It wasn't only spectators who caught sight of that striking scene. The cameras inside the stadium also captured the moment.
At the same time, in the central business district of the neighboring Yun City—
The lightning rod of a golden skyscraper pierced the sky. Neon lights from the surrounding city danced across the sides of that indomitable building, designed by a famous architect. That building bore its own brightly lit logo as well. A massive sign marked that building as the property of a leading company in the pharmaceutical industry—Sai'na Biotech.
As night engulfed that golden building, the lights in the company cafeteria all switched on. The lights in the offices on the upper floors were also blazingly bright.
A loud clap rang out through the room. It was the sound of someone forcefully slamming shut the lid of an extremely thin laptop.
Lu Chengzhen sat in his desk chair. The gloom on his face was so heavy that it seemed almost like it would start dripping off at any second. His unbridled pheromones ran rampant through the spacious, exquisitely decorated office—
His docile assistant stood next to him without saying a word, completely swallowed up in the wave of those pheromones. The pheromones were strong enough to make the assistant cower and kneel, unable to remain upright on a pair of trembling knees. To the assistant, the pheromones were like a fierce blow to the head. Unable to utter a single sound, the assistant collapsed onto the floor.
After some time, Lu Chengzhen finally noticed the situation beside him. He suppressed his pheromones, at least a little.
That assistant quivered on the ground for a while longer, drenched in sweat. Upon rising, the assistant didn't even dare wipe away the sweat that had sprung out under the pressure of Lu Chengzhen's pheromones. The unerringly obedient assistant only reassumed a silent, stoic post beside the desk again.
Lu Chengzhen picked up his own cell phone from his desk. He stared at the contact named 'Son' for a long while before lifting a finger to place a call.
A cell phone, in vibrate mode, began to quake in Lu Zhe's pocket. Lu Zhe had just left the stadium with Shen Qiao. He'd planned on waiting in the air-conditioned car for Old Wo, who'd been held back for the post-game interview. When he felt that vibration in his pocket, he took out his phone.
At that exact moment, a call of 'Qiao-ge!' came from afar. Lu Zhe and Shen Qiao looked up at the same time and found Lele emerging from a different exit. Lele waved at Shen Qiao as he called out a greeting.
Although DG had defeated BLX in a 2-1 victory that day, BLX was more than skilled enough to make it into the playoffs by winning their other games. So Lele's mood hadn't taken too much of a hit from that day's loss. He happily approached, intending to ask Shen Qiao if they wanted to grab a bite together.
Upon emerging from the stadium, Shen Qiao practically melted in the heat in the blink of an eye. The blistering heat was bad enough without the cedarwood-scented jacket that had been inflicted upon him. Shen Qiao hastily peeled it off and tossed it into the car, along with his bag of peripherals, before making his way over to meet Lele.
Lu Zhe glanced at the caller ID on his phone, then immediately pressed a button to put his phone into silent mode. He didn't decline the call, but he didn't answer either. He just tucked his phone back into his pocket and quickened his pace to catch up to Shen Qiao, moving in Lele's direction.
"Qiao-ge, you were super fierce today!" Lele exclaimed. "You sucked us dry with your vampire in the second round… oh, Captain Lu, hey there. Wanna come out for a meal with us? Our manager just reserved a big banquet room earlier. The more the merrier."
Lele had been extremely busy with practice as of late. He hadn't gotten a chance to get in touch with Shen Qiao in quite a while. As soon as he opened his mouth, he gushed about Shen Qiao's masterful play with Vladimir, and when he saw Lu Zhe, he didn't think twice about casually greeting him and inviting him to a team dinner.
Before Lu Zhe and Shen Qiao could even speak, a peculiar voice came from behind Lele:
"That's not a very appropriate invitation, is it? If our fans find out, they just might think we're shelling out cash to buy a 'friendly' match with DG."
The smile on Lele's face instantly changed. He turned just in time to find Xu Xiao, the last member of their team to emerge from the stadium. He didn't know what was wrong with Xu Xiao. Instead of getting into the car like a normal person, the guy was edging closer to DG's players, as though trying to get in on the commotion.
It was like… he thought he was on familiar terms with everyone there.
Before the third round, Lele had done everyone a favor and coaxed their mid laner into calming down, in order to preserve the atmosphere of the game. But Lele hadn't imagined that Xu Xiao would go over the top today, picking fights with anyone he laid eyes on.
The match was over now. There was no need for Lele to indulge Xu Xiao's bad temperament any longer, so he simply turned to Xu Xiao with an icy expression and said, "If there's something wrong with you, go take your medicine. Don't mess with other people for no reason. I can eat with anyone I want. It's got fuck all to do with you."
Xu Xiao's gaze bored into Shen Qiao. His eyes were murky with a complex storm of emotions, but the most predominant one was discontent.
After a while, he curved the corners of his lips. His gaze remained on Shen Qiao, and he answered Lele's question without even looking at him:
"It does have something to do with me. When I see this kind of sickening AA relationship, I lose my appetite. And who knows if this sort of demented behavior is contagious? In any case, it's frightful."
When those words came out, the expressions on the faces of the other three instantly changed.
Lele pursed his lips. He was just about to school Xu Xiao with his very rich and colorful vocabulary when Shen Qiao interrupted.
"Let it go," Shen Qiao said.
Lele looked up uncomprehendingly, only to discover that Shen Qiao's words hadn't been directed at him. Shen Qiao had spoken to Lu Zhe, who stood beside him.
Night had already enveloped the whole city, but row after row of bright white lights lit up the space outside the stadium. Although security guards blocked off the area where the players emerged, prohibiting fans from getting too close, particularly ardent fans could still creep up to the barriers and get on their tiptoes to sneak a peek at their gaming idols from a hundred meters away.
Among the four players gathered outside, a thud sounded out—
Xu Xiao had suddenly lost the ability to control his legs. He fell to his knees, slamming into the cement.
His face paled, and his eyes had flown wide open, like those of a goldfish that suddenly found itself flopping around outside its pool. Before he could even react to what was happening, he'd completely lost the power to fight, to breathe.
At that moment, he felt very much like he was drowning in a world with no oxygen.
Xu Xiao had never experienced such a powerful wave of alpha pheromones before. His pulse thudded in his temples, causing them to spasm visibly, like someone had buried a living creature in his head. That creature seemed to writhe around under his skin, desperately seeking an exit. A sharp, stabbing pain filled his head. Discomfort flashed through every inch of his body.
The images that fell into his line of sight began to double and blur, overlapping into an indiscernible haze. He was practically seeing stars. The pain was so immense that he was close to passing out on the spot!
What kind of feeling was this?
The powerful pheromones continued bearing down on him, as though spilling down from a hole in the sky. The whole world seemed to crash onto his shoulders, pressing down on his spine and crushing his knees against the painfully hard ground.
At the same time, it felt like drowning in a dark, abyssal sea where no oxygen would ever reach. He couldn't breathe. There was no reprieve. There was only the dread of waiting for a grim reaper to bring its scythe down on his neck.
Lele watched as Xu Xiao's face turned from a ghastly white to an alarming red. Xu Xiao's veins were bulging out, and his face was threatening to turn purple. Lele swiftly looked at Lu Zhe with a hint of fear in his eyes.
The captain of Team DG, whom Lele had glimpsed from afar on many occasions, no longer wore a warm smile on his lips. His extraordinarily beautiful features were as cold as ice. Even the curves of his brows felt like they were carved from ice, and his deep, dark eyes glinted with a sort of sharpness that made it hard to look directly at him. Just glancing at him made Lele feel alarmed; he suddenly realized just how frightening Lu Zhe looked when he didn't smile.
"Lu Zhe." Shen Qiao furrowed his brow and glanced over at Xu Xiao, taking in his state. He knew that Lu Zhe could very well send Xu Xiao to the hospital that night if he didn't rein in his pheromones soon.
Shen Qiao sighed as though in a warning, cautioning Lu Zhe not to bother with this matter.
Hearing Shen Qiao's voice, Lele also realized just how overpowering Lu Zhe's pheromones were. It seemed likely that Xu Xiao was going to have years shaved off his life that night.
However, Lu Zhe seemed almost deaf to all of Shen Qiao's words. His freezing cold eyes, lacking all warmth, were fixed on Xu Xiao. His pheromones showed no signs of letting up.
Not too far away, in Team BLX's car—
Captain Mo Mo and their coach glanced out through the window and realized something wasn't right. They got out of the car and hurried over. At the same time, Old Wo finished his post-game interview and emerged from the stadium with Er-Hua, Coach Fang, and various other members of the staff at the venue.
Everyone laid eyes on this scene at the same time.
"What the hell is going on here?"
Qian Bao had climbed into DG's car earlier. The AC in there had revived her, and she also pulled open the door to check out what was going on. Besides her, the fans separated from this area by barriers and a hundred meters were also peering over with keen interest, lifting their cell phones high into the sky to record.
In front of everyone's eyes—
Xu Xiao collapsed under the force of Lu Zhe's pheromones, nearly suffocating from the unbearable pressure.
Players from both teams were drawing near. Shen Qiao had no choice but to grab Lu Zhe's arm and caution him, once more, "You're going to kill him."
It was only when Shen Qiao pulled at his arm that Lu Zhe started to emerge from the rage that had consumed him. He cast a disdainful look at Xu Xiao, in that pathetic state, and weakened his pheromones just a little. Not enough to allow Xu Xiao to stand, but enough to at least let him breathe.
Xu Xiao doubled over and almost instantly started to heave, gasping for air while swearing, "Crazy… bastard… fucking pervert… I'll… report you…"
In professional leagues, using pheromones to inflict physical or mental damage on another player was the same as getting into a brawl. It warranted a warning from the league, and in severe cases could even result in a suspension or a demand for retirement.
BLX's coach cautiously eyed Shen Qiao and Lu Zhe as he asked Lele, "What's going on?"
Lele only rolled his eyes at Xu Xiao, who still seemed to be on the brink of death.
"He deserved it for his foul mouth," Lele answered.
Mo Mo coughed, giving Lele a pointed look to remind him that Xu Xiao was their teammate. At a time like this, Lele was supposed to show some camaraderie.
Lele tried to suppress his own irritation. He moved over to Mo Mo and quietly told him what had just happened. Mo Mo's expression instantly changed, overcome by a hard-to-describe emotion. When he looked at Xu Xiao, there was clearly just one word printed across his eyes:
Coach Fang ordered Old Wo and Er-Hua to stay put, out of the way. He approached alone and overheard the story of what had just happened as well, and he knew his players had been in the right at first. But now, things weren't so black and white. Although he wasn't an alpha, he knew what it meant for these people to bully each other with their pheromones. The reasonable side could very quickly turn into the unreasonable side.
Coach Fang glanced over at Shen Qiao and Lu Zhe, instinctively assuming that this was Shen Qiao's handiwork. He tactfully warned, "If you have something to say, say it properly. Shen Qiao, let him get up."
Shen Qiao glanced at him with a complicated look in his eye. Then he looked back to Lu Zhe and slowly answered, "I'd also like him to get up and talk."
Coach Fang's mind went totally blank for a moment. Then he heard Lu Zhe open his mouth, expressionlessly spitting just one word out at Xu Xiao:
Xu Xiao was still doubled over on the ground. He tried with all his might to push himself up, and he unleashed his pheromones as much as he could, wishing to fight back against Lu Zhe. But it was all to no avail. He couldn't stand.
And with so many people around him, he refused to rein in his unruly mouth:
"Why should I apologize? Can't people say something is disgusting when it's disgusting? I have every right to speak my mind. Shen Qiao, you're a proud alpha like any of us, but you're only capable of relying on another alpha to prop you up? Was it because you were born to a mother but never raised by one that you developed this freaky—"
"Shut your mouth!" BLX's coach roared, fiercely cutting Xu Xiao off.
Coach Fang's expression had also iced over. He suddenly reached into his pocket and took out his cell phone, waving it at BLX's coach. "I recorded what was just said. Your player unquestionably just publicly insulted mine. He can apologize, or I can forward this recording to the higher-ups in the league."
Lele coldly asked, "Xu Xiao, do you want to be banned from the tournament?"
Hearing Lele's voice, Xu Xiao lifted his head. It was obvious he still wanted to fight, but BLX's coach swiftly interrupted, "Idiot! How long do you intend to kneel there, making a fool of yourself? If you don't apologize right now, don't even think about playing in the next game."
Xu Xiao hesitated. He realized that he still couldn't stand; he wasn't strong enough. His face turned red again, this time out of sheer humiliation.
Finally, he reluctantly ground out through his teeth, "I take back what I said. Happy now?"
The pheromones bearing down on him didn't recede.
He could see a cold smile twitching the corners of Lu Zhe's lips. Those icy, scornful eyes passed over him as Lu Zhe said, "Do you need me to teach you how to apologize?"
For a moment, Xu Xiao didn't utter another sound. It wasn't until he sensed that the cedarwood scent was about to overwhelm him once more that he spat out another few words through gritted teeth:
BLX's coach was enraged by Xu Xiao's idiocy. His temples twitched with anger. If Lu Zhe had really done any damage, the coach wouldn't have let this go. But Lu Zhe's pheromone control was exceptional. Even if they sent Xu Xiao to the hospital now, no one would be able to find anything wrong with him. Lu Zhe's display of power was only meant to humiliate Xu Xiao.
The coach suddenly felt immeasurably vexed. He couldn't understand why they'd signed such a troublesome thing, and how they could have traded Shen Qiao away for this disaster…
The more he thought about it, the deeper his regret became. He simply turned and returned to BLX's car after a moment, not paying this debacle any more mind.
Lele rolled his eyes again and shot Mo Mo a pointed glance to suggest that they head back too. He wasn't interested in this mess anymore either, and it was too hot outside. He was keen to get into the air-conditioned car.
As for Xu Xiao—
He could cool his head and make his own damn way back to their HQ.
Seeing that he'd been abandoned by those who should have supported him, Xu Xiao visibly crumpled. He closed his eyes tight and angrily ground out, "I! Am! Sorry! Alright?!"
Lu Zhe finally reined in his pheromones. He didn't even spare Xu Xiao one extra glance before turning and returning to DG's car.
Shen Qiao could tell that Lu Zhe's anger had yet to fully dissipate. He hurried after him. Coach Fang saw that this matter could be considered resolved, so naturally he didn't hang around either. He shook his head at Old Wo and Er-Hua, who were frantically shooting him looks that clearly asked what the hell had just happened. Coach Fang pointed to their own team's car and gestured for them to get in with their mouths shut.
"Captain Lu?" Qian Bao, sitting in the car, had missed all that drama. She curiously twisted around and grabbed hold of the back of her seat, peering at Lu Zhe, who'd taken a seat in the back row, with an obvious thirst for knowledge in her eyes.
Lu Zhe, however, only moved into the window seat and closed his eyes, as though he hadn't heard anything. Qian Bao could only look towards Shen Qiao, but Shen Qiao ignored her too. With that, Qian Bao had no choice but to sit back down and take out her cell phone.
She opened up a group chat named 'The Three Puppies of Team DG', which had just three members.1
[QianQianMoney]: What just happened?! I was too busy thinking about taking a shower, I didn't see what went down. Who wants to tell me all about this heart-stopping drama?!
[FLOWER]: Based on what I could see, it seems BLX's Xu Xiao talked shit and got hit. By our captain, I think? When I got out of the stadium, that guy was still kneeling on the ground. I could sort of hear him asking his teammates for help, because he couldn't stand up.
[Snail Shell]: Ah, the captain's boyfriend powers…
[QianQianMoney]: Ah, the captain's boyfriend powers…
[QianQianMoney]: Can you give me some more details? I've got time to listen.
[FLOWER]: I'd love to give you more details, but Coach didn't let us get too close. I'm already guessing here, based on what I could see. I think I saw Wolf Cub try to talk the captain down a few times.
[Snail Shell]: Ah, Wolfy is such a good wife!
[QianQianMoney]: Ah, Wolfy is such a good… wait, are you out of your mind or am I?
[FLOWER]: You're both out of your minds.
The atmosphere inside the car was inexplicably oppressive. Er-Hua and the others could only communicate through their group chat. They managed to relax a little through their banter, and after a stifling twenty minutes—they finally arrived at DG's headquarters.
Qian Bao, who'd wailed the whole time about wanting to take a shower, was the first to charge out of the car. But she stopped and subconsciously glanced back, exchanging looks of mutual understanding with Er-Hua and Old Wo. The three of them stopped on the sidewalk and waited for the two leads in this recent drama to get out.
The moment Shen Qiao stepped out of the car, his three teammates' eyes lit up. At that same instant, the doors to the HQ were thrown open.
Manager Zhou came out, roaring, "Who?! Who was it?! What happened with BLX today? There are so many pictures online. BLX's fans are going crazy at our official Weibo. I don't even know how I'm supposed to respond! Who can explain this to me?!"
Lu Zhe was the last to step out of the car. He looked up at those words and answered, "It was me."
Manager Zhou fell silent.
As expected, it had been their daddy.
Coach Fang knew the details. He lightly cleared his throat and glanced over at Lu Zhe and Shen Qiao. He had one hell of a headache, but still made his way over to Manager Zhou and said, "I'll explain."
Old Wo, Er-Hua, and Qian Bao simultaneously snorted, but they didn't move. They looked at the sky or the ground, and very pointedly did not look at Coach Fang. But their ears were pricked up with obvious interest. There was nothing they could do to veil their curiosity.
Coach Fang sighed and said, "Let's talk inside."
Outside the HQ.
At some point, the moon had climbed high into the sky. Pale moonlight rained down through the branches of the surrounding Chinese redbud trees. Combined with the nearby streetlamps, the glow painted the sweltering evening with a dazzling brush of warmth.
An indescribable floral fragrance drifted over the sidewalk.
Lu Zhe watched as Shen Qiao took out his cigarettes. He fixed his gaze on the cigarette between Shen Qiao's fingers and said, in a voice that was neither too warm nor too cold, "Weren't you saying you were hot enough to melt? You still don't want to go inside?"
Shen Qiao glanced at him out of the corner of his eye. He only held the cigarette between his fingers, not yet lighting it. His hand soon fell to his side, and he watched as Lu Zhe's gaze tracked it. That gaze was glued to the cigarette, as though it was some object that incited deep resentment in Lu Zhe's heart.
It was strange—
Judging by Shen Qiao's temperament, Xu Xiao's words should have at least left him with some simmering anger, even if they weren't enough to make him explode on the scene. But now, when he looked at Lu Zhe's expression, he only felt a vague sense of amusement.
"It's pretty hot," he agreed. "But someone seems to be as cool as an air conditioner. I'm thinking maybe I can get a little closer to him, and see if he'll cool me down."
Lu Zhe lifted his gaze. He caught the glimmer of mirth in Shen Qiao's eyes, then suddenly reached out and dragged Shen Qiao closer. The two of them, pressed flushed together in the summer heat, were like two burning furnaces.
"Do you feel cooler now?" Lu Zhe asked in a low, deep voice.
Shen Qiao retreated, lifting a hand to slap away Lu Zhe's arm with a disdainful look on his face. "Too hot."
Lu Zhe suppressed a laugh and let him get away. They were standing outside the HQ, after all. It would have been unseemly to do anything too outrageous.
It was only now, when Lu Zhe smiled again, that his eyes filled up with the warmth Shen Qiao had grown accustomed to seeing. Lu Zhe could tell that Shen Qiao had intentionally tried to brighten his mood, but he still couldn't help but think of the shit Xu Xiao had spewed earlier.
Lu Zhe swept his gaze over his beloved's features and softly asked, "You used to have a big, bad temper, didn't you? Why are you so easily bullied now?"
Shen Qiao deliberately followed those words to a deeper meaning. The corners of his lips and eyes were tinged with a hint of mischief. "I had a big, bad temper? If I really had a bad temper, would a certain bully who's always loved harassing me still be standing right here?"
Lu Zhe said nothing.
He could sense that Shen Qiao was deliberately provoking a good-natured fight, so he huffed a helpless laugh and watched as sweat began to bead at Shen Qiao's temples again.
Lu Zhe lifted a hand and started to tug Shen Qiao towards the HQ. "Alright, stop trying to compete with me over who can withstand the most heat. Let's get inside first."
Shen Qiao waved a hand to indicate that he could walk on his own, but the gesture caused the cigarette between his fingers to dance around in front of Lu Zhe's eyes. Lu Zhe finally couldn't resist reaching out and filching that cigarette from Shen Qiao's hand, softly muttering, "Said you'd quit, didn't you? This is already your fifth one today…"
Shen Qiao tolerated the theft of his cigarette. A smile rose in his eyes. He couldn't be bothered to remind a certain someone that he'd already cut down from five packs a day to five cigarettes a day—a big accomplishment.
He made his way over to the stairs to the building, then looked back over his shoulder at Lu Zhe. "I know you were sticking up for me, but just let it go next time. It's enough to turn over a voice recording to the league. What if something had happened? If he fakes some sort of injury and blames it on you, and you get banned from the league because of that idiot, wouldn't you be the one taking a loss?"
Lu Zhe didn't hesitate to answer, "You're right."
Shen Qiao paused for a moment, then said, "Yet you still—"
"It's fine for anyone to diss me. It's not okay for them to diss you," Lu Zhe interrupted without even thinking about it.
Before Shen Qiao could react, Lu Zhe moved up to him and helped him smooth down the hem of his team uniform. He lowered his gaze and began, "I don't know what kind of rumors the people in your life have been spreading these past few years.
"But now that I'm here, I won't let anyone bully you ever again."
Shen Qiao turned his head and looked towards the corner beside them. His gaze fell to the ridge protruding from each step of the stairs. Slowly, he said, "No need for that. He's only got a fierce mouth. He's just a little didi in the rift, isn't he?"
Lu Zhe knew Shen Qiao had his own way of venting his anger. The corners of his eyes crinkled, and he softly called out, "Qiaoqiao."
"Mm," Shen Qiao answered.
Lu Zhe slowly continued, "If I can't do something as simple as defend you, what right do I have to return to your side?"
When Shen Qiao heard that, his breathing hitched.
Lu Zhe hugged him from behind and breathed in the scent of his nape. He warmly, gently added, "Relax. I'll handle it even better next time. Don't you worry about a thing."
"I'm not worried," Shen Qiao retorted instinctively.
Lu Zhe hummed calmly. "Oh?"
Shen Qiao could sense a fine layer of cedarwood enveloping him. He gave up on that thread of argument and changed his tune. "Only a little. Just a little. Alright, now hurry up and let me go. I want to take a shower."
Lu Zhe laughed. Incorrigibly, he asked, "Can I come with you?"
1. The members of this group chat are Qian Bao (QianQianMoney), Old Wo (Snail Shell), and Er-Hua (FLOWER).