News of Lu Zhe's imminent return quickly circulated throughout the LPL.
Of course, COCO was the team most keen on knowing whether or not these rumors were accurate. They would, after all, be the team facing off against DG next in the third-place match of the summer tournament, and the results of that match would have an effect on which team took the third qualifying spot for the world championship.
The top two teams of the summer tournament had already been decided—
WTG and BLX.
WTG had been the champions of the spring tournament. If they also won the summer tournament, they would undoubtedly be the first seeded team for the world championship from the LPL—by a wide margin, at that.
But if BLX won the summer tournament, then they would be the first seeded team from the LPL. Meanwhile, the second seed would be determined between COCO and WTG. The two teams were neck and neck in their scores that season, so whether COCO won or lost against DG in the third-place match would be very important to them.
Naturally, the best case scenario would be if WTG won against BLX. Because BLX performed very poorly during the spring tournament, only finishing in the top sixteen. If WTG won, regardless of whether COCO or DG won the third-place match, COCO would have more points than DG and BLX. They would be the second seed from the LPL.
The game between DG and COCO took place before the finals between WTG and BLX.
Placing their fate in the hands of another team was a foolish endeavor, so COCO obviously wanted to get a clear idea of where DG would stand against them. DG could be said to have three junglers at the moment, after all, and each of them had a different play style. The coach's picks and bans strategy differed from player to player, depending on who DG fielded as their jungler. If Lu Zhe was really going to throw himself into the mix, COCO had to prepare accordingly.
Everyone knew that Captain Lu's defining characteristic was that he was a 'dog'.
If someone were to ask him directly, he would probably respond with some tawdry words that shook the enemy troops. Or perhaps he would simply mock whoever asked for fearing his return.
COCO's only option was to prepare a backup plan and take note of the champions Lu Zhe had been practicing as of late, so that they could target them for the first bans.
The official starting lineup would be formally announced the day before the match, anyway. COCO would be prepared for anything.
"Welcome one and all to the LPL's summer tournament playoffs! We're currently looking at COCO and DG. This is going to be a very important game for them. The LPL's season statistics are already out, and we can see that this victory will be crucial for COCO. If they win, they'll qualify for the world championship as the second seed of the LPL. If they lose, they'll have to fight for the third qualifying spot for the world championship alongside other fierce contenders."
After the commentator on the left side of the announcers' booth enthusiastically recapped the current standings for the audience, the other commentator took over and said—
"Yes, but there might be a big surprise in store for COCO today…"
The two commentators locked eyes, both knowing exactly what the other intended to say.
"It's been around two months since Lu Zhe suffered an injury to his arm, and we're sure everyone has seen Lu Zhe playing on the Korean server as of late. Does this mean Lu Zhe's return is imminent?"
"Will Lu Zhe have our full attention in today's match?"
"Let me tell you this! To kick off today… in round one of this match… playing in the jungle for DG… will be Zhao Yue, Moon!"
As the commentators hyped up the crowd, bullet comments flooded the livestream room. Colorful remarks of every sort flew across the screen at blinding speeds.
[??? Is this commentator playing with us?]
[Ahhhhhh, my Captain Lu! I'm waiting for him! Nobody even try to move me away from my computer today!]
[I've waited so long for this day, I've tried so hard to dream you into life!]
[Wahhhh, will the captain of my dreams be coming back? Ahhhhhh!]
[Lu Zhe has been my most beloved alpha ever since last year's world championship.]
[If Lu Zhe plays a few rounds and hurts his hand again today, wouldn't that be funny?]
[If DG loses today, will they try to blame it on Lu Zhe's injury?]
[All you haters, shhhhh! I swear, right now, that I'll support DG forever, no matter what!]
Amidst the welcoming voices of the commentators and a wave of cheers from the crowd, the players of the two teams facing off that day took the stage.
COCO's line-up of players was unchanged, so their fans were relatively relaxed. In contrast, nearly everyone was staring at DG's entrance, waiting with bated breath and hoping to see Lu Zhe appear.
In front of the whole stadium of spectators—
The first to emerge, as usual, was the top laner Shen Qiao.
Immediately afterwards, the jungler appeared.
As soon as that person emerged from behind the curtain, DG's fans had their answer judging solely by his height. Regardless of whether it was Zhao Yue or Zheng Zhizhuo, this was clearly one of the team's new didi—not an extraordinarily tall alpha.
The first jungler to take the field would be Zhao Yue.
After that, the mid-laner Qian Bao and the bottom laners Old Wo and Er-Hua emerged in turn.
The cameras swept over the players, pairing close-ups of each contender with the one who would oppose them on the other team. Backdrops of blue ice or red flames were displayed behind the players as their images were thrown up on the big screens at the venue. Finally, a full shot of both teams illuminated those screens.
At just that moment—
A camera panned over to Shen Qiao again. Septembers in Hua City weren't too cold, but the air conditioning at the venue was still on full blast, so Shen Qiao was wearing a team jacket.
All the players wore the same jacket. Even the positioning of each sponsor's logo was the same. The only difference between their jackets was the name emblazoned on the middle of the back of the jacket, in DG's logo.
When that camera swung from Shen Qiao's front to Shen Qiao's back, everyone at the venue and everyone watching the livestream could clearly see the name on the back of Shen Qiao's jacket that day—
The commentators at that game also knew that Shen Qiao had been wearing Lu Zhe's jacket as of late, as a means of showing they were both fighting every battle together. When the commentator on the left glanced at the screen and saw this image, he suddenly stopped mid-sentence and changed the subject—
"Oh? Wolf Cub is actually wearing his own jacket today?"
The other commentator couldn't help but laugh. "Since when did it become a shocking thing for a player to wear their own jacket on stage?"
The first commentator blinked innocently. "Of course it wouldn't matter if it were anyone else, but this is Wolf Cub who's wearing his own jacket today. All of DG's fans know that Wolf Cub has been wearing Lu Zhe's jacket to every game during Lu Zhe's absence. I've even heard that the WolfDog ship is the ship with the biggest fanbase in the LPL these days."
The commentator on the right picked up on his meaning and helped set him up for a grand reveal. "Then, in that case, Wolf Cub wearing his own jacket all of a sudden means…?"
The other commentator grinned and gradually raised his voice as he spoke, hyping up the viewers in the bullet comments.
"It means… today… we can look forward to seeing Lu Zhe on stage! Isn't that right?!"
[AHHHHHHH! I knew it!]
[Holy shit, my ship is sailing again, wahhhhhh! Even the commentators are giving us food right now!]
[I have a reasonable suspicion that this gentleman on the left is a shipper.]
[Nothing else matters! I'm pumped up again!]
When the camera panned over Shen Qiao's back, the other members of Team DG had already guessed what the reaction from the fans at the stadium would be. After they all took their seats, Old Wo readily put on his headset and said into the voice channel—
"Daddy Wolf, do you want to guess how many of your shippers are in the audience?"
Shen Qiao glanced over at the cameras, then answered, "No."
Old Wo unscrewed the lid of his thermos while sighing and shaking his head. "How boring."
Zhao Yue glanced back in the direction of the team's rest area. When he returned his focus to his monitor, he looked exceptionally determined. He knew that if he didn't play well in this first match, whoever came after him—be it Zheng Zhizhuo or Lu Zhe—would be under a lot of pressure.
No matter what, he had to play well.
"The picks and bans are starting—"
"COCO gets things rolling by banning Pantheon…"
As the commentators narrated, the two teams went through the picks and bans process. Finally, as the game was set to begin, the lights in the arena slowly dimmed. Only a row of small lights remained on stage, giving the players enough light to clearly see their monitors.
The teams were set. DG had gone with a team comp that would allow them to initiate team fights; they went with Jarvan IV as their jungler. As for COCO, they ran a more defensive comp with Kennen in the top lane.
Both sides were extremely stable. Zhao Yue, Qian Bao, and Er-Hua successfully worked together to dominate the middle and bottom lanes. In the top lane, Shen Qiao made good use of Mordekaiser to keep Kennen on the ropes. His range clearly wasn't all that long, but he used skill after skill to good effect, dazzling the entire audience with his performance.
In COCO's team voice chat, their top laner's anguished howls rang out.
"This, this, this… ah, I… he… can I get a jungler to help me out? I can't, I can't, I really can't with this Mordekaiser. He's going to kill me dead…"
"Ahhhh, he's coming, he's coming, he's coming at me again! He's swinging his hammer!"
"I… wow, he's really just unreasonably strong!"
Just like that, with their top laner crying in the voice chat, COCO was wiped out in a team kill near Baron Nashor's pit. DG pushed straight onwards to COCO's base. Kennen was the first to respawn. He rushed out to try to stall DG, only to be on the receiving end of another flurry of attacks from Mordekaiser.
Kennen's screen went black again.
DG's minions swarmed up to COCO's base while Old Wo fired away at COCO's tower from behind. COCO's other players rushed out as soon as they respawned, but it was already too late for them to wrench victory back from the jaws of defeat.
"Congratulations to Team DG for taking the first round—!"
COCO's players slowly took off their headsets. They were greeted by the wild cheers of the DG fans in the audience.
After they took some time to calm down in the rest area, COCO's players thoroughly discussed their next move with their coaches. Then they took the field again, only to hear that those wild cheers had grown even louder—practically loud enough to shatter the ceiling and pierce the sky.
The five players of Team COCO looked across the stage…
DG had changed their jungler.
The man behind Shen Qiao, with such a warm and gentle expression… if it wasn't Lu Zhe, who else could it be?
COCO's top laner went pale. Once he sat down and put on his headset, he frantically whispered, "Holy shit! Coach, look! Look at this! I'm going to be ganked like crazy this round! That dog Lu Zhe is definitely going to help Wolf Cub rip me apart!"
On DG's side—
Lu Zhe put on his headset. Without saying anything, he looked over at Shen Qiao and breathed out a soft laugh.
It had been a long time since Lu Zhe last took the stage for an official game. He'd almost forgotten this feeling of sitting beside Shen Qiao, fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with him.
Shen Qiao was typically expressionless on stage, regardless of whether they won or lost. But when he saw Lu Zhe watching him and smiling now, he met his gaze for a few seconds and curved his own lips into a smile as well.
"What?" Shen Qiao asked.
Before Lu Zhe could even answer, the livestream room was already blowing up with comments.
[He smiled! He smiled! Holy shit, how long has it been since I last saw this guy smile?! Wolf Cub, you really! You really have something with Dog Lu!]
[I don't know if you guys have noticed this, but Shen Qiao has never, ever, ever, ever, ever smiled before a game!]
[This marriage! I approve!]
I also approve of this marriage.
Today is another day for the shippers to rejoice!