MADNESS OF THE HEART

Chapter 64: Endless (Part Twenty-Four)

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Xinghuan Entertainment. Modeling Department.

Liu Mei was an entry-level model; she didn't have a dedicated manager, and she definitely didn't have an assistant. Sometimes she would find her own jobs, and sometimes she would wait for her agency to assign her new gigs. The person at Xinghuan Entertainment who interacted with her the most was Yu Dalong—a newbie manager who was even younger on Fang Yuanhang.

This name, Yu Dalong, was extremely imposing. In order to live up to their parents' obvious hopes, a person with that name would have to grow to be at least 1.9 meters in height. They would need a firm body of rippling muscles. They would have to be the type that could knock out someone's teeth with just one punch.

Before laying eyes on Yu Dalong, Fang Yuanhang had even deliberately straightened his back and squared his shoulders.

He was a detective of the Serious Crimes Division. Even if he couldn't match this formidable-sounding entertainment agency manager in stature, he at least couldn't lose out in terms of attitude.

However…

Yu Dalong wasn't some muscly man who stood at an imposing height of 1.9 meters. He was just a little dude who barely reached 1.7 meters.

As soon as he heard the police were looking for him, Yu Dalong dropped what he was doing and galloped over. He was dressed in a very enticing manner. His face was small and pale, and he wore a flashy gold stud earring. His pants were extremely form-fitting, wrapped tightly around his stick-thin legs. He breezed over to Fang Yuanhang, twisting and swaying his hips as he walked.

Fang Yuanhang's first thought was that this person looked a bit familiar.

His second thought was that this guy was definitely a little fruit!

And his third thought was, Wait! Isn't this the gay kid who shouted 'stallion waist' at Mao'nian Skycity?

Running into him again here of all places!

Yu Dalong didn't recognize Fang Yuanhang as a 'familiar' person until he drew close. He instantly hit the brakes and dramatically threw a hand over his mouth when recognition did strike. "Aiya, aren't you that…"

"I'm not that 'stallion waist', thank you," Fang Yuanhang said.

"But you're a handsome ge too!" Maybe it was simply his nature, or maybe he had been influenced by the entertainment industry—whatever the reason, Yu Dalong wasn't the slightest bit shy in front of a police detective who was showing off his badge. He smiled like a blossoming flower and continued, "So you were a police officer! Aiyaya, I love that!"

Inexplicably receiving a confession all of a sudden, and from a gay guy at that, had Fang Yuanhang breaking out in goosebumps. He kept a very professional air about him and said, "You're in charge of the model Liu Mei, right? I can't get in touch with her, and we haven't been able to find her at her home. Do you know where she's gone?"

"You're looking for Liu Mei? Ai, I'm also looking for Liu Mei!" Yu Dalong suddenly furrowed his brow and pouted. "That damned woman. I'm stressed to death because of her!"

The corners of Fang Yuanhang's lips twitched. Yu Dalong had been so giddy just a moment ago. How could he claim to be 'stressed to death'?

"You haven't been able to contact her?"

"She's always like this!" Yu Dalong stomped his foot and hmphed like a little girl. He started flapping his lips and quickly rattled out an explanation.

Fang Yuanhang got the idea in just a few short moments.

Liu Mei had signed with Xinghuan Entertainment three years ago. At that time, Yu Dalong was still in school. In a crowd of random people, Liu Mei could be considered tall and beautiful. But at an entertainment agency, she simply wasn't much to look at. Although models 'just' put on tailored clothes and wore a face of exquisite makeup to pose in front of cameras, it wasn't a job that could be done without some professional skills and talents.

Liu Mei was only outstanding in that she was tall. Her eyes didn't have any soul in them, and she wasn't skilled enough. She wasn't hard-working, either. She hadn't put any real effort into her job. And so, even after three years at Xinghuan Entertainment, she hadn't been able to start earning more than a beginner. She wasn't all that different from an ordinary person.

Liu Mei didn't seem to care about any of that, though. Her private life was a bit of a mess; people suspected she was being kept as a sugar baby. In any case, she didn't seem to care about the bit of money she made at work.

As for why she didn't simply resign, no one had an answer.

Yu Dalong had joined the agency in the first half of that year, and he didn't represent too many models. Han-jie, the manager previously in charge of Liu Mei, had thrown her to Yu Dalong as a burden for him to carry.

As a complete newbie, Yu Dalong could find a stone in a pit of manure and consider it a diamond. He diligently worked to polish Liu Mei up. He got her all the jobs he could, and whenever she was out of his sight, he got in touch to ask if she was working hard and keeping an eye on her figure.

Sometimes, Liu Mei wouldn't answer her phone. Once, her lack of communicativeness had even cost her a job.

Yu Dalong had fought countless times with Liu Mei about this matter. They'd fought so often that Yu Dalong couldn't be bothered to care about her anymore. He knew that when she didn't answer her phone, it wasn't because something had happened. It was purely because she was too lazy and didn't want to work, or because she was incapacitated after overindulging in something or another.

"Just look. I called her this many times." Yu Dalong presented his cell phone to Fang Yuanhang. He'd planned on having Fang Yuanhang scroll through his call logs, but Fang Yuanhang instantly took note of his wallpaper.

The little fruit was kind of narcissistic. His wallpaper was a selfie that could be considered pretty cute.

This fleeting thought of 'cute' shot through Fang Yuanhang like a bolt of lightning. He couldn't stop asking himself, I'm an iron-hard straight guy, how could I possibly think a gay guy who wiggles his butt all over the place is cute?

"I'll never, ever put her in touch with any more clients!" Yu Dalong declared. He was getting angrier and angrier as he spoke. "People like her, who just muddle through life and wait to die, don't deserve work! All the effort I put into her was a complete and utter waste! She'd better not count on me finding her new jobs or sending her takeout in the future. She can just live and die on her own!"

"You sent her takeout?" Fang Yuanhang echoed. His expression tightened. "You know where she is?"

When Fang Yuanhang visited Liu Mei's rental, no one had been there. Otherwise, he wouldn't have rushed over to Xinghuan Entertainment.

Could Yu Dalong have meant another place? Was it possible that Liu Mei had another residence?

"She's definitely at Baixuan Guiyuan!" Yu Dalong said with absolute certainty. "Last time, when she bunked off work, I called and texted like crazy, but she wouldn't answer. I told her I would snitch to the higher-ups and get her bonus cut, or get her fired entirely! She finally answered in the end. I thought she'd turned over a new leaf. I thought she was ready to work!

"But I never imagined she actually called because she wanted me to order a 'light' meal for her and have it sent to Baixuan Guiyuan! She said she was sick and wanted someone to be at her side! I mean for fuck's sake, sir—do you know about Baixuan Guiyuan? It's a luxury community. That damned woman is definitely being 'kept' by that old baldie!"

Fang Yuanhang didn't waste time saying anything else. He instantly dragged Yu Dalong into the car with him.

Most ordinary people would feel nervous or uneasy when suddenly 'apprehended' by the police. Yu Dalong was gifted with a natural sort of adaptability. Not only was he not anxious, he seemed pretty excited about being dragged along. He slapped his own chest and said, "Ah, sir! You really made the right choice in coming to me! Besides me, no one at Xinghuan knows that Liu Mei has a place at Baixuan Guiyuan!"

It was hard to determine an explanation for Yu Dalong's burst of energy and enthusiasm. Maybe he was overly excited about getting involved in a police case for the first time, or maybe he had his eye on Fang Yuanhang.

Once they got on the road, Fang Yuanhang instantly called Ming Shu. He was pretty much done reporting the situation to Ming Shu before he remembered to turn to Yu Dalong and correct, "Oh, and don't call me 'sir'. Doesn't that make your skin crawl?"

"Why would it make my skin crawl? That's a very handsome form of address, you know. What would you like me to call you instead? Mr. Police Officer?" Yu Dalong wasn't having any of that. "That's so basic, I wouldn't be able to bring myself to say it. But I could call you Detective-gege instead."

Fang Yuanhang fell silent.

Yu Dalong giggled. "No? Does that make you shy? Then I'll just stick to 'sir'. Detective-gege isn't all that suitable, anyway. What if you're younger1 than me?"

No matter how he thought about it, Fang Yuanhang couldn't help but feel like it was immensely weird to compare this sort of thing with a little fruit. Although the other party clearly didn't have any impure intentions, 'what if you're younger than me' could so easily be misconstrued as 'what if you're smaller than me'... and a comparison like that, coming from Yu Dalong's mouth, was just downright strange.

"Call me by my name!" Fang Yuanhang protested.

"I won't!" Yu Dalong argued. "It's either 'sir' or 'Detective-gege'!"

"Oh, just shut up!" Fang Yuanhang roared back.

"Then you have to make me a promise."

"What promise?"

"I want to see the 'stallion waist' gege!" Yu Dalong's face was practically glowing with anticipation. His eyes were just about filling up with stars.

"What?" Fang Yuanhang nearly slammed on the brakes. "Do you know who he is? You would dare flirt with him? He's our Serious Crimes Division's…"

Without waiting for Fang Yuanhang to finish, Yu Dalong interrupted, "I know, I know, he's the same as me, duh. I just want to see the 'stallion waist' gege again, it's not like I'm going to do anything to him. Just think of it as me meeting my idol! Okay, Detective-gege?"

"Idol? Same?" Fortunately, Fang Yuanhang was a police detective. His mental fortitude was countless times stronger than that of an ordinary person. Otherwise, he might have rear-ended the car in front of him at that moment.

"You didn't know?" Yu Dalong jumped, eyes widening. After a few seconds of silence, he shrank back against the window on his side of the car. "Aiya! I'm sorry! I misspoke. So the 'stallion waist' gege isn't out of the closet, huh? Who are you to him? I thought you knew!"

Those words were filled with so much new information that Fang Yuanhang fell into a deep silence.

His wise and valiant chief, their Serious Crimes Division's powerful and straight-shooting captain… was the 'same' as this little fruit?

The 'same' in the general sense, or the 'same' in a more specific sense?

The 'same' as in… also a fruit? Or the 'same' as in… also a bottom?

Fang Yuanhang was straight, but he didn't have zero gay friends, so he was extremely open-minded when it came to sexuality. He never looked down on anyone for being gay, and sometimes when the impulse struck him, he even joked around with his straight friends and played gay chicken.

But he'd never imagined his chief could be gay!

The occupational habits of a police detective suddenly flared up. Fang Yuanhang couldn't help but think… if this little fruit's words were true, then who was his chief with?

Lu Yanzhou from the Special Police Force? Or Captain Yi?

Zhou Yuan seemed like the most probable choice. He looked a bit weak and frail, after all. Like he needed someone to take care of him.

Xing-laoshi was also possible. Rumor had it Xing-laoshi used to treat Ming Shu super well, and they only grew distant later on. Could that have been to deflect suspicion?

There was also Liang Zhao. And Xiao Man. And Xu Chun!

Fang Yuanhang could hardly rein in his thoughts. In just a short span of time, a long series of names and faces rolled through the sea of his mind. Until finally, his thoughts settled on Xiao Yu'an's face.

Director Xiao was impossible. How could Director Xiao be his chief's man?

"God!" Yu Dalong exclaimed. "I'm so sorry to the 'stallion waist' gege! I didn't say anything!"

Fang Yuanhang's young mind had been stirred up by this huge pot of gossip. His thoughts were firing this way and that like cannonballs. Yu Dalong's outburst suddenly snapped Fang Yuanhang back to his senses. He told himself the case was still looming before them. He had to calm down, calm down, calm down!

Fang Yuanhang took a deep breath and said, "Right. You didn't say anything. I don't know anything."

Yu Dalong pursed his lips and kept his mouth shut. "Mhm!"

Fang Yuanhang thought about it some more, then added, "Once we wrap up this case, you explain things to me one more time."

Yu Dalong fell silent.

Huh?

You policemen… you're so… so gossipy!

 

Baixuan Guiyuan was situated in Nan District. Yu Dalong had exaggerated. Although it was a nice residential neighborhood, and fairly well-known, it couldn't be considered a 'luxury' community in Dongye City anymore.

Because it was just too old.

Many years ago, when the real estate industry was just starting to boom, Baixuan Guiyuan had indeed been the most famous little community in all of Dongye City. Everyone who lived there was either rich or an important political figure. But in the last decade or so, Dongye City had undergone rapid development. Residential communities that were more expensive, more modern, and simply better than Baixuan Guiyuan had popped up one after another.

Only people born and raised in Dongye City, like Yu Dalong, would still habitually refer to Baixuan Guiyuan as a 'luxury' neighborhood.

Fang Yuanhang parked outside the community and ran inside with Yu Dalong.

Yu Dalong was panting by the time they reached the door to Room 73 in Building C. He pounded on the door and shouted, "Liu Mei, you open up! I know you're in there! Open the door, open the door, open the door! If you don't open the door right now, I'll call the police!"

The policeman named Fang Yuanhang watched on in silence.

A flurry of footsteps sounded out from inside. Fang Yuanhang reacted very quickly; he ducked to the side and hid in the peephole's blind spot.

The sound of a turning lock rang out, and soon the door swung open.

Liu Mei was wrapped up tightly in a set of pajamas. Her hair was a disheveled mess, and her face was swollen. She looked tired, helpless. She looked at Yu Dalong and said, "I'm sorry."

"Sorry my ass!" Yu Dalong bellowed. "Do you want to work or not?!"

Liu Mei sighed. "I…"

Before her words fell, Fang Yuanhang appeared in a flash. He sprang out from his hiding spot and slammed a hand against the door, keeping it held open.

Liu Mei's face instantly paled. In a panic, she demanded, "How could you be here?!"

"Why can't I be here?!" Fang Yuanhang retorted. Without sparing any tenderness, he barged into the apartment. Yu Dalong was a weak-looking little thing, but he also swiftly darted in and slammed the door shut behind himself.

"You guys…" Liu Mei helplessly stood in place, reaching out to hold onto the wall like she couldn't support herself on her own two feet.

She was wearing silk pajamas—long-sleeved shirt, long pants. The buttons were done up to the very top. But the texture of the fabric was too smooth. As soon as she lifted a hand to the wall, her sleeve slid down and revealed a fresh, livid red mark around her wrist.

Fang Yuanhang could tell in an instant—that was a wound from a whip!

And the swelling in Liu Mei's face had definitely been caused by a slap.

Upon closer inspection, it was evident that Liu Mei also had a wound on her lips.

"Meimei!" Yu Dalong yelped. "It was that man, wasn't it?!"

Liu Mei finally lost all her strength. She suddenly slumped against the wall and slid down to the ground.

 

Dongye City's University of Medicine. Guangye Hospital. Jiulin Psychology Clinic.

The 'mystery man' pulling strings behind the scenes didn't necessarily work at all three of these places. But he definitely had a strong understanding of them all.

The 'university professor' Long Tianhao had encountered and the person who'd sent a child to give a pamphlet to Wen He was most likely the same 'mystery man'. Lots of surveillance cameras dotted the campus of the University of Medicine, and there was no shortage of cameras around the Jiulin Psychology Clinic.

But after sweeping through all the footage twice, the technical investigators found nothing of use.

This person wasn't only cautious about hiding their presence; they were also very familiar with the layout of the cameras at the University of Medicine and the Jiulin Psychology Clinic.

Wen He's therapist, Luo Yi, was in his thirties. His age was inconsistent with that of the 'university professor'. Based on Wen He's current condition, Dr. Luo didn't show any signs of trying to harm Wen He. Throughout his treatment, Wen He's condition had gradually improved. He was on his way out from the dark.

But psychologists were in an extremely unique position of power. An outstanding psychologist could not only pull a patient out from hell; they could drag a patient into hell as well.

It all depended on the doctor's inclinations.

After Ming Shu and Yi Fei discussed it, Yi Fei instantly went to look into Luo Yi and the general situation at the Jiulin Psychology Clinic. Meanwhile, Ming Shu sent a team to canvas Dongye City's University of Medicine.

When Yi Fei arrived at Jiulin, Wen He was just on his way out of Luo Yi's office. Wen He had only interacted with Ming Shu previously; he didn't recognize Yi Fei. And Yi Fei wasn't dressed in uniform. When he brushed past Wen He, he received a polite and friendly nod from the man.

"If you're here to get an understanding of Wen He, then I can tell you my treatment has been very effective on him," Luo Yi said when Yi Fei stepped in to begin asking his questions.

Luo Yi looked exactly like what Yi Fei would expect a psychologist to look like—steady and dignified, with a tone of voice that inspired confidence in others.

"But it seems you aren't here to get an understanding of Wen He. Rather, you're here to better understand me," Luo Yi continued, smiling. "Being noticed by the Bureau… I imagine that's not a very good thing for me. I originally planned on offering you some tea, but now I only feel like offering you some hot water."

Yi Fei glanced at the drinking glass on the desk, then studied Luo Yi with keen interest.

This man was handling a meeting with the police very calmly and skillfully. He behaved no differently than he probably would with a patient.

Before laying eyes on Luo Yi, Yi Fei had already learned that Luo Yi was the most renowned doctor at Jiulin. Many patients came to Jiulin after hearing of Luo Yi, and many more were specifically referred to Jiulin by other psychologists from other clinics.

Being so renowned at such a young age… Luo Yi surely had some innate skill or talent.

Yi Fei couldn't help but compare him to Sha Chun and the others.

It was obvious that Luo Yi was the type of person that Sha Chun desperately wanted to become, and he was the type of person she could never become.

"Do you have any impression of this person?" Yi Fei asked, presenting the sketch of the 'university professor' to Luo Yi. The sketch had been created based on Long Tianhao's description of the man he remembered. It was the police's only piece of evidence that this 'mystery man' existed, and it could very well be a meaningless piece of evidence.

This 'mystery man' was exceptionally cunning. It was very possible that he had disguised himself with makeup before approaching Long Tianhao. Plus, Long Tianhao's memories were surely imperfect. There was a good chance that this sketch didn't look anything like the real person they were looking for.

But Yi Fei only had that sketch to show Luo Yi.

Whether or not Luo Yi could offer them a clue based on the sketch was secondary. The most important thing was his initial reaction upon being shown a sketch.

Luo Yi casually glanced at the sketch, then smiled again. "Mr. Yi, you are personally incapable of determining whether or not this sketch is accurate. What is the point in asking me whether or not I recognize this person? You want to observe my reaction, correct?"

Yi Fei's smile dropped off his face.

"I don't recognize the person in the sketch. I've never seen him," Luo Yi said, suddenly becoming serious. "But the person 'hiding' behind the sketch—if I'm not mistaken, that should be the person you police are currently pursuing. Maybe I have seen that person. Maybe it's someone I know very well. You must have come to me because you've found some thread of a connection between me and this person you're looking for. But based on this sketch alone, I'm afraid I have no way of helping your investigation."

Criminal detectives were suspicious creatures by nature. The more sincere and honest Luo Yi seemed, the more suspicious Yi Fei became. If he couldn't find any holes in the face Luo Yi presented him, he would have to look around and find a seam in the surrounding details of his story.

Luo Yi had graduated from the top university in the capital. Afterwards, he'd continued to study and work abroad. He returned to the country four years ago and secured employment at the Jiulin Psychology Clinic.

Due to the special relationship between Jiulin and the University of Medicine, Luo Yi was often invited to speak on the subject of psychology to students of that university. He frequently came and went from the campus, and he was on good terms with all the faculty there.

Was there any possibility that Luo Yi had disguised himself as a man in his fifties before appearing in front of Long Tianhao?

Yes.

Could Luo Yi have used their counseling sessions to manipulate Wen He into interfering with the police investigation?

Yes.

When Yi Fei showed Long Tianhao a photo of Luo Yi, Long Tianhao shook his head and said, "The person I saw definitely wasn't him."

New question. Could Luo Yi have manipulated Long Tianhao's memory?

The answer was still yes.

 

Ming Shu was in the car when he took Yi Fei's call. They spent a long while going through the details of Yi Fei's investigation. After hanging up, Ming Shu cleared his mind for a moment.

Yi Fei and the rest of the team were following this thread at the University of Medicine while Ming Shu himself was continuing to chase the 'Jianjia Bailu' thread.

'Jianjia Bailu' had already shut down. Shi Hanshan had been forced to refund the tuition the students had paid; her latest business endeavor was another failure. She and the other two investors of 'Jianjia Bailu' didn't have a motive to commit these crimes. That was something that had already been determined earlier in the investigation.

As for the stalker Ling Xuzhi, he was still incapable of providing a solid alibi. But the police also couldn't find any solid proof of his guilt.

Ming Shu leaned back in the driver's seat and ran through the personnel of 'Jianjia Bailu' over and over again in his mind.

That fake 'domino' Sha Chun found had deceived her. Their intentions had been impure; they used her death to frame Yu Xiaocheng. They knew everything about the relationship between Sha Chun and Yu Xiaocheng. They'd heard the conversations between Sha Chun and Yu Xiaocheng. They knew Sha Chun and Yu Xiaocheng were intertwined.

Who was in the best position to easily discover all that?

For just an instant, a figure drifted through Ming Shu's mind.

Wu Tong. That seemingly sweet and naive receptionist at 'Jianjia Bailu', who seemed to have more free time than anyone else.

 

1. What Yu Dalong says here is 比我小, and in this context, 小 means 'younger', so the meaning is 'younger than me'. But 小 can also mean 'small', so out of context, this could also mean 'smaller than me'.

 

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WHEN AN ALPHA IS MARKED BY ONE OF HIS OWN KIND

Chapter 32

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Perhaps due to the voting incident that had sent him spiraling into depression, Shen Qiao didn't go online for quite a long while. Every morning, he would get up and visit the swimming pool like clockwork. Then he would head to the training room and practice until two or three in the morning.

But he wouldn't queue up for ranked games. He played only random matches in which he could rampage wildly on the battlefield.

Lu Zhe stayed with him every night. While queuing for his own games, he would glance over at Shen Qiao's screen. And every single time, Shen Qiao was either mired in a 1v5 bloodbath or on his way to mire himself in a 1v5 bloodbath.

The increased ferocity of his performance in the rift allowed DG to easily steamroll their opponents in their next five tournament matches, winning each best-of-three game in a clean 2-0 sweep. Shen Qiao took the title of MVP in four of those ten matches, putting him in the spotlight with Lu Zhe, who'd claimed the same number of MVP titles. The other two MVP titles had gone to Qian Bao.

This unbridled performance… puffed up all of DG's fans and had them rampaging through the esports community, savagely full of themselves.

Unfortunately, the man who was making a name for himself—Shen Qiao—refused to participate in all post-game interviews. He seemed to be making a bold declaration: every day his fans refused to forget about the voting incident was another day he would refuse to appear in the public eye.

And because of that, he also planned to bunk off the rest of his allocated streaming hours for June.

Near the end of the month, Manager Zhou reviewed the whole team's streaming hours. When he saw the twenty-four hours that Shen Qiao still owed, he started to feel a little unwell from head to toe.

Manager Zhou had learned from Lu Zhe why Shen Qiao was reluctant to stream. But those streaming hours were a part of his contract. In his office, Manager Zhou scratched at his hair which was thinning more and more every day. He ultimately decided to give Shen Qiao a gentle, tactful reminder in the most roundabout way possible.

One morning, as Shen Qiao prepared to head out to the swimming pool with his gym bag in tow, he was stopped at the top of the stairs by Manager Zhou.

"Wolfy, ah… good morning. Wanna grab breakfast together?"

Shen Qiao paused just before starting down the stairs. He stuck one hand in his pocket and glanced back at Manager Zhou, before casually answering, "I just had some bread in my room. Not hungry."

Which meant 'no'.

Manager Zhou could see that Shen Qiao was going to disappear from sight in just another few steps. He was frantic. Before he thought through what he wanted to say, he hastily blurted something, anything out to make Shen Qiao stay:

"Ai! Wait!"

Shen Qiao patiently stopped again. This time, he could tell that Manager Zhou had something he wanted to say.

Manager Zhou couldn't think of anything he could say that sounded urgent. He had no way of steering them towards the subject of livestreaming. Then, suddenly, he spotted the floor number '2' hanging on the wall.

He vigorously clapped his hands together once!

Shen Qiao's mind had filled up with a befuddled fog due to Manager Zhou's weird behavior. Manager Zhou wasn't getting to the point, and his spontaneous actions were completely inexplicable. Before using up the last of his patience, Shen Qiao decided to try to get to the bottom of what Manager Zhou wanted.

Manager Zhou finally managed to squeeze out a few words. He lifted his hand and pointed to the floor number on the wall, asking Shen Qiao, "Take a look at this number. You know what that looks like?"

The corners of Shen Qiao's lips twitched. He echoed, without any rise or fall in his tone, "What does it look like."

Manager Zhou spoke his mind: "Doesn't it look like a logo?"

Shen Qiao had no idea what to say to that.

Who could have expected Manager Zhou to answer his own question with another question? Even without a partner to bounce off of, he continued his little comedy routine on his own: "It's just like the logo of the 'Two Fish' livestream channel!"

Expressionlessly, Shen Qiao rejected that allegation: "Are you nearsighted? I don't think it looks like that at all. If there isn't anything else, I'll be on my way."

This time, he didn't give Manager Zhou any other opportunities to speak. He took wide strides down the steps, disappearing like a gust of wind in no time at all.

As he watched Shen Qiao make his 'ignorant' escape, Manager Zhou could only wring his hands and sigh.

And so, after returning from the pool that day, Shen Qiao continued to run into Manager Zhou at all sorts of turns.

At lunch, Manager Zhou carried his plate over and sat down in front of Shen Qiao. He took out his cell phone and said, "I just bought this new phone recently, and I heard the camera is extremely good. Very crisp, very clear. And it comes with some photo retouching functions too. Lots of internet famous celebrities use it to livestream, or so I hear. I don't know if it's true or not, but…

"Wolfy, why don't you try it out for me when you get a chance to stream?"

Shen Qiao gazed down into his serving of stir-fried eggs and tomatoes. He exclusively picked at the eggs that had been served up by the cafeteria auntie's slotted spoon. Without lifting his head, he answered, "Mm, sure. Then you go ahead and wait."

Manager Zhou fell silent.

He could wait, sure. But the streaming platform that they had a contract with, and Shen Qiao's fans, certainly couldn't wait.

Manager Zhou wanted to say more, but Lu Zhe chose that moment to approach with a serving of fried rice. He sat down next to Shen Qiao and looked at Manager Zhou with a smile in his eyes. Then he looked at the person next to him. Very quickly, he got the general idea of what was going on.

Lu Zhe's lips quirked into a smile, and he ignored the pleading look Manager Zhou tried to send his way. He picked up his chopsticks and diligently plucked out every piece of tomato, which Shen Qiao hadn't even touched, from Shen Qiao's dish to place them in his own bowl.

Seeing that Shen Qiao had already fished out all the egg, Lu Zhe asked, "How about I go get you another serving?"

Shen Qiao had already started picking at a serving of stir-fried beef. Hearing Lu Zhe's offer, he simply declined, "No need."

Gorging on delicious things all at once was no fun at all.

That was the case for candy. It was the case for chocolate. And it was the case for the eggs in stir-fried eggs and tomatoes as well.

Manager Zhou, seeing that Lu Zhe wasn't there to help, let out a long sigh. He scrolled through his phone while slurping up his own noodles. After a while, he suddenly spoke again:

"Ai! Help me with some math. Three times seven is twenty-one, right?"

Lu Zhe curtly hummed an affirmative.

Undeterred, Manager Zhou calmly continued, "Then three times eight…?"

Quick, someone say twenty-four! That way, he could casually mention, right in front of Lu Zhe, that Shen Qiao still owed twenty-four streaming hours that month!

Lu Zhe couldn't be bothered to pay attention to someone who hadn't even memorized their basic multiplication table.

Shen Qiao didn't make any noise at all.

Manager Zhou very, very patiently repeated himself:

"Three times eight."

Then again:

"Three times eight…"

Shen Qiao calmly lifted his head and looked at Manager Zhou. "Are you trying to do math or are you trying to curse someone?"1

Manager Zhou blinked, confused.

Lu Zhe couldn't hold in a laugh. He saw that Manager Zhou's face was starting to take on some color, and he finally shook his head to offer a compromise:

"Alright, how about this? I'll stream for him?"

Once those words came out, two people looked at him at once.

Shen Qiao was somewhat stunned, because he'd heard someone say that Lu Zhe's new contract had a very relaxed clause about his streaming hours. Besides team streams, which he was obligated to help promote, he didn't usually have to stream on his own. He might log a few hours when his fans reminded him, or he might just forget about it entirely.

Manager Zhou stared at Lu Zhe for a while, then stared at Shen Qiao for a while. He didn't know what to say.

Lu Zhe raised his eyebrows. "What? Doesn't the streaming platform benefit in the end, if I stream for him?"

That was true.

Lu Zhe had over a million followers on Weibo alone. You would have to add up every other DG member's Weibo followers to reach that count.

And because he was good-looking, because he played well, and because he spoke freely and wildly, fans really liked watching his livestreams. But they could usually only hear him chime in through another DG member's stream; that was the only way they could satisfy their ears.

Big-Mouthed Zhou couldn't think of a way to refuse.

Finally, he could only flap a hand and say, "Forget it, you two sort it out yourselves. I'll just take this as Shen Qiao's confirmation—that he'll remember to make up the twenty-four hours."

Lu Zhe nodded. "There are still a few days left. No rush."

……

Once Manager Zhou finished eating and took his leave—

Shen Qiao looked away from the manager's extraordinarily flashy suit and turned his attention to Lu Zhe. He slowly, slowly narrowed his eyes.

Lu Zhe had just finished his fried rice. He got up and bought two sports drinks from a nearby vending machine. When he returned, he passed Shen Qiao one that wasn't iced while unscrewing the cap of his own bottle, which was cold enough to sweat with condensation.

Smiling, he asked, "What, feeling some regret? You want to do your own stream after all?"

Shen Qiao scoffed. His whole face silently said, What kind of internationally-renowned comedian are you? He jerked his chin at the bottle Lu Zhe had brought him and asked, "Why didn't you get me a cold one?"

Lu Zhe squeezed the bottle in his own hand. He must have thought of something, because he twisted the cap back on a moment later and grinned. "You aren't in good health. You shouldn't drink too many cold things."

Shen Qiao rolled his eyes at Lu Zhe. To him, drinks that weren't iced, in the middle of summer, had no soul.

Lu Zhe placed his own bottle down on the table and scooted closer to Shen Qiao. With a shameless grin, he teased, "How about you give me a kiss, and I'll let you have a gulp?"

Shen Qiao lifted a hand and pushed him away. He swept his legs around the cafeteria bench and got up, making his way to the vending machine in long strides to buy his own drink with his cell phone.

However, when he reached the machine…

All the iced sports drinks were sold out.

Lu Zhe followed and stopped behind him. He held the two sports drinks in his hands—the iced and opened one in his right hand, the unchilled one in his left hand. With a touch of smugness in his tone, he issued a challenge:

"Made up your mind? What's your choice?"

Shen Qiao said nothing.

He calmed turned around—

And swiftly snatched the iced drink out of Lu Zhe's hold, turning and bolting as soon as it was in his grasp.

Lu Zhe wasn't the slightest bit surprised. He stayed in place, watching Shen Qiao make his hasty getaway like a flurry of wind. A bit of helplessness entered his tone as he called out, "Alright, come on. You just finished eating, and you're running?"

Light flashed through Shen Qiao's eyes. His lips curved up as he shot back, "If a dog were chasing you, wouldn't you run?"

Lu Zhe huffed an indignant laugh and lifted a hand to point after him. "Qiaoqiao, you're finished."

Then, he added, "I'll let you beg for forgiveness during the stream."

Shen Qiao easily unscrewed the cap of the bottle and took a long gulp right in front of Lu Zhe. He let out a long, satisfied breath once he was finished, then said without the slightest hint of fear, "Not gonna stream. Gonna ditch."

……

That night. 11:00 PM.

After tearing into the players one by one with critical analyses of the mistakes they made during practice, Coach Fang reminded them all to review some more of BLX's games, as well as games featuring international teams. Their next opponent would be BLX, and rumor had it Xu Xiao was meshing very well with his new team.

Plus, on the 7th of the next month, an international tournament would begin.

When the time came, DG would have to prepare to play two tournaments at once. It couldn't be denied that their schedule would be tight.

Once Coach Fang left, Lu Zhe pulled up some recent streams from BLX's players. But then he seemed to think of something. He turned to Shen Qiao, who sat beside him, and said:

"That's right. Come sign into your account here. I can muddle through four or five hours for you now."

Shen Qiao glanced at him and hesitated for a moment.

"Forget it," he said.

But Lu Zhe lifted a hand and dragged Shen Qiao's chair over, impatiently urging him, "Hurry up."

Shen Qiao could tell that Lu Zhe had already made up his mind. While typing in his username and password, he sternly cautioned, "Don't talk any nonsense."

Lu Zhe huffed a soft laugh. "I'm helping you stream to save you from paying a penalty fee, and you're still nitpicking—why don't you write me a script, and I'll just read off that?"

Shen Qiao stopped talking.

Soon, the livestream room opened and viewers flooded in.

[Oh? The wolf is done playing hooky?]

[God damn, we've been waiting for you for so long.]

[Laogong, how about you explain to me what's going on with you and Lu Zhe?]

[Hello? You there? Still remember when you were trending?]

[I was just about to say I would have to go join Team Lu Zhe if you didn't show up soon. I guess you do still love me!]

[Wolf Cubby, Mama loves you!]

Lu Zhe quickly skimmed the bullet comments. Not wanting the fans to get the wrong idea, he cleared his throat and thoughtfully conveyed their feelings to Shen Qiao on their behalf: "Qiaoqiao, your wives say they miss you."

Shen Qiao had started up another game. "Cut the nonsense."

[???????]

[Dog Lu! Why is it you!]

[Fuck! I've exited and reentered the room three times already… what's going on?! Why is Lu Zhe streaming from Wolf Cub's room? Explain!]

[Sisters, have we… started to ship something real?]

[Who would've thunk! I managed to run into my laogong in Wolf Cub's room! But my heart… it isn't happy at all!]

[I heard Daddy Lu is streaming here! I'm here, I'm here! Eh? Did he change his name? The room account isn't right either?]

Lu Zhe lightly explained, "He didn't log enough hours this month, and he's too ashamed to face you all. So, that's the situation. It's as you all can see."

Shen Qiao, on the surface, was focused wholeheartedly on his game. But he was discreetly listening in on what Lu Zhe was saying. As soon as he heard Lu Zhe sell him out, he instantly shot back, "Who says I'm ashamed?"

Lu Zhe laughed. "Alright, my mistake. He just doesn't want to stream."

Then, he started to answer fan comments in earnest:

"…that's right, I'm watching recordings of BLX's players right now… is it boring? It's alright, I'll be here to chat with you guys for a while. What would you like to talk about?"

[Dog Lu, you weren't like this before.]

[Dog Lu, you weren't like this before. +1]

[I'm crying, seriously. When Lu Zhe does his own streams, he basically ignores us, but he treats Wolfy's fans so warmly… F.]

[That means, in order to make my laogong treat me well, I have to go be Wolfy's fan. Is that right?]

[Being Dog Lu's fan is just too hard, isn't it?]

Lu Zhe thought for a moment. Since it was Shen Qiao's streaming room, he decided to talk about a little something relating to Shen Qiao.

"Let me tell you guys a bit about the old Qiaoqiao—

"That's right, let's visit the time when I just met him. I guess you could say we really met for the first time on a basketball court."

……

Lu Zhe spent half an hour recounting that basketball game. Afterwards, he told the viewers some more little stories from Shen Qiao's past. He talked about how popular and brilliant Shen Qiao was back then, and he also interspersed his walk down memory lane with occasional analyses of what he was seeing on the game tapes.

Just like that, time slowly dragged on until two in the morning.

Old Wo and the others said they were completely stuffed with PDA by then. They turned off their monitors and went to sleep. In the end, only Lu Zhe and Shen Qiao remained in the training room.

"Why were there rumors of discord between us? Mm… because of some stuff I can't tell you."

[Why do I feel like Dog Lu is especially warm and soft when he talks about Wolf Cub?]

[DO YOU LIKE HIM!]

[I've already written tens of thousands of words of bittersweetness in my head. Breaking up and making up again… breaking up and making up again… an epic romance.]

Lu Zhe glanced at the contents of the bullet comments again. He had to smile at these baseless guesses that were right on the money. Then, he suddenly saw another question:

[Which part of Wolf Cub's body do you think is the sexiest?]

Lu Zhe slowly, unhurriedly read that question out loud.

The bullet comments instantly filled up with string after string of excited exclamation marks.

Shen Qiao pulled off his headset and knocked on Lu Zhe's desk. "Time to go to sleep."

As he spoke, his eyes drifted shiftily from side to side. It was obvious that he didn't want Lu Zhe to answer this weird question, but he couldn't just boldly shut Lu Zhe up either. Lu Zhe was helping him stream, after all.

[If you want to sleep, go sleep. Why do you need to get Lu Zhe to go with you? Could it be that you two…]

[I have a very bold idea.]

Shen Qiao glanced at the bullet comments. He couldn't be bothered to address the junk that was brewing in their brains, so he turned back to Lu Zhe and met his gaze.

The corners of Lu Zhe's lips quirked up. He pointed at his own lips with a strong implication shining in his eyes.

Shen Qiao was silent.

Their gazes clashed like a silent crossing of swords. Finally, Lu Zhe looked away first. Not too slowly and not too quickly, he parted his lips to speak—

At just that moment!

Shen Qiao lifted a hand and turned Lu Zhe's head back to him. He pressed in and touched their lips together. Rather than a kiss, it was more like a ferocious mouth-first headbutt.

But Lu Zhe grinned. Perhaps out of pain, or out of something else entirely, he swept his tongue over his lips and left behind a darker sheen of moisture.

In the next second, he slowly gave his answer:

"Which parts of him are sexy…? I'm the only one who needs to know that."

 

1. In Chinese, when you say two numbers right next to each other (for example, "three eight") the 'times' is implied. So saying "three eight" is the same as saying "three times eight". Three and eight in Chinese are 三 (san) and 八 (ba), and 三八 together means 'stupid'. So here, Manager Zhou is just repeating "Sanba… sanba…" over and over again, making it sound like he's insulting/cursing someone.

 

Author's Notes:

Kissed!

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MADNESS OF THE HEART

Chapter 63: Endless (Part Twenty-Three)

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Fang Yuanhang was the most energetic and enthusiastic member of the Serious Crimes Division. After coming into contact with Liu Mei a few times, he grew more and more incapable of letting go of that thread.

Ming Shu didn't think Liu Mei had a strong enough motive, and Yi Fei thought Liu Mei's chances of being involved in the case were low. Both the captain and vice captain of the division had their sights fixed on the bigger picture.

But Fang Yuanhang hadn't investigated as many murder cases as the two of them, and he was a bit muleheaded. After mulling over the details again and again, he decided to continue pursuing that thread.

Fang Yuanhang had originally planned on discussing his thoughts with Ming Shu, but Ming Shu was so busy that Fang Yuanhang couldn't even grab a minute of his time. Thus, the hardheaded Fang Yuanhang had gone directly to Xiao Yu'an.

Director Xiao is in charge of our division anyway, and he's on good terms with Chief, Fang Yuanhang had thought. Director Xiao has been watching over this case the whole time. Asking him for guidance is definitely the right move.

"Captain Ming is correct. Liu Mei has a hazy motive at best. Setting aside whether or not she would kill Sha Chun, there's also the issue that Sha Chun wouldn't take Liu Mei as her 'target'," Xiao Yu'an had patiently explained to the hotheaded rookie. "But your perseverance isn't misplaced. There are at least three points of suspicion on Liu Mei."

Fang Yuanhang instantly perked up. "I'm already clear on those!"

Xiao Yu'an hummed his acknowledgement and encouraged, "Go ahead and tell me."

"First," Fang Yuanhang began, "there's the fact that she and Sha Chun didn't communicate like normal people. And Liu Mei's explanation for that was extremely far-fetched. What does she mean, 'Sha Chun is more traditional, so she preferred to call.' To me, that doesn't check out!

"Even when they called, they used voice calls on messaging apps. That's a matter of habit. It has nothing to do with whether you're traditional or not. You use whatever is more convenient, and after a while, you get used to it, right? My parents are way more old-fashioned than Sha Chun, and they both use WeChat to communicate with me now."

After taking a breath, Fang Yuanhang continued, "Second, the first time I talked to Liu Mei, she claimed Sha Chun had told her that she didn't work hard enough. We're already very clear on what Sha Chun was like. She may have decided in her heart that Liu Mei wasn't 'hard-working enough', but she definitely wouldn't have said that sort of thing out loud.

"Liu Mei lied to us. That was either to cover something up, or it was something that just happened to slip out—maybe she deemed herself 'not hard-working enough' and inadvertently put her own judgment in Sha Chun's mouth. But I think it's much more likely that she was trying to conceal something.

"Third, Liu Mei said she often talked to Sha Chun about clothes and makeup. She said that she had been teaching Sha Chun how to change her image, and that Sha Chun was in pursuit of a more beautiful appearance. She claimed Sha Chun took the initiative to ask her for advice. But me and Chief… no, I mean, me and Captain Ming have visited Sha Chun's home.

"Sha Chun only kept daily skincare products. She didn't keep any makeup at home. I couldn't find any signs that she'd been learning how to do her makeup from Liu Mei. Besides, Sha Chun had placed all her time and effort on her music. Would she really spend time trying to pretty herself up?

"Besides, in her final days, Sha Chun was busy planning her own suicide. Would she really have had time to spare for changing her image? It doesn't make sense. It's a contradiction."

"Very well done. You've found all the points of suspicion," Xiao Yu'an affirmed warmly. "The possibility of Sha Chun pursuing beauty and change in the month or two before her death is low. Liu Mei has lied to us more than once. There's no problem with you wanting to keep an eye on her. But I'd like to ask, how do you plan on pursuing this thread?"

Fang Yuanhang already had a very clear, logical idea for that. "The guzheng!"

"And why that angle?" Xiao Yu'an prompted.

"Liu Mei said 'Jianjia Bailu' wasn't the only place where she'd taken lessons in traditional arts. Before she found Sha Chun, she'd gone elsewhere. The reason she gave was that the public sees her career as superficial and shallow, and she considers herself somewhat shallow as well. She wants to fix that by learning a traditional art. She thinks that'll give her some more depth," Fang Yuanhang said. "The first time I heard all that, I didn't think there was anything wrong with it. But the more I thought about it, the more problematic it seemed."

Xiao Yu'an nodded. "She was dead set on traditional arts."

"Right!" Fang Yuanhang was getting a little worked up. "If you want to cultivate some more 'depth' of character, is taking lessons to learn some traditional art form the only way? Even if she was fixated on music, she didn't have to choose a traditional instrument!

"Why didn't she read some books or socialize more with people who were familiar with traditional arts and culture? Why didn't she learn how to draw? Also, I've spoken to her several times now, and I didn't get a sense that she was truly trying to change at all. She only says she wants to deepen her character and broaden her horizons.

"She's definitely going to these traditional arts classes with a motive. And that motive definitely isn't to improve herself!"

"Your analysis is very reasonable," Xiao Yu'an said. "Since you've already reached this point, go ahead and continue your investigation."

Fang Yuanhang hesitated. "I'm worried Chief will say I'm not doing my real job."

"Don't worry about that. Compared to mindlessly following the orders of your superiors, Captain Ming would definitely prefer for you to think for yourself and act on your own," Xiao Yu'an said with a smile. "When he was about your age, he was just like you."

"Really?" Fang Yuanhang's eyes flashed like crystals. Then, after thinking for a moment, he realized something wasn't quite right. "Director Xiao, how do you know that?"

Xiao Yu'an expression remained perfectly natural and neutral as he said, "Every criminal detective in Serious Crimes walked a similar path to get where they are today."

 

After receiving the approval of his commander, Fang Yuanhang became more enthusiastic than ever. He first discovered that, starting in July of last year, Liu Mei had taken classes at four workshops similar to 'Jianjia Bailu'. The duration of her enrollment in those programs ranged from half a month to two months, and she'd studied the hulusi, pipa, and guzheng.

One of those workshops was named 'Luoshui Guofeng Tang'. And in April of that year, a hulusi teacher named Zhou Xi had disappeared from there.

The case had occurred in Nan District, and it had been handled by the local precinct and police post. To date, they had yet to close the case.

Besides Zhou Xi, the other teachers Liu Mei had studied with were Zhao Sheng of 'Tianxia Minyue Guan', Liang Chun of 'Qinzhou Xuetang', and Wang Man of 'Lu Dao'.

Fang Yuanhang discovered that all four of these instructors were much like Sha Chun. Their facial features couldn't be called gorgeous, but they were pretty in a delicate and traditional way.

"All sorts of students come here for lessons. Some genuinely want to learn a traditional instrument, while some are just chasing a star or a popular fad—last year, for example, there was a popular period drama. We had lots of little girls come here, wanting to learn the theme song from that show," said Liang Chun. She had a very deep impression of Liu Mei, and she didn't seem particularly impressed. "But I never got a sense of what Liu Mei wanted to accomplish. She didn't concentrate during her lessons. She would always ask about my family life and my feelings. The most bizarre thing she ever did was bring in a big bag of makeup, insisting on helping me dress up.

"Don't go thinking I'm just a humble pipa player. When I really dress up and do my makeup properly, I'm not any worse than a wild and unbridled model like her. In the end, I remember that she didn't finish out the courses she'd paid for. She just stopped coming."

Zhao Sheng seemed to know more than Liang Chun, but she was unwilling to talk until Fang Yuanhang reassured her time and again that the police would protect her as a witness. Only then did she reluctantly begin to speak.

"Liu Mei dropped a lot of hints. She kept implying that there were people who liked women like me, who were proficient in a traditional instrument and looked rather old-fashioned. I don't know what sort of role she holds. Maybe she was just an intermediary, or maybe she was… what do you call it, a madam?" Zhao Sheng said. "Although I'm not yet married, I've been very happy with my boyfriend, and I'm very happy with my life. I didn't want anything to do with people like Liu Mei.

"She must have gotten my meaning, because she didn't come back after I made things clear to her. She didn't keep insisting that I dress up or change my image and whatnot."

Of the three instructors, Wang Man was the one who seemed the most uneasy when speaking to the police.

"I actually regret it a lot," she said. "I almost went with Liu Mei because of the money. She told me there was a 'boss' who wanted to support me. The boss liked people who knew how to play traditional instruments. As long as I wore a traditional outfit and spent a night with him, I could make twenty thousand yuan."

A breakthrough had finally come at the end of the thread Fang Yuanhang was following. His palms began to sweat. "Who is this 'boss'?"

"I don't know." Wang Man shook her head. Her eyes had already reddened. "I needed money, so it was… it was like I was possessed. I agreed to go with Liu Mei. I was really about to go with her, but then my parents suddenly came to visit me from home. They came to celebrate my birthday with me.

"Instantly, I realized that I couldn't disgrace them like that. I changed my cell phone number and quit my job. I've been hiding from Liu Mei all this time. I'm just lucky she hasn't come looking for me."

"How did the two of you normally communicate?" Fang Yuanhang asked. "Did you usually call each other or use messaging apps to chat?"

"Ah!" Wang Man seemed to suddenly remember something. "The last few times we got in touch, I was afraid something would happen, so I just quietly left her voice messages."

Fang Yuanhang instantly got heated up. "Hurry, show me!"

The voice clips exchanged between Wang Man and Liu Mei clearly proved that Liu Mei was acting as an intermediary for some sort of 'sponsor'. But what concerned Fang Yuanhang the most was that Liu Mei sounded extremely anxious in those messages, as though she were in a rush to deliver Wang Man to this 'sponsor'.

What kind of pimp would be that anxious?

It felt like she thought she would be doomed if she failed to carry out her task.

 

"Chief, Zhou Xi disappeared in April. It's been nearly half a year now. The district precinct hasn't made any progress in that case. I suspect Zhou Xi has already been harmed," Fang Yuanhang said over the phone, while calling to inform Ming Shu of his discoveries. "This 'sponsor' must be pretty capable. He made Zhou Xi disappear without a trace. There are hardly any clues in the case of her disappearance. Plus, he's still got Liu Mei luring in other beautiful women. Even after Zhou Xi's disappearance, Liu Mei has continued her work.

"That proves this 'sponsor' is extremely arrogant, and he must come from an impressive background. He thinks he can single-handedly hide his crimes from the world! Chief, I'm almost certain this 'sponsor' is the son of an influential figure!"

"The son of an influential figure?" Ming Shu echoed. His voice was cold.

He wasn't an extremely cynical person by nature, but he felt an instinctive sort of loathing for those who rampaged through life, doing whatever they pleased while relying on the status of their family and parents to keep themselves clean.

Society as a whole had a very low opinion of the kids of influential figures. They saw these children as people who would never work an honest job, who would only ever idle about. These people were the trash that would play around with men and women, leaving it to their daddies to clean up their messes afterwards. Even if their actions caused someone's death, it would be a simple matter for their parents to cover it up.

When ordinary people came up against the child of an influential figure, they could only admit defeat.

But Ming Shu had been born to a family like that. Xiao Yu'an had the same background as well.

Ever since they were little, they had been strictly raised to be cautious of their own words and actions. Ming Shu wasn't close to his parents or grandparents; there wasn't much he could talk to them about. But he also knew that his parents were the sort of influential people that society scorned and loathed.

The Xiao family was the same. In his years with special forces, Xiao Yu'an had battled through countless life-or-death situations. Xiao Yu'an's cousins Xiao Mu'ting and Xiao Jincheng were the same. One was a captain of a special forces unit in the army, and one was a renowned narcotics detective. Which member of the Xiao family hadn't shed their blood for their country?

But because some 'sons of influential figures' ran wild in society, causing nothing but trouble, everyone who fell under that category was slapped with the same label of being lowly, morally deficient degenerates.

Of course, Ming Shu didn't hate those ordinary people who loathed all influential figures and their children. It was difficult for those people to be impartial judges on the matter. Many of them had truly experienced unfair pressure from these influential figures they hated.

The only people Ming Shu hated were the ones who were born in similar conditions as him… the ones who used their background to pressure and intimidate ordinary people!

"He thinks he can single-handedly hide his crimes?" Ming Shu echoed. "Then you go break that hand off for me!"

Ming Shu hadn't put the call on speakerphone, but just from hearing his words, Xiao Yu'an had gotten the general idea of what was going on.

"Your rookie has quite a lot of moldable talent," he said. "He's quick to get fired up, but he cools down just as quickly. He's capable of focusing on what's important and seizing critical leads."

Ming Shu thought for a moment, then suddenly furrowed his brows.

"What?" Xiao Yu'an asked. "What did you just think of?"

"Do you still remember Xu Yin?" Ming Shu asked.

"Of course," Xiao Yu'an said. "The little girl who discovered Wu Zhen's body. Because she'd lived with her parents' corpses for a week, she was especially sensitive to the scent of corpse rot."

Xiao Yu'an paused for a moment, then continued, "She also wanted to scare you. She told you she could see ghosts. She gave us a lead—a woman once appeared outside her window. That woman gazed at her, then died in the alley of Yisi Road. The Serious Crimes Division didn't have enough manpower to look into the matter, so I sent Task Force Two out there to conduct some preliminary investigations."

Ming Shu had been too busy as of late. He'd completely forgotten that Xiao Yu'an had already told him about sending people out to investigate that lead. Now that he remembered, he hurriedly asked, "Have they found anything?"

Xiao Yu'an shook his head. "Not yet."

"Xiao Man found large swaths of bloodstains on Yisi Road. A murder could have happened there, just as Xu Yin said. A young woman had her stomach slashed open, then mysteriously disappeared…" Ming Shu mused. "Zhou Yi has been missing for half a year. Her case has been reported to the local police post, which means her DNA would be in the missing persons database. When Xiao Man ran a DNA test with the blood he found, he didn't get any matches. So the woman in the alleyway on Yisi Road couldn't have been Zhou Xi.

"But the two were both young women. One died 'cleanly', and one disappeared 'cleanly'. Both without leaving many traces. It's possible there's a connection."

"If there's a connection, that makes our investigation much easier," Xiao Yu'an said. "Based on Liu Mei's actions, we can tell that this 'sponsor' has a massive appetite. He's hurt more than one woman. As long as their looks and temperament suit his tastes, they could become his 'target'."

The word 'target' was one that Ming Shu had already heard numerous times that day. He'd said it, Xiao Yu'an had said it. They'd talked about Sha Chun's 'targets', and now Liu Mei's 'sponsor' had 'targets' as well.

All these 'targets' were, at their core, victims.

Long Tianhao, Wen He, and Yu Xiaocheng had been trapped in the vast sea between their dreams and their reality. No matter how hard they worked or how much they struggled, they couldn't get free. Some of them had come close to giving up on their lives. They had been targeted by someone hiding in the shadows—chosen, used. That alone was despicable enough.

If Yu Xiaocheng wasn't Sha Chun's killer, but was labeled the killer by the mountain of evidence against him, then that would be an even more despicable outcome. It would be a failure on the part of the police.

Starting from not long ago, their case had hit a dead end. No matter how they looked at it, Yu Xiaocheng was the killer.

But Yu Xiaocheng refused to confess his guilt. And he could only rely on an alibi which could be easily overturned.

This call from Fang Yuanhang suddenly reminded Ming Shu of himself from several years ago.

Back then, Liang Zhao had still been the captain of the Serious Crimes Division. Everyone who was a captain had to keep the big picture in mind. They had to be capable of assigning their team members to the appropriate tasks; they couldn't fixate on only one detail of any case.

Ming Shu, at that time, had been young and inexperienced. He hadn't been able to consider matters from Liang Zhao's point of view. Whenever Ming Shu found a point of suspicion back then, he would dig into it like his life depended on it—much like Fang Yuanhang did now.

Liang Zhao had repeatedly spoken to Ming Shu about that habit of his, and in the end even Director Li had stepped in to address it. They both wanted to encourage Ming Shu to cultivate an ability to see the big picture.

Over the years, after accumulating more experience by working on more cases, Ming Shu really had changed quite a lot. He was able to think more broadly now, keeping the big picture in mind even while digging into minute details.

But just now, when faced with a dead end, his mood was still somewhat affected.

Within the Serious Crimes Division, a chorus of voices were already starting to rise—

The evidence is right there. It's obvious. Yu Xiaocheng is the only one who won't admit his own guilt. If he isn't the killer, who is?

Fang Yuanhang had helped steel Ming Shu's resolve.

He'd confirmed that there was something wrong with Liu Mei, and that this was a thread worth following.

Ming Shu needed to do the same thing. He had to follow up on his own hunch.

If he wasn't completely certain that Yu Xiaocheng was the killer, he had to find the one who'd really killed Sha Chun! He couldn't allow an innocent person to be wronged!

Xiao Yu'an watched Ming Shu. The corners of his lips quirked into a smile.

"Director Xiao, what are you smiling at?" Ming Shu asked.

"I'm smiling at our Captain Ming, who has been inspired to fight on by a call from his rookie," Xiao Yu'an said. "You've thought of something new?"

"Yes, but it's still sort of hazy." Ming Shu hugged his own arms and started to pace. "I'm currently working under the assumption that Yu Xiaocheng isn't Sha Chun's killer—Sha Chun told him she'd found someone else to help her 'commit suicide', and she asked Yu Xiaocheng to help her hide her hands at Jiu High.

"The night of Sha Chun's murder, Yu Xiaocheng bid her farewell at Jiangnan Theater. The next day, a package containing Sha Chun's severed hands appeared on his doorstep.

"Assuming all this is true, the real killer must have had a very clear understanding of everything that had happened between Sha Chun and Yu Xiaocheng. They knew what Yu Xiaocheng was like. They knew that Yu Xiaocheng would agree to help Sha Chun take care of her hands, even if it troubled him. Because Yu Xiaocheng wouldn't have allowed anything to disturb his studies."

Ming Shu didn't speak too quickly, and he would occasionally pause, because these weren't thoughts he'd prepared in advance. He was thinking through his reasoning while he spoke. "They weren't Sha Chun's target," he continued. "They could probably be considered an outsider. So why would they understand the situation so clearly? Why did they get involved?"

"We can set aside their motive for the time being. Sometimes the thought process of a killer is absolutely unfathomable. No matter how many cases you and I investigate, we may never be able to get into the minds of some killers," Xiao Yu'an said. "However, thinking of who could possibly grasp the connection between Sha Chun and Yu Xiaocheng… from that, we can circle out a pool of suspects."

"The other teachers and staff members at 'Jianjia Bailu'," Ming Shu said.

"Based on Yu Xiaocheng's testimony and the dire conditions Sha Chun lived in prior to her death, we can determine that Sha Chun had been in an almost frenzied state," Xiao Yu'an said. "She had been involved in Wu Zhen's death. Regardless of whether Wu Zhen took the sodium cyanide by himself or not, Sha Chun was definitely the one who hid his body in cement.

"To an ordinary woman, this would definitely become a terrifying memory. Moreover, the traditional instruments department had started isolating Sha Chun more than ever. They'd even started to ostracize her on stage. She Chun must have been at rock bottom. She must have wanted to die as quickly as possible."

"But Yu Xiaocheng let her down…" Ming Shu moved to the window. "She could only search for someone else to become the next 'domino'."

"However, within a short span of time, she wasn't able to find anyone," Xiao Yu'an said. "That mysterious person facilitating things from the dark wasn't able to find anyone for her either."

Ming Shu turned from where he was standing by the window. "Ge, if it were you, what would you do?"

"It's very simple. When a person can't handle their present conditions anymore, they would most likely lower their expectations," Xiao Yu'an said. "Or they would simply resort to killing themselves."

"Sha Chun didn't kill herself." Ming Shu drew a slow breath. "Her death was the same as Wu Zhen's. There was something deceptive about it. She either succeeded in finding her next 'domino', or she found a fake 'domino'."

"Yu Xiaocheng rejected Sha Chun's proposal in early August, and Sha Chun died on August 24th," Xiao Yu'an said. "Could she have found a new 'successor' in such a short span of time? Also, we've already talked about the fact that the person who killed her tried to divert the blame to someone else. They tried to frame Yu Xiaocheng. Their motives were impure."

"Ling Xuzhi, the calligraphy teacher," Ming Shu said. "He had a fanatical sort of obsession with Sha Chun. He stalked her, he attended many of her performances. He could have eavesdropped on Sha Chun's conversations with Yu Xiaocheng!"

"If this person is emotionally unstable…" Xiao Yu'an trailed off and paused for a moment. "Upon learning of Sha Chun's wishes, he could have conceivably decided to 'help' her fulfill those wishes. And he could have tried to shift the blame to Yu Xiaocheng as a form of revenge. Plus, in death, he could forever possess Sha Chun. However…"

"'However' what?" Ming Shu asked.

"However, Ling Xuzhi isn't the only suspect," Xiao Yu'an said. "We still have a 'blind spot' at 'Jianjia Bailu'."

Ming Shu understood that Xiao Yu'an wasn't talking about a literal 'blind spot' in the surveillance cameras in the area. He was talking about a blind spot in their investigation, a corner they'd yet to shine a light on.

But what was that corner?

"Later, make the arrangements and send a team to the University of Medicine. Follow up on the lead of that 'university professor'," Xiao Yu'an said. "And on the other side, follow up on your own reasoning here. Go 'crack' that 'blind spot' that we've been overlooking thus far."

 

After receiving Ming Shu's support, Fang Yuanhang felt steadier than ever. He instantly rushed to Liu Mei's home. But he didn't find her. And Liu Mei's cell phone had also been disconnected.

It was as though she'd suddenly evaporated into thin air.

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WHEN AN ALPHA IS MARKED BY ONE OF HIS OWN KIND

Chapter 31

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The sun was rising, and the heat of the sun was starting to scorch the earth once more. Discussions about the vote Shen Qiao had cast last night were starting to boil over as well. While Shen Qiao had been lost in dreamland, gossipy netizens of the esports circle had already sent him up the trending topics list.

#ShenQiaoVotesForWolfDog#

The call was still connected. Shen Qiao was completely awake by now. With his phone connected to wifi, he started to load up Weibo.

A flurry of notifications cascaded across his screen. His private messages and comments notifications were all in the three-digits range, and the number of likes he'd received simply read '999+'—

Once his cell phone finally calmed down, Shen Qiao laid eyes on the Weibo landing page and felt a tremor run through his heart.

He took a deep breath and opened his own Weibo page. The latest post had been made after he cast that vote:

[I just voted in the 'What do you think the ship name for Lu Zhe and Shen Qiao should be?' poll. You should cast a vote too!]

Shen Qiao calmly stared at this message for a few seconds. Then he calmly got up and went to the window. Then he calmly opened the curtains with a—

WHOOSH!

The view from DG's third floor was pretty nice. A large red cotton tree stood right outside the dorms. Its bristly trunk was quite dark. The younger spines on the trunk were still sharp while the older ones had already become worn and rounded down with age.

Underneath the tree, a lush green lawn sprawled out. Even if a gardener didn't regularly tend to the lawn, the grass would stay green and healthy all year in the weather of Hua City. The only difference between having a gardener and not having one for that field would be in how unbridled the grass grew.

However, right now, these weren't the details that drew Shen Qiao's attention.

He gazed out the window with only one thought passing through his mind:

Would all my problems go away if I just jumped from here right now?

……

On the other end of the line, Lu Zhe could tell from that deathly silence that Shen Qiao had received a devastating blow to his own sense of self-respect. Then, hearing the sound of curtains being ripped open, Lu Zhe could more or less guess what Shen Qiao was thinking. Lu Zhe didn't say anything else to embarrass him even further.

He only said, "Just kidding. I was only teasing you. Not all that many people have seen it, actually. It's not too late to delete it now."

As he spoke, his cell phone lit up with a few more red dots—alerts telling him that new messages were spilling in from various friends.

Shen Qiao had received a timely reminder from Lu Zhe. He thought, in hindsight:

That's right.

Before killing yourself, you should destroy the evidence first.

He picked up his cell phone and instantly went to delete the incriminating post. At just that moment, another idea rose in the sea of his mind:

Should I also say I was hacked?

That moment of hesitation didn't stop him from getting rid of the post from last night first. After making sure no other bizarre posts had popped up on his Weibo page, Shen Qiao started to feel like maybe he hadn't completely disgraced himself. He could at least take a peek at his private messages now…

Fuck.

Before he even opened up any of his new messages, he could already see from the previews that the very first one read:

[You online? You're trending, bro.]

Shen Qiao stared.

Clinging to the last shreds of hope, he tapped open the trending topics list. He prodded the screen of his phone so forcefully that a loud BAP sounded out.

His years-old cell phone didn't react. It stayed on the current page without showing any hints of moving, as though innocently gazing up at him.

Shen Qiao tapped the screen again.

The trending topics list loaded and loaded. Finally, Shen Qiao was able to scroll down. He skimmed past the top ten, not catching sight of his name there. After letting out a sigh of relief, he started scrolling unhurriedly—until he found himself claiming the glory of the 40th trending spot.

Hotness: 150,000.

Shen Qiao glanced at the call that was still in progress. Then he took a screenshot of the trending topics list and expressionlessly sent it to Lu Zhe. Through gritted teeth, he quietly squeezed out one question:

"This is what you call 'not all that many people'?"

Even through the phone, Lu Zhe could hear the sound of Shen Qiao's glass heart cracking bit by bit. He did his very, very best to hold in his laughter. He replied, crisply, "It's all fake, the attention is manufactured. If anyone asks, tell them you were hacked. If anyone asks again, tell them they won't be capable of asking a third time."

As long as Shen Qiao didn't admit to anything even under threat of death, this matter would pass as though it simply didn't exist. After all, human beings possessed the wonderfully unique trait of sticking their heads in the sand and pretending their problems didn't exist. That was a trait they shouldn't give up on now.

Upon hearing Lu Zhe's threatening suggestions, Shen Qiao felt the gloom in his heart disperse. For some inexplicable reason, he suddenly reached a moment of clarity.

Immediately afterwards, he started to think all this was simply laughable. He couldn't believe he'd wasted a precious morning that he could have spent lazing around in bed, just to worry about this instead.

Shouldn't he have acted in his usual style and simply faced all of this without blinking an eye? Shouldn't he be bold enough to admit to it if someone were bold enough to ask him about this?

Panicking out of sheer embarrassment…

That was an overreaction. It made him seem too worked up about this.

Once he'd thought things through, Shen Qiao walked back to his bed. He said a few more cursory words before hanging up on Lu Zhe. Originally, he'd wanted to sleep some more. But after lying there for a long while, he didn't feel the slightest bit of sleepiness come over him. In the end, after checking the time, he decided to head to the pool to make up the workout he'd missed the other day.

After washing up, the youth threw on a pair of jeans and a short-sleeved shirt. He chucked his swimwear into a backpack, had a piece of chocolate, then headed out the door.

At that point in time, Lu Zhe was in the cafeteria. The two of them just so happened to miss each other. They didn't meet up again until noon that day, in the training room.

……

Qian Bao and Er-Hua seemed completely unperturbed by the passing storm. As usual, they were locked in a fierce competition over which one of them could arrive at the training room the latest. It felt as though they saw arriving earlier than the day before as some sort of massive defeat.

But, that day, Shen Qiao was the one who slipped into the training room only five minutes before practice was due to begin.

Those two 'Nationally Ranked S-Grade Sleepyheads' simultaneously cast a glance at Shen Qiao. Immediately afterwards, Er-Hua seemed to think of something. With a somewhat pensive expression, he opened his mouth and said to Shen Qiao:

"Daddy Wolf, I have a question I'd like to ask you."

Shen Qiao had spent too much time decompressing at the pool. He'd rushed to the cafeteria after getting back, catching the tail end of lunch service at the HQ. Now, in the training room, he was indulging in his habit of going to the fridge to reward himself with a piece of chocolate before practice began. Thus, at the time, he wasn't paying attention to the expression on Er-Hua's face.

Lu Zhe was sitting in his own seat. Hearing Er-Hua's words, he instinctively glanced over. Then, he lifted his own brows with a meaningful expression.

Just as Er-Hua started to think Lu Zhe was about to threaten him into shutting his mouth, Lu Zhe lowered his gaze again.

Er-Hua mulled over what that expression from Lu Zhe had actually meant.

Unfortunately, that was like searching for a needle in the deep sea of a man's heart. Er-Hua simply had no clue.

When Shen Qiao hummed his acknowledgement, indicating that Er-Hua should ask his question, Er-Hua still ultimately unleashed his own thirst for knowledge and asked away:

"Well, it's like this. When I got up this morning, I scrolled around on Weibo and just so happened to see a trending topic—"

Shen Qiao froze in the middle of opening the refrigerator door. His hand stilled on the cool edge of the door, and a heavy thunk sounded out in his heart.

Er-Hua paused for a second, then finished his question:

"Can you guess what that topic was?"

Shen Qiao was silent.

He figured there was an 80% chance he knew exactly what Er-Hua was hinting at.

Shen Qiao leaned down to rummage through his box of chocolates. He found a piece with a blueberry filling and tossed it into his mouth. He gave a casual, leisurely answer: "You want to ask about the weird ship poll I voted in last night, right? My hand slipped, I accidentally misclicked."

He felt like this excuse was more believable than being hacked.

Paired with his casual tone and the bored, disdainful look in his eye… it was perfect! In terms of both logic and delivery, his excuse was perfect! Bulletproof!

Shen Qiao savored the taste of the blueberry filling as it melted on his tongue, melding with the rich taste of the chocolate. He was perfectly satisfied with his own explanation. Inwardly, he nodded his approval like a little chick pecking at rice.

Er-Hua was silent for a few seconds.

Then, almost as though in a daze, he said, "Ah, so that vote really was fake? I was going to say, Daddy Wolf, you don't look like the sort that would cast a vote in a poll with such weird content."

Shen Qiao silently thought, What do you mean 'weird content'? How is it weird? Wouldn't any self-respecting alpha take this matter seriously and assert their superiority?

But outwardly, Shen Qiao kept his impassive expression plastered to his face. He seemed content to tacitly accept Er-Hua's interpretation, simultaneously using it as a means of clearing his name of this 'infamous' behavior.

However.

A moment later, Er-Hua spoke again:

"But, actually, that wasn't what I wanted to ask. What I really wanted to ask was—if you didn't go into that topic, how did you see the poll?

"To put it plainly, Daddy Wolf, why did you… in the middle of the night, instead of going to sleep… suddenly feel inspired to look into the ship of you and Captain Lu?"

Shen Qiao fell silent.

This was a high-level attack. A deadly blow.

At that moment, only one reaction meme could have captured Shen Qiao's state of mind: I'mNotHere.jpg

A bizarre, heavy silence descended upon the training room.

Lu Zhe couldn't hide the smile at the corners of his lips no matter how hard he tried. He sat in his gaming chair, all prim and proper, with one fist pressed to his lips, like he was thinking deeply on some matter. In truth, it was only to cover up the upwards curve of his lips.

Old Wo conveniently hid his own silent laughter while drinking from his cup. Qian Bao 'accidentally' dropped a pen under her desk and bent down, either to search for it or to hide her own amusement.

Shen Qiao clearly had his back turned to them all, but it was like he could see out of the back of his head. He rolled his eyes and lifted his head to gaze up at the ceiling. After swallowing the sweetness in his mouth, he gave a monotone and emotionless response:

"If you want to laugh, just laugh out loud."

Hastily, someone explained, "Ai, no, no. It's not that. Wolf Cub, you've misunderstood."

"Yeah. Are we the sort of people who would laugh?"

But, finally, there was someone who couldn't hold it in any longer: "Pfft—hahahahaha!"

Unbridled laughter echoed through the training room, trampling over Shen Qiao's frail alpha heart.

……

It wasn't until Coach Fang entered the training room that everyone finally diverted their attention away from the matter of that trending topic.

"Although we won yesterday's match with relative ease, as per tradition, we'll still review the games and see if we can find any room for improvement."

At that point, Coach Fang paused and glanced over at Shen Qiao. He seemed to think of something, and when he opened his mouth again, he said:

"Oh, that's right. Shen Qiao, there's something I want to ask you. About last night—"

Shen Qiao's nerves were currently pulled taut, and he only grew tenser every time he heard anything about 'last night' or 'Weibo' or 'trending' or some such. After being subjected to his teammates' teasing, his mood had taken a turn from 'slightly ashamed and hopeful that no one would bring it up again' to 'total despair'.

Before Coach Fang even finished asking his question, Shen Qiao flatly answered, "The vote is real. The trending topic is also real.

"I just think I can 'gong'. Is that so wrong?"

Coach Fang was silent.

A question mark could practically be seen rising from the top of his head.

After a few seconds of silence, he asked, "What nonsense are you talking about? What trending topic? What 'gong'?

"I was thinking about how you chose Kennen last night. When you first came to our team, you were asked to provide a list of the champions you're proficient with. You only told me that you could play any DPS champion, but that doesn't give me anything to work with.

"After thinking about it, I still want you to give me a list of the champions you're best at—preferably with names, gear, runes, and skills."

Shen Qiao said nothing.

He… still… really… wanted… to… die.

He could see Qian Bao and Old Wo starting to laugh again. Lu Zhe, sensing that his neighbor was close to exploding, cast a warning glance over at them, cautioning each and every one of them to rein it in a bit.

After all…

Couldn't they see that his little wolf was shy?

 

Author's Notes:

Qiaoqiao: Please end me quickly.

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MADNESS OF THE HEART

Chapter 62: Endless (Part Twenty-Two)

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Wen He, thirty-seven years old that year, worked in middle management at Xinmin Manufacturing, a state-owned enterprise. He had taken guzheng lessons with Sha Chun at 'Jianjia Bailu' from early-July to mid-July of that year. Originally, he'd purchased a three-month course of lessons, but when he was abruptly dispatched on a business trip to Europe, he'd had no choice but to postpone the rest of his sessions.

At the time of Sha Chun's death, Wen He was out of the country. He'd only returned to Dongye City a day ago, and in another week's time, he would be dispatched to Europe again.

Wen He wasn't a suspect, so Ming Shu didn't have him brought to the Serious Crimes Division. He personally paid Wen He a visit at Xinmin Manufacturing.

As middle management, Wen He had a private office of his own. The office wasn't terribly large, and there wasn't much on the table and shelves—probably because Wen He wouldn't be staying long.

Ming Shu instantly took note of the medicine sitting next to the computer monitor.

Wen He looked quite ordinary, and he was very polite. He poured them some tea and gestured for Ming Shu to have a seat. While pulling out a chair for Ming Shu, he saw the medicine as well and hastily put it away in a drawer.

Ming Shu recognized the packaging. If he remembered correctly, that medicine was used to treat clinical depression.

"You have clinical depression?" Ming Shu asked straightforwardly.

"Ah…" Wen He was just in the middle of shutting the drawer. He froze for a moment, but then he didn't hide it. "Mm, yes. But I've been receiving treatment all this time, and my condition has improved a lot since I went abroad. It doesn't affect my work. I apologize, I only just got back. My stuff is all over the place. I'm sorry you had to see that."

Ming Shu dwelled on one particular phrase: It doesn't affect my work.

Instantly, it gave him a preliminary idea of what kind of person Wen He was at work—reliable and dependable, a real go-getter. Slight inferiority complex. Concerned with how others evaluate him. At all times, he placed work above all else.

One had to exercise care and caution when questioning clinical depression patients. Fortunately, Wen He's condition didn't seem terribly severe. Ming Shu considered his own words carefully for a moment before he asked, "If it doesn't trouble you to talk about it, could you tell me how you came to be diagnosed with clinical depression?"

A slightly awkward and embarrassed look came over Wen He as he sipped his tea. "Is it that my answer would help in your investigation?"

"Yes," Ming Shu answered honestly.

Wen He drew a breath. "Okay. Okay, please give me a moment to prepare."

In his heart, Ming Shu added to his evaluation of Wen He—this was a very sincere and honest man.

"Last year, I got divorced. My wife received full custody. This was a fairly serious blow to me. Additionally, during that time, I had a setback at work. I felt depressed by basically every aspect of my life," Wen He said. "I couldn't go on, and I didn't want to talk about any of it with my friends. So I did some research online and found that I might have some sort of psychological problem."

"So you voluntarily sought out a doctor?" Ming Shu asked.

Wen He nodded. "I couldn't get myself to feel any interest in anything. No energy, no enthusiasm. I'd already messed up at work, and when my psychological problems surfaced, my work quality declined even more. I couldn't just sit around and resign myself to my fate."

"Which hospital did you visit?" Ming Shu asked. "Which doctor?"

Wen He was a little hesitant, but after a moment he took out a business card and passed it over to Ming Shu. "This one."

When Ming Shu skimmed the information on the card, he faintly furrowed his brows.

Luo Yi. Jiulin Psychology Clinic.

Jiulin Psychology Clinic was a part of Guangye Hospital. Just one block away from Dongye City's University of Medicine.

"How old is this Dr. Luo?" Ming Shu asked.

"About the same age as me," Wen He said. "Pretty impressive. Not even forty yet, and already a director."

Then this doctor was only in his thirties, while the 'university professor' Long Tianhao had spoken of was in his fifties.

Ming Shu didn't continue pursuing that line of thought. Instead he asked, "How long have you been receiving treatment at Jiulin?"

"Mm… I started going in December of last year. At first, I went every week. Then I started going just once a month," Wen He said. "I'll be visiting again while I'm here this time. I have an appointment with Dr. Luo the day after tomorrow."

"Would you mind if I had a look at your medicine?" Ming Shu asked.

Wen He instantly took out his medicine again. "I've changed my medication a few times already. I haven't been on this one for too long. Dr. Luo changed my prescription after improvements in my condition."

Ming Shu studied it for a while before setting the medicine down on the desk. "Besides taking medication, did Dr. Luo suggest that you do anything else?"

This was a very pointed question, but Wen He didn't seem to realize that. He thought for a moment before he said, "Oh, that's right. I went to 'Jianjia Bailu' to study the guzheng at Dr. Luo's suggestion."

Ming Shu's gaze instantly sharpened. "Dr. Luo advised you to seek out Sha Chun?"

Faced with Ming Shu's intense gaze, Wen He felt another wave of unease. He let out an awkward laugh before he amended, "No, no. Dr. Luo doesn't know Sha Chun. I was the one who chose Sha Chun's class. It didn't have anything to do with Dr. Luo."

There was a contradiction in Wen He's first answer and his second. Ming Shu couldn't let that go. He persisted, "But you did just say that Dr. Luo was the one who suggested that you go to 'Jianjia Bailu'."

"I didn't express myself well, I'm sorry," Wen He explained. "Dr. Luo suggested that I adopt a hobby outside of work. Like playing an instrument, or practicing a fine art, or playing a sport. He said that would help in my treatment."

"So you chose the guzheng?" Ming Shu asked.

"Actually, I didn't choose it on my own either," Wen He said. "I've never had many hobbies ever since I was little. I only knew to do my homework and study for tests. Before, when I was in school, my male classmates liked to play soccer or basketball. Girls liked to listen to music. I wasn't interested in any of it. I thought it was all a waste of time."

Ming Shu thought, He's another Yu Xiaocheng?

"When I first went to Jiulin, Dr. Luo advised me to make time to relax outside of work and develop a hobby. I didn't take his advice back then. After taking a lot of medicine, my condition didn't improve much. Dr. Luo repeated his suggestions to me a few times, before I finally started to consider picking up a hobby," Wen He said. "It was… near the end of June, I think. While leaving Jiulin, I ran into a kid handing out promotional pamphlets."

"Pamphlets for 'Jianjia Bailu'?" Ming Shu asked.

"Right," Wen He said. "Although I wasn't all that interested in music, I would often hear traditional music on TV. That sort of music gave me a feeling of comfort, so I thought that might be a good choice. After going to 'Jianjia Bailu' to take a look, I found everything pretty satisfactory, so I signed up for classes."

"The person who gave you the pamphlet was a kid?" Ming Shu asked.

"Mm, a little kid." Wen He had never had any dealings with criminal police in the past. He didn't understand why Ming Shu's questions were all so strange.

"How little of a kid?"

"Just… this tall." Wen He gestured in midair, demonstrating a height. "Seven or eight years old, I would guess. Definitely no older than ten."

Ming Shu fell silent for a while, then turned the subject of conversation onto Wen He's family and background.

Wen He had been born in the countryside. He'd gotten into a college in Dongye City, and from then on settled there.

Wen He's family situation actually bore many similarities to Ran He's. They both came from impoverished families and had several older sisters.

The difference between them was that Ran He had come to depend on his wife and father-in-law. Wen He, on the other hand, had truly become independent and capable of supporting himself. He'd advanced step by step through life, finally earning himself a middle management position at a state-owned business.

As a student, Wen He hadn't dated at all. He focused solely on his studies. He'd met his ex-wife through a marriage interview when he already had a steady job. They couldn't exactly say they loved each other, but they both had a need to get married; so five years ago, they'd tied the knot.

The ex-wife's family conditions couldn't be considered extremely good, but her parents did both work in the city. Her parents looked down on Wen He, and thus Wen He and his ex-wife experienced no shortage of friction throughout their marriage. In the vast majority of disputes, Wen He was the one who compromised and caved to his ex-wife's expectations.

Last year, in the total absence of passion in their marriage, Wen He's ex-wife had brought up the matter of divorce. Her parents had strongly insisted that she claim custody of their child who had just turned three.

Wen He had treated his marriage as a business engagement, and he knew his ex-wife had been dissatisfied with him in many regards. Before his ex-wife decided on divorce, Wen He had been planning to invest in a family outing. He had been planning to take his ex-wife and her parents on a trip.

To Wen He, failure in marriage wasn't much different from failure in work.

It was all because he lacked the ability to make things work.

After his divorce, Wen He became rather isolated.

"It's a good thing I went to see a doctor," Wen He said. "My condition now is much better than it was last year. Learning the guzheng and going on business trips both helped me, I think. I just never imagined something would happen to Sha Chun. She was extremely kind and understanding. It's really a shame."

'Kind' wasn't the important part, but 'understanding' was critical.

"What do you mean when you say she was 'understanding'?" Ming Shu asked.

It was apparent that Wen He felt genuine pity for Sha Chun. "Every time I took a class with her, we would chat. I told her about my experiences, and she told me about hers. Dr. Luo said I needed to get used to communicating with other people. When I talked to Sha Chun, I felt pretty relaxed."

"Because the two of you were similar?" Ming Shu asked.

Wen He didn't shy away from that subject. "Yes, our experiences in school were very similar. We could sympathize with each other as soon as we started talking. We both worked very hard after joining the workforce as well. We were both determined to make it to the top of our fields.

"We put too much pressure on ourselves. That's actually how my condition arose. But I was luckier than her in one regard. My colleagues were extremely kind to me. I was able to go to Europe this time because my superior was looking out for me, giving me this chance to go out there and learn while clearing my head."

As a clinical depression patient who was still on medication, Wen He's condition was already very good. There was a very good chance that, before long, he could stop taking his medication. It was obvious that a person's environment had a big effect on their mental state.

Ming Shu sorted through all this new information, and he soon gained a better understanding of how Wen He's superiors and colleagues felt about him as well. They considered him a very diligent person with above-average capabilities. They saw him as someone who was always eager to be the first to tackle a job.

But Wen He did have one problem which limited his advancement at work and in life. His field of vision was too narrow.

Between this year and last year, all the hurdles that Wen He encountered at work arose from his lack of vision. If he'd remained an ordinary employee rather than advancing to middle management, he would have been perfectly capable of becoming an outstanding employee in his field. But once he rose into management, his weakness became more apparent. His inability to think big made his other abilities seem less impressive as well.

To Wen He, middle management was the ceiling. He couldn't go any higher.

 

Criminal Investigation Bureau. Serious Crimes Division.

"Long Tianhao's words do have some measure of credibility," Ming Shu said, holding a copy of some medical records. "He can't possibly be Sha Chun's killer. The injury in his left hand would prohibit him from strangling someone. He told us that he once met a 'university professor' on the campus of the University of Medicine, and that 'professor' told him to take guzheng lessons from Sha Chun at 'Jianjia Bailu'. For the time being, I believe him."

Xiao Yu'an nodded his agreement. "In this regard, there really isn't any need for Long Tianhao to lie."

"There aren't any obvious contradictions in Wen He's story either. The only little snag was that, on the matter of why he went to 'Jianjia Bailu', he gave two different answers." Ming Shu relayed the specifics of his conversation with Wen He to Xiao Yu'an. "I feel like his explanation checks out. Ordinary people who are suddenly pulled into a murder case, especially when facing the police, tend to get nervous. They could slip up and speak inaccurately."

Xiao Yu'an smiled. "So you've already sorted out your thoughts. You've realized that Long Tianhao's words and Wen He's words can be used as important leads."

Ming Shu lightly popped his lips and looked around. Seeing that they were alone, he whooshed over to Xiao Yu'an's side and bent at the waist to whisper in Xiao Yu'an's ear, "Hey, Director Xiao."

Between the two of them, one was sitting and one was standing. The one standing had a hand in his pocket; his dress shirt and suit pants were extremely flattering on his figure.

"Mm?" Xiao Yu'an prompted. "Can I help you?"

Ming Shu's brain suddenly seemed to lag. He completely forgot what he'd zoomed over to say. When he straightened up, he still couldn't remember.

Xiao Yu'an patted him on the lower waist. "Don't think too hard about it. I'm sure you were about to say some nonsense just now."

Since he was already there, Ming Shu decided to simply sit on the desk. "I'm busy analyzing the case. How could I possibly talk nonsense now? I haven't even said anything yet, and you've already decided it would be nonsense?"

"I can tell just by looking at that expression of yours," Xiao Yu'an said. "And even now, you haven't remembered what you wanted to say. It certainly can't have been anything important. Our Captain Ming is such an outstanding and brilliant police detective. If he really wanted to say something relating to the case, he definitely wouldn't suddenly let it slip from his mind."

"Oi, this compliment…" Ming Shu grinned. "Does your old face never take on a blush?"

Unhurriedly, Xiao Yu'an retorted, "Yours is the one that's taken on a blush."

Ming Shu's eyes widened. He swiftly realized that Xiao Yu'an was teasing him, and he hastily voiced a protest. "Stop, stop! Truce!"

Xiao Yu'an laughed and said, "Mm, go ahead and continue your line of thought."

This was one of the best things about his family's Little Ming Shu. Sometimes, he would get the urge to stir up some trouble, but he understood propriety. When it was time to get serious, he got serious in an instant.

"We've been focusing on our investigation on the ten students with whom Sha Chun had one-on-one lessons," Ming Shu said. "After eliminating Wu Zhen, there are nine students left. Among them, we haven't been able to contact Zhou Lan at all. She was the first of Sha Chun's students to come to 'Jianjia Bailu'. She took her lessons before Wu Zhen had his. For the time being, we can rule her out."

Ming Shu had his legs crossed at the ankles. He swung them lightly as he sat on the desk. "Of the other eight, we can split them into groups. Liu Mei, who doesn't seem extraordinarily diligent. The He cousins. And the two little girls who don't possess the physical ability to commit the crime. These five can be grouped into a category of students who stumbled upon 'Jianjia Bailu' by chance and of their own volition. No external forces sent them there. Now, Wen He and…"

"Wait a minute," Xiao Yu'an interrupted. "Eliminate Liu Mei from that list."

"Hm?" Ming Shu blinked. "You have another lead on her?"

"Liu Mei's words and actions are somewhat suspect. Your little rookie can't let it go. He already reported to me that he's still following up on her," Xiao Yu'an said.

"Huh?" Ming Shu gave it some thought. There really were quite a few problems with Liu Mei's responses. It was a good thing that Fang Yuanhang had taken the initiative to follow up on that.

Xiao Yu'an continued, "Wen He, Long Tianhao, and Yu Xiaocheng. These three are extraordinarily diligent. So they go into their own group?"

"At the very least, Wen He and Long Tianhao need to go into the same group," Ming Shu said. "Long Tianhao was influenced by a 'university professor'. That was the only reason he went to 'Jianjia Bailu'. The purpose was extremely clear. And Wen He was also pushed towards 'Jianjia Bailu' by an external force. The doctor at the Jiulin Psychology Clinic had the ability to influence him.

"However, the 'professor' Long Tianhao encountered was in his fifties. Luo Yi is only thirty-something. It's more or less impossible for the two of them to be the same person.

"Now, Wen He said he received his promotional pamphlet from a child. Most of the people who hand out fliers on the street are young people working part-time jobs or older people who have already retired. Why would there be a seven- or eight-year-old child doing this?

"We can be pretty sure that the little kid received instructions from someone else. Someone told the kid to give the 'Jianjia Bailu' pamphlet to Wen He."

After a beat, Ming Shu continued, "As for Yu Xiaocheng, there are two possibilities. One is that he also received some sort of external influence that led him towards 'Jianjia Bailu', but he didn't realize he'd been influenced—just like Wen He. The other possibility is that he really did choose 'Jianjia Bailu' by chance.

"Yu Xiaocheng is different from Wen He and Long Tianhao in several ways. Right now, most of our evidence points towards Yu Xiaocheng as the guilty party. He had the time and means to commit the crime, and he fits our profile of the killer. The suspicion on him is extremely high. We can practically confirm that he's the killer, and we certainly can't be sure that his words are believable."

"Of the evidence we have in hand, the only thing that helps put Yu Xiaocheng in the clear is the surveillance records from the net cafe he went to," Xiao Yu'an said. "But that isn't enough to definitively prove that Yu Xiaocheng didn't have the means to commit the crime."

"Right," Ming Shu agreed. Grimly, he continued, "Ge, I think we need to adjust the trajectory of our investigation. We used to think that Wu Zhen's case and Sha Chun's case were both instances of people in 'despair' planning their own deaths, independently. But now, it seems very possible that this 'university professor' is orchestrating this string of deaths from the dark. This 'professor' could have been ushering people like Wu Zhen and Sha Chun to 'Jianjia Bailu', so that Sha Chun could pick from them!"

Xiao Yu'an stood up. "During our last meeting, I thought of that possibility. I didn't bring it up at the time because I couldn't think of a motive for this person to act in such a way, and I didn't have any evidence to support that theory back then. Now, Long Tianhao has directly confirmed this person's existence."

"We originally thought these were murder cases. Then they appeared to be suicides. Now, it seems they could very well be homicides again," Ming Shu said. He radiated a dignified aura. "Long Tianhao once sought treatment from the University of Medicine's auxiliary hospital, and Wen He received treatment from the Jiulin Psychology Center, which is a part of Guangye Hospital.

"It all comes back to the University of Medicine in the end. This 'mystery man' has already surfaced, but what his motives and reasons are… for the time being, I can't conceive of them either."

"If Long Tianhao, Wen He, and Yu Xiaocheng were all influenced by this 'mystery man' to attend classes at 'Jianjia Bailu', then his methods of selecting his targets are far too random. It's like he's randomly scattering 'seeds' to the wind while thinking at least one will germinate." Xiao Yu'an glanced at the sketch of the 'university professor' that had been created based on Long Tianhao's description. "He amassed all these potential targets while keeping himself completely detached from these people who have fallen into 'despair'. He lets them choose among themselves…

"If that's his method, then Sha Chun was one of the 'seeds' he prepared for Wu Zhen. One of many."

"Then what about the other 'seeds' provided to Wu Zhen?" Ming Shu mused. "All the people Wu Zhen encountered after his handwriting changed could have been 'seeds' provided by this 'mystery man', right? And the one who was ultimately persuaded by Wu Zhen was Sha Chun? That gives us a new line of investigation… then, what about before Wu Zhen?"

Xiao Yu'an shook his head. "Before Wu Zhen, there may have been only the 'mystery man' himself."

Ming Shu's pupils constricted. "Wu Zhen didn't kill anyone? He was directly influenced by the 'mystery man', becoming the first 'domino' to fall? That doesn't quite check out."

"Wu Zhen's case dates back to before Sha Chun's, and we haven't made any breakthroughs there," Xiao Yu'an said. "Let's return our attention to Sha Chun for now. She tried to influence Yu Xiaocheng, Long Tianhao, and Wen He. She tried to turn one of them into the next 'domino' in the sequence. Although Wen He had clinical depression, he had both ups and downs in life. His psychological state could be said to be relatively good.

"More importantly, Wen He only took lessons with Sha Chun for a short time before he was sent to Europe. So Sha Chun didn't get the chance to get to the heart of the matter with him."

"Long Tianhao…" Ming Shu crossed his arms and furrowed his brow deeply, sinking into thought. "Sha Chun might not have trusted him. Or she might have given up on him for some other reason. She set her sights on Yu Xiaocheng instead. Then, with that, it seems like we have the final nail in Yu Xiaocheng's coffin.

"Sha Chun only had these three people who she could have influenced. Long and Wen can both be eliminated. Besides Yu Xiaocheng, who else is left?"

The room fell into silence.

A few seconds later, Ming Shu prompted, "Director Xiao?"

Xiao Yu'an's eyes reflected the depth of his thoughts. "I'm thinking… if we use Long Tianhao, Wen He, Yu Xiaocheng, Sha Chun, and Wu Zhen as our points of reference, then the net cast by this 'mystery man' is far too wide and random. He just needs one 'seed' to germinate. For him to do all this, I can only think of one similar example."

Ming Shu came to a sudden realization. "He's conducting an experiment?"

Bzzz!

The cell phone on the table vibrated. Ming Shu picked it up. From the other end of the line, Fang Yuanhang shouted, "Chief! Liu Mei might have something to do with the case of a missing woman!"

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WHEN AN ALPHA IS MARKED BY ONE OF HIS OWN KIND

Chapter 30

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"Were you satisfied with that performance?"

The entirety of Team DG had come out on stage to take a photo with the audience. They were departing through the passageway reserved for players now. Coach Fang caught sight of the smile curving Lu Zhe's lips and coldly threw out that question.

Lu Zhe seemed to think it over for a moment before he answered truthfully, "It was fine. The main issue was that my words were too euphemistic. I worry people didn't understand—"

Qian Bao lifted her own hands to her own throat, gagging and miming that she was about to throw up.

Er-Hua and Old Wo had despair written all over their faces.

Only Coach Fang let out a cold laugh. He took out his phone and showed Lu Zhe a collection of real-time comments that the event organizers had collected very efficiently. "No need to worry," he said. "You've already succeeded."

Lu Zhe lifted his gaze to the cell phone. The bullet comments were already painting a dense rainbow across the screen—

[HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!]

[Dog Lu, you're being condemned by the masses right now, do you know that?]

[You have the balls to try to make our Wolf Cub call you 'beloved'?!]

[I just want to ask whether or not you've been beaten to death yet. Will I be able to see you at your next game? @LuZhe]

[Fans of both of you are so conflicted right now. Not sure which one of you we should consider our rival in love.]

[Their fan bases have already set up a new camp. They're fighting over whether their ship should be called WolfDog or LiuShen. Watching that mess has got me laughing so hard I could puke.]

Lu Zhe swiftly skimmed those comments, then gave a satisfied nod. He took out his own cell phone and lowered his head as he said, "These fans are pretty efficient. Not bad. I'm going to take a look and see if I can find this 'camp'."

Coach Fang was silent.

Clearly he'd made a mistake. He'd overestimated Lu Zhe's ability to feel shame.

Shen Qiao listened on from the side with a haughty and disinterested expression, as though this matter didn't concern him in the slightest.

It was just that—

He was walking very close to Lu Zhe. He'd inadvertently glanced over and caught sight of Lu Zhe's Weibo page. After pursing his lips, he looked away again, acting like he'd seen absolutely nothing.

……

On the trip back to HQ, the interior of the van was very dark. The ones who listened to music listened to music, the ones who played around on their phones played around on their phones. Some even dozed off. Everyone in the van minded their own business, basking in the faint glimmer from outside.

Lu Zhe and Shen Qiao sat in the back row, each sticking to one side of the van. Shen Qiao was playing minesweeper on his phone. Hard mode. Because there were many little squares, he brought his head closer and closer to the screen as he played, until his nose was practically buried in his phone.

Suddenly—

A certain warmth pressed up against his forehead, accompanied by a gust of cedarwood. As the scent filled his nose, Shen Qiao's hands froze. His head was lifted a considerable amount by Lu Zhe.

"You'll go near-sighted if you keep that up."

Lu Zhe's voice fell upon his ears from a very close distance.

Shen Qiao glanced to the side, only to find that this person had somehow, at some point, scooted over from the seat on the other side of the van.

The glowing light from the streetlamps they passed drifted in through the windows, falling past Lu Zhe's profile. His eyes seemed to twinkle like stars in that flickering light, somehow enticing a person and eliciting the desire to pry into his deeper thoughts.

Shen Qiao gazed into his eyes for a while. In his moment of distraction, he even managed to have his cell phone snatched away by Lu Zhe.

Shen Qiao blinked.

Lu Zhe laughed softly and scooted even closer. He lowered his voice to a whisper and began to bargain with Shen Qiao: "Don't look anymore. I'll find you something else to focus your attention on. I'll tell you a story, how about that?"

A brighter swath of lights spilled in at just that moment. When Lu Zhe glanced to the side, he could clearly see some contempt.

But he wasn't bothered. He went on as though minding his own business and continued, "I just saw some little stories written by our fans. Why don't you give them a listen and see what you think?"

Poor, innocent Shen Qiao had yet to learn of the existence of fanfiction. Just like that, he wandered into the pitfall trap laid out for him by Lu Zhe.

Lu Zhe's warm, gentle voice had an inexplicable calming effect on those who heard it. Before Shen Qiao could find a way to refuse the suggestion, he had already fallen into the sea of Lu Zhe's voice:

"A little male wolf was born in the woods. Tragically, at the time of his birth, his mother had already been starving for three days. She was hanging on to the last threads of life. All the food she'd saved had been stolen by hyenas. She could only lick her newborn cub's fur a few times before forfeiting her life.

"The little wolf had yet to open his eyes. He hazily sensed danger, but unfortunately he had no strength to move. He had no defenses against prowling predators. Ultimately, he was picked up by a big dog who had been wandering through those woods lately. He was lifted by the scruff of his neck and brought back to the dog's den.

"The big dog licked the little wolf's fur all over, then gave him a sniff, memorizing his scent. After leaving for a while, he returned with a female hyena who'd just given birth. He lowered his muzzle to the little wolf cub's ear and said, meaningfully, 'Drink lots. You'll have to grow up big and strong to be my bride.'"

At that point, Shen Qiao couldn't resist interrupting: "Wait."

Expressionlessly, he turned to Lu Zhe and asked, "Setting aside the question of why that weird dog didn't kill and eat the wolf cub, what kind of twist is the dog wanting to have sex with the wolf?"

Lu Zhe flashed a small smile and gave an explanation: "Oh, this is an original story that our fans wrote about us. The big dog is called Lu Zhe, the little wolf cub is called Shen Qiao. You have to turn your brain off when you read these things."

Shen Qiao was speechless.

He could understand the logic of that, he supposed, but why was the story… a bit weird? Furthermore, did Lu Zhe not feel the slightest bit embarrassed while reading it out loud? He was one of the main characters, after all.

And why did they have to be animals? Because animals were cute?

Shen Qiao hesitated for a few seconds, then cleared his throat and whispered those questions to Lu Zhe.

Lu Zhe fell silent for a moment.

Old Wo, who was now pretending to sleep in the front row after being woken from a genuine nap, couldn't hold it in. He burst out laughing first. It had been quiet inside the van, after all, and he wasn't all that far away from the two people in the back row.

Taking advantage of the fact that Lu Zhe was incapable of stopping him from the back, Old Wo raised his voice and said, "Daddy #2! You can't believe his bullshit! This is fanfiction, and it's beastiality to boot! People don't write this because it's cute, they write it because they want to drive a car!"

After saying all that, Old Wo tsked and sighed. "Daddy Lu, you really have no limits."

Shen Qiao blinked, feeling a jolt of alarm.

Although he didn't know what 'fanfiction' was meant to be, he was absolutely certain that he understood what 'driving a car' meant in this context.

When he thought of Lu Zhe reading out that sort of lewd, explicit content in front of everyone, Shen Qiao was seized by the desire to open up a seam to another dimension. After strangling Lu Zhe to death, he would slip in and disappear.

Lu Zhe was just about to open his mouth to explain that this piece was totally pure, but Shen Qiao expressionlessly stomped on his left foot, which had gotten too close. He ground his own foot down on Lu Zhe's and grit out two words through his teeth:

"Shut. Up."

After thinking about that for a second, Shen Qiao decided the threat wasn't enough. He added, "If you say another word, I'll beat the hell out of you. And I always keep my word."

Lu Zhe donned a perfectly reasonable expression and set down his cell phone. He made a gesture of innocence and surrender, smiling disarmingly and charmingly—

Then he discreetly aimed a blast of his pheromones at Old Wo's seat.

Old Wo had been contentedly lying down when he was suddenly crushed by that wave of Lu Zhe's pheromones. His eyes flew open wide and he silently gasped for air. It was a long moment before he managed to wheeze out a few words through gritted teeth:

"Daddy… please… let me live…"

Seeing that Shen Qiao's expression had darkened by a few more measures, Lu Zhe instantly retreated his pheromones, no longer acting up in front of Shen Qiao.

……

With the back row sinking into a bizarre silence, the van arrived at DG's headquarters.

Outside the air conditioned car, the Hua City summer night was as scorchingly hot as ever. Stepping into that heat was akin to stepping into a steamer basket. Every single person who climbed out of the car felt like they were entering a sauna. Even the humidity in the air felt like it was composed of evaporated boiling water.

Er-Hua started to sweat from the neck pretty much instantly. He all but ran towards the HQ, seeking the life-saving air conditioning that would be found inside.

The others followed, one after another.

Coach Fang seemed to think of something before taking off for the night. He looked back at Shen Qiao and Lu Zhe, who'd fallen behind to the back of the pack. Shen Qiao had just fished out a cigarette, and Lu Zhe was leisurely walking alongside him. Coach Fang shot Lu Zhe a warning glare, silently cautioning him not to mess around too late into the night.

Lu Zhe nodded.

Click…

The sound of a lighter rang out from beside him.

Lu Zhe didn't continue moving in the direction of their HQ. Just like before their match that day, when Shen Qiao smoked, Lu Zhe was determined to be the first one to breathe in a few lungfuls of secondhand smoke.

Shen Qiao opened and closed his lighter at least ten times when he saw Lu Zhe shifting closer with a smile. Finally, Shen Qiao let out a long breath and took out the cigarette that had been dangling between his lips. His tone was as lazy as always when he spoke, tinged with a hint of impatience:

"Okay. I won't smoke. Go back."

Only Lu Zhe knew that Shen Qiao wasn't really impatient. If he were really impatient with someone, Shen Qiao wouldn't have bothered to explain anything at all. Offering even a few words was a sign that he cared.

So cute.

He was way, way cuter than the poor little wolf cub who'd been picked up and carried away by the scruff of his neck.

Lu Zhe's eyes softened a little more, and he looked towards the cigarette Shen Qiao was holding. He lost the teasing lilt to his voice and earnestly, seriously said, "Making you quit all of a sudden must be hard on you. I know about the aftereffects.

"But you promised me you would smoke less. At least less than the two or three packs a day that you were going through when you first came here. So we'll take it slow. 'kay?"

Even without looking it up online, Lu Zhe knew about the effects that came after quitting smoking. Poor moods, exhaustion, coughing, and so on… quitting cold turkey wouldn't immediately make Shen Qiao's physical health take a turn for the better. In fact, it would even affect his everyday life.

But, on the other hand, ignoring his increasing dependency on cigarettes wasn't an option.

Setting everything else aside, Lu Zhe knew from the time he ran into Shen Qiao at the hospital that Shen Qiao's glandular problems were still present. Smoking while on his meds was sure to lower the medication's efficacy. Thinking in terms of the long run, Lu Zhe absolutely had to reduce Shen Qiao's addiction.

During the time they'd trained with practice games, Shen Qiao had indeed reduced his smoking—of his own accord. But now that they'd entered the summer tournament, Shen Qiao would naturally gravitate towards cigarettes again as a way to decompress and alleviate stress. Lu Zhe understood all that.

Really, the concern Coach Fang had shown just now was a bit baseless—

If he was really going to mess around with Shen Qiao, why would he have just sat there reading him a pure, innocent piece of fanfiction?

It had been so dark in the van, and the two of them had been the only people in the back row. If Lu Zhe had just pressed Shen Qiao into a corner, who could have possibly known what they were doing?

But he hadn't done anything like that, and he wouldn't.

When he met Lu Zhe's gaze, Shen Qiao felt like the cigarette between his fingers was starting to burn him. He couldn't take that sort of deep, meaningful look, so he averted his gaze first.

"I got it," he answered. "Let's go back and rest. We still have practice tomorrow."

Lu Zhe nodded and followed him all the way back to HQ. Their two shadows were stretched and thinned by the lights outside the building. Those shadows gradually started to overlap and meld together, like two strings of fate that had previously been separate, finally starting to intertwine.

……

Middle of the night.

Shen Qiao had one hand at the back of his head. He'd yet to fall asleep. For the time being, he was scrolling around on his phone to alleviate his boredom.

He didn't know what came over him, but he suddenly looked up what fanfiction meant. Then he went to Weibo to search up a few keywords. In the dark of night, he randomly wandered into a bizarre supertopic.

The latest post was a poll.

What do you think the ship name for Lu Zhe and Shen Qiao should be?

  1. WolfDog.
  2. LiuShen.
  3. 2Dog.
  4. Just a passerby, show results.

Shen Qiao scrolled down to check out the rest of the posts. Besides the poll, the latest post only contained photos from the interview he and Lu Zhe had given together.

Several hotly rated comments were there—

Everyone In DG Is Part Of My Harem: Sisters, we haven't even clearly decided who's gong and who's shou! If we don't get that set soon, we're going to split up into Team Qiao and Team Lu! (208 Likes)

Eating Watermelon Without Spitting Out The Seeds: If it's Captain Lu, I'm into it! Wahhhh! Isn't AA too fierce, you guys?! (103 Likes)

Qiaoqiao Has Always Comforted Me: I! I! I! I'm willing to give up my laogong! Captain Lu is way more than good enough, after all! Let me join you guys! (59 Likes)

Shen Qiao stared.

He cut to a new page and looked up what 'gong' and 'shou' meant. Then, after thinking about it, he gave the first option—WolfDog—a vote.

That put him in front. That meant he was stronger than Lu Zhe.

As the saying goes, Even if you lose yourself, you can't lose face.

He simply meant to cast a vote and go offline. He didn't even bother to check the number of votes for each option. Everyone was just having their own fun, anyway.

……

The next morning, he was woken up by a phone call from Lu Zhe.

Shen Qiao slapped at his phone without even opening his eyes. Regardless of whether or not the call connected, he didn't make a sound. Lu Zhe's obviously smiling voice drifted over the line and into his ears first.

"Still sleeping? Alright, I just wanted to give you a heads up. The fans saw the vote you cast last night. Now everyone who's here to check out the commotion is asking me… exactly which one of us is on top?"

Shen Qiao listened silently.

Then he sat bolt upright in bed.

He instantly opened his eyes. His voice was still raspy and a little nasally from sleep, but his surprise was evident:

"What did you say?"

The vote he'd cast last night… had been seen?!

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WHEN AN ALPHA IS MARKED BY ONE OF HIS OWN KIND

Chapter 29

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Lu Zhe's voice was very low and quiet. His words were well-hidden beneath the clamor of the spectators in the arena stands around them.

They were currently passing through a hidden passageway. A dim blue glow turned the surrounding staff members into little more than hazy silhouettes. If one were to take a step or two away and turn just slightly, they wouldn't even be able to make out the shape of anyone else's face.

Strangely enough—

In the secretive atmosphere of that passageway, Shen Qiao walked very close to Lu Zhe. So close that their shoulders nearly brushed. And when he heard those words that sounded so like a confession, he suddenly got the inexplicable feeling that, in the dark, they were the only two people present.

It was a feeling of intimacy that was difficult to describe in words.

It felt almost as though, in that moment, all the staff members around them receded like the tide. The two of them were the only two people left, the only two souls who existed in the whole world. Their breathing and their heartbeats seemed closer and more in sync than ever before.

Even Lu Zhe's pheromones, which he had controlled so well, seemed to faintly drift past the tip of Shen Qiao's nose. That soft touch of cedarwood was as cold and crisp as ever. The scent was fleeting. When Shen Qiao tried to use his keen senses to focus in on it, the scent seemed to vanish. Only to suddenly resurface once more after he stopped actively chasing it.

He didn't know whether those pheromones were as vile as their owner, always out to deliberately provoke him, or if their rise and fall was only a figment of his own overactive imagination.

The passageway was like a dark road that soon came to an end, with the darkness scattered by the break of day. At the end of that road, blinding lights appeared.

In that place, Shen Qiao didn't make a single sound. He silently lifted his gaze to meet Lu Zhe's—

This person had an extraordinarily beautiful set of eyes, curving in at the insides and up at the outsides. His lashes were thick, dark, and long. They were so beautiful that they gave off a false sense of affection. Even passersby, caught up in those eyes, were prone to misconstruing the depth of that gaze as one which held boundless seas of deep emotions and adoration.

The mere act of gazing into those eyes could leave young, inexperienced men and women feeling like their hearts would race out of their chests.

And now, Lu Zhe's face had lost that superficial mask he once wore. Although he still wore a smile now, Shen Qiao could tell. Shen Qiao was the only one who could tell the difference between Lu Zhe's mask and the Lu Zhe who was earnest in his affections.

In that instant, Shen Qiao's mind inexplicably began to wander.

……

He remembered the day he learned of Lu Zhe's identity.

Shen Jinyi sat on a snow white vanity chair in the bedroom. Over and over again, she stirred the yin'er and lotus seed soup in a golden porcelain bowl with a white porcelain spoon. She kept her gaze down, not looking at him. The tips of her black eyeliner spread from the corners of her eyes in smooth, natural swoops. They were clearly drawn on, and her exquisite makeup only gave her delicate features an inordinately cold and indifferent air.

He had been called over by the housekeeper. At the time, he was standing in the doorway. When he faced his mother—one who hadn't given birth to him, one who seemed to have ascended beyond the feelings of blood ties—he felt an inexplicable sense of awe and intimidation rise up in his heart.

But Shen Qiao shrugged off that inexplicable feeling very quickly. The look of a respectful child returned to his eyes. Setting aside what Shen Jinyi had done to him in his youth, when she was in a psychologically unbalanced state, she had been the ideal mother throughout his life.

She had been the one who'd saved Shen Qiao from the quagmire of torment and loneliness that had trapped him as a child.

She made it possible for Shen Qiao to have a family, even if the male head of their household existed in name only. But Shen Jinyi had always treated Shen Qiao well, showing him the utmost care.

When he was little, the foods that appeared on their dining table had always been to his taste. Over major holidays and birthdays, she would always think long and hard of new and creative ways to celebrate with him.

When he was a little older, she'd been like any other parent during his high school entrance exams. Even though there was no need for it, she stood outside in the scorching heat, under a sun-blocking parasol, and waited anxiously with all the other parents for him to finish his exams inside.

The maternal love and affection Shen Qiao had imagined, the familial care he couldn't have imagined… Shen Jinyi provided him with everything.

And so, even with a relatively awful father, Shen Qiao felt lucky to have Shen Jinyi as his mother.

"Mom, you were looking for me?" The youth had just parted ways with his friends on the basketball court. Although he'd hastily toweled off his sweat before coming to face his parent, there were necessarily some spots he'd missed. A trail of sweat continued to travel down his throat, dripping over the beat of his pulse.

He didn't notice it. He was only careful to control his own pheromones, not letting an alpha's overwhelmingly powerful scent affect the other person in the room.

The stirring motion of the spoon stopped all of a sudden. The edge of the spoon clinked against the side of the bowl, letting out a crisp chime.

Shen Jinyi set aside the bowl of soup, from which she hadn't drank at all. She lifted her gaze and looked towards her son. The coldness that sat in her eyes disappeared without a trace, replaced by the gentle warmth of a doting parent.

"Did you just come back from playing basketball?" she asked.

Shen Qiao nodded.

"It's hot these days. Have some yin'er soup before you start on your homework, it'll cool you down. Don't immediately hop into a cold shower just to cool off, it isn't good for your health." Shen Jinyi didn't get to the point right away. Rather, she earnestly offered a few words of advice before waving Shen Qiao closer, offering him the soup.

Shen Qiao obediently entered the room and picked up the bowl, gazing into it for a moment. To his mother, he wasn't as curt and perfunctory as he was with others. He at least acknowledged her words with a response: "I got it, Mom."

Shen Jinyi fell silent again. It seemed she'd originally planned on saying something, but didn't know how to start.

Shen Qiao tasted the sweetened soup, then turned to leave with the bowl. He could tell that his mother still had something she wanted to say, though. So he stopped in mid-step and asked, "Mom, is there something else you wanted to talk to me about?"

Shen Jinyi smiled and took his prompt as an opportunity to explain, "Nothing much. It's just that I've been staying in the hospital so often lately. I don't know how you've been doing at school. How your studies have been, what kind of friends you've made, and so on.

"I remember, when you were in middle school, you had a very good friend. You called him 'Big Chub', and you used to bring him over to play video games. Why haven't I seen him lately?"

Shen Qiao remembered that friend of his and was immediately stumped when he tried to think of a way to answer.

Some distaste rose in his expression before he said, "He, ah… that guy presented late. Last term, he was ecstatic after finding out he was an alpha. Then he started dating right away. Now he either shows off pictures of his cute little omega girlfriend every time he sees me, or he doesn't remember I exist in the first place. I can't sail this boat of friendship all by myself, so—"

At that point, Shen Qiao noticed the almost imperceptible flicker of gloom that passed through Shen Jinyi's eyes at the mention of an 'omega'. He cut himself off quickly, deciding not to bring up this matter that always seemed to make Shen Jinyi feel bad. He hastily changed the subject.

"Let's not talk about him," he said. "Lately, I really have met a guy who seriously needs a beating. He's the type of guy you've always wanted me to be friends with, Mom. I hear his grades are ranked first in our year. Some day, I'll invite him over to hang out. Then you'll see.

"I think you'll probably like him."

Seeing that happy, relaxed smile in Shen Qiao's eyes, Shen Jinyi suddenly veered away from the steady course of the conversation she'd planned out in advance. Instead, she abruptly asked, "Is… is it that boy named Lu Zhe?"

Shen Qiao was none-too-graciously downing the yin'er soup like it was a sugary drink. Hearing that question, he paused briefly and asked, "Mom, you know him?"

He lowered the bowl and saw a cold, hateful sneer cross Shen Jinyi's face. That was a look which seemed both familiar and foreign to him.

It seemed foreign because it had been many years since he last saw it.

And it seemed familiar because…

Years ago, she had first shown him that expression when she injected him with omega pheromones.

It was strange. Her light face of makeup clearly gave her a refined, dignified air. But in that moment, Shen Qiao got the feeling that his mother was… quite pitiful.

Immediately afterwards, he heard Shen Jinyi's response: "If he were any other person, I may have been able to admire him. But he's that woman's child. He deserves nothing but my hate—Qiaoqaio, do you remember what I told you before? About your father once keeping a lover outside the family?"

Shen Qiao suddenly tensed his thumb against the rim of the bowl.

His mind began to buzz.

But his heart was bizarrely calm. He held the bowl, which contained only a few remaining red dates now, steadily in one hand, as though he had already guessed and come to terms with how convoluted and complex the ill-fated connection between him and Lu Zhe would become.

"Qiaoqiao," Shen Jinyi continued. "Make friends with someone else, okay?"

Shen Qiao couldn't remember how he left his mother's room that day. He only remembered finding himself at the desk in his own room afterwards. A small potted cactus he'd bought on a middle school field trip to a botanical garden sat on his desk; it was already growing duller with age.

He shifted his gaze from the cactus to a pile of exercise worksheets that sat on his desk. A bowl sat atop those worksheets.

It was the empty soup bowl that he'd forgotten to take into the kitchen earlier.

The two round, plump dates still sat at the bottom of the empty bowl. The sight of them gave off a distinct sensation of loneliness.

Shen Qiao set the bowl aside and propped his cheek up on one hand, thinking of Lu Zhe—

No wonder he'd never been able to get used to the look of the guy.

As it turned out, they were the same kind.

Ever since their first meeting, Shen Qiao had felt that Lu Zhe's demeanor was a little insincere, but not to the degree that it was worth mentioning. That contradiction between his real self and the mask he wore had always been somewhat enticing.

With one look, it was obvious they were practically polar opposites—

Who would have imagined that the two of them had grown from the exact same quagmire?

……

All the most piercingly bright lights in the arena were focused on the stage. The instant he stepped out onto the platform, Shen Qiao subconsciously squinted against the blinding brightness.

"Let us welcome the players Shen Qiao and Lu Zhe!"

The female presenter's voice rang out through the speakers around the arena, igniting the passion of the DG fans in the crowd. Their raucous cheers filled up the arena, crashing down on the two people on stage.

Shen Qiao was pretty sure he could hear the male fans in the front rows shouting, "Laogong, look at me!!!"

There was no way to tell whether those were Shen Qiao's fans or Lu Zhe's fans. With the lights concentrated on the stage, it was impossible to make out the appearances of the faceless silhouettes in the crowd anyway.

Shen Qiao stood on the stage, motionless. He exuded a somewhat cold and unapproachable air. Next to him, Lu Zhe was like a flower blooming in spring. Even though they were clearly wearing the exact same uniform, the two of them were like winter and spring—polar opposites. The stark contrast between them was unignorable.

The presenter addressed Shen Qiao first: "We just saw Wolf Cub take the title of MVP in these two rounds. Your condition on the field is extremely good, so what about off the field? After just transferring to a new team, have you had trouble adapting to anything?"

Shen Qiao took the mic she offered him. Hearing the first part of her question, he planned on simply nodding. But when the words 'trouble adapting' came up, he subconsciously glanced at Lu Zhe.

As a result, when he looked over, he saw that Lu Zhe was gazing back at him with a smile crinkling the corners of his eyes.

Shen Qiao instantly averted his gaze and instinctively gave a standard answer to the presenter's question: "Everything's been pretty good. Everyone has been really nice."

The presenter didn't give up there. She threw out several more conversation starters, but any question she asked, no matter how much potential it had for discussion, was shot down by a simple, single-line answer from Shen Qiao.

To put it bluntly, this man was a conversational terminator.

Lu Zhe listened to a few questions before he turned his head, unable to contain a laugh. His shoulders even shook, just a little.

However, the people right below the stage could clearly see that reaction!

"Have you guys noticed that Dog Lu is in a really good mood today? Plus, he seems to have been looking at our Qiaoqiao ever since they got on stage. He hasn't even glanced away for a second, has he?"

"You're overthinking it. Maybe Daddy Lu is purely mocking Wolf Cub for not knowing how to hold a conversation."

……

After the presenter finished carrying out a calm and boring conversation with Shen Qiao, she looked towards Lu Zhe with hope in her eyes:

"Captain Lu, after the two games you played tonight, fans in the bullet comments are saying that DG is in its best shape ever. They feel the team's current formation is perfect. Captain Lu, what are your thoughts on these comments?"

Shen Qiao hastily passed the mic over to Lu Zhe, like it was a hot potato.

Lu Zhe took the mic and answered the presenter with a question of his own: "What is the 'perfect' formation?"

The presenter ventured a guess: "From the top lane to the middle lane to the bottom lane to the jungle… everyone is fit to be called your daddy?"

The corners of Lu Zhe's lips quirked up. It was hard to tell whether or not he agreed with her guess. His gaze only instinctively traveled to the side, catching sight of Shen Qiao's profile. The knife-sharp cut of his jaw and the jutting bulge of his throat were spotlighted by the overhead lights. As always, he practically oozed charisma and sex appeal.

Lu Zhe finally answered, "Have you ever heard this saying?

"The perfect formation isn't one where everyone is powerful. It's one where we become unstoppable when we… come together."

At that, some female fans in the stands let out shrill shrieks!

Maybe that kind of mood was particularly infectious in huge crowds of people. A huge wave of applause rippled through the crowd. Whether they understood Lu Zhe's meaning or not, they thought his words sounded awesome, and they cheered him on with thunderous roars!

The presenter blinked.

The logic was understandable enough, but why did she get a strange feeling from those words?

 

Author's Notes:

You were pent up because you've only been able to show off in your HQ these past few days, right?

By the way, Dog Lu's final words originated online. I forgot where I saw them, but anyway… they're words of love.

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MADNESS OF THE HEART

Chapter 61: Endless (Part Twenty-One)

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"Long Tianhao!"

The voice that drifted out from behind him wasn't one that Long Tianhao recognized right away, but he felt he'd heard it somewhere before. Long Tianhao stopped in the middle of climbing over the railing. Soon afterwards, he turned towards the sound of that voice.

Ming Shu had sprinted all the way up to the top of the building, but he controlled his breathing well as he spoke. He was barely short of breath at all.

He stretched a hand out to Long Tianhao. "Come here!"

Long Tianhao had seen Ming Shu at the Serious Crimes Division. Now, with both eyes reddened, he shouted, "What are you doing here?"

Ming Shu cautiously approached Long Tianhao. "If I hadn't come, weren't you going to jump from there?"

"I…" Long Tianhao's mood wasn't stable. His left hand was still clutching the railing. He instinctively retorted, "I wasn't thinking about jumping!"

"Then let go!" Ming Shu called out sharply. "Come over here!"

Long Tianhao didn't release the railing. He continued to grip it tightly, pursing his lips several times in quick succession.

It was obvious that he was afraid.

But this wasn't the fear of an ordinary person facing a police officer. It was the fear of a young man who'd deemed himself worthless and inferior, facing an outstanding man who seemed better than him in every way.

Ming Shu didn't suppress his own aura of intimidation. He only drew closer, step by step. "This is an old building. The railings are all rusted. Don't you love your left hand? Why would you use it to cling to that railing?"

Hearing that, Long Tianhao instinctively released the railing and lifted his precious hand. He looked down, finding that his palm was indeed stained by streaks of dark red rust.

The rust was almost like blood, forming a map of deep and shallow trails across his hand.

Ming Shu seized this opportunity. He flew forward in a flash. Before Long Tianhao could react, Ming Shu had pulled him far away from the railing.

Long Tianhao struggled fiercely, but Ming Shu was a head taller than him, and they were no match at all when it came to physical strength. Once Ming Shu had Long Tianhao in his grasp, there was no way Long Tianhao could break free.

Xing Mu, who'd rushed over with Ming Shu, looked like his heart was about to leap out of his throat. "Captain, what do we do now?"

Ming Shu marched Long Tianhao back into the rental apartment. After tightly shutting all the windows and doors, he noticed the wound on Long Tianhao's finger and asked, "Do you have any rubbing alcohol or iodine here?"

Long Tianhao sat on the couch with his head hanging low. He didn't respond.

Xing Mu took out a small box that he carried everywhere with him. "Captain, I have some disinfectant balls here."

Ming Shu remembered now. Xing Mu was the sort of ge who always kept alcohol-soaked cotton balls and a sanitizing spray on him, just in case.

"Wash your hands, take care of it yourself," Ming Shu said, tossing the little box to Long Tianhao. Then he started to look around the room.

The room was simply furnished. The most valuable item was the computer. The tables and floors were all relatively clean. There weren't mountains of takeout containers and snack bags, which would often be found in the homes of reclusive video game addicts.

A photo frame was lying facedown on the desk. Ming Shu picked it up. The Long Tianhao in the photo was even younger than he was now. He looked to be full of energy. He was wearing a team uniform and flashing the camera a double thumbs up and a brilliant smile.

After washing his hands, Long Tianhao came back and instantly lunged over to snatch back the photo frame. He clutched it tightly in his hands at first, then put it facedown on the table again. "Don't look."

"This was from when you first started playing professionally?" Ming Shu asked.

Long Tianhao silently stuck a cotton ball to the bleeding cut on his finger. The rubbing alcohol on the swab would certainly hurt when it came into contact with a fresh wound that had broken skin, but Long Tianhao's expression remained wooden. He didn't show any reaction when applying the disinfectant. He didn't even furrow his brow, as though he couldn't feel the pain.

Did he have a naturally high pain tolerance?

Or had he already gotten used to pain?

Ming Shu studied him for a while, then took a seat in Long Tianhao's gaming chair. When he thought of the fact that this person had nearly just jumped off a building to commit suicide, he inevitably felt troubled. "Go on, tell me. Why were you going to jump? You were that desperate not to talk?"

Long Tianhao finished cleaning his wound and tossed the cotton ball into the trash. He glared up at Ming Shu and mumbled, "Whether or not I want to live… how is that any of your business?"

Xing Mu wanted to scold the young man, but he was also afraid Ming Shu would think he was butting in and saying too much. He only whispered under his breath, "You're so young. Even if you feel trapped, you can't just jump…"

Ming Shu steepled his fingers. "You wanted to put an end to everything because your hand injury is too difficult to heal."

The backs of Long Tianhao's hands tensed visibly. "It's none of your business!"

"You took guzheng lessons from Sha Chun," Ming Shu said. "You believed practicing the guzheng would help fix your hands…"

"Stop! Stop talking!" Long Tianhao roared.

But Ming Shu only continued, "Was that something you thought of yourself? Or did someone else give you that advice?"

Long Tianhao had already balled his left hand into a fist. The tension caused the cut on his finger to open even more. Fresh blood trickled down his finger, sliding over the back of his hand.

Xing Mu was afraid this man would attack Ming Shu.

"Can't I learn to play the guzheng just because I want to?" Long Tianhao shot back with his face twisted into an ugly expression.

Ming Shu stood from the gaming chair and looked down at Long Tianhao. "Don't try that shit with me."

Long Tianhao froze. The dark look of hostility on his own face collapsed under the pressure.

"You retired last year. That wasn't because you were getting too old. It was because of your serious hand injury," Ming Shu continued, spitting out each word clearly and emphatically. "But you haven't actually given up. You've been proactively seeking a cure all this time. You've tried everything. You held out hope that you would find a way to recover and return to your beloved battlefield."

Long Tianhao opened his mouth, but didn't make a sound. His left hand started to tremble.

"By June of this year, you'd tried every form of conventional medicine and traditional medicine. Guangye Hospital's Dr. Lei helped you heal from a state in which you couldn't even bend the fingers of your left hand, to a state in which you could live an ordinary life. But that was far from enough to satisfy your demands," Ming Shu said. "You realized you might never be able to fully heal, so you spiraled into despair.

"At that point, someone told you playing the guzheng could hasten your recovery. You wanted to grasp at that lifeline, even if it was only a flimsy lifeline made of straw. That person also told you about 'Jianjia Bailu' and Sha Chun, who taught there. That person told you Sha Chun was an outstanding guzheng player."

A wet sheen suddenly appeared in Long Tianhao's bloodshot eyes.

He didn't deny any of it.

"You still had immense hope and ambition. You thought you would really be able to cure your hand," Ming Shu continued. "So, on the day of your birthday, you told your fans to wait for you."

Long Tianhao lightly shook his head. He mumbled, ambiguously, "I didn't know…"

Ming Shu didn't let up yet. "But after a few classes, you discovered that your hand wasn't showing any signs of improvement. Not only that, you realized Sha Chun wasn't as impressive as you'd been led to believe—she was just like you. Unremarkable in her field of choice."

Long Tianhao abruptly stood up.

Coldly, Ming Shu suddenly declared, "Sha Chun felt the two of you were the 'same kind'. You killed Sha Chun."

To anyone who didn't know the details, these two sentences would have sounded like separate matters altogether. There was no distinct thread of cause and effect between them.

But to those who did know, they would understand. To anyone who was a domino in this sequence, the connection would be clear.

Long Tianhao's reaction to these allegations would be critical.

"You… what did you say?" Long Tianhao's pupils constricted, and his mouth hung open in confusion.

He was three steps away from Ming Shu, and Ming Shu's aura was imposingly cold. The sliver of collarbone exposed by Long Tianhao's t-shirt rose and fell when he swallowed. Half a minute later, he shook his head and said, "I didn't kill anyone. I only threatened her."

"Sit." Ming Shu's tone made the word sound almost like a command. "I'm going to ask you a few questions. I would advise you not to try to fool me with false answers."

Long Tianhao was a bit confused, but he really did sit back down when he heard that order. His whole body seemed to have frozen over with frost, and he quietly said, "I never thought about killing anyone. The only one who deserves to die is me. Sometimes I can't control my temper, but I wouldn't kill anyone, I… even if I killed myself, I wouldn't kill someone else."

Xing Mu walked up to Ming Shu and suppressed his voice to a whisper as he said, "Captain, this person could be suffering from clinical depression."

Ming Shu hummed his acknowledgement and asked, "While you took lessons from Sha Chun, did you ever talk to her about your professional history? About your experiences in your career?"

"She asked me why I wanted to learn to play the guzheng." Long Tianhao fixed his gaze on a round stain on the floorboards. His eyes seemed to fill up with a sort of haze. "I didn't tell her at first, I only said I used to be an esports player. She said she could tell, just by looking at my hands, that I was a very hardworking person."

"And she was also a hardworking person," Ming Shu said.

Long Tianhao looked surprised. "How did you know that?"

Ming Shu didn't answer. "Being 'hardworking' brought the two of you closer. You stopped hiding, and you opened your heart to Sha Chun."

Long Tianhao gave Ming Shu a dubious look, then finally said, "I told her about my injury, and I told her about the struggles I faced during my years as a professional esports player. Besides Dr. Lei, I… I never told anyone else about these things. At the time, I thought Sha Chun would be able to understand me."

"What did she say to you after that?" Ming Shu asked.

Long Tianhao didn't understand. "What do you mean? About what?"

"A plan," Ming Shu prompted.

Long Tianhao furrowed his brows with an even deeper confusion. After a moment, he shook his head. "I don't understand."

The atmosphere in the room seemed to stagnate into a bizarre state once more. Ming Shu said, "Since you and Sha Chun were on fairly good terms, why did you show so much animosity when speaking of her last time?"

"I didn't feel any animosity towards her, I just…" Long Tianhao's look grew more gloomy. "I just can't control my mood. After taking some guzheng lessons, not only did my hand not get better, it would often start to hurt. The pain was excruciating, and the swelling came back. I understood, then. No one could save my hand. It was already ruined. Dr. Lei couldn't help me, and Sha Chun couldn't help me."

Ming Shu paced a few times in front of Long Tianhao, then finally asked a critical question. "You definitely didn't decide on your own, all of a sudden, that the guzheng could help cure your left hand. Someone misled you. They led you down the wrong path when you were frantically searching for any solution. Who was this person?"

Long Tianhao didn't deny the existence of such a person, but he shook his head and said, "Not anyone I knew."

"If you don't know them, that's fine," Ming Shu said. "When and where did you encounter them?"

This time, Long Tianhao remained silent for a long moment.

"Is it very hard to talk about this?" Ming Shu asked.

"I couldn't control myself. I once did a very bad thing," Long Tianhao finally said. He nervously rubbed both his hands over his thighs.

"You mean threatening Dr. Lei?" Ming Shu asked.

Long Tianhao hastily lifted his gaze. "You already know?"

"The person who misled you found you after you caused a commotion at the hospital?"

"…mm, yes."

Long Tianhao said he actually knew that Dr. Lei had done everything in his power already. Compared to his condition before his treatment, his hand truly had gotten much better. If it hadn't been for Dr. Lei, Long Tianhao probably couldn't even have signed a contract as a streamer.

But that was far from enough for him!

His left hand would never be the way it was before his injury. Dr. Lei had told him in no uncertain terms that it was impossible for him to play professionally again.

"I didn't know who I could blame. It seemed no one had done anything wrong. I thought about it and thought about it, and in the end realized I could only blame myself."

Long Tianhao gradually became choked up with emotion. He looked towards Ming Shu and continued, "But what did I do wrong?"

That voice was filled with despair and helplessness. Those feelings of misery permeated every word.

Ming Shu let out a very light sigh.

"Dr. Lei said it was because I used my hand too much when I was very young, and then I wouldn't follow the doctor's orders. That led to my left hand falling into an irreparable state." Long Tianhao smiled bitterly as he shook his head. "But my talents were limited, unlike those prodigies. If I hadn't practiced like my life depended on it when I was in my teens, how could I have made it in this field? If I completely gave up on gaming while I received treatment, how could I have picked my career back up? There are so many newcomers to the industry who are prodigies. Besides working hard, how else can I compete with them? I…"

Long Tianhao suddenly stopped. He lifted his trembling left hand to wipe at his unshed tears. Then, after letting out a sigh, he continued, "Actually, working hard is pointless too. I trained until my hand became like this, and I still haven't made a name for myself, have I? I never managed to get into the major leagues. I stayed in the lower tiers my whole career.

"I'm a disgrace to my parents. The fact that my life has come to this point is all my own fault."

They were getting off topic now, but Ming Shu didn't interrupt to remind Long Tianhao.

After a few minutes, Long Tianhao took a long breath. "But I was afraid to admit it. I was afraid to blame myself. I had to find someone else to take the blame. I had to pin the guilt on someone else. If I didn't do that, how could I convince myself that I deserved to continue living?"

"And the person you blamed was Dr. Lei," Ming Shu said.

Long Tianhao covered the upper half of his face and somberly nodded. "I caused a huge commotion in his consultation room and blamed him for everything. I cussed him out for being a quack, I blamed him for being unable to cure my injury. I blamed him for ruining my future… afterwards, security guards came and pushed up into the wall. It was only then that I came to my senses.

"I thought they would call the police, but they only made me swear never to cause trouble in a hospital again. Then they let me go."

The main campus of Dongye City's University of Medicine was only a block away from Guangye Hospital.

When Long Tianhao left the hospital, he'd had nowhere to go. He wandered around blindly, ultimately ending up on the campus of the University of Medicine.

"I didn't have much money left at that point. I was thinking I may as well die. The campus was great. It was so peaceful and tranquil. Everyone there was running towards their promising future. I sat on a bench and watched them. I decided that, once I'd seen enough, I would go die," Long Tianhao said. "But then someone came up to me and sat with me for a while. He told me practicing the guzheng could improve my condition and alleviate the symptoms of tenosynovitis in the hand. He gave me a pamphlet, telling me to go to 'Jianjia Bailu' and ask for the teacher called Sha Chun."

A pamphlet for 'Jianjia Bailu'.

Yu Xiaocheng had also gone to 'Jianjia Bailu' after receiving a promotional pamphlet!

"Do you still have the pamphlet?" Ming Shu asked.

Long Tianhao shook his head. "After registering for classes, I threw it away."

Xing Mu, who hadn't spoken up until then, suddenly couldn't stop himself from interjecting, "Why were you so willing to believe a stranger?"

Long Tianhao looked at his left hand and softly answered, "I would believe anyone who had a way of fixing my hand."

After a short pause, Long Tianhao added, "And he… was a university professor."

Xing Mu didn't understand. "So what if he was a professor?"

But Ming Shu did understand.

Long Tianhao looked rather reckless and brash on the outside, but he was actually quite pure and simple. He'd never attended much school; as a teen, he'd already thrown himself fully into his pursuit of a career in esports. He must have felt an almost instinctual sort of admiration for highly educated people. He must have believed that people like university professors and doctors were inherently trustworthy.

"He said he was a professor?" Ming Shu asked.

Long Tianhao looked like he'd been stumped by that question.

Ming Shu furrowed his brow. "He didn't actually say he was a university professor?"

"I thought he was." Long Tianhao was starting to look a bit panicked. "He was at the University of Medicine. He looked to be in his fifties or so. Very dignified. Gray hair, glasses. He spoke so calmly and fluidly. If he wasn't a professor, what else could he have been?"

A greater sense of understanding started to rise in Ming Shu's heart. "Then let me ask you, did you ever see that person again?"

Long Tianhao shook his head.

Ming Shu reached out a hand. "Give me your left hand."

That instantly set Long Tianhao on high alert. "What are you going to do?"

"What are you afraid of?" Ming Shu retorted.

Long Tianhao hesitated for a long moment before stretching out his left hand. Ming Shu quickly took it in his own, and Long Tianhao instantly tensed.

"Hurts?" Ming Shu asked.

"Not exactly," Long Tianhao whispered. "The most intense pain has already passed."

 

Ming Shu took Long Tianhao back to the Serious Crimes Division and immediately had a sketch artist draw up a portrait based on Long Tianhao's description of the man he'd met. Ming Shu also had the tech investigators pull up security footage from the University of Medicine on that date.

When Yu Xiaocheng was shown the sketched portrait, he looked bewildered. "I don't have any impression of this person."

Sketches based on eyewitness accounts were often quite different from what the subject looked like in real life, unless the subject had an extremely unique appearance. Ming Shu hadn't expected Yu Xiaocheng to recognize the person based on the sketch.

He asked, "You said you chose 'Jianjia Bailu' because you received a lot of fliers and pamphlets, and 'Jianjia Bailu' was the one closest to where you lived?"

Yu Xiaocheng nodded. "Yes."

"Who gave you the pamphlets?"

"I can't remember anymore. They were all college students, I guess. Doing part-time work."

"Before and after going to 'Jianjia Bailu', did you ever notice a man in his fifties who gave off the impression of being a college professor?"

Yu Xiaocheng thought for a long while, then shook his head. "No. Is that the person who killed Sha Chun? You guys have found a lead?"

Ming Shu furrowed his brow. "So you went to 'Jianjia Bailu' purely by coincidence…"

That wasn't actually a question, but Yu Xiaocheng took it as one. He answered, "Yes. If there had been any workshops closer to me, I might not have gone to 'Jianjia Bailu' at all. I really didn't do anything, please believe me!"

 

"I don't know him," Liu Mei also answered, upon seeing the portrait. Compared to Yu Xiaocheng's, her reaction was much more mild. She only shot Fang Yuanhang an impatient glare, showing her dissatisfaction with being disturbed in her daily life yet again.

"You don't know him?" Fang Yuanhang echoed. "Based on your answer, I noticed one detail—you said you don't know him. Not that you have no impression of him."

Liu Mei was stunned for a second. Her surprise was obvious as she said, "You misunderstood me. I've never seen this person before!"

"Then let me ask one more question," Fang Yuanhang said. He felt like he had already developed an immunity towards beautiful people like her. Even when facing such a gorgeous woman, his heart was unmoved. All he wanted was to pry her mouth open and dig out the truth that would help them solve this case. "You didn't explain clearly before. Dongye City has many workshops that advertise the guzheng as their specialty. There are several courses in Dong District alone. Why did you choose 'Jianjia Bailu'?"

Liu Mei lowered her head. Her pointed chin nearly melted into the shadows.

"There really wasn't any special reason," she answered a minute later. Liu Mei avoided Fang Yuanhang's gaze, and her words were somewhat mumbled and indistinct. "You people know I took lessons elsewhere as well. I just enjoy traditional arts and culture. It was at a good place, the lessons were at a good time, and the cost was reasonable. So I went."

Sha Chun's other students were also brought in for questioning, one by one.

Wang Dan and Liang Xiyue, the youngest ones who didn't have the physical ability to commit the crime, had both been sent to 'Jianjia Bailu' by their mothers; they took whichever classes their mothers decided they would take. Both Wang Dan's mother and Liang Xiyue's mother gave the same reasons for choosing 'Jianjia Bailu'. It seemed like a nice enough establishment, and they had been drawn in by the pamphlets that advertised one of their instructors as a 'star professional guzheng player from the Performing Arts Association'.

He Junchao and He Xiuting, the cousins, were in essentially the same situation as Wang Dan and Liang Xiyue.

The investigation continued. They dug here and there, until Ming Shu finally found an important lead to corroborate his own reasoning.

That lead came from Wen He, who had been out of the country at the time of Sha Chun's death.

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WITHDRAWAL

Chapter 47: Little Theater Four

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A bitterly cold winter had come. Every day, after getting home, Qiao Luo would drop his ice-cold little feetsies into Fu Shizhou's lap, and Fu Shizhou would massage them until they warmed up. Then he would take the whole person into his arms.

Sometimes he would carry Qiao Luo into the study to keep him company while he worked. Sometimes he would carry him into the media room they'd built in the house. And, of course, sometimes he would carry him straight into the bedroom to seek compensation for warming up Qiao Luo's frozen feet.

But Fu Shizhou was a member of society. Even though he was a partner at a flourishing company, he was still a member of society. And as a member of society, he had to go to work.

He had to go on business trips.

Ones that lasted a week.

At night, when he returned to his hotel room, he gave Qiao Luo a video call.

"Are your feet cold today?"

Qiao Luo stuck out his little feet. "Nope!"

His pale little feet were wrapped up in a pair of coral fleece socks designed to look like cat paws. He even gave his toes a wiggle.

Qiao Luo cutely sent Fu Shizhou a wink and said, "Meow."

He was so ridiculously cute that Fu Shizhou nearly bought a plane ticket right then and there to go home and pet his little 'meow'.

Then, Qiao Luo added, "Fang Yu gave them to me. They're super warm."

Fu Shizhou silently said to himself, The socks are innocent. The socks have done nothing wrong. The cat paws are still cute.

Then he asked, "Are you warmer when I hold you or are you warmer with the socks?"

Qiao Luo wiggled his little feetsies again and teased, "You would actually try to compete with socks!"

 

Author's Notes:

Winters really are so cold. (T_T)

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WITHDRAWAL

Chapter 46: Little Theater Three

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Just two or three years after Fu Shizhou first moved out there, Qiao Luo was constantly mired in the joy of having a gege. And his gege was super, super handsome. Qiao Luo couldn't be luckier.

He was a bona fide brocon.

Whenever Fu Shizhou took him out, Qiao Luo would shout to every single familiar face he saw, "This is Luoluo's gege!"

Man or woman, old or young. He would proudly tell literally everyone he knew.

If Fu Shizhou wasn't with him, Qiao Luo would still seize any and every opportunity to brag to people and say, "My Zhouzhou-gege is super handsome!"

Fu Shizhou was forcibly dragged into the spotlight and turned into a celebrity figure among Qiao Luo's kindergarten classmates. It was hard not to get a big head about it.

But with Qiao Luo due to start first grade soon, Fu Shizhou had a premonition that he would soon become a celebrity at the elementary school too. He hurriedly thought of a way to prevent that disaster.

One day, while Fu Shizhou led the little brat to school, Qiao Luo didn't even get a chance to call out, 'This is my gege!'

Because, before Qiao Luo could open his mouth, a girl with braided pigtails sidled up to Fu Shizhou and warmly greeted, "Zhouzhou-gege!"

Qiao Luo was instantly pissed, but Fu Shizhou only smiled warmly and said, "Good morning."

Qiao Luo: [Jealous.jpg][Jealous.jpg]

Zhouzhou-gege didn't even smile at him like that.

And so, later on, Qiao Luo would hastily drag Fu Shizhou away whenever he saw his classmates coming near. He was deathly afraid of Zhouzhou-gege being stolen away by someone else.

Fu Shizhou: Mission accomplished. [NotEasy.jpg]

 

Twenty years later.

Whenever Fu Shizhou ran into someone he knew, he would deliberately say, "This is my boyfriend Qiao Luo."

Qiao Luo wasn't as awkward as Fu Shizhou. Every time, he would feign a bit of shyness, even though he felt pretty elated to be introduced in such a way. He would only offer a simple greeting of his own: "Hello, how do you do."

He played the part of a cute didi so well that all of Fu Shizhou's friends started sending Fu Shizhou recommendations of snacks, clothes, and games they thought Qiao Luo might like.

Fu Shizhou could sense exactly how well-liked Qiao Luo had become. A little too well-liked. And so, when they went out on dates, he no longer greeted people he knew.

Qiao Luo: [Salty.jpg][Salty.jpg]

Qiao Luo demanded, "Am I not worthy of meeting your friends?"

Fu Shizhou expertly twisted his words around on him: "When we were little, you dragged me away every time you saw your friends. Was I not worthy of meeting them?"

Qiao Luo said, "That's because I was afraid they would steal you from me…"

With that, realization struck. Qiao Luo instantly perked up and leapt into Fu Shizhou's arms, flinging his arms around his neck.

"Tell me! Now! Are you afraid they'll steal me away from you? Tell me, tell me, tell me, kiss-kiss-kiss-kiss…"

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