In the group stage, DG won six consecutive matches and came out as the point leader in their group. They were set to play against the top scorers in the other two groups, with match-ups drawn at random.
The knockout round was set to come next.
If DG won, they would go straight to the semifinals.
DG's supertopic and official Weibo blog were full of comments of enthusiastic support. WTG and BLX had entered the knockout round as the first and second place scorers in their groups, respectively. It could have been said that the LPL was breezing through the tournament. Even if they got through the knockout round individually, they were sure to face off again in the semifinals, where they would prove their own individual strength.
Those who lost would be forgotten, and those who won would continue to walk onwards with the goal of bringing glory to their division.
One day before the knockout round.
Inside DG's hotel.
Lu Zhe had just played a few ranked matches, and now it was lunchtime. He got up and headed towards the kitchen to take a look around. There, he saw that someone had bought a whole chicken. Lu Zhe recalled that he hadn't gotten a chance to put his own cooking skills to use for a while. He suddenly decided to roll up his sleeves and make a chicken soup.
After preparing the ingredients, Lu Zhe thoroughly washed the green onions and put them in the pot along with some ginger and other ingredients. He added water, then put in the whole chicken. Once the chicken was cooked, he grabbed a pair of chopsticks and fished the chicken out onto a plate.
While the cooked chicken cooled, Lu Zhe started to boil some noodles in that pot of soup.
The noodles had been purchased at a local Chinese supermarket. They hadn't been cheap, but that price was a small sum for Team DG. Manager Zhou was extremely thoughtful when it came to caring for his players; he never skimped. In the time since they came to Europe, the team had rarely eaten the same meal twice. And each meal was nutritionally well-balanced. Even if Manager Zhou prepared spicy food for them, he didn't let them eat anything that was diabolically spicy, like the sort of things Qian Bao and Old Wo enjoyed. He was worried there would be trouble if they upset their stomachs with too-spicy food while overseas.
Once the noodles came to a boil, Lu Zhe used the leftover green onions, ginger, and garlic to make a little bowl of seasoning sauce. He added some cooking oil, soy sauce, and vinegar, then put the bowl into the microwave to heat.
Then he put on a pair of disposable gloves and started to shred the chicken.
Although this chicken wasn't as hardy as the free-range chickens raised back home, it was fresh. And it hadn't been overcooked in the soup. The skin was tender, and the meat was decadently white. It fell off the bone easily when Lu Zhe tore at it.
A cool, light scent drifted over from the doorway.
Lu Zhe looked over his shoulder and saw that Shen Qiao had come over from the gaming area at some point. Shen Qiao had picked up a pair of chopsticks to stir the noodles in the pot. Since Lu Zhe had boiled some rather broad noodles, they had a tendency to stick together while cooking, and the insides of the pieces that got stuck together sometimes didn't cook through.
"Why did you suddenly decide to cook?" Shen Qiao asked as he plucked apart two noodles. He turned to look at Lu Zhe.
Lu Zhe usually couldn't be bothered to do anything like that. That day, he was only wearing a thin t-shirt from their summer uniform, under a jacket from their winter uniform. His dark sweatpants were loose, with only the ankles cinched tight by elastic.
Even dressed so casually, he looked like the living, breathing advertisement for some brand name fashion line where each article of clothing cost thousands of yuan. At a glance, he looked like he had the long legs of someone who was nearly three meters tall.
The indoor heating was on, and Shen Qiao felt a sheen of sweat gradually forming at the nape of his neck. The boiling soup in the kitchen had heated up that space even more. Shen Qiao set down the chopsticks and stepped back from the stove, only to look at Lu Zhe again, taking in the movements of his hands.
Lu Zhe breathed a laugh. Instead of answering Shen Qiao's question, he only asked, "Are the noodles cooked yet? Turn off the stove if they are."
Shen Qiao had lived through the experience of supporting himself when he was boarding at a net cafe, looking for work. But he didn't have the luxury of fussing over what he ate back then. He ate pretty much anything, as long as it was cooked. When he made instant noodles, he would just set them aside while he gamed. After one match, his noodles would all be extremely mushy and soggy. They tasted awful, but Shen Qiao never had to worry about them being undercooked.
When he cooked for himself, he followed the same tactics. He threw everything into a pot and let it stew for at least half an hour. By the time he checked back in on whatever he was boiling, it was sure to be cooked.
Now, when he heard Lu Zhe's question, he peered into the pot with a serious expression and turned the noodles over again. "How long have you been boiling these?"
Lu Zhe pulled off one of the chicken legs and thought for a while. "About seven or eight minutes."
Shen Qiao immediately said, with absolute confidence, "Then it's not cooked. Definitely not. Don't you need to cook them for at least half an hour or so?"
Lu Zhe fell silent.
Were they talking about the same pot of noodles? Half an hour? Were they supposed to be cooking spaghetti or something?
Lu Zhe, still wearing his oily gloves, set down the chicken skeleton and moved towards the pot. He peered inside, then nodded towards the chopsticks and raised his chin at Shen Qiao.
"Break one of them for me?"
Shen Qiao wasn't sure what Lu Zhe was after, but he obligingly took the chopsticks, fished out a single noodle, and broke it down the middle. Lu Zhe saw that the center of the noodle was no longer white, and was obviously cooked through.
He gave Shen Qiao a helpless look and said, "Turn off the stove."
Shen Qiao looked at him with suspicion. He stirred the noodles again and said, "It's not cooked, is it?"
"If you keep cooking these noodles, they'll fall apart in the pot," Lu Zhe warned.
Shen Qiao thought back to the plate of chicken Lu Zhe had cooked for him last time, and he had to admit that Lu Zhe was more advanced than him when it came to cooking skills. So he obeyed this voice of authority and turned off the stove, then started to watch Lu Zhe shred the chicken some more.
When Lu Zhe suddenly felt a weight on his right shoulder, he didn't have to turn to know that it was Shen Qiao, leaning over him while he knew that no one was watching. Shen Qiao's pheromones grew stronger, making Lu Zhe's hands still for a moment.
Lu Zhe's smile didn't waver as he softly started, "You…"
Shen Qiao hummed. The breath he exhaled through his nose fanned hotly over Lu Zhe's throat, making one side of Lu Zhe's neck hot while leaving the other side cold.
"I'm just holding you for a minute," Shen Qiao murmured.
His rut had arrived.
Even a cold and aloof alpha would become clingy during this time. Shen Qiao's behavior could already be considered restrained. He just wanted to keep Lu Zhe in his own line of sight, and he only embraced Lu Zhe when he knew no one else was watching.
Lu Zhe loved nothing more than Shen Qiao relying on him like this. He slowed the movements of his hands and grinned as he turned around to ask, "Do you want a little kiss from gege?"
Shen Qiao stared at his thin lips for a long while, then shifted his gaze away. His ears inexplicably started to heat up as he mumbled, "Forget it…"
Before Shen Qiao even finished speaking, Lu Zhe had already scooted closer.
A soft warmth pressed up against Shen Qiao's lips, blocking the rest of Shen Qiao's words from spilling out.
Shen Qiao instinctively glanced at the open kitchen door. Meanwhile, Lu Zhe softly murmured against his lips, "I have oil on my hands, so I won't hug you back right now. You take the initiative to get your fill. If you keep waiting, other people will come in and see, y'know?"
Shen Qiao had originally just missed being around Lu Zhe a little. But now, with Lu Zhe kissing him and whispering to him so sweetly, he immediately lost his will to hold back. He wrapped his arms more tightly around Lu Zhe and took the initiative to kiss him back. The scent of cedarwood flared up, enveloping and suppressing those mint-scented pheromones. The two scents mingled and covered the whole room, like snow blanketing the world.
It was a silent sort of comfort.
"What's this? What's this delicious smell? Is Captain Lu making chicken behind our backs again?"
Old Wo crept closer, pulling open the kitchen door and sticking his head inside. He caught sight of Lu Zhe wearing a pair of transparent gloves, picking up a piece of tender chicken, dipping it in the heated sauce, and feeding it directly into Shen Qiao's mouth.
Meanwhile, a few servings of noodles were already ready in the pot of chicken stock. A few green leaves of cabbage floated at the top, making the whole dish look extremely appetizing.
Hearing Old Wo's words, Shen Qiao turned around. He had yet to swallow the bite of chicken, and his slightly reddened lips were slick with a bit of oil. He met Old Wo's gaze and inexplicably felt a little guilty.
But Lu Zhe remained calm and relaxed. When he heard Old Wo's snide remark, he simply stated, without even lifting an eyebrow, "Think carefully about what you say next. Your words will determine whether or not you get a chance to enjoy this meal."
Old Wo instantly straightened up.
"What I meant," he hastily explained, "is that our Captain Lu is using his magnificent cooking skills to improve the quality of our group's culinary lives! Daddy Wolf, how's the chicken? Isn't it as smooth as silk?"
Qian Bao and Er-Hua, hearing the commotion, called in from outside, "Who's eating behind our backs?!"
"I'm starving, and I've been starving for ages! Let me come taste test for poison, I'm not afraid of that kind of hard work! Save some for me!"
Soon enough, everyone crowded into the kitchen. There were some who wanted to serve themselves some noodles first, and some who grabbed a pair of chopsticks and dove straight for the plate of chicken. They were all like a ravenous pack of animals who hadn't eaten anything in eight hundred years. Shen Qiao barely blinked before half the plate of chicken was gone.
He stared blankly at the plate for a few seconds. Lu Zhe, standing next to him, wanting to laugh. He was just about to help Shen Qiao fight for a few pieces of meat, when Shen Qiao suddenly picked up the whole plate, held it high above his head, and started marching out of the kitchen.
Zheng Zhizhuo's chopsticks struck nothing but air. His eyes instinctively followed the departing plate.
He watched as that plate of chicken moved farther and farther and farther and farther away from him.
Old Wo had filled up a bowl with noodles and stirred in some of the sauce Lu Zhe made, turning the noodles into a fragrant and oily delicacy that could make anyone's fingers itch with hunger. When he turned back to see all this happening, he instantly shouted, "Hey, Daddy Wolf! Eating alone is not allowed!"
Without even looking back at them, Shen Qiao stated, "Noodles, yours. Meat, mine."
Er-Hua and the others all stared, bewildered.
Qian Bao had gobbled up half the noodles before realizing that there was no meat left. Some regret flashed across her face.
"Why?" Old Wo asked mournfully. "Let me have another bite or two."
From outside, Shen Qiao's voice answered, "If you're not satisfied, find yourself a boyfriend."
Old Wo fell silent.
He'd offended someone again.
Lu Zhe's shoulders shook with restrained laughter. He pushed the crowd aside and headed off in Shen Qiao's direction. When everyone else emerged from the kitchen, they saw Lu Zhe lowering his head to take a bite of chicken from Shen Qiao's chopsticks.
All their teammates simultaneously squeezed their eyes shut and earnestly intoned, "Ugh…"
Shen Qiao was getting ready for bed when he suddenly received a voice call request.
It was from Lu Zhe.
Shen Qiao pulled his covers up halfway and didn't lie down in bed yet. He slid his thumb across the phone to accept the call, and heard a casual question come across the line—
"Going to bed?"
Shen Qiao's throat bobbed.
Lu Zhe's voice was naturally soft and gentle. Many fans watched his streams just to hear his voice and see his face. That alone was enough to make them feel like they were in love. Some people even jokingly said—
When Captain Lu streams, are we really supposed to be watching his gameplay? Just looking at his face and listening to his voice is intoxicating enough!
Now, hearing Lu Zhe's voice in the middle of the night, Shen Qiao felt like it was a bit of a struggle to control his own reaction. A short while later, he managed to answer, "Mm."
Lu Zhe smiled gently and said, "Sleep, then. Good night."
Shen Qiao couldn't help but smile as well. "You called me in the middle of the night just to say good night?"
Lu Zhe sighed.
"No," he said. "You're in rut. I wanted to spend some time with you, but the tournament is on right now. We can't do anything, so… I can only spend time with you like this."
Shen Qiao had thought that he'd managed to suppress his initial reaction to Lu Zhe's voice. But now, hearing him say all that, Shen Qiao started to feel more and more disoriented just listening to him.
He pulled up his covers properly and put his phone on his pillow. After a moment, he suddenly laughed.
Lu Zhe heard that and asked, "Still not sleeping?"
Shen Qiao smiled, knowing Lu Zhe wouldn't be able to see him anyway. He lazily answered, "Soon."
Lu Zhe fell silent again, as if he really intended to only keep Shen Qiao company over the phone until Shen Qiao fell asleep.
After a while—
Shen Qiao, for some reason, suddenly said, "Playing with DG is pretty nice."
When he'd played for BLX, Shen Qiao had assumed that he would continue walking down that same path as he carved out a place for himself in the esports world. Then, he suddenly heard the news that Lu Zhe had also started to play professionally. Shen Qiao stayed with BLX and waited and waited, only to later learn that Lu Zhe had signed with DG.
Then, DG went on to become the first team from the LPL to win the world championship.
Back then, Shen Qiao had thought to himself that he probably wouldn't ever get a chance to walk the same road as Lu Zhe again.
But then, through a complicated series of events, Shen Qiao came to DG. And now, they were on the cusp of fighting for that highly-coveted world championship trophy again.
Thinking back, everything felt like a dream. All those ups and downs, and all those fluctuations in his state of mind, were hard to put into words. In the end, Shen Qiao could only sigh and simply utter that one thing—
Playing with DG is pretty nice.
With just those words, with just that sigh, Shen Qiao seemed to be letting all the struggles and hardships of his past melt away.
Lu Zhe understood it all.
The line was silent for a long while before Lu Zhe suddenly said, "Back then, Mo Mo told me you were playing very well when I was making preparations to join BLX."
Shen Qio's breathing subtly hitched.
Somewhat confused, he said, "Yeah, but that was a short-lived success. I didn't do that well for very long, and…"
"No," Lu Zhe lightly interrupted. "I'm not talking about that."
After a beat, he continued, "I'm trying to tell you that you weren't the only one who was waiting. Back then, I was really ready to sign with BLX."
Shen Qiao's drowsiness was dispelled. He instinctively opened his eyes, staring up at the ceiling in his dark room. A long time after Lu Zhe's words fell, Shen Qiao slowly uttered—
"Then what happened?"