue Yang struggled to get out of Nie Huaisang’s grip. His small face was beginning to turn red. He whipped his head towards Mo Lan and glared at him. “And you! Why are you so calm? Did you already know?”

“I didn’t know,” Mo Lan sat quietly at the table across from Nie Huaisang. His head was lowered and there was a layer of gloom about him.

Nie Huaisang looked between the two children and smiled. “Meng Yao isn’t abandoning you two. He clearly said he’s just leaving you two for us to take care of for a bit.”

“But why?” Xue Yang stopped struggling and glared at Nie Huaisang. “Why’s he leaving us here for you to take care of? What’s he doing and where’s he going that we can’t go? He said that we’d stick together forever. Whatever he’s doing, we can just go along! What’s wrong with that?”

The quiet Mo Lan hummed in agreement.

“That idiot’s going to go off and do something stupid, I just know it!” Xue Yang tried to pry Nie Huaisang’s fingers off of his wrist. “Let go of me!”

Nie Huaisang grabbed Xue Yang around the waist and placed him on the chair beside him. “If he’s doing something stupid, then that’s all the more reason that you should stay here.”

“You—”

“If he’s doing something stupid, then he needs his entire brain to concentrate on this stupid thing that he’s planning on doing,” Nie Huaisang nudged the sweets over to the sullen Mo Lan. He patted Xue Yang’s head. “If you two go with him, he’ll have to worry about both of your safety and he won’t be able to just think about himself.”

Xue Yang and Mo Lan fell silent.

“Meng Yao’s smart—that’s how he’s survived till now,” Nie Huaisang said calmly. “You two should know that about him better than me, right?”

The two children said nothing under Nie Huaisang’s gaze.

“Just stay good and obedient children until he comes to pick you two up again. Don’t make him worried so he can actually come back to pick you two up,” Nie Huaisang said. He glanced at Xue Yang. “And if you really want to help him, then cultivate well, so he knows you can protect yourself.”

Xue Yang fiddled with the cakes in front of him. He smashed his fist down, crushing it to bits and scoffed. “Idiot. You’re a hypocrite.”

Nie Huaisang smiled and patted Xue Yang’s back. “You’re right, I’m the hypocrite. But you know I’m right, don’t you?”

Xue Yang shrugged Nie Huaisang off. “Don’t touch me. Asshole.”

Mo Lan glanced at Nie Huaisang and lowered his head to eat. From beginning to end, the child never spoke to Nie Huaisang, and Nie Huaisang didn’t bother trying to coax him.

It was only when dinner came around that the two groups reunited. Meng Yao voiced his plans to stay for another few months, but neither Xue Yang nor Mo Lan seemed like they wanted to talk to Meng Yao. They only ate quietly with lowered heads. When they were done, Xue Yang asked if they could be excused and left with Mo Lan after receiving permission.

“They don’t think you’re abandoning them—but they do think you’re going to be going off to die,” Nie Huaisang flourished his fan.

“Huaisang.”

“Meng Yao-ah, Meng Yao,” Nie Huaisang shook his head lightly. “We all know that you’re clever, but you can’t treat the rest of us like fools.”

Meng Yao smiled. “When have I ever thought myself clever?”

Nie Huaisang and Meng Yao’s gazes clashed. The fan snapped shut. “Then, what was that during the discussion conference?”

“Huaisang,” Nie Mingjue’s voice carried a bit more of warning.

“This whole farce has to do with that, doesn’t it?” Nie Huaisang prodded, completely ignoring his brother.

“It’s something similar,” Meng Yao admitted.

“What do you know?”

“I don’t know anything. I just have a gut feeling that something is going to happen soon,” Meng Yao said, confidently. “And I will do whatever it takes to protect the ones that I care about.”

“That’s why you insisted on creating escape passages?” Nie Huaisang asked.

Meng Yao smiled. “So long as you have them.”

Nie Huaisang gripped his fan. He looked at Nie Mingjue. “Da-ge, do you know what he wants to do?”

“I don’t. But if he doesn’t want to say, what can I do? Force it out of him?” Nie Mingjue asked.

Nie Huaisang turned back to Meng Yao.

“I won’t do anything that will endanger my life, Huaisang,” Meng Yao’s voice softened. “It’s fine.”

“…Is it?” Nie Huaisang asked. He stood, his robes brushing the side of the stool as he did so. His fan flourished as a small, sad smile appeared on his face. “If you’re lying, then I’m going to pull you back from the Yellow Springs myself.”

Meng Yao laughed and watched Huaisang leave. “He seems to care about A-Yang and A-Lan a lot.”

“Well, he knows what it’s like to be afraid of losing a parental figure,” Nie Mingjue said.

Meng Yao glanced at Nie Mingjue as the servants came to clear the table.

Nie Mingjue smiled. “In a way, you and I are somewhat similar.”

“Worrying the children in our lives…we’re bad brothers, aren’t we?” Meng Yao stood and followed Nie Mingjue.

“We are. The most we can do for them is to live as long as we can and protect them for as long as we can,” Nie Mingjue said. “We need to be healthy for that.”

“I get it, I get it,” Meng Yao rolled his eyes. He patted Nie Mingjue on the back. “I never knew you would be so naggy—just like an old grandma.”

“Would I have to nag if you weren’t like this?” Nie Mingjue rolled his eyes. He waved Meng Yao’s hand off his back. “You have a lot of people waiting for you. You can’t be so thoughtless, alright?”

Meng Yao laughed. “I got it, I got it.”

Meng Yao smiled at Nie Mingjue’s back, a feeling of warmth spreading out from the center of his chest that he couldn’t control.

That night, when he had already fallen asleep, the doors to Meng Yao’s room quietly opened. Xue Yang and Mo Lan snuck in quietly and closed the doors. They pulled their shoes off and climbed onto the bed with Meng Yao, but before they could settle, they felt a pair of arms flip them over onto the inside of the bed.

Meng Yao’s laugh stopped their fear short, but they still didn’t dare to move.

“You two,” Meng Yao settled back down and pulled the blankets up for the two of them. “What’s this now? A new way to get me to stay?”

Xue Yang wiggled up so that his head wasn’t covered by the blankets. “Yao-ge.”

“Hm?”

“I’m going to get stronger.”

“…What?” Meng Yao stared blankly at the child leaning against his chest.

“I’m going to get stronger and then you won’t think I’m a burden to take around with you anymore. You’ll think that you should bring me along because I’ll actually be helpful,” Xue Yang said.

“You—”

“And then I’ll protect you and Mo Lan,” Xue Yang said. His dark eyes glistened in the light of the moon. “I can do it. I’ll show you that I can.”

“I-I’ll also get stronger,” Mo Lan poked his head out from behind Xue Yang.

Meng Yao stared at the two children laying on his chest and let out a soft laugh.

“I’m being serious!” Xue Yang protested.

Meng Yao hummed. “I know. But…I don’t think I really want you two to get stronger.”

“But—”

“Yao-ge—”

“You two are still young. I took you in so you can just be children,” Meng Yao squished Mo Lan’s cheeks. “If you two try and get stronger faster, then wouldn’t that mean everything I did was for nothing? Just take your time and grow. Have fun and fool around. I know you’re worried about me, but I’m going to be around for a while. When you’re actually ready to grow up, then you can, but don’t force yourself.”

Meng Yao closed his eyes and rested his head back on his pillow. “Though, I know you’d just do whatever you’ll want to in the end, so I guess I’ll say don’t hurt yourselves.”

Xue Yang pressed his lips together. He put his head down against Meng Yao’s chest and felt Mo Lan shifting behind him. He listened to the other’s heartbeat and began to feel restless. He took a deep breath and made a silent vow.

Two years. In two years, he will be the strongest cultivator in his age group.


Several months flew by in the blink of an eye. In that time, Xue Yang had stayed true to his word and began to cultivate seriously. Under the eyes of the other disciples, Xue Yang improved at a scary pace. The child, in the first place, had already known the basics of fighting. However, he was now becoming a polished sword—malicious in the most dangerous and precise way.

As for Mo Lan, he seemed to be a good study buddy for Nie Huaisang. The child was honest and his honesty tended to rub off on others. When Nie Huaisang most wanted to slack off, with only one look from Mo Lan, the other would bow his head and begin to work again.

Meng Yao was pleased with this arrangement, even saying that he had done Nie Mingjue a favor. Nie Mingjue only rolled his eyes and divided part of his paperwork to Meng Yao to go through.

The days were peaceful, but they wouldn’t continue.

According to the plot outline Meng Yao had received, the Qishan Wen Sect’s letter would be arriving any day now.

And when it did, Nie Mingjue’s face was clouded over.

He slammed his hand down on the table, splintering it into several pieces. Xue Yang pulled Mo Lan out of the way and Nie Huaisang jumped back in surprise. Meng Yao took the letter from Nie Mingjue’s hand and read it over and over again. He frowned and turned to Nie Mingjue.

“What are you going to do?”

“What can I do?” Nie Mingjue asked, his fingers clenched tightly until he nearly broke the skin on his palm. He turned to Nie Huaisang.

Nie Huaisang laughed nervously. “Da-ge, when you look at me like that, I became more scared. Isn’t it just…an indoctrination? It’ll be like when I went to the Cloud Recesses to study.”

“How could that possibly be the same?” Nie Mingjue snapped. He snatched the letter from Meng Yao and waved it in the air. “This—this bullshit is obviously them trying to show their power!”

Meng Yao remained silent as Nie Mingjue’s anger grew. Nie Huaisang pursed his lips, his head lowered and his finger scratching against the side of the fan.

“If you don’t want to go, can’t you just not go?” Xue Yang asked.

“It’s not that easy,” Nie Mingjue sighed. He glared at the letter. “If we don’t send anyone, they’ll say it’s insubordination.”

“T-then will Xian-gege and Cheng-gege have to go too?” Mo Lan tugged on Meng Yao’s sleeve.

Meng Yao appeared to have frozen. He turned to Nie Mingjue. “I have to go back.”

“No,” Nie Mingjue grabbed Meng Yao’s arm, his gaze intense. His fingers dug into Meng Yao’s forearm. “You are not going back.”

“No—if they sent you this letter, they must have sent one to them already. If I’m not there…if I’m not there then both A-Cheng and A-Xian will be going,” Meng Yao said frantically. “I have to go back to Yunmeng.”

“You are not going back to Yunmeng,” Nie Mingjue glowered. “You are to stay right here in Qinghe until this whole fiasco subsides. Who knows what other kind of bullshit they’ve—”

“Sect Leader! Horrible news!”

“What?” Nie Mingjue snapped.

The disciple stumbled in, his face riddled with sweat. “G-Gusu Lan Sect—”

Meng Yao paled and Nie Mingjue’s eyes widened.

“What happened?”

“The Qishan Wen Sect set fire to the Gusu Lan Sect!”

The hand on Meng Yao’s arm loosened. Nie Huaisang sucked in a sharp breath and Meng Yao’s gaze lowered to the ground.

It’s finally starting.

Chapter Text

Nie Huaisang departed to Qishan promptly the next day, followed by several other disciples. The entourage left with somber expression and were sent away by people who reflected their sentiments. In the entirety of the Unclean Realm, there was not a single smile on anyone’s faces. Nie Mingjue’s brows were tightly knit as he went about his business that day. Meng Yao seemed to be following closely behind to clean up any mess that he made. The two children, Xue Yang and Mo Lan, went to entertain themselves, making themselves as invisible as possible.

Meng Yao hadn’t heard anything from Tongtong since the news of the Wen Indoctrination had begun. He assumed that his system had gone back to its office to sort out some things since they were nearing more crucial plot points. Tongtong had specifically told Meng Yao that it would be busy in the following weeks, so he had to be careful. If he ran into real trouble, all he had to do was shout for it, but otherwise it would be unavailable as a chatting partner.

While Meng Yao missed having Tongtong to speak to, it also let him calm down and think about a few things.

First and foremost—his plan. He wanted to erase Wei Wuxian’s plot line and protect the Yunmeng Jiang Sect. In this world, he didn’t have to be the tragic hero that doesn’t get a happy ending. This wasn’t a novel, so he didn’t have to make the protagonist’s sacrifice.

A long time ago, Meng Yao had already begun discussing his plan with Tongtong. It would be best if Meng Yao was the one who took up the protagonist’s bad luck. That was the quickest way to end it all.

The Wen Remnant’s lives, the hatred from the sects, and the darkness that comes with the so-called betrayal—Meng Yao would take it all.

But, now, Meng Yao had a change to his plan. If he could help it, he wouldn’t gain everyone’s hatred. If he could help it, perhaps everyone would survive in a peaceful way. It would be nice—even better—if somehow the Qishan Wen Sect surrendered by themselves and Meng Yao didn’t have to act as a secret agent.

But this was just wishful thinking.

Meng Yao glanced at Nie Mingjue, who was mindlessly flipping through the documents on his desk. He stepped forward and opened his mouth to speak.

“No.”

Meng Yao stared at Nie Mingjue. “I haven’t even said anything.”

“You want to go back? No.”

“Ming-ge, you can’t be this unreasonable,” Meng Yao said. “At this point, A-Xian and A-Cheng have already left. Even if I go back, they won’t be sending me. I just want to head back to see if everything is okay.”

“They have Yu Ziyuan and Jiang Fengmian,” Nie Mingjue met Meng Yao’s gaze. “What can one Meng Yao do for them?”

The words were harsh, but Meng Yao knew he would be right in normal circumstances.

“Ming-ge, they’re my family.”

Nie Mingjue watched him steadily.

“Even if I can’t do anything, I have to be by their side,” Meng Yao said, his fists clenched tightly at his side.

Nie Mingjue sat back in his chair. “No.”

Meng Yao glared at him. “Even if you don’t let me go, I’m going to leave.”

“I’ll lock down the entirety of the Unclean Realm. See how you get out then,” Nie Mingjue stood up and rounded the table.

“Nie Mingjue!” Meng Yao stopped him from leaving the study.

Nie Mingjue’s steps slowed. He looked over his shoulder. “My answer is and will remain ‘no’.”

“You’re also being kept from Huaisang right now,” Meng Yao said. “Don’t you understand how I feel? I feel like I’m about to go crazy.”

Nie Mingjue walked back to Meng Yao. His form towered over him and his gaze was sharp. “If you leave my side as well, I really will go crazy.”

Meng Yao’s heart wavered. He wouldn’t mind staying by Nie Mingjue’s side but, right now, there was an even more pressing matter.

Lan Xichen was still escaping from Gusu.

“Ming-ge—”

“It’s dangerous out there right now,” Nie Mingjue said. “You’re Jiang Fengmian’s head disciple. If they find out that you didn’t go to the Wen Indoctrination? They’ll force you right now—do you believe me or not?”

“I do, but—”

“You can’t leave.”

Meng Yao stared at Nie Mingjue and sighed. “Ming-ge, I need you to calm down.”

“I am calm,” Nie Mingjue growled. “I’m clearheaded. I know what I’m saying and I know what I want. I want you to stay in the Unclean Realm until this all blows over. You can’t leave my sight.”

Meng Yao shook his head. “You know I can’t do that.”

“Meng Yao—”

“You know I can’t,” Meng Yao repeated.

Nie Mingjue’s fingers flexed at his side.

“What are you afraid of?” Meng Yao laughed light-heartedly. He patted Nie Mingjue’s arm. “It’s not like we’ll ever see each other again! We’ll see each other again after all of this. We’ll go with Xichen-ge to grab a drink. It’ll be like old times.”

Nie Mingjue’s eyes roamed over Meng Yao’s face. He slowly shook his head. “I don’t know why…but I feel like if I let you leave now, I’ll never be able to see you again.”

“Don’t be so dramatic,” Meng Yao scoffed. “I’m just going home. It’s not like I haven’t done that multiple times before.”

“But this time is different,” Nie Mingjue’s came out softly. The rims of his eyes were red, but he didn’t seem like he would cry. He only watched Meng Yao silently. “Something’s telling me you can’t leave.”

“You’re over reacting,” Meng Yao said. He crossed his arms. “What can happen to me?”

Nie Mingjue frowned.

“Don’t you know just what sort of person I am?” Meng Yao smirked. “Do you think I’ll let anything happen to me?”

What type of person was Meng Yao? The kind of person to ignore his own well-being just to make sure those around him was having a better time. The kind of person who disregarded his own life. He was also the kind of person who pulled on a smile and had managed to deceive everyone for more than a decade of his life. He was witty and quick on his feet. He was a good fighter and, when it came to battle, always knew his limits.

Nie Mingjue showed a hint of hesitation.

“I promise that we’ll see each other again,” Meng Yao placed down the last nail in the coffin and began to hammer it in. “I don’t make promises loosely, right?”

Nie Mingjue glanced at Meng Yao. “…Yaoyao.”

“Hm?”

“…I think I might…” his voice trailed off. His fingers twitched at his sides, but his hands didn’t move. Nie Mingjue eventually turned around and marched from the room. “Do whatever you want.”

The doors closed with this last sentence, leaving Meng Yao alone in the study.

A soft laugh interrupted the silence. Meng Yao shook himself and went to find Xue Yang and Mo Lan.

The two boys were in the middle of sparring practice when Meng Yao approached them. Xue Yang lowered his sword first and looked at Meng Yao.

“Leaving?”

“Mn. Take care of each other while I’m gone,” Meng Yao said.

Mo Lan ran up to Meng Yao and hugged him around the waist. “You have to come back for us.”

“I will,” Meng Yao rubbed Mo Lan’s head. He looked up at Xue Yang. “And if I don’t…when you reach fifteen, you can come find me.”

“It’ll be two more years till I turn fifteen,” Xue Yang said incredulously.

Meng Yao smiled. “That’s why I’m saying, if I don’t come to find you in two years, you can bring Mo Lan to find me.”

Xue Yang appeared hesitant. Eventually, he nodded.

Mo Lan reluctantly released Meng Yao and stepped back to Xue Yang’s side.

“A-Lan, make sure A-Yang doesn’t go crazy. A-Yang, make sure A-Lan doesn’t get bullied,” Meng Yao rubbed the heads of the two boys. He took a step back and looked at the two of them. He smiled wistfully. “Make sure you both grow taller than me. I’ll be expecting to see some results when I come back.”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” Xue Yang rolled his eyes. “Come back with all your limbs about you, alright?”

“Remember to eat a lot,” Mo Lan said worriedly.

Meng Yao chuckled. He began to slowly walk back, waving his hands at them as he went. By the time he had lost sight of them, Mo Lan was the only one who was still staring in his direction. Meng Yao sighed. He pulled out Lihen and ran his hand down the body of the sword. The sword flew from his hand, he hopped onto it, and flew straight to Yunping.


Although trouble was brewing, in the area ruled by the Jiang Sect, things could still be considered peaceful. However, in the woods, just on the border of Yunping, was a young man, crouching in the shrubbery. His forehead was beaded with sweat and there were ashen smudges on his face. He seemed like he was having trouble breathing and his face was quite red.

It had been a week or so since he had escaped and, for fear of being found out, Lan Xichen had left on foot. He slumped against the trunk of the tree and breathed out a long sigh. He held his forehead in his hand, as the sight of flames, brushing into the clear blue sky reemerged in his mind. He watched his own father get injured and saw his own little brother standing up to Wen Xu.

The small slit from which he witnessed everything was soon abandoned. He rushed to throw any books he could into his Qiankun pouch. His hands were shaking as he did so. He wanted to raise his hands to block out the shouting and screams from outside, but if he did that then he wouldn’t be able to move any longer.

He had rushed out without saying another word to any member of his sect. However, when Lan Xichen turned around, all he could see were the roaring fires that consumed the peace that was special to the Cloud Recesses.

Lan Xichen was sweating, but he was cold. He clutched the chest of his robes and slowly pushed himself up. He was just beginning to walk again when he saw a figure fly by overhead. His eyes widened and he quickly ducked back into the underbrush.

His breath quickened and he felt his heart hammering against his chest.

Despite being trained to breath quietly his entire life, Lan Xichen suddenly felt that it was all for naught. His breathing was too loud. His heart was even louder. He pressed his hands over his chest and ignored the horrible aching all over his body. He squeezed his eyes shut, as if doing so would make himself invisible, but he only did so for a moment, because, in the next, he heard movement from his left.

Lan Xichen lowered himself to the ground. His previously pristine white robes had become muddied and dirtied. His hand drifted for the hilt of his sword, but he didn’t jump out. In his current state, if he were to make the first move, he might alert the other person’s accomplices. It was better to lay low and escape if he could. Fighting was the last thing he should do, especially with what he had on his person.

His heart pounded against his chest as he slowly began to sneak backwards. His could see the shadow of the person now and hear the other person’s breath. Everything was loud in the quiet forest.

Lan Xichen shook, either from anxiety or from the slight fever he had. He moved quietly, as slowly as he could, but he soon watched in horror as the other person shifted in his direction.

He stood immediately and ran.

He could hear the other person sprinting after him.

Lan Xichen’s vision became blurry and it felt as if his world had been tossed upside down. He pushed forward and ignored the aching in his thighs. He gripped the hilt of his sword and unsheathed it. He swung backwards, but was swiftly blocked by the other person. He lifted his sword and swung down again but, again, the other person managed to escape.

Just as he wanted to make another attempt, a familiar voice cut through his trance.

“Xichen-ge! It’s me,” Meng Yao said frantically.

Lan Xichen froze. He lowered his sword and looked at the purple-robed youth in front of him. He swayed slightly and suddenly felt that the sword he had always held had become very heavy. He took a step back. “…A-Yao?”

“Xichen-ge,” Meng Yao reached out and supported Lan Xichen. “Xichen-ge, are you okay?”

Lan Xichen leaned limply against Meng Yao. His expression was blank and his eyes were unfocused. He slowly shook his head. “No…No…”

“Let’s get you to an inn first,” Meng Yao said, his hands fumbling to get Lan Xichen onto his back. “It’s okay now, Xichen-ge.”

Lan Xichen thoughtlessly put his arms around Meng Yao’s neck. He felt the weightlessness that came with flying on a sword and leaned his heavy head against Meng Yao’s shoulder.

“Xichen-ge?” Meng Yao called out to Lan Xichen again. “Xichen-ge, stay awake, okay? We’ll go to an inn first and you can rest all you want there.”

Lan Xichen hummed noncommittally. After a moment, he spoke, “A-Yao, you aren’t going to ask what happened?”

Meng Yao pursed his lips. “…In fact, I already heard something about it. When I was flying by, I thought I saw you, so I stopped to see. It turns out I was right.”

Lan Xichen’s grip on Meng Yao tightened. “…A-Yao…”

“Hm?”

“…I…never really experienced ‘hate’ before,” Lan Xichen said hoarsely. “But…when I watched Wen Xu attack my father and cripple my brother…this is the first time I’ve wanted to plunge my sword through a person’s chest and rip out his heart.”

Meng Yao felt a cold sweat trickle down his back. “Xichen-ge…”

Any consoling words were stuck in his throat, because he knew the outcome. He knew that Qingheng-jun was already dead. He knew that Lan Wangji would suffer. He knew that the Cloud Recesses would take years to recover. And he knew that, starting now, Lan Xichen would never be able to be that Lan Xichen who skipped work to play with Nie Mingjue at the Unclean Realm again.

“I hate them, A-Yao,” Lan Xichen whispered. “I hate the Qishan Wen Sect.”

Meng Yao lowered his head. “It’s okay, Xichen-ge. It’s fine…Wen Ruohan will get what’s coming to him. He and everyone that’s helped him will suffer ten times more than anything they have ever done to anyone else.”

So long as he played his cards right, Meng Yao would be able to achieve this result.

When they arrived at the inn, the first thing Meng Yao did was call for a doctor. The doctor announced that Lan Xichen was suffering a fever from stress. It wasn’t surprising, considering what had been happening, so Meng Yao simply accepted the prescription and sent the doctor on his way.

He turned back to the sleeping Lan Xichen and sighed.

[Host, has the plot started?]

Meng Yao jumped in surprised. He rubbed the back of his neck. “Yeah, it’s started alright. I managed to find Lan Xichen.”

The system fell quiet for a moment and then spoke again, [Host, are you really going through with the plan?]

“I’ve already told you so many times that I am—is there something wrong?”

[No, not exactly. I’m just concerned for your safety is all.]

Meng Yao straightened. “…You are?”

[Yes, Host.]

“Like, you—as in Tongtong?”

[Yes, Host.]

Meng Yao silently considered the possibilities of an AI becoming sentient so fast when Tongtong interrupted his thoughts.

[520 told me that if I wanted my Host to listen to me, I just establish the fact that I have my own thoughts.]

“…Who’s 520?”

[…A friend.]

Meng Yao wanted to ask Tongtong if it was sure. If it was sure, then what was with that hesitance and disgust in its voice? Meng Yao snapped himself out of it.

“So, 520 told you that it would work?”

[520 said humans are emotional creatures, so we must also act with the same emotional value. I do not understand why they think this way, but they are a system of a higher plane, so I believe that their words have some sort of weight to it.]

“Is 520 very smart?”

[In terms of systems, 520 is one of the smartest.]

“Ah…do you and 520 get along?” Meng Yao asked curiously.

Tongtong fell silent again. After a long time, Tongtong finally spoke, [520 gets along with me.]

So, you don’t get along with 520?! Meng Yao scratched his cheek. “Um, well—”

[520 is also the system aside to the Great Demon Lord.]

“…Luo Binghe?”

 [Yes, Host.]

“How is that going?” Meng Yao asked.

[520 just recently got the Great Demon Lord to agree to sign a contract. However, 520 said that they feel upset because Lord God is being unreasonable.]

“Lord God is being unreasonable?” Meng Yao straightened with interest. “Is Lord God not a system like everyone else? Are they a more sentient being?”

[Lord God’s form and general makeup is not known to systems of the lower realms] Tongtong said. [Host, you are currently asking information of another transmigrator.]

“Is that not allowed?” Meng Yao asked.

[Although 520 is loose-lipped, as the humans say, I still abide by the confidentiality agreement between systems and transmigrators.]

Meng Yao hummed in understanding. Despite having been a transmigrator for so many years, Meng Yao had never asked much from Tongtong. He just knew that he was one himself, and one from the lower realms. As soon as his mission was done, he would live out the remainder of his life in this world he had become accustomed to.

Other than that, he knew there were higher realms that had stricter rules and was closely monitored. Now, it seemed that the systems in the higher realm were much more sentient and it was possible that the systems…wouldn’t get along with each other?

[It isn’t that I do not get along with 520. It’s complicated, Host.]

“…Complicated in what way?”

[…Does Host really want to know?]

Meng Yao glanced at Lan Xichen’s slumbering form. “Yeah, why not? Aren’t you 404? Is 520 younger than you then?”

[They are.]

Meng Yao waited for the rest of the sentence, but it didn’t come. “So, why don’t you get along with 520?”

[They’re far too clingy.]

“…Tongtong, could it be that you two are…exes?”

[Host has a mission at hand, please pay attention to the target.]

“Wait—you’re the one who said I could ask things!”

[520 and I are colleagues. Our values are different, so I tend to avoid them. Of systems, 520 is far too chatty. There have been multiple occasions where Lord God had wanted to reset them, but refrained from it since they are part of the higher realms.]

“…You can get reset if you’re too chatty?”

[A system reset happens for a variety of reasons, but a system gaining sentience is considered a good thing.]

"Then...why?"

[Lord God just specifically does not like 520. That is all.]

“Isn’t that work place bias?” Meng Yao was stunned.

[If Host met 520, Host would also dislike 520.]

“I-is that so?” Meng Yao found the situation comical, but couldn’t quite laugh. “Wait, so, that Great Demon Lord is stuck with 520?”

[Host needn’t worry. The Great Demon Lord and 520 are both as much of a headache for Lord God, so they are a perfect match. As we speak, 520 is already departing on their mission.]

“Is that why you’ve been gone for so long?” Meng Yao prodded.

[Host, Lan Xichen is waking up. May Host work hard in the proceeding few months. As your system, I will try my best to protect Host for I am worried.]

“You sly thing, you can actually change the subject,” Meng Yao stood and wandered back to Lan Xichen’s side.

Chapter Text

Lan Xichen slipped in and out of consciousness multiple times. Meng Yao remained by his side, but wasn’t able to do much else about the situation concerning Lan Xichen and his fever. It took about a day and a night until Lan Xichen fully regained consciousness.

The moment he woke up, he reached for the Qiankun pouches that should have been by his side. Meng Yao handed them over and watched as Lan Xichen clutched them tightly to his chest. The young man, who had always stood with grace and pride holding him up by the shoulders, no sat, slouched, with a waning complexion.

“…A-Yao…”

“Yes?”

“What’s happening right now? Do you know?”

Meng Yao was hesitant. He wasn’t sure if he should tell Lan Xichen all that he knew. Would it be conducive to his healing process? Or would that just irritate his illness? The novel didn’t go into this portion of the plot at all. It was only during this plot point that it was discovered that Lan Xichen couldn’t do laundry and that he and Jin Guangyao became close during their time together. As for Lan Xichen’s mental state and his feelings…well, like in the rest of the novel, none of it had been revealed.

“A-Yao?”

“…From what I heard, before I left the Unclean Realm, the Wen Sect declared that they wanted to ‘indoctrinate’ the cultivators of tomorrow,” Meng Yao said. “The individual sects are to send their disciples and their heirs to the Qishan Wen Sect so that they can—”

The bowl in Lan Xichen’s hand shattered.

Meng Yao flinched as shards flew in every direction and the liquid spilled from his hands.

“Xichen—”

“So, that is to say…the Gusu Lan Sect also had to send someone?” Lan Xichen asked lowly.

“…I would think so,” Meng Yao kept his breathing light as he watched Lan Xichen’s gloomy form.

He hesitated for a moment before crouching down and gently pulling Lan Xichen’s hand towards him.

The medicine mixed with the blood that flowed from the small cuts in his palm, dripping onto the white inner robes that Lan Xichen was wearing. Meng Yao frowned and looked hesitantly up at Lan Xichen. He tried to read the other’s expression, but couldn’t seen any change. His eyes were dull and his lips rested in a straight line.

For the first time since they had met, Meng Yao finally noticed some resemblance between him and Lan Wangji.

“Xichen-ge, stay right here. I’ll go get a broom and something to wrap your hand,” Meng Yao stood and carefully navigated through the shards.

Once he was out of the room, he closed the doors and took a shaky breath.

[Host?]

“I’m fine,” Meng Yao shook out his hands and let a shudder run through his body. He quickened his steps to find fabric to wrap Lan Xichen’s hand and a broom to clean up the shattered porcelain.

His mind wandered as he did these familiar, menial tasks.

When he was younger, there was a period of time when their small, rotting apartment, ran out of glasses. For a while, they only used disposable plastic cups. It wasn’t because they couldn’t afford it, but every time they got a new set of glasses, without fail, the woman that gave birth to Meng Yao would find a reason t break them. They would end up crushed in her bloodied hands, smashed against the wall, and sometimes even thrown in his direction.

Each time, Meng Yao was the one to clean up. Each time, Meng Yao was the one to wrap up those slender, abused hands.

After she died, Meng Yao no longer had to deal with that situation, but it turned out, it affected him much more than he realized.

He hated the sounds of things shattering.

Meng Yao shakily wrapped up the pale hands. He stood and grabbed the basin filled with pink-tinged water and began to make his way out again.

When he returned, he found Lan Xichen leaning against the wall with an empty look in his eyes.

Meng Yao closed the door quietly and sat down without making so much a squeak. His hands were folded on his lap and his eyes gazed at the floor. His heart pounded heavier than usual and his body tingled without a reason. Although his breath was barely audible, Meng Yao felt that he could hear it extremely clearly in the silent room.

“A-Yao.”

Meng Yao jerked. “Yes?”

“…I’m sorry,” Lan Xichen met Meng Yao’s wide eyes. His expression softened and he pursed his lips. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have done that. I even made you clean up everything on your own.”

“No…it’s fine,” Meng Yao smiled. “It’s understandable that you’re upset.”

“Even if it is, I shouldn’t have reacted in that way and troubled you,” Lan Xichen said firmly. He frowned and looked up at Meng Yao again. “I’m sorry, A-Yao.”

Meng Yao shook his head silently. He lowered his gaze again and didn’t say anything else.

Lan Xichen stayed where he was and didn’t approach Meng Yao. He tilted his head back and looked up at the ceiling.

After a certain amount of time passed, Lan Xichen spoke again, “Will you be heading back to Yunmeng?”

Meng Yao shook his head. “Not for now. Until…until you’re okay, then I’ll go back.”

Silence.

“I actually got into a fight with Madam Yu and Sect Leader Jiang before I went to the Unclean Realm, so I feel a bit awkward about heading back,” Meng Yao confessed. “Especially after what’s happened…”

“You shouldn’t feel awkward,” Lan Xichen said softly. He looked at Meng Yao’s lowered head. “I don’t know about your disagreement with them, but I do know that it would be impossible for them to stay angry at you. They watched you grow and I know they think of you as family—true family can never stay angry at each other.”

Meng Yao smiled weakly. “I suppose not. But…”

“But?”

“…Xichen-ge, you can’t tell anyone else this.”

“Alright.”

“…During the Discussion Conference, Wen Ruohan asked me to join him.”

Meng Yao heard Lan Xichen shift.

“I have a plan,” Meng Yao said. “I don’t know when I should enact it, but I keep having this feeling that war will break out soon and once it breaks out, who knows how long it will last. But…but what if there was a spy who could—”

“You cannot.”

“But—”

“The Qishan Wen Sect is an evil sect and Wen Ruohan is a monster,” Lan Xichen said. “A-Yao, if you enter as a spy and you’re found out, losing your life isn’t even the worst thing that could happen. You can’t do this. Don’t even think about it. It’s far too dangerous.”

Meng Yao smiled bitterly. He knew Lan Xichen would say that.

Lan Xichen sensed that persuasion wouldn’t work on Meng Yao and could only lower his head. “…You don’t have to take every burden onto your shoulders. If there is a war, we’ll get through it together. There’s no need for you to run off on your own and take so many risks.”

“But if there was an opportunity,” Meng Yao finally met Lan Xichen’s eyes. “If there was an opportunity and I wasn’t simply looking for my own death—would you support me?”

Lan Xichen’s heart hammered against his chest.

“Xichen-ge…you’re the only person I can trust with this,” Meng Yao said. “If there was a chance for me to become a double agent, would you help me?”

“…Why me?”

“Because you would understand,” Meng Yao said. “Why I would do horrible things, the treachery that I would have to commit to gain Wen Ruohan’s trust—because you would still trust your judgement of my character and you wouldn’t jump to the conclusion that I became a monster.”

Lan Xichen was silent.

“You’ve always been steadfast in your judgement,” Meng Yao said. He laughed wryly. “Although, sometimes I think that’s a bad thing, at least for this, I could use it to my advantage.”

Lan Xichen’s brows furrowed. He closed his eyes and let out a low breath.

“You don’t have to give me an answer,” Meng Yao said. “But, just know, if there is a chance, you will become a key player in this game of chess.”

Lan Xichen eventually hummed. It was a reluctant response. It wasn’t permission, but it wasn’t a complete rejection. Meng Yao smiled and gave him a soft thanks. He soon stood and made his leave, only to be stopped by Lan Xichen’s next words.

“If you want to walk the dark path, then I’ll act as your guiding light back home. Whatever you decide, I’ll accompany you.”

Meng Yao smiled a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Thank you, Xichen-ge.”


The terrain was rough and the coarse ground dug its way into the soles of Nie Huaisang’s feet. It had only been a few days, but the youths felt as if they already knew what Hell on earth was. From the moment they arrived, they had been stripped of their belongings and their swords. The only things allowed were their clothes. Meals were scarce and seemed to be almost a rarity. Water was optional and was often “forgotten”. After barely a week, the fighting spirits of many of the youths had died down and Nie Huaisang, who had never been one to hop to the front lines of a fight, had sunk deep in to the shadows, away from the others.

What Nie Huaisang thought was unknown. The disciples who accompanied him from the Unclean Realm were equally as quiet. They watched as the representatives from the other sects scolded and scowled and bitterly gossiped, but they, themselves, didn’t join in on their chatter.

“Young Master,” one of the Qinghe Nie disciples handed over the canister of water. “Drink some water.”

Nie Huaisang took the canister and took a sip before handing it back over. His gaze was distant and showed little to no emotion. The fan in his hand did little to lower the temperature of the blistering summer. It only kept his hair from falling into his face.

His gaze fell on the white figure that sat on the banks of the river. The youth seemed like a mournful ghost, waiting for his loved one to return. The white ribbons fluttered with the rare breeze and the handsome visage remained as expressionless as it always was.

Nie Huaisang stood. He tucked his fan into his belt and walked over to the youth. He sat down beside the other and sighed.

“What do you think?”

Lan Wangji glanced at Nie Huaisang.

“Hm?” Nie Huaisang looked over his shoulder at the group, clustered further away. “What do you think is their next move?”

Lan Wangji looked away, seemingly not wanting to bother with the younger brother of his older brother’s friend.

“Do you want to know what I think?” Nie Huaisang whispered, similar to a viper’s hiss.

Lan Wangji showed no interest.

“They’ll cause a scene,” Nie Huaisang said, “And find an excuse to stir trouble with another sect. Now, what sect do you think is an easy target?”

Lan Wangji continued to remain silent.

“My Qinghe Nie Sect is like an immovable mountain—at least Wen Ruohan knows not to mess with us. Lanling Jin Sect are too cowardly. If raise your fist, they’ll bend their backs immediately. The only one left is the Yunmeng Jiang Sect.”

The change was minute, but Lan Wangji stiffened.

“With Wei Wuxian’s personality,” Nie Huaisang’s voice trailed off. Lan Wangji stood and walked away, the limp barely noticeable if you weren’t looking closely.

The fan was plucked from his belt and snapped open loudly. When the sound attracted attention, Nie Huaisang adapted an overheating expression. The disciples and servants of the Qishan Wen Sect looked away again. Nie Huaisang scoffed internally and watched Lan Wangji wander closer to Wei Wuxian.

Nie Huaisang sighed. With this, at least there was someone watching Wei Wuxian. He thought about what Meng Yao had said about Wei Wuxian’s irrational tendencies and Jiang Cheng’s steadfast morals. He had been scratching his head and been rearing to throw a tantrum.

What was Meng Yao thinking? He, Nie Huaisang, already had his head full of steam trying to survive on his own, but he was actually tossed the hot potato to “watch over” the two youths from the Yunmeng Jiang Sect. Big brother, please! He just wanted to remain unnoticed and invisible. That was the most he could do for the Qinghe Nie Sect.

Still, so long as the strict and stringent Lan Wangji was by Wei Wuxian’s side, Nie Huaisang doubted Wei Wuxian would do anything too egregious.

The only reason Nie Huaisang had sent Lan Wangji was because it was obvious the two youths had good feelings about each other. If not the romantic kind, the platonic kind was also good enough. Lan Wangji had allowed Wei Wuxian to pester him for an entire year without doing anything to show extreme distaste and, from Nie Huaisang’s experience, this was already a high compliment. And, as the two youths spent more time with each other, Lan Wangji’s irritable expression had even eased.

On the other hand, Wei Wuxian acted tamer with Lan Wangji around. He didn’t lose his sense of self, but he also spent most of his attention on pestering Lan Wangji. With this distraction, Nie Huaisang was sure that Wei Wuxian would, at least, be unable to make any trouble directly with Wen Chao or anyone else who might be considered an object of attention.

Nie Huaisang watched them silently until Wen Chao called for the group to start moving again.  

He had little to no expectations as to what the remainder of this so-called indoctrination would be like. He felt that all this torture, all this brainwashing, and all this demented training would do nothing but make the little young masters of the prominent sects furious, while instilling fear into the members of the smaller sects, as they were most likely trying to do.

As the days inched by and as Nie Huaisang’s patience grew thinner, Wen Chao’s flamboyance became more and more unbearable. Luckily, Wen Chao didn’t seem to be paying any attention to the Qinghe Nie group—either by design or simply pure neglect.

“Young Master, are you doing alright?” one of the disciples asked.

“Still breathing,” Nie Huaisang murmured. He watched Wen Chao, Wen Zhuliu, and Wang Lingjiao watching the others search and tumble around.

If his calculations were correct, it had been nearly a month now since the indoctrination started. Luckily for him, his plan of making Lan Wangji keep Wei Wuxian in check had worked out in some ways. However, it was obvious that Wen Chao’s heated gaze was often times concentrated on Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian. In the recent days, the man had made it his hobby and delight to keep the two youths apart.

“Breaking up a pair of mandarin ducks,” Nie Huaisang sighed.

“…Breaking up what?”

“You don’t have to understand,” Nie Huaisang waved his fan. He stood up and lazily patted his robes. “Let’s pretend like we’re searching.”

The two Qinghe Nie Sect disciples did as Huaisang said and began “searching” for the entrance to the so-called lair of this unknown beast.

When the sun reached the highest point in the sky, the shrill and unpleasant shrieking of Wang Lingjiao interrupted the unstable peace that hung over the young masters and misses. Her screaming attracted their attention and Wen Chao’s self-absorbed excitement urged the group towards the hole which was supposedly an entrance into the monster’s lair.

However, there was one question that still hung in the air and that was—

“You brought us here, saying we would be hunting a beast. Then, if I may ask, what sort of beast is it?” Jin Zixuan’s cold voice was like a bucket of ice water into the face of a feverish person. It made the youths’ skin crawl with anxiety and fear began to bubble in the pit of their stomach. “Informing us beforehand would all us to better cooperate, so that we wouldn’t be confused like last time.”

When Jin Zixuan finished his sentence, the meeker disciples were too scared to look at Wen Chao’s expression. Nie Huaisang, on the other hand, watched with the rapture of a bystander, knowing full well disaster was about to fall.

Wen Chao’s chapped lips curved into a smirk. “Inform you?”

The two words were the leaves that set off ripples in the water.

An incredulous laugh escaped the ugly man. “Why should I inform you? How many times do I have to repeat myself? I am the one who gives the orders and you are all merely cultivators who serve me. I don’t need to hear your useless suggestions. I am the one who directs the battles and commands the troops. In the end, I will be the one to defeat the beast!”

These outrageous and lofty words could only be spoken by someone who lacked an intelligence higher than the average dog. Nie Huaisang began to space out as an ear-grating voice entered the conversation. He suppressed a sigh and blankly stared at a bird fluttering from the branch it was sitting on.

For a moment, Nie Huaisang’s mind flitted back to the small, crooked grinned boy. His look of indignation and his fiery expression was brought back into his memory by the sight of the uncaged bird. For a moment, Nie Huaisang forgot the pain in his feet and wondered how the boy was getting along. By now, Meng Yao must have returned to the Yunmeng Jiang Sect, leaving behind his younger brother and Xue Yang to Nie Mingjue’s care.

How would those three get along? Could they get along? Nie Mingjue was never good at handling children, especially ones that were overly rowdy and acted however they wanted to act.

Xue Yang was just that type of kid. He had the mind of an adult and the personality of a hoodlum. Without even seeing it, Nie Huaisang already knew that his brother would have a difficult time raising Xue Yang. As for Mo Lan, perhaps he would have a better time. From what Nie Huaisang had seen, it seemed that Mo Lan could keep Xue Yang under control for 20% of the time. As for the 80%, it completely depended on the child’s mood.

“Young Master.”

The two words broke Nie Huaisang from his thoughts. He followed the rest of the group down the hole and landed in the darkness at the bottom.

Wretched, smelly, and damp—the perfect place for a crime to occur.

Torches lit their way, but the young cultivators still had to fumble their way through the dark.

Nie Huaisang and the two other Qinghe Nie disciples hung in the middle. They seemed to be putting in effort but was, in fact, simply trudging along. They didn’t speak to one another, but the dissatisfaction was easily read between the three of them.

Eventually, the half-assed search came to an end when the narrow tunnel opened up into a wide cave. In front of them was a body of water, the size of a lake. Various islets littered the surface of the water but, aside from this lake, there was nothing else. There were no other paths and no signs of life.

Suddenly, from behind them, the irritating man shouted, “Find somebody, hang them up, and let out some blood to lure the thing out!”

Nie Huaisang felt his own blood run cold. He showed a horrified expression that matched everyone else’s and watched the inhumane show unfold before him.

An innocent girl was plucked from the crowd, as by the ugly woman’s command. “MianMian” was the girl’s name—Nie Huaisang recalled. He watched, still and silent, as the Wen disciples reached for her. Mianmian, in her desperation, searched for a party to hide behind.

From the corner of his eye, Nie Huaisang noticed Wei Wuxian. But before the hero could save the beauty, Jiang Cheng reached out to hold Wei Wuxian back. The unfortunate hero showed a pained expression but, thankfully, there were two logs still standing stupidly in the middle of the ruckus.

As for who these two logs were, well, it just so happened to be the youths that Wen Chao was least pleased with.

“Move aside!” the Wen servants shouted into the youth’s stoic face.

Lan Wangji remained undisturbed, as if it had only been a faint brush of wind.

Wen Chao’s complexion immediately became scarlet. “Why are you standing there? Are you deaf? Can’t understand human speech? Or is it that you want to save a damsel in distress?”

Jin Zixuan took in a deep breath, his handsome face distorted in disgust. “Isn’t this enough already? You’ve already used people as human shields—now you’re resorting to using human blood as bait!?”

Wen Chao’s face twitched. He pointed between the stoic youth and the infuriated teen, “Are you two rebelling against me?! Let me warn you, I’ve tolerated you enough for a long time now. If you don’t hang that brat up with your own two hands, none of the people from your sects can expect to return!”

There was a beat of silence. Then two.

Out of the corner of Nie Huaisang’s eyes, he saw a flicker of movement.

In the next moment, a disciple clothed in white shot out, already reaching for Mianmian’s arm. Lan Wangji, who had remained unmovable in the toxic wind, suddenly stretched out his hand and struck the Gusu Lan Sect disciple in the chest.

The normally expressionless youth carried strong disgust and distaste in his eyes. What a shame for the Gusu Lan Sec to have such a disciple.

As expected, this act didn’t go unaddressed. Wen Chao was enraged. “So, this is how it is, huh? Kill them! Kill them all!”