Several hours after their escape, Liu Sang has to take a deep breath. Remind himself that he’s still alive.
They’ve escaped Boss Jiao. They’ve made it to Thunder City (or at least the outskirts). Wu Xie still has a chance to survive. He’s fine.
None of those things lessen the dull ache in his ribcage when he breathes, or the stinging pain of a split lip and the throb of what may be a mild concussion, or the fact that he can’t seem to stop shaking. Small, barely noticeable tremors, easily explained away by the fact that it’s autumn and they just climbed out of a freezing lake barely an hour ago, but they’re there, and he can’t make them stop.
“Liu Sang?” A small hand touches his shoulder, and in spite of himself Liu Sang can’t quite disguise his flinch as he turns to face Bai Haotian’s inquiring gaze.
She has dirt on her face and a small cut on the corner of her mouth, but no worse for wear besides. He feels both relieved and guilty about that—relieved that Li Dajiang hadn’t been able to do anything to her, but guilty because if it wasn’t for him and his big mouth, neither of them would have ended up as prisoners in the first place.
No, the logical side of his brain supplies, you’d be bleeding out in a cave alongside Jiale and Jia Kezi.
Liu Sang winces mentally at that. More deaths. It’s not his fault, he knows that, so why does he feel like it is?
“Liu Sang?” Haotian is looking at him with concern and Liu Sang realises with a start she must have been speaking to him. He turns, offering a small, apologetic smile—at least that’s what he hopes he’s doing with his mouth.
“Sorry. What did you say?”
Haotian flushes, her eyes overbright. “Thank you. I’m still alive because of you.”
Hardly , but Liu Sang doesn’t say it. He just nods.
Haotian stares at him sadly for a bit, and then out of the blue she stands on tiptoe and presses a quick kiss to his cheek. It’s over in a second, so fast Liu Sang feels like he imagined it, and when he finally recovers from his shock Haotian has retreated to the other side of the camp, her ears a bright red.
Weird . Liu Sang shakes off the incident as quickly as possible, but for some reason those two words “ thank you ” lodge in his mind and make him feel just a little less broken. Maybe he’s not such a screw-up, after all.
He’s able to mostly ignore his aches and pains for the rest of the day, but as night falls and it gets colder they return with a vengeance. Pangzi and Wu Xie have med kits with them, but Liu Sang would sooner bite off his own tongue than ask either of them for help. Wu Xie is sick enough as it is, and as for Pangzi, Liu Sang has no energy to deal with the older man’s passive-aggressive jabs, even if the tone of their relationship has become less sour with time. Besides, there’s something in him that recoils from touch right now. Even sharp movements made too close to him feel too much like threatened blows, and Liu Sang has to fight the urge to raise his arms to ward them off.
It’s stupid, but he’s fine. He will be fine.
He has to be.
With the onset of darkness, Wu Xie has built a fire and everyone congregates around it for cheap noodles and warmth, chatting in low voices about plans for entering Thunder City and how to keep ahead of Boss Jiao. Liu Sang watches the little circle and tries desperately not to care, before taking the opportunity to slip into the big tent shared by all the men and inspect his injuries.
As he thought, there’s a wide, ugly map of bruises scattered across his torso, blue-black and painful to the touch. Nothing seems broken, which is a relief, but he’ll need to take painkillers or put some ice on them. Or, better yet, keep his mouth shut and hope nobody notices. Everyone else is fine. Even Wu Xie, closer to death than any of them, is managing. Liu Sang will not be the one to slow them down.
The thought of being left behind terrifies him more than anything.
He drops his shirt slowly, turns around—and stops short.
Xiao Ge is sitting on one of the low cots on the other side of the tent, long legs stretched out in front of him, catlike eyes watching Liu Sang curiously. Now that Liu Sang thinks about it, he had missed the hooded man around the fire. He must have been in here the whole time.
Liu Sang swallows. “Not hungry?” he asks, trying to inject some lightness into his tone. “Pangzi’s cooking.”
Xiao Ge’s expression doesn’t change. “Who did that?” he asks in his soft voice, but for some reason there’s steel behind it.
Liu Sang shrugs, aiming for nonchalance and regretting it as pain twinges across his chest. “How should I remember? There were a lot of them.” He forces his mouth to curve. I’m fine .
Xiao Ge’s face hardens, and Liu Sang feels instantly that he’s said the wrong thing. He drops the smile. “Look, forget it. It’s over now, and it’s not a big deal. My ribs aren’t even broken.”
Xiao Ge unfolds himself and stands up. “Let me see,” he says, and suddenly the tent is too small, and Xiao Ge isn’t Xiao Ge anymore, he’s Li Dajiang, and Liu Sang wants to run because this will hurt —
“Don’t!” He means the word to come out as a snap, but it emerges more like a terrified plea. Xiao Ge stops dead, looking startled, and Liu Sang bites back the burn of humiliation behind his eyes and forces himself to remember to breathe. “Please,” his voice hitches, just a little, “don’t. I’m fine.” Oh, and now he’s begging. Pathetic . His dad would be laughing right now.
“Liu Sang.” Xiao Ge’s voice has gone very quiet, but there’s no edge behind it anymore. “I won’t hurt you.”
Liu Sang knows that, he knows that , why is he so stupid —
“You’re hurt,” Xiao Ge says, still soft. Outside, the others laugh at the punchline of one of Pangzi’s jokes. “It’ll get worse if you don’t do something. Do you want me to help?”
Liu Sang blinks at him, eyes stinging.
“If you don’t then I’ll just stay here. You can do whatever you want.”
He doesn’t say that he won’t tell anyone, but Liu Sang already knows that he won’t. Xiao Ge is the best secret-keeper in the group.
He takes a breath, relieved when his lungs expand. “Can you—“ His voice cracks and he shakes his head, embarrassed. “I need ice. And...painkillers.” And antiseptic for the cuts on his face , but Liu Sang doesn’t say that.
Xiao Ge nods and turns away, heading to Pangzi’s corner. After rummaging around in the older man’s bag, he produces two ice packs and a small jar of painkillers—and a tube of antiseptic.
Liu Sang stares at him and wonders if mind-reading is just another one of Xiao Ge’s abilities that he doesn’t know about.
He uses strips from an old shirt of his and wraps the ice packs loosely in place against his torso and stomach. The cold is uncomfortable, but it helps numb the pain. He downs a couple of painkillers, and shakes out a handful from the nearly full tube to keep in his pocket for later. Lastly, there’s the antiseptic, but there’s no mirror in the tent and raising his arms is too painful right now.
He glances over to where Xiao Ge stands leaning against one of the tent poles, his back turned as if to give Liu Sang privacy. The thought feels oddly sweet, but Liu Sang ignores it.
He doesn’t finish the sentence, but Xiao Ge seems to understand. He swings around and approaches—more slowly, this time.
“This might hurt,” he says, opening the tube, and Liu Sang smiles. He hurts in so many places, inside and out, he’s almost forgotten what not hurting feels like. He stands still and does his best not to flinch at the feeling of Xiao Ge’s fingers on his skin.
For someone who’s over 100 years old, Xiao Ge is surprisingly warm. His hands feel like he’s just been sitting in front of the fire outside, and though hardened by constant exposure to the walls of caves and tombs, they’re not rough in the least. Touch wise, he’s very gentle, almost shy, those searching dark eyes of his cataloguing Liu Sang’s every reaction and adjusting his movements accordingly. Even so, Liu Sang can’t help the tiny jerks he lets slip every time Xiao Ge touches him. It feels too strange and unfamiliar, being touched not to be hurt. Not that the gang hurt him, but they normally don’t interact with Liu Sang physically at all, and over time (and thanks to his experiences growing up) he’s gotten used to that. If no one’s touching him, then they’re not hitting him, and he’s fine with that. Really.
But he feels Haotian’s kiss on his cheek and Xiao Ge’s hand brushing over his swollen lip, and it’s like a part of him that never he never knew was wounded is now being sewn up, stitch by delicate stitch, painful but in a good way. Is it wrong that he doesn’t want it to end?
Xiao Ge steps back, and Liu Sang tries not to feel the emptiness inside mourning at the loss. “Thank you,” he manages after an embarrassingly long silence. “I...just...thank you. And I’m sorry. For earlier.”
A frown sweeps across Xiao Ge’s face, replaced by something pained. He hesitates, and comes closer again, and Liu Sang tries not to tense.
“Don’t be sorry,” he says. Liu Sang searches his face, looking for something—mockery, disappointment, he doesn’t know what—but then Xiao Ge puts an arm out loosely and pulls Liu Sang close. His other arm comes up to circle Liu Sang’s back and okay , this is a hug.
Liu Sang’s brain short-circuits. What, exactly, is he supposed to do in this situation? He feels like if he attempts to hug Xiao Ge back, the other man will pull away, and somehow that would hurt worse than everything that’s happened before today. But he can count on one hand the number of people who’ve hugged him in his life, and maybe he is just as pathetic as his father has said, but he doesn’t want this to stop.
He ducks his chin just a little, pressing his face into Xiao Ge’s shoulder and trying to breathe and hope , and Xiao Ge’s hand is warm and gentle on his back.
“Ah Sang,” he says, softer and quieter than ever, like a secret, full of affection. “Don’t be sorry.”
And Liu Sang may regret this later, but the cracks inside him have all but shattered and he has no strength to try and repair them.
He puts his arms around Xiao Ge and allows himself to break.