After all is said and done, Nie Huaisang sits on the steps of Guanyin Temple with Jin Guangyao’s bloody hat in his hands and feels all at once hollow and alone.
Everything he did, he did for his brother. To avenge his murder, to take revenge. And yet... somehow he didn’t expect he would make it to the end alone. It’s an unexpected blow. He almost laughs. He didn’t even realize how solid his belief was that if he got revenge, if Jin Guangyao were killed, then somehow Mingjue would come back to him for good, like some kind of heavenly scale being balanced.
How naive. He wants to cry.
Everything he did, he did for his brother. That he survived and Jin Guangyao did not means almost nothing in the face of the lifetime he’ll have to live alone.
He clenches his fists in Jin Guangyao’s hat to keep himself from crying. He sees Lan Xichen’s eyes on him, and he won’t give him that.
It steadies his mind, and he realizes perhaps there’s still one more thing he can do.
Huaisang didn’t just spend the last decade working on his revenge. He spent a long time poring over Wei Wuxian’s notes and whatever else he could find in the restricted libraries of sects across the region. And now, he has his brother’s body.
Huaisang’s day begins early.
He arrived ahead of the retinue carrying Mingjue’s body back to Qinghe; they’ll arrive by afternoon at the earliest, and he has a great deal of preparations to do before they do.
Wei Wuxian’s notes on Wen Qionglin’s resurrection are annoyingly vague. Huaisang has spent more than a decade attempting to understand them, first out of curiosity and then a desperate determination. The distinction between true resurrection and creating a fierce corpse seems blurred in Wei Wuxian’s recollection, and Huaisang has wished more than once that Lan Qiren’s lectures on proper note taking actually made it through Wei Wuxian’s thick skull.
Now that Wei Wuxian’s alive again to interpret those notes, Huaisang considers asking him for clarification, but ultimately decides against it. With the way Wei Wuxian looked at him… there’s a very high chance he’ll say no and might even try to stop him. So Wei Wuxian’s notes provide general direction but not the process itself. That comes from Ouyang Minyong.
It is not such forgotten knowledge that hundreds of years ago, a Baling Ouyang cultivator was expelled from her sect for attempting to bring her husband back to life, and instead created a fierce corpse that killed forty members of the sect. It was an early but failed form of demonic cultivation, not all that different really from how Qinghe Nie developed its own surreptitious way of cultivating resentful energy. It’s been a stain on Baling Ouyang, one that in no small part influenced Ouyang-zongzhu’s fervent condemnation of Wei Wuxian. In the deep recesses of Baling Ouyang’s library were Ouyang Minyong’s seized papers. Huaisang managed to sneak in late at night during a banquet held for the birth of the sect leader’s youngest daughter, and made his way through the archives until he found what he needed.
Ouyang Minyong’s papers are much more detailed than Wei Wuxian’s and between the two of them, Huaisang feels he has a good idea of the process and understands where Ouyang Minyong went wrong.
And if he makes a fierce corpse, well. Mingjue will never hurt him. He plans to seal the room anyway, just in case.
Whatever happens will be between him and Mingjue.
The ritual calls for a balance of yin and yang energy.
It is at its core, a sex ritual. As intriguing as it is to imagine Wei Wuxian bringing Wen Qionglin back to life this way, Huaisang has to think Wei Wuxian's methods were different. He’s working off Ouyang Minyong’s notes though, so sex ritual it is. Ouyang Minyong performed her ritual at high noon, but as his spend is yang to her yin, Huaisang must do his ritual under the moon’s glow.
He creates the array on the floor near his bed using a combination of the diagrams Ouyang Minyong sketched out with changes and tweaks here and there based on Wei Wuxian’s notes. The talismans he creates are based almost entirely off of Wei Wuxian's notes and he puts those aside for later.
It’s passed into night by the time there’s a summons at the door. Huaisang gets up to meet it, slipping around the privacy screen blocking the inner room and all his preparations from the hall.
He directs the disciples carrying the body to place it in the outer room, accepts the basin of lightly scented, near-boiling water from an attendant, and seals the room behind them. Then he’s alone again, though the body under the white funeral shroud is a charged presence.
He has to drag the body into place in the array, because while Mingjue certainly could have carried him if their places were reversed, Huaisang can’t. “Sorry, da-ge,” he says, wincing at the heavy drop of his feet.
When Huaisang removes the shroud, he is struck by how his brother looks remarkably the same with his eyes closed when he’s at peace like he is. Even the heavy stitching at his neck and the gray tint to his skin do little to disrupt the illusion that Mingjue is just asleep.
Huaisang brings over the basin of near-boiling, fragrant water. The water scalds his hand as he dips a clean cloth in, and begins the process of washing Mingjue’s body.
Mingjue looks the same as when he died and Huaisang feels a fresh wave of hatred because of it. Mingjue would have turned forty this year, but here he is, resentful energy staving off decomposition and leaving him a would-be eternal thirty. It’s so unfair. He feels immature and childish saying that, but Mingjue’s death—for all it forced him to grow up in some ways, he feels stunted by it in others. He never learned how to deal with death in a way that wasn’t stomping his feet and refusing to believe it. Until the end, through all of Mingjue’s increasing blackouts and increasing instability, he thought there was no way Mingjue could really die. He believed they would find a way—if Song of Clarity could buy them time, then they would find something that could save Mingjue for good.
Mingjue didn’t share that same belief. Towards the end, in one of what were becoming his rarer moments of clarity, Mingjue called Huaisang into his room and tried to prepare him for his inevitable death and taking over as sect leader, but Huaisang refused to hear it and Mingjue didn’t push. Huaisang couldn’t bear it, and he thinks Mingjue didn’t want their last days together to be filled with fighting.
Huaisang has spent long years wondering what Mingjue would have said if Huaisang had been able to hear it. He wonders if he was scared at the end, if it was really something he accepted or something he feared. Huaisang’s spent many sleepless nights thinking about how he let Mingjue down. Mingjue had to be brave for him when Huaisang should have been the brave one. He should have been someone Mingjue could talk to about dying, and instead it was a reality he made Mingjue face all on his own. Of his regrets, how he handled Mingjue’s final days looms large; it will never surpass how badly he regrets trusting Jin Guangyao to his brother’s death but for all that, it’s not so far behind.
Huaisang’s thirtieth birthday was the hardest. He retired from the banquet early and got drunk and cried in Mingjue’s room. After his brother died and Huaisang became sect leader, he was supposed to move into it, the way Mingjue had when their father died, but Huaisang couldn’t stand the thought, and instead he sealed it off to everyone but him. He blamed the grief, but he knows part of it was how he’ll never stop thinking of Mingjue when he hears Nie-zongzhu. In da-ge’s room, on da-ge’s bed, Huaisang thought about what a grave injustice it was that he ever had to be the same age as his older brother, that he would be forced to be older than he ever was. He missed Mingjue with a fury and hated Jin Guangyao with a passion. That next morning, writing with a hangover, he sent san-ge and er-ge gushing letters, thanking them for the gifts they sent over for his birthday and apologizing that Qinghe Nie couldn’t host a larger celebration that year. Next year, he promised, when the renovations were done on the banquet hall, he’d host a birthday celebration that would include all the sect leaders.
Even when Huaisang brings Mingjue back, he won’t suddenly age ten years. They will always have this time between them, and Huaisang will always see it on his face. But Huaisang thinks about teasing Mingjue with it, flexing an authority he doesn’t want to take just to make Mingjue call him a brat, and it’s okay. It’s something they’ll be able to move past because they’ll both be alive to live with it.
Mingjue’s beautiful, even like this.
Huaisang reaches out to caress Mingjue’s cheek, but hesitates, hovering just above. He sewed together his brother’s body and he just cleaned it, but putting a hand on Mingjue’s cheek feels almost too intimate, a liberty he shouldn’t take without his permission. Huaisang snorts at himself, and deliberately closes the distance. There are very few liberties he won’t be taking tonight, and Huaisang’s not sure he can name any Mingjue wouldn’t forgive him for.
“Everything I’ve done,” Huaisang says, his gentle hand beginning to shake on Mingjue’s cheek, “I’ve done for you.” It echoes, he realizes, through time to a world where his brother was alive and said the same thing to him, a large, gentle hand on the crown of his head.
Huaisang misses him so much, he can’t breathe for a moment. Mingjue’s influence is everywhere around him and everywhere within him, even a decade after the fact of his death.
Huaisang wants to be held, for the weight of decision making to be taken off his shoulders, for this grief to finally take its leave from his heart. He wants the comfort, safety, and surety that Mingjue always brought him.
Huaisang doesn’t have anyone he can trust at all, let alone the way he trusted Mingjue, fully and completely; it’s a thought that’s made him feel lonely over the years, but a part of him always felt it was just temporary. Mingjue would return, and the long, difficult, lonely middle of his life would dissipate like a bad dream in the sun.
Huaisang sets aside that thought with the basin of water and the cloth to dry, and returns to Mingjue’s side with the talismans he created earlier. A talisman for life on the lungs, so they will remember to breathe; renewal on the dantian, so his qi will reignite; tranquility on his head, so his mind will be calm; heat on the chest, so his heart will beat strong; sight on the eyes, so he can find his way home; and strength on his legs, so they can carry him back.
Mingjue’s body is still cold, even after the warm water Huaisang washed him with. It’s such a strong departure from the blazing heat he used to give off it makes him dizzy.
Huaisang steadies himself with a hand on Mingjue’s chest where he should feel the beat of his heart and instead feels nothing. It reminds him what this is all for. He gets up from his place at Mingjue’s side and begins to prepare for the ritual. He lights a couple sticks of sandalwood incense and sets a jar of jasmine-scented hair oil within reach.
Huaisang automatically turns away from Mingjue to disrobe then feels silly at the display of modesty. Mingjue can’t see him, and even if he could, the sight of his naked body would be nothing compared to what he intends to do with it.
He lays his robes across the foot of his bed, laying them flat so they don’t wrinkle. He recognizes he’s stalling, and determinedly looks back to Mingjue.
They never did this in life, though Huaisang thought about it. He thought he was the only one at the time, but in retrospect, Huaisang can piece together the way his brother’s unassailable sense of honor fit with how his eyes lingered. It’s a wistful, sad thought that Huaisang could have seduced him quite successfully if they’d had more time.
He doesn’t think these nerves would be out of place then either, twenty-four and approaching sex with the man he loves for the first time, but Mingjue would be able to put him at ease. They’d kiss, they’d laugh, and his nerves would melt away into happy anticipation.
He doesn’t know what his brother will think about Huaisang doing this to bring him back, about their first time involving a corpse rather than a warm bed. Huaisang’s not sure it matters, as long as he manages to bring him back. Whatever Mingjue thinks—he’ll forgive him the transgression. Da-ge’s always been all bark and no bite with him; no matter what Huaisang’s done, Mingjue has always forgiven him and he always will.
He drops to his knees beside Mingjue and straddles his hips, mounting him. He rolls his hips into Mingjue’s, gratifyingly starting to get hard. He chases a better angle and braces his hands on Mingjue’s chest, but it throws him back into the moment. Mingjue doesn’t move or breathe under him, and Huaisang desperately, desperately wants him to.
Huaisang readjusts and dips down to suck the tip of Mingjue’s cock into his mouth, like he’s thought about doing for so long. He curls a hand around the base of it, sucking down further. It’s cold and unyielding in his mouth. He bobs up and down for a minute, approaching a rhythm, but Mingjue doesn’t get any harder and the lack of response is disconcerting. Huaisang pulls off with an ungainly pop, a trail of spit connecting his mouth to Mingjue’s dick.
The inelegant trail of spit makes him want to cry for reasons he can’t place, or can’t name without losing his nerve. When he dreamed about having sex with Mingjue, it was never like this.
He takes a steadying breath and reaches over Mingjue with a shaking hand to grab the jar of oil he put close by.
Huaisang’s mercenary in fingering himself, adding a second finger quickly, but he’s tight still, and tense. He shifts his hips, trying to find a rhythm, and almost unseats himself. He imagines Mingjue laughing and warm, gripping his hips to keep him from falling.
The angle’s uncomfortable on his wrist, and he thinks about Mingjue flipping them over and taking over from there. Mingjue would kiss the insides of his thighs and whisper about how tight Huaisang was on his fingers, how tight he’d be on his cock. Huaisang moans and adds a third finger, wishing his were as big as Mingjue’s.
He removes his fingers and fumbles for the jar of oil. He slicks up Mingjue’s cock, and slowly lowers himself onto it. It’s a stretch, but it’s good. He rolls his hips, steadily taking Mingjue deeper until he’s fully seated. It knocks the breath out of him. He can’t believe he’s getting this.
Mingjue’s cock is starting to get warm from being inside him, and Huaisang closes his eyes and imagines riding him. Mingjue’s hands would be on his hips, supporting and caressing him. Mingjue would be looking at him like he was something precious and beautiful and sexy, and he would say how amazing Huaisang looked on his cock, how badly he wanted to flip them over and take and take and take, but he would let Huaisang set the pace of their first time.
Huaisang would be fucking himself so well that despite those best intentions, Mingjue would fuck up into him, an insintinctive desperate roll of the hips until they were moving together.
Huaisang feels his orgasm building, and behind his eyelids Mingjue says the same thing to him and they come together, Huaisang against his brother’s chest and Mingjue inside of him.
“Da-ge?” Huaisang slowly opens his eyes, dangling on a precipice.
Mingjue is still beneath him, unmoved as he has remained unmoved. The gray pallor to his skin doesn’t dissipate, his face remains unanimated, and worst of all, he still has no breath in him.
“Da-ge,” Huaisang says, shaking his shoulder. “Da-ge, please. Come back to me, okay? It’s your didi, it’s Huaisang. Da-ge?” His voice breaks, and his hands on Mingjue’s chest grow more frantic, like he’s trying to wake Mingjue from a particularly deep sleep. “Da-ge, please. You can’t—you have to come back. Please. I can’t do this on my own. I don’t want to. I don’t know how.”
He feels like a child again, begging his mother’s grave to let her come back while da-ge held him; he feels like a child again, crying and watching his brother die while san-ge held him back. There’s no one to hold him now.
It didn’t work. Mingjue isn’t coming back.
On shaky legs, he awkwardly unseats himself from Mingjue’s still hard cock, the sound and feel of it slipping out of him gross and unpleasant in the deathly silent room. He feels tears leaking down his face, and a dark, guilty pit open in his stomach.
Huaisang’s come is stark and obscene across his brother’s grey-tinged chest. His brother’s dead body. He defiled it and for what—to not even bring him back to life?
He cries in earnest now.
He falls forward into his brother’s corpse, face finding the crook of his neck, like he used to. Mingjue’s arms used to come around his back like this, but they stay firmly where they are now and his neck is cold on Huaisang’s face.
Rage had been his stalwart companion over the past decade but he didn’t realize how closely hope stayed by his side until it was gone.
Huaisang’s ceaseless desire for revenge and his steadfast belief that Mingjue could come back to him let him avoid facing his sorrow for so long, but he should have known that one day at the end of everything, all he’d be left with was his enormous grief. He spent ten years trying to force Jin Guangyao to face the thing he was running from, and failed to conceive that he’d have to too. That Mingjue was murdered, that Mingjue is dead.
Everything he did, he did for his brother, and it’s a horrible thing to be forced to accept that everything he did and could possibly do cannot bring him back.
Nie Huaisang cries large heaving sobs the way he hasn’t since he was in his youth, since he had a da-ge to wipe his tears and hold him through it. Since da-ge died. He cries for a long time, incense and candles burning down around him before he gets up and puts himself to rights. He redresses, relights candles, and pulls the pins out of his hair. He plucks the talismans off his brother’s body and washes it again with lukewarm water, removing all vestiges of that night’s ritual. His fingers linger on the heavy stitching at his brother’s neck, then retract. He puts the white shroud back over the body, blows out the remaining candles, and retires to his bed. It’s the last time in his lifetime Nie-zongzhu ever cries like that, though the grief remains his lifelong companion.