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Nie Huaisang had been born too early and far too small, his mother going into labor in late spring when she was meant to have him in mid-summer. His brother indulgently told him the story of the day he’d been born over and over for most of his early childhood, lingering on details like the weather (sunny, but it had rained the day before) and how unseasonably warm it had been (“Maybe that’s why you were in such a hurry, A-Sang. You thought it was summer already”). It was Nie Huaisang’s favorite bedtime story for a long time, for many reasons—some of the main ones being that it was appropriately dramatic, with a happy ending, and that it was about him—but more than anything else, he loved the moment when Nie Mingjue would smile and shake his head, and say, “I ran inside and you looked like no baby I’d ever seen before, all tiny and red and quiet—and I looked at your mother, and said, what’s wrong with him?”

And Nie Huaisang would settle back into his bed and smile back and listen as Nie Mingjue continued, “And then your mother smacked me on the back of the head—I had a bruise for days!—and said, don’t be rude to your brother, don’t you know he’s worked very hard to be here?”

It would be the only time Nie Huaisang was ever accused of working hard in his life. Nie Mingjue always laughed when he told the story, the laugh a low rumbling thing that filled the whole room, and then he would stand from where he knelt at the foot of the bed, and say “Goodnight,” and Nie Huaisang would say “Night, da-ge!” and close his eyes. 

He had apparently been sick often, as a baby, though he remembered little of it. By the time he’d hit four, or so, the constant illnesses were gone and he was as strong and cheerful as any other toddler; what lingered was the lack of desire to do too much, as if his mind hadn’t quite caught up with his body in fearing illness or broken limbs or scratches. Nie Mingjue, who generally looked as if he was going to throw a fit if it rained and stuck them inside for more than two days (and would often run around in the mud and rain anyway, a desire completely incomprehensible to Nie Huaisang, who, even at a young age, liked being clean) said he needed to get better at taking risks. 

“Why?” Nie Huaisang always said, immensely dubious. “That’s what you do.” 

And Nie Mingjue would laugh that sweet rumbling laugh, ten years old and the tallest person in the world, his practice saber slung over one shoulder, and say, “A-Sang is right. I’ll take his risks for him.” 

Nie Huaisang thinks about this, sometimes. How easy it had been, once, to make promises. 

 

 

“Nie-zongzhu,” a disciple he only half recognizes says, bowing at the waist, and then straightening and hovering, unsure.

Nie Huaisang does his best to look like he hadn’t just been standing and staring at his brother’s messy desk for the past—he doesn’t know how long it’s been, actually. He had told Nie Mingjue to clean that desk, two days before he—

Well. Anyway, he hadn’t cleaned it. I know where everything is, he’d said. Scoffing, mean. Go and do something useful, stop bothering me.

Nie Huaisang wonders what will happen if he touches those papers now. Perhaps his brother’s ghost will rise up, resentful and screaming. Bleeding from the eyes, yelling at Nie Huaisang not to touch his fucking things. If only.

“Yes,” he says. “What is it?” 

“It’s the horses, zongzhu,” the disciple says. 

This catches his attention. “What about them?”

“They, ah.” Li Fengzhi. That’s what her name is: he remembers now. She’s one of the stablehands. Not terribly competent with the saber, but she’d been good with the horses, so of course Nie Mingjue had liked her, and then she had been promoted (or demoted, depending how you looked at it) from disciple to stable-worker. “They aren’t eating.”

Nie Huaisang blinks. “What?”

“They aren’t eating, zongzhu,” she repeats. “They haven’t for days.” 

Nie Huaisang looks at the desk. Thinks about touching it; sitting down, rearranging his brother’s papers. Then about Nie Mingjue’s face if he ever heard Nie Huaisang had left his beloved horses to starve.

He sighs. “I’ll go,” he says. “Thank you.”

“I thought you might know what to do,” she says, relieved. “Chifeng-zun always knew how to make them feel better, he was so kind to them—”

“I can’t promise anything,” Nie Huaisang says, sharper than he means, and then hides behind his fan to soften it, and to hide the tremble of his chin. “I don’t know anything about horses.”

 

 

“You can’t let them know you’re scared of them, Sangsang.” 

“I’m not.”

“Yes, you are.” A flick on his calf, his brother’s smirk. The sun beating down on his hair, it was too hot, he’d been sweating in his robes—Nie Mingjue had told him not to wear the outer layer to ride in but it was just so pretty

“I don’t want to ride it,” Nie Huaisang had said, a token complaint. Not to mention useless, when he was already sitting there.

“Her,” Nie Mingjue corrected, and tugged at the reins. Nie Huaisang had to look down at him, sitting on the horse like this, which was disquieting. “Come on, she’ll be nice.”

“She’s so big, da-ge,” Nie Huaisang whined, and Nie Mingjue rolled his eyes. 

“I’ve got you,” he’d said. “Just hold on.”

 

 

When he gets to the pasture, some six or seven horses are milling around. This is half the—herd, he supposes, would be the word. They had more horses during the Sunshot Campaign, when they were needed. Many of them died in the fighting, just like some of the disciples had. Nie Mingjue had cried about both—Nie Huaisang had caught him in the war room, once, bent over the table and heaving with sobs, and had tucked himself into his side to wait it out, head on his arm, hand on his back. That was after Wei Wuxian had come back, and almost everything was different. But they had still been the same. It had only been afterwards that Nie Mingjue had changed. 

He watches them for a moment as they hobble around morosely, fanning the horse-smell away from his face, wrinkling his nose anyway. 

The thing is that—the thing is that Nie Huaisang does not like horses very much. He admits that they are useful, and that they are beautiful from a distance, grazing or rolling in dirt or running in the wind. He just doesn’t—he doesn’t. It had been Nie Mingjue who cared for the horses, who wandered out to visit with them when he was particularly tired or stressed, who brought them too many treats and let them stay out grazing for too long. Who spoiled them so badly that, apparently , they’ve all of a sudden decided that they can’t live without him. 

He closes his fan, taps it against his hip. The horse closest to him, one of the taller, stronger black ones, raises its sagging head and blinks its enormous eyes. 

“Well,” Nie Huaisang says, helplessly. “Don’t you know you’ve got to eat?”

The horse does not respond. 

Nie Huaisang presses his fingers to his temples, for a second. Of course it doesn’t. It’s a horse. It can’t understand him. It doesn’t matter that Nie Mingjue always talked to them, smacking them on their sides to get them out of his way as he ranted to them about the state of the sect. He’s not here.  

“I’m not bringing you anything special,” he says. “Eat what we give you, or don’t eat at all.” 

The horse huffs. Belligerently, maybe, if one can bring themselves to believe that horses have emotions and feelings and are able to express them in a way that makes sense to people, which Nie Huaisang does not. 

“Right,” he says, feeling more idiotic by the second. “Right, okay, nice talk. Eat your dinner. I don’t have time for this.” 

He turns on his heel and leaves. If they want to waste away, then let them. It’s no business of his. 

Da-ge would make it his business. Da-ge made everything around here his business, Da-ge would sleep in the stables and soothe them into eating, bring them treats until they gave in, talk to them all through the night like they were small children sick with a fever, he would insist he could love them through it, Da-ge would—

Well, Nie Huaisang thinks, furious and sick to his stomach, don’t the stupid beasts have to get used to it? Don’t they all have to get used to it?

 

 

“Come with me,” Nie Mingjue had said to him, once. Nie Huaisang had been young then, young enough that even when thinking back he could put no number to it. Four, or five, or six—those years blurred together now that he was past them, and he couldn’t remember what order things had happened in, how tall he had been, if he reached his brother’s knee or his hip or his waist when they hugged. He remembered being tugged by the hand through the training yards, walking in double time to keep up. Being lifted onto his brother’s back when he was not deemed quick enough, and spitting out a piece of his hair. 

“Da-ge,” he complained, and was shifted up enough that he could hook his chin over Nie Mingjue’s shoulder. 

“Shh,” his brother said. “You’ll scare them.” 

Nie Huaisang looked up to see three black-eyed, black-haired horses grazing, one with white ankles and another with a diamond-shaped white patch on its forehead. The third, and the smallest, was black all over, wobbling on long, thin legs. He liked them for a second, the abstract picture they made grazing together, and then his brother whistled and dug a radish from his sleeve, and they moved closer. And then Nie Huaisang didn’t like them so much.

“Oh,” Nie Huaisang said, and hid his face again. “They’re big,” he added, muffled. 

“Don’t worry, A-Sang,” Nie Mingjue said, and shifted him so Nie Huaisang’s legs were around his waist, clinging to him like a baby. He patted his leg, then, in comfort. “They won’t hurt you.” 

“They’re big, ” he said again. 

“Huaisang,” Nie Mingjue said, exasperated. “Just look.”

One of the horses had come close enough, when he looked up, that he could see the shape of its eyes, deep brown like the bottom of a river. This was the largest, the one with white ankles. Nie Huaisang whimpered.

“Are you really scared?” Nie Mingjue said. The horse reached forward as if to sniff Nie Mingjue, moving its lips against one of the braids in his hair, and he laughed a little and scratched it under the chin. “Nothing in there,” he said, fond, and kind. Nie Huaisang leaned up a bit, cautious, looking again. 

“Here,” Nie Mingjue said, handing him the radish. “Hold your hand like this. Flat, so she doesn’t bite you.”

Bite me?” Nie Huaisang screeched, and dropped the radish. The smallest horse darted for it, and grabbed it, crunching it between its teeth. Which were very large teeth. Nie Huaisang shuddered. 

“A-Sang!”

“I don’t want it to bite me!” 

“It won’t if you don’t give it your fingers!”

“But they’re so big ,” Nie Huaisang said plaintively, tightening his grip around his brother’s neck. “I really don’t like them, can we go away?”

“I want you to meet them,” Nie Mingjue said, belligerent. “You don’t have to be scared. Sangsang is really little, like you, he definitely won’t hurt you, and the others are gentle.”

“Sangsang?” Nie Huaisang said, straightening; even at that age he had been prone to be much more interested if something had something to do with him. 

“He was born a couple months ago,” Nie Mingjue said. “He fell over a lot when he walked. It made me think of you.”

They stood there, quiet, for a moment. Nie Huaisang remembers this best, now: that moment when they had swayed together and watched the horses, and he had felt the breeze in his hair and his brother’s breath against his chest and thought, that’s nice, in the way of small children who don’t know that most of the world isn’t. 

Then, he remembers, he had patted his brother’s hair, up above his ear where the braids wound. An affectionate, childish kind of caress, the kind he’d still given to toys and his mother at that age. “Okay,” he said, “but don’t put me down.” 

The memory is less clear after that. He had still been scared. But he remembers Nie Mingjue showing him how to hold out an open palm to the horses, who brushed their soft muzzles against his palm, breathed for a second, and then went back to pestering his brother for food. Sangsang, still a colt, had broken off to dart in circles around the field, too full of energy to stay with them. And Nie Mingjue had laughed, his back vibrating underneath Nie Huaisang’s small body. 

 

 

Isn’t it unfair for the horses to steal the show? What does Nie Huaisang have left? An empty fortress. An office with old papers and letters never sent and relics of a life lived that he will never be able to sort through. Two decades of memories, and a year of watching his brother slowly die, a hand brushing over his hair as they were stranded in a tomb. And he got out, and Nie Mingjue was sent straight back. How was that justice? How could it be that Nie Huaisang—born too early, terrible at cultivating, lazy and obnoxious and rude—can be the one to remain? Nie Mingjue had been strong and brave and angry and stubborn and stupid , and Nie Huaisang had loved him, and they had been all the other had left, and he had promised, and he had still had the gall to go and die. 

The horses, what have they lost? Why is it that they get to parade around, not eating, empty-eyed, miserable, when Nie Huaisang has to write letters to other sects and write up training schedules and replenish their storerooms from the winter? When he has to get up and get up and get up, over and over again?

Don’t they all just have to get used to it? Don’t they have to control—

 

 

“Control your grief, Huaisang,” Jin Guangyao had said, and Nie Huaisang had bowed at the waist. It had been three days since his brother had been killed, and now the killer was in front of him, and Nie Huaisang had neither the skill nor the strength to tear his throat out with his bare hands. 

Da-ge had a point after all about saber training, he’d thought, unbidden, and then, with another sick rush of grief along with the anger, he had a point about everything.  

“It will be all right in the end,” Jin Guangyao said, and cupped his outstretched hands in a move borrowed from Lan Xichen, meant to stop Nie Huaisang from bowing. “Ah, A-Sang, look at me.” 

He couldn’t look. He told himself he wouldn’t look. And then he did, and Jin Guangyao’s eyes were soft, his smile careful. The same face. He had expected that it would be horrible, different. Beastly, or ghastly. That what he had done would show somehow in the creases of his eyes, or the white of his smile. But he looked like he had always looked, the way he had looked when he was Meng Yao and he would reach out calmly and straighten the folds of Nie Huaisang’s collar, or tuck some of the hair back behind his ear. How could it be that he had lied? How could it be that he had killed—

But Nie Mingjue had suspected all along, and Nie Huaisang had never believed him. 

“Your hair,” Jin Guangyao had said gently, as he straightened, still trembling. “Would you like me to put it up for you? I still remember how.”

Nie Huaisang had not braided his hair in three days. He had tried, and then, each time, he had remembered that Nie Mingjue would never sit behind him muttering to himself as he fussed with the braids again, and then, each time, he had cracked in two. “Don’t bother, san-ge,” he said, now, as Jin Guangyao gave him that same careful smile he had been giving him for close to a decade, the smile that had once meant one thing and now meant another. 

“As you say,” Jin Guangyao said, “Nie-zongzhu.” 

 

 

It becomes abruptly clear as Nie Huaisang moves into the weeks after his brother dies that Jin Guangyao is not the only person who expects him to control his grief. 

The sect elders ask him questions he doesn’t know the answers to; the disciples ask him uncertain questions about training that he is unsure of how to delegate. For so long, the Nie sect has been a rolling cart, with Nie Mingjue the axel that held it together. Nie Huaisang, simply by existing, stops the cart. He rolls them into the mud. 

It is all so much to know. He knows some of it, of course; Nie Mingjue tended to leave matters of the household to him, the ordering of cloth or dishes, the hiring and promoting of household staff, the ways things looked, smelled, tasted. An old, unspoken deal from when Nie Mingjue was twenty-three and overwhelmed with tasks. You handle what you like, and I’ll do the rest, and Nie Huaisang had been silly and young enough to feel self-important about what little he did handle, the small tasks that he imagined were important, vital. 

Now he knows better. Who gives a shit about any of it? Overwhelmingly, it is becoming clear that what his brother let him “handle” was busywork. And that the rest—

Well, Nie Mingjue was no politician, to put it mildly. And in the last months of his life he was grey-faced and snappish and impulsive, which means he has left Nie Huaisang with quite the mess to clean up, politically, and all this while he can still barely touch his brother’s things, for fear he’ll start to scream, or—worse—cry. 

He slips outside when he sees the elders coming to ask him another question he does not have an answer to; he doesn’t mean to, but he traces his brother’s well-worn path and arrives at the stables. 

“Nie-zongzhu,” Li Fengzhi the stablehand says, startled, and then she gives him a deep bow. “They’re, um. They’re eating again.” 

There is a basket of radishes behind her on the ground, clearly having been brought in for the express purpose of coaxing the spoiled things to eat. Nie Huaisang closes his eyes. It never fucking ends, does it? He will be catching on thorns for the rest of his life—picking his way out of a thicket made of all the ways that Nie Mingjue filled these spaces, all the ways he lived and breathed and shouted and laughed in this place, in their home. Nie Huaisang will carry them all. 

“Good,” he says. “I thought they would eventually.”

They still seem a little off, though. They’re grazing, but their hearts aren’t in it. He walks gingerly over the muddy ground, thick with yesterday’s rain. It sucks at his feet unpleasantly. 

The closest horse glances up when he gets closer, walking up to him and hanging its head over the fence. The same one he had stood off against a few days ago, her whole coat and mane a deep, deep black. It—she—breathes out, hard, in a half-whinny. 

Now that he can think about it, he knows her. Her name is Liming, and Nie Mingjue had witnessed her birth right after the end of the Sunshot campaign, years ago now. They had both been home for the first time in months, and the horses were foaling. He had barrelled laughing into Nie Huaisang’s room at seven in the morning, shaking him awake, to tell him, and when Nie Huaisang had whined and rolled over and said “Tell me about it later,” Nie Mingjue had pulled on a piece of his hair to make him yelp, and then he had rolled his eyes and gone back to his office. 

Later, of course, Nie Huaisang had made him share a cup of tea and had listened—indulgently, he’d thought, at the time—as Nie Mingjue told him all the details. Who the mare and stallion were that had sired her. What the colt looked like. That her father was fast and her mother was strong and she was going to be so, so beautiful, Huaisang—but in the morning light, in the face of Nie Mingjue’s honest joy, he had only rolled over and shooed his brother away. 

Her eyes are so big. Her head, too. The old fear doesn’t rise up in him, not now, but he remembers it, that shadow from when he was a child. 

“Hello,” Nie Huaisang says. He doesn’t look at Sangsang, older now than he was when Nie Mingjue brought him to the stables as a child. Wizened, if a horse can be that. Slower, and steadier, his coat flecked with gray. Sangsang, unlike his namesake, had never been silly. He moved with plodding purpose, steady as a rock and too-slow unless you really bullied him. 

Liming sighs, low and soft, and arches her head closer to him.

“Oh, no, I haven’t got anything for you,” Nie Huaisang says. “I’m not—I’m not that type of person. Food melts, you know? I don’t want my clothes to be sticky.” 

He feels a little silly talking to an animal. She doesn’t seem to understand, only reaches closer, further still, her neck pressing into the wood of the fence.

“Do you want,” Nie Huaisang says, and then reaches out, cautiously, to touch her black nose. He’s shocked all over again, the way he was as a child, by just how soft it is. Not quite like silk or like well-made porcelain but with the same tactile joy that comes with touching something so fine. He brushes two fingers down her nose and then pulls back; she follows his hand. 

Ah, he thinks, an aborted thought that doesn’t mean anything to him other than an exhale, a strange little ribbon of calm. Ah.

He touches her nose again, with his whole hand this time. Lets it rest there. She doesn’t move for a moment, only blinks her eyes a few times, and then gives another of those soft horse-sighs, and turns back to the grass. 

“Well,” Nie Huaisang says aloud, watching as she picks her way along the muddy ground, as she chews. Her ankles and feet are caked with the stuff, and even her broad back is mud-flecked. Nie Mingjue had laughed, when the horses rolled in mud; Nie Huaisang only wants, with an urgency that doesn’t make sense to him, to see her coat gleaming and soft. 

He turns back to the stable, sticks his head in. “Li Fengzhi,” he says, hesitant. “When the mud dries, in a few days—see that they’re cleaned, all right?”

“All of them, zongzhu?” she says, blinking expectantly. It isn’t judgemental, just paused. Waiting. 

I know they’re animals, he wants to say, defensively, and bites it down. I know they’re animals and I know they live outdoors and I know it’s ridiculous—

“Yes,” he says. “It’s—yes, all of them.” 

“As you say,” she says, and smiles. “Have a good day, zongzhu.” 

 

 

He does go back, a week or so later. 

To check, he tells himself; to make sure the task he’d given had been completed. The ground is a good deal more dry, today. Liming stands with her head over the fence, as if she’s waiting, cleaner than last time. Nie Huaisang thinks of his childhood, of summer. The tickle of hair against his cheek.

He fans himself, despite the chill in the air. 

“Hello, again,” he says, and Liming presses forward, wanting touch. 

He stretches his fingers out, brushing them over her soft nose. Ignores the ache in his chest in favor of soothing her, running careful fingers down the line of her neck, combing out snarls from her mane. 

The skin, under all the fur and hair, is painfully warm. Painfully alive. 

She nibbles at his sleeve, expecting treats. 

“Greedy,” Nie Huaisang says, and finds himself smiling. “My company isn’t enough?”

She gives him a baleful look that seems to suggest it isn’t. 

“Don’t think I don’t know that Li Fengzhi is giving you extra,” he says. “I’m quite clever.” 

This does not mean anything to her. Nie Huaisang pouts theatrically, not really minding it much. They have more personality than he’d thought, these beasts. He had always seen them as something Nie Mingjue talked at, not to. Like birds, which do not understand anything beyond food, and safe, and the lack of either. But even if she cannot quite listen, there are things she seems to know. 

“You were his favorite,” Nie Huaisang says, softly, tucking his hand under the warmth of her mane, letting some of the chill seep out of his fingers. “Don’t tell the others.”

As if she can hear, she turns her face into his hair, nibbling now at the ends. Nie Huaisang closes his eyes and leans into her, feeling the dual textures of coarse and soft, the hair of her mane and the hair of her body, the huffs of her breath on his shoulder. His own breath clouds the air—it’s cold again today. It will rain later, probably. And soon it will be warm, bright. Late spring. 

“You were born in spring,” he says, nonsensically. “You were—I don’t remember the day, but I know it was spring. I was born in spring, too.” He thinks of the story he used to beg his brother for, and tucks his nose into the soft line of her neck, presses the words into the fur there. “I was too early, and too small. And da-ge, he was playing outside—it had rained, and there were puddles, and he was jumping in them, he loved doing things like that—so he ran inside to meet me covered in mud. He probably got it all over my mother’s bedroom floor. And I was a small baby, like I said, too early, and he—”

His throat hurts. It wracks his body to tell this story; he wants to keep it inside, soft and protected next to his heart, where he will never need to hear it spoiled. But stories don’t live unless they’re told, and leaving it silent would be like letting Nie Mingjue die again. 

“He ran in,” Nie Huaisang tells his dead brother’s horse, “and he saw me, all wrinkled and ugly and red, you know, and said, what’s wrong with him?”

He chokes on the last word, sobbing it into her rich black mane, loose in the wind and thick and rough against his cheek. And then he is crying so hard that he almost can’t feel his hands or his feet, the sound is muffled by the wind and the open space around them, and by the horse-hair in his mouth. Crying as hard as he did during—

 

 

At Nie Mingjue’s vigil, Nie Huaisang had tried desperately to sit still, and be stoic, but instead he had rocked back and forth, unsteady even on his own knees. His fan hung, lifeless, at his belt. He burned paper money and sat in vigil and he cried, on and off. Sometimes the tears were lifeless, too, just an endless smooth dribble of them like melting ice on his face. Sometimes he bent at the waist in empty rooms or hallways and stuffed a fist into his mouth to muffle howls, like a wounded beast, and this scared him more than the lifeless crying did. All he could think for close to two days was Da-ge is dead, and then his mind cut it off. Just that one rotating thought, over and over. Burned into his mind like a brand. He dressed for the day in those mourning whites, and Da-ge was dead. He straightened his back, and Da-ge was dead. He—he—

He watched, as the disciples readied Nie Mingjue’s body for transport to the temple. The horses were there, uneasy, clean. Their manes braided. Nie Huaisang had started crying again, looking at them, hiccuping himself into those same silent lifeless tears from before, his chin trembling. He couldn’t stop thinking about the painstaking way Nie Mingjue had always cleaned his horse after a ride, picking the dirt out of its hooves with his own hands. They had stablehands. The horses would not go un-cared for, and yet Nie Huaisang couldn’t stop the thought that there would be no one, now, just like there was no one to braid Nie Huaisang’s hair or put a strong hand on his shoulder or bully him into the training yard twice a week, and the thought broke his chest open with a sudden horrible loneliness that was its own kind of grief. 

Jin Guangyao had slid through the crowd to be close to him, and had pressed a hand to his shoulder, smiling wide and sweet as he told him to try to calm himself, to be dignified. Like it was a fucking inconvenience that he mourned. Nie Huaisang hadn’t known, yet, what he’d done. He would soon. Soon, but for the moment—

Da-ge will always protect you, Nie Mingjue had said, standing on that mountain, looking over their sect. Had he already known that would be the last time? Had he known they would never speak again in any kind of peace, any kindness? Had he known that he was dying where he stood? Had he known it, and promised anyway, a promise he was always going to have to break? Da-ge will always protect you. I’ve got you, just hold on. A-Sang is right. I’ll take his risks for him. So many fucking promises, and all of them meaningless, except for the way his brother’s face had changed when he made them, like he had really meant them, like saying it could make them true. 

“I know you will,” Nie Huaisang had murmured aloud, his ears still ringing, his voice like a lost trill of wind. Jin Guangyao had looked at him quizzically, and said something, and Nie Huaisang had not seen him, had not heard him, his eyes on the coffin. He could give Nie Mingjue this, at least. A lie for a lie. Maybe it would comfort him, the way it had comforted Nie Huaisang for so many years. “I know you would have.” 

And then the coffin was gone, and Nie Huaisang was alone.

 

 

Liming’s body is warm against his face when he finally manages to stop crying. When he pulls back she nibbles at his face, looking for salt. It shouldn’t be comforting; it is. 

“Well,” he says, scrubbing at his eyes with his sleeve. “I guess we’re really friends now, aren’t we?” 

She smells of sun and earth, of sweat and hair. Like a horse, and now Nie Huaisang will smell like one too, which is not an enticing prospect. He could be annoyed about this. He certainly used to be, when he caught a whiff of the stablehands or his brother coming inside after a long day. Instead he laughs, watery, into his palm, and reaches up to scratch under her chin. 

“Will you hold still long enough to let me braid your hair?” he asks. “Maybe I can make it through the rest of the story. It’s a good story.” There is mud squishing under his boots as he walks a little closer to her, and hauls himself up onto the fence so he can sit and reach her neck. The mud scrapes off against the wood, and is certainly getting on the hems of his robes. She noses in interest at his sleeves, where he’s carrying sliced apples, and he feels hollowed out with the crying, scraped clean and empty. But Liming is still here, nibbling thoughtfully at his wrist. This other creature his brother loved. He clears his throat, combs his fingers again through the rough hair of her mane. “There’s a happy ending.”