He can’t sleep. This is not unusual these days, not when he has so much resentful energy running through him he can’t tell where he ends and the Burial Mounds begin. When he does sleep, it is fitfully and full of nightmares. He always wakes to the taste of dust and blood.
Wen Qing doesn’t sleep much either. Instead, she sits outside with a blanket draped over her shoulders and stares at the moon. He sits with her sometimes, and they talk about kinder days, or argue about radishes, or tell each other things they would never admit in the day. He tells her about how desperately he wanted Yu-furen to approve of him, she tells him about the Wen disciples whose medical treatment she made needlessly painful in retribution for bullying her brother.
One night, she confessed to him in a wretched, broken voice that she sometimes wished she hadn’t tried to save Wen Ning that fateful night when they were children. I tried to keep my brother safe, I tried to keep my branch of the sect safe, and now we’re all crawling through grave dirt. I don’t know how much longer I can keep them alive, wouldn’t it have been kinder if we all died long ago? Wei Wuxian said nothing, just took her hand in his and held it until daybreak.
Tonight, Wen Qing has a tiny fire going and she’s focusing intently on a piece of fabric in her hands. When Wei Wuxian settles down next to her, he sees that she’s stitching a bamboo grove onto a scrap of cloth. By her feet are spools of bright thread.
“You didn’t buy this,” he says, not a question but a fact. They can barely feed themselves, much less afford such vibrantly dyed silk threads.
“There was a girl sitting by the side of the road, embroidering while she watched her younger siblings play in the street. One fell and skinned their knee and when she got up to check the injury she set her sewing down and I—” she sighs on the last word, doesn’t finish her sentence.
Wei Wuxian hears her, and fills in the unsaid words. I’ve already been complicit in grievous sins, what’s a little petty theft? I needed a reminder there’s still color in the world. I wanted something beautiful against my fingers instead of blood and dirt. I wanted, desperately. “Will you teach me?” he asks in response.
“You want to learn to embroider?”
“An inventor should always try new things,” he says cheerily, “maybe I can sew talismans into our clothing.” They both know this is a front—he just wants to make her feel better, wants to hold something delicate in his hands and know it’s okay to do it wrong.
He knew he was dead from the moment Wen Qing finally agreed to do the core transfer. If he didn’t die during the procedure he would die from complications, if he didn’t die from complications he would die on the battlefield. If, for some reason, he didn’t die on the battlefield he would die from sickness or accident, or old age—all things cultivators with their golden cores could recover from or stave off.
When he fell through the sky towards the Burial Mounds he thought, this was not an option I had considered. When he walked out of the Burial Mounds, flute in hand and resentful energy buzzing through his meridians, he thought, I have been dead for so long.
Falling backwards off that cliff had not been hard at all.
Getting up off Mo Xuanyu’s floor sixteen years later was much, much harder.
In the months after the events of Guanyin Temple, Wei Wuxian wanders aimlessly through the lands. Life, unexpected and bitter, is laid out in front of him, but he still feels like he never truly walked out of the Burial Mounds the first time. Sixteen years of death, it seems, has only seeped the feeling of distortion deeper into his body.
He nighthunts, he eats the spiciest foods he can find, he sleeps under the open sky, he argues with Little Apple. It is not enough to settle him.
One day, in a small village that he helped with a minor guai problem, Wei Wuxian sees an older woman sewing at the side of the road while her grandchildren played in the street. All of a sudden he remembers—Wen Qing showing him different stitches, her laughter at his first tangled attempts to embroider a rabbit, the tiny butterflies she sewed onto A-Yuan’s clothing.
The woman looks at him curiously and says, “gongzi, can I help you with something?”
Wei Wuxian dregs up a smile and shakes his head, “I apologize, a memory caught me off-guard.”
She smiles sympathetically, but says nothing else and returns to her sewing.
At the next major city, Wei Wuxian buys a set of needles and thread, then charms a tailor into selling him leftover cloth at a discount. That night, he lays out his purchases and his chest twists so much that he packs everything away and tries not to cry. Two nights later, he tries again. This time, he manages to refamiliarize himself with the way needle and thread move through cloth before he has to put it away.
And so it goes. He’s never going to be great at embroidery, but at least this is something of the Burial Mounds that he can hold onto that doesn’t reek of death, doesn’t make him feel brittle and crusted over.
He continues his embroidery habit after he returns to Gusu, after Lan Zhan meets him on a grassy hilltop and marries him then and there, after he’s settled into the rhythm of his life in Gusu with his love.
He doesn’t hide his embroidery from Lan Zhan on purpose. After all these years, he wouldn’t hide something from his husband without good reason. (And yes, not wanting Lan Zhan to worry about the tiny stab wound he got during the last nighthunt is a good reason—it was just a tiny stab!)
Grief is not something he and his husband are in the habit of concealing from each other. They have both woken to each other’s nightmares too many times to pretend that sorrow isn’t an undercurrent in all their incomparable joy.
So he doesn’t hide his embroidery from Lan Zhan on purpose, but nor does he tell Lan Zhan about it and nor does he leave his sewing kit in plain view. It lives in a qiankun bag that he keeps in the chest of his miscellaneous odds and ends. He’s not entirely sure why he does this, why he keeps this last piece of the Burial Mounds secreted away for the days his grief mutes the world around him.
Sometimes he embroiders feathers over and over until his hands are trembling and the fabric is dotted with his blood. It’s on one of these days that Lan Zhan comes home to have lunch with him and finds him staring at the bloody fabric. Without a word, Lan Zhan sets the tray down, and then brings a bowl of water and a cloth to Wei Wuxian. Lan Zhan gently pries the blood stained cloth out of Wei Wuxian’s hands, then dips the clean cloth in the water.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says as his husband wipes the blood off his fingers, “I miss Wen Qing.”
“Is she the one who taught you to embroider?”
He nods, “she stole an embroidery kit from some unsuspecting girl in Yiling, and I made her teach me one night when neither of us could sleep.” He closes his eyes, holds the water in his eyes back, “I wanted to make something beautiful with my hands, all I knew those days was death.”
His memory is bad, but he remembers Wen Qing showing him how to hold the needle and how to do different stitches. He remembers teasing her about how her needles were good for something besides medical treatment. He remembers being paralyzed by her needles in his head as she walked to her death.
For a moment, he is flat on his back in the cave, Wen Qing’s last words to him echoing, and he stops breathing.
“Wei Ying. Wei Ying?” Lan Zhan is looking at him with such concern and Wei Wuxian forces himself to start breathing again, forces this body of his to live. He squeezes Lan Zhan’s hands.
“She would yell at me for getting blood all over the fabric,” he says, trying for levity but falling flat. “But she knew how to get blood out of clothing, she had to, as a doctor. And good thing too, I was always bleeding all over everything.”
Lan Zhan’s face twitches slightly, the way it always does when Wei Wuxian casually mentions any injury, but he refrains from saying anything. Instead he asks, “why feathers?”
Wei Wuxian shrugs, “Mo Xuanyu.” How to explain to the person who mourned for sixteen years that sometimes he wishes he hadn’t been called back? How to explain that he doesn’t feel worth the price Mo Xuanyu paid? How to explain the guilt that rises when he thinks that Lan Zhan’s happiness is worth Mo Xuanyu’s shattered soul?
Lan Zhan hums a little in understanding, spreads a salve on Wei Wuxian’s tiny wounds, and waits expectantly.
Wei Wuxian pouts at his husband, “my hand slipped, Lan Zhan, I’m not very good at embroidery after all.”
Wei Wuxian groans, “it’s really nothing Lan Zhan, I just...sometimes lose track of myself, like when I’m inventing and make a mess of our home because I stack talisman papers everywhere.” He smiles at his husband, “you’ve taken such good care of me, but how am I supposed to eat lunch with this salve all over my hands? Are you going to feed me?”
“Mn.” Lan Zhan says, in a tone that tells Wei Wuxian he’s not done untangling this particular knot in Wei Wuxian’s psyche, but that he’ll let it go for now in favor of hand-feeing his husband lunch.
That night he dreams of falling, of dark feathers pushing their way out of his skin, of himself tearing Mo Xuanyu apart the way he did to so many Wens. He wakes with a gasp, and dry heaves. He can’t stop, the emptiness in his chest screaming for people long dead and a core that spins in his brother’s body.
“—ei Ying. Wei Ying.” Lan Zhan is rubbing his back, soothing circles meant to ground Wei Wuxian in the present moment. Wei Wuxian shudders, desperately drawing in breaths until his breathing evens out.
“Lan Zhan,” he says, clutching at his husband’s robes, face tucked in Lan Zhan’s neck. “Lan Zhan, promise me you won’t let me hurt people again.”
“You will not hurt people again,” Lan Zhan’s response is immediate and steady.
“You can’t know that,” Wei Wuxian knows his husband only wants to believe the best of him, and it is a comforting thing, but Wei Wuxian also knows how it feels to lose himself to rage.
“Wei Ying, yes I can.”
“You remember how I was, before. The rage, it consumed me—I yelled at A-Yuan once, more than once, did you know? He was just a baby, and I screamed at him.” Wei Wuxian would have accepted being remembered as a monster—thanked his ancestors on his knees, even—if that had been the price for A-Yuan’s survival. But Sizhui remembers him as Xian-gege, and that is another blessing he does not deserve.
“I remember the rage, but Wei Ying, you have not acted like that since.”
“I thought I had it under control back then but I was wrong,” he had been teetering on the edge of that cliff even before Nightless City, “what if I’m wrong now?” It is true that he hasn’t felt such rage since his resurrection, time smoothing away the rough edges his mind used to catch on—he might not know where his soul had been for those sixteen years, but those sixteen years had passed, in a way. Still, Wei Wuxian has continued to cultivate the demonic path after his return. It harms the body and the temperament. “Lan Zhan, I’m scared,” he whispers.
His dream is thrumming inside him. He feels too big for his body, like an overly ripe persimmon bursting from its skin. The only thing keeping him tethered to this reality is Lan Zhan’s body wrapped around his.
“Wei Ying, we all hurt people back then, it was a war. I do not believe you will hurt people again.” Lan Zhan shakes his head when Wei Wuxian starts to protest, “things are different, you no longer live on a mountain of corpses, you are no longer being actively hunted by the sects, you are no longer newly returned from war. I will never let you be driven so far into a corner again.” Lan Zhan gently detangles them so he can look Wei Wuxian in the eyes, “and if you ever feel you are losing control, we will figure it out.”
It takes his breath away that he gets to have this; that Lan Zhan, so good and righteous and lovely, sits here with him in their bed, and promises to protect him. He knows he doesn’t deserve it.
He lives because an angry, despairing teenage boy thought the Yiling Patriarch, killer of thousands, was the best option for bloody retribution. If Wei Wuxian deserved to be loved by Lan Zhan, a desperate child wouldn’t have torn his soul apart for the promise of Wei Wuxian’s vengeance.
He doesn’t deserve it, but Lan Zhan loves him anyway. “Okay, Lan Zhan,” he says, tucks himself back under Lan Zhan’s chin, ear against his chest, “I trust you.”
He stitches a tiny row of suns along the left cuff of his inner robe—not flames, never flames, not after Lotus Pier burned, not after Wen Qing burned—suns, life-giving and scorching, for the last, best doctor of Qishan Wen. She would probably laugh at his badly sewn suns and his sentimentality, but her eyes would be soft. Some days, he misses her so much he thinks it might swallow him whole.
“Tell me about her,” Lan Zhan says.
Wei Wuxian considers, there are things he could say, like her hands were so gentle when she ripped my golden core out of my body or she used to make really awful jokes about being a doctor who lived on a mountain of corpses, but that’s not what Lan Zhan is asking.
“She liked pickled vegetables,” he says slowly, his memory is already bad and remembering all his dead loves is painful. “Her favorite color was yellow, not yellow like the Jin sect’s golden robes, but yellow like the pollen of flowers. She had a tiny freckle on her right index finger. Wen sect cultivators used to bully Wen Ning, so when they went to her for medical treatment, she would give them the most painful or bitter treatment she could.”
Wen Qing’s vengeful streak was a sight to behold, the cultivation world was lucky all she ever wanted was to keep her brother safe. Sometimes he thinks that if they had a little more time, if they were a little less desperate and starving, they would have come up with a way to reconcile with the sects. He was Yunmeng Jiang’s Head Disciple, then the inventor of demonic cultivation. She was a genius doctor who lived at Wen Ruohan’s side for years. Surely between the two of them, they could have come up with a way to save her people.
But they were desperate and starving, and they did not have more time. And now the only ones left of their little settlement are him, Wen Ning, and Lan Sizhui—a resurrected dead man, the Ghost General, and a boy who grew up without the truth of his heritage. He is glad that Wen Ning was not burned, that A-Yuan grew up happy and loved, but the things they have lost eat at him still.
“She was so scary,” Wei Wuxian says with a laugh, “I’ve never met another doctor so ready to threaten bodily injury.”
“Mn, I remember that, I believe she threatened you because you were an unruly patient.”
Wei Wuxian gasps, clutching his heart, “Lan Zhan, how could you say such things to your poor husband?” Lan Zhan arches an eyebrow at him. Wei Wuxian sighs, “yes you’re right, I was a terrible patient.”
He wraps a stray thread from his robe around his finger until the tip turns red. “She smiled at the people she was fond of, and very little else.” There was very little to smile at those days, and Wen Qing had learned to hide her emotions a long time ago. Even though the Burial Mounds was a far cry from the political danger of Nightless City, she was the head of their little family and the one everyone looked to for reassurance.
“You love her,” Lan Zhan said simply, as if he wasn’t suggesting that his husband’s heart once belonged to someone else.
“Ah, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian said, “not the way I love you. You know that, right? You are the one who understands me in this life. You saw me even when I couldn’t see you. I have always known we were inevitable, even though I mistakenly thought that inevitability was a fight to the death. You are my home and my heart and the deepest call of my soul.”
How do you tell your husband that once, someone else had held his hand through the night? That it was the same person who reached into his chest and pulled out everything that he used to think made him who he was?
Lan Zhan had only been in the Burial Mounds for a moment, hadn’t lived in the dirt and waited for death—and Wei Wuxian is so desperately thankful that Lan Zhan wasn’t marked by that, but relying on each other to survive the ever present press of resentful energy isn’t something he knows how to explain. He doesn’t know how to tell Lan Zhan that he went back to a place he still, even after dying, wakes from dreams of screaming and made a home for her family there.
He doesn’t know how to explain that he and Wen Qing died slowly together, and that he and Lan Zhan are living.
Wen Qing is dead. He knows this like he knows the thirty-three scars on Lan Zhan’s back. But here, in this dream, they are sitting on the steps of the Demon Subdue Palace. Her head is on his shoulder, and he reaches out to hold her hand.
It is fitting that they are here, again. If asked while awake, Wei Wuxian would have expected his subconscious to bring them to the sun-warmed decks of Lotus Pier—where he was once Head Disciple, and Wen Qing might have been the sect leader’s wife—or even the back hills of Cloud Recesses—where they were once children on the edges of the oncoming war.
Instead, he’s dreamt them in the bitterest years of their life, threadbare and exhausted. But it is here they became a family, and here where they realized how much farther into the dark they were willing to go.
“Wei Wuxian,” she says, “the next time you go to Yiling to sell radishes, you should take A-Yuan and not A-Ning.”
He hums in agreement, leans his cheek against the top of her head. “Wen Qing,” he says, then trails off. She makes an inquiring noise. “Wen Qing, Wen Qing, I won’t be selling radishes anymore.”
“Excuse me?” she asks, “have you created a talisman to turn bones into silver? Because last I checked, we need the money.” Her words are sharp but she doesn’t move from where she’s boneless against him.
“Wen Qing, it’s over,” he says softly, “everyone is dead besides A-Yuan and Wen Ning, and they are both well. They don’t need to sell radishes with me anymore.”
And because it’s a dream, Wen Qing only says, “Wei Wuxian, you better not be lying.”
“I’m not, Wen Qing, I promise. None of us have to sell radishes anymore.”
Wei Wuxian wakes with the warm weight of Wen Qing still against his shoulder. He opens his eyes to the interior of the jingshi and his husband reading letters at his desk.
“Lan Zhan,” he calls, voice still rough with sleep. His husband instantly looks up, the concentration on his face growing soft around the edges. He smiles sleepily at Lan Zhan, “nothing, I just wanted to call your name.”
He watches as his husband returns to his paperwork. The dream is still fuzzy around him, and he’s not totally sure where he ends and the blankets begin. “Lan Zhan,” he calls again, “come hold me?” His husband obliges, and the familiar weight of Lan Zhan’s body against his slowly brings him back into his body; his ghosts stay in his dreams.
When Wen Ning isn’t traveling or leading nighthunts, he stays at a small house on the outskirts of Caiyi Town. After he had brought A-Yuan safely back to Cloud Recesses, Lan Zhan had quietly acquired the house and told Wen Ning that it was his to do what he wanted. Wei Wuxian stays with Wen Ning sometimes, fiddles with his inventions outside as Wen Ning makes medicines, his hands sure and steady.
It’s a rough mirror of the nights he used to spend with Wen Qing—sunlight instead of moonlight, birdsong instead of the Burial Mounds’ creaking, cheerful stories of their travels instead of their raw underbellies. They rarely speak of before. They will tell A-Yuan stories because he deserves to know of his family, but the two of them are still reeling too violently from the passing of sixteen blurry years to talk of it easily. There is too much between them.
Today when he shows up at Wen Ning’s house, Wen Ning is grinding something bitter smelling into powder. Sheets of paper are stacked next to him, weighed down by a stone.
“Are these your own medicines, or are you helping the apothecary out again?” Wei Wuxian asks, bending over to look closely at the assorted herbs Wen Ning’s laid out.
“My own,” Wen Ning doesn’t pause in his motions, even as he looks up to smile at Wei Wuxian in greeting. “I left some with the doctor of the town my last nighthunt took me too, and I need to restock my stores.”
“Do you want help?” Wei Wuxian asks, and seeing the apprehension on Wen Ning’s face, he adds hastily, “not with the preparation, just with wrapping. I can do that without destroying anything, at least.”
Wen Ning nods, and they spend a mostly quiet afternoon making sure everything Wen Ning needed is stored properly and labeled.
“Wen Ning,” Wei Wuxian says, once they’ve put the last of the medicines away. “I have something for you,” he takes out a qiankun bag, hesitates. “Your sister...she taught me to embroider, and well, I dreamt of her recently,” he laughs a little, “told her we didn’t need to sell radishes anymore, and I couldn’t stop thinking, so I made this, while I was thinking.” He produces a cloth-wrapped frame. “It’s not as good as her work, obviously, but...” he trails off.
Wen Ning takes the parcel, unwraps it slowly. “Wei-gongzi,” he says, after staring at it for a long moment, “this is beautiful...how did you know?” The frame contains embroidery of a flock of crested ibises, some with their wings outstretched.
“She told me once that she loved to watched crested ibises fly, said the colors were Wen but the grace was unrestrained and exhilarating.”
“Jiejie also loved the way the color of their wings was hidden until they took flight,” Wen Ning brushes a finger over the birds.
“There’s one for each of us who lived in the Burial Mounds,” Wei Wuxian says softly, “embroidery is the only thing from back then that I managed to bring out. I wanted you to have this.”
“Wei-gongzi,” Wen Ning smiles, lays a hand on Wei Wuxian’s, “you brought yourself out too.”