Yu Wenzhou looked perfectly innocent: pen poised above his notebook, his China Glory captain’s uniform neat and spotless, the slight smile and tilt of his chin giving off a polite yet attentive feeling - in short, he was the exact picture of a clean, well-intentioned youth.
That’s how Li Xuan knew he was in peril: the more innocent Yu Wenzhou looked, the more black-hearted his thoughts.
Li Xuan dared to glance at Ye Xiu, seated beside Yu Wenzhou across the conference room table, and found himself being watched in return. The China Glory team coach smirked, and lit up a new cigarette, making no attempt to hide his gaze.
Li Xuan started to sweat.
“We’re almost finished with our introductory meeting,” Yu Wenzhou informed him, making a final notation and putting down his pen.
Looking up, China Glory’s captain smiled even wider. “There’s only one more thing we’d like to discuss with you.”
Li Xuan’s self-preservation instincts immediately advised escape.
Still smiling, Yu Wenzhou laced his fingers together and gave Ye Xiu an inquiring look. “Would you like to explain, Senior?”
“No, no, go ahead.” Ye Xiu waved the hand holding his cigarette - a lazy motion, but his demeanor projected amusement. “You’re the captain, I shouldn’t interfere too much.”
“Senior is always thinking of the team’s good,” Yu Wenzhou replied amiably, when it was perfectly obvious that Ye Xiu just wanted to avoid work.
Yu Wenzhou kept smiling politely. Ye Xiu smirked and continued to smoke. Neither of them made any motion to speak.
The silence drew out in a three way standoff. Everyone present could read the undercurrents beneath the innocuous byplay, but the first person to speak would lose the conversational upper hand.
Yu Wenzhou and Ye Xiu didn’t appear interested in being the first to break, but Li Xuan had never minded losing a bit of face for things like this.
“Wenzhou, haven’t we been friends long enough?” Li Xuan said helplessly. “You don’t have to be so formal. Whatever it is, just tell me.”
Yu Wenzhou and Ye Xiu both looked pleased, as though Li Xuan had done something worth praising.
“I think he’ll do very well,” Yu Wenzhou remarked as an aside to Ye Xiu.
“Mmmm, certainly our best choice.” Ye Xiu hummed in agreement, propping his elbows up on the table.
Li Xuan only felt increasingly confused.
Yu Wenzhou’s spotless image eased as his posture slipped into something more natural. “Li Xuan, why did you claim to be Han Wenqing’s replacement during the team meeting?”
Was that all they wanted to know?
Li Xuan relaxed. “It’s not good if we start off by arguing, is it? We’re all more used to being rivals than teammates. Discussing which of us was the last choice would hurt the team’s atmosphere.”
“But you know who got Old Han’s spot, don’t you?” Ye Xiu stated with casual certainty.
Li Xuan held a strong suspicion, but he wasn’t going to speak badly about another pro player behind their back.
“I could have been the replacement,” he answered instead. “Void just had its worst season since I’ve been captain.” The admission only pained him slightly now, after several months of accepting that outcome.
Yu Wenzhou folded his hands. “Treat it as an impolite request from us, please.”
In that case…
Li Xuan studied the two of them. “It’s Tang Hao, isn’t it?”
As a substitute for a melee, short-range Striker with an aggressive playstyle like Han Wenqing, Tang Hao’s Brawler made the most sense. Wind Howl’s captain also stood out because of his bad history with several other players on the China Glory team, and he had a personality that wouldn’t forget old grudges. Compared to the rest of China Glory’s players, Tang Hao was the riskiest choice on the roster.
“Correct,” agreed Yu Wenzhou. “Tang Hao’s talent earned him Han Wenqing’s spot. Unfortunately, that means Wind Howl’s problems are now our problems. I don’t think I need to explain - you may understand even better than I do. Since Tang Hao insists on using his own style without making adjustments for his teammates, that limits his usefulness to our team. As things currently stand, we wouldn’t use him except in individual matches.”
“Which is where you come in,” Ye Xiu suddenly chimed in, and leaned forward.
Li Xuan’s sense of foreboding returned.
“We want you to work with Tang Hao to improve his teamwork.” As Li Xuan stared at him in consternation, Ye Xiu laughed. “It won’t be hard, since Xiao Tang doesn’t seem to know what that word means.”
Li Xuan looked to Yu Wenzhou for help. “Wenzhou, you can’t seriously…”
“We’re not expecting a miracle,” Yu Wenzhou reassured him. “We hope that Tang Hao can improve even a little in the next few weeks, but we’re already prepared for a scenario where he makes no progress.”
Ye Xiu added, “Wenzhou and I would do it ourselves if we could, but we’re going to be handling the arrangements with the event organizers and the press, and also doing analysis and tactical planning for the team. We can’t reasonably find the time.”
Running a hand over his face, Li Xuan tried to sort out his thoughts. After Wind Howl’s consistent failures in the team battles last season, the timing was optimal, but still…
“If you need someone to work with Tang Hao,” Li Xuan finally answered, “you have two sets of Best Partners on your team who have beaten Wu Yuce and I for the title. Why not ask one of them?”
Li Xuan tried not to sound bitter about it. Ye Xiu and Su Mucheng’s partnership deserved the recognition it had earned, but he was still a little upset about losing to Samsara’s flashy DPS combo in the pair’s very first season.
Ye Xiu smirked. “Well, Mucheng could probably manage, but she’d give Tang Hao trauma along the way. You’re much likelier to leave him in one piece.”
“Thank you,” Li Xuan said, not sure if that was a compliment.
“And you want to have Xiao Zhou try? Or Sun Xiang?” Ye Xiu tsked, and tapped his cigarette in the ashtray.
Li Xuan winced. Zhou Zekai had the knowledge, but communicating it...well, you didn’t have to try it to know the attempt wouldn’t succeed. And leaving Sun Xiang with Tang Hao was just asking the emotionally inept to lead the obtuse. The two of them would end up butting heads because Sun Xiang didn’t know the meaning of tact.
“What about the other dual core players on the team?” Li Xuan tried again, not enthused by the idea. “Why not ask one of them?”
“Which one?” Yu Wenzhou replied smoothly.
Li Xuan shuffled through the roster in his head.
Huang Shaotian? Li Xuan couldn’t see that chatterbox meshing well with Tang Hao’s prideful personality. Blue Rain’s Blademaster also spent as much time away from his teammates in the team battle as he did fighting beside them, which reduced his credibility even though coordination was vital to Blue Rain’s success.
Zhang Jiale? Li Xuan cringed at the thought. Tang Hao’s issues with his former captain’s sudden retirement were well-known. Prodding at that complex ball of somewhat-justified feelings would only end in disaster.
Fang Rui’s history with Tang Hao was only slightly less troublesome. Even if you overlooked how Tang Hao had arrogantly challenged and replaced Fang Rui’s partner, Tang Hao didn’t respect Fang Rui’s dirty play, and he’d already failed to learn anything about teamwork from Fang Rui when they were on the same team.
Zhang Xinjie could be eliminated for similar reasons. Wind Howl had made a very loud, public attempt to buy him from Tyranny, and Zhang Xinjie’s decisive rejection likely left bad feelings on Tang Hao’s part. Li Xuan also suspected that Tang Hao would rebel if he encountered Zhang Xinjie’s meticulous scheduling.
None of the dual core players would be suitable, so who did that leave?
Chu Yunxiu? She was the one who’d wanted to discuss Han Wenqing’s replacement in the first place! Li Xuan couldn’t see anything good coming from putting her in the same room as Tang Hao.
Wang Jiexi? He’d sacrificed his playstyle for Tiny Herb, so he had the qualifications, but Wang Jiexi was somewhat lacking when it came to communicating with his teammates. The mind of the Magician was unfathomable, and Wang Jiexi had already exhausted his emotional repertoire on his successor.
So that left....
“Xiao Shiqin,” Li Xuan stated with confidence.
The two tacticians looked interested, so Li Xuan continued, “Teamwork is Thunderclap’s strength, and Shiqin managed to teach Sun Xiang how to cooperate with his teammates. He’s obviously the most qualified to work with Tang Hao.”
“We did consider him,” agreed Yu Wenzhou. “Shiqin would do well, for all the reasons you mentioned. But we still believe you are our best choice.”
Li Xuan stared at the two of them incredulously.
“Sun Xiang’s situation was different from Tang Hao’s,” Ye Xiu spoke up lazily. “All Xiao Sun needed was a team who didn’t treat him like their ancestor, and someone with enough patience to tell him when he was being stupid. Tang Hao’s background is a much more complicated matter.”
He breathed out a cloud of smoke, and gave a sly laugh. “Besides, don’t you have your own problem child, Li Xuan? I’ve heard you did quite well with him!”
Yu Wenzhou took up the thread smoothly, a two-pronged attack. “Jia Shiming transferred between three teams in three seasons, but yours was the one he chose to stay at. As Han Wenqing’s former successor, I’m sure he also had quite a few grievances against his seniors like Tang Hao.”
“Jia Shiming knew he wouldn’t get a better offer if he left Void. I had nothing to do with it,” Li Xuan protested.
“Perhaps.” Yu Wenzhou shrugged in a way that meant he wasn’t agreeing at all. “His current situation seems quite harmonious, either way.”
Li Xuan was helpless to give a reply. Was he supposed to argue that his teammates fought all the time?
Ye Xiu laughed around his cigarette.
Yu Wenzhou’s lips turned up at the corners. “One reason we prefer you over Xiao Shiqin is because Tang Hao’s personality is rather abrasive, to put it mildly. Shiqin may be ruthless on the field, but he’s the least black-hearted of the master tacticians.”
“Am I more black-hearted than you tacticians?!?” Li Xuan interrupted indignantly.
“A dirty-hearted Ghostblade dares to say he’s not dirty?” Ye Xiu volleyed back at him.
“Shiqin will also be consulting with us on the tactical planning,” Yu Wenzhou continued on as if neither of them had spoken. “So we’re also concerned that he may not have the time to take on an extra project.”
Li Xuan couldn’t disagree. In a last-ditch attempt to save himself, he tried honesty. “Tang Hao doesn’t respect me at all. I’m his senior, so he already didn’t have a favorable impression, but my Phantom Demon is a support class that isn’t suitable for PvP. To him, I’m a weak player who relies on dirty tricks and my teammates’ strength to survive. He certainly doesn’t think of me as his equal, even though we’re both captains.”
“That may be to your advantage,” Ye Xiu replied. “If Tang Hao respected you, he’d treat you as a rival. Since he underestimates you, he may let down his guard.”
Out of arguments, Li Xuan stared at the two of them and frowned.
Ye Xiu smirked, while Yu Wenzhou looked a little chagrined. “I’m afraid it will be a rather thankless task, and I’m sorry to ask such a favor from you.”
Li Xuan shook his head. “You haven’t done anything you should apologize for, Wenzhou. You’re doing what’s best for the team as the captain.”
“Comrade Li, it sounds like you’ve decided?” Ye Xiu prompted.
Sinking back in his chair, Li Xuan acknowledged his defeat. “I’ll do my best, but I don’t see many opportunities. I doubt Tang Hao will speak to me unless we’re training.”
“Don’t worry. You’ll have plenty of opportunities,” Ye Xiu helpfully told him. “We’ve assigned you as his roommate.”
Li Xuan choked.
Later, when Li Xuan walked through the door of their hotel room and Tang Hao sent him a glare that was equal parts arrogance and dismissal, Li Xuan's patient smile never wavered.
There was more than one way to seek Glory, and this was a job only Li Xuan could do.
Phantom Demons were talented trap-layers, as Tang Hao would soon discover.