It was a day with a painful dawn. The run crept over the horizon as a beacon, burning and terrible. The drumming sound of a thousand feet echoed off harsh stone and into his bones, made his skin tremble. The very walls seemed to bleed with force, creaking into a thousand shuddering motions.
It was a sound that he had known would come.
Wei Wuxian stood with a harsh finality, taking steps towards the maw of the Burial Grounds. His black robes brushed the ground and left behind his laughter, left behind his smiles. There was dread in him now, and he had a clenched jaw and the lacquered touch of Chenqing at his waist.
An army was on his doorstep, and it was his fault and poor luck again. He would not let his new family die, not now, not if there was blood in his veins and strength in his arms.
But he could only do so much.
The drums summoned him forward, and he took slow steps to the entrance, Wen Ning falling into place beside him as he walked. His friend looked grim and quiet, stiff skin unable to twist to unhappiness.
He couldn’t make any expressions these days, and Wei Wuxian had done that to him.
“Young master,” came the call, gentle and so very sad.
Wei Wuxian smiled against it, smiled like stone had cut into his lips. “You don’t need to be here, you know. You should leave, take your sister and the rest and go find a happy life.”
It was a pipe dream he knew, but he said it all the same. It was all he had hoped for the Wen remnants.
That timid face hardened, dead jaw stiff but eyes black and stubborn. “None of us have left, young master. And I am sorry, but I am going with you. I won’t—”
There was a pause, filled with no silence but the pounding of war drums. “I won’t leave you.”
Wei Wuxian felt the rising sun burn into his skin and wanted to cry. He wasn’t shocked, not when he knew his friend so well.
But he was furious with worry, mad with despair. They were standing with him and strolling at his side and choosing this death.
He couldn’t let them die here, but he didn’t know what could stop that fate.
Together, they walked to the front, and together, they faced down the stony faces of four Sect Leaders.
The four men stood a judgmental vigil at his gate, the proud lines of Nie Mingjue contrasting to the gentle but unstoppable force of Lan Xichen and the proud and sly rage of Jin Guangshan.
In white robes that glimmered like snow over smooth river rock, Lan Zhan stood beside his brother. As Wei Wuxian walked forward his eyes fell on that man, his old friend and older enemy.
Strong fingers twitched over Bichen’s hilt, and he felt a needle pierce his heart. Truly, the man must hate him so.
Jiang Cheng stood apart, a few steps away with a face like thunder given skin. Wei Wuxian looked at the clenched jaw of his brother and couldn’t bring himself to smile. He laughed instead, cold and sharp.
They rocked back at the sound, eyes glancing to Wen Ning beside him as if the man was a leashed dragon and not his friend.
“A welcome party, just for me. What brings you storming to my door?” The words cut the morning tension like a knife, infecting it and making it all the stronger.
He knew these men, had fought beside them and for them. He knew them, and here they stood, come to kill him.
They could take him and make his life into death for all he cared, but he couldn’t stand by and let them touch the others, not Wen Ning, not—
“You dare ask that after you killed my son?” Jin Guangshan’s voice was not righteous but oily, and it sent chills down Wei Wuxian’s spine. The gold peony shone on his robes, and a fan was held in a loose hand. He did not look furious but annoyed, face twisting into something like grief.
Wei Wuxian felt such anger, at that voice.
Words boiled on his tongue, boiled through his throat until he could hold them in no longer.
“One of your sons tried to kill me. Another laid down the foundation for an ambush. The third I saved. Is this what the Lanling Jin Sect calls honor?” He paused, and laughter caught on his voice dark and mocking. “Ah, but you don’t have any honor, do you, Jin Guangshan?”
The words were too harsh and too sharp and too much, and they would burn so many bridges. But he couldn’t keep them contained, couldn’t stop their press from his lungs.
He had tried so hard, and worked so long, to protect the people he loved. He had sacrificed every facet of his beloved life, every hope and comfort and—
And he would do it all again. But here and now Jin Guangshan accused him of killing the man his Shijie loved, and that was a step too far.
He did not look at Jiang Cheng, did not watch for his brother’s frustration. There was no need; he could hear it in the low snarl, quiet and desperate over rough stone.
Wei Wuxian did not look.
Cunning eyes flashed and the cultivators behind the Sect Leader rustled with discontent. “You dare accuse me of this? My heir is dead at your hands, madman. You have gone unchecked long enough.”
The words echoed out, pressing forward with the merciless sun and twisting the air into tension. Old bones lined the rocks above them, a thousand bodies given to death and misery here.
A thousand soldiers if Wei Wuxian wanted them. He took a breath, felt it shake from tired lungs and whispering out like darkness and desperation. At his side, Wen Ning shifted, motions stilted with death.
His friend would die with him, if he asked. Wei Wuxian didn’t know if there was another path before them but bloodshed. There was a weapon of iron and dark energy in his sleeve, and he rubbed contemplative fingers across it and wondered.
What price would he pay to save the Wen remnants? Would Jiang Cheng stand down, to live another day?
Would Wei Wuxian's death be enough to quench the fury in the air?
He did not know, but he knew they would not listen. Their minds were poisoned against him, poisoned by popular opinion and the tongue of whispers.
His gaze caught on white robes and golden eyes and he wondered if Lan Zhan would be the first to strike him down.
He hoped not.
But a proud voice broke the tension like the rays of a gentle sun, ruthless but yet kind. “No, father, I am not.”
There was a collective inhale, a thousand lungs breathing shocked breaths. Jin Zixuan strode down the rocky path in threadbare robes and with a king’s bearing, each footstep precise and firm.
He stopped at Wei Wuxian’s side, drawing to a slow halt and staring down his father with a calm face. There was a healthy sheen to his skin, and he looked as if he slept an eternity and risen immortal and young.
Wei Wuxian couldn’t help but glance down at his chest, at the hole that was now healed. He would not forget how blood and ribs had looked, cracked open, for the rest of his life.
“Everything the Yiling Patriarch has said is true. I was saved by this man and the remnants of the Wen Clan that live here. Our pride had been damaged by poor behavior, and I will not stand for it.”
“Child—” began Jin Guangshan, face contorted and strained. That silky expression of rage was melting into worry, and had Wei Wuxian the mind, he would have laughed at it.
But Jin Zixuan was standing by his side and speaking in his defense and he could not think.
There was the sound of rustling robes and low murmurs, breaking through the Sect Leader’s voice and drawing every eye.
Lan Zhan, one of the twin jades of Gusu Lan and with a face more beautiful than polished jade, strode forward.
His steps towards Wei Wuxian were confident and sharp, his lips set to calm but a maelstrom in his eyes.
No blow came, no harsh strike of the sword and no challenge. Lan Zhan stopped before him for the space of a long heartbeat, and then turned on foot to stand at his side. White robes swirled around him at the motion, catching the sun and fracturing its rays.
I stand with him, that motion said, with clean lines and the elegant drape of a forehead ribbon.
Wei Wuxian felt like he couldn’t breathe with happiness, with disbelief. Lan Zhan was standing with him, beside him, for him.
Maybe hate wasn’t what stirred in those golden eyes after all. “Lan Zhan,” he breathed, and received a low nod in response.
He couldn’t breathe.
“The Gusu Lan Sect would support Wei Wuxian,” spoke Lan Xichen, the words proud but gentle. The man sounded like spring rain come to wash away too much blood and pain. “There has been too much strife and bloodshed between us clans and for the Wen. It should end with peace now.”
Wei Wuxian wanted to turn his face to the sun and rest in its glare, wanted to smile. He didn’t understand this fate, not with his too-thin fingers and pale skin.
He did not deserve this, he thought, feeling the splatter of Jin Zixuan’s blood across his face again.
But the man stood beside him now and spoke otherwise.
Jiang Cheng walked forward with lightning crackling across his fingers and jaw sent into the edge of fury. He looked like a brother made angry, and Wei Wuxian had never been more grateful to see those eyes.
He had worried for his brother’s duties and pride, but he should have known Jiang Cheng would stand beside him.
The man trusted him, and that felt like benediction.
“The Yunmeng Jiang Sect stands with Wei Wuxian as well.”
Two of the great clans supporting him, another brought to shame over accusations. It was enough to change fate, enough to make the pariah listened to and heard.
It was enough to make Wei Wuxian smile, disbelieving and fragile. Corpses would dance at his fingers and before the sound of his flute, but right now all he needed was his brother.
He glanced at Jin Zixuan, tall and proud in threadbare robes. The glint of righteousness in that face was unmistakable.
Perhaps all he needed were two brothers, after all.
The sun shone relentless overhead, and the broad body of Nie Mingjue stared down at him, gaze heavy and burning. The man looked like he was weighing the truth on a trader’s scale, watching how Wei Wuxian shifted.
The warrior’s gaze shifted to Lan Xichen and grew soft. For a moment, there was silence but for the quiet communication of sworn brothers, the crinkling of eyes and the pursing of lips.
At last, Nie Mingjue stepped forward with the force of a mountain, glimmering and deadly in the sunlight.
Wei Wuxian felt the remnants of tension creep from his spine like water flowing off rock.
“The Qinghe Nie Sect as well. Now cut this polite talk and deal with the problems like cultivators and not gossiping children.” The words were not harsh but blunt, and the crowd of cultivators shifted at them, shifted like leaves caught in the breeze.
This was a thing no one had foreseen, and Wei Wuxian couldn’t quite believe it. Fate had never been kind to him, and now the clouds had parted and the sun felt less brutal.
Jin Zixuan spoke out, and he felt every word shake his bones. “The issue, Sect Leader, is that my brother in law was set up to kill me.”
A proud jaw clenched, the man strong and firm in ragged robes. “It is an insult to my wife’s family, and I will not stand for it.”
This was a brother’s support, unexpected but so very precious. This was so much more than good that he couldn’t bring himself to bear the words.
All he could do, in the end, was smile a real smile.
For long months Wei Wuxian had been protector and pariah, shield and curse. He had carved out his bones to keep the Wen remnants alive and done it gladly and with feeling.
But it had been so much to bear, so much weight to carry.
In the aftermath of that fateful sunny day, that weight had been stripped from his shoulders. He was free, light as a bird and given hope.
We must take them in, Jin Zixuan had said, and the world listened. That man didn’t have the stain of blood on his fingers, wasn’t marked by demonic cultivation.
He wasn’t feared, and that made all the difference.
On the first day after the siege that ended in peace, a thousand cultivators camped outside the burial mounds’ walls. Rumors spread like wildfire through their ranks, but preparations spread even faster; a town for fifty was to be established, deep in the heartland of Lanling.
Wei Wuxian turned to the man beside him and smiled like the sun had shone over the horizon.
“Thank you,” he said, and meant it with his whole heart. It was the softest he had ever spoken to Jin Zixuan, the softest they had ever been with each other. For long years they had been sharp words and fierce stares, always predators circling each other for weakness.
Always had he thought this man not good enough for Shijie. He knew now that he had been wrong.
Jin Zixuan just looked at him with noble eyes and the pride of a general. He had changed from threadbare robes to the sheen of golden silk, but his face was still understanding.
“No, Wei Ying, thank you.” The man took a breath, careful and measured. “You saved my life, and now I can go home and see my son again.”
A-ling, Wei Wuxian thought, and wondered if this peace would let him know his nephew.
“I—“ The man paused, the words seeming difficult and strained. “I know we have had our differences but know that I consider you a brother. I hope someday you will consider me the same.”
Wind pressed between them, gentle on a summer’s day. It was hot, and the itch of his robes was strong, but all Wei Wuxian could focus on was the respectful nod Jin Zixuan gave him.
He threw back his head and laughed, delighted and with an unfamiliar happiness crawling in his chest.
Who knew that his precious family could grow so easily?
The curl of his smile grew teasing, the sun beat into his pale skin and kept him warm. He grinned into Jin Zixuan’s proud face and felt hope.
“Keep making Shijie smile, and we will see.”
On the second day, with a smile like the sun over water and the grace of a lotus bloom, Shijie swept into the camp.
She stepped gently, with the hesitance of recent childbirth, and Jin Zixuan hovered at her elbow as the picture of a devoted husband.
Wei Wuxian watched her approach, felt his fingers tremble. He had run to her side before, laughed a delighted laugh and smiled as only she could make him. He had made her grin, with tall tales and spun stories.
He had been a younger brother, if only to see her happiness glimmer in the air. Shijie could have conquered the world with that happiness, if she had wanted to.
But now he hesitated, in threadbare robes and with face pale with madness. For long months he had been the Yiling Patriarch, made of corpse bones and flutist of the dead.
It had been so long since he’d seen her, so long since they had spoken and laughed together. They were far from the children that had danced on wooden piers and smiled into pork rib soup.
They were so far from their youth, here, where bones cracked beneath his heels. He had gaunt hands and blood dripping from his hair like dye. His skin was stained by moonlight and invention, and his soul by folly.
Jin Zixuan had almost died at his hands, by his carelessness. Did he deserve to touch her?
“Shijie,” he began, the words soft and weighed down by countless dark thoughts. How many nights had he spent alone, surrounded by corpses and bloody talismans?
How many times had he thought of the curve of lotus blooms across water and known regret?
He wanted to cry, wanted to rage, wanted to break down onto rough stone and let out his self. He took a shaking breath, let it ripple out through clean air. The camp around him was bustling with nervous energy and a terrible hope.
He knew it to not be hope but promise. Jin Zixuan had sworn to take them in. Jiang Cheng had backed him up, faced twisted by frustration but words firm.
The Wen remnants would have a home, free of suffering and prejudice. At long last his responsibilities were done. For a breathless moment he could let himself have the space to open his eyes, to stare into water and see his reflection.
He could see what he had become, on this path.
What he saw did not make him happy, now. He was stained and broken and bloody with madness, he was wrong, he was too gaunt and too pale and—
And he wasn’t enough anymore. He did not deserve Shijie’s kind touch.
So he did not approach, did not reach out. His trembling fingers stayed at his side, and though he laughed it was a quiet sound of hesitation.
He could not reach out.
But Jiang Yanli knew. She always knew; for long years she had been able to read him like a finely inked-scroll.
A younger brother could never keep secrets from his sister, and now she took steps to reach him.
Here her fine robes rustled, silk brushing like the whispers of the wind. Here Jin Zixuan shadowed her footsteps and looked on Wei Wuxian like he was family. Here she smiled such a gentle smile.
The sun rose with her smile, he thought, as she lifted a hand to cradle his face. Her fingers were so warm, soft as the kiss of fog on his skin. They brought back lotus seedpods and fine braids decorating his hair, a thousand moments spaced into two decades of life together. He was dragged into a childhood he had left behind, into memories he had treasured above all others.
When had he let himself forget them?
“Let it out, A-xian. We are the Jiang Clan. When we want to laugh, we laugh.”
The look in her eyes was glimmering and proud, the expression of someone who held truth in their fingertips.
Wei Wuxian used to think there was nothing Shijie could not fix. Long years of war had proved him wrong, shown him that blood and blade had a place in the harsh corners of the world.
Now, with her hand cradling his cheek, he wondered if he had been wrong yet again.
“And when we want to cry, we cry. It is okay, A-xian.”
She wiped away his tears, caught them with gentle fingers. He felt safe as he had not since—
He had not felt safe since this fool’s war began. He took a breath, felt it hitch in his chest and emerge a choked laugh. Pale fingers twitched at his side, twitched to pull her forward into a hug.
But he did not need to, because Shijie had always known his thoughts as if they were her own. He folded into the space of his sister’s arms, rested his face into the silk of her shoulder like he could finally know rest.
And he cried, with Shijie smiling that quiet smile that shone as the sun.
“It is okay to cry,” she said, and so he did.