Ten hikes the sports bag higher up his shoulder, scanning the crowd at the arrivals gate at Beijing International Airport. He feels a little out of place in his Adidas sweats and sneakers among the throng of people in bespoke business suits. They glance at him as they pass by and it makes him want to shrink in on himself. Instead, he makes himself stand taller, cursing his lack of height.
Finally, there’s a gap in the crowd and he sees a masked man holding up a sign. It’s got his name on it, and the Beijing Guoan football club logo emblazoned in the corner. Not for the first time he grimaces at the almost neon green color as he sets off in a brisk walk.
“Good day, sir,” the man says when Ten is in hearing vicinity, “I hope your journey was pleasant. I’ve been tasked with taking you to the management office.”
He waves Ten towards a sleek black BMW waiting on the curb, taking the bag and suitcase from his hands. Ten doesn’t have to introduce himself. It’s been a while since he’s had to, to be fair. Even the men and women in bespoke suits had looked at him with some degree of familiarity. If they haven’t seen him on the football pitch, then they’ve seen one of his ads. If they haven’t seen his ads, they might have seen him in the papers, or splashed across the cover of a disreputable media outlet. He clenches his teeth against that train of thought and ducks into the car.
Beijing is big and shiny outside his car window. It’s the biggest city he’s ever played in by a far margin. He’s seen it before, from the window of a team bus the last time he played here with the Thai national team. They’d lost the game, predictably, but he’d scored. Twice. Enough to remember the reluctant cheers as he’d stormed off the pitch, the loss clenching his hands into fists.
The man sent by the club is trying to tell him something, probably explaining what’s in store for him, but Ten tunes him out in favor of the city skyline. He’s got a good idea of what might happen anyway. Clubs always do things the same way - a medical exam that’s mostly a formality and then a PR op of some sort, cameras pointed in his face and journalists asking uncomfortable questions he’ll smile through until he gets called away. He’s an old hand at it by now.
He’s tired from the long flight and his left knee aches with a dull pain from sitting still for so long but Ten steps out of the car and in front of the few gathered cameras with a smile and without even the hint of a limp.
The medical exam is over quickly too, like he expects. The doctor gives a considering look to his knee before glancing at Ten and Ten stares back until he looks away. The club signed him knowing the state his body was in. There’s no surprises there. He can still play. More importantly, he still attracts the cameras and sponsors.
The doctor barely looks at his file before signing off on it. There’s not a lot in there that everyone doesn’t already know. Ten is slight and light for a football player but that’s not so unusual anymore. He’d played Messi once, when Ten was in his prime and the other man was in the twilight years of his career. Ten was taller than him but he’d never felt as small and young as he had under his gaze.
Ten is 35 years old. Old for a forward, not that anyone will say it to his face. They’ll use words like mature and experienced instead, speak with admiration and envy about the transfer fee that Beijing Guoan had paid to his last club, maybe play a video of his highlights. Then the cameras will turn off and they’ll sigh in relief about never having to talk about him again.
He gets ushered into a conference room, shakes hands with a number of suited men whose names he forgets immediately. His new manager is there, watching him with cooly assessing eyes. Ten meets his gaze, head raised high, smirk playing around his mouth. He’s not the one that looks away first.
There’s another man present, not wearing a suit or team gear. He waits politely in the background as Ten meets everyone else but he keeps drawing Ten’s attention. His brown hair flops into his dark eyes, and his beige cable-knit sweater makes him look cute though Ten can tell there’s hard muscle hiding underneath it.
The man has a way about him, from the assessing way he takes in the room, to the calm steady way he holds himself. Ten used to think it was something that came with the armband but he knows better now. He’s worn it several times over the years but it’s never fit quite right. It’s never turned him into a different person.
“I’m Qian Kun,” Kun says, in passable, if accented, English. “Welcome to the team.”
“Thank you, captain,” Ten says, and his Mandarin is still limited but he’s at least certain of his pronunciation. The surprise and cautious approval on Kun’s face carries him through the rest of the day.
There’s a knock on his apartment door early the next morning and Ten rolls blearily out of bed. He hasn’t slept well, despite the exhaustion of the previous day.
Last night, he’d spent some time looking out the window at the lights of the Chaoyang District, at the people and cars like ants lining the streets. If he were a few years younger, he’d have dressed up despite the late hour and gone out to sample the nightclubs. As it was, he’d curled up in his unfamiliar bed, staring at the play of shadows across his ceiling.
He wrenches the front door open, doesn’t even think about how weird it is that there’s someone knocking despite there being three electronic locks in the way just to get to his floor, and finds Kun turning away, having evidently given up.
“Oh,” Kun says, like Ten is the one that showed up at his front door uninvited at 8am, “hello.”
“Hi,” Ten says because he can’t grasp even rudimentary Mandarin so early in the morning. He’s half surprised that it doesn’t come out in Italian.
He feels Kun’s stare drop down from his face, to his bare chest and stretched out sweatpants, one of the pant legs rolled up over his knee to expose his surgery scars. He’s struck with the impulse to tug it down, hide them, but he forces himself not to. Kun isn’t looking at them anyway. His gaze is stuck somewhere in the vicinity of Ten’s chest tattoos and he’s not going to lie, that’s a little flattering.
Kun is already dressed up for the day, in a soft looking sweater and nice jeans. Their eyes meet and Kun flushes lightly but doesn’t look away. Someone clears their throat behind him and he jumps, blushing harder.
“Hi, I’m Yangyang,” Yangyang says, in English, peering curiously from behind Kun’s torso, “I room with Kun. We live in the apartment across the hall. He made breakfast and he wanted to know if you’d want some.”
Ten’s gaze travels from Kun’s pink cheeks to Yangyang’s curiously familiar face, and considers the relative likelihood that he’ll be able to get some more sleep (low) and the possibility of a breakfast when he wakes up later (also low - he doesn’t even have any groceries, not that he actually cooks).
“Sure,” he says slowly, “I’d love breakfast. Let me just put on a shirt.”
Breakfast is unbelievably delicious, and Ten’s eaten in several Michelin starred restaurants. He takes a subtle look around the apartment in case a hired chef is hidden in a cupboard or something, but there’s nothing, just Kun with a novelty apron thrown over his sweater. Ten can’t read what’s written on it but it’d made Yangyang snigger when he saw it, which makes him even more determined to learn.
Speaking of Yangyang, it takes Ten most of breakfast to figure out where he’s seen him before.
“Hertha Berlin,” Ten says suddenly, making Yangyang choke on his mouthful of rice, “you gave us a lot of problems up the left wing. You scored didn’t you? Mats was very upset.”
“Yes,” Yangyang chokes out, an expression of wonder growing across his face. “How do you even remember that?”
“A header, really pretty,” Ten says, grasping for the memory, for his half-forgotten German vocabulary, “it cost us the league title that year.”
“I can’t believe you remember,” Yangyang repeats softly, also in German, and the awe doesn’t leave his voice, not even when he turns to an alarmed looking Kun to explain what’s going on.
Truth is, Ten remembers most of the games he’s played in. He doesn’t really talk about it because it makes him feel uncomfortably like he’s bragging, and the media accuses him of showboating as it is. It’s like his moments on the pitch stand out in his memory in stark clarity, compared with the dull edges of nearly everything else.
The look Kun shoots him is unreadable but Ten shies away from meeting his eyes. He asks Yangyang how to thank him for breakfast in Mandarin, and then repeats it until he feels like he’s got the pronunciation right and Kun’s cheeks look a little pink. And then, for the hell of it, he repeats it in German too, and then he and Yangyang start comparing the strangest sounding German words they can remember, devolving into hiccuping giggles as a bemused Kun watches on and not so subtly piles more food on their plates.
It’s the best Ten can remember feeling in a while.
They pair him up with a midfielder named Hendery for drills. He’d spent most of his international playing time in the English Championship league. As a result his English has a truly unfortunate Southern accent but luckily Ten doesn’t actually need him to explain the drills they’re doing. It’s roughly the same thing he’s been doing since he was fifteen and in Juventus’ youth academy system.
He lets himself sink into the cadence of the ball hitting laces, the focus it takes to time his passes perfectly, pushing his body to catch up on a pass that goes awry, surrounded by familiar teasing in an unfamiliar language. It allows him to take in the team, familiarizing himself with their movements and skills.
There’s Lucas, tall and friendly, greeting Ten with a grin and a clap to his shoulder that almost sends him sprawling. He partners in defense with Dejun, a head smaller but more than his match, as they pair up to tease Sicheng, the goalkeeper. There’s Yangyang, lording down the left wing, bickering with Hendery over who’ll take the next corner kick.
And then there’s Kun, watching over his squabbling squad with a fond expression, wading in when a debate gets too heated and always ready with an encouraging pat on the back, ruling the midfield with a sharp voice laced with command. Ten watches him from the corner of his eye, trying to find spaces when he fits.
The team needs a dynamic forward, that’s clear. They need someone fast but ready to return deep into midfield when needed. They need someone with goal scoring ability and they need someone who’s fast. In short, they need Ten from ten years ago but they couldn’t have afforded him then and he wouldn’t have gone anyway. Not when he was lifting the Bundesliga trophy, the weight of it nothing against the joy sparkling through his limbs.
As it is, he grits his teeth through a burst of speed to corral an errant ball. He’s what they got. It’ll have to be enough.
Their first game is a low point. Guangzhou sweeps through them like a tide, relentless and merciless as the previous season’s champions, tearing through their defense, exposing Dejun and Lucas’s youthful inexperience, the way the midfield isn’t quite dropping back fast enough to stop the onslaught of their forwards.
Ten keeps his head down and eyes on the ball, feeling the phantom drizzle of cool English rain in the cooling sweat on his skin, even if the air in Beijing is dry and balmy. He can imagine the headlines tomorrow, his younger face splashed across the pages in all their pixelated glory. A failure, a washed up footballer past his prime scamming a club out of their money.
Or maybe there won’t be any headlines at all. Not even a sentence in publications that used to document his glorious exploits on the pitch and in nightclubs. He doesn’t know which one is worse.
They’re four down at half-time and dejected. Kun goes around the locker room, face drawn up in a frown that he’s trying to smother as he goes from player to player. They look better after he moves on, despair tempered down into something more manageable, something like determination.
Kun stops at Ten’s locker and the two of them look at each other for a moment. They’ve never had a direct conversation with each other, never spoken without Yangyang or Hendery there to ease the way, to clear up misunderstandings. But Hendery is sitting with Dejun, their heads bowed close together and Yangyang is practically in Sicheng’s lap, trying to get him to laugh, so it’s only the two of them.
In the end, Kun doesn’t end up saying anything. He reaches out, putting his hand on Ten’s arm, palm over his tattoo, and squeezes once. Ten nods, sharply. There’s not a lot of things Kun could say that he hasn’t heard before. It’s enough.
There’s a moment, a few minutes into the second half. They’ve rallied enough that they’re keeping the Guangzhou attack at bay, and Ten is actually picking up balls coming through the middle. An opposition player makes a mistake, and Ten’s eyes hone on it with the ease of two decades of experience. He breaks free, and the expanse of grass opens up in front of him.
The shackles of injury drop from his tired feet as he runs, the sounds of the stadium muted under the echo of his own heartbeat in his ears. The goal is in front of him, impossibly big with a giant of a goalkeeper underneath it but instinct has him ready to shoot, shifting weight to his better leg -
A shout slashes through his concentration, breaking through the primal part of his brain. He slows, twists around a defender - younger, faster, stronger - that has overtaken him, his eyes widening as he realizes he’s just cleared Ten of an offside call, and Ten shifts on his feet, passes. It connects blindly, inch perfect, drill easy, to Kun’s feet, and he makes it look easy, the way he pushes it into the goal.
Their bodies collide in celebration, and Kun’s arms wind around Ten’s torso automatically, holding him close. Ten breathes him in, sweat and freshly torn glass, celebrations from the stands loud in his ears, and then the rest of their teammates are surrounding them, Yangyang yelling, “That was insane!”. Ten muffles a laugh against Kun’s collarbone, and feels his body shake in response.
Ten gets subbed off at the 75th minute. It’s about what his body can handle at this point and he focuses on his feet, carefully keeping himself from limping.
His eyes connect with Guangzhou’s manager as he walks off the pitch. Fabio Cannavaro barely looks older than the photos Ten remembers looking at, hanging up in the hallways and classrooms of the Juventus youth academy. His eyes look just as fathomless and ageless as they did back then. Ten offers him a smile, hoping there’s something of the boy he was back then still in it.
Looking away, he finally realizes that the fans are applauding him. Despite his less than stellar performance in the first half, they’re on their feet, a chant echoing through the stands. He raises his hands to greet them, their unfamiliar songs, their unfamiliar faces, their colors that still aren’t his.
It’s the first time he thinks that there’ll be a day where they might be.
Ten has Mandarin lessons every day after training but he probably learns more from Hendery and Yangyang than he does sitting at a desk. He’s forgotten more words in Italian, German and English than he can count, but it’s fun, learning slang and insults that opposition players might throw his way, repeating after a giggling Yangyang until his pronunciation is perfect or until a mortified Kun shushes them because a member of management walks by.
He figures how to interpret Lucas’s enthusiastic speeches, and Dejun’s softer interjections. The first time he laughs at one of Sicheng’s jokes, the whole locker room erupts into cheers. He doesn’t need anyone to interpret the manager’s instructions anymore.
He and Kun still don’t talk much when left to their own devices.
It feels awkward, Ten’s tongue heavy and clumsy in his mouth as he stumbles around words he already knows. He listens to Kun talk and tries to keep to the thread of the conversation but keeps getting struck on the way Kun’s eyes sparkle as he speaks, the way he gestures once he gets animated. The way his mouth shapes the words.
Kun is patient with him but Ten gets frustrated with his own inability to convey his meaning, and so more often than not, they end up sitting in silence. Ten learns to read Kun’s moods on his face - the way he blinks just a tad bit slower when he hasn’t slept well, the way his forehead wrinkles when he’s actually annoyed, the fond smile that’s on his face when the team is goofing off and he knows he’s supposed to call them to order but he doesn’t want to.
The way he squeezes Ten’s arm, gently, when Ten gets too lost in his own head, warm calloused palm covering his tattoo.
The team settles around Ten like an old jersey. Dejun and Lucas solidify into a wall in front of Sicheng, Lucas’s enthusiasm tempered by Dejun’s patience. Yangyang and Hendery guide the ball through the wings, as the stadium echoes with Kun’s voice, sharp and commanding, rising above the din.
Kun settles into the edges of Ten’s awareness on the pitch, less of a separate player and more of an extension of his own limbs. Ten’s seen a few genius partnerships over the years, the sheer isolating brilliance of them, but he’s never been a part of one, now like this. Knowing, irrevocably, where to move to meet one of Kun’s perfect brilliant passes. Knowing that Kun’s body will be the first one to surround him with a hug when he scores.
They do well. They do unbelievably well. So well that no one inside the locker room will talk about what the rest of the city is buzzing with. They haven’t lost a game since the first one.
There are headlines. The club gets what it wanted - an international buzz. Commentators say Ten is pulling a Zlatan, rediscovering his form after everyone has already written him off. His agent keeps passing him offers from clubs that he would have jumped at a few months ago but barely glances at now.
He fits, better than he could have ever imagined.
Ten has successfully gone months without having to buy more than a few ingredients for a late night snack. And even those grow dusty in his cupboards once he starts spending not only his breakfast but also his evenings at Kun’s.
He hasn’t been to any of Chaoyang’s multitude of night clubs since the season started. He thinks it might be bewildering some of the more persistent members of the press. The current consensus seems to be that he’s hosting wild secret orgies in his apartment building. In reality, he’s on Kun’s couch, Yangyang’s feet in his lap, eyes glued to some Chinese period drama that he can barely follow even with English subtitles and Kun’s longsuffering explanations.
He misses it sometimes, riding in a leopard print Lamborghini through slick German streets, giggling into Marco’s neck as he meets Auba’s dark eyes in the rearview mirror. Or stumbling home after a night out in London and going to the Arsenal training center for a shower because it’s closer than his apartment. He misses it and then Yangyang asks him what kind of cat he’d like to get and he doesn’t miss it anymore.
Maybe it’s a sign that he’s getting old, that he’s more mature. Or maybe it’s something else, he thinks, as he sits at the kitchen table, soaking up the morning sunshine and watching Kun’s neck turn pink as Ten praises his cooking.
It makes a poetic sort of sense that it comes down to them and Guangzhou for the title. Ten meets Cannavaro’s intense gaze as he steps onto the pitch and offers him a smile. He doesn’t know what the other man sees in his face but he gets rewarded with the barest upturn of his lips.
They’re a different team now than they were at the start of the season. More confident, more settled. There are less gaps that Guangzhou can exploit. The midfield is a well-oiled machine. None of that makes it easy. They fight across the pitch, each team not giving an inch, culminating in a game that’s so tense and even it must be unbearable to watch.
There’s a few hundred games that Ten remembers but he knows right away that this one will stand out.
There’s a free kick. They’ve got maybe a minute as Hendery writhes on the grass in front of the penalty box pretending the opposition player assaulted him. Ten’s eyes meet Kun’s across the pitch. Hendery picks himself up with a wild grin on his face and Kun settles the ball at his feet. The referee’s whistle pierces through the air and Kun’s foot hits the ball with a loud sound that echoes in the ensuing silence. Ten turns around and runs.
The defender that’s been successfully dogging his steps all evening follows. He’s faster than Ten. He’s bigger, he’s younger, he’s stronger. Ten’s heartbeat is loud in his ears and his lungs burn. The goal rises up before him, impossibly huge, unbearably small. The only thing in his life that’s ever been straightforward.
The swish of the ball against the back of the net sounds as loud as a gunshot.
There’s a room in the house Ten’s bought for his parents that’s dedicated only to his trophies. His Bundesliga medals are there, his Premier League medal, a few Community Shields, miscellaneous other medals and trophies he’s gotten over the years. His Ballon d’Or is in a vault somewhere after the last time someone tried to steal it.
All of those trophies he’s raised throughout his career and none of them have felt quite like this - watching Kun raise the Super League trophy for the team he’s played for since he was a teenager. Putting his arm around him, feeling the wetness of his tears join the sweat on his jersey. The disbelieving happiness on Yangyang’s face, Lucas hoisting Dejun up in his arms and Sicheng’s comparatively quieter joy.
The small pocket of their fans singing exuberant in the middle of a hostile stadium. The applause echoing through the stands as the announcer calls Ten’s name.
Kun’s arm around him and the matching medals on their chest, catching the floodlights.
The team ends up in one of Chaoyang’s nightclubs for their celebrations. The music is loud and the lights are almost too-bright, and as Yangyang and Lucas jump up on the bar to dance to joyful cheers, it feels like the whole city is celebrating with them. Hendery presses a shot into Ten’s hand with a smile that means he’s probably drunk more than a few already. The beat is good and the dancefloor looks inviting.
Ten can’t wait to go home.
He searches through the crowd, downing his drink, his grip around the glass tightening in frustration. There’s leftover adrenaline bubbling through his veins like the champagne he’s drunk a couple of hours ago. Someone touches the small of his back and he turns around, almost lashes out before he realizes it’s Kun.
Kun, the club lights reflecting off the metal surface of the medal still hanging around his neck, reflecting slashes of light across his face. And Ten doesn’t know if it’s an extension of their connection on the pitch or the way Kun’s eyes drop to his mouth but he finds that he understands his intentions perfectly.
He reaches out, finds Kun’s hand already waiting to meet him, their fingers entwining under the cover of shadows as Ten tugs him towards the exit. They’ll be missed at some point but hopefully not for a while.
They walk briskly through Chaoyang’s streets, their apartment building not far from the club they’ve chosen for their celebrations. People recognize them as they walk by and that’s a little flattering but luckily no one tries to stop them because Ten thinks if they did he couldn’t find it in himself to be polite.
It’s like a whole season of searching for Kun’s form across the pitch, of watching his soft sleep rumpled expression in the mornings, is culminating in this moment, and Ten has to grip the railing in the elevator to keep from reaching out to touch him and accidentally landing them on some security camera.
Ten leads the way to his sparse apartment instead of Kun’s more familiar door and Kun crowds just a little too close, enough that Ten can feel his breath on the bare nape of his neck, enough that he fumbles through his keycode, inputting it wrong.
They stumble through the door and Kun’s hands are winding around his waist before the door even fully closes behind them. His mouth against Kun’s neck feels like a firebrand.
Ten twists around in Kun’s grip, feeling like he can’t go a second longer without touching him, tugging his jacket off his shoulders and tossing it in the direction of the couch. Kun’s hands are equally impatient as he pulls Ten closer, but the way he touches their mouths together is gentle, cautious. Like Ten hasn’t been a sure thing since that first morning, watching him portion out rice in a soft knit sweater.
It’s Ten who deepens the kiss, who pushes his hands under his shirt to map out the muscles of his stomach. Kun trembles under his palms, just slightly, and reaches out to squeeze Ten’s arms. Right over the tattoos.
Ten, butterflies in his stomach, entwines their fingers and tugs him into the bedroom.
Ten tries to catch his breath, ignoring the familiar feeling of sweat drying on his skin. Kun is plastered to his back, warm as a furnace, turned unexpectedly into an octopus now that it’s just the two of them and not a stitch of clothing between them. The adrenaline has finally worn off and all Ten feels is a pleasant sort of exhaustion, lulled by the steady sound of Kun’s breathing.
Kun whispers something unfamiliar into the soft skin of Ten’s nape, his breath making Ten shiver despite the tiredness weighing down his limbs.
“I don’t know that word,” Ten whispers back, pulling Kun’s arms tighter around his middle.
“Good,” Kun says softly, and there’s something heady about the firmness of his tone, the deep satisfaction, “no one else should be saying it to you.”
“I didn’t take you for a possessive man, captain,” Ten says, delighted. Kun huffs a laugh against his skin.
“You’ve made me greedy,” Kun whispers and Ten closes his eyes, helplessly endeared.
‘You deserve it,’ he wants to say, ‘you deserve the world,’ but both his vocabulary and his courage desert him. He puts his hand over Kun’s on his stomach and squeezes once, gently.
Ten knows himself. What he’s got now - a knee that mostly functions, a stadium chanting his name, the kiss of a man he cares for - is an anomaly. A gift that shouldn’t be his if the world were as cruel as it tends to be. He’s grateful but he’s greedy too. He wants another goal, he wants another trophy, he wants another kiss.
It’s gotten him this far. It’ll see him through.