Qian Bao, sitting nearby, looked up from fishing through the soup base for the tripe she'd just thrown in. "'Sure' what?"
Shen Qiao didn't answer. He gazed at Lu Zhe. Not only had he said 'sure', he'd even let his lips curl into a faint smile. It was like a silent provocation, a daring invitation. In Lu Zhe's eyes, that smile ignited all the blood in his veins. His pulse roared in his ears.
He practically couldn't sit still.
…he wanted to put Shen Qiao in his place, without a single care for where they were or who was watching.
Qian Bao looked back and forth between the two of them a few times, wanting to get to the bottom of the mystery that was brewing between them. She absently fished through the pot of spicy soup with her chopsticks, failing to find anything. She didn't even manage to pluck out a single dried pepper.
It was a long while before she came to her senses and remembered what she was supposed to be doing. "Ah!" she cried out softly. "Oh my god, my tripe!"
Shoving the issue of Shen Qiao and Lu Zhe out of her mind, Qian Bao hastily grabbed a small straining spoon in her left hand and fished through the soup. When she finally found the tripe she'd thrown in earlier, it had already curled and shriveled. It was much smaller than it had been when she first tossed it into the pot; clearly, it had been overcooked.
Qian Bao puffed out her cheeks. Despair was written all over her face. As someone who loved fresh hotpot, there was very little in the world that distressed her more than overcooked tripe.
Next to her, Old Wo and Er-Hua were fighting about which one of them had cooked a slice of fatty beef.
"I just put that one in. You already fished up the ones you put in earlier, alright?"
"Hah? Okay, fine. You say you put it in? Then call its name, see if it runs to you."
The atmosphere at their table was warm and lively. Everyone was focused on eating and snatching all the meat they could get their hands on. No one paid any more attention to Lu Zhe and Shen Qiao.
Lu Zhe ladled out half a spoon of the spicy soup and mixed it into his dipping sauce bowl. A light, soft smile remained on his lips as he meaningfully murmured to Shen Qiao, "You did that on purpose."
He spoke with certainty, seeing straight through to Shen Qiao's true intentions.
Shen Qiao declined to comment. His gaze fell upon the spicy soup pot, helplessly drawn in by the aromatic scent. In the end, he couldn't resist. He had to pick up a piece of tripe and scald it in the spicy pot, just to have a taste.
He had, indeed, done 'that' on purpose. For one thing, he knew Lu Zhe wouldn't actually lose control and do anything untoward to him in front of a table of spectators. For another thing, Lu Zhe had taken so many opportunities to provoke him and tease him in front of other people. And whenever Shen Qiao wanted to take revenge, someone or something would come up and steal away the chance.
There were some words that just weren't as sweet after the right time for them had passed.
He firmly held onto the piece of tripe with his chopsticks and swished it through the soup, ignoring the ostentatiously heated gaze Lu Zhe cast his way. He diligently counted to fifteen seconds in his head, then took out the lightly curled piece of tripe. He blew on it a few times, then carefully nibbled at the very edge.
At exactly that second, Lu Zhe leaned over to him—
Shen Qiao instantly sensed his approach. He paused mid-bite and glanced over at Lu Zhe. The corners of his eyes twitched, filling up with a silent sort of defensiveness.
He soon heard Lu Zhe speak up with a mischievous lilt in his tone. His voice was quiet, and his words were vague:
"I didn't know you were into that, Qiaoqiao."
Shen Qiao blinked.
Lu Zhe didn't hesitate before he continued, "So you like letting others watch us do that sort of thing?"
A flash of understanding passed through Lu Zhe's gaze. He seemed like an earnest, diligent student who was willing to follow Shen-laoshi's instructions to the letter, fulfilling his every request.
Shen Qiao was thoroughly affected by the ambiguous 'that sort of thing' that Lu Zhe had uttered. He drew a breath of cold air, but with the piece of spicy tripe still sitting in front of his mouth—he breathed in a few droplets of spicy liquid, which shot straight to the back of his throat!
Shen Qiao set down his chopsticks as he coughed fiercely. His face and neck turned red in an instant. He looked every bit like a slice of tomato that had just been fished out of the pot.
Hearing his loud, hacking coughs, Old Wo and Er-Hua quickly looked up in shock.
"Was this pot super spicy?"
"But I didn't really taste any spice at all?"
Qian Bao also looked at Shen Qiao with an exaggeratedly wide-eyed look. As though she didn't buy his reaction, she even scooped out a spoonful of the spicy soup base and gulped it down like a scoop of plain water. She smacked her lips a few times, staring blankly at Shen Qiao.
Shen Qiao was silent.
In order to avoid the spread of some rumor about him being spiced to tears by the spicy hotpot base, he forced himself to squeeze out a stuttered denial like his life depended on it: "This isn't… because… of the spice…"
He started shaking again as another wave of coughs racked his frame.
Lu Zhe shook his head. He picked up his own glass of water and held it up to Shen Qiao's lips. His smile had softened by several measures, and his voice was more doting as well.
"Now, now. I just happened to voice the words in your heart, isn't that right? That's no reason to overreact."
Shen Qiao snatched the glass and glared at Lu Zhe like he was going to put him in the grave right then and there. His everyday resting bitch face was already fierce enough; due to the spice that had gotten into his throat, he looked even more fearsome than ever.
That expression of Shen Qiao's was enough to dissuade anyone else from provoking him. But in Lu Zhe's eyes, it was sexy as hell—
The assault of spice had brought a wet sheen into Shen Qiao's eyes, making them sparkle and shine like a pair of translucent crystals. And the red that tinged the corners of those eyes was more brilliant and gorgeous than any sight Lu Zhe had ever seen before.
It was enough to fill Lu Zhe's head with a series of inappropriately-timed images. They burst through his mind like wave after wave of gorgeous, brilliant fireworks.
The subject of all those fractured images was Shen Qiao, looking up at him with tears in his eyes. Gazing at him, at Lu Zhe, and looking both pitiful and tragic.
Those eyes were filled with a silent plea, as well as a silent wall of obstinance.
A bang rang out.
Shen Qiao downed the whole glass of water and slammed it back down on the table, startling Lu Zhe out of his thoughts.
When Lu Zhe came back to his senses, his lashes fluttered subtly. He suppressed the unseemly thoughts and mental images that couldn't be allowed to see the light of day. The beast in his heart, which had just broken free of its cage, was once again imprisoned in a bottomless abyss.
Seeing that Shen Qiao was still coughing, Lu Zhe subconsciously lifted a hand and rested it against Shen Qiao's back.
Shen Qiao reflexively lifted his own hand, wanting to block Lu Zhe's touch. Lu Zhe wasn't at all irritated; when his hand was batted away, he simply lifted it to Shen Qiao's back once more. He only soothed his hand over Shen Qiao's back, properly helping him clear his airway without getting up to any funny business.
He sounded faintly amused as he said, "If you weren't prepared for the consequences, don't try to provoke me. Look, the one who's paying for it in the end is you, isn't it?"
Perhaps it was the ample warmth in his tone. For some reason or another, Lu Zhe's way of speaking always made Shen Qiao feel as though Lu Zhe's voice was overly intimate and indulgent. As though Shen Qiao were someone he doted on and spoiled.
Shen Qiao was a little surprised by his own perception of Lu Zhe. He had half a mind to tell Lu Zhe to cut the crap, but the spice that had invaded his mouth left his whole throat feeling sore. He opened and closed his mouth a few times, then decided to let it go. He quietly continued eating from the tomato soup pot.
The others at the table didn't pay much attention to their conversation. The two of them were sitting close together, and they'd been speaking quietly to each other. But as Shen Qiao ate dispassionately from the tomato soup pot, Qian Bao—who simply couldn't live without spicy food—couldn't help but speak up again:
"Wolfy, hotpot that isn't spicy has no soul. Without spice, you can't say you're really living…"
Shen Qiao blinked.
He looked up, caught off-guard by that remark. He wasn't sure what he'd done to warrant a pitying judgment like that.
Lu Zhe bit back a laugh. He was a little afraid that Shen Qiao would end up choking on the spicy soup again if this went on, so he hurriedly answered, "Oh, he can. He definitely can. He's very… lively. I'll testify to that."
Shen Qiao blinked again.
What do you know about whether I can or can't?
And was Lu Zhe worried about him choking to death or something?
Qiao Bao instantly stopped everything she was doing and seized upon Lu Zhe's words. Old Wo and Er-Hua also peered over, pricking up their gossip-loving ears to listen in.
Qian Bao raised her eyebrows and picked up a napkin to wipe her lips. Then she leaned in to show that she was listening intently. "Go on, be specific. Tell me the deets. I have time."
Old Wo and Er-Hua also chimed in, in unison: "It's not that we don't believe you. We just want to have our eyes opened to the truth."
Lu Zhe opened his mouth, then closed it again. Shen Qiao's death glare was already fixed on him, as though saying, Go ahead. Make some shit up. Try it if you dare.
Lu Zhe pursed his lips. A helpless look flashed through his eyes, and in the end he only shrugged before gesturing for their curious listeners to look towards the other party involved in the matter.
"He won't let me say," Lu Zhe alleged.
Shen Qiao nearly huffed a laugh in anger. He no longer seemed to care that he would need to sacrifice a thousand of his own troops to demolish eight hundred of Lu Zhe's. Recklessly, he faced Lu Zhe and said, "Don't be like that. Go ahead, talk. How come I don't remember things between us ever developing to 'that' point?"
Lu Zhe sighed with an expression that clearly said, What am I going to do with you?
A hint of something like embarrassment came over his face.
The two of them held each other's gazes for a long moment. Lu Zhe was ultimately the first to give it up. He turned to the other three and said, "Forget it. He's shy. I won't say any more."
Shen Qiao's temples spasmed, and he couldn't help but grind his back teeth.
After putting an end to that line of questioning, Lu Zhe reached over with his chopsticks and took the piece of spicy tripe out of Shen Qiao's bowl. He brought it over to his own bowl and polished it off like it was the most natural thing for him to do. Then he started unfurling the slices of fatty lamb, dipping them into the soup to cook.
Shen Qiao was momentarily paralyzed by Lu Zhe's overly natural way of eating his leftover tripe. By the time he came back to his senses, his anger from a moment ago had mostly dissipated.
In the end, Shen Qiao couldn't even remember what he'd been angry about. He could only redirect his focus to fighting over the meat with Lu Zhe, eating until their stomachs were full.
By the time they returned to HQ, it was already very late at night.
Old Wo and Er-Hua headed back into the training room, queueing up together for some practice games while still burping with satisfaction in the wake of their spicy hotpot feast. Qian Bao was grossed out by the thick, lingering scent of hotpot on her clothes; she went upstairs to shower again.
Shen Qiao and Lu Zhe fell behind the others. When they arrived at the door to the training room, Lu Zhe suddenly lifted a hand and curled it at Shen Qiao's throat. A hot breath—perhaps intentionally, perhaps not—spilled over Shen Qiao's glands, instantly setting all his nerves on edge and sending a chain reaction of impulses shooting through his mind.
His steps faltered. Lu Zhe's words were already falling through the air, filled with the smiling warmth that hid his true intentions:
"Don't forget what you promised me over dinner—
"I'll be waiting for you to have a taste."
Shen Qiao's throat bobbed slightly. A fleeting, twinkling glint passed through his pupils. He was just about to tell Lu Zhe not to take his casual words so seriously, but Lu Zhe had already voluntarily released him and turned to move down the hall in the direction leading away from the training room.
Manager Zhou's office was in that direction.
It seemed Lu Zhe, as their captain, wasn't burdened with an overabundance of free time. Even in the middle of the night, he was being called out to talk about something.
Shen Qiao collected his gaze, which had fallen on Lu Zhe's back. He turned and entered the training room.
In the office.
Big-Mouthed Zhou had just handled the matter of their new team uniforms. When he heard a knock at the door to his office, he looked up and immediately asked, "You're finally back? Is there a problem with the uniforms? I sent you over ten messages. Were you pretending you didn't see them again?"
Lu Zhe walked in and stopped in front of the desk. The office was brightly lit, but that light only seemed to heighten the darkness in Lu Zhe's eyes. That black of his pupils was absolute; there was clearly a glint of light in there, but it somehow only made his gaze seem deeper, darker.
He nodded and didn't say much. He only asked, "If I remember correctly, our sponsors are usually streaming platforms, beverage companies, and automobile brands. When did biotech companies start running ads with us?"
Big-Mouthed Zhou seemed to have grown accustomed to Lu Zhe's manner of speech a long time ago. He didn't even hesitate before answering, "I was confused about that too. When the business side told me about this, I didn't even believe them at first. But the rep from that company was very friendly. They said their boss is a fan of our team. They're willing to pay a high sponsorship fee, without asking much in return…
"I was there the day we signed the contract. Everything looked to be in order, so I agreed—"
Big-Mouthed Zhou could see at that point that Lu Zhe's expression was growing colder. He quickly interrupted himself and asked, "What's the problem?"
Lu Zhe slowly echoed, one word at a time: "Without. Asking. Much. In. Return?"
A moment later, his lips curled into a chilling sneer. It was a look that contorted his beautiful features into a mask that gave onlookers a sense of danger and treachery. Even his pheromones, which he had suppressed so well for several days now, began to seep out. In an instant, his mood seemed to come to the brink of bursting.
Manager Zhou suddenly realized, somewhat belatedly, that Lu Zhe seemed to be… pissed.
Inexplicably, Manager Zhou started to think back to the paperwork he'd reviewed regarding 'Sai'na Biotech'. Their legal contact from that company seemed to be someone with the surname Lu. It was a… Lu something-Zhen, a man in his fifties. His business had started in Yun City, and…
If Manager Zhou had to name a point in which that man and Lu Zhe were similar, he could only guess that it was probably the fact that they had the same surname?
Big-Mouthed Zhou mulled it over for a long while, but he couldn't come up with any explanation for Lu Zhe's reaction.
He gave up on thinking about it on his own and straightforwardly asked, "Is there a problem with this company?"
Lu Zhe lifted his gaze and answered unhurriedly, "There's no problem with the company, and he truly doesn't want much in return—
"All he wants is to disgust me."
Those latter words were spoken much more quietly, to the point that Manager Zhou couldn't clearly hear them. He blinked, momentarily confused, before he asked, "What?"
For a moment, Lu Zhe didn't open his mouth again. He took a deep, slow breath and did his very best to tamp down his bad mood. He didn't repeat those inane words, instead asking, "Can we get them to withdraw their sponsorship?"
Big-Mouthed Zhou was shocked. "Of course not, we've already signed the contract. The penalty for breach of contract is quite hefty. Ai, but wait—
"What's your problem with this company? I remember you're from Yun City, and this company just so happens to be based in Yun City…"
Lu Zhe lifted a hand, cutting off that line of questioning. His dark gaze cut across the office to Manager Zhou, as calm and unsettling as a heavy fog blanketing the dark sea at daybreak.
"What if I pay the penalty?"
Big-Mouthed Zhou was silent.
The question marks written all over his face were practically palpable. He asked, uncomprehendingly, "Let's not talk about whether or not the higher-ups would approve for now. What exactly would you do that for? What reason can you give me?
"Daddy Lu, explain it to me. Help me see that our team's captain hasn't gone crazy right before our tournament."
Lu Zhe could see that Manager Zhou was getting worked up to the point that he might leap out from behind his desk at any second and grab a fistful of Lu Zhe's shirt. At that, Lu Zhe suddenly closed his eyes. His thick lashes quivered faintly.
When he opened his eyes again, he seemed to have come to some decision. His gaze was filled with some measure of self-deprecation, as well as a sort of exhaustion that Manager Zhou didn't understand.
"No," Lu Zhe said. His tone was gentle, but resolute. It even carried a rare hint of something like shame. "I can't blurt out anything about him without Qiaoqiao's permission."
Manager Zhou could have sworn on his life that he'd never seen Lu Zhe speak this politely, to anyone, since joining their team.
He got the feeling that he'd stumbled upon some secret. One that had to do with this baffling relationship between Shen Qiao and Lu Zhe.
Immediately after his last words fell, Lu Zhe continued, "I won't play in any tournaments while wearing that sponsor's logo, but don't worry. I'll use my own methods to take care of this. I hope to have it resolved before we take our official team photos.
"Can you just do me a favor? Until I resolve this issue, don't let anyone else on the team see the design of the new uniforms."
Big-Mouthed Zhou silently thought to himself, You mean you don't want Shen Qiao to see them, right?
He sighed. It felt to him like he was meeting Lu Zhe for the first time all over again. After a moment, he pursed the corners of his lips and said, "Besides paying up, I can't think of anything else you could do about this. I just don't understand. Maybe you guys have some deep grudge against this company or someone within this company, but—
"Maybe this'll make me sound especially heartless, but we're all adults here. Why quibble over a matter of money?
"Making it in esports is your dream, isn't that right? But everyone needs to make a living and put food on the table. And besides, after hearing you out, it sounds to me like Shen Qiao is the one who would take issue with this. Have you ever thought that maybe he wouldn't actually react so poorly to this?"
At that point, Manager Zhou seemed to think of something that made him let out a bitter laugh. He continued, "Don't call me unscrupulous just yet. You're only twenty this year, and DG is paying you quite a high salary. But you only get a few good years in this line of work, and if you get an injury that affects your ability to play… well, in any case, life is long. There are lots of things that you'll need money for in the future. I don't want you to do anything rash, just because—"
Lu Zhe nodded. His temper had evened out, becoming as calm and tranquil as ever. "I understand."
He glanced to the side, and his gaze wavered ever-so-slightly. A long moment later, he continued, "Maybe you're right. Maybe Qiaoqiao has matured. Maybe he won't care about these things anymore."
After another pause, Lu Zhe's lips curved into the faintest of smiles. In a tone that was warmer and gentler than anything Manager Zhou had ever heard from him before, he added:
"But I care."