Becoming the Phoenix – Three

Meng Yao and Lan Xichen are courting. Nie Huaisang is very entertained. Lan Wangji is more dubious about the whole matter. Romance, Drama with a dash of politics, I-2

Many things had abruptly become easier for Meng Yao.

After Chang Yun was ejected in disgrace from the Lan summer lectures, whispers about Meng Yao had hushed, for the first time in his entire life. It was a little stunning, to be able to walk abroad without careful calculation of dangers and politics and how deferential he had to be to whom.

He kept the manners Huaisang had helped him polish drawn about him, of course, but the sudden freedom felt like a yoke of filled water buckets suddenly falling off his shoulders.

And whenever he was with Lan Xichen, so many of his habitual calculations dissolved in the warm glow of Xichen’s attention. For once in his life, Meng Yao was spending most of his time unreservedly happy, and a little dazed by the fact.

Sword practice did get a bit more difficult, though.

“This will finish with a lunge, so start rotating through the inside now. It stabilizes the sword and contains your qi more tightly. That will strengthen the blow, as you complete it.” Xichen’s palm slid down the inside of Meng Yao’s forearm, demonstrating the rotation, and a gasp caught in Meng Yao’s throat at the warmth of the touch, promptly disrupting his breath control.

“I’m sorry,” he apologized at once, frustrated with himself. He had better focus than this.

Xichen laid a finger very lightly against his lips. “It doesn’t displease me,” he murmured, and Meng Yao lost what little control his still had of his breath, eyes widening helplessly as heat rolled through him like a wave.

“Xichen-xiong,” he said, against that hushing finger, half protesting and half wanting more. Xichen’s smile turned a little rueful and he gathered Meng Yao close, just holding him for a moment.

“It is a little of why I meant to wait until the end of summer to declare myself,” he admitted as Meng Yao slowly relaxed against him. “But I’m selfish enough that I like how freely you answer me, a-Yao. Forgive me?”

“Anything,” Meng Yao agreed, softly.

Xichen chuckled and leaned back enough to look down at him, clearly amused. “I’m not the only one who likes to say romantic things, hm?”

Meng Yao just smiled. It was the bare truth, though he rather hoped they were never in circumstances that would lead Xichen to see this truth in action. “So, I should rotate inward in the moment I begin to shift forward?”

“Precisely.” Xichen dropped a light kiss on his forehead and stepped back. “Show me.”

Meng Yao regathered his concentration. He might never be a brilliant swordsman, but after a summer of Xichen’s tutoring he anticipated being an irreproachably competent one. He was certainly bending all his effort on that goal.

He never wanted Xichen to be ashamed of him before the other sects.


“I told you so,” Huaisang sing-songed under his breath.

“Huaisang.”

“He’s standing right there watching you.”

Huaisang.”

“Why don’t you ask if he’ll help with your lantern?”

Meng Yao pinched the bridge of his nose, holding his brush clear of the paper so he didn’t ruin the flowing water he was drawing. Water, not clouds, water. And if there was a camellia traced inside one swirl, that was no one’s business but his. “Huaisang,” he growled.

Huaisang folded a gilded paper seam delicately around the frame of his lantern, smirking. “Just a suggestion.”

Meng Yao added the final lines to his drawing, firmly refraining from looking over his shoulder at where Xichen stood beside his uncle, watching over the summer students. He could still feel the weight of Xichen’s attention, and the heat in his cheeks that had probably started Huaisang’s teasing. “You’re getting a great deal of fun out of someone else’s courtship, Huaisang. I didn’t know your preferences ran that way.”

Huaisang sputtered and then laughed, lifting both hands. “All right, all right, I’ll stop.”

“Good.” Meng Yao calmly lifted both their lanterns out of the way of Wei Wuxian’s precipitous retreat from an irate-looking Lan Wangji.

“Sorry, sorry!” Wei Wuxian laughed as he fended off both Lan Wangji and Huaisang, now, as Huaisang protested his carelessness around such fine working materials. Meng Yao let himself silently enjoy even this small inclusion in their horse-play. It felt nice.

As dusk started to fall and they all started passing around slivers of burning wood to light the lanterns, he checked the wicks in both his and Huaisang’s, and smiled indulgently at Huaisang’s count of three. He lofted his lantern gently up at the same moment as Huaisang. The white shapes drifted up, dark against the lingering light in the sky but lit from within and starting to glow faintly.

Huaisang clasped his hands and intoned fervently, “I wish to successfully complete my education, and not come back next year.”

Meng Yao couldn’t stifle a laugh. “We’ll work on that a little harder, then,” he murmured. He ignored Huaisang’s abruptly appalled look, and closed his eyes, forming his own prayer in his heart.

Please. Let me belong here.

He didn’t realize he’d actually whispered it aloud until Xichen’s hand closed warm on his shoulder, and Xichen said, just as softly, “You will.”

Meng Yao looked up and around at him, clasped hands pressed tight to his chest. The ready promise of a true place, so clear in the steadiness of Xichen’s eyes on him, made his knees weak the way even Xichen’s touch didn’t.

Xichen smiled faintly and repeated, soft and certain. “You will.”

Meng Yao bent his head, leaning just a little into Xichen’s hand, and nodded, accepting. When he regathered his composure enough to look up, it was to see Huaisang had wandered a few steps away and was playing his fan gently while staring off into the surrounding mountains, standing between Meng Yao and the sidelong glances of most of the other summer students.

Xichen chuckled. “I see. So he’s the only one allowed to tease you?”

Meng Yao made a rueful face. “Apparently. To be honest, I think Nie-zongzhu took me on in large part for Huaisang’s sake. It seems to have worked.”

“Perhaps at first it was for Huaisang’s sake.” Meng Yao’s cheeks heated again at Xichen’s gentle refusal to let him denigrate himself. “I hope the two of you will continue close.”

Meng Yao looked down, smiling, and admitted. “After this summer, I find it hard to imagine otherwise.”

And that made him very happy. But he also couldn’t ignore the weight of Xichen’s brother’s eyes on him, cool and measuring and not particularly pleased, before Lan Wangji turned his attention back to Wei Wuxian. This whole matter of having extended family seemed very fraught, from where he was standing.

On the other hand, perhaps what worked with Huaisang would work here, as well: simply taking care of what was placed in his charge.

He would give that some thought.


With only two weeks of the summer lectures left, Meng Yao thought he finally dared to give in to Xichen’s silent, subtle invitations, and walk with him back to Xichen’s rooms. For tea. In the sitting room. With the screens open. And while a tiny part of him wished otherwise, most of him relaxed at the careful, courteous propriety.

Xichen’s sober expression as he contemplated his delicate greenware cup, though, suggested that dalliance was the last thing on his mind.

“Xichen-xiong?” he asked, a bit tentative. “Something seems to occupy your thoughts.”

Xichen shook himself and looked up with a faint smile. “There is, yes. And… I believe it’s something you ought to know.” His smile softened. “Given that you are considering becoming the partner of the Master of Lan.”

Meng Yao ducked his head, trying to collect himself from the wave of giddy delight that swept through him. It was the first time Xichen had said it in so many words. If he was putting it in these terms, though, this was probably about politics. Meng Yao set his cup down neatly and folded his hands. “What is it?”

Xichen sobered again. “Since the founding of the sect, our clan has guarded and kept seal on a fragment of the yin metal Xue Chonghai crafted. Just recently, Wangji and Wei-gongzi,” his mouth quirked, “stumbled into the Cold Spring where it has been kept. Lan Yi, who has kept it sealed there all these years, released it into their hands.”

Meng Yao took in a quick breath, thoughts flashing over the history books that Xichen had brought him this summer. The yin metal shaped by Xue Chonghai had been scattered, they said. And yet, now he also remembered rumors and whispers drifting by that Wen Ruohan had found a piece. “Do the fragments call to each other, then? Is the piece Lan guarded moving because of the piece the Wen sect found?”

Xichen smiled, though it wasn’t entirely a happy one. “You’ve always been very swift of thought, a-Yao. That is my fear, yes.” He took a slow breath. “As it was released into Wangji’s hands, we are considering allowing him to seek for the other pieces.”

Which would, it went without saying, put Lan in direct conflict with Wen. “Are you…?” Meng Yao bit his lip, uncertain.

“A-Yao.” Xichen reached across the table to cup his cheek, thumb gently coaxing his lip free of his teeth. “You can always speak your thoughts to me.”

Meng Yao nodded slowly, holding tight to the trust Xichen had built in his heart all this summer. “Are you sure it’s necessary to stand against Wen?” he asked, softly.

“I’m afraid so.” Xichen’s mouth hardened into a tight line. “We’ve started seeing people, some of them from our own sect, attacked with foul techniques. People with their spiritual consciousness stolen or drained away, leaving them little more than corpse puppets.”

Meng Yao swallowed hard against a rising gorge, trying very hard not to imagine what it might be like to have his own cultivation, the thing that had let him break free from his mother’s world, turned against him like that. “The yin metal,” he whispered. “The chronicles said it consumed spirits. I thought they just meant spiritual energy.”

“Apparently not.” Xichen rubbed a hand over his face, looking tired. “I don’t know precisely when or how, but if Wen Ruohan continues to pursue this path… then yes, we must stand against him. I will start to sound out the other sects and try to gather support without exposing ourselves too badly.”

“Does that mean you’ll leave Jin for last?” Meng Yao offered with a tiny smile. To his pleasure, Xichen laughed softly.

“I did say you were swift of thought.” More seriously, he added, “And if you wish to think on this before you give me an answer, I assure you I will not take it amiss. A war among the sects is nothing I ever wished to ask you to involve yourself in.”

Fear still shivered through Meng Yao at the thought of committing to a fight against the Wen sect, given what rumor said of their numbers and wealth and vicious brutality. But the other great sects were not weak. If they banded together, they could match Wen’s numbers. And one thing this summer had allowed him to understand more viscerally than ever before was the power of the strongest cultivators. Nie Mingjue. Lan Xichen and Lan Wangji. He had heard rather terrifying things of Yu Ziyuan, Jiang-furen, this summer. And if he wasn’t mistaken, Wei Wuxian truly was a match for Lan Wangji, despite his carefree manner.

Together, it might well be possible.

“My answer has not changed,” he said, soft and sure, lifting his chin to meet Xichen’s eyes. “If you will have me, I am yours.” More shyly, he finally voiced a thought he’d taken a good deal of pleasure in, since Xichen first spoke. “Even my name tells us I was meant for you, does it not?”2

Xichen took in a swift breath, eyes going darker, and Meng Yao couldn’t help a spark of glee that he could affect Xichen the same way Xichen affected him. “A-Yao.” Xichen slid around the side of the table and reached out to close his hands gently around Meng Yao’s face. His kiss was gentle, too, but there was such restrained heat in it that Meng Yao swayed into him, hands coming up to spread against Xichen’s chest, unstrung by the depth of passion that single kiss promised. “You were well named,” Xichen murmured against his lips. “Never doubt it.”

“If you say it, then I won’t,” Meng Yao promised, voice gone husky. He was glad Xichen stayed close, one arm curving around him, because he felt very in need of something to lean against. He’d only heard that low, velvety tone from Xichen once or twice, and it turned his bones to water every time.

“Well, then,” Xichen said after a moment, tone lighter, “perhaps this is a good moment for something I’ve been meaning to do.” He drew a small cloth packet out of his robes and offered it to Meng Yao.

Meng Yao took it with a questioning look up at Xichen, but Xichen only smiled, so he carefully folded the pale blue silk back to see what was inside. When he did, his breath caught.

It was a hair ornament, not too much larger than the one he wore now, but rather than the pewter that the Nie sect favorited, this one was made of curving lines of bright silver. If he wore this, any cultivator’s first glance would take him for part of the Lan sect. “Xichen-xiong,” he whispered.

“You do belong here,” Xichen said quietly, gathering him closer. “Settle matters with Mingjue-xiong, and then return to me?”

Meng Yao turned his face into Xichen’s shoulder, blinking back the stinging in his eyes, and nodded.

A place of his own, to return to, was worth any danger that came with it.

Flipside

Jin Zixuan didn’t know quite what he was feeling.

It had been happening a lot, this summer.

First there was his (technically) betrothed, who he had been prepared to have to keep at a distance, prepared to find overeager to be connected with the Jin sect and the Jin heir. Except that she didn’t seem to be. She’d smiled in a kind way, when they’d met, and he was fairly sure it was hope he kept seeing in her eyes, but she didn’t pursue him at all. Quite the contrary, she turned away so easily, every time, that he was left feeling maybe she didn’t want this after all.

Well he was hardly going to be the one to pursue her!

Although it was possible Wei Wuxian had just a tiny bit of a point about being more polite to his (technically) betrothed. Not that it was Wei Wuxian’s place to demand any such thing, but there might be a little bit of a point under all the yelling. But by the time Jin Zixuan got done rebuffing the yelling, as he was absolutely within his rights to do, he’d usually lost the moment to consider the point.

It was all very frustrating.

And then there was Meng Yao.

The whispering among the other students had been the first he’d heard that he allegedly had a half-brother at the Lan lectures, and it hadn’t been a pleasant way to find out. He thought he’d contained himself well, had comported himself as his mother and father would, each in their own separate way, wish him to, and dismissed the gossip of lesser sects as beneath his notice. But he hadn’t been able to help actually noticing. All the more when Lan-zongzhu himself had taken Meng Yao under his wing.

Even Jin Zixuan had wondered, just a little, about what Meng Yao could possibly be providing that would interest a man of Lan Xichen’s stature. The memory of thinking that had smarted when it became clearer that Meng Yao was very intelligent.

No, not just intelligent. Perceptive. Sharp. It wasn’t uncommon, at this point, to spot him wandering the Cloud Recesses at Lan Xichen’s side, speaking animatedly about the theoretical and philosophical basis of cultivation.

On the one hand, Jin Zixuan approved. Blood would tell. On the other… even he had trouble following some of that. He wasn’t sure how he felt about the fact, especially on top of Wei Wuxian’s alarming and unorthodox but undeniably fascinating theories, tossed into the middle of lectures like a stone into still water.

The two brightest among the summer students were…

Well, he wasn’t sure how he felt about it.

“Gongzi, the packing is almost done.” Luo Qingyang leaned in the open doors of his rooms, arms crossed. “Are you really not going to speak to Jiang-guniang before we go?”

“Why should I?” he asked, snappish with his own uncertainty and reflecting darkly on the drawbacks of having people around him who were raised to be his retainers, and therefore far too familiar. In every sense of the word.

Demonstrating his point, Luo Qingyang huffed an exasperated sigh. “Because you’re going to be married to her, and that’s not going to be very nice if she thinks you hate her?”

“I don’t hate her,” he muttered, wishing his retinue had been just a little less efficient about packing his things away so he’d have something to fidget with.

“Yes, but have you given her any reason to think you don’t?” she asked with elaborate patience. At his silence, she shook her head and said, more gently, “Just think about it, Gongzi.” As she left, he sighed to himself, very quietly.

This would all be so much easier if he just knew how he felt about it all.

 

2. For those following along at home, Meng Yao’s given name, 瑶, means ‘precious stone’ or ‘jade’—that is, something fine and precious, very much in the sense that the Twin Jades of Lan is used, which makes he and Lan Xichen all kinds of poetically matching. *sprinkles hearts all over them* back