Manager Zhou was speechless.
A long moment later, a deeply profound realization rose in his heart—
It seemed Lu Zhe really liked Shen Qiao.
Manager Zhou had kept an eye on Lu Zhe ever since he joined their team. This kid was so gentle on the outside, so seemingly easy to talk to. In truth, he had an extremely stubborn disposition. Once he made up his mind, not even a team of nine bulls could drag him away from his goal.
He could be so stubborn that he came off as almost… hateful.
At the same time, Lu Zhe had a sort of calm and insightfulness that was rare in kids his age. To put it plainly, he was a realist. Many times, the club came up with money-making schemes that Manager Zhou was embarrassed to tell the team about. Lu Zhe was the only one who seemed to understand the rationale behind such moves, and he never got the slightest bit angry over those blatant cash grabs.
That was exactly why Manager Zhou spoke to him about anything and everything relating to the team. Lu Zhe often didn't feel like a kid that Manager Zhou was in charge of; he often felt like a colleague to Manager Zhou, and sometimes he would even have to listen to Manager Zhou complain about various problems and dilemmas.
Manager Zhou had once wondered if Lu Zhe had grown up in a rather poor family. Was that why he seemed so much more mature and dependable than other kids his age?
But after paying special attention to Lu Zhe's expenses for a while, Manager Zhou found that this probably wasn't the case. The young players who got rich overnight after landing a big contract often couldn't control their spending, succumbing to extravagance. But Lu Zhe didn't.
From the day Lu Zhe entered DG, to now, Manager Zhou had never seen him spend extravagantly or impulsively on anything.
Old Wo and Er-Hua were like madmen when it came to their expenses, and Qian Bao also liked to buy name-brand clothes that went out of season after she wore them just a few times. Even their old big bro, Fish—Manager Zhou had noticed him spending lots of his free time watching female livestreamers and shelling out quite a lot of tips.
But Lu Zhe wasn't overly stingy either.
He wore the latest trendy fashions too, though he always shopped in a timely fashion, adding a few new outfits to his wardrobe at the start of every season. He dressed himself quite well; it was obvious that he didn't come from a struggling family.
Manager Zhou had always felt that Lu Zhe was the financially responsible sort. If one were to ask which of DG's members would have to worry the least about money after retirement, then the answer could only be Lu Zhe.
But today, Lu Zhe shattered Manager Zhou's impression of him.
Offering up half his life savings to pay the breach of contract penalty for severing ties with a sponsor, for personal reasons…
And it was even for another person.
Besides 'love makes people blind', Manager Zhou really didn't know what else he could say.
Lu Zhe looked towards Manager Zhou again. The manager's expression was full of the desire to sigh. A chilly sort of concern and affection hung in his eyes, like he was looking at a stupid dog who'd fallen into the river of puppy love again. It was enough to make Lu Zhe lose his smile.
Lu Zhe didn't even need to use his brain to figure out that Manager Zhou had misunderstood something. By then, tens of thousands of words of some torrid, dramatic love story might have already unfolded in Manager Zhou's rusty old head.
But Lu Zhe didn't offer an explanation. He only said, "If you don't have any other matters to discuss with me, I'll take this to mean you agree to my requests?"
Manager Zhou clearly wanted to say something, but couldn't seem to find the right words. In the end, he only irritably waved his hand at Lu Zhe, as though to shoo him away. "Whatever you say. But you take it easy. Don't break the bank before you even get the person you're pursuing—if you can't support your partner, all of DG will lose face."
Lu Zhe smiled. He knew Manager Zhou meant well, so he only gave a good-natured hum of acknowledgement.
In the afternoon, the long hallway had been resplendent with dancing, dazzling rays of sunlight that snuck in through the windows. But at this time of night, the light of day had already disappeared. Only the faint glow of the streetlights that stood outside the HQ blanketed the floors.
Lu Zhe walked down this hallway alone, suddenly reminded of that moment earlier that day—when Shen Qiao had suddenly drawn close and breathed in the scent of his pheromones.
The light scent of cedarwood began to emanate from his form, rolling outwards to every crack and corner of the walls. That scent seemed to be searching, reaching for something—for the prey that had approached earlier, sparking the desire to reach out and capture him in a tight embrace.
To tangle him up in a deathly tight net. One from which he could never again escape.
Lu Zhe didn't know how long it took before he managed to suppress his scent again. Once he'd calmed, he fished his cell phone out of his pocket, dialed a number, and moved over to one of the windows in the hall.
"It's morning over there, isn't it? Good morning," he greeted. "Let me trouble you for a favor. Please check my account and let me know how much I have in liquid assets."
After listening to some numbers, Lu Zhe mulled something over in his head before asking, "How have the profits from my stocks and bonds been in the past six months? I need a report of all my current assets… yes, that's right. Thank you for your hard work."
He held this short conversation quietly, and in English. He was careful not to draw any attention to himself. Even though the door to the training room was cracked open, no one came out. It was obvious that everyone else was still mired in the game.
Lu Zhe made four or five more calls in a row before he finally let out a breath of slight relief. By the time he returned to the training room, he had gotten his mood under control. No one would be able to tell that he'd just experienced some serious fluctuations a moment ago.
When Lu Zhe pulled back his gaming chair to take a seat, the neighboring Shen Qiao took note of the motion and glanced over at him.
For a split second, Lu Zhe thought Shen Qiao would ask where he'd just gone. He instinctively started making up excuses in his mind.
But, in the end, he only heard Shen Qiao clear his throat. Shen Qiao sounded the slightest bit awkward and uncomfortable when he opened his mouth and asked, "Do you have any more candy?"
Lu Zhe blinked. He almost suspected he'd heard wrong. Even after he confirmed with himself that he'd heard correctly, he still asked, "Hm? What did you say? I couldn't hear you clearly."
Shen Qiao gave him a blank look, as though thinking, I'm the one wearing headphones. Shouldn't it be my hearing that's affected?
The corners of Lu Zhe's lips quirked with a smile. He lifted a hand and swept away Shen Qiao's unruly bangs, which had been mussed up by his headphones. Then, after getting Shen Qiao's headphones settled back in place, he unhurriedly gave his answer:
"If you like it so much, I'll steal another box from Coach Fang's office for you."
Shen Qiao blinked.
He seemed almost speechless, until he sensibly answered, "Okay. But you don't have to."
Lu Zhe couldn't contain a laugh. He patted Shen Qiao's head as though to comfort him, then donned a deceptively sweet voice to say: "Don't worry. As long as you stay with gege, gege will steal candy to support you every day."
Shen Qiao rolled his eyes exaggeratedly and didn't bother entertaining the idiotic Lu Zhe any longer. He turned back to his monitor and queued up for a ranked game.
Lu Zhe stared at Shen Qiao's profile for a long while before he finally jiggled his own mouse and turned on his computer. After putting on his headphones, he threw Shen Qiao an invitation in the game.
A few seconds later, the two of them queued up together.
For the next few days, Lu Zhe trained with everyone until the middle of the night, and he was always the first to get up in the morning. No one knew what was keeping him so busy.
Shen Qiao only found out about Lu Zhe's early mornings because he felt like he'd become too much of a homebody as of late. He'd set an alarm for himself to make sure he had time to work out at the swimming pool in the morning. And so, when he came down to the HQ's cafeteria, he just so happened to hear some guys from their second-string team talking amongst themselves.
"So sleepy. Why am I so tired after only three all-nighters?"
"Probably because training is way too exhausting?"
"But the first-string team works even harder than us. I heard Auntie say the lights in their training room stay on until three or four in the morning. The really horrifying thing? Auntie says Captain Lu has been getting up for breakfast at six. Alphas are seriously just built different."
Shen Qiao heard this last part while passing by with his breakfast tray. It made him pause.
The kids seemed to sense his presence, looking up to find his eyes on them. The captain of the second-string team, Zheng Zhizhuo, brightly called out, "Wolf… Wolfy-ge, good morning!"
Shen Qiao was still a bit stupefied by this form of address when the rest of the kids all echoed the same greeting:
"Wolfy-ge, good morning!"
"Wolfy-ge, good luck at the summer tournament! I've seen your matches before! You play Aatrox so well!"
Zheng Zhizhuo was also a top laner, and he was personally a big fan of Shen Qiao's playstyle. When he heard his teammate praise Shen Qiao, he wanted to express his own admiration of Shen Qiao's abilities too. But then he remembered that Lu Zhe seemed to be on bad terms with Shen Qiao. In the end, he could only echo his teammate's words.
"Wolfy-ge, good luck at the summer tournament."
Shen Qiao nodded.
But he didn't rush to leave. He was still thinking about what he'd just heard, regarding Lu Zhe's early mornings.
Was something going on with that guy?
Zheng Zhizhuo noticed that Shen Qiao didn't move away for a long while. He cast a glance back at his teammates, then took the initiative to suggest, "Um, if you don't mind… you can sit with us?"
Shen Qiao came back to his senses. He felt it wouldn't be too appropriate to refuse, so he had no choice but to sit down and eat.
Meanwhile, the person who was on Shen Qiao's mind stepped out from Team DG's main offices. But he didn't rush to head back to their HQ. Instead, he hailed a cab and headed to the business district at the heart of the city.
As soon as he got out of the cab, Lu Zhe received a call.
He moved his gaze from the glittering shop logos to the incoming caller ID on his phone.
The smile that typically graced Lu Zhe's face instantly disappeared. He stared at the screen of his cell phone for a while before taking the call. Before he could even speak, the calm and steady voice of a middle-aged man came over from the other side of the line:
Hearing that voice, Lu Zhe swallowed back the words he'd been about to say. He drew a deep breath, then finally spoke: "Father."
"I heard from my assistant that you liquidated all your assets in order to become DG's controlling stockholder, in order to dissolve the sponsorship agreement with my company? And you intend to personally pay the breach of contract penalty fee?"
Lu Zhe stood at the side of the road, unmoving. His astonishingly beautiful features drew looks of surprise and interest from many passersby, but when they noticed the dark expression on his face, none of them dared to approach and chat him up.
He lifted his head and looked towards a tall building in the distance. His tone was extraordinarily flat as he said, "What's it matter to you?"
On the other end of the line, Lu Chengzhen started to laugh. It was like he was patiently tolerating a rebellious kid from his own family. He even sounded like he was giving some proper advice and guidance when he continued, "I thought, after all these years, you would have matured a little. These childish actions of yours… when my assistant told me, I almost didn't believe it—"
Lu Zhe didn't have the patience to listen to this feigned sort of close, affectionate talk. He interrupted, "We seem to have a difference of opinion when it comes to the dictionary definition of the word 'mature'. If your idea of 'maturity' is a person who can passively accept humiliation, then I'm so sorry. I can't do that."
"Humiliation?" Lu Chengzhen echoed. It was as though he'd heard a hilarious joke, He laughed boisterously for a while before he answered, "I'm just reminding you to not go too far. I know very well what you want to do, but you have to remember—
"You are my son. The blood of the Lu family runs in your veins. If I really wanted to do something, how long do you think you would be able to rebel? How long will you be able to hold on to your naivete?
"It's fine if you want to play around, but don't overstep your bounds, A-Zhe."
The more Lu Zhe heard, the colder the look on his face became. His eyes were like cool pools in winter, frosted over with a thin layer of ice. They emitted a chilling, menacing aura.
"Keep up that arrogance of yours, Father. Perhaps I'll really give you a nice surprise."
After saying that, Lu Zhe instantly hung up. He stood at the side of the road for a while longer.
The midday sun that hung over Hua City in May was already cruelly hot. Warmth spilled over Lu Zhe's skin, slowly scorching his flesh. But still, Lu Zhe could feel the bitter, wintery touch of frost in his heart.
An unpleasant memory drifted through his mind—
For as long as he could remember, Lu Zhe had known that he was a bastard. An illegitimate child. Whenever he heard Su Qiongpei speak of that man with yearning and longing in her voice, Lu Zhe felt a deep-seated sense of disgust.
Even though he didn't understand all the ways of the world back then, Lu Zhe had already made a vague judgment about his biological father:
That was definitely a bad man.
His peers all liked writing papers about 'my papa' in class, and Lu Zhe had heard his teachers read out many of those outstanding essays. He knew, from very early on, what a father was supposed to be like.
A father was supposed to be like a great mountain, silently supporting his family. Perhaps he wouldn't be good at expressing himself in words, but he would always wear a doting look in his eyes when he looked upon his children. During vacations, he would take his family out to play. And when he had free time, he would play video games with his kids, or he would sternly shoo them into their rooms to do their homework.
There were lenient fathers and strict fathers, but Lu Zhe had never experienced having any sort of father at all.
Originally, he only had complaints with Su Qiongpei, but when he saw everyone else's fathers attending parent-teacher meetings at school, he couldn't help but think, deep in his heart:
If my dad could appear right now, if he could sincerely apologize to my mom for abandoning us, I could forgive him too.
But he thought this for many years, and that father of his, who should have appeared before him, never did.
By the time he started middle school, Lu Zhe harbored no more delusions of hope towards that man. In fact, when he heard Su Qiongpei talking about that man to Lu Qianshuang, he would find an excuse to take his little sister away.
"Gege, Mama says Papa is a really good person. Have you seen him before?"
"No. But you can't believe what she says."
"Gege, are you saying Mama is lying to me?"
"No… I just mean a good father wouldn't leave us all alone like this."
The little Lu Qianshuang nodded without really understanding. She blinked her big eyes a few times, then pointed to a stall beside the road. "Gege, I want a mung bean popsicle."
Lu Zhe was silent for a moment.
He reached into his pocket and found that he hadn't brought any spare change that day. He could only take the little girl's hand and lead her away. "Mung bean popsicles are gross. I'll buy you something else next time."
Gradually, Lu Qianshuang grew up and began to understand their reality. From then on, no one in their family would listen to Su Qiongpei's glowing words of praise for the man she'd once fallen for. Her children even started to believe that her claims of that man's wealth and attractiveness were all exaggerations.
Lu Zhe even thought, Maybe our father died a long time ago.
But then, over the summer break of his third year of middle school, everything changed—
Su Qiongpei was always going out those days, and she often even stayed out all night. When she returned, she would always have some sort of new accessory adorning her body—a pretty, exquisite new watch, or a flashy new purse.
She was elated as she boasted to her two children, "He's decided to take you back! You'll be able to start living with your papa very soon. Aren't you happy?"
Lu Qianshuang had frozen in the face of that declaration. She subconsciously looked towards Lu Zhe.
Lu Zhe was getting a head start on high school. He stopped in the middle of reviewing some study materials and looked towards Su Qiongpei, who couldn't have hidden her joy even if her life depended on it. Although Lu Zhe was unwilling and unable to echo that exuberance, the sight of his mother's smile still made him genuinely happy for her.
At least… her hopes and dreams hadn't all been for naught.
He slowly learned about his biological father.
He learned that this man already had a wife, named Shen Jinyi. He learned that Shen Jinyi was a beta who had difficulties bearing children; the couple's only child had been adopted. In the end, that man had come looking for Su Qiongpei again, just because she had given birth to children related to him by blood.
Lu Zhe discovered that his initial assessment of this father of his had been spot on.
He really was a bad man.
"Mom, I heard he already has a new family." After learning all that about the man, Lu Zhe had tried to approach Su Qiaongpei again. He tried to convince her to give up on her yearning for this life; he didn't want to see his own mother become a homewrecker.
But then, the mother who had always been quite kind to him, suddenly bristled like a lion. She grabbed him by the shoulders with both hands and stated, "My son, you don't understand. His relationship with that woman won't last, and your mama was the first person he loved.
"Don't worry about anything. Mama will definitely find a way for you and Qianshuang to become rightful members of the Lu family—"
Lu Zhe pursed his lips. Some hesitation flitted across his face. "But I don't want…"
"Little Zhe!" Su Qiongpei's grip on his shoulders tightened. Her freshly manicured nails were a bit sharp, digging painfully into his shoulders. A look he couldn't comprehend crossed her face. "You're still too young, you don't understand!
"Listen to your mama. Mama will make sure you two grow up in the best environment possible. Mama will make sure you get all the best resources, and that you're never ashamed to look people in the eye again…"
Su Qiongpei continued to ramble on, trying to convince him, but Lu Zhe could no longer remember what else she said. He only remembered the deep marks that her nails had left on his shoulders. He remembered thinking that he didn't understand how an omega like her could be so strong.
Later, he received an acceptance letter to First High in Yun City.
There, he saw the son who had been adopted by Shen Jinyi and Lu Chengzhen—the boy named Shen Qiao.
Long before they met on the basketball court, Lu Zhe had known of Shen Qiao. The first time he laid eyes on Shen Qiao was after a school-wide assembly. Even though Shen Qiao had been surrounded by people, standing at the center of a crowd, Lu Zhe had noticed him before anyone else.
His smile was bright and radiant, even more dazzling than the summer sun.
Lu Zhe, who had just walked into the hallway after the assembly, froze for a moment. An inexplicable sense of inferiority rose in his chest.
He thought, Is it because he had Lu Chengzhen for a father? Is that why he grew up to be so healthy and bright?
His curiosity drove him to approach Shen Qiao. Using the basketball match in the second term of their first year as a catalyst, Lu Zhe gradually grew closer to Shen Qiao and struck up a friendship. He dropped many hints, but found that Shen Qiao never talked about his family.
At first, Lu Zhe assumed Shen Qiao just didn't like talking about his home life. Until—
An omega forgot their suppressants and went into heat in class. All the alphas were ushered out to a spacious sports field.
Lu Zhe had subconsciously looked towards Shen Qiao, finding him near the flagpole. Shen Qiao's throat and arms were all glaringly red with rashes. He sat there weakly, with his jacket pulled up to hide his face.
Lu Zhe approached and whispered, "You don't feel good?"
Shen Qiao pulled down his jacket and glanced at him. After confirming no one else was within earshot, he weakly mumbled, "It's nothing. I've just been a bit allergic to omega pheromones lately."
Lu Zhe blinked.
He was somewhat shocked. "Aren't you an alpha? Why would you be allergic to omega pheromones?"
At the time, Lu Zhe had also wanted to ask, If this is what you're like, how are you going to find a partner in the future?
But, for some reason, he swallowed back those words. He only asked, "Do you want to go to the infirmary?"
Shen Qiao huffed a quiet, lazy laugh and said, "No, it's useless. The school infirmary can't prescribe me any medicine for this problem. Tsk… I forgot to bring my meds with me today."
Lu Zhe saw the rashes on Shen Qiao's body growing and spreading. He was seriously afraid that Shen Qiao's allergic reaction could cause him to go into shock, so he offered a hand to Shen Qiao and said, "Get up. I'll take you to the city hospital."
Shen Qiao didn't move.
Lu Zhe raised his eyebrows at him. "What, do you want me to carry you or something? Princess Qiao?"
"Fuck off," Shen Qiao grumbled, though he did finally begrudgingly climb to his feet.
They barely took two steps before Shen Qiao furrowed his brows at Lu Zhe. "What are you doing? You wanna fight?"
Lu Zhe blinked, confused.
"If you don't want to fight, why are you flaunting your pheromones so aggressively? Don't provoke me. I'm in a bad mood right now." Shen Qiao drew away his gaze and threw his school uniform jacket over his shoulder before starting to trudge forward again.
Lu Zhe suppressed his own cedarwood scent. Originally, he'd worried that the omega's pheromones would drift over to them as they walked. Afraid that Shen Qiao's allergic reaction would worsen, Lu Zhe had thought to use his own pheromones to cover them.
He could admit that his methods had been a bit stupid, but seeing as this guy wasn't the slightest bit grateful—
Well, then. He should just die of his allergies. Why should Lu Zhe care.
At the hospital, Lu Zhe leaned against the wall outside and waited. He was playing on his cell phone when the door to the consultation room opened. Shen Qiao emerged, along with a word of warning from the doctor:
"Professional institutions would be more reliable. You'll really have to pay more attention to this glandular problem of yours…"
Lu Zhe was silent.
In response to Shen Qiao's deathly cold glare, Lu Zhe slowly, carefully flashed a friendly and disarming smile.
He caught up to Shen Qiao and subconsciously brushed a finger over his own nose. "I won't tell anyone about what happened today."
Shen Qiao rolled his eyes. "Whatever."
After a moment, another thought seemed to occur to Shen Qiao. He added, in a lazy drawl, "If you want to tell people, I may as well tell you something even more interesting. Like how my glandular problem was caused by my dastardly family."
Shen Qiao shifted closer to him, suddenly lowering his voice and asking, "Do you know what it feels like when someone who has yet to present as an alpha… is injected with an omega's pheromones?"
The smile on Lu Zhe's face instantly froze over and shattered.
Shen Qiao took in the rare sight of Lu Zhe without that false and forced smile and decided he didn't look half bad. After admiring him for a while, Shen Qiao turned to go pick up his prescription, walking away as though nothing had happened.
Once Lu Zhe recovered from his shock, he rushed to catch up. He dropped his voice to a whisper as well: "…that's illegal, right?"
Shen Qiao barked a laugh, like he'd heard the best joke in the world. After a moment, he mysteriously answered, "Yeah. So in the future, when you find out what my family has done, make sure you throw what I told you today out into the open. Maybe you'll succeed in reporting them."
Lu Zhe couldn't bring himself to smile.
When he watched Shen Qiao calmly queue up to collect his medicine, Lu Zhe came to a sudden realization. In that moment, he understood—
A family with a father wasn't necessarily perfect.
It could be a horrifying hell.
Everything that happened afterwards would prove that point.
Back on the street, in the present, Lu Zhe sensed that more and more people were looking at him. He collected his wandering attention and took in his surroundings. Two women looked eager to approach him for a photo. He lifted his head and looked at the signs of the surrounding shops again, then headed off in a certain direction.
Forty minutes later.
Team DG's headquarters.
Lu Zhe returned to the training room, holding a box. He discovered that the seat next to his was, surprisingly, unoccupied. He checked the time, then looked over at the yawning Old Wo to ask, "Qiaoqiao isn't here?"
Old Wo scrubbed away the tears that his yawn had brought into his eyes. "When I dropped by the cafeteria earlier, I saw him with the guys from Team 2. He probably got caught by his little fans. He should show up in—
"Oh, here he is now."
Old Wo nodded towards the door, gesturing for Lu Zhe to turn around.
Shen Qiao strolled over. When he saw Lu Zhe, his mood inexplicably brightened a little. And when he got close enough, he spotted the Godiva gift box that had been placed on his own desk.
He raised his eyebrows, just a bit. Then, just as he reached out to open the box and have a taste—
Lu Zhe, who'd just heard that Shen Qiao had run off to visit Team 2 without sparing any concern for him, suddenly lifted the box and placed it back on his own desk.
"Whoops, I just put it in the wrong place," Lu Zhe mildly explained.
Shen Qiao was silent.
He didn't know what had possessed Lu Zhe to suddenly tease him like this again. His own hand was already halfway outstretched, so he had no choice but to act natural and grab his headphones like that had been his goal all along. At the same time, he icily uttered, "Oh."
Once he loaded up the game, Shen Qiao checked the time and decided to log a few livestream hours. He'd just started his stream when the person next to him lightly knocked on his desk.
Shen Qiao ignored him. He minded his own business and adjusted his streaming equipment. He turned on his mic, but didn't utter a greeting. He just launched the game.
Huge amounts of bullet comments instantly flooded the screen.
Just as Shen Qiao entered the picks and bans phase of a match, the spectators in his streaming room finally heard someone speak over the visuals of the game's interface. The voice was a little fuzzy. It carried a smile, and it was extremely familiar.
"I haven't even gotten angry yet, and you're angry at me?
"Alright, I'll treat you to something to eat. Then everything will be fine, right? Open wide. Ahhh—"
The bullet comments:
And in all the commenters' hearts:
It's only been a few days since we last tuned in. What on earth is happening at our DG? Wolf Cub! You! Turn on your camera right now!