Becoming the Phoenix – Four

Political violence erupts, and Meng Yao and Lan Xichen find each other through it. Drama with politics, Romance, Porn, I-4

Meng Yao had been having quite a nice day. A nice season, even.

He’d kept Huaisang out of the very worst of the trouble he’d tried to find by running about with Wei Wuxian, and Nie-zongzhu hadn’t held it against Meng Yao that Huaisang had slipped out of the Cloud Recesses a day or two before him and promptly vanished on some jaunt of his own.

“He’ll be all right,” Nie-zongzhu had said gruffly, drumming his fingers on his writing table with an agitation Meng Yao refrained from pointing out. “More importantly, next time a member of my sect is acting like some Wen hooligan, boy, tell me about it! I won’t have that kind of thing in the Nie sect!”

“Yes, Zongzhu,” Meng Yao had answered politely, eyes lowered. As always, this deflected Nie-zongzhu, and after a moment more of glowering he had laughed, low and rough.

“Not that for much longer, hm?” He’d raked his glance over the, admittedly, very pale white and gray robes Meng Yao had been wearing, smiling behind his mustache. “A good thing. It’s as well that one of us managed to settle on someone.” He’d sat back with a sigh. “All right, take some of the men and go find Huaisang. Make sure he’s all right.”

Meng Yao had stifled his laughter until he’d been out of the receiving hall.

And it hadn’t been much trouble to track down Huaisang, given that he’d apparently fallen in with Lan Wangji’s search for the yin metal fragments, which Wei Wuxian had invited himself along on. Meng Yao was honestly starting to come around to Xichen’s belief that those two were becoming friends, if only because Wei Wuxian clearly had no intention of letting it be otherwise and Lan Wangji was apparently very bad at saying no to him. Huaisang had rolled his eyes mightily over the two of them the whole time he was chivvying Meng Yao and the escort he’d brought to follow after them to the Chang sect’s compound.

They’d stumbled in on the end of an alarming combination of wanton slaughter and cultivation politics, but Meng Yao’s offer of Nie justice to answer Xue Yang’s identifiable crimes had brought the whole thing around in favor of the Nie sect, which gave him some satisfaction. The criminal was duly packed away into a cell and Meng Yao had been a little impressed by Wei Wuxian’s political awareness, when he actually bothered to exercise it. Best of all, Lan Wangji had given him a long, measuring look and a faint nod before turning away, which was progress for them.

It had been such a nice day. And then Wen Chao had shown up.

The man’s strutting and posing and bullying arrogance were bad enough, but the implications hovering around his words were worse. The Wen sect knew that the other sects were seeking to keep the yin metal fragments from them, knew that the beginning of an alliance against them was already forming.

And they were targeting Lan.

He was almost grateful when Wen Chao lost his patience and threat turned into melee. It gave him something to do with his growing fear and rage, let the complex net of politics and plans narrow down to a blazing now of iron control over his breath, of feeling the movements around him and driving his sword through the spaces created by the broad strokes and long lunges of the Wen form. He lost track of Huaisang early and hoped that meant Huaisang had found somewhere to shelter. One Wen fighter fell back from him with a deep slash in his side, but the one that replaced him drove Meng Yao back along the inner passageway, and almost onto Nie Mingjue’s sword before the sect master swore and hauled his cut short.

“Meng Yao—!” The shout ended on a harsh sound that wrenched Meng Yao’s focus wider again, and shock raked through him as Nie Mingjue stumbled into him.

“Zongzhu!” He caught Nie Mingjue’s arm and looked over his shoulder into the hard, detached gaze of Wen Zhuliu.

Wen Chao laughed from behind his retainer and called a halt to the attack. “Nie-zongzhu,” he taunted as Nie Mingjue tried to straighten up, “Just as Qinghe lies at the foot of Qishan, now you are under my foot.”

Meng Yao’s breath felt frozen in his chest, but calculation flashed through his thoughts. Wen Chao was no renown fighter; even Meng Yao might be able to stand him off for a while. Wen Zhuliu, though, was another matter, and the only one here who might match him was injured, to what extent Meng Yao didn’t know. Wen Chao was toying with them, though. He wasn’t yet quite ready to declare open war all on his own. There was a chance, if Meng Yao could remind Wen Chao of that fact, but how could he speak of it confidently when it was obvious he was the only thing currently keeping the Master of Nie on his feet!?

He’d rarely been as grateful as he was then to hear Huaisang’s voice behind him, and the exclamations from Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin as they hurried up also. Indeed, Wei Wuxian promptly squared himself up in front of Nie Mingjue and reminded Wen Chao of the exact political trespass Meng Yao had had in mind. He breathed out a slow breath of relief and helped Huaisang get Nie-zongzhu more upright. His dignity as the Master of Nie was an important part of carrying this off.

And then Wen Chao taunted Wei Wuxian, in turn, with the information that Wen Xu, known for his volatility and brutality, had already attacked the Cloud Recesses.

Meng Yao lost the rest of Wen Chao’s words to the ringing in his ears. The only word echoing through his mind was Xichen. Slowly, his fingers closed around the little packet he kept in the breast of his robes, the hair ornament Xichen had given him, the promise that the next time he came to Cloud Recesses it would be for good. The solidity of metal pressing against his palm brought the rest of the world back in time for him to hear Wen Chao gloat over how the direct disciples of the major sects would be gathered in to Qishan soon. Hostages, obviously, and the thought broke the helpless echo of Xichen’s name, set the spark to a quick-crackling line of other thoughts.

Three days travel by sword, to reach Gusu.

Survivors.

Shelter, where would be the most impregnable now?

Qinghe Nie, the clan hold that was a fortress.

The land path back, possibly with wounded, possibly evading pursuit; fifteen days, most likely.

Meng Yao took a slow, controlled breath, as the echo of Wen Chao’s mocking laughter faded off the stone walls. “Huaisang,” he said, very calmly, “I won’t be able to look after you in Qishan. Please take care of yourself. Do what you have to, for the time being.”

Huaisang’s mouth was tight as he looked across at Meng Yao, and he nodded sharply. “I will. I promise.” He ducked further under his brother’s arm, taking all of his weight.

Meng Yao turned to give Nie-zongzhu a precise bow, feeling like he was hanging on to his composure with clenched teeth. “Nie-zongzhu. Forgive me, but I must take my leave of the sect now. I will return within twenty days, with Xichen-xiong and any other survivors.”

Nie Mingjue’s mouth tilted, but his eyes were burning almost as hot as Meng Yao’s heart felt, and he nodded as sharply as Huaisang had. “Go. Bring them here.” His voice dropped, turning gravelly. “And then we’ll begin.”

Meng Yao smiled, hard and tight. “Yes,” he agreed. “We will.” He turned and strode for his rooms, ignoring what sounded like an argument that started between Jiang Wanyin and Wei Wuxian, behind him. If Wei Wuxian won it and caught up to him, well and good. If not, well, Meng Yao wasn’t going to wait.


Meng Yao stood in the middle of the Cloud Recesses’ largest courtyard, in the middle of white stone blackened with streaks of ash, of graceful, austere buildings burned down to shells, screens seared away to gaping holes, and concentrated fiercely on his breathing.

If he didn’t, he was going to scream.

The bones of the mountain remained. Even most of the trees and greenery had survived, saved by the constant flow of water and mist. But the pavilions and walkways were in ruins, and several halls had sagging roofs where load bearing pillars had burned and cracked. The refuge that Xichen had made this place into for him was in tattered pieces.

Lan Qiren sat on one of the courtyard’s remaining benches, leaning heavily on one hand. “They’re both gone,” he said, voice rough with smoke or grief or both. “Wangji gave himself up to save the last of our disciples, and I made Xichen take our books and flee. We haven’t been able to find him. I think he must have left the mountain already.”

Meng Yao’s mind locked around those details, cold and hard. “If Wen Xu took Lan er-gongzi with him, then he’ll be one of the hostages. They will not be kind, but the value of a hostage only lasts as long as they live. The Wen will not kill him. I will seek for Lan-zongzhu.” He turned, examining Lan Qiren closely. “Will you be able to travel as far as Qinghe? Nie-zongzhu has offered the shelter of the Unclean Realm.”

Lan Qiren studied him for a long moment and finally nodded, slowly. “I can travel, with our disciples’ help. You truly believe you can find Xichen?”

Meng Yao took another slow, controlled breath, pushing down the fear trying to claw its way up his throat. “Yes,” he answered, flat and sure. He would not allow it to be otherwise.

Lan Qiren sighed, slumping more heavily on his supporting hand. “Well. You were a diligent and well-spoken student this summer. I imagine you’ll do. Find him, then.”

Meng Yao brushed aside his bafflement over what being a diligent and well-spoken student had to do with finding Xichen, and took his leave with a quick bow. He was most of the way to the distant clearing he’d used for sword practice, the one no one but Xichen had ever found, before the image of Wei Wuxian floated up from the back of his brain—the image of Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji sharing a silent thought together. He couldn’t help then imagining the face Lan Qiren would likely make, if he saw that.

He was snorting with helpless laughter when he walked into the clearing, scrubbing his hands over his face, and so it was Xichen who saw him first.

“A-Yao!”

His head jerked up, and for one moment he just stared at the vision of Xichen, safe and whole if also smudged with ash and streaks of green sap here and there. “Xichen-xiong,” he breathed, taking one step forward, and then another, and then with a rush he was in Xichen’s arms, holding fiercely tight to him. “You’re all right,” he gasped, shaking now that he was sure it was true. And then he pushed back just far enough to look up, hands sliding over Xichen’s shoulders, down his chest, patting gently. “You are all right? They didn’t hurt you?”

“They never caught me,” Xichen confirmed, stroking Meng Yao’s hair back. “Uncle insisted that I take the library and go, when they started breaking the barrier. They left a small troop in the town, who have kept on searching, but they don’t know the mountain. I’ve kept ahead of them, but haven’t quite dared return to the Cloud Recesses, yet.” He closed his hands around Meng Yao’s face, just looking at him for a long moment, smiling even through the worry so clear in his eyes. “How did you hear so quickly?”

Meng Yao tamped down the snarl that wanted to escape. “Wen Chao boasted of his brother attacking the Cloud Recesses, when he took a little band of his own to the Unclean Realm. Fortunately, there were a few too many witnesses for his comfort, and he broke off quickly. I think I was only a day behind Lan er-gongzi, all the way here.”

Xichen stilled. “Wangji returned?”

Meng Yao bit his lip and reached up to rest his hands on Xichen’s shoulders. “Yes,” he said, softly. “He seems to have arrived just after the barrier broke. He… he gave himself up to protect the rest, and Wen Xu took him.”

For one long moment, he saw the mirror of his own rage turn Xichen’s eyes dark and hard. And then those eyes closed and Xichen drew a deep, slow breath. When they opened again, they were clear. Meng Yao tucked his chin down and tried to bank his fury in turn; clearly, Xichen was not going to cut his way through the Wen troop in Gusu immediately.

A shame, that.

“They took him?” Xichen asked quietly. “As a prisoner?”

“As a hostage, most likely. Wen Chao mentioned that an ‘invitation’ will be coming, demanding all the major sects send disciples to Wen for ‘schooling’, including at least one direct disciple.” Because it seemed like the thing Xichen most needed to hear right now, he added softly, “Hostage taking only works if they stay alive. They won’t kill him.”

“Which complicates any move against them,” Xichen murmured in a considering sort of tone, and Meng Yao smiled.

“Then the first step must be an opportunity for them to escape. Not such a difficult thing, considering how many servants a place like the Nightless City must require.”

Xichen’s brows arched up, and he slowly smiled back. “I see I’ll need to ensure you’re included in our councils.”

Meng Yao felt like he might be glowing, lit up with the pride and pleasure of hearing that. “Nie-zongzhu invited all of you to shelter with him, for now. Shall we return to the rest of the sect, or…?”

“Better not, if the Wen are still searching for me but not bothering with anyone else.” Xichen stroked the backs of his fingers down Meng Yao’s cheek. “Once we’re out of Gusu, it will be my turn to rely on you, I think, to get us there unseen.”

Despite the grim situation, Meng Yao felt he might nearly float down the mountain, as they set out, buoyed up by Xichen’s trust.


The surviving Lan sect, in the care of Lan Qiren, had made it back to the Unclean Realm before Meng Yao. He wasn’t surprised. He and Xichen had had to make their way cross-country for the most part, staying away from roads of any size to avoid the little squads of Wen disciples that were cropping up everywhere. The times they’d had to pass through larger towns or cities, to break their trail or to pick up supplies, Meng Yao had taken them through the poorest districts and markets, trusting that the people who made their living there would still recognize his own knowledge of the ins and outs, and failing that, his absolute willingness to kill in defense of what was his.

Only one arrogant little gang in Zibo had challenged that willingness, demanding money to let such obvious fugitives pass through unharmed. Fortunately, it had been no great delay in his errands to leave their leader bleeding out on the threshhold of the Anbo gambling hall before returning to Xichen with the fish and buns that he’d gone out to get. His sleeve had gotten fairly well bloodied, though, and he’d had to give up on the sneaking temptation to not mention it to Xichen.

He needn’t have worried. Xichen had only gathered him in and pressed a gentle kiss to his forehead, leaving him both flustered and soothed in the wake of that descent back into familiar violence. He’d felt less concern over what he might have to do, after that.

The indirect journey had made slow going, though, and he felt a good deal of tension unwind from his spine at the sound of the heavy gate of the Unclean Realm closing behind them.

He followed quietly along beside Xichen as the surviving Lan disciples came to greet their sect master—fewer than he’d thought there were, and he worried over what other bad news might find Xichen until Lan Qiren mentioned that they’d left a thin network of the senior disciples behind in Gusu, dispersed among the villages and smaller cities. Finally, Nie Mingjue showed Xichen to the rooms set aside for him, already thoughtfully draped with some surviving hangings from the Cloud Recesses.

“They are yours for as long as you require,” he said firmly over Xichen’s attempt to thank him, and Xichen gave way with a wry smile that said he was used to Nie Mingjue’s bluntness.

And then Nie Mingjue gave Meng Yao a rather sly sidelong glance, and added far more lightly, “You need a little extra room, now, don’t you?” Meng Yao choked down what was absolutely not a squeak and Nie Mingjue added, “Or there are rooms beside these for Meng Yao, if the two of you prefer to be formal.”

Xichen was laughing as he waved Nie Mingjue out. “Thank you Mingjue-xiong, I’m sure we’ll be fine.” His smile turned gentle and rueful as he gathered a furiously blushing Meng Yao into his arms. “I’m afraid the bit about teasing is a family trait, if you’re close enough with them.”

“I…” Meng Yao couldn’t quite look up, but he did manage to say, against Xichen’s shoulder, “I do wish it. To stay with you.”

Xichen’s arms tightened around him. “That pleases me more than I can say.” And then he huffed softly. “I wanted a more public declaration and celebration, for you. But it seems that will be difficult for some time.”

Meng Yao felt like he might melt against Xichen with the warmth of hearing such a thing, and he finally dared to look up. “Then perhaps…” He reached into the breast of his robes for the small package that had been a talisman to him lately, and held it out rather shyly to Xichen. “Would you help me with this?”

Xichen’s gaze on him turned heavy and intent. “I would be very pleased to.” He led Meng Yao to the table and pressed him down onto one of the cushions, stepping into the sleeping room to rummage briefly through the things set out there before returning with a comb. Meng Yao wet his lips, pulse speeding as Xichen settled behind him and delicately undid his pewter hair ornament, laying it aside on the table. Long fingers slowly unwound his coiled braids and carefully unravelled them, one after the other.

Meng Yao had had other people help him with his hair before, especially with the dressed braids that the Nie sect favored. But never like this, never to undo the claim of another and replace it, and every time Xichen’s fingers brushed his neck, his breath caught, until he had to put out a hand and hold on to the table, lightheaded.

Xichen gathered his hair back and ran the comb through it, broad, powerful hands so very gentle that it made Meng Yao shiver. Xichen took his time about it, strokes slow and soothing. When he finally sectioned the front strands and drew them back, it was into a simple fold and snug twist, wrapping it with the black ribbon Meng Yao had used to bind the ends of the braids under. Meng Yao held out the silver, Lan-styled hair ornament, fingers trembling around it a little, and Xichen took it only to lace his fingers with Meng Yao’s and lift his hand, pressing a kiss to his knuckles. “Almost done,” Xichen promised softly.

Meng Yao nodded and folded his hands in tight his lap, feeling as though he were about to step through some great gate or doorway into a new place. There was nothing ritual about what they were doing, and yet it felt as irrevocable as making their bows with an entire clan looking on.

Xichen slid the silver hair ornament into place, running the pin so carefully through Meng Yao’s topknot that he didn’t feel a single hair pull. “There,” Xichen said quietly, hands resting on Meng Yao’s shoulders. “Let me look at you.”

Meng Yao turned on his knees to look up at Xichen, breath still coming rather fast. “Is it…?”

Xichen smiled slowly, more heated than Meng Yao had ever seen. “It becomes you very well, my own.”

Meng Yao made a breathless sound as the certainty of Xichen’s claim wrapped around him, and leaned pliantly into Xichen’s arms as Xichen gathered him close. “Xichen-ge,” he said, soft and wanting. He could feel the hard breath Xichen took in, at that, and smiled up at him, bright and giddy that he had this effect on Lan Xichen.

It was only fair, after all.

Xichen laughed softly. “I see.” He leaned down and pressed slow kisses, not to Meng Yao’s parted lips but to the line of his neck. Meng Yao jolted against him, eyes wide and shocked at the way the heat of Xichen’s mouth on his skin ran through him, sweet and liquid.

“Xichen-ge!”

“Will you let me, a-Yao?” Xichen murmured against his throat. “It is not yet the place I most wish to give you, but will you let me undress you here in our rooms, and lay you down, and know that no one else will ever see you undone as I have?”

Meng Yao shuddered, feeling the words as if they were a caressing hand reaching deep inside him. “Yes. Please.” He wanted everything he could have of Xichen, the edge of long desire whetted by still-immediate fear that he might lose it all. Finally, Xichen raised his head and took Meng Yao’s mouth, kissing him slow and deep and thorough enough that Meng Yao almost thought he might come undone just from this.

“Thank you.” And then Xichen scooped Meng Yao into his arms and stood, lifting him effortlessly. Meng Yao caught at his shoulders with a breathless laugh.

“Xichen-ge!”

Xichen smiled down at him and repeated, “Let me?”

Meng Yao ducked his head, flustered but also delighted to be cradled so close, sheltered by Xichen’s strength. “Yes, ge-ge,” he agreed softly, snuggling closer as Xichen’s arms tightened around him.

Xichen carried him to the sleeping room and laid him on the bed. Somehow the solidity of the bed under him made everything more real and immediate, and Meng Yao’s breath came increasingly short as Xichen tugged off his shoes, slowly unwound his belts and sashes, sure, gentle hands nudging Meng Yao to shift so Xichen could slide the robes off his shoulders. It felt desperately intimate, before Xichen’s hands ever touched skin, and when they finally did Meng Yao found himself arching up off the bed with a low, wordless sound.

“Shh.” Xichen kissed him again, slow and sure, flattening his palms against Meng Yao’s skin and stroking slowly up his ribs. “I have you, a-Yao.” He cupped a hand around Meng Yao’s cheek, eyes steady on him, staying close. “All right?”

Meng Yao wet his lips and nodded; anticipation still fluttered through his stomach, but Xichen’s gentle care softened it into a warmth he could relax in. Xichen kissed him softly and drew back long enough to shed the last of his clothes. Meng Yao hadn’t even noticed him undressing. He reached out as Xichen returned to the bed, a little shy but wanting to feel Xichen’s body against his. When he did, it drew a soft moan from him, and Xichen smiled as he gathered Meng Yao close against him, smoothing a hand up and down his back.

“Easy, my own. We’ll go slowly.”

Meng Yao looked up at him, eyes wide as the implications of Xichen’s words sank in. Xichen assumed he was untouched.

Which he was. His mother had defended him fiercely from anyone who had presumed her boy’s favors were for sale alongside her own, and made sure he could defend himself as he grew up. But for someone to assume it, that of course he would be inexperienced, would need to go slowly… He buried his head in Xichen’s shoulder and nodded, wordless.

Xichen cuddled him close, hands gentle on him, until Meng Yao finally relaxed against him, quieting into pliancy, until he lifted his head again, want starting to rise through the heart-shaking wonder. “Xichen-ge?” he asked, pressing a little closer.

Xichen smiled. “Yes. Come here, my own.” He nudged Meng Yao down onto his stomach, leaning over him, and Meng Yao’s whole body relaxed at the feeling of Xichen over him, sheltering him. He knew he wouldn’t be able to do anything, stretched out like this, that he was entirely in Xichen’s hands, and still all he felt was safe. Warm hands stroked up and down his back, slow and firm, until he wanted to purr with it. “You honor me with your trust,” Xichen murmured against the nape of his neck, and a slow shudder ran through Meng Yao, heat and want and sweetness all wound together. He was hard already, just from this gentle handling.

“Ge-ge, please.” He looked over his shoulder, entreating, and Xichen dropped a soft kiss against his temple.

“Yes, my own.” He slid a hand slowly down the length of Meng Yao’s body, easing under him to stroke down his stomach until long fingers wrapped around his cock, fondling him. The rush of sensation was so intense, after all the slow petting, that Meng Yao moaned out loud with it. He lifted his hips for Xichen, flushed with how wanton it felt, but Xichen’s approving sound against his shoulder and the pleasure winding through him kept him there, gasping for breath as Xichen’s fingers worked over him, slow and firm and caressing. Xichen wrapped an arm around him, supporting him and bracing himself over Meng Yao, and it was easy, so easy, to relax into that hold, to spread his knees against the soft covers and give himself up to Xichen’s touch, to the awareness of all Lan Xichen’s immense strength and control wrapped around him.

Just as his body started to tighten with the first whisper of release, Xichen let go and reached over their heads, and when his hand returned, fingers stroking over the curve of Meng Yao’s rear, they were slick. Anticipation shivered through him, and he whispered against the covers, “Yes. Please.”

Xichen gathered him a little closer, long fingers sliding between his cheeks, spreading them. “You’re so sweet for me, my own,” he murmured against Meng Yao’s ear.

Meng Yao moaned, breathless, as Xichen’s fingers rubbed slow, firm little circles against his hole, easing him open. “Always, for you.” And this was why, the slow way Xichen’s fingers worked over and over his hole, relentless and still so gentle, stretching him harder and harder, but so caressing. It set Meng Yao panting, muscles lax and trembling as those long fingers filled him over and over, and still Xichen was stretching him wider. “Ge-ge,” Meng Yao gasped, dizzy with the slow-rising flood of sensation and the warm certainty of how careful Xichen was being with him. He’d heard too many stories, growing up, of customers who weren’t, especially from the younger men. This was the furthest possible thing from those tales, and he loved feeling it.

“I’ll take care of you, a-Yao,” Xichen promised, low and sure, and just hearing it unwound Meng Yao, soothed him down into the pleasure of that intimate touch, left him draped over the support of Xichen’s arm under him. “There.” Xichen’s voice turned velvety. “That’s good.” He eased his fingers free and shifted over Meng Yao, the light, braced weight of him settling warm all the way down Meng Yao’s back. The slow slide of his cock, thick and hot between Meng Yao’s cheeks, sent a breathless shiver up Meng Yao’s spine. It felt big, made him aware all over again that Xichen was larger than he was, all over. The awareness made heat coil low in his stomach.

“Tell me, if you don’t like this,” Xichen said softly, and pressed a kiss under Meng Yao’s ear. “Promise me, a-Yao.”

Meng Yao laughed, soft and a little giddy with proof after proof of how Xichen cared for him. “I promise, ge-ge. Let me feel it?”

“Yes.” Xichen’s voice was caressing, and the hand that settled on Meng Yao’s stomach, lifting him higher onto his knees, was gentle. Meng Yao relaxed into the support, and was very glad of it indeed when Xichen’s cock started pushing into him, slow and steady, stretching him wider and wider. He was gasping for breath by the time it leveled off into a slow slide into him, but he didn’t want it to stop. When Xichen asked, husky, “A-Yao?” his answer was a low moan of, “Yes.”

Xichen took him at his word, drawing back slow and easy, and then pushing into him on a long, hard slide that ended with his hips grinding into Meng Yao’s ass. Xichen made a husky sound of pleasure that walked heat up Meng Yao’s spine. The intensity of that stretch and slide, of feeling Xichen inside him, unstrung Meng Yao, but that was just fine. Xichen held him safe and sure, and all Meng Yao needed to do was feel this. Feel how big Xichen was inside him, feel the way Xichen shifted over him and the jolt of heavy pleasure at the end of each slow thrust in. The heat of it built so slowly, so sweetly, that the crest caught him by surprise, and he cried out, thin and breathless, as pleasure raked through him, body wringing down tight on the thickness of Xichen’s cock.

Xichen groaned and caught Meng Yao up tight against his body, the long, slow rhythm of his thrusts turning hard and short. Meng Yao could feel every bit of him, now that his body was clenched tight around Xichen, and the rougher drag sent sparks down his nerves, drove tiny whimpers out of him. When Xichen stilled and slowly eased them both down to the bed, Meng Yao lay quiet in the circle of his arm, trying to catch his breath. He thought maybe Xichen was, too.

Finally, Xichen drew back, and Meng Yao couldn’t help making a soft, protesting sound. Xichen was smiling as he eased Meng Yao gently around in his arms and gathered him close again. “I’m here, a-Yao. I have you.”

Meng Yao relaxed again, winding his arms around Xichen’s ribs and snuggling close. “Thank you,” he said, a little shy now that the rush of heat and pleasure was past.

Xichen pressed a soft kiss to his forehead and another to his lips, mouth warm and slow against his. “It was my honor and my pleasure, and I thank you for permitting me.”

Meng Yao blushed hot, burrowing into Xichen’s chest. Xichen’s effortless grace made him feel so young. Xichen cradled him close, one broad hand rubbing up and down his back. “Let me take care of you, my own,” he murmured against Meng Yao’s hair.

“Always,” Meng Yao promised, basking in the warmth of belonging. He would do anything to keep this.

Anything at all.

Flipside

Nie Mingjue considered the man beside him, as he led Meng Yao into the cells to where Xue Yang was being kept.

When Xichen had first written on Meng Yao’s behalf, Mingjue had jestingly protested that Xichen was stealing his people. Now he thought rather that Xichen had found one of his own people among Nie, and reached out to claim him.

There was a strain of extremism, in Lan. Lan cultivators, especially the ones of Lan clan blood, were rarely capable of half-measures. When they chose a path, they chose with their whole hearts and never looked back. Mingjue had seen it in Xichen’s father’s choice of wife. He’d seen it in Lan Qiren’s choice of the Lan Discipline above all else. He’d seen it in Xichen’s own choice to follow the path of compassion, from which he would not budge for all his uncle’s strictness or Mingjue’s own efforts to get him to consider practicalities now and then.

He’d seen the very same thing surface in Meng Yao’s eyes, like a dragon rising from the still surface of the sea, when he’d heard Xichen might have been harmed. It was why Mingjue hadn’t tried to argue against an instant, headlong drive across the country to retrieve Xichen. And it was why he’d escorted Meng Yao down here himself. If Xue Yang said anything to suggest a threat to Xichen, which he might well do for fun, poisonous little creature that he was, Mingjue had no doubt that Meng Yao would kill him on the spot, if there was no one to hold him back.

Xue Yang looked up at the sound of them approaching, with that alarming, disconnected smile of his firmly in place. “Nie-zongzhu. Have you decided to appease the Wen by releasing me? Or perhaps to torture me for that bit of yin metal you want so much?” He laughed as if either possibility amused him.

“Be silent,” Mingjue snapped. Xue Yang always made his skin crawl, to talk to.

Beside him, Meng Yao was staring hard at their prisoner. “Ah,” he said, quiet and even, and glanced up at Mingjue. “There’s no point to questioning him, by any method,” he stated, matter-of-fact. “None of this is real to him.”

Mingjue frowned. “What do you mean?” He rapped his knuckles on the iron bars. “He seems to be able to tell everything around him is real. He hadn’t tried to walk out through these, at least.”

Meng Yao smiled a bit tightly. “I didn’t mean that he’s delusional, exactly. It’s simply that the only truly real thing in his world is himself and his desires. He won’t react the way most people would think reasonable. He might view torture as pleasing, in a way, because it’s attention focused on him. Not,” he added dryly, “that he wouldn’t also most likely take it as a reason to destroy Nie and the Unclean Realm, and probably Lan because I’m standing here talking about it.”

Mingjue couldn’t help noticing that Xue Yang was now focused on Meng Yao with a look of deranged delight. “Oh. You’re interesting.”

Meng Yao glanced at him, hard and distant in a way that was almost as alarming. “Extract the yin metal fragment from him and kill him swiftly. Speaking to him will gain you nothing.”

“Xichen might know how to locate it, at least,” Mingjue said, trying to banish the mental image of twin swords clashing and sliding against each other. “And then we can be done with this, yes.” He beckoned Meng Yao along as he turned back toward the stairs.

“Come back and talk some time,” Xue Yang called after them, lilting and coy, and Mingjue resolved to wash as soon as he could. Maybe that would get rid of the feeling that he’d walked by something foul and the scent was clinging to his robes.

“I would prefer if you didn’t,” he said, as they climbed back toward the light. “Speak with him again, I mean.”

Meng Yao laughed, flat and unamused. “Please don’t worry; I won’t. No good ever comes of it, with someone like that.”

When they found Xichen, he frowned and reached out to rest his hands on Meng Yao’s shoulders. “A-Yao?”

A visible shudder went through Meng Yao, and he stepped close, fingers wound tight in the flowing silk of Xichen’s sleeves. The way he looked up at Xichen was near desperate, but then he drew a long breath and seemed to find comfort, or perhaps stability, again. “I’m well, Xichen-xiong,” he said softly, and the words rang true.

It was an uncomfortable thought that came to Mingjue then—that perhaps, in someone with that Lan-like current of extremism, the difference between madness and sanity lay in whether they chose a path that loved them back.

Not that he really had room to judge what sanity another sect’s ways left them.

“Xichen, do you know of a way to reveal yin metal? To make it resonate?” he asked briskly, turning to the practicalities.

Xichen’s lingering worry turned to a thoughtful look. “Possibly. Let me check some of our texts.” He was gathering Meng Yao into the curve of his arm even as he spoke, and Mingjue stifled a snort of amusement.

Even if he was right, it looked as though these two had chosen a good path, in each other. He was glad for them both.

And he put out of his mind the thought of what Meng Yao’s path might have looked like, otherwise.