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Memento, Momentum

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Zhang Jiale’s eyes snapped open. 

The back of his neck was damp with sweat. His pulse beat through his veins, rabbit-quick. He fixed his eyes on the blank ceiling above, and drew in a shaky breath. 

Fragments of his dream still curled around him, wisps that lingered and dissipated through his fingers. He’d been walking, hadn’t he? Through cold light and glass splinters and endless empty echoes. Walking, and walking, and there’d been a voice too, one he didn’t recognize, but what… 

Zhang Jiale didn’t remember. But what did it matter; it was, after all, just a dream. 

This wasn’t the first time that he’d inexplicably awoken in the middle of the night—he was becoming quite familiar with how his little patch of sky shone pale in the night glow of City Q. Zhang Xinjie would blame his unsettled sleep on late-night phone usage, but then, Zhang Jiale had never had this problem in the past. 

He blinked away the stickiness clinging to his eyes, and belatedly felt the dryness of his mouth. He pushed himself up and felt around the nightstand for his cup of water, only to realize with a grimace that it was empty. Immediately his thirst worsened tenfold. 

On another night he might have given up and collapsed back into unconsciousness, but he felt strangely awake now, his senses whirring with a daytime lucidity. He tugged a hoodie over himself, pulling away the loose strands of hair that clung to his neck, and then slipped out of the room with cup in hand. 

His legs carried him through darkened hallways to the lounge kitchen. Even after all these weeks here, Tyranny’s building still felt a little like a fortress, and the effect was only more pronounced at night. The fans would call it Tyranny’s trademark strength, but to Zhang Jiale it was… heavy. So different from the open light and bright colors he was used to. 

Not that that mattered, either. 

He moved mechanically to fill his cup with hot water, then hunched his shoulders as he brought it to his lips and blew. City Q’s autumn nights brought a chill, and he was just about to speed-walk—carefully—back to his room, when he suddenly noticed light spilling from the other end of the hallway. 

Zhang Jiale purposefully hadn’t checked the exact time, but surely it was much too late for anyone else to be up and about. All pros needed to maintain healthy schedules, and Tyranny was especially strict about that. What poor soul risked incurring the ire of their captain or vice-captain? 

He stared toward the end of the hallway for a few seconds, and then walked over. The light, it turned out, was coming through the windowed door of the fitness center. 

If Blue Rain was famed for its cafeteria, then Tyranny took pride in its gym. Zhang Jiale had been duly impressed during his initial tour; he wasn’t a fitness nerd or anything, but he knew, all too well, how important it was for them to maintain their physical condition. Pushing open the door, he quickly spotted the room’s sole occupant using one of the treadmills against one of the walls.

Wearing sweatpants and a zip-up, Lin Jingyan was walking at a relaxed pace as he watched one of the television screens that was mounted near the ceiling. Because he was facing the doorway, he noticed the visitor immediately. “Oh, Jiale?” he said, giving him a friendly smile as he tugged out his earbuds. “Why are you still up?”

“Should say the same to you,” said Zhang Jiale, slowly picking his way through the rows of gym equipment to stand beside the treadmill. “Exercise? At this hour?”

“Not really,” Lin Jingyan said, “just feeling a bit restless. I’m sure you won’t snitch on me to the captain, hm?” To that, Zhang Jiale snorted. He could just imagine what that conversation would look like. 

Lin Jingyan was still smiling as he mused, “It still takes some getting used to, not being the highest authority. I probably indulged my team more than I should have, but, well.” 

He could still reminisce so fondly, huh.

What kind of captain had Zhang Jiale been? Not a very good one, certainly. What a relief it’d been to pass the reins; what a shame to feel that way. But the simple truth was that he wasn’t suited to be the driving rhythm. The pace that Han Wenqing set, it wasn’t berserk in the way Zhang Jiale might have been used to, but it was good. Relentless. Enough to keep the distractions at bay. 

The trouble came, then, at quiet moments like these, and so Zhang Jiale latched onto the earlier thread of conversation. “Restless, what do you mean? Couldn’t sleep?”

Lin Jingyan tapped the side of his head. “A lot of thoughts, all bumping around. Walking helps settle everything down.” 

Zhang Jiale felt a wry smile tug at his lips. So he wasn’t the only one haunted by his own mind. “Thoughts about what?” 

He realized after the question slipped out that this might be too personal to ask so directly. But Lin Jingyan was just so approachable, the kind of person you could tell anything to… Probably that helped make him a good captain, too. 

Lin Jingyan didn’t respond immediately. Instead he stared across the room, and Zhang Jiale followed his gaze toward the flashing television. When he’d entered earlier, he hadn’t been able to see what was playing on the screen, but now he looked and saw a familiar map and interface. Even without sound, he would recognize Glory anywhere.  

And then a Spitfire flashed by. 

Less familiar than he should have been and more familiar than he wanted. 

A Brawler gave chase, explosion swallowed them both, the camera quickly cut to another angle, but by that point Zhang Jiale had already squeezed his eyes shut.  

“This was yesterday’s match,” he heard Lin Jingyan say, “Wind Howl versus Hundred Blossoms.” 

Nausea twisted his gut. 

What was wrong with him? This was Glory, he thought, just another game of Glory, and he pressed that mantra into his chest until he could breathe again. Professionalism meant—it meant dealing with this shit. It meant that when he sat down at mouse and keyboard, he would be able to give his all as an opponent. No matter who the opponent. 

He’d already come to terms with the consequences of his choice. Hadn’t he? 

Then there was Lin Jingyan, who surely was not watching this recording in the middle of the night for strict analysis. It was still a while before Tyranny would face either of them in the season, and they would have a proper schedule for review then. 

Zhang Jiale glanced at him. Lin Jingyan’s expression remained steady, almost unreadable in its calm, and it suddenly occurred to Zhang Jiale that maybe this was a mask of his own. Be that reliable and reassuring presence, be that person that anyone could confide in, and you would never be their burden. Just like how, for his team, Zhang Jiale had offered smile after smile until he had none left to give.

“Tang Hao,” Lin Jingyan spoke again, eyes fixed on that screen. “What kind of person is he?” 

Angry, so angry. That was Zhang Jiale’s final impression of him. Somehow the young player had known that Zhang Jiale’s time was up, almost before Zhang Jiale himself had realized. And when Tang Hao had caught him that day at four in the morning, holding his suitcases in the lobby… Well, he deserved everything that had been said. 

Over a year later, the anger hadn’t healed. Zhang Jiale could see it. It bled through Tang Hao’s every movement, every attack, every insolent proclamation. 

But Lin Jingyan didn’t deserve such painful honesty, not when Zhang Jiale could hear the concern threading his question. Nor could Zhang Jiale give him the empty comfort of words like you don’t have to worry, Wind Howl is in good hands. In the end, what came out of Zhang Jiale’s mouth was, 

“I remember finding him at the vending machines once, him and another rookie standing there, because the snack they bought got stuck behind the glass. The other kid was already turning away, but Tang Hao just, took a step forward, and kicked,” Zhang Jiale mimed the violent motion, “a solid thwack right on the side of the machine, and shook the bag loose. It must’ve hurt like hell, I saw the scuffs later, but he handed the bag to the other kid like it was nothing.” 

Lin Jingyan stared, and then, to Zhang Jiale’s relief, chuckled. “I see.” 

Tang Hao was a strong player, yes, but Lin Jingyan already knew that firsthand. After all, hadn’t the kid’s aggression been the very catalyst for Wind Howl to toss their own captain like so much used paper? 

Yet here Lin Jingyan was, watching them, asking after them. Because somehow, even now, he still cared. There was no bitterness in his eyes as he looked at that screen. 

“You don’t hate Wind Howl? For forcing you out?”  

Lin Jingyan shook his head, and Zhang Jiale swallowed. 

“How,” he whispered. 

A smile. “Do you find that too hard to believe?”

“I don’t deserve to believe it, I think.”

Because if Lin Jingyan could still love the team that abandoned him, then what did that mean for Zhang Jiale, and the team he abandoned? 

“We’re all struggling toward the same end,” Lin Jingyan said quietly. “That makes it too easy to understand each other. Because I understand, I can’t hate.” 

Zhang Jiale looked back at the screen, where a Berserker blazed with bloodlust as his blade plunged toward a rolling Thief. So strange, he thought, seeing that Berserker so clearly without his halo of smoke and light. 

Had it really only been a year? Hundred Blossoms had gone through so many changes, hardly any of his friends were left anymore. But it wasn’t just his old team, either, it was the entire pro scene. So many now gone their separate ways. 

Sometimes Zhang Jiale had to wonder, what was he still doing here? 

He wanted to win. Of course. The desperation would bleed him dry—in some sense, it already had. But could that sustain him? If he won right now, would that be his end? If he never won, would he just slowly waste away? Was that what he wanted? 

He didn’t know.

“Do you ever…” Zhang Jiale trailed off, unsure. 

Lin Jingyan didn’t push, only waited, with that gentle patience of his. They were same-season debuts, but somehow Lin Jingyan had always felt like an old soul. Maybe that was a bad thing, in this era of junior-succeeds-senior. To Zhang Jiale, it was a comfort.

“What would you have done, if Tyranny hadn’t invited you?” he finally said. 

“Retired, maybe.” Lin Jingyan’s voice was light, but Zhang Jiale knew exactly what pain lay behind such a decision. “I know I’m running on borrowed time.”

With a beep, Lin Jingyan brought the treadmill to a stop. He turned off the screen, stretched a little, and then stepped down to stand beside Zhang Jiale.

“But you’re here now,” Zhang Jiale found himself saying. 

“I am,” Lin Jingyan agreed. “And so are you.” Here, Tyranny, the team of strength enduring, the team with place for them.

It was natural, to fall into step beside his teammate as they left the room together. As they passed through the still hallways, Zhang Jiale continued to mull it over, his cup of water cooling, his fingers still warm. Lin Jingyan was still walking forward. Himself, the same. Wasn’t that all there was to it? 

Yesterday’s struggle, tomorrow’s ending, none of that mattered for today’s fight with today’s companions. In this era that was no longer theirs, in defiance of time and fortune, they carved their names into the towering summit. 

This was mutual understanding—this, too, was professionalism. 

This was the madness of the new old generals.