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the moment dreams are dreamt

Chapter Text

“This is pointless.”

“I’m sure it’ll be fun.”

“I’m sure it won’t.”

Su Mucheng scoffed. “You just don’t want to give up your image.”

“My image?”

“You know the one,” she said, raising her eyebrows. “The unicorn one.”

“I am not a unicorn.”

“Then maybe stop making yourself scarce whenever a social event comes around.”

Ye Xiu didn’t think this counted as an event. It was just a get-together. That was how Su Mucheng convinced him to spend hard-earned money on plane tickets and a cheap motel in Shanghai: by emphasizing the get-togetherness.

Just a little gathering of friends. An educational exchange among the pros. An excuse to kick back and enjoy life like the twenty-somethings most of them were.

Ye Xiu wasn’t the kind of person who kicked back and enjoyed life. Yes, he could kick back, and yes, he enjoyed his life, but one didn’t really equate to the other in his mind. He enjoyed life when he was playing Glory, and he kicked back when he was not playing Glory. Which is to say, he hardly ever kicked back.

When work and play were pretty much the same thing, it was easy to get a little carried away. Not that Ye Xiu would admit that to Su Mucheng.

He didn’t need to, though; she’d apparently noticed him running himself ragged and, when word of this get-together came around, had pounced on it like a leopard on prey.

The truth was, it was hard for Ye Xiu to get on without Wu Xuefeng. And already so many other players he’d known and admired in the professional scene, even back before there was a professional scene, had already trickled away.

He was…maybe a bit lonely. Maybe.

“We should head out,” Su Mucheng said, glancing at her phone. “Group chat’s already going wild.”

“Did they bring out the alcohol?” Ye Xiu asked with a snort. “So soon?”

“I can’t tell, everyone who talks regularly in the group chat sounds drunk twenty-four-seven.”

That was fair, Ye Xiu supposed. Only drunk people could talk as much as some of his colleagues. And manage to sound that consistently stupid, too. When he first met Huang Shaotian, he thought the kid was on drugs.

“I didn’t tell anyone you were coming, by the way.”

Ye Xiu glanced up from his suitcase at that. “You didn’t? Did you mention that you were coming?”

“Well, obviously.”

“Then they should know that I’m coming.”

“Doubt it. Some people are just dense.” She winked at him, pulling on a pretty cashmere sweater he’d gotten for her just that Christmas. “They have yet to make the connection between you and me, dear brother.”

“Please don’t ever call me ‘dear’ anything ever again.”

“Okay, okay. How long are you going to stare at your clothes? Here, let me help you.”

In light of their lateness, Su Mucheng kept things simple: dark skinny jeans, which he kinda hated, and a somewhat loose black tee. It was literally the height of winter so he had to add some layers to make going outside bearable, but considering they’d be spending most of their time indoors, Ye Xiu didn’t bother throwing on more than the bare essentials.

It seemed that in no time at all, they were in a taxi and on their way to Club Samsara. Ye Xiu was a bit dazed; he couldn’t believe he was really doing this. It only sank in when they stepped out of the car and into the cold air right in front of the club building.

Su Mucheng patted his arm as the taxi drove away, following his gaze to the doors. “You know, you don’t have to come in with me. I’ll be fine on my own. I just thought…”

Ye Xiu didn’t need her to finish that sentence. He heaved a sigh, rolled his shoulders in a slow, lazy shrug, and said, “Well, we’re already here.”

Without further ado, he went inside.

Club Samsara wasn’t as formal as Excellent Era had become in the last year or two. The receptionist seemed to accept that they were who they said they were (professional gamers) and that they were going where they said they were going (to the third floor for a mass training exercise—yes, that was the best Zhang Yiwei could come up with). Security seemed to be off-duty for the night, and the halls were largely deserted. Ye Xiu felt like a ghost treading over the shiny floors.

“It smells nice in here,” was all Su Mucheng had to say about it.

They didn’t make conversation on the way up, and Ye Xiu found himself leaning against one side of the elevator, staring at his reflection across from him. He had lost some weight the past few months, and his complexion suffered for it; but because they were on break, he also got a good amount of sleep most nights, so it evened out in the end. He brushed his hair back a bit from his face to make himself look more presentable, didn’t like it, and then shook his hair back into his face.

Su Mucheng huffed at him.

When they got off on the third floor, they were immediately met with raucous laughter and loud voices. It wasn’t hard to find the source, as the get-together—which was looking more and more like a full-out party—had spilled out of the training room and onto the entire floor.

Nobody seemed to know who he was, which was as expected, but Su Mucheng was greeted with a liveliness that had his hackles close to rising. Ye Xiu trailed behind her subtly, ignoring the curious looks he got, and quietly greeted the few people who recognized him on sight.

“So you did come,” Zhang Yiwei said triumphantly, clapping him on the back. There was a drink in his hand. “Knew you wouldn’t leave me hanging.”

“On the contrary, I almost did.”

“The girl drag you in? Well, they’re the best at that.”

Ye Xiu rolled his eyes.

“Make yourself at home, have a look around, grab a drink,” Zhang Yiwei said, all smiles.

Ye Xiu raised a brow. “Can I take a look at your Silver equipment stats and blueprints?”

The smile was immediately replaced by a scowl. “No, you bastard.”

“But it would make me feel so at home,” Ye Xiu said innocently.

It was Zhang Yiwei’s turn to roll his eyes. Then someone called his name, and he left Ye Xiu to the mercy of his own company.

Ye Xiu let out a breath and took another look around. There was no one in sight that he particularly cared to meet. Maybe those rookies from Blue Rain and Tyranny—but he hadn’t seen Han Wenqing, nor heard Huang Shaotian’s exuberant chatter, so maybe they weren’t here. He was getting worse and worse at recognizing who was in which team anyway.

Ye Xiu shook his head, noted Su Mucheng’s location, and then allowed himself to drift to quieter corners.

There were a few corridors that were mostly empty, and Ye Xiu took refuge in one, pulling out a cigarette and lighter. He smoked for a minute or two, staring at the gleaming floor, before he heard the sound of typing.

It wasn’t a conscious decision so much as an idle impulse, but Ye Xiu followed the sound, peering into the rooms with their still-open doors, or peeking in through the windows, if there were any. And then, in one room, he found the source.

A faint glow emerged from the back, one humming computer among dozens of silent ones. A teenager, face ghostly in the blue light, sat behind the monitor, tapping away at his keyboard, clicking frantically on his mouse. He was so completely focused on what he was doing that he didn’t even take note of Ye Xiu’s approach.

It was a little amusing, honestly, because Ye Xiu was literally right there—but the boy had headphones on and Ye Xiu was far from loud or noticeable. Without even a suspicion of Ye Xiu’s presence, he carried on while Ye Xiu positioned himself behind his chair, watching the screen.

The boy was playing Glory. That should come as no surprise. But he was young, he was running a program and not the game itself, and the character he was using was not one Ye Xiu recognized—so it was a trainee, right? Was this room Samsara’s makeshift training camp?

Ye Xiu watched the guy navigate a maze of obstacles, leaping and aiming and maneuvering every which way as quickly as possible, for minutes uncounted. Eventually his cigarette burned to a nub and he looked around for the nearest ashtray, only to find a no smoking sign plastered to one of the walls.

Ye Xiu sighed and tapped the boy’s shoulder.

The jolt that went through the boy would make any observer laugh, but Ye Xiu just smiled faintly. The boy stared at him speechlessly, pale eyes wide, then pulled his headphones off to hang around his neck.

“Y-yes?”

“Sorry to interrupt, but do you know where I can put this out?” Ye Xiu asked, indicating what remained of the cigarette in his hand.

The boy continued to stare, and it took a long moment for him to process what Ye Xiu was saying. When he did, he immediately stood up and made for the door, head lowered.

Ye Xiu blinked after him, but he followed a second later. The boy led him down the hall and across another, and then into a wide room that looked like a discount lounge and office space rolled into one. Glass doors at the back led to a small balcony—apparently the designated hangout for smokers, judging by the cheap garden chairs and ashtrays out there.

The boy hesitated in front of the glass doors for a moment, glancing uncertainly at Ye Xiu, before sliding them open. Since they hadn’t turned the lights on when they entered, he couldn’t quite see what he was doing and fumbled. Ye Xiu lent a hand, and they managed to slide a door far enough for a person to fit through the gap.

Ye Xiu squeezed outside and plopped down on one of the garden chairs, putting out his cigarette as he did so. The boy came in after him, but then froze and stared around, as if uncertain of what he was doing there.

“Sit down if you want,” Ye Xiu said after an uncomfortably silent few seconds. “I won’t smoke anymore.”

A pause as, again, the boy seemed to process his words, and then he was sitting down in the other chair next to Ye Xiu, only the small table with the ashtray between them.

 

 

The night air might have been unbearably cold if there were a breeze, but everything was still and silent, and Ye Xiu still had his coat on. The boy wore a thick sweater and comfortable-looking pants, but after a few minutes, he began to shiver.

“All right, maybe we could have chosen someplace better,” Ye Xiu admitted, a bit concerned. “Let’s go back inside.”

It was only when they sat down on a cool leather couch in that wide room that Ye Xiu realized they hadn’t introduced themselves. Hell, the boy had been following Ye Xiu’s lead without even stopping to question him.

Eyeing the kid oddly, Ye Xiu asked, “So you’re a trainee, right? Training for Sharpshooter. What’s your name?”

The boy jumped again when Ye Xiu addressed him, looking almost scared. He was slightly hunched in on himself, arms and legs squeezed together like he was trying to contain all his lanky limbs. His hair was longer than fashionable, falling over his eyes and trailing along his cheeks, but Ye Xiu could still meet his gaze, see how his pale irises gleamed in the faint city lights filtering in from the balcony.

“Zhou Zekai,” the kid murmured, barely audible. “Trainee.”

Ye Xiu licked his lips, leaning more comfortably against the couch. “You like Sharpshooters, Little Zhou? Are you going to be taking Zhang Yiwei’s place? You’re pretty good.”

He really was; Ye Xiu didn’t hand out compliments on a platter. He had only watched him train for a few minutes, but he had been impressed by what he saw. He’d say Zhou Zekai was at a professional level already—at least, he didn’t make any more mistakes than Ye Xiu’s own teammates did, when they ran training programs.

Samsara was lucky to have snapped someone like him up, providing that what he saw was Zhou Zekai’s usual performance. Small clubs didn’t tend to draw in a lot of potential pros. Most just flocked to the big three and then waited to be picked off by others who came through the training camps.

Zhou Zekai seemed to be caught off-guard by Ye Xiu’s line of questioning and just stared at him blankly, eyes a little wide. That might be Zhou Zekai’s default expression, Ye Xiu thought: faintly surprised and very much tongue-tied.

“Not much of a talker, are you? Or maybe you can’t tell me.” Ye Xiu smiled at him, drawing his gaze away in an effort to put the kid at ease. “That’s fine. Can I ask how long you’ve been a trainee?”

Zhou Zekai shifted beside him, awkwardly rearranging his long body. Puberty sucked. “Since…summer.”

His answers were slow in coming, but he did answer, so Ye Xiu took it as a sign that his company wasn’t entirely unwelcome. “And why were you training rather than having fun? Or chatting with the pros visiting? You could ask some questions, get some advice. It’s a good opportunity.” Thinking about it, maybe all those unfamiliar faces were just Samsara trainees putting themselves out there; many of them did look scarily young. Ye Xiu wondered what they’d told their parents to let them stay here this late.

Zhou Zekai just hummed shortly and stayed quiet. When Ye Xiu darted a glance at him, he saw an awkward and somewhat stifled expression on his youthful face.

“Shy?” Ye Xiu guessed.

Zhou Zekai looked down at his lap and nodded unhappily. He seemed so sullen in that moment, Ye Xiu just had to take pity on him.

“Well, you can go back to training if you really want to,” Ye Xiu said, “or you can ask me anything. If you want my advice, that is.”

Zhou Zekai’s eyes darted up at that, a faint furrow between his eyebrows. He licked his lips—a nervous gesture—and blinked slowly at Ye Xiu. His puzzlement was obvious.

“I’m Ye Qiu,” Ye Xiu said plainly. “I give good advice, I promise.”

The kid’s eyes were the widest he’d seen them yet. He was so stiff in his shock, a butterfly could probably have knocked him over.

“No questions?” Ye Xiu prompted, beginning to feel a strange disappointment seep into him. He’d never really spoken with any trainees outside of Excellent Era’s, and he rarely ever told them who he was when they were still in training, so he’d been expecting a little more exuberance upon the revelation of his identity. Ye Xiu liked answering questions about Glory. He welcomed any excuse to express his passion for the game, and there were few better or more useful ways to do so than by offering advice. Then he could prattle on as he liked while still being helpful to someone.

Ye Xiu also liked being helpful. Teaching Su Mucheng to play professionally had not come naturally at first, but when he let himself become immersed in the role of teacher, of mentor, he found that it suited him quite well.

Zhou Zekai swallowed audibly, and then finally managed to speak. “Se…Senior Ye. Sorry.”

He dipped his head in a respectful bow and more or less stayed like that.

Ye Xiu’s mouth twitched. What in the world was the matter with this boy? He poked the back of his head cautiously. “What are you sorry for? And why are you bowing? Don’t make this awkward, kid.”

Zhou Zekai straightened up, slow and careful like Ye Xiu might change his mind and tear his face off any second. “Didn’t know.”

“Didn’t know what?” Ye Xiu asked, right before it clicked. “Oh. Of course not, not that many people know what I look like. It’s whatever. Don’t worry about it.”

Zhou Zekai nodded once and continued to watch him, albeit not openly. He alternated between staring blatantly at Ye Xiu and blatantly avoiding his gaze by looking anywhere else in the room.

“Little Zhou, are you really just not gonna say anything? It’s fine to keep quiet when you have nothing to say, but holding back when there’s no need to and you’d like to put something out there—that’s just silly.” Ye Xiu smiled at him encouragingly, catching his eye. “C’mon, let’s have a chat. I can do most of the talking, just say what you want to say. We might not get the chance to talk again for a long time yet.”

That finally seemed to jolt Zhou Zekai out of his anxious silence, and he licked his lips again. “Do you…prefer a partner?”

Ye Xiu’s mind ground to a halt. What the fuck? Prefer a partner? Like, a type of partner? For what?

“Battle Mages…are good alone,” Zhou Zekai added, as if worried Ye Xiu needed an explanation for this. Which yes, he absolutely did, because for a horrified second he thought a goddamn teenager was trying to ask him his sexual preferences.

Ye Xiu cleared his throat and yanked his scrambled thoughts back onto the right track. “It’s not that I prefer it, but I have the option of one, so why not? Su Mucheng is great at support.” Wu Xuefeng had been, too, though he wasn’t as obvious about it. And Su Muqiu…well, Su Muqiu hadn’t necessarily been a support, but he was still supportive.

He missed him.

All right, this wasn’t the right track. Ye Xiu continued, “No matter how good someone is on their own, they’re always better with a team. Mucheng understands that better than most, which is why she and I work well together. I also taught her, which means we have a good understanding of each other. It’s a huge advantage in battle. Being good on my own can never outweigh that.”

Zhou Zekai nodded along thoughtfully. He mulled over something: Ye Xiu’s words, perhaps, or a comment of his own, or another question. The awkward shyness was so prevalent in his every gesture, Ye Xiu found him a bit difficult to read.

But then the kid said, “A good partner for…Sharpshooters?”

Ye Xiu blinked, taking a second to interpret that. Then he thought about it properly, running through the possibilities. “The Sharpshooter is a pretty versatile class, if you play your cards right. I knew someone who could make a Sharpshooter work for just about anything. He was a genius. Back in the day, before the Alliance happened, he was my partner. I’m probably biased, but I’d say the Sharpshooter’s best friend is a Battle Mage.” He smiled.

Zhou Zekai’s eyes went wide, then he smiled back at him, just a little. Tremulously, he asked something else, and then again, and again, hesitating less with every question.

Ye Xiu didn’t know how he managed to carry a conversation with someone who spoke five words at a time at most, but he did, and it was surprisingly not a bad time. Not at all.

Zhang Yiwei and Su Mucheng found them a few hours later, sitting on that couch in the dark, Ye Xiu chattering away while Zhou Zekai listened with all the focus of a pupil with his master. Su Mucheng seemed more pleased than anything and made sure to embarrass Zhou Zekai a little before they left (“You’re cute. Don’t let Ye Qiu poison you with his cigarette smoke,” she whispered for everyone to hear). But Zhang Yiwei just gave them suspicious glances, then hissed near silently at Ye Xiu that he better not be giving the kid “any ideas.”

Whatever could he mean?

Ye Xiu flew back home in a good mood, and the first thing he did was sit down at his desk, open QQ, and send Zhou Zekai an offer he couldn’t refuse.

Some might say he was being hasty, but no one was young forever. And unfortunately for Zhang Yiwei, he’d been much too late to stop Ye Xiu from creating an opening.

Ye Xiu looked at the piece of paper with Zhou Zekai’s QQ ID scrawled across it, sat back in his chair, and smiled.

Chapter Text

“Wow, you’ve gotten even cuter,” Su Mucheng said on Zhou Zekai’s first day at Excellent Era’s training camp.

Zhou Zekai didn’t know what he’d expected when he decided to spend the summer in Hangzhou, but this was most definitely not it, so he just blushed and kept his mouth shut. For someone who was as frequently tongue-tied and lost in thought as Zhou Zekai, no response was often the best response.

“And you’ve gotten better,” Ye Qiu added, which was at least slightly more in line with present circumstances. “Just a few months and so much improvement. Your timing is scarily precise. Good judgment, too.”

Besides Ye Qiu and Su Mucheng, two other members of Excellent Era, the team manager, and the training camp’s main instructor were present. Zhou Zekai’s flight had arrived late so the camp had already emptied out, and most of the building with it. It was just the seven of them crowded around a computer in a dark, silent room.

He hadn’t thought he’d be getting this much attention right off the bat. But perhaps he should have anticipated as much, when he was told they would have someone waiting for him at the airport. He hadn’t even been given time to drop his luggage off somewhere before they dragged him to Excellent Era.

The club building was under renovation, so there wasn’t too much to see. They had just moved in and were still reorganizing or something like that. His escort had spoken about it at some length; Zhou Zekai just hadn’t paid too much attention, busy sweating over his meeting with Ye Qiu. It was only the second time he was seeing the man in person.

And then, not only Ye Qiu, but other Excellent Era members had appeared to greet and welcome him. His escort was actually the team manager! And Su Mucheng kept trying to fluster him (and succeeded every single time).

No, Zhou Zekai didn’t know what he’d expected, but whatever it was, it hadn’t involved so much attention.

His shoulders hunched unconsciously. “Thank you…Senior.”

Ye Qiu patted his arm casually.

“So cute,” Su Mucheng threw in again.

“You’re going to kill the kid, Mucheng, stop it. Are you going through a cute phase?”

“You know what, I really think so!” Su Mucheng exclaimed. “I don’t usually think playing Glory is cute. Something must be wrong with me.”

One of the other team members laughed. Zhou Zekai had already forgotten both their names because he was terrible like that. He was pretty sure this was the player of Total Darkness, though. “That was never in question, Mucheng.”

“You know, this kid is good enough to debut,” the second team member said. “We never did get around to finding a good replacement for Heaven…”

“Well, why else do you think I invited him here?” Ye Qiu asked, amused.

Zhou Zekai’s head jerked up, eyes searching for Ye Qiu’s. When their gazes met, Zhou Zekai almost looked away. “You…”

“I think you could make your debut with us in Season 5,” Ye Qiu affirmed. A faint smile warmed his somewhat remote features. “But that’s ultimately up to you.”

Zhou Zekai cast his eyes to their audience, but nobody had anything else to say to him. The team manager wore the same neutrally polite expression he’d had all along, the team members were cautiously evaluating but otherwise unreadable despite their good-natured gestures, and Su Mucheng was Su Mucheng: Zhou Zekai hadn’t been able to figure her out when they first met at that party and was no closer to doing so now. Like Ye Qiu, he got the impression that she only allowed others to see what she wanted them to see. But unlike Ye Qiu, Zhou Zekai couldn’t tell if she truly liked him beyond all the teasing remarks.

Did these people really want him on their team? A quiet teenager Ye Qiu picked up from another team’s training camp, with no experience and no account to offer?

Then the instructor spoke up: “You’re already pre-registered for our summer training program, so just confirm your registration and you’ll be good to go for the next couple of months. There’s still time to make up your mind, and we can get a better idea of your capabilities in the meantime. We wouldn’t want to throw you in the deep end just like that.”

Saying this, he gave Ye Qiu a quelling look. Ye Qiu just smiled wider, not a hint of sheepishness on him.

Zhou Zekai allowed himself to relax. True, professional gaming was his dream. He loved Glory and competition; he longed to be up on stage, where his skills could speak for themselves. When he played, he could let his hands do all the talking. They never hesitated or failed him, unlike words, which failed him all too often. For somebody who struggled to relate to others, Zhou Zekai had never felt so much a part of anything as he did when he faced someone head-on in the Arena or joined up with a party to run a dungeon.

Glory provided him a sense of connection, a purpose. But there was still so much he feared he didn’t understand. Among these business-minded and professional folk, he felt he fit the role of a naive child in need of guidance far too well. Su Mucheng, who was the youngest member of the team at the moment, was already much more experienced than he was. And somebody like Ye Qiu could easily run circles around him.

But no. Zhou Zekai couldn’t let this fear rule him. He was no longer a child, even if he was still far from an adult. He had to grow up and make these terrifying choices for himself.

“I want to train,” he confirmed, his voice as soft as always. But there was a firmness underlying his tone that he couldn’t help but take pride in.

This was his choice.

“That’s great!” Su Mucheng said, and her broad smile sure seemed genuine enough, though it was almost too charming to bear. Like staring directly into the sun. “You do have a place to stay in the city, right?”

“We can make arrangements with the dorms here, if not,” the manager interjected quickly. “We don’t mind putting you up until a room is ready, which should happen by next week. Most of our members live in a gated community nearby…”

Before Zhou Zekai could yet again be overwhelmed, he shook his head and said, “I…have somewhere. Thank you,” he added.

He couldn’t comprehend why these people would go to such lengths just to get him to stay. Surely he wasn’t as good as they were making him out to be. But Zhou Zekai recalled how he was treated at Samsara’s training camp. Maybe it was safe to assume that, even if he wasn’t as good as they imagined, he was at least better than he thought.

Their little gathering dispersed once some more details were sorted out. Zhou Zekai assured the instructor he would call his parents to explain the situation so they would go through with the registration. After that, the manager told him, all he had to do was show up and do his best, and they could discuss his future more seriously toward the end of the program. Zhou Zekai had his suspicions that the greatest challenge of this summer would not be to prove himself worthy of debut, but to convince his parents to allow him to continue this journey, far from home in a strange city.

But Zhou Zekai kept that to himself, and instead wondered if he should buy dinner so that his host wouldn’t have to cook.

“Where are you staying, if you don’t mind me asking?”

Zhou Zekai stood with Ye Qiu and Su Mucheng at one of the building’s side entrances. This one was linked to the garage; Zhou Zekai was honestly impressed they even had a garage. He wondered just how much money Excellent Era managed to squeeze out of their winning streak. Surely Tyranny’s victory over them had hurt their sponsorships a bit? Zhou Zekai was not exactly in touch with all the business aspects of the professional gaming industry.

After a somewhat awkward pause, Zhou Zekai pulled himself from his thoughts and replied to Ye Qiu: “Grandma’s friend.”

His grandmother was the only one of Zhou Zekai’s family to support his dream. She had been behind him from the moment he said he wanted to join Samsara’s training camp and “try it out.” There was nothing he hid from her, not when she made such a genuine effort to communicate with him. She had always been concerned and hopeful for him in equal measures.

Zhou Zekai hadn’t told his parents what exactly he came to Hangzhou for, but Grandma knew everything. When he told her about Ye Qiu’s offer, she paid for the plane ticket herself, smiling all the while (and ignoring his parents’ protests). Now he was here, with his dream dangling before his eyes, because Grandma hadn’t hesitated to make these arrangements on his behalf.

“Your grandma has a friend here? That’s lucky,” Ye Qiu said.

“Will you take up a spare room or are you going to be bunking on somebody’s couch? Please make sure you get a good night’s sleep.” Su Mucheng sounded genuinely concerned.

Ye Qiu nodded along and opened his mouth—

“But Ye Qiu could probably give you some advice about sleeping on couches.” The concern was replaced so thoroughly by wicked amusement, it may as well have never existed in the first place.

Ye Qiu grumbled something unintelligible under his breath. Zhou Zekai only stared between the two of them, confused. Why would Ye Qiu know enough about sleeping on couches to offer advice on it? Why did sleeping on couches require advice? He had never spent the night on a couch before, but he was sure he’d figure it out. Didn’t you just lie down and close your eyes?

“Ignore her,” Ye Qiu said decisively, rolling his eyes. “My couch-sleeping days are over. Either way, I can probably get them to put you up in a dorm room next week. I’m not sure how those rooms are going to turn out, but—”

“It’s better than nothing,” Su Mucheng finished.

Zhou Zekai was still confused, because all of this was really not an issue, and if it were, it’d be the least of them. Nonetheless, he nodded in acceptance; there was no reason to reject their generosity when they were only speaking in hypotheticals. He truly didn’t think Grandma’s friend would mind dealing with him until he could figure things out. After all, she had agreed to host him the entire summer.

What happened after summer…he would have to wait and see.

Zhou Zekai received a few more kind words and offers of help, was told in no uncertain terms that he should ask one of them if he needed anything, and it was a little bit like what he imagined having overprotective older siblings might feel like. But that was a little silly to think of—Ye Qiu and Su Mucheng, worrying about him to such a degree, holding him in such high regard—so he bid them awkward but heartfelt farewells and escaped the situation as quickly as was polite.

(No matter how silly it was, Zhou Zekai was glad to know that someone other than Grandma had his back.)

 

* * *

 

Life developed a new routine following this unexpected-yet-expected turn of events, as life was wont to do. Like rivers carving their way through the earth, things couldn’t remain fresh and new for long; eventually they became commonplace, and the landscape rearranged itself in such a fashion that it was hard to believe it had ever been different.

Zhou Zekai arrived in Hangzhou expecting to stay the summer, and that was what he did. No, he didn’t expect the attention (though maybe he should have, in retrospect) and he didn’t expect the possibility of debut so soon. But those were just details; they didn’t have to mean anything right then.

His parents took a while to come around. They had been under the impression that Zhou Zekai’s visit to Hangzhou would be brief, that he’d undergo some specialized training and come right back. But even in the throes of righteous parental fury, they didn’t sound like they knew what they were talking about, and they were well aware of it. In the end, they could only concede in admitted ignorance. They knew nothing about Glory’s pro scene even after all the time their son had been obsessed with it. However, they did know enough to understand that Zhou Zekai had received an incredible opportunity. Their son had just better call every day, eat well and look after his health, and stay away from strangers on the street. He was their only son, after all, and he had to remain filial.

Zhou Zekai obediently nodded along to every condition they set, even though they couldn’t see him. He wished he were a more filial son. He wished he was not an only child, and that they could place their hopes on somebody else. But if all he could do was call and take care of himself, then he’d do just that.

Grandma’s friend, Ms. Wei, was a kind elderly lady. Not quite as old as his grandmother, as she later revealed, but old enough to have attended the same college and shared classes. She took a liking to Zhou Zekai immediately, and appreciated the house-warming gift Grandma sent along, as well as the dinner Zhou Zekai brought for them to share the evening they met. She could go on for ages about Zhou Zekai’s manners and humbleness and gentle disposition: he was nothing like the teenage boys she was used to, she said, and she was so impressed that he had traveled on his own to accomplish his dreams. It was all so admirable and respectable of him, why couldn’t other young men his age be so mature?

Suffice to say, his reception was beyond even his most optimistic imaginings, and he began to suspect Ms. Wei would have him move in permanently if she could. Though that might have to do with how he did all the chores without complaint and without being asked, rather than his so-called respectability.

Besides Ms. Wei, the trainees at Excellent Era welcomed him, too. The air of competition was more evident here than in Samsara, probably because of Excellent Era’s status. But Zhou Zekai didn’t mind it as much as he would have thought, and at the end of the day, they were all just a bunch of teenagers. They could act stupid and one-up each other all day long, and by the next morning, all offenses would be forgiven. There was a difference between talking shit and talking trash, and genuine skill was nothing to be ashamed of.

Thus, Zhou Zekai was very pleased with his circumstances. At least until the head instructor adjusted his training schedule to include exercises far more advanced than the other trainees’.

That was their first clue that Zhou Zekai was not an ordinary trainee, but a potential recruit. It was too soon in the program for there to be classes or ranks separated by level; Zhou Zekai couldn’t be moved to a more advanced class to settle in with a new group of people. He had to do his assignments with the same people as before, and surrounded on all sides, there was no way he could hide his proficiency.

It was regrettable, he thought. Personally, he had wanted to blend in, pretend that he truly was ordinary. He didn’t want to be special. That was how he was treated, though, whether he liked it or not—and he typically didn’t. Yes, it could be flattering, but it was mostly just confusing, and liable to send Zhou Zekai’s pulse racing with anxiety.

The situation at Samsara…it had gone far beyond confusing—much too far. He’d been the best among the trainees there, and though he pretended not to, he heard the talk about him replacing Zhang Yiwei. Management invested a lot of time and resources into his training and encouraged the team to, as well. Especially Zhang Yiwei, though the captain would always shake his head and say there wasn’t anything he could teach Zhou Zekai that experience wouldn’t.

He gave pointers, sometimes. But whenever he visited the training camp, he almost pointedly avoided Zhou Zekai.

As far as Zhou Zekai could tell—which wasn’t very far—Zhang Yiwei didn’t seem bitter. He never blew up at him or blamed him for anything. He even treated him with some affection when he wasn’t keeping his distance. But he definitely seemed sad. And who would blame him, when a kid like Zhou Zekai showed up where he reigned, as if with the sole purpose to upstage him?

Despite his best attempts to remain lowkey, Zhou Zekai became something like royalty in Samsara. Even the actual pros regarded him with some measure of respect. After a while, he’d come to accept it, but he still didn’t like it. The attention flustered rather than flattered him, and he could take no pleasure in compliments he didn’t think he deserved.

He didn’t deserve the faith Samsara wanted to put in him. Maybe that was why it had been so easy to accept Ye Qiu’s invitation.

His contacts and instructors in Samsara were shocked when he pulled out of their training program, of course, and did their utmost to convince him to return, citing all his extraordinary talents and waxing poetic about his potential. But once he explained the situation to them, there were only well wishes. They gave up on him with surprising quickness, and Zhou Zekai didn’t know whether he should be relieved or hurt. They could have said more, done more; he was a teenager trying to make it big in professional gaming, he expected emotional manipulation. Other than a reminder that Samsara would always welcome him back with open arms should he change his mind, however, they left him alone.

It was one less thing to stress about, so maybe relief was the right reaction. Mostly, though, Zhou Zekai just felt kind of guilty. He didn’t believe he was what they were looking for, but they had clearly acted as if he was. They must view their investment in him as a waste, now.

Regardless, no amount of guilt would make him turn his back on Ye Qiu. Even when the distance between him and the other Excellent Era trainees grew, Zhou Zekai tried his best to pay it no mind. Even when his whole body would ache from sitting for hours upon hours in front of a computer, he didn’t let up. Ye Qiu had provided him with a chance to grasp his dream. He had to make it to September. He had to prove himself, and more than that, he had to prepare. Staying in Hangzhou had been a daring choice; if his work here paid off, and he got to debut, then he would be faced with even more.

He had to make it to September. He had to do his best. Keep his head down, work hard, and ignore all the unnecessary attention.

(“With that guy, Excellent Era will never lose another championship.”

“Think they’ll add him to the roster next year?”

“Ha! Wanna bet he’ll debut this season?”)

(“We’re doing our best to make sure he accumulates experience. Hard to create ideal conditions for it, but—”

“Don’t spare any effort. He could be a major asset to this team.”

“Yeah, yeah. Know anything about what account he’ll use? The one he has isn’t bad…”

“There’s Heaven. The boss wants it back on the roster. If all goes well, that’s what he’ll use. Changing the gender is no trouble at all.”)

( “So that’s the kid?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Kind of young, isn’t he?”

“Par for the course, sir, par for the course. Ye Qiu was eighteen. Su Mucheng was seventeen—only a year older.”

“It’s no problem. The younger the better, honestly. And he’s already good-looking… Yes, he’ll be a good addition to the team. If only it wasn’t still too early—that Ye Qiu is too cautious—”)

About halfway through the summer training program, Ye Qiu approached Zhou Zekai privately and said, “You should take a break, go back home to visit your family.”

Zhou Zekai just looked at him, puzzled. His heart was already beating a little faster as he pondered what that could possibly mean. It was already late, he was packing up his stuff to leave, and his brain was too tired for this. Ye Qiu liked to blindside him at the most inopportune moments, it seemed.

But Ye Qiu only smiled warmly. “When you come back, you won’t be put through regular training anymore. Or whatever it is they’re having you do. It’s obvious you’re leagues above everyone here. I’ll be giving you private lessons.”

Private lessons? Zhou Zekai swallowed. For some reason, the thought of having Ye Qiu’s attention wasn’t unpleasant at all. Maybe a little too pleasant, in fact.

So he went back home. And when he returned, Ye Qiu told him that, if he worked hard in their private lessons, he could debut in a month.

When the time came, he thought he would be afraid, despite his choice. But Zhou Zekai saw his dream in front of him, within reach, and didn’t hesitate at all.

He looked Ye Qiu in the eye and said with more certainty than he’d ever said anything in his life, “I’ll do my best.”

Ye Qiu met his unwavering gaze and, after a moment, nodded. He squeezed Zhou Zekai’s shoulder, a gleam in his eyes. “I know.”

 

* * *

 

Training with Ye Qiu was like nothing he’d ever experienced before. It was both better and worse than the training camp. There, him messing up was no big deal—he was just a trainee, after all, and nobody expected him to be perfect, even if they did expect something close to it.

Ye Qiu didn’t seem to seek perfection from him, which was the good news, but he also made it clear that he had high hopes for Zhou Zekai, not just expectations—and that was not bad news, but it was…something.

Probably the most challenging aspect of Ye Qiu’s training was that he said half of what he meant and implied the rest, leaving Zhou Zekai to figure things out on his own. For example, some mistakes were acceptable, and others weren’t, but which were which, Ye Qiu never dictated. Through trial and error, Zhou Zekai quickly learned the difference, just as he learned how wide the divide between skill and experience truly was.

There was pressure when he trained with Ye Qiu, but it wasn’t as suffocating as Zhou Zekai had uneasily imagined. He found comfort in the fact that Ye Qiu’s hopes for him were…for him. He put Zhou Zekai through the grinder, yes, but it was clear that Ye Qiu was working hard for his sake as well. The dark circles under his eyes were just one piece of evidence.

“He’s going to wear himself down at this rate,” Su Mucheng said to him sadly as they waited in a small training room for Ye Qiu to show up.

Su Mucheng began to drop in on their training sessions as soon as the private training rooms were set up, and made herself a fixture after Ye Qiu and Zhou Zekai moved in. As the manager had predicted early that summer, the dorm rooms were finished quickly, but since nobody, not even Zhou Zekai, had great need for them, the club took its time with the furnishings.

Ye Qiu had gotten first dibs on one of the completed rooms (though from what Su Mucheng told him, it had actually been the boss’s idea to have him settle in first). Since then, Zhou Zekai had taken to sleeping there to avoid imposing on Ms. Wei any further. Ye Qiu and Su Mucheng apparently had their own apartment, so Zhou Zekai didn’t feel too bad about putting Ye Qiu off his own quarters.

But as their training grew more intense and Ye Qiu’s summer schedule more packed (Zhou Zekai was painfully aware of all the shenanigans going on in the Heavenly Domain, seeing as he was often dragged into them “for experience”), Ye Qiu decided to properly move in. Su Mucheng didn’t want to live on her own and followed suit. They had what she gleefully called slumber parties almost every night; Ye Qiu called them “occasionally passing out in the same room for convenience’s sake.”

To say it was awkward was an understatement. Zhou Zekai’s only solace was that Ye Qiu and Su Mucheng treated this sort of intimacy with such an offhand attitude, it was hard to feel embarrassed. It helped that Su Mucheng only seemed to regard Zhou Zekai as a little brother.

Zhou Zekai eventually decided that he was completely okay with that, and they became fast friends. He spent almost as much time with her as he did with Ye Qiu nowadays.

“I’m almost glad the season’s gonna start soon,” she continued. “There’s going to be all this last-minute scrambling, but then our schedules will even out. And Ye Qiu won’t have an excuse to keep us up past three AM stealing wild bosses.”

That did sound kind of ideal. Zhou Zekai thought longingly of a stable sleep schedule; he had begun developing eye bags, and didn’t appreciate it.

The door opened abruptly and in came Ye Qiu, yawning widely. “Oh, you’re here already.”

“You’re late,” Su Mucheng accused.

“Sorry, sorry, I got sidetracked in the hallway… Not my fault they hire such chatty janitors.”

Su Mucheng sighed. Zhou Zekai wished he could sound that exasperated, but at this point, he was numb to Ye Qiu’s quirks. If anyone could have scintillating conversation with a janitor, it would be him.

“Let’s get started, shall we?” Ye Xiu sat in front of one of the two unoccupied computers, pulling out his account card.

Ten minutes later, the three of them were having a three-way battle the likes of which Zhou Zekai hoped the public would never witness.

Ye Qiu and Su Mucheng were viciousness incarnate. Zhou Zekai frequently found himself caught between them, struggling to divide his attention between two downright awful opponents. The stunts they pulled were both mind-numbing and terrifyingly effective.

The worst was when they cooperated. They didn’t even really notice it most of the time, but when they laid off each other to run him down, he was run down.

Like now. “Not fair,” Zhou Zekai complained as soon as the match was over.

“What?” Ye Qiu asked, amused.

“No teams.”

The two glanced at each other. Su Mucheng grinned sheepishly. “Sorry, Little Zhou. We’re not doing it on purpose.”

Zhou Zekai harrumphed. The day they remembered it was not them versus him was the day he wouldn’t be the first to hit zero health, and that was looking more and more unrealistic as time went on.

“We can go again,” Ye Qiu offered. “How about I team up with Little Zhou against you, Mucheng?”

“Hey!”

“It would only be fair, right?”

“Fair would be Little Zhou and me against you,” Su Mucheng grumbled.

Ye Qiu snickered at that. “I can hang back a bit and coach him.”

“You’re doing this to torment me.”

“In the name of self-improvement.”

Whose self-improvement?”

Their banter made Zhou Zekai smile. He hadn’t quite overcome his shyness—he wasn’t sure he ever would—and he was naturally quiet, plain and simple, but with these two, it didn’t matter. They filled in the silence and, when he did speak, never spoke over him. They listened.

So when he said, “Start?” they both paused and looked at him with raised eyebrows.

“Little Zhou, you want to?” Su Mucheng pouted playfully. “That’s mean. I would never have figured you for a bully.”

“This kid couldn’t bully anyone if he tried, could you, Little Zhou? Stop whining and take it like a woman, Mucheng.”

Su Mucheng’s competitive spirit was promptly roused, and she agreed to take it like a woman.

“Little Zhou, go for her left,” Ye Qiu commanded. “Keep her gun trained on you.”

“Mm.”

“Now circle around, I’ll hit her from behind.”

“Mm.”

“Aren’t you so grateful for noise-canceling headphones? Imagine if I had to type all this…”

“You could,” Zhou Zekai pointed out.

“Don’t wanna. Oh, wow, are you trying to kite her or is she trying to kite you?”

Good question. Zhou Zekai was beginning to doubt he knew what he was doing at this point. He could win almost half of his matches against Su Mucheng if she didn’t have the pick of the map, but when she did, beating her was an exercise in frustration. She was much like Ye Qiu in that once she had an advantage, you had to pry it from her cold dead hands. One little slip and she would destroy you.

Zhou Zekai assumed that, since their map this time was Ye Qiu’s pick and almost painfully simple, there wouldn’t be a lot of surprises. But Su Mucheng still had more experience than him, professional experience, and a lot of practice operating under pressure. She didn’t allow Ye Qiu and Zhou Zekai’s joint assault to intimidate her.

Steadily, she pushed back, keeping her distance even as she tried to herd them where she wanted them. Her combos were truly masterful, but then, she had been trained by Ye Qiu.

Zhou Zekai remembered then that he was being trained by Ye Qiu and there was no reason for him not to be as good as Su Mucheng someday. The thought was galvanizing, and all of a sudden, Zhou Zekai put on the speed.

“Well!” Ye Qiu exclaimed. “If you want it that way.”

Ye Qiu happily took the opportunity to thrust his Battle Mage into the frenzy of bullets and missiles, closing the distance Su Mucheng had so carefully maintained. Zhou Zekai didn’t question his instincts for once and coordinated with Ye Qiu’s movements without being told, circling around and forcefully pinning Su Mucheng’s attention on himself.

Eventually Su Mucheng got her second wind and repelled Ye Qiu’s assault, but it was a close thing. And when they did a repeat performance, she succumbed. Her health had been chipping away for a while now and, simply put, her loss was a foregone conclusion.

The three of them removed their headphones and blinked at each other. Zhou Zekai felt as if he had emerged from a dream. His heart was still beating too fast.

Su Mucheng opened her mouth. “You guys…did you practice that?”

“What? That thing at the end?”

“Yeah.”

Ye Qiu gave a negative, while Zhou Zekai shook his head. He was feeling a little shell-shocked for some reason, like something momentous had just occurred and he didn’t know how to deal with it.

But he had no idea what it even was.

“It was really good.” Su Mucheng swallowed, and offered Ye Qiu a tremulous smile. “It reminded me of…”

“Oh,” was all Ye Qiu said.

Now he was looking at Zhou Zekai, thoughtful, the blue-tinted glow of the monitor reflected in his eyes. Su Mucheng was staring at her hands in her lap, brow furrowed like she was struggling to find something to say.

Zhou Zekai was bad at reading the atmosphere, and thus had no idea what was going on here.

Just as he began to sweat, Ye Qiu suddenly said, “Little Zhou, let’s log into the game and run some dungeons together, okay?”

That seemed almost ridiculously basic, but… “Okay,” Zhou Zekai said, subdued.

Ye Qiu smiled at him reassuringly. Then he tossed a covert glance at Su Mucheng, and his smile faded. “You okay, Mucheng?”

She looked up at them, amber eyes blinking as if she’d just returned from some faraway place. “I’m fine.”

“You sure?”

“I’ll just…go get some water. You guys carry on without me. I’m kinda tired.” She smiled at them, then rose from her seat.

Zhou Zekai didn’t say anything as he watched her leave, and even after she was gone, his awkwardness only permitted a vaguely questioning hum.

Ye Qiu hummed back. “I’ll check on her when we’re done here. Don’t worry about it, it’s nothing you did.”

Zhou Zekai wasn’t sure he believed that, but he silently logged into Glory anyway. It probably wasn’t his business.

 

* * *

 

Zhou Zekai’s last few weeks under Ye Qiu’s tutelage were odd, to say the least. They had worked together closely since the first, so much so that their relationship outgrew the constraints of a mentor-pupil bond and blossomed into genuine friendship. But suddenly, they were doing everything together. Running simulations side by side, dungeoning, teaming up against random people Ye Qiu prevailed upon to serve as their victims…

It was an intense and jarring change of pace. With his debut around the corner, though, Zhou Zekai didn’t have the stomach to complain. He was all tied up in knots, and only training reliably kept the anxiety at bay.

He wasn’t the only one, of course. Excellent Era’s defeat in Season 4 had everyone on tenterhooks. In the month preceding the start of the new season, the other team members began trickling back in, filled with nervous anticipation. Zhou Zekai did his best to integrate with them, but he wasn’t the best at following others’ rhythms; Zhou Zekai was the kind of person who danced to his own beat. Though most everybody was understanding toward him, especially the senior members, one of the two other debutants on the team, Liu Hao, seemed to hate his guts.

It put a strain on the team dynamics, that was for sure.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ye Qiu was his saving grace here. Analysts had raved about Su Mucheng’s incredible coordination abilities all through last season, but they didn’t give Ye Qiu enough credit. There was nothing Zhou Zekai could pull that Ye Qiu couldn’t predict, nothing he could do that Ye Qiu couldn’t keep up with. Every passing day, they became more and more familiar with each other, until Zhou Zekai dared believe he knew Ye Qiu’s moves almost as well as Ye Qiu knew his. When they performed a near flawless 2v2, Ye Qiu gave him a clap on the back and smiled so genuinely it almost hurt to look at.

“You and I, we can raise a new dynasty.”

Those words followed Zhou Zekai throughout his remaining days as a trainee. Two weeks before debut, he signed all the contracts and, in return, was handed an account card.

Heaven.

He wasn’t a new character by any means. His original owner had retired in the beginning of Season 4, but up until then, Heaven in his female incarnation had been a constant in team battles. Even though his gender had been changed and most Glory fans only mentioned the name Heaven in passing, Zhou Zekai found him very familiar. Despite One Autumn Leaf dominating the spotlight, it wasn’t easy to ignore the “helpers” surrounding him.

Guo Yang, the second rookie-to-be, also inherited a well known account, Qi Breaker. Zhou Zekai noticed this character the most when he watched Excellent Era’s old team battles. Qi Breaker had been something of a partner to One Autumn Leaf, although the media refused to cover much about his player, and the fans were bewilderingly disparaging. Everyone had welcomed Su Mucheng in Season 4 and grew to love her more and more, so why did they dismiss Wu Xuefeng?

When Zhou Zekai questioned Ye Qiu about it, he only shook his head and replied, “People see what they want to see.”

That, perhaps, would have been worth some reflection on his part, but Zhou Zekai decided to leave the past where it lay and focus on the future. Heaven was a well-rounded Sharpshooter, and after a few adjustments, he fit Zhou Zekai like a glove. Playing with him came naturally: a relief, since he only had two weeks to get used to him before they’d be going on stage together.

And then, quicker than Zhou Zekai had hoped, Season 5 began.

It was rough, especially in the beginning. Zhou Zekai’s hands shook when he rested his fingers against the keys for the first time, the screen searingly bright in front of him. The memory of the cheering crowd as he stepped under the spotlight was the most overwhelming thing he ever experienced, and just as he had fixed his thoughts on making it through the summer when he’d still been a simple trainee, now he could only focus on not disappointing the fans.

By his fifth match, Zhou Zekai’s hands stopped shaking. Of the three individual rounds he fought in, he won two. The team battles, he participated in without fail, which was in itself unusual for a rookie, but even more unusual was that he never left One Autumn Leaf’s side.

Nobody knew what to make of it. Su Mucheng’s Dancing Rain had been replaced so quickly? What was she doing, anyway? She was a support type, but now she was charging forward and leading the others’ assault as One Autumn Leaf and Heaven rampaged. Wasn’t that too powerful of a performance for such a pretty and gentle girl?

This “new” Excellent Era garnered quite some attention. Zhou Zekai garnered quite some attention. It was the last thing he wanted, but by now one of the first things he expected—he had accepted his fate. In the end, he chose to simply be glad that his performance hadn’t sent the team to ruin. Yet.

What he didn’t think to account for, of course, was how everybody seemed to like him so damn much. Interviews made him fumble helplessly and he walked away from every one of them feeling as if he’d achieved new heights of embarrassment, but for some reason, fans found that endearing. Next thing he knew, his gross adolescent face was appearing everywhere on the forums, and the girls couldn’t stop themselves from professing their love.

Zhou Zekai didn’t get it. He had pimples. And he was only doing his job and following in Ye Qiu’s footsteps, so what exactly was there to love? They didn’t even know him!

“Don’t worry about it,” Su Mucheng told him when she caught him facepalming over a particularly insipid thread. “At least they say nicer things about you than the guys do me! I wish I had more fangirls rather than all these gross men. Why don’t you focus on your schoolwork?”

Ah, yes, the schoolwork. Of course it wasn’t enough for his parents to see his professional gaming career finally begin, it wasn’t a real career. He just had to finish high school.

Zhou Zekai’s life was very difficult.

He didn’t regret a single thing about it. At the end of each exhausting day, he reminded himself: Don’t disappoint the fans. Don’t disappoint the team.

And don’t disappoint Ye Qiu.

 

* * *

 

 GLORY’S HOTTEST TOPICS

            ROOKIES GALORE: Choose your fighter!

            Updated team rosters!

            Season 5’s fierce beginning…

            reasons to stan zhou zekai

            Season 5 - Who’s Your Champion?

            Heavenly Domain Wild Boss Tracker

            Best pro player memes voting contest? Anyone???

            Golden Generation RISES AGAIN

            who are the master tacticians

            Join the Yu Wenzhou Protection Squad today!!

 

 

 

            Golden Generation RISES AGAIN

 

[ Micro - September 30 2019 - #45 ]

In conclusion, Season 4’s rookies far outshine Season 5’s. Zhou Zekai who? Fang Rui what? Wu Yuce and Song Xiao look pretty cool but come on, who’s going to top fuckin Huang Shaotian.

 

[ Grave Catharsis - September 30 2019 - #46 ]

your obvious disregard for yu wenzhou irks me. don’t think i don’t know your type. if you’re going to appreciate one then you better appreciate the other. they’re a package deal.

 

[ Small Whisper - September 30 2019 - #47 ]

Let’s not get too excited or the mods are gonna show up again. I think both generations are pretty good!

 

[ Conduit - September 30 2019 - #48 ]

@Small Whisper get outta here with your middle ground kissing ass, nobody is here to discuss their neutral opinions on the topic

 

[ Merciful Wind - September 30 2019 - #49 ]

but you have to admit the golden generation is beyond impressive. since we’ve been talking about master tacticians, of the 4 people who would make up this group, 3 of them are from the golden generation. they’re on the same level as ye fucking qiu, do you know what that means??? it means pretty boy zekai isn’t up to snuff, no matter whose partner he supposedly is

 

[ Trembling Leaf - September 30 2019 - #50 ]

Now that was just needlessly aggressive. Zhou Zekai is probably good enough to make best rookie by the end of the season, mark my words. Some people would claim I’m overconfident but I’m good at predicting shit like this, I got a track record.

Zhou Zekai being anyone’s partner is just talk, he’s been sticking to Ye Qiu in team battles but that could just be tactics. Su Mucheng’s performance is what we should be focusing on here. I don’t agree with Merciful Wind’s implication that the Golden Generation are as brilliant as Ye Qiu but someone who was trained by Ye Qiu obviously wouldn’t be average. Su Mucheng has been performing outstandingly and she’s not even shadowing Ye Qiu anymore, she’s playing solo now (I mean not solo because it’s a team battle but you know what I mean). You all keep talking about the master tactician stuff like it’s going to go anywhere, the media just made that up for kicks. In a game like this what matters are results not how you get them.

 

[ Star Falls  - September 30 2019 - #51 ]

mostly agree with trembling leaf except for the last part. honestly we should just use this thread to praise the new achievements of the gg, not bash this season’s rookies. i’m pretty sure they’re literally all teenagers & it’s super inconsiderate of y’all to be out here talking shit about them when we’re barely a month into the season. they may surprise you yet & even if they don’t turn out to be as spectacular as the gg, well big whoop.

 

 

 

Hundred Blossoms Official V

February 26 2020 08:32

 

In the interest of clearing up the rumors that have swept the media lately, we would like to make an official announcement. Sun Zheping’s mentioned injury was more serious than expected and so he must take an extended leave of absence. We are sorry to break this to everyone so suddenly and we know our team’s fans will certainly be distressed to hear it. Unfortunately there is no easy solution to this problem, but we hope everyone will understand the need for recovery before Sun Zheping can return.

 

bookmark       128971 shares             10831 comments        70122 likes

 

Little Mean: oh no… everyone, let’s support hundred blossoms as well as we can! wishing sun zheping the best!

            ProHerbivore: well wishes are nice and all but not gonna solve the problem. truth is the club was negligent & let this happen. szp deserves better & i hope they pay him back justly, but knowing the alliance’s half-assed policies they’ll get away w claiming it had nothing to do with them & was all szp’s fault

 

Collateral: What about Zhang Jiale???

            Livid in Light: he’s just going to have to manage on his own…there’s still the rest of the team ofc…but yeah i am kinda worried…

            Marked: I’m so pissed! And sad!! For Zhang Jiale!!! My poor son :(

 

Honestly: This has been coming up with such frequency that I went ahead and made a petition, sign here and hopefully we can convince the Alliance to change its policies regarding the pro players’ health and safety. If we all work together this can definitely happen.

 

 

 

            EXCELLENT ERA’S NEW DYNASTY

 

[ Lionguard - June 9 2020 - #1 ]

ok so i have this theory:

ee is coming for the entire alliance because of their defeat last season

proof 1: they made it to the playoffs with like. no trouble. single-minded ferocity. true that the team isn’t as flawlessly coordinated as in seasons 1-3 but who cares about that when we got the EXCELLENT TRIO

proof 2: the excellent trio. this name legit makes me laugh but it stuck man it really stuck. yq + smc + zzk = danger. this is their world now and we’re just living in it

proof 3: they just………did THAT to hb. zjl out here fightin like a demon to get that championship for his bro and ee just took him out. i am so sorry but i am also so hyped

proof 4: up against th who is high off the victory over tyranny and ee just crushes them too. won both matches straight. they gave no quarter they did not discriminate. they are bad folks they are BAD

i realize i probably sound like a dipshit ee fanboy and honestly i kinda am but like i am too hyped comrades, ee is on the warpath and they are not going to stop at s5, they are going to bag a few more championships before yq retires MARK MY WORDS

 

[ Underworlder - June 9 2020 - #2 ]

you are so valid

 

[ Olive Cloud - June 9 2020 - #3 ]

WEEE ARE THE CHAMPIONSSSS

 

[ Meddler - June 9 2020 - #4 ]

This is their 4th championship in the 5 years the alliance has been around CAN THEY PLS GIVE SOMEONE BESIDES TYRANNY A CHANCE

 

[ Kingpin - June 9 2020 - #5 ]

No.

Chapter Text

The celebrations were as boisterous as anyone could have wished for, and oh, how the Excellent Era fans eagerly planned what they would do on this night. The area surrounding the stadium was overcome with noise and good cheer. Victory was catching, and even people who had nothing to do with Glory occasionally joined in. The liveliness didn’t die down for days.

Back at their building, the club had their own celebration, and Ye Xiu bemusedly participated for the first two hours before wandering off on his own for some peace and quiet.

He had tucked himself away in an empty training room and lit up a cigarette when Zhou Zekai came knocking.

“What are you doing here?” Ye Xiu asked, surprised. “Tired of all the attention?”

Zhou Zekai appeared a bit discomfited, which Ye Xiu took to mean he’d been right on the money. He chuckled.

“Sit down, then, superstar,” he said humorously. “I suppose I can entertain you.”

Zhou Zekai obediently sat at the computer next to him. Ye Xiu hadn’t turned his on, and had just been staring fixedly at a blank monitor, lost in thought before company arrived. But Zhou Zekai didn’t question this at all and simply followed Ye Xiu’s lead, leaving his computer off.

Ye Xiu smiled at him, an almost automatic reaction at this point. Zhou Zekai had grown on him quite thoroughly in the past year, and Ye Xiu couldn’t feel anything but grateful for his unfailing dedication, proud of his strength for enduring until the very end. Few rookies in the Alliance’s short history were given as much responsibility and weighed down with as much expectation as Zhou Zekai, but he had borne it all admirably.

It was only that, winning a championship with such a talented young Sharpshooter beside him—well, Ye Xiu was a bit regretful, that was all. He was ashamed that he could regret anything about Zhou Zekai, but it really wasn’t about him at all. He only wished that he could have had the chance to be like this with Su Muqiu.

He allowed himself to imagine it. How wonderful it would be, if Zhou Zekai could have learned from his best friend, been guided by him, and eventually succeeded him. Not so soon, probably, but in another year or two. Maybe Ye Xiu would have a successor of his own lined up in this little fantasy, and that person and Zhou Zekai would have been everything Ye Xiu and Su Muqiu were supposed to be.

As much as he was thankful for Zhou Zekai, for everything he had done, Ye Xiu wished…

Ah, it was pointless. Wishing for what could never be, for something that almost nobody would ever think to miss—foolish. Silly. Sentimental.

Some dreams died for others to live on.

“I don’t remember if I mentioned it to you before, what with all the liveliness recently. But I’m very happy with your performance, Little Zhou. I was right to rely on you. I’m glad.”

Zhou Zekai ducked his head, pink staining his cheeks. “Senior, I’m…the gladdest.”

“Oh? What are you glad about? That we won after all the hard work you put in? That you finally get to have a couple of months off after grinding away all this time?”

“For you. I’m glad.”

Ye Xiu blinked. Zhou Zekai was…glad for him? Why did that sound so strange?

“Senior…deserved to win.”

Immediately, he softened. “Little Zhou, so did you. So did all of us. We made it through this season despite all the challenges we faced, despite the discord in the team. We made it. I didn’t do it all on my own, so I’m not the only deserving one here.”

Ye Xiu rested a hand on Zhou Zekai’s shoulder. “But tell me, other than glad, are you happy, too?”

Zhou Zekai didn’t hesitate to nod, glancing up to meet Ye Xiu’s eyes. “Very happy.”

“Well, you should be. I wasn’t kidding about your performance. Not just in this last battle, but all throughout the playoffs. You really brought your A-game.”

No, Ye Xiu wasn’t kidding at all. Zhou Zekai had been incredible. It wasn’t just his individual performance, though that was more than worthy of praise; it was about his teamwork. The way he had coordinated with Ye Xiu and Su Mucheng—in the end, that was what allowed them victory.

It became a common tactic of theirs, to have Su Mucheng look after the rest of the team while Zhou Zekai and him ran off on their own during team battles. Eventually, when their two factions would meet, Su Mucheng would split her attention between both, her wide range allowing her to take the measure of the field. She would support the team as a whole and connect their two halves. More often than not, however, she’d favor Ye Xiu and Zhou Zekai, which was why their performances in particular stood out to the audience, earning them the title Excellent Trio.

In the finals, or more precisely, the final match, they switched things up a bit. Dancing Rain followed in One Autumn Leaf’s and Heaven’s footsteps, leaving their fourth team member to look after the Cleric and trail a ways behind them.

Their plan of attack was straightforward—so much so that Wang Jiexi apparently hadn’t suspected it in the slightest. Ye Xiu had used quite some underhanded tactics to win the first match, so it was reasonable to expect more of the same. Ye Xiu was just a generally underhanded guy, after all, and everyone knew he lived up to his reputation as a black-hearted tactician without reservation.

The Excellent Trio charged forth and hit the enemy directly, almost as soon as they were found. No ambushes, no sneakiness, no artifice at all. Their skills were powerful and diverse enough to keep an entire team occupied, much less a duo, which was what they first encountered. Wiping them out had been easy once the rest of their teammates turned up, and then it was just a matter of coming at the survivors as quickly and ferociously as possible.

Brute strength and speed of action. Give the other side little time to react and knock them out while they were still thinking things through. It was such a basic and direct way of fighting, Ye Xiu really hoped Han Wenqing was proud of him.

But of course, calling it basic was a little misleading. Smooth coordination on Excellent Era’s part had been absolutely necessary; they couldn’t have handled Tiny Herb so succinctly otherwise. Such a bold approach always demanded a lot from the people involved.

Naturally, Ye Xiu had had backup plans. He could have been sneaky if that was called for. But their search-and-destroy mission yielded astounding results, what with Zhou Zekai and Su Mucheng backing up his every move, never hesitating and never misreading him. His black-hearted tactics never even made an appearance.

As amazing as the last match had been, though, Ye Xiu couldn’t ignore that the team as a whole had made it possible. They arrived at playoffs together. They arrived at the finals together.

He doubted that they would have made it so far without Zhou Zekai. With solely the additions of Liu Hao and Guo Yang this season, the team probably would have remained much the same in terms of performance, and then they would have ended up in the same situation as Season 4. But Zhou Zekai had been the one to charge in and put all his strength behind Ye Xiu, holding nothing back.

His attitude, whether he realized it or not, inspired the rest of the team to try and do the same. Of course some of them wouldn’t be so willing to fade into the background and let Ye Xiu play his part as captain. But they were at least happy to cooperate if they were given a fair shot at the stage.

Catering to other people’s whims wasn’t Ye Xiu’s style. Nonetheless, Zhou Zekai’s presence had been revelatory: If he wasn’t willing to give the team the chances they asked for, but only the chances he thought they deserved, then they would come to distrust him.

Zhou Zekai had never asked for anything, but Ye Xiu had still given him the chance he so longed for. He had not come to regret that decision. He didn’t regret affording the overeager members of the team some faith, either.

And so, despite all the small, annoying disagreements and clashing personalities that had haunted their journey in Season 5, Excellent Era still came out on top.

Zhou Zekai hummed, pulling Ye Xiu from his thoughts.

“Senior’s performance was…the best,” he said, blushing in full force.

Ye Xiu chuckled at him, but seeing how sincere Zhou Zekai was, he couldn’t continue. Instead, a strange seriousness came over him as studied this youth, this prodigy who had entered his life so unobtrusively but became such a central part of it. Ye Xiu could never have what he wished for, but he still had more than he ever thought to expect.

Somehow, he wanted to make Zhou Zekai understand his feelings… Because, if he couldn’t be Su Muqiu’s successor, then in a way, he must be Ye Xiu’s. He must outlast him in this profession, in this team.

“Little Zhou, I never talk about myself very much. There’s nothing really worth knowing. But there is something—someone—I want to tell you about.”

Zhou Zekai tilted his head a fraction, clearly paying attention. The room was quiet, not even the faint echoes of the celebration reaching them through the soundproofed walls. A bubble of peace just for them.

“His name was Su Muqiu. He was Su Mucheng’s older brother, and my best friend,” Ye Xiu said gravely. “When Glory came out, he was the most excited to play between the two of us. I think I wouldn’t have fallen in love with the game as thoroughly as I have if it weren’t for him. Those first few years before the Alliance formed, we did everything together. This game was almost our entire world.

“Su Muqiu’s favorite class was the Sharpshooter, though he was talented with all the Gunner types. He’s the original owner of Dancing Rain, in fact. Besides just being a talented player, he was also very inventive. He loved messing with the equipment editor, which is how he ended up making Evil Annihilation.”

Zhou Zekai’s eyes widened.

“Yeah,” Ye Xiu said laughingly, “One Autumn Leaf’s mighty weapon is the result of some kid playing around with a tool nobody had quite figured out yet. He was brilliant. And we had so many plans—so many dreams. Some of them died along our journey. Most of the rest died with him.”

“He…”

“He passed away. It was a traffic accident. The date of Season 1’s first match had already been set. He was on Excellent Era’s roster and everything. But it was all over just like that.”

“Sorry…” Zhou Zekai closed his eyes and shook his head. “It’s—not fair.”

“No, it’s not,” Ye Xiu agreed, “but life never is. You might be wondering why I’m telling you all this.”

Zhou Zekai nodded hesitantly.

“Su Muqiu left a lot of things behind. Silver weapons and equipment, account cards, memories of warmth and friendship. But the most important thing he left behind is the dream we shared. Because it’s mine as well as his, it’s maybe the most precious thing I have left of him. All of this time, I’ve been fighting not only for myself, but for him. For his memory.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m not here because of Su Muqiu. I’m here because I choose to be. But without him, I’m not sure I would have found my way to this place at all. Sometimes people come into your life and change everything. They set you on a course you never knew you would end up on. And it only becomes obvious how important they are when you look back and see all the choices that led to the present.”

Zhou Zekai was staring at him intently now, his brow furrowed. He seemed to be thinking deeply about what Ye Xiu was saying.

“I don’t know how important I’m going to be to you years down the road,” Ye Xiu continued, “but even so, I hope you remember how it felt to win, how it felt to succeed, to realize your dream with your teammates beside you. I want you to cherish this feeling, and never take it for granted. The moment you think glory is your due is the moment you’ve forsaken it. You are Excellent Era’s future, Zhou Zekai. You can’t forget what glory means.”

Perhaps it was too much for a teenager to comprehend. Perhaps it was unrealistic of Ye Xiu to pass on his fragile hope to someone so young and naive to the ways of the world. Zhou Zekai could decide at any moment that his future didn’t lie with Excellent Era after all. He could change his mind, or he could simply change. There was never any way to tell.

But that was the very nature of hope: uncertainty. If Ye Xiu knew how the future would play out, what choices Zhou Zekai would make, then there would be no need to hope at all. But he didn’t know, and he would never dare force anything on a child, no matter how reliable he was.

“And even when we go our separate ways,” Ye Xiu added quietly, and now he was the one looking down, “no matter how the road splits between us, no matter the distance that keeps us apart, I’d still like it if you remembered.”

“Senior,” Zhou Zekai began, a rare urgency in his voice, but then he didn’t appear to know how to go on.

Ye Xiu laughed, trying to dispel the solemnity of the last few minutes. “I’ve talked way too much. I always talk too much around you. Must be that I’m trying to make up for how quiet you are.”

“Senior,” Zhou Zekai said again, firmer than ever before, “I won’t forget.”

Ye Xiu smiled at him. “You won’t, huh? You won’t forget this glory, you won’t forget your dream?”

“Never,” Zhou Zekai promised.

In a gesture that had become familiar, Ye Xiu reached out and squeezed his shoulder. “I know.”

This, at least, was certain.

 

* * *

 

It was not long after that night that Ye Xiu was called to a meeting with Tao Xuan.

He was happy these days, lighthearted in a way he hadn’t been in some time. He could pretend, if he wished, that nothing bothered him, that he wasn’t worried or stressed or genuinely exhausted; and he often did, for the sake of the team, for his friends. But without his realizing it, it had ceased being an act. Simply put, Ye Xiu was in a good mood, and he met Tao Xuan with good cheer.

“What’s up?” he asked, sitting down before the desk.

Tao Xuan folded his hands beneath his chin and leaned forward on his elbows, studying Ye Xiu with no attempt at subtlety. Ye Xiu bore with it patiently, though he could admit he was a little bit confused as to what Tao Xuan wanted, with such a serious look on his face, and nothing that he was aware of to warrant it.

“Ye Qiu,” he began, “we’ve received a lot of new sponsorship offers since winning the championship. I’ve let them pile up for the past week or so, but it’s time we give these people answers. Some of them have made inquiries specifically about you.”

“What about me?” Ye Xiu asked, like he didn’t know where this was going.

“I’m sure you get my meaning. They want you to participate in the advertisements. They want you to be involved.”

Ye Xiu smiled. “I haven’t been personally involved with any advertisements all this time, why do they think that’ll change now?”

Tao Xuan sighed, his exasperation obvious. “You can always change your mind. Ye Qiu, please consider this carefully. A team needs backing! The club needs funds! Do you think moving to this building was easy?”

“That was something you decided,” Ye Xiu said simply, “it doesn’t have much to do with me.”

“Are you or are you not a part of this team?” Tao Xuan demanded angrily.

Ye Xiu raised his hands. “Of course I am. But the business side of things, that’s your responsibility. I told you at the start that all I cared about was the stage, the championship. Don’t say you don’t remember.”

“I remember perfectly, I just thought that you would have decided to be more reasonable by now.”

“My being reasonable has nothing to do with it,” Ye Xiu told him, crossing his arms loosely over his chest as he leaned back in the chair. “That’s just how things have worked for us. I don’t see why that should change.”

Tao Xuan shook his head, frustrated. “Ye Qiu, it’s obvious why that should—no, has to change! The Alliance is advancing, expanding… This isn’t just about winning anymore. It’s a money-making opportunity. Some investors are treating it like a potential goldmine! They’re all but begging to throw their money at us, and face it, we’re going to need money more and more as time goes on. There’s no way to keep up anymore without it. Or do you think the guild and the researchers can keep working without any funds? Without salaries? How is any of this supposed to work if we ignore the business side of things, as you call it?”

“I’m not asking you to ignore it, I’m just saying it’s not my problem.”

They were both silent for several moments. Tao Xuan stared at him, scowl in place, appearing aggravated and even a bit anxious. But Ye Xiu was calm as could be, at least on the surface—especially on the surface. Beneath that, he was a little stressed by the turn the conversation had taken, but it wasn’t anything he hadn’t expected. Tao Xuan was becoming more and more business-oriented every season, and Ye Xiu couldn’t blame him. A club like theirs did need a lot of funding to operate. Tao Xuan was just looking after Excellent Era in his own way.

Unfortunately, Ye Xiu couldn’t help him here. Sponsorships and advertisements and all that crap, he had noped out of it as soon as it came up. Retaining his anonymity had been his most important condition upon joining Excellent Era. He could sell the account cards happily, he could dedicate his free time during summer breaks to helping the guild gather materials and hunt wild bosses, he could coach the rookies and come up with training programs—but he couldn’t show his face in public. That was that. Ye Xiu was not going to back down from his decision for any amount of money.

“Is that your final answer, then?” Tao Xuan asked quietly. “It’s not your problem?”

Ye Xiu shrugged, uncomfortable but unwilling to show it. “It’s definitely not a problem I can help with. There are ten other people on this team, why don’t you ask them? Mucheng is always happy to help. Little Zhou would probably be fine with it, too. The others would certainly appreciate the publicity. You have no shortage of willing victims, bro, why pester me?”

Tao Xuan just shook his head again and got up. He walked to the window behind his chair and stood there, staring outside like he couldn’t even bear the sight of Ye Xiu anymore.

“I see. Just go, then. Thanks for your time.”

Ye Xiu chose to overlook how forced his politeness was and readily got to his feet. Just as he reached the door, though, Tao Xuan spoke up.

“But don’t think this is over, Ye Qiu.”

…He would overlook that, too.

 

* * *

 

            I TOLD YOU ALL

 

[ Lionguard - June 16 2021 - #1 ]

I TOLD YOU I TOLD YOU EE WOULD WIN AGAIN

THIS IS A NEW DYNASTY IN THE MAKING COMRADES

ONE MORE AND WE’LL SHUT UP ALL THE NAYSAYERS

 

[ Cookie Dough - June 16 2021 - #2 ]

2 CHAMPIONSHIPS IN A ROW. MAY THE GOD OF GLORY BLESS ZHOU ZEKAI

 

[ Lionguard - June 16 2021 - #3 ]

HE ALREADY HAS THE GOD OF GLORY’S IS ZZK’S GODDAMN TEACHER

 

 

 

Excellent Era Official V

August 5 2021 10:47

 

[OFFICIAL ANNOUNCEMENT] A press conference is to be held on July 10 to address the following topics:

- New department management

- Expansion of the R&D Department

- Expansion of Excellent Dynasty

We will also be introducing our new team manager Cui Li!

*The press conference will be streamed officially—click here for more information.

 

bookmark       93924 shares               3081 comments          32164 likes

 

Malevolent Spirit: are they gonna address everyone who retired/transferred and who’s gonna come in to replace them…

            Sea Sky: they already announced the new guy He Ming

            Ghost in the Bell: That’s just a rumor. It hasn’t been confirmed if He Ming will join the roster. I’ve heard something about Chen Yehui instead.

            Jivingdoge: who the hell is chen yehui?????

 

Wicked&Divine: Oh my god the guild is expanding?? Like more sub-guilds in HD???

            Paradise Found: hide yo kids, hide yo wife (but also #letyeqiurest2k21).

 

Captive in Chains: Really looking forward to this press conference. Wanna know the plan for next season tho. Felt like EE only barely beat Blue Rain this time. Championship almost got stolen.

            GatorCage: it wasn’t nearly that close

            Captive in Chains: Keep telling yourself that.

 

Invincible: when will you kick out liu hao tho? i don’t like his face

 

 

 

GLORY’S HOTTEST TOPICS

            Heavenly Domain Wild Boss Tracker

            Pro Player Salary Comparisons

            Zhou Zekai getting dangerously hot…

            Excellent Era Predictions - Season 7

            Stand up for Blue Rain!

            Best Pro Player Memes Voting Contest Announcement

            The Master Tacticians: an analysis

            players on the move: winter transfers tracker

            just how much is Ye Qiu even paid??

            New Excellent Dynasty Guild Leader

 

 

 

            yo what was that

 

[ Lionguard - June 10 2022 - #1 ]

You guys…………our dynasty………………it’s gone

:(((((

 

[ Ghost in the Bell - June 10 2022 - #2 ]

Don’t fret, Lion, they had to lose eventually. Excellent Era has been off all season and Blue Rain is a strong opponent. Cheer up and look forward to the next!

 

[ Making Mystery - June 10 2022 - #3 ]

yea lion, look on the bright side! the alliance finally opened their eyes and nominated excellent trio for best partners. our ot3 has been recognized!! really thought they were gonna stick with the 2 partners thing till we all got offed by climate change

 

[ Queen Lightning - June 10 2022 - #4 ]

@Ghost in the Bell honestly I blame the rest of the team for this. Can’t say much for He Ming bc he’s new but nobody ever follows Captain Ye’s orders in the chat properly. It’s like they forget how to read when they go on stage and afterward they forget the whole thing. The captain’s giving them too many chances, at this point he’d be better off only relying on the power of the Trio.

Everyone says I’m imagining things but I think this team or the club or both are just shitting all over Captain Ye. First the salary thing leaked and now this. They lost Season 7 and their chance at rebuilding the dynasty. I’m pissed.

 

[ Fey Creation - June 10 2022 - #5 ]

i get you queen but…even the excellent trio can’t fight alone………

Chapter Text

Zhou Zekai flipped through the packet of papers, dismayed. He couldn’t believe so many contracts related to him even existed.

“Little Zhou, what’s wrong?”

He looked up at Su Mucheng’s voice, doing his best to smooth out his expression. But he still held out the packet in his hands for her inspection.

Su Mucheng squinted at him, then at the papers. She took the packet and only got in one good glance before making a sound of disgust and hastily handing them back.

“Sponsorship stuff, huh?” she said with mixed sympathy and irritation. “Yeah, I get it. They just told me they dropped off my own stack to look through. I was trying to forget about it.”

That didn’t seem like something Su Mucheng would do, paragon of responsibility that she was. But Zhou Zekai was usually pretty responsible, too, yet wished nothing more than to take this nonsense and chuck it in the trash.

Really, he was glad that the club couldn’t just force him to take sponsorships. But did he really have to read all of this himself? Couldn’t they have summarized the contracts for him? Left some sticky notes, highlighted the very important terms? Even after all this time, he wasn’t very well-versed in the legalities sponsorships involved.

“Help me?” he asked, a bit pathetically.

Su Mucheng grinned at him and hooked her arm around his. “Sure, Little Zhou. We can do ours together. Maybe we can rope our dear old captain into helping us, too.”

Zhou Zekai winced at that. He really hated taking up Ye Qiu’s time, especially since he’d taken an interest in that boy from the training camp. But it was true that Ye Qiu was unerringly good at comprehending legal documents.

Some people really were just born competent.

“I wish they wouldn’t make this so much more difficult than it has to be,” Su Mucheng complained as they walked down the hallway toward their dorms. “I’m not sure I trust the lawyers to point out every little thing that might be disadvantageous to us personally, as long as it’s advantageous to the club. But at the same time, forcing us to read through this ourselves…it’s like they’re waiting to laugh at us as soon as we mess up. Or torturing us. That could be it!”

Zhou Zekai didn’t think the club would torture them. Probably.

He didn’t indicate any agreement, but he was certainly disappointed. Management had let him down many times in the past year or so, and he was beginning to suspect they were doing it on purpose.

“Ah, don’t worry about it, Little Zhou,” Su Mucheng said when she caught sight of his moody expression. “I didn’t mean that literally. They were probably just in a rush to hand these off. We can go to the legal department if we really need to. They’re paid to handle this sort of thing, you know.”

He nodded; of course the legal department was obligated to help them if they asked for it. However, in this strange game they seemed to be playing, he didn’t know if that would be forfeiting the match. Or stepping into a trap. Neither option sounded attractive.

“And we could totally sue them if they gave us unsound legal advice with malicious or self-serving intent. I’m sure we could swing that,” Su Mucheng continued.

Zhou Zekai couldn’t help a somewhat alarmed glance. When the conversation turned to suing, it was as sure a sign as any that Su Mucheng was way more bothered than she let on. They had definitely ruffled her feathers this time—how, he didn’t know. There was likely something she wasn’t telling him.

Su Mucheng led the way directly to Ye Qiu’s door and knocked. “Here, you go in first, I’ll go get my papers.”

She had just disappeared into her own dorm when Ye Qiu answered the door. He opened it up wide when he saw Zhou Zekai standing there, smiling in welcome.

“What’s up, Little Zhou?”

Zhou Zekai ducked his head in slight embarrassment and brandished the contracts at him helplessly.

Ye Qiu took them, the smile still on his face. He raised his eyebrows as he flipped through the packet. “Wow, this is a lot. You’re only getting more and more popular, huh, Little Zhou?”

Zhou Zekai was even more embarrassed, if that was possible.

Ye Qiu laughed at him openly. “It can’t be helped, I guess! Ah, I don’t envy you…come in, come in, we can talk about this if you like.”

Almost the second Zhou Zekai took a seat on Ye Qiu’s bed, Su Mucheng came in through the bathroom door. She and Ye Qiu lived side by side and shared one. All the dorm rooms were paired off in such a way; Zhou Zekai shared his with He Ming, who had taken his predecessor’s room upon retirement. Zhou Zekai liked him a lot less than when he initially joined, but all in all, it could have been worse. He could have been paired with Liu Hao.

Now that would be a nightmare.

Su Mucheng help up her contracts like a wrestling champion showing off to a rabid audience. Paired with her blasé expression, it was quite comical.

“Wow, you too?” Ye Qiu asked, mouth twitching as he fought to maintain his smile.

“I told Zhou Zekai I would help,” Su Mucheng explained, “and then I told him you would help!”

“Thanks,” Ye Qiu said dryly. “I’m always glad to be asked for my opinion.”

“No problem, bro.”

Zhou Zekai hunched his shoulders. “Sorry…”

Ye Qiu softened almost instantly and patted Zhou Zekai’s shoulder. “It’s no bother, Little Zhou. I’m happy to help you.”

“Are you trying to tell me something?” Su Mucheng asked with a raised eyebrow, sitting in Ye Qiu’s desk chair.

Ye Qiu glanced at her, then took a seat beside Zhou Zekai. “I wonder. Well, since we’re all here anyway, what do you guys need me to do?”

“We can split all of our stuff into three parts and take a look individually?” Su Mucheng suggested. “And mark whatever seems dubious. We can discuss those bits together when we’re finished sorting.”

“I’m amazed; you had a plan all along.”

Su Mucheng stuck out her tongue at him, clearly not offended. “Here, take it.”

Ye Qiu stacked Zhou Zekai’s pile on top of Su Mucheng’s, then divided the combined nightmare into thirds. He handed off piles to the two of them and kept one for himself. “Let’s start, then.”

Over the next hour or so, they read through each and every contract. Su Mucheng grabbed some highlighters and pens from Ye Qiu’s desk and doled them out like she was granting weapons of the highest caliber. Zhou Zekai certainly felt pretty fierce as he marked each contract, paying special attention to all the dubiously worded parts. The most objectionable conditions, he struck with red pen outright, resulting in a swell of satisfaction. It was a vindicating experience. Practically therapeutic.

Ye Qiu finished his stack first, and spent the time it took for Su Mucheng and Zhou Zekai to complete their work double-checking what they’d already done. He silently jotted down notes here and there, expression somehow serious and relaxed all at once. This was obviously no big deal for him.

Zhou Zekai looked up when he heard a clattering sound. Su Mucheng was reaching out to grab a pen she’d dropped which had rolled away from her, but then she suddenly froze.

“Hey…what is this?”

Ye Qiu glanced up at this as well. He tilted his head in Su Mucheng’s direction. “What’s what?”

Su Mucheng picked up some papers that had been left on a corner of Ye Qiu’s desk. It was a very spacious desk, and pretty messy, papers and notebooks lying everywhere. Only the keyboard and mouse were free of crowding; Ye Qiu certainly had clear priorities.

When Ye Qiu didn’t say anything, Su Mucheng pushed aside some notebooks and uncovered even more papers, adding them to a ragged but already impressive-looking pile on her lap.

When she couldn’t find any more, she spun the chair and waved them blatantly at Ye Qiu. “This! How many have you been hiding?!”

“I wasn’t hiding them…”

“Well, why didn’t you ever mention anything about it?”

“What?” Zhou Zekai demanded, confused.

Su Mucheng tore her glare from Ye Qiu and frowned at Zhou Zekai. “He’s been getting sponsorship offers, too.”

Now Zhou Zekai frowned.

“Some of those are really old,” Ye Qiu told them, like that was in any way reassuring. “I just ignore them.”

“Bro…” Su Mucheng trailed off, clearly speechless.

“Why are you surprised? You know I don’t take these deals. That doesn’t mean sponsors will give up on me so easily. Hope springs eternal and all that.”

Su Mucheng sighed. “Just how pissed at you is management?”

“Pretty pissed, but no more than usual.” Ye Qiu shrugged. “It’s their default state when it comes to me.”

“God, you idiot. I wish you had said something.”

“Yeah…” Zhou Zekai agreed, suddenly realizing that he definitely had a stake in this conversation. He was Ye Qiu’s friend, he liked to think, and he had definitely noticed how much worse management treated him starting from Season 7. At least in Seasons 5 and 6, they were more subtle about it. But some line had been crossed in the last year—maybe this was it.

Maybe they just couldn’t ignore Ye Qiu’s blatant disregard anymore. Maybe they decided to strike back after what they viewed as some sort of attack. After all, as far as the club was concerned, anything that kept them from generating profit was an attack.

“Would it have made a difference?” Ye Qiu asked, like he was really curious about their thoughts on the matter.

“Yes!” Su Mucheng cried. “All this time, I thought they were satisfied with milking me and Little Zhou for all we’re worth. I felt bad for Little Zhou, but personally, I was willing to accept it so long as they left you alone. That’s why I’ve been putting up with—with all this. Because I thought this much was good enough for them.”

A strange silence befell them. Zhou Zekai gloomily stared down at the contracts he had yet to go through.

In all honesty…he felt much the same way Su Mucheng did. He knew he was picking up the slack left by Ye Qiu, if it could be called that. He never minded it, either, because as annoying as it could be, it wasn’t like sponsorship offers were an insult or an imposition. He viewed all that as just another aspect of the job. An annoying aspect, perhaps, but not inherently terrible. His parents were sure impressed with the money, at any rate, and if they were happy with his earnings, then they were less likely to question his life choices at every turn.

Sponsorships didn’t mean to him what they meant to Ye Qiu. From what he understood, Ye Qiu had signed on with Excellent Era only after making it clear that he wanted to remain anonymous. From his perspective, these offers really were an imposition. It wasn’t fair of the club to put so much pressure on him, but they still took it badly when Ye Qiu turned down every offer.

…Just how many had Ye Qiu refused over the years? How many “opportunities” had he let pass? Had the club been building up resentment for Ye Qiu all this time?

It would explain a lot. Zhou Zekai had assumed they were holding a grudge against him for being so generally unwieldy; it was no secret that Ye Qiu really didn’t care about anything beyond the team’s performance, beyond victory. His philosophy was bound to clash with the club’s business goals at some point. But to know that there had been more than just a cold war brewing between Ye Qiu and them, that there was an active conflict…

Zhou Zekai didn’t know what to do. He didn’t know if there was anything to be done. He had always assumed Ye Qiu knew what he was doing, and he didn’t really doubt it now. The consequences of Ye Qiu’s choices, though, could be disastrous. And not just for him.

What if the club really tried to kick him out? Everything they had been doing up until now, every slight, every snub, every insult—Zhou Zekai had to look at it in a different light. Perhaps it wasn’t just pure malice or disregard. Perhaps they had been trying to drive Ye Qiu out for a long time now.

Ye Qiu caused some damage. Now they were retaliating.

Zhou Zekai’s head swam. He glanced between Ye Qiu and Su Mucheng, brow furrowed, hands wringing absently.

“It’s not enough for them, though,” Ye Qiu admitted quietly. “I don’t think it ever will be. The club…may have outgrown me. I might not be the person they think they need anymore. They don’t want me here.”

What that implied—it was a frightening echo of Zhou Zekai’s own thoughts. He leaned against Ye Qiu instinctively, seeking to comfort and be comforted.

Ye Qiu turned a surprised look on him when he felt their shoulders brush. “Little Zhou, I’m sorry. This really has nothing to do with you, or even Mucheng, and yet…” He sighed. “It seems you two are caught in the crossfire. This has all become some weird tug-of-war, not just a battle of wills. I didn’t want you to be involved, but you’re important to me, and you’re important to them. Not the best position to be in.”

“It’s not your fault,” Su Mucheng said, visibly subdued. The contracts hung limply in her grasp. “This is just…complicated. But at least we know now. The question is, what are we going to do about it?”

“There’s nothing to do about it,” Ye Qiu said with a tone of finality. “Let’s just finish up here and keep going. We have the whole summer ahead of us, and a new season to look forward to. Don’t worry about me, worry about yourselves.”

Zhou Zekai met Su Mucheng’s eyes across the distance that separated them. There was no need for words.

They quietly went back to work, and within another hour, Su Mucheng’s and Zhou Zekai’s contracts had all been dealt with. Ye Qiu’s contracts were stashed away in one of his desk drawers, out of sight but definitely not out of mind.

Later, when it was nearing their usual bedtime, Zhou Zekai quietly approached Su Mucheng’s door. She ushered him in as soon as he knocked.

“I keep thinking that there has to be something we can do, but nothing really comes to mind.” Su Mucheng admitted her frustration. “I feel like such an idiot! I should have known there was a better reason than his normal stubbornness for them to treat him this way.”

“If you knew?”

Su Mucheng paused, then let out a gusty sigh. “You’re right. It’s just like he said… Maybe it wouldn’t have made any difference.” She brushed loose strands of hair back from her face. “Do you really think them handing out these contracts to us is some kind of retaliation? It seems almost too petty. I know I was the one to suggest it in the first place, but I was actually joking.”

Zhou Zekai shrugged. It did make some sense. Yes, it was almost too petty, but the keyword there was “almost.” Who knew what lengths the club would go to just to hurt Ye Qiu? They might not care about putting Zhou Zekai and Su Mucheng in the crossfire if their aim was to piss him off to the point where he voluntarily left on his own.

And he still hadn’t completed his contract with them, had no money to pay the termination fee…so he would have to retire, wouldn’t he? At Ye Qiu’s age, that was practically sentencing his career to death.

There could be another angle to this, too, Zhou Zekai slowly realized: If he or Su Mucheng messed up and signed off on a disadvantageous offer, the club could earn their good will by pulling them out of hot water. The legal department was lazy, not incapable. They could work wonders if they were motivated enough. Normally, they would be required to prevent something so detrimental from occurring to the team members, but if management thought the club’s interests were better served by teaching them a lesson, by relying on the existence of some kind of debt, then…

Zhou Zekai was aware that he really could sue if something happened. The lawyers had a very clear purpose; it wasn’t just that they were normally required to prevent that kind of trouble, they were legally obligated to do so. If Zhou Zekai ended up in hot water, he could build his own case on the legal department’s neglect.

But then it would be him against the club. That…could end terribly for him. Maybe they were banking on him not being brave enough to stand up to them. Did they think the same of Su Mucheng?

Studying her, Zhou Zekai thought they really might. Su Mucheng was probably just an ignorant young woman in their eyes. He was well aware she hadn’t received much in the way of a proper education, so they must know as well. And people had a habit of underestimating her.

People had a habit of underestimating Zhou Zekai, too, but in his case, he could admit he deserved it. Su Mucheng all but strove to be underestimated, and she couldn’t help that she was a beautiful girl. Zhou Zekai couldn’t help that he was a good-looking guy, either; however, he had concluded his high school education, he was considered second only to Ye Qiu onstage, and he was male. They underestimated him because he really did have a rather meek personality.

If he hadn’t come across as such an easy target, could he have been used in this way? Could he have been turned into such a threat, aimed right at Ye Qiu’s throat?

The worst of it was, he knew the club would never seek to ruin him. He was too valuable to them: the perfect gamer in the eyes of publicists everywhere. He defied a lot of the most detrimental stereotypes associated with the label yet still performed like gaming really was his entire world.

Zhou Zekai was a flawless package. They could get rid of Ye Qiu, they could even sacrifice Su Mucheng to do so, but Zhou Zekai? They would fight to keep him, not the other way around. So they would never push him too hard; just enough to bother certain parties.

It was so convoluted and strange and underhanded, Zhou Zekai could feel his head spinning for the second time that day. There were just so many different ways to look at this, so much to consider. Most of it might be nothing more than conjecture.

Truthfully…he wanted to do something just as badly as Su Mucheng did, maybe even more, because he knew he was in a better position. But he also didn’t know what that something should be.

“I was joking…but it’s not a joke anymore,” Su Mucheng murmured. She was staring blankly at her hands, an expression of profound sorrow on her face. Perhaps she had already drawn some of her own conclusions and realized just how much danger she was in.

Zhou Zekai hummed softly; there was nothing he could say to that. There was nothing either of them could do to make this better, or so it seemed. All that was left to them was the future—hope for a better outcome than either of them truly had reason to expect. Hope that things wouldn’t get any worse, because as Zhou Zekai had come to learn in the last two years, things could always get worse.

He should probably just be glad the club wasn’t trying to turn Ye Qiu and him against each other. It wouldn’t work, but it would still be yet another inconvenience for Ye Qiu.

Zhou Zekai didn’t want to be an inconvenience. All he’d ever wanted since that first summer was to make Ye Qiu proud.

 

* * *

 

“Hey, Zekai!”

Zhou Zekai took a minute to respond, but when he did, he found one of his least favorite people standing beside him.

Liu Hao grinned in an overly familiar way. “Are you busy?”

Zhou Zekai glanced at his monitor and, after a few seconds, paused the program grudgingly. Training on a summer morning sadly could not be classified as truly “busy,” though it was certainly busywork.

Taking that as his cue, Liu Hao sat at the computer station next to him, the one which was usually occupied by Su Mucheng. Zhou Zekai turned slightly in his chair to face him.

“I’m going to be leaving for home in the afternoon so I just wanted to come say goodbye,” Liu Hao said, still smiling. He leaned forward like he and Zhou Zekai were intimate friends and not highly awkward coworkers.

Zhou Zekai hummed, wondering what the hell this guy was playing at.

“But I also wanted to talk to you about a few things first, if that’s cool.”

If it was cool? It definitely wasn’t, but Zhou Zekai had a feeling he wouldn’t be spared this talk. So he nodded to signal Liu Hao to continue.

“After last season…” Liu Hao paused, probably for dramatic effect. “Well, I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, Zekai. As your teammate, I’m just concerned for your future, and I want to try and look out for you. But after last season, I feel like you’ve outgrown the expectations this club originally had of you, and maybe it’s time to start thinking about where exactly you want to take your career from here.”

Zhou Zekai’s brow furrowed. What was he trying to say? This so-called concern was obviously fake, but what was that about expectations? His career? Was Liu Hao making things up now?

“When we joined the team together, everyone said you and Ye Qiu would be the perfect duo. It didn’t really turn out that way, with Su Mucheng in the mix, but you still showed yourself to be an extremely skilled player. Not just as a team player, but as an individual. I think some people assumed you’d disappear under Ye Qiu’s shadow; you proved them wrong. If you ask me, you outshine him.”

If he were a ruder person, nay, someone liable to speak his mind at all in such uncomfortable situations as this, Zhou Zekai would have demanded just who had asked. He’d never asked Liu Hao’s opinion on anything, and he wasn’t about to start. Because that opinion would be inarguably wrong. Like now.

Zhou Zekai, outshine Ye Qiu? How could anyone say that Zhou Zekai…

Suddenly, he understood what Liu Hao’s real purpose was.

Liu Hao stood up and slapped Zhou Zekai casually on the shoulder. “That’s just my take on things. I really don’t think you need to keep sticking with Ye Qiu; you’re your own success story, Zekai. And soon enough the old man’s gotta retire, so it might be best to reconsider how you’re going to approach Season 8.”

Okay, that was going a little too far, even for Liu Hao. “Team comes first. Always.”

That made Liu Hao scoff. “Yeah, yeah, but everyone has to be selfish sometimes. Are you going to let teamwork define your whole professional career? Zekai, think about yourself for once! You’ve been slaving away for Ye Qiu’s success all this time, you need to look after number one. You can go places, man.”

The longer this conversation went on, the more ridiculous Liu Hao seemed. Maybe he was becoming frustrated with Zhou Zekai’s indifference to his “concern.”

“I’m fine,” Zhou Zekai told him, and turned back to the monitor. “See you.”

Liu Hao scoffed again, very quietly, but apparently regained his composure just in time to draw the curtains on his little act. “See you. Till next month, Zekai!”

As Ye Qiu had always said, Liu Hao was too hot-headed. Even if Zhou Zekai were inclined to take Liu Hao at his word, he would have doubted his genuineness by the end of the conversation.

Zhou Zekai continued his training until noon, then logged into Glory using one of his alts and dungeoned for a couple hours. Then a couple more hours. And a few more after that…

In his haste to forget about that whole encounter, he missed lunch and nearly dinner, too. The one to pull him out of his reverie was, perhaps ironically, Ye Qiu.

He didn’t notice his presence at first, playing with a little more diligence than necessary. His eyes were stuck to the screen, following the movements of the boss and its minions, when something moved at the edges of his vision.

Zhou Zekai ignored it at first, only to jump when a finger poked the side of his face.

He hastily removed his headphones (which he didn’t remember putting on) and stared wide-eyed at Ye Qiu’s smiling face.

“Hey, Little Zhou. Aren’t you going to eat something? I haven’t seen you since this morning.”

“Oh…” Realization dawned. Zhou Zekai had actually come here the moment he finished breakfast, hadn’t he? And he hadn’t left except to use the bathroom and fetch water.

With a grimace, Zhou Zekai got to his feet and stretched. Every atom of his body protested, making it clear just how dumb it was to sit in a chair, hardly moving, for hours and hours on end.

“Oh, boy. Let me help.”

Ye Qiu moved to stand behind Zhou Zekai and helped him stretch his arms, then gave him a brief but liberating massage along his neck, shoulders, and upper back. “That better?”

Zhou Zekai was blushing. He could admit that he leaned back into Ye Qiu’s touch a bit, unwilling to let the massage end so quickly. Who could blame him? Those hands were magical.

Ye Qiu hummed pointedly.

“Better,” he confirmed.

Though Zhou Zekai remained standing, his butt too sore to contemplate taking a seat so soon, Ye Qiu settled down in the chair Liu Hao had used. He leaned back comfortably and gazed up at Zhou Zekai with another smile, this one softer than usual.

“Little Zhou, it’s been two weeks since break began. You’re not going to visit your family?”

Zhou Zekai frowned faintly, stretching his arms above his head. “…Maybe.”

“You’re thinking about it, then.”

He nodded.

“You should go. Make the most of your time off.” Ye Qiu gestured at the monitor. “You’ve been working too hard all the time… Also, you’re about to die.”

That made Zhou Zekai jerk in the most embarrassing manner possible. He made a move for his keyboard—aborted, because Ye Qiu smoothly slid into his chair.

Zhou Zekai watched blankly as Ye Qiu slew the boss and finished up the dungeon within a couple of minutes. During those couple of minutes, the only sound was the clack of the keys and the click of the mouse.

It reminded Zhou Zekai of the first time he met Ye Qiu. How strange he had felt then, and just as strange did he feel now, though he couldn’t quite figure out why. Rather than observing the fight playing out on the screen, his eyes stayed on Ye Qiu.

Years had already passed since that first meeting. Zhou Zekai was no longer a gross teenager, and Ye Qiu was no longer a fresh-faced young man. He was still young, true, but a faint darkness lined his eyes, and his face was sickly pale. Even sitting, his posture was slumped, like he was too tired to straighten his back, or too tired to pretend he cared enough to.

It had been years, but just a few, and outwardly, they had both changed so much. Yet it was Zhou Zekai who felt like he had transformed inside and out, while Ye Qiu, deep down, remained largely the same.

Was he catching up to Ye Qiu, or falling behind? Zhou Zekai could never quite tell. When they were playing alongside each other, things were never complicated. When they were together like this, the simplicity of it, the ease and comfort…it was baffling. It was good, but baffling. And always, always complicated.

Except it wasn’t; it was just Zhou Zekai that made it seem that way. There was nothing less complicated than just existing with Ye Qiu. Ever since that night following Zhou Zekai’s first championship…

Something had changed for Zhou Zekai regarding Ye Qiu. It was subtle enough at first that it took him far too long to notice, but recently, so many of his thoughts were occupied by Ye Qiu, by Ye Qiu’s problems with the club, by Ye Qiu’s future and how it pertained to his own—well.

Zhou Zekai just didn’t know where he stood anymore. Did Ye Qiu still see him as a kid, as a protégé? A mere coworker, a valued teammate? A partner he could rely on, a friend he could confide in?

None of those were bad, really. But he couldn’t claim they were what he wanted.

“There ya go.” Ye Qiu moved back to his own seat, and Zhou Zekai took his place in the now-vacated chair. “Sorry to distract you at such an awkward time,” he laughed.

Zhou Zekai shrugged. It was no problem in the end. And so what if his character died anyway?

“Where were we—summer. Vacation. Family. Little Zhou, get out of here for a bit. Things have been so stressful lately, you ought to have some fun away from a computer screen. Enjoy your youth and spend time with that grandma you’re always talking about.”

…Did he talk that much about his grandmother? Someone claiming he talked about anything very often was quite novel to Zhou Zekai.

But the more he thought about her, and about everyone back home, the more Zhou Zekai missed them. It wasn’t like he hadn’t seen his family at all since coming to Hangzhou—he flew over two or three times a year—but he hadn’t spent much more than a week of his summer with them since he was officially signed onto the team.

Maybe…it was time to go back home.

“I’ll visit,” he promised Ye Qiu.

Ye Qiu looked almost relieved. “That’s great. Don’t be shy, you can ask Mucheng and I for help packing.”

Zhou Zekai huffed softly. By now, he was very familiar with the exercise of packing. He smiled at Ye Qiu anyway.

When Ye Qiu grinned back, Zhou Zekai’s heart trembled just a little.

 

* * *

 

Of course, Zhou Zekai wasn’t stupid. He had no doubt that Ye Qiu really did mean the best when he suggested Zhou Zekai spend some time at home for the summer. It had been a hectic season, he had worked hard, and he deserved a vacation.

But Ye Qiu also certainly wanted to get him out of the way. For what, Zhou Zekai wasn’t quite sure; the specifics of Ye Qiu’s situation were still beyond his knowledge. But he could certainly guess why, after what Liu Hao had said.

Whatever was going on, it was coming to a head this summer. The war the club had been waging against Ye Qiu could very well be nearing its end.

At first, Zhou Zekai easily accepted this, and thought that no matter what, Ye Qiu would find a way to make everything right. He was great at solutions, and more than that, he wouldn’t give up as long as there was still a way to fight.

That was only at first. By the time Zhou Zekai arrived in Shanghai, he was all but consumed with dread.

Ye Qiu… He’d always thought Ye Qiu knew what he was doing. No matter what happened, no matter what changed, Zhou Zekai’s faith in his captain, his mentor, his partner, had remained unshaken. Nothing could take away his belief that Ye Qiu would always overcome adversity. Because Ye Qiu himself had been solid and immovable from the beginning, Zhou Zekai could only solidly, immovably trust him.

But in his imagination’s worst-case scenarios, he’d think back to that time in Ye Qiu’s room with Su Mucheng and the suffocating atmosphere between them. He’d think back to the expression on Ye Qiu’s face, which could simply be described as indifferent, unconcerned, but which masked something else—

Something Zhou Zekai could very well call defeat.

(“There’s nothing to do about it.” How could he say that? How could anyone who still saw a way to fight say that?)

It was with a heavy heart that Zhou Zekai went to his grandmother and unloaded all his concerns on her. His grandmother, the one other person whose strength he had never found a reason to doubt.

“My baby,” she said, her wrinkled hand wrapping around his. “How long has this been on your mind?”

Zhou Zekai ducked his head, staring down at the worn wood of the breakfast table. How long? Even though he had only learned the true extent of the trouble brewing between Ye Qiu and Club Excellent Era just a little while ago, he had been haunted by the consequences of it for years. All of the near-misses, all of the actual misses—all of the difficulties, the disputes. How could this have not weighed on him? How could he have pushed it from his mind entirely?

“What a burden,” Grandma continued, “what a burden! My little one, you’ve been strong. I wish you could have told me sooner.”

If Zhou Zekai ducked his head any further, he’d hurt himself.

“None of that now, my boy. You’re not going to fix anything by being morose. Lift your head up, my little one. Let your old grandmother see your eyes.”

Though reluctant, he did as he was told. Grandma was smiling at him.

“There you are. Now, little one, I need to tell you something very important. Very important! Perhaps one of the most important things I’ll ever tell you. Listen closely.”

Zhou Zekai stared at her, transfixed.

Grandma leaned forward just a bit, the hunch of her shoulders instantly becoming more pronounced. Zhou Zekai fretted internally and thought about asking her to lean back and relax a bit, but before he could make up his mind, Grandma was speaking again.

“Some people will never accept help that may come at a price. It sounds to me like your captain may think the price you’d be forced to pay on his behalf is too high. That’s his decision, little one, and from everything I know about him, he’s not going to easily change his mind.”

Grandma tapped her chin with the hand that was not holding Zhou Zekai’s. “But not accepting help…isn’t the same as not accepting support. Maybe—and this old woman may be presuming too much, remember—maybe your captain needs someone on his side more than he needs someone to fight for him.”

Zhou Zekai’s mind was blank for a moment. Then all these unbidden thoughts rushed back in.

Someone on his side… Zhou Zekai had always been on his side. So had Su Mucheng. So had countless other people, though most of them weren’t from Excellent Era. There were so many out there who had just as much faith in Ye Qiu as Zhou Zekai did. (Well, maybe not quite that much.)

If this was all Ye Qiu needed, why did he send Zhou Zekai away?

Grandma must have read some of the turmoil in his gaze because she smiled soothingly. “Now, now, don’t fret. Who knows what he means by keeping you as far away from this as he can. Guessing people’s intentions rarely works out, I’m afraid. If you want to know, you’re just going to have to ask.”

“…Mm.” Zhou Zekai nodded, and something that could only be described as resolve welled up in him.

Later that afternoon, Zhou Zekai bid his grandmother goodbye and went back to his parents’ house. He sequestered himself in his room and pulled his laptop onto the bed with him, not bothering to boot up his old computer.

 

                       Heaven: In Hangzhou?

                       Dancing Rain: Yes ofc

                       Dancing Rain: Why?

                       Dancing Rain: Need me to rescue you from an awkward family reunion or something? I’m afraid I’m not available for playing anyone’s gf, tho

                       Dancing Rain: Been there, done that, never again

                       Heaven: …

 

Zhou Zekai decided he was better of ignoring that, for the sake of his mental health if nothing else.

 

                       Heaven: Ye Qiu?

                       Dancing Rain: He’s fine

                       Dancing Rain: Spending way too much time messing around with the guild and hunting wild bosses in HD and training Qiu Fei as usual

                       Dancing Rain: I caught him practicing with like 3 different classes last night tho

                       Dancing Rain: That was kinda weird

                       Heaven: …

                       Dancing Rain: Don’t worry, Little Zhou, playing Glory won’t kill him

                       Dancing Rain: What are you worried about? Are you really not enjoying your vacation? You’ve only been gone 3 days

                       Heaven: Senior sent me away

                       Dancing Rain: What do you mean?

                       Heaven: This vacation

                       Dancing Rain: He suggested you go on vacation to see your family??

                       Heaven: Yes

                       Dancing Rain: That’s oddly thoughtful of him

                       Dancing Rain: At least, I haven’t ever seen him go out of his way to encourage anyone to visit their family lol

                       Heaven: ……

                       Dancing Rain: ………

                       Dancing Rain: Oh now I get it

                       Dancing Rain: That guy :)))

                       Dancing Rain: Little Zhou, stay put for a while longer k? Really try to enjoy your time away

                       Dancing Rain: I’m gonna try to find out what’s going on

                       Heaven: Update

                       Dancing Rain: Ofc I’ll keep you posted, but try not to worry too much, sis has got this

 

Zhou Zekai definitely did worry, and definitely more than Su Mucheng wanted him to, but he also stayed in Shanghai and tried to act normal for his family.

He spent the next few days alternating between relaxing at home, relaxing at Grandma’s, and visiting relatives he hadn’t laid eyes on in far too long. He didn’t have many friends from school, and in the years since he started working, he had drifted away from them. The only friends he could claim nowadays were Ye Qiu and Su Mucheng, as well as some other pros who spoke to him about their private affairs way too often for them to be mere acquaintances. Zhou Zekai really didn’t know what it was about him that made people want to talk to him so much. About everything.

Though whatever it was, it didn’t seem to have any noteworthy effect on Ye Qiu.

Eventually the week ran out, and though it was only four more days, Zhou Zekai’s eagerness to return to Hangzhou made it seem like an eternity. His parents were more than a little disappointed to see him leave so soon, and Zhou Zekai truly hated to disappoint them, but they were willing enough to accept his stilted explanation of a work emergency.

Grandma took his early departure quite well, and offered some encouraging parting words: “Just be there, little one. You don’t have to do anything. Being there is enough.”

Zhou Zekai pondered over those words throughout the entire flight.

When he stepped foot back in the club, the employees were a little surprised to see him, but welcomed him back happily enough. There was nothing notably different about the atmosphere; he felt some people were staring at him a bit too blatantly, but that could just be his imagination.

Zhou Zekai took a couple hours to settle back into his room and rest briefly from the flight. But it was still daytime, and late enough that Ye Qiu should certainly be up and kicking. So after gathering whatever strength he still had left, Zhou Zekai got up and left his room to find him.

Except he opened the door and came face to face with Su Mucheng.

“Little Zhou!” she exclaimed. “You’re back so soon. I thought you would at least wait a little longer…”

He gave her a look, his agitation obvious. “A week.”

“Okay, that’s fair, you really were gone for a week. But I didn’t even have time to dig up much—that’s why I didn’t say anything.”

Zhou Zekai furrowed his brow. If even Su Mucheng hadn’t been able to find something after days of searching, could it be that there was nothing to be found?

No way. Ye Qiu wouldn’t have all but shoved him out the door if there was nothing.

“Come in,” he said, stepping back into his room and opening the door wide. “Talk.”

Su Mucheng sighed softly and followed him inside. “What is there to talk about, Little Zhou? I really don’t know what’s happening. I’ve been hovering around Ye Qiu as much as he’ll allow, but he hasn’t let anything slip. All my friends working here haven’t been able to give me any relevant gossip. We’ve hit a dead end.”

That was sadly correct. If anything could be said for Excellent Era, it was that they knew how to keep important issues under wraps. Zhou Zekai and Su Mucheng had only suspected them of disfavoring Ye Qiu for years when in truth they had been actively undermining him.

But he couldn’t accept that there was nothing they could do. So Zhou Zekai pulled Su Mucheng to sit down beside him on the bed, looked her in the eye, and said, “We need a plan.”

Now it was Su Mucheng’s turn to furrow her brow. “A plan…? But how can we—”

“How far,” he said, “will you go?”

Su Mucheng was staring at him. “How far? For Ye Qiu? As far as necessary.”

Zhou Zekai studied her intently. The agitation hadn’t left him, and everything about this moment felt far too intense. He knew as certainly as he had ever known anything that this decision he was on the brink of making (or perhaps had already made, without ever really acknowledging it) was irreversible.

But his grandmother told him all he needed to do was be there. So he was going to be there.

“It’s enough.”

 

* * *

 

Season 8 began and the months swept by. Little changed in Club Excellent Era, though concerning what did change, Zhou Zekai wouldn’t say it was for the better.

The team’s performance was abysmal overall. He, Su Mucheng, and Ye Qiu were still at the top of their game, and them being the backbone of the team made it easier to hold things steady. Everyone’s individual performances were decent, too. But that only took them so far.

Though the decline was slight, it was noticeable, and comparing these most recent results to those as far back as Season 5, a pattern was clear to see.

Excellent Era was steadily growing worse with every season. Nobody could quite tell why. The synergy of the team as a whole was off, though the Excellent Trio was as dominating as ever. Their tactics were more liable to go wrong during the team battles; the strategy Ye Qiu had relied on since Season 5 to take his team to victory seemed to be outdated, or disagreeable to those teammates who weren’t Su Mucheng or Zhou Zekai.

Speculation ran wild, and Zhou Zekai himself couldn’t escape it. The forums and world chat after every match were replete with questions and assumptions and critiques. His pro friends, particularly Fang Rui and Jiang Botao, prodded a little or a lot, depending on how far south things went during Excellent Era’s team battles. His parents even asked him about it at some point, because they apparently kept up with all the news about him and his name was coming up a lot these days in eSports magazines, in conjunction with Excellent Era’s apparently flagging strength.

And don’t even mention the reporters. If Zhou Zekai never saw another reporter in his life, it would be too soon.

Zhou Zekai wished he could tell them, tell the entire world, that Excellent Era’s strength was the same as it had always been. But truly, it was not. On paper, perhaps, the players of the present were no worse than those of the past—many were even better. However, strength was more than just ability, and Excellent Era’s strength as a team was worth next to nothing now.

He was glad that he could still lean on Su Mucheng and Ye Qiu, and even gladder that they could lean on him in turn. Zhou Zekai never forgot his resolve: If it was all he could do, then he would be there for Ye Qiu, and for Su Mucheng as well. It had become startlingly, painfully clear that they were on their own.

It was when they were nearing the winter transfer window that this point was truly driven home—and Zhou Zekai lost hope that anything could ever go back to what it was.

“…need to answer as soon as possible,” someone said from around the corner.

“It’s hard to give an exact answer at this time. I just wanted to make my interest clear, not start bargaining for him.”

“If you say you want to transfer their best player in, of course their thoughts will go right to money first.”

Zhou Zekai stopped in his tracks. The owners of the voices were out of sight, the echo-y hallways of the club building amplifying even such a quiet conversation. So quiet, in fact, that Zhou Zekai couldn’t tell for sure who was speaking.

He had a good guess, though.

“Money is honestly the least of our concerns. But whatever price they name, I’ll do my best to bargain it down, don’t worry about that.”

“I’m not worried about that, really, just the time constraints. The transfer window is almost here and we still haven’t resolved this.”

“Well, we’ve just begun. Have a little more faith, Manager Cui.”

“Such a sudden change won’t have a good effect on the team.”

A sigh. “The team already isn’t in the best condition. Once we get rid of Ye Qiu and everyone gets used to Sun Xiang, the players’ conditions will stabilize.”

“That’s just the best case scenario.”

“…I thought you were on board with this.”

“I am. I just—hoped we could pull it off with a little more…style. And sensibility.”

“Quit griping, we’re going to make this work. Now, make sure to put a little pressure on them to play better in the upcoming matches, we really need to start gaining more points.”

“Right, right. Have a good night, then.”

“You, too. Don’t forget, you’re invited to dinner tomorrow.”

“Yes, yes, I know… Until then.”

Zhou Zekai pressed himself flat against the wall just in time for a figure to come around the corner. Cui Li, in all his portly glory, passed him by without so much as a glance, apparently not noting anything of Zhou Zekai’s presence in his rush to be elsewhere. He disappeared around another corner at the end of the hallway.

He waited until the footsteps of whoever Cui Li had been talking to faded away before exhaling softly. What a relief that he hadn’t been caught… Though, he would have liked to have confirmation of who the second person was.

Cautiously, Zhou Zekai unpeeled himself from the wall and popped his head into the next hallway to try and catch a peek. Another figure was just stepping into one of the office rooms and was out of sight within seconds. Still, those seconds were enough for Zhou Zekai to confirm his guess.

Cui Li and Tao Xuan were planning to replace Ye Qiu with Sun Xiang.

He knew who Sun Xiang was, of course. He had met him in competition enough times already, and everyone remembered him as last season’s Best Rookie. The title was well-earned; people even said that he was the best Best Rookie since Zhou Zekai himself. Which was embarrassing, but not wrong.

Sun Xiang didn’t play a Battle Mage, though; his account in Conquering Clouds was that of a Berserker. How in the world could a Berserker replace Ye Qiu’s role in the team? One Autumn Leaf was one of the main pillars of Excellent Era’s strategy! Was Tao Xuan truly intending to revamp the entire team from top to bottom? A new beginning, far removed from Ye Qiu’s influence?

It sounded ridiculous to him. If they were so concerned about points, then they should concern themselves with how they were treating Ye Qiu, no? Since they apparently had such confidence in their ability to order Zhou Zekai’s teammates to do better, then they should order those same teammates to listen to Ye Qiu’s orders. They were hardly even listening to his training tips anymore. Something that was for their own benefit!

The gravity of what had just happened, the ugliness of what he had overheard, drove Zhou Zekai to knock on Ye Qiu’s door. It was no surprise that these days Ye Qiu preferred to train either in his dorm or in one of the private training rooms. If he wasn’t here, then Zhou Zekai would look for him there.

“Little Zhou?” Ye Qiu questioned when he opened the door, eyes a little blurry like he’d been sleeping. Zhou Zekai supposed it was an acceptable hour to sleep. If one wanted to wake up at four in the morning.

“Senior,” Zhou Zekai said simply, but that was somehow enough for Ye Qiu to read the urgency of his visit.

Ye Qiu stepped aside quickly, suddenly a lot more alert. “Come in, come in…”

Zhou Zekai took a seat on the rumpled bed, as usual, and Ye Qiu sat next to him, as usual. Lately (and not as usual), this positioning of theirs had started to send Zhou Zekai’s heart racing just a bit. It was easy to ignore, but he couldn’t fight the thrill that hit him every time he found himself so close to Ye Qiu.

This…crush…was getting a little out of hand. But surely it would fade given some time. Right?

Zhou Zekai had had a hard enough time accepting that he was crushing on his own captain at all, much less that it would haunt him for so long. It had already been months!

Ye Qiu put a hand on his knee, instantly drawing Zhou Zekai’s attention back to the present. “Little Zhou? Talk to me.”

Zhou Zekai determinedly ignored the hand on his knee, though it withdrew once he met Ye Qiu’s eyes. He took a deep breath and said, “They want Sun Xiang to…take your place.”

There was silence. Ye Qiu just stared at him, unblinking. Time itself seemed to freeze in those agonizing and anxious moments during which Ye Qiu did not react.

“I see. Kicking me out so soon, huh…”

Zhou Zekai swallowed. So he had been expecting this.

“Thank you for warning me. I’ll try to act appropriately surprised when the time comes, so you won’t get in trouble for tattling,” Ye Qiu said with a wry smile. “I guess it’ll happen during the winter transfer window, then. Honestly, I thought they’d wait until summer, but it doesn’t really matter.”

What was he saying? How could he accept this so calmly? His tone was just as conversational as ever, like they were merely discussing their tea preferences.

“Senior…”

“Hm?”

“Ye Qiu…”

Ye Qiu tilted his head, and the wry smile became something more curious, something soft. “What is it, Zekai?”

It wasn’t the first time he called him Zekai, but it was the first time he did so while gazing at him so straightforwardly, so earnestly. As if Zhou Zekai was the one who should be most distressed, the one who needed another’s worry.

“Please don’t go…”

Another silence, shorter and more abrupt than the last one. Ye Qiu tilted his head the other way. A tiny furrow appeared between his eyebrows before he smoothed out his expression once again. “Ah…”

Zhou Zekai stared at him imploringly. “This is…your team. Our team.”

“Ah, Little Zhou. It’s not that simple anymore.”

“Why?”

“It’s not my Excellent Era,” Ye Qiu admitted in a quiet murmur. “It hasn’t been my Excellent Era in a long time. When you came, I thought it was such a blessing. I still do. That first season with you is the closest I’ve ever come to that time of before. But everything since then…has just been more of the same. We’re only moving further and further away from the dreams that began it all.”

Zhou Zekai could almost hear his heart breaking. In the end, all he had been able to do was offer Ye Qiu a brief respite. A reminder of a time that could never be again.

Was that what being there meant? Accepting that he was essentially helpless? Even if there was nothing he could do now, hadn’t he done something in all these years that made the least difference?

Ye Qiu smiled at him comfortingly. “Don’t look so sad, Little Zhou. None of this is your fault. Honestly, I have no one to blame but myself. I made the choice not to give in and change my mind, and now I’m paying for it. It’s a little selfish of me, I know. But I can’t make it right without going back on everything I ever claimed to believe in.”

Never once had Zhou Zekai thought Ye Qiu was being selfish. He was only standing by his principles. People who remained unbent and unbroken even in the face of all outside pressure—Zhou Zekai had nothing but admiration for them. Ye Qiu was that type of person, and therefore worthy of the deepest respect.

But it was true that this could perhaps be resolved if Ye Qiu gave in to Tao Xuan’s demands. Not for the first time, Zhou Zekai wondered just why Ye Qiu was so determined never to show his face, never to reap the benefits of his fame and renown.

Well. That was none of his business. Zhou Zekai would respect him and his choice no matter the reason. Even so, he wished…

Ah, it was pointless. In the end, it was still Ye Qiu’s choice to make, and Zhou Zekai just had to accept that. Wishing to help someone when you didn’t have the power to change anything—foolish. Silly. Sentimental.

Some things had to be let go, for new opportunities to arise.

Zhou Zekai parted with Ye Qiu soon after that, leaving him with the assurance that he wouldn’t behave rashly. He didn’t try to force Zhou Zekai to promise not to tell Su Mucheng, which was undoubtedly wise: Nothing could stop Zhou Zekai from revealing the truth to her, or more accurately, nothing could stop Su Mucheng from luring it out. And anyway, she deserved to know.

But Su Mucheng wasn’t exactly the person he wanted to talk to right now. If he wanted to be soothed, to be understood; if he wanted someone to be angry alongside with, to share in his frustration—then he would go to her. However, all Zhou Zekai wanted was to make his intentions clear.

He knew what management wanted, what they expected. He knew they had plans for him that didn’t involve Ye Qiu.

What they didn’t know was that Zhou Zekai wasn’t going to meekly play along with any of it. He wasn’t going to submit to their demands like he always did, ever the quiet, obedient child. He wasn’t going to bend and he wasn’t going to break.

The next few minutes were a blur, a blur that ended with him knocking on Tao Xuan’s office door. The part of his brain that was still capable of processing rational thought reminded him that Tao Xuan had been on a whole other floor earlier. What were the odds that he’d returned to his office rather than stay where he was last spotted? Maybe he even went home. What a waste of time it would be if the man weren’t even here. Maybe Zhou Zekai should turn back and save himself the—

But then the door opened, and the option of retreat was taken away. Tao Xuan stood before him, briefcase in hand and a cigarette between his lips. His tie was a little loose and his jacket unbuttoned. He was obviously on his way out.

“Zhou Zekai,” he said, visibly surprised, “what are you doing here? I’d think you’d be asleep by now.”

Zhou Zekai shook his head faintly and said, “Talk?”

Tao Xuan floundered for a moment. He and Zhou Zekai hadn’t had enough one-on-one interactions for him to be familiar with Zhou Zekai’s choppy speech. But he quickly understood, and stepped aside to let Zhou Zekai into his dim office.

“Go ahead and sit,” Tao Xuan offered, turning on the lights. “I was just on my way out, but I don’t mind listening to whatever you have to say. If it’s you, I’m sure it’s important.”

Zhou Zekai remained standing, obviously flummoxing Tao Xuan. But it wasn’t like he was required to cooperate with Tao Xuan’s empty gestures, no matter how accommodating the man aimed to be. Let him struggle and squirm, Zhou Zekai thought.

“So, was there something specific you wanted to talk about…?”

Zhou Zekai crossed his arms and thought his words over carefully. Despite his best efforts, he couldn’t come up with another way to say it.

So he said it: “Ye Qiu goes, I go.”

Tao Xuan stared at him blatantly. The cigarette nearly fell out of his mouth.

Zhou Zekai merely stared back. The silence lingered between them and the awkward atmosphere grew stiffer.

“What do you mean by that?” Tao Xuan demanded carefully. His expression was contained, to his commendation, but the strain around his eyes gave him away.

“What I said.”

Tao Xuan exhaled sharply, and now his shock and displeasure were visible. “Do you even know what you’re saying? I think there must be a misunderstanding somewhere. Where has this come from?”

Zhou Zekai said, “No misunderstanding,” and headed for the door.

“Zhou Zekai! Let’s talk this out. I want to know—”

But he was already gone.

 

* * *

 

[HOTTEST ESPORTS NEWS]

>>> Excellent Trio to Leave Excellent Era

Today - 3 Hours Ago

 

In a private interview with Su Mucheng, long-time player of Excellent Era, it was revealed that Ye Qiu, Zhou Zekai, and Su Mucheng herself, commonly referred to as the Excellent Trio, are to leave Excellent Era.

Su Mucheng, a two-time Glory Professional Alliance champion and accredited with numerous Alliance titles including All-Star, is arguably the most prominent female gamer in Glory’s professional scene. Her Season 4 debut drew the eyes of many and she has held the fans’ unwavering attention ever since. Her success and renown don’t fall short compared to any others of the lauded Golden Generation, known for being a generation of incredibly capable rookies. Among their number are Season 7 champions, Yu Wenzhou and Huang Shaotian of Blue Rain.

Able to stand alongside her powerhouse teammates Ye Qiu and Zhou Zekai, Su Mucheng has at every turn defied what is commonly believed to be the fate of a professional female gamer: obscurity and a dead-end career stifled by the doubt and criticism of the masses. Her achievements so far have been nothing if not admirable, her professionalism and work ethic have never been in question, and her skills have time and again spoken for themselves.

Why, then, has she decided to terminate her contract with the very club that elevated her to such heights?

Su Mucheng admitted that ideological differences and a long-standing internal conflict have driven her to cut ties with Club Excellent Era. Although few details were able to be gleaned concerning the nature of these differences and the cause of this conflict, Su Mucheng explained that the issues between both sides are “impossible to resolve and impossible to ignore.”

More concerning still is the fact that Su Mucheng’s exit won’t be a lonely one: her two closest teammates are to accompany her. Su Mucheng readily clarified that the aforementioned issues involve Ye Qiu, Excellent Era’s captain and ace player, and Zhou Zekai, his protégé, such that the three have been forced to unite against the club after seeking redress and failing to receive it.

The facts only grow more and more curious when taking into account that lawyers quickly got involved in the contract termination process. Su Mucheng spoke of the affair with clear disappointment: “I didn’t think that it would be so difficult to leave. In the end, most of it was resolved with money. That, however, didn’t surprise me.”

When asked about the mysterious Ye Qiu’s involvement in the conflict that has split Excellent Era and its Excellent Trio, Su Mucheng only said, “I don’t think I have to list Ye Qiu’s accomplishments; we all know the victories he’s led Excellent Era to achieve, not to mention his contributions to Glory as a whole in these past ten years. But for a long time now, he and Excellent Era’s management haven’t been in agreement about where the team is headed in the future.”

Her own opinion on the matter? “I’m with him. Club Excellent Era’s upper echelons have their own vision for the team. It’s not a vision I see myself supporting.”

Concerning Zhou Zekai, the young All-Star who has left his mark on the professional scene and who many think is only “just getting started,” Su Mucheng merely said that certain misunderstandings between him and the club led him to take issue with the style of management.

Glory’s tenth anniversary is less than a week from now, and already it’s making out to be unforgettable. In this winter transfer window, Excellent Era is about to lose their captain, a god-level player that has been on their roster since Season 1; their only female player, who has enamored the entire Glory fanbase; and an acknowledged prodigy with a limitless future ahead of him, who has time and again shown his mettle. Only time will tell how these changes will affect Excellent Era and their already declining performance.

Club Excellent Era’s PR team has scheduled a press conference two days from now, likely to address the very topic of this article. New information will hopefully come to light, though whether their version of events adds up to what has been shared here is uncertain.

 

>>>> Anonymous commented:

WHAT THE HELL THIS ISN’T EVEN A GOOD NEWS SITE

HOW DID THEY GET A PRIVATE INTERVIEW WITH QUEEN SU MUCHENG

IS THIS FAKE

[Today - 3 Hours Ago]

 

>>>> Shell House commented:

What did I JUST READ

[Today - 3 Hours Ago]

 

>>>> Miraculous commented:

how come this is the first time i’m hearing about this??? don’t tell me hesn has seriously gotten the scoop before anyone else, this has to be fake

[Today - 3 Hours Ago]

 

>>>> Midday Madness commented:

Yooooooo this isn’t even well-written, I won’t believe a fucking word until that press conference confirms it

(I did check and the press conference is really happening btw)

[Today - 3 Hours Ago]

>>>>> Meander Your Thoughts commented:

Oh thanks, bro, I wondered about that.

[Today - 3 Hours Ago]

 

>>>> WHAAAT commented:

WHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAT

[Today - 3 Hours Ago]

Chapter Text

“Is it good?”

“It’s pretty good.”

“I told you.”

“And I never doubted you.” Ye Xiu took another sip of his drink.

“Did you doubt me, Little Zhou?” Su Mucheng asked.

Zhou Zekai shook his head quickly, eyes a bit wide. He obediently swallowed another mouthful of his own coffee concoction.

None of them were coffee people, but Su Mucheng had recommended this particular café again and again until Ye Xiu finally gave in and agreed to try it. Zhou Zekai would never be far behind either of them, which was why he, too, had shelled out a rather ridiculous amount of money for a medium-sized drink.

But of course, they weren’t really here for the coffee. Or at least not just for the coffee.

“So what do you guys want to do from now on? As much as I like Ms. Wei, I’m not sure how much longer she’s gonna tolerate three adults crashing at her place,” Su Mucheng said.

Zhou Zekai shrugged. “Home?”

“Little Zhou, crashing at your parents’ place isn’t really a step up,” she told him.

“New place?”

Su Mucheng blinked. “Well…I guess we do have the money. Even though those assholes sure did their best to suck us dry.”

Ye Xiu sighed a little. He couldn’t say he didn’t feel guilty about that. These two paying his termination fee had been hard to accept: They’d argued about it for several days straight. It did help that all of their contracts were at least halfway fulfilled, but not very much.

In the end, it still cost an exorbitant amount to cut ties with Excellent Era once and for all, and they would be paying off the debts for the next year. When they brought in a lawyer to argue over the specifics, they had been able to reduce the fees somewhat. After all, there were some useful clauses in these contracts involving negligence and ill will. Ye Xiu would be sure to thank Sun Zheping for unintentionally revolutionizing the Alliance’s policies regarding a club’s responsibility to their players.

“We can just settle down for a bit and take the rest of the season to figure out what we wanna do,” Su Mucheng decided.

“Not going to discuss this with the rest of us?” Ye Xiu asked lazily, swirling the liquid in his cup.

Su Mucheng huffed at him. “Aren’t I discussing it with you right now?”

Ye Xiu huffed right back at her and turned to Zhou Zekai. “I’m sure Little Zhou has better things to do than while away his time with us old folks. My guess is he’s already gotten some interesting offers, hm?”

“Who are you calling old?”

“Some,” Zhou Zekai reluctantly confirmed, setting his cup down. He had a worried expression on his face like Ye Xiu would stand up in the middle of this public café and declare him a traitor before everyone present.

“You should consider them,” Ye Xiu told him, “before the transfer window closes. Taking most of a season off isn’t the best option for a young guy like you. You should spend your time more productively.”

Su Mucheng reached across the circular table to smack Ye Xiu’s arm. “Don’t tell him how he should spend his time. If he wants to stay with us, he can stay with us.”

“Mucheng…”

“Staying,” Zhou Zekai announced, effectively ending the argument-to-be.

Ye Xiu shook his head helplessly. When did he so completely earn this kid’s loyalty? By now, Zhou Zekai had outdone even Qiu Fei, whose hero worship was quiet and understated but persistently present. Zhou Zekai literally upended his entire career to stand up for Ye Xiu. To support Ye Xiu.

…Well, maybe he shouldn’t take all the credit for Zhou Zekai’s frankly insane decisions. Su Mucheng had a lot to do with this mess, too.

Ah, but when did things become so tangled?

“We may as well just start a new team at this point,” Ye Xiu said with a put-upon sigh. “Shame that the minimum amount of team members is six. I’m sure we could kick some ass all on our own.”

An easy silence fell over them, the hushed conversations of the café’s other patrons washing over them in a soothing susurrus. The perfect background noise to contemplate whatever kind of disaster their future might be, as far as Ye Xiu was concerned.

“That’s not a bad idea,” Su Mucheng said in a musing tone.

“Hm?”

Zhou Zekai also glanced up, tilting his head at Su Mucheng. “…Hm.”

“Well, at least Little Zhou sees it my way.”

“What are you talking about?” Ye Xiu asked, suspicious.

Su Mucheng raised a slightly mocking eyebrow at him. “You said it yourself: We may as well start a new team.”

“I was joking.”

“Well, I’m not.”

“Well, I am.”

“It’s not a joke anymore,” Su Mucheng said with an uncalled for amount of vindication. She was sitting up straight in her seat like a bolt of lightning had struck her. “It’s a great idea. Right, Little Zhou?”

“Mm.”

“Stop asking him, he’ll agree to almost anything you say, you tyrant,” Ye Xiu snapped. “Little Zhou, don’t listen to her. She’s gone mad. The drain on her bank account has pushed her over the edge.”

“…What?”

“Your nonsense is only confusing him, quit your yammering,” Su Mucheng snapped back.

“I will make you pay for these stupidly overpriced drinks.”

“You can’t make me do anything.”

“Listen here, Mucheng…”

Zhou Zekai coughed delicately, drawing their eyes to him. “Think about it?”

Ye Xiu was legitimately aghast. “Think about it? There’s nothing to think about. It’s ridiculous.” And unrealistic to the extreme. Who was going to put in that amount of work just to start a new team? They didn’t have the funds to pay their way; if they didn’t find sponsors then they would have to literally battle it out just to get into the Alliance again. And who knew how long that might take.

In the end, splitting up and joining whoever would take them was the more obvious choice. Ye Xiu definitely wasn’t going to leave Su Mucheng on her own, but Zhou Zekai was free to go wherever he wished. Why go to so much effort when there was a more practical and immediate option available?

“I’m staying,” Zhou Zekai said again. He stared Ye Xiu down like he had something to prove.

“I don’t mind us staying together until we figure things out, Zekai…” Ye Xiu began.

“We’re staying,” he clarified. “Together.”

Su Mucheng thumped the table softly and pointed at Zhou Zekai. “This guy gets it.” She turned to Ye Xiu. “You, on the other hand—stop pretending you’re fine with seeing us split up. Logically, the only way for the three of us to stay together is to make our own team, or join an up-and-coming one. But I don’t know anything about that; do you?”

“…No.”

“Then we’re left with one option for now, which is making our own team,” she said cheerfully.

“Mucheng, no. I don’t think you’ve forgotten how much effort it took just to get Excellent Era up and running. This kind of thing is genuinely difficult. It’s going to take time and energy and we’re not getting any younger. Especially me.

“Do you really think it’s fair to Little Zhou or yourself to sit back and waste almost an entire year of your careers? You could be making bank right now. Little Zhou still has a lot more championships left in him. You guys don’t need to stick by me and try to make the impossible happen. I don’t have anything to offer you two in return.”

His little speech was met with blank stares. Zhou Zekai looked a little tense, a little sorrowful, and Su Mucheng just looked irritated.

“Neither of us said you have to return anything. What we’ve done up until now, we’ve done of our own free will, without the expectation of repayment. Don’t you understand that no amount of success in the world can replace what we have together? This bond we’ve forged, it’s not something I want to let go of.” Su Mucheng exhaled. “And I don’t think you want to, either.”

“I don’t,” Ye Xiu admitted, “but sometimes we don’t have a choice.”

“We have a choice now!”

“Keep your voice down.”

“We have a choice now!” Su Mucheng hissed, a lot more quietly. “Make the one that feels right, not the one your brain says you should. Make the choice you want to make, Ye Xiu.”

Ye Xiu froze. Su Mucheng also froze, once what she said caught up to her.

Both of them looked at Zhou Zekai at the same time.

“Uh,” Ye Xiu said. “Pretend you didn’t hear that.”

Zhou Zekai nodded agreeably. “Names don’t matter. I knew.”

“…Excuse me? You knew? Since when?”

“Keep your voice down,” Su Mucheng said, clearly holding back laughter.

“Shut up, you brat. This must be your fault. When did you call me Ye Xiu in front of him before?” Ye Xiu demanded.

“How would I know? I call you Ye Xiu only in private.”

“An accident,” Zhou Zekai explained. “No worries. I never said.”

Ye Xiu smacked a hand against his forehead and decided to just let it pass. If Zhou Zekai already knew, then he knew. What was the use of arguing about it now? He was hardly the worst person they could have slipped up in front of. As long as nobody else heard some “accident,” then there was nothing to be afraid of.

Actually, it no longer mattered if people knew his real name, did it? He wasn’t a part of Excellent Era anymore. There was no act to keep up, there was no famous secret identity to protect. He was just an ordinary twenty-something man now.

He was…ordinary. And the future spread wide before him, filled with endless possibility.

Ye Xiu let out a breath. Only now did he realize what weight he had carried on his shoulders, all this time. The freedom he could already taste on the tip of his tongue, that was only the beginning, wasn’t it?

Even after everything was over, you could always start again.

“Maybe,” he said, “it’s not such a bad idea.” And Ye Xiu smiled.

After finishing their drinks, they found themselves back at Ms. Wei’s humble abode. Su Mucheng had gone out grocery shopping with their host, while Zhou Zekai and Ye Xiu had stayed behind. It wasn’t very gentlemanly of them, but they had helped Ms. Wei move the furniture around yesterday afternoon while Su Mucheng napped, so she owed them.

Ye Xiu stood smoking by the living room window, his eyes on the city on the other side of the glass. His thoughts were surprisingly quiet; with the momentous decision he had more or less made just an hour earlier, he thought his mind would be going a mile a minute. But he felt still inside, like everything had slowed down for a moment. Like it was all right to take a rest and just—be.

He no longer had to be Ye Qiu. He no longer had to work around Excellent Era’s restrictions and limitations. He felt young again, full of the glow of dreams.

It was so strange that it was hitting him now, this rush of want-can-will. He wanted to continue fighting, he could continue if he wished, and he would because he did. Nothing had truly changed for Ye Xiu, even if his entire world felt like it had been flipped on its head. So what if he didn’t have Excellent Era? His two most important friends were beside him, and they were there to stay. There was nothing they couldn’t do when they were together.

Where just this morning everything had seemed grim, their options few and unpleasant, now there was…all this. A blank slate, a new beginning.

Maybe it was the caffeine. That must be it.

Ye Xiu dug around in his pocket until he pulled out a familiar account card. He looked at it for a long while, worrying at the edges with his fingertips, stroking the faintly raised Glory logo outlined in gold.

“First-edition?”

He glanced up. Zhou Zekai was standing in the center of the living room, hair wet and dressed in comfortable stay-at-home clothes. He walked over to Ye Xiu, eyes on the account card in his hands.

“Yup.” Ye Xiu held the card up to the light to give him a better look.

Zhou Zekai leaned on the wall on the other side of the window. It was a narrow window, so there wasn’t much space between them. He easily took the card from Ye Xiu’s hand.

Unlike when he handed over One Autumn Leaf to Sun Xiang, Ye Xiu didn’t hesitate or struggle. Zhou Zekai handled the account card like it was something precious.

Then Zhou Zekai met his eyes. “New start?”

Ye Xiu smiled at him. In the faint sunlight, Zhou Zekai’s crystal-blue eyes gleamed like glass. His face, still youthful yet more handsome than ever before, was luminous.

In Ye Xiu’s opinion, Zhou Zekai was a rare kind of human: Someone whose outer appearance reflected their character perfectly. He was a wonderful person, with a pure heart and a righteous determination that would never guide him wrong. Ye Xiu couldn’t have chosen someone better to take this journey with.

“A new start,” he confirmed.

Zhou Zekai returned his smile with one of his own, smaller but not at all nervous. He passed the account card back over and his delicate fingers brushed Ye Xiu’s longer ones.

It happened in the blink of an eye. Before Ye Xiu could retract his hand, Zhou Zekai grabbed his wrist.

A little startled and a lot curious, Ye Xiu tilted his head. “I’m going to need that hand back, too.”

Humor flashed in Zhou Zekai’s expression before it smoothed out to something more serious. “Ye Qiu—”

“You’re allowed to call me Ye Xiu, you know.”

“Ye Xiu,” Zhou Zekai quickly amended. “I still…remember.”

He remembered…? “What?” Ye Xiu asked, puzzled.

“How it feels to realize my dream…with my teammates beside me.”

Ye Xiu continued staring blankly for a moment longer before it suddenly hit him. That conversation following their Season 5 victory, years ago now. In a lonely training room at Excellent Era…he’d revealed his hopes to Zhou Zekai. He’d bared the roots of his dream, and told Zhou Zekai never to forget what it felt like to win. To make a dream come true.

What a thing to remember, after all this time.

Ye Xiu lifted his free hand and took a step closer to place it on Zhou Zekai’s shoulder. He squeezed gently, gazing into his eyes with all the pride and gratitude he felt. But he didn’t get the chance to try and say something.

“On this road…Senior…you’ve been—” Zhou Zekai seemed to stumble over his words, frowning as he tried to put them in order. “You’re the most important person. To me.”

“Zekai,” Ye Xiu breathed. Now he definitely wouldn’t be able to say anything.

Zhou Zekai ducked his head. They were close enough, and Zhou Zekai tall enough, that his bangs brushed Ye Xiu’s. “It’s true.”

Without hesitation, Ye Xiu pulled his wrist from Zhou Zekai’s grip and wrapped both arms around him tightly. He didn’t think he’d ever needed to hug someone so urgently in his entire life.

He didn’t think he’d ever met someone like Zhou Zekai in his entire life. He likely never would again.

Ye Xiu pressed his face into Zhou Zekai’s shoulder and breathed him in like it was the last time they’d ever see each other again.

(But of course it wasn’t. They were still far from the end of this road.)

“I know.”