Chapter 1: 他射下九个太阳 于是我们有了光
Nie Mingjue wakes, and he is not within his guest rooms at Koi Tower.
Perhaps this should concern him, and yet, it does not. Certainly, months ago, it may well have, but— times change. It is no longer so strange, for him, to come to without the knowledge of when or where he has gone from. Nie Mingjue’s memory frays and fades with the passage of days, and with it goes, every now and then, his awareness of the time he still inhabits. A moment of anger, here; an hour of black, there. It is not the first morning he has found himself in an unfamiliar place, with the undesirable task ahead of him to piece together that which he’s left behind.
Nie Mingjue looks up at the thatched roof overhead, feels the flat wood of the bed against his back, and grounds himself, a between to an above and a below. The tree, rooted in the soil, stretching to the sky. He permits himself to be calm; prompts himself to be steady. The morning is quiet, for now, and has no apparent need of him.
Nie Mingjue sinks inward, and sifts through himself, exactly how he was taught to, long before he even first held his sabre. He seeks out the body of the man beneath the blight of the malignance. It takes long minutes; longer than it ever once did. But Nie Mingjue is yet fortunate, and finds what he reaches for, draws it back to his surface, drapes it over his skin.
The morning is still quiet. Nie Mingjue sits up slowly, feeling his muscles stretch and shudder, as if shaking off a stiff disuse, and sets his feet down on the hang tu floor. His wrist clicks when he holds out his hand; his fingers twitch and tense when he tries to fan them.
It is only when Baxia does not answer his call for it that Nie Mingjue feels the first stirrings of panic, the scales tipping towards unseating his precariously held balance. It builds; burgeons, and— laughter peals into the room, slipping in underneath the door to sever Nie Mingjue’s nascent dread. Though its shrill edge is dulled by distance, he would recognise that voice anywhere; adrift in a sea of uncertainties, it is the only familiarity Nie Mingjue needs to settle the storming swell arising around him, to stem the tide of his unease.
He rises the rest of the way. He’s slept, it seems, in his clothes, but there is nothing he can do about his hair without knowing where any of his possessions are. And, well, it is no longer so strange for him, anymore, either, to appear unkempt before more than his family, both by blood and brotherhood. Whoever Nie Huaisang is laughing with, out in the yard or field or whatever it is that lies beyond ramshackle mudbrick walls and rotted wood, will not be the first to see Nie Mingjue as more of a shadow than a self.
Nie Mingjue has to stoop to slide out beneath the low arch of the doorway, and again for the thatched eaves overhang. The sun is high in the blue-washed sky, and he squints against the sting of its light for the seconds it takes for him to adjust. The ground is warm beneath his bare feet. It is not hard to find Nie Huaisang; his silhouette a splash of silver and black against a backdrop of roaming grass green and boot-flattened dirt brown. His robes are trim, tailored tightly against the slip of his frame, no swimming skirts or draping sleeves to snatch around his ankles and wrists. His head is tilted, as if in thought, and Nie Mingjue can see the point of the black monture of one of his fans protruding from the slope of his arm.
There are two men with him, clad in Qinghe Nie grey. Nie Mingjue does not recognise either of them, but this, too, is not new. It has grown increasingly harder for him to retain the faces of the younger disciples, and even the older ones, now and again, ones he has taught and trained with, ones who have stood by him for years.
The hills do not roll like this in Lanling, but they do in Qinghe. How much time has he lost, that he can sleep in one province and wake up in another? He takes a step forward and starts down the winding garden path, hands flexing idly at his sides.
He is noticed by the disciple to his brother’s left, first, who stiffens, eyes drawing wide. “Sect Leader Nie!” He snags Nie Huaisang by the elbow as he shouts, overtly and overly familiar, and Nie Huaisang startles out from beneath the touch, whipping around to cast a searching glance over his shoulder.
Their eyes meet, and the shift in his brother’s expression is enough to stun Nie Mingjue into stillness. For a breath, Nie Huaisang looks— barely describable. Barren, broken open, wounded and wronged, before it is swept aside, smoothed over into something settled and sure. Nie Huaisang’s fingers drum against his fan, almost in thought, three short alternating taps before he’s sliding the remainder of the way out from beneath the hand that has snared him and scurrying up the short slope to meet Nie Mingjue partway.
It catches, the sight of it, somewhere nestled deep in Nie Mingjue’s head and deeper still in his chest, taking root, but he cannot tend to it at this very moment, and so it must be left.
“Da-ge,” Nie Huaisang greets him, his lips twitching around his smile as his voice scrapes out, strained. He touches his fingers to his throat, tracing the bob of it as he swallows, his other hand snapping his fan shut and stowing it in his belt. There is a peculiarity to him that Nie Mingjue can’t place, and he cannot tell if it is borne of his own inherent imbalance or if it is something insurgent in Nie Huaisang.
He is too tidy and too angular under Nie Mingjue’s scrutiny. Jagged around his edges in a way he has never been when both of their rages rest quelled; almost as if the beast of their sect that sits beneath his skin has pulled itself up to the surface in a mirror of Nie Mingjue’s.
“Huaisang.” His brow furrows at the sound of his own voice, dulled by desuetude.
Nie Huaisang, unshaken, reaches for him, and Nie Mingjue allows himself to be taken in hand. “Come back inside,” he says, brushing past. His other hand rises, as if to flatten against his arm in insistence, but he stops mid-motion, fingers tapping absently against the air instead, thinking better of his initial intent. There is movement behind them, and Nie Mingjue feels himself tense, instinctive, a half-second before Nie Huaisang’s thumb circles the flare of his pulse, the cuff of his fingers flexing.
Nie Mingjue breathes in; out; in again. He closes his eyes; opens them; and allows himself to strung along at the wrist by slender fingers and a soft smile, back to where he started.
This, too, is familiar, now, in ways it once wasn’t. Even between them, there were new duties of care to uncover and undertake, as Nie Mingjue began to rapidly deteriorate. This is but one of many: Nie Huaisang knows him well and knows him best, and so it is his hand that is the deftest at leading Nie Mingjue back to himself when the need arises for him to lend it.
Nie Mingjue sits himself down on the lip of the wood, folds his hands together within the cradle of his lap, and sets his gaze on the slope of Nie Huaisang’s spine as he unties his belt and wraps it around his fan.
“What is the last thing you remember?” Nie Huaisang asks, when his fingers are pinching the neck of his sleeveless outer robe, gathering it up to strip it back from the slopes of his shoulders.
“Koi Tower,” Nie Mingjue answers, steady. “When we retired to our rooms.”
He does not miss the way his brother flinches, or the way he so seamlessly stitches it into a surreptitious stutter of his fingers, his breath sighing out of him. “We’re in Qinghe,” he says. His voice is too even; deliberately pitched, convincingly controlled. “Near the border of Gucheng.”
Even if they had left expediently, the morning after their arrival, it is a half day’s flight from Lanling to Qinghe’s outskirts. Nie Mingjue is missing, then, at least one day, though it is far more likely he is missing at least two.
Nie Huaisang flicks his outer robe out across the low-slung table and turns back towards him, fingers hooking in his sleeves. There is little give in them, from what Nie Mingjue can see, with how his nails scrabble and scratch at the embroidery, but he gets them up to his elbows by the time he has ambled with no apparent hurry across the room to join Nie Mingjue at the bed. The lush silver-lined koi scale pattern of the fabric is a stark shock of colour against his paler skin.
“What happened?” Nie Mingjue asks, as he untangles his fingers and holds out his hand, palm upturned, for Nie Huaisang to take.
Nie Huaisang touches the tips of his fore and middle fingers to Nie Mingjue’s bared wrist, and Nie Mingjue feels the anticipated caress of his spiritual energy as it cascades through the conduit of their contact.
“Missing settlement,” Nie Huaisang explains. He sinks down, sits astride Nie Mingjue on the bed, the flow of his energy stalling as his fingers stumble up Nie Mingjue’s forearm, beneath the draping fabric of his wide-brimmed sleeve. “A nearby village noticed it before we did. The first two men we sent found nothing, so we sent five back.” He straightens, shifts his hand, and rights the flow of his energy, makes it better. He doesn’t meet Nie Mingjue’s eyes, focusing the narrow point of his gaze on the furl of his fingers instead. “Six, with me.”
The oppressive sense that nothing is correct only compounds the more he speaks, until Nie Mingjue feels as if his turmoil has become a rift in itself, writhing in the pit of his gut. Every new step speaks to days behind it; of having such a report reach them, of sending men, of debriefing them, of sending more. We, he says, but if any of the five other men were Nie Mingjue, he would have made it apparent. No matter what else is happening here, no matter all the days Nie Mingjue is missing, it is undeniable that Nie Huaisang has come without him; that Nie Mingjue’s presence, while not unwelcome, was both unexpected and unanticipatable.
It is not that Nie Huaisang is lying. Nie Mingjue knows many of those tells, more of them than Nie Huaisang realises. It is that Nie Huaisang is telling the truth without disclosing the parts of it with graver hefts, avoiding the admissions that carry with them consequences.
“Huaisang,” Nie Mingjue presses, “what happened in Lanling?”
Nie Mingjue watches as Nie Huaisang’s eyes dart away, beneath the dark swoop of his eyelashes. Watches as his expression shutters on the parts of his face not shrouded by the dip of his chin and the fall of his hair.
“Da-ge,” Nie Huaisang says, quiet, but then he stops. The look on his face, the one that he has brought to rest over his features, turns distant. Far away. He opens his mouth; closes it. Takes his time, between seconds, as though he is considering the sum of both a dismissal and a lie before he settles on the honesty that Nie Mingjue deserves. “Do you really— is that all you remember, from that night? Nothing else, after we parted?”
There is— something, clawing around the edges of his mind, murky and mordant. Something surely important, skirting shy of the span of his reach.
Nie Mingjue nods in answer.
“I see,” says Nie Huaisang. His mouth curls into something wan, troubled as much as it is troubling, and Nie Mingjue— knows, within some sense of himself, what it means before his brother even parts his lips again to continue. “I thought I was beginning to understand all of the tricks of… ah, well.”
He trails off, lifts his fingers from Nie Mingjue’s wrist to dam the pour of his energy between them, and turns Nie Mingjue’s hand over between both of his own, cupping his palm around his knuckles. Nie Mingjue curls his fingers, lets them curve around the side of Nie Huaisang’s hand, holding him, in turn, an anchor as much as he is himself anchored.
“I did not come with you,” Nie Mingjue states, aloud and at last. The question is inherent in it, why and why not; it needn’t be asked.
“You didn’t,” Nie Huaisang tells him. He takes a breath, tightens his grip, then, “You couldn’t. You’re— dead.”
It is not the blow of it that Nie Mingjue feels, but the rend of its resound, a breath later. Of course. Of course, how could Nie Mingjue be anything but dead? What else could have kept him from Nie Huaisang’s side, kept him from guarding him on such a venture?
Their time left together was to be brief. He’d admitted as much to his brother, in Suoxian Pavilion, how he had damned himself to his own early death. Had accepted it wholly the moment they had stepped out from their ancestral halls, the spirit banished, their souls bereft. Had tried, of course, to forestall the foretold for Nie Huaisang’s sake, but he had always doubted there was a way back from the depths he had already traversed. Had known he’d sealed his fate the first time he’d raised his hand to Nie Huaisang, who trusted Nie Mingjue far more not to harm him than Nie Mingjue could trust himself.
That blow hadn’t come, then, but the fear that it would remained. It had made the inevitability easier to cope with, in its way, but harder, as well. He could not hurt Nie Huaisang if he was gone, but he could not protect him, either.
How different Nie Huaisang looks, now, beneath an appraising eye. Too different for the stretch of days, but not for the span of a death. It makes so much sense, slides back into place what was set aside in his awareness, off-centre, since he awoke. He is still his brother, only more something changed, now, than something the same. Eyes a little colder, expressions a little stiller. Like the shift of the season; an autumnal pond, no longer a summer spring. Not quiet, but quieter; nothing grand and sprinting out of bounds, a naivety and brightness left unchecked, but something honed to a fine edge, wielded steadily and surely and well.
A body bent beneath the burden of a mantle his shoulders were never meant to bear. Sect Leader Nie. It was not Nie Mingjue that the disciple called to, out in the yard, but Nie Huaisang. Nie Huaisang, who he had reached for with such an accustomed gesture, one meant to pull his charge away from an encroaching unknown.
Nie Mingjue does not need to know how he met his end. Not yet. A dead body is no less dead for the knowledge of how it came to be. He wonders, still, if that was all there was to it, that he burned bright until he burned out. He suspects it was brilliantly and brutally blinding enough that it robbed them both of the opportunity to properly prepare for what was meant to come after it.
But, well. It doesn't matter. It doesn’t matter, not however violently he left, not when he is here again, and there are more important things to be done than pondering on the past and the purpose of his presence. There are more important questions that he still must ask.
“How long?” Nie Mingjue asks, voice tight. Then, “Huaisang.” A warning; he knows how his brother will try to dance around it, what he is truly being asked, if he is left unchecked.
Nie Huaisang’s hands clamp down around his, the sweat beading up in the cups of his palms smearing on Nie Mingjue’s skin. He watches Nie Huaisang’s bottom lip catch on his teeth as he sucks in a whistling breath.
“Fifteen years,” is Nie Huaisang’s answer.
Fifteen years. Fifteen— Nie Mingjue grits his jaw; feels the bone creak more than he hears it, his teeth grinding together. Nie Huaisang swipes his thumb against his straining fingers, his blunt nails scratching down the back of his wrist. Almost the entirety of the time they had with one another, Nie Huaisang has now been without. An age; an eternity.
Very well. There is nothing that can be done about that and then, and everything that can be done about this and now. So. Nie Mingjue bids his heart to settle, blinks away the wet sting hemming his eyes, and swallows, harsh, to slacken the thread of tension tied around his throat.
“Tell me what you know,” Nie Mingjue instructs. If his voice shakes as he speaks, so be it.
The command breaks through Nie Huaisang’s trepid guard, and Nie Mingjue observes him as a gentle gladness slips into its space and settles on his features. It is a reprieve, for now, from an unpleasant obligation. They will have to speak of it. They both know they will have to speak of it. They can speak of it later.
His fingers twitch around Nie Mingjue’s hand, but he makes no move to untangle their clasp. “Ah,” he starts, though it comes out more as a breath girding a laugh. “It’s less than what I thought I did, hours ago.” His smile turns rueful, as he admits it. “Now that you’re here.”
“I would still hear it,” Nie Mingjue insists.
Nie Huaisang’s fingers begin to drum against the back of his hand as his head tilts, his mouth pursing in thought; his features and frame both adopting a countenance of pointed focus. It’s a sight to behold, the way his brother’s very visage shifts when something seduces out of him the hard-won prize of his interest, and one that Nie Mingjue has always found all too rare a fortune to witness.
“We’re within an array,” Nie Huaisang recounts. His words are concise; his tone clipped. “Something about the three of us that were trapped distinguished us from the three that were not, but it’s not obviously determinable what. I don’t think it is random, or requires a minimum of… people, to trigger.” He pauses for a beat, flicking his eyes up towards the thatched roof as he tongues at the swell of his bottom lip. “The spellwork either induces some level of meditative state, or imprisons within a dreaming state. Given that you are here, and you’re— it is more than likely the latter.”
Even kept brief, his summary of it speaks to a complex intricacy of the spellwork in play. Daoist magic has always been Nie Huaisang’s strength, but it is commendable that he has confidently determined so much from so little. Nie Mingjue doubts, for all his sudden arrival and everything it could mean, from the proposed duality of this place’s stakes to the potential foe beyond its veil, that his imposition will be an impediment.
The immediacy of his concern, then, is better pointed elsewhere: not to why any of them are here, but to what being here will do to any of them the longer they stay. There is always a catch, after all. Nie Mingjue is certain it is not so simple as to be merely a complicated cage; if it were, there would be no challenge in it for Nie Huaisang.
“How long have you been here?” Nie Mingjue asks. Nie Huaisang halts the rhythmic patter of his fingers, and the back of Nie Mingjue’s hand begins to pang, dull, from the echo of his tapping.
“Three weeks.” Nie Huaisang hums, and his eyes flick down to their joined hands, gaze tracing the line of Nie Mingjue’s arm, from wrist to elbow to shoulder, considering. “I’m not certain if time passes the same between both points. Three weeks is too long for someone not to come looking for us. But it’s possible, too, that the array can maintain more than one state.”
Nie Mingjue’s hand feels hot, heated to near-scalding from the vice of Nie Huaisang’s palms, the press of his warmth into Nie Mingjue’s skin. He shifts slightly, seeking to abate it, and feels the tremor in Nie Huaisang’s fingers in turn, sees the flit of something— complicated, cross Nie Huaisang’s face. He decides, easily, that any discomfort can be endured for the sake of not seeing such an expression take root.
Three weeks. Even if time has not passed at the same clip beyond the array, that does not change how it has been experienced here; that it has been lived through, hour by hour, by Nie Huaisang and his men.
“What have you observed?” It is an inadequate question, in many respects, but Nie Mingjue is unsure how else to put it, and so it will have to do.
The drum of Nie Huaisang’s fingers resumes, fluttering, against the back of Nie Mingjue’s hand. “There’s only so far we can travel in any direction away from this farm before we seem to loop back in a circle. Twenty-eight li is the limit to the south. Wencheng is mapping the east today, and Yongrui the west.”
He pauses, brow furrowing, lips parting around his exhale. Neither of those names mean anything to Nie Mingjue, and Nie Huaisang seems to have caught himself on the thorn of that realisation. Nie Mingjue circles his thumb against Nie Huaisang’s palm and reaches between them with the hand left idle in his lap. It skates his brother’s slim thigh, and comes to settle, sturdy, across the span of it, squeezing down.
It's enough: Nie Huaisang takes a breath and resumes. “Ah, right, right.” He clicks his tongue, the corners of his mouth twitching around his smile. His knee judders, once, sharp, and Nie Mingjue feels the shift of his thigh beneath his skirts as he tenses. “Everything is— convincing, as well. What happens to the body feels real enough to suggest, uh, a permanence to what happens here.”
He doesn’t elaborate, but he doesn’t need to. It stands to his reason that there is a connection, a bridge between the places that is secure enough to make the risk to them grave, to mean that a death here will carry through to waking.
If Nie Mingjue has a body left, it is no longer one he can call his own. It is a crude thing to think, most especially when the actuality of it for him is still so raw, but— if it will be of use in keeping his brother safe, well. There was already no sacrifice too great for that. Regardless of whether or not he is a spectre or a shade, as long as he has something to give, it is his duty to ensure it goes to Nie Huaisang.
“The dream damages you,” Nie Mingjue presupposes. It is a blind swing, but an enlightened one.
The blow lands; strikes true. Nie Huaisang tenses, muscles drawing impossibly tauter, beneath Nie Mingjue’s hand, his fingers clawing, snapping shut around his hand like a maw.
“It— yes,” Nie Huaisang admits, concededly compunctious. “Spiritual energy replenishes, but the pool erodes.”
Nie Mingjue recalls the join of their hands, the wave of his brother’s energy as it wreathed through his meridians. “Huaisang.” The reprimand rips out of him, ragged. It is beyond hope or help; the thought of Nie Huaisang coming to harm reflexively rouses his not-quite-rage, makes the edges of his sight blur red. Even if the hurt is by Nie Huaisang's own hand; especially when it is for Nie Mingjue.
“Da-ge, it’s okay,” Nie Huaisang assures him. He shifts again, shuffling forward, closer, his boots scuffing along the dirt floor. “I promise. Even with my weak constitution, I'm not in any danger yet.”
For all he sounds certain, Nie Mingjue knows it could be his sheer wilfulness backing the assertion instead of surety. He flexes his hand between Nie Huaisang’s, and lets it take over the urge to speak the protest that comes more instinctually to him.
Nie Huaisang’s hands are still soft to the touch. Fifteen years without Nie Mingjue, and he’s kept himself safe in ways that have not firmed his figure, have not roughened his fingers. That was all Nie Mingjue had ever wanted for him. And yet, to see it— it settles something in his heart, but stirs something worse in its place.
“I had to be sure,” Nie Huaisang continues, just as the quiet is on the cusp of drifting into silence, “that it was you.”
He meets Nie Mingjue’s gaze, his fingers stilling once again. So few words said, but their multitudes hang so heavily between them.
“That I was real,” Nie Mingjue manages. He had considered it, the moment he’d learned he was dead, so why wouldn’t Nie Huaisang, who already knew that to be true when he turned and saw Nie Mingjue?
“No,” Nie Huaisang replies, the word spilling out in tandem with the squeeze of his fingers, “no. I knew that when I saw you. I just, uh, wasn’t sure how… much, of you, you were.” His laugh seems to surprise even him, his eyes widening at the note of it, short and sharp. “It sounds strange, now that I’ve said it.”
While Nie Mingjue may not see the sense in it, he thinks he understands the sentiment. Hope often begets hesitation; it is one thing to be certain and another to have confirmation.
He’s not sure he would have been able to tell if he was real or not, here, given how he struggled with it while he yet lived. He’s glad that Nie Huaisang still can.
“It does,” he says, soft, and Nie Huaisang’s nostrils flare as he snorts.
“You’re teasing me.” The corners of his eyes crinkle faintly as he beams. “Even after I worked so hard. Shouldn’t you be praising me?”
Nie Mingjue’s own small smile comes without consideration. But that is not such a terrible thing. “You did well,” he says, with absolute sincerity.
Nie Huaisang’s expression contorts into a muted lour, his vulnerable vibrance hewed at the neck. “Thank you.” His voice cracks around it; his face falls. Nie Mingjue’s hand rises from Nie Huaisang’s thigh to catch him by the chin, fingers circling his jaw as the first sob shakes out from between his clenched teeth. “Ah.”
“Come here,” Nie Mingjue says, because there is nothing else he can. Nie Huaisang’s grip tightens all the more impossibly around his hand, until the skin pulled taut over his knuckles turns sallow, his fingers shaking with the strain of it. As though he knows he is powerless to do anything to stop Nie Mingjue from slipping away again, but he must still pour all of himself into the trying.
Nie Mingjue slides his hand along the jut of his jaw, the column of his throat, and draws Nie Huaisang in by the latch of his fingers around his nape. Nie Huaisang goes to him without even a primal resistance, flows into him like water, his knees thrown over Nie Mingjue’s thigh in the service of crawling in closer, half into his lap, his face nuzzling in through the curtain of his hair to tuck against his neck.
“So much for being worthy of your praise,” he jests, and though his voice is light, Nie Mingjue can feel the way his lips twitch around it against his skin, the blade of it turned back onto himself, poised to flay. Nie Huaisang’s heart thunders against the brush of Nie Mingjue’s fingertips, brought flush to his brother’s sternum by the desperate clutch of his hands. The beat of it so loud it is almost as if it means to bludgeon through the bone of his ribcage and break free of him. It drowns out even Nie Mingjue’s, the sensation beneath his fingers subsuming the sound strumming in his ears.
“Don’t be foolish,” Nie Mingjue chides. There is no way to mellow his tone enough to not make the words cut, on their own, no matter how kindly he means them. And so, he smoothes over the sharpest edges of it with the knead of his palm on Nie Huaisang’s nape, the press of his chin into his hair, his cheek grazing the band of his silver guan.
Nie Huaisang’s laugh gusts across Nie Mingjue’s throat, breath damp-hot. “Sorry,” he says, and, “ah, this was not— sorry.”
He lowers his hands to his lap, slow, almost absent, and Nie Mingjue’s fingers, still ensnared, follow the downward slope, trailing his stomach and the laddering creases of his robes. He does not return to the half spun thread of his thought, and so Nie Mingjue can only guess at what he may have intended to say: what I expected or what I wanted you to see; something too telling, something not telling enough, more and less and anything in-between.
Don’t be, he thinks, but does not manage to say, even given the long minutes Nie Huaisang takes to gather himself back together before he straightens, demure. Nie Mingjue lets the weighted words fall away, and curves his hand back around Nie Huaisang’s throat to cup his jaw in their stead. He swipes the pad of his thumb across the beaded tear that Nie Huaisang has not managed to surreptitiously smear into the collar of Nie Mingjue’s robe, and he feels Nie Huaisang’s jaw shift underneath his palm in tandem with the tender bloom of his smile across his lips.
“You’ve been well,” Nie Mingjue says, “these past years.” It is a question, no matter how he states it, how he turns it over, in his thoughts and on his tongue. A question that he does not want to ask with an answer he knows he must hear. If Nie Huaisang can say— can give Nie Mingjue any averment, no matter how arduous its actual attainment, it would be—
Nie Huaisang’s lips twitch ever-so-slightly. It shades his smile with something private, balanced in the intermediate where fondness first begins to bleed through falsity. “I’m all right, Da-ge.” An agreement; an allowance. “I’ve been well.”
It is as genuine as Nie Huaisang seems capable of being, at this moment, without obtruding on vulnerabilities he is yet unwilling to unveil. His brother’s reservation is not a recoil, but a reluctance borne of recognising the paths between them that must be retreaded.
There were to be no more secrets between them both when Nie Mingjue died; a promise dissevered by their parting, but no less portended for it. They are brothers, and so all will be laid bare between them, in the end, be it in this life; the after; the next.
It does not bring Nie Mingjue the relief it rightfully should.
“I’m glad,” Nie Mingjue says. If nothing else, he is that.
It is for the best that they both ignore the glint in Nie Huaisang’s gaze, like a dagger half-unsheathed in the dark, thought better of, swiftly stowed back away. Neither of them are capable of unsnarling it just yet; both of them are culpable for what will come of freeing it. He releases Nie Mingjue’s hand; Nie Mingjue releases his face; the spell breaks. Nie Huaisang permits himself to rise, out of Nie Mingjue’s lap and off the bed, the unsteady shudder of his legs shrouded by the spill of his skirts as he smoothes them straight.
“Well,” he says, “I,” and then he huffs, his fingers twisting themselves into his robes. He dips his chin towards his chest, but does not avert his eyes from the pry of Nie Mingjue’s gaze. “There is a village to the south. I intended to go there today.”
“We’ll go together,” says Nie Mingjue. It’s unnecessary; his company is rightly assumed.
“Of course.” Nie Huaisang tilts his head, and the undisguised way he lets himself look Nie Mingjue over is— calculated. “But not looking like that. Let me braid your hair for you.”
His smile broadens and brightens all at once, sparked by an indulged mischief, and Nie Mingjue does not resist the one that comes to him so naturally, in turn. Feels it gentle as he watches Nie Huaisang turn, his fingers in his sleeves, tugging them back down from his elbows to his wrists as he steps away.
It is all too simple. That has not escaped Nie Mingjue, not once, as the morning has unravelled itself. But there is only Nie Huaisang, here, to mire him, amidst the slow encroach of a subtle danger, yet unknown and unseen. With proof that his brother is taking the matter seriously, and without the other trappings of his life, it is difficult to needfully complicate the rest. Easier, wiser, to sink into the flow than to struggle against it.
Nie Huaisang returns, qiankun pouch in one hand, the gilded shaft of a peachwood comb in the other. He discards the pouch on the bed with a flick of his wrist, and braces himself with the fetter of his palm on Nie Mingjue’s shoulder as he begins to kick off his boots. Nie Mingjue cups his elbow, evening his brother’s weight out between the both of them, and effortlessly lifts him upright when he cocks his knee and makes to climb.
Nie Mingjue is a practical man, aware of his power and how it determines his place; of what it means he can and cannot change. Dead and here, he has neither. He reminds himself of that as he feels Nie Huaisang’s knees slot in along his flanks, the press of his thighs to his hips as he kneels up.
If one cannot exert, they may bide, but they must capitulate.
“Let me see,” Nie Huaisang muses, his voice a murmur, his lips ghosting the crown of Nie Mingjue’s hair, “if I remember how to do this.” He brushes Nie Mingjue’s hair back, pooling it all together between his shoulder blades, and Nie Mingjue feels the scuff of his fingers and the comb as he strokes up the column of his throat, dancing over unmarred skin.
“Whatever you do will suit, Huaisang.”
Nie Huaisang laughs. Then, he shifts, draws back, spreads his thighs a fraction wider. It’s an anticipatory accommodation for the way Nie Mingjue draws his legs up, how he opens his own hips to cross them at the ankles, feet tucked up on his thighs. He rests the backs of his wrists against his knees, slides his shoulders back, and lets his eyes sink shut at the first scrape of the comb’s teeth across his scalp.
“You may regret that,” Nie Huaisang warns. “I don’t have clasps to do it right. But I know how many braids you need, so. We’ll see.” His hand dips beneath the curtain of Nie Mingjue’s hair, and the backs of his knuckles skim his nape. He separates the strands, gentle, and starts to feed them through the comb’s teeth.
Nie Mingjue pinches his fingers together, and pulls himself back, part by piece, until the stretch of his focus is no longer a span but a sliver. Until there is nothing in his head but the way his body feels as his chest sprawls with each inhale; sags with every exhale; the sound of their breaths. The slide of the comb; the scratch of Nie Huaisang’s nails; the sting that streaks across his scalp with every snag in his hair. All of it dulled, muted down. The tempest tamed for the first time since— since.
Since when? When did Nie Mingjue’s body last belong to him and him alone? When did he last look within himself and not find something nested there, looking back?
Nie Mingjue stiffens, eyes snapping back open, and Nie Huaisang hisses, something astray but apologetic. He twists the hand at his nape enough to allow him to clumsily knead the pad of his thumb against Nie Mingjue’s jaw.
“Almost,” he promises, as though he thinks himself the perpetrator of Nie Mingjue’s spike of discomfort. His hand withdraws from Nie Mingjue’s neck, and Nie Mingjue can see in the play of the shadows how it reaches, vaguely, backward and upward, as his other hand gathers Nie Mingjue’s braids high against his skull.
He realises what his brother is doing in the same second that he hears the snick of a clasp sliding free. “Huaisang—”
Nie Huaisang simply shushes him and fastens his guan in place. “There,” he says. “All done.” Then, “It’s probably passable.” He sounds too breathless for his play at impassivity.
Nie Mingjue uncrosses his legs, plants his feet to the floor, and reaches up to trace the engraved silver of the guan with a finger that he tells himself does not tremble. When he looks over his shoulder, he sees Nie Huaisang, sank back in his kneel, both hands wound in his own hair as he threads a grey ribbon around his braids.
“It’s fine,” Nie Mingjue tells him, for want of something to say that isn’t anything that’s dangerous, rising too close to the surface of his thoughts. Nie Huaisang hums with satisfaction, combs the tails of the ribbon into his hair with his fingers, and clambers past him, off the bed.
“It’ll do,” Nie Huaisang agrees, looking him over. Nie Mingjue makes to stand; completes the motion when Nie Huaisang doesn’t protest, gaze only lifting to follow his rise. “Ah, wait, wait, you haven’t got boots. Do you know where they are?”
His laughter chirrups out of him when Nie Mingjue shakes his head. “Of all the things for this place to be concise about, it would be that detail,” he complains to himself. Nie Mingjue steps out of his way as he reaches down for his own boots, pulling them away from the bed so he can better step back into them. “Wait here for me, I won’t be long.”
He straightens, and then he goes, casting a watchful eye over his shoulder back at his brother all the while. Nie Mingjue waits, but the moment Nie Huaisang has rounded over the threshold, has had his line of sight cut by the wall, Nie Mingjue ceases to be idle.
Nie Huaisang is not gone long. When he returns, the perfunctory sweep of his gaze catches on what Nie Mingjue has put his hands to in the minutes he’s been left: what has been straightened, stowed, and set aside.
“Here,” he says, holding the boots out for Nie Mingjue to take. Nie Mingjue watches him take a half-step, after, towards the bed, before he readjusts, goes for the table instead, where Nie Mingjue has put his qiankun pouch with his outer robe, his belt, his fan.
Even with nothing to hide, even when it is only them, it still feels natural to turn away. To put just enough of their backs to one another to cover something inexact, but no less exposed for its intangibility.
Nie Mingjue is the first to finish, and so he is the first to turn back. For it, he is able to watch Nie Huaisang finish cinching his robe at his waist, the drawstrings of his pouch looped through his belt.
Nie Huaisang’s gaze sweeps him again when he turns, the monture of his closed fan pressed to his chin. The swell of his bottom lip grazes the leaf as he opens his mouth, but it is a moment before his voice follows through. “You should take this, too.”
He holsters his fan, and reaches into his pouch. Nie Mingjue recognises the black pommel of his sabre from where it protrudes from the circle of his fingers the moment he lifts his hand back, shoulder hitching.
“It’s not your Baxia,” he says, deprecatory, as he readjusts his grip, lowers it to the throat of the scabbard. “But it’s something.”
He shrugs stiffly, and then extends it, out into the expanse of space between them both. It is a slight thing, sleek and elegant, nothing like the sabres of the other cultivators of their sect, but no lesser for the difference. Something forged to fit Nie Huaisang, instead of something Nie Huaisang was forced to fit.
Nie Mingjue takes the step forward he needs in order to wrap his hand between the bars ribbing the scabbard, pinning the band beneath his palm. It is light, even after Nie Huaisang relinquishes the full weight of it to him. He can adapt to it.
“There hasn’t been any need for it yet,” Nie Huaisang says, as Nie Mingjue lowers it to his side. “Better for you to have it, though.”
He returns his fan to his hand, wrist pivoting neatly as he unfurls it to waft, lazy, against his chest, the painted mountainside flipped outward. There is a gentleness to his expression, but an expectance to it, too, as of yet unestablished.
There is no need for Nie Mingjue to ask what Nie Huaisang will protect himself with, not when the answer will be his brother’s smile and some manner of a softly spoken You. That is, at least, as it should be. And so, he inclines his head towards the door instead in silent direction, and though there is no question that Nie Huaisang is leading the way, they step off as one, and fall in together.
When Nie Mingjue turns his head, Nie Huaisang’s gaze is already lifted up to meet him, fan drifting the slope of his sternum.
“No animals at all,” he continues, when he’s the sole beholder of his brother’s attention, “but there’s meat.”
The walk to the village is not a far one, for where Nie Huaisang has told him it sits, just shy of the southern range they’ve found they can traverse. An hour, if that; longer, for them, for the pace Nie Huaisang has set. Paradoxically harried but unhurried; insistent but idle.
Nie Huaisang is filling the quiet, but the disruption is, by its nature, a diversion. Meant to deflect and disaffirm the way the silence is playing out and over him, the way his body has clutched itself around an expectation. As though he hopes he could deceive Nie Mingjue, could convince him that Nie Huaisang does not now know, intimately, how to brace, blind, for a blow you only know will come, with no sense of when or where to guide you.
How long was Nie Mingjue dead, before Nie Huaisang learned how to chart such a dread, felt it enough in his own skin to put words to it and learn to move against it? Was it years, was it months, or was it less?
Nie Huaisang does not rush to either thread or tear the strand of his thought that he’s left loose between them. Nie Mingjue does not fill the quiet that blooms and burns up again around it. He looks forward instead, leaves it to join the clap of their boots to the dirt, the muss-scrape of their clothes, layers rustling over layers rounding limbs. Listens to it settle underneath the hush of their breaths, scuffed by exertion yet smothered by solicitude.
Unease rakes its fingers down the rungs of Nie Mingjue’s spine. It is not unendurable.
“I have been thinking,” says Nie Huaisang, quiet, at last, “on what it could mean.”
His nails rap against the black iron guard of his fan, once. Swift, sharp. Nie Mingjue looks at him again, and Nie Huaisang looks back.
Nie Mingjue speaks his mind knowing his words will be inapt and inadequate. “It’s magic.” A tool. “It could mean no more than that.” The purpose it serves.
“Maybe,” Nie Huaisang accedes, “but I’m wary of overlooking the symbolism of it, all the same.”
Nie Mingjue does his best to give such things their due respects, but he cannot pretend to understand past what his eyes can witness, what he can wrap his hands around, what he can war against. What he knows of the world in the words the world has told him it works. He thinks himself just, and hopes himself considerate, but there is a luxury in being afforded the time to ponder and interrogate meanings without and within the outright. Theirs is a forthright Dao by its necessity: a soldier would bleed out sooner than a gentleman could reach a decision. Nie Huaisang, with his appreciation for beauty and his propensity for patience, was always more suited to scholarly indolence.
Each of them has always been comprised of what the other most lacks, in that sense. They are two to a whole; competent as independents, but unparalleled when interconnected. This is not a realm where Nie Mingjue’s strengths shine through, but it is one where Nie Huaisang transcends.
“Tell me,” Nie Mingjue says.
Nie Huaisang glances away, eyelids hooding. He scrapes his teeth down the swell of his bottom lip, then tongues, absently, at the worried skin. Even when he parts his mouth to speak, he takes another moment, as if to gather his thoughts, before he lets his voice follow. “The need is filled without the death it is meant to necessitate,” he observes. “I don’t know what is supposed to hold more weight; that it means there is no killing here that can be justified, or that it means it no longer requires a butcher to be sacrificed.”
He meets Nie Mingjue’s gaze. “But the outcome is the same,” he concludes, “in that it actualises the ideal of purity, otherwise impossible to attain.”
Nie Mingjue has learned there is always something that lies underneath the words the literati choose when they talk their circles around matters. A deliberateness in the ways they do not reach their points, in how they leave some things among others unaddressed. His brother’s considerations are less noteworthy than the way he has chosen to share them.
Knowing this renders him no less helpless when it is used amongst and against him. Nie Huaisang is no less a son of Qinghe Nie for his proficiencies in unorthodox weaponry, and he wields the blades of his words as well as any of their people wield a sabre.
“You could be right,” Nie Huaisang relents. He does not look away, but it is a close thing, for the way his face jerks towards his shoulder, as if to hide. “We could both be wrong. I’ll think on it more.”
They see the village on the horizon long before they hear the noise of it, hitched to the breeze and carried down the road to them. Its heart does not beat like a village’s does; no-one flows into it, no-one spills out.
“The people here.” There must be people, after all; Nie Huaisang has made such a point of it to come, shown such complacent confidence in the fact it is here the things he wants today can be found. If it was only a corpse, three weeks with it would have seen it picked clean. A living place is granted similar respects, but separate considerations. “Are they real?”
Nie Huaisang hums, clicks his tongue, bites his lip. “I don’t know,” he replies. “I don’t believe so. They might have been, once.”
Nie Mingjue tips his head, mouth pursing.
“They don’t answer questions,” Nie Huaisang elaborates. “They’re not afraid.”
Nie Mingjue contemplates this. Then, carefully, considering the curl of Nie Huaisang’s mouth and the crimp of his brow, he asks, “Do they bleed?”
His brother’s answering flinch cracks his expression wide open before it crumples back in on itself, the set of it contorting. “Yes,” he admits. He pitches his voice around it to something that's remarkably close to indifference.
The unease digs its claws into Nie Mingjue’s back, breaks skin, draws blood. It’s enough. It’s all he needs to know. It needn’t go any further than here.
“Do they die, Huaisang?”
That Nie Huaisang must tear his gaze away from him is in itself too much and too telling to bear, but Nie Huaisang does not leave that knife half-buried between the notches of Nie Mingjue’s ribs. A small act of resolve, but in no way one of mercy. “They— yes.”
Nie Huaisang slows to match the way Nie Mingjue’s steps have begun to drag, but neither of them stop, nor do either of them look anywhere but ahead.
It’s thorough, in the way Nie Mingjue ultimately expects of Nie Huaisang, but cruel in the way he could never have envisioned him being, not for any sake. Even if they are not real, even if they do not fear, surely, they would have been— the village lies within Qinghe. They’re unarmed innocents. They’re theirs.
Nie Mingjue thinks of how Nie Huaisang stood before him in their ancestral halls and the bravery that spurred his open condemnation. Thinks of his rage, borne of such a reverence for life and a love for all of them that he could feel nothing but betrayed by the truth kept from him, and how Nie Mingjue had bent the knee to it and accepted its cost as fair.
Nie Mingjue had protected Nie Huaisang from much, from most, but he’d never been able to shield him from how inhospitable the world was to him, how inhumane. And yet, for everything he’d seen done and had done to him, Nie Huaisang had retained a gentleness that was itself his innocence. To raise a hand in defence of one’s self or another when threatened with being struck, or to preempt a harm you know with surety will come from one who can be safely called an enemy, they were one thing; to be the hand that struck the defenceless was another. Nie Huaisang had struggled with the former; it’s inconceivable to Nie Mingjue that he’s now become capable of and complicit in the latter.
How can he arrive at the point of the blood on his brother’s hands, then, when he struggles to acknowledge the blade in it first?
Had it been by Nie Huaisang’s own hand that he’d seen the deed done, or had he ordered one of his men to make the blow?
Nie Mingjue’s breath shakes out of him, stuttering and sharp. He tightens his grip on the scabbard in his hand until he feels as if it will give way under his power, will snap and shatter and send the bare blade of the sabre up through his flesh. He must come to a stop, sometime between one thought and another, across breaths, because he sees Nie Huaisang in the corner of his eye circle back to him from the steps he’s taken ahead.
“I’m the only one,” he says, measured, “who comes to the south.” He waits for a moment, lets that implication sink in, set to stone. “They were back, the next time I came.”
It suspends, aloft, between them. Not justifying, not penitent, but something terrible, something cold and other.
“Da-ge,” Nie Huaisang whispers, after a wait, his breath fraying around it.
He does not say anything else. Nor does Nie Mingjue, even long after they have fallen back into step, have carried themselves far enough down the weave of the path for the sounds of the village ahead to finally blanket them.
Everyone they pass and meet and speak with behaves as Nie Huaisang intimated they would: they move through the few motions they have with some believable degree of natural fluidity. Young children brush past their knees as they dart through the crowd, knocking them with their elbows. Merchants hawk their wares, beckoning them over to stalls and up to doorsteps. There is the music of merging conversations, the percussion of movement.
There is only so long it all can remain strung overhead before it snaps and slams back to the soil, shattering its own illusion. Answers to questions come, but slowly, and at a spate that seems practised. Answers come, but not for the questions asked, if the questions are the wrong ones, or not asked in time, as if they are a recital, not a recognition.
Nie Huaisang navigates it with the fluency of the well-versed. Every word is punctual, polite, precise, as though he is holding court, not purchasing goods. He knows where to go, what to say, which stalls he will be stopped at and offered wine and fruits to try, and when to step away from the beaten path.
There is a moment— there is a moment, where it all falls out of harmony. Nie Huaisang cannot predict with irreproachable accuracy how the villagers will move around Nie Mingjue, when Nie Mingjue was never meant to be accommodated. And so, it happens like this: within a small shop, where they lack room to do much more than stand between shelving and roof-strung draperies, Nie Huaisang steps to him. He holds a linen robe up to his chest, considering it against the rest of Nie Mingjue. His other elbow is tucked to his ribs, his hand carelessly swung outward, fan balanced between the crook of his thumb and the cup of his palm.
The shopkeep pushes past them. The meat of his arm catches on the point of the iron monture, and Nie Mingjue watches Nie Huaisang’s hand jerk, fingers clawing down, as it tears through fabric and flesh, blood spattering across the leaf.
Nie Huaisang pulls away all too late. The man continues to press on past them, unfazed, blood sleeting down his sleeve. There is no change to his face, there is no hiss to his breath.
Nie Mingjue wonders, then, if that was how it had started. If that had been what Nie Huaisang had seen to set him to the course of his conviction to see that spark of an idea brought to its bitterest conclusion. If it would have been easier for him, or harder, to take the life he did, for the absence of fright, of suffering, when he could fill those voids for himself as much or as little as he liked.
Nie Huaisang’s next inhale shudders, just slightly, just so. He closes his fan and stows it in his belt, giving both of his hands, instead, to the task of holding another robe up against Nie Mingjue, mouth thinning.
Nie Huaisang has become what he himself most reviled, Nie Mingjue realises. He has become what he feared had become of Nie Mingjue.
It would not be the first time that Nie Mingjue has set something aside in the alcoves of his mind and left it unassessed, unaddressed. He had learned to move himself around many such matters in his short life, for survival if not necessarily for convenience. Not all things seen and done could be afforded acknowledgement, not when you were born into a world where the fire had already burned up to the doorstep of your home. Not when every sunrise brought another enemy over your borders, and every sunset brought more bodies back over your threshold.
Better to be blind to some horrors than to be broken by them. Nie Mingjue has restrained himself countless times over to the cage of his own forward march in aid of seeing his promises fulfilled, and he can do it here, now, for the promise that has always mattered most to him.
So, Nie Mingjue does not look at the blood drying on the dirt, but at Nie Huaisang, who does not look at him. He takes a steadying breath, watching the backs of Nie Huaisang’s hands rising with the crest of his chest as he wets his mouth and swallows against the dryness of his throat. “Is this necessary?” he asks.
Nie Huaisang tenses, almost imperceptibly, across moments. Then, the press of his lips shifts from pensive to prim, and he lifts his eyes another fraction, bringing his gaze to rest on Nie Mingjue’s throat.
“You have one set of robes,” Nie Huaisang says. There’s a fragile twinge of playfulness to it. “Unless you want to spend the day bare when they have to be washed?”
“Then choose.” It’s not too difficult, to get his hands around his own discomfort, to twist it enough that it can temper his tone with an exasperation that is fonder.
Nie Huaisang’s bottom lip twitches, and his gaze glances higher, setting itself back down just shy of Nie Mingjue’s eyes. “I’m working on it. If they don’t suit you, you might as well stay bare, since you’ll look just as ridiculous either way,” he fusses back, childish. “This is why you could never be trusted to style yourself.”
“Huaisang,” Nie Mingjue prompts, and Nie Huaisang glances up the rest of the way, meeting his gaze. “There are not enough hours of daylight left.”
Nie Huaisang scoffs, the sound whipping into a sharp snap of laughter. “I— yes. Fair! All right.”
He hangs the robes in his hands over the brace of his arm before he turns away, poring more expediently over the fabric. Under Nie Mingjue’s supervision, the last few pieces are chosen swiftly, and when he approaches the counter to set down payment for them, neither he nor Nie Mingjue spare more than a glance at the shopkeep’s arm, still bleeding sluggishly from its gash.
The night brings with it no new noises, but it is more calming, almost, for it to be so unnaturally silent when the dark follows it. Certainly more expected, if nothing else. They talk little, but Nie Huaisang preoccupies the lulls between their words with humming, which soothes the worst of the pervasive malaise.
Time warps in the twilight, even without the interference of trickery. Though they take longer to return, they seem to arrive all the quicker for it. The moon is only a sliver in the sky, but there is a beacon of light on the horizon, a smudge that spreads out with every further forward step, but falls short shy of the outcroppings of the farm’s few buildings, which jut from the hillside like blunted teeth.
Nie Huaisang’s humming fades, the taper punctuated by a sharp inhale, then followed by a sharper whistle. A shrill, spinous thing, slicing at the distance.
A low whistle swings back, the note of it longer, dragging. Nie Mingjue watches Nie Huaisang’s lips crook upward, the stark play of the shadows over his face making the line of his mouth all the more jagged. “They’re back,” he says, loud enough only for the both of them. When he turns his face to Nie Mingjue properly, the false flame in his hand drowns his eyes out, leaving only pooled black. “Oh, you’ll need to be— you should be introduced.”
Nie Mingjue supposes he should. He’s introduced himself innumerable times before, but never as someone so akin to a ghost. Nie Huaisang, at least, looks as similarly lost as Nie Mingjue feels, if only for the moments he allows it to lay bare on his face before he gathers it up behind his smile.
The dual pearls of light begin to sweep down the slope to meet them, bringing with them the shimmer of dark robes and the slow shaping of both men’s statures, their frames given form. There is no guardedness in the way either of them approaches, even though Nie Mingjue yet remains a stranger; it seems it is enough for both that he is at Nie Huaisang’s side.
“Sect Leader Nie,” calls the first, the closest, as he brandishes his lantern. The one who called for him this morning, who reached for him. Nie Mingjue takes stock of him, and the other, as they salute, hands cupped around their knuckles.
Nie Huaisang snuffs the flame in his hand and reaches for his belt, the pad of his thumb tracing the rivet of his fan absently before he grasps it and pulls it free. “Jia Wencheng,” he says, turning the point of his closed fan onto the man closest. The bleed of the lit flames through fogged glass glints off the black iron of the monture, making it look sleek within the coil of Nie Huaisang’s thin fingers, slippery. He lets his wrist curve, languid, drawing the trail of it over to point at the other man. “Yu Yongrui.”
Their eyes all turn to land on Nie Mingjue, almost as if they are as one, near-seamless. Nie Huaisang flicks his fan open with a dainty pivot of his wrist, and brings the leaf of it to rest against his chest. Even in the dim light, Nie Mingjue can see the flecks of blood, dried into the cliffside. “This is my brother,” Nie Huaisang tells them, with a nonchalance that is so perceivably forced that it all but leaves his mouth as something tangible.
The moment freezes for long seconds, then thaws in a snap as both men drop to their knees, arms crossing before them in supplication, lanterns discarded carelessly at their sides. It shocks even Nie Huaisang, whose yelp nearly washes out an awed Chifeng Zun, the utterance itself half lost to the bow of their necks as they press their heads to the ground.
Nie Mingjue reaches, one-handed, for the man closest to him — Yu Yongrui, a lanky thing, all limbs in length — just as Nie Huaisang stoops low and swats Jia Wencheng’s elbow with his fan.
“You show him more respect than you do me!” he exclaims, amply indignant, but the airy lilt in his voice through his blatantly fond smile gives it away as empty of heat, as does the bid within it for both of them to rise. They do start to return to their feet at the prompting, though it is with less haste than what they left them with in the first place, and in Yu Yongrui’s respect, less grace.
“Sect Leader,” Jia Wencheng ventures, once he’s straightened, “that’s simply not true.” There is a tint of reservation to his voice for the casualness of his address of Nie Huaisang in Nie Mingjue’s presence, and Nie Mingjue watches on as Nie Huaisang proceeds to meet it by rolling his eyes like an ill-mannered child.
For what it is, it works: Nie Mingjue can see how it plucks the seed of uncertainty from the ground between them all before it can sprout; how the clench of both Yu Yongrui and Jia Wencheng’s shoulders unravels as the tension lets off the worst of itself.
They seem very comfortable with Nie Huaisang, as Nie Huaisang seems comfortable with them. They seem somewhat— unsurprised, by Nie Mingjue, though Nie Mingjue does not know how surprised they should be. Each of the three observations plait and knot together, their mangle resisting his scrutiny.
“So you say,” says Nie Huaisang, folding his fan and tucking it under his arm. He reaches for his pouch and begins to rummage through its apparently nigh-endless contents, further worsened by the gains of his day with Nie Mingjue, as Jia Wencheng chuffs out a laugh. If there ever was a limit to what any qiankun pouch could hold, Nie Huaisang would be one of the few to consistently butt up against it. The click of his tongue signals his success, and Nie Huaisang wriggles his arm back out, another sack in hand. It is less thrust towards either of his disciples as it is thrust away from himself, and it is Yu Yongrui who catches it, arm snaking out between the jumble of their bodies as Nie Huaisang’s fingers begin to unlatch from the neck of his hold.
“Sect Leader,” says Jia Wencheng, as Nie Huaisang bends past him to snatch up his lantern, “did you want to hear—”
“—No,” Nie Huaisang interrupts, the lift of his chin almost comically churlish. He adjusts his fan underneath his arm then reaches out with his spare hand, pinching his thumb and forefinger around the elbow of Nie Mingjue’s robe. “I’m tired. You’ll still remember it tomorrow, won’t you?”
He gives Nie Mingjue’s robe a small pluck, needling. Nie Mingjue has to tame a reflexive chastisement at Nie Huaisang’s dismissiveness, but he does not miss, as he begins to step back, the way Jia Wencheng opens his mouth before he promptly abandons his words with the reminder of Nie Mingjue’s presence.
Though Nie Mingjue goes first, with Nie Huaisang at his back holding the lantern aloft to light their way, there is no question that Nie Huaisang is leading them. It does not sit right with Nie Mingjue, to delay a debrief in such circumstances, but neither does contesting it, not when it might undermine Nie Huaisang's authority. Foreign as it still is to him, Nie Huaisang is who is deferred to, here, even, arguably, for Nie Mingjue. So, Nie Mingjue exerts the due patience and waits the minutes they take to wander up the path back to the farmhouse, for him to pull the door shut behind them both, for Nie Huaisang to set the lantern and his fan aside, down on the low table.
Nie Huaisang turns towards him before Nie Mingjue is sure of the words he wants to speak. He sees Nie Mingjue’s concern, half phrased in the way he knows his expression sets itself so plainly, and Nie Huaisang’s eyes hood as he reads him, head tilting.
“Wencheng,” he says, realising. “Ah. You think I was— if it was important, he would not have asked, Da-ge, he would have just started to tell. That’s how he is.”
The confirmation — and it is a confirmation, even if it is not quite the one Nie Mingjue intended to seek out — makes something in the pit of him writhe, white-hot. That must show on his face, too, of course, for Nie Huaisang’s gaze flickers with something heated, contorting and inconstruable, before it fades.
“How are you feeling?” Nie Huaisang asks briskly, moving on, hands fluttering at his waist. Nie Mingjue takes his lead, and begins to kick off his boots. What else can he do?
“I’m fine.” It’s the truth, all in all, and requires little reflection. Nie Mingjue lowers his head, and feels the fall of his hair and his braids sweep over the crest of his shoulder as he picks up his boots in his free hand, the other still fastened around the scabbard of Nie Huaisang’s sabre. “Are you?”
Above and across, Nie Huaisang hums, and his pouch clatters against his fan as it is dropped to the table. “I’m tired,” he admits, light. “That was the truth. But that’s to be expected of me.” The smile he graces Nie Mingjue with when he straightens is impish, if delicate, his fingers curling in his belt. “You don’t feel tired at all? No hunger, no thirst?”
“No,” Nie Mingjue says.
“Do those things even need to concern you?” Nie Huaisang asks, but it is not a question for Nie Mingjue, and so it is not a question he answers. By the time they have stripped back to their middle robes, there is the smell of smoke on the air, woody and spiced, curling around from the kitchen outside, almost built up against the furthest wall of the dwelling in afterthought. Perhaps, eventually, it would have been fed through into the room proper, the bed pulled free and a kang built in its place. Everything seems sparse, half-furnished, half-finished.
Nie Huaisang steps to him, and Nie Mingjue lets him take his outer robe, boots, and sabre, to set aside in the space they’re to make do with. He does indeed look tired, up close and under candlelight; paler, thin to a point of harshness. Nie Mingjue watches him put his own order to the clutter; boots to the door, sabre to the table, robes over the headboard of the bed. When he at last sits on the floor at the table, robes flicked out from underneath his thighs, Nie Mingjue joins him without waiting for Nie Huaisang to beckon him over.
“I should have bought wine,” Nie Huaisang muses, as Nie Mingjue flows down to his knees. He busies himself, unnecessarily, with pushing the things on the table further away, making false space out of nothing for Nie Mingjue to rest his hands on the wood. “Ah, but then we might have had to share, and— I can’t believe they both, really—” Nie Huaisang laughs as he jumps between thoughts, shaking his head. His cheek comes to rest on his hand, and he sighs out.
“I’d forgotten the impression you make on others,” Nie Huaisang concludes. Though his tone tries to lighten it, it lands all too heavily. He does not let it lie in the open for long, sweeping it aside before either of them can start to feel the bruise of its blow, the ache of its heft. “Ah, what should they call you? Other than Chifeng Zun.”
Nie Mingjue pulls in a breath, deep, through his nose, and resettles. He raises a brow at Nie Huaisang, which is invitation enough for his brother to continue.
“They’re your men, too,” Nie Huaisang says, cheek pressing more firmly against his hand as he purses his lips. “Shouldn’t they be more familiar? Shishu? Nie-daren? Oh— of course.” His smile broadens. “Lao-Nie.”
Nie Mingjue narrows his eyes at him, at that, and Nie Huaisang laughs, fingertips tapping against his cheekbone.
“No? You don’t like it? Then— Nie-xiong? Mingjue-ge?”
“You’re enjoying this,” Nie Mingjue accuses, amused.
Nie Huaisang’s eyes slide shut, his smile softening. “I am enjoying this,” he admits.
His exhale flutters out from between his teeth as his shoulders sag, frame sinking in on itself. An urge to reach out to him scratches up Nie Mingjue’s wrists, something senseless, and he curls his fingers against the table to stifle it.
“Rest,” Nie Mingjue tells him, and Nie Huaisang blinks his eyes open, slow, brow creasing.
“And then, what—” Nie Huaisang jerks, fingers clawing against his face, the bite of his nails to skin rousing him enough to catch his tongue before the rest of his thought slips free of his mouth. “It can wait a little longer,” is what he chooses, once he’s steady.
For all its guardedness, the blind, desperate flail of his first utterance lies bare between them. Nie Huaisang stopped his words, but could not stop the telling twist of his features, the remnants still strewn in the harsh line of his thin lips and the wetness hemming his eyes.
What if I wake and you are gone? And what can Nie Mingjue possibly say, to that? What guarantees can he give? Is it his right at all, to promise that he’ll remain, at least here, at least now, when he’s broken the promises that have come before?
It is not, he knows, but he must take the risk of promising more and again all the same. With that conviction, he begins to rise and reach in turns, drawing up on his knees as he takes Nie Huaisang by the wrist.
“Up,” he commands. Nie Huaisang startles in the snare of his fingers for the briefest of seconds before he settles and slants into acquiescence, weight sinking into the brace of Nie Mingjue’s strength. With Nie Mingjue shouldering the rest, all he needs to do is get his feet beneath him as they both stand, his arm turning over in Nie Mingjue’s grip so he can clutch his sleeve for purchase.
Words fail Nie Mingjue in the ways they best serve Nie Huaisang, so Nie Mingjue does not say them as he leads Nie Huaisang the half-step around the table, catching him when he stumbles, weariness already well-set in his bones.
“Da-ge,” Nie Huaisang starts, but whatever else he intends to say is choked on, instead, with a spluttering, stunned gasp as Nie Mingjue efficiently pulls the ribbon from his braids. The hairpins follow, and, freed from the crown of his head, Nie Huaisang’s braids spill down the swoop of his spine.
Nie Mingjue twines the ribbon between his fingers, tucks the pins to the flat of his palm, and has two of the braids unwound before Nie Huaisang grabs his forearm.
“Da-ge, wh— wait, wait.”
Nie Mingjue waits, but does not withdraw; Nie Huaisang’s grip is not a push or a pull, but a pause. They have time enough that he can give some of it over to letting Nie Huaisang find his ground, and even if they didn’t, it would still be an easy forfeit, a natural one.
“I’m okay,” Nie Huaisang murmurs, peering up at him, brow furrowing as his fingers curl tighter.
Nie Mingjue holds his gaze as he reaches, again, for Nie Huaisang’s hair, and resumes his task. “What good will you do anyone,” he admonishes, firm, as the comb of his fingers sinks into the muss of his braids proper, parting them decisively, “when you are like this?”
It takes a moment to break skin and sink in, but when it does, Nie Huaisang’s answering laugh is breathless, cracking and crumbling in on itself. “Using my own words against me is not— fair,” he protests, even as his hand falls away, finds itself flitting against Nie Mingjue’s flank instead, flustered.
Fairness has little to do with the truth of things, but Nie Mingjue does not say this, not here, not even to tease. “You will be grateful for it in the morning,” he says instead, brushing the curled strands under his fingers flat against the shroud of Nie Huaisang’s hair.
“Maybe,” Nie Huaisang says. His fingers skate Nie Mingjue’s thigh when his hand swings, slight, to follow the sag of his body with his sigh. He closes his eyes and dips his chin towards his chest, and Nie Mingjue observes how his countenance frays, in spite of any and all gentleness. “Is there anything you want to know? About anyone, or things you’ve… missed.” He shrugs; his teeth scrape his bottom lip. Adds, quieter, not meant for Nie Mingjue to hear, perhaps not meant even for himself to speak, “I should have offered sooner.”
Just in case. It is not only about tonight. That Nie Mingjue will be gone again is the end, how and when are the eventualities to face. It is already an intolerable thought, that it will come to pass, but will knowing more make it impossible for him to do what is right?
“No,” Nie Mingjue says. He gives away nothing else; leaves it for Nie Huaisang to take as he chooses, just as he places the ribbon and hairpins in the cup of the hand Nie Huaisang holds out between them.
“Okay.” Nie Huaisang swallows. “All right.” He closes his fingers and lowers his hand. When he lifts his face and opens his eyes, there’s a practised placidity to them, a serenity that ebbs and flows but does not set in. When he reaches for Nie Mingjue, fingers ghosting up the line of his jaw, Nie Mingjue bows low enough to meet it, for Nie Huaisang to not have to stretch and strain to unclasp his guan, to wind his hand in Nie Mingjue’s braids.
“They held well,” Nie Huaisang remarks, to fill the space. His smile grows crooked; his fingers fumble and catch, clumsy with exhaustion. “Not my best.”
He loops the fingers of his other hand through the guan, curves it back against his palm, with the ribbon and hairpins. Nie Mingjue straightens, only to still, when Nie Huaisang’s hand slips from his shoulder, fingers hooking in his belt. The way Nie Mingjue tenses must startle him, and the realisation of where his hand has drifted unquestionably shocks him, for how snappishly he shakes them free and rips them back to his side, as though stung. The embarrassed red that paints itself up his throat is only bolded by the lamplight.
Nie Huaisang’s throat clicks when he swallows again. “You’ll sleep, too?” His voice is barely a scratch of sound, nervous, forced out. “You’ll keep waking me, if you don’t. You know how I am.”
It’s reasonable. It is also a lie: Nie Huaisang has the discipline to put himself to sleep in any assortment of rough conditions, though he will rarely pass up the chance to complain about the inconvenience, after. It is often a shallow sleep, for how sensitive he can be to stirring, but it is no less rest for being easily roused from. Nie Huaisang is not foolish enough to try and deceive Nie Mingjue with a lie so easily disproved. He is, perhaps, fragile enough to try and lie to Nie Mingjue as a means to request something of him, if it is something he feels he can’t ask for outright.
Nie Mingjue cannot remember the last night he was not tired. The last night he slept enough, or slept, truly, at all. He feels free; realises, morbidly, that he is.
“All right,” Nie Mingjue says. There are few things he’s ever denied Nie Huaisang, and less that he’s ever required his brother to be direct about as his cost in return.
Nie Huaisang passes him by, leaning over to set his guan down, the hairpins, the ribbon. The curtains are so thin that what little moonlight there is spills all the way through the slatted windows. It’s enough, when Nie Mingjue extinguishes the lantern, for them to make their way to the bed, a slither of shade and shape against the shadows playing over the empty space. He hears more than sees, over the rasp of his own hands gliding across his garb, Nie Huaisang strip down to his innermost layer, moonlight glinting off the silver silk. Their hands meet; Nie Mingjue holding out his robes and belt in front of him without thought, Nie Huaisang reaching to take them without reflection.
Nie Huaisang discards them swiftly, tossing them with little care for the creases that will come of his laziness and inspire his annoyance in the morning. Then, he clambers onto the bed, puts his back flush against the wall, and, eyes meeting Nie Mingjue’s, proceeds to cross his legs and slap down on the wood beside his thighs with a jarring forcefulness. It’s loud, it’s childish, and it’s reminiscent, in such a foolish and tender way, that it actually slams a laugh out of Nie Mingjue. For the briefest moment, in the dim, with his shoulders hunched and his hair ruffled, Nie Huaisang looks so very young. With the smell of woodsmoke wafting in from outside, and the tumbledown mudbrick sheltering them, Nie Mingjue feels so very young, too.
It is so much like their earlier days, of coming to the places like this, far-flung, where Qinghe begins to fray and bleed over borders and boundaries. When the world was a little simpler for them; when all they needed to do to keep their people safe was hunt beasts across the grasslands. When there was only the night, the campfire, their men; the tents they’d erect in the fields and off the beaten paths when there was no space in the low-slung homes of the farmers to spare.
The moment passes. Nie Mingjue brings himself into the bed, first to his knees, and then to his back. He feels Nie Huaisang shift, ghosting against his side, making room for him even though he does not need it. When Nie Huaisang’s hand comes to rest on his sternum, questioning, he lifts his arm in answer, draping it across the hills of Nie Huaisang’s shoulders as he tucks himself against his side. Nie Mingjue can’t help but think, as Nie Huaisang pillows his cheek against his pectoral, his soft exhale gusting out across the silk of his inner robe, of the last time they slept in the same bed. When they had returned from their ancestral halls, and after, long after, when the day and its disarray and its dead were gone and buried, Nie Huaisang had invited himself into Nie Mingjue’s room. Had said nothing of it; of what was behind them, nor of his presence, as he climbed into Nie Mingjue’s bed, pressed himself to the line of his brother’s back, and slept like that, arm slung around Nie Mingjue’s waist.
It had been a sorely needed comfort, one he could not ask for, but one Nie Huaisang knew he had to give. For Nie Mingjue, that night had been mere months ago; for Nie Huaisang, it has been many years. Without, for so long— it is no wonder, Nie Mingjue thinks, with a terrible understanding.
This, Nie Mingjue will all too gladly grant, if it will put at least some part of Nie Huaisang’s soul to rest, allow him some hours of peace in the din at long last.
It takes long, long minutes, for him to even realise— he is not at Koi Tower. There are no looming pillars overhead, opulent stones underfoot, no moonlight glancing off gossamer gold: there is only brick and dirt and candlelight, with the bridge of Nie Huaisang’s voice strung between.
In the dream that still lingers, Nie Huaisang is screaming, too, frantic and wailing and for him. But in waking, he whispers to him. Cadence even, coaxing; a comfort and a centrepoint.
“Da-ge,” Nie Huaisang calls. It’s gentler than the shake of his own body, coming apart; quieter than the roar in his head, thoughts ripping into one another and rending themselves apart in the rush for sense. “Da-ge. Da-ge.”
The rage and the red are unfathomable. Nie Mingjue burns, and burns, and burns, in a way that even bloodshed can’t sate. But it’s not— real. It’s not real. It has been lived through, died from, it’s not—
He follows his brother’s voice. In both and all places, he’s easy to find: bold where everything else blurs out. He’s close enough to see well, far enough not to be reached, lingering at the foot of the bed, pale and rumpled. His expression softens when Nie Mingjue turns to him, but his eyes remain the same, scared wide and black and wet.
“It’s okay,” Nie Huaisang reassures him. Voice thready, smile trembling; relief in the set of his features, defeat in the sink of his shoulders. “You’re okay. You’re here.”
Nie Mingjue heaves in a breath, but it barely makes the descent into his chest. There’s too much to take in; forward and back, rent between the end and here, the after. Where does he start with it, what sense can he hope to make of it? He grips at what is beneath his hands, bears down on the resistance he feels beneath his feet, and it does not ground him, how could it possibly—
“Da-ge.” Nie Huaisang’s voice, again, weak and wrecked but there, reaching out, pressing through. “Da-ge, you’re safe, look here. Look at me.”
Nie Mingjue does. When he blinks the last streaks of red from his eyes, there is a stain of it that remains, a bitter bright bloom on the abraded swell of Nie Huaisang’s bottom lip. Nie Huaisang follows the narrow point of his gaze, and tongues, nervously, at the cut, brow furrowing.
Has he hurt him? Did he hurt him? Nie Mingjue doesn’t remember, for here or for then, only that it’s terrifyingly possible that he did, that Nie Huaisang is here, but that he was there—
Nie Mingjue stills, cold, as the submerged shards of his senses break through to the surface. There is no order to them, no sequence, but he has his hands around the throat of it all, now. He feels the dirt under his bare feet, the crumpled sheets beneath the heels of his palms.
“Da-ge,” Nie Huaisang murmurs. Nie Mingjue watches him take a half-step, his hands held out in placation, breaching the deliberate distance to place himself within Nie Mingjue’s reach. “Come back. Come back to me.”
Nie Mingjue is here. He is dead; he is not aflame. It is sweat that soaks his robes and sticks them to his skin, tacky, not blood. And Nie Huaisang— he hopes he hasn’t—
“Huaisang,” he rasps. It rips up his shredded throat, rakes over his dry tongue.
“There you are,” Nie Huaisang breathes, and Nie Mingjue has to close his eyes, tight. Has to grit his teeth, lest he starts to cry from the way his brother’s countenance cracks open and choke on the tentative thing that makes its home in his voice.
There is nothing and no-one here to hold Nie Huaisang back from him. He can come to Nie Mingjue, and so he does. He draws close, his steps slow, and stoops down low, sinking into a kneel. Between the pen of Nie Mingjue’s knees, Nie Huaisang looks small, and feels safer. Only the slightest flinch snaps through Nie Mingjue’s fingers when Nie Huaisang finds the furl of them and follows them up, touch light, until his palms settle over Nie Mingjue’s straining knuckles.
“What is the last thing you remember?” Nie Huaisang asks, when his fingers are pinching the sleeves of Nie Mingjue’s inner robe, blunt nails toying absently with the gathered fabric.
“Koi Tower,” Nie Mingjue answers, unsteady. The rest of it won’t come. What else? He had left his rooms, after retiring to them, at an hour he can’t determine and for reasons he can’t recall. Within the guest wing in one breath, scaling the stairs to the main hall two at a time the next.
“Do you remember where you are now?” Nie Huaisang asks. “Do you remember what happened to you?”
“Yes.” Low to the floor and back to the light, the shadows on Nie Huaisang’s face cast the cut on his lip into jagged focus. Nie Mingjue goes to lift his hand, and finds there is no resistance in Nie Huaisang’s atop it, no rebuke; it follows the trail of his reach until he cups Nie Huaisang’s jaw, thumb brushing his lip. It strings out a hiss, and Nie Huaisang swallows back against it, catching the reflexive lave of his tongue before it can wet Nie Mingjue’s skin.
“It’s okay.” Nie Huaisang tilts his face into Nie Mingjue’s touch, affirming it, as he curls his fingers, hooks them beneath the fan of Nie Mingjue’s on his jaw, and squeezes down. “It’s over.”
Is it? Gold viced around silver; fear sweeps up his spine. That Nie Huaisang is still alive, is still well, is no longer assurance enough, now. It can’t be, not when Nie Mingjue remembers Jin Guangyao’s true face. Nothing else matters; not what led to it, not what became of him for it. Only that he needs to warn Nie Huaisang of the danger he’s left him alone with.
“Huaisang.” His brother thumbs at the bind of their hands against his face, and squeezes down on his hand, now slack, against the bed. “Jin Guangyao—”
“—Da-ge,” Nie Huaisang interrupts. It’s harsh enough to sound wet, clipped enough to ring in his ears. His grip is still gentle, grounding, but something dark has settled in behind his eyes, turning his gaze vacant, tinging it with vitriol. Nie Mingjue knows, at once, that it is not for him, and that he does not need to finish. “I know. He’s dead. It’s over.”
There’s a finality to it, as though Nie Huaisang will not entertain any further elaboration, even for Nie Mingjue’s sake. For now, at least, if not forever.
Nie Mingjue does not need to know, for now. He may not even need to know at all. His brother found out, in the end. Jin Guangyao is dead, outpaced and outlived by Nie Huaisang. Does it matter how it happened, when the deed is done and the body cold?
Nie Huaisang learned the truth of his death. Nie Huaisang watched Nie Mingjue die, held in his brother’s killer’s arms, his brother’s sabre pointed towards them both with a shaking hand.
Do you really want me to watch you die before me until you stop?
“I’m sorry,” Nie Mingjue whispers. It has been long moments, their seconds uncounted; enough for Nie Huaisang’s eyes to lose their serrated glint, for the pool of his weight to have settled still into his knees. He nuzzles into Nie Mingjue’s palm, the gesture seemingly absent of any consideration but his brother’s comfort and his warmth, and his mouth parts as he blinks up at Nie Mingjue, slow, the corner of his lips grazing Nie Mingjue’s thumb. He shivers at the catch of it against the cut, this time, but no pain etches into his features, and he does not flinch away.
“Don’t be,” Nie Huaisang replies, voice soft and scratchy with more than encroaching sleep. “Don’t ever be. Help me up?”
Even though he asks for Nie Mingjue’s help, it is Nie Huaisang himself who delays Nie Mingjue from giving it; Nie Mingjue needs his hands, and Nie Huaisang is reluctant to untangle his own from them. When he does, at last, Nie Mingjue grasps him beneath his biceps and lifts him without effort, does not need to even raise himself to draw Nie Huaisang to his feet.
Nie Mingjue does not think his brother understands what he is trying to apologise for— the specific atonement he seeks, for all the wrongs he’s wrought by nature of his premature passing. And so, he tries again to put words to it, as he lowers his head, as he lends his hands to brushing the loose dirt free of Nie Huaisang’s legs. “I never wanted,” Nie Mingjue says, loud enough to not be denied by either of them, “for you to see me like that.”
He remembers their father’s death; a slow wasting, drawn out across long months. No less violent for how it was so quiet. No less the fault of his sabre spirit, in the end, even if the cause that slit him open from throat to belly and bled him out was sabotage, not insanity. He was old enough when their grandfather died to know just how the madness looked, too; when it was not a whisper but a roar that rends and reverberates.
It was not so strange for Nie Mingjue to have his guan li as young as he did, not for a Nie. Not so unexpected, for him to be called upon to set aside his given name, with all other childish things, and become the man his sect needed him to be. Nie Huaisang had barely grown hair long enough for his first braid, to thread the ribbon through, before silk had been unwound and set over with silver. He had been so young, too young to remember who he was before he was made to become Nie Huaisang. For all the meaning in the names they took to be their last and only, what most defined them was that they were so bittersweet. The last gifts their parents had to give them, bequeathed so young because they were gone too soon.
Was it so terrible, that Nie Mingjue had wanted to spare Nie Huaisang from carrying more grief and ghosts than he already did?
Nie Mingjue thinks, at first, that Nie Huaisang’s silence is just that, and nothing more. Something as simple as tiredness. Then, he hears the shuddering breath, sees the curl of Nie Huaisang’s fingers in his robes, against his thighs, the way the fabric warps and feeds in on itself beneath the claw of his tightening grip.
“You remember me?” Nie Huaisang murmurs, faint. Nie Mingjue whips his head up at once, seeking out Nie Huaisang’s gaze to hold it. Nie Huaisang meets it, eyes wide and dark and thrown open with a shock that Nie Mingjue didn’t— could never have expected.
“Did you—” Nie Huaisang hesitates, and then he closes his eyes, face crumpling. Nie Mingjue can see, even from where he is, even from the way the turn of Nie Huaisang’s back and the bow of his head veils his face beneath his hair, the tears that catch in his eyelashes, but shed no further. “You heard me. Of course. Of course you did.”
Nie Mingjue takes Nie Huaisang’s hands in his own, catching him just as it seems he’s about to swing off the precipice, every scrap of strength and inch of fight left in his body falling out from underneath him. Nie Mingjue takes his hands, and his weight, and everything else of him, gathering Nie Huaisang in his arms to bring him back down to the floor of himself, back down to the bed. Their knees knock together as Nie Huaisang catches himself against Nie Mingjue’s side, one hand unwinding from his robes to clutch at Nie Mingjue’s hip, the other dragging up his own thigh to fist in his lap. Nie Mingjue keeps him steady, as best he can, the heel of his palm slotted against the small of his back.
It had only been Nie Mingjue who was afraid of hurting Nie Huaisang, until that night. Could Nie Mingjue not simply keep that fear with him, wear it to his rest? What need was there for such a fear in the world, that Nie Huaisang had to take it from his hands in his final moments and carry it on with him in his stead? Had to be denied any certainty as to whether or not Nie Mingjue would have hurt him, if only he’d managed to get within reach?
“Didi.” It’s heavy in his mouth, but not as heavy as Nie Huaisang’s head on his shoulder, his hand on his hip.
Nie Huaisang takes a breath, and then another. Nie Mingjue feels the pull of each of them, the shift of his mouth against his sleeve and the warm curl of every exhale. Then, he pats Nie Mingjue’s hip and rights himself with a sigh that shakes sharply past his lips.
“No,” he says, shaking his head to punctuate it. “It’s okay. I always knew that, Da-ge, truly. It’s nothing that you need to worry about anymore.”
When Nie Mingjue turns his head to look at him, Nie Huaisang’s smile is rueful, wide enough to tug at the cut on his lip, the skin bared beneath the split a shiny stinging pink. He lifts his hand from his lap and furls his fingers against his collarbone, like he might curl them around the sticks of his fan were it in his grip, were he able to raise it up to shield his face from the pry of Nie Mingjue’s perusal.
“Huaisang.” His brother is a terrible liar, when it comes to all of his softer spots, the spaces and stretches of his shroud that turn sheer when Nie Mingjue looks at him and sees him properly, out from underneath. That has not changed. That is still, yet and always, the same.
“Da-ge, really,” Nie Huaisang replies. The rue in the moue of his mouth gives way to something sweet, and Nie Mingjue feels his hand trail from his hip to smooth up his spine, palm circling between the wings of his shoulder blades. “It’s in the past. So far back in the past, really, I.” His shoulders jerk into a shrug as he huffs, shakes his head, and scrubs his eyes, the fingers on Nie Mingjue’s back curling, nails scratching the silk.
“Let’s just leave it there,” he concludes, at last. He sinks down, settling onto the bed, flat and face up, fingers steepling over his stomach. The edges of his eyes are as red as his mouth when he shifts his gaze up to meet Nie Mingjue’s, hips hitching so Nie Mingjue can drag his hand free from where it is cinched between the bed and his back.
Strain strums up the slope of his neck to try and look at Nie Huaisang, when they’re set out like this. Nie Mingjue draws his legs up as he balances and bears his weight down on his hand, braced to the bed, arm tucked towards the bracket of his ribs. Nie Huaisang blinks up at him, bleary, thumbs circling the crumpled fabric beneath the clasp of his hands as the rise-fall of his chest hitches.
If Nie Huaisang wants to leave it be where it lies, Nie Mingjue has little claim to any right to deny him that. Things he’s given over to Nie Huaisang, however unwittingly and unwillingly, are no longer his to take back.
“I set silencing talismans, earlier,” Nie Huaisang pipes up. “There are a few hours left before sunrise, I think.” It’s a needed change in topic, but it clashes, awkward, with the gravity still heavyset on their bodies, both between and overhead. Nie Huaisang drums his laced fingers against the soft dip of his belly, the tip of his tongue glancing the cut on his lip, heedlessly hard enough to earn a contrite hiss.
Nie Mingjue reaches between them, with the hand not holding himself up, and follows the lean of it with the rest of his frame until he can take Nie Huaisang’s chin between his fingers. Though he feels him tense in his hold, there is no resistance from him when Nie Mingjue gingerly tilts his face towards the light to better examine the cut.
Nie Huaisang predicts and preempts Nie Mingjue before his intent coalesces into something proper, progressed beyond inaction. “I tripped,” he says, “while I was, when…” his voice trails off and away, the half given of the explanation clarity enough, and Nie Mingjue feels his mouth twitch between his fingers as he swallows. “Ah, it’s fine, it’s fine.”
It would look and feel far worse, if he had been the one to— still. There’s worth in having it confirmed; a comfort, however small, is not wasted. Nie Mingjue takes his fingers away, and, freed, Nie Huaisang starts to wriggle and squirm up the rest of the bed with no finesse, making room for Nie Mingjue to rejoin him. He doesn’t go far; has learned quickly just how much space Nie Mingjue takes and fills, and strays back just shy of past that, slipping forward again once Nie Mingjue has flattened his back to the wood, has held his arm up for Nie Huaisang to slide underneath.
For all the unpleasantness of how he was woken, how they were both woken, it seems to have blunted the edge of his anxiousness, to have stirred and found Nie Mingjue still at his side. The morning could still change it, but Nie Huaisang would have already considered the chance of that, long before it occurred to Nie Mingjue to even ponder. If it still scared him as much as it did, hours ago, Nie Mingjue would know; he would be able to tell from the claw of Nie Huaisang’s fingers in the waist of his robe, would be able to feel it draw the slip of his frame pressed to his side rigid with tension.
Nie Huaisang is slack with an ill-won ease against him, his clasp loose, his breaths soft. Nie Mingjue closes his eyes, and red does not burst and burn behind them. He does not dream again.
Chapter 2: 她用五色石修补天空 我不知道为了什么
Nie Mingjue wakes, and he is still where he slept. It is not the sunlight seeping through the slatted windows to flood the room that draws him to consciousness, but the smell of woodsmoke, wafting in from outside.
He is the first to rouse, but Nie Huaisang is not far from it, just as he is not far from Nie Mingjue. When Nie Mingjue shifts to stretch, muscles shuddering stiffly as they shake off the lingering sleep, Nie Huaisang stirs. He’s turned over, at some hour or another, within the wind of Nie Mingjue’s arm around his waist, and has put his back to him. Nie Mingjue’s fingertips trail up his ribs gently as Nie Huaisang starts to move, and fall away when he finally kneels up, sluggish, face scrunching around his yawn.
Nie Mingjue watches Nie Huaisang’s throat work around a wispy rumble of sound as he pulls himself up onto his elbows, likely meant to be a greeting, lost partway on his tongue. He climbs, clumsy, over Nie Mingjue’s shins, and lopes to the door in the lazy minute Nie Mingjue takes to sit himself up and kick his legs over the lip of the bed. Nie Huaisang does not call out when he opens the door and leans past the threshold, but whistles, instead. Nie Mingjue feels no pressing need to twist himself to better see who comes as beckoned, or strain to hear what is said.
It is simpler to find himself beneath his own skin, this morning, than it was the last. Nie Mingjue does not have to sink deep, or search far. It’s a strange sensation, for it to lack the accustomed effort. Nie Mingjue is not sure what to make of it; if another worry should sprout up to take its place. He chooses to make nothing of it, at all, for now; turns his attention instead to his brother, wandering back to him, a copper wash basin balanced in his arms.
“How do you feel?” Nie Huaisang asks, voice still scratchy with sleep, eyelids hooded heavily. His hair is fluffed up where it frames his face, the strands frizzy from the friction of rubbing and rolling against the bed and Nie Mingjue as he’s moved about in the night. Nie Mingjue plucks the basin free of his grip, and his hands immediately float to his face, one cupping his neck as it cranes, the other covering his mouth to catch his yawn.
“Good,” Nie Mingjue answers, setting the basin down at his side. It’s a strange answer to give, without a catch and even in consideration of their present circumstances, but it’s the one he has. Nie Huaisang hums his happy satisfaction and leans over, plucking the cloth from the water and wringing it out, the bridge of his nose crinkling with a faint flinch as he tongues the cut on his lip absently, now scabbed over but apparently no less sore for it.
“Mn, good, good. How about your energy?” He dabs his eyes with the edge of the cloth, then sweeps it down to run beneath his jaw and around his neck. “Does anything feel different? Lesser?”
Different, yes, but Nie Mingjue isn’t certain the cause of it is entirely the dreaming state. Lesser, however, he can answer. “No.”
Nie Huaisang hums again, and Nie Mingjue takes the cloth from him when it is held out, wiping the grit of his sleep from his own eyes and the long dried sweat from his temples. “You’ve always had a large pool to draw from, so that makes sense. Harder to notice the sip missing from the sea.”
It is something Nie Mingjue should notice, however small, given due introspection. That he is not sure just where he stands on the shore, still, stalls him from seeing the full scope of it. “How long was it before you noticed?” he asks, returning the cloth to the basin, and Nie Huaisang casts a glance to the roof as he thins his lips.
“Two days,” he says, after a beat, flicking his gaze back to Nie Mingjue’s. His hand curls back behind his nape, and he starts gathering his hair to pull it forward, over his shoulder, fingers toying with the ends. “We could try exhausting you. Maybe it will help get a better sense of if and how the erosion affects you?”
He raises his eyebrows, questioning, and tips his chin to keep his eyes level with Nie Mingjue’s as Nie Mingjue makes to stand, taking the basin back in hand. It’s a sound enough idea: drain to dry, map the sense of it, and hold it to the light against the sense of the pool once it has replenished. Nie Huaisang curls his shoulder back towards himself, as if to make room for Nie Mingjue as he steps past, carrying the basin to the small table, perching it on the edge, out of the way.
“Could throw you at Wencheng and Yongrui for a little bit,” Nie Huaisang adds, light. Nie Mingjue imagines, were he to turn around, he would see the glint of mischief in Nie Huaisang’s eyes made to match the hint of it in his tone. “Put them through their paces. Ah, ah, Da-ge, while you’re there, the comb and pins, I’ll braid your hair.”
Nie Mingjue returns with them and sets them down in the raised cup of Nie Huaisang’s joined palms, stilling the exaggeratedly impatient crook of his fingers. With the last vestiges of his rest shaken off, Nie Huaisang’s smile is bright and broad, his scraped lip twitching around a twinge as he turns his face towards the bed, prompting.
“Still no hunger, or thirst?” Nie Huaisang asks, trailing close to his heels. When Nie Mingjue shakes his head, he makes a wordless sound of consideration, then takes a half-step to the side to pull himself up onto the bed alongside him as he sits down. “I suppose that settles that.”
He draws himself back far enough to only brush against Nie Mingjue when he has brought his legs up onto the bed after him and crossed them, hands settling instinctually at his knees. “They’ve cooked, anyway, if you wanted something,” he continues as he inches forward to bring his kneel up against Nie Mingjue’s back, voice muffled, likely around the cinch of the hairpins between his teeth.
Nie Huaisang continues to fill the quiet, like that, speaking distractedly of things for the sake of it rather than to hold any manner of conversation. It’s more distinct in his mind, now, than he’s used to, but it is no more distracting for it. Much like the drift of his hands as he gently combs Nie Mingjue’s hair, Nie Huaisang’s voice is pitched low and even, with a lulling lilt that laps against the far reaches of Nie Mingjue’s awareness as he clears his mind and lances his attention inward.
It is quiet, there, too. Just as it was yesterday, when he last looked. Right, in a way that feels indefinably wrong.
The blunt, prepensive scrape of Nie Huaisang’s nails against his nape surfaces him. Nie Huaisang makes a sound in the back of his mouth, as if admiring his work, hands gently patting the fall of it where the strands skim the slope of Nie Mingjue’s spine. His head is again heavy with Nie Huaisang’s guan, freely given where it should be carefully kept. “Here,” he says, arm snaking around Nie Mingjue’s waist, the comb and ribbon pinched between his fingers. “Help me with mine?”
It’s inevitable that Nie Mingjue thinks of the last time he braided Nie Huaisang’s hair, as they trade places on the bed; Nie Huaisang, for his slightness, slinks easily into the space set out for him between Nie Mingjue’s thighs, and for his greater height, Nie Mingjue does not have to kneel up in order to see properly as he sets his hands to work. Much like everything else between them, it’s familiar to Nie Mingjue for having happened in the past months of his awareness, and faded for Nie Huaisang for having happened in the furthermost years of his remembrance.
Nie Huaisang had ended up rending his own braids from his hair, the culmination of one of their uncountable arguments that had come to define their ever-reaching rift. Nie Mingjue can remember the encounter clearly, the rage of it, from and between both of them, but not the particulars. Not what had enraged him, not what had enjoined him to find Nie Huaisang, in the midst of it, and see it erupt into something that could not be taken back.
He had refused to have them replaited. It was a statement Nie Huaisang had chosen to stand by, at the time, for all the spite of it. And so that was how Nie Mingjue had taken him to their ancestral halls, in the end, hair loose where it was gathered in the loop of his guan, flowing free save but two of the simplest braids, pulled taut down from the crown of his head to tuck behind his ears then thread back into the curtain of his hair.
Another peculiarity, that Nie Mingjue could not find the purpose of, after — why he had taken Nie Huaisang at all, when it only promised to endanger him.
It was not the morning after the night of their return that Nie Huaisang had sought him out. He had left Nie Mingjue to his space, and had taken some for himself, to mend the worst of his own hurts. Weeks later, Nie Huaisang had come to his room, while the dawn was still so new in the sky that the light of the sun stained it blue, head bowed and hair undone. Comb in hand, he had asked, with a quiet reservation that hurt Nie Mingjue to hear more than any barb, if he would help him with his braids.
Nie Huaisang had not once been slighted, by anyone, for removing them. Similarly, no-one would have known differently, or ever dared disparage him, had he simply returned to styling them as custom. That he had asked Nie Mingjue was an acknowledgement of the silent wound he’d inflicted in retaliation to a grievance now forgotten alongside forgiven, swept clean away. It was an apology that was not required; one that Nie Mingjue did not ever expect, but was grateful to accept.
His brother had sat between his spread thighs much like this, on his bed, his spine sloped in slight subdual as Nie Mingjue had combed the tangles free and laced the strands until every braid that belonged to Nie Huaisang was returned, gathered up and pinned tidily to his head, clipped in place by his guan.
There had been no business more pressing, after it was done, than to sit until Nie Huaisang’s shoulders no longer shook, an apology of his own offered back in the press of his chest to Nie Huaisang’s back, his forehead to his hair.
His brother makes a sound, something not-quite-pain and not-quite-discomfort, but what could become one or the other or both, and Nie Mingjue takes heed of its warning to prise the teeth of the comb free from the tangle in the ends of his hair that has snagged them. There is a temptation to be slow that Nie Mingjue does not take, but he does not hasten himself, either, as he finishes threading Nie Huaisang’s braids in on themselves, sets the pins, and binds it all in place with the ribbon.
Nie Huaisang lifts a hand from his lap to touch the crest of his braids the moment he feels Nie Mingjue’s fingers drift away. He turns his head to look at Nie Mingjue over his shoulder as he begins to trace each ridge with the tip of his finger, teeth peeking out from between his lips as he smiles. “I suppose I’ll have to trust your work, Da-ge, as my mirror is broken.”
He chuckles, and then hisses as he tongues, compulsive, at his lip, the skin darkening as the edge of the scab teases open and blood rises to the surface. Nie Mingjue is reaching for him before he realises he is moving at all; once he does catch himself, he does not reconsider it. He slides his hand over Nie Huaisang’s shoulder, taking his chin between his fingers, palm cupping the underside of his jaw. At the first press of Nie Mingjue’s spiritual energy against him, Nie Huaisang scrunches up his nose, frowning, as though he is being scolded, not soothed.
“Ah, it’s fine,” he complains with a pout, the swell of his bottom lip pushing against the pad of Nie Mingjue’s thumb. “Or is this to use some of your energy? Does this mean you agree with my plan?”
“It’s wise,” Nie Mingjue says, both because it occurs to him that he has not made it clear, and that it stops him saying anything to the contrary of Nie Huaisang insisting his cut is fine. With it on his lip, he’ll continue to probe it open with every careless swipe of his tongue.
He takes his hand away, and Nie Huaisang does not disappoint his presumption, immediately licking over the abraded skin, now scabbed over deeply enough that he will have to more thoughtfully worry at it to tear it back open.
“Hm,” says Nie Huaisang, then, turning his face away, “just don’t break either of them, Da-ge. They haven’t done drills with someone like you before.”
Nie Mingjue considers both the implication and the intent of that as Nie Huaisang hops to his feet, patting down his inner robe. He casts a glance towards their upper layers, still draped atop the headboard, considering, before he heads for the table instead. Though Nie Mingjue stands to follow, he trails only as far as halfway before he stops. It’s still a bewildering experience, beneath and beyond all else that is happening, to be unoccupied. He is not waking to a day that is already directed for him, but one that seems to drift as Nie Huaisang deigns. And Nie Huaisang is rarely one to hurry, no matter the harry.
The robes Nie Huaisang pulls from his qiankun pouch are creased from being folded over themselves, but it is hardly as if they will be holding court. Nie Mingjue takes what is held out to him when Nie Huaisang comes closer, the fabrics simple and patternless, charcoal layered over grey, and puts his back to his brother to dress, hearing Nie Huaisang’s feet scuff through the loose dirt on the floor as he does the same. The robes fit well enough; the sleeves taper to his wrists, a better cut for motion and purpose than the draping robes Nie Mingjue now knows he died in.
Nie Huaisang’s robes are similarly unadorned, and it is, admittedly, jarring to see him in a state that is so unelaborate. Between the plain greys and the ribbon wrapped around the base of his braids, he looks nothing like a second young master of any sect— or, well, the leader of any sect, now, Nie Mingjue reminds himself.
The sunlight is brighter, now, where it fills the room, and the smell of smoke has ebbed away. It does not tell Nie Mingjue much as to how much time has passed. Nie Huaisang curves around him as he brushes past, returning with Nie Mingjue’s belt in hand, offered out.
Unexpectedly, he does not take his pouch or even his fan from the table, instead crossing to the door while he fastens his belt around his waist. He tips his face back to Nie Mingjue as he begins to pull his boots on, and Nie Mingjue feels his gaze sweep across his shoulders as he turns and retrieves Nie Huaisang’s sabre.
Nie Huaisang’s men are not far; easily spotted within seconds of the both of them stepping out over the threshold. Even Nie Huaisang has to dip his chin, just a little, to stop his braids from catching on the eaves. They are both turned away from the farmhouse, stood in the field just beyond the gate, the jut of their sabres strapped to their backs almost distracting from the bow of their heads, as though they are mid-conversation.
Nie Huaisang whistles, and Nie Mingjue watches them both stop, both turn, practised. It’s a sharp sound; not like the one from earlier, but the same as the one from last night. Once the thought of the pattern and the proposition of its purpose rises in Nie Mingjue’s mind, unbidden, he finds it hard to shake, or even stow, for later.
Jia Wencheng and Yu Yongrui jog up to join them, faster than he and Nie Huaisang move to meet them. They offer them both a humble salute in greeting, and without the distraction of Nie Huaisang’s fan in his hand or the distance between them, this morning, Nie Mingjue sees Nie Huaisang’s fingers tap against his bicep, arms slung in a loose cross over his chest. Three short, alternating taps: at ease. Not a bold, outward gesture, not like how Nie Mingjue signals, but something subtle, surreptitious, easy to miss unless sought.
“Sect Leader,” Jia Wencheng greets, then, “Chifeng Zun.” His eyes do not reach Nie Mingjue’s, though they rise high enough that he does not denigrate himself brazenly with the avoidance.
“No need to stand on ceremony,” Nie Mingjue says, and Nie Huaisang hums his agreement.
“Right, aren’t we all brothers here?” Nie Huaisang concurs. Jia Wencheng straightens, shoulders squaring as he exhales through his nose. Yu Yongrui is quieter about it, his reactions as small and slight as the rest of him, but Nie Mingjue’s eyes are sharp enough to see the way he himself shifts to accommodate the authorisation.
It is obvious to see how Nie Huaisang’s fingers reach to touch and toy with things, as well, when he’s denied his fan, his thumb and forefinger pinching at his sleeve to roll the fabric between the pads. When he was younger, it was often his hair that met with his fiddling; now, the loose strands that once framed his face have been swept back. “Da-ge will train with you both today. He has graciously agreed to be gentle.”
“Sect Leader is so generous,” Jia Wencheng quips, voice still pitched around a nagging nervousness.
Nie Huaisang’s brows raise to his hairline, and he turns his head to look up at Nie Mingjue. “I have changed my mind,” he declares dryly, “please beat Wencheng into the ground until he can no longer stand.”
Yu Yongrui’s laugh is a dwarfing shout, strong enough that his head is thrown back as it tears free of his mouth. Between it and the smile that stretches across Nie Huaisang’s face, the corners of his eyes crinkling with measured mirth, Nie Mingjue finds his own smile, even as something bitter lodges, deep, in the back of his throat.
There’s unerringly blind faith, here, in the way they appear to accept all that Nie Huaisang gives them no matter the lack of clarity that comes with it. It is something Nie Huaisang has always had, between him and the rest of their sect, and what he more than deserves. And yet, here, in this proof and display of it— Nie Mingjue is not sure if he resents or regrets it more, and certainly does not understand, entirely, why he even feels either of those ways towards it at all. He knows, at least, that he has no right to it.
“Yongrui, go first,” Nie Huaisang instructs, and Yu Yongrui bobs his head. “Wencheng, come tell me what you found yesterday, before my brother smacks it from your head alongside your senses.”
Though Jia Wencheng moves to join Nie Huaisang at his side, Nie Huaisang does not regard him at once, his eyes darting down to his sabre, held in Nie Mingjue’s grip, before returning to his face. Nie Mingjue traces the scabbard with his thumb under the attention, understanding. For Nie Huaisang’s sabre, the scabbard is as much a part of the weapon as the steel itself, an intrinsicality that Nie Mingjue has not built himself up around. It can be adapted to, just as how the very balancing of Nie Huaisang’s sabre compared to his own can be, but to try both at once will leave each half disserviced.
He unsheathes it, and Nie Huaisang’s hand wraps around the throat of the scabbard to take it, fingers threading through the bands. He nods to Nie Mingjue, once, as he lowers it to his side, and Nie Mingjue takes it as his leave.
“Did you not sleep well, Sect Leader?” he hears Jia Wencheng ask, wry, from behind him, as Yu Yongrui falls into his step.
“Ah, Jia-xiong, Jia-xiong, Jia-xiong,” Nie Huaisang tuts back, “whyever would you think that?”
Jia Wencheng’s scoff is the last thing that carries itself down the breeze to his ears. Nie Mingjue feels the pang of the urge to turn and look back in his neck, but pushes down on it. From the corner of his eye, he can see the smile tugging at Yu Yongrui’s mouth from overhearing the same exchange.
They have to go some paces down the slope from the gate to find enough flat ground to allow for a decent range of movement. Much of the grass is flattened, trodden into the earth from weeks of being underfoot for rote movement; deeper-set in some areas more than others.
Yu Yongrui does not immediately cross over to mirror him when Nie Mingjue comes to a stop, but loiters, instead, a few steps in front. It is far enough to not feel like an obtrusion, but close enough that Nie Mingjue can see the hesitant pinch of his lips.
He makes his peace with it before he has to be impelled, meeting Nie Mingjue’s gaze for a beat before he lowers his head, hand respectfully clasped over the backs of his knuckles. “Nie-gexia, this one is grateful for this opportunity. Sect Leader speaks both often and highly of you.”
Nie Mingjue nods stiffly, teeth clicking together as he clenches his jaw around a frisson of tension. If his discomfort is obvious, Yu Yongrui does not react to it, merely dropping his hands and lifting his head before he strides over to take up a position at Nie Mingjue’s opposite, sabre drawn from his back.
Nie Mingjue wonders just what Nie Huaisang says of him, even though the thought of knowing makes his throat tight with dread. The choice to simply settle into his stance is an easier one to make. He lets his focus blear from the fine tip point of his mind, bleeds it out to drape over his body instead. Nie Huaisang’s sabre is an unfamiliar weight, but the way it is held is not. The way it drives forward with the lunge of him, his own weight centring in his abdomen, is not. The way the edge cleaves through the air before him when it is swung does not.
The way they move to open their body to training proper and the time they take has not changed in his absence, but it is, with that, what he least expected to. Nie Mingjue is not sure if it is a fortuitous coincidence or purposefully timed, but Jia Wencheng does not return from his debrief with Nie Huaisang until after he and Yu Yongrui have completed their warmup. No words are required, and so none are exchanged; he takes Yu Yongrui’s place across from Nie Mingjue as Yu Yongrui swaps out to go to Nie Huaisang, drawing his sabre and settling into the starting position of the first regimented stance.
Sweat is beginning to prick the back of Nie Mingjue’s nape, more from the heat than from exertion. For the second attempt, Nie Mingjue finds he does better: he does not overreach or overstep so much with the sabre, too used to something that requires more of him pooled into it for the same flow of motion.
Yu Yongrui returns more swiftly than Jia Wencheng, and lingers on the outskirts of their circle, hands folded behind his back, patient and at attention. Jia Wencheng punctuates the end of their exercises with a sigh, flicking his arms out, and Nie Mingjue casts a glance over his shoulder as he straightens. Back up the slope, barely a step off from where he was first left, Nie Huaisang has settled in on the ground in a languorous sprawl, propped up on one elbow, other raised to cock his arm over his eyes, shielding them from the glare of the sun.
“Nie-gexia,” Yu Yongrui calls, “would you prefer to spar with us both at once, or in turns?”
“Both,” Nie Mingjue says, turning back to face them. With the way the shadow from the brim of his arm covers his face, Nie Mingjue can’t tell where Nie Huaisang is looking, or if their eyes even met at all.
Nie Mingjue nods.
Within the first few seconds, Nie Mingjue is able to grasp, with startling precision, what it is that unseats him about holding Nie Huaisang’s sabre. He is still moving as if he is holding Baxia, but it is not about their differences in bulk, not entirely. Nie Huaisang’s sabre does not compel in the way Baxia does. Nie Mingjue finds himself following some ill imprint of instinctual bloodlust, driving him to blows that lash towards him, even as his body tries to flow around them. It makes for a clumsy schism, dashing him out on the jutting rocks between two counteractive and counterintuitive movements.
Yu Yongrui and Jia Wencheng suffer no such impediments: where Nie Mingjue fumbles, they flow, between and around and through. Though neither can land a blow, they are able to push Nie Mingjue into a metaphorical corner, until he’s bent back and forced into a position that can only endure.
If Nie Mingjue were to fight them as though they were a foe to fell, he could overcome them. That his purpose in engaging them isn’t to kill them is what, ultimately, traps him in an inevitable loss. Just how long had he been so out of balance, that even their sect’s ineffaceable internal teachings, rooted deeper than their Dao, are no longer inmost? His eyes must have been closed for years, for him to never realise it before his death swept the fog from his head, left him scraped clean and out and pristine, as good as unstained.
Nie Mingjue’s mind has never been clearer, not for as safely and surely as he can remember.
The three of them are still snarled in a stalemate when Nie Huaisang’s shout sounds down, scattering them. “Stop! Stop, all right, really, that’s enough!” He’s still dusting dirt from the backs of his thighs as he skids down the slope and into view, scabbard tucked under his arm, beaded sweat glistening along the column of his throat and his temples.
Nie Mingjue’s receding adrenaline is a whetstone to his numbed senses. The cold comes first; the sweat soaking through his robes, sticking them to his skin. Then the heat; the burn of his skin, baking beneath the sun, the sear of his limbs as they shudder from the strain. Nie Mingjue feels, all at once, satisfied but spent; drained yet tireless. At home and at ease in long-dead flesh.
“Is something the matter, Sect Leader?” Jia Wencheng asks, breath catching around a wheeze as he wipes his eyes. Nie Huaisang simply stares at him, slack-jawed with incredulity, before his hand flails overhead, forefinger pointed sharply towards the sun, which has drifted far further across the sky than its typical afforded passage for a spar.
Yu Yongrui drops his head, the point of his sabre burying itself in the dirt as his body sags into the sway of the bow. “Forgive our carelessness, Sect Leader.”
Though Nie Huaisang shakes his head to downplay it, face scrunching, Nie Mingjue can see how his expression retains a minute tightness, even after it gentles out. “So troublesome…”
He pulls the scabbard out from under his arm and passes it to Nie Mingjue, one-handed, the other tugging his sleeve up over the cup of his palm so he can dab his forehead dry. Yu Yongrui bows to him again, and then to Nie Mingjue, and Jia Wencheng does the same, still flushed.
Nie Mingjue sheathes Nie Huaisang’s sabre and holds it at rest at his side, thumbing at the join between the pommel and the lanyard inattentively as he observes, outward, to the three of them, as much as inward, beyond the pull of well-used muscles and a slowing pulse to the flow of his qi through his meridians.
“Does Sect Leader require anything else of us?” Jia Wencheng asks. He straightens and sheathes his sabre, before wringing out his hands, glance dancing between Nie Mingjue and Nie Huaisang, brows knitting when his eyes take in the latter’s countenance.
Nie Huaisang purses his lips, which softens the jaggedness of the dark, unreadable thing skirting the edges of his expression, but does not subdue it. “No,” he says, after a moment. “Unless you’d like to build me a table, so I can work outside.”
“I see Sect Leader has tired of carrying his table between the house and the yard,” Jia Wencheng remarks.
Nie Mingjue struggles, for a moment, to pay them and the conversation enough attention as tries to gauge the condition of his pool of spiritual energy. His mind keeps stumbling over the depth of it, the dearth of any dent to the whole. His brother’s sabre is a spiritual tool, in the end; sister-steel to his own, forged together from the same overnight iron. It takes energy to wield. It stands to reason that Nie Mingjue should have spent at least some in the handling of it.
“And my patience for it outlasted your estimate by weeks,” Nie Huaisang snips. “Don’t be smug, it’s unbecoming. And don’t go far. I’m going to update the map.”
Nie Mingjue does not need to be startled to break back through to the surface from his sink into his thoughts, but Nie Huaisang pinches his sleeve, anyway, just above the hem of the cuff around his wrist. His grip holds, following even when Nie Mingjue lifts his hands to salute respectfully to the disciples, a swift, snapping gesture softened only by his genuine desire to be polite with it.
“You both fought well.” His praise is sincere. For all its brusqueness, it appears to be taken in the same faith it is given: Jia Wencheng’s eyes fly wide in a pleased surprise Nie Mingjue is comfortable assuming is uncommon on his face, and Yu Yongrui bows low again, the bend of his spine severe with reverence. Even Nie Huaisang’s breath hitches, fingers rubbing at his sleeve, the sound almost delighted, a preen.
“Nie-gexia honours these humble ones,” says Yu Yongrui, and Nie Mingjue feels Nie Huaisang’s grip on him tighten, reflexive, at the honorific, muddled dismay overlaying the dark shine in his eyes. The first two fingers of his free hand flick up, pressed together, then jab outwards, away from his body: dismissed.
The question presents itself in the set of Nie Huaisang’s jaw long before he asks it, teeth ungritting once they’ve made their way back through the gate and up the path. “Are you all right, Da-ge?”
The dark, unreadable thing haunting the fringes of his expression makes itself known: apprehension.
“You were moving—” Nie Huaisang begins to clarify, in a rush, weaving beneath the eaves. He stops himself, palm skidding against the door as his eyes narrow, harsh, before he recovers, resumes. “I don’t know. I really don’t know. Strangely? How do I even put it?”
“Huaisang,” Nie Mingjue says. It’s sharper than he wants, but as steadying as he needs. Nie Huaisang catches the stumble of his own feet over the threshold before he starts to trip, and stops the stutter of his words. “I’m fine.”
“Are you?” Nie Huaisang blurts out, then flinches, jerkily, face screwing up. “Sorry, I’m sorry.”
It is not so much an apology to Nie Mingjue as it appears to be a scolding for himself, his tone heavy with self-flagellation, his eyes wide and brow furrowed. Does he hope to preempt a chastisement from Nie Mingjue with it, he wonders, or is the punishment meant with sincerity?
Nie Mingjue won’t lie to himself, won’t deny that the snap nearly does make its way past his teeth, to demand that Nie Huaisang settle and sort himself. He breathes through it, instead. Asks, when they have both kicked off their boots and begun to approach the table, to sit at one another’s opposites, “Tell me what was strange about it.”
The command forces Nie Huaisang to assess his impression, in a way that a question might instead drive him to defend himself or flee the topic entirely. Even as they both kneel, Nie Huaisang reaching for his pouch as Nie Mingjue sets down his sabre, he can see that Nie Huaisang is examining it, eyes darting to and fro, almost unseeing, boring through the motions of his own hands.
“I don’t know,” he says, at last, mouth a thin, pale line. Nie Mingjue simply sits, and waits, patient, for his actual answer to follow, and is not disappointed. “That you wouldn’t stop? Or couldn’t, but...”
Nie Huaisang shakes his head, chasing the thought away, and swallows thickly, gaze refocusing on his fingers as they set out his inkstone, his brush, and a well-curled scroll of paper. He has to pin either end down underneath something else on the table to stop it snapping back shut on itself.
Nie Mingjue can presuppose that the strangeness in Nie Huaisang’s mind is not the impression that Nie Mingjue would not stop, but a distinction between what he saw and what he knows, from experience, he sees in Nie Mingjue to know that his brother has reached where he becomes unreachable. Nie Mingjue knows what it is like, from the perspective of the tool that comes to, after, windswept and bloodsoaked and stopped in place only by the lack of anything else to rip and tear at and apart. Knows that it is a sharp breath and a screaming burst of consciousness, an undoing, nothing like it was during the spar— a clarity and an enduring. His surprise is that it was such a perceivable change; his regret is that it has caused Nie Huaisang such an acute unrest.
“I felt no change in my spiritual energy,” Nie Mingjue offers, “before or after.”
Nie Huaisang drops his inkstick with a clatter, fingertips stained with soot. “What? Let me see.” He is already reaching across the table as he asks, in such a rush that he does not even take a moment to wipe his hands clean. Nie Mingjue meets him halfway, uncaring as the pads of Nie Huaisang’s thumbs smear soot across his palms, turning the half-dried sweat there dark.
He feels the brush of Nie Huaisang’s own energy before it recedes, like a wave lapping the shore, and he watches as his brother’s eyes settle shut in concentration. His features, slack at first, soon begin to sharpen, narrow, contort; shaping with each discovery as he peers into Nie Mingjue’s meridians through the egress of their joined hands.
“How strange,” he murmurs, quiet, “how could this be? Da-ge, pour your energy into me, let me see what happens.” Then, as if suspecting Nie Mingjue will argue, he adds, cracking open an eye, “Don’t worry about overflow, I only need a moment.”
Nie Mingjue had not intended to argue, but he accepts the assurance all the same, grounds himself to earth, and pushes back against the connection. Nie Huaisang closes his eye again, but Nie Mingjue keeps his open, fixed on his face, as the flow of his energy stops breaking against the shore of their bridge and spills over and through it instead.
The seconds pass like minutes, warping, wrung out. Nie Mingjue watches as Nie Huaisang’s eyes dart behind his eyelids, his nose scrunching, lips pulling back to bare his teeth as he almost— grimaces, through the sensation, as Nie Mingjue experiences it, coupled with and to it; how the energy expends and yet does not deplete.
Nie Huaisang snatches his hands back with a shuddering breath, snapping their connection, eyes flying open. He fixes them on Nie Mingjue’s, expression a picture of flustered confusion. “I, ah.” He licks his lips, the point of his tongue lingering over his mostly-healed cut, and averts his eyes for a breath while he finds his fan, among the clutter of the table, and flips it open, leaf skimming his neck as he starts to waft it.
“Perhaps it makes sense?” he continues when he meets Nie Mingjue’s eyes again, head tilting. “Death is the separation of the qi. You are not one with your body, but you’re, you appear alive, here.” His voice cracks around it, appear, the catch and the caveat.
“An illusion,” Nie Mingjue follows.
Nie Huaisang twists his hand, taps the point of the monture of his fan to his chin. “Mn. But why? It has to come from somewhere. I thought— ah, I suppose it doesn’t matter.” He shuts his fan and smiles, the tug of his lips wan, as he sets it back down and picks his inkstick back up in its stead, rigid, almost reticent. “I’m no Daozhang. It’s all beyond me.”
He shrugs, reaches for the copper wash basin, and takes the cloth, gingerly wringing water into the inkstone before setting the stick down to grind it. “You’re all right, though, Da-ge?”
That he continues to ask betrays the depth at which his anxiety is running rampant. Nie Mingjue does not miss how Nie Huaisang doesn’t even seem to catch it for himself, that the same question keeps coming forward, regardless of all prior answers, with no relief setting in. Nie Mingjue feels the urge to reach across the table again, the same as last night: a scratch up his wrists that he resists with the repeat of curling his fingers against the wood.
“Yes,” he says. He thinks of more to add, of I’m here and Are you?, and does not proceed with either, with any. It’s enough; Nie Huaisang’s shoulders slope with relief, slight, as he sharpens the bristles of his brush to a point between his tongue and teeth, and dips it in the ink.
Nie Mingjue looks down to follow the swoop of his hand as it puts the first thin, precise stroke to paper, taking in the rest of the lines already carefully filled in. As the most skilled astronomer in Qinghe Nie, it stood to reason that Nie Huaisang was the most skilled cartographer, too, and it is clear to Nie Mingjue from the work on display that this fact has not changed. He had adjusted and redrawn every map displayed within their main hall turned war room during the Sunshot Campaign himself, with little complaint beyond lip service to Nie Mingjue running him ragged.
Nie Mingjue had indeed run him ragged, across those long and many months, and Nie Huaisang had not let it show nearly as much as he had been entitled to. If Nie Huaisang was the best astronomer and cartographer in Qinghe Nie, then, once, Meng Yao had been the close second. Without the latter, Nie Mingjue had no-one else but his brother who he could trust to chart the Heavens and the Earth for him.
He had wondered, briefly, and after, if he had trusted the map of the Nightless City that had led him to his capture not only because it had been delivered by Lan Xichen’s hand, but because he had recognised, however subconsciously, some of Nie Huaisang’s signature in it as well. Nie Huaisang had refined Meng Yao’s knowledge with his own, after all. It had been easy for Nie Mingjue to distinguish between their crafts, at first; by the end, when Meng Yao had taken to it so exceptionally, exceeding it as he did with all his undertakings, Nie Mingjue does not think he would have been able to tell between his and Nie Huaisang’s work, not with any confidence
Meng Yao— Jin Guangyao— who he was, who he became to be, what had been true and what had been a lie, if he was only cruel or if there had been something kind, there, underneath the grime— what did it matter, now? He is no longer a man but dead in the ground, dead as Nie Mingjue, dead as Nie Huaisang will be, someday, too.
So far back in the past, Nie Huaisang had said, of it and all the rest. Let’s just leave it there.
It still aches, but not in the way Nie Mingjue grew used to — not in the way he expected it ever would. Without the anger, what is the hurt even supposed to be? Without his anger, who is Nie Mingjue even supposed to be?
Nie Huaisang has always glowed beneath any notice he’s coveted, and under Nie Mingjue’s undivided attention, he is as bright as the midday sun. With his worry abated, for now, if not at least put aside, there is nothing to hue his broad, pleased smile, or the shine in his eyes when he peers up at Nie Mingjue from beneath his eyelashes. “I am trying to find the entry point of the array,” he explains. For all Nie Mingjue knows that Nie Huaisang must be sure Nie Mingjue could guess the purpose, he knows that Nie Huaisang has always enjoyed his captive audiences, too.
Nie Mingjue can see the map well enough, even inverted; can make out the neat jottings of the landmarks and other points of interest, strewn across the page. “So you send your men to scout,” he remarks, “but you do not go yourself, unless it is to the south.”
It’s an invitation to elaborate that Nie Huaisang draws out to breaking point before he takes it. He averts his eyes for only the breath it takes for him to scribe something precise, and then lifts his head again as he wets the tip of his brush with fresh ink. “Wencheng and Yongrui are both from the south— ah, far south, near Linqing. They’re not as familiar with this part of Qinghe, not like I am. I thought, if they were to look, they might see something that I could miss.”
Nie Mingjue nods, and Nie Huaisang’s smile curls up at the corners, all too open. It creates an imitation of immaculate naivete, making him seem so young it is as if he hasn’t learned how to hide his heart quite yet; as though he’s not experienced something harsh enough to warrant the lesson.
“You’ve covered considerable ground in three weeks,” Nie Mingjue observes, as Nie Huaisang inks in a gully to the northeast, then resharpens his brush between his pinched lips, staining the pink skin with loose ink.
“They’ve worked hard,” Nie Huaisang agrees, airy.
Nie Mingjue reaches between them to trace a finger across the outline of the border of the map, ghosting just shy of the paper even though the ink there is long dried, faded in. “You can’t cross into Gucheng.” He narrows his eyes, dragging them back down the map, and then up again.
“No, we get turned around, no matter what.” Nie Huaisang hums, pausing with his brush still poised towards the inkstone when Nie Mingjue starts to rise. “Da-ge?”
“Let me see,” Nie Mingjue says, coming around the table and dropping to his knee, the other cocking behind Nie Huaisang’s back, bracketing him between his thigh and the table as he leans in. Nie Huaisang holds his brush aloft, glancing between the paper and Nie Mingjue’s profile.
It is easier, with the map upright before him, to make out the distances between the points Nie Huaisang had filled out. Nie Mingjue taps his forefinger against the southern village, and turns his head to catch Nie Huaisang’s eyes. “Here is twenty-four li from our position. You said the southern limit was twenty-eight. Did Yongrui find this was the same to the west?”
Nie Huaisang’s mouth parts, and his teeth graze his bottom lip, scraping some of the ink from the reddening skin. “He did. Or, he has been, so far. It’s been the same for Wencheng, except for when he’s come up against Gucheng.”
“Show me where he was yesterday,” Nie Mingjue asks, and Nie Huaisang pinches the tail of his brush between his teeth and starts tugging up his sleeves, nodding.
“Here,” he answers, slightly muffled, pointing at the fresh gully, still drying, then down, curving around the fringe of the border. “He didn’t find anything of note, though. Just grasslands.”
Nie Mingjue stares at the stretch of the map outlined by Nie Huaisang’s finger, frowning. Though it had been some time even when he was still alive since he had last passed through there, places do not change nearly as swiftly as people do, over the years. It does not sit right with him. “There should still be remains there,” he says, and it drags Nie Huaisang’s attention back to him with a start, “of a farm. We went together when we were younger. The shanxiao.”
Nie Huaisang makes a shocked sound, wet, yanking the brush roughly from between his teeth. “Right! I remember, I— I slipped down that gully in the dark and sprained my ankle. You had to carry me back.”
It had been Nie Huaisang who had wanted to come, in the first place, with Nie Mingjue and some of the most senior disciples. A shanxiao hardly warranted the force they had sent to take care of it, but Nie Mingjue had allowed Nie Huaisang to come, in the end, precisely because of how many people would be there to protect him. Unfortunately, no-one could protect him from nature and his own awkwardness, which were, in retrospect, the most common dangers to him, of all things. To his credit, he had only wailed partway back to the farmhouse, carried on Nie Mingjue’s back, before he tired himself out, tucked his face into his brother’s neck, and quietened down to only soft sniffles and hiccups.
The shanxiao had chased the farmers from the land in the first place; it was only when they began to trouble merchants on the road that they had even learned there was a problem at all. To Nie Mingjue’s knowledge, no-one had ever returned, in his lifetime, to that small span of land, but the carcass of the house had still remained, even gutted and plucked clean and beaten down by the elements. It is not right that Wencheng found nothing, as though the land had never been touched or tilled at all.
“Did he find nothing because he does not know something should be there?” Nie Huaisang wonders aloud. He starts to reach across the table, pressing against Nie Mingjue, and Nie Mingjue shifts his weight back to give him room. Nie Huaisang pulls out another piece of paper, finer than the map, thinner, covered with looping and overlapping shapes that Nie Mingjue can recognise as various permutations of trigrams, reverse and complement and change. Nie Huaisang gingerly holds it over the top, angling it towards the sun, and squints down at it, trying to make out the map beneath. Nie Mingjue braces his hand on the table as he leans back forward, looming, mindful of his shadow.
“I have to assume we’re the centre,” Nie Huaisang rambles. “Spent half of the second day here trying to find it, but the luopan just kept spinning.” His eyes dart towards Nie Mingjue, and then back to the paper as he painstakingly adjusts it just a fraction further, chasing the fractured beam of the sunlight through the window. “I don’t even know if I should divine by Fuxi bagua or Houtian bagua, either, so it’s been each and both.” He rolls the paper back up and stows it, then leans back on his haunches, weight settling against the brace of Nie Mingjue’s thigh.
“I’ll send them both tomorrow,” he decides, tapping the end of his brush against the table. “See if it changes, and whether or not their reports are the same, if they’re sent separately and not able to compare with one another.” He exhales, and it punches out of him almost as a laugh, his chin skimming the rise of his shoulder as he turns his face towards Nie Mingjue. “Ah, my Da-ge really is amazing. I never would have realised it.”
Nie Mingjue is neither deaf nor a fool, and can hear, plain, underneath Nie Huaisang’s playful tone, the disdain. “Don’t denigrate yourself, Huaisang,” he admonishes, and Nie Huaisang’s eyes widen in surprise, shoulders jerking up towards his ears.
It is— he can see his fault, in how it shocks Nie Huaisang to hear, when it shouldn’t. Nie Mingjue is not unaware of how infrequent and indirect his praise is, but that has never been because Nie Huaisang is not praiseworthy. It is more as if— it became harder, as they became older, for Nie Mingjue to know just how to praise Nie Huaisang. Harder for him to see the worth in all Nie Huaisang did and chose to do, to see the value in it for being something he enjoyed or wanted to pursue.
“You would have seen it eventually,” Nie Mingjue continues, quieter, tempering the flare of the prior admonishment into something gentler. It still does not come out— entirely right. But it is better. “Or found the answer another way.”
He is not sure what makes it all flow, water-easy, in this moment, assurance and accolades both; if something has changed with him in the giving, or if something has changed with Nie Huaisang in the taking. But Nie Huaisang’s expression settles, softens, his shoulders sinking back down. His smile is shy, and he swipes his bottom lip with the pad of his thumb, as if to rub free the last smears of ink, as he turns his face away. The shift sees to it that the splay of his hand shields and shrouds his expression in its entirety from Nie Mingjue.
“Maybe,” he accepts. When he lowers his hand, his countenance is carefully schooled into something pleasant, but placid. “Help me go over the rest?” he asks, setting his brush down against his inkstone and adjusting his sleeves where they are still rucked up to his elbows. “Just to make sure there’s nothing else that I’ve missed.”
“Of course.” Nie Mingjue lowers himself onto his knees proper, arm draping around Nie Huaisang’s back for balance, both hands bracing on the table to steady his weight. Nie Huaisang hums his pleasure, and then reaches between them, elbow nudging at the fan of Nie Mingjue’s ribs, to point at the furthermost left of his map.
“We’ll start here,” Nie Huaisang says, “and work across.”
Though there is little, comparatively, to cover, it takes them hours, dragged out by the nigh-constant distraction of reminiscence, lying in wait at every landmark. By the time they are done, it has grown dark, and they have found nothing else amiss. It does not at all feel like the time spent was a waste.
Nie Huaisang is awake first, though he is peacefully still against Nie Mingjue’s side, head pillowed on his arm, his hands folded together in the basin of his lap. He opens his eyes when he feels Nie Mingjue’s chest shift against his arm, the rhythm of it disrupted by an inhale made sharp by his stirred awareness.
“Good morning,” Nie Huaisang murmurs. His voice is a soft scrape, but Nie Mingjue can tell it is from a lapse in use, not from sleep; for all Nie Huaisang does not look too tired, his hair is flat against his head, showing he’s moved very little since they both climbed into bed.
He sits up before Nie Mingjue can return the greeting, flattening his hand against his chest as he climbs over, feet setting themselves to the floor. His fingers trail his collarbone, his gaze drags, lingers; a smile stretches across his lips when he meets Nie Mingjue’s eyes over his shoulder before he steps away.
It is impossible not to feel as though his brother is amiss; inconceivable that it would escape his notice so up close. As Nie Mingjue rises, he commits not to confront it, at least for now, in the state it stands.
Nie Huaisang does not whistle out past the threshold, respecting the early hour, but his quiet voice beckons someone forth nonetheless. Nie Mingjue can see, in the corners of his eyes, as he goes to the table, Yu Yongrui’s hands meeting Nie Huaisang’s own as he gestures, close to his chest, his head bent low to better listen as Nie Huaisang speaks. Nie Mingjue can hear snatches of it, must listen to them because they are the only other sound there is to hear, besides the rustling kicked up by his hands as he rummages through Nie Huaisang’s qiankun pouch.
“Yongrui will go to scout that farm now,” Nie Huaisang explains, once he’s toed his way back to Nie Mingjue’s side. “He should be back before Wencheng wakes.”
He holds out his hands, expectant, until Nie Mingjue has retrieved the comb and the ribbon-wrapped hairpins and set them down for his fingers to curl around. By the time they hear the dull clatter of clay crockery through the wall and smell the smoke from the fire, the sun has risen well into the morning, and Nie Mingjue is all but done with Nie Huaisang’s hair, his own already neatly combed back and plaited by Nie Huaisang’s deft fingers.
“Yongrui is back, if the fire is lit,” Nie Huaisang tells him, as he pulls his outer robe over his shoulders and flips his hair out from under the pin of the collar. “Food won’t be much longer, if you, well. If you wanted.”
“Do you no longer eat?” Nie Mingjue asks, without looking up from his belt. Nie Huaisang’s exhale shakes out of him, the end of it cutting off with a huffed laugh.
“Ah,” is his breezy reply. The sunniness in his tone is shallow, and smoothes poorly over his surprise. “No, no, I still do, I just.”
Nie Mingjue watches, from beneath his eyelashes, as Nie Huaisang’s hands flit up his belly, following the pull of his shoulders as he shrugs. He does not fill the silence, even when the need to do so surges viciously in his gut that it burns like bile up his throat, even when he has to clench his teeth so hard he hears his jaw creak just to stifle it.
“Spates of inedia help me keep track of the erosion,” Nie Huaisang finishes, voice reaching for stoic and falling short at small. “That’s all it is, Da-ge. I didn’t mean to hide it. Or worry you.”
He looks up, at that, and Nie Huaisang looks down, if only for a moment, before he drags his gaze back to Nie Mingjue’s. He’s wearing the ever-familiar sulk that Nie Mingjue is all too used to seeing turned on him, when Nie Huaisang suspects he is being or about to be punished, but there is a genuine remorse, there, too.
Did he think Nie Mingjue would not notice, that he would not find it noteworthy, or that he would simply not mention it? Regardless of which, he’s penitent, and it is a silly thing for him to be sorry for when Nie Mingjue’s only concern is that he is safe.
Nie Mingjue reaches out between them to cup Nie Huaisang’s elbow, giving it a brief squeeze before he withdraws. “Don’t be foolish with it,” is all he says.
Nie Huaisang’s expression shutters on something complicated and confessing, before a smile spreads across his mouth. “I’m always careful, Da-ge.” He punctuates it with a pat against Nie Mingjue’s chest before he steps away, an unsounded laugh crinkling the corners of his eyes.
One of the two disciples, if not both, have dragged the stump of a felled tree up the slope to serve as a makeshift table. Nie Huaisang nearly butts his head against the eaves in his haste to dart back inside when he sees it, resurfacing with his pouch and fan in hand.
“I wouldn’t say this is built,” he calls out, one hand cupped around the corner of his mouth, “but it will do!”
“Sect Leader honours these insignificant ones with his praise!” Jia Wencheng shouts back from the safe reaches of the field, sabre already in hand and in wait for Nie Mingjue to join him.
Even the stances feel more natural, come easier, for the second day’s attempt. Nie Mingjue has always been a quick study, in this respect. Has always needed to be, of course, but he cannot deny the burden was lightened by talent and affinity.
Yu Yongrui joins them midway, this time, stepping into place and falling into sync instead of waiting on the sidelines. They move as three into sparring, and Nie Mingjue finds his clear mind follows him, even when greater thought falls away to action. Nie Mingjue had never quite realised he moved as not one but two, separate to but subdued and strung along by his sabre, and now that he’s learned it, it’s a relief to find that he is not so far gone that he can’t find his way back.
So long as he is here, with Nie Huaisang, it is not wasted effort; it is not betterment for no purpose.
They don’t run over. When the sun reaches the point in the sky that tells them their time is spent, they separate, with Jia Wencheng offering brusque salutes before he sets off to see Nie Huaisang. At a distance, Nie Mingjue can make out how his brother is bent over himself, sun glinting off something thin and bronze, held between his teeth, his hair gathered over his shoulder.
Yu Yongrui stops Nie Mingjue not with a hand, but with a sound in his throat, pulling his attention away. “Nie-gexia,” he says, “can you accompany me through the drills that I missed? If it pleases you.”
Nie Mingjue nods his assent, and turns back on his heels, resettles his weight into a neutral stance, ready to bring himself low and out with a lunge. Yu Yongrui nods his thanks, the stoop of his spine shallow enough to almost seem casual, for him, and paces back into place.
It fills time that would have dragged for Nie Mingjue, otherwise, but not time enough, it seems, for Jia Wencheng to have both gone northeast and returned from the venture. Nie Huaisang is still alone on the slope, preoccupied, when they look up, and he offers an absent hum of acknowledgement when Nie Mingjue and Yu Yongrui have approached close enough for their footsteps to be apparent against the grass.
Up close, Nie Mingjue can now see that the bronze in his brother’s mouth is a set of gilt tweezers, which he pulls from his teeth and pinches between his thumb and forefinger when he lifts his gaze to take them both in. “Done already?” he asks, before casting a glance up, shielding his eyes from the sun. “Ah, I suppose that’s right.”
“Sect Leader, do you require anything else of me?” Yu Yongrui asks. Nie Huaisang hums again, head tilting in consideration.
“Do you think you could make me a weimao?”
Yu Yongrui, unfazed, simply bows his head. “I am afraid, even with the materials, such a request is beyond this one’s abilities.”
Nie Huaisang sighs, with mock sufferance, and clamps the ends of the tweezers back between his teeth. “Bah, fine,” he mutters, muffled, waving his hand, “you can go.”
Yu Yongrui goes, as directed, with a parting salute to Nie Mingjue, leaving just the two of them. Nie Huaisang returns his attentions to his fan, carefully set out on the flat of the stump, and pats the grass beside him in invitation.
“Come sit with me, Da-ge,” he says. Then, his brow cocking as his tongue darts against the tweezers between his teeth, he adds, voice cheeky, “Don’t worry about being caught taking a break, the current Sect Leader Nie is very lax.”
“You’re a brat,” spills out of him with a sigh, to Nie Huaisang’s delight. He picks up the scabbard at Nie Huaisang’s side to sheathe his sabre, then steps around to settle into the grass to the right of him, propping himself up on his elbows. He can almost feel the phantom lash of the discipline plank between his shoulder blades that would have been meted out for his slouch on its own, let alone all of the ones he would have earned for both him and Nie Huaisang’s slacking.
Nie Mingjue had been sect leader longer, practically, than he’d been at an age and in a position to be punished so outright for transgressions, but the marks still impressed their harsh lessons on him, even now.
Nie Huaisang simply smiles and leaves it unchallenged. Nie Mingjue can see, from where he is, laid low and close to Nie Huaisang’s flank, the green-black ink staining his fingers and the fine, loose soot dusted over his knees, glittering even against the dark grey of his skirts. He pulls the tweezers from his teeth and uses them to carefully ease free a part of the leaf of his fan, cut away from the rest.
“Ah, there was no sparing it,” Nie Huaisang explains, casually, when he catches Nie Mingjue watching. “Simply painting over it would hide the stain, but blood rots.”
His smile broadens, and then he turns his face back away to pore over his task proper. Nie Mingjue finds himself, as the seconds stretch out, settling down from his elbows and flat onto his back, his eyes sliding shut. The offbeat percussion of Nie Huaisang’s fiddling disrupts the unnatural silence that sets in, blunting the jagged edge of his guard enough that he can almost relax and drift to the sounds of it. Even when his inkstick clatters too heavily against his inkstone and Nie Huaisang’s hum snaps off into a hiss, Nie Mingjue doesn’t feel his hackles raise more than a brief flinch that ebbs back away within a breath.
Nie Mingjue opens his eyes, ignorant and indifferent to how much time has passed, when he feels Nie Huaisang finally lie down beside him, their arms pressing together as he sidles close.
“See?” Nie Huaisang’s cheek comes to rest on Nie Mingjue’s shoulder as he holds his fan aloft, wrist swivelling to angle the leaf so the sun is bearing down through it, illuminating the dark ribs between the thin paper. “Can’t even tell where it’s been cut apart, unless you hold it just right and know just where to look.”
He’s not wrong. Nie Mingjue has keen eyes, but even with it held against the glare of the sun, he can’t see the join where the new paper has been glued over the gap in the old, only the smear of fresh ink painted over the top, blending into the fog hemming the mountainside. But it will dry quickly, and fade soon after, taking the only proof that draws the eye towards the promise of a blemish underneath at all.
“The ink is too fine to run,” Nie Huaisang continues. He lowers his hand to tuck his elbow into the divot of his waist, bringing his forearm into a loose sling across his belly. Nie Mingjue watches, through the awkward angle brought on by the press of his chin towards his collarbone, as Nie Huaisang’s lips purse into a pout. “Ah, but I can’t close it until it dries properly. I was hoping Wencheng would be back before I finished.”
He starts to waft the fan against his chest in lazy crests, eyelids hooding. Nie Mingjue tips his head back against the grass, craning his neck to unseat his braids where they dig in, and takes to watching the barren sky in wait. It is not uncomfortable, not quite; it is not much of anything at all.
Nie Huaisang’s all-but-agitation, a simmering thing that lacks a scald, lingers even after Jia Wencheng has been dismissed. Fan on the table, he makes do with needing something to do with his hands by tapping his fingers against his mouth, thin-lipped, his brow furrowed.
“Yongrui said the same,” he says through his hand, “and it’s how I remember it, too.”
Nie Mingjue can sense the wrongness of it, just as Nie Huaisang seems to, but he can’t see what. It hangs back, out of reach, making him just aware enough of its presence that it unsettles him, for how close it feels to how his own death had evaded him, that first morning, when Nie Huaisang had asked him if the half-truth was all he remembered.
“We will go there in the morning, and see it for ourselves,” Nie Mingjue tells him.
It’s enough to cut down the race of Nie Huaisang’s thoughts before they can run too rampant, which is all the purpose it needs to serve. He takes his hand from his mouth, letting it drop into the loose furl of his arms across his chest as his features calm.
“Not tonight?” Nie Huaisang quips, and while there is still a catch of something heavy in his tone, the rest is a breathy blitheness. “That’s— hah. Well, if my da-ge doesn’t feel it’s concerning enough to rush off to check in the dark, then how can I be worried?”
It’s simply practicality, but Nie Mingjue does not say as much, and Nie Huaisang makes good on his half-said promise to no longer panic, though he insists on taking Nie Mingjue’s braids out for himself for want of something more to preoccupy his time.
“Our robes to wash are set out over the table,” Nie Huaisang tells his men, when he has crowded all of them into the kitchen space. “Ah, and don’t wait for us. We may be gone for some time.”
“Sect Leader,” says Yu Yongrui. He looks up from the recessed wok on the kao only long enough to catch Nie Huaisang’s eyes through the smoke before he bows his head back to his cooking. “When should we search for you, if you have not returned?”
Nie Huaisang hums, considering, fan fluttering against his chest. “If something were to happen, with my da-ge with me, you’d really be out of luck, wouldn’t you?”
He glances up to Nie Mingjue, unheeding of Jia Wencheng’s protest, and there must be something to the set of his expression that takes Nie Huaisang back enough to relent. “Three days will do,” he concedes, prim, as he snaps his fan shut. “If we’re not back by then, start at the farmhouse and work north.”
As much as he should be alarmed by their rituals, Nie Mingjue knows it should concern him, too, in equal if not greater measure, that Nie Huaisang has so seamlessly readopted shards of his habitual helplessness around him. No matter how unpleasant Nie Mingjue finds it, he can’t be the lone one that Nie Huaisang relies on, here.
It occurs to him that he could deter it, just as it occurs to him that he won’t. What else can Nie Mingjue do, then, given that, other than indulge, endure, and wait for the threads to unravel, the changes to come? To make the best of the time that has been given, and hope Nie Huaisang is not cut too deeply when the things he’s getting his hands back around are inevitably ripped from him again, beyond either of their choice or their control?
Nie Huaisang has to all but climb into him for both of them to be able to fly on his sabre. It is yet another one of the many things that differentiates Nie Huaisang’s blade from Baxia; yet another one of the many things that Nie Mingjue almost— prefers. There’s no room for perfunctory positioning. He smells like spice and ash from where the smoke clings to his robes just as tightly as he clings to Nie Mingjue, arms slung around his neck, legs dangling over the brace of Nie Mingjue’s hold, hooked behind his knees.
Nie Huaisang says nothing of it, though Nie Mingjue can see how a remark teases at his lips throughout the trip, how it all colours his features, amusement tipping into something heated, something different.
The farmhouse to the northeast is precisely as it was described, twice-over; exactly how Nie Huaisang and Nie Mingjue left it, tens of years ago. It is a more finished structure than where they are staying now; a once-loved and well lived-in place that is beginning to suffer the disrepair and defects of abandonment.
Nie Huaisang is quiet, save for his breaths and his comments, muttered thoughts half-formed as he toes his way through the front garden, always a ways ahead of Nie Mingjue, but never beyond sight or reach. It’s a strange sight, all of it; the place as much as his brother within it, the only thing apparently touched by time across the span of the horizon.
Nie Mingjue wonders, as he steps past Nie Huaisang, lowering into a crouch at the overgrown kitchen garden, and towards the house proper, if that is simply it. In the dream, time has not weathered this place to be a minute older than it was when their hunt ended, when they both went back to the Unclean Realm with their men. It surely looks nothing like this, in actuality: something that can be mended, something that can have a home made within it again, given due care.
The overhang of the thatched eaves above the door has been caved in and broken away by thrown stones that still litter the dirt, so Nie Mingjue does not have to bow his head when he stands there. Though he means to look out into the yard as a whole, his gaze leads itself back to Nie Huaisang each time he drags it elsewhere; to where he’s finally settled on his knees, at Nie Mingjue’s left. His thumb and forefinger rub absently against the dark green leaves from one of the growing qing cai while he thinks to himself, the white stem beneath visible in the loose clasp of his fist.
Nie Huaisang looks over his shoulder, and his mouth parts when he meets Nie Mingjue’s eyes. His fingers stutter-stall; it takes him a moment to speak. “It’s too perfect, isn’t it? What do you think, Da-ge?”
“It’s too perfect,” Nie Mingjue agrees. And yet— it still nags at him, the crawling unease that something is just out of place, but he can’t see it.
Nie Huaisang sighs, and then turns his face away as he begins to pull the qing cai in his hand from the earth, dusting it with his palm. “It’s never changed like this before. Things shift around, fall out of focus, lose detail— but an entire place?”
Nie Mingjue can only listen, watching him, as he deposits the qing cai in his lap and starts uprooting another, purposeful. “I feel like I know less and less, the more I learn. I wonder if the array is flawed, somewhere. Perhaps unfinished?” With the second pilfered vegetable wiped down and dropped into his lap, Nie Huaisang gathers up his outer skirt around them and clambers to his feet, half-turning on his heel towards Nie Mingjue. There is something about him, in that moment, that Nie Mingjue’s mind trips over: his wide eyes, almost playfully innocent, smile wide and head tilting, hands wrapped up in his robes.
It’s familiar. Nie Mingjue has seen it before, but differently. The same expression, just on a younger face; the same pose, just on a smaller body; in the same garden, just stood elsewhere within it.
“Wait,” he says, before he has finished turning it over in his head, before he even has anything else to add. Nie Huaisang startles, but stays, brow furrowing in the meanwhile.
The morning after Nie Huaisang had sprained his ankle, Nie Mingjue had left him in the company of one of their disciples and resumed the hunt with the others. It had been sunset when he returned, the shanxiao tracked down and dealt away with; late enough that they had decided it best to stay a further night rather than fly in the dark. He had seen the line of Nie Huaisang’s back through the flimsy yard fencing, and his shout had almost sent him stumbling over as he shot up and immediately put too much weight onto his ankle in a moment of forgetfulness that he felt the consequences of for long minutes afterwards.
Nie Mingjue can’t remember quite what he said, only that Nie Huaisang had looked sheepish, and that his shoulders had crept closer and closer up to his ears as Nie Mingjue started up the path at a pace just short of a jog. His robes had been bunched up in front of him, bulging with picked herbs and vegetables, the kitchen garden behind him, to Nie Mingjue’s left.
At the door, now, facing out towards the yard, Nie Huaisang and the kitchen garden both are on Nie Mingjue’s left.
“It’s not right,” Nie Mingjue finishes, stepping out from the doorway, back into the yard. “Everything is flipped.”
Nie Huaisang makes a senseless sound of surprise, casting his gaze around jerkily. “What?” he manages, taking a blind step closer to Nie Mingjue’s side, then another, fingers clenching around his robes. “Are you sure, Da-ge?”
Nie Mingjue nods, even as his jaw sets, stiff. He is sure, but not certain — it is an old memory. He is unable to narrow his focus onto details, to sharpen them past their blur, but he has always had a keen awareness of Nie Huaisang amongst any surroundings, where he stands and whether it falls within or past his reach. Nie Mingjue remembers his brother standing elsewhere in the garden, and that is enough to convince him.
“I believe you,” Nie Huaisang assures him, all too readily, despite the dark crumple of his own expression, eyes stormy with thought and mouth thinned into a pale, trembling line. “I just— I would understand if I was wrong. Why do both Wencheng and Yongrui’s reports match what we see, match what I remember, but not what you do?”
He adjusts his grip to hold the bundle of his outer skirt one-handed so he can scrub at his face, frustrated, arm bumping against Nie Mingjue’s. Nie Mingjue does not have an answer for him; he does not even have an answer for himself. It’s little assurance, compared to that, to offer, but he offers it nonetheless, bringing his hand up to rest between Nie Huaisang’s shoulder blades. He feels the tension in his spine sink down beneath the span of his palm, and then Nie Huaisang takes a breath, a deep pull that spreads his chest wide and presses him back, firmer, into Nie Mingjue’s touch.
“Ah, I don’t know, I don’t know,” Nie Huaisang rambles, dispirited. “I really don’t know, Da-ge.”
“You will,” Nie Mingjue says. Nie Huaisang’s breath shakes out of him, back juddering against Nie Mingjue’s hand. “You have your men to help you,” he adds, then, “you have me. We will overcome this together.”
“Nothing we cannot do together, right?” Nie Huaisang agrees, acceding. He tips his head back, smiling up at Nie Mingjue as he wraps his freed arm around his neck. “All right, take us back, before it gets dark and they worry.”
Nie Mingjue bends his wrist, swivelling his hand against Nie Huaisang’s back to better brace the brunt of his weight as he stoops to lift him, other arm brought to hook beneath his knees. Nie Huaisang is light when he is a live weight; it takes nothing at all from Nie Mingjue to lift him and keep him aloft against his chest. It takes even less, sabre drawn, to keep them both afloat above the ground.
Jia Wencheng and Yu Yongrui aren’t able to hide their relief, not entirely, when he and Nie Huaisang return, though they both try to. If Nie Mingjue sees it, Nie Huaisang must. He does not tease them for it, electing instead to needle them over leaving the kitchen garden untouched as he hands over what he’s taken from it and pats his hand-creased robe back into place.
The moment they’ve retreated inside, Nie Huaisang goes to the table, unceremoniously pushes everything but his map aside, and pulls all of Nie Mingjue’s outer robes into his lap. “Here, Da-ge,” he says, holding out one hand while he wrests open his pouch with the other, “give me the robe you’re wearing, too.” When Nie Mingjue has only gotten as far as coming to stand at his side, belt undone in his hands, Nie Huaisang drags his gaze up. “It’s not for anything strange!”
Nie Mingjue believes him. That does not stop him from looking down on him, pointed, brow arched, as he shrugs his outer robe from his shoulders.
“Okay,” Nie Huaisang relents, grimacing, as he takes Nie Mingjue’s robe from him and drops it into his lap. “I’m going to unpick the hems and stitch a foci talisman into the lining. It will seem strange to you, but it makes sense for the greater spell it can be used for, and it’s safe. Yongrui and Wencheng have them already.” He speaks it all in a rush, as though he’s expecting Nie Mingjue to interrupt him at any moment, and so he’s in a race to beat his brother to the beratement. A scowl settles on his face when it dawns on him that Nie Mingjue has done nothing but lower into a kneel at the table at his side and wait for him to finish, amused.
“I’ll help you, Huaisang,” he says. It is as much because he wants to, and there is little else to do otherwise, as it is to preempt his brother’s indignance at feeling foolish.
“With talismans?” Nie Huaisang retorts, but there’s no authenticity to the snideness, no depth to the mockery; his voice lilts too brightly to carry the intended impression, and his smile stretches too broadly.
“Who taught you your first sigil?” Nie Mingjue asks, and Nie Huaisang barks out a laugh, head bowing forward with it, bringing it back into his own chest.
“Can’t recall,” he answers once he's recovered, holding Nie Mingjue’s robe back out for him to take.
Idleness, here, does not even seem to suit Nie Huaisang. He has had longer to come to terms with it, to spill himself into the monotony of lethargy and freedom, but he has always been malleable where Nie Mingjue is invariable. Quick to adapt where Nie Mingjue breaks himself against change.
Despite this, Nie Huaisang is struggling. Nie Mingjue could see it sooner, but only after their visit to the abandoned farmstead in the northeast could he put it to any greater substance than instinct. He thinks, at that, that he understands not only that his brother is struggling, but why. Part of why he and Nie Huaisang have such an undefinable and unequalled understanding of one another, after all, is that, at the core of them, they are not unalike.
Nie Mingjue had gone on untold night hunts, throughout his life, but he won’t claim to have been the predator in every single one. There had indeed been times, though few and far between, where he had come up against a quarry that had outplayed and outrun him.
The ones that outwitted him, however, were the ones that stayed with him. The ones that had been smart enough to see not only a just and straightforward man, but an impatient one. The ones that taught Nie Mingjue that, when you became the prey, there was only so long that you would ever be afraid, before it would all fall away and apathy would take its place. Where you’d become something so desperate to feel the bite of the beast’s teeth that you’d beg for it, anything, if only it meant you’d no longer be bored.
Atypical son of Qinghe Nie he may be, Nie Huaisang was still born under the Taotie, and bears the blood of generations of hunters and butchers, same as Nie Mingjue. He craves a chase, in the end: anything and everything so long as it means it’s not tedium, wasting him away. He can’t run when it is his ankle in the trap.
His propensity for patience is greater than Nie Mingjue’s, but his patience is not without its limits. Nie Mingjue was not the dagger in the dark Nie Huaisang must have been wishing for at least half as much as he was expecting, and now, feeling as though he has lost more ground than he has gained, he is back to inactivity. Back to balancing on the cliff’s edge of desiring a blade to bare itself so that he can fall on it belly first and feel something other than the emptiness of waiting.
Nie Mingjue has hit enough breaking points to see the same signs in his brother. It is his shame and his frustration both that hitting those points for himself has taught him nothing as to how to help him stop Nie Huaisang short of them.
He leans over himself, until he’s almost bent in two into his own cross-legged lap, elbows loosely propped against his thighs, his hand smoothing over his own jaw as he peers up at Nie Mingjue from beneath his lashes. They have only moved as much and as far since waking to sit up in the bed, and not an inch more.
Five days is a reasonable wait. An expected wait, even, when not afflicted with any muck or grime that can’t be scraped and scrubbed away by cloth and water from a basin. Nie Huaisang never waits five days between baths; much like anything and everything else, he takes his pleasures precisely how he likes them and when he wants them, unheeding of anyone else’s annoyance or advice. Nie Mingjue had stopped listening, eventually, much like he imagines Nie Huaisang had stopped listening long before him, whenever their various physicians opined on his brother’s constitution outside of any immediate concerns and impacts to it. Their most typical and oft-heard counsel was that Nie-er-gongzi’s health and fortitude would improve immensely if he would only stop soaking so often, and sleep with far less cushioning between his back and the wood of his bed. Nie Huaisang, of course, would sooner die than do either, and so went his ongoing stalemate with them.
The sheer logistical nightmare drawing the bath presents speaks volumes to Nie Mingjue as to why Nie Huaisang is being more frugal with it. There is no fire pit in the house to heat the water, and nowhere for it to properly drain off into after. Nie Huaisang shows him how he’s made do with getting rid of the water by pulling away the block of wood serving as the raised threshold, but even with that, the floor promises to dry slowly and for it all to make a mess of the loose dirt that’s been dragged in by their feet or isn’t otherwise tamped down. The shallow wooden tub, rib-deep at best, almost doesn’t fit through the door. Dressed only as far as their boots and middle robes, hair still loose, they arduously loop back and forth between the house and the well until they’ve both drawn the water they need to fill the bath to a point where it is enough to make all the effort worthwhile.
“You need the bath alone to wash away all it takes just to draw it,” Nie Huaisang complains, loudly and gladly, for the lone audience of Nie Mingjue, as he smacks talismans around the belly of the tub. The water that will inevitably slosh over the rim and spill out of the bath will turn the paper soppy and limp, later, and they’ll be a mess all of their own to clean, but for now, they’re all they have to put some warmth into it.
Nie Mingjue is not shy in this regard, by any means, but the way Nie Huaisang keeps curving in and around on himself, nerve-struck, bleeds over and through, makes his own skin itch with a misplaced, anxious agitation. When there is absolutely nothing else Nie Huaisang can do to stall, all his soaps and oils and everything else pulled from his qiankun pouch, he simply stands at the edge of the bath, hands frozen on the ties of his robes, eyes not quite reaching Nie Mingjue’s.
It is— they’ve bathed together before. Certainly not in many years, and so infrequently since becoming men that to call it rare still seems to be too much, but they’ve been bare before one another in ways that reach beyond the skin. If Nie Huaisang has changed, in this way or another, over the last fifteen years, it is nothing he should feel he needs to hide from Nie Mingjue.
It’s foolish, and Nie Mingjue does not know what else to do with it but spite it, almost, as he starts untying his inner robe at the waist. He hears Nie Huaisang’s laugh gust out of him, the sound damp, strained, but it is followed by the scratch of his nails down silk when Nie Mingjue turns his head to pull his robes from his shoulders. He bows his head, next, to strip out of his pants, and he does not need to look up at Nie Huaisang as he steps into the bath. The water stings his skin, but does not scald it, hot less in temperature and more for its difference to the cool air that has swept into the room from the propped open door.
When he looks up, Nie Huaisang is naked, and has his hands braced on the edge of the tub, as if considering how best to heft himself over. He looks— closer to similar than the same, but no less familiar, from what Nie Mingjue gathers, without lingering on it or him. Nie Huaisang meets his eyes, leaves them, then circles back, in seconds quick enough that anyone else but Nie Mingjue might find no noteworthiness in their passage. Once his gaze is there to stay, though, the way Nie Huaisang holds it to Nie Mingjue’s own is steady, certain.
He huffs out a breath, dislodging some of the wisps of his hair which have fallen free over his face. Nie Mingjue kneels forward in the bath, up, and holds out the brace of his forearms for Nie Huaisang to sink his weight into through his palms. It is not so deep that Nie Huaisang can’t manage to climb over and in on his own, but the offer denies him the opportunity to excuse further lingering.
“How did you manage, without me here?” Nie Mingjue asks, as he leans back, leads Nie Huaisang into the water. It’s not— the wisest way to phrase it, but he truly does not mean it any more deeply than for this moment, this time.
Nie Huaisang, fortunately, only replies with a matching shallowness, for whatever else he might think as to the question’s layered meaning or its connotations. “I pulled over the table.”
He could have pulled over the table today, if he’d seen fit to fold his map back up, gather his papers and the scatter of his other various possessions, pile them aside or pack them away. He had not.
Nie Huaisang doesn’t let go, not until long seconds after he’s sunk down and fully seated, but Nie Mingjue doesn’t rush him, and is not made to crowd him in by virtue of leaving his arms aloft, supporting his weight as it drips away. The bath is large enough for many, a small family, as is so often the case with rural places. It can certainly fit two grown men, even if there is sparse space to spare between their limbs.
It’s quiet. It is so quiet, save the drip-drop of the water, the glide of it as their shifting bodies slice clean through it, the sigh of their breaths. The way Nie Huaisang’s skin flushes pink from the heat is almost a sound in and of itself. His skin is paler than Nie Mingjue’s, still, but darker than he remembers, sun-kissed, now, all over, in a way that bids more than questions to rise from the hollows of him.
Whatever tension there is, roping itself, heavy-set, through the air between them, is ripped down when Nie Huaisang lifts his arms over his head and crosses them, stretching, a sigh stumbling out through his lips. It pulls the sheet of his skin sharply over his clavicle, drawing the scar tissue of an old wound across the bone, still pale and puckered despite the many years it has been left to settle. Nie Mingjue remembers it; had cleaned it out himself, when Nie Huaisang had come staggering back to the Unclean Realm with it from the indoctrination in Qishan, without his sabre or the spiritual energy left to even open their gates. Nie Mingjue still thinks, even now, even without the flare of the rage behind it, that they were so fortunate it was by Nie Huaisang’s clumsiness and not Wen cruelty that he was hurt. If it had been otherwise, not a single one of the dogs would have been spared his wrath, ground to tower.
“Ah, I’m starting to remember why we stopped doing this,” Nie Huaisang remarks. It’s light, cheeky; his smile crooks with it. “So cramped.”
“Perhaps you’ve gotten bigger,” says Nie Mingjue, and Nie Huaisang drops his arms back into the water heavily enough that he can splash him but deny the purposefulness of it. It spares the both of them from saying anything else. There was no particular reason why they’d stopped, other than a sense that they should, once they had gotten older. Their separate rooms became separate lives as the years went on, and while their overlap continued to extend to many intimacies and proximities between them, bathing had not been one. The last time they had bathed together, Nie Mingjue had not even been in the bath, but behind it, keeping a catatonic Nie Huaisang’s head above the water. The body in his hands had been too limp and too thin, then, his eyes clouded over, his voice barely able to break through its own terrible grating rasp to be coherent, though few of the words he managed to speak had made sense.
“Taller, maybe,” Nie Huaisang replies. He is not too limp or too thin, here, now, but filled out, even if the shape he’s taken is less soft for all the sharp edges and catches the long years have whittled into it. He splashes Nie Mingjue more obviously before he can make a comment to the contrary, then rises onto his knees, leaning out over the rim of the bath. Water sleets to the floor off his back and arms as he plucks up a gauze-wrapped zao dou and shucks the linen. More spills over as he sits back down in a rush, thumbnail already carving into the rough middle of the block to split it apart for them to share.
“Here,” Nie Huaisang says, needlessly scooting forward to hand half over, once he’s crumbled it enough to crack it in two. “You can use this one in your hair, too.”
It feels grainy against his fingers, and smells pungent, sandalwood and something deeper, earthy but floral. The crinkle of his nose either mustn’t be subtle, or simply expected: Nie Huaisang laughs at him as he settles in, flicking his hair back where it has spilled over his shoulder with a damp smack before he starts to scrub up his neck.
“The smell doesn’t linger nearly as much as you think it might,” he assures him, adopting a manner that is completely unassuring, eyes alight with delight, “it’s also good for you. Please endure it for me.”
Nie Mingjue is hardly so delicate that he is going to take umbrage at smelling like a temple garden. But if it keeps Nie Huaisang tipped towards amusement to think as much, instead of angsting over whatever it is that seems to be agitating him underneath his skin, he’ll allow it to lie left alone.
The bean comes apart quickly in his hands as it starts to take on water, but not so messily that he can’t keep a grip on it as he runs it through his hair, taking care when lathering the strands damaged by the daily braiding, from the twist of ties and the teeth of pins. Nie Huaisang hoists himself up to perch on the edge of the bath while Nie Mingjue scrubs his face, one hand grappling the rim, the other sweeping hastily down his chest and hips.
Nie Mingjue can see, beneath the shadow cast down his chest by his arm, folded over himself, the downward swoop of another scar, clipping through the ladder of his ribs. It’s a small thing, but undoubtedly the work of a blade, and unfamiliar to him. It’s possible that Nie Huaisang gained it during the years between Sunshot to Nie Mingjue’s demise. It’s doubtful that he did. He knows too much about the likely nature of the wound, all at once, from looking at it: a close blow, an awkward angle. It would have cracked through his ribs. It’s possible the blade was long enough and the blow swift enough to run him completely through, to leave a mirroring scar on his back where the point made its exit. He knows nothing at all as to how Nie Huaisang could have gotten hurt in such a way.
He has to not look, so that he does not stare. He has to not think, so that he does not wonder. Both threaten to enflame his blood to boil from what he can only call anger, though it feels too inapt a name all the same.
Nie Huaisang slips back into the bath, and sucks in a breath before he bows forward, between his own spread thighs, to submerge his head. He claws his fingers through his hair before he surfaces, eyes squeezed shut. “Are you done, Da-ge?” he asks, sputtering a bit around the water sopping down from the drape of his hair into his mouth. He gathers it up in his hands and tries to pile it back into place, blinking through water caught in his eyelashes to squint over at Nie Mingjue. “The water is getting cooler. The ink must be starting to run.”
Nie Mingjue nods, rinsing his face. When Nie Huaisang draws his legs up to lean out of the bath again, he uses the space he’s made to curve in towards his side, ear pressed to his shoulder, the cups of his palms dragging water up to rinse what he can’t comfortably get underneath. When he straightens, Nie Huaisang is there, just inches back from crowding him in, a bronze razor wrapped between his fingers, the blade half-unfurled from its hinge into the handle.
“Ah, now how are we going to do this?” Nie Huaisang asks. Though it is aloud, and though it is we, the way it stutters out speaks to Nie Mingjue that it was a question meant to be kept quiet, meant for only himself.
Still, now it is out in the open, it warrants an answer. “Come here,” Nie Mingjue says, and Nie Huaisang shifts in between his thighs, teetering and tentative, his hand with the razor kept aloft, blade angled away from the both of them, the other coming to rest against Nie Mingjue’s chest. Between them, Nie Mingjue stretches his leg out until he can plant his foot flat against the side of the bath, the bend of his knee sloping his leg enough that Nie Huaisang can sling his thigh over him to straddle it, the swell of his ass braced against his knee.
“That works.” Nie Huaisang breathes out. The hand on his chest lifts away, traces the air, and finds purchase again on Nie Mingjue’s throat, tipping it as he leans in, and in, and in. “Hold still, Da-ge.”
Nie Mingjue does, but only once he’s draped his arm around the edge of the bath, only once he’s brought his other hand up to cup Nie Huaisang’s back, tucked around his ribs. He finds the scar he expected to, the pair to the one around the front. Part of holding still is not tracing his fingers across it, mapping it, considering it, and so Nie Mingjue does not.
The hand against his neck shakes, the tips of his fingers skating up Nie Mingjue’s jaw. The hand that holds the razor does not. The bath is cool enough now that it cannot explain the way Nie Huaisang’s skin is flushed pink, from his cheeks to the hint of his belly where it is folded over itself before it disappears beneath the surface of the water. It cannot explain the sweat that beads at his temples; drips down to mingle with the drying water, streaking his face, his chin, his red mouth, made redder by the way his teeth and tongue keep scraping over the swell of his bottom lip. It can explain how hot Nie Mingjue burns, in turn, how viciously the urge itches in his hands to just claw down, against the bath, against Nie Huaisang’s back.
It is impossible not to feel, not with how close they are, entangled and ensnared together, the rub of Nie Huaisang’s cock against his thigh, half-hard. Nie Huaisang, in turn, can’t pretend he does not feel Nie Mingjue’s cock twitch against him, heavy, when he scrapes the razor up the underside of his jaw. His breath comes out hard, and he pauses, before he resumes. A moment that they both leave alone, do nothing with, but can’t ignore the passage of.
When Nie Huaisang is done, he leans back, wipes the razor clean beneath the water, and closes it. “Here,” he croaks. Swallows, mouth crimping. “Here,” he repeats, “have a look, tell me if I missed anything.” He kneels up, curves at the waist, and leans out of the bath, thighs clamping down around Nie Mingjue’s to steady himself. He settles back in with a bronze mirror in hand, the surface tarnished, but still able to serve its use.
“It’s fine,” Nie Mingjue says, voice rough for how it has to fight its way up a tight throat and out a dry mouth. He can’t see that Nie Huaisang has missed any patches across his skin, even when he cranes his neck, tilts his chin, checking over the hardest to reach places. He doesn’t think he could see them anyway, if he tried, in fairness; he can’t even see the reflection of Nie Huaisang’s fingers, folded beneath the real ones holding the bronze angled. Certainly can’t see a glimpse of the rest of his brother in the metal as he curves it back towards his chest, clasps it there in one hand as he stands, the other lowering to cup around his cock, as if he could hope to hide it in the cage of his fingers instead of drag every fibre of Nie Mingjue’s being and intent down to focus on it.
He snaps his eyes higher, where it is safer, but not safest; the jut of his hips, the dusting of hairs that trail his navel, that darkens behind the bridge of his wrist where the thatch of them thickens between his legs. Nie Huaisang steps out of the bath so quickly that Nie Mingjue can’t even see his reflection catch in the rippling, sudded water as it sluices free of him to spill over and across the floor.
He doesn’t go far. Nie Mingjue hears, robbed of any choice otherwise, how his footsteps stop just around the back of his field of view. How the drip of the water begins to slow where it spits and spatters against the floor at his feet. When Nie Huaisang sighs, at last, and steps off again, skirting Nie Mingjue’s periphery like the ghost of a hallucination when he sets down his mirror with a clatter, the shift of silk as he pulls his inner robe back on, still so wet that it sticks to his skin.
Nie Mingjue could leave, he knows. Could set a space down between them to breathe around it all, let them resettle back in amongst it. It feels too much like a concession, when he considers it; yielding to something, but not what he or Nie Huaisang want to yield to.
It would be cowardice, certainly, regardless.
So, he doesn’t. He stands, when the water is cooler and his cock is soft, and he tips out the bath. He sweeps as much of the excess water from his skin with his hands before he pulls on his own inner robe around himself, his pants up his legs, and pads to the bed. The bed, where Nie Huaisang has settled in, flat on his back, combed hair spun around his head like a tossed-back bride's veil, bare legs dangling over the side, toes skimming the floor. The bed, where Nie Huaisang chokes on his inhale with hot expectation when Nie Mingjue sits down beside him, drags his own legs up and crosses them, lets his wrists fall to his knees.
Nie Mingjue meditates, and does not think, again and again and again, of the sound Nie Huaisang had made in the back of his throat when he had rocked down on Nie Mingjue’s thigh. Does not think of the way Nie Huaisang’s breath had shaken out of him, seconds after Nie Mingjue had joined him on the bed, exhale thick with a deflated— disappointment. Does not think of the way Nie Huaisang shies away from the line of his back even as he rises of his own volition to kneel around it, or the way his fingers tremble around the comb as he runs it through Nie Mingjue’s hair, straightening it out.
It is less of a surprise, to Nie Mingjue, now, how the scholar-gentry could make a whole day out of bathing, so often and so readily. By the time the floor has dried out enough, it is dark, and the kao has been lit and extinguished again, the tangy smell of fried doufu, ginger, garlic and onion still thick in the air. Nie Huaisang breaks his fast by eating some slices of the curd from a bowl that he doesn’t even take from Yu Yongrui’s outstretched hand, apparently seeing no need to for how swiftly he decides he’s done with it. He washes it down with a few sparing sips of water, bids Yu Yongrui good night, rights the threshold to the door by slotting the wood back into place, and is the one to suggest to Nie Mingjue that they both go to bed.
If there is lingering tension, Nie Huaisang is adamant in his apparent desire to not see it addressed. He curls against Nie Mingjue’s side, as he has every other night, drapes his arm across his waist, and presses his cheek to his chest. For all he lies still, however, limbs soft and slack, he seems to sleep little as the night deepens and drags on. Nie Mingjue does not need to sleep, and so he does not sleep at all.
It cannot deceive his brother. He seems to know it as well as Nie Mingjue does, and though they don’t give it greater power by speaking of it, Nie Huaisang’s forbearance still gives way and snaps the tenuous truce in two shortly after the morning’s drills.
He excuses himself inside by claim of exhaustion, and Nie Mingjue knows he is not unwelcome, that he is anything but. That does not make it wise for him to go to Nie Huaisang, though, nor does it make it what either of them need.
He walks, instead. Not to the south, or to anywhere, in particular, at all. He simply walks, his brother’s sabre in hand, until he finds where the grasslands start to feed into the forest, where the trees tower overhead and he can stand beneath them and feel trapped against the earth and stable in a way that he can’t when the sky is so open and sprawls so wide.
It has become no clearer to him, through the days, what he is supposed to do with himself. Perhaps no small part of it is that Nie Mingjue no longer has a self to do anything with, in a sense. But— here, in this dream, he lives. Here, in this dream, he has no duties left but his ones to Nie Huaisang, and there is no danger to his charge, for now, but time, which has never been something Nie Mingjue could protect him from. It has never been something he could protect even himself from.
That there is only he and Nie Huaisang left is where the problem for them both lies. For all that there was to never be anything they kept from one another, anymore, before Nie Mingjue’s untimely death, there is always space to hide where there is no room left for secrets. Much like it is difficult to find where anything stops and starts between the both of them, so too does this carry on and through, to the walls they’ve built around parts of themselves and the weapons they’ve forged only to wield against one another in innate and insidious ways.
Nie Mingjue sinks to his knees, and feels the forest floor dig into his shins, billowing roots from long-seeded trees and scattered leaves striping marks into his skin through the skirts of his robes when he slopes his weight down into the ground of him. He sets his hands on his thighs and lets the heels of his palms grind in. He wonders when this all began, when it all bloomed, when it started to burn. He has no answer; he cannot find the moment he first looked at Nie Huaisang and wanted more. He cannot remember when he first looked at Nie Huaisang and saw that Nie Huaisang wanted more, too. Within the constant of them, it had simply crept in, taken its place as though it was always meant to be a part of them, alone and together.
He could ignore it, then, and he had. It had not been a relief to do so, so much as it had been easy: every desire cast off and aside to make room for duty in its stead. Nie Mingjue could allow himself the clemency of the facade, could feign that he was only who he was meant to be, and felt only what he was supposed to feel. And Nie Huaisang, for all he’d never been denied anything he ever wanted, would never be denied anything he ever wanted, for all he was predisposed to simply taking— had left Nie Mingjue be with it. A hesitancy, a guilt, a kindness, a monster made manifest of the three— Nie Mingjue is still not sure, now, why he did, what it could have been.
The want is not set aside, here, now. It can’t be. There is nothing else left that it can be set aside for.
Nie Mingjue wonders where the dreaming state sits; if his ancestors are looking down on him now from above, or across at him from beyond. If they can see him, past the canopy or through the thicket, as he bends forward, bows in on himself. One hand leaves his lap to find the dirt, the other to part his pleated robes and palm his cock where it strains against the seam of his pants. If they know it is for his own brother that he’s shucking his robes open just enough to pull himself out, cold air a slap to bare hot skin, dry fingers dragging up his shaft in a rough, roaming stroke.
What would they think of him, of them, of this? Does it even matter, really, at all, when he is already all too aware of the heft of the debasement, how it brings him low and weighs him down, and all it serves to do is make the loop of his fingers draw tighter?
It’s hardly the worst thing he’s ever done; certainly not the worst thing their ancestors have done, either, at that. It has Nie Mingjue hissing, through his teeth, how he thinks it half as much in his own head as he swears he hears Nie Huaisang’s voice speak it. Hardly a lofty perch to pass judgement from, he would argue, lips to the shell of Nie Mingjue’s ear for the spite of it, as much for him and them as for their forebearers, and Nie Mingjue would agree.
He is not gentle with himself, nor is the pace he sets a gradual one; it isn’t meant to be, and he doesn’t need it. It’s neither for pleasure or punishment that he scratches at the ground until dirt stabs up beneath his nails, that he strips his cock in his fist until it feels chafed and rubbed raw. It barely even measures up to a chase after release; lies closer to a call for relegation than anything else, something endured where it cannot be exorcised.
Nie Mingjue pants through his parted mouth, breath damp, feels sweat stroke down his neck and chin, and thinks of Nie Huaisang, still pliant from the bath, pressed up along his thigh. Thinks of how effortless it would have been to turn him over on his side and drag him up, to wrap his arm around his chest and pin him with a palm to the throat as he rucked the hem of the robe up to his hips, strung up in the snare Nie Huaisang set by dressing only in his thin robe that clung to every inch of his drying skin and nothing else. That Nie Huaisang would have taken it as Nie Mingjue held him down and fucked between the clamp of his thighs until the soft skin bruised up bright red and stung sweet from his blunt cock— that he would have taken it and begged for more until his voice broke— that’s what has Nie Mingjue coming in seconds and hours and all at once, spilling over his fingers and out onto the dirt in thick ropes.
It takes little time for him to catch his breath, and less to rise; to wipe and dust himself clean, to smooth his robes into place and dig out the dirt from beneath his nails.
The sun is low in the sky when he surfaces into the clearing again, but still has some hours left of crawling towards the horizon before the sky starts to dim and darken. Nie Huaisang makes no mention of the time they’ve spent out of one another’s sight and away from one another’s side when Nie Mingjue returns, but his gaze rests heavily on Nie Mingjue’s back as he kicks off his boots, perhaps heavier than even he realises or especially means for it to, the pry of it pointed and surreptitiously averted.
Nie Mingjue knows what he is wondering, what he is watching for. Nie Mingjue is watching him, and he is wondering the same, too.
Coincidence wakes Nie Mingjue more than any cause, two nights later, and sees him met with an empty bed. He does not need to search far for Nie Huaisang; the lantern is lit, and so he follows the sprawl of the light, turns over on his side and sits up after it. His brother is hunched over the table, dragged further centre into the room than where it was last left, and his back is to Nie Mingjue. He barely stirs at the noise he makes as he stands; shows little awareness in his state of anything that surrounds him at all, save the slightest straightening of his stiff spine.
Nie Mingjue knows how to prowl around wounded game, how to court and coax it into the net, and he does no such thing to Nie Huaisang, here, as he abandons a gentler approach and a softer touch to instead step to him at once, settling down in alongside him at the table. Nie Huaisang’s throat bobs around his swallow, but that is all the acknowledgement Nie Mingjue gets from him and for now.
“Nightmare?” Nie Mingjue asks, quiet, voice still hoarse and heavy with sleep. It seems— the safest thing to say. Nie Huaisang had terrible nightmares as a child, and had not grown out of them so much as grown around them, but no man was ever imperturbable, even by horrors he’s well-acquainted with.
“No,” Nie Huaisang answers. He does not look up from his hand, where his wrist lies on the table, bent up, his fingers curled limply into his palm. “I don’t have them, anymore. Or dreams, either.”
It is not what Nie Mingjue expects to hear, or even what he thinks he could have ever expected to hear, but now he has, he must do something with it. He leans forward, bracing his arms against the table. He does not reach for his brother, but his hands settle within reach all the same. “Since you were trapped?”
“Uh,” Nie Huaisang starts, stopping when it’s more croak than consonant. His eyes narrow; his mouth thins. When he swallows again, it’s harsher. His jaw clicks with it, and clamps down, after, as if to bite through what threatens to slip out in the gap between it and his next breath. “At all. For the last year. Except the night we came,” he amends, after a moment too short for Nie Mingjue to have gained any bearings, “I dreamed then.”
It is not his right to ask, but it rises unbidden on his tongue, anyway, and meets the gate of his latched teeth. He breathes out through his nose, sharp, and Nie Huaisang’s fingers twitch in their lazy hang before they tighten stiffly.
“You’ve been sent here to test me,” Nie Huaisang says, when not enough time has passed between them to ready either of them for it at all. That is what finally bids his blank gaze to lift from his hand and find Nie Mingjue’s eyes to narrow down upon, sharpening into something serrated. It’s not an accusation, but weary accedence.
Nie Mingjue feels it, here, finally, at last, so brutally and so blatantly that it breaks the last of his hopes that he can ignore it: he does not want to go. He does not want to leave here, and the look in Nie Huaisang’s eyes is the clearest confirmation that he can no longer hide from Nie Mingjue how much he wants to stay, too.
“I have not,” he promises. Again, again, the urge, the need, to close the last expanse of distance between them and lace their hands together itches through his wrists. Again, again, Nie Mingjue survives it without surrendering to it.
“Well,” says Nie Huaisang, “you’re, you’re absolutely not here to show me that I’m about to lose someone, are you?” He jerks his chin, as if to tear his eyes away, but they don’t follow the violent jolt of his head, holding steady and steely where Nie Mingjue’s gaze is keeping them still. “There’s no-one left to lose. You’re not here to lead me to Diyu, either. You would have asked me to leave with you by now.” His fingers flinch in, in, until his fingernails start to bite down into the flesh of his palm; Nie Mingjue can’t see without leaning up where they’re cutting crescents into his skin, but he can see the colour draining from his knuckles.
“So, what else is there, then?” Nie Huaisang finishes, fraught. “Why are you here, if not to trial, or tell, or take?”
Nie Mingjue suspects that there is no answer Nie Huaisang wants, that they are not even the questions that Nie Huaisang wants to ask, but there is nothing he can do with it all but let it sink in and damn the both of them. “Is that what matters most?” he asks, knowing, already, that it does. That of course it does. That, to Nie Huaisang, why could come second only to when: when will Nie Mingjue leave him again?
What Nie Mingjue is here for is irrelevant, though it is what Nie Huaisang keeps circling around, stumbling on, stalling with. What he was brought here to be or do is nothing in the face of what he wills himself to be or do for Nie Huaisang’s sake.
Nie Huaisang laughs, a short, stuttering sound, steeped in something savage. The dagger-point of his gaze is a sliver of a slit, now, the wet glint of his dark eyes almost swept over by the storm sieging his stony face. “Who are you, really?”
For all Nie Mingjue has capitulated to the untread ground they’ve both stepped out onto, and has tried to compensate for Nie Huaisang’s own wilding unpredictability by readying for a swing to come screaming out from the blind dark of their conversation— how could even due warning have served to spare him from that? It transcends beyond a blow to something unspeakable, bordering on unforgivable.
For all it batters through and breaks him open, though, Nie Mingjue will not bleed out from it. He has to take the time to breathe through the worst of it, though he’s unable to stop himself from caving in, to carving across the space between their hands to clutch at Nie Huaisang’s, to crook in his fingers and coax Nie Huaisang’s nails out from where they’ve cut into the meat of his palm.
“Your brother,” Nie Mingjue tells him, after too long a wait, too terrible a quiet. Then, “Still.”
Nie Huaisang’s eyes soften in one second, and widen in the next. His mouth opens around silence. “I know,” he stammers, stun-struck, “I know that. I just—”
The sob sunders him, next, and he sucks in a shaky breath as he shuts his eyes tightly, the tears framing them sliding free. Nie Mingjue holds his hand steady beneath Nie Huaisang’s fingers as the shudders wracking his shoulders stream down his arms. When Nie Huaisang snatches at Nie Mingjue’s fingers with his other hand, snagging them, as if to stop him from fleeing, Nie Mingjue only squeezes down, firm, where he’s held. Shows Nie Huaisang that he is staying and that he is safe.
“This is not who you were,” Nie Huaisang chokes out, lips drawing up into a sneer around it. Something frustrated and furious and folded back in so it flays only himself. “You’re being, so, it’s— who you should have been. Who you wanted to be. Not who you ended up as.”
“I know,” Nie Mingjue says. He does. That he is a stranger to himself shows just how much of him was his sabre, and for so long, before he succumbed. Of course he is a stranger to Nie Huaisang, too. How could he not be? Stripped free of Baxia, there’s hardly anything left to him. So much of what separated Nie Mingjue from his sabre had been swallowed whole by anger, and— fear. He can see that, now, too. That his rage was not always the seed, but often the shield, instead, for the interminate terror that tormented the totality of his life.
“You see it.” Nie Huaisang shakes his head. The smile that draws across his mouth is shallow, thin-lipped and pained. His eyes are still wet with tears when he blinks them open, red blurring through the whites. “So you see that, I’m, I’m not, either. Not who you think I am. Not anymore.”
Nie Mingjue has to stop, not to measure how to spare Nie Huaisang further agony, but how he can make the mortal blow a swift one. Sometimes it is for the best, and for the kindest, to cut a hurt thing down than to try and care for it when it is limping on its last legs. “You’re not,” Nie Mingjue confirms, voice level. Then, because he is not one to deal untold and undue suffering, he does not draw it out. “You were wise and considerate, once. Now, you've become cold and cruel.”
It takes Nie Huaisang a moment to feel that it’s a dual-edged knife; the very same he plunged into Nie Mingjue’s chest, all those years ago, only reforged before its required return. When he does, though— Nie Mingjue can tell the moment it has hilted in the heart of him, for how he burns up, bright and brutal, face flushing with fury.
“What choice did you leave me with?!” he demands and he damns, the sob in his voice warping to a gnarled, ugly snarl, mottled and thick where it tears from his throat. He surges at once, seizes, fixing himself to flee, and Nie Mingjue brings his other hand up to trap him by his wrists, tying their hands together with the tangle of their fingers. Good, he thinks, as Nie Huaisang thrashes against his grip, struggling with a vehement violence all the more virulent than mere death throes. It verifies the life still left in him, the life Nie Mingjue had faith he’d find if only he forced Nie Huaisang to fight for it.
“We were never meant to be separated,” Nie Huaisang seethes, kicking his legs out, knees bashing against the base of the wood of the table. His writhing has wrapped his hair around his face, the dark strands spidering across his skin, sweat sticking clumps of them to his temples and around his throat. “It was you, it was all your fault, you did this to us! If not for San-ge—” he stumbles on it, spits it out, and scowls around the empty space it carved out for itself in his mouth. Nie Huaisang’s eyes blacken impossibly darker with something Nie Mingjue thinks may be shame, white-hot and breath-brief, before pure rage pours back over him. “If not for Jin Guangyao, how long did you have left? Months? A year?”
Nothing Nie Huaisang throws at him is not true, for all its honesty is fragmented and flawed. It’s real and it’s deserved, but for all he’s wielding his words as his weapon, Nie Mingjue knows how Nie Huaisang can only roar out with his anger after its metamorphosis. When he’s ripped out all of the love and desire and fear and grief that’s wrapped all up around it. Every blow breaks skin, bludgeons and bruises and bleeds, but it’s nothing, not at all, compared to the sum of the parts he’s had to take away just to get his hands around the hilt of it.
He can feel him start to flag underneath his hands; Nie Huaisang’s flame burns hot, but fast, fleeting in the face of Nie Mingjue’s fortitude. Still, Nie Mingjue would be a fool to underestimate him, and so he holds firm.
“We should have stayed and died together in Suoxian Pavilion,” Nie Huaisang heaves, panting, his features contorting, crumpling, as his anger begins to abate, as the lash of every wild and wide swing starts to recoil into him, too. “You should have killed me at Koi Tower! Let me go, Da-ge—”
And where will you go if I do? Nie Mingjue thinks. But that’s easy, isn’t it? Nie Huaisang will run, and Nie Mingjue will chase him; will catch him somewhere out on the grasslands, and in the dark the risk will be so much greater that they fall prey to doing something that cannot be undone. Here, walled in with the candlelight, it is easier to bring the beasts beneath to heel.
“Why did you come here with your men?” It’s unexpected enough that it stuns Nie Huaisang for split seconds before he starts to squirm again, wrist twisting in the cuff of Nie Mingjue’s palm, knees bumping hard against the table. If he could swivel until he snapped his shoulder free of the socket for the sake of escaping him, Nie Mingjue has no doubt Nie Huaisang would if only to spite the both of them. As it stands, he’s all too sapped to see it through.
“Huaisang.” He feels the submission in the way Nie Huaisang’s fisting hands go slack in his grip; the way his wrists stop trying to slip free of his fingers. He sags forward, forehead pressing to their joined hands, shoulders shaking as he sucks in ragged breath after ragged breath. “Huaisang,” he repeats, quieter. He wants it to be gentler, too, but that is too far out of reach, so he will have to make do. “Why did you come here with your men?”
“What,” Nie Huaisang huffs out, hoarse, lifting his head to rest his chin on their hands instead, face turning to cast a bleary gaze over to Nie Mingjue. “What, hah, what a question, of all, of all things.” Nie Mingjue only stares, and Nie Huaisang sniffs, wet, and sighs out. “The elders and generals both argued against sending a second group. The harvest was poor, this past season, and they suggested that the people here had simply—” he shrugs, shoulders snapping up sharply, before he swallows, sets his mouth into a pinched line, and takes a breath. “They would have not been the first to choose to disappear, given that shame,” he continues, “but I overruled their decision and said I’d pick the men to bring by hand and come see it for myself.”
“Why?” Nie Mingjue asks, and Nie Huaisang laughs, breathy and weary and utterly wrung out, his exhale gusting up the back of Nie Mingjue’s wrist.
“Have I not made enough of a fool of myself for you tonight?” he snaps back, but there is nothing behind it but a bone-deep resignation, reservation and regret, all threading together and through. “I, it’s not that I thought they were wrong, just. I thought I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself, if it turned out we were mistaken, and something had happened.”
A benevolence, then, and he’d been punished for it; something had happened, after all, and now here they all were.
Nie Mingjue gently untangles his fingers and turns his hand over underneath Nie Huaisang’s chin, leaving his other hand between the loose furl of both of his brother’s as he instead sets himself to the task of gingerly brushing Nie Huaisang’s sweat-clumped hair back from his face. “I would not have done the same.” Nor would he have felt guilt, he does not think, if he had been mistaken. Grief, and remorse, but not guilt.
“Of course you would have,” Nie Huaisang mumbles out in a rush, angling his head, as much to push into Nie Mingjue’s fingers as to better see Nie Mingjue's face. “I would have made you.”
Nie Mingjue raises an eyebrow at him, and waits the breath it takes for the realisation to sink in.
“Oh.” Nie Huaisang’s eyes begin to shine again, a wet shimmer of tears skirting just out of bounds, made all the starker when he narrows them into a glare, heatless. “Was that your point?”
“That we are still brothers, and that is what matters?” It’s still not as gentle as he would like. But Nie Mingjue thinks, perhaps, that his hand on his brother’s face helps sweeten it.
“You couldn’t,” Nie Huaisang’s voice cracks around a laugh that takes a heartbeat to break out into a sob, “you couldn’t, just, say that? You’re awful, Da-ge, really—” he smiles around it, through it, and it swings back into a shuddering laugh. He squeezes his eyes shut, and spreads his hands out from Nie Mingjue’s, his fingers blooming up from the bud of their vice.
“Would you have listened, if I had?” Nie Mingjue asks, giving the blade of his cheekbone a parting stroke before Nie Huaisang lifts his head, sluggish, swaying with it.
“Not to a word,” Nie Huaisang admits, unnecessarily, then, eyes lowering, he adds, whisper-quiet, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, for— everything. For that.”
He needn’t be, but Nie Mingjue knows that is not what Nie Huaisang must hear. “It’s forgiven,” is what is necessary, and is what he says. “All of it.”
It still aches. The pangs have dulled, but the flesh is yet to knit back together. It will remain tender for days at least, may yet pull open again in future weeks and take them both unawares, but for now, the sorrow and the sundering are satisfying, too, for having been survived. It is not perfect; it is not even right. But the slope of Nie Huaisang’s frame is visibly lighter, shoulders no longer stooping under the shadow of a burden of a weight he’d convinced himself only he need carry, and that is more than Nie Mingjue can fairly ask for; that is more than enough.
“Maybe you were right, Da-ge,” is what Nie Huaisang settles on, after stretched-out and splayed-thin minutes, when he’s laced his hand with Nie Mingjue’s again, their palms turned to the table, their fingers steepled. He’s propped his elbow up on the wood to rest his cheek on the shelf of his other palm, too, to keep the slope of his frame mostly upright. “Maybe there is nothing more to this than what we see, and I’m looking for answers elsewhere because I don’t like the ones I’ve been given.”
He could be speaking of only this just as easily as he could be speaking of so many other things, from days gone by in the dream and from lives now long since lived. Nie Mingjue considers it, and decides to say nothing at all, instead stroking his thumb across Nie Huaisang’s to show he is, at least, still listening.
Nie Huaisang closes his eyes. Breathes in; out. Slow, slow, slow; but he's not done yet. “I honoured you,” he whispers, soft enough to be silent. It's given over with such reverence that it can only be a confession. “Not always well, but. I think— I like to think I have gotten better at it, by now. That I do well by you.”
What could he possibly say to that, in return? What could he ever give, that would even come close to suiting? I’m sorry; he is, but— I’m here; he may soon not be, but—
“I’m proud of you,” says Nie Mingjue.
Nie Huaisang tenses, imperceptible to the eye, but not to the touch; Nie Mingjue does not see it so much as he feels it through their hands. “Are you?”
“Of course.” He truly never said it enough, but can it not count for something, that he is saying it now? Can it not make something anew, if it cannot mend what is old and what was left?
Nie Huaisang’s mouth thins, his brow creasing and face crumpling. His eyes dart behind the lids, but don’t flick open. “There’s a lot to be proud of,” he replies, voice tightening, “in what little you’ve seen.”
Nie Mingjue sighs out, and it is not without its own serrated scrape of stress. “I have always been proud of you, Huaisang,” he says, hoarsely heartfelt and honest and hopeless. “I always will be.”
“Da-ge.” Nie Mingjue watches his lips part around his shallow inhale, how his throat works around the swallow he takes to soothe the rasp of his voice, jagged as a sob, a splinter off shattering entirely. “But you don’t know. You don’t—”
“I would understand,” Nie Mingjue interrupts. “Eventually, if not at first.”
All they have is each other, after all, and all they are is one another. How could Nie Mingjue not accept him? How could they not adapt to accommodate what and whoever they’ve become, if allowed the time?
“How could I ever want to leave with you here?” Nie Huaisang confides, crushed.
How could he, how could Nie Mingjue, how could the two of them, indeed? If only it was about their wants and not their needs; it would be a different story, then, from beginning to end. As it is, and as it should be, Nie Mingjue can only school himself into steel and say, “You have to,” because he must. If Nie Huaisang knows without room to doubt that Nie Mingjue wants the same, what else would it accomplish but to demoralise him? To deter him from his duty?
Nie Huaisang opens his eyes and lifts his head; frail-smiled and teary-eyed, he still looks better than how Nie Mingjue found him when he woke. “I know,” he huffs, nonchalant, as though Nie Mingjue is simply bothering him and not completely breaking him. “I’m only being delicate, Da-ge, don’t encourage me. You’ll undo all the hard work I’ve undertaken to become responsible.”
“So be it.” Nie Mingjue falls short of flippant, himself, but not all that far from it. He almost can’t stop the sadness from shading his voice, but he manages to help himself, if only barely, if not by much. The responsibility has bent his brother into a shape that strains him, and Nie Mingjue had promised to spare him from it. But it suits him, too, as Nie Mingjue always knew it would, if Nie Huaisang had ever wanted it. Of the two of them, Nie Huaisang wears the mantle of Sect Leader best, for each and every reason that meant and made Nie Mingjue the better choice to bear the blade at Nie Huaisang’s right hand.
“Will you rest now?” Nie Mingjue asks, to see the night move on when the wait has come and gone and grown too long. Nie Huaisang’s fingers twitch against his own before they start to unlace, unprompted.
“I suppose,” sighs Nie Huaisang, sounding more sleepy than sulky. When Nie Mingjue begins to lean back from the table to rise, however, Nie Huaisang’s hand finds his knee with surprising swiftness, a silent bid for him to stay.
Nie Mingjue is not expecting him to crawl around the table to come up against his side, or to fold in on himself, forward, until his face is tucked into Nie Mingjue’s lap, cheek to thigh, as though he is a child again, seeking his brother’s comfort in the wake of a scolding. For a moment, Nie Mingjue feels a cold panic sluice down his spine that Nie Huaisang will— press. Will use the advantage he’s stolen out from underneath Nie Mingjue’s guard to slide the rest of the blade of his body home to the hilt. That he will turn his head over and crane his neck until the bow of it brings him close enough to mouth at Nie Mingjue’s cock through his inner robe, and Nie Mingjue will look within for the conviction to deny him and find it and himself lacking.
It is not an unfounded fear: Nie Huaisang is at his greediest when he is made vulnerable. Taking and taking as though it will satiate the void of him when it has been laid bare and delved into. There is nothing else for him, here, to put his hands to, but Nie Mingjue. Nie Mingjue, who has, for Nie Huaisang’s greater good, opened him up and hollowed him out until what he felt outstripped mere hurt. It would take little for Nie Mingjue beyond surrender, for his part in it, to wrap Nie Huaisang's hair in his fist and twist it into a tether. Less to lead Nie Huaisang into his lap by it and pin him there. Nothing at all to feed his cock into his brother’s mouth, to fuck his throat until he forgets everything but the feeling of being filled, of being full.
Nie Mingjue buries his fingers in his brother’s hair, and hushes him when he mouths out a sound against Nie Mingjue’s thigh that strays off into sorrow, damp and hot. He strokes him, soft, from scalp to nape, until the shudders sundering his shoulders subside, until his every breath stops shaking out of him. Nie Huaisang falls asleep against him without pushing past the boundary that would bend to him at first pry. Nie Mingjue does not take a touch more than what he needs to take to gather Nie Huaisang up in his arms, to extinguish the lantern, and to carry him to the bed.
It poses too many problems to lay them down together, not in the least when the risk of rousing Nie Huaisang is so great; when every further movement only escalates it to greater. Nie Mingjue is comfortable enough sitting upright, anyway, and so he does not even begin to try. Nie Huaisang fits perfectly in the cradle of his lap, small as he is, with his knees bent towards his belly and his cheek pressed to Nie Mingjue’s collarbone, hands loosely furled between their chests. He does not stir once for the rest of the night, and nor does Nie Mingjue, who settles in to wait for the sun and for his brother to wake.
Chapter 3: 你是否相信 蝴蝶飞在他的梦里 而他说他梦见了自己
Nie Mingjue surfaces from the stillness spaced between sleeping and waking when he first feels Nie Huaisang stir against his chest. The whole line of him shudders as he stretches, arms overhead and legs sloped over Nie Mingjue’s arm; he’s saved from spilling backwards out of his lap by the press of his palm between his shoulder blades. He does not squirm where he’s nestled between Nie Mingjue’s thighs, nor does he string it out; once he is done, he settles back in place, and he stops.
“Good morning,” Nie Huaisang greets, voice scratchy. He straightens up from the brace of Nie Mingjue’s steadying hand, starts to rub the sleep from his eyes, and proceeds to complain about every cramping ache in his limbs. His tirade is only interrupted once, by his own yawn, before he tires of it entirely and stumbles out onto his knees and then up to his feet.
The tension is no longer so tangible, but it does not feel better between them, now, for their talk. Instead, it is more that it is like it is the beginnings of acknowledgement, a meeting of minds, a making of a mutual understanding.
“Go on,” Nie Huaisang tells him, after they’ve dressed, “I’ll follow you out soon. I’ve lost one of my inksticks.” He waves him off, unseeing, over his shoulder, his attention focused solely on his qiankun pouch, as though he can will his missing possession to resurface through his glower alone.
Nie Mingjue goes; returns, some time after, to find that Nie Huaisang has not only failed to follow him out, but that he has not even budged a step from his spot.
“I feel that this is your fault, Da-ge,” he says, with no expense spared on his exasperation, as Nie Mingjue toes out of his boots. “I knew where everything was before you started using it.”
“You’re carrying too much,” says Nie Mingjue, not deigning to look up as he sets down Nie Huaisang’s sabre. He doesn’t need to see his brother’s scowl when he can hear the scoff that accompanies it.
“Everything in it is necessary,” he snips, supercilious. When Nie Mingjue finally straightens, sending a glance over his shoulder, Nie Huaisang’s expression has sunk into a sulk, lips pursed in a pout. “This inkstick, especially! The soot is from burned tongyou, bound with ox hide glue…” he trails off as Nie Mingjue turns, then clears his throat. “...It’s custom,” he summarises. “Expensive. I use it to empower certain sigils.”
“It’s important,” he very nearly whines, after a beat, when Nie Mingjue starts his approach but doesn’t bring along with him any sympathy.
“It’s not gone far,” Nie Mingjue tells him, unassuring. Then, before Nie Huaisang can voice the griping interjection he opens his mouth around, Nie Mingjue finishes with, “empty the pouch out. I’ll help you find it.”
“You had better,” Nie Huaisang retorts, in lieu of expressing his thanks, “you’re the one who lost it in the first place.”
There is no point to protesting his innocence beyond prolonging the inevitable, so Nie Mingjue lets Nie Huaisang please himself with the picayune prize of the last word in their teasing parading as an argument. Nie Mingjue is going to end up roped in and on the floor across from his brother anyway, so he may as well sit down with him and get to it now. His quick capitulation must delight Nie Huaisang to distraction, for he promptly upends his qiankun pouch between his legs in a moment of foolery, sending every single one of its contents scattering to the floor.
“All right,” he says, chastened, as he starts gingerly pushing at various vials and accoutrements to fan them further out along the floor, “I will concede that we’re both right.”
“What does it look like?” Nie Mingjue asks, resisting a deserved but unwise comment to the effect of Is that so? Nothing sounded as if it broke on impact, at least. Nie Huaisang hums, reaching absently to sweep his hair over his shoulder, one-handed, while he holds up a small tube to the sunlight pinched between the fingers of the other.
“It will be in a flat wooden case,” he says, setting down the tube to fish out another from beneath a sheaf of twine-tied talismans, “about a hand’s length and width— one of my hands, that is.”
Nie Mingjue nods to show he’s understood, reaching between them to lift up a fallen-open book, well-read and seemingly oft referred to, for how so many pages are creased over themselves, for how the threading is fraying at the spine. The inked diagrams he catches a glimpse of seem to be anatomical, beneath a branching mess of labels and scrawled notes. Between it and pungent, permeating smell of herbs, Nie Mingjue does not think it is particularly unreasonable to suspect Nie Huaisang has become some sort of physician during their parting.
“Oh!” Nie Huaisang exclaims, some long minutes later, dragging Nie Mingjue’s gaze up to the sight of him gently unbundling tousled black sheer silk from a rattan wicker hat. “Look at that. I had a weimao in here after all.” His smile is, at least, sensibly sheepish when he glances at Nie Mingjue, before he sets it atop his head, fingers feeding his braids through the top, the shroud spilling over the wide brim to shield his face.
It is a jarring sight, if only for the moment Nie Mingjue stares at it, surprised, before he takes himself to task and tears his eyes away. It’s a confronting visual for its former familiarity, and not through any fault of Nie Huaisang’s. Nie Mingjue remembers his brother’s mother better than his own, and his father’s other concubines the best, for how they had outlived both wives and their husband-master — but he does not recall any of their faces. What he does remember is the shadows of them, the shapes they played out beneath the dark veils swept down over their faces, meant to keep the extent of their beauty from undeserving eyes whenever they travelled out from the Unclean Realm. Pale, vague features made monstrous by the warp of the silk, almost unbounden and unfathomable, save for the rouged red of their mouths that kept their visage tamed towards something ethereal but unquestionably human.
“It would have been nice to know I had this sooner,” Nie Huaisang remarks, and, from the corners of his eyes, Nie Mingjue sees his hands rise from his lap, hears the scrape-scuff of the silk as it is bunched up in on itself and tossed back to bare Nie Huaisang’s face.
“You would have,” Nie Mingjue replies, “if you had thought to look.”
Nie Huaisang flicks a vial across the floor at him in umbrage that’s undone by laughter. “Don’t— ah, wait, shouldn’t you show me more respect than this? Aren’t I older than you, now?”
Nie Mingjue actually stops, at that, but does not look up. He didn’t even think— of that. That it would even need to be considered. Is it so? Could that even be how it works, when he no longer ages and Nie Huaisang does? Fifteen years have passed for the both of them, after all, in one way or another, but only Nie Huaisang has the experience to show for it.
He seems to realise, in the brief ensuing silence, the unintended consequence of his thoughtlessness. “You’re still my da-ge, of course,” he says, in a tone meaning to be light but manifesting heavy with reassurance. “I’m still your didi. That’s entirely separate.”
It falls quiet between them for long minutes, after that, until Nie Huaisang sees need to disturb it with more idling chatter, words barely meaningful in any manner, meant only to accompany the sounds borne of their sorting. He doesn’t mention the disparity of their ages again.
It does not take them long to find what he’s searching for, though it is one of the last things they end up uncovering. It takes longest to pack everything back away again, least of all because nothing ends up set aside to be discarded. Nie Mingjue does not suggest it, though he considers it; he knows better to speak, now. What is and is not important, here, is not for him to determine.
The small box storing the inkstick is set on the table, alongside the inkstone and brushes, where one would first think to look for it when in need of it again. The weimao, however, is wrapped back up and stowed. “Ah, I’ve not had it for this long, already, anyway,” Nie Huaisang explains, even though there is no need for him to, and Nie Mingjue does not call on him to do so. “I may as well stay without.”
“I need to go somewhere,” he continues, voice beaten out into something even and detached, “after. Alone.”
Nie Mingjue can’t see his face like this, not without making it obvious that he’s looking for it, not without moving him or his brother or the both of them. It’s deliberate, that Nie Huaisang telling him this now, in the only brief moment they have of a day where they can hide something from each other. Nie Huaisang lets it hang, in the silence, between them, like a slack lariat looped around a neck.
He doesn’t ask if Nie Mingjue trusts him, and he certainly doesn’t beg. He doesn’t need to, not when they’re the unseen hands holding the rope, the executioner drawing it to collar taut underneath a jaw.
Nie Mingjue is glad, for all they’re not unheard, that they do remain unsaid: he does not know which of the two is the worst of them, and so long as they’re denied a voice, he does not need to find it out for himself.
He lets him go. Of course he does; what is preferable and what is permissible are two very different things, for all they’re rarely indistinguishable between the both of them when it comes to Nie Huaisang’s wants and whims.
If the question is whether or not he could stop him, then the answer is certainly in the affirmative. If the question is whether or not he should stop him, however… Nie Mingjue’s clarity has long been uncoupled from that consideration. The answer is far less clear.
Nie Huaisang slips away silently, sometime during the seconds that sprint between the morning’s drills to the morning’s spars. He is back by sunset, already inside the farmhouse and stripped down to his inner robe, hair undone, when Nie Mingjue steps inside. He looks up from the map on the table when Nie Mingjue approaches, meets his eyes, smiles, and welcomes him home. Beneath all allowable scrutiny, he appears unchanged.
He says nothing of his venture, and Nie Mingjue, again, does not ask him to.
He has always known it for everything it was and everything it meant, from the moment the realisation first ran him through. When the spark of need hit the tinder of hunger in the very ravenous maw of the primal thing in the pit of him and came roaring to life. Like everything else that defined him, it was a violence; so vicious it would have sent him to his knees and bent him beneath it had he not already been kneeling.
Once the moment came, through the culmination of uncountable circumstances and forewarned conclusions, that had seen Nie Huaisang beg him for something, had seen him offer Nie Mingjue anything he could think to take, in turn, for trade— that had been that. The power of it and all of its endless possibilities had put its teeth and its talons through the make of him and Nie Mingjue had been irrevocably tainted, incurably deformed.
The truth is this: when Nie Mingjue tells himself he does not know when his brother’s desire for him started, he is lying, here, too.
Nie Huaisang had never needed to beg Nie Mingjue for anything, not truly, not once. He knew he could have everything, should he only ask. That Nie Mingjue would never deny him, not when and where it mattered. That he’d pleaded, then, in the first place, was itself a violence of its own; a blow brought down to bear on Nie Mingjue’s back for the sake of seeing how he’d fight back.
Nie Huaisang has always meant the things he says, after all, even if he does not always mean to say them, even if he does not always understand what will be wrought when he says aloud what should be unsaid. Nie Mingjue has always known this best, even better than his brother himself.
Nie Huaisang is often clumsy, and even the consideration that he may well have hurt himself, in this instance of it, does not quicken Nie Mingjue’s steps. If Nie Huaisang has managed to cut himself, no shard will have sunk deeper than whatever one will have undoubtedly glanced his pride, and his pride is what Nie Mingjue will wound if he comes racing in as though his brother is a delicate waif in want of saving from himself.
Nie Mingjue finds him on the floor by the table, crouched down around himself in only his inner robe, almost cowering, head bent to his chest. There’s an incense burner between his knees, now shattered and still smoking, thick black tendrils curling up towards Nie Huaisang’s face, beneath the drape of his loose hair, the smell of it seeping over, soaking through the whole of the room, pungent and sour and medicinal.
There is no visible blood, which he takes as a good first sign. He does not get the time to ask if Nie Huaisang is all right; Nie Huaisang preempts the question entirely, and his answer is a chilling, rattling choke, all wet and panic, a hand scrabbling up from its clench against the floor to claw uselessly at the column of his throat.
He moves; he’s there, before he even thinks, Nie Huaisang already reaching out for him, blind, slinging his arm limply around Nie Mingjue’s shoulders as Nie Mingjue hauls him up. He crushes the smouldering incense beneath his boot, stamps out the last scrap of its flame, and twists his other arm out from between their bodies. He pries Nie Huaisang’s hand away from his neck, the pale skin already scraped open by his nails in the seconds it has taken Nie Mingjue to embrace him.
“Temple,” he hiccups, voice a torn rasp, as though his throat is ripped raw and burning up from the inside out, “the temple—” He can’t seem to breathe, but that isn’t stopping him from trying to speak, from struggling in Nie Mingjue’s grip.
“Stop,” Nie Mingjue hisses, which only seems to make him fight harder, clawing at his back like a dying beast, “stop, it can wait.” Whatever he wants to say is not and could never be worth his life, no matter what Nie Huaisang himself seems to think.
The shock of dropping him not-quite-gently onto the bed isn’t enough to clear the clotting blockage in his chest. Nie Mingjue goes to his knees, straddling Nie Huaisang’s hips, palm planting on his sternum to pin him flat, and Nie Mingjue sees the flutter in his chest flow up into the seizing clench of his jaw. He manages to get his other hand cupped behind Nie Huaisang’s head in time to angle it to the side, to open his throat so he can choke up blood, the dark red spilling past the shaky seam of his lips.
“There,” Nie Mingjue says, even, gentling, thumb swiping over a smear of red on his chin, “there. Breathe, now.” He keeps his hands where they are, the span of them grounding, until at last the rise-fall of Nie Huaisang’s chest evens out, his breath no longer coming in a long, pitiful scrape that doesn’t sink deep enough down to stick behind his ribs.
“Da-ge,” he croaks, before he stops, sucking in a sharp, whistling breath when Nie Mingjue’s thumb catches on the corner of his mouth, callouses scraping the heated skin. His voice is wrecked, and underneath him, eyes clouded over with tears, he looks— Desire clamps down on Nie Mingjue’s throat, heat roiling low in his belly, and the suddenness of his own hunger terrifies him. The hunger is not new. The hunger is never new. He does not want it here, now, gnawing away at him, a lust that is as cursed and damned as the dream they’re both trapped in.
“Huaisang,” he says, and Nie Huaisang’s eyes sink shut with a shiver as he sighs out.
“I’m all right,” Nie Huaisang replies, faint. He does not seem it, but he is breathing freely, now, at least, the shift of his chest steady underneath Nie Mingjue’s hand. It is difficult to tell if the tremble Nie Mingjue feels in his fingers is from Nie Huaisang, fed up into his fettering palm, or if it is his own.
Nie Mingjue takes his other hand from Nie Huaisang’s throat and uses it to bunch the bloodied sheet up and shove it away from them both. Then, he braces it against the bed so he is not tempted to use it for something, for anything else. “Can you rise?” he asks.
Nie Huaisang cringes when he swallows, pale face crumpling, the colour drained from it by exertion. That and the residual bruise of the blood only serve to make the wet red of his mouth more bleakly and brutally blatant against the rest of his features. Nie Mingjue wants to sink so low forward as to make it an effortless stretch to hook his thumb between Nie Huaisang’s teeth, wants to slide his tongue in to follow, wants to kneel up and get his brother back out from underneath him more, wants to make sure he is okay and then ensure it stays that way.
“I need a moment,” Nie Huaisang says, and then he takes one, drags and draws it out, before he starts to strain back up. His elbows slide up from his sides to steady the stagger of his weight; Nie Mingjue shifts back, settles onto his heels, his stance widening so that Nie Huaisang can draw his legs out from beneath his thighs. When he sways, Nie Mingjue catches him by the shoulders, and Nie Huaisang’s face crumples in on itself further, inscrutable.
When Nie Mingjue tries to gently pry his hands away, to sever the ebbing heat that is soaking into him from Nie Huaisang’s skin in hopes of stopping the fire in the pit of him from being stoked any further, Nie Huaisang grips him tightly, eyes flying open. “Wait—!”
“I’m not going anywhere,” Nie Mingjue reassures him, but Nie Huaisang’s grip does not loosen, and it does not seem to appease the rising tide of his anxiousness.
“It’s me,” Nie Huaisang stresses, frantic panic edging into his voice, pitching it high, “it’s me, I walked out too far and now it’s in my head—”
“Huaisang.” Nie Mingjue clamps down on his shoulders until the power behind the grip is treading water too close to the cusp of bruising, trying to jar Nie Huaisang back to the surface of himself, string his senses back together. Nothing he says is understandable, nor is it usable, for all Nie Mingjue is unreasonably glad for the distraction it gives him, now; the encompassing focus. “Huaisang, steady yourself.”
Nie Huaisang takes a breath, then another, and then he does, as if on command, the fight seeping out of him. His sigh is heady, and when he sags forward, Nie Mingjue takes his weight as though it is nothing, holds him up where Nie Huaisang seems to have yielded to the effort it takes to try.
“Sorry,” he mutters, a bitter laugh hemming it, “ah, sorry, Da-ge, I’m— I’m so sorry, please don’t be angry.”
“I’m not,” Nie Mingjue tells him, but he can’t keep it from his voice, the edge of aggravation, the frustration borne from feeling and being so lost. “I’m not angry, Huaisang, but you are not making any sense.”
Nie Huaisang just shakes his head, teeth digging into his bottom lip, and Nie Mingjue— Nie Mingjue, at an utter loss for what else he can do, sets aside his concerns for the knotted heat still simmering low in his belly and yanks Nie Huaisang forward by his shoulders, brings him spilling into his lap and against his chest. He feels Nie Huaisang’s breath slam out of him, gusting hot and damp against his neck, and then he starts to shake, wretched, a whimpering sob gurgling out of his mouth.
“It’s my fault,” Nie Huaisang whispers, nails scrabbling down the front of Nie Mingjue’s robe until they fall slack and heavy against his abdomen, fingers hooking limply in the silk that has bunched up around Nie Mingjue’s hips. “It’s me, the shard is me, the memories are mine, everything—”
“Shh.” Nie Mingjue strokes a soothing hand down his back, fingers kneading over the crest each laddering rung of his spine, stark beneath the thin silk of his inner robe, pulled taut across his back. He cradles Nie Huaisang’s nape in the cup of his palm with the other, keeps his face tucked to his neck, lets him hide and cry as he needs. “Just be quiet, now. I’m here. I have you.”
It takes some minutes for Nie Huaisang to calm, to truly calm, beyond his false start of a farcical first attempt. Nie Mingjue holds him through it, and supposes he must not be doing the most terrible job of it all, if the way Nie Huaisang relaxes in his hold until he’s almost boneless is to be taken as any indication.
“Damn.” Nie Huaisang sniffs, and then wriggles a hand up between them to get between his face and Nie Mingjue’s shoulder, wiping awkwardly at his eyes without lifting his head. “Can’t believe I was almost assassinated by an incense burner. Really doing our ancestors proud, here, aren’t I?”
He muffles his laugh between his palm and Nie Mingjue’s collarbone, dipping his chin into it, but the shake of it rolls down his shoulders, reverberates through Nie Mingjue’s hands. He moves of his own accord and within his own power, slinking back in Nie Mingjue’s lap just far enough to get his own knees planted properly astride Nie Mingjue’s hips, one hand half wound around Nie Mingjue’s neck, the other rubbing more furiously at his tear-streaked face. Nie Mingjue can feel the backs of his thighs tensing from the all but passive effort required to keep himself seated more upright against the downward slope of Nie Mingjue’s lap, so he adjusts his own knees and palms at the small of Nie Huaisang’s back, letting him sink his weight back into it for more security.
Nie Mingjue only needs one hand to hold him, if that. He lets the other rise to rest on Nie Huaisang’s cheek, thumb circling gently against the crescent of his eye socket, catching a tear, rootless from the rest of the others staining his flush-hot skin.
“Can you tell me what happened, now?” Nie Mingjue asks.
Nie Huaisang starts nodding gently, head tilting, pressing his cheek against Nie Mingjue’s palm in a gesture almost imitative of a nuzzle. “Promise not to be mad, first,” he contends stiffly, despite his agreement.
“Huaisang,” Nie Mingjue chastises, coarse. He is certainly not mad, but he is not going to make the promise that he won’t be, either, if what had sent Nie Huaisang into hysterics truly ends up warranting it.
Nie Huaisang sniffs, mouth crimping, but capitulates. “I found out,” he explains, succinct. His face darkens, almost imperceptibly, eyes narrowing minutely as he wipes his mouth against the back of his hand, before taking a breath. “I realised it, how it all works, a few— a few days ago. I was going to tell you soon. I really was.”
It’s human and it is to be expected that Nie Mingjue feels the wince of something under his skin that could be betrayal, if not something close to it. Still, “I believe you,” Nie Mingjue says, because he does. Would he have done it differently, in Nie Huaisang’s place? Would he have resisted the call to take just a few more days, unchanged? Almost certainly not.
Nie Huaisang nods again, almost to himself, swallowing thickly as he bites down on his relief-born smile before it can bloom. “Ah, it was the farmhouse. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, how it was different for you, and I suppose I— I don’t know, I suspected something. I had Yongrui and Wencheng note down what they remembered of the southern village, when we passed through it, to come to here. I didn’t read them until I was there for myself, so I could properly compare. I thought, I felt as though I remembered it perfectly, but none of what it looks like, what I know, matches what either of them recalled.”
It is a sound and sensible explanation, but more than that, it is— a worry. The answer works at the expense of a revelation that Nie Huaisang may not even have meant to give to Nie Mingjue, if not one he has become so desensitised to that he no longer has a grasp on what it means, for him and for everything. Nie Mingjue always knew Nie Huaisang’s memory to be good, exceptional, detailed and precise most of all for locations. He had explained, once, when Nie Mingjue does not think his brother actually expected him to be listening, to take it as anything more than a sound accompaniment to his own work, that it helped to picture places as though he was there as he charted them. To imagine it was his body between chines and cities, to see how one might or might not be able to move with and through them.
What had happened, between then and up to now, to see him lose that perceptiveness, that sense of placement? To see him muddle and merge details, to flip them, to misplace his memories entirely?
Nie Mingjue’s memory had been and become the same, in the end, but the gradual degrade had been the fault of his decomposition to his qi deviation. Surely that was not— that it couldn’t possibly be the fault behind Nie Huaisang’s?
He does not panic. He does not panic, not as his fingers flinch across the small of Nie Huaisang’s back, not as he tenses underneath Nie Huaisang’s thighs, not as he takes a strained breath and thinks too much and too terribly for anyone’s good. “You mentioned a temple,” he says. That is something that is safe, that is something relevant, current, actionable. That, Nie Mingjue can do something with.
Nie Huaisang blinks at him, blanking. “A temple? Did I?” At Nie Mingjue’s too-terse nod, his brows knit together tightly. “I— no, it’s the inn. Twenty-four li from where we are, practically to the step. That’s where the array gates through.”
Nie Mingjue can excuse the temple for a moment of madness, then; some hapless reach for something holy while the breath and the life were being choked out of him. He can set it aside for now. “So that is it, then,” he concludes. “You called yourself the shard. When you said you walked out too far, that was into the trap in the first place?”
“The dream,” Nie Huaisang affirms. He closes his eyes and buries his face further into the basin of Nie Mingjue’s palm, turns into it so his mouth brushes his skin, so Nie Mingjue can feel the way it shapes around his breath and his every next word. “I was running. I must have come free of myself and strayed too far out. I don’t know why Yongrui and Wencheng followed, though, and not the others. Maybe they strayed too far out, too.”
He shrugs, bringing the swerve of his shoulder high enough that it grazes up the back of Nie Mingjue’s hand. He doesn’t elaborate on the dream, the running, if it was to, or from, or what, even, for. Nie Mingjue suspects it may be relevant as much as he senses it is not something he should ask.
If Nie Huaisang’s memories are intertwined with it, they cannot plan ahead. It is not a favourable position to be in, but it will have to be a tenable one.
“We’re out of time,” Nie Huaisang says, final, and that is the warning Nie Mingjue gets before the air itself shifts, in tune and in time to the tense of Nie Huaisang’s back beneath his hand, the clench of his jaw against the other. When Nie Mingjue tries to retreat, Nie Huaisang grasps his nape, whip-quick, and comes surging in between them only to stop just shy and short of crushing their mouths together, his gasp scraping Nie Mingjue’s lips.
“Da-ge,” he breathes out, eyes dark, then, damningly, “please.”
The hunger is not back, because the hunger never left. The hunger, instead, is no longer tame, or tolerable, or quietened. Nie Mingjue claws down, scratching Nie Huaisang’s back, tangling his fingers in the spidering strands of his hair where they frame his face, and snaps his teeth together before he can bring them down on the soft swell of Nie Huaisang’s bottom lip.
“Huaisang,” he hisses, all swimming heat and ravenous urgency and reluctant, failing resistance. Huaisang, he thinks, like a beg for a stay of execution. If Nie Huaisang pushes on, presses in, Nie Mingjue will consume them both. They are too close; they are no closer than they’ve ever been. And yet— he can’t take this, can he? Not here, not in this way, not when only one of them will have to live with it, after.
“Push me away,” Nie Huaisang whispers back, trembling and tender and tentative, broken open but still not bridging the final gap. “If you don’t want it, push me away, just do something. Please do something.”
“I can’t,” he grits out, closing his eyes, looking away. He can’t push him away, he could never push him away, couldn’t break him apart like that, when there’s no way to piece him back together from it. He can’t— he can’t take him, either. He wants to. Nie Huaisang is right here, and he is asking, and Nie Mingjue doesn’t know which of them he is sparing from a worse fate with his refusal, or if he’s even sparing either of them at all. Nothing exists in a state divisible from anything and everything else when it comes to him and Nie Huaisang.
“Are you going to leave me waiting for you again?” Nie Huaisang asks, bearing down, digging in, nails scraping Nie Mingjue’s neck and lips ghosting a breath closer, no longer sounding broken but something terribly beyond all of it. “That’s the cruellest thing you’ve ever done to me. You realise that, don’t you?”
“You never asked,” Nie Mingjue near growls out, helpless, all too aware of how he’s breaking down, perfectly, coming apart everywhere that Nie Huaisang knows like second nature to open him up from, and that there’s nothing left, that there’s never been anything left, ever, at all, to stall it. “Not once, Huaisang, did you ever ask—”
Nie Huaisang kisses him to cut him off, fingers twisting in his hair, and it’s vicious for all the ways it is so viced down in control and chasteness, close-mouthed and dry. For all it’s a take, he only takes that, that and no further, and he stops Nie Mingjue from taking more, too, in the second he completely blanks, blacks out, snarls into it, surges. “Because pulling away is your answer,” he snaps, kissing him again, harder, then, “you were already so far away before I realised, it was like you were already gone. I was scared for you! I didn’t know what to do!”
Nie Huaisang has long been wise to his wants, and has only grown wiser in Nie Mingjue’s absence. He seems to know exactly what to do, now. It’s not that simple, nothing is ever that simple, but perhaps it should be. Perhaps it can be. There’s no point to it, anymore, in the fact that they shouldn’t. It’s the realisation he was most repulsed from wanting to have: that he can’t hurt Nie Huaisang more by giving him what they both want and leaving him to carry it back alone than he already hurt him by dying in the first place.
There is something tenuous enough left in Nie Mingjue that he can yet muster it. “What do you want?” is how he spends it, rasping the question in a press to Nie Huaisang’s mouth, hands shaking on and around him.
“Everything,” Nie Huaisang begs, “anything, so long as it’s you, it’s only you—”
Nie Mingjue kisses him back, kisses him hard, holds him into it and makes his mouth open to the first forceful pry of his tongue against his teeth. For all it’s a wilding, ferocious thing, bruising teeth and devouring tongue and scraping, clutching hands, it’s nothing less than what they want, nothing more than what they can take. It’s as brutal and ugly as the both of them, together; it’s perfect; it’s coming home.
When Nie Huaisang tears away for breath, Nie Mingjue ensures it doesn’t get far enough down into him to settle in his chest, shoving him from his lap and lying him flat against the bed, hard enough that he judders up the wood, jerking, mouth falling open around his grunt. Nie Mingjue straddles his hips, gets one hand wrapped around nearly the whole of his throat, and Nie Huaisang’s blown-black eyes grow impossibly wider.
“Tell me what you want,” Nie Mingjue growls, demanding it while he still can, while he still has half a mind to, and he leashes his tongue before more can come spilling out, swallowing down Tell me how not to hurt you.
“I’ve told you,” Nie Huaisang replies, and Nie Mingjue feels it, feels his throat rumble with it underneath his hand and how the swallow that follows rolls down. “I’ve said it. I want everything you want to give, Da-ge. Let me show you how well I can take it.”
It’s not an answer, and they both know it: it’s a provocation. Nie Huaisang is smart enough to stay still underneath the knife of Nie Mingjue’s utter undivided attention, to move no more than to blink and breathe as Nie Mingjue rears back to kick off his boots, unbind his braids, and strip himself down with perfunctory precision. Were this happening any other way, Nie Mingjue might have taken his time to savour it, if not his part of it then absolutely the unwrapping of Nie Huaisang, but here, his brother’s robe is little more than an overindulgence, an obstacle to be outdone. There’s a pleasure to be taken, anyway, in the way Nie Huaisang shudders, hands clenching around air where they’ve been flung up to frame his face, when Nie Mingjue takes the collar of it in his hands and rips it from his chest, tearing the ties at the waist free from their stitching.
There’s still the concern, prowling underneath his skin, down around the outskirts of all of the need and desire and possessiveness, that he might go too far. Nie Mingjue knows there’s a line that rests between hurting someone and causing them pain, and he’s sure it’s a line he can tread with Nie Huaisang. His brother survived his death, after all, and survived everything that came after: what could Nie Mingjue possibly do to truly harm him, given that? What else exists that he cannot possibly endure?
He flips him onto his belly to work his arms out from the sleeves, and Nie Huaisang squirms forward, gets a few inches out from underneath Nie Mingjue to throw a flailing hand at the headboard. He raps the heel of his palm against the wood until it sounds back, hollowed out, and, fumbling under Nie Mingjue’s gaze, he pries it back just far enough to pull out a small jar, sending it skidding back towards Nie Mingjue just as Nie Mingjue takes him by the hip. One-handed, he tugs Nie Huaisang back into place beneath him, and Nie Huaisang whines in one long drag as the wood chafes his bare chest.
Nie Mingjue presses the hand on his hip down, in, under, and Nie Huaisang needs no further command than that glide of pressure to get his knees up underneath him, to arch his spine and spread his thighs until he’s bent up into the brace of Nie Mingjue’s body as he drapes it down over him. He finds Nie Huaisang’s cock already swollen thick and hanging between his legs, heavy and wet, and Nie Mingjue gives him nothing but a teasing pinch at the tip, coaxing a bead of precome from his slit and a shuddering grunt from between his teeth before he edges his hand up higher. Nie Huaisang’s quivering belly twitches beneath the slide of his palm, and when he tries to inch his hips up to dull the edge of the sensation, it ruts him into Nie Mingjue’s cock so roughly he kicks out at the bed with a startled whine, the sudden grapple of Nie Mingjue’s hand around the soft swell of his pectoral stopping him from cowering back away, flinching down to escape it.
“Oh,” Nie Huaisang pants out, hoarse, squirming as Nie Mingjue kneads his chest, rolling the peak of his nipple against his calloused palm, “Da-ge, I’m not— I’m not going to last, please, please keep going.”
The snarling, scalding heat in the pit of his gut surges, dizzying, and Nie Mingjue sags forward more under its power than his own, nosing at the curtain of Nie Huaisang’s hair until he can mouth at the shell of his ear. “Do you think,” he breathes out, teeth baring around a low growl, “that I need your permission to finish what you started, Didi?”
The shocked sound Nie Huaisang makes as he seizes up against his chest is obscene, strangled and breathy and wrecked, and Nie Mingjue feels a wet rope streak the backs of his knuckles as Nie Huaisang comes, all-but-untouched, all over his stomach and up his chest. His reaction to the threat of getting exactly what he wants from Nie Mingjue, from being broken in on his cock and used until Nie Mingjue decides he is done with him, his own body and pleasure secondary, barely even worth calling considerations — that is its own due reward. But to feel him and hear him come, just from that? It takes every scrap of Nie Mingjue’s control not to take his throat between his teeth and suck a bruising brand against his hammering pulse, to instead drag his face back to his nape and dip it low enough that the sin of it will be hidden by the collar of his robe as he marks him up with his mouth until he tastes blood on his tongue.
He pants, hard, and unlatches his teeth, lets his mouth grate over the jut of Nie Huaisang’s shoulder blade until the swim in his head subsides before he rises, tucks his face into Nie Huaisang’s neck, and lets his fingers on his chest fan out, tracing his sternum, feeling the ram of his brother’s heart as it rattles his ribs.
Nie Mingjue doesn’t even need to wonder it, now, not anymore, whether or not Nie Huaisang has ever had anyone else. The thought sends a possessive frisson of needling heat down his neck and the backs of his thighs, anyway, that someone else could have touched him first, that someone else might have ever even dared to entertain trying, but that’s all it is: a thought. He knows he hasn’t; knows without being told, because he knows Nie Huaisang, who is stubborn and selfish and spiteful, who would rather have nothing at all than settle for substandard.
“Da-ge,” Nie Huaisang whimpers, so thready and threadbare that Nie Mingjue feels it tremble through his chest from Nie Huaisang’s back more than he hears it, “please. Keep going, I want to feel it, I want to feel you—”
Nie Mingjue exhales, shuddering, and lifts his head, puts his mouth back to Nie Huaisang’s ear. “You’re going to,” he promises, ragged, rolling his hips against his ass just to feel the way it reverberates through him, full-body, until a whine stumbles out of his mouth. “I’m not done with you yet.”
For all it’s him who says it, and for all it’s Nie Huaisang who shakes and shatters just a little more apart from hearing it— Nie Mingjue can’t give if Nie Huaisang won’t take. But take Nie Huaisang does, and he takes so beautifully. He takes the gag of Nie Mingjue’s fingers, shoved in past his teeth and hooked down on his tongue; takes the second orgasm Nie Mingjue wrings out of him without even touching his cock, just from a hand pinning him down by the neck and three fingers stroking unerringly and unrelentingly over his prostate. Finally, fucked out and held up only by the rope of Nie Mingjue’s arm threaded around his chest, Nie Huaisang takes him in properly, inch by inch by aching inch, tight and hot and the perfect fit, just like Nie Mingjue knew he would be, just how Nie Mingjue tells him he is to feel him twitch weakly around the blunt breach of his cock.
“Taking me so well,” Nie Mingjue praises, ruined and raw and awed, mouth pressed to his temple, “so perfect for me.”
“Told you,” Nie Huaisang moans, slow and slurred and spent, yet with enough left in him, apparently, yet, to be smug about it, “made for you.”
He is right, but for the impertinence of saying it, Nie Mingjue drags his brother’s hand down between his legs, makes him fit his fingers around his oversensitive cock, and pins them both against Nie Huaisang’s belly beneath his broad palm. Then, he makes his rub himself between the obscene protrusion beneath his skin of Nie Mingjue’s cock as it rams into him and his own limp hand, again and again, despite every warbling cry and futile struggle, until he’s coming dry, mouth slack around a sob that’s all breath and nothing else left. When Nie Mingjue finally, finally, finally comes, it’s all Nie Huaisang can do to scratch his nails against Nie Mingjue’s thigh when his hips shift back to pull out, a wheeze of discontent pitching up from his chest.
He’s taken so much, taken everything, taken and taken until Nie Mingjue’s shaped him around his cock and sculpted him down to something narrow and animal and made to be fucked, taken until the torrent of sensation has swung out from unendurable to survivable, if barely, if only just. Nie Mingjue gives him one last thing to take, because he needs and wants it enough and can stand enough yet to reach out and ask him for it. He kisses his cheek, his eyelid, his jaw, the corner of his mouth, tells him senseless praise that Nie Huaisang won’t remember, so he barely has to think about, and grinds his softening cock shallowly inside him until Nie Huaisang gives out a ragged, broken whine, and goes still, blacks out, overwrought and overcome.
Then, and only then, does Nie Mingjue take for himself: he brings Nie Huaisang gently against his chest and cradles him with every due care, keeping him seated and stuffed full of his cock. He cleans them both up sparingly, settles in, and lets Nie Huaisang have this moment of rest, something peaceful and uncomplicated and soon to be gone.
“Did you come again?” he asks, all but voiceless, throat still wrecked despite the hours of respite meant to mend it. When Nie Mingjue shakes his head, Nie Huaisang turns his face, craning towards him, until the column of his throat is nearly curved to breaking. “Oh, Da-ge.”
He curls his fingers down, rethreading their lace through Nie Mingjue’s own, where his broad palm rests low on Nie Huaisang’s belly, cupping the bulge of his cock. Nie Mingjue can see the hint of his smile, cleaving his delicate profile, before he tightens down, thighs flexing, and wrings out a jagged hiss from Nie Mingjue’s teeth.
“I can take it,” Nie Huaisang murmurs, all cloyed heat and unrushed sweetness, “I can take you. How many times do I have to say it, before you take me seriously?” He cranes his neck just a fraction further, impossibly, and Nie Mingjue meets him over his shoulder, presses their mouths together, clumsy and perfect.
“I always take you seriously,” Nie Mingjue argues, heatless. Greedy thing, he thinks, pleased. He chases them both with the nip of his teeth, tasting the copper-tang of now-dried blood on Nie Huaisang’s skin.
Nie Huaisang sighs against him, into him, and Nie Mingjue lets him lave at his bottom lip, lets him take his hand from his belly and guide it up the slope of his hip. Then lower, lower, his knee dragging up to bend against his chest to carve out the fraction more room he needs between their bodies to coax Nie Mingjue’s fingers to graze over his rim, where he’s still stretched so wide around the breach of his cock, well-worked and hot-sensitive muscle flutter-twitching around the intrusion.
“Then fuck me again, already,” Nie Huaisang demands, breathless. “Keep using me until you come, don’t stop for anything,” and who could even want to refuse that, or hope to refuse him? Who would Nie Mingjue be, if he did not give in?
Nie Huaisang is, still and always, the most beautiful thing Nie Mingjue has ever seen, even like this, soft and fraying at his edges where Nie Mingjue’s eyes still blur with sleep. It’s the bruises that sharpen to serration first, the mars from his mouth like xun ma leaves, threaded together by the raised red lines scratched between and through them by Nie Mingjue’s blunt nails, pulled like a cloak over Nie Huaisang’s skin.
“Da-ge,” he murmurs, voice scraping out of his still-raw throat. The pads of his thumbs stroke up the jut of Nie Mingjue’s jaw, across the rasp of his stubble, and Nie Huaisang’s head tilts with a question that doesn’t follow through past his lips, hair spilling down the slope of his shoulder.
Nie Mingjue does not keep him waiting nor does he keep him wondering, letting the press of his hands down on Nie Huaisang’s hips be his answer.
Nie Huaisang’s smile is neither brilliant nor blinding, but it is beyond enough. He lets his hands brush down Nie Mingjue’s throat to flatten against the bed, bracketing him in as much as bracing his own weight. Nie Mingjue does nothing more than tilt his chin up, making Nie Huaisang bow, to and for him, until his back is a reverent arch that brings him low enough to press their lips together. It’s a hungry thing, the kiss, for all its sweet closed-mouth chasteness, but not in the way Nie Mingjue is used to, when he thinks of hunger. It’s not a scared starvation, a drive to devour all he can fit between his teeth before it’s torn away, but a safe satiety, a sureness in the sanctity that he has been seen by someone who has then chosen to stay.
It’s cruel that he’s learned it, that there can even be this gentle distinction to a thing he’s only ever known to be brutal, on the day of their second parting. But, well. Nothing about what composes and confirms he and Nie Huaisang both is not cruel, from their Dao to their duty and the death that separates them in this lifetime. It’s who they are, and it’s what they are allowed to have
Their ritual is no different for the knowledge that this will be the last time they perform it, though they take every liberty they can, for as long as they can endure before it threatens to well up overhead and spill out into something too mournful. Nie Mingjue trails his fingers from the small of Nie Huaisang’s back to the base of his nape before he collars him in place with his palm, and Nie Huaisang’s hands float back to cradle his face in turn. He feels his brother’s laugh brush against his lips; the hitch of his breath when Nie Mingjue licks into his mouth. The rock of Nie Huaisang’s hips is a slow, thoughtless undulation, a blind reach towards every harsh kiss, the scrape of Nie Mingjue’s teeth on his bottom lip, the scratch of his nails on his throat.
Nie Huaisang’s cock snubbing along his abdomen until it’s swollen thick, leaving wet streaks of precome across his skin with every sliding thrust, his whines muffled around Nie Mingjue’s tongue, is a temptation and a trap he does not resist. Nie Mingjue lets him take as much as he himself gives back, slow and soft and sweet, one hand a constant against Nie Huaisang’s neck, the other sliding beneath his legs. His fingers skim the crease where his thigh meets his ass before they curve over and press against his hole, stroking the rim as it twitches from the threat the touch carries, the promise of the pressure and pleasure of being opened up and filled.
He can’t take that much time with it, he knows. If they had another day, he would give Nie Huaisang something more alike what he deserves, would pull him from his lap and pin him to the bed, hips raised up as if to ready him to be bred. Would sink down between his spread legs and lick him open, stubble scraping against his skin until it's rubbed pink and hot and raw. Until he’s come from that and no other touch, crying beautifully, clenching tightly down on his tongue. But he can’t entertain even the breathless fantasy of it all for too long. That would be the start of the end of them: it would not stop at one day more. It would not stop at all.
It’s safe enough, though, for Nie Mingjue to open his brother back up on one finger, then two, then three, the stretch and the glide made easier by the slick of his come still left inside from hours before. Safe enough to crook them so that they drag hard along his prostate as Nie Huaisang fucks himself down on his hand with no help from Nie Mingjue save the praise he croons against his cheek. Safe enough to think of how else he could make Nie Huaisang sob and sob and come, his straining, flushed red cock untouched, as he does here, after too-long minutes that pass far too quickly.
“You too?” Nie Huaisang breathes out, shaky, against his neck, once he’s slumped slack and spent against Nie Mingjue’s chest. Nie Mingjue just presses a kiss into his hair, then steals away another three, before he gingerly rolls him over onto the sheets and stands up.
“So, no?” is what Nie Huaisang resumes with when he returns, wash basin in hand. He does not sound disappointed, and leans readily into the damp cloth with a sigh, eyes fluttering shut, when Nie Mingjue presses it against his throat. He could push it, they both know. He could branch his hand between the both of them and close his fingers around Nie Mingjue’s half-hard cock, and Nie Mingjue would fail to deny him that due, but he doesn’t, acquiescing instead to Nie Mingjue’s hands as he dabs the sweat and come from every stretch of his skin. Nie Mingjue does not need to take more pleasure than he already has from having Nie Huaisang come apart so wonderfully in his hands, and there’s an understanding that neither of them needs to give voice to that there is no time left for it, now, not anymore.
Nie Huaisang picks up his guan from the bed beside them, later, after Nie Mingjue does not hand it to him, and the second disruption to their routine is when Nie Mingjue catches him by the wrist before he can slip around to press up against his back.
“You should take it,” he says, and Nie Huaisang glances away, the twist of his mouth hinting at something rueful behind the brief grit of his teeth.
“I don’t need it,” he says, when he looks back. “Our coffers aren’t so empty that they’ll miss the cost of commissioning a new one from a silversmith.”
It’s a deliberate diversion, a dance around the real point of contention in the matter, and Nie Mingjue does not let him have it. “It was a gift.”
Nie Huaisang does bend, at that, his expression softening, but he does not break. “Then I’m gifting it back.”
When he turns his wrist in the circle of Nie Mingjue’s fingers, he finds the give he seeks in the grip, and pulls himself free. Nie Mingjue lets him leave to kneel up behind him, gathers his hair from its spill over his shoulders and brushes it back towards Nie Huaisang’s roaming hands, and leaves well enough alone for that.
The last disruption comes late into it, at the end, when Nie Huaisang does not move to dress but instead goes down to his table, wets his inkstone, and takes the one-misplaced inkstick from its case. When it grinds, the ink comes away red as blood, and he dips his brush in it before he pauses, free hand flitting to drift absently along his collarbone.
“Da-ge.” He looks up. “Can you come and hold my hair for me?”
Nie Mingjue finishes latching his belt, steps over, and takes the loose strands up in both hands, lifting them away from Nie Huaisang’s bare back. He hums his thanks as he leans back towards Nie Mingjue’s chest, dips his chin, and swipes the bristles of the brush down his chest, painting a swooping line from the flat of his belly down to the dip of his hip. There is enough ink for another sprawling stroke, this time across, a swirling handle on the soft swell of his pectoral that sinks down and slopes around, bridging the fan of his ribs across the drop of his sternum, before it swings back up on the other side of his chest.
Nie Huaisang is careful not to smudge the ink as he stretches his arm down to wet his brush, and Nie Mingjue watches him, recognising even from his lofty angle, Shouxing, the house for the sigil he is filling in on his skin. Nie Mingjue can smell the herbs on the ink, circumventing the need for incense as part of the empowerment process. It’s all no small feat, at that, made all the more difficult for how Nie Huaisang is drawing without the aid of a mirror.
“Has it been a year since you last saw your reflection, as well?” Nie Mingjue asks, after some consideration. Nie Huaisang stiffens against him for only a second before the tension breezes out of him alongside his huffed laugh.
“No, that part is newer,” he admits. The confession is a casual one, considering the gravity of its implications. “You know. Roam not in dreams,” he flicks his wrist as he recites, slashing red ink across his belly and then stabbing down, “see not your self reflected in mirrors or water,” he begins to fill in the frame of the house between his chest and the break across his middle with short clipped strokes and curling lines before he lifts the brush away, “relinquish the power of cognition, and you will be elevated to enlightenment.”
Nie Huaisang punctuates the end of it with a breath that pulls the canvas of his skin taut against his ribcage, and rounds his shoulders back, straightening his spine, pointedly perfecting his posture to protect the sigil. Adjust yin. He shivers, minutely, as the backs of Nie Mingjue’s knuckles ghost across his nape when he adjusts his hold on his hair.
“Cultivate immortality,” Nie Mingjue summarises, and Nie Huaisang’s hair shifts through his fingers, soft as silk, as he nods his head.
“Hard not to wonder what is meant by it,” Nie Huaisang says, “when the symbology is so blatant. But that’s why I was fairly convinced, at first, that the dreaming state was trying to construct itself like a trial. It sets the scene, doesn’t it?” He tosses a glance over his shoulder to Nie Mingjue, at that, the corner of his mouth hooking upward with his smile. “All that was missing was Heaven’s protest. Then you came.”
Nie Mingjue has to swallow, and think, and breathe, before he replies. “Is that what you thought I was?”
Nie Huaisang looks away, head jerking sharply with it, as though he has to take his eyes off Nie Mingjue not so much to continue with his sigil, but because he does not believe he can survive seeing him while he answers. “Well,” he says, voice tight, “I certainly felt like the sky had split open, when I first saw you.”
He wets his brush, and starts anew on his sigil, this time in the bell bracketing his belly. “But no,” he concludes, after a wait, several long breaths that stretch out endlessly between in the silence that has ensued from his rending revelation, “I don’t think I ever really believed that was why you were brought here.”
For all the lower sigil is more elaborate, he seems to be done with it far quicker than the first. It isn’t one that is familiar to Nie Mingjue, though he can, at least, comprehend the core intent of it: evade.
“But you know, now,” Nie Mingjue says, even as he feels himself resist it, feels a revulsion ripple beneath his skin with the thought of hearing an answer he cannot hope to unhear, “why I was.”
Nie Huaisang turns his head back to look at him again, neck craning to the very extent of its limit before it crosses the line between straining and snapping. “No,” he tells Nie Mingjue, and it is with complete honesty and utter irreproachability. “I could guess, but not with any certainty. I do know that it was because of me, though.”
It is not as though Nie Mingjue can comfort him, at that, or tell him otherwise. There is no doubt or question that it is true. He may not have set the array himself, but for the purposes of its empowerment, Nie Huaisang is its engineer, the directional force with which all other elements are elaborated and warped. Nie Mingjue is here because he is what Nie Huaisang both guards and regards highest against all things else, worldly or otherwise. It’s not his brother’s hand that pulled him from Diyu, but it was certainly his will.
“I’m glad,” Nie Huaisang says, selfishly, “that it happened.”
Nie Mingjue brushes Nie Huaisang’s hair back out against his neck and shoulders, soft, and lets that be his reply. He can’t say that he’s glad, too; that this and all of it was worth the world even if it means he’s been pulled from the cycle in exchange. But he thinks it, and they both know it, and that will do.
“Don’t be afraid,” Nie Mingjue has to say, when he sees Nie Huaisang’s slim shoulders start to shake beneath the silk of his inner robe as he slips it over his skin. “I’ll protect you.”
Nie Huaisang does not look back up at him, setting his attention to sliding his arms through the sleeves of his middle robes instead, but there is a smile in his voice when he speaks that isn’t solely sad. “How could I be scared of anything, with my da-ge here?”
And, well. That is but another thing that must be left alone to lie where it falls: how Nie Huaisang truly does have nothing to fear in that respect, but everything to lose in all others. That is where the terror thrashes against its manacles; that is the threat Nie Mingjue cannot protect him from, but can only enable and enact.
It says something to the circularity of departures that, today, on the last morning, they dress just as they did on the first. Nie Mingjue, to die again in the garb he’s bled through once before; Nie Huaisang in the clean black denoting the beginning of his unclarity. Without his guan, the shape is not quite right, his silhouette not quite befitting his status as Sect Leader, but every other piece plays its part: rich, layering silks, embroidered silver koi scale patterned middle robes, lapels and cuffs stitched with the swirling white phoenix feather-flames of Qinghe Nie.
The map stays unrolled on the table, along with all of Nie Huaisang’s scrawled and scrunched up notes. He takes only what is needed, only what he means to keep; the rest serves no further purpose.
“Da-ge,” Nie Huaisang says, small, catching him by the wrist at the threshold of the door. It’s the last step they need to take to end this part of everything, and start what must be done next. It fills Nie Mingjue with a damning, dooming dread; with his heart already sitting flat in the back of his mouth, all but choking him, it’s not a foolish fear to worry that Nie Huaisang will abuse the weakness in the blood he scents on the air. That he’ll ask for something he should not ask for, and Nie Mingjue will grant it gladly and ruin the both of them.
He watches Nie Mingjue for a moment, and Nie Mingjue watches him. Then, Nie Huaisang shakes his head, smiles a complicated smile, and lets go of him. “Ah, no,” he amends, a gentle relent, “nevermind.”
“Huaisang,” Nie Mingjue says. He doesn’t say more, not You can ask for anything and not I promise; he’s already said too much.
“It’s all right.” His smile says otherwise. Beneath Nie Mingjue’s watch, Nie Huaisang draws his fan out from his sash, a simple strip of black that he’s foregone his better belt for, and flips it open to veil his jaw with the leaf. “I don’t need to ask it, Da-ge. You’ll do it when the time comes. Shall we?”
He gestures to the door with his free hand, head tilting, and Nie Mingjue unbars the way for them as directed. Already, down by the gate, they are awaited; Jia Wencheng and Yu Yongrui both at a clear ease that fades out into a militant attentiveness as they see the tells of something dire on each of their expressions.
Nie Huaisang does not even need to tell either of his men anything, then, in the end. It’s clear to Nie Mingjue, just from this, that they will follow Nie Huaisang down into the long dark is a given long before he asks.
He gives them what he has, anyway. Nie Huaisang is prompt with his explanations, precise with his instructions, and practical with his presumptions. Nie Mingjue has not needed any convincing, not for some time, that Nie Huaisang has grown tall as much as he has gone astray, if not more so. Still, it is— it is—
Nie Mingjue is grateful that Nie Huaisang has remembered Nie Mingjue’s promises, and has seen fit to fulfil them where Nie Mingjue failed. That he still thinks of the brothers they lost to their ancestral halls, in some small way, and honours their loss by not asking for blind, unwitting sacrifice from the brothers that have followed on and beyond their footsteps. He’s clear with Jia Wencheng and Yu Yongrui in every way but saying it bluntly that he is asking for them to die, if it so comes to it. To bleed for him, almost certainly, but not simply because it is their obligation to him to do so.
“Sect Leader,” Yu Yongrui says, when Nie Huaisang has nothing more to say for himself, “we will scout ahead, and meet you on the road later.” When he and Jia Wencheng salute to them both, it is obeisance; it is not a farewell, though this is the lone opportunity they have to make it one.
Nie Mingjue considers it and them both as they go, permitted the transient reflection by Nie Huaisang’s tentative hesitance to set out after them. There are many things that he has been shown that, only now, when they are no longer relevant or serviceable, are starting to make sense.
“You chose them not for their skills, but because they understand you,” Nie Mingjue remarks. He rolls the lanyard of Nie Huaisang’s sabre absently between his fingers, for want of a sensation on his hand other than that of his sweat-damp palm wrapped around the scabbard.
Nie Huaisang’s face is still turned towards his departing men, fan drifting lazily down his throat, but his gaze is set on Nie Mingjue at his side, eyes still and clear beneath the swoop of his dark lashes. “No-one is able to completely understand another person, Da-ge,” he says. It’s neither cruel nor kind, simply— an observation, devoid of opinion. “But there’s something to be said for those who keep their eyes open and try.” He sighs, and it does nothing to hide the shiver that has begun to slither through his fingers, the tremble of his bottom lip. “They’re good men.”
They are. Nie Huaisang has done well with them; has done well with their sect. Nie Mingjue would tell him as much, if only it did not seem as if it would snap the wretched thread of tension tying Nie Huaisang’s broken and breaking parts together. The hand he extends between them is no less dangerous, but Nie Mingjue must give Nie Huaisang something for his woeful quiet, and pray it comes across as comfort. The something he gives is the curl of his fingers through the crook of his elbow, where he has his other arm bent to tuck against his back. He thumbs at where the creases in his sleeve crumple like cragged cliffs, and squeezes when Nie Huaisang sinks down, settling into it. He holds him there, for long and longer minutes, until Nie Huaisang’s delay gives way to decisiveness, and Nie Mingjue feels the pull in his grip of Nie Huaisang trying to slip free and forward of it.
They are not in excess of so much time that they can thoughtlessly spare it, but when their choices are to hurry at the cost of energy, or conserve it and become harried, the latter’s prudence countermands the former’s promptness. That it caves to their clinging and gives them but a final bit more of one another’s company, both as two and then, further down the road, as four, well. What is the glimmer of an hour, when held up against the gleam of weeks, cast over the sun of a lifetime?
It is a novelty that anything here can be new at all, let alone the absence of, but it is, if nothing else, the day for it. Though they can see the whole scene of the southern village, set on the horizon before them, none of the sounds from the life that once beat in its chest sweep out to them on the wind. It unpicks the way Nie Mingjue has stitched his body around and atop the old unease and brings it back to the brink of his skin to bleed freely. He does not miss the way Nie Huaisang puts away his fan; slow, almost a performance, an elaborate exaggeration and emphasis of each shift of his hands, ensuring they know the blows of the sounds it makes will come well before they actually land.
The inn sits in the same place in all of their waking recollections, but only Nie Mingjue and Nie Huaisang know how to navigate the way Nie Huaisang’s warped memory has wound the other buildings around one another, has weaved the pathways and wrecked the boundaries. It is not a long trip. The inn looks no different; an all the more insidious depiction given how the village has been gutted of its false life around it.
Their evaluation is not a long one. “Burn it,” Nie Huaisang commands, cutting to the quick. An extreme call, but not excessive: there’s no need for finesse when it will only likely be to their detriment. Better to put it all to flame and see what rises from the ashes.
Nie Huaisang steps back, steps away from Nie Mingjue’s side, arms folding behind his back. There is no need for him to do anything but observe the three of them as they shape the sigils to summon flame, to conserve his own feeble reserve of energy. It does not take long for the fire to catch, to burn into a blaze and then scream into an inferno; it does not take long for it to grow molten enough and for its orange-red maw to stretch wide enough that they have to step back to join him to escape the heat, sweat a chilling needle-prick where it has risen up against their skin.
For long moments, it seems as if nothing happens, nothing but the billow of black smoke blooming up into the sky and the splinter-crack of wood. Then, as is the nature of all things of this nurture, everything happens all at once; the tide turns, and the sky overhead seems to sag down on them as the ground beneath them shudders, though none of them are shifted an inch.
Nie Huaisang grabs Nie Mingjue’s sleeve, for the briefest of breaths; the desperate clutch of his fingers reaching for reassurance in one second, ripping themselves away empty-handed in the next. Nie Mingjue can only yield to the urgency of their predicament, forsaking his own yearning to reach back, to offer the comfort Nie Huaisang did not manage to abscond with.
He does not think he could describe how the whole vision, how everything seems to— shatter, around them, in places, growing sheer and shimmery in others. Not well, and not accurately. It does not defy explanation so much as it defies everything. He draws his sabre, as do Jia Wencheng and Yu Yongrui, their steps leading them to take position in a loose circle where Nie Huaisang is their apparent centre.
The fire finds its mark, in amongst its rapid and ravenous consumption, within mere more minutes: the moment it must get its mouth on whatever it is that is making the array stick, everything spins, and then the sun plummets, suspending them in utter darkness so suddenly that their collective heaves of stunned breath are all Nie Mingjue can hear in the swim of his own pulse in his head.
The light returns as their eyes adjust to the gloam, heralded by an inhuman growl, three-voiced and pitched low to the ground. This— it— defies everything, too. Nie Huaisang’s half-mad, half-choked rambling about a temple that he later retracted on the return of his sense— he was right. Nie Mingjue can see the stone, worn back and cracked, through the few spaces the beast does not spill into, with its bent back pinned to the high-flung ceiling.
It is as massive as it is monstrous; too many blunt teeth in a bronze-cut jaw, beast-faced and bird-clawed and everything between, churning across and through its body, fur and scale and feather and metal, almost, Nie Mingjue can only wonder, for how its sheen dances under the dim light of the sunlight that is streaming through in snatches of no traceable origin.
Nie Mingjue blinks, and the beast’s head snaps towards him in an instant, lumbering, its thick throat almost dragging along the floor. Two of its eyes blink back at him, slow, each filmy lid slicking over its eyeballs one after the other.
The third eye, embedded in the crevasse that cleaves through the middle of its black-plumed skull, twitches in its socket. Then, it swivels, bulges, until the protrusion of the bone-white blind orb has angled itself to face down on Nie Huaisang. Nie Mingjue feels fear frisson through him, and flings his left arm up, instinctual, scabbard turned on its side in his hand, to shield Nie Huaisang; to guide him further back and in until he’s covered and concealed by the bulwark of his body.
The beast doesn’t move. Nie Mingjue doesn’t think he even breathes, not until pain lances through his chest and he inhales with shock.
“It’s trapped,” Jia Wencheng observes, and though it is no louder than a whisper, it carries and cuts through as though it is a wail. The beast’s claws flex against the friction-sanded stone underneath it, and another growl gurgles in the back of its throat as its lips pull back into a snarl.
So are we, Nie Mingjue thinks. Then, It understands us.
Nie Huaisang must realise it as he does, if the stutter of his shallowly-strung breath is any indication. “Da-ge,” he says, terse, but not trying for subtlety. “Do you feel it, too?”
Nie Mingjue doesn’t know what it is, what Nie Huaisang might mean it to be, but it is more expedient to shake his head in answer than it is to pry his jaw open from its tense clench and ask his own questions.
“Incredible,” Nie Huaisang breathes out, “impossible.” Then, “Immortals, can none of you actually feel it? We need to spread out, right now. This is a Shenshou.”
Nie Mingjue feels his head start to snap towards the sound of Nie Huaisang’s voice, has to force himself to stop before he tears his gaze free of the beast. The stall jolts through his jaw and down his neck, jarring it harsh enough that it throbs out, sore, for long seconds after. A Divine Beast? In Qinghe? Incredible, indeed; but, impossible, certainly?
Nie Huaisang sounds unshakeably sure of himself, and he would not exaggerate here. Not with lives in the balance. Not when the only reapable reward for the risk is the instillment of fear. He has augmented his preternatural abilities with the sigil on his skin, but even without it, he has always had an attunement for the make and mettle of things. Can any of them justify an underestimation, here, anyway, should it turn out that his claim is unreliable?
“Go slow,” Nie Huaisang commands. “Let it move first.”
There is nowhere, in actuality, to go; the few paces any of them can take behind them to bring their backs to the walls will not take them out of the arc of any slung claws or its snapping maw. There is nowhere that Nie Mingjue wants to go, when it means to separate him from Nie Huaisang, who should stay at his side— who needs to be sent away from it.
The white third eye follows only Nie Huaisang in a morbid, muddled march. The beasts other two eyes, seeing, dart frantically between the other three of them, its cramped body tensing in its already taut, aggravated clutch.
“Look at you,” Nie Huaisang jeers under his breath, the line of his mouth warping out from underneath the derision that sets itself down over his focus-fraught features. Nie Mingjue almost snaps at him for the sheer stupidity of it, of taunting it, of all things— but he stops himself even before he notices that the beast doesn’t react. Its ears flick against its skull, but that could be as much for the scuff of their boots as it could be from Nie Huaisang’s scorn.
“How long do you think it has been here, cultivating like this, to grow so big?” Nie Huaisang asks aloud.
“People go missing every year, Sect Leader,” is Yu Yongrui’s grimly pragmatic reply, from the furthermost left of the temple. “More than we could hope to count.”
“Fuck,” Jia Wencheng swears, a suitable omen for the second that swiftly follows it when the beast rounds on him and swings. He drops to his knees and tumbles underneath it, and the beast screeches, tri-pitched, ear-splitting, the buck of its haunches sending debris down in a shower across them.
Time stops; starts; moves all at once. Nie Mingjue can only move with it, can only act in the now with his body, and comprehend with the mind later. The beast can’t truly bear down on them, not without bringing the temple to bear down on them all in turn, but they can’t do much against it but weave around its blows, denied the room to turn its force back against it.
It doesn’t seem, still, to be paying any heed to Nie Huaisang. That does not mean Nie Huaisang is safe.
The beast takes a beating, but does not start bleeding. Nie Mingjue feels the recoil of the force of his swings ricocheting back through him, feels as much as sees his sabre sink through muscle and clip bone, but no blood. No blood wells to the surface, and when he blinks, when he happens to look again— any sundered sinew is stitched back over, whole anew. It feels as if it is an age before Nie Mingjue’s mind latches onto it; it feels as if it’s too late by the time he realises it. He means to warn the rest of them, but Nie Huaisang is swifter, clearly having seen it for himself, too, that nothing they’ve done is making any difference.
“Just distract it!” Nie Huaisang shouts. Nie Mingjue doesn't expect it to sound out from the direction it does, and that is how he learns that he can’t actually see Nie Huaisang anymore, can’t catch sight of him even when he risks a glance around. Even the creature’s third eye can’t seem to track where he is in the temple; instead, it darts and rolls in its socket, frantic, circling nauseatingly. Panic plummets through him like a stone kicked into a pond, and there is nothing he can do to placate it.
Nie Huaisang surfaces after seconds, darting out from the dark behind the beast’s heavy-bent hock, a dull flurry streaking across Nie Mingjue’s periphery. “Da-ge!” is the warning Nie Mingjue gets, before blue flame bursts up from beneath Nie Huaisang’s feet and he is across the temple in an instant, colliding with Nie Mingjue’s chest with all the momentum as if he was still running for his life.
Nie Mingjue feels the way Nie Huaisang’s breath slams out of him on impact, and he has to discard the scabbard in his left hand to catch his brother gracelessly around the back before he falls back and collapses in a crumpled heap. It gives Nie Huaisang leverage enough to wrap his legs around Nie Mingjue’s waist, and then he’s slanting the centre of his weight sideways, swinging the underside of his arm up against the single-edged side of Nie Mingjue’s sabre and following it with his fingers in quick succession, slicing open his skin and spilling the first blood of the encounter.
Nie Mingjue flinches at the sing of it against the blade, the heavy wet splatter that slaps the stone soon after, but holds steady as Nie Huaisang then bends himself further back against his arm, bringing it down with him until he’s planted a palm on the ground and drawn something in his own blood with a sloppy flourish. Nie Mingjue hauls him back up when he feels Nie Huaisang’s thighs clench against him, and his brother is already starting to pale when he’s again upright, sweat freckling his skin, eyes blown wild and black and hair starting to unravel from the loosened ribbon bundling his braids together.
“Quick,” he pants, “throw me back!” He’s already drawing his knees up to his chest, hands clawing down on Nie Mingjue’s shoulders, and Nie Mingjue unwinds his arm from Nie Huaisang’s back to bring the flat of his palm up to meet his feet. He springs off just as Nie Mingjue sends energy through him, and hits the ground seconds later almost as far back as he first started, hard, rolling into it and then up from it in a clumsy surge. No way that Nie Huaisang moves can be said to be done with grace: there is little rhyme and less reason in the way he seems to choose to race off, staggering to a halt to smear another sigil in-between stolen breaths before he moves again. He simply moves as if he knows he needs to, and he is doing just enough of it to survive.
Nie Mingjue loses track of him again, after that; has to, attention whipping back to parry an errant slam of a scale-gnarled foot. He trusts that Nie Huaisang knows what it is that he is doing, wherever it is he must be doing it; he does not trust himself that he can endure letting Nie Huaisang do it, hurt by the process of it, for long as it will take for them to see this task through to either one of its ends. For all his protestations and for his weak cultivation, Nie Huaisang is a model disciple in theory, and able to wield his body when and where it counts.
It can’t have been more than minutes when something shifts, again, and the underlying wire of tension beneath the straining cords humming through the temple just— snaps. Suddenly, the beast’s eyes dart to follow where its third eye is straining in its socket to follow Nie Huaisang, and then the rest of it coils to follow, swinging around within the grave of its own making.
Nie Mingjue thinks it might be Jia Wencheng who shouts, wordless, or even him, or all of them, at once; each of them are too far away to do anything, and Nie Mingjue is the furthest of them all. Even if he broke formation, severed their flow, he would not cross in time, and so he can only watch, instead, as Nie Huaisang’s head swings up to track the way the beast’s claw swings down. The sight blurs, overlaps; Nie Mingjue sees him get struck, the sight stretched across something else, the shade of Nie Huaisang ripping his outer robe off his shoulders and sliding free of it before sprinting out of range. The robe falls to the ground, heavy as lead, crumpling like a body, and the two visions merge back together: the beast’s claw embedded in the rock, torn silk tangled up in its talons; Nie Huaisang rounding around its side, tendrils of dark smoke wisping out from his belly from underneath his middle robes.
“You know what I’m doing, don’t you?” he hears Nie Huaisang shout, strangled. “I see you, false god!”
Nie Mingjue sees his opening, just as Nie Huaisang barrels out from behind the back legs of the beast, the creature’s roars severing into enraged screams as it begins to buck its shelled back against the ceiling, again and again, frantically trying to dislodge the roof itself and bring the temple crashing down atop them all. Whatever Nie Huaisang is doing, whatever only it and his brother know he is doing— it’s apparently enough for it to decide they all need to die before it happens. He starts to move to his left, meaning to meet Nie Huaisang in some sort of half way, put his body to him, do something—
“I see you for what you are, coward!” Now that he’s closer, now that he is getting closer, Nie Mingjue can see how Nie Huaisang’s teeth are bared through his snarl, how his face is red with more than just his exertion. “Do you really think you can bring your temple down in time to stop me?!”
He goes to his knees, arches his back as if in sufferance and supplication, face veering towards Nie Mingjue as he notices him out of the corner of his eyes. “Don’t!” Nie Huaisang snaps, face naked with fear at Nie Mingjue’s closeness to him, a hand flying up from his side to warn him away. “You can’t!”
Nie Mingjue stops, obeys, even as everything in him rails against it, rages to keep moving. Even when he sees Nie Huaisang’s reason for it, even when he realises why he can’t, why Nie Huaisang would tell him he can’t at all, he still fights with himself, fear swelling and surging, sickening, fogging his head and choking him around the neck.
The beast is too slow, has doomed itself with its own gluttonous gorging; even forsaking any care for keeping the temple upright around them, it still can’t outpace Nie Huaisang. It can’t swing its head around before Nie Huaisang digs his fingers into his sliced open wrist, urging out fresh blood to slick his fingers through gritted teeth before he tears his middle and inner robes open wide enough at the neck to reach his chest. With a few clipped strokes, Amplify yin morphs, maladapts to Exert.
“The moment it’s out,” Nie Huaisang yells, nearly incoherent in his stained rush to get it out through a ripped-raw throat in an ailing voice, “go for its gut, cut everything free! Don’t stop until it’s empty, no matter what happens to me!”
He doesn’t wait for them to assent, secure as he must be in the knowledge that they’ll do what he says no matter how little they agree with it. Nie Huaisang slams his bloodied hands down against the ground, slashes at the stone with the heels of his palms in broad strokes, and activates the array he’s caged the Shenshou in with. Immediately, defencelessly, Nie Mingjue thinks of the binding from their sabre halls, from the way Nie Huaisang’s blood, strewn throughout the temple, shapes itself into ropes that then lunge out, snagging the beast around the hinge of its jaw, its throat, its limbs.
It’s not a nonsensical thought, he realises, after immense seconds, as the ropes start to sink in without opening the skin up around their intrusion: it is the binding from their sabre halls. But much like anything else Nie Huaisang gets his hands around, it is different, reshaped and remade for his own suitability to something more, something worse.
The beast roars, all three voices in deafening fever-pitch, and somewhere beneath it, half-suffocated, Nie Huaisang’s voice joins it, his own scream indistinguishable from one of anger or caused by anguish.
Nie Mingjue can’t hear it, not through the shattering, all-subsuming screeching, but he can imagine it, how it must sound, as he watches the beast’s body start to split apart, sever from its outer skin, the real shape of it sluicing to the floor. It’s still monstrous and mangled and massive, sopping with its own blood and its shredded sinew, more ropes emerging to snare its limbs; to string it out and bare its bulging, misshapen belly, to hold it wide and on display, meat to meet their blades.
It bleeds, now, when Nie Mingjue’s sabre swings through it, carving a gape from its cracked-open breastbone downward, and the smell is— the smell is rotten, melting flesh and bile and rot, as its belly bursts open and the spoiled contents start to spill out. Bodies, body after body of the dead that have decomposed but have not been digested. Nie Mingjue does not choke on it, the sight and the smell and the way it ravages his every sense, but he hears someone else, distant and far away, splutter and retch, wet and nauseated. Nie Mingjue steels himself, sucks in a breath through his mouth, and then sinks his arm into the hilt of his shoulder. Claws his hand around the first deep-swallowed thing his fingers learn the shape of, digs his heels in, and pulls.
He no longer hears Nie Huaisang screaming so much as he hears the precise, horrifying moment that he stops, when his voice breaks around it and his mouth must be left hanging open, left wide around the silence. Nie Mingjue doesn’t look. He has been told not to stop, and if he looks, he will, so he keeps going, gets his second arm in alongside the first, yanks and yanks until every corpse down to the dismembered limb has been fed back out and thrown down to the floor around them.
The moment Yu Yongrui drags out a too-small body, the bones of it bundled up in its own ratty clothes like a shroud, the Shenshou breathes out, once, whining, wrecked. Its claws twitch miserably, clacking against the stone, and then it is still, the ropes holding it down falling slack, then falling away.
The sound that follows, a limp body hitting the ground, reverberates. Nie Huaisang’s winded laugh is a terribly weak thing, but it’s not a last breath, for all it sounds wrapped up and wound in agony. Nie Mingjue doesn’t register that he moves, and he doesn’t need to, not when it means he’s found himself at Nie Huaisang’s side within instants, all three of them coming to kneel where Nie Huaisang is on his back, limp, soaked through in blood that can only be his.
It takes seconds Nie Mingjue does not want to spare, but he strips his outer robe away and wipes his hands clean as best he can on it before he reaches down to touch Nie Huaisang’s throat, to put his fingers to his pulse and feel for himself how it still thrums. The whites of his eyes are speckled with blood when he opens them; clots of it are caught in his eyelashes, streaking down his cheeks, his lips from his nose, his chin from his mouth.
“You all survived,” he manages to croak out, smile crooked, “good job.”
“Sect Leader,” Jia Wencheng murmurs, wary with worry, and Nie Mingjue sees as Yu Yongrui reaches out from against his side to press his own fingers to the underside of Nie Huaisang’s wrist.
Nie Mingjue sees Nie Huaisang’s lips purse, sees the slight protrusion of his cheeks, and angles his head to the side gently before the first sputter comes tearing out through his teeth, helps clear the path for the blood in his chest to make its way out onto the floor.
“Ugh,” Nie Huaisang complains, when he can finally come back up for air, then, “I’m okay.” Nie Mingjue is sure that’s not entirely true, for how he’s already favouring parts of himself, even still as he is against the ground; how he’s starting to cringe in on himself. His left shoulder is almost certainly dislocated, for where it is bent oddly at his side, the joint noticeably severed and stretched from the socket even beneath his sleeve.
“It’s dispelling,” Nie Huaisang confirms what they’re all beginning to feel, even Nie Mingjue, somewhere settled deep past sense and indescribable. “Ah, give it some minutes.” Then, inclining his head vaguely, he adds, voice softer, barer, “Please.”
Jia Wencheng and Yu Yongrui nod their understanding and rise to their feet. It is not as if they can give them much privacy, here; it is not as if they can stop themselves from overhearing anything they have to say to one another. But it seems to put Nie Huaisang to some slight semblance of ease, to see them turn their backs on them both, to watch them walk away.
Nie Mingjue helps him sit upright, as gently as he can, mindful of his arm, which jostles a hiss out of him when it sags to his side in a too-low hang. When he goes to let his hand fan over it, ghosting above the silver scaled silk, to see if he can at least blunt the edge of the pain— no spiritual energy rises to the fore of his fingers. A step backward and a look inward confirms Nie Mingjue’s suspicions: without the beast, he is left without, too.
“You did well,” Nie Mingjue whispers, and that brings a smile to Nie Huaisang’s lips, albeit a wry one.
“Only well?” His face crumples, eyes squeezing shut; the humour he’s trying to cover himself with falling flat.
He is— beautiful. What a thing to think, here and now, but it is no less true for being tactless. Nie Huaisang is so very beautiful, blood-soaked and pale and jagged with something trembling and tentative and vicious, and he is his.
“You were incredible,” he emends. “A Shenshou, Huaisang.” He has to catch his breath when it hitches, the true weight of it starting to sink in, press him down. A Divine Beast, in Qinghe, and Nie Huaisang slew it without a sabre in his hand, without losing a single man. “I could not be more proud of you.”
Nie Mingjue trails his hovering hand away from Nie Huaisang’s injured shoulder and lets it settle on his chest, instead, the bared ink-smeared skin framed by his crumpled robes. His fingers sprawl across the fan of his ribs, the bridge of his sternum, and take in the quickened, shallow ebb-flow of his every breath, as if to commit it to some memory he only now remembers he will not actually keep.
“Ah, it’s done.” Nie Huaisang breathes out, lets his head bow, chin dipping to his clavicle. He blinks, slow, as his gaze joins Nie Mingjue’s on his hand, settled on his skin. Settled over the marks Nie Mingjue has left on him, the marks that cannot be mistaken for anything but what they are, the marks his men have now seen. They both see it together, how it seems as though Nie Mingjue’s hand is losing its shape, its lustre, like a glimpse of a reflection within muddy water.
“It’s done,” Nie Huaisang croaks, voice cracking. His chest shudders underneath Nie Mingjue’s fingers. “It’s not fair.”
It’s not. “I know,” Nie Mingjue hushes him, “I know.”
“I can’t do this again,” Nie Huaisang admits. Though the sob curling up his throat tinges it with something grieving, it does not sound broken, for all the words are themselves breaking. It merely sounds— empty. As though there is nothing left to break.
“You can, Huaisang.” It doesn’t utterly ruin Nie Mingjue to say. He survives it, somehow, if not worse off for it.
Something dark flashes across Nie Huaisang’s eyes, beneath the cloudy film of burgeoning, unshed tears and the red gleam of his blood. His one good hand surges up between them, fists itself in the neck of Nie Mingjue’s robe, the clutch of it furious and desperate and shaking. “Nie Mingjue,” he heaves, and it’s a blow unto itself for how it leaves his mouth, seething and sepulchral, “I am telling you—”
He bites down on his lip to stop himself, hard enough to draw blood, fresh pinpricks of it welling up to spot across the swollen red, abraded skin. “I don’t want this,” he whispers instead, hoarse, fraying, “I don’t want any of this to be the last thing I say, but I am so, I am so angry—”
Nie Mingjue quiets him with the brush of his hand up his throat, feels the bob of Nie Huaisang’s swallow against the heel of his palm. Nie Huaisang’s breath starts to come harder, straining, the higher his touch rises, until at last it slams out with a wail, when Nie Mingjue threads his fingers through his mussed hair and turns his face in, hides him against the crook of his neck.
“I’m here,” he murmurs, pressing the words against his hair like they’re a prayer and Nie Huaisang’s acknowledgement of them is their absolution. “You were perfect, Didi, you did so well. You can let go, now. I have you.”
“Please,” Nie Huaisang mouths against his neck, blood-smeared lips quivering, his hand fisting impossibly tighter in Nie Mingjue’s robe. “I don’t want— please.”
Nie Mingjue embraces him as tightly as he can without hurting him more than he already has, than he needs to. He hushes him, he rubs his back, and he presses kisses into his hair, against his brow; bringing all the gentleness he and Nie Huaisang can endure to bear on his brother’s body. Nie Huaisang begs him, and Nie Mingjue holds him to him and holds himself back in turns, holds and holds and holds until there is nothing left to hold, until there is nothing left at all.
He knows this should concern him, and yet, it does not. That his mind is so clear does not make it any less strange, for him, to be waking here. To be waking at all, in a place more familiar than it should be for all the time that has passed since he last saw it.
And yet, here he is.
Nie Mingjue looks up at the black lacquered wood roof overhead, high slung, and feels the body of his bed braced against his back. He takes a breath to ground himself, the between to his home’s above and its below. He does not need to look within his body to find the man wrapped around the monster for the sake of bringing it to his surface; not when it is already there, settled across his skin, a perfect fit to the whole of him.
He turns over, slowly, following a soft sound, almost washed out beneath the rest of the dulled clamour of the morning. He feels the shudder ripple down his frame as he shifts, shrugging the disuse from his leaden limbs. Beside him, not far, is Nie Huaisang, face soft with sleep, his silk inner robe shucked halfway up his smooth thighs, his ankles tangled in the kicked-off sheets.
It is Nie Mingjue’s hand that branches out between their bodies; he watches it, lets his eyes, still blur-hemmed with sleep, trace over the shapes of his fingers as they stroke across the span of space. It feels real in a way he did not ever think he would again be able to miss.
Nie Huaisang stirs the moment the backs of Nie Mingjue’s knuckles brush his jaw, but he does not startle. “You’re awake,” he whispers, eyes still shut, no sharp surprise in his scratchy voice, only sweet expectation.
“So are you,” Nie Mingjue says, quiet, and his reward for it is that he gets to watch the too-open way that Nie Huaisang’s smile sprawls across his lips before he yawns and stretches.
“What is the last thing you remember?” Nie Huaisang asks, when at last he is awake enough to thread their fingers together, to blink up at Nie Mingjue and see his face properly.
“The temple,” Nie Mingjue answers, ready. “When we fought the Shenshou.”
Nie Huaisang’s relief blazes across his gentle features, burns bright as the summer sun. “That’s,” he starts, but he has to stop as the laugh in his tone surges to the fore and dominates his tongue. It spills so sharply out of him that it’s almost a shout, his shoulders shaking with it, the corners of his eyes scrunching up. “That’s, ah,” he starts again, when he’s snatched back his breath, the tangle of his fingers squeezing all the more tightly down around Nie Mingjue’s own. “Really. I could, I could not have possibly hoped for better.”
“What happened?” Nie Mingjue asks, because he must, before this all sinks too far in and overwhelms the shred of strict sense in him. It is not an accusation, for however roughly it rasps out of him, but something wrought of a need ascendant of any higher calling.
“A lot,” Nie Huaisang answers, breathless and rushed, “so much, ah, I don’t— how do I even start?” He wriggles his other arm out from beneath its flush tuck against his side, half pinned to the bed, and traces the tips of his fingers along the underside of Nie Mingjue’s wrist, pressing the pads of them down where his pulse beats up through his skin. “It’s been half a year. You’re in Qinghe, you’re— home. The rest is, so much of a long story, it can— it can wait for a moment.”
Nie Huaisang sits up so quickly that Nie Mingjue feels as if his head spins with it, his robe riding all the higher up his thighs as he kicks out of the sheets. Less care is clearly given to how his struggle must look, and more to ensuring that his hands do not slip from where they’ve come to ground themselves on Nie Mingjue, and when he is finally righted he is a show of a sight, mussed hair all but strangling his throat and the skin of his cheek scuffed pink from the bed.
“How do you feel?” he asks, shuffling closer, cross-legged, until Nie Mingjue has to prop himself up on his elbow just to see him properly without straining his neck, their joined hands spilling past Nie Huaisang’s shins to rest in his lap. “No discomfort? Pain? You— you feel, right?”
Nie Mingjue adjusts the snare of their hands, turns the grip over and rebinds it so he can swipe his thumb across the backs of Nie Huaisang’s fingers softly, soothing him. “Huaisang,” he gentles, and, “I’m fine,” then, most importantly, “what have you done?”
Nie Huaisang sucks in a breath, shaky, then tongues at the swell of his bottom lip, brow furrowing. “It’s, complicated. Possibly. It may be better if I— show you, yourself, first.” He withdraws the hand straying against Nie Mingjue’s wrist and twists himself around, fumbling in a half-blind lunge for the table pulled up to his bedside. Nie Mingjue cannot see much, past the straining spun-slope of his spine, save for the vague claw of his hand to the wood. There is a heavy clatter, and when Nie Huaisang turns back to face him, his fingers are fastened around the handle of a bronze mirror. It’s a smaller thing than what he had with him in the dreaming state, more personal, with a loop forged at the base for a tether to be strung through so that it can be worn at the waist.
“Here,” Nie Huaisang says, and turns the polished surface up and to him as Nie Mingjue rises onto his knees.
He sees it at once; it is such a shocking thing that it subsumes any other sight. It renders him powerless to do anything but perceive it, it and nothing else, for what drags like a day and passes as if it is a year. The middle of his throat has been struck through with scar tissue, raised up on his skin, white-knit and gnarled thick. Numbly, when he goes to raise his hand to trace it with a fingertip, he finds he is already halfway there. He doesn’t need to tilt the mirror or his head to know that it loops around the whole way, a morbid collar and a damning tell, when he can confirm it by touch alone.
“It’s you,” Nie Huaisang explains, clumsy, voice sounding thick with— something, something Nie Mingjue can’t name, something that defies and denies a term. “Your soul, your body, your meridians. The qi is different, and so is the core. But for all the sum of the parts, it’s still— you’re still you. You’re alive.”
What Nie Huaisang has given him is— an explanation that bodes only for further questions and fewer answers. He feels almost as if he is choking, but not quite, just from looking at his own neck; swears that, when he swallows, hard, he can feel where it catches on the inside of his throat, where the blade swung clean through to rend the flesh that later repaired itself.
Nie Mingjue jerks his head up, rips his eyes away, and Nie Huaisang turns the mirror over, face down, and puts it to rest on the bed. “Let me,” he says, quiet, “just,” and then he is unwinding their joined hands so that he can reach for Nie Mingjue’s chest, can curl his fingers into the neck of his inner robe. Nie Mingjue cannot say he does not stiffen, that he does not flinch, but he does not shy away. It is all, simply— a shock. It is all so much. But Nie Huaisang’s hands, like this, hooking beneath where his robe folds across itself and following the hem down to the ties at his waist to undo them— that is still new, too, but safer in its somewhat-almost familiarity. To have his chest bared by his brother, to be touched— this, Nie Mingjue can manage to do.
“Ah, don’t ask me how I did it, how it even worked—” If he means it to be a warning, or even a request, Nie Huaisang manages neither, only sounds strung up between something frail and something awed. His robe splits open as the ties are freed, neck to belly, and Nie Huaisang splays the silk wide, baring Nie Mingjue’s chest. His breath catches at something Nie Mingjue imagines he has already seen countless times; Nie Mingjue lifts his hand without the prompting that is bound to come, presses the heel of his palm against his sternum, and drags it down until the jut of the bone jars against a jagged cleave of scar tissue that, much like his throat, is terribly new and utterly telling.
“It had to be perfect,” Nie Huaisang concludes, voice wrought with a fraught— relief. Nie Mingjue can call it relief. He feeds the tremor of his fingers in through Nie Mingjue’s own as he cups his hand over Nie Mingjue’s, brought to rest over his dantian. “There’s a technique for transferring a golden core between bodies, that— well, all of the records of it were destroyed, I was told. But Wei-xiong, for all his memory is terrible, remembered the important parts, and we pieced together enough to adapt to suit, ah, this, instead.”
For all his head feels weighed down by fog, his ears washed out by the rush of his blood, Nie Mingjue feels— calm. As though all the panic that should rightly be inflicting him, all the confusion that should be destabilising him, has been brought to heel by Nie Huaisang’s hand on him, his hand on Nie Huaisang. The grave thought already occurred to him that his brother has done something unforgivable by bringing him home. His peace was made with that the moment he watched Nie Huaisang wake, watched the raw, tender thing he was still too tired to shield bloom over his delicate features. Now, there is only— only everything else, that he’s missed and now must find, and put to its rightful place.
It takes him a moment, in amongst everything else, for the rest of him to catch up and realise that there is more than one thing to trip over in Nie Huaisang’s words. Wei-xiong. “Wei Wuxian?”
Nie Huaisang pauses. “Oh, right,” he says, “yes. Wei-xiong is back. That’s a— that’s a really long story. Several really long stories, actually.” He blinks, brow furrowing, before his eyes fly wide in understanding. “But he’s fine! He’s fine, Da-ge, he’s... a lot changes, with time, and— and death.”
Nie Mingjue supposes that is true. He supposes, too, that he does not need to trust Wei Wuxian, or that it matters if he doesn’t, so long as Nie Huaisang does enough to call him a friend.
“He found me,” Nie Huaisang says, soft, almost distant. Pensive. When Nie Mingjue looks at his face, looks at Nie Huaisang properly, he seems pained in a way that is not raw but instead by rote. “Ah, he and Hanguang Jun. And he didn’t owe it to me to help me with this, but he offered before I could ask.” Nie Huaisang bends his fingers to pet the tips of them, haphazard, across the scar. “A credit to his perceptiveness, but, you also make me quite transparent.”
That is— that is so great an admittance of intimacy, so terrible an admission of fragility, that it steals Nie Mingjue’s breath for long seconds. He cannot speak, for what feels like an age, until such a confession has been met with the silent reverence it is so due. “The Shenhe is here, then,” Nie Mingjue surmises, at last, voice a gravel-rasp. He swallows to sand down the scrape in his throat. “Inside me.”
A Divine Beast’s core— a true Divine Beast’s core— an incomprehensible power, an incalculable treasure. Nie Mingjue cannot even remember when he last heard of a Divine Beast being found anywhere, let alone hunted. He does not think any have been seen since their founder’s generation, if not well before it. He doubts their rarity has changed during the time of his passing. Nie Huaisang could have had everything for it, and he had risked it for this, instead. The worst of it is that it would never have been a waste, not to him, had it burned up and still not brought Nie Mingjue back. In his success, he has bent the whole world wide open around the space he’s needed to bridge between life and after, to lead Nie Mingjue across to his rightful place at his side.
“Yes.” Between the yawning space of the seconds that have passed them, they’ve shifted closer, and Nie Huaisang punctuates its absent passage by bringing his other hand to perch on Nie Mingjue’s knee, his own legs all but shy of spilling into his brother’s lap. “The risk of failing was— it was all improbable enough that it was practically impossible. I spent three days alone, just,” his breath heaves out of him, hard, as he shakes his head, nails scratching at Nie Mingjue’s knee through his pants as his grip flinches down. “Just, my hands in your chest, mapping the core to the memory of your meridians. Three days alone, just for one of the sanbao. There was nothing I could do about your body’s inherent jing, but there are methods to manage that. Shen was the challenge, the— the crux of it, really. A soul has to be willing, for anything to even have a hope of working in the first place.”
Nie Mingjue hears what is not said, and thinks, for how it vices viciously in his chest, that his heart might stop again. “Did you think I would not come,” Nie Mingjue asks, raw, “if you called?”
Nie Huaisang’s answering smile is a brief flicker of a thing, a shade of something soft that slips free and through of his hands, shattering his composure. “I had tried before. Not even to bring you here, but to, to just, at least hear you. You never answered.” The breath he takes is shuddery, but it is not yet a sob. Nie Huaisang swallows that down, even though it is a struggle that Nie Mingjue sees seizes through the entirety of him.
What can he do? What can Nie Mingjue even say? He cannot imagine ever denying Nie Huaisang something as important as this, cannot comprehend why he would. He cannot remember it, the stretches of time where he was spaced apart and separate, spirited away as a spectre. But if he was— there are ways to speak to even ghosts that have moved well on, so long as they are still on their journey through to their next destination. Nie Huaisang would have known them; would have learned them, if not more, methods and manners Nie Mingjue could not dream of imagining. How could Nie Mingjue have endured refusing him? How can he forgive himself, now, knowing he did, even if he cannot remember it?
Words fail Nie Mingjue, as they should. But his body does not, and so, he slips his hand from beneath Nie Huaisang’s on his chest, brings his brother’s palm to flatten against his dantian, the scar he left as the only impression for how he bled so much and so badly into Nie Mingjue to make him breathe again. He closes his hand over the backs of Nie Huaisang’s knuckles to hold it there, so he can feel the beat of his heart as it bounds in his chest.
“What else could I do?” Nie Huaisang asks him, voice breaking. “What else could I think, but that you were— at some peace? That you were not unable, but unwilling? I had to.”
“Oh, Huaisang,” Nie Mingjue whispers, wrecked, “Didi, come here.” Already he’s moving before he’s been told; already Nie Mingjue is meeting him before he’s even asked to be met. Nie Huaisang is lighter than nothing and a perfect fit in the cradle of his lap. Nie Mingjue helps coax his arms around his shoulders, guides his face to his neck, and cups the back of his head to steady him as Nie Huaisang muffles his first gasping wail into his skin.
“I don’t want to cry,” Nie Huaisang hisses, knotted up and clotted and wet, “I didn’t want to cry—”
“You can cry,” Nie Mingjue interjects, pressing it like a kiss and a croon against his hair, “you can cry, Didi, it’s all right.” It’s a battle in and of itself to force the words up through his teeth without choking on them, without cutting them down with a sob of his own. His chest burns, ribcage charred black and bones cracking apart from the sheer heat of the naked flame. But Nie Mingjue has both survived and fallen to far worse. “I’m here now,” he assures, he promises, he comforts. “I have you now.”
When Nie Mingjue has permitted it, how can Nie Huaisang refuse? He can’t, and so he doesn’t. His body breaks open against Nie Mingjue’s as the first of his innumerable, nigh-infinite sobs tears free of his grief-throttled throat; he lets himself be held, he allows himself to feel safe, and Nie Mingjue guides him through it. Tempers every thrash, soothes every shake; his mouth whispering nothing against his hair, his forehead, his temples, his hand stroking the plains of his back, catching on every ridge of his spine through his thin robe.
“I promise this is mostly happy,” Nie Huaisang croaks, when he’s carved his voice back out for himself in the space between a whimper and a breath. “I, fuck.” His laugh is a weary, wispy thing, but it is close to pleased, something bright, tipped back from the brink of his unmaking. He turns his face up from Nie Mingjue’s neck, sniffling, and draws over his hand, fisted in Nie Mingjue’s robe, fumbling to dab his eyes dry against the hem. “You’ve missed so much. You really— you missed so much. So many stories, not even counting the ones that aren’t mine to tell.”
“You need only start with yours,” Nie Mingjue says, gentle, “when you are good and ready.” There is time, now. No-one could be more mindful than the two of them, together, of how quickly it could all fall out from beneath them, could be stolen away, but— there is time. There is time, and they will take it, to do this properly, to put it and them all back to rights.
“I can’t.” Nie Huaisang straightens in his lap but does not slip free of it, sniffing again as he unhands Nie Mingjue’s robe to scrub at his own face. It seems to only serve to smear the mess of his tears and snot across his flush-mottled skin further. When he’s finally dug deep enough into the well of him to find the strength of will to lift his chin, he does, and he brings his gaze up to meet Nie Mingjue’s. “There are some things that I can’t. I don’t know how to. I’ll lie to you.”
Nie Mingjue wonders how Nie Huaisang can still think that there is anything he has done or could ever do that Nie Mingjue could revile him for. Could find disgust in. How he could hope to surmount the love between them that is tantamount to worship. There is no one of them, not without the other. They are a singularity, for however ugly their halves make the whole.
He does not say it, though. He thinks, when Nie Huaisang is not so frayed and flayed open, when he’s settled underneath himself and drawn the fragile strips of his skin over his bones, he’ll remember it for himself. For now, for how he is, bent to breaking by barely fathomable frailty, hearing its confirmation will do more harm than it will help heal.
“I will hear it from others inevitably,” says Nie Mingjue. It is nothing more than a reminder; that Nie Huaisang needn’t race his own resolve to some resolution within his soul, but that there is only so much he can control. The dark only lasts so long before the dawn breaks through again.
“I know.” Nie Huaisang closes his eyes, nodding to himself, stiff and stilted. He takes a breath. “I won’t apologise for anything you hear. I have no desire to atone for the things you will be told I have done. But I can admit to them, for you, if and when you ask.”
“Very well,” Nie Mingjue concedes. It’s one of the fairer compromises Nie Huaisang could have called for him to make.
Nie Huaisang sways, but does not stumble; does not strike fear in Nie Mingjue that he might fall. He simply slants forward again, heavy, and tucks his face into the hinge of Nie Mingjue’s shoulder, lips brushing at the hinge where it meets his throat. “Did I do the right thing by you, Da-ge?” he all but whispers, more a shift of his lips to Nie Mingjue’s skin than any sound. It’s too burdened to be loud, too bereft to be anything but felt. His arms rise again, sliding around Nie Mingjue's shoulders like a snare. As if he thinks Nie Mingjue might just disappear. “Was it wrong to bring you back?”
It is— Nie Mingjue can’t speak as to its rightness, not when all of his being screams as to its wrongness. But the truth he can speak aloud is one that he will readily admit, and one he would not change. “I never wanted to leave you,” he answers. “Not for our lifetime.”
Nie Huaisang’s breath slams out of him as if he’s been slapped, sharp and stinging. It feels wet against Nie Mingjue’s neck, worse than his tears. “You don’t have to stay,” he stresses, strained, “just because I—”
“I would not,” Nie Mingjue snaps, too sharp and too savage and too severe, incapable of being anything but, “I would never.”
Nie Huaisang does not answer I know, does not amend I just want it to be clear that it is a choice you can make. He simply sighs out, presses his lips together against Nie Mingjue in a shiver and a shadow of something that could be taken as a kiss, then rights himself again.
His eyes are still wet and red when he opens them, but they are clearer for their brief rest. “Do you want your rooms back?” he asks, before he starts to laugh, shaking with it in Nie Mingjue’s arms, as though he’s only realised the actual absurdity of it upon hearing it spoken aloud with his own voice.
“They are your rooms, now,” Nie Mingjue answers. As they had once been Nie Mingjue’s, so too had they been their father’s, before he died; his father’s, before him. They are where the Sect Leader resides, no matter who that may be at any given time: deep in the fortress, easily barred up in the event of a sudden qi deviation. Nie Mingjue no longer has any claim nor right to them.
“They, well.” Nie Huaisang pauses, licking at his bottom lip. He drifts towards the ghost of Nie Mingjue’s hand as it grazes his cheek, raised aloft between them, and brings his cheek to rest against the pads of his fingers. Nie Mingjue takes the tacit permission to idly swipe at a track of dried tears, and he feels Nie Huaisang’s smile curl against the edge of his palm. “Well,” he continues, emboldened by that tender touch, “they could be ours. Our rooms.”
They could, and perhaps they shouldn’t; this is not like the dream, that severed them from all else. Here, where their blood runs up against borders, there are greater considerations that they need to make. Still, Nie Mingjue cannot simply say this. One momentary carelessness will mean nigh-ending days of restlessness. It’s excruciating, to examine his every thought and word and still not know if they will be the end or if they will manage to be enough.
“Huaisang,” he ventures, “what do you plan to do?” It comes as gently as he can make it and himself, for all he is a gruff, grumbling thing, brutish and burly by sinew, built up and brought to bear over his bulk.
It seems it is enough: Nie Huaisang does not stiffen against him, but instead slackens, sinks down, lets another sliver more of himself soak out to give over the space it has left to Nie Mingjue’s strength. Nie Mingjue can hold him up; can carry anything burden Nie Huaisang wishes to set down on him.
“I don’t know,” says Nie Huaisang, soft. His smile grows small, but does not lose its light. Nie Mingjue lets his thumb brush the edge of it, almost idly, because it is there, and that it is there means he is allowed it. “I really don’t. I know I’ve had the time to think that far ahead, but I haven’t, Da-ge. For home, for Qinghe, it doesn’t matter what we do. For everywhere and everyone else— I suppose I could lie about you, or I could tell the truth.”
For all he says he has not thought ahead, and despite how quickly Nie Mingjue knows his mind works, Nie Huaisang’s answers come with the haste that belies the claim of no prior consideration. Nie Mingjue does not think it is a lie, though. More, perhaps, that it is a lie Nie Huaisang has unwittingly told himself, a trick he’s played so well that even he believes he has not thought nearly so much about the tale he would tell to spin his brother’s return as he truly has.
“How would you lie?” Nie Mingjue asks, as he lets his other hand stroke, heady, down Nie Huaisang’s back, at last, to settle heavily on his waist. Nie Huaisang presses into the pin of it and pushes into Nie Mingjue’s palm on his cheek all at once, and then he’s drawing his knee up awkwardly between them so he can resettle his weight with his thighs spread over Nie Mingjue’s lap, his legs hanging over his hips.
“Ah, hmm, let’s see,” he hums, glancing up. He clears his throat, then, in a tongue-in-cheek tone laced with acerbic mockery, he exclaims, “Sect Leader Nie has finally gone mad! He’s taken a cut-sleeve lover, the spitting image of his deceased brother!”
Nie Mingjue has to clamp down on something furious, curdling from the pit of his belly up to the back of his throat, and his fingers claw down on Nie Huaisang’s waist in a feeble attempt to keep the rest of him grounded. It serves little more than to crumple the silk viciously in his fist and scrape his blunt nails sharply enough across the skin underneath that Nie Huaisang gasps.
“Sorry,” Nie Huaisang apologises, though he sounds more concerned than he does contrite. His arms unwind from Nie Mingjue’s shoulders, and he tenderly takes Nie Mingjue’s face in his hands, thumbs tracing his cheekbones. Nie Mingjue gentles under them, almost at once. Though it didn’t set him aflame in a beat and see his sight bleed red in a breath, to hear Nie Huaisang say— to mock himself in the precise and exacting way he would be mocked, it still made him angry. Now that the snarling threat of teeth is dissipating, tempted free and away by the kneading circles of Nie Huaisang’s fingers, he can better think on what was underlying it.
“Look,” Nie Huaisang resumes, “I don’t think you’re a shame or a stain to hide, Da-ge. I would rather tell the truth, not in the least because any lie, no matter how good, is just handing over the dagger that will eventually end up in each of our backs.” It is a wisdom spoken from their shared experience. “No-one but us has to know the whole of it. It would not be dishonest. Our people will keep our secrets. The rest can assume what they will."
“There would be talk,” Nie Mingjue replies, imparting a warning he knows Nie Huaisang does not need, but one that Nie Mingjue must give anyway. “It would open you to many dangers.” None I can protect you from, he thinks, but he holds it back against himself and keeps it just for him.
“There is always talk,” Nie Huaisang argues, “there are always dangers,” and he is right to argue it. It is something that has not changed, and it is something that never will. It has never stopped them before, in all other things but this. Why should it be what stops them now?
What they are, what they’ve done, and what they will do— none of them measure up to much at all when held against other wrongs to compare the wounds caused. One could argue far, far worse has been done by the hands belonging to the mouths who would accuse them in the same breath of impropriety. And that, Nie Mingjue realises, is all it would be: an accusation, no matter how close it may land to the truth of all things. No-one but he and Nie Huaisang would know their exactitudes. No-one else would ever deserve to.
“What do you want?” Nie Mingjue asks. He does not miss the way Nie Huaisang’s thighs twitch in on themselves from the words, though they are not delivered with the breathlessness or the promise of obscenity that might better warrant such a primal reaction.
Nie Huaisang tries to hide it with the shift of his hips, forward, in Nie Mingjue’s lap, only to unconceal it with the flit of his fingertips up Nie Mingjue’s face, the sink of them into his loose hair. “We could share the mantle,” he suggests, holding Nie Mingjue’s gaze as he scrapes his nails across his scalp, soft lines that shiver sensually down his spine in accordance with his brother’s very design. “I have been thinking of ways to defer power. A xianling, perhaps, to put a fumu guan between the sect and the commoners. It’s not a step too far in any direction, regardless, to separate the duties of one between two. Or,” he leans in with his pause, as if he is to impart something of a secret, “you lead the sect. I will be your little Nie-furen.”
“Huaisang,” Nie Mingjue hisses out. It should not sink through him as it does, hot like a dagger eating into the meat of his chest, clipping between the rungs of his ribs. It should not make his gut twist in on itself with something hungry. But it does, and Nie Huaisang knows it, which is why he’s said it at all.
“I’m not being entirely disingenuous, Da-ge. I just.” He shrugs, then taps his fingers down in Nie Mingjue’s hair, almost nervous, pitter-pattering like rainfall. “I’m tired. I’m tired of being the one to make choices, to decide what is and is not done. I want you to do it again. If you want to call me brother or call me lover as you direct me is up to you, but— how different would the latter truly be to how everything was before you died?”
He is right, and he knows he is right just as much as he knows Nie Mingjue knows it, and sees it, now, where he could have once ignored the comparison. The line between being Nie Mingjue’s pampered younger brother and his pampered wife had long been crossed between them, blurred over and bled through. It has even been consummated, now, hasn’t it? All that would change is that it would be given a name between the two of them that acknowledged the actual face of their arrangement.
Drawing up boundaries was always an exercise in undertaking futile endeavours between them, anyway. One could not hope to stop lines from being crossed by something that could neither be comprehended nor contained.
“Let me think on it,” Nie Mingjue says. Even though he is sure of his answer, he still needs to give himself time with it, to see it coalesce beyond something that is only a hungry amalgamation of needs and greeds.
“Of course,” Nie Huaisang says, combing his fingers through his hair. That his smile shifts into something sweet and pleased tells Nie Mingjue that he knows what Nie Mingjue’s answer will be, already, too. But he concedes to his pace nonetheless, and plays into the pretence. “Anything you need.”
Anything is time, but Anything is everything else, as well. Anything is leave for Nie Mingjue to lean between them, to take Nie Huaisang’s mouth in a kiss, and so he does for the sake of feeling and tasting the smile that he sees on his brother’s face, too.
“As much as I hate to rush this,” Nie Huaisang says, doing anything but rushing, for the way he punctuates every word with kisses to Nie Mingjue’s lips that turn into huffed wordless complaints when he is not allowed to deepen them, “we should get presentable. We won’t be disturbed by our people, but Wei-xiong will be up soon, and disturbing us is absolutely the first thing he will do.”
Nie Mingjue, with reluctant altruism, helps Nie Huaisang out of his lap, who steals every kiss he can before he can no longer crane his neck far enough to reach. “I really can’t wait to let him know it worked,” he continues as he stands, palms smoothing his rucked robes back down to shroud his slim legs. It amplifies his deceptive illusion of decorum, if nothing else. “And to tell him to take his twenty children and get out of my county. I’m not exaggerating,” he adds, when he glances over his shoulder, body half-turned away to face his altar table, and catches the confused contortion of Nie Mingjue’s expression. “Another day and I think one of them will have finally managed to break something other than my patience incumbent in my hospitality. His husband really spoils him and them too much, it makes it so difficult for the rest of us.”
He continues to ramble— to rant, really, under his breath, as he ambles away to start collecting up the things he needs to comb their hair and pin their braids. He manages to tire himself out and trail off by the time Nie Mingjue has brought himself to sit on the edge of the bed, though he balks at Nie Mingjue’s blank expression when he returns.
“Twenty children?” Nie Mingjue asks, blunt. “Husband?”
“Oh.” Nie Huaisang blinks. “I suppose I didn’t explain.” He then proceeds to clamber around behind Nie Mingjue, gather his hair from its spill across his shoulders, sink the teeth of the comb down through the strands, and do precisely that.