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They come to her with barely a scratch on any of them. As they pile in with Wen Chao’s gloating following them in like a bad smell, the first thought in her head is that she and A-Ning had been found out.

Beneath the counter of her makeshift apothecary in Yiling, she slips the silver needle from her sleeve into her hand and hovers the other of the hilt of her sword. She has not used it since the formation of her golden core, but she knows exactly where to wound. She knows exactly where to cut to buy A-Ning time.

“Wen-daifu, we find ourselves in need of your talents.” Her terrible cousin and the second son of Wen Ruohan does not ask if she is available, he only proclaims his need for her time.

“How many injured?” she asks, her words clipped. At first sight, she had not seen any wounded and still does not. They look as well as they can to her.

“None injured, although A-Huo’s knuckles are grazed,” Wen Chao preens and his men chuckle behind him like a flock of cawing carrion birds. “He split them open on the teeth of that little Wei-dog.”

Wen Qing’s fingers twitch just out of view.

“Wei?” she asks, a veneer of disinterest plastered over fear. She doesn’t think that Wei Wuxian would throw her and her brother to the wolves, but even the flimsiest connection would be enough to put her and her entire family at risk. “So it’s just the daughter left, then?”

Wen Chao’s expression darkens.

“No. The Jiang family had a very loyal servant in that brat.” Had, she notes, past tense. “He took Jiang Cheng from us. He could be dead for all we know, but Wei Ying wasn’t willing to talk.”

It is hard to speak with boots stomping on the space you need to breathe. Harder to speak with a fist against your jaw. Hard to do anything only days after a doctor has sliced out your golden core and given it to someone else.

“He wasn’t so arrogant when we were done with him!” one of his men chimes in. Wen Chao’s greasy smile grows wider at the enthusiasm.

“That Wei-dog won’t be barking at anyone now,” he clicks his tongue as if he actually believes it’s any loss at all. “My men are all tired from the trip to the Burial Mounds. We’ll take any restoratives you have.”

Wen Chao is so used to demanding what he wants and receiving it immediately. Wen Qing, as much as she would like to, cannot afford to give him a hard time. Not after her involvement and not with A-Ning to think about.

She nods and begins to gather up what she can. She does not expect that she will be reimbursed or otherwise compensated. If it were anyone else she would not even think of it, but there should be someone in the world to tell him, no, to demand anything of him. It cannot be her.

Wen Ruohan holds her in high regard for her skill and when he had still been interested in playing politics, he had brought her along to discussion conferences and banquets. There had even been gossip among the other great sects that she would take over for him in the future. Wen Qing had known better than to ever think it was true. She may be the daughter of his favorite cousin, she may be the best doctor that QishanWen has ever seen, but she knows as they all do that a sect leader is born and not made. She may be a prodigy, but she is not his child. None of them would ever choose someone else’s child over their own, no matter how disappointing or unsavory the result. Why would they expect it of Wen-zongzhu?

If Wen Chao wants to do something, she cannot stop him. If he wants to kill someone, he will kill them and anyone in his way. Wen-zongzhu may be a little upset with him, but that would be the very extent of consequence.

If he wanted to kill A-Ning, then all she could do was to die with him. What is the worth of being the best in her field then?

Unbidden, she thinks of Wei Wuxian and all of the acclaim he’d earned for YunmengJiang. He’d been called a prodigy, too. He had begged for her to cut it out of him to spare the Jiang heir from a mediocre life. As if his only calling was to that boy who shoved him away and put his hands around his neck the moment he saw him.

It had seemed different then, almost absurd to her. Wei Wuxian was free of blood ties in a way that she wasn’t. The realist part of her had been baffled that he did not simply leave now that there was no sect for him to serve and no chance of its rebuilding. The idealist part of her that hasn’t been killed yet, that speaks to her in A-Ning’s stammering voice, should not have been surprised at all.

The line between them, she realizes now, is thinner than she had once believed.

She had never paid much attention to him until A-Ning had mentioned that the boy was kind to him. She had thought him to be fairly obnoxious in the way most boys his age tended to be.

Now, she can find a sort of kinship where there was none. Now that he is dead and gone

She will, eventually, have to tell A-Ning. It will crush him. His heart is so much softer than her own, no matter what it has been put through he has not built up the same barriers. She used to believe that this would change with age, but he is almost a man now and still has not hardened himself in the ways that would protect him.

Wen Qing knows what they must have done. Her cousin is lacking in many aspects, but if his cruelty were bled from him and poured out into a barrel, it would overflow. She asks only because she must know with certainty what could happen to her or to A-Ning. The pain of such a fate must outweigh the burden of her guilt. It must, otherwise…

“I thought Wen-zongzhu had given up on trying to cleanse the Burial Mounds.” She keeps her voice as calm and even as it had been, laying the bottles on the counter one by one.

“There is no cleansing that filth,” he says with the kind of authority one would expect him to have on filth, “It’s the perfect place for someone like that. The little animal might even enjoy it!”

“You turned Wei Wuxian loose in the Burial Mounds?” From a purely tactical standpoint, that seems to be an incredibly poor decision. Regardless of the long and bloody history of the place, it is simply sloppy work. No, Wen Qing does not believe he will survive it, but at the same time, the arrogance of leaving an enemy alive when they have already bested you once is asinine. That boy stayed awake and alive, open beneath her knife for two days and one night. If she were the one trying to be rid of him, she would leave no question of it.

“No, I dropped him in, there’s a difference. Threw him straight down through the clouds.” There is the whisper of laughter from his men, a murmuring of pride in what they’ve done. “Even if the fall didn’t kill him,” he says, “whatever’s down there will have him in pieces.”

It is and has always been an unfortunate habit of Wen Qing’s to think, with or without any provocation about exactly what would happen to a human body. Since she was young, she could not hear of a wound or an accident without thinking about what exactly was broken, the steps taken to fix it.

There is no fixing a fall from such a height and bitter iron creeps up her throat as they laugh and laugh. She is only glad that her brother is not here, sent on the most mundane errand she could think of just to keep him out of this exact kind of trouble. She is glad that he is not here to read her face as she thinks of a body so far beyond mending. A body that belongs to a rare someone who had treated him kindly.

He has never had many friends, and while she would be hesitant to count anyone so brash among them, her little brother had insisted. She knows that this is not something that she can keep from him forever, but for all of her pride, her strength and talent, she still cannot bear to see his heart broken.

“I hope that this is what you and your men need,” she says, sliding the bottles across the counter toward Wen Chao. That is to say, she wishes it were poison. It is a dangerous thing to wish.

 

And then, of course, is the war.

 

 

When Wei Wuxian had first led them here, she had despaired.

This was not a place to live, it was a place to die. No one could survive this place, she had been certain of it, but there had been nowhere else for them. The world is wide, but it is simply not wide enough.

No one could survive in such a place, but Wei Wuxian had.

When she had gone to him, her only thought was that he could not possibly refuse after what she and her brother had done for him. She had been prepared to beg, to threaten him with the exposure of his secrets, anything and everything to get her family out of the Jin’s grasp.

The only thing she had to do was tell him what had happened to A-Ning and the others. That was it. It had been such a departure from the leveraging of debts that she had come to expect from anyone with so much as a toe dipped into the cultivation world.

It was easier to enter the Burial Mounds than she had believed it would be, too. The place where nothing could live welcomed him as a returning son and opened to those under his charge.

This man had leveled armies and made death his cradle. He had turned the hatred and bloodlust of the dead into a weapon.

He had tucked her baby cousin against his side when Popo stumbled with exhaustion and nearly dropped him from her trembling arms. He wiped dirt and tears off of his cheek with the same hand he had used to play the dead to life on that awful flute. Wen Qing remembers wanting to wrench him away on instinct, remembers Popo shuddering, but her body had burned itself out in despair and she could do nothing even if she truly wished it.

A-Yuan had not cried for the rest of the trek up the mountain, from fear, from exhaustion, from the simple comfort. It could have been any of the three or all of them at once.

Her brother’s corpse lay tied to the back of an expensive Jin horse as though he were sleeping in the saddle. Wei Wuxian could bring the dead to life and she had seen it with her own eyes. Her brother was dead and Wei Wuxian…

Wen Qing remembers the hope she had felt that night. She remembers that it had burned just as hot and painful as her despair until she could no longer separate the two from each other.

Those first days had passed in a fevered haze for her, waiting to see what Wei Wuxian could do to bring her brother back to her. She suspected that it was much the same for Wei Wuxian, holed up in that cave for hours on end trying to do something that could not be done. No one had known what to make of him.

They know now, with Wen Ning returned to them and their strange protector far less hesitant to join them.

It has been nearly a year now. It is not an easy life, but the existence they’ve eked out for themselves is something incredible. It’s incredible that they still exist at all.

The corpses know to stay away for the most part. Wei Wuxian asks them to leave if they wander too closely and they listen. They don’t leave entirely, but they give them a wide berth, lingering along the very fringes of the settlement. It’s a helpful deterrent against anyone who wishes them ill. To even get the opportunity to take a look at the wards Wei Wuxian had set, one would have to navigate through quite a mess of walking corpses and traps.

Really, the wards are the very last line of defense and perhaps a bit superfluous even in Wen Qing’s suspicious eye. They don’t have the number of cultivators needed to maintain such a thing in the traditional sense. What Wei Wuxian has rigged up is a series of talismans that did not exist a year ago, hidden beneath stones or in the hollows of dead trees. The barrier is as makeshift as everything else.

The soil blows like dust at the slightest breeze and the sun-bleached wood of their homes juts out of the dirt and crags in the mountainside like unearthed bones. it’s a miracle they’ve been able to plant anything at all. It is even more of a miracle that anything has grown in this place. Yet, it has.

Radishes, after a disproportionate amount of work and Wei Wuxian fiddling with the soil, have been able to grow. It’s enough to keep them just off of the edge of starvation and she will never forget those uncertain days before the first yield. It had taken a few more for them to take on a normal shape, the first crop bent into the image of bones and gnarled hands.

Recently, without any concrete explanation, the once bare trees have begun to bear fruit, not in enough numbers to keep them fed, but close to miraculous anyway. Mostly, it’s radishes. Radishes and A-Yuan.

He is a happier child than one would think based on their circumstances. Not a single one of them objects to going without so that A-Yuan does not know how very little they truly have, but it’s still not quite enough. He never complains and only cries when he’s tired or hungry or scared. The latter occurs more often than anyone would like. Wei Wuxian tells her, with weary confidence, that the nightmares will eventually stop, that A-Yuan is at that age where memories don’t last as long or stay as clear in the mind.

“I’ve been thinking,” Wei Wuxian says out of the blue one night, hunched over the rock that he’s made into his desk. His face is completely hidden by the fall of his hair, as is whatever it is that he happens to be working on. One of these days, he’s going to singe it and she’s going to remind him how often he had been warned.

“An ill omen.” She does not truly believe so, but it is much easier to tease Wei Wuxian than it is to tease Wen Ning. A-Ning has always taken everything to heart, whereas Wei Wuxian seems to enjoy a little ribbing.

“Right, right,” he says, either so distracted that he doesn’t notice the bait or so tired that he doesn’t care. “Now that we’ve been here a while, I was thinking it might be a good idea to get another field ready. There’s enough space to the south.”

“Aren’t our hands full enough with the one field?” Really, it feels like their hands are constantly empty, but it takes more work to grow radishes here than she thinks it would take anywhere else in the world. Of everyone here, only about two thirds are capable of performing that kind of labor without any ill effects. The remaining third would try anyway and likely hurt themselves in the process.

Wei Wuxian would not place himself in that remaining third, but she’s seen how his fingers gnarl in the cold water whenever she delegates laundry to him. She’s seen how long it takes for them to bend again. If he pushes himself as hard as she knows he will, she’ll have to scrape him off of the ground before long. It isn’t that she is ungrateful for his help, but between managing the wards and taking on a bit more than his share of the day-to-day chores, the part of her that is still a doctor above all else sometimes wants to put him under for a few hours just to make sure he doesn’t collapse. He would never agree to it and he is not an easy man to sneak up on.

“A higher yield would mean more to sell,” he says, still working behind the dark curtain of his hair, “Medicine for emergencies, better food. I’ll put in the work for it. I might be able to fix up another barrel to catch the rain, it would take care of the water problem.”

Wei Wuxian is doing that thing again, jumping ahead from thought to thought without explaining his real reasoning.

“Are you that sick of radishes?” It’s not the real question here, but it’s one that he’s more likely to answer.

“I’ve gotten by on much worse,” he says, flippant, “but A-Yuan is still growing. I know he’s not going to starve if we can help it, but,” he trails off again and stops fiddling with whatever it is he’s working on. Wen Qing would like to know, but if she asks he’s going to be insufferable about it. It’s longer than usual before he speaks again, quietly, as if he is someone capable of being shy, “Don’t you think he’s small for his age?”

The thing is, no one is quite sure of A-Yuan’s age. There is no question of his resemblance to two of Wen Qing’s cousins, a pair of brothers a few years older than her, but there is no real record of his birth that they have been able to find, no record of which one he belongs to. His parents had already perished by the time Popo had been moved to Qiongqi Pass and recognized him, making it her mission to protect him with what fading strength she had. No one truly wants to take any guesses at how long such a small child had been without his parents in such a horrible place.

All that can be said for certain is that he is a Wen from their branch of healers and he is, at the very most, three years old. He could certainly pass for less. His cheeks are soft and plump as a child’s should be, but there is no telling how long it will last. For as long as everyone else is around, they will continue choosing to go without so that he may have what he needs, but sometimes it simply isn’t enough.

There is little to no possibility that this, their isolation and the pressure of the entire cultivation world waiting to bear down and crush them, gets any easier. More sacrifices will have to be made, without a doubt. If only she could see the scope of them from here and prepare according to more than just speculation.

Despite their best efforts, Wei Wuxian isn’t wrong. She already knows what should be done, but there is always the question of if it can be done. There isn’t much risk to it in truth, but their position is so precarious that any decision feels monumental.

“I’ll have to think about it,” she says, although she has already thought about it. She corrects herself. “I’ll ask Popo what she thinks.”

 

 

 

Popo thinks it’s a wonderful idea and Wen Qing cannot find any reason to argue with her. A-Yuan is so dear to all of them that she believes no one would disagree with something that stood to benefit the youngest member of their scattered family. It’s not only for his benefit, but she knows that he is at the forefront of her mind.

Wei Wuxian is always easy to find, being both the tallest person in the settlement and arguably the loudest. Wen Binbin is a close second in volume.

Wen Qing finds him hunched over Fourth Uncle’s shoulder listening intently to a story that she’s decently sure he’s made up at least half of. She catches the tail end of it.

"Did you ever find what was taking the chickens?”

“Ah, Wei-gongzi, we never found it. But, there was howling in the night. We found a paw print the width of my head!”

The color drains from Wei Wuxian’s face and he waves his hands.

“Uncle I can’t listen anymore!” There is laughter in it, but fear too. Wen Qing has never asked him why the mere mention of a dog makes him squirm, but there must be a reason for it.

Seeing an opening, she approaches just before the story can go on any longer. She greets them both and asks to borrow Wei Wuxian, freeing him from a future in which Fourth Uncle tells him about the debatable existence of the massive wolf that they were never able to catch.

“The flat area to the south,” she starts, pausing when Wei Wuxian shows no signs of recognizing that their unfinished conversation is back on the table. “I think we can manage it by the next planting season.”

His pale face lights up with a grin.

“Great!” Wei Wuxian chirps, everything else forgotten. “Ah, we should start getting things in order tomorrow. Or, I should.”

The idea of Wei Wuxian lugging supplies and seeds down to the field without another set of eyes on him is… not appealing. It’s not that she doesn’t trust him, it’s that she does not trust that he will stop or ask for any assistance if he finds himself unable to carry out this task.

She wants to snap at him sometimes for this particular brand of foolishness, but knows that she would be a hypocrite to do so. Living in proximity to Wei Wuxian has ensured that she better understands how A-Ning must have felt to see her spend entire days and nights on her feet or else studying when she should be asleep.

That poor boy. He may as well try a career bargaining with mules for all the stubbornness he’s had to deal with.

“No. You’re not doing it alone. I don’t want to find you being picked at by crows because you’ve finally dropped from exhaustion.”

“Crows have to eat, too.”

“They can find something else. I worked too hard putting your insides back inside for you to let them pull out my efforts.”

Wei Wuxian winces and rubs a hand over his stomach, right where he’d been pierced by Sandu not even a year ago. She will never let him forget that he came to her with his insides on the outside with only an off-handed mention that he might need a stitch or two. He had been extremely fortunate that she had sworn never to harm a patient because she had wanted to shake him until he admitted that he had almost died.

No, it was not his fault that he had been gutted, but she could fault him for acting like it had been a minor cooking accident rather than a grievous injury. Her anger had cooled quickly, directed instead to the person who thought disembowelment was somehow an appropriate action to take during a staged fight. She did not understand where his anger was. It seems to simply dissipate from him like fog burning off of the water in the midday sun.

“A-Ning and I will come with you. A change of scenery can’t hurt.”

“Ah, it’ll go much faster that way!” He’s beaming. Wen Qing isn’t sure that she’s ever met anyone so easy to please. At least, anyone over the age of five.

It’s the happiest she has seen him since the day A-Ning woke up. That’s not to say that he’s been sulking, there is no time for that, but he has been far quieter, subdued. Wen Qing would have once considered it a gift, but now his prolonged silences are disconcerting rather than peaceful.

If he is truly miserable, she wouldn’t blame him. Wei Wuxian does not seem the type to clothe himself in his misery like some she has met, but that doesn’t mean that he does not carry it with him somewhere.

She knows what he has given up to protect them. She cannot bring herself to feel guilt or regret for something so important as the lives of her family, but she does appreciate that this had not been a thoughtless act on his part.

There have been moments that she has considered telling him he has done enough. It would not be wise and he would not abandon them no matter who tells him to do so, but her pride is sometimes a fickle beast. She hasn’t had to rely on someone else this way in her entire adult life. It is necessary and she is grateful, but that does not mean she has settled with it. It chafes, to be someone’s responsibility. It chafes even more to be such a heavy one.

 

 

 

 

The following day, after the majority of the morning’s chores are out of the way, Wei Wuxian returns from the stream with a bundle of clean laundry under one arm and a straw hat in the other. He sweeps by and delicately sets the latter on top of Wen Ning’s head.

“The sun is strong today,” he says, patting gently before twirling away in a whirl of black robes and barely tied hair. “Don’t want you to burn!”

“All this because you get to play in a new patch of dirt?” Wen Qing would not ever admit it, but the returned exuberance is a pleasant change from the blankly staring shadow that had been lingering in the periphery for the past three weeks. It had become more than a bit unnerving.

“Of course!” he yells back to them as he bounds off to hang up the clean clothes.

It’s only twenty minutes before the three of them set off. Wei Wuxian insists on carrying the tools himself up until Wen Ning asks him about the functionality and potential hazards of warming talismans applied directly to a wooden structure. He manages to slip a shovel and hoe out of his hands about three and nine minutes into his explanation, respectively. Her little brother is more sly than she had ever been willing to give him credit for.

The southern flat is, unfortunately, full of debris from a decades old landslide that had just barely avoided damaging Yiling proper. Also unfortunately, it is as infested with resentful energy and lingering spirits as their main patch had been in those early days.

“The best course of action here, I think, is to lift from underneath with a sh—” Wei Wuxian stops speaking, stuck on the last syllable as Wen Ning does as he said. He reaches underneath the boulder with his bare hands and simply sets it aside, out of the way of their prospective plot.

Wen Qing will never get used to seeing her little brother lift boulders above his head as if they weigh nothing. He is the same boy that he has always been, but he is different, too. There is a pride to him that she never thought possible.

He so easily could have become a creature of pain and rage with the way he had been treated before his death. Both are present inside of him and always will be, but he has been allowed to hold onto himself as well. Wen Qing will always be grateful for this.

“Or we could do that!” He claps his hands together, punctuation at the end of his wild gesturing. After a brief look over the remaining debris and the rather ominous looking dark lines trailing in the dirt, he slips his dizi from his belt. “I’ll see if I can convince our friends to give us a little more space.”

Wen Ning covers his ears with his hands as is custom when Wei Wuxian must play for the dead. They exchange a wave to confirm that everyone is ready.

Wen Qing has never trained in musical cultivation, this has always been the specialty of GusuLan and the QishanWen had no need to learn from nor emulate anyone else according to her uncle, so she does not understand the minutiae of it as she understands medicine and healing. Still, she can tell that Wei Wuxian’s playing is a bit different.

It is still a way to communicate with the dead, but it feels less like a back and forth of question and answer and more like chatter between friends. It is more endearing if one doesn’t think too much about the events that have spawned such a familiarity and closeness.

The dark lines in the earth lift and scatter as if a breeze has come to sweep them away, but the air is completely still. Wei Wuxian is also still save for the movement of his fingers and the breath in his lungs, nothing like the constant fidgeting and fiddling she’s grown accustomed to seeing from him.

Like this. it’s easy to forget that he is little more than a boy, just a year or so older than A-Ning. They call him Laozu, but his face is bare and the only signs of age on him are a few prematurely silver hairs and dark rings beneath his eyes.

It is easy to forget that she is not much older.

The rest of the afternoon is spent clearing away the rocks and dry brush. Wen Qing uses a knife to cut away the dead vines and old, twisted roots. She isn’t one for treating her tools roughly and it’s not that it doesn’t bother her, but it’s safe to say she won’t be performing so many procedures that she’ll need this particular one. She has others and what’s needed most now is farm work, not surgery.

Her little brother heaves rocks out of the way and Wei Wuxian goes between the two of them, lifting things he should probably not be lifting and tilling the soil in small batches to examine it.

No further music is needed, but she notices that whenever she picks her head up to keep an eye on the nearby wards, his eyes are already on them, hands still in the dirt.

There have been no attempts by any living or hostile beings to cross the barrier, but that does not mean it won’t happen.

Just before sunset, they have a decent piece of land wide open and available to them. Only time will tell if their efforts will bear fruit, but it’s promising.

There are not many promises in their lives, even less that they have any hope of keeping.

“Well,” Wei Wuxian says, leaning far too heavily on the shovel for the nonchalant air he usually aims for. “ I guess we’ll see how they do.”

“Radishes are hardy” Wen Ning says, surveying the plot. “If they’ll grow in the center of the settlement, they’ll grow here.”

There is a quiet determination to him now, only brought so boldly to the surface after everything else had been taken from him.

No, perhaps it has always been there. He has always been brave when it counted.

“Ah, Wen Ning. I hope so,” Wei Wuxian sighs, long and wistful. He picks himself up from where he seems near to toppling and bounces over to him. He delicately snatches a stray branch out of his hair, taking a moment longer to fuss over him and brush the dry grass from his shoulders. If she is not mistaken, Wen Qing thinks that her brother is preening.

There is a faint sound like the buzzing of a mosquito by one’s ear followed by a clink like two jars jostled together.

Everyone’s attention snaps to the wards, expecting to see an errant corpse pinging against the barrier like a moth that won’t stop flitting against the paper of a lantern to get at the light inside.

Their visitor is unexpectedly, terribly alive. His face is not familiar to Wen Qing and he is dressed in plain robes with no ornamentation to give away his allegiance. A long cloak drapes over his shoulders and conceals his hands and most of his body.

There is a chance that he is merely a hunter or a forager too curious for his own good, but that chance is very slim. There have been none before him in the months since they first arrived and simple curiosity does not often lead someone to ignore dozens of fierce corpses standing in their way.

“There’s no game for you to hunt here,” Wei Wuxian says, low and firm. He can’t afford to give anyone the benefit of a doubt, but he does, hand resting on his hip with fingers ready to pull Chenqing from his belt. “You should be on your way.”

Unfortunately, the man shows no signs of moving or even of having heard him. He says nothing for a long moment and then only smiles at him, all teeth. He raises a bloodied hand, the cloak and his sleeve slipping down to expose the bite marks littering his arm.

He’s wandered through a forest of corpses to get here, and he wants them to know it. He wrings the blood from a deep slash across his palm and it becomes even more apparent that he is no wanderer seeking assistance.

A little blood is not enough to bring down the wards that Wei Wuxian has set. But it is enough to confuse them for a moment, and a moment is all it takes.

Beneath his ragged cloak, there is a bow with an arrow already nocked.

Wei Wuxian wastes no more time, playing a shrill, shrieking note that works as a call to arms for the dead as well as an ear-bleeding distraction for the living. It is not enough.

It happens quickly in a terrible chain. Wen Ning jumps in front, the only one of them that has no risk of death or even pain. She knows this. Wen Qing knows that he cannot be harmed by a lone archer of all things, but she has protected him for his whole life, since her mother placed him in arms and told her to mind his head. Instinct is not easily thwarted.

So, it should not come as any surprise at all that Wei Wuxian, flute still at his lips, sweeps in front of her while he plays.

Beneath the trill of the instrument, there is a sickening squelch. A wet gasp between notes. He plays on, brow furrowed and stance unchanged.

Part of her wants to scream at him, but if this is foolishness, then they are both fools.

The wards, strength restored, snap shut like the jaws of a beast right at the archer’s elbow just as he had gathered a second arrow. The ensuing scream is drowned out by the blood rushing in her ears. If it’s not severed, then it is surely crushed enough to prevent any further attacks.

It’s over just like that.

Only, it isn’t. The knife in her hand would be so easy to drive into his heart. Wen Qing may be a healer, but she does not lack strength when she needs it and right now she feels as though she could do it with barely any effort at all. How dare he. How dare anyone. They’ve done nothing here but exist against the wishes of those who would see every drop of Wen blood spilled until there is nothing left.

She could kill him. She wants to kill him.

“Jiejie,” A-Ning’s wavering voice reaches her somewhere beneath her rage.

There are more important things to tend to. She ignores the thirst for his blood as she has learned to ignore all other forms of hunger.

“Don’t pull that out!” Wen Qing yells, and she is right to do so. Wei Wuxian already has one hand on the shaft sticking out of his abdomen. His eyes are glazed over and his mouth is slack with shock, but he obeys anyway, lifting both of his hands and letting them drop to his sides. All he does is blink a few times.

“Ah…, I’ve been stuck before. It’s not even that deep.”

“Wei Wuxian!”

He takes one step and half of another before his legs simply stop working and fold beneath him.

Wen Ning catches him before he can hit the ground. Blood, dark and rich, seeps out from the wound even with the arrow still firmly lodged in his flesh. There is blood on his face as well, but not bubbling from his mouth as it would if his lungs or stomach had been punctured. It drips from his nose and trails down his chin and throat. He doesn’t make a sound.

A punctured organ bleeding out into the rest of his body is bad, but a bleed with no apparent cause might just be worse.

She has seen more than her share of serious qi deviations. She knows how they first begin to show themselves. She dearly hopes that she is wrong.

Wen Qing kneels in the dirt in front of them for a proper look at the damage. She’ll have to cut his robes out of the way and likely pick shreds of fabric out of the wound. Distantly, she remembers that he only has one other set.

He’ll have to be moved, but carefully. She trusts that A-Ning can do it without causing the arrow to jostle and pierce anything more important than it already has.

Wei Wuxian tugs on her sleeve with the two fingers least wet with blood.

“Don’t,” he slurs from Wen Ning’s arms, his skin already taking on a sickly greenish-grey sheen, “don’t let A-Yuan see.”

That boy has already seen so much, already lost so much. No matter the outcome, the least that can be done is to stop him from seeing it happen with his own eyes.

Wei Wuxian tugs at her sleeve again, harder this time. His bloodshot eyes are pleading when they meet her own. There was never any question.

“Alright, Wei Wuxian. Alright.”

A-Ning is not as expressive as he once was, but she knows what fear looks like on his face. She knows how he wears despair. They lock eyes above the shape of Wei Wuxian slumped in his arms and that’s all they need to get moving.

They’ve treated patients together before. The silent language of their collective knowledge and minute gestures has served them well, but this is different. Wei Wuxian is their patient, but he is dear to them by both necessity and choice.

It is never an easy thing to separate the animal fear of a friend’s loss from the task at hand, but there is no other option. It must be done, and they must do it.

Chapter Text

Wen Qing marches ahead, the look on her face alone is enough to tell Popo that it’s a wise idea to usher A-Yuan inside. She sends him off to check on something for her with a gentle pat on the back.

“Everyone get inside, put your protection talismans on the doors. I’ll explain later.”

They all know to hurry. They know Wen Qing does not say things just for the sake of saying them. Perhaps she should have explained in more depth, but there is no time.

She rushes back down the path to make sure-

Well, to make sure that Wei Wuxian has not died in her brother’s arms.

He stands there, his eyes almost impossibly wide in his pale face. Wei Wuxian is nearly as pale, still and limp where he carries him. If not for his labored breathing causing his chest to rise and fall so quickly, she would have thought him to be dead.

Wen Qing does not relish the idea of operating in his Demon-Subdue Cave, but doing so out in the open isn’t an option either. At least her supplies are kept close enough that she can dart off to go get them without leaving him unattended.

She helps Wen Ning to lay him down on the rock slab that he calls a bed.

“A-Ning, boil some water, keep him still.”

It’s familiar to her, having Wen Ning assist her. It aches to think of him practicing his sutures on old leather in the back of her apothecary in Qishan. They will never have that again. Wen Ning’s fingers do not always bend as he asks them to and their home, the history of their work, has been burned to the ground.

It seems that she is always mourning for a moment. Just for a moment before the work of survival must continue. Wen Qing knows that she is not the only one. They are all grieving, all of the time.

With Wen Ning starting on the water and Wei Wuxian, by all appearances, not going anywhere, she feels that it is safe enough to go and fetch what she’ll need.

She does not relish taking a knife to Wei Wuxian’s flesh again, but it will all depend on how the arrow has struck, the depth it has reached. If it’s struck an organ, she will have no choice but to open him up and attempt to repair it.

His body does not heal as it once did and the injuries he has sustained throughout his life are not helping matters in the least. He has told her before that the resentful energy he cultivates with does not damage him, but it does not heal him in the same way that traditional cultivation could. Any damage to his body is something he must repair himself.

Wen Qing rushes back in with her instruments and powders, the cleanest spare cloth she could cut from their scant spares.

Wen Ning is doing exactly as she had asked him, but his hands seem to move almost automatically. His loose hair hangs in his face, his minimal expression still hidden from the side. She does not need to see it to know that he is absolutely despondent.

“Is he any worse?”

“N-no.” A-Ning’s fists clench. His stammer had been all but gone since he had been returned to them and she had believed that the muscles in his throat and mouth simply would no longer allow it. It has always been more prominent when he was upset and for it to return now breaks her heart. He takes a moment, if he were alive in the same way, she would assume it was to breathe, to compose himself. “But I think he’s bleeding more than he should be.”

There are many reasons why someone’s blood might refuse to coagulate, but this hasn’t been a problem for Wei Wuxian before. If it had, she would have seen him soaking his workstation every time he needed blood for one of his talismans. A sudden change in the body’s workings never bodes well.

She leans over and checks his pulse. It’s elevated and his skin is fever hot. When she checks his eyes, the pupils are blown up, black consuming grey.

Infection would not show itself so quickly and the dilation of his eyes is more than concerning. His excessive bleeding from the wound and the blood from his nose and mouth do not pair well with either of these things.

Arrows tipped with poison are not uncommon, but they are certainly not a tool of hunters. A person doesn’t use poison to kill something they intend to eat.

This isn’t Qishan, she doesn’t have her stock of antidotes and samples to compare to. She’ll have to work from the ground up and hope that she can neutralize whatever it is. Pulling it from his veins with spiritual energy might risk destabilizing his qi more than it already has been.

“A-Ning,” she calls him over and he arrives eagerly at her side, “go and see what’s left of our guest and bring his weapons to me if you can.”

He doesn’t want to go, she can see it in his eyes, but his hands tremble and he can’t seem to look at Wei Wuxian. A-Ning has never been squeamish about blood or illness, he could not have afforded to be.

She squeezes at his shoulder for a brief moment and he nods, turning away and sprinting out of the cave to return to the field that they had been working so hopefully just this morning.

This is not Qishan nor is it her makeshift apothecary at the Yiling Supervisory Office. She has no anaesthetics and no time nor means to make or purchase any. This will be the second time she has had to cut into someone awake and mostly aware. Both times, that someone has been Wei Wuxian.

“Sorry, Wei Wuxian,” she tells him and means it. The man ran errands with his guts falling out, but gets twitchy at the mention of acupuncture. She did not understand it until he had admitted that swords did cause more pain, but there was no mistaking them for teeth.

Wen Qing had not asked after it any further, but she remembers it well as she slides the loose collar of his robe down to push a single needle into the side of his neck. He had already been still, but a patient thrashing around under the knife is something she would like to be certain in avoiding.

She cleans her hands and then her instruments as quickly as she can without risking safety. It still does not seem quick enough.

She’s a doctor, there is hardly anything she has not seen so it is of no real importance when she sets about untying and unfastening his robes down to the waist. The delicate sensibilities that Wei Wuxian pretends to have will always come second to his life.

The Wen sun burned into his chest glares at her when she opens his collars up, no longer red and shiny as it had been the first time she had seen it as a still healing wound. His ribs are not surprising, but they have changed too, pushing underneath his skin as though they’re trying to escape.

His clothes are worn so thin that cutting them away from the wound takes no effort at all, despite how stiff they’ve become with blood.

Oh, he is so lucky. Not in the grander scheme of things, but right here and now, he is lucky.

There is barely anything to him and yet the arrow has cut across his hip and found its way straight into the only spare scrap of fat on him right above the other. It has pierced him sideways rather than sticking straight out of him.

The ill-fitting, billowing robes he wears never seemed to hide just how thin he’s become. If anything, they made him look even smaller, like they might just swallow him up. A-Ning had done the same thing when he was around ten years old to stop himself from being picked on and that had only made it worse. In this case, at least, it had obfuscated the shape of his body enough for someone to miss something more important.

Wei Wuxian would not survive another knick to the bowel and that has been mercifully evaded, but any other infection would kill him just as easily. It may not have hit anything vital, but it still needs to be dealt with now.

If she pulls it out, she’ll likely cause more damage, the head potentially causing more internal wounds. She’ll have to push it through to the other side where it’s nearly all the way through.

She reaches to the other side, one hand on the rounded end of the shaft, gentle fingers pushing at the wood. The fingers of her other hand rest on his abdomen, just above the neat scar she had given him and below the messier one she’d had to repair. She rips away the fletching from the shaft in preparation for guiding it through, the black feathers coming away cleanly.

She can feel the tip just beneath, already through everything but the thin layer of skin. Puncturing him with it a second time is something she would like to avoid. A small incision to ease the way seems to be a better idea. It will heal a bit more cleanly, easier to stitch.

Wen Qing presses down to pull the skin tight and hold him in place, though he hasn’t moved and likely cannot through the shock of the injury. She can see the dark tip pressing beneath his thin, pale skin. She brings the tip of her knife to meet it, ready to make the first, and hopefully last, cut.

“Stop,” a voice comes from somewhere to her side. She cannot stop completely, any sudden movement is likely to do more harm than good, but she does slow her hand. He should not be awake.

“Stop,” Wei Wuxian rasps, his arms twitching where he is unable to raise them, “it’s already gone.”

No, the arrow is still firmly lodged inside of him, no matter how much he may wish otherwise. The numbness induced by the needle may have confused him into thinking there is nothing wrong, but he should not have been able to wake until its removal. It’s more likely that he is simply dreaming, but there is an apparent lucidity to him. All of this is incredibly worrying, but he must be kept calm.

“It’s still in you,” she tells him, gently. “I’m getting it out.”

“No.” His muscles tense beneath her hand. “Hurry.”

Stop. Hurry. They are not thinking about the same thing. She doesn’t understand what he means or if he even means anything at all.

Wen Qing makes the grave mistake of looking at his face. She would think that he looks like someone who has seen a ghost, but ghosts have never had this effect on Wei Wuxian.

His eyes are wide and round as the moon, so bloodshot that they appear nearly pink. As unfocused as they are, she knows that he can still see her. She knows this only because she has never seen him look so afraid as when his gaze centers on her face.

“There’s nothing left,” he rattles, and then repeats, desperate. “There’s nothing left! Give it to him!”

Wen Qing almost drops her knife onto the cave floor. Almost. She sets her wrist and breathes.

 

There is only so much a body, a mind, can withstand when it is under as much stress as his has been put through. Even he can’t smile and laugh through everything, though he has certainly tried.

Even those two days on the mountainside with his body cut and opened up for her hand, he had aimed for joy.

None of the three of them had slept at all. Wei Wuxian and Wen Qing by necessity and Wen Ning by choice out of his determination to be of help to them. He had brought her water and replaced the stick between Wei Wuxian’s teeth whenever he bit down so hard that it snapped. He’d broken so many that A-Ning had to resort to giving him his own belt to bite down on. The imprints of his teeth had never faded.

Wen Qing could not imagine how it felt and had no desire to. At first, he had been chattering in a strained voice as she severed each connection, separating him from his entire cultivation base. Wen Ning had to hold him down, hands on his shoulders, holding him to the earth.

Wei Wuxian had gone quiet after a while, only the whistle of a gasp through his clenched teeth interrupting the near perfect silence. It seemed that even the birds had known not to make a sound.

It had taken him until late in the night to start screaming.

By the morning, all was quiet again and his eyes were open. If her hands had not been inside his living body, if his core was not right there for her eye to see, she would have thought him dead. He had been very near to it, but each time she looked to him, hands slowing, he gave a minute shake of his head. Keep going.

At noon on the second day, he had nearly aspirated on his own blood. Wen Ning had to tilt his head to a better angle by hand, kneeling on his shoulders while he spit mouthful after mouthful onto the ground to avoid choking.

Wen Ning could not look at him after that, not until it was done. His eyes had gone dull and fixed somewhere on the horizon.

When she had made the final cut, Wen Qing was sure she would be burying this boy. Wei Wuxian only gave a damp laugh as his life’s work was severed from him and pulled out from his gaping lower dantian.

“It’s a boy!” he’d said, his first words in hours, rough and wet and dipped in laughter. And then he’d promptly passed out in the grass, dark and soaked with his own blood despite everyone’s best efforts.

Wen Ning had to be the one to confirm that he had survived, the one to sew him back up. Wen Qing, too occupied with making sure his core did not dissipate before reaching its new home, had just been his butcher.

No wonder he is afraid of her now. A doctor sworn to never do harm and she has a starring role in the nightmares of the most feared man in the cultivation world. Not only that, but someone she considers a friend.

Is that what he remembers whenever he sees her? When the cold and hunger and pain a cultivator would not have to shoulder sets in, does he think of her and feel powerless?

He’d taken an arrow meant for her.

 

“He’s fine.” It’s true enough and it had been true during the entire surgery. She hadn’t needed to cut him open. He is not the one living on a mountain of corpses, nor is there an arrow in him, to her knowledge. “You have to let me help you now.”

She thinks that he tries to shake his head, a twitch in the tendons of his neck. He doesn’t even know where he is. He doesn’t seem to know when, either. The sooner A-Ning returns, the better. It’s obvious that something more than blood loss has a hold on him and she would like to know exactly what they’re dealing with.

She takes a deep, grounding breath. Her sleeves are tight to her wrists already, a necessity of her work, but she switches her hand on the knife to pull each one back just a little further, a nervous tic that has not seen the light of day since her first surgery.

Her inner sleeves are white. She had not given a single thought to this and likely never would have if not for the next thing out of Wei Wuxian’s mouth.

“Lan Zhan…?”

She won’t lie to him, but she doesn’t see any point in correcting him either. If believing that Hanguang-jun is there will keep him calm enough to get the arrow out and tend to the wounds left behind, then so be it, even if she does not understand.

Wen Qing gives a low, noncommittal hum. The overall effect is absolutely not the same, but Wei Wuxian lets his head loll to the side and closes his eyes.

Well. That’s something. She hadn’t thought them to be that close, in fact she had assumed they were not exactly fans of one another. He had insisted that Lan Wangji wanted to lock him up somewhere in Cloud Recesses and throw away the key. This had made it very strange in her eyes, that Wei Wuxian had brought him up the mountain that day. Even stranger that it had made him so happy to see someone most would swear was his enemy.

Wei Wuxian had even admitted that they argued frequently, but he had been dismissive of it, claiming that they had only clashed during the Sunshot campaign because of their bad tempers. The only answer she had gotten in regards to him calling Hanguang-jun by his birth name was that they had called each other as such since they studied together. So, not really an answer at all.

Wen Qing has no real opinion of the Lan sect. To her, they are simply like all of the others, just as hypocritical when it suits them. Although, they do rank above some in her eyes as they had never lined up to lick anyone’s boots.

She wonders if Lan Wangji would speak for him, for them. She knows it would not be enough.

There is only a muted sound of protest as she puts pressure on the knife, opening up his skin only as much as she has to. This is going to hurt no matter what either of them does, but at least he’s a bit calmer now.

She is careful with the forceps, gripping the base of the arrowhead with them and slowly pulling the rest of the shaft through the incision. Wei Wuxian doesn’t scream, doesn’t cry, doesn’t say a word. The only sound from him is strained, shallow breathing. Like he’s been trying to hold his breath and failing. It is much easier to tend to him now, but it doesn’t sit right. He still doesn’t have any idea where he is or what is happening to him.

She sets the gory arrow aside in case A-Ning’s search proves fruitless. There isn’t much to gain from it, but it would be better than nothing.

Wen Qing irrigates the wound, flushing out what she can of the toxin and any debris. She sews the entry wound and the incision closed, two neat lines added to his vast collection of scars. The graze wound along his hip is little more than a scratch, easily cleaned and no longer bleeding.

Bandaging his waist is easier than she expected. He is nowhere near as heavy as he should be and she can easily maneuver him half onto his side to complete the process. The heat of the fever radiates off of him. It’s like huddling around a stove in winter.

He doesn’t look good. His skin is greyish and damp with sweat, the dark rings beneath his eyes have become more hollow and pronounced. She wets a spare piece of cloth with the now cool water and lays it over his forehead. There are a few things she could give him for the fever, but it seems prudent to hold off on introducing something else to his system until she knows what’s causing it in the first place.

Cleaning up is much easier when the blood does not belong to someone you see every day. It was easier when Wei Wuxian was just another stray that A-Ning had brought to her. She knows him now. Her family knows him.

Wen Qing doesn’t hear him arrive, but she can tell that her brother has returned by the shift in the air.

“Jie,” Wen Ning greets her, heavy as stone. She sees how his eyes land on the bloody rags before flicking back to her face. In his arms is a well crafted bow and one loose arrow laid carefully across the frame. There is a quiver of arrows slung over his shoulder, decorated with no small amount of blood. There are a few impressions of teeth in it as well. She says nothing about the blood on Wen Ning’s pale fingers. “These are from the Jin armory.”

She doesn’t have to ask him how he knows this. She knows just as she knows that the burns on Third Uncle’s shoulder and the sole of Popo's foot are in the shape of a peony, a mockery of elegance seared into flesh.

She wraps her hands in the cloth she’d been using to dry them and takes the arrow to examine it.

There is an unusual smell to the tip of the arrow that had not been removed from Wei Wuxian’s body. Well, that rules out arsenic. It is not the earthy scent of fuzi. It is not floral nor sweet like mantuoluo, though that would explain his seeing things. The only comparison she can make is to the feeling of the air right before a lightning strike, and even that isn’t quite correct.

Unusual, but unfortunately in this case, not unfamiliar.

Wen Qing had only been fifteen and still learning, an apprentice to her father in name and to the entire cadre of healers at Wen Ruohan’s disposal in deed. They had been treating the injured and ill of their sect as they were meant to until it had all suddenly stopped, their time and resources pushed into a single direction.

An outer disciple sent to them from the Zhao clan had developed a skill as yet unseen by anyone in their recorded history.

Zhao Zhuliu could melt the core right out of a cultivator’s body, destroying the meridians and rendering them unable to ever cultivate again. Qi deviation and death would often follow slowly afterwards, a painful and lingering sort of death.

Of course, there was no truly quiet way to set Zhao Zhuliu (now given the name Wen for his loyalty and terrible power) on someone. Wen Ruohan had sought to change that.

The development of spiritual poisons had been a relatively obscure subject, but dissidents could not be disposed of so openly in the early days of Wen Ruohan’s climb to power above all others.

He had requested the assistance of her family personally, their knowledge and study of the human body and a cultivator’s golden core had been the most comprehensive of its time. It will be for as long as she still lives.

Work had eventually stopped on his pet project, her elders convincing him that it could not be done. They had stalled for time as much as possible and hedged until his interests had turned to less hidden methods of disposal, until he no longer had any need to hide his hand. There was no final product, but the smell of the prototypes she had handled is not something easily forgotten. It had never done what it was intended to do, but it had been tested.

It did not melt a golden core or destroy one’s meridians, but it did disrupt them to the point of agony and muddle the mind, often to the point of no return. Unlike typical poisons, one’s cultivation could not save them from it and it was non-cultivators that had less to fear. Not that it would be a pleasant experience, but it would not cause the same kind of earth-shattering pain. An antidote had not been a priority.

The only reason Wei Wuxian still lives is because of how she had mutilated him at his own request. And it’s a damn good thing she hadn’t tried to use spiritual energy in her treatment of him as it would have been almost certain to react badly.

This also means that their enemies are unaware that Wei Wuxian does not have a golden core. Wen Qing cannot quite decide if this is for better or worse.

It would have killed her. She would have died in agony right in front of A-Ning.

Wen poison. Jin arrows. Nothing even matters. The prototypes had been destroyed, which leaves the possibility of the Jin, if not the entire cultivation world, plundering years of research from the people they destroyed. Anger and curiosity have never served her well when combined with such fervor and if she were younger, she would not have stopped until she discovered exactly how they had attempted to reproduce such a thing.

There will be no answers and this is something that she must simply accept.

She knows there are some who bought their way out of their history, the same who had been hangers-on to Wen Ruohan and catered to his every whim, who had married Wen daughters, could simply do as they pleased as if nothing had ever happened. They don’t share the Wen name, so they are permitted to live.

Nothing would have changed if she stood against her sect in a more visible way, save for perhaps an earlier end to her life and her entire family. She knows the bounds of their hatred, how little the truth has ever mattered. They would call her a traitor to her own and question how she could possibly be loyal to anyone else, as if half of them hadn’t been licking the soles of Wen Ruohan’s boots for years. Keeping her head down as everyone else had done before the Sunshot campaign makes her a coward and makes them heroes. There is no victory to be had for anyone bearing the name they all share.

Wei Wuxian still thinks these people can be reasoned with, that they can be told that they are wrong and understand it. Or, more likely, he knows that they cannot be and still tries to make them see anyway. She thinks this is what has the highest chance of killing him, not an arrow from a coward’s quiver.

They’ve been on this mountain for almost a year, never once causing any trouble and there are still those who wish them to die. They have no contact with the cultivation sects and barely any contact with anyone else. There is nowhere for them to exist.

Wen Qing has known for a long time that this is the end. She is not regretful of the life she has lived and she suspects this is the case for the rest of her small clan. They’ve been prepared since the very beginning, since Wen Ruohan first began to grow bored with decades of being unchallenged. The sun has already set.

But, there is A-Yuan. If the sun has set on the QishanWen, then A-Yuan was born in the middle of the night. That boy has never even seen Wen Ruohan, has never held a blade, but it doesn’t matter.

Her mind whirs. There must be some path ahead for him, there must be.

She takes a deep breath. It does not solve anything, but it does give her the modicum of traction she needs.

“Thank you, A-Ning.” She sets this arrow next to the one she’d had the displeasure of removing from Wei Wuxian’s body and disposes of the cloth. He looks so hopeful and he truly has helped, but all she can offer him is the fact that there is nothing they can do for him. If his body cannot purge it…

“There’s nothing to do but keep him comfortable and wait,” she tells him the truth of it and swears that she can hear his face change from hopeful to devastated like a jar shattering on the floor. Watching and waiting, unable to take action, has always been her least favorite part of any treatment. Having no answer to give is a close contender. “We should know how things will go within a few days.”

He can’t cry anymore, but it’s all too easy to see that he wants to, that he wishes he could. She wants to gather him up like he’s small again and tell him that it will be alright, that jiejie is here and everything will be ok. It’s not that simple anymore, it never will be again.

She had been tougher on him after their parents passed, after they were the only two left. He had been too soft for Nightless City, too soft to escape being crushed beneath Wen Ruohan’s iron fist. She wishes that she had seen earlier that there was strength in that softness. She wishes that she had been able to nurture it more.

Wen Qing squeezes his wrist once and tries to ignore how very cold it is.

“A-Ning, we’ll do our best. And so will he.”

“When I first…,” Wen Ning starts, leaving off the piece he thinks will upset her. The big one. The reminder that while he may have returned, he is a man who has already been killed. “I-I was so angry j-jiejie. I never thought I would feel anything else.”

Wen Qing remembers very little of that night clearly, but she remembers thinking the same thing. It had been unfounded, his heart unchanged.

“I felt that again. When… when Wei-Gongzi…,” he trails off, unwilling to complete the thought.

“I felt it too,” Wen Qing admits. “If we weren’t angry, I would be far more concerned.”

To give in and accept an attack on their own would be the end of it. There would be nothing more for them if they had fallen so far as to give over even their care for each other. Without that, there would be nothing left worth protecting.

Chapter Text

By the time they leave Wei Wuxian’s cave, hopefully in a state more conducive to healing than it had been, everyone is standing in a loose perimeter outside and putting in an admirable effort to pretend that they are not hovering.

Popo shuffles up to them first, her hands wringing. Wen Qing can see that she doesn’t want to ask. She wants to know, but she doesn’t want to ask. A-Yuan must already be in bed, safe and tucked away.

“A-Qing.” Her voice is warm around the name her parents had once called her. “How is Wei-gongzi?”

There is no answer to give her that is both good and honest.

“I’ve tended his wounds,” she says, pointed. “They weren’t as bad as they could have been, but he’s feverish and confused. It will be some time before he wakes.”

Predictably, no one is jumping for joy. They are healers or have otherwise raised healers. They know what sort of things are said when there is nothing left to be done. ‘Touch and go’ is an achingly familiar concept to every one of them.

“The wards are still standing,” Wen Ning adds on, quietly. “There won’t be any more trouble.”

He sounds as though he will personally ensure that this is the case, and she does not doubt him. Wen Binbin’s eyes narrow, her jaw tight and arms folded tight across her chest. The oldest of them may not have the energy left for anger and more of them feel as though they have lost the right to it in the face of Wen Ruohan’s actions. Whether they have the right or not, it does nothing to erase it.

The promise of safety has done little to lift the weight from their shoulders. That something like this happened in the first place is enough to tip the scales from tentative peace to dread. That one of their own is severely injured is salt in the wound.

 

 

 

Everyone goes about their daily routines beneath a blanket of dread. Time waits for no one, even as they wait with bated breath to hear any news, good or bad. Wen Qing does what she can while checking on Wei Wuxian at least twice every hour.

He remains unconscious and feverish, twitching futilely in his sleep. He is only kept still enough to heal only because of the needle in his neck. Nothing seems to bring his temperature down for long, but Wen Ning has been an even more frequent visitor, wetting the cloth that rests over his brow as soon as it begins to dry.

Her stock of qinghao is low, so she prepares it in small doses. A normal fever would be brought down easily within a few doses, but this one is stubborn. It keeps burning as though all she has done is toss sticks into a fire.

It is tedious work. The long stretch of monotony is somehow just as draining as a complex surgery. It must be the dread, the unchanging nature of his condition. No setbacks, but no improvement either.

It should be a relief that he makes it through the first night alive, but that’s not good enough. His fever rages and he has not once returned to his senses. He no longer mumbles or calls out nonsense. At this point, she would rather that he did.

By noon, she has resorted to leaning against the large stump they call a table with her head in her hands. Just for a minute. All she needs is a minute to pick herself back up.

When she turns around, she is not alone. Her instinct is to pretend that nothing happened and that nothing troubles her. Faced with the woman who taught her how to hold her head high, she cannot do it.

“A-Qing.” Popo reaches out with her thin, spotted hands. Wen Qing takes them and holds them in her own in an instant. She used to do this all the time when she was young to help ease the pain from her joints. “You have done well and Wei-gongzi is a tough one. Don’t lose heart.”

Wen Qing knows that it’s more likely he will recover than not, even if he does recover at a snail’s pace. Still, there is no telling how full that recovery will be with all things considered.

She is not one to blame herself for things that are out of her control. This does not feel as though it is out of her control.

If she sorts through the long line of action and consequence, she can pick out each and every mistake and misstep. Blame, in this case and many others, is not productive. Wen Qing knows this, and yet she cannot forget the shadow of him stepping in front of her as she scrambled to shield a man who could not die. She cannot forget the weightless and at once impossibly heavy feeling of his golden core in her hands. She cannot forget the pleading boy with whip scars on his back, begging her to rip him apart to save someone else.

She cannot forget the last straw that finally made her crumble. She thought of A-Ning refusing to eat or to sleep and agreed to do it. She had known, in every chamber of her heart, that she would have done the same for him if he had been in such a state.

 

 

 

Wei Wuxian’s absence is a yawning gap in their little community. Everything is quieter, dimmed. A-Yuan has been a sensitive child for as long as she has known him and he, too, has less innocent exuberance to go around.

Wen Qing had never thought she would be someone that lied to children. When she was young she had wanted the truth, every nasty bit of it. She never liked feeling that something was being kept from her because someone was worried about how she might handle it. Now, she thinks about lying to A-Yuan.

He asks after Wei Wuxian at least three times a day and each time she has told him that he is resting and not to be disturbed. How is she to tell a child that someone tried to kill them, even here?

It is fortunate that A-Ning takes the reins on this one, especially when A-Yuan’s little lip begins to wobble. She knows that he is just as upset by the circumstances, but he makes no indication of this in front of the little boy.

“Xian-ge is very tired from working so hard.” Wen Ning kneels down slowly, stiffly, to meet A-Yuan’s eyes. “He’s sleeping now so that he can get better.”

A-Yuan does not look entirely convinced, but the frown far too serious for his young face fades into determination. His voice is almost impossibly small when he speaks again.

“Xian-gege isn’t going away?”

Not if he can help it, but that would not mean much to a child who has already lost his parents and so many others. All he knows is that sometimes, the people who love him and take care of him disappear from his life and do not return.

“No, he isn’t going away.” Wen Ning settles a stiff hand on top of his little head and pats once. “Xian-ge is very strong and I’m sure he’ll be able to play with you soon.”

The skepticism on his tiny little face is absolutely horrid to witness, but he nods and pats A-Ning’s hand before scampering off to play while Popo works her way through mending clothes. Among them are two layers of black robes, cut open around the waist and nearly ruined from the washing it had taken to get the blood out.

 

 

 

It’s the second day, probably. Time has started to blend all together with the repetitive motions of care. Wen Qing has had patients like this before, firmly stuck in place, none has ever been her sole patient. None has ever been her friend.

If—, when. When he wakes up, Wen Qing does not think her face will be one that he wants to see. But, for now, he shows no signs of doing so. She monitors him, keeps watch on his fever and drips water into his slack mouth.

Changing his bandages has been a relatively easy task despite his continued unconsciousness. She expects to see minimal progress in the healing of his wounds, or at the very worst, the same thing she had seen yesterday.

That is not what greets her when she unwinds the cloth from his waist and hips.

The area around the wound has taken on all the appearance of a curse mark, a blackened bruise over his abdomen. It doesn’t make sense. There had been no ghost involved, no spirit that could have latched onto him through an arrow fired by a living man. If the wound were necrotic, she would be able to smell the rot even beneath the general miasma of the Burial Mounds.

She avoids prodding at it too much, but an examination is clearly necessary. The skin there is cool to the touch, a sharp contrast to the fever that still plagues him. No, that is not normal and no, it should not be happening.

Wen Qing pinches her brow and breathes through her nose. It’s alright. It’s fine. She’ll figure it out. She has always been able to find a solution befitting every ailment that has crossed her path.

Using spiritual energy is still a concept that she is leary of. There are simply too many variables to work with in regards to the poison and given that it could result in an agonizing death, she would rather not.

Wei Wuxian is something of an inventor. Talismans, arrays, that compass he keeps fiddling with. Of course an entirely new path of cultivation, as well. She wishes that his innovative nature did not mirror itself in the sheer number of entirely new predicaments rained down upon his head.

“Are you that keen to have a medical text written on you alone?” she asks him, half out of frustration and half based on his usual response to any kind of teasing. It won’t work, he won’t suddenly wake up and pout at her and tell her how cruel she is while fighting a smile. She tries it anyway. “Will I have to send word to your Hanguang-jun?”

Predictably, there is no response.

She’ll give it until the afternoon, giving the poison a full three days to leave his system. Then, they’ll just have to see what there is to work with.

 

 

 

 

The next time that she goes to check on Wei Wuxian, it is suspiciously dark for the time of day. It is only the early afternoon, but it appears to be nearly twilight. At first, she thinks nothing of it, chalking the gloom up to the clouds that had rolled in this morning. That is, until she comes to the mouth of the cave.

She hears a low, secretive sort of laughter echoing off the walls. The ever present lump in her throat turns to ice and she hurries the rest of the way inside.

The dead have never appeared to her like this, solid and real. They look even more alive than Wei Wuxian does at the moment, three glamorously dressed women huddled around his bedside. At least until one reaches out of her long, scarlet sleeve with a skeletal hand to brush the sweat-matted hair away from his face, a jade bangle rattling over bone.

Wen Qing has heard the rumors as everyone else has, that Wei Wuxian eats children and causes crops to wither with a mere glance, that he has an entire harem of ghostly women at his beck and call.

She had laughed at that last one, because she has met Wei Wuxian, and yet here they are. Though, the atmosphere is not that of a master and his servants. It is more akin to a cadre of sisters fussing over their youngest brother.

They notice her before she even makes a sound.

“Ah, our Wei-gongzi has such pretty friends!” the one dressed in red chirps, very cheery for someone who must be filled with resentment to even be here at all. “Did he throw flowers at you, too?”

“I would have remembered such a face if she had come to visit!” the second woman, clothed in an expensive looking blue with the lower half of her face veiled, speaks up. “That handsome gongzi in white…”

Well, that’s new information. Wei Wuxian throwing flowers at Lan Wangji. She had heard that they had met in Yunmeng, but she had also heard how often they seemed to quarrel during the war. Naturally, she assumed this was the nature of that visit. Though, his reaction to seeing him again now makes a bit more sense.

“We’ve just come to check on him, Wen-daifu,” the third woman, dressed in pale pink, assures her in a soft voice. “He has done a lot for us.”

“Did you follow him here?”

She doesn’t think they are a threat, but if they have managed to get in past the wards, then it bodes very ill for all of them.

“We followed him out.” The woman in red smiles, her teeth sharp.

They were here first, is what she gathers from this. They met Wei Wuxian only days after she’d pitted him like a peach. They had found him in the waking nightmare of this place and stayed by his side. They had died here generations before Wen Qing’s grandparents were even a glimmer in the eyes of their parents.

It had been such a gradual change that she had not realized she was forgetting the truth of this place and all that it is. The Burial Mounds is a place meant for the dead. It has been filled with ghosts for centuries.

It is still filled with ghosts. That’s what they are, isn’t it? There is no place for them in the world of the living, and yet they cannot move on. The remaining Wen are ghosts even before they’ve drawn their last breaths.

“He says you’re the best doctor in history,” she sighs, wistful, her red eyes sparkling with it. “I wish I could have met you before. My heart was very weak, you see.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.” And she is sorry. There are many people that Wen Qing wishes she could have saved, cases from centuries before her birth that she could only read about and despair. At first, it had felt like arrogance to think that she could have done better, could have saved any of them. She had only started to embrace it as she grew older and more certain in her abilities. If no solution existed, then she would not simply let go. She would create one.

That’s what she’ll do with Wei Wuxian if it comes to it.

“The past is the past.” She shrugs and then leans forward, her too pale cheek resting on her hand. Her nails are sharp and painted. “Xian-didi can still be helped.”

Xian-didi. She will pocket that for now, to be used when Wei Wuxian’s life is not in immediate danger.

“The curse mark.” There is no point in dancing around it. “Do you know what left it on him?”

“That would be our doing.”

Wen Qing tenses, fingers twitching for a weapon that she does not carry. That certainly is a funny way to repay someone who has done as much for them as they say. She knows that there is more to the story, but her nerves have been scraped raw and her patience is not unlimited. The woman in red seems to notice the flare in her temper and raises her hands.

“It was not done will ill-intent,” she says. “His cultivation is rooted in the control of resentment. We have more than enough to share, we can only hope that he uses it well.”

“You are all very dear to us, you see,” the woman in pink says. “There has not been life here in many years. Unfortunately, this is all the assistance we can offer.”

It’s a strange thought, that witnessing life around them would be something precious instead of a source of envy and sorrow. She doesn’t know if she would be able to think of it that way if her life had been cut short.

The woman in blue smiles at her beneath the translucent veil, the flesh missing from her cheek and jaw exposing every single one of her teeth.

“Your little brothers are nice young men,” she says, and Wen Qing doesn’t know if she has assumed that A-Yuan is a young sibling of hers, or if the second little brother she speaks of is Wei Wuxian. She doesn’t see the point in correcting her. “It is important to look after each other, at the end and beyond it.”

Is this what she will be if and when the great sects come? Will her hatred tie her to this place?

It does not bear thinking about now. Not while they all still live.

“We will.” It feels safe to assure her of that. That’s all they have done since they arrived and she foresees no change in it. No one among them can afford to abandon their own even if they wanted to.

The woman in pink stands first from her seat at the side of Wei Wuxian’s stone slab bed and approaches her, the others following behind her.

“There’s a good girl,” she says, reaching out and clasping one of her hands between her own two, soft and cold as snow. The touch is fleeting, but it chills her all the way down to the bones.

The ghostly women depart, not so much stepping out of the cave as fading from it. Wen Qing stands there in their absence, the light streaming in matching the late afternoon sun. She had not noticed how cold it had been inside the cave, but with warmth returned to it, she shivers at the difference.

Wen Qing looks to the side, prepared to go through the intended motions with her patient. There is one more shape beside the bed.

“A-Ning!”

He hadn’t said a word the entire time, just sitting there on the floor on the other side of Wei Wuxian’s bed with his arms wrapped around his knees, eyes wide.

Wen Qing has no earthly idea why she feels so embarrassed, but her brother does not seem to notice. Instead, he blinks owlishly at her from his spot on the floor.

“They seemed nice,” he says as if it is a normal occurrence to have such visitors. Or any visitors at all.

“If you’re here, you may as well help me with him,” she says and clears her throat, the warmer air soothing a tightness in it that she had not noticed before now.

 

 

 

It’s just before sunset the next day when Wen Qing finds his bandages soaked through with something that, by its awful appearance, she hopes is not blood. It looks more like someone has spilled ink onto his sleeping form and let it seep into the cloth.

This is either a good sign or a terrible one. It could be that the poison has taken its exit through the same path it entered, or his insides have somehow rotted and liquified in the short time that he’s been left alone.

With a quick plea for the former to be the case, Wen Qing sets about unwrapping the bandages. Immediately, the smell hits her. Not the smell of rot, but the cold, charged scent that had given away the initial presence of the toxin on the arrow.

None of this has been pleasant and it’s about to be even less pleasant.

The wound is still closed by the sutures, but the dark, almost purplish substance leaks through the pores of his skin. She has never seen anything like this. Attempting to clean it up seems prudent and so she does, the ooze soaking through the cloth in almost no time at all.

It is disgusting, but if this means the poison is out of his body, then it’s a net positive. She can no longer feel the heat of fever radiating off of him, so at the very least his temperature has become manageable even if the fever has not broken entirely.

He sighs in his sleep, sounding for a moment as though he might speak. He doesn’t, but it’s a positive change from the dreadful, corpse-like silence of the previous day.

Despite his continued unconsciousness, he does seem more present than he has since that first day when she had operated on him. She doesn’t trust that he will not struggle and flail upon waking if she removes the needle now, but the panic he’ll feel if he wakes up unable to move may be worse.

Better to take it out, then. The image of his bloodshot eyes staring up at her as he pleads is still fresh in her mind.

First, she cleans up the area around the wound and wraps it with fresh bandages as she has done before, if not with a little more urgency.

She pulls the needle from his skin with just her fingertips, and nothing changes. Granted, she does not usually expect a patient to spring up out of bed after an injury like this. It would be cause for concern if he did.

It takes a few minutes for him to begin to stir, a slow waking. He blinks like a cat in the sun, tongue clicking in his dry mouth. He lifts a hand, perhaps to scratch his nose, but misses and flattens his palm against his face. A few more minutes pass until he remembers how to speak.

“Is everyone okay?”

What a thing for him to ask after days where it seemed like they might lose him this way, quietly and without much of a fight.

“Everyone but you, Wei Wuxian.”

“Oh,” he says and leaves it at that. She doesn’t doubt that he has questions, but perhaps not the wherewithal to ask them at the moment. Whether he falls asleep again is neither here nor there, but he does wake again quickly and that’s all that she can truly ask of him.

“Still here?”

“Yeah,” he sighs, speech sluggish and airy. “Did something happen?”

Wen Qing reminds herself that the poison had caused him a great deal of confusion and that she should be patient with him. It is a battle against her own raw nerves.

“You were shot,” she tells him without affect or emotion. “The arrow missed anything important and was removed without incident.”

“Oh.” He ruminates on this new information. “That explains the pinchy feeling.” He lets his eyes slip closed again, a faint furrow in his brow. “Is that it?”

“It was tipped with poison.”

“Ah,” he sighs, a faint smile on his lips, and then he makes the mistake of trying to sit up.

She doesn’t know what exactly prompts her to do so, perhaps it is her years of experience, but she grabs the mostly broken bucket from the floor just in time to catch the torrent of black fluid that escapes from Wei Wuxian’s mouth, all while successfully avoiding eye contact. It is incredibly fortunate that the only smell is that of the poison, but it begs the question of just how much ended up in him. This just seems wildly disproportionate.

Wei Wuxian folds himself up into a ball, head between his knees.

“And that explains that,” he mumbles into the fabric of his trousers. His bare shoulders twitch and he shivers. Wen Qing sets the now unsalvageable bucket down next to him, assuming that he will need to use it again. “What was it?”

His outermost layer is torn, but only slightly, so she plucks it from the pile of his personal effects and tosses it over him. The shivering will worsen nausea and no one wants that. He doesn’t complain about being mostly undressed for days as she thought he would, only pulls it tighter around himself.

“It targets the cultivation base.” She busies herself with arranging a fresh set of bandages to keep the stitches on track. She does not think that she means to avoid his gaze, but either way, she does not meet his eyes. “The stronger the golden core, the worse the outcome.”

“Lucky me!” he laughs, his voice rough from disuse and the earlier incident. The strain causes him to cough and Wen Qing hands him the cup of hot water she was going to drink for herself. His eyes watering, he chugs it down.

“Slow down! You’ll scald your throat or vomit again.” She grabs for the cup, but he has already emptied it and so far shows no signs of ill effect.

“Thanks,” he mumbles, the minuscule energy he’s been able to muster up slipping away even more quickly than it had come to him. “Ah, how long has it been?”

“Three days today.”

Wei Wuxian groans. Wen Qing prepares herself for the sound of retching to follow, but it does not come.

“How is the field then? Has everyone been alright with the work? A-Yuan?” There is a rustling sound behind her. If that man is trying to stand up she may just have to fight him.

“Three days, not three years. You should rest for at least one more. We’ll survive it.”

There is a brief flash of something that looks a bit like hurt on Wei Wuxian’s face that she catches out of the corner of her eye. It disappears, a firefly blinking once in the night. It’s swiftly replaced with the kind of hollow smile that she has grown used to. She wonders how he has ever managed to fool anyone with it.

It is not her goal to be harsh with him, but if he forces himself onto his feet and into the fields before he’s healed, there’s no telling how much damage will be done.

“If the doctor insists.” He smiles, wan and weak, then he settles back down.

Wei Wuxian rests, given very little choice in the matter by his own body. Whether it is the exhaustion from the energy it’s taken to heal or the limitations he had pushed through catching up to him and forcing him to take it slow, she could not really say. Wen Qing stays well clear of the Demon-Subdue Cave.

She is not avoiding him, or at the very least this is what she tells herself as she finds menial task after menial task to get in the way of her checking in on him now that he is no longer in dire condition. A-Ning has been to visit him, he will be fine. He no longer requires the constant attention of a doctor.

Chapter Text

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.