As the sun grew more and more intense in the sky, Shen Qiao made his way back to DG's headquarters. He was just on his way to the training room when he saw Lu Zhe descending from the stairs directly ahead of him.
The smile in Lu Zhe's eyes instantly grew warmer and gentler as soon as he saw Shen Qiao. A glimmer filled up those long, sloping eyes of his. He approached in just a few wide steps and reached out to grab hold of Shen Qiao's collar, tugging him closer to stand directly before him.
In the next instant, Lu Zhe brought his face close to Shen Qiao's. His proximity carried a hint of cedarwood.
"Where'd you go?"
Upon noticing Shen Qiao wasn't carrying his usual gym bag, Lu Zhe guessed right away that Shen Qiao hadn't gone to the swimming pool. But he still instinctively sniffed the air a few times—
And sure enough, the scent of chlorine that usually lingered after Shen Qiao visited the pool wasn't there. In its stead, there was a faint, rapidly vanishing… floral scent.
The smile in Lu Zhe's eyes sharpened. Without waiting for Shen Qiao to answer, he asked another question of his own:
"Which omega did you go on a date with? Who left such a strong flowery scent on you?"
When he heard that question from Lu Zhe, Shen Qiao couldn't keep a smile from rising in his own eyes. He found himself thinking that it was true after all, what people said about alphas having noses that were even sharper than a dog's. Seeing Lu Zhe react like this today proved that much.
Shen Qiao took note of the deliberate edge of aggression in Lu Zhe's tone. He answered with a smile that wasn't quite a smile. Lazily, he retorted, "Whether or not I can date an omega is something other people don't know. But are you telling me you don't know either?"
Hearing that, Lu Zhe couldn't contain his mirth. He huffed a low breath of laughter and felt an inexplicable wave of joy wash over him.
Lu Zhe had always loved being 'included' by Shen Qiao in this way. He loved when Shen Qiao made it clear that Lu Zhe was part of his life, and not just any random outsider. He loved when Shen Qiao laid all his secrets bare to him.
The two of them had walked side by side through the storms of life, and when they passed through those storms, they would also stand together in the glittering sunlight.
At first, long ago, Lu Zhe hadn't realized he was special to Shen Qiao. He'd thought all of the secrets Shen Qiao revealed to him were simply things that Shen Qiao didn't mind letting others find out about. As a result, Lu Zhe had spent a long time paying close attention to the other people who passed through Shen Qiao's life. The thought of anyone else knowing such private things about Shen Qiao inevitably filled Lu Zhe up with jealousy.
It wasn't until after they got together that Lu Zhe received the confirmation, from Shen Qiao's own lips, that those were secrets Shen Qiao only ever shared with him.
While Lu Zhe had been sent away to study for his college entrance exams in his third year of high school, his mind had often drifted away from his studies. He'd often wondered, What kind of people will Shen Qiao meet while I'm away?
Would there be someone else like him, who walked into Shen Qiao's life and grew close to him? Would there be someone else who came to understand Shen Qiao's past, to sympathize with his pain, and to share in his future glory?
Just the thought of that had caused an almost unbearable urgency to rise in Lu Zhe's heart. It was like a voice was urging him on, telling him, Hurry up and grow up. Hurry up and become strong.
He was practically like a young sapling growing in a field, endlessly bothered by an impatient farmer, until he finally grew strong enough and hardy enough to claim a small piece of land as his own.
He had been so eager to grow up and use his own branches and leaves to pull Shen Qiao into his world. He wanted to provide shade for Shen Qiao in the summers and warmth for him in the winters. He wanted to hide this treasured baobei away; it would have been perfect if no one in the world but him knew of Shen Qiao's brilliance.
No other person had ever claimed a place at Shen Qiao's side.
After reuniting in Hua City, Lu Zhe had found himself beset by ire on Shen Qiao's behalf. His baobei was so wonderful; how had Shen Qiao remained undiscovered for so long? How could this world have allowed his life to fall into such ruin?
Shen Qiao's cigarette addiction had grown so fierce that he inhaled smoke like it was all the nourishment he needed to survive. Just thinking about that stoked the flames of Lu Zhe's anger.
When his thoughts reached that point, Lu Zhe refocused on Shen Qiao and said, "Not an omega. Then a beta, or… another alpha?"
Shen Qiao didn't know what had come over Lu Zhe. This wave of jealousy seemed to have come out of absolutely nowhere. He studied Lu Zhe with an inscrutable gaze, then donned a disinterested tone and expression once more.
"Oh?" he mused. "If there is someone, so what? And if there isn't, so what?"
Lu Zhe's eyes grew half-hooded. His lashes swept over his pupils like the reeds growing beside a tranquil lake, casting shadows over the pools of his eyes.
After mulling it over for a few seconds, he unhurriedly answered, "If there is, I'll have to see exactly who has a good enough eye to set their sights on the same baobei who's captured my attention.
"If there isn't… I'll just have to personally treat you even better."
Shen Qiao hadn't expected a response like that. He tensed for a moment, then glanced left and right, surreptitiously checking their surroundings like Lu Zhe had said something that would have been inappropriate for others to hear.
"Stop speaking in such weird, cryptic terms." Shen Qiao batted away the hand that Lu Zhe had curled in the collar of his shirt. As though nothing had transpired between them, he turned to move past Lu Zhe after throwing down that dismissive line.
Lu Zhe had gotten a good sense of Shen Qiao's habits as of late. He'd come downstairs at that moment because he'd figured Shen Qiao would be getting back at around that time. And, lo and behold, he'd managed to run into Shen Qiao. It was only natural that he would go back upstairs with Shen Qiao now.
As Shen Qiao started to climb the stairs, he detected the scent of cedarwood pursuing him from behind. He lowered his head and almost compulsively stepped on the two protruding strips on each step as he ascended.
From behind him, Lu Zhe asked with an obvious smile in his voice, "What weird, cryptic terms?"
Shen Qiao didn't respond.
But Lu Zhe wouldn't let it go so easily. "Qiaoqaio, if you don't speak clearly, how will I know what I should say and what I shouldn't say next time?"
Shen Qiao took a deep, slow breath to calm himself. He had to remind himself that he couldn't inflict bodily harm upon the captain of the team just a short while after coming to DG.
Lu Zhe unhurriedly came up behind him, calling out 'Qiaoqiao' again and again, as though he definitely wouldn't drop the subject until he got a concrete answer from Shen Qiao.
In the end, Shen Qiao couldn't resist. At the top of the stairs, on the second floor landing, he turned back and shot Lu Zhe an impatient glare. He hoped the fierceness of his gaze alone would be enough to scare this guy into shutting the hell up.
Unfortunately, Lu Zhe didn't buy the act. Seeing Shen Qiao get riled up like that only made Lu Zhe smile wider. Lu Zhe's expression grew more and more mischievous. But after clearing his throat with a low cough, he lifted his hands in surrender.
Lu Zhe was just about to quit while he was ahead when he suddenly saw Shen Qiao's lips move again. A second later, Shen Qiao ground out two syllables through gritted teeth, filling those words with a vicious sort of ferociousness:
Each of those syllables seemed to deal a huge amount of psychological damage to Shen Qiao as he forced them past his lips. He seemed almost to fall into a trance from the dizzying blows.
Just as Shen Qiao was about to continue and tell Lu Zhe to never use those words again, he heard Lu Zhe give a warm and sweet answer:
"I'm right here."
Shen Qiao fell silent.
Lu Zhe could clearly see that his teasing had gone a bit too far. He was just about to try his very best to rein in his smile when his gaze fell upon a sight behind Shen Qiao.
Shen Qiao, sensing the drift of Lu Zhe's gaze, also turned to look back—
Manager Zhou was standing right behind him. His jaw was slack, and his mouth was open so wide in astonishment that anyone could have easily tossed a hard-boiled egg straight down his throat.
He looked at Shen Qiao, then craned his neck to look at Lu Zhe. He clearly wanted to say something, but couldn't seem to find the words. Finally, his shoulders slumped and he resignedly issued a weak warning:
"You… you two… rein it in a little."
The implication of those words deeply wounded Shen Qiao. He tried to temper his mood, but he could barely stop color from rising in his cheeks. He finally asked, helplessly, "…you don't want to ask what we were just talking about?"
Ask! Please ask! Shen Qiao wanted, at the very least, a chance to prove his innocence!
Lu Zhe had been smiling so much that his cheeks were almost starting to feel sore with it. He pressed the backs of his own hands to his cheeks, forcing himself to resist the urge to grin again as he gamely agreed, "That's right, Manager Zhou. How about you get a better understanding of the background of our conversation?"
Manager Zhou stared at the two of them in abject shock. His eyes filled up with obvious words of condemnation:
Shameless! Utterly shameless! Dog Husband x Dog Husband!
They would even pry open someone's mouth and forcibly shove their PDA down a poor bystander's throat?
Manager Zhou subconsciously took a step back and hastily shook his head while waving his hands in protest. "No, no, no. No need to explain. I understand everything.
"I just wanted to remind you two to be careful. We're up against BLX tomorrow. You have to keep yourselves in peak condition. I'm just worrying about you two because I've heard being in a relationship can reduce your IQ, you know?"
Shen Qiao didn't get a chance to prove his innocence at all. His expression turned a bit more sullen.
Lu Zhe, seeing that shift, smiled with his eyes and turned back to Manager Zhou. "There's no need to worry about us. Do you know what it feels like to have enough IQ to spare?"
"Hey!" Manager Zhou protested. He muttered something under his breath about ungrateful ingrates who didn't know how to appreciate someone else's kindness, then headed off to his own office under the assumption that Lu Zhe was just irritated by his interruption.
Lu Zhe watched him leave, then let out a soft sigh.
Sensing that Shen Qiao's pheromones were running a bit wild with irritation, Lu Zhe's lips twitched again. Just as he was about to open his mouth to speak, he was interrupted by Shen Qiao, who lifted a finger and issued a warning:
"Shut your mouth."
Shen Qiao's brows were deeply furrowed with gloom. He darkly cautioned, "Until we beat BLX, you're not allowed to speak a single word to me outside the game."
Lu Zhe helplessly raised his eyebrows—
This was all Big-Mouthed Zhou's fault. If he hadn't prematurely heard Shen Qiao utter those two words, Lu Zhe would have succeeded in soothing away Shen Qiao's irritation a long time ago.
As he watched Shen Qiao march off in the direction of the training room after flinging out that warning, Lu Zhe brushed the tip of his own nose. He knew better than to poke the tiger right now, so he only followed Shen Qiao without stirring up another ounce of trouble.
Shen Qiao kept his word.
Right up until their match against BLX, he didn't exchange another word with Lu Zhe in private. He seemed to be determined to do everything in his power to prove to Manager Zhou that he really didn't have romance on the mind.
Now, it was twenty minutes before the match.
Shen Qiao was smoking in the hallway outside the bathroom. Lu Zhe stood around waiting for him, not straying too far or too close. Mo Mo, the heart of Team BLX, just so happened to pass by them at that moment.
Mo Mo was also a smoker. He'd already taken out his pack of cigarettes when he happened upon this bizarre atmosphere between Lu Zhe and Shen Qiao. His expression instantly shifted, showing that he knew something was up.
He was the captain of Team BLX. Although only Shen Qiao was his ex-teammate, Mo Mo also knew Lu Zhe fairly well. He didn't hesitate to lift his chin and ask Lu Zhe, who was closer to him, "I recently heard another story about the two of you. What's going on now? You're fighting?"
Lu Zhe smiled merrily and retorted, "Getting your hopes up?"
Mo Mo nodded. "You won't even let people get their hopes up? Who doesn't want to beat DG? If you guys want to throw this match, who would I be to say no to an easy win, right?"
Lu Zhe gave him a pitying look. "Rise and shine. You should snap out of your dreams."
Mo Mo paused for a moment with a cigarette pinched between two fingers. He must have thought of something, because he took a look at Shen Qiao's back, then hesitantly asked, "You two…"
Since Mo Mo was Shen Qiao's ex-captain, Lu Zhe did him the honor of speaking the complete and utter truth: "Yeah, it's true. But we're not together yet—I'm earnestly pursuing him."
Mo Mo looked surprised at first, but then some other thought seemed to occur to him. A wave of understanding filled his eyes. "So it's like that."
Lu Zhe spotted that thoughtful look in his eye and asked, "Like what?"
Mo Mo dismissed it with a wave of the hand that held his cigarette. "Just thought of something. You know the spring tournament of the year he first joined BLX? It was the year everyone thought he would win MVP of the Year."
Lu Zhe lowered his voice and answered, "I remember. That was when I signed with DG."
Mo Mo nodded. He didn't light his cigarette, only lowering his hand as he slowly continued, "Actually, before DG reached out to you, our team's manager took note of you. Your in-game name on the KR server is Satan, right?"
Lu Zhe stared blankly at Mo Mo for a moment, as though realizing something all on his own.
Immediately afterwards, Mo Mo continued, "Back then, we wanted to sign you. The manager told us about it. Wolfy was especially fierce back then. His condition was great, and—
"Later, after the spring tournament, news of you signing with DG came out."
Lu Zhe felt like someone had reached into his chest and grabbed his heart, squeezing hard.
It was only then that he realized how long this had been going on. Back then, when Lu Zhe hadn't known anything, Shen Qiao had already secretly been doing so much to plan for their reunion—
A soreness passed through Lu Zhe's heart. He gazed upon Shen Qiao's back from afar, and his tone was indescribably complex as he said, "Thank you for telling me about this."
Thank you for letting me know… that he never stopped loving me.