"You can't change someone who doesn't want it," Jin Guangyao says, gently patting Nie Huaisang on the shoulder. It's empty comfort in an empty home; it feels all the bigger without his brother's presence. "Da-ge was...stubborn, to put it kindly. You did everything you could, even if it doesn't feel like it was enough."
Of course it doesn't feel like enough. The gaping emptiness of the house follows him, a constant reminder that while it's not his home anymore, it's now devoid of its occupant in such a sudden, harsh change that it may never recover from. It's wrong. It's the wrong kind of empty. "Thank you," he manages, staring ahead at the stack of papers on his brother's desk. How long will it take to go through? How long will it take to stop thinking of everything as his brother's? How long will he feel like he can't breathe for want of screaming in despair?
"Death is never easy," Jin Guangyao continues, following his gaze to the desk. "I can help you sort through these, or anything else you need, and I'm sure Xichen will as well. Just say the word and we'll be here."
He nods, unsure of just how many times he has to say thank you for help he wishes he didn't need. Now that funeral is over, everyone acts like life can go on with minimal difficulty. He doesn't want life to go on; he wants to take back every harsh word he yelled in anger and every apology he never gave. He'll never—
"Huaisang?" he asks gently, brows tight with concern. "You don't have to make any decisions now. I just wanted to make sure you know you're not alone."
Of course he's not alone. Pain claws him apart from the inside, pumping guilt into every thought until he knows he's to blame for his loss. If they hadn't argued so much, maybe his brother would still be here.
"Thanks," he says again. "I'm just— I need some time. Sorry."
Jin Guangyao smiles warmly, a welcoming presence he's sure he'll come to appreciate later. "Of course. Take as much time as you need."
Nie Huaisang watches him leave, stuck between the imposing desk and the doorway into the hall. He doesn't want to be here anymore but he doesn't want to leave; he doesn't want to stand over his brother's final resting place and replay every angry word they threw at each other, until—
Nie Huaisang sinks to his knees and sobs, a full body, broken-hearted affair that leaves him gasping for breath. He can't breathe; he can't think. He can't figure out how to get his brother - gasping for breath, clutching his chest, desperate, desperate, ill-fated desperation - from replaying every time he closes his eyes. He's not alone in the world because he'll never be free of this nightmare, and he hates himself for even thinking he could begin to move on.
He curls in on himself on the cold hardwood floor until he can't cry anymore and time has lost any meaning, shadows of late afternoon long since deepened into dusk.
Jiang Cheng: Hey I know you said you didn't want company but I think I'm the stupid one for listening to you
Jiang Cheng: Are you home or still at the house?
Jiang Cheng: Okay I guessed and answered that myself because you never responded
Jiang Cheng: Can you let me in?
Jiang Cheng: Huaisang?
His phone lights up and vibrates in his pocket, long enough to finally catch his attention, and Nie Huaisang manages to pull it out in time to see a litany of missed texts and calls from Jiang Cheng.
Nie Huaisang: yeah
Jiang Cheng: You're awake
Nie Huaisang: yeah
Jiang Cheng: I was starting to worry about you
Jiang Cheng: I'm out front
Nie Huaisang: why?
Jiang Cheng: Because I've been waiting and you worried the fuck out of me
Nie Huaisang: k
He peels himself off the floor and walks through the halls, staring straight ahead until the entranceway looms in front of him. Was it always this dark?
"Hey," Jiang Cheng says, sympathy and concern coloring the single word.
"Hey," he responds simply, staring at him for a moment before moving aside to let him in.
"I kinda thought you'd be at home," he admits, following Nie Huaisang into the cavernous entrance. It's too big; the heaviness of wood and dark paint is suffocating.
He shrugs. "I was going through some of...some things with Jin Guangyao," he explains. He's not ready to talk about his brother's possessions like they're not his, not yet- it's going to drown him in choked back grief before he can break free.
Jiang Cheng breathes out heavily. "Fuck, that's rough," he says, at a loss for anything else. Nie Huaisang doesn't blame him- there's nothing anyone can say that would help him right now. "Do you really wanna be sitting here in the dark?"
Maybe it hasn't always been this dark. He wordless flicks the lights on, illuminating the pile of mail he's been ignoring and the deep lines of worry etched into Jiang Cheng's face.
"You look like shit," falls out of Jiang Cheng's mouth before he can stop himself; the horror in his eyes betrays his mistake. But Nie Huaisang is so, so tired of everyone acting like he's a delicate, useless child, he can't help but laugh. It's not joyous; it's a relief, made almost better by the shock on Jiang Cheng's face as he tries to figure out if he fucked up or helped. "Fuck, sorry, I just—"
Nie Huaisang holds up a hand to stop him and takes deep breaths until he's calm enough to speak. "It's fine. At least you're still treating me like myself."
"Sorry I'm still an asshole," he says.
He sighs, for lack of anything better to say. He's cried himself out for the next few hours and he doesn't quite want to leave yet, despite the guilt clinging to the empty building, haunting every corner, waiting to strike anew.
He glances over. "Sorry. Lost in thought."
"Do you need a distraction?"
"I don't think so," Nie Huaisang answers, honesty like ash in his mouth.
Jiang Cheng is harsh angles and insecurities, emotionally ill-equipped to comfort anyone, but he's the closest confidant Nie Huaisang has. There's a list of other descriptors he could use, and they all lead back to the same thing, regardless of whether either of them want to put it into words. Seeing a friendly face is only so helpful if they're not the right one, and Jiang Cheng, somehow, is who he needs.
"Just...I don't know. Come sit with me," he asks, turning his back before he gets an answer. All halls lead to sadness and Nie Huaisang wants to push past his guilt while he tries, desperately, to return to the office. Maybe if he makes some progress here, he can keep his nightmares at bay a little longer.
"You don't have to, I dunno, throw yourself into it," Jiang Cheng says, watching him sit down at the desk. "Fuck, I don't know what I'd do if I lost my sister."
He looks at the stacks of papers in front of him and the slowly blinking light of the computer no one bothered to shut down. The drawers are inevitably full of work never to be completed and the only hint of a personal touch is a small framed picture of him and his brother on a camping trip. It was years ago; Nie Huaisang remembers fighting about waking up early enough to drive there and his brother shoving a mug of truly horrible coffee into his hands, before they finally made it on the road. He's too exhausted to cry but the gnawing weight of failure never leaves, and it reminds him that he pushed his brother too far, in the end, and that is why he's alone.
'Someday, you'll do something that haunts you,' rings in his head, simply spoken words that left no room for escape, only inevitability.
"I need to do something because I'm tired of crying for hours," Nie Huaisang explains, opening the top drawer. He's not looking at whatever awkward expression Jiang Cheng is making; he can feel it well enough in the air between them. He finds a few pens, some loose staples, half-empty pill bottles—
They screamed and fought and he watched his brother throw out all his medication in the heat of an argument, and that- that terrible stubbornness that neither of them could back down from led to his death. But if he had more, more than what he tossed, was he taking them? Nie Huaisang turns one of the bottles over in his hand, his brother's name and a date too recent to feel real printed on the label. He blinks back tears; is this one of the last things he'll hold to remind him of his last few weeks alive? He can't stop staring at the letters and words, their shapes nearly meaningless blurs, until—
This isn't a medication he recognizes. He picked up his brother's prescriptions often enough to know all of them by heart- though over the past few months, the responsibility had mostly fallen on Jin Guangyao. When did he start taking something new? Did his health get worse and no one told Nie Huaisang? It's possible; he's still the "stupid kid" in enough people's eyes, so he ends up being the last to know when something serious has happened.
He takes a deep breath and exhales, setting the bottles out on the desk in front of him. He can find out now, even though it's just another thing that's too little too late. He has to know the full story.
Fludrocortisone pulls up pages about combating low blood pressure, but that can't be right. Their whole family is at risk for high blood pressure, every tragically young death a testament to the inevitability of genetics and heart failure. Why would he take something that could make it worse? The other bottles reveal no answers, only further confusion: most of them are unrelated to any health issues his brother had.
"Jiang Cheng," he says, just loud enough to carry across the silence. "You're not a doctor. But I need your help."
He strides over, brows knitted in confusion. "Okay?"
"If you had high blood pressure, why would you take a low blood pressure drug?" he asks, passing the bottle over.
He looks it over. "To lower it?"
"No, no," Nie Huaisang says, shaking his head. "It's a medication for people with low blood pressure, to help raise it."
"That's the last thing your brother needed," Jiang Cheng says, frowning.
"Do you think there was a mix up at the pharmacy?"
"Maybe. I don't know," he says, sinking further into his seat and rubbing his temples. "I have to...I don't know. Check his medical records or something, since his name is on this."
Jiang Cheng passes it back. "Are they in here?"
He shrugs. "Probably online, I dunno."
They both look at the computer at the same time and Nie Huaisang reaches for the mouse to wake it up. Its screen lights up and asks for a password, something neither of them know and doesn't seem to be written down anywhere. Nie Huaisang is sure he can guess it eventually, but it's still a pain in the ass.
"I'm about to say something offensive about a dead person," Jiang Cheng warns him. "Sorry...but you should try 'password'."
He has to take a deep breath and exhale very slowly as he considers this. He hates that it's pretty likely that Jiang Cheng is right and he needs a moment to mourn some self-respect before he tries. One more long exhale and he presses enter.
"I hate you for being right," Nie Huaisang says, groaning.
"Sorry about your brother," he says, sounding as tired as Nie Huaisang feels.
He's tempted to dig through every file for answers, but they're not the ones he's looking for. Nothing will explain away their disagreements, as much as that pains him, so he has to focus on finding an explanation for his strange combination of medications.
Nie Huaisang frowns, scrolling through page after page of past doctor visits and previously filled prescriptions, but not once does he see Fludrocortisone, not even from the date on the bottle. Other prescriptions were picked up that day, most of which aren't here . Maybe he threw them away? But they fought before these would have been picked up, so...why isn't any of this adding up?
"You look worried. Er, more worried," Jiang Cheng points out, coming around to look over his shoulder. "What'd you find?"
He groans. "Nothing. As in, this isn't in any of his records."
"Maybe a different doctor prescribed it," he offers doubtfully.
Nie Huaisang shakes his head. "I looked at his pharmacy records, since the location is on the bottle. But this doesn't line up with any of them."
"Fuck," Jiang Cheng says emphatically.
They sit in silence, the harsh lines of medical history devoid of anything that can comfort his woes or soothe his guilt. He has more questions than answers and nowhere left to turn; the only person he could ask is six feet under and forever silenced. He should have kept picking up his prescriptions and he should have forced the details out of his brother, despite the never ending arguments it brought. It was just so much easier to let Jin Guangyao shoulder the responsibility. The weight of failure is almost certainly worse, and he wishes he could turn back time. His brother died angry, angry at him, and nothing will ever heal the raw wound of unfinished business.
"You should contact the pharmacy, see if they can explain why they gave him the wrong ones," Jiang Cheng suggests, cutting through the downward spiral of guilt threatening to take over. "Weird your brother didn't notice."
He groans in frustration, at himself and his brother alike. "He never paid attention to what he was taking- he basically only took them because someone else picked them up for him," he explains, choking back his guilt at the end. "That's- that's one of the last conversations we had- a stupid fucking fight about him not taking his health seriously."
Jiang Cheng sucks in a breath. "I— fuck, I just keep apologizing, but I'm so fucking sorry."
"Yeah, me too."
In a surprising display of sympathy, Jiang Cheng wraps his arms around Nie Huaisang from behind, somewhat awkwardly including the back of the chair because of how he's standing. His heart is in the right place, at least. He slumps further down, against Jiang Cheng's arms, and sighs to stop himself from crying.
"I'd stopped," Nie Huaisang says, taking as deep a breath as he can manage without risking more tears. "Picking up his meds. Lan Xichen and Jin Guangyao were doing it, but I think even Xichen didn't have the free time after awhile. So...fuck, I should have tried harder. But we kept fighting, every single fucking time, and I couldn't keep dealing with it, and now- now he's gone."
He wants to cry. Guilt bubbles up, desperate for an escape, but he can't. It's all stoppered shut with new layers of grief, and any release he might gain is a distant dream.
"Hey. Hey, look, Huaisang, you couldn't have predicted this," Jiang Cheng says, the gentlest tone he's ever heard from him. In what world will it ever be right? He can't see it. "And- okay, I know it won't bring him back, but talk to Jin Guangyao. He notices every little detail, right? He might have an answer."
"You're right," he agrees. He notices everything and them; if a prescription was wrong, he would have caught it. He guesses his brother was lucky that despite firing him and almost ruining his career, Jin Guangyao was a loyal friend to the end. He's not sure he knows how to be that selfless.
Jiang Cheng ruffles his hair fondly. "See? That's...ugh, not life-changing, but something. A start."
He nods. He should be feeling relief, but something in his stomach twists in knots, because something still doesn't feel right. He doesn't have answers, just another step to try to get them, and nothing will change the finality of death. He can't get the stench of foul play out of his head, even if he doesn't have the pieces to figure out why, even if it's just his guilty conscience trying to shift the blame, even if his whole world is a jumbled mess of emotional pain, and even if the truth is still just his fault, he wants to know it.
When was the last time anyone besides Jin Guangyao picked up his brother's prescriptions? At least three or four months, easily. He vaguely recalls him brushing off any thanks because the pharmacy was on his way home...maybe? But Jin Guangyao lives and works on the opposite side of town... And...and now that he's thinking back, he remembers Jin Guangyao mentioning knowing one of the pharmacists, so it gave them a chance to catch up.
Nie Huaisang swallows thickly, words caught in his throat as anger and horror close in, painting a terrible portrait of violence. There are good people in the world, selfless to a fault, who go above and beyond for others without a bit of negativity, but Jin Guangyao isn't one of them. They get along because they found common ground in gossip and pettiness that can be wrapped up with a smile, and maybe- maybe he should have listened to his brother's seemingly senseless rants about how he was a two-faced snake. His brother shoved Jin Guangyao down a flight of stairs, and no one questioned why Jin Guangyao shrugged it off with a smile. But Nie Huaisang is facing the cold reality of a medication designed to worsen his brother's heart problems and not a single record on how he got it, besides the one person who delivered all his other prescriptions, who shouldered every insult and bout of ungrateful screaming, until one day, he told Nie Huaisang not to blame himself - some people just don't want to change.
He takes a deep breath to center himself and when he exhales, he takes his guilt and grief and loss and turns it into icy determination. He pushes against Jiang Cheng's arms enough to sit up properly again and sighs lightly. "Okay, okay, enough touchy-feely time," he teases. "Is it too much to hope you brought dinner?"
"Well, maybe I'll let you take me out," he says, stretching. "I gotta get out of this gloomy place!"
Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes fondly. "Glad you're feeling a little better, Huaisang."
He smiles, lighter than he has in years. Anger is a hint, competence is a trap, and Nie Huaisang is going to burn Jin Guangyao's life so terribly, there will be nothing left to remember him by. "Yeah, yeah, you're a lifesaver! What would I do without you?"
"Pay for your own meals," Jiang Cheng teases back, offering Nie Huaisang a hand up and onto a new path.