Business class is both a blessing and a curse.
Mostly a blessing, Yu Wenzhou concedes, stretching out his legs. The seats on this overseas flight are far more luxurious than any domestic one he’s taken previously. The complimentary pajamas are a nice touch, as well.
And maybe it isn’t fair to call their accommodations a curse. In truth, the curse part of business class isn’t really about business class at all.
It’s about Huang Shaotian.
Normally, Yu Wenzhou would be amused at the reversal of their dual-core moniker but these long trips are painful for his hyperactive partner. He wishes he could do more, could do anything other than pack a bag full of entertainment and hope for the best. He does what he can. They’re still in the early hours of their ten hour flight to Zurich (longer if he counts time spent waiting on the tarmac) and Huang Shaotian has already skimmed through his guidebook on Switzerland, visited every member of the Glory National Team in their seats, and read the airplane safety brochure cover-to-cover twice.
Yu Wenzhou knows that last bit because Huang Shaotian declares, in his best vice-captain’s voice, “Wenzhou, if we crash I know what to do. You don’t have to worry, I’ll get everyone out!”
It isn’t exactly reassuring, considering the amount of turbulence they’re experiencing at the time, but he appreciates the sentiment.
He doubts that Li Xuan, who turned slightly green, can say the same.
“Sorry, sorry, sorry!” Huang Shaotian seems to realize his blunder and spends the next half hour leaning as far across the aisle as he can, chatting Li Xuan’s ear off to distract him from the airplane’s bumps and jolts.
Snatches of conversation reach Yu Wenzhou’s ear.
“And did you know that lizard tails grow back! They should put that in Glory, that would be the coolest. I bet Troubling Rain could hold a sword with his tail.”
Yu Wenzhou can’t hear Li Xuan’s reply, but the happy noise Huang Shaotian makes indicates that it was positive.
The moment the seatbelt sign turns off, Huang Shaotian springs out of his seat like his pants are on fire. “Bye, save my spot for me okay, I’ll be back, I’ll be right back.”
He doesn’t come right back.
It isn’t cause for concern. The occasional excited peaks of his voice carry over the background hum of the jet engines. He’s gone to chat with the other pro players again. It’s rare for all of them to be in the same place for so long, and for weeks, Huang Shaotian has been practically vibrating with excitement at being able to spend so much time with so many far-flung friends.
Yu Wenzhou doesn’t bother to hide the smile creeping along his face. In his overly large seat, there isn’t anyone who can see him to call him out on it. He takes out the book he brought for the flight and loses himself in the rare opportunity to read uninterrupted.
At one point, Wang Jiexi plops himself down in Huang Shaotian’s vacant seat and Yu Wenzhou does some lighthearted catching up of his own.
When the meal service is over and the cabin lights dim, Yu Wenzhou leans around the privacy divider at the edge of his seat. Next to him, Huang Shaotian (who scurried back to his assigned seat for food) is chewing his lip and drawing in a notebook they'd bought together specifically for the flight. The overhead light casts strange shadows on his face, and his eyes reflect the glare of his phone.
On his lap, the notebook is lying open, showing glimpses of his unintelligible scrawl, mixed in with doodles of what Yu Wenzhou recognizes are Troubling Rain and Swoksaar and the rest of the Glory National Team in various fighting poses. At least, Yu Wenzhou hopes they’re fighting poses. He bites back his laugh at the stick figure of Lord Grim dressed as a circus clown, fighting a giant lizard with his umbrella.
Huang Shaotian is wearing headphones as he writes, bobbing in his chair in time with the music and stealing glances at where his phone is playing old Glory matches on silent. The end of his pen is dotted with teeth marks.
“Shaotian,” Yu Wenzhou says, keeping his voice low so as not to disturb anyone else.
Most of the seats around them are composed of their teammates, but that only gives him more incentive not to cause a ruckus. He was glad to see them laughing along with Huang Shaotian earlier, but now that everyone has settled in to sleep, it’s best to leave them in peace.
Huang Shaotian doesn’t stir at the sound of his name, and Yu Wenzhou rolls his eyes at himself. He must be more tired than he thought. Twisting awkwardly, he waves a hand around the divider to catch Huang Shaotian’s eye. He feels a little silly but it works. Huang Shaotian looks up, confusion melting into a smile that takes up his whole face. He’s a luminous star shining bright amidst the dimmed cabin lights of the airplane.
“Captain! Wait, wait, stay like that,” Huang Shaotian says, once he’s ripped off his headphones. “Your hair is a mess and I want to remember this. How is a big important captain allowed to be so cute and messy?”
Yu Wenzhou does as instructed, resisting the urge to pat at his head. It’s not like Huang Shaotian has never seen him unkempt before. Instead, he takes the opportunity to study the familiar shape of his features. There’s a wild look in his eyes that confirms Yu Wenzhou’s suspicions.
Huang Shaotian has never done well at being cooped up without Glory at his fingertips.
He can sit still for hours when he has Troubling Rain, staying laser focused while he waits for the smallest of openings to exploit, but without that touchstone his concentration skitters. Normally when he gets fidgety like this, an arm around his shoulders or a hand in his hair is enough to settle him, at least temporarily.
Which is where the aforementioned curse part of business class comes in.
They’re sitting in adjacent seats in the center aisle but the pods are so large and so private that none of Yu Wenzhou’s usual options are available to him. Instead, he snakes his hand around the divider. Instantly, it’s gripped in a too-tight squeeze. Yu Wenzhou squeezes back, his thumb tracing the bumps and ridges of Huang Shaotian’s knuckles.
“How are you holding up?” he asks, once Huang Shaotian has stopped giggling to himself about captains who have adorable bed head on airplanes.
“I’m fine, I’m fine, don’t worry about me. Look at all the stuff I have, this is great, so much to do!” He frowns, an adorable pout shaping his lips. “What about you? I thought you’d be sleeping by now.”
So did Yu Wenzhou. Unfortunately, his stubborn internal clock insists it’s only afternoon. He considers using the emergency sleeping pills he brought, recommended by Blue Rain’s in-house doctor, but he hates the way they make him feel. So far the packet has remained in his backpack, untouched.
“Do you want the sleeping pills?” It’s an unnecessary question. If Huang Shaotian wants them he’ll ask for them, but it makes him feel better to check.
A sheepish look crosses Huang Shaotian’s face.
It’s a look Yu Wenzhou knows all too well. “What did you do?”
“Me? Nothing. I did nothing wrong, I assure you! I only do the things you tell me to do.”
The timbre of his voice actually does reassure Yu Wenzhou. One of the perks of their near decade of partnership is that not only can Yu Wenzhou decipher Huang Shaotian’s speech at any speed, he’s learned how to ask questions in precisely the right manner to cut off all avenues of escape.
It’s a skill he uses to his full advantage. “Fine, then. Tell me, Shaotian, what did you do that was a thing you did, but not a wrong thing.”
“Busted,” he can hear Huang Shaotian mutter, and it makes him smile, soft and fond. Already, Yu Wenzhou can tell that whatever they’re about to bicker about, Yu Wenzhou is going to lose.
“Captain, I told you I did nothing wrong. I only do exactly what I’m supposed to do, don’t you know.”
Huang Shaotian continues his defensive posturing. He’s only protesting for the fun of it, and Yu Wenzhou lets him ramble to his heart’s content. His voice is low enough not to disturb anyone, so the chatter is harmless.
It’s not that he tunes Huang Shaotian out, more that the words wash over him and he lets their meaning soak in at his leisure. Which is why it takes him a few moments before he processes the hint Huang Shaotian lets slip.
“...went through your stuff while you were in the bathroom. You brought snacks and games for me, Wenzhou, that’s so nice of you, have I told you yet that you’re the best.”
“You say it often enough.” He wishes the seats weren’t so far apart so he could reel Huang Shaotian in and play with the hair at the nape of his neck the way he likes. He settles for recapturing his hand. “Now what’s this about going through my bags?”
Huang Shaotian’s eyes blow wide and he nearly jolts the notebook off his lap when he snatches his hand back. “Nothing?”
“You’ve already said it. Out with it,” Yu Wenzhou replies, tilting his head in consideration.
It works, it always does. Huang Shaotian shifts in his seat, muttering about scary captains who are cute and hot and don’t play fair. “I know you packed sleeping pills for me, even though I told you they make me feel slow all day and being slow is the worst. You’re always prepared for everything. But I didn’t change my mind. I gave them to Sun Xiang.”
Yu Wenzhou frowns. Not because of the pills or because Huang Shaotian went through his bag without asking. The two of them have been sharing each other’s backpacks on game days forever, this trip isn’t any different from those other times. “I thought you two didn’t get along?”
“I went to talk to him about puppies and he said he couldn’t sleep on planes. He looked at me and said, ‘Great God Shaotian who is so much better at Glory than me, please help me get my beauty rest.’”
“He didn’t say that.” Yu Wenzhou tries hard not to show how amused he is. He doesn’t think he succeeds.
“Wenzhou, how could you accuse your upstanding vice-captain of lying? If you had Zhou Zekai as your captain, you’d want your beauty rest, too. Not that you aren’t as attractive as he is. I once went into the fan forums and...anyway, Sun Xiang looked more tired and cranky than usual so I went and fetched the pills for him. Did you know his family breeds dogs? I did not know that but I think Blue Rain should get a team pet. Maybe more girls will want to join our team if we have a cute puppy. We can get Little Lu to look after our new mascot. Taking care of a pet is good for teaching responsibility. Oh Wenzhou, can we?”
Part of being an effective partner to Huang Shaotian is the ability to filter through his chatter and pick out the bits that require the most urgent attention. In this case, both Sun Xiang’s beauty rest and whatever shady activities Huang Shaotian is getting up to on the fan forums take second place.
The last thing he needs is a puppy “mysteriously” appearing at Blue Rain. “No. Hanwen will have to learn responsibility the old-fashioned way.”
Huang Shaotian wrinkles his nose. “By cleaning the bathrooms?”
“By us teaching him.”
It’s fitting that Huang Shaotian is lobbying for a puppy because in this moment that’s exactly what he looks like. Yu Wenzhou refrains from remarking that the team doesn’t need a cute mascot since they already have a lovable Huang Shaotian.
Huang Shaotian flops back in his seat. “Okay, okay. You’ve convinced me for now,” he says, in a voice that is not at all convincing.
Yu Wenzhou shakes his head, making a mental note for after the World Competition to check that Huang Shaotian doesn’t try and convince the entire team about the puppy. He’s dangerously persuasive when he wants to be.
Which reminds him. “That was nice, what you did for Sun Xiang.”
In the dimness of the cabin, the praise lights up Huang Shaotian’s face.
Yu Wenzhou can feel his own expression soften. “Try to get some sleep, okay? We still have a big day ahead of us.”
With that, he retreats back into his space and heeds his own advice.
It isn’t until he’s in that hazy space between awakeness and dreams that he realizes the chatter about the puppy was a smokescreen to distract from the question of whether or not Huang Shaotian listens to instructions. Yu Wenzhou falls asleep with an indulgent smile on his face.
At least he was right about one thing; he did lose that particular argument.
The cabin is still dark when something pulls him from sleep, leaving him sluggish and bleary-eyed without his glasses.
A dark smear of shadow looms over Yu Wenzhou where he’s prone on the seat bed. He doesn’t jump out of his skin and embarrass himself in front of the entire China Glory Team, but it’s close. Only years of familiarity keep him calm and settled, learned instinct overriding his body’s natural inclination.
He knows the shape of that shadow. He’s woken up to it more times than he can count.
When his eyes adjust, Huang Shaotian is standing in the aisle, wearing his airline pajamas and clutching his airline issued pillow tight to his chest. The dim cabin lights reflect off his hair, giving him a haloed appearance to Yu Wenzhou’s fuzzy night vision. He's shifting around, restless and sneaking furtive glances while he waits. Checking for any potential flight attendants that may be watching, Yu Wenzhou realizes. That last bit snaps the pieces together in his mind. His thinking is still slow like swimming in porridge but he knows what Huang Shaotian wants.
Shifting onto his side, he pats the sliver of space next to him on his tiny airline bed. "Come here," he says, careful to keep his voice low.
It’s the right move. With a happy noise, Huang Shaotian throws himself into the bed, shoving his pillow into place and scooting himself into the negative space left by Yu Wenzhou’s body. Yu Wenzhou moves with an ease born of years, wrapping an arm around Huang Shaotian’s waist to rest against his stomach above his soft pajama shirt.
It’s a tight squeeze. It’s a very tight squeeze. Only a lifetime of learning not to make fish jokes keeps him from mentioning their resemblance to a can of sardines.
Huang Shaotian wriggles further into place against Yu Wenzhou’s chest, mumbling into his pillow all the while. “I read all your tactics, and put my notes on the flash drive. They’re real good, you’re so smart. So, so smart.”
“They’re not all mine this time,” Yu Wenzhou reminds him.
The tactics are as much Ye Xiu’s as they are his own. It’s been an eye-opening experience, manning a team alongside a Glory legend. Ye Xiu has an incredible mind and a way of thinking that cuts through all the noise and pierces into the heart of a problem. Yu Wenzhou has already amassed pages of new ideas to try with Blue Rain next season.
“Yeah, yeah, whatever. Old Ye’s pretty great, too. But mostly you. Don’t tell him I said that. Wait no, you can tell him but I want to be there to see his face.”
“I’ll let you tell him, how about that?”
“Wenzhou, you’re so good to me.” Huang Shaotian grabs Yu Wenzhou’s hand on his stomach and laces their fingers together. “Don’t forget to look at my notes, okay,” he says through a yawn.
Yu Wenzhou kisses the back of his neck. “I’ll review them with the other tacticians after we land. Thank you, Shaotian.”
He’d handed over the tactics partially to keep Huang Shaotian’s mind engaged on the flight. But it wasn’t the only reason. He’s been running his plans past Huang Shaotian since the year they debuted together, relying on his unique insights and quick thinking to poke holes in Yu Wenzhou’s logic: everything from his assumptions to his untested ideas to his assessment of their opponents. It’s comforting to know that even in this, when everything is so different, he can count on Huang Shaotian to cover his weak spots.
Yu Wenzhou is grateful to have him here. Not just here in his arms, but here on the China National Team.
He can’t shake the vague feeling of being a rookie captain all over again, despite everything he’s learned leading Blue Rain. The pressure of leadership never goes away but he’s become an expert in managing it, in transforming the restless energy into something he can use rather than something that uses him.
Here, surrounded by the best players in the Glory Pro Alliance, that pressure reforms anew across his shoulders.
His team. His responsibility.
It doesn’t matter that ultimate accountability isn’t his to bear (nor does he envy Ye Xiu that dubious honor). In the end, he’s the one who will be on the field making calls. The team has barely had time to practice together, to refit their honed edges into a fighting whole rather than slicing each other to shreds. So much can go wrong in the heat of battle and it’s Yu Wenzhou's responsibility to hold them together.
At least he’s not facing it alone. He’s heard it said that it’s lonely at the top but he can’t help but laugh at that. Whoever said that has clearly never met his team. Or Huang Shaotian.
Huang Shaotian, who’s been on this road with him from the beginning. Standing with him, laughing with him, protecting him. So much is new and different in this team of giants but one thing is unchanged.
He has Huang Shaotian by his side.
Most people would scoff at the idea of Blue Rain’s nonstop chatterbox being anyone’s port in a storm. Too loud, too boisterous, and Yu Wenzhou’s personal favorite—too easy to rile. They don’t see his personality for the smokescreen it is, hiding a core of cold hard focus that hums to life when he’s behind the keyboard. To Yu Wenzhou, the trash-talk isn’t a distraction, it’s a beacon guiding him home.
Pressed together in their tiny bed, the weight on his shoulders eases. He tucks his head into Huang Shaotian’s neck and pulls the blanket tighter around them both.
He’s deep in a warm cocoon of sleep when a polite cough pulls him back into the waking world for the second time.
Yu Wenzhou doesn’t want to rouse himself but now that he’s up there’s no going back.
"Excuse me, sir, it's—oh I'm sorry. Excuse me, sirs." The flight attendant leans over and whispers, "You're really not supposed to do that."
Yu Wenzhou blinks away the harsh stab of brightness searing into his brain. The cabin lights are back, they must be in the final stretch. He’s still sleepy, his mind not calibrated to deal with people, let alone trying to explain that it's not technically breaking the rules to have two people share a seat if it's not actually in the rules. But knowing his luck, there probably is a rule written down somewhere.
He sits up, a feat that requires more contortions than one would imagine. Then again, most people don’t wake up with Huang Shaotian practically in their lap on an airplane bed. "My apologies, ma'am, we won't cause you any more trouble. Shaotian was just going back to his seat."
Yu Wenzhou pats along the edge of the seat and curses business class for being too large. His glasses are tucked into the side pocket on Huang Shaotian’s side of the bed. In his defense, both sides were his at the beginning of the flight. Regardless, they’re out of his reach and he feels off-balance without them.
Luckily, Huang Shaotian is covering for him, diverting attention away from Yu Wenzhou while he’s half blind. "It's my fault, it's my fault, I have trouble sleeping on planes and my captain here gives the best cuddles. Doesn’t he look like someone who gives great hugs?"
His charm is working, if the flight attendant’s amused laugh is any indication.
"Shaotian." Yu Wenzhou’s voice is muddy with sleep but still effective.
Huang Shaotian's hand freezes halfway to patting his chest. The seat bounces a bit as he shuffles around and a moment later, Yu Wenzhou feels something cold and wiry pressed into his palm.
He puts them on, only to see the flight attendant smiling at them both as she moves on to the next row. He thinks he catches the tail end of an amused, "Such nice young men."
The person behind them, fortunately, is Zhang Xinjie. Yu Wenzhou can count on him to be, if not discrete, at least tactful enough to not be obnoxious in his teasing. It's not like he and Huang Shaotian are a secret but Yu Wenzhou would prefer to survive this fight with his dignity intact.
Beside him, Huang Shaotian bounces in place. which means Yu Wenzhou is bouncing too. Mentally, he amends his previous thought. He’d like to survive this flight with his dignity mostly intact.
After a bit more shuffling around (and a promise to give Huang Shaotian his portion of whatever sweet comes with their next in-flight meal) Huang Shaotian goes back to his assigned seat as promised. The rest of the flight passes in relative peace.
The team lands in Zurich without fanfare, though there’s a bit of whining at the amount of time it takes to clear customs. Huang Shaotian is as chipper as ever, having reached the state where he’s so exhausted he’s swung back around to energetic. He’s rattling off a constant string of facts he learned from his guidebook as they make their way out of baggage claim, only pausing when Zhang Xinjie interrupts every few seconds to dispute him with a different set of facts he learned from his own research.
“We need someone smart to tell us who’s right. Hey, hey, Captain!”
Yu Wenzhou is halfway to determining how to extricate himself when, unexpectedly, Zhou Zekai does it for him, looking between the two of them and shaking his head. “Not fair.”
“What, because he’s my captain? How is that unfair? Are you saying Wenzhou would cheat? My Wenzhou. My captain. Cheat? I know you’re not saying that because if you were you’d have to fight us both.” He pauses mid-breath, bouncing on his heels. Yu Wenzhou can practically see the lightbulb going off above his head. “Wait. My captain is everyone’s captain now, that makes it the most fair.”
“No, Zhou Zekai’s right,” Fang Rui chimes in, giving Yu Wenzhou an apologetic look. “No offense, but everyone knows you have a soft spot for Huang Shao.”
“Soft spot is putting it mildly.” Thankfully, Su Mucheng’s whisper is lost to the din of a busy terminal and doesn't make it to the group at large. “It’s more like a two-meter tall blind spot.”
Beside her, Ye Xiu coughs into his fist. “That’s generous. Shaotian’s not even close to being that tall.”
Yu Wenzhou ignores them both and instead turns to Fang Rui. “None taken,” he replies, steering the conversation forward before Huang Shaotian catches wind that his height is being maligned. Luckily, it works.
“Fine then, Old Ye I saw you talking, you’re backing me up about my facts, right? Come on, come on, tell them how right I am.”
“As if he knows anything that’s not about Glory,” Tang Hao pipes up. He gets a few dirty looks thrown his way but no one can actually argue against it.
Even Ye Xiu has an amused curl to his lips, but that could be residual humor from Huang Shaotian’s (lack of) height. Yu Wenzhou considers being offended on his own behalf, considering he’s barely any taller, but decides to save the information for the future instead. You never knew when the ability to set Huang Shaotian loose on a revenge spree could come in handy.
Zhang Xinjie pushes his glasses up his nose. “Fine then, I nominate Xiao Shiqin. His judgment isn’t lacking and he’s not on either of our teams.”
They all look at Xiao Shiqin, who has mysteriously migrated to the far side of a very well-rested looking Sun Xiang. Luckily for Xiao Shiqin (or perhaps owing not merely to luck, considering his status as a Master Tactician), while Sun Xiang’s personality has improved over the years, his petulant glower is as off-putting as ever.
Xiao Shiqin is left alone.
Yu Wenzhou doesn’t miss the small, private grin the two of them share as the team boards the large bus he hired to take them to their hotel.
By the time everyone’s checked into their rooms, the double punch of the time change and the long flight is taking its toll. People are going to start dropping off if Yu Wenzhou doesn’t do something quickly. He checks his watch, already set to Central European Summer Time, and well...it isn’t quite dinnertime, but Yu Wenzhou is willing to brave the wrath of Zhang Xinjie’s schedule if it means giving the team an activity that will keep them from sleeping too early and ruining them for tomorrow.
Dinner is a quieter affair than usual, and when it’s over, he meets Ye Xiu’s eyes from across the table and taps the section of his jacket where he keeps his notebook. They still have a few days before the first match to overcome the jet lag and solidify their tactical approach, but there’s no time to waste.
Ye Xiu nods.
It doesn’t go unnoticed by the other two tacticians, and once the bill is paid the four of them sequester themselves back at the hotel in the private conference room set aside for the Chinese National Team.
They’re all tired but the meal provided a second wind, and the mental rush of arguing psychology and tactics shakes off the worst of Yu Wenzhou’s fatigue. It’s nothing they haven’t done before in the weeks of preparation leading up to the event, but every time they run through it they uncover something new.
Tonight is no exception.
“I wouldn’t have thought of their playstyle that way,” Xiao Shiqin says, pointing at a dense section of writing on the screen where the members of the Dutch team are displayed. “Your insights are impressive as usual, Wenzhou.” He lifts his glasses to rub at his eyes. Everyone is starting to flag, but there’s still so much to cover.
“They’re not mine,” Yu Wenzhou corrects. The grin on his face is more smug than the situation warrants but he can’t help himself. “This is Shaotian’s analysis of their matches. I’m just the transcriber.”
“No wonder there’s so much text,” Ye Xiu jokes, but his eyes are serious as they scan the information. “I didn’t see this earlier, have you been holding out on us, Wenzhou?”
Yu Wenzhou’s grin is cut short by a yawn. “Hardly. Aren’t we all one team now? Shaotian doesn’t sleep well on planes so we downloaded a bunch of matches for him to study during the flight.” It’s more than that, but Yu Wenzhou isn’t willing to go into detail about how difficult the trip was for him.
As if summoned by his name, the door creaks open and the familiar tones of Huang Shaotian’s voice sweep through the room.
“Oh wow, I’ve found where all our tacticians have disappeared to. Are you hiding from us? Is anyone allowed in or do I have to know the secret handshake?” He turns betrayed eyes onto Yu Wenzhou. “Captain, I can’t believe you didn’t teach me the secret tactician handshake.”
“You’re not a tactician,” Ye Xiu points out, the picture of smugness.
“I’m a tactician’s vice-captain,” Huang Shaotian shoots back, as if that makes perfect sense. Without waiting for an invitation, he scurries into the room, reaching into his backpack to pull out a treasure trove of drinks and snacks from its depths.
Zhang Xinjie frowns at the small hoard accumulating on the conference table. “What’s this?”
“They’re snacks! Do they not feed you at Tyranny? Tell Han Wenqing and his big muscles to save some food for his partner! I know what it’s like to have a captain with really nice muscles—” he winks at Yu Wenzhou, a hideously unsubtle thing that contorts his entire face “—so my very good advice to you is, don’t let him take all the good stuff.” He beams at Zhang Xinjie. “Us vice-captains have to stick together. Don’t worry, there’s plenty for everyone.”
Zhang Xinjie gives him a look like he knows what all those words mean individually but has no idea what Huang Shaotian just said. But there’s a smile tugging at the edge of his lips when he meets Huang Shaotian’s closed fist for a “vice-captain solidarity fistbump.”
“I was a vice-captain too, you know,” Xiao Shiqin adds, a wistful look crossing his face.
“You were, you were!” Huang Shaotian bounds over and fistbumps him as well.
There’s far more chocolate in the pile of snacks than Yu Wenzhou approves of but it’s been a long day for them all. He takes a candy bar. He doesn’t know where Huang Shaotian was hiding the steaming package of cup noodles, but that too is placed on the table, directly in front of Zhang Xinjie.
Zhang Xinjie eyes it suspiciously, like Huang Shaotian may have somehow bewitched the noodles to rise up and attack him the moment he turns his back. “We already ate dinner.”
“Yeah, we did. You barely picked at your food so you get second dinner.”
It’s not often anyone gets to see Zhang Xinjie surprised. But with a glance at his wristwatch, he picks up the disposable supermarket chopsticks and eats the noodles.
While they eat, Ye Xiu turns the computer monitor towards Huang Shaotian and brings up his analysis of the Dutch team. “Walk us through this, Shaotian.”
Huang Shaotian looks delighted in between his bites of chocolate but, true to form, he can't resist the opportunity to give Ye Xiu a hard time. “What do you need me for, aren’t you the Glory expert? Can’t you figure out why I said all that?”
“I already figured it out, I was taking pity on the others.”
Across the table, Zhang Xinjie scoffs, though he doesn’t stop eating his noodles.
Huang Shaotian throws his head back and laughs. “You mean you’re too lazy to explain it yourself, isn’t that right? We’re your teammates now you’re not supposed to be so shameless to your own team, don’t you—”
“I’d like to hear it, if you don’t mind,” Xiao Shiqin interrupts.
Huang Shaotian doesn’t need any additional encouragement. He sits down at the computer, both his chocolate bar and his ire at Ye Xiu forgotten as he happily runs through his thought process, only stopping when each of the tacticians takes turns grilling him.
Yu Wenzhou stays quiet. Like Ye Xiu, he doesn’t need to hear the explanation to connect the dots of the details. He’s intimately familiar with the way Huang Shaotian works.
A swell of pride warms his chest at the sight of his partner holding his own against three of the brightest minds in the Glory Pro Alliance. It reminds him of their early days in Blue Rain when the two of them met Xiao Shiqin and Zhang Xinjie for the first time. Huang Shaotian had surprised them that day, changing their initial opinion of him with a handful of sharp insights. He doesn’t have the far-flung vision of a tactician but his opportunist’s mind latches onto details that might otherwise get overlooked from too far away.
Eventually, the questions run dry and the monitor goes dark. Huang Shaotian looks over at Yu Wenzhou, who hadn’t spoken much during the conversation. Yu Wenzhou gives him a proud smile and sees it echoed on Huang Shaotian’s face.
The conversation shifts away from Glory and devolves into jokes about who snored the loudest on the plane (“Chu Yunxiu,” Ye Xiu says with a glint in his eye, before swearing them to secrecy on pain of Su Mucheng murdering him if she finds out he’s been spreading her gossip) and who looked the most stylish in their airline pajamas.
“Zhou Zekai,” Huang Shaotian declares, waving his candy in the air. “Who else would it be, don’t you all have eyes?”
He gets a round of head nods because he isn’t wrong.
Somehow, Huang Shaotian and Zhang Xinjie end up arguing over obscure facts about Zurich. Again. Just when things are about to get heated, it’s put to rest by a throwaway comment from Xiao Shiqin.
“Have you considered that you two are reading from different editions?”
Zhang Xinjie nods with a look in his eyes that says he’ll be investigating the issue once they’re back home.
“So you’re saying I’m right?” Huang Shaotian crows, jumping up from his chair to pump his fist in the air. “Right, right, right, of course I’m right, don’t mess with this Sword Saint.”
“He’s saying you’re both right, can’t you hear?” Ye Xiu says.
Huang Shaotian sticks his tongue out, his victory dance turning into a high pitched yelp when Ye Xiu seizes the opportunity to stuff the remainder of his chocolate bar into Huang Shaotian’s open mouth.
They all laugh while he sputters a muffled stream of curses and threats at Ye Xiu. Everything from Ye Xiu’s team to Ye Xiu’s family to Ye Xiu’s ratty old jacket that he took to Switzerland despite it being summer. And then he finally seems to realize he has chocolate in his mouth and settles down to happily munch on the remains.
Yu Wenzhou leans back in his seat, watching the people who have become like family to him smile and laugh.
In what feels like no time at all, the last of snacks become empty wrappers and the bottles of fruit-flavored drinks stand empty. As if sensing the tacticians are itching to get back to their analysis, Huang Shaotian gathers up the garbage and heads for the door with a jaunty wave and a comment about seeing what the rest of the team is up to.
Ye Xiu watches him leave with a considering look. “We needed the break,” he said, almost absently.
“We did,” Yu Wenzhou agrees. His mind is lighter and more focused after taking time for food and laughter. He’s still tired, the jet lag pulling him down, but he no longer has eyelids made of lead or a brain stuffed with cotton. Another hour or two and he can sleep, but if he goes to bed now, he’ll never adjust in time for the competition.
Around him, the other tacticians nod.
“Does he do that often?” Ye Xiu’s voice pulls him back to the present.
“Read my mind? More than you’d think.” Yu Wenzhou’s laugh tapers off as memory surfaces. “He does it for all of us. When Captain Wei and Captain Fang retired, there was no set role for the vice-captain position. Shaotian took it upon himself to define his duties. I didn’t even realize he was doing it at first, back when we first started working together. I thought he was keeping us from concentrating.”
“Until you realized everyone was more focused after his interruptions,” Ye Xiu finishes for him.
“It’s easy to underestimate him if you’re not paying attention.” It’s a mistake Yu Wenzhou doesn’t ever plan on making again.
Ye Xiu lets out an amused huff into the silence. “A subtle loudmouth. Figures.”
And then Xiao Shiqin makes a comment about the Russian team’s Qi Master, and the room erupts into dissenting opinions.
By the time Yu Wenzhou’s eyes are closing on their own once more, it’s late in the evening, local time. Earlier than he usually sleeps but late enough that he can finally rest without risk of being wide awake at three in the morning.
Which is when his phone vibrates from its place on the table.
He reads the message and stands. “If you’ll excuse me, I think it’s time I call it a night.”
The abrupt statement gets him a few odd looks, but the rest of them follow suit. It is, after all, important for them to get enough sleep so they can adjust to the time change as quickly as possible.
They pack up, and Yu Wenzhou isn’t surprised when the three of them don’t detour towards the elevators, electing instead to follow Yu Wenzhou. For all the Glory Pro Alliance likes to talk about the Four Master Tacticians as a fount of wisdom, the truth is they’re a bunch of nosy gossips.
Yu Wenzhou makes his way down the garishly lit hotel corridor. Several doors down is a smaller breakout room, the same one mentioned in the message on his phone. He pushes open the door and enters.
Immediately, Wang Jiexi strides up to him. “It took you long enough.”
Yu Wenzhou only smiles. “Do I detect a trace of bitterness?” he teases. “Already regretting that you turned down captain?”
“Not in the least. I just want you to collect your wayward partner so I can go to bed.” He gestures with his chin to the opposite side of the room.
There’s a lump of jackets in the corner piled up next to where Su Mucheng is sitting on the floor. It’s strange, considering this room contains a small table and several chairs. There’s no reason to use the floor. It all comes clear when Yu Wenzhou squints, recognizing the tuft of hair peeking out at the top of the clothing mound. There’s a person underneath, and he only knows one person with hair dyed that particular shade.
Wang Jiexi follows Yu Wenzhou's gaze. “He tried to wait up for you but the jet lag got the better of him.”
Yu Wenzhou shakes his head. It isn’t the first time Huang Shaotian has worn himself out waiting for him to come to bed and he doubts it will be the last. It isn’t surprising he dropped where he stood, considering the only sleep he got on the flight was the hour he spent sharing Yu Wenzhou’s seat.
Unlike on the plane, they aren’t alone now. Yu Wenzhou takes a second look at the crowd of people around them. There’s a deck of playing cards strewn across the table that says they’ve been here a while. “That doesn’t explain why all of you are here, too.”
“I’m on pillow duty.” Su Mucheng’s voice is soft but it carries across the room. It’s far quieter than her usual tone and it takes Yu Wenzhou a belated moment to realize it’s because she’s trying not to wake Huang Shaotian.
“And the rest of you?” Yu Wenzhou asks.
“His English is terrible,” Fang Rui says with a shrug. “It would take all of us to keep him out of trouble if he woke up. We can’t risk losing Worlds because our number five got himself lost.”
Yu Wenzhou doesn’t call him out on the lie. He heard Huang Shaotian practicing in his room shortly after the competition was announced. His English isn’t the best but it’s certainly passable.
“Thank you for looking out for him. I’ll take it from here.” Walking over, he crouches in front of Huang Shaotian and Su Mucheng. “Shaotian?” He shakes Huang Shaotian’s shoulder, covered with a jacket he recognizes as belonging to Zhou Zekai. “Shaotian, wake up.”
With a soft grumble of, “It’s too early for practice, I don’t wanna go,” Huang Shaotian’s eyes open, cloudy with sleep, before he nuzzles himself back against Su Mucheng’s shoulder. “Mmmm you’re a good pillow. Wanna come to Blue Rain?”
“No,” Su Mucheng replies. “And you drool.”
“I—what! No!” Huang Shaotian shakes himself upright, the jacket falling off his chest to land on the pile strewn across his legs.
Yu Wenzhou could corroborate that Huang Shaotian does in fact drool and it’s adorable, but he takes pity on his vice-captain. Not that Huang Shaotian is technically his vice-captain here in Switzerland, but as far as Yu Wenzhou is concerned, Huang Shaotian will always be his right hand and partner.
“Who are you calling a drooler? How dare—” a massive yawn cuts off whatever Huang Shaotian is about to say next and everyone around him laughs. His gaze darts all over the room, growing wider at each member of his unexpected audience. “Did someone call a team meeting when I wasn’t looking,” he mumbles. “I’m not late, I can’t be late if the meeting was secret.”
The sound of footsteps registers from behind Yu Wenzhou. His suspicions of who it is are confirmed when he years Ye Xiu’s familiar drawl.
“Sleeping on the job, Shaotian?”
“Shut up, shut up, I wasn’t sleeping. I was resting my eyes!”
“He was sleeping,” Zhang Jiale pipes up, waving his mobile phone. “I have photos.”
Zhang Jiale, Yu Wenzhou notes, isn’t wearing the sweater he had at dinner, but there’s a tinge of pink peeking out under the pile of jackets draped over Huang Shaotian’s legs.
“Traitor!” Huang Shaotian jumps to his feet. and has to steady himself against the wall when he starts to sway. In his wake, the jackets slide from his legs like a waterfall of colorful fabric.
Su Mucheng isn’t far behind, keeping a hand on his shoulder until the head rush passes. From the corner of Yu Wenzhou’s eye, he sees Sun Xiang pause where he was also lunging forward to help. He immediately slinks back into the corner, aggressively running a hand through his hair like that was what he meant to do all along.
A wave of warmth washes over Yu Wenzhou at the picture they all make. He can see it clear as day, the scene that must have led up to the current situation: Huang Shaotian refusing to go up to his room alone and the rest of the team unwilling to leave him by himself when he started to nod off.
“Don’t worry Huang Shao, if you ask nicely, we won’t post the photos on Weibo,” Fang Rui calls out.
“Yeah, we’ll save them for the pro player chat,” Chu Yunxiu adds.
Huang Shaotian groans, but they can all see the smile not quite hidden behind his hands.
“I would pay close attention to where you choose to sleep in public after that proclamation,” Yu Wenzhou warns them with a grin. “Shaotian is very fast on his feet, and I believe Captain Wang can confirm from his own Weibo experiences that waging war with him is a prolonged experience.”
Both Huang Shaotian and Wang Jiexi pale at the reminder.
“On second thought, maybe we’ll keep the photos among the group,” Fang Rui says, elbowing Zhang Jiale until he too is nodding. It isn’t surprising he’s the first to catch sight of the chaotic precipice they’re all teetering over. After all, he’d spent a year as a Blue Rain trainee once upon a time. He knew better than to fire the first shot of a prank war in public.
With that settled, Huang Shaotian gives back the borrowed jackets with a sheepish smile and a word of thanks, and receives a round of shoulder pats and hair ruffles in return. Amidst the chaos of getting everyone’s clothing sorted out, Yu Wenzhou notices Zhang Xinjie quietly slip a spare chocolate bar into Huang Shaotian’s backpack where it’s tucked beneath the card table.
“Chocolate, really?” Yu Wenzhou says to him as he walks past.
Zhang Xinjie looks more than a little sheepish to have been caught out but he collects himself admirably, straightening his back and looking Yu Wenzhou in the eye. “Dark chocolate has been shown to have health benefits in appropriate doses.” He glances at his watch and Yu Wenzhou knows what’s coming before he says it. “It’s getting late. Sleep well.”
Zhang Xinjie turns back after a few steps, and this time the smile on his face is calculated, like he’s been saving up one last game-saving skill. “Though from what I saw of you two on the airplane, sleeping won’t be a problem.”
Pleased with his victory, he strides out of the room.
There isn’t much time to dwell on the exchange or to inform Zhang Xinjie that his supposed victory was actually a stalemate. Huang Shaotian returns jacketless to his side, practically glowing from the combined spotlight of the team’s affections.
“I can’t believe you ruined my fun,” he whispers in Yu Wenzhou’s ear. “I would have crushed them on Weibo!”
“We can crush them next year in the regular season.”
Huang Shaotian beams at him. “You really are the best captain.”
Once everyone has collected their belongings and tidied up the room, the group migrates en masse towards the elevators and their respective hotel rooms. Huang Shaotian is a happy streak of warmth draped over Yu Wenzhou’s shoulder as they walk. Normally, Yu Wenzhou would at least try to keep up appearances in public but the only people around them are the team. He gives into temptation and snakes an arm around Huang Shaotian’s waist.
As they make their way into the crowded elevator, Yu Wenzhou internally congratulates himself on heading off what could have been one of the most explosive prank wars the Glory Pro Alliance has ever seen.
Until the morning, when he pours sugar into his coffee only to spit it out when he realizes it was secretly replaced with salt.