Shen Qiao kept the lollipop between his teeth and didn't utter a sound. Lu Zhe waited and waited for an answer, but to no avail. He could only give up in the end.
He picked up a small bowl from the condiments station and moved to stand next to Shen Qiao, sweeping his gaze across the myriad condiments gathered on the counter.
Lu Zhe was the stereotypical 'puts literally everything in his dipping sauce' type—
Vinegar, soy sauce, sesame oil, hotpot paste, chopped peanuts, cilantro, green onion…
More and more stuff went into his bowl.
Just as he topped off his bowl with two heaping scoops of sesame paste, Shen Qiao spoke up from next to him:
"This lollipop is pretty sweet."
Saying that, he stuffed the lollipop into his cheek, like a hamster storing food for winter. A round bulge jutted out from the side of his face, distorting and completely destroying the cool and arrogant vibe his features usually gave off. It was such a startling change that Lu Zhe wasn't able to react right away.
Furthermore, Shen Qiao didn't seem to realize such a discrepancy in his persona had manifested. He still maintained the same attitude as usual, the one that clearly stated he couldn't be bothered to waste his time and attention on lowly, inferior others. He leaned against a chair by the table closest to the condiments station, gazing impassively at Lu Zhe for a moment before adding another line:
"But what does that have to do with gege?"
Since he still had the lollipop in his mouth, his words were a little muffled. They were the slightest bit more nasally, and they were inexplicably cute.
As a result, Lu Zhe froze for a good few seconds before he came to his senses and realized what he'd heard—
His sesame paste-laden spoon clacked against the faux-porcelain bowl, nearly causing the contents to overflow. Lu Zhe lifted the spoon just in time, but a bit of the sauce still got on the finger he'd had resting on the bowl. He set his burning gaze on Shen Qiao and said only one thing:
"What did you just call me?"
Shen Qiao played dumb and lazily drawled, "Hm?"
Lu Zhe set his bowl aside on the counter. He wanted to reel Shen Qiao in and interrogate him one more time, but as soon as he reached out, Shen Qiao dodged back.
Shen Qiao held his own bowl of dipping sauce in one hand, and he grabbed the stick of the lollipop with his other hand, plucking it out of his mouth. His elbow came up, blocking Lu Zhe's outstretched hand. He blinked once and asked, slowly:
"What are you getting so excited about?"
Then, he cast his gaze upon the bowl Lu Zhe had set aside and swiftly changed the subject. "I was just about to say, when did you start liking sesame paste? Don't you think that stuff is gross, just looking at it?"
Lu Zhe yanked a napkin out of a holder on the nearby table and wiped away the sauce that had marked his hand earlier. He raised his eyebrows, ever-so-slightly, at Shen Qiao. His voice remained as gentle and fluid as ever, but there was a hint of menace in his dark pupils. A glint of light flashed through his eyes.
"Forget it," he said. "I'll let you go this time."
Shen Qiao breathed a silent laugh, expressing clear disdain for this 'lenience' that Lu Zhe was showing him.
After Lu Zhe finished cleaning his fingers, he wiped the rim of his dipping sauce bowl clean as well. He picked up the bowl and started heading back to their table. Walking shoulder-to-shoulder with Shen Qiao, he offered an answer to Shen Qiao's earlier question:
"Sesame paste actually tastes pretty good. It's just that, around here, not many people eat it."
As soon as he heard that, Shen Qiao knew this was a taste Lu Zhe had acquired while studying for his college entrance exams alone in the northwest. That was a time after he and Lu Zhe had split up; it was a time, a place, that Shen Qiao had never gotten to experience.
Just as the two of them returned to their table, their server delivered an order of freshly steamed cream-filled buns. Old Wo didn't even think twice about it before asking, "You guys are giving these away?"
Their server smiled and answered, "No, you guys ordered it."
Old Wo and Er-Hua both looked at Qian Bao. Everyone sitting at that table was an alpha, and they had the tastes to match. They could only look towards the girl among them and ask, "Have your tastes changed lately?"
Qian Bao shot them an irritated glare. Before she got a chance to fire back a scathing retort, Lu Zhe's voice drifted over to them:
As he spoke, he took his seat again and set his dipping sauce bowl down in front of himself. His expression was perfectly calm, as though nothing were out of the ordinary. Facing the other three, he asked, "You guys want any or not?"
The three of them frantically shook their heads like a trio of pellet drums. Just looking at Lu Zhe filled Qian Bao with the sensation that she was looking upon some extremely evolved degenerate. She pushed the steamed buns towards Lu Zhe and said, with the utmost respect in her tone, "All yours, sir. Make sure you eat lots."
Lu Zhe calmly picked up one of the buns with his chopsticks and dipped it in the little saucer of condensed milk that had come with the dish. He placed the bun on Shen Qiao's plate and said, "Then I'll let you have a taste."
Qian Bao, Old Wo, and Er-Hua were all shaken to the core by this startling insistence from Lu Zhe. Shen Qiao glanced at Lu Zhe, then crushed the lollipop between his teeth, finishing it in two or three bites.
Then, he picked up his chopsticks, picked up the steamed bun, and polished it off too.
There was too much condensed milk coating the bun. The outer layer was a bit too sweet. Almost sickeningly so.
But Shen Qiao didn't show any hint of a reaction to that on his face. He only swallowed down the bun before opening his mouth to answer, "Mm. It tastes pretty good."
Old Wo's eyes filled up with a complex emotion. "Daddy #2, you really don't have to go that far…"
Er-Hua used his spoon to stir the big chunk of butter in their spicy soup base. He shook his head, dissuading Old Wo from continuing his protests. "You don't understand. This is true love."
Qian Bao tried to appeal to Lu Zhe's conscience: "We promised, as alphas, to stick together for the rest of our lives. Whoever breaks the pact first is a dog, right?"
Lu Zhe shamelessly moved that little plate of steamed buns closer to Shen Qiao. He answered, without even looking up, "If I can shed this sad little group of ours, I'll gladly be a dog. Who wants to keep a lifelong pact with the bunch of you?"
Shen Qiao listened as they bickered and bantered back and forth about him and Lu Zhe. He felt his teeth start to ache. Maybe the candy and condensed milk had been too sweet.
Or maybe it was Lu Zhe's words.
It always took a while to get the spicy butter soup boiling.
Lu Zhe picked up his phone while they waited. He found that he'd received a message from WTG's top laner Paopao, who they'd faced off against earlier that night. The other party had sent ten or so reaction memes in a row, all kneeling or crying or both.
The latest text contained a written message: Please, sir. May I ask if I've done something to displease you lately? You tell me. I'll change my ways like my life depends on it.
Lu Zhe couldn't help but grin. He responded: Nothing like that. I'm just looking after our family's new top laner.
Paopao responded very quickly: ……
Paopao: I've heard a certain saying about you and your new top laner.
Lu Zhe saw that the other side was still typing, but he didn't even think before interrupting: Fake news.
Paopao sent over a reaction meme of an old man squinting at his cell phone on the subway. Then he added: I figured it was fake. Just looking at the way you and Money targeted me like crazy today, I can tell you treat your new guy like a treasure.
Do you know how many times you guys killed me?
EIGHT TIMES! My corpses can be found in every nook and cranny of the rift! It's enough to make an alpha fall silent. It's enough to make an omega cry!
Lu Zhe could feel the other party's anguish through the screen.
After thinking for a moment, he offered a word of comfort: You guys have your MSI coming up. Think of today's match like this—
Lu Zhe: Have you ever heard of setback education? Since you lost to us today, you won't feel so bad if you lose to someone else next time. You'll have gotten used to it.
Paopao: Is that what that means? I've gone to college, you know. Don't try to fool me.
After saying that, he started waging a one-sided reaction meme war against Lu Zhe.
Lu Zhe let him send as many aggressive reaction memes as he wanted. It wasn't like Paopao could reach through the cell phone screen and smack him, anyway. It was a long while before Paopao regained his rationality and wrote again:
But I do have to say one thing, Paopao wrote. With you coming up to the top lane to help in this match, he played pretty well.
Lu Zhe: Would you believe that he plays even better when I don't come?
Paopao: I've experienced that before… but it feels like he's fitting in really well with you guys. Will we be seeing some more nice surprises in the summer tournament?
The corners of Lu Zhe's lips quirked up as he continued chatting on his cell phone. The other party was obviously praising Shen Qiao, but Lu Zhe looked like he was the one who was basking in glory. He made no secret of his affection for Shen Qiao.
Of course, Lu Zhe wrote. You can always expect a surprise from my treasured top laner.
As soon as he sent that text, Lu Zhe noticed another new message on his phone. It was from Manager Zhou.
New uniform designs are out, Manager Zhou wrote. Here's a sneak peek for you. Hehe, we got a new big papa sponsor.
Lu Zhe reflexively glanced at the attached photo. He had meant to switch right back to his conversation with Paopao, but his fingers suddenly froze over the screen of his phone.
A second later—
He zoomed in on the logo of the new sponsor on their team uniform.
Lu Zhe's pupils constricted.
Immediately afterwards, he flipped his phone over the dropped it to the table with the screen facing down. He didn't want the neighboring Shen Qiao to see.
But his reaction was too obvious, and his movements were too pronounced. As a result, Shen Qiao looked over at him right away. He met Lu Zhe's gaze, looking a little guilty for some reason. He cleared his throat and picked up the piece of fatty beef that he'd scalded in the tomato base soup and 'accidentally' dipped into Lu Zhe's sauce bowl.
Shen Qiao's attempts to cover up his actions only drew more attention to his movements as he coughed and said, "It's not like I was trying to sneak a taste of your dipping sauce. The two bowls were just too close together. I accidentally used the wrong bowl—"
As he spoke, he pushed his own bowl forward a bit, then scarfed down the piece of fatty beef that had been dipped in sesame paste as though nothing had happened.
Old Wo and Er-Hua had gone over to the condiments station, and Qian Bao had taken a trip to the restroom. At that time, only Lu Zhe and Shen Qiao were seated at their table.
A second later, Shen Qiao's throat bobbed as he swallowed. He continued in his calm, deadpan tone: "Sesame paste is fine too, I guess."
Lu Zhe glanced at the traces of dipping sauce that clung to the corners of Shen Qiao's lips, yet to be wiped away. For no reason whatsoever, his heart softened.
He didn't look at his phone again for the time being. He only lifted a hand to brush his thumb over the corner of Shen Qiao's lips, wiping away the spot of sauce. Softly, warmly, he played along:
"Really? But to tell you the truth… I taste even better than sesame paste. Why don't you take a bite and see for yourself?"
Shen Qiao glanced at him and said nothing. He waited until the other three returned one by one, until the spicy butter soup was roiling, before he suddenly opened his mouth in a swirling cloud of spice and said:
Qiaoqiao, you can't do this! Mama won't allow it!