Becoming the Phoenix – Six

War is on. Meng Yao deals with Jin Zixun and tries to take care of Lan Wangji and Lan Xichen. When Wei Wuxian returns, Meng Yao discovers a certain fellow-feeling, and they make a slightly bloodthirsty deal. Drama with a touch of angst, Porn, I-4

Meng Yao was glad that Jin Guangshan had declined to remain in the Unclean Realm or, indeed, to take the field himself. He was very glad he didn’t have to deal with the man’s cold avarice while they were all fighting Wen for their lives, one way or another.

He just really wished that Jin Zixun hadn’t been the one left behind as deputy. Jin Zixun was a nasty little scavenger of the sort he was far too familiar with from his childhood, the kind that followed after a stronger predator and snarled self-importantly at whatever the predator took interest in. Meng Yao didn’t doubt that Jin Guangshan found his nephew a useful tool and distraction. Meng Yao found him a huge annoyance.

“We have information from inside Wen Chao’s household,” he said quietly. “He’s planning to begin a tour of Yunmeng, starting here.” He reached down to tap northern Yunmeng, on the map they were all gathered around, trying to ignore the way both Jiang Wanyin and Lan Wangji came to sharp attention. The increasing bloodthirst both of them showed whenever Wen Chao’s name was spoken was getting a bit alarming. “Apparently he hasn’t said which way he plans to go from there, but if he intends to end back at Lotus Pier he’ll most likely turn west.”

Jin Zixun crossed his arms and glared at Meng Yao. “You really expect us to commit people on such vague information?”

Fortunately, Jin Zixun was also a bit of a fool. Meng Yao gave him a bright smile. “Was Jin planning to take part in this arm of the campaign after all? How generous!”

Jin Zixun opened and closed his mouth, looking less arrogant and more like an indignant fish. Out of the corner of his eye, Meng Yao saw that Xichen was suppressing a smile, and tried not to preen too obviously.

“Very generous,” Nie Mingjue said dryly, “but I’d prefer we keep all of Jin’s cultivators focused on Wen Xu’s advance, at the moment.”

Meng Yao gave him a brief bow of acknowledgment, still smiling. “Of course, Nie-zongzhu.” Jin Zixun subsided into a sulk, across the table, and Meng Yao hoped that would be today’s only annoying outburst.

They settled fairly quickly, after that, on the path Jiang Wanyin and Lan Wangji would take into Yunmeng and how far the other arm of the campaign would let Wen Xu come into Qinghe.

“Hejian,” Nie Mingjue declared with finality. “It’s the most advantageous ground for us.” Even Jin Zixun didn’t protest.

As they were leaving, Xichen laid a gentle hand at the small of Meng Yao’s back. “Is all well, a-Yao?” he asked, soft enough to be just between the two of them. All of Meng Yao’s annoyance over the obstruction they found themselves burdened with and his growing concern over Lan Wangji eased in the warmth of Xichen’s protectiveness, and his whole body softened from the deliberate neutrality he usually clung to during these meetings.

“Yes, Xichen-xiong,” he answered, just as soft, smiling up at Xichen.

Xichen smiled and stroked a thumb down his spine, a discreet caress. “Good.”

Meng Yao carried the calm of knowing his place in Xichen’s heart, and at Xichen’s side, into the rest of his day. It wasn’t until evening, the time he made to work through his sword forms, that he found his calm ruffled again. By Jin Zixun. Of course.

He was working through the slowest of his forms, the one Xichen had taught him to refine his control of his blade, when he became aware of Jin Zixun’s presence at the edge of the courtyard, watching him. His mouth tightened, but he held firmly to his breath control, keeping the shift of qi and muscle together the way Xichen had shown him last summer, and flowed into the next step, sword sweeping up to the side.

Meng Yao had observed that Jin Zixun hated being ignored more than almost anything else, so he wasn’t surprised to hear a scoff from the side of the courtyard. “I guess it’s true about how much your education is lacking,” Jin Zixun called, sauntering forward a few steps. “Is that the fastest you can do those basic steps?”

Meng Yao didn’t bother responding to such an obvious taunt. Jin Zixun wasn’t actually a complete idiot, despite appearances at times; he knew what this kind of exercise was for. That didn’t mean Meng Yao didn’t have to concentrate harder, to keep his movement smooth despite the sharpening prickle of irritation.

“I guess we can’t expect better from a guttersnipe like you,” Jin Zixun continued, propping himself against one of the pillars that edged the courtyard. “What’s the matter? Can’t answer back when your client isn’t here to protect you?” It wasn’t the first reference Jin Zixun had made to his mother’s trade, or even (quite) the most blatant one. Meng Yao still had to breathe out against a flash of rage, and maybe Jin Zixun saw it in how sharply he stepped into the next turn. He kept pushing, at least. “I never would have thought a Lan cultivator would have such low tastes, but maybe that’s what he secretly likes. Someone who never learned any refinement. Someone he can rough up, even. I wonder what the other sects would think, to know Zewu-jun isn’t as pure as everyone believes?”

Meng Yao could hear the glee in Jin Zixun’s voice growing as he spoke, could hear the shadow of the whispering campaign such words might turn into, the kind of thing that was almost impossible to fight, because who didn’t love juicy gossip that wouldn’t have the slightest impact on their lives? It probably wouldn’t live very long in face of Xichen’s reputation, but probably wasn’t certainly, and it was another, another, threat against Xichen. Meng Yao weighed that danger, danger to his sect, to his partner, to his place, and felt the balance finally tip.

He took a cold, steady grip on his gathered qi, whirled on his next step, cast free his spiritual weapon, and lashed forward with it. Jin Zixun had clearly expected it. He was laughing as he drew his sword and swept it up to catch the blow.

He missed.

Because, of course, it wasn’t Meng Yao’s sword that he’d struck with.

It had been at the end of Meng Yao’s first sword lesson with Xichen, that Xichen had found out. He still remembered the sharp bite of fear he’d felt when he’d sheathed his sword and Xichen had tilted his head with a quizzical look.

“Do you carry another spiritual tool?” Lan Xichen asked, brows lifted. “I had thought it was your sword’s presence I felt, but it didn’t change at all, just now.”

Meng Yao froze, hands closed tight around his sword’s sheath, groping for an explanation or excuse. “I… it isn’t…”

Lan Xichen’s surprise gentled, and he laid a hand on Meng Yao’s shoulder. “If it’s a private matter, don’t concern yourself. I was only curious.”

Meng Yao bit down on his lip, thoughts spinning. He hadn’t known the presence of a spiritual weapon could be detected, even when it was quiescent, or he’d never have dared keep it so close. It was a violation of several Lan rules, after all. Lan Xichen had been very indulgent, though, treating Meng Yao’s many weaknesses as an occasion to teach and help. Perhaps he would for this, too? It seemed worth the risk. Meng Yao took a deep breath and bowed his head.

“I’m sorry, Lan-zongzhu,” he said, softly. “I know it’s against the rules. I just…” He reached into his robe and drew out the knife he always carried there, holding it out on his palms, head still bent. “It was from my mother,” he finished, low.

After a long, silent moment in which Meng Yao got tenser, Lan Xichen squeezed his shoulder gently. “If this is your inheritance from her, and your primary spiritual weapon, I can hardly fault you for keeping it close.”

Meng Yao dared a glance up at him and found Lan Xichen looking down at him with a faint, wry quirk to his mouth that caught Meng Yao’s attention at once. Did Lan Xichen, the Master of Lan himself, perhaps not agree with all of his own sect’s rules?

But perhaps he should be wondering, instead, if it was possible for anyone to fully approve and agree with all of them. He’d noted plenty of contradictions on his own read through them. The thought made him relax a little, and he essayed a small, hopeful smile. Lan Xichen smiled back, so kindly that relief made Meng Yao a little light-headed. “May I?” Lan Xichen asked, gesturing toward the sheathed knife Meng Yao still held out. At Meng Yao’s hesitant nod, he lifted it with light fingers and turned it over to see the characters burned carefully into the sheath: Hensheng. After another long moment, Lan Xichen nodded and handed the knife back to him, folding Meng Yao’s fingers gently around it.

“If the blade’s spirit is a loyal servant to you, then keep it near,” he said quietly, eyes holding Meng Yao’s, dark and steady. “As your sword also awakens, let them balance each other. Let them be partners rather than rivals.”

Meng Yao had to swallow hard, wondering at such faith in his cultivation, that Lan Xichen expected Meng Yao to bear two spiritual tools, in time. Just as Lan Xichen did. “I will,” Meng Yao promised, in a whisper.

It had taken more hours of meditation than he really wished to recall, but Zaisheng’s spirit1 had begun to deepen, and Meng Yao didn’t think it was entirely his imagination that Hensheng’s bitter edge had gained a protective bite in response. That edge sang to him with desire to bite into flesh and blood, now, as he kept it tight under Jin Zixun’s chin, and Meng Yao smiled in answer, slow and cold.

Jin Zixun, backed up against the pillar and holding very carefully still, swallowed. “You wouldn’t dare,” he started, only to break off with white showing all the way around his eyes as Meng Yao turned his outstretched hand a little and Hensheng pressed tighter against Jin Zixun’s throat.

“Wouldn’t I?” Meng Yao murmured, keeping the knife right where it was as he strolled closer. “Ah, but you just said yourself that I had a far rougher upbringing that you did, little flower. Imagine all the things I must be perfectly ready to do to you.” Meng Yao picked up Jin Zixun’s fallen sword and plucked the sheath from his lax grip, sliding the sword home and propping it neatly against the pillar beside him—just as neatly as he chose the right words to trace the outline of Jin Zixun’s fears. “Imagine all the things I must have seen done to pretty flower boys, in my time. Imagine how easy it would be to do them to you, the errand boy with no power of his own.” Just as Jin Zixun stiffened, turning a bit green, Meng Yao straightened up and patted his cheek. “Don’t worry, though. I’ve left all that behind me, and given my heart and hands to Lan. So I wouldn’t do any of that.” He stood back and spread his hands, as if scattering favors from them, all the while keeping Jin Zixun pinned to the pillar by the knife a breath away from opening his throat. “No, the only thing I would do now is let Pan Daiyu know exactly when and where you’ll be on the battlefield, in this campaign.” He smiled brightly as Jin Zixun stopped breathing completely. “Since the Feicheng Pan sect have benefitted so from being your neighbors, they would surely come to watch over you.”

At least for long enough to put an arrow in Jin Zixun’s back while the opportunity presented, if Pan Daiyu ever learned exactly what had happened during the “fever” she’d had while visiting the Golden Unicorn Tower with her father. Meng Yao’s informant had noted, with a certain vicious pleasure, that she was known to be a superb archer.

“How…?” Jin Zixun rasped, and Meng Yao chuckled.

“Did you really think Zewu-jun himself chose me just because I’m pretty? Don’t be foolish.” He paused, considering. “Well, no more than you can help. So let me make this clearer for you.” He stalked back to stand close enough for their robes to brush and spoke each word softly and precisely. “You will not attempt to harm or insult or discredit any member of Lan. You will do nothing that might interfere in the harmony of this alliance, or the success of this campaign. Should you attempt to, I will destroy you.” He reached up to grasp Hensheng’s hilt and scraped the blade’s edge over Jin Zixun’s throat before drawing it back. “Do remember,” he added with a sweet, promising smile, “I always have more than one weapon.”

He turned his back and walked away, satisfied to hear the rustling thump that was probably Jin Zixun’s knees giving way. Personally, he’d have been more than happy to slit Jin Zixun’s throat, dump the body in the mountains, and mention that he’d heard Jin Zixun boast of how little he feared Wen and how ridiculous it was to cower behind fortress walls. But Xichen wouldn’t like that, so he’d just have to content himself with sufficient leverage to make Jin Zixun behave himself, insofar as he was capable.

Really, the more he learned about the Jin sect, the happier he was to be part of Lan instead.


A tap on the open screens of his workroom made Meng Yao look up to see Jiang Yanli in his door. He offered her a smile that was probably just as tired as her own. “Jiang-guniang. Good afternoon.” He started to gather reports to the side, opening a hand toward the cushion beside his writing table.

She shook her head. “Thank you, but I need to get back. The medical supplies finally came in from Jin, and that changes my calculations for how many wounded we can take in here. Again.” She made a face, and Meng Yao couldn’t help a soft snort of rueful agreement. Neither of them were impressed with Jin’s apparent inability to keep a schedule when cooperating with their allies. The only reason it hadn’t caused deaths already was Jiang Yanli’s devout belief in having back-up plans, as she managed the campaign’s supplies, and Jin Zixuan’s equally devout belief in doing whatever it took to defeat Wen cultivators in battle, even if that was cooperating with other sects.

“I just wanted to let you know that my brother and Lan Wangji are back.” She hesitated, hands clasping tight together, and added, more softly, “Still no word about a-Xian?”

Meng Yao shook his head, even as he stood. “Only rumors. Whatever Wen Chao may have done, neither he nor Wang Lingjiao are talking about it.” The whiteness of her knuckles and the darkness in her eyes drove him to offer, “That is what I would expect if he escaped them somehow.”

She gave him a tiny, scraped-together smile, clearly more out of kindness than any comfort in his words. “Thank you.” She took a breath and added, more lightly. “So go on and make sure Lan er-gongzi isn’t being too foolish.”

His own smile tilted wryly. “I shall try.”

Once the Cloud Recesses had been cleared, the Lan elders and children had returned there, guarded by the junior disciples. That included Lan Qiren, which meant that, when Xichen was away, there was no one left in the Unclean Realm who could order Lan Wangji to rest or eat or otherwise not drive himself recklessly. Meng Yao did the best he could in their absence.

As he’d more than half expected, Lan Wangji was not resting or eating or any of the things a sensible person might do on return from the kind of pitched battles that were slowly driving the Wen out of their watchposts and stations across Jiangsu, and now Hubei. Instead, he was in the courtyard outside his rooms, running through his sword forms. Just as if he weren’t rapidly becoming one of the best swordsmen currently living by virtue of the battles he’d burned through like a flame, he and Xichen both.

Meng Yao sighed and leaned against one of the flanking pillars, settling himself in to wait. Once he’d made it clear he wasn’t going anywhere, despite the cold drizzle starting to sift down from the clouds above, Lan Wangji came back to opening stance. He sheathed his sword, and turned to give Meng Yao the shallow bow he’d eventually settled on as the proper response to an age-mate who was also the partner of his brother and sect master. Meng Yao smiled a bit wryly and returned it. “I’m going to find someone to bring food and wash water to your rooms,” he said. “Please don’t let them get cold.”

Lan Wangji just looked at him for a long, blank moment; not as if he didn’t agree, but as if he wasn’t sure of the words he’d heard. Eventually, though he nodded. Meng Yao nodded back firmly and went to go see about that food.

He was starting to agree with Xichen very much about Lan Qiren having mishandled Lan Wangji, and also the depth of Lan Wangji’s fascination with Wei Wuxian.

When he stopped in later that evening, to make sure Lan Wangji actually had stopped and eaten, he was pleased to find Lan Wangji looking dried off, with some mostly empty dishes set aside. He was sitting with his guqin before him, but not playing. Only fingering one slow note at a time. It was a melody, Meng Yao could tell that, but not one he’d heard before.

Before he could withdraw, Lan Wangji stilled his strings and asked, low, “Is there any word?”

“Only rumors, still,” Meng Yao said, as he’d said it to Jiang Yanli earlier, trying to be gentle.

Lan Wangji’s eyes didn’t lift from his strings. “Do you love my brother?”

Meng Yao reared back a little, startled by such an abrupt conversational shift. The question wasn’t sharp, though. It sounded… a bit lost. “I do,” he answered finally, wanting to know where Lan Wangji’s thoughts were right now. “With all my heart.”

Lan Wangji looked up, and there was definitely uncertainty in the pinch of his brows, the no-longer-firm line of his mouth. “Why?”

Meng Yao sighed. All right, perhaps he did know where this was coming from. He contemplated just what he might do for suitable revenge on Lan Qiren, for making him be the one to have such a conversation with his not-perfectly-official brother-in-law. “We match,” he said, at last. “I need things he wishes very much to be able to give. In his own way, he needs what I can give. We fit together.”

Lan Wangji tilted his head, looking thoughtful. He didn’t answer in words, but he did reach out to his strings again, striking a quiet chord.

“Different sounds, and yet they harmonize,” Meng Yao agreed.

“Harmony.” Lan Wangji stilled the strings with an open palm, again. “Thank you.”

Meng Yao gave him their shallow bow, in parting, and made his way back to his own rooms, shaking his head. Xichen had been exactly right about what would come of Lan Wangji’s fascination, though given Wei Wuxian’s disappearance it might have been kinder if Lan Wangji had never realized it.

All those thoughts flew out of his mind, though, when he slid open the door of his rooms and found that Xichen had also returned. “Xichen-xiong!”

Xichen turned with a smile for him, though it looked exhausted. “A-Yao.”

Meng Yao was moving before he even thought, both hands held out, and Xichen caught him up off his feet and held him tight, rain-water soaking from his robes into Meng Yao’s. Meng Yao didn’t care. The feeling of Xichen’s arms around him, having the solid strength of Xichen’s body to lean against, those were what mattered right now.

“A-Yao.” Xichen’s fingers wove into his hair and tipped his head back, and Xichen’s mouth covered his as though Xichen would drink him in. Meng Yao made a breathless sound at the heat of the kiss and relaxed, bonelessly pliant against Xichen.

“I’m here,” he whispered, when Xichen let him, and Xichen smiled down at him, easing his grip enough for Meng Yao to slip down to his own feet again. Meng Yao reached up to lay his palm along Xichen’s cheek and asked, “What do you need?”

Xichen covered Meng Yao’s hand with his own, eyes soft. “I would like very much to think about things that have only to do with life and warmth, for a while. I…” he hesitated for a sliver of a moment that held echos of death in it, “I want my hands to bring only pleasure, tonight.”

That tiny break in Xichen’s voice sent Meng Yao pressing close, rising up on his toes to kiss Xichen. “You know how much I like it when you pay attention to me,” he murmured against Xichen’s lips, gently teasing, trying to coax him out of dark thoughts. He gave Xichen a deliberately flirtatious look from under his lashes and added, “Take care of me tonight, ge-ge?”

Xichen caught him up tight again, laughing softly, just as he’d hoped for. “I will, then.” He only let Meng Yao go, reluctantly, to undress, and promptly drew Meng Yao down into his lap the moment he was seated on their bed. Meng Yao pressed close, straddling Xichen’s crossed legs, and purred at the feel of broad hands moving over his bare skin. Xichen kissed him again and again, slow and gentle, and Meng Yao relaxed into it, arms draped over Xichen’s shoulders, and let Xichen set their pace. Xichen slid his hands up Meng Yao’s back, pressing him closer, and kissed down his throat.

“You’re so beautiful, a-Yao, so very fine,” Xichen murmured against his skin, and Meng Yao tipped his head back with a soft, breathless sound. There was nothing better than knowing he was cherished like this. Xichen’s palms stroked down his ribs, slow and caressing, and large hands settled around his hips.

And lifted him up.

Meng Yao gasped, clutching at Xichen’s shoulders, eyes wide. Xichen just held him up, steady and effortless, a little higher than if he’d knelt upright. A tiny whimper caught in Meng Yao’s throat. He knew Xichen’s strength, but he didn’t often feel it this viscerally.

It felt good.

“I have you,” Xichen said, quiet and reassuring, looking up at him, and understanding settled into Meng Yao’s thoughts. This was what Xichen needed from him.

“You do.” He let himself relax into Xichen’s hold, making no effort at all to support himself, balance shifting as he settled entirely into Xichen’s hands. He watched Xichen’s eyes soften and warm, as he did. “You always hold me safe.”

“You’re so amazing, a-Yao,” Xichen said softly, and bent his head the little bit necessary to take Meng Yao’s cock in his mouth.

“Xichen-ge!” The sudden heat of Xichen’s mouth, the soft rush of pleasure, jolted Meng Yao’s whole body without moving him at all in Xichen’s hold. Xichen held him up, held him still, and sucked on him slowly, and Meng Yao gave himself up to it, shaking in Xichen’s hold as pleasure wound tighter. “Xichen-ge… ge-ge, yes, please!” Xichen’s mouth stayed slow, on him, but the heat of being lifted and held so easily grew, swift and heavy, until it burst down Meng Yao’s nerves like fireworks, sweet and brilliant.

He was panting, whole body limp and wrung out, when Xichen lowered him back down, cuddling Meng Yao into his lap. “Thank you, my own,” he murmured against Meng Yao’s hair.

Meng Yao draped himself against Xichen’s chest with a small, pleased sound. “I like feeling the strength that protects me.” He felt another bit of the tension Xichen carried so often, these days, unwinding, and smiled with satisfaction. Later, he would try to find out if any particular event had upset Xichen. For now, he was content to feel Xichen relax under his hands and know they were together.

When Wei Wuxian was found alive, Meng Yao noticed two things. One was Jiang Yanli’s incandescent joy that seemed to light up the entire fortress until everyone she spoke to went away smiling just from seeing it.

The other was Lan Wangji’s disquiet. Meng Yao wasn’t nearly as good at reading Lan Wangji as Xichen was, but he would almost say that Lan Wangji was alarmed by Wei Wuxian.

Huaisang gave him his first clue why.

“I’m worried about him.” Huaisang paced back and forth through Meng Yao’s workroom, chewing on his lip. “He flinched from me, Meng Yao, from me! Or, no,” he paused, eyes turning distant, “he didn’t flinch. That was the worst part. I reached out, and he shifted—shifted on his center, like we were sparring, like I had a sword in my hand. And if I had, I’d have been past him and down with just that one movement.”

“Wei-gongzi is known to be an excellent swordsman, after all,” Meng Yao murmured, and then smiled wryly at the dire look Huaisang gave him. “No, I know that wasn’t what you meant.” He laid aside his brush with a sigh and laced his fingers together. “You think wherever he was was that dangerous?”

Huaisang sank down onto the cushion beside his writing table, clasping his own hands tight. “I think he’s been fighting all this time. Maybe even fighting spirits all this time. I know I’m not as sensitive to the movement of qi as most everyone else is, but I’ve watched Zewu-jun spar with my brother. The way Wei-xiong moved… it was like that.”

Meng Yao sat back at that, startled. Xichen’s movement, with a sword in his hands, was a perfect flow of absolute mastery, not only of himself but of every element around him. If Huaisang was seeing such a fierce degree of control in Wei Wuxian, now… yes, that spoke of three months of unremitting need for such control. “I see.” He sighed and reached out to pat Huaisang’s shoulder. “I’ll keep an eye out.”

What for, he wasn’t sure yet, but he appreciated the forewarning all the same.

By the end of the welcome-back banquet that evening, he still appreciated it; he just wasn’t sure any amount of forewarning would have been sufficient. Not only had Jin Zixun obviously decided that Wei Wuxian was his next target to needle, not only had Yao-zongzhu immediately started to gossip, but Huaisang had clearly been right. Wei Wuxian looked like a ghost dragged out of hell. He stared around at them all as if he wasn’t sure what they were, let alone who. His thoughts seemed to regularly drown out the voices of everyone around him, including his siblings. When he walked out, it was as if they’d all faded into phantoms around him and he thought himself alone. Set against the kind of cutting and complete awareness of his surroundings that Huaisang had described, it slid a finger of ice down Meng Yao’s spine. He remembered again the rumor of guards’ gossip, that Wei Wuxian had been cast into the Burial Mounds, and mentally moved it out of the ‘barely possible’ column and into ‘very possible’.

The next day was not a noticeable improvement, despite Xichen being back again. The meeting of campaign leaders was tense, with Jiang Wanyin obviously on edge and Jin Zixun apparently believing that he was safe to pick at such easy prey just because his slightly more tolerable cousin was present. Meng Yao rubbed at the headache growing between his brows, and let Jiang Wanyin slap the idiot down. They had barely returned to the actual issue, how to deal with the frankly terrifying revenant creatures Wen Ruohan created and controlled with his three pieces of yin metal, when Wei Wuxian stepped through the doors.

The wind that blew in with him curled around hands and arms, enticing as a courtesan’s touch, whipped smoke off the candles and held it drifting in the air, acrid and stinging. Meng Yao stepped back against Xichen and was glad of the warm hand that closed on his shoulder.

Wei Wuxian’s confident assertion that he would be able to curb the yin metal’s influence in a month sent Meng Yao’s thoughts racing again. A month. It made him think about the circles and seals of containment that Huaisang maintained around the fourth piece of yin metal, all of them carefully adjusted, week by week, to take strength from the cycles of the heavens.

Jin Zixun’s scoffing brought him back to the requirements of the moment, and he cut across rude words with a sharp, “Jin Zixun.”

Jin Zixun started to round on him, only to start back a step at the glare Meng Yao leveled at him. He was out of patience for subtlety, today. Jin Zixun snapped his mouth shut and edged back a little further, to the obvious startlement of his cousin.

Xichen touched his arm. “A-Yao?” Meng Yao took hold of himself and looked up at Xichen with a soft smile, trying to reassure the concern in Xichen’s eyes.

“I think I may have some idea of what Wei-gongzi intends. I need to look a few things up, though. Perhaps, then, I may approach him with informed questions.” He cut his eyes briefly at the very tense Lan Wangji, still looking after Wei Wuxian, and a corner of Xichen’s mouth quirked up. He nodded silent agreement to find out what Lan Wangji might know, and Meng Yao relaxed a little. Having a plan made him feel better.

“Do so,” Nie Mingjue ordered. “Tell us what you find. If we have to delay a full month before moving our base forward, there are a few more potential trouble spots in Heibei and Jiangsu I’d like to see to before we turn our backs on them.”

Meng Yao bowed to him. “Of course.”

Instead of his books or reports, though, he made for Huaisang’s rooms and waited for him there. Now it was Meng Yao’s turn to pace.

“Huaisang, you’re the only one I can trust not to immediately jump to conclusions, and you’re more deeply learned in alternative methods of cultivation than I am. Could Wei-gongzi be planning to summon something, or use a moon cycle to power the creation of something?”

Huaisang ran his closed fan between his fingers, eyes dark and serious. “Create something, I think. A moon cycle… that’s a beginning and an ending, the shift from the life of one earthly branch to the life of another another. Create something… or re-create it.” He chewed on his lip and glanced downward. “Meng Yao, you don’t think…”

Meng Yao stood still as all his thoughts crystalized around the memory of the yin metal under their feet—though probably not in the pattern Huaisang feared. “No,” he said, voice distant in his own ears. “Not that, I don’t think.” He took a slow breath and let it go. “Thank you, Huaisang. I think I know what to look for, now.”

“Will Wei-xiong be all right?” Huaisang’s voice was small, and Meng Yao shook off the thought hovering at the edges of his mind and came to lay his hands on Huaisang’s shoulders.

“We’ll do our best to make sure of it.”

Huaisang relaxed and gave him a quick nod, smile a bit tremulous but trusting. Meng Yao nodded back firmly, and took his leave.

He found the report he’d thought he remembered, nearly at the very beginning of the network he’d created among the Wen servants, the tale of how Wen Chao had claimed credit for slaying the legendary Xuanwu of Slaughter. Wen Ruohan had questioned his son about the creature’s body repeatedly before apparently losing interest. That loss of interest would have been, Meng Yao calculated, just about the time news of Xue Yang’s execution might have arrived—the moment that Wen Ruohan thought he knew where the fourth fragment of yin metal had gone. Before that, Wen Ruohan had thought it might have been found with the Xuanwu of Slaughter. Because what, after all, could slay a creature like that? The one Xue Chonghai was said to have controlled?

Perhaps it was only that Meng Yao hadn’t grown up with the tales of Xue Chonghai’s defeat and the founding of the current great sects. That he hadn’t learned the tale of the yin metal being scattered ‘to the four corners of the earth’ young enough to take it literally. But the thought ringing through his mind with the clarity of bells was:

Who said there were only four fragments of yin metal?

The next morning he went to find Wei Wuxian in the rooms Jiang Yanli had so firmly requested be set aside for him months ago. Thinking of her reminded him to keep hold of his poise, which he expected to need. “Wei-gongzi?” he called, tapping on the doors.

It was still a bit of a shock to have the doors open on the Wei Wuxian who had returned, so different from the one of two years past. “Meng-gongzi.” His smile was distant and ironic for a long moment before he shook himself a little and stood aside with a half-sketched gesture of welcome.

Meng Yao took a seat across the sitting room’s table from Wei Wuxian and rested both hands carefully on the surface. “One month,” he said quietly. “One month to forge something new from a fifth fragment?” Wei Wuxian’s eyes narrowed, and for one breath the air had a heavy tang in it—one he recognized from the underground workroom, now he was thinking along those lines. Meng Yao lifted his hands, palm out. “I don’t intend to interfere.”

“Did Lan Zhan say something to his brother?” Wei Wuxian’s voice was low, too, but sharp. Meng Yao still couldn’t help a soft snort, remembering Xichen’s frustration over how little he’d been able to learn from his brother.

“Lan Wangji says very little about you, to anyone. No, it was Huaisang who thought a month was the right cycle for the re-creation of something. I don’t think anyone but me has put the other half of this together, yet.”

Wei Wuxian sat back a little, still watching him closely. “If you don’t intend to interfere, then why are you here?”

Meng Yao thought about the sharp edges that kept slicing through Wei Wuxian’s distance from everything around him, about how close he seemed to be staying to his brother and sister now, and decided that, for once, cold honesty would serve him best. “Because Xichen-xiong cares about Lan Wangji, and it seems Wangji will not leave you. And because whatever you do will be in proximity to Xichen.” Wei Wuxian’s brows rose, and Meng Yao smiled tightly. “I don’t actually care about many people. But Xichen does.”

After a long, measuring look, it was Wei Wuxian’s turn to snort with laughter. “Well. I suppose I can understand that, now.” His eyes burned dark as they locked with Meng Yao’s. “I will protect my family.”

Meng Yao didn’t look away, because he recognized that fire very well indeed. “Then I will make a deal with you. You protect my family, and I’ll protect yours.”

Wei Wuxian blinked, apparently startled out of that moment of ferocity, but then he tilted his head, focus returning, now lighter, more curious. “Exactly what is it you do for the campaign?” he asked.

Meng Yao folded his hands and smiled. “I run the network of informants and gather the information that directs it toward success.”

Wei Wuxian smiled, slow and crooked. “And who do you count your family?”

“Lan Xichen. Lan Wangji.” Softer, because the last thing he’d expected to get out of the summer lectures was anything even resembling a brother, he added, “Nie Huaisang.”

Wei Wuxian nodded, and said just as softly, “Jiang Cheng. Shijie.” He hesitated for a long moment before shrugging silently. Lan Wangji’s name nearly echoed in the air between them, and Meng Yao refrained from rolling his eyes. He didn’t need it said to know it.

“Agreed,” he said, instead.

“Agreed,” Wei Wuxian repeated, and leaned back on his hands with a sigh. “A fifth piece, yeah,” he finally admitted.

Meng Yao tried not to shiver, thinking about the devouring aura the fourth piece had. “If you’ve been carrying it all this while, I imagine you know more about it than anyone else. Except Wen Ruohan, I suppose.”

A laugh cracked out of Wei Wuxian, and his eyes were suddenly distant again. “Oh, more than him. He’s trying to control the yin metal directly, using his own spiritual energy on it.”

Meng Yao remembered the exceedingly abbreviated reports he’d gotten on what happened in Yiling, the mention of altered seals and strange music, and his eyes flicked down to the flute Wei Wuxian seemed to carry in place of his sword these days. “Which you have avoided. I see.” And if it was true that Wei Wuxian had learned such indirect control by way of the Burial Mounds… Meng Yao had to push away another shiver. “Would you be able to complete the process on the move?”

Wei Wuxian made an extremely dubious face, and Meng Yao huffed a faint laugh despite the direness of the topic. “All right, then. Supposing you work here, will it give you any trouble to have the fourth fragment contained so nearby?”

Wei Wuxian froze, eyes fixed on him, wide and dark. “It’s here?”

Meng Yao nodded cautiously, and felt his caution was fully borne out when Wei Wuxian abruptly burst out laughing, a harsh, stifled laughter that left him bent over and shaking. “That explains…” The breath he took sounded like it scraped his lungs raw, even before he lost it on another rough laugh. Finally, he scrubbed both hands over his face and raised his head again, looking unutterably weary. “I should look at how it’s contained, to see if I can work around it or not.”

“Huaisang is the one who’s been managing and adjusting that. How much are you willing to tell him?”

“You said he already guessed some of it,” Wei Wuxian said slowly, fingers sliding along the line of his flute. “And you said he’s family to you. So, some of the truth: say that I’m re-forging an artifact I brought out of the Burial Mounds.” He glanced at Meng Yao, eyes hard. “My family doesn’t know where I was, for sure, and I want to keep it that way.”

“Huaisang can keep secrets. And,” Meng Yao added rather dryly, “he already knows perfectly well that you were somewhere… very harsh.”

Wei Wuxian’s mouth tightened, and he looked down again. “You can tell Lan-zongzhu that much, too. Not the flower peacock or his cousin.”

“I wouldn’t tell Jin Zixun if his robes were on fire,” Meng Yao said calmly. “And Jin Zixuan has no need to know. What of Nie-zongzhu?”

Wei Wuxian was screwing up his mouth dubiously again. Meng Yao was really starting to wonder if some Lan Wangji’s fascination with this man wasn’t simply watching how expressive he was. “Nie-zongzhu seems very… absolute in his morality.”

“To say the least,” Meng Yao agreed. “Will you let Xichen-xiong decide what to tell him, then? Nie Mingjue is his oldest friend, after all.”

Wei Wuxian hesitated, and Meng Yao thought about three months not daring to even rely on his own spiritual strength, and waited patiently. “You believe he’ll weigh it carefully? Even if Nie-zongzhu is his oldest friend?”

“Nie Mingjue is the general of this campaign.” Meng Yao smiled. “Lan Xichen is its ruler. He understands that not everything should be said to everyone.”

Pale fingers clenched and loosened around the black lacquer line of the flute. “All right.”

Meng Yao released a slow breath, feeling the shape of this settle into his mind, their deal and their stories and the strategy they would move forward with. “Very well, then.”

When he left, he went back to their rooms and walked straight into Xichen’s arms. Xichen gathered him up at once, and for a long moment Meng Yao let go of the constant tension of awareness and calculation, of being the one to watch their backs, and let himself sink into the warmth of being sheltered and cherished. “This isn’t going to be easy,” he mumbled into Xichen’s chest.

Long fingers slid gently through his hair. “Tell me,” Xichen said.

So he took a deep breath and told Xichen everything he could.


Nie Huaisang stood at the side of the work room that contained the fourth fragment of yin metal and watched Wei Wuxian prowl around it. And it was a prowl; that slow, careful movement couldn’t be called anything else. Wei Wuxian moved like a stalking tiger.

A wounded one.

That was the other thing he’d noticed over the last couple days. Wei Wuxian’s movement, whenever he wasn’t paying attention or didn’t have his siblings around to think about reassuring, was predatory. But it was also halting, disrupted at odd moments by flinches from things no one else saw or heard. It reminded Huaisang very unpleasantly of some of the older chronicles he’d read, the ones that spoke of Xue clan cultivators, under Xue Chonghai, and how their own power, or perhaps the spirits they’d bound, had driven them to mad rages and slaughter.

He hated the thought of such a thing happening to Wei Wuxian, who’d been so willing to play with him, at the last Lan summer lectures, who’d been so much like a touch of sunlight—bright and generous and warm. So willing to reach out and spill across all those around him. So willing to take care of people.

And also beautiful. Huaisang appreciated that, too. But most of what he remembered was the little curl of mischief at the corners of Wei Wuxian’s mouth, and the companionable weight of an arm around his shoulders, and the complete willingness to debate the merits of classical poets long into the night.

So Huaisang stood quiet, now, off to the side, determined not to leave Wei Wuxian alone with this fragment, or with whatever other burden he was carrying.

Finally, Wei Wuxian stopped circling the seal. “This is impressive.” It was almost his poetry-debating tone, which Huaisang took some hope from. “If I do my re-working in range of this, though, there’s going to be a surge in Autumn influence. Can you counteract that?”

Autumn, metal, gathering, ran through his mind, sound and sense and emotion and celestial bodies, associations building one on the next and outward. “The seasonal progression won’t help,” he murmured, tapping his fan against his chin, “but the major stars will; the Fire Star is in the sky the longest, right now. With that… if I add Fire Over Lake to the outer seal…” He nodded decisively. “Yes, I think so.” And then the network of symbols and influences he held in his mind sank in, connected to the context of here and now, yin metal to (almost certainly) yin metal, and his eyes widened. “Wei-xiong!”

Wei Wuxian was watching him, eyes hooded in turn, chin tipped down. “When I saw those seals I wondered if you’d figure it out. They really are very impressive.”

Huaisang crossed to him in a rush and seized his arms. “Wei-xiong, are you…!” Even in the midst of some panic, the back of his mind noted that Wei Wuxian was standing still and letting Huaisang shake him, and Huaisang finished, much softer, “Are you going to be all right?”

Slowly, as if it were a stream breaking out of winter ice, Wei Wuxian’s tilted, ironic smile softened. “I’ll be fine.” He patted Huaisang’s hand on his arm gently.

Huaisang swallowed back tightness in his throat. “All right, then. I’ll hold this, while you work. Just…” he gave Wei Wuxian the scolding frown he used on his brother, when Da-ge trained too long or stayed up too late, “you’d better take care of yourself, Xian-ge!”

Wei Wuxian blinked at him, and finally broke out in a laugh, rusty and brief, but a laugh. “I will.” A tiny shadow of the impish grin Huaisang remembered flickered at the corners of his mouth. “A-Sang.”

Huaisang drew himself up with great dignity and gave Wei Wuxian a firm nod, as if sealing a formal bargain. “Good.” This would work. He would make it work. If there was one thing he knew how to do, it was be an importunate little brother.

Look how well it had worked on Meng Yao, after all.


1. I’ve juggled names and weapons a bit, since the drama makes so little of Hensheng. In this timeline, Hensheng is a knife that Meng Yao’s mother gifted him with, to defend himself, which he names 恨生 "to hate" and "life/birth/to be born". This can, in Meng Yao’s case, easily be interpreted as hatred of his birth or the rank/world he was born to. His sword, not a soft-sword this time but a relatively standard jian, is named Zaisheng 再生 "again" and "life/birth/to be born", or "to be reborn". back