Lan Wangji delivers the invitation himself, mostly as an excuse to watch the blinding smile spread across Wei Wuxian’s face when he delivers it. He spends so much time thinking about it on the way there that he’s a little startled to see the faint gauntness in Wei Wuxian’s face when he actually meets him at the path leading up the mountain. It smooths away when he spots Lan Wangji and waves eagerly.
“Lan Wangji!” he calls. “To what do we owe the pleasure?”
“Wei Ying.” For the sake of his dignity, Lan Wangji pretends he hasn’t been thinking up an excuse to visit again since he last came to Yiling months ago. He holds out the scroll in answer, and Wei Wuxian plucks it from his hand, their fingers brushing momentarily.
Wei Wuxian does not disappoint; his eyes widen as he reads, which is almost comical until Lan Wangji catches a glimpse of unshed tears. “Lan Zhan?” he says hoarsely. “This isn’t a prank, is it? That would be so mean.”
Lan Wangji shakes his head. “Not a prank,” he says firmly, and Wei Wuxian lifts his head with a disbelieving grin.
“I’ll get to meet the baby,” he says dazedly, then turns his shining eyes on Lan Wangji. “Lan Zhan! It’s so soon! What will I wear! I have to buy presents! And I’ll see Shijie!” He’s nearly shouting, bouncing on his toes. He grabs Lan Wangji’s upper arm in excitement, which would be alarming if it were anyone else, but from Wei Wuxian it’s just endearing. “Thank you!”
“It is nothing,” Lan Wangji says, meaning that his motives for delivering it were far from selfless. Then, because he is apparently a masochist, he adds, “Would you like to travel to Lanling together? I will be in the area for sect business anyway.” It’s not a lie if he can find some sect business to do here.
Wei Wuxian tilts his head appraisingly, then nods. “Yes, of course,” he says. “As long as you don’t mind walking.” It’s an obvious test, to see if Lan Wangji will bring up why Wei Wuxian won’t just fly on his sword.
But it’s more time with Wei Wuxian. He can’t bring himself to ruin that chance, even if he itches to beg him to let him help with whatever is causing the dark circles under his eyes. “Mm,” he says, inclining his head.
“Great,” Wei Wuxian says, fast enough that Lan Wangji knows he’s caught off guard. “I’ll meet you in Yiling in three weeks, then?”
Lan Wangji nods, and Wei Wuxian squeezes his arm before letting go, mock-bowing as if it’s an inside joke, and making his way back to the trees, a lightness in his step that wasn’t there before. Lan Wangji manages to suppress the resulting shiver until Wei Wuxian’s back is turned.
Wei Wuxian’s robes are slightly nicer when they meet in Yiling -- no holes or patches -- although Lan Wangji can tell he’s wearing the same worn under robes he was before, and is immediately embarrassed to have noticed. “Lan Zhan!” Wei Wuxian says brightly in greeting, and shows off his gifts for the baby.
Lan Wangji, whose gift of a rare scroll will probably not be appreciated for a decade or so, if ever, is duly impressed. Wei Wuxian lets him run an appraising finger over the bracelet, clearly proud. He has good reason to be; Lan Wangji has never seen something quite like it, especially not something made in less than a month.
“It’s nothing,” Wei Wuxian says when he says as much, but he preens a little under the compliments anyway.
The journey is easy, easier than Lan Wangji was expecting. Wei Wuxian is in high spirits, and the sun is shining. Lan Wangji listens to him talk about whatever catches his fancy -- “I’ve been teaching A-Yuan to read and write, and he’s pretty brilliant at it but he has trouble with reading neat characters because he’s used to reading me and Wen Qing’s shitty handwriting, ha! He was kind of obsessed with the invitation you brought, because of course your handwriting is perfect, so I had him copy it down a couple times but of course he spilled a little ink on it so I had to take it back and he cried--” -- and feels the warm light on his face.
He should know better than to relax, which he realizes when Wei Wuxian stumbles to a halt beside him and mumbles, “Shit. Bad news.”
Lan Wangji follows his gaze up to see Jin Zixun standing on the cliff with his chest puffed up, arrogant as usual. He catches a glimpse of the Lan disciples backing him and glares even harder.
“Wei Wuxian!” Jin Zixun yells. “I’m warning you! Uncurse me right now!”
Wei Wuxian just looks at Lan Wangji, confused. “I didn’t curse him,” he says, seriously, as if there’s any question about that, then turns back up to the cliff face. “I didn’t curse you!” he hollers up. “Have we met?”
It’s the wrong thing to say; Jin Zixun stomps his foot. “Nice try!” he says. “Just lift the spell, you miscreant! I have no idea how you’ve fooled Hanguang-jun into buying your innocent act, but I know the truth!”
“What truth?” Wei Wuxian says blankly.
Jin Zixun bares his chest and the hundred holes; Wei Wuxian grimaces a little, but not out of guilt. It’s just gross. “This!” he yells. “If you’re not even willing to confess to your crimes, it’s going to make this a lot harder!”
Lan Wangji clears his throat. “Jin Zixun,” he says. “Wei Wuxian is not responsible for your curse. Be reasonable.”
“Reasonable?” Jin Zixun bellows. “There’s a hundred holes in my chest!” He spreads his arms and glides down, then stalks up to jab a finger in Wei Wuxian’s direction. “You’re supposed to be good at wicked tricks, so undo this one!”
“I didn’t curse you!” Wei Wuxian insists, getting slightly impatient. “I could come up with a way better curse than a hundred holes. If I wanted you dead, you’d be dead.”
It’s almost certainly true, but that doesn’t mean he should say it. Jin Zixun goes purple. “Fuck you!” he spits. “Undo the curse and then fight me man to man!”
“I would, if I had cast it,” Wei Wuxian repeats, sending Lan Wangji an exasperated look over Jin Zixun’s shoulder. “But I didn’t.”
Jin Zixun nearly growls in frustration. “I didn’t come alone,” he says, unmistakably a threat.
“Neither did Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says calmly. He raises an eyebrow at Wei Wuxian. Can you handle him?
Wei Wuxian nods, offhand. Yes, of course .
Lan Wangji flies up to the edge of the cliff. All the disciples straighten out into neat lines, embarrassed to have been caught watching raptly. He addresses all of them, but particularly the thirty-odd Lans who make up around half the group. “Who was this authorized by?” he asks, making clear there is no good answer. He keeps an eye on Wei Wuxian and Jin Zixun at the bottom of the cliff. Jin Zixun has drawn his sword and is gesticulating with it wildly.
The disciples -- most of them quite young -- look between themselves. It’s one of the Jin cultivators who steps forward, with a slightly-too-shallow bow. “Hanguang-jun,” he says. “Young Master Jin informed us of his condition and the wrongdoings of the Yiling Patriarch against him. We felt it was our duty to support him.”
Below them, Jin Zixun has begun swinging, but Wei Wuxian seems wholly unimpressed, sidestepping his attempted blows easily, occasionally raising Chenqing to block. Lan Wangji is unconcerned; Jin Zixun is a mediocre fighter and Wei Wuxian fought a war without a sword. “I see,” he says. “And none of you thought to check the veracity of his claims?”
A moment of silence. Lan Wangji lets his eyes rest on the Lan disciple he knows best, a man a few years his senior who he knows for a fact fought in the war. He’s impassive, but shifts uncomfortably under Lan Wangji’s gaze.
“Who else could it be?” bursts out a Yao disciple.
Lan Wangji lets his eyebrows draw together just slightly in disdain. The Yao disciple shrinks back, just slightly. “You believe Wei Wuxian to be the only cultivator of resentful energy in the entire world?” he asks flatly. At the bottom of the cliffs, Wei Wuxian disarms Jin Zixun by twisting his wrist to make him drop the blade, then flips him over his shoulder to land flat on his back, humiliated and breathless but mostly unharmed. A few years of resentful cultivation have hardly dimmed Wei Wuxian’s quick reflexes, swordless or not.
“Lan Zhan!” he calls up. “Did you see?”
“Mm,” Lan Wangji says, only half paying attention, and then turns fully as he sees Jin Zixun pick up his sword behind Wei Wuxian, absolutely fuming. “Wei Ying!” he begins, a warning, stepping off the cliff to fly down, but he’s not fast enough.
Wei Wuxian barely makes a sound when Jin Zixun’s sword goes through his chest. A tiny noise is punched out of him — half gasp, half sigh. Jin Zixun, wearing that smirk that Lan Wangji has always hated, moves to pull the sword out.
This won’t do; Lan Wangji knows enough about battlefield medicine to understand the principle of keeping the weapon in the wound until a medic arrives. So he does the only thing that occurs to him in the moment, letting the momentum of flight be the force behind the swing; he cuts off Jin Zixun’s hand.
Jin Zixun screams, and the hand falls to the ground, but Lan Wangji barely notices, stepping around him to catch Wei Wuxian, who was only being held up by the sword inside him. Lan Wangji scoops him up, an arm under his back and another under his knees, Wei Wuxian’s head lolling against his shoulder, and steps onto his bloody sword.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian wheezes as they ascend, mouth bloody. There are small curls of resentful energy peeling off him, but they’re directionless and weak.
“Don’t speak,” Lan Wangji says, more harshly than he means to. He tries to look down at him without looking at the sword in his chest; it doesn’t work. He swallows down cold fear, chest aching as if he was the one who was run through. “Please,” he adds. “Save your strength. It will be okay.”
“Lying is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses,” Wei Wuxian mumbles, the whisper barely audible over the winds whipping around them. It sounds impossibly fond. He doesn’t say anything else.
Lan Wangji cradles him close, balancing them as best he can. Wei Wuxian’s blood is hot as it seeps through both their robes, settling sticky against Lan Wangji’s skin. Hot is good, he tells himself. It means Wei Ying is still alive. He just wishes there weren’t so much of it.
He’s not sure how long it takes to get back to Yiling. Too long. He nearly bounces off the protective wards Wei Wuxian set up around the Burial Mounds, and he has to land momentarily to attempt to replicate the character he’s seen Wei Wuxian draw effortlessly. It takes a few tries, Wei Wuxian almost slipping from his grasp as he draws the character with a shaking hand, but finally he lands on the correct one. He lifts off one last time to get up the hill, flying over the trees before landing gracelessly between two vegetable patches.
“Help,” he grits out, not sure he has the breath to yell, but Wen Qing materializes at his side, sleeves already rolled up — she must have been working in the fields.
“Carry him in,” she commands, striding forward without checking to see if he’ll follow. Jin Zixun’s sword grazes Lan Wangji’s cheek as he hoists Wei Wuxian up and follows.
“Hold him up,” she says, pulling out a terrifying pair of shears that he realizes with relief are for Wei Wuxian’s clothes, not his body. Lan Wangji props him up as best he can, trying not to touch the sword. Wen Qing cuts the cloth away, then looks Lan Wangji hard in the eye. “I’m going to pull the sword out. You have to hold him tightly. If you have to throw up, just don’t do it on the wound. Look away if you must, just don’t let go.”
He nods. He doesn’t intend to look away, but then Wen Qing grabs the pommel in her small but strong hands, already slick with blood, and yanks , and he can’t watch anymore. The sound is bad enough, the squelch of blood and scrape of bone, and the way Wei Wuxian’s unconscious body jerks in his grip. He closes his eyes, and holds on so tightly his fingers hurt.
“Lay him down,” Wen Qing tells him, what must be only moments later. “And get out of my way.”
It should feel better now that Wei Wuxian is in the hands of a capable doctor, but not being able to touch him makes it worse. He doesn’t throw up, but it’s a close thing. Wen Qing shoos him away from where she’s working, but she’s too busy keeping Wei Wuxian alive to force him to leave altogether.
Wen Ning appears at some point with bandages and boiled water and herbs that Lan Wangji doesn’t have the presence of mind to name. She barely seems to notice him as she grabs his offerings, but Wen Ning doesn’t seem offended. He offers Lan Wangji water to drink, but Lan Wangji ignores him -- probably rudely. He can’t bring himself to care.
The sun has set by the time Wen Qing leans back, clearly exhausted. “That’s all I can do for now,” she says, using the remaining water to scrub her hands.
“Thank you,” Lan Wangji says, and it comes out a whisper. He stands to bow, but she stops him with a hand on his wrist.
“No need,” she says. “You brought him back. Thank you.”
Lan Wangji hazards a glance at Wei Wuxian’s unconscious body. His chest is bare except for the bandages, and under any other circumstances Lan Wangji would be too ashamed to look. But he doesn’t have time for it now, not with the small hint of blood already visible through the bandages, and the way his bones seem too close to the skin. Wei Wuxian didn’t used to be this skinny. Lan Wangji coveted the memory of his collarbone peeking through his underrobe in the xuanwu cave for years, and he would remember if it looked like that then. The Wen brand, then an angry red, has faded against his skin. Lan Wangji’s eyes linger on his hip bones, noting the way they jut up just above his trousers. Is it that he forgets to eat, or does the soil here not yield enough food?
“I have to sleep,” Wen Qing says, and he realizes he’s been looking at Wei Wuxian for a few moments too long. “Or I’ll be no good to anyone. Ask Wen Ning for a spare blanket if you’re staying.”
He didn’t even think to ask if he could. His uncle would be disappointed. For so many reasons. “If that is alright,” he says, even though they both know full well he intended to all along.
She gives him a sharp nod, not disapproving, then disappears around a corner. Lan Wangji sinks down to sit beside Wei Wuxian, grateful for the practice that his punishments have given him at kneeling for a very long time. He’s not sure when he falls asleep.
Lan Wangji wakes with a start from a not at all restful nap he’d been taking on the floor, disoriented from the second he opens his eyes. The freezing stone has stiffened his muscles. And where is Wei Wuxian?
“Sorry,” a voice says sheepishly from behind him; Lan Wangji turns to see Wen Ning standing by the doorway, shifting from foot to foot. “When you fell asleep in here, Jiejie said not to move you because you needed the rest. Master Wei is in his own bed now.”
“Please take me to see him,” Lan Wangji says, standing. Then he realizes his robes are still covered in blood, now mostly dry, shocking against the delicate white.
Wen Ning follows his gaze. “Let me get you something to change into,” he says, backing through the doorway before Lan Wangji can argue. He returns with an armful of what Lan Wangji quickly realizes are Wei Wuxian’s own robes. “Sorry, we don’t have anything else that would fit you,” Wen Ning says hastily, as Lan Wangji turns the robes over in his hands. “But Master Wei won’t mind.”
He didn’t think Wei Wuxian would. But there is still something skin-pricklingly intimate about it. He suppresses the urge to smell them, and is so momentarily ashamed of the instinct that he holds his breath as he pulls them on. The robes are an inch or so too short for him, and he tries not to think about the implications of donning the same underrobe that Wei Wuxian must wear on a weekly basis. It’s indecent. Wei Wuxian would laugh, of course. Hanguang-jun, so handsome even in my tattered robes! he would tease.
And he will, Lan Wangji reminds himself sternly, walking out to meet Wen Ning. He’s sure he looks ridiculous in the borrowed robes, his hair still done up as if for a party, but he doesn’t really care. Wen Ning leads him nervously down the passage to Wei Wuxian’s bedroom, pausing at the door. “He doesn’t look very well,” he says in his quiet voice. “But Jiejie says all hope isn’t lost.”
Lan Wangji nods tightly, and Wen Ning lets him pass. He’s right; Wei Wuxian looks awful, so pale that Lan Wangji actually checks to make sure there are no black veins creeping up his neck. Without thinking, he takes Wei Wuxian’s hand — then can’t bring himself to let go.
“He hasn’t woken?” he asks, though he’s sure he knows the answer.
“No, but that doesn’t mean anything right now,” Wen Ning says, with surprising surety. Lan Wangji remembers vaguely that Wen Ning helps his sister during surgery; it makes sense he’d have some rudimentary medical knowledge. “Right now, all his energy is focused on healing.”
Lan Wangji traces the back of Wei Wuxian’s hand. It’s not as warm as it would be normally, and instinctually, to reassure himself, he reaches out to feel for his golden core, to try to pass him a little spiritual energy.
There’s nothing there. Not even the whisper of a depleted core or the weak murmur of a new one. Lan Wangji’s offered energy wisps away.
“How—“ Lan Wangji chokes. “His core —?” He looks at Wen Ning, half accusatory in his shock. “Jin Zixun could not have—“
“No, no!” Wen Ning says, holding out his hands. “He hasn’t had one for years, don’t worry!”
This is not as reassuring as Wen Ning seems to think.
“Please explain,” Lan Wangji says, pained. He feels for Wei Wuxian’s pulse instead; in the absence of a golden core, it will have to do as reassurance that he’s still alive.
Wen Ning is so anxious that the story comes out in a ramble, out of order. Lan Wangji wants him to hurry up, but he’s also not confident in his own ability to speak, so he just keeps quiet and lets him talk. His heart feels as if it’s about to fall from his chest, beating nearly twice as fast as Wei Wuxian’s does under his fingers.
“So Jiejie did the surgery,” Wen Ning says. “But then when Master Jiang was still coming back down from the mountain, Wen Chao threw him here. So he had no choice, Hanguang-jun, he had to survive somehow, and it’s not like you all would have won the war without him!”
Lan Wangji belatedly recognizes the emotion behind Wen Ning’s rising tone; he believes he has to defend Wei Wuxian from Lan Wangji. And why wouldn’t he? Lan Wangji thinks, chest empty. He’d been as reactive as anyone else when Wei Wuxian appeared with Chenqing, although he’d been more concerned than angry. But Wei Wuxian had never quite understood that, had he? He’d been alone, and scared, and Lan Wangji had been yet another person endangering his ability to use the only power he had left.
“Hanguang-jun?” Wen Ning says, much more hesitantly than before, and Lan Wangji realizes he is on the verge of crying.
“I am fine,” he says, which is only sort of true, and schools his expression back to neutrality as best he can.
Demeanor softened, Wen Ning sits beside him. “He manages okay,” he says gently. “It’s only times like this where it gets hard. You can’t really heal with resentful energy -- or if you can, he hasn’t figured out how yet.”
“Mm,” Lan Wangji says, and Wen Ning reaches out as if to pat his free hand before thinking better of it and pulling back. “Thank you for telling me.”
“You’re welcome,” Wen Ning says, and sighs. “I can’t wait for him to wake up and be mad at me for telling someone his big secret.”
They sit in silence for a little while, not uncomfortably. Wen Ning doesn’t say anything about Lan Wangji continuing to hold Wei Wuxian’s hand, for which he is grateful.
Wen Qing announces herself by putting a pot of soup down loudly on the table. “Courtesy of the uncles,” she says. “A-Yuan helped, so if it tastes weird don’t say anything.” Wen Ning stands and Wen Qing takes his place beside Wei Wuxian, leaning over to check his breathing. “Any changes?” she asks her brother.
“No,” he says. “But he isn’t worse, and there’s no sign of infection.”
Wen Qing nods; she clearly didn’t hope for anything better. Wen Ning hands Lan Wangji a bowl of soup and a spoon. He’s deeply unhungry, but makes himself take a few sips for the sake of politeness. It’s not terrible, just oversalted. A-Yuan’s help, he assumes.
He relinquishes Wei Wuxian’s hand reluctantly as Wen Qing begins to redress his wound. It slips limply from his grasp.
“He was damned lucky,” Wen Qing mutters as she works. “The sword nicked a lung, but the rest of his organs are okay.” She sighs, clearly frustrated. “You got him back just in time, but still…”
“Still?” Lan Wangji prompts.
Wen Ning’s black eyes flick between them. “I told him about his core,” he says.
“Oh good,” Wen Qing says. “I'll talk plainly. So you know why he can’t afford to get stabbed.” She ties off the bandages somewhat aggressively. “He’s too hard to heal, the spiritual energy just goes through like he’s a sieve.”
Lan Wangji tries to breathe evenly. “Will he…?” He can’t finish.
“I don’t know,” Wen Qing says honestly. “He’s just not as sturdy as he was. The resentful energy gives him power, and it can shield him, but once he’s hurt, he has to get better like any average person.”
“Mm,” Lan Wangji says distantly.
Wen Qing looks at him analytically. “A-Ning,” she says. “Can you bring the soup to Granny? I don’t know if she got a chance to have some earlier.”
Wen Ning looks between them again, but nods, picking it up carefully so as not to spill any.
Once he’s gone, Wen Qing sits down across Lan Wangji. “What is it you want to say?”
There’s a lot he wants to say, for example, How could you cut out his core? and What have you done to earn his trust? Why do you have it but I do not? But that’s not what she meant. “Give him mine,” Lan Wangji says, hand clenching in the rough fabric of his borrowed robe..
Wen Qing’s eyes narrow. “No,” she says, and holds up a hand before he can protest. “Let me explain. I would also like to save Wei Wuxian. But you’re a fool if you think he would be alright with it. If you gave him your golden core and died in the process, we’d have a mad Yiling Patriarch, which is possibly worse than a dead one.”
Lan Wangji opens his mouth, but she speaks over him. “I only performed that surgery the first time because I owed him a favor. It’s a miracle they both recovered, and it’s probably due as much to luck as to my skill as a surgeon.”
Lan Wangji breathes through the retroactive terror about what could have happened. He doesn’t know what to say; he would beg, if he thought it would help, but Wen Qing is not the sort of person who yields once she has made a decision.
“It’s only been a day,” she says finally. “Give him a few more before you do anything rash.” Something almost like a smile plays on her tight mouth. “He talks about you like you’re infallible, but you’re just as reckless as he is, aren’t you? Just quieter.”
He doesn’t confirm or deny. Infallible? Wei Wuxian knows better than anyone exactly how fallible he is.
Wen Qing stands. “I mean it as a compliment, by the way,” she says, and leaves.
Wei Wuxian continues to not wake up. After the second day, Wen Qing pushes Lan Wangji into helping with chores. He’s pretty sure she does it so she can check up on Wei Wuxian without him hovering, but it does help a little to be useful. He helps Wen Ning brew more medicine, cooks with the few ingredients they have, and attempts to do the laundry with Granny Wen. Even under her skilled hands, his white robes are pretty much unsalvageable, but he finds to his surprise that he could not care less.
“I will cut them up for bandages,” he says, taking the stained pile of fabric. The under robe is still wearable, since no one would see it except him, but he cuts it up too, pretending to himself that the reason is his own fastidiousness rather than the feeling of Wei Wuxian’s robes against his skin.
Lan Wangji plays his guqin as much as he can and sleeps on the floor beside Wei Wuxian’s bed, and Wen Qing frowns but does not make him go anywhere else. Possibly because there isn’t anywhere else for him to sleep. He doesn’t mind.
By the fourth day, Wei Wuxian still has not woken up. It is not just Lan Wangji who is restless; all the Wens ask after him as tactfully as they can, except little A-Yuan, who clings to his ankle and begs to know when his gege will get up and play with him again until Granny Wen gently pries him off. None of them seem to mind how little Lan Wangji talks, which is a relief.
On the fifth day, Wen Qing outright orders him and Wen Ning out of the settlement. “Go buy food!” she exclaims, flinging a coin purse at her brother. He catches it deftly and shrugs at Lan Wangji like, Oh well.
Lan Wangji does not want to go, but he has noticed the soup getting thinner and thinner each night, and it is safer for him to go than any of the Wens, so he squeezes Wei Wuxian’s hand and goes.
His own coin purse is about five times heavier than what Wen Qing sent them into town with, so he gives in to instinct and buys as much food as he can, until Wen Ning begs him to stop, stop, they won’t be able to carry it all. When they climb back up the mountain, Wen Ning’s arms are piled with fresh fish and slabs of pork and beans and hefty packets of whatever spices he thinks Wei Wuxian would like to try.
The Wens gape when they return, and A-Yuan shrieks in delight, flinging himself into Lan Wangji’s arms with so little warning that he barely has time to drop what he’s carrying and catch him. “Thank you, Rich-gege!” he yells directly into Lan Wangji’s ear.
Even Wen Qing stares a little, her pinched expression disappearing for a long moment. “Rich-gege indeed,” she says, too shocked to be cynical.
Lan Wangji doesn’t say anything, but whatever she sees in his face makes her smile, very faintly.
It’s not a bad night. He helps Granny Wen fry some of the fish and slice the pork and when he turns around he realizes she’s made a small pot of vegetarian soup just for him. He eats it quietly and lets A-Yuan have a taste when he climbs into his lap, face sticky and belly full. Dinner goes on so long that A-Yuan falls asleep on top of him, and when one of the uncles offers to bring him to bed, Lan Wangji shakes his head. “I’ll take him,” he says, and carries A-Yuan’s sleeping body to the modest room that he shares with Granny Wen. He tucks him in, and, after a moment of hesitation, kisses him on the forehead. He thinks that’s what one is supposed to do with children.
Then he goes back to Wei Wuxian’s side, traces the veins lining the pale inside of his thin wrist. He wants Wei Wuxian to be proud of him, to mock him for his indulgence, to smile again. “Wake up,” he murmurs. “Wei Ying.”
Wei Wuxian doesn’t. On the sixth day, he has a fever.
“Infection,” Wen Qing says grimly. Her soft expression from the previous night is long gone. “Probably his lung.”
Wen Ning has started fretting visibly. Lan Wangji spends the day doing nothing but switching out damp rags on Wei Wuxian’s forehead and playing guqin for him until his fingers are stiff, but without a golden core, it’s difficult to tell exactly how much good it does him, if any.
By nightfall, Wei Wuxian has started wheezing faintly on every shallow exhale. Lan Wangji makes a brief attempt at sleep, but every time he begins to drift off, he stops being able to hear him breathing, and he jerks awake, terrified.
Finally, he gathers himself and goes to Wen Qing’s room, even though it’s the middle of the night and completely improper. He left propriety a long time ago.
She opens the door too quickly to have been sleeping herself.
“Please reconsider,” Lan Wangji says, and he doesn’t have to specify what he means.
In the moonlight, Wen Qing looks awfully young. “I can’t,” she mutters. “Even if the transfer worked, we barely survive the Jin attacks on the wards. We couldn’t withstand Lan attacks too.”
“They would not--” he starts, and she cuts him off with just a look. She’s right. He’d have to keep it a secret from anyone, even his brother. Wei Wuxian is a much better liar than him and only managed to keep it under wraps for a few years.
For a long moment, the only sound in the room is his own irregular breathing. “Tell me what to do,” he says finally, lost. “I… cannot lose him.”
She looks at him, really looks. He’s not sure what she sees, but she almost looks sorry for him. “Okay,” she says, and turns to grab the texts she must have been reading before he came in. “Go to Gusu. I never got to see your library, but I’ve heard it’s a sight to behold.”
“Yes,” Lan Wangji says.
“Go, and bring back every text you can find about golden cores,” she says. “Specifically, splitting them.” She takes a deep breath. “I’ll be honest with you, it’s a long shot. Wei Wuxian and I came up with the transfer technique in the first place, so it’s not like there are related works. But I’ve read the Lans used to -- to cut down a golden core, as punishment. Not remove it entirely, just whittle it down, reduce a person’s power so they would be forced to build it back up more thoughtfully. It might be a safer alternative, if we could pull it off.”
It’s not something Lan Wangji’s ever heard of, but the restricted section makes up nearly a third of the library. There’s a lot he hasn’t heard of. “I will go,” he says. He swallows. “I will try.”
Wen Qing half-smiles, half-grimaces. “I’ll try to keep him alive until you get back,” she says, not a promise but the next best thing.
Lan Wangji goes back to Wei Wuxian’s side. He searches for something to say but can’t come up with a single word, so he just murmurs, “Wei Ying,” and kisses his scorching forehead like he had A-Yuan’s.
Flying to Cloud Recesses takes the rest of the night and the whole day. Quietly wishing he had a little more practice sneaking in after dark, he lets himself in at the back wall instead of the gate. It’s after nine, so the only people out are a handful of patrolling guards, mostly younger disciples. He slips past them easily in Wei Wuxian’s dark robes, and into the library. The lock on the restricted section is laughable to break through, as always. He knows it’s the principle of the thing; that the real protection is disciples choosing not to go in, but it still feels faintly ridiculous.
He’s not a doctor, so he’s not sure what will be useful to Wen Qing. He takes anything that seems even peripherally relevant. His bag is overflowing by the time he’s sure he has everything she might need.
It’s still a couple hours until five, so he isn’t as careful as he should be. At most, he figures he’ll have to knock a couple teenagers unconscious, which he will feel bad about but not enough to not do it. He is not expecting to come face to face with his brother when he tries to slip back up the stairs.
Lan Xichen is in his sleeping robes, with another layer thrown hastily on top, hair tucked into a loose topknot. Lan Wangji could probably count on his fingers the number of people who have seen him untidy; if he crossed the courtyard like this, he must have been really alarmed.
His brother is easy to read, and always has been. Lan Wangji notes the distressed crease between his eyebrows and the determined set of his mouth, and clutches his bag a little closer.
“Wangji,” he says, keeping his voice low. “What are you doing?” He doesn’t actually wait for Lan Wangji to answer. “Everyone is -- no one has seen you in a week! What are you wearing? Where have you been?”
Lan Wangji can’t lie to his brother. “Yiling,” he admits, and watches his eyebrows creep higher.
“Is he--?” Lan Xichen asks. “Jin Zixun has been boasting about killing--”
Lan Wangji shakes his head. “He is very ill. But alive.”
Lan Xichen doesn’t exactly look relieved. “So you’re helping him.”
“Yes,” Lan Wangji says firmly, refusing to feel guilty about it. “I will take my punishment when I return.” He does not say if . He can’t have that conversation right now.
Lan Xichen looks a little hurt. “This isn’t about that. I’m just worried about you. Was it really you who cut off--” Lan Wangji nods. He is not ashamed of it. “Ah.”
“Tell Uncle, if you must,” Lan Wangji says. “But I am going.”
Lan Xichen doesn’t look angry. Just very sad. “Brother,” he says. “I hope you know what you’re doing. People are talking.”
Lan Wangji shrugs. It feels almost sacrilegious. “Let them,” he says.
Lan Xichen looks at him for a long moment. “Wait here,” he says finally, and sweeps out of the door. Lan Wangji considers leaving, but he doesn’t want to hurt his brother any more than he already is. Besides, he returns quickly, with a white bundle in his arms. “Extra clothes,” he says, handing the bundle to Lan Wangji. “And money. I don’t like this, but I trust you. Please be careful.”
Lan Wangji nods gratefully. He can’t find the right words to thank him, but Lan Xichen doesn’t wait for it -- just squeezes his hand in a rare show of physical reassurance, and steps away. He loves his brother dearly.
He has to fly lower on the way back because he’s vaguely concerned about falling off his sword. The lack of food and sleep are beginning to press in on his body, make him clumsy. He feels like he’s going slower, but he gets there by the very early morning of the next day, body aching and head pounding.
Wen Ning is of course up to meet him -- he doesn’t need to rest. His mouth falls open slightly as Lan Wangji presses the bag of scrolls into his arms, which he promptly has to drop to steady Lan Wangji when he sways. “Have you slept?” he asks, sounding for a moment startlingly like his sister.
Lan Wangji shakes his head. “Wei Ying?” he asks.
Wen Ning looks away. “His fever is a little better. But his breathing is worse,” he says quietly.
Lan Wangji nods wordlessly, although his stomach feels tight. Not just from hunger.
“Go rest,” Wen Ning says, nodding towards Wei Wuxian’s room. “I’ll take these to Jiejie.”
Lan Wangji does not actually remember getting to the room, but he is there. He takes Wei Wuxian’s hand and sinks to the ground, only half because he meant to. “Please,” he whispers.
Wei Wuxian’s breath rattles as it drags in, out. Lan Wangji lies down, but doesn’t let go of his hand. He keeps a finger on his pulse as he falls asleep.
Lan Wangji sleeps shockingly late by his standards, through breakfast and almost to lunch. He still feels exhausted when he gets up. “That’s because you didn’t sleep for three days,” Wen Qing tells him when she comes to check on Wei Wuxian, shoving a bowl of vegetables into his hands. He eats mechanically, realizing how hungry he is only when he’s nearly finished.
Wen Qing disappears back to her room and doesn’t emerge until after dinner, not even to scold him for playing too much guqin. Lan Wangji knows better than to hope, but there’s a manic glint in her eye when she appears that makes him sit up straight and pay attention.
“There will be side effects,” she begins. “Unpredictable elements we won’t know until after. Your core will be weakened, even if the transplant is unsuccessful. But it shouldn’t be life threatening.”
“That is of no consequence,” he says. Behind him, Wei Wuxian’s every inhale rasps against his throat.
Wen Qing rubs her eyes tiredly. He’s not sure when it shifted, but she doesn’t hold herself so stiffly in front of him anymore. “You’re as good of a person as he always said you were,” she says, meeting his eyes. “Both of you could stand to be a little more selfish.”
“I am being selfish,” Lan Wangji says. “I could not bear it, if…” He can’t finish the sentence. “This will give him a better chance?”
“That’s the hope,” Wen Qing says. “This has never been done before.” She sighs. “I could use another week, another month, to plan, but we don’t have it. We’ll try tomorrow. Meditate tonight, if you can. Then sleep. Don’t play any more music. Expend as little spiritual energy as possible. Doctor’s orders.”
He nods, lets his hands fall from the guqin. Then, remembering, he reaches into the bundle of his robes and hands her the coin purse his brother gave him.
Wen Qing stares at it. “We can’t take this,” she says. “We’re surviving, you know. We won’t starve.”
He clears his throat. “Please,” he says. He’s not sure how to say it. They both know the Wens will have a much harder time if Wei Wuxian isn’t there. He wants this to be a sort of pledge. They will not be abandoned, even if the worst happens. At the very least, he can give them this.
Wen Qing puts it back in his hands. “No,” she says firmly. “If you still want to, after, we can talk about it.”
He doesn’t argue. His feelings will not change.
In the morning, Lan Wangji takes a lukewarm bath and dresses only in the loose trousers Wen Ning gives him. He thinks they probably belong to one of the uncles. There’s a chill in the air, and he holds back a shiver. When he lies down next to Wei Wuxian, the backs of their hands brush. His skin is hot and far too dry.
He takes a long, long look at Wei Wuxian before Wen Qing sedates him, her slight fingers moving so nimbly he barely feels the needle on the top of his head. “Count to ten in your head,” she tells him.
One. He considers the spread of Wei Wuxian’s dark eyelashes, the way they brush his cheek.
Two. The freckle under his lip. Lan Wangji has wanted to touch it since he was fifteen, to brush a fingertip over it and see if the skin is raised there or not.
Three. The wisps of hair that have escaped from the thick, clumsy braid Wen Ning put his hair into. Lan Wangji is having trouble keeping his eyes open, but he’s got enough presence of mind left to be irrationally jealous that he was not the one braiding Wei Wuxian’s hair.
Four. The space between his eyebrows.
Five. His nose. His perfect nose, Lan Wangji thinks hazily.
He’s out before he gets to six.
When he opens his eyes again, they feel sticky and his stomach aches dully like he’s been stabbed. Or cut open and sewn up. It’s dark, and he squints in the candlelight. He feels weak, and after a moment he realizes why; his golden core is smaller. Still there, just reduced.
“Don’t move,” Wen Qing commands, putting her hands on his shoulders to keep him down. He reaches clumsily to his left anyway to feel for Wei Wuxian’s hand anyway. He finds it after a moment and holds on.
“Wei Ying?” he asks, throat dry.
Someone -- Wen Ning, he realizes -- presses a cup of water into his free hand.
“Drink that. There have been no visible changes,” Wen Qing says as he obeys, “but his body was able to accommodate the core. It’s a good sign. His breathing is better. The fever is gone.”
Lan Wangji lets out a breath of relief. He closes his eyes to concentrate and feel for himself -- and sure enough, he can feel the flutter of a golden core in Wei Wuxian’s body -- his golden core -- small but definitely there.
His face feels hot, and when he turns his head to try to look at Wei Wuxian, something trickles down his cheek and the side of his nose. He’s crying.
“You’re still feeling the medication,” Wen Qing says, probably so he won’t be embarrassed. “Sleep more.”
“Mm,” he mumbles, and drops off again.
His drugged sleep had been deep, dreamless. Now he drifts for a while, and dreams of many things. Lan Xichen as a child, helping him brush his hair. His small fingers aren’t as capable as their mother’s, who used to pull Lan Wangji’s hair loose and run her fingers through it while she talked and then twist it up again exactly as it had been when he arrived, but he does his best. He pulls a little too hard and Lan Wangji squirms and his brother says, “Sorry, didi, sorry…”
He dreams about cooking with the Wens in the Lan kitchens, which are big and sunlit and well-equipped. A-Yuan, shoeless, perched on the table, eating plain rice as he watches Lan Wangji and Granny Wen chop vegetables in comfortable silence. Lan Wangji sets the knife down and reaches out to wipe away a stray grain of rice from A-Yuan’s chubby cheek.
“Thanks, A-die,” A-Yuan says brightly, through a half-chewed mouthful, and behind him he hears Wei Wuxian laugh.
“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” Wei Wuxian says, teasing, but just as Lan Wangji turns to face him, he makes a terrible choking sound and Granny Wen, who has turned into Jin Zixun, has thrust the knife that Lan Wangji put down through his chest.
“No, no,” Lan Wangji says, and when he reaches out to catch him they’re standing below the cliff again, with dozens or maybe hundreds of Lans staring down at them with blank eyes. “Wei Ying, no --”
Wei Wuxian laughs in his arms, blood on his teeth. “This was always going to happen, wasn’t it?” he asks. “Why won’t you let me go?”
“Do not leave me,” Lan Wangji whispers, which he had not been brave enough to say at the time. “Please.”
Wei Wuxian’s eyes widen in surprise, and then they’re on the roof of Lan Wangji’s guest room in the Unclean Realm. Wei Wuxian puts his bottle of liquor down and shifts closer in the moonlight, staring. “You’re a strange one, Lan Zhan,” he says. “I keep waiting for you to push me away.”
“Never,” Lan Wangji says fiercely, and means it. He shifts forward, and then they’re fifteen, in the library of the Cloud Recesses, but instead of Wei Wuxian sprawling across his desk, he’s the one leaning in and Wei Wuxian watches him, looking astonished.
Lan Wangji is aware on some level that he is dreaming, but this feels so real. He grips Wei Wuxian’s narrow teenage shoulders. “Wei Ying,” he says. Beseeching. “Wake up.”