Lan Zhan doesn't know what to expect when he walks into his first job interview since the war ended, three months after the armistice. It's only his second job interview ever, in fact. Like his brother before him, he started his career in the military. Unlike his brother, Lan Zhan lost his taste for that career quickly, forcing him to look elsewhere for employment. His uncle gave him a big lecture yesterday about how a ship security job like this is beneath him, but Lan Zhan just wants something quiet, after everything.
The ship's captain, who introduces herself as Wen Qing, is younger than he expects, but stern-faced, her hair pulled back in a severe-looking bun. "Let's talk and then I'll give you the tour." The Peony is a small merchant vessel, she explains, with a current crew of seven, looking to add one more member. "I need someone who can do both space and planetary security. Most of the time, I doubt we'll have any trouble and your biggest problem will be getting bored, but I want to be prepared. You never know what you'll get in some sectors."
"I can do that," Lan Zhan says.
"Tell me about your background."
"I piloted single- and double-seat fighters in the war," Lan Zhan tells her. "Full training and over one thousand hours of combat flight time."
Wen Qing looks impressed. He's likely more qualified than she expected for a position like this. "Good, good. Any hand-to-hand training? Weapons?"
"Both. I completed basic and advanced training and later trained recruits."
Wen Qing's eyebrows rise. "All of that just in the war?"
"I joined two years before." Back then, telling someone he was in the military would earn a respectful but perplexed reaction, as though after over a century of peace, people couldn't understand why anyone would join such an antiquated organization. Now, people understand the need for a military more, but also, with the horrors of war fresh in their minds, view those who joined up voluntarily with greater suspicion.
Wen Qing doesn't look suspicious, exactly, but her gaze evaluates him. "What made you decide to do that?"
"Family tradition. My older brother, uncle and father served." His father only for a year or so before his choices took him down a different path, but she doesn't need to know about that.
"I see. But you left after the war?"
"Yes." Wen Qing doesn't ask why. Anyone knows better than to ask that.
They discuss the particulars of the job, including lodging and payment, as Wen Qing gives him a tour of the ship. "Most of the crew is on leave for a few more days, but my brother is doing maintenance checks, and our other new security guy should be around here somewhere."
They don't meet Wen Qing's brother, but when they enter the VR room, they find a man lying in the middle of a virtual field under sunlight that feels very real. He looks like he's dressed for a workout, in a red tank top and loose black pants, and his hair is shaggy as though he's in the process of growing it long but hasn't gotten there yet, fanning out around his face. Wen Qing clears her throat, but the man doesn't react until she calls, "Hey, Wuxian! Pay a little attention."
The man opens his eyes, looks over at them and says, "Oh!" quickly jumping to his feet. He runs a hand through his hair, pushing it back off his face. "I didn't know we had company. Hello!"
"I told you I had an interview," Wen Qing mutters. More politely, she tells Lan Zhan, "This is Wuxian—Wei Ying." Lan Zhan nods a greeting. "This is Lan Zhan. Do you have a call sign?"
"Wangji." It feels strange to use the name again, though all his fellow soldiers and even his uncle called him that.
"Wangji, then. If you don't mind, how about a little sparring with Wuxian so I can see your skills?"
"I notice you don't ask me if I mind." Wei Ying's complaint is so childish. What is a man like him doing working security?
"Do your job and don't whine," Wen Qing says sharply, though she doesn't really seem angry.
"Yes, captain," Wei Ying drawls, grinning lazily. He erases the VR environment with a wave of his hand, revealing the plain black room. There are mats underfoot, presumably for this purpose.
Wen Qing stands back, and Wei Ying and Lan Zhan face each other. "No weapons?" Wei Ying asks.
"No." Lan Zhan doesn't need weapons to beat most anyone at hand-to-hand combat.
"Ready when you are." Wei Ying is so cocky that Lan Zhan thinks it will feel good to take him down a peg. He half expects him to have zero skill to back up his attitude, but Wei Ying dodges his first strike with ease, and his second and third too.
It becomes obvious after a minute or two that Wei Ying is a much stronger opponent than Lan Zhan is used to, maybe even stronger than anyone he's faced except his brother. Before the war, Lan Zhan would have been excited (in his own quiet way) to fight someone who presents such a challenge. Now, it mostly seems an inconvenience, especially when Wei Ying starts to talk.
"Not as easy as you thought, huh, Lan Zhan?" Why is this stranger using his name instead of his call sign? Under the circumstances, it feels overly familiar. He must be ex-military too if he has a call sign of his own, so he should know better. Lan Zhan doesn't answer, redoubling his efforts, bringing in a new mix of techniques. He scores a few hits, but not enough to slow Wei Ying down. "You're good," his opponent comments, sounding quite happy about it. "I haven't had a challenge like this in a long time. Maybe ever."
His annoying cheerfulness distracts Lan Zhan just enough for Wei Ying to land a high kick to his chest, knocking him backward. Before Lan Zhan can get him back, Wen Qing says, "All right, all right. I get the idea. I can see you're qualified, and I don't want to have to patch anyone up."
"Captain Qing is a doctor," Wei Ying explains, looking awfully relaxed after their fight.
"I was a doctor," Wen Qing corrects. "Now I'm your captain, so you have to listen to me when I tell you not to break yourself."
"Yes, captain!" Wei Ying salutes, a grin on his face. To Lan Zhan, he says, "I'm looking forward to working with you. I think we'll have fun together." He isn't put off by Lan Zhan's cold reaction, his grin growing even wider.
Wen Qing pointedly turns her back to Wei Ying. "Let's continue our tour." They see the rest of the ship before returning to their starting point, the mess hall. "One more question," Wen Qing says. "Do you have any hobbies?"
The question catches Lan Zhan off guard. What do hobbies have to do with his fitness for this job? He doesn't quite know what to say, in any case. He hasn't been excited about any hobbies lately, and he was always more focused on work. "I like music?" he offers uncertainly. "And martial arts."
"Traditional or low-grav?"
"Traditional." Wen Qing is still looking at him expectantly, as though she wants to be sure he's not just making something up. "I do enough messing around with gravity while flying," he explains.
Wen Qing studies him for a little longer before she smiles. "Okay. If you want it, the job is yours?"
"Because I like martial arts?" Lan Zhan asks, confused.
"Because you have hobbies. I've met a lot of ex-soldiers. It's the ones who aren't interested in anything anymore that you have to worry about."
She has a point, though Lan Zhan finds himself trying to remember the last time he picked up a musical instrument or did any kind of workout because he wanted to rather than out of habit. He pushes that thought away and instead considers the offer. It's not a glamorous job, or an interesting one, but he doesn't want excitement. He wants a quiet job that will get him away from home but not ask too much of him. A merchant ship like this isn't likely to need much security, only to keep them around as a deterrent to avoid anyone thinking they can be taken advantage of.
There are aspects he's wary of, particularly living in close quarters with the crew (including that bratty Wei Ying). On the other hand, he thinks about his brother's worried hovering and his uncle's stern lectures about not moping over the past and wasting his potential. Anything seems preferable to continuing as he has been. "I'll take it," he says.
* * *
Wen Qing's younger brother, Wen Ning, comes to see him to his quarters. "I was g-going to offer to help carry your things, but I guess you don't need me," he says, gesturing at Lan Zhan's small case with a sheepish smile. He pauses, expecting a response, but when he doesn't get one, he continues somewhat awkwardly, "Anyway, it's nice to meet you. M-my sister says she thinks you'll be a great addition to the crew. We're all glad to have you."
Lan Zhan nods to acknowledge that, but there's no need to respond to meaningless small talk. He's never been one for that, or for making friends. Of course he needs to be polite, when he's going to be spending a lot of time on a small ship with these people, but he doesn't need anything more than that. It's better, really, to not get too attached to anyone.
Wen Ning falls silent until they reach the door of Lan Zhan's quarters. "It should be set up for you already," he says, indicating the lock pad. Lan Zhan holds his hand up in front of it, and sure enough, the door opens.
Lan Zhan only takes one step inside before he's startled by a yelp. "Hey, give a guy some privacy!" It's Wei Ying, who's standing in the corner, shirtless, with his hands on his pants like he just pulled them on.
"I'm s-s-sorry!" Wen Ning sounds so nervous. "I didn't think you were in. But my sister told you he was coming today."
Wei Ying laughs, not unkindly. "Relax, Wen Ning. Lan Zhan and I are going to be sharing a room anyway, so it's no big deal, and I don't care if you see me shirtless either. But I would've finished my run a little earlier if I knew I'd have an audience for changing." Now that Lan Zhan looks closer (if his new roommate doesn't care about standing there shirtless, why should he?), he can see that Wei Ying is flushed, with strands of hair escaping the little half-ponytail he's pulled it into. At least it seems he has the dedication to stay in shape, Lan Zhan thinks, given that he was running and his exposed torso is noticeably well-muscled.
Wen Ning steps inside but hangs back near the doorway. "Sorry," he repeats.
"It's fine, really." Wei Ying finally decides to finish dressing, grabbing a shirt and retracting the drawer into the wall. Once he pulls it on, he doesn't look much different than the last time Lan Zhan saw him, except that his tank top is black instead of red. "It's good to have you here, Lan Zhan," he says, still so familiar. "I hope we'll get along, since we'll be sharing this."
He gestures at the room, presumably pointing out its small size. There are bunk beds for the two of them, at least well-spaced enough that no one has to hit their head. There's also a small alcove near the door currently holding a single thermos, and lines on the walls indicating more retractable storage, but no other furniture and no decoration. Someone else might be bothered by that, but between his strict upbringing and the military, Lan Zhan is used to this kind of spartan lifestyle. He places his case at the foot of the beds and looks at the storage available.
"That side's all yours," Wei Ying tells him. "And I've got the top bunk now. Does the bottom work for you?"
"It's fine." Lan Zhan doesn't turn around, opening his case and beginning to unpack.
"Just so you know, it's not that Wen Qing hates us and that's why we have such a small room," Wei Ying babbles, undeterred by Lan Zhan's lack of response. "All the quarters are like this, size-wise, although some of the crew who've been here longer have spiffed theirs up a bit. I just got here a week ago, so I haven't done anything—not that I'm into decorating anyway. But the mess hall's got plenty of space, and the VR room's great, so we'll have better places to hang out."
Lan Zhan has no desire to "hang out" with Wei Ying, or with anyone else. He can be polite, when he has to be, but he's never been social, especially not with someone like Wei Ying. The sooner the other crew members understand that, the better it will be for all of them.
Wei Ying keeps rambling the whole time Lan Zhan unpacks his things, telling him everything he knows about the Peony and the crew. Much of it is pointless gossip, but he does learn that Wen Qing is new to being captain, having been the ship's doctor until she was conscripted late in the war. "That seems like a big change, but I think she'll be good at it, don't you?"
Lan Zhan doesn't respond, but Wen Ning, who is still standing in the doorway, says, "My sister is good at everything!"
Lan Zhan would expect someone like Wei Ying to mock Wen Ning for being so enthusiastic about his sister's capabilities, but he only smiles kindly. "That's what I thought." Changing the subject, he tells Lan Zhan that two of the other crew members are childhood friends of his—or siblings, perhaps? It's not immediately clear, but it seems that Wei Ying lived with the Jiangs for some years.
"You'll like Yanli-jie," he says. "Everyone does, except some idiots with no taste." He seems to have someone in particular in mind, but Lan Zhan doesn't ask, silently arranging his clothes in a drawer. "Jiang Cheng takes some getting used to, and I don't know if someone like you will like him, but he's a good guy."
What kind of person do you think I am? Lan Zhan wonders. They've only just met. It's ridiculous for Wei Ying to think he understands him already.
"I haven't met the other two crew members," Wei Ying continues. "That must be weird for you after the military, a ship with only an eight-member crew. It's a little weird for me too. I worked on a survey ship before the war, but we had twice as many people, which makes a difference, I think."
So Wei Ying was a conscript, Lan Zhan notes, like most soldiers during the war. He knows many conscripts struggled with the adjustment, especially when the war became bloodier than anyone foresaw, but there isn't so much as a hint of a shadow on Wei Ying's face when he mentions the war. He must have gotten lucky and missed out on the worst of its horrors.
"Anyway, the last two are Nie Huaisang, who's in charge of the business side, and...I just remember Mianmian, which I guess is some kind of hacker nickname. Isn't that cute?" Wei Ying grins at Lan Zhan but doesn't seem to mind that he does nothing of the sort in response. "Apparently she's pretty good at hacking, but I don't know if we're supposed to talk about that. Officially, she's the computer specialist. What's her name again, Wen Ning?"
"Luo Qingyang," Wen Ning answers.
"Yes, that. Do you think she'll get mad if I call her Mianmian?"
Lan Zhan doesn't respond, and neither does Wen Ning, who seems to like Wei Ying but find him intimidating, or maybe just to find the amount he talks overwhelming. That Lan Zhan can understand.
The moment Lan Zhan closes his now empty case, Wei Ying says, "Hey, Lan Zhan, if you're done unpacking, do you want to go spar? We should take advantage while no one's using the VR room."
"Didn't you just run?" Wen Ning asks.
"Sure, but sparring is different, and I had some time to rest. I just need some water." He grabs the thermos in the alcove by the door and takes a long drink. "So, what do you say?"
Lan Zhan is hardly enthusiastic about spending more time with Wei Ying, but he does enjoy a good sparring match, and at least Wei Ying won't be able to talk as much if they're fighting. "Okay." In the back of his mind, he hears his brother's voice saying, a little sadly, It would be good for you to make some friends, but he ignores it. This is the way he's always been; he doesn't need people now any more than he did before the war.
Wen Ning walks with them to the VR room but then wanders off, leaving them alone. "We can use one of the presets to make things interesting if you want," Wei Ying says, indicating the plain room. "They're a lot of fun, but I haven't had a chance to try fighting with them yet."
"This is fine." Lan Zhan has used VR simulators for training before, but it's gratuitous in this situation.
"Works for me." Wei Ying waves his arms around and jumps up and down a few times, warming up. Lan Zhan does the same, but more methodically, working through a dynamic stretching routine that he could do in his sleep. "It's like watching a training video," Wei Ying says, eyeing him. "So precise." He mimics some of Lan Zhan's movements, but quickly gets bored and stops.
Lan Zhan completes his usual basic warm up, but he feels uncomfortable with Wei Ying watching him. He doesn't know what to make of his new roommate and partner, who seems as unlike him as it is possible to be. The only thing that stops him from thinking that Wei Ying is flighty and completely unfit for a security position is remembering their fight on the day Lan Zhan was hired. Wei Ying is a talented fighter who's clearly had some training beyond the token amount the military gave to conscripts, since the war was fought entirely in space and flying skills were all they needed, and he must have some discipline to maintain it.
"You ready?" Wei Ying asks, pulling him out of his thoughts.
"Yes." Lan Zhan settles into a familiar fighting stance, hands up. He's studied a variety of martial arts, both traditional ones that have existed since the Earth days and more modern styles, and he's confident in his abilities. Wei Ying is good, but Lan Zhan doesn't doubt that he can beat him in a longer fight than their first encounter. Maybe that will get it through his head that he should be more respectful of Lan Zhan instead of casually calling him by his name and chatting with him like they're friends.
They circle for a while, eyes focused on each other. This time, Wei Ying makes the first move, rather unconventionally diving forward to tackle Lan Zhan. It catches Lan Zhan so off guard that Wei Ying manages to grab him around the waist and knock him to the ground. It doesn't particularly hurt, but it knocks the wind out of him and wounds his pride, and that makes him angry. "What was that?" he snaps.
Wei Ying laughs as he gets to his feet. He offers Lan Zhan a hand up, but he ignores it. "I learned to fight when I was a kid from this couple who probably weren't much older than we are now. Really fun people. They told me that in a fight, you don't need to follow any rules, just figure out what will work against your opponent and do it. You seem like the type who learned to fight in very particular ways, so I figured I could throw you off by doing something less traditional."
He's right, and that only irritates Lan Zhan more. He doesn't show it, keeping a cold expression on his face as he gets up and prepares for another round. "I'll fight properly this time around," Wei Ying promises. His twinkling eyes make Lan Zhan skeptical, but he does indeed start in a more traditional way, aiming a punch at Lan Zhan's face, followed by several more in swift succession toward other areas. Lan Zhan blocks them all, but Wei Ying doesn't seem to mind, a wide grin on his face.
Now that Lan Zhan knows to be prepared for dirty tricks (and Wei Ying seems to be holding himself back from using them for now), they're more evenly matched, neither managing to do much damage. That in itself is surprising, given that Lan Zhan could wipe the floor with even many of his fellow trained soldiers, who weren't as skilled in hand-to-hand as in flying. It makes Lan Zhan curious, in spite of himself, about where Wei Ying learned to fight and who that couple who taught him were.
Wei Ying twists, trying to flip Lan Zhan over his shoulder, and Lan Zhan brings his attention back into the moment as he barely manages to evade the throw. Undeterred, Wei Ying spins around and tries to sweep Lan Zhan's legs out from under him with his foot. He catches one leg, knocking Lan Zhan off balance, but doesn't quite manage to make him fall.
Annoyed that this nobody has him on the defensive, Lan Zhan fights back hard. He's not pulling his punches, and Wei Ying cries out, "Ow!" as Lan Zhan scores a glancing blow to his jaw. It doesn't slow him down, though, and he blocks the next few attempts before Lan Zhan manages to hit him full in the stomach. He stumbles back and Lan Zhan expects him to want to stop, but he comes running back a moment later. He's not at his best, though, and Lan Zhan catches his hand and twists it behind his back, immobilizing him.
"Okay, okay, I give." Lan Zhan is surprised to hear Wei Ying laugh. He doesn't sound upset or angry or offended. He sounds like he's having fun, despite being thoroughly beaten. Lan Zhan releases him and he turns around, grinning. "You're very impressive. I've sparred with some career soldiers before, but none of them were as good as you. You must've been training for a long time."
"Yes." A compliment from someone as inconsequential as Wei Ying shouldn't matter to Lan Zhan—and besides, he knows his abilities without needing compliments—but somehow it feels satisfying to have Wei Ying's approval, perhaps because he's one of the strongest opponents Lan Zhan has ever faced.
"Did you take classes?" Wei Ying asks curiously. He rubs his jaw where Lan Zhan hit him but doesn't complain. "Is there some kind of pre-soldier academy?"
"My uncle is a military officer," Lan Zhan says shortly. "I lived with him and he trained me."
"Oh, wow. He must have been really strict, huh?"
Lan Zhan doesn't want to talk more about his family or how he was raised to be a soldier and now he isn't one, so he's relieved when Wei Ying changes the subject. "How are you with weapons? I'm good at barehand fighting, but I didn't get to play with all the fancy modern weapons until I joined the military. You'd probably wipe the floor with me there. I bet I could shoot a bow and arrow better than you, though."
"A bow?" Lan Zhan asks, perplexed. Who uses a bow and arrow in this day and age?
"Yeah." Wei Ying's stubby ponytail is falling apart and he pulls it out, fluffing his hair so it falls around and partly over his face. The longer hair seems messy and impractical, but Lan Zhan supposes that's appropriate for the kind of person Wei Ying is. "Have you heard of Yiling?" Wei Ying asks as he starts to fix his hair.
"A remote colony." The majority of humans live in space, so it's not difficult to remember the few planets, moons and asteroids they've established colonies on, even the unsuccessful ones.
"Most people have never even heard of it." Wei Ying sounds impressed. "That's where I grew up."
Lan Zhan has met some people from nearby colonies, but Yiling was on a small moon far from the majority of human habitation, and it lasted barely ten years. The odds of meeting someone from there are vanishingly small. It makes Wei Ying interesting, as much as Lan Zhan doesn't want to be interested in him.
Wei Ying grins like he knows what Lan Zhan is thinking. He looks somewhat neater with his hair pulled back, but the strands escaping everywhere seem rather symbolic. It's hard for Lan Zhan to imagine someone like Wei Ying in the military, though he knows they took all kinds during the war, desperate to replace soldiers that were dying in large numbers.
"It was an interesting place," Wei Ying tells him. "Lots of very tough people. We had to be very careful with our tech use since we had limited power, so we did a lot of things the old fashioned way, including hunting. I wasn't old enough to do much of that, but I learned to shoot anyway. I taught Jiang Cheng too, later, but it's best not to bring it up since he gets mad that I'm so much better at it than him."
"He's also from the colony?" As much as he complained about Wei Ying talking, Lan Zhan's curiosity is reluctantly piqued.
Wei Ying shakes his head. "I met him later, after the colony went under. It's a long story that you'll hear sooner or later. Ready for some more?"
For a moment, Lan Zhan thinks he means more of the story, but then Wei Ying steps back and he realizes he means more sparring. Lan Zhan is almost disappointed, strangely, but he shrugs it off and moves into position. He expects he'll hear more than he could possibly want to about Wei Ying and the other crew members soon enough.
They go three more rounds, and Lan Zhan wins them all, but not easily by any stretch. The last time stretches out so long and involves so much movement that they're both gasping for breath at the end. Wei Ying collapses onto the mat after, and Lan Zhan remembers suddenly that he went for a run just before this. If he wasn't tired from the start, would he be able to beat Lan Zhan?
Wei Ying doesn't make excuses or complain about his losses, only says, "That was great, Lan Zhan. I hope we can spar a lot. We can both teach each other some things, I'm sure, and we've got to stay in shape, right? You never know when we'll have to beat up some bad guys." He looks excited at the prospect, but his smile dims somewhat when Lan Zhan doesn't share his enthusiasm. "Yeah, I know. It's better if we never have to do that. But maybe once, just a little bit."
Spoken like someone who's never had to fight any bad guys, Lan Zhan thinks. Like someone who thinks there are clear good and bad guys. It's an immature perspective, one he would have thought any soldier who lived through the war would be cured of. There was no room for morality there, only trying to survive, as their enemy did the same.
In the silence that follows Wei Ying's words, for just one brief moment Lan Zhan thinks he sees a flicker of understanding on his face, but then it's gone and he thinks he must have imagined it. If Wei Ying had been through enough in the war to understand Lan Zhan's thoughts, he wouldn't be the way he is.
"I'm going to hang out and enjoy the VR for a while," Wei Ying tells him, sounding perfectly relaxed. "You're welcome to stay if you want." When Lan Zhan doesn't express enthusiasm, he smiles. "Otherwise, I'll see you at dinner."
Lan Zhan gives a small nod to say goodbye and leaves. Sparring with Wei Ying was enjoyable, but it would be foolish to think that they have anything else in common. That's all right; Lan Zhan doesn't need anything else from him.
* * *
His enthusiasm is off-putting, but Lan Zhan can't very well ignore him. The woman smiles kindly at him when he comes over, and the man gives a nod of greeting that Lan Zhan returns. "This is Jiang Yanli and Jiang Cheng," Wei Ying says, gesturing at them in turn. "And this is Lan Zhan, the other security guy."
"It's nice to meet you," Yanli says.
"Don't you military types use call signs?" Jiang Cheng asks Wei Ying. "What did the captain call him?"
"Wangji," Wei Ying supplies. "But it's fine, right, Lan Zhan? We're not in the military now so we don't have to bother with call signs." Wei Ying rounds on Jiang Cheng. "It's not like you call me Wuxian." He doesn't give Lan Zhan a chance to say that actually he does think Wei Ying is being overly familiar, but it's unlikely that he'd listen anyway.
"It's not a bad name," Yanli says placatingly, trying to forestall an argument. "Maybe I should call you Xianxian. It's cute, isn't it?"
Wei Ying smiles at that, but Jiang Cheng isn't done. "Why would I call you that? You didn't even get that call sign until years after I met you."
They continue bickering, and just listening to them makes Lan Zhan tired. He hopes they won't be like this all the time. "Don't mind them," Yanli tells him. "They do get along, even if it doesn't seem like it. And they can be responsible when they need to be." That's some comfort, though Yanli isn't exactly an unbiased judge of her brother and...whatever Wei Ying is to her. "Is this your first time working on a civilian ship?"
"I imagine it will take some getting used to, but I hope you enjoy it here." At least Yanli seems nice enough, and less noisy, but Lan Zhan will be glad to keep to himself all the same.
With Wei Ying distracted, Wen Qing introduces Lan Zhan to the remaining crew members, Nie Huaisang and Luo Qingyang. ("Can I call you Mianmian?" Wei Ying calls over, and Lan Zhan sympathizes with the way Qingyang rolls her eyes.)
They sit down shortly after for a dinner cooked by Wen Ning. His obvious lack of confidence made Lan Zhan doubt his general competence, but the food is well made, if a little spicy for Lan Zhan's taste. Wei Ying, on the other hand, compliments Wen Ning enthusiastically but adds, "It could use a little more spice, though, don't you think?"
"I think it's perfect," Wen Qing counters, and Wen Ning beams at her praise.
"He just wants everything to taste like my sister's cooking," Jiang Cheng comments.
"Nothing wrong with that." Wei Ying picks up a bottle from next to his seat. "Anyone want a drink?" Wen Qing eyes him sharply and he protests, "What? I'm not on duty today, right? I won't be able to drink while we're out and I have to be ready for trouble, so I have to take advantage of it now. Don't tell me you run an alcohol-free ship."
Wen Qing gestures for him to go ahead. "Just don't cause any trouble."
"Me? Never." Wei Ying's smile is probably aiming for innocent, but he only manages to look mischievous. Lan Zhan just hopes that he'll calm down before it's time for bed.
Jiang Cheng, Huaisang and Qingyang all join Wei Ying in drinking, though he knocks back his cup the fastest and goes for more. "Such a lush," Jiang Cheng mutters, but Wei Ying ignores him.
Lan Zhan was raised to be silent during meals, and it was easy to sit quietly while others around him talked in the military dining halls. Here, though, with the eight of them gathered around a single table, he can't just ignore the others' attempts at conversation. He fields a few basic questions—his age, where he's from—and listens to the returning crew members explain their activities during the war (weapons and food runs, luckily without encountering any action), before Huaisang, with some alcohol in his system, asks, "Hey, what about you two?" He waves his cup at Wei Ying and Lan Zhan.
There's a subtle tension at the table after his question, or perhaps only in Lan Zhan's mind. He doesn't want to talk about the war, especially not with people who wouldn't understand his experience. Wei Ying, however, doesn't hesitate to answer. "I was stationed in the Red Sector for most of the war. It was almost relaxing."
His words make Lan Zhan angry, though nobody seems to notice. After humans accidentally encroached on the territory of the Avarsul, setting off their automated defenses and starting a war, strategists predicted the Avarsul would attack the Red Sector and stationed many soldiers there. In the end, however, that sector saw no action at all. In contrast, the Blue Sector, where Lan Zhan spent the war, experienced one attack after another. The most horrific battle of the war, the Battle of the Bomb, took place elsewhere, but more soldiers died in the Blue Sector over the course of the war, defending against the Avarsul's frightening and unfamiliar weapons. It explains a lot that Wei Ying spent the war messing around in the Red Sector, avoiding all of the death and destruction that Lan Zhan and others on the front lines saw.
"And you?" Huaisang asks Lan Zhan, oblivious.
"I was in the Blue Sector," he answers. Now the others seem to notice that something is off. They may not understand exactly what, but everyone knows that the Blue Sector saw the most action and by far the largest number of casualties.
"Ah, I see." Huaisang looks down at his plate.
"Hey, Lan Zhan, I was just joking," Wei Ying backtracks. "I know war is serious. It's just no fun being serious all the time, you know?" Lan Zhan eyes him coldly because no, he doesn't know, and Wei Ying hastily says, "Just forget it. Let's talk about something else."
"I want to know your story," Wen Qing comes to his rescue. "Yanli and Jiang Cheng told me that you lived with them when you were kids, but I don't know the details."
"Oh, that." Wei Ying grins, looking relieved at the excuse to change the subject. "My parents were friends with Uncle Jiang—their dad—back in the day, but then they decided to go off and found a remote colony when I was just a baby. They died there after a while and then the colony went under when I was eleven and I ended up back on the Alpha Base. Uncle Jiang found me there eventually and brought me to live with him until I was old enough to go do my own thing."
The story surprises Lan Zhan, not because it's so outrageous but because of how casually Wei Ying talks about his parents dying and the colony he grew up in going under, all while he was still just a child. Surely that must have been a difficult experience, but he talks as though it doesn't bother him at all. Wen Qing seems to be having similar thoughts, her brow furrowing slightly as she responds with a sympathetic, "A lot has happened in your life, huh?"
Wei Ying laughs. "We've all been through stuff, right? Anyway, I lived with the Jiangs for six years, so that's how we know each other and that's why I'm here now."
"Aren't we lucky?" Jiang Cheng's comment is snide, but the affection is clear in it. Lan Zhan doesn't understand that kind of relationship, but it does have a brotherly feeling to it (although it's entirely unlike his relationship with his own brother).
They manage to avoid any other particularly fraught topics for the rest of dinner and as they sit around afterward, even with Wei Ying and the others finishing the bottle of alcohol—which seems, judging by their reactions, to be quite strong. Qingyang holds her liquor well, but Huaisang and Jiang Cheng are both quite drunk by the time the bottle is empty, enough so that Jiang Cheng, ushered away by his sister, and Huaisang, half carried by Wen Ning, go to their shared room to sleep it off.
Wei Ying, for his part, is also clearly drunk, but more in control of himself than those two. He's barely even slurring his words as he follows Lan Zhan back to their room. "I think we're going to have fun on this ship all together, don't you?" he babbles. "I've missed Yanli-jie and Jiang Cheng. They—well, mostly Yanli-jie—tried to get me a job on the Peony at the beginning of the war, but I had my own ideas. But here we are now, and there are worse places to be, right?" He looks at Lan Zhan expectantly, but Lan Zhan ignores him.
"Oh, come on, Lan Zhan." Wei Ying doesn't sound particularly upset, just whiny. "We're going to be spending a lot of time together, whether you like it or not. Don't you want to be friends? I'm great company."
They're at the door to their room, so Lan Zhan focuses on the lock pad as an excuse not to respond. Wei Ying doesn't let him escape that easily, continuing as soon as they enter the room, "What, are you one of those career soldiers who thinks everyone else is worthless? Or were you just raised so strictly that you don't believe in friends or fun or anything good in life?"
The words are said casually, nothing deliberately harsh about them, but Lan Zhan bristles. It's true that his upbringing was strict, but that's nothing for Wei Ying to judge him for. This is who he is, and his new roommate and security partner needs to accept that sooner rather than later. "I'm going to meditate," he says pointedly, moving to the side and sitting down on the floor.
"Okay, okay, I can take a hint," Wei Ying says with good humor. "Can I join you?" Whatever shows in Lan Zhan's expression at that makes Wei Ying laugh. "I'll be quiet, I promise. At worst, I'll fall asleep." He sits down as far away from Lan Zhan as is possible in the small room, facing him.
Lan Zhan would really rather he go away, but he'll have to make do. He closes his eyes and breathes deeply, trying to relax and focus. He was so young when his uncle taught him how to meditate that he doesn't even remember it, and it used to come naturally. It's been harder in recent months, though, with too many intrusive thoughts threatening his concentration. That makes him particularly annoyed about Wei Ying's presence, a distraction he doesn't need.
He sneaks a peek and finds Wei Ying sitting with his eyes closed. He's fidgety, but at least trying to take this seriously. Lan Zhan closes his eyes again before he gets caught watching and continues breathing slowly, clearing his mind as best he can. Now is not the time to think about Wei Ying and the rest of the crew, or about how different this job and life on the Peony will be from anything he's known before. It's not the time—and it never is—to think about the war and whether he's a coward for leaving the military soon after it ended.
But those thoughts find their way in anyway, and Lan Zhan gives into temptation and opens his eyes. This time, Wei Ying's eyes are open too, and he grins when he sees Lan Zhan looking at him. "Meditation is hard. How do you stop yourself from thinking?"
"Focus on breathing," Lan Zhan says sternly, annoyed with himself as much as with Wei Ying. He should be better than this. "Let thoughts pass by without engaging them."
"I don't know what that means, but I'll try," Wei Ying says cheerfully, fidgeting until he finds a comfortable position and then closing his eyes again.
This time, Lan Zhan is more successful. It's a good feeling, letting everything go for a while, letting any complicated thoughts drift away without bothering him. Just as he's sinking deeper into it, he's startled by a loud noise opposite him. His eyes fly open in time to see Wei Ying looking sheepishly at him from where he's standing now, both hands up as though he stopped himself from falling by smacking them into the wall.
"Sorry!" Wei Ying's voice is too loud, immediately dispersing Lan Zhan's feeling of calm. "I needed some water and I tried to get up quietly, but I guess I'm a little drunk. I don't even know what I tripped over. Anyway, don't let me stop you."
Lan Zhan tries one more time, but he's too focused on the sounds of Wei Ying moving around the room before, it seems, sitting down again. He managed to meditate in army barracks that were never quiet so he should be able to now, but somehow it's worse with one single person. He swears he can feel Wei Ying's eyes on him, and that makes him uncomfortable enough that he can't concentrate. When he finally gives up and opens his eyes, sure enough, Wei Ying is watching him. "What are you doing?" he demands.
"I'm meditating," Wei Ying drawls, his eyes not leaving Lan Zhan. There's no reason for it except to be a brat, and Lan Zhan tries not to give him the satisfaction of squirming.
"Nonsense," he says, getting to his feet. There's no point in trying to meditate like this.
Wei Ying holds up his hands defensively. "Okay, okay. Don't get mad. I won't bother you."
"I'm going to bed," Lan Zhan tells him.
"Already?" Wei Ying looks at his wristlet to see the time and makes a face. "You're no fun. Do you always go to bed this early or are you avoiding me?"
"Always." Lan Zhan ignores Wei Ying as he strips down for bed. (It's typical for fighter pilots to sleep in their underwear for ease of jumping into flight suits in an emergency, and he assumes the same will be true here.)
Wei Ying chuckles. "We're going to have an interesting time living together, Lan Zhan."
Lan Zhan holds back a sigh as he climbs into bed and hopes that life with Wei Ying won't always be quite this interesting.
* * *
He passes by the other living quarters quickly—Jiang Cheng and Huaisang's room next door, and Yanli and Qingyang next to them. Wen Qing's room is around the corner, closer to the bridge, and Wen Ning's room is a small converted storage space next to it, with the outer hull door across from them. (The one additional bedroom, on the other side of Lan Zhan and Wei Ying's room, is being used as a hydroponics chamber.) He runs through the bridge, a utilitarian space with manual and autopilot controls in front of a large viewing window, chairs for the pilot, the captain and one other person, and the main computer interface.
Running out the opposite side of the bridge, he passes the door to the hangar bay and then the VR room. There's a screen on the door which currently says, "Welcome! Have you had your sun today?" Past that is the empty mess hall, with the chairs neatly tucked against the table, and the small kitchen next to it. A short branch of the hallway quickly dead ends at a small viewing window with a bench in front of it, which would be a peaceful place to rest if it wasn't so close to everything—and therefore everyone—else. The other branch leads to stairs down to the cargo hold before curving back toward the living quarters.
It's not a long run, but Lan Zhan repeats it until he's out of breath and the lights have begun to brighten toward the day setting. Wei Ying is still asleep when he returns to their room, but when Lan Zhan comes out of the autoshower, he stirs and mumbles a sleepy, "What time is it?"
"Oh seven hundred," Lan Zhan answers.
"None of that military shit here," Wei Ying mutters.
His reaction irks Lan Zhan, but there's no use arguing. Besides, it's true that he's on a civilian ship now, with a civilian crew. He's a civilian himself, strange as that is to think about. He'll have to make some adjustments. "Seven o'clock," he amends.
"Too early." Wei Ying pulls the covers over his head, rolling to face the wall. He doesn't say anything more, so Lan Zhan assumes he went back to sleep.
For his part, Lan Zhan gets dressed and goes back out to the mess hall. There's still no one there, but the lights are on in the kitchen. Not wanting to get in the way, he sits down at the table to drink some water. Wen Qing didn't say that breakfast was at any particular time, but the plan is to load up their cargo this morning and leave mid-day, so he assumes the rest of the crew will be up soon enough, hungover or not.
Some ten minutes pass before he's startled by a quiet voice saying, "Good morning, Wangji." He looks over to see Yanli at the connecting door to the kitchen, a gentle smile on her face. "You're up early."
"Yes." It's clearly an opening for small talk, but Lan Zhan doesn't do that. He's never learned how, and he doesn't care to try.
Yanli doesn't take offense. "Do you like coffee?" she asks. "We've rationed one cup a day per person, but I don't drink it, so there'll be extra."
"No, thank you."
"Tea, then?" Yanli offers. "Captain Qing likes green tea, so we have the real thing, not the imitation powder."
"Come in and I'll show you where it is in case you want some when I'm not around." Yanli gestures for Lan Zhan to follow her as she disappears into the kitchen. It's small, carefully designed for efficient use of space, but Yanli seems comfortable in there. Lan Zhan hangs back at the door as she shows him where the tea and cups and hot water spout are.
"I'll make breakfast as long as our fresh supplies last, but you're welcome to come get something for yourself if you're up before me," Yanli says as she makes the tea. "I trust that you wouldn't take more than your fair share." How she knows already to trust him, Lan Zhan can't say, but she's right.
Yanli hands him the tea, and Lan Zhan nods in thanks. He intends to go back out to the mess hall to drink it, but before he can, Yanli continues, "If you have any questions about the ship or the crew, I'm happy to answer them. I know it can be hard to get a word in edgewise when everyone's together."
Lan Zhan hopes she doesn't think that that's the reason he hasn't said much until now. If she does, well, she'll learn soon enough. "Not now, but thank you," he answers.
Yanli doesn't take offense to being brushed off. "Any time."
She turns back to her preparations, so Lan Zhan goes to the table and drinks his tea, thinking about how different Yanli is from her brother, and from Wei Ying. It's hard to imagine her growing up with them, and similarly hard to imagine her on a ship flying through warzones, even if they managed to avoid any direct conflict. Perhaps she's tougher than she seems, or perhaps, like many people, she was pushed to extremes during the war.
Wen Qing is the next one to enter the mess hall some fifteen minutes later, her sleepy-eyed brother trailing after her. Qingyang shows up soon after, looking reasonably spry, and then Huaisang and Jiang Cheng, dragging their feet. Huaisang flops into a chair and puts his head down, but Jiang Cheng brightens when Yanli emerges from the kitchen with food. "It looks delicious," he tells her, then looks around the table sheepishly, as though embarrassed by his childish enthusiasm.
"Everything your sister cooks is delicious," Wen Qing says. "But enjoy it while it lasts. We'll be eating a lot of nutrient bars until we get paid a few times, aside from whatever we can get from the hydroponics chamber."
Lan Zhan is used to living off nutrient bars, which are formulated for optimum human health. Fresh food is a relic of the past when humans had to rely on less efficient sources of nutrition. Many people still prefer it, but it's a luxury not everyone can afford. His family could, but his uncle always said it was frivolous to waste time and energy on cooking and eating fresh meals, and Lan Zhan never felt he was missing anything.
"I hate nutrient bars." Wei Ying's whiny voice comes from the doorway. He's dressed for work in the typical way of military pilots, with the upper half of his flight suit tied around his waist, ready to be quickly pulled up over his tank top so he can fly if necessary. Other than that, he doesn't look prepared for their first day on the job, his hair loose and uncombed, his body drooping.
"You're just spoiled because you grew up on that backwater planet without them," Jiang Cheng accuses.
"Only because we ran out after eating them non-stop the first few years," Wei Ying retorts. "Anyway, your family eats fresh food all the time, so don't pretend you don't care."
Wen Qing looks ready to tell them off, but instead Yanli jumps in, with a more gentle, "Look at you two, arguing first thing in the morning. Let everyone have some peace. A-Ying, would you like some coffee?"
"Yes, please," Wei Ying says at the same time as Huaisang abruptly sits up and asks, "Coffee?"
Yanli smiles. "I'll make you both some."
Everyone who needs it gets their coffee and there are no more arguments, thankfully. The food is good, to the extent that Lan Zhan's undiscerning palate can tell, a simple meal of rice and eggs and various cooked vegetables. The others eat with gusto and compliment Yanli, who smiles happily.
After breakfast, they leave Yanli to clean up and Wen Ning to do final maintenance checks while the rest of them go pick up their cargo. This first run will be taking food and other basic supplies to the Phi Outpost, one of the more distant human outposts. Lan Zhan has never been there, but he remembers from his studies that it's primarily a research base, investigating ways to improve deep space travel and communication and, more recently, developing weaponry.
Many larger ships have robots for loading cargo, but they do it the old-fashioned way, carrying boxes in and stacking them according to Huaisang's instructions. It takes two solid hours to load everything into the cargo hold, but Lan Zhan is glad for the work. It's been too long since he's done real, productive work, and longer still since he's done something so straightforward, without any need for thought or guilt. That good feeling is somewhat marred by listening to Wei Ying's whining during the later loads, but Lan Zhan notes that he picks up heavy boxes and moves them quickly even as he complains.
At last, everything is loaded and checked over, and it's time to leave. Lan Zhan changes into his flight suit, with his customary white tank top, and goes to join the others in the bridge. There's not enough room for all of them without crowding, but it's a tradition, Wen Qing explains, for everyone to see the ship off from the Alpha Base. She and Qingyang are seated, with Jiang Cheng in front ready to fly them out. "To a new beginning," Wen Qing declares, "and safe journeys for all of us."
"Safe journeys," the others echo, Wei Ying and Lan Zhan a beat behind. Wei Ying turns to share a smile with him, though Lan Zhan can't understand why. The lack of response only makes his smile dim a tiny bit before he turns to grin at Yanli instead.
For his part, Lan Zhan looks out the viewing window as they leave the docking bay and pull away from the station, heading off into deep space. It's a strange feeling—a new beginning indeed, and one he's not sure he's ready for. All he knows is that he needed a change, and he hopes that this will turn out to be a good one.
* * *
"Why do you even have a job if you never actually fly the ship?" Wei Ying asks Jiang Cheng at dinner that night. He clearly means it to be teasing in good fun, but Jiang Cheng bristles.
"You'll be glad I'm here when we have to dock," he snaps, "or if we have to avoid some hazards, or if we get attacked and have to run."
"I thought the whole point of me and Lan Zhan being here is so we don't have to run if we get attacked," Wei Ying says brashly.
"You're here in case we get attacked and we can't get away," Wen Qing cuts in. "But I intend to avoid getting attacked if at all possible, and to avoid fighting if we do. Don't get any ideas of playing the hero."
"Yes, captain." Wei Ying grins, not offended. "Don't worry; I don't actually like fighting. I do like flying, though."
"Well, you and Wangji can do a flying drill tomorrow," the captain says, "to make sure you know how to work together and haven't forgotten how to fly a fighter."
Lan Zhan is glad to hear that, because he likes flying too, but also not, because he's not so sure he'll like flying with Wei Ying, who seems like he'll be a show off. On the other hand, he was pleasantly surprised with Wei Ying's skill when they sparred, so hopefully he'll feel the same when they fly.
"Great!" Wei Ying chirps. "I can't wait. It'll be fun to get out there, won't it, Lan Zhan?"
Lan Zhan only eyes him coldly, earning laughter from Huaisang and Jiang Cheng. Wei Ying rolls his eyes a little but doesn't seem to mind, immediately jumping into other conversation.
That night, to Lan Zhan's relief, Wei Ying stays up talking in the mess hall, leaving him free to return to their room alone after dinner and meditate in peace. He's finishing up when his wristlet chimes with a message from his brother, startling him. (He's glad Wei Ying isn't around to see and laugh at him.) Curious, he cues it up, and the device projects its holographic screen showing his brother's face.
"I didn't want to bother you with a call, but I thought I should send a message while you're still in communications range. Hopefully I'm not too late. I wish you luck on your new job, and I hope your first day has gone well. After I pushed you to stay in the military, I want to make sure you know that I support you in this, and I'll support you no matter what you do in the future. Stay safe, keep in touch while you can, and come see me if you ever stop at the Beta Station or if we're at the Alpha Base at the same time."
Lan Huan's smiling face disappears, and the room seems dimmer for it. Lan Zhan and his brother have always been very different, but close nevertheless. Things have felt strained between them since Lan Zhan left the military, though perhaps only in his own mind, and it's comforting to be reminded that his brother remains his ally and friend even though they're walking different paths now.
He types out a quick response: Thank you, ge. Be well. Others might take offense at a terse text reply to a video message, but he knows his brother will understand. As he gets into bed, Lan Zhan feels, if not exactly happy or hopeful, then at least a little more positive about his life. If nothing else, he's out of the rut he's been in since the war ended, and he can only wait to see where it takes him.
* * *
After his run and shower, he contemplates lingering in the VR room so that he doesn't arrive to the mess hall before everyone else, but that feels silly when there's nothing he wants to do there at the moment. He doesn't want to stay in his room and wake Wei Ying up either, so there's no alternative. Today, he finds Yanli just entering the mess hall as he arrives. "Good morning," he says.
Yanli has a very kind smile, not at all mocking or smug like Wei Ying. "Good morning, Wangji. Can I make you some tea?"
"I can do it."
"Oh, no, let me. I'll have some too. Have a seat, please." Lan Zhan does as he's told while Yanli goes into the kitchen, emerging some five minutes later with two cups of tea. "Sorry, I wanted to start the rice. Here you are."
"Thank you." Lan Zhan takes the tea as Yanli sits down across from him.
They both drink in silence until Yanli asks, "Do you always get up early?"
If Yanli is bothered by his terse response, it doesn't show. "That's nice. Usually I'm the only one up before breakfast. Though you don't need to feel obligated to keep me company, of course."
Lan Zhan nods. He tries to imagine what his brother would say in a situation like this, to not come off as rude, but all he can manage is, "Likewise."
"You're not much of a talker, are you?" Coming from someone else, that might sound snide, but from Yanli, it's only a mild observation.
"No, I'm not."
"I won't force you, then." Yanli gets to her feet. "Let me know if you need anything."
The others show up for breakfast around the same time as yesterday. Nobody is hungover this morning, but Huaisang still looks half asleep, and Wei Ying is once again the last one to stumble in, after the food is already on the table. "Hey, don't eat it all without me!" he protests, hurrying over.
"That's what you get for sleeping late." Jiang Cheng pointedly shovels a large amount of food into his mouth.
Lan Zhan tunes out their bickering as best he can, and continues to tune out the conversation at the table until the sound of his name draws his attention. "When do you want me and Lan Zhan to do our flying drill, captain?" Wei Ying is asking.
"After breakfast is fine if you won't get sick," Wen Qing answers.
"Never! No fighter pilot worth anything would get sick from flying, right, Lan Zhan?" Lan Zhan doesn't answer, which just makes Wei Ying laugh. "Lan Zhan is an expert, so he probably thinks it's silly to even ask that question."
"You're so full of it," Jiang Cheng mutters.
"Just don't do anything dangerous," Wen Qing says. "This is practice, not an excuse to show off."
"Yes, captain," Wei Ying cheerfully responds. "Don't listen to Jiang Cheng. You wouldn't have hired me if you didn't think I could be responsible, right?"
"Don't make me regret it," Wen Qing says dryly.
* * *
Wei Ying is quiet for once as they zip up their flight suits and securely attach their helmets. (Fighters are pressurized, but the suits add an extra layer of security.) They climb into their fighters and close them, checking the seal before signaling for Wen Ning to depressurize the bay. Only then does Wei Ying call over the comms, "Let's do this, Lan Zhan!"
Now more than ever, Wei Ying's refusal to use his call sign seems inappropriate, but Lan Zhan pushes aside his irritation to focus on the task at hand. He's been flying fighters since the moment he was old enough, before he even joined the military, so it's something that comes very naturally to him, but he also knows how important it is to be careful. Being cocky is how pilots die. (Many die regardless, he thinks. It's not the time to think about that either, though he's unpleasantly aware that this is the first time he's flown since the war ended.)
Once they're out into space, at least, it's easy to focus. There's something calming and thrilling at the same time about flying through space in a tiny metal tube, his hand gestures sending the fighter going this way and that. He calls some basic flying drills and is pleasantly surprised to see that Wei Ying can follow them without any trouble. "See, Lan Zhan?" his smug voice comes through the comms. "I bet you didn't think I'd be this good."
"Stop talking." Wei Ying's bragging ruins any goodwill Lan Zhan might have felt over seeing his skills. "Let's do shooting drills."
"Yes, sir!" Wei Ying sounds distinctly unlike a soldier, annoyingly cheerful. On the other hand, while his reaction time is a little slower than Lan Zhan's, his aim is good. As much as he'd like to find fault on principle, Lan Zhan can't find anything significant to criticize Wei Ying for in flying or firing.
"Looking good, both of you," Wen Qing says. "Come back in and we'll be on our way."
"First one to the bay wins!" Wei Ying calls, already spinning back toward the ship. The part of Lan Zhan that likes to be the best is irritated, but the larger part that cares about his dignity decides that racing Wei Ying is beneath him. He takes his time, though he can't hold back an annoyed huff when Wei Ying crows, "Beat you by a ton, Lan Zhan!"
When the hangar bay repressurizes, Jiang Cheng and Yanli join Wen Ning coming in to meet them. "I've never seen you fly before, A-Ying," Yanli says, smiling brightly. "You're very good. You too, Wangji."
"Thanks, jiejie." Wei Ying's self-satisfied grin gives way to a more innocent, childish sort of happiness at her praise. "Lan Zhan's amazing, though. I'd need years more of training to fly that well."
"You fly well for a conscript," Lan Zhan grudgingly admits. It sounds snide, but he means it. Most conscripts, from what he saw, had sufficient but cursory training, enough to do what needed to be done but not to fly as easily as Wei Ying.
"What makes you think he's a conscript?" Jiang Cheng demands, as though Lan Zhan personally insulted him.
"Hey, hey, it's fine." Wei Ying puts a hand on Jiang Cheng's shoulder, which he promptly shrugs off, rolling his eyes. To Lan Zhan, he explains, "I volunteered. Three months in, before they started drafting anyone. So lucky me, I had time for proper training—maybe not compared to you, but at least compared to conscripts."
Lan Zhan is taken aback by his words, trying to reconcile what he's seen of Wei Ying and what he said about his war experience with the knowledge that he volunteered to fight, at a time when they already had some idea how dangerous the enemy could be. Did he think it would be fun, like some childish fantasy of a heroic warrior taking down the villain? Or did he understand what was at stake and want to do his part to protect humanity, even though it meant risking his own life? If nothing else, he clearly took it seriously enough to make the most of his flight training.
With Lan Zhan gone quiet, Jiang Cheng pivots from defending Wei Ying to mocking him. "Not that you did much with that training except sit around."
"Hey!" Wei Ying protests. "I also did a lot of patrolling. And we were waiting around for an attack, you know, not just doing it for fun. It's not my fault the strategists were wrong about the Avarsul attacking there."
"Don't be like that," Yanli chides. "I know you're proud of Wei Ying for wanting to help."
"Whatever," Jiang Cheng grumbles. Presumably what Yanli said is true, but he does a good job hiding it. "I'm going to restart the autopilot now that you're done putting on a show."
Wei Ying, for his part, only smiles tolerantly at Jiang Cheng. "Thanks for flying with me, Lan Zhan," he says, as though it was something they chose to do for fun.
"May you not have to do it again." At Wei Ying's offended look, Yanli asks, "What? It's better if you don't have to, isn't it?"
"True," Wei Ying concedes. "But I would like to fly now and then."
Lan Zhan privately agrees, but he also thinks Yanli is right. Boring though it may be, it's best for all of them if he and Wei Ying never have to do anything to protect the ship.
* * *
The longtime crew are comfortable together, familiar with the Peony and with each other so that they can work smoothly. Wei Ying, thanks to his outgoing personality and existing relationships with the Jiang siblings, fits in easily. Lan Zhan can't do the same, but he's content to keep his distance, and the others seem generally willing to let him do that. Only Wei Ying insists on talking to him constantly, never put off by his terse responses or outright ignoring.
In fact, Wei Ying is the one thing Lan Zhan really doesn't like about life on the Peony. He's loud and rude and messy and always just there, in the mess hall and their shared room and the VR room, always bickering with Jiang Cheng or laughing with Huaisang (who he's become fast friends with) or flirting with Qingyang or whatever else seems like fun to him. That includes, unfortunately, talking to Lan Zhan at every available opportunity, trying to pull him out of his shell instead of respecting his boundaries, and even touching him like they're old friends (as though Lan Zhan lets anyone touch him unnecessarily).
Lan Zhan's only concession to Wei Ying is daily sparring in the VR room. It's good exercise, in combination with his morning runs and regular weightlifting, and while he plays it cool, if he's honest, he enjoys it. Wei Ying is a good fighter, with technique less polished than Lan Zhan's but more creativity in how he applies it. He provides Lan Zhan with a good challenge, keeping him on his toes at a time when it would be easy to slack off on maintaining his hard-earned strength and skill.
Wei Ying, for his part, is very vocal about how much he enjoys fighting Lan Zhan, even though he gets beaten more often than not. He complains about Lan Zhan's unfriendliness but readily praises him with an enthusiasm Lan Zhan finds almost embarrassing. He knows he's good, but his uncle and his military supervisors never said so in such glowing terms. (If anything, his uncle has always focused on his flaws, and more so in recent months, since he disappointed him by leaving the military.) He doesn't know how to react, especially when Wei Ying seems to enjoy seeing him flustered.
"You're so strong, Lan Zhan," Wei Ying tells him on the morning of their sixth day out, the day before they're due to arrive at the Phi Outpost. "I need to take some lifting tips from you if I ever want to measure up." He flexes his arm and pats his reasonably impressive bicep.
"Quit flirting, Wei Ying!" Jiang Cheng calls from where he's working with the weights across the room. He has a way of spitting out Wei Ying's name that makes it sound like an insult, but Wei Ying grins widely anyway.
"Don't be jealous!" He laughs as he makes his way over to Jiang Cheng.
Lan Zhan doesn't particularly want to join them, but he does want to get in more of a workout, so he reluctantly crosses the room. At least with Jiang Cheng there, maybe Wei Ying won't try to talk to him as much. Sure enough, as he investigates the selection, he comments, "I'm surprised a little ship like this has such fancy electro-weights. These are military grade. Don't tell me Captain Qing is into weightlifting."
"No, she likes the treadmill." Wei Ying gives Jiang Cheng a curious look, eyes twinkling, and he hurriedly changes the subject. "The weights are from the old captain. You know him, always needing the best dad's money can buy."
Wei Ying rolls his eyes. "That explains it."
Now it's Lan Zhan's turn to be curious. "You knew the former captain?"
"Oh, yeah," Wei Ying says. "Jin Zixuan. His parents are friends of Uncle Jiang and Ms. Yu—his mom especially."
"You might know him too," Jiang Cheng adds. "Or at least his dad: Jin Guangshan."
Now Lan Zhan understands their comments about dad's money. Jin Guangshan is the current military commander, a member of an established military family like his. Lan Zhan only ever met him in person a few brief times, not enough to form an opinion, but his uncle didn't have complimentary things to say about his work ethic, while some soldiers repeated rumors about his fidelity. What Lan Zhan does know is that he took advantage of the war to raise the power of the military over civilian leaders, making him now arguably the most powerful human out there. He doesn't say any of that, only asks, "His son didn't serve in the military?"
"Didn't he use to say he was going to?" Wei Ying asks. He's working hard with the weights as they talk, and Lan Zhan can't see anything significant in his technique that needs changing. It seems he was just messing around claiming to need advice.
"He did, but then his mom kept pushing him to do more studies, and then when the war started, his dad bought him this ship and made sure it was considered a very important supply ship whose crew couldn't possibly be conscripted." Jiang Cheng's derisive tone makes it clear what he thinks of that, though presumably he also benefited from being safe on the Peony.
"Except Wen Qing, right?" Wei Ying asks.
"Yeah, but not until almost the end of the war, when so many people were dy—" Jiang Cheng breaks off, darting a nervous glance toward Lan Zhan. "When they really needed more doctors," he amends.
Wei Ying grimaces. "I sure wouldn't want that job. I bet she was a good doctor, but she seems like a good captain too."
"She is!" Jiang Cheng's reply is strangely enthusiastic, and Wei Ying eyes him suspiciously.
"Jiang Cheng, are you—"
"Don't say another word!" Jiang Cheng snaps. When Wei Ying opens his mouth to no doubt continue teasing (though about what, Lan Zhan can't tell), Jiang Cheng hits him and, once they've both safely put their weights down, the spat descends into an all-out brawl. Lan Zhan steps away with a sigh, and decides that his own workout will have to wait until another time.
* * *
"So we should just glare at anyone who's rude to you?" Wei Ying jokes.
"Yes, but politely." Wen Qing gives him a stern look and Wei Ying nods.
The representative they meet is an older man who looks the group over before addressing his greeting to Lan Zhan. "Thank you for coming all the way out here."
"We're glad to be able to serve you," Wen Qing says with just a hint of steel in her tone, making the point that she's the one in charge here.
"You're lucky to have someone as reliable as Captain Wen to do business with," Wei Ying adds, in case it wasn't clear enough.
The representative raises an eyebrow but doesn't acknowledge that he's being subtly criticized. "Yes, of course. Let me call my people in to help you unload so we won't take up too much of your time."
Aside from that tiny hiccup, everything goes smoothly. Lan Zhan and Wei Ying stay with Wen Qing as she supervises the unloading of their cargo, checks that the payment has been transferred, and then bids the representative a perfectly polite goodbye.
"Why are you so much nicer to that loser than to me?" Wei Ying whines once they're back on the ship.
"Because he's paying us, and I'm paying you," Wen Qing responds without missing a beat.
Wei Ying laughs. "Fair. Are we done?"
"Yes, thank you. I'm going to go talk to Jiang Cheng about getting out of here."
After Wen Qing leaves, Wei Ying says, "Not much for us to do, huh? I'm not complaining about getting paid to do basically nothing, but it's a little anticlimactic."
Lan Zhan gives him a withering look, but it's less because Wei Ying is wrong than because he's right and that's frustrating. As much as Lan Zhan thought he wanted an easy, peaceful job, he doesn't like feeling so useless. He can hear his uncle yelling at him that it's an utter waste of his potential to leave the military and take a job like this. At the time, he thought it was better to waste his potential than to put it to use fighting battles he couldn't believe in. He still thinks that, but he's angry that it's come to this, where those feel like his only options.
"Hey, no offense meant." Wei Ying is understandably perplexed by Lan Zhan's reaction. Why would someone like him, who didn't mind spending the whole war relaxing while people were dying, understand? "And I'm not asking for trouble. It's just nice to feel useful. When I was a kid, on the colony, there was always something to do. Even us kids got to 'play' by helping out a lot of the time. I got spoiled after that, with the Jiangs and even in my work, but it still feels weird sometimes to do nothing, like there's something I should be helping with. Know what I mean?"
Lan Zhan's childhood was very different, but he does understand the feeling that he should always be doing something and he's wasting time if he isn't. His uncle kept his schedule packed with training and studies, everything intended to prepare him for a predetermined future. Now, he's directionless, preserving his physical and mental discipline but without any real reason for it. It would be nice, as Wei Ying says, to feel useful in some way, to feel that he's helping the world or the people around him.
Wei Ying is eyeing him curiously, trying to figure out what's going through Lan Zhan's head. When he doesn't say anything after a while, Wei Ying laughs. "Well, it is what it is. I'm going to go make myself useful bothering Yanli-jie. See you at dinner, Lan Zhan."
Lan Zhan watches him go, thinking that Wei Ying is a study in contradictions, switching from a mature point of view to a childish one in an instant. He doesn't think he'll ever understand him.
* * *
On the second morning of their return trip, Lan Zhan finds himself thinking about Wei Ying and his difficulty in reconciling all the different aspects of him he's seen: his childish whining and bickering with his toughness when they spar, his laziness with his comments about wanting to be useful, his casual way of talking about the war with the knowledge that he volunteered to fight. He doesn't make sense to Lan Zhan, even more than people often don't make sense, and that bothers him.
With that in mind, when Yanli sits down across from him with her tea, he asks, "You've known Wei Ying for a while?"
Yanli's face briefly registers surprise at him actually initiating conversation, but without judgment. "Since he was twelve," she says. "He left us for a surveying job after six years, but we've kept in touch since—except during the war, when it was hard to get regular communication and he couldn't come visit."
Lan Zhan nods. "He volunteered, during the war?" That piece of information is particularly hard for him to make sense of, given what he's seen of Wei Ying so far.
"Yes." Yanli's smile looks a little sad. "I was very surprised when I found out—and also not, in a way. He's always felt very strongly that the world should be fair, and that people should be happy and safe. He wasn't interested in joining the military before, but once people started dying, he wanted to do his part to protect his fellow humans."
"But he didn't," Lan Zhan says, making no effort to temper his usual bluntness. Wei Ying was safe in the Red Sector during the war, so whatever big claims he may have made about wanting to help people, he didn't actually do that.
Now Yanli looks offended on Wei Ying's behalf, though she mostly camouflages it. "No, in the end, he didn't do much, but he had no way of knowing it would work out that way. He was ready to fight, knowing the risk, and I think that's what matters."
It's a fair point, if not enough to dispel Lan Zhan's bitterness about Wei Ying getting off easy. "No one knew the full risk then," he mutters. The Avarsul didn't bring their worst weapons to bear until late in the war, when it became clear that they had no chance against humans without them.
"No, I suppose not," Yanli says quietly. After a moment of tense silence, she continues, "If you don't want to talk about it, I understand, but...were you there for the Battle of the Bomb?"
It's such a tentative question, and understandably so. The Battle of the Bomb wasn't so much a battle as a massacre, in which the Avarsul lured a large number of humans to the region by massing ships there, only to wipe them out using their deadliest weapon, which humans came to call the quantum bomb (though they have no idea about the actual physics of it). There were a small number of survivors, but the vast majority of soldiers there were annihilated in an instant by a weapon the likes of which they'd never seen before. Humans rallied afterward and delivered a crushing defeat to the Avarsul barely a month later, but the loss of so much life was an intense shock to a humanity far removed from the brutal wars of the past.
"I wasn't," Lan Zhan says.
"But things were bad in the Blue Sector too, weren't they?"
"Yes." It was a horrifically bloody war, with the Avarsul making up for their smaller numbers with dangerous weapons that humans weren't prepared to defend against. Although he wasn't there for the Battle of the Bomb, Lan Zhan is lucky to be alive after everything else he saw, and many of the people who served with him didn't survive.
"I'm sorry. That must have been awful." Yanli continues more hesitantly, "Is that why you left the military?"
"Yes." It feels strange to say it so directly, but he doesn't think Yanli will judge him. He's hardly the only career soldier to leave after the war, to say nothing of the conscripts and volunteers who ran away the second they could. It's more surprising that anyone would stay after witnessing the full horrors of war.
"Well, I'm sorry for that, but we're glad to have you here. I hope you'll enjoy flying with us." Yanli's trying so hard to be cheerful, to lift his mood, and for a moment, inexplicably, Lan Zhan thinks that she's a lot like Wei Ying.
He nods, still caught up in his thoughts. It's hard not to be resentful of people like Wei Ying who had it easy during the war, let alone those who didn't even serve. Then again, he knows he's lucky himself to have survived, despite what he's been through. What good does it do to wallow in guilt and resentment? "Thank you," he says after a moment.
"For what?" Yanli asks, surprised.
Lan Zhan isn't sure himself what he's thanking her for. Perhaps only for listening, and for not judging him. He doesn't answer, and Yanli smiles at him. "I'm going to go finish cooking. Let me know if you need more tea." And let me know if you want to talk again, he thinks is implied. He doesn't know if he'll want to, when he never opens up to anyone, but he's grateful to know that he can.
If it were the Lan Zhan of two years ago on the Peony, he would have spent all his free time alone, reading or meditating or exercising in peace—or at least trying to, since it's physically impossible to avoid people much of the time when he doesn't even have his own room. He still does keep to himself often, but he finds being alone with his thoughts more unpleasant than he used to. It's better, sometimes, to spend time in the mess hall and be irritated by the noise than to spend time alone and not be able to stop himself from thinking about the war and the mess it's made of his life and his view of the world.
That's why he ends up in the mess hall in the afternoon when they're three days from the Alpha Base, with the entire crew except Wen Qing. Yanli and Qingyang are having a conversation at one end of the table, and Wei Ying, Huaisang and Jiang Cheng are standing around talking much more loudly while Wen Ning listens, with Lan Zhan sitting somewhat awkwardly in between the groups. Even if he wanted to eavesdrop on the two women, which he doesn't, he can't hear a word over Wei Ying teasing Huaisang about being allergic to exercise.
"It's not that I don't like exercise!" Huaisang protests. "I just don't like sweating. Or pain. I don't know why you guys think it's fun to fight when you don't have to."
"It's satisfying," Wei Ying declares, "and it really gets your blood pumping. Plus, you never know when it might be important to know how to fight." To prove his point, he jumps at Huaisang, wrestling him to the ground as the smaller man cries for help. (Neither Jiang Cheng nor Wen Ning comes to his rescue, and the women are ignoring them entirely.)
"Wuxian, you're so mean," Huaisang whines, going limp with Wei Ying lying on top of him. Wei Ying pokes his cheek, grinning, and Lan Zhan feels unreasonably irritated. Wei Ying really can't take anything seriously.
"If it makes you feel better, that wasn't him trying to hurt you at all," Jiang Cheng comments as the two of them get up off the floor.
"No, it doesn't make me feel any better." Huaisang is still sulking, but he seems none the worse for wear.
"You should have seen the time he beat up Jin Zixuan." Jiang Cheng grins, looking quite pleased at the memory.
"You beat up Captain Jin?" Wen Ning asks, halfway between shocked and impressed.
"What happened?" Huaisang has forgotten about his own suffering in his curiosity about this story.
"Ah, well, it's not really important." Wei Ying furtively glances over at Yanli, making Lan Zhan realize that she's stopped talking to Qingyang. He doesn't know what to make of that, especially considering that Yanli seems a little nervous. "We just aren't meant to get along, that's all."
"You don't like him either? I thought that was just Jiang Cheng being, you know..." Huaisang smiles but also leans a little away from Jiang Cheng, just in case.
"He's so full of himself, don't you think?" Wei Ying asks.
"He was okay," Huaisang answers diplomatically.
"I thought he was a good captain," Qingyang puts in.
"Oh, sure, he was a fine captain. As a person..." Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes, making his opinion clear.
"A-Cheng, be nice," Yanli says, a very gentle reprimand.
"Well, I'm glad we have Wen Qing as our captain now," Wei Ying jumps in, changing the subject. "She's great."
"I'm going to remind you that you said that next time you whine about me." Lan Zhan turns to see Wen Qing standing in the doorway.
"Don't think that will stop me." Wei Ying stands up straight and gives an appropriately formal but clearly mocking salute. Lan Zhan, for his part, turns away, feeling strangely uncomfortable sitting silently in the middle of the room, not participating in any of this. It's what he's always done, and he doesn't know why he suddenly finds himself almost wanting to be including in such frivolous conversation.
A moment later, he catches Wei Ying looking at him, and the other man grins when he sees he's been noticed, like they're sharing a joke. Lan Zhan doesn't understand why Wei Ying is looking at him like that, or why he keeps trying to be friendly when Lan Zhan gives him nothing in return. And he understands least of all why Wei Ying's smile makes that uncomfortable, lonely feeling start to dissipate.
* * *
He's still lost in those thoughts as he returns to his room and showers, which is why he's so startled that he jumps when, as he's drying off, Wei Ying says, "Lan Zhan, good morning." The embarrassing reaction brings heat to his cheeks, and more so when Wei Ying laughs sleepily. "Sorry, I didn't mean to scare you."
"It's early," Lan Zhan says pointedly. Wei Ying has woken up to Lan Zhan moving around the room a few times, but he usually doesn't even open his eyes, just grumbles about it being way too early. Today, he sits up in bed, looking rumpled and sleepy but more or less awake.
"I was thinking about actually being on time for breakfast for once, in celebration of finishing our first run."
Wei Ying is looking at him and Lan Zhan is suddenly very aware that he's standing there naked, exposed except for the towel hanging from his hands. He's changed his clothes with Wei Ying in the room before so there's no reason to feel self-conscious about it, but it feels different now, perhaps because mornings are usually his own private time and Wei Ying is intruding on that without warning. He turns his back and hurriedly finishes drying off before pulling out clean clothes.
"Hey, don't be shy, Lan Zhan. I won't look." Wei Ying is teasing him, and that makes Lan Zhan even more embarrassed. No one ever gets him flustered like this, but Wei Ying is so shameless that Lan Zhan doesn't know what to do with him.
He dresses quickly without turning around, hearing Wei Ying climb down from his bunk and rummage around on the other side of the room. By the time he's done, Wei Ying is sloppily dressed, the top of his flight suit hanging loose at his waist. He finger combs his hair, which is growing out fast but still looks messy if he doesn't pull it up, and says, "I'll come with you."
Lan Zhan's cheeks have cooled, but he still feels vaguely off-kilter. He blames the disruption to his usual morning routine; Wei Ying won't let him sit and drink his tea quietly the way Yanli does, giving him time to prepare for the usual clamor once the rest of the crew gets up. But he has no valid reason to say that Wei Ying can't join him, so he heads to the mess hall without comment.
Yanli smiles widely when she sees them. "Good morning, Wangji," she says, as usual, and then, "Someone's up early today."
"I couldn't wait to see you." Wei Ying seems much more boyish around Yanli, young and innocent in a way Lan Zhan simultaneously prefers to his usual attitude and finds vaguely grating for reasons he can't articulate.
Yanli laughs lightly and pats him on the head, but Lan Zhan is surprised to see a hint of something more serious in her expression. She doesn't comment as she goes to make tea (and coffee for Wei Ying). When she comes back, they sit down, Yanli on one side of the table and Wei Ying sitting right next to Lan Zhan on the other, despite his effort to put some distance between them. Only now does Yanli say, "You must have been really desperate for company to get out of bed so early."
Wei Ying laughs. "I must have. Are you mad that I ruined your private time with Lan Zhan?"
"I forgive you this time." Yanli glances over at Lan Zhan, who finds himself feeling like an interloper. He's contemplating making an excuse to leave until it's time to eat when Yanli flashes him a small smile and turns back to Wei Ying. "Is everything all right?"
Her question surprises Lan Zhan. Wei Ying is smiling and laughing and making a nuisance of himself like he always does. Why would she think something is wrong? Wei Ying is surprised too, or at least does a good imitation of it. "You make it sound like there would have to be some crisis to get me up in the morning. I just woke up and didn't feel like staying in bed today, that's all."
Yanli doesn't look convinced, but she doesn't push. "I'm going to start cooking. Let me know if you need refills."
Once she's gone, Wei Ying turns to Lan Zhan. "Yanli-jie gets so fussy sometimes, I swear. Not that I mind—she's great—but she doesn't need to worry that much, you know. She's like a mom, always worrying. Is your mom like that?" He's babbling, and only because of Yanli's worrying does Lan Zhan wonder if there is something wrong that he's trying to distract from.
"I don't have a mother," Lan Zhan says. That's not exactly true, of course, but it's simpler and less unpleasant than explaining that his mother died when he was young and his uncle who raised him preferred that she never be mentioned.
"Oh." Wei Ying grimaces awkwardly. "I don't remember if my mom was like that, and Yanli and Jiang Cheng's mom sure isn't, but it's a thing, right, moms worrying about you?" Lan Zhan doesn't reply, and thankfully Wei Ying doesn't really seem to expect him to. "I don't know how we got on this topic. What do you and Yanli-jie usually talk about? Or do you just sit here and stare into the distance?"
We talk about you sometimes, Lan Zhan thinks, but he definitely won't tell Wei Ying that if Yanli hasn't already. "Sometimes we talk," he says. "Sometimes we don't."
"That's good." Wei Ying studies him, seriously and too intently for the small distance between them, and heat rises in Lan Zhan's cheeks again. Is there something about Wei Ying that makes him so easily flustered, or is it only that no one except Wei Ying treats him like this, coming too close and staring too hard and prying into his business? He looks at the wall opposite them, refusing to meet Wei Ying's gaze.
Whatever Wei Ying is looking for, he seems satisfied after a moment, turning away and slouching down in his chair. "I'm glad you're here, Lan Zhan," he declares.
Lan Zhan has no idea why he's saying that, but the strangest thing is that, as irritated as he is with Wei Ying right now, he almost wants to say the same.
* * *
The only other person who doesn't leave to visit relatives is, to Lan Zhan's surprise, Wei Ying. "I thought the Jiangs were basically your family too," Huaisang says before he leaves, grimacing as he realizes a moment too late what an awkward thing that is to say when Wei Ying is obviously not joining Yanli and Jiang Cheng in visiting them.
"Uncle Jiang loves me, but Ms. Yu, his wife, well...let's just say I'm not her favorite person. Her birthday was last week and they're going to celebrate, so my present to her is not being there." Wei Ying says it lightly, as he says most things, but Lan Zhan can't imagine that doesn't hurt. How did he spend six years living with someone who wants him excluded from family events?
Huaisang looks pityingly at Wei Ying. "That's too sad..."
"Forget about it." Wei Ying pats Huaisang on the shoulder, smiling like it doesn't bother him at all. "She's always been like this, so I'm used to it. I'll go visit next time we have a layover. Go already, and have fun. Didn't you say your brother gets mad when you're late?"
"Shit, you're right. See you!" Huaisang runs off, making Wei Ying laugh.
"What about you, Lan Zhan? Want to come with me for a drink?" Wei Ying throws an overly familiar arm around his shoulders, but Lan Zhan immediately shrugs it off. "Fine, stay here and be boring." The way he says it is more fond than mocking, but Lan Zhan still bristles. He doesn't need someone like Wei Ying judging him. Wei Ying, for his part, pouts at him a little but doesn't insist. "See you later, Lan Zhan."
* * *
Lan Zhan loves his brother more than anyone else in the world, and feels comfortable with him in a way he's never managed to establish with anyone else. Normally, he enjoys talking to him, even if his brother tends to do most of the talking. But in recent months, his brother has been very obviously worried about him, and Lan Zhan doesn't know how to deal with his fussing. (He's reminded of Wei Ying complaining about Yanli fussing, though her worries seem more unfounded.) At least his brother, unlike their uncle, seemed happy when he took the job because it meant finally doing something, but he's sure to have many questions, wanting to know if Lan Zhan is okay here.
Tempting as it is to ignore the message, he does want to know how his brother is, and he doesn't want to worry him more than he already has. He requests a call, and his brother answers almost immediately, popping up on the holographic screen with a wide smile on his face. "A-Zhan!" he says warmly. "It's good to see your face."
Many people have commented on how different Lan Zhan and Lan Huan are, despite being raised in the same strict way, and if anyone could see them now, they'd surely comment on it again. Lan Zhan is quiet to the point of appearing cold and emotionless, though he isn't at all on the inside. His brother, in contrast, is warm and friendly, though also not given to meaningless chatter. Lan Zhan has never figured out how to make friends, or felt motivated to try, while his brother has many friends both in and out of the military. There are days when Lan Zhan envies his brother his ability to connect to people and to be flexible (the thing allowing him to stay in the military when Lan Zhan could no longer tolerate it), but mostly he's accepted that this is who he is—who they both are.
He doesn't say anything about that, only nods a greeting. "Good evening, ge."
"How are you doing?" Lan Huan asks. "I'm not used to you being out of communications range so much. I got your message from the Phi Outpost, but you barely told me anything. How is your job so far?"
"It's going well." He knows that's not really what his brother is asking, but it's harder to give an unqualified answer about whether he likes the job.
He's sure that's obvious to his brother, who knows him better than anyone, but he doesn't comment. Instead, he asks, "Are you getting along well with the crew?"
"Yes, overall," he says, thinking again of Wei Ying.
His brother pries out more information about the crew and their first run bit by bit until he's satisfied, concluding, "It sounds like a decent place for you. I hope you'll enjoy the change."
Lan Zhan nods. He can't say he's really enjoying himself, but he's glad to be out of his uncle's house and doing something that at least at times feels productive. That's all he can really hope for now, unless he finds something he feels strongly about doing like he used to about being in the military.
His brother smiles knowingly, able to see through his poker face like no one else can. "What are you doing with your time off?" he asks, letting that pass.
"Relaxing. It's quiet."
"It was quiet." Wei Ying's voice from the doorway makes him jump, and of course Wei Ying laughs. "Sorry, I wanted some tea. I didn't mean to interrupt."
Yes, you did, Lan Zhan thinks. Leave it to Wei Ying to always want attention.
"Who's that?" Lan Huan asks.
Without being invited, Wei Ying comes over so he's visible on screen. "Hello!" He waves enthusiastically. Although he said he was going drinking, he's not noticeably drunk, just his usual annoying self.
"This is Wei Ying, my roommate," Lan Zhan says.
"And security partner!" Wei Ying adds.
Lan Zhan ignores him. "This is my brother, Lan Huan."
"It's nice to meet you," his brother says, offering Wei Ying a genuine smile.
"You too! You and Lan Zhan look a lot alike, but I've never seen him smile like you. Does it ever happen?"
"Occasionally." Lan Huan seems amused by Wei Ying, to Lan Zhan's irritation.
"Maybe I'll see it someday, then." Wei Ying pokes Lan Zhan's cheek, only laughing when he swats his hand away. "I'll let you finish talking, but it was nice to meet you!"
Lan Huan continues smiling as Wei Ying disappears into the kitchen. "He seems nice. Is he ex-military too?"
"A volunteer during the war," Lan Zhan explains. It feels like a betrayal for his brother to call Wei Ying nice, but that seems to be what everyone except Lan Zhan thinks of him. He doesn't understand it.
"Ah, I see. Well, I'm glad you have good company." Lan Zhan looks at him incredulously, but his brother only smiles. "Just be open to new experiences, all right? You never know what will turn out to be valuable or fun, or whose company you'll end up enjoying."
"I will," Lan Zhan says, but privately thinks that he can't imagine ever enjoying Wei Ying's company.
* * *
"Nutrient bars," Lan Zhan answers.
Wei Ying groans. "I was afraid you were going to say that." Despite his whining, he grabs a nutrient bar and eats it without complaint, even sitting at the other end of the table so Lan Zhan doesn't feel crowded. "It's so quiet with just the two of us here," he says, ignoring Lan Zhan attempting to go back to his reading. "I don't like it when it's too quiet."
I've noticed. Lan Zhan keeps his eyes on his tablet, hoping Wei Ying will take the hint.
"I guess I could have gone to the Jiangs'. Then it definitely wouldn't be quiet." Lan Zhan isn't sure how to take that, remembering what he said about the Jiang siblings' mother. Would she yell at him that much? Jiang Cheng is always sniping at Wei Ying and it doesn't seem to bother him, so she must be quite bad for him to want to stay away, or to feel that he needs to. "Ah, well, it's not even two days. I'll survive somehow."
To Lan Zhan's great relief, he stops talking after that, making himself some coffee and then sitting back down at the table. That relief doesn't last as Wei Ying starts doing something with his wristlet, waving his hand all over. Lan Zhan can't see what he's doing, but the movement distracts him from his reading. Not only that, but Wei Ying keeps glancing over at him for no reason Lan Zhan can see. The inexplicable attention makes him uncomfortable, and the smile Wei Ying flashes him when their eyes meet irritates him.
He's glad when Wei Ying finally finishes whatever stupid thing he's doing and says, "Hey, Lan Zhan, want to spar?"
Lan Zhan would prefer some time alone, but he does like sparring with Wei Ying, and he'll have plenty more time to read today. "All right."
In the VR room, they stretch and warm up a little, Lan Zhan following his usual routine and Wei Ying haphazardly, as he seems to do everything. When they're ready, they face each other. They've stuck to sparring without weapons so far, since this is more for exercise than training, and because they're pretty evenly matched that way. Lan Zhan finds it somewhat galling, if he thinks too hard about it, that someone as undisciplined as Wei Ying is evenly matched with him, but it's balanced out by him being satisfied to have a good opponent.
Wei Ying is generally more serious when they fight than the rest of the time, but today, he can't seem to shut up. "I don't know how you keep that poker face all the time, Lan Zhan," he comments in between dodging punches. "Do you practice it in front of the mirror sometimes, to make sure you're not moving too many muscles? Wouldn't want anyone to think you had an actual facial expression." He jumps back, narrowly avoiding Lan Zhan kicking him in the stomach, somehow still grinning.
It's hardly the first time someone has teased Lan Zhan about his inexpressiveness. It's who he is and he doesn't care what anyone else thinks of him, so there's no accounting for why Wei Ying's words grate on his nerves. He can't think about that while fighting, and in any case, Wei Ying continues, "No offense, of course. You look very cool like that. Very suave." He finally stops talking for a moment as he just barely brings his arm up in time to block Lan Zhan's punch toward his face.
"Do you think you're good looking, Lan Zhan?" Wei Ying resumes talking only a moment later. "You seem so humble, but I bet you know you could be a lady killer—if you aren't already. Have you charmed a lot of girls just by looking at them, doing the whole strong and silent thing?"
Lan Zhan's patience runs out and he slams Wei Ying hard against the wall, forearm across his chest to pin him there. It knocks the breath out of Wei Ying, who pouts at him. "Damn, Lan Zhan, you didn't need to go all out. Did I offend you?"
"This is stupid," Lan Zhan mutters, turning away with a huff. He doesn't understand why Wei Ying can get under his skin so easily. Maybe after everything, he's not as unflappable as he used to be, or maybe it's just something about Wei Ying.
"Hey, Lan Zhan, I'm sorry." Wei Ying's apology sounds somewhat genuine, but he's still grinning. "Let's try again? I promise I'll stop talking."
"Fine," Lan Zhan warily agrees.
"I'm going to bring up a VR setting, okay? To make it a little more exciting." Lan Zhan nods, still wondering if Wei Ying is up to something. They haven't bothered with the VR during sparring before, but he knows Wei Ying likes to use it at other times, to relax in some virtual nature.
He watches Wei Ying pull up a beautiful forested scene with a tall waterfall in the background, seeming to extend far beyond the actual ceiling of the room. Lan Zhan looks around, appreciating the scenery, and Wei Ying crows, "Hey, you like it!" sounding genuinely pleased. "Now one more thing..." He waves his hand and that one more thing appears on the scene: a virtual version of Lan Zhan, standing right next to the real one.
Lan Zhan jumps back, startled, and Wei Ying bursts out laughing. "Finally, an expression! Do you like it, Lan Zhan? I worked hard on it while you were reading earlier."
It's actually not a bad likeness, but Lan Zhan is angry at Wei Ying for trying to get a rise out of him, especially after making him uncomfortable with his staring earlier. It's like everything is a joke to him, and Lan Zhan has no patience for that. "Boring," he snaps, turning on his heel and stalking out of the room. If Wei Ying can't take anything seriously, Lan Zhan doesn't want to be around him.
Wei Ying calls after him but thankfully doesn't follow him. Lan Zhan hides in the hydroponics chamber, where there's some real greenery and no fake version of him, meditating in silence until he feels like himself again. When he emerges, Wei Ying is gone, the ship quiet once again, and he stays gone all through the afternoon and evening, until it's time for Lan Zhan to go to bed.
There's no reason for Lan Zhan to worry that something has happened; Wei Ying is a grown man who's perfectly capable of taking care of himself, and he knows his way around the Alpha Base. Still, he feels a niggling hint of concern and even guilt for driving Wei Ying away, as though he's somehow responsible for his well-being with everyone else gone. "Nonsense," he mutters to himself, determinedly shrugging it off and going to sleep.
* * *
"What are you doing?" Lan Zhan asks when he makes no effort to move.
"'M sleepy. Moving is hard," Wei Ying mumbles, as if that's a good reason to stay slumped on top of Lan Zhan.
"Get off!" Lan Zhan doesn't push him, because it seems cruel when he's this drunk, but it's tempting. Wei Ying is heavy and neither of them is wearing much clothing and this is ridiculous, really.
"Be nice to me, Lan Zhan. I need someone to be." He sounds so pathetic that Lan Zhan really can't shove him away, as much as he wants to.
Lan Zhan tries to understand what he's getting at. He's heard Wei Ying whine before, but not like this, sounding genuinely sad. Is this about the Jiangs, he wonders, and Wei Ying being left behind? It's surprising to him that the same Wei Ying who talks so casually about his difficult childhood would be so affected by that, but perhaps his apparent lack of caring is a front to some degree. Lan Zhan can understand that, as someone who presents a calm, unemotional front to the world when he's not like that on the inside.
He's still processing that when he hears a snore by his ear, and his usual irritation quickly resurfaces at the realization that Wei Ying fell asleep on top of him. Whatever sympathy Lan Zhan might feel doesn't extend to tolerating Wei Ying sleeping on him, but at least he doesn't deliberately wake him up as he moves out from under him and then awkwardly climbs over him to get out of bed. Wei Ying must be really drunk because he doesn't so much as stir, flopping facedown on Lan Zhan's bunk.
With a heavy sigh, Lan Zhan climbs the ladder to Wei Ying's empty bed and lies down there. He doesn't know what to think about this glimpse of a different side of Wei Ying, but he's tired and it's easier to not think too hard about it. He closes his eyes and quickly falls asleep.
* * *
Their next run is a simple one, a four-day trip to the Gamma Station to deliver parts for station repairs. Loading is done in under an hour, and once they're on their way, they fall right into the routine they established last time. Nothing is different now, including Wei Ying, and Lan Zhan has no reason to feel any disappointment at that.
Their arrival at the Gamma Station is also thoroughly unremarkable, but at least this time, Lan Zhan knows what to expect from his role as security: very little. Since this is the way things are going to be, he'll do his best to get used to it and not care that he isn't accomplishing anything worth mentioning.
From the Gamma Station, at least, they head to a somewhat more interesting destination: Mimzy, the nearest planet to most human habitation. "I assume the two of you are familiar with Mimzy?" Wen Qing asks over dinner once they're on their way.
"Ooh, I know!" Wei Ying raises his hand enthusiastically like he's in a classroom. Wen Qing, somewhat bemused, gestures for him to go ahead. "Mimzy, whose actual name is something like Mimzmshty but practically impossible for any human to pronounce, is the home of the Zvalsh, a humanoid species whose planet we could also survive on, but sadly, they don't want company. Their level of technology is similar to early second millennium Earth, with limited spaceflight to two orbital space stations. Their planet is full of useful raw ores like the ones we're going to buy from them, and they trade with humans and the aliens on Zar."
Wei Ying rattles all that off quickly, looking quite pleased with himself when he finishes. Lan Zhan has to admit he's pleasantly surprised that Wei Ying knows that much. He wouldn't have thought Wei Ying the type to be a good student, plus he's found that many people, particularly on the Alpha Base, prefer to concern themselves only with humans, ignoring the aliens they share this part of space with as much as they can. Too many people couldn’t say much beyond that Mimzy is an alien planet.
"I see someone studied hard," Wen Qing says, dry but approving, and Wei Ying grins at her. She explains that it will take them nine days to reach Mimzy, and from there, they'll continue on to deliver the ores to the Epsilon Station for processing. The whole trip is expected to take twenty-three days. "We won't have communications at Mimzy, but you should be able to tell your families you're alive from the Epsilon Station."
"You'd think by now, we would have worked out deep space communication from ships," Huaisang says.
"It would be nice, but considering the distances we're dealing with, it's amazing we have any communication at all," Qingyang says.
"And hey, it's a good excuse if you don't want to talk to your family, right?" Lan Zhan doesn't think Wei Ying is trying to say anything by grinning at him, just looking for someone to appreciate his joke, but it's awkward given that he has been avoiding talking to his brother and even more so his uncle. Wei Ying's smile fades slightly at his glare, but only slightly. Changing the subject entirely, he pushes his loose hair back off his face and asks, "How do you girls manage to wear your hair down without eating it all the time?"
"It helps if you brush it," Qingyang says dryly, earning some snickers.
"Here." Yanli digs in her pocket and then holds out a hairband. Wei Ying gratefully takes it and pulls his hair up in a ponytail, though wisps still fall out in back and around his face.
"If it bothers you, why are you growing it out?" Jiang Cheng asks. "You never had long hair before." His voice is gruff as usual, but there's a hint of something that might be concern underneath it. Lan Zhan tries to figure out why Jiang Cheng is concerned. Is Wei Ying doing this to rebel against the military look, and what does it mean if he is? Then again, maybe there's no reason besides an aesthetic choice—it is a good look for him, now that he's getting past that awkward in between stage—or laziness in not getting it cut.
"Don't you think it suits me?" Wei Ying flips his ponytail and bats his eyelashes, and Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes. It's impossible to seriously worry about him when he laughs everything off like this.
"You look very nice," Yanli tells him, and Wei Ying beams at the compliment.
Lan Zhan studies him for a moment longer as the conversation moves on, but if there is a more serious reason underlying Wei Ying's apparent vanity, he can't see it. It's silly of him to read more into Wei Ying's behavior than what's there.
* * *
Lan Zhan is surprised to see that Wei Ying is talking to Wen Ning, standing in front of the VR waterfall he brought up the other day and adjusting his fighting stance with gentle hands. He can't really say why it surprises him, but it does, seeing Wei Ying helping Wen Ning. "Like this?" Wen Ning asks. He does look less tense, though there's still room for improvement.
"That's good!" Wei Ying smiles widely, and Wen Ning looks so happy to have his approval. "Let's see—"
"Oh, W-wangji," Wen Ning interrupts, immediately back to being very hesitant. "I'm sorry, I didn't see you come in. If you want to spar, I can g-get out of your way."
"It's all right. I came for the weights."
Wen Ning still looks nervous, and Wei Ying puts a comforting hand on his shoulder. "I'll have plenty of energy left for Lan Zhan later, don't worry. Come on."
Not wanting to stress Wen Ning out, Lan Zhan doesn't watch them closely while he lifts, but he listens. Wei Ying doesn't tease Wen Ning like he does most of the crew, only makes gentle corrections and encourages him with compliments whenever he does something right. He seems relaxed and patient, and while he does show off a little, clearly enjoying having Wen Ning look up to him, it's much milder than his usual smugness. Lan Zhan doesn't know what to make of this side of Wei Ying—one more way in which he's hard to pin down, which bothers Lan Zhan more than there's any reason it should.
Eventually, Wen Ning mumbles some excuse and says goodbye. Wei Ying waits until the door closes behind him to laugh, though not cruelly. "I guess he's a little scared of you, Lan Zhan. I don't know why." It's hardly the first time someone has found Lan Zhan intimidating. If anything, Wei Ying is the exception, not being scared off even when that's Lan Zhan's intention. Oblivious to that, he shrugs and asks, "Do you have enough energy left to fight me?"
"Sure." As they face off, Lan Zhan's curiosity gets the better of him. "Did Wen Ning ask for your help?"
"He said he wants to get better at fighting, so I offered. He's not confident at all, but he's actually pretty good, and strong too." Lan Zhan nods. "What's that face for? You don't think he could be any good? Or you don't think I should help him?"
It's neither of those things, only that Wei Ying continues to confuse him, and he doesn't like it. "You're very patient with him."
Now Wei Ying laughs. "I can be patient sometimes, you know. Are you jealous that I'm not that nice to you?" Lan Zhan huffs at the stupid question. Of course he's not jealous. "Okay, Lan Zhan, if that's what you want, I'll tell you all kinds of nice things about how great your form is and what a great effort you're making."
"Be quiet." Lan Zhan needs to stop thinking so hard when this is who Wei Ying is, in the end. "Let's go."
Wei Ying's smug grin grates on Lan Zhan's nerves, but at least he drops the subject without argument. "Okay. Let's fight."
* * *
She eyes Wei Ying, who protests, "Hey, I can shut up when it's important. Give me some credit."
Wen Qing's sternness gives way to a subtly fond smile. It's obvious that Wei Ying has charmed her, as he seems to charm everyone. For all that he doesn't really want to charm anyone, Lan Zhan somewhat envies him the ability to do that. He imagines it would be easier to move through life when you can make people like you without even trying, and in doing so convince them to let you do as you please.
As the three of them leave the ship, Wei Ying looks excitedly around at the alien planet, and while he's more subtle about it, Lan Zhan can't help doing the same. Like most modern-day humans, he's spent his whole life in space. It's a novel experience, breathing fresh air and feeling real light from the star this planet orbits. The atmosphere and gravity of Mimzy are particularly well-suited to human life, so while it's a strange and unfamiliar feeling to Lan Zhan to be here, his body feels comfortable with it.
"Man, it's been too long since I was on a planet," Wei Ying comments. "Well, technically Yiling was on a moon, so this is my first time, but close enough. VR really isn't the same. Have you ever been, Lan Zhan?"
"No." Lan Zhan can't even bring himself to be annoyed by Wei Ying's enthusiasm, since he's enjoying it too.
"It's great, isn't it? It's really too bad the Zvalsh won't share their planet with us, but at least we're lucky enough to visit." Wei Ying continues chattering, needing only occasional input from Lan Zhan or Wen Qing to encourage him, until they enter the building at the end of the outdoor walkway and two aliens approach them. The Zvalsh have a relatively humanoid build, with subtle anatomical differences hidden under loosely draped clothing, but their naturally hairless heads and slit pupils mark them as distinctly non-human.
The taller one makes a greeting hand gesture, which Wen Qing mimics, before saying something in the primary Zvalsh language. "Nrod. Female," the autotranslator clipped to Wen Qing's jacket translates.
"Wen Qing. Female." The autotranslator delivers her response to the aliens.
Lan Zhan focuses as the conversation continues, remaining alert, but there are no issues. Nrod sticks strictly to business but gives no indication that she intends to do anything other than trade strictly and fairly with them. Soon enough, they're done, and Nrod says, "We will load. You may walk in this area only."
Wen Qing thanks her and then tells Lan Zhan and Wei Ying, "I'll call Huaisang and we'll supervise loading. You can look around, but don't go far. I'll call you on comms when we're done, or if I need you."
"Got it, captain," Wei Ying says. Then, immediately, "Come on, Lan Zhan. Let's go!" Without waiting for a response, he grabs Lan Zhan's wrist and pulls him toward the door. Lan Zhan is too startled to do anything except follow. He pulls his arm away a moment later but lets Wei Ying lead the way outside. The natural light feels so good on his skin, and they both breathe deeply (though the air here is not as clean as it could be).
This area is dominated by the spaceport and associated buildings, all an unremarkable, utilitarian style, but after a few minutes, they find a small park, with a pond and some alien flowers like nothing Lan Zhan has seen before. Wei Ying sticks his nose in one and exclaims, "Wow, what a smell! Try it, Lan Zhan." He drags Lan Zhan over again, watching closely with a smile on his face as he smells the flower. It's a pleasant enough fragrance, and though he usually finds Wei Ying's enthusiasm grating, Lan Zhan is enjoying their brief planetary adventure enough that he doesn't mind so much.
The ground in between the flowers is covered by a short, almost blueish sort of grass, and Wei Ying sprawls out on it. "Ah, this is the life. I love flying and getting to go to all sorts of places, but there's really something to be said for solid ground under your feet." He stretches out his legs into the air so his feet aren't even on the ground, but Lan Zhan doesn't point that out. Wei Ying closes his eyes and breathes deeply, and for a while, they just enjoy the nature in companionable silence.
Just as Lan Zhan is starting to feel really relaxed, a harsh voice calls, "I should have known I'd find you lazing around." It's Jiang Cheng, with Yanli at his side. His sister hushes him, flashing an apologetic smile at Lan Zhan.
Wei Ying sits up, squinting at the light when he opens his eyes. "The captain said we could, and I'm listening to the comms in case we need to go and save the day." He taps his ear. "Besides, I don't see you working."
"They didn't want our help with loading, so we decided to go for a walk," Yanli says, jumping in before Jiang Cheng can argue back. "It's beautiful here."
"Isn't it?" Wei Ying smiles brightly and pats the ground next to him. "Come, sit. How often do you get to feel real live grass—or whatever you call this stuff?"
Yanli sits next to him, and Jiang Cheng too after a moment, and though they haven't said or done anything to cause it, suddenly Lan Zhan feels like the odd one out. Wei Ying seemed excited about exploring with him, but it's only because he had no one else around. Now that his favorite people are here, he has no need for Lan Zhan. It's better for him not to intrude.
"Are you leaving?" Yanli asks when Lan Zhan takes a step back.
"Don't tell me you're bored already," Wei Ying says.
"I'll find Captain Wen and keep an eye on things," Lan Zhan explains. If something does go wrong, better for him to be right there instead of being distracted by leisure activities.
"I see you just want to get away from me." Wei Ying pouts, but Lan Zhan doesn't think he really means it. "See you back on the ship, then."
Lan Zhan nods and walks away and doesn't think about how the sun on his skin doesn't feel as warm as it did before.
* * *
"The Zvalsh don't carry any deadly diseases, do they?" Huaisang asks worriedly. "Deadly to humans, I mean."
"Nothing deadly that we know of," Wen Qing assures him, "or anything that will cause any lasting damage. Just some inconveniences. I only worry that we'll carry it to the Epsilon Station where there are a lot more people to infect."
"You should worry about us too," Huaisang whines, but lets himself be shushed.
The second immune booster goes to Qingyang the following morning and the third, only when Wei Ying and Yanli gang up to insist she take it so she'll be well enough to look after the rest of them, to Wen Qing that night. And on their fourth day out, halfway to the Epsilon Station, Lan Zhan wakes up sick. He's still awake at his usual time, but he feels like hell, tired and achy, with a sore throat that coughing only aggravates. He still tries to get up for his morning run, but a coughing fit as he tries to get dressed forces him to admit defeat.
"You too, Lan Zhan?" Wei Ying asks groggily.
"I'm sorry," Lan Zhan says before he realizes what Wei Ying means. "You're sick?"
"I guess so. Tell me you're not going running like that. You're allowed to take a day off for the alien flu."
Lan Zhan reflexively wants to argue, but he has to concede the point. "Not today." He gets back in bed wearing running pants but no shirt, and it's an indication of how sick he is that he falls right back asleep.
When Lan Zhan drags himself out of bed for the second time and goes to the mess hall, he finds that the alien flu, if they're calling it that, has hit the remainder of the crew. Jiang Cheng and Wen Ning are still in bed, and while Yanli is up, she looks miserable. She didn't have the energy to do more than make tea for herself before sitting down, letting the rest of them scrounge up their own drinks and nutrient bars. "I'm sorry, Wangji," she says wearily. "Let me—"
"I'll do it," Wen Qing cuts in. She's doing well enough thanks to the immune booster, though she still looks more tired than usual.
On a day like this, Lan Zhan is glad that there's not much any of them need to do to keep the Peony running and safely on its way to the Epsilon Station, so that they can rest in bed or sit in the mess hall nursing their coughs with hot drinks. Wen Ning stays in bed, but Jiang Cheng emerges eventually, looking downright ashen, and Wei Ying joins them soon after. "Everyone looks so gloomy," he comments, inexplicably cheerful despite his somewhat hoarse voice.
"I hate you," Jiang Cheng grumbles without explanation.
"Your life would be much sadder without me and you know it." Wei Ying goes into the kitchen and returns with a nutrient bar. He breaks it in half and offers one piece to Jiang Cheng. "Eat something and you'll feel better." Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes but takes the food anyway. Lan Zhan still doesn't understand their relationship at all, but there is something big brotherly in the look Wei Ying gives Jiang Cheng, watching to see that he starts eating before he turns his attention to his own breakfast.
"You're taking the alien flu well," Huaisang tells Wei Ying. "Everyone else looks like death."
"Death can't defeat me," Wei Ying says, grinning. Huaisang laughs, though it turns into a cough at the end.
Considering that Wei Ying gets on his nerves at the best of times, Lan Zhan would expect to find him particularly irritating when he's sick. Instead, he notices that Wei Ying is quieter than usual, today, either out of respect for the rest of them or because he doesn't feel that great himself. He also notices how Wei Ying escorts a woozy Jiang Cheng back to his room with surprising gentleness, and brings Yanli tea before wheedling her into going to rest herself.
Wen Qing notices too, when she comes back from checking on her brother. "So you do sometimes take care of Yanli instead of just expecting her to wait on you."
"You sure know how to give a backhanded compliment, captain."
"You make it very easy," Wen Qing tosses back, but it's not hard to see that she's sincere.
Lan Zhan, for his part, goes back to bed after accepting some medicine from Wen Qing. "It's not as good as an immune booster, but it should help with the cough and fever." Maybe it does, but Lan Zhan still spends the better part of the day in bed, dozing in between bouts of coughing and sweating from fever. He hasn't been this sick since he was a child, but then, he's never visited an alien planet with its own strange bugs. (Besides which, the military always kept plenty of immune boosters on hand to nip any illness in the bud.)
He doesn't realize how much time has passed until someone softly calls his name and he opens his eyes to Wei Ying standing next to his bed. "Here, I brought you dinner." He holds out a thermos and a nutrient bar.
Food doesn't appeal at all, but Lan Zhan knows he needs to keep his strength up, so he reluctantly sits up and takes the proffered items. "Thank you."
This feels stranger than seeing Wei Ying look after the Jiang siblings, because he's not close to Lan Zhan like he is to them. Wei Ying putters around the room while Lan Zhan eats (and then promptly has a coughing fit), then asks, "Do you need anything else?"
"No, thank you." Lan Zhan would rather just be left alone, to not show this weak side of himself to anyone.
"You don't need to thank me, Lan Zhan," Wei Ying says dismissively. "Oh, Captain Qing told me where the extra blankets are, in case you get a chill. Do you want one?"
Lan Zhan does feel cold now, and the prospect of getting up to get a blanket is extremely unappealing, so he reluctantly says, "Yes, please."
"Okay, be right back!"
Lan Zhan lies back down as soon as Wei Ying leaves, frustrated with how tired he feels after lazing around all day. He hopes this flu will pass quickly so that he can get back to his usual routine. He's tired enough that his eyes start to drift closed, and he jumps when Wei Ying says, "Here you go," then chuckles at his reaction. "Sorry, Lan Zhan. I didn't think you'd fall asleep that fast."
Lan Zhan doesn't respond to that but does say, "Thank you," as he accepts the blanket and spreads it out over himself.
"No problem, really." There's something almost soft in Wei Ying's eyes as he looks at him, and Lan Zhan doesn't know what to think of that. His fever-fogged brain forgets about it quickly anyway as Wei Ying adds, "I bet you don't usually let anyone take care of you when you're sick."
That's true, Lan Zhan has to admit, and probably a big part of why Wei Ying helping him feels so strange. "Sometimes my brother does." He wouldn't normally say that, but the fever has also loosened his tongue somewhat. That's the only explanation for why he continues a moment later, "I remember one time my mother did, when I was young."
Wei Ying's eyes widen, and Lan Zhan remembers how he said he doesn't even have a mother. "That's cute," Wei Ying says, more gentle than his usual teasing. "How old were you?"
"I don't know. I was six when she died." There's no excuse for why Lan Zhan is saying this much, except that he's so tired and that softness in Wei Ying's eyes brings to mind that and other hazy memories of his mother, who was kind to him in a way his uncle has never been.
"I'm sorry." Wei Ying rests his hand on Lan Zhan's shoulder, and he can't find the energy to shrug it off like he normally would. "Get some sleep. Let me know if you need anything else."
Lan Zhan doesn't have the energy to process how he feels about all of this, exhausted enough that he may not even remember it in the morning. He closes his eyes, and only dimly notices that Wei Ying's hand stays on his shoulder until he falls asleep.
* * *
The others trickle in over the course of the morning. Huaisang looks downright healthy today, aside from the occasional cough, and Qingyang and Wen Qing also seem to be doing all right. Those of them who didn't get the immune booster are struggling more, but Yanli at least has the energy to make drinks for everyone, though Wen Qing stops her from trying to cook. Wen Ning makes it to the mess hall today, albeit dragging his feet miserably, and Jiang Cheng's color is better when he arrives.
Wei Ying doesn't show up until everyone else has finished eating, and Yanli immediately asks, "How are you feeling, A-Ying?" She stands up to look at him closely, but Wei Ying brushes her off.
"I'm fine, jie, don't worry. Sit down." His voice is more hoarse today and he coughs a little after he speaks, but he does seem to be doing well enough. Maybe his immune system is hardier than the rest of theirs, Lan Zhan thinks, having grown up in the less-than-pristine environment of a new colony.
It's another lazy day for all of them, aside from Wen Qing who bustles around checking on everyone. Not wanting to spend another day in bed, Lan Zhan sits in the mess hall and reads on his tablet. The others flit in and out, but Wei Ying stays there all day, talking to whoever will listen. It makes Lan Zhan tired just listening to him, but that's how Wei Ying is, he supposes, always happiest when he has someone to ramble at.
After dinner, they disperse to their rooms. Lan Zhan is just considering whether he can go long enough without coughing for productive meditation when Wei Ying says, "Lan Zhan, I—" in an odd voice and suddenly sways on his feet. He's lucky that Lan Zhan is in better shape today so that his reflexes are quick enough to catch him as he swoons. It shocks Lan Zhan because Wei Ying seemed fine at dinner, and now suddenly he's heavy in Lan Zhan's arms. Was it all just a front when he's really very sick?
Wei Ying's eyes flutter open after only a moment, to Lan Zhan's relief. "What...?" he asked, still sounding dazed.
"You fainted." Wei Ying tries to stand up, but Lan Zhan holds onto him. "You should lie down." He doesn't wait for Wei Ying to agree, picking him up and carrying him the short distance to his bunk, where he lays him down.
It's probably an indication of how sick Wei Ying is that he doesn't protest. Only once he's lying down does he insist, "Hey, Lan Zhan, I'm fine."
"You're not fine." It's only fair, Lan Zhan reasons, that after Wei Ying looked after him last night, he return the favor, especially since it seems that Wei Ying is no good at looking after himself. "I'll go get Captain Wen. Don't move."
"Sir, yes, sir." It should be a joke, but Wei Ying barely manages to mumble it.
Lan Zhan finds Wen Qing quickly, but he's still somewhat surprised to see that Wei Ying hasn't moved from his bunk in the time it took. "Hey, captain," he says, sounding marginally more like himself. "Come to doctor me?"
"Yes, since apparently you need it. You can't just keep pushing yourself until you pass out, especially while you tell other people to rest. You're no use to me half-dead." Wen Qing's lecture is stern, but it's clear that she's concerned.
"I think I like it better when you're just the captain," Wei Ying says as Wen Qing checks his temperature and tries to listen to his chest. "You're extra scoldy when you're doctoring too." Wen Qing ignores him, but Wei Ying keeps talking. "Why did you decide to come back as the captain anyway? You obviously like being a doctor, and you're good at it."
Lan Zhan can't see Wen Qing's expression, but he can see the way she tenses. "Don't think I'll forget that you're sick if you ask enough annoying questions."
"Being annoying makes me feel better." Wei Ying pouts at her. "Don't you want me to feel better? So answer my question."
The silence stretches out and Lan Zhan thinks she won't answer, but just as Wei Ying opens his mouth to continue pestering, Wen Qing says, "It's hard to be a doctor when you can't save people." Her voice is even, but the words fall heavily into the quiet. They make Lan Zhan think of the injuries he saw in the war, of those who died instantly and those who were hurt so badly that even a regeneration pod couldn't save them. Wen Qing must have seen the worst of it.
"I'm sure you did your best." Wei Ying's voice is uncharacteristically quiet, and gentle again. It sounds like he understands what Wen Qing is talking about, but Lan Zhan doubts he can; he's not a doctor, and he didn't see those horrors of war firsthand. "I'm sure you saved a lot of people."
"It's never enough." Before Wei Ying can respond, Wen Qing scolds, "I answered your question, so be good now and let me treat you. I'll have you know I have acupuncture needles in my room if it comes to that." Acupuncture, like fresh food, is a relic of the past, but one that many people have held on to and still swear by.
Wei Ying grimaces. "All right, all right. I'll be good." He doesn't try to talk anymore while Wen Qing finishes checking him over and gives him some medicine. Like that, Lan Zhan can see the weariness on his face, a sign that he's doing a lot less well than he's pretending to.
After Wen Qing leaves with stern orders to sleep and call her if he feels worse, Wei Ying slumps back against the pillow. "Sorry for taking your bed, Lan Zhan. I'll move in a minute."
"It's fine. I'll sleep on top." It's not the first time, he thinks, remembering when Wei Ying drunkenly took over his bunk. Today, though, he doesn't mind.
"Thanks." He expects Wei Ying to fall asleep immediately, but instead he asks, in a mumbled sort of way that makes Lan Zhan suspect fever has him not thinking clearly, "Hey, Lan Zhan, what Wen Qing said about the war, did you...?"
For all that he's feeling more charitable toward Wei Ying than usual right now, the last thing Lan Zhan wants to do is talk about the memories his earlier questions stirred up. "Why?" he asks sharply.
"I just thought maybe you would understand." Wei Ying is fading, his voice getting quieter and quieter, but not so quiet that Lan Zhan can't hear something sad underlying his words. He doesn't know what to make of that, or of Wei Ying dwelling on this subject. Regardless, he doesn't want to answer, or to think about this anymore. Thankfully, Wei Ying doesn't press, instead murmuring a barely audible, "Sleepy. Hey, Lan Zhan, sing me a lullaby."
Lan Zhan actually does sing, occasionally, but he's never sung anyone to sleep in his life, and there's no accounting for how he actually stops to consider whether any songs he knows would make good lullabies. Before he can come up with one, Wei Ying is already asleep.
* * *
Wei Ying's fever finally breaks the morning of their arrival at the Epsilon Station, though Wen Qing insists that he stay on the ship while they make their delivery. "Wangji is enough for security here, and they'll help us unload. Rest or you'll just get sick again."
Wei Ying predictably complains, but Wen Qing is right that they don't need him. The leaders of the Epsilon Station are well-behaved and insist that their crew can handle unloading the cargo on their own. In the meantime, they offer access to their communications array so the crew of the Peony can call home. It's a welcome offer for most of the crew after two and a half weeks of travel, but Lan Zhan can't say he's thrilled. He'll have to call his uncle sooner or later, and unlike his brother, he's unlikely to be supportive.
Sure enough, when Lan Zhan connects his wristlet, he finds two messages from his brother and one from his uncle. He sends a quick video message to his brother to say that he's safe and well, then reluctantly watches his uncle's message. Lan Qiren looks as stern as ever on the holographic screen, though it's easier to handle when Lan Zhan doesn't have to look him in the eye. "It's been a long time since I've heard from you," he says shortly. "Call me when you're able."
His uncle won't actually know if he has communication access or not, unless his brother tells him, but they haven't spoken in five weeks and Lan Zhan can't justify putting it off any longer. Bracing himself, he puts in the call. Lan Qiren answers almost immediately with a brusque, "Hello, Wangji." There's no reason for family to call him by his call sign, especially now that he's not in the military, but that's how his uncle is. At this stage, it's probably a dig at him.
"Hello, shufu." Lan Zhan bobs his head in greeting.
"Are you well?"
"Yes, thank you. And you?"
"Well enough." As if on cue, a tickle in Lan Zhan's throat wakens his lingering cough, and his uncle eyes him. "Are you sick?"
"We picked up an illness on Mimzy, but I'm recovering," he says.
"I see." If it was his brother, he would be sympathetic, but his uncle has no patience for weakness. "Where are you now?"
"At the Epsilon Station unloading cargo. Then we'll return to the Alpha Base."
It shouldn't be possible for his uncle to glare at him so effectively over video chat across such a great distance, but somehow he manages it. "Is there nothing for you to do there?"
"The station crew preferred to unload the cargo themselves," he explains. His uncle's words bother him less because of his judgment, which he's become used to in recent months, than because he does feel like he should be doing something to make himself useful. He gave himself a break while he was sick, but those feelings were only lying dormant.
"Hmph," is all his uncle has to say to that. Lan Zhan expects him to ask straight out if he still won't consider rejoining the military, but he doesn't. Instead, he says, "Take care and stay in touch better" and ends the call the moment Lan Zhan says goodbye. It's all right, really, Lan Zhan reasons. He knows his uncle cares, in his way. This is just the way he is.
* * *
Lan Zhan doesn't object since, to be honest, he's been bored too. He usually fills a good chunk of the day with physical activity, and running and lifting aren't as interesting as fighting with Wei Ying. It feels good to face off in the VR room for the first time in over a week (and good, he catches himself thinking, to see Wei Ying looking like his usual energetic self again). They fall back into their usual rhythm easily, though they're both still moving a bit slowly.
"This is great, isn't it, Lan Zhan?" Wei Ying says as they fight. "Usually I just run around and do whatever even if I'm sick or injured, but that alien flu hit me hard. I guess that means I have to work even harder to stay in shape so I'm ready for anything."
"You talk too much," Lan Zhan tells him. He doesn't like to talk during any exercise, but it seems especially wrong while sparring. He's also irritated that Wei Ying is doing nothing but dodging his blows, and perhaps even more irritated that he's doing so successfully.
"You just noticed that?" Wei Ying laughs, but he does shut up and begin to counterattack. They've become accustomed to each other's moves over the last few weeks so that they move in a smooth sort of dance, punching and kicking and blocking in turn, occasionally moving in close to grapple with each other. Whatever else Lan Zhan can say about Wei Ying, there's something very satisfying about fighting with him.
If they're keeping score, Wei Ying wins the lengthy first round, managing to pin Lan Zhan's arm behind him in a way he can't escape. Lan Zhan wins the even longer second round, catching Wei Ying in a chokehold for just long enough to make it clear that he could keep him there if he wanted to do real damage. As usual, Wei Ying is happy even in defeat, smiling widely as he turns to face Lan Zhan. "Nice one. We're on a roll today, huh?"
"Mm." Wei Ying looks surprised that Lan Zhan agreed with him, which makes his smile turn even brighter.
The third round stops when Lan Zhan kicks Wei Ying and he loses his balance, stumbling back to hit the wall with a loud thunk. Before Lan Zhan can ask if he's okay, he smiles wryly. "Whew, that was a mess."
"If you need to stop—" Lan Zhan starts, but Wei Ying interrupts him.
"I'm good. Just give me a sec." He fans his face with one hand. "Is it hotter than usual in here?" Lan Zhan suspects that's an indication that Wei Ying is not exactly good after all, but before he can say so, Wei Ying continues, "Will you be scandalized if I take my shirt off?" He doesn't wait for an answer, tugging his tank top off in one quick motion and using it to wipe his face.
Considering that they share a room and change in front of each other regularly, not to mention sleeping in their underwear, Wei Ying taking off his shirt shouldn't matter to Lan Zhan at all. But it's different when instead of quickly changing into other clothes or getting into bed, Wei Ying stands in front of him, shirtless, a lazy grin on his face. He's well-built, with broad shoulders tapering to a narrow waist and defined muscles under smooth skin. "Don't get distracted staring at me now," he quips.
Lan Zhan responds with an irritated huff, pointedly resuming his fighting stance. Wei Ying does the same, which is better because Lan Zhan has something else to think about, but worse because he has to look at Wei Ying if he doesn't want to suffer a particularly embarrassing defeat. Focus, he tells himself sternly. He can acknowledge that Wei Ying is good looking, an objective fact, without making it into anything more than it is.
Focus comes naturally enough to Lan Zhan, with all his training. He attacks aggressively and Wei Ying fends him off, seemingly back on track now. Lan Zhan thinks he has the upper hand until suddenly Wei Ying knocks one foot out from under him and pushes him to the ground while he's off balance. Lan Zhan can't stop himself from falling, but he does manage to grab Wei Ying's arms to pull him down with him.
Wei Ying falls right on top of him and they both go briefly still, the breath knocked out of them. For that one long moment, Lan Zhan is uncomfortably aware of the heat of Wei Ying's bare skin around the edges of his shirt, but then he remembers that they're fighting and immediately rolls them over. He thinks he hears Wei Ying laugh but doesn't stop to wonder why as they wrestle on the floor, each struggling to gain the upper hand.
Finally, Wei Ying lets go, slapping his hands onto the mat on both sides. "You win, Lan Zhan. You're too strong." He sounds tired, but amused rather than disappointed.
Lan Zhan is also tired out from the effort it took to beat Wei Ying, so he doesn't move immediately. Then it sinks in that he's sprawled out on top of Wei Ying, pinning him down with his whole body. That's not strange if they're wrestling, but it is if he stays in that position any longer than he needs to. He hastily sits up, though that's not much better with his knees on either side of Wei Ying's hips, then gets to his feet as quickly as he can.
Wei Ying, for his part, stays where he is, and Lan Zhan can't stop himself from looking. There's a sheen of sweat on his exposed skin and a flush to his cheeks, and Lan Zhan would be lying if he said it didn't make him look more attractive. Now that he's noticed that about Wei Ying, much to his chagrin, he can't take it back. It still doesn't mean anything more than an aesthetic judgment—and even if it did, he and Wei Ying aren't suited for each other at all in that way—but it's hard to ignore right now.
Lan Zhan offers Wei Ying a hand up, mostly so he'll stop lying on the floor looking like that. Wei Ying accepts it with a smile and hops up. "That was fun, but I guess I should quit while I'm behind and save my revenge for another time." He pulls out his ponytail and runs a hand through his hair, grinning at Lan Zhan the whole time. "By the way, Lan Zhan, I realized I never said thank you for looking after me when I was sick. I was so out of it that night. I hope I didn't say anything too weird."
Lan Zhan remembers how sad Wei Ying sounded just before he fell asleep, and somehow that just feels like too much in combination with Wei Ying standing in front of him looking so casually hot. He's glad of his ability to keep his expression neutral as he shakes his head. "Thank you also for looking after me."
"Any time." Wei Ying beams, and Lan Zhan finds himself thinking again, without entirely understanding why, Too much. He's relieved when Wei Ying, without any indication that Lan Zhan's expression has revealed anything, casually walks away.
They reach the Alpha Base in the afternoon and leave the following morning after quickly refueling and loading the power cells they'll be taking to Qinghe, the nearest human colony. The others may feel differently, but Lan Zhan is glad of the quick turnaround, which leaves him no time to do more than send quick messages to his brother and uncle, and no need to worry about being awkwardly left alone on the ship with Wei Ying again.
"Do you know everything about this planet too?" Huaisang asks Wei Ying over dinner that night, midway between light teasing and admiration.
Wei Ying's reaction is predictably smug. "For one, I know it's a moon, not a planet.
"Oh, close enough," Huaisang grumbles good-naturedly. "Is that it?"
Lan Zhan isn't surprised this time when Wei Ying easily runs through a basic description of the colony. It's one of the most longstanding human colonies, though that only means that it's seventy-one years old. The moon is full of arable land, making Qinghe a major supplier of fresh food to the Alpha Base and other stations. What it lacks is raw materials for tech, necessitating regular delivery of power cells and other goods. "I also hear it's a beautiful place," Wei Ying adds. "Some of our VR settings are based on data from there."
"I'm afraid you won't have much time to explore," Wen Qing tells him, "but maybe if we make good time."
"Come on, Jiang Cheng, I'm counting on you." Wei Ying slaps him on the back and Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes.
"We'll get there when we get there. Stick to your fighting and let me do my job."
"Speaking of fighting..." Wei Ying abruptly turns to Lan Zhan, startling him. "We didn't get our sparring in today. Can we squeeze some in before your bedtime?"
The timing isn't ideal, but it would be nice to get in a bit more of a workout—though Lan Zhan can't help thinking about how their sparring went yesterday. "For a short time," he agrees.
"I'm really curious to see Qinghe," Wei Ying comments as they head to the VR room. "I've never seen any colony besides mine, and I figure the ones that have survived so long are much less rugged. I know this one has a lot more people, anyway."
Lan Zhan doesn't usually respond to Wei Ying's persistent attempts at conversation, but he's curious about Wei Ying's experience on Yiling. "Your colony was small?"
Wei Ying looks pleased to have successfully gotten Lan Zhan's attention. "We started with around four hundred people, but there were more deaths than births, so we had maybe half that by the end. Two-fifty at most." Again, he speaks so casually about what happened there, even though his own parents were among those deaths.
Lan Zhan doesn't think his expression gives away what he's thinking—it very rarely does—but Wei Ying seems to see something when he looks over at him. "It was rough, don't get me wrong, but we had a lot of good times too, and keeping over two hundred people alive for ten years on a desolate rock far from any other sentient life with minimal tech is pretty impressive, don't you think?"
"Mm." Lan Zhan thinks reasonably highly of his skills, but he doesn't doubt that he'd have a difficult time surviving under those circumstances. Growing up in a place like that explains why Wei Ying is the type of person to push through illness even more than Lan Zhan himself, despite the impression he gives of being lazy and undisciplined.
They reach the VR room and Wei Ying says, "In honor of our destination, let's have some pretty scenery." Lan Zhan braces himself for a repeat of the last time Wei Ying pulled up the VR for sparring, when he made a Lan Zhan replica, but this time he only summons a pleasant green field with the ocean visible in the distance. It doesn't look entirely real because it's not at full opacity, letting them see the dark walls and ceiling through the bright landscape. "So we don't run into any walls," Wei Ying explains.
Despite that, the scenery feels very real, down to a light breeze that rustles the grass and even Wei Ying's hair. Lan Zhan forces himself to focus and not notice the warm color of Wei Ying's skin in the sunlight. You're better than this, he scolds himself, the voice in his head sounding an awful lot like his uncle.
Once they start to fight, at least, he loses himself in it. Perhaps because of the later hour or because he's feeling mellow after dinner, Wei Ying is quieter than usual, so that the only sounds are the smacks of their bodies meeting and the various soft noises of the VR environment. It's relaxing, in a way, almost like the meditation Lan Zhan would be doing now if they weren't sparring.
He gets a little too relaxed, so he's not at all prepared when suddenly Wei Ying darts behind him and jumps up onto his back, wrapping his legs around Lan Zhan's waist and his arms around his neck, tight enough to hold on firmly but not to hurt. "What are you doing?" Lan Zhan bursts out, caught totally off guard.
Wei Ying's laugh is loud right by his ear. "You know by now that I don't always fight by the rules."
"This isn't fighting," Lan Zhan protests. Wei Ying isn't making any effort to knock him down or do any other damage, just hanging on like he's getting a piggyback ride.
"It's stopping you from attacking me, isn't it?" Wei Ying laughs again, and doesn't stop even as Lan Zhan fights to dislodge his arms without success.
It's true that Lan Zhan knows Wei Ying will use unconventional attacks sometimes, and he's become somewhat accustomed to that. But as he said, this doesn't feel like fighting. This feels like Wei Ying playing with him, and he doesn't like that. Even more so, Lan Zhan doesn't like how uncomfortably aware he is of the length of Wei Ying's torso pressed against his back, his arms warm around his neck and his legs circling his waist and verging on dangerous territory.
"Come on, Lan Zhan. Don't tell me you're shy." He murmurs the last part with his lips brushing the shell of Lan Zhan's ear, which irritates Lan Zhan enough to find the nearest wall and ram Wei Ying into it (if not as hard as he would if this was a real fight). Wei Ying grunts in pain but doesn't let go, lifting his arms so that they're closer to a chokehold.
Lan Zhan knows the proper ways to escape from a chokehold, but this is not a proper fight, and so he decides to give Wei Ying a taste of his own medicine. Doing the first unconventional thing that comes to mind, he turns his head so he can reach Wei Ying's upper arm and bites down. "Ouch!" Wei Ying yelps. The attack serves its purpose as he finally lets go, allowing Lan Zhan to pull away. "Fuck, Lan Zhan, you really bit me." He pouts and rubs his arm, where a noticeable red spot marks where Lan Zhan bit him.
If Lan Zhan were more like Wei Ying, he would make some obnoxiously smug comment in response. As it is, he feels embarrassed that he did something so out of character. Even worse, looking at that red mark, he feels...satisfied, and what he grudgingly has to admit is turned on. How has he gotten so carried away so quickly?
Wei Ying looks at him for one long moment, just long enough for Lan Zhan to worry that he can see right through him, but then he laughs. "I guess I can't complain about you not playing by the rules when I started it. But can we agree to no more biting? Save that kind of thing for the bedroom."
Lan Zhan chokes, to Wei Ying's great amusement, and turns away without answering. There will be no more biting, and in fact, he'd like to forget that this ever happened, and also to forget that he's more than a little attracted to Wei Ying. They're not right for each other in any way, so it would be foolish for him to let himself be distracted by something as trivial as physical attraction. He'll just have to control himself better until he can move past it.
* * *
Lan Zhan sits and enjoys the quiet until Yanli emerges from the kitchen again with two cups of tea. "There's more for me to do in the kitchen now that we restocked our fresh food," she comments as she sits down. "It's nice. I feel a bit useless when I'm just making drinks and maybe a little salad."
Lan Zhan nods to acknowledge that and takes a sip of his tea. Yanli won't push him to make conversation if he doesn't want to, but she's always so friendly that he feels he should sometimes, and there are things he's curious about. "How did you end up with this job?" he asks.
Yanli smiles, pleasantly surprised by his question. "I'm not sure how much you've heard about our previous captain, but his mother and mine are very good friends."
"Wei Ying told me." Lan Zhan would rather continue to not think about Wei Ying at the moment, but that's silly. It's fine to think about something like this.
"Oh, I see. Well, he became the captain of the Peony soon after the start of the war and offered me a position, and Jiang Cheng too. I'm glad of that, since otherwise Jiang Cheng might have run off to war like Wei Ying." Yanli looks uncertain after she says that, but Lan Zhan can't judge her for wanting her little brother to be safe.
"Wei Ying said you tried to get him a job as well?"
Yanli nods. "We tried to convince him, but he wasn't interested. He said it was because he wouldn't be able to get along with the captain, but I think that was an excuse, since then he went and volunteered not long after that. I was so worried, especially when he was posted to the Red Sector, but there's no talking him out of something once he makes up his mind."
That Lan Zhan can definitely believe, from what he's seen of Wei Ying. He clearly loves Yanli and looks up to her like an older sister, but that doesn't mean she can make him do anything he doesn't want to.
"I was so relieved when things didn't end up getting bad where he was," Yanli continues. "But so many people died that I feel guilty for being glad that he was safely away from the action. I wonder if he feels that way too."
"He hasn't said?" If anyone would know how Wei Ying feels about the war—assuming he feels much of anything, considering how casually he speaks about it—surely it would be Yanli.
"I've never asked," Yanli says sadly. "He wouldn't tell me if I did. If I bring up the war, he always says it was no big deal for him and changes the subject quickly."
"Maybe it wasn't." The war was hell for most soldiers, but Wei Ying got lucky and had an easy time of it. Whether he feels guilty about that or not, Lan Zhan can't help resenting him for it.
"Maybe. But Wei Ying doesn't make it easy for anyone to see what he's feeling."
Doesn't he? Wei Ying seems like an open book, but then, Lan Zhan remembers how he behaved when he was sick, pretending to be perfectly fine until he couldn't any longer. Yanli knows him much better than Lan Zhan does; maybe she's seen him do the same thing in other situations.
After a moment, without any sort of transition, Yanli says, "I'm glad you and Wei Ying are friends."
Lan Zhan stares at Yanli, trying to figure out if it's a pointed comment, but her expression is as mild as ever. Does she really think he and Wei Ying are friends? Then again, Wei Ying seems to think so, not caring whether Lan Zhan agrees or not. Yanli is so nice that he can't bring himself to disagree, so he only responds with a noncommittal "Mm" and lets the conversation lapse.
The others trickle in as usual, with Wei Ying arriving just as breakfast comes to the table. Lan Zhan deliberately doesn't look at him, which is why he's caught off guard when Huaisang asks, "Is that a hickey?"
Reluctantly, Lan Zhan looks up as Wei Ying sits down across from him. In his tank top, there's nothing to cover the red mark on his arm, faded since last night but still clearly visible. Someone else might be embarrassed, but Wei Ying only laughs. "Lan Zhan got a little frisky last night, if you know what I mean."
Jiang Cheng chokes on his coffee and turns to glare at Wei Ying. "Please tell me you're talking about sparring."
Wei Ying smirks back. "Wouldn't you like to know. But that's our secret, right, Lan Zhan?"
If he could, Lan Zhan would melt into the floor and never return. Wei Ying saying those things is bad enough, but the worst thing is that he still likes seeing that mark he left on Wei Ying's smooth skin, and he even likes that stupid smirk on his face. Yanli may be wrong about them being friends, but when it comes to attraction, Lan Zhan's already in deep.
"If you keep that up," Wen Qing says mildly, "I won't stop Wangji from murdering you."
"You're always so mean to me, captain," Wei Ying whines. "Lan Zhan really did bite me, totally unprovoked. Aren't you going to scold him?"
"That's between you and him. I don't want to know." Wen Qing can't hide a small smile; she enjoys toying with Wei Ying.
"I really don't want to know," Jiang Cheng says. "Can we please talk about literally anything else?"
The conversation shifts, to Lan Zhan's immense relief, and Wei Ying's attention turns away from him. Lan Zhan should also turn his attention elsewhere, but Wei Ying is right across from him and he talks so much that it's hard not to notice him. What he notices, once he stops getting distracted by Wei Ying's arm, is how Wei Ying talks to everyone, always so charming. It's like his primary method of communication is via flirting, or at least what would be flirting coming from anyone else. Maybe it is from him too, or maybe that's just the way he is, considering that he even does it to Yanli, who's clearly like a sister to him.
It makes it abundantly clear that his enthusiasm for talking to Lan Zhan and doing things with him means nothing. He's enthusiastic about people in general, and Lan Zhan is just another available person for him to bother. Maybe Lan Zhan is a little more interesting because he presents a challenge, someone who doesn't easily respond to Wei Ying's charms, but it's no more or less than that. It doesn't matter, because he doesn't like Wei Ying anyway, but it's something he should keep in mind nevertheless. It's best if he doesn't let himself get carried away.
* * *
Whatever the reason, it's a relief to Lan Zhan. There's enough going on in his head without Wei Ying making it worse. Lucky for him, he's good at controlling himself, focusing on their sparring and giving nothing away about what he's thinking, even when what he's thinking is that Wei Ying would look good with hickeys climbing up over his shoulder and neck. It's just thinking, so it doesn't matter.
Those kinds of thoughts don't go away in the coming days, as they make their way to Qinghe, but Lan Zhan gets used to them, and to ignoring them. If it were anyone else, he might feel a little guilty for lusting after them without them knowing, but Wei Ying is so shameless and full of himself that he'd probably be pleased if he knew, especially considering how much he likes to get a rise out of Lan Zhan. Whether he'd actually be interested in return, Lan Zhan can't even guess, but he'd rather not find out. They might be sexually compatible, but nothing else, and Wei Ying would be insufferable about it. It's not worth it.
And so the week passes and they arrive at Qinghe right on schedule. The colony has only a simple landing pad without any guiding technology, but Jiang Cheng brings them in smoothly. "Nice. I didn't even feel that one," Wei Ying calls over the comms as he and Lan Zhan change for planetary security. They haven't needed any of their weapons thus far, and there's no reason to expect they will this time either, but Lan Zhan still makes sure he has his blaster and electro-knives as usual.
"Ready to go, Lan Zhan?" Wei Ying asks. He looks more put together than usual like this, with a jacket over his tank top and perhaps a bit more effort put into pulling his hair up neatly, but his lazy smile is the same as ever. With that attitude, it's hard not to wonder if Wei Ying would actually be any use in a crisis. Lan Zhan hopes to never find out.
They meet Wen Qing and head out onto the moon. The area around the landing pad is underdeveloped and it is indeed beautiful at a glance, green and full of brightly colored flowers, with a lake off to their left. "Wow, what a place!" Wei Ying looks around with a bright smile on his face. (He's beautiful like that, standing happily in the brilliant sunlight.)
The man and woman who come to greet them are dressed in simple, roughly made clothes compared to all the other representatives they've interacted with, but their smiles are friendly and their behavior appropriately professional. They agree that the crew of the Peony will unload the power cells while the colony residents bring over the food they'll exchange for the cargo. "When that's finished, we would love to have you as our guests for dinner," the woman tells them.
Wei Ying is thrilled with that prospect, and Lan Zhan is pleased himself. He doesn't love socializing with strangers and doesn't care that much about food, but he would like to see the colony, and it will be interesting to hear more about life here. Energized by the prospect of fresh air and good food and company, the crew works quickly to take the power cells from the ship to the designated location.
As they're dropping off the last of the boxes, a woman they haven't been introduced to yet approaches Wen Qing. "Captain, could you come with me for a moment? We'd like you to verify the inventory before we start loading."
"Yes, of course." Lan Zhan and Wei Ying follow Wen Qing while the rest of the crew returns to the Peony to wait for their new cargo.
The woman leads them to a large building not far away, presumably a storage facility. "In here," she says. When they step inside, however, there's no sign of the boxes Lan Zhan expected. Instead, there's a group of ten, perhaps fifteen people standing near the entrance. Lan Zhan barely has a moment to be confused about that before one of them lunges forward, trying to grab Wen Qing.
The attack catches Lan Zhan by surprise after their previous four completely uneventful business exchanges, but he responds immediately, throwing himself between Wen Qing and the man and shoving him away. It seems that he shouldn't have doubted Wei Ying, who also springs into action quickly, drawing a blaster with one hand and an electro-knife with the other as he comes to stand beside Lan Zhan.
"You don't have to—" Wen Qing starts, probably hoping to deescalate the situation, but the group in front of them isn't interested in talking. They draw their own weapons—mostly lower tech, Lan Zhan notices—and start to fight. Wen Qing sighs and says, now directed to Lan Zhan and Wei Ying, "Don't hurt them any more than you have to." She has a lot of confidence in them, it seems. Lan Zhan trusts that he's worthy of it, and he hopes Wei Ying is too.
They're significantly outnumbered, but they have better weaponry and, it quickly becomes clear, better skills. It shouldn't surprise Lan Zhan after all their sparring to see Wei Ying fight so well, but he could swear, from what he can see in between fending off attacks himself, that Wei Ying is doing noticeably better than during their practices. Has he been holding back that much? How naturally talented is he, to be this good without much formal training?
More than that, Lan Zhan and Wei Ying work unexpectedly well together. Or perhaps not entirely unexpectedly, since they've had plenty of time to learn each other's moves, but despite their different styles, they coordinate well, moving in a fast, intricate sort of dance to take down a large number of opponents at once without ever interfering with each other. Wen Qing stays out of their way, though Lan Zhan notices that she's drawn an electro-knife of her own in case anyone gets past them.
Everything is going well until suddenly two men and a woman come at Lan Zhan together. Wei Ying is otherwise occupied, so he's on his own. He manages to send one man flying with a kick, but the other man comes right at him too fast to dodge, and as they're grappling, the woman slashes at his right leg with her knife. It's an ordinary, low-tech knife, so it doesn't cut as deep as an electro-knife would, but the pain is sharp and Lan Zhan's leg threatens to buckle beneath him.
His grunt of pain draws Wei Ying's attention, and he darts over. The woman scurries away, but Wei Ying hits the man over the head with his blaster, knocking him unconscious, and pulls him away when he collapses against Lan Zhan and almost knocks him to the floor. Lan Zhan is unsteady on his injured leg, and it's something of a relief when Wei Ying puts an arm around his back, helping him stay up.
As soon as Lan Zhan is stable, with his arm still around him, Wei Ying whirls on their remaining opponents, his blaster raised. "Haven't you had enough?" he asks. It comes out gruff, but then he laughs. "I could do this all day, and don't think a little flesh wound like that will stop Lan Zhan."
"We don't want to kill anyone," Wen Qing adds, coming to stand next to them. "And I hope you don't want to kill us over some food, or whatever this is about. Want to tell me what's going on?"
There's a long, tense moment of silence during which Lan Zhan braces himself for more fighting, but then the woman who brought them here steps forward. "We worked hard for this food," she says. "Why should we send it off to the Alpha Base where they've got nutrient bars piled high?"
"Did you work hard for those power cells too?" Wei Ying shoots back. Wen Qing shushes him, and he obediently goes quiet.
"If you have a problem with the Alpha Base, you take it up with them. But believe me, if word spreads that we fulfilled our end of the deal and you stiffed us, no merchant ship is going to want to come here. And if we don't make it back, there are people who will ask questions. Did you really think you could get away with this?"
It's a fair point, making Lan Zhan wonder what the colonists hoped to accomplish here. Granted, they can grow enough food here to live happily for a long time without help, but they've always relied on imported tech. Would they be willing to make the trade-off of living without that? Curiosity aside, what matters is that the woman says, "All right. Give us some time."
"How do we know you won't just try to cheat us again?" Wen Qing asks.
"Go to your ship," the woman tells them. "You must know we don't have the firepower to hurt you there. Someone will come to you when we're ready."
Lan Zhan is still somewhat skeptical, but Wen Qing nods. "Take whatever time you need." She turns to go, and Lan Zhan follows. He stumbles on the first step, and Wei Ying immediately catches him again.
"I'm fine," Lan Zhan tells him.
"I'm sure you are," Wei Ying says cheerfully, "but let me help anyway. We've got to keep you in good shape just in case they decide to fight some more." Lan Zhan hates showing any sign of weakness and hates depending on anyone, but Wei Ying is right that he may need to fight again. Better to conserve his abilities for that, however much it galls him to accept help. Reluctantly, he leans some of his weight on Wei Ying as they continue out the door.
As soon as they're outside, Wen Qing asks over the comms, "Any trouble on the ship?"
"No, no trouble," Qingyang answers, sounding confused.
"D-did something happen?" Wen Ning asks nervously.
"It's fine now. We'll tell you when you get there," Wen Qing responds. "See you in a few minutes." She leads them a little further before stopping and turning around. "Let me see your leg, Wangji."
"It can wait," Lan Zhan tells her.
"You're bleeding," Wen Qing says pointedly. "And like Wuxian said, we need you strong in case of any more trouble." She doesn't give him a chance to disagree, immediately kneeling on the ground to look more closely at the wound. "That's pretty deep. Let's stop the bleeding." She pulls out a medwand and runs it over the full length of the cut, sealing it closed. It does very little for the pain, but at least there's no more blood. "I'll have to give it another longer pass later and you'll still need to stay off it for a couple of days, but it should heal fine."
They head back to the Peony at a slow pace, Lan Zhan hobbling along with Wei Ying's help. "Well, that was an adventure, wasn't it?" Wei Ying casually remarks, like he's talking about the weather. "I guess that'll teach me to say that it's boring when we don't have to do anything."
Lan Zhan doesn't respond and neither does Wen Qing, but Wei Ying never needs any help to make conversation. He continues in the same casual tone, "I wonder if it's been a bad season here."
Lan Zhan can't make sense of that comment. "What do you mean?" Wen Qing asks, equally confused.
"Those colonists were no match for us. And even if they were and they managed to kill us or get us to leave without our cargo, like you said, they'd only have trouble for it in the long term. They must be really desperate for food to take this chance."
What Wei Ying says makes a lot of sense, but for all his unpleasant awareness that good and evil are rarely clear-cut, it didn't even occur to Lan Zhan to think about why the colonists would attack them. He's so surprised that he turns to Wei Ying, who smiles at him, uncomfortably close, until Lan Zhan quickly looks away.
"Or maybe they just would rather have extra food and make do without tech from now on. What do I know?" Wei Ying still sounds so blasé about the whole thing, but he wouldn't have even thought about that if he didn't have some sympathy for the locals' point of view, would he?
"We don't know," Wen Qing says firmly. "And we need to eat too. If they can't make the full shipment, it can't be helped, but we'll take what they can give us."
"Understood, captain." For the first time in the conversation, Wei Ying sounds more somber, but Lan Zhan doesn't dare look at him again.
Back at the ship, the others descend on them in a flurry of questions. Wei Ying stays at Lan Zhan's side until he's pulled away by a worried Yanli, and even with so many distractions, Lan Zhan misses the warmth of his body. He's so unused to physical contact outside of a fight, and usually he hates it, but he didn't even think to be bothered by that aspect when Wei Ying took hold of him. Thankfully, there's too much going on for him to think about that for long as they explain the situation. Then Wen Qing drags him away to get a better look at his leg, and it's forgotten.
They arrived at the colony in the morning, and it's nearly dark by the time the representatives come to them. Lan Zhan wants to go meet them, but Wen Qing insists that he rest. "Jiang Cheng and my brother can help out for now, and Qingyang can fight too if it comes to that. Besides, I don't think they'll try anything else tonight."
Wen Qing is the captain and so he does as she says, meditating on his bed until Wei Ying comes into the room. He's considerate for a change, waiting until Lan Zhan opens his eyes, to say, "I don't know how you manage to just sit there quietly for so long. How's your leg?"
"Fine." He refused the painkillers Wen Qing offered him, but the pain isn't bad after her treatment anyway. He'll need to stay off it tomorrow and go easy for a few more days, but nothing more than that. Considering the number of people they were up against today, he should be glad that they came away with nothing more serious than a little cut. "Is the cargo loaded?"
Wei Ying nods. "They shorted us a little, in the end, but it'll have to do. Captain Qing says we'll get going right away, just in case they change their minds." He takes off his jacket and puts it away, then pulls his ponytail loose and finger combs his hair so it lies flat; Lan Zhan tries not to watch too closely. "We were good together out there, huh?"
"You fought well." Distracted as he is by not watching Wei Ying, the words slip out of Lan Zhan's mouth.
Wei Ying smiles. "I did, didn't I? You didn't think I had it in me?"
In truth, he didn't, but Lan Zhan isn't going to say that, especially now that he's learned that he underestimated Wei Ying. He finds himself thinking, also, of how Wei Ying made an effort to understand the colonists' reasons for attacking them instead of writing them off as greedy or pointlessly violent, and of how he jumped to Lan Zhan's side to protect him and helped him walk despite his protests. Whereas once Lan Zhan would have written these things off as more contradictions in his character, now he has to concede that maybe Wei Ying is simply a good man, albeit one who doesn't know when to stop joking around. He doesn't know what to do with that, and he thinks perhaps it's best if he just goes to sleep. "Goodnight, Wei Ying."
Instead of looking bothered by Lan Zhan brushing off his question, Wei Ying smiles even wider. "Goodnight, Lan Zhan."
* * *
Lan Zhan hadn't even realized his roommate was awake, so he whirls around in surprise, then feels silly about it. It does no favors to his self-consciousness when Wei Ying sits up in bed, bare-chested and sleepy-eyed. There's something soft about Wei Ying like this, with his hair down and mussed and the usual sharpness in his expression not quite there yet, and Lan Zhan likes it more than he will ever admit.
Wei Ying, seemingly oblivious to his thoughts, adds, "There's enough room in the corridors for both of us, right?" He gets out of bed without waiting for Lan Zhan to respond.
"Why are you awake?" Lan Zhan asks to distract himself from looking at Wei Ying in his underwear, watching him get dressed.
"You get up this early all the time," Wei Ying says, which isn't an answer at all. He dresses quickly and turns to Lan Zhan as he pulls his hair up. "So?"
A month ago, Lan Zhan wouldn't have hesitated to say no, but things have changed and he no longer finds the idea of Wei Ying's company so objectionable. Besides, Wei Ying wouldn't have listened to him a month ago, and it's unlikely that he'd listen if Lan Zhan said no now either. "All right."
Wei Ying is quiet as they start to run through the corridors of the ship side by side, perhaps not fully awake at this hour of the morning. Lan Zhan's stride is longer but Wei Ying keeps pace with him easily, continuing at a steady jog for lap after lap. Lan Zhan relaxes into the silence and thinks that it's nice to see that Wei Ying can be like this too, quiet and steady instead of loud and impatient. It's nice, also, to have Wei Ying fit beside him like this. That makes Lan Zhan think about Wei Ying's arm around him after he was injured, how it felt natural to have Wei Ying pressed against his side, like he belonged there.
So sentimental, he chides himself. It's foolish to have those kinds of feelings, and particularly foolish to have them for someone like Wei Ying, who fits well with anyone, in most cases much better than he does with Lan Zhan. He's always flirting, always touching, always comfortable with everyone around him. It's only because Lan Zhan isn't used to people being like that with him that it feels like more than it is. He can't change what he feels about Wei Ying, but he shouldn't expect those feelings to be returned.
"What are you thinking about, Lan Zhan?" Wei Ying asks, startling him after the long silence. "Or do you meditate while you run and not think about anything?"
"I think about many things," he responds vaguely.
Wei Ying chuckles. He's a little breathless from their running and Lan Zhan likes the sound of it. "Sometimes you're so stone-faced I think there's nothing in your head, but I bet there's a lot going on in there. Why don't you like to let anyone see it?"
"This is how I am."
"Did the war mess you up that much?" Wei Ying asks like it's nothing. "Or was that part of your training, keeping everything inside?"
"This is how I've always been," Lan Zhan says, feeling irritated at Wei Ying's pushing. He's never been a naturally warm, open person. He feels things strongly, but he's kept those feelings to himself since he was young. The war made him feel a lot of things he hadn't before, or at least not to that extent, but it didn't change how he dealt with those feelings.
"Sorry, Lan Zhan. That was a dumb question." He's surprised to hear Wei Ying apologize. "All I'm saying is that it's nice to talk sometimes. Even for you, I would think."
"Yanli said you don't talk to her about the war." Lan Zhan says it partly to shift the focus from him, but also because there's a gap between what Wei Ying says and what he does. He talks a lot, but not about complicated feelings.
"So you two do talk about me!" Wei Ying crows. It's too loud for this hour of the morning, but luckily the whole ship is well soundproofed. Lan Zhan thinks he'll leave it at that, changing the subject, but then he says, "You don't have to talk about everything. But some things, sometimes. Or if you don't want to talk about it, just laugh or cry or yell or whatever it takes to get your feelings out."
"Perhaps." That may work for Wei Ying, but it doesn't come naturally to Lan Zhan and he doesn't think it would help to force it.
"Oh, well, you do whatever works for you." Lan Zhan can see Wei Ying grinning out of the corner of his eye. "At least now that I've gotten used to you, I can see what's going on in your head a bit more. Like now: I like it when you smile."
Am I smiling? Lan Zhan wonders, caught off guard. Wei Ying's smile is infectious, but Lan Zhan hasn't responded with more than the most fractional shifting of his lips. Only his brother has ever been able to read the subtleties of his expression well enough to associate that with a smile.
Whatever his expression shows now, it makes Wei Ying laugh. "This is fun, Lan Zhan." A month ago, Lan Zhan would have told him he was being ridiculous. Now, he's inclined to agree.
* * *
This time, Wei Ying goes home with the Jiangs, and Lan Zhan is simultaneously relieved and disappointed. Wei Ying will be happier that way, and Lan Zhan probably will be too, but he can't help wondering if things would be different now than during that first awkward layover they spent together. (Then again, he doesn't even want to think about how he'd cope if Wei Ying drunkenly crawled into his bed now.)
Lan Zhan spends some of his time off out on the Alpha Base, but mostly he stays on the Peony, enjoying the peace and quiet and having the whole space to himself. On the second night, he chats with his brother, who smiles that fond, big-brotherly smile he gets when he's happy for Lan Zhan. "You seem to be doing well. I'm glad this job has worked out for you."
It seems too soon to say that, two months since he moved onto the Peony, but Lan Zhan does feel that he made the right decision taking some job that would get him away from home and surrounded by people who never knew him as a soldier. For all that he's not doing much here, at least he has some work, and more to distract him from his guilt and other unpleasant emotions than he did in his childhood home with his uncle around and always expressing his disappointment.
In the afternoon of the fourth day, when he can't put it off any longer, Lan Zhan calls his uncle. He talks about his experience on Qinghe, not because it's anything to brag about but so his uncle can see that this security position isn't completely pointless. "I'm glad you've recovered," Lan Qiren says. "Of course some backwater ruffians were no match for you." It sounds like a compliment, but the message is clear: you're wasted on this position. Perhaps that's true, but Lan Zhan doesn't feel that it was a waste for him to be there to keep Wen Qing and the rest of the crew safe.
His uncle studies him for a long moment, and Lan Zhan is not at all surprised when he continues, "You know, Wangji, someone with your skills could take many paths in the military. You were too hasty in leaving without exploring those options."
There's nothing Lan Zhan can say to that. He disagrees, but he won't convince his uncle no matter what he says. He had some hope, in the early days after the war, that his uncle would understand how he felt. After all, he was the one who taught Lan Zhan about right and wrong, about protecting the weak against aggressors. Surely he would understand how difficult it was to fight in a war where it wasn't clear who was right and who was wrong, given that misunderstandings on both sides had started it and refusal to forgive those initial misunderstandings had perpetuated it. He should be able to understand how conflicted Lan Zhan felt when humans were stronger in terms of military force but weaker in terms of weaponry, while the Avarsul were fewer in number but had weapons that could wipe out tens of thousands in an instant.
But when he asked his uncle those questions that were weighing heavily on him—whether there was truly any absolute right and wrong, and whether he could be forgiven for killing in self-defense when his opponents were also only defending themselves—he was brushed off. His brother didn't fully understand either, because he's never felt things as deeply as Lan Zhan does, but at least he tried, and at least he struggled somewhat with the moral ambiguity too. Lan Qiren only said, "You did what had to be done" and seemed to think that would be enough to assuage Lan Zhan's guilt, to make him feel less disillusioned.
"I made my decision," Lan Zhan says when the silence drags on too long, and his uncle huffs impatiently.
"Do as you please, then, but don't expect that door to stay open to you forever."
In a way, it's a frightening prospect to completely lose the possibility of returning to the military career he spent his whole life preparing for, but at the same time, Lan Zhan can't see anything changing his mind about returning. It might well be better to not have that option available any longer, so that the choice is made once and for all. "I understand," he says shortly, and is relieved when his uncle quickly ends their conversation.
* * *
Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes. "Ignore him. He already had plenty to eat and drink."
"Maybe I'm still hungry," Wei Ying protests. "Or the food we ate wasn't as good."
"Are you insulting my sister's cooking?" Jiang Cheng asks.
"Wait, no." Wei Ying laughs, turning to Yanli with his most charming smile. "Sorry, jiejie. Your food is the best." Then, with another laugh, he adds, "No offense to your food either, Wen Ning." Wen Ning jumps, surprised at being addressed, then smiles, nervous but happy.
Yanli pats Wei Ying on the head, smiling fondly. "Maybe you should go rest."
"If you insist. Take me to bed, Lan Zhan." Now it's Lan Zhan's turn to be startled, though he doesn't show it as obviously as Wen Ning. Wei Ying's words make him think things he shouldn't be thinking, and he hastily quashes them.
"Don't bother Wangji," Yanli chides. "I'll help you."
"Leave him be," Jiang Cheng puts in. "He's not that drunk."
"It's fine." Lan Zhan gets to his feet. "I was leaving anyway." He half expects Wei Ying to stay in the mess hall after all, where there are more people for him to bother, but he does indeed follow Lan Zhan back to their room.
"I'm really not that drunk, Lan Zhan," he says, his babbling belying his claim. "I'm not a lightweight. But since I can't drink on the job, I haven't had as much lately. I guess I've lost some of my tolerance. Do you drink, Lan Zhan?"
"No." It's a sign of how much he's gotten used to Wei Ying that Lan Zhan doesn't really mind his rambling, or even the way he occasionally bumps into him as they walk and go into their room.
Once they're inside, Wei Ying goes quiet, pacing around the small room like he has more energy than he knows what to do with. Lan Zhan sits on the floor, preparing to meditate, but doesn't start yet, and Wei Ying eyes him thoughtfully. "You're looking somber," he says after a while.
Lan Zhan doesn't think he looks any more somber than usual, but it's possible, with his uncle's comments still weighing heavily on his mind. It's surprising, however, that Wei Ying would notice the subtle difference.
In any case, Wei Ying doesn't ask why. "I bet you enjoyed having the ship all to yourself. So much quiet, all for you." He laughs, for reasons Lan Zhan doesn't understand. "Did you talk to your brother at all?"
"Yes. And to my uncle."
"Ah, is that why you're in a mood?" Wei Ying asks, still strangely cheerful considering what he's asking. He doesn't wait for Lan Zhan to answer—which he wouldn't anyway. "Is your uncle like Ms. Yu?"
"What do you mean?" Lan Zhan is confused, because from what little he's heard about the Jiang siblings' mother, she doesn't seem at all like his uncle.
"I mean that Ms. Yu always gives Jiang Cheng a hard time about not having the kind of job she wants for him," Wei Ying explains. "She thinks he should have some kind of prestigious job, like a politician or a businessman, or at least be the captain of a ship instead of just the pilot."
"Oh." Jiang Cheng seems content being a pilot, as far as Lan Zhan can see, but perhaps that explains why he overreacts when Wei Ying teases him about his job.
"She's always nagging him about it—and me too, since she's convinced it's my fault." Wei Ying sits down, lounging against the opposite wall with his knees bent in front of him.
"How so?" Lan Zhan asks.
"Because I went off and became a pilot first. She's convinced Jiang Cheng only did it because he wanted to be like me." Wei Ying speaks casually, as usual, but Lan Zhan remembers what he said before about Ms. Yu disliking him so much that he stayed away from her birthday celebration. Surely he can't be as unbothered by that as he seems. "I guess it's easier to blame me than to accept that her son doesn't want the same things she does."
The words hit unpleasantly close to home, and before he can think better of it, Lan Zhan says, "My uncle is disappointed that I won't return to the military."
Wei Ying nods, his expression turning more serious. "Didn't a lot of soldiers leave after the war? People like you, I mean, not just conscripts and volunteers."
"Mm. But he doesn't understand." He never badmouths his uncle to anyone, but somehow the words just come out.
"Can I ask...why did your uncle raise you? You said your mom died when you were little..."
Lan Zhan is startled before he remembers that he told Wei Ying that while he was sick. Then, he wasn't thinking straight. Now, he doesn't know what's making him speak comparatively freely with Wei Ying. "Yes."
"Your dad...?" Wei Ying prompts.
"He wasn't around. And then he passed away." What Lan Zhan knows of his absent father is mostly from his uncle. He spoke less than charitably about his brother, saying that he was weak and made poor decisions in life, holding him up as a counterexample for Lan Zhan and Lan Huan. It's no secret that his uncle worries Lan Zhan will turn into the kind of useless man his father supposedly was, now that he's strayed from his expected path.
"I'm sorry. But it's good that you had someone to look after you." Wei Ying sighs, so quietly that Lan Zhan thinks he might have imagined it. "I was lucky too, being taken in by the Jiangs when I didn't have anyone else. They've been really good to me over the years."
The "but" is unspoken but clear to Lan Zhan. Though their circumstances are very different, from what little he understands of Wei Ying's life, thinking about his uncle, he can understand those feelings. It's difficult to be both grateful and resentful at the same time, to feel lucky about what you had but regret what you didn't.
The silence stretches out long enough that Lan Zhan is startled when Wei Ying says, much more loudly, "Ah, well, you can't choose your family, right? Or your substitute family, if that's what you get." His usual cheerful smile is back, but Lan Zhan doesn't believe it. If Yanli were here, she'd probably give Wei Ying a hug, but that's not something Lan Zhan can do. All he can so is sit here and not judge Wei Ying for his complicated feelings.
"Would you ever consider going back to the military?" Wei Ying asks. "To get your uncle off your back if nothing else."
"No." Lan Zhan has many doubts about his life, but that isn't one of them.
"You answered so fast." Wei Ying laughs, but quietly. "Why not?"
Lan Zhan has only ever told his brother and his uncle his reasons for leaving the military, or any of his feelings about the war, but he remembers how kindly Wei Ying responded when Wen Qing talked about her difficult war experience. There's also a hint of something dark in Wei Ying's eyes right now, like he just might understand a little of what Lan Zhan feels.
Against his better judgment, he says, "I wanted to protect people and do what was right, but the war wasn't like that. It wasn't clear cut, and many people were happy about killing." Especially at the end, after the Battle of the Bomb, so many of Lan Zhan's fellow soldiers were downright gleeful about killing the Avarsul, as though more death could make up for that loss of life.
Wei Ying smiles wryly, and Lan Zhan can't see that darkness in his eyes anymore. "I don't know how you managed to grow up so innocent, Lan Zhan. You didn't know that people are like that?"
Anger flares up in Lan Zhan, mostly with himself for opening up to Wei Ying when he should have known better than to expect him to understand. He does still believe that Wei Ying is a good man, overall, but it's foolish to expect him to sympathize with Lan Zhan's war experience when his was so different—so much easier. How could someone who didn't see his comrades or the enemy die in person ever understand?
He expects Wei Ying to notice his anger and backtrack, but instead he abruptly jumps his feet. "I've got too much energy. I'll go for a run and let you meditate in peace." He leaves without letting Lan Zhan say another word, but there's nothing he could say anyway.
Lan Zhan pushes down his useless anger and tries to put the conversation out of his mind, but as he closes his eyes to meditate, he suddenly thinks of Yanli saying that Wei Ying makes it hard for anyone to see what he's feeling. Is that what's happening here, that he's pretending not to care when he really does? It's possible, but given his experience in the war, it's more likely that he simply took Lan Zhan's feelings lightly, too drunk to feign sympathy. Whatever the reason he responded the way he did, Lan Zhan won't make the mistake of opening up to him again.
* * *
For his part, Wei Ying is all smiles as they load their new cargo and leave on a short run to the Omega Outpost. Nothing seems to affect him deeply, whether it's Ms. Yu's disapproval, Jiang Cheng's insults, getting attacked on Qinghe, or even his own parents' deaths. Of course he wouldn't be bothered by his own distant experience with the horrors of the war. Lan Zhan envies him that, but at the same time, as difficult as it has been for him, he doesn't want to be someone who cares less strongly about right and wrong or values life less.
Wei Ying seems a little subdued when they spar that afternoon. Lan Zhan wonders if Wei Ying is aware that he was angry with him and being careful now that he's sobered up, but it's just as likely that he's tired from drinking too much yesterday. It doesn't stop him from fighting well, in any case, and Lan Zhan keeps his focus to that. The smack of their arms meeting as Wei Ying blocks his punches, the stomp of their feet on the mats—that's simple, straightforward. The thrill Lan Zhan feels when he pins Wei Ying or knocks him to the ground is too, mostly.
"You're really good for me, Lan Zhan," Wei Ying comments as they catch their breaths, shaking out the front of his tank top to let some air in. He's wearing purple today for the first time that Lan Zhan has seen, perhaps a new acquisition during his time away. It suits him, a nice change from his usual black and red. "I mean, it's good practice to spar with you every day, and I learn a lot watching you."
"Yes." Realizing how self-important that sounds, Lan Zhan amends, "It is good practice. For me too."
Wei Ying laughs and whacks him playfully on the shoulder. "I'm sure you can learn a thing or two from me, right? Even if it's just to not always go exactly by the book."
Wei Ying has such a beautiful, infectious smile that despite his resolution to keep his feelings in check, Lan Zhan can't help being charmed. Maybe that's not so bad, he tells himself, as long as he never acts on it. "Perhaps," he says, and doesn't fight the way his heart swells when Wei Ying beams at him.
They go to dinner right after sparring and the mood is good, despite their somewhat meager provisions thanks to the trouble with Qinghe. Wei Ying is the loudest, as usual, but there's a lot of laughter. Lan Zhan doesn't laugh, but he still gets caught up in the happy mood, feeling so much lighter than he did yesterday, with his uncle's judgment and the feelings it stirred up hanging over him. Maybe it's only because more time has passed since the end of the war, but it seems easier to push those feelings to the back of his mind than it used to, to not dwell on them until they fester into something even more unpleasant.
Wen Qing turns to share a smile with him once, and Yanli another time, and then Wei Ying, and despite his silence, he feels part of their happiness. He remembers what his brother said about this job working out for him and thinks that maybe he was right. He's doing something, however small, that matters, and he has a place to be with decent, kind people around him. It's not what his uncle wants for him, or what Lan Zhan imagined for himself, but maybe it's not so terrible to not fulfill his potential as long as he's comfortable and content. He can't say he's there yet, but he can at least see how he could be, someday. For now, that's enough.
* * *
They walk around together, talking intermittently and enjoying the silence other times. Things are always comfortable with his brother, and Lan Zhan is grateful for that. Lan Huan tells him about the work he's doing and asks about the Peony and her crew. "I'd like to meet them someday. They sound like good people."
"They are." Lan Zhan didn't go into this job expecting to make friends, and he can't say that he really has yet, but he has come to appreciate his crewmates.
They've only just wandered into the central commercial district when a familiar voice calls, "Lan Zhan!"
Lan Zhan and his brother both turn toward the speaker, surprised for different reasons. "Didn't you go to the Jiangs?" Lan Zhan asks when Wei Ying hurries over.
"I did, but I wanted some time to myself tonight." Lan Zhan is skeptical—when does Wei Ying ever want time to himself?—but he doesn't comment. Given what Wei Ying has said about the Jiangs in the past, it may be better not to bring it up. "Hey, you're Lan Zhan's brother, right?"
"Yes. We met on video chat, didn't we?"
"We did!" Wei Ying beams, happy to be remembered. "Wei Ying. I bet you've heard a lot about me from Lan Zhan."
Lan Huan smiles, and Lan Zhan feels somehow betrayed. "A few things."
Wei Ying laughs. "Does he actually talk to you or is it still just a word or two here and there that you have to pry out of him?"
"That's just how my brother is," Lan Huan says fondly. "He'll speak if he feels something is worth saying." Lan Zhan shoots his brother a look to say, Stop spilling my secrets, but he only smiles before turning back to Wei Ying. "If he speaks to you at all, that's a good sign."
"Oh yeah?" Wei Ying grins obnoxiously. "He does like me best on the ship, at least. We're a good team. Right, Lan Zhan?"
Lan Zhan doesn't want to give him the satisfaction of saying yes, although he thinks it's the truth. His brother looks at him for a long moment, reading his expression, before saying, "I'm glad to hear it. Say, Wei Ying, would you like to join us for dinner?"
"I wouldn't be getting in the way of your brotherly bonding time?" Wei Ying asks, clearly hoping for the answer to be no.
"It's all right. We spent some time together already," Lan Huan says.
"Didn't you want some time to yourself?" Lan Zhan doesn't mind Wei Ying's company as much as he used to, but he still could use a break. More importantly, his brother can read him better than anyone, and there's no telling what he'll see in Lan Zhan with Wei Ying around.
Wei Ying waves off his objection. "I can have that another time. How often do I get a chance to talk to your brother?"
With that, it's decided. Wei Ying chatters on as they choose a restaurant and sit down, sharing various anecdotes about life on the Peony and plying Lan Huan with questions. "I'm surprised you're actually going out to a nice restaurant," he comments. "Lan Zhan never seems very excited about food."
"You're just overly excited," Lan Zhan says, ignoring the amused look his brother shoots him.
"We did grow up on nutrient bars," Lan Huan concedes, "but I like a good meal now and then, and it's a nice experience, eating out." He orders most of the food for the table, but Lan Zhan adds two more dishes when he's done. "Are you sure?" his brother asks. "Those are spicy."
"I know." Now Wei Ying shoots him a look, but when Lan Zhan ignores him, he quickly launches into another story.
Dinner is, if Lan Zhan is honest, surprisingly pleasant. The food is good, to the extent that he notices such things, and he enjoys watching Wei Ying enjoy it, especially the two spicy dishes that he doesn't seem to notice he's the only one eating. His brother is happy to have someone to answer his questions about Lan Zhan's job and crewmates with more detail than he'd ever give, and Wei Ying is excited to be able to get information about Lan Zhan out of his brother. That Lan Zhan is less thrilled about, but his brother doesn't go too far, brushing off the question if Wei Ying starts to pry.
Lan Zhan tries to guard his thoughts, because his brother knows him too well, but some sneak in. He thinks, as usual, that Wei Ying is beautiful when he smiles. He thinks that Wei Ying has good taste to like his brother—though most people do—and that seeing that his brother likes Wei Ying makes him feel more justified in doing so, though of course his brother's feelings are very different from his. And he thinks, for just a moment, about bringing Wei Ying home to his family table, not just as a guest by chance but as someone who belongs by his side there.
Let it go, he chides himself. That fantasy doesn't suit him and Wei Ying. Even if it did, he has no doubt that his uncle would hate Wei Ying, and think him a completely unfitting match and all around bad influence on Lan Zhan. Even his brother would probably think, as Lan Zhan does, that he'd be better off with someone more like him, someone sedate and sensible and disciplined. It's silly to imagine anything different.
They linger over the meal for a long time, but finally, Lan Huan says, "I should be going. It was great to meet you properly, Wei Ying."
"You too!" Wei Ying responds with genuine enthusiasm.
"And it was good to see you, A-Zhan. I hope we can do it again soon."
"Take care, ge."
After they part ways outside the restaurant, Wei Ying grins impishly. "'Ge.' You're always so serious and mature that it's funny to think of you as someone's little brother." Lan Zhan has no idea what to say to that, feeling self-conscious. "Hey, it's not a bad thing," Wei Ying adds quickly. "That side of you is cute. I'm glad I got to see it." He barrels right over any awkwardness to ask, "Hey, Lan Zhan, want to grab a drink? It's not that late yet."
"I don't drink," Lan Zhan reminds him.
"Not even a little?" Wei Ying prods. "I know you grew up eating nutrient bars and drinking tea and never having any fun, but you're an adult now and if you want to try drinking, you can."
Lan Zhan's responsible side tells him it's a terrible idea, but maybe Wei Ying is right. For so much of his life, he did what was expected of him—what his uncle wanted for him—but that changed when he left the military. After such a big rebellion, what's the big deal about having a drink or two with Wei Ying? It just might feel good to let go of a little of his usual control, and to quiet some of the thoughts that are always swirling around in his head. He won't overdo it.
"All right," he says, hoping he won't regret this.
"Nice!" Wei Ying smacks a hand rather hard against the middle of his back. "Let's go."
After Lan Zhan rejects a noisy, crowded bar, they go into a quieter place with tables to sit at. Wei Ying goes to the bar and comes back with a bottle and two small glasses. "I should probably start you with something weak, but this has a really mild taste and I figured you'd like that. Just go easy and let me drink most of it." He fills their glasses, passing one over, and then lifts his own. "Cheers."
"Cheers," Lan Zhan echoes, taking a tentative sip. The taste is indeed mild, enough so that he wouldn't guess that it's particularly alcoholic. He takes another larger sip before putting the glass down, noticing now that Wei Ying is watching him expectantly. "It's good," he says, enjoying how Wei Ying beams in response.
"That's what I like to hear. Enjoy!" Lan Zhan nurses his first glass while Wei Ying drinks his down. "It's so cute that you've never had a drink before." He's disconcertingly focused on Lan Zhan even as he pours himself another glass. "I had my first drink...I don't even remember how old I was, but it was on Yiling. There was this one guy who was really into brewing liquor, and he was so protective of it that he'd freak out if I got close to his equipment. So, of course, I had to do it all the time."
Perhaps it's a sign that the alcohol is already getting to Lan Zhan that he does what passes for a smile on his face at the thought of a young Wei Ying fooling around like that, making Wei Ying's own smile turn positively sparkling.
"He was always yelling at me, but he also let me try some—and then laughed at me when I said it was disgusting. He said I'd appreciate it when I got older, but that I should only ever drink if I was enjoying it, and only around people I trust." He smirks at Lan Zhan, presumably trying to make a point about trusting him. Lan Zhan definitely must be getting drunk because he finds it charming.
Wei Ying keeps talking, but the words no longer register in Lan Zhan's brain. What he does notice is the pleasant sound of his voice, the smile on his face, the way his fingers curve around the glass, and how his throat works as he drinks. Oh no, Lan Zhan thinks distantly. He wants to lace his fingers with Wei Ying's, to kiss his throat and move up to his awfully red lips to kiss that smile off his face. He wants to hear what kind of noises Wei Ying would make if he did that and more, and somehow he's already too drunk to stop himself from thinking these things.
Wei Ying says something once and then again that Lan Zhan thinks might be his name, but everything is becoming hazy so quickly. Even just sitting upright is proving difficult, and Lan Zhan is dimly aware that he's swaying forward and backward, in danger of falling onto the table or the floor. The words are repeated into Lan Zhan's ear as Wei Ying is suddenly next to him, putting a hand on his shoulder. Touch me more, Lan Zhan thinks and hopefully doesn't say out loud, and that's the last thing he remembers.
* * *
Presumably, Wei Ying brought him back, but other than that, he has no idea what happened. He dimly remembers thinking some very unsubtle things about his attraction to Wei Ying, and he's horrified by the thought that he might have lost control to the point where he said them out loud. At least he didn't say anything so horrible that Wei Ying left him out there alone, but then, he has no idea how Wei Ying would react if he said those things to him. Would he be interested in return, or would he want nothing to do with Lan Zhan anymore?
He desperately wants to know what happened, if only to get it over with, but Wei Ying is sound asleep and he's too anxious to wait. He quickly changes out of his dirty clothes and goes for his usual run, trying not to think about anything except for the repetitive pounding of his feet. It doesn't work today, thoughts sneaking in one after another about whether he embarrassed himself last night, by confessing his attraction or in some other way, and what Wei Ying thinks of him if he did. He doesn't know if he can face Wei Ying if he did something humiliatingly out of character.
When he's finished with his usual run but hesitating on returning to his room in case Wei Ying might be awake, he notices that there's a video message on his wristlet. With that as an excuse, he goes into the empty mess hall and plays the message from his brother.
"I hope you had a good time with Wei Ying after I left," he says, "and that you didn't mind me inviting him to join us for dinner. I got the feeling that you wanted him to come, so I went ahead and asked. I enjoyed meeting him and getting to hear more about the crew and what your life is like now, since you never tell me much. And I'm happy, you know, that you've made such a good friend in him—and the rest of the crew too, I hope. Send me a message before you leave so I know you made it home safe, and we'll talk again soon."
For a few seconds after the holographic screen disappears, Lan Zhan stares blankly at the space where his brother's face was. "A good friend?" Wei Ying? Such a good friend that his brother thought Lan Zhan wanted him to have dinner with them? The words surprise him, but he can't really refute what his brother is saying. Try as he might to keep his distance, as he easily does with most people, Lan Zhan can't seem to help enjoying Wei Ying's company. Sure, half the time Wei Ying annoys him or makes him outright angry, but somehow Lan Zhan still wants to see more of him.
Thinking that makes him even more anxious about finding out what he did while drunk last night, but he can't avoid it forever. Wei Ying is still asleep when Lan Zhan comes back to the room, and when he finishes showering and dressing and goes to the mess hall. The others haven't returned to the ship yet, so there's no one there to distract him, though maybe it's a blessing that Yanli isn't here. If he had the chance right now, he just might ask her some questions about Wei Ying that he'd regret.
Lan Zhan's already finished a nutrient bar and two cups of tea when Wei Ying stumbles sleepily into the mess hall. "Morning, Lan Zhan," he says, stifling a yawn, perfectly relaxed. That's some comfort, but then again, what would be mortifying to Lan Zhan might not bother Wei Ying at all. Lan Zhan sits stiffly, waiting, while Wei Ying makes himself coffee and sits down across from him with his cup and a nutrient bar. "You're looking better than I expected this morning. Any headache?"
"No." Lan Zhan feels like it must be incredibly obvious how nervous he is, but Wei Ying gives no indication that he's noticed.
"Lucky you. I felt bad that I got you that drunk, so I'm glad you didn't get the killer hangover, at least."
"Was I—?" Lan Zhan starts to ask, against his better judgment. "That is, did I—? I don't remember anything after we started drinking."
Wei Ying's smile starts small and steadily grows into a mischievous grin that makes Lan Zhan very worried. "Nothing?"
"No. Did I...do anything?"
Wei Ying looks so incredibly amused at his expense. "You know, it's a lot easier to get you to talk when you're drunk. Not that you babbled or anything, but you answered any question I asked."
Oh no. "What questions?" Lan Zhan feels like his face is on fire. He really hopes he's not blushing visibly.
"Oh, nothing much. But you did tell me that you like..." Wei Ying pauses just long enough for Lan Zhan to contemplate the benefits of spontaneous human combustion before concluding, "Rabbits."
"Rabbits?" Lan Zhan asks, utterly perplexed. He's never even seen a rabbit outside of pictures or VR. Why would he bring them up?
Wei Ying laughs heartily at his reaction. "We passed a store selling animal toys. I had to stop you from stealing a stuffed bunny. I couldn't believe you were so excited about them."
Lan Zhan tries to imagine what Wei Ying is talking about and can't at all. He never even had stuffed toys when he was a child, so why would he want one now? Is Wei Ying just playing with him, making up stories to see him blush?
"There's nothing wrong with liking rabbits, Lan Zhan." Wei Ying is way too amused. "But no offense, I don't think you should drink again any time soon. You're a real handful, way more than I expected."
"I won't." Now that he's seen what alcohol does to him, Lan Zhan is definitely not going to take that chance again, even if he miraculously managed not to give away too much this time.
Wei Ying is still smiling, but not so mocking now. "Let's do it again some time, though. Go out, I mean, without the drinking. It was fun." He seems sincere, so apparently Lan Zhan didn't do anything too horrible.
Lan Zhan thinks about his brother calling Wei Ying a good friend, and how as strange as it is, that feels right, or at least like they might get to that point someday. "All right," he says.
Wei Ying's smile widens into the one that lights up his whole face, and for the moment, at least, all of Lan Zhan's doubts are forgotten.
That afternoon, they set off for their next stop, Zar. It takes eleven days to reach the second-closest planet to the Alpha Base, and the only other alien planet humans visit, but it's a worthwhile destination for trade. "We've never made it out there," Wen Qing says as they all sit in the mess hall before dinner. "Do you want to give the background on this one too?" She looks at Wei Ying, who predictably grins.
"I'd love to. Zar is home to three native sentient species, two of which are humanoid enough for us to interact with them. They have some space travel but only go as far as Mimzy. They're pretty friendly and allow humans free passage for trade and leisure, but the composition of their atmosphere means that we can't stay more than a week without getting sick." He laughs. "Maybe that's why they're so friendly, since they know humans can't actually live there for long."
"If all goes well, we'll have a few days shore leave when we get there," Wen Qing tells them. "I hear they have some nice facilities catering to humans, or you can explore beyond that if you like." Given the trouble he got into this time without leaving the Alpha Base, Lan Zhan thinks it might be wise to not do any exploring, but he is curious to see another alien planet.
Eleven days is a long time to spend in transit with nothing to do, but at least Lan Zhan is more used to that than he was when he first came to the Peony. He's gotten better at filling the time on his own, and at taking advantage of the opportunities his crewmates offer, like picking vegetables in the hydroponics chamber to help Yanli make breakfast, or watching the mix of entertainment and documentary videos Huaisang always has on hand, or learning more about computer maintenance when Wei Ying convinces Qingyang to explain it to him. (Somehow, he manages to make his serious technical questions sound like flirting, but Lan Zhan does his best to ignore that.)
When it comes to Wei Ying, Lan Zhan has resigned himself to having conflicted feelings where he wants to kiss his roommate (and do a lot more) but also sometimes wants to smack him, where he likes Wei Ying even as he finds him frustrating in so many ways. Considering how much Jiang Cheng yells at Wei Ying despite clearly being fond of him, or how often Wen Qing hides a smile as she scolds him, maybe Lan Zhan's ambivalent feelings aren't so unusual.
He worries sometimes that his feelings are obvious, particularly when he spars with Wei Ying. A breathless, sweaty Wei Ying in his personal space and Lan Zhan's focus being turned away from controlling himself is a dangerous combination, sending his mind in all kinds of directions. Sometimes, too, when Wei Ying clings a little too long after they grapple or looks right at him as he grins especially widely, Lan Zhan thinks that he just might have similar feelings about wanting to kiss against the wall or hurry back to their room to fall into bed.
But nothing comes of it, and Wei Ying hardly seems the type to hold back from something he wants, so Lan Zhan can only assume that he doesn't want him. That's disappointing, but also something of a relief. Lan Zhan shouldn't really be getting involved with anyone now, least of all Wei Ying. He's become friendlier with the crew than he anticipated when he arrived on the Peony, but that's enough.
By their tenth day out, they're all getting bored and impatient to arrive at their destination. "It'll be so nice to get out and see something other than these same corridors," Qingyang comments over breakfast.
"And some people other than you guys," Wei Ying adds. "No offense."
"What makes you think the aliens will want to talk to you?" Jiang Cheng asks.
"Who wouldn't want to talk to me?" Wei Ying tosses back. "Anyway, everyone says they're friendly to humans."
"Friendly enough," Wen Qing says.
"I wonder about them, though." At the questioning looks everyone shoots him, Huaisang explains, "They're not far from Avarsul territory, right? What used to be their territory before the war, I mean. Are we really supposed to believe that they found their way to Mimzy but somehow never went in that direction?"
"If they had, wouldn't they have activated the same automated defenses we did?" Qingyang asks.
"Maybe they did," Huaisang says. "If they retreated without fighting back, the Avarsul might have left them alone, instead of it blowing up into a big war like it did with us."
"Maybe, but what good would it do Zar to not tell us if they knew?" Jiang Cheng argues. "The fighting came pretty close to them. With the Avarsul's weapons, they could've easily been collateral damage."
"That's true," Huaisang concedes, "but who knows? They might not have realized it would get that bad. Or maybe they were hoping the Avarsul would kill us off so they wouldn't have to deal with humans wandering all over this part of space."
"This is all just speculation," Wen Qing says. "Why do we have to assume the worst of people?"
"I'm not!" Huaisang protests. "It's just harder to trust other aliens after we got burned once, you know? By all indications, the Avarsul would never have given us any trouble if we hadn't accidentally encroached on their territory and then defended ourselves when they attacked. But the fact that they might be perfectly decent if you don't cross them doesn't make me feel better about how many people they killed."
"That's true," Jiang Cheng says. "And you know, none of those supposedly friendly aliens were willing to help us during the war. They could've helped us with supplies, at least, or maybe even tried to mediate before things got really bad. But they just hid on their planet letting thousands and thousands of humans die horribly a few days' flight away."
Huaisang starts to reply, but Wei Ying cuts him off with a loud, "Isn't that normal? No one wants to get involved in a fight that has nothing to do with them. Even most humans didn't want to fight; that's why we ended up with conscription. I didn't see you rushing off to defend humanity."
That's exactly the wrong thing to say to Jiang Cheng, which Wei Ying must know. "And what were you doing during the war? Saving humanity by sitting on your ass in the Red Sector?"
"A-Cheng, A-Ying, stop it," Yanli chides, but it's too late.
"So sorry I didn't manage to get myself killed or murder a bunch of aliens like a good soldier!" Wei Ying snaps.
This whole conversation has put Lan Zhan on edge, and Wei Ying's comment is the last straw. He stands so abruptly that his chair falls over, clattering loudly to the floor and making everyone jump. Wei Ying looks over at him, and Lan Zhan sees something wild in his eyes, but he doesn't care. He doesn't care what Wei Ying is feeling as he essentially calls Lan Zhan a murderer. It's the worst thing he could say for Lan Zhan too, because it hits on his worst uncertainties about the war, that feeling that in trying to defend himself and his people, he did something unforgivable.
"Hey, Lan Zhan, wait, I didn't mean it like that," Wei Ying backtracks, but Lan Zhan doesn't wait for him to finish. As calmly as he can under the circumstances, he walks out of the room. He doesn't know if he's disappointed or relieved that Wei Ying doesn't come after him.
* * *
It's not Wei Ying's fault, really, or Jiang Cheng's or Huaisang's, but Lan Zhan can't help being angry. It's so easy for someone like Wei Ying to judge him for what he did during the war, to call it murder when he didn't see what the Avarsul did when left unchecked. None of it should have happened, but it did, and Lan Zhan did what he had to do to survive and to keep humanity from being wiped out. He feels guilty enough about that without someone who will never understand talking like it was a mistake.
Yanli finally comes to find him at lunchtime, and Lan Zhan clings to his fragile control so that he won't yell at her when she inevitably comes to Wei Ying's defense. She doesn't deserve that. She sits on the floor opposite Lan Zhan and studies him for a moment, expression sympathetic. "How are you doing?"
Lan Zhan doesn't know how to answer that, so he says nothing.
"I'm sorry," Yanli says quietly. "Of course the war affected everyone, but I think it's easy for those of us who were only on the edge of it to forget just how bad it was for you soldiers."
"Wei Ying was a soldier," Lan Zhan points out.
Yanli sighs. "He was, but not like you. And he's a different sort of person from you. He deals with things very differently."
"What is he dealing with?" Lan Zhan asks bitingly. He's all out of sympathy right now.
"I don't know." Yanli sighs again, more heavily. "I won't ask you to forgive him, or to forget. Just know that Wei Ying thinks very highly of you. Whatever he said, he thinks you're an amazing person—a good person."
It surprises Lan Zhan to hear that Wei Ying thinks so highly of him that he's said that to Yanli. At another time, it might make him happy, but he's still too angry right now.
"Here." Yanli hands him a nutrient bar. "I thought you might not want to come to the mess hall. But don't stay away too long, okay? It's not good to be alone too much."
"Thank you." Lan Zhan is grateful for the food, and grateful that Yanli doesn't try to push him. She's a good friend, the kind of friend he needs at a time like this.
Yanli smiles, and though her smile is more restrained, it still somehow makes Lan Zhan think of Wei Ying. "I'll see you later."
By mid-afternoon, it just feels embarrassing to be hiding away, so Lan Zhan emerges from the hydroponics chamber and goes to his room. He can hear voices in the mess hall so he assumes everyone is there, and he's startled when he opens the door to find Wei Ying sitting on his bunk, messing with his wristlet. Wei Ying jumps, clearly startled too, then dismisses his wristlet screen and looks down at Lan Zhan. "Hi." From his guilty expression, at least he understands that Lan Zhan is justifiably mad at him.
Lan Zhan is tempted to walk right back out the door, but that would be too awkward, so he stays where he is as Wei Ying quickly climbs down the ladder to stand in front of him.
"I'm sorry, Lan Zhan." Wei Ying is uncharacteristically serious, making no attempt to joke around. "I just...never mind. I won't make excuses. It was a stupid thing to say and I didn't mean it. I know you weren't one of those soldiers who enjoyed killing aliens. I know a lot of soldiers weren't like that, and that you would've died if you didn't fight back."
Lan Zhan nods. He appreciates the apology, but he's not prepared to say that it's okay, that it doesn't matter.
"I..." Wei Ying draws in a shaky breath, and Lan Zhan can't guess at what he's thinking. "I'm sorry. That's all I can say. I hope..." He pauses for a long moment before concluding, "I hope you can forgive me someday."
"Understood." That's all Lan Zhan can bring himself to say right now.
Wei Ying smiles uncertainly but hopefully, as though Lan Zhan has given him a lot more than he actually did. "Hey, I get it if you're still pissed at me, but do you want to spar?" He laughs, still somewhat hesitantly. "Maybe it'll make you feel better to beat me up.
It might, but Lan Zhan doesn't trust himself to show restraint right now, and his uncle taught him that he should never fight in anger. "Not today."
Wei Ying's face falls before he immediately tries to hide it. "Another time, then. I'll get out of your way." He walks out without looking back, and it only frustrates Lan Zhan more that he feels strangely guilty for making Wei Ying sad.
* * *
Everyone is subdued over breakfast, despite the excited anticipation of arriving at Zar tonight. Jiang Cheng is mad at Wei Ying too, and much less subtle about it than Lan Zhan. Wei Ying, for his part, is quiet, and in the same way that his good moods usually get everyone talking enthusiastically, his bad mood, if that's what it is, keeps everything muted. Lan Zhan doesn't mind the quiet, but he doesn't enjoy the strained atmosphere, and for all his complicated feelings about Wei Ying, he'd rather see him smiling.
After breakfast, Wei Ying asks Lan Zhan to spar again, still hesitant, and it's that feeling of wanting Wei Ying to be happy (along with wanting a good workout) that gets him to say yes. Seeing the smile that blossoms over Wei Ying's face in response, he feels good about his choice. They make their way to the VR room together, where Wei Ying asks, "How do you feel about some weapons this time? We've got such nice ones and we never work with them."
They've largely avoided any weapons until now, since they're sparring for exercise more than for training and Lan Zhan has more experience fighting with weapons than Wei Ying does. On the other hand, Lan Zhan doesn't want to let his skills get rusty, and it would be good for Wei Ying to improve his. There's no telling when they might have another real fight, requiring more than just their fists. They should be prepared. "All right," he agrees.
They settle on electro-knives, on the safety setting where they'll sting a little and even leave a bruise with a good hit but won't do any real damage. Wei Ying takes one in each hand, and Lan Zhan watches him handle them. He saw his partner wield an electro-knife during the attack on Qinghe so Lan Zhan knows he's capable, but Wei Ying has said himself that he doesn't think he can match up to Lan Zhan's skills with weapons, and he's hardly given to false modesty. It will be interesting to see what he can do.
Armed with a long electro-knife and a shorter one, Lan Zhan faces off against Wei Ying, and they begin. Fighting with knives isn't so different from their usual practice, striking out and blocking each other's blows, but now the room is filled with the sizzling sound of electro-knives meeting instead of the smacks of bodily contact. The knives give them a longer reach, forcing them to dart into and back out of each other's space to score any hits. Wei Ying is noticeably less used to that, sometimes falling short of reaching Lan Zhan with his knives or getting hit when he fails to move back as far as he should.
Overall, though, especially as he adjusts, Wei Ying is still a worthy opponent. Lan Zhan lands a lot more strikes than usual, but Wei Ying does dodge many of them, and his knives find Lan Zhan several times in blows that would do a lot of damage if they were fighting for real. He provides a good challenge, as usual, and that's exactly what Lan Zhan needs now, to focus on the brightness of their fast-moving knives and forget everything else. He can't say he entirely forgets, fighting a bit more aggressively than usual, but probably not enough for Wei Ying to notice.
With his blood pumping from the fighting, Wei Ying's earlier mood quickly fades and he grins at Lan Zhan like nothing has changed. "As I expected, you're really good with knives. I'd be sliced all into pieces if we weren't on safety mode." He raises his eyebrows and smirks in that obnoxiously flirtatious way he has. "Don't get any ideas now."
Lan Zhan only huffs, ignoring him, but that doesn't stop Wei Ying. "You make a nice picture with the knives. You're so pale that they really make your skin glow—in a good way, I mean. I bet girls would swoon all over you like this." There's a part of Lan Zhan that appreciates Wei Ying complimenting his appearance, but a much larger part that reminds himself not to read anything into it. That's just how Wei Ying is.
"Ready?" Lan Zhan asks, eager to go back to something more straightforward than talking to Wei Ying.
Lan Zhan dominates this sparring session much more than usual, but as they're nearing the end, Wei Ying suddenly manages to skirt around Lan Zhan's knives and get behind him. Before Lan Zhan has a chance to react, Wei Ying's smaller knife is at his throat, his other arm wrapped around Lan Zhan's chest to hold him there. "Got you." His voice is a low growl just by Lan Zhan's ear that makes him shiver.
Lan Zhan is impressed and annoyed at the same time, and conscious of both the faint sting of Wei Ying's knife at his throat and the warmth of Wei Ying's chest pressed against his back. Wei Ying has gone quiet and without being able to see his face, with the knife still pressed into his skin, Lan Zhan feels a weird sort of tension in the air. He's not easily frightened, and he's never had any reason to be frightened of Wei Ying, but in this moment, he's very aware that for all his smiles, Wei Ying is capable of violence, under the right circumstances.
When Wei Ying releases him and he turns around, though, all Lan Zhan sees is him smiling as usual, the knife hanging casually at his side. "Let's call it a day?" Wei Ying suggests. "Unless you need to beat me again to feel better about yourself."
He looks so smug, and Lan Zhan wants to punch that expression off his face and also kiss him senseless. He can never seem to control his thoughts when it comes to Wei Ying. Stifling a sigh, he turns to put his knives away. Wei Ying is who he is. Lan Zhan's feelings seem to be here to stay, but as long as Wei Ying is like this, there's no use indulging them.
* * *
Once they're on the ground, Lan Zhan joins Wei Ying and Wen Qing in going to meet their contacts. He feels the difference in the air as soon as they emerge into the planet's atmosphere, a subtle feeling like no matter how deeply he breathes, his lungs are never quite full. In case that wasn't enough to remind him that he's on an alien planet, the design of the spaceport is very different from human ships and stations, all curves instead of sharp edges, and elaborately decorated.
More than that, there are aliens walking all around, with the occasional human mixed in. There are three sentient species native to Zar, two of which live in the area humans visit. The Nokri are relatively similar in shape to humans, but with a colorful reptilian sort of skin that they don't cover with clothing and dog-like snouts on their faces. The Tamuc walk on two legs but have a whole range of anatomical differences, including four arms, six eyes, and spikes all over their heads. The aliens talk as they walk around, seemingly able to understand each other across species.
Lan Zhan tries not to stare and risk offending anyone, but Wei Ying has no such qualms, looking wide-eyed around the corridors and at everyone who passes them. "What a place," he says. "It feels a lot more alien than Mimzy somehow, don't you think? But it's nice to see such different people—should I call them people?—living together peacefully."
"Don't do anything to ruin that peace now." Wen Qing is clearly joking, mostly, but she does give Wei Ying a stern look to remind him to be on his best behavior.
"I would never!" Wei Ying protests, though his wry smile says otherwise.
Despite that, Wei Ying behaves himself, and their meeting with two Nokri and a Tamuc goes off without a hitch. A group of workers with matching armbands in lieu of uniforms helps take their cargo off the ship, exchanging it for credits that they can use to buy various commodities to take back to the Alpha Base.
By the time they're done, it's early evening on Zar, though with the time difference, it feels quite late to Lan Zhan. He'd happily go to bed and leave exploring the planet for tomorrow, but Wen Qing says, "Why don't we all go have a drink? It'll be safer to find our way around together at first, and it'll be nice to spend time together somewhere other than the mess hall. My treat?"
"Sold!" Wei Ying declares the moment she says the last words.
Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes but then smiles at Wen Qing. "Sounds nice."
There are signs intended for human visitors that point them toward the nearest commercial district. Lan Zhan is surprised to see some restaurants and bars that wouldn't look out of place on the Alpha Base, much less alien than the spaceport. "This looks like a tourist trap," Qingyang says.
Wen Qing smiles wryly. "We'll have time the next two days to venture further out and see what there is to see. This will do for tonight."
Inside the bar they choose, at least there are enough alien customers to make it clear that this isn't the Alpha Base or anywhere like it. It's unpleasantly noisy and crowded by Lan Zhan's standards, full of loud conversations and a group of Tamuc in the corner playing music in the form of rhythmic drumming accompanied by occasional high-pitched yelping. With the help of his autotranslator, Lan Zhan orders what he thinks is a non-alcoholic beverage and joins the others around a table that isn't really big enough for eight, realizing too late that he's gotten squeezed in between Wei Ying and Jiang Cheng.
"This sure isn't like any bar I've ever been to," Wei Ying comments, looking around. There's a group of Nokri standing with their backs to them, typically unclothed, and Wei Ying looks them up and down. "There's an interesting view, anyway."
"You going to find someone to hook up with?" Jiang Cheng asks incredulously. "Are they your type?"
"Come on, Jiang Cheng," Wei Ying responds, undaunted. "You've got to be open to new experiences."
"I'll leave that to you," Jiang Cheng retorts. "If you thought the alien flu was bad, imagine what you could catch from them. I doubt you got vaccinated against that."
"You're no fun," Wei Ying says, still grinning. "What do you think, Lan Zhan? Would you give an alien a try? Not that I even know how it would work..." Lan Zhan gives him a dirty look, and Wei Ying holds up his hands defensively. "Okay, sorry. I won't subject your innocent ears to this kind of talk."
If Lan Zhan were the type to laugh, he would at Wei Ying thinking he's innocent, given the kind of thoughts Lan Zhan has had about him. He's not, so he only takes a drink and tries not to be annoyed that Wei Ying's flirting with everyone even extends to aliens.
"Are you really going to talk about this with my sister sitting right across the table?" Jiang Cheng asks.
"She can't even hear me with all this noise." Raising his voice, he yells, "Right, jie?"
Yanli jumps, then gives him a fondly exasperated look. Wei Ying beams and waves at her. "Thank fuck for that," Jiang Cheng mutters.
Between the late hour and the fact that he's sober in a crowd of increasingly drunk people, Lan Zhan's patience is short. He's glad when Wei Ying gets up to grab another drink, giving him a brief respite from his endless chatter. Jiang Cheng doesn't try to talk to him, focused on his drink, and Wen Ning only smiles shyly at him from across Wei Ying's seat. That's fine with Lan Zhan, who can sip his drink in peace.
He tunes out so that all the noise in the bar fades to a distant murmur, until suddenly Wei Ying's voice breaks through with a loud, "What seems to be the problem here?"
Lan Zhan looks over just in time to see Wei Ying sling his arm around Qingyang, who is facing two seedy-looking human men. Normally, she would brush him off, but this time she doesn't move. Lan Zhan understands what Wei Ying is doing, but he can't help the irrational spike of jealousy that flares in him.
The men's responses are incomprehensible from here, but Wei Ying is still loud as he drawls, "She's with me. Is that a problem?"
"Is she really?" one of the men asks.
"Do you need some proof?" Wei Ying asks cheekily. "What do you say, Mianmian?"
"Just leave me alone!" Qingyang snaps. She grabs Wei Ying's hand to drag him back to their table, still playing along, but drops it when they arrive.
"What was that about?" Wen Qing asks, putting a comforting hand on Qingyang's back as she sits down.
"Those two lowlifes were harassing her," Wei Ying says. "I came to the rescue."
"I could have handled it," Qingyang mutters, but a moment later, she adds a quiet, "Thank you."
Wei Ying grins but doesn't make a sarcastic comment for once, sitting back down with his drink. Jiang Cheng promptly elbows him in the ribs. "You sure do love to play the hero."
"Hey, I was helping!" Wei Ying protests. "Right, Lan Zhan? Those guys were really skeevy."
The men did look rather threatening, but that irrational jealousy is still burning in Lan Zhan as he remembers how casually Wei Ying put his arm around Qingyang. He scoffs, and Wei Ying pouts at him. "Come on. Jiang Cheng is a lost cause, but I thought you at least would appreciate saving a damsel in distress. Unless..." He eyes Lan Zhan curiously.
Lan Zhan panics internally, wondering if his jealousy is more obvious than he thinks. How incredibly embarrassing it would be if Wei Ying noticed, especially because of something like this, and in front of everyone. "Unless what?" He tries and doesn't entirely manage to keep his voice calm.
Wei Ying puts up a hand to hide his mouth from the rest of the table and whispers, "Unless you like Qingyang and didn't like me cozying up to her. Is that it?"
Lan Zhan doesn't even try to hide his exasperation, though it's tempered with relief that his jealousy isn't as easy to see, or at least to understand, as he feared. "You're an idiot," Jiang Cheng declares, and Lan Zhan is immensely relieved when Wei Ying gets distracted by bickering with him. On some level, he almost wishes Wei Ying would notice, but mostly he thinks it's better this way. Let Wei Ying hold Qingyang or flirt with aliens or do whatever it is he wants to do. Lan Zhan is better off not getting involved.
* * *
Outside, he follows the same path as the night before, but continues past the still bustling commercial district toward a less dense area of small shops. He enjoys browsing the shops, both to look for souvenirs for his brother and perhaps his uncle and simply to see what sorts of things are sold on an alien planet. He can't even identify many of the items, but the shopkeepers readily answer his questions and eventually he buys a few trinkets he thinks his brother will appreciate.
He has a strange but pleasant lunch of what he's told is a Tamuc specialty ("Safe for humans, promise!" the server tells him through the autotranslator), then finds a quiet outdoor area to sit, shaded by trees curved in a way that may or may not be natural. It's so nice that he stays there for hours, enjoying the fresh air (despite that persistent feeling of not quite being able to breathe properly). Lan Zhan has spent his entire life in space, but there's really something to be said for being on a planet, even one that isn't entirely suited for human life.
A few aliens come and go, but nobody bothers him until a very familiar voice startles him out of his reverie with a "Lan Zhan!" He turns to see Wei Ying hurrying over, with Jiang Cheng and Yanli trailing behind him.
Lan Zhan gets to his feet. "Hello."
The others return his greeting with varying degrees of enthusiasm. "What have you been up to?" Wei Ying asks.
"Resting here," Lan Zhan says, "and some shopping."
"We went shopping too, and bought all kinds of stuff." Wei Ying flicks at his ponytail with a finger, and Lan Zhan notices that he has a bright red ribbon tied around it, the ends hanging down behind him. "Yanli-jie got me this. What do you think?"
The vibrant, eye-catching color suits Wei Ying, but Lan Zhan doesn't say that, only nods vaguely. Wei Ying smiles anyway. "I should know better than to expect you to have an opinion about something like that. Hey, have you had dinner yet? We were just going to go. You should join us."
"Only if you want to," Yanli adds, much less forcefully. "We understand if you'd like some time alone."
"You had all day alone," Wei Ying protests. "Come on, Lan Zhan. It'll balance out me crashing your dinner with your brother the other day."
Lan Zhan is wary, especially seeing Jiang Cheng's perpetually irritated expression and remembering what Wei Ying said the last time they got particularly snippy with each other, but Wei Ying looks so hopeful, and Yanli too. "All right," he agrees.
The restaurant they go to is much quieter than last night's bar, with a mostly alien clientele. They order several dishes to share and a bottle of some alcohol none of them have ever heard of for Wei Ying and Jiang Cheng. Thanks to Yanli's calming presence, and perhaps the alcohol, the two of them are in a good mood, and Lan Zhan starts to relax again. Nobody expects him to say much, so he can eat in peace and listen.
As the conversation flows easily between Wei Ying and the Jiang siblings, Lan Zhan is struck by the contrast with his own family dinners. His uncle didn't like idle chatter during meals, so they ate in silence unless there was important business to discuss. When Lan Zhan ate alone with his brother, the atmosphere was more relaxed, but they still never spoke much. Is this what normal families are like? he wonders. Then again, these three aren't exactly a normal family either, and from what Wei Ying has said, he suspects that dinners with the Jiangs' parents are rather different.
Wei Ying holds up well to the alien liquor, but by dessert, it's clear that Jiang Cheng has had way too much. "Whatever this is, it's strong," he slurs, holding up his cup. Wei Ying reaches across the table to grab it out of his hand and drains it. "Hey!" Jiang Cheng sounds like a whiny child. "Jiejie, look what he did!"
Yanli smiles wryly and pats him on the head. "I think you've had enough, A-Cheng. Why don't I get you back to the ship and we'll let Wei Ying and Wangji finish up?"
"It's fine," Wei Ying says. "I'll come with you."
"Don't worry about it," Yanli assures him. "It's not far. You two take your time and we'll see you later."
Lan Zhan tenses. It's silly because he and Wei Ying have been alone many times before. There's no reason to expect that Wei Ying will do or say anything offensive this time—particularly not anything he hasn't said before. There's also no reason to expect that Lan Zhan, who hasn't had a drop of alcohol to destroy his inhibitions, will embarrass himself by giving his feelings for Wei Ying away. It just feels too personal to be sitting at a table together in a nice restaurant, like a date.
He doesn't say any of that, so Yanli doesn't hesitate to get up, pulling Jiang Cheng with her. He wobbles on his feet and Lan Zhan thinks that Wei Ying might have to go after all, since Yanli can't carry him, but then he steadies. "Comms are on if you need anything," Wei Ying tells them.
After they say their goodbyes, Wei Ying moves to sit across from Lan Zhan, filling his cup for another drink. "I hope you don't mind being stuck with me," he says with a sly grin. Lan Zhan doesn't answer, but Wei Ying doesn't seem to expect him to. In fact, he lets the conversation lapse as they eat dessert, occasionally glancing over at Lan Zhan but mostly looking off into the distance. It could be awkward, but once he stops bracing himself for Wei Ying to say something, Lan Zhan finds the silence comfortable.
Only as they're finishing their dessert does Wei Ying comment, "I'm glad we get to spend some time here. It's...I don't want to bring up that conversation again, but just let me say that it's nice, you know, to see that we can coexist with some aliens. That we can spend all day on their planet and sit and have a meal in the same place and not try to kill each other."
Lan Zhan agrees with the sentiment, but the mention of the previous conversation puts him right back on edge again. What does Wei Ying know about killing aliens, or having them try to kill him? It's easy to get philosophical without the visceral reaction that Lan Zhan has to the thought of getting on the wrong side of any potentially dangerous alien race.
Wei Ying seems to notice the tension, flashing him an awkward grimace. "Forget about that. Want to go exploring a bit more? Two days and change sounded like a long time when we got here, but there's still so much I want to see and it's flying by."
"It's late." According to the time the Peony runs on, it's past Lan Zhan's bedtime already, though he did sleep late this morning.
"Oh, come on, Lan Zhan. If you don't come with me, I'll go alone, and who knows what kind of trouble I might get into?" Wei Ying is nowhere near as drunk as Jiang Cheng was, but he is slurring his words slightly, making Lan Zhan think that it's better not to leave him unsupervised. He would feel terrible if Wei Ying got lost or hurt after he left him alone, not to mention that he might indeed cause some trouble that would affect the whole crew.
"Fine," he says. "But not for long."
Wei Ying beams, that stupid smile that always warms Lan Zhan's heart. "You're the best, Lan Zhan!"
Outside, the sky is dark now, though Zar's two moons glow large and bright and this area is well-lit. Even at night, there's something about being planetside that makes Wei Ying look so vibrantly alive, his skin glowing and his eyes sparkling and that red ribbon fluttering behind him in the evening breeze. Lan Zhan worries that he's obviously staring, but Wei Ying is looking right back at him without giving any indication that he finds it strange, so maybe it's okay.
"Let's go that way," Wei Ying says, indicating the direction they came from earlier. Lan Zhan lets him lead them on a winding path, stopping occasionally to look at whatever catches his eye. For all that he's tired, Lan Zhan gets caught up in Wei Ying's enthusiasm for the alien planet and all the interesting things there are to see on it—or at least he enjoys watching Wei Ying getting excited about it all.
They continue as the buildings become more sparse and finally give way to a wide open area. There are no lights here, but the moonlight is enough to find their way by. The ground is covered by very short grass and wildflowers of all sorts of shapes and colors that would probably look amazing in the daytime. The city lights start to fade behind them and Lan Zhan thinks he should be responsible. "We shouldn't go too far. We don't want to get lost."
"It's fine." Wei Ying turns to him, his smile mischievous. "The spaceport's so bright we'd have to go a lot farther than this to lose track of it. Don't you want to see what's here, outside of the touristy areas?"
Lan Zhan opens his mouth to insist, but Wei Ying grabs his hand and tugs him along. His hand is warm in the cool night air and Lan Zhan forgets what his objection was. It feels in this moment like he and Wei Ying are the only people in the world, and once, he would have found that a horrible thought, but now, he doesn't mind so much. He wonders how Wei Ying would feel about that. He did want Lan Zhan's company on this adventure, but maybe that's only because he was there and no one else was.
They pass through a grove of trees, curved like the ones Lan Zhan sat under earlier, but going in all directions. Wei Ying lets go of Lan Zhan's hand as he spins around to look at them, and Lan Zhan feels the absence keenly. The shadows under the trees are long and a little eerie, but Wei Ying's smile is still bright when he turns to Lan Zhan. "Aren't these cool? I wonder what makes them grow like that." He bends sideways with his arms above his head in an imitation of the trees, laughing. Lan Zhan can't help smiling at the sight.
There's a small cluster of buildings off to the right when they emerge from the trees, and Wei Ying says, "What's that all alone out here?"
"Wait!" Lan Zhan starts to protest. He wants to say that they shouldn't bother the locals, but Wei Ying is already hurrying over. With a sigh, Lan Zhan follows him. He's relieved when they get closer and he can see that the buildings are dilapidated, seemingly abandoned.
"They have so much space out here," Wei Ying comments. "It's really a shame humans can't survive on this planet long-term. Wouldn't it be great to live somewhere like this instead of crammed into a space station?" Looking around for a moment, he says, "Oh, look, a ladder," and walks over, grabbing hold of the metal ladder attached to the building.
Lan Zhan groans internally. Is Wei Ying drunker than he thought, or just abandoning all sense for the duration of their shore leave? Whatever the reason, Wei Ying is already climbing before he can object. "It's not safe," he protests.
"It's perfectly stable." Wei Ying continues climbing quickly. "Come on, Lan Zhan. I bet the view will be nice from the roof."
Lan Zhan isn't drunk, so he has no excuse for how he follows Wei Ying up the ladder after only a brief hesitation. He tells himself it's to keep Wei Ying safe, but really, he just wants to stay close to him longer. Thankfully, the ladder holds and the building's roof also seems stable enough. The view when they reach the top might be beautiful during the day, but it's less exciting at night, though the lights of the spaceport and surrounding areas twinkle prettily in the distance.
Wei Ying looks toward the lights, then turns to smile at Lan Zhan again. "This is fun. I thought maybe..." He trails off, and Lan Zhan thinks he sees something vulnerable in his expression, but it's hard to say in the dim moonlight. In the end, he only concludes, "Thanks for coming with me."
Before Lan Zhan can respond—though what he'd say, if anything, he doesn't know—the sound of another human male voice drifts up to them. He sounds annoyed, saying, "It's time to move forward, so you'd better be committed."
Wei Ying looks around curiously as they try to figure out where the voice is coming from. There's no one else visible on the roof of this building, or on the other nearby buildings. A not-quite-intelligible murmur of voices follows the first one, at least three men talking. Lan Zhan is ready to suggest that they leave, in case these buildings are inhabited after all and they're about to get in trouble with the owners, but then he hears something that stops him in his tracks: "It'll be worth it once we're back at war."
He can tell Wei Ying heard it too by the way he freezes instantly. A moment later, he moves toward the sound of the voices. They finally find the source, a hole in the far corner of the roof opening into the building below. "Wei Ying," Lan Zhan whispers, trying to caution him, but Wei Ying ignores him and moves right to the edge of the hole. It seems to tolerate his weight, but Lan Zhan still stays back a little in case both of them will be too much.
Wei Ying's eyes are wide with shock. "I think it's those guys from the bar." This is the quietest Lan Zhan has ever heard him be, his whisper barely audible even as close as they are. "And three others." He holds up his arm with his wristlet and keeps it there, probably to record them.
Like this, they can hear more of the conversation, though Lan Zhan can't see the men from his position. He thinks it's the first man they heard who's saying, "The timing is important. We want to make sure that the colony sees it and gets a message off, then cut off communication. It's three and a half days from the Sigma Outpost to Yueyang, which gives us time to implement the next step. With the whole asteroid destroyed before help arrives, they won't have any way of knowing it wasn't the Avarsul."
Wei Ying gasps, and Lan Zhan can't blame him. Yueyang is a brand new colony on a previously deserted asteroid a few days' flight from Zar, at the edge of what was Avarsul territory until they gave it up at the end of the war. (They had little use for the asteroid, whose atmosphere doesn't suit their physiology at all, but saw it as a marker of their territory and didn't take kindly to humans considering it as a potential new colony base without realizing that it belonged to anyone.) The colony was established soon after the war ended, a rushed endeavor to make people feel the war had been worth something. By all accounts, they've been doing well so far, without any trouble from the Avarsul.
The human defeat of the Avarsul was decisive, but at the cost of many human and Avarsul lives. Both sides were very ready to make peace in the end, and expected that peace to last now that they understood the heavy cost of a war between them. But if Yueyang is attacked and the Avarsul seem to be at fault, humans will have to fight back, and the Avarsul will naturally respond in kind. The thought utterly horrifies Lan Zhan. If another full-on war flares up, considering the toll of the last one, will anyone be left alive?
As Lan Zhan's thoughts race, the man continues, "You'll leave tonight, and get to Yueyang in the middle of their daytime two days from now. Keep the ship back out of sight and send in the fighter like we discussed. Then wait and the other ship will rendezvous with you for the final attack. We won't have comms in between, so you need to be clear on the plan."
Two other voices respond, "I'm clear" and "Got it."
"Good. Then let's get to the ship."
Wei Ying puts his arm down, turning off the recording on his wristlet and backing away from the hole. "We have to tell someone," he hisses. "Right away."
"Let's go back to the ship." Zar has no connection to the human communications network to allow them to report what they heard, and the planetary leaders made it clear during the war that they won't get involved in other species' problems. The only option is to leave immediately and go for help—or go to Yueyang themselves.
They hurry down the ladder as quickly as they can without making noise, and then Wei Ying immediately takes off running. Lan Zhan thinks he hears one of the men ask, "What's that?" before he starts running too, but no one comes after them.
It's hard to run on Zar, Lan Zhan's lungs fighting for oxygen and his whole body suddenly very aware of the gravity that's slightly stronger than the human standard, but he pushes through it. This is important. He doesn't know who these men are or if they're actually capable of carrying out this plan to reignite the war, but if there's any chance that they can, they have to be stopped. He and Wei Ying both slow down as the physical constraints wear on them, but they don't stop running until they reach the Peony, pausing only to open the outer door before stopping at the door to Wen Qing's room.
Wei Ying rings the doorbell as they both heave in large breaths of the optimized air. There's a frantic look in his eyes that Lan Zhan can understand perfectly. Whatever their individual experience in the war, any human knows—or should know—how awful it was and realize how horrific it would be if it started all over. Neither of them has the breath to speak yet, but Wei Ying bangs on the door as he rings the bell a few more times.
It feels like an eternity before Wen Qing opens the door in her pyjamas, squinting into the light and frowning when she sees the state they're in. "What's wrong?"
"We have to go," Wei Ying gasps out.
"Go where?" Wen Qing asks, understandably perplexed.
"Yueyang. The asteroid."
Wen Qing still looks completely baffled. "Let's go to the mess hall and sit. You're a mess. What did you do out there?"
"Bridge," Wei Ying counters.
Wen Qing doesn't argue, just walks slowly to the bridge with them. The feeling like he's drowning is finally passing, but Lan Zhan is still lightheaded, and he doesn't want to try to talk. In the bridge, he and Wei Ying sink gratefully into the chairs. "Tell me what happened," Wen Qing says.
"Someone is planning an attack on Yueyang." Lan Zhan reasons that he's better at speaking concisely than Wei Ying, so it's better if he explains. "To reignite the war. We need to go."
The news shocks Wen Qing too, though she doesn't hide her skepticism. "If that's so, we should go to the nearest outpost and let them send word to the Alpha Base. We can get to the Sigma Outpost in what, two and a half days?"
"Too slow," Wei Ying says. "They'll be at Yueyang before we even get to the outpost, and help won't arrive for days after that."
Wen Qing nods slowly like she's absorbing the information. "You're sure about this?"
"Yes," Wei Ying answers immediately. Wen Qing looks at Lan Zhan, who nods. "We'll explain on the way, but we have to go now. There's no time to waste."
"Wake up Jiang Cheng, then, and I'll get us permission to take off."
"No time, and he's probably too drunk. I'll do it." Wei Ying was sitting in the captain's seat, but now he moves to the pilot's seat in front.
"You know what you're doing?" Wen Qing asks.
It's a sign of how worried they are that Wei Ying doesn't even make a joke. "I piloted a survey ship before, remember? Hurry up."
Wen Qing gets permission from the landing authorities and Wei Ying flies them out immediately. Lan Zhan remembers too late that he's drunk too, but it doesn't seem to impair his flying abilities enough to matter. Soon, they're out of the atmosphere, and Wei Ying sets the autopilot to take them to Yueyang. "Get some sleep, if you can," Wen Qing tells them. "You look half dead. You can explain the situation to everyone in the morning."
Lan Zhan is indeed exhausted, but too keyed up to sleep. When they get to their room, Wei Ying asks "How could anyone want another war?" He sounds angry as he paces back and forth in the small space to burn off his nervous energy, a sharp contrast to the way Lan Zhan is used to seeing him.
"I don't know." Lan Zhan can't—or more accurately doesn't want to—imagine that anyone actually wants many more humans to die, but there must be some people out there who would benefit materially from war, and maybe others who want more Avarsul blood badly enough to sacrifice human life for it.
"We have to stop them. We have to." Lan Zhan surprises both himself and Wei Ying by putting a comforting hand on Wei Ying's arm. He stops walking and turns to Lan Zhan, his expression shifting through anger, surprise, a brief flash of happiness, and finally a sort of tired resignation. "I guess for now we need to sleep. Can't save humanity without some rest." The smile he offers Lan Zhan is stiff, but at least it's a smile. It doesn't feel right when Wei Ying isn't smiling. "Goodnight, Lan Zhan."
Lan Zhan has no other comfort he can offer, so he only says, "Goodnight."
* * *
"What else would we do?" Jiang Cheng seems affronted that Wei Ying would even suggest they'd run from danger.
"But what can we do when we get there?" Huaisang asks. At the looks that earns him, he adds, "I'm not saying we shouldn't go, but we have no idea what these guys are planning. Do you think we can stop them with two fighters and a weaponless ship?"
"I don't know what we'll face," Wen Qing says, "but we have to try. We may be the only ones who can stop them."
The two days of flight pass tensely, no one sure how to behave when there's so much at stake but there's nothing they can do about it now. Wei Ying tries to lighten the mood, but with much less enthusiasm than usual. Lan Zhan, for his part, is caught between anger and fear and frustration at his current helplessness. He's worried about what they'll face at Yueyang, but he's ready to get there and have something he can shoot at instead of waiting uncertainly.
At last, they arrive at the small, unremarkable-looking asteroid, everyone gathering in the bridge to look out the viewing window. "Can we contact them and warn them?" Yanli asks.
Wen Qing shakes her head. "They're such a new colony that they only have a primitive communications array, not the kind we can patch into." That array is visible out the window, a small shadow between them and the asteroid. "And we don't have time to land and risk being on the ground when we're needed up here."
Silence follows Wen Qing's pronouncement until Jiang Cheng says, "So this is where it all started. The war, I mean."
"Not here," Wei Ying corrects. "It was this hunk of rock that got humans looking at the area, but the automated defense grid that blew up our survey ships is another three or four days' flight from here."
"Close enough," Jiang Cheng mutters.
The details aren't important now, but it's unpleasant to be back in this region of space, close to where so many humans and aliens died for so little reason. We can't let it happen again, Lan Zhan thinks. Whatever it takes, we have to stop them.
Wei Ying must be having similar thoughts because he turns away from the view and says, "Let's go to the bay, Lan Zhan, so we'll be ready whenever they get here."
They suit up except for their helmets, and they don't have to wait long before Wen Qing says over the comms, "One ship incoming. About the size of a two-seater fighter. Get out there and do what you have to do."
"Let's do this, Lan Zhan!" Wei Ying calls as they hurry into their fighters.
They take up positions near the communication array and wait until the ship comes into view. Lan Zhan's blood runs cold at the familiar sight: it's an Avarsul fighter. Everyone else must recognize it too, and Qingyang asks, "We're sure it's them and not actually the Avarsul?"
"Whoever it is, if they're going to attack, we have to stop them," Wei Ying says grimly. "But it's too much of a coincidence for the Avarsul to suddenly attack this colony now when they haven't even been spotted in this sector since the war."
"That's true, but unless they're getting close to the comms array, let them make the first—" Wen Qing starts to say, but breaks off as the enemy fighter takes a shot at Lan Zhan. He dodges easily; human fighters have the advantage of being more agile, and Lan Zhan is a particularly quick flyer. "Never mind," Wen Qing amends. "Good luck out there."
They trade fire with the enemy fighter for a while, but Avarsul blasters are powerful and it's hard for Lan Zhan and Wei Ying to get close enough to do any damage. As it moves closer to the communications array, the fighter fires off a barrage of shots that forces them to pull back. "This bastard is tough," Wei Ying grumbles. "Any suggestions for how to get past those weapons, Lan Zhan?"
Before Lan Zhan can answer, he's distracted by a light that begins to emanate from the ship. It's barely visible at first but gradually grows stronger as it pulses. It's an unnervingly familiar sight, though Lan Zhan only saw it on news videos: the quantum bomb used at the Battle of the Bomb gave off light like that before it fired, instantly killing every living being in the vicinity, an unprecedented level of destruction since humans went to space.
His heartbeat picks up as he tries to make sense of the situation. If this is indeed the work of the men they overheard, how could they possibly have access to the Avarsul's deadliest weapon? Didn't they say the goal was to get the colony to send a message, then cut off communication before destroying the asteroid? How does killing everyone on the colony now fit with that goal? And if the goal really is to kill off the colony immediately, why is the ship near the communications array instead of as close to the asteroid as possible? It doesn't make sense, but he can't take what he's seeing lightly. Humans made that mistake once with the quantum bomb, and they paid dearly for it.
"Shit. Shit shit shit. Fuck. Why is that here?" Wei Ying's voice pulls Lan Zhan out of his thoughts. He sounds utterly terrified, which catches Lan Zhan completely off guard. Wei Ying is the type of person to laugh in the face of danger and then spring into action. Why is he suddenly panicking? Of course he doesn't have much actual battle experience, but he was fine until now, despite the danger.
"Is that what I think it is? You need to get away now!" Wen Qing sounds scared too, understandably, but not like Wei Ying, not too panicked to do anything.
"Lan Zhan, we need to—it's going to—fuck, I can't." Wei Ying is still freaking out, dead in the water so to speak. Lan Zhan wants to help him, but there are more urgent matters to deal with. He frowns in the alien fighter's direction and suddenly notices something, flying closer to confirm that his eyes aren't deceiving him. "Lan Zhan, stop!" Wei Ying's voice goes high and thin, nothing like Lan Zhan has ever heard from him before.
"Wangji, what are you doing?" Wen Qing demands. "Get out of there!"
"It's not real." Lan Zhan wasn't sure, but as he gets closer, he can see that unlike with the real quantum bomb, this ship is manned—and by a human, at that. Before he can explain, the ship fires, but not at them, and not with the deadly blast seen at the Battle of the Bomb. Instead, it fires its blasters right at the communications array, destroying it.
Without waiting for an order, Lan Zhan flies into firing range. The ship tries to evade him, but the debris from the array is blocking their escape. He gets off several rounds and watches the fighter explode before his eyes. He feels a twinge of guilt—this is his first kill since the war, and his first time killing a human—but he reminds himself that it was necessary. He can't let these people succeed in their plan to cause another war.
"The fighter is gone," he says, "but it successfully destroyed the communications array."
"And the bomb?" Wen Qing asks.
"It was a fake. That was a manned ship with a human inside. I believe they wanted the colonists to see the light, think it was the Avarsul attacking, and notify the authorities."
"Come back to the ship and we'll talk about it," the captain says.
"Understood." Lan Zhan turns back to the Peony, but now that the danger is past, he notices that Wei Ying is conspicuously silent, and that he made no move to join the attack after the light started flashing.
"Wei Ying, are you there?" There's silence, and a feeling of dread settles over Lan Zhan. He can see Wei Ying's ship on the screen and with his own two eyes, undamaged, but what if something happened to him? "Wei Ying, say something."
"What's wrong?" Wen Qing asks. "Wuxian, talk to me!"
There's a strange sound over the comms, and it takes Lan Zhan a moment to realize that it's breathing—heavy, rapid breathing as though Wei Ying is having a panic attack. He doesn't understand at all what's happening, but he knows that Wei Ying needs his help. He flies over so that his fighter is just in front of Wei Ying's, visible through the canopy. "Wei Ying, follow me."
He moves slowly, worried that Wei Ying is too panicked to even do this much, but to his relief, the other fighter starts to move too, nose to tail with his. Like that, together, they make their way back to the Peony. No one says a word, as though Lan Zhan and Wen Qing and the whole crew are holding their breaths with Wei Ying. Lan Zhan only lets his out when they're safely in the hangar bay, but even then, he's worried. What is wrong with Wei Ying, for him to be like this? He's never even seen Wei Ying show fear, let alone this kind of panic.
He jumps out of his fighter before the hangar bay is even repressurized, trusting his flight suit to protect him, and runs back to Wei Ying's. It's hard to see his expression under the helmet, but he can see the tension in his body, and he's pretty sure he's shaking. "Wei Ying, open up!" He has to bang on the window to get Wei Ying's attention, making him jump, but he finally opens the canopy of his fighter as the bay repressurizes around them.
"Lan Zhan, what..." Wei Ying can't even finish his sentence, still gasping for breath. Lan Zhan finds the release on his helmet and pulls it off for him, and Wei Ying draws in a loud breath of fresh air. He's definitely trembling, and he doesn't stop as Lan Zhan helps him out of the fighter. His legs immediately give out beneath him and Lan Zhan goes down to the floor with him. He can't believe what he's seeing when Wei Ying has always seemed so strong before, so unbothered by anything. What has him so overwhelmed?
The rest of the crew except for Jiang Cheng (who is presumably waiting at the controls in case they need to make a quick escape) runs into the bay together, loudly calling for Wei Ying. Yanli gets there first, kneeling in front of him and taking his hands. "What's wrong?" Her eyes dart over to Lan Zhan, expecting him to have an explanation, but he shakes his head.
"Th-the light," Wei Ying barely manages to say, choking on the words. He seems to have marginally calmed down, but he's still shaking in Lan Zhan's arms, his breath coming in harsh gasps. "Wasn't it—I thought—I don't understand. We should be dead. We shouldn't...you can't survive that. Nobody survived that. Not that close. I was farther, but this time...too close."
Suddenly, Lan Zhan thinks he understands why Wei Ying had such a strong reaction to the mock quantum bomb, but he can't believe it. "You were at the Battle of the Bomb?" Yanli gasps, and so do several of the others around them.
As sure as he is of his conclusion, Lan Zhan is still surprised when Wei Ying nods mutely. It's impossible to comprehend how Wei Ying could have seen the absolute worst the war had to offer, as one of the very few survivors of such a gruesome attack, and still be the way he is. How could he act so cheerful, so normal after witnessing such horror not long ago? Lan Zhan can't make sense of it.
"I thought you said you were at the Red Sector." Qingyang sounds as shocked as Lan Zhan feels. "That was all the way at the other end of the warzone."
"I was." Wei Ying takes a deep breath, still fighting to calm down. He sits up a little straighter but doesn't pull away from Lan Zhan, who holds onto him as though that can somehow make up for what Wei Ying lived through. "For most of the war. I got transferred to the Purple Sector just in time to fight in the Battle of the Bomb."
A few seconds of dead silence follow the revelation. "No offense, but how did you survive?" Huaisang asks. "The stories I heard..."
"I got in trouble right before the attack." Wei Ying's laugh sounds an awful lot like a sob. "Some stupid little thing. So they stationed me at the edge of the battlefield, just barely out of range."
"A-Ying." There are tears in Yanli's eyes. "You never said anything." Wei Ying doesn't respond, only leans into her hand as she brushes it down his cheek. A moment later, he finally moves out of Lan Zhan's hold to hug Yanli tightly. His shoulders start to shake again, and Lan Zhan looks away, feeling that this isn't something he should see.
"What's going on?" Jiang Cheng's voice over the comms startles all of them. "Is that idiot okay?"
"He's safe," Wen Qing says, not quite answering the question. Lan Zhan isn't so sure that Wei Ying is okay; he can only hope that he will be. "Come on, Wangji. Let's go talk about what happened out there."
They leave Wei Ying in Yanli's care. Wen Qing sends Wen Ning to talk to Jiang Cheng and the rest of them make their way to the mess hall. Lan Zhan explains everything he saw and his assumptions about what it meant.
"We have to assume that the colony sent a message out," Wen Qing says. "The Sigma Outpost will presumably send fighters, but it'll be more than three days before they get here. We also have to assume that another attack is coming, and be ready." She frowns at Lan Zhan, and he can guess what she's thinking. If Wei Ying is in no condition to fight, he'll be on his own for whatever comes next.
"We'll be ready," Lan Zhan says firmly. Realistically, he knows that anyone who can get their hands on an Avarsul fighter, or build their own version of one, has a lot of resources at their command and shouldn't be taken lightly, but he also knows the stakes. Failure is not an option, and that's all there is to it.
* * *
Lan Zhan finds Wei Ying on his bed, but instead of resting, he's doing crunches of all things, enough to have him out of breath. Lan Zhan stops just inside the door, not even knowing what to say to that. A few hours ago, Wei Ying was utterly panicked, shaking like a leaf. Now, he's acting as though nothing happened. He ignores Lan Zhan's entrance, counting out loud from ninety-one until he gets to a triumphant one hundred.
Only then does he sit up, turning to face Lan Zhan with his legs hanging off the side of the bunk. "Hey, Lan Zhan."
"Yanli asked me to bring you dinner." He holds up the plate.
Wei Ying smiles. "Of course she did." He climbs down the ladder and takes the plate from Lan Zhan. "Thanks." He sits cross-legged on the floor with it in front of him, but Lan Zhan notices that he doesn't eat, only pokes at the food with his chopsticks.
Lan Zhan sits on his bunk, wondering what the right thing to say is, if anything. He's thinking a lot of things, particularly worrying about whether Wei Ying is really all right and feeling guilty for how he judged him before. He had no way of knowing what Wei Ying had been through when even the people closest to him didn't, but he didn't have to look down on him, assuming that he couldn't possibly understand Lan Zhan's complicated feelings about the war, and that he took the horrors of it lightly. Maybe it would be better to keep those thoughts to himself and not burden Wei Ying now, but before he can think better of it, Lan Zhan says, "I'm sorry."
Wei Ying looks up at him in surprise. "For what?"
"I thought you had it easy."
Now Wei Ying looks right back down, suddenly very interested in his untouched food. "I wanted you to. I wanted everyone to."
"Why?" Lan Zhan can understand not wanting people's pity, but it must have been so difficult to pretend, to talk about the war with a smile on his face as though he hadn't witnessed anything remotely like the awful things he saw.
Wei Ying shrugs. "It's easier to be okay when you can pretend there's no reason you wouldn't be."
That one sentence reveals so much about Wei Ying, and it makes Lan Zhan want to hug him and yell at him and ask him how he's strong enough to be okay after everything, even if it takes some pretending. It makes him feel weak for not being able to do the same, and it makes him sad and it makes him realize how much Wei Ying being as happy as he always seems to be matters to him. He's been aware of his feelings for a while, but it's only now, with everything so heightened, that he realizes how important Wei Ying is to him, how deeply he's come to care about him.
Wei Ying laughs, an awkward sort of laugh trying to fill the silence. "Don't make it weird, Lan Zhan. I'm fine. Those assholes freaked me out with their fake bomb thing, but I'm over it."
Lan Zhan is skeptical, considering that Wei Ying still hasn't eaten a single bite of his dinner, but if he wants to carry on pretending, Lan Zhan will let him. What else can he do? "Do you want to meditate with me?" he offers. Wei Ying could probably use it tonight of all nights.
"Go ahead without me." Wei Ying hops up to his feet. "I'll take this back to the mess hall."
As Lan Zhan sits down to meditate, he still feels worried and guilty and a mess of other emotions, but there's nothing he can do besides be there if Wei Ying needs him. He can only hope that they'll both be okay—really okay, without any pretending—someday.
Nothing feels normal right now, but Lan Zhan still gets up for his run the next morning, though he dresses in his flight suit instead of his usual more comfortable workout clothes so that he'll be ready if anything happens. He's just about to leave when he hears Wei Ying draw in a sharp breath and turns back to see him sitting up. The lights are dim but it's easy to read the tension in his shoulders and the way he clutches at his blanket as his eyes dart around the room.
His eyes land on Lan Zhan and then he slowly relaxes, realizing where he is. "Morning." He doesn't quite manage to make it sound casual.
"Good morning." Lan Zhan doesn't need to ask to know that Wei Ying had a nightmare, but he doesn't know if he should say something or let it go. He's no good at saying comforting things.
Wei Ying climbs out of bed. "Mind if I run with you today?" he asks, already going for his clothes.
"No." Against his better judgment, Lan Zhan asks, "How did you sleep?"
Wei Ying turns to flash him a suspicious look. "Since when do you make small talk?"
"It's not small talk." There's a purpose to his question.
Wei Ying turns back around, hiding his expression. "I slept terribly," he says in an incongruously cheerful voice. "How about you?"
Lan Zhan remembers suddenly another morning when Wei Ying woke up early, and how Yanli saw something in him that made her worry. "Those other mornings when you were up early, was it because of nightmares?"
"Maybe I just wanted to see you sooner." Wei Ying grins as he pulls his hair up, but now Lan Zhan knows better than to be convinced by his smiles. Wei Ying can see his doubt, and the smile gradually melts off his face. "I don't want to talk about it," he says quietly.
"I'm good at not talking."
The smile that blossoms over Wei Ying's face looks the same as before, but this time, Lan Zhan thinks it's real. "You are," he agrees. "Ready to go?"
Lan Zhan only remembers that they decided to post a watch during the night, to be sure that they would respond quickly when the next attack came, when they run into the bridge and find Jiang Cheng slumped in the captain's chair. "What are you doing here?" he asks them.
Wei Ying stops to talk, so Lan Zhan does too. "Lan Zhan and I are running. And I see you're sleeping in Captain Qing's chair."
"I'm keeping watch!" Jiang Cheng sits up straighter and glares at Wei Ying. "Making myself useful, unlike some people." His words irritate Lan Zhan; how can he give Wei Ying a hard time now of all times?
"We're going to keep running, then, and help you stay awake." Wei Ying grins obnoxiously wide and ignores Jiang Cheng glaring daggers at him. He starts running again and Lan Zhan follows him.
They continue running, Jiang Cheng's expression growing darker and darker each time they pass. Lan Zhan doesn't understand it. He's so worried about Wei Ying, wanting to keep him safe and happy. How can Jiang Cheng, who's known him so much longer and is much closer to him, be reacting like this?
Finally, after twenty minutes or so, Wei Ying tells Lan Zhan, "I'm going to take a break," and sits down with Jiang Cheng in the bridge. "Can you just talk to me instead of sulking?" Lan Zhan hears him say before he runs out.
When Lan Zhan's next circuit brings him through the bridge, Wei Ying is saying, "It's not personal, okay? I figured if I never mentioned it, no one would ever talk to me about it. I don't—" His voice fades beyond what Lan Zhan can hear.
The next time Lan Zhan passes through, Jiang Cheng is talking. "—always like this. You don't want to bother anyone, but do you think it feels good to find out this way?" Lan Zhan can understand those feelings, but not how Jiang Cheng can take them out on Wei Ying when he's so clearly hurting.
He leaves without hearing Wei Ying's response and runs through again just in time to hear Wei Ying ask, "What are you even mad about?"
"I want to help you!" Jiang Cheng bursts out, still sounding angry. He glares in Lan Zhan's direction, and Lan Zhan can take the hint; this conversation isn't for him to hear. He goes to the VR room instead to run on the treadmill. It's less interesting than running through the ship, but at least it's peaceful.
He's nearly ready to stop when the door opens and Wei Ying comes in. "I thought you might be here." He walks over and Lan Zhan can see better now that the lights have brightened to their morning setting how haggard Wei Ying looks, clearly much less okay than he's pretending to be.
He nods, and Wei Ying says, "Don't mind Jiang Cheng. He just doesn't know how to deal with any feelings other than anger."
"And you do?" Lan Zhan asks, though he hardly has room to talk himself.
Wei Ying laughs. "You're in an interesting mood today, Lan Zhan." He doesn't respond to the point, only says, "Want to see the VR setting I made?"
Lan Zhan is wary, remembering when Wei Ying programmed a VR version of him, but he also wants to see Wei Ying smile enough to not care what foolishness he has in mind. If that's what it takes, so be it. "All right."
He slows down as Wei Ying messes with the VR, getting off the treadmill into a beautiful scene. There's grass that covers his ankles and trees all around, a brilliant shade of green, along with bright pink and purple flowers on many of the trees. A river flows by right next to them and another not far away, merging into one broad river in the distance. The sound of running water and rustling grass and chirping birds makes Lan Zhan feel at peace. VR can only do so much, but he swears the air feels fresher as he takes a deep breath, enjoying the warm sun on his skin.
Wei Ying is smiling expectantly at him, and Lan Zhan is pleasantly surprised that there seems to be no trick this time, only a beautiful setting for them to enjoy together. "It's nice."
Wei Ying beams at the compliment. "This is Yiling," he explains, "or at least how it looks in my memory."
It tugs at Lan Zhan's heartstrings that Wei Ying made a virtual version of his home colony, a place he'll likely never see again in person. Does it make him feel safe, at a time when he's been forcefully reminded of how scary the wider world can be? "It's beautiful."
"It was. It's probably even more beautiful now without a bunch of pesky humans cutting down the trees and dirtying the water." There's something sad in Wei Ying's expression, though Lan Zhan can't say exactly what he's sad about. It makes him want to hold Wei Ying like he did yesterday, but it would be different now, in less extreme circumstances. He wouldn't know how to start it, and he doesn't know if Wei Ying would even want him to.
"Anyway." Wei Ying abruptly erases the VR setting, and Lan Zhan feels the loss. It was nice, for a moment, to be somewhere beautiful and simple and imagine everything being like that. "I'm going to run some more since Jiang Cheng ruined my plans. See you at breakfast."
Lan Zhan feels like he should say something to cheer Wei Ying up, but maybe there's nothing he could say even if he was better at that sort of thing. Maybe the kindest choice is to pretend not to see Wei Ying's sadness. "See you," he says, and leaves it at that.
* * *
"Sorry I woke you up." It's hard to tell with Wei Ying's voice so quiet, but Lan Zhan thinks he sounds choked up.
"It's fine. Did you have a nightmare?"
"Yeah." He's surprised at how readily Wei Ying answers this time, but maybe it's easier to admit it in the dark, in the middle of the night when nothing quite feels real.
Lan Zhan searches for comforting words to say but still finds none. What can he say that would be comfort enough after what Wei Ying has seen?
The nightlight on the ladder automatically turns on as Wei Ying steps on it, and Lan Zhan watches him come down. He thinks Wei Ying is going to the bathroom, but instead, without any noticeable hesitation, he climbs onto Lan Zhan's bed, kneeling beside him. His eyes seem particularly shadowed in the dim light, his shoulders slumped under the weight of his memories. "Lan Zhan." His voice is still so quiet, so unlike him. It's so wrong for Wei Ying to be like this, sad and muted instead of smiling.
Lan Zhan sits up and puts a hand on Wei Ying's arm. In the dim light, in the middle of the night, it's easier to offer physical comfort, the only kind he has to offer. Wei Ying's expression remains somber as he turns to face Lan Zhan. The light switches off, returning the room to darkness, and suddenly Wei Ying moves, his hands landing on Lan Zhan's shoulders as he kisses him. Lan Zhan, caught completely off guard, responds on reflex, wrapping his arms around Wei Ying and kissing him back.
In a way, it feels perfectly natural to kiss Wei Ying. They've become close, maybe not compared to Wei Ying and other people, but closer than Lan Zhan has ever gotten to anyone outside of his family. Lan Zhan finds him attractive, and he likes him too, despite his often conflicted feelings. There have been moments when he's thought that Wei Ying is also interested in him, but it's so hard to tell when charming and flirtatious seems to be his default setting with everyone. He told himself that surely if Wei Ying was interested, he would have made a move already, since he's hardly shy.
Now Wei Ying is kissing him, so clearly there's an attraction, but the circumstances are not what Lan Zhan would have wanted. There's desperation in the way Wei Ying is kissing him, the way he's clinging to Lan Zhan like he's an anchor to keep him from drifting helplessly back into the nightmare that woke him. He's not kissing because he wants to kiss Lan Zhan—or at least not only because of that—but because he wants to forget, to escape.
In spite of those thoughts, Lan Zhan can't bring himself to stop until Wei Ying's hand comes between them and touches him without preamble. He abruptly goes still, pulling away, and Wei Ying groans, "Why?" His voice is rough in a different way from before and it turns Lan Zhan on, but he still lets go of Wei Ying and gently but firmly pushes him away. He's thought about this kind of thing more times than he'll ever admit, but he doesn't want it like this, not when he can't even tell if it's him Wei Ying wants or if any warm body would do.
He can't see Wei Ying's reaction in the dark, only feels him move to the end of the bed. "I'm sorry." Wei Ying's voice is soft again, unreadable.
"Don't be." Lan Zhan is a little hurt, if he's honest, or at least disappointed, but he's not angry with Wei Ying. He's only trying his best to deal with something too big for anyone to easily cope with.
The light turns on again when Wei Ying steps on the floor, but he stands up too quickly for Lan Zhan to see his face. Remembering how utterly broken Wei Ying looked in the hangar bay yesterday, he's not sure he wants to, selfishly. He stays sitting up on his bed as Wei Ying climbs the ladder and, from the sound of it, lies down on his bunk. "Goodnight, Lan Zhan," he says in that same soft voice. "Sleep well."
"Sleep well," Lan Zhan echoes. He's frustrated, but he thinks he made the right choice in pushing Wei Ying away this time. He can only hope that tonight hasn't changed anything between them and that in the morning, after a good night's sleep, Wei Ying will feel more like himself again.
* * *
"What is it?" Lan Zhan asks groggily, already rolling out of bed and going for his flight suit.
"It's Wuxian! You need to get out there as fast as you can. H-he took over my watch since he couldn't sleep, and he was supposed to call me if there was a problem, but he just took his f-fighter out without saying anything."
"Why?" Diving into his flight suit and running for the hangar bay before he's even fully awake brings back unpleasant memories of the war, but Lan Zhan can't spare any thought for that. He's worried about Wei Ying, and about the whole ship and crew.
"There's a ship. S-scans say it's loaded with explosives and it's heading for the asteroid. That must be how they p-plan to destroy it."
"Can we stop it?" Lan Zhan is in the hangar bay, hurrying over to his fighter.
"I don't know!" Wen Ning sounds panicked. He was never a soldier, and this situation is far beyond what he's accustomed to dealing with. "It's b-big, and it might fall onto the planet even if you disabled its engines now."
Lan Zhan pulls on his helmet and straps himself in, checking the cockpit seal before opening the bay doors. "We'll figure it out. I'm on my way."
"I think he's g-going to ram it!" Wen Ning cries. "The ship. Th-that's s-suicide!"
"Wuxian!" another voice yells: Wen Qing. "What do you think you're doing? Find another way, do you understand me? Wangji is heading out. You can find another way!"
"Wei Ying, don't be an idiot. Don't you fucking dare die!" That's Jiang Cheng, expressing his worries in his usual way.
"A-Ying!" Yanli's voice trembles. "Just wait, please!"
"Quiet on the comms!" Lan Zhan snaps. He can't focus, and it's obvious from his silence that Wei Ying isn't going to listen to them. The other ship isn't far away, and Wei Ying's fighter so close to it, but he needs time and he doesn't know if he has it. He can see them out the front of the canopy as he flies closer, and so he has a perfect view of Wei Ying's tiny fighter diving right into the middle of the much larger ship and of the explosion that blooms from that point, small at first and quickly growing until the whole ship is consumed.
"Wei Ying!" The words burst out of him, deafeningly loud in the confines of his helmet, as he stares in horror at the scene. He remembers how he pushed Wei Ying away earlier. Surely that can't have been their last interaction, the last chance he had to save his friend from this.
"He ejected! Can you get to him?" Wen Qing's voice snaps him out of his shock.
"I'm going!" His screen registers Wei Ying in his flight suit, though he's lost to Lan Zhan's eyes against the brightness of the exploding ship. He doesn't know if he can get there fast enough, or if he'll be able to get away after, and his heart races as he hurries forward anyway. He can't leave Wei Ying to die, but he doesn't want to die with him. He wants to get out of this and live and be happy, both of them, in spite of everything they've been through.
He's so afraid that he won't make it, but he's closer and closer and then Wei Ying is finally within reach. Lan Zhan flings out electro-ropes to lash him to the roof of his fighter, behind the cockpit. As soon as they're stable, he burns his reverse thrusters for all they're worth. The wreckage of the large ship is so close and he thinks they're going to get pulled into it, but mercifully the distance between them and the explosion starts to increase.
"Wei Ying!" he yells. "Can you hear me?"
There's no response from Wei Ying. Wen Qing asks, "Did you get him? Are you out?"
"I got him. We're coming in." The silence from Wei Ying worries Lan Zhan. What if he's hurt? What if he's dead, injured in the explosion so that Lan Zhan has only managed to rescue a body? "Wei Ying, are you there?" he tries again.
"I'm here." Wei Ying sounds dazed, but he's alive, and that's all that matters right now. Anything else can be dealt with once they're safe.
"I'm going to kill you once you get back here," Wen Qing growls, but Lan Zhan thinks she's crying. He can understand her feelings very well.
The second the hangar bay repressurizes after Lan Zhan's landing, everyone runs in, crowding around them. Lan Zhan jumps out, yanking off his helmet and throwing it aside in a way he never normally would in his hurry to see if Wei Ying is okay. He turns around just in time to see Wei Ying pull off his helmet and shakily stand up on top of Lan Zhan's fighter.
"Well, that was an adventure." He's smiling, but there's an unsteady quality to it.
"What were you thinking?" Wen Qing asks at the same time as Jiang Cheng yells, "You're crazy!" and Yanli says, "I'm so glad you're okay!" Qingyang is crying and Huaisang is muttering something to himself and in the midst of the chaos, all Lan Zhan can see and hear is Wei Ying, shaken but unharmed. It's horrifying to think how close he came to death, and to realize that he was willing to risk it, but in this moment, all that matters is that he's alive.
Wei Ying, for his part, looks right at him. "That was a very risky move you pulled, Lan Zhan."
"I pulled..." Lan Zhan splutters. Trust Wei Ying to be so ridiculous even now, acting like Lan Zhan wanted to fly into danger to rescue him.
Wei Ying's smile widens. "It's high up here. I'm going to jump, okay?"
It's a stupid thing to do, and there's more yelling from the others, but Lan Zhan just holds out his arms without thinking about it and Wei Ying jumps into them. There's a jolt, but as Wei Ying's arms wrap around him and he buries his face in Lan Zhan's neck, nothing else seems to matter. He was hesitant to hug Wei Ying before, but after what happened tonight, he won't waste a single chance. "You're okay," Lan Zhan murmurs, not sure himself whether he's offering reassurance or expressing relief.
"I'm okay," Wei Ying confirms.
"I see you only want to hug him," Yanli teases through her tears, and Huaisang mutters, "Why do I feel like a third wheel?"
"Everybody out," Wen Qing orders. "We'll meet in the mess hall in five minutes to discuss the situation."
Wei Ying doesn't let go as the others leave, so neither does Lan Zhan. It's very unlike him to be so demonstrative, especially publicly, but he doesn't care. He's just so relieved that Wei Ying is alive, the warmth of his body against Lan Zhan's reassuring him of that. It also reassures him that what happened earlier hasn't ruined their relationship, and maybe even that Wei Ying wouldn't have come to just anyone for comfort during the night.
"We should go," he finally says, reluctantly.
"I guess so." Wei Ying pulls back, his arms still looped around Lan Zhan's neck. "Lan Zhan, I wanted to say, about last night—earlier, I mean—what time is it even? I wanted to say, it wasn't—I wasn't just messing around. I know it was sudden and maybe the timing wasn't right, but...I was serious, you know."
Lan Zhan's heart is pounding, not like his earlier terror, but with nervous excitement. He meets Wei Ying's eyes, and they're more unguarded than he's ever seen outside of his moment of panic the other day, showing lingering fear and hurt, but also hope and affection. "Say something, Lan Zhan." He laughs nervously, and Lan Zhan finds it annoyingly charming.
Words have never been Lan Zhan's strong suit, so instead he kisses Wei Ying, a softer kiss than before, expressing his own affection and hope for their future. Wei Ying tries to turn it into more, and Lan Zhan wouldn't mind, but he makes himself pull away. "The meeting," he reminds Wei Ying. "It's important."
"I know, I know," Wei Ying grumbles. "Wen Qing is going to yell at me."
"Not much, I think." She's too happy Wei Ying is alive to yell for long.
"We'll see." Wei Ying pulls out of Lan Zhan's arms but takes his hand as they walk to the mess hall together, and although there's still a lot to worry about, Lan Zhan can't help feeling happy.
There's a range of reactions when they walk into the mess hall hand in hand, from Qingyang smiling as she mutters, "It's about time" to Jiang Cheng looking revolted and yet somehow a little fond. Yanli pulls Wei Ying into a tight hug (which he finally lets go of Lan Zhan's hand to return), murmuring something Lan Zhan can't hear. Jiang Cheng hugs him after, and then Wen Qing, before she holds onto his shoulders and says archly, "You owe me a fighter."
Wei Ying laughs. "Come on, don't I get any credit for stopping the bad guys? Your fighter would be fine if not for them."
"We'll talk." It's obvious to all of them that Wen Qing doesn't have it in her to really give him a hard time right now.
"So, of course we're all happy Wuxian is alive, but don't we need to do something about those bad guys?" Huaisang puts in. "Do we really think that's the end of it?"
"It sounds like that was all they had planned, but since it failed, they may well try again." Wen Qing goes to the table and they all sit down. "We'll stay here for a little longer to see if they have anything else up their sleeves, but then we should go to the Sigma Outpost and report all of this. Then it's up to the authorities to figure it out."
"Good," Huaisang says. "This is too big for us."
Lan Zhan would like to see this through to the end, whatever that may be, but Huaisang is right, probably. They're only a merchant ship with two security people, and now only one fighter. They managed to stop the attack on Yueyang by the skin of their teeth, but taking down the men they saw on Zar and anyone else involved is beyond their capabilities.
"Wangji, I'd like you ready just in case there's more fighting, and Jiang Cheng in case we need to get out fast, but the rest of you should try to sleep. It's—" Wen Qing breaks off at the beep of the proximity alert. "Let's get to the bridge," she says sharply.
They don't all need to be there, but they go anyway. The approaching ship isn't visible out the viewing window, but the scans show it coming up behind them. "Should I evade?" Jiang Cheng asks.
"Wait a little, but be ready if they try anything," Wen Qing says.
Not ten seconds later, there's another beep, this time over the comms. "They're trying to connect to proximity comms," Qingyang says.
"Let them through. Audio only."
An angry male voice Lan Zhan thinks he recognizes from that night on Zar asks, "What did you do to my ship?"
"So sorry. I blew it up." Wei Ying seems to be back to his usual smug self, at least on the surface.
"Who the hell are you and what are you doing here?"
"We should be asking you that. What do you think you're doing trying to destroy this colony that hasn't done anything to you and stir up trouble for everyone?" Wei Ying's anger flares up quickly, and Lan Zhan can't fault him for it. "I bet you're one of those cowardly rich bastards whose daddy got him out of fighting in the war, so you think it's no big deal if we have another one."
The man sputters out a few choice words without denying the point, and Wei Ying pushes, "People like you are trash, not caring who dies as long as you get what you want." He's getting so worked up that Yanli rubs his shoulder, trying to calm him down.
"Watch your words!" the other man snaps. "You're the trash who won't be able to stop us. Do you think this is the end of it? You have no idea what kind of power we have on our side."
The crew exchanges worried glances, not sure how seriously to take his blustering. They don't know yet who this man is, let alone what kind of connections he has. Lan Zhan doesn't want to believe that there are even more people who want another war, but it's not impossible. He remembers all too clearly how angry some of his fellow soldiers still were at the end of the war, how they wanted to wipe the Avarsul out as payback for what they did.
"Yes, yes, I'm sure you're very important." Wei Ying is back to being sarcastic, though it's more biting than usual. "I'll bet—"
He breaks off when Jiang Cheng yells, "They're firing!" Luckily, the Peony is a quick little ship and they easily dodge the blasts.
"Should I go?" Lan Zhan asks Wen Qing, but she shakes her head.
"Let's get out of here. He doesn't have the weaponry to do any damage to the colony, and we don't need to listen to him gloat."
The other ship gets off a few more shots but doesn't manage to hit them, and soon, they're safely out of range. Jiang Cheng stays at the controls, but Wen Qing sends the rest of them back to bed. "Get some sleep, if you can. There's nothing else to do until we reach the Sigma Outpost."
It's not until they walk into their room that Lan Zhan thinks to wonder what will happen with Wei Ying now that they're alone, given what happened earlier. So much has happened in the last few hours and he hasn't slept enough to make sense of it all (though it's approaching his usual wake up time), but he thinks that if Wei Ying climbed into his bed again now, he wouldn't say no.
Wei Ying looks over at him, and it's like he's too tired to pretend anymore, his uncertainty and anger and weary sadness all clearly visible on his face. He manages a small, twisted smile. "I'm going to go...wash off all that space," he says, heading for the shower.
The autoshowers typical on ships like this have Wei Ying coming out of the bathroom only a minute or two later, a towel wrapped around his waist. Lan Zhan has only gotten as far as getting a drink of water and taking off his flight suit, and now he turns to Wei Ying. He looks exhausted but better than before, not quite so weighed down somehow. His eyes are heavy on Lan Zhan as he walks over and stands in front of him. "Hi," he says.
"Hi." Lan Zhan feels like he should say more, but he doesn't have the right words, not to comfort Wei Ying and not to tell him how much he cares.
Wei Ying doesn't seem to mind, only looking at Lan Zhan for a moment before pulling him toward the beds. Lan Zhan sits on his bunk with his feet on the floor, and Wei Ying climbs on top of him, knees on either side of his thighs. Lan Zhan is very aware of how little he's wearing, thinking about how they kissed here earlier, and how they kissed differently in the hangar bay. He lifts his hands and rests them on Wei Ying's hips, half on and half off the towel, and notices with interest how far around Wei Ying's narrow waist they reach.
In spite of their position, Wei Ying's expression is somber. "I said it before, but I want to be really clear: last night, it wasn't just because you were there and I needed someone. It was because it was you, and what happened reminded me that life is so fucking fragile. You can't put things off because you never know if you'll have more time." He chokes on the last few words, tears welling up in his eyes. Wei Ying isn't a weak man, but there's something delicate about him in this moment, like if Lan Zhan isn't careful with him, he might break.
"I understand." Lan Zhan does, both because he wants Wei Ying too and because he understands all too well how uncertain life can be. How awful would he have felt if Wei Ying died today and he'd missed his chance forever?
Instead of being comforted by his words, Wei Ying starts to cry in earnest, tears streaming down his cheeks. Lan Zhan doesn't know what to do, so he's simultaneously relieved and confused when Wei Ying starts laughing through his tears. "And here I thought I was going to seduce you. Look at me."
Lan Zhan does look at him, and his heart swells with so much affection that he doesn't know what to do with it. Wasn't it only a week ago, if that, that he thought it best to keep his distance because they would never work together? When did he start to care about Wei Ying so much? He wraps his arms around Wei Ying's back and hugs him close, and Wei Ying buries his face against his shoulder. Lan Zhan can feel the wetness of his tears against his skin as his own eyes burn with unshed tears, but it's okay, he thinks. They've both held a lot in, hidden a lot. He always thought that was the best way, because it's how he's always been, but maybe there's something to be said for opening up, being vulnerable and realizing that you won't be judged for it.
It seems like a long time before Wei Ying goes still and quiet in his arms, and only then does Lan Zhan notice that the towel has fallen in his lap and his hands have drifted quite low on Wei Ying's back. If Wei Ying doesn't mind then neither does he, but it does make him think about what will happen tonight. With Wei Ying's words about never knowing when your time will run out echoing in his mind, he doesn't want to hold back.
"Lan Zhan." Wei Ying's voice is muffled against his shoulder, so he lifts his head. His eyes are red and his cheeks are still wet, but he doesn't look fragile anymore. He looks determined as he asks, "If I touch you, will you let me this time?"
Lan Zhan swallows hard, very aware of how his hands are almost cupping Wei Ying's ass now. He doesn't have to think about his answer. "Yes."
"Good. Then take your clothes off already."
Lan Zhan tugs off his shirt in one quick motion, draping it and the abandoned towel over the ladder, before falling back onto the bed, dragging Wei Ying with him. That leaves him in only his underwear, which Wei Ying tugs off before sprawling out on top of him. They kiss like that, bodies pressed together. It's not so different from what they did during the night, but it feels completely different, not Wei Ying trying to escape his feelings but kissing Lan Zhan because he wants to, because it feels good and right.
Wei Ying rolls them onto their sides and pulls back enough that he can smirk at Lan Zhan. This is different too, with the light on so Lan Zhan can see his smug expression, mixed with a sort of endearing eagerness that makes it impossible to hate him. Wei Ying's hand comes between them, and this time, Lan Zhan doesn't resist as Wei Ying gives him a long stroke. "Have you thought about this? Me touching you. You didn't seem surprised when I kissed you, and obviously you were into me already."
"Don't talk." Lan Zhan can't keep a tremor out of his voice as Wei Ying continues touching him.
"You should know that trying to keep me from talking is a lost cause, Lan Zhan." Wei Ying sounds so pleased with himself, so different from before that Lan Zhan almost doesn't care. "It seemed like you hated me for a while, but maybe you still thought I was hot. Maybe all those times we sparred and you got pissed at me for messing around, you wanted to fuck me hard against the wall after. I wasn't thinking about it then, but I'd be up for it next time."
Lan Zhan is torn between being annoyed that Wei Ying won't shut up even now and liking the ideas that he's putting into Lan Zhan's head. He also likes the thought that there will be a next time for the two of them, hopefully many next times. It's hard to focus on that with Wei Ying's hand moving on him, but it makes him feel warm and happy and excited for the future even as his body revels in Wei Ying's touch right now.
"You're always so prim and proper," Wei Ying continues. "I want to see what you look like when you come, if you'll make some interesting faces then." His thumb drags over the head and Lan Zhan bucks into his hand, drawing in a sharp breath. Wei Ying studies him for a moment, then laughs. "Your poker face is really something."
Lan Zhan uses a hand on the back of Wei Ying's neck to drag him in for a kiss, effectively shutting him up. It feels good like this, what little noises he makes disappearing into Wei Ying's mouth as his body coils up like a spring desperate for release. Wei Ying seems aware of it, his hand moving faster until Lan Zhan tips over the edge, moaning softly against Wei Ying's lips as pleasure courses through him.
"You didn't let me see," Wei Ying protests when they break apart, though he's smiling too much to look convincingly upset.
"I'll make it up to you."
Wei Ying looks momentarily surprised at his words before his smile grows even wider. "Please do."
They sit up, and Lan Zhan grabs the towel from the ladder to clean up a bit. Wei Ying watches him, naked hunger in his eyes. "You look good all post-orgasmic. Your cheeks are so pink and it makes you look even prettier. Maybe 'pretty' is the wrong word, but it suits you, even though you're so strong."
As Wei Ying talks, Lan Zhan shifts to face him, kneeling between his legs. "Sit back," he says, interrupting whatever else Wei Ying wanted to say about his prettiness.
Wei Ying obediently scoots to the head of the bed, leaning against the pillow. "What are you planning, Lan Zhan? Am I going to like it?"
Without further ado, he bends forward, propping himself up with his elbows next to Wei Ying's legs. He's fully hard, and his voice wavers when he says, "Oh, damn. I was hoping that's what you had in mind," even before Lan Zhan touches him.
The military required all the appropriate vaccines and preventatives, so Lan Zhan doesn't have to ask anything, only moves closer and licks from base to tip. Unlike him, Wei Ying makes no attempt to stay quiet, groaning heavily. "You have no idea how hot you look like that. There's something about someone as pretty and perfect-looking as you with his mouth on—fuck, Lan Zhan," he chokes as Lan Zhan swallows him down.
For a few seconds, Wei Ying just moans as Lan Zhan bobs his head up and down, but then he's back to talking. "No offense, but I didn't think you'd be so good at this, or at least that you wouldn't just go for a blowjob without me asking. You seem like you're too pure for sex, or maybe just like you've got too much of a stick up your—okay, maybe that's not the best metaphor in this case. Not that I'm complaining. You really know how—fuck, yes, like that."
The content of Wei Ying's rambling, Lan Zhan could do without, but he likes the way it lets him hear exactly what he's doing to Wei Ying, all the little tremors and gasps and moans that interrupt his words as Lan Zhan's mouth and tongue work over him. It feels good to make Wei Ying feel good, to make him fall apart in the best kind of way. It's a little overwhelming feeling like he wants so much to make Wei Ying happy, to give him everything, but he doesn't question it.
Wei Ying loses coherence as he gets close, but he still tries. "Lan Zhan, I—that's—yes—fucking hell, you're—shit, don't stop, I'm—" It all devolves into one long moan as he comes hot into Lan Zhan's mouth, clutching at the sheets as his body shakes. "Wow," he pronounces, patting Lan Zhan on the head as he pulls off. Lan Zhan thinks he's giving his usual frosty expression in response, but Wei Ying laughs. "Don't try that right now. You look too soft to glare."
Lan Zhan doesn't know how to feel about him looking soft of all things, but he doesn't think about it too hard. Wei Ying pulls him in for a kiss, and then they curl up in bed together with Wei Ying's back warm against Lan Zhan's chest. For a while, Wei Ying is quiet and Lan Zhan wonders what he's thinking, or if maybe he's just fallen asleep. He doesn't mind silence himself, but it does feel a bit strange with Wei Ying around.
When Wei Ying speaks a few minutes later, his voice is soft, nothing like before. "This isn't very good pillow talk, but I was thinking..."
He trails off, so Lan Zhan prompts, "Tell me."
Wei Ying holds up his hands in front of them. "I was just at the edge of the weapon range during the Battle of the Bomb. It only got my hands and feet, since they were sticking out for the controls. It wasn't even the full effect or there would've been no saving them, but the burns were really bad. I was in shock so I don't remember how it felt, but..." He doesn't finish the thought. "It took a whole month in a regeneration pod to fix, but look at me now. Good as new." Bitterness sneaks into his words. "I know I'm lucky, but sometimes I almost wish there were scars like people used to get in the old days. At least then..."
At least then, people would know without needing to be told that you'd been through an ordeal, Lan Zhan thinks. At least then, you might feel a little less guilty about surviving when so many others didn't, since you didn't survive physically unscathed. His experience in the war was different from Wei Ying's, but he understands those feelings all too well.
In the silence that follows his words, Wei Ying laughs awkwardly. "Forget I said anything. It's just been a long, strange night."
Lan Zhan wraps his arms more securely around Wei Ying. "I was injured two weeks before the Battle of the Bomb," he says in a low voice. "Quite severely." Wei Ying tenses, nervous about where this conversation is going, but a moment later, he relaxes, as though realizing that it's all right to talk about it with Lan Zhan. "One-fourth of the soldiers from my base were transferred to the Purple Sector a few days later, but I was still recovering. I got out of the regeneration pod the day after so many people I'd spent the war with died in the Battle of the Bomb."
He doesn't say anything more, but he doesn't think he needs to. Sure enough, after a moment, Wei Ying says, "I guess you understand, then." He turns in Lan Zhan's arms and there's a smile on his face, albeit a sad one. "Thank you. Not for this, I mean—not that I have any complaints about the sex—but just, thank you. For saving my life, and everything."
If Lan Zhan were a different sort of person, he might say how happy and grateful he is that Wei Ying is alive, or tell him that they can overcome the past together, or maybe even say, "I love you," though that seems hasty. But he's not that person, so he only says, "Mm," and gives Wei Ying a kiss that he hopes communicates enough.
* * *
"Mm." Wei Ying doesn't fully wake up, his eyes still closed as he rolls over to face Lan Zhan and snuggles into his chest. It's cuter than he has any right to be when Wei Ying is only a little shorter than him, and it makes a smile tug at Lan Zhan's lips. He doesn't know exactly where he and Wei Ying stand after last night, but he knows he's happy.
How strange that is, when a few months ago, he was sure he and his new roommate and partner would never get along. Even a week ago, while he'd accepted that he liked Wei Ying, he didn't think they were right for each other. Now, he's realized that he misjudged Wei Ying, and also that he doesn't care how different they are; he just wants to be together. Whether Wei Ying's feelings are the same, he doesn't know, but he's content with the way things are for now.
He tells himself he should get up and run, even if it's late, or at least go have breakfast, but he doesn't move. Instead, he closes his eyes again and wraps himself around Wei Ying, absently carding his fingers through his hair. Today of all days, he reasons, they deserve this kind of peaceful morning. There will be time enough to run later.
It's a long time before Wei Ying finally stirs awake, lifting his head and blinking sleepily at Lan Zhan. The shadows under his eyes are still dark, but he looks adorably hazy, and even more so when his face breaks into a smile. "Morning, Lan Zhan," he mumbles.
"Good morning." He leans in for a kiss and is relieved when Wei Ying responds without hesitation.
"What time is it?" Wei Ying asks when they break apart.
Wei Ying grimaces. "I don't even know when we went to sleep. Sorry I kept you from your morning routine."
"I slept in too."
"I guess we needed it after our busy night." Wei Ying's smile is small and wry, but then he winks. "I mean the sex, of course." Lan Zhan rolls his eyes, which only serves to make Wei Ying laugh. "I never thought I'd see an expression like that on your face." He kisses Lan Zhan again, just a peck at first but then more heated. "What do you say we stay in bed a little longer?"
"We should have breakfast," Lan Zhan says, trying to be responsible. "Lunch. And see what's going on."
"Nothing will be going on until we get to the Sigma Outpost," Wei Ying says, "except probably fussing over me. It can wait." Without giving Lan Zhan a chance to respond, Wei Ying kisses him again, and Lan Zhan is all too willing to give in.
By the time Lan Zhan and Wei Ying make their way to the mess hall, it's well past lunchtime even though most of the crew is sitting around there anyway. "I was beginning to think we should send a search party to check on you." Jiang Cheng's tone is as snide as ever, but he can't quite hide his worry behind his usual grumpiness.
"We're fine. Bed was just really comfy today." Wei Ying flashes his trademark cheeky grin and Jiang Cheng groans.
"Just stop talking. I don't want to know."
"Would you like something to eat?" Yanli makes no attempt at subtlety in changing the subject.
They sit and eat their nutrient bars, and the atmosphere is strangely relaxed, considering everything that happened in the last few days. Wei Ying is cheerful, prattling about nothing of significance, and the rest of them are happy to let him steer the conversation away from the attacks on Yueyang and whatever comes next. There's nothing they can do now, so there's no point in discussing it.
Wei Ying sticks to Lan Zhan's side so closely that he doesn't quite know what to think until he realizes that Wei Ying is dodging Yanli's attempts to get him alone. He can understand the sentiment, but he also knows Yanli and thinks that talking to her will be good for Wei Ying. There are some things he can only say to Lan Zhan, who understands more than anyone else on this ship can what he's been through, but there are probably other things he can only say to Yanli.
He must not be the only one thinking that, because after a while, Wen Qing says, "Wangji, can you come to the bridge with me? I want to discuss a few things." Wei Ying stands up too, but she adds, "You stay here, Wuxian. We've got it."
Wei Ying eyes them suspiciously but doesn't argue, so Lan Zhan follows Wen Qing to the bridge. Qingyang is there, but she nods to Wen Qing and leaves. "What is it?" Lan Zhan asks, though he can guess easily enough that she wants to talk to him about Wei Ying.
"You spend a lot of time with Wei Ying and...you're very different people, but I think you can understand his mentality better than anyone else here, so I'm going to ask you: do you think I need to worry about him? That he'll do something heroically stupid again, or otherwise put himself in danger."
Lan Zhan considers the question. None of them saw what Wei Ying did last night coming. He did save the day, in the end, but it would have been much less dangerous if he had called Lan Zhan for help as soon as he saw the ship. He doesn't know what Wei Ying was thinking then that made him go out alone, and he's not sure he wants to know. "I can't be sure," he admits.
"I'd probably worry anyway, even if you told me he was fine. Just...watch over him for me, will you?" Wen Qing smiles. "I guess you will even if I don't tell you."
Lan Zhan nods. He'll do whatever it takes to keep Wei Ying safe from now on, including from himself.
"Good." Wen Qing's earlier smile was tinged with sadness, but now it brightens. "I'm happy for you both."
Lan Zhan doesn't know what to say to that, but he nods. In spite of everything, he's happy too.
* * *
"Soon." Lan Zhan looks steadily back at Wei Ying, enjoying the way he suddenly rediscovers embarrassment and squirms.
"You really know how to undress a guy with your eyes, Lan Zhan. How about you do it for real?"
Lan Zhan doesn't need to be asked twice. He strips Wei Ying of his clothes and then removes his own before they tumble into bed. It still feels exciting and new to kiss Wei Ying and explore his body with his hands and mouth until he gasps out, "Fuck me, Lan Zhan."
His breathless plea sends a shiver of desire through Lan Zhan, and he hurries to follow through. It thrills him to have Wei Ying so pliant in his arms as he spreads him open, to hear him moan and beg for more. In his fantasies, he imagined Wei Ying would be more of a demanding brat, whining to have things his way. He does whine, but without much conviction, and even seems to enjoy Lan Zhan manhandling him. Lan Zhan's realized that they fit together a lot better than he thought, and it seems that's true in bed too.
It feels so good to come together, Wei Ying's body taking him in beautifully. Even now, Wei Ying won't shut up, babbling, "I can't believe I ever thought you were innocent and would be scandalized by me even talking about sex. You fuck like a pro." Lan Zhan knows that telling him to be quiet won't do any good, so he only picks up the pace until Wei Ying's words dissolve into helpless moans.
Only as they're both getting close does Wei Ying manage to say, "Lan Zhan, wait. I want to see you come this time."
Lan Zhan pulls out just long enough for Wei Ying to roll onto his back before thrusting in again, enjoying the way Wei Ying's expression goes slack as he arches into him. His eyes don't leave Wei Ying's flushed face, loving how he looks with his hair splayed out around him. Wei Ying is stunning, he thinks, and that much more so when all his usual artifice is gone, no jokes or fake smiles or playing cute, just the real Wei Ying lost in pleasure. He moans Lan Zhan's name as he comes, squeezing his eyes shut and writhing desperately around on the bed.
It's a struggle for Lan Zhan to hold on through that, but he wants to give Wei Ying what he wants. He waits until Wei Ying opens his eyes again, resting dark and heavy on him. Then, after only a few more thrusts, he lets go. He doesn't know what he looks like as his orgasm shakes through him, but he hopes Wei Ying is happy seeing him. He hopes Wei Ying is happy, period.
Wei Ying doesn't say anything until Lan Zhan lies down next to him and he rolls over to kiss him languidly. "You're so fucking hot," he murmurs. "Did you know that?" He laughs, clearly not expecting a response. "I should've seduced you sooner instead of wasting all this time."
Lan Zhan isn't sure it would have worked sooner, though he might not have been able to resist Wei Ying even when he was irritated with him. It doesn't matter, anyway, only that they're together now.
Considering their pillow talk last night (this morning?), Lan Zhan doesn't know what to expect, but Wei Ying seems in a happier mood now. He kisses Lan Zhan again and says, "Well, let's make up for it now. Make good use of all that traveling time."
"It's time for sleep now," Lan Zhan says, not giving away how much he likes what Wei Ying is saying.
Wei Ying chuckles and gives him one more kiss. "If you insist. Sleep well, Lan Zhan."
* * *
Lan Zhan sits up, and Wei Ying starts. "Oh, you're awake." He sounds fine, but he wouldn't be awake this early if he was fine. "Good morning."
"Why are you up?" Lan Zhan asks, not beating around the bush. He's never been one to talk about feelings, but if he wants to keep Wei Ying safe, it may be necessary.
"No reason." Lan Zhan is prepared to push him to tell the truth, but then Wei Ying sighs and continues unprompted, "I was thinking about those guys on Zar, and how they want to start another war. And then I was thinking about how terrible the last war was, and how it all started."
He doesn't look at Lan Zhan, instead focusing on his hands where he's absently tapping them on his knees. "That's the worst part, isn't it? The whole stupid war was just a mistake. A misunderstanding. We barged into their territory without realizing what we were doing, and they defended themselves without knowing we didn't mean any harm. None of it had to happen. But instead we killed them and they killed us, and what was the point of it all? It makes me mad that there was so much death, but I don't even know who to be mad at."
It doesn't really surprise Lan Zhan at this point to hear Wei Ying say all these things that he's thought himself about what a senseless waste of life the war was. It hurts to think about, and it hurts to see Wei Ying be upset about it. He wishes he could say something to make it better, but nothing he can say will change what happened, and he hasn't found any way to make it hurt less for himself.
"At least this time, I know who to blame," Wei Ying continues eventually. "I just can't understand how they could possibly want more of that."
"You told me the other day that people are like that. Happy about killing sometimes." He was angry then, but now Lan Zhan understands that Wei Ying was just trying to brush off the conversation, to not think about things he couldn't bear to think about.
Wei Ying looks over at him and grimaces. "Sorry, Lan Zhan. I said some stupid shit, didn't I?" Lan Zhan nods, and Wei Ying laughs shortly before turning serious again. "But it's true. Some people are like that, and it makes me wonder sometimes if we're worth saving."
Hearing that from Wei Ying does shock Lan Zhan, though maybe it shouldn't. He knows now that some of Wei Ying's cheerful optimism is a put on, but he didn't think it all was, to the point that Wei Ying would be so pessimistic about humanity.
Wei Ying glances over again, so quickly Lan Zhan doesn't catch his expression. "Forget I said that."
It would be easier to forget, to carry on pretending, but Lan Zhan has seen where that leads. "You're worth saving," he says impulsively. He can understand Wei Ying's negative feelings, but if nothing else, Lan Zhan wants him to value himself, so he won't jump into danger unnecessarily.
Wei Ying does the cutest little squirm, like he physically can't handle Lan Zhan saying that to him. "Lan Zhan, how do you barely say anything most of the time and then come out with something like that?"
Lan Zhan doesn't let him make a joke of it. "You can't give up, for yourself if nothing else."
There's silence, and Lan Zhan thinks that Wei Ying will try to brush it off again, or just ignore him, but finally, he says, "I know there are good people out there. Like you, and everyone on this ship. And...I don't want to die, you know. I get that everyone is worried about me, but that night, it wasn't...I just wasn't thinking straight. It won't happen again." He sounds sincere, and Lan Zhan desperately hopes it's the truth.
Abruptly, Wei Ying stands up. "Enough of this. We're going to take those guys down so there won't be another war, and that's all there is to it. Since I'm up, I'll come running with you."
Lan Zhan doesn't know if it's enough, but it will have to do, when there are no good answers to the issues they're grappling with. It's some comfort to him, at least, to talk to someone who understands, and he hopes that it is for Wei Ying too. He gets up to find his running clothes, and lets it go for now.
The remainder of their trip to the Sigma Outpost passes in much the same fashion, a strange mix of this sort of happy honeymoon period and struggling with the feelings that the fake quantum bomb, and more generally this whole encounter with the men trying to restart the war, has dredged up for both Wei Ying and Lan Zhan. It's confusing and sometimes difficult, but also sometimes wonderful. Lan Zhan is grateful for Wei Ying, and grateful that they're both alive and together. Everything else, including figuring out exactly where their relationship stands now, he can be patient with.
About an hour before they're due to arrive, Wen Qing announces, "We connected to outpost comms. Meet me in the mess hall to discuss."
Once they're all gathered, Qingyang says, "After improving the image quality, since the lighting was so bad, I managed to ID one of the guys in the video. One of those two assholes who hit on me our first night on Zar. He wasn't in our on-ship databases, but I checked once I got network access and he posts his picture everywhere, so I found him right away. His name is Wen Chao." She pulls up a video with her wristlet of a greasy-looking young man spouting pick up lines at the camera. "I think he's the one who talked to us at Yueyang too, right?"
"That's him," Wei Ying confirms. "What a loser." He scoffs, trying to make light of it, but his clenched fist on the table shows what he really thinks of this man.
"His family is filthy rich," Qingyang tells them. "His dad owns a ship manufacturing company, and they made very good money making fighters during the war. You can imagine what his motivation is for wanting more fighting."
It's such a selfish, greedy reason that it makes Lan Zhan furious. Anyone wanting others to die for their own benefit is wrong, but wanting to start another war just so a rich man can become even richer is beyond his comprehension.
"We sent the video ahead with the improvements Qingyang made to it, so hopefully they'll be able to ID the other guys who are less in love with their own faces," Wen Qing says. Her voice is even but her eyes are hard; clearly she's angry too. "I also sent the outpost leaders a short report, and they'll forward it on to military leadership. They'll want to talk to all of us when we get there, so make yourselves presentable."
"You don't think I'm already pretty enough to talk to military leadership?" Wei Ying bats his eyelashes at Wen Qing, who just rolls her eyes and gets to her feet without commenting. "I love you too!" Wei Ying calls after her.
There's no reason to be nervous as they approach the outpost, and Lan Zhan isn't even sure that's the right word for what he's feeling, but he's tense. The Sigma Outpost was hastily built during the war and remains primarily a military base. Coming here to talk to military leadership about what they saw feels uncomfortably like going back to his old life. It's worth it to get Wen Chao and these other evil men what they deserve, but it's still an unpleasant association. This is why we have to stop them, he tells himself, so there's never any reason for you to go back.
The leader of the Sigma Outpost is a man named Qin Cangye who comes to greet them on arrival. "We haven't heard anything back from Commander Jin yet, I'm afraid. Sometimes our comms are a bit unreliable out here, or he may just be busy. In the meantime, let's discuss what happened in more detail."
They describe everything from seeing the secret meeting on Zar to Wen Chao's ranting after they foiled the attack on Yueyang. Qin Cangye doesn't say much, but the frown on his face grows deeper and deeper. "Our ships should have arrived at Yueyang by now, so they'll be able to stop any further attempts, if there are any. As for identifying and punishing those behind it, I have my people on it, and we'll see what Commander Jin says. For now, feel free to relax here or on your ship and use the comms as you like."
"This is a waste of time," Wei Ying mutters as they walk back to the Peony. "They could be running anywhere while we twiddle our thumbs here."
Yanli pats his shoulder. "We don't even know who most of them are, let alone where to find them. You have to be patient."
"When am I ever patient?" Wei Ying grumbles, but he doesn't complain further.
Back on the ship, Lan Zhan checks his wristlet and finds messages from his brother and his uncle, both saying that they haven't heard from him in a while and he should call them, but with very different tones. He calls his brother first, and Lan Huan answers so quickly it startles him. "How are you?" he asks, smiling brightly. "I didn't expect to hear from you for a few more days.
"We took a detour," Lan Zhan says. "I'm at the Sigma Outpost." It's jarring to see his brother so cheerful, blissfully unaware of how close humanity came to another war.
"The Sigma Outpost?" Now his brother frowns, realizing that all is not well. "What happened?"
He tells his brother the story as simply as possible, up to how they're now waiting on Jin Guangshan to know what comes next.
"There's no time to waste," Lan Huan says as soon as he finishes. "Have you talked to shufu?"
"I'll get hold of him right away. Send me the video too, so we can put more people on it. And shufu should be able to get through to Commander Jin quickly. Don't worry, A-Zhan. We'll get them."
Lan Zhan feels a sense of relief at having his brother involved, and his uncle too. The military is who should really be dealing with this, not a little merchant ship and two ex-soldiers. For all his conflicted feelings about the military, he trusts his brother and his uncle to do whatever they can to preserve peace.
An hour later, Jin Guangshan still hasn't contacted the outpost, but Lan Zhan's brother calls him back while he's sitting in the mess hall with the rest of the crew. "Good, I see you're not alone. I assume everyone on your ship wants to hear this." He quickly explains that they've identified the other men in the video: Wen Chao's father, Wen Ruohan, his brother Wen Xu, and employees named Zhao Zhuliu and Xue Yang. "Wen Manufacturing is based on the Tau Outpost, and everyone involved lives there."
"So what's the plan?" Wei Ying is trying to act casual, but Lan Zhan can see from the tension in his shoulders that he's still angry, as they all are.
"We're getting together a team, and as soon as my uncle gets approval from Commander Jin, we'll be on our way to the Tau Outpost. Travel records indicate that Wen Ruohan and Wen Xu arrived there this morning, and if Wen Chao left Yueyang when you did, he should arrive within a day. We assume the others are with him."
"Do you think they'll just wait there to be captured?" Jiang Cheng asks skeptically.
"As I understand it, they don't know that anybody saw them and can I identify them," Lan Huan says. "Without that, the least suspicious place for them to be would be at home, behaving normally."
"Wen Chao made it sound like they have powerful allies," Wen Qing says. "Can you be sure it will be as simple as marching in and capturing them?"
"No, we can't," Lan Huan concedes. "But we'll start from that and be ready for anything."
"We'll come." Lan Zhan hasn't asked the rest of the crew, but something tells him that they'll agree. They all want to see this through, and be sure it's finished.
"Leave this to us now," his brother says. "You've done your part."
"We'll come," Lan Zhan repeats, more emphatically. He looks around and the others nod at him, even Huaisang, who looks marginally terrified at the thought. "We've done this much. Let us finish it."
His brother still looks uncertain, but he nods. "Your travel time to the Tau Outpost is a little longer than ours. Leave as soon as you can and we'll meet you there."
It's another two days to the Tau Outpost, and Lan Zhan doesn't want to wait now that they know who's at fault, but that's not up to them. "See you there," he says, and ends the call.
"I don't know how much we can do there," Wen Qing says, "but if you two want to join in, I won't stop you." Her eyes linger on Wei Ying, and Lan Zhan can guess what she's worrying about. He's worried too, but he thinks that like him, Wei Ying will sleep better knowing that he played a part in bringing the Wens and their co-conspirators to justice.
"Let's go, then," Wei Ying says. "Time to give your not-very-nice cousins what they deserve."
"They're not!" Wen Ning earnestly protests, and everyone laughs. It breaks the tension, and Lan Zhan does his best to relax for now. Two more days and this will be over. He can wait that long.
* * *
Wei Ying starts, but then makes a visible effort to do that. "Let's go." He holds up his two electro-knives, and Lan Zhan pretends not to notice them shaking. Wei Ying is doing better than he was, but it's only been five days since the initial attack on Yueyang stirred up all the demons of his past. It's too soon to expect him to be back to his old self, especially when the danger of a rekindled war isn't over yet.
Once they start to fight, at least, Wei Ying manages just fine. They've been regularly using weapons in their sparring recently, and Wei Ying has already noticeably improved. He picks things up so quickly, and at one point, Lan Zhan might have resented him for it, but now he's glad of it. He wants Wei Ying to be safe, and he also feels proud of him, somehow. Does he really like Wei Ying enough to feel that way? (He already knows that the answer is yes.)
His mind drifts back to what feels like another lifetime but was actually barely more than a week ago, when he and Wei Ying sparred with electro-knives for the first time the day they arrived at Zar. Wei Ying told him he looked good in the light of the knives, enough to make girls swoon. Little did Lan Zhan know at the time that it was Wei Ying who would be swooning over him soon enough.
"Is that a smirk, Lan Zhan?" Wei Ying's incredulous but amused voice pulls him back to the present. "I'm seeing so many new expressions on your face lately."
He shuts up as Lan Zhan focuses his full attention on the fight, attacking all out until he manages to pin Wei Ying against the wall, one electro-knife to his throat. Wei Ying grins, and Lan Zhan lowers his knife but doesn't move away. "What, does sparring get you all hot and bothered?" He's not wrong, but there's something about Wei Ying's smile that Lan Zhan doesn't like, something a little too intense.
Lan Zhan takes a step back, but Wei Ying stays where he is, leaning against the wall. It's more obvious at a distance, the nervous tension that their sparring couldn't fully drive away. "Are you all right?" Lan Zhan asks.
"I'm fine." Wei Ying spreads his arms out to either side. "See? No harm done."
"I mean—" Lan Zhan starts, but Wei Ying cuts him off.
"I'm fine." He sounds just shy of angry, following up his words with a wry grimace. "I'm just ready to be done with all of this." Before Lan Zhan can get a word out, Wei Ying says, "Kiss me, Lan Zhan."
It feels like they should talk, but Lan Zhan is much better at kissing than talking, and besides, talking won't get them to the Tau Outpost any faster. If Lan Zhan can't change their circumstances, at least he can give Wei Ying a distraction—one he's happy to provide. He enjoys the way Wei Ying melts into the kiss as soon as their lips meet, the tension in his body starting to fade. He's vaguely aware that any member of the crew could walk in on them in here, but he doesn't care.
Eventually, Lan Zhan's lips drift down to Wei Ying's neck, tasting salt on his skin and feeling his throat shift as his breath catches. "I have to tell you, I thought about you getting turned on while sparring and fucking me into the wall." Wei Ying's voice wavers as Lan Zhan kisses the hollow of his throat and licks along his collarbone. "I'm not sure I'm that much of an exhibitionist, though, and I'm guessing you're not. What do I know, though? Someone as uptight as you might turn out to have all sorts of strange kinks."
Lan Zhan lifts his mouth and bites lightly at the juncture of Wei Ying's neck and shoulder. He means it as a hint for Wei Ying to shut up, but he realizes a moment too late that it only proves his point. Wei Ying laughs, but the shiver that runs through him tells Lan Zhan he's into it. "I guess I know now why you bit me that one time." His voice goes lower as he adds, "If you want to, I won't stop you."
That turns Lan Zhan on enough that the prospect of fucking Wei Ying against the wall briefly tempts him, but he's not actually that much of an exhibitionist. He does bite him again, though, moving further down his shoulder. Wei Ying's sharp gasp makes him look up, worried, but Wei Ying shakes his head. "I like it."
With that approval, Lan Zhan doesn't hold back, fulfilling his fantasies of deliberately marking Wei Ying up. He licks over the spots he bites and sucks on them until Wei Ying moans, clinging to his shoulders. Considering that Wei Ying lives in tank tops, everyone will be able to see what they got up to, and that's a little embarrassing, but Lan Zhan's possessive side likes it. He wants Wei Ying to be his, and he can't say it straight out, but he can show it.
"You're the best, Lan Zhan," Wei Ying murmurs against his lips when Lan Zhan lifts his head for another kiss. He's so relaxed now, leaning heavily into Lan Zhan, such a change from earlier. Lan Zhan wraps his arms around Wei Ying, not caring that they've been hopelessly distracted from sparring if this is the result.
He's just considering whether they should give up all pretense that this is just a break from sparring and go back to their room when a familiar angry voice yells, "Fucking hell, do you have to do that here?"
Wei Ying starts laughing, and Lan Zhan lets him go so they can both turn to look at Jiang Cheng. "Are your innocent virgin eyes scarred forever?"
"Listen, asshole, I'm—" Jiang Cheng starts, then breaks off abruptly, his eyes going wide as he stares at Wei Ying. "Oh, for fuck's sake, did you really..." He darts a glance over at Lan Zhan and seems to decide against saying anything insulting to him. "Forget it. I'm leaving."
"Hey, Jiang Cheng, don't. We'll go." Wei Ying grabs Lan Zhan's hand and pulls him toward the door. Jiang Cheng glares at them as they pass, but as the door closes, Lan Zhan swears he sees a grudging smile on his face.
* * *
"Good morning, Wangji." She insists on making him tea before coming back to sit with him. "We've picked over the hydroponics chamber pretty well so I have nothing to make with our nutrient bars this morning, but I got up anyway. It's nice to start the morning off slow before everyone gets up, don't you think?"
"I hope once we're done at the Tau Outpost, we'll be able to restock, though I'm not sure we can afford it since we left Zar without our new cargo." Yanli takes a sip of her tea. "But that's the least of our problems now, I suppose."
Lan Zhan nods, but he can't fault Yanli for thinking about those things. She's not a fighter, able to help bring in the Wens. She can't change Wei Ying's past either, as much as he's sure she'd like to. Her contribution to the ship is keeping them well-fed, so of course she'd be eager to be able to to do that again.
A minute or two passes in companionable silence before Yanli says, "Wangji, I hope you won't mind me prying, but I wanted to ask: you and Wei Ying, are you...?" She trails off, and Lan Zhan is left puzzled. She seems to hope he'll understand, but when he doesn't, she continues, "I don't know how serious this is, between you two."
"I don't know either." That's awkward to admit, but Lan Zhan trusts Yanli not to mock him, and not to tell anyone else.
"Because you don't know how you feel or how Wei Ying feels?"
"Him." Wei Ying clearly enjoys his company, but he did from the beginning, even when Lan Zhan found him annoying. He's made no secret of the fact that he enjoys sleeping with Lan Zhan, and he's been willing to open up to him. Still, he doesn't seem to take their relationship too seriously, and it's hard for Lan Zhan to say if he's pretending again or if it's because it's really not serious to him.
Yanli's smile is sympathetic and a little wry. "Wei Ying has a hard time sometimes, letting people see that he cares. He has an even harder time admitting that he wants people to care about him. And sometimes he's just slow to realize what he feels. Especially now, when he has other things on his mind." She sighs, her expression turning sad. "Has he talked to you?"
"That's good," Yanli says, though she looks even sadder. "He still doesn't want to talk to me. I think he wants to protect me from hearing about what he saw and how he's feeling, like I'm the one who needs to be protected." That sounds very like Wei Ying, and it's good, at least, that Yanli understands what he's doing, even if she doesn't like it.
"It's different with me," he says, trying to reassure her. "Because I can understand those feelings somewhat."
Yanli nods. "I'm glad that he has you." She still looks sad, but then she manages a small smile. "And Wangji? I don't know for sure, but...just be patient with Wei Ying. I think you'll be happy with the result."
Lan Zhan has no way of knowing if she's right, but it gives him hope. He can't change his feelings for Wei Ying regardless, and he doesn't want to at this point, but it's nice to believe that, in time, Wei Ying might feel the same for him.
* * *
Wen Qing makes it easy for him by saying, "Wangji, Wuxian, you two go get ready. We'll keep an eye out for their arrival."
"But—" Jiang Cheng starts to protest, probably wanting to volunteer to join them, but Wen Qing doesn't let him.
"I need you here, at the controls, just in case we need to run." It's a smart way of letting him save face instead of insulting his fighting abilities, one Lan Zhan would never have thought of himself. Jiang Cheng still doesn't look thrilled, but he accepts it.
Lan Zhan and Wei Ying go to their room and change, buckling on any weapons they might need. (Lan Zhan takes a moment to be glad when Wei Ying puts on a jacket, so that the hickeys lingering on his skin will be hidden when they meet his brother and uncle.) Wei Ying is quiet and Lan Zhan thinks about his brother's message. He has confidence in Wei Ying's fighting skills, but he's unsure of how he'll handle arresting the Wens without any more violence than necessary. He remembers how angry Wei Ying got when Wen Chao taunted them at Yueyang; will he be able to hold back when he comes face to face with them?
Lan Zhan thinks his thoughts are well-hidden as usual, but then Wei Ying finishes strapping an electro-knife to his thigh, looks up and smiles wryly at him. "Don't worry, Lan Zhan." At Lan Zhan's surprised reaction, he says, "You're not as subtle as you think, now that I know you. Don't worry, okay? I'm not going to do anything stupid."
Lan Zhan checks that his blaster is secure as he tries to think of a tactful way to express his skepticism, but Wei Ying doesn't give him a chance. "Look, I'm not going to lie. I think those guys deserve to get shot into Avarsul territory in an escape pod with broken navigation for what they did. And if they force our hand, I'll do what I have to do. But I don't want more people to die. I just want justice, and to stop them from getting what they want."
"We'll stop them." Lan Zhan knows that justice is a more complicated thing than he used to believe, but at least here, right and wrong are clear. He trusts his brother and his uncle to follow through and see that these men are taken in and punished accordingly.
Wei Ying nods. "But just to be clear, I can't promise I won't do a little punching if I get a chance. They deserve that much."
Especially after seeing how the events at Yueyang affected Wei Ying, Lan Zhan can't find it in himself to disagree. "Only a little," he says.
* * *
"All ready to go." Wei Ying smiles, but it looks more menacing than anything else.
"Good. We intend to take them alive if at all possible, but we'll do what's necessary."
They split up, with a few soldiers staying in the docking bay in case their targets try to flee and several more heading to Zhao Zhuliu and Xue Yang's residences and the Wen Manufacturing headquarters. Lan Zhan and Wei Ying join the bulk of the group heading to the Wens' home. "Watch, they won't even be there and we'll miss all the fun," Wei Ying mutters. It wouldn't be such a bad thing to not have to fight in the end, but Lan Zhan can understand the sentiment. They've come this far, and he wants to see it through.
His worries turn out to be unfounded. When they enter the Wen residence, they find Wen Ruohan and both his sons, along with Zhao Zhuliu and enough security that Lan Zhan wonders if they were expecting an attack or if they're always so cautious. "Wen Ruohan, Wen Xu, Wen Chao, Zhao Zhuliu, you're under arrest!" Lan Qiren declares. "Turn yourselves in and no harm will come to you."
"What have we done wrong?" Wen Ruohan is trying to play innocent, but his cold expression makes it thoroughly unconvincing.
"You're accused of conspiracy to commit mass murder on Yueyang in an effort to start another war." Lan Qiren stands calmly, but Lan Zhan can see his hand ready to grab his blaster the instant it's necessary.
"I don't know anything about that, but if you insist on taking us in, we won't go quietly." For a long moment, both sides just stare at each other. Then, Wen Ruohan gestures to his security and the fighting begins.
Their numbers are about equal, and while the security people fight without restraint, the soldiers are better trained. Lan Zhan has to work harder than he did in his last fight against the colonists on Qinghe, but he finds incapacitating these opponents easier than beating Wei Ying when they spar, even with them going all out against him. He knocks one man unconscious and gets another woman tied up, then looks up to see his brother helping Wei Ying put handcuffs on one of the security men.
The fighting is nearly over already, the soldiers converging on the Wens and Zhao Zhuliu. Wei Ying gets in front and dives at Wen Chao, who isn't ready to go down easily. Lan Zhan notices that Wei Ying does get a punch in during the ensuing scuffle, but Wen Chao is no match for him and he quickly restrains him. Lan Zhan moves to help hold him there, and Wei Ying grins at him. "See? I'm being good."
"You are." Wei Ying's response to the praise is somewhere between a happy smile and a suggestive smirk. Lan Zhan kind of likes it, but he hopes that his brother and uncle didn't see it.
Their flirting is interrupted by Wen Chao growling, "You won't get away with this."
"I think you'll see that we're getting away with this as we speak," Wei Ying replies smugly.
"You don't have any evidence against us, and we have friends in high places." Wen Chao thrashes around for a moment, but they have him pinned so firmly that he gets nowhere.
"I have video of you plotting on Zar. And if you mean your daddy, he just got handcuffed. He can't save you." Wei Ying is enjoying this a little too much, but Lan Zhan can't blame him.
"Did you know my father has friends in the military? Powerful people. You think all you military types are pure and noble, but you're no better than us. Everyone wants money and power. Some people are just more honest about it."
"Are you telling me you think anyone worth mentioning in the military wants there to be another war? Or that they just love your dad so much they won't care about you trying to start one?" Wei Ying sounds skeptical, but there's a hint of a frown on his face when he looks at Lan Zhan.
For his part, Lan Zhan finds it hard to believe that anyone who fought in the original war and saw the toll firsthand would want there to be more fighting. He knows that not all soldiers are good people, but a new conflict is not in their own interest. The leaders might avoid direct fighting and be willing to risk it, but he can't see any of them being so morally bankrupt.
"I told you." Now Wen Chao sounds smug, despite being facedown on the floor. "It's all about money and power. We get money; you don't think there's anyone who wants power?"
"Here." One of the soldiers interrupts their conversation, offering them a pair of handcuffs. Lan Zhan takes them and puts them on Wen Chao, but Wei Ying doesn't let the matter drop.
"Who do you know?" he presses. "Are they actually involved with your plans? They knew what you were going to do?"
Now, unfortunately, Wen Chao clams up. "I guess you'll have to wait and see, won't you?"
Wei Ying keeps trying, but Wen Chao is done, not saying another word to them before the soldiers escort him away. "What was that about?" Wei Ying asks, frowning at Lan Zhan. "Do you think he was serious?"
"It's possible, but he may only be trying to sow doubt." It's true that the war was good for military leadership, in the sense that the balance of power shifted in their favor, placing Commander Jin Guangshan above the civilian government. That said, it hasn't shifted back yet since the war ended. Jin Guangshan and other military leaders powerful enough to be of any use to the Wens have no reason to risk their current good position for even more power, especially at the cost of more violence and death.
Wei Ying keeps frowning but doesn't say anything more as Lan Huan comes over to them. "If you can help us bring the guards to the ship, we'll talk a bit more before we go our separate ways."
"Is this everyone?" Lan Zhan asks.
His brother nods. "Xue Yang, the other Wen employee we identified, wasn't here or in his home or the business. We'll have to talk to the others and see what we can get out of them about his location. All our intel indicates that he doesn't have the resources to continue this with the Wens out of the picture, so we're not too concerned, though of course we'll keep looking for him."
It's a strange feeling walking onto the ship with the soldiers, some six months since Lan Zhan left the military. It still felt natural to fight earlier, not very different from the security work he's been doing, but standing on this ship watching his brother order the other soldiers around as they lock the prisoners up makes him aware that this isn't his life anymore. It's a bit lonely, feeling that distance between him and the soldiers, especially his family. He feels a flicker of doubt too, seeing that the military can do good in a situation like this, but it's a small one. He hasn't forgotten why he left.
Lan Qiren is in the bridge notifying command of their success, and Lan Zhan and Wei Ying stop by to see him before they leave. "We appreciate your efforts in stopping the attack on Yueyang and bringing the situation to our attention." His uncle is as gruff as ever, which Lan Zhan is used to, but Wei Ying shoots him a questioning look, like he's wondering if Lan Qiren is angry with them. "We'll take it from here. I suggest you go to the Alpha Base to regroup and stay there in case we need anything further from you."
"Yes, shufu," Lan Zhan says.
"Wait, there's one more thing." Wei Ying repeats what Wen Chao told them earlier about the military's involvement. "Shouldn't we look into that? If someone high up in the military is in on this, it won't stop here."
Before, Lan Qiren was just being his usual self, but now he is annoyed. "There's no reason to believe that any soldier has anything to do with this, let alone anyone with influence. That was only a criminal trying to make us waste our resources and doubt each other."
Wei Ying isn't cowed by Lan Qiren's glare any more than Lan Zhan's used to work on him. "I understand if you don't want to believe that it has anything to do with you noble soldiers, but how can you take the risk of assuming he's lying? The potential consequences of letting it go are a lot bigger than the consequences of you offending people. Are you so worried about keeping your job?"
"He did mention it at Yueyang as well, so it's not only a last-ditch effort as he was captured," Lan Zhan jumps in before Wei Ying can insult his uncle any further. "Not the military specifically, but that there's more power on their side."
"We looked into Wen Chao," Lan Qiren says. "He's a pompous, spoiled child who shouldn't be taken seriously. That said, we'll interrogate all the prisoners and find out what we can, and act accordingly if we find anything of substance." It's clear that he doesn't expect they will. Lan Zhan hopes that's the case, that Wen Chao was only making empty threats. If this goes high up in military leadership, it won't be so easily stopped. "It's getting late. You should be on your way if you want to leave tonight."
"Be careful," Wei Ying bites out. "Don't ruin everything we've done by reporting this. It could be anyone on their side, even Jin Guangshan. I'll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume it's not you, but don't make it easy on them." He doesn't give Lan Qiren a chance to respond, only turns and walks away without another word.
Lan Zhan bows to his uncle, both a goodbye and an apology for Wei Ying's behavior (understandable as he finds his worry and frustration). Then, he hesitates, feeling as though he should say something beyond the formalities they've exchanged, after three months without seeing each other.
Lan Qiren doesn't comment on Wei Ying, though he's visibly angry, only says, "You did well today, Wangji." It's a compliment but also a rebuke, reminding Lan Zhan that in his uncle's eyes, this is where he's supposed to be, not working an insignificant job with people like Wei Ying. He doesn't linger on that, adding, "Fly safe."
Lan Zhan takes the hint and only says, "Goodbye, shufu," before he leaves.
* * *
Wei Ying stays in the mess hall with the others when Lan Zhan goes to meditate, but he comes into their bedroom just as Lan Zhan is finishing up. He looks more serious now, but when Lan Zhan stands up to get a better look at him, he offers a small smile, and then a kiss. "I didn't get much time to look, but from what I saw, you're hot when you're taking down bad guys." Lan Zhan doesn't know what to say to that, but Wei Ying knows better than to expect a response. "How was it for you, being almost a soldier again? Especially with your uncle. Weird?"
"Yes." Lan Zhan isn't prepared to put his mixed feelings into words, so instead he asks, "And for you?"
Wei Ying shrugs. "I was never this kind of soldier, you know, since the war was all fought out in space. But..." He flinches ever-so-slightly, belying his casual response. "It was weird to be surrounded by soldiers again." Lan Zhan isn't surprised when he quickly changes the subject. "I see what you mean about your uncle being strict. Is he always like that?"
Wei Ying pats him on the shoulder. "I understand a lot better now, why you are the way you are. No offense." His words don't bother Lan Zhan because they're true and because they're said with fondness rather than mocking him. They've come a long way to get to this point, where Wei Ying has at least started to understand him, and Lan Zhan has come to understand him in return.
Wei Ying is quiet while Lan Zhan gets ready for bed, his expression thoughtful but not noticeably sad. Only when Lan Zhan sits down on his bunk and looks up at him does he break the silence. "Is this it?"
"What do you mean?"
"Taking down the bad guys. It seems a little anticlimactic, don't you think? Since we saw them on Zar, we've been rushing all over, and we just barely stopped them and got out alive at Yueyang. And now suddenly it's over, just like that."
Lan Zhan can understand the feeling. After the danger they faced at Yueyang, today's arrest seems almost too easy, though they can hardly complain about that. "It's better that way."
Wei Ying smiles crookedly. "I know. I'm not saying I wanted a big battle. I just thought it would be a little more satisfying, I guess. But I still..."
He shakes his head, but Lan Zhan can guess what he's not saying: capturing those responsible doesn't change what happened to them in the past nine days. It doesn't erase all the painful memories that the attack on Yueyang dredged up, or the frustration of seeing that there are people greedy enough to want another pointless war when the horrors of the first one are still so fresh in their minds. Nothing will do that.
After a moment, Wei Ying adds, "And we don't even know if it's really over, given what Wen Chao said. Maybe it was all bullshit, but until we know for sure, we can't let our guard down."
"My uncle will see that it's properly investigated, even if he's skeptical," Lan Zhan assures him. "And we can talk to the others and look into it ourselves. If anyone else is involved, we'll find out and deal with it." He hopes that there's nothing to be concerned about, but if there is, he's determined that they'll stop it.
"Imagine, someone high in the military wanting us to go fight and die all over again, just for a little more power..." Wei Ying must not be aware of the face he's making, because he'd never show such a heartbreaking expression if he could help it. It's only for a moment, but he looks angry and yet so tired, so worn down and demoralized.
Lan Zhan stands up and, without a word, pulls Wei Ying into a hug. Wei Ying laughs a little, uncertainly, like he has no idea what this hug is about. "Lan Zhan?"
Lan Zhan doesn't explain himself, only holds onto Wei Ying and says, "Trust me."
He half expects Wei Ying to laugh it all off, but after one long moment of silence, he says quietly, "I do."
* * *
"But he could just be saying that, right?" Huaisang asks, eyes wide, begging for reassurance.
"He could," Wei Ying concedes. "But he could also be telling the truth. I wouldn't put it past some of those military bigwigs to not mind another war. Look at Jin Guangshan; thanks to the war scaring civilian leadership into backing down, he's the most powerful human there is now. Imagine what he could do if it went on longer."
"Do you really believe he could have anything to do with this?" Yanli asks. "We know him—maybe not so well anymore, but do you really believe he's that kind of person?"
"I believe that some people, once you give them a taste of power, they only want more and more. Is it so hard to believe that he's like that?" Wei Ying's expression is grim, and Yanli's turns similar as his words sink in. "And if not him, maybe someone a little lower ranked who didn't get all the power they want yet."
"If Commander Jin or anyone else high up in military leadership is involved, then we need to be very careful," Wen Qing says. "They might keep quiet and let Wen Ruohan and the others take the fall for it on their own, but they also might try to shut us up. Did you report what you heard to the military?"
"We told Lan Zhan's uncle, who is pretty high ranking too, right?" Lan Zhan nods. "I assume he's smart enough to leave that out of his report. And I assume he wouldn't do something like this." Lan Zhan nods again without hesitation. His uncle didn't understand his view that the Avarsul weren't simply villains who deserved what they got, but he values human life, and he's not greedy for power. "He said he'd look into it," Wei Ying continues, "but it didn't sound like he believed it was true."
"I'm not sure what to look for when it's all so vague, but I'll see if I can find any connections between the Wens and military leaders," Qingyang volunteers. "My access is limited to what we have in ship's storage for now, but we should be in central comms range by tomorrow night." Unlike the more remote regions of human settlement, the areas near the Alpha Base and Beta Station allow comms access at a distance, which will be a great asset now.
"Be careful," Wen Qing cautions. "It's best if no one can see that we're looking into this."
"Of course," Qingyang says. "I know how to fly under the radar."
"And if we find out that Jin Guangshan or some other military leader is part of the plot, what then?" Jiang Cheng asks. He sounds angry, but Lan Zhan thinks he's worried. "Are we going to take them down ourselves? Or get the rest of the military to turn on them? Civilian leadership won't be able to go against high ranking military at this point."
"If what Wen Chao said is true, we'll act on it however we can, but we shouldn't get ahead of ourselves," Wen Qing says. "He could be lying, and even if he isn't, we shouldn't assume that it goes as high as Jin Guangshan. There's no use worrying in advance." Jiang Cheng doesn't look satisfied with that answer, but he accepts it for now.
"We'll do what it takes to stop anyone involved." Wei Ying's words aren't brash, as he so often is, but firm. He's determined to see this through, because what other choice to they have? His hand is clenched in a fist on his thigh, and Lan Zhan puts his on top of it, both an offer of comfort and an unspoken commitment to stand by Wei Ying's side through whatever is ahead.
No one quite knows how to feel about this, when it's all still so ambiguous. Lan Zhan can see uncertain worry and fear mixed with determination on everyone's faces. Even Wen Ning, who looks very nervous, has some fire in his eyes, and mild-mannered Yanli's jaw is set. Lan Zhan feels a surge of pride and, perhaps more surprisingly, affection for the people he's spent these past months living and working with. They've been thrown into a mess they never expected, but they haven't hesitated to do the right thing, even if it scares them. In the midst of that, Lan Zhan has realized that he's become fond of them, making connections in a way he never did with his fellow soldiers. He's glad of that now, when the wider world feels so uncertain.
"Eat up, then," Wen Qing says, deliberately smiling as she gestures at the table. "So we'll be ready for whatever comes."
* * *
Despite that uncertainty, they manage to mostly carry on as usual, as though that doubt isn't hanging over their heads. Wei Ying is relentlessly cheerful, talking non-stop and teasing anyone who gives him an opportunity. He keeps that up even when he's alone with Lan Zhan, no hint of darker emotions peeking through his smiles. Lan Zhan hopes he really is feeling happier, but if he isn't, well, he can talk to Lan Zhan about it when he's ready. For now, his only acknowledgment of the situation is to poke Lan Zhan in the cheek as they lie in bed that night and say, "Smile, Lan Zhan. We won."
Lan Zhan wouldn't smile about something like that, but seeing Wei Ying's bright smile up close does make the corners of his mouth venture slightly upward. Wei Ying laughs and kisses the little smile off his face, and that's the end of that.
They connect to the central comms network on the following night, but Lan Zhan is already asleep by then, so Yanli fills him in on the news before breakfast the next morning. "We received a message from your brother. Most of the prisoners refused to talk, but Wen Chao gave a little more away. He said that the missing man—Xue Yang?—went to Yueyang with him. I'm not clear how much he said and how much they assumed, but it sounds like he was the one who flew the Avarsul fighter in the initial attack." The one you killed, she doesn't need to say.
"Then he's no longer a problem." Xue Yang is the only human Lan Zhan has ever killed and he doesn't take that lightly, but considering what Xue Yang was trying to do, he deserved it more than the Avarsul Lan Zhan killed, who were only defending their people.
Yanli nods, her smile sympathetic. "Your brother also said that they've looked into connections to top military officials, but they haven't been able to find any evidence, and even Wen Chao hasn't said anything more about it. They suspect he was only trying to scare you."
From what Lan Zhan has seen of Wen Chao, that's believable. He wishes they had something more concrete, but it won't be easy to prove conclusively that no one in the military with any power worth mentioning was involved in any way. They may have to be content with a probable no.
"Qingyang is going to keep investigating," Yanli adds. "She's good at what she does. If someone in the military was involved in the Yueyang plot, she'll find out. If they weren't directly involved, just supportive, they'll know better than to try again after what happened this time, don't you think?" She looks hopefully at Lan Zhan.
"That seems likely." Lan Zhan doesn't voice the caveats he's thinking about: that no one is likely to try again soon, and not unless there are others like the Wens willing to do their dirty work.
"It'll be okay," Yanli says, sounding like she's trying to convince herself of it. Lan Zhan can only hope that she's right.
* * *
In the afternoon, he and Wei Ying go to the VR room to spar, as they have so many times before. Wei Ying is still cheerful, and if it's a front, Lan Zhan can't see through it. Maybe he is getting better, now that the worst is hopefully behind them. "No weapons today?" he suggests. "Let me feel good about myself for a change."
"You've become skilled with weapons too," Lan Zhan tells him.
Wei Ying beams, and Lan Zhan's heart swells. "I see you buttering me up just so I'll agree to an electro-knife fight. But not today, okay?"
"As you wish."
It feels good for Lan Zhan too, fighting barehanded with Wei Ying. Even when he didn't like Wei Ying at all, he enjoyed the challenge of sparring with him. Now, he likes it all, even the way Wei Ying smirks at him when he gets the upper hand. He can't even bring himself to mind those moments when he's distracted by the warmth of Wei Ying's skin against his or wanting to taste the sweat in the hollow of his throat, which is saying something when he usually hates anything disrupting his focus.
He doesn't give into that kind of temptation, but Wei Ying does once, when they're wrestling on the floor. Wei Ying manages to get on top, but instead of pressing his advantage, he dips down to kiss Lan Zhan, who can't help responding. It's a messy kiss, both of them out of breath, but a good one, bringing heat to Lan Zhan's already flushed cheeks. He's tempted to continue and see where it leads them, but someone could come in any time, and also he's too competitive to let a fight end like this.
Without breaking the kiss, he rolls them over, and then, before Wei Ying can realize what he's doing, pins him down with an arm at his throat. For a few seconds, Wei Ying stares up at him, eyes wide, and then he bursts out laughing. "You're something else, Lan Zhan. I wasn't trying to distract you, you know."
Lan Zhan has his doubts, but he does quite like the thought that Wei Ying just couldn't resist kissing him in the middle of a fight. He releases Wei Ying and gets to his feet, offering him a hand up. Wei Ying takes it and purposely falls into Lan Zhan when he gets up. "One more kiss before the next round, so I'll get it out of my system." He leans in without waiting for Lan Zhan to agree.
It's good but also strange, realizing how comfortable Lan Zhan has become with Wei Ying. It's not even two weeks since that night at Yueyang, but it's been such an intense time that it feels like much longer. It's not only that they've become physically comfortable with each other, though they have taken full advantage of their free time to do that, but that Lan Zhan has come to relax around Wei Ying in a way he can around very, very few people. He wonders if Wei Ying can see that, or if it's only obvious to him.
He wonders, also, if Wei Ying feels that way about him. It's different for him, of course, because he's a much more relaxed, outgoing person, but he has opened up to Lan Zhan in ways it seems he rarely does. Does it mean as much to him as it does to Lan Zhan, the connection they've formed? Lan Zhan's doubts are in proportion to his own feelings, because the more deeply he finds he cares about Wei Ying, the more he worries that this is something different to Wei Ying, a close friendship and physical attraction, but nothing more than that.
He remembers what Yanli told him about Wei Ying being slow to understand his feelings, and slower still to actually express them. He doesn't need to assume the worst just because Wei Ying hasn't said anything to him. It's not as if Lan Zhan has expressed his own feelings, though he's quite sure at this point that Wei Ying means a lot to him. He imagines his brother would say much the same thing about him as Yanli did about Wei Ying, that it's hard for him to show that he cares. It's not easy to change that, especially when he's wary of what Wei Ying's reaction would be.
When they finally remember that they're supposed to be sparring and stop kissing, Wei Ying studies Lan Zhan for a long moment. Lan Zhan wonders if it's obvious, at least to someone who knows him well, what he's thinking, but then Wei Ying smiles easily and he knows it can't be. "You look ready to eat me up, but sparring now, okay? Everything else later."
There's a promise in his eyes that Lan Zhan really likes the look of, but for now, he nods and shifts into a fighting stance again. Everything else can wait.
* * *
Lan Zhan doesn't hesitate to take his invitation, stripping Wei Ying of his clothes and pulling him into bed. He takes his time trailing kisses over all that exposed skin, stopping to leave a couple of marks in places where only he and Wei Ying will know they're there. Sometimes Wei Ying is impatient, but tonight, he doesn't object, only eggs him on and runs his fingers through Lan Zhan's hair. (It's nothing like Wei Ying's, but longer than he's had it in his life.)
When he's had his fill for now, Lan Zhan moves up to plant a lingering kiss on Wei Ying's lips, then looks down at him. He looks stunning right now, his eyes dark and his hair splayed out around his face, just a hint of a flush showing on his cheeks. Lan Zhan wants to, as Wei Ying put it earlier, eat him up, but also to kiss him gently, to try to communicate without words what he feels for Wei Ying. He was already tempted to say, "I love you," the night they got together, and his feelings have intensified since then, but it still feels too fast. He's so unaccustomed to expressing his feelings that it would be awkward anyway.
"What are you thinking, staring at me like that?" Wei Ying asks, cutting into his thoughts. His words and his smile are laced with fondness, but it's something light, not like what Lan Zhan is feeling.
He doesn't answer, and Wei Ying lifts a hand and pats him on the cheek. "I'm getting better at reading your expressions, but I still can't read your mind, you know."
It would be easy to brush him off, to go back to kissing and forget everything else, but Wei Ying's expression is earnest and Lan Zhan feels like he should try. "I...I'm glad we're here," he manages. "Together. After everything."
Ten different emotions flicker over Wei Ying's face too quickly for Lan Zhan to read them before he settles on happiness. His smile is brilliant up close, and Lan Zhan can't even pretend that he's not in love with the way his heart skips a beat at the sight. He's sure it must be written all over his face what he feels, but Wei Ying gives no indication that he sees it. "A lot has happened, huh? But I'm glad too. And I think things will be good for us from now on." There's resolve in his tone, as though he's saying that he'll make sure their future is good, whatever the world throws at them.
That's not what Lan Zhan meant, but Wei Ying looks happy, and that's what really matters. Lan Zhan doesn't need to say what he's feeling now, or to know if Wei Ying loves him back yet, or ever will. His feelings won't change either way. He gives into the desire to kiss Wei Ying, gently at first and then increasingly hungrily, and hopes that communicates enough.
* * *
They're done with their nutrient bars and sipping tea or coffee when a text message comes in. "It says that Commander Jin would like to meet us, to thank us for our part in recent events. A deputy will meet us when we dock." Wen Qing says it lightly, but her brow is furrowed.
"Should we be worried?" Huaisang asks.
"Ugh, this is exactly what that Wen jerk wanted," Jiang Cheng mutters. "For us to be paranoid instead of being able to relax now that it's over."
"I've been looking into Jin Guangshan a lot, since he would be the biggest threat," Qingyang says. "He's...not the greatest guy out there, shall we say, but I haven't been able to find anything linking him to the Wens or the Yueyang plot. It's too soon to say for sure that he's clean, but if not, he hid his tracks well. I doubt he'd do anything as obvious as calling us in and then killing us."
Wei Ying laughs. "Very comforting. But you're probably right."
"Besides, even if there really is someone in the military involved in this, we don't know that it's him," Yanli points out. "We don't need to be so suspicious."
"I agree." Wen Qing turns to Lan Zhan. "But just in case, why don't you let your brother know? Just a casual message to tell him that we arrived and we're going to see Commander Jin." In case someone's tracking us, she doesn't say. Wristlet messages aren't easy to hack, but it's not impossible, especially for someone with military resources.
Lan Zhan sends a brief message to that effect while Jiang Cheng flies them in. His brother replies immediately with a quick, Glad to hear it! Let's talk soon. Satisfied that his brother has received the message, and trusting that he understood its deeper purpose, Lan Zhan changes into his most presentable clothes to go meet the top military commander. He and Wei Ying both hide a few electro-knives on them, very much hoping that they won't have cause to use them.
Jin Guangshan's deputy who comes to meet them Lan Zhan has met only once before, but he remembers him from that and from the gossip that swirls around him. Meng Yao is Jin Guangshan's son by a woman who isn't his wife, only acknowledged when he reached adulthood and proved himself useful. He smiles, showing his dimples, and says, "Hello, Wangji. It's good to see you again. And the rest of you, it's nice to meet you. My name is Meng Yao."
Judging by the raised eyebrows and awkward looks from the others, only Wen Qing and Wen Ning haven't heard of him. If he notices, he doesn't show it, bowing graciously. "It's nice to meet you," Wen Qing replies. "Thank you for coming to meet us."
While the main military base is on the Beta Station, Jin Guangshan spends most of his time here on the Alpha Base, working with the civilian government. Lan Zhan assumes that they're going to the government area, but instead they emerge from the electro-car they catch outside the docking bay at what appears to be a very grand family home surrounded by a tall fence. "Ah, here we are," Wei Ying says like he recognizes the place. "It's been a while."
Meng Yao leads them into the house and through the halls. Having such a large house on a space station, where most people live in small apartments, is wasteful and selfish, and the furnishing and decoration is all far too ostentatious for Lan Zhan's taste, but from what he knows of Jin Guangshan, that doesn't surprise him. They end up entering a large sitting room, Wei Ying and Lan Zhan wordlessly falling in behind Wen Qing like this is a security job, with the rest of the crew after them. It feels a bit silly when they find Jin Guangshan alone inside the room, sitting in an armchair. There's a lot of power behind him, but on his own, he's only an aging man who hasn't worked to keep up his strength like Lan Qiren has. He can't hurt them.
"Thank you all for coming," Jin Guangshan greets them warmly. "I've heard a lot about what you did." He doesn't get up, so they walk over to him. There are more chairs by the door but none where he's sitting, leaving the rest of them standing in front of him. It feels strangely like they're attending a king on his throne, especially now that they're close enough to see that Jin Guangshan's smile hasn't reached his eyes. He may not be their enemy, but he clearly hasn't called them here to express genuine gratitude, only because it's the appropriate thing to do.
"We're very grateful for your actions these past two weeks, especially at Yueyang. The damage would have been immense if Wen Ruohan had had his way. You took on a great risk for the good of humanity, and we can't thank you enough for that." All the words he's saying are very reasonable, but something about the way he says them puts Lan Zhan on edge. Wei Ying is standing close enough that Lan Zhan can sense the tension in his body too. Something isn't right here, but he can't say what it is.
Maybe it's only that he's insincere because he's angry that some ex-soldiers upstaged him, Lan Zhan reasons. The military should have stopped this long before the Wens got to Yueyang, and it reflects badly on him that they didn't. It makes sense, more sense than Commander Jin Guangshan of all people wanting another war, or aligning himself in any way with those who do.
"You're very kind, commander," Wen Qing responds politely. "Anyone would have done the same."
"I think you underestimate your bravery compared to many people." Jin Guangshan laughs, almost as though he means it.
So abruptly it makes them all jump, both the door they came through and another behind Jin Guangshan fly open. Lan Zhan grabs for his knives on reflex but hesitates with his hands on them, not wanting to pull a weapon in Jin Guangshan's home before he knows for sure that there's a threat. He feels justified in doing so a moment later, though, as uniformed soldiers flood into the room. Wei Ying also draws his weapons, and Lan Zhan sees that Jiang Cheng and Qingyang and even Wen Ning have knives out too.
"What's the meaning of this?" Wen Qing asks, still trying to be polite.
"No harm will come to you if you listen to me," Jin Guangshan says calmly as his people keep moving toward them.
Wei Ying is wearing his most unimpressed expression. "I know I always send armed soldiers against people I don't mean to harm. And especially against people I want to thank for doing something good."
"That's the thing. You didn't do something good." Jin Guangshan's tone hasn't changed at all, but the insincerity seems much more menacing now, with armed men and women all around them.
"What are you talking about?" Jiang Cheng snaps.
The soldiers seem to be clustering around Lan Zhan and Wei Ying. Lan Zhan tightens his hold on his knives, ready to fight back against whatever comes. "Hold on," Wen Qing hisses. "Don't start anything."
"I'll get to the point," Jin Guangshan says. "Wei Ying, you're under arrest."
There are gasps all around and several cries of "What?" Wei Ying turns to Jin Guangshan, looking confused. "Do you mind telling me what I'm under arrest for?"
"For falsifying evidence against the Wens, Zhao Zhuliu and Xue Yang, and for the murder of Xue Yang." Jin Guangshan's words are followed by the clamor of too many voices talking at once, all coming to Wei Ying's defense. He lets them yell for a while before holding up his hands to quiet them. "I understand that you don't want to believe he's guilty. But no one else actually saw the conversation in his video in person, did they?"
"I was there!" Lan Zhan protests. "And I destroyed Xue Yang's ship."
Jin Guangshan pretends not to hear him. "I know you had a difficult time in the war, Wei Ying," he says, faux-sympathetic, "and maybe you wanted a bad guy you could fight, to make up for how little you were able to do back then, but you can't just fabricate stories about upstanding citizens. Did you know it was a lie when you killed Xue Yang or did you delude yourself into believing it? If it's a reaction to trauma, we can get you help."
Wei Ying's laugh is more bitter than Lan Zhan has ever heard it. "You really thought this through, didn't you? Of course, these guys know you're full of it, but it'll sound believable to anyone else. I'm not sure how you plan to explain Xue Yang being there for me to kill if I made it all up, or how you'll convince Lan Zhan's uncle and brother that he lied to them about what happened, but hey, there's time to figure that out."
"You won't get away with this." Wen Qing's eyes are blazing with barely-restrained fury.
"Please don't make this more difficult than it needs to be," Jin Guangshan says, not at all cowed. "I believe that the rest of you were tricked by Wei Ying. I don't want to punish you, but I'll have to if you insist on harming my soldiers."
"Stop." Wei Ying holds up the electro-knives in his hands, then pointedly sets them down on the ground, adding the third one hidden in his boot. "I'll go quietly if you promise to leave the rest of them alone."
"A-Ying, you can't!" Yanli protests.
"Wei Ying." Lan Zhan squeezes his knives so tightly it hurts as he meets Wei Ying's eyes. He's smiling like he doesn't care, but Lan Zhan knows better than to believe that now.
Wei Ying shakes his head. "You're no use to me injured or dead. Get out safely and do what you can." Lan Zhan catches his smile wavering and he knows that Wei Ying doesn't really believe they can do anything. It's possible that they can't, with how powerful Jin Guangshan is.
For a moment that seems to stretch out forever, they stare at each other. Is this it? Lan Zhan wonders. Is this the last time I'll ever see him? He remembers last night, how he thought things would get better for them, and that he'd have plenty of time to tell Wei Ying he loves him. He refuses to believe that he'll never get another chance, or that Wei Ying won't get his chance to move on from the past and be happy.
"Put down your weapons, Wangji." Wen Qing's voice breaks the moment, and Lan Zhan turns to look at her. She looks sympathetic and frustrated and still very angry, but certain of her words. "You can't fight this many people."
She's right, and even if he could, he doesn't want to fight human soldiers, who probably have no idea Jin Guangshan is lying through his teeth. Reluctantly, Lan Zhan puts down his knives, and sees that Jiang Cheng, Wen Ning, and Qingyang have already done the same.
At a gesture from Jin Guangshan, the solders move, separating Wei Ying from the rest of them. "Don't give up!" Yanli calls as the soldiers herd them toward the door. Wei Ying says nothing, but he's standing straight and tall, managing to at least feign confidence for now.
The soldiers steer them all the way to the car that brought them here, just outside the front gate. As soon as they're inside, the car drives away. "What just happened?" Huaisang asks, sounding dazed. Nobody answers.
Yanli is crying, and there are tears shining in Jiang Cheng's eyes as he holds her. Lan Zhan feels a little like crying too, but mostly he's angry. Wei Ying suffered through the war while Jin Guangshan sat safely here on the Alpha Base, sending out orders. After what they heard on Zar, he didn't hesitate for a second to run to Yueyang to stop the attack. It was an awful experience for him, dredging up deeply buried trauma, but he still saved the day, and this is what it gets him. It's so infuriatingly unjust.
"We'll get him out," Wen Qing says firmly. "Now that we know Jin Guangshan is part of all of this, we'll put all our attention on him and expose him, and we'll get Wei Ying out."
She meets Lan Zhan's eyes, and he nods. He doesn't know how they'll do it, but they have to. It's as simple as that.
Back on the Peony, they regroup in the mess hall. Nobody is crying anymore, though Yanli's eyes are red, in contrast to her resolute expression. "Obviously being up against Commander Jin and him having Wuxian is not ideal," Wen Qing says, a wry grimace showing she realizes what an understatement that is, "but don't think that we're helpless. There are good people out there too, a lot more good people who won't stand for this."
"But how do we get their help?" Wen Ning asks nervously. "Won't he be watching us?"
"If not watching us directly, then at least probably monitoring our contacts," Qingyang says. "Someone in his position could watch both ship's comms and wristlet calls."
"That's true," Wen Qing concedes, "but he can only do so much without exposing himself and doing our job for us. If we suddenly go radio silent or disappear after we said we'd be here, our families will know, and several of you have families who could make trouble for him."
That's some comfort, at least. Lan Zhan already sent another message to his brother from the car, telling him that Wei Ying was arrested by Jin Guangshan, accused of falsifying evidence and killing Xue Yang. He didn't say that this reveals that Wen Chao was telling the truth about a traitor in their midst, or that they need help, but he trusts his brother will understand that.
"Then let's get on with it." Jiang Cheng's worry is much less well hidden behind anger and impatience than usual today. "We don't know what he'll do while we're sitting around talking. Where do we start?"
"We need to find evidence on Jin Guangshan," Wen Qing says. "I'm sure he was careful, but there must be something that connects him to the Wens and their plot, even if it's just a few fragments we can put together to make a whole picture."
"I've been thinking about it. Here's what we should look for." Lan Zhan is surprised to hear Huaisang speaking up, unusually sure of himself. "Commander Jin must have very secure comms, but he still might not risk contacting the Wens that way. In person communication would be the most secure option—barring people stumbling on them like Wuxian and Wangji did on Zar. I doubt Jin Guangshan would go himself, but maybe that Meng Yao or another underling. Can you access travel records?" he asks Qingyang.
"Not easily, especially military travel, but I can try."
"Good. Another potential source of evidence would be a money trail. The Wens wouldn't need Commander Jin's money, but they might have demanded it anyway, to show he was all in on the plot—or maybe they gave him money in exchange for his silence. Either way, there's bound to be some record of that, even if it's well hidden. Big purchases, maybe. That Avarsul fighter can't have been cheap, or enough explosives to blow up a whole asteroid."
"How did they even get their hands on an Avarsul fighter?" Jiang Cheng asks. "Or get the specs to build one? I thought all of that was heavily classified."
"It is," Lan Zhan confirms.
"Right, but Jin Guangshan would have access to all of that," Huaisang says. "That's something else to look for, though I'd guess it'll be hard to hack. But it's possible there's evidence of him sending it to the Wens or of them using it in their factory."
"I'll look," Qingyang says. "But tell me: when did you get so good at plotting against people?"
Huaisang smiles sheepishly, running a nervous hand through his hair. "Ah, well, you know, I have lots of time to think while we're traveling..." That's not an answer at all, but it's really not important if Huaisang is secretly some sort of mastermind as long as he's on their side.
"Qingyang, I suggest you get right to work on this," Wen Qing says. "The rest of us will figure out what we can do, and who we can get to help us."
"I wrote to my brother, but he hasn't responded yet. He'll likely tell my uncle as well," Lan Zhan says as Qingyang leaves.
Wen Qing nods. "Good. They can probably access a lot of information that even Qingyang can't get at. Is there anyone else we can ask?"
"I have an idea." It's the first thing Yanli has said in this whole conversation, and they all turn to her. "Jin Zixuan."
"No way!" Jiang Cheng protests. "Why would he help us against his own father, especially for someone he doesn't even like?"
"He has principles," Yanli insists. "If we explain the situation to him, he won't look away."
"You mean he likes you and will do whatever you ask," Jiang Cheng mutters.
"It can't hurt to try," Wen Qing cuts in to forestall any further arguing. "Jin Guangshan must know we'll try to stop him, so we won't be giving anything away by saying that. And if nothing else, maybe Jin Zixuan still has some loyalty to this ship, as our former captain."
While Yanli and a reluctant Jiang Cheng go to talk to Jin Zixuan, Lan Zhan checks his messages and finds one from his brother. I'm on it. Let's talk tonight, is all it says. It's comforting to have his brother on their side, but it only does so much. The military failed to notice the Wen plot, and his own uncle and brother failed to take Wen Chao's threats seriously enough to make the connection to Jin Guangshan in time. Can he trust them to free Wei Ying? He definitely won't stand back and wait for them to do it.
Lan Zhan has no hacking skills of his own or access to relevant records, but Qingyang puts the rest of them to work reading through what she's found so far. Skimming Wen Manufacturing logs looking for any irregularities a computer wouldn't catch is incredibly boring, but it gives him something to focus on, and a way to contribute. It's much better than sitting around uselessly, thinking about where Wei Ying is locked up and how he's coping, if he's hurt or scared or upset that the top military commander is a traitor who sees him as nothing more than an expendable pawn. Worrying won't help Wei Ying; taking down Jin Guangshan will.
They haven't found anything useful two hours later when the Jiangs return from talking to Jin Zixuan. "He insisted that his dad would never do any of that and of course he must have had a good reason to arrest Wei Ying." Jiang Cheng's hands are clenched into tight fists.
"But we told him everything we've seen and he listened," Yanli adds, though she seems frustrated too. "I don't think he'll let it go so easily."
Jiang Cheng scoffs, but Wen Qing says, "I think you're right, or I hope so, anyway. And if he won't help, we'll manage on our own."
They continue working through Qingyang's files for the better part of the day, until Wen Qing insists that they stop for dinner and rest. "We can't push ourselves too hard. If we're not thinking clearly, we might miss something important." Lan Zhan doesn't like it, but it's the truth.
Lan Huan calls in the middle of dinner (still nutrient bars because food is the last thing on anyone's mind right now) and Lan Zhan answers right away. "Hello," his brother says. "Are you with the crew?" When Lan Zhan nods, he continues, "Good. I wanted to let you all know that I'm on my way."
"To here?" Lan Zhan expected his brother to be willing to help, but not to immediately fly to the Alpha Base.
"Yes. I think it will be most productive if I'm there in person." He doesn't say that it will be harder for anyone to know what they're doing if they talk in person, but he doesn't need to. "I'll arrive tomorrow evening. In the meantime, I'll see what I can find. You're all okay there?"
"We're fine. Wei Ying..." They don't know how Wei Ying is. It's to Jin Guangshan's benefit to keep Wei Ying alive, so he won't have to answer any awkward questions about why he isn't, but "accidents" can happen, and there's nothing to stop anyone from roughing him up and claiming it's because he fought them.
"Shufu tried to ask, but Commander Jin insisted that he needs to gather more information before sharing anything. At least he knows we know, so he should be more careful."
That's some comfort, at least. Lan Zhan is past the age when he believed his big brother could fix any problem, but he trusts that he'll try, and their uncle too. Surely that's enough to keep Wei Ying safe, whatever Jin Guangshan is planning. With all of them working together, they won't let anything happen to him.
Lan Zhan manages to keep his mind occupied until he goes to his room that night. It's not unusual for him to come back alone after dinner, so he can meditate in peace while Wei Ying chats in the mess hall, but here in the room that they share, he's acutely aware of Wei Ying's absence. He sits down on the floor to meditate, but the thoughts he's avoided all day come rushing in, refusing to be ignored.
What if he's already dead? What if Commander Jin is torturing him, physically or mentally? What if they break him so badly he'd be better off dead? What if I wasted my last chance to tell him how I feel? The last part feels inconsequential compared to his concern for Wei Ying's welfare, but it hurts all the same. Lan Zhan has never felt like this about anyone before, and he'd hate to think that he squandered the opportunity. More importantly, he can't bear the thought that Wei Ying is gone, just like that.
He stands up and jumps up and down, hoping some exercise will clear his head, but that only makes him think how good sparring with Wei Ying would have been for his mood today—though of course he wouldn't be in this mood if Wei Ying was here to spar with him. Wei Ying is so tied up in every aspect of his life on the Peony that it's impossible to not think about him, especially in this room that they've shared these past months. In the early days, Lan Zhan always wished Wei Ying would go away, but now he desperately wishes he was here.
Besides missing Wei Ying, Lan Zhan is angry. He's angry at Jin Guangshan, who cares so little for human life that he was fine with starting another war, and so little for Wei Ying's life that he doesn't mind sacrificing him for the cause of getting himself more power, or just saving the people who wanted to help him get it. He's angry at the world too, at everyone who's calmly going on with their lives, not realizing what Wei Ying did for them while he's who knows where, enduring who knows what. And he's angry with himself, because he wanted to keep Wei Ying safe no matter what, and he didn't.
Go to sleep, Lan Zhan, he imagines Wei Ying telling him, with a bright smile and a kiss. Tomorrow is another day.
I'll find you, Lan Zhan thinks, wishing Wei Ying could hear him. I won't let him hurt you. He doesn't know, in all honesty, if that's a promise he can keep, but he'll do everything he can to make it true.
* * *
"We'll find something," Lan Zhan says. "We have to clear Wei Ying's name."
"How can you be so calm?" Jiang Cheng snaps. He sounds so angry, but it's not hard to guess that all his worries and frustration have turned into that, and he's venting it onto whoever's available.
Even understanding that, it's hard for Lan Zhan to not be irritated. "I want him to be safe too."
"Then why—" Jiang Cheng starts but chokes off, holding himself back. He takes a deep breath before asking, "How can we help? This feels so useless." He gestures at the screen in front of him.
"We can't break into Commander Jin's home, or wherever he's moved Wei Ying," Lan Zhan says matter-of-factly, like he's not equally frustrated at not being able to get Wei Ying out right this minute. "Even if we did, none of us would be safe after. The only thing we can do is prove Commander Jin's guilt."
Jiang Cheng slams his fist onto the table, but half-heartedly. "I hate this," he mutters. "All of it. Yueyang and Jin Guangshan and the whole stupid war. I hate..." He doesn't finish, but Lan Zhan can guess that their thoughts are similar for once, that he hates what all of this is doing to Wei Ying, even though he doesn't want to admit that he cares that much.
"We can't change that, but we'll get him back." He turns his attention back to the logs. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Jiang Cheng looking at him, something approaching understanding on his face. He nods once, then turns to his own screen to continue searching.
Hours pass without anything out of the ordinary, but finally Lan Zhan notices something strange. In the midst of all the usual parts and full ships in standard fighter, cargo, and passenger models, he finds records of a single ship built to unusual specifications. It's listed as a two-seat fighter and has the blasters that go with that, but custom built, and two engines to a fighter's usual one, along with a single custom-sized window in the front of the canopy rather than the standard full front and side windows. There's also a record of an unspecified special part, which could well be the mock quantum bomb.
Lan Zhan reads over the specs several times to make sure he's not imagining things. There's nothing clearly incriminating in the logs, nothing that he would notice if he wasn't looking for it, but it's enough to make him think that this could be the fake Avarsul fighter they saw. He turns to Jiang Cheng. "Look at this."
Jiang Cheng quickly moves over to look at his screen. "What am I looking at?"
Lan Zhan explains his suspicions, and Jiang Cheng frowns at log for a while before he nods. "I think you're right. But we can't go at Jin Guangshan with just that."
"No," Lan Zhan reluctantly concedes, "but it's a start." It's enough to make him feel like what they're doing is worthwhile, and maybe enough to guide further searching, and he'll take that victory.
He shares the information with the rest of the crew, and they're glad of it, but they don't find anything else of use before that evening when Lan Zhan's continued searching is interrupted by a message from his brother. I'm here, he says. I'll come to you.
Lan Huan comes to the ship alone and out of uniform. "I'm taking some time off," he explains. It's not hard to guess why this can't be an official military mission. "But I have access to military records and secure comms if we need it." That should be a big help, as will having one more person on their side to look for evidence and do whatever becomes necessary afterward. Lan Zhan is glad that that person is his brother.
They don't have a chance to talk immediately, but Lan Zhan's brother joins him in going to his room later. Inside, he studies Lan Zhan, reading what he's feeling the way only he can. "I'm sorry. We shouldn't have let this happen."
Lan Zhan shakes his head. None of them really believed this could go as high as Jin Guangshan, and even if they did, they couldn't have guessed he'd respond by arresting Wei Ying instead of trying to keep a low profile.
"But we won't let him get away with it, I promise." His brother continues studying him, and Lan Zhan thinks he must see everything, including how he feels about Wei Ying. He could also promise that they'll get Wei Ying out safely, to make Lan Zhan feel better, but they don't make false promises. Instead, he says, "You and Wei Ying..." He doesn't finish, but now Lan Zhan is sure he must know. All he says is, "I'll do everything I can."
It's not a promise, but it will have to do. They have strong, smart people on their side, all desperately wanting to solve this, to get Wei Ying out and make Jin Guangshan pay. Lan Zhan has to believe that they can do it.
* * *
It's convincing evidence, especially given that the construction of what they suspect is the fake Avarsul fighter began a week after the most recent meeting, some two months ago. It's just not enough to prove anything conclusively, and in particular not enough to incriminate Jin Guangshan. It might help them free Wei Ying but only make it worse in the long term if Commander Jin can pin it all on his deputy, insisting that he had no idea what was going on and only arrested Wei Ying because he was misled.
Lan Zhan is trying not to feel demoralized when, at lunchtime on their fourth day on the Alpha Base, Yanli suddenly looks at her wristlet. "Oh, Zixuan is here." She sounds only mildly surprised, as though she expected him to come but didn't know when.
"What's he doing here?" Jiang Cheng asks.
"I don't know. He only said that he's in the docking bay and we should let him in." They haven't heard anything from Jin Zixuan since he insisted his father couldn't possibly be guilty, but perhaps he's come around.
Yanli goes to meet him, and he comes into the mess hall looking uncomfortable. This is Lan Zhan's first time meeting the ship's former captain, but he's heard him described (not just by Wei Ying) as quite pompous. It seems like a positive sign for him to be more humble now. Sure enough, after a quick greeting, he says, "I'll get right to the point. I looked into my dad's accounts. The main ones are clean, but he has a secret account. He told me it was only for emergencies when he might not have access to his main account, but—I guess that doesn't matter. The important thing is that I found a suspicious large purchase made six weeks ago."
"What is it?" Wen Qing asks. They all know better than to get their hopes up at this point, in case it's another inadequate piece of evidence.
"That's the thing: I don't know. It was all very cryptic and I couldn't find anything else through normal channels. Qingyang, I was hoping you could do something with it."
"Of course," Qingyang says. "Give me what you have and I'll get right on it."
After passing his information to Qingyang, Jin Zixuan keeps standing around uncertainly. Finally, he asks, "Is there, um, is there anything I can help with?" Yanli smiles, but Jiang Cheng and Huaisang look openly skeptical, and Lan Zhan feels the same. "I get it if you don't trust me, but you know me, most of you, and you should know I wouldn't do something like this. I want to know the truth about what my dad's mixed up in, and..." He flashes a guilty look not quite at Yanli. "Wei Ying isn't my favorite person, but he doesn't deserve this."
Wen Qing only considers for a moment before nodding. "Let's get to work, then."
Even with nine of them working on this now, with Lan Huan and Jin Zixuan here, it's slow going. Qingyang manages to trace the purchase from Jin Guangshan's secret account to the Phi Outpost, which makes them suspect he was buying weapons, since that's the outpost's specialty, but the records only label it as "cargo." "It could be the explosives for that ship at Yueyang," Qingyang says when they take a break to eat and compare notes.
"I checked prices on the amount of explosives it would take to blow up an asteroid, and it's within a reasonable range," Lan Huan puts in.
"But we have no proof that that's what it was, or that it went to the Wens." Lan Zhan would like this to be the piece that finally gives them enough evidence to go ahead, but it doesn't sound sufficient.
"No," Qingyang admits, "but I'm still looking."
They lapse into anxious silence. They're making progress, but it's too slow. Wei Ying has been in Jin Guangshan's custody for three and a half days and they have no way of knowing what's happening to him there. They have no way of knowing if he's physically or mentally all right, or if Jin Guangshan has hidden him somewhere they won't be able to find him.
Lan Zhan is clearly not the only one having those thoughts, because after a while, Wen Ning turns to Zixuan and nervously asks, "Do you think your dad would...d-do anything to Wuxian?"
Zixuan frowns and doesn't answer. "Nobody thought he would do any of this," Jiang Cheng says bluntly.
"He has nothing to gain from killing Wei Ying," Lan Huan says, just the word making several of them flinch (Lan Zhan only internally). "He's trying to claim that he's only arresting someone who broke the law. It makes sense for him to stick to that line and treat his prisoner well."
"And he's friends with the Jiangs, right?" Wen Qing adds. "That may not be enough to stop him from arresting Wuxian, but it might make him hold back from harming him beyond that."
"Let's just stop him before he gets a chance, and it won't matter," Yanli says. She sticks the last bit of her nutrient bar in her mouth and stands up. "I'm going back to work." Lan Zhan does the same, because for now, that's all he can do.
* * *
He foregoes his usual morning run and goes right to the mess hall, where he finds Jin Zixuan sleeping with his head down on the table and Yanli sitting at the other end of the table with a cup of tea. She looks exhausted, and Lan Zhan wonders if she slept at all. "Good morning," he says.
Yanli jumps at the sound of his voice. "Oh, good morning, Wangji. Did you sleep well?"
Lan Zhan nods. He wonders if he should ask Yanli how she's doing, but it's not hard to tell what her answer would be, or at least what the truth is. He's not the only one who's very worried about Wei Ying, and frustrated by their inability to help him.
Yanli notices him studying her and manages a small smile. "You don't need to worry about me."
Before Lan Zhan can decide how to respond to that, they're both startled by Huaisang running into the mess hall. "Oh, good, you're here! Can you help me wake everyone up? We have news. Good news."
Lan Zhan doesn't ask, only hurries to wake his brother up. Wen Qing and Wen Ning are already stumbling out of their rooms when they emerge, and Jiang Cheng and Huaisang come out of their room a moment later. Once they're gathered in the mess hall, Huaisang and Qingyang stand in front of them. "It was a huge pain to get at, but we found something," Huaisang says.
"Get on with it!" Jiang Cheng is even more irritable when he's not fully awake yet.
"Short version," Qingyang jumps in. "I finally dug up records saying that the cargo Jin Guangshan bought from the Phi Outpost went to Zar. And Huaisang noticed that there were notes about taking precautions, the kind you'd only need to take with explosives. So that must be it."
It's good news indeed, the most they've had to connect this all to Jin Guangshan, if not quite the smoking gun they'd like. "It's not perfect, but I think it's enough to pin this on Jin Guangshan," Wen Qing says. She looks to Lan Huan for confirmation, and he nods.
"I'll contact my uncle. With that, he should be able to make a move. We can report it to the civilian authorities too."
"Wait." Zixuan's voice is sharp. "Let's talk to my father first."
"Talking to him didn't go so great last time..." Huaisang says.
"Please." Zixuan doesn't look proud now—quite pitiful, in fact. "I won't stop you from turning him in, but at least let me talk to him before you do anything."
"I'll go with you," Jiang Cheng says immediately.
"Me too," Lan Zhan and Qingyang say almost in unison.
"We'll all go," Wen Qing says. "That is, it's up to each of you, but I think we all want to go." She looks around the table, and everyone nods. It's a potentially dangerous situation, but they've run into danger together several times already in recent weeks. They're not going to stop now, especially after they've worked so hard to prove Jin Guangshan's guilt.
It doesn't take long for everyone to get ready. Lan Zhan arms himself fully this time, not even attempting to hide it. He didn't get to use his electro-knives last time, and he hopes he won't have to this time, but he'll be ready if he does. He's worried now, in some ways even more than before, because he doesn't know what Jin Guangshan will do when he has nothing left to lose. Will he harm Wei Ying now that it won't do him any good to play nice? He doesn't want to consider the possibility.
It's still early enough in the day that Zixuan says they should find Jin Guangshan at his house, which is for the best since they'd have a harder time getting into government facilities. Instead, with Zixuan's help, it's no trouble getting past the fence and the guards. "There are security cams for him to know we're coming," Zixuan warns them. Given that, they're not surprised when they enter the house to find several soldiers waiting for them.
"We just want to talk," Zixuan says, holding up his hands. (He didn't bring any weapons but didn't comment on the ones the rest of them are carrying.) "Let us through."
Lan Zhan braces himself for an immediate fight, but after a moment, the guards turn away, leading them through the house to the same room they went to last time. The sitting room is empty when they walk in, but after a moment, Jin Guangshan enters through the other door, alone. "What brings you here this morning?" he asks casually, like everything is perfectly normal.
"Did you buy the explosives the Wens planned to use to blow up Yueyang?" Wen Qing asks, point-blank.
"Why would I do that?" Like the last time, Jin Guangshan's smile doesn't reach his eyes.
"I found it in your accounts," Zixuan says. "And we traced the details."
"If you're already convinced, why are you asking me? Though I must say, I expected better of my own son. I know these people are your friends, but they were misled, and now they're misleading you."
"You're lying!" Wen Ning bursts out. He shrinks back slightly after he says it, but his voice is firm.
"What reason would I have to lie about this?" Jin Guangshan asks. He seems calm, but there's something menacing in this eyes, hinting that he's worried. What will he do when he's sure he's cornered?
The door behind Jin Guangshan has been open this whole time, and now someone else walks through it. Lan Zhan recognizes Meng Yao, but he stops paying attention a moment later because he's followed by Wei Ying, dragged along by two soldiers, with several more coming in after them. Several voices call his name, among them Lan Zhan's, but Wei Ying reacts slowly, like he's dazed. He looks a mess, his jacket lost somewhere, his shirt ripped, and his hair hanging loose and ragged around his face.
"Are you sure you want to do this when we have your friend?" Meng Yao asks, smiling so that dimples show in his cheeks. "We've really done our best to help him, but he's very confused, you know. In this state, he's a danger to others, and to himself. Who knows what might happen to him?" Lan Zhan bristles at the blatant threat. He wants to run right to Wei Ying, but there are too many armed soldiers around to be so careless.
"What did you do to him?" Wen Qing snaps.
"I didn't do anything," Jin Guangshan says. That's probably strictly true, but someone has clearly done something to Wei Ying. As he comes closer, Lan Zhan can see bruises on his cheeks and the way he's leaning on his guards.
"I'm sure he just fell," Jiang Cheng grinds out bitterly. "How dare you?"
"How dare I?" Finally the mask falls off, and Jin Guangshan gets to his feet. "Listen, children, what do you think this is about? The Avarsul killed so many of our people and we're just going to leave them be because some civilians are squeamish about us wiping them out?"
"Is that the reason, or do you just want to fully establish yourself as a dictator?" Qingyang demands.
"And what if I do?" Jin Guangshan retorts. "Those civilians, and even so many soldiers, are weak. What good are they as leaders?"
Lan Zhan listens to them argue, but his eyes are on Wei Ying the whole time. He's been drooping, but finally he looks up and meets Lan Zhan's gaze. He looks exhausted, and also mentally worn down, reminding Lan Zhan unpleasantly of the night after they arrested the Wens, when he he looked so utterly demoralized. Hold on, he tries to communicate with his eyes. Don't give up. We'll get you out of here.
After what feels like forever of Wei Ying looking blankly at him, suddenly, he smiles. It's a grim, bitter sort of smile, but a smile all the same, a sign that the Wei Ying he knows and loves is still in there. Lan Zhan nods to show that he sees it, and that he understands. Something hardens in Wei Ying's eyes, and Lan Zhan knows even before he moves what he's going to do. Sure enough, he abruptly lashes out, throwing the two guards off of him.
Until now, he seemed barely able to hold himself up, but somehow he manages to fight, grabbing a knife from one of the soldiers. Too quickly for anyone to realize what's happening, he runs the few steps it takes to be behind Jin Guangshan and grabs hold of him, an arm around his chest and a knife at his throat. Lan Zhan remembers Wei Ying catching him in that position when they sparred, the day before they arrived at Zar what feels like a lifetime ago, but this is different. This time, Wei Ying is angry, his fierce expression making Lan Zhan think he could easily kill Jin Guangshan.
"A-Ying!" Yanli cries, at the same time as Lan Zhan calls, "Wei Ying!" and Wen Qing says, "Wuxian, wait!"
"I don't want to kill you, you know." Wei Ying's voice comes out a rough growl, belying his words. "I will if I have to, but I'd rather see you be exposed, lose your reputation and your power and all this wealth you're so proud of. I want everyone to know what happens to traitors like you who are willing to throw away human lives like so much trash."
Several soldiers move toward Wei Ying, but he says, "Hey, be careful now," pressing his knife slightly into Jin Guangshan's skin.
A moment later, there's movement at Lan Zhan's side as Jiang Cheng grabs Jin Zixuan, menacing him with his own knife. "Sorry, I have to," Lan Zhan hears him murmur. "Don't do anything stupid!" he calls more loudly, directed at Jin Guangshan.
"Have your soldiers put down their weapons," Wei Ying demands, "and go over with the others. Your minion too." No one moves. "What are you waiting for?"
"Okay, okay. Do it," Jin Guangshan orders. His arrogance is fading now as he realizes that he won't easily get out of this, and that he could lose his life and even his son's. The soldiers and Meng Yao hastily obey, setting down electro-knives and blasters and whatever other weapons they have before coming to stand in front of them.
"On the ground," Lan Zhan tells them. "Face down." He must sound quite fierce himself because the soldiers quickly do as he says.
"Okay, it's done," Jin Guangshan says. "What do you want from me?"
"Confess," Wei Ying snarls. "Tell us what you did." The knife bites visibly deeper.
"Wei Ying, don't kill him!" Zixuan cries.
Wei Ying laughs humorlessly. "Only if he really deserves it."
"Fine! I conspired with Wen Ruohan and the rest of them to attack Yueyang so everyone would think the Avarsul did it. I helped them get the explosives and the plans for the Avarsul fighter, and I suggested using the fake quantum bomb." He breaks off as Wei Ying's knife presses harder into his throat.
"That was you?" Wei Ying's voice suddenly goes so quiet Lan Zhan can barely hear it, which seems more frightening than his obvious anger.
Without stopping to think, Lan Zhan runs to Wei Ying's side. "Wei Ying." He means it as a reminder: know who you are, and that you're not a murderer. He doesn't care about Jin Guangshan, but he cares about what killing him in cold blood would do to Wei Ying.
"Don't stop me, Lan Zhan." Wei Ying's voice is still disconcertingly quiet. He's shaking, though his grip on the knife is tight. "This monster..."
Yanli comes up on Wei Ying's other side. She hesitantly puts a hand on his shoulder, and he flinches. "A-Ying, let him go. He'll be punished, okay? But not like this."
"Stop, Wei Ying," Lan Zhan presses. "He's not worth it."
Jin Guangshan opens his mouth to say something, but Wei Ying doesn't let him, the knife sizzling at his throat. "Don't even talk," he snaps. "I'm done listening to you."
"Here." Lan Zhan holds up the handcuffs his brother gave him earlier. "Let's do this right."
Wei Ying is still reluctant to let go. "How do I know he won't just go free?"
"He won't," Lan Huan calls from where he's standing over the soldiers. "I can promise you that." He holds up his arm with his wristlet on it. "I have him recorded, and my uncle listened in. And we have good evidence against him."
Even now, Wei Ying looks unsure. "Wei Ying," Lan Zhan says one more time, pleading. Finally, slowly, Wei Ying pulls his knife away from Jin Guangshan's throat and tosses it aside. He holds onto him while Lan Zhan prepares his handcuffs, and helps him put them on. "On the floor," Lan Zhan orders, and he's relieved when Jin Guangshan does as he's told.
Everything still feels unbearably tense, but then Yanli grabs Wei Ying in a tight hug and Lan Zhan knows it's over. He leaves Wei Ying in Yanli's care for the moment so he can help the others restrain Meng Yao and the soldiers. His brother is talking to his uncle, making plans to contact civilian leaders, and it feels like this time, it really is the end and he can breathe again.
Lan Zhan stands up from tying up the last soldier just in time to see Wei Ying running toward him, and he almost falls over as Wei Ying flings himself into his arms. He manages to steady himself and holds on tightly to Wei Ying, who buries his face in his shoulder. It's such an immense relief to be holding Wei Ying, to know that he's alive and well and not irreparably broken. Anything beyond that, they can deal with.
Wei Ying mumbles something, but Lan Zhan thinks he must have misheard. "What?" he asks.
Wei Ying pulls back to look Lan Zhan in the eye. He's pale and bruised and exhausted and his hair is an absolute mess and Lan Zhan has never seen anything more beautiful in his life. "I love you," Wei Ying repeats, just as Lan Zhan thought, but he still can't believe what he's hearing. He had so many doubts about Wei Ying's feelings, and he definitely didn't think he'd confess them now, with the prisoners on the floor and the crew and Lan Huan around them.
He must look as confused as he feels, because Wei Ying laughs. "I know it's sudden, but I already wanted to tell you before. I said that life is short and we shouldn't waste chances, and then I chickened out and did. I was afraid I'd never get another chance to tell you, so I won't waste this one. I love you."
Lan Zhan is aware of the others either watching them or very deliberately not watching them, but he doesn't care at all. "I love you."
"Yeah?" He can't believe that Wei Ying looks surprised, like he actually didn't realize how much Lan Zhan cares about him.
"I love you," Lan Zhan says again, more firmly. "Very much."
Wei Ying's face lights up, and then he hugs Lan Zhan as tight as he can, and Lan Zhan is so happy he doesn't know what to do with it. He knows that the aftereffects of this mess will be with them for a long time, just like they're still dealing with the effects of the war, but he also knows that they'll be dealing with it together from now on. Together, they can handle with whatever comes.
* * *
Lan Zhan is getting out of the shower after his run when he hears Wei Ying say, "Good morning, Lan Zhan. It is morning, right?"
"Yes, it's morning."
"Mm." Wei Ying rolls over slowly, trying to get to the ladder.
"You don't have to get up," Lan Zhan tells him.
"Then come to me." Wei Ying sounds so needy and so adorably half asleep that Lan Zhan doesn't have to be asked twice. He doesn't bother to dress, just dries off quickly and climbs up to Wei Ying's bunk. "Hi." Wei Ying greets him with a kiss. "It's nice of you to come to me naked." Despite that suggestive greeting, Wei Ying doesn't seem to have the energy to do more than drape himself over Lan Zhan yet, nuzzling into his chest. "Why am I still so tired?"
"Rest." Lan Zhan wraps his arm around Wei Ying's back, pulling him into his side.
"You're no fun, Lan Zhan," Wei Ying mumbles, but he falls back asleep not a minute later.
There are productive ways Lan Zhan could and maybe should use this time, but right now, nothing feels more important than lying here with Wei Ying, feeling the warmth of his body and the slight rise and fall of his chest with each breath. This time yesterday, he didn't know if he'd ever see Wei Ying alive again. So soon after that, he's not willing to waste a single second of their time together.
By the time Wei Ying stirs awake again, Lan Zhan's wristlet tells him it's past ten. "Good morning," he says, prompting a low chuckle from Wei Ying.
"Sorry to fall asleep on you. You must've been very bored."
"I don't mind. It's good to be with you." Lan Zhan kisses Wei Ying's forehead.
"You're a closet sap, huh?" Wei Ying says fondly. Lan Zhan doesn't try to deny it, given all the feelings he hasn't even put into words. "But I missed you too, while I was...you know."
"What happened to you?" Lan Zhan is hesitant to ask when Wei Ying is in such a relaxed mood, but he may well only answer when he's in that kind of mood.
"Ah, well, they locked me up. Somewhere in Jin Guangshan's house—which, I've got to say, I really don't want to know why he has a dungeon or whatever that was. They kept me in the dark and left me alone, mostly." Wei Ying traces patterns on Lan Zhan's stomach with his finger, perhaps as a distraction from what he's saying. "A few times, they turned on the light and tried to badger me into 'admitting' that I made it all up, but of course I didn't. I was a little worried they might get fed up and kill me, but luckily you guys came before we got there."
He says it all so casually, but Lan Zhan knows better than to think it was easy for him. "I'm sorry we didn't come sooner. It was difficult to find good evidence."
"Tell me what happened," Wei Ying prompts. "I didn't expect to see your brother there, or Jin Zixuan of all people."
Lan Zhan briefly summarizes the days since Wei Ying's arrest and the evidence they found. He doesn't talk about how frustrating it was to have the hunt for evidence take so long, or how worried they all were about him, but he's sure Wei Ying knows, just as Lan Zhan can guess what he's not saying.
Wei Ying props himself up enough to smile at Lan Zhan. "You worked hard for me, huh? Thank you." Lan Zhan shakes his head. "You can't stop me thanking you." Wei Ying laughs and drops a kiss on Lan Zhan's nose. Lan Zhan can't help smiling, and Wei Ying beams at the sight.
It's tempting to just stay in bed longer, but Wei Ying sits up, stretches, and then makes a face. "This seems like a waste after you got in my bed naked, but I need to eat something, and I guess everyone probably wants to know that I'm alive."
Lan Zhan can't seem to stop smiling, even as he gives Wei Ying a kiss. "We have time."
His words, or maybe just the kiss, make Wei Ying grin again. "We really do."
* * *
Lan Huan joins them, and part of Lan Zhan is weirdly self-conscious about his brother seeing him having fun with the Peony crew when it's so unlike his typical behavior, but mostly he doesn't care, not even when Wei Ying gets some alcohol in him and decides to sit on Lan Zhan's lap. He loops his arm around Wei Ying's waist and feels too happy to care about the way his ears heat up when everyone teases them.
They're just finishing up their meal when Lan Huan excuses himself and comes back with Lan Qiren. They knew he was on his way to take Jin Guangshan into custody and smooth things over with the civilian leaders, but Lan Zhan is still caught off guard by him being here, in the Peony's mess hall, his brow furrowing when his eyes land on Lan Zhan with Wei Ying still in his lap. Wei Ying notices too and starts to get up, but Lan Zhan holds onto him. If his uncle can't handle seeing him as he really is, that's his problem.
The furrow stays in Lan Qiren's brow, but he doesn't comment as he greets them. "Thank you for everything you've done." He doesn't apologize for the military's mishandling of the situation, but Lan Zhan wouldn't expect him to. "In addition to the evidence you uncovered, we found that Jin Guangshan had accessed classified Avarsul fighter plans that only top military personnel have clearance for at a time that fits with the timeline you established for meetings and manufacturing of their fighter. That should be enough to definitively establish his guilt." It's a relief to hear that Jin Guangshan is unlikely to be able to weasel his way out of this one.
With that said, Lan Qiren explains that after discussing the situation with civilian leaders and other military officials, it's been decided that he'll take over Commander Jin's position as top military leader. "We intend to reverse the changes made during the war to redistribute the balance of power between military and civilian leadership, as well as establish a mixed council."
"That's good news," Wei Ying says. Lan Zhan agrees, both because this will help prevent any one person from having enough power to abuse like Jin Guangshan did, and because the war is over and they should go back to governing that way. Ideally—though his uncle might not agree—they'll have no need for a military at all someday, secure in a lasting peace.
"I ask that you stay on the Alpha Base a while longer, until we're sure we have all the information we need from you, but then you'll be free to resume your usual business."
"Of course," Wen Qing says. "Thank you."
They offer him some of their remaining food, but he politely refuses. "I'll be going shortly, but I need to speak to Wangji."
That one sentence makes Lan Zhan's mood plummet, because he can guess what's coming. Reluctantly, he gets up, catching the sympathetic grimace Wei Ying flashes him before he leaves. His brother comes too, and Lan Zhan leads them to the VR room for some privacy. "You've done good work under less-than-ideal circumstances," his uncle says, as though he was the one who did everything instead of only a small part of the crew's efforts. "You must feel good about doing something useful with your time again. Why won't you come back to the military?"
Lan Zhan knew the question was coming, but he still doesn't like to hear it, particularly phrased this way. "My work here is useful," he says, keeping his voice even.
"Perhaps on occasion, but only rarely. There's so much more you could do. Why waste your time and abilities here?"
"I understand why you left the military," his brother jumps in to soften Lan Qiren's typically harsh words. "But the situation is different now. The war is over and with shufu in charge and more civilian input, you can be more confident that we'll do things right."
It's true that Lan Qiren is a moral person, unlike Jin Guangshan, but he's also someone who sees the world as more black and white than Lan Zhan does. He could understand why Lan Zhan was hurt by the human losses in the war, but not why he also mourned for their enemy, and for the meaninglessness of a war that could have been avoided if only both sides had understood each other from the beginning. Given that, Lan Zhan doesn't think the military under his uncle will be a place for him either.
More than that, while it did feel satisfying to save the day, in a way everyday security work doesn't, it was also frustrating and stressful and nearly cost Wei Ying his life twice over, which would have been a higher price than Lan Zhan is willing to pay. Besides, he can hardly feel good about having to kill someone, even if it was to save more people. Perhaps it's selfish, but he doesn't want to sacrifice his conscience to keep people safe any more than he already has, or to give up the life he's built here and the people he cares about.
"You don't need to decide immediately," his uncle says before Lan Zhan can turn him down. "But think about it. I..." He hesitates briefly. "I can see that you're comfortable here, Wangji, but you could do so much than only be comfortable."
I'm not comfortable; I'm happy, Lan Zhan thinks. It's sad, if he thinks about it too much, that his uncle notices and values his happiness so little.
"Take your time thinking about it," Lan Huan tells him. "We'll be on the Alpha Base for a few more days, and this ship will likely need to stay for a week or so."
Lan Zhan nods. He doubts he'll change his mind, but he'll give the offer the consideration it deserves this one last time. Then, either he'll go back to the military, or he'll definitively close that door forever.
His uncle and brother leave together, and Lan Zhan goes back to the mess hall. The whole crew is talking and laughing as he sits down next to Wei Ying. It's loud and under other circumstances it might annoy him, but now it just feels good, after these weeks of tension and frustration. Wei Ying doesn't sit on his lap again but takes his hand and squeezes it. His smile is bright, and so is the one Yanli flashes him, and Wen Qing too, all of them offering reassurance and support without him needing to say a word. It makes Lan Zhan feel that this is where he should be, more so than any military base.
It's getting late by his standards and Lan Zhan is thinking about excusing himself when Wei Ying stands up and yawns. "I apparently still haven't slept enough to make up for the last few days. Let's go to bed, Lan Zhan." It's probably the truth, but it also makes it easier for Lan Zhan to leave without feeling like he's spoiling the fun. They say goodnight to the others and walk back to their room.
As soon as they're inside, Wei Ying asks, "What did your uncle want to talk about?" He's still smiling, making it seem like a casual question, but his eyes are serious.
"He asked me again to return to the military. He says it will be different now that he's in charge, so I should reconsider."
"Would you?" Wei Ying asks. "Your uncle's obviously not the most fun guy in the world, but he seems like a good person. And I bet the military could use more people like you."
Lan Zhan finds himself disappointed, but he can't say if it's because he wanted Wei Ying to help push him toward the decision he's already made or because he thought Wei Ying would care more whether he stays or goes. He doubted Wei Ying's feelings before, but after his confession yesterday, he thought for sure that Wei Ying would want Lan Zhan to be by his side. It's not impossible to be a soldier with a civilian boyfriend, but it wouldn't be easy, especially with Wei Ying traveling all over the place.
"Would you ever consider going back?" Lan Zhan asks.
He's not at all surprised when Wei Ying laughs and answers, "Not in a million years. I'd probably do even worse in the military under your uncle, considering how strict he is. But we're very different." More seriously, he adds, "I know you said you wouldn't go back, but if all of this has made you change your mind, I won't judge. I don't see why anyone would."
"Mm," is all Lan Zhan can find to say to that.
Wei Ying laughs again. "You don't have to decide tonight, right? Then let's not think about it for a while."
Lan Zhan is more than happy to do just that, pulling Wei Ying into him and kissing him breathless. Wei Ying kisses him back eagerly, and Lan Zhan drowns his doubts—about the future and about Wei Ying—in how good it feels to kiss with their bodies flush against each other, and forgets everything else.
* * *
It's all of humanity, really, not just soldiers, who aren't as good as he believed they were, but at least here on this ship, he can be with people he trusts, doing relatively straightforward, decent work. If humanity needs saving again, or just his friends, he'll do what it takes, but he won't go looking for trouble. And maybe someday he'll find some other work that's meaningful to him the way he thought being a soldier would be, but maybe he won't, and that's okay. He's come to realize that that's not what matters most to him.
Before his shower, he sends a message to his uncle: I won't come back. He doesn't hedge or explain. He told his uncle his reasoning many times before. If he can't understand now, then he never will. Somehow, that doesn't feel as important now as it once did.
Today also, Wei Ying wakes up when he comes out of the shower, though he's on Lan Zhan's bunk this time. "Come to bed, Lan Zhan," he says in a childish whine that Lan Zhan can't help finding endearing.
"Will you fall asleep today?" Lan Zhan asks as he climbs onto the bunk. It comes out hungry, and Wei Ying swallows hard before he answers.
"No, definitely not."
Lan Zhan's wristlet chimes when he's just started kissing Wei Ying, but he ignores it in favor of slowly but surely taking Wei Ying apart, reveling in every little moan and whimper, every tremor that runs through his body. With everything that's happened since their first time together, they haven't had enough time to just be together without letting the outside world intrude. It's so good to let his focus narrow down to Wei Ying and the sounds he makes and how good he looks spread out on the bed beneath him.
He drags it out to the very end, rolling his hips in slow, deep thrusts until Wei Ying begs him to hurry. "Lan Zhan, please, are you made of stone?" he groans. "You can't tell me you don't want it."
He does, but more than that, he wants Wei Ying to feel incredible, and so Lan Zhan holds on until finally he cries out as he falls apart so beautifully. Only when he's gone still does Lan Zhan let go, biting down on Wei Ying's shoulder and letting everything fade away except the pleasure that floods through his body.
Afterwards, he gathers Wei Ying up in his arms, loving how relaxed he is. "You're amazing, Lan Zhan," he mumbles. "Also terrible, but mostly amazing."
"I love you." He hasn't said it again since the first two times, but it feels right now, and in general. He's not going to waste any more opportunities to say it.
"That too." Wei Ying's laugh is muffled against Lan Zhan's skin.
A minute or two passes in silence before Lan Zhan's wristlet chimes again. "Who's that bothering you so early?" Wei Ying asks.
"My uncle, probably."
"Don't let me stop you from checking, if you want."
Lan Zhan doesn't particularly want to, but he thinks he should get it over with. With Wei Ying still lying on him, he activates his wristlet screen so he can see his uncle's messages. The first one says only, Understood, which is no more or less than he expected. The second says, Do your best wherever you are, A-Zhan. It's still not much, but coming from his uncle, it means a lot. He hasn't called him anything but Wangji since he joined the military, insisting on using his call sign even after he left, so the intent is clear, accepting that that's not who he is anymore.
When Lan Zhan turns off the screen, Wei Ying sits up, looking down at him. "Something good?"
"Yes. I told him I won't return to the military, and he accepted it.
Wei Ying frowns ever so slightly. "For sure?"
"For sure. I've been sure."
He expected that Wei Ying would be happy at the news, but it's clear that something is still bothering him. He takes a deep breath and then lets it out noisily. "I'm just going to say it: don't stay for me, okay?"
"I'm not." He does want to stay with Wei Ying, but that's not the reason he turned down his uncle's offer. He's known for a long time already that the military isn't the place for him. Wei Ying is still frowning, and Lan Zhan doesn't know what to think. "Do you not want me to stay?"
"No, no, it's just that I only want you to stay if you want to." Wei Ying seems flustered now. Lan Zhan studies him, trying to figure out what he's thinking. He sits up so he can get a better look and Wei Ying practically flails in his discomfort. "Look, Lan Zhan, I...yes, okay, I want you here, but you don't have to feel obligated, especially if it's because you're worried about me and—"
Lan Zhan kisses him to stop him rambling, and also because he thinks he understands, remembering how Yanli told him that it's hard for Wei Ying to admit that he wants people to care about him. "I'm going to stay," he says when he pulls away, "because I want to. Stay with me."
Wei Ying looks even more flustered now, but also very happy. "If you insist."
* * *
"I won't do any snooping, I promise," Wei Ying joked when their destination was decided. "No uncovering evil plans, just fun in the alien sun."
They're a little nervous in general, to be honest. Everything they went through with the Wens and Jin Guangshan has left scars that won't easily fade and reopened old wounds, on Wei Ying in particular. Then again, Lan Zhan feels there was some good to it too, forcing him and Wei Ying to open up about their war experiences and the complicated feelings it left them with. It wasn't pleasant, to put it mildly, but now that it's out there, they have a better chance of moving past it and healing as much as they can.
Despite those nerves, the crew is cheerful, talking and laughing as they fill the cargo bay. "I'm glad you're with us, Wangji," Wen Ning tells him as they carry a heavy box together, smiling shyly. Lan Zhan nods to say that he's glad too.
When they're finished loading and ready to go, they all gather together in the bridge. "Are you going to make a speech, captain?" Huaisang asks. "This seems like an occasion that calls for a speech."
Wen Qing rolls her eyes but indulges him. "Fine. I want to say how grateful I am that we're all here together. It's thanks to a lot of luck, but also to all of us working hard to keep each other safe and do the right thing. Not just anyone would have done that, so I'm proud of you."
"I didn't know you had it in you to be so cheesy," Wei Ying says when she pauses. "Or even so nice."
"Don't make me change my mind." Wen Qing tries and fails to not smile. "I hope it'll be smooth sailing for us from now on, but if it isn't, I know we'll get through it. Thanks for sticking with me and this ship and this whole sorry crew. Let's keep flying together for a long time."
Yanli's eyes catch Lan Zhan's, and she smiles widely. Next to him, Wei Ying takes his hand, and Lan Zhan squeezes it. Even if he doubted his decision before, he wouldn't now, surrounded by the crew members who have started to become his friends and will continue to even more so, he thinks.
"Can I go?" Jiang Cheng asks. "Or do we need more speeches?"
"Almost," Wen Qing says. "To another new beginning, and safe journeys for all of us."
"Safe journeys," Lan Zhan echoes, and the rest of the crew with him. As Jiang Cheng eases them out of the docking bay, Lan Zhan turns to Wei Ying, who smiles brilliantly at him. Seeing that smile that lights up his whole face and, in Lan Zhan's eyes, lights up the whole room, he has to smile back. It's a new beginning indeed, and perhaps in some ways a more difficult path than if he'd stuck to the plans his uncle laid out for him, but he's excited to follow it and see where else it takes him.