Wei Ying was 85% sure he wasn’t going to pass out.
It was an approximate guess, but he had plenty of experience with passing out. One time he’d reached his bare hand right into a stripped engine core and ended up on the floor of the Academy lab with spots in his vision and two singed eyebrows, and he’d still managed to stay entirely awake. Another time he’d crash-landed an empty shuttle in the middle of a frozen lake and ended up with a touch of hypothermia, and that time he had passed out. Right now, on his knees in a polished-stone square, with a probably broken nose and a case of mild dehydration—this fell somewhere in between the engine core and the downed shuttle. Not fun, but certainly not something to faint about.
“—Wei,” someone was saying in a low voice. “Crewman Wei. Crewman Wei.”
Wei Ying blinked. Huh. He must’ve zoned out for a second there. “Yes, Cadet?” he said, also trying to keep his voice low. The Del’ed guard in front of them didn’t look back, so he must have succeeded.
Cadet Mo Xuanyu was crouching next to him, expression tight, hands shackled in front of him instead of behind his back. His uniform was a bit unkempt, but Wei Ying was sure his own uniform was worse. He could feel a tear on the side of his leg every time he shifted, and his nosebleed had dripped right down the front of his collar.
Good thing I’m in red or it’d look even worse, he thought, not for the first time.
“You don’t look good,” said Mo Xuanyu.
“Well,” said Wei Ying, “that’s rude. You don’t look so great yourself.”
“Seriously, I….” Mo Xuanyu lifted his bound hands as if trying to prod at the blood crusting on Wei Ying’s temple. Wei Ying shook his head—ow—and cast a glance at the guards. Not now. Mo Xuanyu’s face crumpled, the poor kid. “How much longer?” he said, voice scraping against despair. “If they don’t bring us any water, I don’t… I don’t know what to do.”
This planet, Targil IV, had three suns. Two were twin suns high in the sky, a set of binary stars, and the third was small and hung low on the horizon, shot through with red like a bloody yolk. This configuration made for a hell of a long year with two different summers, the second of which was short and brutal and currently at its peak. Wei Ying knew all of this, but knowing it didn’t help the fact that his throat was sandy dry when he swallowed, that his head was pounding with sun fever after kneeling here for hours.
Make that… 80% sure about not passing out.
“Brave face, Cadet,” Wei Ying whispered, doing his best to smile. “I’m sure our rescue squad will be here any minute now.”
And he was right.
The USS Queqiao’s delegation arrived with little fanfare. They must have beamed down at the shuttle bay coordinates and approached the village on foot, because the guards had plenty of time to prepare, shifting around as more of their fellow Del’ed—humanoid, skin tones ranging from pale blue to a deep, dusky violet—streamed into the square. There was the very tall one who had ordered Wei Ying and Mo Xuanyu to be kept here, and the two lavender-faced ones who had pulled Wei Ying away from the generator rig, and a few more who looked like they might be journalists or assistants, keeping notes on PADD-like devices. At last, one of the Del’ed dragged a heavy-looking wooden chest across the flagstones and deposited it at the guards’ feet.
Beside Wei Ying, Mo Xuanyu whimpered.
When they did reach the square, the Queqiao’s delegation appeared tiny compared to the crowd already gathered. Wei Ying’s brain wasn’t functioning at top speed, but he estimated there were about fifty purple-clad Del’ed versus—Wei Ying blinked, waiting for his vision to stop doubling, tripling—three Starfleet officers, a gold-clad one that could only be Captain Nie leading the way. Back on the ship, the bridge crew would be monitoring the landing party via visuals and their uniforms’ transmitters, but still. Not an encouraging ratio.
Even from a distance Captain Nie looked pissed, though, which evened the scales a bit.
Heat rippled above the flagstones, making Wei Ying even dizzier as he watched them approach. Directly following the captain was a short figure in blue that had to be Mianmian, and Wei Ying tried not to grimace, because if they’d brought a medical officer with them then there was no way he’d be able to avoid sickbay later. At least it wasn’t Wen Qing, but something told him Mianmian couldn’t go any easier on him. And behind her, the last of the delegation—
Even with swimming vision, Wei Ying recognized Lan Zhan immediately. Which didn’t surprise him, because—well. It was Lan Zhan. Wei Ying would recognize Lan Zhan’s shadow on a moonless night. It also didn’t surprise him that Lan Zhan was here, because he always, always seemed to be around whenever Wei Ying was in trouble, whether that trouble was a minor burn from a malfunctioning generator in the engine room, or a bloody nose from Jin Zixuan’s pig-headed cousin back at the Academy, or what was shaping up to be a whole diplomatic incident on a non-Federation planet. Of course Lan Zhan would be here. Wei Ying shouldn’t feel so relieved about it.
He swayed forward, trying to keep the trio in sight as they finally came to a stop in front of the line of Del’ed. Lan Zhan’s eyes flicked over Wei Ying, then back to the captain. Nothing about his expression changed.
Captain Nie bowed shortly to the Del’ed with the fanciest looking burnished metal chestplate, holding eye contact. Del’ed were big on face-to-face communication, Wei Ying knew, both from the briefing he read and the way his jaw ached from various Del’ed yanking his chin around to demand answers to questions he couldn’t understand.
The Del’ed leader inclined their head in return and said something. Captain Nie looked at Lan Zhan.
“They welcome you to Targil IV,” Lan Zhan translated. Under the sun, against the wash of terracotta walls, Lan Zhan was an oasis. He wore science officer blues on a technicality, because Starfleet and its color-coded uniforms hadn’t known what to do with a half-Vulcan Academy graduate who did the work of two whole crew members without blinking, and ‘science officer’ came before ‘xenolinguist’ in Standard alphabetization. So blue it was, and here Lan Zhan was, parsing a language that barely had three vid primers available in the whole galaxy. “They want to know if you are the captain.”
“I am,” Captain Nie said to the Del’ed leader, and Lan Zhan translated a moment later in the Del’ed’s sharp, staccato tongue. “I assume this is Grand Councillor Re?”
It was indeed Grand Councillor Re.
The Grand Councillor spoke again. “They apologize for meeting under bad—feelings,” Lan Zhan said.
Captain Nie’s eyebrow arched. “Bad feelings?”
“The culture is very emotion-based,” Lan Zhan said evenly. “The focus is not on the circumstances themselves, but on the effect said circumstances have on those involved. I will convey that I have just clarified this to you, so they do not find our Standard discussion rude.” He said a few short syllables in Del’ed.
“Feelings aren’t my concern right now,” Captain Nie told Lan Zhan. “Ask them why they’ve got two of my crew members trussed up in their square.”
Again Lan Zhan’s gaze swung briefly toward Wei Ying, then away as he translated.
“Your…. ” A pause as Lan Zhan clearly worked out the best word to use. “Subordinates attempted to sabotage our….” Another pause, exchanging a few words with the Del’ed to Grand Councillor’s left. “...Central energy supply.”
Wei Ying bit the inside of his cheek. He didn’t think protesting would do any of them much good at the moment.
Lan Zhan continued: “Grand Councillor Re believes that Wei—Crewman Wei and Cadet Mo snuck into the apparatus housing this village’s generator, or an approximate construct, near the diplomacy hall, and were”—Lan Zhan listened to a few more words—“in the process of dismantling it when they were discovered.”
“There’s clearly been a misunderstanding, then,” Mianmian spoke up. “There’s no way Crewman Wei would do something like that.”
Wei Ying adored her, even if she was definitely going to rat him out to Wen Qing.
Captain Nie raised an eyebrow and finally turned toward Wei Ying. “Crewman Wei. Did you in fact try to dismantle a village-wide generator while our diplomacy team was in the middle of an incredibly sensitive meeting?”
His tone said he already knew the answer, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t angry about the whole thing anyway.
“No, Captain,” Wei Ying said.
“We didn’t,” Mo Xuanyu burst out next to him. “Captain, they’ve got it wrong. Crewman Wei was trying to save the generator.”
Captain Nie’s other eyebrow went up. Behind him, Lan Zhan was exchanging words with the Grand Councillor and the other Del’ed official. “Save it from what?” the captain said.
“It was about to overload,” Mo Xuanyu said. “Another few minutes and it would’ve fried the whole settlement. That’s what Crewman Wei said. And he stopped it.”
“And how did Crewman Wei know how to diagnose and fix an alien generator?”
The Grand Councillor spoke in Captain Nie’s direction. Lan Zhan cleared his throat. “The Del’ed council have the same question.”
Wei Ying swallowed once, then again, trying not to rasp as he spoke. “It’s—an old warp core, at the heart,” he said. Warp cores made a high-pitched humming sound, like a finger circling the rim of a glass, when they were under any kind of strain. The village’s ‘generator’ had been practically screaming at a register the Del’ed seemed unable to hear. Wei Ying had been waiting in the shuttle hangar with Mo Xuanyu—just like he was supposed to! He didn’t have a lot of chances to go planetside on duty, so when the Queqiao’s delegation had to shuttle down to transport their gifts of goodwill, it was a rare chance to go along. Even if he had to stay in the hangar the whole time. Anyway, he’d heard the generator whirring even through the hangar walls, from where it was tucked away behind the village’s grand receiving hall. All Wei Ying had done was yank open a few panels to cut excess power, but he could see why it didn’t look great from an outside perspective.
He opened his mouth to say all of this, and the world blurred in front of him. Whoops, too much talking.
When everything swam back into focus, Mo Xuanyu was holding his elbow and the Grand Councillor was speaking again. Wei Ying looked up to meet Lan Zhan’s gaze for the briefest moment as Lan Zhan turned to Captain Nie. “They say their engineers have been checking the generator, and nothing seems amiss. They are willing to accept our story if—” Lan Zhan’s face did something complicated here, a flicker of uncertainty. “If we are willing to confirm our belief in this sequence of events. More specifically, if I am, in my capacity as your crew member and as a Vulcan.”
“What the hell does that mean, confirm? Tell him you believe it. Crewman Wei might be reckless, but he’s not an idiot,” Captain Nie said.
Lan Zhan shook his head. “They require some sort of empathic reading.” He seemed to hesitate, then turned to the Grand Councillor and said something, miming holding a hand to his own psi points. Wei Ying’s stomach dropped a bit. Was Lan Zhan offering to mind meld with the Grand Councillor? There was no way he’d enjoy that, not as private as Lan Zhan was. “Lan Zhan, you don’t have to do that,” Wei Ying tried to say, but all that came out was a small whine.
“Shut up,” Mo Xuanyu hissed. “Stop trying to talk.”
For better or for worse, the Grand Councillor didn’t take Lan Zhan up on the Vulcan mind meld. Instead, the Grand Councillor’s left-hand attendant started opening the wooden chest at their feet. They drew out a small object—a rock of some sort, Wei Ying thought. Shadow-black and the size of a clenched fist.
The Grand Councillor spoke, gesturing between the rock and Lan Zhan. “This is a—the closest term in translation would be ‘psi stone,’ I believe,” Lan Zhan translated for Captain Nie. “They want me to essentially testify while touching it, and then we will be free to go. If I have your permission, I will proceed.”
Captain Nie glanced at Mianmian. “What do you think, from a medical standpoint?”
“I trust Ensign Lan’s assessment,” Mianmian said. To Lan Zhan: “If anything feels wrong, though, stop immediately.”
“All right, then,” Captain Nie said.
Lan Zhan nodded once and turned back to the Grand Councillor. The Del’ed to the left held up the stone and, after the barest pause, Lan Zhan rested two fingers on the surface.
The light on the stone shivered like it was basking in a new sun. Wei Ying’s breath caught, but he needn’t have worried. Nothing else changed. Lan Zhan looked steadily at the Grand Councillor and, after a few moments, the Grand Councillor said something. Lan Zhan responded, two brisk syllables and his own name. And then the Grand Councillor turned on their heel and swept out an arm, one long finger pointing directly to Wei Ying.
Lan Zhan followed and looked fully at Wei Ying for the first time since arriving in the square. The weight of it hit Wei Ying full force—Lan Zhan’s wide, dark eyes, the tense line of his shoulders. Under Lan Zhan’s fingers, the stone flared once.
The Grand Councillor was speaking, and they turned back to Lan Zhan when they finished. Lan Zhan didn’t move in kind. He answered in even tones, his gaze steady. Wei Ying, for his part, tried to smile. Close-mouthed. His teeth were slick and foul with blood.
A drawn-out pause, and then the Del’ed to the left of the Grand Councillor retracted the stone. The Del’ed congregation huddled together, running their hands over the stone, speech overlapping as they discussed. The whole time Lan Zhan stayed where he was, looking at Wei Ying, and Wei Ying was helpless to do anything but look back until the congregation broke apart. Only then did Lan Zhan tear his eyes away and face the captain.
“They find my testimony acceptable,” Lan Zhan translated. “They apologize for the undue—anxiety, or ill feelings this has brought upon us. They wish to convene aboard our starship for further diplomacy discussion as a concession to our comfort.” One of the Del’ed pressed the stone back into Lan Zhan’s hand. Lan Zhan frowned at it, his eyebrows drawing together sharply. “They also gift us the psi stone as a gesture of goodwill.”
“Wonderful,” Captain Nie said, wearing an expression that clearly said it was anything but. “Convene on board, you say? Tell them we’ll accept a shuttle this evening, local time.”
Lan Zhan did. Then he added something else, almost urgent. The Grand Councillor blinked twice and waved a hand in Wei Ying’s direction as they replied. “They agree to release our crewmembers,” Lan Zhan told the captain.
“Oh,” Wei Ying said to Mo Xuanyu, “hear that? That’s nice.”
He felt a Del’ed behind him, undoing the shackles around his wrists and ankles as Mo Xuanyu was tugged away for the same treatment. As soon as he was free, Wei Ying tried to stand. The flagstones lurched beneath his feet, he pitched forward—and was caught.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan said, suddenly very, very close.
Wei Ying blinked, tipping his head back. Lan Zhan’s face was a paper cutout against the amber sky. “Well,” Wei Ying said, “that could’ve gone way worse, huh Lan Zhan?”
Then he finally passed out.
After that it was all disjointed flashes, slivers of awareness. The ground swooping away as he was lifted, a butterfly swarm of purple as the Del’ed parted, and most of all: blue, blue, blue. Ah, that last part was Lan Zhan’s shoulder. Wei Ying was pressed against it. He had enough mental capacity left to think ‘this is kind of nice, actually,’ before it all fractured away and he felt the singular sensation of beaming up, like taking a breath that never ended, followed by absolutely nothing at all.
Wei Ying met Lan Zhan in his first year at Starfleet Academy Beijing, in the atrium of the library overlooking the mountains and the three-hundred-year-old skyscrapers of the historic district.
It was fall semester. Wei Ying’s memories of that time were bright, airy, white sunlight glinting off the lotus ponds in the Tsinghua Garden, leaves turning the color of embers and red clay, gingko yellow, pale brown. The first few weeks at the Academy were loud and chaotic. An influx of freshmen traveling in nervous huddles, looking around with huge, disbelieving eyes as if waiting for a comm from the admissions committee: ‘We’re sorry, we made a mistake. You’re not actually supposed to be here.’
A lot of them were like Wei Ying. Class field trip to Starfleet Academy back in primary school and that was it, they were done, there was nothing else they wanted to do.
Wei Ying could remember the first time he’d ever seen a live warp core. The way he’d wanted to duck under the safety railing and join all the core techs poking around the glowing blue column and its network of white metal arteries, a thousand lights blinking from a hundred regulatory machines. A tiny city, a galaxy in miniature tucked away in the belly of a starship. He’d wanted to sleep there. Suspended in darkness, surrounded by all those lights, the core giving off the watery jewel-blue glow of a swimming pool at night.
That evening at the dinner table, eight-year-old Jiang Cheng said, ‘I want to join Starfleet when I grow up.’ And eight-year-old Wei Ying had said, ‘Me too!’ and Yu-ayi’s eyes had flicked to his face and frosted over, sending the whole room into a cold snap.
It was just that sometimes you saw something and your first instinct was to take it apart. To see how it worked. To learn its patterns and irregularities and rhythms, the thousand tiny pieces of its heart, the ways they fit together; the ways they didn’t. Sometimes you saw something and you wanted to curl up next to it and close your eyes and listen to it breathe, slow and steady, until you fell asleep.
The day Wei Ying met Lan Zhan, the poplars outside the library windows were the burnished red of copper plating. Wei Ying was looking for an empty focus pod, preferably one with a functioning audio port so he could link his music. The library was two levels with a big open space in the middle, the first level reserved for pods and study tables. The second level was for special collections of physical books. No matter where you sat it was too quiet, the same muffled silence as a museum, where the only sound was the faint echo of heels on marble.
All the pods were taken. That was how Wei Ying ended up hovering next to the only table with three of four seats open. “Hi,” he said to the dark head bent over a tablet. “Can I sit here?”
The person lifted their head, and Wei Ying saw why the other seats weren’t taken.
The Second Jade of Lan was staring back at him.
Oh, Wei Ying had heard the stories. The Lan bloodline was ancient and strictly traditional even by Vulcan standards, one of those families you heard about at dinner parties. Over the years Wei Ying had seen more than one drunk Federation officer go on and on about the three thousand clan rules and the legendary Wall of Discipline. (‘We were docked with ‘em for a week and had to follow all the rules or they’d kick us out. Most miserable week of my god damn life. Alcohol’s forbidden and I ate nothing but flatroot and plomeek soup.’) So it was like, a pretty big deal when the younger of the famously principled Twin Jades decided to attend Starfleet instead of the Vulcan Science Academy.
And here he was!
“Sorry to bother you,” said Wei Ying, taking the seat diagonal from Lan Zhan. “It’s just all the other tables are full. I’m Wei Ying, by the way. What are you studying?”
Silence. Wei Ying glanced up from his tablet to find Lan Zhan still staring at him, his eyes like golden leaves at the bottom of a clear pool. One section of hair was pulled back to expose a tapered ear.
“You’re Lan Zhan, right?” Wei Ying prompted him. “It’s nice to meet you!”
“...This is a library,” said Lan Zhan in a low, clipped voice. Back then, his Standard Chinese had a slight accent: a flattening of the rising tones, an emphasis on final ‘r’s and ‘ng’s. Wei Ying knew through general societal osmosis that the Lan clan were based in the mountains north of Vulcana Regar, the largest city on Vulcan. He wondered if Lan Zhan had ever visited the Fire Plains. “Excessive speech is discouraged.”
“But not prohibited,” Wei Ying pointed out. “I was just introducing myself. Thanks for letting me sit here, by the way.”
“It is a public table,” said Lan Zhan, who was apparently really good at stating facts.
“Still.” Wei Ying linked his tablet with the library archives and searched ‘baoshan.' "Anyway, I haven’t seen you around yet, so I guess you’re not in Engineering. Let me guess—Command and Control?”
“Advanced Theoretical Physics,” said Lan Zhan, automatic. Then his mouth tightened and his eyes dropped back to his own tablet. “Excessive speech—”
“—is discouraged, yeah, you mentioned. Science Officer track, that’s cool. Maybe we’ll end up on the same ship someday.”
Lan Zhan didn’t look up. “Considering the number of active Starfleet officers at any given time, that is improbable.”
“But not impossible.”
This time, Lan Zhan really didn’t reply. Wei Ying settled in to read a paper on omicron radiation. For a while, it worked—Wei Ying was absorbed in his paper, quiet except for a bit of fidgeting, which Lan Zhan seemed to at least tolerate after an initial glare about it. This was good. This was, surely, an important Academy experience: buckling down to read in the library with a total stranger, who might later become his best friend through a series of coincidental encounters and alcohol-fueled bonding experiences. At least, that was how it always seemed to happen in movies. Granted, movies also seemed to have a lot more half-naked Orions walking around various Academy campuses and almost no Vulcans at all, so they probably weren’t a great basis for expectations.
The relative peace and productivity lasted about an hour, until Wei Ying’s stomach panged hard enough to break his concentration.
Wei Ying didn’t like being hungry, if he could help it. Sometimes he could push through and hardly even notice, but once it got to the crumpling-pain stage he got jittery. More jittery than usual.
He pushed back his chair. “Hey, Lan Zhan,” he said, and kept his voice low as a concession to the whole excessive speech thing, because he was about to ask Lan Zhan for a favor.
Lan Zhan’s eyes flickered up, the barest glance under those dark eyebrows. He waited.
“Ah,” Wei Ying said. “I’m going to go grab something to eat. But I’m coming right back! Would you mind just, watching my stuff? I don’t want to have to hunt for another spot.” When Lan Zhan’s expression didn’t change, Wei Ying added, “I could grab you something too, if you want?”
“No,” Lan Zhan said, gaze returning to his own screen. Then: “I will watch your belongings.”
“You’re the best,” Wei Ying told him, which got no reaction. He didn’t mind.
It didn’t take long to cross the quad to the science labs and get a bowl of noodles from the tiny faculty lounge synthesizer. This lounge was almost never occupied because it was right behind the cryolab, so no one ever cared enough to tell Wei Ying not to use it. (Lan Zhan would have something to say about it, he thought. Students are discouraged from using faculty facilities, probably. Not that Lan Zhan needed to know.) He took an extra few minutes to actually steep a bag of green tea in a paper cup, and then carried that back to the library along with his noodles. To his delight, Lan Zhan hadn’t moved, and neither had Wei Ying’s stuff.
“Thank you,” Wei Ying said, settling down carefully in his chair so he didn’t spill either of the very hot things he was currently holding. “Not that I thought anyone would run off with my bag, but when you lose stuff as often as I do you gotta be extra careful. Here. I know you said you didn’t want anything, but I brought you some tea anyway.”
He set the tea down on Lan Zhan’s side of the table. Lan Zhan blinked at it.
“It’s not against the rules. I checked,” Wei Ying said before Lan Zhan could protest. “Food is allowed on levels two, three, and ten outside the stacks.”
Once again Lan Zhan’s mouth tightened, but he didn’t say anything. He didn’t move to take the tea, either, so Wei Ying was going to consider it a net-zero exchange. No problem.
He pulled up the article he was reading, idly stirring his noodles. When he snuck one more look at Lan Zhan, he found Lan Zhan already looking back—then quickly away.
Well. That wouldn’t do. “You know what?” Wei Ying said. “I think we should be friends.”
“Vulcans do not have friends,” said Lan Zhan. He was staring very determinedly at the screen in front of him.
Wei Ying frowned at him. “That can’t be right.”
“The Federation considers Vulcans a Sol-class species,” said Lan Zhan coolly. “You should have studied the history and basic tenets of my culture.”
“Okay, maybe on Vulcan you can’t have friends,” said Wei Ying. “But this is Earth. Can’t you adapt even a tiny bit? Besides, a lot of benefits come with being my friend.” He leaned in closer, waggling his eyebrows. “I’ve got the best alcohol stash on campus.”
“Alcohol is forbidden in the student dorms.”
“Aiyah....” Wei Ying slumped backward dramatically in his chair. “You’re no fun.”
“I am not trying to be.”
That made him laugh. “You are funny, though.”
“I assure you it is unintentional,” said Lan Zhan.
“Even better.” Wei Ying went back to his noodles, bright red broth speckled with orange oil like heat scars on the surface of a molten planet. “I’m telling you, I really think we should be friends.”
Lan Zhan was quiet for a moment. “Noted,” he said.
So. That was the start. It wasn’t exactly like the movies, but Wei Ying got one thing right: Lan Zhan did become his best friend.
He woke up just off the launchpad, the whole ship spinning like a top around him. His first thought was: Who fucked up the grav system? His second thought was: Oh, no.
“Lan Zhan,” he said, pushing at Lan Zhan’s chest. Right, right. He was being carried. His thoughts were all out of order—the gravity wasn’t malfunctioning, he was just still tucked right against Lan Zhan’s blue shoulder. A blue shoulder that was about to be covered in vomit, if Lan Zhan didn’t put him down now.
“Be still,” Lan Zhan said. There were other people talking behind them, around them, but Lan Zhan’s was the only voice Wei Ying could hear clearly. “Wei Ying, stop moving.”
“No really, set me down, I’m—”
He twisted, and Lan Zhan made a startled noise, quickly moving to set Wei Ying at least somewhat on his feet. Wei Ying stumbled, caught by Lan Zhan’s hand on his elbow, and stopped, planting his hands on his knees. The ship seemed to tilt and spin a bit more, familiar recycled-air taste hitting the back of his throat. He didn’t vomit right away, which was good. He sucked in another breath, then another, Lan Zhan’s hand steady on his arm as the rest of the corridor slowly wavered in and out of focus.
“Crewman Wei,” someone barked, “I was not supposed to see you in sickbay today.”
Wei Ying blinked up at Wen Qing, who was suddenly there, striding toward him and pulling on a pair of gloves. Behind her, Mianmian was already ushering Mo Xuanyu around the corner.
“I’m not in sickbay,” he told Wen Qing muzzily. “Like. Technically.”
She made a tch sound in the back of her throat and turned to Lan Zhan. “Ensign Lan. Is that the psi stone?”
“Affirmative,” said Lan Zhan, holding it out. Once again Wei Ying was stuck by the liquid shadows moving across the surface no matter what the light was like. The shadows moved a little quicker around Lan Zhan’s palm and fingertips, like swarming minnows. Wen Qing took it from him with gloved hands.
“Gloves on,” she ordered the med officer trailing after her. The officer scrambled for their gloves, nearly dropping one in the process. “Put this in the vault. Wrap it in null material, equip the bio-iso shields, and don’t let anyone touch it with their bare hands.”
“Yes, Doctor Wen.” The officer scurried off down the hall.
“Okay,” Wen Qing muttered, taking Wei Ying’s other arm. “Let’s get this idiot to the sickbay.”
“I resent that,” Wei Ying said hazily, and let them half-carry him through the too bright halls. He maybe blacked out again a little on the way there. It was hard to tell.
Captain Nie was waiting for them in Sickbay One, pacing back and forth in front of the biobeds. He stopped pacing as Lan Zhan and Wen Qing helped Wei Ying up onto one of the beds, just crossed his arms and stood there huffing like an angry bull.
“Oh, you can go ahead and yell at him, Captain,” said Wen Qing, and administered Wei Ying’s sterilization hypo with slightly rougher bedside manner than usual. “Don’t hold back on my account.”
“You are so hateful,” Wei Ying informed her. “You are so tiny, and so mean.”
“I’ll stop being mean the day you stop ending up here after every mission,” she said, and injected something else into the back of his neck, a sharp prickle. “Tell me when the painkiller kicks in.”
“Won’t it—ohhhh,” Wei Ying sighed, slumping sideways as every bone in his body turned to gelatin. The room spun around him, and he felt simultaneously weightless and also like his limbs were so heavy there were sinking through the floor. “Ohh you gave me the good stuff.” He didn’t know if the words came out right. His entire face was numb.
Someone, or something, was holding him upright with an arm around his back. His head was resting on something warm and solid.
“The drowsiness only lasts a few seconds,” he heard Wen Qing say from somewhere far away, her voice echoing like whale song. “Then he’s all yours, Captain.”
An angry snort reverated through the room, through Wei Ying’s skull. He was floating higher and higher, a lantern released into the sky, or the first thrust of a starship, climbing higher, or perhaps sliding down the sky, like sliding down the curved wall of a blue porcelain bowl until he hit the bottom, or the top, and the blue got brighter and brighter, so bright it hurt his eyes—
He blinked awake, squinting under the harsh lights of the sickbay. “Holy shit, Wen Q—I mean, wow, Doctor Wen. Warn a guy next time, yeah? For a second I almost thought I was dying. Oh, I don’t feel anything. Lan Zhan? Is Lan Zhan still here?”
“Yes,” said a voice above him.
“Hi Lan Zhan. Do I still have a body?”
“I thought you said the brain stuff was temporary,” said Captain Nie.
“Three more seconds, Captain,” said Wen Qing. “Crewman Wei, what’s today’s stardate?”
“I don’t know what that means,” Wei Ying whined. Then a prickling flush swept through him from the crown of his head to the tips of his fingers and toes, and suddenly everything was a hell of a lot clearer. “Oh. 2259.55,” he said, straightening up. It turned out he’d been slumped against Lan Zhan—again—so he laughed nervously and gave Lan Zhan’s shoulder a grateful little pat. “Ah, sorry.”
Lan Zhan didn’t look at him.
“All yours as promised, Captain,” said Wen Qing, and got to work scanning the side of Wei Ying’s head, where the worst of the possible concussion was centered. “Sit up straighter,” she hissed at him.
Wei Ying did as he was told, trying not to cringe when he faced Captain Nie. He had a feeling this debrief wasn’t going to be very fun.
“Crewman Wei,” Captain Nie started in a thundering voice. “What the hell were you thinking?”
“Captain, I know it wasn’t protocol,” said Wei Ying. “But that village was powered by a repurposed warp—one of the really old models, they must’ve gotten it from a scrap heap or a cloud of space debris, because I guarantee you nobody’s used a Nakajima Hotaru since the early 30s—”
“What’s your point, Crewman Wei?”
“—because the whole problem with the Hotaru was inefficient energy storage in the dilithium intermix chamber, which meant that it overheated too easily especially if there was any sort of environmental disruption, like, you know, a starship temporarily destabilizing to make it through a dense asteroid belt. Or in this case a recent tectonic shift or a big storm or really anything. I could tell something was off, so I checked their warp and it was overheating big time. Like, it’s a miracle it didn’t go radioactive days ago. One tremor and it would’ve vaporized the whole village and half the damn valley.”
Captain Nie’s mustache looked deeply unimpressed. “Ensign Lan, what’s Protocol have to say about red alerts on non-Fed planets?”
“In the event of emergency on a non-Federation planet, Starfleet Protocol states that any and all grounded crewmembers must immediately beam back aboard the starship to await the Captain’s order,” Lan Zhan said.
Okay, failed step one. “There wasn’t time,” Wei Ying insisted. “I would’ve had to beam up and explain the whole situation and wait for you to contact Starfleet and wait for their answer and then beam back down and like, negotiate with the Del’ed High Council for permission to get elbow deep in their village’s power source, and meanwhile there’s an antimatter bomb just sitting there ready to go off if somebody breathes on it wrong! Anything could have set it off, Captain. Our shuttle landing could have set it off.”
Out of the corner of his eye he saw Lan Zhan shift slightly.
“So let me get this straight,” said Captain Nie. “Instead of communicating any of this to your CO, you decided to dismantle the warp on your own. In the middle of an incredibly sensitive diplomatic mission. Do I have that right, Crewman Wei?”
Wei Ying winced, and not just because Wen Qing was cleaning one of the cuts on his face. “Yes, Captain. But—”
“But nothing.” Captain Nie pinched the bridge of his nose, then seemed to realize he was doing that and dropped his hand with a huff. “All right. All right. We’re tabling this, because I have to go prepare for a whole third meeting with the Del’ed council in—” He glanced at a yeoman hovering across the room.
“One-point-two standard hours, Captain,” the yeoman supplied.
“Right,” Captain Nie said. “So don’t think you’re off the hook, Crewman, I just need to figure out exactly how big that hook is.” He turned to leave. “Ensign, with me.”
Lan Zhan hesitated. Wei Ying felt it where they were pressed together, the twitch of Lan Zhan’s body as he reined in the instinct to immediately follow orders. “Captain—”
Captain Nie looked back, one eyebrow arched. “Are you also in need of medical services?” he asked, dry.
Lan Zhan’s gaze flickered down. Wei Ying caught the edge of it, a zing of eye contact in the haze. “Go, go,” Wei Ying said, clumsily patting Lan Zhan’s arm. “They need you, you’re very important.”
It took another moment for Lan Zhan to move, and then he gently extricated himself, helping Wei Ying settle back on the bed. The next time Wei Ying blinked his eyes open Lan Zhan was gone, and it was just Wen Qing leaning over him.
“You really are an idiot,” she told him, but he knew her well enough to detect the smallest note of fondness there.
“I know, I know.” He held up his right arm for her to scan. “But be nice to me, okay? I’ve had a long day.” And then he closed his eyes and let her get to work.
The first place Wei Ying went after Wen Qing finally released him was Lan Zhan’s quarters, but he didn’t even get a chance to knock before the door slid open to reveal Lan Zhan himself. They blinked at each other, startled, then Wei Ying beamed. “Lan Zhan! I’ve been freed!”
“Your admittance to the sickbay was voluntary,” Lan Zhan reminded him. “Yes, I was aware. Doctor Wen just commed me.”
“So what if it was voluntary, Doc Wen's scarier than a Romulan prison guard. Anyway, sorry, were you headed somewhere?”
“It is no longer necessary.”
“Oh! Well, if you have a bit of free time, I’m still kinda loopy from the painkillers. Wanna kick my ass in weiqi?”
“That is not guaranteed,” said Lan Zhan, even as he moved back to let Wei Ying into his room. Lan Zhan was one of the few lucky SOs with a single room, small as it was. Wei Ying slept in the maintenance crew barracks. It wasn’t bad at all—there was a lounge and a fitness center attached, and they had their own kitchen, and the maintenance shifts were all over the place so there weren't usually more than four of them in the bunks at a time. And Wei Ying’s bed was against the wall, so he could hear the distant sound of the warp core, a steady hum as soothing as ocean waves, air rushing in the lungs of a gargantuan beast. Wei Ying always felt like he was sleeping in its belly. Like he’d been swallowed and now everything was darkness and air and then, high above and on all sides, the vibration of an old, enormous life.
He liked the noise. But it was also nice to visit Lan Zhan’s room, which was far enough from the engine room that you couldn’t hear the warp core at all. The funny thing was that Wei Ying usually hated silence. It was just that when Lan Zhan was there, it didn’t feel like silence. It felt like Lan Zhan.
“Would you like a cup of tea?” Lan Zhan asked, already reaching for his cute portable kettle. Wei Ying had gotten it for him last time they were planetside, because it was shaped like a rabbit sitting on its hind legs with its front paws as the spout. To heat the water you had to press the rabbit’s pink nose. Watching Science Ensign and Vulcan Ambassador Lan Zhan press the nose was one of the many joys of Wei Ying’s life.
“Yes please, if it’s not a bother,” he said.
“Mm.” Lan Zhan pressed the nose. The water heated instantly and he poured two cups of tea, then joined Wei Ying on the floor with the three-tiered, tri-d weiqi board between them. Wei Ying took black; Lan Zhan white. It was predictable, and Wei Ying loved it. They divided the black and white stones with the ease of two people who had played many, many games over the past six months in space. In the beginning they’d tried to keep track of wins and losses, but it had quickly proven pointless. They were evenly matched.
“Okay, before we start,” Wei Ying said, “what’s the news?”
Lan Zhan blinked at him. Not in a way that meant he was confused, but in a way that meant he was going to force Wei Ying to ask directly.
“Come on,” Wei Ying wheedled. “Obviously I’m here for the pleasure of your company, but also, maybe, I’m a bit curious about the meeting. Are the Del’ed mad after all? Or are they, possibly, chalking the whole thing up to a misunderstanding, no harm done?”
“There was harm done,” Lan Zhan said.
Wei Ying winced. “So they are mad.”
“No.” Lan Zhan finished arranging his stones. “The harm today was not done to the Del’ed.”
“Oh, then, everything’s fine? Captain Nie might not throw me out of the airlock?”
Lan Zhan’s mouth tightened.
“It’s not gossiping,” Wei Ying told him. “It’s—communication! For the good of the crew. I’ll know what’s coming, and then I’ll be less likely to get in even more trouble when Captain Nie tells me about it.”
“Captain Nie will not throw you out of the airlock,” Lan Zhan said after a moment. “You will be barred from shore leave for the next three scheduled ports.”
Wei Ying deflated a bit, propping his chin in his hand. “That’s not so bad,” he decided.
“However,” Lan Zhan continued, “the particular group of Del’ed that met with us comprise one of the planet’s diplomatic councils. They were planning to depart for an upcoming political summit for their association of planets and outer colonies—their Federation, of sorts. They have invited the Queqiao to attend as guests.”
“Wait,” Wei Ying said. “That’s—good, right?”
“Mm. This is the first time a Starfleet delegation has been extended such an invitation. We will alter our schedule and go directly to the summit on Izoth III, and we have offered transport to the Del’ed council as a gesture of goodwill.”
“Wow. That’s—Izoth III, really? I read about it in school—they have this giant underground library, the librarians are basically monks, like, they’ve collectively read every text in there, I’d love to—” He pulled up short. “Well, I guess I’m grounded for this one, so to speak. But, ah, you should totally go to the library if you get a chance!”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan said. “The reason the Del’ed invited us is precisely because of you—because of what you did. They asked Captain Nie to convey their gratitude to you two separate times. So, he should be doing that tomorrow when he informs you of his disciplinary decision.” The corner of Lan Zhan’s mouth twitched upward, like he was pleased at the thought of Captain Nie having to convey the Del’ed’s thanks. Then he added: “The Del’ed also requested your presence at the summit, so I believe the captain will make an exception.”
Wei Ying sat up. “Really? Fantastic. I’m going to make a list—Lan Zhan, I bet there’s gonna be so many things to see, like, there’s always pop-up markets and special tourism for an event like that. You’ll join me, right? When you’re not working, obviously. And don’t worry, I’ll act surprised when Captain Nie tells me tomorrow.”
“I will join you,” Lan Zhan said.
Wei Ying beamed, and settled his chin back on his hand. “Wow,” he said again. “The Del’ed really came through, huh. That’s great, but also, surprising.”
“Is it? You did save their village,” Lan Zhan said.
“Ah, but I made a mess of it along the way,” Wei Ying said. He dropped his gaze, watching color leech out of the tea leaves in his cup, staining the water a deep, fragrant amber. The Vulcans drank their tea dark and spiced, but Lan Zhan preferred the tea from his mother’s homeworld. Homeland. It was one of the first things they’d—well, not bonded over, because Lan Zhan had been stiff and silent for the entire interaction. But Wei Ying had seen him brewing Chinese tea—not Vulcan tea or the disgusting black tea concentrate that stressed-out students preferred, but proper baihao yinzhen—and said, ‘Aha! A man of impeccable taste!’
It turned out Wei Ying actually did like Vulcan tea, though. So that was what Lan Zhan prepared for him. By the time Wei Ying removed the strainer, his tea was dark and opaque as black coffee.
“Your move first,” Lan Zhan said now, setting his own tea strainer aside. His tea was a pale yellow-gold. “Doctor Wen cleared you for all duties?”
“Of course. It was just a couple scrapes, Lan Zhan, I didn’t even have a concussion.” He did have a small case of severe dehydration, but no need to mention that.
“I did not realize the definition of ‘scrape’ had been expanded to cover ‘bleeding head wound.’”
“Oh, it wasn’t so bad.”
“When I arrived,” said Lan Zhan, “you were barely conscious. You passed out the moment we concluded the negotiations with the Del’ed.”
“Not the moment.”
“I was employing oversimplification for emphasis. You passed out .62 minutes after we concluded the negotiations.”
“Okay, alright,” Wei Ying pouted when Lan Zhan captured one of his black stones. “It doesn’t matter anyway, Doc patched me up in an hour.”
“You were in sickbay for 3.34 hours.”
“Just ‘cause I was really loopy. I think Doc Wen recorded some of it, so now I have to worry about blackmail material. Ah Lan Zhan, why were you keeping track?”
Lan Zhan didn’t answer, dark eyes focused intently on the game board.
“Well, anyway. Thanks again for the rescue,” said Wei Ying.
“I disagree with your assessment.”
“You implied that it does not matter if you get injured, so long as Doctor Wen is able to heal you.”
Wei Ying ran it back in his head. “I mean, yes? That sounds about right to me? What else do we have a doctor for?”
A tiny crease formed between Lan Zhan’s brows. “We have a doctor in case of unavoidable injury or illness.”
“Implicit in the term ‘unavoidable’ is that one has... attempted to avoid such circumstances.”
“Don’t I always?”
Lan Zhan’s lips pressed into a flat line. “It remains unclear.”
Wei Ying paused with his teacup halfway to his mouth. “Lan Zhan,” he said. “You’re not mad, are you?”
“No,” said Lan Zhan, a fraction of a second too late. Wei Ying’s stomach dropped so hard it left him breathless, gut-punched.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t—I know you’ve got a lot of important stuff on your plate, I really am sorry you had to beam down and clean up my mess.”
“No, that is not.... I merely intended to....” Lan Zhan stared at the weiqi stones, black suns and white moons on the honey-gold board. His shoulders were frustrated. “Wei Ying,” he said, weirdly intense. “All life is sacred.”
Wei Ying snorted. “Don’t you Vulcans usually follow that up with ‘The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few’?”
“My mother was human,” Lan Zhan reminded him. “She grew up on Earth, in a settlement called Longdan in the Henan Province of the New Republic of China. The culture she shares with you and passed on to me takes a similar stance on societal need. ‘We Vulcans’ alone did not invent the concept of collectivism.”
“I know. I just—the few are still part of the many, aren’t they? They’re still important. If someone’s in danger, someone else should help.”
“Wei Ying. I do not disagree with you.”
“Then you agree: sometimes we can’t follow Starfleet protocol. Not if we wanna be able to live with ourselves.”
Lan Zhan was quiet. Then he said, “I apologize. I did not intend to scold you, nor to provoke a debate. I meant only to express concern for your well-being.”
“Oh, you know me, Lan Zhan,” said Wei Ying, smiling around the rim of his teacup. “I’m always fine.”
“Mm,” Lan Zhan said. They returned to the game.
After Lan Zhan and Xiao Xingchen managed to map a rough version of the Del’ed language into the shipwide translators, Wei Ying spent the next few shift cycles befriending the Del’ed delegation that was traveling on the Queqiao. They were, for the most part, nice and cheerful and incredibly interested in everything metal-based, which meant they found Wei Ying’s job far more interesting than most people did.
(“Really?” Wen Qing said after she found Wei Ying chatting with two Del’ed in the mess. “No hard feelings? Not even a single drop of hesitation there?”
“Oh, I don’t think they blame me for the whole generator thing anymore,” Wei Ying said.
“I’m not talking about their feelings,” she told him. “How’s your head, hm? Is your appetite back to normal yet?”
“Ah.” Wei Ying rubbed his nose, which was still a bit tender. “What did we say about medical interrogations outside of sickbay? I’m fine, I’m fine.”
Wen Qing looked briefly toward the ceiling, then set one of her pork buns in front of him as she left.)
The youngest member of the delegation was a short, fast-talking Del’ed named Ak’e who Wei Ying vaguely remembered taking notes during negotiations in the square. They explained through the halting translator that they were a journalist, and covering the upcoming delegation was apparently a major career opportunity. “I owe you thanks,” they said, right after touching the underside of Wei Ying’s chin in greeting. “I happened to be around when you caused all that commotion, it’s the only reason I got this assignment.”
“Happy to help,” Wei Ying said, and Ak’e laughed.
Ak’e spent most of their time in the bridge or in the guest cabins, but six cycles out from arrival on Izoth III they trailed Wei Ying from the upper mess down through the engine room, taking everything in with wide violet eyes. “You work here? This is where you fix the engines?”
“Well, I mostly—I just keep stuff running. Keep stuff clean. If there’s a real problem one of the engineers will handle it,” Wei Ying said, glancing at the time. He had half an hour—not enough to go very far before night shift, but maybe Ak’e would want to see the break room and answer some of Wei Ying’s questions about solar grids.
“Oh, but surely you could handle it yourself,” Ak’e said, following him down a back hall and to the maintenance quarters, which were empty other than Crewman Zhang, who was on their way out and only had time to raise a brief eyebrow in Wei Ying’s direction. (Half of the maintenance crew found the whole Del’ed fiasco incredibly amusing. The other half just seemed to think it was to be expected, from Wei Ying. Ak’e had only followed him down here once before, but it had still been notable enough among the crew, because 1. nonhumans were few and far between on the Queqiao already, and 2. not many people ventured into the maintenance bunks at all. The only regular visitors were Zhang Lin’s security officer girlfriend, and Lan Zhan.) “The official story we published,” Ak’e continued, “said you merely identified a fault in our generator”—the translator fumbled over their word, which was more aligned with power-cradle/life-giver, but Wei Ying had heard it enough at this point that he filled it in himself. “But I heard the real story, how you fixed it with your own hands.”
“Ah, well,” Wei Ying said. They were at his bunk now. He crouched down, rummaging under the cramped desk because it looked like his goggles had gotten knocked off their hook again. When he reemerged Ak’e was examining the jumble of mechanical components on the surface of the desk. The shiny debris of Wei Ying’s latest project. “Sorry for the mess,” he said. “I want to say it’s usually neater over here, but I’d be lying.”
Ak’e poked one long finger at the largest clump of parts. “What are you building?”
Wei Ying tried not to feel too pleased that they could tell he was building something and not just collecting scraps. He didn’t have a lot of visitors down here other than his bunkmates, but still, no one ever asked about his little project. Well, except Lan Zhan, once, and Wei Ying had just about talked his pointy ears off. Lan Zhan had listened, and then said have you considered the Gupta matrix instead, and Wei Ying had very nearly kissed him. Very, very nearly.
“It’s a food synthesizer. Well, hypothetically,” Wei Ying said. “Right now it’s half a synthesizer and some useless parts.”
“Do you not have access to the ship’s synthesizers?” Ak’e said, the short spines behind their ears flaring in distress.
“No, no, I do,” Wei Ying said quickly. “This is just a project. Just for curiosity’s sake, repurposing broken parts from around the ship. Seeing if I can make something out of nothing.”
Ak’e’s spines fluttered back into place. “Ah, you’re a—” They used a word the translator couldn’t place. Good-maker, needs-met-helper, future-builder, it supplied. “I admit, this is beyond me,” they continued. “My love-partner builds things, I merely write about them. But I find it impressive nonetheless.” They tilted their head. “Yet you said you do not fix the engines?”
“You need an Academy degree for that, and then some,” Wei Ying said, tugging his goggles around his neck.
Ak’e made a noise the translator parsed as “Nonsense” and waved a hand. “Education is only part of someone’s measure. With a brain like that you should lead a whole ship someday, like your Captain Nie.”
Wei Ying smiled past a twinge of discomfort. “Ah, no, I’m just—my brother is the one on the captain track.”
“Oh,” Ak’e said, “does your Starfleet preclude members of the same family from sharing occupations?”
“No,” Wei Ying said, and busied himself with tying his hair back. “But I like my job! It’s the only one where you get to work on the whole ship. I go wherever I’m needed, which means I know pretty much everyone. Sometimes I’m in the engine room, sometimes I’m on the upper decks—sometimes they call me down to the labs because their climate system’s chronically leaky, and I get to hang out with Lan Zhan for a few hours.”
“Ahh, Lan Zhan. Your Vulcan.”
Wei Ying felt his cheeks go hot. “He’s not my—I mean. Yes, that’s Lan Zhan.”
“I did not mean anything proprietary by that,” Ak’e assured him. “It was—how to say this. I simply find the connection curious. I’ve seen you both around the ship, and I am always impressed at how well you seem to work together, considering how he feels about you.”
Wei Ying’s fingers fumbled. A handful of hair slipped out of his ponytail, falling against his neck. “How he what?”
“You know.” Ak’e settled a hip against the desk and tilted their head. “It’s notable that you both cooperate with such grace. I’d always heard humans were incredibly sensitive? Very….” They seemed to search for a term. “Prideful, I suppose.”
“That’s not… not true,” Wei Ying said. “But, um. What do you mean, how Lan Zhan feels about me?”
Ak’e’s spines shifted again. “Am I not supposed to know? I only meant to say it’s remarkable, your professionalism around each other.”
Wei Ying’s heart was suddenly twice as large, beating hopefully in his chest. Shh, he told it. “No, it’s—I mean—you know how Lan Zhan feels?” he said. Was it possible Lan Zhan had… told Ak’e, for some reason? Wei Ying didn’t think something like this—if this was—if Ak’e meant—surely that wasn’t something Lan Zhan would just talk about. Not sober, at least, and the Vulcan alcohol tolerance might’ve skipped Lan Zhan by a lightyear, but the last time Wei Ying saw Lan Zhan drink was at the Academy. Not even when they had three days’ leave on an Andorian outpost that was basically nothing but nightclubs and dark, scuzzy bars. (Wei Ying had offered to get Lan Zhan a drink only for tradition’s sake, and wasn’t at all disappointed when Lan Zhan refused and brought him a drink instead. That meant Wei Ying could get buzzed enough to tuck himself into Lan Zhan’s side on the way back to the shipyard, and Lan Zhan would be sober and steady and extra-warm against him. It was a win-win.)
“Well, yes,” Ak’e was saying. “That day in the square, your Vulcan gave testimony with a psi stone. It absorbed his emotions, and Grand Councillor Re used that to determine the veracity of his statement.”
“Right,” Wei Ying said, “I knew that part.”
Ak’e leaned forward, blinking rapidly, something Wei Ying noticed they did when they were excited, or curious. “I was there, so I got to experience the psi stone’s feedback, too. It was my first time acting as witness for an alien testimony! I touched the stone after everyone else, but the feedback was still incredibly strong. So I felt it.” When Wei Ying just continued to look at them, unmoving, they added: “I felt what he felt when he spoke about you. And when he spoke about you, he felt—”
The translator didn’t recognize the last word. Fury-shaken, it suggested. Revulsion-swept. Stress-ill.
Coldness prickled in Wei Ying’s stomach.
Ak’e seemed to realize the translation lag. “He felt… bothered?” they tried. “It was clear you are a great source of discontent for him.”
“Aha, um,” Wei Ying said. His voice sounded funny to his own ears. “Sorry, but maybe your stone was confused? Lan Zhan and I are—friends.”
“No, no, it was definitely—” Ak’e said that word again. “It’s why Grand Councillor Re believed his statement so readily. That your Vulcan could hold so much loathing and still so calmly vouch for your character proved he must be telling the truth.”
Wei Ying blinked hard, the cold feeling spreading through him like melting ice. He wanted to sit down. He wanted, childishly, to clap his hands over his ears and leave, forget his next shift and run right to—right to Lan Zhan’s cabin. That’s where he went when he had a bad day, or a particularly good day, or a mediocre day that could use some brightening, because Lan Zhan was fun and quiet and warm and funny and a good listener and an excellent tea brewer and had long since stopped acting like Wei Ying’s presence was unwelcome. Or.
Or maybe he had, in fact, started acting instead.
“...Are you sure?” Wei Ying heard himself say.
“Definitely,” Ak’e said. “So you can see why I find your professionalism around each other so impressive. I don’t mean to pry, but out of personal curiosity, did something happen between the two of you? None of the other crew members seem uncomfortable around you, though they certainly notice. So I imagine it must have been a personal conflict, which makes your conduct even more praiseworthy, I think.”
The cold had reached Wei Ying’s fingertips. “No,” he said, distant. “Nothing happened.”
Ak’e stared at him for a long moment. Their spines flared and deflated in rapid succession, and then they said: “Oh. Did you not—know?”
Wei Ying shook his head, once.
Ak’e stepped back. “I apologize if I crossed a line,” they said. “These things are not usually kept secret in my community. I assumed—I should not have assumed. But… you really didn’t know? That is—” They said another unknown word, and Wei Ying didn’t catch the translator’s suggestions. His brain was busy replaying loathing, loathing, loathing on repeat. “Honestly I was surprised at how strong the feedback was in the first place,” Ak’e added, sounding like they were trying to backpedal. “Considering all I’d heard about Vulcans, that he had any discernible feelings at all—”
“Don’t,” Wei Ying said sharply. “Don’t say that.”
An awkward silence fell between them. Wei Ying’s half-tied hair hung lopsided on his head, but it didn’t feel important anymore.
“Maybe this is a good thing,” Ak’e said, shifting their weight back and forth. “Now that you know, you can proceed with a clearer understanding of the situation. That can only benefit both parties, right?”
Wei Ying stared at them. Blinked again. Forced himself back to the present as much as possible. “Right,” he said, not sure what he was agreeing to. “Yeah. Totally. Look, I have to—go do something. Sorry. If you want to get back to the mess, just take the elevator up to seven and someone can direct you.”
“I can find it,” they said, and hurried to keep pace with Wei Ying as he made for the hall, the world blurring around him a bit. “But—Crewman Wei, have I damaged our relationship by sharing my insight? I truly didn’t realize—”
“It’s fine,” Wei Ying said. “Don’t—don’t worry about it. Um. I’ll see you later, okay?”
He turned down the hall, ignoring the “Crewman Wei!” that echoed after him.
Storage vault A was on sublevel 3, directly under Lan Zhan’s laboratory, which meant it shared the same leaky climate control system. Which also meant Wei Ying had the access code memorized, reciting it automatically and passing through the hatch with a small hiss of dry air. He was halfway to the vents on the far wall when his brain came back online, and he remembered, no, he wasn’t here on duty right now. He was here to find out if Lan Zhan truly hated him.
Dread churned in his stomach, and for once Wei Ying didn’t scold himself about it.
The vault was a long, cold room full of dull metal shelving units and crates lining the walls. He’d never had to fetch something from storage, but he figured out the organization system quickly enough, tracking down stardate 2259.55 in the third row. The stone sat eye-level, secured in an inky black drawstring bag. Psi stone, Del’ed origin, Targil IV, Targil system, the label read. Do not touch directly.
Wei Ying grimaced, loosened the drawstring, and touched it directly.
For a long stretch of seconds, nothing changed—it was just Wei Ying standing there with goggles hanging around his neck and two fingers resting on an inert stone. And then the light shifted on the stone’s surface, swirling like a dust storm. Emotions that weren’t his own unfolded inside him, playing out in his mind, in the hammering of his heart in his stomach—no, not his heart, Lan Zhan’s heart. Images flashed across the back of his eyelids: the terracotta walls, the Grand Councillor’s face, the hunched figure that was Wei Ying, bound and injured. He felt anger—fury—and it shifted, like sifting sand, morphing into something like indignation. Shifted again to stomach-dropping, tooth-gritting resolve to just get through the situation at hand, like he was spinning a net around his fury and disgust and reeling it back, leaving just the cold echoes of something like Wei Ying is in trouble again, and then low, even words to the Grand Councillor, translated in Lan Zhan’s thoughts: Crewman Wei is not a threat to you. He was trying to help, and his intentions were misunderstood.
In the stone’s memory, the bound Wei Ying tried to smile at him. Lan Zhan’s emotions started to shift again, but in the storage vault Wei Ying yanked his hand back, clutching it to his chest. He felt his own heart pounding—behind his ribs once more, his very human heart—as the reverberations of the last emotion gradually faded. Anguish, if he had to put a name to it. The desire to reach back through time itself and make it so none of this had ever happened. A tiny, snapped-off thread of fear.
Wei Ying is in trouble again. The flare of anger. That was—there was no reason for Wei Ying to be hurt by that, or even surprised. He caused trouble for everyone. He’d caused trouble for the Jiangs by being too ambitious in school. He caused trouble for Wen Qing every time he showed up in sickbay with a new injury. He caused trouble for Captain Nie just by working on this ship. There was a reason Wei Ying was rarely allowed to go planetside when they made landfall at Starfleet Command hubs.
He tried not to cause trouble for Lan Zhan, but, well. It still happened. It only made sense that Lan Zhan would notice. The whole Del’ed fiasco was one such pot of trouble, because Lan Zhan had to be dragged back to negotiate an uncomfortable hostage situation after already spending hours translating for the initial landing party, which wasn’t fun for anyone. It clearly hadn’t been fun for Lan Zhan, who had looked at Wei Ying and felt—
Revulsion-swept, the translator had suggested, and Wei Ying thought he understood, now.
He pulled the drawstring tight, shoving the stone back on the shelf. So that was it. That was what the Del’ed congregation had felt, and why they had deemed Lan Zhan’s testimony trustworthy. Something hot and sick swept through Wei Ying’s gut at that, at knowing the Del’ed delegation he’d been befriending all knew this. All more than likely watched him chattering Lan Zhan’s ear off in the halls and thought, what remarkable restraint that Vulcan has. It was possible that they pitied Wei Ying, or pitied Lan Zhan in equal measure. Because they had known, and Wei Ying had not.
Wei Ying thought, distantly, he should start breathing at some point.
The thing was. The thing was—he’d survived on a starving colony planet as a kid, hunger shredding him from the inside out as he skirted from settlement to settlement. He knew what it was to want something and to not get it, and not get it, and not get it, the kind of emptiness that lingered long after a Starfleet crew beamed down two years too late. He didn’t remember his parents, but he remembered the sleepless, terrified nights after they left, so he knew loss; he knew missing something he’d never even had. He even knew the sting of small disappointments—his unworn graduation robes, welcoming the new year from an empty hotel room, a glitchy synthesizer that refused to make a good chili garlic sauce.
Wei Ying had weathered all of this and came out whole and alive, and yet here he was, still surprised that something could hurt so god damn much.
His communicator beeped at his belt. Five minutes to night shift.
For the first time in months, Wei Ying knew he was going to be late.
The thing was.
The thing was: Lan Zhan had not always been his friend. That first awkward day in the library had not bloomed into newfound camaraderie, despite Wei Ying’s declaration that they should be friends. They barely saw each other for months after that, and Lan Zhan weathered Wei Ying’s next few attempts to make conversation—outside one of the dining halls, crossing paths on the quad, in the library again—with a deliberate indifference.
The next time they met was on the sparring mat.
TAC101: Combat, Unarmed and TAC110: Combat, Small Weapons were required courses for all first years. Wei Ying was in Spring TAC101, so he spent the first few weeks of the semester learning about the philosophy and basic forms of tai chi and bagua zhang, taolu and sanda, Brazilian jiu jitsu, taekwondo, krav maga, Western boxing, and Vulcan sha’mura. Wei Ying had been training in bagua zhang much of his life alongside Jiang Cheng—though his own training wasn’t official, because Yu-ayi didn’t like him competing against Jiang Cheng even in that. Even so, he knew his body, knew the basics of control and power enough to take to each new lesson with satisfying ease. He toned it down a bit when he caught some other students grumbling about it off the mats, but still, TAC101 rapidly became his favorite class of the semester.
In the fifth week, they went to the sparring gym, a large, echoing space that smelled of old sweat and stale foam. Another class was already waiting for them there, crowded around the big blue mat. One of the instructors was standing in the center of the mat with Lan Zhan.
Wei Ying tried to meet Lan Zhan’s eye as he found a spot at the edge of the mat, but Lan Zhan was staring staunchly ahead. He was wearing a pale gray tai chi uniform—matching the instructor, not the other first years in the Academy-issued maple leaf red. His hair was pulled back in a tight, neat bun.
“Isn’t the Vulcan in our year?” one of Wei Ying’s classmates muttered. “What’s he doing there?”
“Thinks he’s better than us,” another replied, not nearly quiet enough in the wide-open room. Wei Ying not-so-accidentally sidestepped, tripping the second classmate at the puzzle-piece edge of the mat.
The instructor glanced over at the small commotion, then quickly dismissed it. “Let’s warm up,” she said, and motioned for them to spread out. Wei Ying kept sneaking glances at Lan Zhan as the class worked through push-ups (Lan Zhan had perfect form, of course) and a number of stretches (Lan Zhan seemed very flexible, good for him). Once everyone was limbered up the instructor beckoned them back, Lan Zhan still beside her.
“In a minute we’ll pair off,” said the instructor. “We’ll walk you through basic one-step drills to simulate combat, and demonstrate leg sweeps in the second hour. If you have questions, you may direct them to myself or to Lan Zhan.”
“I have a question,” one of the students said. The classmate from earlier, who clearly hadn’t learned his lesson. “Why’s the Vulcan teaching us? Does he even know any human martial arts?”
The instructor remained stone faced. “If you would like to take your chances against him, the mat is yours.”
The classmate said nothing. The instructor raised her eyebrows, gaze sweeping the row of students. “I see. Any other takers, before we begin?”
A moment of stillness, then—
“I’ll go,” Wei Ying said.
Lan Zhan’s eyes snapped to him. Wei Ying smiled back, wide, and Lan Zhan’s lips thinned as he looked back to the instructor.
“Your name?” the instructor asked him.
“Have you sparred before?”
“Mostly with my brother,” Wei Ying said. “I’m familiar, though.”
The instructor waved him forward. Wei Ying bowed onto the mat and bounced a little to test the elasticity. When he was four paces opposite Lan Zhan he stopped and bowed again. “This will be fun,” he said.
Lan Zhan just bowed back and didn’t answer.
“Five strikes,” the instructor said, and stepped to the side.
They faced each other on the mat, each settling into an opening position with their hands up, palms out.
First move. Someone had to make it.
Wei Ying darted forward and was blocked as expected. The first few seconds were about gauging Lan Zhan’s strength, his balance, which hand and foot he favored, which side of the body; his natural shields. Lan Zhan took a step back when he blocked and Wei Ying followed him, feet light on the mat. He could feel himself slipping into the concentration of combat, all the hind parts of his brain rising to the surface, the parts that didn’t think about what to do next; they simply did it. In a good fight, the limbs stopped being limbs and became movement instead. Strike and thrust. A good hit didn’t feel like knuckles on bone. It felt like springtime. Blooming. A rush of heat surging from the bottoms of your feet out through your arm, your body a morning glory bursting open in time-lapse.
The first flurry of moves were light, airy, the two of them circling each other like dragonflies skimming a pond. They spun to the north corner of the mat, Wei Ying’s back facing the spectators, when Lan Zhan finally got a strike in, the heel of his palm stopping an inch from Wei Ying’s shoulder.
They went still, holding the position.
And Lan Zhan finally met Wei Ying’s eyes. His expression was blank as ever, but there was something in his eyes. Subtle as a fragrance, barely there. Wei Ying couldn’t tell what it was.
“First strike,” said Lan Zhan. His voice was perfectly even. “Mine.”
The next move was a flicker, Wei Ying blocking two strikes in quick succession. He danced sideways and Lan Zhan turned with Vulcan grace, hands up in front of him. His sha’mura was physically similar to bagua zhang and other mixed martial arts, but sha’mura focused less on flow and more on restraint. Suppression. Concentration. Every movement precise. Less footwork, and Vulcans didn’t circle their opponent.
He could tell Lan Zhan was sizing him up too. Wei Ying wondered, as he jumped to avoid Lan Zhan’s sweeping kick and was momentarily suspended over the blurring arc of Lan Zhan’s leg, what Lan Zhan was learning about him. What he was thinking.
Wei Ying twisted, a red ribbon spiraling in the wind. A leaping flame. He pushed Lan Zhan back toward the center of the mat with a series of sharp strikes, then Lan Zhan gained the upper hand and Wei Ying was ducking, spinning, a tendril of hair coming loose from his bun. His mind was so empty it felt like he wasn’t a mind or body at all. Just energy, released.
He pulled his kick right before it connected. The side of his bare foot hovered by Lan Zhan’s ribs, and Lan Zhan went still.
Wei Ying was distantly aware of all their classmates and two instructors watching from the edges of the mat. He met Lan Zhan’s eyes and said, loud enough for everyone to hear, “Second strike. Mine.”
He was breathing harder now, sweat trickling down his temples. His face was probably bright pink. He was thrumming all over, hot as a warp core, alight with the thrill of what was already a good fucking fight.
“Aren’t you Lans all about tradition?” he asked Lan Zhan, at a normal volume this time. “I thought Vulcans didn’t approve of hand to hand combat. Didn’t you have to take an oath of nonviolence?”
“This is not violence,” said Lan Zhan. His voice was steady, his breathing almost entirely unaffected. “This is balance. I find it as peaceful as meditation.”
“Oh cool, that makes sense,” said Wei Ying.
“You talk too much,” Lan Zhan. He lunged.
Wei Ying breathed through the next forms, imagining a ball of golden qi in his lower belly, every movement originating from that central place. His arms were starting to ache—he’d never been challenged like this before. He was used to sparring matches where the average time between strikes was fewer than ten seconds.
But with Lan Zhan—he had no idea how long they’d been tracing crescent moons on the mat, pushing each other back and forth, every attack dodged or countered. Equal opposite reaction and all that. Talk about balance. Wei Ying found himself breathing steadier than he normally did during a fight, even though this was way more physically taxing, just because they were holding a good rhythm.
It had never felt like this before. This mutual anticipation.
The next point was his, too. His open hand at Lan Zhan’s throat.
This time, he was close enough to see that Lan Zhan was breathing harder. There was a faint green flush over his cheekbones. His eyes were molten gold.
“Third strike mine,” said Wei Ying.
They clashed again. It was serious now: Wei Ying wasn’t smiling and Lan Zhan had the tiniest furrow in his brow. Some part of Wei Ying registered that the gym was quieter than before; their classmates’ hushed conversations had dropped off. The only sound was the scuffle and thump of their bare feet on the mat, their harsh breaths.
Wei Ying was liquid mercury. A piece of steel pulled from the embers and hammered into a hot, glowing shape. Lan Zhan’s hand got dangerously close to his side and he spun away, raising an arm just in time to block the next strike. A few seconds later, he wasn’t quite fast enough. Lan Zhan’s ridgehand strike stopped an inch from his neck, and they went still.
The gym was silent.
Wei Ying blew a tendril of sweaty hair out of his eyes. Lan Zhan was finally breathing hard enough that the rise and fall of his chest would be visible to everyone watching, not just Wei Ying. He was properly flushed now, his cheekbones and nose and the tips of his ears tinted a soft blue-green.
Two all. One strike left.
Wei Ying had never wanted to win so bad in his life. He’d also never cared less about losing.
They went back to the center of the mat this time, reassuming their original stances. “Ready?” said Wei Ying, biting his lip.
Lan Zhan gave him a slow, shallow nod, and Wei Ying attacked. They whirled around each other, fluid and shimmering, twisting like the steps of a dragon dance. Wei Ying could feel himself growing clumsy, overshooting a couple strikes, and he focused on his breathing again, sank back into himself, the animal hollow of his mind and the warmth in his belly. The soles of his feet were sweaty, slipping on the mat.
Push in, dance back. He was definitely lagging. He hadn’t let a hit in so far, but at this point it was only a matter of seconds before Lan Zhan won. He spun out of the range of Lan Zhan’s latest kick and brought his hands up automatically, catching a glimpse of Lan Zhan’s face as he did so. He looked so tousled, with his green-tipped ears and a strand of hair fallen from his bun, Wei Ying couldn’t help but laugh as he darted in for the next strike.
Lan Zhan stumbled.
Well—his version of a stumble. A misstep that knocked him a couple degrees off balance for a fraction of a second, blink-and-you-miss-it. But Wei Ying didn’t miss it, and his hand found Lan Zhan’s upper arm, his leg hooked behind Lan Zhan’s knee, and then there was a lurch and a rush of air and suddenly Lan Zhan was flat on his back on the mat and Wei Ying was hovering over him, pinning him with a hand on his shoulder.
They stared at each other, equally winded. Lan Zhan swallowed hard.
“Fifth strike mine,” said Wei Ying. He grinned down at Lan Zhan, flushed and sweaty and singing with adrenaline, and said teasingly, “Peaceful as meditation, right?”
Lan Zhan’s eyes widened. “Get off me,” he bit out.
Without the fight to focus on, Wei Ying had a skin-prickling awareness of their audience. He got to his feet alongside Lan Zhan and they bowed to each other, the silence ringing in Wei Ying’s ears.
“Three-two to Wei Ying,” said the instructor, which seemed to break the spell hanging over the crowd. There was a wave of whispers and elbow-nudges.
The remaining ninety minutes were devoted to one-step combinations, leg sweeps, and a demonstration of the twelve basic forms of sha’mura that Wei Ying suspected the instructor tacked on just to spite his one classmate. As soon as the session ended, Wei Ying wriggled through the crowd to catch up to Lan Zhan, dove gray in a flock of cardinals. “Hey, Lan Zhan!”
Lan Zhan turned and gave him a look that was both completely blank and also murderous. He led Wei Ying away from the stream of classmates heading for the doors and stood there, one arm behind his back, with an air of let’s just get this over with.
Wei Ying was practically vibrating with excitement. “Lan Zhan. That was so awesome. You felt it too, right?” Lan Zhan just stared at him. “I’ve never been so evenly matched with someone before.”
“It was not even,” Lan Zhan said. “You won.”
Wei Ying waved a hand. “Doesn’t matter, you know what I mean. We should be sparring partners.”
“I do not understand.”
“Come on, you felt how in sync we were. It was amazing, like—the perfect challenge. We should spar again.”
“That will not be necessary.”
“What?” Wei Ying took a step forward and Lan Zhan took a matching step back. “Ah Lan Zhan! Don’t tell me you don’t like a challenge!”
Lan Zhan’s eyes were fixed somewhere below Wei Ying’s chin. “I only practice sha’mura with my instructor.”
“Tradition.” A little too fast.
Wei Ying gave him a scandalized look. “Bullshit,” he said, letting the look morph into a grin. “You’re lying.”
“Vulcans do not lie.”
“Seriously, why don’t you wanna spar with me?”
The last students filed out of the gym, followed by the instructors, everyone heading to their next class. The doors shut, and they were alone. Lan Zhan still wasn’t meeting his eyes and Wei Ying didn’t understand why. Surely it wasn’t a Vulcan rule that you couldn’t practice martial arts with other people. That wouldn’t make sense, right?
He’d felt so sure that they’d been on the same wavelength during the fight. It was impossible to be that in sync with someone and not notice, and Lan Zhan, for all his stuffiness, didn’t seem like the kind of person who’d be a sore loser.
“I am taking nine courses this semester,” Lan Zhan said after a long pause. “My days are occupied. I acknowledge your offer but cannot reply in the affirmative.”
“Wait, seriously? How on earth are you taking nine courses? Oh my god, when do you sleep?”
“My sleep cycle is from 2300 to 0300 hours.”
Wei Ying gaped at him, horrified. “Every night? Is that a Vulcan thing? I mean, not that I can talk, I sometimes don’t sleep for a week, but like. Holy shit.”
“Vulcans can go up to two weeks without sleep,” said Lan Zhan. A short pause. “If that anecdote is literal, you are sleeping far below the recommended amount for a member of your species.”
“It’s chill,” said Wei Ying. “I do all my best work on a sleep deprivation high.”
The line of Lan Zhan’s mouth was disapproving. “Exhaustion only limits one’s mind.”
“Unless, of course, one consumes an absolutely ruinous amount of coffee, in which case one gains the ability to control spacetime.”
“Highly illogical,” said Lan Zhan, “considering ‘spacetime’ is simply a mathematical model used to describe a theoretical four-dimensional continuum.”
“I know! I know. I was kidding, Lan Zhan.”
Their Academy wristwatches buzzed. Five minutes until class started, and Wei Ying’s next class was two buildings over.
“You don’t have to say yes right now!” he said hurriedly. “Just think about it, okay? I’ll see you later!”
Then he scrambled out of the classroom before Lan Zhan could give him a flat no.
And that was how their friendship really began, wasn’t it. Wei Ying pushed and pushed until one day he looked over at Lan Zhan and found him looking back. And Wei Ying told himself there was warmth in Lan Zhan’s fathomless eyes, and told himself that warmth was fondness, when in reality it might never have existed at all.
He was already two minutes late for his shift by the time he reached Lan Zhan’s room. Lan Zhan worked day shift consistently, where Wei Ying’s schedule changed from week to week. Sometimes when he had night shift and Lan Zhan had day shift, Lan Zhan would meet him in the mess for what was his dinner and Wei Ying’s breakfast, and Wei Ying would tease him sleepily over a mug of thick, bitter coffee, spooning chili oil into his congee and cackling at Lan Zhan’s cute green-tipped ears.
“Hey,” he said when the door slid open. “Can I talk to you?”
Lan Zhan nodded and stepped aside to let him in. Lan Zhan was out of uniform at this hour, the ends of his hair still wet from what must have been a water shower. He usually took sonic showers, as in his words there was no need to tap into the ship’s water supply when sonic showers were just as effective, but Wei Ying knew he tended to take water showers or even baths after more stressful missions.
Things had been calm in the ten cycles since they’d left Targil IV. Of course, with the Del’ed on board, Lan Zhan was basically always on call for translation duties. Maybe he was unwinding from a long day of xenolinguistics.
Maybe Wei Ying needed to stop thinking he knew a damn thing about how Lan Zhan felt.
“Would you like a cup of tea?” Lan Zhan asked, going for the bunny kettle.
“No,” Wei Ying said, too abruptly. Lan Zhan stopped. “I mean, no thank you. I....”
It wasn’t too late to turn this into a mission debrief, to go for the weiqi board, to do anything other than what he’d come here to do. He could just. Ignore it. Pretend he’d never touched the stone. Pretend he’d never learned the truth.
But if it really was the truth, then continuing to subject Lan Zhan to his presence, his friendship, would be cruel. If Lan Zhan really found him so intolerable, then of course Wei Ying couldn’t ignore it. Of course he would leave Lan Zhan alone. He’d been pushy in the beginning—it was a little embarrassing looking back on it now, the way he’d trailed after Lan Zhan in the Academy hallways, Lan Zhan, I’ve never seen you in the dining hall before! Wanna eat together? Lan Zhan, my jiejie sent me a care package, have you ever tried lotus seed paste? Wait, do you have lotuses on Vulcan? I guess not, right? Do you get any Earth foods imported? Lan Zhan ah, we’re in the same group for the Maru, how about that!
A little embarrassing, yeah. A little too much, for sure. But it had been three years since they were in the Academy together, and—it was different now, wasn’t it? There was a chance he’d misread what he had felt in the stone. It was the first time he’d experienced that sort of emotional resonance, right? Maybe this whole thing was a misunderstanding and Lan Zhan really was his friend and everything was totally fine, and they’d play a round of weiqi tonight after all.
He’d been hovering by the door for too long. “Ah,” he said, and tried for an apologetic smile. “Sorry, just—zoned out.”
“You have night shift right now,” said Lan Zhan, watching him closely. “Are you ill?”
“No no, I'm fine,” said Wei Ying. He left his scuffed-up old boots next to Lan Zhan’s pristine ones and lowered himself to the floor in his usual spot. He was trying to think of something normal to say, but his tongue was a tangle of frayed wire.
Lan Zhan joined him on the floor. His pajamas were white linen. He sat cross-legged, hands resting on his knees, folded as neatly as a paper crane. “Wei Ying,” he said. “Did something happen? Your family….”
“No, nothing like that!” Wei Ying said. “Everyone’s fine, everything’s fine. I was just. Um.” He swallowed. “I was talking with Ak’e. Earlier.”
“You are friends,” Lan Zhan said, almost a question.
“Yeah. I mean, I guess. I hope so? That’s not—they said something about, uh, about you. And me, working together. They were… surprised.”
Concern flickered across Lan Zhan’s face. “I am unaware of any Del’ed prejudice regarding interspecies cooperation. Is this something we should investigate?”
Wei Ying wanted to cover his own face with his hands. He wanted, again, to leave. “No. It was about us, specifically. You and me. Because of what happened on Del’ed that day, with the psi stone.”
“I… do not follow.”
“Ak’e said they were surprised, because. Because. Lan Zhan, when you touched the psi stone, it recorded your emotions.”
Lan Zhan nodded. “They used it to determine we did not intend to double-cross them.”
“Yeah. Well. It recorded everything—all your feelings. Including more—specific feelings.”
Lan Zhan nodded again, slower this time.
“Like.” Wei Ying forced himself not to look away. Revulsion-swept. Revulsion-swept. “Lan Zhan, it recorded.... Ah. How you…. How you felt, when you spoke about me. How you, I guess, feel about me.”
A crease appeared between Lan Zhan’s brows. Then his face went completely blank.
Wei Ying’s stomach sank through the floor.
It was true, then. It was true. Lan Zhan hadn’t liked Wei Ying in the beginning, but Wei Ying had thought things were different now. He’d thought they were friends. He’d thought they were like—pretty good friends.
He thought of all the times he’d knocked on Lan Zhan’s door at all hours of the evening and practically invited himself inside, and wheedled Lan Zhan into playing weiqi with him, and drank Lan Zhan’s tea, which was real Chinese tea made of real tea leaves, which meant it was in limited supply off-planet. All the times he’d called out to Lan Zhan across the Academy campus or the Queqiao mess hall, waving him over.
That one time, only a few weeks before he’d dropped out of the Academy, when he’d showed up at Lan Zhan’s dorm room past midnight and dripped blood and rainwater all over the spotless floor.
Lan Zhan glaring at him.
Lan Zhan avoiding his eyes.
Lan Zhan reciting Starfleet Protocol, detailing the severity of Wei Ying’s mistakes, his voice stiff and flat.
“Oh,” Wei Ying said, because—fuck, he had to say something. “That’s…. Okay. I’m gonna be honest, that’s not what I was hoping for. Okay. That—that’s not great.”
Lan Zhan’s expression didn’t change.
Yeah, this was the worst. Wei Ying let out a shaky breath and said, “Shit.”
Lan Zhan flinched. He actually flinched, though on him it was just a fractional tightening of his mouth and eyes before his face smoothed over again. Carved from jade. On Vulcan, carved from yar-kov. The Second Jade, Wuh dahr yar-kov t' Lan. He didn’t move or speak. It looked like he wasn’t even breathing. His eyes were lowered, he couldn’t even look at Wei Ying, or maybe it was just that he didn’t have to look at Wei Ying anymore, now that Wei Ying knew. He didn’t have to force himself anymore: to keep up the act, to keep things running smoothly. Wei Ying should have known. He should have known, he was so stupid, how could he not have known? Lan Zhan was a legend, the best up-and-coming xenolinguist not just in Starfleet but in the whole Federation, his reputation was flawless, he represented Vulcan and his clan, he was so brilliant and talented and important and perfect, why would he choose to hang around Wei Ying and the dregs of his reputation? Wei Ying and his shadow?
They weren’t friends. They’d never been friends. Wei Ying was just delusional. He’d wanted Lan Zhan so hard he had tricked himself into believing Lan Zhan wanted him back.
“Um. Has it been like this the whole time?” he managed. “Or did something change? Have you always...?” He couldn’t bring himself to say hated me.
Lan Zhan was staring at the floor. After a long moment he said, very quietly, “Yes.”
“Since the beginning?”
“Yes,” Lan Zhan whispered.
“Right,” Wei Ying said numbly. “Right, yeah. Okay. For what it’s worth, I’m sorry. And—I’m sorry I didn’t notice.”
“I did not intend you to,” said Lan Zhan.
Ouch. Wei Ying wanted to say you could have told me, but.... Lan Zhan had tried to tell Wei Ying he didn’t want to be friends. It was Wei Ying who hadn’t listened.
One last question. “Were you just gonna keep letting me—keep pretending everything was normal?” he asked. “Forever?”
Lan Zhan had gone very pale. His face was bloodless except for two spots of green high on his cheekbones. Wei Ying felt awful about that, too. He hadn’t meant to upset Lan Zhan. He’d just needed to know the truth, and now he knew it. He wasn’t mad or anything. He understood why Lan Zhan had been nice and polite to him. The Queqiao wasn’t big enough to sustain a serious rift between two crew members. Of course Lan Zhan had made an effort to be civil.
Wei Ying wanted to go back to his own room.
“Look,” he said. “It’s out in the open now, yeah? So there’s no need to like, pretend. No matter what, we’re still crewmates. We can keep it professional on shift. And obviously we don’t have to, um, interact outside that.”
Each silence was more awful than the last. Wei Ying peeked at Lan Zhan’s face to find him staring at the floor again. His eyes were slightly wider than usual. Right. Vulcans didn’t really do the whole ‘emotional confrontation’ thing. He probably had no idea what to do in the face of Wei Ying’s—everything.
“You... no longer wish to interact outside our duties,” Lan Zhan said.
Three nights ago, Wei Ying had been this close to slipping out of bed and making his way through the dark, silent halls of the dormbay to go knock on Lan Zhan’s door. “Ah,” he said, and cleared his throat. “I mean. Isn’t that most of the problem?”
Lan Zhan’s expression hardened. “If it is my ability to control myself which concerns you, I would remind you I am Vulcan.”
“No I know,” Wei Ying assured him. “Lan Zhan, don’t worry. Of course I know you’d never do anything that would fuck with the crew dynamics. I’ll just keep my distance, okay?”
“If that is what you prefer.”
He was so nice. Too nice. Practically inviting Wei Ying to keep bothering him, acting like Wei Ying’s feelings were the priority here. “Yeah,” said Wei Ying, trying to sound light. “I think it’s for the best.”
Lan Zhan gave a jerky nod. He inhaled and said, “I apologize for causing this conflict.”
“Oh god, don’t apologize,” said Wei Ying. His eyes were stinging. He needed to get out of here like, right now, or this entire experience would go from humiliating to downright traumatic. “Um. I’m sorry too. I shouldn’t have.... I don’t know, followed you around so much. Talked your ear off. I’m sorry. I should’ve just left you alone.”
Lan Zhan was silent.
Well. Wei Ying had clearly overstayed his welcome. He got to his feet and went about putting his boots back on, and Lan Zhan did not move a muscle. His posture was flawless.
Wei Ying found himself lingering at the doorway. “Do you think you could ever change your mind?” he blurted out, and immediately cringed at himself. How desperate. “Like, I don’t know, if we don’t really see each other for a while,” he said. If he was going to be pathetic, he might as well go all-in. “Or if we tried to work through it some other way. Do you think your feelings could ever change?”
Lan Zhan took so long to answer that Wei Ying actually looked back at him. He was still sitting on the floor, staring blankly at nothing. The wall behind where Wei Ying had been sitting, maybe. Wei Ying was about to say sorry, don’t worry about it and make his escape when Lan Zhan gave the tiniest shake of his head.
No, he would never want to be friends. Not a chance. Alright. Alright.
“Alright,” Wei Ying said softly. “Sorry, Lan Zhan. I know you said I shouldn’t apologize but.... I’m sorry. I really am.”
Then he slipped out the door and walked back to his own quarters and didn’t sleep.
It was awful.
Wei Ying had known it would suck, but somehow it was about a thousand times worse than he’d feared. He hadn’t realized, before this, just how much seeing Lan Zhan was a deliberate action. Barring the lab’s malfunctioning climate system, there weren’t many organic reasons for them to cross paths during shifts. Off-hours Wei Ying would often go up to the main mess to eat, but if he just used the maintenance bunk kitchens for a few cycles—for convenience reasons! Mostly! Ninety percent convenience reasons, just ten percent Lan Zhan hates me reasons—then he and Lan Zhan basically lived and worked on totally separate sections of the ship. He didn’t seek Lan Zhan out, and Lan Zhan didn’t seek him out, and it was like they existed on two different Queqiaos.
“Okay, I don’t know what happened,” Zhang Lin said after an eternity (six cycles) of this, coming back from their shift to find Wei Ying curled up in his bunk and looking morosely at the half-assembled synthesizer. “And honestly, I don’t want to know? But if you keep moping like this I’ll drag Doc Wen down here myself.”
“You wouldn’t,” Wei Ying said, trying to sound mock-offended and landing somewhere in the area of morose instead. “Betrayal of the code.”
“Tch, what code.”
“The maintenance crew code. Technicians before physicians. Et cetera.” There was no code, really. Wei Ying was hardly even friends with most of the maintenance crew, Zhang Lin included. Friendly, for sure. Wei Ying was friendly with everyone, except idiots who made stupid comments about Vulcans, and Ensign Su, who made stupid comments and had totally bribed his way through the Academy on top of that. But as far as close friends went, no, none of the maintenance crew really counted. Wei Ying was friends with Wen Qing in an aggressive, sibling sort of way, and Xiao Xingchen was sort of like an uncle-slash-friend he went to the gym with once in a while. Mo Xuanyu in Engineering sometimes asked for his (unofficial) advice, and Mianmian occasionally grabbed lunch with him when she had a second to breathe, because the life of a medical trainee was no joke. And he was friends with—
Well. That was really it, on the ship.
“You sound so stupid right now, I hope you know that,” Zhang Lin said.
“I know,” Wei Ying assured them. “I’m fine, anyway. I pulled back to back shifts and threw off my sleep schedule, that’s all.”
“Hm.” Zhang Lin shook out their hair and started rubbing at the goggle marks under their eyes. Wei Ying should do that too—a water shower, or a cool compress, he was elbow-deep in ruptured pipes today and kept his goggles on for seven hours straight—but he didn’t feel like it. He felt like lying here and sleeping and definitely not staring gloomily at his desk until day shift. “You should get your Vulcan to go throw you around on the mats a bit. You’re always disgustingly perky after that.”
“Ah,” Wei Ying said. He rolled onto his back, looking up at the ceiling so he wouldn’t have to face Zhang Lin. “No. Lan—Ensign Lan is very busy. And he’s not—mine.”
“If you say so.” In the corner of his eye Zhang Lin shrugged and grabbed a towel, heading for the hall. “I’m serious about tattling on you to sickbay, though.”
“I’m fine!” Wei Ying called after them. He was. He dragged himself up long enough to change into pajamas, and then sprawled back in bed, staring at the ceiling again. He was fine. He was really fine.
He also, once again, didn’t sleep a wink.
(A few nights later he caught himself wandering after swing shift and realized he was tracking his way to Lan Zhan’s quarters, feet leading him there on autopilot. He had to stop, tucking himself into a porthole alcove and staying there until his eyes were no longer embarrassingly damp. Outside the stars spun on, not caring that Wei Ying’s personal galaxy had toppled right off its axis.)
Wei Ying didn’t realize the impending problem until the Queqiao was hovering above the planet Izoth III, with thirty minutes to go until the shuttles departed for the summit.
In retrospect, he should have realized, and ages ago at that. He’d been reading about Izoth III since Lan Zhan told him he’d get to go, and two nights ago the landing office had commed an extensive briefing packet about the two-day summit, and Wei Ying had scrolled through the whole thing instead of sleeping. He was incredibly prepared. He knew:
- The Queqiao and Del’ed delegations would be shuttling down to the planet’s surface, due to a safeguard shield around the summit that prevented beaming
- Once they were planetside, they would subject to a rigorous security screening to ensure the safety of everyone in attendance
- He should bring his dress uniform, daywear, and one set of pajamas
- The Queqiao’s purpose was solely to observe and, essentially, network, and no one should position themselves as someone with diplomatic authority except for the captain
- Human and Andorian crewmembers were advised to avoid anything resembling Earth plums while dining, as they would likely cause a terribly inconvenient rash.
The packet came with a discussion schedule, a map of the summit campus, and an extra note added to Wei Ying’s file that said A reminder that you represent the whole of Starfleet when attending a diplomatic function, and you are expected to act in a manner that reflects our shared values, which was probably an automated message sent to all non-Officer crew members, and a second note reading Stay ten meters away from ANY AND ALL local power structures, which was probably meant for him specifically.
But despite all of this, it wasn’t until he rounded the corner outside the flight deck and saw Lan Zhan step out of the lift at the other end of the corridor that he realized: Oh.
Lan Zhan was part of the landing party. Right. Right.
He’d been trying so hard not to think about Lan Zhan at all—and like, mostly failing, but still trying, which should count for something—that he hadn’t considered this: Lan Zhan had been involved with the Del’ed delegation since first contact. Of course he would be part of the small party attending the summit, shuttling down together and staying overnight in a guest pavilion specifically set aside for Starfleet. The welcome packet had included a blueprint of the guest pavilion, which was an open space with bedding separated by curtains, in the Izoth style. Wei Ying would have to see Lan Zhan in his pajamas. He’d likely bump into Lan Zhan on the pathway between the pavilion and the main hall. Or outside the toilet. Or the washroom. Or the second washroom, because bathing and handwashing were considered separate actions with separate facilities. Wei Ying might have to look across a banquet table at Lan Zhan in his dress uniform, or wake up and see Lan Zhan in his thin, rabbit-soft pajama set, and Lan Zhan might have to see Wei Ying back, and they would both surely have to think about how they were definitely not friends.
There in the corridor, he and Lan Zhan locked eyes through the bustle of crewmembers. In the next moment—in a move he wasn’t totally proud of—Wei Ying turned and fled.
He found Captain Nie in the observation deck, deep in conversation with one of his yeomen. Wei Ying didn’t often seek out the captain directly, so he paused in the doorway, long enough for both of them to notice him and, unfortunately, not long enough for Wei Ying to gather his thoughts.
Captain Nie didn’t look thrilled to see Wei Ying hovering in the hall. The yeoman next to him cut off mid-sentence, regarding Wei Ying over the top of his PADD. “I assume Crewman Wei is about to request a word with you, Captain,” he said.
“Um, yes.” Wei Ying stepped inside. “Captain,” he added, ducking his head in greeting, and nodded to the yeoman too, trying to remember his name. Drawing a blank. “If you have a minute—?”
“I really don’t, so get on with it,” Captain Nie said.
“I just wanted to—I think maybe I should sit this one out,” Wei Ying said in a rush. “The summit, I mean.”
Captain Nie raised his eyebrows a few terrifying millimeters. “And why is that.”
He had an answer for this. A half-concocted list of reasons he made up five minutes ago, but an answer nonetheless. “There’s really no reason for extra maintenance staff to attend,” Wei Ying said. “Cadet Mo and Crewman Zhang are already assigned to service the shuttle, so I’m really just another person to keep track of down there. Plus, the C-Lab climate system is leaking again, so someone should look at that today. And”—last, but his strongest point overall—“I always end up causing trouble, anyway.”
Despite what was, in Wei Ying’s opinion, an airtight argument, Captain Nie did not look convinced. Or impressed. “Are you planning to cause trouble?”
“Well. No,” Wei Ying said. “But my intent isn’t exactly an accurate predictor of potential trouble.” And then he tried not to wince, because he sounded just like—
A movement from the hall. Someone stood in the doorway where Wei Ying had been only a minute ago, hands clasped behind his back, expression utterly blank.
“Ah,” Wei Ying said weakly. “Ensign Lan.”
Lan Zhan looked at him for a beat, then shifted to face Captain Nie. “Captain.”
“It seems Ensign Lan wishes to speak with you as well, Captain,” the yeoman said drily.
Captain Nie looked seconds away from pinching the bridge of his nose and ordering all of them out. “Yes?”
“I apologize for eavesdropping,” Lan Zhan said. “However, if someone must sit out of the summit landing party, I respectfully suggest that it be me instead. It would be a better choice, as the Del’ed are fond of Crewman Wei and will be expecting his presence.”
“What—and leave our interpreter behind?” Captain Nie frowned at Lan Zhan, incredulous, and then swung that expression on Wei Ying, like he already knew this was Wei Ying’s fault.
“The Captain’s right,” Wei Ying said. What was Lan Zhan doing? “You can’t sit this out, don’t be silly.”
“Officer Xiao is more than capable—”
“Not as capable as you, not with new languages like that—”
“The summit’s on-planet translation technology will be plenty sufficient—”
“No one is sitting out,” Captain Nie snapped, and both Wei Ying and Lan Zhan fell silent. “The landing party stays as-is. What you overheard was Crewman Wei’s cold feet,” he said to Lan Zhan. Then, to Wei Ying: “Ensign Lan is right, the Del’ed have taken a shine to you for whatever reason. I already told them you’d be joining the summit, and I won’t have them accusing me of lying. So whatever’s going on, fix it. I’ll see you on the flight deck in twenty minutes. Both of you.”
He swept out of the office. The yeoman followed, looking faintly amused, and then Wei Ying and Lan Zhan were alone for the first time since—the conversation in Lan Zhan’s cabin.
“Sorry,” Wei Ying said, scratching the back of his head and looking at the dim monitor screens. “I tried.”
“That was unnecessary,” Lan Zhan said. “If my presence makes you uncomfortable, I will find the Captain and make another argument for staying behind.”
“No,” Wei Ying said quickly. “No, we just went over this. It’s not about—I mean. If you feel uncomfortable, though, I can still fake sick or something.”
Lan Zhan didn’t reply. A spot of light danced along his jaw, a reflection through the observation panels. He was looking somewhere just past Wei Ying, the way he had those early months at the Academy.
I miss you, Wei Ying thought. His throat felt tight. Maybe he wouldn’t even have to fake being sick.
“Look,” he said, and it came out half-normal. “I’ll stay out of your way. You’ll hardly even notice me there. Or, I guess you’ll notice, but I won’t—it’ll be fine. We’re fine. We’re—fine, right?”
Lan Zhan’s gaze didn’t waver. “No,” he said softly, after a stretch of silence. “I don’t believe we are.” Then he blinked and seemed to refocus, tucking one hand behind his back. “But you are correct that we can maintain distance. This does not have to affect our work or interfere with our conduct at the summit. So, if—” and here Lan Zhan faltered, a there-and-gone-again slip in his even tone. “If you’ll excuse me.”
And he left.
Wei Ying slumped back against one of the monitor displays, resisting the urge to cover his face. Through the observation panels he watched crew members preparing two shuttles for departure, a swarm of activity that looked like a scene from a movie, or like his own far-away memory of visiting the Starfleet Academy shuttle hangar as a kid, the day he thought: This is what I want. This is where I belong.
He’d make this work. He would just… stay out as late as he could for the next two nights. Make friends with other delegates. Return to the Queqiao’s quarters long after Lan Zhan went to sleep. Possibly get the stink-eye from Captain Nie about it, but that would be fine. As long as he could find some sort of equilibrium with Lan Zhan, some way to make this bearable, he would be fine.
With that in mind, he pushed himself upright and made his way to the flight deck.