When your brother died -
It hurts still, so much. It hurts to speak of it.
Of course grief is a painful thing. But the fear was worse.
Who is to say when you first understood what really happened? At times it felt like a painting you’d looked at too closely, tracing your eyes over the delicate brushwork until you could no longer see trees and stones - so close that you could see where the ink feathered at the edge of the stroke, the way it soaked tiny claws into each individual fiber that made up the page. And then abruptly you’d blinked and there it was, as it always had been: the mountain. The waterfall. The arc of his intentions.
Oh, you thought you were so clever.
You wonder sometimes whether everything that happened later might have been somehow your fault. Not often - you’re not given much to self-blame. But the memory comes to you sometimes, blurred with age. In it, you’re brushing Meng Yao’s hair. It amused you to do it, the same way it amused you to give him your old robes and hairpieces. You liked the way he looked in braids, how delicate and refined he made them look. He’d meant to leave Cloud Recesses that very first day, and you’d wanted him to stay. You’d thought: maybe if he stays, he’ll do my classwork for me.
Meng Yao had made your life so easy, back when your life was already easy. When the worst thing that happened to you was your brother threatening to burn your collection of fans again. You’d said, coy and soft, directly into the pale shell of his ear, “Zewu Jun thinks you’re pretty.”
Retribution was swift. When Da-ge had brought Meng Yao home you’d spent months drawing him out of his polite little shell. Poor little Meng Yao, so mousy and anxious, so eager to please. He couldn’t say no to you and that was fine, but what you wanted more than anything was a friend who couldn’t say no to you, who would sit and talk about pretty things with you, and who was bold enough to swat you softly on the knee when you deserved it. “Huaisang!” he scolded, but there, hidden in the corner of his mouth: that was the pleased little smile you were looking for.
“Oho, you noticed it too!” you said. You let go of his hair long enough to poke a finger in his cheek, trying to make the dimple appear, to make the smile wide enough that he would stay. His hair was a shimmering black waterfall, almost long enough to touch your knees where you sat on the bed behind him. You used the comb to separate out sections, and then to pin the rest away from each plait as it came together.
“Zewu Jun is very kind,” he said, with great dignity.
“Zeuwu Jun thought you were Qinghe Nie’s gift,” you teased him. The swat to your knee was firmer, the laugh shocked and real.
“What would your brother think if he heard you saying such things?” he said. You reared back from him, but not so far away that you had to let go of the half-braid in your hands.
“Meng Yao,” you gasped. “Who will tell him?”
He rolled a wide, skeptical eye over his shoulder at you, and in return you pulled his hair. The motion of it tugged his back against your chest for just a moment before he straightened himself. That was the limit of familiarity he’d allowed: the result of months of patient work to break Meng Yao to your hand.
In the end, Meng Yao had left Cloud Recesses, as a good servant should when he’s needed back at home. You didn’t realize he would seek Zewu Jun out before he left, because by that time you’d forgotten all about trying to make him stay. You’d been more concerned with coaxing Wei Wuxian into helping you with your classwork instead.
No - what happened later wasn’t your fault, but you wish sometimes that you hadn’t been part of the chain that made up all of those separate, terrible things to come. It just hadn’t mattered then, that Zewu Jun thought Meng Yao was beautiful. Why would it matter? Meng Yao belonged to Qinghe Nie.
When you understood, you hid. What choice did you have? The fear imprisoned you. It hid you away in Qinghe for months. You were paralyzed with it. You told no one, not for ages. How could you have? The fear was unspeakable. The knowledge it sprang from even more so. And the threat -
He could kill you so easily. You knew this in your bones from the moment the picture came into focus. He could kill you and the world would thank him for it. Everyone would gracefully understand that there was no choice but for you to die. You thought at times that you would die, the fear was so intense. Your shoulders ached with the memory of him holding you back from your brother’s broken, bloody form. You shuddered and sweated with fever. When it broke you finally felt anger - true anger, for maybe the first time in your life. You understood your brother better, and grieved all the more deeply for it.
But what had it gotten him, to be so full of rage? Nothing. Ensnared. Tricked. Cheated. Your brother had known for years that Meng Yao was a snake underfoot, and the knowledge hadn’t saved him. You didn’t know how it could possibly save you.
Eventually you had to show your face, such as it was. By that time you had drawn your brother’s most trusted advisors to your side and told them of your thoughts. Made plain to them your fear and the reasons for it. They understood, as you knew they would. In this if nothing else Nie Mingjue succeeded: Jin Guangyao was not trusted anywhere within the borders of Qinghe. You were terrified to leave those borders, but you knew that you must - to find out if he would kill you then, or kill you later. If you stayed away, would it make him realize that you knew what he’d done? Would it make him afraid of what else you might uncover?
You brought only one general with you to Lanling, with strict orders not to interfere. He stayed with you as you acted a fool. He kept quiet as you drank your fill of Lanling wine. He watched you flinch when anyone came near you. Eventually, when you’d slumped over your table, the banquet only half gone by, he let Jin Guangyao take you away.
His hands on your chest were so familiar. His voice as deeply known as your brother’s. The tone so gentle that you wept real tears to hear it. “Oh, Huaisang,” he said, close and warm against the shell of your ear. If you closed your eyes you could almost believe the two of you were young again, together in Qinghe, hiding your drunkenness from your brother. Oh, Huaisang.
He took you to a quiet room. The sound of music was swept away as he slid the door closed behind the two of you. He laid you onto a soft bed, his hand cupping your skull to make sure the landing was gentle. And when he’d straightened up, you flung both your arms at him and held tight to whatever part of him you could.
For a moment he allowed it: one hand a fist in his heavy gold robes, and the other a fist in his hair. This far, and no further. Then he reached up and untangled you, peeling away each of your fingers, one by one. Your eyes were open, and through a haze of tears you saw that he was smiling kindly at you, and also that you’d knocked his hat loose. Underneath it, his hair was done up in a circlet of braids.
You let your eyes slip closed. You waited, your heart pounding so loudly that it drowned out whatever soft, comforting things he was saying to you. Telling you to sleep. To rest. That things would be better in the morning.
You stayed where he put you, your limbs sprawled in every direction. It seemed impossible that he didn’t realize you were awake. Every muscle in your body was tense and trembling. You imagined yourself leaping up from the bed, grabbing your saber, and cutting his head off so clearly that for a moment you thought you’d actually done it.
Then the door opened. Footsteps cross the smooth floors with a hollow, metallic sort of sound. “Is he asleep?” asked Zewu Jun.
“I suppose so,” came the answer. Soft. Careful not to disturb Huaisang’s rest.
You saw the world in swathes of color, peering at them with your eyes open just the barest sliver. Wet, because your eyes and your cheeks were still streaked with tears, but wet too like paint that hasn’t quite dried, or a plan that has yet to form. Was it fear that pinned you silently to the bed, watching as they drew so close together? Was it hatred? Or the knowledge of what you would need to do to, in order to live through your vengeance?
You almost envied Wei Wuxian - who died so young, without having to realize the slow poison of finding out how truly, completely wrong you can be about yourself, about the person you can become.
Maybe he would know. And if not, maybe he should.