The dark, by itself, does not scare him.
The smell-- musty and wet, just the wrong side of warm-- by itself, does not scare him.
The emptiness, by itself, does not scare him.
The blood, by itself, does not scare him.
But combined-- that is a different story. The blackness pushes in against his eyelids, refusing to fade no matter how hard he blinks. His throat clenches with each inhale, rebellious against the stale odor that forces itself into his mouth and lungs. His veins feel thin and worn without their usual warmth of energy, and the deeper he reaches to feel something, anything, the farther away any sensation floats. He can taste blood on his lips, metallic where it drips from his nostrils.
It takes him back. He doesn’t want to go to that place, to that moment in time, but he is dragged there nonetheless, until he is not the Sandu Shengshou, not a clan leader, not even an uncle-- just a scared, sick boy who toes the line between life and death and cannot bring himself to care.
Jiang Cheng lets his eyes roll back into his skull, and passes out.
When Jiang Cheng comes to, he almost thinks he hasn’t.
His eyes flutter open to complete blackness. Wherever he is, there is no light whatsoever.
It’s dark. So dark. Too dark.
“Wei Wuxian?” he cries out, torso snapping upwards as a sudden panic lances through his body like a jolt from Zidian.
“I’m awake,” his brother’s voice sounds close to his ear, a low groan. “Where did that monster take us?”
Jiang Cheng doesn’t reply, instead opting for several deep breaths. He’s not alone. That, at least, is different. He clings on to that one dissimilarity. It may be dark, and rank, and Jiang Cheng may be so empty and bloody but he’s not alone.
His company does leave something to be desired, though.
He reaches out with shaking fingers to feel the ground around him, scraping against harsh, unforgiving rock. The wall his body has been thrown against feels similar-- dry, despite that smell, the wet and moldy one. Perhaps there is water somewhere in here-- but despite Jiang Cheng’s violent thirst, he somehow doubts he could bring himself to drink it.
“A cave,” Wei Wuxian muses, answering his own question. His voice seems farther away, as though he has started exploring their dark environment.
A cave is better than a prison cell, Jiang Cheng tells himself. A cave is much better. A cave has an entrance, and an exit. A cave has no lock and key. Jiang Cheng can walk out of a cave. If he cannot walk, he can crawl. If he cannot crawl, he can drag himself.
He cannot leave a prison cell.
“I don’t think there’s a way out,” Wei Wuxian calls, his voice a slight echo now with his gained distance.
“Great,” Jiang Cheng replies, making sure his sneer is audible and that his violent fear is not. “Fantastic. Wonderful job, Yiling Patriarch. Now that you’ve gotten us trapped in a cave, what do you plan to do next?”
“First of all,” Wei Wuxian huffs, and Jiang Cheng jumps ever so slightly at the sudden nearness of sound, “I did not get us trapped here. Second-- we wait until Lan Zhan finds us.”
“Lan Wangji?” Jiang Cheng could laugh. “Of course. If you depart his side for more than five seconds, he drops everything to come find you.” His joke would be funnier if he was being sarcastic.
“I just meant that he’s in Jiangling anyways,” Wei Wuxian asserts, a little colder now. “It won’t take long for him to find us. This cave can’t be too far away from there, since that’s the town your disciples went missing from.”
“Right,” Jiang Cheng mutters. “He’d be with us anyways if he didn’t fucking hate me so much.”
“That’s not true.”
“Yes, it is. I’m shocked he’s not here, actually. He seems intent on protecting you from me. His dislike must truly be vast for it to outweigh that annoyingly constant worry.”
“Shut up, Jiang Cheng.”
Jiang Cheng does, for once, if only because that squeezing in his chest has abruptly doubled its efforts, trying to choke all the air out of him. He needs to breathe, and yet each inhale brings in that taste of dank water, of rot, of death, bringing him closer and closer to a memory he really, truly, never wants to revisit.
He focuses on the smell, though. It’s better than that draining emptiness in his core that he’s trying his very best to ignore.
“Spirit-sucking monster,” Wei Wuxian says, always knowing perfectly what Jiang Cheng cannot bear to hear in that moment. “Rare, huh? Just our luck.”
“Hm.” It’s all Jiang Cheng can manage for a minute.
“Fortunately for us, Wei Wuxian is an expert on--”
He stops himself, but it doesn’t matter. They both know what he was going to say.
Jiang Cheng grits his teeth. What in hell did he do to deserve such a shitty day like this?
“Yeah?” Jiang Cheng spits the meanest laugh he can muster. “What can our very own Yiling Patriarch do in a prison like this?”
Not a prison, not a prison. It can’t be. It won’t be. Jiang Cheng will not let this be his prison.
“I’m working on it,” Wei Wuxian replies delicately. “You should consider yourself lucky that I happened to be in town. Otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to help you investigate this dumb monster, and you’d probably be dead by now.”
Jiang Cheng doesn’t feel particularly lucky at the moment.
“I would not,” he snaps. “And the monster is keeping us alive for a reason, so either way, I wouldn’t be dead by now.”
“Hm.” Wei Wuxian’s clothes rustle as he moves. “Well, anyways, I don’t think your disciples are alive anymore. There are… remains.”
Jiang Cheng closes his eyes regretfully. He hadn’t reached them in time, then. Once spirit-sucking monsters become unsatisfied with stealing energy, they consume the flesh. His rescue mission was in vain. Jiang Cheng shudders, trying not to think about what Wei Wuxian must have touched to discover the remains in the darkness.
He pushes past the thought, and past the regret. Dwelling on either of them will do no good now.
Jiang Cheng reaches up to brush a strand of hair from his eyes. His bloodied fingers brush against his cheek, giving him slight pause. He doesn’t even know where the blood has come from. His lips are coated in it, dried and flaking from where he’d first coughed it up. He’s aware, on some level, that he’s injured-- when the monster had snatched him up and tossed him, he’d fallen badly on his head, for one thing. But the monster had grabbed him around the waist previously, he supposes-- and he has no clue what happened after he passed out-- they must have been dragged here...
He starts searching himself, feeling his way down his robes. They’re torn in a hundred places, and Jiang Cheng is vain enough that he wants to care, but scared enough that he doesn’t. He finds claw marks across his ribs, criss-crossing old scars with fresh, weeping gashes. Not deadly, at least. He can’t see, but he thinks his hip is likely badly bruised, hissing at the pain that shoots down his leg when his fingers brush it. Travelling lower, he finds a deep wound in his calf-- that’s concerning, and throbbing with agony, but not life-threatening. Still-- he can’t walk on it. That’s for sure.
(That’s okay, though. If he can’t walk, he will crawl. If he can’t crawl, he will drag himself. He will not let this be another prison.)
“You okay there?” Wei Wuxian asks. There’s not a note of urgency in his voice. That almost hurts, but Jiang Cheng would feel worse if Wei Wuxian was actually worried. He and his paradoxical hatred.
“Fine,” Jiang Cheng lies tersely. Odds are, Wei Wuxian’s not much better off.
Well. Most likely, he is not currently waging war against his own mind, in a constant battle to repress a surge of violently sickening memories, pressing a wall against the swarm of bloodied, reaching, screaming hands that beg to be let in so they can drag him down.
Jiang Cheng, over the years, has gotten very good at not letting them.
“You hurt?” Jiang Cheng asks, careful to match Wei Wucian’s light tone.
“Not badly. Besides my arm, I’m mostly good.”
Besides his arm? Jiang Cheng squints, as if he could penetrate the oppressive blanket of darkness, but there’s nothing. Jiang Cheng lets it go.
“We should try to see if we can renew our spiritual energy,” Wei Wuxian suggests after several moments of silence.
Jiang Cheng grimaces at a sudden surge of nausea. He’s not sure how related it is to Wei Wuxian’s words, or if it’s just a symptom of his throbbing headache. Either way, he doesn’t want to follow Wei Wuxian’s advice, because that involves reaching. Reaching, and finding nothing. Empty.
He loses count of the times he tries to feel something. Anything. There is nothing, every time. It is a freezing cold agony. He lies curled in the corner of hell-- that is, a cell. Lotus Pier’s personal prison has long since been disused. The place has fallen into disrepair. The soft skitter of rats sends goosebumps rippling across Jiang Cheng’s bruised skin. The wood digs splinters into Jiang Cheng’s aching side. And the smell-- the smell--
Fuck. Jiang Cheng’s hand flies to his wrist and he digs his fingers into the pulse there, hard enough to draw blood, hard enough to ground him. He swallows down each panicked breath, careful to keep his gasps inaudible. Not now, not here-- Not in front of Wei Wuxian.
“Are you okay?”
“I already told you I’m fine!” Jiang Cheng snarls, a fleck of blood flying from his lips with the ferocity of his reply. “Why the fuck do you care?”
A silence where he can practically sense Wei Wuxian settling into that cold, carefully practiced removed expression. “Huh, I don’t know, maybe because you’re my brother?”
“That’s funny,” Jiang Cheng hisses, desperately ignoring the rapid, stuttered increase of his heart rate. “Fucking hilarious. Seems like you pick and choose when you want that to be true.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Wei Wuxian snaps, all sharp syllables and rigid hurt.
“You know exactly what I mean,” Jiang Cheng seethes. “When you left Jiang Clan-- you weren’t my brother then, right? If I was your brother, you wouldn’t have tossed me aside for your new fucking family.”
Gods, what the hell is talking about?
“Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian practically growls, and Jiang Cheng laughs, a high-pitched tremble of a sound skittering into the darkness.
“What? Are you angry now? Good, you should be. Are you going to yell at me? Scold me? Go on, be my big brother, Wei Wuxian, now that it’s convenient for you.”
He’s bathing in his own sweat, blood, vomit. He’s so cold, so cold, so cold to the marrow of his bones, to his nonexistent core. He can’t hold on for much longer. He will fade away, rescued from this hell on earth. Good… Wei Wuxian is safe, Jiang Yanli is safe. This is what he wants. This is what he is good for.
“A-Xian, you have to keep them safe. Take care of them.”
Look at me, A-Die. Are you proud yet? Am I good yet? Am I better yet? I protected him.
He can barely breathe, much less trade barbs with Wei Wuxian, but somehow he keeps up his rigid snaps and sneers in exchange for Wei Wuxian’s stiff-lipped rebukes and chilled anger. It’s frustrating, really, when Jiang Cheng hurls everything he has at his brother while Wei Wuxian simply bears it and refuses to reciprocate any damage. Each time an insult leaves his mouth and Wei Wuxian fails to match his temper, he becomes shorter and shorter of breath. Wei Wuxian is supposed to be angry. He’s supposed to hurt Jiang Cheng. He has never stopped himself before. Why won’t he drag him now, when Jiang Cheng needs something to focus on, something to latch on to—
“Stop,” Wei Wuxian says wearily after a particularly fierce sting. “Just stop. Let’s focus on getting out of here. Then, you can go back to hating me in peace.”
This isn’t working, Wei Wuxian isn’t fucking cooperating, he’s supposed to hit back.
“What?” Wei Wuxian barks.
Ah. Perhaps Jiang Cheng said that out loud. Perhaps that head injury is worse than he thought.
Maybe, if Jiang Cheng could breathe, it’d be okay. If he could breathe, maybe he wouldn’t cut Wei Wuxian the way he does. Maybe, if he could breathe, he’d be able to think about the words that left his mouth, the brutal ones, the false ones. (The honest ones, too. Those are the worst.)
Because when their argument climaxes, and Wei Wuxian spits a phrase out that sounds something like “But why--”, Jiang Cheng snarls “Because I fucking hate myself, obviously!”
Maybe, if he could breathe--
He closes his eyes despite the darkness, screws them shut, tighter and tighter, willing them to bring him pain. Gods, anything, he needs to feel something besides this all-encompassing squeezing in his chest. His throbbing head is leaning against the walls of the cave, neck exposed yet hidden in the blackness of his own stolen vision.
On some level, he knows the words weren’t the ones he wanted to say. They weren’t the right ones to say, not in this moment, not to Wei Wuxian, not aloud, not ever. But his heart won’t stop fucking choking him, and he can’t-- he can’t--
“Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian says, finally breaking the silence that Jiang Cheng had barely been aware of, “...what did you say?”
“What?” Jiang Cheng snaps back. He can feel the protrusion of throat bobbing with each ragged inhale, a cold trickle of sweat slipping down from his temple to the bare column of skin. Maybe he shouldn’t have said those words. Maybe he hit his head too hard. Maybe he’d had that thought already. He needs to keep it together, keep it together, keep it together-- “Sorry, was that a surprise to you?”
He manages to turn that into a sneer even, but he hears the jump in the last syllable where his voice gives out, succumbing for a moment to the panic that floods his veins. Does Wei Wuxian catch it too? Jiang Cheng doesn’t know. He can barely afford to consider it.
A rat nibbles on his finger. It hurts. Jiang Cheng laughs, a hysterical, distorted sound bursting into the dank cell, as out of place as-- as-- well. As a laugh in a dungeon.
Keep it together, fucking keep it together-- Gods, it hasn’t been this bad in-- in years--
“Jiang Cheng.” Wei Wuxian has said his name too many times in the last hour. It’s starting to grate. “Don’t say that.”
“I can say what I want,” Jiang Cheng scoffs.
“Not that. Not when it hurts you.”
Jiang Cheng’s lips curl back against iron-flavored teeth, the cruelest grin he can muster cutting his face. “This doesn’t hurt.”
“That’s… worse, gods, Jiang Cheng, what the fuck is wrong with you?”
He takes a breath, and that action overwhelms him. The places where his ribs have cracked scream. The gashes on his chest tear open again with the shallow expansion. The stench curls into his nostrils, and if he had even enough energy to do anything but breathe, he’d be vomiting all over himself now--
“Nothing’s wrong,” Jiang Cheng replies with a hard laugh. “It’s always been like this, didn’t you know? I guess not-- I always thought you did-- If I had to pick a person that knew, I’d have picked you…”
Is he rambling? Is this rambling? Gods, his head hurts.
“That you hated yourself?”
“Is that what we’re talking about?” Jiang Cheng swallows down another choked whimper and squeezes his fingernails into his palm. “I’d lost track.”
His nose has started to bleed again, twin trails of metallic liquid catching in the dip above his lips and the crevice between them. The taste makes him light-headed as his tongue darts out and catches the rivulets involuntarily. His stomach roils with the acceptance of his own spilled fluids back into his body. He could throw up, right now, into the darkness. He could do it so easily. His stomach clenches-- his heart-- his lungs--
“--eng? Jiang Cheng, cut it out, you’re fucking-- gods, you’re worrying me, are you even listening?”
“A-Xian,” Jiang Cheng croaks, and it’s supposed to be a deep cut, a vicious stab, but somehow, he’d miscalculated. His head throbs and his lungs continue to deny him the proper amount of oxygen and his body won’t stop threatening to vomit up his heart, and it comes out a pathetic gurgle instead. Wei Wuxian falls silent instantly, but it’s not the wounded, angry silence that Jiang Cheng had been hoping for.
There had been more to the insult, in Jiang Cheng’s mind, but his tongue has finally decided to give out, only adding to his humiliating failure. The only moisture slicking his mouth is blood, any saliva having long dried up in his fear. He reaches up with a shaking hand to squeeze the hilt of Sandu before remembering that he’d dropped the sword when the monster had thrown him. Somehow, he doubts that it was kind enough to take the weapon with them to this cave.
The emptiness is a solid thing. That, in itself, is a paradox to end all others, but it is the only apt description Jiang Cheng can assign. It feels like-- losing a tooth. The sheer wrongness of the missing object feels like a being, a mass, in and of itself. Jiang Cheng reaches for it-- a tongue darting into the fresh gap in between its abandoned white brothers-- and grasps only onto that emptiness, that new, rough cavern in his gut, both real and nonexistent.
He reaches. Dips his fingers to his core. Comes up empty.
He does vomit, then. He retches all over himself, and it’s disgusting, he’s disgusting, but he can’t stop himself. He vomits until tears press at the corners of his eyes, until his own hands are covered in it from where he managed to brace himself against the harsh rocky floor. It does nothing to improve the wretched stink of this place, this prison, and Jiang Cheng would apologize if he wasn’t filling his mouth with regurgitated food. (No he wouldn’t-- or perhaps he would, sarcastically. Or maybe he would drop the sarcasm for once. He doesn’t know. He doesn’t know.)
Wei Wuxian finds Jiang Cheng’s hair and gathers it in his hands, pulling it to safety behind Jiang Cheng’s back until the last of the vile substance has been expelled. Of course he does, because he’s Wei fucking Wuxian, and he’s the most gracious, selfless person Jiang Cheng knows, and even though Jiang Cheng was hurling the most grating insults he knew at him not five minutes ago, Wei Wuxian is so purely good that he’s performing what has to be the most disgusting and personal and disgustingly personal act known to man.
The tears on Jiang Cheng’s cheeks, he knows, are not entirely due to the vomiting.
Gods. He hates himself.
“Did it poison you?” Wei Wuxian asks calmly when it’s over, when the only noise is Jiang Cheng’s shaking, wet gasps (not sobs, they’re not sobs). “Is this a part of its curse? Or power?”
Jiang Cheng could lie, but somehow, after Wei Wuxian had just held his fucking hair while he threw up all over himself--
“No,” he grounds out, the taste of vomit acrid in his throat with the single syllable.
He does not elaborate.
“Okay,” Wei Wuxian replies patiently, when it becomes clear that Jiang Cheng will not continue. “Are you ill? Do you know what’s wrong?”
Jiang Cheng eases his weight from his palms until his back hits the cave wall once more. He wipes his fingers on his robes. They’re ruined already anyways.
“It felt-- like this,” he manages finally.
It’s been nearly two decades. Jiangs are not so delicate, he can almost hear his father saying.
I live to fucking disappoint, Jiang Cheng would say, if Jiang Fengmian could hear him.
“It felt just like this, when I lost my core,” Jiang Cheng continues. He pretends his own selfish sake that his voice is even. “In that-- place they kept me. It was just like this.”
“Oh,” Wei Wuxian says, so softly, too softly, like the word was just barely wrung out of him.
“It just reminded me, is all,” Jiang Cheng continues, because he can’t let it end like that, with that palpable sadness in Wei Wuxian’s voice, open and sympathetic and horrifying.
It’s clear he doesn’t know what else to say. Jiang Cheng tries to blame him for that, just like he blames him for everything else. Tries. Fails.
Jiang Cheng’s vision remains pitch black, but Jiang Cheng lived with Wei Wuxian for nearly two decades, and he can feel the gears turning in the other man’s brain.
“Stop that,” he rasps.
“Stop-- being sad. Stop thinking sad things about me.” He turns his head towards Wei Wuxian’s voice and tries to glare. “I don’t know what you’re doing, but you’re doing something.”
There’s a long hesitation from the other man.
“What am I doing right now?” Wei Wuxian asks finally. His voice has moved slightly, sound barely further away. Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes and doesn’t bother following the voice with his gaze. Wei Wuxian wouldn’t know anyways.
“How am I supposed to know?”
“Jiang Cheng.” This time his name rolls off Wei Wuxian’s tongue in a gentle slide, so different from the harsh bark that burst from behind his teeth earlier. “How many fingers am I holding up?”
“What?” Jiang Cheng seethes, his heart leaping in its horrible, panicked way that he’s entirely too accustomed to. “Don’t be ridiculous. What are you doing?”
“That’s just it,” comes the calm reply. “What am I doing? You tell me.”
There’s a long silence.
“Fuck,” Jiang Cheng groans.
“You’ve been blind this whole time, and you didn’t tell me?”
“I thought it was-- dark!” Jiang Cheng cries, and oh, this really isn’t helping the condition of his lungs and their current ability to perform their primary function. “I-- I--”
“Jiang Cheng, it’s certainly not-- cheerful in here, but I can still see you--”
“Fuck, I-- how the fuck was I supposed to know that?”
“How would I grab your hair if it was dark ?”
“You’ve brought people back from the fucking dead before, and you expect me to question that? ”
There’s a muffled exhale from Wei Wuxian, and Jiang Cheng thinks his brother is covering his face with his hands.
“It’s probably temporary,” Wei Wuxian says, more to himself than to Jiang Cheng. “You hit your head. Just a concussion. That explains the vomiting, too, and the rambling…”
“Rambling?” Jiang Cheng repeats in a sour tone. “The fuck is that supposed to mean? I wasn’t rambling.”
“Your thoughts are all over the place, Jiang Cheng. Even I can’t keep up today.”
“Fuck you,” Jiang Cheng spits, just because he can’t think of anything else to say. Maybe the vomiting was caused by the concussion. That’s more comforting to believe than the reason he had provided earlier. Probably only half-true, though. The pressure in his chest still refuses to lift, the talons clutching tighter at his lungs. This place would scare the goddamn daylight out of him even without a debilitating head injury. With his ability to form organized thoughts revoked, it’s all so, so much worse.
“Hey, it’s gonna be okay,” Wei Wuxian assures him, a response to whatever he sees on Jiang Cheng’s face “Just take a deep breath.”
The fury that rises up is so instantaneous that Jiang Cheng laughs. It’s the only response his body can produce on such short notice. He giggles, a bubble of blood bursting on his lips. He must look insane. No wonder Wei Wuxian wouldn’t quit asking him if he was okay.
“I don’t think you realize, ” Jiang Cheng hisses in between his snickers, “how not okay this is.”
“Lan Zhan will find us, and--”
“ Lan Zhan-- Wei Wuxian, my parents are dead, and you want to talk about Lan--”
What in hell is he saying? His parents died-- years ago. This isn’t-- This isn’t--
He does try to take a deep breath then, in the confused, wounded silence produced by Wei Wuxian. He tries, just like he’s been trying for the better part of an hour, and fails, just like he has again and again. His lungs don’t work. He can't breathe right.
He’s going to die here. He’s going to die at the feet of some nameless Wen soldier who stands guard just outside the cell. He licks the blood from his lips, that final sharp nip of flavor coating his tongue. It is dark. There is no light in this place. His head hurts, and he’s so empty, and he had his core removed-- or, he was on a night hunt with Wei Wuxian, a rescue mission-- the Wens will kill him-- the monster will kill him--
“I’m going to die here,” Jiang Cheng croaks. “That’s-- that’s correct, right? This is-- Lotus Pier--”
“No, Jiang Cheng, what-- look, you’re freaking me out, stop, this isn’t funny,” Wei Wuxian sounds so deadly scared that Jiang Cheng almost feels bad.
His head is splitting at the seams. Finally, it’s bad enough that he can focus on that instead of the squeezing in his chest. He might be dying, though. His head might just explode.
Time isn’t working right. There’s a hitch, a drag. A slur in Wei Wuxian’s voice that wasn’t there before.
“Let’s go home, A-Cheng,” his sister’s voice purrs. That can’t be right-- he left her behind with Wei Wuxian, she’s not here--
No, she’s dead-- ah, that makes more sense-- she is coming back for her brother now--
“Jie,” Jiang Cheng rasps. “I want--”
And then, the world erupts around him, and he knows no more.
This time, when Jiang Cheng opens his eyes, he is instantly aware of his waking state. It is not because he can see this time-- the void still presses at his blinking lids-- but because of the screaming.
For a heart-stopping moment, he thinks it is Wei Wuxian. After all, he was the only other person in this cave. But within seconds of reaching consciousness, he quickly rules out this possibility.
The noise is unearthly, inhuman. The shriek that rips through the air shatters reality, piercing Jiang Cheng’s eardrums until he’s writhing on the ground, heels of his palms pressed to the sides of his head in agony. He thinks that perhaps, without his tortuous, pounding headache, he might have been able to stomach the scream.
Unfortunately, he does have a tortuous, pounding headache.
He thinks his world is ending.
He’s on the brink of passing out again-- eyes rolling back, gurgled cry pressing at the back of his throat-- when abruptly, miraculously, the scream dies.
“That’ll teach you,” a smug voice says, somewhere to Jiang Cheng’s far right.
“Wei Wuxian,” Jiang Cheng croaks, feeble hands slowly dropping from his ears.
“Jiang Cheng!” The tone in his brother’s voice changes instantly. “You’re awake-- oh for all the heavens-- the gods-- you’re awake. ”
“Unfortunately,” Jiang Cheng groans. He reaches somewhere vaguely upwards, trying to sit up. He hasn’t quite gotten his bearings yet, and his hands collide with something solid and-- wet. He recoils instantly at Wei Wuxian’s sharp hiss.
“What--” Jiang Cheng’s dry voice cracks and he licks his blistered lips. “You’re injured. What happened, what’s-- I don’t know what…”
The last thing he remembers is fighting with Wei Wuxian, but that barely gives him a reference point. He’s always fighting with Wei Wuxian.
“We’re trapped, Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian tells him cautiously. “Do you remember the spirit-sucking monster?”
“Of course I do,” Jiang Cheng snaps, wincing slightly at the rough edge to his voice. “I remember what happened, I just-- I must have passed out…”
“You had a seizure,” Wei Wuxian explains, and there’s something hollow and shattered in his voice that Jiang Cheng very carefully does not read into. “It wasn’t too bad, thankfully. Only lasted a minute or so, but I--” He clears his throat. “Must be a side effect of the concussion. You really need to get that checked out.”
“Thanks, I will. Say, is there a physician you could recommend? Maybe one that likes to work in rank hellholes?” Jiang Cheng mocks, lips curling into a sneer. With each passing breath, it becomes easier to settle into his usual snarking persona.
“Cut it out, Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian mumbles, and there’s that note in his voice again that makes Jiang Cheng wince. “I was-- fuck. I thought you were going to die. When you stopped shaking, I thought-- You were so still.”
“Yeah, well.” Jiang Cheng doesn’t know what to say. He wishes Wei Wuxian was blind, too, so he couldn’t see his pink cheeks. “I’m fine now.”
“You’re not,” Wei Wuxian huffs. “But we can’t do anything about that right now.” There’s another pause, and when Wei Wuxian resumes speaking, that boastful tone has returned as he shrugs off his vulnerability like stepping out of a cloak. “At least I killed that thing . That’s one step forward.”
“You killed it?” Jiang Cheng sits up too fast, hissing and clutching at the gashes on his ribs.
“Yeah,” Wei Wuxian affirms proudly. “It came back while you were passed out and tried to eat you.”
“Something like that. He sucked up some of your spiritual energy again. Sorry about that. Uh, but then he tried to like-- I don’t know-- absorb you? It doesn’t really have a mouth, but it started kinda-- expanding it’s face over you--”
“Okay,” Jiang Cheng wheezes, fighting a shudder. “I get the picture. And you-- what, fought it off with nothing but your razor-sharp wit and good looks?”
Wei Wuxian scoffs. “It made the mistake of taking your energy and not mine. I managed to knock part of this wall down and trap it under the rocks.”
“That killed it?”
Wei Wuxian doesn’t elaborate and Jiang Cheng grits his teeth. He’s well aware of Wei Wuxian’s “crafty sorcery”, but besides the use of Chenqing to control resentment, Jiang Cheng has not been up close and personal with much of his brother’s… unorthodox methods.
“What happened?” he presses.
“I killed it,” comes the flat reply.
“No.” Again, no further explanation.
“What happened?” Jiang Cheng tries one more time.
“I’ve got plenty of tricks up my sleeve, Jiang Cheng. No need to worry about the gory details.”
“Are you protecting me?” Jiang Cheng snorts. “I fought in a war, Wei Wuxian.”
“That’s all I ever do, Jiang Cheng.”
The reply is so weary that Jiang Cheng shuts his mouth.
He reassesses his physical condition. His head still hurts like a bitch, but some of the pressure that had built up previously has faded. Similarly, the squeezing in his chest has subsided somewhat. Breathing is slightly easier, but the anxiety-induced frailty still clings to him, not allowing him to take in all of the oxygen he needs. His fingers brush clumped hair and a crust of dried blood massed around an angry, hot swelling at the back of his head.
He must have made a face because Wei Wuxian speaks up again. “I wasn’t sure if wrapping it would make it better or worse. It started bleeding a bit, but I didn’t want to irritate it further or make it swell…”
His voice trails off, uncharacteristically uncertain. Healing never was one of Wei Wuxian’s strong suits. It wasn’t for either of them. Jiang Yanli would always be the one to tend their injuries.
“No matter,” Jiang Cheng says evenly, dusting his hand off on his ruined robes. “I expect that with the monster killed, we don’t have much to worry about. Like you said, Lan Wangji will find us.”
Wei Wuxian is still hidden from Jiang Cheng’s eyes, but the sect leader practically hears the frown in his voice.
“What’s wrong?” he asks tersely, bracing himself for more bad news.
“Nothing, it’s just…” A brief, anxious pause. “I just keep thinking about the Tortoise of Slaughter Cave… how long was I there? Seven days? Eight?”
Jiang Cheng scowls. That cave is one of the millions of touchy subjects the brothers try to avoid at all costs. “What does it matter?”
“It almost wasn’t enough,” Wei Wuxian says quietly. “To wait, I mean. I could feel… I believed I was going to die there.”
“But you didn’t,” Jiang Cheng reminds him flatly. “Jin--”
So many taboos are being approached today. Apparently.
“Jin Zixuan and I found you,” Jiang Cheng finishes delicately.
“Right. But what if… I mean, it was a close thing, right? What if this time, it’s too close?”
Jiang Cheng grunts slightly as he shifts himself into a more comfortable position, leaning against the cave wall and wincing when an uneven rock digs into his spine. “Spit it out, Wei Wuxian.”
“What if you die before Lan Zhan finds us?” Wei Wuxian wonders bluntly.
Jiang Cheng swallows and hunches his shoulders. “I’m not going to die.”
“You have a possibly fatal head wound,” Wei Wuxian reminds him waspishly. “You have a concussion that induces seizures and has rendered you blind, not to mention your leg, which-- well, do you even think you can walk?”
“It’ll be fine.” Jiang Cheng grits his teeth. “I’ve been through worse.”
“Have you?” Wei Wuxian scoffs.
Jiang Cheng thinks of a dark prison cell and a darker night and the shuddering of the dock beneath him. He thinks of Wen boots and exploding pain in his ribs, again and again and again. He remembers a whip, descending gleefully and without pause. He thinks of emptiness, like a thorn lodged in his stomach.
“Yes,” he whispers.
“That doesn’t take away from the fact that help could come too late,” Wei Wuxian continues after a lengthy, regretful silence. “I think we should try to find a way out.”
“Brilliant,” Jiang Cheng huffs, attempting sarcasm once again. “And how do you plan to do that? I thought you searched the cave earlier and said there was no way out.”
“Well, yes. But there’s no harm in checking again. Besides, I just collapsed this entire wall. It’s mostly dark behind it but there could be a way outside.”
It could be worse, Jiang Cheng supposes.
Wei Wuxian makes a muffled noise-- halfway between a grunt and gasp-- and Jiang Cheng straightens.
“You’re injured,” he states. He’d forgotten the liquid his hand had come into contact with when he’d reached out for Wei Wuxian. “What happened? Did the monster hurt you?”
Wei Wuxian laughs lightly. “Don’t worry, little brother. It’s nothing serious. To get the rockfall to work, I had to use myself as bait.”
“The wall fell on you, too?” Jiang Cheng hates the instant worry that jumps in his chest. He should have known his idiot brother couldn’t be trusted to take care of himself. “Where are you hurt?”
He reaches out blindly, and after several seconds of groping at empty air in vain and amused silence from Wei Wuxian, he tries standing up.
“Ah ah ah--” Wei Wuxian’s hands brace his arms in an attempt to stop him, and Jiang Cheng makes a triumphant noise as he grabs onto his brother. Wei Wuxian squeaks ungracefully as he becomes unbalanced and, after several moments of perilous teetering, the two fall backwards into a tangled heap on the cave floor.
The breath rushes from Wei Wuxian as Jiang Cheng lands on top of him. Jiang Cheng finds his arms trapped underneath his brother, while one of Wei Wuxian’s legs sticks out an awkward angle to avoid kneeing Jiang Cheng. Wei Wuxian’s face presses into Jiang Cheng’s shoulders.
Jiang Cheng swears under his breath. This was not his intent in the slightest.
“Imbecile,” Wei Wuxian grunts, and Jiang Cheng can hear the tension in his voice. Whether it's from the pain or awkward embrace, Jiang Cheng doesn’t know.
“You’re the imbecile,” Jiang Cheng seethes, scrambling to unpin Wei Wuxian. Wei Wuxian needs to lift his back so that Jiang Cheng can free his arms, but he can’t lift his back with Jiang Cheng lying on top of him, but Jiang Cheng can’t get off without his freeing arms...
“You’re the one who tackled me!” Wei Wuxian snaps.
“You’re the one who tried to-- to suffer in silence!” Jiang Cheng flashes back. It’s not one of his better retorts, but it’s hard to think of comebacks when he’s hugging his best friend and greatest enemy for the first time in over sixteen years.
The last time Jiang Cheng hugged Wei Wuxian was right before the fall of the Wen Clan. Wei Wuxian had just pulled himself from the Burial Mounds, and after three months, Jiang Cheng had finally found him. Three months that, if Jiang Cheng is being honest, he can barely remember. They were a blur of fear and desperation and blood. Half the battles Jiang Cheng had fought in were blank spaces where he’d blacked out entirely, only coming back to himself hours later covered in other men’s blood and the echoes of pleas for mercy echoing in his ears.
Eventually, of course, the shock of it all had faded. The gruesome details of war were not something Jiang Cheng could afford to ignore, not when a keen mind could mean the difference between life and death, between victory and defeat, between the survival of his newly-inherited Clan and the eradication of the rest of his disciples. He’d even begun to… enjoy it, almost. The thought kept him awake at night, sometimes leaving him vomiting after battles. But when the light died from another Wen dog’s eyes, when they choked on their own tongues as they begged for their lives, sometimes all Jiang Cheng could think was This is what they felt. This is why you fight. This will make you feel full again, when you do it to them.
It didn’t make him feel full. He did walk away from that house fuller, but it wasn’t the murder of Wen Chao and Wen Zhuliu that really softened his empty rage. Finding Wei Wuxian-- that was what took the edge off. He’d embraced him, then. Like his life depended on it.
For a moment, he’s so caught up in the memory that he almost misses Wei Wuxian mutter “Hypocrite.”
Jiang Cheng clenches his jaw and twists his body so that the two brothers fall onto their sides. His right arm breaks free and Wei Wuxian flops on his back once again, raising his shoulder to allow Jiang Cheng’s other arm release.
“Still don’t know where you’re injured,” Jiang Cheng huffs sullenly.
“Now I’m almost tempted to not tell you,” Wei Wuxian replies peevishly.
“After I’ve tried this hard? Jiang Cheng retorts, almost playfully.
He gets a sharp nudge in the bicep. “Right there.”
“The rock caught me right there.”
“Oh. Same arm as earlier?”
“Yep. Trapped me for a moment, actually. Almost thought my plan backfired.”
Jiang Cheng thinks of the monster’s screams. “But it didn’t.”
“Yeah. It didn’t.”
“Did you bandage it?”
The suspiciously long silence brings a scowl to Jiang Cheng’s face.
“You woke up, like, just as I was killing it!” Wei Wuxian defends himself. “I didn’t really have time to tend to my injuries!”
“What, me waking up impaired your ability to take care of yourself?”
“Keeping civil conversation with you is a full-time job, little brother.”
“Ah, don’t get angry, look, I’ll wrap it now, okay?”
“I can’t look,” Jiang Cheng reminds him sourly as he braces his palms against the rocky ground and raises himself back into a sitting position.
Hands on his startle him. He reflexively jerks back at the sudden grip around his fingers. “What--”
“Calm down,” Wei Wuxian huffs. “Look with your hands.”
Wei Wuxian guides Jiang Cheng’s hands so that they lay over his. He tracks his brother’s movements as he tears a strip of cloth from his robes and wraps it over his bicep, small grunts of discomfort reaching Jiang Cheng’s ears at the pressure of the makeshift bandage.
The brevity of the physical touch does not reduce the impact of it. They used to touch all the time, before. Playful nudges or reassuring holds were far from uncommon.
Jiang Cheng pulls his hands back as soon as Wei Wuxian ties off the bandage and hums with satisfaction.
“Happy?” Wei Wuxian asks, but the edge in his voice has softened.
“Never, right?” Wei Wuxian jokes. There’s a rustle of clothing as Wei Wuxian rises to his feet.
“Where are you going?” Jiang Cheng snaps as Wei Wuxian’s footsteps grow slightly quieter with distance.
“Just looking around at the wall,” Wei Wuxian calls back. “Or rather, lack thereof. I think I can climb over the rocks and get to the hole.”
“What’s behind the hole?”
“Hard to tell. It smells different from this place, though. Might lead somewhere.”
“Fresher than this.”
There’s another silence. When Wei Wuxian speaks again, his voice is closer.
“I’m going to take a look.”
“What?” Jiang Cheng tilts his head upwards, vaguely in the direction of his brother.
“I’m gonna see where it leads to. If we’re lucky, it could lead to an exit.”
“You’re leaving?” The spike of panic is humiliating, but for a moment, Jiang Cheng cannot bring himself to care.
Wei Wuxian cannot leave. If Wei Wuxian leaves, it will be dark and bloody and odorous and far, far too close to a prison. Wei Wuxian's presence is a metaphorical light in Jiang Cheng’s darkness. A jarring white mark against the black similarities. His voice anchors Jiang Cheng to the here and now.
Jiang Cheng cannot be alone. Not again. He will not be left alone again.
He is alone in his cell. It can’t have been more than an hour, but footsteps are approaching. He trembles violently, but he can’t even move as the door swings open. It’s Wen Chao. Of course it is. Back to have more fun, he supposes.
It doesn’t last long. Already, Jiang Cheng is only hanging on by a thread. Hanging on to what, he isn’t sure. Consciousness? Life?
It doesn’t matter. The third kick hits him square in the face, and Jiang Cheng lets go of that thread.
He is lost to the world.
“--ust going to have a look. Won’t be gone for longer than an hour,” Wei Wuxian is saying, clearly not picking up on the intensity of Jiang Cheng’s will.
“No!” Jiang Cheng doesn’t mean to gasp like that, but the word jumps from his throat. He can’t see Wei Wuxian’s face, and not for the first time, it bothers him. “I-- you can’t-- leave. Don’t leave.”
“Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian says finally after a pregnant pause. “I’ll be quick, I promise. An hour isn’t long.”
“Take me with you,” Jiang Cheng doesn’t beg. “I can make it, I can walk. Take me with you, we’ll look together.”
“Jiang Cheng, you can’t even see.”
Jiang Cheng wets his lips anxiously and hates, hates, hates this, hates how desperate he is, hates how he can’t let Wei Wuxian leave him alone with his memories.
“I can’t-- be alone,” he manages. “Please don’t leave me.”
He squeezes his eyes shut, waiting for the crushing denial.
“Okay,” Wei Wuxian answers finally, an odd, sad note in his reply. “Okay. Let me help you up.”
The process is awkward at best. Jiang Cheng can’t even stand up by himself, his injured leg trembling underneath him like a newborn colt’s. Wei Wuxian lifts him up by his armpits before slinging one of Jiang Cheng’s arms over his shoulder and reaching up to grab his hand to keep him there. Wei Wuxian’s other hand weaves behind Jiang Cheng’s back to grab just above his hip. Jiang Cheng tries to pretend that the sudden uprightness of his body does not send him into a nearly overwhelming state of lightheadedness. The sudden ripple of pain in his leg is almost a surprise. He’d nearly forgotten about that injury with all his thousand other problems.
Together, the brothers shuffle over to where Jiang Cheng presumes is the collapsed wall.
“I’m… gonna have to lift you over,” Wei Wuxian announces somewhat leerily.
Jiang Cheng tries not to bristle at the tone. “Fine.”
He’d thrown a fit to come with Wei Wuxian. He’s not going to change his mind because of some dumb rocks.
Wei Wuxian gathers him in his arms, and if Jiang Cheng was not already dizzy with pain he might have gone light-headed with the contact. It’s almost like being held. He is being held, actually, it’s just not… personal. Neither of them will let it be personal.
Wei Wuxian makes quick work of it, though, and it’s not long before Jiang Cheng is on the other side, propped up against a pile of fallen stones as Wei Wuxian scrabbles over. Jiang Cheng reaches out to him like an infant and Wei Wuxian readjusts them into their positions.
Jiang Cheng finds he really wishes he could walk by himself, simply so he could get some sort of bearing here. When they enter the… the crack? Path? Cavern? What does it look like? When they enter it, Jiang Cheng cannot trace his fingers along the wall or feel the way in front of him. Only one arm is actually around Wei Wuxian, but Jiang Cheng’s other hand can still feel nothing. Wei Wuxian must not be walking close enough to the wall. It shouldn’t bother him really, but it does. The only way he knows he is not about to run into something is because Wei Wuxian is helping him.
Considering the fact that Wei Wuxian is the root of most of Jiang Cheng’s trust issues, his anxiety at this moment is considerable.
They walk in silence for at least a quarter of an hour. It’s astonishing, actually, that Wei Wuxian made it that long without speaking, but unfortunately for Jiang Cheng, it doesn’t last.
“So,” Wei Wuxian says, and the forced lightness in his tone already makes Jiang Cheng’s heart sink. “What was with the whole hating yourself thing?”
“Gods,” Jiang Cheng groans, feeling his cheeks heat. “Can we not?”
“You’re my brother. No, we can’t not.”
“Can’t not?” Jiang Cheng repeats, scrunching his nose. “That doesn’t make sense.”
“Yes, it does. Don't try to change the subject.”
“I don’t know if you could tell, but I wasn’t in the greatest headspace at the time--”
“All the more reason to talk about it.”
Jiang Cheng scoffs. “This is quite out of character for you, Wei Wuxian. Since when do you talk about feelings?”
There’s a light shrug in the shoulders supporting Jiang Cheng. “Since realizing that sometimes, it can lead to the most pleasant of revelations and… take that weight off your chest.”
“Since you had sex with Lan Wangji, you mean.”
“I hate you so much.”
He means it as a joke, considering the topic of conversation. Wei Wuxian twitches next to him and his jaw clenches so hard Jiang Cheng can hear the click of his teeth as he grits them together.
“There’s a slight possibility that we are going to die in here,” Wei Wuxian manages at last. “Don’t you at least want to try?”
“We don’t talk. Thought that was a pillar of our relationship, at this point.”
Wei Wuxian snorts humorlessly. “As if any of those pillars still stand.”
That hurts. More than Jiang Cheng will ever admit.
After another few minutes of silence, Wei Wuxian tries again. “If you don’t want to talk to me, fine. But you should talk to someone.”
Jiang Cheng tilts a sardonic eyebrow. “What?”
“If I’m really such an asshole-- if you really can’t stand me-- okay. You don’t have to tell me your shit, but you need to tell someone.”
Jiang Cheng almost laughs at that.
“Don’t smirk,” Wei Wuxian snaps. He sounds angry, which is mildly surprising. “I’m serious.”
“Who the hell am I going to talk to?” Jiang Cheng retorts. “Nobody understands.”
“You don’t understand anything, ” Jiang Cheng snarls, the old fire in his stomach lighting so quickly it nearly overpowers him. “You don’t-- you think you understand? Gods, I’ve-- I’ve hated myself since I was ten years old, Wei Wuxian, because of-- because your fucking--”
He can’t say this. He doesn’t let himself say this. Not to Wei Wuxian, not to anybody ever. Barely even to himself. He snaps his mouth shut and twists his neck so that Wei Wuxian can’t see his face. The gods know he would be able to read every emotion written there like Jiang Cheng was a fucking book.
And besides. It’s not Wei Wuxian’s fault, not really. Even if that’s how Wei Wuxian will take it.
“It doesn’t matter,” he says hoarsely after a terse silence. “None of it matters anymore. I shouldn’t… Forget what I said.”
“So you don’t hate yourself?” Wei Wuxian pushes, managing to sound both cool and gentle at the same time.
Jiang Cheng clenches his jaw. “Everyone hates themselves.”
“That’s not true.”
“Can we just--” Jiang Cheng swallows the knot growing in his throat. “Can we just focus on getting out of here?”
“There’s not much to focus on. Just a long dark tunnel.”
The wave of nausea rams into him so suddenly that he convulses in Wei Wuxian’s arms, doubling over and dropping to his hands and knees. Somehow, he manages to swallow down against the urge to get violently sick all over himself again, but it’s a near thing. Wei Wuxian crouches down next to him instantly, all concerned hands and prodding words.
The headache has been slowly growing, but Jiang Cheng had been doing his best to ignore it. The sudden illness reminds him of its presence in the most aggressive of ways. His mouth waters threateningly, and he closes his eyes. He tries to just breathe. It will pass. It will pass.
“Jiang Cheng, are you okay? What’s wrong?”
Jiang Cheng thinks if he opens his mouth, he will vomit, so he clamps his lips even tighter and doesn’t open his eyes.
Gods above, this concussion fucking sucks.
In the end, he doesn’t make it. He retches up the little that is in his stomach before dry heaving for another ten minutes.
“Fuck,” he wheezes when he can produce words again. Sweat coats his skin.
“It’s alright,” Wei Wuxian says shakily. “You’ll be alright.”
Jiang Cheng is too tired to argue. He’s suddenly hyper-aware of how thirsty he is. The disgustingly acidic taste of bile clings to his tongue, and yet his mouth seems unable to produce saliva anymore. The pressure in his head has once again become paramount. It throbs, like his fucking brain is trying to escape his skull.
“That’s one hell of a way to get out of talking about your feelings,” Wei Wuxian laughs, almost nervously. Why is he nervous? What must Jiang Cheng look like?
Jiang Cheng smiles. Just a little bit. Delirously.
This time, when the seizure hits, he lets go instantly and sinks into the welcome comfort of unconsciousness.
When Jiang Cheng wakes for the third time, he has to swim for it.
He drags himself through his unconsciousness like it is a pool of muddy water, clouded and thick. He struggles to break through the fog that grips him. It gives, if reluctantly. He pulls himself out by the tips of his fingernails, but he does it.
His eyes flutter open.
The sound that greets him this time sounds suspiciously like a sob.
“Oh gods-- never, never again, Jiang Cheng--”
A low moan rises from Jiang Cheng’s throat as he reaches up to rub his still-useless eyes. “I feel like shit.”
“At least you feel like something,” comes Wei Wuxian’s fervent, choked reply. “All the heavens, I thought you were-- fuck, you stopped breathing this time--”
Jiang Cheng suddenly realizes that his hand is being clasped by Wei Wuxian’s. Clasped, actually, is the wrong word. Throttled is more accurate.
“How long?” Jiang Cheng croaks. “How long was I out?”
“I’m-- not sure. Half an hour?”
Jiang Cheng swallows, his throat rougher than sand. He’s stopped sweating. He doubts his body has enough water to do so.
His earlier statement was an understatement. He feels worse than shit. His spiritual energy should be returning, but now his body is so weak that it's no more than a trickle through his meridians.
“We’re stuck?” he asks, his voice a croak. “Didn’t find a way out?”
A pause. “Yeah,” Wei Wuxian replies defeatedly. “Yeah. We’re stuck.”
“Lan Wangji… he’ll come for you.”
“Maybe not in time.”
Jiang Cheng doesn’t think so. He thinks Lan Wangji would kill a god if it meant getting to Wei Wuxian in time. He’ll get there in time. Not in time for Jiang Cheng-- Jiang Cheng may be dead by the time Lan Wangji arrives, but at least he’ll save Wei Wuxian.
Wei Wuxian grunts slightly as he sits against the tunnel wall. Jiang Cheng is only aware that his head is in Wei Wuxian’s lap when that lap shifts. Jiang Cheng would startle if he had enough energy to move.
“Hey,” he says suddenly, quietly. “I’d rather… rather be with you, than alone.”
“What?” Wei Wuxian asks after a pause.
“Being with you is better than being alone.”
Fuck, this is harder than it should be. It’s just-- Jiang Cheng suddenly realizes, with a startling clarity, how very mortal he is. He knows, on some level, that he’s going to die in this hellhole. Just like he should have all those years ago.
So he has to at least try this.
He may be too concussed for this. Or maybe it’s because he’s concussed that he’s able to do this.
“I mean I-- I’m glad you’re here. With me. Because I can’t stand being… alone.”
Wei Wuxian is very quiet. Jiang Cheng forces himself to go on.
“I was alone. For-- for so long. It was so long, and so lonely. I… missed you.”
Part of him wishes he could watch Wei Wuxian’s reaction to this. Another part is thanking his lucky stars that he can’t.
Part of him doesn’t even know what he’s saying.
“And I’m angry-- I was angry, so angry, all the time, and, fuck, I still am, but-- But not so much, because I missed you-- can you believe that? I did, and I never-- I never told that to anybody-- they all thought I k-killed you--”
Gods, is he crying? He is far too concussed for this.
“I don’t want to be alone anymore, Wei Wuxian,” he chokes out. “Please. Don’t let me be alone anymore."
“Jiang Cheng.” His name from Wei Wuxian’s mouth is like a punch to the gut, and he doesn’t know why.
“You said--” Jiang Cheng licks his lips with nonexistent saliva. “You said we could be brothers in the next life. Said you wanted to. Do you remember?”
Wei Wuxian makes a broken noise. “I remember.”
“It’s the next life now,” Jiang Cheng says softly. “Are we still brothers?”
“Yes. Yes, of course, Jiang Cheng.”
Jiang Cheng smiles, his lips cracking with the effort. “...Good. Good. I wonder… I wonder if we can still be brothers… in the next next life…”
He coughs, his body shaking with the action. Wei Wuxian grips his hand tighter, and he says something that Jiang Cheng doesn’t really catch. That damned headache. He sounds scared, though.
Jiang Cheng reaches up blindly with his other hand.
“A-Xian,” he croaks.
Wei Wuxian takes his hand.
Jiang Cheng pulls him down, or he pulls himself up. He’s not really sure. He buries his face in Wei Wuxian’s shoulder and clings on, inching his hands around his brother’s body. Wei Wuxian follows suit, encircling Jiang Cheng with his arms.
One of them is crying. Maybe both of them.
They hold onto each other. There is nothing left for them to hold onto.
And that is how Lan Wangji and his disciples find them, hours later: Wei Wuxian, bloodstained and delirious, cradling his brother, who may very well have stopped breathing.
Not too late, though. Not this time.
Jiang Cheng wakes up. Part of him is tired of waking up, mostly because he thought he wouldn’t anymore. He’s almost annoyed when he finds himself drifting back into consciousness. How many more times is this going to happen? He can only take so much of this damn cave.
Except then he opens his eyes, and he sees.
Well. Sort of.
There is sunlight-- that much he can tell. He sees enough to be able to tell that he is at Lotus Pier. The translucent white drapes that decorate many of Lotus Pier’s halls sway lazily in a warm breeze-- not warm like rot, or warm like summer mildew, but warm like a sigh, like a soft breath on his skin, gentle and comforting. The rich brown of the bamboo walls can be seen behind the curtains, interrupted by a wide, half-open window that said light is spilling cheerfully in through. The edges and details of all this, however, are hazy, like moisture is blurring his vision. He blinks hard-- once, twice, three times, but the image gets no clearer.
Still. This is much more favorable than blindness. Wei Wuxian had once again been correct, this time about the temporary condition of his lost sight, and although that constant state of rightness is one of his most annoying traits, it is one Jiang Cheng is, for once, thankful for.
His energy has returned as well. He realizes that mere seconds after he does his sight. He can feel it pouring through his veins as though it had never left.
He smiles, a real, wide smile. Relief nearly overpowers him for a second, followed by gratitude so palpable it nearly brings tears to his eyes. He’s not sure what or who he’s thankful to, but the sensation fills him to the brim. He never wants to feel so empty again.
After several peaceful moments, Jiang Cheng tilts his head slightly from where it rests on a plush pillow. The cushion obscures his already-lacking vision somewhat, but he is still able to catch sight of a black-clad cultivator, sitting cross-legged across the room with his back straightened and turned to Jiang Cheng’s bed. Incense burns on the table in front of him, white steam floating upwards leisurely and filling the room with its aroma.
“Under no circumstances,” Jiang Cheng rasps, throat hoarse from sleep, “are you allowed to bring up anything I told you in that cave.”
Wei Wuxian startles, twisting his upper body around so quickly Jiang Cheng can hear the joints pop. He darts to his feet to cross the room in a matter of seconds.
“You’re awake!” Wei Wuxian breathes, and he’s close enough now that Jiang Cheng can make out that damn grin of his on his face. “How do you feel?”
“Better,” Jiang Cheng answers truthfully. “But that’s a pretty low bar.”
Wei Wuxian’s smile fades somewhat.
“Good, though. I feel good,” Jiang Cheng adds. “...How long?”
“Four days. Roughly.”
“Oh.” He’s not sure what else to say. “And you? How’s your arm?”
Wei Wuxian tilts his body slightly to emphasize his right arm cradled in a sling. “Pretty much healed. I keep trying to take this useless thing off but Lan Zhan won't let me.”
“He did find us, then?” Jiang Cheng guesses, leaning back somewhat into his pillows.
“Mn. Couple hours after you… passed out.”
Jiang Cheng swallows and doesn't meet Wei Wuxian’s gaze. “That’s good.”
There’s a minute of silence. Jiang Cheng wishes he could say it wasn’t awkward.
“Look,” Wei Wuxian says. “In that cave… if you didn’t mean what you said… I understand. If-- if you still want to be mad at me, and you don’t want to be brothers, I get it. You had a concussion, and--”
“Just because I don’t want to talk about it doesn’t mean I didn’t mean it,” Jiang Cheng interrupts gruffly. “I said what needed to be said.”
“Good.” Wei Wuxian visibly relaxes, relief smoothing his features. “Then we’re… still brothers, right?”
Jiang Cheng manages to meet Wei Wuxian’s eyes and nods.
Wei Wuxian beams, and the spiral of warmth that curls in Jiang Cheng’s chest in response is not wholly unwelcome.
“And… I know you said you don’t want to talk about it, but…” Wei Wuxian sobers once more. “I can’t just let you be, knowing you’re walking around and… hating yourself.”
“Gods, Wei Wuxian,” Jiang Cheng groans, scrunching his nose and turning his face away as he feels it heat self-consciously. “Out of all the dumb things I could have admitted, it had to be that, didn’t it?”
“Maybe it did,” Wei Wuxian presses stubbornly.
“It’s not…” Jiang Cheng tries stiffly. “Something that can be fixed. Something that you can fix. I know you feel like you have to-- protect me, or whatever, but this isn’t… another hole you can patch up. It’s a part of me. Simple as that.”
“I know it feels like that,” Wei Wuxian says quietly. “But it doesn’t have to be that way.”
“Can you just…” Jiang Cheng struggles for a moment, “forget I said anything?”
“Nope,” Wei Wuxian refuses stubbornly, before his face twists into some darker, sadder emotion that Jiang Cheng doesn’t really have the visual ability to interpret at the moment. “I thought I was going to lose my other sibling, Jiang Cheng. I don’t want you dying hating yourself, and I don’t want you living hating yourself either. There are no favorable situations here that include you hating yourself, actually.”
“...Can I really not make you let this go?”
“I’m your brother, and I love you, so no.”
Jiang Cheng sighs and rubs his eyes.
“Can I recover from my concussion first?”
“...I’m your brother, and I love you, so… Fine.”
Jiang Cheng throws his hands up. “Thank you!”
“Don’t even think for a second that I’m letting this go, though.”
“Could I be so lucky?” Jiang Cheng wonders sarcastically.
And as mortified as he is that he’s going to be talking to Wei Wuxian about feelings… he’d be lying to himself if he wasn’t warmed to the very tips of his fingers, to the ends of his toes, to his very own (his brother’s own) core that Wei Wuxian cared.
“I’ll let you get some rest,” Wei Wuxian says then, resting his hand briefly on Jiang Cheng’s shoulder before he turns away.
Jiang Cheng bites his bottom lip, fighting against a sudden urge rising in his chest.
“Wei Wuxian!” he calls before he can talk himself out of it.
His brother turns and glances over his shoulder.
“Can you--” Jiang Cheng flushes. “Can you make me A-Jie’s lotus root and rib soup?”
Every part of Wei Wuxian softens. “Oh, Jiang Cheng…” He grins. “You know I’m a terrible cook.”
“I do,” Jiang Cheng agrees emphatically.
Wei Wuxian's smile widens. Jiang Cheng is too far away to see if his eyes’ glisten with tears like Jiang Cheng’s do.
Somehow, though, despite Wei Wuxian’s lacking skills in the kitchen…
The soup that Jiang Cheng shares with his brother-- in the light, out of the cell, out of the cave, out of the dark-- is some of the best he’s ever tasted.