Jiang Cheng wakes with a shallow sob, so suddenly that for a moment, he cannot tell his surroundings from the lingering shadows of his nightmares. The sound of his gasps is too loud in his ears, his breathing laboured, and his gaze flits around in the darkness of the room, unable to fix on anything for long, terrible seconds. Slowly, he recognises the pattern of the ceiling, the closed windows, the table with papers he had worked on before going to bed, when he finally manages to turn his head to the side. He’s crying, he realises, distantly, and forces a hand to come up and wipe at his face.
He can’t remember details from his nightmare, which of the many horrifying scenes of his life his sleeping mind had forced him to relive, but it doesn’t matter. The feeling lingers, like a dense fog, clinging to his consciousness. The darkness, the despair, the heaviness his heart has grown oh so familiar with. Memories mixing with fears and dragging him down, oppressive like a cave underwater. Stealing his breath and his rational thought.
He lies there, still crying, trying to calm the sobs that continue to shudder out of him, grasping at his duvet as if it could substitute everything else in his life that he couldn’t hold on to. Stupid, he thinks once, then dismisses the thought. This has happened often enough that he just waits it out, tries not to perceive it as a weakness to berate himself for.
Just when he thinks that he might have calmed enough to attempt locating some tea, he hears a quiet voice from the direction of his door call out, „Jiang Cheng?“
It is too dark for him to make out the person that had slid open the door just a bit, but he knows the voice, has known it almost as long as he has been alive, and missed it every single day. A small fact of life that he can barely admit to himself.
„Go away, Wei Wuxian,“ he snaps, or tries to, but his voice comes out strained. Furiously he wipes at his face with his sleeves.
He hears the door sliding and dares to hope for a second that his brother listened to him for once, before soft footsteps are tapping towards him.
„I said go away!“
Wei Wuxian stands next to his bed, one hand hovering in the air, unsure. Jiang Cheng is still crying silently.
Finally he manages to push himself up into a sitting position, lets his duvet fall into his lap. He’d prefer to get up entirely, throw this insolent man out of his room, but he only manages to bring his hands to his face.
A light hand lands on his shoulder, barely touching. He wants to throw it off, but he can’t bring himself to. He opts to continue focussing on his breathing.
Apparently encouraged by Jiang Cheng’s lack of reaction, Wei Wuxian carefully sits down on the edge of his bed, only barely shifting his hand into a little more pressure. It is comforting. Jiang Cheng hates that he cannot shake that thought. Hates that he wants to lean into it.
„Nightmares?“ Wei Wuxian asks after a few minutes of both of them just breathing together.
„What do you think,“ Jiang Cheng grumbles.
„Me too,“ Wei Wuxian says, quietly. Jiang Cheng is surprised into lowering his hands and staring at his brother. It makes sense, he thinks. With what they’ve both been through, the unguarded mind easily slips into its darkest moments during the night. They don’t talk about these kinds of things, though. It is still a miracle that they talk about anything at all, these days, in halting conversations drawn out over hours and days, oh so slowly trying to mend each other enough to have some kind of relationship again.
It is what their sister would want, Jiang Cheng has thought more than once. It is also what he wants, but he cannot admit it out loud.
Things are still strange, between them, each of them treading carefully and Jiang Cheng still losing his temper often. One or both of them walking away from a conversation. But it gets better, they get better at speaking to each other again, and saying things that are meaningful, not only hurtful. Wei Wuxian keeps coming back, to Lotus Pier, even though his visits are short, only two or three days at a time. And he keeps coming alone, without Lan Wangji. It is a concession to Jiang Cheng, he knows, and his lingering resentment of the man, even though he’s working on that as well, with each new facet of the story that he becomes privy to. It is easier, too, like this. With no one to distract Wei Wuxian from him. It is shameful to admit that he craves this attention, craves recognition from his brother, but he cannot help it. He is glad for every day that Wei Wuxian comes and makes the effort, what with Jiang Cheng’s short temper and conflicting actions. It is reassuring, that he hasn’t given up on him.
Jiang Cheng has only ever called Wei Wuxian his brother in the privacy of his own mind. Wei Wuxian has not yet called him brother out loud again, as he used to, back then.
„Do you remember when-", Jiang Cheng starts, and stops, looking away. The hand on his shoulder still hasn’t withdrawn.
„When one of us would get nightmares when we were younger?“ Wei Wuxian asks. There’s nostalgia in his voice.
„You always woke me up with your screaming about dogs,“ Jiang Cheng snaps, but can’t quite keep to the stern tone.
„You were never as annoyed about that as you pretended to be,“ Wei Wuxian counters, warmly amused.
„A-jie would let us sleep in her bed,“ Jiang Cheng says.
„You’d always sneak over to her room no matter how late in the night it was.“
„Well, you did exactly the same thing!“
„And then you’d get jealous to be left out and poor shijie would end up with two little kids in her bed when she just wanted to sleep.“ Wei Wuxian laughs, softly. „I miss her,“ he adds, barely audible. „So much.“
„Me too,“ says Jiang Cheng. They both know that there are many more things that could be said, but they have both said them already, many times before, so they let it be. It’s progress.
„She wasn’t actually that much older than us,“ Jiang Cheng says, reminds himself. Wei Wuxian gives an affirmative hum.
„You know,“ Wei Wuxian starts again after a little while, then pauses. „We also came to each other for comfort, sometimes.“
They never talked about it. About two scared little boys clinging to each other in the same bed, looking for protection, looking for their brother. Just the mention of this memory brings new tears to Jiang Cheng’s eyes.
„Yeah,“ he whispers, rough. Tries to add something, but cannot think what.
Wei Wuxian starts rubbing his thumb over his shoulder, softly, steadily. It’s a comfort that Jiang Cheng never dared to miss.
„Why are you even awake,“ he says, changing the topic even though he knows full well that he is only trying to push away his uncomfortable emotions.
Wei Wuxian shrugs. „Couldn’t sleep. I wandered around a bit, looked at the moon. I didn’t even mean to come this way, it just… happened. I was scared when I heard you cry.“
It is more of a confession than he expected, but Jiang Cheng can’t tell whether Wei Wuxian meant to say it or not.
Just a few of these visits ago Jiang Cheng would have retorted something like, as if you would get scared over me being hurt, but he knows better know. It has taken many meandering arguments, but slowly he is starting to accept that Wei Wuxian does, in fact, care about him. Even if the abandonment still stings.
It might be these stray thoughts, or it might be the memory of days long past that makes Jiang Cheng ask, „Would you still?“
Wei Wuxian hesitates for a moment before he says, „Would I still what?“
„Hold me,“ Jiang Cheng whispers, so quietly. He wraps his arms firmly around himself before he can continue. „Would you still hold me to protect me from my nightmares.“
Wei Wuxian doesn’t answer, and Jiang Cheng can’t look at him. Only when he hears Wei Wuxian take in a shuddering breath does he realise that his brother is crying. He reaches over, for once not second-guessing, holds his brother’s face in his hands to wipe his tears away with his thumbs. Wei Wuxian brings both hands up to grab at his shoulders, but he is smiling, incredulously. He doesn’t seem to find words, but Jiang Cheng understands. He has started crying again, as well.
With some tugging and shoving he gets Wei Wuxian to kick off his shoes and the both of them under his duvet. For a moment he doesn’t know what to do, the person in front of him overlaid with the memory of his older brother as a child, acting detached while he softly strokes Jiang Cheng’s hair from his face, the emotions on his face all different from the exhausted relief that Wei Wuxian shows now. He lets his instinct guide him instead, shoves his face into his brother’s chest and grabs at his robes, lets Wei Wuxian bring his arms around him and gather him close. A weak laugh escapes Wei Wuxian as he presses his face into Jiang Cheng’s hair. „I never thought you would ever let me do this again,“ he says, very softly; Jiang Cheng isn’t sure he was meant to hear it.
„Yeah well,“ he answers anyways, „here we are.“ And he rubs his face against Wei Wuxian’s robes, drying his tears.
„Hey,“ Wei Wuxian protests, but it is weak, barely there, the fondness evident in his voice. He hugs Jiang Cheng just a bit tighter.
They lie like this for an indeterminable time, their breathing slowing and synchronising, holding onto each other. Jiang Cheng sinks into it, relaxing just onto the brink of sleep, but not letting his awareness slip away. One of Wei Wuxian’s hands cards through his hair, a rhythmic, soothing motion on his scalp, filled with tenderness. It is a good feeling. Jiang Cheng catches himself enjoying it.
„I want to be here for you,“ Wei Wuxian says after a while. Quietly. „I know you don’t need me. But I want to support you anyways.“
Jiang Cheng tries to think of an answer, but comes up empty. He knows that Wei Wuxian doesn’t mean this, or not just this. He is past thinking that his brother would pity him or would expect that he cannot handle his responsibilities. But he cannot quite think of what to say instead of voicing past grievances.
The motion in his hair doesn’t stop. Wei Wuxian doesn’t seem to expect an answer from him. It is strangely reassuring.
„Then be here,“ Jiang Cheng says after a few minutes, just as softly. Wei Wuxian draws in a long breath and tightens his hand in Jiang Cheng’s robe.
„I am. I can do that.“
„I can let you,“ Jiang Cheng says.
They both understand what that means, coming from him. How much work it took to get to this point. He feels Wei Wuxian relax against him.
With a soft sigh, Jiang Cheng consciously loosens the last tension in his body, lets himself drop the rest of the way into his brother’s chest. He feels Wei Wuxian’s breath in his hair, his fingers continuing their soothing motions. Wei Wuxian’s arms are steady around him. He realises with a slow softness expanding in his chest that he feels safe.
„Sleep,“ Wei Wuxian says, Jiang Cheng’s consciousness already slipping. „I am here.“
„I am here, too,“ Jiang Cheng murmurs.
For the first time in a very long time, his emotions are calm.