“Are you all right?” he heard Lin Jingyan ask.
Around them, the half-empty Qingdao metro glided on, enjoying the golden moment of a quiet afternoon before the rush hour began. “Yes,” Zhang Jiale answered, reflexively, and then: “No. Maybe.”
Several bags of chips crinkled in protest as Lin Jingyan shifted in his seat. “Oh,” he said. “Do you want to talk about it?”
It, of course, was the royal jelly Zhang Jiale had stared at for an embarrassing amount of time in the supermarket, purely because the company had, by some awful twist of fate, also been called Hundred Blossoms. The Zhang Jiale from years ago (lifetimes ago) would never have paid it any attention (not quite true, he might have laughed at it and bought a jar for the novelty alone), but the present Zhang Jiale couldn’t even figure out if he hated the jelly or himself more for his moment of weakness. “Not yet,” he said, and Lin Jingyan allowed him his silence.
The problem, really, was that his thoughts held all the clarity of Beijing morning smog, and if Zhang Jiale opened his mouth all he would do was belch out confused pollution, and he didn’t have the energy to clean it up. The metro drifted on, alternating between tunnel-darkness and the bright lights of the stations, and Zhang Jiale counted seven stations before his mouth opened and he said, “I think we’re like the bees.”
To his credit, Lin Jingyan didn’t immediately brand him a lunatic. He took his earbuds out of his ears, and put them into his pocket, and looked at Zhang Jiale. “Why?” he asked.
“The worker bees,” Zhang Jiale said, “do everything for the hive, and then they die and leave nothing behind. The queen fills their spot with more workers, and everything continues all over again.”
Lin Jingyan’s unfailing politeness (a particular contrast against Fang Rui’s unfailing scam-ness) was something all reporters picked up on (usually with mention to that particular contrast, though he supposed it would now never happen again). “Is that how you feel? That you’ve left nothing behind?”
“You should be a therapist,” Zhang Jiale told him.
Their stop arrived. Neither of them made any move to get off. The doors slid closed, and the tunnel swallowed them again.
“I’m just a good listener,” Lin Jingyan said mildly. “I bet Yu Wenzhou’s a good listener, too.”
“I haven’t left anything behind I’m proud of,” Zhang Jiale said, and hated himself for saying it. Not because it was the truth, but because he was saying it to Lin Jingyan, who was too polite to be upset. Lin Jingyan was understanding; all Zhang Jiale could be was a terrible friend.
A frown crossed Lin Jingyan’s face. “You’re not a terrible friend,” he said, and Zhang Jiale realised the last fragment had been spoken aloud. “You’re just… going through some things.”
“I thought I figured it out,” Zhang Jiale said helplessly. “When Tyranny called me, and I agreed to try again and put the past behind. Why—” and he stopped, unsure if he wanted to say why am I feeling like this or why am I like this or why has everything happened to me. He closed his eyes, and inhaled, and tried again.
“I thought I’d made my peace with Hundred Blossoms,” he finally said. “I really thought I had.”
Lin Jingyan considered it. “I think you have,” he said, and held up a hand to stop Zhang Jiale’s immediate protest. “I mean, you’re here, aren’t you? Moments of weakness, those are natural.”
“I’ve had a year to stop being maudlin,” Zhang Jiale said.
“This is the fourth time in three years one of my uncles has tried to give up smoking,” Lin Jingyan said. “I don’t think this kind of progress is very chronological. Zhang Jiale, have you tried forgiving yourself?”
Zhang Jiale opened his mouth, and closed it again.
“Thanks,” he said.
“Our vice-captain said you might need to hear that,” Lin Jingyan said wryly. “Also, I’ve figured out the flaw in your argument. Worker bees leave honey behind for the next generation, don’t they?”
“I left Zou Yuan with a legacy he couldn’t handle,” Zhang Jiale said. “Not really something I’m proud of either.”
“But he’s fine,” was the quick reply. “He has a tailored account now, and he’s being supported by management. Even if it didn’t start well, it’s turned out well.”
There were more avenues of protest Zhang Jiale was sure he could raise; the effort, however, seemed too much to handle. “Did Zhang Xinjie really tell you to say that?”
Lin Jingyan shrugged. “The entire of Tyranny will lend you an ear if you want it. To quote Zhang Xinjie, well… you’re a stubborn person. And there’ll be things you want to do and things you want to happen that might not be the best for you. But we’ll be there, after.” His smile was a touch sheepish. “I may have frightened Zheng Chenfeng into admitting there was a speech for me as well, though he didn’t tell me the contents.”
“I can’t imagine you scaring anyone,” Zhang Jiale said, a rush of gratitude sweeping under his skin for Zhang Xinjie – for his vice captain, the Alliance’s embodiment of careful precision and precise care, who had seemingly figured out what he needed before Zhang Jiale had even known what he needed. Perhaps the tactician extended beyond Glory. “How did you do it?”
Lin Jingyan raised a finger to his lips. “Let me have some secrets,” he said, lightly.
The metro pulled into another station, the doors hissing open under the bright white lights. “It’s our stop again,” Lin Jingyan said. “Are we getting off?”
“Let’s,” Zhang Jiale said, standing up and gathering the bags of snacks.
Lin Jingyan followed him. “We can still go back and buy the jelly, you know. Then we’ll never have to walk by that aisle again. It wouldn’t take that long.”
“It’s alright,” Zhang Jiale said (and that was the truth: it was). “What would I need it for, anyway?”