Maybe it would be easier, if he could leave behind a mystery, the way San-shu had for him. Some puzzle, to keep them occupied, keep them moving, something they could let themselves believe when the truth gets too hard.
Instead all he has is a folder of papers, black characters against the white spelling out what to expect in the coming weeks, a detached, clinical description of the way his body is killing him from the inside out. A plastic container of pills that rattles in his bag when he walks, when he moves too quickly — not that he’s doing much of that, lately.
There’s no mystery in that.
I don’t want to have any regrets, he’d said, justifying this last desperate attempt at finding his uncle. And it wasn't a lie, not really — if he could find him—
Well. It’s an easy line, anyways, and true enough that he had been able to say it to Er-shu with a straight face. He’s not sure regrets are the right word for what he has, anyways. Can you regret something that hasn’t happened yet?
But he's been trying not to think about that.
The thing is, the more he learns – about Thunder City and its mysterious artifact, about the path his uncle had walked all those years ago, about the chance, however tiny – the more he learns, the more some small selfish part of him wants to hope, clings to the idea, greedy and desperate.
He doesn’t think he’s the only one, clinging to that stupid, tiny hope.
He wonders if that will make it harder, when it inevitably fails. Not for him — he’ll be dead and unbothered. But for Pangzi, for Xiaoge, for Xiao Bai and Er-shu and all the other people he’s dragged into this — will it be worse, after?
Wu Xie can’t breathe with the cruelty of it sometimes, this hope he’s given them, even though he hadn’t meant to.
He wants so desperately to let himself believe it. He has to, during the day, to force himself to stand, to move, to keep breathing even as his lungs burn. Forces himself to accept it as truth, that he will find the South Sea King’s artifact, and San-shu, and maybe (maybe, please, maybe) even a cure.
But at night — he watches the matches burn down until they hurt his fingers to hold, and sometimes when he drops them it feels like he’s letting go of something else, too.
He’s coughing so hard he wakes himself up.
It’s not new, at this point, but this time it seems to go on and on and he can’t catch his fucking breath – he can hear Pangzi waking up, feels the mattress dip as he moves, the low urgent tone of his voice in Wu Xie’s ear but he can’t make out the words over the rushing in his ears, his own ragged breaths, the awful feeling in his throat. It feels like he’s suffocating even as he gasps, like he’s not getting in enough oxygen – the edges of his vision get fuzzy, like he might pass out. His breaths, when he can manage them, come thin and shaky and he’s still not getting enough air—
There’s the taste of iron in his mouth the next time he coughs and Wu Xie brings his hand up to cover his mouth, trying not to get blood on the sheets as he curls into himself and coughs and coughs and coughs until finally, finally he can sort of breathe again, still too-fast and shallow but it’s enough, he’s – he’ll be okay, even though his heart is still pounding in his throat and his whole chest feels tight and painful and Pangzi is – Pangzi is just looking at him, horrified. He reaches out but it’s jerky, somehow, hesitant, like he wants to touch Wu Xie but can’t be sure it won’t make it worse.
Wu Xie tilts towards him, just slightly, with a wordless, pained noise that sounds embarrassingly like a whine, and then there’s a hand behind his neck and another one on his chest, carefully stroking him through the aftershocks as the last lingering coughs trail away.
All he can do is lay there, for a moment, eyes stinging as he looks dazedly at the unfamiliar ceiling (and doesn’t that sting, too, that he’s dying and he can’t even do it at home, thanks to Er-shu and his ruthless interpretation of “helping—”)
He can’t quite get his vision to focus, and he’s not sure if it’s a product of the coughing or just the dim light filtering into the apartment. Everything hurts – his chest, his throat, the thought of Pangzi seeing him like this, the knowledge that it’s only ever going to happen more often, if he keeps going like this.
“Hey,” he starts to say, when his breathing is mostly under control, finally turning to look at Pangzi, who looks fucking devastated, as bad as he’d looked at the hospital, that first time. “Don’t make that face at me, it’s — it’s ok,” he says, or tries to, “it’s alright, I’m—”
His voice is ragged, evidence of how untrue that is, and it hurts to talk, and he doesn’t cry, he can’t, he won’t—
Pangzi makes a punched out noise and there’s a warm thumb on his cheek, a hand closing on the back of his neck and pulling him into the crook of Pangzi’s shoulder.
“Tianzhen—“ he starts, and then stops, sounding uncharacteristically lost. All these years together, decades of unspoken, easy communication, and still between the three of them there’s not one easy word to be found, lately.
There’s wetness seeping into the collar of Pangzi’s shirt and Wu Xie knows it’s coming from him, tries to squint his eyes shut but it doesn’t do anything to stop the tears from coming.
“Shh, Tianzhen, don’t— don’t be afraid, it’s ok, we’ll figure it out, we’ll fix it—”
Wu Xie makes a quiet noise of protest, still pressed up against Pangzi’s warmth, even though his face is stuck in an uncomfortable wet spot of his own making. “Of course I’m fucking scared, Pangzi,” he bites out – it feels wrenched out of him, awful, and the stutter he feels in Pangzi’s breathing doesn’t make it any better but he keeps going anyways, the truth spilling out of him, unasked for: “it hurts—”
The apartment is utterly silent for a moment, just his shallow, careful breaths and his awful admission ringing through the apartment like a physical presence, a cold horrible pressure that takes up all the space, all the air.
It’s the first time he’s said it out loud. Pangzi lets out a low, slow breath.
I’m not afraid of death, he’d told Er-shu, all those weeks ago in the hospital. I’m not afraid, he’d told Xaio Bai just that morning, it’s alright.
He wants to lie to Pangzi, too. Wants to make things easier for him – it’s why he hadn’t told him anything to begin with.
Pangzi’s not an idiot, he knows Wu Xie better than probably anyone alive. If anyone could tell when he was hurting it would be him. But at least they could have pretended.
Now Wu Xie’s taken that away from him, too.
“Sorry,” Wu Xie says, wishing he could claw it back, “sorry, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have— it doesn’t change anything, it doesn’t matter—”
“Tianzhen,” Pangzi says, arms suddenly a little tighter around him, “it always matters. To me. You don’t have to— it matters, alright?”
Pangzi loves to take up space in public, to be big and brash and loud and present, to make you look at him. But the truth of it is he’s so fucking gentle it makes Wu Xie ache, the way he cradles the back of Wu Xie’s head in his big, warm palm so carefully you’d think he was made of glass, something precious. The way his thumb strokes just behind Wu Xie’s ear, soft and soothing and so reassuring Wu Xie’s eyes start to sting all over again.
What is he going to do, Wu Xie wonders, and hates himself for it, a little bit. What is he going to do, when I’m gone?
It feels selfish, self-centered, except he knows that it’s not, because when he thinks of what he would do if it were Pangzi who was—
He can’t even finish the thought, is the thing, can’t even imagine a world without him.
Pangzi’s grip tightens at his involuntary shudder, careful but undeniably reassuring.
“Shh, Tianzhen, I know,” he says, rocking faintly back and forth, and Wu Xie might bristle at being soothed like a child if it wasn’t working, if he wasn’t so pathetically grateful for it. “It’s been hard for you, hasn’t it? It’s alright. It’s alright.”
And just like that he can’t keep up the act anymore – he presses his face into the crook of Pangzi’s neck and lets out the pained noise that’s been building inside him since that morning, when Pangzi joked about them pushing each other around in their eighties and Wu Xie realized that he wanted, so badly that it hurt, so badly that he’d barely been able to swallow around it all day, the grief, the wanting.
“I’m not ready,” he chokes out, muffled, against Pangzi’s chest, glad he can’t see his face, “I thought I was, but—I’m almost out of time, and I’m not—”
Pangzi’s breathing is uneven, like he’s trying very hard to keep his voice steady. “I know, I know, it’s alright. You can tell me, Tianzhen, it’s alright,” he says, and his voice hardly wavers at all and Wu Xie loves him so fiercely it hurts.
“I want—I want—” he can’t get the words out, or there are so many things he wants, still, that none of them can fight their way to the forefront. Pangzi hasn’t faltered once where he’s rubbing circles on Wu Xie’s back, but there’s wetness in Wu Xie’s hair that gives him away. “There’s so much I wanted to do with you, still,” Wu Xie finally settles on, and Pangzi’s hitched breath is audible, his arms tightening around Wu Xie as if he could hold him in the world by sheer force of will.
“I know, I know. And you will,” Pangzi says, unwavering in his belief, and Wu Xie wonders, again, if this last adventure isn’t just making things worse for everyone he’s going to leave behind.
“We’ll find a way,” Pangzi is saying, so soft Wu Xie can hardly hear him, “it will work,” he murmurs against Wu Xie’s temple, over and over, like a prayer. “It will.”
He doesn’t remember falling asleep but he must have, because he wakes up and blinks away the gumminess of his eyes and light is seeping in through the windows. Pangzi is warm against his side. There’s an arm flung across his middle, and it should feel smothering, maybe, like it’s restricting his breathing, but all he feels is safe. He’s always been safe, with Pangzi.
Wu Xie turns to face him. He doesn’t quite press their foreheads together, just watches him sleep — memorizes the wrinkles that have appeared over the years, the new streaks of white in his hair, the softness of his features that he purposefully hides with his noise, when he’s awake.
He feels – lighter. Not like it’s gone entirely, the heaviness, the aching, but – shared. With someone who’d always been there to hear it, if Wu Xie had only looked.
There’s embarrassment, too, at having said so much so plainly, but mostly all he can manage is a relief that leaves him faintly lightheaded. Pangzi is a sure thing. He’s always been a sure thing; he’ll still be here even if it’s hard, even if it hurts. Wu Xie knew that, somewhere, knew that he didn’t have to keep the act up for him, but there’s knowing and then there’s knowing, and he only wishes it hadn’t taken him so long to figure it out.
He’s easing himself up with some vague ideas about making breakfast when he feels a hand around his wrist. When he looks down Pangzi’s eyes are open and he’s frowning at him.
“If you think you’re moving one inch from this bed you have another thing coming,” he grumbles sleepily. “Lie down, Tianzhen, you making me tired just looking at you.”
“I was just—” Wu Xie starts to protest, but Pangzi still hasn’t woken up fully and so his expression is perhaps a little more honest than he’d meant – a little desperate, pleading.
“Alright,” he says, after a few moments of staring at each other, “for now. But I’ll have to get up eventually, Xiao Bai and I have plans. And I’m hungry,” he tacks on for good measure, just in case Pangzi was getting any ideas about a heart to heart at this hour of the morning.
Pangzi rolls his eyes, lets him get away with it. “Unbelievable, the things you ask me to do around here. Just think of my poor back, already hurting and now you want me to slave away over the stove—”
Wu Xie hits him halfheartedly with a pillow but Pangzi’s already getting up and making his way towards the kitchen, still moving a little gingerly. Wu Xie closes his eyes and listens to the familiar sounds of him starting the coffee, pulling something from the fridge, turning on the stove, not quite asleep but not really awake, either. He doesn’t think about his uncle, doesn’t think about the ever-present tightness in his chest or stupid Xue Wu or this last risky gamble they’re planning, doesn’t think about how they’re going to find Xiaoge. He just – lies there. Listens to Pangzi muttering a litany of complaints at the stove, the familiar tenor of his voice more important than whatever it is he’s complaining about. Rests.
And then Pangzi is back with coffee and reheated beef noodles, sounding for all the world like he just hand-pulled them for how much he complains about it, and maybe he’s overdoing it a little bit, hamming it up, but Wu Xie lets him because it feels good, easy after all of the serious conversations in low tones, the careful looks and grim expressions.
And then, of course, because Wu Xie was never going to be able to avoid it forever, no matter how much he may have liked to—
“I’ll believe for you, if you can’t,” Pangzi says abruptly, looking him in the eye as the precariously-balanced mood – doesn’t quite shatter, but wobbles. But Wu Xie doesn’t look away, forces himself to maintain eye contact as he nods once, firmly. He owes Pangzi this much, at least, after everything.
“Thanks,” he says, and then kicks Pangzi in the leg for making him talk about it again, and Pangzi spills his coffee all over the fucking bed and himself and Wu Xie and it’s laughing that makes Wu Xie short of breath this time, not coughing, not choking.
That’s how Xiao Bai finds them, when she lets herself in – bent over laughing, maybe a little hysterical, cussing each other out, their eyes still puffy and red and his chest still aching but laughing, laughing, everything a little brighter with the morning sun.