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somewhere to belong

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Class the next day was absolutely nothing like Meng Yao was prepared for, and it had nothing to do with his own lack of education. Lan Qiren had barely been lecturing for half an hour when Wei Wuxian started spouting off ideas that even Meng Yao could recognize as ridiculously blasphemous, and Lan Qiren threw him out of class. Poor Lan Wangji had to follow him and make sure he didn’t get into more trouble.

On the upside, absolutely nobody was talking about Meng Yao’s parentage after that. Everyone was a combination of amused and horrified at Wei Wuxian’s behavior. Meng Yao felt a pang of sympathy for Jiang Cheng, who looked like he was hoping a hole would open in the ground for him to jump into. He felt bad for Lan Wangji, too, who looked like he would have rather copy the Chapter of Conduct a thousand times himself before supervising Wei Wuxian while he did it.

After Lan Qiren settled down, at least Meng Yao was able to follow the lecture. It wasn’t too advanced for him, and although he ended with a few questions, he wasn’t sure he quite dared go to Lan Qiren and ask them. Even with what he had said the previous day, he was obviously still in a mood after what Wei Wuxian had done.

He debated that for a few minutes. He couldn’t keep throwing himself on Lan Xichen’s mercy. He wasn’t going to admit his academic deficiency to anyone else except maybe Nie Huaisang, and he didn’t trust Nie Huaisang to be able to answer his questions.

That being decided, he waited until the others had filed out, telling Nie Huaisang he would catch up with him later, and tentatively approached the front of the classroom, where Lan Qiren was scowling at his lecture materials. Meng Yao couldn’t help the hesitation in his voice. “Lan-xiansheng?”

Much to his profound relief, Lan Qiren’s scowl faded slightly, and he said, “Yes, Meng-gongzi?”

“May I ask a few questions?”

Lan Qiren nodded and said, “Please, sit,” and Meng Yao relaxed slightly. He began to ask his questions and Lan Qiren answered them, never condescending, and never seeming annoyed. If anything, Meng Yao thought his obvious diligence and intellectual curiosity was improving Lan Qiren’s bad temper. One question led to another, which led to a theory, and when he posed it, the grouchy expression on Lan Qiren’s finally vanished. “That’s actually more advanced than I normally get this early in the lectures, but since you ask . . .”

An hour later, Meng Yao took his leave, although they had long since departed the original lesson and he felt like he could have continued asking questions for the rest of the day. He headed back to the guest house to study the materials Lan Qiren had given him that would help him prepare for the next day’s lecture.

Before he got there, he heard Jiang Cheng loudly asking, “Why are you so proud of getting him to tell you to piss off? Is that something to be proud of?”

“Absolutely!” Wei Wuxian said, laughing. “Sorry I lost your book, though, Nie-xiong.”

“You didn’t mention that you got it from me, did you?” Nie Huaisang asked, sounding a little anxious. Meng Yao inwardly sighed and went to see what trouble Nie Huaisang had managed to get himself into.

“Do I look like a snitch?” Wei Wuxian asked, and Nie Huaisang laughed.

“What book?” Meng Yao asked, emerging from the trees to find the three of them sprawled out on a rocky outcropping.

“Ah, just a book I had loaned Wei-xiong,” Nie Huaisang said, immediately trying to play it off as if it were nothing.

Jiang Cheng immediately told on them, saying, “Nie-xiong loaned Wei Wuxian some pornography, and he managed to switch it out with Lan-er-gongzi’s study materials, and somehow his head is still attached to his shoulders after that stunt.”

Meng Yao blinked. He wasn’t sure if he should be impressed or appalled.

“Whatever,” Nie Huaisang said easily. “I’ve got plenty more where that came from.”

Deciding that he absolutely did not want to get involved in a discussion of Nie Huaisang’s prodigious pornography collection, Meng Yao sat down next to them on the outcropping. “So Lan-er-gongzi told you to piss off?”

“Yup!” Wei Wuxian was clearly proud. “And he tore the book to shreds. Which is too bad. I feel it could have been very educational for him.”

Jiang Cheng looked like he was about to pop a vessel, so Meng Yao said, “You know there’s better ways to show a young master that you think he’s cute, right?”

“Who said I think he’s cute?” Wei Wuxian immediately retorted. “I just like to rile him up. He’s such a stick-in-the-mud; seeing him get all flustered is hilarious. Do you know he pulled a sword on me my first night here, just for coming in after hours with some alcohol?”

“I mean, you did break down their wards,” Jiang Cheng said sourly.

“What else was I supposed to do? I left you all in the woods and when I came back you were gone. I had to make sure you were okay.”

“What happened?” Nie Huaisang said, and Wei Wuxian regaled them all with the story of the lost invitation, which was entirely Jin Zixuan’s fault, and how he had snuck back in and gotten a sword fight with Lan Wangji.

“And you’re going to try to convince us that you’re not just annoying him because he’s cute?” Meng Yao said, greatly amused by this story.

“You know what, you’re one to talk, given the way you look at Zewu-Jun,” Wei Wuxian replied.

Meng Yao flushed. “I do not look at Zewu-Jun in any particular way.”

Nie Huaisang chuckled behind his fan. “Ah, Meng Yao, who do you think is more handsome? Zewu-Jun or da-ge?”

“Ah – ” Meng Yao hoped he wasn’t as pink as he felt. There was no good answer to that question. Lan Xichen was elegant and graceful; Nie Mingjue was strong and powerful. They were both equally handsome, in entirely different ways. Especially their arms. He really liked Nie Mingjue’s arms, and had never thought he would see their equal, but Lan Xichen definitely measured up. He realized he should, perhaps, not be thinking about this where other people could see him. To end the conversation quickly (he hoped), he said, “I could never choose between them.”

Looking far too intrigued with this answer, Nie Huaisang said, “Oh? But they’re so different, surely you must have some opinion – ”

“I don’t,” Meng Yao said firmly, and changed the subject. “Did Jin-gongzi really rent out the entire inn after you had reserved your rooms, and force the innkeeper to throw you out?”

“He did! Isn’t he the worst?” Wei Wuxian seemed happy to tackle this new topic. “I can’t believe my poor shijie is betrothed to him. She deserves so much better!”

Meng Yao didn’t know Jiang Yanli at all, but agreed whole-heartedly because who wouldn’t deserve better than Jin Zixuan? Everything he’d ever heard about the man made Meng Yao loathe him even more. “Maybe we can do something about it.”

Wei Wuxian’s eyes lit up. “I like the way you think, Meng-xiong. What do you have in mind?”

“Nothing yet,” Meng Yao said. “We have six months. We need reconnaissance first. He doesn’t seem happy with the engagement – maybe there’s a reason why. If we could get him to do something to break it off, it would protect Jiang-guniang from any hurt feelings between the two sects. Not that anybody in the Jin sect will talk to me,” he added.

“You’re not missing anything,” Jiang Cheng assured him.

Meng Yao gave a snort despite himself.


~ ~ ~ ~


Meng Yao quickly settled into a routine. He spent about an hour with Lan Qiren after the lectures. Sometimes his questions were on basic things, but often he found it was because he began thinking ahead. Lan Qiren told him more than once not to worry about a particular subject because they were going to cover it in detail later.

Once he was done there, he would find whatever trouble Nie Huaisang was getting himself into, usually with Wei Wuxian. Sometimes he would split them up, or try to wrangle them alongside Jiang Cheng, or sometimes he got dragged into it despite his best efforts. Wei Wuxian, he found, was making friends with Wen Ning as well, and both of them were excellent archers. Meng Yao knew absolutely nothing of archery, and as soon as Wei Wuxian found that out, he offered to teach him.

After the shenanigans were either curtailed or completed, Meng Yao went back to the guest house to go over whatever materials Lan Qiren had given him for the next day’s lecture. He was finding, not at all to his surprise, that Nie Huaisang was not a great roommate. He kept trying to add more birds to his collection, never did the dishes or restocked the firewood, and was absolutely hopeless at cooking. Meng Yao thought about refusing to cook for him, but knew that Nie Huaisang would just cry and make sad faces, so instead he bargained with him, agreeing to make things Nie Huaisang liked for dinner, if Nie Huaisang would help with the chores. The Unclean Realm didn’t have a lot in the way of servants, but there were still cooks and maids. He already had to help Nie Huaisang do his hair every morning because the braids he favored were so elaborate.

About two weeks after the lectures started, he sat down to look over the material for the next day and realized there was going to be a problem. He stared down for almost an hour, trying to find a way he could avoid going to Lan Xichen with it, but in the end decided he had no choice. “I’m going to go out for a walk,” he said to Nie Huaisang, who was feeding his birds. “I’ll be back in a little while.”

He found Lan Xichen in the hanshi, thankfully by himself, and guiltily tapped on the door. Lan Xichen looked up from where he had been sitting with a cup of tea and a book and smiled. “Meng-gongzi, how are you doing?”

“Well, thank you,” Meng Yao said, bowing. “May I come in?”

“Please,” Lan Xichen said, gesturing, and Meng Yao edged inside and closed the door after him. That seemed to alert Lan Xichen that this wasn’t just a friendly visit. “What’s on your mind?”

“I was looking over the material Lan-xiansheng gave me for tomorrow and it looks like we’re going to be focusing on sword technique,” Meng Yao said, and Lan Xichen nodded. Cheeks burning with embarrassment, Meng Yao admitted, “I don’t . . . have a sword.”

Lan Xichen seemed surprised, and Meng Yao had to admit he was a little frustrated. Hadn’t Nie Mingjue attended these lectures? Wouldn’t have thought of the fact that Meng Yao would not be able to participate in any lessons regarding swordsmanship? Leaving now would be more awkward than if he just hadn’t attended in the first place. And if he just skipped these particular lessons, everyone would know why –

“Ah, please don’t worry about it,” Lan Xichen said. “The lessons are theoretical in nature, not practical. There will be some demonstrations, but you will not need a sword to take part in the lectures.”

“Oh?” Meng Yao was startled, thinking of all the saber practice and training in Qinghe.

Lan Xichen nodded. “This isn’t about how to fight with a sword, Meng-gongzi, but how to connect with the spirit that lives within one. How to use that to your advantage when it comes to suppressing or eliminating evil spirits. Although many of the young masters often do practice after the lessons, it is on their own time. It shouldn’t be a problem. We don’t teach the art of swordplay here because each sect has its own style and technique – as I’m sure you’ve seen in Qinghe. I would have no idea how to begin teaching a member of the Qinghe Nie sect how to wield their saber.”

Meng Yao felt enormous relief and he was sure it showed on his face. “Oh. Oh, I see. That’s. That’s good news.”

Lan Xichen smiled gently and said, “I’m sorry that my uncle’s notes weren’t more clear. I hope you weren’t too anxious.”

There wasn’t a great response to that since Meng Yao had been enormously anxious, so he said, “It’s fine.”

Much to his relief, Lan Xichen didn’t push that particular issue. “Has Mingjue-xiong spoken to you about obtaining your own sword?”

“Ah, no,” Meng Yao said, blinking. “Why would he?”

“Well, you will need one,” Lan Xichen pointed out.

Meng Yao looked away, trying to figure out the words to convey how confused he was by the last few weeks of events. But then, he thought, this was like Nie Mingjue in temperament. He still vividly remembered the day he had gone from ‘carrying water for ungrateful assholes’ to ‘vice-general’ in the space of two minutes. Nie Mingjue didn’t talk about things; he just did them. Apparently he had at some point decided that Meng Yao was going to be a cultivator, and had plowed ahead with making that happen without actually informing Meng Yao of the plan.

Seeing that Meng Yao was still struggling to keep up with current events, Lan Xichen said, “How long have you been in The Unclean Realm? Three years, I think Mingjue-xiong said?”

Meng Yao nodded. “Just about. Although I have only been assistant to Nie-zongzhu for about a year and a half now.”

“And he clearly didn’t speak to you about the fact that he expected you would actually attend the lectures,” Lan Xichen said.

Flushing slightly, Meng Yao said, “I figured I was only escorting Nie-gongzi.”

Looking somewhat amused, Lan Xichen said, “I’ve found over the years that Mingjue-xiong will occasionally make an assumption or a decision and then act on it, forgetting that the rest of us aren’t mind-readers, and if he doesn’t tell us what he’s doing, we won’t know.”

“That is true,” Meng Yao murmured.

“But if you don’t mind my asking, why are you so taken aback by all of this?” Lan Xichen asked. “What did you think Mingjue-xiong’s goal for you in the Qinghe Nie was?”

“I just – figured he needed an assistant,” Meng Yao said. “He seemed to promote me on spur of the moment, more as a way of disciplining the men who spoke poorly about me than actually on my own merit.”

“Is that why you think he promoted you?” Lan Xichen’s eyebrows went up. “Do you think he didn’t know exactly who you were when he did that?”

“Well, no, I just – ” Meng Yao wondered how he had ended up involved in this terribly embarrassing conversation. “I mean, I figured he did, but I didn’t figure it was a part of his decision. That came out wrong. I just.” Meng Yao resisted the urge to flee the room. He had to take a second to get his thoughts in order, wondering why all his eloquence seemed to desert him whenever Lan Xichen was nearby. “I was honored to be chosen by Nie-zongzhu to assist him. I never sought any further promotion.”

“Well, whether you sought it or not, Mingjue-xiong believes that you deserve it,” Lan Xichen said.

Meng Yao’s hands curled where they were resting on his thighs. How could he explain this to Lan Xichen, or Nie Mingjue, who had never endured the vicious gossip the way he had? How could he explain that although yes, he desperately wanted to learn cultivation and be a member of the gentry, it couldn’t just be given to him. Or at least, it couldn’t be given to him by them. There was only one man who could give him that, and he clearly had no intention of doing so.

Anything else would be a mockery of the position he should have had. A sham. An invitation for more giggles, more whispers, more rumor. He could still remember what the men in Qinghe had said. How dare he have such ambition? Shouldn’t he be content in the gutter where he belonged? What sort of person was he, that he would try to beg a place in the gentry when he didn’t deserve one?

He could learn some basic cultivation, perhaps even some advanced cultivation, but it wouldn’t matter. He would never have a sword; he would never be a part of the gentry. It didn’t matter if he was smarter or stronger or better than others. None of it would ever matter, because of who his mother was.

Some of what he was thinking must have showed on his face, because Lan Xichen said gently, “Meng-gongzi, not every sect is like the Lanling Jin. I’m sure you can find a place in one of them as a cultivator. Whether that will be the Qinghe Nie, I don’t know, but I’m sure that Mingjue-xiong would be pleased if it was.”

Meng Yao managed to gather himself and said, “I hope I will be able to repay him for everything he has done for me.”

Lan Xichen nodded and smiled and said, “I’m sure you will.”


~ ~ ~ ~


The sword not being a necessity for the lessons didn’t keep what Meng Yao feared from happening.

Lan Qiren spoke at length about the spirits that inhabited their swords, about their power, about how best to direct them and communicate with them. He went over a variety of techniques cultivators could use to spiritually connect with their swords, and after the lesson, everyone was eager to try it.

Although Meng Yao could not take part in the conversation that many of the young masters were having in the pavilion, he thought that making a hasty exit would only draw more attention to himself. So he stood in silent interest while Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng talked about their swords, and while Nie Huaisang talked more about Baxia than about his own saber.

None of them said anything to him about why he wasn’t participating – either they knew and didn’t want to draw attention to it, or just didn’t care – but before long, Meng Yao heard the worst noise in the world: his name spoken in hushed tones, along with a spate of stifled giggles.

He never got used to it. He always thought he should have. That after a while, the rumors should lose their sting. Everyone always said the same tired things over and over again. Why did hearing them always make him cringe, after so many times? He didn’t know, but it was nonetheless true. No matter how much he thought he had built up the armor around his heart, one well-placed giggle could cut right through it like the best sword in the world.

“I mean, why is he even here?” one of them asked, a little more loudly. Loudly enough for pretty much everyone in the courtyard to overhear. Meng Yao’s fists clenched at his sides as he saw his new friends – these bizarre people who treated him like an equal – look over in the direction of the gossips. Yet again, he was torn between not wanting attention drawn to it, and desperately hoping somebody would stand up for him. He remembered the way Lan Xichen had reassured him at the saluting ceremony, not calling the gossips out, but just taking a moment to show that he would be treated with respect, and his cheeks burned with embarrassment.

“Attention!” a voice said from the direction of the lecture hall, and all of them half-twisted to see Lan Qiren glowering at him. The pavilion went silent. “Meng Yao,” Lan Qiren said, and Meng Yao tried not to visibly flinch. But instead of saying anything about his indecent background, Lan Qiren asked him a question about the lesson they’d had two days prior. Meng Yao was puzzled, but answered. Lan Qiren asked him another question, then another, and then one that was about a discussion they’d had after class, which the other students hadn’t been privy to, and then something from the lecture materials he had given him but hadn’t gotten to in class yet. Meng Yao answered half a dozen questions.

“That is why he is here,” Lan Qiren said. “To learn. As are you all supposed to be. Line up!”

Looking a little baffled but not wanting to disobey, the students got into a line. Lan Qiren began peppering them with questions, choosing them seemingly at random. Whenever a student fumbled an answer, he pointed at Meng Yao, who then supplied the correct one instead. After a few minutes, Meng Yao was starting to relax. The hateful stares were worth how much fun this was, being able to show them how much better than them he was.

After nearly half an hour, Lan Qiren said, “Wangji, what is discipline three hundred ninety-three?”

“Do not spread rumor,” Lan Wangji supplied effortlessly.

“And what is discipline five hundred eighty?”

“Do not speak ill of one’s peers.”

Lan Qiren nodded. “Some of you clearly failed to take in that lesson,” he said, and listed off three members of the Jin sect, apparently the three who had been whispering, although Meng Yao had only heard the one voice. He was somewhat unsurprised to find that Lan Qiren knew who they were even though he hadn’t even been in the courtyard. “You will copy the disciplines from three hundred ninety-three through five hundred eighty ten times before lecture tomorrow. Bring me your copies or you will not be allowed to attend class.”

“Ah – ” One of the students made a protesting noise, saw the look on Lan Qiren’s face, and clearly thought better of it. The three of them slunk out of the courtyard.

Lan Qiren turned and went back into the lecture hall without another word.

“Your memory is amazing!” Wei Wuxian immediately said, as soon as Lan Qiren was gone. “I don’t know that I could have gotten every single question right, and I’ve been studying this stuff a lot longer than you!”

“Well, that’s probably why, it’s all so fresh in my mind,” Meng Yao said, trying not to be so obvious about the fact that he was soaking up the praise like an embarrassed sponge.

“Even so!” Wei Wuxian gave his sunny grin. “And don’t let those assholes bother you. That whole sect isn’t worth dirt. But let’s get out of here so we can practice in private. Hey, Lan Zhan!” he shouted, and Lan Wangji gave him an icy stare. “We’re gonna go practice, do you want to come?”

Lan Wangji turned and walked away without responding.

“I think I’m making progress with him,” Wei Wuxian said cheerfully, and Jiang Cheng just groaned.


~ ~ ~ ~


Meng Yao couldn’t help but look suspicious as Nie Huaisang plopped into the seat next to him with a grin. “What is it, Nie-gongzi?” he asked, not looking up from his studies.

“So I was talking to Wei-xiong earlier – ”

“Heaven help us,” Meng Yao murmured.

“ – and remember how you said you had some lesson plans from Lan-xiansheng – ”

Meng Yao looked up. “Did you tell Wei-gongzi that I was getting the lessons ahead of time?”

Nie Huaisang blinked. “Yes. Why?”

Meng Yao sighed. “I wish you hadn’t. You know it’s embarrassing for me, that I started in a place so far behind all the others – ”

“Oh?” Nie Huaisang just looked puzzled. “Why is it embarrassing? It’s not like the others don’t know that you weren’t raised in a sect. Of course you would have started behind us. Anyway,” he said, moving onwards before Meng Yao could continue to protest, “the lesson plan for tomorrow says we’re going to be working in pairs, right? And I thought you might not want to work with me, because I’ll just drag you down – ”

“Ah, Nie-gongzi, it isn’t that – ”

“It’s fine!” Nie Huaisang laughed, waving his fan dramatically. “I know what I’m not good at. So I asked Wei-xiong if he would be my partner, and he said sure.”

Meng Yao, who had expected that this was going towards the conclusion that Nie Huaisang had asked Wei Wuxian to be Meng Yao’s partner, was a little startled by this. Startled, and anxious. If Nie Huaisang and Wei Wuxian were partnering with each other, surely nobody left would want to partner with him. They were really the only two who would be willing, given his status. “That’s kind of you, Nie-gongzi, but – ”

“Jiang-xiong said that worked out because otherwise everyone would expect him to partner up with Wei-xiong, who would probably get him in trouble somehow,” Nie Huaisang continued, cheerfully oblivious to Meng Yao’s concerns, “which is true, haha. He asked if I thought you would mind being his partner and I said I was sure it would be fine.”

Meng Yao blinked. “Jiang-gongzi asked if I would . . . mind? Being his partner?”

“Well, yeah, you know, you may have started behind us but now you’re way ahead of all of us and making us all look like idiots,” Nie Huaisang said, laughing, “and Jiang-xiong has kind of a complex about being inferior to people, don’t tell him I said that though.”

“I . . . won’t,” Meng Yao said, thinking that Nie Huaisang was really choosing a hell of a time to talk about what people should and shouldn’t be told about each other.

“But then I thought I had a great idea,” Nie Huaisang continued.

“Oh no,” Meng Yao said reflexively.

“Which is that Wei-xiong should partner up with Lan-er-gongzi – ”

Meng Yao choked on his tea.

“Except I don’t know how to get Lan-er-gongzi to go for it.”

“You think?” Meng Yao asked. “Nie-gongzi, please, for Heaven’s sake, stop trying to cause trouble. Let Lan-er-gongzi hate Wei-gongzi in peace. No matter how much Wei-gongzi pulls his braids, he’s not going to suddenly turn around one day and realize that he likes him.”

“You’re no fun, Meng Yao,” Nie Huaisang said.

So the next day in class, when Lan Qiren told them to choose a partner, Wei Wuxian immediately shouted, “Lan Zhan! Partner up with me!” which led to Lan Wangji actually standing up and leaving the classroom entirely. Lan Qiren looked like he had a migraine. So did Jiang Cheng, as he edged towards where Meng Yao was sitting.

“Why is he like this,” he muttered to himself, as Nie Huaisang and Wei Wuxian chuckled over Lan Wangji’s flagrant rejection. “Thanks for pairing up with me, Meng-xiong. I don’t think I could have survived working with Wei Wuxian.”

“Ah, you’re welcome,” Meng Yao said, flustered. “Thanks in return. I figured I would end up working with Nie-gongzi on everything.”

Jiang Cheng, thankfully, did not seem inclined to discuss the reasons Meng Yao thought so. In fact, he was already distracted by the fact that a few of the Jin disciples, mostly the women, were teasing Jin Zixuan about the fact that he hadn’t chosen Jiang Yanli as a partner. Jiang Yanli was looking a little bereft, and Meng Yao realized a beat too late that Lan Wangji huffing out had left them with an odd number, and Jiang Yanli had no partner at all. Jiang Cheng realized it at the same moment, and seemed stricken. To ask her to join them and work in a set of three only drew attention to the fact that she hadn’t been chosen by anybody else, but to leave her standing there while the Jin sect discussed it was even worse. He was too honorable to just abandon Meng Yao after agreeing to work with him, which left Meng Yao wondering if he should tell Jiang Cheng to go ahead and rescue his sister.

Fortunately, this was one of the lessons that Lan Xichen was looking in on, and he realized it at the same moment, before the members of the Jin sect could. He sat down at the desk next to Jiang Yanli and smiled at her, saying, “Perhaps you could be my partner for the exercise, Jiang-guniang?”

Jiang Cheng’s shoulders relaxed, and Meng Yao breathed a sigh of relief as well. Lan Xichen was such an amazing person, he thought, so kind and sensitive to other peoples’ moods.

“Why couldn’t my sister be engaged to him?” Jiang Cheng muttered. “I mean, I know he’s ranked first among the young masters, but still . . .”

“They would be much better matched,” Meng Yao agreed, ignoring the stab of jealousy in his gut that objected to the idea of Lan Xichen getting married. “They are both such kind, gentle people.”

“Yeah.” Jiang Cheng gave a heavy sigh, then said, “Okay, let’s get started.”

Meng Yao found that he liked working with Jiang Cheng. He wasn’t a genius like Wei Wuxian, but he was diligent and focused. And he wasn’t anywhere near as far below Wei Wuxian as he seemed to think that he was. Meng Yao found him perfectly adequate at the exercise, one that many others in the room seemed to be having trouble with.

They finished before many of the others – Wei Wuxian and Nie Huaisang kept getting distracted, surprise, surprise – and Jiang Cheng was left just glowering at Jin Zixuan. Meng Yao, on the other hand, was thinking. “That’s the second time that Luo-guniang has tried to encourage Jin-gongzi to actually act like he’s betrothed,” he said thoughtfully. “Maybe we should talk to her, see if she knows why he’s acting the way he is.”

“We know why he’s acting the way he is,” Jiang Cheng said. “He’s a spoiled brat.”

“All right, that’s fair, but if he was really so spoiled, he would have whined at his parents until they let him out of the engagement,” Meng Yao said. “No, there’s more to it than that. I think he’s beginning to realize how amazing your sister is, and feels bad about how he’s behaved in the past, but isn’t sure how to rectify the situation without admitting he’s been a jerk – which of course he can’t admit.”

Jiang Cheng made a disgusted noise in the back of his throat.

“Also fair,” Meng Yao agreed.


~ ~ ~ ~