It was a warm summer’s night. Lan Xichen stepped into his room, having finished his reflection hour soaking in the recesses’ Cold Springs. At a small table illuminated by a candle, Jin Guangyao was seated on the floor, browsing through various papers and books, his silky hair still damp from a bath. Lan Xichen made his way towards him, smiling and wrapping his arms around the smaller man.
“What are you doing?” he asked, despite it being obvious.
“Grading our students’ work,” Jin Guangyao replied. He pointed at a particular one. “This boy – Lan SiZhui – he really stands out. I can tell he’s going to go far in the cultivation world.”
“Mn,” said Lan Xichen, sidling closer. “He’s a good boy.” He then shifted himself, as if he was ready to change the topic. “A-Yao, you’ve taken a bath, I see.”
Jin Guangyao grinned at him. “Should I have not?”
“You’ll have to do it all over again,” Lan Xichen whispered tenderly. He grinned back and edged even closer, if it were even possible, slipping his hands into his lover’s loose robes. First playing with his companion’s nipples and nibbling his ear from behind, the tall Lan heir lifted the shorter man onto his lap and began undoing his sash, moving his hands to massage his companion’s shaft. Jin Guangyao’s cheeks pinked as he held on to Lan Xichen’s arm.
The temperature of his body rose, competing with the summer heat. Jin Guangyao tilted his head to kiss his partner, using their noticeable height difference to his advantage. It was nice to be able to kiss on the same level when sitting on someone’s lap, and if there was anything to note, it was that the esteemed Zewu-Jun’s lover loved nothing more than to kiss. There was an underlying taste of jasmine tea and a slight sweetness in Jin Guangyao’s gentle, airy kisses that he could never really put a finger into, but refreshing as it was, it was also what made those lips so tantalizing. Lan Xichen could not get enough.
The man shifted once again, removing his own pants from under his lover – and as if he understood, Jin Guangyao lifted his hips and sat directly on Lan Xichen’s growing erection. They both began to move, Lan Xichen’s member sandwiched between his lover’s smooth posterior and rubbing his scrotum. Jin Guangyao began to moan in ecstasy, throwing his head backwards. His damp hair swung around his shoulders, a soft scent of peony blossoms mingled with the scent of sweat.
Relentlessly, Lan Xichen pushed the dark locks away to kiss his neck, thrusting harder and faster. They were slick, slippery; skin to skin, heat to heat. He squeezed Jin Guangyao in his arms as he came, spilling his warm seed. They panted for a while, enjoying the glow.
Even after he had come, however, Lan Xichen had remained in the same position, holding on to his partner like he never wanted to let go. There were a lot of things he wanted to say, and his embrace said it all for him. Jin Guangyao leaned back against Lan Xichen’s broad chest, smiling sweetly. His dark hair spilled backwards as he lifted a hand to warmly caress his lover’s cheek. Lan Xichen beamed and panned his gaze downwards.
His lover’s neck lay limp on his shoulder, broken and crushed. A stream of blood gushed from Jin Guangyao’s gaping wound where his hand was just a moment ago.
Lan Xichen jerked back in horror, releasing his arms. Jin Guangyao’s lifeless body toppled over onto the floor with a dull thud, the warm blood seeping into the wooden floor of the room. His eyes were still wide open, staring fixatedly at his lover, a world of hurt filling his eyes as he was abandoned. He stretched his only hand out.
Dark brown eyes snapped open, and in a daze Lan Xichen sat up. He looked at his clothes and shook them – he had been sweating profusely. There was a soft knock against the wooden beam at his doorway, and judging from the voice, it was his younger brother who had come to visit. Lan Xichen looked around. It was not yet nine.
Lan Xichen had been having dreams like the one before constantly for months on end now. Instead of shunning them like he did the first time, he had come to accept and embrace them. At times they were mellow, gentle memories that he had of his youngest sworn brother, at other times they were happy dreams of things that could have been, sometimes with terrifying ends. Sometimes they were chaste, and sometimes they were intimate.
However, he was not to dwell on it for too long, now that he had a guest. Lan Xichen got up and answered the door.
“Wangji,” he greeted his brother warmly, albeit tiredly. “Come in. I see you’ve come back from Yunmeng.”
Lan Wangji nodded.
“Brother,” he said, stepping into the room. He noticed his older brother’s red, puffy eyes, but said nothing. On a small dresser stood a small bucket of peonies, still fresh as they had been well cared for, and Lan Wangji’s nose picked up that the incense burning in the background was a clear, mellow jasmine instead of the usual sandalwood.
“Sit, please,” Lan Xichen waved his arm welcomingly at his table, moving around to get some tea brewed for the two of them. Without a word, Lan Wangji sat himself elegantly on a cushion. His brother came by, all smiles, two cups and a teapot in his hand filled with high quality jasmine green tea. Lan Wangji lifted a brow, and his brother laughed.
“Surprised? The children got it for me.”
To cheer him up, the Lan Sect juniors had at one point popped by to ask the grieving Zewu-Jun what he wanted before leaving on one of their trips, and he had specifically requested fresh peonies, floral incense and tea. Since it was relatively easy to obtain in Carp Tower, they had decided to procure them for him whenever they visited Lanling. Jin Ling, on hearing that they were for Zewu-Jun, had given them a large stash of his late uncle’s favourites.
Lan Wangji gazed at his brother’s sunken face. He had not seen him in a while due to business, and this looked alarming to him. The older man smiled and laughed as usual, but the shadow of pain always remained, and it looked like he had not been eating or sleeping much. Lan Wangji silently deduced that this might have something to do with the former Lanling-Jin Sect head.
Death had a way of forgiving things. Jin Guangyao had wronged the world, his cherished sworn brothers included. Had he survived, Lan Xichen might have perhaps learned to scorn and pity him. But now that he was gone, all those feelings had been replaced with longing and loss. After all, while Jin Guangyao had done several evil things, he had kept true to his word and done all he could to keep Lan Xichen safe and treated with respect.
The late Lanling-Jin Sect leader would never hurt his older brother for the world – Zewu-Jun had been the only light in this man’s miserable, disgraceful life. This Lan Wangji understood more than anything else, even more so after listening to Wei Wuxian’s experiences with Empathy.
And although he knew he probably should not have, he had decided to share these stories with his brother. Lan Xichen had been in pain for a while, struggling to accept the whole ordeal. He would have been completely broken if Lan Wangji had not stepped in at Wei Wuxian’s behest – that the younger Lan Jade told his brother that not everything had been a lie, and even if it were, there had been reasons that led up to it, some good, some bad. Once again Wei Wuxian had egged someone to do bad for the sake of good. How much the good or bad outweighed each other was unknown.
Telling him what Wei Wuxian had seen did indeed work, for a while, however. Lan Xichen, finally knowing that Jin Guangyao had loved him as a friend, and that their bond as sworn brothers had not been a complete lie, began to heal. Nevertheless, after a while, the man suddenly began to descend downhill again. When Lan Wangji saw Lan Xichen at the Sect banquet that evening, he was taken aback by how malnourished and weak he looked. This worried Lan Wangji greatly, and he had come to talk to his brother. Now that he was in his brother’s room, he immediately understood what was happening.
Lan Xichen was going through what he himself had undergone more than a decade ago, back when Wei Wuxian had first been killed. Where Lan Wangji had filled his loss and pain with flutes and alcohol, his older brother was filling it with sweet incense, tea and flowers. They were things that their loved ones had cherished and enjoyed while they were alive, and having them around helped the two men cope with their loss.
Except Lan Wangji had been in love with Wei Wuxian, and his older brother was merely sworn brothers with Jin Guangyao. He had not mourned the same way for Nie Mingjue. Quite frankly, it made little sense that he was mourning that particular way. Lan Wangji looked at the teacup filled with expensive green tea, and began to talk.
“Brother,” he said, “I have come to inquire about your health.”
Lan Xichen smiled a small smile. He knew how dreadful he looked. He had found it hard to eat and therefore inevitably thinned out. Dreams, both good and bad, had started plaguing him, shifting his regular sleeping hours. It was not even nine yet –yet he had been asleep and unable to answer the door immediately.
“Wangji, it would be a lie if I told you I was fine,” he sighed. “You’ve always been smart, so it’d be senseless to tell you a lie.”
“You were recovering,” said Lan Wangji.
“Yes, until I began to feel as if half of my life had been taken away,” he nodded, drinking from his cup.
“You mourn the same way I mourned before.”
“Yes. I covet what you have with Wei Wuxian.”
Lan Wangji looked up slowly from his cup. He had half-expected this, but hearing it directly from his brother was truly something else. Lan Wangji felt his tongue tie up. He looked numbly at Lan Xichen, who smiled sheepishly at his younger sibling.
“I know you think I’m crazy.”
“I do not.”
There was a brief moment of silence before Lan Wangji spoke up again.
“What do you intend to do about it?”
Lan Xichen smiled sadly. “Nothing.”
Lan Wangji understood. Unlike Wei Wuxian, whose soul had simply vanished and nobody knew what happened to, everyone knew well what had happened to Jin Guangyao’s. It had been buried under a mountain in a coffin with Nie Mingjue’s fierce corpse, and nobody was to let it out, if they feared death. Far from ever coming back to life, Jin Guangyao was not allowed to even reincarnate. Lan Xichen, despite all the good and pure he brought to the world, was not allowed to meet the love of his life again, not even in his next life.
“I wonder if we were ever lovers before in our past lives,” lamented Lan Xichen softly, staring at the fragrant tea leaves floating in his cup. “I wonder if that explains why I don’t feel as if I can move on, despite him being a man, despite him being my sworn brother, and one of my dearest friends. I know that I called it the greatest shame in my life, but when I first met A-Yao at the brothel, it was like everything wrong with the world was righted.”
He remembered the kind face, bruised and battered after abuse from the prostitutes and their clients, smiling gently at him from above his hiding place. He remembered the kind voice, explaining to him that it was all alright, and that he would help him. He remembered the warm hands helping him up, and the small shoulders that supported him as he stumbled along the way. He remembered the exasperated sigh and peals of laughter that followed when he ripped a garment in half at the washing board. He remembered the jokes they shared as they peeled mandarins together during a New Year at Carp Tower.
He remembered that he missed him.
Tears smarted his eyes and they began to fall silently down onto the table. Lan Wangji sat still, not saying a word. Grief was not something that always needed words – but it did need company sometimes, and Lan Wangji was content to be there for his brother. He was much thinner than how he was before, now merely a shadow of his former self. But just like Lan Wangji, he was going to survive this.
They gave a start when they heard a loud crash, followed by wild banging and shouting at the doorway. Ahead, the bell at the recesses was tolling loudly. Lan Xichen dried his tears and immediately got up, sliding the door open. A panicked disciple looked in, both terrified at some unidentified news and slightly relieved when he saw both Zewu-Jun and Hanguang-Jun together.
“Z-Zewu-Jun! H-Hanguang-Jun!” he stammered, just barely able to catch his breath. “I have terrible news! N-Nie Mingjue’s… Chifeng-Zun’s c-corpse… it’s been released! There are dead cultivators everywhere!”
Lan Xichen and Lan Wangji stared at each other in shock. This was indeed terrible news. Stepping up, Lan Xichen took command.
“Don’t get too close to Chifeng-Zun’s fierce corpse for now,” he instructed. “Let all the neighbouring towns, villages and cities know and help the people escape. Now that Chifeng-Zun’s corpse is released and angered from being trapped for a long time, he’s more bloodthirsty and unstoppable than ever – we don’t want unnecessary casualties. The leaders will hold a meeting soon. Get every disciple on alert and make sure everyone is safe. When you’re done, report either to me, Hanguang-Jun or Lan Qiren.”
The disciple bowed and scuttled away. As Lan Xichen departed for a meeting with the cultivation Sect leaders, Lan Wangji joined the other Lan Sect disciples to do an Inquiry to see what extent the damage was. From the session, they found out that some cultivators had been paid to excavate the mountain tomb for treasure, but they did not know who had hired them. Initially, the idea was to work for the mystery person, but they had changed their minds and decided to keep the treasure for themselves. They drugged the guards and slipped in, ignoring all the warnings pasted there. Then out exploded an extremely strong fierce corpse from the coffin, killing everyone in sight.
As he listened, Lan Wangji suddenly remembered something, and he began to strike his guqin quickly. When the chords played back, Lan Sizhui, who was standing next to him, gasped.
‘The other soul that was in the coffin disappeared as if it were summoned.’
Another soul seemed more certain.
‘I saw a seal on the ground appear for a short while. Black market Sacrificial Ritual.’
‘Then it [the soul] vanished.’
Jin Guangyao’s soul had been brought back to life using a contraband version of the Sacrificial Ritual. When his uncle had passed away, his treasury had been ransacked by some of the other more prominent, greedy Sect leaders, much to Jin Ling’s chagrin. He had managed to save much of the collection, but the copy of the Sacrificial Ritual had been stolen. Later on it appeared in the black market – but thankfully although it had been made more available, nobody ever used it as it required sacrificing themselves. This was the first time it had been used since the revival of the Yiling Patriarch.
The disciples filed out, and messengers began to run forward with the important news. Lan Wangji stopped by the Silence Room to fill his partner, who had been in drunken slumber, in on everything, and then made his way to his brother’s room to report his findings. When he arrived, he saw his brother walking out of the door, as if he were headed somewhere.
“Brother, I have come to report something important to you.”
Lan Xichen gazed at his younger brother and nodded. “If you’re here to tell me that Jin Guangyao has been brought back with the Sacrificial Ritual, I already know. We were at a meeting when news was passed to us. The Sect leaders have held a discourse and decided that they will send cultivators out to search for him and place him under arrest when they find him. He will be put on trial.”
Lan Wangji nodded in affirmative. He turned to leave, but paused. “Where are you going, brother? Has the meeting not ended yet?”
“It has. I’m headed to the dining room.”
Lan Wangji lifted a brow.
“I’m going to eat.”
“…” Lan Wangji said nothing as usual, but he noticed that there was now a new lightness in his brother’s speech. Immediately it dawned on him that it was so simply because Jin Guangyao had come back to life. Lan Xichen, upon receiving news that his sworn brother was back, was going to recover himself physically so that he could exert himself to find him. Yet again, the younger of the two nodded at his older brother.
“I’ll cook you a meal.”
“I see,” said Lan Xichen, beaming. “Thank you, Wangji. What dish will you be preparing?”
“Something spicy,” replied Lan Wangji, and his older brother laughed – this time for real. As they made their way down to the Cloud Recesses’ spacious but simple kitchens to have a warm meal between them, they chatted about the students’ scores and Lan Qiren’s newly trimmed beard.
While they were walking, hardly seen at all, a small smile played on Lan Wangji’s lips. His brother was back.