Lu Zhe's voice was very low and quiet. His words were well-hidden beneath the clamor of the spectators in the arena stands around them.
They were currently passing through a hidden passageway. A dim blue glow turned the surrounding staff members into little more than hazy silhouettes. If one were to take a step or two away and turn just slightly, they wouldn't even be able to make out the shape of anyone else's face.
In the secretive atmosphere of that passageway, Shen Qiao walked very close to Lu Zhe. So close that their shoulders nearly brushed. And when he heard those words that sounded so like a confession, he suddenly got the inexplicable feeling that, in the dark, they were the only two people present.
It was a feeling of intimacy that was difficult to describe in words.
It felt almost as though, in that moment, all the staff members around them receded like the tide. The two of them were the only two people left, the only two souls who existed in the whole world. Their breathing and their heartbeats seemed closer and more in sync than ever before.
Even Lu Zhe's pheromones, which he had controlled so well, seemed to faintly drift past the tip of Shen Qiao's nose. That soft touch of cedarwood was as cold and crisp as ever. The scent was fleeting. When Shen Qiao tried to use his keen senses to focus in on it, the scent seemed to vanish. Only to suddenly resurface once more after he stopped actively chasing it.
He didn't know whether those pheromones were as vile as their owner, always out to deliberately provoke him, or if their rise and fall was only a figment of his own overactive imagination.
The passageway was like a dark road that soon came to an end, with the darkness scattered by the break of day. At the end of that road, blinding lights appeared.
In that place, Shen Qiao didn't make a single sound. He silently lifted his gaze to meet Lu Zhe's—
This person had an extraordinarily beautiful set of eyes, curving in at the insides and up at the outsides. His lashes were thick, dark, and long. They were so beautiful that they gave off a false sense of affection. Even passersby, caught up in those eyes, were prone to misconstruing the depth of that gaze as one which held boundless seas of deep emotions and adoration.
The mere act of gazing into those eyes could leave young, inexperienced men and women feeling like their hearts would race out of their chests.
And now, Lu Zhe's face had lost that superficial mask he once wore. Although he still wore a smile now, Shen Qiao could tell. Shen Qiao was the only one who could tell the difference between Lu Zhe's mask and the Lu Zhe who was earnest in his affections.
In that instant, Shen Qiao's mind inexplicably began to wander.
He remembered the day he learned of Lu Zhe's identity.
Shen Jinyi sat on a snow white vanity chair in the bedroom. Over and over again, she stirred the yin'er and lotus seed soup in a golden porcelain bowl with a white porcelain spoon. She kept her gaze down, not looking at him. The tips of her black eyeliner spread from the corners of her eyes in smooth, natural swoops. They were clearly drawn on, and her exquisite makeup only gave her delicate features an inordinately cold and indifferent air.
He had been called over by the housekeeper. At the time, he was standing in the doorway. When he faced his mother—one who hadn't given birth to him, one who seemed to have ascended beyond the feelings of blood ties—he felt an inexplicable sense of awe and intimidation rise up in his heart.
But Shen Qiao shrugged off that inexplicable feeling very quickly. The look of a respectful child returned to his eyes. Setting aside what Shen Jinyi had done to him in his youth, when she was in a psychologically unbalanced state, she had been the ideal mother throughout his life.
She had been the one who'd saved Shen Qiao from the quagmire of torment and loneliness that had trapped him as a child.
She made it possible for Shen Qiao to have a family, even if the male head of their household existed in name only. But Shen Jinyi had always treated Shen Qiao well, showing him the utmost care.
When he was little, the foods that appeared on their dining table had always been to his taste. Over major holidays and birthdays, she would always think long and hard of new and creative ways to celebrate with him.
When he was a little older, she'd been like any other parent during his high school entrance exams. Even though there was no need for it, she stood outside in the scorching heat, under a sun-blocking parasol, and waited anxiously with all the other parents for him to finish his exams inside.
The maternal love and affection Shen Qiao had imagined, the familial care he couldn't have imagined… Shen Jinyi provided him with everything.
And so, even with a relatively awful father, Shen Qiao felt lucky to have Shen Jinyi as his mother.
"Mom, you were looking for me?" The youth had just parted ways with his friends on the basketball court. Although he'd hastily toweled off his sweat before coming to face his parent, there were necessarily some spots he'd missed. A trail of sweat continued to travel down his throat, dripping over the beat of his pulse.
He didn't notice it. He was only careful to control his own pheromones, not letting an alpha's overwhelmingly powerful scent affect the other person in the room.
The stirring motion of the spoon stopped all of a sudden. The edge of the spoon clinked against the side of the bowl, letting out a crisp chime.
Shen Jinyi set aside the bowl of soup, from which she hadn't drank at all. She lifted her gaze and looked towards her son. The coldness that sat in her eyes disappeared without a trace, replaced by the gentle warmth of a doting parent.
"Did you just come back from playing basketball?" she asked.
Shen Qiao nodded.
"It's hot these days. Have some yin'er soup before you start on your homework, it'll cool you down. Don't immediately hop into a cold shower just to cool off, it isn't good for your health." Shen Jinyi didn't get to the point right away. Rather, she earnestly offered a few words of advice before waving Shen Qiao closer, offering him the soup.
Shen Qiao obediently entered the room and picked up the bowl, gazing into it for a moment. To his mother, he wasn't as curt and perfunctory as he was with others. He at least acknowledged her words with a response: "I got it, Mom."
Shen Jinyi fell silent again. It seemed she'd originally planned on saying something, but didn't know how to start.
Shen Qiao tasted the sweetened soup, then turned to leave with the bowl. He could tell that his mother still had something she wanted to say, though. So he stopped in mid-step and asked, "Mom, is there something else you wanted to talk to me about?"
Shen Jinyi smiled and took his prompt as an opportunity to explain, "Nothing much. It's just that I've been staying in the hospital so often lately. I don't know how you've been doing at school. How your studies have been, what kind of friends you've made, and so on.
"I remember, when you were in middle school, you had a very good friend. You called him 'Big Chub', and you used to bring him over to play video games. Why haven't I seen him lately?"
Shen Qiao remembered that friend of his and was immediately stumped when he tried to think of a way to answer.
Some distaste rose in his expression before he said, "He, ah… that guy presented late. Last term, he was ecstatic after finding out he was an alpha. Then he started dating right away. Now he either shows off pictures of his cute little omega girlfriend every time he sees me, or he doesn't remember I exist in the first place. I can't sail this boat of friendship all by myself, so—"
At that point, Shen Qiao noticed the almost imperceptible flicker of gloom that passed through Shen Jinyi's eyes at the mention of an 'omega'. He cut himself off quickly, deciding not to bring up this matter that always seemed to make Shen Jinyi feel bad. He hastily changed the subject.
"Let's not talk about him," he said. "Lately, I really have met a guy who seriously needs a beating. He's the type of guy you've always wanted me to be friends with, Mom. I hear his grades are ranked first in our year. Some day, I'll invite him over to hang out. Then you'll see.
"I think you'll probably like him."
Seeing that happy, relaxed smile in Shen Qiao's eyes, Shen Jinyi suddenly veered away from the steady course of the conversation she'd planned out in advance. Instead, she abruptly asked, "Is… is it that boy named Lu Zhe?"
Shen Qiao was none-too-graciously downing the yin'er soup like it was a sugary drink. Hearing that question, he paused briefly and asked, "Mom, you know him?"
He lowered the bowl and saw a cold, hateful sneer cross Shen Jinyi's face. That was a look which seemed both familiar and foreign to him.
It seemed foreign because it had been many years since he last saw it.
And it seemed familiar because…
Years ago, she had first shown him that expression when she injected him with omega pheromones.
It was strange. Her light face of makeup clearly gave her a refined, dignified air. But in that moment, Shen Qiao got the feeling that his mother was… quite pitiful.
Immediately afterwards, he heard Shen Jinyi's response: "If he were any other person, I may have been able to admire him. But he's that woman's child. He deserves nothing but my hate—Qiaoqaio, do you remember what I told you before? About your father once keeping a lover outside the family?"
Shen Qiao suddenly tensed his thumb against the rim of the bowl.
His mind began to buzz.
But his heart was bizarrely calm. He held the bowl, which contained only a few remaining red dates now, steadily in one hand, as though he had already guessed and come to terms with how convoluted and complex the ill-fated connection between him and Lu Zhe would become.
"Qiaoqiao," Shen Jinyi continued. "Make friends with someone else, okay?"
Shen Qiao couldn't remember how he left his mother's room that day. He only remembered finding himself at the desk in his own room afterwards. A small potted cactus he'd bought on a middle school field trip to a botanical garden sat on his desk; it was already growing duller with age.
He shifted his gaze from the cactus to a pile of exercise worksheets that sat on his desk. A bowl sat atop those worksheets.
It was the empty soup bowl that he'd forgotten to take into the kitchen earlier.
The two round, plump dates still sat at the bottom of the empty bowl. The sight of them gave off a distinct sensation of loneliness.
Shen Qiao set the bowl aside and propped his cheek up on one hand, thinking of Lu Zhe—
No wonder he'd never been able to get used to the look of the guy.
As it turned out, they were the same kind.
Ever since their first meeting, Shen Qiao had felt that Lu Zhe's demeanor was a little insincere, but not to the degree that it was worth mentioning. That contradiction between his real self and the mask he wore had always been somewhat enticing.
With one look, it was obvious they were practically polar opposites—
Who would have imagined that the two of them had grown from the exact same quagmire?
All the most piercingly bright lights in the arena were focused on the stage. The instant he stepped out onto the platform, Shen Qiao subconsciously squinted against the blinding brightness.
"Let us welcome the players Shen Qiao and Lu Zhe!"
The female presenter's voice rang out through the speakers around the arena, igniting the passion of the DG fans in the crowd. Their raucous cheers filled up the arena, crashing down on the two people on stage.
Shen Qiao was pretty sure he could hear the male fans in the front rows shouting, "Laogong, look at me!!!"
There was no way to tell whether those were Shen Qiao's fans or Lu Zhe's fans. With the lights concentrated on the stage, it was impossible to make out the appearances of the faceless silhouettes in the crowd anyway.
Shen Qiao stood on the stage, motionless. He exuded a somewhat cold and unapproachable air. Next to him, Lu Zhe was like a flower blooming in spring. Even though they were clearly wearing the exact same uniform, the two of them were like winter and spring—polar opposites. The stark contrast between them was unignorable.
The presenter addressed Shen Qiao first: "We just saw Wolf Cub take the title of MVP in these two rounds. Your condition on the field is extremely good, so what about off the field? After just transferring to a new team, have you had trouble adapting to anything?"
Shen Qiao took the mic she offered him. Hearing the first part of her question, he planned on simply nodding. But when the words 'trouble adapting' came up, he subconsciously glanced at Lu Zhe.
As a result, when he looked over, he saw that Lu Zhe was gazing back at him with a smile crinkling the corners of his eyes.
Shen Qiao instantly averted his gaze and instinctively gave a standard answer to the presenter's question: "Everything's been pretty good. Everyone has been really nice."
The presenter didn't give up there. She threw out several more conversation starters, but any question she asked, no matter how much potential it had for discussion, was shot down by a simple, single-line answer from Shen Qiao.
To put it bluntly, this man was a conversational terminator.
Lu Zhe listened to a few questions before he turned his head, unable to contain a laugh. His shoulders even shook, just a little.
However, the people right below the stage could clearly see that reaction!
"Have you guys noticed that Dog Lu is in a really good mood today? Plus, he seems to have been looking at our Qiaoqiao ever since they got on stage. He hasn't even glanced away for a second, has he?"
"You're overthinking it. Maybe Daddy Lu is purely mocking Wolf Cub for not knowing how to hold a conversation."
After the presenter finished carrying out a calm and boring conversation with Shen Qiao, she looked towards Lu Zhe with hope in her eyes:
"Captain Lu, after the two games you played tonight, fans in the bullet comments are saying that DG is in its best shape ever. They feel the team's current formation is perfect. Captain Lu, what are your thoughts on these comments?"
Shen Qiao hastily passed the mic over to Lu Zhe, like it was a hot potato.
Lu Zhe took the mic and answered the presenter with a question of his own: "What is the 'perfect' formation?"
The presenter ventured a guess: "From the top lane to the middle lane to the bottom lane to the jungle… everyone is fit to be called your daddy?"
The corners of Lu Zhe's lips quirked up. It was hard to tell whether or not he agreed with her guess. His gaze only instinctively traveled to the side, catching sight of Shen Qiao's profile. The knife-sharp cut of his jaw and the jutting bulge of his throat were spotlighted by the overhead lights. As always, he practically oozed charisma and sex appeal.
Lu Zhe finally answered, "Have you ever heard this saying?
"The perfect formation isn't one where everyone is powerful. It's one where we become unstoppable when we… come together."
At that, some female fans in the stands let out shrill shrieks!
Maybe that kind of mood was particularly infectious in huge crowds of people. A huge wave of applause rippled through the crowd. Whether they understood Lu Zhe's meaning or not, they thought his words sounded awesome, and they cheered him on with thunderous roars!
The presenter blinked.
The logic was understandable enough, but why did she get a strange feeling from those words?
You were pent up because you've only been able to show off in your HQ these past few days, right?
By the way, Dog Lu's final words originated online. I forgot where I saw them, but anyway… they're words of love.