All Wei Wuxian wanted to do was go to sleep.
“Jiang Cheng, you know this is my room, right?” He collapsed backward on the bed, throwing his bags haphazardly on the floor.
“Shut up,” said Jiang Cheng instinctively, without answering the question. “I’m just making sure you’re prepared for tomorrow. Knowing you, you don’t even have a race plan yet.”
Wei Wuxian was happy to prove him wrong, pulling an only slightly wrinkled piece of printer paper out of his duffel bag. From the way Jiang Cheng’s eyes narrowed at it, he knew he was in for it.
“One page?” asked Jiang Cheng, left eye twitching. His hand – the one not holding his own race plan – shot out to grab at it, but Wei Wuxian snatched it away and flattened it on the low hotel room table.
“So what?” he said defensively. “You do this every time.”
“Because every time you fail to meet expectations.”
“It’s what I do best.”
Jiang Cheng pulled out Sandu threateningly and waved it in a way that very much went against sword-safety regulations. “My warm-up and pre-race mental centering are longer than that!”
“Ah, but Jiang Cheng,” he said, “what’s the point of such a detailed race plan? The situation could change at any minute. You’ll panic if you plan every second and something goes wrong.”
“What could go wrong? It’s a standard forty-kilometer course.” Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes and dug the point of Sandu into the hotel rug. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you, Wei Wuxian. Mom’s going to yell at you when she finds out.”
Wei Wuxian leaned in and said in a low voice, “Isn’t she going to yell at me anyway?” Louder, he said, “Just know the course and know yourself. The rest of this,” he waved at the papers Jiang Cheng was clutching, “is just extra.”
Jiang Cheng visibly bristled, rolling his eyes so hard only the whites showed. “You’re so full of yourself.”
“I mean, if you need ten pages of instructions on how to center yourself before flying a sword…” he trailed off meaningfully. After a beat of murderous silence, Wei Wuxian sighed and continued. “You’ll be fine. You’ve been balancing on a sword since you could walk.”
“Okay, shit, Jiang Cheng, sorry!”
The tension finally leaked out of Jiang Cheng’s shoulders and hands, papers crinkling noisily. “That’s better. I’m going to fuck you up so hard tomorrow. I’ll beat you by more than ten sword-lengths, ge. That’s a promise.”
“I’ll beat you by fifteen,” Wei Wuxian responded easily.
They clapped each other on the back and then Jiang Cheng was out, leaving Wei Wuxian blissfully alone in his room.
He looked down at his own race plan. It was simple, but he thought it was fine. Start off strong, using two of the five speed talismans he was allotted for the first ten kilometers. Very standard opening sequence: hard lean forward, tiptoes, half-down, three-quarters down, half-down again, then full feet back on sword. Good strong thrust for the ten kilometers, with steady weight-shifts throughout.
Inside his belly, his golden core spun with a rare intensity. Most flyers would be tired by the twenty-five kilometer mark and use a speed talisman to make up for it, but maintaining the talisman along with stabilizing the sword would just burn them out even more. Wei Wuxian could handle the golden core strain with relative ease. Even Jiang Cheng got unsteady, although his speed never wavered. It was a constant sore point. Only Lan Zhan always looked completely unphased.
With ten kilometers left, he would use however many speed talismans he had left and sprint to the end. A succinct conclusion, unlike the essay Jiang Cheng had written about how he’d take the first three kilometers to focus on his core, then the next to focus on keeping his feet planted, and then the next…
Wei Wuxian underlined the last two words on his paper, which were scribbled next to the thirty-eight kilometer marker. BLACK. OUT. His favorite part, the moment in which he got to empty out everything inside of him, everything and anything that was left to use.
Finally, there was the question of the five obstruction talismans. Jiang Cheng and Lan Zhan both used them carefully, planning out when and where to throw them. And at who. Just like them, Wei Wuxian had watched the past races of the top competitors to analyze their strategy, but he didn’t do so for obstruction planning.
If he needed it to win, he’d throw one to destabilize a competitor or to nullify their speed talisman. But why use them if he was confident in winning anyway? Why use them at the beginning, just to slow others down?
There were countless strategies people cooked up with their coaches. Wei Wuxian didn’t need or care to predict them. As long as he knew what he was capable of – which he did – and the map of the course – Phoenix Mountain was just one long stretch of forest – he would be able to adapt to anything.
It was seven in the morning when Team Jiang piled onto the travel bus and made their way to Phoenix Mountain - which was a misleading name. The actual mountain the forest was on had nothing to do with phoenixes, but the name of the race was a long-held tradition.
Wei Wuxian kept a tight grip on his yogurt cup so it wouldn’t spill onto the upholstery – Auntie Yu would murder him. The peanut butter bagel he’d had earlier was sitting uncomfortably in his stomach, so he distracted himself from chattering nonstop to Jiang Cheng, who had his headphones in and gradually folded away so his entire head was between his knees by the time they arrived.
Team Jiang spilled onto the grass by the parking lot, sharp golden glow lighting up the field of stretching athletes as the sun rose.
The day of the race was sunny, but Wei Wuxian could see the fog rolling in over the distant mountains. By the afternoon, it would be overcast. He snapped a picture of the landscape and texted it to Lan Zhan.
u here yet?
A couple of minutes later, he received a photo in response of a similar field on the opposite side of the course.
gege, he sent back, so far away!
For all his troubles, he only got back a thumbs-up emoji. Shoving his phone in his pocket, he fingered at the collar of his suit and dropped into a side lunge, groaning as his knees twinged with early morning stiffness.
Altogether, Team Jiang was well over thirty strong, but only a third had qualified for Phoenix Mountain based on their previous showings and on their forty kilometer results.
Wei Wuxian was two hours out from his only race – adult singles – but Jiang Cheng had two lined up. He was racing single-sword but also competed together with Yanli-jie for the doubles event happening in the afternoon.
He watched as they lifted off the grass and checked the threads of golden connection between their two swords. Sometimes he was jealous of how compatible they were. Jiejie was good at giving orders, and Jiang Cheng was good at following them.
Although – this could be their last year racing together. Jin Zixuan had proposed a few months ago, and while they hadn’t talked about racing arrangements, a lot of married couples raced pairs. Pairs was really intimate, okay? Unlike doubles, it involved both athletes standing on one sword. The extra layer of connection involved for two people to be connected to one spiritual tool was difficult to achieve.
Wei Wuxian wanted to throw up just thinking about jiejie and Jin Zixuan racing pairs. Especially if they raced under Team Jin. No, he thought, Auntie Yu would never allow that.
Across the parking lot, a red team bus emblazoned with flames squealed and lurched into place. Wen athletes began disembarking like little red ants defending a sand mound. He saw Wen Qing hop off the bus but lost her again among the crush of tall crimson-clad athletes.
There were so many of them that they immediately dwarfed Team Jiang on the field.
Team Wen was the largest and most prestigious of the formal racing clubs, but everyone knew they used underhanded methods. No one was bold enough to call them out. Wei Wuxian had reported their behavior at least five separate times, but the federation did absolutely nothing.
Once, back at the Cloud Recesses course, officials discovered five Wen athletes grinding down the edges of their blades after weigh-in to make them lighter than standard weight limits. The incident was buried under Wen money and influence, and the athletes were only fined – not even disqualified from the competition. They were even allowed to race with their shaved blades.
On the field, Wei Wuxian flipped the hilt of Suibian around in his hands. He’d never do anything so disrespectful to Suibian. You could modify swords with your spiritual energy anyway, a whetstone was just cheaper and much faster. Took way less effort.
Uncle Jiang had forged Suibian himself, and since then, Wei Wuxian had spent ages fitting her length, weight, and thickness to his own needs. Even now, she hummed with spiritual energy, deeply attuned to his rotating golden core.
Now that the stiffness was worked out of his limbs, he marched himself over to where the food tent was setting up, pointedly ignoring the Wen athletes that were starting to slowly encroach on Team Jiang space. Cramming two granola bars into his pocket, he also shamelessly picked up a packet of haw flakes. Jiang Cheng always said that the flakes were for babies, but if they were delicious, so what?
Over on the hot foods table, some of the Team Jiang personnel were heating up porridge on a portable stove, stirring with concentration so the bottom wouldn’t stick and burn.
“Auntie, is the porridge done?” he called.
He was ladled a bowl with extra lotus seeds and no dates, just the way he liked it. The bowl pressed hot against his hands, but the morning was cool so he settled on one of the folding chairs to spoon mouthfuls of porridge until he was scraping at the last dregs.
A peeled hard-boiled egg dropped into his empty bowl. He looked up to see Jiang Cheng scowling down at him.
Wei Wuxian held eye contact until Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes and handed him a packet of spicy pickled mustard stem.
“Thanks, Chengcheng,” he said, biting into the egg appreciatively.
“I’m twenty-two,” grouched Jiang Cheng as he headed over to the food as well. “Stop calling me that.”
“Never!” said Wei Wuxian with great cheer.
After the food was washed down, the next hour was spent in meeting after meeting. First, the all-team meeting. Then the personal coach consultations. Then another meeting, but only with the other single-sword racers. Finally, they were given space to do visual meditation and walk through their race plans.
As expected, Auntie Yu cuffed him on the head when she saw his plan. Jiang Cheng had handed her a literal folder. Wei Wuxian? Just a single sheet of paper.
“What is this?” she said, exasperated. “Where are you planning to obstruct?”
He shrugged, which wasn’t a satisfactory answer. “After my build? During my sprint? Whenever I need to.”
He knew it infuriated her that Jiang Cheng worked ten times as hard on consolidating a race plan but still frequently lost to him. But what was he to do? This was just his racing style.
Post-meeting, they walked the short distance to the start of the course. Team Wen was still out on the fields, but both Team Lan and Team Jin were gathered in the forested area that marked the start. Team Nie was perpetually late, so there was nothing unusual in the fact that Wei Wuxian had seen neither hide nor tail of them yet.
Still, he shot off a text to Nie Huaisang, just to make sure he was still coming. Even if he hadn’t qualified for Phoenix Mountain, his brother would no doubt drag him here in his capacity as a board member just to watch.
is mingjue-gege coming? he sent. It was a running joke to make Huaisang uncomfortable, but Mingjue really was a walking thirst trap.
help!!! he received seconds later. he’s got me secured in the car TT you have to free me or we’re not friends
sounds hot is all he replies with, now happy with knowing the Nies were on their way.
The chatter grew louder as Team Jiang approached the crowd.
Wei Wuxian’s sharp eyes caught the man he most wanted to see instantly.
“Lan Zhan!” he shrieked, so loud it carried over the heads of the conversing athletes, directly to its target.
Jiang Cheng grabbed at his collar, but Wei Wuxian was faster, ducking under Jiang Cheng’s grip to run directly at Lan Zhan, Suibian bouncing against his thigh.
“Wei Ying,” greeted Lan Zhan.
Lan Zhan was not only one of his top competitors, but his top number one best friend. The person who understood him best in this world.
“Warm-up is starting in ten, but I wanted to say hi before he drags me back over there,” he said, motioning at Jiang Cheng, who was shooting daggers with his eyes. “Are you ready? It’s a pretty nice day!”
“It will be nicer when I win,” replied Lan Zhan with a flick of his tight braid, white ribbon laced throughout. His hair was always so beautiful.
Wei Wuxian was mesmerized by the silky white ribbon and nearly reached out a hand to touch it before he realized what he was doing. Hiding the movement with a nervous chuckle, he said, “Sure Lan Zhan, say what you want. You know I’m better at forest courses.”
Lan Zhan hummed and unsheathed Bichen in one smooth motion. Bichen was a beautiful sword, living up to her name in that she was always gleaming with an unearthly brightness. He was nearly jealous of such a sword, but Suibian was much better suited for him anyway.
He wordlessly held out a hand for the blade and yelped as the point plummeted immediately to the ground, hilt dragging his arm down with it.
“Did it get heavier?” said Wei Wuxian in utter disbelief, staring at Bichen. How much spiritual energy would it take to maintain a sword this heavy at high speeds? There was a reason, after all, that the Wen athletes had been shaving their swords down. There was a reason there was a minimum and not a maximum limit. “Who are you, a Team Nie athlete? Getting tips from Mingjue-ge?”
A tiny scowl presented itself on Lan Zhan’s face, but it was gone in an instant, replaced with smugness. “Standard obstruction talismans will not work to great effect,” he said. “A worthwhile trade-off.” What he meant was that his golden core was ridiculously strong, even though he wasn’t training for brute strength like Team Nie did.
The way he took back Bichen from Wei Wuxian’s limp arm made her seem lighter than air. It was so unfair. Wei Wuxian wasn’t weak – he lifted regularly and power-lifted twice a week. He could bench – like – okay, well, less than Lan Zhan, for sure.
He looked openly at how the stretchy fabric of the suit clung to Lan Zhan’s powerful pecs and shoulders. Maybe it was his imagination, but he could have sworn that he saw one of them jump.
Just as he touched the tip of his index finger to Lan Zhan’s firm shoulder, a hand lodged itself in his collar and gripped it tight.
“Heavens,” said Jiang Cheng’s voice from behind them. “I’m going to crash my sword then yours into a tree if you don’t stop fucking flirting. We have warm-ups. Now.” He gestured at the line of Jiang athletes going into warm-up forms.
Wei Wuxian cried out pitifully as he was dragged away by Jiang Cheng, but he still managed to give Lan Zhan a final wave. “I’ll be waiting for you at the finish line!” he shouted cheekily.
“Good luck,” replied Lan Zhan, before heading to his own warmups.
Ten minutes into the race, Wei Wuxian was only trailing Lan Zhan by a few sword lengths. The others were behind them, although if he messed up, Jiang Cheng wouldn’t hesitate to hit him with an obstruction talisman. Or Jin Zixuan, who was edging up on his left.
He himself still had all five, although he didn’t want to use them on Lan Zhan. Not if Lan Zhan didn’t activate one first. Besides, the forest was beginning to get denser, trees crowding in and tangles of brambles and ferns catching at their feet. In theory, he wouldn’t mind a few branch scrapes, but it would slow him down. He’d rather focus on flying than on talisman activation.
Lan Zhan’s white suit was still pristine, and he held himself with impeccable form, weaving in and out of sight up ahead.
But there were openings he didn’t take. Openings he calculated to be too risky.
‘Too risky’ was not in Wei Wuxian’s vocabulary. He squatted into an athletic position to duck under a thick branch, twisting his torso to avoid the heavy fall of vines around him. There, he’d caught up another length. Now he was so close he thought if he used a speed talisman he’d easily outpace Lan Zhan.
The next turn in the racecourse took them up higher, perhaps twenty meters off the ground as undergrowth swarmed in bunches.
Out of the corner of his eye, right as Lan Zhan hit the peak of his turn, Wei Wuxian saw a red suit flash by. Before he could even react, there was a blinding explosion of light as multiple talismans activated at once, and then – nothing. Lan Zhan wasn’t in front of him anymore.
At this speed, it was difficult to stop, but he dug his heels in and threw his weight backward. As the wind quieted down, he heard several continuous seconds of rustling and then two distinct crashes.
His instinct was to go after the Wen racer who – is that Wen Chao? – had clearly been the cause of Lan Zhan’s crash. But Lan Zhan had just dropped twenty meters off of his sword and into the undergrowth.
He growled and urged Suibian downward until the thorny brambles were slapping against the sides of his headgear and the morning sun was nothing but a thin filtered wash of light. Luckily, Lan Zhan’s suit was all white with accents of blue – he was practically glowing.
By the time he reached Lan Zhan’s side, Lan Zhan was heaving himself to a sitting position with an arm, other hand feeling out to see where Bichen was.
“Lan Zhan!” he called, grimacing at the blood welling up where the suit had been torn to shreds, especially around Lan Zhan’s left calf. “Are you hurt? What happened? I saw Wen Chao, that fucking asshole, but what–”
He quieted down when Lan Zhan lifted a hand. He was sweating a little and shaking. Wei Wuxian had never seen Lan Zhan shake, and it terrified him.
“The fall broke my leg,” he said quietly. “Wen Chao obstructed me, five at once. On my torso, not on Bichen.”
All of that was very, very illegal.
At first, he wanted to be angry, but he had no place to direct the anger. It sat, like burning coal, in the cavity of his chest. Not so useful for now. Instead, he brushed the dirt and debris off of Lan Zhan’s suit and thought about what to do next. He heard two racers whiz by overhead, neck and neck.
Good thing he had prepared for Phoenix Mountain well – he knew what direction the finish line lay in, as well as some of the major landmarks, including a tall, crooked evergreen he could see easily from the air. Jiang Cheng might have spent hours planning the race, but Wei Wuxian had spent those same hours researching the course.
He shoved Bichen into her sheath and heaved Lan Zhan up and over his shoulders like a cape.
“Hang on,” he warned, trying to ignore the way Lan Zhan’s breath hitched and resumed in rhythms. God, his leg was seriously fucked up. It had to hurt so much. Wei Wuxian wanted to take all of Lan Zhan’s pain and siphon it into himself. “This might be dangerous, but you can trust me.”
“I do,” said Lan Zhan very quietly, through his teeth. “You are a very good racer.”
Slowly, with both feet planted on Suibian and Lan Zhan’s good leg forming the third point of balance in the back, Wei Wuxian commanded the sword to rise. With the way Lan Zhan was pressed against his back, Wei Wuxian could feel the back of his own collar growing damp.
It’s my sweat, he told himself, eyes searching for a focus in the path ahead. He could not look behind him; it was better not to know if Lan Zhan was crying. Beads of perspiration traced lines down his temples and dripped off the bottom of his chin. If he was able to – just get them out of here – everything would be okay.
He centered his mind as they rose higher, above the treeline. The gusts of wind whipped past them with increasing fervor, and it took all he had in order to stabilize Suibian. Lan Zhan was still balancing on his one good leg but weaving through the trees would have taken too long.
“We could race pairs together, eh, Lan Zhan?” he gritted out as his eyes wept from the cold, harsh air. Not listening for an answer, he activated his remaining three speed talismans and sent them flying toward the finish line.
As much as he was standing on a needle-thin edge of precision, there was a wild sense of adrenaline pounding through his veins, an unfettered and rough thrill. The movements of his feet and shifting of his weight were both instinctive, honed by a lifetime of training, and unerringly accurate. Each tug of the wind required him to pull into his core for more, more, more – he was certain he’d never overutilized it this much before, not even during that crazy race at the Unclean Realm two summers ago.
Lan Zhan shivered behind him, and he abruptly realized that it was freezing up above the trees, especially with the windchill. If Lan Zhan was redirecting his spiritual energy toward healing his broken leg, of course he’d be cold. And Wei Wuxian was sweating so much he hardly felt it.
He pushed Suibian to go faster – less than five kilometers to go – and began feeding thin streams of spiritual energy into Lan Zhan to warm him. For a moment, the sword tipped precariously, but he pulled it back under control. The image of Lan Zhan plummeting through the trees flashed before his eyes for a moment, and he couldn’t stop his shoulders from rising in tension.
He could already see the clearing where the finish line was. Surprisingly, no one else seemed to be there yet. In fact, he couldn’t see any movement in the trees below him – no zigzags, no leaves rustling, no yelling of competitors competing for the final meters. He didn’t dare chance a look behind him.
It was with great relief that he wobbled to a stop a few hundred meters before the clearing and began to descend, wind lessening and improving his balance. There was a puff of air against his back, as if Lan Zhan too was sighing in relief.
A few branches raked past his headgear to scratch at his face as Wei Wuxian dipped below the tree line and continued onward on the correct path all the way to the finish line. Maybe they would even count this as his win. Lan Zhan’s win too. Even if they’d taken a shortcut.
The supporting team members immediately began cheering and clustering around them as they landed somewhat abruptly. If they were mystified by how suddenly Wei Wuxian had materialized out of thin air onto the racecourse, they didn’t show it.
Wei Wuxian hauled Lan Zhan off the sword and pushed at the closest athletes, trying to get them to disperse. “He’s hurt,” he barked. “Get me a race official.”
It was Lan Qiren himself who came over first, scowling at the sight of Wei Wuxian and the veritable nest in his hair, before catching a glimpse of Lan Zhan’s bloodied white racing suit, torn at the leg.
“It’s broken,” Wei Wuxian said, maneuvering Lan Zhan’s arm so Lan Qiren could get it over his shoulder. “I didn’t let him put pressure on it, so it shouldn’t be too bad.”
“Thank you,” said Lan Qiren. “I will come to you for a full account as soon as I get him medical attention.” As a coach, he was concerned in a clinical way, but as an uncle, he was devastated. He wasn’t even looking at Wei Wuxian anymore, eyes flashing between Lan Zhan’s face and his leg.
“Thank you,” repeated Lan Zhan, whose – oh no – his eyes were red and swollen.
Wei Wuxian looked away. “It’s not a big deal,” he mumbled. He chanced another peek at Lan Zhan, who looked so miserable that Wei Wuxian felt like someone was kneading his heart into dough. He picked up Suibian and darted forward to give Lan Zhan a quick, sweaty hug. “We’ll talk later, yeah? If Wen Chao comes by, I’ll fuck him up for you.”
Lan Zhan managed a stern glare before he was helped onto a stretcher and carried away. Lan Qiren had slipped Bichen out of the suit and laid it next to Lan Zhan on the white cloth.
Wei Wuxian watched them move away until they were just white specks in the trees. The other athletes were already crowding around him again, trying to ask him what had happened, but luckily the race officials, including Lan Zhan’s brother, shooed them away and escorted Wei Wuxian to a more private corner.
He knew Lan Zhan needed medical attention, obviously. For some reason, though, he felt possessive, like he wanted to set Lan Zhan’s leg himself and feed him painkillers and kiss him sweetly on the forehead and just be alone with him. He didn’t want all the people here, clamoring for a story. He didn’t want the medics to take Lan Zhan away.
But because Lan Xichen was looking at him expectantly, he began recounting in a dull tone, trying to pull the memory out of his brain. It was less than an hour ago, but it felt like a lifetime. In the corner of his eye, he saw Jiang Cheng slide into a third place (or first place?) finish.
Even as he spoke, he kept just thinking I miss Lan Zhan, I miss him, I want to see him. Heavens, what was wrong with him? Why was he so fucking clingy? Maybe seeing Wen Chao purposefully knock into Lan Zhan and hit him with five obstruction talismans at once had really messed up the wires in his brain.
Nothing seemed more important than checking on Lan Zhan right now. Holding his hand, maybe. Shit, he wasn’t even the one who was injured but the idea of holding Lan Zhan’s big, calloused hand brought a great sense of security. There was nowhere safer.
He had never held Lan Zhan’s hand before. A problem that needed to be rectified. Perhaps this wasn’t a symptom of being clingy. Perhaps this was…something more than that. He couldn’t name it yet.
“And then you flew down,” prompted Lan Xichen, and Wei Wuxian visibly startled.
“Yeah…yes,” he said. “I flew down, and Lan Zhan was trying to sit up. He said his leg was broken, and it’s pretty straightforward from there. I had him balance on Suibian, and we flew straight here.”
Xichen frowned down at his phone, which was recording. “This will suffice for a quick report. You understand we will have to excavate the full details later.” He looked up and smiled, that gentle devastating smile that had beguiled the hearts of countless maidens. Or so Wei Wuxian had heard. “Go get some rest. Thank you for what you did for my brother.”
“It’s no problem!” chirped Wei Wuxian, regaining some of his cheer now that he was allowed to go. “Catch you later, Xichen-ge.”
Immediately, Jiang Cheng and his parents accosted him. He was so tired of rehashing the story, but he told it once more. At least Uncle Jiang congratulated him for winning.
“I expect you to stay here to support a-Cheng and Yanli this afternoon,” said Auntie Yu sternly, seeing his eyes and feet shift in the direction Lan Zhan was taken. “Race debriefing will still happen. If you have free time, go help at the food tent.”
“It’s just a broken leg,” she said dismissively. “They’ll set it. You can wait one day. He’s probably at the hospital already.”
Wei Wuxian pouted and wanted to argue, but he caught Jiang Cheng’s eye. “Okay,” he acquiesced. “I’ll stay.”
By the time they got back to Team Jiang’s swordport, it was late evening, bus rumbling for hours out of the mountains and back into Beijing. They were situated outside of the city proper, near some of the cemeteries, but Lan Zhan was at Gusu Hospital. That was in the Second Ring, still another hour’s worth of driving, depending on traffic. He’d already texted an image of his leg in a brace.
Wei Wuxian groaned into the fuzzy patterned fabric of the seat in front of him. He wished he had Suibian to fiddle with, but all the swords were locked for safekeeping under the bus in accordance with city ordinances.
“Shut up, you’ll see your boyfriend soon,” Jiang Cheng hissed, plastering his face to the window, away from Wei Wuxian. His gold and bronze medals bounced against his chest.
Huh. Wei Wuxian thought about the concept. The concept being: dating Lan Zhan. “Good idea,” he mumbled. Fuck, he was so exhausted from running around all day, especially after the adrenaline from the morning had faded. “Do you think Lan Zhan likes me?”
“He might be the only who does,” said Jiang Cheng. “Now seriously, shut up. It’s your turn to get off the bus.”
With one final team debrief, the thirty or so athletes packed away their swords into storage and trudged off to the swordport parking lot. Wei Wuxian was not Auntie Yu’s biggest fan, but at least she was efficient.
His phone buzzed in his pocket as he slid into his car and prepared to drive home, a tiny apartment between the third and fourth rings. But it was in the relative vicinity of the hospital and Lan Zhan’s much nicer apartment.
“Hey,” said Wei Wuxian, smiling after seeing the caller ID. “How are you doing?”
“Can I come over?” asked Lan Zhan, bypassing all of the small talk. “It would be easier to talk in person.”
“Of course.” Even though Wei Wuxian felt like he’d knock out the moment he got home. He stuck his keys into the ignition and let the call connect to the car’s Bluetooth.
“When will you be home?”
“Thirty minutes?” It was after rush hour. “Maybe longer. I need to put everything away anyway, so how about an hour from now?”
“Okay,” said Lan Zhan simply, even though that was pushing his typical bedtime. “See you soon.”
Those simple words filled Wei Wuxian with such warmth that he was momentarily speechless. “Yeah,” he finally said weakly. “See you.”
The call clicked off.
Weaving through the wide highways of Beijing at night was always a treat, skyscrapers with glowing letters rising out of the darkness. Little shuttered stalls lined the streets, pressed against bus stops with ads so bright there were swarms of bugs fluttering around them. Concrete bridges passed by overhead. Lao-Wang’s zhajiangmian shop was still bustling with customers, even past the normal dinner time. There was a new Sichuanese restaurant at the intersection two blocks from his apartment, which made him grin in anticipation. His phone shuffled to 北京北京, and he sang along to the lyrics with gusto, even imitating the vocal cord strain.
Finally, he pulled into the shitty parking garage and put the car into park.
Before long, he was showering and then pulling on casual clothing, flopping onto his bed even with wet hair. Auntie Yu always yelled at him for sleeping with wet hair, said he’d catch a cold, but ever since he’d moved out, only well-earned silence greeted him.
It seemed like he was only drifting for less than ten minutes, but he was pulled out of it by Lan Zhan’s knock. His phone read 9 PM.
“Coming!” he yelled, grabbing a pair of house slippers for his guest.
The dim glow of the hallway light cast a pale sheen over Lan Zhan’s face; even so, he looked a bit sickly, hands gripping his crutches. The leg was encased in a thick cast, and it looked bad, although Wei Wuxian knew better.
“Ge dropped me off,” Lan Zhan said. “Can I stay over?”
“Of course,” said Wei Wuxian, ushering him in. He thought he was slowly coming to multiple epiphanies. He thought he would really like it if Lan Zhan stayed. He thought he could maybe – “But I don’t have the pull-out couch set up yet.”
“No need. Unless my leg will bother you as you sleep.”
Setting up the pull-out couch would take all of five minutes, but Wei Wuxian agreed enthusiastically to Lan Zhan’s proposition. They’d shared beds frequently before Wei Wuxian had entertained thoughts about kissing his face. They could do it again.
He was always observant when it came to Lan Zhan, but he couldn’t stop looking this time. Tracing over the little bump in Lan Zhan’s nose bridge, that one that held up his glasses when they slipped down. The gentle slope of his forehead and the sharp eyebrows that slashed across. His brown eyes, inside corners turned down, framed by short lashes.
When he met Lan Zhan’s eyes, Lan Zhan was already staring back with a fixed intensity.
Biting back a startled curse, Wei Wuxian resumed maneuvering him into the small bedroom, helping prop up the crutches against the wall so that Lan Zhan could sit down. His skin felt like glass, as if Lan Zhan could look straight in and see all the mess inside.
“Comfortable?” he asked, grabbing for the pair of pajamas Lan Zhan wore every time he stayed over. His hands were darting back and forth with nervous energy, looking for something to occupy them, so he fluffed at the pillows as well and turned the light on in the adjoining bathroom.
“You wanted to talk right? Is it about the race? Shit, Lan Zhan, I’m so sorry that happened to you. Wen Chao is an asshole and should be barred from competition.” After he set out another toothbrush, he ducked back into the bedroom and sat at the edge of the bed next to Lan Zhan.
“Not about the race,” said Lan Zhan. He placed a serious hand on Wei Wuxian’s arm, and even though the touch was hot, a shiver ran through his entire body. “How are you doing?”
“Me?” asked Wei Wuxian. “How are you ?”
“I asked you first,” Lan Zhan insisted, lips pressed together in the way that meant he wasn’t going to budge. No wonder he’d been born in the year of the ox – he was so goddamn stubborn.
“I’m fine, Lan Zhan.”
“You seem…different.” Lan Zhan thought about it for a second, then changed his mind. “Not different. Just on edge. Is it still from earlier today?”
“I mean, yeah, I’ll give you that. It’s hard not to be a little fucked up by what happened, but it’s not even me that it happened to!”
Lan Zhan frowned. “But you bore the brunt of flying me back.” They both knew how taxing it had been for Wei Wuxian. There was no point in lying.
So he changed the subject. “Remember when I fell off my sword at the training camp at the Gusu swordport?”
“I remember,” said Lan Zhan slowly.
“You wrapped my sprained ankle and then helped me meditate to fix the nick on Suibian. I was just returning the favor.”
“Hm,” said Lan Zhan. “Do not consider it returning a favor. You helped me because you are good, Wei Ying.”
He turned and flopped face down on the bed. “Doesn’t lying go against your moral code or something?”
“Who said I was lying?”
“Okay, okay, not me,” said Wei Wuxian with exaggeration, flipping over so he was looking up at the mottled ceiling where the paint job wasn’t even. “Seriously, do you know what’s going to happen to Wen Chao?”
“Likely nothing,” said Lan Zhan grimly, fingers picking at the loose threads in the covers. “The footage for that part of course has vanished. There is no proof it was Wen Chao.”
“But I saw him!” Wei Wuxian privately thought Wen Chao’s ugly mug fleeing the scene would be haunting his nightmares for weeks. “He must have been there waiting, there’s no way he made it there faster than you, you could be doing flips all the way there and you’d still beat him.”
Lan Zhan chuckled but said nothing.
“It was planned,” pushed Wei Wuxian.
“Perhaps,” was all Lan Zhan allowed. “It is late,” he said. “Brother will give more updates in the morning.”
“Right, yeah, you must be so tired.” Wei Wuxian helped Lan Zhan up, brushing their teeth together and changing. He tucked him in, an act he found adorable. He even sang a little nursery rhyme about honeybees as he pulled the blankets up, causing Lan Zhan to glare up at him.
After brushing his teeth and using the bathroom, he expected to find Lan Zhan already asleep, but his eyes were open and contemplative. He got in the queen-sized bed and thought, it’s so small that I’m practically touching him anyway, and slung a long leg over Lan Zhan’s.
It wasn’t uncommon for friends to share a bed or even cuddle affectionately, but they were growing past the age that people typically did. Lan Zhan didn’t like being touched casually, especially in public, but even he had indulged in their teenage boy dogpiles and casual wrestling at post-race hotel parties and between races.
“Wei Ying,” said Lan Zhan, but he made no attempt to move his leg away. Wei Wuxian’s calf was pressed against the cast, and he traced the lines of it with his toes.
He closed his eyes, and when he opened them again, Lan Zhan was propped up on an elbow, looking down at him with unreadable, dark eyes.
“What,” said Wei Wuxian, feeling unfairly victimized. “I can take my leg off?” he ventured.
“Do you know why I came over?”
Wei Wuxian blinked several times at the change in topic. He wasn’t sure he was following. “Because we really went through it today? Aiyah, Lan Zhan, you don’t have to make me guess. Just tell me.”
Lan Zhan pinched him viciously on the side for that, and he squirmed away, giggling and messing up the sheets. It took a couple of minutes for him to get composed again, but he wasn’t done complaining.
“Lan Zhan, what a brute!” he said, wriggling and throwing his leg back over Lan Zhan’s where it had gotten knocked loose. He was sure they were on the precipice of…something, but he didn’t know how to tip them over. Flirting was easy, but no one had ever taught him how to take the fall.
In response to the insult, Lan Zhan just rolled his eyes, unamused. “Guess.”
“I don’t know,” he sputtered. “To hang out? To rehash today’s events? To make up fun and creative ways to murder Wen Chao? For heaven’s sake, maybe because you just wanted to see me!” He threw his hands up in the air. It was preposterous – Lan Zhan slept at nine promptly every night and today of all days he wanted to fuck around.
But Lan Zhan looked inordinately pleased. “Because I wanted to see you,” he said. “Yes.” His lips quirked up in a small smile.
Wei Wuxian squeaked and threw his blankets over his face to cover the flush. “Lan Zhan,” he said through a mouthful of fabric. “Stop, you know how that makes me feel.”
“I don’t,” he said, prying the covers off. “How does it make you feel?”
That was, indeed, the question of the hour.
How did it make him feel – the full, luminous weight of Lan Zhan’s attention? Like he was front stance forward on Suibian, hopped up on a speed talisman and carving through the air or darting through the trees. Like he was coming first after a good race, pulse spiked and jumping. Like flying, period.
“It feels,” he said, peeking up from under his forearm, which he had pressed to his face, “like we’re flying side by side, just us, and there’s nothing we can’t do. Like that.”
Lan Zhan inhaled once, quickly, deeply, and then fully pried Wei Wuxian’s arm off his face. Used his other hand to grip the front of his shirt and yank until Wei Wuxian tumbled over onto the hot breadth of his chest, face just centimeters away. For a brief moment, Wei Wuxian was larger and older than anything that was living, a bit like holding something as fragile as a beating heart in his palm, and loving it anyway.
“Nothing we can’t do,” said Lan Zhan very quietly, and then kissed him.
“Well, don’t you look happy,” grumbled Jiang Cheng the next day as he walked into the mat room of the swordport to find Wei Wuxian floating around on Suibian.
“Oh really?” said Wei Wuxian, whose brain was sort of floating around right along with his body. “Do I really?”
“Let me guess,” started Jiang Cheng, but he fell silent when jiejie came in. Ha, now he had to be nicer.
“Xianxian!” she said, dropping her duffel by the door, nearly slipping on her socked feet. “Jiejie brought a little shaobing for you, did you eat breakfast?”
At that, he let Suibian touch the ground and hopped off, calling the sword hilt to his palm. “I did, but I’ll never turn down a treat from jie. You worked so hard to bring it here!”
“You remembered to eat breakfast?” asked Jiang Cheng with incredulity. “ You ?”
“Yeah? I had a bag of milk and Lan Zhan found the mung bean porridge I left in the fridge from last week.” Wei Wuxian took the shaobing container from Yanli-jie. “Hey jie, is this a sweet one? Fuck yeah.”
“Lan Zhan was at your house this morning?” Jiang Cheng’s voice was abruptly rising in volume, but Wei Wuxian was too busy stuffing flaky pastry in his face to pay any mind.
“Cheng ah, be mindful,” scolded jiejie, marching over to close the door. “Xianxian, why was Wangji at your place?”
“Why can’t he be?” he replied, just to be difficult, but he soon relented under both of their stares. “He stayed the night. We’re. We’re together now, I guess.”
“You guess?” scoffed Jiang Cheng. He looked happier than he’d been all morning, even if he was scowling harder.
Wei Wuxian shrugged. “We slept together already, so I’m pretty sure.”
“And we talked about it too,” he said, for jiejie’s sake.
“His leg is broken!” cried Jiang Cheng. “You want to rebreak it? Huh?”
“Wait, you really want to know the specifics? Rest assured his leg isn’t rebroken,” said Wei Wuxian, leering.
“I’m good,” said Jiang Yanli. She rapped Jiang Cheng on the arm with her knuckles before he could say anything in response. “Congratulations, Xianxian. I’m glad it finally worked out.”
At that, Wei Wuxian looked up from the pastry. “Yeah, I guess it was pretty obvious, huh? It just took me a second to piece it together, and Lan Zhan could tell immediately that I’d figured it out. It was kind of impressive.” The one who knew him best in this life, after all.
“Whatever,” said Jiang Cheng. “As long as it doesn’t interfere with your training for Sunshot.”
“No one but Datianye himself could stop me from kicking your ass at Sunshot,” Wei Wuxian promised.
Jiang Cheng swatted at him lightheartedly, but before they could escalate into full-on wrestling, there was a sharp rap on the door, accompanied by a yell to open up.
The three of them looked at each other. Wen Qing? mouthed Wei Wuxian. Jiang Cheng’s entire face had gone stiff like he was bracing himself.
Jiang Yanli subtly rolled her eyes and swung the door open, indeed revealing Wen Qing.
“Hey,” she said. “Good to see you!”
“You too, Yanli.” Wen Qing nodded briskly at the two boys, before herding them into the room. “This room is soundproof, right? It has to be – I couldn’t hear you tussling from outside.”
“Yeah,” said Wei Wuxian after a second of lag. “It’s soundproof.”
They all sat in a circle on the mats, swords hung on the wall rack.
“So is this super-secret club meeting about your asshole teammate?” Wei Wuxian asked without prompting.
Jiang Cheng shot him a glare that was so loud it could have opened its mouth and spoken.
“It’s fine,” said Wen Qing. “Yeah, sort of. It’s not just about Wen Chao. Look, anything said in this room stays in this room, alright?”
“Of course,” they chorused.
“As you know, I’m an assistant coach on the Wen team,” she said. “I help check equipment but mostly do talisman work. Improving them and updating them in line with CFS standards, et cetera.” She smiled a bit. “And I have a side gig doing form critiques with Wei Wuxian on the sidelines in between races, obviously.”
“Ugh, I missed you at Phoenix Mountain.”
Her expression darkened at the reminder. “Yeah, I was called to check on the Wen talismans all afternoon. The officials wanted me to make sure they were all standard after you gave your quote about seeing Wen Chao. They think five standard obstructs, even applied all at once, shouldn’t have been enough to knock out Lan Wangji.”
“I don’t know,” said Wei Wuxian, biting his lip. “Did you hear that Wen Chao knocked into him physically and activated all five on his person? Like not on Bichen?”
“I did,” said Wen Qing. “But they still wanted me to check. And here’s the thing: they were right to have me check. Even if Lan Wangji was blasted off his sword, don’t you think he could’ve called Bichen to him during the fall? Or at least cushion the landing with his core?”
“What are you saying?” Jiang Yanli asked, fingers laced together and knuckles going white.
“This isn’t conjecture,” Wen Qing said after a hefty pause. “I have something to confess.”
It was almost freeing to be in a general conference meeting without Wen Ruohan’s staggering presence. And all his sons. If only Jin Guangshan were also absent.
Instead, he was lording it up by the head of the room, clearly puffed up like a hot-air balloon now that Team Jin was the biggest and most accomplished team around. Not to mention – they were totally in Jin territory at the heart of the city, only a few blocks down from Tiananmen. Their swordport, like all the other teams, was located outside the city, near better terrain, but there were rumors they sometimes got to play tricks and fly around fucking Nanhai Gongyuan. Jin Guangshan definitely knew someone in the government.
Unfortunately, that was the least of their problems. What Wen Qing was bringing forward was concerning, and Sunshot 500 was on the horizon. If Sunshot got fucked up, then international qualifiers would have to be decided by individual time trials and a summation of all past race results. No one wanted that.
Still, Wei Wuxian doubted the board was going to accomplish anything, especially before Sunshot.
By the projector screen, Wen Qing was gesturing at a series of diagrams, each more complicated than the last. Meng Yao, the commissioner, was dressed in a little pinstriped suit and standing off to the side. Sure that no one’s eyes would be on him, he was glaring at the poor techie as the slideshow lagged. But Wei Wuxian caught it.
No matter how much Jin Guangshan was playing it cool, everyone present was taking the allegations extremely seriously. As soon as Wen Qing had marched in and declared that Team Wen had cheated at Phoenix Mountain and would do so again at Sunshot, everyone had leaned forward as if drawn by magnetic energy.
Sunshot was more important than just the final national-level race of the season. It also wound through the city, cutting through all five rings, moving west in a straightaway through the center of Beijing city, slashing up through Zizhuyuan, and then ending in the more hazardous and forested outskirts. The roads were cleared religiously and nearby businesses and residences prepared for days in advance. Their sport’s national prestige and standing rested, as it always did, on the success of Sunshot 500.
Some thought sword-racing was outdated and dangerous, while others found it exciting and a way of maintaining a cultural tradition. No one had stirred up a ruckus about Lan Zhan’s broken leg, but if what Wen Qing was describing came to pass, then a hammer would fall on the officials, including the board and executive director of the CFS. Public opinion would swing in favor of more regulations.
“These obstruction talismans directly affect the golden core,” said Wen Qing, her voice carrying easily over the uneasy whispering of the athletes, coaches, and administrators present. “Obviously illegal, and with potential for permanent core damage if used at great volume over a short period of time.”
The entire room very conspicuously did not look at Lan Zhan. Wei Wuxian, on the other hand, found no shame in viciously staring at his boyfriend, halfway across the room with Team Lan. As always, he found Lan Zhan looking back, and the way his gaze settled on his shoulders felt like a warm blanket.
“They were not perfected at Phoenix Mountain,” she said, switching to the next slide. “But Wen Ruohan is aiming to use the perfected versions to knock competitors out of the way at Sunshot. He wants Wen Chao to have a shot at Worlds.”
A loud whisper immediately arose. Wen Chao was alright, but he was nowhere near the international level for someone who’d been training since they could stand on a sword. Wen Chao going to Worlds would be a national-level disgrace.
“So you knew about all this,” said Jin Guangshan from his spinney chair, pen clicking with each word. “And you didn’t stop it or bring it to us before Phoenix Mountain?” He gestured at Lan Zhan, crutches visibly leaning against the wall behind him. The intent was clear: his injury is your fault.
“I didn’t know,” insisted Wen Qing. “Wen Ruohan said it was all theoretical, and I only found these fully-formed diagrams recently. I had no clue they were planning to use them until what happened at Phoenix Mountain. I came to you all immediately.”
Most were satisfied with that answer, but there were a few restless faces in the crowd.
“You’re still a Wen,” scoffed Jin Guangshan.
“As of today, I’m quitting. I’ve already submitted my letter of resignation, and I, along with my brother, will be looking into future contracts, whether with a team or independent.”
That caught everyone’s interest, but Wen Qing moved on as if it didn’t matter that she was one of the most brilliant coaches in Beijing, and Wen Ning one of the top physical trainers. Already, Wei Wuxian could tell, Auntie Yu was making plans to acquire her talents, but he was sure the Wen siblings wouldn’t be that easy.
“Now you have this information,” said Wen Qing. “In addition to what happened at Phoenix Mountain, is it possible to bar Team Wen from competing at Sunshot?”
A hush fell over the room. Barring a team from Sunshot, especially Team Wen, was unthinkable. Maybe fines, or targeted investigation, or restricting competition for one or two athletes for a specified length of time. But banning an entire team…
“Well,” said Lan Xichen delicately, realizing that his relation with Lan Zhan made him one of the only people with skin in the game currently, “do we have any proof that Wen Chao was the perpetrator at Phoenix Mountain?”
Wei Wuxian moved to stand, but Jiang Cheng shoved him back down. Jiang Cheng was shooting him the you always make a mess of things look, which was supremely unfair and untrue besides.
“Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian were both present and can confirm that it was Wen Chao, and if not, definitely a Wen racer by the suit color.”
Scoffs went up around - did they really not think of disguising the glaring crimson of their suit? But still, this was only word of mouth, and the video evidence had vanished.
“We’ll investigate,” said Meng Yao, stepping away from the techie, who slumped with relief. “I propose a motion to conduct a full investigation of Team Wen on the basis of these diagrams and to verify the rumors of their misconduct. Post-investigation, we can then move forward with consequences with full information.”
“Motion seconded,” said Jin Guangshan.
Wei Wuxian’s heart was sinking as he noticed the nods of the officials eligible to vote. A full CFS investigation would take too long. There was no way it would be concluded by Sunshot. The same people who had been acknowledging the severity of an incident at Sunshot were now saying that it would set a dangerous precedent to take action against a team with no verification, especially around such an important competition. It was bullshit - Wei Wuxian had seen Wen Chao’s face at Phoenix Mountain, had been the one to fly Lan Zhan all the way to the finish line while he was fucking crying...proof? The proof was his rage.
He didn’t wait around to find out the results of the vote. After all, he was just a lowly athlete. To them, he was just Wei Wuxian, playful, arrogant, and unable to take things seriously.
I’ll meet you later, he mouthed at Lan Zhan and jerked his head to the door. Lan Zhan nodded, and Wei Wuxian rose before Jiang Cheng could pull at him again and slipped out of the door.
“Wen Qing!” greeted Wei Wuxian cheerfully at the front door of her new office, the one nestled in the giant maze that was the CFS headquarters. She was helping in the investigation for now, at least in the first week since the meeting, but sooner or later contractors would come knocking at her door.
“Wuxian,” she said crisply, unlocking the door. “Don’t just stand there, come in! How long have you been waiting? Have you eaten?”
“You sound like jiejie,” he said, dropping himself down on the small plastic chair in the corner and handing her the grocery bag he’d been carrying. “I’ve eaten.”
She peered inside and groaned. “What do you want now?”
“Who says I want anything?” Wei Wuxian fluttered his eyelashes pitifully and curled his hair around his fingertips.
Wen Qing didn’t respond, just looked between him and the xianhua pastries, which were sitting on top of a plastic container of pig ear, which was precariously balanced on two boxes of her favorite spicy fish tofu.
“So say,” began Wei Wuxian, “hypothetically, someone wanted your help for a secret project. It would be difficult and take some tinkering, but it would be, like, extremely fucking cool.”
“Hypothetically, I think I’d need to know more context before deciding how extremely fucking cool it is.”
“Okay, so, still hypothetically here,” he said, “it would involve a legal obstruction talisman that misdirects instead of nullifies.”
Wen Qing rolled her eyes for what seemed like a full minute and then set the grocery bag on the ground. “Let’s cut the crap, Wuxian. I want to hear motive, and then I want to hear your plan.”
“Does that mean you’ll help? Because I’m not going to tell you unless you promise.”
She opened a meigui xianhua pastry and shoved the entire thing in her mouth.
“…okay,” said Wei Wuxian. “Thanks.”
The plan and motive were both pretty simple to explain, and Wen Qing picked it up fast.
“Let me get this straight,” she said. “You’re using yourself as bait to take the attention off of other competitors. Which is why you want to keep it a secret, because you know Jiang Cheng, Yanli, and Wangji would all take you the fuck out - in different ways - if they discovered you.”
He nodded. He’d been meditating and shaping Suibian for ages already, trying to make her thinner and longer, faster until he was riding the edge of losing control of the sword every time a sharp breeze came around. But after what he’d pulled at Phoenix Mountain, he thought he could do it.
“For the record, I think it’s unwise. But - the part you need my help on: you’re going to carry five modified obstructs that pushes the athlete away from the center of activation.”
“To drive them off the course,” he added, just in case it wasn’t clear. “Not to knock them off their swords or anything. Just a gentle nudge in the other direction. And only if they’re causing trouble.”
“And you want me to add range to it.”
“Is it possible?”
“I don’t know!” said Wen Qing, throwing her hands in the air, causing little crumbs to come raining down. “If someone could do it, they’d have done it already! Between you and me? It depends more on your core than on the composition of the talisman. It’s precision work, activating a talisman from more than two meters away.”
“I can do it,” said Wei Wuxian immediately. “I’ve always been good with ranged activation, and my aim is true.” He laughed, slouching back in his chair. “Did you know I was 101 Middle’s all-school archery champion?
“Of course you were,” said Wen Qing irritably. “I don’t know what sorts of secrets you’re hiding in that big head of yours. Next I’ll find out you’re the spikeball world champion and you aced the Gaokao.”
“Sadly, neither are true.” Wei Wuxian put a finger on his bottom lip and considered them for a few moments. “The first is probably doable though.”
“Anything is doable,” said Wen Qing. “You just have to be careful doing it.”
Wei Wuxian got the feeling she was no longer talking about spikeball.
Time passed quickly as Wei Wuxian continued to work on the project with Wen Qing. His typical day consisted of chauffeuring Lan Zhan around, trying to remember to buy groceries or at least get takeout, going to practice for several hours (he was in the process of being railed by Bosu ball squats and then the consequent ice baths), and then stopping by Wen Qing’s office occasionally to chat. Mostly, they communicated through WeChat video call or voice messages, especially since CFS headquarters were so damn far away, but in-person visits were always superior.
His tiny little car was getting put to serious work every day. The traffic was always so bad Wei Wuxian wondered if it would be worth it to break city regulations and just fly everywhere.
Sitting in a car with Lan Zhan on the way to his physio was always a plus though. Lan Zhan could sometimes be a snob about things, but not about music. It was an unending treat to look over and see him singing along quietly to whatever Wei Wuxian queued on his phone.
On a Saturday, under three weeks since Phoenix Mountain, Wei Wuxian had just returned from a team meeting and consequent lunch with jiejie. Sunlight was tracking across the floor of his living room, dappling the two small plants he owned and the scuffed coffee table. It felt like a good afternoon to sit around and play. Wen Qing wouldn’t let him practice with the beta versions of the obstruction talismans yet, so all he had in his apartment were the standards.
He was still practicing with the regular obstructs when Lan Zhan got back from physical therapy, shooting them across the length of his apartment toward a visual target and then activating them harmlessly in the air. Technically speaking, it would be safer and easier to do this at a talisman-friendly park - there was one down the street - but he was waiting for Lan Zhan to get back from physical therapy and didn’t want to miss him.
Lan Zhan, who had a stern expression on his face as he walked in on his leg brace, was accompanied by Lan Xichen.
“Hey,” he greeted, throwing the stack of talismans down and rushing over. “Thanks, Xichen-ge.”
“Thank you,” said Xichen. “It’s been a great help to have Wangji living with you already. Taking him to physio when you’re busy is the least I can do.” He quirked an eyebrow at the patch of shimmering air where the previously activated talisman was still fading away. “I would advise you take that to your swordport, or to the outdoors.”
“I know,” sighed Wei Wuxian, pulling Lan Zhan to one of the kitchen table chairs. “I was just playing around while I was waiting, but you’re right.”
After Lan Xichen left, he asked Lan Zhan about therapy.
“It was fine,” said Lan Zhan, hands cupped around tea. Their post-therapy tea ritual was always one of the best parts of Wei Wuxian’s day. “I have been doing my exercises diligently.” His golden core was strong - in another week, the brace could come off and Lan Zhan could resume training on the sword.
“Of course you have,” said Wei Wuxian. “You’re the best. So diligent, my baby.” He cooed, pinching at Lan Zhan’s cheeks. Lan Zhan took it all stoically.
“And you have been practicing,” he noted, eyeing the stack of talismans in the other room. “Wei Ying, so good, so hard-working,” he deadpanned, giving a nasty return pinch to Wei Wuxian’s cheek before standing with the mug of tea. Finishing it all in one gulp, he set the mug in the sink and leaned against the counter.
And raised an eyebrow, because Wei Wuxian had his face pressed into the table.
“You know, Lan Zhan,” he said, turning his face to the side to stare, “when you say things like that it activates my fight, flight, or fuck response.”
“Any of those is fine,” said Lan Zhan. “Your flying does need work.”
“Lan Zhan!” he cried, standing up and crossing his arms. “You’re not supposed to say that. You’re supposed to be sweet on me.”
“Am I not sweet to you?”
“Well,” said Wei Wuxian, and thought about all the times even before they were together that Lan Zhan helped him meditate. Or shared an earbud with him on long drives to Lan-Jiang duels. Or brought him shitty fries from Maidanglao when he was feeling down. Sometimes even 5 RMB hawthorn popsicles in the summer. “...you make fun of me,” he finally said weakly.
Rudely enough, Lan Zhan laughed. Wei Wuxian watched, mesmerized, before he realized that he was still pretending to be offended. “You like it when I make fun of you, airen,” he said, eyes still creased with amusement.
Wei Wuxian looked down and, yep, apparently he did.
“Okay,” he whined, pushing his lip out into one of his more disgusting pouts. “Point taken. But now that we’ve established all this groundwork, can we fuck?”
“Sure,” said Lan Zhan magnanimously, pushing off the counter.
There was a small nest of wasps that was discovered underneath one of the awnings of the swordport second-floor balcony. The athletes took turns getting close and then escaping once a wasp came within twenty centimeters. The circles of wasps zipping around the corner of the balcony was a source of great entertainment for Wei Wuxian, who had no earthly fear except for that of dogs. He also had never been stung before, but he thought maybe it was a life experience he should acquire sooner rather than later.
Unfortunately, before any self-inflicted wasp stings came to fruition, Uncle Jiang called the bug people (did they have other titles?) to exterminate the nest. Rather than practicing, the athletes circled around outside in the hot sun, head craned up to observe the extraction.
When had it gotten so disgustingly humid? Wei Wuxian had always been sweaty by nature, but even just standing out there in the heat, one hand blocking the sun, was causing small droplets of sweat to roll down his temples, flushing him a pretty pink.
Ah. It was already mid-May. Sunshot was late May, and it would only get hotter from here. Wei Wuxian sighed and pitied the poor polar bears in the Beijing zoo who would only have a green river of vaguely temperature-moderated water to float down for the next months.
The day before the race dawned surprisingly rapidly. It was as if routine by routine, the days had just fallen away without notice, like the swift wither of a flower to expose the fruit.
Everything was ready by evening - since Sunshot was in the city, no buses and hotels were necessary. The coaches would transport the swords to the racecourse before the event, where the athletes would then pick them up.
Their collection of talismans had been checked and double-checked by CFS officials, vetted a couple of days in advance. At least they were appearing to take that seriously, although it was easy enough to slip an alternate talisman into your suit on race day whenever you pleased. Drone video footage would easily spot illegal talisman use, however, and that was usually enough to deter people. But the Wen had already proven they were capable of deleting footage.
The sneaky talisman-slipping was what Wei Wuxian planned to do. His talismans had been vetted and within standards, but he and Wen Qing had developed an alternate version that took all the functions just a step higher. Those were for in case of emergency. He wouldn’t use them unless needed, but he’d have to slip them into his suit somehow before the race.
Those obstructs definitely were not within regulations. Neither were the double-speed talismans he’d designed on his own. If the Wen were going to fuck around, he’d fuck them up right back with their own games. His own placement in Sunshot didn’t matter; he didn’t need to go to Worlds, and Jiang Cheng deserved a clear shot at it besides.
It was near time to go back and get some sleep. The cooling haze of dusk was quickly being swallowed by the inky darkness of proper night. Except for him and Jiang Cheng, who was allowed to lock up on account of being Auntie Yu’s favorite and birth son, the swordport was empty.
Or it was supposed to be. Wei Wuxian’s sharp ears caught a hint of a scuffle in the next room. The locked office where they’d been keeping zealous guard over both their swords and their vetted talismans, each expertly designed and worked on by the coaches and the athletes to suit their personal race plans.
“Do you hear that?” whispered Wei Wuxian, knocking Jiang Cheng on the shoulder quietly. Good thing they had been sitting in the dark, otherwise whoever was here would know that the room was occupied.
“Mom and Dad both already left,” said Jiang Cheng. “Whoever it is...they’re not authorized to be here.”
He cast his gaze around the lobby room where they were sitting, looking for some sort of protective weapon. Suibian was locked in there with the intruders. His hand closed around the hefty weight of the beginner’s twenty-five pound bar, accidentally left from the weight room. Thank the heavens - he could chew out the novices for proper care of equipment later.
“You’re using that?” said Jiang Cheng, wrinkling his nose.
“You have a better idea?” hissed Wei Wuxian, rapidly texting Lan Zhan to let him know the situation, mostly in case he didn’t come home on time. Lan Zhan panicked about that sort of thing. “Text your parents.”
???? Lan Zhan sent back to his message about needing to beat up some intruders with a weight bar. Okay, so maybe Lan Zhan was panicking about the other thing - about the intruders - as well.
He threw his phone on the couch face down and didn’t wait for any more messages. The rustling was still ongoing in the other room, now accompanied by several clicks. The only things of value in that room were the talisman and sword lockers (the safes ), so he was most of the way sure he knew their purpose.
“It has to be the Wens,” muttered Jiang Cheng as they advanced to the door. He was holding a dull practice sword, but its edges were so fucked up it was more a vaguely pointed stick than anything else. “It has to be.”
“Shut up,” growled Wei Wuxian as quietly as possible, heartbeat a velvet pulse in his ears.
For once, they made quick eye contact and didn’t speak. A lifetime’s worth of brotherhood had come down to this moment, this unparalleled understanding of when and how to kick open a door to beat the shit out of some intruders.
With a bang, Jiang Cheng wrenched the door open and flipped the light switch, illuminating and momentarily blinding the three intruders, two fiddling with the heavy locks, one watching the open window they’d presumably snuck in from.
While they were distracted by the light, Wei Wuxian swung the heavy bar at one of the men working on the safe without hesitation, calloused hands gripping the textured middle of his makeshift weapon.
The man reacted fast enough to look up, but the bar collided with his forehead and he knocked back onto the floor, unconscious.
Jiang Cheng, who was adept at swordwork but unfortunately tasked with the shittiest sword-like object in the premises, was pressing the guardsman against the wall.
“You said no one would be here!” yelped Wei Wuxian’s guy, who was retreating from the weight bar.
“Well, clearly I was fucking wrong,” the other guy shouted back. He was alternating ducking Jiang Cheng’s practice sword and trying to swing his way out of the window.
Jiang Cheng snarled and threw the sword aside. “You’re high if you think I’m going to let you sneak out.” He grabbed the face-masked man by the shirt and threw him to the ground. They tussled for a moment, but Jiang Cheng clearly had the upper hand. He was a professional athlete, after all, and even before he raced for sport, he’d learned how to fight.
The guy tried to pull out a dagger from the sheath at his waist, but with a derisive snort, Jiang Cheng disarmed him and flung the knife to the far corner of the room. Using a swift elbow, the second intruder was also knocked out on the floor.
Wei Wuxian was still dealing with the last remaining intruder, who seemed to have some sort of martial training. “Who sent you?” he asked, breath coming quicker from holding the weight bar and swinging it around. His arms were aching a little - sword-racing was a legs and core sport. That wasn’t to say he had noodle arms, but this was a little excessive.
The intruder obviously didn’t answer but looked nervously to where Jiang Cheng had just knocked out his accomplice.
In that moment of distraction, Wei Wuxian quickly struck out, swinging his bar as fast and as hard as he could, body twisting with the momentum. The moment of connection sent fractured waves of impact up both his arms, but it came with the relief of success.
Unfortunately, at that moment, he tripped over the body of the first guy, and the bar went whirling out of his hands, hitting the locked case of swords - the one with the five swords of the Sunshot racers - which came crashing down on him as he toppled to the floor.
The combined impact of eating shit and the heavy case thudding onto the back of his skull made his vision white out, and then go black.
It had to say something about Wei Wuxian that the first thing he heard when he awoke was Lan Zhan’s voice murmuring Wei Ying in increasingly frantic tones, while the first thing he said was, “Don’t worry, baobei. I love you.”
However, it was most telling of all that he then immediately sat up, nearly cracking his skull again on Lan Zhan’s forehead, and yelled, “Oh shit! I’m racing tomorrow.”
“You are not,” said Lan Zhan very clearly, having leaned back abruptly to avoid being hit. “Lay back down. Do not move.”
“I so am,” said Wei Wuxian.
“I love you too,” said Lan Zhan.
Wei Wuxian laid back down and did not speak.
“You are not racing,” Lan Zhan said calmly. “You have a concussion.”
“I don’t,” whined Wei Wuxian instantly, eyes flashing over to the sword case, which had been replaced on the high shelf. Notably, Suibian had been taken out and was laying by itself on a lower shelf. “You put that sword back in the case.”
Jiang Cheng appeared in his vision, a little blurry but nevertheless large and purple. “Okay,” he said, picking up Suibian and sticking it in the lower security case with all the other swords. The ones that weren’t going to Sunshot.
“No, no, no,” said Wei Wuxian, so exasperated he threw a hand over his forehead.
“Do not speak. Conserve your energy until the EMTs arrive.”
“Don’t speak, don’t move. What am I, a doll?” Then, his brain processed the second part. “Wait, EMTs?”
“Do not speak,” repeated Lan Zhan. “They will check on you and see if you need to be taken to the hospital.” He bent down to give Wei Wuxian a gentle kiss on the forehead.
He could hear Jiang Cheng gagging in the background and flipped him off.
“It’s been twenty minutes since you passed out. Dad is almost here,” said Jiang Cheng. “He’s going to secure the swordport. And take care of the official business for these guys.” With a sneakered foot, he kicked at one of the guys who was still lying unconscious on the floor. Jiang Cheng had retrieved the wind-training resistance bands to tie up their hands and feet.
“Good work,” mumbled Wei Wuxian upon noticing. He knew he was supposed to be resting, but his mind was instead whirling with ideas on how to race tomorrow. There was a slim chance they’d clear him, but he was already self-assessing and knew there was no way he’d ever let one of his teammates race with his concussion. The only option, it seemed, was to sneak in.
He tapped Lan Zhan’s arm. “Are you sure I can’t race?”
Jiang Cheng heard him and threw his hands up. “No!” he yelled. “You can’t. Are you kidding me? Do you want permanent brain damage?”
“Refrain from yelling,” said Lan Zhan icily when he noticed how Wei Wuxian shrunk back from the noise. “Wei Ying, you can’t race.”
Jiang Cheng squatted down beside Lan Zhan and nudged him over, prompting several more glares, which went ignored. “Promise me you won’t race,” he said seriously, looming over Wei Wuxian.
“I will not race with Team Jiang tomorrow,” he sighed out, because technically it was true. He wasn’t planning on racing with the team. “Don’t cancel my registration. I don’t think I could take it.” He held his breath and hoped Jiang Cheng would allow him this, at least. If they canceled his spot, it would be so hard to sneak in. He’d have to lie in wait and somehow get past all the officials on high alert somewhere on the racecourse.
“Whatever,” said Jiang Cheng. “Mom probably won’t even bother to cancel it. It’s not like she’ll get a refund. Don’t worry, I’ll bring home two golds for you.”
“You better,” said Wei Wuxian, sulking. “This might be your last time racing with jiejie at Sunshot.”
“Don’t make me think about it.”
Lan Zhan lifted an eyebrow as if to say really, two golds? But he let them have their moment.
In truth, Wei Wuxian was nervous to the point where his fingers wouldn’t stop shaking. He hoped Lan Zhan, who was holding his hand, would pass it off as concussion symptoms. While being able to hide his identity would be a plus for tomorrow, he already could anticipate how difficult the race would be. Balancing on the newly shaped Suibian was already a challenge - doing it with a pounding headache and the risk of permanent brain damage could take him out.
He only wished that his brother and Lan Zhan wouldn’t see it if he fell and that he could stop the Wens beforehand. That was all that mattered.
To put it bluntly, it fucking sucked sending Lan Zhan off in the morning. Not only did his body feel like death warmed over, but he had been so ready for pre-race rituals with Lan Zhan - rituals that would have to wait until next year. Things like playing their hype playlist in the car, or doing race visualization back to back, or front-kicking their way down the field together. Everything together. At least they’d had a giant pasta carb-load last night sitting at the dinner table, even though it had almost been bedtime when they finally got back home.
The apartment seemed colder with Lan Zhan gone in the blue light of pre-dawn, but for some reason, Wei Wuxian felt it not on his skin but abruptly right behind his sternum, a growing ache.
Reluctantly, he pulled a generic black suit over his body, shivering a little as the cold spandex engulfed his long limbs. The pads went into place, and then the second suit layer to make it all more aerodynamic. Unfortunately for himself, he would have to wear the ugly headwear with the transition-lens face cover, which, throwback to middle school. The shades weren’t even for concealing his identity, but rather because too much light literally hurt his eyes.
He grabbed his keys, his duffel, and the headwear, and slid into his car after a bland breakfast of basic congee and a granola bar. The nutritionists advised a healthy, full breakfast, but he wasn’t sure he could stomach it right now.
Luckily, his talismans were in his duffel, kept apart from the Team Jiang locker. Even if they had been locked in, he had stacks of extra in his closet. The hard part was getting Suibian. Uncle Jiang had no doubt locked the swordport down securely and checked the electronic alarm system multiple times before leaving this morning.
Wei Wuxian had a key, both to the swordport and to the general swords case where Suibian was, but if anyone happened to see him in his all-black suit, they’d assume the worst, especially after last night.
On the drive, he was once again reminded of how much he missed Lan Zhan, the steady, warm presence that was constantly by his side. He wanted to play his hype playlist but thought it might hurt his head, so he just drove in silence, fingers tapping against the wheel. Everyone was going into the city toward the start line, so thankfully traffic was sparse heading out, toward the Jiang swordport.
Once arrived, the extraction was much simpler than he had expected. Considering the way his life tended to work, he was almost surprised that he wasn’t caught carefully unlocking the case and retrieving his sword. Suibian sang under his touch, and his golden core spun happily with the power it wasn’t using on regulating his injuries.
He pulled up to the massive parking lot and squeezed his car in one of the few remaining spots. By now, the day was past broken, star-bright and clear. No wind, good for racing.
Jamming the headgear over his head, both for disguise and for the shades, he stuffed the talismans into the designated qiankun pockets and grabbed Suibian. On second thought, he arranged the papers nicer, the way he always did before a race so that they would be more easily accessible. His water bottle went into the small side pocket.
“You ready?” he whispered to Suibian, who seemed to hum in response. She was simple, wooden hilt unadorned and only decorated with carvings. But she was the best of them all, the sweetest and truest sword if he had any say about it. Never once had she failed him.
Locking the car and sliding the keys into the smallest pocket in his suit, he finally marched in the growing May heat all the way to the registration building. He scanned his racer’s QR-code at the front door, all the while crossing his fingers and hoping that his registration was still valid. Pull through Auntie Yu, come on…
“Team Jiang,” said the woman at the table, surprised. “Well, you better hurry on up. They checked in almost two hours ago, a big bunch. You’re late. You’re supposed to be accompanied by a team.” Luckily, she seemed to be a volunteer and not an official or paid staff. If she was clueless enough, she wouldn’t know that latecomers and individuals had to have their talismans and swords rechecked by CFS officials before the race.
“I know, I know,” said Wei Wuxian, smiling tightly. “It’s my bad - I’ll just run on over.” His phone scanned the registration code propped up on the table, and instantaneously the green checkmark appeared. He breathed a huge inner sigh of relief.
“I’m going to have to check your speeds and obstructs,” she said, but not sternly.
That inner sigh of relief shriveled where it had expanded warm in his chest. “Okay,” he said, pulling out the standards and leaving the rest in their pocket. She wouldn’t pat him down, right? This much would suffice.
The woman waved him through at last after sifting through each talisman carefully.
With about half an hour before the beginning of the race, he picked a shaded area on the field where all the teams were gathering. There were so many people - from athletes to coaches to officials - that he was certain he wouldn’t be discovered. Black suit blending in with the Team Nie athletes, he began to run through a small warmup.
At twenty minutes before the start time of 10 AM, the athletes were rounded up and escorted to the line, where they were then allowed to hover and await the whistle. This time, it was more difficult to blend in - there weren’t many Sunshot-caliber athletes, and Wei Wuxian could spot Lan Zhan’s white-ribboned braid and Jiang Cheng’s violet headgear through the crowd.
Some stuffy government official along with various members of the CFS board gave speeches, sweating away in their suits. Wei Wuxian completely tuned them out, instead staring intently at the back of Lan Zhan’s head. He’d have to keep up with both of them. Watch their backs. His head was already starting to ache with pinpricks of pain.
Finally, the announcer prepared to count down the start. However, none of the athletes were paying attention to her. As seasoned racers, they were all focused on the flag holder, clutching a red fabric high in the air; regardless of when the announcer said go, they were allowed to start once the flag was on its way down.
With the slightest twitch of the flag holder’s hand, the racers were off, crowds cheering wildly from the sidelines.
Wei Wuxian gritted his teeth as he successfully executed the start sequence, weaving through the group of racers to take the place ten or so sword-lengths behind Jiang Cheng, who was side by side with Lan Zhan. There was also a red-clad figure and another black-suited racer hovering around, but Wei Wuxian couldn’t make out their faces from just the current angle.
If it truly came down to it, he had way over the allotted five speed talismans on his body. And he’d modified his (illegally) to last double the time. So he wasn’t particularly - worried - about falling behind. He was more preoccupied with keeping his eye on the Wen racer in red.
The turn execution and excellent form meant it was probably either Wen Zhuliu or Wen Xu. Wen Chao didn’t race like that - couldn’t race like that, in fact.
Whoever was in the black suit was infuriating. Unlike Jiang Cheng’s swift turns and Lan Zhan’s precise sword-handling, black suit guy raced a lot more like Wei Wuxian. Risky but nevertheless experienced and skilled. Even his build was remarkably similar, although his sword was shorter and thicker.
Suibian shook beneath him dangerously. He couldn’t afford to get distracted by black suit. Suibian’s added length would require all of his focus to balance, but it was clearly working the way he intended as the slightest forward shift shot him forward so fast he nearly tipped over the front end.
Nothing else mattered now, except making sure everyone got through this race safely. Not his headache, not his desert-dry mouth. Just the sound of the wind as it whistled past and Lan Zhan and Jiang Cheng’s backs, stark against the endless sky.
The crowds were gone. Underneath the glaring sun, the pack of five racers darted forward around buildings, between trees, and through alleys. The other racers had fallen back, out of eyesight. If the Wens were to strike, this meeting of forest and city-outskirts would be the perfect place for an ‘accident’ to happen.
It was as he predicted.
Suddenly, the Wen racer activated a speed talisman and began tailing Lan Zhan like mad, twisting and turning behind him as Lan Zhan attempted to shake him off and the trees grew thicker and taller, nearly obscuring the sunlight.
Wei Wuxian threw himself forward, similarly activating a speed talisman. He saw the Wen racer reach into his qiankun pouch for another talisman and somehow knew that this would be it - he willed Suibian to go faster even though his hands were near frozen curled with terror.
Jiang Cheng had also noticed the Wen racer’s initial speed talisman and activated one himself, taking advantage of a small gap between trees to take first place by over ten sword lengths. Similarly, the black suit left Lan Zhan, Wei Wuxian, and the Wen racer to take the convoluted path and followed after Jiang Cheng.
Right as the Wen racer pulled out an entire sheaf of papers, however, Lan Zhan twisted around, taking his eyes off of the course in one heart-stopping moment. Somehow flying through the trees without even looking, he aimed an obstruction talisman point-blank at the Wen racer’s sword and knocked him back several sword-lengths.
Knocking him back right into Wei Wuxian’s path. He had a modified obstruction talisman ready - the one that was very illegal - and felt as if the situation could be classified as an emergency. After all, the Wen racer still had an entire fucking stack of dangerous weird talismans. He took a glance and - yep - the radicals looked just like Qing-jie’s diagrams.
The Wen racer shot him a side glance as they pulled up side by side, about ten meters apart, and Wei Wuxian immediately recognized Wen Zhuliu. Before Wen Zhuliu could react, however, Wei Wuxian zeroed in on Wen Zhuliu’s chest and shot the talisman across the airspace between them. The shakiness of his hands and the pounding of his head, for a moment, dissipated as his world narrowed down to activating the talisman while flying at top speed.
With a shower of golden sparks, the talisman activated, and Wen Zhuliu shot backward until Wei Wuxian couldn’t even see him anymore. Until he figured out how to counteract the talisman or until it wore off, his sword would be going in reverse.
That was one threat taken care of. Wei Wuxian only allowed himself a tiny sigh of relief. If he hadn’t been here, Wen Zhuliu would have been able to keep dogging Lan Zhan until he ran out of obstructs. And then Lan Zhan could’ve gotten hurt again.
There was still the trouble of the black suited figure who’d shot off after Jiang Cheng. Wei Wuxian winced and pulled out his double-speed talismans. He didn’t want to use them. His concussion was making flying at regular top speed difficult enough, and this over-juiced speed talisman was going to make him so shaky afterward.
Nevertheless, he activated two at once and immediately realized he was going to quickly crash into several trees and possibly die if he didn’t sharpen all of his mental focus into one simple instruction: dodge . In near autopilot, he passed Lan Zhan, a blur of white in the corner of his vision. He was going so fast Lan Zhan didn’t even have the opportunity to obstruct him. If they found video of this, the CFS was definitely going to ban him from competition for at least three years.
Still, the talismans allowed him to catch up to Jiang Cheng. He felt a vicious sense of relief as the purple figure came into view, seemingly safe and sound. The black suit was still tailing him, but the trees had opened up into a mountain slope, and the video drone would be getting clear footage of all this. There was only one more heavily forested portion left, in the last ten kilometers. Wei Wuxian’s legs and core were trembling, quads straining with the effort of maintaining his athletic position.
He stood up straight for a second to allow his legs a break but regretted it immediately as the change in balance almost threw him off Suibian. After an appropriate string of curses, he fell in line behind Jiang Cheng and just - watched. It was nice to just keep an eye on him, flying at normal speed. It was almost like rest.
“Oh fuck,” he swore as he remembered a critical detail. It was the last ten kilometers. Jiang Cheng was about to use a speed talisman, assuming he hadn’t spontaneously changed his race plan.
Sighing, he pulled a standard one out and activated just as Jiang Cheng did. Heavens, Jiang Cheng was so predictable he almost wanted to laugh. The black suit wasn’t far behind.
By the time the speed talisman had expired, they were well within the forest again, zipping above a stone path that wound higher into the mountains, protected by tall trees.
A silver glint flashed in his periphery, and he whipped his head around to see the black suited figure pulling out - a knife? The racer had the audacity to turn to Wei Wuxian, grin, and wave with the knife in his hand.
Oh fuck no. It was Xue Yang, an independent racer known for causing trouble on the racecourse. How was he even allowed to compete? It had to be a head coach’s influence. The last race he’d been in, at least three other racers had gotten season-ending injuries.
Wei Wuxian was about to speed up to get in between Jiang Cheng and Xue Yang when he realized with horror that no matter how hard he pushed, he was getting slower. Xue Yang had obstructed him. But - when? It had clearly just activated, but he didn’t remember Xue Yang reaching for it.
Could he have invented a version to plant on him far before, only to remote activate it when the time called for it? For a moment, Wei Wuxian was impressed with the ingenuity, only to be filled with a rage so absolute his chest felt black with it.
Although his fingers shook in anger, his aim was true: as he slowed, he flicked out an upgraded obstruct and activated it long-range, throwing Xue Yang off the course and backward just as he was catching up with Jiang Cheng. There.
Jiang Cheng should be safe now - he was entering his sprint and would be flying with a speed and fervor few could match. The obstruction talisman wouldn’t wear off Xue Yang for another minute, giving Jiang Cheng ample time to lengthen the distance between them.
A figure in white flashed by while Wei Wuxian was still slowed from the obstruction talisman, and he whipped his head around to see Lan Zhan furiously chasing after Jiang Cheng.
“Lan Zhan,” he murmured, unable to stop himself from saying it. The sound of the wind and the errant forest noises should have been more than enough to obscure his words, but nevertheless, Lan Zhan turned to look at him as he passed, eyes widening as he took in the only part of Wei Wuxian that was visible under his shaded headgear - his mouth.
For a moment, Wei Wuxian was scared that Lan Zhan would slow down or stop, but he just clenched his fists and continued onward at full speed, activating a speed talisman and quickly disappearing from view.
He let all his limbs relax and just drifted along aimlessly, massaging his sore quads while he advanced to the finish line. There was no need to hurry now, except that he really wanted to finish the race as quickly as possible so he could get off Suibian and rest. A middling speed helped him work out some of the lactic acid and keep ahead of the other racers.
There were only a few kilometers left when a sharp blooming pain erupted in his left side. He looked down.
There was a knife sticking from his side. Okay, cool. Cool, cool, cool. His eyes traced the knife up to a hand that was missing a pinky, and then up to a face.
Xue Yang caught up, was all he had time to think before the golden sparks flew up around him, and a great force launched him up and away from Suibian, knife pulling out of his side with a sickening squelch. His golden core called for his sword, but there was something wrong with it. Like its power was contained in his own body, muted and unable to connect.
I’m going to die, he thought, mind whirling and fragmented even as his body assumed relaxation, arcing through the air as if already in death.
His head smashed onto something hard, and the last things he noticed were the crack of the headgear breaking, the sound of ripping cloth, and the pulsing pain right under his lats.
Then all was dark.
There was something awfully familiar about waking up to Lan Zhan’s worried face hovering above him. He blinked and his vision cleared: farther up beyond Lan Zhan’s head was the cloudless sky, framed by tall trees. Hanging off of a branch about ten meters up was a stretch of dark fabric, abnormally still in the absence of wind.
His back was oddly sensitive, sharp gravel and dirt digging into his skin. Oh. His suit - was torn. The entire stretch of it covering his back had ripped off when he’d fallen. So much for new and improved fabric tension.
To be honest, he hadn’t been expecting to wake up. But his greater fear had been Lan Zhan finding him a smear on the forest floor. So being awake was much better than that.
“Hey,” he said quietly in response to Lan Zhan’s increasingly worried calls of his name. It was unlike him not to chatter, but for once, he felt like that one word was all he could give. There was just such overwhelming relief still coursing through his body from being alive and doing what he set out to do.
In fact, it definitely wasn’t appropriate, but he almost thought he could laugh right now - just burst out into loud, euphoric laughter. He would if every movement didn’t feel like a knife-wound in his side.
He blinked again.
Okay...so that had happened. He wasn’t hallucinating the stab wound and the heavy pressure Lan Zhan was applying to it. Baby’s first stab (unfortunately not his first pointed-object related injury).
Another head popped into frame.
“Jiang Cheng?” he said, tracing the familiar features and sharp nose with his eyes. He hadn’t even realized Jiang Cheng was there, since he had been so uncharacteristically silent.
“Don’t worry,” said Jiang Cheng, also squatting down. His eyes were red-rimmed, but his eyebrows were slanted down, grim and unfeeling. “I don’t know what the hell you were thinking, but you’ll be okay.”
Wei Wuxian wanted to reach out and brush Jiang Cheng’s hair back, smooth the creases away from his eyes.
Unfortunately, his vision was already greying at the edges, and he sensed that he was going under again soon. “Catch you later,” he said sleepily. “You and jiejie better get gold.”
He heard Jiang Cheng scoff wetly, and then a hand pressed itself to his forehead, calloused thumb passing over the swell of his temple. His eyes fluttered closed and he surrendered himself to a gentle, restful peace.
When he came to, the first thing he noticed was that jiejie and Jiang Cheng were arguing over his hospital bed. His eyes searched for a figure clad in white, but Lan Zhan wasn’t there.
It was ironic, he thought, that usually jiejie was the one to break up fights between him and Jiang Cheng, but now it only took a clearing of his throat to shut both of them up at once.
“A-Xian,” cried jiejie, cradling his face and rubbing her gentle thumbs all over the apple of his cheeks. “I’m so glad you’re awake. How are you feeling?” She glared at Jiang Cheng with surprising strength. “Come on, Chengcheng, call the nurse.”
Wei Wuxian allowed himself a moment of indulgence where he nuzzled back into jiejie’s hands, closing his eyes. If he were a cat, he thought he might purr, even despite the light headache and vague soreness that broke through the haze of painkillers.
“No need to worry,” he joked. “I’m tougher than a brat with a knife.”
“You almost weren’t,” said Jiang Cheng, with the total gravity of a youngest sulky sibling. “If that tree hadn’t snagged you, you would’ve been a patty on the slopes of Xiangshan.”
Wei Wuxian made a face. “That sounds disgusting, Jiang Cheng, stop. I lived, didn’t I?”
“We’re going to talk about this,” said Jiang Cheng, and jiejie actually agreed, nodding her head vigorously.
“I hate talking,” groaned Wei Wuxian. They both looked at him. “...you get what I mean!”
“You get a week-long grace period,” said Jiang Yanli. “For recovery. But then you’re going to sit your ass down, and we’re going to get to the bottom of this.”
“Ah!” cried Wei Wuxian softly. “Bad words coming from jiejie’s mouth. The world is no longer good and pure.” He sniffed a couple of times for good measure.
Jiejie shot him a very disappointed look, and he relented, agreeing to her terms.
The nurse arrived and made sure he was all okay for the time being, along with confirmation he would be discharged in four days. Four days! That was so long, but the stab, while non-fatal, had penetrated quite invasively into his side. Man, Xue Yang, fuck that guy.
It wasn’t until after the nurse had left that Wei Wuxian mustered up the courage to ask where Lan Zhan was.
“He’s asleep,” said Jiang Cheng, almost smugly. “He wanted to be here when you woke up so bad. He’s going to be pissed that he missed it.”
Wei Wuxian gestured for his phone and found that it was afternoon. “He’s asleep?” he asked, incredulously.
“Out there in a plastic chair,” Jiang Cheng confirmed. “Last night he didn’t sleep at all, so his inner cycle is super fucked.”
“And you didn’t get him a cushion?” asked Wei Wuxian, outraged. How could they let him sleep on plastic!
“Sorry, Xianxian,” said jiejie, worrying at her lower lip. “It didn’t cross my mind.”
“Would it be mean to wake him up?” he wondered, because he very much wanted to see Lan Zhan. But he didn’t want to disturb his rest.
“I think he’d be happy to see you,” said jiejie. “We should have gotten him when you woke up, but we all just got caught up in the excitement.”
Jiang Cheng snorted and got up from his bedside chair. “I’ll go get him.”
The Jiangs politely evacuated the room when Lan Zhan stepped in, eyes red with sleep deprivation but still alert. His gaze immediately zeroed in on Wei Wuxian, small against the white sheets of the hospital bed.
“You’re awake,” he breathed, rushing over to his side and wrapping one hand around Wei Wuxian’s wrist, as if to comfort him but also to feel the beating pulse underneath the skin.
Wei Wuxian had never seen him so worried.
“I am,” he said, just looking for a moment. Just looking at Lan Zhan. The face he missed, even as he was dreaming. The face he missed whenever he looked away. “Didn’t Jiang Cheng tell you?”
Lan Zhan pressed his lips together and didn’t respond. Instead, he asked a series of questions about what the nurse had said and about how Wei Wuxian was feeling.
“I’m feeling great now that you’re here!” said Wei Wuxian cheerfully. “Lan-er always brightens my day.”
“I will take care of you,” said Lan Zhan, pressing a small kiss to his cheek. “I am taking a small leave from training now that Sunshot has passed. We will have all the time in the world.”
“What about Worlds?” asked Wei Wuxian intently. “You can’t take time off!”
“Relax,” said Lan Zhan, sternly pushing Wei Wuxian back into his pillows. “China is the main arena for modern sword-cultivation practices and sports. Because of Sunshot, they are pushing back Worlds.”
“Do I even want to know what went down after I knocked out?” said Wei Wuxian, limbs loosening.
“There were many significant events,” said Lan Zhan. “Most importantly that you are safe. But secondarily, a number of political and organizational scandals have come to light.”
“Lan Zhan,” whined Wei Wuxian, ducking his head and headbutting Lan Zhan’s firm forearm. “Okay, but that’s not even what I want to know,” he said. “Wait, is that why jiejie and Jiang Cheng were fighting?”
“I do not know why,” said Lan Zhan. “I would like to invite them back in so we can go over the numerous updates from the past two days. Perhaps you can ask them then.”
Turns out, they were arguing over something totally stupid. Jiang Cheng was convinced that Wei Wuxian should stay with him once they got out of the hospital. Jiang Yanli thought that Lan Zhan was a perfectly capable young man who could take care of Wei Wuxian properly in his own apartment.
“Does your mom still pay you surprise visits?” asked Wei Wuxian, arching an eyebrow at Jiang Cheng, who was sulking.
There was a long beat of silence before Jiang Cheng said, reluctantly, “Yes.” The topic was dropped, but not before Jiang Cheng made some stupid comment about Lan Zhan threatening his virtue.
The coaches and CFS board were still reviewing race footage, it turned out. The initial updates had been enough to cause upheaval, but not much detail had been leaked yet in the two days following Sunshot. The original footage had actually been mysteriously wiped, but an anonymous sender had provided slightly shaky footage - but good video nonetheless.
Particularly, that meant Auntie Yu didn’t know that Wei Wuxian had likely saved Jiang Cheng’s life. He wondered if she would like him more once they realized the shiny metal object in Xue Yang’s blurry video hand was a knife that had been aimed at Jiang Cheng. He thought probably not.
“All they can really say is that a Wen racer definitely intended to purposefully sabotage the race and endanger the lives of the athletes,” explained jiejie. “Of the two black suits, they know one is you, and they can tell you were trying to protect Lan Zhan and Jiang Cheng. So don’t worry about that. They’ll need your testimony to fill in a lot of details, but they’ll wait until you’re out of the hospital at least.”
“It was Xue Yang,” said Wei Wuxian. “Up to his usual antics.”
“He should’ve been banned long ago!” said Jiang Cheng angrily. “It’s just because Jin Guangshan keeps shielding him.”
“I know,” groaned Wei Wuxian. “This incident might be enough to topple Wen Ruohan, but that just means Jin Guangshan is going to be even more unbearable.”
“The Jins are so full of themselves,” muttered Jiang Cheng, then glanced apologetically at jiejie. “Not excluding Jin Zixuan, unfortunately.”
“You should talk to the peacock,” said Wei Wuxian. “Oh fuck!” he exclaimed, suddenly remembering a loose thread of thought.
“What is it, Xianxian?”
He gripped at his bedsheets and tried to sit up straighter despite the aching in his side. Lan Zhan gently pressed him back with those big hands, but at least he did fluff up the pillows. “Who won? Did you guys get gold?”
“Oh, Xianxian,” said jiejie with so much tenderness that it almost carried the barest hint of a bite. “Jiang Cheng was so mad our connection was sustained by pure rage. We were first by...how much was it, Cheng?”
“Like fifteen minutes,” he said, proud but clearly conflicted. “I can’t believe we still had to race when you were on a stretcher somewhere. I mean, we knew you weren’t going to die at that point. But still.”
“But now you’re going to Worlds!” Wei Wuxian said, holding their hands in his, bubbling over with happiness. He laughed, and it came easily. “And you, Lan Zhan?”
“...silver,” Lan Zhan said.
“You really got two golds, Jiang Cheng?” asked Wei Wuxian, incredulous.
“Don’t act so surprised,” said Jiang Cheng.
“Next year, I’ll beat both of you,” said Wei Wuxian, tipping his head up so Lan Zhan could press a kiss to it. He focused on the softness of Lan Zhan’s lips against his own chapped ones instead of on Jiang Cheng’s retching in the background.
Wei Wuxian was an hour out of giving his testimony to the CFS board when someone rapped heavily on his apartment door.
“Open up!” yelled Jiang Cheng.
“You said one week!” he hollered back. “Besides, jiejie isn’t here!”
Lan Zhan shot him a look and went to get the door. Two minutes later, he came back, apartment blessedly silent and Jiang Cheng-free.
“Thank you, sweetheart,” he said, lifting his arms up. Lan Zhan acquiesced and bent down to give him a hug.
In another two days, there was more heavy knocking on his door. It was late afternoon, and Wei Wuxian had been waiting for it this time.
Without a word, Lan Zhan unlocked the door and let Jiang Cheng and Jiang Yanli in. They arranged themselves around his tiny kitchen table.
“Why don’t you get an apartment closer to the center of the city,” Jiang Cheng griped, pushing his sweaty fringe back.
“Next year when I win Worlds, I’ll get bigger sponsors,” he said confidently.
“Oh, dream on,” said Jiang Cheng.
“I’m feeling very attacked,” said Wei Wuxian, glancing around the table at the three of them, who were giving him similarly unnerving looks. “Like, very ganged-up on.”
“Do you want us to call Wen Qing?” asked Jiang Cheng. “Because I can do that.”
Wei Wuxian went pale. “I’m okay,” he said. Wen Qing had been blowing his phone up. Wen Ning had just sent him a few small frowny faces, which had done twice the amount of emotional damage as all of his sister’s angry texts.
“So what were you thinking, Xianxian?” asked jiejie gently, laying one of her small hands over his, her kettlebell calluses a comforting scrape over his knuckles. “You were already injured…”
“I mean,” he said, “seeing the Wens hire thugs to break into our storeroom? If anything, that made me even more determined. But I guess we should start at the beginning.”
So he did. He told them about his conversation with Wen Qing and their talisman research, and he traced the path of the last couple of months until he was describing how he’d snuck into the race.
Jiang Cheng hit his fist into an open palm. “I knew it!” he said. “You were being sneaky when you asked us to keep that registration open.”
Wei Wuxian winced. “Yeah, I would say sorry, but I don’t regret it at all.”
Although Lan Zhan had been largely silent, he did frown and make an unhappy noise at that.
“Look, if I weren’t there, you might have been okay, but probably not. I’ll never regret keeping you guys safe.”
“I’m sorry you felt that you had to do that,” said jiejie. “I don’t agree with you putting yourself in danger. But I know this isn’t a weight you should carry - this is the CFS’s failure. Failure to protect their athletes, set regulations, and properly enforce them.”
“Yeah!” said Wei Wuxian, brightening up. “Go be mad at them.”
“We are mad at them,” said Jiang Cheng, wearing his pissed face. “I’m not mad at you, I’m just…”
Lan Zhan cut in. “You could have died,” he said quietly. “Nothing is worth that risk.”
“What about your life? Jiang Cheng’s life? All the other athletes banking on Sunshot?”
“Your life is not worth any less than theirs, Wei Ying. Than ours.”
Wei Wuxian pouted, but he was silent. He didn’t know how to argue with that, only that the certainty of his own disposability always sat like a rock in his gut. It didn’t always make sense, but it was persistent. He wouldn’t talk about it anymore though, if it made Lan Zhan sad.
“Hold on,” said Jiang Cheng suddenly, picking up his phone, which was buzzing rapidly. “Nie Huaisang just sent me fifteen texts in a row. If it’s about a new game drop I’ll kill him.”
It wasn’t about video games. Jiang Cheng’s face gradually turned from annoyed to full slack-jawed wonder. Jiang Yanli was looking with interest over his shoulder as he scrolled down the length of his phone.
“Holy shit,” breathed Jiang Cheng. “Huaisang says that someone sent two hundred pages of evidence to the CFS that Jin Guangshan and Wen Ruohan had been conspiring to throw Sunshot. Get Wen Chao to Worlds in exchange for...well, more power and influence, apparently. Doesn’t that old bag have enough of that?”
“Never enough,” said Wei Wuxian. “They deserve what’s coming to them.”
It looked like the CFS board’s work was about to pick up significantly in the coming months. The scandal was going to be huge. So great that perhaps even ordinary people might hear about it on the news, in the mouths of taxi drivers, or on the radio. The sport of sword-racing could be changed forever. The government could get involved with the discipline of Wen Ruohan and Jin Guangshan.
Uncle Jiang and Auntie Yu had so many connections in the CFS; they’d tell Jiang Cheng and Jiang Yanli everything, who would then tell him. So he’d be in the loop.
“I am boycotting the sport until they decide on better rules and better enforcement, with athlete input,” said Lan Zhan steadily.
He liked the conviction on Lan Zhan’s face; it was sexy. But– “Are you sure you want to miss Worlds? Who knows how long they’ll take? Oh sure, they’ll have preliminary modifications made for this year, but it could be forever until they’ve decided on something satisfactory.”
“I think it’ll be okay,” said jiejie, which made him feel better. “With Wen Ruohan and Jin Guangshan out of the way, things will be much more efficient. I’ll talk to Mom about it.”
Auntie Yu truly was the embodiment of efficiency. She used to make them do race visualizations on the drive to practice. Practice recaps on the way back.
For once, Jiang Cheng stood with Lan Zhan. “I’m boycotting too. At least this season, if they don’t work something satisfactory out before Worlds.”
Jiang Yanli agreed.
“Maybe it’ll become a movement,” mused Wei Wuxian, resting his cheek in his hand. “Why should Worlds happen this year anyway, with such negligence? I’m sure so many athletes have stories of corruption on the part of the Wens.” The athlete input part was crucial, yet had been historically overlooked. Not just former athletes, like Lan Xichen or Nie Mingjue. Racers who were changing and forming the currents of the sport at this moment. Who had testimony and real stakes.
After the surprise around Nie Huaisang’s texts died down, jiejie wrangled a promise out of him to take care of himself. And then she asked Lan Zhan to take care of him, as if he wasn’t capable of it!
“I live to serve,” said Lan Zhan, scritching his fingers through Wei Wuxian’s hair. It felt nice, and he curled into it.
“I’m going to order him around,” said Wei Wuxian. “Make him my servant. He’ll be washing my feet in that little wooden tub for months.”
Lan Zhan shot him an amused look. Maybe the others just saw a smile, but Wei Wuxian noticed the way the corners of Lan Zhan’s lips curled up mockingly, and it made him shiver. The smile seemed almost too private, even for his own tiny kitchen.
“Ugh,” said Jiang Cheng, looking up from his phone and breaking the moment. “Mom just texted. We better go. Leave you two to be gross together.”
“Tell me what she says,” reminded Wei Wuxian as he and Lan Zhan sent them off at the door. “If you forget you’re taking me to get lamb skewers. And you’ll owe me a bottle of Maotai.”
As soon as the door closed behind them, he turned around and hugged Lan Zhan, just basking in the comfort of Lan Zhan’s trunk-like body and steady arms. For some reason, he only now felt like he could let out the final sigh of relief and truly relax, his buzzing mind settling to a small candlelight, the type you cupped in your hands and walked slowly with.
“I’m so tired,” he said, voice muffled in Lan Zhan’s periwinkle sweater. Some of the fuzz got in his mouth, and he pulled away. “I don’t care that it’s daytime. Let’s go to bed. I need to sleep for thirteen years.”
“Perhaps a bit shorter than that,” said Lan Zhan, picking him up and easily carrying him over to the bedroom. “Rest now.”
Later, he would wake up, sun casting long golden shadows over the reflective windows of his city. Shouts from cyclists below and the huffs from passing buses made their way to his ears, just ordinary people living ordinary lives. In the kitchen, he could hear and smell Lan Zhan making dinner, anise seeds and ginger and vinegar and soy sauce permeating the air. He thought maybe he could convince Lan Zhan to put a couple of dry peppers in the stew as well.
Outside, the day was ending.
Inside, he swung his legs carefully out of bed and went to go find Lan Zhan. Here in this kitchen, with two bowls of rice, two pairs of chopsticks, and two people, something new was starting.