Midnight. A cold breeze slipped in through a cracked open window, only to be sucked in and overwhelmed by the quietly humming heating unit inside the building.
While he trained as a jungler, Shen Qiao loaded up the replay of Team DG's match from earlier that night. At the fifteen minute mark of the first game, he couldn't help but furrow his brow.
He understood why Lele had asked him to watch this game.
DG's top laner…
Something was obviously wrong with him.
Lele was the teammate with whom Shen Qiao was on the best terms. When upper management recruited a new top laner, it was obvious they were dissatisfied with Shen Qiao's ability to harmonize with the rest of the team and fit his play into their tactics. Lele had urged Shen Qiao to think about bailing out.
Shen Qiao still had half a year left on his contract. It wouldn't be a problem for him to pay the penalty for early termination, but—
He had to find his next home first.
Shen Qiao thought back to the practice match they'd played against Team DG before the Spring Tournament. Fish had been a formidable opponent. He showed no signs of having any sort of mobility problem that could affect his ability to function in his field; his handling had been on point.
Shen Qiao cut away from the replay and loaded up Weibo. He wanted to see if Team DG's official account had made a statement, but the trending topics list told him what he wanted to know before he could even look up Team DG's name.
Shen Qiao did a quick search on 'spontaneous pneumothorax' and skimmed the details. It was apparently a condition that could be treated if the patient received medical attention in a timely manner. Shen Qiao's gaze lingered on those words for a moment before he let out a slow breath of relief.
They all played in the same league, and the domestic teams often scheduled practice matches with one another. Shen Qiao didn't pay much attention to Team DG when they weren't scheduled to face Team BLX, but Fish was a rival top laner. Team DG had also won last year's world championship title; all other teams were fixated on DG this year. When he closed his eyes, Shen Qiao could perfectly recall Fish's strengths and playstyle.
As professionals in the same line of work, Shen Qiao had no desire to see Fish defeated by a condition like this.
A few seconds later, he closed the search page and tossed his cell phone aside. He stretched his back in the empty training room before starting up another game, once again choosing jungler as his preferred position.
Now that he'd gotten started, he would go all night.
Shortly after dawn, Shen Qiao more or less fulfilled his streaming requirements for the month. He got up and stretched again before turning off his computer. He left the training room and made his way to his dorm room upstairs.
After picking up a jacket and a messenger bag, Shen Qiao headed out again. As soon as he opened the door, he ran into Lele, who was shambling down the hall like a sleepwalking ghost.
The others must have gotten back to the dormitory at some ungodly hour last night. Lele was staggering along with one shoulder pressed to the wall, moving sheerly through instinct. His eyes weren't even open. When Shen Qiao suddenly opened his dorm room door, Lele nearly lost his balance and tipped straight into Shen Qiao's room. His drowsiness vanished in the blink of an eye, just in time for him to reflexively stop himself from stepping past Shen Qiao's threshold.
Lele's eyes widened with shock. He'd nearly set foot inside another alpha's territory. When he came face-to-face with the 1.8 meter Shen Qiao in such close proximity, he felt as though Shen Qiao radiated an aura that made him 2 meters tall. It took him a moment to come back to his senses.
Belatedly, he greeted, "Morning, Qiao-ge."
Shen Qiao nodded. He glanced at the fine layer of gray dust staining Lele's shoulder. A lazy, disinterested frown tugged at the corners of his lips as he said, "It's a good thing the club doesn't know you voluntarily scrub the walls every day. Otherwise, back when they repainted in here, they would have saved money on sanding the halls."
When Shen Qiao joked, the faintly angled corners of his eyes took on a tint of unruliness and gave onlookers an inexplicable feeling of tightness in their chest or gut. Although Shen Qiao's harsh and arrogant features gave him an unapproachable air, many of his omega fans became enamored of his wild and prideful expressions.
But other alphas recoiled in the haze of his pheromones. Lele took half a step back and instinctively brushed his nose before smiling. It was only a moment later that he noticed the bag Shen Qiao was carrying.
"You're heading out this early?" Lele asked.
"Mm," Shen Qiao hummed.
After taking a few steps, Shen Qiao seemed to think of something. He paused and called back over his shoulder, in that casual and disinterested tone of his, "Oh, that's right."
Lele waited for him to continue.
"Thank you for your advice," Shen Qiao said, "but I have nothing to do with Team DG."
After staying that, Shen Qiao made his way to the stairs with long strides of his long legs. He left Lele standing in place. As his drowsiness dissipated, Lele's face was overcome by a look of deep regret.
9:30 AM. A certain private hospital.
After undergoing a series of medical examinations, Shen Qiao sat in a brightly lit office with several large windows. He listened to a familiar doctor recite his familiar results. Nothing had changed in several years.
"According to your test results, your glandular condition is still extremely unstable.
"Under normal circumstances, even alphas who exhibit a congenital pheromone deficiency after presenting will see their condition improve on its own upon turning eighteen. Your case is special, and we've tailored a treatment to your needs.
"But you're already twenty-one years old. Through proper medication, your glandular condition should have improved by now. Your pheromone secretion glands should be functioning properly…"
Shen Qiao's gaze fell upon the snow white medical chart in front of him. He rubbed his thumb over the pads of his fingertips and began to crave a cigarette again.
He did his best to control his unease by focusing all his attention on a very important question:
Should he have the tomato and egg stir-fry with rice for lunch? Or should he have zhajiangmian?
The doctor's voice finally stopped.
Shen Qiao picked up his copy of his medical files and test results, tossing them into his bag and getting ready to go. Normally, that would have been the end of his appointment. But the doctor in front of him suddenly rapped her knuckles against the table and gestured for him to remain seated.
Patiently, she continued, "If your body is still unable to produce sufficient quantities of an alpha's pheromones by this time next year, you may need to rely on medication to maintain your biological balance for the rest of your life. You need to take this seriously."
In his heart, Shen Qiao flashed the doctor a wry smile.
That was new. And compared to everything he'd heard before, it was a much harder pill to swallow.
Shen Qiao nodded, but the doctor wasn't finished. She proceeded to issue him a set of routine warnings, which were already immensely familiar to him: "Don't drink and don't smoke too much while you're on this medication. Don't take what I'm telling you as a joke."
Shen Qiao continued nodding. It was impossible to tell whether he was growing impatient or not. His expression was as calm as a pool of stagnant water.
For whatever reason, Shen Qiao had been diagnosed with underdeveloped pheromone glands when he first received his secondary sex designation at the age of eleven. Due to his insufficient pheromone secretion levels, he'd once experienced a host of problems ranging from a low fever that wouldn't break to an allergy to omega pheromones.
Then came the medication. And it never stopped.
This was his tenth year of treatment.
Shen Qiao heard himself say, mildly, "Thank you, doctor."
He got up once more, preparing to leave. But the woman gave him a reassuring smile and added, "There's no need to be too pessimistic about this. If I remember correctly, your glands are receiving support from pheromones left behind by another alpha. It's unexpectedly having a beneficial effect. Even if you have to stay on medication in the future, the dosage you'll need shouldn't have many negative side effects on your body.
"Of course, you shouldn't do anything rash. Your pheromone glands are delicate. It's impossible to say whether that other alpha's pheromones are actually benefiting you or simply coexisting with yours, so you absolutely mustn't go out and try—"
A sharp look of fierce ridicule passed through Shen Qiao's gaze. He let his bangs fall in front of his eyes, allowing the other party to see only the shadows that danced over his cheeks.
Expressionlessly, he asked, "Dr. Fang, besides me, have you ever encountered an alpha who has been marked by one of his own kind?"
Upon hearing these words, Fang Hui was instantly rendered speechless.
Alphas were born with an innate thirst for dominance. Weaker alphas may instinctively fear or serve stronger alphas, but it was practically unheard of for a relationship between alphas to form. Even their pheromones were incompatible.
Fang Hui had become a specialist in pheromone deficiencies at the age of thirty, and she'd never found any success in curing Shen Qiao's condition. She suddenly realized an alpha could take her words as a grievous insult.
Quietly, and warmly, Fang Hui parted her lips and uttered an apology.
At the same time, the internet had descended into chaos.
For one reason and one reason only—
At 7:42 that morning, Team DG's top laner Fish had posted an announcement of his retirement.
Hello, everyone. This is Yu Qian, DG's top laner Fish. I'd like to start by thanking you all for your support over the past six years. This day has come sooner than I'd imagined, so I haven't made any preparations. But when I left the emergency room for the second time today, I already had a feeling I wouldn't be able to play any longer.
I deeply regret not being able to walk a longer road with my teammates, to win more championships with them. I also sincerely apologize for becoming a burden on the others during the semifinals of the Spring Tournament.
Thank you Captain Lu, Old Wo, Er-Hua, and Qian Bao. I was happy every day I got to fight besides you in the rift. I'd also like to thank our coaches, managers, and our club's other staff members for taking good care of me. I'm saddened to know I won't be able to stay with you all anymore. But I still want to see this team continue to fight gloriously and win.
Once the statement was issued, Fish swiftly became the only subject discussed among the people involved or interested in the LPL. The official Team DG account shared his statement shortly after it was posted, adding their own acknowledgement of Fish's contributions to the team throughout the years and wishing him a speedy recovery.
Other pro players quickly shared the post as well. Even the Team DG fans who had been cursing Fish into an early grave just last night cooled their heads and offered their well wishes.
Fish's own fans howled and wailed, declaring they would wait as long as it took for Fish to return.
Several members of Team DG accompanied Manager Zhou to the hospital, where they met Fish's parents. There, they learned arrangements were already being made for Fish to receive medical treatment overseas. As soon as his condition stabilized in a few days, he would be flown out to a foreign hospital. Although his teammates wanted to leave him with happy memories, they couldn't help but wipe at unshed tears.
The atmosphere was heavy.
"Don't you dare stand around my hospital bed with those mopey looks on your faces," Fish warned. "It makes me feel like I'm about to croak."
Fish's condition seemed to have worsened overnight. His voice was noticeably weaker than it had been when he last spoke to Lu Zhe.
After he spoke up, his teammates managed to collect themselves and regain some of their usual energy. The female alpha, Qian Bao, made him an oath:
"Don't worry. If Old Wo and Er-Hua have the balls to cry, I'll beat their faces in until they have no choice but to swallow their tears and snot."
Everyone fell silent.
Hearing the voices coming from inside the hospital room, Lu Zhe lingered outside for a while. He was no good at this sort of farewell gathering. When he saw Manager Zhou heading out to make the arrangements for a transfer, Lu Zhe followed.
The elevators in the hospital were extraordinarily slow, and Fish's room was on the fourth floor. After waiting in front of the elevator doors for a while, Lu Zhe left Manager Zhou there and doubled back to the entrance of the stairwell to get a breath of fresh air.
There was a small, narrow window there. It opened to a view of a lush, green courtyard with paved paths where patients could take a leisurely stroll.
Lu Zhe idly glanced out the window, only to spot a person with an extremely familiar profile down below. Even from afar, Lu Zhe could see the bright embers of a cigarette burning between that person's fingertips.
Lu Zhe suddenly glanced back at Manager Zhou and nodded towards the stairwell. "The elevator is too slow. I'm taking the stairs."
Manager Zhou froze for a second, then trotted up to the stairs. By the time he made it over, Lu Zhe had disappeared from sight.
"Oi!" Manager Zhou shouted downwards. "But you—don't have the paperwork!"
If you're going to zoom anywhere, Manager Zhou protested in his heart, zoom your ass back up here!
A new figure had appeared in the scene framed by that small window in the hall.
Lu Zhe approached Shen Qiao with a few long strides. Just as he stepped forward to snuff out Shen Qiao's cigarette, the scent of his pheromones gave away his presence. Shen Qiao turned abruptly and shot Lu Zhe a look that pinned him in place.
When their eyes met, even the air around them seemed to freeze.
The deep scent of cedarwood boldly wafted closer to Shen Qiao, causing Shen Qiao to narrow his eyes at Lu Zhe. They were of a height, but due to Lu Zhe's kinder features, he didn't appear so menacing in his everyday life.
But now, when Lu Zhe appeared so suddenly and drew near—
Shen Qiao held his ground and watched Lu Zhe approach. When Lu Zhe was close enough, Shen Qiao could see his own visage reflected in those long, narrow peach blossom eyes. Those eyes were full of tenderness and affection; one could easily drown in them.
In truth, Shen Qiao had been rendered motionless by the strong wave of pheromones that rolled off Lu Zhe as he neared.
"Still smoking?" Lu Zhe glanced at the cigarette that Shen Qiao held at his side, hidden halfway behind his back. He wondered if Shen Qiao realized how much he looked like a student trying to hide a cell phone from a teacher.
With Lu Zhe's pheromones bearing down on him, Shen Qiao lifted his gaze. The corners of his lips quirked upwards into a vicious little smile. At that moment, with sunlight catching in his eyes and his lips curved just so, he was nothing short of dazzling.
His lips parted, and he slowly began to speak:
"Lu Zhe, I don't know if you've heard this saying?"
After a pause, Shen Qiao uttered:
"The only good ex is an ex who plays dead."
Also, also! Because the game LoL is frequently updated, I don't know what changes will be made to the system. So the game mechanisms in this story will be based on S9! Mwah-mwah!