Warnings: panic attack, mentions of pedophilia/grooming (no pedo happens), the usual trauma stuff.
and the calm is deep where the quiet waters flow
Lan Wangji stood in the green shadows, flecked with pieces of golden light, immaculate as always. His hold on Chenqing loosened immediately after parrying the blow it would have taken at his body.
“Wei Ying,” he said quietly. He looked surprised.
Wei Wuxian had no mind to examine his tone, however. He drew back into the thick shadow of trees with his heart beating at his throat, and asked, “Was it you?”
Had Lan Wangji been the one to see? Would Wei Wuxian have to threaten him, too, the way he had threatened Jin Zixuan? Would Lan Wangji think he was—
“You’re not breathing,” said Lan Wangji, and Wei Wuxian saw then that he looked confused and worried, that the creasing at his forehead and around his lips was directed only at what was in front of him now: Wei Wuxian, still-breathed and shaken, standing and holding his flute as if it were a sword. Tendrils of resentful energy stroking the exposed skin of his hands and wrists and neck and suffocating him.
He tried to breathe in; but it was as though his lungs had to try and take in as much air as they could, suddenly, and there was no quieting them anymore. Wei Wuxian grew light-headed, and black-and-grey spots replaced all the color he could see—all the greens and browns of the forest around, all the immaculate white of Lan Wangji’s uniform—and he heaved and gasped as if he had just spent minutes in apnea.
He grabbed onto the bark of a tree with his hand. His legs shook under his own weight and made his shoulder hit into the trunk with enough strength that he thought, in a burst of panicked hilarity, of what Wen Qing would say once she saw the bruise there. He felt that Lan Wangji was calling his name and coming to his side.
He should push him away. He ought to ride again the fear that Jin Zixuan’s touch and words had dragged out of his guts, to kick him as he had kicked Lan Xichen months ago. But although Lan Wangji touched his shoulder and helped his back against the tree, and although his fingers came to the hollow of Wei Wuxian’s neck to measure his heartbeats, Wei Wuxian found no strength or desire to.
He remembered when he had been the one to touch Lan Wangji like this while the man had been wounded and choked by grief. Finding the areas of stress and congestion in his neck and his chest and trying to push away the bad blood.
Wei Wuxian coughed. Slick blood filled his mouth and dribbled down his chin, no doubt staining Lan Wangji’s own hands. At last, when his lungs shuddered again, the air came to him without making him want to shake.
He closed his eyes when those fingers left his skin. Although summer was hot and dry upon them, he shivered. He listened to the sound of Lan Wangji’s respiration next to him, quiet and full, and found his own matching the pace of it unthinkingly.
Jin Zixuan’s words rang through his head ceaselessly. His hands and face itched where the man had touched him. He tasted bitter grass and dirt under the slick, nauseating blood.
When he was certain that his words would not falter, he asked, “Did you see?”
A breath again, one which Wei Wuxian could not help but breathe in too. Only when he was done expelling it in full—when Wei Wuxian was done doing the very same—did Lan Wangji reply, “Did I see what?”
Wei Wuxian opened his eyes. He blinked quickly at the blinding daylight.
Lan Wangji did not look the picture of someone lying or deceiving him. If anything, he looked to be the one full of questions, and to be holding them back for Wei Wuxian’s sake. His oddly sonorous breathing had not ceased.
Wei Wuxian realized that this was for his sake, too; that Lan Wangji must be breathing like this as a way of helping him find his own air.
If he had the heart to smile then, he would have. “Nothing,” he said instead. “I must apologize to you again, Lan Zhan. It seems I can’t stop embarrassing you every time we meet.”
Lan Wangji looked away and replied, “You’re not embarrassing me.”
It was a lie, of course, for Lan Wangji was much like his brother: the kind of person to hold back instead of asking, and to offer apologies for a touch even in circumstances where touch was unavoidable.
He always was.
“Where is your brother?” Wei Wuxian asked weakly.
He watched Lan Wangji blink. Even this sort of subdued surprise was beautiful on him, and made light catch onto his eyelashes and spread shadows over his cheeks in fine little tendrils. “He has remained with our uncle,” he replied. “He did not wish to enter the competition.”
This part of the forest was thick, much thicker than the small clearing where Jin Zixuan had cornered Wei Wuxian. Trees had grown so close next to one another that only the faintest of sunrays pierced through the canopy of leaves above, and then again, those rays were ephemeral. Wei Wuxian saw them flicker in and out of life over his legs and hands. He breathed in the cool shadows, listened to the buzzing of small insects, watched a bee circle around Lan Wangji’s arm, attracted by the bright white of his hunting robes.
He wondered faintly if Jin Zixuan would run after him and try to find him again in spite of his threats. His chest grew cold at the idea; Wei Wuxian’s eyes ran again over the space all around him, searching for a spot of gold and white over the green, grey, brown.
Lan Wangji’s breathing had gone quiet again, now that Wei Wuxian’s resembled something like evenness. He kneeled very properly upon the dirt and grass. His white sword Bichen swept dust when he turned to look back at Wei Wuxian.
He said, “Your body is ill.”
“You said so before,” Wei Wuxian replied.
He had no wish to be having this argument again.
“You told me that demonic cultivation would harm me. But I am not sick, and I will not renounce it. This… I’m only tired, Lan Zhan.”
There was a child-like expression on Lan Wangji’s face, something very near a pout. It washed away quickly. “I will not ask you to,” he said. “But I have been…”
His words paused. The tips of his ears grew so endearingly red under the delicate line of his forehead ribbon that for a second, Wei Wuxian was speechless.
Lan Wangji made himself speak again painstakingly. “I have… researched the books in the Cloud Recesses. I have found sheets of music. To help.”
“To help with what?”
Another moment of struggle, quiet and tense. Wei Wuxian spent it observing the man next to him and breathing in his warm scent of sandalwood, overlaid thinly over the woods, familiar and oddly soothing.
“Quiet the spirit,” Lan Wangji murmured eventually. “Calm the heart.”
Why? Wei Wuxian wanted to ask.
Why would Lan Wangji do such a thing for him?
For a second, the nerves still set alight by Jin Zuxian’s presence got the better of him, and fear left its tanguy taste on his tongue once more. He tensed over the dry soil, one hand clenched around Chenqing and the other spread overground, ready to lift his weight if he should feel the need to leave. He could not ask what he wanted to know for fear of the answer, and he could not look away either from the sight of Lan Wangji sitting on the dirt, staining his pristine clothes for no valuable reason that he could think of.
Lan Wangji was looking back, too. Pale-eyed and statuesque in spite of how ridiculous it was for him—for the both of them—to be in such a position. He had never shied away from looking Wei Wuxian in the eye; never shied, either, from speaking to him or calling him by name. Lan Wangji was not the one Wei Wuxian had struck, once, for insulting his status.
He was the one Wei Wuxian had sought in that moonlit cold spring when he had first been shaken by how the world viewed him.
Lan Wangji said, “I did not bring them with me. I did not know you would be here.”
“I like to keep things surprising,” Wei Wuxian replied. The words were slow to come to him, yet each of them was easier than the previous. Each intake of air a little fresher and fuller. “But, you’re right,” he sighed, “I should not have come here. Jiang Cheng asked me to, but I should have known better, considering what I’ve been doing.”
Lan Wangji’s lips thinned. He looked unhappy for a moment, perhaps because he was remembering just why Wei Wuxian’s presence made his peers so angry. Light caught onto the tips of one red ear as the leaves above them shifted; and it showed as well the deep breath he took in, the way that his shoulders straightened under the strict line of his uniform, as he readied himself to speak.
As he lifted his head and opened his mouth, Wei Wuxian said bluntly, “Play them to me.”
Lan Wangji fell silent, the very first syllable of Wei Wuxian’s name vanishing upon his lips. The shadows of his eyelashes moved and shuddered when he blinked.
Wei Wuxian’s heart was once again beating right below his throat. His chest felt tight, constricted. “Those songs,” he forced out. “For the spirit. Play them to me.”
He did not know what Lan Wangji meant to tell him just then—only that he did not want to hear it at all.
Perhaps Lan Wangji understood this. Or more likely, he at least sensed that Wei Wuxian had no desire to speak at all just then. He looked away, his serious face dipping in shadow, and replied, “I do not have Wangji with me.”
Then he looked up in surprise, for Wei Wuxian had lifted Chenqing toward him.
“Just play,” Wei Wuxian said, eyes closed, head resting heavily against the bark of the tree at his back. It was better than looking at every shadow around and fitting the shape of Jin Zixuan’s body to it, or that of the mysterious spy who must now be telling tales to all of what they had seen in that clearing.
For just a moment, for just one single moment, he wanted not to think of anything at all. Not the spy now ruining his reputation further, not Jin Zixuan’s face as he said Marry me, not the people in Yiling whose survival and freedom were his responsibility.
“Just play, Lan Zhan,” he asked. He pleaded.
Lan Wangji said nothing, but Chenqing slid out of Wei Wuxian’s grasp slowly, delicately. As if he feared the touch of black bamboo on skin would hurt Wei Wuxian if he took it too hastily.
Wei Wuxian did not move until the first notes of the flute caressed the air. It was an old song that Lan Wangji played first, something aged down to the structure of sentences, barely more than a few alignment of high notes infused with spirituality. He had not doubted that Lan Wangji could play the dizi well, and did not doubt either that should he still have a golden core to be appeased, the spell would have worked to perfection.
This was still enough: the earthly smells of the forest and Lan Wangji’s sandalwoodscent, and above them the sound of Chenqing playing songs from Gusu as if it were meant for them. Wei Wuxian’s back loosened against the arch of the tree rather than lean tensely upon it. His hand over the dirt became lax, curving up and away so that his palm did not touch it anymore. His eyelids stopped twitching and allowing in specks of light.
He did not know how many songs Lan Wangji played to him, or for how long. His awareness of anything aside from the sound of the dizi became so hazy that it felt like unconsciousness. Memories tugged at him slowly when Lan Wangji played one more melody, one he could recall hearing in the midst of fever. One he could remember singing to.
When he opened his eyes again, the sun had started setting behind the mountain. Shadows creeped from all over and made the air feel like night already. He blinked slowly, feeling well-rested for the first time in recent memory, and wondering why the sound of the dizi had ceased.
Lan Wangji was looking at him. A faint red mark shone below his lips, where the bamboo had pressed for what must be hours.
“The Jin clan has just signaled the end of the competition,” he said softly.
He must have heard the sound of the horn calling the cultivators back.
Wei Wuxian was slow to bring himself to his feet. He did not stumble, although his head felt misty and his body languid, but the pull of muscles alone had him shaking. He was hungry, he realized, and weak for it like he was in his youth after hours of running. He could not remember the last time he had experienced hunger without experiencing sickness.
“We should go, then,” he told Lan Wangji, who was still sitting on the ground and watching him.
His face had not rid itself of this complicated and hesitant look, but the sight of it did not frighten Wei Wuxian now. He took Chenqing back when the man handed it to him and tied it to his waist; then he stilled.
What little daylight remained around them shone out of Lan Wangji’s eyes when Wei Wuxian extended a hand to him.
A foolish gesture it may be, and no doubt one Lan Wangji would reject as he had rejected Wei Wuxian’s touch so many times before. Yet he did not blush furiously at the sight of it, like he had on the day Wei Wuxian had jokingly offered to carry him on his back. Instead, he grabbed Wei Wuxian’s wrist over cloth and not skin and allowed him to help him up.
Chenqing had been skin-warm when Wei Wuxian took it back. He found that same warmth at the crook of Lan Wangji’s wrist and in the seconds it took for him to rise up and release him. Only long enough to feel a few heartbeats against his fingertips.
“Thank you,” Wei Wuxian said. “For everything.”
For not trying to attack him, whether with words or with something else. Wei Wuxian had always thought that a day would come when the tip of Bichen’s blade would find its way to his neck or his belly, but he was suddenly glad that this was not that day.
The night was deep by the time they reached the edges of the wood. What awaited Wei Wuxian there was not a world of shame, as he expected, but rather Jin Guangshan’s lofty accusations of cheating, and a series of rude demands.
That Wei Wuxian should apologize to all the sects present for his hoarding the targets. That he should have handed over the Stygian Tiger Seal, which he surely must have used in underhanded ways. Jin Guangshan did not make any mention of anything more uncouth, although several times the topic of his monologue threatened to veer in the direction of the kunze in Yiling.
Whoever the spy who saw Jin Zixuan grab Wei Wuxian’s hand and profess his love to him was, they had not yet decided to tell anyone.
It should have been a relief, but Wei Wuxian felt only more anxious for it. Jin Zixuan himself was standing by his father’s side in a daze; his eyes met Wei Wuxian’s only once before he turned the face away, his face twisted with dark feelings.
It was easy to slip into the absent-mindedness that Wen Qing oft had to shake him out of. The calm that Lan Wangji’s flute-playing had procured was close enough to it, in a way.
“Why don’t you tell me what you really want, sect leader Jin?” he asked boredly.
He could not even tell anymore which of these men and women were speaking, or in what way. None of them mattered. Jiang Yanli was not even here, having been taken away by Madam Jin before Wei Wuxian made it out of the woods. Jiang Cheng had not addressed a word to him after seeing him emerge with Lan Wangji in his steps.
“I want you,” Jin Guangshan said, incensed upon his thickly-cushioned seat, “to go back to your sect, Wei Wuxian. I would like to see you grovel to Jiang Cheng so that the boy will accept you, and you learn once and for all what your rightful place is.”
“Sect leader Jin,” Jiang Cheng spoke then. Fury had colored his face, and Wei Wuxian could see just how tense his jaw was under his skin. “Wei Wuxian will not accept orders from you, or anyone else. I dare appeal to my father’s long friendship with you and ask you to let the Jiang clan handle this alone.”
“Oh, your father,” said Jin Guangshan. He laughed, or at least looked the part of it. “Yes, let’s talk about Jiang Fengmian. How many times did I tell him that this folly of his would lead only to madness? It wasn’t enough that he was infatuated with that Cangse Sanren, no, he just had to try and revive the thrice-damned memory of her with that boy. And now we see the result standing before us!”
He pointed to Wei Wuxian for all to see, going so far as to stand so that not a soul around could miss who he was talking about.
In the shocked silence that followed, he grew bolder. His weak chin shivered into a smile, his arrogance thickened into the nightly air. He walked around the dais where his precious behind had sat all afternoon, coming out of torchlight and into the same wavering shadow that all here were wrought in.
He stood before Wei Wuxian, taller than him by an inch, his thin body comfortably wound in rich and airy cloth to parry the summer heat. “It would not have surprised me,” he said melodiously, “if Jiang Fengmian had ended up taking the boy for himself. In fact, I have long suspected that he was raising him this way for that purpose. If he could not have the mother, then why not have her son?”
“Father!” came Jin Zixuan’s voice. It seemed he had been shocked into speaking out at last.
Jiang Cheng must have reacted the same outside of Wei Wuxian’s narrowed eyesight, outside of the red sheen that the world had taken in-between him and Jin Guangshan, but he did not hear it. He could not hear anything but the slow, heavy beating of his own blood.
Jin Guangshan sneered. He smiled in self-satisfaction. “At least this time around Jiang Fengmian could not be blamed for lack of taste,” he said. “Be grateful that you were born with some beauty, Wei Wuxian. Your mother was no better sight than the pigs in the barns of the Meishanyu sect.”
The crowd around them stilled and shivered, far too many among them failing to hide their interest, and although this time Jiang Cheng and Jin Zixuan found incentive to move, Wei Wuxian had enough.
He crossed the last step separating him from Jin Guangshan and spat in the man’s face.
He would have done it again, too, if only Jiang Cheng had not reached his side then and pulled him back. Meng Yao and Jin Zixun were samely busy with Jin Guangshan, tugging him away by both arms as if he were suffering a much graver wound than some spittle on his cheek and a bruised ego. Qianyuan and zhongyong of the Jin sect and others slid their swords out of their sheaths in outrage, and Wei Wuxian only looked once at Jin Zixuan’s panicked expression before letting the two halves of the Stygian Tiger Seal fall out of his sleeves.
He elbowed Jiang Cheng away from him. He took each half of the Seal in hand and pieced them together. Cold air slithered over every bit of his exposed skin, and the array in which the preys of the competition were kept broke open. Corpses surrounded the dozens of cultivators, once again under his command, and made them still with swords in hand.
“Wei Wuxian,” Jin Guangshan raged, held in place by his rapist of a nephew and his bastard son; but Wei Wuxian had quite enough of listening to him.
“I think it’s time some rules were put in place,” he said.
The corpses around them were still fresh, lacking the gruesome decomposition that some of Wei Wuxian’s worst summonings during the war exposed, but the effect remained the same. Those who had witnessed him then cowered, and the rest followed suit.
In the very far back, away from the direct line of the spell, Lan Wangji stood next to his brother and uncle. His eyes met Wei Wuxian’s.
Wei Wuxian’s blood stopped being quite so loud into his head. He heard instead an echo of the flute, a familiar melody pulled from bowstrings and bleeding fingers, as he fought for consciousness in the lair of a beast.
“The people I took from your houses are free now,” he said, still staring in the direction of Lan Wangji. It almost ached in him, how necessary this exchange of looks felt, when his stomach quivered at the thought of glimpsing just to the left and meeting Lan Xichen’s eyes instead. Wei Wuxian turned his head back toward Jin Guangshan rather than risk it. “They are not yours to reclaim. They were never yours to have in the first place. I will not allow a single one of you to see them unless they indicate otherwise, and I will not suffer your demands in any way. Those are the terms.”
“You’re nothing but a mad thief,” Jin Guangshan screamed at him. His finger shook, this time, when he pointed it Wei Wuxian’s way. “Who do you think you’re speaking to!? ‘Terms’? You think I’ll negotiate with you, after everything you—”
“Did you know not a single one of them wanted to stay?”
Jin Guangshan gagged visibly, whether for the surprise of being interrupted or because the sight of Wei Wuxian disgusted him enough to.
“You must have noticed that I left some of them behind,” Wei Wuxian went on coldly. “Those were the few who wished to remain where they were. I did not take a single person with me who did not wish to be taken.”
“Liar,” spat Jin Zixun.
“You wouldn’t know even if I was,” Wei Wuxian replied, glancing fleetingly at him. “You’re not in the habit of asking before taking.”
Jin Zixun reddened and remained, thankfully, silent.
“My point is that perhaps all of you should be asking yourselves why these people fear the words of a mad thief less than they do the thought of remaining where they are. Although,” he added, “perhaps that’s asking too much out of any of you.”
He looked over them all. He took in the anger and disbelief, the despair in Jin Zixuan and Jiang Cheng.
“Those are my terms,” he repeated. “I will not give them back. They are free to do as they wish now, and if they wish to remain with me, then I will protect them from you.”
“Wei Wuxian,” Jiang Cheng called helplessly.
Wei Wuxian did not look at him, but at Jin Guangshan, who was wiping again with his sleeve the place where saliva had sullied him. “And I am no longer part of the Yunmengjiang sect,” he said. “I came here today only as a courtesy to my former sect leader. From now on, he and I are not affiliated in any way.”
But the ranks of the hundred corpses narrowed, and Jiang Cheng found himself stuck behind two of them, no longer close enough to reach for Wei Wuxian’s arm. His sword Sandu gleamed into the nightly air, slashing at the corpse nearest to him, cutting off its head sharply. It did not stop blocking him or fall from under the influence of the Seal.
Still, Jiang Cheng clenched his teeth. Still he yelled, “Don’t you go deciding this on your own! I—”
“Have some decorum,” Wei Wuxian cut him off.
Jiang Cheng could not afford to show his attachment now, in front of so many eyes; and he seemed to realize it as well, for his face grew angry. Red blood flushed his cheeks and washed out of everywhere else.
“I’ll be leaving now,” Wei Wuxian said to the cultivators before him. Many had tried and failed like Jiang Cheng to cut down the Seal-controlled corpses before them. “The spell will lift when I am far enough, and you’ll be free to go. But if you follow me—” and the air grew colder still, almost icy over all of them, “—then you will only have yourselves to blame for dying.”
To Jiang Cheng, he did not say anything.
He felt the spell break before an hour of horseriding had gone.
No doubt, people would be riding swords after him now, and perhaps some were already above his head, looking for him in the dark. Wei Wuxian spared not the horse he had taken—one of those he had stolen from the encampment of Wen prisoners ages ago and kept for many of his trips—even when the animal whinnied under the kicks he gave its flanks. He was glad for the cover of darkness, and glad also for the incompetence of those people, who had him under their eyes for so long but dared not lay a finger on him.
This taboo, he often felt, was like a double-edged sword. Keep kunze from harm and human proximity on one end, for rumors of hurting one was such a blow to one’s reputation. On the other was the madness that took so many qianyuan and zhongyong when they were given opportunity; the sense of ownership, of possessiveness, which had driven Wen Chao to pinning him to the ground and Jin Zixun to stab Wen Ning through the belly.
For two days he rode with no rest, stopping only when his horse was too weak to go on, keeping the Stygian Tiger Seal in one hand and Chenqing in the other. He would have raised corpses on his way for protection, if he did not fear that their presence would slow him down and give him away.
He did not know whether his being caught would go one way or the other, after all: whether he would be talked to death by some fool in rich clothing or find himself once more at the wrong end of their entitlement.
Wei Wuxian came back to the Burial Mounds under rain and thunder. He was greeted first by Luo Fanghua, who was sewing clothing under the spilling roof of her house even in the storm. She stopped at the sight of him and ushered him inside, kindling the fire there wordlessly, giving him dry robes to change into. Wei Wuxian did not even think of shame as he undressed before her. He felt her eyes upon his bare torso—felt, for a moment, as if each scar there was an anchor for her gaze to latch onto.
The Qishanwen insignia burned into his skin, the marks of Zidian at his back. The vertical line under his ribs which Wen Qing had once opened and sewn shut. The white patch below his right shoulder where Suibian had pierced him, and the rest, the worst of them perhaps, spread like cobwebs under his belly button. The evidence of skin laying misshapen over him.
But Luo Fanghua was not one for gossip. She was never amongst the group who sometimes liked to ask Wen Qing about Wei Wuxian. She stood there as he dressed into the warm clothing, looking severe as always.
“I will fetch maiden Wen,” she said curtly.
She did just so while Wei Wuxian sat into a rough-made chair by a rough-made table. They must have been built like so many other items and walls here by the pair of masons from the Wen sect he had brought with him all this time ago.
Wen Qing was fussier than Luo Fanghua, her fingers finding the side of his neck almost as soon as she stepped into the shack, and Wei Wuxian had no mind at all to refuse her, even if he knew—she knew—whatever she found there would be nothing either of them could fix.
“How long has it been since you slept?” she asked him.
“I don’t know,” Wei Wuxian mumbled.
He could not remember.
Wen Qing sighed. She thanked Luo Fanghua for keeping him warm and dry, although she scolded her for sitting outside in such a heavy storm. She pulled Wei Wuxian upright and walked by his side until they reached the deepest part of the bloodpool cave.
There, he told her of Jin Guangshan’s words and how they had been received and encouraged by all. She fed him pieces of some leftover meal in the meantime, heated overfire so that the aroma spread through the bleak space around them. Wei Wuxian grew nauseous at the smell, but he remembered how hunger had felt after Lan Wangji played for him. He ate.
At the end of his retelling, Wen Qing sat silently. She watched over the never-moving body of her brother without seeing him. “Well, you did show them not to mess with us,” she said.
“I did,” he replied. “And Jin Guangshan wants my head for it.”
“I wish I’d been there to see you spit in his face.”
A shadow of a smile tugged at his lips; she answered it in kind, her shoulders loosening.
Then she said: “You’re not telling me everything.”
Wei Wuxian put his half-empty bowl by his feet. He watched the flickering firelight over the walls, the disorganized scrolls and talismans he had written, the wide clay pots full of little white flowers. He thought of the barrels pushed to the deepest end of the cave, where the air was ever-cool, and how long it would be until the liquor there finished macerating.
“I received an offer,” he interrupted. “But it doesn’t matter.”
He did not precise what kind of offer. Wen Qing was too smart not to guess the nature of it on her own.
“Lan Zhan showed me some music,” he told her a while later, as they both once more cleaned and remade the array that Wen Ning was laid onto.
“To calm the heart. He said he’d been researching the Library Pavillion of the Cloud Recesses and wanted to give them to me.”
When the darker hours of evening came, the bloodpool cave could only be lit by fire. Wen Qing stood by it with his blood on her hands—he always refused to let her cut herself for the sake of the array—and looked at him with a frown.
“I didn’t know you were close to the Lan sect heir,” she said slowly.
“I’m not,” he replied.
He did not know why he turned away from her scrutiny then.
“He just dislikes my way of cultivation. He’s trying to make me stop.”
“So does everyone else. So do I, even if I know you don’t have a choice. What makes him so special?”
Nothing, Wei Wuxian thought.
Nothing but for how the sight and presence of him was not nearly as aggravating to Wei Wuxian as others’; nothing but for how easy it had been for Wei Wuxian to disarm himself, and allow Lan Wangji to once again play him songs while he was vulnerable.
Wen Qing sometimes played on a short wooden flute. Hers was not meant for cultivation, only for music, but either way the songs which Lan Wangji had played him had not had the effect that they were meant to have, only those that relaxation gave. If he could just hear them again, perhaps he could once more feel hungry without feeling sick.
“I’ll show them to you,” he said. He felt strangely like he wanted to curve the back and turn away from her again, to hide his face as he spoke. “Will you…”
Wen Qing was silent for a moment. “I’m not as good a musician as you or the famous Lan Wangji are,” she replied at last. “But, yes. I’ll play them for you. If you want me to.”
So Wei Wuxian showed her the music that Lan Wangji had shown him. Some of the songs became mangled by his poor memory, and others, he could not manage to produce as beautifully on Chenqing as Lan Wangji had while holding it. But Wen Qing listened into the long hours of night, copying him with her short flute, until at last their two playing became a little less awkward. Until his body loosened with fatigue and slumber finally took over him.
He did not show her the song Lan Wangji had played for him in the Xuanwu’s cave years ago, though the memory of it was fresh now, and more exact than he could have made it on his own. If he were to think about it, Wei Wuxian would have known this to be more deliberate than he liked to believe, but he did not.
When he succumbed to a handful of hours of sleep that night, he dreamed of hands holding his hands in the tepid shadow of woods. He felt the stroke of a finger at his forehead, collecting blood where his own nails had dragged it out. But he did not feel the crushing fear that he had when Jin Zixuan did it; and those hands were not his blunt ones, but rather the same ones that had broken his fall and cleared his neck and chest of blood.
He woke up gasping before dawn had come; he lay panting over his bedding, sweating heavily through his clothes, guilt laid like nausea at the inside of his lips.
By the time he stood up and went to check on Wen Ning’s state, the dream was forgotten.
The villagers at the bottom of the hills did not know who they were.
They heard rumors, of course. They saw the cultivators who came on horseback or by flying on swords and spent the night in their inns, drinking and bellowing for Wei Wuxian’s head, for the capture and punishment of the kunze thief of Yiling.
They heard of the Yiling Patriarch who lived among tombstones.
But they did not know who he was. Whenever he took the time to walk down the hillpath and in the direction of the little houses, Wei Wuxian hardly cared to make his name or status known. He knew as well that the sentiment was shared, and that Wen Qing had to brew many drugs for the days that the kunze wished to leave the Burial Mounds—either forever or simply for a stroll—so that they would not be recognized.
So the villagers did not know him when he made business with them, and oft took him for a traveling merchant of some kind. Some were intrigued by his lack of a scent; most were smart enough to put this past themselves and deal in money instead.
The old zhongyong man that Wei Wuxian sold Luo Fanghua’s clothing to was such a person. He had been the one to come to Wei Wuxian himself in the first place, years ago, and to comment upon the robes he was wearing.
“That sewing girl of yours could do much better,” the zhongyong man was saying now, unfolding and examining the clothes, looking satisfied. “Get her better fabrics. These have been selling very well, even the next town over.”
“This is all you’ll get,” Wei Wuxian replied evenly.
“You do not have the mind for business, boy.”
Maybe not. But Wei Wuxian did have the mind to know prudence.
“Young master,” said the Wen man who had accompanied him down the sloping path. “Perhaps that man is right, and we should get miss Luo better fabrics.”
He was carrying the fruit of their spending that day within a wide basket: seeds for the ever-expanding vegetable garden, stashes of cloth for sewing, tools for the claymakers of the Wen clan. Wei Wuxian looked over the basket rather to avoid looking at his face. “No,” he replied. “Let’s go back now.”
The man bowed the head and muttered an apology. Wei Wuxian did not know how long it had been since he expected anger or threats from him or any of his kin.
They never were angry at him, or at any of the people he brought with him month after month.
“How is that liquor of yours going?” the man asked jovially as they started their ascension.
Shut up, Wei Wuxian thought, but by now the words were more habitual than true. “It should be ready in a few weeks,” he replied instead. “Don’t expect it to taste any good, I’ve never done this before.”
“I’m sure it’ll be lovely, young master Wei. It has been quite a while since any of us drank any, and the young ones will not know what to expect at all.”
The young ones. This was how he and his clansmen always called the eighty-odd kunze now living in the Burial Mounds, never mind that some of them were old enough to be their parents.
Wei Wuxian remained silent for the rest of the journey home.
Luo Fanghua did not thank him for the fabrics, and he did not expect her to, but she did frown. She shot a look at the man who had accompanied Wei Wuxian to the village, heedless of the people now gathered around them and picking their orders from the basket at the man’s back.
“I tried,” said the man—Uncle Four was what Wen Qing called him. “The young master won’t hear of it, miss Luo.”
“You should’ve just taken a young one with you, Uncle,” laughed another Wen clan qianyuan. “The young master can’t say no to them.”
“What are you two talking about?” Wei Wuxian asked rather snappily.
Two years ago, this would have been enough to shave the smile off their faces entirely. They had been scared of him then, troubled by his scentlessness and the spirits and corpses he made do his bidding. Now neither of them stopped smiling. Their harsh scents laid over the gathering and did not startle any of the others.
Grandmother was here too, weighing the seeds he had brought back, putting a handful of them to her face to see them better in daylight. Wei Wuxian looked around her quickly to make sure she had not brought her burden with her.
He stared again at the two qianyuan who did not fear him anymore. They were teasing Luo Fanghua still, and the young and severe woman did not cringe from their words or show any other sign of being uncomfortable with their presence.
She met his eyes suddenly. She lifted the pile of fabric his way and said, “I’d like better ones.”
“Oh.” The tense line of his shoulders fell. “All right,” he replied. “Make me a list next time.”
For the first time since he had met her, her lips twisted into a smile.
Laughter echoed around them. It seemed the dozen people who had come for their share of the groceries were now shaking as one, looking slyly at one another, elbowing each other playfully.
“See?” the second Wen man said in humor as Wei Wuxian stared at them all wordlessly. He laughed again, once and brightly. “The little master won’t say no to them.”
“It’s no good, no good,” replied Uncle Four. “You’ll be ruined soon with this lot, young master Wei.”
He patted Luo Fanghua’s shoulder gently.
He must have said another thing, for his mouth was moving, and she was nodding too, but Wei Wuxian did not hear it. The world around vanished into shadow as he stared at his hand—the muddy garden paths where radishes were grown, the first and oldest of the houses, much shabbier than those built later on by the Wen sect masons, the yellow leaves on trees which had regained the ability to live after he banished the spirits.
Wei Wuxian watched the man’s fingers on Luo Fanghua’s shoulder. He saw how they tightened and released and left nary a crease on her robes. He felt the world blur around him, sounds and smells and visions alike, as rage tightened in his belly and made blood-taste drown his tongue.
Then there was a hand around his wrist, and the smell of pepper; and Wen Qing’s voice said in his ear, “Calm down.”
Wei Wuxian gasped in a breath.
Her fingers did not leave him. He focused on that touch instead of anything else as she spoke, ordering the laughing crowd to disperse, asking such and such person not to dally all day. They left until only Wen Qing and Grandmother remained, and then Wen Qing told her, “You should go rest now. I know you’ve been tired.”
“I am not so young now,” said the old woman gently. “But I like to see the young master come back and be with everyone.”
Wei Wuxian knew he should say something in answer when her kind eyes rested on him, but he could not think of even one word.
Grandmother smiled at him. “I should find A-Yuan,” she said, turning away from them, leaning heavily on the cane that one of the masons must have made her. “Ah, I wonder where he’s gone to now…”
Wen Qing’s hold loosened. Wei Wuxian took his hand back from her and started walking in the direction of the cave. “I’ll wait for you before I draw the talismans,” he said.
He had an idea how frustrated she must be with his silence—how unhappy she always was when he shut in on himself like this, no matter how many times he did so—but he had no wish to suffer her questions now. She had no need of his words to understand what had happened.
She called his name again. She called it twice, in fact, before someone else must have called for her. Wen Qing was more in charge of the gathering of people here than Wei Wuxian ever would be, no matter how many chose to call him young master rather than his name. She left him alone ruefully and went to see what the issue was.
She was the one they went to for help. She handled their finances, said ‘no’ where it ought to be said, unlike Wei Wuxian. All he ever did was bring them here and then leave again, moved by a force that felt as necessary as it was exhausting.
Wen Qing knew their names.
The cave had an odd-shaped wall in one end, where the rock had dipped and then flattened like a table, leaving room under a wide plateau. Wei Wuxian had used that space as a surface for work for as long as he had been here. He sat there now into a chair, looking unseeingly at the papers left half-written.
There was an array there, drawn and annotated wildly, that he did not want Wen Qing to see. A spell whose idea came to him in that half-awake state where the hours passed like seconds and the seconds like hours. A way to bring Wen Ning back, if all else should fail.
The sound of steps came to him from the mouth of the cave. He shoved the array under another pile of papers—under bright ideas and bitter failures—and called, “I said later, Wen Qing.”
Wen Qing did not answer.
Wei Wuxian looked at the firelit tunnel. No air came in at this time of day to make the light waver, to shake the hundreds of talismans stuck to Wen Ning’s body, but he felt cold all the same.
“Wen Qing?” he asked, rising.
But there was no trace of her at the entrance or in the tunnel beyond. No hint of her scent or shadow in the opening where already daylight was darkening. Wei Wuxian went back on his steps, feeling tense and queasy without knowing the reason why; and when he reached the edge of the bloodpool, the sound of shattering clay echoed against the worn-smooth walls. It came from the shelves where he kept seeds and cultivating tools for the moonless flowers.
There was a child there with another pot of seeds in hands, looking dejectedly at the one that had broken around his feet.
Wei Wuxian’s steps halted.
The child tried to put the pot back onto its shelf. His hands were small and his fingers chubby, and he could not reach the height of it while pushing up the clay as easily as he must have while tugging it down. The sound of his hurried breathing echoed through the deadly-silent cave; every time he moved, half of his body hid behind the bed on which Wen Ning lay.
He cried, eventually. Little whimpers escaped him as he tried again and again to put the pot back where it came from. His arms shook under the weight of it. His feet stepped onto the seeds already spilled overground, crushing them into dust, rendering them useless. His face grew red and damp by the tall firelight.
“I know you’re sulking, Wei Wuxian, but we need to talk about how to control your…”
Wen Qing stopped at the mouth of the cave, her words faltering down, as before her the child trembled with his heavy burden; as Wei Wuxian stood still and silent as a statue between the both of them.
“A-Yuan!” she called harshly.
The child jumped in fright. He let go of the pot in his hands, which did not shatter like the previous but spilled its content everywhere anyway. His tearful face lifted in Wen Qing’s direction, and he cried, “I’m sorry.”
The very sound of it ran over Wei Wuxian’s skin like the clawed little feet of a bird. Tearing it off piece by piece to expose his insides.
Wen Qing was approaching now. She was grabbing Wei Wuxian by the arm and pushing him out of the way gently, speaking to the child again, “You know you’re not supposed to be here. Come on, come here.”
“Auntie,” the child cried, buried to the ankles in flower seeds. His grey eyes caught to light like moths caught to the flame. “Broke it.”
“It’s okay,” said Wen Qing in a choked, panicked voice. “It’s okay, A-Yuan, just—come here. Grandmother’s looking for you. Come on, you can’t stay here.”
But the child did not heed her; he looked once more at the mess over the floor and started wailing loudly.
Wen Qing looked at Wei Wuxian, the weight of her worry like a burn against his face, but even this did not burn as much as her touch or as the sound of crying.
He tugged away her hand on his shoulder. He turned his back to her and to the sobbing child. The very fabric of him felt so thin and hollow, a wisp of wind could have carried him away; he found just enough strength for his voice to come out when he told her, “Just get him out of here.”
Thinly, so thinly, like talisman paper tearing under the brush. Each cry and each hiccup pulling at him until his fibers came apart.
Wen Qing went about comforting the child in hushed murmurs, quieting him as best she could, carrying him in her arms into the start of the tunnel. But Grandmother had come too, attracted by the sound of the child’s sobs, and she ‘oh’-ed at the sight of them and took him in her own arms.
She rocked and swayed with him, trying to ease away his tears.
“You’re not allowed to come here, A-Yuan,” she said in her rough and gravelly voice. “You know you’re not allowed. You can’t bother the young master.”
It was unclear whether the child understood a word of it, but he nodded anyway. His swollen face shuddered when he blinked, exhausted after so much crying.
To Wei Wuxian’s horror, she faced him next across the cave, holding the child his way. “Young master, I’m sorry,” she said, smiling. The child opened his eyes to him again; Wei Wuxian felt his throat burn with the need to retch. “A-Yuan is a very curious boy, he’s been going off on his own since he learned to walk—”
“Grandmother,” Wen Qing interrupted urgently. “I think A-Yuan should go to sleep now, don’t you?”
As if on cue, the boy yawned widely. Grandmother hushed him again as she lowered him to the ground, but she did not leave yet. Instead she ordered, “Say sorry to the young master.”
Wei Wuxian wanted dearly to look away, to be buried in stone or laid upon a wooden bed as Wen Ning was, to be unconscious to the world. But he could not tear his eyes from the child’s wax-like face; from those grey eyes he had last seen in a mirror’s reflection.
“That’s not necessary,” Wen Qing tried again. “A-Yuan didn’t mean to bother anyone, I’m certain.”
“Miss Wen, how will he become a good man if he doesn’t learn to apologize for what he did wrong?”
Get him away, Wei Wuxian thought. Get him away from me.
There was nothing on his lips, however, save for the urge to throw up.
The boy had to be told again what to do. His weary eyes washed over the dim-lit room, stopping once on Wen Ning’s body, once on Wei Wuxian. He dropped the hand with which the old woman was holding his and bowed with all of his back, slurring out a quiet, “Sorry.”
Every inch of the room reeked of petrichor after he and Grandmother left.
Wen Qing immediately went to the broken clay pot, picking up the pieces of it, sweeping seeds up with her bare hands to deposit into the one the child had simply overturned. She was pale even in the awkward light of the cave, and her voice was unsteady. “He didn’t crush too many,” she said. “Not more than we would have lost to frost this year anyway.”
“Good, then,” Wei Wuxian replied blankly.
She shuddered visibly. She picked up the pot and put it back on the lowest shelf. She spared another second of tidying, sweeping dust away with her sleeve, obviously steeling herself for something.
Wei Wuxian sat on the chair and cut in, “Forget it.”
Her lips thinned and whitened. “Fine,” she said unhappily. “Then tell me instead why you were a second away from murdering Uncle Four earlier.”
“I was not.”
“I could feel the resentful energy on you. I’m sure if I touched you now, your veins would be swollen with it.”
“Then don’t touch me,” he spat at her. “This shouldn’t be such a hard thing for you to do.”
As if he could stand the touch of anyone right then, with his skin moving about him and being picked at by crows. He did not think he could even handle touching himself—if it were at all possible, he would choose not to have skin to touch at all.
But Wen Qing’s face softened. Her brow eased out of anger. Wei Wuxian had only a moment to regret that she once again elected not to scream at him in rage.
“I know you don’t like them,” she said. “I understand. I do.”
He turned his back to her, planting his elbow atop the stone table.
“But things have been changing here. One of my family members touching one of the others like this—it’s not a rare thing. He didn’t mean anything by it, and Luo Fanghua didn’t mind. It’s natural for them to want for closeness.”
“I get it,” he breathed.
He didn’t need her to tell him how lonely life here was, cut from the rest of the world, watching them leave one by one for hope of a better future. There was no such future for him.
“Wei Ying,” Wen Qing called quietly.
He did not tense only because she made sure to step loudly upon stone and straw, to make her clothes shuffle as she walked, to hit a nail to the white jade tassel she always wore at her waist.
She put a hand on his shoulder. “They just want to know you,” she said. “The kunze, but my family as well. None of them know more than your name and the fact that you saved their lives.”
“There’s nothing to know about me,” he replied.
But he leaned back into her hand. He allowed it to tighten over cloth and skin, almost enough for him to feel its warmth.
“You don’t let people know you,” she retorted. He felt her look over the trinkets and spells he worked on during each sleepless night he spent here—as few of them as he could afford to, when so many more people waited, hidden, to be set free. “I know this wasn’t always the case, that there was a time you would have loved to know them too. I remember when A-Ning first met you, and couldn’t stop talking to me about the kunze cultivator from Yunmeng who tried to defend him in public.”
He shuddered. Her hold on him tightened. “But now you avoid all of them,” she went on. “All of us. I know how important everything here is to you, but they don’t. Some of them are scared that you’re doing this on a whim, that you’ll send them back to their houses as soon as you’re done.”
“Two years is a lot of time spent on a whim.”
“They don’t know that. None of them had ever set a foot outside unsupervised before you broke open their door and asked them to come with you.”
And so many refused, too. Even those who had heard rumors of him through their masters, even the few who had expected him to come, who clung to their housemates in fear of him. They looked at him as if he were there to eat them, and they refused fearfully.
“Time is an odd thing to experience when you can’t see the sun set and rise,” Wen Qing said mournfully. “And now they can, but you will not show yourself to them. You will not accept anything, not even their gratitude.”
“They shouldn’t feel grateful to me.”
She did not deny his words. But her hand left his shoulder, and she laughed briefly. He heard her turn around to look at her still-slumbering brother.
That part of the bloodpool cave was so full of his spirit, of his soul, hovering just shy of touching his body; he knew that Wen Qing felt as if she could reach out and grasp it bare-handed if she tried.
“I want this place to be somewhere A-Ning will be happy to live,” she said.
So Wei Wuxian nodded. He told her, “I’ll try.”
Her smile was wordless and tired, but it was a smile nonetheless.
Wei Wuxian hesitated. The guts in him knotted and squeezed together, he felt. “As for…” He forced out, “As for him. A-Yuan.”
He could not look at her now, though he felt her scrutiny deeply. “I’ll make sure he knows not to bother you,” she said. “It’s like Grandmother said. He was just curious because we all told him not to come here.”
Wei Wuxian suffered a second of agonizing muteness. His tongue was stuck to the roof of his mouth like a last rampart against sickness. “What’s his—”
He bit the side of his tongue when his teeth snapped closed; iron-taste spread through his dry mouth.
“Wen Yuan,” Wen Qing replied after a moment. “That is his name.”
Wei Wuxian’s stomach turned. His hand lifted and lowered aimlessly, and he scratched the skin of his own wrist harshly. “Why?” he let out at last.
“It was more or less a common decision. They said that he should wear my name, since I’m the one who brought him back. Did you want—”
“No,” he cut her off. “I don’t want anything to do with him.”
Wen Qing’s eyes shone. “I understand.”
Wei Wuxian breathed in. He tried to chase away the taste over his tongue and lips, the feel of dirt and grass imprinted upon him. “And I—I suppose it is fitting,” he said. “Considering.”
He massaged with his hand the clammy skin of his nape, where once a man had panted and groaned and left him damp with spit. Where a great weight hung over him to this day.
This is your place, Wei Wuxian.
Wen Qing’s silence felt like a speech of its own. He did not move when she came closer to him, though he was glad that she did not try to reach for him this time.
“You never told me who it was,” she said at last.
Her voice was barely more than a whisper.
“And I won’t ask you either. I don’t need to know, I don’t even want to know. If you tell me that you never want to speak of it again, then I won’t ever mention it.”
It was the sincerity in her, the blunt and austere way that she always made promises, he thought. Those were the things that had made him trust her touch when his back was torn open by Zidian’s lashings; when he had lost everything, and thought he was going to lose more, still, as Jiang Cheng slumbered endlessly.
Those were the things that made him tell her, “It was Wen Chao.”
Only Wen Qing’s face could look so kind and so severe at the same time; only she could reach for him like this and pull out not his entrails or heart, but his livid, breathing soul.
The fall season this year ended in frost and snow.
The trees and bushes of the Burial Mounds lost again the leaves and flowers they had regained after so long. White flakes spilled from the sky endlessly, forcing many of the people living here to spread cloth over the vegetable gardens for protection. Luo Fanghua kept sewing on her doorstep until the day Uncle Four scolded her, telling her that she was courting death; then, looking as ruffled as a bothered bird, she instead started sewing inside.
“She has the habits of an old woman, this one,” Uncle Four said fondly. “You’d think she was fifty and not twenty.”
Wei Wuxian knew then that his relationship to Luo Fanghua was a quiet and comfortable friendship. That if ever he put a hand on her young shoulder, it was only to convey warmth to her. He never looked at him again and wished to separate his head from his body.
It became more difficult for him to find new people to free. The freezing cold had made much of the land impossible to ride on without risking his horse’s health. Many of the houses he did find were empty as well, as if word had gone around at last that the clans’ and villages’ property should not be left alone for him to steal. He heard no word and no whisper of the great sects in those months, although a fool or three sometimes fancied themselves saviors and tried to walk up the hillpath.
Before that time—when fall was still warm and easy on them—Wei Wuxian opened the first of the barrels of wine he kept in the cool and dark of the bloodpool cave.
He had not expected this to be made into a celebration, though he should have. Wen Qing at least seemed to delight in his stupor when he was made to carry one more of the barrels outside, to the wide tables they had dressed under setting sunlight. He was ordered to sit by several of the kunze; he was told not to move at all and simply wait to be served food and wine.
“We cooked all afternoon for this,” said a man Wei Wuxian remembered skinny and underfed in his house near Qinghe. His face had filled and become pink with the sun.
“Here, try this,” said another, whom Wei Wuxian had freed among the very first, whom he expected to see leave any day now, but who never did.
They drank in his honor. They talked and laughed around him into the deep hours of night, with only torchlight beside them to light up their frail hands. A few grew tipsy with the sweet liquor and started yelling, and Grandmother spoke once to shush them for the sleeping child’s sake, spreading cold over Wei Wuxian’s skin.
But it was the only time that day that he felt less than fine. And the liquor was good and mellow, and burned pleasantly as it went down his parched throat.
There were no stars above them. They could have believed themselves lost to the endless dark.
In those months, life came to an uneasy balance. The kunze he could find were rare, but the people who bothered him were rarer. The reserves of food they had grown the year over were enough to sate every stomach and more, and whatever they lacked in the manner of necessities, they could buy with Luo Fanghua’s skills as a seamstress. People from the village started ordering for their clothes to be made by her. Her name became that of a renown craftswoman there, although she never set foot down the hill herself. She seemed proud of it too, as much as she could show it anyway, with how severe her young face always was.
Then Wei Wuxian woke up one chilly morning, in the deepest of winter, with cold sweat stuck to his skin. He shoved away the blanket laid over his body. He blinked against the haze of unrest that felt always like a steel bar behind his eyes.
He looked to the dying fire by his side and met a pair of white eyes.
Shadows shifted over the walls. Whispers of wind crawled in through the opening of the cave, where some weeks ago Wen Qing and he had put up a curtain of thick furs to parry off the cold. The white eyes stared at him unblinkingly as he recalled how to breathe.
“Wen Ning,” he said weakly.
There was no response from the man himself, but it felt as though a barrage had broken.
He crawled into the space of the array, staining his knees with crusted blood, grabbing the pale and black-veined hand hanging out from the side of the wooden bed.
It was cold, it had no pulse, but it moved. It clenched around his own fingers. The heavy spirit which had hovered there for months was gone, absorbed at last by the body it belonged to.
“Wen Ning,” Wei Wuxian said over and over again, pushing brown hair out of Wen Ning’s lax face with one shaking hand, holding him with the other. Each call of his name seemed to bring a little more life to Wen Ning’s now-pale eyes. “Can you speak? Do you recognize me?”
He knew not how long he spent kneeling there, asking the same questions, calling the same name. But light had filtered under the furs suspended by the entrance; the fire had died and left only smoking embers; and Wen Ning’s mouth opened, and his voice came out like the rasping of wind into deep mountain gorges.
“Young master Wei,” he said. Surprised and child-like as he had been in Qishan years ago.
Tears came to Wei Wuxian’s eyes for the first time in years, but they were not sorrowful. They fell down his cheeks and nose and landed saltily on his lips, where the stretch of a smile pulled widely at him.
“Yes,” Wei Wuxian said roughly. His voice shook over the next few words, shook as the sound of footsteps reached him, as Wen Qing’s voice called for his name in the tunnel leading here. He held Wen Ning’s hands tightly enough to hurt; he promised him, “I’m here.”