Wei Ying showered and shaved in the hospital’s changing rooms and then put on his borrowed white linen suit. Too short in the legs, as most things were, and too loose across the shoulders now. Still, it would do. What did anyone expect him to look like, anyway? It was jiejie’s funeral. Finally.
The police case had been closed and her body released to the family – death by misadventure. That had been the final indignity for Jiang Cheng, leading to … Wei Ying didn’t finish the thought. He scraped his hair back, still damp, into a low tail tied with a white ribbon and tried not to look himself in the face. The mirror was unforgiving. Not that he deserved forgiveness.
Turning, he saw the mess he’d left behind – dirty clothes and clean nursing uniform, shoes that would need replacing soon, phone and charger and empty wallet. The detritus of his life. And the raw wound beneath his ribs that was jiejie gone. The second, smaller but no less painful, of Jiang Cheng’s grief and rage and bitter accusations.
Moving with less grace than a shadow puppet in the hands of a child, he packed up his belongings and shoved them into his locker, then left the changing room and the hospital. Head down, hands in his pockets. If anyone recognised him, they recognised the look on his face and the significance of his suit, too, and left him alone.
The day was unfairly beautiful, a high bright sun and the heat cut through with a spring breeze. The vigil was finally over. Jiang Cheng had wanted the full seven days, but their family was small – smaller now – and in the end they kept it to three – a day each for him, Jiang Cheng and Jin Zixuan, A-Li’s fiancé. Wei Ying didn’t want to remember the eighteen hours he’d knelt at the side of jiejie’s coffin, unable even to cry.
You did this. Jiang Cheng’s voice.
Yes. I did.
He blinked burning eyes and began to walk. The cemetery was a good two-hour trek, but he had enough time. A small bag dangled from his wrist, filled with joss money and, balanced on top, a beautifully-made joss paper boat, a perfect replica of jiejie’s racing skiff. Wei Ying had been unable to look at it for more than a second at a time, and now it was as if it bore the weight of the real thing, dragging at his arm and his consciousness, threatening memories. He clenched his fists and his jaw and let the crowds on the streets part for him as he stalked along, people eyeing his funeral clothes and stepping hastily aside in case of bad luck.
He could have laughed. Bad luck was the least they needed to worry about around him.
He was on the outskirts of Yunmeng town, about an hour’s walk ahead of him, when he heard the scuffle, voices muted but heavy with violence, another lower, softer, with a hint of desperation beneath its steel. Wei Ying looked left, down a quiet, almost deserted side street, narrow and gloomy. There was a bookshop there he’d gone to with jiejie when they’d been younger… pain spiked in his chest and he looked away hurriedly, got another three paces before his exhausted brain made sense of what he’d seen. His steps faltered.
Wei Ying put down the bag of paper money and folded his jacket over it, then walked towards the fight, clicking his neck. He grabbed the first by his shoulder and hip, hauled him backwards and slammed him head-first into the wall next to the bookshop. The second turned at the sudden sound and gaped for a second – tall man in funeral white, rage and grief in his face – and Wei Ying punched him hard in the mouth, splitting his knuckles. The man went backwards but not down, and then the figure he’d been threatening landed two swift punches to his kidneys that stole his feet from under him. He hit the dirt and groaned, curling up around the pain. A knife skittered out of his hand and Wei Ying noticed it, realised distantly that this could have been much worse, and then kicked it away.
His gaze went to the victim. ‘Are you hurt?’
The man was bleeding from the mouth and hunched over with an arm around his waist. The contents of his bag – books and an expensive-looking laptop – were scattered across the ground. He shook his head. ‘I’m fine,’ he managed.
Wei Ying stared at the man they’d both punched, who had rolled onto his knees but didn’t seem to know what to do next. ‘Fuck off before you end up like your friend.’ He fled. The friend was unconscious and Wei Ying arranged him very gently so that he wouldn’t choke on his own saliva, checking his pulse and the reactions of his pupils. He didn’t have much credit left, but he called an ambulance and the police and then examined the stranger’s ribs and face, who was pale with the shock.
‘I don’t think anything’s broken, but you should sit down in case you feel a bit woozy. I’ll get you a cold compress or some ice from inside. Are you alright to wait until the police get here? If he comes around, it’s up to you what you do. No one will blame you for heading inside and locking the doors. No one will blame you if you just walk away now. I’ll look the other way if you want to give him another kick before the police arrive.’
The shopkeeper came out then and offered the man a cup of tea and promised he could wait in the shop. Wei Ying asked him for ice, too, and then picked up the discarded bag and put the books and laptop carefully back in it and handed it to the shopkeeper. ‘I hope your computer still works after this.’
He took another look at the man – high cheekbones and long hair partially torn from a bun, his mouth swelling and cut, blood dripping onto his shirt – and then gave him a little bow. ‘Take care.’
He shrugged his jacket back on, picked up the paper money, and walked away.
Wei Ying was late to the funeral.
Jiang Cheng looked awful. Always lithe from a lifetime of swimming and sailing, now he was gaunt, cheekbones so pronounced he was almost a skeleton. His eyes, though, glittered with life: rage and grief and a clear-burning hate every time they landed on Wei Ying.
Wei Ying knew that look, saw it every time he wasn’t quick enough to look away from a mirror or a pane of glass. They stood stiffly next to each other to accept the white envelopes of funeral money from the mourners – jiejie’s friends and colleagues, Jin Zixuan and his parents. A-Li’s fiancé looked almost as bad as Jiang Cheng, washed out by a surfeit of grief and incomprehension.
When it was done, Wei Ying waited a little longer. Jiang Cheng was staring at the grave with so much naked confusion that he put his hand on his shoulder. His didi wrenched away, stumbling in his haste. It had been the three of them for the last four years, since their parents had died when Jiang Cheng was only sixteen and Wei Ying eighteen. Jiejie had taken care of them both, running Lotus Pier and seeing them through school and into university. And now it was just the two of them.
‘You will come ho- come to Lotus Pier for the weekly funeral prayers and the hundred-day ceremony. Other than that, I never want to see you again.’ Jiang Cheng’s voice was shaking. ‘You will stay away from me and from Jin Zixuan. Do you understand?’
Wei Ying nodded, trying to make eye contact; Jiang Cheng looked at the grave tablet instead. ‘Whatever you need.’
‘I need her not to be dead. I need you to be… You did this. You killed her.’
Wei Ying bowed as his didi began to rage at him in a low voice that trembled and broke and hitched, never rising above a venomous whisper. Every word a weapon. Every breath a wound. When it was done, when Jiang Cheng was thin and trembling, hectic spots of colour in his cheeks, he shoulder-barged Wei Ying out of the way and stalked from the cemetery.
Wei Ying knelt at the grave and kowtowed. ‘Don’t be angry at him, jiejie. He’s sad. He should be sad. And he’s … not wrong, is he? I did do this. I’ll … I’ll give him what he needs, whatever that is. Silence, absence, whatever. I’m sending him money to keep the house running until he decides what to do next. And I’ll, I’m, I won’t… oh gods, jiejie, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry I let you die.’ The words came out in a raw rush of breath, his voice sounding nothing like his own and finally, finally, the tears came. Wei Ying knelt in the sun at the side of a grave, and he sobbed himself empty.
‘You’ve been sleeping in the on-call room again. This is the third time, Wei Wuxian. Once more and there will be a permanent mark on your disciplinary record. I know you’ve had a bereavement, and you have my condolences, but I cannot let you put our patients at risk. They are some of the most vulnerable in this hospital. Other staff members need the space to sleep.’
Wei Ying bowed where he sat. ‘I apologise. Things have been … it won’t happen again. I promise. The patients are everything to me, sir. I won’t risk them. I’d never risk them.’
‘I know, Wei Wuxian. You’re one of our most dedicated nurses and I’ve never had cause to bring you here before. I really do hope things get better for you at home. And I really don’t want to have to have this conversation again.’
Wei Ying gave his professional smile. ‘You won’t. I promise. I would like to sign up for any extra shifts, though, sir. To make up for my lapses,’ he added, and if the Director saw through the lie, he was gracious enough not to say so.
‘I’ll see what I can do. But you can’t work yourself to death – sorry.’
Wei Ying flinched and then smiled again. ‘No need to apologise. And I won’t. Just … I won’t,’ he repeated.
The Director dismissed him and Wei Ying headed back to the ward and his patients, their eager, confused, frightened, sullen faces already crowding his mind, pushing past the fear, the grief, the worry. At least the weather’s getting better. I’ve got time. I can sort it out.
Yunmeng had plenty of places to nap while he did. His mail was still going to Lotus Pier and Jiang Cheng forwarded it to the hospital each week, so he ostensibly still had an address. Meaning he could get a loan, and then find somewhere cheap. He just … needed to do it. He would. Next time he didn’t have a shift, he’d sort it out.
Wei Ying pushed open the doors to the paediatrics ward and grinned. ‘What’s up, gremlins? Anyone’s leg fall off since I was last here? No? Shame. I’m just gonna have to try harder, aren’t I? You, Wen Yuan, pretty sure I saw some leg-falling-off symptoms on you last night. Come on, let me take a look.’
Wen Yuan screamed delightedly and threw a toy dinosaur at him. ‘Get away!’
‘Who, me? But I want to eat some legs. Come on, A-Yuan, give me that tasty boy-leg. I’m hungry.’ He made a monstrous face and began to creep theatrically between the beds, twitching blankets and pinching little feet as he advanced towards Wen Yuan. The boy was being discharged tomorrow and Wei Ying was going to miss him.
Wen Yuan screamed again. No hurt here but their hurt. No fear but their fear. And it was his job to take away both. The ward erupted into chaos and Wei Ying sank into it, vanishing without a ripple and praying never to surface again.
Wei Ying jerked awake, pain flashing through his neck from how he’d slumped against the window. He sat up. ‘Sorry, I’ll go, I’ll go,’ he muttered automatically, grabbing for his bag and beginning to stand. The bookshop’s staff were beginning to lose patience with him. It’d been different when he’d been a student, studying in the little café and ordering in every text he needed and eating his bodyweight in bao.
‘You left so suddenly and I, well, I wasn’t quite clear on the facts at the time.’
Wei Ying stared at him. ‘I’m sorry, I really have no idea what you’re talking about,’ he said as dread began to coil in his stomach. ‘I know I don’t owe you any money’ – gods, please don’t let them have sold my debt on, please, please – ‘so I should be going.’ He looked at his wrist, though he hadn’t got a watch anymore. ‘Oh, is that the time?’
‘Wait, please. You don’t remember me? Outside, a month or so ago. I was … you were in mourning clothes and I was being robbed? You stopped to help.’
Wei Ying slumped back in his seat. ‘Oh,’ he said faintly. ‘Of course. How are you? Your face looks good. No stitches in the lip, I’m guessing.’
The man blushed faintly. ‘No, no stitches. No broken ribs, either, though it felt like it. I wanted to thank you.’
Wei Ying rubbed his face. ‘No need. Anyone would have done the same.’ He tried to think of something to say. ‘Was your laptop okay?’ The man shifted his weight from foot to foot. ‘Oh, please, sit if you’d like,’ he added.
The man smiled and Wei Ying’s heart twisted. Wow. He pushed it aside on a surge of guilt and self-disgust.
‘The laptop’s contents were salvageable, mostly. I had to redo a week’s worth of work, but the rest was safe.’
‘Oh, I’m sorry.’
The man frowned. ‘What are you sorry for? I’d have lost it all if not for you, and likely been dead as well. Oh, I do apologise.’ He blushed again, pinker this time, when Wei Ying flinched. ‘My name is Lan Wangji. I’d like very much to thank you formally. Perhaps I could buy you a meal?’
‘Wei Wuxian, and there’s really no need,’ Wei Ying said as his stomach cramped and then gurgled loudly.
Lan Wangji smiled again. ‘The dumplings here are good. Please?’
Wei Ying had to swallow the saliva that flooded his mouth before he could reply. ‘It’s really not necessary,’ he started and Lan Wangji looked so despondent that he gave in. ‘But if you insist, then yes. Thank you. I haven’t had the dumplings in a while. I have fond memories.’
Lan Wangji’s face creased with pleasure. ‘Perfect. Tea?’ Wei Ying nodded, stifling a yawn, and the man hopped out of his seat and crossed to the counter. As soon as he was gone, he scrubbed his hand over his face and back through his hair, trying to get his brain back online. He checked the wall clock; he had night shift in … five hours. Meaning he’d been asleep for a little under two hours. He should have asked for coffee.
Wei Ying stretched and his feet kicked the duffle bag under the table. He ducked down to drag it beneath his chair so Lan Wangji had somewhere to put his legs and then unzipped the end pocket, squeezed a bead of toothpaste onto his finger, and rubbed it over his teeth and tongue.
When Lan Wangji returned, he had a tray loaded with tea and bowls, napkins and chopsticks, and a plate holding four bao. ‘These are for you.’
‘Oh, okay. Maybe I’ll get dumplings next time I’m here.’
Lan Wangji frowned. ‘Oh, I ordered dumplings as well. I just … sorry, I got a little carried away. You can take them home. Or whatever. I didn’t think I’d see you again, that’s all. I really am grateful.’
Wei Ying had to stare at the bao for a long second until the threat of tears went away. ‘It really was no trouble. You didn’t need to but, but thank you. That’s extremely generous.’
‘It’s just lunch,’ Lan Wangji said. ‘The least I could do. Especially as you were, were, ah, preoccupied that day.’
Wei Ying went to pour the tea and saw how badly his hand was shaking. He put it back in his lap. ‘I was going…’ he rasped.
‘You don’t have to tell me. It’s really none of my business,’ Lan Wangji said quickly, pouring for them both.
‘So what was on the laptop that you lost?’ Wei Ying asked, the change in topic obvious and clumsy, but Lan Wangji didn’t seem to mind.
‘I’m a historian. It’s a new biography I’m working on, of Gu Kaizhi of the Eastern Jin Dynasty. The breadth of his work, not just his paintings but the books of theory he wrote. Well, as you can imagine there isn’t a lot known about him other than his own texts, so I’m,’ he broke off and laughed quietly. ‘I’m sorry, I can see your eyes glazing over.’
‘No, no, carry on, please. I came off a night shift and I’m due on another one later, that’s all. It’s fascinating.’
Lan Wangji smiled. ‘I like to work here when I’m sick of my home office,’ he said instead. ‘And the bookshop seems to appreciate me ordering in the titles I need to conduct my research.’
Wei Ying managed a smile. ‘Oh yes, they were always keen to accommodate me when I was working through medical school. Never had a problem ordering in those insanely expensive medical texts I had to memorise.’
‘You’re a doctor?’ Lan Wangji asked, impressed. ‘I should have known.’
Here we go.
‘I’m a nurse. Paediatrics.’ Wei Ying waited for the recoil, the disdain, the mild contempt that he was “just” a nurse. And now you have to sit here and eat dumplings with me, choking on your condescension.
‘Oh, but that must be a difficult job at times,’ Lan Wangji replied without missing a beat. Wei Ying blinked. ‘But I imagine it must be immensely rewarding, too. Was that … the funeral you were attending?’ He blushed hard. ‘Forgive me, that was impolite. It’s the researcher in me, I’m afraid. It makes me uncomfortably interested in people. I’m usually better at not prying, but I’ve just finished my day’s research and the, ah, brain pattern persists for a while. I’m sure you’d know better what the medical term for that is.’
Wei Ying blinked again. ‘It wasn’t … a patient’s, I mean. It was,’ his voice broke and he cleared his throat. ‘My jiejie’s.’
Lan Wangji’s face softened and he reached over the table to grip Wei Ying’s hand. ‘Oh, I am so sorry. Truly. That just makes what you did for me even more remarkable.’
‘Please don’t,’ Wei Ying croaked, but whether it was the thanks or the sincerity that rammed a spike of ice into his throat, he didn’t know. Lan Wangji snatched his hand back as if scalded. ‘No, I didn’t…’ he sighed. ‘I’m sorry, I’m a mess. You can cancel the order for the dumplings. You don’t need to put up with,’ he gestured up and down himself, ‘all this.’
‘Absolutely not,’ Lan Wangji said firmly. ‘I have a gege and I, well, I can’t imagine what you must be going through but I know that if I lost him I’d be … undone. Please stay and eat. Please.’
Wei Ying’s stomach rumbled again and he smiled. ‘Well, it seems my body won’t allow me to leave until I have. Tell me more about your research?’
‘You don’t need to,’ he began.
‘I’d like to. Really. It … gives me something else to think about.’ Wow, Wei Ying, way to just open up and be pathetic right there. Can’t even let a stranger thank you without embarrassing yourself.
‘Of course,’ Lan Wangji said gently, his pity well hidden behind a small smile. He spoke until the lunch arrived, and made sure Wei Ying took the bigger portion. Wei Ying could have cried. When he got to the hospital and had a moment to himself, he did.
Wen Yuan was back in hospital and Wei Ying’s heart shattered in his chest when he saw him. ‘Hey, gremlin,’ he said softly, reaching out to tuck the dinosaur more tightly into his arms. ‘How are you feeling?’
Wen Yuan’s eyes filled with tears. ‘Xian-gege? I fell again. It hurts.’
‘I know, buddy. We’re going to fix that, though, okay? XianXian’s going to fix it.’ He mustered up a smile. ‘How am I gonna eat your legs if you don’t get better first?’
Wen Yuan’s face was hidden in blankets and dinosaur, but his eyes crinkled at the corners, just a little. ‘Not my legs,’ he murmured.
‘Okay, not your legs. Not yet,’ he promised, and brushed the boy’s hair back from his forehead. His parents weren’t here – again. His parents needed to be taken somewhere desolate and shown the true meaning of pain, and Wei Ying was perfectly happy to be the one to do it, only he wasn’t going to leave A-Yuan long enough for that to happen. He should be too young to know to lie, too young to be this scared of the people he should never have to fear. He hoped the rage didn’t show on his face when he checked Wen Yuan’s chart and saw what they’d done to him this time.
Wei Ying sat with him until the boy was asleep, and then emailed his superior offering to pull a double shift so he could be here through the night for him. The first twenty-four hours were always the scariest.
He slept through his lunch-break, head pillowed on his arms at the table in the break room, and then filled up on coffee until he was jittery with caffeine and sugar and liable to vibrate out of his own skin. He had another hour off between day and night shifts – thank you, Director – and managed to doze, too wired for true sleep, before choking down some instant ramen, his belly pinched with hunger. He’d barely made the interest payment on his debt this month, but it worried him less than the text from Jiang Cheng: In case you weren’t aware, yesterday’s prayers for jiejie were the last until the hundred-day ceremony. Don’t come here until then.
Fifty days since the funeral and the prayer cycle had begun. Ninety-seven since he’d let her die and destroyed the best and brightest thing in existence. He’d hoped, with time, his didi would … not forgive him, but at least want to talk to him. Want him around. Lotus Pier was too big and he was so young, there all alone. Wei Ying knew he’d given up his engineering job to start a business out of the family home, but he didn’t know what. He’d reached out to Jin Zixuan but received no response. The man was deep in mourning, too, of course, and it was selfish of Wei Ying to expect a reply.
He gripped his phone tight enough the edges dug into his palm, and then replied to his brother. If that’s what you want, didi. You know I’ll give you whatever you need. I love you.
He didn’t get a response.
Wei Ying was at least awake this time, staring at the pot of tea that was long since emptied but at least gave him a facsimile of an excuse to sit here until the rain ended. He hoped.
‘Lan Wangji,’ he mumbled and pointed to the chair. ‘Fancy seeing you here. More research? I’m sorry, the pot’s empty,’ he added, belatedly. ‘Here, let me order -’
‘I have already ordered,’ Lan Wangji said. ‘Would you care for a cup, seeing as I am intruding on you again?’
‘That would be lovely,’ he said before he could stop himself, and was rewarded with a smile. Wow. Again he blinked it away.
‘You look tired,’ Lan Wangji commented. ‘Busy shift?’
‘Two busy shifts. I’ve just come off a double.’
The waiter appeared with the tea and snorted at that. ‘“Just,” he says. He’s been here staring into space for three hours. I was about to kick him out when you ordered lunch for him, Mr Lan.’
Wei Ying blushed and then his mouth dropped open. ‘Lunch?’ he repeated dumbly.
Lan Wangji ducked his head. ‘I asked if you’d eaten when I put in my order,’ he stammered, unable to meet Wei Ying’s eyes.
The waiter snorted again as he cleared away Wei Ying’s empty pot. ‘It’s a rare day he actually orders anything,’ he muttered. ‘Freeloader.’
Heat suffused Wei Ying’s face. He’d known it couldn’t last, but to be accused – rightfully so – in front of Lan Wangji was an extra humiliation he hadn’t anticipated. He bowed over the table. ‘I apologise. It won’t happen again. Lan Wangji, it might be best if you cancel the order, though I appreciate it deeply. It was, it was good to see you again.’
He grabbed up his duffle bag and fled, ignoring Lan Wangji’s shocked protest.
The rain was cold considering it was the start of summer, and heavy enough to soak him in minutes. He hurried down the street onto the main thoroughfare and then loitered under an awning out of the worst of the wet, shivering and clutching his bag to his chest. The next time he looked up, three men were watching him from across the street. One of them, pretty in a very dangerous way, beckoned. Wei Ying swallowed, his throat dry, but he stepped out into the rain and followed them down an alley.
‘I just need a little more time,’ Wei Ying croaked. ‘Please, Xue Yang, I can get it next week, I promise.’
Xue Yang’s smile was as sharp as the knife he flipped between his fingers. ‘You said that last week. Boss is getting angry, and you don’t want the boss to be angry. Even I don’t want the boss to be angry, and that’s saying something.’
‘I get paid next week. I can give it you then, I swear.’
They crowded him against the alley wall and one tugged the bag from his arms. ‘There’s really nothing worth anything in there,’ he tried, but they upended it anyway, tumbling his clothes into the puddles and stamping on them. They already knew his phone was worthless, but they went through his wallet and took the last few yuan he had. Not even enough to buy him a decent meal.
Xue Yang held him against the wall with one hand around his throat and the knife tapping idly against the button on his jeans. ‘You’ve got a pretty mouth,’ he whispered, leaning in. ‘Wonder what you’d look like on your knees for me.’
Would it wipe out my debt? Wei Ying almost asked the question but bit it back at the last second. Xue Yang must have seen a hint of it in his face anyway; he laughed and nosed at the line of his jaw, squeezing his throat as he did it.
‘Next week or it doubles,’ he said into his ear and then sucked on the lobe, bit down, and stepped back. He flicked a finger at the other two, who closed in with their fists raised. Wei Ying clenched his jaw.
‘And we know where your brother lives,’ he finished as the first blow landed.
‘Xian-gege!’ Wen Yuan’s eyes were huge and filling rapidly with tears. ‘Did Baba- did you fall down? I fell down.’
Wei Ying forced a chuckle. ‘XianXian is so silly,’ he sang. ‘XianXian opened the cupboard door on his sha gua face! He didn’t fall down, I promise. No one made him fall down. XianXian is safe,’ he finished softly. ‘And A-Yuan is safe, too.’
There was movement under the blankets, as of feet wiggling. ‘Is Xian-gege hungry?’ he asked shyly, in an attempt to make Wei Ying laugh that broke his heart. How could a child so young know to manage or deflect an adult’s emotions? Or feel that he had to?
He put his hands on his hips and tilted his head to one side so he could see out of the good eye. ‘Well,’ he declared, moving stealthily forward and determinedly not limping, ‘now you mention it, he is pretty peckish. For boy!’
Wen Yuan squealed and wriggled away and Wei Ying chased him slowly and carefully across the bed, both of them too sore for more. Finally he caught him, and cradled him gently and pretended to eat A-Yuan’s toes, mindful of the marks on his legs even as each one seared its way into his mind. If he ever found this boy’s parents…
He was lucky that the other kids thought his bruises were cool, and that none of the staff questioned the story of him being knocked off his bike, but all he could think was “We know where your brother lives, we know where your brother lives, we know where your brother lives”.
His boss refused to put him on any more doubles. ‘Of course you’re going to have an accident, cycling home after a double shift,’ he snapped. ‘I can’t in good conscience risk you again. In fact, you should take some time off to fully heal. You didn’t rest, even after the bereavement. Perhaps it’s time?’
‘I need to work,’ Wei Ying said desperately. ‘Please, sir, please. I need to … be busy. I promise I won’t cycle, how about that? Then there’s nothing to stop me taking the shifts.’
‘I’m sorry, Wei Wuxian, but no. You’re taking on too much. You need to slow down before you risk our patients.’
The room spun gently around him. ‘I need,’ he began slowly, thinking it through. ‘I’ve applied for a new apartment, but I need to find the deposit. That’s why I’ve been taking the extra work. Once that’s paid, I won’t need any extra. Can I, is there any way I could get an advance on next month’s salary?’
‘Wei Wuxian, this is a hospital, not a bank. I suggest you speak to them.’
Wei Ying stood and nodded. ‘Of course, of course. Just a thought. I’ll get onto them as soon as I’m off duty. Thank you, sir, thanks for looking out for me. I appreciate it. If you do get any more shifts though, even at short notice, if someone’s off sick, let me know?’
‘I’ll think about it,’ the Director said with a severe look, and then waved him again. ‘Go, get back to your kids. Tell them some awful story about your face. They’ll love it.’
Wei Ying laughed brightly. ‘Already have,’ he said and left the office, the laughter falling away and leaving cold emptiness in its wake the moment the door closed behind him.
“We know where your brother lives.”
Wei Ying jerked awake on the couch in the break room with a startled gasp. ‘Don’t!’
Wen Qing leapt a foot in the air and turned to face him, a now-empty coffee spoon in her hand. ‘Wei Wuxian?’
Wei Ying slumped back against the cushions and put his hand to his chest. ‘Sorry, Doctor Wen, didn’t mean to startle you. Bad dream.’
‘You’re not doing a double, are you?’ she asked as she began to mop up spilt coffee grounds.
‘Good, because you look awful, and I don’t mean the bruises. But if you’re not on tonight, why are you still here? Go home.’
Wei Ying barked a laugh that earnt him a piercing look. He scrambled to his feet. ‘Sure, sure, going now. Just wanted to unwind a bit first. Didn’t mean to fall asleep.’
‘Your phone’s been going, too,’ she said and pointed to it where it lay on the table in front of the couch.
He grabbed it up. Would it be Jiang Cheng? Could he go home? Pay day’s coming. You better have our money. ‘Do you, ah, have a full complement of staff on cardiothoracics, Doctor?’ he asked slowly.
‘Yes. Go home.’
Wei Ying picked up his bag and shuffled out. “We know where your brother lives.”
It was a gorgeous evening, warm and dry, which was something. Perhaps he wouldn’t need to put on every article of clothing he owned before going to sleep this time. Wei Ying got as far as the picnic tables set up outside the hospital before he sat, bag between his feet and face buried in his hands. His options were … limited. He had nothing to sell and he couldn’t get any more shifts. He couldn’t get an advance and he was only paying the interest on his debts. The shifts themselves were so spaced out he couldn’t get a steady second job in between. It didn’t matter what happened to him, but this couldn’t, absolutely couldn’t, affect Jiang Cheng. He’d done enough to destroy his adopted family as it was; he couldn’t put this on his didi’s shoulders, too.
It didn’t matter how he looked at it, he kept coming back to the same two options: steal drugs from the hospital to sell on the streets; or sell himself. He just didn’t know how to go about doing either. It wasn’t really two options, anyway. He’d never risk the lives of patients by stealing the life-saving drugs they needed. He was scum and a failure who’d destroyed his family, but he wouldn’t ruin any more lives.
You’ve got a pretty mouth, Xue Yang had said.
‘And I guess being a sex worker means I can choose my own hours,’ he mumbled into his hands and snorted a laugh. A hysterical giggle burst out into his palms and then, very suddenly, he was crying.
‘Excuse me? I’m – oh, I’m sorry to intrude. I’ll – Wei Wuxian?’
Wei Ying wiped his eyes and sucked in a deep breath, then plastered on his smile and dropped his hands. One of the kids’ parents, probably; he recognised the voice. It wasn’t. He stared in blank confusion. ‘Lan Wangji?’
Lan Wangji smiled a bit uncertainly. ‘Are you okay?’
Wei Ying sprang up. ‘Fine, fine. Are you here to visit someone? Come on, I can take you. It can take ages otherwise. Which ward are they on?’
‘I, ah no, I’m…’ he stepped back from Wei Ying’s manic energy. ‘I came to find … you. What happened to your face?’
‘Fell off my bike,’ he said automatically. ‘What do you mean, you came to find me? I’m sorry, I still owe you for that lunch I ran out on, don’t I? Here,’ and he fished out his wallet before thinking about it and then had to go through the mortifying ordeal of looking through it. ‘Oh, I … seem to have left my cash at home. Ah, let me find an ATM, I’m sure one of these will still let me withdraw some money.’ He wasn’t sure at all, and he had no idea what he’d do when that happened. Be even more humiliated, he guessed. It almost didn’t matter anymore. He’d reached and passed his limit for embarrassment somewhere around the time one of his co-workers found him asleep in the closest park and he’d had to make up some bullshit excuse about passing out drunk the night before. Hardly the behaviour of a professional paeds nurse.
‘It’s not about the lunch,’ Lan Wangji said nonsensically. ‘Would you like to go and get tea somewhere? Here, let me,’ he added before Wei Ying could reply and picked up his bag. ‘Where’s good?’
Wei Ying refused to move. ‘What do you want, Lan Wangji?’
The man looked back over his shoulder and his face did something complicated. ‘I’m worried about you.’
Wei Ying had no idea what to do with that. ‘You’re what? You don’t even know me.’
Lan Wangji shrugged. ‘Even so. Tea?’ Wei Ying held out his hands for his bag and the other man clutched it a little tighter. ‘Please?’
‘Are you a weird fucking stalker?’ he demanded.
‘I am a historian,’ Lan Wangji replied primly, shocking a snort out of Wei Ying. ‘Let me buy you some tea.’
He was too tired to resist anymore, too defeated. Too lightheaded with hunger. ‘If you’re going to ritually kill me after this, then I want more than just tea,’ he muttered.
‘Then let’s get dinner,’ Lan Wangji said eagerly and then replayed the conversation. ‘Not that I’m going -’
‘It’s alright,’ Wei Ying said quietly. ‘I know what you meant.’ And a meal was too much to hope for anyway. As was a quick and easy death at those beautiful hands. He stood still a little longer, turning over that thought in his mind. Was he really that close to giving up?
No. I will never do that to Jiang Cheng. I’ll never leave him, even if I’m not allowed to see him ever again. I’ll fix this. I’ll fix all of it, including paying back this stupid man for lunch and tea and whatever the fuck this is about to be.
He had a vague notion that perhaps they could come to some arrangement – five minutes ago he’d been contemplating sex work, after all, and it certainly wouldn’t be a hardship getting on his knees for Lan Wangji. A lot easier than for Xue Yang, anyway. His cheeks heated at the thought and he ducked his head and hurried over to him, then had to pause for a second as the ground lurched under his feet. Lan Wangji grabbed him under the elbow.
‘Are you alright?’
‘Ah, sorry, sorry. Too much coffee, not enough food. Busy day. I’m fine.’
Lan Wangji shouldered Wei Ying’s bag and kept his hand on his arm as he led him off the hospital grounds. Wei Ying had no idea where they were going and didn’t much care. Not like he had anywhere else to be.
They had hotpot and, despite his hunger, Wei Ying was dismayed to find he could only finish about half of it, his stomach bloating rapidly. In the end he focused on the vegetables, conscious that he could probably do with some vitamins after his recent diet of instant ramen.
Eventually he sat back, groaning and suddenly exhausted. ‘That was so good,’ he said and Lan Wangji smiled again, small and pleased. ‘But I really don’t know why you’re doing this for me.’ He swallowed hard. ‘You’ll have to let me know what I can do to pay you back.’ He did his best to look attractive, not hollow and gaunt and so fatigued he was possibly hallucinating everything that was happening.
Lan Wangji’s smile faltered. ‘I don’t need recompense. I just … as I said, I’m a researcher. I look for clues and put them together to build a picture.’
‘The picture I’m getting of you is that you’re in a difficult situation and I’d like to be of some assistance. You saved my life, after all.’
Wei Ying scoffed and told himself he was sweating because he’d eaten so much. ‘They just wanted your bag. They wouldn’t have -’
‘You don’t know that. And it’s not the point. I believe it, and therefore I owe you a debt.’ He was strangely intense. ‘Besides, you said anyone would have done the same thing. They didn’t. You … weren’t the first person to walk past the end of the road and see what was happening. Just the first to help me.’
‘Yes, well, people are horrible, mostly,’ Wei Ying said, Wen Yuan’s face suddenly floating in his mind’s eye. He shook himself. ‘Anyway, after this hotpot, you honestly owe me nothing. Even this is too much. You should get back to your real research. I’m no historical figure you need to examine. I’m just a nurse.’
Lan Wangji breathed out softly. ‘Very well,’ he said eventually. ‘Let me drive you home, and I will consider the debt repaid.’
‘It’s close. There’s no need. Besides, you’re a weird stalker. I can’t have you knowing where I live.’
‘I will leave you at the end of the road, then.’
‘Lan Wangji, this is too much.’
‘Lan Zhan. And it isn’t. I insist.’
He panicked quietly while Lan Wangji – Lan Zhan – watched him. Okay, so, end of a random road, that’s fine, he could find somewhere to bed down after that. Especially if he said he lived near the park. There were apartment buildings near the park, right? Probably? He was sure he’d seen some. He just needed to remember a road name.
‘Do you need somewhere to stay tonight?’ Lan Zhan asked gently.
Wei Ying slumped and put his hands over his face. ‘Please don’t be a weird fucking stalker,’ he said into his palms. ‘My didi has lost everyone he has in the world except for me. Please don’t make him lose me too. Anything else, I’ll do. Okay?’ He let go of his face and met Lan Zhan’s eyes. ‘Whatever you want, I swear. It’s all good. I’ll, I’ll be good to you.’
The hotpot was threatening to come back up, but he swallowed hard and scuffed his foot clumsily over Lan Zhan’s calf. Should he ask for money on top of the meal? How much did people charge for a whole night anyway?
Lan Zhan’s eyes went wide and he jerked his leg away. ‘Fuck, no,’ he gasped, flushing a deep red from his ears across his cheeks. ‘I’m not buying you,’ he hissed, so disgusted that it turned out Wei Ying could feel humiliation after all. He bit his lip and looked away, struggling to breathe against the tightness in his throat. The promise of a bed and maybe a shower, fleeting as the flash of sunlight over the lake at the end of the day, disappeared. ‘Wei Wuxian, I am offering you a place to stay and that’s all. Just a bed. Not my bed,’ he added, as if he hadn’t made it obvious enough.
‘Why?’ Wei Ying snapped, angrier at himself than Lan Zhan but not knowing how to let it out. ‘Training for Buddhahood?’
‘Because you helped me when I needed it. Now, if you need it – and I think you do – I want to return the favour.’ He paused, but Wei Ying didn’t know what to say. ‘Every time I’ve seen you since that first day, you’ve been wearing the same clothes. You’re always carrying this bag. You’re always exhausted. You’re terrifyingly thin. You have no money. I can at least put a roof over your head while you sort out those issues. I live alone, I have a spare room, and I’m not a weird fucking stalker.’
Wei Ying had nothing left. No fight, no excuses. Not even the will to get up and walk away. He was so tired. ‘Just don’t kill me,’ he said again. ‘For my didi’s sake, not mine. Please. He needs to know I’m here for him when he’s ready.’
The muscles in his legs twitched with the urge to run, whether away from or towards Lan Zhan, he didn’t know. ‘Then I suppose you should call me Wei Ying,’ he said, defeated by the man’s strange intensity, by his own fatigue, by the burden of his continued existence in a world that no longer contained A-Li.