WHEN AN ALPHA IS MARKED BY ONE OF HIS OWN KIND

Chapter 59

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The news of Team DG being allowed to add replacement players to their starting line-up was soon announced by the league and team officials. With that, DG would be able to play in the summer tournament. Their fans let out a collective breath of relief, but that only resolved their biggest fear. New worries quickly arose.

[These are second-string players, right? It's not that I don't have faith in DG's standards, but I'm just worried these two didi will get nervous competing in a tournament of this scale for the first time. Our DG always goes undefeated in the early rounds, but it's not like we're guaranteed a spot in the playoffs…]

[I'm nervous. I'm nervous. I'm nervous. I'm nervous. I'm nervous.]

[Okay, real talk? If they're just going to go on a losing streak with these replacements, I would rather they just stop playing now. I want to remember DG in all their glory.]

[Look at the tournament schedule. They're playing WTG in two days, and they're up against COCO and BIG next week. Best-of-three matches. If they suffer a losing streak on this path to hell, they'll give up six points in a row. Just thinking about it makes me feel like I'm drowning.]

[Are you pessimists all high or something? You think DG is running a one-man team? You think everyone else is garbage without Lu Zhe? Have you forgotten about your daddies Wolfy and Money? Have you forgotten how terrifying Flower can be?]

[We're just spitting facts. DG's players all do their own thing in their own lane. They all rely on ZHE to set the rhythm and tie them together. He's the one that makes them soar. Without ZHE on the field, their opponents can clean them up as long as they neutralize Qian Bao in the picks and bans phase. Judging by the way Shen Qiao plays in the top lane, their opponents can clean him up real easy. How's DG going to keep fighting after that? It's not S5 anymore, where your bottom laners can rule the field. Everyone knows ADs are just mascots this season.]

[Oh, you trolls are just awesome. You sit at home spewing predictions like you can really guess the outcome of the tournament. If you're so great, why don't you get on the stage and play yourself?]

[Let's be a little nicer to the new kids, okay? I've watched June and Moon stream before. These kids aren't half bad. At least they're professional players. If everyone plays well, DG still has a high chance of winning.]

……

Once the official announcement was made, the comments section of Team DG's post was quickly swarmed by fans. Besides the more extreme remarks, most of the fans simply showed a mix of worry and hope. They all prayed DG would continue to maintain its level of play.

The fans didn't even care if DG could continue to crush its opponents easily. Even if DG struggled, even if they had to work harder…

They absolutely had to win.

Zheng Zhizhuo and Zhao Yue also knew they were on a tight schedule, and they knew the team had many passionate fans. If they played badly in the game against WTG in two days, the gege and jiejie who were cheering them on in DMs now would instantly turn against them and start cursing their ancestors.

After all, the world of esports was cold. In this world, to play poorly was the gravest sin.

Manager Zhou set up two new desks and computers in the training room for the two kids. He even had the whole layout of the room changed. Instead of five desks in a ring, all the battle stations were lined up against the walls now.

The game against WTG was already imminent. There wasn't any time to plan out and practice advanced tactics with the new guys. After Zhao Yue and Zheng Zhizhuo listed out their own best champions, all that the other four players could do was play with them again and again to work on their team cohesion.

Coach Fang brought in a specialist to tailor a training plan based on the strengths of Zhao Yue and Zheng Zhizhuo, to see how they could best integrate into the team, and to determine exactly which of them would be more suitable to field in the upcoming game.

During this time, Lu Zhe formally applied to his university for leave. He also requested an extension on his thesis defense deadline. After some consideration, the school granted his requests.

And so, Lu Zhe joined Coach Fang and their team of analysts to help scrutinize his teammates' conditions in their mock games.

……

For the two days after returning to the country, DG's players all trained together until one in the morning. Then they stayed for personal training. None of them went to bed before four or five each morning.

Zhao Yue and Zheng Zhizhuo were extremely diligent kids. They didn't dare leave before their gege and jiejie.

Just like that, two days passed and the game against WTG arrived.

The game was set to take place at an arena in Hua City, so DG didn't have to travel out of town. WTG had arrived a day in advance.

One hour before the match—

Zhao Yue had been selected as the player who would take the field first. In order to ease his nerves, he instinctively went to seek out Lu Zhe, hoping to seek his guidance on which champions he should choose that day.

Zheng Zhizhuo happily sat next to Zhao Yue and listened to Lu Zhe lay out some possible play styles while analyzing their opponents' potential tactics in the picks and bans phase. Once in a while, Zheng Zhizhuo's gaze drifted over to Shen Qiao, who sat on Lu Zhe's other side.

"It's very likely that they'll try to gank in the top lane," Lu Zhe was saying, "because Qiaoqiao's play style is too aggressive. If they let him develop too quickly, team fights will be difficult for them later in the game. You can try to go up to the top lane to help him counter gank, but the opportunity isn't always there for that. You'll have to go with your judgment.

"Don't be afraid to make mistakes. Believe in your teammates. They're very experienced. You just need to play as you normally would."

Lu Zhe didn't speak too quickly. When he spoke seriously on any matter, his voice always filled up with a sort of charm that captivated his listeners.

Originally, only Zhao Yue and Zheng Zhizhuo had been listening to Lu Zhe. But after a while, Shen Qiao also stopped playing minesweeper on his phone and earnestly listened in to Lu Zhe giving Zhao Yue some pre-game advice on how to maintain his psychological state.

Ten minutes later, Lu Zhe found a good time to stop his speech. He turned to Shen Qiao and softly asked, "Not going to smoke? You'll be taking the field soon."

Shen Qiao checked the time, then put his phone back into his pocket and got up to head out.

Lu Zhe naturally got up and followed him. The two of them walked out together in perfect sync, like this was an old habit they'd kept up for years.

They made their way down a long corridor and didn't stop until Shen Qiao spotted a small window. He stopped there and took out his cigarette box, flipping open the lid to reveal just a few brown cigarettes inside.

Lu Zhe raised his brows. He was just about to ask if Shen Qiao's smoking addiction had returned in full force these past few days, but then he thought of all the pressure on Shen Qiao. He thought of Qian Bao and Er-Hua, who'd been showing up at the training room bright and early without sleeping in. He thought of Old Wo, whose enthusiasm for trash talk had been waning…

The words that Lu Zhe had been about to say died on his tongue. All that came out was a faint sigh.

Shen Qiao, however, saw how close Lu Zhe was. He'd already taken a cigarette out, but he didn't light it. He held it in one hand and finally asked a question that he hadn't asked at any point in the past two days.

"How… well do you think they'll be able to play today?"

Sometimes, a person's performance in a training game vastly differed from their performance in a real game. And the more unfamiliar someone was with the big leagues, the bigger that difference was bound to be.

It wasn't that Shen Qiao had never played in a tough match before. But today's opponent was WTG, the champions of the spring tournament. Qian Bao and Old Wo were both thirsting for revenge, but it was hard to say whether or not they would truly be able to achieve their revenge in the regular season game that day.

Lu Zhe met Shen Qiao's gaze with a serious expression. His usual smile had disappeared, and he very earnestly answered, "Moon doesn't talk much, but you can tell when he's a bit anxious. He's the type that can carry a game. You, Qian Bao, Old Wo—you'll all be able to play comfortably if he paves the way for you."

That was true. The kid's skills really weren't bad.

Shen Qiao nodded and waited for Lu Zhe to continue.

As expected, Lu Zhe did switch to issuing a warning. "But his play style is prone to catastrophic failure. Pay attention to the map in the early stages of the game today. If he camps out near you and fails to gank the enemy a few times, tell him to let it go. Coach Fang wanted to mention this to him in the past two days, but he was afraid of throwing Moon off his game, so he didn't say anything."

In other words, it was all smooth sailing when Zhao Yue performed well in the jungle. But when he didn't, he could drag all three lanes down with him.

If he was already anxious… if the other team provoked him…

Shen Qiao didn't have to try very hard to picture that outcome. He understood exactly what Lu Zhe meant.

Lu Zhe was usually the captain, and he typically took command during the game. At critical moments, everyone was used to listening to his instructions. Although the other players would occasionally act on their own when they saw a good opportunity, they still played with the spirit of teamwork and unity in mind.

"As for June," Lu Zhe continued, "he's much more stable. Although he plays more aggressively in the second-string team, that's him as a top laner. These past two days, watching him play jungler, I've seen him do a pretty good job.

"The downside is… he's a little timid. He doesn't seem like he's bold enough to carry. I don't know if it's because of the pressure of playing with us, or something else, but I saw some good opportunities when I was watching him play in our practice games yesterday afternoon. He didn't take those opportunities.

"Afterwards, when Coach Fang and I reviewed his games with him, we asked what he was thinking during those moments. He said he felt like he wasn't close enough to the action at the time, like he would have been too late if he went over to provide support, so he didn't go."

At that point, Lu Zhe paused and let out a helpless laugh.

If these two kids each played a little more like the other, they would both improve massively.

Today would be the first major game for both of them. With regards to how well they could play… it wasn't just Lu Zhe who would have a hard time predicting the answer to that. Even the two kids themselves would probably struggle to answer that question.

Lu Zhe cut off the talk about the new kids there. He looked over at Shen Qiao to see that Shen Qiao had fallen deep into thought. The collar of Shen Qiao's team jacket had gotten a bit twisted, so Lu Zhe reached out to help him straighten it out.

In a voice that was much softer than any he would have used with someone else, he said, "Stop worrying so much about the jungle. Focus on your own play. Pay more attention to the other side today. Watch your back and don't let their top and middle laners team up against you."

Shen Qiao nodded. He took stock of the small distance between him and Lu Zhe again, and ultimately didn't light his cigarette.

He lifted the cigarette to his nose and breathed in the scent, then took out the cigarette box again and slipped the cigarette back inside. To Lu Zhe, he said, "Let's go back."

Lu Zhe quirked his lips. "Not going to smoke?"

Shen Qiao lowered his gaze and honestly answered, "I suddenly don't feel like it anymore."

He couldn't explain it. He did still feel some anxiety, but after chatting with Lu Zhe for a while, alone, he felt that the nerves in the pit of his stomach had been successfully smothered out.

It was probably because they had all been so intensely busy over the past two days. Even when they ate, Coach Fang was there with them, sharing his analyses with the team. Shen Qiao hadn't gotten a chance to be alone with Lu Zhe in all that time. So now, even just talking alone with Lu Zhe was enough to make him feel a little more calm.

But he didn't intend on telling Lu Zhe all of that.

Lu Zhe assumed Shen Qiao just didn't want him to breathe in secondhand smoke, so he took the initiative to back up a few steps. But Shen Qiao was already turning and making his way back to their rest area, so Lu Zhe could only turn and follow him as well.

As the two of them made their way back to the lounge, walking shoulder to shoulder, Shen Qiao glanced over to his side and suddenly stopped walking, half-squatting in front of Lu Zhe.

Lu Zhe froze, then instinctively took a half-step back, thinking he'd stepped on something.

But then he saw Shen Qiao reach for his white shoelaces, which had come undone at some point.

In a low voice, Shen Qiao uttered, "Don't move."

Then—

He helped Lu Zhe retie his shoelace. To prevent it from coming loose again, he even tied it with an especially difficult sort of knot.

When Lu Zhe looked down, he could see the nape of Shen Qiao's neck, starkly pale in contrast to his dark hair.

It was such a warm, light shade.

But Shen Qiao didn't seem to have any awareness of his own position or Lu Zhe's gaze. He concentrated solely on tying Lu Zhe's shoelace.

Lu Zhe subconsciously breathed out, "Qiaoqiao, you…"

You don't have to do that.

Before Lu Zhe could finish speaking, Shen Qiao was already straightening up and getting back to his feet. His expression was unchanged, as though he'd just casually picked some money up off the floor.

He looked over to Lu Zhe and seemed a little confused. "Hm?"

Lu Zhe shook his head and flashed him a small smile. "It's nothing. I just wanted to say, good luck today."

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