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a different kind of courage

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In season four, Su Mucheng makes a dazzling debut.

When her name is first announced in the press conference, none of the reporters recognize her name. Those that search through the training camp logs find nothing of note. Su Mucheng was just one name among many up and coming rookies trying to snatch some of that Excellent Era fame. Even being a part of Excellent Era’s starting roster is nothing of note: the void left by certain retirees would need to be filled no matter what.

She is a blank slate; the only thing anyone has to go off of is her class. Launcher: a support class? Slowly, before the season even begins, meta about a Battle Mage-Launcher combo begins to surface, though some of it is overshadowed by people who refuse to believe Su Mucheng will play a core position in this changing Excellent Era. A rookie, and a girl? The critics scoff.

Su Mucheng cares for none of this. She signs her contract quickly and without fanfare, and looks to the people eagerly waiting around her. When she finishes her signature with a flourish, the team, mostly filled with familiar faces, sweeps her up in celebration.

Xia Ming wraps her up in a hug. “Welcome to the team, Little Mucheng,” she says, beaming. “It’ll be nice to have another girl around here.”

Like always, Xia Ming's embrace is warm and comforting. Mucheng melts a little into her touch.

The look on Ye Xiu’s face flickers between pride and sadness. Su Mucheng catches his gaze from under Xia Ming's arm, and she knows he’s thinking about Dancing Rain and what-could-have-beens. But they smile at each other, and Su Mucheng knows that Ye Xiu is not the type of person to linger in the past. Even more than the sadness burns a quiet pride, fierce and unrelenting. Su Mucheng has worked hard to get here, and Ye Xiu has always been the silent witness to that.

“Look,” Qin Tianran laughs, oblivious to the dampened mood, “Even our fearless leader can get worried, Sister Mu, your power is too strong!”

Su Mucheng tears her eyes away and beams. Dancing Rain is smooth underneath her fingertips; she rubs the surface for good luck. “Well, I have to keep him on his toes, don’t I?”

“The way all of you act,” Ye Xiu cuts in, blandly, “It’s like Mucheng is the adult, and you lot are the teenagers barely out of puberty.”

A cough interrupts the gathered players. “It’s getting late,” Tao Xuan, who had been milling in the corner of the room, awkwardly detached from the fanfare, steps forward. He smooths an imaginary wrinkle on his suit. “It’s still summer break, but be careful not to build bad habits.”

“Like we’re not gonna just stay up ‘til ass o’clock playing Glory,” Qin Tianran mutters under his breath, and hisses as Xia Ming drives her heel into his foot. It makes everyone laugh; even Ye Xiu lets out a chuckle.

Tao Xuan coughs again, and Tianran rubs the back of his head in apology. “We can celebrate more tomorrow,” Tao Xuan says, and Su Mucheng notices the way he eyes her, like he’s sizing up a piece of meat. It makes her want to bare her teeth—this catches her by surprise. She doesn’t remember Brother Tao being like this before.

But his gaze shifts, and the spell is broken, leaving Mucheng with only a faint aftertaste of unease.

 

Ye Xiu walks her to her dorm. They linger outside the door, not willing to part ways just yet.

“Well,” Mucheng muses, tapping her chin. “I don’t think life will be that different.”

Ye Xiu raises his eyebrow and thinks about Su Mucheng going in and out of the practice rooms, tapping away on Dancing Rain as the team practiced, about Mucheng spending time in Xia Ming’s dorm more often than not, until they managed to get her a room of her own, about Mucheng tagging along to every competition, sometimes filling in her homework on the bus or in the hotel.

“Mmm,” he agrees, eyes crinkling into a smile. “It really won’t.”

 

               

                Wu Xuefeng: Congratulations!

                Su Mucheng: Thank you! [heart.gif] How’s your new place?

                Wu Xuefeng: It’s been busy, but I’ve been settling in.

                Wu Xuefeng: Enjoy your time in Excellent Era. Keep an eye on Ye Qiu for me, would you? You know how he gets when he forgets that he needs to do things other than play Glory.

                Wu Xuefeng: Please feel free to reach out to me if you need anything. I’ll do what I can from across the ocean [smile]

                Su Mucheng: Leave it to me!! [wink.gif]

 

Very quickly, Su Mucheng learns what plan Tao Xuan has for her.

Before the season starts, he calls her into his office, and spends nearly two hours proposing potential sponsorships and working out advertisement contracts. Nothing to be set in stone yet, he reassures her, but we want to be prepared for the future.

Truth be told, Su Mucheng wants to do none of them. But she’s seen the way he constantly pressures Ye Xiu to please, just take one sponsorship, even with Ye Xiu’s consistent rejections. This is for the team, she tells herself, for Ye Xiu.

She accepts them all with a smile.

 

Mucheng takes to the spotlight like a natural. The first time she appears on stage, she is overshadowed by the veterans, sure, but her performance is solid and she is extra sure to throw a couple of dazzling smiles to the audience.

The next day, her face is on the cover of Esports Home, accompanied by a rave review of her truly mediocre performance.

Ye Xiu doesn’t say anything when he sees it lying on the table as he wanders in for breakfast, only raises his eyebrows.

“Look Ye Qiu, I’ve become an overnight sensation,” she teases as he sits across from her.

“Your Laser Rifle accuracy begs to differ,” he retorts, and as they delve into discussion about skills and tactics, the newspaper is quickly forgotten.

 

Ye Xiu watches Su Mucheng handle the limelight like it’s second nature, and he worries. The sponsorships roll in one after another, and Mucheng begins to disappear more often for photoshoots and advertisements. Although she is good at managing her time, she is new and young and thinks she has something to prove beyond her duties as a pro. And Ye Xiu doesn’t like it.

“Mucheng can make her own decisions,” he tells Tao Xuan, “But don’t force her to do anything she shouldn’t have to do.”

Tao Xuan’s lips twist into something bitter. “It’s all for the good of Excellent Era. Surely, you understand.”

Ye Xiu doesn’t, but this is a conversation they’ve had many times before, and he knows there’s no point in continuing.

 

(“You don’t have to accept every contract Tao Xuan pushes your way,” Ye Xiu says.

Su Mucheng blinks. “I haven’t been.”

Still, Ye Xiu sees the slight strain to her smile. She’s taken to nursing a cup or two of coffee before practice, and when she thinks no one is looking, she lets out the yawns she’s been stifling. Su Mucheng is always careful that it doesn’t affect her performance, but Ye Xiu is attuned to her more than he is to others, and he notices her slip ups, her fatigue.

She sees the look on his face, and the mask falls. “Don’t worry. I can handle it.”

 

In the coming days, Tao Xuan is notably more irritated, but Su Mucheng has a spring in her step.)  

 

 

Su Mucheng has a smile for every occasion. This, like the precise gunfire Dancing Rain executes, is a practiced skill, the fruits of years of navigating the pro alliance and of navigating the hellfire that is Excellent Era.

The face plastered across billboards and magazines is her public smile, big and wide and shiny. Su Mucheng knows what people say about her: money tree, eye candy, shallow, second-fiddle. But this smile brings money, and money keeps Tao Xuan happy and off Ye Xiu’s back. Public opinion doesn’t affect her playing, anyhow.

Inside Excellent Era, it is a different story.

As season five dawns upon the Alliance, Excellent Era undergoes changes. There are new rookies this year, filling in the holes left by the original members of Excellent Era. Most of them are okay, their performances stabilizing as they settle into their roles, but one rookie grates on her nerves to no end.

“Liu Hao,” Su Mucheng says, her smile still bright, like she’s giving him the benefit of the doubt. Ye Xiu catches sight of it and throws her a look—it’s fake, she knows, but she can’t help it. “You can’t break formation like that, it throws off everyone else’s rhythm.”

The words seem to go in one ear and out the other, but Liu Hao at least acknowledges her with a grunt and, in the next run-through, stays where he’s supposed to.

Ye Xiu doesn’t say anything, even though Su Mucheng can tell that he’s getting annoyed. But Liu Hao seems somewhat receptive to the words of his seniors, and they get through season five with minimal complaining from Liu Hao and only occasional words of rebuke from Ye Xiu.

 

(It is all downhill from there. By the end of it all, Su Mucheng doesn’t bother to smile at Liu Hao anymore. Her smiles become weapons more than amicable gestures. If Ye Xiu notices, he keeps his silence.

Mucheng prefers it this way: she can fight her own battles, thank you very much.)

 

 

The smile she gives Ye Xiu is the most genuine of them all.

Mucheng was young enough when Ye Xiu came into her life that the time before it is a blur. As far as she’s concerned, she grew up with two big brothers. Ye Xiu is her teammate, her friend, and her captain—but first and foremost, he is family.

“I knew you’d be in here,” she sing-songs, slipping into Ye Xiu’s room. The room is dark, with the only source of light emitting from the computer screen against the wall.

“I’d tell you to knock—" Ye Xiu begins to say, still tapping away at his keyboard.

“—but you wouldn’t answer!” Su Mucheng finishes, sliding into the chair next to him and scooting close. She looks over his shoulder: Lord Grim idles on screen as Ye Xiu fiddles with the equipment editor, a blueprint pulled up on one window and a guide on rare materials in another.

Ye Xiu snorts. “Good thing you walked right in.”

For a moment, his eyes leave the screen and settle on Mucheng. His smile upon seeing her is slight, gentle, and almost instinctive; the slight tension in his shoulders relaxes.

She returns with one of her own. It mirrors his: softer and smaller than the expressions the outside world sees, but with a far heavier weight.

A lot of things are said when their eyes meet, but by now, none of them have to be voiced. Su Mucheng rests her head on his shoulder, and he shifts his body accordingly.

“Go on,” she says, “Don’t let me disturb you.”

The rest of the night is spent in a comfortable, familiar silence. Su Mucheng falls asleep to the steady tap-tapping of Ye Xiu’s fingers, and is at peace.