The last bouquet ended up getting ruined by that pack of infernal savages, trampled on and thoroughly thrashed by the time Tao Xiaodong went down that night.
His heart mourned deeply for it.
Smiling, Tang Suoyan said, “I’ll buy you flowers every day.”
“No way, that’s too wasteful.” Tao Xiaodong gnawed a chicken drum, saying, “You can’t squander money like that; one bouquet a month, at most.”
He’d deliberately painted himself as a scoorge to draw a chuckle from Tang Suoyan.
And Tang Suoyan did laugh.
He watched Tao Xiaodong eat; Tao Xiaodong looked up and met his eyes, then rose from his seat and went around to sit on the other side of the table, next to Tang Suoyan, squeezing on the same side as him.
He had moved his plate over with his right hand, but his left hand couldn’t take the exertion, so he said, “Yan ge, help me bring the rest over.”
Tang Suoyan couldn’t figure out what he was up to but helped him move everything else over anyway.
Tao Xiaodong nudged his leg against Tang Suoyan’s, beaming.
“It’s easier with you closer.”
He shredded a strip of the chicken breast and held it over; Tang Suoyan ate it off his hand.
Neither of them mentioned Tong Ning.
That night before bed, Tang Suoyan didn’t read, lying down right after his shower.
Tao Xiaodong left the nightlight at the door on, cuddling Tang Suoyan.
Tang Suoyan pressed his face to his chest, and Tao Xiaodong held him as he would Tao Huainan; wrapping him in an embrace, smoothing his hair and stroking his back, a reassuring and protective pose.
Tang Suoyan’s exhales, passing through the pyjamas and transferring to his skin, were hot and searing.
Tao Xiaodong took Tang Suoyans phone and asked softly, “Passcode”
Tang Suoyan didn’t look up or ask him what he was doing, simply mumbling into his chest, “Same as the door.”
Tao Xiaodong unlocked it and searched for Tong Ning’s number in his contact book, blocking it.
He did the same on WeChat, deleting the contact.
He used the phone with his right hand, while his left remained wound around Tang Suoyan, applying a light but constant pressure on his back.
After that, he turned to get his own phone and messaged Tong Ning: Find me if anything comes up in the future.
In fact, by Tao Xiaodong’s understanding, Tong Ning wouldn’t seek Tang Suoyan out in the future.
He was too cruel, to others and to himself even more so.
Normally, Tao Xiaodong wouldn’t do something so childish, but he really couldn’t take it today.
He hoped that the two words of Tong Ning’s name would disappear from Tang Suoyan’s sight henceforth, not even chancing a glimpse when going through his phone to find a contact or on his WeChat feed.
He seldom felt such antagonism for anything, but he had truly gotten triggered today.
People were born in different circumstances.
Oftentimes the line between right and wrong was difficult to discern; it was rare to feel overwhelming love or hate.
But whether right or wrong, it didn’t stop him from being protective of his own.
It didn’t stop him from holding Tang Suoyan as he did now, so distressed that he was sorely tempted to flip the heavens his middle finger.
When the alarm rang in the morning, both of them were awake.
They hadn’t slept soundly the previous night.
Tao Xiaodong hadn’t slept for more than a few hours, and the same went for Tang Suoyan.
Tao Xiaodong turned off the alarm as soon as it started ringing, while Tang Suoyan rolled over to bury his face in his body.
Smiling, Tao Xiaodong twirled his hair, saying, “Yan ge, rise and shine, time to get to work.”
“I don’t want to get up.” Tang Suoyan, face planted there, said, “I didn’t sleep well.”
“You can sleep earlier tonight, come on.” Tao Xiaodong pulled back, not letting the other stick onto him; Tang Suoyan was never going to get up, otherwise.
By now, he had a few days of experience under his belt.
Tao Xiaodong sent him to the hospital.
Before Tang Suoyan got out of the car, Tao Xiaodong reminded, “Don’t forget to buy me flowers.”
“I haven’t forgotten,” Tang Suoyan opened the door and got out, turning his head around, saying to him.
“I still remember.”
Tao Xiaodong smiled and waved at him, going bye-bye.
Once Tang Suoyan left, the smile on Tao Xiaodong’s face dimmed.
He drove expressionlessly to the shop.
There, Huan Ge saw him enter and said cheerfully, “Dong ge, you’re super popular.”
Tao Xiaodong responded and went “really.”
“No kidding.” Huan Ge had watched another episode.
Whenever Tao Xiaodong’s name was mentioned, the comments were full of love for him, though there were naturally a few haters as well.
Huan Ge blended in with the audience, sending comment after comment in the live chat, taking three hours to finish the one-hour episode.
But they weren’t all mindless praises; he also commented on the programme with everyone else.
“People are shipping you and Da shu, it’s their OTP.” Huan Ge said, roaring with laughter, head tilted back.
“Hahaha the duo that started a business hand in hand, fighting alongside in adversity, neither leaving nor deserting the other.”
Huang Yida was still not back from filming the show.
It wasn’t odd that people were lapping this up, seeing as straight old grandpas joked around with not the least bit of shame.
When people in the show made wisecracks about the pairing, Da Huang joined in with laughter, then added more fodder himself.
At the end of the day, it was all in good fun.
Everyone knew that Da Huang had a wife and kids, so no one took the jokes seriously.
Tao Xiaodong spent two hours organising his workstation.
He was supposed to have a client today.
The appointment was for ten in the morning, but the guy dragged his feet and only came over slightly past eleven.
And then right upon arrival, requested the tattoo design be changed.
He claimed that he no longer wanted what was previously agreed upon and wanted to change it.
He droned on but didn’t specify what exactly it was that he wanted.
He just said that he wanted something horrific, bloody thing, the type that would induce shivers with a look.
Tao Xiaodong asked, “Namakubi” (severed head tattoo)
“What the hell is a Namakubi.” The client whipped out his phone, went swiping along for a long time before showing him an image, “Something like this.
Can you do it”
Tao Xiaodong said that he could and then checked, “Are you sure A tattoo like this is rather aggressive, it can be uncomfortable to look at with time and unsuitable for public eye.
You might regret it come next month.”
“Just tell me if you can do it or not.
If you can’t, I’ll get something else.” The client was roughly in his thirties, on the rotund side with a butch cut and a booming voice.
Tao Xiaodong wasn’t in that great a mood today, so the loud voice was vaguely annoying.
Tao Xiaodong didn’t mince words with him, asking, “Are you waiting for me to do up a design you like or should I get down to it.”
A new design would take god knows how long; Tao Xiaodong was a difficult man to secure an appointment with.
However, the client still wasn’t sure if he could manage it, questioning, “Have you done this style before”
Tao Xiaodong looked at Xiao Tian next to him, who got up to fetch his iPad, opening Tao Xiaodong’s portfolio for his reference.
There was no can or cannot to it; it was just a matter of whether or not the client was down.
The tattoo that he’d shown Tao Xiaodong just now was subpar.
The oomph wasn’t there.
It relied entirely on the discomfort induced by the bloodiness to increase the shock factor.
The lines that ought to be hard were soft, and the colours that ought to be subtle were too bold.
The client said that this was his friend’s tattoo; he was a model for a famous tattoo artist at a convention.
Tao Xiaodong returned, disinterested, “Which tattoo artist”
The other said that he couldn’t remember any more than the surname: Feng.
Xiao Tian was still looking for past Namakubi tattoos in the portfolio.
Tao Xiaodong patted him and said “Japanese-style” and Xiao Tian nodded, continuing his search.
While waiting, the client whispered, “Can you pull off this standard, Director Tao”
Tao Xiaodong chortled.
The client’s eyes went wide.
He leaned back.
Tao Xiaodong took his phone out of his pocket and searched for a while before finding a photo collage from a friend’s social media.
He put the phone on the coffee table before them; it shared a subtle resemblance with the photo that was shown to him earlier.
“If you’d like I can pull this off, easy.
But I won’t be able to manage the one you showed me even if I regress five years.” Tao Xiaodong scoffed, then said, curling his lip, “Don’t insult me.”
In a dour mood, even his words were steely.
Were this to get out, people would scold him to the curb for his impertinence.
Never mind the conceit contained in that statement; it was the utter lack of respect for one’s peers in the industry.
It was big talk but then Xiao Tian pulled up past pieces from the portfolio and the client was stunned by what he saw, letting him go to town on it without another word.
Tao Xiaodong was done with this nonsense anyway, he wasn’t feeling chatty today.
However, it was rather apt to do a Namakubi tattoo given his current mood.
He could give vent to his displeasure and the saw-edged emotions through the tattoo machine.
To tattoo artists, skin and pigment constituted a world that was, in its essence, also a language, lexically similar to an artist’s brush and a director’s lens.
A sharp blade thrust through the neck and emerged from the heart.
Its grisly tip pointed straight ahead, steeped in a cold glint and dripping sticky blood.
He slogged away on this tattoo for most of the day, skipping lunch in fear that he wouldn’t be able to finish it before Tang Suoyan got off work.
At the hospital car park, he only had to wait a few minutes before he saw Tang Suoyan come out with a bouquet of flowers in his hands.
As before, the same vivid orange gerberas, a striking sight in spite of the night.
Tao Xiaodong came out of the driver’s seat, took the flowers, and sat on the passenger side.
When Tang Suoyan got inside the car, Tao Xiaodong said, “Did you have to get it delivered to the hospital, couldn’t you just have it sent straight home.”
“A nurse helped me collect it,” Tang Suoyan said, “the nurse whose boyfriend went to you for a tattoo.
She asked me if it was for Director Tao.
She’s pretty sharp.”
“What did you say” Tao Xiaodong asked with a smile.
“I said yes.” Tang Suoyan buckled his seatbelt and started the engine.
“She couldn’t stop praising you.”
“Sensible child,” Tao Xiaodong grinned, “Director Tao gave her a discount after all, glad to see it paid off.”
As Tang Suoyan drove out of the car park, Tao Xiaodong kept touching the flowers, smitten with the whole notion of it all.
The first thing he did after getting home was to look for a vase, but even after finding one he didn’t know how to transfer the flowers and thus called for Tang Suoyan’s help.
Tang Suoyan had hit the shower as soon as they got home, during which Tao Xiaodong had called for him no less than half a dozen times.
Tang Suoyan came out of the shower smiling fondly, then walked to the balcony where Tao Xiaodong had the flowers spread around him and scuffed the top of his head, asking, “Have you counted the number of times you went Yan ge just now”
Tao Xiaodong looked up.
“Yan ge, how should I do this How much water do I put”
Tang Suoyan crouched down as well, saying, “I don’t know, either.
I’ve never really been one for romance.”
“I’ll look it up myself, then.” Tao Xiaodong parked himself cross-legged on the ground and took the scissors, cutting the flower stalks, slotting each flower into the vase.
“Go ahead and do your reading, I’ll shower after I’m done.”
Tang Suoyan brought two stools over and offered one to Tao Xiaodong, sitting on the other one himself.
He leaned against the wall by the side, reading his book and watching Tao Xiaodong cut the flowers.
His hand wasn’t that dexterous yet; not quite daring to curl his last two fingers, the way he held the flowers was awkward and amusing.
Tang Suoyan was decidedly unhelpful, laughing mutely from time to time.
Tao Xiaodong, turning his head over and catching him laugh, interrogated, “What are you laughing at”
Tang Suoyan flipped a page.
“Laughing at you.”
“What about me” Tao Xiaodong turned back and continued tending his flowers.
As Tang Suoyan read, his free hand caressed the other’s waist.
Tao Xiaodong asked him, “Wanna **” He carried on without waiting for Tang Suoyan’s response, “I’m almost done.”
“Not really.” Tang Suoyan’s arm went around his middle.
Tao Xiaodong had been too preoccupied since getting home to change out; there was a baggy pocket at the front of his sweatshirt that Tang Suoyan tucked his hand into.
It was comfortable.
“Not tonight, have fun with the flowers.”
Tao Xiaodong went “ah” and then, “I’m feeling like it, though.”
Tang Suoyan touched his nape.
It was a single bouquet of flowers and yet Tao Xiaodong spent more than an hour playing around with it.
To questionable results.
The vase was completely stuffed, a misshapen mess of flowers that stood high and low.
It was an eyesore.
Be that as it may, he personally thought that it looked pretty and placed it on the dining table.
Tang Suoyan helped him clean up the balcony, clearing the cut stems and water on the ground whilst Tao Xiaodong took a shower.
Tao Xiaodong was rather disorganised.
He was used to living independently and not having anyone at home to take him in hand.
He had flown from the roost at a tender age and also didn’t have parents to nag at him.
He often forgot to hang his coat and left it draped over the couch armrests instead.
The car keys and elevator card were also left lying around, sometimes on the coffee table and other times on the dining table.
It was a mad scramble searching for them whenever he was about to leave the house, and if unsuccessful he’d call for Yan ge and check if he had seen them.
And so as the other showered, Tang Suoyan helped him tidy up, hanging his coat, placing his car key and elevator card on the shoe cabinet, and charging his phone.
More and more of Tao Xiaodong’s stuff had started to migrate around the apartment.
If the clothes that he had worn that day weren’t dirty, they wouldn’t be immediately laundered but stacked in a pale on the balcony cabinet, to be worn again in the next week.
With him around, Tang Suoyan’s apartment was always stocked up on fruits.
Tao Xiaodong wasn’t a fussy eater; he’d eat whatever he was given.
These small details made the space feel much more homely, throwing the emptiness of the space he had lived in alone during the last year into relief.
The water in the shower room started and stopped in spurts.
With the sound of water in the background, Tang Suoyan tidied up after him, thereafter cut a plate of fruits for him.
Tao Xiaodong called him from the bathroom.
Tang Suoyan answered, “Un.”
“We’re out of shower gel,” Tao Xiaodong said after coming out of the shower.
“There should still be some,” said Tang Suoyan, “check the bathroom cabinet, that’s where the other toiletries are stored.”
Tao Xiaodong went to search for it.
On an ordinary night, the chatter was inane and the activities were mundane.
It was a quiet night, and the quietude calmed the heart.
Even the shuffling of the slippers that Tao Xiaodong had on was calming.
It was a carefree state in a peaceful life that was difficult to come by.
After replenishing the shower gel, Tao Xiaodong walked over and picked up a slice of starfruit from under Tang Suoyan’s hand, eating it.
“Tss,” hissed Tao Xiaodong, “it’s sour.”