Warnings: vomiting, Wei Wuxian’s general trauma.
and the calm is deep where the quiet waters flow
Jiang Yanli’s embrace lasted much longer than her brother’s did.
Wei Wuxian had never felt as much shyness as he did when he saw her in the middle of the Qinghe encampment. She was bowing above the bedding of a wounded stranger, and her hands were stained with the woman’s blood and holding the gauze she intended to put on her. He let her finish her task, not out of concern for the woman who bled out of a deep gash in her shoulder, but because he suddenly thought that perhaps, Jiang Yanli would resent the sight of him.
Jiang Cheng stood by his side, ripe with tension and excitement. Wei Wuxian needed not look at his face to know that he burned to call for her and show her that Wei Wuxian was here, was safe; that he wished more than anything else for the three of them to be together again.
Just like before. Just as they had been only months ago, before Jiang Fengmian and Yu Ziyuan’s blood stained the steps of the Lotus Pier’s entrance hall. Even though Wei Wuxian felt not like the child he had been then, but like a much different person.
“Shijie,” Wei Wuxian called once the woman under Jiang Yanli had been tended to.
He saw her back shudder at the sound of his voice. He heard her gasp, and saw before she even turned around the tears that would shine in her eyes. They were no less hard to face, once she did look back at him.
He heard the lovely way she called his name, “A-Xian,” and wondered in free-falling relief that he had ever thought she would instead scream it in anger.
The circle of her arms, much more familiar than her brother’s, felt like being back home. Wei Wuxian did not cry, though he thought that he should, while she sobbed against his shoulder. He left that duty to Jiang Cheng standing by them, who smiled through embarrassed tears and patted both of their backs without fully touching them.
I’m home, he thought, touching her frail neck.
It was all that mattered in the grand scheme of things. Even if part of him had remained by a dying man’s side in helpless fury—even if he could barely sleep, even if food made him sick and Zhu Yuansu’s silence made him mad—he was home.
Wei Wuxian did not stray from their side until the war ended.
Nie Mingjue had gone a long way in the days Jiang Cheng and Lan Wangji had trekked the mountains in search of Wen Chao. His forces sat at the foot of the Nightless City, threatening Wen Ruohan’s stronghold a little more each day. The cultivators who came down the mountain to meet them in combat oft came back up wounded, or did not walk back at all. Wei Wuxian was welcomed without doubt by the Qinghenie sect leader, as well as Lan Xichen who smiled at the sight of him warmly and expressed his relief that he was alive.
Wei Wuxian had not thought Lan Xichen would even remember him. He had not met him since the archery competition in the Nightless City so long ago, and before that not since his own stay in Gusu which had ended in disaster. The man’s eyes were kind, however. His words rang true when he bowed to Wei Wuxian, when he called him young master in as certain a voice as he had when Wei Wuxian was a child wreaking havoc unto his home.
Lan Wangji rarely left his brother’s side. He stood dignified and beautiful despite the dust and hunger of the campaign. The unfamiliar white sword he held seemed almost as kind to him as Wei Wuxian remembered Bichen being. He carried with him a guqin made of pale wood, which he called Wangji.
He looked at Wei Wuxian often.
Three weeks before the end of the war, Wei Wuxian climbed up a familiar path through maple trees in the mountains. Zhu Yuansu followed him as always, unwilling to be left alone and in sight of so many. He cried out in fear when they descended into the depths of a cave that Wei Wuxian had visited what felt like eons ago. Although the corpse of the Xuanwu of Slaughter had been carried away, a heavy odor of death and decay remained, and Wei Wuxian was not surprised to see Zhu Yuansu fall to his knees and retch before they could reach the edges of the poisoned pond.
In this cave, Wei Wuxian called to him the sword he remembered holding while Lan Wangji cut off the head of the monster. It rose from the depths of the pool, dark-steeled and gleaming, its cold and viscous shine ricocheting off of the water-smoothed rocks around. Zhu Yuansu had no cultivation to his name to feel just how haunted the air became in its presence, but Wei Wuxian did. Even in the absence of a golden core, his whole body shivered at its somber energy. If he had been hot and not desperately cold, he could perhaps have believed himself fevered again.
Out of this haunted piece of metal, Wei Wuxian built the Stygian Tiger Seal.
Things moved quickly after that. Nie Mingjue became gleeful with the power that Wei Wuxian’s undead army granted him; he led more and more assaults onto the gates of the Nightless City, killing all who stood in his way, staining his great saber with blood and guts. All who perished by his hand became part of Wei Wuxian’s forces.
Wen Xu died at the highest of summer. His beheaded body fell over the rocks at the entrance of the City, and his blood thickened and hardened in the scorching sun, staining stone forever.
Nie Mingjue disappeared for a day after, and so did Lan Xichen. They came back as the sun set, holding Wen Ruohan’s head, accompanied by a man Wei Wuxian had never seen before: a meek qianyuan not much older than him who smelled of weathered wood and whom Lan Xichen looked at with care and Nie Mingjue with distrust.
His name was Meng Yao. He was, according to Lan Xichen, a spy who had spent months in Wen Ruohan’s company and risked his own life to carry information to them all. Meng Yao greeted every sect leader in Nie Mingjue’s high tent, and when Wei Wuxian’s turn came to stand before him, he nodded his head deeply.
“Young master Wei,” he said. “I have heard much about you.”
His eyes were eager, his tone oddly sweet. He had a face in the shape of a heart, with wide eyes glowing brightly under torchlight, with a quality to him that made him seem a little helpless, a little too kind. He did not once look at Zhu Yuansu cowering behind Wei Wuxian’s back and ask about his unlawful presence, or about the rumors which had spread thickly over all allied forces.
Wei Wuxian is opening kunze houses. Wei Wuxian is stealing from ravaged villages and sects, and walks around with his loot shamelessly.
Wei Wuxian did not take part in the celebrations that followed.
He took the shaking and resentful Zhu Yuansu with him to the very top of the City. The walk burned in his tired legs and thighs, and he knew that Zhu Yuansu struggled even more, as he had never walked so far in his life before. His body was weak with malnourishment and terribly atrophied. Still, he rejected Wei Wuxian’s touch when he was offered an arm for support.
The kunze house of the Nightless City had not changed at all since Wei Wuxian had last seen it: made of black, smoked wood, its windows barred, its redwood door even thicker than the one which had held Zhu Yuansu prisoner. The two lone guards before it did not dare block their passage, though their faces were pale with disgust and defeat.
“You’re doing it again,” Zhu Yuansu whimpered at Wei Wuxian’s back. “Oh, you shouldn’t do this.”
“No one’s stopping me,” Wei Wuxian replied to him.
For weeks now, Zhu Yuansu had done nothing but follow in Wei Wuxian’s shadow and bemoan his actions. He would not take a step by himself, no matter how much Wei Wuxian encouraged him to. He would not see his own freedom as anything less than a curse, no matter how many times Wei Wuxian reminded him that his family had abandoned him to his death.
“I would have deserved it,” he had said on the third night.
Wei Wuxian carried those words in him like a wound, seeping pity and frustration like blood.
He stood, unmoving, before the Wen sect’s kunze house. The smell of scorched earth was so unlike any other place he had been; if he closed his eyes, he could almost picture himself being led here by Wang Lingjiao, hearing the door close at his back. Smelling for the very first time the sweetness of one of his kind.
Fear holed within him. He ordered the two guards, “Open it.”
For a second, he thought he might have to come to threats. His fingers brushed the cool length of Chenqing at his waist, thinking of the corpses he could call from below the mountain. He remembered Wen Ruohan’s corpse left by his son’s side in the sun to be picked at by crows. But the two guards obeyed him in fear, and Wei Wuxian recalled, not for the first time, that he smelled of nothing now.
He was not shown the deference that a qianyuan would be, but he was not scorned either. These two zhongyong were not the ones who had once locked him here. They had no inkling of his name or status.
The heavy door opened, pushed forward by the both of them, to the familiar house within which smelled of sweet candles. Wei Wuxian crossed the threshold with Zhu Yuansu in his steps and looked at the silken couch where he had once spent the night. It was the same as always, crowded with clothes that none of the children here liked to tidy away. There were more drawings pinned to the walls around: birds made more lifelike as the hands creating them wisened, a boar, a squirrel.
He thought then that this would be all; he thought, petrified, of the three other houses he had opened since pulling Zhu Yuansu to freedom, all empty and bereft for years. Where are they? Where are they all?
Married, Zhu Yuansu had said. They left to carry out their duty. His voice had been torn by envy.
So Wei Wuxian stood frozen by the memory of three children, dug through with fear of their being lost, of their being taken away. His ears rang with the echo of Wen Linfeng’s terror as she asked him what fevers were like and looked to him for mentorship of a kind. She had been so young. Immature still. Surely, she couldn’t have been sold, not yet, and Wen Yueying and Wen Yiqian were much too young—
But then the door to the bedroom in the back opened; a girl much taller than he remembered her to be came out, her face sweetened with excitement and joy, and she called their shared name: “A-Ying!”
She tripped on her way to him against the foot of a chair. Wei Wuxian rushed to catch her, stumbling when she threw herself at him with all of her weight.
She had grown so much. Wei Wuxian couldn’t tell anymore how many months had passed since a little girl first showed him a way out of her own prison, since he sat by her side and watched her play in the dark. If they had been standing, the top of her head would have almost reached his shoulder. As they were both fallen to the floor, she simply clinged to him with all of her tall body, her face pressed to his chest as if she wished to become one with his heart.
She already was. She had been since she first burst out of that bedroom a lifetime ago and hugged him for the first time.
The little boy, Wen Yiqian, had not grown as much as she had. He hid again behind the frame of the bedroom door, looking at Wei Wuxian with the same suspicion as always.
Wen Linfeng stood next to him.
“I knew you’d be back,” Wen Yueying said excitedly, looking at him from below with wide and shiny eyes. “You promised you’d come back.”
“I did,” Wei Wuxian said. He tore his gaze away from Wen Linfeng. “I couldn’t break my promise to you, could I?”
Laughter pearled out of Wen Yueying’s mouth as if she simply could not contain her happiness at all. She did not release him as he pushed the both of them upright, and she giggled when he patted dust off of her arms and off his own backside.
In the bedroom, Wen Linfeng tensed and shuddered. She said not a word to him when their eyes met again—and Wei Wuxian saw, now, the differences on her; the lightness of her scent belying her immaturity, the thinness in her face, the way that her body had changed in the months he had not seen her. Her lips trembled, her hold on the doorframe grew weak. She stood behind that single line as if her life depended on it, and he was once more threatening all that she knew with his presence alone.
Perhaps he was.
“Hello, Fengfeng,” Wei Wuxian told her.
Her hand fell limply from the wall. Tears spilled out of her eyes and flooded down her face.
She cried loudly, heaving sob after sob, when he wrapped his arms around her. She clung to the front of his robes helplessly, shaking through all of her body, growing even louder when he shushed her and stroked her hair. Wen Yiqian and Wen Yueying looked at her as they had the first time she had done this—after he had told her, “You look scared to me.” Aghast and infinitely childish.
Zhu Yuansu fidgeted near the entrance of the house. Wei Wuxian heard him only through the sighs of the three children around him: Wen Linfeng against his front and Wen Yueying hugging his side and Wen Yiqian, ever-so-shy, sliding a hand in his quietly.
Sunlight set over the Nightless City. Birds grew quiet all around the dried lands, except for where their beaks pecked at the flesh of Wen Ruohan and his son. Down the harsh slope of the mountain, Nie Mingjue’s forces drank themselves to oblivion, triumphant, victorious.
For Wei Wuxian, the war ended only when Wen Linfeng took her first step out of Qishanwen’s kunze house.
“You won’t catch it,” said Wen Yiqian.
His voice was always breezy with lack of use. Wei Wuxian had come to learn that it was not for fear of speaking, in truth; Wen Yiqian simply was a little boy of few words, who would rather be silent and still than roaming the many shores of the Lotus Pier as Wen Yueying liked to.
“Will too,” Wen Yueying replied.
“A-Ying is slow.”
“I am not!”
While they argued, the round little hen they had been chasing for the last few minutes vanished behind trees.
Wen Yueying cried out in frustration. She rose from her hiding spot behind a thick bush and ran into the edge of the forest, exclaiming all the while that she was not slow at all, that the bird was simply too quick and clever. Wen Yiqian stood with much more grace than she had. He patted his knees free of dirt with care, worried as usual that he should stain the Yunmeng robes gifted to him when he arrived, and gave Wei Wuxian a look so full of annoyance that Wei Wuxian could not help but smile.
“Are you not going after her?” he teased the boy. “She’ll catch it before you.”
“No,” Wen Yiqian replied, his nose scrunched cutely. “A-Ying is not very smart.”
Next to them, Jiang Yanli laughed.
Wen Yueying did not go far anyway. She joined them again as they walked along the shoreline, between the edge of the river and the young trees bordering the woods, her childish annoyance warmed by sunlight and water. Unlike Wen Yiqian, she looked to be unable to simply walk; for days now she had done nothing but run until her entire body tired and Wei Wuxian had to carry her to her room half-slumbering. But she grew stronger every day. Wei Wuxian had no doubt that his help would soon be unneeded—that she would run much farther and longer than he could himself, and not have to ask him to carry her back.
The hen was an excuse like any other for them all to be outside like this, basked in the light of summer’s end, picking lotus seeds as they went. Wen Yueying’s belt and sleeves were so full of them, they fell behind each of her steps like a trail of breadcrumbs. If ever she got lost, it would not be difficult to find her.
He had told her so the night before as they ate dinner. “I’ll just follow the seeds,” he had said. “Maybe if we let them grow, little A-Yings will push out of the ground.”
She had splashed him with soup in answer, to Wen Linfeng’s great horror.
“How did that bird even escape?” Jiang Yanli asked Wei Wuxian when they reached one of the many wooden bridges crossing over the river and to an islet in its center.
Wen Yueying hurried over to the other side, yelling for Wen Yiqian to follow her. Her smile was bright enough to make sunshine look dim.
“The cooks said it pecked its way out of the coop last night,” he replied. “Smart thing.”
“A-Ying must have been delighted when she heard.”
“Oh, yes. She wouldn’t stop screaming that she’d catch it herself until I told her that she could. Twice.”
Jiang Yanli hid her mouth behind her hand to laugh again, and the sight of her so quiet and content made Wei Wuxian’s heart feel a little less heavy.
They were far from the buzzing noise of the Jiang manor, where Jiang Cheng was overseeing reparations and training. For weeks now, carpenters had come from all over the region to help rebuild the ancestral hall and clear away the debris of the fire. Young qianyuan and zhongyong came as well to seek instruction, aspiring cultivators that they were; and Jiang Cheng accepted most of them in grim silence, his eyes fleeting toward Wei Wuxian, asking for him what his mouth could not.
Wei Wuxian did not like to spend time in the old house anymore. He did not know what he would say, once Jiang Cheng made up his mind to ask him what he wished to.
He and Jiang Yanli walked together alongshore, their boots wet with the ever-present mud of the riverbed, their ears filled with the whisper of wind in foliage and the sounds of running water. Often the childish cry of Wen Yueying’s voice reached them from ahead, as she failed again to catch the hen she had set her mind to return. Wei Wuxian knew just how dearly she wanted to be the one who handed it over to the old cook, after the woman had given her sweet cakes on the day she had visited the kitchen for the first time.
They reached a slope in the ground, a wooden and decrepit fence surrounding a house made out of rough wood. The soil had subsided there over the years, and the house almost looked ready to slide into the water. The river licked its southern edge softly.
Wei Wuxian saw himself there, years ago, drinking from the stream in hope of quenching more than simple thirst.
He blinked. Looked away from the house. “Yes,” he replied, “sorry, did you say something?”
Jiang Yanli was staring at him; she must have spoken several times already, trying to catch his attention. Her forehead smoothed over when he pushed himself into smiling at her. “I simply wanted to know more about how you met them,” she told him. “Those children. They seem to love you very much.”
“I told you already how I met them,” Wei Wuxian replied in confusion.
He had told her and Jiang Cheng the very night he had come down from the Nightless City with three children in tow, Zhu Yuansu hiding behind them all, crushed by his own shame. Although Jiang Cheng had frowned at the sight of them, and although Jiang Yanli had looked sorrowed, they had not asked him any questions at the time. Jiang Yanli had even welcomed them, establishing herself near-instantly as a figure of adoration for Wen Yueying and Wen Yiqian.
She was so good with children. She learned so quickly to touch them as she did Wei Wuxian, to play with Wen Yueying, to make Wen Linfeng’s young face warm with shy blood.
Three weeks had passed since then. Wei Wuxian had brought Zhu Yuansu and the Wen children with him to the Pier when they all headed home, delighting Wen Yueying with tales of the place where he grew, eager to see how she would like it. And she loved it, as he had expected; she ran and ran, muddying her clothes, staining her hands and hair with dirt. She loved everything he had to show, she loved the training clothes she was given and which were so much easier to move in. She loved the room she slept in even more, after learning that it had been Wei Wuxian’s.
Wei Wuxian could not live in it anymore without remembering Wen Qing’s hands pulling the golden core out of him.
“I met them when we were all in Qishan for indoctrination. You remember this.”
“I remember that Wen Chao made you sleep in their kunze house, yes,” Jiang Yanli replied.
Wei Wuxian’s disgust upon hearing the man’s name was no lesser now than it had been when he crushed Wen Chao’s wrist under his foot. He made himself look at the water, made himself lick his lips to chase sudden dryness away.
“You never told me then what you were doing in that house, however.”
“I spent time with them,” Wei Wuxian said. “They were all very surprised by me. I think I had to answer at least a thousand questions.”
Jiang Yanli chuckled and replied, “Yes, I can imagine.”
She could not.
There was no way she could imagine the least of it—the house and the children, Wen Linfeng’s terror about the moonless tea, about her own future. But Wei Wuxian could not explain it to her even if he wanted to.
“I’m glad you didn’t grow up in there,” Jiang Yanli said softly.
A glance her way told him that she was staring at the forlorn house almost dipped into the river, where a man had once grown old and died without ever setting foot outside. Where Wei Wuxian had spent his fevers alone and hungry.
Thankfully, she did not wait for him to answer. He could not think of anything to say. She took him by the arm and led him onto the bridge, saying, “I think I hear A-Ying laughing. She must have caught the bird.”
Wen Yueying had, and was only too proud to show her catch to them. She refused to let Wei Wuxian hold the hen for her even when it started pecking at her fingers to try and make her release it.
They ate in easy companionship that night, together around a wide table of the kitchen, surrounded by the smell of cooked meat. Wei Wuxian had not much appetite, and the vapor coming from the wide copper pots made him feel a little ill, but he feasted on other things. On Wen Yueying’s voice when she called Jiang Yanli ‘jiejie’, on Wen Yiqian’s red face as he recalled just how soft the hen’s feathers were when he had petted it. On Wen Linfeng, sitting by Jiang Yanli, making shy conversation with her with worship in her eyes.
Zhu Yuansu did not join them. He had been fevered for days and refused to come out of the room Wei Wuxian had given him, not even to eat. Every night, Wei Wuxian knocked on his door. Every night, silence answered, and he left by the foot of it another serving of food that the servants would find untouched the next morning.
“I want a story,” Wen Yueying ordered when Wei Wuxian accompanied her to his former bedroom.
She shared it with Wen Yiqian. He had found him a room as well on the first night, but habits were hard to break for children so young. After the third morning in a row had found the both of them sleeping in the same bed, Wei Wuxian had given up.
Wen Linfeng would have probably joined them too, had her own room not been close to Jiang Yanli’s. Yanli did not say much about it, but Wei Wuxian saw the way she smiled at the oldest of the three children. He knew they must be spending time together away from prying eyes.
“Aren’t you too old for this?” Wei Wuxian asked with half a smile.
“I’m not,” Wen Yueying replied adamantly.
“And here I thought I heard you call yourself all grown up only yesterday…”
She pouted fiercely. Wei Wuxian could not help but feel something in him give at the sight of it, of her, so loose and free within his home. It tugged at him through the fatigue haunting his steps.
Jiang Yanli came to his rescue. “A-Xian was always very good at telling stories,” she told the girl with a smile. “Sometimes he even made up things, and we all believed him like fools until the lie was revealed.”
“A-Ying doesn’t lie,” Wen Yueying replied, deeply offended.
“Oh, you think so, but I have so much to tell you…”
She was so very good at this. So very good at catching their attention, at holding them abreath with words or playing, at plowing them with distractions. Wei Wuxian watched her magic the two children into listening to tales from his childhood, when he would run through the river and steal lotus stems for snacking, when he would chase after a bird for hours in order to catch it with an arrow, until he and Jiang Cheng were lost in the forest and covered in mud from head to toe. She so often had to come fetch them, guided by the sound of their crying.
He could barely remember any of it. All of it felt like another life entirely, like something out of a dream, so vivid in the moment and yet impossible to recall afterward. Gone like a wisp of wind.
“They are both very cute,” Jiang Yanli told him.
It was a while later, after Wen Yueying and Wen Yiqian had finally succumbed to sleep, and Jiang Yanli had tucked them into bed and blown out the candles. She had closed the door slowly in order not to make a noise.
“Especially little A-Ying. She’s so much like you, I feel like I’ve gone back in the past.”
Her words ached within him. “She’s much smarter than I ever was,” he replied, and the playfulness he tried for fell flat and lonely.
He didn’t know why the thought of being compared to any of these children made him feel so queasy.
But this was Jiang Yanli, looking at him with worried eyes, her gentle face framed by night-light so that it seemed even kinder. Wei Wuxian allowed her to take hold of his arm and lead him away from the bedroom door, and he suddenly was feverishly glad that he was still permitted her touch.
“They love you,” she murmured. “It’s obvious.”
I love them too, he thought, but the words would not come out.
“You’re very good with children, A-Xian. Do you think you’d like to have any one day?”
Wei Wuxian pulled his arm out of her hold.
Jiang Yanli’s steps halted. She turned to face him fully, her robes only slightly creased by the childish hands which had held it as she narrated Wei Wuxian’s childhood. War had not completely vanished from her face; there were bruises under her eyes, and a grieved quality to the way she held herself and held the sword at her hip that Yu Ziyuan had forged for her. She looked sleepless.
“A-Xian?” she called, surprised.
“Why would you ask me this?” Wei Wuxian blurted out.
They had come near the half-built dining hall, where only weeks ago had the garish Wen clan insignia been taken off of Yunmengjiang’s banner. Where a few years ago, Wei Wuxian had sat in silken robes, and watched a man bargain for him to Madam Yu.
He felt still the touch of those light robes, the open collar which had let in cool air and made him shiver. That air was the same as the one in Yiling, when it had slithered between skin and grassy ground as Wen Chao lay over and in him.
“I just,” Jiang Yanli said, “I just wondered… We used to talk about this, didn’t we? Don’t you remember?”
“About what?” he replied foggily.
Her hand came to rest by his elbow. She squeezed it, staring at him, her brow once more marked with worry. “Marriage,” she replied. “The future.”
He couldn’t remember at all.
He stepped backward. He gently pulled away from her touch and smiled at her, feeling hollow all the time, as if rid of his own substance. “Ah, I think I’m tired, shijie,” he told her. “I should head to sleep now.”
“Of course,” Jiang Yanli replied. He could tell by her voice that she was confused and hurt, but the fear within him could not abate enough to make him soothe her. “Have a good night, A-Xian.”
He did not sleep at all.
He tossed and turned on the bed of the small room he had picked for himself after giving his own away. His body grew sweaty, although the nights were fresh now. His whole skin seemed to burn on him, seemed to want to detach from him, and Wei Wuxian wished that it would. Would that he could pull it off entirely, shake the dust off of it, and put it on again. Perhaps then it could settle over bones and muscles the right way, instead of feeling to him as though someone had pulled on it and misaligned it from his skeleton.
But he could not, and neither could he go back to the time Jiang Yanli spoke of with such simple nostalgia. So he lay over the bed and sweated the night out, with his off-set skin, with his dream-like memories.
He tried not to think of her question and feel as though his insides were being emptied out.
Zhu Yuansu came out of his fever even more frightened than before.
He did not come out of his room again. At the beginning, when Wei Wuxian had taken him to the Pier and shown him around, he could be pulled out by the Wen children. He sometimes shared a meal with them, sometimes exchanged a few words with Wen Linfeng, whom he seemed to consider the most proper out of them all. He never spoke to Jiang Cheng or Jiang Yanli, however, and very little to Wei Wuxian.
After his fever, he picked up the food left by his door every day, but never set a foot outside again.
His behavior filled Wei Wuxian with anger. He would knock on the door of Zhu Yuansu’s bedroom each evening and ask to speak with him. He tried to be kind. He tried to make himself quiet and welcoming, so that the frightened man would not think him a threat, but Zhu Yuansu simply did not answer. After a week of such silent treatment had passed, Wei Wuxian stopped trying.
Jiang Cheng found him a few days later as he sulked on the edge of a window. It was a cool and overcast evening, and the servants’ quarters where Wei Wuxian had hid were rustling with the murmur of conversation. Some said the hearths should be lit so that the halls of the Pier could remain warm that night. Others argued that it was still too soon, and that surely the sun would be back tomorrow to make them all suffocate. Wei Wuxian had decided to sit there with a foot upon the ledge and his knee raised to his chest. He had hoped that the noise would distract him.
Jiang Cheng’s storm-like scent reached him before the sound of his steps could. Still, he did not look away from the river beneath him which the sky had colored green and grey. He spun Chenqing with his fingers in restlessness, waiting until Jiang Cheng’s footfalls stopped right behind him.
“If you’re looking for the weapon master, he’s gone to the village to buy wood,” Wei Wuxian said. “You just missed him.”
“I’m not looking for the weapon master,” Jiang Cheng replied, his voice irate.
Wei Wuxian let his leg fall from the window’s edge and looked at his shidi.
One could not have painted a more severe difference between Jiang Cheng as he had found him in those woods in Qishan, and Jiang Cheng as he stood now, in full sect leader regalia. His uniform was spotless and richly sewn, thick now to parry the chill of oncoming winter. His face had filled again with good meals and good rest. Sandu hung from his waist, recovered at last from the treasure hall of Qishanwen’s Nightless City.
He looked so much like his mother.
“We need to talk,” Jiang Cheng told him.
“Then talk,” Wei Wuxian retorted. “I’m all ears.”
Jiang Cheng’s teeth ground together in annoyance. “I need to know,” he said, “what you are planning to do with those kunze.”
“Nothing,” Wei Wuxian replied. “Except to feed them and clothe them and protect them from harm. I told you this already.”
Jiang Cheng stared at him in silence for a while. Then he pulled out of his sleeve a rolled piece of paper, which he handed him wordlessly.
Its content was nothing Wei Wuxian had not expected: pleasantries from Jin Guangshan, an invitation to Lanling which felt like a summons, thick and convoluted words and imagery, begging the Yunmengjiang sect leader to understand that some trophies of war needed to be returned.
For the first time in days, Wei Wuxian felt sick not with nausea, but with sheer dislike of a man.
“I’m not giving them away,” he told Jiang Cheng in no uncertain terms. He resisted the urge to burn the letter right here and there, and instead gave it back to his shidi with one last disgusted look. “They aren’t mine to give away.”
“I wouldn’t fall for the Jin sect’s threats anyway,” Jiang Cheng retorted.
He was offended too, though not for the same reasons.
“Jin Guangshan has very thick skin if he thinks he can just appoint himself a new Wen Ruohan and order us for anything.”
“Then I don’t see what the problem is,” Wei Wuxian said.
“The problem,” Jiang Cheng replied, “is that I know you’ve been looking for more of them. I know you’ve been going round the neighboring towns, forcing houses open, threatening people with that flute of yours.”
Wei Wuxian fell silent.
To Jiang Cheng, this must be as good as a confession. His face sharpened with rage and then laxened with exhaustion. Wei Wuxian knew that if the topic had been anything else, Jiang Cheng would have let away all of the ugly words now gathering through his mind—but Jiang Cheng, except for one memorable time, had always been rather shy with this. With Wei Wuxian’s status and what it meant for him. He never liked to speak of it if he could avoid it.
“It’s one thing when they belong to Wen dogs,” Jiang Cheng said. “It is one thing if Jin Guangshan rattles our front door asking for spoils of war. I can refuse him, I can say that Yunmeng was there first and only claimed their due. But I cannot have people under my protection come to me, asking me why a member of my sect threatened to have ghosts eat them alive if they did not give away their kunze.”
“I couldn’t find any,” Wei Wuxian said. “They’ve all gone from the houses, all married. So, you can rest easy. I’ll be looking farther ahead now, not from people who answer to Yunmengjiang.”
“And what will you do when you find them, Wei Wuxian? Will you bring them all here? Should I find every single unwedded kunze in the country a room in the Lotus Pier?”
It was Wei Wuxian’s turn to grind his teeth in frustration. He pushed himself off of the window ledge, standing so that Jiang Cheng had to look him right in the eye. “And what of it?” he asked. “You said it wasn’t a problem when I brought them with me, you said you didn’t care.”
“I said this for four of them, three of whom have no family to claim them anymore,” Jiang Cheng replied. “I did not say that you could just go around kidnapping people, or that our sect would be here to fend off angry visitors asking for their kunze back.”
Wei Wuxian understood, then, why Jiang Cheng looked so distraught about the whole thing.
“Did someone come asking for Zhu Yuansu?” he asked softly.
“Yes,” Jiang Cheng spat, red in the face with shame. “Earlier today. They won’t leave before they have him back.”
So this was why Jiang Cheng had refused Jiang Yanli so harshly when she had asked if he planned to dine with her and the children.
Wei Wuxian remained silent a long while, looking at Jiang Cheng in a daze, watching shadows cover his face as daylight faded behind him.
“They’re not of Yunmeng,” he said eventually. Each word pulled itself out of him painfully. “You could just refuse them.”
And he saw the expression that washed over Jiang Cheng’s face. He knew before he even replied that his words would cut deeply.
“If I did,” Jiang Cheng declared, “our sect would be nothing more than a thief in the eyes of all others.”
Wei Wuxian’s jaw ached. Who cares? he wanted to ask him. He wanted to grab his collar and shake him, to ride the emotions flooding him even through the gaping hole that the absence of his core had dug; he wanted to tell Jiang Cheng, Who cares about keeping face now? Why is this more important to you than the rest?
Jiang Cheng had once defended him before the other sects. He had once called Jin Zixuan callous in Gusu after the Jin heir had called Wei Wuxian kunze and nothing else discourteously. He had claimed Wei Wuxian to be a talented cultivator, a disciple of Yunmeng, in front of Wen Chao.
Why couldn’t he show the same bravery for Zhu Yuansu?
“He doesn’t even want to stay,” Jiang Cheng said, seeing that Wei Wuxian had no words in him to reply with. His tone was not pleading, not fully, but not far from it either. “Sister told me all about it, she said he hasn’t come out of his room in weeks. She says he doesn’t like being outside like you.”
“You don’t know anything,” Wei Wuxian replied.
Jiang Cheng grabbed his shoulder tightly, painfully. “No, I don’t,” he said. Each of his fingers felt like a blade digging through cloth and skin. “I don’t like it, I remember the state he was in when you found him, but he’s recovered now. He’s healthy again. If he wants to go back, who are you to stop him? His family wants him.”
“You don’t understand—”
“I will not put our sect in danger again because of you!”
Wei Wuxian’s mouth closed.
“You can’t take every single one of them, Wei Wuxian,” Jiang Cheng said. The edge of despair in his words had thickened—each of them felt like a slap to the face. “You can’t protect them all. I don’t have the means, I’m sorry, I know that this is important to you. I know this.”
“Why are you apologizing,” Wei Wuxian said slowly, “if you’ve already made up your mind?”
Jiang Cheng shuddered. He seemed to realize just how tightly he was holding Wei Wuxian’s shoulder; his fingers loosened and left him entirely.
The weight of them remained on Wei Wuxian’s skin.
“You can’t shelter them all,” Jiang Cheng said. He sounded grieved, which made it all the worse. “It’s a fool’s dream. I’m doing all I can, I’m trying to rebuilt what father and mother left me, but I can’t—”
His voice choked. Despite the strength he had regained and the comfort of knowing the war to be far behind them, Jiang Cheng looked completely exhausted.
He was overseeing all the repairs of the main house. He was training and recruiting people, finding masters to teach the ways of cultivation in his stead when work buried him alive. He asked Wei Wuxian for no help in this, even though he wished to; even though, for weeks now, he had looked at Wei Wuxian in anger, wondering why Wei Wuxian wasn’t offering to teach.
And, in truth, did Wei Wuxian have a right to ask this of him? Did he have a right to populate the sect whose destruction he caused with people he wanted to save, when Jiang Cheng would be the one to deal with the consequences?
“The children can stay,” Jiang Cheng said once his darker emotion had gone away. He stood once again to the full of his height, his chin lifted forward, the way it always was when he made a promise.
The way it was when he had told Wei Wuxian, I’ll keep all the dogs away from you.
“Jin Guangshan has no right to ask for them in the first place.”
“They are of the Wen sect,” Wei Wuxian replied faintly. “I doubt many of the sect leaders will care.”
“Even I can put this aside for three children who had never set foot outside of their house before,” Jiang Cheng said. “Wei Wuxian, I swear it. I won’t let anyone have them, just like I wouldn’t let anyone have you.”
Coldness spread through Wei Wuxian from fingertips to toes.
He breathed in and out softly. He let his freezing lungs warm with the fire that the servants did light in all the torches of the corridor. When he thought he could speak again without feeling a heavy weight at his back, he asked, “Let me try to convince him.”
“I’ve already told Zhu Yuansu that his family is here,” Jiang Cheng replied mournfully. “Wei Wuxian—”
Wei Wuxian turned his back to him and walked away.
Only a few seconds seemed to go by as he traversed the Pier toward the quarters where Zhu Yuansu and the children slept—the ones he and Jiang Cheng had slept in, once, before Jiang Cheng took his mother’s room in the washed-out pavillion standing above the river; before Wei Wuxian discovered that he could not sleep there without feeling his own heart tear away from him.
He felt no wind upon his skin. He smelled no water and no mud, no flowers, no berries. He hardly seemed to see anything, except for the half-open door of a room which had not allowed anyone in or out for days.
“Zhu Yuansu!” he called.
But there was no answer. The room was empty, the bed made, the candle wax cleaned off of cabinets and tables, as if no one had slept here in days. Wei Wuxian kept calling for the name as he ran through the halls of his home, looking for a sign of the man, for a trace of winescent.
He found it near the stables. Zhu Yuansu had taken the long way toward the main hall, no doubt afraid to cross paths with anyone. He sneaked there between shadows and walls, looking like a thief, a runaway. He had put on again the ragged clothes that he had worn when Wei Wuxian first met him.
“Zhu Yuansu,” he called him breathlessly, stepping onto the damp grass.
Zhu Yuansu stilled at the sound of his voice. His achingly sweet scent thickened the air with his fright, and Wei Wuxian was not ready for it to be directed to him, for those eyes to stare at him as if he were not made of the same fabric, but instead someone to resent and fear.
“Young master Wei,” Zhu Yuansu said softly. Fearfully.
Wei Wuxian took a step forward. “I told you not to call me that,” he said. “You don’t need to be formal with me.”
“I wouldn’t dare,” Zhu Yuansu replied.
He bowed until his back was as straight as a ruler.
“Don’t bow to me.” Wei Wuxian could not stop his own blood from rushing up his neck. “Do not bow to me,” he spat out, all of his skin hot to the touch.
“It is what should be done,” Zhu Yuansu said stubbornly, “when meeting someone of higher status.”
“I am not of higher status.”
“Can you prove it?”
“Why would I lie about this?” Wei Wuxian exclaimed, desperate.
He felt torn three ways over, his misshapen skin laid awkwardly upon his bones, his back bowed with anger, his fingers crusted with dirt from grabbing at grass, from trying to pull away.
“Why would I lie to you!?” he howled. He was so tired of having to prove again and again to this man that he was not lying, that he only wished to make him see reason. All of his patience snapped at last. “Why would I pretend to be something I’m not, what could I possibly gain from claiming to be kunze? You tell me, Zhu Yuansu! You tell me what your status has given you except grief, you tell me what I could possibly envy about being like you!”
“Perhaps,” Zhu Yuansu replied, “you would hate yourself a little less if you were.”
Wei Wuxian’s open mouth let out no sound. Suddenly, his chest seemed to sear. His belly grew a stitch below the ribs, as if he had run miles without breathing properly.
“What?” he managed to ask after a long silence.
Zhu Yuansu stared at him as if he were the one who should be pitied. “You ask me what I was given,” he said. “I have a house. I have safety. I have a family—”
“Your family left you alone to starve!”
“They didn’t have a choice, young master Wei,” Zhu Yuansu said patiently. “Who was it that made horrible things crawl over the village, who was it that made them all flee? They would have all died if they had not left as quickly as possible.”
Wei Wuxian could hardly think. He could hardly blink even with the nightly wind wetting his eyes, so shocked was he by Zhu Yuansu’s words.
“Tell me,” Zhu Yuansu said to him, “what has your status given you?”
“I’m,” Wei Wuxian stuttered. “I’m like you.”
“No, you are not,” Zhu Yuansi replied, his voice ripe with pity. “You may be kunze, but you and I could not be more different.”
Wei Wuxian drew back as if the man before him had unsheathed a sword.
“You were raised irresponsibly,” Zhu Yuansu went on. His frail voice had grown stronger with every word he said, and it grew stronger now, until he looked to be the one imparting truth upon Wei Wuxian. “It skewed your vision of the world. It hurt you deeply, and I feel sorry for you.”
“I was not hurt by freedom,” Wei Wuxian snapped.
Wei Wuxian had held his own against so many others in the past. He had spoken back to Lan Wangji and Lan Qiren, to Jin Zixuan, to Wen Chao. Earlier, he had spoken back to Jiang Cheng, in spite of how deeply indebted he was to him and his clan.
Why was it that in front of this man, this near-stranger who should nonetheless be the one to understand him the most, he could not find a word to say?
“You hate yourself so much,” Zhu Yuansu told him, his pitying eyes almost unbearable to meet, his frail and helpless body suddenly looking nightmarish. “You hate your status, and you hate me as well. It’s not your fault. People decided to expose you to the world without a thought for what would become of you, and it was irresponsible of them.”
“You’re wrong,” Wei Wuxian breathed. “I don’t hate you.”
“You hate my way to live. Isn’t it all the same, young master?”
No, Wei Wuxian wanted to say. He wanted more than anything to yell it at this foolish man and make him understand that he was the one in the wrong. Wei Wuxian had never hated him and never would, he told himself. He convinced himself.
Zhu Yuansu’s eyes softened. He spoke to him then not as a kunze, but as someone older; just as Wei Wuxian had spoken to Wen Linfeng so long ago in Qishan, and made her feel as if the very ground were slipping from beneath her feet.
“You can hardly look at me,” he said mercilessly. “You do not like to speak to me, you do not like that I prefer to remain hidden. You wish that I were like those children of yours.”
“They are not mine,” Wei Wuxian replied, sickened.
Zhu Yuansu shook his head. “No,” he said. “I dare say you would make a very poor father to any progeny of yours.”
Wei Wuxian swallowed back the bile rising up his throat. He licked away the taste of grass from his lips. “They are happy,” he forced out. “Can’t you see that?”
“Of course they are. They’re children, the eldest isn’t even mature yet. They don’t know that living like this will damage them like it has damaged you.”
Wen Qing’s voice came to him from a faraway memory, before the emptiness and before the fall: Don’t make the mistake of thinking every kunze you meet is your friend, Wei Ying.
“So you’ll just go back there,” he said. “Just go back to that house, to being alone.”
“Yes,” Zhu Yuansu replied, “I will. I am lucky that they still want me. You should be grateful that your family wants you, too.”
He meant that Wei Wuxian should feel lucky to be wanted at all.
Wei Wuxian did not move from his spot in the shadows after Zhu Yuansu walked away. He followed him with his eyes until his thin silhouette vanished behind a wider hall, and even then he looked to be slithering around like someone trying to hide something. Even now, he clung to shade and darkness as if it could fully hide him.
His wine-like scent made Wei Wuxian want to throw up for a long time after he was gone.
Night fell over Yunmeng, clouded and dark, without a star in sight. Moonlight was but a halo through the thinnest of the clouds, and only the torchlight coming from open windows lit the space around Wei Wuxian enough for him to see. He sat on the grass with his head between his raised knees. He clutched his ankles with his hands until his knuckles ached.
It was Jiang Yanli who found him what must be hours later, her voice soft and hurried, her cool scent like a balm for the nausea in him. “A-Xian?” she called in so kind a voice that the sound alone shivered within his chest. She was a way ahead, stepping slowly in the dark.
“I’m here,” he replied.
His voice was as rough as if he had screamed for days.
“Oh, A-Xian,” she said once she reached his side.
He must make for a very poor sight indeed, with his miserable face and dirt-stained clothes. Jiang Yanli kneeled by his side, hesitating for all but a second before putting an arm around his hunched shoulders.
“I heard,” she whispered. “About young master Zhu. I thought you might be upset about it.”
Wei Wuxian unstuck his tongue from his palate and asked, “Is he gone already?”
“Yes. He and his family left a while ago. Perhaps he left a message for you with A-Cheng, to say goodbye?”
Wei Wuxian laughed dryly. He shook her arm off of him with as much kindness as he could and pushed himself to his feet.
He almost fell when he managed to rise fully—his knees felt weak, and the grass and houses around him vanished for a second behind grey and black spots. Jiang Yanli caught his elbow when he swayed, calling his name in worry.
“Sorry,” he breathed out. “I’m just… I’m just tired, I think.”
“You haven’t eaten yet,” Jiang Yanli said pressingly. “Come now, follow me, I’ve left soup on the stove for you.”
“You spoil me, shijie,” Wei Wuxian replied.
It was enough to make her smile.
He didn’t need her help to walk to the kitchen, thankfully. Jiang Yanli remained by his side without needing to support him as they crossed the different halls. The Pier was shrouded in silence at this time of night, most of the torches unlit, most of its inhabitants asleep. Wei Wuxian regretted for a moment not saying good night to Wen Yueying, who would surely pout at him for it the next day. She could hold such a grudge.
“Sit down,” Jiang Yanli told him. She went so far as to pull a chair for him at the table and squeeze his shoulder as he lowered himself on it. “I made lotus and pork rib soup for A-Qian and A-Ying. It has been a while, hasn’t it?”
“Did they like it?” Wei Wuxian asked. “Your soup is always so good.”
“Yes, they did. A-Qian even asked to be served twice.”
Little Wen Yiqian had a fragile stomach, and often pulled faces at the dishes placed before him if he did not like the taste of them. Picturing him asking for more of his shijie’s soup made Wei Wuxian feel a little less cold.
Then Jiang Yanli lifted the cover of the pot simmering upon the stove, and Wei Wuxian’s smile faded. Gas surged again up his chest, much more potent than before, until he felt the burn of it at the back of his throat.
He rose hurriedly from his chair. It slid away from the table with a loud creak of wood, catching Jiang Yanli’s attention before Wei Wuxian could slip away unseen.
Wei Wuxian put a hand over his mouth. It was shaking badly, almost as badly as his entrails shook. “Sorry,” he forced out, “I need to—”
He only had enough time to cross the length of the kitchen, to push open the small door at its end which led to a vegetable garden, before he fell to his knees in the dirt and retched.
Nausea was common to him now, another symptom he attributed to the loss of his core easily—he couldn’t eat without feeling it, couldn’t sleep without feeling it, but it was not usually this violent. It had not been this sudden and overwhelming since his days in the Burial Mounds, where the very smell of the air was enough to have him on his knees for hours, his throat burning as he expelled what little he had managed to eat or drink.
He had not eaten today, and so there was nothing to expel but bile. It tore itself out of him like a stab wound through the stomach, making him shake from thigh to shoulder. Jiang Yanli called his name several times as she ran after him, and she was not afraid to kneel by him and push away his hair so that it would be spared his vomiting.
Her hands were cool upon his skin. After he was done—after an eternity of digging his own fingers into dirt in order not to fall—Wei Wuxian let himself rest against her side.
She never stopped stroking his clammy forehead.
He could not have told how long he stayed like this until he found the strength to speak. “I’m sorry,” he told her. Saliva dripped from his mouth, but he felt too tired to wipe it away.
Jiang Yanli shushed him as if he were still a child. “Do you feel better now?” she asked gently.
“Yes,” he lied.
He felt miserable.
It was impossible to tell if she believed him, but either way, she helped him to his feet and walked him to his room. They went the long way around the kitchen rather than try to traverse it again, for which Wei Wuxian was grateful.
He washed his mouth and hair with weak hands while she prepared tea for him. He could hear her through the door of the little water room, walking hurriedly around his bed, leaving and then coming back a few minutes later.
“I brought you something light to eat,” she said once he emerged from the little room. There was a steaming bowl of plain rice on his bedside table, as well as tea in a rust-colored pot. “I know you probably feel sick, but you need something in your stomach, A-Xian.”
“Thank you, shijie,” he replied.
He ate the rice more for the relief on her face than out of true desire. Even this much rested queasily in his belly. His throat ached still from the minutes of retching.
Jiang Yanli stayed with him until he finished the tea. She sat by his side in a chair as he lay in the small bed, and she took his hand in hers. Her fingers stroked over the little scars on his knuckles that had gone so white and thin, they were nearly invisible if one did not know they were here.
Zhu Yuansu’s accusations rang through him like the aftermath of falling, like hitting ground after tumbling down a cliff: You hate yourself. You hate your status.
“A-Xian,” his shijie murmured, her cool hand squeezing his in spite of how sweaty it was. She sounded desolate. “You’re not well at all, are you.”
“I’m fine,” Wei Wuxian mumbled. “I must’ve caught a cold, walking alone tonight.”
“It was rather chilly…”
He could tell that she had more she wanted to ask him.
He would have to be an utter idiot not to notice how much time she had spent with him recently, how careful she was to put food before him when he shared meals with her and the Wen children, how she inquired each day after his sleep, worry wrinkling her forehead. Jiang Yanli had always cared for him in a way no one else did. Not Jiang Cheng, who was proud and awkward, nor Jiang Fengmian who had feared his wife’s reprimands.
Wei Wuxian held Jiang Yanli’s hand. “It looks like I’ll always need my shijie when I’m sick,” he joked feebly. “I feel like I’ve gone back to being ten years old. A little cold and I need you to tuck me in.”
“A-Cheng is just the same,” Jiang Yanli smiled at him. “The both of you, I don’t know how you’ll ever manage on your own.”
“You’ll just have to always be with us so we don’t die of sickness.”
She poked his forehead with a finger of her free hand in false anger; then she stroked wet hair out of his face, laying the flat of her palm there as she used to whenever a bout of sickness took him.
Those memories of his childhood did not feel like dreams at all.
“Don’t worry about me,” Wei Wuxian told her. “I hate when you worry.”
“How can I not worry?” she asked, barely louder than a whisper. “A-Xian, you do not eat, you do not sleep… You disappear for hours each day, and we hear such horrible tales from the places you go—do you truly think us so heartless, that we wouldn’t worry when we see you like this? Did you think we wouldn’t care at all?”
Their linked hands wetted with her tears. Hers was shaking in his grip, now, and he was the one to hold her rather than the other way around.
“I thought at first, surely it is the war,” she went on haltingly. “As long as you were alive, I could wait. I thought after everything was over, after we came home, you would tell us what happened to you, but you did not. Where were you? What happened to you? Why do you look so ill all the time?”
Wei Wuxian swallowed and replied, “I can’t tell you. It would make you more miserable if I did.”
His words only served to make her shake with silent sobs.
He stroked her hand with his cold and clammy fingers. He knew his decision to be sound; he knew how badly she would take to knowing how he had lived in the months before he escaped the Burial Mounds, and he knew that should she learn of it, she would grow sick with guilt herself.
As for the rest, it was as Zhu Yuansu said: Wei Wuxian should feel lucky to have a family at all.
“I’m fine, shijie,” he told her as gently as he could.
Her chair groaned against the wooden floor when she left it to kneel by his bed. Wei Wuxian did not protest the arm she spread over his middle despite the nausea still clogging up his chest and throat, and simply let her hold him and dampen his sheets with tears. He stroked her hair with his free hand, breathed in the cool zhongyong-scent of her which always roamed through the halls of the Lotus Pier. She cried silently against him. Her hand never let go of his.
“I’m just fine.”