The arena is loud.
For the first time, Huang Shaotian maybe has a bit of sympathy for all those people who complain that fighting him is so noisy they can’t think. Personally, he’s never had that problem. Noise drives him forward, fills the empty spaces in his head. Loud and fast, like a brightly colored sports car, except he runs on tasty fruit juice instead of gasoline.
The clamor of the stadium gets his blood moving, way louder than it ever was in the audience. So much louder, so much cooler, so much more everything all at once. Excitement fritzes along his nerves, a buzzing repetition of I made it, I made it. Look at me, I made it.
As he approaches the Blue Rain stands, his eyes sweep over the crowd. He doesn’t know what he’s looking for, but he gets the unsettling feeling he doesn’t find it.
There’s no time to dwell on weird feelings. Not when he’s living his dream. An amazing dream. The best dream. Except in his dreams, his heart doesn’t thrum like a runaway bass line and the bright lights don’t feel like the beating midday sun when he goes out for lunch and forgets his sunglasses. In his dreams, he’s never had a partner. He’d go back if he could, just to tell his dream-self how wrong he was.
A hand on his shoulder draws him back, anchored by a familiar voice. “Shaotian, you still with me? It’s okay if you’re nervous.”
“Ha! Nervous? Me? Never.” There’s a hollow ring to the words, but not because they’re untrue. He’s distracted, searching the sea of faces instead of concentrating on the one beside him. “Are you?” he asks, after a moment.
“No.” Yu Wenzhou’s smile is wider than Huang Shaotian’s ever seen from him. “How could I be? The team is ready and I have a solid partner watching my back.”
Yu Wenzhou isn’t the only one grateful to have a partner. There was a time Huang Shaotian would have laughed at the thought of slow, plodding Yu Wenzhou debuting by his side but now there’s no one else he’d rather have next to him.
Huang Shaotian beams back at him.
As if on cue, the music changes into a slow, dramatic build and beams of light shoot wildly around the crowd, sending bands of blue and orange and green racing across Yu Wenzhou’s face and lighting up his hair.
Huang Shaotian bumps their shoulders together, his happiness spilling from his lips. “They won’t know what hit them. Come on, come on, let’s do this.”
Anticipation swoops in his belly when his name—his name and Troubling Rain, his Troubling Rain, here on stage in front of all these people—is announced over the loudspeaker. He forgets that he was looking for something in the first place, too caught up in the thrill of living his dream to chase a specter.
There’s no time to mourn what’s not there.
Or rather, who’s not there.
His debut year rushes to a close and he stops scanning the crowds for a glimpse of a familiar grizzled face. Yeah, he figured out who he was searching for and gave himself a stern talking to. He’s not a kid anymore and it’s time to face the facts.
“He’s not coming back, is he?” he asks Yu Wenzhou late one evening, after a long night of reviewing old matches. “To see us play, I mean.”
Yu Wenzhou doesn’t turn from his monitor but his fingers halt where they’re hovering over the keyboard, so Huang Shaotian knows he’s paying attention.
On the screen in front of him, the match between Blue Rain and Thunderclap plays on.
Analyzing the matches is a task Yu Wenzhou used to do alone, right up until the night Huang Shaotian stumbled on him passed out in his office, a dark smudge of ink on his forehead from where he’d faceplanted into his precious notebook. Huang Shaotian had scraped him off his desk and into his bed and vowed to himself he’d be a better vice-captain in the future.
He likes to think he’s kept his promise. Yu Wenzhou still occasionally collapses exhausted at his desk but he never does it alone. Not anymore.
Tonight is one of those nights when his captain is stubbornly refusing to go to sleep, plagued by their loss the week before. Huang Shaotian, equally as stubborn, refuses to leave him even though his eyes have gone heavy and fuzzy. His keyboard is beginning to look like a good pillow.
It’s even a little bit pillow-shaped, his brain informs him. What a smart brain he has.
Next to him, Yu Wenzhou is unmoving, like some kind of esports gargoyle. The guardian of Blue Rain, watching over them all.
When the silence stretches, Huang Shaotian assumes he isn’t going to answer.
And then Yu Wenzhou’s shoulders slump. “No,” he finally says. He doesn’t bother asking who Huang Shaotian is referring to. Wei Chen is gone but the mark he left on both of them remains. “No, I don’t believe he’s coming back.”
It’s the answer Huang Shaotian expected but it doesn’t make it hurt any less. Maybe that’s why he spills his thoughts into the air, a doomed attempt to lance the wound. “I thought he might have shown up to watch. Just once, you know. He’s a grumpy old bastard, doesn’t he want to make sure Blue Rain is in good hands? What if we were terrible—not that we were but we could have been! Doesn’t he care? Maybe he’s there and we can’t see him because he’s up in the cheap seats. It would be just like him to buy the cheapest ticket.”
Yu Wenzhou finally turns towards him. He looks tired but that’s probably the late hour and the harsh lighting of the office. “That’s why you always scan the audience, isn’t it? You’re looking for him.”
Huang Shaotian suddenly finds his computer monitor fascinating. “I didn’t think you noticed that.”
He doesn't bother to rate the stupid things he says, but if he did that would make the top ten. Yu Wenzhou notices everything. It annoyed Huang Shaotian back when he was younger and more arrogant, because who even pays that much attention unless they’re looking for weak spots? The thought of Yu Wenzhou picking him apart used to make his skin crawl, but he knows better now. Yu Wenzhou has as much chance of shutting off his big brain as Huang Shaotian would have trying to turn off his big mouth.
He stifles a yawn into his fist, blinking against the too-bright glare of his monitor. “The best, mind reading captain,” he mumbles. He’s gonna get that printed on a coffee mug and put it in the training room.
And so what if Yu Wenzhou finds his weaknesses? Huang Shaotian would list out every single one for him if he asked. In alphabetical order, even, because he’s great at organizing things. They’ve only been partners for two years—one year if he goes by their professional career—but if he’s learned anything in that time, it’s that Yu Wenzhou would never use his secrets against him. Yu Wenzhou watches out for him, protects him the same way Huang Shaotian does for him in return.
That’s what partners do.
The next time he blinks, he realizes the weird pressure on his cheek is from the clicky keyboard keys he’s resting his head on. He should probably get up and go to sleep but it’s a surprisingly comfortable keyboard.
He maybe hears a soft, “I’m sorry, Shaotian, I know you miss him,” as his arm is tugged over a warm, strong shoulder. “I’d drag him back here for you if I could.”
Later, he wakes up in his bed still fully dressed in his daytime clothes except for his shoes and his necklace which have both been removed.
Huang Shaotian has thought before, 'This is the best day,' but he was so wrong all those other times. All those other best days didn’t know how good it could be. Today. Tonight. This is the best day.
Blue Rain brings home their first championship.
The night passes in a blur of celebration and by the time the limo takes them all home the sky is starting to show the first wisps of pink. Huang Shaotian has the remnants of a buzz knocking around his head from all the fruity cocktails he drank, and his thighs ache from dancing. Even reserved Yu Wenzhou let himself have a little fun. His normally composed captain is happily flushed and there are a few strands of his hair that have flown free from its usual controlled style. He lists slightly in his seat and ends up with his head on Huang Shaotian’s shoulder while the rest of the team giggles and takes pictures.
Huang Shaotian wraps an arm around him to keep him from falling onto the floor of the car. No way is he going to let their captain fall and injure his big brain. Not on Huang Shaotian’s watch.
The very air around them feels supercharged, like the moment before a rainstorm.
Except unlike a storm, the lingering anticipation doesn’t pass. Not after their hangovers fade. Not after most of the team goes home for the summer break. Not after he’s neck deep in the admin work needed to prepare for next season. Huang Shaotian’s restlessness grows and grows until even his very patient captain sits him down and asks what’s going on.
The thing of it is, Huang Shaotian doesn’t know. All he knows is that, “Something’s coming, Captain, can’t you feel it?” He bounces in his chair, restless. In front of them, the proposed team roster for next year sits unfinished.
Yu Wenzhou shakes his head. “There isn’t anything coming. Only summer vacation and another season.”
Unlike so many other times, his hand on Huang Shaotian’s arm fails to soothe him. He shakes it off and paces the room until his feet hurt and both the paperwork and his captain give him rude, affronted looks.
Anticipation sours into bone-deep exhaustion. A quick message to the Blue Rain team chat confirms he hasn’t missed a birthday or anything important like that. There’s no reason for this strange mood but he can’t shake it. Not even Yu Wenzhou, who’s learned more tricks than anyone for how to settle him down, is able to help. It’s frustrating for both of them.
It all comes to a head a week after their win, when Huang Shaotian’s phone vibrates in his pocket.
“Huang Shaotian, you have a visitor in the lobby,” the voice of the building’s receptionist says in his ear.
“I’m coming, I’m coming, don’t let him leave!” he practically shouts into the speaker.
He’s so excited he fumbles the phone and nearly sends a string of gibberish to the entire pro player chat. Old Ye would probably say it was no different than his normal chat style, but what does he know? He doesn’t even know how to work a phone so his opinion doesn’t count.
All the pieces fall into place.
One of his favorite parts of Glory is that moment when he’s riding an adrenaline high, his fingers flying so much faster than his brain. He doesn’t need to think about what to do next because his hands already know. It’s like he’s born for it. More than one fan has asked him to explain his thought process but how can he explain it? There’s just that crystal clear moment when everything he does aligns and he strikes and he wins.
He’s never had that kind of moment outside of Glory. But just like in competition, the stars align and he knows why he’s been on edge, he knows what he’s been waiting for—who he’s been waiting for—since he put his hand on the championship trophy.
He tears out of his room and sprints to the elevator.
“Shaotian,” Yu Wenzhou calls out as he races past. “What are you rushing off for?”
Huang Shaotian skids to a halt, breathing hard, heart racing. He gives a quick shout of, “I’m meeting the captain,” before running off again, taking the corners so fast he has to brace himself against the wall with his hand.
He knew it, he knew he’d be back once they did it. Blue Rain won, they finally won, they did it and now he’s come back.
Huang Shaotian reaches the end of the corridor, stabbing the call button and bouncing on his heels. Waiting, waiting, waiting for the elevator to come. And then waiting some more for the doors to close. Is it just him, or are the numbers counting down way slower than usual? They should make these elevators faster, he’s going to be an old man by the time he gets to the lobby.
Old and gray and grumpy and their captain came back. He came back. He must have seen the match (of course he watches their matches) and saw how good Blue Rain played and now he’s back. He’s back, he’s back, he’s back. There are so many things Huang Shaotian wants to tell him. So many things he wants to yell at him for, but mostly he just wants to see his old captain again, wants to tell him it’s okay that he left because he and Yu Wenzhou are taking such good care of the team for him, and even though Huang Shaotian was really sad he didn’t say goodbye, that’s okay too because he came back and that’s what counts.
Ten thousand years later, the elevator dings. Huang Shaotian rushes out.
How proud will Captain Wei be that they won a championship? Has he seen how much Huang Shaotian has improved since he left? Huang Shaotian can’t wait to tell him everything he missed and then he’ll PK him and this time he’ll finally win. He can’t wait to see his face when—
He stops in his tracks. His eyes skitter across the wide-open space of the lobby.
“No, no, no, where are you, old bastard,” he mumbles to himself. “Show yourself, I know you’re here, they called me. They called me to come get you so here I am.”
Beneath the soaring ceiling, the reception desk with the big Blue Rain logo stands empty except for a few women in suits. Between that and himself is the short wall of turnstiles with their little badge readers, but Captain Wei won’t be hovering there because he doesn’t have a badge. On the opposite wall is the security desk with the smaller Blue Rain logo where they hand out guest passes. He likes it there, the security officer never laughs at him when he rushes out of the building without his badge and has to ask to be let back in. But Captain Wei isn’t there, either.
Between the familiar landmarks of the building, the main floor is buzzing with people. Visitors; businessmen in suits; a slew of office workers who provide administrative support to Blue Rain, all leaving at the end of a long workday.
Huang Shaotian scans everyone—once, twice, three times—looking for that familiar, grizzled face.
Until he has no choice but to face the truth. None of the lobby’s various corners are hiding Wei Chen in their depths.
Instead of a grumpy former captain, the only familiar faces are a group of old schoolmates hovering around the security desk, friends from back before he started playing professionally. He still chats with them sometimes and even put them on the approved visitor list when they came to see him during his debut year. Mostly they keep him updated on the gossip from home.
He didn’t invite them here today.
Normally, he’d happily drag them upstairs for snacks and Glory and a movie but… his head feels light and kind of fuzzy. There’s an annoying sting in his eyes that makes the bright lobby lights bleed into one another. He should cut back on all the squinting he does at the computer monitor, it can’t be good for his eyes. What would the fans say if both the captain and the vice-captain wore glasses?
He stumbles backward behind a large potted plant before any of his school friends can catch sight of him.
The phone message. It was never Wei Chen.
Somehow, he ends up back at the dormitory floor, though he doesn’t remember leaving the lobby. He’s wandering around in a daze when he slams into a hard wall of muscle.
No, no, no, not now, why can’t anything go right for him tonight?
His smile feels stretched thin but it’s all he has to offer. “Captain, hi. What a coincidence, you’re here too. Not that you shouldn’t be here, you live here. I’m gonna…” He trails off, the threads of his concentration unraveling before he rewinds what he just said and picks it back up. “I’m tired and it’s late. I’ll see you tomorrow because I’m so, so tired.”
Yu Wenzhou frowns. “It’s only 6pm.”
“Wow, so early, I must be more tired than I thought.” Huang Shaotian detours around him and beelines for his room, closing the door before Yu Wenzhou can catch up. The moment it clicks shut, his legs give out. He doesn’t make it to the bed, sliding down the wall to fold into a heap on the floor. Which is fine. He’ll just…stay here a while. The floor is great. He loves the floor.
A knock at the door pulls him from his thoughts.
Yu Wenzhou. Of course he noticed something was wrong. He notices everything and it isn’t like Huang Shaotian was being subtle. Normally it’s nice to be at the center of his captain’s attention, but not now. Not when he’s upset about something so stupid. Stupid and childish. He doesn’t want Yu Wenzhou to know.
He says nothing. Yu Wenzhou will get the hint and leave eventually.
“Shaotian.” The knocking comes again, faster and louder, like a racing heartbeat. “Shaotian, answer me.”
Huang Shaotian tucks his knees to his chest.
A soft thud comes from beyond the door, like Yu Wenzhou has dropped his forehead against it. Maybe he has. He expects that’s the end of it, but his captain’s voice comes again, gentler than before but no less determined.
“Shaotian, are you okay? If you want me to leave, I’ll leave. But you have to say so. If you don’t answer me, I’m coming in.”
It isn’t an idle threat. It never is, not from the captain. They have each other’s door codes. The exchange happened early on; it was easier than always getting up to let him in. In all that time, not once has Yu Wenzhou ever taken advantage.
Huang Shaotian can tell him to leave and he’ll turn around and go.
The words are on the tip of his tongue but he can’t make his mouth say them. Stupid, he’s so stupid. There’s no reason to waste the captain’s time because he’s stupid and naive and actually thought Captain Wei would show up after some stupid championship win.
“Captain.” It isn’t what he means to say but it’s what comes out.
“I’m coming in.”
Huang Shaotian nods even though he knows Yu Wenzhou can’t see him. In the next breath, he hears the soft beep of the electronic lock disengaging. Maybe it’s because of all the other times Yu Wenzhou let himself in that the sound makes him relax.
“Shaotian?” Yu Wenzhou bursts into the room. He whirls in place, freezing when he catches sight of Huang Shaotian curled up by the door. His eyes soften, and without a word he walks over and sits on the floor beside him.
There’s a very thin strip of space between their shoulders. Small like the length of an account card. It would be so easy to lean into it. Huang Shaotian slumps over his knees, unable to cross the distance. He’s already moping like a baby, he doesn’t need to be held like one, too.
“I got a phone call from reception that you had some friends waiting for you downstairs,” Yu Wenzhou says softly. “I let them know you weren’t feeling well. I hope that’s okay.” He pauses. “You said you were going to see the captain, earlier. I take it you didn’t mean me.”
Huang Shaotian speaks into the space between his knees. “I thought it was him. I thought he’d come back if we won. Stupid, right? It’s okay, you can laugh at me, I won’t mind. I’m laughing at me, too.” His voice is a little muffled but Yu Wenzhou always seems to know what he’s saying so it’s probably fine.
“I’m not laughing.”
A hand settles on his back, rubbing tiny circles into his shoulder. It feels nice.
Huang Shaotian looks up, struck by an idea. “Maybe if we win three in a row, like Ye Qiu. No one else has done that and—”
Yu Wenzhou’s face falls. “Shaotian, no. Don’t do this to yourself.”
He looks at his hands. The moment he said it, he knew it was futile. And a poor reason to strive for a championship. He wants to win for himself, for his team, for Yu Wenzhou even; and yes, for Wei Chen, too, but he can’t string his hopes for a reunion on an outcome he can’t control.
Speaking of things he can’t control. “Do you think he ever cared about us, Wenzhou? Or was it all just for Blue Rain? Maybe that’s why it was so easy for him to leave.”
The hand on his back stills. “Shaotian, look at me.”
Huang Shaotian gnaws on his lips but reluctantly obeys. He’s not sure when Yu Wenzhou became somebody he’d follow without question, or when respect for his captain turned into something else, this thing he’s not willing to name. And, ha! Who would believe that? Huang Shaotian, professional talker, refusing to use words.
Whatever, he doesn’t need to name things for them to be real. And what’s real is that whether it’s in Glory or sitting on the hard floor of his dormitory room, Huang Shaotian trusts Yu Wenzhou. Which is probably stupid. Stupid Huang Shaotian who never learned his lesson. He trusted Wei Chen, too, and look what happened. How long will it be before Yu Wenzhou gets tired of him and walks out without a word?
When their eyes meet, Yu Wenzhou brushes the hair from Huang Shaotian’s forehead. “I didn’t know him well, not like you. But what I observed is that Captain Wei put his whole heart into Blue Rain, especially you. I may not know the details, but I know that leaving—leaving the team and leaving you—couldn’t have been easy for him.”
What’s the point in pretending to be strong? Yu Wenzhou always sees him as he is. Huang Shaotian gives in and buries his head into Yu Wenzhou’s shoulder. “You’re always watching.”
Tucked against his side, he can feel Yu Wenzhou’s answering hum. A strong, solid arm wraps around him, easing him forward enough to rub his back.
It should be the end of it, but he can’t help but pick at the wound. “We’re never going to see him again, are we?”
His tenaciousness is one of his greatest strengths, despite what his school-teachers used to say. He sees every opportunity and doesn’t stop digging until the tiniest of cracks breaks wide open into a chasm. It’s just his luck that in the absence of an opponent, he turns that same skill inwards. He spares a moment to laugh at himself. It hurts like hell when someone goes after your secret weak spot. No wonder people hate fighting him.
If Yu Wenzhou is surprised at the question, he doesn’t show it. Huang Shaotian is grateful. He doesn’t want pity or meaningless words. He wants answers.
The hand on his back pauses to give his shoulder a squeeze. “Nothing is for sure in esports, Shaotian. You know that.”
“That’s not an answer. Don’t lie to me.”
Yu Wenzhou’s laugh has a bitter edge to it. “If he ever comes back, it won’t be for us.”
The words land like a punch. It hurts so much it’s hard to breathe, but what did he expect? He wanted the truth and he got it. Huang Shaotian’s eyes flicker up, taking in Yu Wenzhou’s sharp profile.
He forgets sometimes that Yu Wenzhou isn’t like him. Huang Shaotian likes to talk, talk, talk. Get it all out and start fresh, out with the old and in with the new. Even if the words are nonsense, they’re still clearing the air. But not Yu Wenzhou. His captain is a placid lake that hides its raging torrent behind a flawlessly smooth reflection. That doesn’t mean that he’s not hurting beneath the surface.
“Did you think he’d come too? If we won.” He’s not sure if it’s a good idea to ask, but there’s a reason he’s the opportunist and not the tactician.
“I’ve thought about it before. I hoped he would.”
Tactics might not be his strong point, but Huang Shaotian isn’t an idiot. He hears what Yu Wenzhou isn’t saying. His captain is too kind sometimes. “You didn’t expect him to,” he says for him.
“He’s always been proud of you, everyone could see it. A championship doesn’t change that. So no, I didn’t expect that us winning would change his mind.”
Huang Shaotian shifts, set off by the movement of Yu Wenzhou’s shrug, a big ship on rocky waters. It brings another revelation in its wake. Wei Chen was a dirty-playing, foul-mouthed, chaotic bastard of a captain, but Huang Shaotian never doubted that he made the old man proud. For the first time, he realizes Yu Wenzhou doesn’t have that same conviction.
“You’re a good Swoksaar,” he says. It’s probably a mistake to expose his hand like that, to tell Yu Wenzhou that he sees those things he thinks he’s hiding, but sometimes his mouth is like that. It’s intentional when he adds, “And the best captain.”
His nerves settle when Yu Wenzhou gives him a grateful smile.
In the lingering silence, Huang Shaotian edges closer. “Wenzhou. Promise me something?” It’s good that his captain’s huge arm makes such a good headrest because it means he doesn’t have to look him in the eyes. “When it’s our time… you’ll say goodbye first, won’t you?” He can’t ask Yu Wenzhou to stay by his side always, it’s too big, too much. But he can ask for this. He can take any blow, he just needs to know it’s coming. “Don’t disappear without saying goodbye to me.”
Yu Wenzhou makes a funny noise, like all the air is sucked out of his chest. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“That’s not what I asked.”
A pause. “Yes, Shaotian. I won’t disappear without a word.”
Huang Shaotian can’t help but push back—verbally and with his body, sitting up from Yu Wenzhou’s shoulder— because that’s what he does, he picks and he picks until the tiniest details lay their secrets bare at his feet. “Not even if it gets bad?”
Yu Wenzhou doesn’t fight him, releasing his grip on Huang Shaotian and turning so they’re face-to-face, their knees lightly touching.
Wordless, he reaches between them and takes Huang Shaotian’s hand into his own, flipping his palm face up and coaxing his fingers to fan out. Before he can ask what he’s doing, Yu Wenzhou digs his thumb into the meat of Huang Shaotian’s palm, right in the spot where it feels so good. He continues the massage along his whole hand and each finger, paying special attention to the joints. It isn’t anything they haven’t done for each other after a grueling practice but without their computers, there’s an intimacy that sticks deep in his belly.
One of these days Huang Shaotian is going to say something about the way they orbit each other, about the way Yu Wenzhou keeps him so close like he’s something special.
But not today.
It’s several minutes since either of them spoke but Yu Wenzhou resumes their conversation like it never stopped. “If things get bad we’ll discuss them until it’s good again.”
Yu Wenzhou laces their fingers together, making gentle circles with Huang Shaotian’s wrist. When he releases his hand, he doesn’t need to ask for the other one. Huang Shaotian offers it to him. Palm up, fingers spread out.
He feels like a big puddle of gooey blade master when Yu Wenzhou starts in on his opposite palm. “Do you promise?” he asks.
“When have you ever known me to run away from my problems?” Yu Wenzhou shoots back without missing a beat, continuing his gentle pressure along the line of Huang Shaotian’s finger, from the knuckle to the tip. When there’s no answer, he lets out a small sigh, pausing to look him in the eye. “Yes. I promise.”
Neither of them speaks as Yu Wenzhou resumes his work. By the time he’s done, the tension isn’t just gone from Huang Shaotian’s hands but from his entire body.
“I won’t leave either.” Huang Shaotian says, once his hands are back in his own lap. He’s never said it aloud but it feels important that he says it now. “Not without telling you first.”
An expression flickers over Yu Wenzhou’s face that Huang Shaotian thinks is surprise.
How could Yu Wenzhou be surprised? How could he not know that Huang Shaotian would stick with him until the very end? Until after the end, if Yu Wenzhou still wants him there. He wonders if anyone has ever said that to him before, and resolves to say it more often so he doesn’t forget. Not that he thinks Yu Wenzhou would forget, he’s so smart and he remembers so many things, but he deserves to hear it over and over again.
Yu Wenzhou, he notices, doesn’t ask for a promise. That’s okay, he doesn’t need to. Huang Shaotian may say a lot of stuff without listening to himself but this is different. When he says something he means, he keeps his word.
Scooting them over to rest against the wall again, he settles back into place on Yu Wenzhou’s shoulder. After an awkward series of nudges, Yu Wenzhou gets the hint and wraps his arm around Huang Shaotian, resuming the gentle strokes down his back from earlier. He’s such a smart captain.
The sting of disappointment at not seeing their former captain still burns in his chest but the lancing pain is gone, dulled into an ache he can live with. Closing his eyes, he sinks into the familiar scent of the jacket beneath his cheek. He doesn’t have any proof that Yu Wenzhou will uphold his promise, but sitting together on his hard bedroom floor, Huang Shaotian chooses to believe.