Shen Qiao had no idea he'd just been branded 'cracked in the head' by someone in the world. After defeating the Rift Herald, he activated a skill to get his wounded monk out of the fray. The drop from his kill, the Eye of the Herald, was picked up by his team's mid lane champion LeBlanc the Deceiver.
Shen Qiao didn't mind. When he saw the champion Kayle farming the top lane, he swung by and grabbed two assists to pick up some gold. In the middle lane, LeBlanc suffered several defeats. She just couldn't break through the opposing mid laner's shield. Seeing the action up in the top lane, she came over to bolster their numbers.
The three of them advanced down that lane until they made it to the enemy's inner tower.
The enemy jungler couldn't find the right opportunity to intercept them. When the jungler came in to protect the tower, Shen Qiao flashed over and nailed him with a well-timed kick. Kayle and LeBlanc joined in on the attack, and soon a lifeless corpse fell to the ground.
[That flash was sick.]
[Looks like those rumors of a new daddy coming to town are true. The wolf cub's got no choice but to slink off and become a jungler.]
[Our wolf cub would make a great jungler! Are the mods dead? Someone bring the ban hammer down on these trolls already!]
Once the match commenced in earnest, Shen Qiao didn't check the noxious chat again. He glanced at the map and signaled LeBlanc. They only had ninety seconds left to deploy their Rift Herald; they needed to hurry and summon it to push the tower.
The Rift Herald was a miniboss that spawned on the map. Upon defeat, a member of the team who'd scored the kill could pick it up as the Eye of the Herald. The item would stay in their inventory for 180 seconds before expiring. During those three minutes, the holder of the Eye of the Herald gained the ability Enhanced Recall, which allowed them to make much faster trips back to their team's base. And by summoning the Rift Herald before it expired, they could knock a tower down to half health in one fell swoop.
Since reinforcements from the enemy team had yet to arrive, Shen Qiao repeatedly signaled his teammate to unleash the Herald.
[Deceiver — Rift Herald]
[Deceiver — Rift Herald]
With only half a minute left on the Herald's duration, LeBlanc unhurriedly opened her inventory and clicked on the Eye of the Herald to send a reply:
[Rift Herald — 23 seconds remaining]
Then, minding her own business, she used Enhanced Recall to return to their base and change her gear. Leaving behind the enemy tower. Leaving behind the perfect chance to attack.
Shen Qiao was silent.
Seeing that blinding white light, which signaled a teammate's return to their base, Shen Qiao took a deep breath. Since he hadn't planned on speaking, he hadn't bothered to mute his mic. That long breath of his was captured, loud and clear.
The bullet comments became a sea of laughter.
[Welp, the fake blind monk met a real deceiver.]
[LeBlanc: Lemme hold onto this treasure for a while longer.]
[Qiao-ge is about to explode.]
[Forget it, ge. Move on. We can't kill our teammates.]
[I feel like our wolf cub is definitely muttering the Great Compassion Mantra in his heart right now.]
When Shen Qiao was younger and more ill-tempered, he'd been docked a whole month's salary for running his foul mouth immediately after joining the team. People started calling him the 'Explosive Wolf Cub' because that was the impression he gave: a wild wolf in the throes of adolescence, unable to tolerate any provocation without baring his fangs.
Shen Qiao stopped attempting to signal his teammates and slowly typed three little words into their team's chat channel.
Elsewhere, in a private hospital, Lu Zhe read those words out loud:
"Stay and watch?"
"Pfft." Fish, watching the livestream, couldn't help but laugh. His shoulders shook with it. Even his hospital bed began to quake.
Lu Zhe sat next to him, holding the cell phone that played the stream. He sighed.
"Our LPL division is like a set of nail clippers," Fish said. "No matter how sharp a player's teeth and claws are, they'll be worn down one day."
"I understand what you're trying to say," Lu Zhe said. "But why do you have to compare us to something as disgusting as nail clippers?"
Fish had joined a pro team right out of high school. He put his modesty on full display and teased, "Don't you well-educated people all love inventing profound meanings for mundane things?"
Lu Zhe flashed an enthralling smile and answered, "Believe me, that's the worst insult I've ever heard to well-educated people."
Fish fell silent. Well, alright. An uneducated pleb like him shouldn't pick that sort of fight.
At the same time, on the cell phone screen—
LeBlanc emerged from her team's base, restored to full health. It was only then that she released her precious Rift Herald. The sluggish Herald lumbered down the lane. As everyone on LeBlanc's team watched, it slowly plodded past their inner tower, then their outer tower… until finally, it made its way to the enemy's inner tower.
Upon arrival, it was promptly slaughtered by the defending enemy champions that had had ample time to make their way over from the middle and bottom lanes.
Shen Qiao said nothing.
His other teammates were also silent.
In Shen Qiao's livestream room, viewers continued to cackle and express their sympathy—
[Abyss Herald: I've crossed mountains and seas just to fall to my knees.]
[I thought I'd seen everything, but this… this is truly new to me.]
[The most arduous path the Abyss Herald had ever encountered… is this LeBlanc psychopath.]
Shen Qiao's teammates each took a turn 'sending their regards' to LeBlanc.
[You working for the other side?]
[Is your brain AFK? Worst fucking Deceiver of all time.]
Shen Qiao didn't cuss out their LeBlanc. He just silently, expressionlessly booted the enemy jungler out from the underbrush and killed him on the spot. Then he slipped into the enemy's side of the jungle and gave himself a red buff.
But that wasn't enough to quell his anger.
A short while later, viewers in the livestream room heard the crisp, metallic schink of a cigarette lighter's lid being flicked open and shut.
[Red alert! Qiaoqiao is smoking again!]
[You'll be fined by your manager again!]
[What brand is it? There's a new custom pheromone cigarette brand on the market. The tobacco smells so weird. Has our wolf cub tried it?]
As the conversation in the bullet comments began to circle around the subject of cigarettes, Lu Zhe furrowed his eyebrows in the seat next to his teammate's hospital bed.
Suddenly, he turned to Fish and asked, "Is this your main or your alt?"
Fish blinked uncomprehendingly. He stared blankly at Lu Zhe as he answered, "My main. Why? You wanna give him a tip?"
"Forget it," Lu Zhe muttered.
Fish had no way of knowing that his captain's tenuous self-restraint was the only thing that saved him from having his account banned for a heinously inappropriate comment.
Lu Zhe didn't watch any more of the stream. He tucked Fish's phone into the drawer next to the bed and said, "Get some rest. Don't think about all these unnecessary things. Everyone is waiting for you to get back. They all wanted to come see you today, but I made them back off."
Fish had planned on putting on a show and whining about wanting his phone back, but he abruptly fell silent at the mention of their other teammates. Eventually, he waved Lu Zhe off with a small smile. "It's a good thing they didn't come," he said. "You know what Old Wo and Er-Hua are like. If they came in and started bawling, I wouldn't have been able to keep myself together."
Lu Zhe studied him for a moment, then nodded.
When he turned to leave, he heard his teammate call out to him in a slightly hoarse voice: "Captain, I want to keep the World Championship Cup in the LPL."
Lu Zhe's half-hooded eyes grew dark, intense. "We will."
Before he left, he called back over his shoulder, "Remember to drink the soup. Auntie spent a long time on it. If you don't finish it, she'll come to the hospital and force it down your throat."
Sorrow filled Fish's heart as he reminisced on the aggressive care the aunties at their HQ's cafeteria had always shown them. A little forlornly, he said, "I know."
Outside the hospital room.
Lu Zhe turned back and gazed at Fish's hospital room door for a moment. Several complicated expressions passed through his eyes. Finally, he decided to pay Fish's doctor another visit.
When he left the doctor's office, Lu Zhe's eyes had frosted over. His gaze was so cold that it could have caused all plant life within a meter of him to wither and freeze.
Before he'd even taken two steps out of the hospital, his cell phone rang with a call from their team's manager. Lu Zhe answered the phone and instantly held it far, far away from his ear. Even without putting it on speakerphone, he could clearly hear a booming voice from the other side:
"How's Fish doing? He was dead set against us telling his parents about this, but our PR team just released a statement about his condition. I can't hide it any longer. Can he recover from this? How's he feeling?"
After a long pause, the manager continued, "Those heartless bastards at the top want to know if he can still compete. I just got them to hold off, but now I'm hearing they're going behind my back and talking to other teams about buying a reserve player. And you're over here, not letting any of us see what's actually going on with Fish. Even if I were a triple-layer Big Mac, I would be flattened into a picture by all this pressure coming at me from every direction. Daddy Lu, you gotta understand where I'm coming from."
Lu Zhe finally brought his phone closer to his ear and stuck his free hand in his pocket. He spoke the same way he gamed: picking at the other party's weak spots.
"You're so noisy," he said. "Big-Mouthed Zhou."
Manager Zhou promptly shut up.
As for the matter of a reserve player—
"We'll talk later," Lu Zhe said dismissively.
As soon as those words fell from his lips, a heavy sigh sounded out from the other end of the line. "Fish had better be alright. The transfer window is almost closed, and there aren't any good players left. International or domestic. They've all either renewed their contracts or transferred already. There are second-string players and rookies, but the skill gap between those top laners and Fish…"
Big-Mouthed Zhou had stirred up his own grief with his words. A faint sob traveled through the call from his end.
Lu Zhe knew exactly what the higher-ups were thinking and doing. They wouldn't dare talk to him about bringing in a new top laner already. He was a minor shareholder in the club, and he valued the bonds between himself and his teammates. The higher-ups were worried he would disapprove, but the club was a business. They had to turn a profit. If Fish really wasn't going to recover, he would have to be replaced.
But Lu Zhe was in no mood to listen to the rancid concerns of those higher-ups. He moved his phone farther away from his ear again and drawled, stretching out and mumbling his words to make them half-unintelligible, "What did you say? Signal's bad here. I'm hanging up."
Manager Zhou fell silent.
He persisted and called back. When the call connected again, he rushed to say everything he still needed to say: "Keep a good eye on Fish's condition. But if there are any promising sprouts, we can consider them. It's best to be prepared, that's all! Alright, I'm going to get in touch with Fish's parents now. Captain Lu, get yourself back to HQ soon. Curfew is—"
"Beeeeeep," Lu Zhe intoned.
Then he hung up again.
He checked his missed calls and saw a bunch from his teammates. Someone had even poked him more than ten times in a row on QQ. They all wanted to know how Fish was doing.
Lu Zhe responded to them one by one, saying as much as he could.
In the middle of the night, he finally left the hospital. Summer had yet to arrive, and it was a cold spring. As Lu Zhe waited for a car, the wind whipped up and practically chilled him to the bone. A pair of female omegas passed by, both wrapped up tightly in warm hats and scarves. A floral scent wafted over on the breeze, carrying their pheromones to Lu Zhe's nose.
Omegas were universally fragile and delicate. Their physiques were cute and petite, and even the scent of their pheromones were typically sweet or floral. Alphas, their counterparts who stood at the apex of society, were the exact opposite.
Lu Zhe glanced at the two girls and, inexplicably, thought of Shen Qiao.
He thought of the faint scent of mint that Shen Qiao emitted. It was subtle, but lasting.
Lu Zhe took out his phone again. The light illuminated his startlingly handsome features. His eyes became heavy-lidded as he looked down at the screen. He was captivating enough to render the passing omegas motionless; they stopped and stared.
But Lu Zhe didn't pay them any mind. He focused solely on loading up the streaming app on his phone and creating a new alt account. At the back of his mind, he heard the click of a cigarette lighter again and again. The corners of his lips quirked with a slight smile as he typed out a bullet comment:
[Smoke, smoke, go ahead and smoke another. That way you'll be one step closer to bronchitis, lung cancer, coronary heart disease, and angina! (^v^)]
Almost as soon as that message was sent, the sound of the lid of a cigarette lighter snapping shut lanced through the stream.
A second later, Shen Qiao spoke. His voice was slow and languid, and a little tinny through his mic. It was the sort of voice that could make a listener's ears tingle and itch. And all he said was:
"Mods, wake up."
A system notification swiftly popped up on Lu Zhe's screen:
[You have been muted.]
Lu Zhe's smile reached his eyes at the sight of that message. Though it was the middle of a chilly spring night, the indomitable frost around his eyes seemed to melt. A current of warmth filled his pupils instead. The omegas who'd stopped to watch him from a distance felt themselves start to blush.