"Wen Qing," Wei Wuxian says. He's brought her a gift, which is always a suspicious sign. She takes the offering with only a somewhat suspicious glance, however, and lets him continue. "I need you to teach me something. Or, a lot of things?"
Wen Qing raises an eyebrow, watching him instead of her hands as she unwraps the gift he's given her. It's nothing extravagant, just some sweets from Yiling, but it's close enough to her tastes that he must have asked A-Ning what she liked. "There's a lot of things you need to learn, yes, but I'm not much of a teacher. Especially for all the help you need."
"Cold!" Wei Wuxian laughs, settling in next to her. "Look. I just." He sighs and runs a hand through the mess of his hair, down the line of his jaw. "I know corpses. I know how they work. But I… Wen Ning isn't just some fierce corpse or puppet. He's someone really important to both of us, and now that he's back to himself… Ugh, I'm doing this all out of order."
She studies the bags under his eyes, the way that exhaustion has burrowed into every inch of his body. She makes a mental note to make him sleep when he's done with whatever flight of fancy he's on now, sleep for long enough that maybe she can get some hard work and straight answers out of him for a change. "Spit it out."
"Will you teach me some of your medical knowledge? Or, no, I don't need to know just general medicine more… Anatomy."
Wen Qing is beginning to wonder if she will have the first flying eyebrow from how high she's finding herself raising it. "Why?"
"Like I said- Wen Ning."
"He's… he's a fierce corpse, but up until now I've sort of treated all the corpses I've raised as interchangeable, replaceable… if they break, it's fine, if they're torn to shreds and destroyed, it's fine, if they stop obeying or working right, it's fine, they can just be replaced! But Wen Ning… Wen Ning's not just some weapon or thing that I can replace if he gets hurt. And I know some things about what corpses need to work, and how things look inside from getting elbow deep in graves to turn them upside-down… But I feel like it's not enough. I don't know enough to heal him if something ends up really wrong."
"Is that a concern?" Wen Qing had not entertained the thought that anything could happen to A-Ning now that he was alive again, if only because the thought of losing him twice was too terrible to entertain.
"I don't know," Wei Wuxian answers honestly. "Like I said, I've never done anything like this before. And when facing the unknown… I'd rather know as much as I can to help care for Wen Ning."
Wei Wuxian glances over the Burial Mounds, scanning for any sight of him. A-Ning has been distant since he woke up, though. He's happy to help around of course— A-Ning always was the helpful sort— but he can catch the ways that some of their family still occasionally look at him like he's some sort of trick or spectre that could turn on them or crumble back to ash and bone at any moment.
Though to be honest, the thought of losing A-Ning again to something as stupid as his body breaking down because Wei Wuxian doesn't know his ass from his dick is both terrifying and aggravating enough that she can't help but oblige.
Wen Qing bites her lower lip and sighs. "Fine."
Wei Wuxian's face lights up. "Oh, fuck, thank you, I was really ready to have to work and bribe a lot harder than this, thank you thank you-"
"Oh? There were more bribes in mind?" She whaps him on the back of the head. "Well, I didn't say that just a few sweets were enough to buy my time and hard work! Why don't you start by helping me wash and peel the radishes for dinner, and we can talk about a lesson plan."
The good thing about the Burial Mounds is that you barely have to dig at all to find a corpse in fine enough condition to use as an educational tool. Wen Qing and Wei Wuxian take their lessons to a further peak of the Burial Mounds anyway, however, because gross anatomy and traumatized refugees don't tend to mix well.
When Wen Qing was first learning, she had only textbooks, but after writing a paper or two she caught the eye of Wen Ruohan for her revolutionary ideas. After that, she had never wanted for anatomical specimens or cadavers to study or use for her research. Between Wen Ruohan's love of torture and the growing threat of war that meant plenty of political dissidents to silence, there was never a shortage of bodies in the Nightless City.
Wei Wuxian tells her what little he knows so she can get a sense for where to begin. His technical knowledge is lacking, but his general idea of the way that muscle groups work together is impressive. From there she corrects a few mistaken ideas, and then it's down to business. She brought her bag of doctor's tools, but Wei Wuxian brought his own equipment as well, and so they don't need to share.
It's nice to have someone to chat with who doesn't cringe at the sight of organs or blood. Wei Wuxian cuts throat to navel in an even slit, and Wen Qing lectures about fascia as she watches Wei Wuxian try to peel the skin back without ripping it to shreds. She takes her own knife and teaches him the styles of cut she uses for surgery, which makes his fingers flit to his own chest for just a moment.
"Wen Ning won't be able to heal any sort of connective tissue, so if I have to do anything that requires any sort of care where I get this deep, we'll have to think of some way to simulate the fascia so that the skin doesn't shift and rip, right?" Wei Wuxian doesn't look like he actually wants an answer; it's a question he's puzzling through on his own. "A lot of adhesives dry too thick and stiff. I'll have to think of another way."
Wen Qing feels herself smile at that. Something about his care, about the thoughtful way he practices his dissection, noting either to himself or on paper places where it's more difficult so the knows to practice or take care when he has to help her brother… Maybe they're going to be alright after all.
Their lessons can't happen daily; Wen Qing has too much else on her plate running the day-to-day affairs of their little community so that it's more than just a slipshod, temporary settlement, and for all Wei Wuxian pretends to have nothing of importance he's doing, Wen Qing sees him working day and night on new inventions, new ways to help people who can't cultivate, and keeping the resentful energies of the Burial Mounds at bay, to say nothing of the amount of time he spends babysitting and doting on A-Yuan.
A-Ning is still an on and off presence, his shyness seemingly made worse by his new state for now. Some days, though, she sees Wei Wuxian pull him into consulting on some new project or another, and Wen Qing can see in the small, stiff movements his face can almost give, that her brother is happy to be of use.
When they have time to study, Wei Wuxian never makes her feel like he's wasting her time, coming with questions and things he wants to work on. Are there bones that could break but still have enough support that repair wouldn't be necessary? What's the best way to address a necrosis of muscle mass or connective tissue that's compromising structural integrity? What signs can you check for to see if someone is having less coordination or control? Some she has answers for, but for others her answers are useless, and they have to find the answers together. A-Ning can't just gently exercise to rebuild muscle if something is damaged or breaks down, and if any injury necessitates surgery or some other more invasive intervention, he won't just heal with bedrest.
The idea of long-term care for the dead is something neither of them, nor anyone in the world for that matter, had ever anticipated. Even if a lot of their ideas are just careful guesswork and theory, it's better than having the worst happen with no plan at all.
"I could raise new corpses few up," Wei Wuxian offers one evening after a long day of snapping at each other and hopefully coming to good answers, "and we could test it? Nothing like Wen Ning, obviously, but…"
Wen Qing shakes her head. "You've said before; even if they lose limbs or break down, they'll keep moving. We wouldn't get much out of watching to see if they'd still be able to move and function."
Wei Wuxian swears, but not at her. The nights have been creeping in on them, arriving earlier and earlier. "You're right, you're right. You're always right."
"Of course I am. I'm the doctor here after all."
The unexpected side effect to teaching Wei Wuxian is that she now has a second pair of hands when things go wrong with the living. Uncle Four gets a nasty gash on his arm, deep enough to see bone, and Wei Wuxian is there to joke him through the pain and help her sew him back up. A-Yuan gets a small cold, and he's there, despite his insistence that he didn't want to learn all her medical knowledge, to help her and A-Ning make a tincture to help bring his fever down. He slots in well beside her brother, each of them happy to learn how to make the hurt in the world a little less, if only for a moment.
Wei Wuxian brings her back more presents from Yiling on his trips with A-Ning- a new comb for her hair when hers begins to lose so many tines it resembles Auntie Six's gap-toothed smile, a whetstone so she can keep her surgical instruments sharp, more of her favorite snacks and treats. She scolds him for wasting money, but he just laughs and laughs and laughs, and it's a better look for him than the nights she finds him awake and staring at the moon, so drunk he calls her Shijie and clings to her while babbling like a child.
She doesn't know anything about making lotus and pork rib soup, but she's pretty sure A-Ning would remember their grandfather's recipe for hot rice noodles. Money is tight, but splurging a little on chilis and noodles… Maybe she'll insist on going down to sell their harvest with A-Ning next time, and they can plan the surprise together. She's no cook, and A-Ning can't taste anymore, but they'll make due between the two of them.
They always have, and they always will.
A-Ning gets hurt, and they don't know for almost a week.
Wen Qing could scream, could smack him, for the swell of helpless worry that crashes over her. What the hell has all her and Wei Wuxian's hard work been for if he won't tell them when things go wrong?
"It's nothing," he tries to mumble to her. "I have it handled."
The clumsy stitches that peek out from beneath his loosened collar say otherwise.
"How," she demands.
"I was dealing with one of the other… things… that the Burial Mounds calls up…"
"You are not a thing, A-Ning." Wen Qing is quick to correct him. "Let me… no. Let's go to the Demon Slaughtering Cave, we'll talk to Wei Wuxian-"
A-Ning grabs her arm and, damn, she had forgotten how strong he was now. "Sister," he all but whines. Even if his face can't change, the rest of his body language desperately pleads on his behalf. "Please, we don't need to involve Young Master Wei over this, it's really nothing."
She really does smack him upside the head this time.
"A-Ning, what do you think Wei Wuxian has been taking up all my time for anatomy lessons for? Do you think he just brought you back with no intent to keep you around? We've both been- Urgh!" She shouldn't yell. She shouldn't take her frustration out on A-Ning; it isn't his fault that he didn't know. And he's always been like this- shrinking into the background so that other people don't have to worry over him, when he could just as easily reach out and be cared for. She makes herself take a deep breath and calm down, if only so her poor brother can stop flinching like a kicked puppy. She pulls her arm from his loosened grip and takes the hems of his clothes, straightening them so the stitches stop peeking out for now. A-Ning casts his eyes down in shame, and she sighs, gently patting his head and straightening some of his hair. "A-Ning, let us take care of you, okay?"
He nods, that jerky motion that always ends up looking over-eager. She smiles, her hand dropping down to take his, and the two walk over to the Demon Summoning Cave.
Wei Wuxian is dozing, head propped up on one arm and the other hand holding a brush that has slowly spread its ink over whatever notes he was taking. A-Yuan sits on the floor, drawing on another piece of paper with a remnant of charred firewood. A-Yuan looks up to see them and hops to his little feet, rushing over.
"Lookit, lookit! I drew my butterflies!" He holds up the picture, which is little-kid abstract, but still recognizable as a pair of butterflies. "They're talking about how they wanna have soup instead of radishes."
A-Ning pats his head ever so gently. "You did a really nice job."
Wen Qing smiles as well, because even she knows that's what you do with kids. "It's lovely A-Yuan." She hands him back the paper. "Do you wanna show Granny and everyone else? A-Ning and I need to talk to Wei Wuxian for a bit."
A-Yuan looks back at the sleeping Wei Wuxian, who has begun to lightly snore, and nods. "Brother Poor's been sleeping the day away, so that sounds like more fun anyway."
A-Ning sees him out the door while Wen Qing stares down at the dozing Wei Wuxian. What she wouldn't give for a bucket of water right now, just to see how high he'd jump. Instead she clears her throat before A-Ning has a chance to object.
Wei Wuxian jolts awake at the sound of his name. "I'm almost done copying!" His brain catches up with reality at the sound of Wen Qing snickering at him, and he whips around to glare at her. "Heyyy… You know I was deep in meditative contemplation-"
Wen Qing snatches the page away and glances over it. "By ruining the notes on your precious compass idea?"
Wei Wuxian looks horrified, snatching it away from her. "Aaaahhhh, not my compass notes!" He despairs over the pages before scowling at Wen Qing over them. "What brings you into my cave, anyway?"
Wen Qing's smile falls into her usual focused look. "A-Ning got hurt."
Wei Wuxian's face goes from feigned petulance to genuine terror so fast that Wen Qing almost wants to hold him and tell him it's going to be okay. "What? Wen Ning?" He rushes to meet A-Ning as he returns from walking A-Yuan over to the fields to see Uncle Four and the others. He grips Wen Ning's arms, looking him up and down for any sign of injury. "What happened? Does it hurt?"
Wen Qing can see the beginnings of panic seizing her brother. "Wei Wuxian! What kind of bedside manner is that?"
"Ah…" Wei Wuxian lets his hands drop. "You're right. I'm sorry, Wen Ning. Here, take a seat and we'll… we'll get you all fixed up, okay?"
"If you insist, Young Master Wei."
With some coaxing, A-Ning gives them the full story as he strips to the waist. For all that Wei Wuxian keeps the resentful energies of the Burial Mounds suppressed, there are some things that wander the mountainside that are older than most, stronger than his suppression. It might not have been an issue normally, but A-Ning had been wandering, and when they fought… The deep gash runs down his chest, curving from his right shoulder and then down over to his side, right at the edge of his ribcage. Wei Wuxian's hands trail the clumsy stitches A-Ning did himself to try and hide his wounds.
"Does it still hurt?" Wei Wuxian asks.
"Pain is… a relative thing now. Nothing hurts like dying, and nothing hurts like waking up again; any other pain is all mixed up from there, and it's hard to really say… It's more like I can feel my body being… off."
"Did you do these stitches yourself?"
Wei Wuxian's eyes light up. "Ah… well, when we're done getting you fixed up, we should talk about that! Threading needles and doing things like this… that's lot of coordination! Maybe it's getting easier, or maybe you're just better than I realized…" He gives A-Ning a smile and pats his shoulder, and tension eases from his stiff body.
Wei Wuxian carefully takes his knife and cuts the stitches free, gently pulling the threads from A-Ning's skin. Wen Qing now recognizes this set of his brow and the slight turn to his mouth; it's the look he gets when he's concentrating on something he really cares about. He feels her brother's chest with the utmost gentleness, checking for broken bones or deeper damage than just the gash. He has A-Ning gently move his arm to see how it pulls, to make sure his motion isn't affected. Is there any pain? What feels off? Her brother answers softly, as though asking for help or having a problem is some dreadful thing he shouldn't have to do, as though having others care for him is shameful now that he's like this. Wei Wuxian combats it all with his smile and charm, though Wen Qing is pretty sure her brother can also see the worry and care in Wei Wuxian's sunny affect.
Thankfully, the wound isn't too severe; it's only so deep, and most of A-Ning's sense of wrongness seems to come from the way his skin and arm can shift for the lack of attachment. Wei Wuxian sews him back up with tiny, careful stitches; Wen Qing realizes as she watches that they aren't ones she taught him. By the time Wei Wuxian is done, however, the damage is almost imperceptible.
"Move your arm again?"
A-Ning obliges, and something like a sigh of relief passes through his lips. "That feels a lot better, Young Master Wei."
Wei Wuxian grins in triumph. "Awesome! Though it would be great in the future if I could think of some way to make a stitching that could just become flesh for you… " Wen Qing watches him blindly scrawl a note on a piece of paper that already has writing on it.
"This'll do for now, though! Just in the future… let us know, okay? Me or your sister. We care about you, Wen Ning. I wouldn't have done all this if I didn't."
Wen Ning nods, looking down at his feet. Wen Qing sucks in a breath as well. He didn't mean it cruelly, but there is indeed so much that Wei Wuxian has done, has given up, for them. She thinks to Jiang Wanyin screaming in his face and publicly denouncing him, to Lan Wangji pleading with him to return to Gusu, and to Wei Wuxian himself, complaining about eating turnips again while taking thinner rations than anyone else so that the old and the young and the sick have enough to get by on. They never asked for it, but he did it anyway.
If Wei Wuxian notices the mood change or sees their somber faces, he makes no mention of it, pushing forward with a smile as he asks her brother for more details about the thing he fought. Was it that strong? Maybe they should night hunt it together, or try to find a way to set it to rest… And before long he's onto even more mundane topics, and A-Ning follows close at his heels as he wanders off deeper into the caves.
They celebrate Wei Wuxian’s birthday with a surprise party. He hadn’t even known they’d learned the date, but trust it to A-Ning to root out the little details and report back without Wei Wuxian ever being any the wiser. Wei Wuxian fusses a bit over a minor burn on A-Ning’s hand, but Wen Qing deflects him from playing doctor by serving him a steaming plate of hot rice noodles.
“Aaah, now this is what real food tastes like!” Wei Wuxian exclaims, slurping red-hot spice down like it’s water. A-Yuan makes a face when Wei Wuxian tries to offer him a bite.
There is laughter and light, and even when the liquor comes out, Wei Wuxian stays smiling, flitting from table to table, pulling A-Ning back into the festivities any time he strays. They stay up late into the night, staving off the coming winter with a celebration of the man who brought life back to their lives.
Wen Qing smiles to herself, shaking her head. With any luck, what they’re building here will last long enough to grow like their harvests, grow into a life they can all share together. If not.. She's happy to have at least had this. A-Ning is with her again, even if his heart no longer beats; Wei Wuxian will never cultivate conventionally, but he still creates and invents and innovates nonetheless; and she…
Wen Qing had never really seen a future like this, but if there’s one thing she’s always enjoyed, it’s a challenge. And here? Every day is another chance to prove to herself all she can be.