The third time Guo Changcheng held the little doll, he heard Chu Ninzhi's voice.
The first time didn't really count. For one, he didn't have his powers then, and although there must have been some contact somehow, the doll had followed him into Zhu Hong's dream, so he hadn't technically been holding it. When he'd asked Chu-ge how the doll came with him, the other man had been evasive and even seemed somewhat embarrassed, so he hadn't pushed.
The second time he held the doll, Chu-ge had given him the doll with such implicit trust that he'd held it tight and made a silent vow to take good care of it. His powers had still been new then, and with everything else going on and Ye Zun's hold on him, he hadn't heard a thing.
After that, there'd been no reason for Changcheng to hold the doll again. The fighting was over, and now was the time for diplomacy, so Chu Shuzhi's dolls were kept safely tucked away (but always at the ready, always just within reach).
It was at Chu Shuzhi's apartment where he held the doll for the third time, a place where he was spending so much of his free time he may as well live there. The puppet was in his own corner of the room, sat on a little puppet sized stool, and the doll was lying on the coffee table. 'Chu-ge's probably been talking to him,' Changcheng mused. It was something he caught the other man doing fairly frequently, something he only ever did in front of Changcheng or in the comfort of his own home. It was something that gave Changcheng a light, warm feeling in his chest, knowing that Shuzhi felt comfortable enough around him to show that side of himself.
And maybe it was due to that, in part, that compelled Changcheng to reach out and pick up the doll. He'd only wanted to give his usual greeting, as he always did when he visited Chu-ge. He would say hello to the puppet and the doll. He rarely touched them, not wanting to cross a line that in actuality, no longer existed. Although he had held the puppet several times now, but only ever when Chu-ge asked him to move the puppet or sit him at the dinner table with them. The little doll though was special, and for whatever reason that day Changcheng decided to give it a proper greeting by picking it up.
The moment he held the doll he heard an agonised scream. His power activated and he was hit by a barrage of emotions as Chu Nianzhi's final moments flooded his mind.
“Changcheng, do you want...Changcheng?” Shuzhi came from the kitchen to find Changcheng stopped over his coffee table, the little doll clutched in his hand and the gentle light of his power illuminating his wan features and the tears streaming down his cheeks.
Slowly Changcheng turned to face him, his eyes unfocused. “Chu-ge,” his voice cracked, “Chu-ge...I can hear Nianzhi.”
Shuzhi lurched forward as Changcheng crumpled, his first instinct to catch Changcheng before he fell, the words, and what they meant, not registering.
Changcheng curled into him, sobbing into his chest his tears quickly soaking the thin tank top. For several long moments, neither man moved. Changcheng continued to cry, and Shuzhi stood, dumbstruck as Changcheng's words gradually began to sink in. The light of his power still glowing around them could only mean one thing, and the implication frightened him. He was torn between wanting to shake the other man and demand to know what he meant, what he'd heard, and wanting to comfort him. His chest felt like it was being crushed in a vice. He couldn't move, couldn't breathe.
“He loved you so much,” Changchang finally managed to choke out.
“He was so scared, and in so much pain, but he was so glad that he could protect you this time. That it wasn't you.” He could still feel it, the pain and fear Chu Nianzhi had felt in his final moments were harrowing, but more than that, almost eclipsing those emotions was the sheer relief that his brother was safe. That he'd been able to save his brother. That he was the one protecting the other now.
Shuzhi's grip on Changcheng tightened, so much it would probably bruise, but the other man didn't feel it, his mind still a whir of another's emotions. Shuzhi felt dizzy, his own mind in turmoil. He was shaking, his breaths coming in ragged gasps. He wanted to run away. He wanted to block his ears and not listen to any of this. He wanted to pretend that none of this was happening. He wanted to hold Changcheng in his arms and tell him that it was ok, that he didn't need to know. That Chengcheng didn't need to use his power for this.
But the soft halo of light wouldn't let him hide. It glowed, pulsing gently, and it felt like it was burning his eyes, searing his skin, judging him. He had to face this. He owed it to Nianzhi.
Closing his eyes he took a deep breath. “Did he-” the words got stuck in his throat. Words he'd asked himself again and again but never dared consider the answer to. He swallowed them down and tried again. “Did he blame me?”
“No!” Changcheng's answer was so vehement that it shocked him into loosening his grip. The other man was looking at him now, his gaze firm despite his tears. “He didn't blame you, not even for a moment. Not once.” And Shuzhi knew that it was the truth. As kind and soft-hearted as Changcheng was he wouldn't lie Not about this.
“He was thinking of you, and how glad he was you didn't have to experience...what he did...” Changcheng hesitated, his head bowed again.
Shuzhi paused, taking another deep breath. “Tell me,” he prompted, his voice trembling.
“It was hot and scary, and so painful. He didn't want to die,” Changcheng continued softly. He was still crying, but his sobs had subsided. “He wanted to stay with you, for you both to have a peaceful life. He really believed in you, that one day you could help make Dixing a better place. He wanted to see it, with you. There was so much he wanted to do...” Changcheng trailed off again, sniffling.
“But most of all, he wanted you to be happy. He wanted you to live.”
Shuzhi let out a shuddering breath, hearing those words in his brother's voice. All the strength left his body, and he couldn't hold it in anymore. He sank to the floor, and seeing as he'd been the only thing holding the other man up, he brought Changcheng with him. They collapsed into each other, Shuzhi clinging to Changcheng, hands scrabbling against his back, holding on desperately, like a drowning man holding on to his only chance of survival. His head pressed into the crook of Changcheng's neck and he cried, great heaving sobs the shook his entire body. He cried like he had when he thought Changcheng was dead, cried in a way he'd never allowed himself to after his brother's death. He cried a hundred years of grief, regret and guilt and it felt like absolution.
Changcheng's arms coiled around the other man, his hand stroking the back of Shuzhi's head, whispering nonsensical words of comfort as he rocked the other man gently. Tears were still falling down his own cheeks though he hardly noticed them. He took all of Shuzhi's tears, all of his sobs, and held him tight.
At some point they ended up on the sofa, lying in a tangle of limbs, neither remembering moving over there and too mentally and physically exhausted to care how they got there anyway. Changcheng lay on top of Shuzhi, the warm, living weight of him the only thing currently anchoring him to the world. Without it, Shuzhi felt he might float away.
He felt lighter as if something inside him had been broken and reformed. It was an odd feeling, both relieving and disorientating.
He carded his fingers through Changcheng's hair, the repetitive motion and Changcheng's even breath tickling his neck steadily bringing him back to himself. As he took in his surroundings, feeling as if he was seeing everything for the first time, he noticed Changcheng was still holding the little doll, cradling it protectively against his chest.
“Can you still hear him?” Chu Shuzhi asked, his voice scratchy, his hand coming to rest over Changcheng's wrapped around the doll.
“No, I'm sorry,” Changcheng answered, his voice distant and sad.
“I...I couldn't do more. If he was still there, then maybe...” he trailed off, probably remembering the false promises Ye Zun had uttered in an attempt to get Shuzhi to switch his loyalties. They'd been lies, at least Shuzhi convinced himself they were. And even if there was a ring of truth to them the hollows were too far out of reach now. Trying to get them back would destroy the new prosperity Dixing was enjoying, and Nianzhi would hate that.
“Changcheng, you have no idea how much you've given me. This is more than I could ever ask for.”
Changcheng lifted his head to look at Shuzhi, his face blotchy and tear-stained, and he gave the other man a watery smile which Shuzhi did his best to return, knowing he didn't look any better.
Changcheng heaved himself up, his movements sluggish. Shuzhi missed his warmth, his weight as he moved away, and though he was tempted to hold on and pull the other man back to him he knew they both needed a moment to collect themselves.
“I'll be back in a minute,” Changcheng promised, leaving the doll lying on Chu Shuzhi's chest as he got up and padded towards the kitchen.
Shuzhi remained on the sofa, staring up at the ceiling little spots of light dancing in front of his eyes. He wasn't sure he would ever be able to sit up again, positive that if he tried he would just fall back down again. But he had to try.
' He wanted you to live.'
Sitting up made his head spin, but Shuzhi curled his fingers around the doll, squeezing it tight as he pushed himself up into a sitting position. He sat still for a moment, letting the dizziness fade, releasing a long breath through his nose.
He looked down at the doll in his hands, noting how it felt different. Lighter somehow, and cold. Lifting the doll to his head he closed his eyes and pressed his forehead against the dolls head. He wasn't sure how long he sat there, saying his silent goodbyes, but the soft sound of Changcheng's approaching footsteps drew himself out of his reverie.
Shuzhi looked up to find Changcheng smiling apologetically as if he wasn't sure he should still be there, holding out a glass of water in offering. He took the glass with a gruff thank you and downed half of it in one before setting the glass down and reaching for Changcheng. “Come here.”
Pulling Changcheng down to sit on the sofa next to him, his arm wrapped around the other's waist, holding him close. More than anything, now, he wanted Changcheng close.
“Why do you think you were able to hear him?” Shuzhi asked absently, his thumb tracing small circles against Changcheng's hip.
“I'm not sure, partly, I think my powers might be getting more sensitive,” Changcheng mused. He'd been volunteering at the hospital lately, spending time there whenever he could, sitting at the bedsides of terminal patients. Typically those who were in a coma or had no known family. He recorded their wishes when he could, sometimes connecting them to lost loved ones when he was lucky. He couldn't be there for every single one, but he had helped several so far.
When asked why he did it, Changcheng had said he wished his powers weren't so limited. There was only a very narrow window where his powers would work, and if he was too late, then he would miss that persons final wish. His power was already such a sad one, so he wanted to do more with it, help more people.
“And I think he must have always been there. A part of him, anyway. He's always wanted to pass on that last message to you, to make sure you were happy and not blaming yourself.” Changcheng gently nudged the other man in the side with a meaningful look.
Shuzhi huffed a small laugh, shaking his head. Well, he'd rather failed on that front for a very long time. Nianzhi's death was an old wound he'd picked at constantly, never letting it heal. No wonder his brother's spirit, or whatever it was, had hung around for so long.
They fell into a contemplative silence after that. Shuzhi's thumb still tracing absent circles against Changcheng's hip, Changcheng's head resting against his shoulder, taking comfort in each other.
“I think I'd like to hold a memorial for Nianzhi,” Shuzhi whispered softly, as if he hadn't meant to say them out loud.
“That sounds nice,” Changcheng hummed in agreement. “When do you want to hold it?”
Shuzhi blinked, staring ahead for a moment. He hadn't got that far, but then it hit him. “Today,” he said, “or well, I suppose a year from today.” He smiled ruefully at the doll, now lying on the coffee table. He felt a little guilty for making Nianzhi wait another year, but his brother was patient and gentle, and he knew he wouldn't mind.
“I'm not really sure of the exact date of his death, it all just blurs into one, back then. But this is the day you were able to deliver his final wish to me, and anyway, I'd rather remember his life than his death.”
Changcheng's smile was watery as if he was about to cry again. “Then we'll hold a memorial for Nianzhi, one year from today.”
“But you could still do something today, light some candles and leave some offerings,” Changcheng suggested.
Shuzhi nodded and turned towards Changcheng, pressing a kiss to his temple that lingered as he breathed the other in. “Will you stay and do that with me?”
“Of course, Chu-ge. And, will you tell me about Nianzhi? I'd like to know more about him.”
Shuzhi pulled away, smiling at Changcheng. “I'll tell you everything.”