Actions

Work Header

my eyes got used to the darkness

Work Text:

             The funny thing, the thing that makes his lips curl in a grin and his hands shake with laughter, is that all these cultivators with their lofty principles and noble ambitions can’t even notice the ghost among them. Sure, they shiver at his presence and flinch from his cold hands, but not one of them puts it together. Lan Wangji chases him with healing music and Nie Mingjue frowns solemnly at his dancing corpses—and he laughs and laughs and laughs because they just don’t get it. They ask where his sword’s gone like they can’t tell his meridians have been replaced with lines of soured blood, that in place of a golden core he has a snarling, starving hunger. Jiang Cheng nags him, demands he behave, like a good dog on a short leash, and Wei Wuxian grins and bows and doesn’t rip out the stolen heart humming and humming inside his brother’s chest.

             “Where were you?” they all want to know, and he smiles and steps sideways and sheds their attention like a snake sloughing off skin.

             No one really wants to know. No one wants to ask what happened in those open-mouthed barrows. The path to the Burial Mounds only leads one way. What goes in never comes back out, not right, not really.

             Little Wei Ying with his grand ideas and unshakeable conviction fell such a long way to those greedy, grabbing hands. He’d feel sorry for the kid he once was, but pity has been ripped out of him by foreign hands, by crowded teeth. This ravenous shadow in his chest has eaten away anything else that could take up room, swallowing down his liver and gnawing on his bones. He sometimes feels his heart stutter, trip and stumble out of rhythm, as if there are teeth plucking at the heartstrings.

             He’s gotten used to hands in his chest, fingers running over the backs of his ribs and turning over his veins. It’s been so long since most of them had a body that was more than bones and rotted flesh scattered by the rats and the starving things that scavenge around Yiling. He stays up some nights just to let them explore, to let their roaming hands thumb his shriveled meridians and prod at his shattered bones. It’s funny, he thinks, how time walks a circle path. In his first life, he was meant to die alone in Yiling’s shadow, torn apart and eaten by wild dogs. Jiang Fengmian’s intervention only delayed the inevitable. He was always meant to be devoured. He was always meant to be used. Isn’t that what a good servant is?

             He doesn’t begrudge the ghosts’ their curiosity or their rough handling of his flesh. Any tear they make in the skin, any bone they put back wrong, is just repaired with another spool of black thread from the resentment that has nestled deep inside of him. Pain means little after that fall, those months. Death is no threat to him, not anymore. He fell into hell and clawed his way back out with blood on his teeth, master of it all.

             Sometimes, little cultivators get bold. They’re never the ones who might have any basis for assuming his confidence, always the ones he didn’t respect in his first life and doesn’t have time for now. They come sidling up to him with sugar-sweet smiles and placations. Wouldn’t it be easier, they coax, if he shared the burden? Wouldn’t the war end so much faster if he taught them this third path?

             Silly, stupid sycophants. As if he doesn’t recognize desire, can’t taste ambition coming off them in waves. Hunger is his oldest friend, carved into his bones and engraved in bloody lines across his heart. He turns to them with a grin and lets his brides circle close like a hunting pack.

             “Come close,” he coos, “and I’ll tell you the secret.”

             The brides lean in, drinking the scent of human skin, and the cultivator turns tail every time. It’s gotten to be boring, almost, how cowardly they all are. He leans back, and the brides snarl and fidget around him at the missed prey.

             “You would tell them.”             

             It’s not so easy to sneak up on the Yiling Laozu, even for Hanguang-jun. Rolling his head back on his neck, Wei Wuxian grins careless and toothed. Around him, the brides shiver and ache with the loop he tugs tight around their waists. They’re always so eager for Lan Wangji, like his pretty, pure sanctimony would spill as sweetly as pomegranate juice across their lips.

             “Of course, Lan-er-gongzi,” Wei Wuxian says sweetly. “Haven’t I always been generous?”

             Lan Wangji’s brow furrows, so serious. He’s the worst of them all, so earnest in his efforts to blunt their greatest weapon. He talks about the righteous path, about the damage resentment can do to one’s body, heart, and mind like Wei Wuxian really might listen, like Wei Wuxian isn’t walking damage already. He brings up the cost of such a path near-daily, and Wei Wuxian laughs because he knows the price better than anyone. How many of these stupid little pests would still nag him for instruction if they knew all it took to become like him was tearing their own hearts out of their chests? Hanguang-jun, for all his scholarship and study, doesn’t know shit about paying the price of the ghostly path.

             “Why, Lan Wangji?” Wei Wuxian prods, shifting to look him up and down. “Has the honorable Hanguang-jun been tempted down the narrow path?”

             A slow grin spreads across his lips and he narrows his eyes as he loosens his hold on the brides. They slither forward, giggling and eager.

             “I’m sure Lan-er-gege would find fine instruction from these willing ladies.”

             “Wei Wuxian!” Lan Wangji snaps, taking a sharp step back.

             He thrusts Bichen in front of himself but doesn’t unsheathe it. Probably, he doesn’t want to risk damaging one of Wei Wuxian’s favored companions: the sects all depend on this cultivation path they so disdain, and if news got around that Hanguang-jun had such a poor handle on his own temper that he insulted the Yiling Laozu so carelessly—well, Lan Zhan has always had such a thin face.

             Bored suddenly and vaguely displeased, Wei Wuxian whistles a short, sharp call that has the brides slouching back to his side. He turns his back to the camp and twirls Chenqing carelessly through his fingers.

             “Come on, girls,” he says, loud enough for Lan Wangji to hear. “I guess you’ll only be keeping me company tonight.”

             They all talk and whisper about his ghostly companions. Everyone loves to spin tales about how he uses the bridges’ pretty red lips and their bony hands. He doesn’t care, doesn’t bother correcting them. Let their imaginations run wild—they never get close to the truth, never brush the surface of what it really means to carry ghosts in his rotting bones. Their hands have restrung his tendons, placed his muscles and organs into new arrangements.

             They pass through a village left smoking and destroyed by a retreating Wen faction, and a starving dog snarls and barks from where it’s chained. Cursing, Jiang Cheng lunges forward and puts himself bodily between Wei Wuxian and the dog.

             “Shut that thing up,” Jiang Cheng snaps and only as a Yunmeng Jiang disciple walks toward the dog does he seem to notice something wrong.

             He twists around, scowling, and Wei Wuxian makes a show of cowering behind him.

             “Oh no, I’m terrified,” he whines. “Jiang Cheng, won’t you protect your poor, poor shixiong?”

             Jiang Cheng’s eyes narrow in irritation, and his expression further sours as Wei Wuxian grins at him. Huffing out a breath, Jiang Cheng shoves him and turns back to the road.

             “You’re so insincere,” he grumbles. “If you’re finally over that ridiculous fear, I can get a whole pack for Lotus Pier.”

             Wei Wuxian laughs and grins and doesn’t say that the ghost holding together his shattered left shin lived for a year by ripping out the throats of street dogs and eating their flesh raw. He doesn’t say that it wasn’t fear that leapt into his throat but hunger. There’s no need to worry Jiang Cheng, to make him question what other things hunger has carved out of Wei Wuxian’s ribs, what he’s devoured to hold together the fractures in his soul.

             Shijie notices, of course. He’s guiltily grateful for how battle keeps them away. Every battlefront is eager for his corpses, and he flees shijie’s worried gaze faster than he’s ever run from any dog. When they return to Qinghe briefly, only ever for a week at a time, he slinks around trying to hide in shadows and corners. He’d almost take Lan Wangji baring his sword at his throat over shijie’s comforting voice and grieving eyes.   

             “A-Xian?”

             He flinches, nearly falling from the tree branch he’s draped over. A mile from the Unclean Realm, he’d thought he’d be safe from the cultivators crowded into the citadel. He left the brides outside the gate as a peace offering to Jiang Cheng, but without their bared-tooth vigilance, everyone crowds too close and moves too sharply in his periphery. By the time he’d bolted, his hand had cramped around Chenqing and the ghosts had grown snarling and over-eager between his ribs.

             “A-Xian, won’t you come down?” shijie says, standing at the foot of the tree and looking up at him. “You’ll catch cold out here.”

             He’s been cold for the last year, wracked with shivers like those tremors on a Yiling hillside never abated but only burrowed deep under his skin. His nailbeds bleed purple and his knuckles white, and his lips are constantly chapped. The heaviest cloak in the world couldn’t warm his frost-kissed skin.

             “Ah shijie, you know cultivators can’t catch a cold so easily,” he says, leaning against his knee to grin at her.

             Sense memory strikes him as he looks down at her upturned face, her pink cheeks and patient gaze. It’s been years since that night, since that first fall. He’s fallen a lot further since then, walked off harder hits, bitten the throat out of death—but still, he remembers. She hadn’t caught him then, but she’d tried.

             “Ah but I haven’t seen my XianXian in so long,” shijie says with a little smile. “Won’t you let this shijie spoil you a little?”

             He slinks down from the tree, and shijie’s smile softens as she reaches a hand out for him. Bending obediently, he lets her tuck a strand of hair behind his ear with gentle fingers and then pause, cupping his cheek like he’s something precious, like a child or a plum blossom. The thought curdles in his chest, souring and rotting like overripe fruit or raw meat left too long in the summer sun. He pulls back sharply and fixes a bright grin when shijie falters.

             “Ah shijie what did you bring?” he asks.

             He doesn’t know when he last ate. These things slip away from him, distracted by wrestling control of a hundred corpses or choking back the snarling rage that makes him want to bite chunks out of everyone in range. It doesn’t matter anyway: the resentment swallows that hunger and subsumes it. His body is only a vessel; as long as he controls the resentment, as long as he masters the ghosts and hungry corpses, he will keep moving forward regardless of rest or food. Like all the other fierce corpses he commands, all he requires is a purpose.

             “I made hot noodles and pickled cabbage for you,” she says with a smile. “And a surprise.”

             It’s all a surprise considering he’s not supposed to be out here skulking in the woods in the first place, but he widens his eyes and purses his lips in a pout. Acting is both harder and easier around shijie: the ghosts clamor at the lack of resentment, the sudden chasm where anger and snarling hunger should be, but she gives him such space to soften and mold himself into whatever shape he desires in the moment. Even if he reached out with fingers as clawed and bloodstained as they are under this false skin, she would take his hands and wash them clean with the softest cloth. She deserves better than his crowded teeth and rotting heart. He wants to be kind for her, wants to be gentle and sweet and safe.

             “No meat?” he whines. “Shijie, how am I supposed to grow big and strong without any meat to eat?”

             She smiles, but it’s a small thing that doesn’t hide the worry in her eyes. Reaching up, she taps the tip of his nose gently.

             “There was meat at the banquet,” she says, and he shuts up.

             There was meat served in the Unclean Realm. Roast duck and a hog slaughtered in a rare show of indulgence against the austerity of fighting on the losing side of a war. Laid out on their platters, gleaming golden and amber, they hadn’t been so bad—but slivered off, tangled with the noodles and separated from their concrete form, they’d been pale and shifting. Tender as rotten corpses and shredded like a rat had torn through them, he’d taken one bite and the meat had soured and turned on his tongue.

             All at once, he’d looked down at his bowl and seen slender fingers, the long strings of tissue connecting muscle to bone. No one else seemed to notice. None of them looked at the rich meat and fresh game and thought of anything but the treat it was after weeks of thin rations—why would they? Who among them has learned to live among the dead? He is their only Speaker, Kui striking the sounding stone to make all the wild things dance.

             “I brought a blanket,” shijie says, “it’s been so long since we shared a meal, I thought...”

             She pauses, and he’s pulled back to himself enough to smile and steal the blanket from her arm. Spreading it out under the spindly shade of the winter tree, he fusses around her as she sets out the food and dishes. There’s a second blanket tucked into her basket, and before he can protest, shijie sits up on her knees to loop it around his shoulders.

             “Shijie, you should have it,” he protests, trying to shrug out of it immediately.

             She shakes her head, holding it firmly just below his chin pointedly.

             “Nie-gongzi’s cousin insisted I take this cloak,” she says. “If I had a blanket, too, I’d be like tofu dropped in the fire.”

             Settling back, she releases the blanket so that he has to snatch at it to keep it from sliding off his shoulders. He doesn’t need it, it won’t fix the cold that emanates from his own bones—but if shijie insists on it, he can hardly brush it off.

             They don’t talk about the war even as it slips in between every word. As he slurps up noodles that no longer taste of anything but ash, shijie tells him about the birds in Nie Huaisang’s aviary that get walked daily in their golden cages and how their wings flutter and gleam under the weak late winter light. The trees are starting to show hints of green buds curled tight along their branches, still shy but clutching the promise of coming spring. She tells him about the old Nie doctor who’s been teaching her different tinctures and teas, but she doesn’t mention the wounds she stitches closed or the bodies she’s watched burn.

             In exchange, he tells her about a mountain stream they passed three days before returning, how it tumbled and rioted against the rocks and raced on down the slope so fast even snakeheads would be washed to the ocean in its current. He tells her how he should have painted it to bring back to her and doesn’t tell her about the bodies he would have left out, the blood staining the rocks and streaking scarlet in the frothing water.

             For an hour, an instant, a single luminous wink in the universe, they sit under the grey-barked tree and the war does not exist. When they walk back to the citadel, he orders the brides to keep behind them by twenty paces—close enough to surround and protect if needed but far enough out of sight that they won’t trouble shijie.

             They arrive in time to see the leaders and soldiers stumble to their beds with wine-heavy limbs and flushed cheeks. A few are properly drunk, stumbling against each other and giggling like junior disciples smuggling jars in at midnight, but most seem as lightheaded from relief as the liquor. Jiang Cheng bumps into Wei Wuxian and shijie as Wei Wuxian walks her to her rooms, and he grins broad and happy. It’s the brightest smile Wei Wuxian has seen since the war started, since Yiling, since Wei Wuxian brought fiery ruin raining on Lotus Pier and killed his parents.

             “You should’ve been there,” Jiang Cheng says, shoving at Wei Wuxian’s shoulder carelessly.

             Wei Wuxian grins and acts like he’s letting himself be swayed. The truth is this husk of a body no longer has the strength to hold steady against the roughhousing they grew up with. The truth is, if he’d been at the banquet, Jiang Cheng wouldn’t be light and relaxed and happy but bitter, angry, watchful for every wrong snarl from Yunmeng Jiang’s warhound. It’s better if Wei Wuxian stays away. He belongs to the shadows, out of the light and laughter of the living.

             “A-Cheng,” shijie laughs gently, reaching over to loop her hand through his elbow so they’re linked together by her small and steadfast body. “A-Xian was keeping me company.”

             Jiang Cheng narrows his eyes briefly, but he’s soft and pliant in that way he gets after two cups—not drunk, not really, but just loose enough that he has an excuse to be a little brother rather than a war-forged sect leader. He lets shijie draw him in and he sways a little before falling into step with him.

             “A-jie could’ve been there, too,” he says, more quietly. “The three of us should be there together.”

             Shijie pats his arm where her hand is looped through his elbow. She’s smiling softly, warm and fond, and Wei Wuxian catches himself staring. He’s forgotten this: how shijie smiles with her eyebrows first, then a slight widening of her eyes as if with awe or understanding before they narrow and her lips curl at the corners. It’s always small, until she breaks into laughter. She smiles the same way she weeps: quietly, so as not to draw attention. Now, she squeezes both their arms to draw the two of them in close to her and turns that smile on Wei Wuxian.

             “The three of us will always be together,” she promises. “Our path may no longer be straight, but here on earth, our household is united.”

             Jiang Cheng softens at her words, but a creeping frost scrolls over Wei Wuxian’s bones. There are no flowers in his future, no peach blossom spring taking root in the ashes that fill his mouth. The rot in his chest isn’t the soft decay of loam and plowed earth; it’s the fester, the poison, the searing kiss of death with no return.

             They leave her at her rooms and carry on to the two set aside for Sect Leader Jiang and his second-in-command. Echoes hush through the stone, the chatter and whisper of the rest of the cultivators wandering to their own beds. Jiang Cheng nudges Wei Wuxian once with his elbow, gentler than before.

             “We’re going to win,” he says abruptly.

             His voice is firmer than earlier, as if already starting to sober up. Glancing over, Wei Wuxian finds him frowning seriously into the empty hall ahead. It’s the same look he’s worn at night hunts and discussion conferences when they lined up for archery contests: stubborn, absolute. Whatever he says about not being able to live up to the sect motto, Jiang Cheng has always had an impossible vein of stubbornness streaking through him like granite. Once he sets his mind to something, he will cleave the world to make it so.

             “The war,” he says. “We’re going to win it.”

             Wei Wuxian laughs, shaking his head. They’ve been losing from the start: Qishan Wen set the world ablaze while everyone else was still exchanging pleasantries. By the time Wei Wuxian dragged himself out of hell, the alliance was already running backwards and beating an aggressive retreat. With his corpses has come some balance, a closer weight of forces on either side, but the board is still in play and their side has fewer pieces at hand.

             “I’m serious,” Jiang Cheng says, looking right at him. “We’re going to win. I’m certain of it. And then we’ll go back to Lotus Pier and it will be like we’ve always said. We’ll rebuild it together, the Twin Heroes of Yunmeng.”

             Wei Wuxian smiles even as a cold hand clenches tight around his stomach. Go back, go back—there is no return for him. All those promises, all those dreams, he’s already traded them for this one thing.

             The Burial Mounds don’t let anyone just come and go, and a life is a cheap offering to a land so bloated with death. What good were his years, cut short by the golden core Wen Qing lifted out of his chest, in comparison to their seething eternity? No, what the barrows desire most, what makes their long teeth gleam with anticipation isn’t a meager life: it’s hope, fear, all the trembling beats of the human heart. People always get it wrong when they talk about the Burial Mounds, as if resentment were made simply from hate, only from anger. Resentment isn’t petty rage or thin loathing. Such small things burn out like an oil fire, a grand flash and short burn. What lasts, what smolders on for centuries and blots out the sun with oily black smoke isn’t so easy.

             Resentment is hope with the skin burnt off, the buds scorched so only thorns remain.

             Little Wei Ying was so very full of hope—for his brother, for his future, for the home they watched collapse. He was the sweetest flesh the barrows had bitten into in centuries, a peach left unblemished on the branch until it grew overripe, until the rot settled in like a bruise.

             “Wei Wuxian,” Jiang Cheng says, reaching out to grab his wrist.

             His grip is too tight even through Wei Wuxian’s bracers. Jiang Cheng turns to him, expression earnest and solemn.

             “I’m serious,” he says again. “We’re going to win the war and then you and me and a-jie will go back together. The three of us will fix it and be together like it always should be.”

             Smiling a thin curve, Wei Wuxian disengages Jiang Cheng’s hand from his wrist with his own. He can’t give this to Jiang Cheng; he already has. But he can give him victory. He can burn a path through the war that lights the way home for Jiang Cheng and shijie. From the moment he read Wen Qing’s essay in Yiling, he’s known he was giving up this future. The Burial Mounds only burnt away what tattered fantasies still lingered, picked the bones clean so he could read their patterns without distraction. He will burn with a smile, if it’s for them.

             That night, once Jiang Cheng is settled, Wei Wuxian slips out of his room and slinks through the shadowed halls. He doesn’t like the walls anymore, has grown mistrustful of the ancient stones with their memories and echoes. The ghost bracing his snapped neck whispers in his ears of court intrigues, of the watchful eyes hidden in such stone—careful holes chiseled through the rock for spies’ unseen vigils and tittering youths with blades hidden in the fans they flutter before their lying mouths. Once a weaver, the ghost is more paranoid than most and it wraps through the notches in his bones like warp threads strung tight and precise through a loom.

             Out on the parapet, he finds a quiet corner where his back is steady against the wall and his gaze can cover the remaining three directions. His brides have settled in the dark some way off, fanning themselves and clicking their disapproval with their long red nails. The full moon turns the night to an eerie facsimile of day, all silver and white-edged. Below the wall, the sand glows like fresh snow and close-to-hand, he can trace the moonlight like frostwork on the notches of the stone.

             He lifts Chenqing to his lips and pauses, the wood cool against the skin below his mouth. There’s no need for spirits here, no call for corpses and ghouls. He doesn’t remember, anymore, how to compose melodies not meant for battle.

             Instead, after a moment, he starts in on an old song he hasn’t heard in years. He used to catch snippets of tunes while passing through the markets of Lotus Pier or night hunting in the remote villages of Yunmeng and then drive Jiang Cheng to fury by whistling and changing them as they walked. Jiang Cheng could sing and play the sanxian as precisely as any young gentleman, but he’d always practiced to perfection and scolded Wei Wuxian for his divergences and flourishes.

             Tonight, Wei Wuxian plays the songs exactly as he remembers them. He’s careful and precise, playing with such academic delicacy his old teacher would have wept or suffered qi deviation at the sight. After a time, the only sound in the silver night is the trilling voice of the flute as it weaves between shadows and moonlight. He tilts his head back, loosening from the upright posture of playing to turn his gaze toward the moon where it rests in the deep sea of night. Clouds skud past, whitecaps on restless winds.

             Taking a breath, he lifts the flute once more. This time, he plays with no melody in mind. His fingers dance and lift from the holes of the flute and he dips from low laments to high, birdsong calls. He doesn’t know the song that comes, doesn’t have a purpose behind it. For once, the piper sings a song for no one and nothing, and only the night shadows follow along.