by Ogiwara Saki (荻原咲)
illustrated by jellomix
“HONOURABLE MOTHER, HOW COULD YOU?” Wan Lee shrieked. “YOU HAVE TAINTED MY INNOCENCE WITH YOUR CARNAL SINS!”
“Oh please,” his mother said from the other side of the webcam. “Get a grip on yourself.” She looked to Shou Yan as if he could put some sense in her son, but Shou Yan ducked his head and pretended to find his math homework extremely entertaining, never mind that he hated calculus and hated their calculus teacher even more. Auntie Lu tsked and said to Wan Lee, “You’re treating your shield brother properly, right? Poor Shou Yan looks overworked! There are bags underneath his eyes!”
Wan Lee huffed. “Those are not bags under his eyes, Ma Ma. It’s just the awkward lighting. See?” He tried to grab Shou Yan’s chin and yank him towards the webcam, but Shou Yan placed both hands on Wan Lee’s chest and shoved him backwards.
“I’m not your mannequin,” he said, and Wan Lee and his mother blinked huge doe eyes at him, a pair of innocent menaces. “I’m busy,” Shou Yan added somewhat plaintively, and felt the tightness in his chest ease only when Wan Lee and Auntie Lu turned away from him and resumed arguing about Auntie Lu’s new boyfriend, a teller at the local bank that Wan Lee was taking an exceptional dislike to, despite never having met him. It was the principle of the matter, Wan Lee assured his mother. She was, like, ancient and ancient people had no right dating. Auntie Lu laughed and laughed and then told her son to scamper off and find a nice boy of his own.
Wan Lee pouted. “Don’t start on that again. I’m trying.” He threw himself onto his bed, crushing his collection of cute pom pom hats and packaged envelopes he was using to mail his old Takeshi Kaneshiro CDs off on eBay.
“How hard can it be to find a boyfriend at an all boys’ school? There are public showers, aren’t there? Don’t think your mother doesn’t know about homoeroticism,” Auntie Lu accused, and Wan Lee buried his head into a fat pom pom and groaned.
Calculus, Shou Yan thought, was perhaps not so bad after all. He wasn’t sure if he was relieved or further annoyed when there was scratching at the door and Wan Lee’s roommate stumbled in. Qin Song smelled like booze and looked like a runway model. There was no way anybody would naturally drape his tall, lanky body over Wan Lee’s chair and smile at the camera with the force of a thousand supernovas. Such a faker, Shou Yan thought, and resisted the urge to jab Qin Song in the ass with his pencil. “Qin Song!” Auntie Lu squealed, and Qin Song flashed her a two finger salute, the smarmy bastard.
“I hear you and your shield brother are doing very well in the Lantern Blossom duels,” Auntie Lu said. “Ranked number one in the school!”
Qin Song shrugged. “Thanks to Feng.”
“You are too modest.”
Qin Song? Modest? Shou Yan bit back a snort. This was the guy who once stripped to his briefs in the middle of the cafeteria because Wan Lee had dared him to. Poor Auntie Lu. There was no accounting for taste. Headmaster Zhang had made a huge mistake when he paired Shou Yan with Wan Lee as shield brothers, and Qin Song and Feng. Wan Lee and Qin Song were perfect for each other, and Shou Yan would have gladly worked with Feng, who was a quiet, intelligent sort of guy who had probably never tried to stuff his mouth with crickets to see how many he could hold. Shou Yan had nearly busted a vein trying to figure that one out. Why crickets? Why after dinner?
Shou Yan still kept the brochure advertising the Jing Fei Academy for Young Men in his drawers. An exercise in masochism, probably. He used to love that brochure with its martial colours and its photos of determined young men lined up in rows, which was only creepy after Shou Yan got older and learned about totalitarianism and bad haircuts. He used to sleep with the brochure under his pillow and scheme in preparation of the day when he too would be invited to follow after his brother’s footsteps and become a Lantern Blossom duelist. The brochure waxed poetic about faithful shield brothers, the Trophy of Strength and Gallantry, and the Lake of Youthful Transformation, and Shou Yan had believed it all until he actually arrived at Jing Fei and saw that his shield brother was hyperactive Wan Lee, the Trophy of Strength and Gallantry was missing its handles, and the Lake of Youthful Transformation was a blue mat in the gym that smelled of sweat and hormones.
The first day of school, Headmaster Zhang had assembled all the new boys and gave them a speech about Jing Fei’s illustrious history. The school was founded by the famous poet-warrior Pu Lian, who had lost his his sworn shield brother Jing Fei to a treacherous arrow shot by the Demon King of Confusion. “Honourable Pu Lian’s greatest hope,” Headmaster Zhang had declaimed with tears bubbling in his eyes while Shou Yan looked on uncomfortably, “was to pass on Jing Fei’s code of brotherhood to the next generation of bright minds in the United Provinces of China. It was Honourable Pu Lian who created the Lantern Blossom duels so that Jing Fei’s successors could strive towards DISCIPLINE and GLORY.”
People shouted a lot at Jing Fei, usually with sparkles. It took a while for Shou Yan to stop jumping at it, and even longer for him to stop wanting to slam the shouter against the wall and tell him to shut the hell up. Guidance Counselor Tan had explained to him in very small words that he probably had anger management issues, which, okay, Shou Yan wasn’t going to deny. People made him angry. So what? The dumbass duelists at Jing Fei would make any normal person angry.
The Lake of Youthful Transformation might have been the most disappointing piece of advertisement ever, but Shou Yan didn’t mind it so much when he and Wan Lee were wiping another team out on it. It felt good to be angry then. Guys backed away from Shou Yan in duels because they thought he was seriously unhinged — the rumour was he had actually bit Qin Song once — and then they were distracted when quick-fingered Wan Lee swept in and stole their lantern blossom from them.
Like this team now. Shou Yan bared his teeth at Lan Yi, who still had most of his baby fat and whose Adam’s apple jumped and dropped like an amusement park tower. Lan Yi’s shield brother, Gong, was aiming a flurry of punches at Wan Lee, but Wan Lee ducked them all and then swept out a leg, snagging Gong off balance and sending him crashing to the floor. Lan Yi swirled around when he heard, and then Shou Yan took him down too, grabbing the lantern blossom trinket that hung from his right hip. “Ow! Ow! Ease off!” Lan Yi yelped, and Shou Yan rolled his eyes.
Referee Wang lifted the blue flag. “Victory goes to Hua Wan Lee and Xiang Shou Yan!”
Wan Lee slicked his sweaty bangs back and grinned. He held out his hand for Shou Yan to slap and protested when Shou Yan only did it half-heartedly. “Come on, we won. Aren’t you happy?”
Shou Yan looked at Gong and Lan Yi, picking themselves up and groaning about their bruises. “Why would I be happy about beating a bunch of weaklings?” he scoffed, looking straight at Gong, with whom he was far from friends.
“Fuck you,” Gong said. “You’re not that good. Wan Lee did most of the work. You just stood around and waited for him to tire us out.”
Shou Yan saw steam behind his eyes. He took a step towards Gong, but Wan Lee grabbed his shirt and held him back. “Don’t get us suspended again,” he said, and Shou Yan had to mentally weigh the satisfaction of pounding Gong’s face into mush against getting to proceed to the next round of duels. It was a tough choice but finally he squared his shoulders and stepped back. Proceeding to the next round of duels meant he could skip calculus class.
Not far away, Referee Gu yelled, “Victory goes to Cai Feng and Yun Qin Song!”
Everyone looked as Qin Song flashed his two finger salute, his captured lantern blossom dangling from his elegant digits. Wan Lee beamed and bounded over to wish his roommate congratulations. Gong said to Shou Yan, “You’re never going to be as good as Feng and Qin Song. You’re just the carp in the pond dreaming about being the moon.”
Who knew Gong paid attention in literature class?
As the weather cooled, Wan Lee wore his pom pom hats with pride, and he also wore five layers of clothing as they trudged across the courtyard from one class to another. Every few steps he would slap his cheeks, and Shou Yan finally gave in after the sixth slap and asked him what the hell he was doing. “I’m keeping the blood in my face, duh,” Wan Lee said. “I’ve got to have proper circulation or I’ll get sick.” If Wan Lee was to be believed, coming down with the cold was a disaster worse than Headmaster Zhang’s experiments with the glitter gun. His room was fortress stocked with tissues, pills, and hot water bottles. If he so much as sniffled, he would beg Shou Yan to cancel their next Lantern Blossom duel and say, with a straight face, “My body is a temple and the temple is too delicate to fight today.”
Wan Lee might have been on the skinny side and imagined himself a Tang dynasty princess but he was not delicate. Shou Yan had seen him put his fist through wood before. He had seen him take a kick to the jaw that should have knocked him out, but he got up and won the fight. Wan Lee’s grandfather was a master of the northern styles of wushu, and he had taken young Wan Lee under his wing as some kind of martial arts prodigy. Wan Lee was at Jing Fei on a scholarship. Shou Yan heard that Headmaster Zhang actually begged him to come.
Shou Yan, on the other hand, had no formal training and if the sneers of guys like Gong were right, had only been invited to Jing Fei on account of his brother, who had won the Trophy of Strength and Gallantry ten years ago. His stomach rolled when he thought about it. You’re not that good. Wan Lee did most of the work.
“TURTLE!” Wan Lee shouted.
“What?” Shou Yan bleated.
“Just exercising my throat. Master Bian’s Do It Yourself Guide to Good Health says that in order to avoid a sore throat…”
“I don’t want to hear what Master Bian said. Master Bian is a scam.”
Wan Lee looked offended. “Just because you’re a hard-nosed cynic who doesn’t believe in anything doesn’t mean you have to laugh at me.”
Shou Yan kicked a rock. “You’re such an easy target.”
“That’s mean,” Wan Lee said and slapped his own face; first the right cheek and then the left. “I think I’m coming down with a headache.”
“Then stop hitting yourself, idiot.”
“Yes, a headache,” Wan Lee said dreamily. “Maybe I’ll have to bail out on this afternoon. My hair is stringy. I should wash it.”
Shou Yan stared. “Oh come on.” Wan Lee started ambling away in the wrong direction. They were going to be late for class. Shou Yan didn’t care. He followed his shield brother across the courtyard, stamping his weight in the piles of autumn leaves. “Come on, you can’t do to this me. Wan Lee! Wan Lee!”
When they finally made it to history class, Teacher Mu made them write out extra lines in their notebooks and Qin Song fluttered his eyelashes. “Wan Lee! Wan Lee! Don’t leave me!” he panted, and Shou Yan blushed hot and furious. He timed it so that Teacher Mu wasn’t looking and then he leaned across the aisle and hissed in Qin Song’s ear.
“You just wait. I’m going to beat your whoring ass black and blue.”
“Are you going to lick it better afterwards?” Qin Song asked. “Or is that something you only do for Wan Lee?”
Shou Yan slammed the base of his palm into Qin Song’s forehead. Qin Song’s neck snapped backwards but he had a high tolerance for pain and quick reflexes; he wouldn’t be on the top ranked Lantern Blossom team if he didn’t. He swung around in his chair like a Hong Kong action hero and Shou Yan stood up abruptly, ready for whatever Qin Song could dish. Except that in a school full of fighters, the teachers were no slouches themselves, and Teacher Mu was a former wing chun champion. He blocked both Shou Yan and Qin Song and then ordered them to the headmaster’s office.
Being anywhere near Headmaster Zhang was like being in hell. A particularly exuberant, garish, I-hope-your-eardrums-have-insurance hell. “I AM VERY DISAPPOINTED IN YOU, BOYS,” he lectured. “YOU HAVE FAILED TO LIVE UP TO THE CODE OF BROTHERHOOD. NOW WE MUST EMBRACE EACH OTHER IN MANLY FORGIVENESS.”
“What? No way,” said Shou Yan.
But Headmaster Zhang was imperious, the spirit of Pu Lian burning behind his rheumatic eyes. It was the same look he gave creditors when they came to the school with their long list of bills. They always left dazed and sometimes a bit itchy. “WELL, WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR,” Headmaster Zhang boomed, and Shou Yan tried to remove his mind the way you were supposed to do when you were being tortured. He squeezed Qin Song’s abdomen once and quickly let go. Qin Song was smirking. He was probably getting his kinky joys out of this. Everybody knew about Qin Song and his inappropriate boners. Goddammit.
It was an open secret that Wan Lee and Qin Song were doing it. You only had to walk past their door at certain times and you’d hear a barely choked off moan or a murmur of Qin Song’s rough dirty talk. Neither of them admitted to it but in public they shared winks, nudges, and a totally absurd concept of body space. Shou Yan had heard even the teachers talking about it. But at the end of the day, while no one at Jing Fei was a stranger to a furtive handjob, being gay wasn’t exactly something you talked about. Shou Yan didn’t know if Wan Lee or Qin Song were gay anyway, or just really, really opportunistic. All boys boarding schools had a different set of rules than the outside world, or so Shou Yan had always been told.
Wan Lee’s mother definitely thought he was gay if their soul-scarring webcam chats were any indication, and Wan Lee loved to play it up, but maybe it was just that. A performance. Just like how Wan Lee liked to act the fragile blossom who had to be protected from the evil, evil rhinovirus. He would get up and walk out of the room if Shou Yan coughed, that was how dramatic he was (and he had actually pitched a fit during an exam once, but Shou Yan would rather not remember that particular incident and how Headmaster Zhang had held an assembly the next semester talking about RESPONSIBILITY and THE SOUL OF A WARRIOR).
Aside from Qin Song and his obnoxious teasing, nobody ever thought Shou Yan was gay. Idiots.
He was on his way after dinner to ask Wan Lee to train when he heard Wan Lee’s distinctive giggle, followed by Qin Song’s murmur. Shou Yan looked at his watch. 7:30. They were sure getting a head start tonight, he thought, and tried to quell the disappointment of not being able to train with his shield brother. They had a match in a few days against Chan and Cheng, who were first tier duelists like them and actually a bit of a threat.
Shou Yan turned around and saw Feng coming up the hall, his backpack slung over his shoulder and his collar peeled back. “It’s no use. They’re going at it,” Shou Yan informed him. Feng silently raised his eyebrows. He was a short, stocky guy with muscles like he worked on a farm during their breaks, except that Feng was part of the Cai family of tech magnates and had probably never smelled a farm in his entire life. Shou Yan typically couldn’t bear guys like him to whom everything came easily. Not only was Feng rich and a first tier duelist, he topped the class rosters in exams. He would have been perfect fodder for the photo dartboard of smug douchebags Shou Yan was going to make one day, except that he was surprisingly tight-lipped about his achievements. If anyone complimented him, he looked uncomfortable and shrugged them off, which was refreshing in a school of high wire competition and rabid egos.
“I think I’ll wait,” Feng said in his quiet baritone. “It shouldn’t take long anyway.”
“Ha,” said Shou Yan. “No kidding.” He cocked his head and watched Feng remove two heavy-duty textbooks from his backpack. He didn’t recognize them. “What are those for?”
“I’m taking a few courses at Hong Liu.”
“Shit. If you’re taking college courses, then why are you still hanging around at Jing Fei?” Shou Yan asked. “You should get out of this madhouse as fast as you can. Unless you want the Trophy.” He bet that was it. Feng and Qin Song made a good run at the Trophy last year, except Feng had twisted his ankle during the round of twenty and they had to withdraw. This was their last year at Jing Fei. Their last chance to win the only prize that mattered.
But Feng surprised him by saying, “I don’t care about the Trophy.”
“But Qin Song does.”
“Qin Song’s an asshole,” Shou Yan said bluntly, just as the bed started to creak. “I bet you were supposed to train tonight. I bet he runs off on you all the fucking time. My advice? Don’t worry about his feelings. If you’ve got the credits and you want to leave, then do it. It’s your life.”
“I imagine Wan Lee isn’t the most reliable of shield brothers either,” Feng said mildly. “But maybe you’re right. I’m still thinking about it.”
The school year started in September and so did the preliminary rounds of the Lantern Blossom duels. Headmaster Zhang claimed that the matchups were randomized by his computer, but everybody knew that he wrote them out himself, pitting certain teams against each other for maximum drama. Have a twin brother? A bitter enemy? A close friend? You could be sure to face them in the preliminaries at least once. Shou Yan was lucky in that respect. His only real friend was his roommate Zhao, and Zhao cared more about Starcraft than whether he and his shield brother advanced in the Lantern Blossom duels.
Twenty matches in the preliminaries. Two points for a win, one point for a stalemate, and zero points for a loss. A first tier team had to have at least thirty points in their last year, a second tier team twenty, and third tier team ten, and anything less than that was the dregs. Shou Yan had been in the dregs once, during his second year at Jing Fei when he and Wan Lee had that huge argument about tactics and Shou Yan put in a request for a new shield brother. He got Bing Han, a first year, and that was when Shou Yan realized that even if Wan Lee was annoying and prissy and had some loose interpretations of a good strategy, he was still Wan Lee, which meant he was a badass motherfucker in a duel who sometimes knew exactly what Shou Yan wanted even before Shou Yan did.
Those were the moments that made it worth it. When Wan Lee held his stance and took on all comers while Shou Yan looked for an opening to steal the lantern blossom — it made up for the ruined math notes and the impromptu birthday parties in Shou Yan’s room without his permission and the treks to the village to buy whatever medicine Wan Lee thought he needed to keep from dying horribly young.
(And Bing Han wasn’t doing so badly with his new shield brother, so it was a good thing they switched back in third year. Shou Yan wasn’t sure he could stand being flat on his back with his shield brother too preoccupied to defend him again).
This year was going to be a good year, Shou Yan felt. He was in the best shape of his entire life and Wan Lee had learned some new moves from his grandfather, and people were already predicting that they’d rack up enough points to be first tier again coming out of the preliminaries. Most of the old guard were injured or graduated, and it wasn’t looking like Feng was going to stick around for much longer. Shou Yan saw them arguing on the way to etiquette class. Qin Song was towering over Feng and Feng had his arms crossed stonily, only half paying attention to whatever Qin Song was saying.
“Oh,” said Wan Lee, and it sounded like he felt sorry for them.
“If they break up, that’s a good thing,” Shou Yan said and refused to feel any guilt for putting the seed of doubt in Feng’s mind.
Wan Lee had a hickey on his neck that showed when his scarf started to unravel. Shou Yan pulled the scarf back up and Wan Lee flashed him a smile of thanks, his slender, girlish fingers curling over the edges of his textbooks. Wan Lee had freckles on both of his cheeks and a small curved scar at the corner of his mouth where he’d gotten roughed up in Guangzhou, where his mother lived. Wan Lee never told Shou Yan what had happened and Shou Yan never asked. That too was part of being shield brothers, just as Wan Lee never asked Shou Yan about his complicated feelings towards his brilliant older brother, whose photo still hung in the Magnificence Hall with all the other Trophy winners of the past. Shou Yan’s brother worked for the government now and ran top secret jobs that had him traveling the world and sleeping with beauty queens. Shou Yan hated him a bit for that. The globe-trotting and hot sex, that was, not specifically the beauty queens (unless they had penises).
Qin Song showed up at their table during lunch, and Shou Yan glaring at him wasn’t subtle enough of a go away signal. “That damn Feng,” Qin Song said, slamming his tray down. His congealed goop slipped over the edge of his bowl and onto his napkins.
“He’s not really leaving, is he?” Wan Lee asked, swirling his chopsticks in his fried noodles.
“I have no idea.” Qin Song tossed his head and smouldered. Every queer boy in the cafeteria stared, but not Shou Yan. “It’s all because he’s a virgin.”
“What’s that got to do with anything?” Shou Yan asked.
“His parents are having him marry some girl in Hunan once he graduates. The reason he wants to leave has got nothing to do with fancy college courses. He just wants to get laid.” Qin Song’s voice turned nasty. “And it’s not like he’s going to find anyone who’ll fuck him without a ring on her finger and his money in her bank.” Shou Yan had never heard Qin Song sound this angry before, but that was what happened when you thought you had a chance at the Trophy and then your shield brother bailed out on you. Shou Yan felt the faintest twinge of sympathy, which he shoved down with taro juice.
“Whatever,” Shou Yan said. He tried to catch Wan Lee’s eye but Wan Lee was frowning at Qin Song.
“Feng’s a good guy. I’d do him,” he said, and Qin Song laughed.
“Seriously? He’s got that ugly nose and he breaks out in a rash whenever there’s rain.”
“I think it’s cute,” Wan Lee said at the same time Shou Yan said, “Oh god, you guys, shut up.”
Chan and Cheng were a tough fight. Shou Yan saw Chan at the gym lifting weights all the time and his punch was like running face first into a block of industrial cement. Cheng was trained in classical wushu, southern style, and he carried his team’s lantern blossom close to his body, near impossible to snatch without him pivoting and lashing back. There weren’t a lot of rules about what could happen in a Lantern Blossom duel other than no weapons allowed. Pu Lian, Shou Yan thought, must have hated teenagers.
After Chan’s fist met his face, blood flowed from his nose to his mouth. He licked it up though with his tongue. Some guys stopped fighting the moment they saw their own blood. They called the referee over and gave in. But blood wasn’t new to Shou Yan, not since he used to roughhouse with his brother in Yinchuan, and he’d never decided if his brother was either respectful or cruel for not going easy on him. He taught Shou Yan never to hold back. Sure, Shou Yan had a reputation now for being too rough and too dirty, for clawing eyes and pulling hair if he had to, but he won, didn’t he? Either he took the pain while Wan Lee swooped in to steal the lantern blossom, or Wan Lee distracted their opponents with his flourishing kicks and quick jabs as Shou Yan snuck up and knocked out the blossom-bearer.
He lunged for Chan. Chan was a big guy but he didn’t have a lot of balance, and Shou Yan tackled him to the Lake of Youthful Transformation. Cheng tried to help his shield brother but he had Wan Lee to fend off first.
Shou Yan could nearly see the glint in Wan Lee’s eyes as he narrowed in for the kill. There was real joy in it, a streak of feral desire. Qin Song liked to joke that Wan Lee wasn’t born to his parents; he’d been found wandering the woods, naked and living with wolves, and it took seven years for him to be weaned to civilization. You could see why gullible first year boys believed it when they faced Wan Lee like this.
Wan Lee’s arm swept out —
— and Cheng fell.
When he was down, Wan Lee swiftly straddled his hips and tore the lantern blossom from its regulation cord.
Referee Gu lifted the blue flag.
It was their eighteenth duel of the preliminaries. Wan Lee walked over and helped Shou Yan and Chan up. He smacked Chan on the back, friendly like, but Chan just grunted and stumbled away. “Hey, how many points do we have now?” Wan Lee wanted to know. Shou Yan counted on his fingers.
“Exactly thirty,” he said.
Wan Lee pumped his first. “First tier! Woohoo! We’re going to make the round of forty for sure.”
“Never doubted that,” Shou Yan said. He wiped his arm across his aching nose. It wasn’t broken, probably, and the bleeding was slowing down too, enough that it took a while for Wan Lee to notice anything was wrong. All things considered, Wan Lee wasn’t exactly perceptive right after a victory where he was more likely to try and hump the vending machines than stop and think about what had happened. But when he finally did see the drying blood, he dragged Shou Yan directly to the nurse’s office.
“Stop fussing over me. It’s not a big deal,” Shou Yan scowled, but he didn’t pry Wan Lee’s grip from his sleeve.
“Blood loss means loss of qi,” Wan Lee said disapprovingly, but then they turned the corner and heard the reverberations of “BOYS, WHAT A VICTORY. THE SPIRIT OF JING FEI WAS SURELY SMILING DOWN ON YOU THEN” and were delayed.
So, about furtive handjobs.
Well, there’d only been the one, and Shou Yan blamed it on Wan Lee’s mother. If it wasn’t for her, the annual First Years’ Shield Brothers Bonding Retreat (With Bonus Bean Paste Cakes) would have been exposed for the death hazard it was. But Auntie Lu, in a remarkable move of political finesse, convinced the other members of the parental board that it was, in fact, perfectly alright for the school to send their fourteen year old sons into the woods with nothing more than a matchbox and a few packets of dried meat to build relationships between the newly minted shield brothers. Shou Yan hated nature and he hated his bubbly new sword brother more, so the idea of spending a week roughing it with Wan Lee gave him hives.
This was how he knew it was a filthy lie that Wan Lee had been raised by wolves, because if he had, he’d know better than to tear into their food rations on the first day and leave them dwindling and bad-tempered for the rest of the week. If he’d been raised by wolves, he’d also know how to hunt, for the woods had small game and Shou Yan had a knife. Instead Wan Lee had spread his blankets on the ground, turned his belly up to the sun, and dozed off.
By the third day Shou Yan had had enough of his laziness, so he took his boot to Wan Lee’s side, nudging him awake. “The sun’s setting. Go get some firewood,” he ordered.
“TURTLE!” Wan Lee yelled.
Shou Yan exploded. “What the hell is wrong with you? Seriously! I’m this close to punching you, shield brother or not!”
“No, really, there’s a turtle over there.” Wan Lee pointed at the lake shore.
“That’s not a turtle,” Shou Yan said. “That’s a blob of green leafiness.”
“With a shell.”
“That is not a–” he began to say but Wan Lee was already striding to the green blob in question. “Don’t pick it up!” Shou Yan said, but Wan Lee ignored him and gently peeled the blob off the rocks. It moved and little legs poked out of the center. A dopey grin melted over Wan Lee’s face.
“You’re not taking it back as a pet,” Shou Yan said, while thinking he’s exactly the kind of guy who would want to take it home as a pet.
“Of course not,” Wan Lee said, offended. “It’s a wild animal. My roommate wouldn’t like it anyway.” He put the turtle back on the ground and gave it a careful nudge, still smiling like a kid with a present.
“You like animals, huh?” Shou Yan asked. It was useful to know the likes and dislikes of your shield brother.
“I used to live above a pet shop. They let me help out sometimes.”
“Really? Hard to imagine,” Shou Yan said snidely. But Wan Lee bounced on his toes and stretched, looking like he was finally waking up. He had large eyes and very long lashes, which Shou Yan supposed were attractive, if you were into that sort of thing.
“I’ll get the firewood,” Wan Lee offered brightly.
“You loser, don’t act like you’re doing me a favour,” Shou Yan grumbled. But he felt a lot more charitable when Wan Lee returned in record time with an armful of twigs and branches, and not only did he arrange them in the fire pit, but he also started the fire, a task that had been giving Shou Yan a lot of trouble the last few days. The two of them settled around the fire with sweaters layered onto sweaters, and they shared a packet of fish jerky that was so salty that Shou Yan’s tongue burned. But he ate his entire portion and some of Wan Lee’s too. Wan Lee didn’t complain.
“I like it out here,” he said.
“Oh sweet lords of the republic, why?” Shou Yan asked. “We’re cold, miserable, and hungry.”
Wan Lee said, quietly, “I’ve had it worse.”
That shut Shou Yan up. Wan Lee wasn’t short — when Shou Yan sized him up, he’d found that they were the exact same height despite Wan Lee’s deceptive slenderness — but he had a way of holding his knees to his chest and curling up that made him seem small. And, Shou Yan thought, vulnerable. So he said, awkward in the way only fourteen-year-old boys who think they are men can be, “We’ll kick some ass this year, yeah?”
“Qin Song says–”
“Who the hell is Qin Song?”
“Oh. Uh, my roommate.” Wan Lee fidgeted with the unraveling threads of his sleeve. “He says there are a lot of tough students in this year’s incoming class. Maybe the best in decades. A lot of legacies.”
“I know,” Shou Yan said. “I’m…I’m a legacy.”
“Really?” Wan Lee asked. “Who’s the lucky veteran in your family?”
“And your last name is Xiang…” Wan Lee thought about it for a moment, and Shou Yan felt his stomach drop. Here it was, the inevitable fawning. Wan Lee didn’t disappoint. He jumped to his feet, startling Shou Yan into toppling over. “OH MY GOD, IS YOUR BROTHER XIANG SHOU ZHONG, ONE OF THE GREAT CHAMPIONS?”
“Why are you shouting?”
“THAT IS SO EXCITING. MY GRANDFATHER SAYS THAT XIANG SHOU ZHONG IS ONE OF THE PROUDEST ACHIEVEMENTS OF JING FEI ACADEMY. I SHOULD ASPIRE TO BE JUST LIKE HIM.”
“Ugh, no,” said Shou Yan. “You don’t want to be anything like my brother. And calm down, will you? Jeez.” He grabbed Wan Lee by the ankle and pulled him down.
“Sorry,” Wan Lee said. “I’m like that sometimes.”
“Great,” said Shou Yan.
“But I’m really honoured to be partnered with someone related to the Honourable Xiang Shou Zhong,” Wan Lee said, and his eyes, oh no, they were shining. This was the magical power of Shou Yan’s older brother, the beast who had ravaged the Lake of Youthful Transformation. Shou Yan felt a little sick in his throat.
“Let’s go to sleep,” he said, and he spread his sleeping bag out flat and tidy, hoping by some mechanism of ritual that the neatness and tidiness of his bag would make up for whatever critters were surely crawling on the ground. He slid into his sleeping bag quickly and zipped himself up securely. He closed his eyes and turned off his brain. He never had a problem with falling asleep, so he was fully expecting to drift off into merciful unconsciousness when Wan Lee suddenly spoke.
“Hey,” he said softly.
Shou Yan ignored him and kept focusing on the merciful unconsciousness.
“Hey,” Wan Lee said again. “Are you awake?”
I wish I weren’t, Shou Yan thought.
“I’m horny,” Wan Lee whispered, and Shou Yan resisted the urge to bang his head against the hard, cold ground and let his brains leak out until he died. “Do you want a blowjob?” Wan Lee added.
“…what?” Shou Yan blurted. This was not mercy.
“A blowjob. You know, I put my mouth on your dick and I suck it a bit.”
“I know what a blowjob is!” Shou Yan said, nearly hyperventilating. “But you can’t give me a blowjob! We’re in the middle of the woods! We’ve only known each other for a few weeks!” He thought about protesting the genders too for appearance’s sake but if Wan Lee was going to be his shield brother for the next four years, he was bound to find out about Shou Yan’s queerness one way or another. Besides, it wasn’t like he was being particularly homophobic right now, god.
“Wow,” said Wan Lee, impressed. “I’ve never seen anyone who hated blowjobs that badly. Okay, okay, if you don’t want one, I’m not going to make you. What about a handjob?”
“A handjob?” he echoed. Shou Yan’s head felt woolly and all this talk about sex was making his body heat up. No one had ever offered to touch him before. Wan Lee wasn’t offering the romantic interlude of the century, not the way Shou Yan sometimes fantasized about being approached, complete with flowery vision, gently falling rain, and 1920s Hong Kong in the background. But nevertheless, he was offering, and Shou Yan had never, he had never —
He licked his lips, and Wan Lee smiled.
It was probably the best and worst decision Shou Yan could ever make. He let Wan Lee crawl out of his sleeping bag and join his. The sound of the zipper being pulled down was painfully loud in the quiet night, and Shou Yan shuddered when Wan Lee’s slender fingers reached into his track pants and found his cock. “You’re already hard,” Wan Lee said delightedly, and Shou Yan moaned embarrassingly in response because that was a hand on him that wasn’t his own, warm and tight and practiced. Wan Lee jacked him off in a steady rhythm, smiling down on him all the while like a youthful Buddha, and Shou Yan’s insides felt like scrambled eggs as he jerked his hips and came.
Wan Lee’s face was within reach, and Shou Yan experienced the electric urge to kiss him. He leaned up jerkily, balancing his loose weight on his elbows, but Wan Lee turned his face away. “Hey,” he said again. “It’s okay. You don’t have to. I was glad to do it for Xiang Shou Zhong’s brother.”
Summer turned to winter, fast. Shou Yan thought, Never again. He made sure the rest of the camping trip was quiet and uneventful. Wan Lee offered lurid sexual favours twice more but each time Shou Yan looked at him coldly until he stopped. When they finally got to return to civilization and showers, Shou Yan kissed the walls loudly, said “I’ll see you around” to Wan Lee, and then proceeded to avoid him until their first official Lantern Blossom duel.
That was three years ago. They never mentioned it again and Shou Yan did his best to never think about it again, except that sometimes, when he was lying in bed with his roommate snoring and his dick in his hand, it was hard not to reflect over his one and only sexual experience. He usually tried to wipe out Wan Lee’s face in the memory. He pretended it was someone else, some new blockbuster actor with pouty lips and a beckoning smile. It worked ninety percent of the time, barring the once when Shou Yan had accidentally gasped Wan Lee’s name out loud. That had been a level of awkwardness approaching nuclear levels and Shou Yan had been forced to invent a fantasy figure named Kan Lee just to explain to his roommate.
Zhao still liked to mention it. “How about that Kan Lee?” he’d ask when he got bored of shooting orcs in his game, and Shou Yan would pitch a pillow at his fat head, snarling, “Kan Lee is fine. Go back to your stupid MMORPG.”
One time, Zhao mentioned it when Wan Lee was over discussing leg exercises. “Seen Kan Lee in your dreams lately?” he asked innocently.
Shou Yan went very stiff. Wan Lee, all curiosity, asked, “Who’s Kan Lee?”
“Some actor Shou Yan is into. Like, really into.” Zhao smirked, the filthy traitor. Shou Yan was going to unplug his computer when he was in the middle of an unsaved game, just wait and see.
He said as much out loud.
“No, seriously, who’s Kan Lee? I’ve never heard of them before and I follow all the celebrity gossip on the internet ever,” Wan Lee said. “Is this an indie actor? Are you still in your indie phase?”
“It’s not a phase,” Shou Yan said hotly. “It’s a genuine appreciation for underground Chinese cinema and stop laughing, you guys. I’ll kill you.”
“You say that over and over again, but it never works. I’m way faster than you,” Wan Lee replied, grinning. “At least until you develop laser eyes.”
“I wish,” said Shou Yan. “But that’d probably be against Lantern Blossom rules.”
“We could be sneaky about it. You could laser eye our opponent and then I’d punch them once or twice, and the referee would never know!” Wan Lee cackled. “It’s brilliant! Go tell your super secret agent brother right now!”
“Zzzzzt,” Shou Yan said and it meant to be all sardonic and cynical, but then he looked at Wan Lee’s brilliant smile and felt anything but. It wasn’t fair, he thought. It wasn’t fair that he would get the most eccentric boy in school as his shield brother, the boy who went around offering blowjobs like they were gum packets, the boy who hoarded cough drops and wet towel wipes and built them into mountains, that boy, and still manage to fall for him. Goddamn hormones.
But still, Shou Yan was good at bearing heavy things. He could bear being the great Shou Zhong’s less talented brother; he could bear carrying a torch for the hyperactive and thoroughly frustrating Wan Lee. They were only a few months away from graduation. No matter how well they did in their quest for the Trophy, at the end of it Shou Yan could go off to university and never have to see Wan Lee again. They could become polite email buddies and when Wan Lee finally married Qin Song — it wasn’t legal yet but if Shou Zhong’s vague remarks at the last family dinner were any indicator, that was about to change — Shou Yan could send them a wok at the wedding. Or something. He had it all planned out.
What he didn’t have planned out was Gong waiting for him outside literature class and saying, “It’s pretty certain that Cai Feng is going to graduate early.”
“Yeah?” Shou Yan asked, still thinking about his answer to question three on their test and wondering if he’d mixed up the generals’ names in the San Guo Yan Yi. When Gong put his hand on the wall, too close to Shou Yan’s shoulder, Shou Yan stared him until he relented. No one at Jing Fei had quite the ‘fuck you’ stare that he did.
“What do you think Qin Song will do when Feng leaves?” Gong asked.
“Sorry, I must have missed the memo. When did we become friends again?”
“You’re an ass, Shou Yan.”
“And you suck at duelling,” he said.
“I’m not in as much trouble as you are,” Gong replied, and Shou Yan smacked himself mentally for ever thinking he was cute during second year. In his own defense, he’d been feverish and stumbling to the infirmary where Gong volunteered, and he probably would’ve considered anybody who gave him drugs at that point as hot as goddamn Tony Leung. Gong continued, “If Feng leaves, Qin Song isn’t just going to drop out of the duels, you know. He’s going to look for a new partner.”
Not a big surprise, thought Shou Yan. Partner switching after the preliminaries was rare but perfectly legal thanks to a loophole in the founding document of the school that no headmaster had overturned — it was pretty hard to go against the rules of Pu Lian and not be stoned for it. However, the rules stipulated that once you were in the round of forty, your new partner had to be another duelist that had made it into the round of forty. Generally the loophole was exploited by duelists whose partners had gotten injured. Qin Song had used it himself that year Feng sprained his ankle, though his new partner hadn’t been up to his standard and they got knocked out in the round of twelve.
Then suddenly the implication of Gong’s words hit him like a roundhouse kick.
“You are so full of shit,” he snapped. “Wan Lee wouldn’t switch out on me.”
“He and Qin Song are best friends,” Gong pointed out, and Shou Yan’s fingers curled into a fist. He didn’t punch Gong though. Jing Fei had strict rules about violence outside the Lantern Blossom duels, stricter than other schools he’d been to because of the very nature of its students.
“That doesn’t mean anything important,” Shou Yan said.
Gong was unrepentant. “Just passing along the news. I’m not the only one who’s saying it, buddy.” He paused and almost clapped Shou Yan on the back, but Shou Yan moved out of the way. “Hey, I’m not trying to be mean. I promise. I honestly thought you should get a head’s up.”
Shou Yan waited until Gong strolled away before making a face. He didn’t normally say things like “oh, they’re so jealous” because it seemed kind of cocky even by his standards, but this was a perfect moment if any. He stood there for a moment, his backpack heavy on the base of his spine, his breath pushed to evenness. He let his anger wash through him the way Guidance Counselor Tan told him to when he’d written on his psychological report, Shou Yan has a lot of passion and sometimes he doesn’t know where to direct it. Gong wasn’t worth getting furious over, At Jing Fei, he’d learned to pick his fights, so to speak.
He ducked into the washroom between lit class and music class. There were three boys smoking by the sink. He barely glanced at them; they were permanent fixtures of the washroom scene. No matter how many times Headmaster Zhang threatened to install smoke alarms, he never did. Men in China were inveterate smokers. Except when Shou Yan was on his way out, stopping only to wash his hands, he realized that one of the boys was Feng.
“Uh,” Feng said and lowered his cigarette guiltily.
“Hey,” Shou Yan said without inflection.
Feng stubbed out his cigarette and grabbed his backpack from the floor. “Class is going to start soon. I’d better go. Oh yeah,” he added, pausing by the door. “Wan Lee was looking for you earlier. He said he has something important to tell you.”
“Important?” Shou Yan echoed.
“Don’t know more than that, sorry. He and I aren’t really friends. Qin Song might know more.” Feng offered a small smile and then disappeared with the flimsy swinging door.
Shou Yan dried his hands on the sides of his uniform. Then he glanced at the two smokers, who were staring at him curiously now, and scowled. “Nothing to look at here, you prima donnas,” he said and banged out in the direction of his music class. He would see Wan Lee during their fifth period training session. He tried to put it out of mind until then and was only partially successful, mostly thanks to the racket of his music partner’s drums that drove out all coherent thought, including the question of Gong being right after all. Shou Yan was sort of thankful for the drums. Sort of.
He was the first to arrive at the practice gym. He changed and started stretching on the mats due south, which he and Wan Lee had conquered on their first day as partners because of the lucky feng shui connotations. He waited for Wan Lee, feeling like there was a peach pit in his stomach but also feeling like he was being a flaky fool about this whole thing. This was exactly what Gong wanted him to fear. In reality, the important news Wan Lee wanted to tell him was probably some new herbal supplement he’d started taking. Or some drama he’d started mainlining last night and could not stop obsessing over. Hell, if Shou Yan’s memory was correct, the last time Wan Lee had announced important news, it was that he wanted Shou Yan’s opinion on whether blue or black was a better colour on him for the mixer with the local town girls. A possessor of good judgement, Wan Lee was not.
He kept his posture casual when Wan Lee finally showed up. It was apparent that Wan Lee was nervous. His shoulders hunched like an old man’s and he was worrying his lip between his teeth. “What’s up?” Shou Yan asked him. “Feng said you had news for me?”
“Um,” said Wan Lee. “I changed my mind. It’s not important after all.”
“Dude, black or blue,” Shou Yan said.
Wan Lee laughed. It sounded tinny. “Well, we’ve decided that blue is a better colour on me! Especially if I’m going to streak my hair.” Shou Yan felt it was his duty to scoff at this part. Wan Lee was always promising to streak his hair some outrageous colour and then not having the nerve to do it.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Shou Yan asked.
“Yes,” said Wan Lee. Then he cleared his throat noisily and said it again, more certain. “Yes.”
“‘Cause Feng said–”
“Feng’s got a lot on his mind, don’t you think?” Wan Lee interrupted. He dropped his backpack and joined Shou Yan in his stretches. They knew each other well enough by now to have a routine — when Shou Yan sat down and started reaching for his toes, Wan Lee crawled behind him and put pressure on his back. Shou Yan’s bones groaned with the pressure, but he let Wan Lee guide him even further until his head was between his thighs and he was saying, “Okay. Your turn.”
Observing Wan Lee’s flexibility was dangerous to Shou Yan’s peace of mind, but Shou Yan had practice in developing the type of temporary amnesia that would allow him to forget just how far Wan Lee could reach or what helpful positions he could contort his body into. Through a windfall in the genetic lottery, Wan Lee was double-jointed in just about every major limb in his body. People were always telling him to join the circus. When they were being clean-minded, that was; when they weren’t, they suggested something else entirely.
There was probably something deeply, deeply wrong with you when your head spun fantasies of you and your shield brother in an era of wuxia elegance, where you were a noble hero with a tragic past, and your shield brother was a beautiful courtesan who waited faithfully for you after every exploit. Wan Lee would look stunning sitting under a plum tree, playing the qin and mourning the end of the seasons. He would be gorgeously sad and melancholy, except when Shou Yan visited him, during which he would smile so bright as to rival the moon. He would take Shou Yan’s hand and lead him to an upper room of the brothel where he would disrobe and then hold Shou Yan’s battle-scarred body close to his and sigh about how even though he plied his charms for hundreds of other men, they didn’t count; it was Shou Yan who mattered, only Shou Yan. Oh yeah, and Qin Song had trouble getting it up and drooled when he came — that was an integral aspect of most of Shou Yan’s fantasies.
Thank every god and bodhisattva that the mind-reading technology Shou Yan’s brother was always promising was still light years away from being developed.
“Your face is all red and shiny,” Wan Lee noted as they practiced their throws.
“It’s just hot in here. Did someone forget to turn on the A/C?” Shou Yan lied. “Oof,” he said when Wan Lee flipped him onto his back hard.
Wan Lee smirked from above him. His nervous mood seemed to be dissipating in pieces every time he ground Shou Yan under his heel, which was…okay, Shou Yan could live with the bruising of his pride if it made Wan Lee happy. They worked through their usual throws, kicks, and punches. Then they ran through a mock Lantern Blossom duel where Wan Lee hooked the lantern blossom to his hip and Shou Yan tried to get it. He failed about sixty percent of the time — eighty percent, he thought privately, if Wan Lee was being serious, which he usually wasn’t during training — but today was one of his good days. He tackled Wan Lee to the mat and Wan Lee giggled.
“Giggling is not the appropriate response,” Shou Yan said sternly.
“Your hair is in my face. It tickles,” Wan Lee said. “You should cut your bangs. I can do it for free.” He reached up to bat Shou Yan’s bangs away, and his knuckles grazed Shou Yan’s cheek. Shou Yan swallowed and quickly scrambled up to a safe distance, the lantern blossom sweaty in his palm.
“I’m not letting you anywhere near my face with scissors,” Shou Yan said.
“Whatever. I cut Qin Song’s bangs for him and he likes it fine.”
“Yeah, well, Qin Song likes everything you do, it seems,” Shou Yan snapped, the very mention of Qin Song a physical reverberation through his body.
Wan Lee looked at him oddly. Then the final bell rang and he stood up. As they headed to the changing room and Shou Yan turned his back on Wan Lee to switch into less sweaty clothes, he heard Wan Lee mumble, “So that thing I was going to tell you?”
“Yeah?” Shou Yan asked tensely. He shoved his dirty shirt into his bag and ignored the throb of his elbow where he’d landed funny.
“I’ll tell you later,” Wan Lee promised.
“Why can’t you tell me now?” Shou Yan turned around in time to see Wan Lee duck his head and hide behind his own generous fringe of bangs. Wan Lee was rolling up his socks and lacing his shoes, and his every movement was careful and ritualized. Shou Yan hated it sometimes, how Wan Lee couldn’t ever step outside his own boundaries. This wasn’t fair, he knew, because he had plenty of boundaries of his own — how he’d never told Wan Lee that he was gay, not in any certain terms, how he’d never let Wan Lee catch onto an inkling of his feelings — but fair was a funny word when you went to a school that valued every time you punched another boy in the face. The students of Jing Fei Academy were messed up, no two doubts about it. It wasn’t a school your parents sent you to if they thought you were right in the head. More like they wanted to get rid of you.
“I just don’t want to, okay?” Wan Lee finally said, and he sounded angry in a way that he rarely was. It was the frission of anger in his voice that he normally reserved for phone calls with his dad. So Shou Yan dropped it. He pasted on a smile and cuffed Wan Lee on the shoulder all manly like.
“Peace?” he asked.
“You can’t just say peace every time you annoy me and expect me to forgive you,” Wan Lee complained, but the corner of his mouth was already tugging upwards as if magnetized.
“All the evidence points to the contrary,” Shou Yan said because he was an ass.
“That’s because I’m ridiculously easy,” Wan Lee replied, and it was hard to argue with that logic. Shou Yan said so out loud and Wan Lee punched him in the arm, adding to the collection of bruises Shou Yan nursed each and every night. Then they knocked shoulders again companionably, which was their habit after a good sparring session, and if Shou Yan’s were a bit too cavalier and Wan Lee’s too stiff, neither of them mentioned it. Even though Shou Yan’s tongue itched with questions.
It didn’t matter what Headmaster Zhang said. Being seventeen, red-blooded, and fit-bodied was way overrated, he thought. He crashed into bed after practice, grunted a hello to Zhao — who grunted back while staring mesmerized at the beautiful attack sequence on his computer — and put on his headphones to listen to Eason Chan until dinner. Cantopop would soothe all ills. That was what it was made for.
December arrived in a puff of cold and dead leaves, and they finished the preliminaries as the third ranked pair, which was pretty much what Shou Yan had aimed for. Qin Song and Feng were number one, and Deng and Huang were number two — the usual pattern and a familiar sight on the announcement boards outside the gym. But by now everyone was buzzing about Feng’s premature graduation and while Feng himself was tight-lipped about it, all the duelists looked at the list and mentally ranked themselves one spot higher. If Feng left, Qin Song was done for. There was no way he could find a new partner good enough to take him to the top, especially during this surprisingly injury-free season.
After the preliminaries, they had two months, give or take, of break time before the round of forty began. This had been ordained by Pu Lian so that the duelists could focus on their academic mid-terms and also have most of January or February off for Chinese New Year, whenever it fell on the lunar calendar. Shou Yan had mixed feelings about the long wait between preliminaries and the round of forty. He appreciated it as much as anybody because it gave him a chance to catch up on his missed class readings and to get over various bruised body parts, but sometimes he got restless. Having the time to think about how well he and Wan Lee would do on the next round was worse than actually going out and getting the job done.
Plus there were endless psychological games between the duelists who’d made the round of forty, and every year at least one boy went home crying and humiliated with lipstick smeared on his butt cheeks.
The boys of Jing Fei were GALLANT and NOBLE, as advertised, but they were also fierce.
Shou Yan kept most of his important belongings locked up in a box under his bed. He also had the good fortune — though it didn’t always appear that way — of having a roommate who hadn’t make the round of forty and who holed himself up in their room, making endless love to his graphics card. Zhao was weirdly obsessive and often badly groomed, but he was a good friend and a loyal watchdog of precious belongings.
Into that box went Shou Yan’s formal clothes, his rarely used prayer mat, his mother’s recipe for no-pork dumpling fillings, his limited edition CDs and DVDs — including his collection of Zhang Yimou’s complete works, both the banned and the unbanned films — and the handful of condoms and the bottle of lube that he kept, just in case.
Midterms were mildly stressful; they were excuse enough to occasionally take shots from the bottle of vodka he and Zhao kept in their closet. Shou Yan knew he was aces at all the humanities, but the sciences tripped him up sometimes if he didn’t spend enough time memorizing the arcane details of the Krebs Cycle. His favourite recourse for when his eyes were rolling out of his head was to track down Wan Lee and bully him into explaining. Wan Lee’s best subject was biology, followed closely by chemistry and physics. He admitted to Shou Yan once that his childhood dream was to be an astronaut, but the problem was that he didn’t have 20/20 vision and feared laser eye surgery more than he feared death.
Most of the time during mid-term season, Shou Yan would wander over to Wan Lee’s room in Wing 3B and find him and Qin Song sprawled over their beds flipping through their textbooks while sharing a bag of shrimp chips (mid-term season was also a good time to indulge in foods you’d never eat when you were supposed to be staying in shape). Wan Lee always seemed happy to have Shou Yan over and would scoot to the left on his bed to make room for him. Qin Song always seemed sort of amused but indulgent. If Shou Yan was going to be honest, Qin Song wasn’t bad company when studying and could be counted on to turn any difficult academic concept into a song and dance routine that would send Wan Lee into peals of laughter and crack a smile from Shou Yan.
For instance, right now he was performing a classic scene of Chinese literature. To pelvic thrusts.
“And then Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu–” Thrust thrust thrust.
“Oh my god!” said Wan Lee, hands clasped over his mouth to keep from squeaking and not very successfully at that. “You’re evil!”
“Darling, I’m a revisionist,” Qin Song said, striking a pose that proved yet again why he would have been better off on the runways of Milan than hanging around making a nuisance of Shou Yan’s life.
There was a quiet knock on the door. Qin Song made a dismissive noise. “Only one person that could be,” he said, and Shou Yan would have asked who, except Qin Song strode over and flung open the door, answering his question in all of three seconds. “Ah Feng, how kind of you to show up. Late,” Qin Song drawled.
“I ran into someone who needed my help with a math question,” Feng said.
“And it’s your duty to save the entire goddamn school, I know, I know.” Qin Song flopped back onto his bed. Both Shou Yan and Wan Lee watched interestedly — though for different reasons — as Feng picked his way inside the room and sat at Qin Song’s desk, rolling the chair backwards to fit his bulky body. He placed his textbooks neatly on his lap and waited for a cue, but Qin Song didn’t address him for the next five minutes. The reason for their discord was obvious, but it was actually jarring to see them like this. Qin Song and Feng were known to be close friends as well as superb shield brothers. Their personalities were different, yes, but Shou Yan had heard them compared to fire and earth, as natural and complementary. All shield brothers inevitably had friction, but he didn’t remember ever seeing these two argue until now. Feng was usually content to let Qin Song have his way in everything, it was known.
Wan Lee had a mischievous expression on his face. It was cute, Shou Yan thought. It made him look like a fox, but it also boded for bad choices and he stared at Wan Lee, trying to express through his glare how much he wished Wan Lee wouldn’t say whatever he was about to say. But unlike the legendary partnership of Qin Song and Feng, Shou Yan had never had much control over Wan Lee.
“So,” Wan Lee asked Feng, “have you applied for early graduation?”
Qin Song actually snarled. Shou Yan could only imagine the hate sex that was going to result from this conversation when they were alone again.
“I haven’t filed the paperwork yet,” Feng replied, and his eyes darted to Qin Song, who looked away.
Awkward, Shou Yan thought.
“And what about your fiancé?” Wan Lee continued.
…really awkward, Shou Yan thought.
But Feng smiled and it was a wonder what it did to his otherwise plain face. He looked happy for the first time in…well, Shou Yan wasn’t sure he’d ever seen stoic Feng truly, expressively happy before. “She’s a first year engineering student at Huda. She’s really smart. It’s kind of intimidating.”
“If she’s so smart and talented and still can’t get married on her own, then she must be pig snout ugly,” Qin Song said.
“Shut up,” Feng said coldly.
“I guess you’re a perfect match then,” Qin Song added, and wow, there was bitter and then there was bitter. Shou Yan twisted uncomfortably, and he was dismayed to see that Wan Lee was watching Feng and Qin Song insult each other as if it was a high stakes badminton game.
“You always go back to that, don’t you?” Feng said. “Do my looks bother you that much?”
“Tch,” Qin Song said, and finally, finally, Wan Lee stepped in between his boyfriend and his boyfriend’s shield brother to assert some civility.
“Do you guys think Huang and Deng will do that combo attack of theirs again?” he asked.
“I hope not,” Shou Yan said. “It’s so predictable.”
“But it’s effective,” Feng pointed out, opening the floor to more arguing, but this kind Shou Yan didn’t mind. Talking about strategy and other duelists was much safer than talking about resentment and jealousy and whatever else was floating in the air at Jing Fei this season. But he couldn’t entirely erase Qin Song’s cruel frustration and Wan Lee’s barely hidden amusement; it was a game that he didn’t know how to play. Until it occurred to him that Wan Lee was egging Qin Song and Feng’s breakup for his own personal reasons, and it was that realization that made Shou Yan turn over in bed that night and breathe a curse into his fist.
“You’re a paranoid motherfucker, you know that?” Zhao asked as Shou Yan paced their room, his hands buried in the mess of his bed head. “Why would Wan Lee break up a partnership as good as yours?”
“What would you know?” Shou Yan said. “All you do is play Starcraft.”
“I’m half Korean,” Zhao said. “It’s, like, genetic.”
Shou Yan laughed under his breath. Then he said, “I may be good but Qin Song is better. If he teams up with Qin Song, they’ll get the Trophy for sure. None of us will stand a chance.” He thought of Wan Lee’s feral movements matched with Qin Song’s long, elegant reach. He shuddered.
“But he’d lose your friendship,” Zhao said. “I can’t see Wan Lee stabbing you in the back like that. I know you two aren’t always buddy buddy but you guys seem to get along, you know? You have your own rituals and in-jokes and everything.”
“He and Qin Song fuck,” Shou Yan said harshly.
“Okay, I did not know that. Huh. That explains a lot, come to think of it.” Zhao paused for a minute to destroy some poor rival on Starcraft. “Man, this school is so queer. First you, then Wan Lee and Qin Song. And don’t bother denying it. I found your yaoi collection within a week of moving in.”
“You are such a snoop,” Shou Yan said.
“It was a good read,” said Zhao.
“I’m never talking to you again,” Shou Yan said.
“You’re so melodramatic,” Zhao sighed. “Just talk to Wan Lee. Ask him point blank if he wants to switch shield brothers. I don’t see what’s so damn hard about it. He’s always spouting off what’s on his mind anyway. I bet he’ll tell you the truth right away.”
“No, he hates talking about anything serious. He clams right up. You have to take the long route about if you want anything meaningful from him,” Shou Yan said. “Trust me. You don’t know him as well as I do.”
“Exactly.” Zhao narrowed his eyes and spoke again, wisdom from the mouths of computer geeks. “Or maybe the problem is you don’t know him as well as you think you do. I mean, it took you three weeks to even remember my name. You’re not exactly good with people, dude.”
Wan Lee kept on conceiving new ways to push Qin Song and Feng into corners. When his eighteenth birthday came around in early January — Shou Yan still had trouble believing sometimes that Wan Lee was older than him, was older than nearly all of them in fact — he twirled his finger in the air and said, “You know what I want? What I really, really want? Which, by the way, reminds me of that Spice Girls song.”
“I’m afraid to ask,” Shou Yan said dryly.
“I want a match between you, me, Feng, and Qin Song,” he said.
“Just wait for the round of forty then.”
“No, like right now. Unofficially.” Wan Lee grinned. “And I want to mix up the teams. I want it to be you and Feng versus me and Qin Song.”
It would have been nicely appropriate at that moment to say Shou Yan’s blood went cold, but that was more likely due to the wind storm blowing in their faces. He started walking at a brisker pace but Wan Lee trailed him relentlessly. “What, you don’t think it’s a good idea?” he asked. “You’ve never wondered what it’d be like with a different shield brother?”
“It’s your birthday,” Shou Yan said. “Do whatever you want.” He had his own gift prepared for Wan Lee but now he wasn’t so sure if Wan Lee would even want it. It embarrassed him to think of Wan Lee rejecting it somehow; it made it not worth the risk. Instead he wrapped up his favourite Shungiku Nakamura manga, tied a sloppy bow on it, and passed it over to Wan Lee during breakfast. Wan Lee professed his love for it, but then Qin Song laid his gift on the table and it was the latest edition of Master Bian’s health guide, which made Wan Lee’s jaw drop because apparently the new edition wasn’t even out in stores yet. Qin Song had a relative who worked in publishing. Douchebag.
Even Feng had something better for Wan Lee. He brought over a small potted plant and offered it. “I grow these in my room,” he said, sounding almost shy.
“It’s true,” Qin Song said. “It’s a fucking jungle in there.”
Great, thought Shou Yan. His other friends give him the gift of good health and nature. I give him porn.
Together they gave him a fight. It was a testament to how much they all loved Wan Lee that they showed up. Qin Song looked impatient to get it over with and Feng definitely wasn’t happy to be there, even though he was polite enough to put up the vaguest semblance of mild interest. “Sorry about this,” Shou Yan murmured to him when they were in the changing rooms.
“I figure anything to make Qin Song less angry at me,” Feng admitted.
Shou Yan glanced over to where Wan Lee and Qin Song were huddling by their lockers. They weren’t paying them any attention. So Shou Yan ducked his head and said, more quietly, “Yes or no, are you going to graduate early? I know you must get tired of everybody asking it, but it matters to me.”
“Yeah. I’ve heard about Wan Lee.” Feng pushed his fingers through the laces of his sneakers. “The deadline for my application is the end of mid-terms. Right now I honestly don’t know. My classes are boring and I don’t care that much about the Trophy. But I don’t want to hurt Qin Song.”
“He seems fine with hurting you,” Shou Yan pointed out.
“So he’s a dick. I’ve known that for years.” Feng zipped up his gym bag. “Sorry I can’t tell you anything more than that. But for the record, what I heard about Wan Lee? I don’t think it’s true.”
“I know he wasn’t raised by wolves,” Shou Yan said crossly but smiled all the same, and Feng offered him a brotherly smile in return. The brotherhood of the unwanted duelists, that was.
The four of them had the Lake of Youthful Transformation to themselves. There’d been other duelists practicing on it this Sunday morning, but they moved aside for what promised to be a spectacle. Shou Yan didn’t enjoy the thought of having other students witness what was sure to be humiliation and bad feelings all around, but he pretended they didn’t exist as he hooked the lantern blossom to his hip and exchanged a nod with Feng. Wan Lee and Qin Song were whispering to each other, probably discussing strategy. Shou Yan spread his feet apart in an earthy stance and said to Feng, “Don’t let those fluff-brained pretty boys get near me.”
“I won’t,” said Feng.
And then someone blew a whistle that made Shou Yan’s ears pop, and holy shit, that was Wan Lee coming right for him. Shou Yan was no stranger to sparring with Wan Lee, however, and he knew Wan Lee tended to aim high so he started blocking his face. But Wan Lee broke form by kicking low, and it was only thanks to the adrenaline reflexes powering Shou Yan’s body that he dodged it. Wan Lee jumped after him, aiming another kick in the air. Shou Yan grabbed his ankle and used his own momentum to throw him over his shoulder.
Wan Lee hit the mats with a thud, but he wasted no time scrambling to his feet and raising his fists. Shou Yan raised his own. If Wan Lee wanted a fist fight, fine. Shou Yan had a mean right hook.
They circled each other.
Meanwhile, Feng and Qin Song were lunging at each other in quick, brutal movements. Feng kept reaching for the lantern blossom on Qin Song and Qin Song kept on dancing away, but Feng was patient. He knew how to wait out his opponent’s stamina. Between him and Qin Song, he was the better duelist. Shou Yan had no doubt that Feng would eventually snatch Qin Song’s lantern blossom — it was more a matter of whether he could do it before Wan Lee got to Shou Yan.
Because while Shou Yan could hold off Wan Lee for now, he knew he wouldn’t be able to keep it up. Wan Lee was one of those people who fed on energy and peaked mid-fight. He was actually at his weakest and slowest in the beginning. Shou Yan could see the origins of a smile curling Wan Lee’s mouth. The pure competitive joy of it. After fights, he probably went to his room and wanked off on it and it was that unbidden image sliding into his head — coupled with Wan Lee’s bare throat and light sheen of sweat — that made Shou Yan lose his focus and stumble.
Wan Lee went in for the grab.
Feng tackled him.
This was the fight everybody wanted to see. Wan Lee versus Feng, the two best duelists in the school. Feng pressed his elbow to Wan Lee’s chest, holding him down with his greater weight while shouting at Shou Yan to go. Shou Yan yanked his attention to Qin Song. He darted out, but Qin Song slammed the flat of his wrist into Shou Yan’s jaw.
Shou Yan kicked him in the balls.
“Fuck!” Qin Song yelled, and his pain galvanized Wan Lee into kneeing Feng and escaping from beneath him. Feng tried to take him down again but Wan Lee punched him in the neck, causing Feng to gasp and wheeze. Then Wan Lee was heading for Shou Yan again, and when they met, his fist rammed into Shou Yan’s eye. He wasn’t smiling anymore, and as pain flared through Shou Yan’s optical nerves, he hated Wan Lee a bit for it. For setting up this whole fight, for pitting them against each other, for so casually being able to punch Shou Yan until he bled when Shou Yan wasn’t so sure he could do the same to Wan Lee.
Except, as it turned out, he could. Anger made him punch back. He was more fury than good aim, but the ferocity of his punches must have surprised Wan Lee — who was a hypocrite at the end of the day — because Wan Lee staggered into a punch that he normally would have dodged. Shou Yan felt the impact of skin on bone, and he felt sick.
Wan Lee’s mouth was a grim line, no longer smiling. He swept his leg under Shou Yan to topple him, and then he punched Shou Yan again. When he wasn’t satisfied the first time, he punched him twice. Shou Yan’s vision blurred.
“Uh, guys,” said Qin Song.
“Break them up,” Feng ordered, and he grabbed Wan Lee while Qin Song pulled Shou Yan. They didn’t separate easily. Wan Lee was hissing and Shou Yan was so furious that his jaw bone was grinding. He shoved at Qin Song, but Qin Song held him tight.
“Chill,” Qin Song said.
Shou Yan looked over at Wan Lee, who was struggling against Feng, and he said, “What the hell is wrong with you, you goddamn psychopath?”
Like magic, Wan Lee stopped trying to bite Feng’s nose off. He whipped around to stare at Shou Yan, wide-eyed, and then something happened that made Shou Yan’s chest squeeze. Wan Lee’s wide-eyed expression slowly dimmed and closed off, and his expression flattened from rage into cool disinterest. He stepped away from Feng and touched the rapidly colouring bruise on his cheek.
Shou Yan’s head throbbed. “I think I have a concussion,” he announced.
Qin Song scowled at Wan Lee. “Happy birthday.”
Wan Lee shrugged. “I enjoyed it.”
In the infirmary, after a blessed ice pack and some salve, Shou Yan’s anger softened. “I’m sorry,” he said to Wan Lee, who was sitting on the bed beside him, playing with a stress bandage on his ankle. “I shouldn’t have said you were a psychopath. You aren’t.”
“Things would be easier if I was,” Wan Lee said. Shou Yan remembered what Wan Lee had told him about his father that time they went into town and got drunk during second year. He chewed his lip.
Wan Lee looked at him hollowly. “Sure.”
It wasn’t exactly a glowing expression of forgiveness, but it was better than nothing. “I bet we scared Qin Song and Feng real good, didn’t we?” Shou Yan said, trying to crack a joke. “They’ll be terrified of us when it’s their turn to duel us for real. Qin Song might even wet his underwear, you think?”
“What do you have against Qin Song?”
“Nothing,” Shou Yan said.
Wan Lee scoffed. “I’m flaky but I’m not stupid. You’ve never liked Qin Song.”
“Fine, I don’t like him,” Shou Yan said. “It’s just one of those things, okay? Our personalities are different and we like different things, so there’s no reason we should get along. I don’t hate him with a burning passion, if that’s what you want to hear. I just find him annoying.”
Wan Lee’s mouth thinned even further, if that was possible. “He reminds you of your brother,” he accused, and Shou Yan recoiled. “Hah,” Wan Lee said. “Sometimes I forget I’m not the only one in this partnership who’s got issues.”
“Fuck you,” Shou Yan said. “You want to be shield brothers with Qin Song? Be my guest.”
“What?” Wan Lee asked sharply. He slid off his bed and trotted over to Shou Yan’s. The nurse was off filing forms in her office; she’d told them to lay low and recuperate. Having Wan Lee suddenly in his space was not helpful. Shou Yan could hear the uneven rhythm of Wan Lee’s breathing. If he concentrated, he thought he could even hear Wan Lee’s heartbeat. “Why would I want Qin Song as a shield brother when I’ve already got one? Are you planning on graduating early too?”
“You know I can’t.”
“But you want to.”
“No,” Shou Yan said. “But Feng does. And Qin Song will want to partner with you after that. Come on. Don’t make me lay it all out when you know exactly what I’m talking about.”
“I HAVE NO CLUE,” Wan Lee yelled.
Shou Yan clapped his hand over Wan Lee’s mouth as the nurse popped around the corner and asked if everything was all right. “It’s fine,” Shou Yan said, smiling painfully. His innocent look had never been very innocent, but the nurse was harried from overwork at a school where everybody needed her attention, so she accepted their excuse. She returned to her office.
“I have no freaking clue what you’re talking about,” Wan Lee said again.
This was excruciating, but Shou Yan’s brother had taught him to never back down from the hard fights. “We split up during second year. You told me you could find a hundred boys to replace me with a snap of your fingers,” he said.
“That was second year. We were idiots then and I was trying to make you angry,” Wan Lee said. He crawled onto the bed beside Shou Yan and was close enough to touch, but Shou Yan kept his hands to himself. “You’re still an idiot if you think I’m going to run off with Qin Song.”
“He’s a better duelist than me.”
“Our styles are incompatible. Didn’t you see us fight? We each did our own thing. We couldn’t work together at all.”
“And you’re dating,” Shou Yan finished.
Wan Lee was silent. Which made sense. There was no good reply to that. But then he sighed, pressed his shoulder to Shou Yan’s, and said, “Yeah, we screw. But it doesn’t mean anything. Qin Song is…okay, you can’t tell anyone I told you this, but the truth is, Qin Song is so madly in love with Feng that he can’t see straight. It’s hilariously awful. He, like, sits around and broods about his deep feelings. How can I not offer him a blowjob to take his mind off it?”
Like you offered me when we first met, Shou Yan thought. “But you keep trying to break him and Feng up,” he said, as stubborn about it as a worker ant.
“If they get angry at each other, maybe they’ll be more honest. That’s all it is. So stop being so insecure,” Wan Lee said. He tilted his head up and his mouth was thin no longer. He was smiling slightly. Then, to Shou Yan’s great astonishment, he brokered the distance between them and kissed him. His mouth was dry and he was bleeding from a cut on his lip that made the kiss taste coppery and slippery, and only in Jing Fei Academy was that perfectly normal. Or so Shou Yan supposed because he’d never been kissed before, never wanted to kiss anybody but Wan Lee, and now Wan Lee’s fingers were digging into his biceps and he was pressing even closer, making small noises under his breath that fired up the cells in Shou Yan’s brain and other body parts.
Wan Lee scrambled to his knees so he could better straddle Shou Yan, and then he was pressing Shou Yan backwards so that they were lying on the bed kissing sloppily, Wan Lee’s bangs mixing with Shou Yan’s so that it was hard to see anything — the world collapsed to sweat and blood and skin.
Nurse Lau cleared her throat. “Boys, I think it’s wonderful that you’re giving into your hormones and all that, but this is a hospital. Save it for your rooms, yes?”
Shou Yan blushed so hard that he hoped it didn’t become permanent. They shuffled obediently and awkwardly back to the dorms. Wan Lee’s room was first up, and when they were at the door Wan Lee stopped and looked at Shou Yan expectantly. But this was all new to Shou Yan, new and terrifying, and for all the dramas and manga and love songs he kept close to his chest, he didn’t know what to say. He wanted to say something romantic, but Wan Lee had never given any indication of being a romantic, not with the way he’d just mocked Qin Song. So he shuffled his feet and said, “I’ll see you tomorrow?”
“Yeah,” Wan Lee said. Shou Yan looked for disappointment but found none. “See you tomorrow.”
Mid-term season passed. Shou Yan did well on everything except biology, but he didn’t care. After high school he was planning on studying media, maybe film production, and he didn’t need a good biology mark to do that. He didn’t see much of Wan Lee during exams and he tried not to think about him either. It was better that they were taking some time off from each other to regroup after the confusion that’d been the last few months. But in his unguarded moments, when he was pulling out his hair over some ridiculous question on microbiology, when he was brushing his teeth, when he was going for a morning jog, he thought about him. And then he was conflicted with the desire to run up to Wan Lee’s room and drag him in a blow-your-mind-out kiss that Shou Yan had been sort of discreetly practicing with his hairbrush. Or run screaming off a cliff. Either one, really.
After exams, he went home for the holidays. Yinchuan was as dry as ever, and Shou Yan woke on most mornings to stare out his window at the red-patterned stones of his family’s apartment courtyard, watching his neighbours get on their bikes and motorbikes and pedal off to work. The mosque down the street sounded the call to prayer, and he joined his parents on the prayer mats facing Mecca, though religiosity in his family, he felt, was more for show and guilt. When he had dropped out of Qur’an school at age thirteen, neither of his parents had complained too much.
But it was good to be home. To patter around the tiles in slippers, to watch dramas with his father — with whom he manfully leaked a tear or two during the sad scenes with the inevitable heartbreak and betrayal and secret incest –, to help his mother fold dumplings and boil yuan xiao, to scowl at his brother when Shou Zhong made his grand appearance and introduced his supermodel fiancé, all Prada purses and glittery tied earrings.
“I wish I was an only child,” Shou Yan grumbled while serving them tea.
Shou Zhong beamed at him with his perfectly straight white teeth. “You’re a terrible liar, Little Brother. I can see right through you.” He accepted the cup with the arrogance of a Qin dynasty emperor and added, “How’s Wan Lee by the way? I saw him in the Beijing airport on my way home.”
“Why would he be in Beijing?” Shou Yan asked. “He lives in the south.”
“Isn’t his dad’s trial about to enter another appeal?”
Shou Yan didn’t reply.
“It’s useless. They’re going to execute him,” Shou Zhong said matter-of-factly. “He raped two girls. UPC law does not forgive, nor should it. Frankly, I’m surprised Wan Lee never changed his last name to avoid the shame.”
Still Shou Yan said nothing.
Chinese New Year was its usual whirlwind maelstrom of relatives, eating, and fireworks. All of his parents’ Hui friends came over and they offered more prayers and then played board games, shrieking in laughter while Shou Yan sat on the couch with a book. One of Shou Yan’s middle school friends called and asked him to the arcade, but he could tell it was just courtesy so he made up an excuse and said he was busy.
“Okay,” said his former friend and laughed nervously. “Hey, how’s school? Still getting a fine education in beating people up?”
“Pretty much,” Shou Yan replied. And then, because nothing in his life was what it used to be, not since that first day he arrived at Jing Fei Academy and thought well, I hope this goes well, he added, “What do you do when someone you like kisses you and then you can’t tell if they’re serious or not, because they do that sort of thing to everyone? Like, they’re kind of slutty and messed up, but you can’t help but hope that maybe with you it’s different.”
“Um,” his friend said. “It was good talking to you.”
February was characterized by the shock of having to attend class again after so much freedom, and of the high tensions that surrounded the beginning of the round of forty. Everybody was preoccupied with something. Feng returned to school, much to the annoyance of every duelist who wasn’t named Qin Song. Qin Song looked ready to break out the flower petals and now that Shou Yan was clued in, he saw the way Qin Song stared at the back of Feng’s head during class. Or how, when Qin Song was flirting the shit out of an underclassman, his eyes kept drifting to Feng to see how he was reacting. Wan Lee was right. It was awfully hilarious.
“I said hilariously awful,” Wan Lee said. “That’s different.”
The break had left Wan Lee with bags under his eyes, a shortness to his words, and a tendency to receive phone calls in the middle of the night that ended up with him screaming obscenities to the mysterious caller on the other end who was presumably his father or his father’s lawyer. Qin Song showed up on Shou Yan’s doorstep one night, clutching his pillow, and said, “Switch rooms with me. I’m begging you.”
Shou Yan switched rooms, and then he brewed some pu’erh tea for Wan Lee and left it on his desk. When he checked his email, he saw there was a letter from Auntie Lu asking about her son. Shou Yan thought for a long time before he typed a cheerful reply and assured Auntie Lu that he was making sure Wan Lee taking good care of himself. Which was only the truth. He left out the part where Wan Lee woke him up in the middle of the night and said, “Let’s get smashingly drunk right now.” And they proceeded to do just that, raiding Qin Song’s supply of liquor until there was not a drop left.
“It’s easy to destroy things,” Wan Lee said. He got giggly and philosophical when he was drunk. “Not so easy to build. And OH MY GOD IS THAT A TURTLE ON THE WINDOWSILL OR AM I JUST HALLUCINATING?”
“You’re just hallucinating,” Shou Yan said, and dreamily wrapped an arm around Wan Lee when Wan Lee crawled into his bed. Wan Lee’s nose was wet, as if he’d been crying, but he burrowed his head in the crook of Shou Yan’s arm. Shou Yan smiled at him dazedly, and they fell asleep like that, tight against each other. It was a lot more embarrassing in the morning when there was erections involved, but they were late for class and seriously hung over, so Wan Lee didn’t seem to notice that anything was poking his leg at all. In the madness of trying to get ready, Wan Lee put on Shou Yan’s pants and Shou Yan put on Wan Lee’s cardigan. And Qin Song smirked at them both when he saw.
Feng smiled at them in the hall. “I told you he wasn’t going to leave you,” he said quietly to Shou Yan.
Shou Yan rolled his eyes. “What would you know? You don’t even see what’s in front of you.”
Feng looked confused. Shou Yan filed it as a personal triumph. One day when Feng took over his family’s company and was raking in millions, he’d always be able to point at the TV and say to his hypothetical children, “You see that man there? He’s not as perceptive as he thinks.” That sentiment would warm his otherwise miserable pay check in his otherwise dreary desk job. Shou Yan was looking forward to it already.
“Are you talking about Qin Song?” Feng asked. “Is he still mad at me? But I came back. I did what he wanted me to.”
Shou Yan feared for the future of Feng’s company.
“Master Bian’s Ten Strength Tonic of Exellence?”
“You know it’s just sugar water–”
Wan Lee held out his hand. Shou Yan passed him the damned tonic. “Check.”
“Then let’s a-go-go.”
“I don’t think the sunglasses are necessary. We’re indoors.”
“Really? They’re too much?” Wan Lee took them off. “The feather boa too?”
“We’re trying to steal Leung and Leung’s lantern blossom. Not blind them with sparkle.”
“Sometimes,” Wan Lee said sadly, “I forget the difference.”
Say what one would about the Lantern Blossom duels, and much had been said about them over the years, but at their very best they could take Shou Yan’s mind away from all his wandering questions and focus it on a single goal. Better yet, a shared goal. He never felt more in tune with Wan Lee than he did when they were standing on the Lake of Youthful Transformation, their feet bare against the neon blue. Wan Lee was smiling again, frightening the poor first year across from him, and Shou Yan didn’t need to ask to know what he was thinking. Wan Lee made a signal behind his back — you go for the lantern blossom bearer, I’ll take care of this one.
Poor first years. They were lucky enough to make the round of forty in their first try at the Trophy, but they didn’t know what hit them. Ah well. They had three more years of trying, whereas for Shou Yan and Wan Lee, this was their last. There was no room for mistakes or silly miscommunication errors if Shou Yan wanted to touch the same gold trophy that his brother hoisted above his head in a thousand family photos.
Qin Song sauntered past them. “Not bad, but you’ve got to watch your reaction times. I think they’re actually getting slower.”
“Go suck Feng’s dick,” Shou Yan said cheerfully.
Qin Song glared at Wan Lee. “You told him?”
“Oops,” Wan Lee said.
They made it easily out of the round of forty. Then there was a two week reprieve for everybody to nurse their battered bodies and steel themselves for the round of twenty, where the notorious hard fighting happened. The round of twenty was where you saw the first broken bones, dislocated jaws, and the like. It was where Feng took his game-ruining fall last year, and Shou Yan could see Feng and Qin Song creating wild strategies about how to avoid repeating that same mistake. As far as Shou Yan was concerned, there was no strategy that could keep you from an injury except to stay alert and be careful. But both Feng and Qin Song were planners, and hey, it was hard to critique the style of the number one ranked pair in the school.
They were matched up once in the round of twenty. Feng and Wan Lee were the lantern blossom bearers, and Wan Lee was positively giddy. “I haven’t faced off against Qin Song at all this year, not really,” he said, and Shou Yan privately thought that maybe stupid Qin Song had his uses after all. He would not be opposed to seeing Wan Lee smack Qin Song down, was all he was saying.
Both Wan Lee and Qin Song were known to be fast, and in the round of twenty they were blitzing. Shou Yan let Wan Lee take care of it as he focused his attention on Feng. Shou Yan had been watching Feng carefully and he knew that Feng’s one big weakness was that he was not fast, so Shou Yan started weaving and bobbing, hoping to confuse Feng.
Feng tried to tackle him, but Shou Yan avoided it. If Feng tackled you, you were almost for sure a goner — he had a lot of muscle power to hold you down.
So Shou Yan stomped on his foot.
Feng backhanded him so hard that Shou Yan heard his nose bridge crack. His nose had already taken a beating many times this year, and this was one time too many. The pain dazzled like a festival lion dance, bright and loud, and he stumbled backwards, his eyes watering in pinpricks. There was blood, copious amounts of it, and he saw through his compromised vision that Referee Gu was raising his white flag. “Don’t,” he groaned, cupping his hands around his nose and feeling them become wet with blood. Wan Lee understood him immediately.
“We’re not forfeiting,” he said.
“I think you should. It looks bad,” Qin Song said.
“No, just give us a minute. We’re allowed a minute,” Wan Lee replied. Referee Gu nodded and started the watch. Wan Lee knelt in front of Shou Yan and gently pried his hands away. “Qin Song is right. That does look bad,” he said with an edge of nervousness in his voice. Wan Lee hated the sight of blood. “Can you breathe?”
“Y-yeah,” Shou Yan gulped. “We’re not going to stop here. If we forfeit, that’s a negative point, and if we don’t do well in our next duel, we might be out of the running for the round of eight.” His head felt buoyant like that time he was curious about what would happen if he stopped eating for three days; his one and only voluntary science experiment. He grabbed Wan Lee’s arm for balance. “You’re going to have to go after Feng and get his lantern blossom. I’ll…I’ll try to keep Qin Song off you. Sorry. It’s going to be hard.”
There was a reason why most duelists separated the duties of lantern blossom bearer and pursuer. But instead of looking apprehensive at the massive amount of pressure he was taking on, Wan Lee smiled and kissed Shou Yan’s cheek. A brief peck, ghostly in appearance and disappearance. “You’ve been a good friend to me. Incredibly grouchy but a good friend all the same.”
“What,” said Shou Yan.
“Don’t worry,” Wan Lee said. “This time it’s my turn to be the hero.”
“Time’s up!” Referee Gu said.
“We’re not going to go easy on you,” Qin Song warned. “We want the Trophy too.”
“I know,” Wan Lee said. Then he settled into an opening stance that Shou Yan had never seen before: elongated, menacing, smiling. Feng raised his eyebrows in silent consideration. Qin Song tossed his head, beautifully arrogant, but there was an anticipatory smile on his mouth that matched Wan Lee’s. Wan Lee stretched out his arms and curled his fingers like chicken claws, and then he was running straight for Feng with Qin Song trying to block him. Shou Yan stumbled into the fray, jamming his fists into Qin Song’s stomach. He heard Wan Lee laugh out loud as he did a back flip, a freaking back flip like he was using wire fu, off the lake and past Feng’s reach.
Five minutes later, the duel was over. Feng’s lantern blossom was dangling from Wan Lee’s pinkie.
“Shit,” Qin Song said, and that was about the gist of it. That was all that needed to be said.
Feng sidled over to Shou Yan. “I didn’t mean to hit you so hard.”
The bleeding had slowed down to a trickle but Shou Yan’s entire face was a messy smear of red. He shrugged. “I’ll get over it,” he said, though his nose had clogged up by this point so it sounded more like “I’b gub ober it.”
In the infirmary, Nurse Lau set his nose straight again and then prescribed him some pain medicine. “Your face will have some swelling,” she warned. “Don’t put too much pressure on it. That means no making out with your boyfriend.”
“Yay,” said Shou Yan.
Wan Lee beamed and didn’t correct her. “Come on, all your stuff is still in my room,” he said, and Shou Yan let Wan Lee lead him back to the dorms. When they arrived at Wan Lee’s room, however, they could hear Feng and Qin Song arguing behind the door. It was about their mistakes in the duel, and both of them sounded fairly high-tempered about it. Feng was actually raising his voice and everything. Shou Yan felt sorry for them. It wasn’t their fault Wan Lee was a super robot warrior.
“My room then,” Shou Yan said. He expected to find Zhao inside, but to his surprise there was a note on the door that said: went out with friends to town (maybe I’ll get lucky???).
“You know, it’s almost a perfect setup,” Wan Lee said conversationally, sitting on Shou Yan’s bed and crossing his ankles.
“What’d you mean?” Shou Yan said.
“Your roommate is gone, we’ve just won an exciting duel against the top seeds, and I’m desperate to have sex with you. It’s just a shame we can’t kiss because of your nose.”
“S-s-sex?” Shou Yan stammered and managed to lock the door before Wan Lee started taking off his shirt and slipping out of his pants. He did it all so casually and shamelessly that Shou Yan’s mind immediately flashed to porn films, and he had to grab the doorknob to keep his legs from shaking. Wan Lee wriggled out of his boxers and then there he was, naked, his cock curving up to his stomach and his eyes gleaming. He had the tightest, most perfect ass Shou Yan had ever seen.
“You don’t have to take off your clothes if you don’t want to,” Wan Lee offered. “I kind of like it when I’m naked and being fucked by someone who’s fully dressed.”
His sly smile was too much. Shou Yan lurched towards the bed like a dying traveler and Wan Lee opened his arms to receive him. He brushed his mouth against Shou Yan’s throat, against his chin, and delicately, softly against his cheekbones. Shou Yan closed his eyes and cleared his throat. He tried to speak as clearly as possible through his blocked passages. “I want this to mean something.” Then he turned his face in the other direction and burned with humiliation. He waited.
Wan Lee took his hand and kissed each of his fingertips. “Yeah,” he said when he was done and Shou Yan was melting into the mattress. “I also want to give you that blowjob you turned down.”
“Okay,” Shou Yan said and he lifted his hips so that Wan Lee could remove his pants. He knew that he was still blushing. He doubted he would ever stop this time, not when Wan Lee was grinning at him like that, like a perfect lecher. Heat pooled from his neck to his spine, and when Wan Lee teasingly stripped him of his underwear, heat spread to his hips and his groin.
“Spread your legs,” Wan Lee said, and Shou Yan moaned and did it. He experienced a moment of painful self-consciousness — he’d seen Qin Song’s dick in the changing rooms before so he knew his own wasn’t nearly as big — but Wan Lee touched his mouth to the tip lovingly and all of Shou Yan’s inhibitions flew out the window. He jerked upwards in blatant suggestion.
Wan Lee cackled in laughter, not a graceful sound at all, but he knew exactly what Shou Yan meant and he wasn’t — as whispers around the school confirmed — a tease. So he bent his head, opened his mouth, and went to town.
Shou Yan didn’t like to think that he whimpered. For his first sexual experience, he wasn’t being particularly manly what with the stammering and the blushing. But he definitely heard the whimper escape from his mouth, and then he squeezed his eyes shut as Wan Lee’s tongue traced the vein on the underside of his cock and slid upwards, wet and purposeful. Shou Yan pushed without rhythm and Wan Lee took it for about half a minute — and half a minute was all Shou Yan felt that he could last — before gripping Shou Yan’s hips and holding him down.
The feeling of Wan Lee’s strong hands on his hips, Wan Lee’s mouth on his dick, Wan Lee’s lashes tingling against the skin of Shou Yan’s thighs — Shou Yan’s brain performed dazzling feat of acrobatics as he came.
Wan Lee removed his mouth at the last instant, and squirts of come hit him on the cheek. “Shit, sorry,” Shou Yan panted, but Wan Lee chased it with his finger. He brought it to his mouth and sucked.
Shou Yan was a little disgusted but mostly awed. He watched as Wan Lee reached under the bed and rummaged into the box Shou Yan kept there, emerging finally with the lube. Shou Yan didn’t even ask how Wan Lee knew the box had been there and what was inside. It didn’t seem important at this point. He watched as Wan Lee flipped open the bottle in what was surely the sexiest sound of plastic in the entire universe. Wan Lee dribbled some of the lube onto his fingers. A few drops fell to the bedspread. Shou Yan crawled forward and said, “Can I?”
Wan Lee was flushed and breathless. I did that, Shou Yan thought with a jolt. I did that to him.
“You can do whatever you want,” Wan Lee said. So Shou Yan wrapped a tentative hand around Wan Lee’s cock and pulled. Wan Lee swallowed hard. “Um, only if you’re sure–”
“Shut up, you freak, I’m sure,” Shou Yan said, twisting his wrist. Wan Lee’s lips parted in a happy oval and Shou Yan couldn’t resist. He leaned forward and licked the corner of his mouth. His nose bumped Wan Lee’s cheek and a fresh wave of pain leaped over him, but it made Wan Lee grab Shou Yan’s shoulders tightly, pulling their bodies so close that Shou Yan’s thought processes stuttered out from the nakedness and the heat. Then Wan Lee pulled too hard, greedy bastard, and they fell backwards onto the bed, Shou Yan on top of Wan Lee, still trying to jerk him off.
He would have been happy like that. He would have been ecstatic. But Wan Lee let go of him eventually and before Shou Yan could protest, he slicked his fingers with lube again and reached behind him. “I stand by what I said before,” Wan Lee said. “I want you to fuck me.”
“I can see you standing, that’s for sure,” Shou Yan said, and as good as this whole thing was going — all right, better than good, amazing, wonderful, brilliant, etcetera — it was a relief to be able to laugh and have Wan Lee laugh back. This wasn’t just a torrid one night stand. They were friends. They were hopefully still going to be friends in the morning.
And while Shou Yan was thinking something soppy about friendship, Wan Lee turned around, got on all fours, and offered his ass.
“Um,” Shou Yan said, his mouth going dry.
“Don’t tell me I have to give you an instruction manual,” Wan Lee said.
“No, I think I can figure it out.” Shou Yan moved over to Wan Lee and marveled at the heat of his palms on Wan Lee’s back. Wan Lee shivered and made an impatient motion with his hips, so Shou Yan, summoning the last two of his functional brain cells, used the lube on himself and wrestled with a condom. He had some difficulties, but when he was done, he took a steadying breath and started pushing himself inside. Wan Lee groaned deep in his throat and dropped his head to his chest as Shou Yan went further, slowly, filling him up.
Shou Yan’s ears buzzed. Everything in the room had been reduced to a quiet roar, broken only by the sound of Wan Lee’s breathing. Shou Yan touched the nape of his neck gently, and then reached around to slide a finger over Wan Lee’s mouth. Wan Lee started sucking it, and Shou Yan took that as the cue that Wan Lee was ready. So he started to rock, first carefully and then growing bolder as Wan Lee urged him on.
He was a Lantern Blossom duelist, used to rhythm and pulse, but his rhythm was questionable and his pulse was jumping wildly. He ghosted a kiss over the birth mark on Wan Lee’s back as a counterpoint to a long, shaky thrust that had Wan Lee writhing. Shou Yan knew he couldn’t compare to a gorgeous playboy like Qin Song, who’d probably done half the school and made the other half beg for the honour, and he hoped that Wan Lee’s reactions weren’t exaggerated for his sake. But then he went at him from a different angle, trying something new, and Wan Lee choked out an incomprehensible name.
“What is it?” Shou Yan asked.
Wan Lee cleared his throat, shuddered again as Shou Yan drove into him clumsily, and said, “Please, please.” Then he started to fuck back, meeting Shou Yan’s every lunge, shoving himself onto Shou Yan’s cock with a desperate eagerness that made Shou Yan choke out some incomprehensible noises of his own. It was only because he’d already had an orgasm that he could hold on like this, but even so it was a tough battle. He felt like he was down to his last ounce of control when Wan Lee screamed and came apart.
Shou Yan followed him in a helpless rush.
Wan Lee was a cuddler. No one was surprised by this information. He wrapped his limbs around Shou Yan’s and stuffed his head into the crook of Shou Yan’s neck. Fittingly enough, it made him look like a turtle. Shou Yan spared a worry as to whether Zhao would come back any time soon, but then he decided that it didn’t matter. Zhao could crash at someone else’s room for once; he owed him that much for all his obnoxious comments.
They had a very pleasant jizz-covered nap. When they woke, Wan Lee stretched and beamed. Shou Yan tried not to let any awkwardness show on his face when he said, “We should probably swing by your room and grab you new clothes.”
“Mmm, too much work,” Wan Lee said. “We could just fuck instead.”
“That sounds good,” Shou Yan replied.
After the second round of fucking, followed by cuddling, Shou Yan pulled his blanket over them and they slept until morning. He woke briefly in the middle of the night when he heard a rustling sound, but he fell back asleep right away and didn’t realize what it was until he discovered Zhao’s note that said: Like I said! This school is really, really queer. Congratulations, buddy!
“What is that?” Wan Lee mumbled sleepily, coming over to drape himself over Shou Yan. He giggled when he saw and said, “Zhao’s so right. But hey, let’s go take a shower. And then we can spend the rest of the day reading my new copy of Master Bian.”
“Ugh, no,” Shou Yan said. “Some things I am not prepared to to do, even for love.”
Wan Lee cocked his head. Shou Yan’s stomach dropped.
“I mean,” he said.
“You’re such a romantic,” Wan Lee said, smiling. But his hands were on Shou Yan’s forearms and his mouth was in Shou Yan’s hair, and that was cue enough for round three.
They managed to make it down to the cafeteria for lunch. Zhao was sitting with his gaming friends but he threw Shou Yan a smirk, so Shou Yan made a rude gesture in return. Qin Song and Feng were waiting at their usual table. At first Shou Yan didn’t pay either of them much attention because hello, there was Wan Lee to stare at, but when Wan Lee made an amused sound, Shou Yan looked. Then he saw how mussed both Qin Song and Feng looked, how sheepish Feng was, how smug and satisfied Qin Song.
“I see you’ve settled your differences,” Wan Lee said innocently.
“I spent the entire night divesting Feng of his pesky virginity,” Qin Song declared, and Feng groaned and put his hand over his eyes.
Zhao caught Shou Yan’s attention. Really, really queer, he mouthed.
“But what about your fiancé?” Shou Yan asked.
“We’ll see,” Feng said quietly. He had always been the wisest of the four of them and he was right again this time. They were going to graduate soon, going to leave Jing Fei Academy and do whatever it was they wanted to do with their lives. Nothing was certain. Shou Yan glanced over at Wan Lee, who was teasing Qin Song so mercilessly that Qin Song was actually blushing. Shou Yan smiled crookedly and spooned his soup.
Whatever. They were duelists. Headmaster Zhang had a point when he talked about the unpredictability of matches, the sheer fright and joy of it. They’d manage.
Because Shou Yan was a romantic, he waited until his nose healed and he and Wan Lee had their first proper kiss before he rustled through his desk and handed Wan Lee the envelope he’d been meaning to give to him all along. “This was supposed to be your birthday gift before I, uh, chickened out,” he said, watching Wan Lee toy with the envelope curiously.
“Is it tickets to a strip club?” Wan Lee asked.
“Is it a fake I.D so we can go to a strip club?”
“Is it Qin Song’s kidney?”
“Just open it,” Shou Yan snapped. Wan Lee did and into his hands fell a sheaf of printed papers. “I did a bunch of research on laser eye surgery and clinics,” he said. “There are some coupons here, some scientific guides so you know exactly what happens, some recommendations for patients, and, uh, I promise I’ll go with you and hold your hand.”
Wan Lee looked at him.
“I think you’d make a great astronaut,” Shou Yan finished before Wan Lee threw himself at him, tackling him to the floor and initiating what was, what, round twenty-seven? Shou Yan could no longer keep track.
In the end, they didn’t win the Trophy of Strength and Gallantry. They made it to the finals where they faced Feng and Qin Song, and they had a good shot at it, but Feng punched Shou Yan again — “Sorry,” he said without meaning at all — and Qin Song broke Wan Lee’s fingers. Afterwards, when everybody had been patched up and Wan Lee had been assured that he was not going to die because he’d accidentally ingested some of Qin Song’s blood, they sneaked to the roof of the school and took shots out of the Trophy.
“It sucks that we didn’t win,” Shou Yan muttered, eying the way Feng and Qin Song were falling over each other trying to do a proper Viennese waltz.
Wan Lee’s head was in his lap. He was staring peacefully at the stars. “It’s okay,” he said. “We’re good at other things too. And did you really want to be just like your brother?”
“I guess not,” Shou Yan said.
“My dad’s trial is next month,” Wan Lee said.
“I know,” Shou Yan said. “You want me to come with?”
“Yeah,” Wan Lee said. He looked up at Shou Yan with his mischievous eyes. “That reminds me. You know that important news I was going to tell you and didn’t?”
Shou Yan nodded.
“So you can’t hold it against me that I chickened out too.”
“What were you going to say?” Shou Yan asked, carding his fingers through Wan Lee’s hair.
Wan Lee beamed. “I was going to tell you that I love you.”
Shou Yan’s fingers slowed. He had to work against a sudden lump in his throat. “Well, that’s good,” he said. “Because I was totally expecting rides on your spaceship. Don’t think you can wriggle out of that. You’ll have to name it the Lantern Blossom and paint Pu Lian’s face all over it.”
“Baby, you can ride my spaceship any time you want,” Wan Lee replied.