Just as Team DG started their regular practice for the day at their hotel, the results from the morning games came out—BIG and COCO had each won one more point.
With that, the LPL became the first division to advance in the international tournament.
The LCK and LMS divisions, on the other hand, would need to play in a Bo5 match that evening to determine who would advance to the finals. The winner of that match would go on to play against the LPL in a Bo5, which would ultimately determine the winner of the international tournament.
Based on each regional league's past performances, it was almost a sure thing that the LPL would face off against the LCK in the upcoming finals.
Coach Fang took Lu Zhe and the other players from Team DG to watch the Bo5 between LCK and LMS that night. After LCK secured a victory, DG proceeded to review the highlights from the game. It wasn't until two in the morning that the members of Team DG disbanded and returned to their rooms to rest.
The next morning, Shen Qiao was woken by an irregular tapping sound on his window.
He lay in bed for a while. Once his drowsiness faded somewhat, he climbed to his feet and went over to the window.
With a swoosh, he pulled open the curtains and revealed a gloomy sky outside. A thin, wispy drizzle of rain pelted the window, leaving fine streaks running down the glass, like the silk of a spiderweb.
The rain was still falling, with no signs of letting up. There was no telling how long the rain would persist. The clouds in the sky were like dense tofu blocks; they had plenty more rain to shed.
The finals of the international tournament were due to take place in this weather.
Shen Qiao felt a little gloomy for no particular reason. Perhaps it was simply caused by the equally gloomy weather, which could often make people feel the blues. Shen Qiao moved away from the window to grab a clean uniform from the closet, then ducked into the bathroom.
After taking a hot shower, Shen Qiao felt his sullen mood dissipate. He checked his bag before heading out, making sure he had everything he would need for the day. Once he was ready, he opened the door to his room and stepped out into the hallway—just in time to see Lu Zhe stepping out of the neighboring room.
Their gazes met. In that moment, they both saw a matching light of mirth rising in the other's eyes.
"Morning," Shen Qiao greeted first, raising his eyebrows.
The corners of Lu Zhe's mouth curved like a crescent moon. His voice was as light as a spring breeze as he asked, "Are you ready?"
Shen Qiao paused suddenly, his hand frozen on the door that he was just in the process of pulling shut. He didn't know if Lu Zhe was referring to the night's game, or the… personal matters that would come after the night's game.
But when he thought of the gifts he had in his own bag, he nodded. "Of course."
Lu Zhe's smile inexplicably grew a little brighter.
Manager Zhou appeared from around a corner down the hall. When he spotted the two players who'd gotten themselves ready, he sighed and said, "You guys really are the easiest ones to manage. Those other pigs make me wake them up one by one every day.
"I already ordered a hot breakfast and milk from the hotel today. You two hurry up and go eat."
After he finished saying all that, Manager Zhou continued down the hall and knocked on the doors of the other three players, taking special care to focus on Er-Hua and Qian Bao, the king and queen of sleeping in.
Lu Zhe and Shen Qiao started making their way to the practice room, walking shoulder-to-shoulder. The scents of mint and cedarwood drifted out and intermingled, twining into one.
"You didn't sleep well last night?" Lu Zhe asked, when he saw Shen Qiao stretching his neck this way and that as they walked. He had to wonder if Shen Qiao had slept in some bizarre posture again, so he couldn't help but voice his concern. He even stepped up a little closer, to better inspect Shen Qiao's neck and see if the scratch marks from his allergic reaction were still there.
Shen Qiao tensed for a second when Lu Zhe drew near so suddenly, close enough that his breath fell on Shen Qiao's throat. Instinctively, Shen Qiao looked around to make sure they were alone. Then he looked at Lu Zhe, with a smile that wasn't quite a smile, and said, "How could I not? I always sleep well when there's no one bothering me."
Lu Zhe also knew that they were alone in the hall, with no one ahead of them or behind them. He pressed Shen Qiao back against the wall and lifted a hand to tug at the collar of Shen Qiao's shirt, exposing more of his throat to make sure Shen Qiao had properly applied his medicine when Lu Zhe wasn't there.
After checking, he smiled and asked, "Really? Then it's too bad you'll be bothered quite a lot in the future. It'll be better for you to get used to it soon."
Shen Qiao said nothing.
The spot on his throat that Lu Zhe's fingers had brushed started to itch. Shen Qiao's breathing even hitched for a second. He subconsciously lifted a hand and batted Lu Zhe's hand away.
Shen Qiao pushed Lu Zhe back a bit and flashed an unbridled grin as he reminded, "Be careful of the effect you have on others, Captain Lu."
Every time Shen Qiao wanted to shut Lu Zhe up, he would call him 'Captain Lu', and Lu Zhe would be overcome by the strange sensation that they were having some sort of illicit workplace affair. One that was flying under the radar, no less.
It was pretty damn provocative.
Lu Zhe had to huff a laugh at the mental images that flashed through his own mind. He backed off a bit and started walking beside Shen Qiao again, returning them to the subject they'd been discussing just a moment ago. "Has it been too long since you got a chance to exercise? Are you uncomfortable after sitting in front of a computer all day for so long?"
Shen Qiao casually answered, "Probably, yeah."
"There's a gym downstairs, right?" Lu Zhe suggested. "And if I remember correctly, there's also a pool on the fifteenth floor."
Shen Qiao thought of the pool on the fifteenth floor where most of the swimmers drifted around on inner tubes and wore skimpy swimsuits. When it was crowded, people milled around with drinks in their hands, chatting noisily without pause.
He shook his head. The pool at the hotel wasn't as spacious as the one at proper swimming centers, anyway.
"I'll worry about it when we get back," he said with a sigh.
Lu Zhe could tell that Shen Qiao was holding back a lot that he wanted to say. After thinking about it for a while, he suddenly ventured, "Once we get back, why don't you take me with you the next time you go to the gym?"
He was pretty keen on swimming with Shen Qiao.
Shen Qiao didn't doubt his earnestness. He simply nodded and agreed, "Mm."
Once Old Wo and the others got ready and made their way to the practice room, Coach Fang and the team's data analysts—who'd been waiting there for a long time already—started to eat breakfast while going over their plans for the day's game with the players.
"…this team's coach is very unique. He's extremely conscious of our domestic teams' strategies, and his strength is securing a victory for his team in the picks and bans phase. If we face them tonight, I have a few thoughts about our team comp. Listen up…"
Coach Fang had picked up a flaky egg pastry, but he only took one bite before diving into his pre-game spiel.
Lu Zhe listened intently, but he caught sight of Shen Qiao picking up a steamed bun and starting to shove it into his mouth without even removing the piece of paper stuck to the bottom. Lu Zhe reacted instantaneously. He caught Shen Qiao's wrist and tore off the paper at the bottom of the bun before releasing Shen Qiao's arm again.
Then he looked over to Coach Fang and said, "I watched the recording of their game from last night, and I noticed their bottom lane support player seems to like running into the jungle after hitting Level 3. I want to try a gank today…"
Lu Zhe trailed off, suddenly cut off halfway by the odd look that Coach Fang was sending his way.
Lu Zhe carefully thought about what he'd just said, trying to figure out if he'd proposed anything objectionable. After thinking about it for a moment, he amended, "Of course, that's only if there's a good opportunity. I'll be careful not to let them get a kill on me for nothing."
Coach Fang studied Lu Zhe for a moment longer, then looked at Shen Qiao, who was continuing to eat his steamed bun like nothing had happened. Suddenly, Coach Fang got the rare feeling of knowing exactly how Manager Zhou usually felt.
He remained quiet for a few more seconds before finally nodding and turning back to Lu Zhe. "That's fine. Keep going."
Old Wo and the others were already immune to these peculiar little actions. In their eyes, their captain and Shen Qiao were already a pair. They'd resigned themselves to having dog food along with their breakfast. At this point, they could only consider it an extra seasoning.
The rain in the city was unrelenting. On the streets where the ground wasn't even, countless little puddles started to form.
At around three in the afternoon, Team DG arrived at the venue. Their car stopped at the side of the road, and Old Wo was the first to step out. He wasn't really watching where he was going and wound up stepping directly into a puddle, splattering water all over the white sneakers provided by one of their sponsors.
He reflexively swore, "Oh, damn."
Er-Hua laughed from behind him and took care to avoid the puddle when he got out of the car. Manager Zhou, Lu Zhe, and the others were all careful when they climbed out as well, either slowly stepping around or across the puddle.
The car had stopped a short distance away from the doors to the venue. Manager Zhou stopped by the car to open an umbrella, but most of the players couldn't wait and rushed over to the stadium on their own. In the end, Manager Zhou was only able to shield Old Wo under the umbrella. He muttered under his breath about preparing a warm ginger drink for all of them after the game, to stave off the threat of catching a cold.
"You guys are still young," Manager Zhou admonished. "You don't understand how much of a negative effect the rain can have on your health. Plus, you all stay cooped up indoors day in and day out. Even if you have an alpha's physique, you aren't invincible…"
Old Wo hugged his thermos and quietly nodded along.
However, when Qian Bao overheard Manager Zhou's nagging, she couldn't help but retort, "As if! Big-Mouthed Zhou, when have you ever seen an alpha run a fever just because they got drizzled on a bit?"
Manager Zhou gave her a wide-eyed glare, then looked around and abruptly settled his gaze on Shen Qiao.
Shen Qiao, who'd just gotten himself a cup of water, suddenly got a bad feeling.
As expected, Manager Zhou targeted him and continued, "I've also never seen an alpha who had an allergic reaction to omega pheromones before. The world is vast, anything is possible. So don't you go thinking I'm just a nag…"
Shen Qiao was just about to ask why he had to get dragged into this, when Lu Zhe took a few steps closer and stopped in front of him, blocking him from Manager Zhou's view.
Lu Zhe faced Manager Zhou and flashed a slight smile, unhurriedly saying, "It's not that we think you're a nag. You are a nag. Have you not realized that your voice is the only one filling up this room?"
Manager Zhou fell silent.
Lu Zhe shut him up with just a few words, then turned towards Qian Bao.
Qian Bao didn't get with the program right away. She blinked innocently.
It was only a few seconds later that she realized why she was being blamed as well. If she hadn't argued with Big-Mouthed Zhou, this unwanted attention wouldn't have fallen upon Shen Qiao and he wouldn't have been dragged under the water with them.
Qian Bao slowly lifted a hand and mimed zipping her lips, silently promising Lu Zhe that she would behave and not cause any more trouble.
Shen Qiao found the whole thing inexplicably funny. He gazed at Lu Zhe, standing before him, while he finished the cup of water in his hands. Then he said, "I'm stepping out for a minute."
He was still used to smoking before games, and today was a special occasion as well. He had to properly relieve his stress before they began.
When Lu Zhe heard those words, he instantly knew what Shen Qiao was heading out to do. Just as he was about to follow Shen Qiao out, he saw Coach Fang and the analysts discussing something in one corner while waving him over.
"Lu Zhe," Coach Fang called out. "Come here for a moment."
Lu Zhe had no choice but to change his plans. To Shen Qiao, he said, "Come back soon. Don't go anywhere where there's too many people."
He was still worried that some unreasonable omega would try to stir up trouble again.
Shen Qiao nodded and earnestly answered, "I got it."
He didn't intend to go anywhere with a crowd. Smoking wasn't the sort of thing you did in crowded, public places anyway. That would just be unethical.
A flame came to life.
Shen Qiao stood by the fire exit. He gazed out the window, watching the rain until he suddenly felt something that made him look to the side.
A male beta wearing a staff uniform was approaching with an obviously excited look on his face. He couldn't conceal his glee as he blurted out, "You… you're Wolf Cub! Oh my god, I just went to the rest area and didn't see you there. I never thought I would run into you here!"
Shen Qiao didn't know this person. As a result, his expression remained rather cold and guarded. He lowered the hand holding his cigarette and politely asked, "You are…?"
"I'm your fan! I like you so much! Can I get an autograph? I have lots of gege and jiejie who like you too! Please, pretty please?"
Shen Qiao instinctively wanted to refuse, but before he could say anything, the beta started moving even closer with his hands clasped together, earnestly pleading—
"Please, please, please?"
Shen Qiao switched his cigarette to his other hand and asked, "Do you have a pen and paper?"
The guy's face lit up with joy. He took a few more steps towards Shen Qiao and started rummaging through his tote bag for a sketchpad. "One sec! I'll get them right now."
Shen Qiao wasn't used to standing so close to anyone. The beta nearly had him backed into a corner. Subconsciously, Shen Qiao took a step back.
The other man noticed Shen Qiao's reflexive movement and seemed to think of something. He emphatically reassured, "I'm not an omega, and I'm not an alpha, so don't worry. I just like you a lot, so I'd love to get a photo with you. Is that okay?"
Shen Qiao's brows remained tightly furrowed, but when he saw the fierce adoration in the other party's eyes, he got the feeling he might have overreacted. He forced himself to stay in place and accepted the pen and paper that the beta took out, then concentrated on signing his name.
"Here too, and over here too…" The man scooted even closer, pointing to various pages that he wanted Shen Qiao to sign. His tone was still laced with jubilation.
Shen Qiao kept his gaze on the sketchpad. The other guy was only hovering near him, so Shen Qiao focused on scribbling out his signature—
Until suddenly, a burst of cold spread across the nape of his neck.
It was his instincts, warning him of danger!
His gaze flashed to the side like lightning. A sharp, glinting object filled his field of vision—like a spike of wheat, like a needle.
DG's rest area.
Lu Zhe had sat with Coach Fang and the analysts for five minutes already, efficiently running through everything that needed to be discussed before the game. Once they were done, Lu Zhe got up and prepared to excuse himself.
"I got it. Is there anything else? If there isn't, I'll be heading to the restroom."
"Go ahead," Coach Fang said.
With permission from the coach, Lu Zhe made his way away from the couch with a spring in his step.
Old Wo tsked twice and whispered to Er-Hua, "Bet you a hundred yuan he's going to look for Wolfy."
Er-Hua rolled his eyes. "If you want to cheat someone out of money, can you try to be at least a bit more clever about it?"
Literally anyone with eyes could tell where Captain Lu was going, after all.
Qian Bao casually added from the side, "Once bitten, twice shy."
Lu Zhe had already left the room at that point; he didn't hear their banter. He made his way over to the area where Shen Qiao should have been smoking, but didn't find anyone there. After that, he wandered over to the restrooms, but he didn't find anyone there either.
When he emerged from the restrooms, his expression was a little dark.
Shen Qiao wasn't anywhere to be found.
Lu Zhe took a deep breath to steady himself, silently telling himself to stay calm.
Outside the restrooms, Lu Zhe looked left and right. He suddenly found that there was still a fire exit he hadn't checked. Just as he was about to head that way, he heard a loud thud.
It was something heavy, slamming against a door!
Lu Zhe's pulse picked up. He rushed off in the direction of the sound, calling out—
Countdown continues! 2!