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Smile at the Sunset

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Xu Boyuan did not quite hit his keyboard when someone knocked loudly on his door, but it was a close thing. He’d been idly playing Glory while watching for a specific wild boss spawn and debating the merits of actually picking up some of the mess in his apartment, and hadn’t been expecting anything would interrupt him. But something had come to him anyway, and he was curious who or what it was.

It took him at most a dozen seconds to make sure he wasn’t in immediate danger of dying in Glory, and Xu Boyuan spent all of them trying to figure out why there had been a knock. He hadn’t ordered anything, his neighbours would usually text him if they needed something, and he couldn’t think of any other reason someone would come by.

Opening the door answered all of his questions, though it added a few more, all of them variations of Why. Xu Boyuan sighed, didn’t quite glare at Ye Xiu, and said, “You could have warned me,” with more exasperation than heat.

At least he now had an explanation for the :) Ye Xiu had sent him yesterday afternoon, though. It didn’t count as a warning, since going ??? back had just gotten the response, hours later, of :) You’ll see.  

He could indeed now see the eternal source of his confusion and frustration—as well as support and joy—leaning against the wall opposite his apartment door and laughing at him. Ye Xiu didn’t seem apologetic at all as he said, “You could have guessed.”

Xu Boyuan scowled at him, because even with the warning-in-hindsight Ye Xiu had given him, guessing where Ye Xiu was going to be at any given point in time was practically impossible. He bounced between the Glory Pro Alliance Headquarters, Team Happy’s club (and, sometimes, New Excellent Era’s), his family and their business, and—when he felt like it—a rotating series of Glory matches that his protégés were involved in.

So he could have guessed, he supposed, since Team Happy was playing 301 Degrees this weekend, he lived in the city 301 Degrees was based in, and—most importantly, now that he was thinking about it at all—Xu Boyuan had promised to buy Ye Xiu dinner the next time they were in the same city.

None of this kept Xu Boyuan from crossing his arms, still unimpressed, and saying, “Who did you bribe to get my address?”

“You’ve sent me mail, Boyuan.” Ye Xiu smirked. “Did you forget that?”

Xu Boyuan groaned and waved Ye Xiu into his apartment. “I’d kind of hoped you had forgotten that.”

The mail in question had been a “Please don’t come back” card sent to Team Happy after Ye Xiu had retired, since that had been the most reliable way to get a physical object to Ye Xiu that he’d been able to think of. The card had been half a joke and half a desire to be able to keep playing Glory like a normal person without all the Ye Xiu-induced chaos that had followed his first retirement. Xu Boyuan had been a little drunk when he’d sent it, egged on by guild friends who were equal parts sad about Ye Xiu retiring again and worried that he still wouldn’t be able to keep himself away.

(Ye Xiu had responded by sending Xu Boyuan a QQ message saying I’m not planning on causing chaos. :) and then, later, a phone number. Xu Boyuan had called him, and somewhere in the arguments and grousing and genuinely helpful advice, they’d become good friends.)

Right now, Ye Xiu seemed more interested in Xu Boyuan’s apartment than talking about the logistics of why he was even here. He glanced around as he entered and said, “You’ve got a nice place,” sounding like he meant it.

Xu Boyuan winced. He hadn’t cleaned in a week, and that meant his couch was a pile of laundry he’d done three days ago and hadn’t yet put away, his countertop was littered with onion peels and flyaway bits of vegetable matter from the last time he’d cooked, and his computer desk was covered by scribbled notes about raid plans (some of which had migrated onto the magnetized whiteboard hung on the wall next to his monitors). He kept meaning to be better about cleaning up, but he hadn’t yet figured out how to make the habit stick.

But the apartment was in a good location, and it had a reasonable amount of space underneath his stored-up mess, so Xu Boyuan still said, “Thanks,” because his parents had taught him to be polite. And then—because even though he knew Ye Xiu didn’t care about the mess, Xu Boyuan himself still did—he added, “It would’ve been nicer if you’d given me even ten minutes of warning.”

Ye Xiu plopped himself down in Xu Boyuan’s computer chair and leaned back experimentally. “I could have, but—as you love to remind me—I forget that I have a cell phone.” He smiled, spinning the chair to face Xu Boyuan. “I figured you’d be happy to see me anyway.”

He was right, of course, but Xu Boyuan didn’t want to say that. Instead, he shoved Ye Xiu’s shoulder. Ye Xiu might be a god in Glory, but in the real world he was just a great big nuisance. “Get off my chair.”

“And sit where?”

“On the couch?”

Ye Xiu raised his eyebrows expressively.

Xu Boyuan swore at him and stalked over to carry his laundry off his couch and into his bedroom, where he’d forget about it again until it was time to sleep and he realised his bed was covered in laundry he should put away. It was fine. This whole experience was fine. Ye Xiu was in his apartment, watching him with lazy eyes, and he had no idea what Ye Xiu’s goal was.

Well, he knew it was at least partially to make Xu Boyuan pay for their dinner, but Xu Boyuan was pretty sure something else was going on too. For all his bluntness, Ye Xiu wouldn’t show up unannounced and without an invitation (no matter how casual) without a deeper purpose. Not that Xu Boyuan was planning on digging to figure out what that was, of course, because Ye Xiu was perfectly capable of talking about whatever he wanted without prompting.

He took a breath, carefully put aside the worry he didn’t want to admit to feeling, and returned to the living room. “Is it acceptable now?” he asked dryly, pulling his bedroom door closed with a little more force than he’d meant to use.

“Yup.” Ye Xiu moved across the room quickly enough that Xu Boyuan barely had time to process it. He sprawled down on the couch and patted the other side, closer to where Xu Boyuan still stood. “Come on, tell me how things are going. Are your people still working with my water combat training regimen?”

“You did not come here to talk about that,” Xu Boyuan said, heading over to his desk to log out of Glory before a mob spawned too close and got him killed. His character had moved, and he suspected that Ye Xiu had killed something for him, but there wasn’t any point in asking; it was done, and he didn’t mind. “Our bargain was about food, which you haven’t even mentioned yet.”

“It’s three-forty in the afternoon,” Ye Xiu said peacefully. “Unless you’re eating at unusual hours, it’s nowhere close to time to get dinner.”

Xu Boyuan rolled his eyes at Ye Xiu’s tendency to turn accidents into schemes as he joined Ye Xiu on the couch. “So you came over in the middle of the afternoon on a match day to hang out.”

“Why wouldn’t it be a match day?” Ye Xiu tilted his head, sending some barely-too-long strands of hair falling over his eyes. Xu Boyuan had no idea how he stood that distraction. “I’m not playing, and it’s easier to show up on match days.”

Xu Boyuan reached out to brush Ye Xiu’s bangs out of his face. “Are we going to watch it?”

Ye Xiu smiled up at him with delight. “Did you have other plans?”

“Fuck off, that’s hours away, what are we going to do until then, did you think ahead at all before showing up?” Xu Boyuan kicked Ye Xiu’s leg, the softness of five seconds ago completely forgotten. “Yes, I had plans.”

“Were those plans playing Glory?” If Ye Xiu cared about Xu Boyuan’s kick, he didn’t show it, because he hadn’t moved one bit. “Go ahead, don’t let me stop you.”

“I hate you.” Xu Boyuan stabbed his finger straight at Ye Xiu’s chest. “I am not playing Glory while you watch, because if I do that I will fuck up and it won’t be any fun for either of us.” Mostly because while Ye Xiu might just watch quietly but very intensely, he also might start giving helpful commentary, and both of those were stressful—especially if the boss did spawn and Xu Boyuan was leading a team against it.

Ye Xiu caught Xu Boyuan’s hand just before it hit him. “They aren’t very solid plans then, are they?”

“I was just waiting for a boss spawn,” Xu Boyuan grumbled, “but I guess a more important boss spawned here.”

Ye Xiu laughed and gently squeezed Xu Boyuan’s hand. “You can defeat this boss by showing him around town,” he said, finally sitting up properly. “I never got to explore much when I was here to play.”

Xu Boyuan tugged his hand free with a scowl he didn’t really mean. Even when he was annoyed by how Ye Xiu could show up and set all his expectations on their head, it was always interesting—if not outright fun—to see how things shook out when the dust settled. “Will people recognise you?” he asked, because he’d never been good at saying No to Ye Xiu. “You got a lot of media attention in Happy. Not to mention Worlds.”

“Am I really that distinctive?”

“Less distinctive out of the game than in it.” Of course, that wasn’t hard. Even if one set aside the reputation for skill and chaos that he’d conjured, Lord Grim had only started looking like the God-level character he was once Team Happy had made silver gear that looked like a coherent set of armor instead of the awful clashing mishmash he’d worn before rising up in the pro scene.

But Lord Grim wasn’t the question.

Xu Boyuan studied Ye Xiu, considering his face, his bearing, his utterly shapeless hoodie that looked like he might have bought it a decade ago. Xu Boyuan could recognise Ye Xiu at a glance from the way he held himself, from his hooded eyes and little smile. But those details, he admitted, were not what most people remembered about Ye Xiu in the media. They remembered the team jacket, the characters he played, and his unstoppable drive towards the top ranks of Glory.

Ye Xiu met his gaze calmly, more serious than Xu Boyuan expected. “Do I pass muster?”

“Fuck off.” Xu Boyuan stood up, hoping he’d be fast enough that Ye Xiu wouldn’t catch the slight blush spreading across his cheeks, but knowing that there was no way he could move quickly enough to avoid those sharp eyes. “If we get mobbed by Glory fans it’s all your fault and I’m going to tell them that you’re hanging out with me because you’re thinking of defecting to Blue Rain.”

Ye Xiu laughed. “As if they’d believe that from some random kid on the street.”

“I’m not a kid,” Xu Boyuan muttered, and now he could play off the heat in his face as irritation. “I’m barely younger than you are.”

“A child,” Ye Xiu continued, and the crinkling at the corners of his eyes was all that gave lie to his deadpan words. “An infant. How do you even play Glory, young as you are?”

“Blue Rain and its fans are immune to such trash talk,” Xu Boyuan loftily informed Ye Xiu. He grabbed his Blue Rain hoodie from the back of his chair and pulled it over his head—in theory he’d meant to wash it, but in practice even the white parts rarely got dirty—before calling “Where do you want to go, old man?” over his shoulder as he went into his room to find his keys and wallet.

The cackle that chased him was worth it. Xu Boyuan grinned, shoved the necessary items into his pockets, and walked back out to find that Ye Xiu was leaning over his computer desk. “You put a lot of work into these plans for someone who says he’s tired of leading,” Ye Xiu said before Xu Boyuan could ask. “Also, do you want me to tell anyone that I’m stealing you away from waiting for the boss?”

“You are not allowed to use my account to talk to my friends.” Xu Boyuan reached past Ye Xiu for his mouse and keyboard, ignoring the way Ye Xiu didn’t actually move away. If Ye Xiu wanted to stay pressed close against him, Xu Boyuan wasn’t going to stop him. He typed out a quick note to the guild leadership’s groupchat: I won’t be around anymore today, a friend unexpectedly came to visit. Good luck with Rulia.

If they hadn’t been waiting for that lv75 wild boss, he wouldn’t have said anything. A year and a half ago, Xu Boyuan had intentionally shifted to being responsible for leadership only during the daytime, and not even every day; any other times he was online and helping were a bonus for the guild. He’d even worked to ensure that match days were always one of his free days, even with their rotating schedule of responsibilities—and lately he’d been slowly trying to agree to fewer days still—so it shouldn’t be too much trouble for the guild to find someone else to take his leadership role today.

It took maybe ten seconds for Changing Spring to send back a very typical k in acknowledgement. As soon as he saw it, Xu Boyuan closed the chat; he didn’t want Ye Xiu to see any guild secrets. Not that Xu Boyuan expected Ye Xiu to care, but it was the principle of the thing. Xu Boyuan shut his computer down and asked, “So, is there a specific place you wanted to see?”

“What’s a place you like?”

“Are you going to put in any effort?” Xu Boyuan asked, exasperated, but he still slipped on his shoes and led Ye Xiu out and down the stairs. “And no, coming here doesn’t count as putting in effort.”

Ye Xiu closed his mouth, a smile dancing around his lips. Xu Boyuan grinned back at him, awash with pride at accurately predicting what he’d been about to say.

As they reached the street, Ye Xiu suggested, “A park?”

“Yeah, okay.” At least this was something he didn’t need to really think about. Ye Xiu hadn’t specified what size or kind of park, so Xu Boyuan let his feet lead the way to the nearest little neighbourhood green space.

They walked in companionable silence through the bustling city. Xu Boyuan didn’t live near the stadium, where no doubt everyone would be looking forward to seeing how Happy’s eclectic style would overturn 301 Degrees’ European-influenced tactics. Here, the conversations they overheard were more ordinary chatter about groceries, currently-airing dramas, and schoolwork yet to be done. It was nice, Xu Boyuan thought, to have such reminders of the world outside the game.

It was easy to spot the riverside park’s greenery in the midst of buildings. Though autumn was settling in and cooling air and water alike, the trees hadn’t yet started to shed their leaves. As he entered, Xu Boyuan heard the sound of running water finally overtake the sound of vehicles, and a slight tension in his chest he rarely noticed relaxed. He loved it here, especially in the hot summer months where he could sit under the old willows and dangle his feet in the river shallows.

Today, there weren’t too many people at the park. A scattered handful of kids played near the river’s edge, parents looking on; a few older men had set up a folding table and were playing some board game, likely go; and a pair of young adults sat half-hidden behind an old tree, heads tilted intimately together like they were on a date. Belatedly, Xu Boyuan realised that, in the eyes of other park-goers, he and Ye Xiu might seem like they were here for a date too.

He forced the thought away, instead looking to Ye Xiu. “Here we are,” Xu Boyuan said, even though that was obvious, because he felt like he needed to say something.

“It’s pretty,” Ye Xiu said, brushing past Xu Boyuan to examine the park. “Did you play here as a kid?”

“Nah, I didn’t grow up here.” Xu Boyuan drifted down to the waterside, avoiding the area where kids were splashing around. “I moved for uni, then stuck around because I liked the area and it was close enough to the Blue Brook branch office.” They mostly used the little office as a gathering spot for in-person gaming events and watching Blue Rain in the playoffs, but Xu Boyuan went in at least once a week to check the mail and generally make sure all the paperwork got done.

“Did you graduate?” Ye Xiu lit a cigarette, standing considerately downwind of Xu Boyuan.

Xu Boyuan sighed and crouched down to prod at rippling water. It wrapped around his fingers, chilly and smooth. “Yeah, and my parents are still sad that I’m employed by a Glory club instead of doing administration for a more typical business.”

Ye Xiu coughed once, then twice, and then burst out laughing properly as he got the cigarette out of his mouth. “You studied administration?”

“It’s a nice puzzle,” Xu Boyuan said mildly, looking up at Ye Xiu. He’d forgotten that topic had never come up with Ye Xiu before. “I like understanding how people and law and budget fit together to create a business.”

“How did your parents ever let you get away with this?” Ye Xiu asked, mirth still making his voice shake. But there was another tone under that, and Xu Boyuan frowned a bit at the tension surrounding Ye Xiu’s eyes. “There are so many other places you could use those skills, even within Blue Brook and Blue Rain.”

Xu Boyuan shrugged. “I got paid enough, and it was an easy offer to take. I just didn’t tell them exactly what job I’d accepted for a few weeks, until I was settled enough that they couldn’t outright disapprove.” As for the second half of what Ye Xiu had said— Xu Boyuan sighed and looked back down at the river’s flowing waters. It wasn’t a new thought.

Ye Xiu pulled on his cigarette, blew out a cloud of sour-smelling smoke. “I wish…”

Xu Boyuan didn’t say anything after Ye Xiu’s words trailed off. He didn’t know the full story behind Ye Xiu and Ye Qiu, but enough hints had been dropped to the public during and after the First World Championships that most people knew Ye Xiu’s family had weight and pride to throw around. Ye Xiu’s offhand remarks to Xu Boyuan himself meant that Xu Boyuan could probably figure out what sector, at least, they were involved with if he wanted to, but he didn’t. It didn’t matter to him and it wasn’t any of his business—until or unless Ye Xiu made it so, he supposed.

Their silence stretched on, peaceful despite the melancholy thoughts that had led them there. The shrieks and splashes of children, the distant rumble of cars going by, the men’s occasional applause at an exceptional move in their game—they were nothing but a background hum to the quiet paired solitude they wrapped around themselves.

Only when his legs finally started to ache from squatting at the water’s edge (his friends had teased him, years ago, about liking Blue Rain and joining Blue Brook just because he loved to be near running water) did Xu Boyuan stand up, wipe the river-water off his hands, and break the stillness. “I want to get another job soon,” he said, looking sidelong at Ye Xiu. “I love Glory, but… I think it’s time to leave the job of Glory to someone else.”

Ye Xiu smiled a little. “I might know a few things about that.”

“I thought you might.” Xu Boyuan shoved his hands in his pockets, feeling awkward in a way he hadn’t been with Ye Xiu in a long time. “But that’s business, and that’s… I don’t think you wanted to talk business today?”

“I didn’t plan to.” Ye Xiu scuffed out the butt of his cigarette, then—as he walked over to the nearest trash-can to throw it away—added, “It’s not a problem. I like spending time with someone else who understands both Glory and the need to have a life outside it.”

Xu Boyuan swallowed a little, following Ye Xiu. He fit those criteria, he supposed, but— “You aren’t the only retired pro.”

“Friends, rivals—” Ye Xiu tilted his head up to look at the sky, where the sun was almost hidden by the city skyscrapers. “It’s too easy to fall back into old habits when the only way we knew each other was Glory. And yes,” he said, glancing at Xu Boyuan with a smile, “we know each other because of Glory, but… it’s not the pro leagues. It doesn’t feel the same.”

There wasn’t much he could say to that. Xu Boyuan came up beside Ye Xiu and nudged him with an elbow. “There’s a lot of world out there,” he said, as Ye Xiu met his eyes. “And we’re young yet, aren’t we?”

Ye Xiu sighed, and leaned against Xu Boyuan. “We certainly aren’t old.”

Xu Boyuan shifted his weight to brace Ye Xiu automatically. He hadn’t expected this contact, but he liked it, and so when he said, “You’re being too melancholy about all this,” it came out softer and less scolding than he’d intended. “Let’s get some food, it’ll be late enough by the time we pick a place and order.”

“Mm.” Ye Xiu didn’t move. “We aren’t good at half-measures.” His words were quiet enough that Xo Boyuan wasn’t sure he would’ve heard them if they weren’t pressed together. “The other retired pros—they either cut themselves off entirely, or they find their way back somehow. There’s… I know there must be a middle ground, where I can help Happy and New Excellent Era without it taking over my life.”

“Definitely too melancholy.” Xu Boyuan wrapped his arm around Ye Xiu’s shoulders, and Ye Xiu huffed out a little laugh as Xu Boyuan used his grip to steer Ye Xiu out of the park. People could think what they liked about that, Xu Boyuan thought grouchily, even as he continued lovingly scolding Ye Xiu. “When did you last eat?”

“Not long past noon,” Ye Xiu said, sounding amused. “I do know how to take care of myself.”

Xu Boyuan ignored him and pulled out his phone to check the time—4:48pm, between walking and talking and quiet reflection in the park. He sighed a little at the texts teasing him about having a friend over, then returned his phone to his pocket. “We’re going to get food,” he declared. “Any preferences?”

“I’m not picky.” Ye Xiu didn’t move away, even once they were on the street again. Instead, he looped his arm around Xu Boyuan to keep them tethered together more firmly still. It was more comfortable than Xu Boyuan had expected it would be; it had been a long time since such intimacy had been commonplace in his life. “Pick wherever you like; I’m sure I’ll like it too.”

Xu Boyuan took Ye Xiu at his word, and led the way to his favorite hotpot restaurant. He didn’t visit it often, but whenever his friends or family visited he brought them here. It had good food, lots of options, and also a warm atmosphere that Xu Boyuan always thought brought out good conversation. Once seated and surrounded by bright lights and chattering families, it was hard to stay downcast.

As they ate, Xu Boyuan told Ye Xiu stories about his time in university: Study groups where they argued about readings and tried to make hilarious mnemonics for complicated concepts; long afternoons in seminar classes where they took turns to bring snacks to share during break, and competed to find the weirdest thing everyone would still try; a mid-term for mid-level stats hard enough that nobody passed, only saved by the professor realising he’d sent them the mid-term for an upper-level class; elaborate pre-finals rituals to ensure easy questions and good grades; esoteric memes that he tried—and failed—to explain to Ye Xiu…

The stories kept flowing, and Ye Xiu’s attention stayed fixed on Xu Boyuan the whole time.

After, when the food was gone and the bill paid, they walked side by side (but not arm in arm, this time, and Xu Boyuan wasn’t certain if he was sad about that) back to Xu Boyuan’s apartment. “We don’t need to watch the match,” Xu Boyuan said, as they took off their shoes. “But…”

“I don’t want to stay that far away.” Ye Xiu sank into the couch and smiled up at Xu Boyuan. “Go ahead, put it on; I’ll annoy you to death by predicting the outcome and not telling you why.”

“You could be a guest commentator,” Xu Boyuan grumbled, as he turned on his computer and found the stream. “But no, then you’d need to explain to an everyday audience and you would die from how nobody could keep up.”

Ye Xiu laughed. “It’s sweet you think you’d keep up.”

Xu Boyuan ignored that and sat next to Ye Xiu, close enough that their bodies brushed together. Ye Xiu was capable of clearly explaining his reasoning to newbies if he wanted to; it was just a matter of how long he’d need to spend talking. “I’d understand better than people who only watch the matches,” he pointed out instead. “You know, people like whoever would be cross-examining you for more thorough, but still simply worded, explanations.”

“True.” Ye Xiu tugged Xu Boyuan over until Xu Boyuan was half-leaning on him. “I’ll be nice,” Ye Xiu said, patting Xu Boyuan’s hair. “I’ll keep it to simple words.”

“Fuck you,” Xu Boyuan said, but there was no heat in it. “I’m not an idiot.”

“Or we could just watch quietly and keep the commentary to groupchats instead,” Ye Xiu said, oozing faux generosity.

Ye Xiu hadn’t pulled out his phone this entire time, Xu Boyuan belatedly realised. And, because of that, Xu Boyuan had barely checked his. He thought about what that meant, and how things would change if they did take out their phones, and then shook his head decisively. His hair must have tickled Ye Xiu’s face as he did, and that thought also made him smile. “Nah, I’d rather hear what you have to say.”

Ye Xiu’s quiet chuckle came with his hand settling into Xu Boyuan’s hair and smoothing it back into place. “That’s good,” he said, idly playing with loose strands. “I hadn’t planned to stay silent. I’d need to heckle their commentary, at the very least.”

Xu Boyuan laughed, warm and buoyant, as the pre-game hype started up: Recaps of the previous matches the two teams had played, poll results about who the favored victor was, guesses about match line-ups. As Ye Xiu’s well-honed tongue began laying into the commentators’ flawed reasoning, Xu Boyuan realised that not only could he get used to this—the company and physicality both—but that he wanted to.

They could talk about that later, after the bright lights of Glory faded and left them sitting together; two men in the last bloom of youth looking towards new lives. For now, there was a game to watch, and simple joy to be had in being together, and that was more than enough for him.