Sizhui has found that there are lines to be drawn between exciting and terrifying. This uncanny storm, the torrents of rain, the wind thrashing the trees, lightning sparking fires in the canopy — this is terrifying.
"I've never seen resentful energy take this form before. It's like waterborne spirits. But the water is dispersed. And the wind! It's incredible," Wei Wuxian is saying. But there's a thread of wariness in his voice, and he won't take his hand off Sizhui's arm, as if he's afraid the screaming wind will carry him away.
Sizhui politely ignores the way Wei Wuxian is panting. It's not surprising. The mud and sliding water make each step feel like dragging a weight. And earlier, Wei Wuxian played and played, until his breath faltered, until he grimaced into the rain and said, "We'd better walk out of it, then."
"Wei-qianbei." Sizhui waits until he has his attention and directs it up the steep incline with a pointed glance, wishing more than observing, "Maybe it will clear when we reach the top of the ridge."
"If it doesn't, we may never get dry again."
They’re shouting over the rain now, shuffling in the mud that's slippery one moment and thick as tar the next. Sizhui stumbles, sinking to his elbows in the muck. It grabs him, and for a moment he’s very small and it’s been raining for days and days and there are people in the water who don’t move anymore. He hears himself make a frightened animal sound.
Wei Wuxian appears in front of him, his hair glued to his face. He’s shouting over the roar of the storm, and his eyes are dark and serious. “Sizhui!" A ragged breath. "A-Yuan. Look at me. Stop fighting the mud. I’ve got you.” His hand is cold against Sizhui's cheek. "I have you."
Sizhui gives a firm nod and he’s back, here on a mountainside just outside of Yunmeng. In a storm that should not be. Wei Wuxian levers him out of the mud and braces them both against a tree. “The terrain here can’t handle wind and water like this. We’ve got to—“
As if responding, the trunk they're pressed up against abruptly tilts. It makes a terrible sucking sound, the root system rising from the wet soil like a beast with claws. Before they can move, it’s pulling them up and down—down the sharp incline they’ve only just managed to climb.
“Wei-qianbei!” Sizhui shouts. He’s lighter on his feet now that he isn't knee deep in mud. But still not quick enough with his robes soaked and heavy. The tree lands with a boom that echoes in Sizhui’s chest, and then it keeps sliding. They’re moving with it now, clinging to the roots like spiders.
Wei Wuxian has one hand on Sizhui's wrist and the other in the wet roots. He glances down at his feet, but they’re obscured by his soaked robes. A grimace tightens his mouth before he nods to himself. It looks like the end of a negotiation. Then his fingers squeeze and let go of Sizhui's arm. “Sizhui — jump. Now!”
It’s a command. But Sizhui still hesitates, mud and water spraying in his eyes, the landscape tilted and blurred, consequences unclear. Something tells him he mustn’t.
And yet, he does as he’s been commanded, coils and leaps clear of the root system. When he lands in the branch of a tree that hasn’t been grabbed by the mudslide, it startles him to no longer be hurtling down the mountainside.
Now, grappling bending branches to keep from being swept away by the wind, he can see how very large the sliding tree is.
And he can see that Wei Wuxian has not followed him. “Wei-qianbei!” The sound is lost in a snap and rumble of thunder. Chest gone tight, he follows, leaping from intact trunk to trunk alongside the deep furrow the massive root system leaves as it slides and slides and slides. This side of the mountain is steep and rocky beneath the mud, it’s the sharp incline they avoided as they switchbacked in search of a clear way out of the storm.
Sizhui doesn’t see the ravine until the tree lurches with an awful slowness, levering the root system high in the air. There’s a flash of light, talismans glowing like lanterns in the dark sheeting rain. But whatever Wei Wuxian has attempted does not free him from the roots and when the tree free-falls, he does not leap away.
The tree disappears.
It takes Sizhui far too long to climb down after him, but the wind and rain are too torrential to fly. With every clumsy, muddy step, he regrets freeing himself from the tree's roots before being certain that Wei Wuxian could follow.
Sizhui scans the mud and brush, his heartbeat a frantic thing, his limbs clumsy with fear.
If he’s gone. If he’s gone.
Sizhui thinks he might be crying, but it’s difficult to tell the way his chest heaves with exertion and the cold rain pelts down on him. The drops stings like insect bites. He catches glimpses of darkness on the wind, remnants of the resentful energy that threaded through the storm, strengthened it to this beast.
He calls out and hears nothing in return, but that doesn’t surprise him. He can barely hear his own voice over the violence of the storm.
Finally, the ravine bottoms out. Sizhui casts his gaze around wildly, his imagination supplying everything from Wei Wuxian laughing at him from a safe perch to Wei Wuxian crushed to something unrecognizable. He thinks he might lose the contents of his stomach.
Then he realizes with a start that what he’s mistaken for a pale bit of stone is Wei Wuxian’s face. Their eyes meet as Sizhui sloshes through rainwater and silt to where the massive tree has settled, with Wei Wuxian pinned by the trunk and the root system that’s nearly the size of a house.
“I’m fine,” Wei Wuxian says quickly as Sizhui draws a damp fire talisman and bathes them in weak, flickering light. There’s blood down the side of his face but the cut on his forehead is clearly shallow. He’s on his back, pushed up on one elbow but unable to rise further with the angle of the tree over his hips and one leg. “My foot was trapped. Now,” he observes, absurdly sheepish, “all of me is trapped.”
Sizhui sinks beside him, mapping his body with his hands, feeling for injuries he can’t see. He can’t feel enough of him. He thinks he might see blood in the rain pooling around Wei Wuxian, but even in the glow of the talisman the water is too dark to know for sure. “Wei-qianbei.” He feels foolish. Small. A sense of danger flutters in his chest like the furious beating of wings. This is worse than it seems, he’s sure of it.
And it seems very bad.
Drawing his sword, Sizhui slices at the tree trunk, but it’s old and hard as stone. The frantic blow reverberates back at him, numbing his arm. He tries to lever the blade against the roots and Wei Wuxian winces, calling him off with a tight shake of his head. “Sizhui.”
“What do I do?”Sizhui asks, putting away his sword and returning to Wei Wuxian’s side. He’s never felt like this before — like something within him is unraveling.
Wei Wuxian clutches his flute. With his other hand, he grips Sizhui’s sleeve. "Go to Lotus Pier. It’s not far. Jiang Cheng will make quick work of this tree."
Sizhui's attention flickers back to the tree. The stubborn question in his heart must show on his face, because Wei Wuxian says, "There’s no use going at it. It's more than the two of us can move. We'll need Jiang Cheng to carve it up. He'll enjoy it, don't worry."
Panic. That’s what this feeling is. “The water is rising,” Sizhui realizes aloud. The rain. The mud. It’s filling the bottom of the ravine steadily. There has to be something he can do. An array. Something to shield Wei Wuxian from the water. His teeth pinch the inside of his lower lip as he tries to think, tries to sort this out. The rain is freezing.
“Sizhui.” Even lifting his voice to be heard, Wei Wuxian is unbearably gentle. “I need you to hurry.”
He knows, then. He knows how fast the water is rising, how soon it will overtake him.
Sizhui swallows against a heaviness in his chest, as if he’s full of the mud that makes their clothes slick and dark. “Yes, Wei-qianbei.” He’s not ashamed of the way his voice breaks.
Wei Wuxian releases his sleeve in favor of touching Sizhui’s temple, just below his headband. His fingers are gritty with mud and grime. “Be careful. Don’t fly until you’re free of the wind. I'll never hear the end of it if you break your legs under my supervision.”
Without waiting for a response, he lifts Chenqing to his lips and the haunting sound rises over the rain that lashes down. The storm lets up above them, just a little. Just enough for Sizhui to see the clearest way up and out, over the ridge. To Yunmeng. To Sect Leader Jiang. To help.
He does not look back. When he reaches the ridge, the storm subsides abruptly, and he can no longer hear the sound of the flute. Only the sound of muffled, angry thunder.
It takes too long.
With every heartbeat, Sizhui feels heavier. Feels like he's sinking.
It's still raining when Sizhui and Jiang Wanyin slosh down into the ravine now full of water that sputters with raindrops. But it's not a wild, resentful storm anymore. Just cold spring rain. Sizhui struggles to catch his breath, his ribs like claws pulling tight around his insides. No matter how hard he looks, he can’t pinpoint the place. So many trees have fallen. The forest is ruined here.
He knows if he can’t see Wei Wuxian that means he’s under the dark, muddy water. The thought is a cold blade. If...
It cannot be. This cannot be.
“Lan Sizhui!” Jiang Wanyin roars. “Where was he?”
Sizhui's heart stutters. If Wei Wuxian freed himself, he’d have found them by now. “We were here. The water’s high.” Is he crying? It’s difficult to tell in the rain. "The water is too high."
Jiang Wanyin’s gaze catches on something and his eyes go wide. He starts off through the mud, kicking it high, heedless of the way it stains his fine purple robes. Sizhui follows him and sees what he's running toward. Chenqing swirls in an eddy, trapped by thin, wet rootlets. Nearby, just below the surface, something pale bobs around in the water.
They don't need to speak. Sizhui could not if he tried. He can't breathe. Can barely control his trembling limbs as he wades to the place where Wei Wuxian is and sinks to his shoulders to wrap his arms around him, to try to pull him to the surface. Sandu sings through the air like a bolt of lightning, the blade neatly slicing through the massive tree trunk as if it's made of paper.
"Wei-qianbei." Sizhui can't lift Wei Wuxian’s head above the water. The water is too high. "Wei-qianbei," he chokes out, wanting him to hear, to know that he's there, that they're going to free him. "Hurry," he calls out to Jiang Wanyin, who doesn't glance at him, but stiffens with such rage that Sizhui imagines he could destroy the tree with no more than a thought.
"Would you prefer I cut him in two?" he asks with a snarl.
Numb, Sizhui shakes his head and keeps tugging, trying not to pull too hard, trying not to hurt him, trying not to think about how heavy and still he is. As the tree breaks apart bit by bit, Sizhui tests the tension, never stops trying to drag Wei Wuxian to the surface. And finally, he's able to pull Wei Wuxian free.
Jiang Wanyin wrestles him away from Sizhui with a strange, low growl and pulls him out of the cold water like he weighs nothing, quickly depositing him on his back on a broad tree trunk that's lodged out of the water. He shoves his fingers into Wei Wuxian's mouth. Sizhui rushes forward, horrified by the violence of it, until he sees the mud Jiang Wanyin digs out of Wei Wuxian's mouth.
Wei Wuxian's face holds no expression. He doesn't gag or bite or squirm. He doesn't move.
His hands are wrinkled from the water. Sizhui takes Wei Wuxian's wet, cold fingers in his own, finds that his spiritual energy reaches for Wei Wuxian before he consciously bids it to.
There's a rule, a rule. Something about disturbing the dead. Something Sizhui should know. But his ears are ringing, and he can't recall a single thing he's ever learned.
"He fell in the lake when he was ten," Jiang Wanyin says, working with cold efficiency — though his hands shake violently when he swipes his fingers through Wei Wuxian's mouth once more, clears it of mud. He tears Wei Wuxian's robes open to expose skin that's moon-white when lightning skitters across the sky above them. "Hit his head on the dock. The idiot. My father had to breathe life into him that day."
Hope flickers in Sizhui. He's heard of this. It sounds like something gentle, a gift. But Jiang Wanyin presses his hands to Wei Wuxian's chest with a brutal rhythm, and jams his mouth to Wei Wuxian's, exhaling hard, like he's feeding a fire.
It's terrible to watch.
Terrible to hear.
There's a sickening crack, the unmistakable sound of bone snapping, and Sizhui sobs out, "Please," without really knowing what he's asking for.
Jiang Wanyin ignores him, his expression its own storm. "Breathe, Wei Wuxian!" he says rhythmically, each sound timed with the sickening blows to Wei Wuxian's chest. "You're not going to drown in a forest. Not here. I'll take you home and drown you there. You fool."
Just as Sizhui realizes that Jiang Wanyin is crying as he grits out every word, Wei Wuxian makes a sound like a creaking hinge. Water and frothy blood gurgle out of him weakly. He chokes. Heaves. Chokes again.
Whispering his name like a blessing, Jiang Wanyin turns Wei Wuxian onto his side, brushes his wet hair out of his eyes. Wei Wuxian coughs and vomits more, draws breaths that sound like sucking mud. But his eyes don't open, and he quickly goes still. Sizhui's seen and heard enough to know Wei Wuxian's face should be contorted with pain. There's blood in the water pooled around his leg. Blood smeared around his mouth.
But he's still. Not peaceful. Something else. Empty.
Swearing, Jiang Wanyin hefts him up. The motion is swift but gentle, the roughness of his voice at odds with how careful he is with Wei Wuxian's motionless form when he growls out, "Get his flute."
When they're out of the rain, Jiang Wanyin whirls to face Sizhui. He looks like he's only just noticed that Sizhui is following him. His jaw works for a long moment before he grits out, "Find Hanguang-Jun. Bring him to Lotus Pier."
"Yes," Sizhui says, bowing with a wobble. Jiang Wanyin motions as if to steady him, but his arms are full.
"Careful. Thank you," he says, haunted, before hurrying away.
It will take too long, Sizhui thinks. When he closes his eyes, he sees the pink spittle at Wei Wuxian's bloodless lips.
He races for Cloud Recesses.
At Lotus Pier, the Head Healer and her disciples swarm with steaming herbs and poultices and pungent tinctures. They wash Wei Wuxian's body, wrap his chest, bind the deep wound at his thigh where a branch punctured the pale flesh. Jiang Cheng hates their hands on him, clenches his fingers into fists to keep from batting them away. Finally, he settles on helping, growling out that they bathed together as children and there's nothing he hasn't seen before. And besides, he reminds them, Wei Wuxian has no shame. If he had any shame, he wouldn't have made that Lan boy drag a busy sect leader out into a storm.
He'd have known better, he'd have stayed out of trouble, he'd have stayed in Gusu, he'd have run from the storm, he'd have avoided doing whatever stupid thing he did to cause resentful spirits to swarm on the wind.
He'd open his eyes.
The Head Healer’s warm hand comes to rest on his, stilling it. He's been scrubbing too hard, scouring Wei Wuxian's arm with a hot cloth, muttering to him, to himself. Her eyes hold quiet pity, and he tears his gaze away from hers and throws the cloth down into a bowl. It makes a hollow sound.
The healers leave him when there's nothing left to be done but listen to Wei Wuxian's breath struggle in and out with a bubbling wheeze. Wei Wuxian has already become feverish, blotchy patches of color at his cheeks. There are bruises as dark as Jiang Cheng's robes forming at Wei Wuxian's chest where his ribs cracked. They spread like spilled ink from beneath the soft bandages.
Jiang Cheng holds his hand, feeds him spiritual energy from his own core, wishing Wei Wuxian would wake and complain about it, remind him of the gift Jiang Cheng never asked for. The gift that still isn't enough to make Wei Wuxian's weak glow of an undeveloped core flare to life and strengthen his battered lungs.
If Wei Wuxian were awake, he wonders, how would it feel? "Would you tell me to stop?" he asks, hushed. "Or ask me not to?"
Wei Wuxian doesn't answer, because he's dying.
The stillness is too much. Wei Wuxian's breath rasps. His skin radiates sick heat. A question has formed, one that Jiang Cheng cannot tuck away once it's made itself known. What happened. What happened. How did you end up under the water? Where are you?
Why won't you open your eyes?
Jiang Cheng knows, distantly, that he should not do this alone. But he also knows the healers could return at any moment, that they will pull him back if he becomes lost where he should not have gone.
There must be something, some understanding that will help them fix the mess Wei Wuxian has made of himself.
Jiang Cheng did not take action, once. That's a wound that won't heal, itchy like a scab he can't scrape away. So now, without much thought, he acts. Takes Wei Wuxian's hands, closes his eyes, sinks into Empathy.
It's like being turned inside-out. Flayed and sewn back together in an instant, before the pain subsides, becomes the ghost of a flame. This, it occurs to him, is why he does not prefer this kind of cultivation, this space he can't wrap his hands around.
And then he's there, his awareness no longer his own — because now he's frantic and angry and frightened. He's within it, locked in Wei Wuxian's awareness. Trapped in the water.
When the water reaches Wei Wuxian's chin, he understands.
This is not a resigned understanding.
Wei Wuxian struggles harder, twists and tests the way the efforts tear his thigh where he's not only pinned but pierced below the surface of the water. It's only a dull ache now, concerning in the way it doesn't hurt as much as it should.
But that isn't as concerning as the rising water. The way the splashing raindrops on his face already feel stifling, like fingers over his mouth, like he can't gulp down the full breaths he wants to. Can't savor the sweetness of air when it will soon become scarce.
Already, he has to lever his arms like he's swimming to get his face above the surface. He could tread water for hours, did it on his brother's dare more than once, but he's been bleeding, and attempting to convince a resentful storm to rain on some other mountainside, and his limbs feel like stones.
He's grateful Sizhui listened to him, left quickly, got too far away to see this. There's no dignity in this death. For a while he approached it strategically, coiling up for a breath and resting below the surface, his ears full of the quiet-loud sound of the water and the rhythm of the rain beating down. But now he's wriggling, struggling in the water with senseless, thrashing motions that do nothing but tire him out further. The animal-need to survive has taken over, and he moves like he's possessed.
It's cold, it's cold, and next time he breaks the surface, he gasps out, "Lan Zhan," without meaning to speak the name. His breath breaks on the crest of a held-back sob. This, he understands, is what it means to want to continue living.
He would like to assure Lan Wangji that he wants, very much, to continue living. He wants to go home. Lan Wangji will run a warm bath for him, will pretend to disapprove of his recklessness, will let him talk about the way the lightning looked in the trees until Lan Wangji finally kisses him into silence, pulls him to bed.
He should. He should leave something. A token. A mark on the tree. Something — something... He can't get free. Will Lan Wangji know that his name was on Wei Wuxian's lips?
He struggles desperately, but his body won't budge from where it's trapped. This body, this body. He should have been more careful. There's nothing left to try. His talismans are soaked, paper disintegrating in the water. His breathing is too erratic and his hands shake in the cold too badly for him to play. Chenqing floats out of his numb fingers.
He doesn't want to die — can't breathe. Only his lips break the surface, and when he sucks in a breath, it's too wet, and he chokes, gasping reflexively. He draws in water. It hurts. He churns in the cold, fights it, bucks at the surface, thrusts his hands out into the air as if he can pull a breath down to his mouth, just one more breath, Lan Zhan —
There's nothing, Jiang Cheng observes with a shudder, from inside of it. Nothing at all until, abruptly, there's everything. It's so sunny it hurts to see. The sky is so big, so cloudless and blue, that it's dizzying.
Wei Wuxian isn't allowed to swim for a while, not since he hit his head and had to be dragged lifeless from the lake. So he sprawls out on his side in the midday sun on the edge of the pier, his head cradled carefully in his shijie's lap, her fingers running careful, gentle furrows through his hair, soothing the lingering headache.
Jiang Cheng wants to shake himself awake in this dream, wants to catch her hand and hold her. To get a better look at her face. He feels tears run down cheeks in the faraway present where his body has gone still.
Fat, green-winged dragonflies skim across the surface of the water, snatching up mosquitoes, startling the child who surfaces and spits a stream of water up at the dock, not quite hitting Wei Wuxian's dangling feet. "Get better so we can play," he grouses, and Jiang Cheng realizes with a tilting sensation that he is looking at himself. He is very small.
Wei Wuxian is happy, oh, he's happy. His belly is full and warm, and the three of them are closer than anyone has ever been, than anyone ever will be, he's sure of this, certain of it, content with the knowledge of it. He sighs, nuzzling close, listening to them talking and laughing, listening to the birdsong and the frogs and his heart beating, singing. He could sleep like this, wants to sleep just like this always, safe and warm in the sun. Home.
The Head Healer pulls Jiang Cheng out, holds his shoulders, shakes him a little. She takes his hand, shows him where his fingertips had started to go blue-tinged. "You were barely breathing," she snaps.
Guilt floods through Jiang Cheng. There is too much at stake for him to take such risks.
"Thank you," he tells her when she lets go of him.
And I'm sorry.
Senseless dread curdles in Jiang Cheng's belly when Lan Wangji approaches. The feeling is absurd, and he hates it. This isn't his fault. In fact, one might argue that it's Lan Wangji's fault. He allowed for such a small party, a junior disciple and a well-known idiot, to night hunt alone.
Still, Jiang Cheng’s voice is hoarse when he greets him. "Hanguang-Jun."
"Where is he?"
Jiang Cheng has the sense, in this moment, not to fault Lan Wangji for the lack of courtesy. It's been a long time since he found Lan Wangji to be cold or unknowable. Now he can see his fear plainly, and it causes an uncomfortable twist in his chest.
Lan Sizhui stands behind him, in fresh robes, distress plain as writing on his face. Jiang Cheng has a strange impulse to pull him into an embrace, recalling the way he'd struggled in the water, unable to lift Wei Wuxian's head above the surface. He shouldn't be here. But he's here. And Jiang Cheng can't think of a reason to turn him away.
"Come," he mumbles, wondering why he feels like a junior again. Unsure. Unsettled. Perhaps it is the late hour. An hour that reminds him of sneaking around Lotus Pier with Wei Wuxian when they were boys. A memory that makes him grit his teeth so hard his jaw aches by the time they reach the place where Wei Wuxian sleeps.
Though sleep is the wrong word.
"Wei Ying," Lan Wangji says, the name an exclamation. A plain demonstration of grief that makes Jiang Cheng want to scream that Wei Wuxian isn't dead, stop acting like he's dead. He's right there.
Right there struggling to breathe.
Wei Wuxian doesn't stir when Lan Wangji takes his hand, touches his wrist. Searches his face. There's startling intimacy in it, in the way he wears his fear openly. Lan Sizhui sinks just behind him, his brow furrowed and his hands twisting into his robes. He bites his lip and looks like he wants to apologize.
Jiang Cheng has never been patient, so he says, "I saw what happened." He swallows, his throat sticky, like he's swallowed dirt. "I saw what's happening."
"Empathy," Lan Wangji says, frowning at Wei Wuxian's face.
It wasn't a question, but Jiang Cheng nods, sinking to the space across the bed from Lan Wangji. "Yes." This part is more difficult to say. He doesn't even want to think about it. "He's recalling... he's remembering..."
Lan Wangji's gaze turns to him slowly, head tilted in a silent question.
"He's remembering being a boy. Here. With... with my sister. Our sister." There's no need to tell them that he was there as well, that small version of himself that feared nothing more than having no playmate for an afternoon. What a stupid child.
"A pleasant memory?" Lan Wangji asks, tracing the back of Wei Wuxian's hand. A faint tremor runs through his fingers. His gaze becomes softer, sad in a way that Jiang Cheng wants to turn away from.
"Who knows? Pleasant enough. Children are always happy." He doesn't have a language for what Wei Wuxian felt. The contentment, the ease he felt.
The love. That's the word that wants to claw its way from his throat, that chokes him. He did not love Wei Wuxian then. He didn't — he doesn't.
Lan Wangji and Lan Sizhui are staring at him. He realizes he's taken Wei Wuxian's other hand. He's cradling it like Wei Wuxian’s bones are made of ceramic. As cold as they are, they may as well be.
“He was not at peace,” Jiang Cheng says, feeling his voice become mud. It's important for him to tell Lan Wangji that there was more than the memory of the place just a few steps away from this room. The spot on the dock that gets the most sun all day. “At the end.”
Lan Wangji’s eyes snap up, and Jiang Cheng amends with a halting, “When the water rose.” He cannot give words to those moments, the animal desperation of it. It’s residue within him now.
He hates it.
“But now,” Lan Wanji prompts, hesitant in a way that speaks not of hope but dread. Why should a soul at peace wake to fever and slow drowning within the confines of his own damaged body?
Jiang Cheng can still feel the sun, can hear the water curling around the pilings beneath the dock where his brother lies, smiling and light. They’re so young. Jiang Cheng had only just begun to tolerate Wei Wuxian, but this — this is how far back his brother’s mind had to reach to find a place to rest. His head in his senior sister’s lap. Her fingers combing through his hair. Jiang Cheng in the water, bored without his playmate but laughing, laughing.
Jiang Cheng is crying. He will not lift his hands to remove the plain evidence of it. But he controls his voice. “Now he is at peace,” he says, even as his mind rails against it. This hasn't been a place of peace or a home for Wei Wuxian in a lifetime. Why still, why now?
He doesn't want to know the answer.
Lan Wangji’s expression falters, grief tight around his eyes, plain in the way his lips part silently. Jiang Cheng finds himself wishing Wei Wuxian would spring up and throw his arms around his husband, make a noisy spectacle of comforting him.
“Hanguang-Jun,” a soft voice interrupts, polite in a way that astounds Jiang Cheng. Lan Sizhui is only a little older than Jin Ling, but — Jiang Cheng hates to admit — far more apt at adjusting his demeanor to what a given situation calls for. Despite the sheen of tears in his eyes, he speaks with quiet deference. “Perhaps you could call to him with Inquiry.”
There's a terrible ease to the way Lan Sizhui suggests it. Jiang Cheng suspects this won't be the first time Lan Wangji has called to Wei Wuxian with his guqin.
Lan Wangji's shoulders shift, weariness settling over him like a shroud. “I fear it would cause trauma to his soul,” he answers, brushing a sweat-damp strand of hair from Wei Wuxian's temple.
Even so, Lan Sizhui leans closer, looking faintly hopeful, as if Lan Wangji has exhibited eagerness only a Lan could perceive.
“His soul was ripped back into this world and he’s fine,” Jiang Cheng snaps. “He’s just being lazy. Typical. Call him back.”
They both look at him, expressions mirrored — though Sizhui looks far more pitying. And at that, the bluster leaves Jiang Cheng like a breath held too long. He looks down at where his fingers are still entwined with Wei Wuxian’s, and then to his face. Still blank. Empty, mouth slack. Nearly indistinguishable from the countenance of a fresh corpse. Only animated by the coarse wheeze of his breathing.
“Call him back,” he repeats. This time it’s a plea.
"I will try," Lan Wangji says, sounding more like he's making that promise to Wei Wuxian than to Jiang Cheng. He spreads the guqin across a low table, sitting before it with more elegance than Jiang Cheng would ever be capable of, let alone right now.
There's no formality to it. He begins to play. When his fingers stop moving, the strings pluck themselves, each note eerie and soft.
Lan Sizhui has taken Lan Wangji's place across the bed, though he doesn't touch Wei Wuxian, only stares at him as he translates for Jiang Cheng. "He asked, who are you. And Wei-qianbei answered. This part is... where are you. And Wei-qianbei says. He says Lotus Pier."
"It doesn't mean he knows where he is," Jiang Cheng grits out. "Right now. The memory is at Lotus Pier. Just tell him to wake up!"
"Ghosts are easily startled." Lan Sizhui’s voice is on the gentle side of chastising.
"He's not a ghost if he's not dead."
"Silence," Lan Wangi mutters.
They listen to a few more exchanges. Lan Sizhui frowns, glancing at Lan Wangji and the guqin as if he's misheard. "There are standard questions," he whispers. "He says he's ten. Huanguan-Jun asked how he died, and he said that he is not dead."
Jiang Cheng's breath sucks in sharply. The replies to Lan Wangji's notes are fast and loud. They remind him, somehow, of the way Jin Ling speaks nearly all of the time. "Ten?"
"Well he's not ten!" Jiang Cheng grits his teeth. "He's — I don't know how old he is now. Tell him he's not ten. Tell him there's more here than there was then." He recalls with sudden, startling clarity the way his sister's fingers felt in Wei Wuxian's hair, and his hand rises to his own, to the sharp edges of his hair piece. His hands are shaking so badly they flutter against the silver. "I know, I know she's not here, but..."
Lan Wangji's hands are still over the taut strings. He manages to look both angry and terribly worried. "Inquiry is best played as short questions and statements. Perhaps it would better suit you to wait outside?"
"Perhaps you should stop asking him questions and tell him that he's got another family now!" Jiang Cheng shouts back.
Lan Sizhui flinches.
In the silence that follows, Wei Wuxian keeps breathing in that ugly, bubbling way, with long pauses between each breath.
"Tell him what he has here," Jiang Cheng finally amends in a broken whisper.
When Lan Wangji plays, he closes his eyes. There is no translation. And, strangely, there are no replies. As far as Jiang Cheng can tell, three short statements have been plucked out. Lan Sizhui wipes his eyes with his sleeve, glances up at Jiang Cheng furtively.
He looks like he wants to say something, but his gaze shifts away and his lips press into an unhappy line.
The final note hangs in the air, solemn and soft. And Wei Wuxian wakes up.
Sizhui is cold. He's been cold since he stumbled into the water after Wei Wuxian. But now, at least, sitting on one of the docks at Lotus Pier, he has Jin Ling and Jingyi pressed against either side of him and Fairy sleeping against his lower back.
It's been a day and a half since Wei Wuxian blinked his eyes open, gasping and disoriented and lifting his hands weakly to shield his eyes from the candlelight as if it shone as bright as the sun.
While his fever is still high, the Head Healer says his lungs haven't worsened and he'll live as long as he stays in bed at Lotus Pier until he's fully recovered. This is a detail that Wei Wuxian is not aware of yet, and one that has caused a permanent furrow at Lan Wangji's brow since learning of it.
"Then what happened?" Jin Ling asks, handing Sizhui the bowl of congee they're sharing for breakfast.
Cupping the hot bowl for a moment in his chilled hands, Sizhui considers how much detail he wants to share with them. He decides at least a little bit, because ever since the storm, his fear has felt like a festering wound inside of him. "Wei-qianbei woke up after Hanguang-Jun stopped playing. It sounded like he was choking, sort of?"
"Like when Zizhen got that chicken bone stuck in his throat?" Jingyi supplies.
Jin Ling reaches across Sizhui to punch his thigh, nearly spilling the congee. "Don't be disgusting. Let him explain."
"A little like that, actually," Sizhui admits. He hands the bowl to Jingyi, his stomach still too sour to keep much of anything down. "Hanguang-Jun sat him up and Sect Leader Jiang helped hold him, and he fell asleep pretty quickly. It wasn't like before when he wouldn't wake up, because he kind of moaned in his sleep. And that's it."
That isn't quite it. Wei Wuxian went from looking horribly dead to looking horribly in pain, and they sent Sizhui to wake the Head Healer. Although it felt improper, he ran so fast he nearly barged through her door. And after that, she woke Wei Wuxian up by shaking him so violently that Sizhui thought Lan Wangji was going to run her through with Bichen. She pounded on his back and yelled at him to cough and when he finally did, a lot of green and dirty-looking stuff came out into the bowl she held under his chin. And then Wei Wuxian said his head hurt in a terrible, quiet whimper, and Sizhui had to look away when Lan Wangji dried Wei Wuxian’s eyes.
"That's it? Nobody said anything?" Jin Ling asks, plainly disbelieving.
"I can't recall exactly what they said," Sizhui says, though lying is forbidden. It's close to the truth. The words are a soft cloud in his mind, there but not solid enough to make out the edges. "Nice things."
"My uncle said nice things?" Jin Ling swings his feet over the water and fails to sound casually interested.
The river is dark and ripples with a cool, early morning breeze, and Sizhui looks away from it quickly. "I don't think he'd want me to tell you that, but yes. Nice enough."
It's not what he said as much as what he didn't say, and what he prompted Lan Wangji to say. The notes of Inquiry still seem to linger in the air.
You are safe here.
You are loved here.
Wei Ying, come home.
Jingyi clears his throat the way he does when he's about to make a proclamation that he wants everyone to pay attention to, but when he speaks it's quiet. "Are you all right?"
Sizhui sorts his thoughts out, letting them become soft things on the wind. "I'll be all right when he's all the way better. I think. I tried to sleep last night but I kept thinking about him when he was in the water." His lashes are wet. He scrubs the tears away, takes a breath that shudders.
"He should be more careful," Jin Ling says without much heat. He throws a stray pebble into the river. "Uncle is so worried he hasn't even noticed I'm here."
Jingyi bumps his shoulder against Sizhui's. "I think I'd have bad dreams about that forever, and he's not even my... whatever."
Sizhui thinks about the three of them here, sitting by the water, slowly warming as the sun rises. And he thinks about how full and safe he feels when he's with his friends, and how warm he feels when Wen Ning smiles at him like he's something precious, and how he's always known he was home, no matter where he was, no matter whose strong arms held him.
He thinks about what Jiang Cheng said about being at peace, and the way Wei Wuxian finally blinked at them both, awareness cutting through the pain. How he looked from one to the other, and at their hands clasped in his, and how one of his ragged breaths sounded like a laugh before he closed his eyes and fell into a fitful sleep in their arms.
Sizhui smiles shakily. "I think," he says, careful with his words, "I think things will be better now."