As Lin Jingyan slid his swivel chair close beside Fang Rui, he gazed at Fang Rui’s computer screen. “You look so pleased, what are you smiling about?”
“People are calling me the great master of playing dirty.” Fang Rui showed his teammate the forum thread title, then turned his head and drew near Lin Jingyan’s ear to say, pausing in between each word: “Great, master, ayyy…”
“That’s all very nice, but aren’t you going to look at the other words?”
“Then isn’t my playstyle just the right fit for our Criminal Partners?” Fang Rui slung an arm over his partner’s shoulders, swaying them to one side. “Lao Lin, you’ve trained so much with me these past few months, so thanks.”
“What thanks, this seriousness really isn’t like you. Besides, it’s for the sake of the team in the first place.”
Fang Rui sadly poked at Lin Jingyan’s eyelids. “I see your wrinkles are all showing up. When you go home for vacation, will Auntie even be able to recognize you?”
Lin Jingyan also patted Fang Rui’s hair in sympathy. “Great Fang Rui, don’t be dumb—those aren’t wrinkles, they just turn into double eyelids when I stay up all night. But I see you’ve got a white hair.”
“Argh, for real?! Quick, help me pull it out!”
Fang Rui moved his head over next to the table lamp; Lin Jingyan cupped his downy head, and turned up three discolored strands of hair.
“Oh age, as delicate as flowers and precious as jade,” Fang Rui lamented. “But so long as it’s for the glorious advance of our team of revolutionaries, I won’t fall behind.”
“You used my shampoo again in the shower just a moment ago, didn’t you?”
Fang Rui promptly pulled on his sweatshirt hood to keep him from smelling the scent. “Don’t mind little details like that.”
“Here’s to you.” Lin Jingyan picked up his own enamel mug, still warm to the touch, and lightly bumped it against Fang Rui’s. Stamped on both porcelain surfaces was a print of Chairman Mao declaiming victory. “To Wind Howl’s victory.”
“To the Criminal Partners’ victory!” Fang Rui echoed in a low voice.
Season 5, City N, 1:30 in the early morning. They had been doing extra team practice all this time to sharpen their coupled awareness as quickly as possible; map by map, they carefully studied what positions to take, what tricks to play, how to carry out the most dominating offense, partners explaining to each other the moves and plans of attack from their own takes on matches. Today they were just coming up on map number 50. Other team members had gone to sleep much earlier; as their cups of weak tea knocked against each other, a short and crisp clink rang out in the quiet night.
The enamel mugs had been purchased during a stroll together along the pedestrian street. Lin Jingyan’s was labeled with a respectable and low-key SERVE THE PEOPLE, while Fang Rui’s had a slogan that drew everyone’s attention, RAISE PIGS GET RICH.
Thus were their natures revealed at once.
They played dirty more carefully in the beginning, as they felt out the intent of others with their sharp eyes and keen ears; then came the constant exploitation of terrain and the opponents’ mentality, as they carried out tactical arrangements to lure enemies and snare them in traps. When they acted in concert with each other, the words used most were: withdraw for now.
Withdraw for now, then strike once things are clear. The ambush site has been settled, the bricks already prepped and the traps already set, with moonlight shining upon the buildings to form a vast stretch of shadow perfectly suited for crime. The wind rises; the flames of a Molotov cocktail follow the flow of air to scatter a step further, setting fire to wasteland; light and leather armor shift noiselessly as they run, with gleeful grins that split their faces like cracked pomegranates; and just as they’re about to be told apart, taking turns to hassle the opponents with bluff attacks, Demon Subduer and Doubtful Demon suddenly appear—
“Lao Lin, if you go on like this you’ll never hear the end of it.”
Before the photographer came out to explain the mood of the photo shoot, Fang Rui used the prop in his hand to give Lin Jingyan a jab. “Hey, this is a publicity photo for the Criminal Partners—O Great One, look at yourself smiling like you’ve been blessed by spring, while I’m just a junior who’s been schooled by Teacher Lin and won’t skip classes anymore to play games.”
Lin Jingyan had been born with the face of someone who could get along with everyone, plus a steadiness from the very start in his youth. When he smiled, he looked all the more like a gentleman; now, he said rather helplessly, “I’ve already tried my best to do that smile, the kind you said could make blood curdle.”
“So your ‘bloodcurdling terror’ is just ‘Xiao Fang, next time you’d better do better on your test,’ like this?”
“Both of you…” At this time, the director jumped in to mediate. “This time, the primary goal of the shoot is to reflect the lofty spirit of our Wind Howl. How about this, Mr. Lin, just be a bit more solemn and don’t show any expression—Mr. Fang, it’s fine if you stay how you looked a moment ago, OK?”
Later, this picture was posted in the Best Partners popular vote section of the Glory Pro Alliance website. The next day, someone had photoshopped in a line of text: “City N gaokao files have been stolen, it is suspected that teacher and student colluded to commit the crime.”
Lin Jingyan was flabbergasted. “It’s getting that exaggerated?”
Fang Rui covered his face. “In the future, let’s just be honest and friendly.”
One couldn’t be wished into a tyrant just from the thought of it. Mild-eyed Lin Jingyan had kind words for everyone, and whenever a teammate seemed out of sorts in the training room, he’d walk up behind them and watch for a while—one, to understand the root cause, and two, to put some pressure on them. If he still couldn’t figure it out, he’d have them stay behind for a chat.
Once Fang Rui personally experienced a round of this treatment, he realized only then what his partner had been doing that day by haunting his back like a bound spirit. After he explained that his spring allergies seemed to have brought down his performance, he also asked Lin Jingyan, “This temper of yours, it’s not at all like a captain of Wind Howl, huh?”
“Then how do you think the captain of Wind Howl should act?”
Fang Rui sucked in a deep breath and puffed up his cheeks, then blew out a whoosh of cool air. “Like this at least.”
Lin Jingyan didn’t beat around the bush one bit. “That’s like an asthma attack.”
“To be honest, when I joined the team I was wondering if you were the easiest-to-bully captain in the league.”
Lin Jingyan thought back for a moment. “But you’ve never bullied me this past year plus.”
“As if I’d be that dumb, good sir, what would I do if you expelled me?”
“Well then, good sir, how do you want to bully me?”
Fang Rui hugged him, and said into his ear, “Great Captain, I want to eat fruit jellies!”
“... why is your bullying so brainless?”
Lin Jingyan felt that Fang Rui’s usual mischief was just him being childish and nothing more. In his late teens or early twenties, he’d been shut into the training room to conscientiously do basic exercises; someone steady and composed might find this easier to deal with, but when it came to Fang Rui he needed other ways to routinely let loose his own potential, in order to play his account with a steadier mindset. Lin Jingyan thought Fang Rui was quite the character, a cheerful young Thief who had no fear of public opinion and even turned such remarks into jokes. He was fond of outrageous pranks; when he caused trouble for their opponents, he also brought nice surprises for his own teammates. As his partner, Lin Jingyan could enjoy and coordinate in scenes that caught people off guard, all for Wind Howl to surge like the high tide into playoffs toward its goal, targeting top-tier teams and winning cheers from spectators.
But sometimes their summers came too early. The first time Lin Jingyan sensed that his own reactions were slowing was during a match near the end of Season 6. They didn’t talk too much when they returned; Lin Jingyan announced their vacation after a team pep talk and stayed behind at the end to turn off the power in the training room and close its doors and windows, then leisurely went back to his room. However, he saw that Fang Rui hadn’t packed up anything either, and was just lying in bed playing on his phone.
“What’s the matter, not going home?”
“Say, Lao Lin.” With a roll and twist, Fang Rui sat up in bed. “You see that guy’s Battle Mage getting called Battle God whatever, how come you don’t call on the fans to give you a Brawler title?”
“Huh?” Lin Jingyan hadn’t thought about this before, and came over to sit on his bed. “Then you give me one.”
Sitting cross-legged and furrowing his brow, Fang Rui started doing qigong and pressed both index and middle fingers against his temples. He exerted all his strength for a moment, then deflated like a flat tire. “It’s no good, I only thought up ‘Old Brawler’ and ‘Chief Brawler’ and whatnot.”
“You see, the fans probably find it quite difficult too.”
“If we go more bandit, you could be called the outlaw ‘Panther Head’—a bit more international, and we’d have to call you ‘The Godfather.’”
“Do you think that fits me and Demon Subduer?”
Fang Rui turned his head to glance at Lin Jingyan, with his face that of one ready in heart and soul to be a proper Chinese citizen, and gave up the thought. “This is too hard.”
Lin Jingyan patted him. “Great Fang Rui, come again with me next season?”
Fang Rui put out a fist and thumped his captain’s shoulder. “However many times it takes, let’s do it!”
Whether Number One Brawler or Number One Thief, we’ll go however many times it takes. We are the notorious thieves, stealing dreams and trophies; between high-rises and temples, we swing on helicopter cables and whistle past in a hustle as we fly off, leaving not even a glint of hope behind for others.
We are a gang of criminals, the masters of deceit.
The light at the doorway kept burning out, the sensor light reacting and reacting till it went dark; it wouldn’t light up even if you stamped your feet sore. Lin Jingyan dragged a chair over and stepped onto it to change the light bulb, while Fang Rui supported him below: “It’s the second one this month, right?”
“Did you buy these with the 5-for-20 discount from Trust-Mart?”
Fang Rui didn’t say anymore; he’d heard the listlessness in Lin Jingyan’s voice.
From the start of Season 7, the number of online forum posts that questioned his condition increased more and more; he often received @-comments and messages on weibo, and quite a few people wrote long weibo posts analyzing his matches, asking when he planned to leave or retire. Lin Jingyan patiently said he would go all out to the end for Wind Howl, but these words went utterly ignored by Wind Howl’s higher-ups, as if his persistent declaration had been dropped on the busy streets to be casually trampled underfoot. Normally, when a captain was mired in difficulty with a mass of rumors, the team ought to issue a clarification as quickly as possible to support its player. But Wind Howl’s management didn’t. One month passed, then two; at first he thought they hadn’t seen it, but these words of doubt showed up more frequently in the news, especially after they entered Season 8, and Lin Jingyan’s feeling of isolation by the higher-ups grew sharper. He supposed Wind Howl really did plan to whistle past it all, but this was a Wind Howl about to cast him off. The very thought of it suffused him with a chill.
“I won’t leave here.”
The steadfast words that he’d originally spoken now made him feel all the more awkward instead; even his habitual smile, which always surfaced in normal times, had weakened a lot. After Tang Hao’s “the junior succeeds the senior” at All-Stars, it was as if everyone thought his time was naturally coming to an end. No one had yet come up with a more presentable title for his Demon Subduer. He was just like this light bulb, ruined after a few days: brightening and fading, and dimming at last.
When Fang Rui was checking weibo at night, he clicked into Lin Jingyan’s page and discovered that the post count had gone down quite a lot, but he didn’t want to know which posts had been deleted. He turned his head and looked over to where Lin Jingyan was also holding his phone, pressing this and that on a small rectangle of light in the darkness.
Fang Rui furtively got out of bed, and lifted up Lin Jingyan’s duvet to squeeze in.
Lin Jingyan looked back and drew in his breath. “You scared me to death—what are you doing, Great Fang Rui?”
“Stealing your heating pad.”
“What about yours?”
“It turned into a cooling pad.”
Two grown-ups in one bed were too crammed, but fortunately the temperature of City N was low and they didn’t have heating, so it didn’t much matter if they had to squeeze a bit closer. Legs bumped against legs, hands folded against each other with enough pressure that their hearts ached. Fang Rui had dyed his hair a chestnut color all over because he didn’t like seeing that one strand of suddenly white hair. Now Lin Jingyan took a careful sniff. Looks like he used my shampoo again.
“Hey, Lao Lin.” Fang Rui looked at the dimly blurred ceiling for a while, then said, “Give me a hug.”
“Huh?” Lin Jingyan indeed thought that Fang Rui had seen something and came to comfort him, but it turned out the vice-captain was also dealing with an unhappy matter? Had Wind Howl’s higher-ups also done something to him? Feeling down, Lin Jingyan half-turned in bed to face Fang Rui. “You still act like the child you were four years ago.” And then he really did embrace him.
Then Fang Rui said, “Give me a kiss.”
“Still acting like this, hm?” Lin Jingyan immediately pulled his hands away and nudged his head back an inch, wanting to look more clearly at Fang Rui’s expression. “You’re particularly weak today, Great Fang Rui.”
When he thought about how their partnership of four years was going to break up, Fang Rui felt a bit grieved. True, he was younger than Lao Lin, and certainly there was no way to bind them together; in spite of everything, he’d have to adjust to a situation with himself alone, and go practice coordinating with his other teammates—and also, hadn’t they come out with the season’s Best Rookie? But the problem now wasn’t that Lin Jingyan didn’t want to play, but that the team no longer wanted him to play. Fang Rui had tried to broach the subject several times and get clarification, but the other party had carried on right over it all without batting an eyelid. “Maybe he’s already taken care of it,” or “maybe the situation isn’t that bad”—so Fang Rui thought. Yet during this period, he suddenly became aware that perhaps this was just how Lin Jingyan was; for all the times when he was strong, there were times when he was weak, and had never said anything more about it. The one thing Lin Jingyan wanted to dispute with others was his own sincerity and passion, but he’d been overruled; what remained was only a deeper silence.
Wind Howl seemed to be saying, Oh, we don’t need you to be like this, what century are you living in? Performing a role like “your heartfelt servant,” how embarrassing!
Fang Rui’s heart was heavy as a stone, and his stomach too felt unwell as if a rock had lodged inside. He wanted to express his indignation, but he couldn’t add on a newer burden for Lin Jingyan to bear. As he kept thinking, Fang Rui turned over and hugged his partner for a while. There was no need for him to let Lin Jingyan know if he’d been dumped by a girl or if he’d stepped in dog shit on his way out the door; he simply felt Lin Jingyan’s hands rubbing his own back. His hands and feet slowly warmed up, his heart restored to flesh and blood.
Lin Jingyan was in a complicated mood. He was basically enduring a life on the pike of unrestrained public opinion, the gaze of the new generation stabbing at his backbone. Fortunately, this vice-captain Fang Rui had suddenly realized his own responsibilities like an amped-up manager, though he didn’t go so far as to make the atmosphere harsh in the training room. During practice breaks, Fang Rui was always looking up roundtrip plane tickets for two, and once said, strangely, Lao Lin, let’s go to Italy this summer to check out the mafia, and learn from their top-notch criminal ways.
As if all their prospects were bright.
But they didn’t meet such a kind ending: Wind Howl didn’t make it into the playoffs, disappointed in defeat, and the grumbling of fans and media blotted the skies and covered the earth. Lin Jingyan readied his mind and prepared to bid farewell to the pro circle; everything indicated the curtain was falling, everything around him was tightening and collapsing—up until the phone call from Tyranny, with an invite.
Its timing that day was pretty good, when he was neither weary nor hungry; Lin Jingyan gave Han Wenqing a call back, and said, I’m ready to join Tyranny. Then, for a long time, he sat at the window and didn’t stir.
Wind Howl’s training camp hadn’t closed down; during this period, Lin Jingyan had been teaching people in the camp. He watched the midsummer sun shining brilliantly, but couldn’t look straight at it, not even a glimpse.
Fang Rui hadn’t left either—he did as he pleased in the game, doing work for the guild and messing around with the kids for fun. Every now and then, he ran to the training camp to take over Lin Jingyan’s duties. In fact, he was afraid that Lin Jingyan wouldn’t have his partner beside him in the off-chance he left, which would really be too outrageous; the cold shoulder his old captain had suffered was enough already, so at the very least his own feelings ought to give warmth.
When Fang Rui came in, he saw his old friend in a daze, cell phone tightly clutched in hand, and at once a buzz went off in his head. He thought to himself, So the day’s finally come—to hell with it, tonight I’m gonna smash the manager’s windows!
Then Lin Jingyan smiled at him, and said, “O Great Fang Rui, I can be at ease and play again.”
“For fucking real?!”
This was so totally unexpected that Fang Rui happily bounced over from the doorway, saying in his heart that finally Wind Howl had got its head on straight! He held up Lin Jingyan’s SERVE THE PEOPLE mug, and said, “To Wind Howl’s victory!”
But Lin Jingyan looked at him, a deep calm in his eyes, and said, “Tyranny gave me a call.”
The mug was still raised midair in celebration, but for a moment Fang Rui’s state of mind was indescribable: it flowed from fucking manager, just wait for me to slash your tires to so Tyranny’s the one with the right judgment to ah there’s some good coming out of this with a chance to go for the championship. In the end he settled on, “Looks like we’ll be opponents in the future.”
We’ll be opponents in the future. Their gang of criminals would be no more; they had been pulled apart into different factions, carried along by different currents. Under a high moon, each would guard his own, walking alone in darkness beneath the heavens.
Fang Rui regained his composure. He held up his own RAISE PIGS GET RICH mug, and said, clearly enunciating every word, “To Glory’s victory!”
In that moment, Lin Jingyan suddenly felt especially moved; he almost wanted to travel back and return to those old times overflowing with courage and vigor, rewinding the tape time and time again without end to watch Season 5. Back then his play was more forthright, and when they came offstage after their victory in the team competition, the relatively inexperienced Fang Rui had hugged him tightly and said, Lao Lin, thank you, you make me feel like we’re brave and invincible!
After Fang Rui won, he’d flaunt himself, and even if he lost he wouldn’t bow his head in front of the reporters. To the players who looked down on him he’d say, “Shit, wait till you get a Number One title and then you can talk.”
That was his partner, whom he’d met at the best of times.
Lin Jingyan hugged Fang Rui, and said, “For the sake of victory, I won’t back down. We’ll see each other onstage!”
Fang Rui realized Lin Jingyan’s choice, and his heart swelled up in an instant, stuffed full of words. He thought, That’s right, some things won’t change—they’d still face challenges onstage. So long as the sun hadn’t risen, they’d flash claw and dagger as they dashed forth, with the night as their cloak. They would decide who was stronger under the gaze of the stars.
That was the future which they had left unsaid countless times—for at some point, at some time, they would meet again. It was like their unsaid love for each other, because it really didn’t need to be said: see, I know you surely love me just as much as I love you.
After the farewell party, Lin Jingyan left.
For the nth time, Fang Rui halted in the doorway to his one-man room. The light above his head had gone dark again, sizzling for a second before it died out in a flash. He took out the last of the light bulbs Lin Jingyan had bought and put it in his pocket. He stepped onto a chair, wobbling back and forth, twisted off the ceiling light cover, got off the chair, and set the light cover to one side...
Within the light cover, he saw a folded square piece of paper. It lay there beside the mummified corpses of insects that had flown inside, something he wouldn’t have noticed since he didn’t usually look up.
Fang Rui smiled at first, and thought for all that he loved practical jokes, he’d still lost to this honest guy at times. He stood with arms akimbo and looked at it for a moment. Only after a while did he pick it up, and steel himself to open it.
Inside was a doodle scribbled by Lin Jingyan.
He had drawn two crooked little figures, and lest they weren’t distinctive enough, used arrows and added a note, in large words:
He had placed it in the light, to let it shine every day.
Fang Rui held the slip of paper and pinched the bridge of his nose, struggling to control his emotions. In the deserted hallway, he sobbed for breath.
coda to the coda
Happy Internet Cafe. Tyranny would be Happy’s opponent for the first time, and ascended to the second floor of this little building.
Everyone in Happy was doing team coordination practice; the Four Heavenly Kings of Tyranny had nothing to do but wander all around.
“Don’t you have any dignity? Trying to sneak a peek at our practice?” Ye Xiu raised his head and gave Lin Jingyan a disdainful look.
“Is this sneaking?” Lin Jingyan stood behind Fang Rui and stubbornly kept looking.
In a moment of carelessness, Fang Rui messed up his tempo.
“Haha, feeling the pressure behind you?” Lin Jingyan laughed.
Fang Rui turned around and gave him two middle fingers. As he looked at Lin Jingyan, standing in front of him, he suddenly found that he still looked just as he did when he was Fang Rui’s captain: his body blocked a slice of sunlight radiating from behind, his eyes were filled with the steadfast warmth of his smile—as if their helpless circumstances had never come onstage, as if their glorious times had never changed.