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Becoming the Phoenix – Two

Lan Xichen continues tutoring Meng Yao, who eventually does realize that Lan Xichen is actually interested in him. Eventually. Drama with quite obvious Romance, I-2

Meng Yao hadn’t directly answered, when Lan Xichen had asked him if he enjoyed scholarship, largely because at the time, the answer would have been no. As the summer progressed, though, he thought his answer was changing. Or more precisely, that he was learning what scholarship actually was. It was nothing like the struggle to make sense of the fragments of truth and fraud his mother had scraped together for him. Day on day passed with no urgent demand on his time, no concern about sustenance or work. Lan Qiren’s classes were strict, but simple. All Meng Yao needed to do was read and remember, to connect stories together into philosophies and theories together into cosmologies. When he found himself halted by a gap in his knowledge, Lan Xichen brought him texts on history and the natural sciences to span the distance, so clearly pleased with the project that Meng Yao found himself spending more then one evening sitting by the river as dusk fell, discussing his thoughts with Lan Xichen more freely than he could have imagined a single month ago.

“Wei-gongzi said it to provoke, certainly,” he said tonight, trailing his fingers through the icy chill of the pool they sat beside and watching the ripples flow away, “but the Nie sect itself chooses to make use of the kind of rage that can become malice, at death, does it not? The entire saber form is grounded in the ferocity of anger against injustice.” It was, after all, one of the reasons he’d chosen Nie to approach, after his disastrous experience with Jin. “Is that not, at the root, the same as what he described?”

“Both of you think deeply on these things. It’s no wonder the answers usually given the juniors are not enough to satisfy you.” Lan Xichen, seated above Meng Yao on one of the taller stones, leaned his elbows on his knees, regarding his clasped hands. “Justice is not a singular or simple thing. Consider that, in rousing the headsman’s victims from their graves to use their resentment to disperse his lingering ghost, one sort of justice would be served. Their resentment might be appeased. But in the process, would we not have endangered any chance they might have had to rest properly, by desecrating their bodies? The members of the Nie sect, especially the Masters of the sect, risk themselves by calling on the fury they do, but they risk only themselves. They do not disturb the path of other spirits. That may be as close to righteousness as can be.”

Meng Yao pursed his lips at that, because he had heard murmurs of at least one Nie ancestral rite that had claimed other lives. Had that been willing? Truly? When he glanced up at Lan Xichen, though, the man was smiling down at him, a little crooked, a little sad. It put such an unexpected twist through his chest to see that sadness that he reached out at once to touch Lan Xichen’s knee, leaning toward him. “I didn’t mean…”

“Shh.” Lan Xichen’s hand covered his gently. “This is the realm of mortals. None of us is perfect. All we can do is strive toward greater understanding.” His smile warmed. “As you do.”

The sweet security of Lan Xichen’s regard wrapped around him like a blanket on a cold night, and he relaxed into it as he was finding it increasingly easier to do. A little alarmingly so, to be honest.

It wasn’t that the whispers had stopped. They’d merely been swept a little deeper into the dark corners. They’d even taken a turn for the vicious, for a little while. Soon after he started bringing his questions to Lan Xichen, he’d heard at least one remark about taking after his mother.

Unfortunately for the Chang disciple who’d spoken, he’d been injudicious enough to say it where Lan Wangji could hear. Lan Wangji had turned such an icy glare on the Chang disciple that Meng Yao had honestly thought the boy might piss himself in fear. While he knew it had been entirely due to the slur on Lan Xichen, and no favor to him, he’d still treasured up the memory of the Chang boy’s expression, storing it away in his heart next to the face Jin Zixuan had made the day he’d answered incorrectly that a spirit of rage could only be appeased with blood. Lan Qiren had called on Meng Yao to answer correctly that rage-filled spirits could also be soothed, if one could learn enough of the spirit’s past to find something meaningful to them—a beloved song or the memory of a cherished person. Meng Yao treasured the look the entire Jin contingent had worn, really, but Jin Zixuan’s especially.

So it wasn’t that the infuriating whispers had stopped. It was just so much easier to ignore them when Lan Xichen smiled at him.

Meng Yao always looked for isolated places, when he wanted to practice the sword. He had no form, to speak of; he’d started far too late and had far too piecemeal instruction for his form to be very coherent. It was one of the things most persistently pointed to when cultivators wished for a pretext besides his birth to denigrate him, so he tried not to provide more opportunities than he could help.

It was also why he started so violently when he heard someone behind him, in the grove he’d found far off the regular paths of Cloud Recesses, balance wobbling as he tried to retrieve his sword and turn at the same time.

“Easy!” Strong hands caught his elbows and set him back upright, and he looked up into Lan Xichen’s concerned gaze. “My apologies; I didn’t mean to startle you.”

Meng Yao flushed hot and looked down at his toes. “No, I should have been paying more attention.” There was quiet for a moment, and threads of old tension wound up his back.

“Meng Yao.” His head shot up, eyes wide at the outright coaxing in Lan Xichen’s voice. Lan Xichen slid his hands up to rest on Meng Yao’s shoulders. “Surely you don’t think I would mock you?”

“No, no of course not.” His tension started to ease under Lan Xichen’s hands, soothed away by the memory of the respect Lan Xichen had always offered him.

And then Lan Xichen smiled, the smile that meant someone had, of their own will, walked to exactly where he wanted them. “Then will you favor me with the opportunity to guide this practice of yours?”

Meng Yao sighed, rueful; yes, he had walked into that. His nerves, still taut from years of denials, protested the thought, but if those memories ran deeper, the memories of Lan Xichen’s gentle encouragement this summer were closer and brighter. “If you truly think it won’t be a waste of time,” he said, low. “I know I started the sword too late to ever truly master it.”

Lan Xichen’s brows rose, and for once he looked every bit the Master of Lan. “And who told you that? I assure you, they were mistaken.”

Meng Yao’s hands clasped on each other, tight with the sudden leap of hope. “You… you really think so?”

Lan Xichen smiled. “I know so. Come here.” He led Meng Yao back to the center of the clearing and stood close behind him, hands on his shoulders. “Start with your breath. Breathe in, and feel your body and qi gather like a drawn bow. Breathe out, and feel the release of force.”

Automatically following the quiet instructions, Meng Yao breathed deep, and indeed he felt a compression through his chest and spine. Letting the breath go, listening to Lan Xichen describe what should be, he felt the little surge running like a ripple through his whole body. It did feel like release, and that image of a bow caught in his mind. “Oh.” His eyes widened. “That’s why those manuals said to move on the exhale. To ride that release and use the greatest potential moment of strength and motion.”

“Precisely.” Lan Xichen’s hands squeezed his shoulders gently. “Step with me, so you can feel it. Foot forward on the exhale. Shift through the center on the inhale, lightly, yes like that, gathering. And focus it all forward on the exhale.”

It was so easy, with Lan Xichen’s voice in his ear, with the perfectly balanced shift of his body at Meng Yao’s back to guide him, and for the first time he flowed through a step, just like the most frustrating manuals had described (though never well enough to replicate).

“Excellent.” Lan Xichen sounded downright smug, and Meng Yao craned his head back to look up at him with a laugh. Lan Xichen’s smile was just as pleased with himself as it had sounded, but Meng Yao dared to think some of that satisfaction was for him, too.

“Can you show me one more time, please?” he asked, a bit shy with the residual awareness that Lan Xichen was more or less embracing him, but above all eager with the bright sense of understanding almost in his grasp.

“As often as you need,” Lan Xichen promised, hands settling lightly on Meng Yao’s hips. “Come back to neutral stance to start. Try not bending your knees quite so deeply, this time, just enough to feel loose. Listen to what your body says is enough.”

Meng Yao listened intently, moving with the light touches until he settled into a kind of openness, in muscle and bone and qi, that he’d never felt before. It might have alarmed him, without the steady reassurance of Lan Xichen at his back, just as relaxed.

With that presence, that steady support, for once he didn’t feel afraid of anything.

At first, Meng Yao was too caught up in his discussion with Lan Xichen to realize that they were walking through one of the larger, and therefore more public, courtyards.

“…I didn’t have the context to see it, when Huaisang first mentioned, but now I think he truly does have a deep intuitive sense of how the celestial cycles can be used to heighten even the smallest action.” He looked up at Lan Xichen, pacing slowly beside him, and happiness fluttered up in his chest at the quiet interest in the tilt of Lan Xichen’s head toward him. “I suppose I can understand why most cultivators don’t rely much on those things in the field. You can’t count on being able to pick the most advantageous direction for attack or for binding, and those who haven’t made a deep study of astronomy probably wouldn’t be able to modify a trap or talisman on the moment to take best advantage of the season or time of day. But if you have studied it… I just can’t help thinking that Huaisang’s approach to cultivation could be very advantageous.”

A flurry of white at the corner of his eye made him look around and realize they weren’t alone. And that Huaisang had turned from whatever he was laughing over with Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin to stare at Meng Yao, face soft with shock. Meng Yao felt his own face heat; he hadn’t held forth on his developing theories to anyone but Lan Xichen, yet. He dared a quick nod, though, because he did, more and more, think the Nie sect should be valuing Huaisang’s studies.

“Indeed,” Lan Xichen said, quiet but carrying, so gracefully indirect that it made Meng Yao a little breathless just to watch, “without the scholars among us, how should we advance as a society?”

Huaisang promptly hid behind his fan. Meng Yao thought he might be blushing, and smiled up at Lan Xichen, warm and grateful on his charge’s behalf. The answering warmth in Lan Xichen’s eyes nearly made him stumble.

Far more quietly, carrying only between the two of them, Lan Xichen murmured, “Your heart to care for those in your charge is a treasure as well.”

Yet again, Meng Yao felt a tug on the deepest part of his heart, one he’d been feeling more and more sharply all summer—half pleasure that Lan Xichen thought such things of him and half a desire to do more. To truly earn the regard Lan Xichen gave him so generously. He ducked his head, a little flustered by it.

Lan Xichen smiled quietly and rested a hand at the small of his back, guiding him toward the path that led beside one of the less frequented streams. Meng Yao could feel Huaisang smirking from across the courtyard, but couldn’t quite stop his whole body from inclining to Lan Xichen, moving with that gentle touch.

From the knot of Jin disciples on the other side of the courtyard came a faint sniff and mutter of, “Such a suck up.”

If Meng Yao hadn’t still had Huaisang in the corner of his eye, mildly alert for any teasing, he’d never have seen the split second narrowing of Huaisang’s eyes or the tiny, sharp gesture mostly hidden in his sleeve. Even so, he was nearly as startled as everyone else by the abrupt yelp and splash as one of the Jin disciples tripped over nothing and fell flat in the stream.

The water flowed along the north side of this courtyard, Meng Yao’s recent studies prompted him to note, in just the conjunction of element and direction that might make even the smallest and most fleeting talisman of freezing stick a foot very firmly motionless.

Huaisang fanned himself languidly, looking on with perfect innocence as the other disciple hauled himself out of the water, sputtering. The two Jiang disciples smirked behind him, Wei Wuxian with an elbow propped on Huaisang’s shoulder and a sidelong look that suggested he might have caught it, too. Meng Yao ducked his head, fighting not to laugh. If nothing else, this summer had convinced him that Huaisang did have the Nie clan temper, in his own form.

Lan Xichen graciously pretended not to notice the Jin disciple’s disarray, nodding a perfectly kind and composed greeting as he led Meng Yao out of the courtyard. Meng Yao composed himself likewise and passed by with lowered eyes and quiet reserve, mood considerably bolstered by a little inward glow over Huaisang’s sharp defense.

“It’s good to see that your care is returned,” Lan Xichen murmured as they passed under the dappled shade of the tall, straight trees, “but I trust Huaisang won’t be tempted to make too much trouble.”

“I’ll speak with him,” Meng Yao promised, even though it would almost certainly mean another round of gleeful teasing.

Anything he could to do keep matters as Lan Xichen liked them, he thought he probably would.

Meng Yao sat on one of the flat boulders beside the waterfall with his arms around his knees, breathing carefully, steadily, trying to control the dragon of rage and hurt that twisted through his chest.

Today had not been a good day.

He’d noticed, last night, that his notes had been moved, but he’d only thought that Huaisang might have been looking for the good ink brushes. This was Cloud Recesses, where order was strictly kept. He hadn’t really thought that it might have been one of the other summer students snooping until the morning lecture, when Chang Yun (again!) had answered Lan Qiren’s question about techniques that might allow use of a sword against a possessing spirit without killing the victim. It had been, word for word, Meng Yao’s own description of qi extension along the blade’s edge that Lan Xichen had taught him a few days ago. Lan Qiren had looked approving, and Meng Yao had felt such rage sweep through him that he was almost surprised none of his papers had caught fire from it.

His only consolation had been that Chang Yun hadn’t been able to answer any following questions, and that when Lan Qiren, now looking a bit disappointed and not particularly hopeful, had asked the rest of them if anyone could expand on Chang Yun’s insight, Meng Yao had been able to add that the technique was both limited by the cultivator’s breath control and also strengthened by familiarity with the victim. If the victim’s qi was known to the cultivator’s, then the possessing spirit would be easier to perceive and target.

But the whole thing had thrown him straight back to his troubles in the Unclean Realm and—

“Meng Yao?”

Meng Yao started violently, yanked out of his thoughts, and it was only Lan Xichen’s quick hand under his arm that kept him out of the river. Lan Xichen swiftly settled beside him in a billow of blue robes, frowning. “Meng Yao, what’s wrong? Has something happened?”

“I…” His teeth locked on his own words, hurt and fear fresh and sharp in his heart. Would he even be believed? How could he argue against everyone’s certainty that the son of a prostitute could not possibly be as accomplished, intelligent, worthy as the children of who had been born to the cultivation world?

An arm curved around his shoulders. “Won’t you tell me?” Lan Xichen coaxed.

Perhaps it was simply the unaccustomed comfort of the arm around him, but Meng Yao felt like something in him snapped, and the whole story rushed out of him in a flood—the certainty that Chang Yun had snooped in his notes to steal his ideas, the multiple times the Nie field commander had done the same, first by as-if-friendly conversations and later by outright eavesdropping, presenting Meng Yao’s ideas about patrol patterns through Qinghe or even budget plans as his own, raising himself in Nie-zongzhu’s estimation, and always, always trying to grind Meng Yao back into obscurity, into the brutality of the world he’d tried so hard to leave, only to find the same brutality here, dressed in finer clothes. He was shaking by the end of it, fingers wound into the fabric over his knees, whole body drawn in on himself, voice gone hoarse. “Sometimes, I just want to…” He cut himself off again, wincing with the twist of his heart, because he wanted so much for Lan Xichen to think well of him, but it was still the truth. He did find himself wishing for just a little time alone with those people, just him and them and a knife.

The arm around him tightened a little. “You are better than that,” Lan Xichen said, quiet and sure. His absolute certainty knocked the breath out of Meng Yao’s lungs, and when he pulled in another it shook, but it went all the way down. Slowly, he straightened enough to look up at Lan Xichen.

“Am I?” he asked, and felt that he needed to ask, because he hardly knew any longer, not when Lan Xichen’s eyes were on him.

They were dark and steady, now, and Lan Xichen lifted a hand to cup Meng Yao’s cheek. “You are,” he said, so firmly that it left room for nothing else.

Meng Yao swayed into his hand, shaken down to the core of him and yet not able to deny it. Not when Lan Xichen said it, and he knew in his heart that he would do as Lan Xichen wished. “I…” he swallowed hard. “All right.”

Lan Xichen’s smile was so warm. “That being so, will you allow me to speak to Mingjue-xiong about this?”

“I… But…” Meng Yao shook his head in protest. “There’s no proof!”

“Perhaps I will bring you some jurisprudence to read next.” Lan Xichen stroked a thumb along his cheek. “Uncle thought there was something odd, you know, about Chang Yun not being able to answer any deeper questions about what he said was a technique he’d thought of on his own.”

Meng Yao couldn’t do more than blink at him, stunned, and Lan Xichen shook his head, smile turning wry.

“Actions and thoughts leave marks of themselves behind, always. If I bring you to see Uncle, and he examines you on that sword technique, won’t you be able to answer all the questions that Chang Yun could not, and more? And if Mingjue-xiong asks his field commander about how he came to think of those patrol patterns, will he not be caught just as foolishly short?”

Meng Yao chewed on his lip. It sounded reasonable, yes, but he was still what he was and… his breath caught as Lan Xichen’s thumb stroked over his lip, this time, coaxing it loose from his teeth.

“A-Yao,” Lan Xichen said, softly, “will you let me speak to them?”

“I… that is… of course.” He hardly knew what he was saying, too stunned by the sudden understanding that Lan Xichen hadn’t just been enjoying someone to teach, all this summer. He’d been courting Meng Yao.

Lan Xichen. One of the Twin Jades of Lan.

Had been courting Meng Yao.

“Thank you.” Lan Xichen’s smile had turned more intent, and far more personal. “As I have not yet the right to be first to take action on your behalf… I will speak with them.”

Tingling warmth rushed through Meng Yao from head to toe at the thought that Lan Xichen intended to claim that right, and he had to wet his lips before he could speak. “Then I will rely on you,” he said, husky, and dared to add, “Xichen-xiong.”

Lan Xichen’s smile widened, and he leaned in to kiss Meng Yao once, gentle and restrained, so clearly restrained that anticipation curled, tight and heated, low in Meng Yao’s stomach. “That would please me very much,” Lan Xichen murmured against Meng Yao’s lips.

Meng Yao leaned into him, thoroughly breathless and deliberately pliant, and a little thrill ran through him as Lan Xichen’s arm tightened around him in response. He felt a little like he was falling, so many things he’d thought would be necessary, so many things he’d once planned, slipping out of his open hands and unraveling in the sweet rush of this new thing.

Or possibly not so new, and he ducked his head against Xichen’s shoulder, face heating as he thought back over all the moments of attention, of courtship, that were so obvious in retrospect.

“When you’re ready,” Xichen said softly, against his hair. “I will wait.”

That gentle courtesy, the unfailing respect that Xichen had offered him from the start, anchored so deeply in his heart that it made him shiver and press closer. “Thank you, Xichen-xiong.” He didn’t think it would take him long at all, to be ready, but there were some things he should finish for the Nie sect. That was for later, though.

For now, he curled deeper into the circle of Xichen’s arm and let himself rest there.


Whenever they were both in the Cloud Recesses, Wangji’s brother tried to make time for them to eat together. Wangji liked those meals, liked the feeling of having his brother all to himself for a little while instead of needing to share him with the entire sect. He tried hard to not be selfish about it, but he still liked these little times when it was just the two of them.

Tonight, though, his brother seemed to be thinking of something else, smiling at nothing as he divided the last of the dumplings between them. The dumplings were tasty, but not enough to warrant that kind of expression. “Xiongzhang,” Wangji asked, hesitantly, “are you…” He trailed off, unsure quite what words he wanted to put to this.

His brother looked up to meet his eyes, and his smile immediately softened into the one Wangji recognized as his, the one that was just for him. “I’m sorry, Wangji. I’ve probably been a bit distracted, lately, haven’t I?”

Wangji looked down, not wanting to be disrespectful and say so, but agreeing nevertheless. His brother reached over to lay his hand over Wangji’s, and the formless anxiety wrapping itself around his spine eased a little. Their hands were so similar; he liked remembering that.

“You’ve probably noticed that I’ve been interested in Meng-gongzi.”

Wangji didn’t think he twitched, but his brother’s hand tightened on his anyway.

“I meant to speak of this, once I was sure enough.” His brother smiled. “Perhaps I am, now. I wish Meng Yao for my cultivation partner.”

Anxiety surged up again, laced with echoes of empty rooms and his uncle’s voice turning harsh. “Someone outside the sect?” he asked, trying to be calm.

“No one from within the sect has moved my heart,” his brother said, simply, as if it were truly that easy, as if duty and discretion had no part in the decision. His brother smiled for him, warm and gentle. “The heart is not always wise, perhaps, but we ignore it at our peril. The heart drives us, Wangji, acknowledged or not.”

“But—” Wangji bit off his protest and lowered his eyes.

His brother’s hand stayed wrapped over his, steady and sure. “Tell me, Wangji. I don’t wish to wound your heart in this, either.”

He drew a breath and spoke to his bowl. “Should the heart be let to drive who stands beside the Master of Lan?”

“I think it must, yes.” He looked up, more than a little startled by the quiet certainty in his brother’s voice. “If I cannot trust my partner with my own heart, how can I possibly trust them with my sect?”

Wangji blinked, feeling like his brother had tipped the world sideways. He hadn’t thought of this as a matter of trust, before. And then his brother’s smile took on the teasing quirk he’d started to dread the appearance of, this summer.

“If you relied only on the rules to judge Wei-gongzi, I doubt you would ever trust him. And yet, does your heart not tell you that he can be trusted?”

Wangji tried not to glower, but his brother was making it very difficult. “Xiongzhang.”

His brother patted his hand, obviously laughing behind that little smile. “Just a thought, Wangji.”

Wangji refrained from snorting with disbelief, and instead took a pointed bite of the last dumpling.

And very definitely did not think about what his heart told him of Wei Wuxian.

Last Modified: Jun 26, 20
Posted: Jun 26, 20
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