By the time Lu Zhe got off his flight and took a cab to the house, it was already late at night.
The Lu family's home was situated in what had once been the most prosperous district of Yun City. The mountains around the house were half-covered with crabapple trees. Although it was late April, a time when the trees weren't in full bloom, the branches were still covered in heavy layers of pink flowers. Pollen and petals drifted down, blanketing both sides of the road. A faint floral scent drifted through the night air.
Lu Zhe had called ahead to inform their housekeeper of his visit. He passed the guards at the gate without issue. When he approached the front doors, he instantly noticed that the bright lights in the living room on the ground floor were on.
Lu Zhe didn't give it much thought. He figured the housekeeper had kept the lights on for him. After unlocking the front door with his fingerprint, he changed his shoes for slippers at the entrance and walked inside—
Only to notice a figure on the couch in the living room.
The woman in a delicately embroidered silk qipao had a sheer green shawl draped over her shoulders. Her beautiful, mature face wore a light layer of makeup, but a pitiful hint of melancholy plagued the furrow between her brows. She was a captivating sort of woman; many people would have struggled to look away.
Lu Zhe paused, just in time to hear her call out to him in a warm and gentle voice:
"Little Zhe is back?"
The smile he was so accustomed to wearing was gone now. His dark eyes remained fixed to a spot in front of him as he nodded faintly and greeted, "Mom."
Once he'd offered that greeting, he prepared to go upstairs. It was like he wasn't at all concerned about why his mother was sitting on the couch so late at night.
Lu Zhe had only managed to take one step up the stairs before the woman on the couch started to speak again. Her voice was so soft and weak that it didn't even create an echo in this huge, lavish mansion. It gave listeners a sense of loneliness.
"Your father didn't come back tonight. Again."
Lu Zhe paused. He tightened his hand on the railing of the stairs, then loosened his grip again. Calmly, he answered, "Go to bed, Mom. Staying up late isn't good for your health."
Su Qiongpei carefully studied her son as he stood by the stairs. He looked even bigger and taller than she remembered. She could also tell that he was being polite, but distant.
After a long while, she lowered her gaze and softly spoke again:
"Little Zhe, it's been a long time since you asked your mother whether or not she's happy."
Hearing that, Lu Zhe's eyebrows twitched. His breathing slowed without his notice. After taking a deep, long breath, he mechanically echoed, "Mother, are you happy?"
The woman on the couch smiled, as though this robotic sort of conversation would allow them to pretend the rift between them didn't exist.
It was only after her smile vanished that she answered, "No, I'm not. Your mother is unhappy, and you're so smart. Why don't you give your mother some advice, like you used to?"
Once she made her request, Su Qiongpei lifted her gaze again and looked expectantly at her son.
However, Lu Zhe had no way of meeting her expectations.
"My apologies, Mom." He glanced to the side, and his tone grew even colder. "You've never once taken my advice."
As soon as those words fell from his lips, Su Qiongpei hastily rose from the couch. She even started to move, haltingly, in Lu Zhe's direction. Her expression and her tone were both deceptively soft and sweet, pleading for attention and favor.
"Whatever you say, I'll definitely listen," she promised. "Those women are too outrageous, always seducing your father, always mocking me and laughing at me behind my back. Help your mother, give me some ideas—"
A flash of ridicule lanced through the long eyes of the man on the stairs. He suddenly interrupted:
"Seduce? Are you still not aware of what kind of man Lu Chengzhen is?"
Su Qiongpei trailed off into silence.
It was obvious that Lu Zhe had lost his patience. Just as he turned to continued up the stairs, Su Qiongpei scrounged up her courage and managed to raise her voice:
"You still hate me, because of Shen Jinyi's son. Isn't that right?"
Lu Zhe was silent.
Su Qiongpei took his silence as a confirmation. She couldn't hold herself back from continuing, "Because of him, you won't even help your own mother now. Is that right?"
Lu Zhe turned and met her gaze. His voice was colder and calmer than ever—
"I won't give my mother any ideas because I know there's no point. It's useless.
"Once, when Lu Qianshuang and I were disgraced by that biological father of ours, we begged you—you, who'd already had your glands removed—to stay out of that mess. Did you listen?
"We told you not to chase after Lu Chengzhen's wealth, we told you not to chase after the status of being his mistress. Did you listen?
"I told you Lu Chengzhen's wife Shen Jinyi was a lunatic. I told you not to provoke her. I told you we could have lived here, with our family, in peace. Did you listen?"
Hearing Lu Zhe's cold condemnation, Su Qiongpei became more and more agitated. Perhaps it was because omegas were naturally sensitive, or perhaps it was because her mood had been unstable for a long time. For whatever reason, her face reddened fiercely as she spoke:
"What choice did I have? Did I not only want my two children to lead better lives? Did I do anything wrong?
"Even if the Shen family is rich and powerful, can a beta like Shen Jinyi be any better than me? Must I be condemned to spend my whole life as a mistress with two children?
"If you hate me so much, why did you come back today?!"
Once she'd finished venting those words, she pressed a hand to the couch to support herself, as though saying those few words had used up all her energy for the day. She panted, drawing one deep breath after another. The wrist of the hand that gripped the armrest of the couch had turned pale white. The blue-green veins under her skin were alarmingly visible.
Lu Zhe looked down on her from the stairs. He pursed his lips and said nothing.
She was still his mother; he had no right to criticize her. Lu Zhe simply felt a sort of powerlessness that hadn't plagued him for a while. It was a sort of powerlessness that had been coiled around him ever since he was young.
It was a feeling that made him think this disastrous family of his was the burden he would have to carry all his life.
Lu Zhe didn't say anything else, leaving the last shred of respect in their mother-son relationship intact. He continued up the stairs. The sound of his slippers hitting the frosted glass steps was neither too quiet nor too loud.
Su Qiongpei stared at her son's back. Before Lu Zhe fully disappeared around a corner upstairs, she suddenly spoke again:
"You didn't come back to see your mother at all, did you?"
However, Lu Zhe had already disappeared without casting a single backwards glance.
Early in the morning of the next day—
Lu Zhe got up at six. He didn't bother eating breakfast. As soon as he got downstairs and found the housekeeper in the kitchen, he met her gaze and asked, "Auntie Xiu, do you have the key to the guest house in the back? Open it up for me when you get a chance."
Auntie Xiu was in her forties. She paused in the middle of seasoning a dish and turned to blink at Lu Zhe in utter bafflement.
"You want to go to that house?"
Lu Zhe nodded.
"That place still reeks of sickness, and the death… in any case, no one's been there for a long time. Lu-xiansheng only got some people to clean up in there a few days ago. They threw away a lot of things. I saw some big trucks coming and going, hauling away the furniture and those machines.
"Why do you suddenly want to go out there? Does taitai know about this?"
Lu Zhe's handsome brow furrowed. He suddenly got a bad feeling.
He'd come back on a hunch, and now it seemed like this was going to be a waste of a trip.
Just as Lu Zhe was about to ask for confirmation that nothing was left in the guest house, a voice suddenly came from behind him—
"You're up, my son? Mama has asked Auntie Xiu to make your favorite. Seafood congee. Why don't you sit and have a bowl?"
This tone was warm and feeble, full of care. It was like the raging rant from last night had been nothing more than a figment of Lu Zhe's imagination.
Lu Zhe kept his back to Su Qiongpei, but the housekeeper turned with a spoon in her hand. She raised her voice and called out, "Taitai, Little Zhe was just saying that he wants to go out to the guest house. The key should be with you, right?"
Su Qiongpei's expression stiffened for a moment. "Why do you want to go out there?"
Lu Zhe slowly turned around. His dark gaze swept over in his mother's direction, and his thin, rosy lips twitched.
"No reason," he said. "Just suddenly wanted to have a look."
"A look at what?" Su Qiongpei persisted, staring intently at him.
Her piercing gaze left Lu Zhe feeling a little restless. He couldn't keep up his usual carefree demeanor. After a moment, he gave a straightforward answer:
"I want to see where Shen Qiao lived after I left. Are you satisfied with that answer?"
"Who told you about that? Your little sister?" Su Qiongpei demanded. It was like someone had prodded her most sensitive sore spot. She wouldn't let this go.
Lu Zhe lost his last shreds of patience. He couldn't be bothered to communicate with her. He turned to leave the house, to get some fresh air.
As she watched him leave, Su Qiongpei whispered, "You still haven't let him go. But what about him? Would he dare be with you again?"
Lu Zhe was already halfway to the door. Hearing the last half of her words, he suddenly turned back again. The scent of cedarwood burst forth in an uncontrollable explosion. His pupils were as black as the darkest night; not a single spark of light escaped.
He walked up to Su Qiongpei. With tightly restrained anger, he asked—
"What does that mean? That he wouldn't dare be with me again?
"What have you people done to him?"
Su Qiongpei was crushed under the immense wave of her son's pheromones. She could hardly breathe. Her eyes grew hazy and disoriented, and she was clearly about to crumple on the spot. Just in time, Lu Zhe managed to get himself under control and reach out to help her stay on her feet.
After a long while, Su Qiongpei finally spoke again:
"What could I possibly do to him?
"Little Zhe, you should ask… what did Shen Jinyi do to him?
"That woman… she's really so much more ruthless than me. Perhaps she had the capacity to be so cruel because she didn't personally give birth to him. You know—"
Team DG's Headquarters.
Manager Zhou watched Shen Qiao pass his office for the third time that day. Shen Qiao's trajectory was very obviously deliberate, and Manager Zhou finally couldn't stay silent any longer. He had to ask if there was something Shen Qiao wanted to say.
Shen Qiao had just moved in, after all. This was a new environment to him. And he was an alpha. Alphas like him would rather die than ask for help. That was what Manager Zhou was thinking, and he was racking his brain for a way to strike up a conversation and guide Shen Qiao through this difficult time.
But Shen Qiao suddenly opened his mouth and said—
"It's nothing. I just wanted to ask, is it very easy for people to take time off from Team DG? It looks to me like some people are planning to skip two days of training in a row."
Naturally, it didn't take long at all for Manager Zhou to realize who 'some people' referred to. He was just about to explain when a smile-laden voice rang out from the stairs at the end of the corridor:
Manager Zhou and Shen Qiao looked over at the same time.
Lu Zhe approached with one hand in his pocket. There was a subtle hint of weariness between his brows, but on his gorgeous face, it simply came off as a tinge of insolent laziness.
He stopped in front of Shen Qiao and noticed the other party had gone taut with tension as soon as he began his approach. Seeing that reaction was like a kick to the gut, like someone had stabbed him in the chest. His heart ached so fiercely that he wanted to curl up to shield himself.
Lu Zhe didn't draw inappropriately, inexcusably close as he would have done before. As though he hadn't noticed any shift in Shen Qiao's demeanor, he simply gazed at the other man and flashed a warm, gentle smile. He took a deep, greedy, and longing breath, letting the scent of mint fill his nose.
When he spoke again, there was a faint tremor in his voice:
"I missed you."
When he thought of what Su Qiongpei had said the day before, Lu Zhe's voice trembled even more noticeably. But still, insistently, he repeated:
"Shen Qiao, I missed you so much."
Manager Zhou: Unprovoked PDA?!