Wen Qing arrives at Lotus Pier very, very late, the rhythmic burr of cicadas loud in her ears. Much of the complex is dark, although she is unsure whether the people who filled those spaces are asleep, or dead. Despite Jiang Yanli's efforts, the rebuilding of Yunmeng Jiang has gone slowly. Wen Qing knows, for instance, that there is only a single watchman on duty; she is counting on Jiang Yanli to hear the knocking at the gates herself, and go to greet her visitors.
She takes a deep breath to try to compose herself. She is nervous, certainly; she has not seen Jiang Yanli since their last disastrous conversation, a year ago. But this is a night of rejoicing, of reconciliation. It would not do to lose control at this most crucial moment.
She is lucky. The gate creaks open, and Jiang Yanli is standing there, her hair half-down, one hand on her sword, her eyes wide in the flickering torchlight. “Wen Qing?” And then, when her eyes focus, and she sees what Wen Qing has brought with her, she screams, and drops her torch.
“Shh, shh,” Wen Qing says, bending to pick it up before the flames can spread. Behind her, Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin shift from foot to foot. They do not like screaming, or fire.
“What have you done,” Jiang Yanli says, her voice shaking. "Wen Qing. What have you done?"
The question throws her. It seems self-evident, what she has done. She spent the better part of a year working at it. Carrying the bodies back down the mountain, half-stumbling with exhaustion and grief, Wei Wuxian a heavy, bloody weight in her arms. Feeding them her own spiritual energy. Talismans, and herbs kept constantly smoldering, to prevent decay. The long, slow, ugly process of restoring consciousness, of returning life to limbs that had laid dormant.
She is a doctor, and it had been her error. They had both died under her hands. She could not leave them there.
"I made a terrible mistake," Wen Qing says, "on the mountain. I've set things right. For you," she adds, in a rush.
Jiang Yanli draws a ragged breath. Her knuckles are white where she clenches the hilt of her sword. She never used to touch it for comfort, before she was sect leader. Wen Qing had noticed that, noticed how Jiang Yanli busied her fine hands with other things, and wondered if Jiang Yanli was like her. If she prioritized other talents.
"Set things right," Jiang Yanli says. Her eyes keep wandering to her brothers behind Wen Qing, to their black-veined faces and inky eyes, and then darting away.
"It's all right," Wen Qing says kindly. "If it takes a while to adjust to them now. It took me a while too."
She had locked herself in that room, thick with incense that barely masked the corpse-stink that all her efforts could not keep from rising. She had read, and read, and read, following half-baked hypotheses and long-forgotten theories until her eyes could hardly focus. Wen Ning had brought her tray after tray of food, and taken each away hardly touched. She had worried him, she knows. She'll have to apologize, now that it's over. Now that she's paid her debt.
"Here," she says. "We've been working on this together. Wei Wuxian, Jiang Wanyin, say hello."
Wei Wuxian does not respond, which is a disappointment but not a surprise. He had been awake for most of the surgery, and so the damage to his meridians, when it began to fail, was extensive. But Jiang Wanyin opens his mouth, and lets out a low, guttural moan. His tongue gives him trouble, sometimes. Soft tissues, you know.
Jiang Yanli is shaking her head and backing away. "No, no, no," she is saying, over and over, her voice rising in pitch as if trying to drown out all other sounds. She has pressed her free hand to her mouth; her fingers tremble.
The brothers flinch at the noise, or perhaps they can sense Wen Qing's own mounting anxiety. Wei Wuxian growls, a low rumble that even she knows better than to pass off as greeting. If she is not careful, they will grow too distressed to control any longer, and the night will be unsalvageable.
"Can we talk inside?" she says. "I know this must come as a surprise."
Jiang Yanli's shoulders shake. "Send them away," she says. "Wen Qing, don't make me look at, at—"
Wen Qing frowns. It would be better to keep them close. Her control grows weaker, at a distance. But Jiang Yanli appears upset at the sight of them, and Jiang Wanyin and Wei Wuxian have never taken kindly to her upset. "Alright," she says, very gently, and draws her flute from beneath her robes. She blows a short note, and the twin prides of Yunmeng leap into the night. Jiang Yanli is still shaking. Wen Qing steps forward, an arm outstretched, meaning to usher her to a bench, perhaps. Somewhere they can sit and talk. This is all going wrong, but she knows if they can just talk, she can draw the conversation back, and Jiang Yanli will understand.
But Jiang Yanli flinches away from her hand as though it were a brand, and Wen Qing slowly lowers her arm.
"I grieved," Jiang Yanli says, finally, the words thick. Her eyes glimmer warm and wet in the torchlight. "When my brothers died, I carved the tablets, and I burned paper money for them, so they would be comfortable. So they would be happy." Her voice trembles, barely restrained. "I was angry, at first, at them, and at you, that I had been left alone. But it passed. I meant it, when we spoke last, that I didn’t blame you. You did what you could.”
Wen Qing disagrees, but they have had this argument before, both in person and in a series of letters, and there is no use rehashing it now. She had tried everything she could think of on the mountain, had nearly burnt her own core out trying to keep the brothers from bleeding out under her hands, but if she had been cleverer, or faster, or more powerful, Jiang Yanli would have had her brothers at her side all along.
“I thought about them every day, as we rebuilt. How they'd be proud of me. How I wished they were here so we could do it together. " Jiang Yanli looks past Wen Qing into the night. The air sits heavy, burdensome on Wen Qing's shoulders; she has never cared for Yunmeng's climate.
"There were so many bodies. After we returned, we just kept finding them. They float, you know, after long enough underwater, and so they would become trapped under the boardwalks. Sometimes under the floorboards too." Jiang Yanli gives an evocative shudder. "It was… horrible."
Wen Qing does not know what to say. She is not unfamiliar with the process of decomposition. The fierce corpses at Nightless City, powered by Wen Ruohan's furious energy, had seemed immune to decay, but until they had awakened, Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin had had no such protection. Early on, when they were still staying at Yiling and her spiritual energy had not yet recovered, Wen Qing had rubbed lotus root juice every day into Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin's skin, where the blood had begun to pool and mottle.
She hates the scent of lotus roots now, unable to extricate them from the memory of those first desperate weeks. But she is not familiar with the particular grief of so many bodies, in such unexpected places, and while she may be a doctor, she has never had the gift of comfort. She stays silent.
"I was grateful, every time we found another shidi or shimei, bloated beyond recognition, that you had told me my brothers were burned." Jiang Yanli is still staring into the empty night. "You said you were so sorry, it was too dangerous to bring their bodies back, but you had done your best to keep them decent. You gave me a pouch of ashes, and I was so— so stupidly grateful." Her voice breaks. "And the whole time, you were—" She swallows. "I grieved, like normal fucking people do, and you desecrated my brothers and called it a gift!"
"It's not desecration," Wen Qing says, feeling stubborn, and defensive, and as though this conversation has put her entirely on the back foot. "I'm a doctor, not a demonic cultivator."
Jiang Yanli's gaze is piercing. "What was in that pouch of ashes? What have I been mourning, Wen Qing?"
Wen Qing opens her mouth.
"What did I place in there with my family!"
"It's just firewood. Just campfire ashes. It's harmless, I promise. I wouldn't do that."
"I have no idea what you wouldn't do anymore," Jiang Yanli spits.
"You wouldn't have understood. They weren't ready." Wen Qing can hear her voice rising, hear herself pleading. She hates it. She did not plead with Wen Ruohan when he threatened her brother; it is childish, and weak, and she is not good at it. But the idea of being a person Jiang Yanli looks at with such revulsion is worse than appearing weak before her. "I wanted to show you when they were feeling better, so you could see. They're your brothers, Yanli."
Jiang Yanli flinches as though she'd been struck. "You believe that," she says. "You really— you can look me in the eye, and tell me that it's them in there."
"Yes," Wen Qing says, with all the conviction she possesses.
Jiang Yanli slaps her with the hand that wears Zidian. Wen Qing is so surprised she does not even engage her core, and flies backward into the dirt. "Don't lie to me," Jiang Yanli says, with all her mother's fury. "You can't know that. They can't even speak."
Wen Qing looks up at her from where she lies sprawled on her back. Jiang Yanli’s hair shines in the torchlight; so do her eyes. "And it doesn't matter," Jiang Yanli continues. "Either it isn't my brothers in there, and you've desecrated their bodies in the worst way I can imagine. Or it is, and you've trapped them in two rotting bodies and robbed them of the chance to pass on. And you dare to come here and parade this monstrosity in front of me like you're proud of yourself! Is this the great legacy of Qishan Wen?"
"Don't," Wen Qing says, rising. She wipes her hand on her robe and dabs at her lip where it has split. Despite her efforts, she feels the sting of dirt entering the wound. She will need to clean it later, or it will fester.
"Don't what?" Jiang Yanli is furious, glorious, tears sparking in her eyes. "Don't dishonor your family, when you have so sullied mine?"
"Don't say things you can't take back," Wen Qing says. "I sent them away, but they have good hearing. If you shout—"
"Stop," Jiang Yanli says. Her voice is heavy with tears. "Stop talking, please, Wen Qing, stop."
"I can't," Wen Qing says. "A good doctor never gives up on a patient and I— I never gave up on your brothers, Jiang Yanli."
Jiang Yanli is sobbing openly now. She sinks to her knees, the fury drained from her, her breath rasping out in little uh-uh-uhs. Wen Qing wants to gather her into her arms, to hold her close. She cannot apologize, but she knows in time, Jiang Yanli will come to be grateful, to rejoice. Her brothers are alive, after so long spent mourning them. She is not alone in the world. She has her family back.
Wen Qing knows that if anything had happened to A-Ning, she would have moved heaven and earth for this gift. Jiang Yanli just needs time. It has been a terrible shock. She realizes she is saying this all aloud, in a soft voice, her arms outstretched. She reaches for Jiang Yanli, and—
—the world explodes in fire as Yanli throws her back with the full force of Zidian. The gates of Lotus Pier slam shut behind her as she flies through them.
Wen Qing rises to her knees on shaking arms. She shuffles forward, and places one palm on the great wooden gates. Her eyes are wet, her breathing unsteady. Odd. When had that happened?
"Just let me in," Wen Qing says, her voice thick. "Jiang Yanli, it's all right. It's just me." She hears a thump beside her, and then a second. Jiang Wanyin and Wei Wuxian are here, on either side of her. They had sensed her intention before she had even had to voice it. Or perhaps they miss their jie already, after so long apart.
They knock, with their heavy untiring fists, on the door. A reverberant knock, nearly a slam, and then another, and another.
"Let me in," Wen Qing says. "We can— we can talk about this. I don't know how it went wrong, but I can fix it. You don't have to be afraid."
The cicadas scream. The brothers knock. And on the other side of the sturdy wood, Wen Qing can hear Jiang Yanli still trying to muffle her sobs, quiet, breathy, terrified, in the warm wet night.