Wen Ning finds him first, as expected – a mess of pitiful sobs, snot, and sweat that’s huddled together, scrambling and screeching at Wen Ning’s unexpected appearance. It comes with the territory of being Bound together; Wen Ning will always be able to find Wei Ying if he wants to, before anyone else. Not even Xiao Xing Chen, who seems to know Wei Ying’s every hiding place regardless of how many new ones the child would discover, can boast this.
It’s as natural as breathing – this act of phasing from wherever Wen Ning is, whatever he’s doing, to reappear by his friend’s side. All he has to do is think, think harder, and seek: Xiao gong zi, there you are. And here I am.
And just like that, they’d be together – sometimes tangled, sometimes on top of one other, sometimes comfortably slotted against each other’s sides like an awkward puzzle come together.
Except neither of the daozhangs living with them like it when they do it, Song Zichen grimacing and Xiao Xing Chen startling each time before rushing forward to catch Wei Ying’s physical body when he can. Wei Ying doesn’t necessarily understand why they’re always reprimanded by Song Zichen whenever that happens. To him, it’s just a matter of hilarity to feel himself shoved right out of Life into that gray area of the Living Dead, watching as his five-year-old body flops to the ground like a marionette unstrung. He’d laugh with childish glee as he hangs on in Wen Ning’s translucent hold, his own equally translucent arms looped around Wen Ning, cackling that bit harder at Xiao Xing Chen’s exasperated look.
Wen Ning, in contrast, thinks that he ought to remember why it’s a Bad Thing for him to phase over to Wei Ying like that, but it’s been a long time since he’s been Alive and neither Song Zichen nor Xiao Xing Chen would explain much – only that A-Ying shouldn’t strain his Spirit, A-Ning.
With all due respect, Wen Ning would have been inclined to doubt them in such matters of health – after all, xiao gong zi has never seemed to suffer in all their times phasing thus far – but when even jie jie, whom he trusts to be the smartest person in the world, advises him to stop, he obeys, much to the dejection of the boy. It takes some cajoling, but Wei Ying eventually learns to comply to his elders’ wishes as well.
Tonight, though. Tonight, Wen Ning thinks they deserve an exception when xiao gong zi plays a figurative game of hide-and-seek and outwits not just Xiao Xing Chen and Song Zichen, but even his caretakers at the Mounds.
It’s trivial, but the few branch members of the Qishan Wen family ensnared within the area have always prided themselves in being the boy’s first Friends. They liked knowing that even if Xiao Xing Chen is Wei Ying’s legal guardian in Life, they were the ones who shared the child’s early years – raised him as they knew how, taught him all his know-how. It meant that they understood the boy in ways that Xiao Xing Chen doesn’t, gave them a privilege that Xiao Xing Chen is short of. It also meant that often times, they’d be able to guess where Wei Ying would go, what he’d do, when he’d act even before he does it. To be circumvented the same way Xiao Xing Chen has been is as dismaying as it is begrudging.
But it dissipates soon enough, this jealousy – three hours more to dawn, with no sight nor sound of the boy for more than eight hours by then. Wei Ying is unruly, but he knows his obligations. Knows that if he wants to play beyond curfew hours, he only has to inform someone beforehand. Only once has he ever neglected to do so – the first time, and what the rest had hoped was the last. Wen Qing’s further furious – but ultimately fake – threat of hexing him with the legendary Thousand-Needle Curse had taken care of any remaining dispute from the boy.
Si shu had been the first to realise, having self-proclaimed himself as the unofficial custodian of the Mounds.
A-Ning, he checks first and foremost because out of the lot of them, it’s no secret that Wei Ying has a particular affection for Wen Ning. Their relationship is one that goes beyond just being Bound; Wen Ning is also the gentlest with the child, the easiest to cave in to the boy’s demands when he wants something. A-Ning, is A-Ying together with you in your Coffin?
Wen Ning looks up, startled. N-no?
It quickly becomes obvious after that that the boy is lost, has been lost for almost a whole night, and both Xiao Xing Chen and Song Zichen must be informed.
Have you checked his usual hideouts? Song Zichen asks quietly, composure not lost amidst the skittish distress that’s growing around him. Xiao Xing Chen peers at the hovering figures around him and instinctively tries to pat Wen popo’s shoulder in comfort again, even though his hand has passed through the hovering translucence beside him three times by now: Oh, for the love of – I’m so sorry again, popo.
Twice, thrice, four times already, si shu mutters in response to Song Zichen’s question, wringing his hands together, and then jolts when Wen Qing slaps a hand on the table.
If the brat isn’t dead or injured when we find him, I’ll personally skin and skewer him.
And perhaps she shouldn’t have said that.
Because, hey. Jinx.
“Xiao gong zi,” Wen Ning chokes, horrified, when the Wei Ying that’s punted into his arms wails in agony instead of screams in laughter. He’s not heard the child shriek like this in a long time, not since his infant days, starved of solid food because none of the Qishan Wens involved knew how to care for a Living baby; and Wen Qing, their sole connection to the Living sphere, had been requested to leave the Mounds for an extended period of time for an immediate emergency with the Gusu Lan family.
“Xiao gong zi,” Wen Ning tries again – voice softer, gentler this time – arms starting to come around the boy in a cradle, but even he flinches at the sight of the gory mess that’s just beyond them. Wei Ying’s physical body is limp against a weather-worn tombstone, limbs clearly mauled in stripes, possibly by sharp claws and sharper teeth. There is so much red swathed about that Wen Ning imagines he can smell the distinct copper of spilt blood even though the Living Dead is essentially stripped off their five senses.
But Wei Ying doesn’t hear – is incognisant, is only a shrieking spectre trapped within near-impenetrable walls and barricades of fright and agony.
“Please, please,” Wen Ning aches as Wei Ying sobs, begs, and curls up into a little ball, tight and tired. As a Spirit, Wei Ying doesn’t bleed anymore, doesn’t hurt, but who can be unaffected by the memory of fresh trauma?
“Xiao gong zi, it’s alright, it’s alright now, okay?”
“Please stop, please don’t bite me, please go away, go away, go away!”
Wen Ning can’t tear his eyes away from Wei Ying’s body after that because please don’t bite me and go away, go away rends his heart; and he’s not certain but surely such a small body wouldn’t have been able to fend off vicious attacks, wouldn’t be able to survive with that much damage dealt to it, would it? Wei Ying has always been inexplicably small for a child his age; even Xiao Xing Chen had often teased the boy about it, tender and affectionate, but it’s never really been a major concern beyond the bruising of a five-year-old’s ego.
Now, Wen Ning can only think about flailing arms, scampering legs, stuttering breaths, slowing heartbeats, faltering courage – and he shudders before collecting himself, collecting the struggling Wei Ying into his arms.
“Please!” Wei Ying screeches at being trapped, bucks his body in a frenzy, but Wen NIng only holds on tighter and begins rocking his friend the way he remembers Wen Qing had once done for him when he was three, five, eight, or ten a long, long time ago.
“It’s me, it’s Wen Ning. Listen to me, listen to me, don’t be afraid, it’s just me. I’m not going to hurt you, never going to hurt you. I promise.”
Except Wei Ying doesn’t seem to hear anything but hurt and promise, sees nothing but potential threats, and Wen Ning only has a flash of a moment before he realises what the boy is about to do. Wei Ying does a body twist so violent that Wen Ning blanches, afraid that he would pop something, and then abruptly snaps his jaws with vengeance against Wen Ning’s shoulder.
It startles Wen Ning more than it hurts, but beyond that, he’s further stunned by the feral growls that erupt – deep, savage, ruthless – from his friend. The frisson of dread that snakes down his spine and scrapes at his translucent heart when he hears the sound is a horrid coldness that reeks like rot and ruin; it’s the acute awareness of potentially losing something – someone – precious: a cherished boy who might not recover his cheer.
And that is not an option. Not on Wen Ning’s watch. Wei Ying may not know it, young as he is, but his abrupt, unexplained appearance one day in the Mounds had been sun, star, supernova; a bundle of joy, a ray of light, a sea of delight. Rest in peace, most epitaphs say, but peace is just an amelioration of boredom after three centuries of monotony, and Wei Ying broke that up with aplomb when he cried and screamed and gurgled at them that night.
Wei Ying is a spot of Life where Death treads, and Wen Ning loves him to bits.
So Wen Ning isn’t surprised, just determined, when he finds it in himself to grab that sticky, slimy, sinewy sense and turns it into his drive to protect. Turns his head to drop a kiss against the side of Wei Ying’s head. Turns the both of them around so that Wei Ying doesn’t have to be subjected to a nightmare.
“There we go,” Wen Ning’s voice quivers as he settles down once more, Wei Ying still doggedly attached to his shoulder; but he also smiles, wide and unthreatening, and begins rocking the boy gently again. “Xiao gong zi, are you listening to me? Are you? Listen properly, okay? You’re going to be alright. As long as I’m here, you’re going to be alright.
“I will keep you safe. I swear it.”
Wei Ying cries and clings for a long time after that, burrowing his face into Wen Ning’s chest like he could mould and melt the both of them together. It makes Wen Ning worry about the little body behind them – if Wei Ying’s physical self is still breathing or bleeding – but his fear is put to rest when he catches wind of a rattling gasp that sends a small puff of breath into the chill of the dawn air and spies the rise and fall of the body’s chest.
“‘M sorry, ‘m sorry, Ning gege, ‘m sorry. Been bad.” Wen Ning doesn’t count the passing of Time by the minutes and the hours ever since he came to grips with the futility of it some centuries ago, but the moon has certainly sunk quite a bit since he’d arrived. Wei Ying is whispering now, dazed in the way people are when they’ve emptied themselves of tears or terror or tenderness – just running on fumes of exhaustion; except the boy is also still adorable, fingers unconsciously seeking out Wen Ning’s and playing with it like it’d kill him to stop moving for even just a second.
Wen Ning chuckles quietly; cuddles Wei Ying closer. In the future, his role in the boy’s life will change as Wei Ying grows – companion, comrade, confidant, co-conspirator – but for now, he is the elder brother that Wei Ying has never had, probably will never have, and he would never ever think of failing the child, much less do it.
“You were frightened, xiao gong zi. Not bad. Just afraid. Alright?”
Wei Ying tilts his head sluggishly and rests it against Wen Ning’s shoulders like he had so many times before. His eyes, swollen and reddened from his earlier crying fit, is trained on Wen NIng, unblinking. It’s a while before he nods easily, like it had taken more than a while for him to parse through Wen Ning’s words; and then just as suddenly, sticks his thumb into his mouth.
“Gong zi!” Wen Ning’s response is knee jerk, fingers darting out to tug Wei Ying’s arm away, but Wei Ying merely pulls back to tuck his face into the crook of Wen Ning’s neck and continues to suck quietly. “Be good, Ning gege. ‘M tired. Play with you later, okay?”
Wen Ning sighs, and then quirks a tired, indulgent smile. “Alright, I’ll be good. But promise me that you won’t put your thumb into your mouth when we get back, okay? Jie jie doesn’t like it when you do that, you know this.”
“Mmkay,” Wei Ying whispers around his thumb, settling into silence for several seconds before he pipes up, voice flat and mindless, like he’s purely just a conduit for any random thoughts that pass through his mind in that moment, “Qing jie jie is so scary.”
The words punt Wen Ning straight into a burst of startled laughter; Wei Ying has never been reserved about his opinions of Wen Qing – or anything or anyone, for that matter – but the boy usually has a better sense of timing than this. There’s no denying the relief that takes Wen Ning by the base of his core where his existence beats solace, though; hauls him out of the emotional wringer that the horrendous evening has been, and he plants another kiss to Wei Ying’s temple.
“Yes, I know. You’ve told me that before. Many times.”
“Mm. She’s really, really scary. Even more than xiao shi shu and Zichen gege when they’re angry with me.”
Wen Ning shifts to find a more comfortable position out of habit. “But you know that jie jie’s only the way she is because she cares, don’t you?”
Wei Ying shifts along with him, heaving a heavy breath. “Mm. Because she loves you and me. Because she’s scared that something will happen to us.”
“That’s right.” And that would have been the end of it, Wen Ning thinks, because a child’s just a child; Wei Ying’s probably only seeking comfort from routine – a familiar topic. Except he isn’t, apparently, because Wei Ying puts out a finger to poke vigorously at a section of his thigh then and informs him, solemn as you please, “But this was scarier than Qing jie jie.”
Just on principle, Wen Ning brings Wei Ying closer to him, instantly vigilant; but then the words registers, and Wen Ning looks down at his friend, still stabbing at his flesh. “What was?”
Wei Ying pauses for a beat, looks up at his friend, and then mimics baring his teeth with a growl. “Doggy. Big. Mean. Blue balls.”
“Blue – what? What?”
“Blue balls!” Wei Ying gestures, growing a little agitated when his friend scrunches his face, confused. “Fire balls.”
“Oh. Blue... oh fuck.”
Quite unexpectedly, Wei Ying perks up for all the wrong reasons and slaps his fingers against his lips, like he’s forgotten his tears and fears for the evening. “Omigosh. You said a bad word. Qing jie jie is gonna lose money to Zichen gege.”
Wei Ying’s ‘big doggy’ is, in fact, not a dog. It is a Hound. Everyone who is a Living Dead knows what it is, and anyone who is anything within the Burial Mounds – dead or otherwise – does as well. Creatures of legends, beasts of ambivalent duality; Hound encounters are something of a gamble, its appearance heralding omens both fortunate and unfortunate, except people wouldn’t know which until they run into them.
Cross paths with a Hound of brilliant, bright ghost flames, then they’re in luck; but chance upon one with saxe, solemn spirit glows, it’s time to lay low.
Understandably, the different Hounds are received with vastly different attitudes despite being the same breed: hellhounds are feared, celestial hounds are revered; mo gou are to be fled from, tian gou are to be prayed to.
Wei Ying, of course – as the youngest, but also contradictorily both the most important and the least important person in the Mounds – knows nothing of this because it hasn’t been a priority to instruct him in it. Xiao Xing Chen and Song Zichen had both felt that with so many of the Wen occupants looking out for the child within the Mounds, this was something that could have waited until he was ready for some sort of formal education. So had Wen Qing; as the Groundskeeper for more than several centuries without any such intrusions, she had deemed her territory in the Mounds a safe space.
Eight months down the road, the entire Burial Mounds, including Wei Ying himself, will discover the severity of the boy’s cynophobia following tonight’s encounter; but for now, once he gets over the fuss of Wen Ning winning his Zichen gege some money from Qing jie jie, Wei Ying’s able to recount his ordeal with a surprising detachment from where he’s tucked away into his friend’s side.
Wen Ning thinks that perhaps if jie jie were here, the educated physician in her would be hard at work cataloguing this as evidence of the mind’s untapped potential to cope with strenuous circumstances, but Wen Ning isn’t jie jie. Jie jie is rationale incarnate; Wen Ning is sentimentality brought to life. All he knows is that his heart swells with pride at Wei Ying’s resilience when the boy clutches twice at the hems of his clothes, looks once over his shoulder at his own injured body, and then hesitates not at all.
“Were you late for curfew?” Wen Ning asks first, to which Wei Ying shakes his head vehemently with a pout, but then caves when Wen Ning tilts his head with a knowing smile. Wei Ying’s a good kid, but he’s got a thing about pushing boundaries as far as they can go.
“I was going back,” Wei Ying attempts to be convincing, pressing his advantage with Wen Ning because every wily child worth his salt would know who he can suck up to. “It wasn’t curfew yet, and if I ran, I could get back before Qing jie jie notices.”
Wen Ning smiles and quietly smooths back obstinate bangs from the boy’s forehead. “Alright. I believe you.”
“Yes, please,” Wei Ying beams, happy as you please, and burrows back into comfort. “But I got lost. I saw a butterfly, and I got lost.”
“You saw a butterfly and you got lost?”
“Mmhm. I was chasing.”
“Ah,” Wen Ning doesn’t say more, only raises his eyebrow, but just like that, it’s easy to start guessing and piecing things together. In the background, Wei Ying’s chatter begins to pick up pace as it’s wont to do whenever the boy gets excited, legs swinging gleefully. Wen Ning hears snatches of ‘pretty wings’ and ‘sparkly things like xiao shi shu’s magic sword’, lets it run until he finally puts a gentle hand on the boy’s head to redirect his attention. “And after that?”
Wei Ying scrunches up his face. “And after that, I lost the butterfly too. It was really hard to catch.”
Wen Ning chuckles but stops when Wei Ying shoots him a dirty look like he’d just been insulted. “It was hard,” he insists, tugging on Wen Ning’s sleeves.
“Yes, I’m sure. I’ve lost many butterflies numerous times too,” his friend pacifies patiently, “But what did you do after you lose the butterfly?”
“Home time. But it was so dark, and there was a castle – ”
At that, Wen Ning chokes on literally nothing and stares at the boy, to which Wei Ying pauses and stares back, like he’s checking to see if he’s going to get into trouble.
“C-castle?” Wen Ning stutters. There is only one structure within the vicinity of the Burial Mounds that could possibly look like a castle, and everyone knows to keep away. But of course, Wei Ying – again – is the only one who doesn’t; doesn’t even know of its existence, much less its reputation.
Wen Ning wonders if it’s time to start taking si shu’s suggestion of putting the boy on a leash seriously at this point. Or at least rethink the priorities of Wei Ying’s cultivation and education, given how adventurous – or unlucky – he can be.
In his arms, Wei Ying bites his lips uncertainly and stares some more. He tries again, watching Wen Ning for tell-tale signs of the wrong things to say.
“A… big house? Not a castle – don’t know what’s a castle anyway,” Wei Ying’s voice is wary even as he hastens to amend himself; and Wen Ning knows that if he’s not as aghast as he is, he would have laughed because Wei Ying hasn’t ever really seen a house before either, having lived only within the tombs and the chapel in the Mounds.
“It’s alright, it’s alright,” Wen Ning shushes Wei Ying, grasping smaller hands and stilling them. “If you think that it’s a castle, then it’s a castle. That’s okay.”
It’s a testament to Wei Ying’s shrewdness when he judges his friend a little longer, a little harder. “... Really?”
Wen Ning laughs for real this time despite everything. “Yes. How does this castle look like though?”
“Pointy sticks gates! Just like how xiao shi shu says they’d look like!” Wei Ying blurts out enthusiastically, clearly fascinated by them. “So many! And...red fire circles. It was everywhere – on the walls and the gates.”
“Fire circles? Do they look a little like the sun?” Wen Ning hazards an apprehensive guess. He heaves a sigh when Wei Ying nods and adds, “Fireballs around the sun.”
“Did you go close, xiao gong zi?”
“No...” Wei Ying collapses back against Wen Ning at that, disappointment clear in every line of his body, like he’d failed his life’s biggest mission. This child is nothing if not dramatic. “The doggy came and chased me away.”
“Oh dear...” Wen Ning breathes and quietly breathes another sound of dismay. He’s not ready if this is what he thinks it is; he doesn’t think anyone is ready. “It chased you away?”
“Yessssss,” the boy hisses, poking at his thigh again. “It bit me many, many times, and kept pushing me. So I ran, but it hurt, and I called xiao shi shu, and you, but - ”
In an instant, Wen Ning scoops the boy higher up into his arms and holds him closer, tighter; nuzzles noses with him and runs a thumb across Wei Ying’s cheek. Wei Ying’s teary eyed, but he’s not bawling yet, and Wen Ning will take every small victory that he can.
“You’ve been very brave, haven’t you?” he whispers, swiping more unruly hair out of Wei Ying’s eyes, and shoves every other troubling thoughts away until there’s time to unpack and share with the others back home. Wei Ying’s watching him again, like he expects Wen Ning to know what to do now that everything’s out in the air; like nothing will touch him now that Wen Ning’s here. A child’s trust is simple and straightforward, devoid of need for reason, and Wen Ning does not intend to disappoint.
“I’m going to get you back to jie jie and your xiao shi shu, and everything is going to be alright, okay?”
“Okay,” Wei Ying breathes back, solemn, and then loops his arms around Wen Ning’s neck, “But I’m glad you’re here too.”
The thing about Wen Ning’s phasing is that he needs a link, a hook, a catch of some sort to guide his descent. With Wei Ying as a beacon, it’s easy for him to just shift into their link and zip towards his Bound anchor. Without, he can only trudge back the regular way, and in the face of the mess tonight, he’s just grateful that he has not lost his sense of direction in death.
But that also means deserting Wei Ying’s body where it is because Wen Ning isn’t about to let his friend go back into a body that is hurting, and while he’s able to impress faint touches on the physical plane, Wen Ning also doesn’t have the ability to lug a corporeal body for an extended period of time.
“Do we have to walk back? It’s so far...” Wei Ying mutters, voice muffled and drowsy where he’s draped over Wen Ning’s back in a piggyback ride. It’s nearing dawn by now, likely just less than an hour more to the rise of the sun, and long past the boy’s bed time. Even the most energetic must rest.
Wen Ning pats the boy’s arms where he can, hitches his bundle higher onto his back, and prepares to trek their way back. “We’re not too far, actually. It just feels far because you’re not familiar with this area.”
“Mm?” Wei Ying rubs his face questioningly against Wen Ning’s neck, settling again once he’s huffed a heavy breath.
“Yes. Remember liu yi’s daughter, Man gu niang, Man jie jie?”
“Nope,” Wei Ying doesn’t even try to recall, eager only to sleep now that he’s secure.
Wen Ning laughs. “You do. Try. She’s plenty quiet, but you made her smile when you told her that you liked her eyes because they reminded you of stars, remember?”
It takes a while, but Wei Ying eventually jerks his head slightly with a short noise of sleepy recollection. “Pretty jie jie? She always looked so sad whenever I see her though, even when she smiled.”
Wen Ning doesn’t have the heart to tell Wei Ying that that’s the happiest Man gu niang has ever looked, both in life and in death. The girl had not led an easy life, bereaved by losses upon losses – loss of her parents in a freak accident as a child, loss of her godmother who actually loved her more than her parents, loss of trust in her own value when she was forced to give up her education as a medical practitioner solely because of her gender, loss of her virtue and dignity when she was forced to bow and marry for the sake of survival, loss of direction in life, loss of… her child’s life, and then her own.
“Well,” Wen Ning says quietly, “We’re quite near where she Rests. Now that you know, maybe you can come and visit her sometimes instead of seeing her only during the Festival, yes?”
Wei Ying snores once in reply and then paws sluggishly at Wen Ning’s neck. “But why not tonight? Why can’t we ask for help from pretty jie jie?”
“Because –” Wen Ning pauses mid-step, and blinks. “Actually, that’s right… why not?”
Wei Ying snores twice this time in response.
Wen Qing, Xiao Xing Chen, and Song Zichen were the first to arrive with Man gu niang guiding them – all three grim-faced and thin-lipped. Wen Ning doesn’t get up from where he’s seated to the side of the body with Wei Ying asleep in his arms, head resting against his shoulder and fingers clutching at the lapels of his clothes, but the relief that spreads across Wen Ning’s face is as clear as the night sky on a full moon.
“Thank you, thank you so much, Man gu niang,” he manages, choked, as Man gu niang drifts back towards them with the others on her heels, melancholic mien unchanging. It’s only as she bends down to stroke fond fingers through Wei Ying’s mess of a hair that she smiles just a little, lits up just a little. It’s ridiculous, but Wen Ning thinks that mayhaps she looks more alive now than she did in Life.
“What a troublesome, wild little child,” she murmurs affectionately, voice like a chime, gaze like a dream; and then she is gone. Xiao Xing Chen is in her place instead, held back by Song Zichen even as they could both only stare in dismay at everything, dumbfounded by the unexpected sight.
Wen Ning gets it. It’s not the blood that startles them, not with them being who they are. It’s the knowledge that this is their boy that gets to them – their spawn of the devil, their root of every possible mischief, their little troublemaker.
It gets a little more distressing when Wen Qing bends down to check. Once Wei Ying’s on his back instead of his side, they all see the lacerations and gashes that make a grotesque art out of his body. Nothing life-threatening, they see that immediately, but –
“Help out,” Wen Qing almost growls, fierce and feral and protective.
Song Zichen guides Xiao Xing Chen by the elbow towards Wen Qing when it’s clear that his partner is hesitant, unsure if he wants to check on the Wei Ying that’s in Wen Ning’s arm or the Wei Ying that’s sprawled on the ground.
“Wrap the wounds first,” Song Zichen presses briefly, firmly, urgently, and nods at Wen Ning – in acknowledgement, in thanks? Wen Ning isn’t always sure when it comes to Song Zichen. They’re almost done by the time si shu and the others arrive, Xiao Xing Chen having tore his outerwear into functional strips of cloth to bind against the wounds, hands pausing every now and then when Wei Ying’s sleeping form snuffles from within Wen Ning’s arms.
“Heavens above,” Wen popo gasps, weathered hands rising to her lips in sympathy, and she hides behind si shu meekly at the sight. Memories, memories, blasted haunting memories of their past as a clan – but not now, not today, not when there’s a Living boy who needs their help.
Wen Qing says nothing, only furrows her brow deeper before drawing herself up. “Too dark, no supplies. It’s a good thing that he did not break any bones. Xiao daozhang, we will have to bring him back to the chapel for proper treatment. Could you carry him?”
Xiao Xing Chen doesn’t hesitate, and the crowd parts for him.
Song Zichen follows, and so does Wen Ning with his friend in his arms.
None of them sleeps that day, save Wei Ying. In fact, Wei Ying slumbers for the next three days, weaving through fever-fraught dreams, riddled with confusion and muted pain. Not even Xiao Xing Chen’s palliative spell could completely knock the child out into restfulness.
After much discussion, Xiao Xing Chen decides to slip Wei Ying’s spirit back into his body in spite of the discomfort that he will have to bear.
“It’s not just about the straining of his Spirit, A-Ning,” Xiao Xing Chen explains, gentle in a way that speaks volumes of not just his nature but also his care for this responsibility that had fallen upon him in ways he had never expected, as he guides Wei Ying back in a simple, smooth motion.
“It’s also about his growth. Let him feel it, the pain, if he must. Let him learn to weather what is difficult, or he will never learn. That’s how the Living rise to become stronger. Don’t forget that, even if you’re now a Living Dead.”
And as with most wisdom that Xiao Xing Chen shares with him, Wen Ning understands some of it, misses the rest of it, but senses the weight behind the whole of it; and so he acquiesces with little defiance when jie jie, too, says nothing.
“Did you manage to find out what happened though?” Song Zichen asks next, and it’s Wen Ning’s turn to take the floor. So he tells them about Wei Ying’s tale of the Hound and the castle, and once he’s done, he watches his elders grimace, lets them ponder, and strokes the fingers of his sleeping friend.
“This is certainly not what I expected from the adventure of yesternight,” Song Zichen is the first to speak again, voice deep and troubled, rubbing a hand down his face. Seemingly instinctive, Xiao Xing Chen reaches out to hook his fingers around his friend’s elbow with a gentle, patient look.
Wen Qing laughs humourlessly. Wen Ning recognises that sound and abhors it for its bleakness. Jie jie has not laughed like that in a long while, and for a moment, Wen Ning thinks he’s filled with enough hate to blow the world up and tear reality apart for upsetting jie jie, but then Wei Ying shifts in his sleep and Wen Ning remembers that he has other people whom he loves in this world too.
“It’s shit news, for sure. Probably the start of a shitstorm too,” Wen Qing adds, tipping her head back with a heavy breath, like it’s time to once again put on her battle suit to fight a war she does not want to fight. Probably not too far from the truth, if Wen Ning is following this right.
It’s Xiao Xing Chen who appeals to everyone in the end – quietly, serenely, rationally. “Patience, friends. Whatever these signs point to, I’m sure we can all agree that there is more to it than what we have before us. Nor is it our right to decide on these matters on our own without further consultation.”
“A meeting is in order then. With the five Great Clans, at least, if not the smaller ones. You can leave it to me. We see not the beginnings of a storm yet, but every whisper of the wind needs to be paid the appropriate respect and attention,” Song Zichen tacks on almost instantly, coming to stand by his friend with shoulders squared and solid – reliant, resilient, resplendent.
Poised side by side like that, Wen Ning abruptly gets an inkling of why they’re lauded as the paragon of kindred spirits within the cultivation world, and his respect for them hikes up that little bit. Two individuals – seemingly different, but profoundly complementary: bright moon, gentle breeze; distant snow, cold frost. Such a paradox, but such might.
And it’s gratifying when one half of this strength turns to him and bows, gracious and grateful. “Thank you, A-Ning. Thank you so much. If it weren’t for you...” Xiao Xing Chen spares a distraught look in Wei Ying’s direction before walking over to sit by his bedside with Wen Ning. There’s helpless affection in the way he reaches out to smooth a hand over the blankets over the boy, tucking the covers carefully until he finally sits back with a heavy sigh.
“This child certainly has brought much distress to all of you here in spite of your right to a peaceful Rest in the Afterlife,” Xiao Xing Chen continues, raising a hand with an amused smile to stop Wen Ning’s reflexive protest. “No, really, A-Ning. It’s heartening how loyal you are, but even you have to admit that your Rest would have been far less… disrupted if it hadn’t been for him.”
Wen Ning bites his lip, flicking a look over to jie jie who looks like she’s thanking every deity in existence for Xiao Xing Chen’s acknowledgement.”It’s… xiao gong zi. I can’t say no to him.”
“Untrue. You can’t say no to everyone,” jie jie interjects, voice exasperated but eyes kind. Xiao Xing Chen laughs and shares another look with Song Zichen.
“A-Ning can certainly be a little too kind sometimes,” Song Zichen concedes with a teasing smile, grinning wider when Wen Ning flushes. “But what Xing Chen means to say is that with the Hound in the picture now, A-Ying will need a closer eye on him. A Hound can be… relentless with its runaway quarry, we know this.”
Xiao Xing Chen nods, gratified when Wen Ning and Wen Qing both agree as well. “It will be back. But as long as A-Ying keeps within the Mounds, we will do our best to watch out for him.”
Watch out for him, Wen Ning grips small fingers in his, exhales, and thinks, Here’s another promise, another vow, another commitment.
Four years ago, he had made one before – felt the sinking gravity of responsibility grounding him after years upon decades upon centuries of drifting weightlessness come from Death.
Four years ago, he’d let his apprehension of Wei Ying’s baby breath and baby burps and baby babbles steal its way into his core and transform into affection.
Four years ago, he’d held Wei Ying in his arms amidst his confused relatives and ancestors, and stood firm. This boy is mine to keep, Bonded to me by accident but shall be nurtured by me with conviction.
Tonight, he renews that promise.
“Well. Now that we’ve pretty much contained the crisis –”
“Oh right, about that, jie jie,” Wen Ning sits up abruptly, “what’s this about you losing money to Song daozhang?”