Gao Yingjie allowed himself a moment to watch Qiao Yifan sit opposite Team Tiny Herb, sit among the smiles of Team Happy. How long had it been since they shared their dreams of being on the same team, fighting alongside each other for glory? How long had it been since two sprouts diverged, with one left to wither under the shade of a gentle tree that didn’t know how to part the shadows it cast?
But Yifan was no longer the stunted sprout Yingjie remembered leaving the team.
His eyes still darted everywhere, but his gaze was firm and observant. His back was straight, but not stiff, reaching for the sun without fear of being burned. He still fiddled with the elastic band between his fingers, but his fingers no longer shook and strained.
At last, Yifan was no longer scrambling for his own place amid cracks and gaps. He had found his own patch of soil in the garden of Team Happy. Settled into his own skin. Unfurled his leaves and spread his roots deep.
Yifan was finally in bloom and Yingjie felt his heart skip a beat. He had never seen his friend look so handsome.
And then minutes later, Yingjie had to take his words back. Yifan, face flushed with victory, eyes alight with joy, now that was far more handsome.
“I’m screwed,” Yingjie muttered to himself.
When they had started out, Gao Yingjie and Qiao Yifan found themselves as two primarily quiet and introverted boys somehow put into Team Tiny Herb’s training camp.
They had been tested at computers next to each other and after the test, couldn’t help but compare notes. Their similar ages and dispositions made them feel comfortable and conversation was easy until they were told to leave the testing area. And suddenly the reality of the situation was pressed upon them again.
They sat together in the waiting room, Yingjie messing with his jacket cuffs and Yifan stretching elastics between his fingers. The silence pressed down on them, making the weight of expectation unbearable.
Mercy came in the form of the judge with his clipboard telling them they’d both passed.
From then on, Yingjie and Yifan were close. Their dorm rooms were across the hall from each other. They ate their meals together. They sat at computers next to each other. At night, they consoled each other over mistakes and cramped hands. It was the beauty of a friendship forged from enduring together.
In the quiet moments, happy or sad, Yingjie could feel something deep in his heart for Yifan. A fragile seed ready to take root, just like the names of all the plants and medicines used in their team. When Yifan smiled, Yingjie could only smile back. When Yifan snapped rubber bands and elastic hair ties, Yingjie could only buy him another pack and refresh the stash Yifan though he had cleverly hid in the back of his closet.
This was not one-sided. Yifan was always there with words of encouragement or a bottle of water. It was Yifan who stayed up late, helping Yingjie analyze videos of matches, strategizing and advancing their comprehension. When Yingjie was too nervous to answer a question, Yifan was there, his notes open and right under Yingjie’s nose.
At last, the seed had sprouted.
Yingjie found himself watching Yifan more often and in more ways. The movements of Yifan’s hands and the rapid staccato of his taps against the keyboard. The way the light in the training room always seemed to make Yifan’s jaw look better. How on their late night trips for snacks, the shine of neon lights or cooking fires reflected on Yifan’s recently wetted lips caused something to stir in Yingjie from the top of his head down to his toes.
And then they were given their accounts. Yingjie’s proficiency found him playing a Witch, just like their captain, Wang Jiexi. He was good, more than good, perhaps great even. The skill gap was wide, but there was something there that could be moulded. Jiexi saw it and capitalized on it.
Yifan found himself with the last available character, an Assassin. Yifan dove in, head first, determined to prove himself. Hoping a ray of light would also shine from his efforts, enough to at least glimmer next to Yingjie’s radiance. It never came.
No amount of sleepless nights, early mornings, technical drills, or training simulations could change the fact that Yifan found himself playing a class he had no connection to. He remained overshadowed by Yingjie. And no amount of soft spoken pleas from Yingjie would ever pull Yifan out of the pit that Team Tiny Herb had thrown him into once he failed to perform.
Yifan was relegated to less than a substitute, he was an errand boy and water carrier. His playtime during competitions was less than zero. Yingjie was elevated as the next in line to inherit Vaccaria, so even though he also had not played in any matches, that status alone lifted him up.
After that, Yingjie would sit at Yifan’s door some nights, breathing in and out quietly, just listening to the furious click-clack of Yifan’s keyboard and mouse. Once in a while, he would hold his breath and wish he was brave enough to extend his hand to Yifan, one more time. Pull his friend up like he had before and bring them back on equal footing, as they should have always been.
Days after the disastrous exercise of the entire second string of Tiny Herb fighting the great Lord Grim several times in a row, Yingjie found Yifan at a computer, turning a non-club Glory account card between his fingers. Yingjie found himself lost in observing the repetitive motion before remembering what he came for.
“Yifan!” Yifan startled, but Yingjie caught him with an arm around his shoulders, pulling him back into his seat. Yifan was jumpy, but not usually this jumpy. Apparently the fights with Lord Grim and his friends had shaken his friend more than Yingjie thought. “Did you eat lunch yet? We can go try out that new noodle place a few blocks down. I heard they have-”
“Yingjie.” Yifan’s voice was oddly quiet. “If… If you had to choose between-”
Yingjie aimed for levity. “Pork or chicken noodles?”
Yifan shot Yingjie a dirty look and Yingjie mimed zipping his lips. “Choose to be seen, but have to start all over, or choose to stay where you are, where no one sees you. Which would you pick?”
The account card slipped from Yifan’s fingers and fell to the table with a louder clatter than anticipated. Yifan quickly snatched it up and slipped it into his pocket. “You said you wanted noodles, right? Let’s go get noodles!”
As Yingjie watched Yifan’s figure retreat, he thought only one thing. “ But I see you . And all I see is you .”
Suddenly, Yifan was secretive and elusive. This was unnoticed by the greater portion of the club and team, they had already discounted Yifan. He was essentially persona-non-grata to them. Captain Jiexi was also surprisingly silent when it came to Yifan, turning a blind eye more than once.
Still, Yifan put his all into training and practice during the day, but he was often quick to return to his dorm room at night. Yingjie could not catch him for meals nor persuade him for their usual late night snack hunts. Yifan was suddenly a ghost and the only way that Yingjie knew the other man was still fighting to survive was the continued sound of his keyboard late at night.
It all came to a head during the All-Star Weekend. No one had anticipated that Yifan would sign up for the Rookie Challenge, much less reveal that he had started learning a brand new class, the Ghostblade.
The fight against Li Xuan was far more than brutal, it was a massacre. Yingjie ran after Yifan, sure his friend would need a shoulder to lean on, but found he was already being consoled by someone else with a familiar voice that he couldn’t place. Yingjie found his hands curled into fists without realizing it and was startled by the pinch of his nails against his palm.
Jealousy, the most persistent and ugly of weeds, had taken root next to the gentle seedling in his heart. And worst of all, Yingjie knew that he could not advise Yifan now. Not from the place where he sat.
The stranger had encouraged Yifan to keep going down his new path. “All great players started from zero,” he had said.
Yingjie would have told him to give it up, Tiny Herb had no need for another Ghostblade.
But there was one thing that weighed on Yingjie’s mind as he walked back to the team seats. Even though the match was very one-sided, it had been the best that Yifan had ever played.
The day that Yifan left Tiny Herb, Yingjie was embarrassed to say he felt he could have tried harder. Tried harder to make Yifan stay. Tried harder to get all the other team members to respect Yifan. Tried harder to get Wang Jiexi to invest just a fraction more time on Yifan.
But in the end, all Yingjie could do was pull on Yifan’s sleeve and say, “Please.”
The warmth of Yifan’s hand on top of his was pleasant, but it served as a sharp reminder of what was happening.
“Even if… Even if I wanted to. Captain Wang has decided to not renew my contract.” Yingjie watched the band between the fingers of Yifan’s other hand carefully. Yifan stretched it taught but it did not snap. “I’m sorry, Yingjie.” Yifan’s fingers relaxed and then clenched. “I don’t think… I’ll be able to be on stage with you for a while.” Yifan offered Yingjie a smile, it looked more like a grimace.
Yingjie walked with Yifan to the door. Each footstep seemed to trample over the seedling in Yingjie’s heart. With one final fragile burst of courage, Yingjie pulled on Yifan’s arm. “Where will you go? I… I could-”
“I’m going… To an internet cafe.”
The bewildered expression on Yingjie’s face stayed in place well into the night.
News after that was sparse. A line here or there. A whisper in QQ chats. The largest piece of news was the article about Team Happy after they beat Team Everlasting.
Naturally, Yingjie saved it. The article was neatly clipped from the issue of eSports Home and saved alongside other treasures that reminded him of Yifan. A snapped elastic band. Tickets to a movie they both snuck out after hours to see. A receipt from the first time they ever went to their favorite restaurant in downtown City B.
Yingjie moved some of it all aside and found his greatest treasure. A strip of photos from a photobooth. Yingjie had plenty of pictures with Yifan. Some were on their personal IG accounts, some on Weibo. But Yifan had never smiled as brightly as he did in those photos as he did here.
A fingernail gently traced the shape of Yifan’s face for a second before Yingjie could feel something akin to shame and embarrassment creeping up his spine. The box was quietly closed and shoved back under his bed.
The article clipping that had been the only piece of news after so long was soon joined by more. Many more. Team Happy’s practically meteoric rise through the Challenger League and into the Alliance was one of the most highly covered news stories. Through it all, sometimes only a line, sometimes a paragraph, but Yifan was seen. Yifan was acknowledged.
Yingjie felt conflicted. Joy was knowing that Yifan had finally been given a chance, a real chance. Agony was knowing that Yifan was able to grasp this chance only because he stood up and let himself leave. Selfishness, self pity, and loathing were not far behind.
Yingjie found himself wondering if things could have been different if Yifan had stayed. Would Captain Wang have finally acknowledged him? Or would Yifan have finally had his spirit broken for good and given up on Glory?
“Or would he… have given up on me?”
It was with this mindset that Yingjie, found himself sitting across from Yifan for their playoff match. The tenth pro-season was filled with so many ups and downs for both Tiny Herb and Happy. Yingjie was determined to bring his team to the top, to make sure that Captain Wang knew he had not put his faith in the wrong person.
But the entire time, Yingjie and Yifan had missed each other in each match.
Although he had cleared his mind and committed himself to honoring Yifan as not just a friend, but an opponent, by doing his best, Yingjie watched as Kind Tree fell to Yifan’s masterful boundary usage. Yifan was no longer a weed, but a vibrant wildflower.
“Thank you for the match,” Yingjie typed out, but he couldn’t hit enter.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t share this victory with you.” The words flashed in front of Yingjie’s eyes in the public chat. As the referee came to shoo Yingjie out, one more message came up. “I missed you.”
“Yifan… Yifan!” Yingjie ran out of the room, barely remembering to grab his keyboard and mouse. But Yifan was waiting there to shake his hand outside of his booth. “Yifan, I-”
Yifan smiled and Yingjie felt his heart skipping a beat again at the touch of Yifan’s hand. “Let’s continue to do our best, Yingjie.”
“Our best…” Yingjie clenched his other hand. The seedling in his heart had also finally grown strong and Yingjie finally drew strength from it. As Yifan turned to walk away, Yingjie shouted, “If I had done my best, would you have stayed?”
Yifan paused. “No one was asking you to do more just so I could stay.” Yingjie realized his gaze dropped to his shoes in nervousness and looked up at Yifan’s soft smile and broad shoulders. “You should stop blaming yourself.”
The referee coughed and Yifan startled, but it was Yingjie that mustered up the rest of his courage and pulled Yifan aside into the back passages behind the stage. Happy and Tiny Herb had both jumped up to object, but Yifan waved them back. Baozi looked ready to run over, but Ye Xiu was quietly pensive. Wang Jiexi’s eyes darted between them, but he also stayed seated. Xu Bin only offered a thumbs up.
Finding a quiet hallway, Yingjie finally allowed himself to breathe and leaned against a wall. Yifan looked around before leaning next to Yingjie.
“I… I do blame myself. I blame myself for not doing enough for you.” Yingjie pulled on his uniform sleeves. “I blame myself for overshadowing you.”
Yifan huffed a tiny bit, a ghost of a laugh. “That’s not your fault. I could have been more outstanding.”
“We… I…” Yingjie closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “You always stood out to me.”
Yifan’s brows furrowed. “Yingjie?”
“I didn’t want you to stay just for you. I… I wanted you to stay for me.” Yingjie turned to the man standing next to him and looked him in the eyes directly. “I like you, Qiao Yifan. I like you a lot.” Yingjie took Yifan’s hands carefully, the elastic band he had been fiddling with still caught between his fingers was a nice point of familiarity. “Do you… Could you… like me too?”
Yifan rubbed Yingjie’s knuckles with his thumbs and the memory of sore hands being massaged was brought to the forefront. Lost in a gentle memory, Yingjie almost missed Yifan pulling Yingjie’s hands up to kiss the knuckles softly. Yingjie felt his cheeks immediately turn pink.
“You know, if I was honest with myself, there was only one reason I wanted to stay with Tiny Herb.” Yifan’s face drew closer and Yingjie’s eyes widened. “It wasn’t for my assassin. It wasn’t for Captain Wang. It wasn’t for me.” Yifan’s lips hovered over Yingjie’s, the feeling of Yifan’s breath coasting over his lips made Yingjie feel hot and numb at the same time. “It was for you.”
Yingjie leaned in the rest of the way and Yifan didn’t back away.
If both of them returned just in time for the group arena section to start with red lips and messy hair, thankfully their team members didn’t say a thing. (Wei Chen tried, but had his foot tactfully stepped on by Tang Rou.)