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but man am i bad at math

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Under a million shocked gazes, Wang Jiexi lost the rookie challenge. And aside from perhaps two people in the audience, no one knew how this had happened. 

“He’s… is he slipping?” Li Xuan said incredulously, though he already knew the answer. There’d been no sign that Wang Jiexi was performing any worse than usual. He’d gone all out. 

And he. He’d lost. 

“Didn’t seem like it.” Sitting beside him, Wu Yuce leaned back and narrowed his eyes. “But that was a match at the full intensity of the regular season. Might be worth studying, when we get back.”

“But this is the rookie challenge,” said Li Xuan, “this…”

That match had been an absolute roller coaster to watch. Shock that Wang Jiexi would go all out against a mere rookie turning into shock that a rookie would go all out against his very own captain turning into shock that the rookie could win… 

So caught up in this tumultuous line of thought, he hardly heard the announcer declaring the next rookie to come onstage. But the rookie’s words certainly caught his attention. 

“The one I want to challenge is the number one Phantom Demon, Li Xuan.” 

“You’re up. Tiny Herb sent two this year, huh,” Wu Yuce commented, and then he glanced over and saw Li Xuan’s face. “What’s wrong?” 

Wu Yuce was always fairly attuned to the mental state of their teammates, even if he wasn’t a particularly talkative type. Despite Li Xuan’s best efforts, some of his panic must have been showing on his face. 

“Nothing,” said Li Xuan, a little quickly. 

Wu Yuce rolled his eyes. “I can tell you right now, you’re overthinking this. This is just a rookie challenge. It’s not even your first. Just go and give them a good show.” 

“Yeah… yeah, you’re probably right,” said Li Xuan, getting to his feet, but his heart remained unconvinced. In his mind’s eye, all he could see were images of the match that had just finished. 

It was common for pro players, watching a match, to consider what they might do if they were placed in the position of the players onstage. Facing off against that rookie, that Gao Yingjie… how would Li Xuan have fared? 

He wasn’t sure. Like, this was just a rookie, Li Xuan had the verifiable advantage of years of experience on the pro stage, but… so did Wang Jiexi. Fresh off his second championship victory, the first team to achieve that since Excellent Era, Wang Jiexi was the last thing from a pushover. And yet this little rookie challenge battle had turned out like that. That was. Kind of worrisome? It was still a few weeks before they’d be facing Tiny Herb, but this… 

“What is Tiny Herb doing to their rookies,” he blurted out. This was his partner and vice-captain, he thought, there was no real point in hiding his line of thought. 

Wu Yuce looked at him. “You think Tiny Herb managed to find not one but two magical prodigy rookies to cultivate up?” 

“I mean…” Well, it sounded silly when he put it like that, but. 

“And besides, that was an internal challenge. I’m sure they planned it out beforehand. Relax, you’re not about to get beaten down by some random newbie.”

Fine. Sure. 

But as Li Xuan walked down toward the stage, his thoughts were still running. If that was an internal match… that was an internal match, that rookie had been so ruthless against his very own captain. He’d be putting his very career on the line by embarrassing his senior like that, and yet he hadn’t held back at all. 

When Li Xuan reached the stage to shake hands, there was a nervous determination in this kid’s expression. 

Li Xuan’s outward expression was calm and his voice was steady as he gave the customary pre-match encouragement. But his anxiety was ratcheting up by the second. Tiny Herb had done that to their captain, what were they going to do to some random outsider? They were trying to use him as a stepping stone for their own rookies? Lure him into complacency and then crush him on this second-biggest stage of the year? Him, the number one Phantom Demon, best of three people in the Alliance, what a joke, what a pushover, what a-

No. No. No. He couldn’t lose. He wouldn’t lose. 

He sat down before the computer, and with an almost frantic desperation he built his Ghostblade into a Sword Demon - his vice-captain’s speciality, but far better suited for PvP. 

Whatever Tiny Herb was planning, he wouldn’t let their little plot succeed. You might be a championship team, he thought as the map loaded up, but I won’t be your sacrificial pawn.

 

But Qiao Yifan… was just an ordinary rookie. 

 

When he arrived back in Void’s player area, Li Xun was already waving his phone at them. “I just asked around, apparently that kid’s not even a Ghostblade player, he mains Assassin. Even Tiny Herb wasn’t expecting it, they’ve got no idea what he’s on. Can you imagine? Hey, if he went to all this trouble, he must be a big fan of yours, huh?” 

Li Xuan thought back to their post-match handshake, how Qiao Yifan had avoided his gaze, how his bottom lip had trembled. Big fan indeed, huh. 

Li Xuan could imagine it now. This kid standing in the common room of Tiny Herb’s training camp, staring at the TV displaying the beautiful otherworldly partnership of Void’s dual ghosts… the Assassin account card slipping from his fingers and falling to the ground… narrowing his eyes in determination, taking the leap to this new path… filling out the rookie challenge app with shaking pen… walking up to stand upon this dazzling All-Star stage for the very first time… issuing his challenge… his hopes to form a connection with his senior and inspiration… 

Okay, maybe Li Xuan was getting carried away with his imagination. But either way, the fact was, he’d gone and almost made the kid cry on national television. Ruthlessly crushed his dreams. Wasn’t this literally, like, a supervillain origin story? What had he done?

God.

Wu Yuce was looking at him, arms crossed, wearing the most I told you so expression Li Xuan had ever seen in his life. Given their years of partnership and respective personalities, that was saying something. 

“I know what you’re going to say,” said Li Xuan, all but collapsing into his seat. 

“I know, and I’m going to say it anyway,” Wu Yuce said calmly. “You’re an imbecile, and I’m not covering for you during the press conference.” 

Li Xuan buried his face in his hands and groaned.