They’re in a small village in the middle of nowhere, scouting ahead for Er Shu, when Hei Ye notices the cough. Being around Wu Xie on a regular basis has made him practically immune to the sound, so when Xiao Ge coughs a few times on their trek up the long, winding path to the village’s only motel, Hei Ye assumes (with some inner satisfaction) that the mute’s seemingly iron condition isn’t actually as impenetrable as it appears.
They make it to the motel without incident and the girl behind the desk gives them both an appreciative once-over before telling them apologetically that there’s only one room left. “It’s hiking season,” she says. “There are a lot of tourists around.”
Hei Ye shrugs loosely. “I don’t mind sharing. There are twin beds, right?” He grins at the girl, and she returns it with a sparkle in her eyes that reminds him forcefully of Chuchu.
Just like that, his flirtatious mood flickers and dies, and he makes no more attempt at banter, instead taking the keys from the girl with a brief thank you and climbing the stairs to the second floor.
Their room is the last one at the end of the hall: a small, rather shabby affair with thin, yellowing curtains and dust an inch thick lying on the furniture. Its only redeeming features are the spectacular view of the mountains to the west, and the beds, which though hard and covered by faded blankets, seem like heaven after months of sleeping on rock-strewn ground.
Hei Ye tosses his bag onto the bed nearest the wall and notes with some irritation that Xiao Ge is patrolling the tiny en suite bathroom like a soldier investigating enemy territory. “Lighten up a little, would you? Pretty sure that if there were someone lurking in there to kill us, we’d know about it by now.”
Xiao Ge opens his mouth and Hei Ye can practically see the lecture coming, but what emerges instead is a short, sharp cough. And then another.
In spite of himself, Hei Ye frowns. “Are you alright?” That’s the fifth time today.
“I’m fine.” The response comes as quick and certain as it always does, and Hei Ye’s brief flare of concern dies away. Of course Dummy is alright. When isn’t he?
He climbs onto the bed and kicks his bag to the side, cushioning his head on his arms. “I’m going for a nap. Wake me up when it’s time to eat.”
Xiao Ge doesn’t answer (typical), but Hei Ye sees him go and sit down on a chair facing the door, arms folded across his chest like a sentinel keeping watch. The sight makes him grin a little. As annoying as Dummy can be sometimes, having someone in your corner never feels bad. It’s on that thought Hei Ye falls asleep.
Xiao Ge wakes him a couple of hours later and the two of them head downstairs to the motel’s outdoor dining area to eat. Bowls of spicy noodles and meat are delivered, and Hei Ye dives in with relish. He does not miss Kan Jian’s doubtful cooking at all .
It’s a warm evening, so the place is busy. Between bites, Hei Ye spots the hikers the girl from behind the front desk had mentioned, as well as some young couples and an exhausted-looking family with their kids. Last but not least, there’s a group of four men in the corner, all dressed like businessmen on a retreat. As Hei Ye looks over, he catches one of them staring, and the man hastily retracts his gaze.
“Did you see those men earlier?” Xiao Ge asks later on as they climb the stairs to their room.
“Yes,” Hei Ye answers. And then, just to prove he’s as observant as Xiao Ge, he adds, “Tomb raiders, right?” Despite the men’s suits and high-end watches and gear, it had been their shoes that had given them away. Sturdy boots, meant more for traversing rocky caves than office floors.
Xiao Ge nods, looking slightly sombre. “Maybe.”
It’s not unheard of for tomb raiders to go up against the Wu family in pursuit of lost treasures, though the numbers of those who do so usually belong more to the rookie—or exceptionally cocky—class. But on the other hand, those men could just as eaily be mercenaries hired by another family looking to be the ones to brag they’ve beaten the legendary Wu Erbai at his own game, which makes them doubly as dangerous.
Hei Ye sighs. “I guess we’re taking shifts tonight?”
Xiao Ge’s only response is a nod and Hei Ye rolls his eyes behind his dark glasses. Naturally .
In the middle of the night, he wakes up briefly to the sound of coughing, but sleep takes over before he has time to think about it much.
The next morning, after an early breakfast, they head out to the cave Er Shu had wanted them to scout. The sun is shining and the air is warm, and Hei Ye is soon vaguely regretting his heavy leather jacket. That changes, however, whenever they plunge into the inky depths of the cave, leaving the sun behind entirely.
At first sight, the cave appears completely ordinary, with the tunnels closer to the entrance littered with abandoned candy wrappers, cigarettes, and other marks of human exploration. But several twists and turns following the map Er Shu has given them, and it soon becomes evident this is no regular cave. There is a tomb here—perhaps more than one. Hei Ye grins. Jackpot .
“Hey, Dummy, you hear anything that indicates we’re going to have trouble exploring this place properly? Any zombies or ghostly women or anything like that?” As much as Hei Ye loves tomb raiding—indeed, he gets as much a kick out of the danger involved as the profit—it would be nice to have at least one stress-free mission.
Xiao Ge being Xiao Ge, it takes Hei Ye a minute or two to realise he’s not answering. He seems not to be listening at all, one hand resting against the cool stone wall of the cave while he (apparently) stares off into nothingness.
Anyone else would just leave him alone. But Hei Ye is not anyone else, and he does find some satisfaction in provoking a reaction out of Xiao Ge, even if it’s just a steely-eyed glare. So he sidles up, takes out his phone, and prepares to begin recording. “And here we have a Zhang Qiling in a trancelike state, neither asleep nor awake—“
Xiao Ge’s eyes snap to him then, and Hei Ye’s laughter dies in his throat. Maybe it’s just the look on the other man’s unusually flushed face, or the way his gaze seems bleary and unfocused, or the fact that up close, he actually appears to be leaning on the wall of the cave for support.
And clearly, Hei Ye has spent too much time around touchy-feely people like Chuchu or Kan Jian, because the next thing he does is reach up and press his hand to Xiao Ge’s forehead. The heat found there makes him yank away almost instantly.
“What the—You’re sick!”
From the moment Hei Ye’s hand touched him, Xiao Ge has gone rigid, his form more resembling a statue than a human being, while something like shock revolves in his dark eyes. That look disappears at Hei Ye’s words, and he shakes his head. “I’m fine.”
If Hei Ye has to hear that one more time, he might just strangle Xiao Ge. “Bullshit. You can’t even stand up straight. If someone were to attack us now, what would you do? Glare them to death?” That gets him a glower, but Hei Ye doesn’t care. “Go back down to the motel and get some rest. I’ll finish up here.” Something he has no real intention of doing (there’s no way he’s poking around further in an unknown cave without Xiao Ge to listen ahead for trouble), but the other man doesn’t need to know that.
Xiao Ge hesitates for the longest time, but eventually he nods, and with a slow stride that gives away his weariness, he turns and walks back the way they came.
Hei Ye watches him go, and then, just to ease his conscience, strolls around the cave for another fifteen minutes before calling it a day. He makes his way back down the path to the village leisurely and halts in the bar for a couple of drinks, chatting amicably with the pretty barmaid before heading back to the motel.
The group of businessmen/potential tomb raiders is standing outside when he arrives, loading their belongings onto a van that looks like it’s about to sink into the ground under the weight of luggage. The men go silent as he passes and Hei Ye can feel their stares on his back like daggers. He’s not sorry they’re leaving.
He walks up the stairs with a whistle on his lips, already mentally rehearsing what to say if Xiao Ge asks him anything about the cave, but no sooner does he approach their room than his train of thought disappears entirely.
The door is wide open. Inside, the beds have been turned upside down, the chest of drawers ransacked and their luggage lies strewn about the floor. And in the middle of it all, hood yanked back to reveal an unnaturally pale face, lies Xiao Ge.
“Dummy!” Hei Ye crosses the room in two strides, kneeling next to Xiao Ge’s prone form. “Hey! Can you hear me?” His heart is racing, banging against his ribcage as though struggling to escape. Wu Xie and Pangzi will never forgive him if he lets their pet mute die on his watch—to be honest, Hei Ye’s not sure if he could forgive himself. “Hey!” he shouts louder, shaking Xiao Ge a little more roughly than necessary. “Wake up!”
Xiao Ge groans then, and the knot of angst in Hei Ye’s gut loosens just a fraction. “Thanks for taking your time, dummy. What, were you having a nice dream?” He reaches up, feeling around the back of Xiao Ge’s head, and grimaces when his fingers brush against an egg-sized lump. So that was how they got him . “Was it the guys from last night?” he asks, though he already sort of knows the answer.
Xiao Ge nods slowly, and Hei Ye grits his teeth, part of him itching to run downstairs and see if those bastards are still in the yard. Just for a taste of their own medicine…
Xiao Ge moans, and just like that Hei Ye’s anger dissolves. Not entirely, but enough for him to calm down and take one thing at a time.
First thing: help Xiao Ge. “Can you stand?”
Another little nod. Hei Ye helps pull the other man to his feet, and then when Xiao Ge stumbles, he keeps an arm moored loosely around the other’s shoulders and eases him toward the nearest bed.
Xiao Ge lies down without a sound. His skin is alarmingly hot to the touch, and as Hei Ye watches, he frowns as if in discomfort, eyes moving restlessly behind closed lids.
Fever, definitely , Hei Ye’s mind supplies. And he might have a concussion…
Not for the first time, he wishes Chuchu were here. She would know exactly what to do, her calm, no-nonsense manner tinged by a gentleness and patience only she could exude. But Chuchu is gone now, the last tangible memory to her being a stone in a crowded cemetery overlooking the city. Her laughter and her voice and her kindness now only exist in Hei Ye’s mind, ghosts haunting the corners of his memory.
Xiao Ge shivers, and Hei Ye pulls the blanket from the floor and lightly drapes it over him, relieved when that seems to help. Second thing: get medicine. He leaves the room, making sure to shut and lock the door behind him this time, and then heads downstairs to ask the receptionist where the nearest pharmacy is.
As it turns out, the nearest pharmacy is two hours away by bus, but there’s an old healer in the village who still cooks up home remedies and sells them. Hei Ye visits the toothless old woman, and after paying an exorbitant sum (which includes one of his pairs of sunglasses), he returns to the motel, deciding to use the leftover bandages and antiseptic in his pack for Xiao Ge’s outward injuries.
It becomes clear from the moment he enters the room that Xiao Ge has gotten worse already. His skin is hot enough to light coals on, his shivering so bad that his teeth are chattering. He seems unaware of his surroundings, and barely reacts when Hei Ye places the other blanket over him.
Hei Ye gets a jug of water and a cup from the bathroom and pours the first of the small herbal packets the old woman had given him into the latter. The smell makes his eyes water, and he grimaces. This had better work .
“I got you some medicine,” he says, approaching the bed. Xiao Ge doesn’t react, but as hearing the sound of his own voice helps quell the apprehension rising inside, Hei Ye keeps talking. “You’ve got to drink it; it should help with the fever. Not the good stuff like Er Shu gets us, but you probably used this a lot when you were a kid so you should be okay.”
He perches on the edge of the bed and tilts the cup towards Xiao Ge’s mouth. And just like that, there’s Chuchu in his head again, clear as though she were standing right next to him, her fingers flashing away word after word. “Raise his head or else he’ll choke. Do you want him to die?”
Thanks, Chuchu . Hei Ye slips an arm under Xiao Ge’s head, careful to avoid the swelling, and raises the other man up a little to drink the mixture. Xiao Ge manages a couple of sips before his forehead wrinkles and he coughs, turning his head away.
“Tastes like crap, right? I think that’s how you’re supposed to know it’s good medicine. Least that’s what I’ve heard someone say.” Hei Ye places the cup on the bedside table and rubs a hand over his face.
He is so not the person to be handling this. It should be Wu Xie, with his grandad sweaters and quiet concern, or Pangzi with his infuriatingly loud voice and old-woman-like nagging. Hell, even that little troublemaker Bai Haotian would be better at this than him. Hei Ye can barely take care of himself, let alone other people—especially a 100-year-old zombie (ghost?). Nobody but Xiao Ge himself actually knows what he is, and since he has memory losses every couple of years, even that might be lost to him.
The thought brings a sudden flash of pity, and Hei Ye stands up, eager to escape the uncomfortable emotion. He paces around the room a bit and then decides to tidy up and make sure the invaders haven’t stolen anything.
As it turns out, they haven’t. Probably because the main thing they were after (the map, Hei Ye would bet his life on it), wasn’t actually in the room at the time of their entry, and then Xiao Ge had surprised them and kept them from searching for anything else. He decides to keep it tucked inside his jacket, just in case.
Dinner is a solitary affair. After, Hei Ye uses his charm on the receptionist, who goes wide-eyed with sympathy when she hears that Xiao Ge is sick and gives Hei Ye a bowl of soup from the kitchen free of charge as well as some fever-reducing tablets. He crumbles up the latter into the former and manages to get Xiao Ge to down half a dozen mouthfuls before the other gives up.
Night comes, and Xiao Ge’s fever spikes even higher. Abandoning sleep, Hei Ye soaks some clothes in water and places them on his forehead in an attempt to cool him down.
It’s odd, and frankly a little scary, to see Xiao Ge so...undone. Normally, he is as quiet as a shadow with about as much emotion to boot, but now he moves restlessly to and fro, small noises of discomfort escaping him every few seconds, his face drawn and pained.
Hei Ye wonders if he’s worrying about Wu Xie, but just then, Xiao Ge’s eyes open and fix on him, fever-bright and empty of recognition. “I...didn’t do it.”
Huh? Hei Ye’s mouth opens to ask what he means, but Xiao Ge’s hand reaches out, latching onto his wrist with a strength that belies his slim frame.
“I didn’t...betray you. Gaoyuan...da-ge...I didn’t. I swear. I didn’t.”
The distress in his voice makes him sound all of twelve, and Hei Ye’s heart gives an uncomfortable wrench, even as he wonders who the heck this Gaoyuan person is. Xiao Ge’s brother, maybe?
Xiao Ge sounds small and young and desperate, and Hei Ye flinches. Gently, he pries the other’s clinging fingers off his wrist and adjusts the cloth on Xiao Ge’s forehead. “It’s okay, dummy. You’re just having a bad dream.” Against his better judgement, he brushes back the other’s dark hair. “You’re safe.”
Xiao Ge somehow manages to maintain the same intensity in his looks, delirious as he is. “Don’t...leave.”
Hei Ye crosses his heart. “Not going anywhere. Promise.”
Some of the pain leaves Xiao Ge’s face. A moment later, his eyes are shut, and he’s shivering again. Even with two blankets and Hei Ye’s jacket over him, he can’t seem to get warm.
As though his worry has conjured her, Chuchu reappears. “Body heat will help.”
Hei Ye shakes the thought away, but it refuses to leave, lingering even as Xiao Ge’s teeth start chattering again. Next to him, Chuchu is tapping her foot, arms folded.
Hei Ye glares in her direction. “ Fine .” Abandoning his position on the nearby chair, he gingerly climbs onto the bed, edging Xiao Ge a little further to the side to give him room. Then, carefully, he rests an arm over the other’s middle, pulling him closer until he can practically feel the heat radiating off Xiao Ge’s skin.
Out of the corner of his vision, he sees Chuchu fade away.
The sound of birds singing outside is the first thing that wakes Hei Ye. Blinking, he pushes back the last waves of sleep, wondering what he’s missing.
And then he feels the empty space next to him in the bed and his heart leaps into his throat. “Xiao Ge!”
He sits up, scanning the room hastily, half-ready to scramble out of bed and begin searching, but then the bathroom door opens and Xiao Ge steps out, half-leaning on the doorframe, his hair wet and a towel around his neck. He looks mildly surprised.
Hei Ye sags against the bed, willing his heartbeat to slow. “Damn it, dummy. Are you trying to kill me or something? Why didn’t you say where you were going?”
“You were asleep,” Xiao Ge points out calmly. He sounds much more like the old Xiao Ge this morning, and for the sheer relief of that alone Hei Ye refrains from letting loose the volley of profanities lingering at the tip of his tongue.
“You seem better,” he says instead, watching Xiao Ge carefully. If the other man doesn’t plan on mentioning how they woke up together, Hei Ye won’t say anything either. The thought alone is causing his ears to burn.
Xiao Ge nods. “My blood. The medicine you gave me helped it to react against the fever. I should be fine in a day or two.” He crosses the floor on slightly unsteady legs, dropping into the chair next to the bed. “Did those men take anything?”
Hei Ye takes a minute to reply. “Uh...no. I think they were after the map. You just surprised them.”
Xiao Ge looks serious. “I thought I heard something as I came upstairs, but…” A faint flush covers his cheeks. “I should have stopped them.”
“ Sure .” Hei Ye all but drawls the word, hardly able to believe what he’s hearing. “Look, dummy, just because you’re older and stronger than the rest of us doesn’t mean you need to be on duty all the time. You were sick , for crying out loud! I wasn’t going to blame you even if they had taken anything, and Er Shu wouldn’t have either. Stop beating yourself up.”
Xiao Ge blinks at him, something like surprise in his eyes. Finally, he gives a slow nod.
“Good. You hungry?” Hei Ye swings his legs off the bed and stands up. “I’ll wash up and go and charm us some breakfast.”
Xiao Ge stands too. “I can go—“
Hei Ye jabs a finger at him. “Don’t think I didn’t see the way you were holding onto that doorframe a minute ago. Just stay here and let me work my magic, okay? If we’re lucky we’ll be able to get free meals here until Er Shu and the others show up.”
And then, just because he wants to make sure, he brushes a hand lightly against Xiao Ge’s forehead. It comes away cool.
Xiao Ge has gone still again, that same muted look of shock in his eyes as before, but then he smiles almost shyly. And because he wants to hold onto that smile, Hei Ye doesn’t ask about Gaoyuan or any of the other things Xiao Ge said last night while the fever raged through him. Some things are better left unsaid.
Not all things, though . “I’m glad you’re better, Xiao Ge.” And with that, he heads into the bathroom, whistling softly to himself again.
In the back of his mind, he sees Chuchu smile.