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Wen Qing is fairly confident in her own skills. She knows the theory—wrote the theory—and has performed many surgeries before, has worked with broken cores and devoted her life to the study of it. But there’s something different about this. She’s never held another’s golden core, had their entire cultivation base pulsing in her hands like a still-beating heart. She’s never done a transfer like this, only ever thought in hypotheticals.

Her eyes meet those of Wei Wuxian, who is pale and bleeding but still sane (somehow), and he gives a short jerk of a nod, eyes straying to his shidi. Jiang Wanyin has it easier, much easier, getting to stay unconscious. a-Ning leaves Wei Wuxian’s side to instead go to Jiang Wanyin’s, and he holds the other down despite his unconsciousness.

Giving the core to Jiang Wanyin doesn’t require an incision, doesn’t require anything so taxing as what Wei Wuxian has been through. She presses the glowing, pulsing energy to his lower dantian, using her own spiritual energy with a surgical precision to reopen the destroyed meridians, feeding the core’s energy through Jiang Wanyin’s body in a continuous loop. It takes four complete, exhausting cycles to ensure that the meridians are whole again, another two cycles to ensure that Wei Wuxian’s spiritual energy is accepted by a new body.

Then she pushes the core in, holding it to the meridians with her spiritual energy, and waits for it to start working on its own.

It’s a lot less taxing on her, this part of the surgery. She accepts the jug of water from her brother before he goes to tend to Wei Wuxian, fishes a small packet of nuts and preserved fruits out of her robes to eat. For the first time in what is nearing thirty hours, Wen Qing allows herself to relax, if only marginally. Wei Wuxian’s golden core is still connected to him by the thinnest of threads—connected to both of them, now—so the acceptance of the core into Jiang Wanyin’s body is essential. Once it is accepted, the last connections between the core and its old body would be severed.

Wen Qing keeps a hand on Jiang Cheng’s wrist as she eats and drinks, nudging spiritual energy along his meridians if the core’s cycles stuttered. Wei Wuxian’s incision can’t be closed until the last remnants of his core are pulled into Jiang Wanyin, so a-Ning is wiping his chest down, laying a cool wet cloth on his forehead and neck to keep him awake.

“’s’it working?” he slurs, rolling his head over to look at Wen Qing and his shidi.

She can’t help but pause before answering, because she really doesn’t know if it’s working. “His meridians are circulating the energy from your core,” Wen Qing settles on saying, because it’s the truth, and she doesn’t judge good or bad on that.

Privately, she’s a little worried, because the spiritual energy from Wei Wuxian’s core keeps stagnating and withdrawing, but when she urges it with her own it does keep going; perhaps it just needs to keep acclimating. Jiang Wanyin’s body is like a sponge, wanting to keep the new source of energy, so she hopes the core will hold its place.

Except, a half shichen later, it disappears.

It disappears.

The core disappears out of Jiang Wanyin’s body. It’s an instantaneous happening—one second it’s there, channeling the remnants of Jiang Wanyin’s spiritual energy along with Wei Wuxian’s, and then there’s an abrupt, gaping emptiness that is familiar only because it’s how his dantian felt before the transfer.

“J-jie?” a-Ning asks at the same moment that Wei Wuxian makes a rough noise of abject confusion, an emotion that is mirrored on her didi’s face. “What’s h-happening?”

She forces some of her spiritual energy to remain in Jiang Wanyin’s meridians, cycling to ensure nothing goes wrong, and rushes over to Wei Wuxian, who has suddenly regained some color in his face. It’s hard to focus on splitting her energy, cycling it in two other bodies, but immediately she can tell what’s wrong.

Wei Wuxian’s golden core is back in Wei Wuxian, like she never took it out. His meridians are perfectly reconnected, spiritual energy cycling as if it had never been stripped out.

“Take it,” Wei Wuxian looks as if he’s going to laugh, or maybe going to cry, holding one of a-Ning’s arms with white-knuckled hands. “Take it!”

“Wei Wuxian!” Wen Qing snaps, “Calm yourself; let me see what’s wrong.”

a-Ning coaches him through the same breathing exercises as he had when Wen Qing had made the first incisions, while Wen Qing sends her energy through him, searching for those same incisions. If she didn’t know precisely where she had made them, she would’ve thought they had never been there. His spiritual energy is seamless, just as strong as it had been if not somehow stronger.

“I will try once more,” Wen Qing says, withdrawing her spiritual energy from both Jiang Wanyin and Wei Wuxian in preparation, “if your core is not accepted by Jiang Wanyin’s body this time, I doubt it ever will be.”

Wei Wuxian looks devastated by that, but he nonetheless lets a-Ning take his hands again, doesn’t even shut his eyes as Wen Qing puts her hands back into the gore of his abdomen. His core comes out just as it had the first time, though a little more bloodied, and once again she makes the trek over to Jiang Wanyin’s prone form, feeds the spiritual energy into him before forcing the core into his dantian.

Again, she sits, and again she waits, spinning her own energy through Jiang Wanyin’s body.

She has some ideas for why the core might be rejected, but she doesn’t muse on them aloud, not when there is still a chance that Jiang Wanyin might assimilate the core. Prior to a-Ning’s rescue of them, she’d only met Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin from afar, at discussion conferences, so she didn’t and still doesn’t have the best grasp of their skills and level of cultivation. At least, not Jiang Wanyin’s; she has held Wei Wuxian’s in her hands and knows that his cultivation, with enough training, would surpass the skill and power of her uncle’s. Perhaps, she considers, his core is too powerful. If Jiang Wanyin’s meridians aren’t capable of cycling the power of the new core that could be a cause of rejection.

It could be that their specific spiritual energy is incompatible in such large amounts; she’s seen that before, especially with emergency energy transfusions. Or it could be the effect of Wen Zhuliu’s power, destroying the cultivation base in some way that makes it incapable of recovering. And it could also be that Jiang Wanyin is simply incapable of accepting another core, that her theory was incomplete and her paper erroneous.

As if knowing of her thinking, of her worry about failure, Wei Wuxian’s core once again disappears from Jiang Wanyin’s abdomen, and Wen Qing sighs.

That’s it.

Wen Qing can’t justify trying again, not when it’s likely to just keep returning to Wei Wuxian, and especially not with Wei Wuxian still cut open. He’s been like that for nearly a full day, and she cannot imagine the pain he feels.

No, instead she stoops over Jiang Wanyin to settle some more needles in him to help his remaining spiritual energy and then she turns back to Wei Wuxian, who has lines of sweat down his neck and chest, who looks pained but not from the physical mutilation he’s been through.

After ensuring his intestines are whole and unblemished, ensuring the spiritual energy is once again circulating as it should, Wen Qing sews up the incision. Wei Wuxian is silent, and she doesn’t break that silence. With the transfer’s failure, Wen Qing doesn’t feel right just abandoning Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng as had been their plan. Jiang Wanyin she can keep unconscious with her needles, at least until he is delivered to the care of his mother’s sect, but Wei Wuxian she needs to monitor for any backlash or side effects.

It doesn’t help that he’s painfully despondent and still silent, as they clean up the open-air surgery and head back to Yiling, a-Ning carrying Jiang Wanyin and Wen Qing assisting Wei Wuxian. On one level, Wen Qing understands—she, too, has a brother, and would do anything for him to the point of foolishness.

But, on the other hand, there is nothing that more can be done. Perhaps she was right in guessing that Wei Wuxian’s core was too powerful and a lesser core might transplant successfully; perhaps she was wrong and transplanting a golden core is just impossible. In either case, the procedure didn’t work, and as sympathetic as she feels to Wei Wuxian, he needs to get his head out of his ass and keep moving forward.

When she sends Wei Wuxian off to take Jiang Wanyin to Meishan-Yu, a-Ning goes with him, brings him back to Yiling when explanations are made to Yu-zongzhu, to Jiang Yanli. A forged letter from the elusive Baoshan Sanren—which Wen Qing hopes looks like the handwriting of an immortal and not her usual chicken-scratch—explains that his core was unable to be replaced even if his meridians could be realigned. Given what she knows from limited experience, and from Wei Wuxian’s talking, about Jiang Wanyin’s temperament, he will react badly, but there is nothing more she can do.

He’ll have support from his family, and he will still have his position as the leader of Yunmeng-Jiang if Lotus Pier is retaken; it will have to be enough.

As soon as her brother has dragged Wei Wuxian back to Yiling, having told Jiang Yanli and Yu-zongzhu that he’s going to join the Sunshot Campaign, she has him start on two different energy-settling decoctions and meditating on a strict schedule. That lasts for all of two days; Wei Wuxian’s golden core is unharmed and as strong as it ever was by then, and by the time she pronounces him in full health Wen Qing can’t even pinpoint where she’d made any of the incisions on his meridians, and even the primary incision on his abdomen has healed enough to start scarring.

That second evening, after everyone else has gone to bed and the night guard is in place, Wen Qing makes her way to the room Wei Wuxian is inhabiting for the second time. Wen Chao has come and gone, so she doesn’t worry about rushing him out like she had to before.

Despite that, he seems restless to leave; it’s obvious he’s still worried about Jiang Wanyin, and also Jiang Yanli, but Wen Qing can’t see the value in him returning to Meishan-Yu. a-Ning couldn’t guarantee that Wei Wuxian hadn’t been seen by any of their uncle’s men, which means that repeating the trip could end badly for the Yu Sect.

She says as much to him, and it’s somewhat of a surprise when he slowly nods.

“I think,” he starts, gaze distant but focused, sharp, “I’ll go to Gusu. I don’t—I haven’t heard where the Nie Sect has relocated for now, but I know that they helped drive out the remaining Wen from the Cloud Recesses.”

Wen Qing nods, “You will be able to find more information there, at least. I will prepare some things for you, before you go.”

That earns an arched eyebrow, and some of his usual cheer is back as he teases, “Giving me gifts so I won’t forget you? Wen-yishi, how romantic of you!”

She huffs in annoyance, but can’t help the smile tugging at her lips. He’s so different from a-Ning but they mesh together so well, the three of them, and Wen Qing realizes that she’s going to miss him. “Wei Wuxian, if you end up dying by something that could be prevented, my didi will never forgive me,” she says sternly, “I would like to keep monitoring you to ensure there are no long-term effects, but I do not know if that will be possible.”

The serious, focused look is back on Wei Wuxian’s face, and Wen Qing can all but see the cogs of his too-intelligent brain turning. “Would you consider,” he pauses, meeting her eyes, “defecting?”

He knows her by now, knows her pride in her sect and her own history, but he still asks. She can’t help a helpless chuckle as she pours herself a cup of tea. It’s not that she doesn’t want to, not with her uncle slowly going mad with power and her cousins following in his footsteps. It would get Wen Ning out of the fray, at least, if the two of them renounced their clan and sect.

“Many wanted you to take leadership of Qishan-Wen,” Wei Wuxian continues, and Wen Qing is a little charmed and very amused that he must have been thinking about this since he first saw her those couple of weeks ago, “if you defect, it’d be a message that you don’t support what Wen Ruohan is doing; others who agree would follow you, rally around you.”

“You’re suggesting I cleave the Wen Sect in two,” she says after a sip of tea. In truth, it isn’t a bad idea; there’s a reason many of the sect members wished for her to be named her uncle’s heir over either of his sons.

“More like,” he contorts his face as he thinks, “breaking away? You could form a new sect, I guess, or assimilate into another sect.”

That is—well, that’s food for thought; she had thought about it in the abstract before, but only in creating a minor sect under Qishan-Wen that would focus on the healing arts instead of sword cultivation. With the way things are now, with the war, it would be her chance to create that sect, and to save those of her family and her sect who have not and do not wish to follow Wen Ruohan down his path.

She drains the cup, sets it down with an audible click. “I will consider it,” she says, carefully, “but I do question if such a move will be accepted by the other great sects.”

Wei Wuxian frowns, then lights up, a laugh on his lips, “I know! I can speak to Lan Zhan; Gusu-Lan is known to be fair. When Zewu-jun is found, he’ll surely stand by you, and he has influence with Chifeng-zun. I, ah, should let you deal with the Jin. We don’t have the best history.”

They do not talk of Yunmeng-Jiang.

After another day, Wei Wuxian departs. He has food, a sword from the office’s armory, and a qiankun pouch full of herbs and medicines. Some are for his use, carefully explained by Wen Qing, while some he will give to the Lan healers as a show of good faith from Wen Qing.

She isn’t completely sure if it is a good idea, to make a public break and join the other great sects. Wen Ruohan gave her everything, supported her as she learned to heal, and gave her the leeway to do the work she wanted. To pay him back by denouncing him during a war does not feel honorable.

But.

But there is a-Ning to consider, and their granny, their aunts and uncles, cousins not so close to Wen Ruohan. Wei Wuxian might choose to give his golden core for his shidi; Wen Qing would give that and more.

-

effect

Wei Ying returns to Lotus Pier once, only once after the massacre. He helps liberate it, Lan Wangji by his side, a mix of Lan disciples and new recruits following them, then hands control of Lotus Pier, of his one-time home, to disciples from Meishan-Yu.

Yunmeng-Jiang is in a precarious position, as the war continues, and occasionally Wei Ying’s thoughts cannot help but go back to the failed transfer of his golden core, and how that would have helped. Even if he does not linger on that failure, he still feels its effects. Jiang Cheng is no longer the shidi he once knew; he is a sect leader, and has chosen to remain in Meishan-Yu, away from the war. The other sect leaders and cultivators understand—the Jiang Sect was decimated, its disciples slaughtered, and its new leader survived that but lost his core. But understanding does not equal patience, does not equal a willingness to overlook the lack of contributions to the war effort.

Wei Ying is only one person; even if he was Yunmeng-Jiang’s Head Disciple, Jiang Cheng has maintained a silence on his stance on the war, on Wei Ying’s efforts for the war. Maybe it’s council from his grandmother, Yu-zongzhu; maybe he simply does not want to fight. In either case, Wei Ying does not agree with silence, not when Wen Ruohan is the cause of Jiang Cheng’s condition, not when Wen Ruohan is the cause of Yunmeng-Jiang’s near-annihilation.

When Lan Wangji asked him to join Gusu-Lan’s efforts, Wei Ying immediately said yes.

It wasn’t that he wanted or, even now, wants to leave Yunmeng-Jiang. It is that—he tried, tried so fucking hard to follow Jiang-shushu and Madam Yu’s final words to him, tried to keep Jiang Cheng safe at the cost of his life, his own core! And yet, his shidi won’t even send him a letter, won’t even publicly acknowledge that Lotus Pier is once again in the hands of Yunmeng-Jiang (and because of Wei Ying).

So he doesn’t go back, not when a missive arrives from Meishan Yu stating that the Jiang siblings have both returned to take control of Lotus Pier, not when he finally, finally receives a letter from his shijie letting him know that Jiang Cheng will still take on the mantel of sect leader, not when the war comes to a stuttering, staggering end.

He doesn’t know how to face them anymore.

Lan Wangji—his Lan Zhan—accepts him, keeps up with him, fights beside him, and Wei Ying wonders, once and only once, if he would have had such joy if his core had accepted Jiang Cheng, if Jiang Cheng had accepted the core.

If he would have even survived this long.

Wen Qing still theorizes about what it could be, their difference in power, energy incompatibilities, or even the will of the gods. When she declared her defection, a month or so after he left Yiling, Gusu-Lan accepted her assistance in healing. Aided, perhaps, by the gifts she had sent with him, the letters exchanged between her and Lan Zhan then her and Zewu-jun once the First Jade returned. It is one less things Wei Ying has to worry about, once others follow her lead and the possibilities he had mentioned to her in that small guest room in Yiling are coming to fruition.

Instead he worries about where he will go, what he will do when he no longer takes orders from Zewu-jun and Chifeng-zun.

He had always wondered what being a rogue cultivator was like, what his parents’ lives were like, but the thought of traveling alone has little appeal. The best part of his memories is the feeling of family and closeness with others, being able to talk and have someone else hear, reply. He could return to Yunmeng-Jiang, take up his role as Head Disciple once again, but he has not been asked to; shijie’s letters, infrequent as they are, discuss rebuilding, the lotus growth, what merchants are back. Never does she ask if he is returning, never does she say that they are waiting for him.

Jiang Cheng never writes.

So his only real options are to join another sect, or leave the cultivation world entirely. Left with only those two possible futures, he decides to not think on it and instead throws himself into helping. Resettling refugees, ferrying supplies to those that need them, helping rebuild, helping, helping, helping.

It keeps his mind off of the future, until there’s less and less to do, until he starts receiving offers.

Chifeng-zun is the first, offering him discipleship in Qinghe-Nie, freedom to teach and lead nighthunts, perhaps a position in the Nie Clan itself. Huaisang tries to sweeten the deal, offering luxuries, wine, pheasant hunts and a saber of his own. A saber that Wei Ying feels is probably his own; he doesn’t take up any of the Nie’s offers, but knows he will visit. Huaisang and Chifeng-zun are both his friends.

Lanling-Jin and Jin Guangshan is next, offering money and women in exchange for complete control over his talismans. Few benefits for him; many benefits for the man who is still arguing that he should be Chief Cultivator. He doesn’t even make it through the entire letter before he has to laugh himself to tears. Jin Guangshan may think he knows what Wei Wuxian wants, but he is sorely mistaken.

Wen Qing follows, and her no-nonsense offer is the most reasonable, the most tempting. He became close to her, his Qing-jie, and to Wen Ning, too, during the war, and even as he still considers the Jiangs his shidi and shijie, the Wens are his a-jie and his didi. Wen Qing offers him a home, a family—including the little radish he has grown to love in the months since the war ended—and the room to decide what he wants.

Gusu-Lan does not offer him anything, but that he understands; out of the great sects, Yunmeng-Jiang was hardest hit, but Gusu-Lan was close in their casualties and other losses. Wei Ying receives letters from Lan Zhan often, and Zewu-jun occasionally, updating him on the rebuilding.

Qing-jie’s offer is tempting, but such an important decision needs thinking on, and perhaps talking on, and who better to talk with than his zhiji? Oh, does Wei Ying miss his Lan Zhan, after months of sharing a tent, sharing food, sharing their lives, he’s been wholly bereft. He’s not stupid, nor is he oblivious; they have tiptoed the line between friends—zhiji—and more since early in the Sunshot Campaign, but they have not had time to address it. It is a leap into the unknown and maybe, maybe, it is now the right time.

So he packs his things, leaving the refugee town deep in Qishan-Wen that he had been helping in for the past week, and sets his feet toward Gusu. He could fly, Suibian long-since returned to his hands and a pleasant friend on his hip, but the traveling is not far and it allows him space to breathe, time to think. Were his shijie or Jiang Cheng to ask him to return, he would be back in Lotus Pier immediately. While he had not always been happy there, Lotus Pier had been his home, the first placed he’d been loved and cared for.

When did that stop? When had that care and love become conditional?

They are questions Wei Ying doesn’t know the answers to, and doesn’t know if he wants to know the answers to. It is not in his nature to worry over such things; his mind turns to Lan Zhan, to what Caiyi might now look like, to whether he can buy some Emperor’s Smile before he mounts the stairs to the Cloud Recesses.

He had been to Gusu during the war, often, but after the war found him adrift, in Yiling, then the reaches of Qinghe close to Qishan, then even in the rural areas of Lanling. He hadn’t often been back to Gusu in those months, but now he finds that it feels familiar, comforting—almost like Yiling and the Wens, almost like home.

He stops before the steps, gazing up at the mountains, the fog hanging over them. Maybe—

—maybe he doesn’t have to choose.

There is no need to rush up the stairs, not when he’s allowed to take his time, not when he knows Lan Zhan will be there, whenever he does make it.

It is late afternoon when Wei Ying passes the Wall of Discipline. The two disciples guarding the gates recognize him on sight; one sends a communication talisman into the gates before turning to bow, and lead him in.

Cloud Recesses looks the same, and in its familiarity it is comforting. Easier, safer times were spent here, even if for him those times were short. Maybe he can have more of those times, Wei Ying thinks as he follows the younger disciple down the neat pathways, as he sees a white-clad form sedately approaching.

The smile spreading his face is irrepressible, joyful, and so hopelessly fond. Wei Ying doesn’t yell, but makes himself continue walking and walking until his Lan Zhan is in front of him, pristine and beautiful.

“Lan Zhan,” he says, as the disciple who escorted him heads back to the gate, and they are left alone. There is a playful lilt to the way he says the other’s name, one that he can’t suppress as much as he may try.

“Wei Ying,” is the soft reply, Lan Zhan’s eyes crinkling so slightly in the way that Wei Ying has learned means he’s pleased.

And with that, he cannot hold back from wrapping himself around his zhiji, his Lan Zhan. Automatically, gently, his Lan Zhan’s arms come to wrap around him in return

Later, they will talk; on feelings, on bonds, on zhiji and what it all means for them and their shared future. Later, they will fall into the bed in the Jingshi, pulled by an inevitable gravity that has gripped both of them since they first laid eyes on each other. Even later still, they will talk with Zewu-jun and receive his blessing, and with Wen Qing visiting her sworn brother, there will be blessings from her, as well. There will be discussions of home, of family, and a tea ceremony, after it all. And later, Wei Ying will have new homes, in people and in places.

But for now, he lets Lan Zhan hold him, their heartbeats strong and measured, their breaths matched. And Wei Ying finds himself glad, for the first time, that Wen Qing hadn’t been able to take his core, that he might have his Lan Zhan, and his Lan Zhan might have him, whole and complete.