Actions

Work Header

A Pavlovian Approach to Honesty

Work Text:

Wei Wuxian rolled into Meng Yao’s workshop at half-six on an otherwise unassuming Thursday evening in late spring, high on his own success. He dropped onto Meng Yao’s pristine white leather couch, grinning ear to ear, and entertaining himself with tossing what appeared to be a palm-sized jade magpie pendant between his hands, as though it wasn’t a priceless cultivation artifact of unknown origin.

“Get your ass off my couch,” Meng Yao ordered.

“Why is it only my ass that ever gets invited anywhere?” Wei Wuxian demanded playfully.

“Because unlike the rest of you it never insists that it isn't full of shit.”

Wei Wuxin laughed and tossed Meng Yao the pendant. The beautifully intricate piece sat heavier in his hand than Meng Yao had anticipated, unwarmed even by the heat of Wei Wuxian’s skin. It appeared to be made of a single piece of jade, painstakingly carved by hand.

“Did you have any trouble?”

“No. Sect Leader Yao hasn’t changed his security system since the last time I broke in.”

Sect Leader Yao, while ostensibly the leader of one of the remaining cultivation traditions, had a weak golden core and poor understanding of cultivation. He prided himself on his name, but had little in the way of talent, and exclusively traded in the former to curry favour with those stronger than him. He was, notably, one of Jin Guangshan's favourite cronies and liberating such items from his collection really meant keeping them out of Jin Guangshan's.

According to the shipping manifests, along with a truly obscene amount of jewelry and fake pieces bought up by Sect Leader Yao via lot sale, there was supposed to be an artifact which guaranteed prosperity. A trivial thing when compared to the more dangerous fare they generally focused on, but 'guaranteed' was a dangerous concept, and Sect Leader Yao could not be trusted to keep it out of the hands of people who might look at prosperity from an angle of conquest.

“This is not quite what I was expecting.”

In most instances, such things tended to be symbolically large and ostentatious. This meager little piece did nothing to identify itself as a powerful item.

"Well, it was the only thing in the collection with any significant spiritual power," Wei Wuxian shrugged. He started to kick his feet up onto Meng Yao's table, paused when he noticed the warning glare Meng Yao aimed at his hole-ridden socks, and lowered them back to the floor. "I put a minor glamour on the gaudiest necklace in the bunch. He won't notice it's a fake." Obviously; Sect Leader Yao was as oblivious as Wei Wuxian was talented.

Their mutually beneficial arrangement had been in place for little over a year: Wei Wuxian enjoying a habit of repatriating certain important cultivation artifacts from unworthy hands and Meng Yao benefitting from their examination and eventual rehoming.

(A pretty way to disguise the fact that Wei Wuxian was a thief and Meng Yao his fence, but it wasn’t as though either of them truly qualified for honest occupation, despite supposedly sterling family connections. How fortunate for both of them that their talents aligned perfectly, albeit in different ways—Wei Wuxian’s with his morals, Meng Yao’s with his ambition. It was not a Venn diagram from which Meng Yao ever anticipated he’d benefit, yet here they were.)

Wei Wuxian hopped up to his feet. “I should be off.”

Meng Yao’s eyebrow ticked upwards. Wei Wuxian usually wouldn’t be content without lounging around the office to tinker with and learn the pendant’s secrets, making a general nuisance of himself as his quicksilver brain puzzled things out before Meng Yao could make much headway. His willingness to leave unsatisfied could only really mean one thing. "When did Lan Wangji get back in, then?"

“Last night,” Wei Wuxian replied airily. As though surprised he'd answered at all, some of the levity faded from his expression. “I’ve texted him sixty-two times today. It kills me a little every time he leaves me on read.”

“Far be it from me to deny you the pleasure of pestering him in person.”

“I’m really scared of the day he realizes I’m not worth the time.” Wei Wuxian blinked shocked eyes and immediately looked at his fingernails in a transparent effort to seem disinterested. He needn’t have bothered; Meng Yao had catalogued every one of his tells within a week of meeting him, and Wei Wuxian had never bothered to correct them. The self-awareness was, at least, new.

"Anyway. Goodnight, Yaoyao."

"Goodnight."

His attention flitted up from his messy cuticles. "I'm really glad I have you."

"You don't have me," Meng Yao sniffed. No one did. Wei Wuxian had been one of three people to show up at the hospital when Meng Yao had been admitted with severe injuries and despite the incendiary abuse Meng Yao hurled his way, he’d decided to stay. They had a forged a surprisingly equitable partnership but they weren’t friends.

"I've got part of you. It's enough for me," Wei Wuxian trundled on, grinning ear to ear like he wasn't in the process of absolutely gutting literal years of carefully constructed distance. "Loving Lan Zhan's always been easy. Loving you is harder, but in a good way. Like pushing myself that little bit more during a workout. You're my PB friendship."

"You're a pain in my ass and constantly shuffle yourself up on the list of people upon whom I will one day visit terrible revenge," Meng Yao said. "You're being strange. Get out."

Wei Wuxian nodded. "I'm going to go find Lan Zhan."

Meng Yao waited until he was gone to settle down and examine the pendant. Tiny characters had been engraved along the edge of the pendant, the string of them no bigger than the tip of a ballpoint pen. Doubtless Wei Wuxian had read them himself; he'd never come across a puzzle he hadn't wanted to pick apart and put back together in a better formation. He retrieved his loupe for a closer look; they appeared to be nothing more than a random assortment of hanzi, not remotely resembling sense or coherent construction. Yet the pendant itself hummed with the subtle feeling of a first class spiritual tool. Not cursed, Meng Yao doubted. If it had been, Wei Wuxian would have kept it for his own dubiously legal collection of bits and bobs. But nothing Meng Yao could immediately identify.

His phone buzzed next to his elbow shortly after he finished the first onceover.

Lan Xichen (7:03 p.m.): Are you having a good evening? Did you take a moment to eat?
Lan Xichen (7:03 p.m.): Da-ge is making soup if you'd care to join us for dinner

Both statements were punctuated with a fleet of yellow, smiling faces. One of the great mysteries of Meng Yao’s life: how he could desperately love a man who relied so heavily on emojis? At least he didn’t rely on “textspeak” and kaomojis like Nie Huaisang.

Meng Yao (7:05 p.m.): Thank you, I had an apple sometime earlier this morning.
Meng Yao (7:08 p.m.): Da-ge uses too much sesame oil in his broth for my palate.

A slight shiver tickled the base of his skull, pleasant and relaxing. Interesting. He hadn’t meant to let slip any minor complaint over Nie Mingjue’s cooking skills, but found he had no regrets. That in itself struck him as odd. He glanced warily at the pendant.

Lan Xichen (7:08 p.m.): Oh? You never mentioned this before?

The tone of the text and accompanying teary-eyed emoticons seemed mildly chiding, as though Meng Yao maintaining a polite neutrality with regards to Nie Mingjue’s cooking could stack up against the rest of his sins.

Lan Xichen (7:10 p.m.): He says it's no trouble to add extra for himself afterwards if need be.

And then, with predictable alacrity,

Nie Mingjue (7:12 p.m.): Is this why you haven't been coming around for dinner?
Nie Mingjue (7:12 p.m.): Because of my cooking?

In all honesty, he couldn’t even claim to be surprised that Lan Xichen had immediately looped in Nie Mingjue. The two of them enjoyed frankly exhausting open lines of communication. Possibly because the only secret Nie Mingjue ever tried to keep had almost ended in his death.

Meng Yao (7:15 p.m.): No, da-ge.
Meng Yao (7:20 p.m.): I find watching the two of you together an exquisitely painful reminder of everything I want and cannot have.
Meng Yao (7:20 p.m.): Keeping my distance is a defense mechanism.

A generous swell of satisfaction travelled down his spine, not dissimilar from an autonomous sensory meridian response. With no immediate replies from either of them, he put his phone down and continued his examination of the pendant, eventually reaching for his cleaning tools when he noticed some dirt ground into the fine lines of the carving.

Perhaps he should have anticipated Lan Xichen and Nie Mingjue showing up at his door after sending such a text. He was in the midst of using a soft-bristled toothbrush, gently teasing out the bits of grit when his door opened—gently, indicating that Lan Xichen had been first out of the car—and the two of them stepped inside. They must have broken a few traffic laws to arrive so quickly.

“A-Yao?” Lan Xichen asked.

He looked up, owlishly blinking behind his loupe. “Xichen-ge. My day is always improved when I see you.” The shiver returned and he sighed at the pleasure of it, as though someone was brushing the gentlest of fingertips across the soft hair at the nape of his neck.

Lan Xichen’s ears turned red.

“What is that?” Nie Mingjue demanded in lieu of reacting to Meng Yao’s greeting, staring at the pendant.

“Hm? Oh, a recent acquisition. Presumably one that rewards the telling of truth, though how that plays into a life of prosperity, I cannot discern.” Less of a shiver this time. Telling, perhaps, of what truths the pendant encouraged. Generic statements with little weight produced a lesser effect. He wondered if he was in any way compelled to speak the truth, or if the pendant merely rewarded it.

“I am about to lie to you,” Meng Yao said. “For science.”

Doubtless Nie Mingjue had some suitably cutting remarks about his general levels of honesty. If so, he stopped himself from sharing them when Lan Xichen placed a hand on his arm.

Meng Yao opened his mouth to speak, and not a single word issued forth. Now he thought of it, he could not conjure up a single lie. He had employed a substantial number of them over the course of his life, but they now all fled him entirely. Not only that, he was glad of it. The absence of carefully crafted personal fiction felt oddly freeing.

“Interesting,” he murmured. He returned his attention to the characters looping the outside of the pendant. “Could you please pass me that tuning fork?” One of them pressed it into his hand. “Thank you.” He gently struck it against the counter and then pressed it to the pendant. The same pleasant shiver travelled up his arm from the pendant and he took in a quick breath. “This was a gift from Su Minshan from the period in which he attempted to insist upon entering a sexual relationship with me.”

Ah. Better not to try and recreate the sensation, then, as apparently it resulted in him being unable to stop himself from speaking, as opposed to merely being rewarded from doing so. He set the tuning fork down in case it conjured up any further mortifying personal facts.

He felt rather than saw them tense, the sudden contraction of such substantial muscle density pulling the oxygen right out of the air. Doubtless Nie Mingjue’s biceps accounted for more than their fair share.

“Was that the lie?” Lan Xichen asked cautiously.

“That it were,” Meng Yao wished. “But no. I think he suspected it was a way of avenging himself upon you and Lan Wangji, though I cannot imagine why.” Lan Xichen shifted uncomfortably. “He is far too fond of negging, however, and didn’t seem to realize I don’t find such things palatable.” It had taken Wei Wuxian, his crash of overly-muscled acquaintances, and one scary woman with acupuncture needles to drive him off. So far as Meng Yao knew, he had decided to enter the employment of Jin Guangshan shortly thereafter, though whether because he truly wanted to work for Meng Yao’s father or was merely petty and desperate remained to be seen.

He retrieved a blank grey moleskin notebook from his desk and jotted down a few items he thought pertinent:

  • ASMR-like stimulation experienced during moments of honesty (prompted or otherwise);
  • Lies do not come readily when spoken;
    • I do not want to be wrapped up in their duvet like an oversized burrito and cherished.
      • Lies do not come readily when written down

Typically he’d use the spreadsheet app on his phone, but his overattachment to proper formatting leant itself better to organizing information after the fact rather than on the fly.

“Are you feeling compelled to tell us anything?” Lan Xichen asked.

“Not precisely. It does feel nice. I hadn’t associated honesty with anything pleasant before now.”

“I don’t think you’ll appreciate this in the morning,” Nie Mingjue muttered. “Do you want us to leave you be? Or gag you?”

“I’m finding this entire affair curiously enjoyable, actually,” Meng Yao stated. “Perhaps if you were less honourable, I would be concerned, but there's not two other people in this world who I'd trust with protecting whatever secrets I end up inadvertently revealing."

Lan Xichen breathed out a relieved sigh, his mouth twitching up at the corners. "Thank you A-Yao."

"Especially my father," A-Yao continued. Thank goodness he hadn’t encountered such a thing while in Jin Guangshan’s presence.

"I know you've had your differences," Lan Xichen nodded sadly.

"To put it mildly. Which is why I'm planning to kill him."

Through the intensely enjoyable shiver which followed, he barely noticed when Nie Mingjue dropped a sancai-glazed camel figurine dating back more than a thousand years. It bounced off the thick carpeting Meng Yao had carefully aligned against his baseboards for just such an occasion; he did, occasionally, have cause to host Xue Yang, who very rarely put things down carefully so much as ‘yeet them back into place, Yao-ge, what’s the big deal it’s probably a fake anyway.’ Wei Wuxian had recommended it.

Hm. Wei Wuxian had more than likely discovered the effects of the pendant by now. Meng Yao drew out his phone to text him and ask after his own experiences. Before he could do more than pull up his contacts, Nie Mingjue plucked it from his hand.

“I think you should let me hold onto this for now,” he said.

Meng Yao sighed but acquiesced.

Lan Xichen rested one of his broad hands on Meng Yao’s shoulder, which he didn’t push into out of long habit. "Do you only want to answer direct questions?"

"No. Nor do I feel obliged to answer them. But the sensation of the accompanying ASMR is very pleasant. I can't believe that everyone feels the same way when they speak honestly or the world would likely be a vastly different place."

While there wasn’t a deep-seated need to crow his secrets out into the universe, every time he did he felt somehow better. Not a weight lifted from his shoulders, or any such tired metaphor—his secrets did not weigh him down because he kept them in good conscience (for the most part). But the euphoric delight every time he delivered one into the universe felt like a compelling reason to continue doing so.

“Grab his things, A-Huan,” Nie Mingue said. “We should get him home.”

Within minutes they’d properly secured all questionable materials in their rightful place and bundled him up into the back of Nie Mingjue’s vehicle. He’d left the motorcycle at home, then. Shame. There were one or two truths Meng Yao had been holding on about it that didn't seem particularly germane to the conversation and he felt no pressing desire to offer them up without prompting. He jotted down the importance of context in his notebook for consideration at a later time.

They made their way across towards the more respectable side of town, inching along in nighttime traffic, made worse once they reached the bridge and the cars around them came to a complete standstill. Nie Mingjue’s lips curled in annoyance. His touring bike wasn’t quite as good as Meng Yao’s moped for weaving around traffic, but he might have been able to inch his way along slightly faster than he could in the monstrous SUV.

By the time they made it to the elegant home they shared, well past suppertime, Meng Yao had filled at least three pages.

They sat him down at the dinner table, Nie Mingjue offering a gruff, “I left out the sesame oil,” as he shoved a bowl of soup under Meng Yao’s nose.

“Thank you. I anticipate it being terrible regardless, but I do appreciate the consideration.”

Nie Mingjue scowled into his own bowl as Lan Xichen poorly hid a smile behind his spoon.

"Does everyone feel that way about my cooking?" Nie Mingjue trumped.

"A-Sang appreciates it for the nostalgia factor," Lan Xichen offered, obviously trying not to laugh.

Nie Mingjue pointedly slurped his soup.

Before any of them finished their meal, awful as it was, Lan Xichen’s phone buzzed three times in quick succession.

“It’s Wangji.” He pulled out his phone to scan the texts. “A-Xian stopped by, and appears—” He cast a knowing smile towards Meng Yao, “To be similarly challenged at the moment.”

Nie Mingjue snorted. “You two really lucked out in who you decided to spend time with tonight.”

“Hm. It would have been disastrous if Wei Wuxian had sought out Jiang Wanyin and had revealed what really happened with his golden core.” Ah, a much milder sensation, and not nearly as satisfying. Apparently the truly magnificent reactions occurred when he spoke of his own affairs. Doubtless Wei Wuxian would be in need of a change of trousers in the event he revealed the truth of the matter to his brother.

“His—?” Lan Xichen’s phone chirped again and after reading the message, he fell silent for several long moments before taking a shaky breath. “How did you know, A-Yao?”

“Because I am very clever.”

Nie Mingjue snorted, but it was not a cruel sound. Meng Yao knew what it sounded like when Da-ge behaved cruelly—intentionally or otherwise. This snort he chose to categorize as amused but not in disagreement.

"I'm sorry, I… I need to take this," Lan Xichen said as his phone buzzed again, this time an incoming call. Somehow even the default ringtone managed to sound panicked. "Da-ge, I trust you not to take advantage."

Nie Mingjue waved him off and Lan Xichen exited the room. The moment he was gone, Meng Yao prepared himself for the oncoming onslaught of questions. Nie Mingjue never lied, but nor had he made any commitments to Lan Xichen regarding the opportunity offered by Meng Yao's current state.

"Your father," Nie Mingjue said. "What the fuck. You're planning to kill him?"

"Oh, yes. If I have it my way, his death will be both beautifully ironic and disgustingly apropos."

"Why?"

"Why… kill him? Would you prefer the list ordered chronologically, alphabetically, or by degree of severity?"

Nie Mingjue stared at him, moustache twitching. "Dealer's choice."

Meng Yao took a sip of his tea. "Then I shall begin when I first met him at age five."


Reasonably, Lan Xichen knew he should not have left Mingjue alone with A-Yao. They had only really just returned to a semblance of civility over the past year. He suspected their shaky reconciliation had come about due to his own distress when they failed to get along, and Mingjue still held some deep wrought grievances about A-Yao's conduct, first during his time with QingheNie and then while in the employ of Jin Guangshan. But he could not ignore Wangji's call. His brother would sooner have an unanesthetized root canal than talk on the phone most days, and seeing his name light up Lan Xichen's screen had been so alarming as to trigger his own panic response.

It had been a harrowing conversation and, Lan Xichen suspected, not the last one of the evening.

The excellent soundproofing on their patio door had kept his two crises temporarily segmented, but the moment he stepped back inside the wash of A-Yao's voice swept over him. They’d relocated to the living room, seated opposite one another, though they both seemed determined to avoid meeting one another’s eyes.

"...fourteen he threw me down the stairs of Koi Tower. There are one hundred and twenty-three steps, which lead to distal clavicle fracture and acute primary patellar dislocation requiring both surgery and six months of physio, neither which I frankly couldn’t afford and ultimately ended with me living out of my late mother’s sedan for the duration. When I was sixteen he arranged for me to join the Jin sect and offered to legitimize me, but only in return for offering my services as a bag man to Wen Ruohan. When I was seventeen he rescinded the offer—"

"This has to be by degree of severity," Mingjue interrupted. He looked several shades paler than when Lan Xichen had left only minutes ago.

"Not at all, Da-ge. The last three years have actually been the most egregious. Would you like me to reorder the list?" He didn't wait for Mingjue's response. "Prior to his trespasses against myself, of course, I consider his treatment of my mother a reasonable justification for wanting to put him in the ground. Then, last year, he had a handful of cultivators, including my cousin Zixun, beat me, stab me, and leave me for dead—"

"You said you were mugged!" Lan Xichen gasped.

"I lied. In response to my refusal to go through with the plans to assassinate Da-ge—"

The blood rushed from his head and Lan Xichen sat down on the floor, not feeling truly capable of making it to the nearest chair.

"—which he had not so much ordered as strongly recommended if I wanted to be legitimized. He made it very clear that I had squandered the last of his goodwill by refusing and didn’t care very much whether or not I lived through the experience.” His lips pulled together in a tight moue. “It meant quite a bit to me that you came to the hospital, Da-ge. I was not expecting it.”

His smile appeared genuine. As though this recounting of a hundred lives’ worth of trauma struck him as intensely pleasing. The pendant must have been a powerful thing for the effects to last so long and for A-Yao to continue feeling so uncharacteristically pleased at his enforced honesty.

Lan Xichen blinked. He hadn’t realized Mingjue had visited A-Yao during his recuperation. But, more pressingly, "Why did he want Mingjue dead?" And did they still have to worry?

"Because Da-ge is a dangerous combination of integrous and stubborn. He cannot be bought, manipulated or threatened into doing anything he doesn't want and that scares both Jin Guangshan and Wen Ruohan quite a bit." He frowned. "That one felt less satisfying. Perhaps because everyone already knows it?"

A-Yao paused to finish his tea, his cheeks flushed, then penned the observation in his notebook.

Mingjue asked, through the stormy cast to his face, "Why not kill me? You hate me."

"Those are two separate clauses, Da-ge. To address the first, when I considered the contents of columns A and B, column B was decidedly lengthier."

"You made a spreadsheet?!"

"I make spreadsheets about everything. Though this one I kept relatively simple since I could hardly send it to A-Sang to double check my macros."

Nie Mingjue dropped his head into his hands. "What about the other, then."

"Hm?"

"The other clause, he means," Lan Xichen supplied.

"Ah. If I truly hated you there was not an entry in column B which would have saved you. Well," he amended, "Xichen-ge's feelings would have given me pause." A-Yao’s shoulders twitched, a sign Lan Xichen had quickly come to associate with the pendant's effects.

"Do you base a lot of your decisions on Xichen's feelings?" Mingjue did not sound overly surprised. Perhaps, if surprise were a well, they had completely diminished his depths.

"Yes. I have been reliably informed that if you do not have an inborn sense of morality, store bought is fine."

"By whom?!"

"Xue Yang. It came up in context when he introduced me to his partners."

"I need a cigarette," Nie Mingjue stated.

"You quit," Xichen reminded him.

"And I have never regretted doing so as much as I do tonight." He fixed A-Yao with a searching eye. "How long was the 'kill me' column?"

"I came up with three entries. My father had quite a few more but I dismissed them as irrelevant to my personal evaluation."

"Dare I ask how those were organized?" Mingjue asked dryly. For all the thunder in his face, Lan Xichen couldn’t help but notice extremely well-hidden amusement.

"Alphabetically. I considered them to have equal weighting."

"I'd like to know what they are."

"Mingjue—" Lan Xichen protested. Mingjue raised his hand and Lan Xichen quieted.

"I think that it's probably something I should know."

If this ended with the two of them not speaking for another five year stretch, Lan Xichen was going to be devastated. The first time had been hard enough. He'd tried to balance himself between them as best he could, but neither of them ever believed it when he said the other had asked about them.

“The first entry: acceptance by my father. He is a cruel, piggish oaf but he is powerful. Placing myself in his confidence would position me not only to carry out my plans of patricide, but also allow me to manoeuvre myself into prominence among LanlingJin after his death.

“The second is jealousy. I feel that’s very obvious. From the moment Xichen-ge stepped through your office door on my first day I’ve been excruciatingly attracted to him and I envy the life you two have built together.

“And the last: termination of my position in QingheNie. I appreciate that it was required, but it did inadvertently lead me to becoming vulnerable to my father’s manipulations at the worst possible moment.”

Mingjue stood and walked to the window to look out to the night beyond, all amusement fled. "You know why I had to do that."

"Yes, you were quite clear. I still lie awake at night turning the words 'morally reprehensible' over in my head and wondering why they impacted me so strongly."

“And these things are reason enough to kill me.” It wasn’t a question.

“Those would have been my prime motivations, yes."

For the first time that evening, a heavy silence consumed the room, burning up the air between them as though they’d set the house ablaze.

“What was in column B?” Lan Xichen finally whispered.

“Does it matter?” Mingjue demanded roughly.

“If you feel the reasons for him to murder you were relevant, then I believe the reasons against it to be equally, if not more, so. After all, he didn’t do it.”


Meng Yao truly couldn't guess at what Lan Xichen was playing, but he felt no need to withhold the information. Nie Mingjue's opinion of him, after all, could hardly sink lower. He’d seen his last hope for anything between them die in Nie Mingjue’s eyes when he’d turned away.

“It will take quite a bit longer. There were three hundred and sixty-eight items in column B.”

Meng Yao’s entire body shivered and he couldn’t help but twitch in his seat at the intense pleasure of it. Both of them shifted back around to face A-Yao full on, Nie Mingjue’s face terribly conflicted.

“Three hundred and sixty-eight,” Nie Mingjue repeated.

“Yes. There were more but I realized a number of them to be duplicate entries I had inadvertently added through an overuse of synonymous terms."

Lan Xichen, Meng Yao noted, began to smile. He couldn't fathom why; it wasn't as though flattery would salvage his freshly crumbled relationship with Nie Mingjue. At this point, he doubted anything could.

"Were they also weighted equally?" Why did Lan Xichen sound pleased? Surely he had to see the same thing Meng Yao did: that Nie Mingjue was one more confession away from taking a page from Jin Guangshan's playbook and throwing Meng Yao down a flight of stairs.

"No, though I did keep them ordered alphabetically for the sake of consistency."

"Then what would you say is the most important item?"

"I." He stopped abruptly and stood, wringing his hands. "Xichen-ge." Couldn't they spare him this last humiliation? This no longer seemed as pleasant as it had at the beginning.

"Meng Yao?" Nie Mingjue's face had twisted yet again, but this time it did not resemble disgust. Or contempt, even. In this case he only looked terribly confused. "What was it?" He glanced at Lan Xichen, who merely continued to smile.

"Well. It's the fact that I'm in love with you."

The reaction overtook his entire body, shooting stimulating signals to each nerve ending until he felt as though he would shake apart entirely. Not only one response branching out across his nerves, but an ongoing roll that hit him like lightning from the crown of his head to the tips of his toes and back.

When it finally passed, leaving him nearly as blissed out and fuck-drunk as the most powerful orgasm he'd ever experienced, Meng Yao found himself on the floor with Lan Xichen and Nie Mingjue hovering nearby as though unsure as to whether they should touch him.

Or horrified enough not to want to.

Mortification quickly followed the thought. The pendant had left him flayed open on the ground and now he felt as though he was in his right mind he desperately hated it for betraying everything he'd kept close to his breast.

"May I excuse myself to your bathroom, Nie-zongzhu?" Meng Yao asked the carpet.

"A-Yao—" Meng Yao flinched, the endearment on Lan Xichen's tongue too painful to bear at the moment. The other man quieted.

Neither of them protested as he climbed to his feet and dismissed himself.

When Nie Mingjue had first purchased this home, a centralized location originally intended to serve as a home away from home when he was obliged to be around the other sect leaders for political reasons, the entire place had been decorated in countless vomitous shades of tan. Between the two of them, Meng Yao and Nie Huaisang had redecorated the entire place in colours and styles that would bring to mind Qinghe, both hoping the reminder that he had to endure the aggravation of leadership for the good of his sect. When Lan Xichen moved in several years later, he had thrown all their carefully designed plans to the heavens. Literally. He added in his own preferred shades of blue, surprisingly complementary white and silver accents, and cloud motifs. The back bathroom, the one Meng Yao still liked to think of as his, had been the only room to escape the blending of theme.

He splashed his face with water and met his own eyes in the mirror.

"I love Da-ge's cooking and as an individual he means nothing to me," he recited, relieved to note the words came as easily as they ever had before. "I have no desire to go for a ride on his motorcycle followed by a ride on his moustache. Lan Xichen is merely an honoured acquaintance. Wei Wuxian is only tolerable because of his participation in our shared enterprise." Strangely he found himself longing for the complicated joy he felt when the pendant had him in thrall. The lies left him feeling unsettlingly cold and empty.

He frowned at himself. "I want to kill my father." A small shiver, though he couldn't tell whether it was some sort of aftereffect or his imagination.

Would the rest of his life be lived in such a way? Feeling poorly when he lied and a sense of reward from his honesty? Could people live in such a way?

Well of course they could: two very fine examples awaited him in the living room. Had he and Nie Huaisang not been strongly invested in the two of them, the world would have already run roughshod over the sect leaders of Lan and Nie.

Perhaps if he limited his lying for good causes he would feel better about it. Something to ponder.

He used the facilities, washed his hands, then headed out to what he imagined would be something like an execution.

Da-ge was in the kitchen, looking at his coffee maker as though it held the secrets of the universe.

"Cup?" he asked with a strained voice.

"Thank you, no. If I enjoyed the flavour of engine emissions I would have become a mechanic." The tiniest spark of a reaction pricked pleasantly at his scalp.

Seated at the kitchen table, Lan Xichen asked, "You're still experiencing the same reactions?"

"Not to any real extent. I am finding there are some lingering feelings when I speak honestly. They are not unpleasant save for the consequences."

Nie Mingjue frowned. "Consequences?"

"I can't imagine there won't be, with everything I've said tonight." He spared a moment of empathy for Wei Wuxian, who surely would face a number of his own. The pendant’s promise of prosperity, he felt, had been somewhat deceptive given his surety he was about to lose everything that mattered to him.

Finally Nie Mingjue turned to look at him, tilting his chin until he caught Meng Yao’s eyes. Held them.

Lan Xichen rose from the table. Meng Yao clocked him in his peripheral vision, strangely unable to look away from Nie Mingjue.

The man in question took a heaving breath, moustache trembling, and then sharply inclined his head. “I have never allowed myself to love you. Not because the desire isn't there, but because there's not much I wouldn't do for the people I love and I fear what that means when it comes to you."

Meng Yao's heart stuttered in his chest. What did that mean?

"Is there a way we can convince you not to kill your father?" Lan Xichen asked before Meng Yao could explore the implications.

Meng Yao gave the question the consideration it was due. "I suppose I could settle for destroying him financially, psychologically, reputationally and physically. There will likely always be a part of me that wants him dead, but seeing him suffer might be an acceptable alternative." His head tilted to the side. "I could even do it legally, I imagine."

"Why don't we focus on that," Lan Xichen suggested. "Working within the confines of these may be somewhat more inefficient—" Nie Mingjue snorted "—but have less chance of ending with you jailed. Or, heavens forbid, corrupted beyond recognition."

"You believe I have not already crossed that point?" Meng Yao demanded, honestly mystified at the idea of the answer being 'no.' Truly, it wasn’t Lan Xichen he wanted to hear an answer from.

Shock hit him like a taser when Nie Mingjue cupped his cheek. The space between them shrank to mere inches, vastly different from the leagues he felt had separated them these past few years. Lan Xichen took his right hand, locking their fingers together when Meng Yao couldn't summon the energy to do much more than twitch.

"I have always wanted to believe the best of you," Nie Mingjue told him. "If tonight was your worst, then I think we've been well rewarded."

"Da-ge," Meng Yao protested.

Whatever might have come next silenced itself when Nie Mingjue crossed those precious last inches and kissed him. Meng Yao gulped in a surprised breath which Nie Mingjue chased down with a swipe of his tongue before withdrawing—cruelly ignoring Meng Yao's whine of protest—and turning him towards Lan Xichen.

Kissing Nie Mingjue felt like the end of a journey that had lasted a thousand miles. Kissing Lan Xichen felt like coming home again.

When they broke it took a long moment for Meng Yao to realize he was shaking.

"A-Yao?" Nie Mingjue whispered. His hand was still pressed against Meng Yao's cheek.

"This is everything I've ever wanted," Meng Yao told him.

It was such a simple, uncomplicated truth that when he spoke it he barely felt anything at all.


The next morning, leaving Nie Mingjue asleep in bed and noting that Lan Xichen's running shoes were absent from the front hall, Meng Yao retrieved his phone from where Nie Mingjue had left it in his jacket pocket and made a phone call.

Wei Wuxian answered with a groan. "It’s so early, Yaoyao. Why?" he whimpered plaintively.

"It's time," Meng Yao said.

A brief pause, and then Wei Wuxian replied in a much more awake tone, "We’re going to take down your old man?"

Meng Yao braced himself. "Yes. But. Legally."

"Oooh, they really got to you, huh?"

"Would you like me to ask about your evening? How is Lan Wangji this morning?"

"He's cooking me breakfast. It's terrible." Meng Yao could hear the smile. If Wei Wuxian had been unbearable about Lan Wangji before now, it was likely nothing in comparison to how he would behave now that they’d finally gotten their shit together. "But yeah. I'm ready."

Meng Yao nodded, even though he knew Wei Wuxian would be unable to see it. "I'll meet you at my workshop at noon." That should give him a chance to shower and share a leisurely breakfast with Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen—a pleasure he had enjoyed before, but never in the same, much more mystifyingly wonderful, context.

"But could we. I mean. Maybe tomorrow? I should probably have a chat with A-Cheng."

"Tomorrow, then." Meng Yao paused and tapped his lower lip with his index finger. "Bring the schematics for Koi Tower you pretend you don't have."

"Done."

They ended the call without saying goodbye. Flicking through the apps on his phone, Meng Yao opened his most frequently used program and began titling the column headers.