A-Ning brings her water in lieu of the tea they do not have, the tray with a single cup steady in his hands. He walks with a grace one would not think could come after death and a certainty that has only grown as their future had become more and more uncertain.
Wen Ning sets the tray down on the stump they have used as a table for many nights. He does not greet her as he usually does.
“You’re avoiding him,” he says, his voice small. There is no need to mention a name, they both know. “He probably thinks you’re angry.”
She is angry. She’s angry that this happened at all when they were just tending a field like any other farmers. Perhaps even more than that, she is angry at herself for acting on instinct and panic when she knows better than to do so.
“If there is a problem, then he can tell me himself.” It sounds false and weak even to her own ears. It’s not that she means to be dismissive or cruel, though she is certain that is how it must look from the outside.
If someone had ripped her core out, no matter the circumstances which had lead her to ask it of them, she would never have wanted to see their face again. It would be hypocritical to hold the act itself against them just as it would have been hypocritical for Wei Wuxian to hold it against her, but there would be no breaking the association of pain and suffering with the person who had reached inside and taken it.
She does not want to be that to anyone. She does not want to be what the rest of the cultivation world decrees her blood makes her.
Wen Ning is silent for a long moment before he sets down the tray.
“No one knew what would happen.” It is as much the truth as it is not. No one knew there would be an attack three days ago just as no one knew that not even the healers and farmers, old or wounded would be spared. She knew that A-Ning could not die from an arrow alone. “Jie, you’ve protected me for my whole life,” he says, “I can protect you now, so please let me.”
Ridiculous. What an absolutely ridiculous thing to ask of her. How can she ask the boy who used to toddle alongside her and duck behind her skirts to protect her? He may be grown now, he may be a force of nigh unstoppable strength, but he is still the boy her parents entrusted to her if anything should happen. And it had. And then it just kept happening.
“It’s because I’m your jie that I can’t let you do it.”
A-Ning is silent, but she recognizes the glint in his dull eyes. She sighs.
“Some of the time?” he asks.
“I will think about it.” She has thought about it already and the answer is still ‘absolutely not’. Someday, likely someday soon, she will have to let go. That is all the more reason for Wen Qing to hold on tight for now, for as long as she can.
“Some of the time,” he repeats, seemingly satisfied that he has changed her mind or will otherwise get away with it. He can’t quite smile anymore, but she can recognize the motion of it in the way his face tenses. She narrows her eyes at him and he only seems more satisfied. Wei Wuxian is not entirely to blame for this, but he has certainly brought it out in him.
“He asked if you were alright, and then if he could get up yet.” Of course he did. She should count her blessings that he has not crawled out on his hands and knees already. “He misses A-Yuan, but he doesn’t want him to see him while he looks so… sick.”
Dead. He looks a bit dead, judging by the last time she had seen him. It’s in poor taste for either of them to say it. It’s a good call on Wei Wuxian’s part, A-Yuan would be worried at the very least and terrified at most.
“He’ll get better,” Wen Ning adds. “Everyone is okay and no one here is at fault. You said we would all do our best, and we did.”
It’s true, but at the same time there is a weight to all of this that she cannot shake. Wei Wuxian had been indebted to both of them and repaid that debt nearly tenfold, for him to injure himself in service of their protection as well is a bit much for her to take.
Where does it stop? She doubts that Wei Wuxian will ask anything of her in repayment and that almost makes it worse. Wen Qing is not accustomed to taking, even when it is offered and almost especially when it’s necessary. There is no place for pride here and she had been more than willing to become an opportunist to get her family to safety, but for her entire life she has looked down upon the endless exchange of favors that runs the cultivation sects.
From a kind word to shelter from the wrath of Wen Ruohan. From a dangerous experimental surgery to an equally dangerous act of rebellion against the power of the great sects.
She knows there is an explanation to be given, perhaps an apology. Wei Wuxian is likely to wave off the latter, but it is owed nonetheless. He was not in any danger without her supervision, but since when has she ever allowed something to rattle her so much that she cannot do her job?
Maybe it’s simply a case of too much building up and up for so long. She would not expect anyone else to work as though nothing had happened in a place like this. Then again, she has always thought of herself as stronger than her peers, expected more of herself. It’s long past the time for letting go of such things, but once again she finds herself unable to.
While she still has anything to hold tight, she will hold onto it.
Wei Wuxian is already up and shuffling around by the sound of it. Usually, when he is up to something this early in the morning, it means he hasn’t slept and has spent all night talking with A-Ning. For his own sake, he better not have been.
He must hear her coming because she hears his footsteps pick up speed just before the sound of something nearly flopping onto stone and the rustle of cloth. She used to do the same when she was a child and her mother was about to catch her awake, reading just before dawn.
By the time she walks in, he is laying in bed as he should be. He doesn’t look nearly as terrible and feels well enough for his hand to shoot out from under the blanket in a wave.
“Good morning, Wen-daifu!”
He doesn’t greet her like someone who has been in absolute torment beneath her knife. He doesn’t even greet her like someone recovering from a serious injury and concurrent poisoning.
“I take it you feel better?”
“Oh, much!” He clasps his hands to his chest, falling right back into his theatrics. It would be irritating if she didn’t know it was all for his own entertainment and not for any audience. “Please let me go outside?”
She sincerely doubts that he has been completely idle in the time he was meant to be resting, but it doesn’t seem to have done him any harm.
“Outside is fine,” she says and watches him perk up. “No heavy lifting.” He wilts at that and gears up to complain, but it never comes. The sutures and pain from the healing wound have probably left him stiff enough to run into a bit more difficulty than he would consider normal. Wei Wuxian hates to be idle almost as much if not more than she does.
Wen Qing is about to start leading her way into gently telling him the reason for her distance when Wei Wuxian turns his head, nose wrinkled and sniffs at his lank hair where it trails over his shoulder.
“Ugh, that is me.”
Sick sweat is rancid, but Wen Qing has long become immune to most peculiarities of the human body. Once your hands have been in someone’s guts, she supposes there is not much left that can alarm you.
“A-Ning can take you to the stream, just be careful of the wounds and don’t get the bandages wet.”
“I can bathe by myself,” he snorts, affronted. She looks at him, making sure that he meets her eye before quirking her brow.
“Can you lift your arms above your head? Walk half a li both ways?”
Wei Wuxian considers it, tests his arms and sucks in a breath through clenched teeth when the effort pulls at his sutures.
Stubborn. Just like she is stubborn, just like A-Ning is stubborn.
“That’s what I thought,” she says, going to straighten the salves and powders she had left behind if only for something to do with her hands. “Bear with it a little longer. I’m sure you’ve smelled worse.”
He has spent a disproportionate amount of time around corpses, after all. It’s a reasonable assumption to make. The smell of death takes more than a quick bath to be rid of.
“Aiya, it’s true,” he sighs, “ You didn’t have to say it, though.”
There are a few things that she does have to say, but they are not so easily forced from her tongue. Wen Ning arrives just as she has finally found the words she thinks will be the correct ones. Wei Wuxian jumps up too quickly and receives a polite call and a shout to be careful from Wen Ning and herself respectively.
Wei Wuxian survives the bath and comes bouncing back into the settlement with her brother in tow, only his favoring of one side as an indicator that he had been injured at all.
From Popo’s knee, A-Yuan gasps and leaps up, charging towards Wei Wuxian like a tiny, hornless bull.
He sweeps A-Yuan up into his arms but before Wen Qing can yell at him to put that child down unless he wants his stitches popping open, he plants himself on the rock behind him with the boy practically burrowing into his chest. He clings like a limpet.
“Xian-gege, don’t sleep so long! I missed you!”
“Aiya, you’d think I was sleeping for ten years,” Wei Wuxian tsks and squishes him closer and closer, his face pushed into his hair, A-Yuan’s soft cheek smushed against the deprived sharpness of his jaw. “Alright, little radish. I won’t do it again.”
They chatter back and forth about all of the very important things that Wei Wuxian has missed. Things like the frog A-Yuan had spotted by the stream and the story Popo had told them all about Fourth Uncle being chased into a tree when he was young.
Everything seems whole again, or as whole as it can be. There is no promise that it will last, especially with the escalating animosity that landed them in this position in the first place, but the most urgent wounds have been healed over. They’ll scab over and scar like all of the rest.
Soon, it will all be forgotten.
Soon they will all be forgotten.
It’s just before dark by the time that she has run out of excuses and other things to get in the way of the conversation they’re going to have eventually. A-Ning has been looking at her sideways for the entire day, waiting impatiently.
Wei Wuxian sits there upon the stump, arms folded over his chest with his dizi tucked against him, eyes closed. He’s awake. No one sleeps out in the open, least of all him. He cracks one eye open as she approaches, ever wary. He opens his mouth to greet her and yawns instead, waving his hand for her to speak anyway.
There is a question she must ask. There are many, actually, but one is at the forefront. Wen Qing knows the vague shape of the answer before she even asks, but she asks anyway.
“Why did you do it?”
He blinks, as if trying to stay awake.
“Well, they were aiming at me in the first place and you’re the doctor.” He shrugs. “If someone was going to have to remove an arrow from someone else, I’d be in much better hands than you would.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
The silence that follows stretches between them until it is pulled taut and can go on no longer.
“Protect him, even if you die.” Wen Qing turns to look at him, the words sounding so out of place from his mouth. He is still smiling, a rueful, tiny thing.“It was the last thing his parents asked of me, and he was going to.”
Unbidden, she thinks of Wen Chao and Wen Xu. No matter how Wen Ruohan may have favored her father or admired her skill, she was still not his child. Wei Wuxian was no child of any Jiang.
“I didn’t want him to die,” he says. “It was an easy trade-off. I always thought I would do well tending a farm. Maybe I’d be bored if we took Lotus Pier back and all I had to do was paperwork, but I wouldn’t lose myself without being able to cultivate.
“I had something he would die without. It was a simple choice.” He nods once, agreeing with himself. “No one could have known how everything would turn out after that.”
No, it absolutely was not. She had seen the lacerations that covered his back, old and new, the lightning flowers decorating his skin.
“You were afraid.” His jaw twitches, an involuntary flinch. “When I was removing the arrow,” she clarifies, “ you were afraid of me. You told me it was already gone, told me I needed to focus on saving someone else.”
Next to her, Wei Wuxian’s dry throat clicks.
“I don’t remember it,” he says, lips quirking up. “I don’t remember anything until you told me I’d been hit.”
Of course he couldn’t be lucky enough to forget the experience of the initial surgery. Wen Qing often wished she could forget it herself and she hadn’t even been the one under the knife.
“I didn’t want to cause any undue stress. I wasn’t sure how much you would remember or if this was something you always felt.”
Wei Wuxian frowns, not the exaggerated pout he pulls when teased, but something distant, older than his years.
“Do you hate me for bringing Wen Ning back? Are you scared of me?”
They had all been scared of him at first, every one of them hearing stories of how he decimated battlefields with living corpses, but no longer.
Perhaps she would have hated him, if Wen Ning’s heart and mind could not be returned to him, but if that were the case, then she doubts Wei Wuxian would have let him linger as a husk of himself. As it is, he has done exactly as he promised. Exactly as she had asked.
“No,” she admits. “No, I don’t. And I’m not.”
“Then how could I hate you for helping me save Jiang Cheng? Qing-jie, I practically begged you.”
It is different. Wen Ning had not tried to gut her. Wen Ning would never cast her aside if she became inconvenient. And Wei Wuxian had not been the one to torment him, had not put either of them through anything that resembled torture.
Because that’s what it was. Regardless of the intent, she had done something to another human being that Wen Ruohan could have only dreamed of.
“I should have refused you.”
“I’ve been told I’m very convincing,” he says, swinging his feet back and forth, like a child. “I would have just tried to do it myself, anyway.”
Wen Qing feels her guts twist at the thought of anyone trying to do this to themselves for any reason, but especially a traumatized, wounded seventeen year old. She had seen his desperation then and thought that he might try with or without her, but to hear it confirmed is still horrific.
“I’m not gonna say it was pleasant or anything, but none of us knew how bad it was going to get until it got there.” He twirls his dizi between his fingers, spinning it around and around while he gathers his thoughts. “And here I am tending a farm anyway, like I wanted!”
That leaves out the isolation, the knife’s edge of starvation they constantly must find their balance upon, the ever increasing threats. She knows that he has not forgotten them, nor is he just saying things to appease her. He doesn’t dwell on his own misfortune, even when it is in such abundance. Perhaps that’s the very reason he doesn’t.
She won’t pretend to understand how he manages, but whoever gave him his courtesy name chose aptly. Such a person as him would have been an outlier within the cultivation world. Just as her family of healers is an outlier where everything seems to be decided by swords and the shedding of blood.
Perhaps it is no wonder at all that they have all ended up here.
“I did want a donkey though, like my parents had.” Wei Wuxian’s voice cuts into her thoughts. “If we did get our hands on one, we’d probably have to eat it.”
Wen Qing stares at him for a long moment.
“We already have an ass on this mountain, and no one would dare eat him.”
Wei Wuxian barks out a stunned laugh and immediately clutches at his side where the force of it strains at his healing wound. It turns into a wheeze.
“Aiya! You were the one who told me to be careful and then you go and say something like that!” He wipes at his eyes and snorts. “It’s just as well, I wouldn’t taste very good.”
Wen Qing is relieved beyond measure, especially with Wei Wuxian being well enough to pick up the slack again. Not that she will ever let him know there was any to begin with for fear of him running himself into the ground. Unfortunately, that means that the adrenaline keeping her on her feet and on her guard has dropped to nothing and now all she wants to do is find a moderately soft surface and sleep.
A few minutes should be alright. She folds her arms on the table and rests her head on top of them, not quite as comfortable as she could be with the chill in the air, but all of that is secondary to the relief of letting her mind slow down.
She is about to drift off when the faintest patter of footsteps reaches her ears. It must be A-Ning. No one else is as quiet.
She dozes for a second, perhaps imagining the tiny voice that calls out, “Qing-jiejie?”
There is a soft, “Shh, A-Yuan,” that does not sound like A-Ning’s voice at all.
A warmth settles over her back, a blanket. And then another one. There are a few small giggles and the soft sigh that approximates laughter for her brother.
The blankets are tucked more securely about her shoulders and she is too tired and content to catch the last murmurs of conversation.
Two sets of feet scurry off to let her rest a bit warmer and the tiny call of “Night, jiejie!” fading away ensures that she will.