"Were you satisfied with that performance?"
The entirety of Team DG had come out on stage to take a photo with the audience. They were departing through the passageway reserved for players now. Coach Fang caught sight of the smile curving Lu Zhe's lips and coldly threw out that question.
Lu Zhe seemed to think it over for a moment before he answered truthfully, "It was fine. The main issue was that my words were too euphemistic. I worry people didn't understand—"
Qian Bao lifted her own hands to her own throat, gagging and miming that she was about to throw up.
Er-Hua and Old Wo had despair written all over their faces.
Only Coach Fang let out a cold laugh. He took out his phone and showed Lu Zhe a collection of real-time comments that the event organizers had collected very efficiently. "No need to worry," he said. "You've already succeeded."
Lu Zhe lifted his gaze to the cell phone. The bullet comments were already painting a dense rainbow across the screen—
[Dog Lu, you're being condemned by the masses right now, do you know that?]
[You have the balls to try to make our Wolf Cub call you 'beloved'?!]
[I just want to ask whether or not you've been beaten to death yet. Will I be able to see you at your next game? @LuZhe]
[Fans of both of you are so conflicted right now. Not sure which one of you we should consider our rival in love.]
[Their fan bases have already set up a new camp. They're fighting over whether their ship should be called WolfDog or LiuShen. Watching that mess has got me laughing so hard I could puke.]
Lu Zhe swiftly skimmed those comments, then gave a satisfied nod. He took out his own cell phone and lowered his head as he said, "These fans are pretty efficient. Not bad. I'm going to take a look and see if I can find this 'camp'."
Coach Fang was silent.
Clearly he'd made a mistake. He'd overestimated Lu Zhe's ability to feel shame.
Shen Qiao listened on from the side with a haughty and disinterested expression, as though this matter didn't concern him in the slightest.
It was just that—
He was walking very close to Lu Zhe. He'd inadvertently glanced over and caught sight of Lu Zhe's Weibo page. After pursing his lips, he looked away again, acting like he'd seen absolutely nothing.
On the trip back to HQ, the interior of the van was very dark. The ones who listened to music listened to music, the ones who played around on their phones played around on their phones. Some even dozed off. Everyone in the van minded their own business, basking in the faint glimmer from outside.
Lu Zhe and Shen Qiao sat in the back row, each sticking to one side of the van. Shen Qiao was playing minesweeper on his phone. Hard mode. Because there were many little squares, he brought his head closer and closer to the screen as he played, until his nose was practically buried in his phone.
A certain warmth pressed up against his forehead, accompanied by a gust of cedarwood. As the scent filled his nose, Shen Qiao's hands froze. His head was lifted a considerable amount by Lu Zhe.
"You'll go near-sighted if you keep that up."
Lu Zhe's voice fell upon his ears from a very close distance.
Shen Qiao glanced to the side, only to find that this person had somehow, at some point, scooted over from the seat on the other side of the van.
The glowing light from the streetlamps they passed drifted in through the windows, falling past Lu Zhe's profile. His eyes seemed to twinkle like stars in that flickering light, somehow enticing a person and eliciting the desire to pry into his deeper thoughts.
Shen Qiao gazed into his eyes for a while. In his moment of distraction, he even managed to have his cell phone snatched away by Lu Zhe.
Shen Qiao blinked.
Lu Zhe laughed softly and scooted even closer. He lowered his voice to a whisper and began to bargain with Shen Qiao: "Don't look anymore. I'll find you something else to focus your attention on. I'll tell you a story, how about that?"
A brighter swath of lights spilled in at just that moment. When Lu Zhe glanced to the side, he could clearly see some contempt.
But he wasn't bothered. He went on as though minding his own business and continued, "I just saw some little stories written by our fans. Why don't you give them a listen and see what you think?"
Poor, innocent Shen Qiao had yet to learn of the existence of fanfiction. Just like that, he wandered into the pitfall trap laid out for him by Lu Zhe.
Lu Zhe's warm, gentle voice had an inexplicable calming effect on those who heard it. Before Shen Qiao could find a way to refuse the suggestion, he had already fallen into the sea of Lu Zhe's voice:
"A little male wolf was born in the woods. Tragically, at the time of his birth, his mother had already been starving for three days. She was hanging on to the last threads of life. All the food she'd saved had been stolen by hyenas. She could only lick her newborn cub's fur a few times before forfeiting her life.
"The little wolf had yet to open his eyes. He hazily sensed danger, but unfortunately he had no strength to move. He had no defenses against prowling predators. Ultimately, he was picked up by a big dog who had been wandering through those woods lately. He was lifted by the scruff of his neck and brought back to the dog's den.
"The big dog licked the little wolf's fur all over, then gave him a sniff, memorizing his scent. After leaving for a while, he returned with a female hyena who'd just given birth. He lowered his muzzle to the little wolf cub's ear and said, meaningfully, 'Drink lots. You'll have to grow up big and strong to be my bride.'"
At that point, Shen Qiao couldn't resist interrupting: "Wait."
Expressionlessly, he turned to Lu Zhe and asked, "Setting aside the question of why that weird dog didn't kill and eat the wolf cub, what kind of twist is the dog wanting to have sex with the wolf?"
Lu Zhe flashed a small smile and gave an explanation: "Oh, this is an original story that our fans wrote about us. The big dog is called Lu Zhe, the little wolf cub is called Shen Qiao. You have to turn your brain off when you read these things."
Shen Qiao was speechless.
He could understand the logic of that, he supposed, but why was the story… a bit weird? Furthermore, did Lu Zhe not feel the slightest bit embarrassed while reading it out loud? He was one of the main characters, after all.
And why did they have to be animals? Because animals were cute?
Shen Qiao hesitated for a few seconds, then cleared his throat and whispered those questions to Lu Zhe.
Lu Zhe fell silent for a moment.
Old Wo, who was now pretending to sleep in the front row after being woken from a genuine nap, couldn't hold it in. He burst out laughing first. It had been quiet inside the van, after all, and he wasn't all that far away from the two people in the back row.
Taking advantage of the fact that Lu Zhe was incapable of stopping him from the back, Old Wo raised his voice and said, "Daddy #2! You can't believe his bullshit! This is fanfiction, and it's beastiality to boot! People don't write this because it's cute, they write it because they want to drive a car!"
After saying all that, Old Wo tsked and sighed. "Daddy Lu, you really have no limits."
Shen Qiao blinked, feeling a jolt of alarm.
Although he didn't know what 'fanfiction' was meant to be, he was absolutely certain that he understood what 'driving a car' meant in this context.
When he thought of Lu Zhe reading out that sort of lewd, explicit content in front of everyone, Shen Qiao was seized by the desire to open up a seam to another dimension. After strangling Lu Zhe to death, he would slip in and disappear.
Lu Zhe was just about to open his mouth to explain that this piece was totally pure, but Shen Qiao expressionlessly stomped on his left foot, which had gotten too close. He ground his own foot down on Lu Zhe's and grit out two words through his teeth:
After thinking about that for a second, Shen Qiao decided the threat wasn't enough. He added, "If you say another word, I'll beat the hell out of you. And I always keep my word."
Lu Zhe donned a perfectly reasonable expression and set down his cell phone. He made a gesture of innocence and surrender, smiling disarmingly and charmingly—
Then he discreetly aimed a blast of his pheromones at Old Wo's seat.
Old Wo had been contentedly lying down when he was suddenly crushed by that wave of Lu Zhe's pheromones. His eyes flew open wide and he silently gasped for air. It was a long moment before he managed to wheeze out a few words through gritted teeth:
"Daddy… please… let me live…"
Seeing that Shen Qiao's expression had darkened by a few more measures, Lu Zhe instantly retreated his pheromones, no longer acting up in front of Shen Qiao.
With the back row sinking into a bizarre silence, the van arrived at DG's headquarters.
Outside the air conditioned car, the Hua City summer night was as scorchingly hot as ever. Stepping into that heat was akin to stepping into a steamer basket. Every single person who climbed out of the car felt like they were entering a sauna. Even the humidity in the air felt like it was composed of evaporated boiling water.
Er-Hua started to sweat from the neck pretty much instantly. He all but ran towards the HQ, seeking the life-saving air conditioning that would be found inside.
The others followed, one after another.
Coach Fang seemed to think of something before taking off for the night. He looked back at Shen Qiao and Lu Zhe, who'd fallen behind to the back of the pack. Shen Qiao had just fished out a cigarette, and Lu Zhe was leisurely walking alongside him. Coach Fang shot Lu Zhe a warning glare, silently cautioning him not to mess around too late into the night.
Lu Zhe nodded.
The sound of a lighter rang out from beside him.
Lu Zhe didn't continue moving in the direction of their HQ. Just like before their match that day, when Shen Qiao smoked, Lu Zhe was determined to be the first one to breathe in a few lungfuls of secondhand smoke.
Shen Qiao opened and closed his lighter at least ten times when he saw Lu Zhe shifting closer with a smile. Finally, Shen Qiao let out a long breath and took out the cigarette that had been dangling between his lips. His tone was as lazy as always when he spoke, tinged with a hint of impatience:
"Okay. I won't smoke. Go back."
Only Lu Zhe knew that Shen Qiao wasn't really impatient. If he were really impatient with someone, Shen Qiao wouldn't have bothered to explain anything at all. Offering even a few words was a sign that he cared.
He was way, way cuter than the poor little wolf cub who'd been picked up and carried away by the scruff of his neck.
Lu Zhe's eyes softened a little more, and he looked towards the cigarette Shen Qiao was holding. He lost the teasing lilt to his voice and earnestly, seriously said, "Making you quit all of a sudden must be hard on you. I know about the aftereffects.
"But you promised me you would smoke less. At least less than the two or three packs a day that you were going through when you first came here. So we'll take it slow. 'kay?"
Even without looking it up online, Lu Zhe knew about the effects that came after quitting smoking. Poor moods, exhaustion, coughing, and so on… quitting cold turkey wouldn't immediately make Shen Qiao's physical health take a turn for the better. In fact, it would even affect his everyday life.
But, on the other hand, ignoring his increasing dependency on cigarettes wasn't an option.
Setting everything else aside, Lu Zhe knew from the time he ran into Shen Qiao at the hospital that Shen Qiao's glandular problems were still present. Smoking while on his meds was sure to lower the medication's efficacy. Thinking in terms of the long run, Lu Zhe absolutely had to reduce Shen Qiao's addiction.
During the time they'd trained with practice games, Shen Qiao had indeed reduced his smoking—of his own accord. But now that they'd entered the summer tournament, Shen Qiao would naturally gravitate towards cigarettes again as a way to decompress and alleviate stress. Lu Zhe understood all that.
Really, the concern Coach Fang had shown just now was a bit baseless—
If he was really going to mess around with Shen Qiao, why would he have just sat there reading him a pure, innocent piece of fanfiction?
It had been so dark in the van, and the two of them had been the only people in the back row. If Lu Zhe had just pressed Shen Qiao into a corner, who could have possibly known what they were doing?
But he hadn't done anything like that, and he wouldn't.
When he met Lu Zhe's gaze, Shen Qiao felt like the cigarette between his fingers was starting to burn him. He couldn't take that sort of deep, meaningful look, so he averted his gaze first.
"I got it," he answered. "Let's go back and rest. We still have practice tomorrow."
Lu Zhe nodded and followed him all the way back to HQ. Their two shadows were stretched and thinned by the lights outside the building. Those shadows gradually started to overlap and meld together, like two strings of fate that had previously been separate, finally starting to intertwine.
Middle of the night.
Shen Qiao had one hand at the back of his head. He'd yet to fall asleep. For the time being, he was scrolling around on his phone to alleviate his boredom.
He didn't know what came over him, but he suddenly looked up what fanfiction meant. Then he went to Weibo to search up a few keywords. In the dark of night, he randomly wandered into a bizarre supertopic.
The latest post was a poll.
What do you think the ship name for Lu Zhe and Shen Qiao should be?
- Just a passerby, show results.
Shen Qiao scrolled down to check out the rest of the posts. Besides the poll, the latest post only contained photos from the interview he and Lu Zhe had given together.
Several hotly rated comments were there—
Everyone In DG Is Part Of My Harem: Sisters, we haven't even clearly decided who's gong and who's shou! If we don't get that set soon, we're going to split up into Team Qiao and Team Lu! (208 Likes)
Eating Watermelon Without Spitting Out The Seeds: If it's Captain Lu, I'm into it! Wahhhh! Isn't AA too fierce, you guys?! (103 Likes)
Qiaoqiao Has Always Comforted Me: I! I! I! I'm willing to give up my laogong! Captain Lu is way more than good enough, after all! Let me join you guys! (59 Likes)
Shen Qiao stared.
He cut to a new page and looked up what 'gong' and 'shou' meant. Then, after thinking about it, he gave the first option—WolfDog—a vote.
That put him in front. That meant he was stronger than Lu Zhe.
As the saying goes, Even if you lose yourself, you can't lose face.
He simply meant to cast a vote and go offline. He didn't even bother to check the number of votes for each option. Everyone was just having their own fun, anyway.
The next morning, he was woken up by a phone call from Lu Zhe.
Shen Qiao slapped at his phone without even opening his eyes. Regardless of whether or not the call connected, he didn't make a sound. Lu Zhe's obviously smiling voice drifted over the line and into his ears first.
"Still sleeping? Alright, I just wanted to give you a heads up. The fans saw the vote you cast last night. Now everyone who's here to check out the commotion is asking me… exactly which one of us is on top?"
Shen Qiao listened silently.
Then he sat bolt upright in bed.
He instantly opened his eyes. His voice was still raspy and a little nasally from sleep, but his surprise was evident:
"What did you say?"
The vote he'd cast last night… had been seen?!