In the second round against OW, Team DG didn't make many changes to their team comp. OW didn't seem to think their loss in the first round could be attributed to issues in the picks and bans stage either. They stubbornly banned the same heroes as before.
Even the first champions to be selected were the same.
Since OW was determined to be hardheaded, DG's players decided they didn't mind teaching OW a lesson—
It was impossible for OW to do as they planned and drag this game out to the late stages. DG wouldn't give them all that time to build up an advantage.
The first three champions were set. The two Chinese commentators saw these choices unfold and remarked, "The first three for each side… are basically the same as the last round, no? They're copying it all?"
The viewers in the bullet comments were exceptionally calm.
[OW: I just won't believe it, unless you win again!]
[DG: Sure, let's go again!]
[Is OW in a rush to lose and go shopping for a friend?]
[Oh? Lee Sin has been banned this time, huh? Who's DG going to play in the jungle?]
As spectators eagerly watched on, the two teams finalized their lineups for the second round.
OW had grabbed Aatrox for the top lane, Jarvan IV for the jungle, Zoe for the middle lane, and Ezreal and Leona for the bottom lane.
DG chose to go with Gragas, Syndra, Varus, and Thresh. Only the top lane champion remained undecided.
Their lineup was less tanky this time.
Both Gragas and Thresh could initiate fights.
"Do you want to take a tank or an assassin?" Coach Fang asked Shen Qiao.
If Shen Qiao chose a tanky champion, their lineup would be more balanced. If Shen Qiao went with an assassin like Akali, they could completely dismantle OW's strategy by offing the glass canons on their side.
However, setting aside a player's individual skill, one would see that assassins were actually at a disadvantage against champions like Aatrox in this season. Aatrox had a three-hit skill that could instantly destroy a fragile enemy if he got close enough. In early-game, brittle champions would definitely struggle against him.
But Coach Fang offered Shen Qiao the option to choose an assassin because he'd seen how Shen Qiao played these champions in the past. He knew that Shen Qiao could be very effective in team fights down the line, as long as he was able to get going.
Er-Hua moved the cursor around the screen a bit, hovering over Ornn—one of the tanky champions Shen Qiao had been practicing with as of late. Then he clicked over to Akali, which Shen Qiao had also used before.
The commentators were momentarily stunned.
"Ornn would be no problem. Wolf Cub does an outrageous amount of damage with Ornn, after all. But this Alkali… he would be facing off against an Aatrox, you know."
"With this lineup, taking a tank would give them a bit more security, wouldn't it? Wait, now they're hovering over Lucian? What do they mean by that? DG, don't go scaring me now!"
At just that moment, Shen Qiao heard Coach Fang say, "No. Jarvan IV focused on ganking the top lane in the last round. If you choose an AD champion here, Lu Zhe will have to stay very close to the top lane. The other side will be able to predict that very easily. Keep a cool head, Wolfy."
Shen Qiao glanced at the countdown timer. Only ten seconds remained. He slowly ventured, "Then… Vladimir?"
Coach Fang could put his mind at ease with that. "That works."
With Vladimir in the mix, Syndra and Varus would just have to get themselves the proper equipment to flourish in team fights later on. The enemy would be forced to focus on Vladimir, leaving Syndra and Varus free to comfortably do their damage.
They would have Gragas to meddle with the other team's formation as well. With this team comp, DG would do just fine in team fights.
Of course, the key component of this strategy was that Wolf Cub's Vladimir couldn't fall too far behind the enemy Aatrox in the top lane. Wolf Cub's play style was relatively aggressive and bizarre, though, so it wasn't unthinkable that he would be able to single-handedly kill Aatrox, even at a disadvantage.
"OW vs DG, round two, starts now—!"
Twenty-one minutes into the match.
Vladimir charged into the fray and summoned his pool of blood in the middle of a team fight. Then he unleashed his ult and went into an invulnerable state, all within a matter of milliseconds. A few seconds after that, the damage from Vladimir's ult became apparent. All of OW's champions, besides their support, were down to their last sliver of HP.
And their damage had all been absorbed by Vladimir's invulnerability.
Once his invulnerability wore off, Vladimir was at full health. He chased after the low-HP enemy champions, flinging his Q at them. Meanwhile, Varus and Syndra continued to attack from the back line. Old Wo took four kills, while Qian Bao's Syndra took down the enemy support.
"Hey," Old Wo protested into the voice chat. "My pentakill!"
Qian Bao laughed and said, "Are you dreaming? Me and Wolf Cub are here, and you think you can hog all five kills?"
Shen Qiao didn't say anything, but silently agreed with Qian Bao's words in his heart.
After all, he had been the one to get the enemy Leona down to low health just now. If Syndra hadn't come in for the kill, that kill would have been Shen Qiao's. In any case, the fifth kill wouldn't have gone to Old Wo.
Lu Zhe abruptly interrupted, "Let's push."
The five champions took their minions up to the middle lane. They managed to take down OW's inner tower by the time OW's champions all respawned. Lu Zhe took stock of their situation and decided to give up the push for the time being. He led his team straight over to the dragon pit, preparing to take down the ocean drake.
Er-Hua wandered over to Baron Nashor's pit to get a visual on the area there, just to make sure OW didn't sneak off to confront Baron Nashor on their own.
Shen Qiao went to the bottom lane to continue pushing their minions onwards, farming some more experience along the way.
As long as the game was still going, he would never stop powering up.
"DG's side is taking the ocean dragon down fast, and we can see OW scattering through the jungle, heading towards Baron Nashor. They definitely won't let go of the chance to take down the Baron, and DG isn't afraid to fight them right now either. DG has a few promising carries developing, after all. Woow and Money are both on the right track, and they have high bounties on their heads."
"OW has gathered around the pit very quickly, and Flower is nearby. He's got eyes on the enemy. Lu Zhe's Gragas has just taken down the ocean dragon, and he's heading up into the top half of the jungle now, making his way to Baron Nashor's pit. Wolfy has teleported over from the bottom lane too… is OW bold enough to engage?"
In DG's voice chat.
Shen Qiao saw OW grouped up outside Baron Nashor's pit. He charged in and used the same tactics as last time, opening up his blood pool right away.
"Go, go, go! Jarvan IV used his ult!"
"Watch Ezreal, cut Ezreal off!"
"Ah, shit, my positioning…"
"Leona's used her ult! Ah, and Zoe's sleep is…"
Near the pit, Zoe's sleep skill hit all four of DG's champions except Vladimir, who was still invulnerable. Once Ezreal hit them with his ult, Old Wo and Lu Zhe both lost a significant chunk of HP. Luckily, Shen Qiao's damage had started to take effect. Ezreal, Jarvan IV, and Zoe were all left with critically low health. Old Wo was ready to give chase, but Aatrox caught up to him and forced him into a fight.
The battlefield was split.
On one side, Old Wo led Aatrox around. Er-Hua spun and threw him a lantern to shield him, getting ready to pull him out. But Aatrox snuffed out that attempt, not wanting Old Wo to join forces with the others.
On the other side, Gragas blew Leona away. Vladimir and Syndra took down Zoe and Jarvan IV, then focused their attacks on Ezreal.
Thresh came in to assist.
As a green light flared on the ground, the focus was shifted just enough that the badly wounded Ezreal was killed. At the same time, DG's champions regained some of the HP that had been hacked away by Zoe and Jarvan IV. Now, only Aatrox and Leona were left standing on OW's side.
Old Wo had already been beaten within an inch of his life by Aatrox. Luckily, Thresh returned just in time and used his ult to save him.
Although Gragas, Vladimir, and Syndra had all used up their ults already, they could still do a great deal of damage to Aatrox by teaming up against them. Aatrox's HP plummeted. Varus dodged an attack, and then—
"DG takes four kills, giving up none! They'll be taking Baron Nashor with no problems!"
"Their earnings this round—2594!"
"The gap in gold between the two teams is already over 9000!"
"Can OW still turn things around?"
The commentators' voices reached a peak as DG's players rushed up to OW's base. The climax of the game had arrived. DG pushed onwards with their forces shrouded in purple light, indicating Baron Nashor's buff. Under DG's relentless assault, OW's base turrets were swiftly destroyed.
Shen Qiao, Lu Zhe, and the others stood guard, sending OW's champions back to the respawn fountain time and again.
Twenty-nine minutes and fifty seconds into the round, Shen Qiao took another kill. Er-Hua couldn't get to him in time with a save, and Shen Qiao perished.
But the Nexus was down to its last bit of HP. More minions surrounded it, and in just a few more seconds, OW's crystal was blown to pieces once more. Gragas just so happened to chuck an attack towards OW's fountain at this time, blowing away the Aatrox who'd just respawned.
The whole team was fired up.
OW's base exploded, and the blue light of victory popped up on DG's screens.
"Congratulations to Team DG for taking the second round, and for being the first to take us to match point!" the commentators roared.
The third round.
OW cut loose. While DG put together a balanced team in the picks and bans stage, OW went all out and chose attack-oriented champions for all three lanes and Jarvan IV for the jungle.
They were prepared to clash with DG on all fronts.
Shen Qiao raised his eyebrows when he checked out OW's team comp, which was something he'd only seen in ranked games before. He started to consider playing an AD in the top lane again, but he wouldn't really pull out that sort of tactic in a world championship game. He would wait until afterwards to try it out again.
After DG finalized their lineup, their fans all wiped away a faceful of sweat. They were worried that DG would be caught off-guard by the other team's aggressive lineup, and that DG would potentially be kept on the run—
DG's third game ended even faster than the previous two rounds.
In the eighteenth minute, they pushed their way up to OW's base.
Even the audience fell into a trance as they stared at the big screens.
The domestic commentators were even more mind-blown.
"It's only the eighteenth minute! How can there be a difference of 5000 gold already? Am I missing something?"
"I guess it's because DG isn't unfamiliar with this aggressive sort of play style? When it comes to trying to steamroll a team, no one can steamroll DG?"
"You do have a good point. DG actually looks forward to the other side coming up to brawl with them. That's Wolf Cub's favorite way to play, isn't it? He used his rich and plentiful ARAM experience to reap the rewards?"
Twenty-three minutes into the game.
DG didn't even bother going after Baron Nashor. They faced off against OW right in front of their base. After exchanging one death for four kills, DG's minions arrived and the champions started attacking the Nexus in full force.
Another minute and a half passed.
The entire OW team watched as their base exploded again. They hadn't been able to turn things around after all, losing 3-0 to DG.
"Congratulations to DG! OW was the favorite to win the championship this year! Who would have thought they wouldn't be able to take a single point off DG?!"
"DG's condition this year… they're putting on one tasty show! Think back to what they were like last year. Were they also this aggressive?"
"Last year, their play style was a bit steadier. This year, after Wolf Cub joined them… ah, this ferocity. Not everyone in the rift can keep up with this rhythm."
"DG has evolved. They've evolved into a terrifying monster. Let's congratulate them for being the first to enter the Top 4! We can look forward to seeing how things play out for them… right now, from the LPL region, DG is the first to advance to the semifinals. Tomorrow, BLX will play SLG of the LCK. And in the afternoon, WTG will face off against TOG of the LEC. We'll be looking forward to their results as well."
On the way back to the hotel.
The two kids, Zhao Yue and Zheng Zhizhuo, hadn't taken the stage. But they were both as excited as anyone else, because they knew there were only two games left before the championship match. They were sure that they wouldn't get another chance to play in that tournament, but that didn't stop them from being elated for the team.
After all, they had made it to the starting lineup this year.
If DG won the championship this year, it meant they would both have been part of a championship-winning team in their first year in the LPL.
There was no higher starting point.
Even if they had to leave DG later on, winning this championship would forever increase their value as players.
Coach Fang suddenly announced, "Tomorrow, the other teams from our division will be playing. We'll meet early in the morning and gather here to watch BLX and WTG play."
They could cheer on the other teams from the LPL, and they could take in the strategies that the other teams used.
All of DG's players voiced their acknowledgement.
Shen Qiao, sitting near the back, was playing a game on his phone. After a while, he suddenly remembered something and opened his messaging app, only to find that he'd forgotten to log back in after restarting his phone at some point. Loads of messages had piled up.
Most of them were just congratulating him on entering the Top 4.
He checked the names of all the senders, then responded to each message one by one, taking care to wish his old teammates luck in their upcoming match.
Tomorrow, BLX would be playing a formidable team from the LCK.
Both teams were the type that played it slow at first, snowballing to a huge advantage later in the game. The LCK team had a fierce mid-laner, while BLX had the outstanding combination of Mo Mo and Lele in the bottom lane. There was no telling which team would come out on top.
Lu Zhe didn't mess around on his phone, and he didn't think about much. He simply hugged his arms and gazed at Shen Qiao's profile for a long while.
When Shen Qiao noticed him staring, he glanced over and instantly found his gaze meeting a pair of eyes that seemed as deep as the sea.
He froze for a second, before the corners of his lips twitched faintly. But in the end, before he could speak, he saw Lu Zhe lift his right hand and press a finger to his lips, making a shushing gesture.
Shen Qiao blinked, confused.
He saw Lu Zhe jerk his chin at something, so he straightened up and looked in that direction. Right away, he saw that Zhao Yue and Zheng Zhizhuo were both dozing in the row ahead of them—one leaning against the window, one with his chin propped up on one hand.
Before Shen Qiao could react, Lu Zhe scooted closer from the seat next to his and lifted a hand to his shoulder. Then, without pause, Lu Zhe swooped in and gave him a kiss.
Shen Qiao's eyes widened slightly, completely caught off-guard. He'd never imagined Lu Zhe would actually kiss him in a place like this.
Lu Zhe noticed that Shen Qiao wasn't moving at all. Shen Qiao was practically paralyzed. He seemed to have even forgotten to push Lu Zhe away. Seeing that, Lu Zhe quirked the corners of his lips. Originally, he'd just planned on stealing a peck, but now he changed his mind. He licked at the seam of Shen Qiao's lips, seeking entrance.
Shen Qiao jumped.
He lifted a hand to push Lu Zhe away, but when the sleeve of his jacket rubbed over the fabric of Lu Zhe's jacket, a noticeable sound rang out. Shen Qiao's heart flipped over in his chest. He guiltily glanced at the rows of seats in front of them, holding his breath as he tried to see if anyone had heard that noise.
The smile in Lu Zhe's eyes deepened. He lifted a hand and soothingly stroked the nape of Shen Qiao's neck. Either he was urging Shen Qiao to let him continue, or he was reassuring him that no one in the front of the van had heard anything.
Shen Qiao narrowed his eyes. The tips of their noses brushed, and they could feel each other's hot breaths fall on each other's lips. There was so little distance between them that Shen Qiao couldn't quite see Lu Zhe's expression clearly, but from Lu Zhe's movements, Shen Qiao could tell that there was a wicked sort of desire on that man's face.
The next second—
Shen Qiao clamped his teeth down.
Lu Zhe instantly stopped breathing.
He had been bitten. Hard enough that it hurt.
However, after this pause, Lu Zhe didn't retreat. Instead, like a provoked animal, he took hold of Shen Qiao's wrists and leaned even closer, bearing down on Shen Qiao's body as he continued their kiss. Shen Qiao, seeing that Lu Zhe had no intentions of backing off, was afraid of making some noise that would alert their teammates in the front rows. He forced himself to slow down his breathing, and he didn't even dare struggle too much.
Lu Zhe happily took more and more.
The leaves of the mint plant seemed to curl up, fearing the passing insects and animals that might take note of it and use its leaves to sharpen their teeth. The cedarwoods that towered overhead, however, brazenly rained pine needles down on that mint plant, wantonly bullying it within an inch of its life.
The van stopped outside the hotel. DG's players and staff disembarked one after another.
The last to step outside was Shen Qiao. His lips seemed a little darker than usual, inexplicably making his features look more complex and pronounced. That dark color highlighted his features perfectly, making his usually handsome face look a little sexier.
Luckily, none of his teammates were the type to stare at his lips. None of them noticed this subtle difference.
Except Lu Zhe.
Lu Zhe stood next to him, idly thumping one hand against the other. He faked a cough, which was really just to hide the reckless smile that had unfurled across his lips. The lights of the hotel lobby were shining down on them now. When Shen Qiao looked over, he could only feel that this person looked every bit like the cat who'd caught the canary.
He narrowed his eyes and drawled, "Captain Lu."
Lu Zhe had just taken advantage of him, so naturally he obliged and answered, "Mm?"
Shen Qiao calmly dished out two scathing words—
Lu Zhe didn't even try to retort. He only nodded obediently and repeated, smilingly, "Mm."
As long as he could get closer to Shen Qiao, he would be happy. He would be a childish bastard if he had to be.
Lu Zhe thought for a moment and, seeing that their teammates were walking ahead, stopped abruptly. Shen Qiao stopped as well, thinking Lu Zhe had something else he wanted to do.
Lu Zhe looked over and brought his lips to Shen Qiao's ear, whispering, "Do you want to insult me some more?"
Shen Qiao blinked.
He was starting to wonder if his partner was some sort of masochist.
Just as that thought surfaced in Shen Qiao's mind, Lu Zhe brazenly continued, "I'll let you insult me once for every kiss you give me. How about it?"
Shen Qiao put one hand into his pocket, rolled his eyes, and refused to speak.
Lu Zhe deliberately misunderstood his meaning and quickly continued, "A kiss isn't enough? Then… I'll let you insult me once for every time you let me do you? How's that?"
Shen Qiao slowly lifted his gaze. He studied Lu Zhe for a few seconds, then slowly uttered two more words—
"Daddy Lu? Are you two getting on or not?" Old Wo called out from the elevators, where he'd already pressed the button.
Shen Qiao swiftly made his way over. "Coming."
Lu Zhe watched his retreating back. He subconsciously licked his lips as he reflected upon these past few days, then followed Shen Qiao to the elevators. Before he entered, the elevator doors reflected his profile.
At one angle…
He thought he saw the shadow of Lu Chengzhen.
The phone conversation he'd had with Shen Qiao the other day rose back to the forefront of his mind—
"My blood runs through your veins. You're destined to be like me.
"Back then, I thought I loved your mother Su Qiongpei as well. We separated for certain reasons, and I thought about her for many years. But now look, when I finally married her…"
The tall man sat behind a grand desk. His suit jacket was draped over the back of his chair. He had his hands folded, fingers interlaced, as he leaned back leisurely in his seat to study the boy standing before him.
It seemed he hadn't expected the boy before him to grow quite so much. When he took in the height of the other party, the man paused for a while before continuing.
"I realized only then that it wasn't her that I missed. What I missed was the person I used to be.
"But how long could such youthful sentiments last?
"After your youthful passions subside, you have to go on to live an ordinary life. A momentary impulse won't change anything, A-Zhe."
This boy had already grown up like a strong, evergreen pine. He stood tall and proud in front of this man's desk. The pheromones he emitted flared out throughout the room, filling it with a viciously sharp scent.
Upon hearing the man's words, the youth showed a few measures of derision in his eyes. Then he smiled sarcastically and asked—
"This is why you had my mother pretend to be sick and go to the hospital, to trick me into coming here and missing my signing with BLX? While she played the part of the patient in the ICU for a week, you used your status as my parents to contact other teams on my behalf… you two have really pulled out all the stops in your bid to make me think of you as the most disgusting cretins in the world."
Lu Chengzhen also smiled faintly. "You don't need to get so worked up, A-Zhe. I'm just speaking to you as someone with personal experience. Some roads aren't as pleasant as you think they are. You don't need to walk those roads."
Lu Zhe stopped listening. He turned to leave.
Staying there with Lu Chengzhen for one more second would only make him feel like he was suffocating.
He pulled open the door and found an anxious Su Qiongpei standing outside. The woman was dressed prettily, and her soft brows made her face look gentle. She looked so delicate and fragile that no one would have been able to guess she possessed such a ruthless heart.
A heart capable of making her son feel despair over and over again.
Lu Zhe looked at her and thought back to all the times she'd interfered, between high school and now, whenever he and Shen Qiao began to grow closer. With a lump in his throat, Lu Zhe said, "I can't sign with BLX anymore. Are you happy about that, Mom?"
"Little Zhe," the woman called out timidly. She seemed like she wanted to apologize, but at the same time like she wanted to justify her actions.
But Lu Zhe didn't want to listen.
"Remember this week," Lu Zhe said. "This week has snuffed out the last of my trust in you. In the future, even if you truly are breathing your last breath, don't expect me to show up at your bedside."
"A-Zhe." That deep, resounding voice boomed out from behind the desk again.
Seeing that Lu Zhe wasn't going to stay, Lu Chengzhen raised his voice and said, "You have to remember the choice you made today—
"You'll regret it in the future.
"You're putting too much stock in one thing that your heart desires. Once you obtain it, you'll only feel emptiness in that heart of yours.
"In this world, there is no such thing as a deep, profound love. You can only love and rely on yourself."
Lu Zhe left without looking back, but those voices plagued him like a curse. In the days after he reunited with Shen Qiao, he heard them in his dreams over and over again.
Shen Qiao's hoarse voice had sounded out through their phone call again.
That was Lu Zhe's favorite voice. It carried a timbre that Lu Zhe had never forgotten, since the day they first met.
Lu Zhe was lying in bed in his hotel room. He gazed up at the ceiling in his darkened room and remained quiet for a long while before he said—
"I've discovered that there truly isn't any deep, profound love in this world.
"We met in the second term of our first year of high school. In our second year of high school, we spent less than half a year together. We had a school term together, then we were split up in our third year of high school… until now.
"From then until now, five years and four months have passed.
"I started falling for you the first day we started going out. From then until now, five years and four months have passed.
"Nothing deep or profound happened. I plainly, earnestly liked you for five years and four months. One thousand nine hundred and forty-two days.
"And each day I woke up, I liked you more than the day before."
That was all.
The shadow on the elevator door disappeared in an instant.
When Lu Zhe looked more closely, he realized that the passing resemblance to Lu Chengzhen had just been a figment of his imagination.
Once, when Lu Chengzhen issued him that warning, a bud of fear had been born deep in Lu Zhe's subconscious mind. He was afraid that he did possess the same blood as that man, and that he would indeed harm the ones he loved.
But now, he was no longer afraid.
Because Shen Qiao had returned to his world, and he knew they would never again be apart from each other in this lifetime.
Those years of separation had scarred his heart with loneliness. Day after day, he had experienced the profound, burning ache of being alone. And now, his world had become bright and warm again. He was once more complete.
He remembered the end of their phone call from that night. Shen Qiao had called out to him—
"You're not the same as him."
"You don't know. That's why I'm here to tell you. Because you're the man I love."
The elevator doors slowly opened.
The hotel lobby remained unchanging, with its green potted plants and darkly patterned walls. The pillars in the lobby were strong and steady; hotel guests and staff occasionally passed between them.
At the elevators—
Lu Zhe and Shen Qiao stood by the doors. The golden sheen of the elevator reflected their images. They each stood on one side, looking at each other. A few seconds later, they both smiled—they couldn't help it.
They were like two kids, sharing a secret just by exchanging a glance.
And their secret was—
I love you.
I love you too.