Meng Yao woke up with a start.
The last thing he remembered was being inside a disgusting monster. There were flickers after that – pain and rage that didn’t feel like his own, a dark force constantly controlling him, a force that he had fought and fought and fought –
Lan Xichen, covered in blood and wounds, a sight which had driven his own rage past the point where he could discern between his own and that of the yin iron’s, where he had finally lost the ability to fight.
Nie Mingjue looking down at him, touching his cheek.
“Ah, da-ge!” a voice said. “I think he’s coming around!”
Meng Yao tried to sit up and couldn’t. His body felt weak and shaky, like each limb weighed a hundred pounds. The only time he could recall having ever felt so terrible was after he had caught a bad fever and been sick for over a week as a child. This was similar to how he had felt after the fever had finally broken – clear-headed, but sore and exhausted.
“Easy now,” Nie Mingjue’s voice said, as he sat down in the chair next to the bed and pressed him back down. He picked up a cup of tea from the bedside and held it to Meng Yao’s lips, and he drank thirstily. “How do you feel?”
“Weak,” Meng Yao admitted. “Very tired. Where are we?”
“Nightless City, but it’s fine,” Nie Mingjue said, seeing that he was about to panic. “Wen Ruohan is dead. So are both of his sons. Wen Qing has taken over management of the sect and has granted us protection.”
That seemed like quite an outcome, given that the last thing Meng Yao had known, Lan Xichen and all the young masters had been captive and they had only had two pieces of yin iron in contrast to Wen Ruohan’s three, and no experience using it. “How?”
“What’s the last thing you remember?” Nie Mingjue asked.
Meng Yao frowned. “In the cave . . . and I went into that disgusting turtle’s mouth to get the last piece of yin iron.”
“About what I figured,” Nie Mingjue said with a nod. He saw that the cup was empty. “Ah, Huaisang, can you bring over the pot?” he called out, and a few seconds later, was pouring Meng Yao another cup and helping him drink. “Something Xue Yang neglected to mention was that the piece inside Xuanwu was stronger than the other pieces. It overloaded your golden core and took control of you.”
Recalling the screaming agony the second he touched the sword, Meng Yao shuddered. “I see.”
“On the upside, it was able to use your body to communicate,” Nie Mingjue said. “Turned out it was really pissed off about having a bunch of evil shoved down its throat, back when it was just a natural-occurring substance, and then being broken into pieces. So, I brought you here to the city, we rescued Xichen and found the other pieces, after which Xichen did some cleansing magic and here we are.”
Meng Yao felt like he was definitely leaving some things out, but wasn’t sure he was awake enough to push the issue. “Zewu-Jun is here? He’s safe?”
Nie Mingjue nodded. “He was injured, but he’s resting now. Wen Qing is an excellent doctor, and she made sure he was taken care of. He’s right in the room next door, and his brother is sitting with him.”
“All right. Good.” Meng Yao felt his eyelids sagging despite his best efforts. “Wish I had seen it. I bet he was magnificent.”
Nie Mingjue laughed quietly. “He was.”
“I tried to fight it.”
“I know you did,” Nie Mingjue said, and smoothed back his hair. “You’re going to be fine, Meng Yao. Get some rest.”
Meng Yao let himself drift away.
~ ~ ~ ~
“ – what I was saying all along!” Wei Wuxian was declaring passionately, when Meng Yao next surfaced. “The yin iron didn’t have to be evil. It was all Xue Chonghai’s fault! When I said maybe we could – ”
“But Lan Yi said she tried that,” Jiang Cheng interrupted, his voice sharp. “That’s why everyone thought it couldn’t be done.”
“Right, but,” Wei Wuxian said, “that was because she only had one piece. It couldn’t be put to rest until it was whole again. But nobody would have ever risked reuniting the pieces, and I guess the people who originally broke it up and separated it just didn’t think of trying to talk to it.”
“I mean . . .” Wen Ning said, sounding timid. “It’s not exactly a thing most people would try. Talking to a rock.”
Meng Yao gave a snort.
“Ah, you’re awake, Meng-xiong!” Wei Wuxian said, leaning over him. “How are you feeling?”
“A little better,” Meng Yao said. “Still weak. But I guess I can’t complain.” Now that he was thinking back through everything that had happened, he couldn’t help but feel somewhat ashamed. “I’m sorry I caused so much trouble for everyone.”
“Don’t be sorry!” Nie Huaisang said. “Nothing about it was your fault.”
“I couldn’t control the yin iron,” Meng Yao said. “I got completely subsumed by it because my golden core is so weak.” He felt his eyes burn with tears, but managed to hold them back. “That wouldn’t have happened to any of you.”
“It definitely would have happened to me,” Wen Ning said matter-of-factly.
“Well,” Meng Yao muttered. “All right.”
“Me too,” Nie Huaisang said cheerfully. “Don’t be so sad, Meng Yao! It’s not your fault you started so much later than the rest of us, building your core. And that thing was really powerful. Da-ge said he tried to take it from you and even just touching it was difficult for him. He said he could only think of a few people, less than a dozen of everyone he’d ever known, who would have been able to control it. Obviously nobody would expect that of you!”
“And,” Wei Wuxian added, “it did all actually work out pretty well. I mean, because it possessed you so completely, it was able to communicate, so Zewu-Jun was able to help it. Plus it got rid of Wen Ruohan for us, which, super helpful.”
“It did?” Meng Yao asked, then his eyes widened. “I did? Did I – kill people?”
“Um,” Nie Huaisang said. “Yes . . .?”
“You killed like two hundred soldiers in two minutes,” Wei Wuxian said, clearly not finding this at all troubling. “It was amazing, honestly. We never could have defeated the Wens without what you did.”
“Oh,” Meng Yao said. He thought about this and decided he was okay with it. “And then Zewu-Jun just . . . had tea and a chat with the yin iron and it . . . went away?”
“He did some really powerful purifying magic,” Wei Wuxian said, “but, basically, yeah. I think his kindness really is what got through to it. I don’t think anyone had ever showed it kindness before.”
Meng Yao felt a soft smile touch his face. “That is so Zewu-Jun.”
“Isn’t it, though?” Wei Wuxian asked.
“How is he?” Meng Yao asked. “I have this foggy memory of seeing him . . . and being upset . . .”
Wei Wuxian glanced over his shoulder, and Lan Wangji, who had been sitting in silence during the discussion, answered. “His injuries were serious, but he is healing well. You have been sleeping for nearly two full days while your body recovered. He has been resting most of the time as well.”
“All right. That’s good.” Meng Yao relaxed against the pillows. He still didn’t feel good about everything that had happened, but he figured he could accept it. And it was nice to be back among friends. He was surprised to realize how much he had missed them. “Wait, why were you all in here?”
“We were waiting for you to wake up,” Nie Huaisang said, with an unspoken ‘obviously’ tacked onto the end.
“Yes, I figured that much out on my own, but why?”
They blinked at each other for a few moments before Nie Huaisang shook his head and said, “How can someone as smart you be such an idiot sometimes?”
Wei Wuxian elbowed him. “It’s just a thing friends do, Meng-xiong. They stay with each other when they’re sick, keep them company while they’re laid up.”
“Oh,” Meng Yao said. “All right. Thank you, for the company.”
“Tell him about what happened at the cave!” Nie Huaisang said, waving his fan at Wei Wuxian. Meng Yao settled in to listen to what was sure to be a good story, and let them bring him up to date on everything he had missed. “So since Wen Chao didn’t come back,” Nie Huaisang said when Wei Wuxian had finished with the story, “right now he’s officially missing, along with Wen Zhuliu, so Wen Qing said she was just going to ‘temporarily’ run things. But by the time they find his body, I’m sure everyone here will have realized they’re far better off with Wen Qing than they would be with anybody else.”
“Most likely,” Meng Yao agreed. “So what happens now?”
“Well, now that you’re feeling better, and by tomorrow Zewu-Jun should be back on his feet too,” Nie Huaisang said, “we’ll go home! Da-ge already sent messages to Yunmeng and Gusu to let them know what was happening. The disciples that came for ‘indoctrination’ should be getting back to their own territories pretty soon, too. Although,” he added, eyes suddenly gleaming, “if you wanted to go to Gusu for a little while, I think da-ge would be fine with that.”
Meng Yao flushed pink. “What – why would – ”
“Well, he’s going to want to head back to Qinghe, just to make sure everything was fine in his absence,” Nie Huaisang said, “but Zewu-Jun will have to go back to Gusu, to reunite with his uncle and help repair all the damage Wen Xu did. And weren’t you and da-ge talking about having a little time with him?”
“Not where you could hear!” Meng Yao protested.
Wei Wuxian laughed. “Yeah, come with us, Meng-xiong. I’m going to go back to Gusu for a little bit, too.”
“Are you?” Jiang Cheng said, as if this was news to him.
“Well, sure! I’ve got to make sure Lan Zhan gets there safely, don’t I? His leg is still injured. I’ll come back to Yunmeng soon enough.”
Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes. “I’m not making excuses to Father for you,” he said, even though everyone present knew he would do exactly that.
“I don’t know,” Meng Yao said, still feeling a little uneasy. Even the thought of asking Nie Mingjue if he could go back to Gusu worried him. What if Nie Mingjue took it as an insult? What if he thought Meng Yao had decided he wanted to be with Lan Xichen instead of him? Or that Meng Yao was upset at Nie Mingjue over how he had been possessed by the yin iron?
“You would be welcome to join us, Meng Yao,” Lan Wangji said. “I believe my brother would like that very much.”
Meng Yao couldn’t help but smile. “Thank you, Lan-er-gongzi. I will ask Nie-zongzhu about it tonight.”
~ ~ ~ ~
Although Meng Yao was still a little anxious about the idea of asking Nie Mingjue about going to Gusu, he didn’t have to be, because Nie Huaisang brought it up for him. This did not surprise him at all, to be fair; he had half-expected Nie Huaisang would do that so he couldn’t chicken out. Over dinner, he cheerfully said, “Wei-xiong is going to go back with Lan-er-gongzi, and the two of them invited Meng Yao along so he could spend some time with Zewu-Jun.”
Nie Mingjue nodded and said, “That sounds like a good idea.”
“It’s really all right?” Meng Yao asked hesitantly. “I’m sure there will be a lot to do in The Unclean Realm . . .”
“Nothing I can’t handle,” Nie Mingjue said, waving this aside. “Besides, Xichen and I were talking about it this morning. We did have a deal that he would get to have you in Gusu sometimes, and I think he would like having you there to help them rebuild. They suffered much worse than we did.”
Meng Yao nodded. “If you’re sure.”
So the next day, once all his belongings were all packed up and everyone was ready to go, he saw Lan Xichen for the first time since leaving Cloud Recesses. Lan Xichen smiled at him, and he fell in love all over again. Lan Xichen looked somehow wholly different without his forehead ribbon, and it worried Meng Yao that he wasn’t wearing it. He had seen it wrapped around Nie Mingjue’s wrist, but he wasn’t sure how to bring it up.
This, too, was brought up for him. In fact, Nie Mingjue walked over, unwrapping it, and held it out to Meng Yao. “Since you’re going back to Gusu, why don’t you carry this for him?”
“I couldn’t!” Meng Yao immediately protested.
Lan Xichen smiled gently. “It’s fine, A-Yao,” he said, and the affectionate diminutive made Meng Yao’s knees weak. “Honestly, anyone can touch it right now, because Wen Xu took it from me by force and it needs to be purified before any member of the Lan Sect can touch it again. But I’d like for it to be you who carried it for me.”
“Oh.” Meng Yao tried not to melt. He nodded, and Nie Mingjue wrapped it around his wrist, tying it securely. Even though Lan Xichen had said anyone could touch it, it still felt like an honor, so he said, “Thank you, Zewu-Jun.”
“Shall we be going?” Lan Xichen asked.
Meng Yao looked at Nie Mingjue, unsure of what sort of farewell was appropriate when others were present, despite how desperately he wanted a kiss goodbye. It wasn’t a large audience, and Nie Huaisang obviously already knew everything, but Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian were both there, and he wasn’t sure if –
Nie Mingjue leaned in and kissed him, thoroughly, leaving no doubt in Meng Yao’s mind if such a thing was all right. “I will see you in a few weeks.”
“Uh huh,” Meng Yao panted.
He was still living in that moment as they began down the road. From Qishan to Gusu was quite a long trip, and Wen Qing had offered them a carriage and some horses, since Lan Xichen and Lan Wangji were both injured, and Meng Yao was still weak. Wei Wuxian offered to drive, as the only one who was still well, and Lan Wangji opted to sit up front with him.
“I’m glad you decided to come back to Gusu with us,” Lan Xichen said, smiling. “I have missed you.”
“I’ve missed you, too,” Meng Yao said, scarcely able to believe he was admitting such an improper thing. He felt his cheeks flush and looked away, but when he snuck a glance back, Lan Xichen was still smiling. “I, ah . . . I don’t know exactly what Nie-zongzhu told you . . . although I’m sure you saw him kiss me just now . . .”
Lan Xichen laughed quietly. “You need not try to hide anything from me, A-Yao. Mingjue-xiong told me that the two of you had enjoyed his bed together, and that he had explained the situation to you, between the two of us. I do love Mingjue-xiong very dearly, and have ever since I met him.”
“I am so unlike him,” Meng Yao said, unable to look at Lan Xichen again.
“Of course you are. I am unlike him as well, and unlike you. I think that’s why this works. If any two of us were similar, the waters would get all muddied. I love him for him, and I love you for you, as you love each of us for ourselves.”
Cheeks still dark pink, Meng Yao said, “I am so grateful to both of you. But it is still . . . difficult for me. In ways that I think are hard for the two of you to understand.”
“I know.” Lan Xichen reached out and caressed his cheek. “I know that you were marginalized and mistreated your whole life for things you had no control over. Our feelings must be hard for you to accept. But that’s fine, A-Yao. You can take all the time you need.” He smiled and added, “That’s part of why I wanted you to come back to Gusu with me.”
“Oh?” Meng Yao asked, startled to hear that this had been Lan Xichen’s idea, or at the very least, that he had wanted it too.
Lan Xichen nodded. “I thought perhaps Mingjue-xiong was moving a little too fast, trying to arrange for all three of us to be together for a while. Although the circumstances did indeed conspire where both he and I are needed at our homes, I believe it works better this way.” With a slight gleam in his eye that Meng Yao was frankly shocked to see, he said, “Would it not be unfair that he got to have you all to himself for a week, but I had to share you from the start?”
“Uh,” Meng Yao said. The interior of the carriage was suddenly very warm.
Lan Xichen leaned in and kissed him. It was soft and gentle, but still inviting. Entirely different from being kissed by Nie Mingjue, but just as wonderful. Lan Xichen caressed his cheek and his hair and murmured against his mouth, “I am glad to have you with me again, A-Yao. I hope it’s all right, if I call you that.”
“Uh huh,” Meng Yao said. What was it about these two men that rendered him completely ineloquent? He had worked so hard to become well-spoken.
Then Lan Xichen kissed him again, and he decided that words were overrated anyway.
~ ~ ~ ~
Meng Yao expected the trip back to Gusu to be long and frankly on the wearisome side, but it was anything but. He spent hours in the carriage with Lan Xichen, just talking about varying things like they always did. Sometimes Meng Yao would ride up front with Wei Wuxian, who always had a million things to say, asking questions about Qinghe or teaching Meng Yao talismans or teasing him about how he was the second luckiest person on earth, to have Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen. (“I’m the luckiest,” Wei Wuxian said, “because I got Lan Zhan.”)
Sometimes he would even sit with Lan Wangji for a while, and although they didn’t talk much, there was a strange kinship in that. And sometimes they did talk, because Lan Wangji liked strategy games and music, just as Meng Yao did.
And at night, they would stop for the day and find an inn, or camp out if they had to, and the four of them would eat together, and it was nice, like a little family of his own. Different from Nie Mingjue and Nie Huaisang, but still something he cherished and wanted to wrap around himself and roll around in. He was the only one who could cook – well, the others could but never made anything that anyone else would want to eat – and he found that he enjoyed preparing meals for them.
The first time they did have an inn, Lan Xichen and Meng Yao had their own room, they could barely bring themselves to leave it the next morning. Meng Yao absolutely could not believe how incredible Lan Xichen was, how beautiful, how tender and sweet. If he’d had the option, he would have stayed in Lan Xichen’s bed for a week straight.
“Good night?” Wei Wuxian asked as they got to the carriage.
“Mm hm,” Meng Yao said, since trying to hide it was doomed to fail anyway. Then he saw the soft little smile on Lan Wangji’s face as he watched Wei Wuxian climb up onto the front seat. “You?”
Wei Wuxian laughed. “Hell yes.”
Lan Xichen was laughing, too. “We’d better separate you two,” he teased. “Wangji, ride in the back with me, or Wuxian will be too busy staring at you to drive, and we’ll end up in the river.”
“Quite possible,” Wei Wuxian agreed without shame.
Once they were back at Cloud Recesses, they set about helping rebuild. There was a lot to be done, with the damaged buildings and books. Lan Qiren, knowing how good Meng Yao’s memory was, asked if he could reproduce any of the books he had read there from memory, so Meng Yao set about doing so.
“Teacher’s pet,” Wei Wuxian teased, laughing.
“Just because he’s not glad to see you come back to Cloud Recesses,” Meng Yao said, and Wei Wuxian laughed harder.
“Someday he’ll get used to me,” he said.
“Why do I very much doubt that,” Meng Yao said. “You could try something wild like behaving yourself.”
Lan Wangji gave a disbelieving snort.
When he wasn’t copying down books from memory, he was playing weiqi or learning how to play the guqin. Lan Xichen was teaching him about how using the guqin to channel spiritual energy, and how this could be used to calm the mind and temperament. That was something Nie Mingjue might benefit from, they both thought, and Meng Yao applied himself diligently.
Two weeks later, Nie Mingjue and Nie Huaisang arrived in Cloud Recesses. Meng Yao tried not to give away how absolutely weak-kneed he was to see Nie Mingjue again. How had this happened to him? He had always considered himself to be relatively tough, all things considered. Now he was halfway to swooning every time he saw either one of these men. A libido was a terrible thing, he thought. But he was surprised to find that he didn’t really mind.
At least Nie Mingjue was smart enough not to kiss him in front of Lan Qiren. Instead, after greeting everyone and concluding the formalities, he drew Meng Yao aside and said, “I have something for you. Come with me.”
Wondering if ‘something’ was what he thought it was, and therefore could not be brought up in public, he followed Nie Mingjue out of the hanshi and into the courtyard. But instead of going somewhere private that clothing was not required, Nie Mingjue reached into a spirit pouch and withdrew a sword.
It was much smaller than Baxia, of course, more along the lines of Nie Huaisang’s sword, but still a saber in the Qinghe Nie style. The hilt fit perfectly into Meng Yao’s hand, and he felt tears sting at his eyes when he saw the name engraved into it, characters that spoke of belonging, of acceptance, of having earned his place.
“As to your place in the ranking,” Nie Mingjue said, “of course you will probably rise higher, but at the moment your golden core is still somewhat underdeveloped. For now, you are the sixth disciple of the Qinghe Nie, Meng Wanqiang.”
Meng Yao could have been last and he wouldn’t have cared. Sixth was fine. Sixth was amazing. He’d had no idea it was possible to be so happy. “Thank you,” he managed to say. “I swear I will serve you to the best of my ability for the rest of my life.”
“Shall we go show the others?” Nie Mingjue asked. Meng Yao nodded, and he added, “Although, before we go in,” and pulled Meng Yao in for a kiss that left him breathless.
When they went back into the hanshi, Meng Yao was positive everyone could see that he was in the clouds with happiness. Lan Xichen smiled at him and said, “Is everything all right?”
“Yes,” Meng Yao said. “Everything is perfect.”
In a slightly more formal tone than Nie Mingjue normally used with the Twin Jades, he said, “He has received his place in the ranking. Allow me to introduce Meng Wanqiang, sixth disciple of the Qinghe Nie.”
Lan Xichen’s smile widened. “I’m delighted,” he said, and bowed. Lan Wangji and Lan Qiren bowed as well, and the latter was even smiling.
“Oh, is that your sword?” Wei Wuxian asked, excited. “Can I see it? Does it have a name?”
Meng Yao nodded and held it out for the others to see, not trusting his voice to stay even if he spoke it out loud.
“A beautiful name for a beautiful sword,” Lan Xichen said.
Wei Wuxian nodded. “It’s gorgeous, Meng-xiong.”
“Thank you,” Meng Yao said, then managed, “Wei-xiong.”
Wei Wuxian grinned and smacked him on the shoulder so hard that he nearly fell into Nie Huaisang.
“So how long are you staying for your visit?” Lan Qiren asked. “Are you taking Meng-gongzi back with you, when you go?”
“I can leave him here a little while longer if you need him,” Nie Mingjue said. “Xichen told me he was helping you rebuilding your library; I imagine his memory must be invaluable in such a task. But I figured I would probably stay a week, if that is all right with the two of you.”
Lan Qiren nodded. “I’m sure we will see you at the cultivation conference next month, and he can go back to Qinghe with you then.”
“The cultivation conference?” Meng Yao asked. “Isn’t it in Lanling? I doubt I’m welcome there . . .”
Nie Mingjue just smirked. “You’re a disciple of the Qinghe Nie, and the Lanling Jin are our allies. I’m sure they won’t have any problem with you being there. And if they do, they had better keep it to themselves.”
“If you’re sure,” Meng Yao said, dubious despite himself.
“Of course we’re sure, A-Yao,” Lan Xichen said. “After all, you are so helpful to both Mingjue-xiong and to me. You have every right to attend the conference no matter where it’s held. Besides, I’m sure all anyone will be talking about will be Wen-guniang’s ascension to sect leader of the Qishan Wen. It’s an ideal time to introduce you formally, as one of Mingjue-xiong’s disciples.”
Meng Yao nodded at that. “All right. Thank you, for inviting me.”
“Ah, that reminds me,” Lan Xichen said, in the tone of someone who had not been reminded of anything, but had been waiting patiently to say something in particular. “His musical studies have been coming along nicely. Mingjue-xiong, perhaps you’d like to accompany us back to my rooms, so he can demonstrate his growing talents?”
“What an excellent idea,” Nie Mingjue said. “I love . . . music.”
Nie Huaisang had to hide behind his fan before anyone else could see him laughing. “See you in a few days,” he whispered to Meng Yao, before Nie Mingjue all but dragged him out of the hanshi.
~ ~ ~ ~
Despite everything, Meng Yao felt his stomach twist as he looked up the steps of Koi Tower, felt the anxiety run up and down his spine. Lan Xichen gave him a minute to breathe, not offering any judgment at all at his obvious apprehension. Meng Yao felt positive that he was only going to end up at the bottom of them again. He could practically see his father’s self-satisfied smirk as he watched him fall.
He was about to open his mouth to say that he couldn’t do it, that he was sorry, but he didn’t belong here, didn’t dare climb these steps to face his father a second time. But before he could, there was noise behind them, and he half-turned to see the Qinghe Nie’s delegation coming up to stand with them.
“Ah, should I go up with them?” he asked, suddenly feeling even more uncertain. “Or with you?”
Lan Xichen smiled. “Why don’t we all go up together?”
Finally, the fear eased and he was able to breathe again. “All right.”
Nie Mingjue came up beside him, so Meng Yao was between the two of them. “Are you ready?”
Meng Yao nodded. “I’m ready,” he said, and began to climb the steps.