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In The Dark Right Now

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When Wei Ying wakes up he has to blink a few times before he realises it’s not that his eyes are refusing to cooperate, it’s that he’s in total darkness. Which feels wrong for some reason he can’t put his finger on. Oh, not total darkness, apparently. He can see a small lightening of the void out of the corner of his eye, a patch that’s more grey than the other bits of darkness.

He turns his head and is rewarded with a series of purple and gold swirls in his vision. His stomach swoops alarmingly and he remembers he’s in a cave with Jiang Cheng and so he cannot throw up. He’s not going to be the one who throws up, not when he’s still making fun of the way Jiang Cheng drank three juice boxes on the bus on the way back from a school trip to the zoo and threw up on the teacher while desperately trying to get to the front of the bus.

So he closes his eyes—no real difference—and breathes through his nose. It’s loud in his ears, like the ocean.

Or maybe that’s just Jiang Cheng, yelling. “—of a bitch, of course I’m—wait, I think he’s awake.”

Wei Ying can’t help but laugh when he heard Jiang Cheng. Same as always. Couldn’t stand being told what to do.

Wei Ying opens his eyes, which turns out to be a mistake, again, because Jiang Cheng’s helmet light is on full force and suddenly beaming straight down into his face. “Hey! Police your light,” Wei Ying tries to say, but his mouth is a little sticky and it comes out more like, “Augh.”

Jiang Cheng gets the message though and tilts the light up, to the ceiling of the cave, and now Wei Ying can see what’s happened. What used to be a wide open cave mouth, propped up with stalactites and mites, has collapsed, leaving a wall of uneven rock. Caving is always a danger, but they’d thought this cave was pretty safe for their study of bat behaviours. The colony living in it is stable, had been here for at least fifty years, and of course the cave has been here for millennia. Nothing going wrong for so long and then a bunch of rocks falling? It’s just his luck, really.

“Are the bats ok?” Wei Ying needs to know. Colony 240 has been his life for so long, and they’re so close to understanding how bats navigate around each other in close-quarters. Jiang Cheng glares at him. “I know you’re here for the geology of it all, but these are my bats.”

Jiang Cheng’s glare softens. “The bats are fine,” moron, unspoken, “they can fly out of the cave ceiling, and the other small shafts.” And that’s right, there’s always more than one way out of the cave, there just isn’t always more than one way for people. He knows that. A pregnant pause. “What do you remember?”

Wei Ying makes his expression mock stern. “Is this you making fun of my bad memory again? I can’t be the pretty one and good at remembering things.” Jiang Cheng just stares at him, lips flat and grey in the low light. “Uh, we were taking our usual route into the cave,” Wei Ying says. It was like every other day of the last two weeks. Every evening, after the bats left they had come, checked the lights, swapped out the harddrives, made notes of any observations. Except. He shook his head. The colour wash was back so he stopped quickly. “That’s it.” He frowns. “Am I missing a lot?”

“No,” Jiang Cheng says, but Wei Ying is suspicious.

“I feel like there was a whole cave-in that I have no memory of. That feels like quite a bit.” He must have hit his head. The nausea is a dead giveaway.

Jiang Cheng doesn’t answer, just goes back to the big radio and flicks a switch. The thing hums to life. “Radioing base,” he says. “He’s awake.”

A crackle and then, “Dr. Jiang, it is against regulations to turn off the radio.”

Wei Ying’s heart lifts. “Is that Lan Zhan? Can I talk to him?”

Jiang Cheng doesn’t say anything, but he drags the whole apparatus over. It takes Wei Ying a few tries to click the button on the handset. “Hi, Lan Zhan.”

A long moment. Wei Ying looks over at the radio base, but the lights are on and the needle is flicking. Should have signal. “Wei Ying,” he says, and his voice is choked.

“No, no, sweetheart, don’t be upset.” It’s hard for him to take it when Lan Zhan cries. It’s infrequent, but devastating. Even the threat of it is enough to get Wei Ying to promise anything to make whatever hurt him stop. “I’m okay, see? It’s fine.”

“What do you remember?” Lan Zhan asks.

That wasn’t the absolute yes that Wei Ying had been hoping for. “Not a lot,” he admits before he can get quizzed and need to make things up. “I hit my head,” he explains.

“Yes,” Lan Zhan says. Nothing else. He checks that the green light is on, hears the static hum.

Jiang Cheng is looking at him strangely, shadows drawing further down on his face than the angled light can explain.

“Okay,” Wei Ying says. “I’ll stop distracting you from heroically rescuing us.”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, half on an inhale. “I love you.”

Wei Ying—well, he doesn’t frown, because he’d never frown when Lan Zhan is saying he loves him, but he doesn’t smile as big as normal. “I love you too.”

He releases the connection and the hum from the radio dims.

“You—” Jiang Cheng starts.

“Me,” Wei Ying agrees.

“You remember hitting your head?”

“Well, no, but it’s pretty obvious, isn’t it?” Jiang Cheng looks away. “I’m sure it will come back. We’ve got plenty of time. We just need to wait until they can get us out. I know we have plenty of snacks. We can play a game!” He’s watching Jiang Cheng closely, trying to get a reaction. “How about I, Spy? I’ll start. I, Spy something grey.” Grey like rocks, grey like the way the light is eaten by the darkness, turning everything the same hue. He’s teasing, hoping for Jiang Cheng to huff or roll his eyes, but he just keeps looking to the side.

Wei Ying shivers. “I wish it wasn’t so cold.”

Jiang Cheng’s head snaps to him. Wei Ying takes in his expression, nostrils flared, eyes wide, and the circle of sweat on his shirt, growing bigger from the fat drops that are slowly sinking down his neck.

That’s not right. “Show me.”

Jiang Cheng hesitates.

The cold is in his heart now. “Show me.

Jiang Cheng turns the big light on, the one that needs to be cranked, and points it at where the entrance used to be. It’s so bright, in comparison, at first, that the shadows are washed out, the colours too, and Wei Ying can’t make out anything. But a moment later the situation resolves and—Wei Ying is going to be sick.

He can see the divot in the rocks where Jiang Cheng dug him out. From that he can piece together what happened. He must have been standing there when the cave rushed in around him, the landslide.

That’s not all he can see. He closes his eyes. Opens them.

His left leg is, well, it’s bad.

The pants he was wearing, the green hiker’s gore-tex, reinforced and designed not to snag on sharp rocks, are ripped. Shredded, more. And at every tear the edges are discoloured, darkened and curdling with his dried blood. The only places where that isn’t the case are the parts that are bandaged. Judging by the amount, their med kit is getting full use, and Jiang Cheng’s tourniquet skills have clearly improved from when they’d taken their first-aid certifications together. He can see the clean edges of the wrap, the rod buckled in up at the top of his thigh.

And his foot should definitely not be at that angle.

Incongruously, his right leg is almost pristine. The pants are a little dirty, sure, but they’d be worse on an average day, when mud and guano would mix until it was all interchangeable filth.

It only makes his left leg look worse, forces an unfavourable comparison.

His gut lurches, mouth sour and filled with spit. He tries to swallow but he can’t get his throat working right. He coughs, sputters, chokes on his own spit. He can feel it bubbling and what if it’s not spit, what if it’s blood, what if—what is he doing, just lying here? He should be—there’s something he should be doing. There’s steps, there’s a manual, he has to, he has to.

His mouth is open, throat working, but no air is coming. The tourniquet is around his chest, tightening and tightening, and he can’t breathe.

He thrashes.

“Stop! Stop it!” Jiang Cheng has his hands on him, pressing on his shoulders, pushing him down onto the rocks, into the earth.

“Lan Zhan,” he manages, “I need to talk to Lan Zhan.”

The hands are gone immediately.

He hears a crackle but he can’t tell if it’s only in his ears. A moment later Jiang Cheng is forcing his fingers closed around the radio receiver. It takes him a few tries to hold it, his fingers won’t close and he drops it twice.

“Baby,” he whispers.

“I’m here,” Lan Zhan says immediately and Wei Ying’s breath escapes in a rush.

“I need—sing to me—the song—”

Lan Zhan immediately starts humming and Wei Ying almost drops the receiver again, the relief is so profound.

It’s their song. Lan Zhan always says it’s his song, actually, that he wrote it as a gift for Wei Ying in that dark time when he was working on his dissertation, but it is one of the few things Lan Zhan has ever given him that he doesn't mind sharing. At least not sharing it with Lan Zhan.

Lan Zhan goes through it two, maybe three times, it’s hard to say. At some point he starts being able to focus on it, the rise and fall of Lan Zhan’s voice. Lan Zhan keeps going until Wei Ying says, “Ok.” His voice shakes more than he wants it to but the word is clear. “I’m fine now.”

“Are you?” Lan Zhan says. The question is even, unjudging, but Wei Ying knows Lan Zhan. He can hear the worry under the words. He heard it in the silence before Lan Zhan said he loved him.

Wei Ying wipes his cheek with the back of his hand, still clutched around the receiver. They’re damp with sweat and tears and all he’s doing is turning that to mud, but it gives him the space he needs.

“I am now.” Wei Ying is tempted to say of course! or how could I not be after that? But Lan Zhan knows him too. This is as much as he can get away with. “Listen, Lan Zhan,” he says, and trails off. He’s not sure what he wants to say. “Thank you.” he says.

“There is no need.” Lan Zhan always says that.

“I think there is, I was startling the bats, I was annoying Jiang Cheng.” Wei Ying glances over at Jiang Cheng whose mouth is compressed into a wavy line of displeasure. Wei Ying has seen that face a lot over the last few years, but he never gets used to it. It makes him want to shrink back, throw his hands in front of his face. Wei Ying presses his elbow in tight against his side, pressing his ribs down to hold his heart in.

Lan Zhan keeps the receiver open, not great radio discipline, but it lets Wei Ying listen to the world around him, the constant hum of people moving in the background, beeps and bings from instruments and phones. He closes his eyes and imagines him. Sitting at the desk in the uncomfortable hard chair, full nalgene of water and thermos of tea within easy reach of his left hand. Right hand on the receiver, pushed to talk.

“What is it like where you are?”

“Everyone is working to ensure your rescue.” He says it quickly, reassuring, like Wei Ying did not participate in all of the trainings and workshops ahead of the expedition. He knows they’re trying. At the very least their insurance demands it.

“No, I mean… what are you wearing?”

Lan Zhan breathes a small laugh and Wei Ying smiles helplessly. Making Lan Zhan laugh used to be the biggest challenge in Wei Ying’s life. Now that Lan Zhan’s smiles and laughs are easy and plentiful, he still gets the same rush of triumph and satisfaction every time. He did that. He put that smile in Lan Zhan’s eyes.

“Hm,” Lan Zhan says and Wei Ying can hear the chair creak and groan. “Currently… the khaki shorts with the large side pockets and the fleece vest.”

Wei Ying can picture it.

“Is it cold there?” Lan Zhan runs warm, he only put the vest on when the air con was blasting. Lan Zhan hums in confirmation. “It’s hot here.” Wei Ying looks over at Jiang Cheng, still sweating, the beads of it standing out on his forehead. He lets his eyes override his body, lying there cold. “That’s good though, for the bats. They need it so they don’t get sluggish.” Their little hearts have to beat so fast to keep their bodies going. “What about everything else, what is —” an uptick in noise and Lan Zhan says something, not into the receiver so it mostly comes through as low and sharp. Wei Ying pulls the receiver closer to his ear. “Lan Zhan?”

“Yes,” Lan Zhan says immediately. “I’m here.”

“Oh,” Wei Ying says. “Do you need to go?”

“There’s nothing else I need to do,” Lan Zhan says. “I’m not leaving you alone.”

Wei Ying let those words sink into him. Not leaving him. “I’m not alone, Lan Zhan, I have Jiang Cheng.”

The sounds in the background intensified again. “—Dr. Lan, we need the—” and Wei Ying thought he heard Lan Zhan snap something back.

“It’s ok,” Wei Ying says.

“No,” Lan Zhan replies.

“I told you, I have Jiang Cheng. And you’ll be back soon.” His voice rises unfortunately high at the end of that statement.

“I will. I will be back.”

Wei Ying knows he will, but the click of the radio disconnecting still feels like a snip of separation. Jiang Cheng always tells Wei Ying not to call the big cables that feed into the radio the umbilical. Umbilicals are stretchy, he insists. These cables are heavy and rough, and nothing like an umbilical should be, but Wei Ying still thinks of them that way. They’re the piece that connects them to the outside world. Their lifeline.

Wei Ying blinks a couple of times.

He turns his head to the side and Jiang Cheng is still staring at him.

“I need to check your bandages,” he says.

Wei Ying nods. It doesn’t hurt as much as it used to.

Jiang Cheng’s hands are rough on his body where they touch the edge of the tourniquet, press on the torn edges of his pants. Wei Ying winces when the fabric shifts. Every tear pulls on the fine hairs on his thighs when the fabric moves, the blood from each cut forming an effective glue.

The longer this goes on the more Wei Ying starts to notice the aches again, the sharp places where the ground presses into his bones. He’d had such a long period of painlessness and clarity but now he’s feeling more like he did when he first woke up. A little slow, a lot hurting.

All of his energy and attention is draining out of him like water from a cup with a hole in the bottom. He wants to reach for it, cup it in his hands and pour it back inside. Why is it leaving him? He thinks maybe it had been a false recovery, the illusion that adrenaline can give. There’s a clarity there, a sharp focus that can let him push through anything, pushes everything irrelevant aside. They always say panicking is bad but he’s done some of his best work panicking. Well, some of his fastest work. Adrenaline is great! He wouldn’t mind more of it, if it could stop his head from pulsing dully.

He blinks and Jiang Cheng’s face is right in front of his. He flinches, and can’t stop the small whimper he lets out when it jars his leg.

“Why did you lie to your Lan Zhan?” Jiang Cheng asks, as always saying Lan Zhan’s name like it’s a placeholder for words his mother wouldn’t want him to use.

He blinks again and this time Jiang Cheng’s head doesn’t move. “I didn’t.”

“You were pretending,” Jiang Cheng continues and somehow frowns even deeper when Wei Ying just looks at him with wide-eyes. “Saying you were fine! Making jokes!”

“Jiang Cheng,” he starts. He shakes his head and then has to close his eyes and breathe through his nose for a long moment.

“Here, drink this,” Jiang Cheng says and Wei Ying can smell the sharpness of the water under his nose. Stainless steel isn’t supposed to transfer flavour but the taste of water from a canteen is different. Or maybe he’s just smelling his blood on Jiang Cheng’s hands, carefully washed away but stubbornly clinging at the edges of his fingernails, the grooves of his knuckles.

Jiang Cheng supports his head with his hand, angling him up the barest amount so he can take careful sips. The first one is truly disgusting, a burst of sleep mouth flavour and dirt mingled. It turns his mouth into mud immediately and Wei Ying turns his head to spit it out. He repeats the actions two more times and by the third time he can swallow, letting the water trickle down his throat. Everything feels so dry, still, that he’s not even sure how much makes it down, like it’s all being sucked into the soft tissues of his mouth and throat, like water into porous rock. Jiang Cheng could tell him why some rocks are thirstier than others, if he asks.

Too soon, Jiang Cheng lowers his head back down and Wei Ying makes a little bereft noise.

“You know the guidelines,” Jiang Cheng recommends and Wei Ying has to bite back a comment about how knowing the guidelines has never stopped Wei Ying before. He doesn’t think it will be appreciated. Jiang Cheng is taking all of the field medicine very seriously.

“Ms. Liu isn’t here, Jiang Cheng, she can’t hurt you if you give me a little extra water.”

Jiang Cheng shoots him a look and Wei Ying giggles a little. Ms. Liu, their safety consultant, is the scariest person Wei Ying has ever met, and he was raised by Mrs. Yu. In the course of their multi-day safety training she’d given all of them the strong sense that their bodies were on the brink of total collapse at any moment. Choking, in particular, seemed to be a fixation of hers, like the workings of the human esophagus were a personal affront. Wei Ying spent three days after that training cutting up his food into such small pieces that Lan Zhan had started only serving him soup.

Maybe Jiang Cheng had picked the right time to stop with the water, though, because Wei Ying is feeling a little heavier now. Water in his stomach, lead in his arms, everything holding him against the earth.

“What are you doing?” Jiang Cheng asks.

For once, Wei Ying is honest when he answers, “Nothing.”

“You can’t sleep.”

Wei Ying can sleep, he just shouldn’t. He knows this. Doesn’t make it any less attractive. “‘Kay.” His eyelids scrape as he pulls them open.

“Talk to me,” Jiang Cheng says, from somewhere off to the side.

“‘Bout what?” Maybe Jiang Cheng wants to hear about the bats. They got some really good footage yesterday, he thinks.

“Why you’re pretending. On the radio. Why were you pretending to Dr. Lan.”

“Oh.” Wei Ying assembles his thoughts. All of the pieces of them are spread so far apart, like when he’s building IKEA furniture without supervision and just lets the dowels roll wherever they want to go. “I don’t want him to feel upset.”

“You don’t want him to feel upset?” Jiang Cheng sounds so offended.

“Mm. I love him. Why would I want him to feel bad?”

He can hear Jiang Cheng breathing; it’s like the sound of a wave. “Did you ever think he might want to know anyway? Even if it felt bad?”

Wei Ying drags his eyes open. The cave is still dark on top of him. Maybe if they were further in it, where the bats roost, he’d see more sky from the fissures in the ground above. But then they’d be bothering the bats when they’re just trying to sleep. He wonders if the bats used the cave before the sky opened it, if they came in the same way he and Jiang Cheng had, or if the ground had to be shredded first for them to fly in. So many questions, always. At least with science sometimes he can get close to an answer.

“Nobody likes to feel powerless.” He knows Jiang Cheng is just trying to keep him talking, so he doesn’t mind stating these obvious things. “Since he can’t do anything, why should I trouble him?”

“You make a fool out of him. To think one thing when another is true.”

Wei Ying thinks about this. “I don’t think so. Lan Zhan isn’t a fool, what I do or do not do cannot impact who he is.” Wei Ying bites his cheek thinking about some of the things Lan Zhan did when they were first dancing around each other. “I guess he can be a little foolish sometimes.”

“You’re like this to him too, huh,” Jiang Cheng mutters. He strokes his jaw. Wei Ying frowns. What does he mean, ‘too’?

“Time for more water.”

“Already?” Wei Ying couldn’t remember how fast his body could absorb it, but this seemed too soon.

He takes his sips of water. Unfortunately, a shiver hits him through the middle of the third one and he sputters, a coughing fit that lights his brain on fire as it shakes his body, ribs contracting against bruises. Maybe Ms. Liu was right about the esophagus.

“You’re still cold?” Jiang Cheng asks after he settles Wei Ying back down. Wei Ying is only gasping a little now, trying to convince his body that it in fact does have enough air, that a little bit of water in the lungs is less bad than shaking his brain like an egg in a jar, no more coughing required please.

“I know it’s all in my mind,” he tries to reassure Jiang Cheng.

“That’s no—if you’re in shock I’m not supposed to be giving you water at all! You know that. Wei Wuxian! You’re always so convinced the rules don’t apply to you.” Jiang Cheng often shifts between annoyed and upset and normally Wei Ying could follow it but. He is just so tired.

“I’m not the only one hiding things,” he says, done with getting lectured. “You’re doing it too.”

Jiang Cheng startles, head lamp bobbing up and down. “What are you talking about?”

“Jiang Cheng,” he says gently, “You won’t tell me how I hit my head.” Jiang Cheng has danced around it twice. Jiang Cheng, used to pushing through situations on brute strength, is absolute shit at subterfuge. He ducks his eyes down every time he wants someone else to look away. And Wei Ying might not be at his best, but he can stick such obvious clues together.

Even Wei Ying, with his definite concussion, can put that together. He feels that he’s thinking clearly, doesn’t think he’s in shock at all.

Jiang Cheng exhales through his nose. He’s so loud. “That’s all? It’s nothing.”

Wei Ying feels like he’s walking around the edges of a very big chasm. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Jiang Cheng throws him a look. “Like you don’t know.”

He bites his lip. He can’t remember the last time he was successfully able to calm Jiang Cheng down. Maybe he never had, maybe he’d just been better at distracting him. He wants to laugh, thinking that. There’s not a lot to distract him with in this cave.

But still.

He has to try, right? To keep Jiang Cheng calm, to not make this worse.

“Okay,” Wei Ying says peaceably enough.

“Okay? You’re not even going to—” some rustling and Wei Ying looks over. Jiang Cheng is pacing, just a couple of steps back and forth. Wei Ying tries to follow him with his eyes, but it puts too much strain on them and he closes them.

“How does your Dr. Lan put up with this?”

“I don’t know,” Wei Ying answers, eyes wide with too much honesty.

Jiang Cheng’s mouth is still set in that flat line, listing towards the left. Wei Ying wants to push it back up with his finger to make them even, hold it in place. He imagines doing it. It wouldn’t stay up though, he’d have to keep holding it. If Jiang Cheng walks around, he’d have to go with him, like a little remora attached to a shark and just as useful. The image makes him want to giggle. He can feel it rising up from his diaphragm, but it comes out as a cough.

One at first, then more, coming harder. It sets off agony in his ribs.

His eyes are streaming and his lungs are working, he can feel them expanding against his ribcage, but it doesn’t feel like he’s getting any of the benefit of that strain.

He tries to breathe, tries to remember he can, but he coughs again and it’s involuntary. His body is in a competition with itself, the pain is telling it to scream, but the diaphragm is telling it to cough, and it can’t do both. His body wants to scream with the pain, and it can’t.

Jiang Cheng is saying something but he can’t hear him, his eyes, his ears, they’re working but it’s like their input has been deprioritised. Feel this, his body demands, and Wei Ying does. He has no choice.

Finally, the coughing stops, muscles relaxing like so much drained water. He pulls in a breath, and it scrapes its way into his throat and lungs, shakes one rattling breath out, and then the darkness takes him again.

***

He wakes up.

Jiang Cheng is shaking him. “Wake up!”

Wei Ying manages to make a small sound and Jiang Cheng stops shaking him. Jiang Cheng is close, Wei Ying can hear him breathing and when he cranes his eyes open he can see his face looking down at him from no distance at all.

“‘M so cold,” he mumbles. He’s always been a lizard of a person. Cold means sleepy—this was particularly hard at university sometimes, when the big lecture halls would be drafty and the professors would talk in a monotone. It was almost impossible to stay awake without playing some sort of game.

“Should I—would it—” Jiang Cheng says and Wei Ying furrows his brow trying to work out what he means. Then Jiang Cheng lays down on the ground, slowly and carefully curling in against Wei Ying’s side. He doesn’t put an arm around him, only touches along the length of him, but Wei Ying can feel the warmth where Jiang Cheng’s body lies close to him, a line of it along his side. He sighs and feels his muscles relax, pinging a couple of times against knots and strains in the muscles around his ribs.

Wei Ying can’t remember the last time they lay like this together. He knew they used to when they were young. Jiang Cheng had nightmares sometimes, sprawling nonsensical things that fell apart like cotton candy in water when he tried to explain them. But the fear was real. It clung to him in sticky cobwebs even after he woke up. So Jiang Cheng would hop into Wei Ying’s bed, far from where the bad thoughts had caught him, and Wei Ying would scoot over and they’d curl around each other like caterpillars.

Eventually Jiang Cheng had gotten too cool for him and stopped coming, but Wei Ying still slept with his door open a crack, just in case. He’d carried that habit into living alone, and still did it now with Lan Zhan, who didn’t understand it. “I rise earlier than you,” he’d argued, “surely the light is distracting,” and Wei Ying didn’t know how to explain that it still felt better to have the option open.

“This is nice,” he mutters.

Jiang Cheng says nothing.

Wei Ying remembers why this is a bad idea. “I’m sorry,” he whispers, chin tilted down towards the crown of Jiang Cheng’s head.

“Please don’t say anything stupid right now,” Jiang Cheng replies, and Wei Ying can feel the vibration of it through his clothes, into his skin. “Just stay awake.”

“Okay,” he says, because if that’s what Jiang Cheng needs, he’ll do his best. But it’s so hard. Everything part of his body feels heavy. His leg is weighed down by the bandages, his chest is blood-swollen with bruises. Even his hair feels heavy, the follicles dragging his skull towards the ground.

But he wrenches his eyes open, tries to stay alert.

It gives him time to think.

The thing is, he made Jiang Cheng care about him, and Jiang had never, ever wanted to. But Wei Ying had pushed his way into Jiang Cheng’s heart. Jiang Cheng wouldn’t be suffering so much right now if he hadn’t.

At the time, he’d had to do it.

Wei Ying is a parasite, and he doesn’t mean that pejoratively, but just as a description. He’s a biologist, there’s no judgment for him around different species models. What he cares about, instead, is why they work like that, how they help each species fit their environment. For Wei Ying’s part, he knows exactly why this is a favourable adaptation for him. He’d learned, in that month between when his parents died and when the Jiangs decided they were ready to take him in, that he needed people to care about his well-being or he wouldn’t survive. It wasn’t a conscious thought, at that age, but something deeper which had activated in him. Built instincts, patterns of behaviour, designed to ensure his survival. It wasn’t until he’d started to study that he’d begun to be able to put a name to the way he felt, the clawing, desperate thing inside of him that reached out to others.

And so Wei Ying relies on others. On their mammalian instinct for cooperation to carry him.

Being alone is a luxury that only the wealthy and secure can afford.

Wei Ying has been wealthy ever since he was taken in, but he knows that it can be taken away. There’s no use telling him that it can’t, Yanli tried. The problem with all of her arguments was that they were demonstrably false. He had lost it once. Ergo, regardless of how small the possibility is, it still exists. That’s one of the many things people don’t understand about statistics.

He sees himself as an adorable weasel. He wiggles and shimmies his way in through any cracks that he can find, relentless, and eventually when the person realises what he’s doing, they will hopefully look at him and go ‘Who let this adorable weasel in here? Aw but it’s cute though. I guess it can stay.’

He latches on and takes their love, their resources.

He did it to Jiang Fengmian, he did it without trying to Yanli. Even Lan Zhan, who tells him every day that he is loved and wanted—Wei Ying wore him down first. The first time Lan Zhan had sneered at him and turned away, he thought: if he doesn’t look at me, I will die. His disgust had been more than hurtful, more than annoying, it was an existential threat. He hadn’t been able to let it go. He’d followed Lan Zhan, gotten into his space, manipulated his time and attention until Lan Zhan had started to look back at him. To this date, Lan Zhan was his most successful weaseling.

Jiang Cheng is his hardest target, even though he’s had so much time to work on him. But he’s kept at it, wriggling incessantly so Jiang Cheng can’t get a tight enough grip on him to throw him out.

Now Jiang Cheng is suffering for it. He shouldn’t even be in this cave. He shouldn’t care about Wei Ying at all. He wouldn’t have done either if Wei Ying had left him alone.

Tears are streaming out of his eyes, down his temples, into his undoubtedly matted hair. He keeps himself still, swallows whenever the weight in his chest gets too heavy. It hurts, keeping his face forcibly relaxed, keeping his chest tight so it won’t shudder when he exhales, but then again, so does everything else.

“Are you awake?” Jiang Cheng asks.

Wei Ying swallows a few times, trying to smooth out the lumps in his throat. “Yes.” He hopes it doesn’t sound as wet as it feels.

“You should talk or something.” Wei Ying looks down at his head, it’s still just a head of hair, it gives him no insight into what Jiang Cheng is thinking.

“You told me not to say anything stupid.”

Jiang Cheng should say ‘so you admit everything you say is stupid’ but it seems like neither of them are following the script today.

“What do you want me to talk about?”

“Whatever, I don’t care.”

Wei Ying opens his mouth to say, ‘well let me tell you all about how Lan Zhan tracked down a picture book that I half-remembered my mother reading to me and gave it to me out of nowhere last week,’ but his throat closes up as he thinks: Lan Zhan. Out there, waiting for a Wei Ying who is—Lan Zhan who deserves everything and is getting this. It’s too horrible. Fresh tears spring to his eyes, a waste of precious water, more egregious now that Jiang Cheng has decided to deprive him. He can’t be doing this. On a scale of frog to camel—he imagines the red, sweaty, apoplectic faces of some of the lecturers he’s had if he had even tried to create a scale like that. But then he thinks, well, species are fake, an ontology we create to comfort children, so why the heck not? Anyway, on a scale of frog to camel, he can survive without water for a while. For longer than is going to matter in this situation.

“Um,” deprived of his favourite topic, he really only has the one fallback. “You know how my research focus is on bat navigation.” Jiang Cheng makes an ‘mm’ sound and this is where Wei Ying would expect Jiang Cheng to cut him off, but it doesn’t come. “We know that the colony members come back to the same roosts, or very close, every day, which obviously sounds like a traffic headache, since they’re all leaving and coming back at the same times.” People often think of bats as silent, but they aren’t. And at dawn and dusk when they rush in and out, it’s a cacophony. It is beautiful, the sound of rushing wings like a waterfall, and the small chitters and squeaks. “We wanted to know how they did it so efficiently, right? Cause it has implications for all sorts of behaviours. And we all basically thought they were just really good with their echolocation, moving around each other in a dance, or something.” He takes a breath, a break that makes it hard to open his mouth again, tongue sticking to his teeth. “But actually,” he manages, “they just bump into each other! Every day we get footage and it’s like watching a bumper crash compilation video.” He laughs, weakly, and stops when he can feel a cough creeping in at the corners. “Isn’t that funny, Jiang Cheng?”

Jiang Cheng says, “Yeah, funny,” but it’s a beat too late. Jiang Cheng could at least… Wei Ying is trying here.

He works his tongue around his mouth, trying to loosen it up. The taste is… familiar. He’s been trying not to think about it. He wiggles his tongue in the gap between his canine and first molar..

“You pushed me out of the way,” Jiang Cheng says out of nowhere.

Wei Ying almost bites his tongue as he tries to make an interrogative noise.

Jiang Cheng sounds angry. “You asked. About how you hit your head.”

“Oh,” Wei Ying says. That makes sense. And then: oh.

Wei Ying doesn’t know what to say. The two things that come to mind are, of course I would, it’s you and I’d do it for anyone. They’re both true. Yet neither of them feel helpful. He would do it for anyone. It’s an ingrained behaviour, and well, he’s got the reflexes. Maybe if he says that Jiang Cheng won’t feel like he owes Wei Ying anything. But he doesn’t—he doesn’t want it to sound like Jiang Cheng is just anyone. And for ‘of course,’ well, he really doesn’t want Jiang Cheng to feel like he owes Wei Ying anything. In an ideal world, Jiang Cheng would be the one who forgot how Wei Ying got hurt.

“You always have to be the hero.” Jiang Cheng runs a hand over his face. The tips of his fingers brush Wei Ying’s ribs. Wei Ying wishes he was strong enough to manhandle Jiang Cheng up, look him in the face. “Why is it always you?”

“You’d do the same thing.”

“I never get the chance! You’re always there and I’m just… I’m just left here.” Wei Ying feels a twinge.

“But you’re taking such good care of me now.” Wei Ying’s throat feels as tight as his chest now. “That’s heroic too.”

“Oh yeah, I’m doing great, sitting here uselessly.”

“That’s not… you’re doing your best, trying so hard—you’re doing so well.” Studies suggest that it’s better for children’s long term resilience and sense of self-worth to praise them for their effort than attribute their success to an intrinsic quality. Wei Ying has been reading all about it recently, ever since he and Lan Zhan started talking about adopting. The research was premature, obviously, their potential baby wasn’t even a dream of a zygote yet, but he just thought, if they were going to, he wants to do the best he can—it’s not going to matter much now. But he wants to make Jiang Cheng feel good in a way that will stick. He wants to tell Jiang Cheng that he is so good, so smart and stubborn and strong. He wants Jiang Cheng to remember that, even after. So he wants to say it right.

“No. Stop it. What are you doing? Why are you talking like this?” His voice is so small. Wei Ying can’t remember the last time he heard him talk like that. It sounds wrong.

“I know this has to be hard for you, is all. I’m just trying to not make it worse.” That’s the heart of it.

“Seriously: what the fuck? You’ve never made anything easy in your life.”

His eyes are still closed. He squeezes them. “I know.”

The sound of rustling. Wei Ying opens his eyes and Jiang Cheng is staring at him as hard as he’s ever seen. “That’s not what you’re supposed to say and you know it.” Wei Ying’s supposed to say of course not, that easy is boring, that Wei Ying is not boring.

They have a rhythm, Wei Ying isn’t stepping back when Jiang Cheng steps forward. He knows this. But rhythms can be disrupted by stimulus

“I think it’s time we stopped pretending that I’m not dying.”

Jiang Cheng’s jaw drops. His face stretches, longer than is humanly possibly, warped by the shadows. Immediately Wei Ying regrets his words. He’s trying to make things easier for Jiang Cheng, not worse. Wei Ying isn’t the one who has to live with what happens here, after all. But he’s never been able to avoid wrecking things. Him and his inadvisable words.

“You’re not—” Jiang Cheng’s voice is hoarse. “You aren’t going to die here.” His jaw is set.

Wei Ying feels such a wave of fondness for him. He’s always been willing to take on the world fist first. There’s no challenge or problem that Jiang Cheng doesn’t think he can master. Wei Ying, who often feels like he slides sideways out of anything difficult, has always wanted to be more like that.

“Jiang Cheng,” he tries, voice endlessly gentle.

“No.”

Wei Ying’s mouth tastes like blood. It wasn’t there before his coughing fit and it is now. And every breath he takes rattles, lungs pressing hard on his sternum. Ergo.

The concussion is manageable, the leg also, but if he’s still bleeding? If his body is slowly filling up, the blood that should be going one place getting lost and going to another?

Jiang Cheng clenches his jaw. “I have never wanted to shake you so much in my life.” Wei Ying just nods. He reaches out and Wei Ying—braces. But when Jiang Cheng touches him it’s so gently, the softest squeeze on his shoulder. “I can’t believe you’re giving up like this.”

That is unexpected. He lifts his arm, a sheer act of will so strong it makes sweat bead up on his upper lip, and places his hand on top of Jiang Cheng’s.

“I’m not, I promise.” Giving up isn’t in his lexicon. If it was he would have quit his PhD in year two and become an itinerant farmhand like he’d threatened. “I’m just trying to take responsibility.”

Jiang Cheng’s hand tightens.

He knows he’s not making it better for Jiang Cheng right now. He can only imagine how hard it would be for him if their positions were reversed. To be helpless, and trapped, and watch someone he cares about fade in and out. But it’s—he feels guilty.

“I wish you weren’t here,” he admits.

Jiang Cheng lets go of him. “I bet you wish your precious Lan Zhan was instead.” His voice is bitter.

“Of course not.” How could Jiang Cheng think that? Wei Ying is selfish, but he’s not that selfish. “Neither of you should have to see this.”

Like they’d summoned him, the radio activates with a crackly “Wei Ying?”

Jiang Cheng picks up the receiver. “Finally!” he barks. “He’s being an idiot, talk some sense into him.”

A pointed silence. “Wei Ying is not an idiot.”

Jiang Cheng pulls the receiver away from his face like it spit at him. He thrusts it at Wei Ying.

“Hey, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, and hopes his voice isn’t too weak.

“Wei Ying,” he says, and Wei Ying closes his eyes, not too long to be dangerous, but just enough to savour it. Lan Zhan says his name like it’s new, every time. He says his name like he’s been entrusted with it. When Jiang Yanli put little Jin Ling in Wei Ying’s arms for the first time, Wei Ying had looked down at his incredibly small, wrinkled face, so much hair on his head already, and repeated his name to him. Like he hadn’t been real, just a picture on a sonogram, until Wei Ying had looked at him and said those words. That’s how Wei Ying feels when he hears Lan Zhan say his name.

Wei Ying takes a breath. “I’m here.”

“How are you?” Lan Zhan asks and it makes Wei Ying pause.

Before, he was happy to try to be happy. And his drive not to unnecessarily worry Lan Zhan is still in place. But. He doesn’t want Lan Zhan to find out when they drag his body out of this cave.

Lan Zhan told him about how when his mother died, no one had even told him she was sick. Just one day he hadn’t been allowed to go into her room, and then after that nothing at all. He’d waited while everyone had whispered around him, and eventually gone to a funeral he didn’t totally understand. And it wasn’t until his brother told him that she was not just gone, but dead, that he’d known.

The waiting had struck Wei Ying. Not the idea of it, but the way Lan Zhan had said the word. Lan Zhan has the most beautiful, even voice. But when he’d said, ‘I waited for her, sitting outside her room’ it had felt like everything just—stopped. The edges of the word were hardened, somehow, in Lan Zhan’s voice, like they had a physical shape that barely fit in his mouth, that came into being there and got stuck.

Wei Ying doesn’t want Lan Zhan to wait for him.

“It’s ok if you freak out,” he starts, and grips the plastic of the receiver. Lan Zhan says nothing. It creaks in his hand. He wishes he could see Lan Zhan’s face. “I’ve got internal bleeding and the head is pretty bad.” He pauses. He realises he can’t get the words out. He’d managed it before, with Jiang Cheng and he can’t. “I think you should get ready to—I don’t think that I’m going to make—”

Lan Zhan cuts him off. “Wei Ying.” Sharp this time. “No.” Wei Ying’s lips tense, the opposite of a smile. He doesn’t want to fight with Lan Zhan. Not ever. But especially not as the last conversation they’ll ever have.

“What are you—” if he could see Lan Zhan’s face, he could tell exactly what he’s thinking right now. It took Wei Ying a long time, but Lan Zhan says everything he needs to without having to open his mouth. It’s very unfair when he’s using his eyebrow to write an entire discourse about the failings of their PI and Wei Ying can’t even laugh, but the ability to read him is the greatest gift Lan Zhan has ever given him. Except for right now, when he can’t see, and if he can’t see, he can’t know. “Are you freaking out? No. Of course you are, but sweetheart, just tell me: what do you need?” He can’t do a lot, can barely raise his arms, but if there’s anything then Wei Ying will wrench every muscle in his body to make it happen.

“I don’t need anything.”

Wei Ying feels the gorge rise in his throat because that’s a lie and if he could see him he could see exactly how and give Lan Zhan what he needs anyway.

“Ok, see, right now we’re over the radio, so you have to, you have to tell me what you need. You have to tell me or I won’t know, and I need to know.” He breathes in sharply through his nose. This is Lan Zhan’s turn to panic. “Tell me and I’ll do it.”

“I need Wei Ying to live.”

The laugh that Wei Ying lets out is a little too high to be anything other than hysterical. “Well, you aren’t going to get that, so let’s focus on reasonable goals, hm?” He doesn’t wait for Lan Zhan to figure out how to respond to that. “Ah, Lan Zhan, I’m sorry.” He’s really fucking this up. “This is the type of thing I was saying when Jiang Cheng called me an idiot, so maybe—” you shouldn’t be so hard on him, he wants to finish, but manages to bite it back in time.

“Wei Ying is still not an idiot,” Lan Zhan says. “He is just scared.” Wei Ying feels like he’s drinking the air, every breath hurts so much, feels forced into his chest. “But he—you are not going to die here.”

Yeah, Jiang Cheng said that too. “Lan Zhan,” he tries, gently, “you should start thinking about how we want to spend this time together.” Denying this is only going to waste time.

Lan Zhan starts to say something, but it’s lost in the coughing fit that hits Wei Ying. All of that deep breathing is bad for him, he always knew that, but it’s good to have it confirmed. His body shakes and he tries to tip it sideways. Tries to remember what to do. Coughing is good, he thinks, we encourage the coughing. Wait, that might only be for choking. He’s not sure what the advice is for drowning in his own blood.

He stops after not too long, small after tremors still coursing through him.

And oh. Oh no, he has been gripping the radio receiver the whole time. “Sorry, Lan Zhan,” he whispers, when he can bring it back to his face. He licks the iron taste off of his lips.

“Are you in pain?”

“Ah?” This is not where he thought the conversation was going.

“You said. I should tell you what I need. And I decided I want to know if you’re in pain.”

That sneaky bastard. “Well, it’s not so bad.”

Before Lan Zhan can accept his reassurance, Jiang Cheng is back at his side. “Wait.” Wei Ying raises his eyebrows. Jiang Cheng is clearly not even trying to pretend he’s not listening in anymore. “Where does it hurt?”

Wei Ying glares at him. “It’s really not—”

Jiang Cheng makes frustrated noise number three, specific to when he realises he has to do something he doesn’t enjoy. “Dr. Lan, ask him where.”

Wei Ying’s eyes go wide. That is… such a dirty move.

A pause. “Wei Ying.”

“Oh, I see how it is,” he mutters. He looks up into the blackness and lets himself sit in his body. He really doesn’t want to, because it, yep, hurts. He’s been coasting on top of it, like it’s a pool of tadpoles he’s peering down on. He knows that a lot of things are happening in it, but he really only cares about it when they’re vertebrates. He’s sure the tadpoles of his body are of interest to someone, it just isn’t him. Or wasn’t him. He guesses he’s going to have to muster up some will to examine it.

His leg is a throb, with sparks around it, the skin stinging. His head, which he’d been pretty successfully ignoring, takes the attention as an excuse to try and pull his stomach out again. That’s a hard one to decode because Wei Ying often feels like he’s nauseous when something else is wrong. Not just physical things either, like broken bones or cuts. It’s like his body thinks every bad feeling is just him being poisoned and can be purged. Unfortunately feelings are not fatal, though the operas the Jiangs dragged him to often argued differently. He carefully breathes through it, just like he always does, and lets his attention wander down to his chest. With the ribs it’s hard to tell if it’s the muscles or bones that are bruised, because in either case it feels like every breath is trying to pull the two apart from each other. It’s like the feeling of lifting a leg off of a leather seat on a hot day, the sense that these things should be stuck together and that separating them leaves something behind, some skin, maybe a little dignity. Breathing is literally the most basic autonomic function. Creatures without brains can manage it. But Wei Ying is struggling.

Oh, and his hand is cramping on the radio. He switches it to his other hand, a momentary cut of connection that he feels like a missed heartbeat.

“Pretty much everywhere,” he admits.

Jiang Cheng groans and Lan Zhan’s silence feels pointed.

Wei Ying feels his shoulders lift towards his ears, a small stretch against the rough ground below.

“What are you going to do about it? You can’t give me anything.” Wei Ying looks at Jiang Cheng when he says this. Shock protocol is really biting him right now.

“Tell me—ask him if there’s anything else.”

He hears Lan Zhan take in a breath.

Wei Ying cuts this off. “I’m just thirsty—and again, can’t do anything about that.” He breathes in, an operation which feels harder than it did before he let himself think about his body. “So let’s all agree that this isn’t going to make you feel better.”

Jiang Cheng makes an honest to goodness growl, but Lan Zhan gets there faster this time. “What would?”

Wei Ying lets his breath out in a whoosh, stripping yet more moisture out of his mouth on its way out. He admits, “I’m not sure.”

“Hm,” Lan Zhan says. “Perhaps you could let us know if you think something would be helpful, and in the meantime we will continue to ask after you, because that’s what I need right now.”

Jiang Cheng is staring at the piece of yellow plastic in Wei Ying’s hand like he wants to take it apart with a screwdriver and see how it works. One eye is narrower than the other.

“Ok,” Wei Ying agrees, shifting his grip a little. “What do you want to know?” His hand feels sweatier than before and it’s starting to slip. He doesn’t feel as cold as he did before either, warm in his cheeks and forehead tense with it. Oh no. He hasn’t been breathing carefully and that’s the nausea coming for him, fast. It’s waves now, of warmth, starting behind his navel and going out to his toes and fingers. Jiang Cheng is saying something to him, but he can’t hear it, all of his focus is on keeping his eyes open while his body tries to drag them closed.

But he can’t.

They close and it’s a spike of pain right between the eyes.

***

He opens his eyes.

The chill is worse now, with the sweat that has risen on his exposed skin cooling. He licks his teeth, but they don’t taste worse than before. He’s sure Jiang Cheng would have stopped him from choking but it’s nice that this is one time he won’t have to deal with Wei Ying’s vomit. High school had been bad enough for it.

He wonders how long it’s been. He wishes he had a dream, or anything really to make the blackness be distinguished at all from death.

Jiang Cheng has his hand wrapped around the one Wei Ying has on the radio. He’s talking but Wei Ying can’t quite make out the words. Everything feels fuzzier now. It’s just as dark as before, but it’s less crisp, like his eyes closing was some signal to unfocus.

He twitches a finger against Jiang Cheng’s palm.

Jiang Cheng gasps. Wei Ying blinks, as best as he can. Is Jiang Cheng hurt, why is he making that noise?

“Are you awake?”

“Mm, yeah,” he says.

“Is he? Dr. Jiang, is he awake?”

Maybe he’s too quiet. “‘Ah, yeah, awake.”

“Wei Ying,” he says, and Wei Ying’s never heard him say his name like that. He can’t figure out what’s wrong with it. It sounds wet.

“You’re here,” he says, and Jiang Cheng’s hand tightens on his.

“Yes,” Lan Zhan says.

Wait. That’s not right. Jiang Cheng is here. Wei Ying is here. Lan Zhan is on the radio.

He screws his eyes shut and that hurts. The pain makes things fuzzy in a different way.

“‘M too sleepy,” he says, trying very hard not to whisper so Lan Zhan can hear him.

He’s glad Jiang Cheng is holding onto the radio for him, because he can’t lift his arms at all now. His body should listen to him. He doesn’t like that it doesn’t. He makes a small sound of protest. He doesn’t like this.

He doesn’t want to go out like this. He’s scared of what he’s leaving behind, the jagged space he’s carved for himself. It’s going to leave edges, it’s going to snag. He wishes that he could ask Jiang Cheng and Lan Zhan to be there for each other, after, to match some of them up so they can’t hurt themselves with them. And he could, he could ask, but he won’t. He can’t ask for anything right now because they’ll try to give it to him, even after he’s gone, even if it hurts. He knows the power of a promise extracted by someone who is gone. He doesn’t remember his mother’s smell, her smile, but he remembers the way she told him he smiled like sunshine, that the world was better when he was smiling in it. He remembers the way she told him to hold things lightly in his heart, to not let them settle like stones and hold him down.

He can’t control all of the accidental commands he might have left inside of people, waiting to be set off like bombs triggered by the news of his passing. Animals learn all sorts of conditioned responses no one can predict. But he can control what he does right now. He can avoid laying any more stones on their chests.

But maybe he can ask for something temporary. “Stay with me?” His voice is so small now, and he thinks if they say no it will snuff itself out. “Not forever. Just until…”

“I’m here,” they say at the same time, and Wei Ying can pretend it is with one voice.

“Okay,” he says, breath shuddering, ice crystals stabbing at him on the way out. “That’s good, that’s…”

***

Something is beeping. His brain wires get crossed for a second and he thinks, insect, and tries to swat it away. That makes his hand twinge, which is—unexpected, but makes sense when he opens his eyes and sees the IV in it. Ugh that’s going to hurt so much when they flush it out.

But that means.

He turns his head to the left and everything stops. Lan Zhan is there. He’s sitting in the slightly padded chair with a book and he’s got one of his many long-sleeved base layers and navy hiking pants on and he’s just—there.

Lan Zhan is already putting the book aside and standing, which is good because Wei Ying’s body is jerking towards his, desperate to meet him in the middle.

Wei Ying blinks, doesn’t mean to, never wants to look away from Lan Zhan again, but in that barest moment Lan Zhan is pressing him gently down into the hospital bed. He runs his hand over Wei Ying’s face, thumb brushing against his eyebrow, the curve of his cheek, the shell of his ear. Wei Ying feels as pinned by that gentle touch as he does by the weight of Lan Zhan’s other hand weighing him down.

He looks up into Lan Zhan’s face, the beautiful lines of it, even with purple smudges under his eyes. It just brings out the lightness of them.

“Lan Zhan,” he breathes.

Lan Zhan smiles, eyes turning up in the corners, forehead smoothing out. “Wei Ying,” he returns and Wei Ying shivers.

Lan Zhan blinks and the smile is gone, eyebrows coming together minutely as his eyes flick over Wei Ying’s body, still lying still beneath his hands. “Are you cold?”

“No,” Wei Ying says. He wants Lan Zhan to say his name again. “Lan Zhan,” he repeats, and the corners of his lips twitch in anticipation.

The furrow smooths out. “Wei Ying.”

Wei Ying beams at him and Lan Zhan gets caught up in the feedback loop, smiling back.

They stay that way and Wei Ying doesn’t need to ask to know that Lan Zhan is ok.

Footsteps and Wei Ying tears his gaze away to see Jiang Cheng. He’s backlit by the fluorescents in the beige hospital corridor. Hospitals are always so beige, they don’t suit Jiang Cheng. He doesn’t feel like he fits in this square room with its stainless steel railings along the sides, the big blocky machines next to starchy bed Wei Ying is lying on. Even the curtains on the window are drab in a way that Jiang Cheng isn’t.

Wei Ying can tell the moment Jiang Cheng realises that Wei Ying is awake because his step falters. One missed stair before he corrects his gait and continues walking. That’s the type of stuff Wei Ying lives for when he can catch his subjects doing it. Proof of awareness of their surroundings, bodies in motion reacting to each other.

Jiang Cheng keeps moving, tight grip on the cup in each hand.

Lan Zhan steps back and Wei Ying makes a protesting noise, but he pulls the chair in closer and settles into it, taking Wei Ying’s hand. Wei Ying interlaces their fingers, and Lan Zhan lets him, carefully light touch on the back of Wei Ying’s hand where the IV has left a mottled bruise.

Wei Ying waits but Jiang Cheng walks past him, pushes a cup into Lan Zhan’s hand. Lan Zhan says, “Thank you, Jiang Cheng.”

“You’re welcome,” Jiang Cheng says gruffly. He takes a look at Wei Ying, who raises an eyebrow at him, and then Jiang Cheng bursts into tears.

Wei Ying squeezes Lan Zhan’s hand. “Hey, now, don’t cry,” he says, “I’m fine.”

“No thanks to you,” Jiang Cheng shoots back, scrubbing his hand over his face. Lan Zhan squeezes his hand, but he doesn’t say anything back. Wei Ying throws a wide-eyed glance at Lan Zhan too, sitting in his chair and still looking at Wei Ying. Wei Ying wonders how much has changed since he passed out, if Lan Zhan isn’t sniping at Jiang Cheng and Jiang Cheng is bringing him tea.

He thinks about making a joke about all it took for them to get along was a small cave-in but the tears are still shining on Jiang Cheng’s face. He’ll save it for New Year’s.

Lan Zhan hooks his ankle around the second chair and pulls it in close to the bed. Jiang Cheng collapses into it. Jiang Cheng stares at his tea like it holds the secrets of the universe, so Wei Ying decides to give him a moment with it.

“How did you get me out?”

“Helicopter,” Jiang Cheng says, not looking up.

Wei Ying looks at Lan Zhan to confirm. Lan Zhan nods. That means—helicopter flying above the cave? They lowered a stretcher down?

“But the bats.” If they did that, then it would have been loud and disruptive right at the entrance to the cave that the colony used.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan chides.

“What, they’re your bats too!”

Jiang Cheng makes a strangled noise and Lan Zhan hums back. Wei Ying narrows his eyes at them. He doesn’t like where this has gone. Next thing he knows they’ll start asking him if he needs anything, or if it hurts anywhere.

“You cannot think that either of us would spare a moment’s thought for the bats when your life was in danger,” Lan Zhan says, and the words are serious, but the smile is still in his eyes.

“Oh,” Wei Ying says. He looks at Jiang Cheng to confirm, but Jiang Cheng is still glaring at his tea. That’s okay though. He can wear him down.