With the arrival of June, Hua City experienced day after day of scorching heat. Even at five in the evening, the sunlight that spilled down between tall buildings was hot enough to make pedestrians melt. There was almost no way to imagine what kind of infernal stove the city would turn into in July and August.
In that sweltering weather, Team DG embarked on the voyage of the summer tournament. The venue was located right there in Hua City. Lu Zhe and the others from DG were familiar with the location, and Shen Qiao—who'd played there with BLX—wasn't a stranger to the place either.
This time, their opponents would be HCG—
A team that had only risen from the Tier 2 league two years ago. Based on their stats and achievements, they were essentially at the bottom of the barrel among the sixteen LPL teams.
Coach Fang had only studied up on the playstyles of the new players who'd joined HCG during the last transfer window, and he didn't bother issuing his own team too many warnings. As long as DG played the way they did during practice matches, there would be no suspense in this round.
Before the game, DG's official Weibo put up a new post to cheer on their players.
Fans left their own messages of encouragement in the comments section.
[DG, go, go, GO!!!]
[Let's start with a small goal. Take the summer tournament crown!]
[Although there were lots of rumors about bad blood between Shen Qiao and our Lu Zhe, once you set foot in DG, you're part of our family! I'll be your fan starting from today! @DG-Wolfy Play well for me!]
[Lu Zhe: As soon as our game begins, your jungle will become my home.]
Inside the arena's rest area.
Old Wo peered into his thermos to see if his red date and goji berry tea had the right proportion of red dates to goji berries. Er-Hua started doing warm-up exercises for his hands, preparing for the game that was soon to begin.
Shen Qiao checked the time, then got up and started heading out of the lounge.
Lu Zhe was chatting about HCG's stats with Coach Fang and a few of their team's analysts.
"HCG's mid laner is just alright. Definitely not a match for you or Qian Bao. Our bottom laners Old Wo and Er-Hua always give a solid performance, so I'm mostly worried about Shen Qiao. I'm not worried about his strength or ability, but this is his first match since coming to DG. Psychologically…"
Hearing that, Lu Zhe smiled lightly. "I understand what you mean, Coach."
Then, he softly yet firmly continued, "But I can promise you that he definitely won't become DG's weak point. Truth be told, against HCG's top laner, I honestly can't imagine how Qiaoqiao could let us down. Even if he takes Cull as his starting gear, he'll be fine."
Coach Fang was momentarily rendered speechless.
Lu Zhe hastily tacked on one more confidence booster: "Besides, you also have me, right?"
Coach Fang still said nothing.
He gave Lu Zhe a mild look. After a long while, he said, "Right, I wasn't all that worried in the first place. Now that you've said all that, I'm starting to worry the slightest bit more—promise me, there will be no 'nice surprises' in this official game. I want a dull and uninspired victory. Got it?"
A ripple of emotion passed through Lu Zhe's eyes at those words. His delicately curved eyes were like peach blossom petals, tipping down at the inner corners and tipping up at the outer ones. The slightest smile made him look and feel like a springtime breeze.
He responded very good-naturedly: "Sure."
After saying that, Lu Zhe subconsciously glanced to the side and found that Shen Qiao was no longer in the room. He assumed Shen Qiao had gone to the bathroom, but surprisingly—even five minutes later, Shen Qiao hadn't returned. After asking Old Wo and the others, and receiving no answers, Lu Zhe could only head out to look for him.
In a quiet and lonely corner, a tall figure stood by the window. A small spark smoldered at his fingertips. Faint tendrils of smoke rose up, quickly dissipating in the air, leaving behind only an indistinct haze.
That person's facial features were handsome and brazen, but in that moment he was only standing serenely by the window. He was almost life-threateningly attractive. He was like a violent, feral beast, but one that was so alluring that people couldn't resist the urge to get closer. The bravest souls would even feel a desire to tame him.
Those were the thoughts that ran through Lu Zhe's mind as he got closer—
Shen Qiao came back to his senses when he detected the faint scent of Lu Zhe's suppressed cedarwood pheromones in the air. The scent was extremely light, but noticeable. Shen Qiao subconsciously tucked his hand behind his back, as though to hide the cigarette.
Before Lu Zhe uttered a single word, Shen Qiao opened his mouth of his own volition:
"Uh. Quitting smoking is a slow process… step-by-step…"
His expression was calm and confident, and his eyes were filled with a trace of humor when he gazed at Lu Zhe. But his voice had grown a little soft and weak, almost demure.
What the hell.
He was clearly speaking the truth.
Lu Zhe laughed very softly. He blinked his dark eyes a few times and indulgently answered, "I know."
He continued, "I haven't stopped you from smoking. Go ahead, continue."
Shen Qiao said nothing.
He lifted the cigarette in his hand, then lowered it again. He couldn't shake the feeling of unease.
It was a long while before Shen Qiao realized the distance between the two of them had grown too small. The warmth in Lu Zhe's eyes was scalding him to the point of discomfort. Shen Qiao spoke again, with his voice raspy and hoarse from smoke:
"Can you not stand so close to me?"
Who could have known that Lu Zhe would seriously, earnestly shake his head.
His gaze fell, traveling to the cigarette hanging from Shen Qiao's fingers. A smile came to rest at the corners of his mouth, and even his voice seemed warmer and more gentle when he spoke again:
"Although I don't smoke, there's nothing stopping me from savoring the blessings of life with you. From today on, I'll do my very best to inhale the freshest secondhand smoke I can get in my lungs. Maybe, one day, I'll even step into heaven before you. Right?"
Shen Qiao was silent.
A mocking glint passed through his eyes. He gave Lu Zhe a slow once-over before he answered, "You're thinking too much. Heaven doesn't take esports trolls."
After saying that, he donned a blank expression and moved over to the trash can in the hall, stubbing out the sparks of the last third of his cigarette.
Lu Zhe watched his every move. The smile on his lips grew wider and wider, but he turned his head away so as not to let Shen Qiao see. He would hate to rile up a certain little wolf cub now.
However, when he turned his head away, a sudden, ill-timed thought popped up in the sea of Lu Zhe's mind—
He'd already joked and teased that he would help Shen Qiao quit smoking for so long. Wasn't it about time he put his words into action?
"We're starting?" Shen Qiao asked after tossing out his cigarette. He moved back towards Lu Zhe, wearing a silver-white uniform that was identical to the one Lu Zhe wore. The only difference was that Lu Zhe was wearing his long-sleeved jacket, since the venue was air-conditioned. Shen Qiao, on the other hand, was wearing his short-sleeved shirt, exposing his well-muscled arms. His lean but sturdy forearms practically glowed with a healthy luster.
Lu Zhe saw the serious look on Shen Qiao's face and quickly dismissed the idea that had popped up in his own mind. He nodded and confirmed, "Mm."
The commentators' excited voices and the cheers from the crowd reverberated through the venue—
"Welcome to Hua City Arena, home of the LPL's summer tournament!
"Today, the two teams who will clash are DG and HCG! As you all know, due to an unexpected condition that afflicted their top laner Fish, DG fell at the semifinals of the spring tournament this year. Now their top laner has become Wolfy, previously of Team BLX! I'm sure everyone feels the same way I do. We're all impatiently waiting to see how well he'll mesh with DG. Little Yi, what kind of performance do you think DG will show us today?"
This commentator finished rattling off an introduction like a machine gun before remembering the existence of his co-commentator. He finally passed over the mic.
Sitting next to him was Little Yi, a female commentator wearing a delicate face of makeup. She wore a smile that was extremely appropriate for the occasion, but in her heart she couldn't help but roll her eyes. Only DG could possibly know how well they would perform. What was the point in her guessing now, except to open herself up to the possibility of weathering a storm of shame for being wrong?
With that polite little smile of hers, she answered, "Of course I hope to see both teams play at their best and show us some amazing moments in today's game—as for Wolf Cub and DG's compatibility, he'll probably give us an answer very quickly in the upcoming match."
As the two commentators got the crowd pumped up before the game, the players of the two teams were led onto the elevated stages on either side of the arena. They were separated from the audience by a fair distance.
Because alphas and omegas could influence each other so easily with their pheromones, live events like these games took many precautionary measures against the unexpected.
For example, before entering a competition, omegas had to undergo a test to check the level of suppressants in their system. It also had to be verified that they weren't near their heat—
After all, if an omega suddenly went into heat during a match, the entire stadium of alphas would be affected. In particularly extreme cases, a disaster that permanently affected their society could ensue. Unmarked omegas emitted alluring pheromones during their heat, which drove all nearby alphas to instinctively want to mark them while viciously fighting off all competitors.
As another example, alphas were made to wear pheromone-inhibiting bracelets when they took the stage for a game, to prevent them from affecting other players by emanating fierce waves of pheromones in the heat of the moment. Huge, state-of-the-art air purifying systems were installed at these venues as well.
The precautionary measures were comprehensive.
"Go, DG! DG, go! Go, go, go!"
After the commentators introduced the players of both teams, the fans of Team DG that packed the stands let out a mountain-shaking, sea-splitting roar of cheers.
Shen Qiao tried to focus on getting ready, but when he heard that commotion, he couldn't help but feel that this moment was somewhat surreal. He'd never imagined there would really be a day when he played on the same team as Lu Zhe.
Coach Fang stood by the referees. He put on his headset as well, getting ready to communicate with the players during the upcoming Pick/Ban phase.
Old Wo spoke first: "Daddy Lu, as per tradition, say a few dirty things to test the mic."
Coach Fang helplessly interrupted, "You guys do know you're being recorded, right?"
Er-Hua joked, "Coach, how do you think Dog Lu got his nickname?"
Obviously, fans had deemed him a dirty dog after getting a sense of his true nature from the recordings of his earlier games.
Qian Bao also chimed in, "Isn't pre-game dirty talk our team's specialty?"
Coach Fang fell silent.
He couldn't deny that.
Lu Zhe breathed a laugh. His voice was warm and silken in their ears. At his teammates' behest, he called out, "Qiaoqiao—"
Shen Qiao was looking at his own monitor. Without even lifting his head, he dispassionately interrupted, "Don't drag me into this. I don't want to make any sort of shocking debut in a recorded game."
Lu Zhe casually threw out a serious question as though it were mere small talk: "I only wanted to say, after the game, they're definitely going to want you to stay back for an interview. While they have you, they'll ask how you've been getting along with me. What will your answer be?"
Strange. After hearing that warm and gentle voice, Shen Qiao felt the unease that had filled his body disappear completely.
He actually managed to banter with Lu Zhe as though this were any ordinary day. He calmly answered, "My captain and I get along very well."
"That stiff answer sounds like something the manager threatening you into saying," Er-Hua pointed out with genuine concern.
Shen Qiao silently mulled it over for a while, then reluctantly forced himself to utter an amendment: "My beloved captain and I get along very well."
Though he only added the word 'beloved', his expression looked far more constipated as he spat out those words. As a result, the cameras at the venue stopped on a close-up of his face for several extra seconds.
Qian Bao, Er-Hua, and Old Wo all burst out laughing.
Lu Zhe's shoulders also trembled a little. He leaned back in his chair and fixed his gaze on the game's log-in screen on his monitor. To Shen Qiao, he said, "I have a tiny little idea. Just a suggestion. That could make your answer sound a little more sincere."
Shen Qiao made an inquisitive sound.
He was already getting the feeling that a certain someone was trying to start something.
As expected, just a second later, Lu Zhe's perfectly earnest and serious voice drifted through the voice channel:
"Remove the word 'captain' and try saying that one more time."
Shen Qiao was silent.
Another wave of raucous laughter from Qian Bao and the others sounded through the voice chat. Immediately afterwards, Old Wo cackled into his mic, "Ai, ai, ai, I'm good, I'm in the mood now."
Er-Hua and Qian Bao also echoed their agreement; they were in a game-ready state now. Only Shen Qiao remained silent, expressionlessly staring at his monitor.
Lu Zhe peered at the side of his face and didn't try to rile him up any further. He only lightly asked, "Don't you feel like there's no difference between this and our practice games?"
Shen Qiao tensed momentarily, then turned to spare Lu Zhe a glance. After several seconds, he finally answered, "I'm not nervous."
It was only then that Lu Zhe smiled. "Mm."
Then he added, "In that case, I'll wait for Daddy Qiao to take me flying on the top lane."
At the same time, the Pick/Ban phase began—
Big Bird rubs claws and says: Official games are just like the college entrance exam, the most important part is treating it like any ordinary day! Your mental state is the most important thing! Everyone who's at the end of their school term needs to keep that in mind! Don't be nervous!