(Another fic written for the springkink requests community; the prompt for this was "Metal Gear Solid, The Boss/The Sorrow: awkward first time- lull." It's in three parts, and it's all written already so I'll just upload the next bits tomorrow and the day after. The rating will kick up to M for the last part, but for now all you need to worry about is the dead people. This is The Sorrow, right? There's got to be dead people. Oh, and we're mostly going in second person. Yep.)
He was dying. Shot, fording the river with a bleeding limb giving way underneath him - his head filling with a hazy grey light. He was tired. His eyes were fading, seeing only the clouds and the froth of the water ahead of him - his comrades running out the far side, marching onwards. Leaving him in the river. He still had strength, strength to stagger a step at a time - the riverbed was rising under his boots, giving him hope even as the blood left his body. He could still move. The shore, pebbles and mud slipping together under his feet - the water merely lapped against his waist, his thighs, his knees.
He fell on his hands and knees. He couldn't see. He was safe. He couldn't move, couldn't even crawl. He would stay here. He would go home.
(This is always what they tell you first. They begin with death. You endure the death before you endure the knowing. After death, if you can bear to keep listening, you hear the details.)
"You get anything?"
Her voice doesn't disturb you. It's brusque and hard and her, and you're glad to hear it after the cold whispers of the dead. To you, her voice is the same thing that she is.
"Yes. A Communist. He died by the side of the river." She doesn't interrupt. She gives you space. "A year ago, perhaps. They crossed from south to north, and he had a wound, and he fell."
You use the euphemism because it sounds soft and grey, like a rock tumbling into the river, sinking into the airless dark. She's used to it. She doesn't scowl at it any more, or look like she's wondering why you, of everyone, doesn't call death by its name. You think she knows why you say 'fell'.
Death is a word used by people who haven't been through it. It would be like naming a country you've never been to. It's better to call it by what it seems like on the inside. Like falling. It's like tears falling.
She's realised you've said all you know, and responds, "Last year?" You nod. The two of you are interrogating history. "Why were they going to the far north? Even the KMT never chased them over the Yellow River."
You'll find out.
When the ambush came, they were camped in a bend of the river - trusting it, using it as a wall and well and fortress. They'd been safe and resting. A watch was kept on the road that led south, but it was weary and minimal.
Your mission is to watch them. She watches the living, and you watch the dead. Put the two halves together, and you can see the whole of the unanticipated problem called Mengjiang. There is a dangerous gap in knowledge here - the Philosophers shelter in the south with their children while a rift splits China in two, and here Japan comes to crush one piece under its left boot, another under the right.
And he was tired and he was hungry but he was keen, and it wasn't until he'd killed two of them that he realised they weren't the Kuomintang. And the unexpected is fear, and fear makes you freeze, and then he was curled on the ground, beginning his slow descent.
You watch the rest of them fight through his pain-dulled eyes. It doesn't end how you expected.
When you come back to yourself, you're lying flat on your back beside the river. There's moist dirt seeping into your shirt, and your fingers, stretched out above your head, are dipped in the cool water. The sun's shining through your closed eyelids, its warmth chasing away the thoughts of the dead. She's nearby; you can't hear her breathing, but you know she's somewhere close, watching over you. It's her purpose, and she wouldn't deviate from it.
You roll onto your side, curling taut limbs into your chest, eyes blinking in welcome to the too-bright sky. There's coarse grass under your cheek, a river-damp swathe of deep green, hazing into undergrowth not far ahead of you - your spectacles are safely in her pocket, and without them, everything is uncertain and soft. You lift your head, and you can't see her; she's adept at concealing herself, even from those with full sight. You're sure she's still stretched out on the riverbank above you. It's like you're looking for a hidden detail in a painting. After a few seconds of blinking and running your hands up the grass, you find her boots.
She crawls back towards you inchwise, not making a sound. For a moment, you're a child on the farm again; you thought it was just a patch of ground, but then you saw the adder. Her hand finds yours, and your fingers flounder, stroking hard dry skin and - yes - smooth glass, vision, clarity. You'd thank her - for watching while you couldn't, too - but she'd not have you waste the words.
"Get anything more?"
"Yes. An ambush by a Japanese patrol, somewhere downriver from here. The Communists marched here afterwards to ford the river and find the enemy camp."
"They fought off the Japs?"
"Yes. Through their enemy's carelessness. They were underestimated, and the enemy showed their strength too soon."
"Story of this war, everyone underestimating the Reds." You shrug without moving. You are as red as they come, but that is one thing in Russia and quite another here. "Let's move out."
You follow her to the copse on hands and knees - your equipment, hidden in a subsided hollow underneath an old tree, is lying undisturbed beneath a net of leaves and branches. It takes more strength and patience to collect than it did to conceal, taking burdens one at a time from her hands, and finally, after she's scanned from the river to the sky to make sure there's not another human being within sight, you wheel the motorcycles back to the road.
Even assured that the valley is empty, you still speak softly in her presence. "What next?"
"North til you find the next ghost, of course."
The next ghost had been a shepherdess, perhaps the most unlucky in all the world; she had not intended to see the Japanese, and meant no ill to them; her fall feels hard and ugly, and the ghost fretted, tearfully, for her sheep. You can't be sure, but you think she fell a few days before the young Communist; she has little of use to tell you save that they were heading south when they attacked her, but you know she's glad that you have a need for even that tiny scrap of her knowledge.
You make your camp together close to where the shepherdess died, and after a shared meal, you watch her work on her gun.
It's a constant project, a solid moment moving nightly towards perfection. Another notch here - another millimetre off the barrel - or an hour spent doing patient wrist exercises, because her arm is as much a part of the weapon as the trigger is. No one can take a recoil like she can. Back at base, she vanishes into the armoury workshop for entire evenings to study feed mechanisms, in some fervent conviction that it is in the feed that she will finally find the gun's secret.
Most soldiers who have put so much of themselves into a weapon give a name to it, but hers has none. She says she'll name it once it's ready to have a name, but for now, it's just a project, an act of becoming, a child still in the womb.
Whatever minute part of it she's fiddling with tonight, it does not absorb her whole attention. She has enough left over to address you the way you address the ghosts - probe with questions, sit quiet through the rambling answers. "What's it like, speaking to the dead?"
She's never asked that before, but her questions are never idle. She is patient while you find a place to begin. "It started after the war." You know little of the Philosophers, only what the dead have told you - that you serve them, and that they have taken control of the world. In 1923 their interests finally triumphed in your homeland's civil war. They killed millions to become what they are now. "There was a silence that stretched over everything - voices missing, stories I wanted to hear but which no one would tell me, and...I was young, and I didn't understand, and I just wanted to know what had happened and why. So I listened, as hard as I could. In the night I'd go to cemetries, to battlefields. To grave pits.
"I don't know how it was that I learned to hear them and no one else did. I'd been yearning to hear, so it didn't seem strange. Perhaps," and these words are for her, because she taught you to understand this inner spirit of yourself, "It was the emotion inside me that took me to the battlefields to listen."
"The Sorrow." She's nodding slowly. She likes your explanation. But where has her emotion taken her? Unlike the others in your unit, she has no notably unusual abilities. She's simply a soldier. A level head, a steady arm, and a good eye, but there's nothing special about her. She has an interest in fighting with her hands, but that's all it is - she says one day she hopes to turn that, like the gun, into a perfect weapon - but to do that she will need a partner, a kindred as able as herself and she has yet to meet that kindred and she certainly won't find him in you.
You realise you've not answered her question yet. "Their world is grey and it moves slowly...the dead speak as if they are far under water. I have to push my thoughts, my questions, under that surface, and when they reply, it's like a wave that returns from the depths." You feel like your words are inadequate, just an echo of how it really feels, but you don't know how else to say it. You've never thought about what you'd say of it. You never thought she'd be so interested in you as to ask.
"How is it that you're not swamped? World's full of dead men - how do you find the right ones to tell us what we need to know?"
"They find me," you reply. "They're lost, and they need to have consequence in the living world...if they know, they will come and tell me, and if they do not know, they will search for someone who does." Death has no significance of its own. The dead don't talk about the saints and angels. They just desperately seek to draw meaning from the lives they lived.
"So any of them tell you anything? Doesn't matter which side they were on?" You nod. "Not very patriotic."
Well, no. "China, Russia, America - there's no difference to the dead."
"Or to the Philosophers." An observation. Not a joke. When she speaks of the Philosophers it is as if she is their tool and yet they are her burden. "It's the same the world over? Doesn't even matter what language they speak?"
"No. I think language is clay that we use to shape concepts. The dead have only the concepts, and their memories. They're the same in any place." That said... "There are some here who are different. Not grey things waiting for the current to take them. There's bright ones, with voices that ring over the centuries. They're like icons of saints. They've forgotten their flesh, and become the symbols they carry - a face turned into a phoenix, an arm turned into a spear. Maybe they were never humans. Now, they're just...the things that the living people love them for."
She sets down the gun, laying it on the dry grass well in reach of her hand. You wonder if she believes you - your parents never did, your priest never did, you're not sure if anyone ever has - and you think that she does, because she wouldn't have asked if she wasn't going to accept your answer at face value. You're used to failed attempts to expand others' horizons, attempts that leave them thinking that you're mad. She has no horizon. She's open to the new and the extraordinary, endless as the sky.
"And these people speak to you?"
These people are more than people. "Yes - I hear them even when they have no answers for me. They're part of the hills and the rivers here."
"What do they say? What do they want?"
You sigh. "They're old - they've been here for more centuries than other lands can count. When they were young, they thought this land was the whole of the world. They want it to go on for always, sovereign and inviolate. They want Japan out. They want China to be whole and triumphant."
"Have you told them we're in the middle of a bloody civil war?"
You usually try not to tell them anything. "Being a patriot is hard," you say.
It's your turn to listen the next morning. She talks rapidly while you're breaking camp - you packing away cooking pots and sleeping bags, she pulling tent pegs out of the ground, with the rising sun bathing the both of you in its clear light.
"This place has gone to shit since Sun died." She means Sun Yat-Sen, the first president of the Republic. She always speaks of him as if he is a revered member of her family, which to her you suppose he was - you know he was of the Wisemen's Committee, like her father. The dead don't keep secrets - Lenin told you about the others of that elect, six years after his own death. "The damn KMT were schisming before he was cold, and they turned on the Communists as soon as he was in the ground and haven't let up since."
You think about ghosts, and wonder if Sun is still wandering the streets of Peking, far away to the east. It's likely - they are all taken eventually by the current, but it is the most troubled who cling on for the longest. "It must pain him," you say, and she looks to you, confused. "There's nothing that troubles the dead more than watching children fight over their legacy."
She looks at you thoughtfully. It's like, if she is the sky, you are the shadows. She's looking down into the depths of you. "It's coming to pieces," she says. "There's the Kuomintang, the Communists, the Japanese...no saying which of them will be China once this is over."
"This wasn't meant to happen." It wasn't. There's a tremor approaching you from the far distance - the stirrings of those who will die in the years to come. You'd ask why the Philosophers in Russia and America don't send support, but you know the answer to that; you are the support. All two of you. Russia and America have no cause to march into Asia, and they have too little resources to waste them on meddling with Japan. And all for a land where so little changed for thousands of years, and so much changed within the last thirty. "What will they do?"
She knows what you mean. The Philosophers were meant to control war, and here they were having one of their three sturdy legs battered away from under them. "That's up to them," she replies. "We here to do the mission."
You nod. That's the beginning and the end of both of you. You're not unquestioning or slavish or ideologically pure. But her unwavering faith in the mission, and the mission alone, is like a candle lit inside her, shedding light in the murk of this ugly three-way war, and you have touched your wick to this devotion and seen everything illuminated.
She's rolling up the canvas, and you're toeing the ashes of the campfire, wanting to at least make your trail look cold.
The mission goes north towards Mongolia, where there is a Japanese military force, a desert, and little else. It occurs to you that there is an American saying that describes that place perfectly; high and dry.