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wildfire and wasteland

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When they were still in the training camp, Tang Hao and Zou Yuan shared a bunk bed. Zou Yuan slept in the upper bunk; when he was sleeping, he almost never made any movement or sound, and was very careful to shift his body bit by bit even when he was turning over. Because he’d slept in the lower bunk before, he knew that little more than a movement on top could disturb someone’s sleep down below. He wasn’t so great at dealing in disputes with others, so he did his best to avoid conflicts from happening.

Tang Hao looked as if he had a bad temper, but he didn’t actually get angry that often. He just seemed rather uncommunicative on and off, especially during their time in the training camp. They treated the bed across from them like a temporary hotel; usually they didn’t even remember first or last names that well, for just as their heads hit their pillows another crop of people would rotate in. Yet all throughout, Tang Hao and Zou Yuan still shared their bunk bed.

This relationship was extremely subtle and close. Whenever Zou Yuan had the cold and was coughing lightly in the upper bunk, the faint noise would glide along the metal bed frame and pass down into Tang Hao’s ears, who was yet to sleep. At night, Tang Hao turned and moved beneath his bedding; the light sound of his snores, born from the exhaustion of excessive training, would also float around in the room and crawl into Zou Yuan’s ears. Zou Yuan never brought it up, because he didn’t find it a bother—he’d slept next to his father in the past, so this kind of noise had pillowed his head in sleep throughout his whole adolescence.

Tang Hao had middling relations with the others in the training camp. Zou Yuan felt this was because he was too pure, so unsullied that he couldn’t stand even a speck of sand rubbed in his eyes. He seemed inherently incompatible with those who were unambitious and just wanted to idle away their time; from the moment he’d entered training camp, his goal was clear-cut and definite, as if he were destined to be a solitary soul. But the relationship between Tang Hao and Zou Yuan, unexpectedly, could be considered pretty good. Who wouldn’t like a well-behaved child? This included Zhang Jiale, who was quite partial toward Zou Yuan; every time he came to the training camp, he’d always pat Zou Yuan’s head affectionately and turn his fluffy hair into a complete mess. Tang Hao sneered on the side: Zhang Jiale, this dumbass, he acts like he’s playing with a dog. But yes, who wouldn’t like a well-behaved child? Whereas each and every one of the 206 bones in Tang Hao’s body was contrarian—each bone was engraved with fuck your mom, and steeped in the liquefied rebellion that was his blood. He naturally vexed humans and dogs alike, but who the fuck cared anyway.

The bed opposite theirs was vacant again. A kid had moved in just a week before, but after training for only a few days he’d packed up his clothes while crying and left, going in such a hurry that he’d even left a slipper under the bed. Tang Hao had been annoyed by his crying, and cursed, “Coward, what’s the damn point of crying now, then don’t come in the first place.” The boy had sniveled as he glared at Tang Hao with reddened eyes, without a bit of dignity, and said, “Because not everyone’s a genius like you!” He couldn’t tell if the look in the boy’s eyes was hate born from envy or the loss of all hope, but Tang Hao wasn’t an ophthalmologist anyway, and no expert at examining the emotions in people’s eyes. Just as he got to his feet, the boy dragged his suitcase and ran off.

When he was going to sleep that night, he thought of this matter again. He wasn’t good at empathizing; what he’d been taught during his all-too-short schooling didn’t include a class on empathy, nor had he flipped through any such textbooks, and over the past decade or so he’d never found the right teacher to teach him. But Zou Yuan seemed rather affected; during dinner, he was in a gloom and didn’t talk much, his mind off wandering when Tang Hao called his name a few times. Tang Hao didn’t understand why he was in a bad mood, but when they were about to sleep at night he tolerated it to chat some more. Their conversation still revolved around Glory, and as they talked on and on they came round to the subject of Zhang Jiale.

Zou Yuan had always admired Zhang Jiale, or else he wouldn’t have chosen to play a Spitfire. At the very mention of Zhang Jiale, Zou Yuan’s spirits rose high as he talked about how Hundred Blossoms had won again in the last regular season match.

“Winning against Seaside, like that means anything.” Tang Hao snorted. “Just what do you like about Zhang Jiale?” The tone of his voice carried disdain, but his eyes were bright when Zou Yuan talked about Zhang Jiale’s latest feats—it was just that Zou Yuan couldn’t see him, so it was only natural that he’d use scorn to bundle up his ego.

“I think the captain’s really amazing,” Zou Yuan said. “He can name a hundred flowers.”

Zou Yuan’s words lacked all rhyme and reason, and left Tang Hao straight up stupefied. He found it a bit ridiculous as well. Because when he thought about it in all earnestness, the ability to identify a hundred kinds of flowers could be regarded, to a certain degree, as something extraordinary—extraordinary, and yet a senseless, meaningless thing.

“Zhang Jiale’s balls must really be aching with nothing to do,” Tang Hao said. “He even headed up the design for this season’s trainee clothes, so girly.”

“I think they look very good,” Zou Yuan retorted in a low voice. As a matter of fact, he’d rarely talked back to people in the past, but all in all he still tried hard to push back when it came to his idol.

What answered Zou Yuan was the even sound of Tang Hao’s breathing. Tang Hao wasn’t like Zou Yuan, who’d lie in bed and let his imagination run away with himself, and he basically just stopped thinking and entered directly into sleeping mode. Besides, Zou Yuan thought, the official player roster for next season’s coming out soon, and he’s still working hard to go all out.

But fate was a flask riddled with holes: however much effort you poured in, there were times when you could only collect a few meager drops in return. Tang Hao wasn’t on the preliminary official player roster for next season.

As he pinched the paper notice, Zou Yuan turned his head as if by reflex to look at Tang Hao: he must’ve been angry, but his anger seemed to accumulate like magma under a volcanic crater, vast and deep. He didn’t say anything, and had no regard in his eyes to spare for all the onlookers watching him with every kind of sentiment—he just turned around and left the training room.

Zou Yuan was pulled aside by the manager, who talked to him about all the things he’d have to do as a newly selected team member. Zou Yuan was seldom so absent-minded, but he was thinking of Tang Hao; he still hadn’t caught sight of him once the manager finally let him go to get his luggage. He felt rather dismayed, and took another look at Tang Hao’s messy bed in the lower bunk before he left it behind.

The team members’ dorms were one person to a room, with very effective soundproofing. When he closed the window, the only sound he could hear throughout the whole room was the ticking of the clock. He was used to sleeping on his side, but kept this sleeping position for only one night.

In the end, Zou Yuan finally saw Tang Hao in the club area of Hundred Blossoms. He carried very little on him, really just a backpack; people were staring at him, their tongues wagging, as he walked past them with a blank expression. When he saw Zou Yuan, he stopped in his steps, his face clearing up a bit.

Zou Yuan called to him. “Hao-ge.”

He nodded. “Xiao Yuan.” Then he brushed past.

While he was eating, Zou Yuan heard from others that Tang Hao had challenged Zhang Wei directly when he went to observe the training camp. Endless Forest put in great effort and experience to deal with the tyrannical offense and swift violence of the Brawler—but, perhaps because Tang Hao had been suppressing his anger, all that anger was poured into Delilo’s moves. He won a clear victory; he won the audience’s acclaim; he won in a manner neither rash nor conceited, but rather as a matter of course.

Someone said, “If the captain had gone that day, hard to say how things would turn out.” But Zou Yuan felt that, no matter if Zhang Wei or Zhang Jiale had gone, it would’ve made no difference to Tang Hao. He hadn’t thought about winning or losing; he’d only wanted a fair result. If the club wouldn’t give it to him, he’d go get it himself.

 

 

Zhang Jiale was a very good captain. This didn’t mean that he ought to be captain, just that his personality was especially good. He didn’t like to criticize others with a cold face or scold them to the point that they couldn’t raise their heads, with no other choice but to suffer continued tongue-lashing as their eyes brimmed with tears. Zhang Wei said, “If you’d all been here to experience Captain Sun Zheping, then you’d know that Zhang Jiale’s got a halo over his head and two wings stuck in his back.” These words were only said in private conversation; they usually wouldn’t mention Sun Zheping in front of Zhang Jiale. They kept this name hidden with the utmost care, locked away as tight as the door to the awards display room.

Anyway, Zhang Jiale wasn’t that talented at inspiring or winning people’s hearts, the sort of skills essential for a captain. His actions spoke louder than his words; if others could understand a little, then that was their concern, but he only sought to look into his heart without shame. He’d been captain for some years, yet sometimes still forgot that he was captain; it was only when duty dropped on his shoulders and made its weight known that he woke from the pain—so he was actually standing here, standing at the very front of Hundred Blossoms. Above him there wasn’t a soul in sight: those were the heavens he needed to conquer.

Hundred Blossoms was full of brainless Zhang Jiale fans from top to bottom; if Zhang Jiale were to close his eyes and say that Han Wenqing was actually a girl, other people would chime in—That’s right! Captain Han really does look charming, enough to ruin a city with his smile! Tang Hao thought this kind of personality cult was utterly contemptible. He was the only person who wouldn’t give in to Zhang Jiale, though to be fair he’d given in to very few people since birth. He really shouldn’t have been named Tang Hao; he should’ve been called Tang the Unyielding.

Zhang Jiale looked at the young thorn-like man in front of him. Tang Hao was about the same height as him, but he still looked bony and bitter from head to toe—a youth who wasn’t fully grown yet had the fangs of a wolf, who could already bite his prey to death.

The sun in Kunming that day was just right, and Zhang Jiale was basking lazily in the sunshine. He stretched himself and stuck his hand in his pocket, grinning as he looked at Tang Hao. “You won’t yield to me?”

“I won’t.” Tang Hao didn’t avoid his gaze at all.

Zhang Jiale didn’t seem offended. He nodded. “All right, then I’ll beat you till you give in.”

The two of them monopolized the training room to play for the whole afternoon. With each loss, Tang Hao would yell again! one more time! and lose again; the more he played, the wilder he was, as if the madness had gone to his head—but Zhang Jiale was wilder than him. They were like two madmen tearing at each other in the arena, competing to see who was crazier, and kept playing till Tang Hao didn’t even curse anymore—when he died, he just sent another request. They were both silent; all that could be heard in the training room were skill sound effects, and curtains flapping against the windows.

When they finally stopped playing, it was their stomachs that surrendered together. Since the owners of said stomachs weren’t willing to speak, they cleared their throats and started to make noise. Tang Hao was rather embarrassed and sat in his seat like a stone, whereas Zhang Jiale didn’t seem so uneasy. He threw an arm over Tang Hao’s shoulders as if they were very familiar. “No more playing, let’s go! Let’s go to the dining hall and eat, I’m starved to death.”

“I haven’t given in yet,” Tang Hao said grimly. “You just wait for me.”

“All right.” Zhang Jiale laughed. “I’ll wait for you.”

And then he suddenly asked, without rhyme or reason, “Are you a fast runner?”

Tang Hao stared. “Uh… pretty fast.”

“That’s good then, if we run faster we can still make it to the dining hall for whatever’s left! Three two one!” Zhang Jiale had already started to run even before he finished yelling, while Tang Hao was dragged along by his sleeve and nearly choked on his breath. Luckily, he hadn’t been full of himself just then, for he really was quite fast at running; at the very least, he had no trouble keeping up with Zhang Jiale, and could even see that ponytail in front bouncing merrily with every jolt.

The wind whooshed through Tang Hao’s sleeves, carrying with it a slight chill. The two of them kept running ahead as if they were fleeing a famine, and came across team members and staff along the way—all of whom greeted this pair with extreme astonishment, but still smiled and waved hello at Zhang Jiale. “Captain Zhang, run faster, the dining hall’s about to close!” As he ran, Tang Hao thought, Zhang Jiale really is popular with people. After all, he didn’t carry himself haughtily; whenever he turned childish, he seemed more like a kid than they were. Everyone liked Zhang Jiale, except Tang Hao.

When they arrived at the dining hall, everyone else had already left. Zhang Jiale pulled a long face as he looked at the handful of mung bean sprouts in his bowl, and looked even gloomier than Tang Hao, who’d suffered the losing streak that afternoon. But once he grabbed his chopsticks and took a few bites, he seemed to recover a bit of vigor. He looked at Tang Hao, eating mung bean sprout bibimbap together with him, and said, like one seeking joy amidst sorrow, “Oh well, looks like we’re not so lucky.”

Tang Hao had taken it for granted that Zhang Jiale would avoid any talk of luck—as everyone in the Alliance knew, Zhang Jiale had E-rank luck. Those within Hundred Blossoms were quite sensitive about this point too, and blocked Zhang Jiale whenever they passed on “forward this koi for good luck!!!” pictures. Yet compared with his team members, who were as cautious as walkers on thin ice, Zhang Jiale seemed almost dispassionate about the issue. He conceded, very calmly, “That’s right, my luck isn’t very good—but it doesn’t matter, there’s still next time.”

“I don’t believe it.” Tang Hao shoved a bite of food in his mouth.

Zhang Jiale fixed his gaze on Tang Hao for a few seconds, then suddenly laughed. Tang Hao felt baffled—from the tip of his little ponytail to the soles of his feet, inscrutability was written all over Zhang Jiale. He’d never come across anyone like him before.

“Ah, you kids ought to smile more, isn’t it great to have a little youthful spirit? You and Xiao Yuan both, how nice it is when you smile!” Zhang Jiale spoke with the puffed-up pride of an aged senior, as if he were much older than Tang Hao. Tang Hao couldn’t tolerate Zhang Jiale like this; he was behaving like a kid himself, and at most like a child king, so what qualifications did he have to talk in the tone of an adult teaching a child?

Zhang Jiale was older than Tang Hao by quite a few years, but Tang Hao always overlooked this gap automatically every time he saw Zhang Jiale. He really didn’t fit the traditional meaning of a senior; he didn’t like to preach, nor would he tell them what the right path was. When they were bloody and bruised from crashing about, they looked up and found Zhang Jiale before them, also bathed in blood from head to toe. Even he was feeling around blindly, so how could he attend to anyone else?

But—he was very strong.

Tang Hao had said he wouldn’t give in, yet he had no choice but to admit that Zhang Jiale was very strong. It seemed that he’d never tire, that he’d never let up or lose focus in the wake of excitement. He was so tough and tenacious as to be dreaded: once he entered this state of mind, he was a wildfire that set the prairie aflame, and no barrier could block him from blazing on through. He was hell-bent on burning everything he could see before his eyes, the withering grass along with the blood orange skies, and turning all to ashes.

 

 

Season 7 was Zhang Jiale’s fashion show. Although Tang Hao had become an official team member, he kept being benched. In contrast, Zou Yuan was much more well off; he’d been considered the successor to Dazzling Hundred Blossoms since his debut. Sometimes, when Zou Yuan ran into Tang Hao, he’d make as if to speak—and then stop. He wanted to say some comforting words to Tang Hao, but when he thought more about it whatever he said would sound like empty blather. Tang Hao had taken this all upon himself from the beginning, and couldn’t learn to share it with anyone, for he’d been a lone wolf all along. In the wasteland, he hunted alone and survived alone, and on full moon nights he howled alone to the moon.

Tang Hao wasn’t someone who’d envy others. Zou Yuan was his friend, and could have a bright and clear future in Hundred Blossoms; Tang Hao could only clench his fists and grab every chance he had to prove himself. So long as he could be on stage for even a second, he absolutely couldn’t make a mistake. But his opportunities were still too few, so few that even his most brilliant displays quickly dimmed. In the end, he was still locked to the bench.

He sat in the substitute’s seat, a Hundred Blossoms jacket draped over his body, and looked up to watch Zhang Jiale on the fluorescent screen, to watch Dazzling Hundred Blossoms. Zhang Jiale was far more frenzied than he’d been in any season before, a state that astonished people; the light and shadow that entangled him kept reaping lives, as splendid as a flower’s last bloom. And so he gazed at Zhang Jiale, and watched from the same seat throughout the season. He watched Hundred Blossoms advance triumphantly down the path, and heard all the applause and cheers that swept Zhang Jiale along; but Zhang Jiale lightly shook it all off, and brought nothing with him when he came down from the stage. He just picked up the pink jacket from his seat, threw it over his shoulders, and walked out with his back to the spotlight.

Compared with his swift ferocity onstage, Zhang Jiale was still the same as always within the team. Outside of training and match replays, he was bound to come up with fanciful notions. Zhang Wei said, “Hundred Blossoms once planted a hundred blossoms, and Zhang Jiale came up with names for each one.” When Tang Hao heard this, dislike was immediately written all over his face. Sure enough, only Zhang Jiale would do a girlish thing like this and do it openly, just as he had when deciding on their team uniform color in the beginning. He’d raised his hand with enthusiasm—Let’s make it pink, how nice! And with this decision he tormented members of Hundred Blossoms many years into the future, such as Tang Hao, who leashed his impulse to beat someone up every day when he put on the pink team uniform and displayed it to people.

When Tang Hao finished with his training for the day, he passed by the garden where it was said a hundred flowers had once grown. All that was left was some drooping grass. He saw Zhang Jiale holding a small watering can to water the grass.

He hadn’t asked Zhang Wei why the flowers had gone missing in the end, for he wasn’t interested in hearing gossip or any such things. Then again, Zhang Wei really hadn’t said much more beyond that; he’d seemed to think of something and cut himself off, a look of fond nostalgia laid bare on his face. And Tang Hao had felt disgust again. He deeply loathed expressions like these; they wouldn’t say what they wanted to say, but kept it in their mouths, unable to swallow it down or spit it out. They always seemed like mourners for the dead, as if they’d arranged and turned their surroundings into a funeral hall to pay homage to their past, homage to Blossoms and Blood, homage to that man who must not be named—fucking Sun Zheping, was he Voldemort?

“What’re you doing?” Tang Hao didn’t walk away right then from Zhang Jiale, but walked up beside him and kept watching him.

Zhang Jiale didn’t lift his head. “Watering them.”

“Watering the grass? You still hope they’ll bloom for you?” Tang Hao smiled bitterly, and seized the watering can from Zhang Jiale. “The flowers are all pulled up—there’s no more and they won’t come back anymore, what’s the point of you doing this?”

His words came close to treason, but Zhang Jiale didn’t get angry. He quietly looked at Tang Hao. “Humans are always bound to do senseless and meaningless things.”

He stood up, and brushed the dust off his pants. Suddenly he raised his head to look at Tang Hao. “Want to play a match with me?”

Tang Hao couldn’t quite catch up with Zhang Jiale’s leaps of thought, and went along with him to the training room. Zhang Jiale looked at the watering can Tang Hao still held in his hand, and laughed out loud. “What? Going to water my head with this if you lose?”

Tang Hao tossed the watering can onto the table, and gloomily inserted his account card into the card reader.

“This time I’ll play with Dazzling Hundred Blossoms against you,” Zhang Jiale said. “Or do you think that’s unfair?” And he laughed again.

Tang Hao was annoyed by this kind of laugh from Zhang Jiale, who seemed as if he were teasing a dog, just as he did whenever he patted Zou Yuan’s head. He said stiffly, “It’s all I could wish for.”

Zhang Jiale used Dazzling Hundred Blossoms, but Tang Hao didn’t lose that quickly. Through experience accumulated over more than half the season, he had matured and progressed a lot since his training camp graduation. The two characters clashed and appeared almost matched in strength. Tang Hao wasn’t outdone by Zhang Jiale in stubbornness, and there’d be no end to their battle before Zhang Jiale called for them to stop. He was always like this: if Zhang Jiale wanted to go wild, Tang Hao would do the honor of keeping him company till the end. At one point, he burst out through light and shadow to attack, with only a sliver of health left—but Delilo stopped abruptly, letting Dazzling Hundred Blossoms kill him with a bang.

Tang Hao forcefully slammed down his keyboard. He stood up, grabbing Zhang Jiale by the collar, and pressed him against the wall. Flames seemed to flicker in Tang Hao’s eyes. “Zhang Jiale, when you’re playing against me, who are you looking at?”

Zhang Jiale suddenly discovered that this young man, who was once the same height as him, had grown taller. His posture was also sturdier, and compared to a teenager he seemed more like a man now, a man who needed to be met head on. Zhang Jiale didn’t smile; he lifted his eyes to look at Tang Hao, who resembled an enraged wolf cub. He asked, his voice cool as ice, “Tang Hao, who are you competing with?”

It was as if Zhang Jiale had taken the watering can tossed aside by Tang Hao and poured water on Tang Hao’s head—and for just a moment, Tang Hao was frozen all over. Zhang Jiale still let Tang Hao grab his collar in a goading manner; he didn’t care about Tang Hao’s rebellion and didn’t care about his refusal to give in, nor did he have to care. The only thing he cared about was the championship.

“Sun Zheping.” Tang Hao gritted the name out between his teeth. “Everyone wants me to be Sun Zheping, they want me to abandon Delilo and use Blossoming Chaos. As if I don’t know! You’ve all benched me, just waiting for me to bow my head, waiting for me to admit defeat, waiting for me to fucking kneel on the ground and beg you for Blossoming Chaos, to patch up your Blossoms and Blood—go fuck your Blossoms and Blood! You take a good look, my name’s not Sun.”

Since the first day he set foot in Hundred Blossoms, Tang Hao had discovered that everyone was asleep within the dream of Blossoms and Blood, unwilling to wake up. They were unwilling to say Sun Zheping’s name or speak of the past, and just carried on with their sham of sleep; no one could call them awake. After all these years, those frenzied fans still willfully cried out for Blossoms and Blood; they’d look at Zhang Jiale and cry out, or look at Zou Yuan and cry out too. They were always under the illusion that some day Blossoms and Blood could reappear. No matter who it was, Zhang Jiale or plus someone else, they didn’t care, just like a downtrodden widower looking for a second wife. They didn’t give a shit—they just needed a Berserker plus a Spitfire to serve as a band-aid stuck over the hole in their hearts.

“No one wants you to be Sun Zheping.” Zhang Jiale walked to the doorway. “No one could be him,” he said.

Zhang Jiale pulled the door open, and caught sight of an alarmed and bewildered Zou Yuan. He smiled and gently patted Zou Yuan’s hair. So soft and fluffy, how nice. Not like the others at all, Zhang Jiale thought.

Crowned by a mess of hair, Zou Yuan cautiously walked into the training room. He looked at Tang Hao, standing in silence not too far away, and bit his lip as he walked over. “Hao-ge …”

Tang Hao lowered his head and saw a pair of eyes filled with concern, round and big like a rabbit’s, which seemed like it’d be scared off if he were even a bit louder. He looked at Zou Yuan’s chaotic hair and swore. “Is Zhang Jiale sick in the head? If he likes to pet people’s hair so much he can go pet his own, his is so long and it’s still not enough for him to play with?” Then Tang Hao awkwardly straightened out Zou Yuan’s hair, so at the very least he no longer looked like a cat whose fur had exploded.

Zou Yuan saw that Tang Hao had returned to normal, and his heart finally settled down. He watched Tang Hao go out through the wide-open door: as he stepped on the scattered sunlight falling inside, the traces of his footprints were lost in the sunshine.

 

 

In the end, Tang Hao won his gamble with Hundred Blossoms. Because Zhang Jiale unexpectedly announced his retirement, Hundred Blossoms—from its club management to its fans—was caught utterly unawares. The whole club was busied to the verge of collapse; they needed to find a new core now that Zhang Jiale had left, and left behind Dazzling Hundred Blossoms and Hundred Blossoms. Just as one might drive a duck onto a perch, they threw Zou Yuan into the audience’s field of vision; and just like that, Zou Yuan, who had only come into the spotlight last season, was treated as their shield. He was in a panic and at a loss, but could only recite his script according to the manager’s guidance in order to pacify restless fans, as if he were repeating a lesson from memory. He hadn’t learned any of this before because Zhang Jiale hadn’t taught him, but now he had no choice and was forced to learn, learning how to be Zhang Jiale.

Young men in their chuuni phase were bound to dream about being the hero who would come to the rescue in a crisis, and Tang Hao was no exception. In the end, for once, he still became the hero of Hundred Blossoms. When Hundred Blossoms was in turmoil, he charged into the view of the public with powerful momentum. They discovered that this second-year player who they’d neglected in Hundred Blossoms had actually already grown up to this point.

Before, the club had given him the silent treatment, with the thought that they could compel him to use Blossoming Chaos. Now it had no choice but to do a U-turn and come back to Tang Hao, saying, “It’s fine if you use the Brawler too, anything’s fine so long as we win.” Tang Hao sneered in his heart. Weren’t you all just being spoiled by Zhang Jiale? When he was here, you had spare time to think not just about winning, but about winning in a beautiful way, both the matches and the sentiment. Only now, with Zhang Jiale gone, were they reacting; the reason why they’d been able to dream was simply because Zhang Jiale had taken the burden of competition all upon himself, while they snored behind his back—snoring and dreaming, still dwelling on the golden age of Blossoms and Blood.

Zhang Jiale. Tang Hao thought of this name again. During breaks in their busiest training, he’d still think of Zhang Jiale, who had left without a warning. He didn’t have Zhang Jiale’s phone number saved; when he went to ask Zou Yuan, Zou Yuan said his calls had never gotten through because the other end was turned off. One team member muttered, “Back then, Captain Sun was like this too…”

Tang Hao almost fumed with rage. “Don’t say that again.”

The whole training room suddenly went quiet.

“If Zhang Jiale’s gone, then he’s gone—we’ll do what he couldn’t do.” Tang Hao stood in the middle of the training room as his words rang out. A few team members who were rather dissatisfied with Zhang Jiale stood right away and applauded, while others were carried along in the moment and seemed more heartened, as if the earlier downcast atmosphere was galvanized a bit by his words. They looked at Tang Hao with fervent eyes, as if they’d found their backbone.

Although Zou Yuan was captain in name, he really wasn’t talented at inspiring others. An ability to deal with the media was already the product of intense effort and extensive training. Even if Zhang Jiale had once intended to groom Zou Yuan as the heir to Dazzling Hundred Blossoms, his training hadn’t been in full swing; perhaps even Zhang Jiale hadn’t expected that he would leave in such a rush, and leave behind a terrible mess. Zou Yuan spent a lot of effort grinding himself to fit Dazzling Hundred Blossoms—he’d always admired Zhang Jiale, and had indeed watched all of Zhang Jiale’s matches up till now. But by the time Dazzling Hundred Blossoms came into his hands, he still fell short. All this was familiar to Zhang Jiale, but not to him. Yet he didn’t dare speak, nor could he speak: in this environment, where everyone wanted him to be Zhang Jiale, he couldn’t say anything that Zhang Jiale wouldn’t say.

Zou Yuan would often watch Tang Hao. No one could cover up his radiance onstage; even though the Delilo he used wasn’t a God-level account, no one could doubt him, for he was already almost able to charge God-level players head-on. As far as Tang Hao was concerned, he only needed a chance, an opportunity, so he could fully transform into a star that people would look up to. Zou Yuan had never doubted Tang Hao’s ability, ever since the beginning of their training camp days. Tang Hao had always advanced towards his goal, steadfast and clear. He didn’t have to be anyone, and didn’t have to care about anyone; he was like a pure idealist, whose radiance pushed back all the fog.

Tang Hao said to Zou Yuan that he wanted to sign up for the Rookie Challenge. Zou Yuan felt rather puzzled. “Hao-ge, at your level you’re long past needing to sign up for this.”

Tang Hao said, “I want to challenge Lin Jingyan.”

Zou Yuan was struck dumb; but after a few seconds, he nodded. “All right.”

During the Rookie Challenge, Zou Yuan sat in the stands and watched Tang Hao as the junior succeeded the senior at last, using his Delilo to defeat Lin Jingyan’s Demon Subduer. He hadn’t seen Tang Hao challenging Zhang Wei back in training camp, but he could imagine that surely Tang Hao must’ve been as he was now—risking everything on a gamble, fierce and swiftly violent, depending and relying on no one. He didn’t even need the applause and cheers; he didn’t need anyone to give him anything. What fate wouldn’t give him, he’d go get for himself. And in that place, all by himself, he bit an old tiger to death.

Zou Yuan watched Tang Hao walk off stage. He didn’t seem to be overflowing with joy; his victory was just a matter of course. He shook off all the light from his body, for he didn’t need any such troublesome burdens. Zou Yuan wanted to say some congratulatory words, but suddenly found that they were all stuck in his throat, so tongue-tied he couldn’t get a single word out.

Tang Hao sat down beside him, all his attention focused on the next Rookie Challenge match. They were separated only by an armrest, yet Zou Yuan could clearly see the wide chasm between them. He stuck his head out to look down, at the cascades of rock falling without even an echo in return. So Zou Yuan drew back a step.

Tang Hao became a dark spot in his line of sight.

 

 

People in Hundred Blossoms didn’t dare to mention Zhang Jiale much in front of Tang Hao. They felt that Tang Hao must rather hate Zhang Jiale. They felt that Tang Hao must’ve found the benchwarmer experience hard to bear.

When he saw them about to speak and then stop, just as they hadn’t dared to speak of Sun Zheping in front of Zhang Jiale, Tang Hao could feel the veins on his forehead throbbing and had to force them under control. He didn’t know that this appearance just further confirmed their belief that he disliked Zhang Jiale.

Was it dislike? Tang Hao wasn’t clear about it himself. He’d never bothered to analyze these complicated feelings—at least it shouldn’t be “like,” for he hadn’t much liked people before, but he knew at the very least that “like” didn’t work like this. They were willing to decide for him and say he disliked Zhang Jiale, and Tang Hao let them call it as they liked. He didn’t care about these things; just as he hadn’t bothered to comment on their foolish and incessant talk around restoring the glory days of old, so he looked on with a cold eye.

During the winter break, Tang Hao met Zhang Jiale again. Call it big, but Kunming really was fucking big—someone could evaporate from the face of the earth, and turn to water vapor in the air. Yet sometimes water vapor condensed into rain, and would soak through your clothes no matter where you went.

Zhang Jiale was standing in line to buy rose flower cakes, but they sold out right as he reached the front. A little disappointed, he walked back and sat down next to Tang Hao with a sigh: “If you hadn’t stopped me just now, maybe I could’ve bought some.” Even though he said this, his expression didn’t seem to blame Tang Hao much.

Tang Hao didn’t say anything; and then, suddenly, he pulled Zhang Jiale up. “Then let’s go somewhere else to buy them.”

“It’s too late, they’re already closed,” Zhang Jiale said.

“Then we’ll keep looking till we find one. I don’t believe there isn’t a single one open in all of Kunming.” Tang Hao stamped on the shadows cast by the street lamps, like a kid who hadn’t gotten any candy and didn’t want to give in.

“I’m tired, I don’t want to keep going.” Zhang Jiale sat back down, and breathed into his palms. Steam spilled out between his fingers, then dissipated in the ice-cold air.

“Did you even think about Zou Yuan when you left?” Tang Hao swallowed the second half of his question back down. It wasn’t necessary for Zhang Jiale to think about him, he knew.

“Xiao Yuan… I… let him down.” Zhang Jiale looked at his shadow on the ground. He was suffused with melancholy when he wasn’t smiling, like the drifting artists seen everywhere in Kunming who’d come there to find themselves.

“I’m too tired,” Zhang Jiale said. “I’m sorry… the future of Hundred Blossoms has been handed over to you all.” He really did seem very exhausted. There was no overlap at all between him and Tang Hao’s memory of the Zhang Jiale who’d fought madly to his very last gasp. 

“Then I’ll probably disappoint you,” Tang Hao said.

“Is that so. You’ve always been single-minded, very good.” Zhang Jiale didn’t question him more closely. In fact, he’d tried hard to peel himself away from Glory all this time, but it was obvious that he’d failed in the end. He said, smiling, “Then I wish that you achieve your dreams.”

“Of course. I’m not like you, I won’t wait for fate to push me along.” Tang Hao stretched his neck out, as if to draw a clear line between him and Zhang Jiale.

Zhang Jiale laughed and reached out to pat Tang Hao’s head. Tang Hao went rigid on the spot, though he didn’t show his hands or speak right away. He’d seen Zhang Jiale pat Zou Yuan affectionately like this many times before, but this was the first time Zhang Jiale had done it to him. He thought he ought to feel disgust—he wasn’t a dog, why pet him like this? But for a moment he didn’t know what to say, and so let him pet his fill.

Zhang Jiale muttered, “Geez, your hair’s so stiff and prickly, it’s not fun to touch at all. Xiao Yuan’s is better.”

Tang Hao glared. “Fuck, I let you touch and you turn on me?”

Zhang Jiale seemed amused by his savage and rather wronged expression, and laughed hard enough that he could barely straighten his waist as he stood up.

“See you later.” Zhang Jiale waved to Tang Hao, stuck his hands in his pockets, and so disappeared into the crisscrossing traffic of passersby and cars. Tang Hao sat on the bench and watched him go—then suddenly realized that when he’d been filled with indignation a moment ago, he hadn’t gotten to ask what he wanted to ask Zhang Jiale. When Tang Hao hated him most, he wanted to beat Zhang Jiale into the ground; but in the end, not only had he failed to ask, but on the contrary he’d even let Zhang Jiale enjoy himself at his expense.

Tang Hao stood up, and walked in the opposite direction from Zhang Jiale.

See you later? See you where later? he thought, on edge.

 

 

At All-Stars, Zou Yuan had been forced and shoved onto the high stage by Hundred Blossoms fans. Ever since Zhang Jiale’s retirement, he’d been standing on a layer of ice; by now he could hear the sound of water flowing vigorously beneath the ice, and felt that he’d hear the sound of ice cracking at any time. He thought more and more often of Zhang Jiale, because they wanted him to become Zhang Jiale. He found this impossible—yet even more so found them impossible to refuse.

Zou Yuan’s performance onstage definitely couldn’t be considered poor, but he had no way to satisfy the fans; never mind comparisons to Zhang Jiale, he fell short even when compared with same-season debuts like Tang Hao and Sun Xiang. In his eyes, Dazzling Hundred Blossoms was a God-level account card, a shackle that Zhang Jiale had left to him; or rather, it’d be better to say that it was his own shackle, which bound him tightly to the position of captain and weighed him down till he was gasping for breath. But when he looked around, he discovered that he had no target to blame; he could only blame himself for not having enough ability—not enough to support Hundred Blossoms, as his senior Zhang Jiale had, and please all its fans. The more he berated himself, the more unsteady his state of mind grew. Onstage, compared with Tang Hao once again, he was lost in a vicious circle from which he couldn’t free himself.

He began to suffer from insomnia. Their dorms were as quiet as the grave; when he closed his eyes he’d dream, and dreamed of Hundred Blossoms withering away in his hands. He could barely look Zhang Jiale in the eyes. He dreamed of his senior’s hand lightly placed on his head; sunlight illuminated their bodies, surrounding them in warmth, but this scene was swiftly severed, and he found himself standing on the stage at All-Stars. All around him were his seniors, and he alone was a fish out of water; as the host walked over to him, all he could think of was shrinking back. He retreated without stopping, till at last he backed into an ice hole and slowly sank down below, thinking of nothing.

“Xiao Yuan, Xiao Yuan!” All of a sudden, someone dragged him out. Zou Yuan opened his eyes and saw Tang Hao’s face. At night he could only see the faint silhouette, but he knew: it was Tang Hao.

“I heard you moving around over here, so I came to check on you. What were you saying?” Tang Hao asked. “I heard you mumbling.”

Zou Yuan didn’t say anything. After a while, he suddenly lifted his head and looked at Tang Hao. “Hao-ge, actually… I can also recite the names of a hundred flowers.”

I can also… he didn’t seem fully awake, still muddled as he began to speak, and couldn’t clearly see the mood on Tang Hao’s face in the darkness.

Tang Hao said to him, “You don’t need to be Zhang Jiale. You’re not him—no one can be him.”

Zou Yuan’s voice came to a halt. It wasn’t that he’d made himself stop, but rather that his words were imprisoned in his throat. A bit of noise trickled out of his throat, as if he were both crying and laughing. Tang Hao couldn’t see his face clearly either, and was about to go turn on the lights, but Zou Yuan restrained him.

“Hao-ge… not everyone’s like you.” Zou Yuan’s voice echoed around the room, from the crack in the window curtains to the crack beneath the door, letting in a sliver of light. Zou Yuan couldn’t see Tang Hao well, and Tang Hao likewise couldn’t see the look on Zou Yuan’s face. With a start, he realized that perhaps he hadn’t paid attention to his partner for a long time already. Tang Hao had once heard these words in training camp, from the boy in the opposite bed who’d left. Back then he’d scornfully answered with, Coward, you’re just finding an excuse for your uselessness, but could he really speak like that to Zou Yuan?

He didn’t understand Zou Yuan, nor had he tried to understand. All along, he’d been pure and relentless; before his eyes there lay only one path, and on that path he’d pushed and shoved his way through—overturning the south wall, filling in the Yellow River, so willful beyond limit that it left him blind to other things. Those secret innermost thoughts, feelings that surged like undercurrents belowground, had never had any effect on him. Nor had he ever been concerned, or tried to empathize. 

“Sorry, Hao-ge, I said some weird things.” Tang Hao heard the friction of rustling clothes, as if Zou Yuan was wiping away tears. So he’d actually been crying? Yet Tang Hao was utterly ignorant about why he’d cry, or why he’d apologize.

Tang Hao was at a loss; awkwardly, cautiously, he patted Zou Yuan’s head, just as Zhang Jiale once had. “Go to sleep. You’ve got me in the game, so don’t worry.” His dry, warm hand fell like a feather on Zou Yuan’s hair.

Tang Hao sensed that Zou Yuan wasn’t going to say anymore and thought he’d fallen asleep, so he withdrew from the room. Zou Yuan let loose the breath he’d held, and with it his falling tears.

Water vapor had risen up into the rain clouds; and the raindrops, dense and violent, washed across all of Kunming. When the rain stopped, moisture still saturated everyone’s bones.