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trial by fire

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At the end of an exhausting day, Fang Rui wanted nothing more than to return to his room for a well-deserved nap. He unlocked his door on autopilot while scrolling mindlessly through his Weibo feed, which was when he sensed that something was terribly wrong. He raised his head slowly and froze in his tracks, one foot raised halfway through a step, as he took in the sight before him.

A layer of feathers covered the carnage; the stuffing in Fang Rui’s pillow strewn across the room like a dusting of snow atop a bloody battlefield. The pillow in question lay desolately in the corner, a gaping wound gouged out of its desecrated carcass and its innards strewn across the floor.

The ominous scritching of ghostly fingernails clawing away at the floorboards emanated from the shadowy depths under Fang Rui’s bed. The dastardly intruders, the perpetrators of this nefarious deed clearly had yet to finish with their crime spree.

Fang Rui took in the scene in front of him and realised that perhaps he had bitten off a tad more than he could chew. He could think of only one course of action with a chance of salvaging the situation; beg Lin Jingyan for help.

 

‘What happened here?’ Lin Jingyan spluttered in shock upon arrival. ‘What did you do?’

‘I’m so screwed. I need your help.’

‘Calm down and tell me what happened’, Lin Jingyan instructed, making a passable attempt at feigning calmness himself, even as his eyes roved over the disaster in front of him.

‘I—'

 

‘Will you help me?’ Fang Rui looked pitifully at Lin Jingyan with his honest eyes.

‘You completely brought this upon yourself’, Lin Jingyan knew how shameless his partner was and did not fall for his act so easily.

‘I know I know’, Fang Rui replied mournfully.

‘This is one hundred percent your own fault’, Lin Jingyan remained resolute.

‘I never said it wasn’t’, The honest eyes grew even more pleading.

‘…Let’s get your room cleaned up’, Lin Jingyan folded like a wet cloth.

‘Old Lin!’

 


 

Well, how did everything begin?

 

Fang Rui heaved out a sigh of despair laced with resignation as he made one final pass at distancing himself from his favourite cousin’s chaos-inducing ways, to no avail.

‘Little Rui you’re my only hope! Please please please help me out just this once. I’ll owe you my life and I’ll do anything you want me to. I just need this tiny favour.’

‘No! I’d get in so much trouble if I get caught. Go ask your mum instead!’

Fang Rui’s own powers of trickery and cunning that had earnt him the title of Master of Playing Dirty had, most unfortunately for him, also manifested in his cousin. Fang Rui’s cousin transitioned effortlessly from bambi eyes and soft pleading to holding a metaphorical knife against Fang Rui’s throat when the first approach failed.

‘My parents are on holiday, so they won’t be around for the next few weeks… My most beloved cousin, do you remember that time when we were kids and you broke your mum’s favourite vase? I had to help you cover up the whole thing. How unfortunate would it be if your mum found out what really happened? It’s been a while, but I’m sure she’d still be absolutely furious at you.’

‘You bastard’, Fang Rui hissed, mentally reshuffling this guy to the bottom of his Favourite Relatives ranking list.

‘Well? I just need you to look after these two ferrets for a few weeks so I can keep them a surprise for my kid’s birthday. If you hide them in your room no one would know. You’d really be saving my life here!’ This shameless guy now liberally utilized the honey instead of the vinegar. His judicious application of the carrot and stick to coax Fang Rui showed a true mastery of technique and deep familiarity with his target.

Fang Rui lamented that dirty tactics must run in the family before sighing again and admitting defeat.

Looking back at this moment after the series of ridiculous events was over, Fang Rui laughed at his past self’s naivete and ludicrous hopes of a peaceful two weeks. Fang Rui and his cousin had grown up together, getting into all kinds of trouble, much to the despair of their parents. That alone should have been enough of a clue that this endeavour would be the same brand of crazy, but hindsight was always 20/20.

 

Fang Rui was exhausted from the stress of smuggling live animals into Wind Howl’s club accommodations, but before he went to bed, he paused by the pet cage and was mildly surprised to see two pairs of dark eyes staring back at him inquisitively. When he had first settled the ferrets into their new enclosure from their travelling crate, the two of them had immediately dived into their fluffy blankets, terrified by the strange, unknown territory that they found themselves in.

One of the ferrets was slightly bigger than the other, with a warm champagne coloured coat and dark markings around his eyes that gave the impression of glasses. He had a scholarly and respectable air. His companion had darker fur and a single white mitt on its right front paw. They were called Latte and Mocha respectively. Thankfully, it hadn’t been Fang Rui’s responsibility to name them, otherwise they would have be called Stupid 1 and Stupid 2.

Fang Rui thought that they were kind of cute, but whatever lovability factor they had was far outweighed by the inconvenience they brought him. He cursed his exasperating cousin for dumping these two annoying nuisances on his hands before turning and heading for bed.

 

Calling Fang Rui unprepared for this foray into ferret parenthood would be an understatement of epic proportions.

 


 

From: reception@windhowl.cn

To: fangrui@windhowl.cn

 

Dear Fang Rui,

An item of post has arrived for you. Please allow one hour from the receipt of this email before coming to collect the item from the Reception.

Number: 9320

Arrived: 24 Nov 2020 8:13am

Type: Taobao small box

Location: Reception

 

‘Fang Rui, you’re in a good mood today’, Yuan Rongbin commented, looking up from his computer screen as his friend bounced into the training room, a package clutched in his arms.

‘I ordered some foreign snacks, but they shipped from the US so I’ve been waiting for ages.’

‘Why don’t you open it up now? Let’s see if it was worth the wait.'

Yuan Rongbin’s encouragement was enough to tip the scales of Fang Rui’s self-control, not that he needed much convincing. He had been checking his email notifications religiously every few minutes over the past weeks, desperate for any morsel of news about his precious delivery.

Tearing open the cardboard, he dumped the item within onto the table and felt his excitement wilt into a shrivelled husk.

There was a cartoon image of a beaming ferret emblazoned across the packet, flashing a peace sign to add to the psychic damage that Fang Rui had been dealt. A vivid label boldly proclaimed the item to be MEATY BACON FLAVOUR and also guaranteed that YOUR FERRET WILL LOVE THESE DELICIOUS TREATS.

‘Ah’, thought Fang Rui in a slight daze. ‘My annoying cousin did mention that he would be sending some ferret treats. But why just why did they have to arrive today of all days? And just when I was expecting another package!’

But he had dug his grave and now he had to lie in it.

‘Ferret treats?’

Fang Rui recovered remarkably quickly. ‘Yeah I like eating this stuff’, he claimed, bracing himself as he opened the pack and popped one into his mouth. ‘Mmm tasty. These have a lot of fibre so they’re also really healthy.’

 

Lin Jingyan walked into the training room where the air was thick with awkwardness and also a hint of MEATY BACON FLAVOUR.

‘What’s happening here?’ Lin Jingyan asked, bemused by the strange atmosphere he found himself in.

‘Old Lin! Hey! These are the snacks I told you about! They taste so good! Do you want one?’ Fang Rui offered, only very slightly hysterical.

Lin Jingyan was about to vehemently refuse to even touch the stupid pet kibble on account of him being a human person who ate human food, but Yuan Rongbin cut in again.

‘Captain, was Fang Rui serious? He really eats pet food?’  

‘Haha…’ Lin Jingyan forced a laugh as his gaze dropped to the cartoon ferret on the packaging. But the creature’s cheesy grin was mocking him, so Lin Jingyan tore his gaze away as he tried to figure a way out of his current situation.

Fang Rui shot him some crazy eyes behind Yuan Rongbin’s back.

‘… Fang Rui really does like eating these snacks.’

‘Old Lin Old Lin take one.’ Fang Rui rustled the bag rather menacingly as his expression said, if I’m going down then you’re coming with me. We’re partners aren’t we?

Lin Jingyan’s eyes only narrowed slightly in response, conscious of Yuan Rongbin sitting nearby.

‘For a moment I thought that Fang Rui secretly had a pet ferret or something crazy like that, but this makes more sense. He would be that weirdo who ate pet food’, Yuan Rongbin pondered, quietly amused and completely oblivious to the byplay between his teammates. Fang Rui sweatdropped and wondered how he had managed to cultivate that sort of reputation.

At this point, they had managed to draw the attention of practically everyone in the room. Under the weight of his teammates’ interested gazes, Lin Jingyan had no choice but to capitulate to Fang Rui’s unspoken demand.

For the adorable little pests , he told himself. And so, he reached into the bag with the air of a man preparing for death.

Munch. Munch. Munch. Swallow.

‘I can see why Fang Rui likes these so much, they’re really great.’ Lin Jingyan offered, and only he would ever know how much effort and inner strength it took to say those words with a mild smile on his lips.

‘Anyway, we should start training!’ He deflected before his partner could con him into finishing the bag.

The grin that Fang Rui rewarded him with made it worth it.

 


 

In the mornings, Fang Rui would be woken far too early for his liking by the screeching menaces wreaking havoc in their cage, clamouring for breakfast. He would feed the beastly annoyances through the bleary haze of sleep and then stumble off to the shower. By the time he returned, he’d feel marginally more human and his unwelcome free-loaders would have tuckered themselves out and gone back to sleep.

But one day he returned to his room, rubbing a towel through his wet hair, and saw that the cage door hung open and the cage stood empty. After turning his room upside down in a desperate attempt to find the impish runaways, he could only conclude that he had forgotten to lock the cage doors after he had fed them breakfast. The sly opportunists had seized the chance to make their grand escape when he had left his room to shower earlier that morning, still half asleep and oblivious to his surroundings.

With ever increasing terror, Fang Rui ran over to Lin Jingyan’s room and the two immediately began the hunt for their missing kids. But tearing up and down the hallways revealed nothing, and they soon reconvened to freak out together.

The pair were so intent on their hushed discussion that they didn’t notice when one of their teammates walked past them, noticed their agitation and inquired about what had happened.

‘My kid cousins ran away from home and I’m so worried about them’, Lin Jingyan said. He hated the falsehoods coming out of his mouth, but he hadn’t come so far just to slip up so easily now.

 

One more desperate search proved fruitless, and the pair could only admit temporary defeat and go to training. Given that they were the Captain and Vice-Captain, they had responsibilities that they couldn’t shirk, especially with important matches fast approaching.

Throughout practice that morning, Lin Jingyan and Fang Rui were far too distracted by worry to perform up to their usual standard, but thankfully no one noticed, since everyone else was also distracted. Perhaps if they had paid more attention to their teammates, they could have retrieved their rambunctious houseguests sooner.

‘Has anyone seen my pen? It’s gone missing.’

‘Did you drop it on the floor or something? Help me look for my alt account, I want to experiment on something with it.’

‘Which one of you idiots took my USB? I left it in front of my computer yesterday.’

As the practice session drew to a close, Zhao Yuzhe finally figured out what had been bothering him all morning.

‘Do you guys hear that squeaking? It’s so damn annoying. Does someone’s chair need oiling or something?’

Realisation dawned on Fang Rui and Lin Jingyan simultaneously, and they turned to each other so swiftly that they almost gave themselves whiplash. A thread of understanding passed between the partners before Fang Rui shot up out of his chair and began crowding everyone out of the training room as he shouted about lunch with cheerful exuberance.

Lin Jingyan remained still for a heartbeat after the training room door clicked shut. He only moved once the voices had faded down the corridor and he was safely alone. He could hear a faint scuffling behind the large cupboard at the corner of the room. Following the sound, he was finally rewarded with the sight of the unruly miscreants who had achieved the extraordinary triumph of marauding their way through the Wind Howl headquarters undetected.

The bandits had set up shop in an empty cardboard box sandwiched in the narrow gap between the cabinet and the wall. They were cuddling on top of their ill-gotten loot, like two furry dragons curled protectively atop the mountain of their precious treasure. Lin Jingyan felt his heart melt a little at the adorable scene. He snapped a few pictures of them for Fang Rui and then unceremoniously stuffed them down his shirt and powerwalked them back to the safety of their cage.

Fang Rui had the dubious honour of returning the stolen pile of trinkets to his teammates. The excuse that he offered was that it was a necessary and vital part of his Thief training. After all, how could he obtain a true mastery of Thief techniques without an understanding of the profession in reality? Fang Rui was doubtful that his teammates believed him, but this rather contrived reasoning was the best he could do.

The alternative was to leave the stolen items and wait for someone else to discover the stash. However, this idea was immediately discarded because it’d seem like someone was maliciously stealing things, and team morale would be destroyed if no one could trust their peers. There were already tensions between team members regarding Wind Howl’s future direction for growth. Management had also gotten involved, which had further complicated matters, and Fang Rui wasn’t blind to the pressure Lin Jingyan was under these days. The last thing he wanted to do was to add to Old Lin’s burden, so he discarded all shame and continued with his silly excuses.

 


 

Fang Rui and Lin Jingyan had quickly settled into a new schedule of spending their evenings in Fang Rui’s room, playing with Mocha and Latte together. But one night, a small blip emerged in their newly established domestic lifestyle.

‘I forgot that I was supposed to do a livestream at some point this week to promote the headphones from that sponsor company’, Fang Rui groaned. ‘Old Lin, do you mind if I stream a quick dungeon run now?’

Lin Jingyan acquiesced easily and settled down with his phone out of camera view while the two mischievous rascals ran wild across the floor. When they grew tired of play-fighting they clambered onto his legs and fell asleep in a puddle on his lap.   

Over an hour later, Lin Jingyan realised that first, Fang Rui showed no sign of stopping his stream, and second, his legs had fallen asleep with the fluffy noodles curled up on them. He gently picked up Mocha, but to his shock, the ferret remained a deadweight in his grip, head lolling listlessly to the side and body heavy and slack.

Fang Rui was completely immersed in his dungeon run, chatting with his fans watching the stream and remembering to periodically praise the various things that his sponsors had given him to advertise. However, his focus was suddenly interrupted by a terrified hiss of Fang Rui I think I killed them. He whipped his head around in alarm and was greeted by the chilling sight of his Captain with a motionless ferret dangling from each hand. Their bodies swayed slightly as Lin Jingyan’s hands trembled in distress.

With a hurried apology to his stream, Fang Rui abruptly ended it and ripped off his headphones as he scrambled out of his chair, his mind blank with panic.

The next ten minutes were without a question the most nerve-wracking torture that Fang Rui and Lin Jingyan ever had the displeasure of experiencing. But after a whirl of frantic Baiduing, they concluded that they had almost shed their mortal coil while their stupid fur babies were happily snoozing away.

‘Since both of them are warm and are breathing, they should be fine. According to this website, they’re just sleeping deeply.’

‘Apparently playing dead is common ferret behaviour according to this article.’

Fang Rui gave himself a moment to bask in the relief that he and Lin Jingyan hadn’t accidentally murdered their kids before he was scrambling for his computer, internally weeping at the damage control he would have to do. He had caught a glimpse of the chat before he had left. People had already been speculating about Lin Jingyan’s words, and his own abrupt departure would only have further complicated matters.

 

howlsmovingcastle: Was that Lin Jingyan?

lotus_flower: It’s Captain Lin!

ThousandCranes8: Did he just say that he killed someone?

whizzz: omg did lin jingyan murder someone lmaooo

choco4225: WHY DID FANG RUI LEAVE THE STREAM?

Starry_Night: wtf is happening

Peachblossoms: Did the criminal partners become real life criminals and murder someone???

12incandescence34: FANG RUI COME BACK AND EXPLAIN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

ezio29372: FANG RUI COME BACK AND EXPLAIN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! +1

theAssassin: FANG RUI COME BACK AND EXPLAIN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! +2

 


 

The members of team Wind Howl waited tactfully for Fang Rui to leave the training room  before turning to Lin Jingyan as one united front.

‘Captain Lin, there’s a private matter we’d like to discuss with you’, the team’s cleric began delicately, with the rest of the team nodding along earnestly.

‘There’s been a recent... ah... development with Vice Captain Fang. The team has noticed that he has a new… ah … cologne.’

‘It smells terrible’, Zhao Yuzhe cut in bluntly, without any regard for manners.

Lin Jingyan needed a moment to compose himself as his mind whirled into overdrive. Had their deception been discovered? How should he react? What should he say?

‘Haha… Fang Rui is trying out a new cologne. I’ll let him know discretely that it’s not working out’, he said, thoroughly embarrassed from head to toe by the nonsense coming out of his mouth. Lin Jingyan hated lying to his team, but he hated disappointing Fang Rui even more. For the ferrets , he reminded himself. For Fang Rui .

Zhao Yuzhe frowned and took a few exaggerated sniffs. ‘Captain, you should shower. You smell awful too.’

Lin Jingyan fled from the room as quickly as he could.

 

Lin Jingyan: we have a problem

Fang Rui: what’s up?

Lin Jingyan: the ferrets are too stinky and our teammates have noticed

Fang Rui: ah

Lin Jingyan: we need to give them a bath

 

There was one communal bathroom furnished with a tub in the club, and that was where Wind Howl’s leadership team were holed up that evening. Although Lin Jingyan had a private ensuite shower, which was one of the luxuries afforded to him as the team captain, he didn’t dare to use it for this endeavour. The thought of two fully grown men squeezing into a tiny shower cubicle to wash the stinky hyperactive nuisances would fuel his nightmares for weeks after. He could see the two demon brats causing havoc and himself slipping and cracking his head open while chasing them. There was no way that he could envision bath time working unless they had access to an actual tub.

Although the single bathtub in their building was supposed to be shared among all the residents, it was rarely used, so Lin Jingyan and Fang Rui considered their newest venture a risk worth taking.

Fang Rui and Lin Jingyan could finally breathe freely once they finally managed to calm down their energetic little munchkins, who had discovered the joys of swimming with great enthusiasm. But their luck, which had held up all evening, faltered at that point.

It wouldn’t be overly dramatic (in fact, it was an understatement) to say that their hearts leapt into their throats, as if trying to escape from the stifling confines of their ribcages. The world collapsed around them as the door handle creaked downwards in a stifling moment that lasted an infinity.

The door juddered in its frame as the person on the other side tried to push it open. But the door remained shut. Fang Rui praised every deity under the sun that he had remembered to lock the damn door.

‘Sorry I’m in here.’

‘Ah I’m having a bath right now.’

In the long silence that followed, Fang Rui and Lin Jingyan stared at each other wide-eyed. They had each been so eager to chase away whoever was outside that they had spoken without thinking. Their combined efforts had only made the situation incredibly awkward.

 

‘Captain Lin? Vice Captain Fang? You two are both in there?’ The incredulous voice was recognisable as one of the Howling Heights guild members.

‘We’re just discussing some tactics for our upcoming matches here.’ Fang Rui called out cheerfully. His shamelessness truly knew no bounds.

‘Don’t-worry-I’ll-keep-your-secret-enjoy-your-bath-bye’, the guild member mumbled before fleeing.

‘At least it wasn’t Zhao Yuzhe. Otherwise by tomorrow morning, everyone and their grandmas would be gossiping about this’, Fang Rui snickered, marvelling at the sheer absurdity of the situation. Lin Jingyan also huffed a soft breath of laughter.

Lin Jingyan had soap suds in his hair and his clothes were covered in fur and soaked in bathwater. Fang Rui hadn’t seen Lin Jingyan look so soft and relaxed in a long time. Although Lin Jingyan was scolding the furry agents of chaos, his voice was unintentionally creeping upwards, one step away from a cooing baby voice, and the corners of his eyes had a slight crinkle that suggested that he was barely holding back a grin. Fang Rui ducked his head once he realised he was staring.

 

Fang Rui was responsible for cleaning up the mess in the bathroom, so Lin Jingyan made the nerve-wracking journey back to Fang Rui’s room alone. He deposited the wriggling noodle babies back into the warmth of their blanket nest before carefully locking their cage.  With a sigh of relief he slumped onto Fang Rui’s bed, sprawled out like a starfish, his sore back muscles protesting after an arduous evening crouched over the bathtub.

Fang Rui’s bed was so comfortable that Lin Jingyan was loathe to get up again. He was starting to feel so warm and drowsy and tired when a sudden creak cut through his drifting thoughts. He started upwards to see Mocha’s smug furry face and his distinctive right mitt, practically silver in the dim light, still stretched forwards as the cage door swung open. The lock fell to the ground, useless. Latte was right behind, somehow managing to project embarrassment at his friend’s antics, but also a hint of excitement.

Lin Jingyan had found it strange for Fang Rui to have forgotten to lock the cage during the imps’ previous jailbreak. Such carelessness was uncharacteristic of Fang Rui, so learning that Mocha was capable of lockpicking made much more sense.

Since the bedroom door was closed, Lin Jingyan was content enough to remain splayed across the bed and wait to see what the ferrets would do next.

With a squeaky warcry, Mocha punted himself out of the cage and landed on the floor with a soft thump. He shot an expectant glance back at Latte, who released the ferret version of a put-out sigh before climbing down the cage frame at a more sedate pace. The two held a silent conversation that Lin Jingyan could not follow, before the pair streaked across the floor, Mocha lunging and playfully tackling Latte with squeals of joy.

How adorable , he thought as his eyelids gave up the fight against gravity and fluttered shut.

 

When Fang Rui returned to his room, Lin Jingyan was slumped asleep on his bed with Mocha and Latte curled up around him.

How adorable , he thought.

 


 

Although Fang Rui and Lin Jingyan only spent a brief stint as ferret parents, the aftereffects of this period were long-lasting. In other words, they both developed really weird reputations that endured long after they had both left Wind Howl.

Even years later, in Season 10, when Tyranny and Happy sat down together to watch the Samsara vs. Tiny Herb match, this legacy followed them still. The small gathering had been arranged by Ye Xiu and Han Wenqing, since the two teams were conveniently in the same city. Neither of the two had expected their ancient history to rear its head again here of all places.

During a lull in the conversation, Zhang Jiale suddenly turned to Fang Rui and said, ‘Hey Fang Rui, do you seriously snack on cat food?’

‘Oh!’ Zhang Jiale’s words reminded Su Mucheng of something she’d always wanted to ask. ‘Lin Jingyan, is it true that a bunch of your baby cousins ran away from home to join the mafia?’

 

Wind Howl’s former Captain and Vice-Captain exchanged a glance, and the former facepalmed in embarrassment while the latter burst into delighted laughter.

(Was this a good time to let the others know that they were planning on moving in and raising baby ferrets together after retirement?)