Hope is not something Wen Xu nurtures.
What is hope when he is nothing but a pawn to a father set on pitting his children against each other? Hope to the general in a war he doesn’t want? Hope to a seventeen year old that lost everyone in one fell swoop and was punished for it?
Hope to a child that knows his mother wasn’t with her soulmate and wound up dead?
No, hope isn’t something Wen Xu nurtures.
But in the dark of the night - in the moments where the blood is drying on his skin and pain is as steady as the beat of his heart - he hopes for a soulmate that will love him unconditionally. A partner that will love him - someone to stand with him.
(not the man that wasn’t his soulmate - the man who betrayed his trust and broke his heart - shattered it into a million jagged pieces that bite in his throat and cling to his vision in an distrusting gaze)
Its a foolish desire, but it still clings to his too weak heart.
The war changes everything.
One instance - and it changes everything -
Wen Xu feels the spark hot in his chest as he meets Nie Mingjue’s eyes and his heart jumps and lodges in his throat, hope sputtering to life - this was his soulmate -! Hope rises and flares to life in his chest and he wonders if maybe - just maybe - he will escape from the chains digging in his skin with barbs that are too sharp.
The words etch themselves into his skin - sharp and carving a line of characters up his inner wrist - stark black and gold on the pale white of his skin. He spends one precious second of this battle marveling at the strength and beauty of the name now staining his skin -
And hope rattles the chains binding him and an elated grin spreads on his face, sharp and gleeful -
He throws himself back to avoid the saber trying to gut him, faltering as he meets the furious glare of Nie Mingjue. His lips part - to say something; anything - but the words catch in his throat as he dodges another swipe, and then blocks another. Had Nie Mingjue not felt the same spark - the same itch of a name writing itself on his skin -?
(was his soulmate not soulmates with him -? was he doomed to a life without love? end up like his mother -?)
Blood thrums through his body - ignited in the face of battle and the strength of his soulmate - but its brittle. He has to block blows meant to kill - and despite his skill he finds himself faltering under the attacks of his soulmate. He stumbles under blows he wouldn’t normally - attacks to incapacitate not kill - and he knows Nie Mingjue can tell he’s faltering against him.
Can see it in the rage twisting the man’s face and the increasing ferocity of his blows and - it stings. He knows he should give it his all - tries to - but still he falters.
Its his soulmate.
The one he wished for as a child - the one he ached for during dark nights -
The one he hoped for -
Wen Xu has a foolish, weak heart that gets attached too easily and he knows someday it will be the actual death of him.
The battle ends with no clear winner - both sides retreating, exhaustion dragging their bodies caked in blood and grime. Wen Xu does his duties through a daze of half-awareness, and eventually allows his lieutenant to guide him into his tent. In the silence of his tent, he looks down at his wrist, tracing the characters with bloody fingers.
They were in the middle of battle - perhaps Nie Mingjue had simply not noticed? Surely he would know once he returns to his camp - would find the words inking his skin and know and -
Wen Xu bites his lip and sucks in a shuddering breath. He doesn’t know what would happen but - surely something would change?
They - they were soulmates -
But that doesn’t always mean something to someone, his mind whispers darkly. Didn’t mean a thing to his father, who scorned soulmates as weakness and dismissed them as foolish - or to the Clan Elders that grumbled about matches with those unworthy and scoffed at the idea of ‘happy endings'.
Bitterness swelled in the back of his throat and he clawed at his wrist and squeezed his eyes shut, taking another deep, shuddering breath. He wouldn’t know unless he asked - there is no doubt that they will meet again - not with this wretched war.
He just - just has to hope -
But hope is a fragile thing and Wen Xu doesn’t nurture it.
Can’t in the face of the hatred blazing in Nie Mingjue’s eyes as they meet again - ears ringing with the words: “Fuck off, Wen-dog!” when he tries to speak.
And the hope that had blossomed in his chest during the night withers and crumbles into dust - leaving nothing but the bitter aftertaste of devastation coating his throat. He stares at Nie Mingjue, eyes wide and the little bit of his heart he didn’t realize he still had shatters entirely - leaving a gaping , jagged hole in his chest that threatens to consume him instead.
Rage roars to life inside of him, carving the way for an icy cold that seeps into his very bones and leaves him frigid. A bitter, harsh laugh tears from his throat and his hand is trembling around Huǒguāng’s hilt, knuckles white and - he wonders how he had ever dared to hope for happiness in his life. He’s too fucked up to have anything good in his life.
Why would his soulmate ever want someone like him?
Fury is clogging his throat, tightening his chest - but it does little to fill the hole in his chest that widens with every blow of a saber. He rages and battles and still - still - he falters where it matters.
(but does it really matter anymore? what does he have left in his life? doesn’t have a family that cares - no actual friends that he can trust completely despite how he wants - his soulmate doesn’t want him -)
He falters in battle - gets more wounds than he ever should - rage and devastation is drowning him and clouding his mind. He hates and hates and hates -
(but he loves and loves and loves -)
Battle after battle - meeting furious hatred with icy rage - and every day the hole gets wider and wider, yanked and torn further open with every vitriol word shouted at him, every blow of the saber. The letters mar his wrist instead of inking it with the lines that should have meant happiness and - he can’t stand the sight of them most days.
Can’t stand the sight that once meant freedom and love - for one fleeting day of hope.
His eyes remain dry of tears - hasn’t cried since he was seventeen and lost everyone - but his fingers itch to claw at the characters - tear them out of his skin and toss them at Nie Mingjue. Wants to scream at the heavens and curse the gods that decided this was his fate -
(but he doesn’t - because deep, deep in the hole that is his heart he still loves his soulmate - remembers the burbling excitement of his child self wondering who might love him - remembers the hopeful comfort of someone that would love him in the bloody nights that scar his back - and he can’t get rid of it -)
But all things come to an end.
And he falters for the last time. Feels the cold bite of steel against his skin far too late to dodge and - he looks at Nie Mingjue ( his soulmate ) -
The smile haunts Nie Mingjue’s dreams like nothing else does.
Haunts him even after the Sunshot Campaign is over - as everything settles down - and he hates it -
Hates the feelings that well up at the memory of that gods forsaken smile as he cut off that Wen-dog’s head. Hates the itch under his skin whenever he thinks (dreams) about it - the guilt churning in his gut that has no discernible reason for it -
The hatred clings to him like a shroud, leaving him irritable and testy -
Nie Mingjue turns, feeling the anger simmer down at the sight of his brother, even as he frowns slightly, “Huaisang,” he returns, a faint question in his voice. His brother doesn’t normally bother him in his room - especially not in the mornings, when he is normally still asleep.
Nie Huaisang doesn’t answer immediately, eyes staring at something on his brother’s bare skin with what looks like the beginnings of horrified pain. Worry immediately replaces all traces of his irritation and he turns fully to face his brother, tone softening, “A-Sang?”
“Dàgē - dàgē, you - you met your soulmate -?” Nie Huaisang chokes out, stepping forward and reaching out with one hand - but stops and takes his hand back sharply, face going pale.
There’s a tightness in his chest as he stares at his brother - who looks back at him with wide eyes, face pale and lips trembling - and he swallows shortly and responds, “I … do not remember doing so. Is -” he stops, purses his lips and then forges on ahead, “Is their name on my back?”
His brother makes an aborted noise, and then shakily snaps one of his fans open and hides his face, looking pained. Nie Mingjue can feel his heart pounding in his chest - his brother wouldn’t look so horrified unless - unless his soulmate was - was dead -? There’s a sharp sting of pain in his chest - at the lost opportunity - but he grits his teeth and pushes past it, demands, “Huaisang - what is their name?”
He has to know - needs to know who he has to grieve for - needs to know what happened to the person that would’ve become his anchor -
But Huaisang shakes his head in denial - and unbidden anger rears up inside of him, and his tone sharpens, “Huaisang. Tell me.”
“Dàgē - I - I can’t - you -”
Nie Mingjue doesn’t want to hear why his brother won’t tell him - just wants to know who - who did he lose?
(wonders how he missed meeting his soulmate - how could he have missed this -? why didn’t he know - a Nie always knows their soulmate - knows the person that will become their anchor to a style of cultivation that leads to early death -)
“Huaisang! Tell me! Who -” he won’t admit to his voice cracking - but - he has to know - “Who did I lose, Huaisang -?”
Huaisang is still shaking his head, but tears welled up and spilled over in his brother’s eyes, dripping down his cheeks. “I - I can’t - dàgē - please -” he pleads, voice cracking and hand trembling around his fan, knuckles white.
Nie Mingjue grabs his brother’s shoulders - gentle despite the anger and grief swelling in his chest - and forces their eyes to meet. “A-Sang … please - I need to know,” he tells him, voice soft in a way it isn’t often - but it’s his soulmate and he has to know -
A choked sob sounds from his brother’s throat, and whatever will he had to not tell him breaks. “...Wen Xu - Dàgē - its - its Wen Xu -”
It couldn’t be -
But Huaisang wouldn’t lie about this - would never lie about a soulmate - something so sacred and wonderful to the Qinghe Nie - the denial shudders under the weight of the truth and Nie Mingjue is frozen where he stands, the name he hadn’t known was on his back, burning like an accusation.
That fucking smile -
A harsh noise that’s half-way between a laugh and a sob tears from his throat and he stumbles back from his brother, sinking onto the edge of his bed and burying his face in his hands. That hesitance the second time they’d met - it all made sense now - he had told the other man to ‘fuck off’ before he could even speak -
That cold anger that had driven Wen Xu afterwards - all those - gods - he’d thought the man had been mocking him with every falter in battle - instead - instead -
He’d killed his soulmate.
Who - who had known they were soulmates and believed himself rejected -
And he had no one to blame but himself -
(he will never know what his soulmate mark had looked like before it had faded to a mottled gray with Wen Xu’s death - and will never know what his looked like on his soulmate -)
His heart shudders and cracks - threatens to shatter into jagged pieces that will burrow under his skin and tear into him until he’s bleeding - he almost lets it - deserves it even -
Don’t - something whispers deep inside of him, pleading and thrumming with an aching, unspoken want.
He sucks in a shuddering, painful breath and slowly lifts his head up to look at his brother (still young even now - still has so much to give in life - hasn’t met his own soulmate but he knows he will -), who’s looking at him with pained worry, obviously unsure what to do. Nie Mingjue doesn’t know what to do either - doesn’t know how to face the fact that he’s the one that killed his soulmate -
But he looks at his brother - aching and crying the tears he can’t cry himself - and he wraps his arms around him, drags him into a tight embrace, tucking his head and hiding his face in his brother’s hair and focuses on trying to breathe.
(he’s broken now, he knows - is no longer simply rough edges, but now jagged, sharp edges that will catch and tear -
he’s killed his soulmate -
doesn’t know how he will carry himself now with that one truth hanging around his throat like a noose -
for his brother he will try)