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    In the evening, the sky was still bright, with a swath of sunset hues staining half of the horizon red.

    As soon as Du Heng stepped inside, he was greeted by the rich aroma of hotpot. The pot was half filled with spicy red broth made from beef tallow and the other half with milky white bone broth, both boiling and exuding enticing scents. The table was laden with ingredients, reflecting the host’s warm hospitality.

    “Heng,” Shen Li called out, carrying a plate of glutinous rice cakes coated in brown sugar sauce from the kitchen. The freshly fried cakes were still steaming, the syrup thick and inviting. “Have a seat, anywhere you like.”

    Du Heng felt a bit uneasy as he sat down, his first time at Lu Changting’s home after many years of not seeing him. He wasn’t sure what to talk about.

    Slices of meat were dropped into the pot first. Lu Changting opened a bottle of whiskey, adding some ice and soda water to the glasses, and poured a full glass for Du Heng.

    Du Heng enjoyed whiskey, and Shen Li had specifically ordered the best whiskey and a case of beer from the bar through Le An. They clinked glasses, and Du Heng took a sip, his Adam’s apple moving as he exclaimed, “Refreshing.”

    The awkwardness and restraint of their reunion seemed to dissipate with that glass of whiskey. He dipped a piece of beef tripe into the hot pot and casually mentioned to Shen Li about quitting his job.

    “The company parachuted in a new product manager, who’s been making things difficult for me.” Du Heng picked up a piece of meat with his chopsticks. “A fresh graduate who doesn’t understand programming, yet is a workaholic, constantly making our tech department work overtime.”

    “He even had me fix his computer three times in a week,” Du Heng added after a pause.

    Shen Li frowned. “That’s just too much.”

    Lu Changting listened quietly, placing a shrimp dumpling that had floated to the top of the broth into Shen Li’s bowl.

    “Then there’s that intern I mentioned before. I looked after her because she was young and a girl,” Du Heng said, drinking a glass of whiskey. “But you know me, I’m not good with words or pleasing people, pretty dull actually.”

    “She’s with the general manager now, doesn’t need my care anymore.”

    Du Heng didn’t elaborate further. What more was there to say? The general manager had a wife and kids, but that was the path she chose, while he continued on his own lonely road.

    If he had to give a reason, he simply said, “I found it quite pointless, so I quit and came back.”

    Many things in life ultimately boil down to emotions.

    Shen Li clinked his glass with Du Heng’s in comfort. The strong liquor burned their throats, with the ice only slightly tempering the spiciness.

    Lu Changting also clinked glasses with Du Heng but didn’t offer any comforting words, only saying, “If you still want to make games, I’ll invest in you.”

    In his memory, leaning against the railing, the boy with the smiling eyes had answered him with what?

    Du Heng laughed and called him “President Lu,” teasingly asking, “And your bar?”

    Lu Changting looked at Shen Li, his eyes soft with a smile like a beam of light breaking through the clouds. “Here it is.”

    A seemingly joking reply, yet Du Heng thought he already understood the reason behind Shen Li opening the bar, aware of Shen Li’s feelings over the years. With a tone of some emotion, he said, “You’re really inviting envy.”

    Shen Li raised his glass to toast Du Heng again, deftly changing the subject.

    They talked from sunset until the moon hung high in the sky. The table was left with stacked empty plates, oil from the hot pot had congealed, and the ice in their glasses had melted repeatedly. Shen Li was slightly drunk, his lips and tongue carrying the scent of alcohol, with a flush spreading from the corners of his eyes to his temples. Lu Changting, not wanting others to see his enticing state, blocked Du Heng’s view and gently coaxed him back to the room.

    When he came back downstairs, Du Heng was pouring himself more whiskey. The hot pot had made him sweat, the drops rolling down his neck. He fumbled with some napkins to wipe the spilled whiskey, almost knocking over the bottle.

    Lu Changting sat beside him, eyes slightly tipsy, but his hand was steady as he poured the drink. Taking a cigarette from the pack, he lit it, shielding the flame with his hand, the smoke mingling with the smell of tobacco, alcohol, and hot pot.

    “You… hic,” Du Heng hiccupped, lighting a cigarette, taking a deep drag to steady his drunkenness. “You can really drink.”

    Lu Changting smiled, shedding his usual composed demeanor, as if reclaiming his youthful vigor.

    A glass of whiskey mixed with a large portion of soda water; at this rate, he could outdrink ten Du Hengs.

    Du Heng muttered, “Shen Li still gets clingy when he’s drunk.”

    However, Shen Li rarely drank to the point of being completely drunk. He knew his limits well and would always stop before reaching the point of no return. But today, he was truly happy, and with Lu Changting continually refilling his glass, Shen Li didn’t pay attention to how much he was drinking, leading to his inebriation.

    Lu Changting asked, “Was he always like this before?”

    “He used to be,” Du Heng, now quite drunk, spoke without reservation since Shen Li was not around. “He would get clingy when drunk, but not like how he clings to you now…”

    Du Heng’s speech was disjointed, but he eventually made himself clear: “When he was drunk, he always said he wanted to find you.”

    “We had to humor him, go along with his words, saying we’d let him find you,” Du Heng clinked glasses with Lu Changting, happily adding, “Now it’s good, you two are together, and you can take care of him…”

    Lu Changting closed his eyes and took a deep breath of his cigarette. His heart trembled as he pieced together fragments of the past that finally formed a clear picture. It was hard to believe, but he felt a mix of secret joy and a hopeful expectation. “I’m… his ‘big brother’?”

    Du Heng didn’t notice anything off. “Who else could it be but you?”

    “He’s always called you that secretly,” Du Heng, still in high spirits from the alcohol, exaggeratedly rubbed his arms as if to ward off imaginary goosebumps, “It’s so cheesy.”

    He thought of Shen Li clinging to him for a kiss while drunk, his eyes tear-streaked, and his own long-held grudge against this “rival in love.” He recalled Shen Li saying, “I’ve only ever liked you.”

    Shen Li had been truthful, but he hadn’t believed him.

    Lu Changting’s throat felt dry as he swallowed another sip of spicy liquor. “Was it him who took me to the infirmary?”

    The drunk Du Heng couldn’t distinguish between a question and a statement, nodding as he tried to recall past events. “That day he came back, his school uniform was soaked, and he was very downcast.”

    “He threw a bag of custard buns at me without saying a word… the custard buns from the school shop you used to love.”

    The cigarette between Lu Changting’s fingers burned to the end, scorching him, but he seemed oblivious. Lost in thought, he muttered to himself, “That was for me.”

    “I didn’t know at the time,” Du Heng said, downing another drink, his eyes half-closed. “So I ate them.”

    “I found out later… he took you to the infirmary, then went to buy you food, only to see you thanking Tang Yao when he returned…” Du Heng, under the influence of alcohol, spilled everything he could remember. “He cried.”

    “When he was folding stars.”

    Du Heng recalled catching a glimpse of Shen Li crying while writing on a piece of paper and, unsure how to comfort him, handed him a tissue.

    Lu Changting flicked away the burnt cigarette and lit another one. “Stars?”

    “A big glass jar,” Du Heng gestured with his hands, “filled with lucky stars.”

    “Each piece of paper for the stars had words written on it.” Du Heng realized something. “Didn’t he give it to you?”

    “He did,” Lu Changting lied, “but I didn’t know there were words inside.”

    Du Heng, in his drunken haze, believed him.

    “And those ceramic kittens,” Lu Changting’s voice was low, almost more to himself than to Du Heng. “He gave those too.”

    Du Heng, struggling to recall, finally remembered the ceramic kittens. “Birthday present, those ceramic kittens. And the water I gave you during basketball games was actually from him.”

    “What else,” Lu Changting asked, repeating himself, “What else don’t I know?”

    Du Heng, now completely led by Lu Changting’s questions, responded instinctively despite his drunkenness, speaking slowly and with disjointed thoughts: “He… liked watching you play basketball, the New Year’s Eve party… and the sports meet, reading the script… because you wanted to open a bar…”

    “A lot of things,” Du Heng waved his hand, rubbing his forehead and drawing out his words, “can’t remember.”

    No one spoke. The living room fell silent, and Du Heng drifted off into a deep sleep.

    Lu Changting turned off the air conditioning in the living room, got up to open the windows, and let the hotpot smell dissipate. He then helped the drunken and sleeping Du Heng to the guest room before returning to his own room.

    Shen Li had been asleep for quite a while. When he slept, he still had the habit of wrapping himself up like a cocoon. Gently, Lu Changting unwrapped him from the blankets and carried him to the bathroom.

    Due to his drunken state, Shen Li was in a deep sleep. Lu Changting filled the bathtub with water, tested the temperature, and then carefully placed Shen Li into the tub. His movements were gentle, but his gaze was intense, as if trying to imprint Shen Li’s features—from his eyebrows to his slightly upturned chin—into his memory, making up for the years they had missed. [1]

    Shen Li had a stubborn nature.

    But Lu Changting hadn’t expected that this person could be so stubborn as to love him for so many years, even after they got together, without revealing a hint of it. Shen Li always maintained an attitude of “I love you, but you are free.” This accumulated love, once brought to light, was like a raging fire burning in Lu Changting’s heart.

    The water was still warm as Lu Changting lifted Shen Li, dressed him in clean pajamas, and tucked him back into bed.

    He gently touched Shen Li’s face and leaned down to plant a kiss on his lips.

    [1] 像是要把他这副模样烙印在心里: This idiom means “as if to imprint his image in the heart,” indicating a deep emotional impact and a desire to remember every detail.

    [2] 抱他去洗澡: Literally means “carry him to bathe.” But I tried to keep the tenderness of this act intact.

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