Lu Zhe detected some strangeness in Shen Qiao's tone. He had originally been hugging Shen Qiao from behind, but now he couldn't help wanting to shift and get a closer look at Shen Qiao's expression and condition.
But Shen Qiao had closed his eyes. He didn't want Lu Zhe to see that a tiny hint of sorrow had seeped into his gaze, so he tightened his grip on Lu Zhe to keep him from moving.
Lu Zhe gently nudged Shen Qiao with his forehead and whispered, "Qiaoqiao."
In that soft, gentle voice, filled with warm, he added, "Are you crying?"
Shen Qiao's throat bobbed. He instantly released Lu Zhe and faced the laptop in front of himself again, blinking fiercely to suppress the heat that was rising in his eyes. He schooled his voice into a calm and even state again and curtly answered, "No."
But Lu Zhe didn't buy it. He took hold of Shen Qiao's arms and tried to turn him around to get a better look at his face. Shen Qiao froze up, refusing to budge. Lu Zhe was afraid of hurting him if he used too much force, so he decided to stick his head closer instead.
Shen Qiao stubbornly turned his face in the other direction and ground out through his teeth—
Judging by Shen Qiao's intense reaction, Lu Zhe guessed that Shen Qiao had suffered more than he could ever imagine during the dark days of his past. Lu Zhe's heart constricted, crumpling into an anguished lump. He bowed his head and pressed a soft, reverent kiss to the nape of Shen Qiao's neck. There wasn't the slightest hint of provocativeness in that kiss; it was like Lu Zhe was worshipping his most treasured gem.
He wrapped his arms around Shen Qiao from behind again. His feather-light kisses continued to fall on Shen Qiao's ears and throat and cheeks. He didn't want Shen Qiao to sink any deeper into those memories of despair.
"It's all in the past now," Lu Zhe murmured. His voice was extremely soft, and he spoke carefully, as though afraid of spooking Shen Qiao and scaring him away.
Every spot Lu Zhe kissed started to itch faintly, but Shen Qiao felt his heart grow lighter. It was as though balloons had been affixed to the heavy stones of the past that had held him down. They drifted away, leaving him feeling much lighter and freer.
Shen Qiao should have felt relaxed, or relieved.
However, when those dark shadows and heavy stones were lifted away from him, he felt tense and on edge. Like he was at a breaking point.
Back in his darkest days, Shen Qiao hadn't felt like he was suffering all that much. After all, he'd had no choice but to grit his teeth and weather any difficulties that came his way. He'd had to survive from one day to the next, then the next. He'd had to advance step by step, day by day, until he finally struggled free of the dark and walked into the light.
Since his dreams had come true in the end, he never felt like he'd suffered too much.
But now, he had someone at his side. Someone was walking next to him, shoulder-to-shoulder. That someone was teaching him what true sweetness and warmth could be. When Shen Qiao looked back now, he finally realized how bitter and miserable those days of his past had been.
Maybe he was being pampered and spoiled too much these days. Maybe that had caused him to become fragile and sensitive. He'd obviously built a tall, formidable wall around his heart in previous years, thinking it would protect him from anyone and anything that would try to wriggle into his life. But in the end, all it had taken was a soft, simple reassurance from Lu Zhe—
It's all in the past now.
—to shatter that wall, knocking it down and crumbling it into dust.
Shen Qiao had been isolated inside that fortress for so long. He felt as though he were in a trance, looking around at this brand new world with tears in his eyes. It was like he'd been waiting to hear those words for a very, very long time.
Waiting for someone to tell him that all that pain was behind him now, and that he didn't have to be a lonely, drifting soul any longer.
The sound of rolling tears, falling and seeping into the fabric of Shen Qiao's shirt, sounded out.
The room was so eerily quiet that even that tiny sound was crystal clear. The faint whirr of the laptop did nothing to cover it up.
Lu Zhe hadn't expected his words to open the floodgates. When he kissed Shen Qiao's cheek again and tasted those salty tears, he froze with surprise. He thought he'd said something wrong. After all, besides the time he'd marked Shen Qiao, he had never once seen Shen Qiao cry like this before.
Lu Zhe was so astonished that he didn't know how to react right away. He wrapped Shen Qiao up in his arms and pulled him towards his chest, lifting a hand to pat and stroke Shen Qiao's back, softly reassuring, "Don't cry. It's all my fault. Don't cry, be good…"
Shen Qiao caught the hem of Lu Zhe's shirt in a death grip, desperately trying to twist his own head away. He didn't want Lu Zhe to see him in such a messed up state. But, this time, Lu Zhe didn't let him turn away. He pressed Shen Qiao's head to the crook of his own neck. As he took in the uneven sounds of Shen Qiao's breathing, he started to look around for tissues.
When he sensed that Lu Zhe was about to walk away, Shen Qiao realized he wasn't willing to let him go. He tightened his grip on Lu Zhe's clothes and pulled him back. For once, it was Shen Qiao who hugged him of his own volition. Shen Qiao's pheromones were overflowing as well, uncontrollably filling up the room and even enveloping Lu Zhe's body.
Lu Zhe massaged the nape of Shen Qiao's neck and breathed in the cool, refreshing scent of his pheromones. When he considered Shen Qiao's state—his sudden insecurity, his sudden dependence—Lu Zhe came to an abrupt realization.
Shen Qiao's rut was approaching.
Lu Zhe hugged Shen Qiao tight again, lowering his voice to reassure him. "I won't go anywhere. Don't cry, Qiaoqiao. Okay?"
"Not crying!" Shen Qiao turned his head away again. His voice was obviously choked up, but he still insistently denied the truth.
A smile touched Lu Zhe's eyes. He kissed the corners of Shen Qiao's eyes and played along with his words, like he would have said anything to soothe him. "Sure, sure, sure. You're not crying, I'm the one who's crying."
Shen Qiao said nothing.
He elbowed Lu Zhe in the abdomen, not too hard but not too lightly, and shot Lu Zhe a warning glare. His eyes were still visibly red, making his pupils darker and shinier like a rabbit's. But even those cute eyes could make an extremely fierce expression.
Lu Zhe couldn't help but kiss him again. He wiped away the tears at the corners of Shen Qiao's eyes in the process, and he soon heard Shen Qiao growl a threat in his low, hoarse voice—
"You wanna be bitten again?"
Lu Zhe finally loosened some of the restraints he'd placed on himself. The corners of his own eyes curved with mirth, and he generously answered, "If biting me will make you stop crying, you can bite away. You can bite me to death."
Shen Qiao glanced at the cut at the corner of Lu Zhe's lips. In the end, he couldn't actually bring himself to bite Lu Zhe again. When Lu Zhe drew closer to kiss him once more, Shen Qiao even obligingly, obediently accepted the assault.
Lu Zhe's heart ached for Shen Qiao too. He wanted to care for him properly, and he didn't really use all that much force when bullying Shen Qiao. He only pressed in with a soft, sweet kiss.
Finally, when he was running out of air because of his blocked nose, Shen Qiao pushed Lu Zhe away.
Lu Zhe tilted his head with a smile curving his lips. He didn't let Shen Qiao catch sight of his expression. Instead, he started to look around again, finally finding a pack of tissues for Shen Qiao.
Shen Qiao remained silent.
He looked at the tissues, then lifted his gaze to Lu Zhe again, just in time to catch a flash of mirth and amusement racing through his eyes.
Expressionlessly, Shen Qiao thought, I really should have bitten him to death earlier.
He didn't accept the tissues. He just breathed in very deeply through his stuffed up nose, doing his best to get his breath flowing again. Then he turned back to his laptop and started looking up those banned IDs again, unbanning them one by one.
While Shen Qiao focused on the notebook, Lu Zhe glanced around the room once more. He ultimately sat down at the edge of the bed, studying the profile of Shen Qiao's face. As he took in Shen Qiao's earnest, dedicated expression, Lu Zhe felt his whole heart soften.
Shen Qiao tapped the keyboard a few times before sensing that Lu Zhe was still in the room. He flatly asked, "You're not going to go to practice?"
Lu Zhe could tell that Shen Qiao had started looking for him again after focusing on his task for only a few seconds. But Lu Zhe didn't call out Shen Qiao's innermost feelings. He only answered, "Mm, I'll wait for you. I want to queue up with you. Last time, Coach told us to try out some new strategies, didn't he?"
Shen Qiao hesitated for a moment. "But I still need to take a shower."
Lu Zhe softly responded, "That's fine. No rush. You take your time."
The implication of his words was abundantly clear. It seemed no matter how long Shen Qiao needed, Lu Zhe planned on waiting for him the whole time.
Shen Qiao decided to just send himself a screenshot of Lu Zhe's list of IDs; he could finish unbanning those accounts later. After he'd sent the screenshot to himself, he got up and found a set of clothes to change into after his shower. Messy clothes were strewn all over the bed, but he managed to find a clean outfit to take into the bathroom.
Once Shen Qiao closed himself up in there, Lu Zhe scanned the room again.
On the nightstand, countless charging cables and wired earbuds were tangled up together. Some name-brand keycaps were scattered on the floor; there was no telling when Shen Qiao had dropped them. The bed was also unmade, the blankets and pillows all strewn about in disarray. Winter clothes and summer clothes were all mixed up together in a messy pile…
Maybe Lu Zhe should have just been glad that Shen Qiao at least seemed to know how to differentiate between clean clothes and dirty clothes?
Lu Zhe sat for a while, listening to the sound of running water from the bathroom. His gaze drifted to the bathroom door a few times, but he gently shook his head to get rid of the improper thoughts creeping into his mind. His eyes traveled back to the pile of Shen Qiao's clothes that sat on the bed. After rummaging through that pile, Shen Qiao had just… put everything back into a pile.
Lu Zhe let out a light sigh and decided to do something to distract himself. There would be no harm in helping Shen Qiao clean up a little.
He started by tossing out the tissues' packaging and empty cigarette boxes. Then he sorted what needed to be organized into categories. And finally he made the bed and folded the clothes.
Fifteen minutes later.
Shen Qiao emerged from the shower with the steam from the hot water still clinging to his skin. He absently dried his hair with a towel as he came out. Just as he was about to toss the towel into the hamper, where it would eventually be picked up by hotel staff, he swept his gaze around the room and froze.
"What… are you doing?"
His mind went totally blank and he took in the sight of his clothes, all neatly folded now. Lu Zhe was in the process of arranging them in the closet and dresser.
Lu Zhe looked up and swept his gaze over Shen Qiao's body, then quickly looked away again. He remained perfectly calm and composed as he asked, "Do you want your clothes in the closet or your suitcase?"
Shen Qiao didn't reply until a long moment had passed. "…the closet. I'll pack up when we leave, so—no, wait, what are you doing all this for? Did you get someone to clean up my room just now? Didn't I have the 'do not disturb' sign on my door?"
Lu Zhe listened to him talk, then nodded and opened the closet door to place the neatly folded clothes inside. "I didn't let anyone in. Your room was too messy, so I just cleaned up a bit since I was here anyway. I was afraid you wouldn't be able to find some things if I put them all away, so I left everything on the table for you. Go take a look."
Shen Qiao followed his instructions and looked over at the table, where he really did find a bunch of his basic necessities neatly arranged. The desk that was usually completely covered in random junk was extraordinarily neat now.
Shen Qiao hadn't brought many clothes, so it didn't take long for Lu Zhe to put them all away. After he closed the closet door again, Lu Zhe turned and admonished, "Don't leave your keycaps everywhere next time. You could slip and fall after a shower. If you hurt yourself and can't compete… well, I'd just love to see how you explain that to Big-Mouthed Zhou."
Shen Qiao tensed at those words. Color and heat rose in his cheeks.
"Who told you to do such a useless thing?" he asked sharply.
Lu Zhe lifted his eyebrows. He studied Shen Qiao until Shen Qiao turned away with embarrassment. Then, Lu Zhe finally drawled, "Oh? Could it be that you kept your room this messy on purpose? Let's see…
"Did you want to turn your room into a messy doghouse, to better lure a dog in to live with you?"
Shen Qiao was silent.
Lu Zhe could tell that Shen Qiao wasn't going to answer. His eyes lit up with feigned surprise, as though he were just realizing that his guess was correct. He moved as though to mess everything up again, while he said, "I get it now. This is my fault, I was too thoughtless. I'll restore everything to its place right away. So, Qiaoqiao, how about I sleep with you tonight?"
Shen Qiao was nearly steaming from the ears after Lu Zhe's blatant provocations. He fiercely snapped, "Let's go. Training."
Lu Zhe smiled with his eyes and hummed a sound of assent. As he followed Shen Qiao to the door, he seemed to think of something else—
One day later.
DG was due to face off against the fourth seed from the LMS league. On the day of their match, all their fans saw Lu Zhe emerge with a black face mask covering the lower half of his face, making him look every bit like he had a serious cold.
Before the match began, a staff member couldn't hold back their curiosity. With a camera pointed at the players in the rest area, they curiously asked, "Captain Lu, you… caught a cold?"
Lu Zhe's eyes crinkled with a smile. He glanced towards the camera lens and spoke from beneath the mask.
"Don't ask," he said. "If you ask, I'll have to say I was bitten by a mosquito and can't face anyone with this face."
It's a sensitive time, our Captain Lu even knows to wear a face mask!