Becoming the Phoenix – Nine

Lan Xichen agrees to bear his (grounded) brother’s invitation to Wei Wuxian. In the course of this, he and Meng Yao figure out at least some of what happened to Wei Wuxian. Drama, also a dash of Porn, I-3


At the sound of Wangji’s voice, Meng Yao looked up from his writing table at one side of the sect master’s receiving room (which he still, months later, had to remind himself was now his receiving room as well). The columns of figures that told of the Lan sect’s once more increasing solvency—thanks in part to the very material gratitude of a handful of ex-Lanling merchants—were very pleasing, but Wangji was a rare visitor to his brother’s rooms. Xichen, at his own table, was giving his brother a welcoming smile. Wangji hesitated on noticing Meng Yao, but finally came all the way in.

“Xiaoxiong,” he added, nodding to Meng Yao, and turned promptly back to Xichen. “I would like to send an… invitation.”

Meng Yao didn’t even need the hesitation over the right term to know who this was about, though he did very privately think that ‘demand’ or possibly ‘kidnapping’ might be closer to what Wangji actually wanted to do. He had not been taking well to the slow pace of Wei Wuxian’s recovery, in Wen Qing’s hands, nor to his own restriction to the Cloud Recesses after his first visit to Lotus Pier had managed to last over two weeks.

“An invitation to Wei-gongzi?” Xichen asked, looking both indulgent and cautious. “We can ask, of course, though from what you described of Lotus Pier after your visit, they all seem quite busy with rebuilding.”

“I would still offer,” Wangji said, low, looking down in a way that Meng Yao was learning to read as stubbornness.

“All right,” Xichen said softly, and gave Wangji an encouraging smile when he looked up. “I’ll take him your invitation.”

Wangji gave him a tiny, relieved smile and left with a lighter step.

Meng Yao looked after him thoughtfully. “Why is your uncle so very set against Wei-gongzi? His method of cultivation during Sunshot was unorthodox, certainly, but if this is simply about pride in the orthodox method I would have expected him to encourage Wangji’s efforts to purify Wei-gongzi’s qi. Instead, he practically tears Wangji away at every opportunity.”

Xichen sighed. “It’s a bit of a long story.” When Meng Yao only raised his brows, expectant, his mouth quirked and he laid aside the accounts he was reading. “All right.” He stood and came to offer his hands to draw Meng Yao to his feet as well, leading the way into their sitting room. Meng Yao waited patiently while Xichen made tea and poured for them both.

“Partly, it’s simply that Wei Wuxian is the son of Cangse-sanren, and she always gave very short shrift to Uncle’s sense of propriety.” A corner of Xichen’s mouth tilted up as he contemplated the cup between his fingers. “Wei-gongzi seems to be truly the child of his mother’s spirit, from what I’ve heard of her. Very intent on the good of those around him, but with a far… broader concept of acceptable tactics to make that happen than Uncle is comfortable with.”

Meng Yao sipped his tea slowly, savoring the depth of the leaves’ virtue as he considered. “That isn’t all, though.” Distaste for a wild and disorderly manner would not, he thought, drive the utter inflexibility he’d seen Lan Qiren show Wangji, on this matter.

“No,” Xichen said softly. “It isn’t.” He took a slow breath and reached over to lay his hand on Meng Yao’s. Meng Yao turned his hand up to lace their fingers together and watched the way Xichen’s shoulders relaxed.

“Your mother,” he guessed. He’d heard nothing about her, in his time here. Not a word about the last sect master’s partner. So much silence surrounded her that it had drawn his attention.

Xichen looked up at him with a painfully tilted smile. “You see through these things so easily, my heart. I… can’t even say that I know that much with certainty. She died when Wangji and I were still very young. What I remember was that we were only allowed to see her once a month. That she lived apart from our father, though in seclusion just as he was. I remember that she never spoke to us about cultivation, about our studies or her own.”

“She was… imprisoned here?” Meng Yao asked, carefully. Because Xichen hadn’t said that, but it was hard to read what he had said in any other way.

Xichen nodded, looking down at the cup he was slowly turning in circles rather than drinking from. “She killed our father’s teacher. Rather than allow any of the clan to seek retribution, he decreed seclusion for them both.”

Meng Yao frowned. “How did she come to kill his teacher?”

“I don’t know.” Xichen looked up at his faint sound of disbelief, smiling wryly. “Some of the things Uncle has said make me think her primary method of cultivation lay in music. I do remember that she had many instruments in her rooms, and she could play all of them. So she may have come to Gusu in the first place as a scholar of musical methodology. There might have been a disagreement over the proper path of cultivation; there might even have been a formal duel. But I don’t know. Uncle has always refused to speak on the subject, and it isn’t recorded in any of the sect chronicles.”

“And now he sees Wangji falling in love with a man who also follows an alternate method of cultivation?” Meng Yao hadn’t thought Lan Qiren was quite that dogmatic, but he might have misjudged the strength of the man’s feelings.

“More than that,” Xichen said quietly. “The consensus of those who were there is that my father fell in love with her when they first met, but that she did not love him. When they first met, I thought Wei Wuxian was drawn to Wangji—at least as much as Wangji was to him. But since the campaign, it’s seemed different. I believe Uncle sees Wangji pursuing someone who does not love him, pursuing someone of unorthodox cultivation and trying to aid him, and remembers what our parents came to: separated and isolated, a source of grief to the clan.”

Meng Yao snorted, which at least made Xichen blink and look up, startled out of his melancholy. “At whose side did Wei Wuxian spend every engagement he fought in? Who did he protect, as fiercely as he protected his brother, during those battles? Who is the only person he accepted aid and healing of, at least until Wen Qing almost literally pinned him to his bed?”

Xichen’s expression had lightened as he spoke. “I suppose that would be Wangji, wouldn’t it?” Meng Yao looked pointedly at Xichen’s cup until Xichen smiled and took a sip.

“I won’t say that his time in the Burial Mounds, or wherever he was, didn’t strip Wei-gongzi’s concern for others down to bedrock,” Meng Yao allowed, remembering the starkness of the deal he and Wei Wuxian had made. “At the very first, perhaps it truly was only his brother and sister he could care for. But he re-learned quickly, from what I saw.” He tightened his hold on Xichen’s hand, still clasped with his. “If you trust in the clarity of my sight, trust in that.” More softly, still a little shy to say it out loud, he added, “Wangji is my own family, now. I would not abide a threat to him.”

Xichen reached out and gathered Meng Yao into his arms. “Thank you, my heart.” He hesitated and added, “Would you come with me, to speak to Wei-gongzi? I would value your insight.”

Meng Yao snuggled into his chest, warmed straight through by the knowledge of Xichen’s trust in him. “Of course.”

This was Meng Yao’s first visit to Lotus Pier, and he had no memory of what it had been like in the past to compare to, but he still thought the air of urgency about the place was probably new. Lotus Pier’s very construction contrasted that air, open and gracious, as free-flowing as the river it overlooked. That matched well with what he knew, second hand, of the previous sect master.

He had to wonder, watching Jiang Wanyin bark corrections as he stalked among the disciples drilling in their sword forms in the first courtyard, how at home in this place the current sect master really felt.

Xichen thanked the very junior disciple who had guided them, and smiled after the boy as he went skipping easily through his seniors to tug on Jiang Wanyin’s sleeve. “I’m glad some of the sect’s children escaped the slaughter,” Xichen said softly.

“I’ve heard that the merchants who favor the Jiang sect’s own pier for selling at took many of them and hid them, when the attack came,” Meng Yao murmured, “though no one survived who knows who first ordered them away.”

“Yunmeng Jiang has always attracted great talent to themselves,” Xichen said, just loud enough for the approaching Jiang Wanyin to hear. The young sect master’s rather hard expression softened into a pleased smile, and Meng Yao had to marvel all over again at how effortlessly Xichen could gentle any situation.

“You are kind to say so, Lan-zongzhu,” Jiang Wanyin said, exchanging bows with them. As he led them inward, Meng Yao kept a running count of people in his head, brows rising as it ticked higher.

“The speed at which Jiang is rebuilding is impressive,” he remarked once they were settled, not in the Jiang formal receiving room, but in a pavilion beside a large lotus pool, a gesture of friendship that had set Xichen smiling. “Of course, I would expect nothing else of an undertaking Jiang-guniang has set her hand to.”

Tightness flickered across Jiang Wanyin’s face, catching Meng Yao’s attention before Jiang Wanyin managed to smooth it away. “My sister has been a great help. I can only be thankful that she’s chosen to remain with us and aid this work.”

Xichen smiled. “And your brother as well, I’m sure, though I hope you will be willing to release him for just a little while.”

The tightness descended much more firmly this time, long enough for Meng Yao to identify it as anger. “Wei Wuxian spends much of his time with the Wen survivors under our protection.” The flat tone also said that this did not please Jiang Wanyin at all. Because of the tiny branch of Wen themselves? If anyone had a right to resent the whole clan, it was Yunmeng Jiang, but this lot were both non-combatants and also the people of Wen Qing, the one Wen who Jiang Wanyin was beholden to—possibly even had feelings for, if he’d been going around exchanging tokens with her. Was it because he felt Wei Wuxian wasn’t doing enough with the rest of the sect? Or perhaps because Wei Wuxian couldn’t yet do more, due to whatever stubborn injury Wen Qing had already spent over four months working on? Meng Yao could believe that; he’d had a nightmare or two about just what kind of wound Wei Wuxian might have received in the Burial Mounds that a physician of Wen Qing’s stature found such slow going to mend.

“Then perhaps this is a good time for our invitation, after all,” he essayed, hoping to find out whether he was right. “Some uninterrupted time in Wen Qing’s care could return him to you in better condition for more vigorous tasks.”

Yes, this time he thought he saw a flicker of hope tangled up with the anger. “That would be… desirable.” Jiang Wanyin’s hands eased and spread open against his knees again, slowly, as if he had to make them. Meng Yao recalled some of the things he’d heard about Yu Ziyuan and wondered if perhaps Jiang Wanyin had inherited her temper. That would not be an easy burden for a leader to bear. “Is it an invitation to the Cloud Recesses you bring, then?”

Xichen nodded, his whole bearing open and unpressing. “With your permission, yes.”

Jiang Wanyin let his breath out slowly, eyes distant for a long moment before he nodded decisively. “You have it.” When his mouth twisted, this time, it was more wry than angry. “If he’ll go.”

Xichen laughed under his breath. “Perhaps I shall say first that it’s Wangji’s invitation, and not mention Wen-guniang.”

Jiang Wanyin’s snort was clearly agreement. He led them back through the walkways until they came across another junior disciple, who was drafted to guide them. The girl perked up at the prospect, only to wilt when Jiang Wanyin said sternly, “And then back here. No playing with Wen Yuan until you’re done with practice.”

“Yes, Zongzhu,” she sighed, which made Jiang Wanyin roll his eyes and stalk off muttering under his breath.

“Thank you for guiding us,” Xichen told her, straight-faced, though it had taken him a minute to regain his composure.

She gave them a sunny smile. “Of course, Lan-zongzhu! Are you here to see Wen-xiong’s clan? Or to see Da-shixiong?”

She chatted happily about what sounded like a new settlement the Wen survivors were making at one inland corner of the Jiang lands, all the way out of the compound and across fields where marsh-grasses gave way to meadows and increasingly large groves of slim tree-trunks. When they emerged at last, past a line of willow trees, Meng Yao saw the beginnings, not of the auxiliary compound he’d been half expecting, but a small village. A handful of little houses were already raised, and the foundations of a few more laid. Two small fields were cleared out of the wild meadow around them, though he couldn’t for the life of him guess what the people in them were growing; he’d grown up as a city boy, before his entry into the cultivation world.

“Da-shixiong!” Their guide yelled, waving enthusiastically. To Meng Yao’s startlement, one of the people working in the fields straightened up and waved back.

Xichen folded his hands in his sleeves and watched as the First Disciple of Jiang, dirt smeared and with his sleeves rolled up, strolled through the tall grass to greet them. “Wei-gongzi. I hadn’t thought Wen-guniang’s restrictions on your cultivation activities were quite this comprehensive.” To Meng Yao’s ear, Xichen was both teasing and also truly disturbed.

Wei Wuxian smiled, and Meng Yao noted with a bit of alarm just how little of it reached his eyes. “It’s work that needs doing.”

Meng Yao drifted a step forward and in front of Xichen, with a surface smile of his own. “I beg your pardon for interrupting, then. Do you have time to speak now, or should we return later?”

Wei Wuxian stilled, looking hard at him, and then huffed out a breath, arms unfolding loosely. “Do you think I forgot our deal?” he demanded, far more genuinely exasperated, now, and Meng Yao relaxed in turn.

“Forgive me.” He offered a brief bow. “I wasn’t sure you would still consider it in force.”

“A-Yao?” When Meng Yao glanced up, his husband was looking down at him with both brows raised. He ducked his head a little, looking aside from those questioning eyes.

“Just a little… personal agreement,” he murmured, and heard Xichen sigh. The hand that came to rest on his shoulder was gentle, though, and he relaxed under it, knowing Xichen wouldn’t press.

A snort of laughter made him look up to see Wei Wuxian watching them with a crooked, rueful smile. “Come have a drink, then,” he said, and turned to lead them toward the largest of the completed houses. Inside, Wen Ning looked up with a bright smile from the pile of herbs he was carefully sorting.

“Wei-gongzi, are you done with the yellow hemp seedlings already?” He got considerably more flustered when he saw the two of them behind Wei Wuxian, and stood hastily, brushing away stems and dead leaves from the table. “Lan-zongzhu! And, um, Meng-gongzi? Won’t you please sit down?” He bustled over to the cabinets and took down a set of simple black cups and started to pour for everyone before hesitating. “Ah, I’m sorry; the Lan sect doesn’t drink wine, do you?”

Xichen smiled up at him, easy and reassuring. “It’s quite all right, Wen-gongzi. I’m grateful for your hospitality.” There was a sparkle of mischief in his eyes, as he lifted his cup in a courteous toast to his hosts, a sparkle Meng Yao recognized from nights when Xichen decided to surprise him. He buried his smirk in his own cup.

Wei Wuxian’s eyes widened as Xichen drained his cup and took another deep sip as soon as it was refilled. “Zewu-jun, you have a remarkable alcohol tolerance, considering Lan Zhan’s.” A ghost of the jesting Meng Yao remembered somewhat from the summer lectures they’d both attended played around Wei Wuxian’s smile. “Don’t tell me that you’re like me—sneaking alcohol into the Cloud Recesses?” No sooner had he said it, though, then he seemed to catch himself back, that dark distance shuttering his eyes again. “Excuse me. That was… inappropriate.”

Meng Yao paused halfway through his own swallow, shocked. He’d never heard Wei Wuxian speak so hesitantly, not before Sunshot and not during it.

“Not at all.” Xichen’s smile was as gentle as it had been when he spoke to the Jiang sect children. “I’m actually using my Golden Core to cleanse the effect of the alcohol immediately. Essentially, I’m drinking fruit juice.”

Wei Wuxian relaxed again, at least somewhat. Now Meng Yao was looking for it, he could see the persistent stiffness in how Wei Wuxian held himself, as if to keep from pulling at some deep scar. Wei Wuxian laughed softly, though, and even shook a finger at Xichen in mock scolding. “Truly astonishing, that Lan-zongzhu himself gets around the rules this way.”

Xichen set his cup down and folded his hands. “To be truthful,” he said quietly, “it was my hope that your friendship could help Wangji think more about which rules are truly important and which should should be minded in spirit rather than in precise word. I believe that has been the case, and I’m glad for it.” His voice was soft, almost coaxing. “Is it only my imagination that leads me to think Wangji’s friendship has also brought you some ease?”

Wei Wuxian leaned back from the table, fully present again and also starting to look flustered. “I… Zewu-jun, what do you you…” His gaze flickered toward Meng Yao, wide and questioning. Meng Yao only shrugged. He suspected Wei Wuxian had been braced for quizzing by a disapproving relative; given Lan Qiren’s behavior, Meng Yao couldn’t blame him. He was fairly sure, though, that Wei Wuxian’s unusual hesitance had actually set off Xichen’s urge to guide and protect, and he could testify from experience that when that happened, you were well advised to not fight it. “Yes?” Wei Wuxian finally said, as if he thought he might be getting himself into trouble by saying it.

Xichen’s smile had a satisfied curl to it, and Meng Yao couldn’t help being amused by how clearly Xichen favored that match, despite his worries. “I’m glad his regard for you is returned. Wangji has asked leave to invite you to stay for some time in the Cloud Recesses, since he is not currently permitted to journey to you. We would be pleased to have you.”

“There’s a great deal that needs to be done, here,” Wei Wuxian protested, though his eyes slid aside as he did. Meng Yao was starting to worry about the shape he was seeing in the things Wei Wuxian avoided, and that Jiang Wanyin was upset over.

“You should go.”

All three of them started a little and looked around to find Wen Ning watching Wei Wuxian with a serious look.

“Well, but then who’s going to look after all of you?” Wei Wuxian demanded, clearly teasing but with enough genuine protectiveness at the edges of his voice that Meng Yao would not have wished to cross him about it.

“I can look after our work, here, and Jiang-guniang will make sure we’re all right,” Wen Ning said earnestly. “Wei-gongzi. You should go.”

Meng Yao noted that Wen Ning probably knew what was wrong with Wei Wuxian. And, as Wei Wuxian chewed on his lip but finally nodded, slowly, that genuine concern for him seemed to be the weak point in Wei Wuxian’s general intransigence.

No wonder Wangji could get to him.

He also noted, as Wei Wuxian said temporary goodbyes all around, that he was clearly both liked and trusted by this little surviving branch of the Wen clan. When Meng Yao thought about just how much nonsense Wei Wuxian had had to put up with from the other sects, during Sunshot, even with Meng Yao managing the situation to keep everyone pointed in the same direction, he figured he had another piece to the puzzle of why the brilliant First Disciple of Jiang was hiding away here and planting medicinal herbs, regardless of how little his brother liked it.

“Wangji will be pleased to see you,” Xichen remarked as the three of them retraced the path through groves and fields to Lotus Pier proper.

“Seems like the Cloud Recesses is full of people who want to fix me, these days.” It wasn’t an entirely friendly comment.

Xichen gave Wei Wuxian a troubled glance, brows drawing in. “Do you not—”

Meng Yao caught as casually as he could at Xichen’s wrist and squeezed, hidden by their flowing sleeves. When Xichen fell silent he said, quickly enough to cover that silence, “Would you not like to have Suibian’s company again? Even when I’m working with Zaisheng, I find I like to have Hensheng near.” He smiled sidelong at Wei Wuxian, inviting him into the circle of people who had to deal with more than one spiritual tool. “Or is your Chenqing jealous?”

“I don’t know.”

Meng Yao stiffened at the alarming implications of a cultivator uncertain of his own weapon, but Wei Wuxian shrugged as if he could shake them off. “I’m sure Shijie’s seen that you have rooms ready. I’ll see you tomorrow.” The moment they set foot over the doorsill of Lotus Pier, he veered off, taking a long drink from the jar of wine that hadn’t left his hand except to be exchanged for another, all afternoon.

Meng Yao clung to Xichen’s sleeve, trying to breathe evenly, until Xichen wrapped an arm gently around him. “Let us find someone to guide us, hm?” he murmured, and Meng Yao nodded silently. He didn’t speak until they were settled in guest rooms, and Xichen took both his hands, peering at him with concern.

“A-Yao? What is it?”

He stepped closer, burrowing into Xichen’s chest until he was gathered in and tucked safe under Xichen’s chin. “He isn’t doing the things his brother thinks he should,” he whispered. “He doesn’t think he can do them. He can’t connect with his own spiritual tools. Months of treatments from Wen Qing, and he still can’t. Xichen, I think,” he swallowed hard, “I think he’s lost his spiritual strength. Almost all of it.”

He felt the shock of the thought run through Xichen. “But,” Xichen protested, voice as low as his, “all through the Sunshot campaign, all the things he did…”

“Without his sword,” Meng Yao said, low, increasingly sure he was right. “By music. By talisman. By the Yin Tiger Seal, and he collapsed for days after using that at strength.”

“All of that.” Xichen’s voice was a little wondering. “All of that without his—” Abruptly Xichen pulled in a harsh breath, arms tightening around Meng Yao, and finished, “his Golden Core. It was Wen Chao’s people who attacked Lotus Pier. And one of his retainers was…”

“Wen Zhuliu,” Meng Yao finished in a whisper. “Oh.” And then he frowned. “But then why keep this secret, even when it spurs fear in the other sects?”

“The Yunmeng Jiang sect was almost destroyed,” Xichen said gravely, one hand lifting to stroke Meng Yao’s hair, protective. “Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin himself are the only two of great strength left. I can hardly fault them for wishing to keep this from the other sects until they are recovered.”

That was it. That was what had been nagging at Meng Yao’s thoughts all this time. “I don’t think Jiang Wanyin knows, himself,” he said, slowly. He felt Xichen draw breath and then let it out without speaking.

“Wei Wuxian,” Xichen finally sighed, with a thread of helpless fondness and a great deal of exasperation. Meng Yao had to agree. He leaned back to look up at Xichen.

“I think we need to say nothing of this, until we know why. Wei-gongzi is,” he hesitated, sorting words, and finally said delicately, “not inclined to permit any interference with his family.”

Xichen smiled, dry and one-sided. “I do remember the shadow of all those things Wangji didn’t say in his report on the death of Wen Chao and Wen Zhuliu. I agree.” He pressed a kiss to Meng Yao’s forehead. “Keep your eye on this for us.”

“I always keep my eye on my allies,” Meng Yao promised, leaning into him.

Xichen laughed softly and lifted a hand to take his chin, thumb stroking gently along the curve of his lower lip. “Because you are another who does not brook interference with what’s his?”

Already rather breathless from his touch, Meng Yao blushed hot.

“That was what your ‘little personal arrangement’ with Wei-gongzi was about, was it not?” Xichen leaned down and kissed him before he could quite formulate an answer, and Meng Yao surrendered with a sigh.

“Yes,” he admitted, against Xichen’s mouth.

“I don’t disapprove,” Xichen murmured, kissing him again, gently. “It relieves me to know my heart is such a capable guardian of our own.”

Meng Yao smiled up at him, helplessly bright and happy with how Xichen valued even this part of him, reaching up to link his hands behind Xichen’s neck. “Yes, Xichen-ge.”

Xichen stroked his hair back, fingers sliding through the loose length of it. “Come to bed, my own?”

The heat of being caught by Xichen, of being seen and known, flared up, and Meng Yao leaned more bonelessly into Xichen’s arms. “Yes, ge-ge,” he purred.

Xichen smiled slowly. “Hm.” He led Meng Yao to their sleeping room and began to undress him, so meticulously careful as he unwound each sash, undid each tie, lifted each layer of robes off Meng Yao’s shoulders that Meng Yao was breathless and blushing over the attention before long. When Xichen pressed him gently down to the bed, he realized Xichen was still almost fully clothed, only his sashes laid aside. His eyes widened as that sense of being laid bare to Xichen rushed back, even more visceral.

“Xichen-ge…” Xichen laid a finger against his lips, hushing him.

“Will you let me have all of you?” he asked softly.

There was only one answer to that. “Yes, ge-ge,” Meng Yao agreed, husky.

Xichen gathered him close, kissing him slow and sure as strong, warm hands stroked over his skin. Between kisses, he murmured to Meng Yao, “My dearest. My brilliant one. So fierce and so relentless. As dangerous with words in your mouth as I could ever be with a sword in my hand.”

Meng Yao clung to him, flushed and wide-eyed, feeling as though Xichen’s words were a hand caressing the very heart of him. “Xichen…!”

Xichen slid a hand into his hair, drawing his head back, and kissed down his bared throat. “Never doubt that I love that sharpness and passion in you,” he murmured against Meng Yao’s skin, and Meng Yao arched up against him with the sweet thrill the words sent through him, all the hotter for being caught in Xichen’s hands like this.

“Xichen,” he whispered, fingers wound tight in the soft silk of Xichen’s robes.

“Fear nothing, my heart,” Xichen said softly. “I know your nature, and I love it.”

“Xichen!” It only took feeling long fingers wrap around his cock for all the heat and need built up in him to break loose and rush through him in a flood wave, wild and unstoppable, shaking him apart in Xichen’s arms. Xichen held him close, fingers sliding gently through his hair as Meng Yao’s body and senses slowly quieted, and he lay against Xichen’s chest, a little stunned. Finally he whispered, “Truly?”

Xichen pressed a soft kiss to his forehead. “Truly.” He smiled down at Meng Yao. “You’ve shown more of yourself to me than I think you realize, sometimes.” His hand slid down the bare line of Meng Yao’s back, slow and gentle. “I wanted you to know it.”

Meng Yao couldn’t help laughing, burying his head in Xichen’s shoulder for a long moment. “I love it when you do this,” he admitted, at last. Xichen was so gentle in most things, so deliberately gentle, and yet he had a streak of implacability if pressed. Really, you only had to look at the man’s spiritual weapons to see it: the new moon and the cracked ice. Elegant and fine, yes, but also concealment and danger. Sometimes he didn’t know why more people didn’t notice.

But that was why they fit so well.

He snuggled down into Xichen’s arms and the drift of Xichen’s robes around them both, content to be known down to his heart by this man.

When the three of them took their leave, late the next morning, Meng Yao was interested to note that, at some point in the intervening time, Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin seemed to have somewhat reconciled. They were standing close again, the almost constant touching that he remembered from before the campaign making an appearance again as Wei Wuxian admonished his brother to be good, and not to frown so much his face stuck that way, and to not make any of the senior disciples cry, at which point Jiang Wanyin lost his fresh sect master’s gravity and whacked Wei Wuxian in the arm. That seemed to be what Wei Wuxian’s goal was, from the way he grinned.

Even Meng Yao couldn’t tell how much of it was an act, which honestly impressed him.

Jiang Yanli approached him and held out a folded and sealed letter. “Meng-gongzi, may I trouble you to bring this to Wen-guniang, when you return?”

Wei Wuxian eyed them, immediately wary. “Shijie,” he coaxed, sidling up to his sister, “I can tell her, if you have a message.”

She turned a gentle but immoveable look on him, and he promptly wilted. Meng Yao took the letter and bowed to her. “I will see that Wen-guniang receives it,” he promised.

“Traitor,” Wei Wuxian muttered as he tossed his bag over his shoulder and joined them in the narrow river boat.

“I’m far more afraid of disappointing her than I am of disappointing you,” Meng Yao returned, just as low, and Wei Wuxian only held out for a moment before sighing and nodding.

Xichen seated himself as they pushed off, clearly stifling a laugh. “So. Wangji tells me that the two of you have been discussing the musical theory of Lu Liqin?”

“He is absolutely wrong about her use of the twenty-sixth harmonic,” Wei Wuxian declared, sliding down to sit crosslegged at the rear of the boat’s enclosure, one elbow propped on the seat beside him.

Meng Yao settled himself opposite Xichen and resigned himself to a trip full of debate. It was making him think that Wangji had his own version of Xichen’s rebellious streak, that he was apparently in love with someone so cheerfully contentious. Thinking about that, and about Lan Qiren’s bad habit of adding rules to the Wall whenever something irritated him enough, Meng Yao couldn’t help a quiet smirk.

Xichen met his eyes, across the boat, and for a single moment, his own smile turned just as pleased and sharp.


Wen Qing sat back from her patient with a sigh of frank relief. “I think we did it. You’re going to have to start over as if you were a child, but your meridians are open again and there’s no new scarring. According to everything I know of qi, you should be capable of re-forming your Golden Core from here. As long,” she added, with a fierce glare, “as you don’t do anything outstandingly stupid, like using your own meridians to channel resentful energy!”

Wei Wuxian held up his hands. “I haven’t been! I won’t! Talismans only, I promise.” She positively glowered at the implicit assumption he was still going to be working with resentful energy at all, and he quailed back against the bed and amended, “And my sword. First of all. Of course.”

She eyed him narrowly for a long moment, because she knew that Wei Wuxian’s promises lasted only until someone else was in danger, but there wasn’t a great deal she could do about that. “You’d better not.” She started putting her needles away, movements sharp with irritation. Maybe she could get a-Ning’s help; if he knew it was for his favorite friend’s own good, he might at least give Wei Wuxian disappointed looks. She did not discount the effectiveness of those. “You know what this means, don’t you?”

“That you won’t be digging into my qi every other day?”

That was only worth an eye roll. “Yes, my most troublesome patient will finally be mostly off my hands. We should celebrate.” He only gave her a sunny smile, and she snorted, ignoring the answering smile that tugged at her mouth. “No, I mean that you need to start telling people.”

“No.” It came out like a spinal reflex, which she thought it might be, by now.

“People are going to start figuring it out,” she continued, as if he hadn’t spoken. “Your sister is getting close, judging from the questions she had in her last letter, and Lan Wangji may suspect already.”

He crossed his arms, whole face going shuttered. “Jiang Cheng can’t know.”

She looked at the stubbornness written all over him and did not mention any of the arguments based on reason. Nothing about Do you think he won’t notice you training at a child’s level. Nothing of He’s not actually an idiot. Not even Do you really think your sister will help you keep it from him. Instead, she said quietly, “I tried to keep what I was doing secret from a-Ning, too. And look how that ended.”

It was an argument from the heart, not the head, and it got through, just as she’d thought it would. Wei Wuxian, the man standing in her place now, taking care of her little brother while she was stuck in the Cloud Recesses, winced and lowered his head.

“I…” He bit his lip and finally said, softly, “I need to recover just as much as I can, before he knows. Otherwise it will be… bad for him.”

She tied her needle roll snugly and raised a brow at him. “So, is that you asking me to dig into your qi some more, after all?”

He looked up, eyes steady and serious on her. “Would it help?”

Wen Qing pursed her lips, considering. “Maybe. There are certainly techniques to help concentrate qi, and that’s what you need now.”

“Then yes.”

She nodded, unsurprised. “Many of the things Lan Wangji has been researching would also apply well to this.”

He groaned and flopped back across the bed. “Qing-jie hates me,” he complained, pouting outrageously, and she smacked him with the cloth roll in her hand.

“Try that on your own sister, brat. Or better yet on Lan Wangji, who for some forsaken reason seems to think it’s cute.”

Wei Wuxian laughed, bright and open again. “He does not.”

Wen Qing shook her head and gathered the last of her things to leave. Neither of them was actually her little brother, she reminded herself firmly, and it was not her job to manage Wei Wuxian’s love life or future prospects. Thank the Heavens.

Though she might just drop a word of warning, when she wrote back to Jiang Yanli. Someone responsible should probably be keeping an eye on the course of Wei Wuxian’s truly absurd courtship.