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I feel like I win when I lose

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Competitive Cultivation Grand Final
Solo event
Round-robin matches day 1

“Okay,” says Wei Ying. “Okay, I’ve got this. I can do this.”

He turns to smile at Wen Ning, who nods encouragingly and pats him fondly on the back. It sends a reassuring tingle into his skin as the touch activates the protection talismans that he and Wen Qing painstakingly sewed into his red-and-black competitive cultivation jumpsuit.

“Remember you don’t have to win this one,” says Wen Qing. She’s standing a little way back, against the wall of the arena waiting area, with her phone out. He can tell from her intent expression that she’s probably got the tournament schedule open again, even though they all know it by heart. “Just don’t let him build up a hundred-point advantage before the bell, because he’s absolutely capable of it. Focus on keeping it close.”

Wen Ning’s eyes go huge and reproachful. “He can win, A-jie,” he says. “I believe in him.”

Wei Ying pouts. “A-Ning, take your sister away. She’s harshing my vibe.”

Wen Qing rolls her eyes. “You and your vibe need to think strategically. Points, Wei Ying. Don’t do anything stupid.”

“Ugh,” says Wei Ying to himself as he gives his equipment a last once-over, checking that his carefully-selected allowance of pre-drawn talismans are tucked neatly into their individual pockets, his sword and flute are secure on his belt, and his jumpsuit analytics and safety talismans are activated to track the points and keep Lan Zhan from actually skewering him. Everything is where it should be. The only thing missing is his confidence.

It’s the least auspicious start to the tournament he could have asked for. Anyone else would have been fine. Lan Xichen? A pleasure! Yu Zhong? Terrifying, but he’s beaten her before. Even Nie Mingjue, defending champion, would have made for a fun and challenging opening match.  But Wei Ying hasn’t won a single bout against Lan Zhan. Ever. Not once, in three years of juniors and most of a senior season. Not even in training meets before they were old enough to officially compete. He’s at his first competitive cultivation Grand Final, rated fifth in the solo cultivator rankings, with the Qishan and Lanling silver medals tucked away in his sock drawer, and he’s about to walk into the arena for a match that everyone knows he’s going to lose.

“Okay,” he says again. He takes a quick glance to the other side of the waiting area, where the little cluster of Lans are standing patient and silent: Lan Xichen and the redoubtable Lan Qiren pristine in pale suits, Lan Zhan between them in a jumpsuit of Gusu blue that clings to his muscled body in ways that Wei Ying is not going to focus on.

A competition official in Lanling colours walks over to the Lans. She bows and gestures towards the arena. Lan Zhan bows in return and does that thing where he tucks one hand behind his back and lays the other on Bichen’s sheath in preparation to walk. Weirdo.

The official breaks away and heads towards Wei Ying’s little group. Wei Ying uses his final few seconds to get one last pat from Wen Ning, and to smile at them both. “I’ll be good,” he promises Wen Qing. “Nothing risky.” Then he nods to the official and heads towards the tunnel entrance where Lan Zhan is waiting. Tradition demands that they walk in together. While most people take it as an opportunity for trash talk, that kind of thing is forbidden by several dozen Gusu rules. Lans don’t lie, and they don’t toss exaggerated insults around. Lan Xichen usually offers up some good wishes and friendly encouragement, because he’s a sweetie despite his rigid upbringing.  Lan Zhan has always kept talking to a minimum.

“Wei Ying,” he says now.

His expression is flat but his eyes are intense, heated. It’s a look that always makes Wei Ying a little tingly, because while his mind is well aware that it’s Lan Zhan’s ‘oh no, it’s you again’ face, his body hasn’t quite got the memo. He has to remind himself that it’s the same face Lan Zhan used to make when they were both fifteen, when Wei Ying had broken Gusu School Precept three million and seventy-two and got himself another punishment Lan Zhan would have to supervise.

“Er-gege!” he says, giving his friendliest grin and falling into step. Lan Zhan is, in actual fact, a couple of months younger than him, but Wei Ying has never let a little thing like accuracy stop him from being irritating. “You and me together again – it’s been so long since the Qinghe tournament. I bet you’ve missed me. Have you?” He waits for a response that he knows is not going to come, and blithely continues, “Well, I’ve missed you! The handsome Second Jade, I feel more refined just being in your presence. Or wait, what is it I should be calling you now? Hanguang Jun? So ostentatious, Lan Zhan. I didn’t realise you had such a high opinion of yourself.”

Lan Zhan’s face goes from pure blankness to the faintest of frowns. “Ridiculous,” he says.

Wei Ying snickers. It is pretty ridiculous. Unusually dramatic, even for a competitive cultivation nickname, like Lan Zhan is some kind of mystical hero instead of just really good at a sport. But it’s not like anyone gets to choose what the fans call them, and Wei Ying has to admit, at least to himself, that it’s fitting. If heroism in the cultivation world these days is being a role model, doing good works, and delivering the occasional blistering smackdown of Twitter bigots, Lan Zhan is doing okay. “Hanguang Jun,” he repeats cheerfully. “I’m going to use that in all my interviews. Then maybe people will realise that I don’t have a cool nickname yet. I need my fans to get with the programme.”

As they emerge into the bright light of the arena they’re hit by a wave of applause from the crowd and Wei Ying reluctantly gives up on conversation. An amplified voice blares the announcement, “Lan Zhan of the Gusu school versus Wei Ying, independent,” while they find their marks and bow to the match officials and each other. Then a hush falls as the bell gives its three countdown chimes. Wei Ying tenses, watching Lan Zhan’s eyes, trying to guess his plan of attack. For someone so rigid, Lan Zhan is unpredictable in the arena.

They both move at once: Wei Ying forward, sword ready, whipping the strand of his trademark binding spell across the space between them with his free hand; Lan Zhan backwards out of range, activating an illusion talisman that fills the arena with tumbling shapes. Wei Ying misses his shot. The binding thread dwindles into nothing as a wave of sound from Wangji hits him hard in the chest. He stays on his feet with an effort. Out of the corner of his eye he sees the numbers on the scoreboard flick up as his jumpsuit absorbs the impact.

Serves him right for trying to play it safe and simple.

With a harsh off-key shriek from Chenqing, he dispels the illusion. It has the added benefit of offending Lan Zhan’s gusu-trained ears – for perhaps a millisecond there’s an actual expression on his face as he swoops in with Bichen in his hand. Wei Ying brings Suibian up to block, and they fall into an exchange of thrusts and parries. Carefully, Wei Ying engineers the motion of the fight so he can anchor the characters of a talisman into the ground as he goes, drawn with tiny flicks of his toes inside his boots. He activates the array all at once in a crackling net designed to slow his opponent’s movements. It would have worked with anyone else. Lan Zhan doesn’t even look surprised, just brings his sword down to one of the key points on the floor and severs the energy almost before it begins.

Ugh. He’s so annoying. Barely a minute into the match, and Wei Ying is already itching with frustration, desperate to wipe that blank unconcern off his face, to do something that will get a reaction. Go big or go home, he tells himself, whipping a flame talisman and a shield talisman out of their respective pockets and activating them simultaneously just as Lan Zhan swoops close for another strike. Through the resulting fireball he sees Lan Zhan flicker into nothing with the tell-tale flash of a transportation talisman. Residual heat from the blast washes against his suit. When he has a clear view of the scoreboard again he can see that he did more damage to Lan Zhan than he did to himself – just.

“You just live to ruin my fun, don’t you,” he calls across the arena to a barely-rumpled Lan Zhan. Then he throws out an illusion of his own, not a pre-drawn talisman, just characters scrawled into the air on the fly. Instead of the abstract, swirling shapes Lan Zhan had created, his is a black dragon wrapping itself in a spiral around Lan Zhan’s position, because why not look incredibly cool when you can? And it does, for all of a second, until a chord from Wangji dispels it. Lan Zhan easily parries the stroke of Wei Ying’s sword, despite Wei Ying wasting a transportation talisman of his own to appear behind him.

Wei Ying pouts. Petulantly, he sends a blast of spiritual energy through Suibian to crackle along their joined blades. Lan Zhan, with his famous Gusu qi control, doesn’t even flinch, just absorbs Wei Ying’s energy and winds it smoothly around his own core. If he hadn’t been wearing a jumpsuit the transfer would have left him with badly scorched fingers, but as it is he’ll barely have felt a tingle and Wei Ying probably added a scant two or three points to his own score.

“Careless,” says Lan Zhan, and blasts the excess energy straight back down the blade.

Wei Ying, whose qi control is – well, mediocre, flawed and unsophisticated are all adjectives Lan Zhan has used in interviews – catches it with much less grace and jumps away with a stream of swearwords that he hopes none of the arena microphones pick up.

After that minor bout of self-sabotage, he tries to do better. Tries to use his strengths, instead of playing to Lan Zhan’s. Quick off-the-cuff talismans, precise footwork in the swordplay, inventive uses of traditional techniques and ones entirely his own. Messy, erratic swirls of spiritual energy from Chenqing that distort Lan Zhan’s more precisely-worked spells. None of it makes a difference. He’s struggling to make any move connect, while Lan Zhan is steadily wearing him down. After a particularly desperate set of parries, Wei Ying buys himself a second of breathing space by sword-surfing to the edge of the arena, crouched inelegantly so he doesn’t have to let go of Suiban’s hilt, and snatches a glance at the scoreboard.

Lan :: 141 – 85 :: Wei
Time: 00.07.54

A green flashing line under Lan Zhan’s score signifies the fifty point advantage that means game over as soon as the time bell rings. And there’s still a full seven minutes to go. Shit. At the current rate Lan Zhan could rack up exactly the three-figure lead Wen Qing warned him about.

Wei Ying whips out the binding talisman again. This time it connects, and he has a brief moment of triumph before Lan Zhan wraps a hand and a stream of spiritual energy around the thin strand connecting them and yanks. Wei Ying stumbles forward hard enough that the two of them collide. Smoothly, Lan Zhan hooks an ankle around his, and Wei Ying hits the ground, flat on his back. Lan Zhan is crouched over him, perfect face serenely severe even as his eyes flash with that dizzying intensity, one hand wrapped around Wei Ying’s wrist and the other reaching for a talisman of his own.

It’s mortifying. Wei Ying wants to make a quip of some kind, to show that he doesn’t care, he doesn’t mind that Lan Zhan of all people has always been able to squash him like a particularly insignificant bug.

“Lan Zhan,” he says – the name spills out, not a protest or a challenge, just a presence in the air.

Lan Zhan’s hand squeezes hard enough that it would hurt, if not for the jumpsuit protections. His gold-flecked, glowing, gorgeous eyes flick to Wei Ying’s.

“Fuck,” says Wei Ying, in a despairing little sigh, “you’re so beautiful.”

Lan Zhan’s grip falters.

Wei Ying acts on instinct, wrenching his wrist free and twisting back up to his feet, lashing out with Suibian and hacking into the side of Lan Zhan’s jumpsuit so hard that the talismans flare with pale blue light.

They spring apart. Over the top of Lan Zhan’s head, Wei Ying can see that the green line on the scoreboard is gone. He’s back in the game – because he complimented Lan Zhan? What the hell?

Okay, he tells himself. Ignore it. Focus. But he’s intrigued, and he’s never been able to leave well enough alone when that happens. He can’t help himself. He watches Lan Zhan carefully as they dance through another round of swordplay. When they’re close, locked in a struggle blade to blade, he tries it again.

“You’re stunning,” he says. “You know that, right? I’ve loved looking at you from the first moment I saw you.”

It’s not news. Of course Lan Zhan is beautiful.  There are magazine spreads dedicated to him. His Sports Illustrated swimsuit pictures broke the entire internet. He shouldn’t be thrown off his game just because Wei Ying told him something he already knows.

Lan Zhan is staring, frozen. The moment of distraction is enough that Wei Ying can thrust his blade aside and dart in to score a comprehensive hit. Lan Zhan jumps sideways, wide-eyed and panting, looking so unsettled that Wei Ying belatedly realises just how shittily he’s behaving. If this were Qin Su or one of the other women, he’d rather stab himself than make remarks about her looks in the middle of a bout. Lan Zhan shouldn’t be any different. There’s an apology ready on his tongue, but when he tries to open his mouth he finds his lips are sealed shut.

Gusu Lan silence spell. Motherfucker.

Wei Ying makes muffled, furious noises, trying to communicate with his eyes, I’m-sorry-but-also-YOU-FUCKING-ASSHOLE-TAKE-IT-OFF.

“Will you stop?” hisses Lan Zhan.

Wei Ying nods, all the more annoyed because he would have stopped anyway. Lan Zhan glares daggers at him and deigns to release the spell. As soon as Wei Ying has control of his mouth again, he sticks his tongue out like a five year old. The cameras are definitely going to pick that one up. The commentators will have a field day.

On the plus side, his side of the scoreboard is looking significantly healthier.

It’s not enough to turn things around. Lan Zhan is back on the offensive instantly, and Wei Ying can tell he’s pissed off. The next few minutes of fighting are punctuated by particularly vicious chords from Wangji. Wei Ying scrambles to defend, fingers stinging from scribbling so many shorthand talismans in the air, resorting more often than not to catching the energy awkwardly in his blade. It’s like Lan Zhan is punishing him for his shitty skewed qi by smugly throwing out moves that he himself would be able to counter and knows Wei Ying can’t. It’s a constant grind of low-scoring hits.

When the time bell shrills, Wei Ying half-expects the match to end, but no – Lan Zhan’s still a handful of points away from the advantage he needs. Hah. Wei Ying gleefully drags things out. If he has to lose, he’ll be damned if he’ll do it by a point more than he has to. No tricks, no risks, just solid defence. Lan Zhan is forty-six points ahead, forty-nine, and in the final thrust of the match he just barely brushes his blade against Wei Ying’s shoulder for one single point. Wei Ying lowers his own blade, acknowledging the hit as the bell sounds.

“Disappointing,” he says, and grins, rolling his shoulders. “Where’s the style, Lan Zhan? Where’s the flair? I thought you’d put on a better show.” He slides Suibian back into its sheath and holds out his hand.

As always, Lan Zhan accepts the handshake in silence. Unusually, though, he’s not meeting Wei Ying’s eyes. There’s no electricity, no irritated glare. He doesn’t say a word.

 

***

 

“Flirting,” says Wen Qing, “is not a tactic.”

They’re sitting in a little local bar, because Wei Ying has too much nervous energy to be trapped in his room, and if they went to the hotel bar he’d be mobbed by a mixture of fans with autograph books and fellow cultivators with long-held grudges. He’s sharing a jar of halfway-decent wine with Wen Qing, while Wen Ning, in deference to the Lanling drinking age, sips at a coke.

“It wasn’t flirting!” says Wei Ying. “I wouldn’t flirt with Lan Zhan. Nobody can flirt with Lan Zhan.”

“But you told him he’s beautiful,” says Wen Ning. His face is all puzzled and cute like a baby mouse trying to do long division. “Isn’t that flirting?”

“That’s a statement of fact,” says Wei Ying, refraining with an effort from pinching his cheeks. “You’ll understand when you’re older.”

“Whatever it was,” says Wen Qing, “don’t do it again.”

“But it wooooorked,” says Wei Ying. He won’t do it again, of course, but if he’s going to give up on the one single advantage against Lan Zhan he’s ever found, he’s at least he’s going to whine about it. “Nothing else works, he’s so – argh, he reads every move I make. It’s not fair. He must have given up his body to a demon in exchange for mind-reading powers. It’s the only explanation.”

Wen Qing gives him one of her rare smiles. It’s the small, smug one that means she knows something he doesn’t. “It’s not,” she says. “You haven’t seen the interview he gave just before the match today, have you?”

“You know I don’t watch his interviews.”

“It’s all over social media.”

“You’re the one that tells me to stay off the internet during competitions,” says Wei Ying, pouting. While he doesn’t usually listen to her, this is the Grand Final. He doesn’t want to lose his focus by getting angry over some idiotic piece of fan commentary going viral.

“Here.” She picks up her phone from the table and taps away for a few moments before holding it out to him.

The woman in the clip is one of the interviewers from the in-house Lanling sports channel – Wei Ying did some fun soundbites with her a few days ago. She looks dead serious now as she asks a stone-faced Lan Zhan about his strategy going into his first match of the tournament.

Lan Zhan answers her in the blandest possible tone, as though he’s giving a dry academic lecture on the history of Gusu’s medicinal soups. “Wei Ying’s qi balance is unusually poor for a solo cultivator—” he begins, and Wei Ying sighs and shoves the phone away.

“Don’t make me listen to this. I’ve heard it all before.”

“You really haven’t,” says Wen Qing, and hits the volume button until Lan Zhan’s flat voice is inescapable.

“—any Gusu-trained cultivator should be able to exploit those weaknesses. That is always my strategy with Wei Ying.”

The interviewer, who has heard this particular spiel as often as Wei Ying has, prods for something a bit more interesting. “So how, in your opinion, has such an inadequate cultivator made it to the Grand Final?”

Lan Zhan has the gall to look infinitesimally surprised, as though he hasn’t insulted Wei Ying’s cultivation technique in every single interview he has ever given. After a moment of blank staring, he says, “I have never called him inadequate.”

“He certainly doesn’t present a challenge to you.”

“He is the most challenging opponent I have ever faced. The fact that he has made it to the top of the sport despite his technical disadvantages is a testament to his incredible ingenuity and perseverance.”

Wei Ying grabs the phone out of Wen Qing’s hands. He’s so clumsy with shock he manages to exit the video and has to frantically stab on the icon to get it back.

On the tiny screen, the interviewer is looking almost as wrong-footed as Wei Ying feels. “But… uh. If he’s a challenge, how is it that you haven’t lost to him once?”

There’s an uncharacteristic moment of hesitation from Lan Zhan, a brief flash of emotion in his eyes. Then, as cool and detached as ever, he says, “I have made it my business to watch and analyse every match he participates in. I review any publicly available video of his training sessions. I study his methods and his form as part of my daily routine. Sometimes I feel I know his cultivation better than I know my own. That is the level of dedication that it takes to beat him.”

What,” says Wei Ying. His hands are shaking.

“Well, it seems to be a successful strategy,” said the interviewer. “And one that other competitors should maybe look at emulating. You heard it here, folks – Hanguang-Jun is immune to the Wei effect because he scrutinises Wei Ying’s matches on a daily basis.” Clearly at a loss, she moves onto another topic. Wei Ying stares at Lan Zhan’s gorgeous face as he gives brief, bland answers to question after question.

“What the fuck?” he breathes. “Did he really say that? Why the hell would he say that?”

“You are one of the best solo cultivators in the game,” says Wen Qing. “And he’s not wrong. Your technique sucks, but you’re certainly inventive. He’s the only person who’s ever been able to beat you consistently.”

“He doesn’t even like me.”

“From what you’ve said, that’s because you spent a whole summer pulling his pigtails when you were fifteen,” says Wen Qing, taking her phone back out of his hands. “Not because he doesn’t see you as a legitimate threat. Finish your wine, you’ve got an early start tomorrow.”

 

***

 

The thing is, Wei Ying never wanted to be a solo cultivator.

He trained in the Yunmeng style. Of the Big Five competitive cultivation schools, Yunmeng is the one that goes for the greatest divergence in its pairs: one cultivator skewed far to yin, one to yang, a shifting equilibrium to allow the strongest possible flow of qi between the two. It’s incredibly effective – Yunmeng pairs pack a punch that nobody else does. But because of the inherent imbalance, the Yunmeng School doesn’t even bother with solo cultivation.

All Wei Ying ever wanted was to do what Jiang Cheng did. For the two of them to be like real brothers, going head to head in sparring matches, competing to be the best. He wanted to belong, like a real son of the Jiang family.

Then one day Uncle Jiang and Madam Yu were discussing which of the trainees would partner best with Jiang Yanli for her first junior season, and Jiang Cheng said, “I can’t believe it’ll be six whole years until Jiejie and I can compete together.”

Wei Ying happened to be watching Jiang Fengmian’s face at the time. He saw it. The slight curl of a lip, the eyes that flicked away from Jiang Cheng to look, for one brief moment, directly at him. The glint in them that said, my daughter will have the best. Worse than that – he saw Madam Yu see it too. He saw the poison in her expression, and in that moment the next six years were laid out ahead of him, the inevitable vicious battle of wills that would leave everyone battered and bleeding, Jiang Cheng most of all.

He knew better than to say anything. Instead, over the next few weeks he developed a carefully calculated crush on the new star of solo cultivation. When they watched TV, he whined until Jiang Cheng flicked the channel over to Nie Mingjue’s matches. He read up on the Qinghe cultivator’s closest competitors and chattered on and on about the solo standings. Within a couple of months, he’d established an obsession with solo cultivation. He plastered his bedroom with posters. He said, “Can we go see the Qinghe showcase?” and, “Jiejie, would you teach me that move he does?”

From being the star pupil, he morphed into the problem child. He questioned his training. He talked back to his instructors. He complained that he was bored, and skipped his drills in favour of watching cultivation videos online and trying to figure out his own moves. He won himself more punishments from Madam Yu than would fit in the day.

One morning Jiang Cheng caught him running through defensive patterns and yelled that he was messing up his qi flow, and then said exactly what Wei Ying had been waiting months for him to say:

“If you want to be a solo cultivator so much, go train with a different School!”

That summer Wei Ying found himself in the solo stream at the Gusu cultivation camp, where the most beautiful boy in the world gave him a look of chilly distaste and told him that his qi balance was inadequate and he wouldn’t be able to keep up with the standard of the class.

 

***

 

Competitive Cultivation Grand Final
Solo event
Round-robin matches day 2

His match against Qin Su the next day goes great.

She’s an intuitive, powerful fighter, and resourceful too, but she’s never been able to get her head around his brand of balls-to-the-wall crazy. She does her best, with wild, risky moves that have them both scoring way higher than the average match. Wei Ying hits the fifty-point advantage with three minutes to go, and from there it’s a race to see how many more points he can rack up in the remaining time.

It’s not until after the handshake that he catches sight of Lan Zhan watching from the competitors’ seats. Wei Ying flinches, smile faltering. He’s always hated the thought that Lan Zhan could beat him effortlessly, barely paying attention. Now, the feeling of being scrutinised, analysed, seen, is almost more uncomfortable. Still, he brazens it out, gives Lan Zhan a cheery wave as he heads down the tunnel.

That goddamn interview. He can’t stop thinking about it. He has to stop thinking about it, because it’s the middle of the finals and he has to focus.

Wen Ning greets him with an overexcited hug and a stream of commentary on his prowess, and even Wen Qing congratulates him on a decent job. Then they split up. The Wens head back to the hotel so Wen Qing can do a couple of online consultations, earning money that they’re absolutely going to need, even with the extra cash Wei Ying’s win just netted them. Wei Ying rushes through a shower and his one obligatory soundbite interview, evades the rest of the media who no doubt want his take on what Lan Zhan said about him yesterday, and heads to the main arena, crossing his fingers that there’ll still be a seat free in the competitors’ box for the biggest event of the day.

Before the season began, it seemed like every sports journalist in the cultivation scene was churning out opinion pieces about the Jiang siblings, and all but a handful said that Jiang Yanli would be doing herself a disservice if she took her brother as her teammate after his lacklustre performance in juniors. At the Qishan tournament, when the two of them first stepped into the arena together, nobody was expecting much. Then the starting bell rang, and Jiang Yanli and Jiang Cheng hit their Moling School opponents with the force of a tsunami, qi flowing between them so smoothly that they were almost a single entity. When the almost entirely one-sided match timed out, they were four hundred points ahead.

It wasn’t a fluke. They proceeded to take gold at three out of the five main tournaments and headed into the finals as the odds-on favourites to win.

Wei Ying is just in time – he flashes his competitor pass at the security guards and gets waved through to a not-quite-full box. All of the other team cultivators are there, sitting in their pairs, including Wen Chao and his almost-as-obnoxious teammate Wang Lingjiao. There are also a good number of solos, artistic cultivators, training staff and general hangers on. Wei Ying waves to Lan Xichen, then spots Nie Huaisang and his buddies and squeezes through the crowd to say hello. He ends up taking the last empty seat in their row and getting stuck into some good old-fashioned gossip about friends from Qinghe he hasn’t seen in four years. Unfortunately, there’s still a good twenty minutes before the match is due to start, which gives Wen Chao plenty of time to notice him. Ugh. Still, Wei Ying wasn’t optimistic enough to think he’d get through this tournament without a Wen encounter or two, despite lucking out and being placed in the opposite round-robin group from Wen Xu.

It’s not too bad, really, with everyone watching. Wei Ying is only glad that Wen Ning isn’t around to hear, because Wen Chao doesn’t stick to insulting Wei Ying’s birth, financial status and sexual preferences. He also goes for Wen Qing’s looks and Wen Ning’s mental capacity. In return, Wei Ying strongly insinuates that all Qishan School cultivators are cheats and thugs, which is reasonably accurate, and that Wen Chao personally stinks of shit, which is true only in the metaphorical sense.

It ends with Wen Chao spitting a warning and drawing a finger across his throat as he storms back to his place, cronies in tow, and Wei Ying settling back into his chair, laughing at the drama of it all. He has to laugh. If he doesn’t laugh he’ll start thinking about it seriously, and that’s never a good idea.

He puts it all out of his mind, chatting with Nie Huaisang for the last few minutes of the wait. Finally the announcers let them know that the match is about to start. The crowd roars approval and excitement as Jiang Yanli leads the way into the arena, smiling and waving at her fans. A couple of paces behind her, Jiang Cheng sweeps in with his head high and menace in every line of him, already glaring daggers at their opponents.

Nie Huaisang brings his fan up to cover his mouth. “I want to tie that boy up and cover him in whipped cream,” he murmurs.

Wei Ying makes a disgusted face. He concentrates on booing as Jin Zixuan and his teammate take their places – not that he has anything against Mianmian, save for the company she keeps. Jin Zixuan is still a dick, no matter what Jiang Yanli says, and Wei Ying is very much here to watch Jiang Cheng knock him on his ass.

The match begins with frenetic speed. Wei Ying scoots forward to the edge of his seat and watches avidly. It’s a flurry of acrobatic sword moves to begin with, the four of them interweaving so fast that the centre of the arena is a blur of purple and yellow. The Jiangs end up back-to-back in a solid defensive position, and Wei Ying can actually see them smiling, can see Jiang Yanli laugh and her lips shape a playful, “A-Cheng,” before Zidian flashes out and they break apart, blasting the Lanling teammates to opposite walls.  They’re so good together. It’s something he clings to, when his chest aches with missing Lotus Pier – the knowledge that his presence could have destroyed this, that by leaving he gave his sister the teammate she deserved and gave Jiang Cheng the chance to grow into a champion.

The Lanling duo aren’t bad either, Wei Ying has to grudgingly admit. Mianmian is an excellent swordswoman, and Jin Zixuan has lethal aim with talismans. Their qi connection is solid too, compared to other cultivators of their School. It just doesn’t have the scope and range of the Yunmeng technique. The score increases in fits and starts, one team and then the other pressing the advantage. When the fifteen minute bell rings the Jiangs are ahead, though not by enough to end the match. The Lanling team counterattacks hard and manages to drag the score back into their favour, building a ten point lead, then fifteen, and then there’s a split second where Wei Ying can feel both Jiangs readying themselves, and the arena explodes with purple light. The crowd falls into stunned silence just as the points bell blares.

“Holy shit,” Wei Ying murmurs.

Nie Huaisang is staring at the scoreboard with his mouth open. “They’re fifty-four ahead,” he says. “They were fifteen behind and now they’re fifty-four ahead. Was that one move?”

Wei Ying shakes his head. “Four, I think.  Jiejie got a direct hit on Jin Zixuan, and there was whatever the hell that was with Zidian, plus at least two talismans in play. Hold on, we’ll see it slowed down in a moment.”

The main arena has the benefit of huge video screens. Half the crowd is going wild with cheering, while the other half – the ones who actually know something about how cultivation works – crane to see the replay. Wei Ying blinks, counting the moves. Was that – multiple hits from Zidian? How are those angles even possible? He watches again, and spots the moment Jiang Yanli catches a pulse of qi around the whip thong to send it looping in two directions at once – at the same time as her blade slashes into Jin Zixuan’s arm, rippling with energy that’s absorbed by the talismans in the yellow-and-cream jumpsuit.

“Five,” he says. “Five moves. We can figure out the points breakdown later, but… wow.”

“Your sister’s waving at you.”

Wei Ying turns away from the screen in a hurry. Down in the arena, the teams have done their handshakes and the Lanling duo are headed back towards the tunnel. Jiang Yanli has definitely spotted Wei Ying in the stands, and her smile brightens when she sees him looking back. Wei Ying waves, mimes cheering, gives her two thumbs-up, and blows kisses. He blows kisses to Jiang Cheng too, and then laughs when Jiang Yanli grabs Jiang Cheng’s hand before he can make a gesture that would be very inappropriate for television. Then the two of them make their own way back towards the tunnel, and Wei Ying collapses back into his seat, grinning so hard his face hurts.

 

***

 

He’s trying to decide whether he can get out of the cultivation complex to find some decent food and still get back in time to catch Lan Zhan’s bout with Nie Mingjue, when his phone buzzes.

A-Li: Come meet us outside the changing rooms!!!!

A-Li: Don’t worry, mother’s talking to sponsors (^_~)

Wei Ying: Coming!  ε=ε=ε=( ^_^ )

Jiang Yanli is waiting for him just inside the competitor-only area, looking so sweet and soft in a demure lilac dress that it’s almost impossible to recognise her as the woman who’d just been carving her opponents into pieces in the arena. Wei Ying had been sceptical about that ‘us’, but surprisingly Jiang Cheng is beside her, still in his jumpsuit, a rich dark purple with grey accents. She waves him over and holds out her arms. Jiang Cheng just rolls his eyes.

“Jiejie!” says Wei Ying, catching her into a hug. “And my little didi! I’m so proud of you both!” he declares, letting go of Jiang Yanli to rumple Jiang Cheng’s hair. Jiang Cheng smacks him in the ribs. “Ow! Jiejie, save me from this violent monster you trained.”

“Fuck off,” says Jiang Cheng, most likely on autopilot. He glances around. “Where are your friends?” He puts a drawling layer of sarcasm on the last word.

“Working,” says Wei Ying, glad all over again that the Wens aren’t around. “Because some of us have actual jobs.”

“I have a job, asshole,” says Jiang Cheng.

He doesn’t. He has an office at JiangCorp, and judging by his certification he’s a very competent agricultural cultivator, but as far as Wei Ying can tell he spends most of the time training for his competitions and the rest of it browbeating the junior disciples into better technique. Whereas Wen Qing has a solid medical practice, and Wei Ying has spent the year since he qualified becoming intimately familiar with all of Yiling’s funeral parlours.

“Of course you do,” says Wei Ying sweetly. Then he breaks into a grin. “Nice going today. I bet Jin Zixuan’s run off somewhere to cry about his own inadequacy.”

“A-Ying! It was a good match,” chides Jiang Yanli. “A-Xuan should be proud of himself, and Mianmian too.”

“A-Xuan?” mouths Wei Ying, horrified.

“How was your match this morning?” says Jiang Yanli. “I saw the score but we were busy getting ready so we couldn’t watch the whole thing. Oh! And I saw the interview Lan Zhan gave yesterday! A-Ying, you must be so happy.”

“Why would that make him happy?” demands Jiang Cheng.

“Well… it’s nice to know your opponent respects you, isn’t it?”

“I don’t see why. Who cares about respect when he gets obliterated in the arena every single time?”

Jiang Yanli smiles fondly. “Oh, never mind,” she says. “It’s not important. Let’s get lunch, I want to hear how the competition’s been going.”

“I’m not coming,” says Jiang Cheng. “I’ve got things to do.”

He doesn’t wait for them to try to convince him, just stalks off back into the changing room. Wei Ying doesn’t let it bother him – not more than the background level, anyway. He’ll always miss how close the three of them used to be. These days he’s used to his encounters with Jiang Cheng being brusque and unfriendly. It’s not unreasonable. After all, Jiang Cheng had tried his best, had offered after he found Wei Ying struggling to make ends meet in Yiling.

Just come home, you idiot. What are you trying to prove?

Wei Ying had turned him down flat. That must have stung.

He sighs, just a little, as he watches Jiang Cheng walk away. “Bye, Cheng-Cheng! Be good,” he calls, and tucks his sister’s hand into his arm. “Where would you like to go? We can – ah…” He pauses, torn.

She laughs. “We’ll grab something to go and eat while we watch. It’s arena two, isn’t it?”

“You’re the best,” he says.

 

***

 

As they wait for the match to start, they eat overpriced noodles from cardboard trays and catch one another up on their lives. It’s been nice, this year, now he’s joined her in seniors. They attend the same competitions, he sees a lot more of her than he used to. In the intervening years he tried not to be too clingy, to reply to her check-in texts without demanding anything more. Now when their schedules align at tournaments he allows himself to spend time with her. She has always been a diplomat, and she avoids all of the more uncomfortable topics, like whether he has any money, or who he’s offended lately, or the three (so far) investigations into techniques of his to decide whether they should be banned in future. Instead she tells him all the news and laughs with him over old reminiscences and makes him promise to eat well and take care of himself. Wei Ying in his turn, shares stories of life in Yiling, of his training and his job and the way all the spirits that drift around the funeral homes love Wen Ning.

“They practically pinch his cheek and feed him candy whenever I bring him along,” he tells her. “He’s going to be so popular, I’ll be out of a job. Betrayed and displaced by my own student.”

She laughs without showing even a flicker of distaste for the work that he’s doing. “You were always a good teacher, A-Ying. I’m glad you’ve found someone to teach who doesn’t want to be part of one of the big schools. Is his sister supervising him through juniors, like she did for you? Or are you doing it yourself?”

Wei Ying shakes his head. “Neither. He’s not the competitive type. He just wants to cultivate in peace.”

“I always did think he was very sweet,” she says, smiling fondly. She’s lovely like that. She’s barely met Wen Qing and Wen Ning, and yet she always takes an interest.

That’s when the hum of the crowd turns into a roar and the other spectators in the competitors’ area sit forward and pay attention as the two figures walk out from the tunnel entrance and take up their positions.

“Who are you cheering for?” says Jiang Yanli. “You were such a fan of Nie Mingjue back in the day.”

“I’m cheering for whatever will help get me through to the semis,” says Wei Ying. He has to beat Nie Mingjue tomorrow no matter what, but it would be nice if Lan Zhan took a clear first place in the group to keep the standings simple. If Nie Mingjue wins, the whole thing could come down to points.

“Then I’ll cheer for Lan Zhan on your behalf,” she says, “and you can focus on watching Nie Mingjue’s technique.”

“Yeah,” says Wei Ying. He’ll focus on Nie Mingjue. Easy.

 

***

 

He doesn’t focus on Nie Mingjue.

The fight is clean and fast-paced, a clash of styles, Qinghe power against Gusu poise. Although the score is tight throughout, Lan Zhan seems human and fallible against the more experienced fighter. It’s clear that he’s a comparative novice, a newly-qualified cultivator in his first senior season, wildly talented but not entirely self-assured. For Wei Ying, it’s a revelation. Something he should have been seeing all along and somehow missed due to his own short-sightedness.

He can see now that he’s the one Lan Zhan has obsessively prepared to beat. Not Nie Mingjue, the defending champion, the person any normal aspiring cultivator would prioritise. Him. Wei Ying.

His stomach is tingling as he watches the flow and grace of Lan Zhan’s movements meeting the solid wall that is Nie Mingjue. Every point Lan Zhan loses is an extra shock of heat and confusion, a tiny whisper, he wouldn’t let me do that. He watches me. He knows me. When a fierce, implacable assault finally pushes Nie Mingjue past the fifty point advantage, when Lan Zhan lowers his sword and bows respectfully in acknowledgement, it hits Wei Ying right in the gut.

He tells himself firmly to calm down. He’s reading too much into this. Making it into something it’s not. It’s just a competition, it doesn’t mean anything more.

He turns to his sister, and finds she’s watching him with a gentle smile.

“A-Ying,” she says innocently, “is there anything you want to talk about?”

He laughs nervously. “Uh. Not an ideal result, I guess. I should check the points. See how much I need to beat Nie Mingjue by tomorrow. I need to strategize, I – I’ll see you later, okay? Good luck tomorrow. I’m sorry I won’t be able to make your match, I wish they could spread these tournaments out more. Say good luck to A-Cheng for me, huh?”

“Alright.” She gives him a quick hug. “Go off and strategize. It’s been lovely to see you.” She pauses. “A-Ying? There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you. We’ll need to catch up again before the end of the tournament.”

“Yeah, sure. We can – yeah.”

She pats him on the cheek, laughing gently. “I’ll see you soon.”

 

***

 

After a while, he does manage to drag his mind away from Lan Zhan and focus on his upcoming match. He has to beat Nie Mingjue. He has to do what Lan Zhan just failed at. It should be an intimidating prospect, but he can’t help grinning to himself. He came into this tournament with a lot of new stuff up his sleeve, and a good third of it was designed with the express purpose of pissing off the defending champion enough to force a misstep. Now he has a valid excuse to use all his most obnoxious moves in the first five minutes of the match. He’s not sure what the result will be, and he’s going to have a whole lot of fun finding out.

He spends the rest of the afternoon keeping track of his potential semi-final opponents from the other solo round-robin group. Wen Xu loses to Lan Xichen, and since he also lost to Jin Meilin the previous day he’s almost certainly out of the competition. Wei Ying is very glad to be spared the prospect of ending up in an arena with him, not least because poor Wen Ning might have had to encounter him in the waiting areas. Yu Zhong picks up a second win, so even with one more day to go Wei Ying would put money on her and Lan Xichen being the two to advance.

That means there’s a good chance of Lan Zhan and Lan Xichen facing off in the semi-finals. Wei Ying sniggers cheerfully about that on the way back to the hotel. He finds it darkly hilarious how much all the commentators dread a Lan-Lan matchup.

When he gets up to his floor, every trace of amusement dies. There’s a man at the door of Wen Qing’s room.

He’s big, almost as wide as the doorway, dressed in the kind of simple black suit that says hired muscle. Wen Qing must be there too, Wei Ying can hear her voice, but he can’t see her tiny form behind the hulking figure.

“My answer hasn’t changed,” she tells him. “It will never change. Leave. Now.”

The man doesn’t say anything in response, just bows, and Wei Ying recognises him from that before he even turns around. There’s something about the gesture, the level of polite respect from someone who is clearly there to be threatening. A pleasant, mild-mannered man who, according to gossips at Qishan, would calmly cut off a person’s fingers one by one if WenCorp told him to.

“Then I will say goodbye for now,” he says. “I will pass on the message.” He turns, and sees Wei Ying, and his face registers mild interest before he gives a nod of acknowledgement.

“Wen Zhuliu,” says Wei Ying. His voice comes out so quiet and vicious that he hardly recognises it as his own. “Tell your masters that if they send you here again they won’t be getting you back in one piece.”

Wen Zhuliu’s mouth quirks, as though he’s too jaded to be really amused. “I will pass on the message,” he repeats, and walks past Wei Ying towards the elevator.

Wei Ying’s fingers close over his non-existent sword hilt. Suibian is safely in storage at the cultivation complex, and it feels like he’s missing a limb. He might be able to take Wen Zhuliu in a fight, even unarmed – he never goes anywhere without a pocketful of talismans –but there’s no point in shooting the messenger. The only way there’ll be violence here tonight is if he starts it, and he’s not quite that stupid.

When the elevator doors have closed, he hurries forward to Wen Qing. She’s pale, dark eyes wide and lips pressed tight. One door along, Wen Ning timidly emerges from the room he and Wei Ying are sharing.

“What did he want?” says Wei Ying.

Wen Qing gives her head a little shake, and pulls Wen Ning to her for a quick hug. “The same as always,” she says.

Wei Ying smiles, as light and carefree as he can manage. “Ah, don’t they ever get tired of it?” he says. “Well, I guess we keep on going the same as always too. I’ve got a whole bunch of new ideas for curses for the house. I think I can actually figure out a way to turn uninvited guests into frogs.” He’s guiding her and Wen Ning inside as he says it, getting them settled on the edge of the bed and flicking on the little in-room kettle to make some terrible tea. “Forget it! We’ve got a competition to think about and I need the two of you to help me brainstorm strategies for tomorrow.”

It’s probably not very convincing. Neither of them complain; Wen Ning because he never complains about anything, and Wen Qing because she never talks about the heavy stuff in front of her brother if she can help it. So they talk about the match, and they get dinner, and Wen Ning goes off to bed, and only then does Wen Qing turn to him and say, “I have a favour to ask.”

“What is it?” says Wei Ying. He’s had a couple of cups of wine, but not enough that he doesn’t instantly tense at her tone.

“If I…” She takes a deep breath. “If I go back, would you take care of A-Ning for me?”

“No,” says Wei Ying instantly. “Because you’re not going back. Are you crazy?”

“I sometimes wonder if I am,” she says. “Listen – they’re never going to stop asking. And if I rejoin WenCorp, at least I’ll know what they’re doing with my techniques. If it’s not something I can stomach, I’ll be in a position to gather evidence. I could be the person who exposes their cultivation practices. I could do something, instead of cowering in Yiling and waiting for the day they hurt A-Ning to force me back.”

“But—”

“You don’t need me anymore,” she says. “I could justify this to myself when you needed a qualified supervisor, but now you’re a cultivator in your own right. You’re caught in the middle of a fight that has nothing to do with you and you don’t even get anything out of it.”

“I’m hurt!” Wei Ying wrinkles up his nose and pouts. “What do you mean, nothing to do with me? The Wens are after me too, you know. I’ve pissed Wen Chao off plenty all on my own. So rude of you, taking all the credit! So arrogant!”

“Wei Ying.”

“Ah, ah, ah – don’t try to argue. You know he hates me, I’m very annoying. And do you think you can just leave your baby brother in my lap? That delinquent? I can’t handle him all on my own. He’s nothing but trouble, and he’s your responsibility. No, you have to stay.”

She’s laughing, just a little, though she looks like she wants to cry. “I can’t let you keep doing this for us,” she says. “You’re not a bodyguard, it’s not your job to protect us.”

“Hey.” He grabs her hand and lets his voice go serious. “I like our life. And I’m not letting any threats from WenCorp take it away from me. Okay?”

She doesn’t seem convinced, but neither does it seem likely she’s going to run back off to the WenCorp cultivation research labs in the middle of the night. Wei Ying says goodnight, and hopes she doesn’t notice the extra protections he puts up around her door before he slips back into his own room.

 

***

 

Competitive Cultivation Grand Final
Solo event
Round-robin matches day 3

He starts the day buzzing with energy.

He’s looking forward to this match. His bout with Lan Zhan was frustrating, and the one against Qin Su wasn’t challenging enough to be really enjoyable. Nie Mingjue is all raw power, he outclasses Wei Ying so thoroughly it’s almost embarrassing, which makes fighting him the best kind of lateral thinking puzzle. Wei Ying loves coming at a problem from unexpected angles, and he’s bursting with ideas, plans and possibilities.

After changing into his jumpsuit he counts out his ten pre-drawn talismans, tucking them each into the appropriate pocket, making sure to memorise what he’s put where. He can’t rely on muscle memory because none of them are his usual suspects. No fire or ice, no transportation, no shields or complex illusions. Instead, they’re all his own inventions – some of them brand new, never-before-seen.

The nullification talisman is an older one, something he came up with a few years back. He’s never quite got it to work right, because it doesn’t just negate an opponent’s talisman or spiritual energy – it wipes out his own efforts too. Suibian becomes just a piece of metal until he feeds energy back into the blade, Chenqing’s effects dissipate, any characters he’s traced on the ground are gone. If he’s going into a match against someone known for building up really intense spellwork he sometimes preps one, because used at the right moment they can turn a bad situation into a neutral one. Mostly he doesn’t bother. Why waste one of his talisman allowance on something that’s mostly unhelpful?

Today, he has six of them. Because he’s an asshole.

Once he’s all set, he exits the changing rooms, collects his tiny entourage, and makes his way into the waiting area. He’s not late, but he’s certainly not early. Lanling-yellow officials are bustling around for their last-minute checks, and the hum of an excited crowd is echoing down the tunnel. Over by the Nie contingent, both of the Lan brothers stand out in their pale Gusu colours like doves among a flock of jackdaws. Lan Xichen is chatting with Nie Mingjue with the air of someone wishing a friend good luck – an impressive display of buddy-buddy body language, since Wei Ying has heard plenty of whispering among the cultivation inner circle that suggests that those two are an item. If they are, they’re keeping it quiet enough that none of the gossip columns have picked up on it. Lan Zhan is hanging back a way, patiently indifferent to the world around him.

Wei Ying swallows. He doesn’t know how to handle Lan Zhan right now. And yet, he can’t resist sidling over.

“Lan Zhan!” he calls, and feels something tight and hot clench inside him when Lan Zhan’s head jerks around just a little faster than his dignity would usually allow. “Are you here to watch my match? …but wait, why am I asking? You make it your business to watch all of my matches.” He preens. “I never realised that you’re my biggest fan until now.”

Lan Zhan eyes him coolly, then pointedly looks away. “I am not,” he says.

Wei Ying grins wider, unable to stop himself. The words are flooding out, light and teasing, completely at odds with how wound-up he feels inside. “Let me think… what was it that you most admired about me? Ah, yes, my incredible ingenuity and perseverance. And you study me on a daily basis. I’m flattered, Lan Zhan, but really, that level of obsession is not healthy. Just get a poster for your wall like everyone else. I’ll even sign it for you!”

Lan Zhan is looking past his shoulder as though he’s barely paying attention. Wei Ying isn’t fooled. He knows those lowered eyebrows and pink-tinted ears. Lan Zhan is annoyed.

“And you know my cultivation better than you know your own. Shocking! To think that you would be so intimately acquainted with my slapdash, shoddy cultivation. I suppose it makes sense, when you’re so dedicated to beating me. I appreciate your dedication, I really do, but maybe next time don’t declare it on television. It’s a little embarrassing for you, don’t you think?” Unsurprisingly, he gets no answer. “Nothing to say? Ah, so free with your attention and so stingy with your words. Well, I have a match to prepare for. I’ll see you later, Lan Zhan. Enjoy analysing my methods!”

He’s barely taken three steps back towards Wen Qing and Wen Ning when he’s arrested by Lan Zhan’s low voice.

“Wei Ying.”

“Hm?” says Wei Ying, looking over his shoulder.

“You seem to remember my interview very well,” says Lan Zhan. His eyes flash. “How many times did you watch it?”

On that mic-drop of a question, he turns on his heel and walks off.

Wei Ying is left gaping. Behind him, Wen Qing is snorting with laughter. It’s nice to hear her laugh. Less nice that his cheeks are burning hot and he feels like he’s just revealed a lot more of himself than he’s comfortable with Lan Zhan seeing.

 

***

 

He activates his third nullification talisman five minutes into the match.

He can see the disbelief and confusion on Nie Mingjue’s face as their blades clash together without a whisper of spiritual energy behind the strikes. He sees the whites of the man’s eyes as the irritation builds. He sees two thoughts pass across Nie Mingjue’s face in quick succession. First: At least he can’t have any more of the damn things. And immediately after: He does, doesn’t he? The little fucker.

They keep fighting, an exchange of blows that begin to sizzle as Baxia’s power builds again. Wei Ying is thoroughly on the defensive, since he can’t recharge his own sword nearly as fast, but he’s doing better than he has any right to be. Whenever he reaches a hand towards his pocket Nie Mingjue twitches, strikes too hard, steps too far with the desire to get in a hit before the spiritual energy nullifies again.

When Wei Ying actually reaches into the pocket, the talisman he uses is something quite different. As the yellow paper burns, a grey-green seething mass erupts from the floor, like a pile of seaweed brought to life, reaching out its fronds. It looks like an illusion, but the flimsy tentacles are quite real. They swarm to pluck at Nie Mingjue’s clothes, to tweak his hair and make weak, ineffectual attempts at holding back his limbs. For a few seconds Nie Mingjue hacks at them wildly, before collecting himself enough to blast them into oblivion with a fire talisman.

He didn’t need to. They’d have done him no harm at all.

He’s glaring daggers as he activates another talisman. Wei Ying doesn’t know what it is and doesn’t care, just burns another nullification and, immediately afterwards, activates blindness. The blindness talisman doesn’t work terribly well with his spiritual energy still reeling from being nullified. It doesn’t have to. He just needs the half-second of visceral panic before Nie Mingjue realises what’s happened and counters the effects. Wei Ying gets in one single blow with a totally depleted sword that scores him a bare handful of points. From the outright anger on Nie Mingjue’s face he achieved the result he wanted.

Next, he scrawls the characters for itching in the air.

It’s almost impossible to cause pain through a jumpsuit. An itch is different. Wei Ying can do that off-the-cuff.  The spell is such a minor irritation that most competitors wouldn’t even notice in the heat of a battle, but Nie Mingjue wastes time dispelling it with a pulse of spiritual energy. He’s practically growling with annoyance.

Wei Ying does it five more times.

By this point, the bout is almost entirely focused on swordplay. The sensible thing for Nie Mingjue to do would be to toss out more talismans of his own, not caring whether Wei Ying counters them or not – either they work, or it’s one less nullification talisman to deal with. Fortunately, Nie Mingjue is not a sensible man. Nie Mingjue is bubbling with rage, so unwilling to let Wei Ying shut down more of his moves that he refuses even to make them. They cross swords fiercely. Nie Mingjue is larger, stronger, and highly skilled, but he’s making stupid mistakes. Wei Ying scores a decent hit, then another, then nullifies everything again just as Nie Mingjue is halfway through drawing a pattern on the ground with his footwork. He’s too tense to find it at all amusing. He forces himself to laugh, and Nie Mingjue botches another parry as his hand trembles with fury.

At ten minutes in, Wei Ying hits the fifty point advantage. To get out ahead in points, he needs to win by eighty-three.

Slow and steady. Minute by minute. He can do it.

He’s horribly aware of the last seconds ticking down. All his talismans are burned and he has no attention to spare for cunning plans. He’s just focused on keeping control, pressing the advantage, scoring point after point after – there.

He can’t see the scoreboard, but he’s been counting in his head and he thinks… he thinks…

The time bell goes off. Wei Ying spins around.

 

Nie :: 205 – 290 :: Wei
Time: 00.15.00

 

He smiles, beams. It worked. It worked, he beat the defending champion. And holy shit, he’s won two of his round-robin matches. That means he’s netted the minimum prize money that he, Wen Qing and Wen Ning need to get into a solid financial situation for the coming year. It’s a gigantic weight off his shoulders, a lightness of the soul that makes him want to cry.

“Good match,” he manages, and holds out a hand.

Nie Mingjue takes it, looking ready to crush his own teeth with how hard his jaw is clenched. He’s breathing hard, nostrils flared. As they shake, energy flushes through Wei Ying’s protection talisman, absorbing the brunt of the iron grip. Wei Ying isn’t too worried. While Nie Mingjue has a temper, he’s a genuinely good guy when he’s not in a murderous rage. He’ll get over it.

 

***

 

Jiang Yanli texts while Wei Ying is killing time in the equipment room, polishing and sharpening Suibian. Five minutes later she comes to meet him, poking her head through the door with a beaming smile.  “A-Ying!” she says, “You’re through to the semis, congratulations!”

He wraps his arms around her for a quick hug. “The commentators are calling it a fiasco,” he says with a hint of pride. “Possibly also a disgrace. Certainly shameless.”

“It was brilliant strategy,” she says. “A-Ying is very clever.” She picks up Suibian, tests the blade and then starts to smooth it over the whetstone he has laid out.

He laughs. “A-Ying is a big boy who can sharpen his own sword, you know.”

“I know. I taught him how.” She’s quiet for a moment. The room is filled with the gentle shush of metal against stone. “A-Ying, can I ask you something?”

“Is it dating advice? Jin Zixuan is not cute and he doesn’t deserve you.”

“It’s not about dating. It’s about Qishan.”

Wei Ying goes cold all over.

She sets the sword aside, turning to face him. Her eyes are serious.  “When you quit the Qishan School,” she says, “you told me it was because you were sick of cultivation schools and being weighed down with other people’s antiquated ideas. But I wondered if there was more to it.” She presses her lips together worriedly. “There’s beginning to be talk about the cultivation methods at WenCorp. Rumours about what goes on in the labs. People say that the training methods at the Qishan school are questionable too. Cruel.”

“It’s not a day-care, sure,” says Wei Ying, too flippantly.

The worry in her face increases. “A-Ying—”

“Are you worried about me?” he says, giving her a grin. “It was fine. Jiejie, you know I’m always fine. And it was a long time ago. What does it matter?”

“I…” she gives him a long look, and sighs. “Mother and the other Council members are looking for people who have inside information about Qishan.”

“You want me to talk to the Cultivation Council about my time there?” Wei Ying laughs, or at least makes a choked sound that he intends to be a laugh. “Sure, I’ll sit down for a nice chat with your mother and Jin Guangshan and Lan Qiren. Sounds like a blast.”

“Or you could sit down with me,” she says. “And A-Xuan and Lan Xichen. Or even Nie Mingjue, once he cools down a bit.”

“I don’t have anything to say.” He tries for another smile, softening the bluntness. “How about I ask Wen Qing? She worked for WenCorp. If anyone can help you, it’s her, not me.”

He doesn’t let her ask any more questions. He makes his excuse, locks his sword away with his jumpsuit and goes to find a seat for Lan Zhan’s match against Qin Su. A lot is riding on the final game of the group. He and Nie Mingjue are so close in points that Lan Zhan can either beat them both and take first place, or lose to them both and not go through to the semis at all. Almost as soon as the match starts, it’s clear it’ll be the former. Lan Zhan thoroughly destroys Qin Su. Wei Ying watches the points tick up and up on the scoreboard, wishing there was some kind of actual tension to act as a distraction.

His mind is fixated on this new problem. If someone with power and influence is ready to step up and do something about WenCorp, that’s good. But he can’t quite bring himself to believe it. The cultivation council protects its own. Maybe Jin Guangshan and Wen Ruohan are squabbling at the moment, and this so-called investigation is some kind of power play that will vanish once the squabble is over. Maybe Lan Qiren’s excessively rigid morality has been offended and he’s looking for a way to deliver a minor warning – not something that’ll have any real effect or provide any protection for people who speak out.

Telling Wen Qing about it might be a bad idea.

The time bell blares, and Wei Ying nearly jumps out of his skin. He focuses properly on the scoreboard for the first time in ten minutes, and sees that Lan Zhan won by well over a hundred points. Down in the arena the combatants are shaking hands while the crowd cheers with a level of enthusiasm that suggests he just missed some pretty impressive displays of skill. He makes a mental note to find the match online and watch it later, actually paying attention. On the off-chance that he wins his semi, he might be seeing Lan Zhan again in the final.

 

***

 

He doesn’t like to talk about his time in Qishan. Not even with Wen Ning and Wen Qing, who saw it first-hand. The worst thing about it is that it was his own fault. He asked to go. He chose to stay. Nobody made him.

After the Gusu summer camp, where he had proved that he could keep up with the standard of the class even if neither Lan Zhan nor any of the instructors approved of the way he went about it, Jiang Fengmian pulled some strings on his ward’s behalf. Possibly Madam Yu pulled some too, just to make sure she really got rid of him. Either way, Wei Ying was shipped off to the cultivation school in Qinghe, where he could train with his not-really hero Nie Mingjue. Qinghe competitive cultivation was about as far from the Yunmeng style as it was possible to get. That was only to be expected – the real world applications were completely different too, which was why JiangCorp’s business was focused on agriculture while NieCorp’s work fed into the military. Wei Ying tried his best, but the brute force methods of the Qinghe School were incomprehensible to him. So, after a year making no progress on anything except the bits and pieces of artistic cultivation he picked up from Nie Huaisang, he begged another favour.

The cultivation in Qishan was darker, weirder. It suited him. He liked it so much that he could almost pretend to himself that it made up for the rest.

WenCorp was run by Wen Ruohan, famously a cutthroat businessman who’d do anything for profit and power. Qishan’s cultivation school was the domain of his sons, and they both used it as an outlet for their considerable sadism. In his former existence, Wei Ying would have put up with it for all of five minutes before he told them to go fuck themselves and walked out. That Wei Ying had been the confident, capable, knows-better-than-anyone star of Yunmeng cultivation. The Wei Ying who was trying to rebuild his qi control from the ground up couldn’t be so impulsive. He needed to learn, so he told himself he could handle a bit of abuse along the way. After all, he’d grown up with Madam Yu.

I can handle it. It became a matter of pride, a promise to himself that he wouldn’t shut up and he wouldn’t quit, no matter what they did. Even after they started leaving worse marks than training bruises. Even after he stopped being able to sleep.

Then, after six miserable months, he met Wen Ning. An absolute sweetie, just turned fifteen, joining the older cultivation students for the first time. It quickly became clear that, if Wei Ying was Wen Chao’s personal punching bag, Wen Ning was the same to Wen Xu – only Wei Ying fought back, and Wen Ning couldn’t. There was a hazing trick Wen Xu liked to play, with a lighter and a can of gasoline, and Wei Ying had looked at Wen Ning’s face and realised that, nope, the whole thing was totally fucked up, nobody should have to handle it. Not Wen Ning, and not himself either.

He decided that he was getting out and he was taking the kid with him.

The problem was, he had nowhere to go. Wen Chao was vindictive and the Qishan School had a lot of influence. It would only take a word to ensure none of the smaller cultivation schools would touch him with a ten foot pole. Of the larger schools… well, he’d punched the heir to JinCorp in the face, Lan Qiren would probably qi-blast him down the Gusu mountains on sight, Qinghe technique was no good to him, and he couldn’t put himself back under Madam Yu’s thumb and tear the Jiang family apart with divided loyalties. It was Qishan or nothing.

He was trapped, and he was furious, and he was coming closer every day to doing something really stupid. He probably would have, too, if Wen Ning hadn’t come up to him one day and shyly said, “My Jiejie wants to meet you.”

 

***

 

Competitive Cultivation Grand Final
Solo event
Semi-finals

The first solo cultivation semi-final is scheduled for late morning – the winner of Wei Ying’s group versus the runner up of the other. Wei Ying gets himself a good seat without any trouble. The stands are full, but the competitors’ box has plenty of empty spaces. They’ve all seen this particular shit-show before.

Watching Lan Zhan face off against Lan Xichen is like watching two glorious mythical beings locked in an eternal, perfect dance. Eternal is the operative word, because after the first five minutes it gets somewhat repetitive, and by half an hour in everyone in the arena is bored stiff, the Lan brothers included.

They’re so well matched. They fight in the same style. They know each other’s moves inside and out, can counter and neutralise instead of taking a hit. The points creep up by one, two, five at a time. Neither of them has the upper hand and neither of them gets anywhere near the fifty-point advantage. After an hour, Wei Ying taps out and goes to get some food. Twenty minutes later, once he’s finished eating, he discovers that they’re still going. All the semi-finals are held on the main arena to be televised with all the bells and whistles, so it looks like his own start time is going to be pushed back.

Wei Ying sighs to himself, finds a quiet corner and starts working on his talisman designs.

He gets a little more engrossed than he intends to. Halfway through a mental wrangle with a tricky combination of characters, he’s tugged back to reality by the shrill of his phone.

“Where are you?” says Wen Qing. “We’re in the waiting area.”

“Uh?” says Wei Ying. He checks the time and winces. “Oh. I’ll… be right there!”

He has no idea when the match is due to start. It should have started two hours ago, and since Wen Qing is only calling him now he can’t be all that late. Anyway, it’s not like they can start without him. He scrambles up, stuffing talisman paper into his pocket, and hightails it back to the main arena. When he walks into the changing rooms he’s confronted by the amazing sight of both Lan brothers flopped on the benches, still in their jumpsuits, their postures shameful according to all Gusu precepts. Neither of them is showing any inclination to change clothes, shower or even move so much as a finger.

“Hi, Lans!” says Wei Ying, beaming at them.

Lan Xichen barely raises his head.  “Wei Ying,” he says. “Don’t mind us. We’re dead.”

On the neighbouring bench, Lan Zhan opens his eyes and gives Wei Ying a baleful glare. “No talking,” he says. Without looking, he gropes around until his hand encounters a towel, which he pulls up to drape over his face like a two-year-old playing hide and seek who thinks if they can’t see you it makes them invisible.

Nobody has ever called Lan Zhan cute, but right now there’s something about his petulant pose that’s incredibly endearing. Wei Ying manfully resists the urge to go over and poke at him. The state Lan Zhan is in he’d probably bite. “Who won?” he asks. “I didn’t check, I had to stop watching for the sake of my sanity. I was so bored! They’ll need to change the rules if you two don’t start cutting down your matches to a reasonable length. It’s terrible for scheduling.”

“I would support a rule change,” says Lan Xichen. He sounds pitiful.

From under his towel, Lan Zhan mutters, “I won.” There’s a pause. Then: “…I think.”

“Yes. You did.” Lan Xichen blinks owlishly at Wei Ying. “Isn’t it time for your semi-final now?”

“Two hours late,” says Wei Ying. “So inconsiderate! And you.” He wags a finger at Lan Xichen. “You couldn’t have done me a favour and beaten your sweet little didi? I’d have had a chance against you in the final!”

“Ge,” says Lan Zhan, “make him go away.”

“I would have to move,” says Lan Xichen.

“This is the best thing I’ve ever seen,” says Wei Ying. He gives himself another minute to take in the picture, because Lan Zhan is tilting slowly sideways as though he’s actually fallen asleep under his towel. Then, regretfully, he turns away from them both to get his jumpsuit out of his locker.

 

***

 

Wei Ying is irrationally intimidated by Yu Zhong. She’s some kind of cousin of Madam Yu’s, and the family resemblance is enough that he always feels like a misbehaving schoolboy when he’s around her. It doesn’t help that her spiritual weapon is a whip very similar to Zidian. Madam Yu never actually hit him with it when he was a child, but she came close enough that the gunshot sound of it still crops up in his nightmares.

Yu Zhong doesn’t have the raw power of Nie Mingjue or the precision and balance of Lan Zhan. The cultivator she most resembles is Wei Ying himself. She’s lethally fast and clever, and she can adapt to his invented techniques almost quicker than he can create them. Most of his usual advantages don’t work on her. So he falls back on being really fucking creepy.

Nobody likes having their own qi manipulated, their talismans hijacked and turned on them. Nobody likes lashing out with a pure flash of spiritual energy and seeing it metamorphose into dark, coiling smoke. Wei Ying admits it’s pretty fucked up. He’s watched his own matches, seen himself at the centre of a storm, the haunting notes of Chenqing floating across the arena, his eyes flashing red. He looks demonic. But according to the rules, it’s a valid form of cultivation. Other people do it too – just at a lower intensity by a couple of orders of magnitude.

Even he doesn’t usually go this far.

He thinks, as his fingers move on the flute, that it must look like an epic battle between good and evil, the plucky heroine with her sword and talismans against the dark lord with an army of the dead at his command. Fortunately there’s not a whiff of actual spirits within the arena – Lanling must have a decent mortuary cultivation service of its own – so Wei Ying isn’t controlling anything except his own energy and whatever he can steal from Yu Zhong.

The tactic serves him well for a while, keeping him ahead on points and – incidentally – keeping the crowd thoroughly entertained, something to make up for the three hour snooze-fest that came before. With twenty-two minutes on the clock, Wei Ying is feeling the strain. He’s barely thirty points ahead and he’s not quite sure whether what he’s seeing on the edges of his vision are energy tendrils or dancing grey spots of exhaustion.

He knows it can’t last, so all he can do is bank on the fact that she doesn’t realise how tired he is. She thinks he’s just going to keep doing what he’s doing. She doesn’t expect the complete U-turn in strategy. He releases his hold on her energy so abruptly that she staggers, overcompensates, and isn’t able to fully block when he bounces out of his dissipating cloud of smoke and drives Suibian towards her heart.

The hit isn’t enough. He’s still a handful of points short. He’s exhausted and her counterattack is instantaneous. He’s on the defensive, backing up towards the wall of the arena, and she’s going to start scoring big any moment. If he loses his lead, he’s not getting it back.

It’ll be her versus Lan Zhan in the final. Wei Ying finds he’s really not okay with that.

One last, crazy chance. He dives sideways, abandoning his sword, and he’s on the ground, sprawled on an elbow, Chenqing held one-handed at his lips making a sound more squeal than note. The last few strands of fading energy coalesce and strike out just as her sword comes down to meet him.

The points bell blares.

Wei Ying flops onto his back. He’s gasping for breath, and yeah, those spots on his vision are definitely a sign that he’s going to pass out if he sits up too quickly. In contrast, she looks fresh as a daisy and waspishly furious. She leans down and offers him her hand in a move he’s fairly sure is less about helping him and more about getting him to his feet so she can watch him fall on his face. Bad luck for her. Right now he doesn’t care about appearances and he’s going to lie on the nice friendly floorboards until he’s good and ready. He holds up a finger and croaks, “One minute.”

She snorts. “Don’t die on television. You’ll traumatise the children.” She sounds like her anger is fading. Her voice is wry, actually kind of funny, and he manages to remind himself that, really, she isn’t anything like Madam Yu. The few times he’s encountered her this season she’s always been friendly and sportsmanlike. “Come on,” she says. “Deep breath and on your feet. I need to go drown my sorrows.”

This time he takes the hand held out to him. She hauls him upright and he manages to stay that way through the handshake and the bows.

“Sorry,” he tells her as they walk back to the tunnel. “I had to end it fast. You’d have cut me to ribbons in another minute.”

She shrugs. “I can’t fault you for playing the game. But I’ll know better how to judge your stamina for next time.” She tilts her head at him. “Lan Zhan has the right of it. You’re worth watching closely. It’ll be fun to see him wipe the floor with you again tomorrow.”

 

***

 

“Some people say that your wins are trickery, rather than skill,” says the interviewer – this one a dapper man with greying hair whose name Wei Ying should probably know. “How would you respond to that?”

Wei Ying is still seeing faint spots in front of his eyes and he’s only marginally confident that he’ll be able to get through the rest of this interview without bursting into tears, but he manages a grin. “I’d respond by showing them the scoreboard,” he says, then gives the man a moment to almost respond before raising a finger to cut him off. “Ah, no, I know what you mean. I’ve read the articles. But as my good friend Lan Zhan says, I rely on ingenuity and perseverance in my matches rather than perfect technique. It’s something I’m proud of. If that counts as trickery, feel free to call me a trickster.”

“You and Lan Zhan will be facing off in the final. Do you have something special up your sleeve for him?”

Wei Ying taps his nose. “No spoilers! You know he watches all my matches. He probably watches all my interviews too.”

He hasn’t got anything up his sleeve. He honestly wasn’t expecting to get this far. And this match really took it out of him. He’s going to have absolutely no juice to use energy manipulation techniques tomorrow – but that’s fine, because if he tried the same trick on Lan Zhan the little dark tendrils would patter against his rock-solid Gusu qi control with as much effect as rain hitting a mountainside.

“It’s true that earlier in the competition Lan Zhan stated he watches all available footage of you in action. Did that admission surprise you?”

“Lan Zhan is a consummate professional,” says Wei Ying. “It’s absolutely no surprise that his research into his competitors is as exceptional as the rest of his cultivation.”

The interview lasts a few more minutes that feel like forever. Afterwards, Wei Ying throws out some cheerful answers to a gaggle of less illustrious reporters and finally makes his escape.

Back at the hotel, Wen Ning demands that he take a nap, and actually tucks him into bed because he’s the most precious little creature in all of creation. Two hours later, Wei Ying wakes to an empty room and a rumbling stomach, and heads down to the bar in search of snacks.

In the lobby outside the bar, he runs into Wen Chao.

 

***

 

Wei Ying doesn’t like dogs. He particularly doesn’t like when their owners let them run around loose to jump up at poor unsuspecting people with their claws scrabbling and their teeth snapping. But it’s not like he flees in terror when a puppy on a leash passes him in the street. He can cope with them, so long as they keep their distance. They’re just animals. Most of them, anyway.

This dog, though – this dog is a vicious, bloodthirsty demon.

It wasn’t a surprise to see Wen Chao and his pack of goons. Pretty much all of the competitors are staying in the same hotel, awkward encounters are an inevitable part of the event. And it wasn’t a surprise that the usual insults devolved into not-so-veiled threats, about disrespect and being taught a lesson and, “Don’t think we’ll let you get away with this much longer.”

But it was a surprise when Wen Chao glanced back over his shoulder and smiled a smile of pure nastiness, and when a sharp, familiar bark rang out across the hotel lobby.

Wei Ying’s memory is a little fuzzy in the immediate aftermath of that. Now he’s stuck in one of his own nightmares. He’s backed against the wall at the end of a corridor of closed, locked doors and the door to the stairwell is opening onto mocking laughter and the skittering of claws and that damn barking…

One of the doors opens. A tall, pale figure peers out, looking towards the source of the noise, and Wei Ying doesn’t think, just dives forward towards the sliver of sanctuary that is this stranger’s room.

“Wei Ying,” a voice says.

And then he’s being pushed behind Lan Zhan, into the room, into safety. He scrambles over to the far side as the door closes, panting and shaking, his heartbeat so loud in his ears that he can’t hear what’s going on outside. There are voices, but whose and what they’re saying he doesn’t understand. He just gasps for breath and stares at the closed door, frozen.

It takes long minutes before he can unclench his muscles enough to move and unclench his brain enough to realise that he’s alone in Lan Zhan’s fancy hotel suite. It’s truly bizarre. He shouldn’t be here without Lan Zhan. Where is Lan Zhan? There’s no way in hell he’s opening that door to find out, not when Wen Chao’s demon dog might be on the other side. Silence reigns now, no barking or voices. That doesn’t mean anything. The fucking thing might be waiting.

He circles the room nervously, brushing his fingers over the back of the couch, the little dining table, an armchair, letting the sensation of each different surface under his fingers ground him. He even reaches out towards the silk-covered object on the coffee table before his mind catches up with itself and he jerks his fingers back. It must be Wangji under there. Not for him to touch.

His feet carry him to the bar area. It doesn’t seem right to open the fridge in search of alcohol, but there’s a little electric kettle and a selection of teas, just like in his own room, and beside them a beautiful enamel caddy. He boils the kettle, because he has to do something, needs something, and goes through the familiar ritual of preparing a pot of tea. The stuff in the caddy is the fancy Cloud Recesses aged white tea. The teapot is definitely not hotel issue. Wei Ying shouldn’t be touching it any more than he should touch Lan Zhan’s guqin. But he does, and then almost drops it when the door opens behind him.

“Wei Ying?”

“Ah, Lan Zhan!” says Wei Ying. “You scared me.” And then he gives a high, shocked laugh, because it’s ridiculous, compared to the blind panic of earlier, to say that Lan Zhan scared him.

Lan Zhan comes forwards in cautious steps, like he doesn’t want to be intimidating. Which is also ridiculous, because he’s as un-intimidating as Wei Ying has ever seen him. The Lan Zhan he knows wears a suit, or a jumpsuit, or occasionally formal robes. This Lan Zhan is soft-edged in a slouchy knit sweater worn over what seem to be yoga pants. He looks barely older than the teenager he’d been when they met.

“I spoke to the hotel manager,” says Lan Zhan. He takes the teapot out of Wei Ying’s shaking hands. “The animal has been removed from the premises.”

Wei Ying’s knees want to buckle. He presses a hand to his chest, sucks in a breath, swallows hard. “Thanks,” he says. “Thank you. Fuck.” As the panic and tension begin to dissolve he’s suddenly crushingly embarrassed. “Sorry I came barging in here, I just – I don’t like dogs.”

“Mm.”

There’s a respectful tap at the door. Wei Ying flinches again. Lan Zhan shows no sign of surprise. He goes to answer it, murmurs a thank you to the person there, and turns back to Wei Ying holding a tray. On it is a jar of wine and a single cup.

Wei Ying gapes at him.

“In case you want something stronger than tea.”

“Oh my god, yes please.”

It feels like he’s dreaming. Maybe he passed out from fear, because that’s the only logical explanation for what’s happening. They sit, facing one another across the guqin on the coffee table. Lan Zhan pours the wine, and then pours again when Wei Ying downs the first cup in one swallow.

“You got the good stuff.”

Lan Zhan makes a small noise of acknowledgement.

Warmth from the alcohol spreads out from Wei Ying’s stomach in a slow wave. He sinks into the couch cushions, sipping on his second cup. “Ah, Lan Zhan. You’re trying to get me drunk to get my secrets out of me?” he says. “Or are you hoping that a hangover will put me off my game tomorrow?”

“No need,” says Lan Zhan.

Wei Ying blinks, taken aback, and then finds himself smiling. “Yeah, probably not,” he admits. He’s feeling caught at a weird place between loose and wired, like his body is liquid but his heart at the centre of it is thumping hummingbird-fast. He keeps expecting Lan Zhan to ask awkward questions, but Lan Zhan doesn’t say a word. At a loss, Wei Ying does what he does best – he fills the silence. His shoulders relax little by little as he chatters on to Lan Zhan about the competition, about the other events, about his siblings, about their respective semi-finals.

“I wasn’t kidding,” he says, waving a finger in the air as Lan Zhan pours him another cup of wine. He’s been pontificating for a while now, and Lan Zhan has done an impressive job of looking like he’s actually listening, like Wei Ying’s rambling opinions are worthy of attention, even throwing in a comment here and there. “If you and your brother don’t figure yourselves out they’re going to have to introduce a time limit for matches.”

“It’s not a problem,” says Lan Zhan.  “Ge will not be competing next year.”

“What?” says Wei Ying, jerking upright from his sprawl. “Why not? He can’t retire, he’s only – what, twenty-four? That’s crazy.”

“Not retiring. Switching to the pair event.”

Wei Ying settles back into the cushions, releasing his breath. “Ohhh.” He frowns. “Okay, I know you Gusu cultivators are all supposed to be able to do both, but that seems a little unfair. He was here first. Why don’t you switch?”

“It is only partially to avoid competing against one another.” Lan Zhan’s ears flush slightly pink. “He wants to team up with his boyfriend.”

Wei Ying gives a shout of laughter. “Seriously? That’s too good. Wait, hang on, isn’t he dating Nie Mingjue?”

Lan Zhan clears his throat. “Uh… his other boyfriend,” he says, ears turning even pinker.

“Holy shit,” Wei Ying whispers to himself. He bounces in his seat. “Lan Zhan, tell me everything! Who is it? How long have they been together? Is it a three-way thing, or does he just date both of them?”

“Gossip is forbidden,” says Lan Zhan primly.

“What? Noo, you have to tell me. Lan Zhan! Don’t do this to me.”

Lan Zhan’s mouth twitches.

“You’re enjoying this!” says Wei Ying, delighted by the realisation. “You asshole! You’re torturing me. Lan Zhan, I never imagined this kind of behaviour from you. I’m shocked! Appalled!” He taps his nose thoughtfully for a moment, then declares, “Who needs you anyway? I’m texting Nie Huaisang.”

“You are welcome to.”

He does just that, and jiggles his leg as he waits for a reply. It comes quickly.

NHS: I don’t discuss Da-ge’s personal life on pain of dismemberment.

Wei Ying gives a small screech of frustration.

He meets Lan Zhan’s eyes, and sees the laughter in them and feels an answering smile stretch his own face. Wow. Okay, this is fine. Lan Zhan saved him from a dog and ordered him wine and is looking at him with smiling eyes and it’s all extremely implausible and confusing.

“I have a bunch of messages asking me where I am,” he says ruefully. “I should go. I’ll see you – uh. Tomorrow.”

Tomorrow, when this weirdly soft, gentle Lan Zhan will transform back into the intense athlete, the haughty second son of the Lan family, and face him across an arena in the solo cultivation Grand Final.

 

 

Competitive Cultivation Grand Final
Solo event
Finals

“I don’t like this,” says Wen Qing.

“Yeah, me either,” says Wei Ying cheerfully. “Why couldn’t it have been Lan Xichen instead? How is this fair?”

“You know that’s not what I mean.” She glances around the waiting area as though there might be hidden WenCorp goons skulking among the groups of reporters.

“It was nothing. It was Wen Chao having some fun at my expense. It doesn’t mean anything. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be careful. Maybe with the cash I’ve made from this competition we should look into moving into a more secure apartment. But his threats aren’t serious. Wen Zhuliu, sure, but not Wen Chao.”

“Threats?” says Wen Qing. “You didn’t say he was making threats too. What kind of threats?”

“I don’t know. I wasn’t paying attention. There was a giant slavering monster trying to eat me. Look, can we forget this for now and focus on the competition? I’ve got five minutes for last minute strategizing before the match starts.”

Wen Qing gives him a flat look. “You’re going to lose,” she says.

“Wen Niiiing, your sister is being mean to me!”

Wen Ning comes over, wide eyed and conciliatory, and deftly separates them, taking Wei Ying off to one side and listening earnestly to all his thoughts on potential strategies for the match. Wei Ying talks at top speed, trying to force his mind to focus. It’s harder than it should be. If he’s honest, he is a little worried about WenCorp. The threat has always been lurking in the background, but it feels like things are ramping up. Like he and Wen Qing and Wen Ning have been living on borrowed time, and now Qishan has run out of patience. But whatever happens, he’s not letting Wen Qing go back to working in the WenCorp labs. They’re just going to have to make a new plan.

Later. Right now, he has a match to win.

“Okay,” he tells Wen Ning. “I’m going to wing it. Hey, if even I don’t know what I’m going to do, there’s no way he can, right?”

“Right,” says Wen Ning, with such earnest belief that Wei Ying is almost convinced himself.

Lan Zhan is waiting at the entrance to the tunnel. He is as he should be again, in his jumpsuit with his sword at his side, his gold-flecked eyes full of purpose. Gone is the knitwear-catalogue-cutie vibe from yesterday. He’s Hanguang-Jun, master-cultivator, once again. Wei Ying’s greatest challenge, the guy he’s been fighting to impress since that summer in Gusu so long ago.

As Wei Ying walks across to meet him, he doesn’t have a quip ready on the tip of his tongue. Instead, it’s an effort to find words to express what he wants to say. He comes to a standstill and pauses in silence for a moment.

“Wei Ying,” says Lan Zhan, a quiet acknowledgement.

Wei Ying smiles, feeling energy and excitement fizzing in his fingertips. “You know,” he says, “I’m glad it’s you. It feels right, us facing each other in our first final.”

Lan Zhan doesn’t answer. He turns towards the arena, and they fall into step, side by side, making their slow way down the tunnel.

“You’re… my opposite half,” says Wei Ying. “Like we’re connected. So it only makes sense that you’d be the one I have to fight.” Okay, he’s embarrassing himself, he’s making it sound like they’re – soulmates or something. He laughs awkwardly, trying to make light of it. “It feels right to me, anyhow. You’d probably prefer a serious opponent. Yu Zhong would have given you a clean fight, no tricks. But she’d probably have kicked your ass, no offense. She’s really good. I got lucky.”

“It wasn’t luck,” says Lan Zhan. “You were remarkable.”

Wei Ying’s brain seizes up for a moment. He has to take a couple of trotting steps to catch up. “Lan Zhan! Don’t say things like that, what will people think if they hear you? The great Hanguang-Jun of Gusu can’t approve of my cultivation. Your uncle will have a fit.”

Lan Zhan gives him an impatient look. “I am not my uncle, Wei Ying,” he says. And then, quiet but unmistakable, “I’m glad it’s you too.”

He moves on down the tunnel in long, easy strides. After a second of astonished gaping Wei Ying hurries after him, falls back into step as the roar of the crowd swells around them.

“Let’s do this,” he murmurs.

“It will be my honour,” says Lan Zhan. “To beat you,” he adds, and shoots Wei Ying a look so intense that his knees feel unsteady all the way through his bows to the officials and the crowd.

Let’s do this.

 

***

 

He’s faced Lan Zhan dozens of times before. It’s never been like this.

This time he’s not fighting an implacable enemy who always counters any move he makes and seems able to read his mind. He’s fighting someone who knows him intimately, who understands him and adapts to him. He’s fighting a friend. Just that little bit of insight makes all the difference. Suddenly it’s not a one-way connection. Each failed move is a tiny thrill, a clue to how Lan Zhan sees him. It’s a chance to see himself through someone else’s eyes. The fight is intense and charged like no match he’s ever known. He’s so focused he can’t hear the cheers of the onlookers. He’s not keeping track of the points.

“You shouldn’t have given that interview,” he pants, as they cross swords in the midst of a maelstrom of power from three conflicting talismans.

“You would have figured it out soon enough,” says Lan Zhan, so cool and impassive that they might still be facing each other across a coffee table.

Wei Ying isn’t sure that he would. Would it ever have occurred to him that Lan Zhan had been paying attention to that extent? That Lan Zhan had been watching him and analysing him and thinking about him? Or would he have just gone on assuming that Lan Zhan’s perfect, pure cultivation trumped his own botched-together mess of styles, that Lan Zhan would always simply be better.

It seems obvious in retrospect. Obvious, but unimaginable.

“Maybe,” he says. And then he grins, bright and fierce, and tosses out a talisman that explodes into a cloud of fluttering butterflies. He sees a flash of real surprise on Lan Zhan’s face, and laughs delightedly. “Pretty, huh?”

“Wei Ying,” growls Lan Zhan. This match is the culmination of the entire solo cultivation season, his eyes say. Don’t make moves just because they’re pretty.

Wei Ying spins, brings Suibian around in a beautiful feint, and cries out, “Attack-butterflies!” just as the glittering spiritual insects dive to sink their spiritual fangs into Lan Zhan’s exposed back.

He laughs aloud at Lan Zhan’s affronted face. It’s such a tangle, a crazy guessing game, trying to figure out what Lan Zhan is expecting, what Lan Zhan knows about him, which matches he’s seen and studied, what he’s taken away from them all. Even if it’s the most important match of the season, it’s playful in a way that cultivation hasn’t been since he was a kid in the Jiang household, messing around with Jiang Cheng, both of them too young to realise that the universe wanted them to be rivals.

He guesses right. And right again. He scores more and better hits than he’s ever managed against Lan Zhan. He’s not sure who’s winning, but when the time bell shrills it doesn’t surprise him that the match continues. They exchange a hail of blows, and Wei Ying catches a glimpse of the scoreboard in passing. They’re within a handful of points, but he’s ahead.

Then he guesses wrong.

He sends power flaring through a transportation talisman. As the paper flames and the world solidifies around him, he finds himself stepping out of nothingness straight into the path of Lan Zhan’s sword.

Wrong angle. No time to block. Lan Zhan isn’t where he’s supposed to be, he’s coming from one side, bringing Bichen down in a smooth arc that’s going to connect perfectly, slashing a lethal amount of damage into Wei Ying’s jumpsuit. Wei Ying has a flash of cold panic as his brain calculates the score. It can’t be enough to end the match, not a full fifty points in one hit, but it might… 

Then Lan Zhan wrenches his arm to the side. His blade hits the floor, embedding itself there, and he gasps, “Stop!”

Wei Ying almost launches himself into a counterstrike on pure instinct, because he can’t just stop, not in the final, not when it might be a trick, not when he has to win. But Lan Zhan is wild-eyed and horrified, his sword down and his body completely exposed, and he just pulled a blow that might have won him the match. Wei Ying falters, comes to a standstill and lowers his own sword.

“What?” he says. Around them, the cheers of the crowd have faded into a hum of confused voices as thousands of people ask each other what’s going on. “Lan Zhan?”

Lan Zhan doesn’t answer. Instead he releases Bichen’s hilt, takes two jerky steps forwards until they’re toe to toe, and pinches Wei Ying sharply on the wrist.

“Hey, ow!” protests Wei Ying. Then he freezes. Realisation washes over him. With an effort, he steadies his qi enough to reach out clumsily and test the protection charm on his suit. It’s – there’s not nothing there, but it’s insubstantial, ineffective, and at his touch it dissolves further.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan breathes.

Ice runs up and down Wei Ying’s spine. He manages a weak, “What the hell?” as he pokes at his suit and then glances over to where Bichen has been driven a good two inches into the floorboards.

“I felt it weaken,” says Lan Zhan. He looks awful. He’s chalk-pale and his mouth is slack with shock. He doesn’t look away from Wei Ying when a pair of officials bustle over to discover what’s happening. He just keeps staring.

“Thank fuck for perfect Lan qi balance,” says Wei Ying, swallowing hard. “You’d have cut me in half.” He turns to the officials and manages a smile that hopefully doesn’t look too ghastly. “Equipment failure. A problem with my protection talismans. I don’t know what the rules are. Do I forfeit?”

Lan Zhan jerks back to life at that. “No. Mutual withdrawal,” he says. “We need to find out how this happened.”

The officials nod their agreement. They’re tense, have been since Wei Ying said the words protection talisman. “Of course. Safety is our top priority,” one of them says. “We’ll announce it to the crowd. Then someone will need to take a look at that suit.”

Wei Ying winces. He knows what they’ll conclude. It won’t matter that he submitted his jumpsuit for the same tests and validations as everyone else at the start of the competition, or that he knows all the talismans are perfect, as good as or better than the professionally-constructed ones. It’s still a second-hand suit with homemade spellwork and no manufacturer’s guarantee. They’ll say it’s an unfortunate accident, wear and tear, and he’ll have no evidence to the contrary.

Fuck. Fuck. He knew that Qishan was going to try something, but he hadn’t imagined anything like this.

 

***

 

Two hours later, Wei Ying is sitting next to Wen Qing in a stuffy little room with three competition officials and a handful of Lans. He’s not really paying much attention. The discussion is dragging on and on, and as far as he can tell the key issues have already been decided. They’ll rerun the final. Wei Ying won’t be penalised for having a substandard jumpsuit – he can thank Lan Zhan for coolly pointing out that Lanling’s testing procedures missed the issue and nearly cost Wei Ying his life. And there will be further tests run on the defective jumpsuit, to fine-tune those procedures for the future.

It’s all moot, of course. There was nothing wrong with the suit talismans yesterday.

He’s shifting in his uncomfortable chair, bouncing his knee, seething with futile, helpless anger. He wants to drag Wen Chao in here, throw him down on the floor and hold Suibian to his lying scumbag throat until he whimpers out his guilt in front of everyone. It wouldn’t work. Wen Chao is cultivation royalty, the son of a Council member, and Wei Ying is a nobody with no proof, just wild, crazy accusations. He’d be laughed out of the room. He’d be disgraced, sued for slander, and banned from competition.

Oh, but he’s going to make Wen Chao pay somehow.

“Is that acceptable?” one of the officials says.

Wei Ying jolts back to awareness and shoots a panicked look at Wen Qing. Fortunately she’s been following the proceedings better than he has. She answers smoothly for him, accepting the terms, calm as you please.

“As for timings, ideally we’d like to reschedule the final for tomorrow rather than extend the competition,” says the official. “Will you be able to source another jumpsuit within the timeframe?”

Wei Ying and Wen Qing exchange looks. It’s not like they have a spare. A professional-quality cultivation jumpsuit is expensive.

“Ge?” says Lan Zhan.

“Of course,” says Lan Xichen. “Wei Ying, I’d be honoured to lend you my suit.”

“Well he’s not taking it,” snaps another voice.

Wei Ying whips his head round, startled. “A-Cheng?”

Jiang Cheng is standing in the doorway, holding a neatly folded bundle of purple fabric. “You’re not competing in Gusu colours,” he says. “You can wear mine.” He strides forwards and tosses the bundle down onto the table in front of Wei Ying.

“Are you sure?” Wei Ying gathers the smooth, sleek fabric into his hands, holding on tighter than he needs to.

“Of course I’m sure. I said so, didn’t I?”

“Your mother won’t like it.”

“Who cares?” snaps Jiang Cheng.

You always did, Wei Ying wants to say. And then he feels stupid, because that was the Jiang Cheng of more than half a decade ago. “Thank you,” he says instead. “I – I’ll look after it.”

“You’re paying for the dry cleaning,” says Jiang Cheng, and is gone as abruptly as he appeared.

 

 

***

 

The media want their soundbites. Wei Ying smiles for the cameras and downplays the danger and thanks Lanling for rescheduling the match, thanks Lan Zhan for being understanding, thanks his fans for their support. It’s all done on autopilot. His mind is whirring.

As soon as the media clear out, he takes his precious purple bundle and goes to find Lan Zhan, being as casual and cheerful as he can.

“Hey, where have you been storing your jumpsuit?” he asks. “The arena lockers?”

Lan Zhan is looking tired and tense, and would probably prefer to have peaced out long ago and gone away to meditate, but he’s been a good little Lan and provided bland soundbites of his own. He has a little furrow between his brows that Wei Ying finds oddly charming – a wrinkle in perfection. “No,” he says, with a distracted air that suggests he’s still in media-mode. “We have secure storage within the hotel.”

“Think you could toss this one in there too, until tomorrow?” says Wei Ying, proffering his borrowed jumpsuit. “Jiang Cheng will kill me if anything happens to it.”

“Of course,” says Lan Zhan. And then he pauses, his eyes suddenly going hard. “Do you have a reason to think it might not be secure in the arena lockers?”

Shit. Not as subtle as he thinks he is, apparently. “Thanks, that’s a big help,” says Wei Ying, thrusting the suit into Lan Zhan’s hands. “I’ll see you later, okay?”

Wei Ying. You think someone might damage it?”

Wei Ying sighs. “No, I just want you to look after it.”

“Do not lie,” snaps Lan Zhan. His expression is like ice. His jaw could cut diamond. Wei Ying hasn’t seen him look so angry since they were fifteen years old and Lan Zhan had just opened his gym bag to find the kinkiest gay porn mag from Nie Huaisang’s collection.

Wei Ying shrugs. “There are some people out there who don’t like me so much.”

“Do you suspect someone tried to hurt you?”

“I’m just being careful.”

“No. You did the spellwork on your suit yourself. You should know whether there is a chance it failed by accident. Did it?”

Wei Ying doesn’t answer.

“Who?” says Lan Zhan. The word is sharp as a bullet. “Wen Chao? Was he threatening you yesterday?”

Wei Ying rolls his eyes. “At this point, if I met him and he didn’t threaten to kill me I’d think there was something wrong.”

Lan Zhan makes a wordless, frustrated noise and shakes his head. “You said nothing about this to the officials,” he says. “It was – I could have killed you.”

“So dramatic! I’m fine, there’s not a scratch on me. In fact, you saved my life! You’re a hero. The great Hanguang-Jun, such sensitive qi balance he can feel the least fluctuation in a talisman in the midst of a battle—”

“What if it hadn’t been me?” says Lan Zhan. He looks a bit queasy, like he’s actually imagining it. Which… well, it would have been pretty messy.

“Then it’d have been your brother,” says Wei Ying, trying to be soothing, “and he’d have noticed too. His qi control is as good as yours, isn’t it?”

Lan Zhan’s hand wraps implacably around his wrist. “Come with me, we must speak to—”

“Where’s Wen Qing?” says Wei Ying.

He looks around the room, frowning. She’s not there. He hasn’t seen her since the meeting ended. That was perhaps half an hour ago now.

“What?” says Lan Zhan impatiently.

“A-Ning, where’s your sister?”

Wen Ning, who has been unobtrusively playing some kind of pet-care game on his phone in a corner, looks up with a start. “I don’t know?” he says. 

“Shit.” Shit, he’d thought she’d been surprisingly calm about the whole situation. “Don’t worry, A-Ning, I’ll find her.”

Wen Ning hadn’t looked worried five seconds ago, but he sure does now. Wei Ying doesn’t have time to fix it. He does a quick distance calculation in his head and grabs one of his emergency transportation talismans out of the pocket of his jeans.

“Sorry, Lan Zhan,” he says, and the talisman blazes into life right in Lan Zhan’s face. Wei Ying takes the opportunity of that moment of surprise to wrench his wrist free, and he’s gone, stepping into nothing and out again into the street by the hotel.

 

***

 

Wen Zhuliu is in the hallway, leaning patiently against the wall between the two adjoining rooms. Wei Ying glares at him and spits a curse as he passes. Wen Qing’s door is unlocked. He barges in without knocking. The rush of relief at seeing her unharmed is overwhelmed by sickening dread as he sees her suitcase half-packed on the bed. Her arms are full of folded clothes. She looks at him for a moment, wide-eyed, before turning silently away to put the clothes in her case.

“What are you doing?” says Wei Ying. His voice comes out rough.

She tucks the clothes into place and sets her wash bag on top of them. “It’s not worth it,” she says, focused on her own hands. “They’ll kill you.”

“No. No, you’re not going back. Listen, my sister says the Council is starting an investigation into WenCorp. She wanted to talk to you, she can help. You don’t need to do this.”

She wipes at her eyes. Then she comes to him and puts her arms around his neck.

“Hey,” says Wei Ying, surprised, because she’s not a hugger with anyone but her brother. “It’s okay. It’s going to be okay.”

There’s an electric spark of sensation just below the base of his skull. He flinches and reaches up to feel what it was. Or he tries to. Halfway up, his hand drops limply back to his side. All of his limbs go heavy. He tries to protest, tries to struggle with limbs that won’t respond. As he topples sideways he feels her small hands catch at his clothes, jerking him out of his fall and easing him to the ground.

She stands. Her face is out of his line of vision and he can’t turn his head.

“Look after A-Ning for me,” she says.

She leaves him lying there while she finishes packing, stepping around and over him. Then there’s the zip of her suitcase closing. He fights helplessly with everything he has, still struggling to move anything more than his eyelids when the door closes behind her.

 

***

 

Intellectually, he knows it’s only been a couple of minutes when he hears voices in the corridor. It feels like hours. He tries as futilely as ever to yell and kick his feet against the floor, listening helplessly to the click of the neighbouring door, to Lan Zhan’s voice calling for him into the wrong room. And then there’s voices closer by, and the fizzle of an unlocking talisman, thank fucking god.

“Wei Ying?” says Lan Zhan urgently. Quick footsteps, the thump of knees on the ground, and his face comes into view. He touches Wei Ying, a gentle jostle, a tap to the cheek, then lays his hands over his dantians. “What’s wrong with him?”

“Oh,” says Wen Ning from somewhere off to the side. “I think—let me look.”

Wei Ying is tilted onto his side, and there’s a pressure on his neck, and his whole body tingles back to life as Wen Ning pulls back with an acupuncture needle in his hand.

“Fuck,” he says fiercely, and shoves away the hands touching him. There’s no time to waste. He scrambles to his feet, staggers to the door, flings it open and breaks into a run.

“Wei Ying?”

Lan Zhan is on his heels, reaching out for him. Wei Ying shakes him off. “They took Wen Qing,” he says, skidding to a stop at the elevator and stabbing at the button. “Come on, come on.” The little number above the door reads 4. They’re on 11.

“Who took her?”

“WenCorp. Wen fucking Zhuliu came here for her. And she went with him.” He smacks the wall. “Stairs. Let’s take the stairs.”

“Why does WenCorp want her?” says Lan Zhan.

“What does it matter?” snaps Wei Ying. Now is not the time for the irrelevant backstory of WenCorp’s fucked-up cultivation practices. “They can’t have her.”

Eleven fucking flights. The three of them clatter down at top speed. Lan Zhan is still demanding answers, and Wen Ning gives a panting, disjointed explanation that probably doesn’t help a great deal as Wei Ying bounces off the walls of the stairwell in his hurry. It’s been too long, he’s already too late…

They slam through the door to the lobby. Wei Ying’s heart thunders in his chest. She’s there. All the way across the shiny marble floor, by the doors that lead down towards the parking garage. Wen Zhuliu, with Wen Chao beside him sneering and tapping his foot, and in front of them both Wen Qing, a frozen, polite smile on her face, talking to another woman; a woman projecting implacable friendliness, leaning in as if to share a confidence and resting a hand on Wen Qing’s arm.

It’s a sudden flash of memory – his sister talking to a girl on the street, greeting her like they were best friends, inviting her to walk with them. Who was that? he had asked later, and she had shaken her head. I don’t know. But I know she didn’t want to be with that man.

Wei Ying is running forward when Wen Chao sees him. In that second, all pretence of normalcy falls away from the scene. Wen Chao’s face darkens into anger and there’s a sharp dart of movement. Then Wen Qing is being dragged off by the wrist and Jiang Yanli is sprawled on the floor.

“Jiejie!”

Wei Ying nearly tips onto his face as he skitters to a stop at her side. He falls to his knees, looking frantically between his sister and the door marked Parking, already closing.

“I’ve got it,” says Lan Zhan, striding past with Wen Ning at his heels.

“Jiejie, are you hurt?”

“I’m fine,” says Jiang Yanli. She looks shaken but her face holds a thin-lipped fury that is incredibly reminiscent of her mother. She struggles to her knees and lets Wei Ying pull her to her feet.

“What the fuck?” snaps a voice behind them. “A-Jie, what happened?”

“A-Cheng!” says Jiang Yanli. She reaches across to grab Jiang Cheng’s hand and pulls him towards the door. “I need you. Come on.”

Jiang Cheng, to his credit, doesn’t ask questions, just shoots Wei Ying a look that says, whatever this is, it’s your fault, before letting himself be tugged along. The three of them tumble out into the sunshine, hurry down a set of stone steps lined with planters, and then plunge into the gloom of the parking lot under the hotel.

 

***

 

They barge in just in time to see Lan Zhan jump out of the way of a fireball.

Wen Chao is the one who threw it, and his hands are already wreathed in flame again. Wei Ying reaches for a sword that isn’t there, reaches for a flute that isn’t there, swears, and dives forward scrabbling in his pockets for whatever talismans he can find to stop this from getting out of hand. Lan Zhan isn’t a fighter, he’s an upper-class athlete. He’s made for nice, safe, regulated matches. But apparently the combat reflexes are ingrained, because Lan Zhan comes back to his feet, pulling Wangji smoothly out of nowhere and flinging out a violent chord in Wen Chao’s direction. His face is stonily blank and his eyes are furious.

Unfortunately, Wen Chao isn’t alone. Wen Zhuliu steps smoothly forward to block the guqin energy blast, with three of the interchangeable Qishan goons ranged beside him, fire glowing around their hands.

“I have no fucking idea what’s going on,” says Jiang Cheng, “but screw this.”

Zidian cracks like a gunshot, sending a flash of blinding purple through the gloom as one of the Qishan men goes flying backwards. The others spin to face the new threat, eyes suddenly wary as they consider the odds.

“Stop!” yells Wen Qing. She’s halfway into the car, awkwardly twisted to see what’s going on. “Wei Ying, just go. Get A-Ning out of here. It’s not worth it.”

Wei Ying shakes his head. Out of the corner of his eye he can see Wen Ning, small and skinny and pale, doing the same. “She’s staying with me,” he tells Wen Chao.

Wen Chao smirks. “Looks like the lady has made her choice. She’s coming with us willingly. She knows WenCorp can give her everything she could ever want.”

“WenCorp offers nothing,” Lan Zhan snaps. “She is going under duress. Because you tried to kill Wei Ying.”

Jiang Yanli draws in a sharp breath.

“That pathetic little shitstain?” says Wen Chao. “Someone had to teach him to stay in his place.” He sniggers. “But we never touched a hair on his head.”

“A-Ying, is it true?” hisses Jiang Yanli.

“My jumpsuit didn’t fail on its own.”

He can feel her go rigid beside him. Her soft voice cuts through everything else. “A-Qing, are you going with them willingly?” she asks.

Wen Qing’s eyes are wide. After a tense pause, she shakes her head.

“Come here,” says Jiang Yanli.

“She’s not going anywhere,” snaps Wen Chao, shoving Wen Qing roughly back into the car.

That’s all it takes. In perfect tandem, the Jiang siblings attack. Wei Ying is flinging a talisman before he realises he’s moving, and a ripple of notes burst from under Lan Zhan’s hands. Wen Chao staggers, snarls, and shouts an order, and all hell breaks loose.

It’s an honest-to-god cultivation battle; no arena, no jumpsuits, no safety talismans, just a group of people with way too much power trying their damnedest to hurt each other. Even without swords, it’s vicious. Lan Zhan is practically untouchable, the flame spells that are Qishan’s speciality swirling away from his own purely-flowing qi, but Wei Ying is lightly singed within moments and Jiang Cheng takes an unlucky hit that makes him yelp and swear. By the car, Wen Qing is half-crouched, looking around wildly at the flying flames, the flare of talismans, the lightning strikes of the whip. There’s no way through.

“We’ve got to stop this,” Wei Ying pants. “Someone’s going to get killed.”

“Mm.” Lan Zhan steps in front of him, blocking a hit that Wei Ying hadn’t seen coming. “Your match with Nie Mingjue – do you have one of those?”

Wei Ying scrabbles through his pockets. Yes. A shitty, poorly-lettered talisman he’d deemed not good enough to use in the actual match. “Wen Qing, run,” he yells, and flings it, flaring into action, right into the centre of things.

Everything stops. The fire dies away, Zidian goes dark, every spell and talisman deactivates. In the sudden confusion, Wen Qing darts between the Qishan goons, dodges around Wen Zhuliu, and flings herself to safety behind Wen Ning. Then, in a wave pulled from absolutely nowhere, Lan Zhan blasts a shattering chord through the power vacuum.

Huh, thinks Wei Ying blankly, as Wen Chao goes to his knees. Mental note: never use a nullification talisman in a match with Lan Zhan. He’s figured out a countermove.

The Qishan goons are wavering on their feet. Wen Qing is safe, and Wei Ying can feel the Jiang siblings whipping their qi back to full strength. The fight is over and they all know it. Wen Zhuliu pulls Wen Chao to his feet and gives a small nod to his opponents, as though asking them politely to consider the matter closed.

Honestly, that guy creeps Wei Ying out.

“Get lost,” he says to them all. “Get out of here and never come back.”

“Oh, we will be back,” sneers Wen Chao. “You won’t always have numbers on your side, Wei Ying.”

“Says who?” snaps Jiang Cheng, who presumably still doesn’t have a clue what’s going on. It’s so sweetly, belligerently well-meaning that Wei Ying’s heart clenches. He had only ever planned to fight this battle alone. He never expected to have backup, let alone his once-upon-a-time siblings. Let alone Lan Zhan, who is still shoulder-to-shoulder with him, a steady, comforting presence, hands poised over his guqin strings.

Wen Chao doesn’t seem keen to answer. He just spits a few more curses for good measure, and the Qishan contingent get back into their car. Jiang Cheng makes to raise Zidian again as they start the engine, but Jiang Yanli puts a hand on his arm.

“Let them go,” she says, her voice calming and soothing. “It’s over. Let’s go inside. Oh, A-Cheng, your arm! Come on, I’ll take a look at it.” She tucks his good hand into the crook of her elbow and draws him with her back towards the sunlight.

Wei Ying turns to Lan Zhan. “Uh,” he says, “thanks.” He gives an awkward laugh. “Hanguang-Jun really is a hero. And – sorry for ditching you back at the arena. Thank you for following me. I don’t know what I’d have done without you.”

“Next time,” says Lan Zhan, “do not leave me behind.”

The fire in his eyes and the warmth in his normally flat voice are having strange effects. Wei Ying gives another chuckle and takes a step away, feeling his cheeks flame. His stomach is tingling. He can’t stand to be too near to Lan Zhan’s solid bulk.  Instead, he hurries after Wen Qing and Wen Ning, who are trailing the Jiang siblings back up the car park steps.

“Hey,” he says, not really sure what he’s trying to convey. They both turn to him, wide dark eyes filled with the kind of relief that makes you go weak and shaky, and he just grabs them both, holds them tightly for a moment in a desperate hug.

“Don’t you dare do that again,” he tells Wen Qing.

She makes a choked noise that’s not quite a laugh. “Maybe I won’t have to,” she says.

 

***

 

“A-Ning was born with a defect in his meridians,” says Wen Qing.

They’re up in Jiang Yanli’s hotel room, which is almost as fancy as Lan Zhan’s but manages to feel cramped with all six of them perched here and there. Wen Qing has commandeered the bed to lay out things from her medical bag, and is efficiently cleaning Jiang Cheng’s burned arm as she talks.

“There was a weakness that meant his qi didn’t flow the way it should. The doctors didn’t think he’d live past his teens. That’s why I went into medical cultivation.”

She dips a cotton pad into a pot of strong-smelling blue liquid and lays it over the burn, then adds a dressing and starts to wrap gauze around his hand and wrist. The practised motions of her hands seem at odds with the tense, staccato way she’s telling the story. Wei Ying wants to interrupt, but he catches Jiang Cheng’s eye and bites his tongue. None of your bullshit explanations, Jiang Cheng had said. She’s telling it.

“While I was training towards my certification, I worked on developing a treatment for him,” says Wen Qing. Her eyes are on her work. “A way to give him some of my spiritual energy. Like a transplant. WenCorp was very supportive, helping me develop the technique. I never…” she falters. “I never thought about the other potential applications. It turns out Wen Ruohan is very interested in ways to build one person up at the expense of another.”

Wei Ying shifts uncomfortably. He’s sprawled in a chair that’s both too hard and too small, and he’s restlessly tipping it back on two legs, until a pair of heavy hands fall on his shoulders. He’s held, eased gently down until all four chair legs are on the ground. Lan Zhan exerts the slightest pressure, like a warning to keep still.

“Even after A-Ning was better, the experiments continued. Wen Ruohan made it hard to refuse. I was afraid if I left he would have people follow me and bring me back and hurt A-Ning. I didn’t have the skills to protect us. But I couldn’t live with myself, being a part of what was happening in the WenCorp labs. I didn’t know what to do. And then A-Ning made friends with Wei Ying.” Wen Qing tucks the last bit of gauze into place. “There. Keep it dry. At your cultivation level it should heal in a day or two.”

“I told you it’s fine,” says Jiang Cheng.

“A-Cheng,” says Jiang Yanli.

Jiang Cheng sighs. “Thank you,” he amends. “Now tell us how my brother got caught up in this.”

Wei Ying flinches. The hands on his shoulder give a gentle squeeze.

“I shouldn’t have involved him,” says Wen Qing. “But I needed him. I needed a dirty fighter, someone with a talent for talismans and curses. Someone who could help us hide and be a line of defence if we needed it. And he turned out to be so much more than that. He was a lifeline. He helped with A-Ning’s training and helped me put food on the table. All in exchange for me supervising him through his certification and mentoring him in the junior competitions. I know I was taking advantage of his kindness.” She looks at Jiang Yanli then, her head held high and proud despite the regret on her face. “I won’t pretend it wasn’t selfish, but I don’t believe it would have been better to leave him in Qishan as things were. He already had a target on his back.”

“Yeah, I can piss people off all on my own.”

“Shut up,” says Jiang Cheng.

“We moved to Yiling, and we had two years of relative peace – a few WenCorp people sniffing around, keeping an eye on us, but nothing dangerous. Then I think they realised how little progress they were making on the research without me. Wei Ying kept sending the men off with their tails between their legs, and I thought we had made it more trouble than it was worth to drag me back. But… apparently not. They’ve been making threats, they’ve been pushing harder, and now this. That jumpsuit failure wasn’t an accident or a poorly-made talisman. It was a murder attempt. And it happened because I used Wei Ying to protect myself.”

Jiang Yanli turns her head away from Wen Qing. Her eyes meet Wei Ying’s, and the look in them is devastating. “Why didn’t you tell me about any of this?” she says.

Wei Ying struggles to find words. I didn’t want to bother you. I didn’t have any proof. I didn’t think you could help. Or that you would. All of them sound stupid, or cruel. He flushes, ducking his head. “I was handling it,” he says.

Her eyes are welling up. “You were in danger and I didn’t know.”

“Idiot,” says Jiang Cheng. “I can’t believe you. Someone tried to kill you and you didn’t say anything?”

A-Ying,” says Jiang Yanli. She puts her arms around him, holds him like she’s afraid he’s going to be dragged away from her. He can feel her tears soaking into his t-shirt.

“I hope you’re happy,” snaps Jiang Cheng. “You made her cry.”

Wei Ying looks helplessly at the faces around him. He gives a nervous chuckle. “I promise, next time someone tries to kill me I will absolutely tell you.”

“There will not be a next time,” says Lan Zhan. “WenCorp will be dealt with. Swiftly. And in the meantime, Wei Ying and his friends will be protected.”

“Yes,” says Jiang Yanli. She releases her hold on Wei Ying and sits back, wiping her eyes before pulling out her phone. “I’m calling A-Xuan. Lan Zhan, you’ll call your brother and uncle? And A-Cheng, you and I will have to figure out how to handle Mother. We’ll need Qinghe on our side too.” She looks at Lan Zhan, questioning.

“Brother can talk to Nie Mingjue.”

“Good. That’s the whole council covered. We can push through an investigation into WenCorp and the Qishan school. Once they lose their cultivation license it’ll be much easier to get the police involved.”

Wei Ying swallows. His chest feels tight. He doesn’t think he can speak.

“Thank you,” says Wen Qing. She sounds a little choked too.

Jiang Yanli gives her a sweet, warm smile. “We’ll need your help. Your testimony could be very important.”

Wen Qing nods. “Anything it takes.”

 

***

 

Competitive Cultivation Grand Final
Solo event
Finals (attempt 2)

 

Wei Ying wakes up on the morning after the interrupted final feeling lighter than he has in a long time, and at the same time bubbling with nerves. He bounces down to the hotel restaurant, grabs himself a plateful of food from the buffet and then scans the room. He spots his siblings at a booth in a quiet corner.

“A-Cheng!” he says, sauntering over and sliding onto the bench seat. “Budge up, budge up, make room for your elders and betters.”

Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes and sticks an elbow out to jab into Wei Ying’s side, then gives a tiny wince as the movement jostles his bandaged forearm. “Fuck,” he mutters.

“How’s the burn?”

“It’s fine,” snaps Jiang Cheng.

“It’s healing nicely,” confirms Jiang Yanli. She giggles. “But don’t tell mother that. The performance A-Cheng put on last night was magnificent. She’s ready to demand Wen Chao’s head on a platter.”

Jiang Cheng huffs. “Well she’s not going to do anything about WenCorp for his sake, is she?”

It only stings a little, at this point, knowing that his adopted mother wouldn’t exert herself to stop him from getting actively murdered. Wei Ying shrugs it off. “If she’s going to help at all, you’re both miracle workers. A-Cheng, let me kiss your poor maimed hand better for you.”

“How about I punch you in the face with it instead?”

“How about you both eat your breakfast,” says Jiang Yanli, laughing, “and I’ll tell you about what we arranged last night.”

While Wei Ying ploughs through his steamed buns and scallion pancakes, she explains how they’re making use of their various contacts across the cultivation world to start the process of taking WenCorp down. Wei Ying has to admit, having Jin Zixuan wrapped around his sister’s little finger is a major plus. It turns out that Lan Xichen’s boyfriend #2 is also a Jin, and, according to Jiang Cheng, a sneaky little fucker, but he does know how to get shit done. All in all, it sounds like everyone’s glad to have a catalyst to make a move against WenCorp. That doesn’t stop Wei Ying from feeling deeply uncomfortable about the whole thing.

“It’s a lot,” he says. “I don’t need – I was handling it. You shouldn’t have to—”

“Shut up,” says  Jiang Cheng, and he pulls Wei Ying into a hug, which is so bizarre and unexpected that Wei Ying actually does shut up, completely bereft of speech.

“A-Ying,” says Jiang Yanli, making use of the quiet, “I hope you don’t mind, but we’re not ready to go public yet. So we need to keep things normal for now.”

“You mean we’re going ahead with the final?” says Wei Ying, his brain slowly rebooting after the inexplicable hug.

“We’ll make sure it’s safe. You’ll be in A-Cheng’s suit, and there’s no way it could have been tampered with. And A-Xuan and A-Yao will make sure the security at the arena is on full alert.”

“I’m not worried.” He grins at her. “I’m looking forward to finishing what I started with Lan Zhan.”

“I think it’ll take more than a match to do that,” she says. Her eyes are twinkling.

His cheeks heat. “Jiejie!”

“I’m just saying, he’s very invested in your wellbeing.”

Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes. Wei Ying hides his face in his hands.

 

***

 

The sense of déjà vu as he waits for the match to start is dizzying. He was here just yesterday, going through the same routine. The same hum of an excited crowd fills the air, the same reporters are prowling around hungry for soundbites, the same official with her clipboard ushers him to where he’s supposed to be. It’s a perfect repeat, and yet subtly different. Yesterday he was in his own independent colours, not his family’s Yunmeng purple. Yesterday he didn’t know the feeling of having Lan Zhan at his shoulder, fighting his battles with him. Yesterday he had a thrumming worry in the back of his mind of what was going to happen with WenCorp. Today the worry is different, bigger, more nebulous and uncertain, what will happen as he drags people he cares about into his mess. And yet a lot of it is out of his hands. He couldn’t stop them now if he wanted to.

And just like yesterday, he has a match to focus on.

For the third time this competition, he meets Lan Zhan at the entrance to the tunnel. He’s expecting – well, he doesn’t know what he’s expecting, but it’s not what he gets, which is nothing. Lan Zhan is blank and cool, barely offering him a word as they set off towards the arena, replying to Wei Ying’s friendly chatter with nothing more than murmurs. His jaw is set.

It is the final, Wei Ying supposes. Maybe in his own life, what happened yesterday is more important than the culmination of the cultivation season, but Lan Zhan is a Gusu Lan. The honour of his school is at stake. It’s not surprising that he doesn’t want to fraternise with the enemy.

It’s just… last time round he’d said he was glad it was the two of them. And yesterday after the fight he’d rested his heavy hands on Wei Ying’s shoulders, keeping him steady.

Maybe it had taken him a night to realise that he’s better off staying far away from someone who gets him into fights in parking lots.

Wei Ying swallows his disappointment and takes up his position. The least he can do, after everything that’s happened, is give Lan Zhan a good match.

From the start, there’s something odd about the fight. Lan Zhan has switched up his style. He’s being more stand-offish than usual, keeping his distance, blasting chords with Wangji rather than engaging the way he normally would. It’s weird. Lan Zhan’s sword cultivation is one of his greatest strengths, and yet he’s barely using it at all. Intrigued, Wei Ying flies in fast and close, blade outstretched, and then swears at himself for letting curiosity override common sense when Lan Zhan deflects the blow as easily as ever. He comes down flustered in a stance that a novice would be ashamed of. His foot placement is too narrow, his sword is angled all wrong, and his qi is wildly skewed. Fuck, Wei Ying thinks. Sloppy. He jerks himself back into decent form, eyes on Lan Zhan, wondering why he hadn’t just lost himself a handful of points. Lan Zhan has always been merciless in punishing him for slips in technique.

He lunges, testing Lan Zhan’s guard, trying and failing to figure out what else he’s focusing on, to spot the spiritual energy that must be building somewhere, the strategy that’s absorbing his attention. There’s nothing unusual. Lan Zhan spins into a sequence that Wei Ying has seen a dozen times before. It’s is no less implacably effective for all that. Wei Ying knows what the countermove is, and knows he doesn’t have the qi control to do it. He forces his mind to think a step ahead, to accept that he’s going to take the hit and to plan on how to win the points back, and he braces his feet in preparation.

Lan Zhan falters. He pulls the blow.

“Huh?” pants Wei Ying, and then he has to dodge a flame talisman and can’t think about it anymore. For long minutes after that the match is almost the way it had been yesterday, that sense of connection, of testing one another, seeing one another. Then they close in again, and there’s something very wrong in their clash of blades. It’s jerky where Lan Zhan is always fluid.

Wei Ying lets common sense fall away again. He leaves an opening – just a small one, but that’s all it ever has to be.

Lan Zhan doesn’t take it.

“What the fuck?” says Wei Ying, so astonished that he’s sloppy with his guard again and Lan Zhan could definitely have skewered him. “Are you trying to let me win?”

Lan Zhan gives a sharp little shake of his head.

He looks – well, he mostly looks blank and stoic, but at a second glance there’s clearly something wrong. His mouth is pressed thin, his eyes too wide, his nostrils flaring around his ragged breaths. To someone really paying attention, he looks stressed to all hell, verging on panic. It’s an echo of the expression that was on his face yesterday, the wide-eyed shock as he’d wrenched his sword out of the swing that would have sliced Wei Ying open.

“Shit,” says Wei Ying, his mind finally catching up to what’s going on. “Lan Zhan, we can stop, we don’t have to—”

Lan Zhan flinches, like he’s embarrassed, like it’s somehow shameful to have Wei Ying see he’s upset. But it’s not just Wei Ying here. There are several thousand people watching. “It’s the final,” he says tightly. “We have to finish.”

“This isn’t fair,” says Wei Ying. He’d rather concede the match. He doesn’t deserve to win. It’s his fault, his mess that has left Lan Zhan, objectively the better cultivator, too shaken up to compete properly.

“I am not stopping,” Lan Zhan grits out.

Wei Ying hesitates, mind racing. He disengages, backs off a few paces, and thinks frantically through his options. He doesn’t have many of them. There’s no reassurance he can offer, no way to make the situation any less traumatic. It doesn’t matter that his borrowed jumpsuit is top of the line and thoroughly tested. Wei Ying is very familiar with trauma, and no rational argument is going to help here. The only thing that will help is somehow making it so Lan Zhan doesn’t have to swing three feet of razor-sharp steel at full strength towards a fragile human body.

Shit. He knows what he has to do.

He takes a breath to calm himself, to brace himself. It’s the only option he can see, but he doesn’t want to. Suibian has been by his side since his fourteenth birthday. It was presented to him by Jiang Fengmian the way a father presents a sword to his son.

He lunges in again. As they fall into a rhythm of parries and ripostes he  builds spiritual energy within himself, directs it into the blade as he’s done a thousand times before. Then he waits until Lan Zhan’s next too-slow strike and botches the evade, jerks himself gracelessly away and allows surprise to show on his face as he gives the spiritual energy a sharp sideways twist.

There’s a flash of light. His protection talisman fizzes into life around his hand and arm to absorb the fierce backlash. Suibian drops from his fingers, its blade twisted and blackened.

An accident. Misdirected spiritual energy. It happens. Not usually at this level of competition, but it does happen.

Lan Zhan backs off, his slightly parted lips the only visible sign of his surprise. Wei Ying holds his gaze, and sees the flicker of understanding there.

A frozen moment later, Lan Zhan lays Bichen down and kicks it away, clattering across the floor towards the edge of the arena.

There’s an ahh from the crowd, followed by a rising tide of applause; everyone loves a good piece of sportsmanship. Wei Ying gives Lan Zhan a salute, and gets a small nod in return. Then he raises his hand, poised to draw a talisman in the air. Lan Zhan gives another tiny nod, and they’re off again.

It’s a strangely fitting fight, if unconventional. After all, in the parking lot at the hotel they’d all been without their swords. But that had been infuriating, and this is fun. He’s getting the chance to see a completely new side of Lan Zhan’s fighting style. His own talismans are all scrawled lines and skipped characters, fast and unpredictable. Lan Zhan’s are slower, drawn with textbook precision, yet surprisingly creative nonetheless.

They’ve skewed the odds by taking swordplay out of the picture. Lan Zhan, with his perfect qi balance, is an unmatched swordsman, whereas Wei Ying would almost certainly win in a battle of talismans. On the other hand, Lan Zhan still has Wangji tucked away in the ether, and he’d almost certainly win in a straight battle of guqin against flute. It doesn’t feel unfair. It feels like relief. Lan Zhan is looser now, his qi flowing the way it should, perfectly poised for every move, and they’re both in a whirl of power.

Wei Ying brings Chenqing to his lips and draws energy to himself, sending clouds of darkness billowing around the arena. As expected, Lan Zhan is unmoved – he’s a rock-solid column of power, unbuffeted by the storm, tracing the start of a new talisman into the air. Whatever it is is too robust for a shriek from Chenqing to dispel. The characters crackle with light, fire and wind, and yep, Wei Ying knows that combination, knows how to counter it, and Lan Zhan knows he knows. The standard countermove is something he’s used too often, there’s no way Lan Zhan won’t have made allowances for it.

He scrambles for another option. His memory presents him with one of his old experiments, a spiritual deluge charm that’s messy and inefficient but will do the job. He used it once in public, two years ago at a friendly bout at the Qinghe junior tournament. Lan Zhan can’t have seen it, can’t have been paying attention, must have been exaggerating in that interview.

He tenses, scrawls the essence of the talisman into the air with barely-there strokes and sends it rocketing towards Lan Zhan…

…whose lip curls into the slightest smile as he plucks out three perfect notes, then whips his hand across Wangji’s strings.

Wei Ying’s brain has time for a single, epic shout of fuck before the energies collide and he’s blasted by the combination of backlash and a simultaneous wave of sound. He ends up on his ass, panting and dazed, as the points bell blares.

Game over.

He picks himself up. He has to act the part of the graceful loser, go over and bow and shake hands and say it was a good match, all serious and according to protocol, but on the inside he’s smiling so wide his face hurts.

I watch and analyse every match he participates in. That is the level of dedication it takes to beat him.

They bow formally and step forwards, hands held out.

“Nicely done,” says Wei Ying. “Thank you for a good match.”

“Thank you,” Lan Zhan echoes. If a picture is worth a thousand words, those two words are a whole gallery. His eyes are soft, a glowing dark gold. He’s stunningly beautiful.

Wei Ying lets some of the smile leak out. He can’t help it. He clasps Lan Zhan’s hand, and then on impulse uses it to tug him forwards into a hug. Lan Zhan’s arms go around him with a brief, fervent pressure. As they pull apart Wei Ying has the crazy thought that he could halt the motion, could keep hold, that if he kissed Lan Zhan now, Lan Zhan would kiss him back.

 

***

 

There’s a lot of media stuff to get through. The medal presentation goes by in a blur, and then it’s a quick shower to make himself presentable before he’s shuffled from reporter to reporter for TV soundbites, with others yelling questions at him in between to get quotes for their articles. Then Wen Qing grabs him to meet with a potential sponsor who spends a solid fifteen minutes talking about the potential for more formalised independent cultivation, away from the big schools, which is something Wei Ying would love to talk about at any other time. Right now, though, he just wants it all to be over. He wants some peace and quiet to admire his silver medal, and preferably also admire Lan Zhan’s gold at close quarters.

As soon as he escapes from the sponsor, he goes hunting for the brand new champion. He catches a glimpse of a pale suit and hurries in pursuit, but the figure he catches up to is the wrong Lan.

“Xichen-ge, where’s your brother?”

Lan Xichen turns to him, smiling, not at all offended by the abrupt question. “He’s taking a breather,” he says. “I’m glad to run into you, I’ve been wanting to thank you for what you did out there. I hadn’t realised how much yesterday had affected him. I appreciate you looking out for him. If you’d like to see him, I can show you where he’s hiding.”

“Ah, no, I don’t want to interrupt! I’m very bad for peaceful meditation.”

“In general, probably,” says Lan Xichen, twinkling. “But in this case, I think you might be just what’s needed.”

He ushers Wei Ying into a small side room that looks like it’s used as a break room. It contains a few chairs, a stained coffee pot, and, sitting cross-legged on the dusty floor in his pristine suit, the world’s most beautiful man.

Wei Ying blinks, breath catching. Laid across one of the chairs is the twisted remains of his sword.

Lan Zhan looks up sharply and flows to his feet almost too fast for grace. The gold medal is clutched in his hands. “Wei Ying,” he says. His earlobes are tinged pink.

“Hi,” says Wei Ying. His smile fades a little when he sees the line of tension in Lan Zhan’s shoulders. “Hey. How are you doing?”

Lan Zhan avoids his eyes. Instead, his gaze flicks to Suibian. “I spoke to the Gusu swordsmith,” he says. “She will try to reforge it. If it’s not possible, I will get you a new one.”

“Thank you,” says Wei Ying. “But that’s not what I asked.”

Lan Zhan hesitates. For a moment Wei Ying thinks he’s going to say something, but instead he holds out the medal by its ribbon, like an offering.

“Uh… for me?”

“It should be yours.”

Wei Ying stares at him. Then he starts to laugh. “Lan Zhan! I’ve never beaten you in my life. Not once.”

“You would have today.”

“No. No way. Someday I will, and I’ll deserve it. I’ll figure you out, Hanguang Jun. I’ll surprise you. I want to earn it.” His hand sneaks out unbidden to grasp Lan Zhan’s forearm. “Today doesn’t count. It was a mistake. We shouldn’t have asked you to fight so soon. It must have been shitty, knowing how close you came to killing someone. I’m sorry. I didn’t even think about how it might feel.”

“Not someone,” says Lan Zhan. “You.”

Wei Ying binks at him. “Huh?”

“It would—” Lan Zhan begins, and then swallows. “I—Wei Ying, if you were hurt…”

And okay, Wei Ying has maybe been a bit dense about this whole thing, but he’s not actually an idiot. He pulls Lan Zhan into a hug, lets the other man clutch at him and hold on tight. They stand there together for a long time, until the little trembles running through Lan Zhan’s body finally fade.

Wei Ying pulls back. He’s been working hard, through this whole extended hug, to keep any hint of wetness from his eyes. Now he manages a grin.

“You like me, don’t you?”

“I have… admired you. For a long time.”

“You like me.”

“Wei Ying.”

“It’s okay, you don’t have to be embarrassed. I like you too. A lot.”

Lan Zhan’s hand comes up to cup his cheek, thumb brushing against his lower lip, and they stand there looking at each other until, inevitably, they both lean in, and then they’re kissing, heady and sweet as Gusu wine. Wei Ying’s knees go weak with it. He presses forwards, leaning his weight against Lan Zhan, and finds himself tugged close, held like he’s something precious.

At some point, without quite knowing why, Wei Ying begins to laugh.

“Sorry. It’s just.” He presses his face into Lan Zhan’s shoulder, stifling a giggle. “This isn’t where I expected to be right now. None of this is what I expected. It’s been a really weird competition.”

“Mm,” Lan Zhan agrees.

“My life is about to get incredibly fucking complicated,” says Wei Ying, marvelling at the strangeness of it all. “The whole WenCorp thing, it’s not going to be easy. I don’t even know if it’s safe to go back to Yiling. I don’t know what I’m going to do. Shit.” He laughs again, and hears an edge of hysteria to it.

“Mm,” says Lan Zhan again. His arms tighten, secure and reassuring. “We will figure it out.”

“Yeah. But for now, let’s not. Let’s just – Lan Zhan, do you want to get dinner with me?” Wei Ying finds himself blushing, inexplicably shy considering that they just spent five minutes making out. “The kind of dinner where we don’t talk about anything serious, just play footsie under the table and feed each other dessert and maybe kiss some more afterwards?”

“A date,” says Lan Zhan.

“Is that what the kids are calling it these days? Fine, sure. If you must.”

“I would like to go on a date with you, Wei Ying,” says Lan Zhan. His ears are bright pink. There’s a touch of colour on his cheekbones too. Hanguang Jun, emotionless jade statue, is blushing and pleased because Wei Ying asked him out. It’s unbelievable. It’s wonderful.

“I’ll choose a place. Pick me up at six?” says Wei Ying, punctuating it with one last kiss for good measure. “Now I’ll let you actually meditate before you have to deal with a ton more press.”

He leaves Lan Zhan settling back into a perfect meditation posture and bounces back out into the corridor, trying and failing to hide how wide he’s smiling. There he’s met by not only Lan Xichen’s amused raised eyebrow but also a delighted look from his sister, dual eye-rolls from Jiang Cheng and Wen Qing, and a smirk from Nie Huaisang, mostly hidden behind a fluttering fan.

Wei Ying’s cheeks heat. “Uh,” he says. “Is it that obvious?”

“You look very happy, A-Ying,” says Jiang Yanli, “and we’re all very happy for you.”

“I’m not,” grumbles Jiang Cheng, with a glower that isn’t entirely convincing. “Can we focus? We’ve been making plans, and we’ve got stuff to discuss that’s more important than your love life.”

“Sure, tell me the plan,” says Wei Ying. Suddenly the trials ahead of him seem very manageable – bringing down WenCorp, keeping his friends safe, rebuilding bridges with his siblings, and even facing Madam Yu and the Cultivation Council. He grins brightly at everyone. “But make it quick. I’ve got a date tonight.”