“A little to the left.”
“Here?” Shen Wei asked.
“Too far. Go back.”
It was a bit challenging, especially with the timer counting down, but Shen Wei managed to correct his error.
“Ok, bring it forward.”
“This is just sad,” Ye Zun’s voice cut in. “At this rate, we'll be stuck here for ten thousand years.”
“Quit distracting him,” one of Shen Wei’s advisors snapped. “That’s it. Now stop.”
Shen Wei froze as soon as the order was given.
“You are sure?”
He kept his hand still as he turned his head to get confirmation, waiting as the council of experts convened amongst themselves in the time remaining. He couldn’t quite make out their discussion over the blaring music periodically interrupted by even louder sound effects, but focusing on them meant he could avoid looking at Ye Zun.
Ten thousand years spent in the Heaven Pillar might have left Ye Zun largely unconcerned with conforming to modern Haixing social norms, but it was clear that the current situation was starting to push him toward embarrassment.
Not that Shen Wei could blame him.
Hei Pao Shi and Professor Shen alike commanded respect, albeit in very different contexts, but neither seemed likely to be bossed around by a group of small children in an arcade.
But those were Shen Wei’s public personas and neither would be especially helpful in assisting Shen Wei with the task at hand. Granted, there was probably some dark energy power that would let him grab the plush dragon, the one with a white body and gold mane, that was currently confined inside the claw machine. But that would be cheating.
Older siblings were meant to win prizes for younger ones.
That was how Zhao Yunlan explained it when they first approached the arcade and Shen Wei had to step aside to let a little girl past. She was singing her brother’s praises, clearly delighted with the huge stuffed panda that she could barely carry.
Distracted by his surroundings, Shen Wei didn’t think much about Zhao Yunlan’s words as he entered the arcade. For all the time he had spent in modern Haixing, Shen Wei had never visited an arcade and he would have been happy to keep it that way.
Even the shopping mall that housed it was a bit much, what with its throngs of people and constant noise. But Zhao Yunlan had needed something and, in the name of advancing Ye Zun’s education about the modern world, insisted the entire family accompany him.
Da Qing abandoned them as soon as they arrived, shifting into cat form while Zhao Yunlan parked the jeep.
“They don’t allow pets,” he said, “so I’ll stay here and take a nap. You’d better have snacks when you get back.”
Shen Wei briefly wondered if he could somehow learn to transform himself like a Yashou. He wouldn’t do it often, only at times like this.
“Don’t look so worried,” Zhao Yunlan beamed as they piled out of the jeep. “We’re going to have fun!”
Ye Zun spared a glance at Shen Wei that suggested he didn’t believe Zhao Yunlan, either. There were times when the leftover emotional baggage from their past traumas still caused tension, but that was forgotten as they faced Zhao Yunlan’s unsettling exuberance together.
The arcade was Ye Zun’s idea. Maybe it was the novelty or, more likely, it was the fact he and Zhao Yunlan bonded by regularly thrashing each other in video games. Regardless of the reason, Ye Zun wanted to go inside and Shen Wei would gladly follow, no matter how miserable the environment.
They wandered around, Zhao Yunlan explaining the different games, where to buy the tokens the machines used, and how to redeem prizes from the counter in the back of the room.
Ye Zun listened intently, understanding a good deal that made little sense to Shen Wei. Which was fine – Shen Wei was there to spend time with Ye Zun and Zhao Yunlan, not actually play.
Except the claw machine complicated things.
Shen Wei did not miss how Ye Zun’s gaze lingered on the plush dragon trapped inside, his eyes betraying how much he wanted it.
Why that toy stood out among all the others, Shen Wei didn’t know and honestly didn’t care. Fate had been cruel to him, but even worse to Ye Zun.
A toy dragon couldn’t undo all of that and Shen Wei didn’t expect it to. But it felt exceedingly important that he win it for Ye Zun anyway.
It couldn’t be that difficult – he’d already seen several children retrieving toys from some of the other machines.
He made sure to wait until Zhao Yunlan and Ye Zun were sufficiently distracted with their own game, then stepped away. Purchasing the tokens proved easy enough. The claw machine in question was still unused, the dragon not yet liberated.
Shen Wei could do this.
Except maybe he couldn’t.
Every time he thought he had the claw lined up correctly, he found it a few millimeters off, grazing the dragon rather than grabbing it. The one time he managed to lift it, it slipped out of the claw’s grasp before Shen Wei could maneuver it to the opening.
Before he knew it, his supply of tokens, which had seemed excessive when he began, were gone.
He considered his options – he needed more tokens but he didn’t want to leave the machine unattended. Otherwise someone else might step in and win the dragon while he was gone.
“Want me to save your place?” a voice called above the noise.
Shen Wei looked down to find a girl no older than ten staring up at him.
He returned with an amount of tokens that, had he taken the money to an actual shop, could have purchased an entire herd of dragons. Not that it mattered. The dragon continued to evade him.
“It’s not you,” the girl told him. She had stuck around to watch his efforts. “They make it hard on purpose.”
“Do you have any suggestions?” Shen Wei asked.
As it turned out, she did. When those failed, she dragged her sister over, who in turn recruited some kids she knew from school. Their hints were helping. Shen Wei managed to pick the dragon up several times, the claw holding it a bit longer each time, but he still couldn’t manage to get the dragon all the way to the opening.
And that was how Ye Zun and Zhao Yunlan found him, surrounded by children directing his repeated attempts with the claw.
“You are adorable,” Zhao Yunlan said, pressing a kiss to Shen Wei's cheek that made his face flame.
Fortunately, Zhao Yunlan’s phone rang and he left the arcade to deal with it before Shen Wei’s concentration fell apart.
Ye Zun stood scowling in silence. Shen Wei tried not to think about it and instead focus on the task at hand.
Shen Wei’s strategists stuck with him, even when Ye Zun complained about how long he'd been at it.
“All right,” a boy said after the group inspected his latest attempt. “This should work. Try it now.”
Careful not to jostle the joystick, Shen Wei let his thumb press the button in the center. The claw descended, its metal arms closing around the dragon’s abdomen. Holding his breath, Shen Wei watched it retract, lifting the dragon up from the pile of toys, then travel toward the opening. The claw rocked back and forth as it moved along the track but this time the dragon didn’t fall until it reached its destination.
The children cheered as Shen Wei bent down to retrieve it. He held the dragon out to Ye Zun who stared at it, his face unreadable.
“I’m not a child,” he finally said.
“No, but you’re my didi.”
Ye Zun said nothing but he snatched the dragon from Shen Wei, who turned around to divide the remaining pile of tokens among his army of assistants.
After the children dispersed, they headed toward the arcade’s exit, Ye Zun making no attempt to hide the plush dragon he was carrying.
Zhao Yunlan was waiting for them, grinning when he caught sight just before he raised his phone to presumably take a photo as they stepped out into the main corridor of the mall.
“You’re ridiculous,” Ye Zun muttered, bumping his shoulder gently against Shen Wei’s before he stormed off to ferociously whisper something about Zhao Yunlan needing to take better care of his husband.
They probably should limit arcade visits in the future, Shen Wei decided when they finally left the mall an hour later. Without moderation, the claw machine could be a short road to financial ruin.
But maybe it was worth the money spent.
Ye Zun not only left the mall in an exceptionally good mood, but he’d clung to the dragon, refusing all of Shen Wei’s offers to hold it for him, even as he and Zhao Yunlan teamed up to win a plush bear for Shen Wei.