It starts, as many important things do, with a seemingly unimportant event. Meng Yao is making ready for Nie Huaisang to return from his year at Cloud Recesses, and in between making sure that the younger man's rooms have been aired out and the linens changed on his bed, he also takes care of the thousand or so other day to day tasks that come with being one of the main retainers for the Nie Sect. He bites back a sigh as he steps out onto the parapet overlooking the main gate, his hands tucked into his sleeves to protect them against the wind.
Lan Xichen is here, presumably to talk about Sect business but also more than likely to catch up with Nie Mingjue now that the classes in Gusu are over. Meng Yao has always liked Lan Xichen. Never once has the First Jade of Lan made him feel inferior due to his past or position, and it's a breath of fresh air in the often stifling world of Sect drama and conflicts.
Nie Mingjue is much the same way, though his approval is far more gruff and practical than Lan Xichen's. It suits him, Meng Yao thinks with a small smile. He hardly expects Nie Mingjue to be one for grand gestures and ebullient praise. He's a man of action, and his personality suits that to perfection. Why waste breath on a thousand flowery words when ten plain and direct ones will do?
Their differing personalities bring a fascinating balance to one another, and Meng Yao can see why they've been drawn to one another. It's the worst kept secret in Qinghe that Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen are lovers, no matter how discreet they are, but no one cares, far too happy that their Sect leader has found love. They move around one another like dancers, their motions echoing in a balanced give and take that is awe inspiring to see. Meng Yao feels blessed to just be in their combined presences, even if at times his traitorous heart wishes it could be as more than just an assistant.
He knows that the love he feels for the two men is selfish. They are accomplished cultivators and already have the love of one another. There's no need for him to try and intrude on it- and it's clear that they love one another, even if it's not something they parade about -so Meng Yao keeps it to himself, only allowing it to come out at night as he dreams about what could possibly happen if the world was a perfect place and no one cared about the circumstances of birth. But that's all it'll be, a dream, because why would Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen care that way about the son of a prostitute and a man who dresses himself in a veneer of gold and nobility but is really nothing more than slick oil and lust underneath?
Meng Yao huffs and then pulls himself out of his melancholy thoughts, and just in time, too. The dust kicking up from the hooves of the horses Nie Huaisang and his guard are riding plumes in the afternoon air, and Meng Yao chuckles when he sees the familiar white arc of Nie Huaisang's fan waving in the air as the riders approach. He descends to ground level once the horses are through the archway of the gate, his feet light but sure on the broad steps leading down.
“Young Master Nie! And here I thought we might have to worry about you coming home too early,” he teases as Nie Huaisang dismounts from his horse. “I'm glad to see that you made it successfully through your schooling.”
Nie Huaisang laughs, fan fluttering to provide his sun-warmed skin with a breeze. “And have da-ge drag me back by the ear? I do have some sense, Meng Yao. Speaking of, is he here?”
Meng Yao nods as stablehands take over dealing with the horses and luggage, and the guard who's accompanied Nie Huaisang home bows before heading to the barracks.
“He is. He and Lan Xichen are in his office at the moment, I believe.”
Nie Huaisang nods, taking in the information as the two of them head towards the main residence, and, most importantly, its cooler interiors. Even in late spring, the Unclean Realm traps heat within its walls, the stone soaking it up throughout the day and making the air heavy. Meng Yao is grateful for the lighter weight of the fabric of his robes, as he has no idea how Nie Mingjue manages with all the silk brocade and armor he goes about in most days.
He takes a moment to imagine Nie Mingjue's reaction to being asked that question and has to stifle a laugh. Perhaps it will be best not to ask, even if it's fun to imagine the scenario. As they walk, Nie Huaisang fills the air with chatter, and Meng Yao barely has to think before he's fallen back into the familiar pattern of nodding and making encouraging noises or questions at the right times to spur the younger man on to a new thread of conversation. It's an oddly comforting thing, and Meng Yao is surprised at just how much he's missed it.
The conversation continues on even through Nie Huaisang going into his room and getting changed- though Meng Yao dutifully stays outside the closed doors until Nie Huaisang bids him to enter -and then tea arriving. The two of them sit at a table near a window, the sounds of birds chirping in the trees outside coming through the rice paper. Nie Huaisang sets his fan down on the table, looking very pleased to be back home and in his own room.
“So, what have you been getting up to while I've been gone, hmm?” he asks, picking up his cup and then taking a sip. “Anything interesting happen around this dusty old place?”
Meng Yao drinks his own tea, considering the question. “Not particularly, unless you count Nie Lian finally managing to win a duel against Fang Bohai.”
“Good for her! I know she's been working on that for a long time.” Nie Huaisang smiles proudly at his shimei's accomplishments. Meng Yao soaks in the silence that follows, enjoying the tea and the company of a good friend. It may be more than a little presumptuous to call Nie Huaisang a friend, but it's a small liberty that no one seems to mind, particularly not Nie Huaisang.
“Hm. Your braids are different.”
Meng Yao looks up from his tea. “Oh. Um, yes, they are. Do you like them?”
“I do,” Nie Huaisang says, using his free hand to fiddle with his fan. He tilts his head to one side momentarily, reminding Meng Yao of the small birds outside. “Who, uh, who told you about them?”
Nie Huaisang's eyes narrow. “What, exactly, did my brother tell you when he mentioned the braids?”
“He said that it would make him happy if I wore them?”
Several different emotions flash across Nie Huaisang's face before they're replaced by a still calmness Meng Yao has never seen from him. A chill runs down his spine, as a still Nie Huaisang never bodes well.
“I see. I think,” Nie Huaisang says as he snaps his fan shut with a decisive motion, “that you should come with me. If da-ge is with Lan Xichen in his office, it means there's no time to waste. Though I'm going to have words with him about doing this in such a ham-fisted way.”
Nie Huaisang sweeps out of the room, leaving Meng Yao to follow him in a state of utter confusion, something that is sadly a common thing when dealing with Nie Huaisang in a mood. The trip to Nie Mingjue's office isn't a long one, and before he knows it, Meng Yao is following Nie Huaisang inside. Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen are there as expected, sitting at a small table and conversing quietly over tea.
“Huaisang? What're you doing here?”
Nie Huaisang impatiently waves his brother's question away and then points his fan at him.
“You!” His tone is brisk and demands complete attention.
“You! You-” Nie Huaisang shakes his head in exasperation. “You forgot to explain yourself. Again!”
The baffled expression on Nie Mingjue's face is priceless, and Meng Yao has to school his face to suppress the amused smile that threatens to break out.
“I have no idea what you're talking about.”
Nie Huaisang's fan comes perilously close to hitting Meng Yao in the face as the younger man gestures towards him, but a quick side-step solves that issue neatly.
“'It'd make me happy if you wore them'? Really? You have no romance in your soul whatsoever, do you? Did Baxia eat it all up like she ate all your brains so you only have muscle in that thick skull of yours? Honestly, da-ge, you can do better than that!”
Huh. Meng Yao has never seen Nie Mingjue turn that shade of red before. It's not an angry red, so he doesn't worry too much about an impromptu qi deviation, but it's still fascinating to see the rosy hue creep up the sides of Nie Mingjue's neck and then spread in blotchy patches across his cheeks.
Is the famed Chifeng-Zun blushing?
Meng Yao's brain catches up with what Nie Huaisang has said with all the force of a horse's hoof to the head. He stares blankly into the middle distance, barely registering that Lan Xichen is speaking to him until there's a warm hand on his shoulder and a concerned voice in his ear.
“Meng Yao? Are you alright?”
Meng Yao looks up at Lan Xichen, his thoughts feeling sluggish. Lan Xichen's brow is furrowed in worry, and Meng Yao wants nothing more than to see it free of that concern.
“I asked if you're okay,” Lan Xichen continues on, his hand cupping Meng Yao's shoulder in a gentle grasp. “You looked... distant there for a moment.”
Meng Yao forces a smile, his face going distantly pleasant. The smile doesn't reach his eyes. It's a mask he learned at his mother's knee, one that she used to deflect the anger or annoyance of clients and protect herself and him all at once. It hadn't worked all the time, especially toward the end of her life, but it had worked well enough to put food on the table most days.
“I'm fine. Just...” He hums noncommittally. “Perhaps a little confused. Was I wrong to wear the braids? I can take them out if-”
Meng Yao startles at the surprisingly desperate force of Nie Mingjue's words. Lan Xichen's fingers flex against his shoulder, both in an effort to soothe him and in an instinctive response at the loud noise.
“I think,” Nie Huaisang says cheerily, as if he hasn't just thrown the room into a tense atmosphere with just a few words, “that I'll leave you three to talk about this. Have fun!”
He wanders out, shutting the door behind himself. There's a long beat of silence before Nie Mingjue's shoulders slump and he lets out a sharp huff of air. The fingers of one hand sketch characters in the air, glowing traces of spiritual energy following their movements before Nie Mingjue flicks his fingers, sending the characters out to splash against each of the walls, the ceiling, and floor. The golden energy surges and flows over the surfaces until everything is covered, windows, door, and all, and then sinks into the building itself.
Meng Yao lets Lan Xichen lead him over to the table, taking a seat so Nie Mingjue is on his left and Lan Xichen his right. Lan Xichen fetches a new cup from a side cabinet- and the ease with which he navigates Nie Mingjue's office speaks volumes about how often he's here -and pours Meng Yao some tea before handing it over. Meng Yao drinks his tea, trying to settle his mind and nerves.
“I think,” Lan Xichen says as he refreshes his and Nie Mingjue's tea, “that we should lay everything out and see how it goes.”
“I thought I'd made it plain!” Nie Mingjue grumbles.
“Clearly not, A-Jue, so were going to fix that,” Lan Xichen replies calmly. “Now, Meng Yao, what do you know about the significance of braids in the Nie Sect?”
Meng Yao thinks over the question, sorting through what he knows before responding. He's proud that his voice is relatively steady and calm when he speaks, though he has to press his fingers against the porcelain of his cup to keep them from trembling.
“The braids signify status in the Sect,” he says. “The simpler the braids and arrangement, the lower ranking the person is.” He tilts his head as he ponders. “Though I have noticed that there have been some differences in how people have treated me since I began wearing these ones.”
It's true. People who have previously been hostile towards him, whether overtly or not, have become surprisingly neutral or grudgingly positive to him since he's started wearing the particular arrangement of braids Nie Mingjue requested of him. Those who've already been positive toward him tend to give him greet him more enthusiastically. The older cooks in the kitchens have taken to pressing sweet buns or fresh fruit into his hands when he visits to get a snack or tea during breaks in his day, indulgent smiles accompanying their actions.
“I'd be surprised if they didn't.” Nie Mingjue drains his cup of tea as if it has wine in it and then sets it down. “The braids you're wearing are...” He shifts position, and actually looks his age for once rather than the older persona he usually projects. “... courting braids. Specifically, courting braids for a high ranking triad. It's called the Triple Crown.”
Meng Yao freezes, his cup halfway to his mouth. He lowers it slowly, the porcelain making a gentle clinking noise against the lacquered wood of the table.
“Courting braids,” he repeats flatly. “And you didn't think to tell me that?”
Nie Mingjue ducks his head, one hand coming up to rub sheepishly at the back of his neck. “I... I thought you knew,” he admitted. “You've been around the Sect for long enough that I thought you were aware of our courting methods.”
Meng Yao taps his fingers against his cup, trying to figure out what to say. “I... Wait. You said for a triad?”
Lan Xichen nods, reaching out to take hold of Nie Mingjue's free hand before answering. “Yes. We... We both care for you, and would be honored if you would allow us to court you, hopefully with the intention to marry you.”
Meng Yao's brain is starting to feel like soup with all the sudden shocks being sent his way. First they want to court him, and now they potentially want to marry him?
“I... Marriage? How would that even work since we're not all of the same Sect and men?”
“You'd be considered the First Consort of Nie and Lan, since Nie would be the primary Sect you're marrying into and then Lan the secondary, as you're already a part of Qinghe Nie,” Nie Mingjue explains. “We would have to travel between Qinghe and Gusu as needed, but that honestly wouldn't change much of what we do now anyways. And heirs... Well, we can always adopt or work with a surrogate, so there can't be any complaints about that. My parents were part of a triad, actually. All three married one another, though Huaisang's mother joined my mother and father's marriage three years after I was born, and from what I remember and what other say, all three were very happy with one another until their deaths.”
“But marriage is a ways away,” Lan Xichen adds quickly. “For now, we would be happy to just be able to court you as you deserve.”
It's that last sentence that throws Meng Yao the most. What he deserves? Most of the world at large would say that he deserves to bear his mother's burdens and her role in society, to be forever known as a prostitute's son. He thinks of his mother, of how she wanted him to seek out his father and get recognition from him, to rise above his humble beginnings and ascend into the glittering Jin tower. Meng Yao has always thought that his mother had a point, that getting that recognition would make his life better, but...
But he's seen the man behind the mask. Jin Guangshan will never acknowledge him as anything more than a by-blow with one of the many women he's slept with over the years. He'd likely be little more than a servant or aide, scraping and bowing to those he should rightfully call family. They'd treat him like a dog and cast him aside as easily should the situation be right. Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen, however... They've never seen him as anything more than himself, and that is rarer than any pearl or jeweled token in the whole of the world.
He's been so caught up in what he wants over the years- wealth, recognition, power -that he hasn't stopped to think about what he needs. Love is a terrible and a precious thing all at once, a tiger wrapped in silks and brocades, but its worth is far greater than any treasure the Jin sect can provide. The longer he thinks about it, the more Meng Yao realizes that the dreams of his childhood should stay there. He'll respect his mother in how he lives his life, but he cannot live the life she wanted for him. That will destroy him just as fire turns all it touches to ash.
Perhaps being the Consort of Nie and Lan won't be so bad after all, especially not with the two men he loves at his side. He can be selfish with what his heart wants and still gain so much more than what he has at the moment. It won't be easy- nothing worth doing ever is -but he's used to hard work and the challenges that come with it.
Meng Yao looks up from his now-empty cup, a true smile forming as he looks between Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen, quiet joy crinkling the corners of his eyes and mouth.
“I would be honored,” he says, reaching out to take their hands with his own, “to be by your sides for however long we have in this life.” He pauses, and then, unable to resist, adds, “Though perhaps next time you get a romantic idea into your heads, you'll tell me?”
The laughter that follows warms Meng Yao from head to toe better than any fine wine or down blanket, and as the conversation continues well into the afternoon, he feels like the richest man in the whole world.