Seven P.M. It is when restaurants are the busiest.
Li Luo chooses a place that he often visits; a restaurant with a quiet, elegant atmosphere, and opts for a private room. As the heavy, intricately carved wooden door closes, only the smooth background music is left drifting through the room. Not a single sound from outside could be detected, which means the voices of the people inside can’t be heard from the outside either.
He takes off his shoes. Walking across the soft fur carpet, he sits down on the sofa. Lin Cheng follows him.
“What would you like to eat?” Li Luo hands him the menu.
“Let me see…” Lin Cheng’s expression looks very at ease, without too much reservation. After scanning the menu, he quickly picks a few dishes, from appetizer to dessert. Two of the dishes include ingredients that are somewhat rare, and he doesn’t ask too many questions either. It seems he visits these high-end places quite often.
Li Luo watches how effortlessly he orders, and an almost unnoticeable frown forms on his face.
Back when Luo Peng was selecting the trainees, Li Luo helped him review Lin Cheng’s profile. According to the family background section, both of Lin Cheng’s parents are ordinary wage earners, so their salaries probably aren’t too high. How could they afford to frequent these places with him and spend hundreds on a single meal?
“Thank you for taking me out even when you’re so busy, Luo-ge.” Sipping fresh fruit juice through a straw, Lin Cheng thanks Li Luo obediently.
Li Luo returns to the present, smiling. “It’s nothing. I was too busy with work a while ago, and I haven’t had the chance to chat with you in ages. How have you been doing?”
“I’m fine. It’s just that I have to go on a variety show again, and I feel a little nervous. You know, Luo-ge, I’m not that special. I’m not good at singing either…” Lin Cheng’s voice grows smaller as he continues.
Li Luo doesn’t hurry to comfort him. Pouring himself a drink, he asks, “Have you seen the comments online?”
“Yeah… Honestly, they’re right. I wasn’t supposed to be the one doing this program, and I don’t really want to do it either. I wanted to lay a solid foundation before I start walking uphill, but now, I haven’t even learned to walk yet, and they’re asking me to run…”
Li Luo notices something. “If you don’t want to do it, why did you accept it in the first place? Was it Mr. Luo? Or… was it Mr. Duan?”
Lin Cheng averts his eyes, stammering. In the end, he doesn’t say anything.
“I understand. It was Mr. Duan,” Li Luo answers in his place. “Looks like I really should have a good talk with him.”
Lin Cheng panics a little. “Luo-ge, don’t blame Mr. Duan for it. He has only my best interests at heart, and he wants me to have more exposure.”
“Xiao-Cheng, you sure he has your best interests at heart? And doesn’t—”
And doesn’t see you as a toy that he can decorate with name and status?
Those words are a little too cruel. Li Luo hesitates, holding himself back. He changes his phrasing. “He’s a businessman. He doesn’t understand what ‘step by step’ means and only seeks instant profit. He thinks he can lift you to a high position as long as he gives you the best. But the entertainment industry isn’t that easy. Overdoing it, will only lead to the opposite. I’ve been in this industry for so many years already, after all. Trust me.”
“Yes, I trust you!” Lin Cheng’s answer is surprisingly straightforward. There’s not a shred of uncertainty.
Li Luo, who has already prepared hours of counsel, is the one to pause now. “… You’re going to trust me so easily? You’d run off with whoever says a few nice things to you, wouldn’t you?”
“Of course not. It’s because you’re Luo-ge.” Lin Cheng smiles shyly. “I’ll listen to whatever you say, Luo-ge.”
In the boy’s expression is a candid trust, his eyes honest and sincere. Under such a gaze, even the most stubborn rock would probably melt.
Li Luo takes a sip of the wine. It feels a little acrid at his throat.
No wonder Duan Mingyang likes him.
The longer one swims in the world of greed and cunning, the more one longs for such rare innocence. Compared to Li Luo’s own awkward acting, Lin Cheng is the real lamb here.
Li Luo finishes the remaining wine in his glass and pours another for himself. His Adam’s apple bobs. In the end, he still asks the question he shouldn’t ask:
“Xiao-Cheng, do you… like Duan Mingyang?”
Lin Cheng’s reply comes instantly. “Of course I do. Mingyang-ge is really nice to me.”
“And yet you’re still listening to me instead of him?”
“Because I… umm, I like you more, Luo-ge…” This time, Lin Cheng hesitates. His voice is soft as he scratches his nose in embarrassment. “Luo-ge, you’re like an older brother to me. You’re kind, and I can talk to you about anything. Mingyang-ge is a little more serious, and he’s also kind of strict. In some ways, he’s more like another dad to me…”
Li Luo almost chokes on what’s left of his wine.
Another dad… A sugar daddy?
Lin Cheng continues, “You’re my idol. I had a few options back then, but I chose Shuoxing because you’re here, Luo-ge. Mingyang-ge didn’t approve of it, but I still signed the contract…”
Li Luo picks up on the critical information. “You knew Duan Mingyang before you came to Shuoxing?”
“Yeah, we’ve met before. After Mingyang-ge came back to China, we met again through our relatives.”
Li Luo understands now.
Lin Cheng likes Duan Mingyang mostly because Duan Mingyang takes care of him. But if the kid is fawning over people for the sake of receiving favors, he’s already gone down a wrong path. Some hard discipline is needed.
“But you can’t have him take care of you for the rest of your life, can you?” He points out directly, “He won’t take care of you for the rest of your life, either. He can choose to stop taking care of you anyplace, anytime. Do you understand that?”
Lin Cheng nods. “Yeah, I do. That’s why I’m also working hard to earn money right now. One day, I want to be able to stand on my own, without any help from Mingyang-ge or you, Luo-ge.”
“Good. There are many years ahead of you. Don’t let him hold you up. From now on, don’t be so close to him. If he forces you to do anything, let me know and I’ll deal with him for you.”
Lin Cheng is a little puzzled. “Mingyang-ge never forces me to do anything. I’m a little scared of him… but he still discusses everything with me before I make a decision.”
“That’s because he still likes you now. When that’s no longer the case, just wait and see how he’ll bully you.”
“You saw how he treated me at the acquisition banquet? That wasn’t even the worst of it. I’m not exaggerating, you know.”
Lin Cheng really believes him, asking anxiously, “Did Mingyang-ge… use to be really nice to you too? Then why is he so mean to you now?”
Li Luo’s hand that’s swaying the wine glass comes to a halt.
“He… was never nice to me.”
Lin Cheng’s question strikes him, waking him up.
Li Luo abruptly realizes that he doesn’t have the right to preach at Lin Cheng as though he’s someone who has gone through it all.
If it weren’t for the fiancée whom Duan Mingyang can’t forget, perhaps Li Luo might believe that he does hold some sincerity for Lin Cheng. He buys Lin Cheng cake, calls him by his nickname so tenderly, gives him the best resources, and takes care of him so well…
Even if Lin Cheng is just a toy, Lin Cheng is one that Duan Mingyang treasures.
Whereas Li Luo is a disposable one that Duan Mingyang hates. Duan Mingyang threw him away without hesitation after one try, unwilling to touch him again.
Like a fool, he felt touched by that wallet for over half a year. Thinking about it now, he almost finds it laughable.
Duan Mingyang had never revealed any love or care for him, not even offering him a few nice words. So that’s why when it comes to Duan Mingyang’s character, he and Lin Cheng have such different impressions.
Maybe Duan Mingyang is really good at loving people, so much so that even a pure kid like Lin Cheng would willingly be his lover and stick up for him so loyally.
His and Lin Cheng’s experiences can’t even be compared, so how could he preach at the other like this?
It’s absurd how conceited he is.
“I might be an exception. He’s always hated me.” Li Luo shrugs. “I hate him too, anyways. The feeling is mutual…”
Lin Cheng sighs. “I don’t want you two to hate each other so much… You’re both people I respect a lot.”
Li Luo reaches out and ruffles his hair. “Don’t be so naive. That’s impossible. What’s there to respect about him? Listen to me. I’d never hurt you.”
Before Lin Cheng replies, his phone starts to ring. He takes it out and glances at the screen, before answering the call in front of Li Luo. “Hey, Mingyang-ge, what’s up?”
Li Luo doesn’t mean to eavesdrop, but he can’t help but overhear their conversation.
“Right now? I’m eating outside. Uh… With who… Just Luo-ge.”
“Yeah, just us two…”
“I’m fine. I can go back on my own.”
Li Luo can’t listen to this any longer. He reaches toward Lin Cheng. “Let me talk.”
Lin Cheng hesitates for half a second before he obeys, putting the phone in Li Luo’s palm.
Right after Li Luo takes it, he asks curtly, “What do you want, Mr. Duan?”
Duan Mingyang’s low voice comes from the phone, sounding somewhat annoyed. “This is a family matter. Please don’t interfere, Mr. Li.”
“A family matter?” Li Luo snorts. “You don’t have to be so controlling, do you, Mr. Duan? If you want somebody beside you, with just a wave of your hand, anyone would come. Can’t you let Lin Cheng off for one night, so that he can at least have a decent meal?”
“He can eat with anyone — except you, Mr. Li. I don’t trust you.”
“What? Am I some monster?”
Li Luo smirks. “Duan Mingyang, I’ve realized that in the past couple of years, you’ve become even more blunt. I don’t care. Tonight, I’ll be eating with Lin Cheng. I’ll take him back. You don’t have to bother.”
Listening by the side, Lin Cheng is terrified. He waves his hands as he whispers, “It’s okay, Luo-ge, I’d better go back. Mingyang-ge will get mad.”
Li Luo gives him a look of “don’t worry” before turning back to the call. “Even if he’s yours… he’s still only a kid. Give him some more space and freedom, alright? If you like him, then cherish him more. If he can’t stand your tyranny and ends up running away, it’d be quite embarrassing when the news spread, wouldn’t it, Mr. Duan?”
Duan Mingyang stays silent for a few seconds before he replies, “Mr. Li, you’re as silver-tongued as always.”
“Thank you for the compliment.”
“But I don’t like Lin Cheng.”
“At least, not in the way that you’re thinking about.”
Not the way he’s thinking about… Then it must be a purely physical relationship.
“… You’re really heartless, Mr. Duan.”
“I learned from you,” Duan Mingyang retorts. “I’ll be there in ten minutes. You can start paying the bill.”
“Nobody’s gonna listen to… Wait, how do you know where we are?” Li Luo notices what’s wrong. An alarm rings in his head. His hair rises, “Did you install a location tracker on his phone?”
“Duan Mingyang, you son of a bitch!” Without warning, Li Luo shoots up at once, almost flipping the table over. It seems as if he’s been provoked in the worst way. “I’m warning you. Don’t control him with these dirty tricks!”
Lin Chen gapes, forgetting how to blink. Even his speech is stuttered. “L-Luo-ge… W-What’s wrong…”
Li Luo hangs up on Duan Mingyang, his chest heaving. With one hand holding his forehead, he tries to calm down. Only half a minute later does he gradually recover. “I’m fine. I just think he’s a cheap and shameless person.”
It was the same back then. Duan Mingyang installed a camera in his apartment, secretly filming their lovemaking.
His tenderness had become blackmail material within the blink of an eye — a fall from heaven to hell, a gruesome scar he still couldn’t erase. Finding out that Duan Mingyang is still using the same disgusting tricks, the suppressed rage and hatred within him are once again reignited.
After all, despite being collaborators, the past events have led Li Luo to be like a dormant volcano, with a possibility of erupting anytime. He would never have a moment of true peace and quiet.
“Get another phone. He’s monitoring this one.” Li Luo hurries to list out strategies. “Keep the new phone yourself and don’t give it to him, or else he’s definitely going to install another—”
“Luo-ge, don’t worry.” Lin Cheng walks over to his side and pats his back to comfort him. “I know about the location tracking. Mingyang-ge had asked me about it. He only installed it after I agreed.”
Li Luo is stunned. “You… agreed?”
“Yeah. Some people like to make trouble for Mingyang-ge. He’s worried I’d be affected too, so he installed a location tracker in order to contact me anytime. If something happens, he’d also be able to get to me as soon as possible.”
“Oh, I see…”
So even when it comes to monitoring, there’s a difference in motives.
For him, it was an exploitation, but for Lin Cheng, it’s protection.
“I’m the one at fault, then.” Li Luo quickly gathers his emotions and stands up. “Let’s go. When he comes to pick you up, I’ll apologize to him.”
“Yep! That’s more like it, Luo-ge!”
Li Luo manages a smile, but he doesn’t reply.
He can see things case by case, and thus apologize for the misunderstanding. But what about Duan Mingyang? Years ago, when he asked Duan Mingyang whether or not he had filmed them, Duan Mingyang admitted it without hesitation, almost as if he was justified in doing so.
How truly shameless.
Lin Cheng looks at the exquisite dishes that covered the table. Some of them are still untouched. Now that they’re leaving, he can’t help but feel a little mournful. He finally had the chance to have dinner with his idol, but he hadn’t even filled his stomach before he’s summoned by Duan Mingyang, like an elementary schooler caught by his parent. No matter how obedient he is, he still mumbles a complaint, “Mingyang-ge is so strict…”
“Is it your first day knowing him?” Li Luo calls over a waiter to pack up all of the dishes. Carrying the heavy bag for Lin Cheng, he walks downstairs and toward the exit. “Now you know who actually treats you well, don’t you?”
“Yep! Luo-ge, you’ll always be the best to me!”
“Good boy.” They stop in front of the restaurant’s doors. Li Luo strokes Lin Cheng’s head right as he notices a sharp gaze shoot toward him.
He turns around. The familiar Maybach is already parked there. Two bodyguards stand at its front and back like goalkeepers.
The window of the backseat rolls down slightly. One can manage to see the stern silhouette and chiselled jawline of the man sitting within.
Duan Mingyang doesn’t get out of the car. A bodyguard walks over and bows respectfully. “Mr. Lin, please get in.”
Li Luo casually passes the bag of takeout to the bodyguard and walks away, his hands in his pockets. However, he sees Lin Cheng get in another car.
“Mr. Li, Mr. Duan has invited you to join him.”
He ends up sitting beside Duan Mingyang.
“No way, really?” He crosses his legs and leans back, making himself at home. “You brought along bodyguards and two cars just to pick someone up? Shouldn’t you be sitting with your little lover right now?”
Duan Mingyang glances at him. “Your attitude changes so quickly, Mr. Li.”
“Hm? What do you mean?”
“You were cursing at me just a few minutes ago, and now you can converse with me so calmly.”
“Oh, that. I misunderstood. I’m sorry. Is that enough?” Li Luo grins carelessly. “I’ve apologized already, so when are you going to apologize to me, Mr. Duan?”
“Did I do anything that requires an apology?”
“You’re clearly aware of it. Did you delete the video?”
Duan Mingyang seems as though he had just remembered. “You mean the time you begged me to fuck you, Mr. Li? Why would I delete it? For countless times, I’ve enjoyed the sight of looking down upon you that night—”
Before he can finish, a swift punch hurtles toward his face.
Li Luo hasn’t considered the consequences of his punch at all. The flames of rage that has yet to be fully extinguished surges again, burning away all of his rationality.
But the punch in which he used all his strength doesn’t even touch Duan Mingyang. It’s blocked halfway, and pain shoots up his wrist. In an instant, the tables have turned. He’s now the one held down; his arms twisted behind him.
Duan Mingyang is ruthless. From behind, he presses his knees against the back of Li Luo’s, almost like a heavy compactor. Li Luo can’t help but let out a low cry of pain. Duan Mingyang is gripping his wrists with one hand, forming bright red marks. With his other hand, he grabs Li Luo’s untied hair and pulls back hard, forcing Li Luo to raise his head.
Li Luo gasps. “Fuck you!”
Turning a deaf ear to him, Duan Mingyang calmly leans forward, whispering into his ear:
“You should know who’s the one getting fucked, Mr. Li.”