Chapter 1: Truths - Cao Pi and Mitsunari
Cao Pi had thought that Mitsunari always spoke his mind. It's a common belief, with how rude he is to anyone who isn't his direct superior at work. So now that he's stuck watching Mitsunari after a minor surgery that the doctors gave him way too much anesthesia for, he's surprised to learn that the usual Mitsunari merely says approximately a third of the rude things that come to mind, and words them quite tactfully, comparatively.
It's to the point where Cao Pi knows he has to keep Mitsunari away from anyone he typically butts heads with unless he feels like watching Mitsunari get punched in the face. He also preemptively distracts him or even goes so far as to cover his mouth when they encounter strangers, including wait staff because Mitsunari is refusing to go home until he's had something to eat.
Since Cao Pi had to order for him, Mitsunari complains about the food as well as Cao Pi's apparent preferences to have chosen that meal for him, but their lunch is otherwise uneventful. Cao Pi, in his own opinion, has been doing an excellent job of tuning out this significantly more stupid Mitsunari as well as keeping him on a leash. He does still lament that Sakon is out of town and Yoshitsugu isn't free for another four hours, though. He really has better things to do.
Whenever Mitsunari can't find something to complain about, he's complimenting things around him but in the strangest way.
"Look at that building," he says in a type of awe that sounds a bit like disgust to Cao Pi.
"I suppose it is rather ugly," Cao Pi agrees in advance.
"No, look at the structure itself. The architecture is incredible. How old is this-- pull over, I want to ask about this building."
"That's someone's house, Mitsunari."
"Then they would be fools not to know about it. That's much better than if it were a restaurant or some such."
"You don't think the owner or at least manager would know about the structural integrity of their restaurant?"
"Why would a manager speak to me about that? I would be stuck with a cashier or something who knows nothing," he states.
At least he doesn't have any delusions that people should do whatever he wants. Which is frankly odd, now that Cao Pi thinks about it, since he's got a bit of a reputation for acting that way when he's not high as a kite.
"We've already passed it anyway," Cao Pi informs him in case he hasn't registered that fact yet. "I'm taking you home and then we're waiting for Pang De to arrive and make sure you don't do anything stupid like going back outside. Then, Yoshitsugu will show up eventually to take over."
"I don't need to be babysat. If I were able to focus on the road right now, I could drive myself," Mitsunari insists. Cao Pi doesn't bring up the fact that Mitsunari doesn't have a license.
When they get to Mitsunari's apartment, Cao Pi tells him to lie down and stop talking. Mitsunari refuses but does it anyway without further prompting, earning an amused scoff out of Cao Pi.
Now that he finally has some peace and quiet, Cao Pi realizes that Mitsunari somehow managed not to insult him a single time despite his current state, aside from insulting his taste in food, which essentially means nothing to him anyway. He finds it quite odd, especially since Mitsunari will always find things to give him a hard time about when he's in his right state of mind. It's possible that he's just been too distracted by everything around him to bother with Cao Pi, which means that he might be walking into a storm of insults if he checks on Mitsunari in his room.
Or, he realizes, it could be a case of a child bullying someone they like on the playground because they don't know how else to get their attention. Cao Pi adjusts his wedding ring with his thumb and prepares to remind Mitsunari that he's married if it comes to that.
When Pang De arrives, Yoshitsugu walks through the door with him and informs Cao Pi that he snuck away from the wedding he'd been stuck at to take Mitsunari off his hands early. So long as Yoshitsugu himself wasn't the groom, Cao Pi can't take issue with his decision.
The moment he leads them to Mitsunari's room, partially to make sure he's still alive and fully because he forgot he was going to avoid him at all costs from then on, Mitsunari addresses him.
"Cao Pi. I have a confession to make."
Oh lord, here it comes. Since Mitsunari has been unexpectedly civil with him even while under anesthesia-- in fact, quite possibly moreso than usual-- he makes the incredibly painful decision to attempt to save him from embarrassing himself.
"Whatever it is, it can wait until tomorrow. I don't have any more time to waste babysitting you, especially now that others are free." He gestures to Pang De and Yoshitsugu at his sides.
"I don't dislike you," he goes ahead and says anyway. "The reason why I give you such a hard time is because I respect you, and I want you to feel the same way about me, but I don't know how to get your approval, so I get frustrated. I know I can be impossible sometimes and... believe me, nobody is more disappointed in my behavior than myself."
The minor slurring unfortunately does nothing to impact the effect of Mitsunari's words. Cao Pi considers giving him a sarcastic response, saying that he's proud of him or something, but Mitsunari might take it literally like this anyway.
"How likely is it that he'll remember this conversation?" he turns to Yoshitsugu to ask.
"It depends. Would you like to take a chance?"
"Both of you, out," Cao Pi orders after a moment's thought. They both leave, Pang De with a bow and Yoshitsugu with a fond wave at his incapacitated friend.
Once they've left, Cao Pi takes a few slow steps to Mitsunari's bedside.
"I already respect you, Mitsunari. You impress me time and again." He pauses for a prolonged moment. "And if you ever bring up this conversation, I will insist you made it up."
With no filter, Mitsunari doesn't hide his smile. Cao Pi knows for certain that he's never seen Mitsunari smile genuinely like this before, without a hint of smug satisfaction or forced politeness, and he doesn't doubt that he may be the first to see it at all.
On his way out, Cao Pi entrusts Mitsunari to Yoshitsugu and has Pang De stay as well in case of emergency, since he's already there. Cao Pi has a lot to write down about Mitsunari so he can lord it all over his head later without forgetting any details.
Chapter 2: Mistletoe - Loki, Ares, and Athena
All day, Loki has been tormenting everyone around him with some mistletoe he'd gotten ahold of. The only person he's failed to force to kiss someone so far is Ares. The closest he got was Kunoichi rushing past Ares and barely spending a split second under the mistletoe neither of them even knew was there. Ares doesn't typically go out of his way to stand near anyone, so Loki has been having a difficult time with him.
So this time, he decides to set up the mistletoe just above a doorway and stall Ares there until someone else walks by. Ares humors Loki with a conversation, giving him a confused look when Loki gestured for him to stop when he tried to walk forward, but Loki played it off by saying he's recovering from a cold and might still be contagious.
Finally, someone mutters an "excuse me" and walks past Ares through the doorway. Only, it's...
"Oh. Hm... Siblings are immune," Loki decides after a brief moment before stepping forward to take the mistletoe down.
"Ha! You can stop trying to use that stupid plant on me now, Loki. The only person you've caught me under it with is my sister."
"Ah... it seems you did catch on."
"Of course. Did you think I somehow hadn't heard of your shenanigans?"
Athena chimes in before Loki can get a comeback out.
"Well, I can at least kiss your forehead like I used--"
"Stop talking!" Ares suddenly shouts. "Do not finish that sentence!"
Completely unaffected, Athena laughs.
"When he was a little kid, he always needed a goodnight kiss from his mother to get to sleep," Athena explains to Loki, ignoring Ares yelling beside her and attempting to shake her. She stands her ground, subtly flexing, and Ares is hardly able to make her budge at all. "So when she wasn't home, he'd come trotting over to me instead."
"That is the most adorable ammunition I have ever received," Loki says with a smile.
"You will not speak of it!" Ares commands, moving on from Athena to come after Loki instead. Loki immediately jumps back and turns on his heel to run away.
"Thank you for the heartwarming childhood story!" he yells over his shoulder at Athena.
"It's not heartwarming, it's humiliating!" Ares argues, getting close enough to just miss grabbing Loki by the back of his shirt before he speeds up as much as he can to outpace Ares.
"I guess I should do something about him," Loki hears Athena say when he ends up looping back around towards her about a minute later. "I have baby pictures of him too, if you'd like to see."
"Oh, please, yes--"
"You have what?!"
Just like that, his attention is back on Athena. While he hounds her to destroy whatever pictures she may or may not actually have, Loki slips away, desperate to find a safe place to catch his breath. If he's going to be tormenting Ares, he needs to start going on morning jogs to build up his stamina.
Chapter 3: Girls Night - Kai, Wang Yi, and Lu Lingqi
So, this is it. Kai's newest challenge. Hayakawa insists that she's great at coaxing shut-ins out of their shells, so it has suddenly become her responsibility to ensure these two girls learn what it means to have a good time, probably for the first time in their lives.
Lu Lingqi has apparently been sheltered all her life and has obsessed over her father's approval-- which she imagines must be hard to get, that guy is terrifying-- with not a single other care to speak of. It's to Kai's understanding that he never paid much attention to her, yet that somehow only fueled her desire to make him proud. She can get that. Determination is something they can use to bond, probably.
As for Wang Yi, she doesn't leave her apartment because she's depressed. She functions just fine at her job, but has no energy or motivation for hobbies and doesn't bother with friends. Kai has heard that she might have an alcohol problem, but she's heard a few different alcohol-related rumors about her, so any number could be true or false. She decided to hide everything besides her cooking alcohols before the two of them arrived at her place.
"Ok! So, here's what we're gonna do!" Kai begins, trying to kick things off with high energy. Wang Yi likely won't be able to play along much, but maybe Lu Lingqi can. "I'm gonna cook the best meal you two have ever had in your lives, and then we're gonna do girl stuff together! Like... uh... I'll paint your nails!"
Kai honestly has no idea what counts as "girl stuff" as she was always given a hard time about being so tomboyish even as a child. She took an interest in nails, at least, and she and Hayakawa have been painting each other's nails for years. She hopes she can think of at least one other activity to do that won't get her laughed at, though.
"I've never had my nails painted before..! I'll try not to get nail polish on anything!" Lu Lingqi says with a welcome amount of enthusiasm. Kai nods with a smile and looks to Wang Yi.
"I've painted my own a few times. I kept practicing until I could paint a nice enough looking crescent moon on my thumb and stars on all the rest. I couldn't bother with the upkeep, so I stopped once I'd done that."
"Ohh, that sounds pretty! Maybe we can try doing designs this time, too! I like doing ladybug designs sometimes; it's pretty much just black spots on red, so you don't have to be skilled to do it. If you're good at it though, Wang Yi--"
"I did that when I was 19 and haven't practiced since," she cuts in.
"... Ok! Well... that's fine! We can start practicing again! And, you know what? You don't have to worry about upkeep either, because you can just come straight back to me when you need a new coat of polish!"
"That's worse than having to do it myself."
"Then... I guess we won't do that..?"
"I didn't say I wasn't willing. It just seems like a hassle. For both of us."
At least she's keeping her tone casual enough, but a little more energy would be nice. So, Kai turns to Lu Lingqi, who eagerly shifts and sits up straighter upon receiving Kai's attention. Ah.
"So, what's your favorite color?"
"Oh, good taste!"
Kai shows off her nails since she's long overdue to do so by now, and Lu Lingqi seems genuinely enamored by them. Kai lets her take her hand to examine her nails, which have a plain but perfect coat of a nice bold red on them.
"And you, Wang Yi?" Kai asks while there's still a lull in conversation.
"Blue and black. And silver is nice, too," she adds with a flick of her eyes to Lu Lingqi's hair.
"Makes sense. Those are pretty night-y colors," Kai nods. "So, red for you and... blue for you? And maybe we'll figure out some kind of design to do."
She takes in a breath to continue talking and just as she does, the oven beeps to let her know it's done preheating.
"Oh, just a sec, I've gotta put the food in the oven," she says, and it's only once she's alone in the kitchen for a moment that she notices just how much pressure she feels. She takes a deep breath and hopes to any god that's listening that tonight goes well and isn't awkward, somehow. It doesn't help that they aren't making any conversation out there at all; Wang Yi is just staring at Lu Lingqi, whose eyes are trained on the floor in front of her.
When she finishes up in the kitchen, she pops back into the living room to say that the food will be done in about an hour, and then goes to retrieve her nail polish.
"So, should we have the TV on in the background?" Kai asks as she places the nail polish, remover, and cotton swabs on the coffee table.
Wang Yi shrugs and Lu Lingqi looks like she wants to say something but is trying to hold her tongue.
"Yes?" Kai encourages.
"I think a baseball game is on tonight..."
"Ooh, baseball! I love it!" Kai happily exclaims, turning on the TV and already knowing what channel to flip to.
"Oh, really? I thought sports were mostly a guy thing," Lu Lingqi says, visibly both surprised and relieved.
"Pssh, everything's an anyone thing. Baseball is up there for me-- and tennis, too, but that's mostly because of my friend."
"I like the sound of it, at least," Wang Yi chimes. "The bat hitting the ball makes a satisfying noise."
"Oh, the literal sound. Yeah, it does sound pretty cool, right?"
Internally, Kai is so relieved that she can bond with them over something that she actually knows how to talk about, since she has no idea what to really say about nail care. Kai starts on Lu Lingqi's nails first as they talk about recent scores.
"Oh, that's... cold," Lu Lingqi says, recoiling a little. "It feels strange."
"It's ok! You get used to it."
"Do you know if you're doing any designs yet?" Wang Yi asks, picking up one of the two shades of blue Kai brought out for her.
"Well, I figured I'd do the initial coat first, and then we can talk about designs." She pauses before looking up at Lu Lingqi. "You do want a red base, right? I can take it off, if you don't."
"A red base is fine. Would... red and white be possible?" she asks, looking at the options on the table.
"Ooh, like french tips but with red? Yeah, we can do that!"
"I don't know what that is."
"It's like, uh... you know the white part of your nail? You just put more white on top of that. At least, I'm pretty sure that's what it is..."
Once Lu Lingqi's first coat is finished, with only a minor interruption for Kai to cringe when one of her favorite players strikes out, she moves on to Wang Yi.
"Ok, so are you thinking blue base? Or no?" she asks, picking up the shade she's pretty sure Wang Yi was looking at earlier.
"How good are you at this?" Wang Yi asks instead.
"Is that a challenge?"
"I think a black base with blue wisps would be pretty, but I don't think I'd be able to get it right."
"Wisps, huh... I don't usually do wispy patterns, but I'll give it a shot!" Kai accepts, setting down the blue nail polish to pick up the black.
They have to pause partway through their nail painting session to eat, and the meal seems to significantly improve Wang Yi's mood. They both compliment Kai's cooking, which she's happy to take, but Wang Yi especially asks a lot of questions.
"I know how to cook, but only basics," she says. "Normally I'll just stick to simple food. Or, if I don't feel like doing dishes, I'll order takeout."
That's pretty much what Kai expected.
"What about you, Lu Lingqi? Do you fancy yourself a chef?"
"Oh... no, I don't. My family has a personal chef, so I rarely visit the kitchen myself."
Right, sheltered rich daughter of super famous guy. Well, at least she's earnest and nice. Not sure how Lu Bu raised someone like that-- scratch that, Kai remembers that he doesn't pay enough attention to her. She was probably raised by a butler or something. Kai starts to feel bummed out and knows she'll probably make it worse by asking, but she can't resist.
"So, uh... that dad of yours! What's he like?" she chances, hoping she can play off her interest as just wondering what a famous person is like at home.
"He's a little stoic. It's rare for him to smile, but I've managed to do it a few times..!" Lu Lingqi answers, to Kai's surprise. "He used to put my drawings from when I was a child up on the walls, but I had to ask him to take them down as I got older. Chen Gong told me he's seen my old drawings in my father's office, but I can't know for sure since I never go in there..."
"Aww! I didn't think he'd be sweet!"
"He's always very busy and doesn't want me to get involved in his work, so he's... not around very often. I'm fine, though. His work is important."
"More important than making time for his daughter?" Wang Yi asks. "You should bring it up to him."
"I don't think I could bring myself to..!"
"Please tell me you guys at least spend like, birthdays and holidays together?"
"Oh, every year."
Kai sighs in relief.
Once they're done eating, Kai continues painting their nails, trying her best to add a sufficiently "wispy" design to Wang Yi's. She seems happy with them, so Kai moves on to finish Lu Lingqi's nails next, the conversation switching back and forth between sports talk and cooking tips as anecdotes come to Kai's mind.
Once Wang Yi and Lu Lingqi's nails are finished, Kai lets them both add ladybug spots to her own nails. Wang Yi knows what she's doing, even if the speckles she adds are particularly small, but Lu Lingqi is hesitant and slow because she doesn't want to mess up. She ends up with an asymmetrical design since Wang Yi did her left hand and Lu Lingqi did her right, but she's fine with it.
The conversation steers back towards childhoods, which Wang Yi refuses to share about. They talk mostly about happy times, but they all have at least one thing in common: they didn't have many friends as children. Kai could count the number of friends she had as a little kid on one hand, Wang Yi only had short friendships that she hardly remembers, and Lu Lingqi only had occasional playdates from when she was particularly young.
The main difference is that Kai started to turn into more of a social butterfly when she was a teenager, and talking about her teenage years ends in her being vocally grateful that she gets to experience now what she wanted back then.
"I didn't exactly... go to any sleepovers or anything. Actually, they were usually, like, dude parties. Platonic guy friends, unfortunately," she clarifies at the end.
"Why is that unfortunate?" Wang Yi speaks up. Kai hesitates for a moment before giving a half-hearted shrug.
"It's just kinda starting to feel like I'm gonna be single forever, you know?" she admits. "And it sucks."
"You're a great cook and you're fun to be around. It's just a matter of finding someone who deserves you," Wang Yi says with a little smile.
"I agree! This is the most fun I've ever had, I think. Any guy would be lucky to get to spend time with you!" Lu Lingqi concurs, and Kai has to put a hand over her heart.
"Oh, Lu Lingqi, you really need to make some friends," Kai says, sounding a little like she's in pain. "Ok, I'm going to give you both my phone number, and you can call or text me whenever you feel like talking or hanging out or... whatever. Sending cute cat pictures, maybe? Or dogs, dogs are good too."
"I only use my cell phone for emergencies and transportation," Lu Lingqi states, and Kai's grip on her own shirt increases and she closes her eyes as if she's wincing from a blow.
"I'm your new emergency!" she shouts after a moment, not really knowing what she's saying. "When you start to feel lonely or bored or just have a free afternoon! Call me! I'll make time for you two, ok?"
"I'm looking forward to it," Wang Yi says, that small smile still present.
"If... wait, if you're an emergency... what does that mean..?"
"She just means you can make an exception for her," Wang Yi answers, which Kai is grateful for.
"Yup! That is, definitely what I meant to say! Also, you should look into putting some games on there, and maybe twitter or something."
Lu Lingqi gives her a bit of an overwhelmed look, so Kai waves off her own suggestions.
"We'll get into that next time! It's getting late, so I'm sure you two wanna go home. Come back whenever you want, though! And here!" Kai jumps up from her seat to grab a pen and paper, writing her number on two scraps that she hands the two of them. "Heh, now you can brag to all your friends that you got a hot girl's number!"
Again, Lu Lingqi just looks shocked and confused, but Wang Yi chuckles at Kai's joke.
"Oh, it can be dangerous this time of night," Wang Yi says to Lu Lingqi as they approach the door. "Would you like me to walk you home?"
"What? I thought we would just call separate rides."
"... So we will, then."
It might just be Kai's imagination, but Wang Yi seems a little disappointed. She'll have to add a walk to the park to the list of things she can do with Wang Yi for next time.
Now that she's alone again, all that's left is the worst part of cooking: the cleanup.
Chapter 4: Torment - Wang Yi, Cao Pi, and Sima Yi
She only turns at being addressed, long past the point of adjusting her posture for a visit from her boss.
"There have been rumors floating about."
"Surely they must involve something illegal, then?" Wang Yi assumes, curious as to what exactly someone thinks she must be doing for Cao Pi to have approached her.
"Not at all. The rumors say that you've been playing mind games with a certain superior of yours."
Ah. Sima Yi.
"Would these rumors perhaps have originated from the alleged target of these hypothetical mind games?"
"Is this the way we're speaking now?" Wang Yi can hear amusement in his voice, although someone who didn't know him would never be able to tell. "If these hypothetical mind games were not so hypothetical, the alleged instigator's hypothetical captain may, theoretically, actually be fine with it so long as it doesn't disrupt either party's work. Has he made himself clear, in theory?"
They both smile.
Once she's alone again, Wang Yi starts contemplating what to do next. She doubts Sima Yi will file an official complaint unless she actually does something to him. It's not like she's even harassing him, so just the mind games aren't reportable. He's just too easily intimidated by women for whatever reason, and it's entirely too fun to mess with him.
To ensure she won't get told off by Cao Pi after what he'd just said to her, she's sure to finish her remaining paperwork before she goes anywhere near Sima Yi again. When they do meet again, it's by Wang Yi stealthily getting behind him and successfully startling him when he turns around simply by standing there. He doesn't spill the coffee he'd just poured, which is a shame.
"Is everything alright, lieutenant?" she asks innocently enough, but she knows Sima Yi feels trapped by the eye contact alone.
"Er... yes," he answers, and Wang Yi doesn't have to wait long to hear an excuse. "I just had something on my mind, is all. I should have been paying more attention to my surroundings."
"The captain spoke with me," she brings up, stopping Sima Yi, who'd begun to walk away.
"Yes. He said that I need to start getting along better with my coworkers," she lies, "so I was wondering if you were free to go out for drinks tonight. It seems there's some tension between us."
Sima Yi looks her over suspiciously, trying to figure out what exactly her ulterior motive is.
"Your tolerance is quite high... what is it, you want to challenge me and make me suffer a hangover from trying to keep up with you?"
"Interesting that you would share a tidbit of weakness like that."
Sima Yi blinks and scoffs in confusion, as Wang Yi has become quite accustomed to seeing.
"So long as I keep my wits about me, it's not as if you can take advantage of it. So, fine! I think I will join you," he says.
"What's wrong, were you only bluffing in an attempt to rile me up? You need new tricks if--"
"No, my offer was genuine. I'll see you when we get out of work," she cuts in nonchalantly.
She can practically see a cold sweat break out on Sima Yi during the last glance she gives him before she walks away. It seems he was only agreeing on the pretense that she was bluffing. Leave it to Sima Yi to overthink a trap so hard that he steps right into it. It's difficult to suppress a chuckle.
On a whim, she knocks on the door to Cao Pi's office. Once welcomed in, she closes the door behind her, making Cao Pi raise a brow.
"I thought about what you said, and came to the conclusion that I should try to improve my relationship with our dear lieutenant, if he's so unsettled by me. Would you like to come out with us for drinks tonight?"
"Interesting how you knew who I was referring to," Cao Pi comments. "He's already agreed to go?"
"I suspect it was against his own will, but yes."
"Fine, then. I suppose I'll get to see for myself whether the rumors are true."
"And perhaps start a few more," Wang Yi says cryptically, but Cao Pi appears to catch on to her meaning.
"Are you honestly asking me to torture him with you?" he asks, voice firm.
She maintains eye contact and says nothing and Cao Pi eventually huffs a short laugh.
"You're dismissed. I'll see you after work," he says.
When they do finally leave for the bar, it's quite late. Sima Yi found every excuse possible to stay at work as long as he could to try to wait out Wang Yi and make her cancel, but Cao Pi knowingly refused to give him any new work. Sima Yi is surprised when Cao Pi follows them into the elevator.
"... Quite coincidental that we would leave at the same time, isn't it..?" Sima Yi hesitantly points out, rightfully suspecting something.
"I happened to hear you two were planning on drinking tonight. Do you take any issue with me joining you?"
So much authority exerted with so little effort.
"No, sir," Sima Yi replies, a little meek. Just as Wang Yi had hoped, he feels helpless between his direct superior and the woman he fears.
When they arrive at the bar, Sima Yi is already checking the time and no doubt trying to think of a reason to leave. Cao Pi quickly dissolves that behavior with "friendly" encouragement, telling Sima Yi that he's been meaning to drink with him for a while now and that he's glad for the opportunity. Sima Yi finally manages to put his phone away at that, and Wang Yi calls the bartender over for drinks.
"Ah, something weak would be..." Sima Yi starts, but he trails off when Wang Yi and Cao Pi both look at him. "Would be... Just, any drink is fine."
It's so funny to see this haughty genius all ruffled up without even needing to do much to him. Wang Yi starts with a strong drink that she gets through pretty quickly, Cao Pi takes his time with a martini, and Sima Yi nurses a glass of whiskey that he doesn't appear interested in drinking.
"How are the children?" Wang Yi asks as a way of getting Sima Yi to start talking.
"Yes, I heard you were encouraging your oldest to follow in your footsteps?" Cao Pi adds. Sima Yi clears his throat before answering.
"Yes, Shi would make an excellent police officer. Zhao, however... he has potential, we all know it, but he's just so difficult to motivate. I have no idea what to do with him sometimes."
"There's no reason for the entire family to consist of cops. Let Zhao choose his own path."
"I'm trying, but he doesn't seem interested in choosing any path. Did you know his grades would be perfect if he would just turn in his work on time?" he gripes, and Cao Pi raises Sima Yi's glass, offering it to him. He accepts it with little more than a cautious glance towards Wang Yi and finally takes his first drink of the night.
"Did Zhao actually choose to go to college?" Cao Pi asks. Wang Yi quickly catches on that making Sima Yi talk about Zhao is indeed a good way to encourage him to drink.
"Of course not. He complained the whole way about it. Shi is already finished, so he's not even there to keep him in check, either. What's worse, apparently his roommate is just as lazy as he is, from what he's told me."
He goes on and on about Zhao and becomes much more receptive to alcohol, accepting whatever drink is handed to him. Wang Yi smiles at Cao Pi before ordering shots. Nonverbally, Cao Pi passes, but he doesn't dare speak up and remind Sima Yi of his ability to say no. They both stare him down as he takes his first shot without even needing to be prompted.
The mischief begins around that point. Wang Yi steers the conversation towards Sima Yi's wife, whom he is reluctant to talk about until the alcohol kicks in a bit more and he starts venting.
"She could stand to at least leave her work at work. You know she once-- during the ice pick case, when I'd stayed late a few nights in a row? I got home one night and she told me, syringe in hand, "overworking yourself is unwise, dear." Why couldn't she put the dog killer down before saying that? Was it a threat?"
"A vet probably knows enough to make a death seem like an accident, whether it be an animal or a human," Wang Yi muses aloud.
"That's a good point. She would also have explicit access to tranquilizers, wouldn't she?"
"Sh-she... I suppose she would..."
"Is Chunhua desensitized to death, do you think?" Wang Yi asks, less to Sima Yi and more to Cao Pi, who she knows will egg her on.
"Oh, she has to be," Cao Pi answers, managing to keep a straight face despite how amused Wang Yi knows he is. "Some people are even more touched when animals die than humans, plus all the crying children that must come with, so I imagine she must have locked up her heart long ago."
"Locked up her heart... or do you think she doesn't mind it at all?"
"Could it also be possible that she enjoys it?"
Clearly distressed by the conversation going on around him, Sima Yi downs another shot. Wang Yi finds it hilarious that he doesn't even try to argue with any of their wild theories.
"I already knew you were submissive to authority, but I didn't think you'd be quite so whipped," Cao Pi teases, and somewhere inside of Wang Yi, she laments that neither of them are the type for high-fives.
"I'm-- I'm not--" Sima Yi stammers, looking around as if he'll find something that'll save him.
"Oh, have you ever heard him on the phone with her, captain?" Wang Yi asks, and Sima Yi sits back like he's trying to block their view of each other.
"I have not. Do tell," Cao Pi encourages.
"It's nothing, really," Sima Yi tries to dismiss. "Our phone conversations are normal."
"How did your call from the other day go, again? You got so quiet that it was hard to make out what you were saying. "Yes dear, it won't happen again"? What was that about?"
"I took that call outside! What, did you follow me?!"
"I was already outside for a smoke break," Wang Yi informs him, and Sima Yi visibly flinches.
"Oh, do you not pay much attention to your surroundings?" Cao Pi comments, earning another visceral reaction.
"Funny you should say that, captain; he actually admitted as much to me earlier when he almost spilled his coffee because he didn't notice I was there."
"I did not! S-spill my coffee, that is, I didn't even come close!" Sima Yi argues, desperate to defend himself in some way.
"Perhaps taking you out of the field has made you rusty."
"Not at all, I just..."
"Rusty, or careless?"
"Careless wouldn't do at all. I can't have a careless lieutenant."
"This... this is impossible... they're both impossible..." Sima Yi mutters to himself, staring down at another shot. "Will this day never end..?"
Wang Yi sure hopes not.
Chapter 5: Strategic Minds - Guo Jia, Xun Yu, and Xu Shu
"That's, uh... checkmate."
That is the fifth match this guy has won in a row, yet he still has zero confidence in himself? He sounds so apologetic each time, too, shrinking in his chair like he's anticipating everyone to be a violently sore loser.
"Who is he?" Guo Jia asks Xun Yu, who has been watching this man with a smile since Guo Jia got here.
"That's Xu Shu," he answers without looking away, "would you like to meet him?"
Guo Jia thinks for a moment before walking over to Xu Shu.
"Um... you're not here to play as well, are you?"
"... Do you not want to? Or, do you think I won't be enough of a challenge for you?"
"Xun Yu brought me here as some sort of..." he looks over at Xun Yu before quickly averting his eyes at the pleased look on his face, "uh, proof. But, there were so many times where I was sure I was going to lose. I only got lucky. It's not like I think I'm better than anyone."
"Proof? Of what?" Guo Jia raises his voice a bit to ask, looking to Xun Yu, who finally walks over.
"Proof that he has no reason to doubt his intellect. Modesty is one thing, but it's like he's convinced he's incompetent and it worries me a bit."
"I wouldn't say incompetent, just... I mean, I'm not a genius or anything. I didn't even have perfect grades in school, so you can't use that as proof."
"And how long has it been since you were in school?" Xun Yu challenges, likely knowing it's far in the past. Guo Jia would assume Xu Shu might be in his late 20s or so.
"... A long time, but..."
"So you've had plenty of time to grow and learn since then. Even a high school delinquent can go on to do excellent things."
Xu Shu doesn't seem convinced, but he doesn't offer any argument, either. During the pause in conversation, Guo Jia sits across from Xu Shu and repositions the chess pieces.
"This will be the one I lose, it has to be."
"Just don't throw the game on purpose and I'll be happy either way," Guo Jia says.
From the start, Xu Shu plays cautiously, taking significantly more time each turn than Guo Jia, and almost comes off as a beginner. About halfway through, his posture relaxes and he begins overpowering Guo Jia all at once-- how had he not noticed what he was setting up for? Guo Jia takes extra time on one of his next turns, still feeling caught in an onslaught. This was how his other matches went as well, with Xu Shu moving slowly until he caught his opponent in a trap, after which he'd take his turns almost instantly while his opponent would be stuck wracking their brain for a few minutes at a time.
Unlike the others, though, Guo Jia doesn't succumb to the sudden pressure and finds a way out of the trap with relative ease. Xu Shu already looks defeated as soon as Guo Jia manages to get out, and ends up losing a few turns later.
"That was an excellent match. You managed to catch me off guard even after watching you play for so long," Guo Jia praises, standing from his seat and extending a hand to Xu Shu.
"I... don't really like being watched. It was one of the reasons I didn't want to come here, but Xun Yu has been insisting..."
He stands as well and hesitantly takes Guo Jia's hand in a loose grip, not really shaking his hand as much as allowing Guo Jia to do so.
"Now that I've lost, can I leave..?" he looks to Xun Yu to ask.
"Now, hold on just a moment," Guo Jia intercepts, walking to stand in Xu Shu's sight again. "I'd like to take you out for drinks. Are you free tonight?"
"Only asking him, hm..?"
"I already know you'll be there, Xun Yu," Guo Jia dismisses. Xun Yu laughs lightly.
"I don't have anything else to do, but I don't really drink much, either. I don't want to disappoint you--"
"Nonsense. As long as you'll talk with me, I'm happy," Guo Jia assures. "Plus, I'd like to see how you fare at billiards as well."
"I've never played."
"A tragedy, that. Xun Yu, we'll have to teach him."
Rather than answer, Xun Yu pulls Guo Jia away, causing a look of worry to cross Xu Shu's face. Guo Jia gives him a cheery wave in an attempt to soothe him, but it doesn't seem to have much of an effect.
"You're good with people," Xun Yu says, his voice low to ensure Xu Shu won't hear him. "Will you help me with him?"
"You're good with people as well," Guo Jia notes, although he's well aware that their specialties are different. Guo Jia is a social butterfly while Xun Yu is particularly good at figuring people out and controlling them in the most subtle ways. He supposes that would make him an excellent manager, were that actually his job anymore.
Xun Yu just stares at him and waits, his expression completely blank.
"If he lacks confidence, then his intellect is wasted. Yes, I will help him," Guo Jia agrees.
Xun Yu gives him a slow blink and a smile.
"I appreciate it, Guo Jia. I really see potential in him," he says.
Just as Guo Jia is worried Xu Shu isn't going to show, he spots him hesitating by the entrance.
"There you are. Something troubling you?" Guo Jia asks as he approaches.
"I don't really go to bars. I thought bartenders get upset if you don't buy any drinks?"
At that, Guo Jia laughs and pulls Xu Shu over to the bar so he can see the bartender. The shock on his face is adorable.
"Hello again, Xu Shu," Xun Yu greets, having just finished pouring Guo Jia some wine. "I never told you about my job, did I?"
"It's how we met, of course," Guo Jia casually remarks as if Xu Shu really knows him yet, picking his glass up but not drinking from it yet.
"I really... didn't expect this. I honestly thought-- well, maybe I shouldn't say what I assumed, actually."
"Ooh, is it that bad?" Guo Jia asks, a little incredulous and more than a little amused.
"Oh, not like that. I just assumed he'd be... upper management in some tech company, or something."
Guo Jia snaps his fingers and Xun Yu sighs.
"I said the exact same thing within a week of meeting him!"
"It's like my resume is written on my face. Was I that perfect for the job?"
"Oh... did you quit?" Xu Shu asks, not sitting until Guo Jia pats the stool next to him. The bar is somewhat empty, so Guo Jia figures Xu Shu won't mind taking up a bit of space for him.
"That makes it sound negative. I typically say that I retired."
"And that makes you sound old," Guo Jia remarks, not for the first time. He punctuates it with a slow sip of his wine.
"I suppose bartending is the perfect job for a man in his 40s. Perhaps I was born a bit too late."
"I still can't believe you were ever a child. You dress casually enough, but I'm convinced you were born in a suit."
Xun Yu gives him a typical blank stare before turning his attention back to Xu Shu.
"I left for a number of reasons. Management changed a lot since both of my previous bosses retired, newer employees generally didn't get along with me, and I was starting to get tired of the job itself."
"But... why bartending?"
"Oh, it was a little spontaneous, actually. This bar was going out of business, so I acquired it on a whim."
"It might be the only spontaneous thing he's ever done," Guo Jia says, "as well as the best decision he's ever made!"
"Well, no. Objectively, it wasn't a fiscally excellent decision, considering my past experience and the salary I could be making with it."
"Now, you know that wasn't what I meant. It's how you met me, after all, so it must have been good."
"Since when do you have such an ego..?" Xun Yu sighs, furrowing his brow at Guo Jia and giving him the expression he was fishing for. "Well, regardless, I was considering just handing the bar over to a friend who would be more suited for it, but I ended up enjoying this job."
"Don't you have to deal with a lot of drunk people?" Xu Shu asks. "And... bar fights?"
"This place hasn't been christened with its first bar fight yet, actually, unless you count yelling but no actual violence. Drunk people don't bother me as much as they interest me, though. You'd be surprised how much you can learn in this profession, and human psychology is always fascinating."
"After so many years at the same job, you weren't learning much back then, were you?" Guo Jia asks knowingly.
"Another reason why I left," Xun Yu nods.
With another sip of his wine, Guo Jia stands to beckon Xu Shu over to the pool table. After a quick explanation of the rules, Guo Jia shows Xu Shu to the cue sticks and nods at Xun Yu to come over.
"We'll play a round first to show him how it's done," Guo Jia explains. "Then I'd like to play you, Xu Shu."
Xu Shu hesitantly takes a cue stick off the wall and examines it, walking back over to the table while Guo Jia sets up.
"Solids and stripes this time?"
Xun Yu nods and racks the pool balls, stepping aside once they're in place so Guo Jia can make the break shot, since he knows how much he loves it. Since Xun Yu quickly sinks the 13 ball, Guo Jia sets solids as his goal and explains such to Xu Shu.
Thankfully, there's little explaining to do during the game, especially since he's confident that Xu Shu can learn well enough by observing. It's not long before Xu Shu eases into the casual conversation Guo Jia and Xun Yu keep up.
"Xun Yu, I've been meaning to ask," Xu Shu starts as Guo Jia is lining up his next shot. "Why are you so fixated on me?"
"If I'm honest... you remind me of my cousin," he answers. "Or, well, our relationship is complicated. It feels strange to call him my nephew since he's older than me."
"But, more than that, I dislike seeing wasted potential," Xun Yu continues, stepping forward as Guo Jia shoots. "I really do think you could achieve a lot more if you weren't acting as an obstacle to yourself."
"Only two left for me," Guo Jia notes. "And I agree, for the record. I've barely known you for a few hours but a lack of self-confidence can be damning to anyone, really."
"And... two for me too," Xun Yu says as he sinks the 9 ball, leaving just two striped balls on the table.
"I don't know if I can really change who I am..."
"You don't have to change your core personality, if you're intimidated by that," Xun Yu assures. "A little self-confidence won't turn you into an entirely different person. I imagine you'll still be quite modest and introverted."
"Well, yes. I doubt that will ever go away."
Guo Jia hums in thought as he wins the game and Xun Yu puts his cue stick back up on the wall.
"Do you like yourself, Xu Shu?" he asks after a moment of consideration. Xu Shu seems to hesitate at the question.
"I'm not really sure how to answer that," he says. It sounds more like he doesn't want to turn this little party into a pity party, so Guo Jia safely assumes the answer is no.
"Well, you'll be happier if you can learn to like yourself. Getting along with yourself is crucial, since you're stuck with yourself forever."
"I concur. Is it easier to think of this in terms of reducing stress rather than accessing potential?"
The way Xun Yu views things is always interesting.
"Um... accessing my potential, as you put it, would be more useful, so I guess that's fine. I don't mind stress relief, though," he adds after a brief pause.
Once Guo Jia has made the break, Xu Shu aims for the 3 ball and just barely ends up sinking the 10 instead, setting him on stripes. That kiss shot didn't seem intentional, but it's not like their goals had been officially set yet.
"Xun Yu," Guo Jia calls, raising his empty glass. "Since you're no longer preoccupied."
Xun Yu takes the glass and walks back to the bar to refill it.
"Are you sure you wouldn't like a drink?" Guo Jia asks while Xun Yu is over there.
"I'm sure, thank you. I'm sorry to be a killjoy."
"Not at all," Guo Jia insists.
When Xun Yu returns, Guo Jia takes his turn and then sneaks a few feet away with him.
"Do you think he's intimidated by the thought of losing control? Or is it a health concern?" Guo Jia theorizes, figuring Xun Yu has already put some thought into it.
"It's possible he had a bad experience and swore off of alcohol," he offers. "But it would be more convenient to just ask him."
Guo Jia puts a hand on his chest and acts surprised.
"It seems our roles have reversed!" he teases, but Xun Yu appears unaffected on the outside as usual.
Guo Jia walks back over to take his turn, thinking of a way to bring up the question without being too forward when Xun Yu goes ahead and does it for him.
"May I ask why you have an aversion to alcohol? It won't be a problem, I only ask out of curiosity."
"Uh... no particular reason, I guess. I've just never had any interest. I was disappointed when I grew old enough to drink legally because I couldn't use the underage excuse anymore."
"Have you ever tried it?" Guo Jia follows up, nodding towards the table when Xu Shu looks at him to indicate that it's his turn.
"A few times, yes. I didn't really notice much difference and it didn't taste good."
"Have you tried wine?" Guo Jia asks, trying not to sound too urgent. It'd be a shame if Xu Shu were missing out simply because he assumed it would be bad.
"No, but I can't say I'm a fan of the smell. Sorry."
Ah... that's unfortunate.
Over the course of the game, Xu Shu ends up accidentally sinking a few solids but somehow manages to finish before Guo Jia. It wasn't a perfect victory, but Guo Jia is happy to let him have it.
"Back to the bar, then? I really should be attending it," Xun Yu says, starting to walk away without waiting for a response.
"Beginner's luck?" Xu Shu offers. He really does seem like he's afraid Guo Jia will be angry. He doesn't take it personally, but it does concern him a bit.
"Possibly. You may also simply be good at it."
"I don't even have any practice yet... I have to admit, though, it's less stressful than board games like chess and Go."
"Ah, then you've taken a liking to it?"
"I... wouldn't mind playing again," Xu Shu admits, looking oddly bashful. Not that it's unusual for him, Guo Jia can already tell.
The rest of the night is spent playing pool, drinking, and talking until Xu Shu falls asleep with his head on his arms over the bar and Guo Jia decides to relent. He's excited to have this new friend, and he looks forward to helping him feel better.
Chapter 6: Troublemakers - Yoshitsugu, Jia Xu, and Takatora
Just a little more... Yoshitsugu has to keep Sun Quan engaged for just a few more seconds. His accomplice creeps up behind Sun Quan, leaning in close without being noticed before whispering:
Sun Quan visibly jumps and yelps, followed by a sigh. Yoshitsugu and Jia Xu both laugh, their goal accomplished.
Sun Quan has been overworked lately, stressed out by the pressure of filling his father and older brother's shoes. He handled being in charge of the family company well at first, appearing to gain momentum as he went along, but he's suddenly been crashing lately. While it's obvious Sun Quan himself is stressed out, his employees are starting to feel worried by his behavior. Showing them that he's still human might help, Yoshitsugu and Jia Xu had decided.
That did lead to embarrassing him like this in the lobby of the building, earning a couple of fond laughs and surprised looks from the people around them. Sun Quan clears his throat.
"Did you actually need something, Jia Xu?" he asks, back to his somber professional persona that nobody asked for.
"For you to lighten up, yeah," Jia Xu laughs, then gets a little closer and lowers his voice. "I don't know quite what you're going through, but the change in attitude has been scaring people, you know?"
"Scaring..? Who am I scaring?" Sun Quan asks, clearly concerned by this. It seems he didn't even notice.
"Your employees, Sun Quan. Your friends," Yoshitsugu answers, and Sun Quan seems shocked by this.
"That... certainly wasn't my intention..." His eyes dart between the two of them almost guiltily. "No, you're absolutely right. My father and Ce always brought an energetic, optimistic atmosphere. I should try to--"
"Ahaha, that really is all you can think about, isn't it? Ah, not to be rude."
"You don't need to compare yourself to them. Try to find your own way."
"I... I don't know what else to-- can we talk about this privately?" Sun Quan asks a little desperately, no doubt looking to seat them in a conference room and keep them around for a few hours.
"Actually, that's all the time we have for today!" Jia Xu says. "It wouldn't do to hold your hand through running your own company, would it?"
"Your father and brother clearly trust you. Trust in their judgement and be yourself," Yoshitsugu encourages. Sun Quan relaxes and smiles at them.
"I appreciate it. Thank you," he says, getting back to work with a wave.
The next target is an old friend of Yoshitsugu's: Takatora. He doesn't need advice on anything, he's just fun to mess with. Their intentions aren't always helpful, after all.
"Ahh, Takatora! I was wondering, do you have any interest in string theory?"
Jia Xu successfully distracts Takatora by dazzling him with talk of science. Meanwhile, Yoshitsugu stealthily approaches from behind with a fuzzy cat toy. Gently, he tickles Takatora's neck with it, making him shout and spin around to grab it.
"Hm... does this make you a cat?" Yoshitsugu teases with a fond smile that can't be seen under his muffler. He knows Takatora can recognize it in his eyes by now, at least.
"Ridiculous. If I were an animal, I would definitely be a shepherd," Takatora jokes back, releaaing the cat toy. "Are you bored enough to go around startling people?"
"Oh, we've been at it all day," Jia Xu tells him with pride. "Most fun I've had in a long time, I have to say!"
"Oh no. You have a partner in crime now."
"The only way out is to join us, Takatora."
"Yeah, join us! Nobody would suspect a prank from you!"
"Pass!" Takatora easily declines. "Just read a book or something if you're bored!"
He walks off in a huff, but Yoshitsugu knows he doesn't actually mind their shenanigans.
"I've been thinking, Yoshitsugu," Jia Xu starts, a hand on his chin for effect. "Maybe it's time we step up our game and take on a challenge."
"A challenge, you say..."
Hm. Yoshitsugu already knew going into it, but pranking Yu Jin is definitely, definitely, definitely a bad idea. It'll be well worth it if it's funny, though, so Yoshitsugu can't bring himself to mind. He's never messed with a security officer before.
He and Jia Xu take turns trying to get past Yu Jin, spinning a whole ridiculous story each time, and each one completely different. Jia Xu is also pretending he doesn't work here, which frustrates and confuses Yu Jin.
"My wife is in labor and she's always wanted to give birth in the basement of Wei HQ," Yoshitsugu says this time with a completely straight face.
"You don't have a wife! Leave!"
Oh, Yu Jin is absolutely starting to get fed up.
"How could you even say that?" Yoshitsugu pretends to be downtrodden and hides back around the corner he and Jia Xu keep retreating to.
Just as Jia Xu makes to go back out there with a new story, Yu Jin rounds the corner with an intimidating glare.
"Oops, better run!" Jia Xu warns, turning around and making a break for it. Yoshitsugu quickly follows.
"Get back here! Troublemakers will not be tolerated!"
Just as Yu Jin starts to give chase, Yoshitsugu hears someone interrupt.
"Do you work here? There's an emergency in the lobby!"
"An emergency?!" Yu Jin seems conflicted, but lets this alleged emergency take priority, running in the opposite direction now as Jia Xu and Yoshitsugu.
The two of them stop running for the moment, and Yoshitsugu can't keep the smile off his face at who rescued them.
"You have a death wish, you know that?" Takatora scolds. "Now let's leave before he gets back."
"Ahaha, our hero!"
They leave through the fire exit and hastily make their way off of Wei property. When they stop to catch their breath, Jia Xu laughs again and pats Takatora on the back.
"How did you know?" Yoshitsugu asks, knowing it couldn't have been a coincidence that Takatora showed up.
"I overheard your ridiculous plan and couldn't just leave you to it. Don't ever do that again, by the way."
"Don't you know? Saving us rather than letting us get punished is encouraging our behavior," Jia Xu informs, and Takatora actually blinks in surprise.
"Yeah, Takatora. That was pretty irresponsible of you. I can't believe this!"
"Wha-- hey! You know what?! I'll just have to be the one to punish you two!"
Jia Xu and Yoshitsugu laugh and start running again. Having his best friend hot on their heels is much more fun than being chased by a large security officer.
Chapter 7: Cynophobia - Lu Lingqi, Odin, and Chen Gong
It's the moment Lu Lingqi walks into the foyer and sees a strange visitor that she remembers her father telling her that he was having a business partner over today. She freezes up and he lays eyes-- or, eye-- on her and smiles.
"His daughter?" he asks. She can't figure out how to respond for a moment until she settles on taking responsibility and being honest.
"This was an accident. My father doesn't wish for me to get involved with his work, and I try to honor that. As such, I am unable and unwilling to engage with you," she states.
He laughs at that, completely unperturbed.
"Well, Lu Bu is out of the room for the moment, isn't he? It wouldn't hurt to humor me with a conversation in the meantime. If nobody makes a profit from it, I would argue you didn't get involved in his work."
"Um... who are you?" she asks more out of bewilderment than anything else. Maybe it's the fact that she doesn't have a lot of people to talk to, but she admits with a touch of guilt that he already seems interesting.
"My name is Odin. I've heard about you."
He seems like he's about to say something else, but stops when one of the dogs wanders into the room. Red Hare is one of the more aggressive ones, too, so of course she starts growling at him. Odin visibly tenses and appears to shut down, staring in silent terror at Red Hare.
"Back in the room, back in-- Hey! Are you listening, you mutt?! Do not growl at our guest!" Chen Gong runs in and scolds to no avail.
"Enough! Sit!" Lu Lingqi orders, and Red Hare begrudgingly obeys, still sneering at Odin.
"Thank you, young mistress, and I am so very sorry, Odin, so sorry, indeed. I will keep this one on a short--" he pauses as he tries to drag Red Hare away by the collar, but she doesn't budge. "--a short... leash..!"
Finally having snapped out of his trance, Odin takes a belated step back and practically heaves like he just started breathing again. He stares intently at Red Hare, no doubt watching for any sudden movements, and Lu Lingqi knows Red Hare can sense his fear.
"What are both of you doing out here?"
At the sound of her father's voice, Lu Lingqi straightens up. Just as she prepares to explain herself, Chen Gong beats her to it.
"Three of us, actually-- three! Red Hare got out and the young mistress was just helping me wrangle her," he half-lies.
"That-- well, that's not entirely wrong, but--"
"Shh! I will hear no modesty from you, young lady, none at all! Handling dogs is not among my talents and your assistance is quite necessary!"
"Good work, Lingqi," Lu Bu praises, and Lu Lingqi can't help but gasp. "Now, put Red Hare away. She can't be out here right now."
"Yes, father!" Lu Lingqi responds automatically.
"Nice meeting you," Odin says as a goodbye, acting like nothing happened despite still looking shaken. "Is that one... always aggressive?"
"All of my dogs are trained to be aggressive towards intruders," Lu Bu answers with pride, "but Red Hare is the most ruthless."
"Ruthless... you say..."
Odin does not seem pleased. Chen Gong, on the other hand, steps up and attempts to dissolve the tense atmosphere.
"Yes, which is why she's earned your favor! However... however! They are also trained to accept certain strangers!" he assures. "If you calmly approach Red Hare in master Lu Bu's presence, she will surely allow you into her good graces!"
"Enough. I told you to put her away."
"It's... it's true, for what it's worth," Lu Lingqi speaks up, already beginning to lead Red Hare away. "She hates Chen Gong, for example, but knows not to bite him."
Odin still does not approach, instead opting to change the subject and bring up a project he and Lu Bu are considering. Since she'd rather not hear about what she's not allowed to get involved in, Lu Lingqi spurs Red Hare to run into the next room with her, with Chen Gong trailing behind.
"You're welcome," Chen Gong says unprompted once they're out of earshot.
"For covering for you! Honestly!"
"Actually, I would have preferred to tell him the truth..."
"It would have caused you unnecessary suffering. With that: I repeat, you're welcome!" he insists.
"Um... thank you," Lu Lingqi concedes. "Thank you for... lying to my father?"
Chen Gong nods theatrically a few times before suddenly freezing like her words just registered. The exaggerated response gets a little laugh out of her, at least, and Chen Gong proceeds to pretend that making her laugh was his intention.
"Hanbeiiii! If you don't wake up already, I'll snuff you out like a fiiirrre!"
"See, that would be a great impression of Kanbei, but he says stuff like stomp out, not snuff out," Hanbei corrects without opening his eyes. The weird yet cheery noise he gets at that tells him it's Kunoichi he's talking to.
"There was a weird guy who reminds me of Kanbei asking for someone who fits your description!" she says, and Hanbei opens his eyes in confusion just in time to see her hop up from her crouching position. "Thought I'd give you a heads up!"
Before he can ask, she's gone. Hanbei tries to sit up and falls back down with a groan-- he fell asleep watching the clouds on the roof again and it was not kind to his back. He wonders, though, how close of a match to Hanbei's description did she mean? And how much does this guy remind her of Kanbei, too?
He rolls off of the roof onto a strategically placed-- alright, it's a trampoline now. That scares the hell out of him, bouncing against his own will with a yell, and he hears Kunoichi laughing at him from somewhere. Just how long was he asleep for? He'd originally left an old mattress there because he always ends up climbing onto this low roof and felt like he should take at least some precaution. It's still better than the ground, not to mention much more fun.
Now that that's out of the way, and Hanbei has a paranoid eye out for any additional traps set by Kunoichi, he starts looking for this Kanbei lookalike. He's pretty sure he has who he's looking for when he sees a pale, imposing man... with black nails? Hanbei has to paint Kanbei's nails now, whether he's conscious for it or not.
"Ok!" he calls as he approaches the stranger. "You're looking for someone, right? Can you give me a description?"
"Brown hair, entirely too easygoing, lazy enough to probably fall asleep in unknown territory after evading his bodyguard... about this tall--"
"Woaahhh, that's way too tall to be me!" Hanbei exclaims exaggeratedly at the height of the man's hand. "Man, Kunoichi was way off."
His attempt at drawing her out fails, so she probably actually did leave this time.
"Have you... just woken up?"
"Oh? How'd you guess?"
He asks that, but he's well aware that there's still sleep in his voice and he hasn't even checked his hair. Now that he's thinking about it, he pats it down. This makes the man chuckle, but it's kind of intimidating somehow. Would Kanbei sound like this too if he laughed? No wonder he doesn't do it.
"I can already tell you're cut from the same cloth as him."
Is that smile supposed to look dangerous? He looks like he could lunge at Hanbei any second now.
"Can I get a name? Two names, actually? You and your buddy."
"Buddy, huh..? Didn't I already imply I'm just his bodyguard?"
"More like buddyguard. Don't worry, I can tell," he winks.
"Hehe... then, my name is Jia Chong. The one I'm looking for is Sima Zhao."
Hanbei feigns a gasp.
"The Sima Zhao? Like, Sima Zhao Sima Zhao?"
Jia Chong doesn't look convinced by Hanbei's fake raving.
"Yeah, it was a joke," he says, a little dejected and surprised it didn't land when Jia Chong seemed easy to amuse before. "I don't know who that is, but how hard can it be to find my secret long lost twin?"
He then suggests that they split up and proceeds to check all his favorite nap spots alone, curious to meet Sima Zhao without Jia Chong looming over them. Hanbei finds him a mere two spots in, relaxing with his eyes closed until he hears footsteps approach.
"Jia Chong, come onnn... I'll do my work tonight, just give me a break..." he complains. Hanbei flops down next to him.
"I so get it. I wanna go back to sleep..." he says, prompting Sima Zhao to sit up and look him over.
"Oh. I don't know you," he says, tone much cheerier. "Do you live here?"
"Around here, yup. I take naps outside a lot because I don't wanna be cooped up indoors all the time."
"Hey, I get that! It's like, why take a nap in a dark room when you can relax under the sun with a nice breeze on you?"
"Oh my god... you're just a tall version of me."
Sima Zhao laughs at that, only to abruptly and somewhat nervously trail off. Hanbei turns his head to see Jia Chong, and he's not surprised that he's got pretty much the same look on his face as Kanbei always does when he finds Hanbei slacking off.
"Rather than informing me you found him, you decided to laze around with him?" he sounds serious, but he chuckles after a pause. "That sounds about right."
"Heh, trying to employ short me against me, huh?"
"Hey, that's mean! My name's Hanbei," he introduces a little late.
"Fine then, Hanbei! If you have a name, do you have a number, too? We should hang out sometime."
"Absolutely not. I already have my hands full with just one of you."
"Woah, that was weird. It was like you fully turned into Kanbei right there," Hanbei comments.
"What are you talking about now?"
Hanbei realizes he hadn't been looking at Jia Chong and now detects that the voice actually came from behind him. Sima Zhao looks shocked to see Kanbei.
"Is this... a dream..? This is too weird... Jia Chong, can you-- uh, nevermind, please don't pinch me."
"Hanbei. You realize you're meant to be teaching today?" Kanbei reminds. Hanbei waves dismissively.
"Oh, don't worry about that. I already sent out an email."
"... Wait. Did it say "sorry, no class today, I don't wanna come"?" Sima Zhao asks suspiciously.
"Wow, you know me so well already! I think that's exactly what I said."
"Are you professor Takenaka?!"
"Ohh, are you one of my new students? Hey... what are you doing slacking off all the way over here, then?"
"Hypocrite," Kanbei and Jia Chong say in unison.
"I just... could have sworn... uh, how old are you?"
"Hehe... see Kanbei here?" Hanbei rises to stand next to him. "I'm two years older than him."
"I'm actually gonna do the next lecture, ok? I'll sneak you my number after class and we can hang out in secret."
"Uh... kinda weird being friends with one of my professors, but sure!"
Jia Chong looks kind of dead inside but in a serene nihilist sort of way. Kanbei is definitely looking worse for wear, though. Hanbei can't even promise they won't cause any trouble or poorly influence each other, since he can't lie to his friend's face.
*hanbei was implied to be sima zhao's roommate in the chapter "torment", but professor hanbei is a concept i've been wanting to play with for a while now
Chapter 9: Bet - Sakon, Mitsunari, and Sima Shi
"Yoshitsugu, this chart is ridiculous."
"No, it's very scientific."
"Oh really? In red is "yes" and in yellow is "yes but in yellow". That's your idea of scientific?"
"You can't fight the facts, Mitsunari."
"Oh boy," Sakon sighs as he walks in on this debacle. "Do I need to weigh in on an argument here?"
"I'm just showing Mitsunari some calculations."
"He is not! He's being stupid!" Mitsunari argues, reaching for the paper the chart is on only to have it yanked away by Yoshitsugu.
"What are these calculations for, though?" Sakon pushes, wondering if he'd be impatient already if he hadn't already been dealing with these two for years now.
"The odds I'll "lose" my so-called bet with Sima Shi."
"Which you will. He is relentless."
Mitsunari ignores that.
"I said, and don't ask for context, that nobody in their right mind would eat soy sauce that's been frozen solid without waiting for it to thaw. Sima Shi said he would take that bet, which I assume was a joke."
"Mitsunari, I'm telling you, it wasn't. He's been on a hot streak lately."
"I know him, he's not such a fool to do something so... Masanori-like. I cannot lose this bet like you insist because there is no bet."
"I agree, that doesn't sound like something Sima Shi would do," Sakon chimes in. "Unless, of course, he does put Masanori up to it."
"Actually, the terms, which I still assume were not serious, were that he would be the one doing it and that I would have to pay him ¥5,000 if I witness it. Which won't happen," he adds insistently.
"Steep price for some soy sauce," Sakon laughs.
"Well, the price is only a little silly because I knew we weren't-- oh, hang on." Mitsunari pauses to check his phone, having just received a notification. He then pales a bit.
"What is it, Mitsunari? Could it be Sima Shi about to win ¥5,000 from you?"
Yoshitsugu sounds like he's scolding him.
"He's... I mean, it has to be a joke. I know it is. He takes after his father; he's no fool," Mitsunari insists. He sounds plenty cool in tone, but Sakon can tell from knowing him for so long that he's beginning to panic a bit. He also knows that it's not the money that's the issue, as much as Mitsunari simply not wanting to accept that his assessment of Sima Shi was wrong.
They meet up with him at the Sima household, which is mostly empty for the moment, and Mitsunari lets out a quiet "oh no" at the sight of a small block of frozen... something on the kitchen table. Sakon assumes from context that it must be soy sauce. He laughs incredulously and pats Mitsunari on the back.
"So, will that be cash or credit, then?" he jokes, and Mitsunari starts like he's just been snapped out of a trance.
"He... he still hasn't eaten it."
"Well, no, because you're meant to witness it," Sima Shi responds with ease.
"You have to be joking! I know you're not-- isn't this something more suited for your brother?! Or anyone else?!"
Sima Shi laughs, apparently not bothered at all. Thankfully, he'd taken the easy way out since Mitsunari surely didn't specify how much soy sauce had to be frozen, but watching him chew that horrible ice cube is tough.
"I... I don't..." Mitsunari stammers, clearly out of his element.
"Well, it seems you've broken him. Sakon and I will take him home," Yoshitsugu says, shaking Mitsunari's shoulder. He shrugs him off and huffily pulls out his wallet, tossing ¥5,000 on the table.
"Even if I didn't intend to make this absurd bet, I have to keep my word..."
"Relax, Mitsunari. I don't actually want your money," Sima Shi assures, making his actions even more confusing. This baffles Mitsunari further.
"Then-- what-- just take it, you fool!"
Sima Shi laughs again.
"Oh... looks like mama's here," Sakon points out, having the strangest feeling that they should leave sooner than later. Sima Shi freezes and slowly turns around.
"Chewing ice is bad for your teeth, dear," she says. It's a simple statement, but there's this... strange, somehow dark energy to it. Sakon doesn't even have anything to do with this, but even he feels like he's about to break out into a cold sweat.
"Haven't I told you that you shouldn't be gambling as well?"
"No-- well, yes, but I didn't--"
"You've disappointed me, Shi."
Her tone is-- or, well, it should be as light as it sounds, but this is a more intimidating scolding than Sakon's own mother had ever been capable of.
Sima Shi seems barely capable of getting a complete sentence out, looking around nervously. Takes after his father, indeed.
"Keep your money, dear," Zhang Chunhua says, handing the yen back to Mitsunari. Sakon keeps expecting her to suddenly take Mitsunari's hand in a death grip and threaten him, but she does nothing of the sort. He somehow feels like it's happening anyway, though.
"Yes, I'm very sorry, mother."
"These strange bets of yours have to end for real this time."
She leaves the kitchen and tense, awful silence fills the room for maybe a minute or so. Yoshitsugu is the first to speak up.
"... Bet you won't do the same with barbecue sauce."
"Enough! We're leaving!" Mitsunari huffs, dragging Yoshitsugu to the door by the arm.
"... Were I allowed, rest assured that I would," Sima Shi answers anyway.
Chapter 10: Making Friends - Xu Shu and Yue Jin
One thing Xu Shu didn't expect to see on his early morning walk was a man being chased by a dog. They're both very fast, but he predicts that the man will likely run out of energy first. Before they're out of range, Xu Shu quickly pulls out a dog whistle and, feeling more than a little guilty, blows it to get the dog's attention. It stops running and starts looking around for the noise, ears perked in anticipation of it sounding again, and the man slows to a seemingly confused stop as he looks over his shoulder before pausing to catch his breath.
Xu Shu keeps the whistle on him for work as well as emergencies, but he's never actually had to use it for the latter before. He approaches to make sure they're both alright and he gasps when the dog runs at him, but it doesn't pounce or bite, just greets him excitedly.
"Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't realize anyone else was around at this hour," the man apologizes, still out of breath. "People tend to get worried at the sight of us, so I try to keep our races to quiet hours like this one."
He pulls out a leash and attaches it to the dog's collar, and Xu Shu feels a bit embarrassed at his misreading of the situation.
"Oh... no, I'm sorry, I'm the one who stopped your dog. I thought you were being chased, so..."
"You stopped him? How?"
"Uh," he raises his hand to show the whistle he's still holding, "dog whistle..."
He then pockets it and fiddles with his hands a bit nervously.
"A dog whistle... I guess humans really can't hear them. Unless I was just too distracted... My name is Yue Jin, by the way! Pleasure to meet you!" he introduces with enthusiasm. Xu Shu lets Yue Jin shake his hand and is a bit rattled by the movement. He's very strong.
"Um, Xu Shu. It's nice to meet you too, even if I sort of interrupted what you were doing."
The dog lies down between them and pants heavily. Xu Shu figures it could probably use some water.
"Oh, not at all! We were both getting a bit tired anyway, I think. May I ask why you have a dog whistle?"
"Oh, excuse me! I'm sorry, I didn't mean to sound accusatory."
"No, you didn't sound rude or anything, it's alright. I train dogs for a living, so I have it for work."
"That's a very interesting job..! I think we should head home now, but I hope we meet again!"
Xu Shu bristles a little in surprise before giving Yue Jin a little wave.
"Yeah, it was nice meeting you."
Yue Jin sees him off with a bright smile. He seems nice and his dog looks happy. He might be the kind of person Xu Shu can get along with.
The next time they meet, it's early in the morning again. They both tried to enter a 24 hour convenience store at the same time without noticing, leading both of them to falter.
"You-- uh, you can go," Xu Shu offers without looking, holding the door open.
"No, no, go ahead! ... Wait..."
Xu Shu looks up and they both recognize each other at about the same time.
"Then... you can, uh--"
"Please, after you! I'm in no hurry." Somehow, that sentence comes off as a little awkward from him.
"I'm already... holding the door..."
"... So you are!"
Yue Jin seems hesitant to step inside first for some reason, but eventually does.
"I've... been informed recently that I have somewhat of a complex, so I've been trying to work on that," Yue Jin admits once they're both indoors. "I run a lot of marathons and always aim to come first, but apparently that ended up bleeding over into normal life as well."
"Oh. Seems like it could be an issue, I guess," Xu Shu says, unsure of how to really respond. To be fair, that's how he feels about most social interaction. Very uncertain and also like he's doing something wrong at all times.
"I think I'm doing a little better, at least..!"
Now Xu Shu has no idea how to respond at all. Is he even supposed to respond to that, or was that the end of the conversation? If Guo Jia were here, he could keep the conversation going for hours, somehow. While thinking of Guo Jia, Xu Shu sort of just blurts out the first thing that comes to mind.
"Uh, would you... do you want to go out for drinks... sometime?" he asks, immediately worrying halfway through the question that it's way too early in their potential friendship to be inviting Yue Jin out for drinks, and that he'll probably be offended by Xu Shu moving too quickly.
"Sure, I would love to!"
Xu Shu immediately relaxes at his answer and pulls out his phone to give him the address of the bar. When they're done setting up the meeting and Yue Jin finally bids him a cheery farewell and walks off, Xu Shu opens his texts with Guo Jia. Their recent history conveniently consists of Guo Jia telling him he could stand to have more friends (with Xu Shu replying as usual with an emoji; if he can't use an obvious one like a thumbs up or a smile, he'll often choose a random animal). He starts typing a text he didn't think he'd ever compose so soon.
i just invited someone to xun yu's bar, is that ok?
uh, he's a friend. i think
oh shit you're probably asleep
i mean, sorry for swearing
He stresses over his early morning texting and hopes he didn't wake Guo Jia up, only to receive a response about an hour later.
Don't worry about it. I'm proud of you :)
Chapter 11: Kittens - Zhong Hui, Bao Sanniang, and Hanbei
Look at those fools, rolling around on the floor with those stupid tiny cats. One of the strays that lives around Hanbei had kittens a few weeks ago and only just started showing up with them, so he and Bao Sanniang are now losing their minds over them. Zhong Hui fails to see the appeal.
"Do you have any idea how filthy the floor is?" he comments.
"Don't care," they answer at the same time, followed by an obnoxious giggle from each of them.
Zhong Hui has to shift again as one of the kittens approaches him, taking a few steps back until Bao Sanniang sits up to retrieve the kitten.
"Why are you so lame?" Bao Sanniang complains as she has to steer another cat away from Zhong Hui. "Are you allergic or something?"
"I have no allergies," Zhong Hui informs as a brag.
"Then there's no problem, right? Here, hold one," Hanbei says, standing just to place a kitten on Zhong Hui's chest before sitting back down with the rest of the cats. It digs its claws into his shirt and sticks there without him needing to hold it, but he assumes it'll probably fall to its stupid little cat death if he doesn't support it, so he begrudgingly sets a hand under it and feels its claws retract. It opens its mouth wide but only makes a tiny noise at him. Zhong Hui definitely doesn't care. No, not at all.
To his great shame, it quickly becomes difficult to resist petting the cat and is sure to turn away from Bao Sanniang and Hanbei before gently rubbing the kitten's head with his thumb. The action doesn't go unnoticed, unfortunately, as he's immediately called out.
"Whatcha doin'?" Bao Sanniang asks, sounding like she knows exactly what he's "doin'".
"Just... trying to get this thing off me," Zhong Hui lies.
"Well here, let me help--"
"NO-- I mean, uh, you'll... you'll rip my shirt," he stammers, "obviously that's all I care about."
Neither of them look convinced.
"You like kitties, don't you Zhong Hui?" Hanbei teases, walking at him with another cat, which he places on Zhong Hui's shoulder.
"I... I do not! Why should I care?!"
Bao Sanniang laughs and brings him two more kittens, forcing Zhong Hui to hold each one in his arms as best he can.
"Stop it, they'll fall!"
"Aw, you do care!"
"Just get them off me!"
"Hang on, I have to get a picture of this," Hanbei says, his phone already out.
"Ooh, send it to me!"
"No! No pictures! Put that away!"
Zhong Hui wants to whip around so Hanbei can't get a picture of his face, but he worries that turning too quickly could cause one of the kittens to fall. While he's waffling over what to do, Hanbei successfully takes at least one picture of him.
"... Hmph! Fine! Be grateful that you get to have a picture of me," he says, having given up.
"Aw man, that smelly ego makes me wanna delete it."
"Oh, I so get that. It's like, you can smell his ego through the screen."
"What does that mean?!" Zhong Hui looks between them before huffing and crouching down to start putting down the kittens. "I've had enough of this nonsense. I'm going home."
He won't admit that he had a good time, but he will definitely find an excuse to come around here more often to see the kittens.
Chapter 12: Arm Wrestling - Zeus and Sun Ce
"Father, you're being foolish."
"Don't listen to him, father. More importantly, kick this guy's ass."
Zeus and Sun Ce both laugh at that, and Ares gives Athena an appalled look.
"What makes you so sure it's my ass that's gonna get kicked? I'll have you know I've got a couple of friends just as big as you and I can give them a run for their money," Sun Ce boasts with a dazzling smile. "Just wondering if I can do the same to you!"
"I like your attitude!"
"Hmph. Fine, maybe he'll start acting less childish once he's been beaten."
"... Wait, which one do you mean?" Athena whispers, but loud enough for Zeus to hear. He ignores that.
"Alright, Ares, count us down!"
Zeus is pretty sure he hears a barely reined in scoff before Ares reluctantly counts down for them. When they start, Zeus doesn't immediately go all in and quickly regrets it as he begins losing ground already. He ends up pushing back full force, yet Sun Ce is incredibly slow to yield, vocalizing the amount of force he's putting into his attempt to match Zeus.
Eventually, Sun Ce submits to his fresh lack of stamina and lets Zeus pin his arm to the table. He gives an energetic shout and shakes his arm out.
"Not bad! Didn't last as long as I did against Huang Gai... must be losing my touch!"
He fidgets more and hisses in pain, but it doesn't actually seem to deter him.
"Are you two done now? I thought you had somewhere to be, father?" Ares reminds him, clearly trying his best to hide his chiding tone behind a thin, very worn layer of respect. It's honestly downright flimsy at this point, but Zeus supposes that's his own fault. At least Athena will always be his little girl!
"Yup, I've got somewhere to be, alright. At a bar with this guy! Care for a drink, Sun Ce?"
Zeus is honestly surprised that Ares seems shocked.
"Guess I'll... get that appointment cancelled, then," Athena says, properly used to behavior like this from Zeus.
"Heh, sure, I'm up for it!"
"It's midday!" Ares scoffs incredulously. "You cannot be serious."
Zeus is happy to wave him off and starts chatting with Sun Ce about where they're going. Ares looks like he's having some sort of crisis while Athena guides him away. It's a good thing Zeus cares more about having fun than his kids being able to take him seriously!
Chapter 13: Sweet Tooth - Zhang Chunhua and Odin
It's quite cute how Odin doesn't seem intimidated by Zhang Chunhua in the slightest. Even if he never outright challenges her, he never fails to maintain eye contact and stand his ground. It makes her want to get past his defenses to see what he's like when caught off guard.
The only problem is that nobody knows anything about Odin, really. She'd probably scare him away completely if she started asking questions, so she instead decided to set some bait here and there to see what he might take. Verbal bait, like certain topics she felt might be sensitive to him, such as his eye, had no apparent effect on him.
Zhang Chunhua discovers, however, that physical bait, in the form of homemade cookies she'd left out, are much more effective. He doesn't acknowledge the look she gives him when she catches him, but she can feel, even from a distance, that he got a bit tense. The next time they meet, she brings mini cupcakes; just as she suspected, Odin can't resist taking a handful of them.
"You have frosting on the corner of your mouth, dear," she points out, sure to sneak up on him from his blind side. "I didn't expect you to be such a glutton."
He chuckles at the insult and wipes the corner of his mouth with his thumb.
"Stop me if you can," he taunts before grabbing another cupcake.
"Oh, I could never. I'm overjoyed that you like my cooking. You seem quite easy to please, in fact."
She said that, but there was an underlying message to her tone. Something more like "you seem quite easy to control," and he catches onto it. For the first time, she sees him get a little unsettled, setting the cupcake back down without having bitten into it yet.
"Please, eat as much as you'd like," she encourages. She can tell Odin feels pinned by her gaze, so she's sure not to look away and forces him to cave first. He pretends to be distracted by the frosting that's still on his thumb, breaking eye contact as he licks it off and wanders away.
That's another man under her authority now. It feels nice.