“I want to challenge Captain Qiao Yifan!” The words are squeaky and bright, loud against the staticky white of the crowd’s roar.
Somehow, Qiao Yifan finds himself on his feet. He looks at his team seated around him. From their expressions, amused and proud and envious, he knows he didn’t hear wrong. He’s been challenged by a rookie.
His face feels hot. With the realization comes a rush of mixed emotions: shock, tentative pride, anxiety and confusion. A heaviness that feels like his stomach in freefall and—a scratch of excitement?
He, Qiao Yifan, has been challenged by a rookie at All Stars.
Has he really advanced to this point, where he's the challenged rather than the challenger?
Fang Rui slaps his back with a wolfish grin, mouthing something that might be “crush him.” Qiao Yifan stumbles forward.
His head is spinning. It’s exactly like that time when Su Mucheng handed him a cup of tea along with the words, “How would you like to be the next captain?”
He has the same spluttering confusion now as back then: Why? When there are so many others who are better, why me?
A spotlight falls and a camera captures his strained smile.
As if to answer his question, the rookie continues, “Captain keeps bragging that he's the Number One Ghostblade.
“But he also says that when he and Vice Captain retire, that title's gonna go to Captain Qiao.”
Qiao Yifan keeps walking one step, then another, toward the stage as the rookie talks. The spotlight leads the way.
“So I'm gonna say right now:
“I will take that title back to Void one day and be the number one in the Alliance!”
It’s an answer that makes sense in his head, but not in his heart. Su Mucheng and Fang Rui and the others keep telling him to have more confidence in himself and that he’s better than he thinks he is, but Qiao Yifan clearly knows his place.
Number Three Ghostblade. Happy’s so-so captain. An above average, but not outstanding, pro player.
He’s good but not good enough, and that’s why he’s been so desperately practicing. He’s stumbling and staggering, but relentlessly chasing after the gods that came before him.
Maybe that’s why he’s so shocked right now. After all this time training his eyes on the vast distance between himself and the peak of Glory, he suddenly feels a tug from behind. There’s someone who’s set him as their next target.
Six years ago, he stood on this stage as a rookie. Now, in the Season 14 All Stars, he finds that he’s circled back to the starting point.
Even now, Li Xuan stands as a god above him, but he is no longer that distant looming shadow from his rookie days. Qiao Yifan has come a long way since then. Number Three Ghostblade, people call him, but that’s because they’re used to acknowledging Void’s duo as numbers one and two. Li Xuan and Wu Yuce themselves have long since considered him their equal, he knows, and recently, Qiao Yifan has been thinking that it might actually be true.
It’s been six long years of ups and downs and change and growth. This time, he is not the rookie but the respected senior, he reminds himself. Yet, his heart beats as erratically as it did back then and his throat is as strangely dry.
He steps up the few stairs of the raised platform and takes in the massive All Stars stadium. On this dazzling stage, he still feels so small.
But he resists shrinking back and instead puffs out his chest and lifts his chin high, like so many of his seniors before him. He waves his hand at the noisy section of Happy fans going wild and counts at least five signs featuring either him or his One Inch Ash. He swallows. This is his stage now.
Void's rookie is waiting for him at the podium. Li Zhekun is his name, a teen who comes up to Qiao Yifan's chin, with a head of gel-spiked hair adding both a few extra centimeters to his height and a few years of youthfulness to his face. His eyes burn as they lock onto Qiao Yifan.
Qiao Yifan smiles, taking his eagerness in stride. Did he also have that same spark when he first challenged a god? He doesn’t know if he did. He only remembers the clawing desperation to prove himself and the burning disappointment when he couldn’t.
"Senior!" The boy's voice cracks, but he barrels on. "Please watch me well." He bows, then offers his hand.
Qiao Yifan takes it, not sure whether he's referring to this match, or his growth in the future. He nods. "Let's have a good game."
“Good game. Good game.”
Qiao Yifan mumbles the words with each hand he shakes, but his eyes are glued to the floor, stinging with shame. By all rights, it’s a game Happy should have lost—Qiao Yifan’s first time shot calling an official match and a match against Blue Rain’s Yu Wenzhou, one of the Master Tacticians, at that—but it wouldn’t have been such an ugly loss if it weren’t for him, easily their worst so far in Season 11.
The score is 2-8, not too terrible in terms of numbers, but numbers don’t make a story. They don’t reveal just how off his game Qiao Yifan was.
He lost his individual round to a fresh-faced rookie while his mind was preoccupied with the upcoming team round. Then he lost them the team round in under fifteen minutes when he misread their opponent’s intention to grab their healer.
Against a team as defensive as Blue Rain, a fifteen minute round tells how badly Qiao Yifan had messed up. In a home game, too, with their own chosen map.
When the procession of handshakes end, he feels a hand pressing down on his head.
Fang Rui says quietly in his ear, “It’s fine, it’s your first time. Next time you’ll do better, and we can shove it in Haughty Wenzhou and Noisy Huang Shao’s faces that they were outwitted by a rookie.”
As much as Qiao Yifan wants to believe his Vice Captain’s words, a larger part of him remains skeptical. In the match today, he witnessed just how impossible it is to win against such a force.
Yu Wenzhou’s tactics and foresight are like an all-seeing god’s, and Huang Shaotian tears through Qiao Yifan’s best thought plans like a sword through cloth armor.
Even with Su Mucheng covering the field with her support, Fang Rui running about putting out fires, Tang Rou drawing aggro ferociously, and An Wenyi slipping heals through the tiniest openings—even though they’d all been practicing these tactics and plotting these strategies for weeks and months—for some reason, it all fell apart with Qiao Yifan at the helm.
He misread the situation. He jumbled his commands. He even forgot his own duties while busy-bodying over others’ roles.
It was no surprise the crowd had booed when he stepped out of his booth.
He can’t even allow himself the excuse of being a rookie. Even if he can’t be called a veteran with his not-quite three years of experience, after forging a miracle with the rest of Team Happy last season, he definitely can’t be called a rookie anymore.
“Heads up, we’re heading back now,” Fang Rui reminds him.
Qiao Yifan takes a deep breath and raises his head. Su Mucheng appears to be fending off a curious Huang Shaotian, and the rest of his teammates cast worried looks at him. He smiles a bit to show that he’s fine, though it feels more like a grimace.
No one lets him attend the press conference, shutting down his meek protests. All he can do is sit on their team room’s couches and watch Su Mucheng, Fang Rui, and Luo Ji leave to clean up after his mess. It makes his mouth bitter.
Right off the bat, the reporters attack them for allowing an immature rookie to call the shots, and they just blame themselves for not covering Qiao Yifan’s mistakes. Then it’s question after pointed question, flaw after miserable flaw. At one point, Su Mucheng’s eyes go cold, and the usually lackadaisical Fang Rui lashes out against a particularly scathing remark. Luo Ji tries multiple times to draw their attention to the match’s positives, but his words are mere drops in a tumultuous ocean. The noise level keeps rising, and the official has to step in to calm the situation.
Qiao Yifan finds he’s almost chewed through his bottom lip. Feeling restless, he gets up from his seat and wanders to the mini bar.
The criticism is understandable. They're halfway through the season, and this loss dropped them from eighth to tenth. If Happy stubbornly insists on having Qiao Yifan shotcall, and if he doesn’t improve quickly, Happy can only go downhill from here. No chance at the playoffs, much less the championships they'd confidently declared as their goal.
The reporters circle back to this point time and again, and each repeat sinks like a heavy stone in Qiao Yifan’s gut.
An Wenyi shuts off the tv before Chen Guo can chuck the remote at a wall. “It’s not a big deal,” he says. “Next week we’re up against Lightly. It should be a better indicator of your abilities.” He digs his nails into his palms even as his voice remains as flat as ever. Qiao Yifan hands him a chilled bottle of water to get him to stop.
“Don’t listen to them, Yifan. You’re much better than they make you out to be!” Chen Guo drowns her fury with a long chug of soda.
“Our goal this season is self improvement,” Tang Rou adds, accepting the tea he offers. “We said that so long as we can become stronger, we’re even willing to throw the playoffs. But of course we won’t let that happen.”
Mo Fan just snorts and grabs his own water. He throws another bottle to Steamed Bun, who rolls up his sleeves and demands, “Who's saying we're gonna lose? Let me teach them a lesson!”
Still, the mood is sour when the press conference members return, the sort of sour that isn’t easily fixed with a couple beverages. But Qiao Yifan has to keep his hands busy with something. He tosses Luo Ji a bottle of sparkling water, has a cup of warm water ready for Fang Rui, and presents a green tea to Su Mucheng.
“Don’t worry, Yifan,” Su Mucheng says in lieu of a thanks. “We’ll be supporting you.”
To be quite honest, Qiao Yifan isn’t sure why they should. He’s just a mediocre player, and even if he has a good sense for support and playing to the terrain, he’s nothing compared to Su Mucheng. When Su Mucheng was calling the shots earlier this season, they were doing just fine.
Even if they say their focus is on the long term, a sustainable future, Qiao Yifan feels unsettled. Whenever he looks at himself, then looks around at those he’s competing against, it’s hard not to despair, fear that he can never catch up.
He’s been trying his best, though. He’s dedicated himself to training and videos and more training. He’s studied the Master Tacticians and good tacticians and not as good tacticians. He’s picked Su Mucheng’s brains and Fang Rui’s, and even occasionally Ye Xiu’s through QQ. He’s learned when and how to use each of Happy’s existing tactics, and even came up with a few variations of his own. And he’s practiced and practiced and practiced with his team.
Then finally, he’d set today’s match as his debut, thinking he had prepared all that he could. He challenged a god, one of the Master Tacticians, to see where he falls short.
Turns out, the answer is everywhere.
Too reckless—that’s what Ye Xiu told him the last time he thought to prove his meager skills before a god. He clenches his teeth together. How stupid of him, to have repeated the same mistake.
He fingers the edges of his account card, the Ghostblade warm in his pocket, and reminds himself of that day, of Ye Xiu's wake up slap. And he locks all those negative feelings deep within himself.
If he didn’t give up on himself that day when Ye Xiu reaffirmed his potential, surely now when his whole team is giving their all to support him, he can’t give up all the more.
So Qiao Yifan finds that as the mood in the room sinks, he has conversely become more positive. With a small but determined voice, he says, “I promise, I’ll work even harder.”
Then next time, he can promise he’ll win and prove their faith in him was not wrong.
The MC hands them each an account card, and they climb into their respective player booths. Qiao Yifan sits and loads his card, lost in thought as it buffers. Then, the character info screen opens, and a Ghostblade with long, dark hair poses with a few empty-handed slashes.
Qiao Yifan shakes his head slightly, chasing away the feeling that it should be One Inch Ash on the screen.
This is All Stars, not a regular Saturday game. But with that reminder, it’s hard not to recall Li Xuan's Sword Demon from that time and the utter embarrassment Qiao Yifan went through. He flushes, and quickly sets those thoughts aside.
Now is not then, and Li Xuan had already apologized with an embarrassed expression for trampling over his debut match, followed by Wu Yuce’s deadpan teasing about whose face turned redder. Now, the three of them have a QQ chat where they can laugh about that misunderstanding and trade tactics and advice and sincere praises. Of course, because they’re on different teams, they maintain their trademark secrets. They also discuss prominent players, both at home and abroad, as well as eye-catching rookies. That’s how Qiao Yifan knew of Li Zhekun.
Li Xuan had also introduced him earlier this season at Void’s home game, and Qiao Yifan had greeted the rookie with a quiet hello.
Never had he imagined they’d meet again like this, a month later, with Li Zhekun returning his greeting with a declaration of battle.
As he clicks through the page of Orange Equipment, Qiao Yifan considers mirroring what Li Xuan did in their match, surprising the rookie with a Sword Demon when he expects a Phantom Demon. But he quickly dismisses the thought.
Qiao Yifan is not the Number One Ghostblade. He can play as a decent Sword Demon, but the boundaries and supportive style of the Phantom Demon are what brought him to his current standing. Though he loves the Ghostblade class and all its Phantom Demons and Sword Demons and in-between Hybrid Demons, it’s his Phantom Demon that he takes the most pride in. It’s not something he can give up so easily, even in a Rookie Challenge Match.
After picking out his equipment, he quickly distributes his skill points. He ends up with a build very similar to what he’s played with for six years now, the style of One Inch Ash who specializes in maneuvering his opponents into the rhythm of his boundaries. Of course, this Ghostblade has fewer skill points and no silver equipment, but Qiao Yifan wouldn’t be the Number Three Ghostblade if he let such minor details bother him.
Didn’t Ye Xiu once crush a pro with a Battle Mage he usurped from Tang Rou? One with maxed out low level skills and randomly distributed skill points in the rest?
Just for the thrill of it, Qiao Yifan considers again switching up his skill set, but no. Maybe, if he becomes a top god, he can have some fun like that. For now, he just hits Confirm.
He stretches his fingers and flexes his wrists and waits for his opponent to finish. Once they're both ready, the countdown for the match begins.
Then, he leans forward in his seat and grips the mouse as his Ghostblade grips his tachi.
He feels a sudden pressure as he does so, like the weighty stare of a god. It makes the fine hairs at the back of his neck stand on edge. His palms start sweating.
He knows that off stage, Li Xuan is watching his rookie and also watching Qiao Yifan. The Master Tacticians are also sitting in the stands, perhaps with half their attention up here, hoping for a good show.
Ye Xiu, probably, is sitting in front of another screen, chatting with Su Mucheng and waiting for the match to start. Maybe Wang Jiexi and the other gods from their generation are also checking in on how their juniors are doing.
Not only the old generation, but also the new generation gods. Qiao Yifan’s peers who are writing their own legends. Among them is his best friend, Gao Yingjie —the Alliance’s Prodigy and captain of last year’s champion team—waiting for him to catch up.
Qiao Yifan wipes his hands against the worn fabric of his pants and recenters himself. The pressure doesn’t let up, but when he straightens his shoulders, he finds he can breathe a lot easier.
Then, the countdown ends.
The match begins.
Qiao Yifan isn’t panicking, but the futile flailing of One Inch Ash as he tumbles like a ragdoll in the air tells him that staying level headed doesn’t make much of a difference in terms of outcome. No matter how much he twists and turns, all he can see is blue sky, white clouds, and the occasional flashes of a brown broomstick. His HP drains like water through a sieve, quickly dropping toward the red zone.
Yet, he doesn’t give up on reading his opponent’s moves. So long as there’s the slightest chance, Team Happy will fight to the last breath. His situation isn’t anywhere near hopeless, in any case. His cooldowns have reset while his opponent has been flinging flasks and shooting stars. Soon, there’s bound to be a gap in the Vanishing Step.
He aims a Moonlight Slash not at his hidden opponent, but at the stone statue that comes into sight. The recoil shifts One Inch Ash just out of range of the next sweep of a broom, and he tumbles from a Quick Recover, finally with his feet beneath him.
One Inch Ash stands, his tachi Snow Stripe braced in front of him, and comes face to face with Vaccaria. 12% to 29% health. One Inch Ash is in critical danger, but Vaccaria’s health can also be taken down in a thorough enough wave.
Gao Yingjie’s frustrated hiss comes through the headphones. Clearly, Yingjie had the ambition to bring him down in one wave as well.
“Good move,” Gao Yingjie says. It sounds a bit begrudging, but Qiao Yifan just grins. When Vaccaria backs up a step, he knows the talking is just a ploy for time.
Because One Inch Ash currently has the advantage of a full skill tree, he can’t give Vaccaria a moment of rest. He sends a Full Moonlight Slash over and brazenly starts chanting an Ash Boundary right after.
It’s riskier than an Ice Boundary, but an Ice Boundary alone wouldn’t be enough to trap this genius. He needs an Ash Boundary to lock away Vaccaria’s flight.
Gao Yingjie reacts like he knew the slash was coming. Vaccaria hops on his broom and skitters sideways, but the distance between them is too short to completely avoid the attack. The damage is small, but Vaccaria veers off course with the strong blow away effect.
Of course, Gao Yingjie has predicted that too, and as Vaccaria’s body flies sideways, the Lava Flask sails smoothly through the air, aimed perfectly at One Inch Ash’s face.
But the Full Moonlight Slash did it’s job. Because it interrupts any attack that comes before it, it delays the throwing of the Lava Flask just long enough, while the blow away forces the flask on a slightly longer course. An Ash Boundary falls around Vaccaria just before the Lava Flask explodes.
One Inch Ash’s health drops to red, but the trade is worth it.
Earlier in the match, Vaccaria had escaped his first Ash Boundary, and that was the turning point that led to One Inch Ash’s mid-air plight.
This time, One Inch Ash charges out of the pool of lava and dodges the Magic Missle. He ducks behind a smoldering shrub and circles around to a new position out of Vaccaria’s line of sight. He begins his next chant: Darkness Boundary.
If it succeeds, it means Qiao Yifan is halfway to victory. The labyrinth-like rows of thick hedges are just low enough to be flown over with a broom, yet high enough to conceal a ducking character. Without the power of flight due to the Ash Boundary, and without sight because of the Darkness Boundary, Vaccaria would be a sitting duck.
A Broom Tornado whips up wind and leaves nearby. It’s too close for comfort, but it seems that Gao Yingjie doesn’t know his exact position.
Just as Qiao Yifan is about to let out a sigh of relief, something white streaks fast into view.
On collision course with One Inch Ash.
Of course the Broom Tornado was just a distraction. A big move like that used as a feint—Gao Yingjie sure is confident. Qiao Yifan’s sigh turns into a muttered curse, just low enough not to be picked up by the mic. Can’t give Yingjie that satisfaction.
He cancels his attack to dodge, but shards of ice start falling from the sky. Ice Rain, an AOE with a chance to freeze. One Inch Ash is caught in the center of it.
Not good. How did Gao Yingjie know where he is?
He knows he ducked out of sight after that Lava Flask, and he made no noise when he crawled into his new position. Taking a page from Fang Rui’s book, he rolls his way around the hedge to stay low and hidden.
But despite his efforts at stealth, he’s hit by something—a Magic Missile. From where?
Abruptly, he raises his viewpoint. Vaccaria floats on his broom a distance away from. Far from the Ash Boundary he’d set.
That’s when he realizes, maybe he’s been wrong from the start. During that moment his view was covered with bright lava, Vaccaria did something to escape his boundary. Or he was never trapped in the first place.
As expected of the star of the new generation.
The match ends quickly after that. Though most of Vaccaria’s attacks are still—or recently—on cooldown after the two waves of attacks, it doesn’t take much to drain the last 8% of a cloth-armored Ghostblade.
Qiao Yifan slips off his headphones and slinks into his chair. The screen declares his loss, and One Inch Ash reloads into the Arena’s basic room, standing across from the stern-faced Vaccaria.
Ever since Gao Yingjie became Tiny Herb’s captain last year, Qiao Yifan has felt the road to catching up with his genius best friend and rival has been getting even longer and more arduous.
Gao Yingjie, at the station next to him, gives him a tired smile. “That was intense,” he says.
“Yeah,” Qiao Yifan agrees. Too many twists in that match, and he was on the receiving end of most of them. “You got me good, though, in the end. How’d you escape?”
Gao Yingjie brightens, like he always does when he has something good to share. But he says, grin curling slyly, “Trade secret.”
Qiao Yifan rolls his eyes. “Whatever. I’ll find out anyway when we review the match.”
Someone starts clapping behind them, and Qiao Yifan whips around to find that they’ve gathered a crowd. Half the National Team stands surrounding them, chattering among themselves as they steal glances at the two.
Gao Yingjie lets out a quiet meep as his ears go red, but then pops his back straight almost immediately. The past year of captaincy has been good for him, Qiao Yifan thinks. It’s rounded out some of the shyness in his friend.
Qiao Yifan just raises an eyebrow and takes their audience in stride. It’s nowhere near the level of Happy’s chaos, though he does feel a bit thrown having their spar become everyone’s entertainment.
Yu Wenzhou clears his throat and says, “That was an exciting match.” He’s the one who initiated the clapping. “I heard you two have some interesting tactics for a Witch and Ghostblade combination?”
Once upon a time, it used to be a Witch and Assassin combination, back when the two were naive little rookies. Four years have passed since then, and it's the summer after Season 12. Now one’s a budding young captain while the other is a blossoming pro player and shot caller.
Yet they still fantasize about what-ifs from time to time. If Vaccaria did this, then One Inch Ash could support with that. If their opponents did that, then they could respond with this. Though he’s seen Tiny Herb enact some of these tactics in their matches, Qiao Yifan can’t help but think that he and Gao Yingjie can pull it off better.
It’s not arrogance, he thinks, but something he knows in his bones. Just as he knows that Gao Yingjie is the sky above him that he’ll be forever striving to reach.
Yu Wenzhou seems to read something from their expressions. He studies Qiao Yifan, then says with a plain smile. “I’m starting to see what Team Leader Ye Xiu and Coach Wang Jiexi are thinking. You’ve got a good head on your shoulders. Keep training hard. I look forward to working with the both of you together someday.”
Those lightly spoken words from Team China’s captain are weighty, and Qiao Yifan minces his lips together at the implied meaning.
Unless the two of them end up on the same team—which is very unlikely considering how deeply rooted each of them are in their own team—the only time they can work together and play on the same side is at the World Cup. In the National Team.
Li Xuan separates from his conversation with Fang Rui and saunters over. He ruffles Qiao Yifan’s hair. “Hey brat, you’d better bring out some good stuff if you want my seat. Old Wu’s been antsy about it too, and there’s another secret weapon we’ve got hidden back home.” Baring his teeth at Gao Yingjie, he adds, “Don’t think you can get in with just your connections.”
While Qiao Yifan is dazed, absently fixing his hair, Li Xuan blends back into the crowd. Besides him, Fang Rui throws a double thumbs up and shouts, “Show ‘em what you're made of, Little Qiao!”
It a couple beats later, after Yu Wenzhou has shooed the crowd off to lunch, that Gao Yingjie finally pieces everything together and reacts. He turns toward Qiao Yifan and raises a clenched fist. “Keep working hard. One day, we’ll share the same taste of victory together.”
Qiao Yifan responds with a smile. Yes, one day.
Then, he feels the back of his neck tingle.
It’s Wang Jiexi who approaches them, two cups of boba tea in his hands. Wordlessly, he double checks the labels, then sets one in front of Gao Yingjie and the other by Qiao Yifan’s mouse. While Qiao Yifan finds himself at a loss, Wang Jiexi continues to pull a chair over besides Gao Yingjie’s monitor, then beckons Qiao Yifan closer.
He slides his chair over, boba in one hand and straw in the other, utterly confused.
“Yingjie,” their former captain says, and starts offering critique and advice as he gets Gao Yingjie to advance through the recorded match.
Awkwardly on the side, Qiao Yifan sips his drink. Oolong milk tea with half sugar, from Tiny Leaf Cafe. It’s the same order he always gets with Yingjie whenever he’s staying in City B. Did Wang Jiexie know his order, or did Gao Yingjie tell him beforehand? Though he tries to focus on what Wang Jiexi is saying so that he might also glean some insight, these other thoughts keep popping into his head.
He bites down unintentionally on his straw. Wang Jiexi is looking at him with his uneven eyes. Then, it’s his turn for critique.
He’s not part of the National Team, just a pro who happened to be in town and called over to be a training partner. He’s not a member of Tiny Herb, hasn’t been for a long time. In fact, he’s a pillar of Team Happy now, and even if Wang Jiexi has retired as Tiny Herb’s captain, his loyalty to his former team cannot be shaken.
Giving Qiao Yifan advice like this is practically abetting the enemy. Even if he were to be a part of the National Team some day, that’s far in the future.
As he thinks these thoughts, another part of him is surprised for a different reason. Because Wang Jiexi was watching him. Has been watching him, as his pointed critiques on Qiao Yifan’s long-time habits, the slightest flaws that Qiao Yifan had thought he’d covered up well enough, are evidence.
It doesn’t make sense. Why are Wang Jiexi’s eyes on him? Since when?
All these thoughts spin in the background as he nods along to everything his former captain says. It’s just like his rookie days again. No, he never got this much attention even as a rookie in Tiny Herb. He was just a so-so newbie in the shadow of a prodigy.
But before he can process all these complicated things, another voice interrupts them. “There you are, Big Eye Wang. It’s time for the meeting with the big bosses.”
It’s Ye Xiu, slouching nonchalantly with a stick of Pejoy between his lips to replace the cigarettes he finally gave up a year ago. “Glad to see you having fun here,” he says to Qiao Yifan then smiles at Gao Yingjie.
Even though it’s not the first time he’s seen his two former captains together, Qiao Yifan feels an incredible pressure in his chest. In fact, it’s even worse this time compared to previously, because now, it’s just days after he’s delayed his answer to Su Mucheng about taking over as captain in the future. Seeing them—one who gave up his career for his team, the other who gave everything for a final triumphant hurrah—reminds him that this is what a captain should be. They're so much larger than life.
He resists ducking his head to avoid their eyes, a habit he thought he’d outgrown after stepping out to join Team Happy.
Wang Jiexi stands. His gaze lingers on Qiao Yifan for a moment then shifts, not entirely aimed at Gao Yingjie, though. Then, after a moment of consideration, he grabs Gao Yingjie’s half finished boba and takes a long sip. He sets the cup down with a small burp.
Or, well, usually so much larger than life.
It’s only after their former captain has turned around that Qiao Yifan dares to share a look with Gao Yingjie, like a pair of guilty siblings.
When the two old gods are out the door and finally out of sight, Gao Yingjie asks, a slight crack to his voice, “Rematch?”
Qiao Yifan clears his head. Mind on Glory.
“Yeah, let’s go.”
They both burst into giggles.
The match starts with Qiao Yifan’s mind drifting and fingers stiff. Li Zhekun eagerly seizes the opening move and shows keen insight and excellent mechanics that catch Qiao Yifan by surprise a couple of times. He knows how to use the stronger attack and flexibility of a Hybrid Demon to his advantage. Once, he even flips Qiao Yifan’s Ghostblade into a tree with a flawless Moonlight Slash, Full Moon Slash combo.
However, Qiao Yifan quickly enters the flow of the match.
Because this is Glory. When his right hand grasps a mouse like a sword and his left becomes his feet and body through the keyboard, and when he looks at the battlefield through the eyes of his beloved Ghostblade, he can’t not think about Glory and winning.
Very soon, the match falls into Qiao Yifan’s rhythm. Li Zhekun attacks, and Qiao Yifan counters. Qiao Yifan attacks, and Li Zhekun blocks. Then he resets to give the rookie another chance.
All throughout, whenever Qiao Yifan lets him catch a breather, Li Zhekun would leave a running commentary in the chat box, like a puppy yapping for attention:
"How was my Moon Moon combo? Seamless, right?"
"Almost got you with that Ice Boundary!"
"Ack you trapped me with a physical wall! Curses!"
"Oh so there was a gap between my boundaries there."
"You heard me coming? As expected of Senior!"
Figuring it would be rude to leave the rookie hanging, Qiao Yifan responds with the occasional "yes" or other word of encouragement. At least it’s not as tiring as Huang Shaotian’s endless rants or Lu Hanwen’s boundless energy.
Finally, Li Zhekun's Ghostblade reaches quarter health while Qiao Yifan's is just under half.
Maybe he's been influenced by Li Zhekun's repeated messages, but Qiao Yifan has a sudden urge to say something too.
"Are you ready?"
Or maybe he's been influenced too much by his team if his fingers almost type next, "to witness this senior's might?"
As a single "!" appears in answer, Qiao Yifan is already rushing his Ghostblade forward. A Moonlight Slash forces Li Zhekun's Ghostblade into the open, and the Full Moon Slash that follows throws him crashing through the thin cottage walls. If a rookie can pull off this classic combo seamlessly, how much more precise can a senior make it?
Everything is calculated in fractions of seconds. The momentary stun would be long enough for One Inch Ash to complete a chant but not his current Ghostblade. The difference is small though, and Qiao Yifan adjusts the Darkness Boundary to land where he predicts Li Zhekun will move.
There are only two obvious routes that allow Li Zhekun to escape from his disadvantageous position in the cottage, and Qiao Yifan is blocking one of them. He lets his boundary fall on the other route and sure enough, captures the rookie.
From there, it's one boundary then another, thrown together without need for rhythm or pace while Li Zhekun is disoriented in the darkness. Ice. Flame. Plague. Silence. Then Ash. He also keeps a Death’s Tombstone on reserve, just in case. It’s overkill against a rookie, but he’s given him plenty of chances to prove himself already. Going all out like this is also a sign of respect for his opponent.
Finally, when the last boundary falls in place, Qiao Yifan prepares his finishing move: Ghost Feast.
His Ghostblade’s hand traces down the glowing black blade of his tachi, calling forth a myriad of ghosts from the dense set of boundaries. Their wispy howls echo in his ears, and they rush to swallow the remainder of his opponent’s life.
When the last drops of red fade to black, the match ends.
Seeing the golden word large across the screen makes Qiao Yifan tingle with satisfaction.
Beside him, Ye Xiu stretches his arms above his head and says, “Not bad, Captain Qiao.”
Hearing the cracks as Ye Xiu flexes his fingers and wrists over the pride in Ye Xiu’s voice, though, immediately dampens Qiao Yifan’s mood.
His senior is old now, just turned 31—the same as Season 10's Wei Chen—while Happy was fighting in the Season 13 playoffs. After Ye Xiu had put all his energy into usurping Tang Rou’s fierce rhythm, then focused all his attention into defusing Steamed Bun’s every odd trick, it was fatigue that ultimately ensnared Ye Xiu in Qiao Yifan’s final trap.
Still, it was a good match, and Qiao Yifan had to fight tooth and nail for his victory. Whatever Ye Xiu has lost in mechanics these past three years, he more than makes up for with craftiness and precision and his vast repertoire of experience.
Rather, Qiao Yifan should be disappointed in himself for struggling so hard to win when he’s well in his prime.
“Thank you, Senior,” he says.
As he considers leaving his seat to fetch his senior a bottle of water, their new rookie Yan Ning beats him to it. “God Ye, that was sooo good! It’s really different seeing your Unspecialized with my very own eyes. It’s like Boss said, you just, like, whoosh, bam, and ka-swished outta there that time! As expected of the Boss’s Boss and the God of Glory! Looks like I haven’t been worshipping you all these years for nothing!”
Ye Xiu sips his water and sends Qiao Yifan a sideways glance. Qiao Yifan scratches his hair. Their new rookie is rather… impressionable. They both eye Steamed Bun, who’s gotten into another one-sided conversation with Luo Ji over the virtues of chocolate cake.
“And Captain! That Ghost Feast at the end was just wow! Everything just went boom boom boom and then it was all over! Ah! So cool! As expected of our soon to be Captain! Deepest respect to my two seniors.”
Before either of the two can respond, their more senior rookie healer drags Yan Ning away by the ear with a polite apology. Qiao Yifan shakes his head slightly, wishing that Zheng Mingli could be that assertive on the battlefield too.
A shiver runs down his spine. For some reason, the way Yan Ning says it is different from how others do, and it evokes some unknown feeling in Qiao Yifan.
Ye Xiu catches Qiao Yifan’s reaction with those omniscient eyes of his and smirks, like he’s seen through everything and finds it all amusing.
But when Qiao Yifan flushes, feeling exposed even though he doesn’t quite know what’s been exposed, Ye Xiu creases his brows slightly.
For all that he is infuriating and even terrifying with his incisive ability to read the truth, he is never heartless like others believe him to be. “Not used to your new form of address, Captain Qiao?”
Oh. Qiao Yifan understands.
Ye Xiu calls him captain like he’s humoring him, watching a child play dress-up in their parents’ clothing. Su Mucheng and Fang Rui say it almost teasingly, like a joke between friends. The other senior members of the team may address him as captain and treat him with new respect, but they see him as they always have, as a fellow teammate.
But with Yan Ning and Zheng Mingli, the new rookies, they say Captain and mean Captain. He’s their captain as Ye Xiu and Wang Jiexi and Su Mucheng were once his captains.
Their “captain” weighs heavy with expectation and rings bright with anticipation. He wonders if that’s how he sounds when he slips up and calls Ye Xiu “Captain” out of habit.
Seeing that Qiao Yifan has somehow resolved his earlier confusion, Ye Xiu switches the topic back to their match and says, “You’ve gotten more proactive in your play, Yifan, but it’s not enough. Sometimes you’re proactive to the point of being too reckless, losing your greatest strength of situation awareness. And when the situation becomes more complicated, you still tend to fall back on reading the situation and reacting.”
He winds through the recorded video and points out two moves that were too forward and reckless and three instances where Qiao Yifan was overwhelmed by Lord Grim’s spontaneity. Then he gives examples for how he could have better predicted, or at least prepared more defensive measures, and also how to keep his head when he charges boldly. Qiao Yifan glues his eyes to the screen and commits another of Ye Xiu’s golden lessons to his heart.
Be more proactive. Read ahead, not just the situation in front of him, and prepare for the possible futures.
“Even if you can’t see the field ten steps ahead, at least set a goal for what you want in three steps. Three moves later, where is the most advantageous position for you? Where is the most disadvantageous position for your opponent? And when you have the upper hand, how can you leverage even more dominance?”
“I will work on it.” Qiao Yifan ducks his head slightly.
Ye Xiu then narrows his eyes into cat-like slits and rests his chin on his palm. “So you’re Happy’s captain now, Yifan. But where do you see yourself three moves later?”
“Huh?” he responds.
“Or I should ask, three moves later, where do you want to be? I’ve heard from Mucheng that she’s the one who suggested you be shot caller, then captain, and you were surprised both times. You’ve got the same short-sightedness as your play style, you know.”
Qiao Yifan nods slowly. He opens his mouth to say something, but isn’t sure what to say.
“I won’t ask if you really want those positions, because you accepted them already. But now that you’re captain, you can’t just keep reacting. Because as captain, your will is Happy’s will. Su Mucheng’s probably gone over all this with you already.”
Then Ye Xiu shakes his head slightly and frowns. He glances, probably unintentionally, at Lord Grim’s account card in the reader. “Once you’re captain, people are going to pull you this way and that. Everyone—from your team to your fans to your family—will want something from you and place you in an overwhelming situation. Acting passively will only tear you apart.”
The commotion of the party has died down some, so all Qiao Yifan can hear when Ye Xiu trails off is the low hum of the AC and the whirring of the computers’ fans. He only knows a small corner of Ye Xiu’s story, but he’s witnessed enough of how his former captain had been treated to feel the gravity of his words.
“You don’t have to be so serious,” Ye Xiu says with half a quirked grin. “Being captain is a golden opportunity. You’ve only just seized it and now you have to make the situation go your way. And to do that, you have to know what your way is and what it is you want.”
After some thought, Qiao Yifan says, tentatively, “I want to win the Championships, I guess.”
It’s a goal all pros have, he supposes. He still gets goosebumps every time he passes by their Season 10 trophy in the lobby and recalls the night they won. He wants to taste that same victory again.
Ye Xiu slouches. His hand twitches toward his pocket, like he’s reaching for his cigarettes before remembering he’s given them up. Instead, he spreads his hands open and says, “Mm, that’s a good goal. You’re young and bound to win plenty of those.”
“Glory,” Qiao Yifan says, and he startles himself. “I just want to keep being a pro and playing Glory. But, that’s probably a selfish answer...”
Ye Xiu looks amused. He studies his hands, listening to his fingers crack again as he tightens them into loose fists. “No, it’s a good answer,” he says. “Glory is why we became pros, right?”
Then he raises his eyebrows enigmatically. “So what is Glory to you?”
Qiao Yifan falls silent as he studies One Inch Ash who poses on his screen, brandishing his gleaming dark and white Snow Stripe through a series of idle stances. His right hand creeps toward his mouse as his left taps a rhythm on his knee.
Glory is Glory. The game he loves. Beyond that…
On the other side of the room, where Su Mucheng is playing round robin against the rest of the team—their newly established ritual for retirement apparently—cheering bursts out. Steamed Bun shouts loudly that it's his turn next, only to be cut off by Mo Fan taking Luo Ji’s vacated seat. An Wenyi, back for the occasion a year after his own retirement, beckons at Qiao Yifan and Ye Xiu when he notices their attention.
Ye Xiu tilts his head in that direction. “Shall we?”
Qiao Yifan follows his former captain toward the chaos. As he melds himself into the messy laughter and noisy banter and bright, encompassing warmth of his team, he thinks this, too, is Glory.
Qiao Yifan exits his booth, and this time, he feels like he hears each individual cry from the audience. Some shout for Qiao Yifan and some for Happy, and even a few cheer for Void and their Rookie. However, here in the neutral Royal Style’s home stadium, most is meaningless noise, just pure excitement and energy that thrums to the beat of Qiao Yifan’s heart.
Li Zhekun’s brow is furrowed when they shake hands at the podium.
“Now I understand why Captain feels threatened.”
It probably wasn't a thought meant to be overheard, Qiao Yifan judges by Li Zhekun's glare at the floorboards, but his ear catches it through the cheers anyway. It makes him grin. Looks like he has something to tease his senior about later.
Then Li Zhekun grabs the mic from the MC and declares, “Captain Qiao Yifan! Thank you for all your teachings today. My name is Li Zhekun, a Ghostblade from Team Void. One day, I'll be number one and Void will be the champions! Please remember that well!”
Although his spiky hair, gleaming eyes, and bold words make him seem like a character from one of Steamed Bun’s manhua, he speaks so earnestly it’s impossible not to take him seriously.
Qiao Yifan looks at this rookie, who is unflinching in the face of the wild crowd’s cheers and jeers, and thinks, this is also Glory. Where the rookie only can only dauntlessly climb higher, just like all pros can only relentlessly climb higher and higher.
“Mm,” Qiao Yifan actually agrees when he grabs the mic. He says, “One day, if you work hard enough, that will be true. I’ll be keeping an eye on you.”
Then, as he straightens his back to stand taller, the next words rise unbidden.
“But first, let this senior be number one and take Happy to the Championships.”
The audacity of his words startle even himself a bit. But when he declares this, the restlessness in him settles. He's being proactive, charging boldly, but he's keeping his head. That’s right, this is what he wants.
The crowd goes absolutely wild, their shouts and stomps like thunder. Even the MC is momentarily stunned by his bold words.
Qiao Yifan can only smile.
Because Happy has always been like this, shamelessly aiming for the top since their first wobbling steps, even before the Challenger League. And Qiao Yifan now, as Happy’s Captain, is Happy.
He looks to his team to back him up. In the pro players’ stands, Fang Rui shouts and hollers, together with Steamed Bun and their rookie Yan Ning, for those in the back. Tang Rou grins like a shark sensing blood and Luo Ji claps to cheer everyone on. Zheng Mingli hides the middle finger that she sticks at the booing teams from the camera; Mo Fan glares unabashedly at those jeering pros.
Seeing them and their response, Qiao Yifan feels a new urgency to get stronger. He sees their vicious thirst for victory, and he understands where he has to take them. The championships, then beyond.
He wants to ascend the peak of Glory. Becoming number one and winning the championships are just milestones along the way.
Then, as the MC works to maintain order in the crowd, Qiao Yifan reaches a hand out to his junior. “You played very well,” he says sincerely. “Thank you for the match.”
Li Zhekun shakes his hand with a wide grin. “Captain was right. You Happy people sure are shameless. You even stole the words I was gonna say.”
The MC has yet to dismiss them, so Qiao Yifan stands at the podium for a long moment, soaking in the experience of this dazzling stage.
This time, he's been challenged by a rookie, and his juniors are closing in behind him. Yet the gods are forever before his eyes, and he is still always the challenger.