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departure in autumn

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Wen Qing shouldn't have agreed to it. It wasn’t her business to begin with. If it weren't for A-Ning, she would have kicked this madman Wei Wuxian and his irritating shidi out the moment she saw them. But A-Ning had never truly asked for anything in his life and she didn't want to douse whatever flame had been ignited within him. She couldn’t deny him now that he’s so determined all on his own.

But still, Wei Wuxian is nothing short of insane. She recognizes his fierce drive to protect, knows it like the beat of her own heart, but to gamble with both his and his shidi's lives like this is more than pushing the boundary of recklessness.

She asks him if he's sure and he responds too quickly for someone asking to have his golden core ripped from his body. He's still in shock, Wen Qing thinks. He's not thinking clearly, not processing the risks like he should. But with his home razed, his guardians slaughtered, his brother on the brink of self-destruction, what more can he lose?

She gives them three days to prepare. She has A-Ning treat Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin's injuries while she pores over her notes. She makes sure to warn Wei Wuxian of exactly what he’s getting himself into when she realizes her anesthetics won’t work in the procedure.

He doesn't budge, but she asks him again anyway even though he might not live long enough to know regret.

She gives him one final chance when he's bare on the rocky operating table, her knife just kissing the soft skin of his abdomen. There is fear in his expression, but his response is firm and it is with solemn respect that she brings the blade down.

He gasps at the first incision, fists clenching at his sides. A-Ning shifts in his seat, hands fidgeting as if he could reach out to ease the pain although he doesn’t move to touch him. Nothing catastrophic yet, but this is the easy part. She reminds herself to keep it together, save some sanity for the steps to come.

He lurches forward when the knife digs deeper, makes a choked noise as she drags the blade across his stomach. She can hear the shuddering but measured breaths he drags into his lungs and that’s good. She had him drink a concoction earlier to keep him awake, but it would be useless if there isn’t enough oxygen going into his brain.

She glances over to see whether the gag in his mouth is secure and keeping him from biting his tongue. He's white as a sheet, lips trembling and face pinched, but he’s still with them and that’s all she needs to move forward.

She presses her hands on either side of the cut and pries it open. A muffled scream erupts from Wei Wuxian's throat.

She focuses on making cuts layer by layer, parting the flesh, stemming the blood flow with spiritual energy, letting the practiced motions guide her hands and pretending it's like the many operations she's performed before. She ignores his screaming, the way his muscles strain in agony, but it only lasts so long before she accepts that it’s impossible.

So she lets it all in, prickly and burning beneath her skin. Jiang Wanyin will never know of the brutalities committed on his shixiong in the name of brotherhood. The world beyond this deserted mountain will never know. Wei Wuxian himself will probably never breathe a word. But Wen Qing is here, watching, listening, and she will carry that burden.

It was a good thing they made preparations beforehand because A-Ning wouldn’t have been able to hold him down otherwise. There are ropes binding his wrists, his chest, digging bloody lines into his skin as he thrashes like a dying animal. A-Ning's hands secure his head to prevent damage to his neck, rubbing circles over his temples, although she doubts he can appreciate the comforting gesture when her own hands are peeling his flesh apart.

It’s messy, making incisions in a moving target, but her grip on the knife is steady.

She has never seen a golden core before. They dissolve immediately after death and she has never developed an interest for live experimentation. But ironically, the one standing over this gruesome scene, holding Wei Wuxian open and bloody and staring down at his core, is none other than Wen Qing herself.

It’s a fragile, shimmery thing nestled in a web of blood vessels. She channels spiritual energy into her hand to grasp it, pulling gently to test its stability. It doesn’t pulsate the way a heart does pumping blood, but thrums with life like a plucked string. The flow of Wei Wuxian’s spiritual energy is swift like a rip current beneath her fingers, and for a moment, she understands how this young man had earned his place among the best young cultivators despite his parentage.

The current stutters when she moves her hand and she freezes. Tearing the core out immediately risks death from the sudden outpour of spiritual energy, but despite being delicate the qi network is flexible and will yield if her motions are gradual enough.

In theory.

Wei Wuxian’s screaming has died down to low, trembling whimpers and Wen Qing has half a mind drop everything and walk straight out of the cave.

But there is no room to retreat now that she’s climbed onto the tiger’s back. She had practiced the motions over and over the night before and all she can do now is carry on.

It will work. It has to work.

And even if it doesn't work, she still needs to finish the job. She licks her lips, pushes past the reluctance thick in her throat, and tugs the core forward.

Wei Wuxian’s ragged sob shakes his entire body.

She doesn’t know how long she spends pulling at the core. It’s poor practice to lose track of time, but there isn’t much room for that between moving the core, redirecting Wei Wuxian’s spiritual energy, and circulating her own through it to simulate the internal environment. She sends A-Ning to Jiang Wanyin, who should be easy enough to work on, sedated as he is.

Wei Wuxian’s gone quiet at some point and she checks to make sure the drug hasn’t worn off early. He’s conscious, eyes red-rimmed and glassy, and she tries not to grieve.

She can tell when the core is fully extracted. Wei Wuxian’s spiritual energy had churned in unregulated hysteria for every too-quick movement as if trying to drag it back into his body. There had been resistance even as the flow slowly weakened.

But now it is still, silent.

She deftly presses a needle into Wei Wuxian’s head and he goes completely limp. He doesn’t need to be awake for the rest. It's the only mercy she can offer him now.

She has A-Ning take her place as she turns her attention to Jiang Wanyin.

The core spasms inside its new host, and for a heart-stopping moment, she thought it would dissolve in her hand. It takes her manually circulating her spiritual energy through his body until he’s recovered enough of his own to stabilize the foreign entity. It resists as she releases her hold, but gradually settles into the rhythm of Jiang Wanyin’s qi network.

Stitching him up is easy. The wound will scar no matter how high his cultivation is, but she thinks the reminder is fitting even if he’ll never know it’s only half of a matching set. She releases a breath she didn’t know she was holding now that the worst parts are over.

But then A-Ning cries out, “Jie! Wei-gongzi, he’s—”

She rushes over before he can finish and shoves him aside, furious. Because fuck Wei Wuxian. How dare he rope her into this cursed operation and not stick around to face the consequences?

"I'm sorry! I don't know how— I swear I—"

"A-Ning, focus!" She orders. "He's not going to die. Not when I'm here." They are big words, more than she should be able to claim when Wei Wuxian is bleeding out on the operating table, but they calm her brother either way. "Now hand me the knife and the second needle from the kit. Quick."

*

It’s nighttime when she’s finally finished. Her shoulders ache from hunching over and her eyes burn from staying focused for two nights and one day. She doesn’t have much spiritual energy left despite A-Ning giving her a hand during the operation. A-Ning pushes her down on a rock and pours her a cup of water, claiming that he can take care of things now before busying himself with cleaning her bloodied tools.

She picks up the cup, but water sloshes onto her sleeve before she can bring it to her lips. A-Ning is thankfully turned away and she hastily puts the cup down before he can see her shaking hands.

“I need some air,” she declares. She doesn’t stay to hear his response.

She walks as far out as her legs would allow before slumping against a tree, its solid trunk reassuring. She wants to lean back and sleep for a couple hours. Maybe a couple weeks. But the cool night breeze reminds her she is here and there are things that need to be done.

She needs to make sure A-Ning is okay. She needs to clean up and destroy any evidence of the operation. She needs to make sure Wei Wuxian is fit to leave in a few days’ time before allowing Jiang Wanyin to wake. And then, finally, she’ll be done. Finished.

Whatever happens next is none of her business. She’s granted Wei Wuxian’s wish and now they owe each other nothing. After this, she can let everything roll off her shoulders and they can go their separate ways.

But if Wei Wuxian doesn’t recover, if the core inside Jiang Wanyin dissolves, she knows she won’t be able to walk away. Wei Wuxian had begged her, had accepted the near-impossible odds, but she had been the one to pick up the knife without any preparation or security beyond a shred of untested theory.

She doesn’t know if she’ll ever be able to walk away. She hopes it's worth it in the end, hopes that Jiang Wanyin can continue to cultivate and that his brother in more than blood now can stay by his side through thick and thin. They deserve it after everything they've gone through.

But it sounds unfairly righteous for her to put it that way because she knows she's not all that compassionate.

Because if anything happens to them, she would never be able to heal with these hands again.