Dai Yanqi wasn’t sure what to make of Xiao Shiqin’s announcement. Part of her was hoping that it was some terrible joke, that Xiao Shiqin was trying to be funny and missing the mark. But his gaze was steady as he pressed his notebook into her hands and asked them to play well. As he walked out of the door, Dai Yanqi wondered if this was the sensation people described in books, the sickening, stomach jolting sensation of the floor suddenly dropping out from under them, leaving them falling in a void they never saw coming.
Fang Xuecai was the only person who didn’t seem surprised and Dai Yanqi turned to face him, her confusion bleeding into her tone, making it accusatory.
“You knew the captain was leaving?” Dai Yanqi asked, hand tightening around Xiao Shiqin’s notebook. Fang Xuecai didn’t waver under the scrutiny, the rest of the team turning wide eyes on him, waiting for his answer.
“He told me after he’d accepted the offer.”
Dai Yanqi found herself at a loss of what to do, hands still clutching the notebook she’d been given. It was worn, cover a little creased and she ran her fingers across the irregularities, sensation soothing.
“Is he coming back?” Dai Yanqi asked.
Fang Xuecai didn’t respond, but the uncertainty in his eyes was the only answer Dai Yanqi needed and she scowled down at the notebook, trying to ignore the burning of her eyes and the sting in her chest that felt a lot like betrayal.
She knew she should be paying more attention to the interview that came next, on some level she was aware that she was responding to questions, that she was listening to what was being asked, even if Lu Yining had to nudge her a couple of times. Her attention was mostly focused on the notebook she had in her bag, Xiao Shiqin’s final parting gift to her, to Thunderclap and the moment they were on the bus back to the club she tugged the notebook out and let it rest on her lap.
But she couldn’t bring herself to open it.
Not on the bus, not in the cafeteria, not when she was sitting alone in her room.
The notebook’s battered cover taunted her, Dai Yanqi finding her eye constantly drawn to the A5 shape, fingers grazing the cover but being unable to lift it. It was such a little thing, all she had to do was open the notebook, read what her captain, what Xiao Shiqin had written for their team- for Thunderclap.
But opening the notebook meant accepting the fact that Xiao Shiqin had left and wouldn’t be coming back. Fang Xuecai hadn’t said anything about the rumours of a new captain, hadn’t confirmed or denied whether he would step up to fill Xiao Shiqin’s role and it was making the team anxious.
Everyone liked to talk about Thunderclap as if they relied entirely upon Xiao Shiqin for everything. Dai Yanqi read the forums, the news articles, read every instance of people predicting that Thunderclap would fall the moment Xiao Shiqin retired or left. It was already happening, the belief that without their tactician, without someone to call the shots, Thunderclap’s cohesion would fall apart.
Dai Yanqi knew they were wrong. She knew where Thunderclap’s strengths lay, and it wasn’t solely Xiao Shiqin’s burden to bear. It rested on everyone’s shoulders, everyone who played, to support each other and cover for where others lacked. And right now, they were lacking Xiao Shiqin.
Dai Yanqi left the notebook on her desk, not wanting it to distract her as she bounced into the training room, bright smile plastered on her face. She remembered her parents telling her to smile when she wanted to cry, that the smile would help, even if only for a little while.
And they were right, her team’s eyes flicked to her, entrance attracting attention, as it always did, as she always did and her smile was as cheery as ever, voice as strong as ever and it helped. Dai Yanqi saw the way her team smiled back, saw the gratitude in Fang Xuecai’s eyes and she kept her grin on her face, determined to make everything feel normal, even if there was a disconcertingly empty chair.
Fang Xuecai took his place at the front, but Dai Yanqi spotted the moment of hesitation, the second where her vice-captain forgot that Xiao Shiqin wasn’t there, that he was to lead today’s training. No one knew if he was going to be their captain, everything was still uncertain. Dai Yanqi kept smiling, refusing to let her mask waver after seeing how it had helped.
After training she jumped up, loudly proclaiming that she was hungry, drawing everything to a close before anyone realised that no-one could go ask Xiao Shiqin about their performance. They followed her to the cafeteria and Dai Yanqi held court at the table, fighting over morsels, portioning out people’s favourites, keeping everyone chatting, keeping the conversation light.
All eyes were on her and she kept her smile, kept their attention, bringing up past matches, doing her best to dance around their missing captain, even as she tried to remind them of what bound them together, what Xiao Shiqin had drilled into them all, what made Thunderclap viable on the professional stage.
Fang Xuecai caught her at the end of the meal, before she could slip away and his smile was gentle, gentle and careful and understanding and even as she knew the reason for it, Dai Yanqi hated it. Hated the way his whole face seemed to soften and she kept her smile.
“You’re good at that,” Fang Xuecai said. When Dai Yanqi didn’t reply he gestured to the room at large, motion all-encompassing, “keeping their spirits up, keeping them together.”
Dai Yanqi took a moment to scrutinise her vice-captain, take in his expression, looked past the careful softness and saw something similar to her smile in his expression. Saw something fragile and tired hiding behind his eyes and remembered that Xiao Shiqin wasn’t just Fang Xuecai’s captain, but also his friend. Remembered seeing them chatting together, remembered how they coordinated well on the field, and Xiao Shiqin had told him of his decision. Dai Yanqi remembered all this and she let her smile soften into something sadder, something a little more real.
“I want to help,” She said, voice quiet but firm.
It was a test, the declaration, waiting to see if Fang Xuecai would wave her off, tell her not to worry, insist that it would be alright. Dai Yanqi watched Fang Xuecai’s expression crack a little, crumbling into something a little less polished.
“I’d like you to,” Fang Xuecai’s expression was still slightly guarded but Dai Yanqi could see relief in his eyes.
Nothing more was said, they parted for the night, but Dai Yanqi let the words settle in her chest, let them fuel her desire to help her team, to make sure they came out the other side.
The notebook was still on her desk, still waiting for her to accept what had happened and work past it, find the right way to overcome what stood in her way. Dai Yanqi replayed her conversation with Fang Xuecai, her desire to help, his acceptance and she sat down at her desk, snapping the notebook open almost violently.
She wanted to help and it may have started in the training room, at dinner but it continued here.
Xiao Shiqin’s writing greeted her, the shape of his characters too familiar, having seen it on the board for a full season. The diagrams were meticulous, the analysis of other teams vital, every page filled to the brim with tactics, observations, notes on how to coordinate better, notes on everything and anything.
She began to read.
Dai Yanqi had lost her bright, cheery plastic smile the second she was in her room and she felt too raw to even try and summon it again, even if it would make her feel better. The note was small, scrawled into the margins, sandwiched between an analysis of Tiny Herb’s formation choices and Zhang Xinjie’s decision making process. Dai Yanqi had almost missed it but there it was, each character carefully inked and easy to read.
Keep on playing as a team. There’s our strength.
And Xiao Shiqin had given the notebook to her, not Fang Xuecai, not any of the others on the team, to her. Dai Yanqi took a moment to let everything rush over her, the announcement, the press conference, the strangeness of training without Xiao Shiqin, the uncertainty of who would step up- she let it all overwhelm her for a few long moments.
Once she was done, she pulled her laptop out and began to type up the contents of the notebook, ready to send to Fang Xuecai to be distributed to the rest of the team.
Dai Yanqi didn’t include the note Xiao Shiqin had left. That was hers and she let the words settle in her chest, right beside Fang Xuecai’s, determined to do right by her team.
Season nine brought change, every new season did, but season nine brought a new captain as well as a new rookie. Dai Yanqi wasn’t sure what to make of Zhang Qi yet, he listened to orders but he disregarded them when he thought that his choice was better. She wasn’t sure she liked him, wasn’t sure of his attitude but decided that she’d give him time to settle in properly.
She didn’t like the new captain, Liu Hao, and couldn’t help but think that in the trade between Thunderclap and Excellent Era, Excellent Era got the better end of the deal.
Dai Yanqi didn’t think of herself as a gossip, didn’t spend time speculating about people outside of their motivations within the game, but she was in the group chat with the other female players and she’d picked up enough about Liu Hao to be wary.
And then Liu Hao opened his mouth and Dai Yanqi thought that she was right to be wary.
It wasn’t that Liu Hao was bad at Glory. In fact, it would have been better if he were bad at Glory, then everything he was choosing to do would make sense. But Liu Hao was an excellent player. At least, he was an excellent player individually. When it came to working with the team however…Dai Yanqi watched as Liu Hao abandoned his position to execute a flashy move that ended with their team losing.
Of course, Liu Hao argued that it didn’t matter, that it was just training that it wasn’t an issue because it wasn’t a real match and Dai Yanqi couldn’t help but wonder how he could think it didn’t matter when training helped them coordinate and prepare for a match.
Dai Yanqi couldn’t help but feel that Liu Hao looked down on them, thought of Thunderclap as a stepping-stone to a greater goal and she scowled at the thought. Even if Liu Hao thought he was destined for bigger and better things didn’t mean that he should treat his teammates like they were just there to help make him look better.
It was harder to keep the team together like this and Dai Yanqi wished that Fang Xuecai had taken on the role of captain, wished that the captain was the one reinforcing the importance of teamwork rather than Fang Xuecai trying to voice it without seeming like he was undercutting Liu Hao. Dai Yanqi admired her vice-captain’s diplomacy but had long since decided that if Liu Hao didn’t care about Thunderclap then she wouldn’t care about him.
Dai Yanqi found that there was little to complain about during matches, Liu Hao clearly wanted to win, was dedicated to playing well and looking good. Maybe she’d been spoiled by Xiao Shiqin as her captain but Dai Yanqi couldn’t shake the sensation that with Liu Hao they played to support him while with Xiao Shiqin they played to support the team.
She spent a lot of her time reading over the tactics that Xiao Shiqin had left behind, taking in the counters to different teams that Xiao Shiqin had observed and making her own notes on how their teamwork had shifted to reflect the new playstyle. Dai Yanqi wondered if their new playstyle was truly a weakness, or if she was just biased against Liu Hao, holding a grudge against him because he’d taken Xiao Shiqin’s place. She resolved to try and think less uncharitably about him.
The resolve lasted until their match against Tyranny.
They had a strategy for the game, Liu Hao had helped develop it, he’d practised it with them over and over again until it almost felt like Xiao Shiqin was back. Dai Yanqi had even felt the first inklings of remorse over how she’d been viewing Liu Hao, wondering if it was just that he needed time to settle into his new team, that it would be better now.
She felt both vindicated and furious when she was proven right that Liu Hao was more focused on his own Glory than anything else.
It wasn’t even a great opportunity, Han Wenqing’s health wasn’t dangerously low, and it wasn’t as if Zhang Xinjie had been taken out yet. But Liu Hao still changed targets, moving away from their cleric and out of the tight formation that kept everyone in the right range for healing.
Dai Yanqi watched in despair as their cohesion began to fall apart, the team unsure whether they should follow Liu Hao or stick to the plan and she resisted the urge to glare at Liu Hao. Fang Xuecai had died already and Liu Hao was too busy trying to bring down Han Wenqing to be interested in the rest of the field.
Encircle our cleric and move to support the captain. Thunderclap responded immediately to her order, ensuring that Wu Yulan had adequate protection before going to back Liu Hao up. Even if Dai Yanqi thought that Liu Hao’s decision was the wrong one, she wasn’t going to leave him out to dry.
Liu Hao’s health was being slowly chipped away, as Tyranny had reacted to his attack, not giving him much opportunity to fight outside of dodging attacks. She cast Raging Flames, knowing it didn’t matter if Han Wenqing avoided it or not, using it to buy Wu Yulan time to get into position to heal their captain. Han Wenqing actually being caught in her attack was simply a bonus.
Wu Yulan followed her directions beautifully, taking advantage of the distraction to heal Liu Hao before falling back into position beside her while Zhang Qi surged forward, forcing Liu Hao back and to a better range. Zhang Qi capitalised on the momentary chaos on the field to use Destruction Slash, creating a better opening for Liu Hao.
To Liu Hao’s credit, he realised what Zhang Qi had achieved quickly enough, using Fire Wave Sword and the rest of Thunderclap banded together to provide cover. Dai Yanqi took a moment to admire Liu Hao’s skill, even if he wasn’t able to utilise it within a team setting. She shook off the thought before she got too distracted, keeping her focus on the match.
They lost the match in the end, but not by much and along with Zhang Qi, Dai Yanqi helped Liu Hao beat Han Wenqing. She’d kept up a string of commands in the chat, as Liu Hao seemed too engrossed in his goal to remember the rest of the team. Dai Yanqi couldn’t help but feel proud that she’d remembered Xiao Shiqin’s analysis on Zhang Xinjie’s style of play meaning she could capitalise on the unpredictable actions Liu Hao had taken that had thrown Zhang Xinjie off, however momentarily.
The fact that none of Thunderclap had expected Liu Hao to do what he did was pushed to the back of her mind.
“What were you doing?!” Liu Hao snapped.
Dai Yanqi had expected to be lightly reprimanded for taking over the field by Fang Xuecai, a reminder to try and be more diplomatic with Liu Hao. She hadn’t expected Liu Hao to be reprimanding her for telling the team to support him.
“You were losing health too rapidly to sustain a solo attack and needed support,” Dai Yanqi refused to accept the reprimand, refused to agree that her actions were wrong.
“I didn’t need the whole team’s support!”
“It’s a team match captain.”
Dai Yanqi wondered if she should back down, duck her head and apologise, but her stubbornness had her setting her jaw and meeting Liu Hao’s glare without any regret. Liu Hao scoffed but didn’t push harder, stalking away and Dai Yanqi glared at his back. She refused to believe that what she’d done was wrong and resolved to ignore Liu Hao.
On the bus back to their hotel she pulled out her phone, wondering what others thought of their match and their loss. There were a variety of messages from Thunderclap’s fans about how close they’d been to victory, Tyranny fans celebrating their win and an assortment of arguments over how close the match had actually been.
There were a couple of declarations that Thunderclap’s teamwork had taken a hit since season nine started and in the comments there were many people agreeing and stating that it was obviously due to the loss of Xiao Shiqin and how Thunderclap would fall apart soon enough without him. While Dai Yanqi disagreed that they were going to fall apart, she couldn’t refute the thoughts on their teamwork, not even in her own head. She sighed, turning to read a novel Chu Yunxiu had recommended.
“You did well.”
Dai Yanqi was pulled out of the climatic battle sequence by Wu Yulan’s voice and her head snapped up to face her senior properly.
“When you took charge, you thought on your feet and improvised, it was impressive," Wu Yulan said. Dai Yanqi blinked, unsure of what to say in response but Wu Yulan was still speaking, “you’ve been studying the notes Xiao Shiqin left.” Dai Yanqi nodded and Wu Yulan hummed under his breath, seemingly mulling something over. “It was good,” were his final words before he left.
Dai Yanqi wondered if he’d just come over to compliment her. She turned her attention back to the novel she was reading and didn’t notice Wu Yulan sit down beside Fang Xuecai, and she missed the appraising look that was aimed at her.
Dai Yanqi pulled out the notebook she’d started carrying around since Xiao Shiqin left, not the one that had been given to her, one she’d bought herself. It was actually her fourth notebook, at the rate she was buying them, she had to wonder if Xiao Shiqin had negotiated a notebook budget into his salary, in fact, she wondered if all the master tacticians had notebook budgets. Dai Yanqi made a mental note to ask Su Mucheng about this, as the other player had worked with both Ye Qiu and Xiao Shiqin.
She pushed the curiosity out of her mind in favour of focusing on what had happened during the match, how they’d faltered and why it had been an issue that Liu Hao broke formation. Dai Yanqi let her pen doodle randomly across the page as she wondered if their formations had become too rigid not allowing the flexibility that was needed in professional matches.
The formations were effective, there was no denying that, but the strict adherence to a specific formation caused the issue in their match. Admittedly, the issue would not have appeared if Liu Hao had stuck to their plan, but the fact remained that Liu Hao breaking their pre-established plan had created chaos. Besides, opportunities came rapidly during a match, there often wasn’t time to spell out what you were going to do and how it could affect the team, if players took the time to do that, the opportunity would disappear.
The question, Dai Yanqi thought to herself, was how to retain the cohesion of the team without extinguishing the ability for players to seize opportunities that may arise. She hummed as she scribbled on the page, wondering about the viability of a rotating formation, leaving specific players, those who would be the best at taking advantage of gaps in opponents’ defences free to duck out without leaving the rest of the team undefended.
Dai Yanqi nodded thoughtfully at her diagram, reminding herself to bring it up with Fang Xuecai at the next opportunity.
Season nine passed and Dai Yanqi thought that they held up well, despite the changes that the past seasons had brought. Even ignoring their standing in the league, she thought that they had pulled together beautifully, thought that they were still a team, that they had kept playing as a team, just as Xiao Shiqin had wanted from them.
She had taken control of matches on more than one occasion after the first, it had been a surprise, nearly throwing her concentration when Fang Xuecai had deferred to her shot calling when it was needed, but the results didn’t lie. Dai Yanqi was always pleased when she thought about that match against Wind Howl where they’d won by a large margin, partially due to her tactics.
But that didn’t matter right now because season ten was approaching and Liu Hao was leaving. Dai Yanqi was honest enough with herself to admit that she wasn’t just happy that Liu Hao was leaving because it meant that Xiao Shiqin was coming back. Even if Liu Hao was transferring and Xiao Shiqin wasn’t returning, she would still be happy to see the back of him. Coordinating around what he thought would make him look the best was exhausting and Dai Yanqi was full of joy when his transfer was announced.
Nothing could really compare to how happy she was that Xiao Shiqin was coming back though. Not Liu Hao leaving, not the steady evolution of her shot calling, not even the fact that the media were calling her Thunderclap’s rising star. None of it compared to the bubbly, fizzing joy she felt when Xiao Shiqin walked back into Thunderclap.
The team crowded around him, cheering loudly enough to drown out the fans cheering outside. Zhang Qi was more subdued but Dai Yanqi didn’t hold it against him, he’d debuted without Xiao Shiqin, it was fine that he didn’t understand why they were all so happy.
Xiao Shiqin was wiping at his eyes, smile bright and wide as he greeted them all, handshakes, hugs and everything in between while Dai Yanqi watched it all with satisfaction. Her captain was back.
When Xiao Shiqin’s gaze fell on her, she felt her back straighten, shoulders squaring under the scrutiny, determined to make a good impression. There was something in her captain’s gaze that made her feel as if she were being observed. Made her feel like Xiao Shiqin was looking for something in particular. Dai Yanqi didn’t know if he’d found it, his face gave nothing away when he spoke.
“Fang Xuecai told me you were the shot caller last season.” Dai Yanqi simply nodded, wondering what Xiao Shiqin had been told. She wondered if Fang Xuecai had admitted to Xiao Shiqin that she’d been as dismissive of Liu Hao as she could be without getting into trouble. She hoped that her captain didn’t think she wouldn’t respect his decisions and it was hard to stay quiet and let Xiao Shiqin speak. “I’d like to see your notes, after tomorrow’s training?”
Dai Yanqi knew her eyes were wide with shock, but she managed to fumble out an agreement and Xiao Shiqin’s smile was pleased as he turned back to the rest of the team, listening to what he’d missed, relaying his own stories. The noise washed over Dai Yanqi without her taking any of it in, lost in her own head.
She’d seen the articles, the reports, the match analyses that speculated about her future, knew that there were eyes on her, after her performance last season, not just as a player but as a shot caller too. There had always been articles about what would become of Thunderclap without a tactical core and since season nine, rumours and suggestions were flying around that she was the future tactician for Thunderclap.
And Xiao Shiqin seemed to think so too.
It made Dai Yanqi giddy, the thought of it, the possibilities, made her want to rush through today to get to tomorrow, to see what her captain thought of her notes, her thoughts, all her ideas, but she took a breath to centre herself.
Today was for celebrating Xiao Shiqin’s return, for being pleased that he was back, glad that he hadn’t gone somewhere else and happy that he was back home, back with them. When she told herself she didn’t care about anything else right now, she found that it was true, that nothing mattered as much to her in that moment as welcoming Xiao Shiqin back.
Everything else could wait. Everything else was better now that Xiao Shiqin had returned.
After all, Xiao Shiqin belonged at Thunderclap. Just as she did.