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somewhere to belong

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“I wanted to bid you farewell,” Meng Yao said, and they weren’t the hardest words he had ever spoken, but they were harder than they should have been. He had been in Cloud Recesses for less than two days, had spoken to Lan Xichen for fewer than three minutes, and was already reluctant to leave. 

Lan Xichen looked puzzled. “Farewell?”

Keeping his gaze downcast, Meng Yao said, “I’m just a guest of the Nie sect, not a disciple. It’s better if I don’t stay for too long.”

Given Lan Xichen’s apparent nature, and the Lan sect’s devotion to rules, he didn’t expect Lan Xichen to argue with him. But Lan Xichen still looked confused, and said, “Did Mingjue-xiong not speak to you about staying for the lectures? In the letter he sent to me, he asked me to make sure you would be accommodated.”

Meng Yao blinked. He thought back to his parting from The Unclean Realm. Nie Mingjue had said, “Take Huaisang to Cloud Recesses for the lectures,” and although Meng Yao had interpreted that to mean that he was just supposed to accompany him for the trip - and make sure he got there rather than wandering off, since he absolutely did not want to go - he supposed that Nie Mingjue hadn’t directly said that he should come back once the lectures started. “Accommodated?”

Lan Xichen smiled gently. “Mingjue-xiong is aware that you are lacking in some of the basics, the foundations of cultivation, due to your upbringing. He asked if I could make sure you received any assistance you needed in catching up.”

That made Meng Yao’s cheeks flush. It was absolutely true, and he wasn’t surprised that Nie Mingjue knew it, but it was still embarrassing to hear it stated out loud. “I wouldn’t want to be a burden.”

“Nonsense,” Lan Xichen said. “The purpose of the lectures is to see to the education of the young masters of this generation. Everyone is beginning on different levels. The Gusu Lan would not wish to leave any of them behind, no matter where they are starting.”

There was absolutely no way Meng Yao could argue with that, and in truth he didn’t really want to. Regardless of how mortifying it was, he had always yearned for a classical education, and bitterly resented his father for the circumstances that had led to him not having one. At least Lan Xichen was going about this in a way to cause him minimum embarrassment. “Then I look forward to your guidance,” he said, sweeping his arms around to bring them into a deep bow.

Lan Xichen caught his elbows. “There’s no need for such grand gestures,” he said. “We are peers. Would you like to accompany me to the library? There are some texts on basic cultivation that would probably be best for you to start with. It might help for you to read them over before the lessons begin.”

Meng Yao nodded, keeping his gaze down because he could not even begin to say what expression was on his face. He followed Lan Xichen through the pavilion and to the library. It was thankfully empty of any other disciples, and Lan Xichen briefly looked at the shelves before picking out two volumes. When Meng Yao went to settle at one of the desks, Lan Xichen did as well.

“Please, don’t let me keep you,” Meng Yao said.

Lan Xichen just smiled again, that gorgeous, gentle smile which Meng Yao was sure was going to be in his dreams for the rest of his life. “It’s no trouble. There might be terms you do not know, and it will be easier to explain as you go along. I will practice my calligraphy. Do not hesitate to ask me if there’s something you don’t understand.”

Resolving not to do that and disturb him if at all avoidable, Meng Yao nodded and opened the book. Before long, he was deeply engrossed. He had picked up a few things in Qinghe, but there was so much he didn’t know - he didn’t even know how much he didn’t know. The book started with the very basics, talking about the different types of spiritual energy and its effects, then moving on to different sorts of spirits and monsters. 

Nearly an hour had passed before he came up against something he didn’t understand, and another ten minutes went by while he tried to use context to work it out. He was a little frustrated, and he hated to have to admit he didn’t know something. But he couldn’t really move on until he had - the entire chapter was devoted to the concept, and he worried that if he just skipped the chapter, he would pay for it later. 

Summoning his backbone and trying to quell the shame that filled his stomach, he cleared his throat and said, “Ah . . .”

Lan Xichen immediately looked up, still smiling. “What is it?”

“I’ve just . . . never seen this concept before but the book refers to it as if I should know what it is . . .”

Lan Xichen put down his brush and walked over, and Meng Yao inwardly cringed as he looked over his shoulder to see where Meng Yao was in the text. But instead of the disappointment he expected for not knowing something basic, Lan Xichen marveled, “Chapter six already? You must read extremely quickly.”

“Ah, I do read quite a bit,” Meng Yao admitted. “Am I that fast? I didn’t realize.”

Sitting down at the desk next to him, Lan Xichen began to explain the concept and the terms that were used in the chapter. Meng Yao did his best not to stare at him, wondering if he could have lessons with Lan Xichen every day of his life. Even his voice was amazing. 

Once Meng Yao understood what the chapter was about, he couldn’t help but ask, “You’re sure that it’s no bother for me to be a part of the lectures? I know some of the students may be further ahead than others, but I still need such basic concepts explained to me . . .”

“It’s fine,” Lan Xichen said. “You’ll catch up in no time. Mingjue-xiong said in his letter that he was sure that by the time a month had gone by, you would have passed by all the others, and I see no reason to doubt his opinion.”

Nie Mingjue was rarely effusive with praise in person, so the words brought more color to Meng Yao’s cheeks, and he ducked his head. He searched for the words to voice his greatest fear without embarrassing himself further. “Does . . . Lan-xiansheng . . . know how far behind I am?”

Lan Xichen nodded, so that was awful, but then immediately pivoted to reassurance. “Don’t worry, Meng-gongzi; he is aware not to call on you unless you volunteer. He and I have put together a syllabus so you’ll know what each day’s lesson will be about, and assembled some reading for you to do ahead of time.”

Despite the general embarrassment, Meng Yao felt some of the tension ease out of his shoulders. At least he could be sure that he would not be humiliated by not knowing something basic in front of all the others, including his own half-brother who had received every luxury that Meng Yao never had. “Thank you very much, Zewu-Jun.”

“It was really no trouble at all, Meng-gongzi,” Lan Xichen said. “Mingjue-xiong is a good friend of mine. I’m sure you will be able to assist him more ably after you have been brought up to speed, so in the end we will all benefit from this arrangement.”

Meng Yao relaxed further, smiled and nodded, and went back to his reading. He had to ask two more questions, but they were much simpler, and it only took a few minutes for Lan Xichen to explain the answers to him. After another hour had gone by, he was beginning to wonder whether or not he should say something. Surely Lan Xichen couldn’t spend the entire day in the library with him. He must have had other things he needed to attend to. But it would be an insult to question his judgment, his priorities or time management skill. Should he stay silent, then?

Before he could wonder further, Lan Xichen put down the brush and said, “I’m afraid I must be going for the time being. My duties call. Feel free to take the books back to the guest house with you, or continue to study here if you would prefer. You’ll have some time to get through them before the lectures start - the first day is just the recitation of the Lan sect principles, and you don’t need any prior knowledge to absorb those.”

“Thank you, Zewu-Jun,” Meng Yao said. “I greatly appreciate your help.”

Lan Xichen smiled again before taking his leave. Meng Yao finished the chapter he was on before deciding that, since Lan Xichen had said it was all right, he would take the book back to the guest house. It would be nice to have some tea.

He was a little surprised, when he got there, to find that it was empty. The cage with the canary Nie Huaisang had insisted on painstakingly stalking for three days until Meng Yao had finally convinced him that doing so wasn’t going to get him out of the lectures was on the table. But Nie Huaisang was nowhere to be seen. Meng Yao frowned slightly. 

Sometimes, he felt that Nie Mingjue was a little overprotective of his brother. He knew that Nie Huaisang wasn’t half as dumb as he appeared to be, but he had basically made goofing off into the Qinghe provincial pastime. The more his brother growled and disapproved, the more Nie Huaisang did it. That was why Meng Yao figured he had been along for this ride to begin with - left to his own devices, Nie Huaisang definitely would have stalked birds for a week until he had grown bored with it, then fooled around in whatever city was closest by until he ran out of money, and then spent his last chunk of silver to write to Meng Yao asking to be picked up. By then it would of course have been far too late to attend the lectures.

So it was not exactly unreasonable that Nie Mingjue was overprotective, not because Nie Huaisang needed protection so much as that the world at large needed protection from him.

Hadn’t he heard Nie Huaisang making plans to go fishing with one of the other young masters? It was the sort of ridiculous thing he would do. He knew absolutely nothing about fishing; Qinghe was a landlocked province with no major rivers. Meng Yao supposed he should go make sure that he hadn’t managed to drown. Nie Mingjue would definitely be very upset if his brother drowned.

With a sigh, he put down his book, gave up his plans of making tea, and headed out to the river. He followed it upstream until he heard laughter and voices. He found Nie Huaisang basically drenched, robes hitched up, ducking as Wei Wuxian tossed a fish to him and shouted, “You’d better catch it this time, Nie-xiong!”

“I will!” Nie Huaisang responded, promptly not doing so, which led to Wei Wuxian kicking water at him and both of them laughing hysterically.

“Nie-gongzi, what are you doing?” Meng Yao asked in a tone that he hoped was politely incredulous.

“Ah, Meng Yao, look, we’re catching fish!” Nie Huaisang said, in the tone of someone who absolutely did not care what anyone thought of his current behavior.

“One of us is!” Wei Wuxian retorted, and they both laughed harder.

“You two haven’t met yet, have you?” Nie Huaisang said. “Wei-xiong, this is Meng Yao, he’s a guest of the Nie sect who advises and assists my brother.”

Wei Wuxian stopped laughing long enough to fold his hands and bow. “It’s nice to meet you. I’m Wei Ying, courtesy Wuxian, first disciple of the Yunmeng Jiang.”

Meng Yao returned the bow. “It’s a pleasure, Wei-gongzi.”

“Oh, you can call me Wei-xiong, or Wei Wuxian if you like,” Wei Wuxian said. “I don’t really like being formal with people, and we’re all going to be here for a while, right?”

Meng Yao managed a smile, because he knew Wei Wuxian didn’t mean to rub his lower position in, but Nie Huaisang had introduced him as a guest, not as a young master, and Wei Wuxian really should have noticed that. “I appreciate that, but I’m just a guest of the Nie sect, not a disciple, so - ”

Wei Wuxian shrugged. “Who cares? My dad was just a servant at Lotus Pier. Hey, Meng-xiong, do you know anything about fishing? Because if Nie-xiong loses the fish I’ve caught one more time, I’m gonna eat him for dinner.”

“Ah - ” Taken aback by this cavalier disregard of the vast social gulf between them, Meng Yao could only manage, “Not really, no. But I do know a great deal about how to distract Nie-gongzi so other people can work - ”

“Hey!” Nie Huaisang protested, and Wei Wuxian let out a belly laugh. 

The next thing Meng Yao knew, he was half-soaked with the cold water Nie Huaisang had splashed in his face. “Ah, Nie-gongzi, no fair - I’m still in my good clothes, I hadn’t changed into the uniform yet - ”

“Yeah, Nie-xiong, have some respect for others,” Wei Wuxian said, before he used a talisman to create a wave that drenched them both. 

Nie Huaisang gave an affronted cry. “You dare underestimate the men of Qinghe - come on, Meng Yao, our reputation is at stake - ” he said, before grabbing Meng Yao by the elbow and dragging him into the river. And, well, Nie Huaisang wasn’t great with a saber but he did know battle strategy, and he and Meng Yao had practiced a number of moves under Nie Mingjue’s watchful eye. Wei Wuxian never knew what hit him, laughing hysterically as he ended up on his ass in the water getting vigorously and repeatedly dunked.

By the time the battle was over, all the fish had long since been scared away, there was more water outside the pool than in it, and Meng Yao had all but forgotten how many worlds above him the other two teenagers were.

 

~ ~ ~ ~ 

 

Meng Yao was up late, reading the cultivation texts that Lan Xichen had gotten him. There were a few things in them he didn’t grasp, and he made careful notes of questions he would need to ask later. He didn’t want to ask Nie Huaisang any questions - there was still a little too much embarrassment. Nie Huaisang surely knew that he hadn’t received a classic education, but there was knowing that and then there was witnessing it.

He managed to finish the first text and got about a third of the way through the second, so if the first day of the lectures was spent on the Lan sect disciplines, he shouldn’t have any problem finishing before the real lectures started. Still, he was a little anxious as he approached the lecture hall with Nie Huaisang yawning beside him. There were just so many - so many people there who were so far above them. Wei Wuxian seemed nice, which was a relief, and Nie Huaisang had always respected him. But what about the others? Specifically, what about the Lanling Jin? Meng Yao could already foresee the way they were going to look at him when he walked in. He didn’t belong there and they knew it, and they almost certainly wouldn’t keep their mouths shut about it. Perhaps he could just sneak in and take a desk in the back - 

“Nie-xiong, Meng-xiong!” Wei Wuxian greeted them cheerfully, waving, and Nie Huaisang waved back with his fan. “Ah, Meng-xiong, did you meet my brother and sister yet?”

Meng Yao sighed as everyone’s head twisted towards him, but bowed in greeting to the other two Jiangs. He saw Lan Wangji looking over, but he seemed to be looking more at Wei Wuxian in disapproval for raising his voice. It was the Jin contingent who were, as he expected, staring openly at him in disbelief and displeasure.

“Is it really appropriate for him to be here?” one of them said in an undertone, and Meng Yao couldn’t stop his fists from clenching at his sides. 

He hoped that none of the others had heard, but then he saw Wei Wuxian’s gaze flick to the side, and he knew that he had. From what he had seen the day before - Wei Wuxian immediately and openly calling Wen Chao out on his disrespect - he braced himself for becoming the center of attention, hating every second of this. What had he been thinking? He never should have let Lan Xichen talk him into staying. Nie Mingjue hadn’t given him specific orders. He should have gone straight back to the Unclean Realm. He didn’t belong here.

But instead of calling them out, or saying anything to them or Meng Yao at all, Wei Wuxian instead broadly smiled and called out, “Lan-er-gege! You should have come fishing with us yesterday! We had a great time, it would have loosened you up a little!”

“Ridiculous,” Lan Wangji said, glowering, and suddenly everyone was caught up in the fact that Wei Wuxian had used such a familiar term of address with the great Lan Wangji, and had said such a suggestive thing. Meng Yao glanced sideways at Wei Wuxian. Wei Wuxian winked at him.

“Take your seats!” Lan Qiren said as he swept into the room. Meng Yao sank down at the desk behind Nie Huaisang.

The recitation of the Lan sect principles did indeed not require any prior knowledge. Meng Yao sat and listened respectfully while Lan Qiren listed off rule after rule after rule, some of which seemed quite excessive to Meng Yao. He could see that the point was to instill discipline and temperance, but even so. He found himself glad that the Nie sect did not have similar rules, because he doubted he would be able to follow them long-term. Actually he had trouble believing that anybody would be able to follow them long-term. Many of the disciples attending could barely even listen to them. Nie Huaisang was nodding off. Wei Wuxian was playing with a talisman shaped like a little paper man. Several of the others were doodling or yawning.

In this, Meng Yao was clearly better prepared than a lot of the other attendees. He remembered sitting at his mother’s feet for hours as a child, listening to her read poetry or recite from books. It hadn’t always interested him, but he had always been expected to sit quietly and listen attentively. 

The whole thing could have been summed up in the four words of the Lan sect motto of ‘be righteous, eradicate evil’ but Meng Yao figured he wasn’t the one in charge of the lectures so it wasn’t his business. He sat, and he listened, and he occasionally nudged Nie Huaisang before he could fall asleep and then fall over. 

When they broke for lunch, he sat down with Nie Huaisang and the trio from Yunmeng. Jiang Cheng was lecturing his brother for not properly paying attention, and Wei Wuxian was blowing him off while Jiang Yanli mediated and Nie Huaisang laughed behind his fan. Meng Yao certainly wasn’t about to get involved. In fact, he was distracted because he saw Lan Xichen entering the pavilion. He walked over to greet his brother and exchange a few words with him.

“What are you staring at?” Nie Huaisang asked, and Meng Yao automatically ducked his head, hoping his cheeks weren’t as pink as they felt. 

As if he had heard - and Meng Yao certainly hoped he hadn’t - Lan Xichen looked over at their group. He smiled and started walking towards them. Meng Yao tried not to hyperventilate. “Zewu-Jun,” he murmured, as the others said the same, bowing. 

“I hope you’re enjoying the lectures so far,” Lan Xichen said, in the tone of someone who absolutely knew that nobody present was enjoying the lectures so far.

“Oh, yes, definitely,” Wei Wuxian said, grinning.

Looking amused, Lan Xichen said, “I hope you’re all getting along with the other students.”

Meng Yao wasn’t sure if that was directed at him, as a subtle inquiry as to whether or not any of the Jin sect had given him any trouble, or at Wei Wuxian, who was clearly already locked into some sort of war of gay attrition with Lan Wangji. Either way, he smiled and said, “Of course,” and two of the others echoed him. He couldn’t help but sigh quietly as he watched Lan Xichen depart. Then he saw the way Nie Huaisang and Wei Wuxian were both smirking and wondered if he was in trouble.

If he was, at least they had the common courtesy not to bring it up while they were in the courtyard with so many other people. They headed back into the lecture hall, and were brought up short as Jiang Yanli and Jin Zixuan came face to face and spent a small eternity doing an ‘after you’, ‘no, after you’ dance. Wei Wuxian rolled his eyes so hard that he probably saw the back of his skull.

The remainder of the recitation took until midafternoon. As soon as it was over, Wei Wuxian said, “Nie-xiong, want to go find something to do?”

“Are you going to goof off the whole time you’re here?” Jiang Cheng immediately said, sounding annoyed. “We’re representing the Yunmeng Jiang. Aren’t you going to take that seriously?”

“Of course! But until there’s actual studying to do, why not have fun?” Wei Wuxian slung an arm around Nie Huaisang’s shoulders. “Right, Nie-xiong?”

“Please don’t encourage him,” Meng Yao said automatically. “Nie-gongzi can fool around more than enough without help from anybody else.”

“Aw, don’t be that way, Meng Yao!” Nie Huaisang said. “We’ll behave, I promise!”

Meng Yao glanced at Jiang Cheng, who looked like he was about to start astral projecting out of sheer irritation, and felt a sudden and unexpected kinship with him. As Jiang Yanli laughed quietly and Wei Wuxian and Nie Huaisang jogged away to find trouble to get into, Meng Yao couldn’t help but say, “It’s hard to be the one who takes things seriously.”

“Isn’t it?” Jiang Cheng said, with emphasis. “At least someone besides me understands that. I’m going to go meditate until I forget Wei Wuxian is bringing shame to our sect.”

“Solid plan. I’m going to study.”

That being said, he headed back to the guest house. He made himself tea and enjoyed the quiet, sitting down with the second volume and finishing it before the dinner hour. Nie Huaisang still wasn’t back, and Meng Yao made the decision not to go looking for him. He had a handful of notes he had taken, questions he needed to ask. After some debate, he decided to see if Lan Xichen had a few minutes. He had said that Meng Yao should come to him if he did, and that it would be easier to explain as he went along, which was almost certainly true.

Much to his relief, he found Lan Xichen easily enough, standing outside in the pavilion. Not so much of a relief was the fact that he was standing with several disciples, including Lan Wangji, and appeared involved in a serious discussion. Meng Yao hesitated and then decided he could not possibly interrupt, but perhaps he could wait a few minutes to see if they would keep talking for a long time. He half-hid himself behind one of the pillars and hoped he didn’t look like a stalker.

Fortunately, the two disciples did leave a few minutes later, and although Meng Yao didn’t really want to go over when Lan Wangji was there, he figured it would be safe. He approached hesitantly, but then relaxed when he saw Lan Xichen smile. Did Lan Xichen smile that way at everyone? He was genuinely such a friendly person. But the smile somehow seemed so personal.

“How are your studies going, Meng-gongzi?” he asked.

“Very well, thank you,” Meng Yao said. “I finished the volumes you gave me and I thought perhaps you might have a few minutes for some questions?” That seemed safe enough. Nobody else nearby would know the volumes were remedial; they would assume he was studying something that the lectures would be covering later.

“Of course,” Lan Xichen said. “Wangji, if you’ll excuse me.”

Lan Wangji nodded and walked away without saying anything. Meng Yao was worried that he had somehow offended him, but then he saw that Lan Xichen was biting back another smile. He followed Lan Xichen into the hanshi and politely accepted his offer of tea before asking his first question.

They talked about cultivation for about an hour. Meng Yao worried that some of his questions were silly, that these were things anybody should have known, but the topic was so fascinating that before long he had forgotten about that. Lan Xichen never made him feel self-conscious.

As they were nearly the end of a discussion, the hanshi door opened and Lan Qiren came in. He nodded to his nephew and then returned Meng Yao’s bow. Lan Xichen said, “Shufu, you may be interested in this – we are discussing the best ways to channel spiritual energy.” To Meng Yao, he added, “It seems like such a simple topic but there’s great debate over it even now. The Lan sect is somewhat unique in our use of music for cultivation, but we feel it gives us greater precision, and that sacrificing some force to do so is worth it.”

“The Nie sect and the Lan sect are quite different in that regard,” Meng Yao said, as he could not think of a single instance in which Nie Mingjue would sacrifice an ounce of force.

“That’s true.” Lan Xichen could clearly tell what he was thinking, because he looked amused. “Then there is of course the use of talismans, and even the pure expulsion of spiritual energy without even a talisman to guide it, which generally works best as a transfer from one person to another.”

“Like healing spiritual energy,” Meng Yao said with a nod.

“Yes, exactly,” Lan Xichen said.

Lan Qiren sat down with them and said, “You seem quite an excellent student, Meng-gongzi. Nie-zongzhu spoke very highly of you.”

Meng Yao felt his cheeks flush slightly and said, “I’m surely not worthy of such praise.”

“You are one of only three students in the classroom who actually paid attention throughout the entire lecture today,” Lan Qiren said, “and the other two were both from the Lan sect. Although we believe the recitation of the principles is key to understanding the discipline cultivation requires, it can be quite difficult to stay focused the entire time. I am aware that you are starting from a different place from the other students. If you have questions regarding the day’s lectures, you need only ask me after the others have been dismissed.”

Meng Yao bowed and said, “I truly appreciate all the trouble you’re going to for my sake.”

“Think nothing of it. We take our duty to educate the young masters of other sects very seriously.”

For a brief second, Meng Yao opened his mouth to say ‘I’m not a young master’ but then decided against it. Everyone seemed determined to treat him like one except those attending from the Lanling Jin, and there was only so much he could argue without being rude.

“Now, if you’ll excuse us, I have a matter I need to discuss with my nephew,” Lan Qiren said.

“Of course.” Meng Yao stood and bowed to both of them. “I look forward to class tomorrow,” he said, before taking his leave.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

 

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.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

Meng Yao certainly couldn’t go talk to anyone in the Jin sect about Jin Zixuan’s atrocious treatment of Jiang Yanli, and it was clear that neither Jiang Cheng nor Wei Wuxian were willing. He couldn’t blame them for that. So Jin Zixuan would continue to act like a spoiled brat, and that was all there was to it.

Unless, he supposed . . .

That evening, after his studying was finished, he went to the pavilion and tapped on the door of the hanshi. Lan Xichen looked pleased to see him as always, and he managed, for the first time, not to immediately start blushing in his presence. “What’s on your mind, Meng-gongzi?”

“Ah, I’ve been spending a bit of time with the members of the Yunmeng Jiang sect,” Meng Yao said, and Lan Xichen nodded. “They’re very grateful for the way you stepped in today. Jin-gongzi has behaved so poorly towards Jiang-guniang, but of course I can’t speak to him . . . I suppose I was wondering if you could step in. They would never ask you to, of course, but I’m concerned for them.”

“You’re so thoughtful, Meng-gongzi,” Lan Xichen said, and damn it, there was the blush. “His behavior is a little odd, I will admit. But despite being brought up as one of the ranking young masters, he seems to have very little experience interacting with his peers. Although most of the young masters are on friendly terms with each other, even the young master who came from Qishan, Jin-gongzi seems determined to only interact with those who came with him. Of course, my own brother is much the same way.”

“I think for very different reasons,” Meng Yao said.

“Granted, probably true. I have been trying to encourage him to make friends among the other young masters, but he has been resistant.”

“Despite Wei-gongzi’s best efforts,” Meng Yao said.

Lan Xichen laughed. “And he is persistent. Perhaps I’ll have a word with my uncle about assigning pairs at random – that would give both Wangji and Jin-gongzi some experience working with people outside their immediate circle.”

Meng Yao winced. He summoned up the backbone he had grown in Qinghe whenever Nie Mingjue had had a spectacularly bad idea, and said, “I do not think that is such a good idea, Zewu-Jun. It seems that it would only lead to arguments and poor performance in the exercises. If Wei-gongzi got paired up with Jin-gongzi . . . or if I got paired up with anyone in the Jin sect . . .”

“Ah, I suppose you’re correct,” Lan Xichen said. His eyes sparkled slightly and said, “That’s too bad. I was already thinking about how to rig the drawing so Wei-gongzi got paired up with Wangji.”

That made Meng Yao laugh. “How underhanded of you! Isn’t there a discipline against cheating?”

“Several,” Lan Xichen said. “But you can’t always rely on fate and chance . . . they have a lot to do! Sometimes you have to give things a little nudge in the right direction.”

Meng Yao laughed harder. “And forcing your poor brother to put up with Wei-gongzi’s antics is the right direction?”

“Trust me, Meng-gongzi, I know my brother. It’s very unlike him to let anyone underneath his skin like this. Normally he would just ignore them or avoid them. The way he treats Wei-gongzi is wholly different from how he behaves when he dislikes somebody. I am very invested in getting to the bottom of this.”

“Oh, I see,” Meng Yao chuckled. “To be honest, I’m not particularly interested in why Jin-gongzi is behaving the way he is. I just wish I could free poor Jiang-guniang from the engagement so she could find someone better suited for her.”

“Well, as noble a goal as that is,” Lan Xichen said, “I doubt anyone will be willing to cross Yu-furen, who is clearly set on the union.”

“Fair,” Meng Yao said with a sigh. He had never met Yu Ziyuan, but he had heard Nie Mingjue speak of her, with a great amount of respect. That meant she was probably terrifying. “Then instead of pairs, perhaps we could do some work in groups of three or four. That would allow Lan-xiansheng to assign them ‘randomly’,” he made air quotes with his hands, “and you could put Wei-gongzi and Lan-er-gongzi together but still have some people there as a buffer so they didn’t antagonize each other too badly. And Jin-gongzi could get some experience with people outside his sect, possibly including Jiang-guniang.”

“That’s an excellent idea, Meng-gongzi,” Lan Xichen said. “Although I don’t think my uncle is too keen on the idea of Wangji spending more time with Wei-gongzi. That’s a friendship he’s not going to encourage.”

Meng Yao shrugged. “He sent Lan-er-gongzi to the library after Wei-gongzi that time . . . he clearly thinks that Lan-er-gongzi should be able to set a good example for him and rein him in. Just mention that to him.”

“Another good point.” Lan Xichen smiled. “I see why Mingjue-xiong values you so much, Meng-gongzi.”

“Ah – ” Meng Yao flushed pink. “Thank you, Zewu-Jun.”

“And who would you like in your group?” Lan Xichen asked. “Seems only polite to let you choose your own, so you’ll be comfortable, after your help.”

“Oh, anyone is fine, as long as they’re not from the Jin sect,” Meng Yao said.

Lan Xichen’s gaze softened. “There’s not a single one of them you think you could get along with?”

“I could get along with all of them,” Meng Yao said. “I’m very skilled at getting along with people. I simply have no desire to do so after the way they’ve treated me.”

“All right,” Lan Xichen said. He seemed to understand that this was not an issue he could push. “I’ll speak to my uncle. Thank you for your counsel, Meng-gongzi. I’m sure the Jiang siblings will appreciate your assistance.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Three days later, Meng Yao was left with the inevitable conclusion that either he was an idiot, or Lan Xichen enjoyed teasing people too much.

He’d had the opportunity to choose his own group. He could have listed off a few inoffensive people. He even could have volunteered to work with Nie Huaisang and with Jiang Cheng, or various lower-ranked disciples who didn’t seem to care about his low birth. But instead, he’d said anyone was fine as long as they weren’t a member of the Jin sect, and now he was the poor bastard stuck trying to be a buffer between Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji.

A part of him was flattered, because he knew this was important to Lan Xichen, and it meant he was trusting Meng Yao to mediate and keep things from getting out of control. The other part of him yearned to be extremely far away from this drama. Wei Wuxian absolutely could not stop flirting and Lan Wangji had said ‘boring’ or ‘ridiculous’ three times and they had only been working together for four minutes.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the room, Jiang Cheng and Nie Huaisang were working with Luo Qingyang. That seemed like a good idea to Meng Yao. Luo Qingyang was obviously of the mind that Jin Zixuan should stop being a jerk to his fiancé, so opening up lines of communication between her and the Jiang sect was a good idea. She’d be less likely to talk to Jiang Yanli directly, as it might hurt her feelings, but she might talk to Jiang Cheng. On top of that, Nie Huaisang’s general fecklessness would keep the atmosphere casual.

“But why can’t we just – ” Wei Wuxian said, before rambling for several minutes about what he clearly thought was a great idea.

Lan Wangji glared daggers at him. “That is not how it is done.”

“Yeah, okay, I know that’s not how it’s normally done or how it’s been done, but it would be so much quicker and easier my way! Don’t you agree, Meng-xiong?”

Meng Yao wished he was back in Qinghe. “We shouldn’t invent shortcuts. These methods have been tried and tested, or else we wouldn’t be learning them.” He saw Lan Wangji give him a hesitantly approving look. “Even if your way is faster or easier, that doesn’t mean it won’t pose risks that the traditional way safeguards against.”

Wei Wuxian groaned. “Nobody here can think outside the box, that’s all.”

“Listen,” Meng Yao said, summoning up his ‘I’m the confident adviser to the leader of the Nie sect and I know what I’m talking about’ persona, “if you want to experiment with things on your own time, that’s your own business. But when you’re working in a group, you have to remember that it isn’t just your own grade at stake. Neither Lan-er-gongzi nor I want to be marked down because you, a sixteen-year-old, think you know better than a four-hundred-year-old textbook. Will you please just do the exercise with us? If you want to try your own methods later, Nie-gongzi and I will help you out.”

That made Wei Wuxian brighten. “Yeah, okay, I guess that’s fair. Fine, let’s do it the old fuddy-duddy way first.”

They managed to get through that without any major scarring, and once it was complete and they had turned in their results, Wei Wuxian immediately went back to flirting. Lan Wangji sat stone-faced, obviously wishing they could be dismissed, but Lan Qiren obviously intended to go over everyone’s results once all the groups had completed.

“Wei-gongzi, please,” Meng Yao said, pinching the bridge of his nose. This was harder than baby-sitting Nie Huaisang, and he’d never thought he would find anything harder than that.

“I keep telling you to call me Wei-xiong!” Wei Wuxian said. “You don’t need to be so formal!”

Lan Wangji, who had clearly decided that he found Meng Yao a much more tolerable person than Wei Wuxian, immediately glowered and said, “You do not get to dictate how formal someone would like to be. If he is more comfortable calling you Wei-gongzi, that is his business, not yours.”

“Okay, sure, normally I’d agree,” Wei Wuxian said amiably, “but Meng-xiong is only so formal because obnoxious people fed him terrible ideas about status and class his whole life. I’m trying to help him get past it.”

“Your idea of ‘help’ is terrible,” Lan Wangji told him icily.

“Listen, I’m just saying,” Wei Wuxian began.

“He’s right.” Meng Yao felt his cheeks burning, but he wanted to cut this discussion off at the knees before anyone else could overhear, or before Wei Wuxian thought to try this in a larger group. “Wei-gongzi, I appreciate your efforts, but you can’t make me comfortable using an informal form of address with you just by telling me it’s all right. I understand why you’re trying to include me in that way and I’m grateful, but I can’t.”

Wei Wuxian sighed. “I mean, I know how it feels. I’m the son of a servant, and there are people in my life who have never let me forget that. I just don’t like the idea of you feeling the same way around me.”

“I don’t,” Meng Yao said. “Honestly, Wei-gongzi, you have never made me feel that way. Quite the opposite. Like I said, I’m grateful. But please . . . if you understand the way it feels, surely you understand that it cannot be overcome so simply.”

For a moment, Wei Wuxian looked away. Then he nodded. “Yeah, I get that.”

He was clearly thinking of someone back home, someone who probably rubbed his face in his parentage all the time. Meng Yao knew the look and it didn’t surprise him. Wei Wuxian was a genius, and he was one of the most powerful cultivators of their generation. But there would always be people who would think he was a lesser person merely because of who his parents were. That pain, so awfully familiar to Meng Yao, didn’t surprise him.

What did surprise him was the look on Lan Wangji’s face. His icy glare had vanished and he was looking at Wei Wuxian with a soft sort of concern, and Meng Yao realized in that moment that Lan Xichen was right. Lan Wangji absolutely did, one hundred percent, return Wei Wuxian’s feelings. He might even feel more strongly about it than Wei Wuxian did. He just clearly had no idea how to cope with it, presumably because of repressed and isolated upbringing.

Well. That was interesting.

He put that at the back of his mind to mull over at a future time, and in order to keep things from getting awkward, said, “How is your sister feeling? I heard she was ill the other day.”

“Yeah, she gets mild fevers sometimes,” Wei Wuxian said, “but she’s fine now. Did you know Wen-guniang is a doctor? She seems very skilled.”

“Mm,” Meng Yao said, because truthfully he had been wondering for a few weeks where the Wen siblings were. They had come to attend the lectures, in theory, but he never saw either of them there. Wen Ning’s absences could be excused because he seemed frail himself, and had very low cultivation. Meng Yao had met him a few times because Wei Wuxian got along with him and invited him to hang out with them. But why wasn’t Wen Qing attending? A mystery.

When the class was over, Lan Wangji immediately huffed away, but Wei Wuxian naturally went over to his siblings, so Meng Yao followed. Nie Huaisang was beaming, probably because this was one of the first good grades he had gotten in the class. Sometimes Meng Yao didn’t get Nie Huaisang. He knew that Nie Huaisang was a lot smarter than he acted. But he applied absolutely zero effort to things that didn’t interest him. That baffled Meng Yao, who hated failing at anything, even if it was something he didn’t care about or had no reason to be good at.

“How did it go with Luo-guniang?” he asked, as they settled on their normal spot near the river.

“She was oddly pleasant,” Jiang Cheng said, frowning.

“Then try being pleasant back and maybe you can get Jin-gongzi to stop being a jerk to your sister,” Meng Yao said.

Jiang Cheng scowled the scowl of a man who didn’t want his sister’s fiancé to stop being a jerk. He wanted his sister’s fiancé to fall off a convenient cliff. Meng Yao sympathized.

They spent an hour or so testing out Wei Wuxian’s weird theories and finding that they were correct, for the most part. Wei Wuxian immediately left to go say ‘I told you so’ to Lan Wangji, an exercise that Meng Yao was sure would end well. Jiang Cheng, clearly having the same bad feeling about it, chased after him, leaving Meng Yao and Nie Huaisang by themselves.

Nie Huaisang was looking speculatively after them, and flipped open his fan. “So how are we going to get Lan-xiong and Wei-xiong to admit they have feelings for each other?” he asked, and then saw the look on Meng Yao’s face. “Ah, don’t be like that! I just thought it would be fun . . . I know we should leave them alone . . .”

“No, we’re absolutely doing this,” Meng Yao said, and Nie Huaisang’s face lit up with glee. “They clearly have no idea how to go about this and desperately need help. You could ask Lan-er-gongzi to help you study without it seeming too strange, right?”

“Oh, yeah, definitely,” Nie Huaisang said. “I can cry and say I think I’m going to fail and da-ge will be so mad at me . . .”

Meng Yao gave Nie Huaisang a sideways look. “That does sound likely, yes.”

“I’ll catch up, don’t be that way,” Nie Huaisang said, clearly unworried. “So the next day we don’t have lectures, I should ask him to come help me? At the guest house?”

Meng Yao nodded. “And I can get Wei-gongzi there.”

“And then we lock them in a closet together?” Nie Huaisang asked eagerly.

“What? No!” Meng Yao pinched the bridge of his nose. “Why, so they can kill each other? The goal is just to get them to spend time together where other people can’t see. If we ask them each over and then we’re conveniently a few minutes late, they’ll have to interact in private. Maybe they’ll get somewhere.”

“You’re no fun, Meng Yao,” Nie Huaisang said, but thankfully, let it go.

A few days later, they put the plan into action. Nie Huaisang played his part perfectly, getting one of his latest grades back and, without needing to act at all, fluttered anxiously about how poorly he was doing and how his brother was going to kill him. Lan Wangji reluctantly agreed to come tutor him the next day, although he extracted a promise from Nie Huaisang that he would work hard and stay focused.

That being accomplished, Meng Yao did not bother with subterfuge with Wei Wuxian, pulling him aside and saying, “Want to come to our study session tomorrow so you can shamelessly flirt with Lan-er-gongzi where Lan-xiansheng can’t see you?”

“I keep telling you, it’s not flirting,” Wei Wuxian said, laughing. “I just like to see him get flustered, that’s all. What Lan Zhan and I have transcends petty ideas like flirtation and infatuation. He’s the person who’s going to be my equal in life. We’re going to fight evil and bring justice to the world side by side!”

“Uh huh,” Meng Yao said. “Ever thought about him naked?”

Wei Wuxian’s eyes glazed over.

“Take your time,” Meng Yao said, amused.

“Uh,” Wei Wuxian said, his cheeks now flushing pink. “Why - why would you say that? Are - is that - what - now I can’t stop thinking about him naked! What have you done?”

Meng Yao shrugged.

“Well, just for that, you should think about Zewu-Jun naked!”

Having seen this retort coming a mile away, Meng Yao said calmly, “Whether or not I think about Zewu-Jun naked, or anyone else for that matter, is none of your business. Now, are you going to come study and flirt or not?”

“Of course I am but I’m holding you responsible for whatever happens.”

“I can live with that.”

What happened, in the long run, was Wei Wuxian completely lost his ability to form words and sentences once in a room with Lan Wangji. He stammered and teased and made an absolute fool of himself while Lan Wangji stared at him like he was from another world and Nie Huaisang and Meng Yao could barely contain their laughter from where they were watching from outside.

“What did you say to him?” Nie Huaisang asked, wiping the tears from his eyes as they retreated into the forest.

“I might have told him to think about Lan-er-gongzi naked.”

Nie Huaisang howled with laughter. “And you say I’m the troublemaker!”

The afternoon turned out to be quite an enjoyable one, because Lan Wangji kept trying to strong-arm Nie Huaisang into studying, while Wei Wuxian vacillated between staring at Lan Wangji with flushed cheeks and distracting Nie Huaisang, as if he could prolong the study session that way. When they both left a few hours later, Meng Yao and Nie Huaisang were in agreement that it had been an extremely productive use of their time.

Unfortunately for Meng Yao, it took Wei Wuxian less than twelve hours to marshall himself for a counter attack. The next afternoon after classes, when the four of them were sprawled out in their usual spot by the river, he said, “So Meng-xiong, how’s it going with you and Zewu-Jun?”

“It’s going fine,” Meng Yao said suspiciously. “I mean, in as much as anything is ‘going’. He’s been very kind in helping me settle in.”

Nie Huaisang immediately jumped on board the ‘time to torment Meng Yao’ train. “Isn’t he so elegant and beautiful? Truly, a superlative gentleman. Don’t you think it’s odd that he isn’t betrothed yet? He must be fielding offers from every young woman in China.”

Meng Yao absolutely did not want to get into a discussion of whether or not there was a reason Lan Xichen wasn’t looking to get married, so he responded with a noncommittal, “Hm.”

“He must be waiting for someone special,” Wei Wuxian said, so eagerly that he and Nie Huaisang had clearly coordinated their plan of attack ahead of time. “Ah, but Nie-xiong, your brother is even older than Zewu-Jun, isn’t he? And he’s not betrothed yet either. Perhaps it’s for the same reason.”

“Well, obviously not just anyone could measure up to my brother,” Nie Huaisang said. “It would take someone of the highest caliber.”

Jiang Cheng, who clearly had not been briefed on the plan ahead of time, broke in with, “Listen to you two, gossiping like old ladies. Next thing you know, you’ll be theorizing that Zewu-Jun and Chifeng-Zun are secretly in love with each other.”

Meng Yao felt his cheeks flush red, because that - that actually had some plausibility to it. He had heard Nie Mingjue speak in nothing but glowing terms of Lan Xichen, and Lan Xichen clearly felt some affection for him as well. He knew that they were close friends and had been for years, and, well, it was kind of unusual that neither of them were betrothed yet. Nie Mingjue, he knew, considered the whole idea of ‘marriage’ too much of a pain in the neck to bother with, but that couldn’t be Lan Xichen’s excuse.

For his part, Nie Huaisang just laughed. “Maybe so! Da-ge does hold Zewu-Jun in extremely high regard. What do you think, Meng Yao?”

“I think it’s none of our business,” Meng Yao said automatically.

He realized what a mistake that was a beat too late, when Wei Wuxian grinned and said, “Yesterday you seemed quite keen on poking your nose into other peoples’ relationships. Why the change of heart?”

Meng Yao wondered when he had lost control of the situation. Then he remembered that he was dealing with Wei Wuxian and Nie Huaisang, who seemed to have made some sort of unholy pact to be impossible to control. He quickly ran through his options. “Zewu-Jun and Nie-zongzhu are both sensible adults who can handle their own lives. You, on the other hand . . .”

Nie Huaisang, an equal opportunity shit-stirrer, laughed harder. “He’s got you there, Wei-xiong!”

“Like you can talk,” Wei Wuxian retorted. “You’re going to have to do these lectures all over again if you keep this up.”

“No, I won’t,” Nie Huaisang said, lazily waving his fan. “I’ll do just enough to get by. Right, Meng Yao?”

Meng Yao sighed. “He will. He’s extremely good at figuring out exactly how much effort is necessary and not putting in a gram more.”

Jiang Cheng shook his head at Nie Huaisang. “You’ll never bring glory to your sect that way.”

“That’s okay,” Nie Huaisang said amiably. “Da-ge gets enough glory for both of us.” He grinned and repeated, “Right, Meng Yao?”

With another sigh, Meng Yao gave up and said, “Right, Nie-gongzi.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

“No, it is definitely odd,” Wei Wuxian said, when Meng Yao hesitantly brought up his concern that the Wen siblings were there for some ulterior motive. “I’ve seen Wen-guniang up in the back hills a few times, too, in the forbidden areas.”

“Which you were in because . . .?” Meng Yao asked.

“I like to explore!” Wei Wuxian said, lifting his hands in surrender. “But Wen-guniang doesn’t seem like the type of person who does things for fun. She’s just like Jiang Cheng that way; that’s probably why they get along so well. I tried dropping a few hints for Wen Ning but he didn’t pick up on them. I don’t think he’d be able to hide it if I caught him in a lie, so he probably doesn’t know what she’s doing.”

“Mm,” Meng Yao agreed. “Oh, is that why you didn’t want Jiang-gongzi here for this discussion?”

“Well, that was partly just because he’s such a killjoy and I thought maybe you were about to propose something that might actually be fun,” Wei Wuxian said, laughing. “But yeah, he stares at her like she hung the moon, it’s really funny.”

“Like you can talk,” Meng Yao said.

“Like either of us can talk!” Wei Wuxian said. “Okay, seriously. No teasing. You and Zewu-Jun. What’s going on?”

“Nothing is going on,” Meng Yao said. “He’s a kind, generous man. Nie-zongzhu asked him to make sure I was accommodated at the lectures, since I started out from such a different place from the young masters. He’s gone out of his way to make sure I felt comfortable here, and that I had anything I needed. That’s it.”

“But you like him,” Wei Wuxian said.

“Of course I like him. As I just said, he’s a kind and generous man who has helped me tremendously. Why wouldn’t I like him?”

Wei Wuxian gave his shoulder a friendly shove. “Don’t be obtuse! You know what I mean.”

“What I know,” Meng Yao said, unable to keep a bit of a snap from his voice, “is that the first ranked young master isn’t going to marry someone who doesn’t even have a place in the gentry. Besides, I owe my loyalty and my allegiance to Nie-zongzhu, after everything he’s done for me. I won’t be staying in Cloud Recesses.” He changed the subject, before Wei Wuxian could continue to push. “Perhaps I’ll speak to him about Wen-guniang. He should know she was in the forbidden areas. I assume you didn’t tell anyone because you couldn’t without admitting you were up there yourself.”

“Hm? Oh, no, I just figured it wouldn’t be fair to tattle on her,” Wei Wuxian said, and Meng Yao rolled his eyes. “Ugh, and speaking of your shitty family – ”

“We weren’t,” Meng Yao muttered.

“Yesterday Mianmian came by our guest house, right? She and shijie are making friends, which is fine I guess – Mianmian seems really nice, so how she puts up with that pouting peacock is beyond me – anyway she was saying that Jin-gongzi’s just upset because he’s been fed the same status bullshit we both have our whole lives. Which I guess is fair. And that he would have been upset no matter who his betrothed was, that no woman would ever have been good enough for him, but it’s not personal. Which, frankly, I think makes him still a jerk. But it seemed to cheer shijie up, so I guess there’s that.”

“That does actually make sense to me,” Meng Yao said. “Jin-gongzi was clearly raised being given the absolute best of everything. I doubt any woman could have met his standards.”

“At least they aren’t Jiang Cheng’s!” Wei Wuxian laughed. “His ideal woman has a list of attributes longer than my arm. Helpful, gentle, quiet – ”

“But he likes Wen-guniang?” Meng Yao asked, arching his eyebrows. He had only met Wen Qing once, but he didn’t think those words could possibly apply to her.

“Go figure, right?” Wei Wuxian just laughed harder. “Anyway, Mianmian said that now that Jiang-guniang is actually a person Jin Zixuan knows, instead of a concept, he’s realizing that he’s been a total dick and wants to apologize but also was taught his whole life that men like him never have to apologize for anything, so – ” Wei Wuxian waved a disgusted hand. “She’s working on him.”

“I wish her the best of luck,” Meng Yao said dryly.

Wei Wuxian sprawled back into his chair. “But that sort of made me wonder if the same thing might apply to you.”

“How so?” Meng Yao asked, frowning.

“Well – your whole life, you’ve just been a concept to Jin Zixuan. His illegitimate half-brother. But now he’s actually getting to see you as a real person.”

Meng Yao shrugged. “So what?”

“So, I don’t know. Maybe he’ll stop being a dick to you, too.”

“Jin-gongzi has never been a dick to me. He’s never even acknowledged my existence.”

Wei Wuxian looked dubious. “I mean, isn’t that in and of itself kind of dickish?”

“I guess. But I don’t care how Jin-gongzi feels about me. In his shoes, I wouldn’t like me any better. Every time he looks at me, he has to live with the knowledge of how disrespectful his father was to his mother. That’s not a fun thing for him to think about.” Meng Yao saw the confused look on Wei Wuxian’s face. “I don’t need Jin-gongzi to be my brother, Wei-gongzi. I don’t care about that.”

“But wouldn’t you like having a brother?” Wei Wuxian asked. “I mean, I have one, and it’s great.”

Meng Yao had to admit that he was a little amused at how Wei Wuxian would extol the virtues of brotherhood when, as far as he could tell, he had made it his life’s work to annoy Jiang Cheng as much as possible. But more than anything else, he was torn between being annoyed at Wei Wuxian’s naïveté and an emotion he couldn’t quite put his finger on. “Jin-gongzi is never going to be my brother, because I’m never going to be accepted into the Jin sect. That’s all there is to it.”

“I mean, you never know – ”

“I do know,” Meng Yao said, and forced a smile. “Please don’t worry so much about it, Wei-gongzi. Nie-zongzhu clearly intends for me to have a place in the Nie sect as a disciple, and after everything he’s done for me, I would be rude not to support him. Would you ever want to leave the Yunmeng Jiang, after Jiang-zongzhu took you in?”

“No, never!” Wei Wuxian said. “So all right, I see your point. You’re probably better off without that peacock, anyway.”

“Mm,” Meng Yao agreed. He stood and said, “I’m going to go see if Zewu-Jun is free, so I can let him know Wen-guniang has been poking around in the back hills. I’ll see you in class tomorrow.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

Meng Yao often went down in the evening to see Lan Xichen, just to have tea and discuss the day’s classes with him. Lan Xichen had reassured him multiple times that he enjoyed the company and that Meng Yao wasn’t being a bother, but he always felt somewhat hesitant. He was glad to have something to discuss with him that actually seemed important.

None of the other students did anything like this, of course, but Meng Yao had gotten into the habit over the previous month. He would be studying the advance materials - which Lan Qiren was now giving him more so he could get ahead of the class rather than catch up to them - and have a question. Since Lan Xichen seemed to enjoy their intellectual discussions, he felt less awkward about approaching him. Then one evening Lan Xichen had said that Nie Mingjue had mentioned that Meng Yao was quite good at weiqi, and asked if he wanted to play a game or two. Before Meng Yao was entirely sure of what was happening, he was spending almost every evening in the hanshi, playing weiqi and just . . . talking. It was an extremely odd feeling for him. He had never really had any friends. Although Nie Huaisang had always treated him courteously, Meng Yao had always felt the gulf between them even when Nie Huaisang didn’t. That, plus Nie Huaisang’s general demeanor, had always led to him feeling more like a baby-sitter than a friend. Lately, things had been shifting between the two of them - getting to the point where Meng Yao was more likely to laugh at Nie Huaisang’s ridiculous slacking off than try to chide him into working. And of course he was now friends with Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng as well.

But Lan Xichen was different. He was so far above Meng Yao that he might as well have been the moon in the sky, but somehow after five minutes in his presence, Meng Yao always found himself forgetting that. Something about Lan Xichen, his kindness and his respect, erased the chasm of class that Meng Yao was always so keenly aware of with everyone else. 

It didn’t matter, he reminded himself daily, nightly. He spoke truly when he said he would not want to leave Nie Mingjue, after everything Nie Mingjue had done for him. Nie Mingjue had invested in him, and it would be rude not to let him reap the benefits. But there were times when Meng Yao felt that leaving Cloud Recesses was going to be one of the hardest things he would ever do in his life.

“Meng-gongzi, please, come in,” Lan Xichen said, smiling his beautiful smile. “How were your classes today?”

They chatted for a few minutes while Lan Xichen set up the weiqi board. It had been clear to Meng Yao after the first few games that although Lan Xichen enjoyed strategy games, he wasn’t anywhere near as talented at them as Nie Mingjue or Meng Yao. He had felt awkward about winning, and always tried not to thrash him as badly as he was capable of.

“I wanted to ask you,” Meng Yao said, as the game began, “about the Wen siblings.”

Lan Xichen’s smile didn’t change. “What about them?”

“I was thinking of how odd it was that they made that big display when they came in, but since then, neither of the siblings have actually attended any of the lectures,” Meng Yao said. “I wasn’t sure if you knew this, but Wen-guniang has been going up into the forbidden areas in the back hills.”

“It doesn’t surprise me.” Lan Xichen placed a piece on the board. “But thank you for letting me know, Meng-gongzi. I assume you heard about it from Wei-gongzi?”

Meng Yao couldn’t help but laugh. “He thinks he’s so clever.”

That made Lan Xichen laugh, too. “He’s going to be a fine cultivator, but I do hope that he might mature out of his impulsive, reckless streak . . . at least a little. Which reminds me, I wanted to ask you, was there some change between Wei-gongzi and Wangji that I should be aware of? Wangji said he has been acting a little . . . differently.”

Meng Yao was absolutely not about to admit to Lan Xichen that he had told Wei Wuxian to think about Lan Wangji naked, so he said, “How so?”

“Less likely to tease and more likely to devolve into complete gibberish.”

“Uh huh.” Meng Yao did his best not to dissolve into laughter. “Oh dear. I think I broke him.”

Lan Xichen chuckled. “How so?”

“For someone who is so clever, Wei-gongzi is also dense as a brick,” Meng Yao said. “I think he truly believed he just liked to see Lan-er-gongzi get flustered because he got annoyed so easily. Also, because Wei-gongzi was still miffed about losing that jar of alcohol on his way in.”

“Of course he was,” Lan Xichen said, amused.

“So I might have pointed out to him that he was acting like a bird putting on mating displays,” Meng Yao said, and Lan Xichen nearly spit out a mouthful of tea. This was true; Meng Yao and Nie Huaisang had mercilessly roasted Wei Wuxian after the ‘study session’ for his showing off, particularly the way he had sprawled on any piece of furniture that he felt he could display himself against. “And since then he hasn’t been able to look at Lan-er-gongzi without turning bright red and losing his ability to string words into a sentence.”

Lan Xichen was laughing so hard he could barely speak. “Ah, I’m sorry, Meng-gongzi, it’s just - I am so vividly picturing this now - ”

“It’s been hilarious, honestly,” Meng Yao said. “I don’t think Lan-er-gongzi has any idea what to do with it. He just stares at him like he’s possessed or something.”

“I think he’s been genuinely concerned,” Lan Xichen said, and they both laughed even harder. “What excellent progress we’ve made.”

Once they had both calmed down, Meng Yao studied Lan Xichen for a few moments. He could not help but note how immediately and thoroughly Lan Xichen had deflected off the subject of the Wen siblings. But it was really none of his business. Whatever the Wen siblings were here for, Lan Xichen was clearly aware that there was something going on. It would be rude of Meng Yao to press the issue.

So instead of returning to the issue, he said, “And we’re barely even halfway through the lectures. Hopefully sometime in the next week, Wei-gongzi’s ability to speak will return to him and we can go from there.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Two days later, Lan Qiren was handing back tests. He gave Meng Yao his and said, “Congratulations on the best score in the class, Meng-gongzi,” and Meng Yao could not help but preen. 

He caught several members of the Jin sect looking at him in disgust, and one of them muttered, “Teacher’s pet,” and he was momentarily floored. It was the exact same tone of voice in which people normally said ‘son of a whore’ or ‘bastard’, but instead . . . teacher’s pet. And he knew that a great deal of their resentment stemmed from the fact that he was the bastard son of a whore, but it wasn’t their focus. Their focus was that he was better than them. That he was being praised openly, that he was in the favor of the great Lan-xiansheng. They envied him.

“Look at that shit-eating grin he’s got,” Wei Wuxian said quietly, laughing. “Seriously, Meng-xiong, you look like the cat that ate the canary.”

“Ah, Meng Yao, won’t you tutor me?” Nie Huaisang asked, before dissolving into snickers. “You’re so much smarter than the rest of us . . . how can we mere mortals ever measure up?” he added, and both of them laughed harder.

“As if you would learn a damn thing if I tutored you,” Meng Yao said, pleased with himself despite their teasing. Sometimes it could get on his nerves, but most of the time it didn’t. They teased him the exact same way they teased each other, like a friend, like an equal. It was hard to get annoyed about that.

Of course, sometimes it very much did get on his nerves, like when they decided to play some ridiculous game while he was trying to study after lectures that day. “Are you two going to be at this nonsense for a while?” he asked, and they both laughed and said yes, they would indeed be at their nonsense for a while. He huffed a little and decided to study outside. The weather was good, and the little courtyards and nooks tucked away in the hills of Cloud Recesses could be very peaceful.

He had been there for about an hour, having ended up deeply immersed in a book Lan Qiren had given him - a subject tangentially related to the lecture but not something they would actually go over - when he felt eyes on him. He looked up to see one of the young masters from the Jin sect scowling at him from down the path. Seeing no reason to be rude - well, a lot of reasons to be rude but none that wouldn’t get him in some sort of trouble - Meng Yao stood and bowed. “Can I help you with something?”

“Sure, you can help me,” the Jin disciple said. “How about you remember your place for once?”

Meng Yao’s jaw tightened. He resolved not to apologize. There was no reason he should not do well in class. “As the Gusu Lan sect allowed me to attend lectures, it would be rude not to apply myself diligently,” he said. “Therefore I will continue to do so. If you’ll excuse me.”

He walked back towards the pavilion, stepping around the young master who was blocking the path. But as soon as he rounded the curve, he saw two more of them. When he glanced over his shoulder, he saw that the one he had passed coming up behind him.

“Are we going to have a problem?” he asked, keeping his voice soft and polite. He had learned this in Qinghe. Even given his elevated position, people there had liked to push him around. He could fight if he had to, but it was always better to deescalate. But at the same time, he still couldn’t bring himself to apologize or ask forgiveness.

“We already have one,” one of the disciples said.

“What are you doing?” a sharp-voice asked, and someone else rounded the curve to see the three men surrounding Meng Yao. Luo Qingyang.

“This isn’t your business, Mianmian,” one of the men said. “Go back to kissing Jin-gongzi’s feet.”

Luo Qingyang put her hands on her waist. “What are you harassing him for? Are you really that upset that he got a good score on a test?”

“He needs to remember that he’s just the bastard son of a whore!”

“I really never forget,” Meng Yao murmured despite his better judgment.

One of them lashed out, delivering a solid blow to his shoulder. There was enough spiritual power in it to send him staggering. But he recovered quickly. He had trained in Qinghe. Nie Mingjue did not skimp when it came to the physical combat portion of cultivation; the Qinghe Nie were the best trained soldiers in the world. Meng Yao might have been the son of a whore, but when it came to a physical altercation, he was a world above these three soft fools who sat in a gilded tower and looked down on others.

He struck back in two directions at once, aiming for the knee of one of the men with his foot and the throat of one of the others with his hand. Both blows connected. But he was brought up short when the remaining man grabbed the strap of his bag, in which he had been carrying his books. He was twisted around and the books went scattering onto the muddy ground. Meng Yao hissed out a curse but used the momentum to deliver another blow. Within less than a minute, two of the men were on the ground, groaning.

The third pulled his sword.

Meng Yao almost couldn’t believe it. A petty, schoolyard fight, and this goon was pulling a blade on a clearly unarmed man. In the second it took him to process, he ran through his options and found them limited. He twisted to avoid the first slash and grabbed one of the books off the ground, using it to deflect the second, wincing as the sword cut through about half the paper. The book was flung aside and there was a stark moment where he realized he was in real trouble.

There was a clash of metal on metal as Meng Yao stumbled backwards in an attempt to avoid the blow and landed on his ass in the mud.

“What are you doing?” Jin Zixuan demanded furiously. “Drawing your sword in Cloud Recesses? Attacking an unarmed man? Is this how a disciple of the Lanling Jin should behave? Sheathe your sword before I break it in two.”

Luo Qingyang came up behind them and went around them, helping Meng Yao to his feet. “Are you all right?” she asked.

He winced slightly. He knew he had bruises, and his lip was definitely bleeding, but his real concern was his shoulder. The first blow had hurt badly, and when they had twisted him around by his bag, it had been pulled out of its socket. He couldn’t move his fingers. “Ah, I’m not badly injured, just my shoulder. I think it’s dislocated.”

Jin Zixuan looked over his shoulder somewhat anxiously, as the disciple he had kept from pressing the fight further sulkily sheathed his sword. “Wen-guniang’s cabin isn’t far, and I’ve heard she has some medical skill. Mianmian, will you take him there? I’ll deal with these three.”

Luo Qingyang nodded, and then Meng Yao looked around. “Ah, the books . . . I got them all muddy . . .” He could not help but cringe, thinking of Lan Xichen’s serene assurance that he was welcome to take anything from the library. He bent down to collect them with his good arm, and Luo Qingyang helped, tucking them into one of her spirit pouches.

A few minutes later, he was sitting down in the cabin that the Wen siblings were staying in. If there were nefarious plots afoot, he certainly didn’t see any evidence of them. There were some books and some plants, and everything looked very comfortable.

But he supposed that whatever the Wen siblings were up to, it wasn’t necessarily at odds with the Lan sect just because it was a secret. Maybe they were trying to help with something that Lan Xichen didn’t want anyone to know about. Stranger things had happened, he supposed.

“Definitely dislocated,” Wen Qing said after a brief examination. “A-Ning, put some water over to boil, please,” she called out, and then: “Luo-guniang, help me brace him.”

Meng Yao winced as Wen Qing gave his shoulder a sharp push back into position, then wiggled his fingers and nodded. “Thank you very much, Wen-guniang.”

“It will need support for a few days, to keep it from sliding back out of place,” Wen Qing said, and fashioned a sling for him. He sighed, because he really did not want to draw attention to his injuries. But with his bruised face and split lip, it was inevitable that people would notice, so there was no point in risking aggravation to his shoulder injury.

She made him some tea with medicinal herbs and said, “This will help reduce pain and swelling.” She gave him two little packets and told him to have one more before he went to bed and then another in the morning. “After that you should be fine. Keep the sling on until you go to bed the day after tomorrow.”

Meng Yao nodded and thanked her again. 

“I really am sorry about everything,” Luo Qingyang said, as they headed back to the main pavilion. “I don’t know where our sect finds these people. Honestly . . .”

“Don’t worry about it,” Meng Yao said. “And thank you, for bringing Jin-gongzi to my rescue. I appreciate it very much.”

When they got to the main pavilion, the three perpetrators were already there, kneeling on the sharp stones in a line, all of them looking sulky. Meng Yao could not help but roll his eyes. Then Lan Xichen saw him and rushed over. “Your face,” he said, gently touching Meng Yao’s lip where it was split and completely doing away with Meng Yao’s ability to form words. “Are you all right?”

“Uh huh,” Meng Yao said, mostly because he lacked the mental capacity for ‘never better’.

“Come inside,” Lan Xichen said, ushering him away from the men in their Jin robes. Jin Zixuan was already there, looking ill-at-ease, along with Lan Qiren. “It probably won’t surprise you to hear that those three men said you were extremely rude to them, forcing them to defend their honor with their fists.

His faculties returning, Meng Yao rolled his eyes again. “Yes, I purposefully picked a fight with three men at once, because I’m just that clever.”

Lan Qiren gave a snort. 

“Mianmian already told me what happened,” Jin Zixuan said to Meng Yao, “so you needn’t worry. You’re lucky she overheard the conversation.”

Meng Yao realized that Jin Zixuan was right. He was extremely lucky. He hadn’t thought about it, because he had known Lan Xichen and Lan Qiren would believe him. But from the perspective of the Jin sect, it would have been easy for them to believe that Meng Yao, being of an indecent background, was at fault for the incident. He had forgotten, for the briefest of moments, that the world was not like Cloud Recesses. “I appreciate it very much.”

“And given that you beat two out of the three of them . . .” Lan Xichen’s smile was returning. “I see that Mingjue-xiong has made sure you are more than competent in physical combat.”

“Well, it is the Qinghe Nie,” Meng Yao said, and Lan Xichen laughed. Meng Yao glanced at the door to the hanshi and said, “What’s going to happen to them?”

“The punishment for fighting in Cloud Recesses is one hundred strikes with the bastinado,” Lan Qiren said. “The one who drew his sword will be sent back to Lanling and not allowed to return, now or in the future.”

Meng Yao nodded. “I don’t really want to be here when you tell them that.”

“I’ll walk you back to your guest house,” Lan Xichen said, and gestured for Meng Yao to follow. He didn’t speak again until they had left the pavilion. “You’re truly all right? Your arm - is it broken?”

“No. The shoulder was dislocated. Wen-guniang said the arm should be supported for a few days to make sure it did not slide back out of joint, that’s all. I’m fine, Zewu-Jun, honestly. I’m more upset about the books - ” He had to look away. “I had several from the library but they tore the bag open and they fell into the mud. Then I used one to deflect a sword blow and it was further damaged . . . I’m very sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry,” Lan Xichen said. “It wasn’t your fault.”

Meng Yao still wouldn’t look at him. “Wasn’t it, though? I became arrogant . . . I was doing so well in class that I began to show off. I forgot my place . . .”

“Your place?” Lan Xichen sounded affronted. “Your place was in the classroom, studying diligently and doing the best you could.”

“But it isn’t.” Meng Yao felt the lump in his throat harden. “That’s what you don’t seem to understand, you and Wei-gongzi and Nie-gongzi - that I can’t just be given that. I can’t just be accepted by everyone because you say so. No matter how clever I am, no matter how high my grades are, there will always be people who only see my mother. I am very grateful for everything you and Lan-xiansheng and Nie-zongzhu have tried to give me but it just doesn’t work that way.”

“Meng-gongzi,” Lan Xichen said, “all we are giving you is the opportunity to prove yourself. To earn a place in the gentry on your own merit - not because of who either of your parents are. Many sects have high-ranking disciples who weren’t born in the gentry. It’s about the ability to cultivate; the ability to eradicate evil and protect the innocent. It should never be about anything else. And yes, there are some small-minded people in the world who don’t see it that way. But they are wrong, pure and simple. If someone came up to you tomorrow and said the sky is orange, would you accept that as a matter of opinion? Of course not. Some things are facts. And the fact is, you are an amazingly intelligent, strong, brave young man who would be an asset to any sect - even the ones who will never deserve you.”

Meng Yao had to swallow hard, and finally managed to whisper, “Thank you.”

“Don’t take their small-minded jealousy to heart,” Lan Xichen said. “The books can be mended. And please, don’t let it affect your performance in class. Believe me, my uncle is greatly enjoying having a student as industrious as you. If you were to let your grades drop just to make those men feel better about themselves, he would be extremely upset.”

After a moment, Meng Yao finally managed to smile. “I would hate to disappoint him.”

They had reached the small guest house that Meng Yao was sharing with Nie Huaisang. “Stay in and rest this evening,” Lan Xichen told him. “We can play weiqi tomorrow. All right?”

Meng Yao nodded. “All right. Thank you, Zewu-Jun.”

As soon as he went inside, Nie Huaisang and Wei Wuxian were immediately all over him, demanding to know what had happened. First he had to explain, then he had to talk Wei Wuxian out of going to beat the crap out of the perpetrators. “They’re receiving their punishment as we speak,” he said. “I don’t think anything you can do after a hundred strikes with a bastinado is going to make a difference.”

“Then I’ll go beat up Jin-gongzi,” Wei Wuxian declared, “just on general principle.”

Amused, Meng Yao said, “That would be fairly rude, since he’s the one who stepped in and kept me from being seriously hurt.”

“Ugh, fine,” Wei Wuxian muttered. “I’m gonna go find Lan Zhan and see if he wants to fight. He always wants to fight about something. Maybe if I break a few disciplines in front of him, I can work off some steam.”

“There are surely better ways to work off steam with Lan-er-gongzi than fighting him,” Meng Yao said, and Wei Wuxian walked into the door frame on his way out.

Nie Huaisang laughed, but as soon as Wei Wuxian was gone, he gave Meng Yao a worried look. “You’re really okay? And I don’t mean your injuries, obviously those have been tended to. But I know that it can bother you, the way people treat you . . .”

“I was upset,” Meng Yao admitted, “but Zewu-Jun said such kind things to me that now I’m fine.”

The concern was immediately replaced by that sly amusement that Nie Huaisang often wore which never boded well. “Ah, did he? Come on, Meng Yao, Zewu-Jun or da-ge? Who do you like better?”

“I keep telling you, I do not like either of them better,” Meng Yao said.

“Both, then?” Nie Huaisang grinned. “You’d like both?”

“Whatever dream world you’re living in where I’d get to have either, let alone both, will you please return to reality?”

“Both,” Nie Huaisang said, with clear satisfaction. “I see how pink your cheeks are.”

“Please, Nie-gongzi,” Meng Yao said, “I’m injured.”

“Both,” Nie Huaisang whispered.

Meng Yao went to lie down.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

The next morning in class, everyone had to ask a hundred questions about what had happened the day before. Rumor had spread quickly, which didn’t surprise Meng Yao since the punishment would have drawn a lot of attention. The three perpetrators weren’t in class – one had surely already left Cloud Recesses, and the other two would need several days to recover from their punishment – but nobody seemed to feel sorry for them. Any admiration they might have gotten for trying to put Meng Yao in his place was offset by the fact that they had miserably failed at doing so.

Still, Meng Yao thought he might want to keep a low profile for a few days. There was no point in antagonizing people who were already upset. He also made a mental note not to go anywhere by himself for at least a week. The short walk between his guest house and the main pavilion to visit with Lan Xichen would be risky enough, and he suspected that Lan Xichen would insist on walking him back at the end of the evening.

“I’m writing da-ge,” Nie Huaisang said cheerfully, “to let him know you fought off three attackers at once! He’ll be very proud of you.”

“I mean, I did need to be rescued,” Meng Yao pointed out.

“Only because the coward drew his sword,” Nie Huaisang said, undaunted.

“Fair enough,” Meng Yao said.

Since he didn’t want to spend a lot of time alone, he wound up back at the Yunmeng trio’s guest house after classes, trying to get them to let him study. He wanted to do his usual reading before the lecture the next day.

“What’s the point in trying to learn everything before Lan-xiansheng even teaches it to us?” Wei Wuxian asked, looking over the papers. “Won’t he go over all of this with us?”

“Yes, but I like to be prepared,” Meng Yao said, smiling as Jiang Yanli put a cup of tea in front of him. “Thank you, Jiang-guniang.”

Jiang Cheng punched Wei Wuxian in the shoulder and said, “You should try learning from his example. If you did the reading ahead of time, maybe when Lan-xiansheng asked you a question, you wouldn’t make up some outlandish answer and annoy him.”

“My answers are never outlandish,” Wei Wuxian said.

“You’re right,” Meng Yao said. “ ‘Outlandish’ is far too weak a word for what your answers are.”

Wei Wuxian pouted, and then looked up as there was a knock on the door. Jiang Yanli got up and went to answer it, and the lengthy awkward silence clued everybody in to the fact that it was Jin Zixuan. Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes so hard that he probably detached one in its socket before he went to the door and bowed. “Were you here to visit my sister?” he asked, staring hard at Jin Zixuan.

“I, uh . . . actually wanted to speak with Meng Yao . . .” Jin Zixuan looked flustered to have been greeted this way, obviously now wondering if he should be there to visit Jiang Yanli.

Jiang Cheng just rolled his eyes again as Meng Yao stood up, leaving his study materials where they were and hoping that Nie Huaisang wouldn’t replace them with pornography. He gave Jin Zixuan his most harmless, inoffensive smile, and bowed. “What is it, Jin-gongzi?”

“Ah . . .” Jin Zixuan cleared his throat. “Can we speak privately?”

“Certainly,” Meng Yao said, despite the fact that it looked like the others wanted to say no. He left the guest house and headed into the courtyard with Jin Zixuan.

Still stiffly formal, Jin Zixuan said, “I wanted to apologize for the behavior of my disciples yesterday. It was unacceptable.”

Meng Yao’s eyebrows went up. He wasn’t sure exactly what he had been expecting, but it certainly wasn’t that. “Please don’t trouble yourself over it, Jin-gongzi. You weren’t responsible, and you did step in and keep me from being seriously harmed.”

Looking more ill-at-ease with every second that passed by, Jin Zixuan said, “As true as that may be, I hope you will not hold it against the Lanling Jin in the future.”

Meng Yao was taken aback despite himself. Jin Zixuan was treating him like his opinion actually mattered. It was true, he supposed, that at this point it had to be obvious that he was in the favor of both the Lan sect and the Nie sect, but even so - if Jin Zixuan was worried about their reaction, he would apologize directly to them - as he had no doubt already apologized to Lan Xichen. That, along with the frankly adorable idea that this was what was going to tip the Lanling Jin over on the scales as a sect he was at odds with, led to him being more frank than he meant to be. “What does it matter if I do? Jin-zongzhu made it abundantly clear that nothing about me matters to the Lanling Jin. If I hold a grudge over this, it won’t make any difference at all.”

Jin Zixuan flushed pink. “My father . . . that is, our father . . . I can understand why he did not want you in the sect, but his rejection was carried out in such a cruel manner . . .”

“I understand, too.” Meng Yao felt suddenly impatient with Jin Zixuan’s naivete, with his poor social skills, with his subtle defense of what Jin Guangshan had done. “I understand he’s probably got dozens of bastards, and if he lets one in through the door, he’ll have to let them all in. But I don’t see how that’s my problem. Maybe if he didn’t want that to happen, he should have been more careful. But instead, he made an example out of me by throwing me down the steps of Koi Tower, and now as a result, getting a good grade in a class that people don’t believe I should even be allowed to attend is punishable by execution. Was there anything else you needed, Jin-gongzi?”

“It - it’s not - ”

“Yes, it is. Don’t tell me what my life is or is not; don’t tell me what those men yesterday were trying to do. Setting aside how appallingly stupid it was to attack me like that here at Cloud Recesses, that’s exactly what they meant to do, and the reason they felt they could get away with it is because of what your father did to me. Because do you know what? If they had succeeded, and Zewu-Jun and Lan-xiansheng and Nie-zongzhu had all been furious and wanted them punished, he would have claimed it was an internal matter for the Lanling Jin. He would have protected them. He’s probably already furious that the one who drew on me has been exiled from Cloud Recesses. They knew they could rely on him to protect them, even favor them, if they murdered me in cold blood so don’t you tell me what it is or is not!”

Jin Zixuan said nothing, his face pale but the tips of his ears red.

“So don’t apologize for what they did,” Meng Yao said, still struggling with his temper. “It was well within the rights their sect leader gave them. And don’t worry about my future relationship with the Lanling Jin because I will never have one. If you’re concerned about how the Qinghe Nie or Gusu Lan will feel about the actions of those men, go apologize to them. It’s been made abundantly clear to me that my opinions don’t matter to your sect and never will.”

“Ah . . .” Jin Zixuan didn’t seem to know what to say. 

“Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go back to my studies, because if I’m going to risk my life to attend these classes, I’m going to do well in them,” Meng Yao said. He didn’t wait for Jin Zixuan to confirm that he was excused, but turned and went back into the Jiang guest house.

He was only aware of how he had raised his voice when he saw everyone inside staring at him, and immediately flushed red. “Oh, I - I’m sorry to have disturbed you, I just - ”

“That was awesome!” Wei Wuxian immediately said. “Damn, you really gave it to him! I would have just started swearing incoherently, but you, like, you had a speech prepared - ”

Feeling marginally better, Meng Yao admitted quietly, “I had been keeping it inside for a long time.”

“Does it feel better, having gotten it on the outside?” Nie Huaisang asked.

“Much, yes, as foolish as it probably was,” Meng Yao said. 

“I don’t think it was foolish,” Jiang Cheng said. “Someone had to lay him out if he was ever going to learn, and none of the rest of us could get away with it.”

“I’m not sure I can get away with it,” Meng Yao said, and sighed.

“Give me a break!” Wei Wuxian laughed. “You don’t see any of the rest of us playing weiqi with Zewu-Jun or having after class discussions with Lan-xiansheng. You don’t see the rest of us being adviser to the great Chifeng-Zun. Pretty sure that you’re going to be just fine.”

Meng Yao could only hope so. 

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Over the next few days, nobody in the Lanling Jin would even look at Meng Yao, which frankly was fine with him. His bruises faded. He studied and played weiqi and wrote a letter to Nie Mingjue to reassure him that no matter what sort of dramatic tale Nie Huaisang had written, he was fine. 

After a week had gone by, things had returned more or less to normal. Lan Qiren departed for a cultivation conference, so they had a few days without lectures. Meng Yao was looking forward to spending them in the library and the hanshi and hopefully not getting dragged into too many antics by the others. Probably a hopeless endeavor, he thought, since Nie Huaisang had reacted to the break in classes as a prime opportunity to go back to trapping Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji in a closet together.

As Meng Yao entered the main pavilion, figuring he could read outside there without being in any danger of an attack, he saw Lan Xichen and Lan Wangji talking seriously to a few disciples. It looked like Lan Xichen was giving orders, so when the disciples departed, Meng Yao asked, “Is something the matter?”

“Ah, Meng-gongzi, what excellent timing,” Lan Xichen said, smiling. “There are some water ghosts in Biling Lake that are causing a problem. Wangji and I were going to go take a look. Would you like to join us?”

Lan Wangji gave his brother a sideways look. Meng Yao wondered if Lan Wangji was only just now emerging from his Wei Wuxian induced haze to realize that his brother and Meng Yao were friends. 

“Would it really be all right?” Meng Yao asked. “I haven’t really done any actual night hunting. I still don’t even have a sword . . .”

Lan Xichen smiled and said, “Then this will be an excellent opportunity for you to start. Don’t worry, I’ll look after you.”

Lan Wangji’s side-eye intensified. Meng Yao felt his cheeks flush, and he only managed a nod.

They were still in Cloud Recesses when Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng caught up with them, with Wen Qing and Wen Ning trailing behind them. Lan Wangji looked annoyed because he couldn’t protest them going along, since Meng Yao was accompanying them. Meng Yao watched in amusement as Wei Wuxian proceeded to walk beside him, talking excitedly about water ghost hunting.

Lan Xichen sent them to go look for lodging and talk to the locals, and Meng Yao had to hide his chuckles in his sleeve. “Why are you so mean to your poor brother?”

“I’m just trying to help him,” Lan Xichen said.

The next day, as they were walking along the path to the lake, Wei Wuxian bounced up to walk beside them and started asking questions about an investigation into puppets and missing cultivators. Lan Xichen kindly and politely told him to mind his own business, but Meng Yao couldn’t help but wonder what was going on, and if it was related to the water ghosts.

Of course, the water ghosts weren’t water ghosts at all, but water demons, which proved to be especially problematic when they started to try to sink all the boats. At least, Meng Yao thought, he wasn’t the only one who needed to be rescued. He might not have a sword, but at least he hadn’t lost the one he had by shooting it into the water like a dumbass. And since he was on the same boat as Lan Xichen, it didn’t get any attention when Lan Xichen just grabbed him by the wrist before lifting them both into the air.

“Ah, Meng-gongzi, I’m going to need both hands for my xiao,” Lan Xichen said, as calm and unhurried as if this were a pleasant excursion to relax on the lake. “Will you hold onto me?”

“Uh,” Meng Yao said, because he couldn’t say no, and so that was how he wound up with both arms wrapped around Lan Xichen’s waist from behind, balancing on Shuoyue, listening to Lan Xichen play his xiao and banish water demons and praying to every deity he knew of that his body would manage to stay calm and not react to being pressed up against Lan Xichen.

Fortunately for his dignity, it did, so a few minutes later they were on the ground and he was just trying not to replay the moment in his mind too obviously. Also fortunately, Wei Wuxian was so busy flirting with Lan Wangji, who had apparently rescued him (because he had been trying to rescue Wen Ning, who had been trying to rescue Su She, which meant Meng Yao’s inexperience and lack of sword was by far not the worst problem on this mission), that he hadn’t noticed what had happened with Meng Yao.

Secure in the knowledge that no matter what happened in the next month, he was going to be dreaming about this for the rest of his life, Meng Yao settled into the boat for the trip back.

“Look what I got in Caiyi Town!” Wei Wuxian crowed the next evening, bursting into their guest house as if he had been invited. “Emperor’s Smile! The best liquor anywhere! Come drink with me!”

Meng Yao gave him a look. “Alcohol is forbidden at - ”

“- Cloud Recesses, yeah, yeah,” Wei Wuxian said, not at all troubled by this. “Ugh, you’re just as boring as Lan Zhan. Nie-xiong, you’ll come drink with me, right?”

“Yeah!” Nie Huaisang bounced to his feet.

Meng Yao patiently drew him back into his chair. “At the very least, wait until the Lan disciples are in bed. That way you’re far less likely to get caught when you cause a ruckus, which you almost definitely will.”

Wei Wuxian stuck out his tongue and said, “Nine o’clock, then - if you’re not there, I’ll drink your share!”

Nie Huaisang gave an affronted noise and shook his fan after Wei Wuxian as he departed. As soon as he was gone, he said, “Are you sure you don’t want to come? It’ll be fun!”

Amused, Meng Yao said, “You and Wei-gongzi might not care for the rules at all, but I do. Especially given all the accommodations that the Lan sect has made for me, to allow me to attend the lectures, it would be unspeakably rude of me to return their hospitality with such flagrant disregard for their disciplines.”

“That makes it sound like you don’t think I should drink, either!” Nie Huaisang protested.

“Goodness, how could you have gotten that idea?”

Nie Huaisang thought this over. “Well, I’m going to anyway,” he said cheerfully.

“Yes, I figured you would,” Meng Yao replied, still amused.

He was much less amused the next morning, watching the three of them face the music, then realizing it was four of them and then seeing the look on Lan Xichen’s face and how he was clearly worried about his brother misbehaving for the first time in his life. “One night, Nie-gongzi,” he murmured into his hands. “I leave you alone for one night.”

As strict as the Qinghe Nie were, and as much as Nie Huaisang loved to flout his brother’s idea of rules and discipline and doing what he was told, he had never in his life received any corporal punishment before. Meng Yao found himself spending the afternoon gently tending to Nie Huaisang’s bruises with cold cloths and making him medicinal tea to ease the pain and swelling, all while Nie Huaisang tried not to sob into his pillow. As much as he wanted to say ‘I told you so,’ he managed to hold back. Frankly he thought the punishment was extremely harsh given the offense. One hundred strikes for attacking an unarmed man had seemed reasonable, but fifty strikes for smuggling in alcohol? The Gusu Lan needed to check their guidelines in his opinion.

He did not make his usual weiqi date with Lan Xichen because he wanted to keep an eye on Nie Huaisang, but by the next day he was feeling better. Meng Yao was sure that Nie Huaisang would bounce back, but couldn’t help but wince when he saw the dark bruises on him. The only thing Nie Huaisang said about the punishment was a rather pitiful, “Don’t tell da-ge,” which Meng Yao gently agreed to.

He decided to go check in on Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian, the former of whom was moping in much the same manner as Nie Huaisang and the second who had apparently gone to try to find Lan Wangji. Hopefully to apologize, Meng Yao thought, and decided he would check on Lan Wangji as well. He still couldn’t comprehend the idea that Lan Wangji had been involved at all, even though Wei Wuxian had said at the beginning of the punishment that it was his fault. His fault how, exactly? Meng Yao wasn’t sure he wanted to know.

All of which he promptly forgot when he found Lan Xichen giving Wei Wuxian directions to the cold springs, and he saw through Lan Xichen’s plan in a heartbeat. “Did you just tell Wei-gongzi where Lan-er-gongzi had hidden himself?” he asked. “Where he’s going to be bathing? In water? Without clothing?”

Lan Xichen’s eyes sparkled. “The cold water will be good for his bruises. If Wangji is still there, I’m sure he can handle it.”

“He might handle it by drowning him,” Meng Yao said.

Lan Xichen laughed. “I doubt it very much. But I’m glad to see you, Meng-gongzi. I thought perhaps you might be angry.”

“Angry?” Meng Yao asked, but then he realized he actually was angry. He just hadn’t processed it until Lan Xichen had suggested it, and he looked away. “I am not angry at you. The punishment was not of your making. But it was so harsh. Nie-gongzi has never gone through anything like that before, and it’s difficult for me to see him in pain. Plus I can’t help but wish I had somehow managed to convince him not to go drinking. They’ve been fooling around the whole time they’ve been here . . . I don’t think it occurred to me how much harsher the punishment would be.”

That made Lan Xichen sigh. “Truthfully, they probably would have only been given ten strikes if they hadn’t gotten Wangji involved. My uncle was furious over it. If they want to waste their time here - in his opinion - that’s their business, but to drag Wangji down with them . . .”

“It clearly doesn’t trouble you, since you’re still trying to get Lan-er-gongzi and Wei-gongzi into a relationship together,” Meng Yao said.

“Truthfully, it does bother me a bit. I’m worried about Wangji. It’s so unlike him to be involved in such a thing. I suspect that Wei-gongzi somehow tricked him into drinking, but Wangji won’t admit it if he did. Which is probably all for the best - my uncle would throw Wei-gongzi out of Cloud Recesses if he had any proof of such a thing. That being said, I am not actually trying to get the two into a relationship together. I’m just trying to get them to realize that they’re already in one.”

Meng Yao laughed. “That’s true enough, I suppose. Given that Lan-er-gongzi must know what Wei-gongzi did, so he knows he is protecting him by not speaking up.”

Lan Xichen nodded. “Do you care to play a few games of weiqi? I know it’s still early but I think it would do me some good to relax for a little bit, before I have to deal with the inevitable aftermath of whatever Wangji does if Wei-gongzi sees him without his robes on.”

Laughing harder, Meng Yao agreed.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Several hours later, Meng Yao and Lan Xichen had grown bored of weiqi and were discussing music. Lan Xichen had mentioned that he thought Meng Yao might like to learn the guqin while he was in Cloud Recesses. “Would I be here long enough?” Meng Yao asked. “I imagine it must take some time . . .”

“Well, you wouldn’t be able to master it completely,” Lan Xichen said. “But if you wanted to learn, perhaps I could write to Mingjue-xiong and ask if you could stay a bit longer.”

Meng Yao felt his heart skip a beat in his chest, unable to stay steady at this revelation that Lan Xichen wanted him to stay in Cloud Recesses. He was too flustered to do more than say, “Ah, well, perhaps . . .”

Seeing that he didn’t have a good answer, Lan Xichen just smiled and began explaining the basics of the instrument to him. Meng Yao listened in interest, absorbing the information like he always did. It wasn’t until Lan Xichen went to pour them both more tea and realized the pot was empty that he frowned slightly. “Goodness, it’s been quite some time . . . and still nothing from Wangji. Maybe I’ll walk down to the cold springs and see if they’re still there . . .”

Wincing, Meng Yao said, “That might not be the best idea? Given what you might interrupt.”

That made Lan Xichen laugh. “Although I admit it’s possible they’ve gotten to the point of indecency already, believe me, they would not be doing it at the cold springs. It is not comfortable for that sort of thing.”

“How do you – ” Meng Yao began, before realizing that he absolutely was not entitled to ask that question.

Not that Lan Xichen seemed to mind. He just chuckled and said, “Let’s go see if they’re there.”

“All right,” Meng Yao said, his brain still frozen in thoughts of why exactly Lan Xichen might know that the cold springs wasn’t comfortable for affectionate relations. He remembered the theory that Lan Xichen and Nie Mingjue might be, or at least might have been, a couple in the past. Nie Mingjue had attended these lectures as well. In fact, now that Meng Yao was thinking about it, when he had been trying to convince Nie Huaisang to go, he had talked about what a good time he’d had and how he’d made such good friends during them.

Lan Xichen seemed content to walk in silence, which was good for Meng Yao who absolutely could not stop thinking about Nie Huaisang whispering ‘both’ with that grin of his. But when they got to the cold springs, the mood changed. There was nothing there except two pairs of boots, one black and one white, one on each side of the spring.

“Could they have gone somewhere without their shoes?” Meng Yao asked, although he doubted it. The paths could be rocky; it would have been very uncomfortable. And there was no real reason to do so. Their shoes were right there.

Frowning, Lan Xichen raised his voice. “Wangji? Wangji, can you hear me? Are you there?”

Only the gentle sounds of the forest came back to them.

“Where could they have gone?” Meng Yao asked, perplexed. “Wei-gongzi, I could believe had gotten into some sort of mischief, but Lan-er-gongzi . . .”

Lan Xichen looked around. “Their swords aren’t here,” he said. “But there’s no evidence that they were attacked . . . Wangji can handle himself, certainly, but . . . their boots still being here bothers me. Will you stay here in case they return? I’m going to go back to the pavilion and gather some disciples so we can search.”

“Of course,” Meng Yao said.

By nightfall, it was clear that Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian were well and truly missing. Meng Yao helped search, and Nie Huaisang insisted on helping too, even though he was still extremely sore. Jiang Cheng was in such a tizzy about what Wei Wuxian might have dragged Lan Wangji into that he seemed totally oblivious to his own injuries.

The disciples and the young masters searched every inch of Cloud Recesses, with some of the senior disciples going up into the forbidden areas in the back hills, but found no trace of them. Meng Yao was bewildered by it. Nobody got much sleep, even those who tried. Lan Xichen was clearly deeply worried, despite his repeated statements that Lan Wangji could handle anything the world threw at him.

Even the next morning, nothing had been found. Meng Yao again joined the search after a hasty breakfast, although he wasn’t sure what good it would do. They had searched thoroughly; they should have found something. He wondered, although he hated to wonder, if anyone had searched the river itself. He didn’t see how Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian could have drowned, but it seemed like the only possibility left.

When he tentatively posed the question to Lan Xichen, he wasn’t offended by it, but assured Meng Yao that some of the sect’s best swimmers had searched the water and found nothing. Relieved, Meng Yao went back to his search. Clearly there was some sort of magic at play. That was really the only explanation. He doubted he would find anything, but he couldn’t just not look, not while Lan Xichen was so worried.

What he did find certainly wasn’t Wei Wuxian or Lan Wangji, but instead Jin Zixuan and Jiang Yanli. She stumbled and nearly fell; he caught her and kept her on her feet. They stared at each other for much too long before Jin Zixuan simply turned away. Looking downcast, Jiang Yanli slowly turned and headed down the path to continue the search for her brother.

Over the past few months, Jiang Yanli had always been so kind to Meng Yao, always treating him in the exact same manner that she treated Nie Huaisang. To see her so flagrantly disrespected made Meng Yao’s temper start to build. Every time he looked at Jin Zixuan now, he could not help but think of him saying ‘I understand why our father did not want you in the sect’. He might not be as terrible a person as Meng Yao had originally thought, but he was still spoiled, thoughtless, and insensitive. It was glaringly obvious that he had simply never learned much in the way of social grace, but that just burned Meng Yao more, because he knew Jin Zixuan hadn’t needed to. While Meng Yao had spent half his life learning how to interact with others, how to absorb their rude remarks without reacting, how to tactfully deflect questions they shouldn’t be asking, how to manipulate them into treating him with even the smallest amount of kindness, no, the barest lack of overt cruelty, Jin Zixuan hadn’t needed to learn any of that. He had skated by on his name and his position in the sect, thoughtlessly offending others and then being completely protected from consequences.

So although Meng Yao thought a few well-placed suggestions might help Jin Zixuan figure out how to have a two-minute conversation with Jiang Yanli without making her feel terrible, he decided against it. Jin Zixuan didn’t deserve his help, and he didn’t deserve Jiang Yanli.

“It’s really a shame,” he said, and Jin Zixuan looked over at her. Meng Yao smiled guilelessly and clarified, “That you two don’t get along better.”

“Ah . . .” Jin Zixuan looked away. “I just never know what to say to her.”

“Well, of course not,” Meng Yao said. “She’s never given you anything to work with. A lady of her position should be able to open a conversation, to guide you through it. It’s none of my business, I suppose, but surely there are ladies who would be better suited for you.”

Jin Zixuan, who had probably spent the last few months being raked over the coals by Luo Quinyang for his treatment of Jiang Yanli, looked startled at this statement. “Is that - do you really think so?”

“She’s not really much of a cultivator, is she?” Meng Yao said, ruthlessly stepping on Jin Zixuan’s buttons. “I don’t think she has any special skills. I understand she’s the daughter of your mother’s friend, but would she ever have been chosen for you otherwise? I think it’s really a shame that your mother can’t see past her family and realize that you deserve somebody stronger, more talented, particularly if you want to have strong children.”

“That’s right!” Jin Zixuan warmed to this topic. “That’s what I keep saying to Mianmian! That she shouldn’t have been chosen for me at all . . .”

“You really should have a word with your father about it,” Meng Yao said. “Your mother is clearly set on it, but I imagine if you kicked up a fuss with your father, he’ll let you out of it. After all, he probably doesn’t have any idea how weak Jiang-guniang is. Now that you’ve had a chance to see her at these classes, you’ve a right to speak your opinion. It’s your future, after all.”

Jin Zixuan nodded. “I’ll write to him. Thank you, Meng Yao. Mianmian was making me feel like I was being rude, but you see it the same way I do.”

Meng Yao gave him another innocent smile, as he turned and walked away, presumably to do this at once, abandoning the search for Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji, who he doubtlessly didn’t care about at all. 

“Really, Meng Yao?” Nie Huaisang asked, coming around the curve behind him. “Why?”

“Because - ” Meng Yao searched for an eloquent answer and said, “Because fuck him, that’s why.”

Nie Huaisang sighed. “Won’t it just hurt Jiang-guniang’s feelings?”

“In the short-term, yes, but nowhere near as much as her feelings are going to get stepped on every day of her life if she actually has to marry him.”

Nie Huaisang waved his fan thoughtfully and then said, “Okay, that’s fair.”

A few hours later, they got word that Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian had been found, sopping wet and freezing cold and apparently without any idea that so much time had gone by. Meng Yao headed towards the main pavilion to check in with Lan Xichen, with Nie Huaisang in tow, and found the hanshi door closed. That was extremely unusual, and he didn’t want to intrude, so he waited outside. Jiang Cheng was there as well, still looking furious that his brother had caused trouble for everyone. Meng Yao really felt like this probably was not Wei Wuxian’s fault, but Jiang Cheng did not seem to be in the mood to hear that.

It was nearly an hour before the door opened and Wei Wuxian came out, clearly still damp and a little bedraggled. “Oh, Nie-xiong, Meng-xiong!” he said, waving, as Lan Wangji came out behind him. When Nie Huaisang asked where he had been, he immediately began to spin a tale about a devil snake which was obviously untrue. Meng Yao saw Lan Wangji giving him a sideways look, an expression that Meng Yao couldn’t quite interpret (although to be fair, he had difficulty interpreting Lan Wangji’s facial expressions at the best of times). Clearly, whatever had happened was something they were not supposed to discuss.

So while Jiang Cheng was chiding his brother for worrying their sister, and Nie Huaisang was declaring that he was going to go lie down for eight hours, Meng Yao walked over to the hanshi. He saw the serious expression on Lan Xichen’s face, and merely said, “Is everything all right?”

Lan Xichen gave him a smile which was clearly forced. “My brother and Wei-gongzi are safe,” he said, which Meng Yao noted was not at all an answer to the question. “Thank you for helping us search.”

“Of course,” Meng Yao said. 

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

Whatever had happened during the day and a half that Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji were missing, Meng Yao quickly resigned himself to the fact that he wasn’t going to learn about it any time soon, if ever. At least, he thought, it seemed to have brought them to a better understanding of each other. Lan Wangji looked at Wei Wuxian somewhat differently afterwards, a little more indulgent of his antics, and Wei Wuxian’s teasing was gentler. No matter the reason for the shift, Meng Yao was glad of it.

He figured it would only be polite to mention to the Yunmeng trio that he might have actively encouraged Jin Zixuan to sabotage his own betrothal. When he brought it up, Wei Wuxian’s reaction was a resounding, “Good! Let him wiggle his way out of it so shijie can find a man who deserves her - not that such a man exists.”

Jiang Yanli looked somewhat sad at the news despite how rudely Jin Zixuan had treated her, and Meng Yao said to her, “I know it’s distressing to be treated as if you’re not good enough for things that are beyond your control, Jiang-guniang. Please, trust me, I understand that feeling. I know the desire to continue to try to measure up to some imaginary, impossible standard. Please believe me when I say that you shouldn’t waste your time doing so. There are people in the world who value you for who you are, so don’t chase after those who don’t. The fault lies with them, not with you.”

With a soft smile, Jiang Yanli said, “Thank you, Meng-gongzi. It does help very much to hear.”

He didn’t hear anything more about either issue for several days, so he felt a little nervous when a Lan sect disciple came to the Nie guest house on one of their days without classes and let him know that Zewu-Jun had summoned him. It was quite rare for Lan Xichen to do so, given that he could rely on Meng Yao to turn up at some point every day, depending on the class schedule. He was more worried than he wanted to admit when he approached the hanshi, and when he saw Nie Mingjue inside, he nearly turned around and went right back the other way. 

Instead, he marshalled his courage and went inside, bowing low to both men. “Nie-zongzhu, what brings you to Cloud Recesses?”

“I’ve heard you’re doing very well here,” Nie Mingjue said, with a scowl that was at odds with his words.

“Yes, I am,” Meng Yao said, unsure if this was the right answer. He bowed again and said, “Thank you for letting me attend the lectures. I have greatly enjoyed and benefited from them. I am hopeful this will allow me to serve you better in the future.”

Nie Mingjue nodded a few times, his scowl unchanging. Finally, he said, “Lan-xiansheng seems to think you might like to stay longer than the typical six months.”

Meng Yao blinked. He wasn’t so much surprised at the assertion, but that Lan Qiren had made it to Nie Mingjue. He knew that Lan Qiren had been in Qinghe for the cultivation conference recently. Had he just told Nie Mingjue he wanted Meng Yao to stay? “I’m flattered that they would think to allow me to stay longer, and I’m sure I could continue to learn, but I would not want to leave you in The Unclean Realm if you need my assistance.”

Abruptly changing the subject, Nie Mingjue said, “I heard you were attacked.”

“Ah - yes,” Meng Yao said, trying to keep up with Nie Mingjue’s shift. “You didn’t need to come here because of that. I’m fine, honestly. It was just a little scuffle.”

“That’s what your letter said,” Nie Mingjue said. “And that’s what Huaisang’s letter said. That’s even what Xichen’s letter said. Which is why I found myself unhappy to learn from Lan-xiansheng that one of them pulled a sword on you.”

“Oh,” Meng Yao said. “I didn’t want you to worry.”

“Seems nobody did,” Nie Mingjue said. “But I’m not sure it’s best for you to stay here, under the circumstances.”

“As if nobody has ever pulled a sword on me in The Unclean Realm,” Meng Yao said with a laugh. 

He meant for it to be a joking comment. A deflection, to minimize the situation so Nie Mingjue would not think he would be unsafe in Cloud Recesses. He realized an instant too late that he had badly miscalculated how both men would react to that statement. Nie Mingjue’s eyes narrowed and Lan Xichen’s back stiffened.

“And exactly who,” Nie Mingjue said quietly, “has pulled a sword on you in The Unclean Realm?”

Meng Yao wished he had started shouting. Shouting he could deal with. This was far more dangerous. “Please, Nie-zongzhu, don’t make a fuss. It was quite some time ago now, and I don’t believe I ever knew their names - ”

“Names? Plural?” Now Lan Xichen was getting involved, so that was just great. “How many times did this happen?”

“Only twice!” Meng Yao said. “The first time it was just after my promotion. He was upset. I managed to talk my way out of it,” he added, hoping this would help. His ‘talking’ had been more like ‘begging’ but he wasn’t about to admit that to either of these men. “I promised him that I would mind my place and be grateful for all Nie-zongzhu did for me . . .”

“And the second time?” Nie Mingjue asked. “When was that?”

“About a year ago now, and it was my fault! One of the men was drunk and called me - a nasty name, and I got upset and called him one in return. Fortunately he was too drunk to do any damage to me and I managed to get away without a problem.”

“How is that your fault?” Lan Xichen asked, but he didn’t wait for an answer. “See, Mingjue-xiong, this is what I’ve been saying. I truly think he belongs in the Lan sect. Not just because Qinghe is overall a rougher place, but just - his cultivation is better suited for precision, not force.”

“You only said that because his cultivation level was low, and you also said it’s improved by leaps and bounds since he got here! As long as he continues to work on building his golden core he’d do fine in Qinghe. I didn’t send him here so you could steal him from me! Do you have any idea how much more smoothly things run in Qinghe with him there?”

Meng Yao winced. “Nie-zongzhu, if you need me back in Qinghe, of course I can come back right away - ”

“That’s not the issue,” Nie Mingjue said. “I can handle things being a little messy while you’re attending the lectures.”

“But Mingjue-xiong, if you allowed him to stay longer, I could begin teaching him the guqin,” Lan Xichen said.

“Teach your own disciples the guqin!” Nie Mingjue said. “I don’t see why he has to learn it.”

“Well, what if he wants to learn it?” Lan Xichen asked.

“Then come teach him in Qinghe!”

“Please,” Meng Yao said, wincing again. “Please stop arguing. I have enjoyed my time here immensely and I would like to continue to learn, but I am proud to be an assistant to the Qinghe Nie.” He managed to pull himself together and face Lan Xichen and bow. “I am truly grateful to the Gusu Lan for everything you have done for me. But I have no desire to join any other sect. Nie-zongzhu saw my merit and promoted me when nobody else did, even in spite of my background. I would like to continue to serve him as my sect leader.”

Lan Xichen’s face softened, and he sighed quietly. “I’m sorry if I made you uncomfortable, Meng-gongzi. While I believe you would do well in Gusu, of course it is your choice to make. Still, I hope you will stay for the rest of the lectures.”

“As long as Nie-zongzhu allows me, I would be happy to,” Meng Yao said.

Nie Mingjue waved this aside. “I said you could stay the six months and I meant it.”

Feeling quite confused as to everything that had just taken place, but especially why Nie Mingjue had come all the way to Cloud Recesses just because Lan Qiren had given him the impression that Meng Yao might not come back, Meng Yao decided it was high time he excused himself from this discussion. “Then if there’s nothing else . . .”

“Ah, no, Meng-gongzi,” Lan Xichen said, smiling. “Mingjue-xiong, I need to speak to you about - that other issue - in any case.”

Meng Yao bowed and, despite his curiosity about ‘the other issue’, which surely had something to do with the larger picture he couldn’t quite put together, excused himself.

“What was all that about?” Nie Huaisang asked, when Meng Yao returned to the guest house. Meng Yao gave him a brief summary of the situation, and Nie Huaisang replied with, “Ah, you didn’t tell them that you couldn’t choose between them! You just went ahead and chose! You were supposed to say you wanted both!”

Exasperated, Meng Yao said, “There’s quite a difference between ‘which of the two is more handsome’ and ‘which of the two has the right to your loyalty’ and of course that’s Nie-zongzhu. There’s no world in which I’m going to tell them I want to serve both of them. How would that even work?”

“You’re hopeless, Meng Yao!” Nie Huaisang groaned, and huffed away, leaving Meng Yao wondering why he was the hopeless one.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Nie Mingjue stayed in Cloud Recesses for two days, and Meng Yao tried to ask him a few questions about what was going on, but Nie Mingjue wouldn’t say much. He confirmed that there was a larger issue, but said he hoped it wouldn’t affect Qinghe. He wanted Meng Yao and Nie Huaisang both to focus on the lectures, to get as much out of them as they possibly could. If he thought Meng Yao would need to know, he would tell him.

Meng Yao couldn’t ask for more than that, so he continued to diligently study and try to make sure he was never alone. The two members of the Jin sect who hadn’t been thrown out of Cloud Recesses clearly loathed him more than ever. He didn’t put it past them to try something, particularly with only a month of lectures left.

So when he came home from one of his evenings with Lan Xichen – who had started teaching him how to play the guqin despite the fact that they would barely have time for him to get down the basics – to find Luo Qingyang waiting for him, his back stiffened. Lan Xichen, who was of course walking him home, gave him a glance and said, “Do you need me to stay?”

“No, I’m fine,” Meng Yao said. “At this time of night, Nie-gongzi is inside.” Not that Nie Huaisang would be able to do much if he was attacked besides run for help, but Meng Yao figured nobody from the Jin sect would want to do anything with a witness. He bid Lan Xichen good night and then said, “Won’t you come in, Luo-guniang?”

Luo Qingyang nodded shortly but then said, “You might want to have this discussion in private.”

“No, not really,” Meng Yao said, heading into the guest house. Nie Huaisang greeted him cheerfully and then bowed to Luo Qingyang. Meng Yao went to make some tea. “I assume this is about Jin-gongzi.”

“Yes.” Luo Qingyang appeared to fight with herself for a moment before she said, “Why would you say such things to him?”

Meng Yao didn’t look up from where he was filling the pot with water. “You mean, specifically, why would I tell him that I agreed with him that Jiang-guniang was beneath his station and that he should write his father to ask that he be allowed to break off the engagement?”

“Of course! I have spent the last four months trying to convince him of the opposite. I was making progress with him! Then you came in and ruined all of it, and now any time I try to bring it up, he mentions ‘other people’ agree with him. Even though I’ve pointed out that ‘other people’ have absolutely no reason to wish him a happy life and I’ve been his friend since he got out of diapers!”

“Mm hm.” Meng Yao put the pot on the fire and turned to Luo Qingyang. “Why do you want him to marry Jiang Yanli?”

“What?” Luo Qingyang blinked, taken aback. “I want them to be happy.”

“So you’re trying to convince Jin-gongzi to treat Jiang-guniang well, because you’re accepting their marriage as a foregone conclusion. I haven’t accepted that yet. I want one of them to be happy, and she’ll be far happier if she marries somebody who doesn’t think she’s not fit to polish his boots.”

Luo Qingyang’s mouth pressed together into a thin line. “Neither Yu-furen nor Jin-furen are going to let the engagement be called off.”

“Neither Yu-furen nor Jin-furen control their husbands, from what I can tell, so they won’t be the final decision makers. Will Jin-zongzhu let Jin-gongzi wiggle out of it? I don’t know. But if he continues to treat her as he is, Jiang-zongzhu will step in. I’ve heard them talk about him, and how dearly he loves his daughter. He’s not going to marry her off to someone who treats her poorly. This was Jin-gongzi’s chance to make a good impression and he flubbed it. He’s been here five months and the best he could do was not actively insult her? Not good enough.”

“He’s – he’s just never learned that sort of thing,” Luo Qingyang said.

“Of course he hasn’t. He’s gotten through his entire life to date being rude and spoiled and demanding, and everyone bends over backwards to clean up whatever mess he makes when he offends people. Why would he have ever learned? He’s never faced a consequence in his entire life. I’m sure this will continue to work splendidly for him, and won’t have any lasting repercussions as he enters adulthood.”

That made Luo Qingyang wince. “That’s . . . fair,” she murmured. “But he’s not a bad person deep down!”

“Maybe so,” Meng Yao said. “You know him much better than I do, I’m sure. But nobody’s going to see him ‘deep down’. All they’re going to see is what’s on the surface. Jiang-guniang deserves better than him. You’re not going to change my mind on that issue. Maybe once she’s found somebody who appreciates her and they’ve made some beautiful, powerful children, Jin-gongzi will realize how badly he fucked up. But frankly I won’t hold my breath, and I won’t take back what I said to him the other day.”

Luo Qingyang appeared to struggle for a long moment before she declared, “Ugh, boys,” and stomped out of the guest house.

“That went well,” Nie Huaisang observed.

“I thought so,” Meng Yao agreed.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

With one week of the lectures left, Meng Yao had completed all the course work, and was mainly devoting himself to harassing Nie Huaisang into doing his. There were several essays and projects to turn in, and although Meng Yao knew intellectually that Nie Huaisang would scrape by at the last minute, he couldn’t help but protest when he saw him goofing off. “Nobody’s going to be sorry for you if you fail,” he said.

Nie Huaisang moaned. “There’s too much, Meng Yao . . . can’t you help me?”

“I’m not writing your essays for you,” Meng Yao said, for at least the third time. “Even if I was willing, which I’m not, Lan-xiansheng would see through it.”

“Couldn’t you dumb it down and make it sound like it was me?” Nie Huaisang asked.

“No,” Meng Yao said, and Nie Huaisang whimpered. “Just be grateful that I agreed to shoulder your fair share of the chores while you’re trying to get everything done. It’s more than you deserve.”

“Yeah,” Nie Huaisang said, and at that, he laughed. “Oh, that reminds me – I put the last piece of wood on the fire.”

Meng Yao sighed. “If I go out and get more firewood, and make you some of that tea which you say helps you focus, will you promise me that you’ll work diligently until it’s time for bed?”

Nie Huaisang held up three fingers in an imitation of Wei Wuxian and said, “I promise!”

Shaking his head, Meng Yao headed outside. Fortunately, he had already replenished the firewood from the stores a few days previous, so all he had to do was grab an armful to carry inside.

No sooner had he leaned over and picked up the first piece, he felt something touch his neck, and the next thing he knew, he was yanked off his feet and landed hard on the ground. He grabbed at whatever had looped around his throat and found that it was some sort of rope, and as he tried to pull it away, it twisted tighter. He choked and gagged as he was dragged back to his feet.

“You think you’re so fucking smart,” a voice hissed, and he was not at all surprised to hear that it was one of the Jin disciples that had attacked him on the path that day. “You think nobody else is as smart as you. How’s that going to help you now?”

Meng Yao was yanked around again, and he gave up keeping the rope from tightening and instead grabbed it a foot away from where it left his throat and pulled as hard as he could. The Jin disciple stumbled forward, not having expected this desperate move. For a bare second, the rope loosened enough for Meng Yao to draw in a deep, ragged breath. Then it was pulled tight again and he was nearly pulled off his feet as the man began trying to drag him away. Of course, the analytical part of Meng Yao’s brain said. The disciple didn’t want to kill him here. It would raise too many questions. He would drag him away, to somewhere that it would take time for him to be found.

He grabbed the rope and threw himself to the ground, pulling the other man with him. He landed hard, with a grunt, and Meng Yao tried to get control of the rope. It was burning at his palms as they struggled over it. But he was weakening quickly, his vision dimming and the world fading in and out with the beat of his pulse. The Jin disciple twisted the rope and dug his knuckles into Meng Yao’s throat. Meng Yao kicked wildly, pulled at his arms, fought with every ounce of his strength. But it wasn’t enough.

“You know what I’m going to do?” the Jin disciple grunted. “I’m going to take your body out into the forest and hang it from a tree. Everyone’s going to think you finally got the message and killed yourself, ending your shameful existence. Nobody will have any – ”

“Hey!” someone shouted, and suddenly there were arms around Meng Yao’s attacker, trying to drag him off. “Let him go!”

The Jin disciple gave the rope a vicious twist and half-turned, then gave a mocking laugh and pushed the other person away. “Are you going to make me, Nie Huaisang? You’re so soft that you might as well be made out of dumpling dough!”

Meng Yao kicked vigorously as the rope loosened for a brief second. His muddled mind thought that Nie Huaisang should go for help, but he knew there was no time. Nie Huaisang seemed to have the same opinion, drawing his saber and holding it out with shaking hands. “I said to let him go!”

What happened next was unclear to Meng Yao, whose vision was darkening rapidly. The Jin disciple laughed again, and Meng Yao thought he must have drawn his own sword, because he heard the rasp of one sliding free of the scabbard. But he did it one-handed; the rope around Meng Yao’s throat didn’t loosen. He was still laughing, and he -

Blood splashed down onto Meng Yao’s face.

The rope tightened mercilessly for a brief second before it loosened. The world was silent, like falling snow, nothing but gray, gray, gray. Then his body snapped back, heaving for breath. It felt like his head was expanding and everything was crowding back into it at once. He gagged and retched, rolling onto his side and gasping over and over and over again.

He managed to look up. Nie Huaisang was standing there, as pale as a ghost, the last six inches of his saber coated in blood. As Meng Yao watched, it fell from his trembling hands and landed in the dirt. The Jin disciple was lying on his side, eyes open and expression faintly surprised, the pool of blood around him slowly spreading.

“Ni – Nie – ” Meng Yao tried, but his throat completely rebelled at the idea of speech. He closed his eyes and tried not to whimper at the throbbing in his temples.

“Hey, are you guys okay? I heard some noise and it seemed like – ” Wei Wuxian jogged into their courtyard and his eyes went wide. “Ho – holy fuck! What the fuck happened, Nie-xiong, what did you – who – what – ” Wei Wuxian sputtered for a few seconds before he seemed to get a hold of himself. “I’m gonna go get Zewu-Jun, okay? You two just stay here, don’t go anywhere – ”

Not a problem, Meng Yao thought, and closed his eyes. Nie Huaisang sat down heavily in the dirt, the blood seeping unnoticed into the bottom of his robes.

Time went a little funny as his body recovered from the vicious attack, so he wasn’t sure how long had gone by when Lan Xichen hurried into the courtyard with several other Lan disciples, including Lan Wangji. Meng Yao managed to open his eyes and tried to sit up, and Lan Xichen immediately eased him back down, asking, “What happened?”

Meng Yao tried to speak but could only manage a rasp. He felt Lan Xichen’s fingers against his throat and then cool spiritual energy flowing through them, easing the worst of the pain. He went for the fewest words possible and whispered, “Nie-gongzi saved me.”

Lan Xichen looked over at Nie Huaisang, who was still quite pale, and asked gently, “Are you all right, Huaisang?”

“He – ” Nie Huaisang’s throat worked for a few seconds before he managed, “He was killing him. He had a rope around his throat. I told him to let go but he wouldn’t. He, he drew on me and I – ” He suddenly turned and threw up into the dirt.

“Easy, easy,” Lan Xichen murmured, rubbing his back. “It’s all right, Huaisang. You did well. Just try to breathe.”

Two of the disciples helped Meng Yao into a sitting position, and then a few moments later, to his feet. Lan Xichen helped Nie Huaisang get up as well, as several others checked on the body of the Jin disciple and confirmed that he was dead.

“Can you walk, Meng-gongzi?” Lan Xichen asked, and he nodded. “Let us head back to the main pavilion where a doctor can see to you. Huaisang – ”

His lower lip wobbling, Nie Huaisang said, “I promised Meng Yao I would work on my essay . . .”

Lan Xichen squeezed his shoulder and said, “I’m quite sure that my uncle will grant you an extension, given the circumstances. You both need to rest.”

Nie Huaisang looked at Meng Yao, as if for confirmation that yes, he was allowed to break his promise and not work on his essay after killing the man trying to murder his friend. Meng Yao nodded, and Nie Huaisang seemed to relax a little. Lan Xichen guided them back to the main pavilion and into a small set of rooms that appeared to be some sort of infirmary. A disciple came in and examined Meng Yao, then told him that there appeared to be no major damage. He applied some salve to the burn marks around his neck and on his hands.

While he was doing this, Lan Xichen excused himself, presumably to take care of whatever needed to be taken care of after a death on the soil of Cloud Recesses. Once he was gone, Nie Huaisang got anxious again. “What’s going to happen? Am I in trouble?”

It was a ridiculous question, but at the same time it wasn’t. Because although Lan Xichen and Nie Mingjue were obviously going to be fine with Nie Huaisang having killed somebody to saved Meng Yao’s life, Jin Guangshan was going to be furious. Diplomatically speaking, this was a nightmare. So all Meng Yao said, in the same raw whisper, was, “Don’t worry, Nie-gongzi. Nie-zongzhu will take care of everything.”

That answer seemed to relieve Nie Huaisang more than a simple ‘no’ would have. He nodded and said, “Yeah . . . yeah, you’re right. Da-ge will fix it. Da-ge can fix anything.”

Meng Yao nodded. His temples throbbed.

When Lan Xichen came back, it was with a fresh set of robes for both of them. He coaxed them into getting up so they could clean up and change. His face darkened slightly when he saw the marks on Meng Yao’s throat and on his hands, which had become more vivid as the time had passed. “I’ve sent a message to Mingjue-xiong,” he said, “as well as one to Jin-zongzhu. But neither of them will be here for a few days, so for now, just rest. I’m going to keep both of you here at the main pavilion for now.”

“Does Jin-gongzi know?” Meng Yao asked.

“The visiting members of the Jin sect have been informed that Jin Zifu attacked you and was killed,” Lan Xichen said. “I haven’t told them how he died. All students are being confined to their guest houses for the time being. Meng-gongzi – ” He stopped and then took a deep breath. “I know you probably don’t want to talk about it, but was anyone else there? Did he have any accomplices?”

“No,” Meng Yao said. “It was just him. He tried to – drag me away. I think he wanted to get me somewhere that he could – ” He had to stop speaking as the pain in his head spiked.

In a small voice, Nie Huaisang said, “You didn’t come in from gathering the firewood. I was worried, so I came out to check on you.”

Meng Yao reached out and squeezed his wrist. “Thank you.”

“I can’t imagine how he thought he could get away with it,” Lan Xichen said, more to himself than to either of the others. “He surely had to know we would suspect him . . .”

“He said . . .” Meng Yao felt nausea twist his stomach. “He was going to hang me from a tree. So people would think I killed myself.” Without realizing it, he began to cry. “That I ended my shameful existence.”

“We never would have believed that!” Nie Huaisang said with vehemence that surprised Meng Yao. “Never!”

Meng Yao cried harder and leaned into Nie Huaisang’s shoulder. He was vaguely aware of Lan Xichen behind him, stroking his back and smoothing down his hair. The tears hurt; his head and his throat were both screaming in pain. But he couldn’t stop them. He heard Lan Xichen say gently, “There is nothing shameful about you, A-Yao,” and he could only choke out another sob.

He cried until he was exhausted, and when the tears finally stopped, he felt like he could breathe again. Lan Xichen helped him lie down on one of the infirmary beds and pulled a blanket over him, then pulled out his guqin and began to play. Meng Yao closed his eyes and let the world drift away.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

The next day was interesting. Nie Huaisang was mostly recovered after a good night’s sleep. He seemed confident in his brother’s ability to fix every damn thing, up to and including him killing a member of another prominent sect in defense of the leader of that sect’s bastard child. Meng Yao wasn’t feeling quite as confident. Oh, he was sure that Nie Mingjue would protect Nie Huaisang, and that Jin Guangshan wasn’t going to get into it too heavily over that. He was more worried about what was going to happen to him, about how easy it would be to lay this entire incident at his feet and demand his punishment. Nie Mingjue would protect his brother; Meng Yao was not at all confident that Nie Mingjue would protect him.

Although the students were confined to their guest houses ‘until the situation was resolved’, Lan Xichen allowed Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng to come visit. It turned out that Wei Wuxian had been on his way to their guest house because he and Nie Huaisang had plans to sneak off and ditch their school work. Meng Yao wanted to laugh, because of course Nie Huaisang hadn’t actually intended to work on his essay. But he couldn’t complain, because he had no idea how long he and Nie Huaisang might have spent sitting in the courtyard with a dead body if Wei Wuxian hadn’t gone to get Lan Xichen.

However, since Nie Huaisang didn’t have anything else to do, Meng Yao continued to push him to do his schoolwork. When Lan Xichen saw him doing that, he had Lan Wangji come in and sit with them. Nie Huaisang, who could withstand any amount of cajoling and harassment from Meng Yao, quailed under Lan Wangji’s stony gaze, bent his head, and began to do his work.

The next day, Nie Mingjue arrived. Meng Yao was a little surprised he was there first, since Lanling was closer, and Lan Xichen admitted that he had delayed sending the message to Lanling so he could be sure Nie Mingjue would get there sooner. Nie Mingjue, unsurprisingly, took one look at the still raw wounds on Meng Yao’s neck and hands and lost his temper. He swore vengeance on the entire Jin sect before Lan Xichen managed to calm him down by telling him only one person had been involved, and that person was already dead.

“What happened to the devil?” Nie Mingjue growled.

“Ah . . .” Nie Huaisang looked down.

Meng Yao bowed to Nie Mingjue and said, “Nie-gongzi saved my life, Nie-zongzhu.”

Nie Mingjue blinked at Nie Huaisang. “You . . . killed Jin Zifu?”

Nie Huaisang cringed and nodded. “Don’t . . . don’t yell, da-ge . . .”

“Yell?” Nie Mingjue actually sounded a little choked up. “I’m – so proud of you, Huaisang. You’ve grown up so much – ”

Meng Yao had to bite back a smile, and he saw Lan Xichen doing the same. He supposed that this was a big deal for Nie Mingjue. His soft, lazy little brother was all grown up and killing people. If Nie Huaisang hadn’t been so traumatized by it, it would have been adorable.

“Were you injured?” Nie Mingjue managed to ask.

Nie Huaisang shook his head. “He didn’t take me seriously. He just, just thrust his sword with one hand as if it would scare me away. I reacted as, as if it was a training session.” He laughed shakily. “I guess I see the point of all those drills now.”

Despite the situation, Nie Mingjue gave a snort. “I’ve tried to tell you for years what they were for. I’m glad the lessons sank in even if the reason for them didn’t.”

Nie Huaisang wrinkled his nose slightly, then sighed. “Jin-zongzhu is going to be furious . . .”

Nie Mingjue squeezed his shoulder and said, “Let us deal with Jin-zongzhu.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Jin Guangshan arrived the next morning, and although Nie Huaisang and Meng Yao were not allowed to be present for the meeting between the sect leaders – and Lan Qiren, who insisted on being there – they were allowed to listen. This was mostly because Wei Wuxian begged and pleaded and made puppy eyes at Lan Wangji until he agreed to let them into the hanshi so they could wait in the meditation room, behind the screen. Meng Yao was somewhat surprised that Lan Wangji agreed to that, and suspected that he had probably been given permission by Lan Xichen, who knew that both Meng Yao and Nie Huaisang would be steeped in anxiety until it was over.

Lan Qiren explained the situation with spare detail. Jin Guangshan was of course already aware of what had happened with the earlier attack, since the one disciple had been sent home. Lan Qiren told him that one of the ones who had been allowed to stay had attacked Meng Yao again, badly injuring him, and had been killed by Nie Huaisang in Meng Yao’s defense.

Once this had been explained, Lan Xichen said, “Of course, we offer our sincerest condolences on the loss of your sect member. For any part the Gusu Lan might have played in failing to deescalate the situation before it got so far, we must beg your forgiveness.”

There was a long moment of silence, and Meng Yao wished he could see what was happening. He hadn’t seen his father in years, of course, but he could picture his face. He still dreamed about that face sometimes, the contempt and disdain that had showed through when he had ordered Meng Yao thrown down the steps of Koi Tower. He woke up with it, hatred and pain twisting his gut.

He realized that the pause was because Jin Guangshan was waiting for Nie Mingjue to apologize, or at least offer his sympathies. He did neither.

“Nie-zongzhu,” Jin Guangshan said, and even his voice made Meng Yao’s hands curl into fists. “It is regrettable that Jin Zifu attacked your sect member, and of course it is an outrage that he drew his sword against your brother. You have my apologies for his inappropriate behavior.”

Inappropriate behavior, Meng Yao thought. That was what Jin Guangshan called it when one of his sect members tried to murder someone in cold blood.

“Your apologies are accepted,” Nie Mingjue said, and still did not offer his own.

There was a swish of cloth, which Meng Yao thought was probably Jin Guangshan getting up to walk around. “Here is my concern,” he said, and Meng Yao felt Nie Huaisang tense beside him. “Certainly I understand that Jin Zifu’s behavior crossed a line. I understand why Nie-gongzi would want to protect a fellow member of his sect, so I will not hold his actions against him or against the Qinghe Nie. However, it seems that all of this could have been avoided if Meng Yao had not been here attending the lectures. I was under the impression that they were for the young masters of the different sects. Why was he allowed to attend?”

“Meng Yao has been an important assistant to me since he came to Qinghe,” Nie Mingjue said. His voice was even; he had clearly been prepared for this. “However, he was lacking in many of the fundamentals due to his upbringing. I asked the Lan sect to allow him to attend as a favor to the Qinghe Nie, as I was certain he could be more of an asset to my sect if he was brought up to speed.”

“But was that really appropriate?” Jin Guangshan was smiling. Meng Yao couldn’t say how he knew, he just knew. Nie Mingjue was a formidable sect leader, but he was still half Jin Guangshan’s age, and Lan Xichen was even younger. Jin Guangshan was known for being patronizing towards the younger sect leaders, using the weight of his age and experience to talk down to them and convince them of his way of thinking. Surely he must know better, that fatherly voice, that cordial smile said. “Given his indecent background?”

Meng Yao’s fists clenched again. Nie Huaisang grabbed one of them and squeezed it, looking anxious.

“Pardon me for saying so,” Jin Guangshan continued, “but given the reputation of the Gusu Lan, I would not have expected that it would be allowed. I would not have expected my disciples to be forced to learn alongside someone of low birth, even watch him be praised for whatever meager accomplishments he could eke out. Surely you understand how that would be intolerable for them.”

“I wasn’t aware the members of the Jin sect were so fragile,” Nie Mingjue said.

Jin Guangshan chuckled as if Nie Mingjue had told a particularly funny joke. “That is fair, but I’m sure you see my point. Again, I am not saying Jin Zifu was within his rights, merely that – his actions were not out of nowhere. He must have been sorely provoked to behave in such a way. Don’t you agree?”

“I agree that if we consider seeing another student, from a lesser background, get better grades than him, as provocation, then yes, he was provoked,” Nie Mingjue said, his voice heavily sarcastic.

As if it was a change of subject, Jin Guangshan casually asked, “What is going to happen to Meng Yao?”

“Well, he’s already finished his coursework,” Nie Mingjue said, “so I’ll take him with me when I depart Gusu tonight. That way the other students can finish their work without the . . . provocation you’re concerned about.”

“So you intend to keep him in your sect?” Jin Guangshan’s voice was still carefully nonchalant. “Even after what happened?”

“He finally has the knowledge to become a full cultivator,” Nie Mingjue said, deliberately ignoring the implications of Jin Guangshan’s question. “His golden core building has been going well, too. It’s high time he got his own sword and a place in the ranking of Qinghe’s young masters. A courtesy name, as well. I was thinking perhaps of Meng Wanqiang. What do you think, Jin-zongzhu?”

Meng Yao nearly choked, not just at the idea of his own courtesy name, let alone one with that meaning, but at Nie Mingjue throwing the gauntlet at Jin Guangshan’s feet like that. To take Jin Guangshan’s obvious underlying statement that Meng Yao didn’t belong in the Qinghe Nie at all and then respond with the fact that not only was he going to keep him in the Nie sect, but elevate his position – the sheer audacity was staggering. It was suddenly quite warm in the hanshi.

After what seemed like a very long pause, Jin Guangshan said, “I’m afraid I must object to that.”

Voice still measured and even, Nie Mingjue said, “If it offends you, I’m sorry. However, Meng Yao has earned his place in the Qinghe Nie, and I don’t see how it concerns the Lanling Jin.”

Meng Yao had to resist the urge to burst out into the room and ask Nie Mingjue to stop all of this. He wasn’t worth it. The Nie sect shouldn’t put themselves at odds with the Lanling Jin over him. Surely it would only cause problems in the future. Why would Nie Mingjue be doing any of this?

Seeing that trying to tiptoe around the issue wasn’t working, Jin Guangshan said, “Of course it concerns the Lanling Jin. Our blood flows in his veins. He is responsible for the death of a member of the Jin sect. Therefore this is an internal matter for the Lanling Jin.”

Meng Yao cringed, and Nie Huaisang squeezed his hand again.

Nie Mingjue said, “Meng Yao is not an object you can lay claim to when it is convenient to you and discard when it is not. Your blood means nothing. He offered his service to you and you declined. Therefore he has no obligation to the Lanling Jin and I am well within my rights to offer him a place in the Qinghe Nie. Furthermore, given the circumstances, the Qinghe Nie accept no responsibility for the death of your sect member. His actions fall squarely on his own shoulders.”

Silence fell. Meng Yao could practically see Jin Guangshan trying to decide how far he wanted to push the issue. It was clear that Nie Mingjue was not going to budge. And Jin Zifu was one of the lowest ranked masters of those attending – a man who was not worth going to war over.

Seeing him wavering, Lan Xichen now spoke up. “I agree with Nie-zongzhu. Jin Zifu’s actions were unconscionable. He waited for Meng Yao to be alone and not only attempted to kill him, but told him that he would get away with it by staging it as a suicide. His crime was premeditated, dishonorable, and reprehensible. If Nie-gongzi had waited even a minute longer to check on Meng-gongzi’s absence, then he would have been successful. I might add that Meng-gongzi never provoked anybody in class,” he added. “He accepted his good grades and answered questions that were put to him, but he was never one who showed off or rubbed his success in anyone else’s face. Would you not agree, shufu?”

“I agree,” Lan Qiren spoke for the first time. “He is quite bright and diligent, and was always willing to help the others if he was asked, but he never became smug or boastful.”

The news about the most awful aspect of all – that Jin Zifu had planned to further profane Meng Yao by making it appear as if he had killed himself – seemed to take the rest of the wind out of Jin Guangshan’s sails. He grunted and said, “Very well. I suppose if all three of you are in agreement, I must accept your conclusions.”

There was more shuffling, a few more words, and then Jin Guangshan asked if he could be showed to the Jin sect’s guest house so he could speak to the remaining disciples and his son. Lan Xichen called in a few disciples to guide him, and finally, he was gone.

Nie Mingjue pulled back the screen and looked at where Meng Yao and Nie Huaisang were still kneeling, Meng Yao’s hand still tightly clutched in Nie Huaisang’s. “You two all right?”

They both nodded, and Meng Yao managed to say, “Wanqiang?”

“Ah, I should have asked you first,” Nie Mingjue said. “Do you think it suits?”

“It’s perfect,” Meng Yao said, feeling his eyes sting with unshed tears. “I could never have chosen one better. Thank you, Nie-zongzhu.” He took a deep breath and said, “Do we have to leave right away? I would prefer to stay the last week if possible, but I understand if it isn’t.”

“Didn’t you say you were done with your coursework?” Nie Mingjue asked.

Meng Yao nodded, then said, “But there are two books I’m still in the middle of reading, and I’m making progress on the guqin, so . . .”

“Of course you are.” Nie Mingjue gave a snort. “All right. Then I’ll stay, too – if that’s all right, Xichen?”

“It’s fine,” Lan Xichen said, smiling.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

The next day, they were at the Yunmeng Jiang guest house, ostensibly working on their final papers. Nie Huaisang gave a dramatic rendition of Nie Mingjue’s showdown with Jin Guangshan to an extremely appreciative audience. Even Lan Wangji looked impressed.

“What an amazing person,” Jiang Cheng said, at the end. “Meng-xiong, you must be very grateful to have met him.”

“I am,” Meng Yao said. “I just wish I understood better.”

“Understood which part?” Nie Huaisang asked.

Meng Yao squirmed uncomfortably, wishing he hadn’t brought it up. “Nie-zongzhu was so adamant in his defense of me . . . he was willing to risk so much conflict with the Lanling Jin in order to protect me . . .”

“Of course he was!” Nie Huaisang sounded aggravated. “Meng Yao! You’re part of the Qinghe Nie! How do you still not understand that?”

Meng Yao said nothing. Surprisingly, it was Wei Wuxian who spoke up, saying, “Sometimes, when you grow up always having to protect yourself, you don’t even realize other people will do it. And sometimes, the people you think will protect you don’t, and you never really forget that that can happen . . .”

“But it is not only about Meng-gongzi being a part of the Qinghe Nie,” Lan Wangji said. “It was about doing what is just and morally correct. To allow you to be punished for another’s actions would be unfair. Nie-zongzhu, being of such righteous character, would never allow that.”

That explanation made a lot more sense to Meng Yao, so he nodded. He saw Nie Huaisang roll his eyes, and ignored him.

“Speaking of righteous people,” Wei Wuxian said, “or in this case, self-righteous, guess who came by last night?”

“With that opening, I’m going to guess Jin-gongzi?” Meng Yao said.

Wei Wuxian nodded and made a disgusted noise. “Asked shijie if she would light a lantern with him tonight to wish for a happy life together . . . basically kissed her feet and apologized for having been such a spoiled brat this whole time. Ugh.”

“Wonder what brought that on,” Nie Huaisang said thoughtfully, casting Meng Yao a sideways glance, clearly thinking back to his conversation with Luo Qingyang and how this was absolutely not what they had predicted.

“My guess?” Meng Yao said. “Jin-zongzhu went to go see his sect members after talking to Nie-zongzhu yesterday, and he would have been in quite a foul temper. Jin-gongzi probably took his presence as an invitation to whine about having to marry beneath his station and ask his father to let him out of the betrothal, and his father probably kicked his ass. He’s got enough problems right now without potentially alienating the Jiang sect and pissing off his wife. I would give good odds that Jin-zongzhu told Jin-gongzi to come here and apologize and swear to do better or he might not get to come back to Lanling at all.”

Jiang Cheng gave a snort. “Better than nothing, I guess. If he’ll stop treating a-jie like crap, we can be thankful for that.”

“Is the lantern ceremony tonight, then?” Nie Huaisang asked. “The last few days have sort of blurred together . . . ah, Meng Yao, I’m so glad that you stayed for the last week, then! It would have been terrible for you to have missed it. You can light a lantern and wish that you get to have both da-ge and Xichen-ge.”

Jiang Cheng choked on his tea. Lan Wangji missed a stroke in his calligraphy.

“Both?” Jiang Cheng asked.

Have?” Lan Wangji asked.

Meng Yao groaned. “Nie-gongzi, please . . . how many times do I have to tell you that I will faithfully serve Nie-zongzhu . . .”

“Serve, sure,” Nie Huaisang said cheerfully. “You’ll always be a member of the Qinghe Nie. But I’m not talking about which sect you’ll be part of! I’m talking about who you’re going to get naked with.”

Jiang Cheng spit tea all over his brother. Lan Wangji held his brush aloft so long that a drop of ink splashed onto the page.

Both?” Wei Wuxian asked, his eyes glazing over. “Is – is that – ” He looked at Nie Huaisang and for some reason lowered his voice. “Is that possible?”

“Definitely,” Nie Huaisang said. “I have some educational materials – ”

Lan Wangji stood and walked away without another word.

“Why are you doing this to me,” Meng Yao asked, pressing his hands against his face.

“Listen,” Wei Wuxian said, “just listen, okay, Meng Yao? If you have a chance to be naked with both of them at the same time, you absolutely have to take it, okay? Or else you will have wasted your entire life.”

“Wei-gongzi, please,” Meng Yao muttered, keeping his face covered to hide his brilliantly red cheeks.

“Both,” Nie Huaisang whispered.

Meng Yao had to excuse himself.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Despite everything that had happened, Meng Yao enjoyed the lantern ceremony. Many of the other disciples, who didn’t know exactly what had happened, gawked at him, especially at the raw ligature marks that stood out vividly against the pale skin of his throat. None of the Lanling Jin disciples would meet his gaze, especially not Jin Zixuan.

Meng Yao concentrated on making his lantern, keeping half an eye on Nie Huaisang. For once, he didn’t need to, because this was something he actually enjoyed. His lantern was beautiful and elaborate, and nearly ended up burned to ash thanks to Wei Wuxian’s incessant flirting with Lan Wangji. Meng Yao only barely managed to grab it and stamp out the flames before it could be completely consumed.

“Ah, the frame is all bent!” Nie Huaisang said, clearly distraught. “I’ll have to start all over . . .”

“At least the paper is still mostly intact,” Meng Yao comforted him. “You can just patch it up a bit. Here, mine’s already done, I’ll help you.”

“Yours is only done because it’s so plain and boring,” Nie Huaisang said. “Don’t you want to paint it more?”

“You know I’m not any good at that sort of thing. Here, hand me that . . .”

Wei Wuxian sat down to help as well, wincing as he apologized to Nie Huaisang, and Nie Huaisang pouted in his direction. He showed them the rabbit he had painted on his own, which was quite good and also basically a marriage proposal as far as Meng Yao could ascertain.

As they were finishing up, Meng Yao noticed that Lan Xichen and Nie Mingjue were both watching from the outskirts. He couldn’t help but sneak a few glances at them, yearning in what he hoped was privacy as Lan Xichen gave Nie Mingjue that soft smile, as Nie Mingjue snorted at something Lan Xichen said and bumped their shoulders together.

Meng Yao lit his lantern and resolutely ignored Nie Huaisang next to him, wishing to pass the classes he could have passed easily if he had actually put any effort in. He watched it take to the sky and folded his hands and wished, hopefully, foolishly, desperately, that he could have both Lan Xichen and Nie Mingjue. He didn’t know how it would work and he didn’t care. It was a wish, that was all. Nobody ever had to know.

“So did you wish you could have them both?” Nie Huaisang asked eagerly, bare seconds after everyone began to chat again.

“I will throw you down this mountain,” Meng Yao hissed at him, and Nie Huaisang laughed so hard that he cried.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

The one downside of Nie Mingjue staying until the end of the lectures, Nie Huaisang said, was that it meant he was going to accompany them on their trip home. Meng Yao thought about asking why that was a downside and then realized it was of course because Nie Huaisang hadn’t had any intention of going straight home. He was going to drag Meng Yao across half the country in search of hijinks and tomfoolery.

“In that case, I’m even more glad that I’m here,” Nie Mingjue said, scowling at his younger brother. “This isn’t the time for goofing off.”

“It’s always the time for goofing off,” Nie Huaisang said with confidence. But Meng Yao saw a real unease in Nie Mingjue’s gaze. Nie Huaisang had been fooling around for years, and generally as long as he had some money, he could take care of himself. There was definitely some reason why Nie Mingjue wasn’t in the mood for it now.

All of that aside, he couldn’t help but preen when the final grades were given out and he saw that he had gotten perfect scores on all the exams and some extra credit on the projects and essays. He doubted anyone had done better except possibly Lan Wangji. Then he realized he didn’t see Lan Wangji, and for that matter, didn’t see Wei Wuxian, either.

“Where’s your brother?” he asked Jiang Cheng.

Looking as if he was a teakettle about to boil over, Jiang Cheng said, “He snuck off after the lantern ceremony, and left a note saying he was going out night-hunting and would meet us back at Lotus Pier. Can you even believe that?”

“Yes,” Meng Yao said. “It is Wei-gongzi, after all . . .”

Right?” Jiang Cheng groaned.

Nie Huaisang, on the other hand, received grades that weren’t quite as terrible as they could have been. Rather than scraping by with an average that put him one point above failing, he actually managed to turn in several decent final essays that brought him up to the middle of the class.

“Told you I’d do it,” he said to Meng Yao.

“The only reason you managed it is because Lan-er-gongzi spent so much time with you over the past week, glaring at you,” Meng Yao responded.

“True,” Nie Huaisang said cheerfully.

Nie Mingjue shook his head at them.

In Meng Yao’s opinion, the worst downside to Nie Mingjue staying for the end of the lectures was that he didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to Lan Xichen in private. They paid their respects to Lan Qiren, and Meng Yao thanked him profusely for everything he had done, and then thanked Lan Xichen just as much. But it felt formal, somehow, with everyone there. He wished they’d had a chance for one more evening with just the two of them, playing weiqi or talking about music.

The Jin sect ruined everything, he thought.

“I hope I’ll see you again soon,” Lan Xichen said, and was Meng Yao feverish or was that sort of mostly specifically directed at him?

Probably not, because Nie Mingjue responded with, “Let me know if you need anything, Xichen,” and with that, they were on their way.

It wasn’t until that night, when they were making camp (the Qinghe Nie did not believe in luxuries like inns while on the road), that Nie Mingjue sat down with them and said, “There are some things I need to talk to you about.”

“Including me?” Nie Huaisang asked innocently.

Nie Mingjue gave him a funny look. “Yes, obviously, including you.”

Nie Huaisang, who apparently had been hoping Nie Mingjue wanted to have a talk with Meng Yao about doing things naked, pouted.

Instead, Nie Mingjue began to talk very seriously about something called yin iron, and how there was a very strong possibility that they were going to go to war with the Qishan Wen. Meng Yao slotted everything he said in amongst the clues he had slowly been picking up during his time in Cloud Recesses and found it finally forming a complete picture.

“So is that what Wei-gongzi and Lan-er-gongzi found when they went missing?” he asked.

Nie Mingjue nodded. “The spirit of Lan Yi entrusted them with the piece of yin iron that the Gusu Lan had been protecting. Xichen has been attempting to reseal it but has been unable to. After some discussion, it was agreed that Wangji and Wei Wuxian are going to try to use that piece to find the others.”

“Does Qinghe have one?” Nie Huaisang asked, sounding anxious.

“No. Or at least, if it does, it was not entrusted to us the way it was entrusted to Lan Yi. It’s difficult to say where the other two are now.”

“Two, not three?” Meng Yao asked. “Are we that certain that Wen-zongzhu already has one?”

“We are. And he might have more than that.”

“What is he going to do with them?” Nie Huaisang asked.

“We don’t know. But whatever it is, it can’t be good. The Wen sect has always been bloodthirsty and power-hungry. I can only assume that Wen Ruohan intends to use the completed yin iron to subjugate the other sects.”

“What are we going to do, then?” Nie Huaisang asked. “Shouldn’t we help Wei-xiong and Lan-xiong? It’s such a burden to place on their shoulders alone.”

“I’m going to organize some people to search Qinghe for any sign that there’s a piece of yin iron there,” Nie Mingjue said. “For now, that’s all we can do. It’s better if Wei Wuxian and Wangji travel alone – large numbers would draw attention. They are both quite competent from what I’ve heard. Meanwhile, Xichen has been consulting with Jiang-zongzhu and Jin-zongzhu,” his mouth pursed slightly on the name, “to see what else they might recommend.”

“What did they say?” Meng Yao asked.

“Jiang-zongzhu is willing to support us in whatever actions need to be taken,” Nie Mingjue said. “Jin-zongzhu would like to pursue a more cautious path. He has recommended not getting involved until we have more proof that Wen Ruohan has nefarious reasons for seeking the yin iron.”

“Of course,” Nie Huaisang said. “After all, it’s only metal that’s been so steeped in resentful energy that even the great Lan Yi could not fully suppressed it. Perhaps he just wants to make jewelry out of it to give to his wife!”

Nie Mingjue gave a snort. “Jin-zongzhu has a longstanding friendship with Wen Ruohan. Frankly I don’t want his help.”

“Fair,” Meng Yao murmured.

“All we can do right now is prepare,” Nie Mingjue said. “Xichen is well aware that he can come to us if he needs anything. Hopefully we’ll be able to find the rest of the yin iron before Wen Ruohan does.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

Returning to Qinghe wasn’t quite as smooth as Meng Yao had hoped it would be. Regardless of how much he had assured Nie Mingjue that he could handle himself there, there were still plenty of people in The Unclean Realm who thought he wasn’t fit to kiss their shoes. The captain of the guard, Fen Hong, was one particularly odious specimen, and he had a habit of encouraging everyone under his command to act the same way.

And despite everything that had happened, Meng Yao wasn’t about to start running to Nie Mingjue for help everyone called him a rude name or told him he didn’t have the right to give them orders. He easily fell back into the role he had occupied before he had left – sweet-talking, cajoling, occasionally using reverse psychology, and sometimes resorting to extortion.

Despite all his newfound knowledge of cultivation, there was still only so much he could do with the people who would never accept him in the gentry. He had no idea how they would react when Nie Mingjue started talking about Meng Yao getting a sword and a courtesy name. The project, so to speak, seemed to have been placed on the back burner due to the yin iron. Meng Yao didn’t mind. They were preparing for war; his status in the sect would obviously take a second seat.

He had been back for two weeks when they got a message from the Qishan Wen. Meng Yao opened it, read it, and paled slightly. Careful to keep his voice steady, he said to Nie Mingjue, “From the Qishan Wen – all sects are to select an inner heir disciple and send them to Nightless City to accept indoctrination within the next two weeks.”

Nie Mingjue looked up from where he had been practicing with his saber. His jaw tightened. “They know damn well that Huaisang is the only inner heir disciple of the Qinghe Nie.”

“That’s true,” Meng Yao said, although privately he doubted it was relevant. They weren’t targeting anyone in specific. It was a broad attempt at intimidation, a show of force, a way to keep the great sects in line while Wen Ruohan found the rest of the yin iron. “Are you going to comply?”

“I’m not sure I have any damn choice,” Nie Mingjue growled. “Either option is terrible. I’ll write to Xichen and see what he’s thinking . . . with Wangji on the search for the yin iron, they won’t have anyone to send at all.”

Meng Yao nodded. He wished he could offer advice, but Nie Mingjue was correct. Both options were awful. If they refused, the Wen sect would try to take Nie Huaisang by force. They very likely had the ability to do it, and the battle would be brutal. But if he complied, then Nie Huaisang would be in Nightless City, held hostage to ensure Nie Mingjue’s good behavior.

As if things weren’t complicated enough, the next day they got a report that something strange was going on at the Chang Manor. Nie Mingjue growled at this new letter and then said, “I’m going to leave this one to you. I want you to take half a dozen of the men and go see what’s going on.”

Meng Yao bowed and said, “Yes, Nie-zongzhu.”

“I don’t see why you need a dozen,” Fen Hong sneered, when Meng Yao approached him to have the disciples assigned. “Just to check out some strange noises? Surely six will suffice.”

Having expected such a response was the reason Meng Yao had asked for a dozen instead of only half a dozen. He gave the captain the world’s least sincere smile and said, “Of course, six will be fine. Thank you, Captain.”

A few hours later, they were equipped and on the road. Most of the men on the trip were fine with Meng Yao, and although a couple of them sometimes showed him contempt, it was nothing he couldn’t handle. They knew Nie Mingjue relied on him, and were always wary of getting in trouble with him. If only, Meng Yao thought, everyone was smart enough to be wary of that.

He wasn’t sure what he expected when he arrived at the Chang Manor, but it certainly wasn’t Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji, along with Jiang Cheng who had clearly decided to go with them whether he was wanted or not, the legendary cultivators Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan, and a boy a few years younger than him with a nonchalant smirk.

“Hey, Meng-xiong!” Wei Wuxian greeted him.

Meng Yao bowed and said, “What’s all this?”

Wei Wuxian thumbed at the teenager and said, “Here’s the responsible party. But there’s a lot going on . . .”

“Yes, Nie-zongzhu told me about your search,” Meng Yao said, not finishing the sentence with ‘for the yin iron’ because he didn’t know who did and didn’t know about it. “Is he involved?”

“Yeah,” Wei Wuxian said. “He serves Wen Ruohan. He used the yin iron to do this,” he added, gesturing broadly at the carnage and answering Meng Yao’s unspoken question, “but he doesn’t have it on him. We’ve searched the manor top to bottom and can’t find it.”

“Then let us take him back to The Unclean Realm,” Meng Yao said. To the Nie disciples, he said, “Please lay out the bodies and perform the cleansing rituals. I will notify the local authorities of what has occurred.”

There was a brief discussion with Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan, who agreed that since Nie Mingjue had a reputation as a righteous, honorable man, they would leave the punishment of Xue Yang to him. They went to help with the cleansing rituals while Meng Yao pulled the other three young masters aside. “I’m glad I ran into you here,” he said. “Things with the Wen sect have escalated while you have been searching. They have sent a message to each of the great sect demanding that they send an inner heir disciple to Qishan for indoctrination.”

“Shit,” Wei Wuxian said, which Meng Yao thought summed up the matter fairly well. Jiang Cheng gave him an anxious look. “Maybe we had better go check in with Jiang-shushu after we see Xue Yang into custody.”

Lan Wangji’s jaw tightened. “And I with my brother. But first let us attend to Xue Yang.”

“Did you have any luck on your search?” Meng Yao asked.

“We found where a piece used to be, in Tanzhou, but Wen Chao got there first,” Wei Wuxian said, “and we found Xue Yang. Who I guess is better than nothing, since he has to know where the last piece is, and as long as Wen Ruohan doesn’t have it . . .”

Meng Yao nodded. “I’m going to go speak with the city authorities. I’ll return shortly.”

They spent the night at the Chang manor, working on cleansing the resentful energy from the air. It didn’t seem anybody had actually questioned Xue Yang yet, or thoroughly searched him. “I patted him down!” Wei Wuxian said.

“How adorable of you to think that was enough,” Meng Yao said, amused, and started undoing Xue Yang’s belt.

Xue Yang laughed. “Wei Wuxian, I thought you said you were the cheekiest of the young masters! This one is trying to disrobe me! Are you going to allow it?”

Wei Wuxian was flushed a little pink at the realization that Meng Yao actually did intend to strip Xue Yang naked. Meng Yao just shook his head and said, “Xue Yang, my mother was a whore. You’re going to have to try a lot harder than that to embarrass me.”

That made Xue Yang laugh harder. “Oh, I like you,” he said. “You should at least buy me dinner, though.”

Meng Yao glanced over his shoulder and said, “Lan-er-gongzi, could you silence him? I’m trying to think.”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji said, and Xue Yang began to protest mightily through his closed lips.

Once Meng Yao was satisfied that Xue Yang was indeed not concealing the yin iron anywhere on his person – fortunately the pieces were large enough that he didn’t have to search every nook and cranny – he got him back into his inner robe. He let Lan Wangji take off the silencing spell, and Xue Yang appeared to be sulking about it having been used. That or he was sulking about the three knives Meng Yao had taken off his person.

“So you are Xue Chonghai’s descendant, I assume?” Meng Yao asked.

Xue Yang studied the ceiling. “Sure. Why not?”

“But now you work for Wen Ruohan?”

“A guy’s gotta eat,” Xue Yang said.

Meng Yao thought this over. The yin iron had been scattered to the four cardinal directions. From what Wei Wuxian had told him about their journey thus far, one of the pieces had been in Yiling, and one in Tanzhou, and of course there was the one in Gusu. That meant the one left would be north, and it might very well have been in or near Qinghe, but it was clear that Xue Yang had removed it long ago.

As soon as he got Xue Yang back to The Unclean Realm, Nie Mingjue was undoubtedly going to want to execute him. He would have to talk him out of it, because Xue Yang was really the only lead they would have. Given how much time had elapsed between the murder of the Chang clan, which he had clearly used the yin iron to commit, and his apprehension, there was far too large a radius to search.

They parted ways with Xiao Xingcheng and Song Lan the next morning, and Meng Yao saw both Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji give them a longing glance and then give each other a significant look. It was clear to Meng Yao that both of them would have much rather lived a life of wandering cultivation, banishing evil together, than get mixed up in a war. He sympathized, but there wasn’t much he could do about it. He wondered if they had managed to admit their feelings for each other yet. Presumably not; they seemed to prefer staring at each other when the other wasn’t looking. He didn’t dare bring it up, since Wei Wuxian would almost definitely deflect it right back onto Meng Yao’s feelings for Lan Xichen and Nie Mingjue.

Things at The Unclean Realm went about how he had expected. Nie Mingjue immediately flung Baxia at Xue Yang’s face, and Xue Yang didn’t flinch or even stop smiling. Crazier than a shithouse rat, Meng Yao thought, but crazy could be used, could be useful. He stepped in to talk Nie Mingjue out of immediate execution on the grounds that Xue Yang could lead them to the yin iron, and Nie Mingjue agreed.

“Take him to the prison and strengthen the guard,” Nie Mingjue said.

Meng Yao bowed. “Understood.”

Outside, Fen Hong was doing drills, so Meng Yao delivered Nie Mingjue’s orders, and of course with so many people watching the captain decided to be an enormous piece of shit about it. “You don’t get to tell me how and where my men should be deployed.”

Meng Yao thought about pointing out the obvious: that this order wasn’t from him, it was from Nie Mingjue. But he decided against it. Instead, he put on his best fake smile and said that if the orders weren’t carried out, Nie Mingjue might be angry, and he would get in trouble. Naturally, Fen Hong took this as an invitation to be an even bigger jerk. Meng Yao let it roll off him, although he couldn’t help the way his shoulders tightened when the man called him a son of a whore as he departed. The confrontation had served its purpose.

“They don’t appreciate you here,” Xue Yang said, smirking, as Meng Yao put him in a cell.

“That’s true,” Meng Yao said.

“Entertaining better offers?”

Amused, Meng Yao said, “Offers that end with you on the outside of a jail cell, I’m guessing?”

Xue Yang shrugged. “Jail is boring. I hate being bored.”

“You sound like you speak from experience.” Meng Yao left the cell and locked the door behind him. “But I don’t have any interest in serving a megalomaniac bent on world destruction, so you can count me out of the Qishan Wen.”

“Oh, I’m not going back there.” Xue Yang laughed. “Talk about boring! All Xiandu ever talks about is yin iron this and yin iron that. He’s never going to shut up until I give him my piece and I’m definitely not going to do that. Why should I? It’s mine. He’s never done anything to deserve having it.”

“So your ‘better offer’ is what, exactly?” Meng Yao asked. “We go on the run together? What makes you think I would possibly be interested? It’s true that some of the men here are assholes, but I still hold a prestigious position and Nie-zongzhu listens to my advice. Why would I give that up?”

“You’ve seen what the yin iron can do,” Xue Yang said. “Imagine what you could do to these assholes with it.”

For a brief moment, the offer was actually quite tempting. Meng Yao couldn’t help but think of laying waste, not so much to The Unclean Realm, but to Koi Tower with it. Shoving it down his father’s throat and making him choke on every cruel word. 

But there would be other ways, better ways. Someday his father would answer for what he had done. Meng Yao could be patient. He had the Qinghe Nie and the Gusu Lan behind him. The Lanling Jin would answer.

That being said . . . 

“But why would you give it to me?” Meng Yao asked. “When you wouldn’t give it to Wen Ruohan?”

Xue Yang smiled and said, “I told you, I like you. Come on, you’re thinking about it. I can see that. Don’t you want revenge on whoever gave you those scars?”

Meng Yao’s hand involuntarily went to his throat. Even though it had been over a month since the attack, the marks it had left on him still stood out in vivid detail. They would probably never fully go away. “I don’t believe you,” he said. “You’re not going to give up your piece of yin iron and that’s all there is to it.”

Xue Yang leaned in and whispered into his ear.

“You’re lying,” Meng Yao said automatically.

“It’s the truth, I swear,” Xue Yang said, with a manic grin.

“Of course you would say that.” Meng Yao tucked the keys away. “But I’ll think about what you’ve said, Xue Yang. Maybe I’ll see you again.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

“Five pieces?” Nie Mingjue asked, and Wei Wuxian echoed him. “Five?”

“That’s what he said,” Meng Yao said, pouring himself a fresh cup of tea. “Four scattered in the cardinal directions and one to pin down the center. He said one piece was kept in the family and sent east but they’ve held onto it, and the center piece is in Qishan. He heard rumors about it so he went to look for it and found it, but left it where it was.”

“Did he tell you where?” Lan Wangji asked.

Meng Yao shook his head. “No, and I doubt he will, not without a great deal of persuasion. But he did say that he hadn’t told Wen Ruohan of its existence.”

“This is good, huh?” Wei Wuxian asked, his eyes bright. “That means we have three pieces and Wen Ruohan only has two. We could overpower him.”

“I mean, you’re counting Xue Yang’s piece as one we have, which we don’t,” Meng Yao said, “and the one in Qishan as one we have, which we also don’t. And that’s assuming Xue Yang was telling the truth, something I would not at all place money on.”

Nie Mingjue was frowning. “Why would he tell you this?”

“Oh, because he was trying to bribe me to let him out of jail,” Meng Yao said. “Fen Hong gave me a hard time about accepting orders from me, so he thought I might be looking to get out of Qinghe.”

Now Nie Mingjue’s frown turned into a scowl. “A hard time how?”

“Nothing I couldn’t handle,” Meng Yao said, and saw that this was not working at all. He sighed. “Nie-zongzhu, I really do appreciate your concern, but you can’t exile every man who calls me the son of a whore and thinks that I am too low to give him orders. You wouldn’t have enough men left to defend the walls. Besides, it was useful - it gave me an opening with Xue Yang. And even if he is lying about the fifth piece, that doesn’t mean we can’t get the fourth from him before Wen Ruohan does.”

There was a moment of silence before Lan Wangji said, “I believe you are correct. May we leave that in your hands? I would like to check in at Cloud Recesses and see how my brother and uncle intend to respond to the Wens’ demand for me to attend indoctrination.”

Nie Mingjue nodded. “We’ll handle it from here.”

Wei Wuxian sighed. “I guess we should head home too, huh, Jiang Cheng? I hope Jiang-shushu doesn’t think you’re going to Nightless City without me.”

Jiang Cheng just gave a little scoffing noise, but he didn’t argue. 

“It’s getting late,” Nie Mingjue said. “Why don’t you stay tonight, and you can set off in the morning.”

Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng both agreed to this, and said they would go say hello to Nie Huaisang. Lan Wangji looked a little skeptical, but allowed himself to be dragged along with them.

As soon as they were gone, Nie Mingjue narrowed his eyes at Meng Yao. “Tell me the truth,” he said sternly. “How bad is it?”

“Well, nobody has pulled a sword on me,” Meng Yao said with a smile.

His attempt at humor got him nowhere. “Meng Yao. Do you know why I’m asking you this?”

Meng Yao looked away. “Because you think I can’t take care of - ”

“No! For Heaven’s sake.” Nie Mingjue groaned. “I’m well aware you can handle this yourself! You’re one of the strongest people I’ve known. Obviously you can handle some rude comments. And I’m not here to get into a discussion of how you don’t deserve those comments, because if we had all day it wouldn’t - ” He sighed abruptly. “I promoted you, based on your merit. If a man in my sect refuses orders from you, they are not just disrespecting you. They are disrespecting me. Refusing to acknowledge the position that I gave you - why would I want someone like that as my captain of the guard? Why would I want someone in my sect who can’t respect the power I’ve given you, just because of your manner of birth?”

That made Meng Yao blink. He had genuinely never thought about it that way, but Nie Mingjue did have a point. “Even so,” he said, “I can’t come running to you every time I have a problem.”

“If you want to ignore someone calling you a nasty name, that’s your prerogative,” Nie Mingjue said, “but if someone refuses to follow my orders just because you’re the one delivering them, you absolutely must tell me. All right? Can we agree on that?”

Meng Yao nodded. “Yes, zongzhu.”

“Regarding Xue Yang - it probably won’t take long before Wen Ruohan realizes we have him. He’ll want to recover him if at all possible - so we need to prepare for an attack. I don’t have time to deal with the captain right now, and in truth it might be better to leave him where he is if his behavior gave you an opening with Xue Yang.” Nie Mingjue stood. “Let’s get to work.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Lan Wangji was gone the next morning, which did not particularly surprise Meng Yao. Knowing his character, it made sense that he would have departed as soon as possible, to get back to Cloud Recesses and find out what his uncle and his brother thought they should do in response to the Wen sect’s demands. He also had a suspicion that Lan Wangji wanted to avoid a drawn out farewell with Wei Wuxian. (Having watched them for about an hour at dinner, Meng Yao had come to the conclusion that they definitely had not managed to confess their feelings for each other. For the first time, he sympathized with Nie Huaisang and his constant attempts to get Meng Yao to confess to Lan Xichen, or Nie Mingjue, or anybody. It really was quite maddening to watch them stare moonily at each other but then quickly look away whenever they thought they might be caught.)

He didn’t get a chance to ask Wei Wuxian if he was upset about Lan Wangji’s abrupt departure, however, because he had barely been up for twenty minutes when the Wen sect’s approaching force was spotted by scouts. There were only about fifteen of them, so it clearly wasn’t meant to be an invading force, and they were led by Wen Chao, who Meng Yao was fairly sure was an idiot. But there was a problem, one named Wen Zhuliu, who Meng Yao knew by reputation and recognized immediately as the two groups faced off in front of the gate.

“Wen-er-gongzi, what brings you here?” Nie Mingjue asked, unable to contain his sarcasm.

Looking far too impressed with himself, Wen Chao said, “Nie-zongzhu, Xiandu was quite angry when he heard about the yin iron and the massacre of the Chang clan. It was supposed to be left to us, and shouldn’t have been interfered with by some nameless random clan.”

There was some murmuring among the Nie sect members. Meng Yao just tried not to roll his eyes too obviously.

“Nie-zongzhu, I just came to deliver a message today, and give you a chance,” Wen Chao continued. “Hand over Xue Yang and his piece of yin iron, and I will spare you for exceeding your duties.”

The corner of Nie Mingjue’s mouth twitched, but he responded with admirable restraint. “I’m afraid I can’t obey that.”

“Nie Mingjue,” Wen Chao said with a smirk, “don’t refuse a toast only to drink a forfeit.”

He took a few steps forward, and Nie Mingjue’s restraint immediately evaporated. He threw Baxia across almost the entire space between them to land at Wen Chao’s feet. Looking frankly pissed to be showed up so completely, Wen Chao shouted, “Very well! It seems that the Nie clan of Qinghe is going to stand with the evil Lan clan of Gusu. I’ll eradicate your sect for Xiandu!”

Meng Yao noted that these were somewhat bold words from the man who immediately retreated to hide behind Wen Zhuliu as soon as Nie Mingjue attacked. But that wasn’t really relevant. The fight wasn’t his concern. “Huaisang, I have to go check on Xue Yang,” he said, and ducked away.

The noise of the battle behind him grew altogether too rapidly for his taste, as he hurried through the alleys of The Unclean Realm. It was clear that the Wen soldiers had breached the gates. Meng Yao had heard for years about the power of the Wen sect, but they had co-existed in an uneasy peace with them, and he hadn’t realized just how strong they were. And Wen Zhuliu’s presence was an added concern. He was one of only a handful of people who actually could rival Nie Mingjue, and his ability to crush golden cores - that was a fate many considered worse than death.

He needed to end this as quickly as possible. Fortunately, he had a fairly decent idea on how it might be done - and how he might kill two birds with one stone.

Most of the guards who had been at the prison had gone to join the battle. It didn’t surprise Meng Yao, but it did annoy him just on general principle. If the captain had doubled the guard, the way he was supposed to, then there would have been enough men to hang back. But on the upside, it worked out well for him. He entered the prison and jogged down a level to Xue Yang’s cell.

“What’s all the fuss up there about?” Xue Yang greeted him, with the smirk of somebody who knew exactly what the fuss was about.

“Wen Chao is here to pick you up,” Meng Yao said, and was amused when Xue Yang made a gagging face. “I don’t think you really want to go with him, though, do you? Given everything you said about Wen Ruohan yesterday. So I’ll make a deal with you - ”

“You’ll let me out?” Xue Yang asked eagerly.

“No,” Meng Yao said, “but I’ll go raise a big fuss about how you’ve escaped, so Wen Chao thinks you’re gone.”

“So I stay here in the dungeon?” Xue Yang laughed. “I don’t see how that really benefits me.”

“Here’s the deal, Xue Yang,” Meng Yao said. “Tell me where one of the two pieces of remaining yin iron is. Do that, and I’ll make sure Wen Chao thinks you’ve escaped so you can stay in your nice cozy cell for a little while. Then, once I’ve verified that the piece of yin iron is where you’ve said it is, and you’re not just full of shit, I’ll let you out, in exchange for the location of the second piece of yin iron. And if you lie about that one, at least I’ll have one and I won’t have sacrificed my position here in Qinghe for nothing. Deal?”

Xue Yang’s eyes gleamed. “You’re too clever for me, Meng Yao . . .”

“If that’s a yes, then start talking. We don’t have a lot of time.”

Xue Yang laughed. “I left it in Yueyang, of course. You didn’t think I would want to be too far away from it, did you?”

“Where in Yueyang, specifically?” Meng Yao asked, and Xue Yang told him.

“That’s my piece, though,” he said, still smirking. “Family heirloom, you know. Sentimental value. But I don’t want to wait while you go all the way to Qishan for the last one, so, once you have that, we’ll trade. Deal?”

“Deal,” Meng Yao said, and headed up the stairs.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

Meng Yao went bursting out of the door of the prison, shouting that Xue Yang had escaped. Several of the guards started shouting as well, to start a search and try to prevent his escape from The Unclean Realm. It would have been impossible for Wen Chao and his lackeys not to hear, so Meng Yao was satisfied. Hopefully they would take that as a reason to withdraw, so the battle wouldn’t get out of hand. And now he had the location of one of the pieces of yin iron. A nice bit of work, he thought to himself. Now he just needed to - 

“You!” Fen Hong shouted, charging towards him. “What did you do?”

“Me?” Meng Yao asked, somehow resisting the urge to say, ‘I just saved the day, why do you ask’. He was much too preoccupied stumbling backwards as Fen Hong drew his sword. “Ah, Captain, what - what are you - ”

“You let him go, didn’t you,” Fen Hong demanded. “I saw the way he looked at you yesterday. You two made some sort of deal!”

“Captain, if you’ll just - ” Meng Yao scrambled back a few more steps. More than anything else, he felt annoyed. He couldn’t just tell the captain that Xue Yang hadn’t escaped, because if anyone overheard, it would ruin his whole plan to get the Wen forces to leave. He had come up with what he felt was a very clever plan, and now this moron was putting the whole thing at risk.

“You filthy traitorous son of a whore!” Fen Hong shouted.

Meng Yao avoided another blow and then grabbed a saber off of a fallen Nie soldier. He blocked the next blow, wincing as he did so, aware that fighting back only made him look guilty but not seeing what choice he had. The worst part was, he could even see Fen Hong’s point. Xue Yang was not at all subtle, so it was completely possible that his plan to approach Meng Yao and bribe him to be let out had been obvious. Meng Yao had reasons to accept it, even though he hadn’t done so. Fen Hong was acting in what he felt were the sect’s best interests, and although his prejudiced perception of Meng Yao’s character was playing into his actions, they weren’t entirely unreasonable.

No, he realized, the worst part was that there was no way he could win this fight. Fen Hong was far above his level; Nie Mingjue did not hire just anybody to be in charge of the soldiers. He found himself wishing irritably, distantly, that he had just stabbed him without warning and avoided the whole problem (although he was sure it would have resulted in different ones). He didn’t like to get into fights at all, let alone against someone who was his better by an exponential magnitude.

He hissed in pain as Fen Hong’s saber sliced through his upper arm, weakening his ability to wield his weapon, and then tore a gash in the back of his thigh. 

Fuck the plan, then. He wasn’t dying for this, so he panted out, “Captain, listen, Xue Yang’s not - ”

“Shut up, liar!” Fen Hong shouted, and sent the saber out of Meng Yao’s grasp with a vicious blow. 

“He’s not - ”

Fen Hong lifted his saber, and Meng Yao rolled to the side as it came down, and then there was an enormous clash of metal on metal. Meng Yao made it onto his back and saw Baxia returning to Nie Mingjue’s hand after it had knocked Fen Hong’s weapon out of his grip.

“What in the thundering hell is going on here?” Nie Mingjue roared.

“This traitor let Xue Yang out of his cell!” Fen Hong shouted. 

Nie Mingjue’s gaze flicked to Meng Yao, and he quickly shook his head, not wanting to give too many details. In a somewhat lower voice, although still clearly enraged, Nie Mingjue said, “What evidence do you have to back up this accusation?”

“I - look out!” Fen Hong shouted, and dove forward as Wen Zhuliu’s blade came flying through the air. He shoved Nie Mingjue a few steps back, and the blade hit Fen Hong directly in the chest, although it only sunk a few inches deep. He went staggering and hit the wall. Nie Mingjue fended off Wen Zhuliu’s next blow, and then Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng both came running up from different parts of the battlefield. Meng Yao tried to get up, but the wound on his leg sent him tumbling back to the ground. 

“Nie-zongzhu,” Wen Chao said, with that same damnable smirk. “Qinghe is at the foot of Qishan. And now you are under my feet.”

 It was a bit premature, Meng Yao thought, given that Nie Mingjue looked like he was still itching to beat the shit out of every Wen soldier who had come through the door. But as long as Wen Zhuliu was there, Nie Mingjue was in check, and everyone there knew it.

“Wen Chao, haven’t you gotten what you wanted?” Wei Wuxian asked, helping Meng Yao to his feet. “Xue Yang is long gone. Why don’t you go collect him and your yin iron and leave the rest of us alone?”

Wen Chao sneered. “Wei Wuxian, you think you’re so high and mighty that you can tell us what to do? You think your little quest for the yin iron has made any difference at all? Since you’re so interested in the Lan sect, you should know that my brother has brought a fight against Gusu. If Lan Wangji manages to make it back, what do you think he’ll find?” He gave a dramatic pause, then finished, “Cloud Recesses in ruins!”

Meng Yao’s breath caught in his throat. He darted a look at Nie Mingjue, but he didn’t return it.

“The yin iron pieces will all be ours sooner or later,” Wen Chao said. “We haven’t displayed our power in a long time. So the other sects don’t remember how to respect us now? I’ll spare you today. But if this happens again, Qinghe will be the next Cloud Recesses. As for you, Wei Wuxian,” he added, pointing, “my father said to let you go to Qishan with the other young masters. I’m going to enjoy spending time with you then.”

He turned with a flourish, and the Wen soldiers followed him.

Nie Mingjue knelt next to Fen Hong, his mouth pressed into a thin line. He cut the cloth away from the injury and said, “It’s not deep. You can go see the medics after you explain to me what the hell you were doing attacking my assistant!”

“He helped Xue Yang escape!” Fen Hong groaned. “I saw the way they looked at each other yesterday! It was obvious to anyone paying attention that they were going to make a deal!”

“Did it not occur to you that there might be a reason he had done so?” Nie Mingjue growled. “Did you even stop to ask him, or did you just try to kill him?”

Rallying slightly, Fen Hong said, “E-Explain yourself, then, Meng Yao! What sort of deal did you make that could possibly have been worth releasing that maniac?”

Pressing a square of fabric against the wound on his arm, Meng Yao snapped, “I didn’t release him. He’s still in his cell. I just sent up the word that he had escaped because I figured that it would make the Wen forces withdraw.”

Fen Hong went somewhat pale. There was an awkward silence in the courtyard.

“Go check if you like,” Meng Yao continued. “Go see for yourself that he’s still there.”

“Ah - ” Fen Hong seemed to sense that taking Meng Yao up on this invitation might make things even worse.

“I’ll check,” Nie Mingjue said. “Not because I don’t believe Meng Yao, but because someone else might have helped him, including someone from the Wen sect. Both of you stay where you are.”

No problem, Meng Yao thought, since his leg wouldn’t quite support his weight. He was still leaning heavily on Wei Wuxian and Nie Huaisang.

Nie Mingjue went into the prison, and came back out a few moments later. He gave Meng Yao a brief nod, then said to Fen Hong, “Follow me to the sword hall where we can discuss this further.”

Still somewhat pale, Fen Hong followed. Meng Yao limped after them, even as the others chided him to stay put. But he knew Nie Mingjue wouldn’t allow him to witness what was going to happen next, and he understood why, given what Fen Hong was likely to say about him. So he sat down in the courtyard outside the sword hall and allowed them to call a medic for him. She applied some blood-coagulating grass and bandages to his injuries. The one on his arm was minor, she said, but the one in his leg was deeper and more serious. She advised him to stay off his feet as much as possible for the next three days.

“What do you think’s happening in there?” Nie Huaisang asked, looking at the ominously quiet sword hall.

“Fen Hong is undoubtedly justifying his actions with a litany of complaints against me,” Meng Yao said.

“Are these complaints valid?” Jiang Cheng asked, sounding dubious.

“Most of them, no. I’ve made sure to behave impeccably ever since I got here for just this reason. But he’ll certainly try to convince Nie-zongzhu that I shouldn’t be allowed a place here at all because by very nature of my birth, I am certain to be deceitful, opportunistic, and generally of low character.” Meng Yao saw the three of them exchange glances and felt somewhat exasperated. “I’m not saying that because I believe it. I’m saying it because he believes it. He’s loyal to Nie-zongzhu, and thinks that my being here is a danger to him, that I will inevitably corrupt him with my indecency.”

“What horse shit,” Wei Wuxian said, and Meng Yao sighed.

“Well, what will happen to him, then?” Nie Huaisang asked.

“He’ll be banished from The Unclean Realm, most likely,” Meng Yao said. “Nie-zongzhu might have executed him for attacking me without cause, but since Fen Hong saved his life, he’ll spare him.”

“Ugh,” Wei Wuxian muttered.

Before another minute had gone by, the door to the sword hall opened and Fen Hong came out, looking livid. He didn’t look at any of them as he walked past them, one hand still pressed to his bleeding chest. But then he wheeled around suddenly. “I don’t know how you’ve deceived him into thinking you deserve this sort of treatment, you filthy son of a whore,” he hissed. “If you had any self-respect you’d go die in the gutter where you belong instead of kissing the feet of your betters and begging for a handout. I hope you know that your mother is burning in hell.”

With that, he spit in Meng Yao’s face and turned to walk away.

All Meng Yao could see was red. The pain and weakness in his leg had vanished. He launched himself to his feet and tackled Fen Hong around the midsection, sending him sprawling onto the ground. He was vaguely aware of somebody, Nie Huaisang he thought, crying out in alarm. It didn’t matter. He rained down blows onto Fen Hong’s face and his arms as he tried to protect himself. He couldn’t see, couldn’t think. The rage was all there was.

“Fucking hell, Meng Yao,” Nie Mingjue swore, and grabbed him under the arms, lifting him off Fen Hong and then off the ground entirely as he struggled to get free.

“You - ” Fen Hong managed to get back his feet, his face written with the same fury that was consuming Meng Yao. “Did you see what he - ”

“Yes, I saw what he did, and I heard what you said!” Nie Mingjue snapped. “You’re just lucky he wasn’t still holding a saber because if he was he would have gutted you and frankly I wouldn’t have blamed him! Now get out! You’ve forfeited the hour’s leniency I gave you to gather your things. Go straight to the gates and don’t look back. If I ever see you in Qinghe again, I’ll kill you.”

“I’ll make sure he gets there,” Wei Wuxian said, his voice as cold as Meng Yao had ever heard it. He gave the man an unnecessary shove towards the way that led to the front gates.

“Meng Yao, are you okay?” Nie Huaisang asked worriedly. “Your arm is bleeding again - ”

“I’ll take care of him,” Nie Mingjue said, seeing that Meng Yao was still too incoherently furious to respond. He sighed and added, “Though now I’ve got a dozen things to delegate and no damned captain of the guard. Huaisang, will you just - just take him to my rooms and do what you can. I’ll be there shortly.”

Nie Huaisang nodded and took Meng Yao by the arm, gently steering him towards the main hall. Meng Yao followed obediently, and by the time Nie Huaisang had him sitting down and was dabbing at his arm wound, he had calmed down enough to say, “How bad is it?”

“Not too bad, just bleeding a little. Your hands are all banged up, though. I’m going to get some cold water.”

Meng Yao sighed but didn’t argue as Nie Huaisang went to fetch it, looking at his bruised and scraped knuckles. They hadn’t hurt at the time, but they were starting to ache now. His eyes stung and his throat was tight with rage and he hated the fact that what should have been a triumphant moment for him had been so thoroughly ruined. He hadn’t even had the chance to tell Nie Mingjue that he had gotten the location of one of the pieces of yin iron.

Nie Huaisang came back in with the bowl of cold water, and Meng Yao put both his hands in it, hissing a little in pain. “Hey, Meng Yao,” Nie Huaisang said, and Meng Yao winced, waiting for the awkward words of comfort. But instead, Nie Huaisang said, “Da-ge told me about what the Wen sect is demanding. He hasn’t told me that he’s going to send me but I know he is, after today. Wen Chao proved they could just come and take me if they wanted, so . . .”

He was right, unfortunately, so Meng Yao nodded. “Don’t worry about it too much, Nie-gongzi,” he said. “They’re just throwing their weight around.”

“What should I do while I’m there?” Nie Huaisang asked. “I don’t want to make trouble for da-ge, but I don’t want to just meekly comply . . . I know I’m weak in a lot of ways but . . .”

“Your weakness may be a good thing,” Meng Yao said. “People underestimate you, Nie-gongzi. So don’t make trouble . . . unless you have to.”

That made Nie Huaisang smile. “All right,” he said. “I’ll do that.”

A few minutes later, Nie Mingjue came in. He was still rumpled from his fight with Wen Zhuliu, and actually took his hair piece off, because it had been knocked askew. Meng Yao didn’t think he’d ever seen him without his hair piece before, with his braids down around his face. He accepted a cup of tea from Nie Huaisang and said, “How are your injuries?”

“I’m fine,” Meng Yao said, then added automatically, “I’m so – ”

“Don’t you dare,” Nie Mingjue said. “Don’t you dare apologize for that. If he hadn’t saved my life, I would have killed him myself. Huaisang – you can go. Wei-gongzi and Jiang-gongzi are going to head back to Lotus Pier and I think they’d like to say goodbye to you before they leave.”

“Okay.” Nie Huaisang stood, squeezed Meng Yao’s shoulder, and left the room.

The silence sat for a long moment before Meng Yao said, “Xue Yang told me where one of the pieces of yin iron is.”

Nie Mingjue spit out his mouthful of tea. “Seriously? And you’re only mentioning it now?”

“I certainly wasn’t about to mention it in front of Fen Hong,” Meng Yao said, trying to keep the edge out of his voice. “It’s not far. He hid it in Yueyang. But the medic said not to put much weight on my leg for the next few days . . .”

“I’ll send Nie Zonghui,” Nie Mingjue said. “I don’t dare leave The Unclean Realm right now.”

Meng Yao nodded, and then, unable to help how anxious he sounded, “But what about Cloud Recesses?”

Nie Mingjue’s mouth tightened. “As much as I hate to say it, there’s nothing we can do. If Wen Chao knew that his brother was heading to Gusu, then Wen Xu and his troops must have left several days ago. They’re far ahead of us by now; we would never make it in time. Hopefully if Wangji rides the sword most of the way, he might be able to help.” He saw the look on Meng Yao’s face and said, “I don’t like it either, Meng Yao, but this is a war, and the Gusu Lan are not weak. We will have to rely on them to take care of themselves.”

“I know you’re right, I just . . .” Meng Yao looked away.

For a long minute, Nie Mingjue didn’t say anything. Then he reached out and drew Meng Yao’s hands out of the cold water, inspecting the bruises and abrasions on his knuckles. “You really beat the stuffing out of him,” he said, with a chuckle that surprised Meng Yao, and Meng Yao tried to smile in return. “He got in a few good licks, though,” he added, tracing his thumb over Meng Yao’s cheekbone.

“Did he?” Meng Yao forgot what they were talking about, because Nie Mingjue was touching his face and suddenly nothing hurt anymore. He felt warm again, but not in a bad way. Nie Mingjue was right there, he was so close, and he was so strong and protective and brave and Meng Yao was kissing him before he could think better of the idea.

Not that he really knew what he was doing, so basically he just sat there with his mouth pressed against Nie Mingjue’s for a brief second before he realized what he was doing and pulled away, mortified. “Ah – I – ”

“Thank fucking – ” Nie Mingjue bit the words off, grabbed the front of Meng Yao’s outer robe, and dragged him in for another kiss. Meng Yao surrendered to it completely, and found that whatever experience he lacked didn’t matter, because Nie Mingjue knew what he was doing. Meng Yao’s mouth opened underneath the pressure of Nie Mingjue’s lips and the next thing he knew, he was being kissed utterly breathless. He was dazed and panting when Nie Mingjue released him, only to haul him to his feet and steer him towards the inner rooms.

Somehow, by the time they got there he had lost his outer robe and his hanfu was half off and this seemed very unfair to him so he started grabbing for handfuls of the fabric in front of him. Nie Mingjue managed to get his belt off and they stumbled a few more steps, kissing, always kissing.

“Ah – ” Meng Yao nearly tripped over one of their many discarded garments and barely caught himself before falling. “Nie-zongzhu – ”

That made Nie Mingjue pull away, and the look in his eyes was a mixture of concern and affection. “Not here,” he said firmly. “I am never your sect leader in here. Only another man. Use my name.”

“I couldn’t,” Meng Yao protested.

“Meng Yao,” Nie Mingjue said, “this has to be as equals. It isn’t acceptable any other way, which is why I’ve done my best never to push my attention on you. You can’t be my subordinate in my bed. If you can’t use my name, then we can’t – I can’t.”

Meng Yao nodded, because he understood, even as difficult as it was for him to overcome. Nie Mingjue was far too honorable to ever want to risk Meng Yao feeling like he was obligated to have sex with him, like he had no choice in the matter because Nie Mingjue was the leader of his sect. But Meng Yao desperately wanted this, and even if he couldn’t quite acknowledge that Nie Mingjue wasn’t his superior, he could acknowledge that he was in this bedroom of his own free will. “Nie Mingjue,” he said, and found that he liked the way it sounded off his lips, loved the way it felt in his mouth. “Nie Mingjue,” he repeated, and tilted his head back and said it to the ceiling as Nie Mingjue began to press kisses into his throat, along the line of scars. The skin there was incredibly sensitive, and his whole body shivered. “Ah, Nie Mingjue . . .”

Never in his wildest dreams could he have imagined the way Nie Mingjue would make him feel. It was so far beyond, so far above any sort of pleasure he had ever conceived of that, some time later, he mumbled to the ceiling, “Did I die?”

“What?” Nie Mingjue asked, rolling onto his side so he could drape his (unbelievably beautiful, muscular) arm over Meng Yao’s waist.

“I must have died,” Meng Yao murmured. “Because this is Heaven.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment,” Nie Mingjue said, with a snort of laughter and a quick bite at Meng Yao’s ear. 

“Mm hm,” Meng Yao replied, wondering what had happened to his vocabulary. “I’m sorry.”

Nie Mingjue sighed, exasperated. “What are you sorry for now?”

“Making you wait so long,” Meng Yao said. “Making you think I didn’t want this.”

“Ah.” Nie Mingjue gave a slight shrug. “It wasn’t that long. You needed time to accept your place here before you were ready, and I knew that. But it was also . . .” His voice trailed off for a moment, and Meng Yao gave him a curious look. “Maybe I wasn’t sure for a long time, either.”

That made sense to Meng Yao, so he just nodded and didn’t really expect anything further. But Nie Mingjue reached out and caressed his cheek and said, “Let me tell you a story. I think it’s a story you’ll like, or at least I hope it will be.”

“I’m sure I will,” Meng Yao said, smiling.

Nie Mingjue smiled as well. “Several years ago, I went to Cloud Recesses for the lectures, just as you did, and met Xichen for the first time. And I was instantly, irrevocably in love with him.”

Meng Yao nodded again. This, too, made sense to him, and if the purpose of this story was to explain to him why he would always be second in Nie Mingjue’s heart, he would understand that.

“We had many enjoyable days together there,” Nie Mingjue continued, “but we both knew it couldn’t be anything long-term. Not just because of the issue of us needing to produce an heir - we both have younger brothers we hoped might take care of that for us, although clearly Xichen isn’t going to get that from Wangji - but because we were both clan leaders. Or in Xichen’s case, next in line at the time. We knew we would have duties, responsibilities, that our love for each other would always have to come second to.”

“How sad for you,” Meng Yao said softly.

“It was difficult, but we had both grown up with the idea that we would probably have to marry for alliance, for political reasons, not for love. It didn’t bother us as much as it perhaps should have. In any case, when we separated afterwards, we wrote to each other frequently, and whenever we saw each other . . . it was like no time had passed at all. We would spend as much time with each other as possible before we inevitably had to separate again. I suppose I thought it would always be like that, maybe even after we had married. But then . . . I met you.”

Meng Yao wasn’t sure how his entrance in this story had anything to do with the beautiful romance Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen had, but he nodded to show that he was following.

“I noticed you at first because of how hard you worked, how diligent you were, even at menial tasks that most of the soldiers complained about. And then I heard how the other men talked about you, which as you know infuriated me. I saw that you had a fire inside you, kindled by so many years of pain and anger. Your drive to succeed amazed me.”

“Ah, well, it wasn’t . . .” Meng Yao’s words trailed off as his cheeks flushed.

Nie Mingjue ignored his half-hearted protest. “And after I promoted you, based on your drive and your diligence, I realized how brilliant you are. I’ve never known a mind as sharp as yours, Meng Yao, truly. Not just your formidable memory, but how you can put puzzle pieces together, how you read people and understand them - it really is incredible. I thought, here is a problem, because I am falling in love with a man who is my subordinate. And I had to be especially careful with you, because I knew that, given your background, you might take the slightest hint of an advance as a terrible insult.”

Meng Yao looked away, because he knew that was true. His mother had been a whore. For years, any time someone had indicated sexual interest in him, it had been met with a sort of revulsion that was difficult to describe. A feeling that they were only showing interest because surely, as the son of a whore, he was a man with loose morals, a man who wouldn’t refuse.

“Besides that, I was confused, because I still love Xichen so dearly, and how could I love two men at the same time?” Nie Mingjue sighed slightly. “So, I went to talk to him.”

Taken aback, Meng Yao said, “You went to talk to Zewu-Jun about the fact that you were falling in love with another man?”

“I tell Xichen everything. How could I hide this from him? You might remember - I took a trip to Cloud Recesses about three months before the lectures.”

Meng Yao nodded. “I remember.”

“So I told Xichen about you, about your drive and your ambition and your brilliant mind. And he smiled and said he was sure that I had enough room in my heart for both of you, and that if you were as wonderful as I made you sound, surely he would love you too. So he asked me to send you for the lectures, which would give him a chance to get to know you and fall in love with you without my being there to, to influence things.”

Now Meng Yao had to look away again. “But it didn’t work.”

“What?” Nie Mingjue frowned. “Of course it worked. That’s why I had to come to Gusu, to remind him that he wasn’t allowed to steal you because I loved you too. And first, for that matter.” He laughed suddenly and added, “Oh, we had a big fight about it that night. Our first ever fight.”

“You . . . and Zewu-Jun . . . fought over me?” Even with everything that had happened, even while being naked in Nie Mingjue’s bed, Meng Yao had trouble believing that.

“He said it wasn’t fair, that I would get to take you back to Qinghe and have you all the time, and he would only get to see you on a rare occasion, and only at the same time as me.” Nie Mingjue laughed again. “He was right, to be honest. I told him that all right, you could come to Gusu and start learning the guqin from him, and stay a few months each year. But then the yin iron and the Wen sect, and . . .” Nie Mingjue’s smile faded. “He said it would be better for you to come back here with me, at least for the time being, because he knew there was a strong possibility Cloud Recesses would be attacked and he didn’t want you in danger.”

“Oh.” Meng Yao’s mind, which was apparently brilliant and incredible to Nie Mingjue, was having difficulty following this conversation. “Zewu-Jun . . . loves me? You love me?”

He half-expected Nie Mingjue to make fun of him for asking such a silly question, but Nie Mingjue caressed his face again, rubbing his thumb over Meng Yao’s lips. “I understand that for a long time, you were treated like you don’t matter,” he said. “I expect you may need some time to get used to the way things are changing. But yes, Meng Yao, he loves you, as I love you, and we are going to make sure you are never treated that way again.” He leaned in and kissed Meng Yao, briefly, softly. “But the question I have for you, the reason I have told you this story, is because I don’t know how you feel. I don’t know if you believe it’s possible for someone to love two people at once, wholly and equally. I don’t know if you love either of us, let alone both of us.”

“How could I not?” Meng Yao blurted out. “You are both so wonderful, and in such different ways. I would never be able to choose between you, but I never thought I would be with either of you, let alone both . . . the very concept of it is still baffling to me, even now.”

Nie Mingjue kissed him again, this time deeply, taking his breath away. “You will get used to us,” he murmured, and Meng Yao believed him. “Once this is all settled, with Wen Ruohan and the yin iron, we will go back to Cloud Recesses together. Or perhaps I will ask Xichen to come here . . . he tends to be more comfortable indulging himself here in Qinghe.”

Thinking of the many, many disciplines against self-indulgence, Meng Yao couldn’t be surprised. If anything, he was surprised that Lan Xichen was willing to indulge himself at all. Then the words sank in and he realized exactly what Nie Mingjue was suggesting, and his body responded with vigorous approval.

Nie Mingjue chuckled. “You like that idea, hm? Sharing this with both of us?”

“I died,” Meng Yao whispered, staring at him. “This is Heaven.”

“No, Meng Yao, it is far better than that,” Nie Mingjue said. “It is real life, and the three of us will be together in ways you’ve never even dreamed of.”


~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

Meng Yao slept in Nie Mingjue’s bed that night, and as soon as he saw Nie Huaisang the next day, Nie Huaisang laughed so hard he dropped his fan. “Finally, finally,” he said. “I told you! Didn’t I tell you?”

“You did, Nie-gongzi,” Meng Yao said, because he really wasn’t in a mood where he could get upset about anything. He felt like he was walking on air, although in reality he was walking with a slight limp. Then he realized that this was what Nie Huaisang was laughing at, and he flushed red. “My leg was wounded!”

Nie Huaisang practically howled with laughter. “Sure it was!”

Meng Yao couldn’t get annoyed despite his best efforts, but the mood sobered quickly when Nie Mingjue came out of the Sword Hall and asked Nie Huaisang, “Have you finished packing for your trip?”

“Ah,” Nie Huaisang said. “Finished? No . . .”

Nie Mingjue sighed. “Have you started?”

“Define ‘start’,” Nie Huaisang said, then added, “and ‘packing’.”

Nie Mingjue didn’t. “Meng Yao, go pack two weeks of things for Huaisang for his trip to Nightless City. I have to sit down with Nie Zonghui and talk to him about the yin iron.”

Meng Yao nodded and ushered Nie Huaisang back towards the living quarters. Nie Huaisang moaned and complained and basically made packing impossible, objecting to everything Meng Yao packed for him and everything Meng Yao didn’t pack for him. Meng Yao did his best to ignore him, because he knew that none of his objections were valid and he just didn’t want to go.

“Two weeks is such a long time,” Nie Huaisang said, dramatically waving his fan. “I’ve never been away from home for so long!”

Meng Yao stared at him. “You were literally just at Cloud Recesses for six months.”

“That doesn’t count,” Nie Huaisang said. “You were there with me.”

“Nie-zongzhu has picked out half a dozen disciples to go with you,” Meng Yao said. “You’ll be fine.”

Nie Huaisang swung his legs back and forth. “Still calling him Nie-zongzhu?”

Meng Yao nodded. “Out here, he’s Nie-zongzhu. In his rooms, he’s Nie Mingjue. We agreed on this.”

“Ah, I suppose that makes sense.” Nie Huaisang sighed and seemed to fall into a melancholy state of disposition. Meng Yao used that as an opportunity to finish packing his things, although he took pity on him and added some of his books and art supplies.

An hour later, they were standing at the front gate of The Unclean Realm. “Keep him safe,” Nie Mingjue said to the disciples, and they saluted and bowed. “Huaisang, just keep your head down. Don’t make trouble.”

“Unless you have to,” Meng Yao added. Nie Mingjue gave him a look, and he shrugged. He wasn’t going to take it back.

“Unless you have to,” Nie Mingjue agreed after a moment, and then Nie Huaisang and the others were gone. He stared after him for a long minute, brooding, until he turned to Meng Yao and said, “Nie Zonghui should only need two or three days to obtain what we need in Yueyang and get back. Until then, we need to keep up heavy scouting patrols and fix the damage that Wen Chao did yesterday.”

Meng Yao bowed and said, “Understood. I’ll get started.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

For four days, everything was glorious.

It wasn’t perfect. There were men in the guard who were angry about Fen Hong’s removal. Several of them even left out of protest. But it didn’t seem to bother Nie Mingjue, so Meng Yao resolved not to let it bother him. Those who were left seemed to have finally gotten the idea that they should keep their rude words to themselves. When Nie Zonghui returned with the piece of yin iron carefully sealed into a spirit pouch, things got better. Very few people in the Nie sect knew what was in the pouch, but Nie Mingjue made it clear that it was vital to defeating the Wen sect, and that Meng Yao was responsible for getting its location from Xue Yang.

During the day, it was all work. They strengthened the guard and fortified The Unclean Realm, and sent soldiers and cultivators out to the various parts of Qinghe to stand guard over the smaller sects. The Wen soldiers weren’t invading, not yet, but Nie Mingjue clearly felt it wouldn’t be long. He said that once they were fully prepared, they would ask Xue Yang to bring them to the last piece of yin iron, and Meng Yao was trying to prepare for that journey as well, deep into the heart of Qishan. But at night, at night it was just him and Nie Mingjue.

Then, four days after Nie Huaisang’s departure, one of the disciples from the Gusu Lan collapsed at the gates, bloody, bedraggled, and exhausted. It wasn’t anyone Meng Yao knew, but he had clearly pushed very hard to get there. It was several hours before he was able to regain consciousness. He told the story of the attack in between sips of water. How Wen Xu had ordered the buildings burned, how they had taken refuge in Cold Pond Cave, how the Wen disciples had started killing everyone left on the outside until one gave up the secret of how to get in. How Lan Wangji had come out and surrendered so the disciples inside would be spared and been captured for ‘indoctrination’.

How Lan Xichen had escaped with the most precious knowledge of the Lan sect. 

How they had tried to find him, days later, only find his outer robe, bloodied and torn like he had tried to use it as bandages, two of his spirit pouches, and a piece of jade that must have come free from his jinbu. Nothing else.

“He might be hiding somewhere,” Nie Mingjue said, in a tone that was clearly meant to convince himself more than it was meant to convince others. 

“He wouldn’t have left the spirit pouches behind,” the disciple said, and Meng Yao was forced to agree. “We think he must have been captured. Lan-xiansheng asked me . . . sent me here to beg for your aid. The Gusu Lan have been scattered to the four winds. There is nothing we can do. But his nephews . . .”

Nie Mingjue nodded. “Meng Yao,” he said, and Meng Yao jumped to attention. “Go get Xue Yang. We’re going into Qishan anyway for the last piece of yin iron. Once we have it, we’ll go find Xichen, along with Wangji, Huaisang, and any other hostages they have.”

That seemed like a very optimistic plan to Meng Yao, but he was far too worried about Lan Xichen to object. He nodded and bowed. “Everything is prepared for the journey. I will fetch Xue Yang and meet you at the gates.”

“Fuckin’ finally,” was what Xue Yang said when Meng Yao showed up at his cell. “How the hell long does it take you to go to Yueyang and back? It’s only a day’s journey in each direction.”

“Believe it or not, Xue Yang, you are not my highest priority.” Meng Yao unlocked the cell and made sure that Xue Yang’s hands were secured in front of him before fastening a rope to the shackles and tugging him forward.

“Are you going to march me out of here in broad daylight?” Xue Yang asked, seeming more curious than concerned. “Won’t people notice?”

“It doesn’t matter if anyone notices,” Meng Yao said. Xue Yang glanced around as they headed down the alley towards the front gate. There, half a dozen disciples had gathered, several of them laden down with packs. Meng Yao felt like it was too few, but he knew that Nie Mingjue had been right when he had said a small force would be all they could get into Qishan unnoticed. Six was probably too many as it was, he said, but they could assess the situation as they went along.

“What’s happening?” Xue Yang asked, seeing Nie Mingjue standing at the head of the group, exchanging a few quick words with Nie Zonghui, who would be in charge in his absence. “You said you were going to break me out.”

“Technically, I don’t think I ever said that,” Meng Yao said. “You came to the conclusion on your own after seeing how Fen Hong treated me that I might want to stab my sect leader in the back, but I never said that. I only said I wanted the location of the yin iron. Now we have one, so as promised, you’re being released. You’ll lead us to the second, and then we’ll give you your own piece back in exchange.”

Xue Yang laughed. “What if I don’t want to go with all these soldiers?”

“Then we’ll keep the piece from Yueyang, Nie-zongzhu will execute you, and we’ll search Qishan for the last piece ourselves.”

Xue Yang’s eyes gleamed. “You drive a hard bargain, Meng Yao. All right, I accept. Just don’t blame me if you get more than you bargained for.”

“Like a five-day journey with you running your mouth the whole time?” Meng Yao said. “The thought had occurred to me. But we can’t let you go until we have the last piece – or more accurately, you won’t let us go, because you still want your own piece back, so we may as well use you as a guide. Something tells me that you might know a back way into Qishan. Am I right?”

“Yes, you are,” Xue Yang said, laughing again. “You don’t want to enjoy Wen Ruohan’s hospitality?”

Nie Mingjue walked over at this, and rather than responding to Xue Yang’s words, said, “Give us an approximate destination. That way I can tell my men who are staying behind where we’re going, in case we don’t make it back.”

“Such faith in yourselves!” Xue Yang smirked, but didn’t argue. “Muxi Mountain.”

Nie Mingjue nodded and spoke with Nie Zonghui for a few minutes before they headed out.

“You’re all so serious,” Xue Yang said, after they had walked in silence for a total of three minutes. “Marching like you’re going to a funeral. Lighten up! We’re only sneaking onto the land of one of the most powerful cultivators to ever live, who’s armed with two or three pieces of metal steeped in centuries of resentful energy, who’s probably already holding a bunch of people hostage over a volcano. Why so glum?”

Meng Yao looked at Nie Mingjue and said, “I can’t believe neither of us ever thought to have the Lan sect teach us their silencing spell.”

“I tried,” Nie Mingjue said. “Xichen wouldn’t. Private technique, you know.”

Meng Yao sighed and resigned himself to a long five days.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

The journey was exactly as long as Meng Yao had feared it would be. Although Xue Yang would sometimes fall silent for a few hours - scheming, no doubt - he talked more often than not. He was an outrageous flirt and unfortunately observant, catching on to the men’s worries and conflicts and using them to cause trouble. If gagged, he would sit down in the dirt and refuse to walk on his own, and nobody wanted to expend the energy to drag or carry him. 

Meng Yao, meanwhile, was preoccupied with his fear for Lan Xichen. He could understand why Wen Ruohan had taken hostages from the other sects, but why capture an actual sect leader? Why not just kill him? What if they had just killed him? What if he and Nie Mingjue were walking into a trap? But then, his rational side said, why would the reason for that be? Wen Ruohan had no way of knowing how close Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen were, nor did he have any idea that they had already been planning a trip into Qishan. 

“Whatever it is, you’re thinking about it too much,” Xue Yang said, studying Meng Yao’s brooding expression. He laughed when Meng Yao gave him an annoyed look. “Come on, what. Tell your new friend Xue Yang. I’m a good listener.”

“Why do I doubt that?” Meng Yao asked, but found himself curious about what Xue Yang would think. He, at least, knew Wen Ruohan better than any of the rest of them did. He wasn’t about to tell him that they intended to go rescue Lan Xichen afterwards, but he might have an idea of why he had been taken. “All right, Xue Yang, I am working on a puzzle. The head of the Lan sect has been captured, and I am trying to work out why Wen Ruohan would do that instead of just having him killed.”

“Ah, well, there’s your first mistake,” Xue Yang said comfortably. “You’re assuming Wen Ruohan was the one who made the decision, but I’m sure he wasn’t. All Wen Ruohan cares about is the yin iron. He’s so busy trying to master it that he doesn’t pay attention to anything else. It’s powerful stuff, you know, takes a lot of focus and concentration. Most of the day-to-day stuff is being run by Wen Xu and Wen Chao. Like this nonsense of demanding the young masters be sent for indoctrination - all Wen Chao’s idea. It’s the sort of showing off he likes to do.”

Meng Yao thought that over and decided he probably agreed. “Then why would Wen Xu take him captive instead of killing him?”

“Oh, because he’s a sadist,” Xue Yang said, and laughed when Meng Yao’s back stiffened, his shoulders tightening. “You didn’t like that answer, hm? But it’s the truth, I swear! Wen Xu will never kill if he can capture. He’s probably torturing your precious Lan-zongzhu as we speak.”

Nie Mingjue glanced over at this, his face troubled, but didn’t intervene.

“It’s a terrible idea, though,” Meng Yao said, shaking his head. “Zewu-Jun is so strong and powerful . . . surely it would be better to kill him if you ever got the chance . . .”

Xue Yang laughed harder. “That’s your second mistake, Meng Yao. You think like a tactician, like a strategist. You think like the genius that you are. Nobody in Qishan has even half your brains. You’ve gotta think like an arrogant, stupid son of a bitch. Take me, for example.”

“Must I?” Meng Yao murmured.

Eyes gleaming, Xue Yang said, “Apparently.”

Meng Yao sighed.

Xue Yang continued, “I never had any loyalty to Wen Ruohan, and I never made any bones about it. If he or any of his advisers had half a brain cell, they would have insisted I give them some sort of collateral before letting me go to Yueyang. I didn’t need the yin iron to do what I did there; it just made it more fun. And now Wen Ruohan has lost that piece to his enemies, all because he never bothered to pay any attention to what I was really after.”

“And what was that?” Meng Yao asked, despite his better judgment.

“A good time,” Xue Yang said, and laughed again. 

“You’re disgusting,” one of the other disciples said, and the others were giving him dirty looks.

That made Xue Yang laugh harder. “You think so? I find you the disgusting ones. Men so impressed with themselves, with their ideas of justice and honor, as if the real world cares about such things at all. Men who have never faced a day of real hardship in their lives but still judge me for the man the world made me into. Put your backs to the wall and you’d all abandon your morals just as quickly as I abandoned mine. That’s why I like you, Meng Yao,” he continued. “Because you don’t have any such pretenses.”

“You can stop reminding everyone that you like me in a bid to convince them that I’m not trustworthy,” Meng Yao said. “I’m loyal to Nie-zongzhu and that will not change.”

“Sure it won’t,” Xue Yang said. Meng Yao didn’t respond to that at all, because if Xue Yang hadn’t noticed the affection between himself and Nie Mingjue, he certainly wasn’t about to draw his attention to it.

That, in all honesty, had been the hardest part of the journey. Both he and Nie Mingjue were in agreement that, although the men might be ready to learn of their relationship, there was no guarantee, and while on a dangerous, isolated mission was not the time to find that out. Meng Yao had been the one to bring it up, and Nie Mingjue had been reluctant, but had agreed. Nie Mingjue wanted to think that it would be safe to display their affection publicly, but he was smart enough to know that it might not be. That if even one of the men had a problem with it, it could cause the sort of strife that could destroy their chances at getting in and out of Qishan, let alone accomplishing their goals while they were there.

So for now, they continued to act exactly as they had been before. Meng Yao was his trusted adviser, something the men were used to if not entirely thrilled with. They kept their relationship professional, and Meng Yao was especially careful to make sure his tone and manner of speech were just as formal as they had been before. 

It wasn’t as difficult during the day, but at night, he ached for Nie Mingjue’s touch. He had only just been introduced to it, and was craving it more and more as each day went by. His worry about Lan Xichen only intensified the problem. He wished he could crawl into Nie Mingjue’s bed even if only for comfort, for reassurance. But he couldn’t. They both knew it and accepted it, but it was weighing on Meng Yao more heavily as the journey went by.

They crossed into Qishan on the fourth day. Fortunately, Muxi Mountain was near the outskirts, a full day’s journey away from Nightless City. Xue Yang took them on a back road that only had one small outpost of guards, who Nie Mingjue and his men easily took care of before they could send up a signal flare. It was as easy as they could have possibly hoped for.

“All right,” Nie Mingjue said, as they stood on the shores of the river next to Muxi Mountain. “Where to now?”

“There’s a cave entrance around here somewhere,” Xue Yang said, “but it can be devilishly difficult to find. I stumbled upon it by accident - not sure of exactly where it was.”

Nie Mingjue nodded and directed his men to split up and begin to search. For several hours, they beat the bushes of Muxi Mountain, but found nothing. Nie Mingjue became more suspicious as time went on, giving Xue Yang skeptical looks. But if there really was no cave, if this was all some sort of elaborate ploy, Meng Yao didn’t see what the purpose of it was. Xue Yang wasn’t trying to get away, even as he made no effort to help them search, and it would have been fairly easy for him to escape at this point. With all the men split up and searching, and only one person at a time keeping watch on him, he could have run. But he wasn’t, so Meng Yao had to assume that he had told the truth when he said he wanted his own piece of yin iron back. Either it really had sentimental value to him as a family heirloom, or he was simply accustomed to using it and didn’t want to go without, even if he could find the fifth piece himself.

As the day passed by, Meng Yao started to get nervous. He didn’t think they wanted to be out here at night. Muxi Mountain was known for spiritual disturbances and bad feng shui. Even if they could defend themselves, with which Nie Mingjue along they surely could, it might draw attention. “Xue Yang,” he said, “when you say you just stumbled upon the entrance, what were you doing at the time? Were you even looking for it?”

“Oh, no,” Xue Yang said, laughing. “I was just messing around, trying to find a place to camp that might be out of sight. I didn’t want Wen Ruohan knowing I was poking around back here.”

Meng Yao sighed. “But what exactly were you doing? When you say you were ‘messing around’, what does that mean?”

“I was using magic to look for openings in the mountain,” Xue Yang said. “I’m not good at that sort of spell, though. It’s not like I went to cultivator school,” he added, laughing.

Meng Yao was torn between feeling sympathy for Xue Yang, who lacked the fundamentals just as he had, and annoyed because he was only just now mentioning that magic was needed to find the entrance that they had all been sweating and climbing for four hours now trying to find. He shook his head and turned away, drawing a few symbols in the air.

“What talisman is that?” Nie Mingjue asked curiously. “I’ve never seen it.”

“Ah, it’s one of Wei-gongzi’s,” Meng Yao said. “He taught it to me at Cloud Recesses. It’s supposed to lift any veils that have been cast in an area.”

They watched as the talisman swirled around the mountain, the view in front of them rippling here and there as it encountered different energies. Then, some clouds began to clear, and a dark spot was seen against the paler rocks and flora. Nie Mingjue clapped him on the shoulder. “Nice work, Meng Yao.” He gestured to Xue Yang and said, “Get him up and let’s get moving.”

“Hang on,” Meng Yao said, countermanding him without thinking. Then he bowed and said, “Ah, my apologies, Nie-zongzhu. But may I ask, first . . .” He turned to Xue Yang. “What’s inside that cave? No more forgetting to mention things.”

Xue Yang smirked. “You’ll go in even if I tell you, won’t you?”

“Yes. So there’s no reason not to tell us.”

“There’s a monster,” Xue Yang said, and several of the men stiffened. “Some sort of turtle-snake thing. I don’t know what it is. Again, my classical education wasn’t. But the yin iron is inside of it.”

Inside?” Nie Mingjue asked. “How do you even know that?”

“Oh, because it ate me,” Xue Yang said peaceably. “Gross, huh? I jabbed it enough times with Jiangzai that it horked me back up, though.”

“Charming,” Meng Yao said dryly. “Anything else we should know?”

Xue Yang shrugged. “I’m sure I’ll think of something.”

“I’m sure you will,” Meng Yao muttered, and they began making their way up the mountain.

Half an hour later, they were in the cave, and fifteen minutes after that, they had descended the cliff inside and were standing at the edge of the pool. Other than a large rock in the center, there was nothing noteworthy about it. Only it wasn’t a rock, Meng Yao realized. It was the back of a turtle shell, the monster that Xue Yang had talked about.

“Is it . . . sleeping?” one of the men asked doubtfully.

“Are you asking me?” Xue Yang said, and shrugged. “How should I know?”

One of the others picked up a rock and threw it into the lake. This had no effect, and Xue Yang laughed.

“We need the scent of blood to wake it up,” Nie Mingjue said, pulling out a knife. “We won’t be able to get through the hard outer shell.”

Xue Yang held both his arms out in front of him, and laughed again when Nie Mingjue gave him a look. “What? You were obviously going to choose me anyway. You won’t go slicing into any of your own men. It’s fine. I’ve got plenty of scars; I don’t mind one more.”

Nie Mingjue shook his head, but the knife flashed out, making a sizable gash in Xue Yang’s upper arm. Nie Mingjue caught some of the blood in his hand and flung it out into the water. The surface rippled a few moments later. “Meng Yao, take Xue Yang and get back, bandage his arm up,” Nie Mingjue said, and Meng Yao nodded, retreating back towards the cliff.

The monster’s head broke through the surface of the water, its teeth gleaming in the light of their torches. It was huge and fearsome, but it was no match for Nie Mingjue and Baxia. The other Nie disciples kept its attention with their arrows and torches, and after several tries, Nie Mingjue cleaved its neck in two with one stroke.

“Hot,” Xue Yang said, in an approving tone.

Meng Yao ignored him, heading back towards the water’s edge. “Let’s roll it over,” he said, thinking they could cut through the soft underbelly of the creature to get into its stomach. This quickly proved to be impossible, however. The monster had collapsed in the center of the lake, and the water was too deep for the men to get a firm foothold so they could use all their strength to turn it over.

“Can one of us go through the neck?” one of the men asked, sounding doubtful. “Or . . . the back end?”

“Gross,” Xue Yang said, as if somebody had asked for his opinion. “I’ll go in through the neck.”

“Nobody asked you to go anywhere,” Nie Mingjue said. He was already taking off his outer robe.

“Ah, Nie-zongzhu, you won’t fit,” Meng Yao said, looking at the opening that the removal of the creature’s head had created. “You’re far too broad-shouldered.”

“Too tall, too,” Xue Yang said. “The inside of its belly isn’t big. That’s why I offered.”

“I’ll have to go,” Meng Yao said, even though he could hardly think of anything he would less rather do. But they certainly weren’t sending Xue Yang, and he was the only other person there who would be able to fit. Nie Mingjue grimaced but didn’t argue. Meng Yao took off his belt and his outer robe, then tied a cloth over his face to protect his nose and mouth and tucked his hair inside his hanfu.

He reminded himself as he approached the hole in the neck that once they had the yin iron, they could go get Lan Xichen. They would rescue him from Wen Ruohan and take him back to Qinghe, tend to his injuries, and he would be able to have both Lan Xichen and Nie Mingjue. The wish he had made on a lantern was going to come true, and the only thing between him and that conclusion was this incredibly disgusting task.

And it was disgusting. Even through his filter, the smell alone was enough to make him wretch. He had to breathe shallowly, and tried to ignore his surroundings as much as possible. The walls of the creature’s stomach were vividly, impossibly red. All around him were bodies in various states of digestion and decomposition. His feet were squashing through things he didn’t even want to contemplate.

In the center of the monster’s stomach, embedded deep in its gut, was a sword.

It was a matte black metal, quite different from any other sword he had ever seen. As he stepped closer, he could hear the whisperings of dark, resentful energy coming from it. When Xue Yang had said this piece pinned down the center, he had meant it quite literally. The sword had probably kept the monster sealed in this place, and corrupted the spiritual energy of the entire surrounding area. He would have to be careful with it.

But as soon as he touched it, the faint sound of resentful energy because howling, screaming ghosts in his ears, in his mind. He staggered, his hands clutching harder at the hilt of the sword as the resentful energy seized him, invaded him, burrowed inside him.

 

Filthy son of a whore
                   I hope you know that your mother is burning in hell

 

          Remember your place
Is it really appropriate for him to be here?

                   I understand why our father did not want you in the sect
          Was that really appropriate? Given his indecent background?
                             Remember your place
Finally ending your shameful existence

 

                    go die in the gutter where you belong
What is he even doing here?
                             Shameful existence
 forced to learn alongside someone of low birth

 

          Bastard son of a whore

 

                                        Ending your shameful existence

 

          Remember your place
Remember your place
                   Remember your place

 

Distantly, Meng Yao could hear himself screaming.

It was the last thing he knew for a long time.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

Nie Mingjue had no idea what the hell was happening.

One minute he had been pacing up and down the shore of the underground lake, waiting for Meng Yao to come out, figuring he would be filthy and disgusting but otherwise unharmed. He was just going into the belly of a dead monster and picking up a rock. What could be dangerous about that? Then the next minute Meng Yao had clawed his way out of the monster’s throat, his entire body cloaked in shadows that writhed and twisted around him, and he was screaming, screaming, screaming.

“Fucking hell,” Nie Mingjue swore, as Meng Yao tumbled into the lake. Several of the men grabbed him and dragged him to shore, only for him to lurch upwards and attack them. “Get back!” Nie Mingjue shouted, deflecting Meng Yao’s blow with Baxia. He realized belatedly that Meng Yao was holding a sword. Where had he gotten a sword? “Defend yourselves but do not attack!” he added, seeing that two of the men looked somewhat twitchy.

“Binding talismans,” one of the senior disciples shouted, and all of the men hastily began to draw them. The spells wrapped around Meng Yao’s body and he thrashed and fought, howling. His body went stiff and rigid, and his eyes were rolled all the way into the back of his head.

“What’s happening?” Nie Mingjue demanded of Xue Yang.

Unconcerned, Xue Yang said, “Looks like the yin iron is controlling him.”

“But how would that happen?” Nie Mingjue demanded through gritted teeth. “Nobody else has had that happen - ”

“The center piece was a lot stronger than the others, or at least that’s what the legends said,” Xue Yang said, and laughed when he saw Nie Mingjue’s furious look. “What? I figured, Meng Yao being the adviser to such a badass, he must have a pretty strong golden core. Doesn’t he?”

Nie Mingjue’s jaw tightened. Of course Meng Yao had worked hard on building up his golden core, and he had been improving rapidly. But he had started so far behind everyone else, his golden core was really still equivalent to that of a child’s. 

“Well, shit, it’s not my fault if he doesn’t,” Xue Yang said. “Don’t look at me.”

“What do we do?” Nie Mingjue asked, hating that he had to ask this brat for instruction. He was momentarily distracted as Meng Yao - though it wasn’t really Meng Yao - broke out of the binding spell and attacked. It took them several attempts to subdue him again, and two of his men were injured.

“I dunno,” Xue Yang said in reply, when Nie Mingjue asked again. “Try some cleansing spells, I guess? I mean, it’s just resentful energy. Can I have my piece back now? I held up my end of the bargain.”

Nie Mingjue came within inches of throwing Baxia at the delinquent and ending his life right there in the cave. But he managed to restrain himself. As frustrated and unhappy as he was, this really was not Xue Yang’s fault. Meng Yao had struck a bargain with him in good faith, and it would have been dishonorable of Nie Mingjue to break it even if Meng Yao himself had probably never intended to uphold it.

That being said, he also knew he couldn’t keep it. He could not in good conscience give this man the ability to wreak havoc with yin iron. “No,” he said, and Xue Yang gave a wordless protest. “You used that piece of yin iron to kill an entire family of innocent people. Meng Yao might have told you that you could have it back, but I’m quite sure he never actually planned to give it to you. Take your life and be grateful I’m letting you leave with that much.”

“I’ll come back for it,” Xue Yang said. The pouting teenager was gone, and in its place was the man who had killed over a dozen people in a brutal, vicious way. In front of Nie Mingjue stood an utter void of conscience, an absolute ability to carry out the worst sort of atrocities without a shred of remorse. “I’ll never leave you alone until I get it back. It belongs to me. I’ll raze your entire sect to the ground. What I did to the Chang clan will seem like an afternoon picnic. So kill me, if you dare. Not that killing me will get rid of me, either. I’ll come back as a vicious ghost and haunt you. Your sect will never stop looking over their shoulder for me if you break this deal.”

“So be it,” Nie Mingjue said. “But we are not the Yueyang Chang. We will not fall so easily to you. Now get out.”

Xue Yang made a rude gesture in his direction, turned around, and vanished up the cliff.

Nie Mingjue took a deep breath and turned to study Meng Yao. The binding talismans had managed to subdue him physically, but he was still writhing in their grip, his mind entirely subsumed by the yin iron. “Meng Yao,” he said, loudly, firmly. This was met with no response. He tried several times, but still, nothing. Meng Yao was beyond hearing him in his current condition. If he had any ability to fight back at all, it wasn’t enough for him to break free.

“Can we try to get it away from him?” one of the men asked, sounding dubious.

“Maybe.” Nie Mingjue doubted it, but he stepped forward and wrapped his hands around the hilt of the sword just underneath Meng Yao’s. Instantly, he was assaulted by waves of resentful energy, screaming ghosts filled with vicious anger. He shuddered and fought against it, prying at Meng Yao’s hands. But they seemed to be welded to the metal somehow, and he could not get them free even after trying with all his strength.

He shook his head and took a few steps back. Even a minute exposed to that much resentful energy, and he was pale and shaking. It was no wonder Meng Yao hadn’t been able to prevent being subsumed by it. Only an extremely strong cultivator would be able to control this.

“Night is falling outside,” he finally said. “We’ll stay here for the night. There will be beasts roving the mountain, and we don’t want to draw attention to ourselves. I will work on trying to cleanse Meng Yao and free him from the yin iron. If any of you have any suggestions, I am open to hear them.”

Nobody had any. Or at least, nobody was willing to say the obvious one out loud - that they kill Meng Yao and let Nie Mingjue take the yin iron from his body. They managed to get him lying down on the shore and secure him with ropes so they wouldn’t have to continue to hold the binding talismans.

Nie Mingjue wished fervently that Lan Xichen was there. This was far more his sort of thing. Oh, the Nie sect had their cleansing rituals and spells, for angry ghosts or monsters who left traces of resentful energy behind. But it wasn’t really their specialty. 

Still, there wasn’t much wishing would accomplish, so Nie Mingjue got to work, channeling his own spiritual power into an effort to banish the resentful energy. Minutes trickled by as he tried, his eyes closed, sweat beading on his forehead. The cave became very quiet. Meng Yao stopped moving around so much, stopped trying to escape, but his eyes were still rolled up, his body still rigid. Nie Mingjue poured his energy into the spells he used trying to break the curse.

“Zongzhu?” a voice said, and he opened one eye. “We’ve made some food. You should eat.”

Nie Mingjue nodded. He wasn’t sure how much time had gone by while he had been focusing. He took the bowl from his disciple and studied Meng Yao as he ate. Physically, there didn’t seem to have been any change. The shadows were still swirling around him. It was like everything he had done had just bounced off of them.

He cursed himself for not having prevented this. Meng Yao never should have been the one who went to get the yin iron. He had grown so used to depending on Meng Yao, to respecting him, to treating him like a fully-fledged cultivator, that he had forgotten that he wasn’t. Not only that, but Meng Yao and resentful energy were a terrible mix. Despite how much more relaxed and comfortable he was, he still held bitter resentment in his heart over how his father had treated him. Nie Mingjue didn’t blame him for that. His father had been viciously cruel. Why would Meng Yao not resent him? But it was clear that he had been completely unprepared and overwhelmed by the effects of the yin iron.

“Meng Yao,” he said quietly, ignoring the dark energy moving around him, reaching out and squeezing his hand. “I’ll fix this. I promise you. Just try to hold on.”

He finished his meal and went back to trying to cleanse Meng Yao of the resentful energy.

It was nearly dawn when Meng Yao’s fingers twitched and he moaned quietly. Nie Mingjue knelt beside him. All the men were asleep except one who was keeping watch at the bottom of the cliff, so he felt safe smoothing Meng Yao’s hair, caressing his face. “Meng Yao? Can you hear me?”

The shadows that had surrounded him were gone, although there were still black lines on his skin, on his hands and his neck. His eyes fluttered open and they looked normal again, a little fuzzy. “Wha . . .”

Nie Mingjue tried to take the sword out of his hands. It still wouldn’t budge, and Meng Yao seemed to hang onto it tighter when he tried to move it. “Meng Yao,” he said, in a firm, commanding tone. “Look at me.”

Meng Yao looked at him. His eyes weren’t normal, Nie Mingjue thought. He had those little dark lines in the corners, the same as on his face, his neck, his hands. The yin iron was still very much inside him; it had just decided that thrashing and wailing wasn’t getting it anywhere. He felt cold, watching Meng Yao watch him, a clinical sort of assessment.

“Give Meng Yao back to me,” he said.

“What do we get out of it?” Meng Yao asked, and that word, ‘we’, made Nie Mingjue shudder. He was talking to the ghosts, to the dead whose resentful energy had slowly been absorbed by that cursed piece of metal over years and centuries.

“What do you want?” he asked.

Meng Yao stared out into space. “To be whole again.”

Nie Mingjue thought about this for several long moments. He took out the spirit pouch that held the piece of yin iron they had gotten from Xue Yang, and Meng Yao’s gaze immediately zeroed in on it. “You want the other pieces.”

“Give it to me,” Meng Yao hissed, struggling against the ropes that had him tied. Those drifts of shadow were starting to come off of him. “It’s part of me, give it to me!”

The idea of all the pieces of yin iron because put back together again was horrifying. Beyond unthinkable. Xue Chonghai had used the full amulet to commit atrocity after atrocity. Their ancestors had sacrificed enormously to break it into pieces and try to seal it away. Reconstructing it couldn’t be allowed. It should be split into far more than five pieces. A dozen, a hundred, a thousand. It should be diluted across the entire world, to stop this from ever happening again. But then how could he get Meng Yao back?

For some reason, he thought back to his days at Cloud Recesses, lazy lessons under puffy white clouds with the kindest, gentlest man he knew. What would Lan Xichen say, if he were here? How would he react to Meng Yao being drowned in resentful energy? How would he try to save him?

Maybe he would have an idea. If they got into Nightless City, they could get to Lan Xichen. If anyone could find a way to save Meng Yao from this darkness, it would be him.

“If I untie you,” he said, “will you agree not to attack me? You know that the body you’re currently possessing is no match for me. I don’t want to kill him, but I will, if you force me to. I’m heading into Nightless City to find my friend. That’s where the other pieces of yin iron are. Behave, and come with me quietly so we don’t get caught by the enemy, and maybe we can find them. I won’t make you any promises, but I don’t expect you to release my friend if we don’t give you what you want. Is that fair?”

Meng Yao said nothing. His head moved down, then up, in a nod that looked more like a marionette than a human.

Nie Mingjue let out a breath. He cut the ropes around Meng Yao’s body and said, “Let’s go.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

After some consideration, Nie Mingjue decided that he would go the rest of the way with just Meng Yao, such as he was. Two of his disciples were injured, and there was no way he would make it into Nightless City with even a small party undetected. He put the most senior disciple in charge and told him to get the others back to Qinghe.

The next morning, he set out just after dawn. It was eerie walking with Meng Yao, entirely silent, drifts of shadow still occasionally coming off of him. His guilt over having let Meng Yao touch the yin iron grew with each moment. He should have known better. He prayed that Lan Xichen would be able to somehow fix this.

He didn’t know what Meng Yao was capable of while in this state, and that made him anxious. In order to get into the city, they would need to climb up a rocky cliff and then over the wall, and they would need to do it quickly and quietly. It would have been difficult for Meng Yao under normal circumstances, although given how dire things were, Nie Mingjue had faith that he would be able to do it. But this . . . thing, this thing that looked like Meng Yao but wasn’t . . .

Should he offer to carry it? He could, he thought, even if it would make things more difficult for him. Or should he simply ask it whether or not it could make the climb on its own? It seemed to be able to communicate, as terrifying as that was. What was the yin iron? Was he talking to a hundred lost souls at once? Did they have a leader of their own, a spokesperson? Were they a hive mind? Or were they not souls at all, but something else, something other?

He shook his head. His mind was wandering to things that truly weren’t important, at least not now.

And the question of getting over the wall was entirely moot. As soon as they reached the bottom of the cliff, the resentful energy swirled around Meng Yao’s body and lifted him into the air. He was at the top of the wall before Nie Mingjue had made it even halfway up. When he reached the top, he climbed onto it in time to see the same mass of energy squeezing the life out of two look-outs from the Wen sect.

It was disconcerting to say the least, but at least it got a couple Wen uniforms for them to wear. The thing possessing Meng Yao seemed baffled by the concept of changing into one, but did so when Nie Mingjue insisted. Of course, it was too big, and the one Nie Mingjue struggled into was too small. He hoped that nobody would get close enough to notice.

Meng Yao followed behind him as they journeyed into the outskirts of the city. Nie Mingjue could see the palace, rising above all the other buildings. He wondered if that was where Lan Xichen was. But they would need more than just a few stolen uniforms to be able to get inside, let alone find Lan Xichen and get him free.

Night had fallen. Nie Mingjue saw a few guards walking through one of the alleys, two of them looking somewhat drunk already. “ – believe that little brat,” one of them was saying. “Just up and fainted in the middle of their lessons. We had to carry him back to his guest house. I thought the Nie sect was supposed to be tough!”

Meng Yao stepped forward. Nie Mingjue grabbed him and yanked him back before the soldiers could see him.

“Those guest houses are all the way on the south side of the city!” the second guard said, laughing. “You really had to carry him the whole way?”

“The whole damn way! Prissy little bitch.”

The group passed them by, and Nie Mingjue tugged Meng Yao’s sleeve. If he couldn’t find Lan Xichen to start, he could at least find his brother. They would need to get the rest of the hostages out, too. He headed for the south side of the city. Finding the guest houses was easy enough, because they were the only ones in the area that had guards on them. But which one would Nie Huaisang be in?

He heard the soft chirping of birds.

“For Heaven’s sake, Huaisang,” he murmured, smiling despite himself. “Even here? Now? How did you even - ”

With Meng Yao in tow, he went around to the back of the guest house. There were no guards there, so he found a window and tapped on it quietly. When there was no response, he tapped harder. Then he sighed. It was late. Nie Huaisang had probably been asleep for a while, and -

“Da-ge!” Nie Huaisang appeared in the window and quickly slid it open. “How - why - what - ”

Nie Mingjue quickly climbed inside, and pulled his brother into a tight hug. Nie Huaisang clutched at him for a moment before letting go, seeing Meng Yao, and moving towards him. Nie Mingjue grabbed him by the wrist. “Don’t touch him,” he said, suddenly seized with fear that the yin iron would take his brother, too. “He’s been contaminated by the yin iron.”

“He’s been what?” Nie Huaisang hissed, studying Meng Yao more carefully. “Why are you here? Did something happen? What’s going - ”

Nie Mingjue sighed quietly but began to explain how their mission to get the yin iron had gone so terribly, terribly wrong. They needed to find Lan Xichen, he said, and then hopefully Lan Xichen would know how to help Meng Yao.

Nie Huaisang listened with a faint frown on his face. “You’re lucky you got out when you did,” he said. “After I fainted - well, pretended to faint, haha, those lessons were so boring, you don’t even know - Wen Chao took all the others out on a night hunt. I heard some of the guards talking about it. They were going to Muxi Mountain because of a disturbance there.”

“Yeah, it was pretty fucking disturbing,” Nie Mingjue muttered. “Glad we didn’t cross paths with them on the way back. We must have just missed them.”

“Yeah.” Nie Huaisang anxiously studied Meng Yao, clearly distressed by the way he had sat in silence during the entire explanation, staring into the distance with a blank expression. “He really can’t hear us at all, can he . . . is he . . . is he in pain?”

Nie Mingjue opened his mouth to say no, realized that the answer was probably yes, and looked away. “We have to find Xichen.”

“Well, I don’t know where he is,” Nie Huaisang said, “but I think I might know where to find someone who can help. Wei-xiong was taken to the dungeons a few days ago - he made a big fuss, you know how he is - and he’d clearly been injured, but it seemed like his wounds had been tended and he smelled like medicine. Wen Qing and her brother are here somewhere, and they’re not evil, they’re just . . . . they’re just on the wrong side. I know Zewu-Jun was so kind to them while they were in Cloud Recesses even though he knew damn well they were there for the yin iron . . . so maybe they’d be willing to help.”

Since Nie Mingjue’s best idea had been to explore the palace grounds on his own and hope that nobody noticed a) his ill-fitting uniform, b) his extremely recognizable face, or c) the resentful energy incarnate following him around like a shadow, he agreed. “All right. But where do we find them?”

Nie Huaisang tapped his fan to his mouth, then said, “I bet if I managed to hurt myself, they would bring her.”

Nie Mingjue frowned reflexively and said, “Not badly.”

That made Nie Huaisang roll his eyes. “I wasn’t going to fall down the steps and break my neck. I thought maybe burning myself on a pot off the fire would do nicely, if that meets with your approval.”

“Oh. Yes, that would probably work. I suppose,” Nie Mingjue said begrudgingly.

Nie Huaisang just rolled his eyes again, but then he seemed to remember that Nie Mingjue had had a very long few days and said, “I won’t be able to do it until morning, so get some rest. You too, Meng Yao,” he added, looking worriedly at Meng Yao’s body. “I mean, your body is still human and needs to be treated like it, so . . .”

Meng Yao gave another marionette-like nod, then closed his eyes without lying down.

“Well, that’s . . . incredibly disconcerting,” Nie Mingjue mumbled. But he let his brother pester him into getting a few hours of sleep.

 

~ ~ ~ ~ 

 

All in all, Lan Wangji thought he had handled things very well up to a certain point.

For six months, he had put up with everything Wei Wuxian had thrown at him. For six months, he had kept his cool during every provocation, every obnoxious remark, every beautiful smile, every teasing comment, every blasphemous idea. For six months, he had managed to prevent anyone from knowing anything about the fact that he even had feelings, let alone what they were. 

Then after they had finally separated, after over a week of journeying together and Lan Wangji trying not to give him longing looks over the fire every night, wishing they could travel and fight evil with each other for the rest of their lives, he had managed to walk away. Only to have the worst week of his life.

He hadn’t been in time, and that hurt even now, more than his leg, which still ached and throbbed with every step. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw the white robed bodies of the disciples strewn on the ground like so much trash. Every time he closed his eyes, he could feel his uncle gripping his wrist as he pulled away to leave Cold Pond Cave. Every time he closed his eyes, he could hear Wen Xu’s laughter as he pressed Lan Wangji to continue walking on his broken leg.

See his brother, limp and bloodied and beaten nearly to be unrecognizable even to him, tossed into a wagon like a sack of grain to be brought with them to Nightless City. 

Lan Xichen hadn’t surrendered to protect others. Lan Xichen had fought until he couldn’t fight anymore. And all the way to Qishan, whenever Lan Wangji had tried to tend to him, he had been punished, and all the way to Qishan, Wen Xu had taunted him with talk of what he was going to do to Lan Xichen once they were in Nightless City.

“Let me carry you,” Wei Wuxian said, and how Lan Wangji ached to let him. Everything hurt. He wanted to sit down in the dirt and cry. He wanted his uncle, his brother. He wanted his mother, in a way he had not been desperate for her presence in years. But he couldn’t, because he knew the instant he stopped moving, the instant he let someone, anyone, show kindness to him, he would break down completely. And that could not be allowed. Not here. Not now.

Not that this stopped Wei Wuxian from being kind, even after Lan Wangji’s abrupt, borderline rude rejection of his offer. He somehow finagled Wen Qing into making Wen Chao let them stop for a break, and even brought him some water so he didn’t have to walk all the way to the edge. He drank thirstily despite himself.

He had gathered that nobody here knew of Lan Xichen’s capture, although Wen Chao had certainly bragged about how easily they had conquered Cloud Recesses and burned it to the ground. Lan Wangji hadn’t said anything to anyone, because the idea of talking about it hurt too much. 

But he had held himself together. He hadn’t betrayed a sign of weakness. He hadn’t let anyone see him flinch.

Then Wen Chao pushed Wei Wuxian off a cliff.

“Wei Ying!” Lan Wangji shouted, and in his mind’s eye he could see Wei Wuxian’s broken, bloodied body at the bottom of the cliff, just as he saw his brother’s.

It was too much, all at once, too much rage and pain and fear and grief. If he’d had his sword he would have cut Wen Chao’s throat where he stood, but he didn’t, so instead he tackled him towards the cliff, and they both plummeted over the edge. From somewhere far away above him, he heard gasps of shock, but none of it mattered as he and Wen Chao rolled down the rocky cliff together.

Once at the bottom, Wen Chao was groaning in pain, but Lan Wangji had stopped noticing his own. He grabbed Wei Wuxian by the elbow and helped him up, patting him down for injuries despite his better judgment. Wei Wuxian looked confused, as if he was truly surprised that Lan Wangji had come down after him, that Lan Wangji had even cared to do so. The look on his face practically killed Lan Wangji, who wanted to grab him and shake him and shout his feelings from a mountaintop. Instead, he managed a shaky, “Wei Ying, I - ”

Wen Chao lurched upright, drawing his sword. Wei Wuxian ducked the first blow and then used his binding talisman to grab Wen Chao by the wrist and spin him around. His sword was flung out wide and Lan Wangji leapt on his arm, wrestling the sword free from his grip. But the motion was too much for his weak leg, which had doubtlessly been further injured in the fall down the cliffside, and he stumbled forward. He tossed the sword, and Wei Wuxian caught it effortlessly, turning and pressing the tip against Wen Chao’s throat. “Could you not see,” Wei Wuxian shouted, “that we were having a moment?!”

The other disciples, having taken a moment to throw ropes down the side of the cliff, were now arriving. Jiang Cheng took one look at Wei Wuxian holding a sword to Wen Chao’s throat and looked like he was going to have apoplexy. 

“Wei Wuxian,” Wen Qing said sharply, “what are you doing?”

“I’m - ” Wei Wuxian began.

“Holy fuck,” somebody blurted out, and all of them half-turned to see the body of an enormous monster in the lake. The head and most of the neck were on the shore, and there was blood absolutely everywhere.

Wen Chao began to screech. “Wen Zhuliu! Wen Zhuliu, save me!”

“It’s already dead, you absolute dumbfuck,” Wei Wuxian said. But he took a moment to take advantage of everyone’s distraction, getting a better grip on Wen Chao and backing up slightly so his back was pressed against Lan Wangji’s as the soldiers started to surround them. Wen Zhuliu took a step forward, and Wei Wuxian pressed the sword into Wen Chao’s neck, drawing a bead of blood.

“Wen Zhuliu, do something!” Wang Lingjiao shouted, but Wen Zhuliu was just watching, assessing. He knew any sudden moves he made would end with Wen Chao’s throat sliced wide open, even if he was able to suppress the uprising afterwards and kill Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji. “Fine, then, I will!” Wang Lingjiao said, and lifted her branding iron, swinging it directly at Luo Qingyang.

Jin Zixuan grabbed the iron on the downstroke, using it to twist Wang Lingjiao’s arm behind her back, and all hell broke loose.

Even unarmed, the disciples from the great sects were a step above the Wen soldiers. It took only a minute for most of them to arm themselves. Wei Wuxian slowly backed up until he was at the water’s edge, dragging Wen Chao with him, and then jumped suddenly, taking him out to the shell of the turtle so nobody would be able to get behind him. That freed Lan Wangji up to fight, and he did so, viciously and immediately. He didn’t bother with a sword, using his guqin strings to drag the soldiers and fling them into the water.

“Wei - ” somebody suddenly shouted, before the voice was cut off, and Lan Wangji heard Wei Wuxian cry out. His head whipped around to see Wen Zhuliu with his hand around Jiang Cheng’s throat, suspending him in the air as he kicked and struggled.

Around them, the fight trailed off. Most of the Wen soldiers were down, but it didn’t matter, as long as Wen Zhuliu still stood. Wang Lingjiao was unmoving in a pool of blood. Wen Qing had sensibly retreated back towards the cliff.

“Release Wen Chao,” Wen Zhuliu said, his voice impassive, “or I’ll crush this one’s core.”

Wei Wuxian’s breath was coming light and rapid. “Release Jiang Cheng,” he countered, “or I’ll cut Wen Chao’s throat.”

“I can live with that,” Wen Zhuliu said, straight-faced. “Can you?”

Wei Wuxian swallowed hard. Lan Wangji could see his throat work. He jumped back to the shore, although he kept his sword at Wen Chao’s throat. “We’ll exchange,” he said. “All right? Don’t - don’t hurt my brother.”

Wen Zhuliu watched him for a moment, gauging his sincerity. “Walk forward.”

Wei Wuxian nodded and took a few shuffling steps. His gaze darted to the side. 

Lan Wangji flung his arm out. Two guqin strings wrapped around Wen Zhuliu’s wrist, hauling it to the side, dragging Jiang Cheng with it. The strings cut so deeply that blood began to flow down Wen Zhuliu’s arm, but his grip didn’t loosen, and his hand began to glow. But less than a second later, Lan Wangji’s guqin strings cut even deeper, deep enough that Wen Zhuliu let go and Jiang Cheng dropped to the ground.

“Jiang Cheng!” Wei Wuxian shouted. His hand tightened on Wen Chao’s shoulder, and Wen Chao elbowed him hard in the gut and began to pull away. This turned out to be a terrible move on Wen Chao’s part, because Wei Wuxian acted purely instinctively, dragging the sword back across his throat. Blood went everywhere, and Wen Chao’s body dropped to the ground.

Lan Wangji pulled Wen Zhuliu back another step, but seeing what had happened to Wen Chao, Wen Zhuliu grabbed the guqin strings with his other hand and pulled hard, throwing Lan Wangji across the cave and into the lake.

By the time he surfaced, gasping for breath, Wei Wuxian was cradling Jiang Cheng in his arms, trying to see if he was hurt. He was still holding Wen Chao’s sword in one hand, but was barely looking up as Wen Zhuliu stood over them. The other cultivators had ringed him in, but he didn’t look concerned, and none of them wanted to get too close. 

Wen Zhuliu lifted his sword.

Three needles flew out of the darkness and lodged in his shoulder.

His arm seemed to instantly go numb, the sword falling out of his limp hand. Wei Wuxian lunged upwards desperately, thrusting Wen Chao’s sword into Wen Zhuliu’s chest. He staggered backwards and fell. The other disciples rushed forward with their own weapons; nobody was about to risk him surviving and getting back up.

“Jiang Cheng, Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian said, and he coughed up a mouthful of blood and wheezed something. “What?”

“You . . . you suck,” Jiang Cheng said.

Wei Wuxian laughed near hysterically.

Wen Qing walked over, as prim as ever, and knelt at Jiang Cheng’s side. She pressed her fingers into his wrist and said after a moment, “I estimate you’ve lost about twenty percent of your spiritual power. But your golden core is intact, and you should be able to rebuild what was lost with time.”

“Thank you,” Jiang Cheng said. “Wen-guniang . . . thank you.”

Wei Wuxian nodded and echoed him.

Wen Qing sighed and looked at Wen Zhuliu’s body. “I couldn’t . . . once you killed Wen Chao, any chance I had of escaping punishment for this disaster was gone,” she said. “Better for nobody to be left to witness what happened. But,” she added, “since I saved your lives, you two must come back to Nightless City with me to help me get my brother.”

Wei Wuxian nodded. “Of course.”

“Let’s seal the bodies inside the cave,” Jin Zixuan suggested, and everyone was in agreement.

Lan Wangji walked over to Wei Wuxian and helped him up. “I will go to Nightless City with you,” he said.

Wei Wuxian smiled, but shook his head. “No, Lan Zhan, you should head home. You - ”

“My brother,” Lan Wangji said, and his voice wavered despite his best efforts. “They took him to Nightless City. He. He was badly injured. They would not allow me to tend to him.”

Wei Wuxian’s eyes went slightly wide as he realized that Lan Wangji had been holding this in all this time. He reached out and squeezed his hands, and said, “Then let’s go get him.”

Lan Wangji nodded, leaned against Wei Wuxian, and passed out.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

Nie Huaisang didn’t get any sleep that night, caught up in worry over his brother and Meng Yao and Lan Xichen and all the other young masters. Although at least they wouldn’t have to fight a monster, he had clearly seen how unstable Wen Chao was, and he didn’t expect things to end well. They would be at the cave by now, he thought, staring up at his ceiling. Maybe even heading back, if they decided to travel at night instead of staying there.

He watched Meng Yao, eyes closed and head down, drifts of shadow coiled around his hands and his throat, paralleling the scars that he bore from Jin Zifu’s attack. He knew that Nie Mingjue had already tried to get through to him, had tried to make himself heard, and he was sure that he wouldn’t have any better luck. He knew how Meng Yao felt about his brother, and vice versa. If Nie Mingjue couldn’t get through to him, Nie Huaisang certainly wouldn’t be able to. But the urge was still strong.

He felt like he still didn’t really understand what they were up against. Nie Mingjue had talked about having an actual conversation with the resentful energy, that it wanted to reunite all the pieces of yin iron. But how could that be? He had never heard of resentful energy being sentient. If the yin iron had developed consciousness over the years, that was the most frightening thing he had ever heard.

At least he had been able to convince his brother to sleep. Nie Mingjue had clearly been exhausted by the week he had been through. Nie Huaisang didn’t mind staying up to keep watch, in case someone had seen his brother sneaking in.

As soon as dim gray light started to filter in through the windows, he began building up a fire. Nie Mingjue grunted at the noise and opened his eyes, rubbing both hands over his face. “Morning already?”

“Mm hm. Sun is just coming up.” Nightless City wasn’t truly nightless, although it was never really dark there because of the volcano. “Want some tea?”

“Yeah.” Nie Mingjue began to dig in his packs and pulled out some rations. “They’ve been feeding you okay?”

Nie Huaisang rolled his eyes. “Yes, da-ge, they bring meals twice a day, before and after ‘classes’.”

Nie Mingjue scowled and chewed harder.

After a quick breakfast, Nie Huaisang put the kettle over the fire again. He had thought about this while eating and wanted to make it as realistic as possible, preferably while not actually injuring himself too badly. He took a deep breath as the water heated. “Take Meng Yao and get behind the screen over there,” he said, and Nie Mingjue nodded and did so. Nie Huaisang picked up the kettle with his right hand, his dominant hand, and poured water all over his left, as if he had missed while pouring the tea. He let out a yelp despite himself as the scalding water burned his hand. He dropped the kettle, breaking it, and ran to the door. “Help, please, I hurt myself!” he said to the guard, letting tears well up in his eyes.

“Sure you did,” the guard said, rolling his eyes.

“I spilled boiling water, look!” Nie Huaisang said, holding out his hand to display the injuries. “Can’t you get me a doctor, please?”

“You’re the most useless son of a bitch on earth, you know that?” the guard said, and huffed out a sigh. “Fine, I’ll get you a damn doctor.”

Nie Huaisang let out a sigh of relief as the guard departed, and hoped that Wen Qing would agree to help and that he hadn’t just burned half the skin off his hand for nothing. He stuck his hand in the bucket of cold water and kept wiggling it around as much as possible to keep water flowing over it while he waited.

But it wasn’t Wen Qing who turned up about ten minutes later, but her brother, holding several bags and looking as anxious as usual. “Oh, Wen-xiong!” Nie Huaisang was surprised. “I thought your sister would come . . .”

“She went on the night hunt with the others and isn’t back yet,” Wen Ning said. “Oh – ” He added suddenly, and bowed. “It’s nice to see you again, Nie-gongzi. The guard said you burned your hand?”

“Yeah . . .” Nie Huaisang sat down at the table, and Wen Ning sat across from him. “I didn’t know you were trained as a doctor, too.”

“Oh, well, I’m nowhere near as good at it as jiejie,” Wen Ning said, pulling out a pouch full of medicines. “But our whole branch of the clan has always done medicine . . . I’m more her assistant than anything else, but since she’s not here and it was something simple, I figured I could handle it. If that’s all right?” he added, suddenly anxious again.

“It’s fine,” Nie Huaisang said. Wen Ning smiled, relieved, and started mixing some powders in a cup of water. When he was done, he poured it into a larger bowl and mixed it with more plain water and had Huaisang place his hand in it. The pain immediately dulled. “Wow, that works really well!” Nie Huaisang said. “Hey, Wen-xiong, can I ask you something?”

“Of course!” Wen Ning said, nodding.

“You and your sister helped Wei-xiong the other night, didn’t you?” Nie Huaisang asked, and Wen Ning immediately flushed pink at having been caught. “I don’t get it, Wen-xiong . . . you and your sister are such good people. Why do you stay here and serve Wen Ruohan, when he commits such evil deeds?”

Wen Ning was silent for a long moment before he said, simply, “We have nowhere else to go.”

Nie Huaisang let out a breath. “What if you did? What if we could offer you protection? The Nie sect – we could take you in, hide you.”

“I don’t know.” Wen Ning sounded uneasy. “Jiejie . . . she wouldn’t like it. She supported Wen Ruohan for a long time, I think before things got as bad as they did. She feels responsible for what she’s done to help him. I don’t know if it’s that she feels she doesn’t deserve protection or if she just doesn’t trust anyone who offers it. But I think that’s part of the reason she still tries to convince me we should stay here. Stay loyal.”

“Well, what do you want?” Nie Huaisang asked. He tried to sound confident. “You’re a man now, aren’t you? You should be able to make your own decisions.”

Looking like absolutely nobody had ever told him anything remotely like this in his life, Wen Ning blinked at him. “I . . . guess?”

“You helped Wei-gongzi in the dungeon, didn’t you?” Nie Huaisang said. “I thought it was your sister but now that I know you know medicine, I bet it was you. You made that decision on your own, didn’t you? To help Wei-gongzi, because he was your friend?”

Wen Ning nodded.

“So can you help me? I know I’m not as awesome as Wei-xiong, but – Zewu-Jun has been captured, and I know he was always kind to you and your sister. We need to find him, and get him safely out of the city. If you’ll help us do that, then the Nie sect will protect you and your sister. I promise.”

“You can promise, but, but what if your brother doesn’t like it?” Wen Ning asked. “I’ve heard all the stories about him, you know – he sounds terrifying!”

“He is,” Nie Huaisang said. “Ah, da-ge? You might as well come out.”

Wen Ning paled as Nie Mingjue stepped out from around the screen. “H-How – ”

“Help me find Xichen,” Nie Mingjue said, without waiting for him to manage his question. “And I’ll take you and your sister and any other relatives you vouch for, from this branch of yours, back to Qinghe. You’ll have the full protection of the Qinghe Nie. You have my word as sect leader.”

For a long moment, Wen Ning was silent. Then his jaw set, and he nodded. “I saw him in the dungeon when I went to help Wei-gongzi the other night. I – ” He looked away. “I’ve been bringing him water and medicine . . . his injuries were serious and I was worried . . . as you said, he was always so kind to me and my sister . . .”

Nie Huaisang smiled, and Nie Mingjue said, “Thank you for your kindness, Wen-gongzi. I promise you, it will not be forgotten. Now take me to him.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Lan Wangji woke with a start and realized that he was being carried on someone’s back. Of course he was, he thought, somewhat sourly despite himself. Wei Wuxian had just been itching for the chance. “Put me down.”

“Ah, you’re awake?” Wei Wuxian sounded more cheerful than he should have at this rude greeting. “Of course you are, it must be five o’clock,” he added, laughing. “I knew it was nearly dawn. You really are punctual!”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji repeated, annoyed, “put me down.”

“You don’t have to be so grumpy,” Wei Wuxian said, but he crouched slightly, letting Lan Wangji’s feet touch the ground. He gingerly put weight on them and stood, finding that although his leg still ached, the pain was much less than it had been the day before. “Wen Qing worked on your leg for nearly an hour before we got moving. How does it feel?”

“Fine,” Lan Wangji said.

Wei Wuxian sighed, and a few feet away, Wen Qing gave Lan Wangji a sharp look. “Do not hide your pain from your doctor,” she snapped.

“I never asked you to be my doctor,” he retorted.

“Lan Zhan, you could have lost your leg if you had kept walking on it the way it was!” Wei Wuxian chided. “Come on, it feels better at least, right? Tell us the truth. I mean, on a scale of one to ten, how is it?”

Lan Wangji rested a little more weight on it and hid his wince, but admitted, “Three.”

“Which means more like four or five,” Wei Wuxian said. “Can he walk, Wen Qing? Or should I keep carrying him?”

Lan Wangji was about to object, vociferously, but Wen Qing said, “If it’s only three then he can walk. I’m sure he’s intelligent enough to know that if he lies about it and then ends up losing his leg, it will only be his own fault.”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji said, scowling but falling into step beside Wei Wuxian. “It is morning already?”

Wei Wuxian nodded. “I didn’t carry you because of your leg, honest,” he said. “But Wen Qing was anxious to get back to Nightless City as soon as possible, and I figured you would probably want to do that, too. So we decided to walk back at night instead of waiting until morning. Jin Zixuan and the other disciples stayed behind to seal up the cave and then head to their own provinces. Which reminds me,” he added, “we have to make sure we find Nie-xiong once we’re back, too. The Nie sect disciples were really worried that Wen Ruohan might kill him once he finds out what happened at Muxi Mountain.”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji repeated, and nodded. He didn’t really believe that Nie Huaisang had really fainted, and honestly he had been fortuitous to escape the arduous journey the rest of them had undertaken. “Then we will find him.”

They were less than an hour away from Nightless City, and they briefly discussed strategy while they walked. “We should see if we can get our swords before we do anything else,” Jiang Cheng said. “That way if we run into trouble, we’ll be armed. Wen-guniang, do you know where they are? How heavily they’re guarded?”

“Yes to the first, no to the second,” Wen Qing said. “But with all of the hostages out on the night hunt, I doubt they’ll be guarded too heavily. Nothing you can’t manage with the weapons you have.”

“Do you – ” Lan Wangji had to stop speaking for a moment so he could be sure his voice remained even. “Do you know if my brother’s sword and xiao are there?”

Wen Qing glanced at him, then looked away. “I don’t know. I haven’t been inside.”

Wei Wuxian reached out and quickly squeezed Lan Wangji’s shoulder. “If they aren’t there, then we’ll find them. We’ll get them back.”

Lan Wangji nodded and said nothing.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Nie Mingjue had to take care to keep his breathing slow and even as they walked through the streets of Nightless City. They hadn’t had a third uniform for Nie Huaisang, so they had tied his hands in front of him as if he were a prisoner they were taking somewhere. Nie Mingjue hated that, even though there was no real reason to. Wen Ning led the way, with Meng Yao behind him so Nie Mingjue could keep an eye on him, then Nie Huaisang, then Nie Mingjue taking up the rear guard.

They passed a few other cultivators and guards, and one of them even did ask where they were going, but Wen Ning handled it surprisingly ably, bowing to the man and saying that Nie Huaisang was being taken to the dungeon for the disrespect he had showed Wen Chao by fainting in the middle of one of his lessons. As this sounded like exactly the sort of dick move that Wen Chao would pull, the cultivator accepted that without further questioning.

Even as easy as it was, Nie Mingjue was half out of his mind by the time they reached the dungeon. He wasn’t good at things like subterfuge and subtlety. He wanted to start breaking down doors and beating the shit out of people until the two men he loved were returned to him.

Fortunately, once they got into the dungeon, he got the opportunity to do exactly that. Wen Ning let them into a hallway and then whispered, “Zewu-Jun is in the cell at the end of the hall, or at least he was as of yesterday, and there’s no real reason to have moved – ”

He didn’t finish before there was the snapping sound of a whip, and then, rather than a cry of pain, an even, if strained, voice. “Follow the righteous path; do not take crooked paths. Don’t associate with evil. Don’t fall to evil.”

Lan Xichen, reciting the Lan disciplines.

And Wen Xu, laughing at him.

Nie Mingjue broke down the door with Baxia in a second flat. It practically exploded inward. Wen Xu drew his own sword, but his reaction was far too slow. Baxia hit him squarely in the chest and threw him back against the wall. Nie Mingjue charged into the room to find Lan Xichen chained against the wall, his back covered with raw wounds. He used a talisman to sever the chains and turn him around. Lan Xichen’s face was bruised and swollen, and his hair was down, his forehead ribbon missing. His eyes went wide when he saw the others. “Mingjue-xiong – how – ”

Nie Mingjue wished he could pull him into an embrace, but didn’t dare, given his injuries. Instead, he cupped Lan Xichen’s face in his hands. “You’re safe now,” he said, and kissed him, uncaring of their audience.

“Mingjue-xiong,” Lan Xichen whispered against his mouth, and relaxed against him.

“Here, sit down.” Nie Mingjue helped him to the floor. “Wen-gongzi, can you – help him?”

“Yes, of course.” Wen Ning hurried over with his pouches and said, “Ah – I’ll need some water – ”

“I saw some buckets at the end of the hall,” Nie Huaisang said, and dashed off.

“Huaisang, damn it,” Nie Mingjue growled, but fortunately, Nie Huaisang came back with the bucket a few moments later. Wen Ning filled a cup from it and took out another little vial of powder.

“It would work better if I could make proper tea, but this should help some with the pain,” Wen Ning said, handing the cup to Nie Mingjue, who held it to Lan Xichen’s mouth. He began to carefully clean the wounds on Lan Xichen’s back. “We won’t have much time, though; you made a lot of noise.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Nie Mingjue muttered, taking Lan Xichen by the wrist and transferring spiritual power to him.

“Um,” Nie Huaisang said, “I think we might have a bigger problem than that.”

“What now?” Nie Mingjue asked.

“Where’s Meng Yao?”

Nie Mingjue’s head whipped up. The hallway was empty except for Nie Huaisang. “Son of a bitch.”

“You brought Meng-gongzi?” Lan Xichen sounded both surprised and worried. “Here? To Nightless City?”

“Yes, and him being gone is a bigger problem than you know,” Nie Mingjue said, and swore underneath his breath. “He was with us up until we got to the dungeon. He must have walked away when all the chaos started.”

“But why would he – ”

“Because he’s not himself right now!” Nie Mingjue tried not to shout at Lan Xichen, knowing he was just confused and concerned. “Damn it – let me make this as quick as I can. There are five pieces of yin iron, not four. The one from the center is the strongest. Meng Yao touched it and it subsumed his mind and possessed his body. It wants to reunite all the pieces, and – ”

From somewhere above them, they heard screaming.

“And, we’re fucked,” Nie Mingjue concluded.

Lan Xichen struggled to his feet. “We had better go find him, then. Ah – ” He turned to Wen Xu’s body and went momentarily still. “He took my ribbon. I need to – ”

Nie Mingjue flinched, because he knew how awful that must be for Lan Xichen, to have had an evil person touch his sacred forehead ribbon. “I’ll search him for it,” he said, rolling Wen Xu’s body over. Fortunately, he found it easily enough, tucked away in an inner pocket.

He held it out to Lan Xichen, but he shook his head and said, “It has to be purified before I can touch it again. Please, will you hold onto it for me?”

“Of course.” Nie Mingjue wrapped the ribbon around his wrist and tied it off so he wouldn’t lose it. Then they headed for the dungeon’s exit.

They had barely made it two steps outside when someone shouted, “Stop!” and Nie Mingjue’s head was nearly taken off with a blast of spiritual power. He stumbled backwards, nearly knocking Lan Xichen over.

“Ah, Wangji, it’s all right!” Lan Xichen said hastily, stepping forward. “It’s Mingjue-xiong, don’t attack!”

Nie Mingjue looked up to see Lan Wangji still with his sword held out in front of him, with Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng behind him, and Wen Qing standing reluctantly off to one side. In fact, Wen Qing was staring hard at them and saying, “A-Ning, what are you doing with them?”

“Ah, um,” Wen Ning said, but then rallied. “Helping them rescue Zewu-Jun. Nie-zongzhu said his sect would protect both of us and everyone from the village if I did. Wait, what are you doing with them?”

Wen Qing sighed and muttered, “Helping them rescue Zewu-Jun.”

Lan Wangji, meanwhile, had rushed over to his brother and was checking him over, seeing the injuries on his face, and his jaw tightening. But then he held out two items: Lan Xichen’s sword and his xiao. “They were with ours,” he said, as Lan Xichen accepted them gratefully. “We should go. The – ”

“We can’t yet,” Nie Mingjue said. “We need to get to Meng Yao.”

“Meng-xiong is here?” Wei Wuxian asked, just as surprised as Lan Xichen had been.

There was more screaming from the main steps of the palace. They really didn’t have time for this, but Nie Mingjue managed to squelch his impatience. “He’s possessed by the yin iron and he wants the other pieces back. We need to get him, now.”

It was worse than Nie Mingjue had feared.

Meng Yao was standing halfway up the steps. He was surrounded by Wen soldiers and puppets. But it didn’t matter. The resentful energy of the yin iron swirled around him, knocking back anyone who got too close. The shadows struck the puppets and yanked the resentful energy out of their bodies, making them instantly collapse, their power added to his own. Meng Yao’s body stood in the center of a raging storm that was completely out of control, and Nie Mingjue did not see any way to stop it.

Then, at the top of the steps, Wen Ruohan emerged. The three pieces of yin iron he had gathered were circling around his hand.

Meng Yao opened his mouth, but what emerged wasn’t his voice, wasn’t a voice at all. It was agony and hatred turned to noise, a harsh shriek of a thousand ghosts at once. “MINE!

Wen Ruohan thrust one hand out. The puppets got back up.

Dark energy coalesced around Meng Yao, momentarily obscuring him from view. Then it exploded outwards. Lan Xichen and Lan Wangji both hastily drew talismans in the air, and Wei Wuxian drew one as well, although his was different. The ones drawn by the Twin Jades shielded them from the power, stopping it in its tracks and causing it to dissipate. Wei Wuxian’s diverted it, shooting it back at an angle that took down several more soldiers.

Wen Ruohan had clearly diverted as well, because he stood at the center of a V of scorched stone. The power had parted around him and smashed into the palace behind where he stood. Dust was still settling in the air.

“Well, hell,” Nie Mingjue said, and leapt forward with Baxia. He brought it down on Wen Ruohan from above, and he blocked it with his own sword. He twisted around to deflect another blow, this one from Wei Wuxian, who was always ready to get into a fight. The light from Bichen sliced through the air, and he ducked underneath it. Then he thrust his hand out, towards his own pieces of yin iron.

Nie Mingjue felt the resentful energy strike him, felt it pierce his body like a sword made of ice. For a few moments, the cold was all he knew.

But it had been worth it. The moment of distraction was all that was needed. Meng Yao was just suddenly there, vanishing from halfway down the steps and reappearing right in front of them, and the sword of yin iron was buried deep in Wen Ruohan’s chest. He choked and gripped one of the pieces of yin iron harder. Meng Yao opened his free hand, and the stone ripped itself free from Wen Ruohan’s grasp and into Meng Yao’s. The other two followed it, not just going to Meng Yao but to the piece he held, attaching to either side of it, sealing the gap between them as if it had never been there.

Meng Yao yanked the sword free.

Wen Ruohan collapsed.

Meng Yao turned to Nie Mingjue, who still had the last piece in a spirit pouch tucked into his robes. His eyes were completely black, his body writhing with shadow. “Give it to me,” he hissed. “Now.”

“Meng Yao,” Nie Mingjue choked out. “Meng Yao, you have to fight this. You have to stop it. I know you can hear me so fight! I know how strong you are! I don’t want to have to hurt you, so please – ”

“Give it to me,” Meng Yao repeated.

Nie Mingjue was still struggling to find something to say when Lan Xichen walked up beside him. He looked over to see the expression on his face, to see the fear and anger and pain. He was ready to beg Lan Xichen’s forgiveness for having lost Meng Yao like this, because they were going to have to kill him. He could not see any other way.

“Mingjue-xiong,” Lan Xichen said quietly, “give me the last piece, please.”

Without any idea of what Lan Xichen intended, but knowing it had to be a better idea than killing Meng Yao, Nie Mingjue withdrew it from the spirit pouch and handed it to him. Meng Yao’s gaze immediately zeroed in on it.

“You want to be whole again,” Lan Xichen said, his voice gentle, his expression that of sympathy, of compassion. “I understand. How terribly difficult it must have been for you. To first have been corrupted as you were, to have the poisons of hatred and resentment forced into you, and then to have been broken into pieces and separated. But do you understand why we are afraid of you being whole again?”

Meng Yao’s body stared at Lan Xichen. “Yes.”

“Then, may I ask you this . . . do you want to rest?”

“Rest?” Meng Yao sounded confused.

“I can see how much pain you’re in. Will you allow me to try to cleanse you of that evil energy that Xue Chonghai forced you to take in? To lay to rest the spirits and ghosts that have clung to you over the ages, drawn in by the force of your power?”

“Rest . . .” Tears began to trickle down Meng Yao’s cheeks. “Yes. I want to be whole again. I want to be what I was.”

Lan Xichen gently placed the last piece of yin iron on top of the others, forming a complete circle. There was a small hole in the center, and when Meng Yao knelt and placed it on the ground, the tip of the sword fit into it perfectly. Nie Mingjue saw where the cracks had come out of it and realized the sword had been used as a chisel, to break the yin iron into four. How awful, he thought, that a piece of it had been used against itself, since likely the only thing that could break the yin iron was more yin iron. No wonder it had been consumed with rage.

Meng Yao knelt, holding the sword in place.

Lan Xichen lifted his xiao to his lips and began to play.

The melody was sweet and gentle, mournful in a way, but a soft sort of mourning, a kind of wistful grief. It echoed up and down the steps of the palace. More Wen soldiers were approaching, as the battlefield quieted, but they didn’t seem to know what to do. Their sect leader was dead on the steps and now a man in bloody rags was playing a song for a mass of seething, dark energy. Wen Qing stepped forward and put up her hand, saying in an imperious tone, “Do not interfere.”

Nie Mingjue watched in fascination as the shadows started to ebb away from Meng Yao’s body, as the yin iron began to crumble into dust. Only the sword remained, but it began to shine silver again as the darkness was stripped away from it.

Lan Xichen only played for several minutes, but it felt like a year had passed when he blew the last note of the song and lowered his xiao, letting the echo fade away.

Meng Yao slumped over. Nie Mingjue immediately went to his knees beside him, caressing his face. His eyes were closed, but his color was good, his breathing even. Lan Xichen sagged with weariness, and Lan Wangji caught him and helped him sit down.

“Meng Yao,” Nie Mingjue said softly, patting his cheek. “Meng Yao, can you hear me?”

Meng Yao’s eyes fluttered open. He gave a sweet, sleepy smile and murmured, “Nie Mingjue,” before they closed again.

Nie Mingjue closed his own eyes and let his forehead rest against Lan Xichen’s shoulder. No matter what happened after this, they would be all right.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

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.

 

 

~fin~