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Finding someone

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Mo Xuanyu gasps as his head breaks out of the water's surface.

Adrenaline pumps through his veins as he tries to make his way back to the shore, his whole body moving desperately to not submerge again. Remembering the swimming motions that his mother once tried to teach him, he attempts moving forward. His arms paddle too fast, and too much of the water goes down his throat, but he just keeps on moving, moving, moving. Yet despite him moving and moving, nothing else seems to be moving. He closes his eyes and ignores that it looks like he isn't getting closer to the shore at all, and after what feels like hours, a shadow casts over him and the water is slightly colder – he's under the dock.

His hand immediately grabs onto one of the mossy legs and winds his way forward by grabbing the next leg. His breathing is shallow, hasty, constantly interrupted by coughs and he's only able to take a deep breath once he can stand on his own feet again.

He walks the last few meters towards the shore and falls onto the grass. His head is pounding. His body aches. He's dripping wet.

And it's all because of his horrible cousin.

Mo Xuanyu has found liking to this pond a few weeks ago and enjoyed sitting on the dock, staring at the clouds. It was miles better than being in close proximity to his relatives, and he welcomed the change of environment.

He was alone, mostly. Only the occasional fisherman walked past him to get to his boat, swimming to the middle of the pond to get some fish for his family. But today no one was at the pond – it was already evening, all the fishermen went home to their wives and kids. Mo Xuanyu was aware that his relatives knew of his recent strolls, and he was pretty sure they didn't care.

But they always walk the extra mile to torrent him.

His cousin found the place he always disappeared to and because it was funny, or a punishment for something, or anything to rationalize the boy's cruelness – he pushed Mo Xuanyu into the pond.

That he couldn't swim, his cousin either didn't know, or didn't care for, and he promptly ran away laughing.

His head won't stop pounding, yet he feels so detached from the world that he doesn't entirely acknowledge it. For a second he can imagine that it's his spirit, his memories, himself, sitting in his head, knocking against his skull to be let out. To leave, and never go back again.

He sits up straight when his chest suddenly constricts, and he retches out all the water that he inhaled, his stomach burning in pain.

It's over, something tells him. It's over. He can't go on like this. He has no idea what makes this moment so different from all the other times his relatives pushed him, abused him, but he doesn't care enough to think about it. It's just over, he can't and won't live with his awful cousin and his horrible aunt anymore.

Looking at his shaking hands, he tries to imagine what that really means.

He imagines a cloudless night, the air so still, it's almost eerie, and only the sounds of his footsteps against the mud. Him, walking quietly into their bed chambers late at night, a sharp object in hand and-


No, he can't. Not because he doesn't want to. But because he can't. He's too cowardly. Too timid. He'd be able to sneak up on them at night. He'd be able to find a sharp object. But once it comes down to actually doing it, he'd fail.

So he imagines a little more, a little different.

He imagines sitting on the thin mat he sleeps on at night. There's some paper next to him, soaked in dark liquid at one edge, explaining just how much hate Mo Xuanyu has for his family. And there'd be the sharp object again, next to him, tainted with blood. As he'd be losing consciousness he would take a last look at his arm, red red red-

His body shakes, a shiver running up his spine. Also no. No no no. He doesn't want that either. He doesn't want to give them the satisfaction, knowing that they pushed him hard enough to put an end to himself. He doesn't want to disappoint his late mother, who was the only person in this world that cared for him. He doesn't want to leave the world, soaked in hate.

He doesn't – want to die. It's that simple.

So he imagines a third option.

He imagines packing the few belongings that he has in a cloth, tying it on a stick, and leaving. He imagines walking through forests, through roads full of vendors, through fields of flowers. He imagines having friendly conversations with people of the same destination, maybe even making friends.

He exhales shakily. Then, as if in a trance, he feels himself standing up, going back to the place where he keeps most of his stuff. His wet clothes stick uncomfortably to his skin, and the evening breeze makes him shiver, but he continues walking on. When he arrives, he grabs one of the disregarded cloths that one of his family members threw away – he always kept the stuff they didn't need anymore, grabbing them when no one was looking. It finally proved to be useful.

He takes a few self-made talismans, and an empty bottle his uncle once left in their garden. He could fill it with water, so he wouldn't fear dehydration. Then he lifts a loose floorboard, digging the soft dirt beneath it. He kept a few coins there, some he found on the floor when strolling around, some he stole from his cousin when he was too busy tormenting Mo Xuanyu to notice.

He ties up his (very little) belongings to a tall stick he finds by a tree.

Once everything is tied up and secure, he notices that his clothes are still wet. He'd have to ask his relatives for a change of clothes, and they'd probably just tell him to just wait until they're dry. Besides, he doesn't want to see his relatives ever again. Not today, not tomorrow.

That's why he needs to leave now – it doesn't matter if his clothes are wet or not.

He takes one last look at the space called his room – and distantly happy, he notes that he doesn't feel pained at all about leaving this dump behind.

Night falls faster than Mo Xuanyu realizes.

His clothes are damp now, drying only slowly under the evening sun, and the cold of the night affects him more than he'd like to admit.

He's been walking west all day, but the few hours from evening to night were not enough to carry him to a village. Instead, he finds himself in a dense forest, with roots and plants cutting his ankles, and bugs swirling everywhere. But fatigue slowly overtakes his body and he decides to spend the night here.

Finding a nice tree, he lays down next to it, and curls into a ball, hugging the meek cloth full of talismans and coins close to his chest.

Even with the discomfort of the damp clothes, and the nagging reminder that he left behind an awful, but stable life, he falls into a dreamless sleep.

He wakes up with a headache, one ear hurting, and his muscles are weak and tired – and that about sets the tone for the whole day.

The forest only seems to get denser and denser every hour, and he wonders if he's really heading towards civilization, or if this is some weird dream he can't break out of. And even though the forest was nice at first, pretty songs sung by little birds, the smell of grass and greenery, life seemingly everywhere – it got on his nerves pretty quickly.

The songs make his head hurt even more, he trips over more than one tree root, and he'd rather not have hundreds of bugs crawling over his body. But he doesn't dare complain too much. This is still miles better than anything back in Mo village.

Constantly he feels the need to look over his shoulder, every noise he hears sounds a little too much like footsteps, every plant looks a little too much like a person. Even though the rational part of him knows that his relatives probably haven't even noticed that he's gone yet, paranoia and fear keeps building, and he expects one of his aunt's servants to jump out behind a tree and drag him back to the village. The thought of that makes him almost as sick as he felt after getting out of the pond yesterday.

He slaps his stick with his belongings against his the side of his head to stop being so irrational, but that only makes it hurt more.

Almost when he wants to give up and curl up next to a tree, maybe take a mid-day nap, he hears the sound of splashing water. His ears perk up and he starts running towards the noise, tripping only once on a tree root. And soon his suspicions are confirmed – a long river stretches out before him. Hope lights up in him again. If he follows the river, he'll surely find a village!

The sudden hunger pang in his stomach is only more motivation, and he picks up the pace, walking along the river. He makes sure to stay a few meters away from it, fearing of falling into the water.

He walks for about an hour, his hope only slightly staggering, when he finds a bridge across the river. This must mean someone lives here! The bridge also looks stable and cared for, so this isn't some isolated loner deciding to live away from any civilization – this must be the work of a village, Mo Xuanyu is pretty sure. He crosses the bridge, still following the river.

And not much later, he hears three playing children, running among the woods.

"You won't be able to kill me, fiend! We have ruled strongly for many years and we are powerful! And great! And no one has ever defeated me before!" One kid yells. Mo Xuanyu tries his best to locate where the voices come from. If there are kids, there's gotta be parents, and if there are parents there's gotta be somewhere to eat. He listens closely to the kid, who went on a tangent about how powerful he is.

Another kid puts on a deep voice, "I can't believe I've been betrayed by my trusted friend! How could you do this to me Jin Guanyao!"

Mo Xuanyu, who had been listening with amused interest until now, pulls his mouth into a straight line at the name.

When he was younger, he remembers seeing other kids acting out famous legends with big-name cultivators. He never played with them, but he enjoyed watching it play out.

'Jin Guangyao', the third kid, answers swiftly, "Because I am evil! I work for Wen Rouhan now because he is also evil like me."

He hears some shuffling, and when he can finally see the kids, their wooden swords clank against each other. The other kid, 'Wen Rouhan', jumps around the two like some overexcited spectator. He can hear 'Jin Guangyao' mumble quietly, "Ok, stay still, now I have to stab you," and it's almost funny enough to make Mo Xuanyu snort.

"Ouch, you have stabbed me!" The other kid yells.

"That was the plan, Nie Mingjue!"

Mo Xuanyu finally realized what they were playing – Jin Guangyao's 'betrayal', with him actually being a spy to his allies, and Wen Rouhan's death. Mo Xuanyu probably didn't pay a lot of attention when people told him about the sunshot campaign, but he's pretty sure that was not... how it happened.

He shrugs. It's just kids having fun.

They made up more things as they went along, finally ending with Wen Rouhan's death.

"Next time I wanna be Nie Mingjue!" 'Wen Rouhan' yells as he pats dirt from his clothes.

Mo Xuanyu decides that maybe now it's the right time to get out of his hiding place, behind a tree. He feels weirdly hollow, watching the three kids play together – he's probably only four or five years older than them, yet he couldn't recall a memory of ever playing this carefree with another kid.

"Hey." he steps out, careful not to scare the kids. They get scared anyway, but only for a moment.

"Who are you?" 'Nie Mingjue' bravely stands in front of the other two kids, looking up at Mo Xuanyu.

"I'm-" he looks at the floor. He almost lets his name slip from his lips before deciding otherwise. Maybe it's the fear in him speaking, but he doesn't dare leave a trace of his presence behind. "I'm a traveler."

"But you're not an adult?" 'Jin Guangyao' asks.

"No, um, I- I didn't decide to travel on my own behalf," he laughs nervously. Every word he says is pained because every word he says could be his downfall. "Could you show me where your village is? I haven't eaten for a day."

The three kids share a look. Then the tallest, and probably the oldest nods reluctantly. "Ok. You can follow me."

The three kids walk through the trees, staying silent the whole time, and only occasionally looking over their shoulders to see if Mo Xuanyu's still following them.

When the trees clear, and the liveliness of a small village echos through the air, relief floods through his veins, and he almost tears up. He doesn't cry, though. The kids don't trust him, and they'd think he's even weirder when he just starts being emotional all of a sudden.

"Thank you," he manages a brief smile, even if it feels weird and superficial on his face.

The village is nothing special. From where he's standing, he can see a few rows of houses and further in the back, the smell of food waves over. Fruits and vegetables are being sold by a vendor, and he sees a few people carrying around laundry or food. The village is smaller than he expected, but it's enough for him.

"Mom!" one kid yells, the one that played Jin Guangyao, and Mo Xuanyu flinches. He didn't ask the kid to call his mother, but he did anyway. And adults ask way more questions than children. And he'll have to answer all of them to not seem suspicious.

He keeps his eyes locked on the floor. He can do this. He is able to talk to people, is he not? Or maybe he unlearned how to do that after the only interactions he had were one-sided arguments with his family and an exchange of greetings from the fishermen that went past him on the dock.

Mo village isn't really widely known, but if someone does know of it, they'll definitely know him. Mo Xuanyu, bastard son of a sect leader, cast from the Jin sect, and a disgrace to his family.

He takes a deep breath. He'll keep his words at a minimum. He'll be respectful. He won't mention his name or maybe make up one. They'll have no reason to throw him out.

When he looks up again, a middle-aged woman is walking towards him with a wary expression. The kid that yelled for her – her child – waves excitedly at her.

"Mama! There's a traveler!" he points at Mo Xuanyu.

The mother raises an eyebrow, looking at the three kids, and then at him. "What's your name, kid?"

In a hurry, he tries to think up a name. Only a name! It can't be that hard to think one up!

Only a name, only a name – "I'm Qiu Cai."

Immediately after the words leave his mouth his throat closes up. The lady is gonna be able to look through his lie. She's gonna scream at him for not telling the truth. She's gonna grab him by his collar and walk him all the way back to Mo village.

"How old are you?"

He holds his breath. She's onto him. She knows who he is, and wants to confirm it by comparing their ages. "15 years old," he lies. He'll be 15 in about a month anyway, she shouldn't be able to tell the difference from his appearance.

"Qiu Cai. Pray tell, why is a young boy like you traveling all by himself?"

There's something weird in the woman's expression, besides the weariness is some kind of pity, or sadness, or anger – no, it's none of those. It's an expression that he only ever saw on his own mother. He wants to make himself as small as possible at the sight of it.

"I didn't have a choice," he tells her. Lies make him nervous, but the truth makes him even more nervous. He decides to be as vague as possible, his words being able to be interpreted a lot.

She looks like she wants to prod further, but she closes her mouth. The suspicion in her eyes almost completely vanishes and it makes Mo Xuanyu freeze up – what made him appear less suspicious? What did she hear in his words, or see in his expression?

"Kid, when was the last time you ate?"

"Um. I think yesterday?" he hopes she won't ask too many questions. The more she knows about him, the more he feels a constant presence over his shoulder, ready to take him back where he came from.

A gentle smile forms on the mother's face, and Mo Xuanyu resists the urge to back away. "Well, Qiu Cai, would you like to eat some soup? I made too much, and my husband doesn't even like it that much," she laughs briefly. "He always says I put too much salt in it – but look at my son, he can eat everything I make with ease."

The lady is striking up a casual conversation – even offering something to eat. Mo Xuanyu has no idea how to respond, his eyes not meeting hers. "I don't mind salt," he mumbles.

"Great. A-Yun, say goodbye to your friends, you need to come home for dinner."

'Jin Guangyao', or apparently A-Yun takes his mother's hand and looks sadly over his shoulder. "Bye. See you tomorrow."

The other two kids wave dejectedly while keeping their curious eyes on Mo Xuanyu. He wonders how often travelers pass through their village – he can't tell from their reactions.

He doesn't know if he's supposed to follow the mother and her child when they start walking away, and when they're a few paces ahead of him, he walks as well, keeping his distance from the pair. As much as he doesn't want to interact with anyone who might know Mo village, he won't pass up on food. He has only that many coins, and he needs to take every opportunity he gets.

The thoughts in his head start spinning and spiraling while he walks through the village. People are looking at him. Watching him. He's pointedly staring at the floor, determined not to show his face directly to anyone.

If they know who you are...

The thoughts continue spinning and spiraling, and the only thing keeping him partially grounded is the nails pressing into his palm.

If they know who you are

He'll die if they know who he is. He'll be killed by his relatives, he'll be killed by the villagers. Because how dare someone like him enter their peaceful community. How dare he eat their food.

If they know who you are-

His knees aren't steady, he'd fall with the smallest gust of wind. He wants to grab his head by its sides and shake it until he stops thinking about it. He wants to lay on the floor and scream until his throat is sore. He wants to-

A hand lands on his shoulder, and he stumbles a few steps backward. His head snaps up and he sees the mother, looking at him in concern.

"We're here, kid. Are you..." her eyes bore into him. "Alright?"

He pulls his mouth into a straight line. His shoulder, where she put his hand, feels although it's been burned. His head is pounding again, and the pain in his ear that he's been ignoring until now comes back worse.

The woman doesn't look any less worried when he doesn't answer. "Ah, it's okay," she says though. "No one can think straight on an empty stomach. Let's get you some food kid, okay?"

He barely manages a nod and tries not to get offended on the 'not thinking straight' comment. The woman doesn't know him – that means she doesn't know that he's described as a lunatic.

He has always been described as weird – rambling on too long about things most people didn't care about, being peculiar about some things, or just having weird thoughts or comments to add to conversations – but after he came back from the Jin Sect, those weird, but harmless, even sometimes endearing traits have been villanized. Turned into something evil and harmful.

The mother opens the door and motions for him to enter, the child already running ahead, kicking his shoes off in a clumsy motion, and going into a room to the left.

Mo Xuanyu follows suit, taking off his shoes with only a little more grace than the kid. He waits for the mother to enter as well, not walking further into the house.

She reaches out to pat his shoulder, before remembering his previous reaction and retreating, awkwardly smiling at him instead.

"Let's get you back on your feet kid, alright?"

The soup is good. Not as good as the food he ate at the Jin sect, and not as good as his mother's food, but good. He doesn't say anything the entire meal, and he avoids looking at the mother, even though he can feel her eyes on him as he slowly works through the soup. When another pair of curious eyes keep staring at him as well, he starts sweating slightly.

The child, not knowing social norms yet, doesn't even keep himself from staring – shamelessly he puts his spoon away once he's done eating, sits on his hands, and just...stares.

"Is the soup good, kid?"

He finally looks up, and resits flinching when he meets her eyes. "Yes. Thank you."

"I'm glad."

Mo Xuanyu hopes this is the end of the conversation, but the kid pulls at his robes. "Where are you from?"

Inhaling sharply, he tries to think of a location. Where is he from? What would be least suspicious? What would make sense?

The woman sighs. "You don't have to answer. But I won't lie to you, I am curious."

"I'd rather...not say."

"And why is that?"

He looks at his soup. Then the table. Then his hands. "I'm scared."

It's less than a whisper, barely louder than wind only strong enough to turn a dry leaf.

He looks up at the woman. She looks back.

"I should go-" he puts down his spoon and looks at the empty bowl in front of him. "Thank you for your hospitality." Standing up, he gives the woman a quick bow.

"No, no, it's alright, stay here!" she gestures gently. "You shouldn't go now, it'll be dark in a few hours."

The soft voice, the gentle motions of her hands set something off in him. Mo Xuanyu's balls his hands into fists to conceal that they're shaking. "Why are you-" the words catch in his throat.

"I don't mind if you spend the night, kid. You probably miss sleeping in a house, sleeping outside all the time can't be good for a young boy like you."

"Why do you care so much!?" he snaps at her. "Is it- do you want something from me? Do you know something about me?" he doesn't notice his words getting louder and louder. "Is this some joke? Is this funny to you?!"

A-Yun starts crying. The mother looks up at him in shock.

Mo Xuanyu takes a breath. He puts his closed fists on his chest and can't bear looking at the two. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry." his head won't stop pounding. "I'm sorry. I'll leave."

He walks out of the kitchen, grabbing his shoes without putting them on, and leaving as quickly as he can. There's shuffling behind him, someone hurrying to get to him. But he's already out the door, hiding between the villagers.

They don't stare at him this time, probably because he isn't lead by a known resident. It's easier to blend in when he's on his own.

A bit further away, he dares slowing down and looking over his shoulder. No one is following him. That's good. It's good. He should be relieved.

Carefully, he walks up to one of the vendors selling vegetables that has no customers. The old man selling them looks at him with a smile.

"Excuse me, do you know where the next city is? I'm a traveler," he adds, in case it wasn't clear.

"The closest one is further west, just follow the path" he continues smiling, wrinkles around his eyes and mouth. "It should only take a couple hours to get there."

"Ah, thank you. How much are these, by the way?" he points at the products.

He and the man share a quick exchange, Mo Xuanyu gives him some coins and puts the vegetables in his little self-made pouch. Then he puts his shoes on, takes another quick look over his shoulder, and decides that he spent enough time in this village.

He's a traveller now. He shouldn't feel bad about leaving someone behind.

The difference between the walk from Mo village to this village was that there was no path. He simply ran into the forest, not searching for anything particular. This time there was a clear dirt path.

He's glad. His ankles still hurt from all the plants and roots leaving cuts all over them and he'd rather not trip and fall another ten times.

His muscles ache horribly but he can't, or doesn't want to get out of the steady rhythm of walking forward, forward, and only forward. Somewhere within that motion, the pain disappears and he sleeps without sleeping, walks on without thinking. Stopping now would pull him awake again, and he's quite comfortable like this right now.

Night falls, insects crawl over the floor or fly in his face, but that doesn't deter him. He's aware of his surroundings, but he doesn't pay attention to it. He's aware that there is a bug bumping against his cheek, but raising his hand to swat it away is too hectic of a motion that would, once again, pull him back out of his sleep.

He can get used to traveling. He can get used to this.

The distant light of a lantern shakes him awake.

After hours of walking, he moves out of his rigid motions, and the pain he had been only aware of, he can now feel. He pulls at the stick with the pouch, that has been resting on his shoulder the entire time, and positions it like a walking stick instead. His eyes close for a long time, partly because they're a little dried out, and partly because his headache came back with more vigor than before. Taking a deep breath he walks towards the lantern. Either it's other travelers or the entrance to a city, and Mo Xuanyu would be glad for both. City is better, though.

A few paces further ahead, and his wish is granted. Similar to his entrance to the previous village, the trees clear suddenly, and the sky is on full display again.

There's a small difference though. A short wall separates the forest and the city, and the lantern light he saw belongs to a guard sitting outside a gate, seemingly reading something instead of paying attention as a guard should.

Mo Xuanyu approaches the man, and he quickly stands up, the book on his lap falling to the floor with a thud.

"Name, Occupation, Intent," he automatically says, not particularly paying attention to him.

"Qiu Cai. I'm a traveler. Just passing through." the words roll from his tongue with ease.

"Where did you come from?"

Mo Xuanyu fiddles with his hands a little. On the way here he thought about it – something inconspicuous. "Luoyang City in Yunmeng" and this time the words aren't easy, because lying is always so risky – he's never been to Yunmeng, he doesn't know their customs, what if he already gave away that he's lying?

But the man only spares him a short glance and opens the gate for him. They aren't that big on security, if he walked out of eyeshot of the guard, he'd be able to just climb over the short wall – but there's no need to cause trouble. Yet.

Mo Xuanyu steps into the city, and despite it being late at night, he can still hear people talking and laughing, a few young people walking side by side on the streets, a bottle of wine in their hands. It's completely different from Mo Village, where it turns into a ghost town after nightfall. Often he would sneak out of his room at night to take in the peace and quiet of the night, reveling in the short moment of tranquility.

He looks up and sees the exact same sky he saw back in those nights, the exact same sky during his stay in the Jin Sect, and the exact same sky he saw sitting next to his mother. It makes his chest hurt a little. He brings his eyes back to the floor.

His legs carry him slowly through the streets. To his side is a restaurant, with older men sitting inside, laughing loudly as a man tells a story, gesturing wildly. Between stores are small alleyways, and Mo Xuanyu walks into one, curious to see if there's something in there.

He finds nothing, and it just leads to another road parallel to this one. But it's darker in here, and the laughter and voices aren't as apparent, and it's already so late-

He lays down, his back pressed against the wall, making himself as small as possible. Holding his pouch against his chest, he closes his eyes tightly, trying to ignore the aching in his muscles, the throbbing in his head, the pain in his ear. He hopes that sleeping well for a night will help him feel better – after all, the pain in his body started when he woke up this morning and didn't go away since – so maybe he hasn't slept well.

Even with sleep seemingly sitting behind his eyelids, he tosses and turns for two hours, sometimes considering standing up and walking the restless energy off, but deciding against it, thinking that this time he'll fall asleep.

When he finally does fall asleep, he's plagued by dreams of endless night skies and the color red.

With his first sensation after waking up being a heavy thumping in his head, he realizes he'd been wrong. He can't sleep his pain off.

In fact, it's gotten worse. His clothes, soaked in sweat, cling to his skin. He groans when opening his eyes, and even though he's laying in a dark alley, the sun irritates his eyes, and in turn, irritates his head.

It's hard to move.

Something tells him he should just stay asleep. Take more time for himself. And really, he has no way to argue that. Why not? He has no duties to attend to. There's no one to yell at him if he doesn't get up. He has yet to see a difference in advantages with night and day when it comes to traveling.

Something else urges him to get up. Because otherwise he'd be punished again.

And he knows it's not true – but the fear is carved into his bones, like an internal clock telling him when he's gonna be in trouble. It's an unnecessary, irrational fear, and Mo Xuanyu hates it – and in the end, he resists the urge to get up, but the anxiety and restlessness that the fear causes keeps him from sleeping. In the end, he just wastes time laying around.

It's been probably hours when he finally tries sitting up – and wincing at the pain in his muscles. So he decides to stay put a little longer.

The headache never disappears, it only lessens for a bit, and then comes back even worse. Sometimes it gets so bad that he cradles his head in pain, white flashing before his eyes, waiting it out until the stabbing sensation disappears again, only leaving behind a dull thumping.

At some point of the day, when it's particularly hot, and the sun is high enough to find it's way even into the alleyway – he hears footsteps all around him. He hears whispers that don't make sense to him, he feels touches on his skin where there is nothing.

The sounds, the touches feel almost ghostly, but still so convincing – so when there are really footsteps approaching, he almost doesn't notice.

A pair of boots walk past him, and Mo Xuanyu expects that to be it. But they halt, a few meters ahead of him, and turn around again.

The pair of boots, turns out, is actually a man. A man, a cloaked dark figure, that's currently crouching down next to him, and putting the back of his hand against Mo Xuanyu's forehead. It's ice-cold and Mo Xuanyu almost gasps. He tries to say something, but unsurprisingly, his throat is just as good in a state as the rest of his body. There is no energy for him to pull away from the touch, or swat the hand away. Powerless, he waits for an explanation.

"You have a fever," the stranger says, and Mo Xuanyu almost doesn't hear it. He dully notes that he can't hear well out of his left ear – the one that's been hurting all day.

"Where are your parents?" The figure leans forward so Mo Xuanyu can hear him better, his dark hair falling off of his shoulder, next to him on the ground. "Not here?" he asks after Mo Xuanyu shakes his head.

"Anywhere," he says, his voice raspy.

"They're not anywhere?"

Mo Xuanyu nods.

In the shadow of the cloaked man, shielding him from the sun, he finds some sort of relief. It's like there's been a grip on his consciousness this whole time, keeping him awake, but the grip loosens, and his head decides that now is probably the perfect time to fall asleep.

He loses his grasp on consciousness before he even notices anything wrong.

The water on his skin is cold.

He feels it travel up his legs, seeping into the little cuts on his ankles, that seem to grow bigger in the icy liquid.

The water travels up his body, it seems to freeze around him, seems to dance wildly. Is the water rising or is he sinking?

It reaches his stomach and it hurts, it's cold and bites into his skin like sharp teeth. The sky is dark, cloudless, but none of the stars are in the sky. He continues sinking, the water continues rising.

It's around his throat now and he can't breathe. The water is so cold it burns him, he can't move, won't move.

He looks up to keep his face out of the water, but it rises and rises, and he takes one last look at the cloudless night sky before he's fully submerged and-

He gasps loudly, sitting up straight.

Something cold slips off his face. The fast motion makes him a little dizzy, so he props himself up with one hand behind his back, and the other on his forehead, waiting with closed eyes until he feels ready to move.

When he's alright again, he sits at the edge of the bed (bed?) and takes in his surroundings. There's a damp towel on his lap – it fell from his forehead, he realizes. He's in a room. A hut. In the opposite corner is a table with two shabby chairs, and he sees a second bed to his side, next to a bedside table. There's not much in there besides that.

It doesn't look lived in. There's dust on all surfaces, including the floor that shows a few footprints walking in and out the door. No clothes or personal belongings are anywhere to be seen, and besides his own breathing, everything is still.

Not for long, of course.

The door opens with a creak, and Mo Xuanyu's head snaps towards the noise. A woman is standing in the doorway, and she looks mildly surprised about his current state, if not annoyed.

"You're awake," she says flatly.

"Yeah," he answers in the same tone. He tries to think of something to say, 'why am I here', 'where is here' 'who are you', but when he sees the sun on the horizon, he instead asks, "Is it morning already?"

"It's evening."

Mo Xuanyu tries to do the math. He woke up in the city, somewhere before noon. Later than usual, that's for sure. Then he stayed there for – a long time. Noon certainly passed, the sun has reached its highest point sometime around. So he couldn't have slept for too long.

The woman quirks up an eyebrow as if she can hear what he's thinking. "You slept a whole day and some. Longer than 24 hours."

"Oh." it's the next day then. He should've thought of that, considering that his body doesn't even hurt half as much as it did before.

The woman's face softens slightly, and she gently sits down on the second bed, facing him. "What's your name?"

"Is that important?"

"I helped you get back on your feet. You had a severe fever. I think I can at least have your name."

"Qiu Cai."

"Alright, Qiu Cai. Can you tell me if something is hurting? Any complaints?"

He blinks, trying to pinpoint where the pain is. "My head hurts...slightly. Not as much as it did before. My – my ear hurts, and the pain kinda goes like-" with his finger, he traces from his ear to his neck.

She nods, glancing off. "Come over here to the window."

Hesitating, he gets up from the bed and sits down next to her. She tilts his head so his ear is more visible in the light and makes a few noises, mumbles some words as she inspects his ear. He tries not to tense up.

"Does something like that happen often? Your ear hurting?"

"No," his voice cracks when he answers. He feels nervous in the close proximity.

"Ah, good."

He almost sighs in relief when she backs away. She carries an expression of light worry on her face. "I'm afraid you have an ear infection." standing up, she dusts some dirt off her robe. "But don't worry too much, it'll go away in a few weeks. It helps if you press something warm against your ear."

There's not much he could use for warmth. Maybe he can take his bottle and fill it with warm water. It'll have to do for now.

Wait. Where is his bottle? The self made-pouch he took with him. Looking around somewhat fractically, he finds it next to the other bed. He sighs in relief.

The woman watches him think, and again, as if she can hear what is going through his mind, "You're gonna stay here until you're healthy again, you know that, right?"

"No." he stands up very suddenly. Which his body doesn't like.

"Yes." she takes him by the shoulders and sits him back down on the bed he woke up in. "You're my patient, and I haven't fully healed you yet."

"Don't – don't touch me," he swats her hand away. She doesn't move to touch him again. Her stern eyes remain.

"Look, I'm not trying to threaten you but I'm pretty sure you don't know where you are and how to get out of here."

Mo Xuanyu pulls his mouth into a straight line. He keeps to himself that he never knew in the first place where he is.

"Look," she starts again. "Look. I am-"

"Are you threatening your patients again?"

Both of them, startled, look towards the visitor, a man leaning against the door, his arms crossed.

"I'm not threatening him," she spits back.

Mo Xuanyu rubs his temples. Who are these people? Why is he now a 'patient'? And why do they have to be so loud when arguing?

After a few more insults, the man walks into the room and kneels next to Mo Xuanyu. He tries not to look at the man – but he can make out enough while pointedly ignoring him, to know that this is the cloaked man he saw in the alley. He's the reason he's here now.

"Hey, kid. Are you doing alright?"

"His name is Qiu Cai," the woman tells him. He waves her off, and she looks at him like she might kill him, but leaves the hut, closing the door behind her.

"Qiu Cai, is that right?"

Mo Xuanyu nods.

"How do you feel?"

"Threatened," he manages to glower at the man.

He laughs a bit. "Don't take my friend too seriously. Except when she's telling you about your health. She's an amazing doctor, no competition, but I think she has a bit of a hard time dealing professionally with kids that aren't family." he looks over his shoulder. "Don't tell her that I said that, though."

"Are you – scared of her?" he asks carefully.

"Scared?" his eyes study Mo Xuanyu's face. "Nah, not really."

They both share a short silence.

"What's your story, Qiu Cai? What's a young boy like you doing, almost dying in an alley?"

"What's it to you?" Somewhere he realizes that he and the doctor are the reason he's able to talk back like that right now – but he also realizes that this is a stranger, and no one is to be trusted until proven otherwise.

"Just from one street kid to another – I know what it's like."

Mo Xuanyu rolls his eyes and looks away. The man doesn't know him – doesn't know that he's been out there for less than a week. And that these few days, even with him almost dying and being constantly in pain – have been the best he had in a few months.

"Well, would you like to know who I am first?" the man smiles sharply. He stands up, and this time Mo Xuanyu looks at him – really looks at him.

The man is donned in dark robes, and he also seems to be surrounded in similar dark energy. Not necessarily bad energy – but dark energy. His hair is messy and all over the place but Mo Xuanyu can see its own order amongst the chaos. Everything about the man's appearance seems contradictory – wild, but restrained. Intelligent, yet impulsive.

"Tell me who you are, then," Mo Xuanyu seems to be holding his breath, and the air around them does the same. "What's your name?" he asks, afraid of the answer.

"My name?" the man's smile widens. "My name is Wei Wuxian."

The Burial Mounds are big, vast, and not as deathly stricken as Mo Xuanyu thought it would be.

People live here. Old people, mostly. He's seen them in the last few hours, taking a walk through the 'village', trying to clear his mind again.

He isn't really someone who keeps up with gossip, but he heard rumors. Rumors of the Yiling Patriarch, going against his own sect, against the whole cultivation world – and starting his own sect in the Burial Mounds. If this is really his sect, then he's pretty bad at recruiting people.

The doctor – the woman that tended to him, her name is Wen Qing. A famous doctor, yet she is a Wen, meaning she is shunned and hated. Mo Xuanyu isn't old enough to fully understand the hate people have against the Wen's – he was a young boy when the sunshot campaign happened, and anything before that is blurry. But it is weird to refer someone with the name 'Wen' and not hear someone yell the word 'scum', or 'dog' after that.

After the Yiling Patriarch told him who he is – Mo Xuanyu is pretty sure he lost consciousness for a few seconds when he found out – he left him to his own devices, telling him that he has stuff to do. Wen Qing visited him in his hut every now and again, until he told her that he needs fresh air.

And that's how he's here now.

Looking at his feet he tries not to think about how typically him this situation is. He finally gets the courage to run away, live freely, and he runs directly into the arms of the most feared cultivator across the land. Something like that can only happen to him.

He thinks of running away again – who knows what'll happen if he stays with the Yiling Patriarch. But he also thinks of staying – because who knows what'll happen if he stays with the Yiling Patriarch.

Fear and curiosity are the same thing, he concludes. At least something to take out of this bizarre situation.

As he's lost in his musings, a bundle of clothes suddenly runs against his legs, and out of reflex he almost kicks said bundle. It's good that he didn't – after closer inspection, it turns out to be a child. It's hugging his leg.


The child smiles up at him, revealing a missing tooth. "Hello!"

Mo Xuanyu doesn't move.

The boy hugs his legs even tighter. "You can't talk?" he asks.

"I can talk."

"Say hello back."


The young boy giggles. "Hello, hello!"

The stagnant air filled with laughter feels a little unreal to Mo Xuanyu, if not even slightly scary, but he keeps his expression neutral. The kid won't stop clinging to him.

Footsteps behind them alert him.

"Ah, there you are A-Yuan!" The Yiling Patriarch casually walks over to them, and Mo Xuanyu feels dizzy for a bit. "Looks like you've found our new friend!" Wei Wuxian puts a heavy hand on his shoulder, and he doesn't have the guts to swat him off.

"A-Yuan," he repeats quietly.

"That's my son," the Yiling Patriarch tells him.

"Son?" He never heard that the Yiling Patriarch had a son. He also never heard of a cultivation partner, or a lover, or anything of that kind. Not even rumors. Maybe he's just really good at hiding that stuff – but then again, he wouldn't tell a random stranger about a secret he guarded for-

He takes a closer look at A-Yuan. How old is he? Five? Six?

The Yiling Patriarch looks somewhat amused – his mouth slightly upturned and his eyebrows shooting up. "Something you wanna ask?" he bumps his shoulder against Mo Xuanyu's and he tries his best not to fall over from the shock.

"No." he shakes his head.

Wei Wuxian frowns. "Am I that intimidating?" he picks up A-Yuan and the boy smiles cheekily at Mo Xuanyu.

"Gege isn't scary at all!" to demonstrate that, he pinches Wei Wuxain's cheek, who responds by giving kisses all over the child's face. They both laugh. Mo Xuanyu averts his eyes, feeling like he's invading a personal family moment.

"Qiu Cai," the Yiling Patriarch suddenly says, with a kind of seriousness that makes him jump a little. "What – what were you doing out there? It's the first time I've seen you in Yiling – and you don't seem like you've been doing this for a long time."

Mo Xuanyu fiddles with his hands, averting his gaze. "What will happen to me if I don't answer?"

"Wh – nothing?" he seems slightly taken aback by that.

He eyes him suspiciously. It's easy to say that he won't do anything, but that doesn't mean that it's true. For a second he contemplates if Wei Wuxian could tell through a lie – he didn't say anything about his fake name, but he himself never told him the name. Wen Qing did.

Afraid what would happen to him if he lies, he tries to be as unspecific as possible. "I ran away."

That's it. Not when he ran away, not from where, not why. It's the truth, even if a neatly trimmed one.

"Ah," the Yiling Patriarch searches for something in his face. Silence spreads between them, and Mo Xuanyu waits until he grows uncomfortable and turns to leave.

"Why'd you run away?" A-Yuan asks.

He silently curses the kid. If he tells off Wei Wuxian's child – or says that he won't answer the question...he seems pretty fond of the kid, no matter if Yiling Patriarch or not.

Biting his lip, he answers again, "I didn't like it there." Clean, simple. Not too much information, and not a lie-

"But why?" A-Yuan looks at him with big eyes. Mo Xuanyu tries to hide the death glare he sends him.

"A-Yuan," Wei Wuxian smiles. "That's none of our business, now is it?"

A-Yuan keeps his eyes on him. He doesn't seem to hear his father's words. "Are you sad?"

Mo Xuanyu makes a small, strangled noise. "What."

The kid stretches out his hand and points at his face, and he almost fears that his eye is gonna be stabbed by a little toddler finger. "You look sad."

There is a long pause.

Then the Yiling Patriarch combs his hand through A-Yuan's hair and walks a few steps away with him. "Let's go to your Auntie Qing, okay?" he sets the kid down and gently pushes him forward. A-Yuan seems confused but doesn't protest.

"Qiu Cai," he fixes his gaze onto him, and Mo Xuanyu feels like swords are pointing at him.

"Excuse me," he turns on his heel and walks back to the town. It's rude, he knows it, and he doesn't know what someone like Wei Wuxian thinks of rude people – but he has an idea, to keep him safe for now.

Wen Qing seemed adamant about keeping him here – keeping him safe – until he's healed. And she didn't seem afraid of Wei Wuxian. That means as long as she's in the same room as him, she won't allow him to get hurt. Or so he guesses. It's flimsy, but it's an idea.

If he wants to leave, he's gonna have to know where to go. On his small walk, Burial Mounds seemed like a big labyrinth, and he immediately turned back to stay closer to the town. He's gonna need a little more time to explore the area, to figure out how to escape.

If he wishes to do so.

Wen Qing isn't really talkative, or if she is, she doesn't want to talk with him.

Mo Xuanyu doesn't mind the silence. He actually enjoys it – silence is always better than people yelling and arguing.

Except of course when it's one of those bad quiet moments. When people expect him to say something, waiting until he opens his mouth. Or when his aunt has enough of him and locks him in his room, telling her servants that the 'crazy boy' shouldn't be let out.

There was nothing interesting in his old room, so he had to make up for it by spending the time with himself. He spent a lot of time imagining impossible scenarios – about finding someone, willing to run away with him. About finding someone who tolerates him, likes him, cherishes him. To be loved, to be wanted. Someone who hugs him close, and tells him that all will be good. All will be okay. All will turn out fine. He will-

"Are you alright?"

Mo Xuanyu snaps out of his thoughts, looking up at Wen Qing. She's hovering a bit away from him. "Huh?"

"You – Your hands. They're shaking." she walks the small distance between them and puts her hand on his forehead. He tries not to back away. "Your fever is almost gone. In a few days, you'll be as good as new."

He looks at his hands on his lap. They tremble ever so slightly. "Miss Wen." he closes his eyes. "Why...why bother?"

She doesn't seem to understand.

"Why bother with me?" he explains."Is it some kinda doctor thing to just pick up random sick people? Am I not getting something?"

Wen Qing blinks. She looks at him like this is the last thing she expected.

"I-" she starts, looking around the room as if there is someone to answer for her. "I think any sane person would try to help a kid."

"Is that so."

Wen Qing nods.

He tries not to think about his family. They'd rather see him rot away than help him. They wouldn't bat an eye at any suffering of his.

Bitterly, he looks down at his hands. They're still trembling.

'Any sane person would try to help a kid.'

He spends the rest of the day around Wen Qing. She doesn't say anything about it or doesn't really show any acknowledgment at all.

She does a few chores, like washing clothes or preparing dinner for the evening, but she rejects any help Mo Xuanyu offers. 'You're still sick,' she'd say. So he awkwardly stood next to her instead.

When the sun was ready to set, Wen Qing unexpectedly turns to him. "Go back to your hut. My brother will bring you your dinner. It's probably better if you don't eat with everyone else just yet."

She leads him back to the little hut he woke up in, and he's slightly relieved because he isn't sure if he would've found it himself again. "I'll check up on you later." she stands in the doorway as he sits back down on the bed. "My brother will stay here until you're done eating to lend you some company. You can go to sleep after that, but I'll bring you something warm for your ear."

He nods, only half paying attention. When she's ready to go, he suddenly opens his mouth. "Um. I have a question."

Her eyes turn sharp like she's ready to answer anything coming her way.

"I don't know if I should say this the Yiling Patriarch – would he do something-" he huffs in frustration, trying to get the words out. "Is he bad?"

Wen Qing's sharp eyes turn soft, and her lips quirk up. "Oh, he's awful. Really bad. Never helps around here, and when he does it's horrible. By the way, if he ever makes food, don't eat it. He can't cook, no matter what he says."

Mo Xuanyu pulls his mouth into a straight line, trying to figure out what part of it was a joke and what part wasn't.

"But for real, you shouldn't worry about Wei Wuxian. He'd never hurt a defenseless kid like you."

He slowly blinks, trying to internalize her words. "Are you sure?"

She smiles. "Yes, I'm sure. Despite what other people might say, he never hurt anyone without reason – and you'd have to give him a big reason."

"Okay." he nods. "Okay."

With a last smile, she closes the door behind her, leaving Mo Xuanyu alone.

He doesn't trust anyone here – but he thinks he can at least believe that he won't be randomly attacked. And even if something like that happens, he'll look around Burial Mounds. He'll try to find a secluded place he can hide in for a few hours if everything turns on him – and if that really happens, it's best to run again. He never had any idea where he's going, so it's not a big deal if he still has no idea.

But for now, this will do. It's slightly better than sleeping on the street or in the woods he thinks, and miles better than being back at Mo village.

It's...alright. He'll enjoy that as long as it lasts.

Mo Xuanyu didn't think a lot about who this brother of Wen Qing's could be, until he's lightly knocking on his door, a soft voice calling out to him. "Is Qiu Cai in here?"

He scoots off the bed and walks over to the door. He probably has the dinner that Wen Qing mentioned.

When he opens the door he gets the second – third scare of the day, instead of seeing a healthy, alive, breathing human, he sees-

"Ah, don't fall." The – man steadies him by holding his shoulder and surprisingly, the grasp is incredibly gentle, even if his looks might suggest otherwise. Mo Xuanyu tries to wreck his brain to think of who, what this is. With a noiseless gasp, his eyes widen.

"Ghost General..."

He can't stop looking at the pale face, the black marks on his neck, the unblinking eyes. This is a feared weapon of the Yiling Patriarch – neither alive nor dead, a fierce corpse come to life, without the fear of pain or dying.

"Ah," the dangerous Ghost General says, and in that monotone voice, Mo Xuanyu can almost hear disappointment. "I'm just here to bring you food."

Ghost General is still holding his shoulder but in his other hand is a bowl with some soup. His dinner.

"Okay. Thank you," Mo Xuanyu forces out. He takes the bowl off his hands and the Ghost General takes his hand off his shoulder. They look at each other awkwardly for a second and then Mo Xuanyu turns around and puts the bowl on the shabby table in the corner. He expects the Ghost General to walk out again, but he just keeps standing in the room, closing the door behind him. He notices Mo Xuanyu's weird look.

"My sister told me to lend you some company."

"You don't need to, it's okay."

"No," he shakes his head. "There's nothing in here, you're gonna be bored."

"Okay," he says because he doesn't really know what else to do. He sits down and the Ghost General sits on the other chair, looking somewhat nervous.

"My name is Wen Ning," he tells him suddenly, like he just remembered that not everyone in Burial Mounds knows his name.

"Wen Ning..." he looks at his soup, stirring it a little. The familiarity of a normal name slightly melts away some of the fear. The – man in front of him sees the tension ease a bit, and he sends him a small smile – as big as his stiff muscles allow.

As Mo Xuanyu stirs his soup a little more, he thinks about the weird people here in Burial Mounds. None of them seem completely sane, yet...

He tastes the soup. It's good. Really good, actually. He doesn't remember eating anything this nice ever since being thrown out of the Jin Sect.

Wen Ning's smile seems brighter, somehow.

When he sleeps that night, he barely thinks about Mo Village. He barely feels any fear about someone dragging him back to that place, about someone going out to find him.

Why should they bother? He rationalizes. They probably assume he ran off and died somewhere. Or maybe that he's starving to death right now. They won't bother. They won't bother searching for him, or retrieving his corpse, or making any kind of effort.

As awful as that sounds, it makes Mo Xuanyu smile before falling asleep, because the fear of a painful home seems so, so far away, and Burial Mounds is right at his fingertips – if that's a good thing or not? He'll figure.

In the next days, his fever completely disappears. The cut wounds on his ankles heal, very thin white scars lining where plants and roots assaulted him, but Wen Qing told him that they'd disappear soon too.

His ear stops hurting. The headache disappears. Even the smaller headache, the one he constantly had on the back of his head before he was running – old pain that he completely tuned out and ignored by now – is gone.

He feels...revitalized. He feels like there was never a time he was this healthy. Which is weird, considering there are corpses buried under his feet every five steps.

And one day, when he goes to sleep, he can't help but cry a little, not completely understanding if this feeling of lightness in his chest is happiness.

A month in the Burial Mounds passes quicker than he thought it would.

Back in Mo Village, time dragged itself forward with difficulty – or that's how it felt like. If there was something to look forward to, like a day where his aunt and cousin were out of town, he'd eagerly wait for that day, sitting in his room, on the docks. Time passed slowly, and even slower when he was waiting.

It was a pain. He remembers constantly being in a state of neither sleep nor wakefulness, rotting away in the middle of his room, as thoughts in his head became more unrestraint, usually repeating words, phrases that he didn't fully understand until the very thought of that phrase made him nauseous.

Sometimes he wonders if his aunt was right to call him a lunatic.

He shakes his head. But it's completely different in Burial Mounds. It seemed like there was always something to do, always some chores that Wen Qing puts him up to, or helping Wei Wuxian with one of the (not dangerous) inventions that he's making, or taking care of A-Yuan, which turns out to be as much of a chore as a delight.

There is seldom a day where he feels tired of doing nothing, and instead, his exhausted body falls into bed, satisfied with all the work he did today. He likes it. It's nice.

And one day, he wakes up, and one of the old people announces what day it is, because the residents of Burial Mounds like to keep a semblance of order, and Mo Xuanyu freezes in his tracks.

It's his birthday today. He's 15 years old.

The realization is like a cold knife against his throat, reminding him of the lie he still lives – of how easily this life could turn upside down again if the truth came out and the Yiling Patriarch didn't take it well.

Maybe he holds some grudges against Jin Guangshang, his father. Maybe he'll just be mad that he was lied to in general. Maybe...maybe he heard what kind of person Mo Xuanyu is.

He's pacing around, and he doesn't notice his thoughts racing, repeating, turning over, until Wen Ning carefully taps him on his shoulder.

"Are you alright?" he asks slowly.

Mo Xuanyu doesn't answer right away, a little shaken to be ripped out of his thoughts that suddenly. "Yeah. Don't worry about me." he looks at his footsteps, forming a circle in the dirt where he was pacing around. Wen Ning doesn't look completely convinced, but he doesn't bother him any further. With a short nod, he goes back to whatever chore Wei Wuxian put him up to this time.

Mo Xuanyu tries not to fall back into his thoughts – rather, he tries to rationalize.

He barely spends any time outside of Burial Mounds. And no one in Burial Mounds knows Mo Xuanyu. They all just know Qiu Cai, this strange boy that the Yiling Patriarch took with him. And even if he ever goes down to Yiling or any other town with Wei Wuxian, it's highly unlikely that he's recognized. Mo Village is not well-known, after all.

But it's that highly unlikely that makes him nervous still. Highly unlikely still means somewhat likely – means not impossible.

So what if someone does recognize him?

He'll just feign ignorance. Say that he has no idea who they mean. Maybe they just look very similar. Wei Wuxian will believe that he just got confused for someone else.

It's fine, he tells himself. It's fine, and Mo Xuanyu might as well be dead, because now he's Qiu Cai, apparently. For a second he wishes he thought of a better name.

His stirred up worries eased, he thinks about his birthday again. Even if he doesn't feel comfortable sharing the date of his birth with the others – blame it on his fear and anxiousness – he can at least celebrate for himself.

As he walks over to the radish beds, plucking out the weeds that grew among the vegetables, he thinks about how he'll do that.

Mo Xuanyu regrets his decision.

The moment he took the bottle out of Wei Wuxian's cave, guilt and fear attacked him, but some kind of resistance inside him – some kind of force pushing him to indulge in this – keeps him going back to his room. Putting the bottle on the table, he looks at it like he was trying to interrogate it. The bottle has no answers.

Only after the sun is almost sucked up by the earth, and the sound of all the other residents going to sleep, he opens the bottle and pours it into a teacup – because he doesn't have any glasses for that kind of drink.

He lifts the cup to his nose and smells the liquor. It smells strong – he tries not to scrunch up his nose.

Then, as he takes a first sip of the alcohol, he first wonders how anyone could become addicted to something so awful tasting. He downs the rest of the cup, because he started already, and then puts it back down on the table.

How should he drink the rest? He can't possibly drink a whole bottle of this.

And while he paces around, thinking how he could bring the bottle back without anyone noticing that there's less liquor in there, he feels a funny sensation in his head.

He eyes the bottle on his table, somewhat nervously.

Mo Xuanyu regrets his decision, he really does.

But one celebratory cup of alcohol became two, and then a curious third one, and then he kinda forgot about pouring it into a cup and drank it straight from the bottle, and now he's half sitting, half lying in his bed, leaned against the wall, with the bottle hanging loosely in his arm.

He giggles a little, because aren't drunk people supposed to giggle? And he doesn't remember the last time he laughed properly and giggling sounds like fun. So he does that for a while.

Well, until his door is opened, and a little too late Mo Xuanyu realizes that he didn't snuff out the candles, and people from outside could see that he hadn't put out the lights.

Wei Wuxian walks in and looks at his red face, at the way his head sways side to side, and for the first time, Mo Xuanyu sees a certain emotion flash in his eyes – disappointment. He walks towards the bed he lies in with heavy steps, each of them accompanied by an accusing look from Wei Wuxian, and he quickly grabs the bottle out of his arm.

"What's up with that, huh?" he shakes the liquor. "Did I allow you to take this?"

Mo Xuanyu's eyes widen. He realizes that he's overstepped a line of some kind – no, he realized that already when he stole the alcohol. As he looks into Wei Wuxian's dark eyes, barely any light illuminating his face, he takes a deep breath. He's ready for whatever Wei Wuxain has in store for him, but he wants to make it count. If he's getting in trouble now, he's getting in trouble for all of it.

"I've lied to you," he slurs, blinking slowly as he tries to focus on Wei Wuxian's face.

The disappointment being replaced with curiosity for a brief moment, he places the bottle on the floor next to them and sits down on the edge of his bed. "About what?"

"About me." he tries sitting up straight, to show some semblance of truth in the words he's speaking. "I lied."

Wei Wuxian tilts his head. " you mean."

"My name."

"You are not – A-Cai?"

He shakes his head. "No, no." his mouth forms the words before he speaks them out loud. "My name is – Mo Xuanyu."

Wei Wuxian blinks. Then he scratches his head. Then he stares off into the air for a bit. "Um. Am I supposed to know you?"

Again, he shakes his head. "It's good if you don't. People only – they only say bad stuff about me." he presses his nails into his palm and finds his hands a little numb. Actually, his whole body feels a little numb. And the room in front of him keeps tilting and swaying.

Wei Wuxian steadies him with his hand, and for once Mo Xuanyu doesn't tense up at the touch. "Well, People most likely say worse stuff about me, so," he laughs. "You shouldn't worry about me judging you because of some rumors."

He puts his hand on top of Wei Wuxian's, looking straight into his eyes. "They say I'm crazy. A lunatic."

"A-Ca- um. A-Yu." his voice is unbearably soft, and for some reason it makes him tear up. "You're not a lunatic. The people that say that about you are clearly wrong, they-"

"My family hates me," the sounds come out almost choked, and he can't stop himself from talking. "They hate me so much and I don't understand why – when my mother was still alive she said it's because they're jealous. I'm the son of-" he cuts himself off with a sob, and without restraint, tears stream down his face, hot and uncomfortable on his skin.

Wei Wuxain gently wipes them away with his thumb, but it only makes him cry more.

"Whose son," he asks quietly.

Mo Xuanyu sniffs a little and tries to get his voice under control. Finally, he says without sobbing, "Jin Guangshang."

"Ah." Wei Wuxian glances away, and Mo Xuanyu can't fully comprehend the expression in his face. "That man..." he shakes his head.

"A-and I don't know why, but he invited me to his sect. To cultivate. But then-" he closes his eyes, clenching together his teeth. "Then I was thrown out."

Wei Wuxian combs his hand through his hair, and the easy affection is almost enough to lull him into sleep. "When we found you sick in Yiling, Wen Qing looked at any sicknesses or injuries you might have had – and she found a golden core. We were always curious but...we didn't want to scare you away with questions."

Mo Xuanyu puts his hand over his chest, where his weak golden core is thumping gently. The quiet, steady rhythm tires him out even more. Wei Wuxian squeezes his hand one time and then moves to leave the room quietly, as he's slipping away into sleep, but the loss of touch rips him back into reality again, and his hand shoots out to grab Wei Wuxian's wrist.

"No. Don't leave." he hefts himself up, a few wonky extra steps to the left and right as he's on his feet again. "I'll – I'll go with you."

Still holding Wei Wuxian's wrist, he walks over to where he put the liquor, and in a rare moment of boldness, he drinks the rest of it.

"I-" Wei Wuxian snatches the bottle away, turning it onto its head. No drop left. "I wanted to drink that..." he pouts a little. "And also!" his voice a little louder. "You shouldn't drink that much yet! You're not old enough!"

Mo Xuanyu smiles tiredly. "Too late."

"Ugh." he lets the boy lean into him as they walk out the hut. "So where are we going?"

"Let's go... let's go to your cave. Okay."

Wei Wuxian sighs at the drunk boy. Walking carefully so Mo Xuanyu doesn't trip he makes his way to his cave – where another visitor awaits him.

"A-Yuan? What the he- I mean what are you doing here?"

"Can't sleep. I was looking for you." A-Yuan looks up at him with his big baby eyes and Wei Wuxian can't find it in him to reprimand the boy for walking around late at night. "What's with gege?" he points at Mo Xuanyu, who is still leaning heavily on his side.

Wei Wuxian sighs. "Let's get inside first."

"When I was running away," Mo Xuanyu tells him, the alcohol setting more and more into his system. "In the first village I saw. There was this woman. A mother."

They're sitting in the Yiling Patriarch's cave, Mo Xuanyu next to him, a small fire keeping them warm.

Wei Wuxian sits up a little straighter, signaling that he's listening. A-Yuan sleeps in his lap, undisturbed.

"And she asked me for my name and how old I was. And then she just gave me something to eat. Just like that." he looks at the fireplace, the wood cracking. "She even offered me a place to sleep for the night. I got – I got so scared. I didn't know what she wanted from me. What she expected. I still don't get it. What was she trying to do?"

The fire illuminates Wei Wuxian's face, showing a sad smile. "She's a mother, and she saw a child on its own."

"But I'm not related to her. She never saw me before, she didn't even know me."

"A-Yu..." his hand starts combing through A-Yuan's hair. "It's hard to grasp something like that, I know. But as a mother, she was probably horrified. She thought, 'what if my child was in this situation, would they get enough food? Would they have a place to sleep?' she was doing it because she thought like a mother."

"Wen Qing said," he leans into Wei Wuxian's shoulder. "She said, any sane person would help a kid."

"That's true."

"Does that mean..." he watches the fire flicker, casting wild shadows on the wall and floor. "That my family wasn't sane?"

"If they let you suffer, probably."

Mo Xuanyu laughs, ignoring how weird he may sound, because months he's been called crazy and a lunatic, but turns out it's been his family that is crazy.

"I hate them," he tells Wei Wuxian, his voice somber. "They acted like I was a nuisance instead of a person. And I guess I believed them. Maybe I still do."

"A-Yu." Wei Wuxian's voice is grave and serious, and for a second Mo Xuanyu fears he said something wrong. But the man puts a hand on top of his head, as gently as he can. "You are never a nuisance to me. To everyone here."

He smiles. "Are you telling me this out of pity? Or because you mean it?"

"When have I ever said something that I didn't mean?"

"I don't know. I don't know how much you really mean and how much not. Guess I'll have to stick around to find out."

And behind the dressed up words, Wei Wuxian finds the real meaning. 'I want to stay here longer – I want to get to know everyone here better.'

"Then stick around." he pats him on the head. "Stay as long as you like."

(Mo Xuanyu only remembers about his birthday when he's about to sleep in. He tells Wei Wuxian, who gives him an expression of surprise, before tucking the blanket tighter around his body, and leaning down, pressing a kiss on his hairline.

"Good night, A-Yu. Happy birthday, A-Yu."

And A-Yu blearily looks up at this man, at the feared Yiling Patriarch, who took him in like he always belonged, and he realizes-

He finally found someone, someone who tolerates him, likes him, cherishes him. Someone who hugs him close, and tells him that all will be good. All will be okay. All will turn out fine.

He will turn out fine.

As the alcohol in his blood and the steady breathing of little A-Yuan lure him out of his consciousness, he sends a last smile to the one person that never wanted anything but his health, his happiness, his smile.

"I love you, A-Yu.")