“How much longer?”
Ye Xiu didn’t look away from the monitor, but replied in a dull voice, “I don’t know.” Smoke drifted from the cigarette hanging precariously from between his lips.
Su Mucheng let out a breath and collapsed back onto Ye Xiu’s bed. She stared at the ceiling for several moments before speaking again. “You must have some idea.”
“Well,” he said with a hint of dryness, “I wouldn’t be surprised if I didn’t last the season.”
A lump formed in Su Mucheng’s throat. She swallowed audibly, an almost tangible pain taking hold of her insides as if a hand were squeezing her guts.
“Ye Xiu…” His name emerged as a strange, choked whisper.
Other than the rapid tapping of the keyboard and the slightly sharper sound of the mouse clicking, silence reigned. Smoke marked his every exhale.
“What are we going to do?”
Amazingly, Ye Xiu laughed. “You mean, what am I going to do?”
Su Mucheng was sitting up again in a second. “No! I mean, what are we going to do? As in both of us. Together.”
Ye Xiu finally abandoned Glory long enough to swivel around in his chair and look at her. He plucked the cigarette from his mouth and held it between his middle and ring fingers.
Their eyes met for a long, solemn moment.
“Su Mucheng, this doesn’t have anything to do with you.”
She objected to that. Greatly. “If it has to do with you, it has to do with me.”
“That’s not how this works.”
“That’s how it’s always worked, Ye Xiu.”
Ye Xiu shook his head, exasperated and somber. “Not anymore.”
Su Mucheng couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Her anger was such that she didn’t even have the words to express it, her thoughts blurring past the forefront of her mind at alarming speeds, her heart pounding wildly and her hands shaking. She felt like she could break down crying at any moment—or maybe erupt into a furious tirade, aimed right at Ye Xiu.
At her speechlessness, Ye Xiu turned back to the monitor, his back facing her once again, cigarette returned to its rightful place. She saw him minimize the game window and scroll through what looked to be the Glory forums.
Su Mucheng let her head drop into her hands and took a few deep breaths. She had to calm down. There was nothing like a good rational argument to persuade Ye Xiu, and she couldn’t allow herself to get too caught up in her emotions.
Then again, if Ye Xiu were being rational, then the situation wouldn’t have devolved to such a degree. Ye Xiu wouldn’t be willing to suffer through what was essentially ostracization, and at the hands of his own team, his own club, no less.
No, none of this made any kind of rational sense. And if Su Mucheng were being honest, most of Ye Xiu’s life decisions had never been rational in the least.
How could she convince him to take the reasonable option for once? How could she help him?
She didn’t think she could. Ye Xiu had always been the one helping her. Such was the nature of their relationship: her, the little sister, the less experienced, and all but helpless; him, the elder brother, the jaded, the powerful (untouchable). Underneath his umbrella, she had been allowed to slowly bloom and grow into herself the way she couldn’t have in the glaring light of the sun.
Ye Xiu had done so much for her. So why, when it mattered most, was Su Mucheng unable to do anything for him?
* * *
This, naturally, couldn’t stand. Su Mucheng wouldn’t let it.
So she did something: She asked for help.
And because she was Su Mucheng, she asked it from the unlikeliest of quarters.
Dancing Rain: Hi hi! Are you there???
It took a few minutes for a reply to appear, but when it did, her spine immediately straightened.
Desert Dust: Yes
Desert Dust: What
Trepidation gripped her heart. After a moment, she typed her reply, steadfast and resolute.
Dancing Rain: I need to know something
Dancing Rain: You and Ye Qiu, you’re good friends right?
There was another pause, though it didn’t even last a minute. Not even half a minute.
Desert Dust: Yes
Desert Dust: Why
Dancing Rain: What if I said he needed help?
Desert Dust: …
And so it begins, Su Mucheng thought, and finally let herself hope.
Club Excellent Era was quiet when Ye Xiu woke up, despite it being well past the normal time for activity to commence. He lay in his bed for quite a while, blinking hazily at his dark room. The angle of the sunlight that just barely filtered through the blinds and curtains gave away the late hour.
He tipped his head to one side, pushing the thin blanket away from his neck. His eyes landed on his alarm clock. 11:26.
Ye Xiu sighed and slowly, tiredly, dragged himself out of bed. He slunk into the bathroom he shared with Su Mucheng and went about his business.
When he was dressed in an only somewhat wrinkled shirt and dark blue jeans, he left. There was nobody in the hallways and only a few voices carried through the doors. The rooms where Excellent Dynasty was run were the most boisterous, the research labs close behind.
Summer was always so boring. But at least it was peaceful.
Most of Excellent Era’s team members had long since disappeared to visit family or vacation elsewhere in the country. Ye Xiu didn’t precisely miss them, but he sure hoped they were at least making time to train. He didn’t want the upcoming season to be as disappointing as this last one.
(He strongly suspected it would actually be worse.)
As long as they were out of his hair, though, he could relax. Just a bit.
The kitchens were empty of food, as expected; breakfast had ended long ago. Ye Xiu didn’t want to wait for lunch, so he grabbed a few snacks and a drink from a vending machine and retreated to his room once more.
He was about to boot up the computer when somebody knocked on his door. He recognized the gentle yet unhesitating sound.
“Come in,” he said loudly.
Su Mucheng poked her head inside, a smile on her face. “Good morning! Do you want to go out with me today?”
“Good morning.” Ye Xiu eyed her suspiciously. “Go out where?”
“Anywhere. Have you had breakfast yet?”
Ye Xiu’s gaze drifted to the snacks he’d dropped onto his neatly made bed.
Su Mucheng’s smile became knowing. “Come on. I’ll pay for you, just this once.”
“It’s a little late for breakfast,” Ye Xiu protested, but he was already getting out of his chair.
What could he say? Free food and good company were hard to refuse.
They sneaked out of the building through one of the back doors, Su Mucheng outfitted in a loose, lightweight jacket that was large enough to hide her figure. Huge sunglasses and a colorful cap, under which all her long, lustrous hair had been shoved, completed the look.
Ye Xiu hadn’t bothered changing. This was perfect t-shirt-and-jeans weather.
To his total lack of surprise, there wasn’t a single place still selling breakfast. The two wandered around a bit before entering a coffeehouse and sitting down with some random baked goods and cups of coffee. Neither of them drank coffee often—tea was more their style—but why not switch things up for a day?
Su Mucheng chattered about the latest TV drama she was watching and tried to cajole Ye Xiu into going shopping with her. He resisted for as long as he could, but he knew he’d have to choose between listening to her describe some truly ridiculous plot lines and buying clothes.
He chose the clothes.
“What do you want to buy? Where do you think we should go first?” Su Mucheng asked with frightening eagerness.
Ye Xiu concealed a yawn behind his hand. Su Mucheng had forked over the money for their bill, but they were still reluctant to get up. It was a lazy afternoon. “Aren’t you the one looking for things to wear?”
“I already have plenty of things to wear. You, on the other hand—”
“I have what I need. Men are sensible.”
“Right.” He could tell she was squinting at him from behind her sunglasses even as she pasted on the same warm smile as always. “We’re going to buy you some outfits. Nice ones.”
Ye Xiu sighed and lit up a cigarette. This sounded like it called for nicotine.
In the end, there was no stopping her. They spent three or four hours shopping around, shedding money like cats shed fur. Ye Xiu trailed helplessly behind Su Mucheng every time something in a display window caught her eye and suffered in silence as she picked out clothes for him to try on (and sometimes for herself).
The stores’ employee assumed they were a couple, for whatever reason, and seemed inexplicably amused at Ye Xiu’s predicament. He couldn’t understand why women were so sadistic. Was it a genetic thing?
By the time they headed back to Club Excellent Era, the day was shading into late afternoon and shopping bags were all but dripping off their arms. Ye Xiu wanted to feel scammed, but unfortunately, he’d known exactly what he was getting into.
Strangely, Su Mucheng didn’t leave him to his own devices and instead pulled up one of his spare chairs to watch him play Glory in his room. They munched on some of the snacks he’d procured earlier like they were determined to earn back the calories they’d burned.
“You’re using a Striker account?” Su Mucheng asked with some interest as she lazily nibbled a sunflower seed.
Ye Xiu hummed in confirmation.
“Why this class in particular?”
He shrugged. “I can’t really remember the last time I played as one, which is as good a sign as any that I should practice.”
They carried on in relative silence for a few more minutes before Su Mucheng piped up again. “Are you emulating Han Wenqing’s style?”
“A bit.” Ye Xiu was prepared to say a couple of things about said style, but Su Mucheng suddenly changed the topic.
“How about we go out to dinner?”
Ye Xiu pulled his eyes from the monitor and turned to give her a dull look.
“What?” she demanded.
“That’s what I should be saying,” he said. “You want to go out again? Are you a little kid or something? Where do you get all this energy?”
Su Mucheng smiled pleasantly, popping another sunflower seed into her mouth. “Not all of us are as boring as you. Come on, I’ll pay.”
Ye Xiu squinted at her. “Blatant bribery, and twice in one day. Have you no shame?”
“It’s a really nice restaurant. I even made a reservation in a private room so we can relax and you can smoke. You wouldn’t want that to go to waste, would you?”
This was a losing battle if he ever saw one. Beleaguered, Ye Xiu sighed heavily. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you were trying to seduce me.”
Su Mucheng burst out laughing. Her guffaws were such that he even leaned away.
Once she’d calmed herself down, Su Mucheng grinned impishly and told him, “Oh, you don’t need to worry about that from me. Although…”
She coughed a bit. “Never mind. Here, I’ll help you out.”
Su Mucheng instantly leaped to her feet and started to dig through the bags full of Ye Xiu’s new clothes.
Ye Xiu watched on for a single speechless moment, then slowly swiveled his chair back around. He wasn’t going to think about it.
Su Mucheng had chosen almost every single thing Ye Xiu had purchased that day. She’d kept an eye out for some slightly more eye-catching clothes—nothing too far outside of Ye Xiu’s usual style, but noticeably less casual. Or perhaps "casual chic."
The truth was, tonight’s dinner excursion wasn’t going to be nearly as relaxing as she’d advertised. Su Mucheng, despite Ye Xiu’s comment, did feel shame, and she was a bit sorry for this. But only a bit. More than that, she was apprehensive.
She wasn’t sure that this would go well. Even so, she was determined to try.
Since Ye Xiu was quite busy ignoring her, he didn’t notice Su Mucheng’s preoccupation and continued playing peacefully. His Striker character was all decked out in Orange equipment he’d grabbed from Excellent Dynasty’s storage which allowed him to play quite boldly. It wasn’t nearly as good as Silver equipment, obviously, but it was good enough.
In reality, this account actually belonged to the guild, though it had belonged to him first. He’d bought it a few years ago and, after leveling it up through intermittent casual play, had passed it onto Excellent Dynasty. It was particularly suited to his own style of Striker gameplay due to the skill-point distribution.
For the team captain, even a disgraced one such as himself, it was a small enough matter to temporarily reacquire it. After gathering a party of random players, he’d entered a five-player dungeon and started dishing out attacks. The more he played, the more into it he became, matching his rhythm to the other players’. They were over halfway finished.
This impromptu practice session was going well. As always when he played Glory, Ye Xiu felt his troubles melt away.
Behind him, Su Mucheng said, “All right, come and see what I’ve picked out for you.”
And there went his peace.
Ye Xiu didn’t move. “Ten minutes.”
He felt more than saw her walking up to stand at his shoulder. She was undoubtedly examining his progress.
“Do you really need that long?” she finally asked. “I think you can do it in less.”
He scoffed slightly. “The point isn’t speed.”
“Well, it should be, or else we might be late. Pick up the pace, please.”
Ye Xiu just barely managed to hold back a sigh and did as he was told. The other players struggled to keep up, but Ye Xiu made up for it by switching their strategy of attack to a more efficient one. Naturally, he had to spearhead it in order for it to work, as the average player couldn’t hope to achieve this sort of thing on their own.
As he was in the middle of tossing out commands, Su Mucheng briefly popped into her own room to change clothes and freshen up. Since she wasn’t the star of this particular show, she went with a pair of stylish, ankle-length khaki pants and a simple white blouse that showed off her smooth arms. Elegant, but not earth-shattering.
After that, all she had to do was touch up her makeup and hair, grab her purse, and return to Ye Xiu’s room.
Ye Xiu had already finished the dungeon. The monitor was dark and he was standing in front of the window, peeking outside as if to check the weather.
Su Mucheng plopped down on his bed. “Hurry up, will you?”
Ye Xiu’s gaze met hers, inscrutable. “Somebody is impatient.”
He smirked faintly and ambled over to take a look at the outfit she’d chosen. Like her own, it wasn’t earth-shattering, but it certainly captured one’s attention. Dark, high-quality jeans that actually fit him properly and a deep red button-up shirt with black buttons. They’d both looked great on him when he had tried them on, in Su Mucheng’s humble opinion.
Ye Xiu just grabbed the clothes after a moment and headed to the bathroom to change. It wasn’t like he could object to wearing anything he himself had bought, and Su Mucheng was definitely the fashionista between the two of them.
When he came out, Su Mucheng nodded her approval and reached up to rearrange his hair. He ducked a little under her hands, but all she said was, “Stop that, I’m turning this disaster into a happy accident.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“It means there’s a difference between stylishly messy and plain old messy.” She smiled brightly.
Ye Xiu’s expression was carefully bland.
When she was satisfied, Su Mucheng took a few steps back and gave him another once-over. Ye Xiu patiently awaited her final verdict.
“Acceptable,” she announced. “Quite acceptable. You’re really handsome when you try, you know.”
Ye Xiu rolled his eyes. “Why would I, when I have you to do all the work for me?”
Su Mucheng huffed.
He smirked at her. “Come on, I have to return this account card to the guild. We’ll leave after.”
“If we’re late…” Su Mucheng muttered threateningly as she followed him out of the room.
“So what if we’re a little late? It’s not like they’re going to hand over our reservation to someone else just like that, right?” Ye Xiu couldn’t understand why she was insisting on such perfect punctuality.
Su Mucheng didn’t reply.
Like any other well-established club guild, Excellent Dynasty never slept. Their high-ranking experts often took shifts to watch each other’s backs and keep an eye on in-game affairs. There was always work to be done: a dungeon to run, a boss to kill, a player to recruit. Even though Excellent Dynasty had suffered with Excellent Era’s decline, the guild still had many assets to look after.
Ye Xiu ambled his way into the guild’s main base of operations, a room with about ten computers and cabinets lining one of the walls. Posters, notice boards, and random print-outs covered another wall, while a desk was shoved up against a third.
Behind it sat Excellent Dynasty’s guild leader, Chen Yehui.
Although not all the computers were occupied, the employees present seemed to freeze as soon as Ye Xiu walked in. They watched him with veiled eyes as he walked over to Chen Yehui.
“Thanks for the card, Little Chen,” Ye Xiu said in a friendly manner as he dropped the card on Chen Yehui’s desk. He ignored all the attention without a second thought.
Chen Yehui gazed at him with indefinable coldness for a split second before a distant, polite smile stretched his lips. His words were blatantly insincere, pointedly venomous. “You’re welcome, Captain. Feel free to ask me for anything you might need.”
“Little Chen works hard.” Ye Xiu winked as he turned away. “You’ve made some progress these past few years. I’m relieved to see it. Later!”
Chen Yehui’s jaw visibly clenched, but he couldn’t formulate a reply before Ye Xiu was gone.
Su Mucheng, who had been standing to one side of the doorway and listening in, couldn’t restrain a smile. “That guy… He’s almost as bad as Liu Hao.”
Ye Xiu threw an arm around her shoulders and urged her down the hall. His smile was humorless. “Don’t trouble yourself with them. They want to make a fool out of me, but they’re a hundred years too early.”
Su Mucheng shook her head and let the matter go. Truth be told, she was as used to these power plays as Ye Xiu by this point. All she wanted was for those fools to disappear, but that would probably be asking too much. If he could live with them, so could she.
They left the club through the back yet again. The weather had cooled down a bit as evening rolled in, clouds obscuring the sky. The establishments all around them were lit up and the cars and buses had their headlights switched on. Pedestrians still bustled about, flocking to the brightest stores and restaurants like moths to flames.
Ye Xiu absently brought a cigarette to his lips.
Su Mucheng hailed a cab in record time, undoubtedly attracting the guileless cab driver with her ridiculously good looks. Once they were seated inside, she rattled off the name of a restaurant Ye Xiu was unfamiliar with.
The drive was uneventful. Su Mucheng made polite conversation with the driver while Ye Xiu stared out the cracked-open window, elbow propped against the door and chin in hand. This part of Hangzhou was fairly lively in the evenings, and watching people stream past them on the sidewalks, he felt a strange sense of misplacement, as if he were an anomaly in this grand picture.
Su Mucheng eventually nudged him, snapping him out of his reverie. “We’ve almost arrived. Driver, you don’t have to let us off right at the entrance. Over there is fine.”
The cab driver obliged her and stopped where she indicated. “Have a good night, miss. Sir,” he added belatedly.
Ye Xiu smiled and nodded. He climbed out of the cab first, holding the door open for Su Mucheng. As the cab drove off, they walked briskly toward their destination.
The restaurant was called, rather straightforwardly, The Empress. It was written in Roman letters over the top of the building with the Chinese characters underneath. All of the letters and characters were illuminated by soft red light, nearly pink, which complemented their gold coloring rather well.
Customers had the option to sit outdoors on a raised wooden platform. The wood was dark and glossy while the tables were black and covered in off-white tablecloths. Just about all of them were occupied by people who looked to be enjoying large, delicious meals. Ye Xiu and Su Mucheng had to walk through the middle of them to get inside the building proper, which meant they were exposed to some truly tantalizing smells.
“Everything looks fantastic,” Su Mucheng murmured to him.
Ye Xiu nodded. He had never been one to eat much, but damn if he couldn’t indulge now and then.
The inside of The Empress was much like the outside: the same flooring, the same tables, and similarly crowded. There was a lot of gold and red featured in their color scheme, but though the decoration was lofty and a bit luxurious, it wasn’t especially presumptuous. Classy yet tasteful. With a name like The Empress, Ye Xiu had kind of been expecting something more over the top.
Maybe he should reconsider the merits of letting Su Mucheng choose their dinner destinations. He would never have picked this place in a million years. The thought of what the bill might be made his heart ache.
After Su Mucheng had a chat with one of the managers, they were led down a short, wide hallway and right to a door. The manager graciously held it open for them, his somewhat starstruck gaze stuck on Su Mucheng.
Su Mucheng smiled prettily and stepped past him. Ye Xiu was close at her heels, but the moment he saw someone waiting inside, he stopped dead in his tracks.
Han Wenqing stood up from where he sat at the table, expression cold as ever. “You’re finally here. Su Mucheng…Ye Qiu. It’s been a while.”