Things he expects: The pain. The fear beforehand. The darkness. The exhaustion. The bleeding. All of these, Xiao Xingchen prepared himself for, to give up his sight, his very eyes, for his dearest friend. Even magic can’t stop the pain. Even a soul as bright and resolute as his cannot help but fear.
Things he does not expect: The itching. The slow, aching discharge from the sockets. The headaches. The horrifying wave of relief and serenity that washed over him once it was over, so powerful he nearly collapsed. The complete loss of sense of time. The gentle, cold hands stitching his eyelids together.
Even with the care he receives, recovery is slow. It’s not really recovery, he reflects, so much as adjustment or acclimation. He will not return to any previous state of being: this is how things are now.
He does not feel regret. He did not expect to.
Balance is the first thing to come back. He walks slowly, one foot carefully before the other, keeping his steps narrow for less chance to bump into anything. He doesn’t sway or list the way some people do when they lose their hearing, for which he is grateful. Listening to people during conversation is odd; he must remember that it is polite to face people with his eyes, rather than turning one ear or another toward them. People must still see his face when he speaks.
Buildings are easier than outside; he memorizes their plans, sometimes amuses himself by designing the easiest and most sensible dwelling for himself. It would be a strange building for someone who can see, he suspects. He laughs to himself as a stranger in his mind’s eye bumbles about his imaginary house, confounded by their own sight. Sometimes his imaginary home has windows, sometimes not; he loves feeling the sunlight on his skin, but windows let in so many sounds from outside, and they overwhelm and confuse him at times.
At least he needn’t worry about his appearance. White always matches white. He will find stains and damage by feel. Dressing has always been mostly by feel as well. It’s been years since he needed a mirror to fix his hair.
It is not in his nature to settle in one place, and once he is allowed to roam around the mountain, the itch for travel comes back. He is ready for the road again, restless for new sounds and smells and voices. He was not meant to live in seclusion.
So he takes his leave when the restlessness is too great to bear. Judging by the sounds--owls and crickets--and temperature, it is night. He gathers his few belongings, leaves his room in the finest order he can, and escorts himself out.
At first he takes a bamboo cane, as he saw the blind do, but it proves a greater hindrance than a help. He keeps it until he meets another blind man, gives him the cane. The grind of sand and gravel under his shoes settles him as nothing else can. He keeps to the verge, where he can find grass if he reaches a foot to the side; people prefer to walk in the middle of the road, and he finds less traffic here.
Towns and markets are the most difficult and most rewarding. People knock into him, rush around him, clamor over each other.
“Fabric! Fabric for anything you need! Clothes, bedding, blankets, bandages! Fabric for sale!” cries a voice just ahead.
Xiao Xingchen thinks nothing of it, until the voice is next to him.
“Bandages, sir?” the voice asks. “For you in white?”
He pauses, reaches up to touch the cloth over his eyes. It is damp, as it often is, over his empty eye sockets. “Bandages?” he repeats.
“You are injured, yes?” the voice says hesitantly. “Your eyes? You must change the bandages to keep them clean.”
“I am--” he cuts himself off. Yes, he is injured, under his own power and consent. Surgery is still injury, albeit guided. “It is healing,” he says.
“Of course,” the voice agrees, “but they are… Sir, they are stained. You must have some to use while you wash what you have.”
His bandages are stained? Tears don’t show much, even on the finest material. He knows that tears often leak from his empty eyes; the doctors say it is to keep the flesh within healthy.
“What is the manner of the stain?” Xiao Xingchen asks carefully.
“They are red,” the voice says.
Red? He touches the bandages again, brings his fingertips to his nose. Faintly, he does smell blood, hardly enough to notice. How long has he been weeping blood? Why did no one tell him? Has he been this way the whole time? On the mountain, he changed the bandages when they were too wet, but after a few weeks the flow had slackened until he hardly thought of it.
He buys bandages, tucks them inside his sleeve. When he stops to rest, he washes the ones he’s been wearing and leaves them to dry while he sleeps.
“Daozhang,” his friend calls, “I have a gift for you!”
Xiao Xingchen smiles, turning his face toward the voice. “Where have you been all day?”
“Hunting, and at the market.” His friend sits next to him, their knees touching. “Hold out your right hand,” he says eagerly.
Obediently, Xiao Xingchen holds his right palm up. “Is it heavy?” He doesn’t know how much strength to put in his arm, and does not want to drop a gift because of his own negligence.
“Not at all. Here.” Warm fingers touch his palm, leaving behind something small and cool.
Xiao Xingchen tilts his head, rolling the things in his hand. Small, round, very smooth, cool. At first he can’t tell if they’re wet or not, being so cold and smooth. They don’t smell like anything.
“What are they?”
His friend nearly interrupts him in excitement. “Eyes, Daozhang! For you!” Delight colors his voice, and Xiao Xingchen reaches out to feel his smile. His friend took a long time to be comfortable being touched and still shies away at times, but this time he guides Xiao Xingchen’s fingers to his face. He’s grinning, lips drawn back from his teeth, cheeks bunched up. Xiao Xingchen wants to pinch them, but his friend is not a child, so he refrains.
“Eyes?” Xiao Xingchen repeats. The things in his hand do not feel like eyes, they are firm and, he determines, not actually wet. His eyes were neither firm nor dry, but soft and gelatinous, rather like an oyster.
“Well, not real eyes. Jade, very pale green. I don’t know what your eyes were like, but now you have these. You don’t have to keep the bandages anymore.”
It’s true that Xiao Xingchen grows tired of the bandages at times. He sweats into them when he works, or in his sleep. They make his blindness obvious to others, although so would his empty, collapsed eye sockets. They chafe and itch sometimes, and he longs to feel the sun on his entire face. He has never complained of it.
He has never shown his full face to his friend. “Thank you,” he says, turning the jade spheres over in his hand. “I regret that it is not so simple.”
“What do you mean?” The smile under his fingers falls, but does not entirely fade.
“My eyes were sewn closed when I gave them up,” Xiao Xingchen explains. “I could not put these in, I think.”
His friend is quiet, posture tense. Xiao Xingchen lets him sit, turns his own face more into the sunlight. It is setting, he thinks, but he isn’t certain. Time remains difficult to track.
“I could undo them.”
“Your stitches. I could take them out, if you trust me.” His friend’s voice is low and close, breath brushing over Xiao Xingchen’s cheek. Their faces must be nearly touching.
Of course he trusts his friend. One cannot live with someone for so many months without trust.
“What’s the worst I could do?” his friend says. “Blind you? I’ve blinded so many others, I know very well how to avoid it.”
It’s good that Xiao Xingchen is sitting, because he would collapse with laughter otherwise. As it is, he leans against his friend, laughing and laughing until he feels tears seep from his eyes. His friend holds him up, also laughing, surprised.
“Is it really so funny, Xiao Xingchen?” his friend asks.
He’s laughing too hard to answer, gasping trying to calm down to speak. Every time he thinks it’s under control, the idea of being blinded by his friend washes over him again. As if he could give up his sight because of a friend again!
“It--it, it’s just--” he huffs between giggles, “blind me? Even if you made a terrible mistake, you couldn’t!”
He sits very still, which is not much of a challenge, but doesn’t draw back into his mind the way he does when he meditates, which makes it an odd feeling. He draws the bandages away from his face, hears his friend gasp.
It isn’t just for cleanliness that he wears the bandages. The sight of his sunken eye sockets disturbs people, especially with the slow, pink tears. Bandages hide the shape of his face, and let people imagine that he may be healing from a lesser injury, or that he might one day see again. It is a small kindness to others, the least he can give. Others have no reason to see his face, the places where he once kept his eyes.
It’s like being naked, but worse. The human body, in its many forms, is not shameful in itself. His face is not--bad. He has never paid much thought to his face; it carries out its functions perfectly well: his mouth eats and breathes, his nose breathes and smells, his eyes--well, his eyes saw. Now he has no eyes, only pits and soft, immobile skin, and, absurdly, eyelashes. People can tell that something is wrong with him; they pity or ridicule him for what they assume is his misfortune. When he explains that it was no misfortune or accident or illness, they treat him like something otherworldly, something other than a human being, something above themselves.
He does not want his friend to pity or ridicule him. He doesn’t want his friend to revere him or praise his divine compassion and selflessness. His friend knows Xiao Xichen has no eyes, but has never had to face the reality of it: that he isn’t exaggerating or lying, he has nothing where his eyes sat for many years. He does not want to frighten him away.
“Oh,” his friend breathes. “Even the thread is white.”
Xiao Xingchen can hear the smile in his voice, and smiles in return. “I did not know.” It pleases him, childishly, that they are the only two people out in the world to know this.
“Stay still,” his friend reminds him, hand gripping Xiao Xingchen’s chin firmly. “This will hurt.”
“Giving them up hurt as well.”
“Yes, you are very brave, Daozhang,” his friend teases. “The world is in awe of the noble Xiao Xingchen. I have a knife, and I’ve just sharpened it.”
“The world knows nothing of Xiao Xingchen,” he giggles, and stills himself.
He feels his friend’s careful breath on his face as he leans in to look at the tiny, delicate stitches. The breaths are warm and softly damp, probably his mouth is open a little in concentration. Xiao Xingchen is grateful to be in such careful hands.
The stitches give way at the kiss of the blade; it must be masterfully sharpened. At each cut stitch, his friend draws the thread out with a pair of fine tweezers. It does hurt, but not unbearably, not so that he wants to plead for it to stop. He can endure it.
“There,” his friend says after an eternity laboring over Xiao Xingchen’s left eye. “Halfway done, now.”
His eyelids feel tender and irritated, but the stitches are better coming out than going in. This time there is no needle, no length of thread pulling through and through his flesh. These are tiny little tugs in comparison, each cut stitch fragmentarily short. Feeling that he could move his eyelids if he wished after so long being unable to brings a wild rush of freedom. He could, with only the smallest impulses, open the caverns of his eyes.
He does not. “Water?” he says, holding out his hands for a cup. His friend deserves a break to rest his hands after such fine and tense work. He won’t embarrass his proud friend by suggesting that he can’t continue this task without rest, but it seems the kind thing to do. And he does want time to collect himself.
“Here, Daozhang,” his friend says, resting a cup against his fingertips.
Xiao Xingchen takes the cup, drinks gratefully and silently. “Are you ready for the next one?” he asks when the water is finished.
Xiao Xingchen nods and settles himself properly. The second eye is not so bad, especially now that he’s already had the one. For a time, he loses himself in the gentle, steady pop and tug of stitch giving way under blade, threads pulled out one by one.
The last stitch pulls free. His friend sits back, places the knife on the table, and sighs. “All finished. Don’t move, the wounds are still weeping. Let me clean them.”
A damp cloth presses carefully around his eyes, infinitely tenderly. He lets his friend tend to him, although Xiao Xingchen was quite self-sufficient on his own. Letting someone care for another can be its own kindness; who is he to deny his friend this?
Noise from a basin of water on the table. Washing up? Xiao Xingchen hopes not too much of his blood is on his friend’s hands.
His touches at his eyes, a foreign feeling. He has spent so long, so much effort not touching his eyes, no matter how they itch or sting or ache. The brush of his eyelashes against his own fingertips nearly startles him, although he had been aiming to do so. Having to reach in for them ought to turn his stomach, but he finds himself unbothered. Better than being disturbed by his own body after all this time, he decides.
Tentatively, he blinks. Without the support of his eyeballs, it’s a struggle, tiny muscles and delicate nerves working in ways they aren’t designed to. His eyelids stick together the way they did after a long sleep, reluctant to part with one another.
He resorts to prying them open with his fingers. The inside of his eye socket is sensitive, tender as a bruise. He frowns, bites his lip in concentration, trying to align his fingers with the seam of his eyelids.
“Xiao Xing--what are you doing, Xiao Xingchen?” his friend demands suddenly. A hand grabs at his wrist, pulling his hand away from his face.
“I am opening my eye,” he says. “I am trying to blink.” He is certain he can do it, even if it feels different now, and doesn’t serve much of a purpose.
“Let me help.”
His friend eases Xiao Xingchen’s eyelid up with his thumb, and Xiao Xingchen can’t help the shudder that passes through him. A part of his body is exposed now that never has been, that never should have been. The back of his eye wants him to cringe away from the openness, to drop the eyelid and leave it back in peace. His friend is the only person to see this part of him. The intimacy is unbearable, and he pulls away.
“Did I hurt you?” his friend asks. “Did that hurt?”
“No,” Xiao Xingchen says, truthfully. “It was… too much. But it was not painful.”
“I can put them in,” his friend says. “The eyes. Your eyes. I can put them in.”
“You brought them?”
“Of course. They’re here, I just washed them.”
How considerate! “Yes,” he says, “yes, let’s try it.”
“Tell me if it hurts.” His friend’s hands return to Xiao Xingchen’s face, coaxing his eye open again. Once the lid is raised, Xiao Xingchen holds it open in place, trying to ignore the cold exposure of it. His friend’s finger brushes outer the curve of his orbit, softer than a feather. It almost tickles, he almost laughs.
His friend makes a considering sound. “The lower one, as well. It needs to be as open as possible.”
Xiao Xingchen needs both hands to pry his eye open, anticipating the frantic, instinctive flinching that never comes. There is nothing left to move. Are the muscles in the socket twitching, trying to move something long gone? At least he no longer has to focus on flickering images as his eye tries to protect itself.
“This will be cold, Daozhang,” his friend says.
“I’m ready,” Xiao Xingchen says, although he is not. Nobody has put a foreign object, a stone, in his head before. Into his skull, really. Not even a very lovely stone, which this one must be. How could he be ready for this?
It is cold, the smooth, wet stone sliding against his skin--into the pit in his skull. He would be afraid, but for his friend’s fingers on his cheek, balancing the eye, tipping it into place. It takes forever for the eye to sink into place and settle. Experimentally, he lets go of his upper eyelid. It drops down over the stone obediently, searching for its companion below.
His friend urges the lower lid up. Xiao Xingchen blinks, for the first time in years. His lashes brush his cheek, and he laughs in delight, wanting to clap his hands like a child.
“The other one,” he pleads, clutching the hand that was against his face. “The other one, please.”
This time, he can hardly bear to sit still, heart racing with excitement. He tries not to tremble, holding his other eye open.
“You can’t smile so much,” his friend complains. “It closes your eyes.”
Who could imagine that after all he’s been through, he would be reprimanded for smiling too widely? After losing Song Lan, giving up his sight for his heart’s dear friend, he thought he would never smile again, and certainly never laugh. And yet here, in an abandoned village, he smiles and laughs more than ever before. Those people who see him in the markets pity him, but if anything it is he who should pity them! If only everyone could have such a dear companion, the world might be a better place.
The second stone goes in more easily, with the experience of the first. His friend helps the lower eyelid into place first, and Xiao Xingchen blinks both eyes. He feels off balance having blinked then an unequal number of times, so he tries to close the second one by itself. Blinking without a change in vision feels like something from a dream, in an undisturbing way.
“How does it feel?”
“Strange,” Xiao Xingchen says honestly. “They don’t feel like eyes.” He tilts his head this way and that, feeling the new weights in his face. They don’t fit the shape of his eye sockets perfectly; apparently eyes are not such a simple shape. But they fit well enough, he thinks, knowing nothing about this at all, only guessing. If he isn’t uncomfortable, then they must be right.
More than the sense of having something under his eyelids, he likes having a gift from his friend so close, so intimately held by his body. When he closes his eyes, the stones are inside him in the same way as his bones or blood. Even food isn’t inside in the same way, food is transient and necessary, and while it is incorporated into the body, it’s not permanent. A piece of jewelry or clothing wouldn’t be the same; anyone might have those, but he knows of only one other person who has been given the gift of eyes.
“How do they look?” He cannot imagine what he might look like. Xiao Xingchen knows his own face, but he cannot picture himself with jade eyes. Does he look like a fierce corpse, with white, staring eyes? Does he look like a ghost? He’s seen the blind with their pale, clouded eyes, but these are different. He does not know what ‘very pale green’ means. He has seen jade statues, but cannot divorce their blank eyes from the rest of their features to integrate them into his own.
His friend is silent for a moment. Xiao Xingchen hears him shifting, perhaps to see better. A hand touches his face, turning him into the sunlight from a window, to face his friend.
“You have beautiful eyes, Daozhang,” his friend says.
Xiao Xingchen throws his arms around his friend, buries his face in his neck, and weeps for their happiness, good fortune, and the overflowing ache in his chest.