Uninvited guests are not an experience that Wen Qing appreciates at the best of times, even when they are not people for whom her brother has presumably committed something resembling treason. She would very much like to knock the sword out of Wei Wuxian’s trembling fingers—he does not currently have the strength to hold on to it, she is fairly certain—and shove them all out the gates again. He is threatening a-Ning, she tells herself hopefully. That’s as good a reason as any. But even that isn’t true; the urgency in Wen Ning’s expression is for his companions, not for himself. And practically speaking, there is no way to eject the unwelcome visitors without the soldiers outside wondering how they got here, a line of questioning that will not end well for Wen Ning.
They aren’t a threat, at least. Once Wen Qing lets herself conclude that, she cannot avoid noticing everything else: Wei Wuxian and Jiang Yanli are only barely on their feet, and Jiang Cheng...well, presumably he is alive, or Wen Ning would not hold him with such care.
Wen Qing has already left two of them for dead once. Perhaps that should make it possible for her to do so again, but instead she jerks her head at the door and leads the way inside.
Closer inspection only confirms her initial assessment. Jiang Cheng isn’t dying, not yet, but that will not be the case for long if he doesn’t decide that he wants to live. Before Wen Qing can escape to her office, where she will consider in peace how long to wait before forcing Jiang Cheng to sleep, Jiang Yanli cries, “A-Xian!”
Wei Wuxian collapses beautifully, like a player, because of course he fucking does. If Wen Qing did not know better, she would suspect him of faking it.
But she does know better. Even as her feet dash back across the room, her mind is supplying a dozen things that she ought to have given more weight to earlier: pallor, the tremble in his hands, the way he continually shifted his shoulders uncomfortably, a reluctance to stand upright when there was any excuse not to. Most likely, Wei Wuxian had not even realized he was doing most of it, but Wen Qing really ought to have put it all together.
Nobody manages to get to him before he falls. Jiang Yanli is there a moment later, though—and so is Jiang Cheng, who lunges upright and out of bed at Jiang Yanli’s voice. His exhausted legs do not get him far, but he kneels over Wei Wuxian, one hand gripping his shoulder desperately.
“Move,” Wen Qing says, and they do, which is one of the advantages of being a doctor in such a moment. “A-Ning, the bed,” she continues—unnecessarily, as Wen Ning is already stooping to pick up the still form. “Mind his back.” Wen Ning nods and shifts his grip accordingly.
“His—what?” Jiang Yanli asks. Her voice is not quite shaking. “Why?”
“I don’t know, but he’s been favoring it since you arrived,” Wen Qing says.
They both catch the shift in Jiang Cheng’s expression. Jiang Yanli says, “A-Cheng?”
“I forgot,” Jiang Cheng says, blankly. He is staring at Wei Wuxian, who does not stir as he is set down where Jiang Cheng himself lay only a minute before. “Mother—Zidian, she—” His fingers touch the dead metal circling his wrist and jerk away again.
Jiang Yanli closes her eyes briefly in an emotion that is not surprise. Wen Qing catches her brother’s eye; they have spent too long in Wen Ruohan’s court to find such an admission shocking, but that does not make it comfortable.
Wei Wuxian’s back, when they manage to peel away his robes, is a ruin of dried blood and sweat and dirt. More concerning than the scabbed wounds is the fact that the skin radiates heat under Wen Qing’s fingers. “Infection,” she says. “The cuts must be cleaned and bandaged properly, first.” She can feel the Jiang siblings hovering anxiously at her back, but they manage to restrain themselves enough for Wen Ning to collect water and cloths and begin the work. Out of habit, Wen Qing keeps half an eye on him, but his hands have been skilled and gentle at this sort of task for long enough that she does not truly need to.
The rest of Wei Wuxian, now that she is taking the time to look him over properly, is not in very much better shape. “He hadn’t healed properly yet, after the Xuanwu cave,” Jiang Yanli supplies quietly. That explains a good deal: under the bruises, without his robes and energy to hide behind, Wei Wuxian is thinner and paler than she remembers.
The bruises themselves are notable. “What happened here?” she asks, fingers hovering over the marks encircling his neck without quite touching. They are not fresh enough to be dangerous; had his throat been seriously damaged, he would not still be breathing. Still, she knows the signs of strangulation when she sees them, even if the attempt was unsuccessful.
“I don’t know,” Jiang Yanli says. “The Wen attack, perhaps. A-Cheng, do you remember?”
The silence makes Wen Qing turn and follow her gaze. Jiang Cheng looks an entirely new sort of nauseated. “No,” he says, still sounding distant and numb. Wen Qing cannot decide whether it is much of an improvement over his refusal to get up at all. “I mean, no, it wasn’t the Wen.” His fingers flex as he stares down at them, as though at a stranger’s hands.
Jiang Yanli breathes, “Oh, a-Cheng.”
“I’m sorry,” Jiang Cheng says, the blankness dissolving into sandpaper and broken glass. “I didn’t mean to—I just—I’m sorry.”
Wen Qing catches her brother’s eye, and Wen Ning sets aside his damp cloth in time to help Jiang Cheng sink down by the bed as his legs give out once more.
They all three stay there as Wen Qing finishes her examination, wraps Wei Wuxian’s back lightly, lays him on his stomach and draws a blanket over him. When she returns with medicine, Jiang Yanli sits with her head on Jiang Cheng’s shoulder as they watch over their—what is he to them? Convention says disciple, no more; everything in their expressions says brother. Well, that is not Wen Qing’s concern.
Wei Wuxian finally stirs at the pinch of her needles. “Hold still,” Wen Qing tells him, hearing the voice that she has crafted to sound calm and firm at once come out. Obedient, he quiets. He is awake, though; he follows her movements as best he can while she spreads herbs over his back and replaces the bandages. The compliance is not a particularly good sign, easy as it makes her task. It reminds her more of an animal too weak to protest than the bright-eyed always-moving creature that she knows he ought to be. There is a glassiness to his eyes that she does not like either, matching the heat that still burns away under her palms as she works.
Jiang Yanli waits until she has stood back again to lean forward and murmur, “A-Xian, how are you feeling?”
“Shijie?” The word comes out slurred; he blinks slowly at her. Then, tensing in a way that threatens to undo all of Wen Qing’s labor, he rasps, “Jiang Cheng, where’s—is he—”
Jiang Cheng’s hand clamps down on his shoulder; Wen Qing is pleased and a little surprised to note how carefully it avoids the bandages. “I’m right here, idiot,” Jiang Cheng says, in the gentlest voice she has ever heard from him. “I’m fine. Hold still, or you won’t be.”
Wei Wuxian sags back into place at once. “Jiang Cheng,” he mumbles again. “’m sorry.”
“Shut the fuck up,” Jiang Cheng says, still soft. He replaces the blanket over Wei Wuxian’s shoulders where it has shifted. “I’m—I’m sorry too.” His voice cracks a little. Wei Wuxian’s eyes are closing again; Wen Qing can see the glint of wetness on his cheeks. “We need you to get better,” Jiang Cheng tells him. “You have to get better, all right? Then we’ll—we’ll figure something out.” Wei Wuxian’s hand worms its way out from under the blanket; Jiang Cheng grabs it and hangs on.
“We’re here, a-Xian,” Jiang Yanli murmurs, covering their clasped hands with both of her own. “We’re safe. A-Cheng is right; we need you to rest and heal, and then we’ll decide what to do next.”
Wen Qing slips out before she has to notice for sure that all three of them are weeping.
None of them sleeps that night. She points out that the others could, since she will be checking on their collective patient every hour regardless of who else is awake; the Jiangs do not even seem to register the meaning of her words, though, and she gives it up. Brother it is, then, she thinks, imagining and then shying away from the thought of Wen Ning in such a state.
Wei Wuxian’s fever climbs, until he is shivering and sweating and neither fully asleep nor awake. He does not respond when the others say his name, now. Instead he tosses fretfully against the restraining hands that keep him from rolling onto his back; when he does speak, is it not coherent. Wen Qing hears enough fragments to assemble a reasonable idea of the events filling his dreams: There’s something in the water, and Jiang Cheng, go, go now! and through it all, over and over, Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan. On one of her checks, Wen Qing catches Jiang Cheng telling Jiang Yanli the story of the cave battle, what he knows of it. It is more than she did and far more than she wanted to. The information goes away into the box in her mind of things that she cannot change or control, a space that grows alarmingly overfull these days.
Is Lan Wangji even alive? She has no idea. Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng obviously escaped the cave; perhaps he did as well. The call of his name does not seem to be a lament, but in Wei Wuxian’s current state that means nothing. Even if he did make it out, Gusu is not safe for anyone in a white headband at the moment; Wen Qing tries to keep her head down and ignore the events of the war as much as possible, but she would have heard if Cloud Recesses were retaken as the Unclean Realm already has been.
She hopes, half-idly, that Lan Wangji is alive. The repetition of his name itself can mean nothing but terrible grief, if Wei Wuxian comes back to himself and remembers that he is dead.
But first Wei Wuxian will have to survive the night, so Wen Qing turns her attention to that goal. It is not a terribly difficult one; she is confident that the wounds-turned-illness will not claim his life, strong as he is even now. Having learned her lesson, she does not ignore the other two: none of the three is in particularly good condition, and she has no interest in trading one patient for another a second time. Jiang Yanli is stronger than she was when they arrived; Wen Qing catalogs the signs of a fading bout of illness and makes a mental note to order her to sleep when that seems remotely possible. Jiang Cheng is rather worse off, but the emptiness behind his eyes has largely dissipated. Having survived both the loss of his core and the learning of that loss, he will be all right as long as he does not slip into despair. Wei Wuxian’s collapse seems to have dragged him out of that, at least.
Wen Ning brings all three of them food at periodic intervals. Wen Qing is trying to decide whether she will be listened to if she directs Jiang Cheng to eat when Jiang Yanli touches his shoulder and says, “A-Cheng, eat. He will need you to be strong, to take care of him.” Jiang Yanli, Wen Qing decides, is some sort of genius, because Jiang Cheng swallows, nods, and accepts the bowl that is pressed into his hands. He eats all of it with a fixed sort of determination.
The fever breaks in the earliest hours of the morning. “I think he is better,” Jiang Yanli says, half-pleading, when Wen Qing arrives after a half-hour drowsing over her desk. It is true, though better is still not good. Wei Wuxian’s skin no longer radiates heat, and he lies quiet rather than turning restlessly. Wen Qing changes out the bandages, listens to his shallow breathing, and reminds herself to brew the tea that will, with luck, keep his lungs clear as soon as he can lift his head to drink it.
Jiang Cheng lifts his face to hers. “Is he—” The words seem to stick behind his teeth.
“The fever is done,” she says. Unless it comes back, but there is no reason to point that out. “He is very weak still, but I believe that was the worst of it.”
The little choked sound that escapes him is the sort that she imagines he would have been terribly ashamed of, had they not all spent the night as they did. Wen Ning touches Jiang Cheng’s shoulder gently and says, “There are beds for you, in the next room. I can watch him for a while.”
Wen Qing bites down a laugh—a real one, though of the slightly hysterical variety that comes from staying up all night—as Jiang Cheng and Jiang Yanli look at one another and visibly realize that the other will not rest unless they do. “Wake us if anything changes,” Jiang Yanli tells Wen Ning.
He nods and settles in, though not quite so close to the bed as they had sat. “You should rest too, ajie,” he says, once the Jiangs have leaned on each other all the way out the door. He is right, Wen Qing knows, and he is more than capable of taking care of Wei Wuxian in his current state. She opens her mouth. “I’ll come get you if he gets any worse,” Wen Ning says, before she can form the words. Defeated, Wen Qing returns his small smile, rests a hand on his head for a moment, and goes to her own bed.