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dungeons & dating (a critical hit remix)

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“Sooo,” Nie Huaisang drawled, prompting Jiang Cheng to look up from his phone with suspicion. They’d been at their monthly-ish lunchtime meet-up that they’d finished their food and were just sitting in the diner chatting, and the last pause had drawn out long enough for Jiang Cheng to get distracted.

Nie Huaisang stared at him expectantly, eyes wide and entirely too innocent. Jiang Cheng sighed and said, “So… what?”

“I’m starting up a new D&D campaign!” Nie Huaisang tossed his hands in the air like it was something worth celebrating. “I want you to play.”

“No,” Jiang Cheng said reflexively, because he remembered the last time they’’d played D&D. They’d been in high school, Nie Huaisang and Meng Yao had bullied the school admin into letting them have an after-school club, and it had turned into a battlefield for Lan Zhan and Wei Ying’s kind-of-impressive abilities to accidentally-on-purpose throw barbs at each other.

Between Lan Zhan’s steadfast adherence to the rules in the book (“Encumbrance exists for a reason.”), Wei Ying’s desire to throw out any rule that got in the way of fun (“None of this is real, and what’s the point if I can’t carry away a chest of treasure and fight at the same time?”), and Nie Huaisang’s inability to get anyone to listen to him as the GM (“Can we just—” and “I don’t know, let me look it up—” thrown out twenty times an hour each), it had fallen apart within a semester.

In theory, they’d grown up since then.

Most of the time, though, Jiang Cheng doubted anything had changed except their age and the fact that they all had jobs now. Still, he wistfully remembered the excitement with which he’d thought about playing D&D back then, when they were sixteen and didn’t know any better. All the fun and glory of making up a story with his best friends (and their friends), and no awareness of the stupid arguments and drama they’d produce.

“Come on,” Nie Huaisang said, leaning across the table with a bright smile on his face. “It’ll be fun!”

Jiang Cheng glared at Nie Huaisang, and—against his better judgement—asked, “Who else are you inviting?”

“Meng Yao said he’d play if he had to, but he’s busy preparing for the release of that new safety alert system thing.” Nie Huaisang shrugged and settled in to slurp noisily at his milkshake. “Qingyang laughed and told me she wanted to know who agreed before she’d commit. Wei Ying said yes, and that he’d bring Wen Ning along.”

Jiang Cheng narrowed his eyes, because Nie Huaisang’s smirk meant that he definitely hadn’t finished. “That’s two and a half people at best, Huaisang. Who else?”

Nie Huaisang drank the last of his milkshake and grinned at Jiang Cheng in delight. “Lan Zhan.”

For a moment, Jiang Cheng couldn’t believe it. Then, suspicious, he asked, “You mean you asked and he said no, right?”

“Nooope.” Nie Huaisang drew out the word with satisfaction. “He said, and I quote, ‘Xiongzhang has suggested I participate in more social activities’, and then he agreed.”

“Fuck.” Jiang Cheng buried his head in his hands. “Okay. Sure. So long as Qingyang is also there and I am not the lone bastion of sanity in this mess, I’ll play.”

He was going to regret this. He was sure of that.

But if he was going to hear about whatever nonsense Wei Ying and Lan Zhan got up to this time—after a decade of actively ignoring each other while somehow still assiduously keeping an eye on the other’s life—Jiang Cheng wanted to be there to see it go down.

It wasn’t that simple, of course.

Two hours after Nie Huaisang created the D&D groupchat that Saturday, it devolved into an extended argument about which version of D&D they were going to play. When they were teenagers, they’d played 3.5, because Nie Huaisang had owned it and it had been the most recent edition at the time.

Now there were a lot more options, but Lan Zhan wanted to stick with 3.5 anyway, because he somehow still had an encyclopedic knowledge of the rules. Wei Ying wanted to play the most current version, 5th edition, because it had simplified the rules and he had never cared about rules to begin with.

The argument, such as it was, mostly consisted of them explaining their opinions and poking holes in each other’s arguments. Jiang Cheng eyed it, and then started posting his own feelings on the matter every half hour, which was: “I don’t care which edition we play so long as you two stop arguing.”

(It did nothing to stop the argument, of course, but at least he could tell Jiang Yanli he’d tried.)

Wen Ning didn’t even say anything, though he reacted with thumbs-up on particularly good points on both Wei Ying and Lan Zhang’s parts. Luo Qingyang dropped in halfway through to say, “What about 4th edition? It seems like a lot of fun.” and got both Wei Ying and Lan Zhan to tag-team explaining to her why 4th edition was the worst

(Why did you do that? Jiang Cheng texted her, watching the two of them play off each other in perfect harmony now that they had an outsider target.

Luo Qingyang sent back a laughing emoji, and then, It’s fun to see them work together. Two seconds later, she added, Also tbh I don’t care about the system

Jiang Cheng couldn’t argue with either part of that, but he also regretted ever thinking that Luo Qingyang would join him in being a bastion of sanity in this game.)

At least now, a decade older and wiser, Nie Huaisang came back after his work shift ended and decreed—by power of being the GM—that they were going to play 5th edition.

It was, Nie Huaisang said, simpler.

Jiang Cheng suspected that the real reason was that 5th edition had more online resources that Nie Huaisang could make them use, and fewer sourcebooks that Lan Zhan could pull out of his ass to justify his actions with while going “On page 196 of The Player’s Handbook 2 it says…” or whatever.

“Core rules only,” Nie Huaisang had added, confirming Jiang Cheng’s suspicions. Even through text Jiang Cheng could hear his exasperation. “Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, Monster Manual. The first ones. None of the additional stuff. If you bring up Xanathar or Tasha I will murder you.”

Then Nie Huaisang had said to text if they had questions but that he trusted them to build third level characters on their own.

“Try and make characters who like solving problems and can work with other people,” he’d advised. “You’re going to be sent on a quest to solve a murder.”

The first session was a disaster.

At the end, Nie Huaisang’s head was in his hands, Jiang Cheng and Lan Zhan were glaring at each other, and Wei Ying was sitting on the floor.

(That last fact didn’t necessarily matter, because Wei Ying sitting on the floor was normal, but it didn’t help anything.)

The problem, Jiang Cheng had discovered over the course of the session, was that Wei Ying and Lan Zhan had built characters that resembled each other. So Lan Zhan kept trying to make his tiefling bard, Wuxian, play pranks on everyone else. And that, of course, meant that Wei Ying would send his high elf paladin, Wangji, to stop him.

And then they would spend ten minutes roleplaying at each other while Luo Qingyang ate chips obnoxiously loudly, Wen Ning built elaborate dice towers, and Jiang Cheng gritted his teeth and tried to play the game.

Unfortunately, one character on his own couldn’t do much. Wanyin, Jiang Cheng’s blue dragonborn fighter, was destined to suffer by getting beaten up by the hordes of low-level undead that Wei Ying’s paladin could easily repel if he weren’t too busy bantering. Wen Ning helped, sending Qionglin—a mountain dwarf barbarian—in to help slaughter foes; and Luo Qingyang’s half-elven sorcerer, Mianmian, got involved too, but…

It was very clear that Nie Huaisang had expected five player characters to be in the fight, not three.

After seeing Nie Huaisang wince and quietly fudge dice rolls to keep them from dying, Jiang Cheng snapped, “Can’t you help?”

Lan Zhan turned to him, face pristine and calm as ever, and said, “I am acting as Wuxian would.”

Of all the times for Lan Zhan to learn how roleplaying worked, Jiang Cheng thought, teeth grinding together but unable to do anything about it, this was the worst.

Wei Ying had piped up to add, “Me too!”

One, Jiang Cheng hadn’t asked. Two, Jiang Cheng thought it would be just as in character for a paladin to help defend a village against undead as it was to keep one useless bard from causing minor havoc. Three, Jiang Cheng was starting to understand what was happening here:

Wei Ying and Lan Zhan were using their D&D night to flirt.

A month and three game sessions later, Jiang Cheng gave up on trying to be subtle about talking to Wei Ying about the Lan Zhan problem. Instead, on one of the erratic evenings Wei Ying came by his apartment to mooch dinner and play video games, Jiang Cheng flat-out asked, “Can’t you talk to him at like, literally any other time? It’s disrupting the game.”

Wei Ying threw another grape into the air and tried to catch it in his mouth. It hit his nose, bounced off, and rolled underneath Jiang Cheng’s couch. “Talk to who?”

Jiang Cheng groaned and stole the bowl of grapes from his brother. “You’re going to need to clean the mess out from under there eventually,” he said, even though they both knew Wei Ying definitely wouldn’t. “Talk to Lan Zhan, obviously.”

“Why would I talk to him?” Wei Ying picked up the controller he’d set down and scrolled through Jiang Cheng’s Switch games, pausing on Splatoon 2. “Are you playing?”

“Yeah, and you’re going to get us killed.” Jiang Cheng put aside the issue of Wei Ying and Lan Zhan for now. If Wei Ying wanted to be oblivious, then there wasn’t anything he could do about it. May as well shoot paint everywhere instead.

The actual plot of Nie Huaisang’s campaign was pretty cool, Jiang Cheng had to admit, and it was part of why he sat through all the flirting. Instead of the straight-forward “You’re beating up an evil clan! Fight for justice and dethrone the evil lord!” that they’d played in high school, he was sending them around on a series of small quests to figure out the identity of a brutally dismembered corpse and learn who had wronged them.

After the introductory session—and a brief pit-stop in town to pick up quest information and healing potions—they’d worked their way through a dungeon where the walls were literally filled with corpses and most of the coffins were filled with animated weapons. When they’d finally fought their way to the center (no thanks to Wuxian, who wanted to look into every single room; or to Wangji, who insisted he had to pray every single corpse’s soul to rest), their reward was a pair of legs that belonged to the body they were trying to piece together.

Then they’d gone and dealt with a sad love story predicated on misused magic and minor mind control. The actual campaign aspects hadn’t been too bad; it had been a nice change to do more roleplaying and mystery-solving after the straight-up dungeon full of traps and corpses. The part Jiang Cheng got frustrated by was that it being a love story meant that Wei Ying and Lan Zhan could spend the entire time debating who was in the right and if the tragic love of a mage desperately trying to save his unrequited crush’s fading soul was terrifying or romantic.

(Jiang Cheng had started out with an opinion but by the end he just wanted to leave and be done with it.)

Right now, they were beginning what seemed to be a political arc. Wei Ying had listened to Nie Huaisang’s description of the situation and summary of the important characters as they’d entered the lord’s manor, and immediately said, “This Wang Zilong is suspicious as fuck. But he’s clean on the surface, so Wangji can’t do anything about it.”

Jiang Cheng groaned, because Wei Ying had turned to Lan Zhan with obvious mischief in his eyes.

Lan Zhan nodded, very seriously. “I concur. Fortunately, Wuxian can investigate. What do you suggest?”

“Wanyin is going to investigate by going to the official meetings,” Jiang Cheng said loudly, as if that would stop them. “Are Qionglin and Mianmian coming?” He took it as a given that whatever Wangji and Wuxian were getting up to, it would be both of them. Together. Because Wangji would need to keep an eye on Wuxian.

Never mind that every time they went off on their own, it meant that the other three characters had exactly zero magical healing skills among them. Nie Huaisang had taken pity on them and let them have more rest periods than made strict narrative sense, just so that they wouldn’t die while the party was split.

Wen Ning hesitantly agreed that Qionglin would follow Wanyin, and Luo Qingyang shrugged and said, “Unless Wuxian or Wangji needs my help, yeah.”

Wuxian, unfortunately, did need her help, because Mianmian—unlike Wuxian—knew how to cast Invisibility.

Nie Huaisang’s glee at the party being split into three sections (Wanyin and Qionglin, Wangji and Mianmian, and Wuxian all on his own) was worrying, Jiang Cheng felt, but it was too late to do anything about it now.

“Okay,” Nie Huaisang said, a terrifying grin rising on his face, “Let’s start with the thing you were officially invited here for…”

They spent fifteen minutes talking through what Wanyin and Qionglin were doing at the formal dinner and getting a lot of worldbuilding and backstory dumped on them. It was surprisingly in-depth, and Nie Huaisang admitted—after Jiang Cheng asked—that Meng Yao had helped him prepare the specific bureaucratic nonsense and insufferable rich people they were interacting with.

Then Nie Huaisang turned to the other three. Lan Zhan had been attentively listening to the roleplay (and occasional dice rolls to see how charming Wanyin and Qionglin could be), while Wei Ying and Luo Qingyang had been scheming. All three character sheets were arrayed in front of them, along with Lan Zhan’s impeccably-bookmarked Player’s Handbook.

For a moment, Jiang Cheng thought it was sweet that Lan Zhan trusted them to come up with a plan for his character to follow.

The next second, Jiang Cheng scowled because having that thought meant he was definitely too invested in seeing if his brother and this rules-lawyering idiot would ever admit they might actually like each other.

“Okay,” Wei Ying said, and Jiang Cheng already dreaded what was about to happen. “This is what we do…”

It turned out, unsurprisingly, that Wei Ying and Lan Zhan had figured out (with Luo Qingyang’s help) exactly where they needed to go to find the next important piece of corpse.

It also turned out that Nie Huaisang had expected this, and had set up a series of traps for them.

Jiang Cheng slouched in his chair, watching Wei Ying and Lan Zhan squabble about whether or not Wuxian should call Wangji in for backup upon Wang Zilong finding him talking to the plot corpse’s head. He did not care about what decision they made, so long as they made one anytime soon.

His phone buzzed, and he glanced down at this welcome distraction to see a text from Luo Qingyang. It’s going to happen tonight.  

Really? he typed back, because nobody was paying attention to him anyway at this point. I thought you said that last month, with the whole Xue Chengmei plotline.  

Luo Qingyang sent him a string of middle finger emoji, but then added, Yesterday, Wei Ying asked me how I realised I liked Wen Qing.  

Jiang Cheng looked up and gave Luo Qingyang a look, raising his eyebrows in shock and a quiet desire for confirmation. She nodded back, very seriously, and then broke out into stifled giggles at whatever expression Jiang Cheng was making. He thought it was probably something horrified, but he was too busy trying to conceal his expression to be sure.

Then he got distracted by Lan Zhan’s slightly raised voice.

“Wuxian uses Sending,” Lan Zhan said, speaking over Wei Ying for once. “He tells Wangji that he’s found the corpse’s head, and that Wang Zilong is menacing him, and that Wangji should come rescue him.”

Jiang Cheng immediately looked at his brother, who was sitting there with his mouth agape.

“Really?” Wei Ying finally managed, after long enough that Jiang Cheng had started to worry. “Wuxian never asks for help. Especially not from Wangji.”

Lan Zhan raised his eyebrows. “Perhaps it has taken him some time to learn that help would be willingly and gladly given.”

“It always would have been! It always has!” Wei Ying threw his arms into the air. “The problem was that it didn’t seem wanted!”

Jiang Cheng sighed and texted, Yeah, okay, you’re right and accepted the smug smilies Luo Qingyang sent back as his due.

Wanting was never the problem.” Lan Zhan’s voice grew quiet, but no less intense. “But wanting something that seems unattainable is scary.”

Jiang Cheng stood up and loudly announced, “I’m going to get some snacks,” because he did not want to see the inevitable outcome of this.

Nie Huaisang shook his head, Wen Ning kept his focus on his dice towers and his notebook full of doodles, and Luo Qingyang waved. Neither Lan Zhan nor Wei Ying seemed to notice.

As Jiang Cheng left the room they were playing in (one of the true advantages of being an adult; Nie Huaisang’s living room was much nicer than a high school classroom), he heard Wei Ying stutter out, “Wait, you—”

The silence that followed was worrying. Jiang Cheng did not want to know what was happening as he stared at the microwave and listened to the sound of popcorn slowly inflating its bag.

Unfortunately, Luo Qingyang texted him, and Jiang Cheng looked at the text, which meant he was subjected to a shitty photo of Lan Zhan and Wei Ying’s faces connected like their lives depended on it. It came with the caption Pay up, and Jiang Cheng scowled.

We never bet for real, he pointed out, and then realised the popcorn had gone suspiciously quiet. He yelped and pulled the bag out before it could burn too badly, and was blowing on his slightly scorched fingers when Luo Qingyang texted him back.

Dig out Huaisang’s secret gummy worm stash, we all deserve it after this, she said, and Jiang Cheng sighed. It wasn’t even that secret of a stash. The only person it was hidden from was Wei Ying, known sugar fiend, because otherwise he’d eat them all as soon as he came over.

Still, Jiang Cheng climbed up on the counter so that he could pull the bag down from where it hid between the fridge and the cabinets above. Luo Qingyang was, unfortunately, right. They were definitely going to need candy—if not something stronger, but Nie Huaisang didn’t let them drink while gaming—to deal with all the nonsense about to befall them.

He walked back into the room with a bowl of popcorn and a bag of gummy worms and said, “So, did I miss anything?” as if he couldn’t see the way Wei Ying and Lan Zhan were looking at each other.

“I have a boyfriend now!” Wei Ying said delightedly, and Lan Zhan made a pleased hum of agreement.

Jiang Cheng sighed and handed the gummy worms to Luo Qingyang. “Congratulations,” he said, “but I was talking about the game?”

“Oh.” Wei Ying was silent for a moment, and then said, “Hey, are those gummy worms? Can I have some?”

“No,” Luo Qingyang said, shielding the mound of gummy worms now sitting in front of her from his darting fingers. She handed the bag to Nie Huaisang and added, “They’re a reward for needing to watch you make out.”

Wei Ying literally stopped in the middle of a sigh in order to stare delightedly at Lan Zhan.

Jiang Cheng groaned and sat down, mournfully munching on his popcorn. “We’ve still got what, half an hour?”

“Mhmm.” Nie Huaisang ate a gummy worm. “So, Wuxian is notifying Wangji. He and Mianmian will arrive soon, I’m sure. But you and Qionglin hear about what’s going on because Wang Zilong suddenly rushed out of the formal dinner.”

With an air of great relief, Jiang Cheng threw himself into the game. The stand-off in front of Wang Zilong’s secret room quickly turned into a running combat where they were trying to escape his manor, because it turned out that nobles don’t like it when you accuse someone with a nice smile and a lot of charitable donations of keeping a preserved head in their basement.

They liked it even less when you produced said head and then ran away with it because you, quote, “Haven’t had a chance to interrogate it yet,” which Wei Ying suggested Wuxian say and Lan Zhan repeated verbatim but without nearly as much inflection. It had been genuinely hilarious, undercutting what Nie Huaisang had really done an excellent job of setting up as a dramatic moment.

They fought their way through Wang Manor until they reached the long stairs leading to it. There, Jiang Cheng shouted, in character as Wanyin, for everyone to follow him into the tangled city streets. They could disappear there, and regroup, and figure out what would happen next.

Everyone agreed, and spent their actions running for it, and Nie Huaisang studied the battle map before saying, “Okay, next round you can all escape so long as you don’t do anything other than run. Let me roll to see if any of Wang Zilong’s archers hit you before you get out of range. Two archers for each of you.”

He picked up a handful of twenty-sided dice, shook them, and let them scatter onto the table. Then, carefully, he arrayed them in pairs while the rest of them watched with bated breath.

“Wanyin,” Nie Huaiang said, pointing at the first pair. “I’m assuming these miss.”

“Yeah.” Jiang Cheng settled back, smug. If the number wasn’t above a 10, ordinary archers definitely couldn’t hit him. “21 AC, baby!”

Nie Huaisang laughed. “Yeah, they miss.” He moved to the next pair. “Qionglin? That’s a 13 and an 18.”

“Uh, 18 ties my AC?” Wen Ning scratched his head. “Remind me—”

“It hits,” Lan Zhan said quietly, from where he was sitting pressed up against Wei Ying.

Nie Huaisang nodded at him, picked up an eight-sided die, and rolled it. “It’s only three damage, that’s nothing for you.”

Wen Ning carefully wrote that down while Nie Huaisang moved on. Mianmian escaped miraculously unscathed, Wangji took five damage, and then—

“That’s a nat 20,” Wei Ying said carefully, looking at the dice meant for Wuxian. He looked at Lan Zhan. “And you’ve been unlucky.”

That was putting it mildly; Wuxian had been taking a lot of damage the whole escape, since he’d been the person who had required rescuing to begin with. Jiang Cheng leaned forward, on edge despite himself, as Nie Huaisang rerolled the die to see if it would confirm the crit. It came up as a 17, and Lan Zhan sighed, almost imperceptibly, while Wei Ying burst out with, “No!”

Nie Huaisang ignored both of those reactions and calmly picked up two eight-sided dice and rolled them. Jiang Cheng hoped they would be kind, but a 6 and an 8 really… weren’t.

If he’d been keeping track correctly, actually, that brought Wuxian’s health down to zero. Lan Zhan’s pencil moved on his paper, Wei Ying’s face contorted in distress, and Jiang Cheng braced himself as best he could for whatever drama they were about to unleash.

“Wuxian falls to the ground, pierced through with an arrow,” Lan Zhan said calmly. His eyes flickered to Wei Ying and he added, “He says, ‘You can go on without me.’ ”

Wei Ying yelped, and said, “Wangji would never! I still have Lay on Hands, Nie-xiong, can I—”

The initiative order was listed on a little whiteboard next to Nie Huaisang’s GM screen. Technically, Mianmian would go next, but Luo Qingyang was already nodding, and Nie Huaisang sighed and said, “Yeah, okay. But let me finish describing what happens after the archers shoot, okay?”

Wei Ying’s “Yeah,” blended into Nie Huaisang’s description, and Nie Huaisang leaned over the table to move miniatures around as he spoke. “Wang Zilong’s guards close in on you. They’ll be able to encircle you next round. Wang Zilong himself stands at the top of the stairs, flanked by the other nobles. He laughs as Wuxian falls, and says, ‘I would expect such actions from hellspawn, but a knight of Gusu? How far you have fallen.’ ”

“Wangji drops to his knees next to Wuxian, and his hands glow with divine light as he channels positive energy into his friend.” Wei Ying leaned his head on Lan Zhan’s shoulder and added, “I mean, you’re also my boyfriend, but—”

Lan Zhan tilted his head into Wei Ying’s. “Wangji and Wuxian are not.” A silence followed, and Jiang Cheng felt the weight of the yet that lived within it. “Wuxian pushes Wangji away, as soon as he has the strength. He tells Wangji to go, because Wangji doesn’t deserve to be tangled up in Wuxian’s problems.”

“Wangji doesn’t leave.” Wei Ying grabbed Lan Zhan’s hand, and Jiang Cheng reached across the table to steal the last gummy worms before Luo Qingyang could take them. This was going to take a while. “He says, ‘It isn’t a matter of deserve, Wuxian. I choose to stand by you. The tricks and games you play are a part of you, and I would no more remove them from you than I would accept you being removed from the world.’ Then he stands up, and draws Wuxian to his feet alongside him.”

Jiang Cheng thought about this, and about the look on Lan Zhan’s face, and about the rules that say that standing up is a move action, and then decided that if Lan Zhan wasn’t going to bring it up then there wasn’t any point in reminding him. He still muttered, to whoever might be listening, “This is way more than six seconds.”

“Shut up,” Luo Qingyang hissed, “let them get it out of their systems.”

“Do you really think that’s possible?”

Lan Zhan glanced at them, then said, “Wuxian takes Wangji’s hand as they stand together. He tells Wangji that spending time with him brings him the utmost satisfaction. Then he asks if Wangji has a plan.”

Wei Ying laughed. “Wangji says, ‘Too much talking,’ and casts Spiritual Weapon.”

“Wuxian casts Thunderwave,” Lan Zhan said immediately after.

Nie Huaisang closed his eyes briefly. “Right. Okay. So while you’re doing that, what about the rest of you? I’m pretty sure you had enough time to run away while they were being dramatic.”

“We’re surrounded, otherwise we wouldn’t fight,” Wei Ying whined. “Don’t worry, we’ll come join you.”

“Then we run,” Jiang Cheng said, looking at Luo Qingyang and Wen Ning. “Right? They’re right behind us.”

Wen Ning nodded, and Luo Qingyang shrugged and said, “Sure.”

“Alright.” Nie Huaisang rolled another handful of dice, frowned at them, and said, “Okay, enough of them are knocked back by Wuxian’s Thunderwave that you have a clear escape route—especially with the Spiritual Weapon threatening anyone who moves closer to you. It’s basically 9pm, I’m tired, and I don’t think Wei Ying and Lan Zhan actually want to stick around. Do we want to handwave you all escaping, now that Wangji and Wuxian have blown away the people surrounding them?”

“Please,” Jiang Cheng said, and everyone else was chorusing some kind of affirmative. Lan Zhan and Wei Ying had even started packing all their character sheets and books up.

“Great, okay. You run, and as you do, you think you hear Wang Zilong saying, ‘Track them down.’ But you run, and you don’t think any of them know where you are—for now.” Nie Huaisang looked around the table, then smiled cheerfully and said, “Good game, thanks for playing, same time next week?”

“Thanks! Bye!” Wei Ying said, waving cheerily as Lan Zhan dragged him out the door. “See you later!”

The rest of them sat silently around the table for a moment, before Wen Ning said, “Hey, uh— Wei Ying’s usually my ride?”

Luo Qingyang groaned. “If you want to crash with me and your jiejie, I’ll take you home. Then she can listen to us both explain that whole thing.”

“Thank you.” Wen Ning collected his dice together. “Whenever you’re ready to go.”

“In a minute.” Luo Qingyang leaned on the table. “Did any of you see that coming?”

“Why do you think I’ve been so patient about them splitting the party every single game?” Nie Huaisang said drily. He closed his GM screen and picked up the whiteboard, wiping it clean with practiced strokes. “It’s so much more of a headache to plan three things that could happen: One for if you all stay together, and then one for each group if you split up.”

Jiang Cheng rested his forehead on the table. “I’m going to get nothing out of him but ‘Lan Zhan this, Lan Zhan that’ for the next month,” he informed them. “Probably longer.”

Wen Ning patted his shoulder hesitantly. “At least they’re happy?”

“You’re not going to get anything better,” Jiang Cheng said, letting out a long sigh. “But yeah. At least they’re happy. And maybe they’ll be able to focus on the game more, now that they can flirt literally anywhere else.”

“We can only hope,” Nie Huaisang said darkly. Then, more cheerfully, “You owe me another giant bag of gummy worms, Cheng-ge.”

“Remind me tomorrow.” Jiang Cheng pushed himself upright with a groan. “I’m not going to remember otherwise. Too busy thinking about Wei Ying sucking Lan Zhan’s face,” he growled, glaring at Luo Qingyang.

She smiled at him, completely unrepentant.

“You are all wonderful friends,” Nie Huaisang said, before Luo Qingyang could respond and escalate things. “Go home before we spend all night dissecting this like the high school kids we aren’t.”

Jiang Cheng laughed, Luo Qingyang stuck out her tongue, and Wen Ning smiled. Then they cleaned up and left, returning to their own lives where they could forget—for a moment—about Lan Zhan and Wei Ying,

In the morning this pretense was spoiled by what amounted to a flashing announcement on every single social media site Wei Ying used, vividly and loudly proclaiming his delight in having the most perfect boyfriend in the world.

Eventually, Jiang Cheng told himself, Wei Ying would become inured to this fact and not need to remind people of it at least once every hour. And until then, he just had to be patient, and ignore his brother sometimes, and keep living his life. This, too, would become normal in time.

At next week’s game nothing had fundamentally changed except for how close Wei Ying and Lan Zhan sat, and the way Luo Qingyang and Jiang Cheng started throwing dice at them when they got too obnoxiously tangled up in each other. It was reassuring, Jiang Cheng thought, listening to Nie Huaisang describe rumors of young nobles getting kidnapped, to know that they weren’t suddenly different people just because they were dating.

Then Wei Ying called Lan Zhan gege and Jiang Cheng felt his soul leave his body for a moment.

This was terrible and he hated it and the way Wei Ying was laughing at his face just made him more annoyed.

So the game ground to a halt as they had a brotherly shouting match. Luo Qingyang ate her chips too loudly, Wen Ning shook his head and built towers out of dice, Lan Zhan watched with narrowed eyes, and Nie Huaisang desperately tried to get everyone back on-topic.

One thing might have changed, but the game went on as it ever did: Argumentatively, but with plenty of love.