Li Luo widened his eyes in disbelief, almost laughing out of rage.
Pity? Who was the pitiful one here? If it weren’t because Duan Mingyang had to work even on his birthday, Li Luo’d be partying with his friends right now — who would give a damn about him?
He tried his best to suppress his anger. “Why do you pity me?”
Duan Mingyang’s body lifted slightly. As if not noticing how dark Li Luo’s expression was, he raised one hand and brushed his dishevelled hair back behind his ear, gazing into his eyes.
“Because you don’t understand love, and yet you pretend that you love.”
Li Luo frowned. “Just what are you talking about…”
Buzz — in a timely fashion, the phone in his pocket vibrated.
Li Luo shifted his trapped wrists. “Um, excuse me, my phone is ringing.”
Duan Mingyang let go of one of his wrists. As Li Luo extended his arm, his hand was abruptly slapped away.
Without waiting for his reaction, Duan Mingyang reached into the pocket of his pants.
The cold, slender fingers slithered in, infiltrating the flimsy piece of fabric. It felt as if they were teasing along the skin of his thigh, stroking it through his pants, and tingles ran through half of his body.
Li Luo clenched his teeth. Both his muscles and his mind tensed as he glared at the person on top of him.
If Duan Mingyang dared to cross the line, even if it was just the slightest movement, he’d beat the pervert into a pulp, even if he wasn’t as strong as him.
The pocket was deep, and the phone was right at the end of Li Luo’s thigh. Quickly, Duan Mingyang was able to feel the phone. Without lingering, he grabbed it and pulled it out. Only, as he left, his pinkie brushed faintly against the soft flesh of Li Luo’s inner thigh.
Li Luo’s leg trembled. Immediately, his eyes reddened with murderous intent.
Duan Mingyang completely ignored Li Luo’s ferocious look. He pressed accept and pressed the phone to Li Luo’s ear, gesturing with his chin for Li Luo to take the call.
A loud, familiar voice came from the phone. “Li-shao! Why aren’t you here yet? We’ve opened the bottles already — been waiting for you for ages!”
Li Luo gritted his teeth, holding back his emotions. He replied, “I’ll be there soon,” and quickly hung up.
Hearing this, Duan Mingyang finally got off from him. As though nothing had happened, he spoke with a calm expression, “You can leave if you don’t want to do it.”
Li Luo sat up; his face cold. Taking his belongings, he walked straight toward the door. He didn’t want to stay at this goddamn place with this goddamn guy for a single second longer.
Duan Mingyang suddenly called out to him again.
“What?” Li Luo turned around in annoyance. Something black cut through the air, flying toward him. He reached out to catch it — it was the wallet he’d lost.
“See if anything’s missing.”
Li Luo opened the wallet. He didn’t verify the amount of cash and credit cards inside, but instead first took out his photo with his mom, examining it carefully. It was undamaged except for one corner, which seemed as though it had been stained red by something that looked like blood.
“How did the photo…” He stopped mid-sentence.
Duan Mingyang was drinking water, his body turned away. His bare back was broad and sturdy, his muscles in sharp relief.
Yet it was covered in gruesome bruises.
The bruises seemed to be from some kind of club, in appalling shades of blue, red, black, and purple.
He lifted his chin and gulped down a pill. It seemed to be a painkiller, given the label on the packaging of the box on the table.
“I tried my best, but I couldn’t get rid of the stain.” Duan Mingyang paused in the middle of taking a drink. “I’m sorry.”
Li Luo’s brain came to a stop. His rage from before was completely doused by the shocking scene before his eyes.
He looked down at the deep red corner of the photo, before looking back up at Duan Mingyang’s back. A terrifying thought emerged. “T-This can’t be your…”
“Yeah.” Duan Mingyang turned around to look at him. His dark eyes revealed no emotion. “I got into a fight on my way back. Accidentally got it dirty.”
“You fight so well. How could you get hurt so badly?”
From the kick Duan Mingyang gave Andy at the bar, Li Luo knew that even if the opponents were using clubs to fight, he shouldn’t have been so badly injured.
“No matter how well I fight, I can’t win against more than half a dozen professionals.”
Li Luo widened his eyes. “Professionals? Who did you offend? Maybe I can help you.”
“You won’t be able to.”
“You don’t know that!”
“It’s fine. This is my own matter.”
“Don’t be so courteous, alright? Our experiences are so similar. It’s only natural that I—”
Li Luo paused, astonished.
They had known each other for a few months, but this was the first time Duan Mingyang called his name.
As though frozen by a spell, he stood right where he was, unmoving. He could only reply, bewildered, “Huh?”
“We’re not similar.” Duan Mingyang’s tone was solemn, carrying with it a hint of fatigue. “You’re wealthy. Your dad loves you. Your mom is in good health. You think we’re in the same boat? In reality, your current life would be a luxury to me.”
Li Luo stammered, “But, isn’t your dad also…”
“You heard it from Andy?”
Li Luo nodded.
“Yes, my dad is rich, and he even wants to take me back. But—” Duan Mingyang’s brows were tightly knitted. “He doesn’t think of me as his son. He already has one.”
Li Luo had been living the upper-class life ever since he was young, and so of course, he’d heard about many of such instances. At once, he could roughly guess what had happened. “Did the son send people to beat you up? To threaten you not to go back and fight him for his inheritance?”
Duan Mingyang glanced at him. “One would expect no less from Li-shao. How very experienced and well informed.”
“You flatter me. Why didn’t you tell your dad about this?”
“He wouldn’t care. He just wants me to go back and help him take care of the company. His heir would never be me. So long as his firstborn son doesn’t cause me to be debilitated or die, he’d turn a blind eye to whatever he does.”
“Which is why you can’t help. This is our family’s issue.” Duan Mingyang didn’t want to continue this topic with him any longer, and so he turned to the bathroom. “You should go. Your friends are waiting.”
Looking at the hideous bruises on his back, Li Luo made up his mind. “I’m not going anymore.”
Duan Mingyang turned around. His brows were creased even tighter.
“I’ll call the doctor to bring you some ointment.” Li Luo didn’t give Duan Mingyang any time to refuse him, raising the wallet in his hand. “Take it as compensation for your generosity. And if you get better soon, work would be easier on you — you could earn more money and leave your dad’s support sooner.”
Duan Mingyang looked at him for a while, saying nothing. In the end, he said, “Do as you please,” before walking into the bathroom on his own.
The doctor came quickly, arriving within ten minutes of Li Luo’s call. This was a family doctor that Li Luo’s dad had arranged for him when he was abroad. The doctor lived right beside his college campus, which meant if he caught some minor illness, the doctor could get to him in time. Thus, he wasn’t far from Duan Mingyang’s home either.
After Duan Mingyang came out of the shower, three grown men stood together in the tiny, cramped room. It felt even more uncomfortable.
Speedily and with familiarity, the doctor applied ointment to Duan Mingyang’s back. He then left his contact information and went off. Coming in a hurry and leaving in a hurry — it seemed as if he was making haste, trying to go back home as soon as possible and sleep. After all, it was late at night already.
During this time, Li Luo made a call and turned down his friend, who was drinking and flirting with girls at the club. The friend wailed, “Li-shao, it won’t be fun if you don’t come!” But in reality, he was probably quite drunk already.
Not long after the doctor left, someone knocked on the door again. This time, it was the person delivering the cake.
Li Luo took the cake box from the delivery person with both hands and turned around. He took each step carefully, trying his best not to trip on the clutter in the room. With caution, he brought it to the center of the room.
There was really no place on the table to put it down. He could only grab a plastic chair and put the cake on top. With much persuasion, he finally managed to pull Duan Mingyang to the edge of the bed, and the two unboxed the cake together. Inside, the real deal was as tempting as the photos.
“Wanna light a candle and make a wish?”
Duan Mingyang frowned at the black cylinder that was decorated lavishly. “What is this?”
“What is mousse?”
Li Luo was rarely so dumbfounded. “You… don’t even know what mousse is?”
“I don’t usually eat cake.” Duan Mingyang pushed a few of the candles provided by the shop into the cake perfunctorily. “My mom used to make me noodles, but she got sick when I was ten. Nobody was really there to celebrate my birthday with me, after that.”
Those words were so miserable that anyone with a heart would be unable to bear listening to them.
Li Luo’s anger had long since disappeared, and his sympathy arose again. He shifted over and grabbed Duan Mingyang’s arm, his voice gentle. “Then from now on, I’ll be there to celebrate your birthday with you every year, okay? As long as you agree to be my boyfriend. And maybe teach me self-defence as well.” Of course, his main point was the latter.
Duan Mingyang tilted his head, looking at him.
“You won’t celebrate another birthday with me.”
Li Luo refused to back down. “Why do you never believe me?”
“Because what you call love is too shallow, too fragile. Frankly speaking, I don’t think you love me at all.”
Your intuition is quite accurate, isn’t it… Li Luo thought as he asked again, “Then tell me — what do you think real love is?”
“If I love someone, I’d love them for my entire life.”
Duan Mingyang’s voice was deep and mellow. A part of it seemed to be some sort of a warning, releasing absolute pressure and conviction.
“I’d pursue them until death does us apart.”
“So, don’t try to make me fall in love with you. You can’t afford to mess with me.”
Li Luo was speechless. In that moment, he couldn’t think of any response.
He’d always been good at dealing with people. But when it came to Duan Mingyang, it seemed he was always at a loss as to what to do, defeated by him time after time.
Within the small, quiet room, they leaned against each other, holding hands. They seemed to be the closest of lovers, yet neither found any warmth in the other. It was an odd and awkward scene.
At last, Li Luo let go, laughing sheepishly.
No matter how thick his skin was and how good he was at acting, he couldn’t say something like “I can love you forever too.”
Duan Mingyang’s tone was too serious — almost like a bright mirror that cast light on all of Li Luo’s lies. Li Luo felt guilty.
“But, no matter what, thank you for your cake.” Duan Mingyang pulled off the candles that hadn’t even been lit and cut off a big slice of cake. He placed it into a paper plate and, along with a small fork, passed it to Li Luo.
“You’re not lighting the candles? You won’t make a wish?” Li Luo had never seen such a hasty birthday celebration before.
“I’ve done it before. There’s not really much use. It’s the same as always — in some ways each year is worse than the last.” Duan Mingyang also cut a small slice for himself. Next to him, Li Luo found no trace of emotion on his firm features. “Even if a god who granted wishes actually exists, there are so many people in the world making wishes; they’d only see those who shine among the masses, like you.”
“They wouldn’t see those hiding in dark corners, like me.”
Holding the chocolate mousse cake in his hands, Li Luo was stunned.
“… The god couldn’t have seen me either. Every year, I wished for my mom to come back. It never came true.” He sneered in self-mockery. “Maybe I should learn from you and stop celebrating my birthday from now on.”
The wallet that he’d lost and found was lying open on the table. Under a transparent, plastic layer was a photo of him and his mom on vacation from when he was twelve.
Back then, his young self always had a bright smile. He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and raised in a jar of honey with love from both of his parents. He didn’t yet know the bitterness of life and the capriciousness of human nature. But now…
Photos could be retaken or reprinted when they were lost, yet broken memories could never be pieced back together.
Li Luo stared at the photo for a while, letting out a soft sigh. When he turned his gaze away, he noticed the smear of red at its corner. He suddenly felt that something was off.
“Wait, this wallet… is it actually mine?”
Duan Mingyang took a small spoonful of cake and brought it into his mouth, looking down quietly.
Li Luo was even more certain about his guess. “Why is it that the photo inside got stained, but there’s not even a scratch on the surface? How did you do that?”
Duan Mingyang ate the last bite of his cake. He stood up, tossed the paper plate into the trash can, and walked to the cabinet in silence. Opening a drawer, he took out a box from within and came back.
“It’s annoying how smart you are, you know?”
He sounded like a sulking kid. Li Luo couldn’t help but grin, taking the box. “You really bought me a new wallet? The one inside is actually my old one?”
“Hahaha, you’re really too polite. This wallet of mine costs over two thousand pounds…”
Li Luo was suddenly stopped by his own words.
… saw him walk into a designer store and buy a wallet just like that. My God, it was over two thousand pounds…
… I don’t think you know, but last week, when you didn’t visit, Duan Mingyang stayed up late almost every day…
How did Duan Mingyang get so much money? He refused help from his dad, and his only source of his income was working part-time at the bar. How much was his hourly wage again? The number was so low that he couldn’t even recall it. He only remembered it vaguely.
The wallet would cost him at least two months of his earnings.
Like a hammer, the thought struck Li Luo’s heart, inducing a dull pain. He couldn’t help but hold his breath as he opened the box before him.
It was indeed his original wallet inside, but it was almost beyond recognition.
The fine leather was stained with the dark red of blood that couldn’t be washed out, as well as the dark grey of muddy water. It was quite a tragic sight.
“It was raining. I wanted to save it after it fell on the ground, but then blood got on it, so I wasn’t able to do anything.”
Duan Mingyang described it lightly, as though he had only dropped the wallet by accident on his way back and gotten blood on it due to a papercut.
But after seeing the bruises on his back, even an idiot could imagine how he fell on the ground, dropped the wallet, and was beaten until he bled by half a dozen people, his blood staining the wallet.
Holding the new wallet in one hand and the old wallet in the other, Li Luo felt as if he was gripping two heavy pieces of iron, their searing heat burning his palms.
“You really didn’t have to do this…”
His usual silver tongue was again at a loss for words.
That someone who was usually cold and apathetic toward him would do such a thing gave him too big of a shock.
Was he moved? Of course he was. Astounded? Some of that too. But what was more… was heartache.
His heart ached for Duan Mingyang.
“I know a wallet isn’t anything to you, but I was the one who got it dirty, so I had to take responsibility,” said Duan Mingyang.
“Then what about your daily expenses? And I heard your mom is having an operation…”
“I’ll just work more. The operation isn’t until a few months later. I’m not in a hurry.”
“Mingyang…” Li Luo bit his lip. His head was in a mess, and he felt his nose sting. “This is the first time I received something so valuable.”
Duan Mingyang took the dirty wallet from Li Luo’s hand and put it back into the box. “There’s nothing valuable about it. You can buy as many wallets like this as you want.”
Li Luo shook his head. “It’s different.”
He was cynical, but he wasn’t heartless.
He bent his legs and laid his head on his knees. As he glanced to the side, genuine warmth and tenderness appeared in his amber eyes for the first time. His voice lingered—
“Mingyang… You’re so nice, so nice that I almost want to marry you.”
Duan Mingyang’s eyes seemed to freeze for an instant. The next second, his gaze shifted away.
“Don’t say such nonsense.”
“It’s not nonsense. If you’re just a little more passionate towards me, I might really think about it.” Li Luo laughed, unconcerned. He cut Duan Mingyang another slice of cake. “Thank you, truly. I haven’t felt so happy in a long time. I’ll stay here for the night and finish celebrating your birthday with you.”
“Aren’t you afraid I’d do something to you?”
“You won’t. You were just trying to scare me, weren’t you?” Li Luo hugged his arm again. This time, there was some affection in the action. “I know you’re actually really kind and a really good person.”
Duan Mingyang didn’t push him away, not giving him an answer either. “You don’t understand me.”
“I trust my intuition.”
Confidently, Li Luo grinned at him. His still-cold features were reflected in Li Luo’s eyes. Yet, it was the first time Li Luo felt that Duan Mingyang wasn’t a difficult person to deal with at all.
“I really like you a lot. I’ll celebrate every one of your birthdays with you from now on.”
Duan Mingyang was looking down. “You’ll go back on your word.”
“I definitely won’t. Trust me. I was in too much of a hurry this year. Next time, I’ll definitely arrange a fancier birthday celebration for you. You can tell me now — what kind of cake do you want? I’ll have people start the designing process.”
Duan Mingyang stabbed a small piece of cake with his fork and brought it to his mouth. He pursed his thin lips. It seemed as if the chewing motion lifted their corners a little.
“Mousse is fine.”
“No problem — you’ll like it for sure!” Li Luo promised.
A handful of firewood had been added to the flame of interest that had almost been close to extinguishment. It now burned brightly and with vigor.
He couldn’t mess with him? Then he was definitely going to give it a try.