Thesis I: The Monster’s Body Is a Cultural Body.
When Nie Huaisang is kissing him, Meng Yao wishes he would just cut off his head and be done with it. Keep it in a locked room, twist his eyelids open so his soul can never rest, gag his mouth with iron and spikes if he has to, but just end it either way.
Meng Yao kisses back. Would he kiss back if he was still a thing capable of choices? Maybe. He’d kissed the brother after all, had made himself be small and weak and fragile, a slender creature with delicate wrists just so Nie Mingjue would kiss him again, kiss him deeper, open his body up and look inside it for what Meng Yao wasn’t but what he could play at being for as long as Mingjue wanted him to.
He remembers he used to wonder— when he was a thing capable of wonder—if the first time he thought about killing Nie Mingjue was the moment he realised that he loved Lan Xichen as nothing but himself, competent and beautiful and oh-so-hesitant.
He would only love Meng Yao as Not-The-Other.
Was it really over something so silly as that, the displacement of love and desire? Meng Yao would laugh if he could, if he was capable of laughter, if his mouth wasn’t full with the tongue of his dead lover’s beloved brother.
When Meng Yao was alive he had understood everything about want : his body was always a projection of that which is desired but is absent: here, a thing that we will name Her Son, here, a thing that we will name His Lieutenant, here, a thing that we will name His Friend, His Lover, Her Husband, His Father, The Monster. Here, now, Meng Yao’s body is the undesirable but yet desired body, his limbs too weak but strong enough to flip Nie Huaisang around, his hands too cruel but kind enough to stroke down his sides and pull him close, his cock disappearing into his body like it has a birthright to it.
“Is this how it was?” Nie Huaisang asks, his head thrown back, his eyes closed, a bead of sweat running down his back under the heavy curtain of his hair. It meaning him . It meaning the slam of Nie Mingjue’s thighs, his callused hands, the sheer thickness of him inside.
Is this how it was? Meng Yao remembers being wanted by an angry man with a cracked heart, a kind man, a law abiding man who saw the world in blacks and whites and spent his nights drowning in the greyness of his desire. Meng Yao is too different, too dead, too numb to truly fuck Nie Huaisang like Nie Mingjue had fucked him, and if he still could, he’d take pleasure in his inadequacy. Instead, he just looks at the body in front of him and imagines it familiar, even though his was always thinner, bones sharpened by hunger in a way Nie Huaisang’s never had to be.
When he was alive, Nie Mingjue used to try feeding him more. At first, he simply thought it was one of Nie Mingjue’s kindnesses.
Meng Yao pushes himself deeper, holds Nie Huaisang’s head down, pushes against robes spread out on a bed that neither of them could ever hope to sleep in. He wraps Nie Huaisang’s hair around his hand and pulls and calls it muscle memory. Is this how it was?
Meng Yao licks Nie Huaisang’s sweat off his shoulder with his dry, dry tongue, and doesn’t say no.
Thesis II: The Monster Always Escapes
Meng Yao opens his eyes, then he opens his eyes again. There is a disconnect between himself and time, a sense of doublesight, the world gone fuzzy with silver spikes in the corners of his vision. His head aches like it’s breaking. It is worse than anything he’d ever experienced and still survived when he was alive. It aches much worse than dying had, a pain sharper than Lan Xichen’s sword tearing into his flesh, more focused than the suffocating press of stone as the temple crumbled around him and he was buried half dead, half alive, all pain. For all its pain, Meng Yao’s death was a gift and he walked to it gladly, with Nie Mingjue’s restless soul wrapped around him like a burning robe.
This is different.
He blinks and his eyes feel like needles against his eyelids, but the world clears a little at least and he can see a shape peel out of the shadow in front of him.
In the centre there's a smile that is a rustle of clothing, that is the deceptive curve of a paper fan capped with metal, that is sharp sharp sharp. Huaisang is smiling at him and his edges are ragged like torn fingernails.
"Welcome back, Yao-ge," Nie Huaisang says and his voice is so familiar it makes Meng Yao’s new skin crawl.
Meng Yao forces his own mouth open and it does require force, every miniscule movement of muscle a struggle against pain, his mouth full of dirt and blood and death.
“Why?” he asks, and Nie Huaisang’s smile is blinding.
Thesis III: The Monster Is the Harbinger of Category Crisis
What is Meng Yao?
If a world is a carefully ordered sphere—and Nie Huaisang likes to think it is—then there should be a place for him in the classificatory order of things, but there is not.
Does that mean that the world is wrong, or that Meng Yao is?
Resurrection is a tricky business, with rules both rigid and unyielding. Nie Huaisang has broken them before, but this time it’s different. There isn’t another Mo Xuanyu to sacrifice for this. Even if there was, Nie Huaisang wouldn’t want him. Wei Wuxian had come back much too easily, slipping back into existence without pain, reborn and forgiven anew. He was free to experience a second youth, a second chance to play at love, when all those he’d injured were still bleeding, still rotting in the ground, still growing old and unrecognisable in their loneliness.
Nie Huaisang doesn’t hate Wei Wuxian, not really. But sometimes he thinks he’d like to rub his face in the shit his carelessness had created, he’d like to make him understand loneliness like he does until Wei Wuxian can do nothing but wrap his lover’s precious ribbon around his own neck that is Mo Xuanyu’s neck and pull tighter than Meng Yao had and keep pulling until he’s dead again, for good. No, Wei Wuxian had it too easy.
He doesn’t want this for Meng Yao.
What is Meng Yao?
Is Meng Yao the truth where Jin Guangyao was the lie? Is Meng Yao the lie and Jin Guangyao also the lie, because there was nothing true about the way his smile broke his face into pieces, mouth bracketed away from the rest of him, joy lost in dimpled skin and never reaching his eyes? Does truth even matter? Is truth something that Nie Huaisang, of all people, should care to discover? What does he know of truth other than its absence?
Whatever Meng Yao is, he is a break from orthodoxy, a messy hybrid, a third where there should only have been two. Just by existing he dragged a bad death into the Unclean Realm so that soon there were two again and then only Nie Huaisang, alone and growing older by the second.
What is Meng Yao? Silly boy, why not ask “What is Nie Huaisang?” instead? What is he, the Nie without a saber to speak truth and power and death into his veins, the friend without friends, the brother without a brother, the lover that’s never loved except once, in secret, in the dark.
Nie Huaisang is tired and Nie Huaisang is empty, nothing but skin and the stale air of an unlocked tomb.
What is Meng Yao?
Thesis IV: The Monster Dwells at the Gates of Difference
When they ask him to be Chief Cultivator Nie Huaisang stutters out a non-reply, looks helplessly around him, snaps his fan open and begs for permission to slip away, just for a moment, he’s just so horribly flustered all of a sudden, no he doesn’t know what caused it, probably the sun, he was so silly to forget his parasol in his rooms on such a bright, sunny day.
When they ask him to be Chief Cultivator, Nie Huaisang slips away from the crowd and laughs until he cries, tears running down his face and staining the fine silk of his robe, huge, hiccupping sobs raking his body to pieces.
The dead don’t cry.
He’d forgotten he still could.
He doesn’t consider himself an unreasonable man, or one that takes advantage of his position. He goes back inside as soon as he’s presentable, he demures and hesitates, before accepting the honour with a bowed head. He’s not even lying when he voices his concerns about the time constraints of taking up this position on top of running his own sect, and he takes note of those whose eyes grow hungry for the thought of a weakened and forgotten Nie, the ones who salivate at the thought of a power vacuum they can fill with their mediocre swordsmanship and sly, stupid brains.
He wonders what they’d say if they knew the plans he had for the succession of Nie, corpses and all.
But he is not Wei Wuxian. He doesn’t need to shout his desecration of the principles for all to hear, not when he has an impenetrable fortress to retreat into, surrounded by disciples who know better than to speak about what happens in the deeper corners of the Unclean Realm. Wei Wuxian had used Wen Ning like so much cannon fodder, throwing him at the hungry hands of weaker, lesser men and acting surprised when their jealousy gave them claws. Nie Huaisang is tired of sharing the things he owns, of letting pieces of his heart walk under a sunlight that he doesn’t control.
He snaps back to attention when he hears the name, falling like an afterthought from Sect Leader Yao’s putrid mouth. Jin Guangyao.
“I do not care for that name,” he says, not bothering to hide the saber’s edge of his voice. “If you must speak of him, call him Meng Yao.”
You must not speak of him, he doesn’t say.
You will not speak of him again, he thinks so clearly that even someone as monumentally stupid as Sect Leader Yao could understand it.
Nie Huaisang speaks, and history is defeatured, de-constructed. There is a gaping hole where Jin Guangyao used to be. Nie Huaisang plans to let it fester.
Thesis V: The Monster Polices the Borders of the Possible
Alone in his seclusion, Xichen thinks about things that didn’t happen.
He lets his mind wander as he looks at the sunlight reflected on the bright walls of the cave, bright enough to hurt his eyes, bright enough for his head to ache. They’re not, all things considered, happy thoughts, these deconstructions of his past, the crumbling of a history of half truths, but he persists.
Lan Xichen thinks, at first, about Meng Yao.
He is always thinking about Meng Yao. This time, however, it’s not a litany of what-ifs and conditionals, a carefully numbered list of “If I had” and “then he would have”, sprawling out indefinitely until his tired mind reaches some sort of happy ending out of pure exhaustion. In the icy air of the Cold Pond cave self forgiveness is not so easily won and the flimsy excuses his heart beats for crack and break like thin ice under a heavy boot.
He thinks about Meng Yao watching Nie Huaisang out of the corner of his eye in Cloud Recesses, the two of them so different that Lan Xichen missed all the ways that they were similar until it was too late.
He thinks of them back in Qinghe, thinks about Meng Yao transforming under Nie Mingjue’s eyes, every move practised to the point of instinct like an actor embodying emotions with a flick of his fingers and a bend of his fine wrists. Should he have noticed then? It wasn’t the sort of thing one is supposed to notice about one’s lovers, the ghosts in their bed, the names they never quite whisper in the dark.
Lan Xichen thinks about Nie Huaisang.
He tries not to.
More so than his A-Yao, that is a thought that hurts without soothing, the flash of his sword a failure new enough and raw enough that doesn’t leave room for hiding.
He thinks about Nie Mingjue instead, his fierce heart.
In the bright glare of sun on ice Xichen remembers scenes from another world: Nie Huaisang braiding Meng Yao’s hair in the Unclean Realm under the sun and Nie Mingjue alive and unburdened, as Lan Xichen had never seen him in this life. Nie Huaisang is leaning close to Meng Yao, closer than is proper, and their skin is blossoming with freckles, the summer haze blurring their edges until -if he was so inclined- he could think them the brothers, could confuse which one was drawn in sharper lines (Meng Yao), which one in gentle curves (Nie Huaisang). In Xichen’s faulty memory Meng Yao leans back and Nie Huaisang kisses sighs from his neck, and their skin is warm but he’s not touching either of them just watching as they take each other apart.
He thinks of Nie Mingjue, watching. Nie Mingjue, smiling. Nie Mingjue with hands free to reach out and fall where they may, pulling a body on his lap and kissing the mouth of the other, leaning his head back for a man that loves him without bloodied edges to kiss the soft curve of his exposed throat.
In the panopticon of the cave’s walls the three of them shine like fractured slivers of the same broken mirror, immobilised in ice, and Lan Xichen remembers things that never happened.
Thesis VI: Fear of the Monster Is Really a Kind of Desire
But you knew this already, didn’t you, Mingjue?
Thesis VII: The Monster Stands at the Threshold . . . of Becoming.
Nie Mingjue knows a lot about monsters: he is one.
He knew it the minute his hand wrapped around Baxia’s hilt for the first time, when he felt the saber tug at his spiritual energy, when he looked at his reflection and saw the whites of his eyes flashing crimson. He is a Nie and they are all monsters in the Unclean Realm. They stand a world away from the gentle scholars of Lan, the free-spirited dreamers of Jiang, even the cunning elegance of the Jin cultivators.
He knows himself and his place in the history of his sect. He is the heir, the one trueborn son of his father, his weaker brother’s stronger half.
That, in and of itself, is the problem.
Nie Mingjue sees Meng Yao and thinks, maybe , thinks there you are , thinks, unforgivably, almost .
Later, he kisses Meng Yao against the wall to his rooms and isn’t surprised when Meng Yao kisses him back, slips a small hand inside his robes, lays his palm over the bleeding beating mess of Nie Mingjue’s heart. Meng Yao’s hand is callused, rough, and Nie Mingjue pauses without really knowing why, draws it to his lips. They catch on the hardened skin.
The first thing he buys Meng Yao is ointment. It smells like orange and apple blossoms. It is his brother’s recommendation.
Later, he braids Meng Yao’s in the traditional Nie style reserved for the main family, the most inner of circles. In public, Meng Yao keeps them secured in place with a simple iron ornament, unassuming and plain to match the simple style of robes he favours. In private, Meng Yao wears nothing much at all and sits with his face turned away as Nie Mingjue weaves pearl after pearl into his hair, a series of delicate family treasures, worth more than either of them cares to think about.
“Were these your mother’s?” Meng Yao asks, speaking still easy between them.
“As good as,” Nie Mingjue answers, braiding another string of pearls into his hair.
The candlelight warms the colour of Meng Yao’s hair, making it look closer to Nie Mingjue’s own and he wraps the long tresses of it around his hand, tugs gently until Meng Yao leans back against him, reaching a hand behind himself to hold Nie Mingjue closer. His hand feels soft against the back of Nie Mingjue’s neck, and his hair smells like orange and apple blossoms.
Nie Mingjue thinks it will do , thinks mine , and then, in the candlelight, gives the want a name.
Some nights, the name could even be Meng Yao.