WHEN AN ALPHA IS MARKED BY ONE OF HIS OWN KIND

Chapter 36

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Once Shen Qiao finished smoking the cigarette in his hand, he stubbed it out on the top of a nearby trash can and bent slightly to toss it into the garbage after the sparks had been smothered.

He wandered over to a sink and turned the tap, squeezing a dollop of liquid soap onto his palm before thoroughly washing his hands. Afterwards, he tugged out a few sheets of paper towels and dried his hands, then chucked the towels into the bin and turned to leave.

Upon turning around, he spotted the person who had approached just a short while ago—Mo Mo.

Shen Qiao nodded towards Mo Mo by way of a greeting. Just as he was about to slip past Mo Mo, he saw Mo Mo try to spark his lighter a few times—click, click—without success. Habitually, Shen Qiao took out his own lighter and lit it, offering up the flame.

Mo Mo lit his cigarette and took a deep inhale. Smiling, he said to Shen Qiao, "You've been in a pretty good state recently. Ever since our last practice match against you guys, we've all been eagerly awaiting this day."

Shen Qiao flashed a lazy smile. "No need to be that eager. Won't make that much of a difference in the results."

Mo Mo raised his eyebrows and exhaled his lungful of smoke. With a smile in his eyes, he countered, "Careful now. Don't get carried away, or you may end up choking on your own words—no crying when you lose, got it?"

Shen Qiao didn't offer up a response. He noticed Lu Zhe waiting for him, still, from not far away. After exchanging some customary trash talk with his ex-captain, Shen Qiao turned and made his way towards Lu Zhe.

……

Ten minutes before the match.

The stadium in Hua City was already packed to the gills. DG was a powerful star that had seen a meteoric rise in recent years, and they had brought home the first world championship title for the LPL. It was only natural that they had vast seas of fans.

And BLX was an old, well-established team. Mo Mo and Lele had been a famously formidable bottom lane duo for a long time already. In the seasons when the ADC reigned supreme, BLX had been considered the strongest contenders for the world championship—but, unfortunately, they only ever rose to the rank of runner-ups in that tournament.

But that in no way hindered Mo Mo's immense popularity. Within the LPL, he was still the gold standard.

Many old esports fans were fans of Mo Mo and Lele. They placed high hopes and expectations on the shoulders of these two young men. Nowadays, the tactic of playing four champions defensively while one attacked was outdated and largely ineffective. But as long as BLX played this famous duo, their fans would continue to support them.

The two of them, and their team, represented an entire era of the game.

"Welcome to the LPL's summer tournament in Hua City! Let us welcome the two teams facing off today! BLX! DG!" The commentator's passionate voice roared through the arena's speakers.

"Both teams are currently on a red hot winning streak! Whose streak will be cut short today? Let's wait and see! First, let's welcome the members of Team BLX. We all know their new recruit, the top laner Xu Xiao.

"Xu Xiao actually spent some time at the LPL's rookie training camp before joining the ranks of the LCK in Korea. Then, this year, he was recruited back to the LPL by Team BLX—clearly, he was meant to return to us here in the LPL!"

As the commentator made these introductions, Xu Xiao walked out to his own battle station. He greeted the cameras and the live audience with polite smiles, but then his gaze subconsciously traveled over to the place where the DG players were gathered.

He silently muttered his opponent's name in his mind—Shen Qiao.

Ever since BLX lost their last practice game to DG, Xu Xiao had given himself three extra hours of training every day. Day in and day out, he labored away in the training room without going to sleep until four or five in the morning. All for the sake of beating Shen Qiao in a fair, official game.

Besides Lele, who was on fairly good terms with Shen Qiao, everyone else on BLX tried to convince Xu Xiao to take it a little easier and not overdo it at practice. There was no point in him running himself into the ground before the tournament even started.

Everyone thought that Xu Xiao had just joined BLX, and that he would have to live up to the powerful reputation Shen Qiao had left behind. So it would seem only natural for him to feel some pressure.

Only Xu Xiao knew that this wasn't the whole story.

……

Back in the day, he and Shen Qiao had attended the same rookie training camp.

Xu Xiao had once overheard the coaches talking about a kid at the camp who was an exceptionally fierce player. That kid played like he didn't care about his own life; every time, before he died, he was sure to drag an opponent down with him. As long as that kid could continue to play in the same manner in the future, the LPL was sure to see the rise of another outstanding top laner.

Xu Xiao had instantly thought of a certain person.

Shen Qiao stood out during practices mostly because he was just too unique. He was the first to arrive at the training room every morning, and he was the last to leave every night. It was like he was inexhaustible, like he never got tired of the game. No matter how dry and repetitive the drills assigned by the coaches were, Shen Qiao would tackle them with enthusiasm and complete them perfectly.

Outside the game, Shen Qiao kept to himself. He rarely ever interacted with anyone else. It was like he lived and breathed the game; he'd excised everything else from his life, deeming it unnecessary.

Sometimes, Xu Xiao would see other players greet Shen Qiao. Shen Qiao would only ever answer with a blank stare, as though he couldn't remember ever having seen that person before in his life.

Xu Xiao had never tried to treat that cold bastard so warmly. He knew exactly why Shen Qiao worked so hard—

Rumor had it Shen Qiao came from a poverty-stricken family. He had no money to continue his education. Before joining the rookie camp, he'd spent all day playing at net cafes, earning tips from people who watched him game. Sometimes, he would be enlisted to fill in at practice matches.

He lived day to day, meal to meal, never knowing where his next paycheck would come from.

There were other rumors that said Shen Qiao was an orphan, so there had never been anyone to watch over him or care about what he did. He'd grown up by collecting garbage and whatnot.

Some of these rumors may have been outlandish, but Xu Xiao really did believe that Shen Qiao's family situation wasn't good. After all, Xu Xiao never saw Shen Qiao behaving differently around Chinese New Year's or other holidays. All other players would at least call home from their dorm rooms, but Shen Qiao continued about his business as though those were just ordinary days.

And that wasn't the only thing about Shen Qiao that had left a deep impression on Xu Xiao.

What really left an impression on Xu Xiao was that he'd introduced himself to the flourishing Team BLX, hoping to be recruited to play as their top laner. But in the end…

In the end, BLX had signed Shen Qiao.

When Xu Xiao heard the news, he hadn't been able to accept it at all. Although Shen Qiao was genuinely impressive, Xu Xiao didn't think he was inferior in any way. The only difference between them was that Xu Xiao wasn't as miserable and tragic as Shen Qiao.

Xu Xiao didn't let his motivation suffer. Since the strongest team in the nation, BLX, didn't want him at the time, he decided there would be no point in wasting his time on an inferior team in the LPL. He decided to go strengthen himself as a member of the strongest team in Korea.

……

And now, Xu Xiao was back.

Although BLX had lost to DG during their practice match, both teams had held back some tactics back then. Now, Xu Xiao would finally get his chance to truly prove himself to Team BLX.

He was determined to make BLX's higher-ups understand that regardless of what had happened before, he was the best choice for BLX. Not Shen Qiao.

Xu Xiao was pulled out of his thoughts by the loud voice blaring out over the speakers. The two teams took their seats as the commentator finished the introductions.

"Let's see what kind of excitement these two sides will bring us today—!"

The two teams logged into the game.

Coach Fang put on his headset to give his players their marching orders. "Business as usual," he said. "Ban Xayah first. Don't let them play the Xayah and Rakan duo."

Old Wo chuckled. "Wouldn't 'business as usual' be letting our captain say a few words first?"

Shen Qiao lifted his gaze and glanced to the side. Unfortunately, Old Wo wasn't sitting right next to him. He could only catch sight of Lu Zhe's profile, which stopped his death glare short of reaching the troublemaker.

Lu Zhe sensed Shen Qiao's movement and turned to meet his gaze. His own eyes crinkled with a small, measured smile. A short moment later, he opened his mouth and unhurriedly began to speak:

"Qiaoqiao—"

Shen Qiao only looked at him out of the corner of his eye and coolly interrupted, "Has 'business as usual' become you harassing me before every match?"

Lu Zhe flashed a doting smile at him and calmly asked, "Wanna grab something to eat after the game?"

Shen Qiao had already mentally prepared himself to hear something perverted from Lu Zhe again. After waiting and receiving such an innocent line, he wasn't sure how to react right away.

"Huh," Old Wo hummed. "Well, I was all ready to take off my pants. And this is all you give me?"

"Don't be gross," Er-Hua said.

Qian Bao was smoothing out the cord of her headset, which had started to get tangled. "What are you taking off your pants for? I'll report you, you know."

As her words fell—

Their monitors entered the picks and bans phase. BLX chose their side first, and they took red, allowing DG to take blue and the first ban.

Shen Qiao followed their coach's orders and banned Xayah. The other side answered by banning Renekton. They knew that this was one of Shen Qiao's best champions, and he would be too powerful as a versatile pick that could be played in the top or middle lane. Since BLX didn't plan on using him, they figured they may as well take him away from DG as well.

Immediately afterwards, the two coaches swiftly decided on the next bans for their team. Rumble, Lucian, Ezreal, and Elise were summarily banned.

Then, it was DG's turn to choose a champion.

"Lu Zhe, take the first pick. Do you want Lee Sin or Jarvan?" Coach Fang asked through the headset. Both those champions had high mobility; they would be well-suited to Lu Zhe, who would have to move from lane to lane to assist his teammates.

Lu Zhe thought for a few seconds before he said, "Lee Sin. We won't be facing too much pressure in the top or middle lanes. Our main concern is the bottom—Mo Mo is the heart of BLX. Their jungler is definitely going to help Mo Mo establish dominance first.

"The dragon pit is also close to the bottom lane, so the probability of a team fight is high. Lee Sin will help me take care of things there."

Jarvan IV wasn't a bad champion to use in dragon fights, but in professional circles, he fell short when it came to supporting his teammates in team fights. Lee Sin would be the more optimal choice if they had to go toe-to-toe with BLX.

Coach Fang nodded. "Alright."

While they deliberated, the spectators all saw the display of DG's selection screen. They seemed to sway back and forth between Lee Sin and Jarvan IV, even once drifting over to Qiyana, before finally locking in Lee Sin in the end.

"DG takes Lee Sin, and now we see BLX has taken Miss Fortune for their AD in the bottom lane and Jarvan IV for their jungler.

"As everyone knows, Miss Fortune and Jarvan make an excellent pair. If they add in Galio, they'll be at a huge advantage—unfortunately, Galio isn't that strong in the current version of the game. If BLX plays it too 'by the book' and takes Galio for their middle lane, we might see them suffer from a deficit of DPS."

Two of the most impressive teams in the LPL were clashing. Naturally, the commentator was quite skilled at analyzing their team compositions.

The second commentator chimed in, "Since BLX has taken Miss Fortune, the other side may have to go for Braum… and there it is! DG has locked in Varus and Braum for their bottom lane!"

Meanwhile…

With their bottom lane options limited by DG's bans, BLX shot back by taking Mordekaiser, a strong champion in that edition of the game.

This champion's ult was extremely well-suited to handling the strongest enemy in a team fight. Once Mordekaiser dragged an enemy into the Death Realm with him, the rest of his teammates would stand a much better chance of victory during the duration of his ult.

"Ban Nautilus next…" Coach Fang was still communicating with his players through his headset. Just as he was chatting with Er-Hua about possibly adding Orianna Reveck to their team, they saw the other side lock in Thresh.

Coach Fang shifted gears and asked, "Wolf Cub, you wanna take Aatrox?"

They were still missing a piece in their team comp.

Shen Qiao nodded. "Sure."

Then, as soon as DG made that choice—

BLX locked in their last champion as well.

Jayce.

"Tsk." Through the headset, Coach Fang sounded somewhat displeased.

Their enemy had too many champions that could carry. Jarvan IV and Miss Fortune were a fierce combo, and Jayce could easily carry the match if he developed well in the early stages of the game. That season, Jayce was exceptionally strong, with a good range. Wolf Cub wouldn't be able to get much of an advantage in the early stages, but that wasn't the worst of it.

If they let Jayce develop as he pleased, he would become nearly unstoppable later in the match.

……

"Our two sides have now finalized their team compositions—DG will be running Aatrox in the top lane, Lee Sin as their jungler, LeBlanc in the middle lane, and Varus and Braum in the bottom lane.

"BLX has taken, respectively—Jayce, Jarvan IV, Mordekaiser, and Miss Fortune and Thresh. And now… the game is set to begin."

As soon as the commentator finished speaking, the big display monitors in the stadium cut to a view of the game.

"Watch out for an ambush," Lu Zhe said. He made his way into the jungle after gearing up, using his mouse to mark out some dangerous spots in the lower jungle.

Old Wo and Er-Hua took his words to heart. They cautiously waited in the underbrush near the red buff that had spawned.

Qian Bao was pretty close to the spot where the other team was grouping up. She retreated deeper into DG's own jungle. Meanwhile, Shen Qiao strayed close to the river in his lane. Lu Zhe was nearby; he scoped out the location of the blue buff first, before heading over to pick up the red buff.

The commentator's voice rang out through the sound system: "We can see that BLX grouped up right away in hopes of launching an attack, but it's too bad—DG didn't take the bait. They didn't approach BLX's formation at all."

"That's right," the other commentator said. "But BLX acted very decisively as well. When they realized their trap wasn't going to work, they quickly returned to their own positions. Since Lu Zhe took some time to scout, Jarvan was the slightest bit faster than him to the red buff. Jarvan was quick to level up as well, and he's heading to the top lane now. Wolf Cub will have to be careful."

"Colonel KI's insights are out now. Based on team composition, it looks like BLX has a 52% chance of victory in the early stages, which grows to 57% in the later stages of the round. Looks like Colonel KI is favoring BLX here.

"Mm… if DG finds themselves at too much of a disadvantage in the early stages, it'll definitely be much more difficult for them to make a comeback later on. And for DG's top laner Aatrox, going up against Jayce… well, that's going to be a tall order."

In DG's voice channel—

Lu Zhe studied the opposing Jarvan IV's movements and positioning, and swiftly determined the player's intent. He instantly alerted Shen Qiao of his findings:

"Qiaoqiao, watch out. Jarvan is on his way up to you. I won't make it in time."

Shen Qiao hummed his acknowledgement and waited for Jarvan IV to pop out from the nearby underbrush. He didn't take the bait Jarvan IV tried to lay out for him, instead retreating backwards.

Just as Jarvan IV used an ability, Shen Qiao reacted instantaneously, like a bolt of thunder. He used flash and—

Aatrox instantly moved closer to DG's own outer turret. In the next second, Jarvan IV's ability hit the space where Aatrox had been a moment ago, catching nothing but air.

When Lu Zhe saw the enemy Jarvan IV in the top lane, he guessed right away that their own blue buff had already been taken. He gave up on heading up there and decided to head straight to the lower jungle to confront the Rift Scuttler instead.

The match had been going for four minutes now, and neither side had gained a clear advantage. But it was obvious that in terms of farming minions, Shen Qiao had fallen slightly behind.

Because Aatrox had a difficult time getting the upper hand against Jayce. Even without straying too close to the enemy, Shen Qiao's Aatrox could be subdued.

Shen Qiao had been pressured back against the tower by the enemy Jayce.

He subconsciously glanced at the map and guessed that Jarvan IV was lying in wait nearby. He curtly reported, "They're going to dive."

Lu Zhe furrowed his brows. "Stay calm. I'll be right there."

After handling the Rift Scuttler, Lu Zhe had headed straight back to their base to change his equipment. He would need a bit of time to make it up to the top lane, and Shen Qiao was right under their outer turret. The enemy's minions had him surrounded. If the enemy Jayce and Jarvan IV really wanted to swoop in for the kill, Lu Zhe wasn't sure if Shen Qiao would be able to hold out until he arrived to assist.

As expected—

By the time Lu Zhe exited their base, Shen Qiao was already facing off against the enemy top laner and jungler. He was surrounded from all sides. Jarvan IV was dead set on claiming Shen Qiao's head, and Shen Qiao's chances of survival weren't high, but he was fighting back wildly, determined to at least do some damage of his own before giving up his life.

Under a joint assault from Jayce and Jarvan IV, Shen Qiao was cornered and felled, becoming the first casualty of the match.

The tower had chipped away at Jarvan IV's health, leaving him with just a sliver. He escaped the tower's attack range and used his potions to heal up. Just as he prepared to leave, he was met by Lu Zhe, who'd finally arrived at the scene. Jarvan IV could only quickly flash away, leaving Lu Zhe's attack to strike Jayce and Jayce alone.

Jayce was a little ways away from Lu Zhe. Although he took the hit, he was left with enough health to calmly take a potion before escaping without even using his flash ability.

Ultimately, Lu Zhe wasn't able to claim either of their heads.

With a resounding clap, the commentator exclaimed, "Beautiful dive from BLX!"

And BLX's momentum didn't stop there—

Five and a half minutes into the match, Jarvan IV snuck into Lu Zhe's jungle and claimed the first infernal dragon.

Shen Qiao returned to the top lane and continued facing off against Jayce, only to fall farther and farther behind.

……

Seven minutes into the match.

BLX planned on ganging up against Shen Qiao again, but this time Lu Zhe was prepared for them. When BLX's top laner, mid laner, and jungler teamed up against Shen Qiao once more, Lu Zhe emerged from behind and swiftly took Jarvan IV's life.

At that point, Shen Qiao had taken attacks from all three enemies. His life was inevitably traded away.

Qian Bao also rushed up to the top lane to provide support. "I'm coming, I'm coming!"

Each side had given away a kill, and now they found themselves locked in a fierce 2v2. The two members of BLX were low on health; they shouldn't have posed much of a risk. But even after Qian Bao used up her ult, she wasn't able to claim Mordekaiser's life.

Mordekaiser was too tanky, and Lu Zhe had used up all his abilities against Jarvan IV. Even together, Lu Zhe and Qian Bao couldn't do enough damage to fell the enemy.

Lu Zhe had no choice but to order, "Let's go. Back to the tower."

"I'm… trying," Qian Bao answered distractedly. She was focused on fleeing towards their tower, frantically dodging the enemy's abilities. But at a critical juncture, she was dragged back by the other team.

So Lu Zhe, despite having been slightly behind her, was the one to successfully escape.

While Qian Bao died just outside their tower.

In this fight, DG lost two lives while BLX gave away just one kill. It was DG's loss.

With the situation developing to this point, Shen Qiao's earlier disadvantage only grew. Lu Zhe and Qian Bao also lost the slight advantage they'd been able to gain earlier. Now, DG could really only put pressure on the bottom lane, but they were up against the most impressive bottom lane duo in the entire LPL. It wouldn't be easy for them to gain an advantage there, either.

Even the commentators couldn't help but sigh after watching the replay of that critical moment.

"DG isn't in good shape here…"

Just as those words fell, a battle broke out in the rift once more!

Shen Qiao had become BLX's primary target of the day. He was surrounded by the enemy top laner and mid laner once more. Lu Zhe rushed up to help again. Even Old Wo and Er-Hua from the bottom lane came over, turning the fight into a 4v3—

"With a hook from Thresh, Wolf Cub is no longer able to run! Lu Zhe has thrown all his abilities at Thresh, but… ah! Thresh has gone into stasis!"

"Lele is really teaching DG a lesson! No one can run!"

"DG has been wiped out! My god! In a 4v3, they didn't manage to take down a single member of BLX! Today… BLX is just playing too well!"

……

From that fight onwards, the gap between BLX and DG only grew wider. Although DG fiercely retaliated a few times in the middle of the match, there was no avoiding the inevitable outcome. After thirty-some minutes, BLX destroyed DG's base and won the round.

As their inhibitor exploded, Team DG sat in silence.

Coach Fang soon got ready to follow the players into the rest area. Calmly, he started, "This match is on me. I was the one who told Shen Qiao to pick Aatrox, and Jayce wound up trouncing him."

Shen Qiao took off his headset and smoothly interjected, "It was my fault. There's nothing wrong with Aatrox. I just didn't perform well enough when they teamed up on me."

For once, Lu Zhe wasn't smiling. He got up and lifted a hand to rub his hair as he quietly stated, "No, it was me. I didn't accomplish much with Lee Sin. If I'd been quicker to assist you early on, you wouldn't have had to suffer so much from those joint attacks against you."

Old Wo hugged his own thermos and quietly muttered, "Actually, it was probably my bad. In that 4v3 where they wiped us out, I never imagined Lele would have stasis up his sleeve. He tricked us into wasting all our ults. Otherwise, we wouldn't have lost that fight."

Qian Bao sank deep into thought for a long moment before she mused, "If I'd also gone up for that 4v3, maybe we wouldn't have…?"

Er-Hua finally couldn't hold in his own outburst anymore. "Yeah, this one really is on you guys. I survived to the end of that fight all on my own and had to face down the three of them. That was way too brutal!"

He really had tried his best!

Once his declaration sounded out, everyone turned to look at him. As their gazes fell on Er-Hua, they all went quiet for a moment. Finally, Qian Bao was the first to laugh and say, "Forget it. Why am I trying to shoulder the blame? I didn't join in on that 4v3. You guys getting wiped out has nothing to do with me."

Old Wo turned his gaze to Coach Fang. "Since this was a problem with our coach's team comp, then we can let our coach shoulder the blame, right? I'll give our strategy for the next round a nice, long think."

One by one, the players started to relax. Lu Zhe finally smiled as well, but it was a smile that didn't quite reach his eyes. His gaze chased after Shen Qiao's back—

Shen Qiao really hadn't done all that poorly in this round.

But Lu Zhe knew, in that moment, Shen Qiao couldn't have been feeling good.

……

Outside the rest area, in a corner of the hall, there was a fire escape.

Shen Qiao clicked his lighter again and again, but he didn't light a cigarette. He just gazed down at the flickering flame, standing in place without moving a muscle.

Lu Zhe took a few steps towards him. Shen Qiao didn't even lift his head, but he seemed to sense that someone was approaching. Right away, he quietly stated, "I'm fine."

Lu Zhe hummed an acknowledgement, but he still asked, "Done smoking?"

Shen Qiao paused for a moment, then finally lifted his gaze to look at Lu Zhe. His eyes were deep; in darker places, amorphous shadows always seemed to fill those eyes with a hard-to-describe sort of sex appeal.

"No," Shen Qiao finally answered. "I don't want to smoke."

Lu Zhe tentatively took a few more steps towards him. "Then… how about a hug?"

He couldn't even explain how he'd come to ask such a question. He'd simply blurted it out subconsciously, because he didn't want Shen Qiao to stand in such a dark place all by himself. Lu Zhe's own heart felt discomfited by the sight of Shen Qiao alone.

Shen Qiao didn't move when he heard those words, but his brows started to furrow—

As soon as Lu Zhe saw that displeased look on his face, he instantly changed his tune without even thinking about it. "Alright, no hug. Don't be mad, I was just joking."

Upon hearing that careful, compromising tone in Lu Zhe's voice, Shen Qiao didn't look any happier. Not only did his brows not unfurrow, he furrowed them even more deeply.

He put away his cigarette lighter and took a step towards Lu Zhe, of his own volition. The hand he'd used to put his lighter away was still tucked into his pocket.

It wasn't until he and Lu Zhe started walking down the hall together that Shen Qiao suddenly lifted his hands and pulled Lu Zhe close.

In the dark, the tip of Shen Qiao's nose pressed up against the artery in Lu Zhe's throat. He could feel the strong, steady beat of Lu Zhe's pulse. His nose twitched a few times, partly like he was taking in the other party's pheromones, and partly like it was nothing more than a casual provocation.

Lu Zhe's throat started to itch, but he bore it and didn't move. He couldn't see much in the dark, which only heightened all his other senses. Although he resisted the urge to move, he couldn't help but bob his throat a few times.

Shen Qiao seemed to sense the change in him. He let out a short, low laugh, tinged with that hoarse, sexy rasp of his.

Then he opened his mouth again and asked, in a seemingly casual manner, "Let me take a bite. How about that?"

As he spoke, he tipped his head and brought his nose to Lu Zhe's nape, as though instinctively searching for a place where he could mark this person. The soft hairs on the nape of Lu Zhe's neck all rose, intuitively warning him of a threat against his life. All his instincts roared at him to fight back.

But still, Lu Zhe didn't move at all. He even lifted a hand to Shen Qiao's hair, softly rubbing Shen Qiao's head as he breezily, indulgently gave his answer:

"Okay."

The next instant—

A hot, searing flash of pain suddenly erupted in Lu Zhe's shoulder!

But he still remained perfectly still.

Shen Qiao hadn't bitten him at the spot where his glands were located. He'd only bitten Lu Zhe's shoulder, and he hadn't actually used that much force. At most, his teeth would leave a mark that would fade in a few minutes.

Lu Zhe thought for a moment, then tentatively looped his arms around Shen Qiao's waist.

"We won't lose," Lu Zhe said, softly, as though to reassure Shen Qiao.

Shen Qiao quickly unclamped his teeth and rested his chin on Lu Zhe's shoulder instead. Slowly, he retorted, "Who says we were talking about that?"

Lu Zhe blinked, confused.

Shen Qiao clicked his tongue and dropped his hands from Lu Zhe's throat. He wrapped his arms around Lu Zhe's middle as well. All his movements were rough and impatient, and his tone was a little harsh, like he was trying to cover up the bit of embarrassment that was rising within him.

"Didn't you want a hug?"

As soon as those words fell, Shen Qiao quickly added, "Only ten seconds. The second round is starting soon. Don't mess with my state of mind."

With that—

He was pulled into Lu Zhe's arms and wrapped up in a deathly tight embrace.

Lu Zhe greedily inhaled the scent of his pheromones. He couldn't hide his smile as he warmly, sweetly echoed Shen Qiao's words:

"Mm. Only ten seconds."

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