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Qingfu Street was an industrial area. Before work ended for the day, the whole place felt largely deserted.
All along the street were warehouses full of furniture, building materials, lighting fixtures, doors… Many of these places looked grand and resplendent, but cold and quiet all the same.
“I’ll be off then. Thanks, boss.” A young man in work clothes emerged from one of the construction materials wholesalers, turning to give his thanks to the manager within.
“Go on, go on. It’s your birthday, right?” The manager smiled cheerfully. “Half an hour early won’t make any difference.”
Da Luo nodded, and then hurried for the stairs leading down to the subway.
He had to leave work early today, because he’d made plans with Shui Mo to have dinner together.
He took the train to Century Avenue, and the vista was filled with towering skyscrapers, at once awe-inspiring yet morose.
He found his way to a building bristling with foreign franchises. It was his first time here. He hadn’t imagined that Shui Mo worked somewhere so fancy.
The main lobby was a magnificent place. Across the gleaming marble floor, there stood flower vases taller than a person, and various rare potted plants. Men and women walked by in the latest fashions and the finest office wear, leather shoes and high heels clacking upon the floor, creating the atmosphere of a busy workplace in a big metropolis, fast-paced and glamorous.
For some reason, Da Luo felt intimidated, coming in here.
He felt out of place here. Looking down at what he himself was wearing, at the gray pallor of his skin, it was like the first time when he’d stood before the whole world, uncertain and ill at ease.
But that time, he’d been up there to play games, which was something he was good at, and proud of it. He’d believed in himself enough to take on the whole world. Not this time. Not here.
He had to keep it together. There was no reason for him to be ashamed over matters of career, social status, clothing, or background. He had to remember his own achievements, and regain his composure. But when you walked into a place where everyone was so much cleaner and brighter than you, that you felt like you were standing out with your drab, even wretched appearance… it was hard to bear.
It wasn’t about other people looking at you with suspicion or derision. It was that the very environment you found yourself in made it hard for you to hold your own head high.
Da Luo regretted coming in here.
“Sir, is there anything I can help you with?” A young lady in a white blouse with a ribbon inquired with a smile.
“Ah, uh, erm… I’m waiting for somebody.”
“There’s still another ten minutes before work ends. Why don’t you wait on the sofa? If you’d like a drink of water, just let me know.”
“Oh, um… alright. I mean… thanks.” Da Luo nodded, and took a seat in the waiting area as she’d indicated.
Seated nearby were two men in white shirts, as well as a babe with long legs clad in black silk stockings, all engaged in a whispered discussion about something. The woman was cheerful and easy on the eyes, and Da Luo couldn’t help stealing another glance at her.
Ten minutes later, people began to emerge from the lifts and the stairs. Everyone was punching out, and more leather shoes and high heels criss-crossed the grand hall in an interwoven dance.
When would he be able to work at a place like this? Da Luo wondered to himself.
Pulling out his phone, he called Shui Mo.
“Da Luo?” A delicate voice answered.
“Shui Mo, I’m waiting for you in the lobby right now.” Hearing her voice steadied his wavering heart.
Never mind. Even if he didn’t work here, he had an amazing girlfriend who did.
On the way here via the subway, Da Luo had been thinking happily about how he’d met Shui Mo by helping her out. Because he’d asked so sincerely, she’d even agreed to become his girlfriend.
“Alright, I’m on my way down,” she replied.
Not long afterwards, Da Luo caught sight of Shui Mo. She was wearing a black blouse and short skirt, with no need for sheer stockings to highlight the graceful contours of her delectable legs. She waved at Da Luo with a big smile, still holding her phone in her hand.
The sight of her warmed his heart.
He’d been worrying that she might not like him ambushing her here like this, but she looked overjoyed to see him. It seemed like he’d been overthinking things, selling himself a little short.
There were a lot of things that couldn’t be valued in terms of money or prestige. She liked an honest guy like him, rather than all these fancy lads strewn about the place.
(Translator’s Note: No one’s been bringing him down or anything, but here he is…)
Strutting on high heels, Shui Mo came over to his side.
“Let’s go.” She put her hand in his, sweet as honey.
This set Da Luo’s heart all a-quiver. So she didn’t mind being with him at all, to the point that she’d even go for such an affectionate display, right here in front of everyone, as though proclaiming him as her boyfriend.
Da Luo felt as though everything he’d done up to this point had been worth it.
“Ah, Shui Mo!” Just as they were leaving, the guys who’d been sitting nearby, chatting with the girl in the black stockings, called out to Shui Mo with a smile.
“Manager Xu, so you were here? I’m so sorry for not noticing you earlier!” Shui Mo laughed apologetically.
“No, it’s nothing. This is your boyfriend?” He was young for a manager.
“Ooh. Seems like quite a guy.” Mr Xu nodded casually.
Shui Mo kept up her smile as she pulled Da Luo towards the door.
They’d barely made it a few steps when the youthful Manager Xu spoke up again. “Oh, yeah: That perfume you’ve been wearing lately, where did you get it from? It’s great stuff, I’d like to get the same for my fiancée as well.”
(Translator’s Note: Woo, that was pretty creepy. The hairs on my neck stood right up.)
Taken aback for a moment, Shui Mo finally decided to pretend she hadn’t heard anything, and hurried outside.
Watching Shui Mo drag Da Luo away with her, the smile slowly faded from Mr Xu’s face, replaced by a cold sneer.
“Some girl you haven’t caught yet?” The black-stockinged woman asked cheerily.
“What do you think?”
By the time they were out of the lobby, the joy and contentment had long melted away from Da Luo’s expression.
That last thing the handsome young man had said earlier… he kept turning it over in his head.
Shui Mo was still smiling, asking him where they should go for dinner, and what he’d like to do for his birthday. Nothing seemed out of place with her.
Da Luo answered her absent-mindedly, his mind still on the line, ‘That perfume you’ve been wearing lately, where did you get it from?’
These past few days, Shui Mo had been wearing the special lovers’ fragrance he’d bought her on National Day.
It was called a ‘lovers’ fragrance’ because you could get a whiff of it only if you got really close to her. In his case, he practically had to press his nose against her skin in order to detect it at all.
Even with Shui Mo wrapped around his arm right now, Da Luo couldn’t smell it.
How could that guy know about her perfume, unless he’d been intimately close to her, at some point within these past few days?
He recalled that the day before yesterday, he’d made a call to Shui Mo, and she’d told him that she had to work overtime. His heart began to sink into his shoes.
“That Mr Xu from earlier… is he an ex-boyfriend or something?” At last, Da Luo blurted out an inquiry.
He knew that before he’d come along, Shui Mo had gotten into some complicated circumstances with a previous boyfriend. Many times, she’d asked him out just to be a shoulder for her to cry on.
During these times, Da Luo always tried his best to bring back her smile, and turn her thoughts away from the person who caused her such misery.
The truth was that even after Shui Mo had become his girlfriend, Da Luo knew that she’d still been in contact with her ex, and even met up with him on occasion. All this while, he’d been giving her the benefit of the doubt.
That was until… until that last thing Manager Xu had said, which had struck Da Luo like a thunderbolt.
How could he have known anything about Shui Mo’s perfume? It was such a subtle fragrance, so faint that you’d need to press right up to her and inhale deeply to make it out. You’d have to be as close to her as a lover.
“We’re not talking about this,” Shui Mo curtly declared.
“I’ve always refrained from asking, but now I need to know: Are you through with him or not?”
“We’re through.” Shui Mo was getting upset, because of the tone Da Luo was using with her.
“Then how could he know about the perfume?” Da Luo was straightforward by nature, never good at keeping his thoughts concealed. He just wanted the truth. He hoped Shui Mo would be able to explain this to him.
Shui Mo frowned deeply with her carefully sculpted eyebrows, glaring at him.
“Why don’t you say something?” Da Luo pressed.
“There’s nothing to say. If you trust me, you won’t need to ask.” That was Shui Mo’s evenly measured reply.
Da Luo winced in exasperation. Why did women always resort to this tactic?
There had been a long, cold silence.
Da Luo reached into his pocket, and carefully retrieved a tiny little box.
Looking at Shui Mo’s unreadable expression, he opened up the box, got down on one kn, and presented her with the ring.
Shui Mo froze. She’d never imagined an act like this from Da Luo, all of a sudden.
They were still in the street outside her company building. Countless people were walking past, including some of her own colleagues.
“Alright, I won’t ask. I like you, enough to marry you. Although I’m only twenty, with nothing to my name… although I’m such a naïve and insecure guy… I hope you’ll be willing to marry me.”
Da Luo said this with all sincerity, and just a trace of hopelessness.
To think that on the momentous, memorable day when he proposed to her, a scoundrel like that Mr Xu would rear his ugly head, and he’d find out that the two of them had met up just recently, perhaps even intimately.
Nevertheless, he had to do this. Even though he hadn’t yet reached the legal age for marriage. Even with a heart heavy with doubt.
Shui Mo looked at Da Luo, this full-grown man-child who was several years her junior.
She’d been caught completely off guard, and she had zero idea what she should do. It felt like everyone was looking this way. She could feel cold, mocking eyes looking out through the glass walls behind her!
“Da Luo… won’t you please get up? Let’s take our time and talk about this,” Shui Mo stammered anxiously.
Da Luo raised his head. “Is that a yes?”
“I… I… I don’t know.” Her mind was a complete blank, right now. In her time together with him, she’d genuinely considered spending the rest of her life by his side—but now that he was actually on one knee before her, asking for her hand in marriage, she was hesitating for some reason.
“Your heart knows the answer. Tell me what it is,” Da Luo said earnestly.
He no longer cared if other people were watching. The only thing he needed right now was Shui Mo’s reply:
Whether it was a nod, or a shake of her head.
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