Lan Xichen was dreaming.
He dreamt that he was walking along a road, dust on his feet, a small pack on his back, and bruises on his face from where he’d fallen; it felt as if everyone was looking at him, gawking at him, every one of them acting as though they knew everything about him just by looking at him and he hated them –
Do not succumb to rage, Lan Xichen thought, the familiar rule popping into his mind at once.
Rage isn’t the problem, some part of his mind thought back at him. The problem is – why do you care what they think? They’re always going to think something.
They were judging him. How dare they judge him? He’d made something of himself, made himself smart and tricky and capable, but no one cared about that, they judged him, they sneered at him –
Sneering for no reason is prohibited.
Oh for – he just said that they were sneering for a reason.
He did not! The whole point of what he said was that they were sneering because they were unfairly judging him, Lan Xichen argued, and was momentarily amused at himself for arguing with himself in a dream. He would have to write down this dream in the morning and see if he could explore whatever internal strife within him was the cause. And that they weren’t worthy of judging him.
I thought ‘Arrogance is forbidden’?
Are you quoting Lan sect rules at me?
Excuse you both, he was trying to think here!
I’d say brooding rather than thinking.
Lan Xichen agreed with that. It really was mostly brooding, brooding on all the wrongs that had been done to him and paranoia against the whole world. Brooding and walking, walking and brooding –
Like a chicken.
He was not like a chicken. What the fuck. Who the fuck compared lusting for revenge to chickens?
I’m just saying, if you’re going to be brooding, you may as well have some eggs –
Lan Xichen woke up laughing. He still wasn’t sure what the meaning of the dream was, but he did meander down to Caiyi town in order to have some eggs.
He passed it off as a craving.
Lan Xichen knew from the first sight of the jingshi how this dream would go.
He would be walking, slowly and gravely, knowing already what he would find: the sight of Wangji kneeling in front of his mother’s house. Only six years old, too young to understand, and yet faced with such terrible loss.
He would go up to him and take him by the shoulder, seeking to comfort him, and he would turn and that would be when Lan Xichen would see his face – dead eyes vacant, blood spilling from his mouth, thirty-three whip marks tearing his back apart and yet that did not seem to be the greatest blow…
The dream never changed.
And so Lan Xichen walked.
He walked, slowly and gravely, and he saw little Wangji, and he –
He’s like a little figurine!
Lan Xichen paused. It was true, of course; he’d had that thought a dozen times before when thinking of his younger brother in his youth. Just not usually in this dream.
One of the expensive ones, his bizarre train of thought continued, utterly nonsensical. The ones you can only get in the shops in the city, all pudgy-faced and red-cheeked with eyes half the size of their face. I always thought those were dreadfully unrealistic.
Perhaps a little.
They’re scary is what they are, another part of his brain thought. Can we get to the part of the dream with all the blood instead?
At least he’s an adult when that happens.
Wait, hold up, go back, since when am I scared of dolls? I’m not scared of dolls.
Neither was Lan Xichen.
Not dolls. Creepy unliving mannikins in the shape of dolls that are almost but not quite human, that move in stuttering motion that is almost but not quite right, that smile and look at you when they shouldn’t be able to move...
Huh. Apparently I am scared of dolls, the first part of his mind thought, bemused, and Lan Xichen agreed. He’d never known about that particular phobia of his before before, but now that he thought about it, it sounded pretty awful.
He really hoped such dolls wasn’t going to be making in appearance in this dream. It was bad enough as it was.
He sighed, and lifted his foot to continue walking.
Couldn’t you just not go up to him?
That’s a good point. If you already know you’re dreaming, there’s no point in just walking through it.
But…Lan Xichen always went. It’s his brother!
Maybe it’s a creepy doll. Can you really tell the difference?
Wangji was not a creepy doll. How did they get on the subject of creepy dolls, anyway?
No idea. But it’s definitely about as stupid as chickens when it comes to stupid dream thoughts.
Great. Now Lan Wangji – sitting there in all his Lan white – has transmogrified into a chicken, plump with white feathers.
Lan Xichen hoped his subconscious was happy now.
No, this is great actually. No killing livestock within the Cloud Recesses, right?
If he’s a chicken, he’s immune from –
Lan Xichen woke up out of sheer frustration.
(Still better than the usual dream, he supposed.)
He was walking through a forest, big loping steps that ate up the ground almost like a run. There were so many things to do, and never enough time to do it in – everything was always a rush, and only the dead had time to sleep.
He was walking through a forest, and the moon was big and bright above his head, shining a dull red in the night sky, a killing moon that boded ill. He could feel the pressure of it on his shoulders like a weight, like an extra presence that never left him; it was both friend and foe, loved and hated, for it would show him the way and rob him of it at the same time.
He was walking through a forest, and he wondered to himself why his dreams recently always featured so much fucking walking.
Oh, no, now you’ve ruined the mood, some part of Lan Xichen’s brain complained, and it might actually be him, come to think of it. I was enjoying that. We were going so fast, it was almost like running.
It wasn’t anything like running.
How did you manage to stop the dream, anyway? Some other part of him thought, sounding almost wistful. You barely got five steps into it before you were making unwarranted comments.
Was it the moon that gave it away? I’ve never seen it hang so low or so threatening.
It’s not a moon, it’s a metaphor.
All dreams are metaphors, really, Lan Xichen protested, but he was snickering. But also, hold up, look up a second – is it just me, or doesn’t it feel like the moon looking at us?
The moon doesn’t have eyes, the smart voice said immediately. It doesn’t have eyes, so it can’t be – okay, never mind, the moon is definitely looking at us. Also, it’s angry about it.
That was because it wasn’t a moon. He really wasn’t sure what was so hard to grasp about this.
The moon is growling at us! That’s pretty hard to grasp!
If this dream is lucid, can it be changed? Lan Xichen asked, trying to force his dream self to move or dodge or something without success. The moon was getting larger in a threatening sort of way that suggested that it was coming closer. Rapidly. A change would be good right now, really –
I don’t want to be eaten by a moon! I don’t want to be eaten by a fucking moon!
Stop saying it’s a fucking moon already! It’s not a moon! It’s just Baxia!
Lan Xichen opened his eyes and sat ramrod-straight up in bed in a single movement.
“Oh, no,” he said.
They met in Qinghe, which had the virtue of being Nie Mingjue’s sole domain in a way Gusu wasn’t yet, for Lan Xichen, and which Lanling was likely never to be for Jin Guangyao.
“All right,” Jin Guangyao declared, stalking in through the doors looking more upset than Lan Xichen had ever seen him. “Which one of you was responsible for the chicken comment?!”
Nie Mingjue coughed.
“I knew it!”
“I wasted a great deal of time on dream analysis after that,” Lan Xichen said, because apparently they were going to be discussing this rather serious issue affecting both himself and his two sworn brothers in the stupidest way possible and he was oddly all right with that. “I even consulted Uncle.”
Nie Mingjue coughed again, except this time it sounded less embarrassed and more like he was (badly) trying to hide laughter.
Even Jin Guangyao stopped scowling and started having to fight a smile. “Really?” he asked. “You told – about the chickens?”
“He thought it suggested a desire to settle down,” Lan Xichen confessed.
“The man wants grand-nephews,” Nie Mingjue said dryly. “You could dream of anything and he’d interpret it as wanting to settle down. Speaking of settling down, would you both like to do so? There’s calming tea.”
Qinghe had a very specific brand of tea they meant when they referred to ‘calming tea’, imported from the west and south for its reputed use in subduing even the most vicious temper, and it was most definitely not made of flowers. However, as mild intoxicants went, it didn’t have quite the same crippling effect on Lan Xichen as liquor, and he was happy to accept a cup.
“So,” he said after a while. “We’ve been sharing dreams.”
“It certainly appears that way,” Nie Mingjue agreed.
“How do we make it stop?” Jin Guangyao wanted to know.
“I don’t know how it started,” Lan Xichen said. “Much less how to make it stop. Unless this is familiar to either of you…?”
They both shook their heads.
“Could it have had something to do with the sworn brother ceremony?” Jin Guangyao suggested.
“Improbable,” Nie Mingjue said.
“There have been plenty of sworn brotherhoods throughout history,” Lan Xichen agreed. “Someone would have mentioned dream-sharing if it were a side effect, if only because it would be so useful.”
“Dream-sharing?” Nie Mingjue said, frowning. “That’s your problem?”
“It’s useful, but intrusive,” Jin Guangyao said. He was frowning, which he rarely did in public – or even in front of Nie Mingjue these days. The revelation had clearly shaken him deeply. “Dreams can’t be controlled. What if one of us started dreaming about, I don’t know, killing each other?”
“We would agree in advance not to take offense,” Lan Xichen assured him. “As you say, dreams cannot be controlled –”
“I don’t mind the dreams,” Nie Mingjue put in. “It’s hearing your thoughts that’s getting to me.”
They both turn to look at him.
“What?” he asked. “Oh, that hasn’t started for you two yet? Something to look forward to, because it’s a pain.”
They ultimately concluded that it was a curse.
A curse gone wrong, of course, but it had the markings of one, and after some research they were even able to narrow down to which one it must have been at the start.
“Why did it go so wrong?” Lan Xichen wondered, looking at the historical records they’d dug up in Qinghe’s library. “Whoever it was surely wasn’t planning on us having this sort of connection.”
“Baxia deflected it, I think,” Nie Mingjue said, and Jin Guangyao and Lan Xichen shared unnerved looks.
It was one thing to know that your sworn brother had a spiritual weapon to which his soul was tied and which he sometimes spoke of as if it were a person; it was yet another to feel that bond, the foreign energy that seeped into his skull at all times, to know that his lucid dreams were due to his persistent awareness of that extra being, to be able to sense the personality that was Baxia lingering on him like a ghost. Or a guai, more accurately.
“It must have happened during or very soon after we swore our oath,” Nie Mingjue continued, oblivious as always to their disquiet. “Our qi was in parallel at that time, binding us together, and she would have been able to spread the attack between us all.”
“The ultimate goal of something like this is to drive someone mad – specifically you, da-ge, since it seems to be hitting you first and hardest." Lan Xichen said, grimacing. And given the Nie sect’s infamous tendency towards qi deviations, they might have thought they could get away with it without anyone finding out…how utterly vile. “Whoever did it must have a great deal of hatred.”
“Or not a lot to lose,” Jin Guangyao said. His hands were gripped tightly behind his back, thumbs digging into his wrists. He seemed to be thinking the word vile, vile, vile on repeat – possibly he was agreeing? Lan Xichen couldn’t quite tell; the curse was affecting him a little more slowly than his two sworn brothers. “Desperate people do desperate things.”
Nie Mingjue looked up with a frown. “Meng Yao, what do –” he started to say, then frowned, having clearly been sidetracked. “You think it’s an insult when I call you that?”
Jin Guangyao, equally distracted, stared at him. “You mean it as a compliment?”
“I don’t exactly like your father,” Nie Mingjue pointed out, sounding a bit puzzled – which, in fairness, he had never been anything but extremely obvious about his disdain for Jin Guangshan. “Why would I think adding his name to yours is a good thing? I’d rather honor the side of your blood that gave you that brain, since it isn’t the Jin sect.”
Jin Guangyao looked flattered – or, no, he didn’t look anything, but Lan Xichen was getting that distinct impression from him nevertheless. It seemed he’d reached the sensing-feelings stage: Nie Mingjue felt a little embarrassed at the reaction, and they were both feeling warmer towards each other.
Maybe they should postpone curing this thing, Lan Xichen thought briefly. If it could help them repair –
“Absolutely not,” both of his sworn brothers said together.
“We’re fixing this at once,” Nie Mingjue insisted, glaring at Lan Xichen.
“Immediately,” Jin Guangyao agreed.
Lan Xichen made a gesture of surrender. “I already have some ideas on how to cure the problem,” he said. “I won’t drag my feet, I promise.”
“Good,” Jin Guangyao said. “I would kill to get rid of this.”
“Speaking of that,” Nie Mingjue said, and he looked like he was starting to get angry, “let’s go back to that discussion of desperate people and how you were thinking about how to kill me –”
Lan Xichen had always respected Nie Mingjue – as a man, as a leader, as a friend – but his respect had recently reached new heights when he realized exactly how much the man wanted to murder just about other every sect leader out there, and yet didn’t.
Baxia’s unstinting support for this idea didn’t exactly help.
Jin Guangyao – who Lan Xichen was discovering to be far more vicious than his pleasant smile might have suggested – found Nie Mingjue’s grudge-bearing pettiness to be absolutely hilarious.
What about that one? he asked gleefully. Do we want to kill him?
yesevilkilldestroy, Baxia murmured. doitnow.
Please do not murder Sect Leader Lu, Lan Xichen said. He didn’t think Nie Mingjue actually would, but he felt the need to put his views out there.
I don’t know, Nie Mingjue said thoughtfully. He tried to flirt with me once.
That’s not a crime –
I was ten.
I’m with da-ge on this one, Jin Guangyao chimed in. Just murder them all. I can provide an alibi.
He could provide six, in fact, each one of them smoothly unrolling like crisp paper in their mutual mind-space – they’d figured out a way to get some privacy – and Nie Mingjue huffed a mental laugh even as Lan Xichen sighed.
It would just figure that his two sworn brothers liked each other much more now that they had access to each other’s secret vicious thoughts – thoughts Nie Mingjue would never act on, given his principles, to the point that Jin Guangyao had once doubted he even had them; thoughts that Jin Guangyao thought would disgust them both, but which Nie Mingjue seemed to rather enjoy as long as Jin Guangyao never took any steps to actually execute them.
What disasters they both were.
“No murder,” Lan Xichen said sternly, futilely trying to conceal the warmth of his affection for them both.
His uncle turned to frown at him. “Xichen?”
Lan Xichen realized he’d spoken aloud by accident and flushed. “Forgive me, Uncle. I was –”
Reciting Lan sect rules!
“– contemplating the obligation not to take lives unnecessarily,” Lan Xichen said, finishing the lie almost smoothly. He’d gotten much better at it ever since the curse began.
Somewhat worse at self-restraint, though, which was a problem because he was apparently the only one of them with a functioning moral compass – Nie Mingjue had principles, which were most emphatically not the same thing (the concept of unearned mercy seemed to puzzle him, as did sympathy for people forced by circumstance), and Jin Guangyao…
Well, he tried.
Mostly he faked his way through it.
Which was about what Nie Mingjue apparently did most of the time, too, so…
Lan Qiren was giving Lan Xichen a doubtful look, but seemed to accept the explanation and returned to his own meditation. Which was Lan Xichen was supposed to be doing, but Nie Mingjue was dealing with some minor sect leaders in his district with accompanying commentary by Jin Guangyao (supposedly supervising something in Lanling but actually bored out of his mind), and it was just so much more interesting…
You can meditate later, Nie Mingjue thought at him. I appreciate your level-headedness – as do my advisors. I’ve been getting compliments on how well I’m keeping my temper.
Thank A-Yao for that, Lan Xichen said. He’s the sneaky one.
I am, Jin Guangyao said, utterly shameless. And da-ge’s the straightforward one who punched my father in the face.
They all had a collective moment of gleeful bliss at the memory.
Do not damage others, Lan Xichen finally reminded them, albeit reluctantly.
Do not keep company with evil, Nie Mingjue shot back.
Do not act impulsively!
Do not argue with your family, Jin Guangyao interjected. For it does not matter who wins.
He got you there, Nie Mingjue crowed. A-Yao – mark your words.
Yes, yes, Jin Guangyao grumbled. I acknowledge you both as my real family now; will you stop holding the attempted murder thing over my head?
No, never, since it was quite possibly the only way to squeeze any empathy out of his (charmingly) self-absorbed sworn brother.
Anyway, it turned out well in the end, didn’t it? Nie Mingjue added. He thought I hit him because it turned out that he’d instigated the curse to be set against us.
Only you would end up getting a confession out of punching someone, da-ge, Lan Xichen said, amused. It’s positively unfair to the rest of us.
Yeah, da-ge. Leave some luck for the rest of us.
You’re acting sect leader of Lanling in light of your father’s imprisonment, Nie Mingjue reminded Jin Guangyao. How much more luck do you need?
I got that through hard work, thank you.
…I retract the statement and request that Baxia stop glaring at me. Please.
Nie Mingjue snickered.
Lan Xichen laughed.
“A-Huan,” his uncle said. “What on earth is so funny?”
Lying was forbidden, so Lan Xichen was just – not going to explain.