An Zhe is lying in bed.
He can’t move.
He lets out a sigh, “It’s warm…”
He tries not to let it sound too much like a whine but Lu Feng hears it and furrows his brow, tossing a glance back at him as he fixes up a glass of milk by the counter.
An Zhe doesn’t need to sieve through his guide on human expressions to recognise that look on Lu Feng’s face.
“I’m not being whiny,” he mumbles and looks away, deciding the wall of the armoured vehicle is more appealing than Lu Feng’s disapproving look.
He hears Lu Feng shuffle closer and sit down on the bed next to him, “Don’t pout.” He places a cooling wet towel on An Zhe’s forehead before leaning in and kissing his cheek.
An Zhe sighs. He wants to burrow himself into Lu Feng’s arms, but he is a mushroom and it is too warm. Mushrooms highly dislike the prickly heat and the dry air.
“Here, drink this.”
An Zhe sits up and stares at the glass of clear liquid Lu Feng is holding up, affronted, “That’s not milk.”
“No, it’s electrolyte water. You have symptoms of dehydration and heat exhaustion. This will be good for you.”
An Zhe sighs again.
It’s the eighth time he’s gone into the Abyss with Lu Feng, more than a year since the earth started its process of recovery and recalibration. A week into the outing, a sudden heat wave has swept across the Abyss.
At first, it was only the unbearable heat, cracked soil, annoyed creatures refusing to venture out from under shaded areas. Then on the third day, a spark from an unknown source started a fire that torched an large area of vegetation just a few miles from their current bearings, burning for a full day and night.
At night, the orange glow on the ground fought a battle of brilliance with the green auroras in the sky. It would have been pretty if not for the destruction it has inflicted on the landscape. An Zhe’s heart ached.
Lu Feng has tried to get An Zhe to stay in the vehicle to escape the scorching heat but he has insisted on continuing the search.
It’s been more than a year. Almost one and a half year.
They have settled into a comforting routine. One month in the Highland Research Institute, another in the Abyss. They constantly bring back samples for the Institute’s experiments; An Zhe assists in the Professor’s experiments, while Lu Feng continues to be in charge of security and military arrangements for the base, occasionally consulting for the other bases whenever needed.
Doctor Ji even accompanied them out on their last trip into the Abyss, along with his new assistant, excitedly scouring the land for fresh interesting samples while also constantly running to crouch behind Lu Feng whenever he encountered something not too friendly.
An Zhe is content with his life in the Institute. On some days as he lies in bed, after he closes his eyes and snuggles up to Lu Feng and before he falls into oblivion, he imagines his mycelium spreading and enveloping everyone in the Institute.Every single being in the Institute is connected to him, part of a biome brimming with life.
They are all kind and generous to him, and by extension, to Lu Feng as well. The Colonel has even deigned to join them for group dinners once a month.
Rum liked to play his music for everyone after those group dinners.
Just before the time came for An Zhe and Lu Feng to leave for the Abyss, Rum died. Both Professor Polly and Doctor Ji said that it was due to a spontaneous change in his genes, something unforeseeable and unavoidable.
Rum left his record player and harmonica to An Zhe.
So many people around An Zhe have died during the Last Catastrophe.
He’s a mushroom. Life and death is just a natural cycle. He doesn’t think too much about it.
Everything lives and dies.
An Zhe has also lived and died.
And lived again.
An Zhe is trying to learn how to play the harmonica, but he is only a mushroom after all.
He takes the glass from Lu Feng and gulps it down.
“Slowly…” Lu Feng chides, gently pulling the glass away from him.
“I’m okay. I’m fine. I’m hydrated now. Let’s go out and continue looking,” An Zhe holds onto Lu Feng’s shoulders and tries to stand up.
“No, you still need rest,” Lu Feng pushes him back down.
“I need to find him,” An Zhe tries to wiggle out of Lu Feng’s hold.
“That can wait.”
“No, it can’t!”
An Zhe’s own outburst stunned himself into stillness.
Lu Feng regards him silently with those beautiful green eyes.
An Zhe could feel his vision mist over and he looks away, an unfamiliar and uncomfortable feeling building up in his chest. He feels like he can’t breathe properly. His head hurts. He doesn’t know why he has shouted at Lu Feng.
But Lu Feng looks like he knows. He takes An Zhe’s hand and squeezes it reassuringly, “I’ll go.”
An Zhe swallows in a bid to clear the lump in his throat but he doesn’t look at Lu Feng. He keeps his eyes trained stubbornly on the grey wall of the vehicle until he hears the door close behind Lu Feng.
He sighs again and closes his eyes.
It’s too warm.
Everything lives and dies.
An Zhe is startled awake by a loud splat.
He stares at the steel-coloured sky overhead through the roof window.
Another splat and the sky blurs prettily through the splatter of droplets. Soon, the entire window is a whirl of dark grey as torrential rain pours down.
The heatwave has ended abruptly with a sudden rainstorm. An Zhe smiles and sits up. He can smell the moisture in the air, heavy with life.
He pushes the door open and jumps down into the rain. He’s drenched immediately but he doesn’t mind. Mushrooms like the rain. His mycelium reaches out.
The feel of each raindrop splashing on his skin feels amplified. He closes his eyes. The rain crashes into his surroundings, drumming pitter-patter against the vegetation.
He wonders if Lu Feng has brought a poncho with him.
He wanders around the area, watching the rain bounce off huge leaves and colourful flower petals, hurried and fleeting, occasionally peering into the distance to see if he can see Lu Feng coming back.
He squats on the ground and examines what looks like a turquoise frog-bird hybrid, a creature the size of his palm with brilliant yellow eyes, dark leathery skin and bright red feather wings larger than it is. It’s shivering, occasionally extending and shaking out its wings which appears to be wet and weighted down by the rain. It also appears to be limping.
An Zhe tries to move it to a sheltered area, speaking to it in soothing tunes, but it lets out a nervous croak and shies away whenever his hands reach towards the poor creature. An Zhe is attempting to build it a little shelter using some leaves and twigs when someone lifts him up from behind and he finds himself cradled in the arms of a very cranky Colonel.
“What are you doing!”
“The creature looks cold. It seems jittery and won’t let me touch it so I’m trying to build it a shelter.”
“Not what I meant.” By this time, they have reached the vehicle and Lu Feng adjusts his hold of him and turns the handle of the door.
Lu Feng deposits him on the bed, a little harder than An Zhe would have liked. Before he could defend himself further, a towel lands on his head.
“Lu Feng!” An Zhe protests, reaching up blindly as Lu Feng rubs his hair dry.
The pressure on his head disappears and An Zhe lifts the towel from his face to see the Colonel glowering at him. “First you have heat exhaustion, now you let yourself get drenched in the rain. Don’t you know how to take care of yourself?”
“I’m a mushroom,” An Zhe offers as an explanation.
The Colonel’s glower deepens.
An Zhe bites his lower lip, his gaze flickering up from Lu Feng’s angry but startlingly magnetic eyes to his soaked hair, droplets still falling off the front of his fringe. He looks like he’s glowing.
It makes him look really pretty.
An Zhe reaches out to pull Lu Feng towards him, whispering, “I’m sorry.”
Lu Feng suddenly tenses, leaning back abruptly and lifting his hand to cover his mouth.
An Zhe jumps at the sudden movement and sees Lu Feng scowling at his hand almost in disbelief, looking very much offended that his body has betrayed him.
Lu Feng is lying in bed.
He can’t move.
He lets out a sound that’s half fretfulness and half grunt.
An Zhe frowns and reaches for the communicator. Lu Feng’s body is unusually warm to the touch, and he has climbed into bed right after dinner, refusing to eat anything beyond two mouthfuls. An Zhe has tried his best to coax him to drink some water, but even that was a battle.
“Cold?” An Zhe asks as he connects to Doctor Ji back at the Institute.
Lu Feng grunts in response.
An Zhe thinks of Rum.
An Zhe pulls a blanket over him as he explains Lu Feng’s symptoms to Doctor Ji.
Doctor Ji lets out a delightful, rather undignified cackle, “Yes! I knew it! Viruses are back in the wilderness!”
“Doctor Ji, that doesn’t sound good…”
“No no, don’t worry. Viruses have always been part of our ecosystem. Listen, I need a sample –“
An Zhe largely ignores Doctor Ji’s rumblings about this history of viruses, his brain numb with worry until Doctor Ji reviews the preliminary report after An Zhe runs Lu Feng’s blood sample - something An Zhe feels like he had fought an entire army to obtain - using the simple analytical chemistry equipment onboard.
Doctor Ji soon reaches the reassuring conclusion that Lu Feng has just been infected with a mild case of a revived cold virus after his immunity took a beating from a whole hour in the rain. All he needs is some medication to combat the fever and a good rest.
An Zhe fetches the medication from the cabinet and pulls off Lu Feng’s blanket to get him to sit up, but Lu Feng refuses to let go, curling up against the wall.
“Lu Feng? Doctor Ji said you have to take this, then you’ll get better. Come on,” An Zhe tries again.
“No,” A muffled voice filters out from under the blanket.
“What’s wrong? Are you uncomfortable? Does it feel awful?”
“Take this, and you’ll feel better. I promise.”
This time, a grunt that sounds more like a whine towards the end.
An Zhe reaches out to soothe Lu Feng, caressing his hair and leaning down to plant a fleeting kiss on the side of his forehead. He has never seen Lu Feng like this.
He quite likes Lu Feng like this.
This version of Lu Feng probably calls for another version of An Zhe.
An Zhe muses for a moment, thinking back to the contents of a novel Doctor Ji has shoved at him with a wink a few months back, then leans down again, whispering, “My darling, my love, my sweetness, take the medication, will you?”
An Zhe knows his words have worked when Lu Feng stops fidgeting and shifts a little to peer up at him.
“I don’t feel good,” Lu Feng mumbles, not quite meeting his eyes.
“I know,” An Zhe lets out a soft laugh, “I’m here.” He climbs onto the bed and pulls an upset Lu Feng onto his lap, settling him against his chest so he is upright enough to take the medication.
Lu Feng soon falls asleep fretfully, pillowed on An Zhe’s lap.
An Zhe is startled awake by a sneeze.
He has fallen asleep leaning against the wall besides the bed. He just had a dream. It wasn’t a good dream.
Lu Feng blinks blearily at him.
“Morning,” An Zhe uses the back of his palm to test Lu Feng’s temperature. “I think the fever is going down.”
The dawn light is seeping in through the roof window, filtered by the rain that has continued throughout the night. The pitter-patter of the rain has lasted the whole night, but growing ever gentler, softer. Now the rhythmic light drumming of it against the roof of the vehicle soothes An Zhe’s anxious nerves.
“How are you feeling?” An Zhe asks.
Lu Feng murmurs something incoherent and reaches out for An Zhe’s hand.
An Zhe offers him a little smile and gently sweeps his hair from his eyes with his other hand.
“For a moment, I thought you might die,” the words escape from An Zhe’s lips before his brain could fathom why. Maybe he isn’t fully awake. Maybe it’s the terrible dream he just had. “Just a moment. Before Doctor Ji explained that it was just a cold.”
Lu Feng stills.
“Yes, I know. Silly me,” An Zhe continues, propelled partially by Lu Feng’s silence and his own churning thoughts for the last week. “But everything dies, you know. Everyone dies. I know that. And it never really bothered me. It’s not something I think about. But then, you...”
Lu Feng takes his hand and presses it against his own face, gently turning his head and kissing his palm. An Zhe could feel his hot breath against his skin. Alive.
“Lu Feng. When I jumped, how…?” An Zhe trails off, unsure how to ask, unsure even if he knows what he’s really asking, if he wants to know the answer.
The silence stretches. The only sound is the gentle tapping of droplets against the window as the rain continues to fall outside the warm comfort of their little space.
“I wanted to jump in after you. It was a flash of impulse, but it was so strong, unlike anything I ever felt.” Lu Feng’s voice is hoarse when he finally speaks, from sickness or from something else, An Zhe can’t tell.
“But you did it to save the world. And the world wasn’t saved yet. I had to finish what you started. Help you to see it through.”
“The nights were hard. I never had you, not really, but I felt like I lost… something terribly precious. And sometimes… I wondered if you even loved me at all.”
Lu Feng holds up a hand to stop An Zhe from interrupting.
“But then I would remember, every little smile you had for me, every little gesture you did for me. How much you believed in me and trusted me.”
“You gave me something I didn’t even know I desperately needed.”
“You saved me. And so I couldn’t let myself die.”
“And then, you came back.”
“But know this, I missed you every single minute of every day.”
“Even if I die, when I die, I will love you. My love will be buried in the soil, consumed by the mushrooms, released into the air to be with you forever.”
Lu Feng reaches up and carefully wipes An Zhe’s tears away, “Silly mushroom. And disclaimer, I’m only saying all this because I’m still under the influence of medication. Don’t expect me to ever say it again.”
An Zhe laughs, burying his face into Lu Feng’s hair and peppering him with kisses.
“Now hold me tighter, I’m sick and miserable. I can only get better if you hold me. And call me ‘my darling’ again.”
An Zhe and Lu Feng are lying in bed.
The rain has stopped. The morning sun seeped in through the window and lit up the corner of the bed, the warmth tickling their feet.
The Colonel had claimed sickness for the whole of yesterday, and refused to let either of them leave the bed.
“You’re very clingy when you’re sick,” An Zhe states matter-of-factly, rubbing his feet against Lu Feng’s. “My darling,” he adds.
Lu Feng stiffens. Fully recovered, he huffs awkwardly at this assessment and tries to step out of the bed gracefully, tossing his portion of the blanket over An Zhe.
An Zhe sits up and reaches out to wrap his arms around Lu Feng’s back, tugging them both backwards into a tangled mess back into bed, laughing.
He hasn’t felt this light in a while.
The Colonel lets out a rare chuckle and twists around to attack him in kisses.
When An Zhe finally steps out of the vehicle, it is almost noon.
The rain has washed the land clean. An Zhe’s senses tingle with pleasure. The breeze carries with it the heady scent of blooming blossoms and the sound of chirping and croaking creatures. Underneath it all, An Zhe could hear the tranquil gurgling of a nearby creek.
He smiles and seeks Lu Feng’s hand.
Then almost falls backwards as a creature flutters up to his face to get his attention.
It is the turquoise frog-bird hybrid, the one he has attempted to build a shelter for in the rain.
“Oh hello there. I’m glad you’re safe and sound,” An Zhe greets the friendly creature.
Lu Feng raises his eyebrows, “Did you make a friend?”
“I built a shelter for it. I think it’s here to say thank you.”
The creature flutters around excitedly, moving to their left and back again multiple times.
“I think it wants us to follow it,” Lu Feng observes.
An Zhe muses for a moment before he pumps his right fist into his left palm, a gesture he has evidently copied from Doctor Ji, “I told it about An Ze and the cave! Maybe it knows something!”
An Zhe finally finds what he has been looking for.