Their train stops at a station halfway home and everyone disembarks to change to a bus for the rest of the journey. Liu Sang is glad of the change: after five days in a stuffy compartment listening to Pangzi’s snoring and Bai Haotian’s constant fidgeting, his small store of patience is just about exhausted. He’s stiff, tired, and hungry, and right now all he wants is to get home and get some proper rest in peace and quiet.
He’s been away from civilisation for so long he’s almost forgotten how much he hates crowded places, but no sooner does Liu Sang step into the station than he remembers. As is common with these halfway halting points, the station is jammed from one end to the other with people shouting, gesticulating, saying goodbyes or hellos, and even crying. The squawking of indignant poultry, the wailing of young children, and the cool voice of the station announcer over the tannoy only adds to the din.
Liu Sang tries to ignore it all, but it’s not easy. His ears, always sensitive, are still in pain after the trip to Thunder City and the fact that he’s just about lost hearing in one of them makes him feel even more off-kilter. A headache starts to pulse behind his temples, and he closes his eyes briefly, wincing.
That turns out to be a mistake, because when he opens them again, he’s lost his group. Liu Sang turns in a slow circle, trying to catch a glimpse of Pangzi’s outrageous purple shirt or Hei Ye’s leather jacket or even Wu Xie’s knitted sweater...but they’ve all gone, melted into the stream of humanity passing through the station.
An unexpected stab of panic hits him, causing his breath to hitch, but Liu Sang forces it away and closes his eyes again. If he can’t see them, he’ll just have to try and listen for them.
Big mistake. There are too many noises, and with his eyes shut, the volume seems to have doubled. A wave of pain jars through him, coupled with a rising swell of nausea. Where are they?
A train blasts its horn right then, and someone yelling into a phone knocks into him, and suddenly it’s just too much . Half-stumbling over his own feet, Liu Sang extricates himself from the crowd and staggers over to a bench in the farthest corner of the station. Sinking onto it, he leans forward and grips the cool metal edge of the seat, trying desperately not to be sick.
Please make it stop .
And then, like someone might actually be listening to him, the noise of the station fades away. A pair of gloved hands cover his ears, warm and pressing just enough to mute the clamour around him, but not so hard it hurts. They stay for two deep breaths, three...just long enough for Liu Sang to regain control and open his eyes again.
When he does, it’s Xiao Ge who’s standing in front of him, hood pulled up over his head as usual, even though they’re indoors. And oh please, let the earth open up and swallow him now, because of all the things Liu Sang would most have wanted not to happen, almost having a panic attack in front of his idol is one of them.
“Are you all right?” Xiao Ge asks, a tiny crease in his forehead. Like he might actually be worried about someone other than Wu Xie for once.
Liu Sang shoves away the irrational spear of jealousy and manages to nod. “Fine. I just…”
Don’t like loud places. Closed my eyes for a second and when I opened them you were all gone and I didn’t know what to do so I tried to listen for you but I forgot I can’t do that anymore because half my hearing is gone and there was just too much noise—
“They’re waiting by the front door,” Xiao Ge says, breaking into Liu Sang’s tumbling thoughts. “We couldn’t see you, so I came back.”
Simple enough words, and yet Liu Sang clings to them and the warmth they produce like a drowning man to a raft. “Thanks,” is all he manages, however.
Xiao Ge holds out his bag. “You left this.”
Liu Sang takes it, and only then does he realise the other man is hanging back, something unreadable on his face.
“You’re leaving?” It comes out more as a question than a statement, but Xiao Ge nods.
“Oh.” Try as he might, Liu Sang is unable to keep the disappointment from his voice. He should have known this would happen; apart from his attachment to Wu Xie and Pangzi, Xiao Ge is very much a free spirit. He shows up when they need him and then disappears off to who knows where for unspecified amounts of time, and no one (except for Wu Xie maybe) knows what he does while he’s away. Liu Sang could hardly have expected him to stick around now that everything has been settled and life is about to return to normal, but that doesn’t stave off the sudden emptiness in his chest.
But because he’s had practice at this before, he knows how to respond, so he fixes on a smile and holds out his hand. “Goodbye, then.”
Xiao Ge looks at Liu Sang’s outstretched hand for a moment, and then, out of the blue, he pulls the other man in for a hug.
The entire world fades away for Liu Sang in that moment. The bustle of the station becomes a distant blur; even his own exhaustion and the lingering remnants of a headache—none of it matters anymore. Because Xiao Ge, who never hugs anyone except Wu Xie or Pangzi, is actually hugging him —Liu Sang, of all people. He feels warm and strong and smells slightly of soap and smoke, and Liu Sang never wants this moment to end.
It does, eventually. When Xiao Ge finally pulls away, it’s all Liu Sang can do to keep a big, goofy grin off his face. He likes to think he succeeded—sort of.
Xiao Ge looks at him with a smile, something soft and fond in it. “Good luck, Liu Sang,” he says, and then walks away. It’s only after he’s been gone a minute or so that Liu Sang notices he never said “goodbye”, and the realisation fills him with an unexpected warmth.
Xiao Ge will come back. And this time, Liu Sang will be waiting for him.