"Smells good. Does someone in the kitchen need me to volunteer as a taste tester?"
After showering upstairs, Qian Bao came down to the second floor and detected the delicious aroma of chicken in the air. Her stomach started to gurgle right away, and she couldn't resist sticking her head out from the stairwell to peer longingly at the kitchen.
Old Wo came out holding the garbage. He gave her a sympathetic look and offered some advice out of the goodness of his heart:
"Don't dawdle here. We're not good enough to eat."
Qian Bao didn't understand. "Why? Our HQ's aunties are the kindest queens in the world. Surely they wouldn't deny the adorable little me this simple request for a taste."
Old Wo huffed a short laugh. "Yes, but that presumes the chef is one of our beloved aunties and not a cold-hearted, ruthless dog."
Qian Bao blinked.
She was still confused when she saw someone approach the stairs, carrying a big plate. As that tall figure slowly approached, Qian Bao followed the aromatic scent with her gaze and spotted decadent, tender chunks of chicken meat simmering in a glistening red sauce, with a side of rice. The white grains were plump, almost translucent.
She sighed dreamily and couldn't help but offer, "Wow, Captain. Carrying the dish is something I can do for—"
As she spoke, she reached out to take the plate from Lu Zhe. But when he casually swept his cold gaze over her, she froze. The scent of cedarwood grew stronger in the air. It was, unmistakably, a silent threat.
Qian Bao could only scoot to the side and clear a path for Lu Zhe. "…my bad, sir. You go on ahead."
As soon as Lu Zhe brushed past her, Qian Bao bolted down into the HQ's cafeteria. But she only found the same few dishes as always. Forget about huangmen chicken. There wasn't even a single chicken feather left for her.
After scarfing down some food without really tasting it, Qian Bao trudged back to the training room. As soon as she plopped down in her chair again, her sensitive nose picked up that delicious, alluring scent once more.
She swiveled towards the scent and found the huangmen chicken dish of her dreams sitting right there, on Shen Qiao's desk.
Qian Bao tearfully denounced Lu Zhe: "Is our DG's headquarters finally turning into the sort of place where newcomers rejoice while the suffering of the old guard goes unnoticed?"
Lu Zhe was watching as Shen Qiao picked out the green peppers from the dish and tossed them into the trash. He heard Qian Bao, but responded without even lifting his head:
"Anyone who eats my chicken belongs to me. You really want a taste?"
Qian Bao was silent for a moment before she said, "…sorry to interrupt."
Er-Hua, who was still waiting for his long-delayed takeout order, was being assaulted by starvation and the drool-inducing scent of huangmen chicken. At that point, he dejectedly accused, "Captain, I have reason to suspect you're being a perv, and I have the evidence to back it up."
Lu Zhe plucked out a bony piece of chicken and placed it in his own bowl. He gave a self-righteous response:
"When a team captain turns yellow, not a single one of his teammates is innocent."
Er-Hua, Old Wo, and Qian Bao all spat their disgust in unison.
All the while, only Shen Qiao remained calm and unperturbed. He enjoyed his lunch without paying the others any mind. By the time he set his bowl aside, he was so full that he seemed to exude a heightened sort of lethargy, like a big cat ready to take an afternoon nap.
Just looking at him made Lu Zhe want to go over and pet his hair.
Then, he suddenly remembered the question Shen Qiao had asked. The one that allegedly came from a 'friend' of his—
How do you plan on helping me quit smoking?
At the time, Lu Zhe had smiled winningly and retorted, How would you like me to help?
But Shen Qiao had only let out a light hum in response, before calmly retreating from that engagement as though he weren't the one who'd taken the initiative to tease Lu Zhe. He was like a little kitten who'd run up to his master, begging for attention, only to skitter away when said master reached out to give him a pat.
Lu Zhe's eyes filled up with a shade of doting indulgence. Silently, he thought:
Slow and steady.
"Queue with me?"
Shen Qiao had eaten his fill, and he was a reasonable young man who knew when a debt had to be paid. After thinking it over, he'd decided to reluctantly extend that invitation to Lu Zhe—it was the best way to repay Lu Zhe that he could think of.
Lu Zhe, naturally, had no objections.
The two of them logged into their main accounts on the KR server.
Shen Qiao had been spending most of his time on his alt on the domestic server, training as a jungler. As a result, he hadn't logged into his main on the KR server for a while. His rank had decayed from Challenger to Grandmaster.
Lu Zhe had been slacking off even more than Shen Qiao, and Team DG had gone farther in the spring tournament than Team BLX. He hadn't touched his account in even longer, falling to the rank of Master. If he'd remained inactive for a while longer, he probably would have fallen even lower to Diamond.
At their level, the two of them could recognize about half of the names on the KR server—
When they finally got through the queue, Shen Qiao saw one such familiar name.
It was Lele.
In the chat box at the bottom left of the screen, the other party excitedly tapped out a few words.
[LE: Qiao-ge! Here! ZHE?]
He was asking if Shen Qiao was queueing with Lu Zhe.
Shen Qiao was assigned to play AD. When he saw that familiar acquaintance, he good-naturedly typed out a response: Yeah.
Their other two randomly-matched teammates seemed to be fans of theirs. When they saw Lu Zhe's ID, they also took to the chat to celebrate:
[DG, go go go! BLX, fight!]
At that moment, Lu Zhe—who'd been designated as their mid laner—preemptively locked in Soraka.
Instantly, Lele happily typed out:
[LE: Ok! Then I'll mid-lane!]
When Shen Qiao saw Lu Zhe lock in Soraka during the champion bans and picks stage, he spoke up: "Then I'll play Kalista, and we'll run a glass cannon comp?"
Against his and Lu Zhe's skills, even the highest-ranked players on the KR server were often no more of a threat than Silver-level small fries. Plus, Team DG didn't currently have any rank requirements for their players. This match would purely be a casual, relaxing romp.
Lu Zhe let out a low laugh and answered, "Sure."
His deep voice traveled through the mic and flowed into Shen Qiao's ears. Its electric, magnetic quality induced a strange, tingly sensation in the listener's ear, as though Lu Zhe had breathed those words directly against Shen Qiao's skin from a scant inch away.
Shen Qiao cast a sidelong glance at him before returning his attention to the game interface.
Their team locked in Riven as their top laner, Jarvan IV as their jungler, Vladimir as their mid laner, and Kalista and Soraka as their bot-lane champions.
Their opponents ran Renekton in the top lane, Elise as their jungler, Galio in the mid lane, and Caitlyn and Nautilus in the bottom lane.
Lu Zhe sighed with feigned sorrow. "They have good crowd control."
Shen Qiao unhurriedly answered, "It's fine. We have enough attack—"
Before he even finished speaking, Lu Zhe continued, "So you'll have to hold my hand."
Shen Qiao fell silent.
He chose his runes without uttering another word and waited for the sound signaling the start of the match—
Shen Qiao marked Lu Zhe as his 'Oathsworn' ally and moved along with his champion. A faint line appeared between him and Lu Zhe's Soraka, who wore her Pajama Guardian skin.
Lu Zhe let out a soft 'ah' when he saw that line binding them together, then sighed. "Look at that. The red string of fate already ties us together."
Shen Qiao stared at that faint, blue-green thread on his monitor. "Why didn't I know you were colorblind until now?"
Lu Zhe wanted to tease him some more, but Shen Qiao interrupted with a menacing threat: "If you keep this up, I'll ally with someone else."
Subconsciously, Lu Zhe's gaze drifted over to Lele's Vladimir in the middle lane.
After a long while, he quietly muttered two words under his breath:
Then, he continued, "As long as I live, all you other mistresses will be no more than lowly concubines."
Shen Qiao said nothing.
He didn't speak another word to Lu Zhe. When he saw their teammates asking if they wanted to tackle a wave of monsters in the underbrush, he finished gearing up and headed out.
It turned out the other team had the same idea—
Ten champions faced each other, separated by a narrow river. In the end, they each turned back to their own lanes and started to farm while minding their own business.
Both sides advanced steadily before reaching Level 6. No one carelessly gave away the first kill.
In the bottom lane, Lu Zhe danced around Shen Qiao and occasionally cast a skill to silence their enemies, accurately predicting the opposing pair's movements at every turn.
While messing with their enemy, he didn't spare Shen Qiao either:
"Qiaoqiao, do you want a taste of my milk?1 It's super sweet, super delicious."
Shen Qiao was silent.
Ultimately, he ground out a suggestion through gritted teeth: "How about I take them on by myself, 1v2. You go ahead and wander around?"
"Heartbreaker," Lu Zhe complained. "Don't you want me?"
He sighed mournfully and continued, "When you drink my milk, you call me sweetie pie, but in the end you act like you don't even know me."
Shen Qiao fell silent once more.
If he ever queued with Lu Zhe again, he would be the first to call himself the biggest fucking idiot in the world. Shen Qiao made that oath on the spot.
At that time, Riven had painstakingly gotten up to Level 6 in the top lane while facing off against Renekton. Jarvan IV wasn't able to help much from the jungle in those early stages, but he managed to stay alive while the enemy jungler went into the middle lane for a gank.
As soon as he hit Level 6 and unlocked a big move, Jarvan was ready to head up to the top lane to wail on Renekton. He signaled in the team chat for Soraka to get ready to heal him.
Lu Zhe speedily responded:
[My milk is only for our AD. ^v^]
All their other teammates:
Luckily, Lele was there to make some headway in the middle lane with Jarvan IV. In the bottom lane, Shen Qiao worked together with Lu Zhe to claim two kills. Their team quickly reached 7-0 in kills, taking an early lead.
The first team fight between the two sides broke out around the ocean dragon.
Jarvan IV struck first. Vladimir charged into the fray, unleashing a big skill that struck three of their enemies. Riven leapt in to pick up the kill, and Shen Qiao fired away at the enemy from the back. Lu Zhe deftly dodged the attacks aimed at him, waiting for just the right moment to activate his ult—
In the blink of an eye, their five opponents stained the ground with blood.
At the nineteen-minute mark, Shen Qiao's team pushed their opponents all the way back to the enemy base.
Vladimir, out for blood, strayed too far into the enemy's territory. The enemy Caitlyn who'd just respawned aimed her ult at him. Shen Qiao instantly noticed that there were no minions from which the vampire Vladimir could suck some blood. Although Shen Qiao had already preemptively dodged out of Caitlyn's range, he suddenly took a step forward and shielded Lele's Vladimir.
He took the hit head-on, for Lele.
[LE: Qiao-ge, I love you!]
As Shen Qiao got ready to take down the enemy's nexus, he suddenly heard Lu Zhe slowly speak out through his headset, grinding out one word at a time:
"You… took… an ult… for him?"
Shen Qiao didn't understand what Lu Zhe was getting at. He instinctively answered, "Yeah."
"You took a big one for Lele?" Lu Zhe repeated.
The name 'Lele' was spat out with a special sort of emphasis.
Shen Qiao could tell, now, that something was wrong. They'd already pushed their way to the enemy's inhibitor, anyway, so he spared a moment to turn and look at Lu Zhe.
Lu Zhe met Shen Qiao's slightly puzzled gaze. He suddenly heard a metaphorical vase in his heart tipping over and shattering to pieces—
Fuck slow and steady.
A crescent flash of light surfaced in Lu Zhe's dark pupils, reflecting the glow of the computer monitor. Those crescents were like silver-white blades, sliding out of their sheaths. Lu Zhe held Shen Qiao's gaze and curled his lips into a smile as he said:
"You like big ones?
"I'm bigger than any of them. How about you give mine a taste?"
1. The champion Soraka is nicknamed 奶妈 (meaning 'wet nurse') for her healing abilities. Lu Zhe is referring to her heals as 'milk'.
PS - You can't use Chinese characters in chat on the KR server, so I just fixed that. Ai, everyone please make do with my crappy pinyin!
The author's note in this chapter refers to the fact that the in-game chat lines here were all written in a combination of English and pinyin in the original text.