Before Wei-qianbei had dropped to the ground — before his knees had crumpled beneath him and he’d fallen like a dark bird shot down, like something in flight grounded — it had gone like this:
Red light had flared. The yao, the hunt, the mountain at night. The flare was so bright it seared into the back of Lan Sizhui’s retinas. Childish, reflexive, he’d brought an arm up to shield himself, as if it would help; all of his studies and techniques and tricks forgotten in that panicked thump of a second. He’d felt a hand tighten in the back of his collar, and he was being pulled, yanked sideways and out of the way. He’d opened his eyes fast enough to see Wei-qianbei absorb the blow, a crimson flash swallowed into his chest. Fast enough, in that sticky, horror-slow moment, to glimpse the fleeting look on Wei-qianbei’s face, a blend of genuine surprise and annoyance. Then he’d dropped.
The yao had scampered off after that, howling into the black trees. Lan Sizhui and the rest of the juniors descended on Wei-qianbei like a flock of panicked geese.
“Wei-qianbei!! Oh, god —”
“How the hell would I know what to do?! You do something!”
“Wei-qianbei,” Lan Sizhui said. His voice sounded very far away. Wei Wuxian’s face was very still, like he was dead. Lan Sizhui had never seen him so motionless, even asleep. Desperately, he’d moved Wei-qianbei's face back and forth with his hand. Like a cub yanking on its mother’s scruff. Wake up wake up wake up wake up not again not again.
“We need to get him to Hanguang-jun,” Jingyi had said, and a rigid, horrified hush had fallen over their group because — they each knew. They each knew what it would cost.
They carry Wei Wuxian back to the Cloud Recesses by sword, changing shifts when his weight gets too heavy for each of them, one by one. They walk him in together, his deadweight supported between them, all the way up the rest of the mountain path. Lan Sizhui’s knees and arms are trembling with fatigue, his lungs on fire. Something in his chest is shaking even harder. He thinks of Hanguang-jun’s face, that inevitable moment when he’ll see Wei-qianbei like this, and wants to throw himself in front of it. Like a tossed blade that can be stopped with a body. It will be no use.
Someone must have scouted ahead and sent for Hanguang-jun, because he materializes at the entrance to receive them. The rest of the juniors chorus weakly Hanguang-jun. Lan Sizhui can’t say anything. Hanguang-jun takes one look at Wei Wuxian strung lifeless between them and the blood drains entirely from his face. Lan Sizhui watches his step falter, unprecedented, like he’d taken a blow to the side. Lan Sizhui blinks and Hanguang-jun is directly in front of them. His face is frightening, blanched and luminous with terror, its corners and lines sharp. Lan Sizhui abruptly feels like a child again, cowed and shying.
“What happened,” Hanguang-jun says, tight-jawed and harsh. The rest of the juniors stumble to explain, more teary and frantic by the second, blubbering in their fear and in the face of Hanguang-jun’s wintry disapproval, in the face of the severity of Wei-qianbei’s situation confirmed. Hanguang-jun doesn’t let them finish before he’s taking Wei Wuxian’s weight from them, bundling Wei Wuxian into his arms in an easy carry. Like he weighs nothing at all. Wei-qianbei is small and huddled against his chest as they walk, so much so compared to his usual swaggering chatter and high peals of laughter, and Lan Sizhui wants to stop walking, for just a second, to throw up the contents of yesterday’s dinner on the side of the path.
Each of the juniors trails Hanguang-jun all the way to the jingshi, hands wringing. Hanguang-jun dismisses them all once they’re there, but asks Jingyi to send for the doctor. To Lan Sizhui, he says, “Stay,” and Lan Sizhui follows him inside with an acrid taste in his mouth, like blood, like bile.
Hanguang-jun settles Wei-qianbei carefully on the bed, then takes up a seated spot next to him. Wei-qianbei still looks like he could be asleep, if not for the unnatural stillness of him. If not for the fact that his lips are too pale and bloodless, his skin too waxen, his closed eyelids bruised dark and veiny. Hanguang-jun is already pouring spiritual energy into his wrist. His frame is still and rigid, except for the mindless, frantic rub of his other thumb against Wei-qianbei’s inner arm.
Lan Sizhui stops next to the bed, next to the both of them. He says, his voice cracking, “Hanguang-jun.”
Hanguang-jun’s head barely tilts, bending his ear toward him. “What is it.”
Lan Sizhui takes a deep, quavering breath and falls to his knees. He presses his forehead down into the floorboards.
“It was this disciple’s fault,” he says thickly. His tears flow quickly now, dripping down his cheeks to the wood. “Wei-qianbei got hurt because — because I wasn’t —” Good enough, fast enough, strong enough, enough.
“Stand up,” Hanguang-jun says, curt but not unkind. Lan Sizhui sniffles, rubs his nose against his sleeve, then obeys. He’s expecting to meet cold anger in Hanguang-jun’s gaze, but Hanguang-jun looks at him with surprising gentleness and says, “He wouldn’t want you to kneel.”
“Hanguang-jun,” Lan Sizhui begins, and Hanguang-jun holds up his free hand to silence him. The other is still pouring spiritual energy into Wei-qianbei’s body.
“I am not angry,” Hanguang-jun says.
Lan Sizhui wants him to be. He wants to be punished, to be beaten or whipped or stripped down with words. Any of that would be easier to stomach than this, than Wei-qianbei’s silence and the tension pulling Hanguang-jun’s expression into lines Lan Sizhui hasn’t seen for many years and that he associates with blood-stained robes and a plaintive song plucked deep into the dark of the night, so often that he still hears it in his dreams, distant like a memory with loose earth kicked over it.
“He would protect you with his life,” Hanguang-jun says. His eyes haven’t left Wei-qianbei’s face. “That is not for you to bear.”
“Hanguang-jun,” Lan Sizhui says again.
“Lead the doctor in when she arrives,” Hanguang-jun says, a quiet dismissal. Lan Sizhui goes, his legs wooden. He sits outside the jingshi’s door, his legs crossed over each other. It’s going to be a long night.
When he was still young, Lan Sizhui would have supper with Hanguang-jun in the jingshi once a week. This was after the long stretch of time in which Hanguang-jun was gone, in which Lan Sizhui hadn’t seen or heard from him at all. An uncounted span of short winter days and stretched summer-green evenings. Hanguang-jun had still moved about slowly in those days, creaking and careful, an affliction out of sight that Lan Sizhui could sense but not see. He hardly ever saw him outside of the jingshi, back then.
It was a summer evening when Hanguang-jun had left, for just a few moments, to fetch their supper. Usually it was brought to them by one of the other disciples, but Hanguang-jun had left to seek something out, leaving Lan Sizhui alone. It was still light outside. Lan Sizhui had never been left by himself in the jingshi before, and it made him inquisitive. He poked around the various scrolls Hanguang-jun kept neatly categorized, the calligraphy too advanced or too old for him to understand. He was careful not to touch anything during his exploration — he was mannered enough for that, by this age — but that resolve had been discarded when he’d quickly discovered a loose floorboard by the bed. Though well-behaved, he was still a child at that time. He had been a child for even longer after that, but he had not felt like one for most of it. The floorboard made him curious. The sides of the plank were smooth and rounded down, like it was worn and eroded by fingers. He pulled it up and it pried loose easily.
“Wow,” he whispered when he saw what was inside. There were a few interesting objects. Neatly aligned white jars filmed in dust. A stack of old, yellowed papers tied with a red ribbon. Three bamboo flutes. They were simple and coarse, nothing like the quality of the dizis and xiaos that Lan Sizhui saw used in his lessons. He pulled one up out of the floor and weighed it in his hands. He put his mouth to one of the holes and blew experimentally, but no noise came out — just an airy, soundless whistle. He was suddenly overwhelmed by the urge to put his mouth on it, to chew it as if he were a baby.
There had been a noise at the entryway of the jingshi. Sheepish, terror-stricken at getting caught, Lan Sizhui had looked up and found Hanguang-jun had already returned. His expression was one Lan Sizhui had never seen before in his life. His face had gone white and empty, the ice in his gaze like a pointed shard. He looked thunderous, furious, alien.
Lan Sizhui had never been on the receiving end of such a look. Nothing even close to it from Hanguang-jun. Never once. At the shock of it, he’d immediately burst into tears, dropping the flute with a clatter.
“I’m sorry,” he blubbered, huddling down into the floor. “I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry —”
It had been the one of the only times, in his childhood memories, that Hanguang-jun had physically held him. Hanguang-jun was not tactile as a general rule, so this memory had pierced Lan Sizhui to the core: Hanguang-jun holding him in his lap, a hand up and down his back, shushing him quietly as he wept, unruly and loud. The shock of what happened had passed quickly. He was crying about something else entirely, something too big for him to understand, but it flooded into him from all sides, crashing and incomprehensible.
“Gege,” Lan Sizhui had sobbed softly over and over, “A-Yuan is sorry.”
“I am not angry,” Hanguang-jun had told him, his voice even but soft. A hand to the back of his neck. “Hush, now. Some things are not for A-Yuan to hold.”
Lan Sizhui falls asleep outside. He hadn’t quite meant to; had only meant to meditate and keep watch, but he loses consciousness in a seated position, his sleep shallow and whirling. When he wakes, a muted gray light sifts through the mountain trees, a dawn fog not yet risen. His joints ache with the cold. Dew has seeped into his layers, making him creaking and damp all over.
There’s a murmuring of voices from inside the jingshi. His breath held, Lan Sizhui slips through the open crack in the sliding door.
Wei-qianbei is awake. He has a hand to the back of Hanguang-jun’s neck. He's smiling, teasing him. Lan Sizhui watches as Hanguang-jun presses a kiss to Wei Wuxian’s brow, to both of his eyes, his nose, and then his mouth. He rests their foreheads together, his mouth gone soft as Wei-qianbei keeps talking, a tired but high-spirited stream of chatter. Lan Sizhui’s breath sticks inside his throat and lodges there like a stone. A stitch pulls in his chest.
Lan Sizhui had carried him all the way here. He had carried Wei Wuxian’s weight too. Hadn’t he?
“A-Yuan,” Wei Wuxian calls, and Lan Sizhui gives a small start. He had been standing in the doorway still, lost in thought. Both of his parents are looking at him now, expectantly. They both look relaxed, a soft glow to their features. The line of Hanguang-jun’s shoulders has loosened again.
“A-Yuan,” Wei Wuxian repeats, when Lan Sizhui doesn’t budge. “Come, come here.”
Lan Sizhui moves toward them. As he approaches, Wei Wuxian frowns at his appearance. He reaches out to pinch one of Lan Sizhui’s damp sleeves.
“You’re soaking wet!” Wei-qianbei exclaims. “What, did you fall into Cold Spring on your way here?”
“This disciple was worried about Wei-qianbei,” Lan Sizhui says. He can hear the tired fault-line in his voice.
“Don’t tell me you slept out there all night,” Wei-qianbei says, sounding appalled and a little like he might be about to lecture him.
“I was worried,” Lan Sizhui repeats. Seeing Wei-qianbei’s face brings that moment from yesterday rushing back. When he’d dropped, so unnatural and sudden. How he would look if he were dead, without life in this body.
Lan Sizhui drops to his knees, beginning to bow down. “Wei-qianbei —”
“Aiyoh!” Wei Wuxian yelps in dismay. “Get up, what are you doing?!”
Lan Sizhui huffs out an aggrieved sigh and stands up again. Wei Wuxian looks at him disapprovingly, then sticks out one of his bare arms for Lan Sizhui's observation. It’s covered in goosebumps. “It gives me chills when you Lans do that.”
“It was my fault,” Lan Sizhui begins. His voice starts to shake again. “I should have —”
“Sizhui,” Wei-qianbei interrupts, not unkindly. “This was nothing I couldn’t handle. I knew that when I took the blow.”
Lan Sizhui shakes his head stubbornly. A pressure builds in him, a volcanic rise of air about to pop.
“It was better it was me than you —” Wei Wuxian is saying in placating tones, and Lan Sizhui bursts out, “No.”
Both Wei-qianbei and Hanguang-jun go very still at the same time. They both look at him in surprise. A little cautious, now. Lan Sizhui is not one for outbursts.
“Why should it have been you?” Lan Sizhui blurts out. His hands are shaking. “Why you and not me? Why — why always you?”
“Sizhui,” Wei-qianbei says gently. He tries to push himself up into a seated position.
“It doesn’t always have to be you,” Lan Sizhui says with his fists clenching in and out. He’s exhausted and leftover nerves rattle around in his chest. Some strange, stale grief that hasn't cleared. He’s unraveling in front of the two people he respects the most, and he can’t stop himself. “Do you know that — do you know it doesn’t always have to be you?”
Wei-qianbei surveys him thoughtfully for another moment. Hanguang-jun doesn’t say anything, but appraises Lan Sizhui with something resembling — sympathy, maybe. No; understanding. They both know what it’s like, to — to lose Wei Wuxian and to carry him, the absence of him, the years of it.
“This senior will be more careful on night hunts, Sizhui-gege,” Wei Wuxian says, solemn and not quite...not teasing him, but a levity nonetheless. “I promise not to make you worry anymore. Okay?”
“It’s not — !” Lan Sizhui says. He knots his fist, swallows, closes his eyes. He tries again. He has never been so blunt and informal, not even with Wei-qianbei. “It’s not about me — worrying. I just want — this disciple wants — Wei-qianbei to be okay.”
“I see,” Wei Wuxian says slowly. He turns to look at Hanguang-jun with bemused suspicion. “Hmmm, Lan Zhan, did you put him up to this?”
“Listen to your filial son,” Hanguang-jun replies, inflectionless.
“Aii,” Wei Wuxian sighs, and scrubs a tired hand over his face. “I see, I see, it’s an ambush! Okay, how is this. I promise —” He holds up three fingers and places the other hand over his heart. “ — to not take unnecessary risks, and to not worry my two favorite people anymore. Does that sound fair?”
It’s not quite fully appeasing, mostly because Lan Sizhui isn’t entirely sure he believes it, but it will do. For now.
“Mn,” Lan Sizhui says, then nods quickly. He feels himself sag, now that everything is out of his system. “Thank you, Wei-qianbei.”
“You kids,” Wei Wuxian says in a weary, baffled voice. He leans his shoulder into Hanguang-jun’s, then rests his chin there with a yawn. “Yuan-er, come sit here on the bed.”
Lan Sizhui hesitates, then complies, a little stiffly. He relaxes when Wei-qianbei’s hand finds his shoulder and squeezes, pulls him in a little. He would be okay to sit here for the rest of the day, Lan Sizhui thinks. Just the three of them. Three, not two.
“Did you have to carry me all the way here?” Wei-qianbei asks Lan Sizhui, blinking a little sleepily. “Ah, your poor back! Please forgive your inconvenient senior.”
“I did,” Lan Sizhui says softly. He looks at Hanguang-jun. Hanguang-jun looks back, lowers his chin ever so slightly. A nod. A thank you. He says, “It wasn’t all that heavy.”