The two of them got up too late. Their breakfast would basically be a brunch. By the time they wandered into their rented gaming room, everyone else was already present. Even Er-Hua and Qian Bao, who loved sleeping in, were already there.
Manager Zhou lifted his gaze to look at the two late arrivals. He passed them the last remaining boxes of milk before turning to Shen Qiao with a look of deep concern.
"Are you feeling a bit better?"
Old Wo, Er-Hua, and Qian Bao were all looking their way as well. They hadn't seen Shen Qiao since they watched Lu Zhe march onto the stage yesterday. As soon as they returned to the hotel from yesterday's match, they'd been dragged into a review session of XHG's games by Coach Fang. After that, Manager Zhou had shooed them back to their rooms like they were a bunch of stray ducks.
As they all took in the sight of Shen Qiao now, Qian Bao spoke first—
"Your skin doesn't look as red as it did yesterday when you got off the stage."
Er-Hua added on, "And you seem to be in better spirits."
Old Wo, visibly concerned, chimed in, "For the safety of our players, I suggest Big-Mouthed Zhou take care of all post-game interviews with omegas from now on."
Manager Zhou was called out so abruptly that he jumped and snapped, "What's your problem?"
As Shen Qiao listened to them chatter, he started to smile. Just a little. "I'm pretty much all better. I can definitely play today."
Qian Bao waved a hand. "Bah, who was asking about whether you could play?"
Old Wo and Er-Hua both nodded. They racked their brains, but neither of them could think of any other heartfelt reassurances to offer. They looked towards Lu Zhe, waiting for him to say something to sum up everyone's feelings.
Lu Zhe smiled as he listened to Shen Qiao and the others. He lifted a hand to pull out a chair for Shen Qiao, then pressed Shen Qiao down into it. After getting Shen Qiao settled, Lu Zhe rifled through the bags of breakfast foods next to them and produced a simply packaged sandwich. He unwrapped it and lifted it towards Shen Qiao as he lightly warned, "It doesn't matter how much better you are. You'll still have to go for another infusion later—doctor's orders."
Shen Qiao had instinctively taken a bite of the sandwich. When he heard Lu Zhe's words, he abruptly stopped chewing.
He lifted a hand to take the sandwich, then lifted his head to meet Lu Zhe's gaze. After chewing mechanically and swallowing the first bite of food, he calmly declared, "I feel fine."
However, someone had a big reaction to those words, and it wasn't Lu Zhe—
Manager Zhou was the one who instantly scuttled over, insinuating himself between Lu Zhe and Shen Qiao. With sincere concern in his voice, he advised, "Wolfy, neglecting your health is absolutely not okay. We already agreed yesterday, you'll get another IV drip today before the game. I've already arranged for a car to pick you up. You're heading out in half an hour."
Old Wo didn't think too deeply about Shen Qiao's reaction. He assumed Shen Qiao just didn't want to waste time at the hospital when he could have been using that time to practice. He instantly said, "Daddy Wolf, don't worry! We already reviewed XHG's games on your behalf yesterday, they won't give us any problems. Er-Hua will do his absolute best to put pressure on the bottom lane today. We'll make sure Daddy Lu has time to make a few extra trips up to the top lane."
Er-Hua gave him a look and laughed. "Today? Do I not usually put pressure on the bottom lane?"
Old Wo chuckled and clapped his hands together. Without the slightest sense of shame, he simply admitted, "You have a point."
Qian Bao grazed her fingers over her mousepad as she studied Shen Qiao's calm expression. Unlike Old Wo, she saw straight through to the heart of the matter—
"Wolf Cub isn't afraid of the hospital, is he?"
Shen Qiao remained silent.
Before he could speak, Lu Zhe took the lead and interjected, "How could that be?"
With a smile in his eyes, he cast a look at Shen Qiao that was filled with all the gentle warmth of pale moonlight. That gaze fell upon Shen Qiao like a delicate, gauze-like touch.
"How could an alpha be afraid of hospitals?" Lu Zhe said. "He must think it's too much of a hassle to make the trip out there. Luckily, Manager Zhou has already called for a car. We can go straight there and back in a bit, right?"
Still, Shen Qiao said nothing.
Was Lu Zhe really naive enough to think he could psychologically manipulate Shen Qiao into surrendering?
Shen Qiao kept his expression cold. He locked eyes with Lu Zhe for a few seconds, then curtly answered, "Right."
After uttering that word, he lowered his head and fiercely took another bite out of the sandwich in his hands. He was still angry after one bite, so he viciously took a second. He was treating that sandwich like it was a body double for Lu Zhe.
Lu Zhe was immensely amused by this display. He reached for one of the milk boxes and helped open it for Shen Qiao before passing it over. "Slow down, don't choke."
Shen Qiao hadn't planned on listening to him, but then he suddenly realized—eating quickly meant going to the hospital sooner. The chewing motions of his cheeks slowed, and he gradually became like a small animal nibbling on grass.
Lu Zhe waited with seemingly endless patience. He drank his own milk and took out his own cell phone, focusing on something on the screen.
In the end, it was Shen Qiao who lost his patience first.
He didn't know if it was because he slept poorly last night; the bed had practically been a war zone. For whatever reason, he felt restless now. Like he couldn't sit still. His neck and back felt stiff, almost like he'd pulled a muscle.
After devouring the rest of his sandwich in a few more bites, Shen Qiao got up to throw out the wrapper. He couldn't resist the urge to lift his right hand and massage his own neck. He tipped his head this way and that, audibly cracking his neck in the process.
Lu Zhe looked up at him and asked, "You didn't sleep well? Stiff neck?"
Shen Qiao shook his head. "It's not that bad."
Lu Zhe returned his gaze to his own cell phone. There was no telling who he was chatting with, but he was extremely focused. His fingers flew across the screen. It was only after Shen Qiao had thrown out his trash that Lu Zhe suddenly added—
"With your sleeping posture, it'd be weird if you didn't get a stiff neck."
Hearing those words, Shen Qiao turned back to stare at him. His lips twitched faintly, like he wanted to laugh but didn't want to at the same time. Slowly, he retorted, "The one with the worst sleeping posture last night wasn't me, was it?"
If Lu Zhe hadn't scrabbled at him like an octopus all through the night, Shen Qiao wouldn't have slept so poorly that he woke up sore all over, right?
Lu Zhe put his phone away when he saw Shen Qiao approach him again. He caught sight of a glint of amusement in Shen Qiao's eyes, which he answered with his own smile. "Well, it definitely wasn't me. Through all these years, I've never developed a habit of migrating from the head of the bed to the foot of the bed in the middle of the night."
Shen Qiao could hear the teasing lilt in those words. He scoffed coldly and prepared to get into a proper debate with Lu Zhe, when he suddenly heard a weak voice from beside them—
He looked over and met Old Wo's inquisitive gaze.
"The two of you slept together last night?" Old Wo asked. "Daddy #2, can you help me understand? Between you leaving the stage with an allergic reaction yesterday and now, did something… happen? Did we miss something big?"
Er-Hua looked from Old Wo to Shen Qiao, then back again. After a long moment, he quietly clicked his tongue twice.
"Would you mind being very, very specific?" Qian Bao added. "I've got plenty of time to listen."
Manager Zhou's expression was far more complex and hard to describe. He seemed to want to say something to them, but it was like he didn't know where to start. He let out a sigh after a long pause and said, "I knew you two were on good terms, but we're in the middle of a tournament. Can you restrain yourselves a little?"
Shen Qiao said nothing.
Lu Zhe also fell silent.
Shen Qiao finally, with great difficulty, managed to squeeze out a few words. "It's not what you…"
It's not what you think.
Lu Zhe, however, knew that trying to explain or cover their tracks would only make the others more suspicious. He simply smiled at their manager and nodded. "Sure."
As a result, Shen Qiao turned and glared at him.
Lu Zhe didn't worry too much about that. He checked the time and warmly reminded Shen Qiao, "Let's go. Hospital time."
Manager Zhou couldn't help but worry when he saw how clingy the two of them were with each other. He couldn't resist approaching the two of them and saying, "I'll go with Wolfy. You stay here. Coach Fang just so happens to want to chat with you about today's strategies."
Lu Zhe glanced at Shen Qiao. Although he really wanted to go with Shen Qiao, he seemed to think of something that changed his mind in the end. He ultimately nodded and said, "Alright."
Shen Qiao casually tucked one hand into his pocket. His expression didn't show much of what he was feeling, but when he made his way over to the door, he subconsciously looked back at Lu Zhe.
Manager Zhou followed Shen Qiao out, and they started making their way out of the hotel. Once they got into the descending elevator, Manager Zhou couldn't contain his curiosity and concern anymore. He was the type that just couldn't keep his mouth shut. He glanced at Shen Qiao out of the corner of his eye, then looked away. Then he glanced again, and looked away again. Another glance, and…
Upon realizing Shen Qiao had no intention of acknowledging him, Manager Zhou abandoned the subtle approach and pointedly cleared his throat. He tried to be tactful as he said, "Wolfy, you and Lu Zhe—"
Shen Qiao realized there was no way to avoid this conversation. He took a deep breath and interrupted, "We're not together yet. We're not sleeping together, and we're definitely not doing anything that would impact the tournament."
Manager Zhou was silent.
He'd swallowed the rest of his words, because he hadn't expected Shen Qiao to address the subject so bluntly of his own volition. He nearly choked in his haste to shut up.
"You really don't need to tell me all the specifics," Manager Zhou said, a little flustered.
Shen Qiao looked at him, expressionless. It was like he was asking, Would you ever have shut up if I didn't tell you the specifics?
However, Manager Zhou was obviously not as adept as Lu Zhe when it came to reading Shen Qiao's facial expressions. He held his tongue for a few seconds, then asked another question—
"Why aren't you together yet?"
Once those words came out, even Manager Zhou was thinking that he might have crossed a line. He was practically looking for trouble.
And yet, he couldn't help but worry. If these two got into some sort of serious relationship, he would worry. If they didn't, he would still worry.
It was probably because Lu Zhe and Shen Qiao were both indispensable to the team. Manager Zhou was just about ready to light incense and pray that the two of them continued to get along forever, that they would never fight, that they would never break up.
Shen Qiao had been rendered speechless by Manager Zhou's straightforward question.
At just that moment—
His cell phone chirped in his hand.
The screen lit up, showing a few messages Lu Zhe had just sent—
The sooner you go, the sooner you can come back to see me.
If you think about it like that, you won't be scared anymore. Right?
The corners of Shen Qiao's mouth twitched. His lips almost curved into a smile until he caught sight of his own reflection in the metal walls of the elevator. He willfully flattened his lips again before typing back—
You're the one who's scared.
The other party didn't argue with that. Lu Zhe simply responded—
Of course I'm scared, so you go quickly and return quickly. Come back and comfort me and my weak heart.
After those words, Lu Zhe sent along a reaction meme of a dog flopping around, waiting to be spoiled.
Shen Qiao sent back an image of a hand petting a dog on the head. Then he put his cell phone away and, as the elevator doors slid open, stepped out into the lobby on the ground floor.
Manager Zhou watched him go, wanting to say something but unable to spit it out. He wasn't sure whether or not he should continue pursuing this topic.
Shen Qiao was in an inexplicably good mood, though. He looked back at Manager Zhou and saw how conflicted he looked. It was rare for Shen Qiao to speak first, but he opened his mouth now—
"Don't worry. Soon."
It was just that this was something Shen Qiao wanted to take seriously.
Back in high school, when they'd been together, he and Lu Zhe had had an affectionate but ambiguous relationship. It was strange. Lu Zhe never asked to talk about what they had, and Shen Qiao never brought it up either. They just drifted towards each other and came together, as though through some tacit understanding.
The only time they explicitly spoke of their relationship was when it ended. Shen Qiao had stood with his back to Lu Zhe and uttered, like he was just going through the motions, "So, that's how it is."
Lu Zhe had been quiet for a long moment before he asked, "That's how what is?"
"Breaking up. Splitting up. Whatever you want to call it," Shen Qiao had said.
They'd clearly never said they were 'together' in the first place, yet Shen Qiao had brought up the difficult subject of 'breaking up'. No matter how Shen Qiao thought about it, that was something that must have hurt Lu Zhe.
Afterwards, Shen Qiao saw a saying at some point. He forgot where or when, but he remembered the words—
If a relationship starts on ambiguous terms, it will inevitably end on ambiguous terms as well.
Those words, for some reason, had stuck with Shen Qiao, lodging deep in his heart.
Now, in the present, the Shen Qiao who didn't care about anything had already become the sort of person who wanted something more 'official' when it came to this. He wanted to find the right time and the right place to earnestly, clearly ask Lu Zhe—
Do you still want to be with me?
As long as he could live a smooth life with Lu Zhe, there was nothing Shen Qiao wouldn't do. He wouldn't mind any amount of trouble, and he would be willing to believe in any superstition that kept them together.
I like this awkward and soft Qiaoqiao, I like the way he likes Lu Zhe.