Shen Qiao was rendered momentarily speechless by Lu Zhe's seemingly genuine display of deep emotion. He took a moment to look the man up and down, wondering what kind of tricks he had up his sleeve now.
Next to them, Big-Mouthed Zhou listened on with his big mouth hanging wide open.
"Lu… Captain Lu, what kind of behavior…?" Manager Zhou swept his incredulous gaze between Lu Zhe and Shen Qiao a few times, only to find that Shen Qiao looked completely baffled too.
Big-Mouthed Zhou suddenly felt like he'd been hit by a bolt of realization. He was sure he'd come to the right conclusion. He was sure he understood everything perfectly now. He walked up to Lu Zhe and lowered his voice, whispering conspiratorially—
"Lu, ah… is it, you know… is it that time of month for you?"
Lu Zhe was silent.
What fucking time of month?
Before Lu Zhe could say anything, Big-Mouthed Zhou gave him a knowing look. He suppressed his voice to an even smaller whisper and put on the air of a trusted confidante. With his back to Shen Qiao, he added:
"I get it. I understand it all.
"The budding flowers of love can never bloom in the rift, and you spend all day with those insensitive alpha teammates of yours. When that time of month comes for an alpha like you, it's only natural for you to want to seek out a partner. Any partner. I completely understand—"
At that point, Big-Mouthed Zhou paused deliberately and smacked his lips. He kept his tone mild and low as he continued, "But even if you aren't picky, you have to respect the basic laws of nature. Wolfy is an alpha too, and you know how the old saying goes. Proud, strong alphas aren't sweet…"
The warm, tender feelings that had risen up within Lu Zhe as soon as he laid eyes on Shen Qiao almost evaporated under Big-Mouthed Zhou's cloud of absolute bullshit.
He couldn't resist quirking up the corners of his lips. Snidely, he retorted:
"How would you know whether he's sweet or not?"
Big-Mouthed Zhou was silent.
He took a deep breath and gave Lu Zhe a look. "Captain Lu, I'm trying to help you, out of the goodness of my heart. You know not to go overboard, right?"
Lu Zhe hummed lightly. "No need for that."
His tone was cool and dismissive as he continued, "As you can see, I'm currently feeling weak and vulnerable and close to tears. Would you believe that I'll cure your internet addiction again if you insist on saying some more?"
Hearing that thinly veiled threat, Big-Mouthed Zhou instantly thought back to a friendly match between their teammates. He'd just so happened to fill in for a team member who hadn't shown up. Lu Zhe had dominated the jungle in such a fearsome display of his prowess that…
Big-Mouthed Zhou hadn't logged into the game for a full week after that.
With that memory in mind, Manager Zhou turned and marched back into his office. Just before shutting the door, he called out loudly—
"There's a fine for offline PvP between teammates!
"You could even be suspended!"
Lu Zhe said nothing.
As soon as a certain nuisance took his leave, Lu Zhe couldn't help but look at Shen Qiao again. It was only then that he found the other party had already started to walk away, as though to return to the training room like nothing had happened.
The smile on Lu Zhe's face softened by a few measures. He hurried to catch up with Shen Qiao and lowered his voice to whisper, "Qiaoqiao, why so cold? You don't want to comfort me a little, even after hearing I'm in rut?"
Shen Qiao turned back and glanced at him. When he looked at people from that angle, out of the upturned corners of his eyes, his gaze always carried a hint of disdain. It was like nothing could get past him.
A moment later, Lu Zhe heard him give an unhurried response in that lazy rasp that was so typical of him—
As if Shen Qiao didn't know exactly what Lu Zhe was like when it was his 'time of month'.
Most alphas would experience extreme fluctuations in their pheromones during their rut. They needed the company of a partner to satisfy their instincts. They hungered for a companion's comfort…
Shen Qiao couldn't say whether or not Lu Zhe hungered for companionship, but this guy's pheromones were obviously in check. Shen Qiao didn't feel the slightest bit of fluctuation from him.
In fact… ever since they met up earlier, Shen Qiao wouldn't have been able to detect even a slight hint of cedarwood if he weren't really trying.
When that thought entered his mind, Shen Qiao couldn't help but stop and turn back to look at Lu Zhe again.
Lu Zhe thought, for a moment, that Shen Qiao was waiting for him to catch up. His heart warmed. But when he drew nearer, he saw that Shen Qiao wore a slightly pinched look, with a furrow of confusion in his brow.
In the end, Shen Qiao couldn't hold back his curiosity. He had to ask—
"These past few days, you took a break to…"
"Hm?" Lu Zhe prompted obligingly.
"Did you go to have your glands surgically removed?"
Lu Zhe fell silent.
Even the magnanimous Lu Zhe had to stop there and question if all was right with the world. Ultimately, he gave Shen Qiao a deadpan look and echoed those words: "Glands. Surgically. Removed?"
He watched Shen Qiao closely for a long time, before finally continuing, in all earnestness—
"May I ask, what exactly made you think I would suddenly decide to castrate myself?"
It wasn't like he'd picked up a copy of the Sunflower Manual.
Shen Qiao's nose twitched. He sniffed the air again, confirming that the other party's pheromones were faint to the point of being almost nonexistent.
Strange. Most alphas wouldn't experience any changes in their pheromone secretion level for no reason. When these changes happened, it was either because something was wrong with their glands, or because something else was making them suppress their pheromones…
Shen Qiao couldn't be bothered to give it much more thought. He only answered, curtly, "Oh. If you didn't, then forget it."
Lu Zhe had noticed the slight twitch of Shen Qiao's nose. He was momentarily speechless—
And, in that moment, he couldn't help but think back to the words he'd heard yesterday at the old Lu house.
Su Qiongpei's voice was thin and weak. She held onto Lu Zhe's forearm and lifted her head to look him in the eye. A noticeable flash of fear wavered in her soft, timid gaze.
"She… in that room, all those machines that were taken away… some of them were for her, to save her life, but some were used on that son she'd picked up."
Perhaps Su Qiongpei was reflecting on some particularly horrifying memories. Her voice grew even more faint. With the way it trembled, it became an almost indistinct rasp.
Her cheeks twitched, and her voice remained faint and low as she continued to recount the past—
"There were lots of pictures of you in that house. I don't know where Shen Jinyi found them.
"At first, I thought she'd come up with some diabolical plan again. Until I found a machine that still worked, next to a pheromone imitation device. Little Zhe, can you guess? Can you guess whose pheromones were in there?"
Lu Zhe felt as though he'd fallen into a cavern of ice.
In that instant, he almost forgot where he was.
He couldn't find his own voice.
His mother's words couldn't have been simpler, but it was the most incomprehensible thing Lu Zhe had ever heard in his life. As every word passed through his mind, he found each one more inconceivable than the last.
Or, rather—he simply couldn't bring myself to think about what it meant.
But Su Qiongpei continued, cruelly unveiling the truth—
"That unique, one-of-a-kind cedarwood scent.
"It was my fault for being curious. I told them to turn on the machine."
She sighed and gazed impassively at her son. A strange sort of sympathy flickered to the surface of her eyes. After a moment, she spoke again:
"Little Zhe… have you heard of aversion therapy?
"Back then, I didn't understand how you could like another alpha. The expert I consulted gave me a suggestion—there was a way to make a person physiologically fear, hate, and reject something they once loved. It could be done through verbal humiliation, nausea-inducing drugs, or the infliction of physical pain.
"Think about Shen Qiao, smelling your pheromones as he was forced to feel horror, fear, nausea…
"You're my own son, my biological son. I didn't want to hurt you—"
"That's enough," Lu Zhe suddenly interrupted. "You want to say that, compared to what that crazy woman did to Qiaoqiao, you were kind and benevolent in suddenly sending me away to the northwest for college? Is that it?"
Under Su Qiongpei's dumbfounded gaze, Lu Zhe continued, spitting out an icy condemnation:
"You're the same," he said. "In my eyes, the two of you are exactly the same."
The wheels of a gaming chair rolled across the floor, creating enough noise to startle Lu Zhe back to his senses. It was only then that he realized he'd subconsciously followed Shen Qiao back into the training room.
He looked at the other party's back, taking in the faint, cool scent of of mint—
When he thought back to the well-hidden tension Shen Qiao had exhibited during their last few meetings, he suddenly felt like he was suffocating for no reason.
The young Lu Zhe had found a little sprig of mint in the wilderness. He'd carefully, ever-so-carefully, tended to it and cherished it. But then he was exiled by his family, sent to a place far, far away. Luckily, when he returned, that little sprig of mint had grown big and strong.
But Lu Zhe had only seen the good. He'd only felt joy. He'd neglected to think of everything he had missed in the life of that sprig of mint. He hadn't thought of all the storms Shen Qiao had weathered alone.
This sprig of mint was flourishing now, but those gorgeous green leaves may once have been crushed in the mud. Those leaves may have had to grow anew from the destruction, and many deep scars may have been hidden away in a place where no one would ever be allowed to see them.
Lu Zhe remembered the provocation Shen Qiao had flung at him not long ago:
Do you want to mark me again that bad?
What had Shen Qiao felt at that time? How had he hidden the fear and horror that had been ingrained upon him? How had he managed to affect an inviting, almost tempting, expression while saying such a thing?
At that time, the message in Shen Qiao's eyes had been clear:
Come on. If you think you can do it, do it. Mark me again.
And there was the way Shen Qiao held himself around Lu Zhe, never straying too close but at the same time never drifting too far away. Like his instincts told him to keep his distance and draw nearer, at the exact same time.
Lu Zhe had carelessly…
He couldn't help but swear at himself, deep in his heart.
When he heard Shen Qiao chatting with Old Wo and the others about what they wanted to have for lunch that day, Lu Zhe suddenly interjected, "I can make huangmen chicken. Wanna give it a taste?"
In high school, that braised chicken dish had been Shen Qiao's favorite thing to get at the cafeteria. Whenever he was happy, whenever he was sad, or whenever he didn't know what he wanted to order, he would order huangmen chicken. He never got tired of eating it, even when Lu Zhe practically got tired of seeing him eat it.
But when Lu Zhe had been in the northwest, by himself, he'd learned every chicken recipe he could get his hands on.
Shen Qiao looked at him with a touch of astonishment in his eyes.
Old Wo was so shocked that he blurted out, "You can cook? What the hell, how come we didn't know about this before?"
Delightedly, he continued, "Phew! I can taste Daddy Lu's cooking today? I'll definitely have to post about this on Weibo to make our fans drool—"
Lu Zhe smiled faintly and glanced at Old Wo. Serenely, he corrected, "I didn't say you could have a taste."
Old Wo fell silent, thoroughly baffled.
Er-Hua and Qian Bao were still asleep. There was no one there to defend his honor; there wasn't even anyone there to make fun of him and kick him while he was down. In the end, Old Wo could only huff and tug his headphones back on, grumpily queuing up for a game by himself.
Shen Qiao gave Lu Zhe a onceover with an odd look on his face.
Lu Zhe took his silence as a 'yes'. He swept his gaze across Shen Qiao's desk and asked, "Are you out of water? I'll get you a refill. Hot or cold?"
All these questions were making Shen Qiao break out in goosebumps. He didn't know what Lu Zhe was plotting now, but he cautiously accepted this bout of attentiveness.
A short while later—
"Qiaoqiao, want some candy?"
"Qiaoqiao, want me to get you a new skin?"
Shen Qiao couldn't stand it anymore. He shoved off his headset and swiveled to one side to demand—
"What the hell are you up to?"
Lu Zhe smiled and warmly answered, "I just want to treat you better."
Shen Qiao said nothing.
Lu Zhe's inexplicable gestures of goodwill left Shen Qiao feeling antsy and jittery all over. He started to crave a cigarette and subconsciously reached out for his pack, but when he glanced back at his table, he drew his hand back again.
He glanced between his fingertips and his pack of cigarettes a few times. Then, he lazily quirked the corners of his lips and crossed over to Lu Zhe's chair with a stride of his long legs.
Lu Zhe was just getting ready to log in to the game. When he noticed the movement at his side, he glanced over with his dark eyes and greeted Shen Qiao with a smile.
Shen Qiao looked over at Old Wo, who was deeply engrossed in his game already. Then he lowered his head and scooted closer to Lu Zhe. With a light, almost teasing lilt in his husky voice:
"It's fine if you want to treat me better—
"I have a friend who wants to know, how do you plan on helping me quit smoking?"
Let me be the first to say: AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!