Wei Wuxian woke, head pounding. He thought, Hangover?
And then, Was I drinking with someone?
He forced his eyes open to see the cobwebbed ceiling of a dingy room. The walls were stone. Light came from a lantern hung on a hook in the corner; there were no windows. A door on the far wall was the only way in or out. His mouth tasted like acid.
Not drinking. The words went through his mind too slowly. Drugged? Where am I?
He tried to sit up, and it was only then he realized his hands were bound tightly behind his back.
"Finally awake?" someone asked nearby. Wei Wuxian rolled over to look; it was a mistake. He groaned as his head spun.
When his vision cleared he saw Jiang Cheng on the opposite corner of the room, seated against the wall. He looked mostly unharmed, but there was a crust of dried blood on his upper lip, and his wrists were bound before him in heavy iron manacles that attached to the wall with a thick chain. Zidian and Sandu were nowhere to be seen. Neither for that matter was Chenqing. Jiang Cheng's expression was pissed.
Wei Wuxian managed to work his way into something vaguely resembling an upright position. "What's going on?" he asked. His voice came out a little slurred.
"Hell if I know." Something in Jiang Cheng's voice made Wei Wuxian look closer. Under the anger, there was something pale and strained in his expression, perhaps even-- deeply buried-- a hint of fear. The sight made old protective instincts rise up in Wei Wuxian's chest; he sat up a little straighter, trying to get himself together. Jiang Cheng continued, "The last thing I remember is eating dinner at that inn. I think someone drugged our food. And sealed my spiritual energy." He jerked his hands against the chain demonstratively; the bolt in the wall didn't even budge. "I haven't seen anyone since I woke up."
Wei Wuxian squinted, trying to remember. "...Inn?"
"We stopped there after the fight. It was the only place to stay nearby." His incomprehension must have been showing, because Jiang Cheng frowned at him, and added, "We ran into each other on the border. We were hunting the same yaoguai. Please tell me you remember this."
"I remember the yaoguai," Wei Wuxian said slowly. Kind of. Mostly flashes of ugly teeth and claws, the black lacquer of Chenqing pressed against his lips, music and resentful energy spilling out his dizi. He'd gone out after it on his own, knowing it was on the border with Yunmeng, half-hoping he'd run into Jiang Cheng-- night hunts were the only time they ever saw each other these days. (It was fine, really. He'd told Jiang Cheng himself they should leave everything in the past. It was just that sometimes he couldn't stop himself from wanting to see Jiang Cheng anyways, and make sure he was doing well.)
Well, he'd gotten his wish to see Jiang Cheng, at any rate. He continued, "But I don't remember the inn, or anything after." He shook his head, wincing as that set things spinning again. The light from the lamp was making his eyes hurt. "Who do you think grabbed us? And what do they want?"
Jiang Cheng grimaced. "Could be a lot of things. Revenge?"
Wei Wuxian closed his eyes, feeling his shoulders slump and his head dip forward. "...Why is it always revenge?"
Wei Wuxian startled back upright. "What?" he asked blearily. His head was really pounding.
Jiang Cheng was watching him with narrowed eyes. "You looked like you were about to pass out again. What's wrong with you?"
Wei Wuxian couldn't help the giggle that bubbled up from his chest. "Lots of stuff! You're going to have to be more specific."
Jiang Cheng closed his eyes briefly in frustration. "Are you injured?" he bit out.
"I don't think so," Wei Wuxian tried. There was nothing in particular that hurt. Everything was just kind of generally terrible.
"Tell me what you're feeling right now."
"Well to be honest, I'm kind of hungry--"
There was real tension in Jiang Cheng's voice. Wei Wuxian swallowed back more inappropriate laughter, and tried to answer honestly. "My head's pretty-- you know." He tried to make a gesture, forgetting his hands were tied behind his back. "Spinny."
"Did you hit it?"
Wei Wuxian shrugged. His head hurt, but the pain didn't seem centered around any particular location. "Could be. Maybe? I don't know."
Jiang Cheng sucked on his teeth, watching him closely. "I don't see any blood," he said. "Maybe it's whatever they gave us. Though it's not affecting me anywhere near as badly." His eyes narrowed. "If they know who we are-- maybe they gave you something different, or extra, to keep you from using demonic cultivation."
Wei Wuxian's head jerked up, a sudden flash of panic making his stomach tighten. "What? That's not a thing, is it?" Surely if it had been Jin Guangyao would have known about it, would have used it. He found himself instinctively reaching for resentful energy anyways. It felt like it was there, at least, reaching back for him-- just little curling wisps of energy at the moment, but there was more out there, listening.
Jiang Cheng raised an eyebrow. "There's only one way to find out," he pointed out. "Preferably sooner rather than later. Someone's going to come looking for us eventually."
Wei Wuxian jerked his head in a nod. Resentful energy stirred as his whistle pierced the silence. The shadows in the corners of the room darkened. Triumph flared in his chest; it had been stupid of their captors not to gag him-- he and Jiang Cheng would be out of here in only a few more moments--
Sharp clawing pain lanced through his head, and Wei Wuxian cried out, doubling over. Without his summons, the resentful energy began to drain away-- he grabbed for it, but the pain in his head spiraled higher.
Jiang Cheng surged forward but was caught short by the length of the chain. "Wei Wuxian!" He began to yank on the chain in earnest, trying to rip it out of the stone.
Then the door in the far wall slammed open-- someone drawn by the sound of his whistle. Wei Wuxian startled and began to turn. Hands grabbed him by the back of his collar and threw him to the ground. He landed on his side with no way of bracing himself; the impact traveled all up his shoulder and neck. The world went spinning and dark.
A familiar voice was shouting nearby, and he ought to deal with that, but his head hurt too much--
"--Ransom. This is about money? Are you a fucking idiot? Do you know who we are? The entire forces of two sects are out there right now looking for us. Even if you do get the money, you're going to spend the rest of your lives on the run-- don't you fucking touch him, you asshole! If you need to kick someone around, fucking try me! I'm going to rip you apart, and no one will ever find the pieces--"
The sound of fist meeting flesh, and a breathless grunt of pain. "What, is that all you've got? My sixteen-year-old nephew hits harder than you do! Come on, you really have to put your shoulder behind it--" Another blow.
Wei Wuxian forced his eyes open as the room spun around him. The room came into focus, and as it did a spike of adrenaline jolted through his system, clearing out some of the cobwebs. There was a man he didn't know wearing dark robes standing over Jiang Cheng with fist raised. Jiang Cheng stared up at him defiantly with a reddened mark darkening his cheek, as the man began to swing down again--
No. Wei Wuxian wasn't entirely sure how made it across the distance-- couldn't even remember moving-- but then he found himself crashing into the man's knees, knocking them both over into the wall directly next to Jiang Cheng. The man cursed, striking out with his elbow-- Wei Wuxian yelped and tripped backwards, landing on his rear. The man pushed himself to his feet, grabbing for Wei Wuxian-- but in his distraction, he made the mistake of forgetting he was within arm's reach of Jiang Cheng.
Jiang Cheng reached out, wrapped his manacled hands around the man's neck, and pulled the chain tight.
Bone snapped. The man made a shocked gurgling noise and died. A body dropped heavily to the floor.
Wei Wuxian let his eyes fall closed as relief washed over him, heart pounding in time with his head.
Jiang Cheng was silent for a minute, except for quiet gasps of air. "...teach you a lesson," he said. "Idiot. It's not like I need my cultivation to kill someone." Then he said, "Wei Wuxian? You alright?"
Wei Wuxian pressed his face into the floorboards, feeling his head throb and the world spin. His body seemed to be a very long distance away.
"Wei Wuxian. Come on. I need you to get up and see if the guy has a key on him." Silence. "There's no way he was alone-- someone else will be coming to look for him soon enough." Nothing. "Dammit. Fine, have it your way."
Then the sound of metal clanking, and tiny quiet noises, like someone biting back gasps of pain. "Come on, you fucking piece of shit..." An ugly click-- the sound of a joint doing something it wasn't meant to do-- and a nearly voiceless "ow!"
Cloth rustling, as Jiang Cheng slid a hand free. "You'd better have brought it with you, or I really am going to cut your corpse up into tiny little-- hah!" Locks clicked open, and manacles hit the floor. Another pop as a joint was pushed back into place.
Then there were hands on Wei Wuxian, rolling him over, patting at his face. "Open your eyes. We have to get out of here fast." Jiang Cheng dragged him upright. Wei Wuxian groaned, head lolling back on his neck. He felt sick. Whatever had happened when he'd tried to use demonic cultivation, the effects were slow to fade. Jiang Cheng pressed fingers to his wrist, checking his pulse. "Wei Wuxian. Come on. Stop being so dramatic." A hesitation. His voice went softer, almost too quiet to be heard. "Please."
Wei Wuxian wanted to respond-- he really did. It was just that there was some disconnect between his body and his mind, and he didn't have the energy to break through.
He felt a hand brush over his forehead, sweeping hair out of his face. A tired sigh. "Okay. I guess we can do this the hard way."
Then Jiang Cheng's arms were slotting under his shoulders and knees, and he was being lifted, cradled. "Just put your arms around my neck-- there we go." Wei Wuxian tucked his face into the collar of Jiang Cheng's robes and held on as best he could.
Then they were moving. Wei Wuxian heard the door creak open a fraction. The air coming through it was fresher; not outside, but a larger space at least, maybe a hallway. There were voices further down. Jiang Cheng held still for a long moment. After a moment the voices faded, moving further away.
Jiang Cheng's footsteps were absolutely silent as he crept forward, despite the added weight he was carrying. They came into what smelled like a kitchen, smoke from the fire and the scent of spices. Wei Wuxian managed to crack his eyes open; the room was empty. A fire crackled in the fireplace. A poker leaned up against the wall next to it. Jiang Cheng adjusted Wei Wuxian's weight until he was mostly holding him up with one arm, and picked up the poker with his free hand.
Then behind them the pantry door swung open, and a man came out, a bag of chilis in his hands. He saw them and his eyes went wide, the bag dropping out of his arms to spill across the floor. "Help--!" he managed to get out, before Jiang Cheng was on him. One hit with the poker and he was out, sprawled on the floor.
"Nice job. I think you just killed the cook," Wei Wuxian slurred. Voices from outside shouted. Someone had heard the cook's cry for help.
"Oh, now you're awake?" Jiang Cheng glared down at him for a brief moment before he went back to examining their surroundings. There was no way out back the way they'd come, and no convenient windows to climb out of, so he hustled over to the pantry the man had come from. It was packed full of food, chests and barrels and more-- as good as any sect's pantry. Kidnapping for ransom apparently paid well. Closing the door behind them, Jiang Cheng set Wei Wuxian down on the floor; he slumped back to lean against a bag of dried soybeans, barely able to keep himself upright. His energy was coming back, but it was a slow trickle at best.
Jiang Cheng went to press his ear to the door. Wei Wuxian could hear footsteps and voices headed their way.
"That sounds like-- fifteen people? At least," Jiang Cheng whispered. "They must all have been guarding the outside." He bit his lip and glanced back at Wei Wuxian. There was something oddly intense in his gaze. Wei Wuxian had a sudden, terrible feeling. "I don't know if I can take out that many at once," Jiang Cheng said. "My spiritual energy is starting to come back, but it's not enough. But I can at least distract them. When you get a chance, I want you to run for it."
Wei Wuxian's stomach lurched, and he struggled to sit a little more upright, pressing a hand to his forehead. "Don't be an idiot!" he hissed. "I'm the one who can't even stand up, and you think I'm going to be able to run? You're the one who should do it! Go get help and bring it back!"
Jiang Cheng shot him a furious glare. "If you think I'm going to just abandon you--" he broke off as the voices outside abruptly got louder; it sounded like they'd discovered the cook's body. Feet pounded down the hallway towards the room they'd been kept in. It would be only moments before their absence was discovered, and someone would think to check the pantry.
Wei Wuxian tried again. "It's fine-- it's not abandoning me! It's just common sense!"
Jiang Cheng gritted his teeth and jabbed his finger at Wei Wuxian. "If we survive this, we're going to have words about your sense of self-preservation," he said darkly, and continued, "Now, just-- sit there and be quiet!" He reached for the door, hand going tight around the poker.
Wei Wuxian hadn't given up his core just to let Jiang Cheng sacrifice himself for him. Summoning resentful energy hadn't exactly worked out very well last time-- an understatement-- but it was the only weapon he had...
Jiang Cheng's eyes widened and he turned as a whistle split the air a second time, louder than it had any right to be. "Don't be an idiot!" he snapped. "You're not strong enough for that-- shit!" he threw himself at the door as someone tried to kick it down. He braced his feet against a crate as the door slammed against its hinges.
Wei Wuxian was ready for the pain this time. He forced himself to concentrate past that initial spike, past the way his head began trying to split open at the seams, and focus on pulling in resentful energy as quickly as he could. Dark shadows began collecting in the corners of the room. The energy built and built, thickening into smoke. So did the pain in his head, but that didn't matter. He knew pain. This was nothing.
Once he'd gathered enough, he directed the energy to attack; it boiled under the doorjamb, and from outside came the sound of screams.
"--Wuxian. Wei Wuxian! Stop it, that's enough!" There were hands on his shoulders, shaking him. Wei Wuxian stopped whistling, feeling the resentful energy fade. His lips were numb. His mouth tasted like iron. There was something wet on his face. When he raised a shaking hand to wipe it off, it came away smeared with red.
Jiang Cheng's face appeared in his vision. His face was white and his eyes were wide. His mouth was moving, but Wei Wuxian couldn't hear what he was saying over the ringing in his ears.
It was the easiest thing in the world to let himself sink into unconsciousness.
Someone was carrying him on their back. Their clothes smelled very faintly of lotus flowers.
"--swear if you die on me again, I'll drag you up from hell myself this time, do you understand? I refuse to explain to Jin Ling how you got yourself killed-- so stupid-- don't you ever think about how the people around you feel when you pull this kind of crap?"
"...Come on, just wake up."
"Wei Wuxian. A-Xian. Please."
Someone was passing him a weak stream of spiritual energy. Wei Wuxian scrunched up his face, making a quiet noise in the back of his throat as his body started to wake up. He was leaning up against something soft. An arm was wrapped around his waist. It felt familiar. It felt like home, in a way he hadn't felt in a long time. "Shijie?" he said, blurrily.
The stream of spiritual energy paused for just a second, a hiccup. "Are you shitting me?" a familiar voice said, incredulousness mixed with some other emotion.
Wei Wuxian opened his eyes just a crack. A face came into focus above him. "Jiang Cheng?" he tried again.
The flow of spiritual energy resumed. "That's more like it."
He could hear the sneer in Jiang Cheng's voice. "You decided to try and save the day again and nearly killed yourself in the process, that's what."
Wei Wuxian tried to lift his head. "Did it work?"
Jiang Cheng was practically grinding his teeth. "Yes. It worked. The people who kidnapped us-- they're all dead. Congrats."
Wei Wuxian let his head drop back down to rest against what he now realized was Jiang Cheng's chest. He closed his eyes. "Oh. Good."
After a minute, he turned his wrist in Jiang Cheng's so he could wrap his fingers around his in turn. He added, "Not the day. Just you."
Jiang Cheng sucked in a breath to snap something-- then let it out in a long exhale. His voice had taken on a bitter tinge when he asked, "Repayment again? Haven't you had enough of that already?"
Wei Wuxian's hand tightened on Jiang Cheng's, hearing that bitterness. And maybe it was because he was still feeling the effects of the drug, or delirious from the pain. Or maybe he was just exhausted. Or maybe he just wanted to be honest, for once. For whatever reason, Wei Wuxian found himself saying, "I missed you."
Jiang Cheng flinched, like Wei Wuxian had stabbed him. "What?"
He was in halfway; he might as well go all the way. "I keep finding excuses to run into you on night hunts. I just-- I miss you."
Jiang Cheng was silent. Wei Wuxian continued, unable to help himself, rambling a little, "I know I said it was all in the past. And if you still want it to be that way-- that's fine. But I just-- it wasn't repayment." It never had been, really, even if that had been what he'd needed to tell himself at the time.
Jiang Cheng didn't say a word. Wei Wuxian kept his eyes closed until he couldn't stand it anymore, wondering how Jiang Cheng was reacting.
When he looked he saw Jiang Cheng had a hand covering his face. As he watched, a tear slid down his cheek and dripped off his chin. He asked, voice rough, "Then what was it?"
Wei Wuxian swallowed heavily. "I just can't stand the thought of you dying."
Jiang Cheng dropped his hand; he was furious. "And what makes you think I can stand it, either?" He laughed, jagged, eyes wet. "You're so stupid. You were dead for thirteen years. Isn't that enough? Why can't you learn to value your own life for once?"
Wei Wuxian glanced away. "I..."
Jiang Cheng rode right over him; that was fine, because Wei Wuxian wasn't sure what he'd been about to say, anyways. "As for 'it's all in the past'--" He swiped his sleeve across his face. "I keep finding excuses to come out here and run into you on night hunts, too, you idiot."
Wei Wuxian stared at him, stunned. "Oh." He had wondered why Jiang Cheng kept going on night hunts without his disciples-- but he hadn't dared hope it might be for the same reason.
"'Oh'? Is that all you have to say?" Jiang Cheng lifted his lip in a sneer. But Wei Wuxian knew that expression-- it was the one Jiang Cheng used when he was feeling insecure.
He let his head drop back to rest against Jiang Cheng's shoulder. He still felt terrible-- but he was smiling, he realized. "Aiyo, Jiang Cheng, my head hurts," he said, letting a little bit of a whine enter his voice. He blinked up at Jiang Cheng, doing his best to look pathetic. "We can talk about it more once we get back to Gusu."
Jiang Cheng went still against him. "'Once we get back to Gusu'?" he repeated slowly.
Wei Wuxian's smiled widened. "Oh, are you offering to host me, then? Lotus Pier works, too."
Jiang Cheng sputtered. "You can't just invite yourself over to someone's place--!" But the corner of his mouth twitched upwards briefly, and his eyeroll was more performative than genuinely irritated.
Wei Wuxian closed his eyes and let himself drift off again to the sound of Jiang Cheng complaining.