The streetlights outside the stadium had all flickered on. When WTG's players walked outside, they realized it had already gotten dark. They didn't rush to get into their team car. Instead, they stood or sat around and waited for their remaining players, who'd stayed back for the post-game interview.
Their top laner Paopao lit a cigarette, then looked off in the direction of DG's exit. He clicked his lighter again and again, striking up a da-da-da sound.
From behind him, someone finally spoke up.
"Ai, today's DG was really…"
The rest of those words remained unspoken, but anyone could tell from the speaker's tone that they wouldn't have been words of praise.
All these players were part of the same industry. The ruthlessness they showed on the field was one thing, but their friendship off the field was another thing. After seeing that moving scene of DG bowing to their fans, none of the victors could feel much joy in their heart. They mostly only felt sorrow.
Ever since the spring tournament, WTG had devoted no small amount of time to analyzing DG. All this time, they'd considered DG their strongest opponents. But at the spring tournament, when they finally faced off…
Fish's spontaneous pneumothorax handed WTG a sudden victory.
Then, Shen Qiao joined DG.
With all eyes on him, Shen Qiao immediately demonstrated his ability to cooperate with his new teammates. He shattered all doubts about him and breathed life back into DG, giving them new hope for the season. After winning back-to-back games, the team seemed stronger than ever, racing onwards to the international tournament finals.
Just when everyone thought this team would be able to continue demonstrating their strong style of play to the end—
Lu Zhe was attacked by a crazed fan, injuring his arm. He was unable to continue playing.
Once again, DG was defeated by WTG.
History always seemed to repeat itself.
Although they'd easily shut DG out twice, no one on WTG was happy.
They felt only a sense of desolation, like foxes grieving the death of a rabbit.
On this field, no one could win forever.
The career of any professional player was short. Missing even one year was a huge regret. Winning two consecutive world championship titles was something miraculous that most teams didn't dare dream of.
Who could guarantee that WTG wouldn't become the next DG?
Injuries, diseases, unexpected incidents, or simply 'losing your touch'…
Anything could happen. Even with the most perfect line-up, there was no guarantee that any one team could win the title.
Paopao thought back to DG's developments throughout that year. He took a drag from his cigarette and exhaled the smoke to the side. He couldn't help but sigh. With a wry smile, he mused, "Do you guys think, if this were a comic book… would we come off as the big villains?"
They'd won, in ways that felt like they'd cheated. There was no sense to it.
One of the other WTG players said, "DG's players are the main characters? Let's not go that far. Even if they're in a miserable state this year, I don't want to lose to them in the future."
The conversation was carried away on the wind, and the other players managed to laugh as they listened.
That was true. It was one thing to feel sorry for your opponent—
But on the field, no one ever wanted to lose.
Manager Zhou chose Er-Hua and Qian Bao, their two most emotionally stable players, to go out for the post-game interview.
Under normal circumstances, Zhao Yue and Zheng Zhizhuo should have taken the interview, as it was their debut game. But after their tragic failures on the field, they were in no condition to be facing the public.
Manager Zhou had even confiscated the two kids' cell phones.
It was better to prevent them from getting online late at night and seeing some… unfriendly comments. That would certainly only mess them up more.
…after all, it wasn't like no professional player had ever been forced into retirement by vicious trolls.
Everyone waited in silence for Er-Hua and Qian Bao to return, then headed out through the hall leading past the players' rest area. The exit was illuminated by the dim glow of the streetlights outside.
As they walked towards that halo of light, they suddenly heard a call from the side—
Lu Zhe turned and saw it was Paopao, with a cigarette still hanging between his lips. Paopao swept his gaze across the faces of the other members of Team DG, then took his cigarette out with his right hand and extended his left hand to Lu Zhe.
In a deep voice, he said, "Good luck. We'll see you at the playoffs."
Lu Zhe's injury would obviously prohibit him from playing in the near future. There was no guarantee that DG would make it to the playoffs or the world championship. That was something that would depend on the whole team, which meant this 'good luck' was intended to encourage them all.
Lu Zhe smiled faintly and extended his left hand as well, clasping Paopao's hand.
With unwavering confidence in his tone, he said, "Of course."
This season, they still had a long road to walk. How could they stop here?
"Even if they make it to the playoffs, with those two kids playing jungler for them, they'll get nowhere near the finals…"
When Paopao returned to WTG's car, he heard the other players from his team continuing to discuss their thoughts on DG.
Paopao leaned back in his chair and thought of their performance today, against Shen Qiao. He reached for his cell phone and, without looking back at the players in the back seat, asked, "You guys wanna ask the coach if we can just go in blind, without any tactics, if Lu Zhe is still out the next time we play them?"
The coach, sitting on the other side of the car, instantly lifted his clipboard and waved it through the air, as though to smack the player who had just spoken.
"Getting full of yourself, are you? Do you know how many mistakes you made tonight? Do you want me to give you all two extra hours of training later on?"
"No, no, no, I was wrong. I'll reflect on my mistakes."
WTG's head coach scoffed coldly, then turned to look at Paopao. He added, "And you—when you faced off against Wolf Cub's Aatrox in the first match, I just have one thing to say about your performance. What the hell? Which one of you had a longer range? For the first ten minutes of that match, I didn't even want to admit you were on our team."
Paopao was silent.
He brushed his nose and didn't dare refute his coach's criticisms. He could only lower his tone and threateningly call back to his teammate in the back seat, "Cookie, you're dead."
If it weren't for that guy's nonsense, Paopao wouldn't have jumped into the line of fire so quickly.
The whole car was engulfed by a suffocating silence for a while.
Until the team's good-natured captain spoke up again. "Speaking of DG… their newcomers took the field for the first time today. We can't really count their performances. If that Moon kid gets in the groove, it wouldn't matter if he was working with the top, middle, or bottom lane… he would be fierce anywhere.
"As for June, from the second match… he wasn't bold. We didn't get to see him play at his own pace today. But if he adapts to the pressure of the LPL, he'll definitely reach his full potential sooner or later.
"A lot of fans may think DG is at their lowest point right now. But I think this is the closest DG has ever been to a complete metamorphosis.
"Think about it. It's only the regular season now, and their problem is that they've become too dependent on Lu Zhe. They rely on him to set the rhythm for them all. Once they adapt to his absence and learn to not depend on their jungler so much… they'll all learn that whoever's strongest will carry them through the match. They'll have Wolf Cub in the top lane, Money in the middle, and the super powerful support Flower in the bottom. If they all learn to be independent, what will they become?"
After hearing those words, the whole car fell back into a deep silence.
Because everyone in that car knew that the individual strengths of Team DG's players were incredible. As individuals, they had almost no obvious shortcomings.
If any one member of DG were to be plucked out and placed on a team with a slightly weaker core, that member of DG would instantly become the strongest member of that team.
"In short," WTG's captain concluded, "I'm looking forward to the results of their efforts with those two kids."
They could look forward to DG's emergence from the storm.
They could look forward to…
The rebirth of their rivalry.
Compared to the relative calm that enveloped Team WTG, Team DG was mired in a deathly silence.
When they reflected carefully, they realized—they hadn't lost that tragically since the match in which Fish fell ill.
This kind of misery, specifically the psychological agony, was a feeling that none of them were accustomed to. And so, in the car, they all sat in silence and simmered in that feeling.
Manager Zhou had told them all to not go online too much for the next while. After that, no one else spoke. Silence reigned until they reached DG's headquarters. When Zhao Yue and Zheng Zhizhuo got out of the car, their faces were pale.
For once, Qian Bao didn't complain about the heat at the stadium. People had complained about the shitty air conditioning at Hua City Stadium for ages, to no avail. It still hadn't been improved.
She noticed how nervous the two kids were. After thinking about it for a moment, she took the initiative to suggest, "I'm a bit hungry. How about a midnight snack?"
Old Wo had originally planned on heading straight to the training room. He was about to wave her off and decline when Er-Hua nudged him with a shoulder. Before Old Wo could act, Er-Hua quickly answered, "Sounds good. A-yue, Little Zhuo, can you guys handle spicy food?"
Coach Fang glanced at the players. He knew he couldn't criticize these second-string players as harshly as he would criticize their first-string players. After a moment, he led their analysts towards the entrance and called back, "There's no game review tonight. You guys go eat, then train if you want."
Manager Zhou studied the players for a while, but in the end he still had to protest. "No, that won't work. You guys might upset your stomachs, or what if you get photographed? People would think we went out to celebrate a loss. You'd better get something to eat from the aunties at the cafeteria here—Lu Zhe, keep an eye on them."
"Mm," Lu Zhe hummed.
Zheng Zhizhuo and Zhao Yue glanced at each other. They were just about to decline Qian Bao's offer, but Qian Bao grabbed one of them in each hand and started hauling them off through the ground floor of the HQ, in the direction of the cafeteria. "Let's go, go, go. I haven't had a midnight snack at the cafeteria in ages. Weirdly enough, I miss it. What do you guys like to eat? Jiejie will treat you."
In front of the HQ—
Old Wo was still hugging his thermos. He muttered to himself, "When did our warmongering team become so humane?"
Er-Hua rolled his eyes and answered, "I don't know about you. Maybe you're a dog, but I'm a human."
Saying that, he turned and headed off in Qian Bao's wake, catching up to her without bothering to worry too much about Old Wo.
Maybe what happened to Fish and Lu Zhe had helped them realize. Victory was important, yes. But the teammates who fought alongside them were much, much more important.
Old Wo frowned at Er-Hua's back and huffed, "Hey—!"
He slapped a hand against his own thermos, then turned to Lu Zhe. "Daddy Lu, you have to help your son make this decision."
Lu Zhe gazed at him with a soft, compassionate look. "You're all grown up now. You'll have to learn how to make decisions for yourself."
After saying that, he turned to Shen Qiao with a pleasant expression and said, "Let's go. Gege will treat you to a midnight snack."
Shen Qiao lazily gazed back at him and responded, "Don't try to take advantage of me."
"Didn't you call me that all on your own last time?" Lu Zhe asked.
The two of them bickered as they walked inside. The sound of their flirty banter could be heard from a long distance away.
Old Wo, left behind, stared in bafflement.
What had he done to bring this heaping pile of dog food down on himself?
The two people who had just dealt some immense psychological damage to the lonely Old Wo guiltlessly continued down the long corridor to the cafeteria. When they arrived, Shen Qiao stopped outside and took hold of the door handle.
When he paused there, the carefree look on his face disappeared, replaced by a serious expression as he turned to look at Lu Zhe.
Lu Zhe sensed the shift in his mood and smiled warmly as he asked, "What is it?"
Shen Qiao shook his head and only casually said, "I was thinking about the words we heard at the stadium."
Lu Zhe lifted a hand and ruffled Shen Qiao's hair, which had grown almost long enough to reach his eyes. Before Lu Zhe could even say anything else, Shen Qiao lifted his gaze and met Lu Zhe's eyes.
Shen Qiao's eyes were extraordinarily bright as he smiled and continued, "I forgot to tell them—there's no need to wait. I only fight for the now."
No matter how difficult DG's road would become, he wouldn't give up. And his teammates wouldn't give up either.
It was just like before, when Lu Zhe had yet to reenter his life. Shen Qiao had never wasted a single minute, a single second. Even in his darkest days, he'd always fought for his future. He'd never fantasized about how they might meet again, but he never wavered in his conviction to weather the hard times and make it through.
Now, with DG, it was the same. No matter how hard their journey became, they would make it through.
They would water this sprout of their team with their sweat and tears, with their frustrations and failures. And that sprout would grow towards the sky, blossoming into a beautiful, sweet flower.
The season was still long.
They could lose.
But they definitely wouldn't stagnate.
You can lose, but you can't give up. That's the soul of esports~