Wei Wuxian runs.
It has to have been almost a full day since he had lifted A-Yuan into his arms and carried him away from the bodies of his family, and the sun is setting. The child’s weight in his arms feels like he’s trying to carry a horse. His frightened whimpering is almost drowned out by the thud of Wei Wuxian’s feet against the ground and his panting as he keeps running long after he probably should have stopped. He’d run out of any spare strength to comfort the child with hours ago. It’s lucky for them that A-Yuan is such a quiet child; if he’d been screaming or crying loudly, they never would have gotten out of the Burial Mounds. As it is, Wei Wuxian can feel blood soaking into his robes from the gash along his upper thigh, picked up from a group of cultivators who’d run into them not long before, while he’d been distracted with A-Yuan. (Wei Wuxian can feel the weight of the Stygian Tiger Seal in his sleeve, but he can't bring himself to regret not destroying it when he'd realized the sects' army was approaching. Any further delays and he doubts they would have been able to make it out before the bulk of the army caught up to them.) He had been able to finish them without too much difficulty, but the slice in his leg remains, slowing him down and sending sharp pain lancing through him with every step. They need to stop, at least long enough that he can do something about the bleeding. A-Yuan doesn’t seem to have noticed, but he can’t keep running like this for much longer. He needs to find somewhere they can take shelter, at least for a few hours. Somewhere he can find some clean cloth, at least.
He keeps running. The sun has finished setting by the time A-Yuan tugs at his hair. “Xian-gege, there’s a house.”
He looks up, forcing his eyes to focus again. There is a house, just coming into view now. Good thing A-Yuan pointed it out; it’s enough off their current route that he might have missed it. Wei Wuxian finally slows his pace to a walk as he swerves to take them to the door. When he peeks inside, he can see one room, a table and three chairs taking up most of the available space. It seems empty, and safe enough that Wei Wuxian carefully slides the door open. He can hear the snoring the moment he steps inside; seems like the homeowners have long since gone to sleep. The only downside is that the fire in the hearth has gone cold. Still, at least they’re unlikely to get caught. He sets A-Yuan down at the table and raises a warning finger to his lips before going to rummage around.
It's hard to ignore the growing sense of guilt as he pokes through the house. This family (a young couple, as he discovers when he steps into one room and only just manages to avoid tripping over them) clearly doesn’t have much, and he hates that he’s planning on taking some of what little they do have. But, he justifies to himself, it’s not like he has much of a choice in the matter. If he doesn’t steal, A-Yuan could starve, and that’s something he can’t allow. He won’t take any more than they need. It’s a small comfort.
In the bedroom (once he’s gotten over the surprise of nearly treading on their unwitting hosts), he finds a small pouch with some coins in it. He takes the pouch and counts out the money quickly, reminding himself that he and A-Yuan will need to be able to get food once what they get here has run out; there’s not much in the pouch, but it’ll cover at least a couple meals, so long as they don’t worry too much about the quality. It won’t be much different from what they had the first few months in the Burial Mounds, he thinks, just barely managing to swallow back a chuckle as he tucks the pouch into his sleeve. “Sorry,” he whispers to the couple as he carefully steps over them and creeps back down the hall. The kitchen is next; he doesn’t take much, since he needs to be able to carry it, but he does grab a melon and some rice, as well as a worn bag hanging on the wall. It’s a good thing he had picked up Suibian on his way out of the Demon Slaughtering Cave; maybe he can’t use it in combat, but it will be good for cutting melon.
He returns to A-Yuan and gestures him over to the door. “Let’s see if we can find a clothesline or something,” he whispers.
“Aren’t you going to pay for all this?” A-Yuan whispers back, looking over the food. Such a sweet child.
Wei Wuxian glances in the direction of the bedroom. They’re being quiet, but he doesn’t want to push his luck any further than he already has today. “We’ll talk about that later,” he tells him. “Let’s go outside for now.”
Thankfully, A-Yuan does so without any further questions, and they find a clothesline with some clean – if slightly damp – clothes still hanging from it. Nothing that will fit A-Yuan, but people are less likely to fixate on his clothes than Wei Wuxian’s. The clothes look tattered and patched, but not bloodstained, and he hopes the patches will make him look reasonably unassuming and harmless. He grabs some fresh clothes down from the line, then grabs a spare set of inner robes as a thought strikes him. “Xian-gege, you can’t just take that!” A-Yuan protests.
“We don’t have much choice, A-Yuan,” Wei Wuxian sighs, adding a straw hat to his pile and shoving as much of it as he can into the bag. “If I keep my clothes on people might recognize me, and even if they don’t they’ll still see the blood. We need something else for me to wear, or we’ll draw too much attention.”
“Can’t we buy clothes?” A-Yuan asks. “You and Granny and Aunt Qing and Uncle Ning all told me it’s wrong to just take things.”
Wei Wuxian forces himself to be patient. A-Yuan is still a child, after all; he can’t be expected to understand the nuances of morality. “Sometimes we have to break the rules to survive,” he explains, starting off back into the trees surrounding the house. “We don’t have any money,” except for the pouch tucked into his sleeve, but A-Yuan doesn’t need to know about that, “or anything else we can leave in payment, and we can’t explain anything to them because they’d recognize me. But we only took a little; they’ll be fine.” Probably.
“Oh.” A-Yuan nods, apparently accepting this explanation. “Xian-gege?”
“Me too, A-Yuan,” Wei Wuxian sighs. “Once we find somewhere safe we can eat this melon I got us, okay?”
“I’m tired, too.”
“I know.” He considers it for a second, then readjusts the bag and bends down. “Here, climb on my back. I’ll carry you.”
“Okay.” A-Yuan clambers onto his back. Wei Wuxian straightens up with a silent curse as his leg protests the added weight and continues walking. “…Xian-gege?”
Wei Wuxian resists the urge to sigh. So many questions… Is this how his teachers felt? If it is, he’ll never say a word against them again. “Yes, A-Yuan?”
“Are you going to leave too?” A-Yuan mumbles, already half asleep. “Like Uncle Ning and Aunt Qing and Granny and everyone?”
Wei Wuxian stumbles, pulling a sleepy complaint from the child on his back. “Oh, A-Yuan, no,” he says. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“Good,” A-Yuan says. “I don’t want you to ever leave.” With that said he sighs and falls asleep, leaving Wei Wuxian alone with his thoughts.
He doesn’t let himself think about it as he finds them a cave where they can spend the night. It isn’t much, little better than a hole in the ground, but it’s dry and reasonably secure, and big enough to hold a man and a child for a few hours. Before anything else, he wakes A-Yuan enough to let him know he’s stepping outside for a minute, then takes his new clothes and finds a nearby stream where he can at least wash his wound a little. It’s definitely been made worse by running on it for so long. He can almost hear Wen Qing yelling at him for stressing it so much. Sorry, Wen Qing. Couldn’t be helped. He tears strips off the extra robe he’d taken to wrap it; it’s not perfect, but it’s better than nothing. With that done, he quickly changes into his new clothes. The length is pretty good, he thinks, but they hang off his frame loosely. He does his best to ignore the evidence of how much weight he’s lost in the Burial Mounds in favour of returning to A-Yuan so he can slice up the melon for them both. “Well, it’s not much of a meal, but it’s better than nothing,” he says quietly.
“It’s good,” A-Yuan says around a mouthful of melon. They didn’t get much melon in the Burial Mounds; at least A-Yuan seems to be thinking of it as a treat.
Wei Wuxian smiles, almost overwhelmed by a wave of affection for this brave little boy. He doubts he would’ve handled this anywhere near as well at his age. “You’re such a good boy, A-Yuan. Finish your melon and get some sleep, okay?” So saying, he leans back against the wall of the cave and closes his eyes.
“Okay,” he vaguely hears A-Yuan say, followed by something else he can’t quite make out. He thinks about asking him to repeat it, but instead drifts off into an exhausted sleep.
His sleep is dreamless and undisturbed at first. Both he and A-Yuan are exhausted by the siege and everything that came after, and neither of them so much as twitches for several hours. Then the dreams start.
Wei Wuxian is woken up twice by A-Yuan shifting restlessly and calling out in his sleep. The first time he’s able to soothe him away from the nightmare without waking him with a hand in his hair and gentle words. The second time, A-Yuan wakes with a scream and refuses to go back to sleep, calling for Granny, Wen Qing, and Wen Ning until Wei Wuxian tugs him into his lap and pulls the remains of the spare robe he’d taken over them both. He drifts off then, but Wei Wuxian himself stays awake for some time, staring into the darkness around them as he absently strokes A-Yuan’s hair. Even after he finally falls back to sleep, he startles awake at the slightest sound for several hours, and only drifts off properly as the sun is rising. His dreams are confused and twisted, and he wakes feeling almost more tired than he had been when he fell asleep.
When he finally does jolt awake for good, the sun is high in the sky. A-Yuan stirs from where he’s been sitting at his side with a little smile. Wei Wuxian smiles back, hoping that he doesn’t look as exhausted as he feels. “Good morning.”
“Good morning,” A-Yuan replies politely. “Xian-gege, are we going to stay here?”
“Not for long,” Wei Wuxian assures him, reaching for his sword to cut up some more of the melon for breakfast. “We’ll stay until sunset, then we’ll keep moving.”
“But if we leave at sunset, won’t we be traveling at night?” A-Yuan asks. He wrinkles his nose. “What about the fierce corpses and things?”
“You let me worry about that,” Wei Wuxian says. “If we travel at night, less people will be around to see us, which means it’s safer.”
“Okay,” A-Yuan says. He doesn’t look entirely happy about it, but he doesn’t ask any more questions about it. Instead, he seems content to watch as Wei Wuxian sets about preparing for travel. He transfers Chenqing and the pouch of money from his old clothes to the new ones, and then heads back to the stream, this time with A-Yuan, to have a drink and wash his old clothes as best he can. With that done, he sends A-Yuan back to the cave so he can check on his wound. It hasn’t gotten any worse, at least, but he still ends up changing the bandages and washing the old ones before he returns.
He and A-Yuan while away the rest of the afternoon with naps and conversation. They don’t talk about anything important, like the siege or their family, but it helps to pass the time and keeps Wei Wuxian from getting too bored. He remembers this from the days after Lotus Pier burned, too, although A-Yuan is much better company than Jiang Cheng was. He’d never expected being a fugitive could involve so much waiting before he’d actually done it. As the sun begins to set, he cuts up what’s left of the melon for dinner and wraps his mostly-dry old robes around Suibian to hide it. He doesn’t know how many people would recognize his sword on sight, but he doesn’t see any reason to take unnecessary risks. The bandages go into the bag. Once that’s done and they’ve finished eating, he sets his new straw hat on his head and lifts A-Yuan into his arms. He sets off into the night and doesn’t look back.
They continue like this for some time, traveling by night and hiding wherever they can find shelter during the day. Wei Wuxian can’t say how long; his attention drifts away for long periods, leaving him unable to think beyond the constant thudding of his footsteps and the low humming he forces himself to maintain to keep any fierce corpses nearby at bay. He doesn’t look up to judge the time beyond finding places to sleep when the sky begins to lighten. He just keeps moving forward, stumbling on aching legs. He falls a few times; every time, he manages to pull himself back up and keep going. He even manages to offer A-Yuan a faint smile each time, deflecting his concern with a few attempts at humour. He barely has the energy to respond to A-Yuan’s increasingly worried questions, but he does his best to keep up what little conversation they attempt on the road. It feels impossible that just a few weeks ago (he thinks; he doesn’t know how long it’s been since Jin Zixuan died, or since the pledge conference. He’s losing track of how long they’ve been walking, how many times they’ve stopped in caves or abandoned houses or even under trees to hide throughout the day) they had been sitting around a table with the Wens, joking and laughing. It feels impossible to keep moving forward, even more impossible that he can possibly find somewhere, anywhere, where A-Yuan can be safe.
Attempt the impossible. Those were the words he had lived by when he’d lived at Lotus Pier. He can try, right? He’s always been good at it. He didn’t die on the streets, right? He’d clawed his way out of the Burial Mounds alive, right? Surely keeping one child alive can’t be as hard as that. Right?
(It is. It definitely is.)
He wonders as he stumbles blindly forward if Uncle Jiang might be proud of him, refusing to give up even now. Then he reminds himself that he got him, his wife, and his daughter killed and left his son alone and pushes the thought aside. Why would anyone be proud of him now? He certainly isn’t proud of himself. No, there’s no use in hoping for pride. All he has to do is keep going and keep A-Yuan alive until he can find someone who can take care of him and then… what then? What will he do after that?
After that… he can figure it out when he gets there. If he gets there. Maybe he can finally put an end to the mess he’s created once and for all. He just needs to get A-Yuan somewhere safe first. He just needs to avoid the sects and stay alive long enough to do that. He just needs to go a little farther. A few more steps.
A few more steps.
It becomes a mantra, as he walks and stumbles and falls and gets back on his feet. A few more steps. A few more steps. A few more steps. He only just remembers to stagger into out-of-sight corners and caves to sleep instead of just dropping where he stands. A few more steps. He breaks into a few more houses, once has to stop by a town to buy food with their small supply of coin when they spend a bit too long in well-guarded areas. A few more steps.
It’s on his second trip into a town that things change. He’s left A-Yuan hidden in a hollow tree just outside of town while he takes care of the shopping (children draw attention, he’d learned that while they were still at the Burial Mounds and buying potatoes in Yiling; it was only during their first foray into town that he’d learned children can also draw unwanted attention, when carried by an unfamiliar and rather filthy-looking man), and he’s managed to pull his hair back into some semblance of order under his straw hat. At the very least it looks… more or less like it has been washed at some point in the last however-long-it’s-been since the siege. He’s managed to at least splash himself with water when they stop by streams or ponds for the day, so hopefully he won’t smell too much.
He slips into town without incident. This town is within the borders of Gusu, just far enough from anywhere important that no one should be able to recognize him without looking more closely than would be appropriate; it should be safe enough. Still, he pulls his hat a little lower over his eyes when he walks into the market, feeling unsettlingly close to exposed. He hates feeling like this; he loves having people’s eyes on him, but right now a stray glance from the wrong person could mean death for him and A-Yuan both. He has to keep his head down and avoid notice long enough to do his shopping. The last few coins they have are enough to get them food for a few more days at least.
The owner of the stall he stops at, a young man with bright eyes, smiles at him as he makes his purchases and slips them into his bag. “Is that all?”
“Yeah… Yes,” Wei Wuxian says. His voice comes out rough from lack of use, and he coughs. “Yeah, that’s all, thanks.” It’s been a while since anyone has smiled at him. Even A-Yuan is too worn-down from the situation, barely been able to manage more than a faint upward twitch of the lips at Wei Wuxian’s occasional attempts at jokes. He wonders how this man would react if he knew just who it is he's grinning at so brightly. He turns away from the stall with a bright smile of his own from under his hat and freezes.
The clothing of the four great sects is designed to stand out in the crowd. It’s richer and more vibrant than the average person can afford, and combined with the gleaming swords cultivators carry at their waists it’s very difficult to miss no matter how many people are around. So when Wei Wuxian catches a glimpse of clean white cloth and the fluttering ends of a forehead ribbon, it isn’t difficult to realize what he’s just gotten himself into. It’s unlikely a member of the Lan sect senior enough to be traveling alone when the cultivation world is threatened and on high alert would fail to recognize the dreaded Yiling Patriarch; his only hope is to slip away before the cultivator can see him. To think he’d thought this place was far enough away from the Cloud Recesses that he’d be safe!
Wei Wuxian’s luck could never be that good, of course. Just as he’s about to turn away, the Lan cultivator turns and glances at him and he finds himself meeting the man’s gaze. Painfully familiar golden eyes widen in shocked recognition that not even Lan Wangji’s famous stoicism can disguise, and Wei Wuxian curses under his breath. What is he doing here? How did he recognize him so quickly? His disguise was completely worthless in the end. How could Wei Wuxian’s luck be so bad that someone who wouldn’t even consider letting him go just happened to show up in the same place and the same time as him? For a moment, the pair of them simply stare at each other, Lan Wangji likely just as surprised as Wei Wuxian is. Wei Wuxian takes a step back. Lan Wangji takes a step forward. Wei Wuxian sighs and considers his options, still trying to slowly back away.
Lan Wangji has already recognized him. There’s nothing he can do about that now. He’s in no fit state for fighting; still wounded, exhausted from running all night and barely sleeping, hungry from eating just enough to keep him on his feet and moving. If it comes to a fight, Lan Wangji will kill him, and A-Yuan will be alone and defenseless. He’d be unlikely to survive long on his own. Lan Wangji doesn’t look much better, though; he moves stiffly, like he’s holding himself upright mostly through sheer willpower. Had he gotten into a fight with something? It must have been powerful, if that’s the case. Perhaps he won’t give chase if they run… but he can fly, while Wei Wuxian is on foot, limping, and carrying a child.
He’ll just have to risk it. Wei Wuxian nods to himself, then turns on his heel and runs. He’s slower than he’d like; his stamina has long since been drained by the countless nights of stumbling farther from Yiling and he’s limping heavily. He can’t outrun Lan Wangji. They were equals on Wei Wuxian’s best day, and he’s far from that right now. Still, whether Lan Wangji was startled by his sudden movement or is being slowed by whatever it is that’s making him even stiffer than usual, he manages to reach the trees without a hand landing on his shoulder or a blade running him through. He keeps going. If he can just get to A-Yuan, maybe they can go, or maybe Lan Wangji will hesitate at the sight of a child, or… It’s not much of a plan, but it’s all he’s got, so he runs.
Maybe he tries to go a little too fast. Maybe there’s a rock he doesn’t see. Whatever the reason, his injured leg twists under him and he crashes to the ground with a pained cry he can’t quite hold back. He tries to drag himself back to his feet, only for his leg to buckle under the weight and land him back on the ground.
“Wei Ying!” Lan Wangji yells. He sounds almost concerned, but who would be concerned for the Yiling Patriarch? Wei Wuxian curses everything from his damaged leg to his hopeful imagination and pulls himself back to lean against a tree. He can at least pretend to have some dignity left, though a large part of him desperately wants to roll around on the ground and maybe cry for a bit.
“What are you doing here, Lan Zhan?” he asks. He winces at how tired he sounds. It can’t be helped, though; he is tired. So very, very tired. He wants to sleep for a week. Or possibly forever.
“Looking for you.” Even if Lan Wangji does kill him, he can’t deny it’s good to hear a familiar voice that isn’t shouting at him.
“For me, huh.” He lets his eyes drift closed. Lan Wangji isn’t the sort to attack someone when their guard is down, even if that someone is Wei Wuxian. “I suppose a lot of people are looking for me now.”
“…Hey, Lan Zhan, if I asked you for a favour, what would you say?” He doesn’t dare so much as glance at Lan Wangji. He’s always been shameless, but asking for help while the entire cultivation world is trying to hunt him down is pushing even his limits. But what choice does he have? He can’t do this on his own, and Lan Wangji will be able to do whatever he wants with him anyway.
“Well, I suppose you would want to know more about it first, right? In case I want you to… bring me some virgins, or sacrifice a small child, or whatever it is people think I’ve been doing the past few… How long has it been since the siege, anyway? I’ve lost track of time.” This is a terrible idea. He should probably just stop talking.
“A few weeks.” Lan Wangji is being even more curt than usual. His voice is clipped and sharp around the edges with what Wei Wuxian thinks is pain. “Wei Ying. Your favour?”
“Right, right.” He hauls himself to his feet, clinging to the tree to maintain his balance. Lan Wangji steps forward quickly and offers him an arm. Wei Wuxian wants to refuse it, but his leg threatens to buckle again when he rests his weight on it and the idea of support is too good to pass up, even if it’ll likely end with Lan Wangji dropping him on his ass like he deserves. And then killing him. Leaning heavily on the other man’s arm, he leads him to the tree where he had left A-Yuan while he got food and gestures towards him. “You remember A-Yuan from when you visited Yiling, right? A-Yuan, you remember Brother Rich?”
“Mn.” Lan Wangji steps closer. “Hello.”
“Hello,” A-Yuan replies, eyes wide. Wei Wuxian nobly restrains his laughter at the sight of the pair staring at each other.
He lets go of Lan Wangji’s arm in favour of leaning against the tree beside A-Yuan. “I can’t take care of him out here,” he admits, focusing on A-Yuan rather than having to meet Lan Wangji’s gaze. “Don’t interrupt, A-Yuan, it’s true,” he adds as the child tries to say something. “This is no way to raise a child. I can’t take care of him, and no one would take in a child brought to them by the Yiling Patriarch. I wasn’t sure what to do before you showed up.”
Wei Wuxian nods. He takes a deep breath, then spins to face Lan Wangji and drops to his knees in front of him, ignoring the sharp pain as his leg protests the sudden movement. “I need you to take care of him for me.” He lowers his head. “Please.”
“Let me finish!” Wei Wuxian interrupts. If he doesn’t get the words out now he’s afraid he never will. “I’ll do anything you ask. If you want to kill me here and now, or bring me back to your sect and torture me, or use my strength against your enemies, or imprison me, or… or whatever, I’ll do it, just… please, please take care of A-Yuan. Please, I’ll do anything you want, anything at all, just make sure he’s okay. Please.”
For a long moment, there’s silence. Wei Wuxian breathes, and hopes, and doesn’t dare raise his head. “…Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says at last, and it’s so soft, so gentle, that Wei Wuxian almost melts under it. “Come back to Gusu with me.”
He’s spent a long time pushing those words aside, meeting them with scorn and anger, but now they feel like Shijie’s arms breaking his fall, or the warmth of the sun on his face as he dragged himself out of the Burial Mounds. They feel like hope.
“Yes,” he says, and takes Lan Wangji’s offered hand.