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It's called serendipity, not bribery

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It was a usual Monday morning for Yan Zhengming. He was meeting with his old graduate supervisor at an exclusive tea house for lunch today just to catch up on things, and since there was nothing else he wanted to do, he decided to get there early and try the fresh batch of green tea they had just procured. Making sure the lapels of his suit jacket were aligned and not a hair was out of place, he opened the car door with an air of satisfaction about him.

Maybe it was fate, or maybe it was karmic retribution for skipping work because a bird shat on his head the moment he stepped out of his white Aston Martin Vanquish S.

"What the--"

Yan Zhengming's body clenched up at the faint but unmistakable sensation of something moist and slimy landing on his scalp, and he nearly lost his composure. Some of the passersby were giving him weird looks, probably wondering why this well-dressed man was having a mental breakdown in the middle of the street, and he hastily took a few gulping breaths in to calm himself down. He wasn't going to cry. He was--he was a 27-year-old man, an upstanding member of society, the proud CEO of his own startup, damn it. He could stay strong.

Yan Zhengming shot a desperate glance at his beautiful sports car. He really, really wanted to get in, drive home, dive into the shower, then curl up in bed and curse the heavens, but he was the one who asked Professor Han to lunch in the first place and it would be horribly disrespectful of him to bail last minute. Besides, there was no way in hell he was going to get bird excrement all over his brand new leather seats. 

Luckily, there was a hair salon within walking distance, and so he made a beeline for it. Yan Zhengming would usually never step foot in such a gaudy-looking hair salon, but he needed to act, fast. He could feel the slimy substance dripping down his beautiful locks--stop, he wasn't going to think about it. He wasn't going to think about it.

Calm down, Yan Zhengming. You can survive this.

He pushed open the doors of the salon, and the bells overhead jangled cheerfully. One of the employees inside looked up at the sound of his entrance and grinned at him. "Do you need a haircut, sir?" he asked.

"What else could I possibly want, a massage?" Yan Zhengming shot back. "Yes."

The man visibly shrank under Yan Zhengming's scrutiny, but he didn't back down verbally. "Well, I mean...you're in luck, because one of my clients just cancelled! My name is Nian Dada, and--"

Yan Zhengming narrowed his eyes, looking him up and down in disdain. "You're going to be my hairstylist?"

"Yes?"

"Go find someone else, I don't trust you with my hair." Yan Zhengming marched over to one of the empty leather chairs and sat himself down in it, crossing his legs in one elegant sweep. "And hurry up."

Nian Dada gaped at him. "How did you know I'm a newbie?"

"I didn't. You're just too ugly to be trusted with my hair," said Yan Zhengming, scanning the room with a critical eye. "Are there no decent-looking stylists in this place? What kind of Purgatory is this?"

"I don't know if anyone else is free right now..."

"I'll pay you five times the amount you usually charge to go find someone else."

"But--"

"Did you say you wanted to switch hairstylists?" a calm voice asked.

Yan Zhengming looked up and met the eyes of the young man standing behind him in the mirror. His breath caught in his throat as a voice inside his head silently screamed yes, this is who I was looking for. On the surface, however, his expression remained unchanged. "You, what's your name?"

"Cheng Qian." The new stylist took a step forward, crossing his arms over his chest. "Are you satisfied with me, or should I call the owner over for you?"

"I suppose you'll do," Yan Zhengming said arrogantly to disguise his panic. "Hurry up and do something about this." He was about to gesture at his hair for emphasis when he remembered what was in it and hastily set his hand back down on his thigh. "Just...give it a good wash. Please."

Cheng Qian looked down at the bird poop. It looked up at him. He pressed his lips together and examined the wreckage in front of him through narrowed eyes. After a moment, he nodded curtly and lowered Yan Zhengming's head into the washbasin.

The moment the water touched his hair, Yan Zhengming let out a sigh of relief reminiscent of a weary traveller finally finding an oasis after a long, arduous trek through the unforgiving desert. The feeling of water running through his hair, combined with the feeling of Cheng Qian's strong, capable hands massaging his scalp and his good looks, felt like a soothing balm on his chafed heart that had suffered through a roller coaster of emotions today.

Gradually, his heartbeat settled back to normal, and Yan Zhengming let his eyes drift closed. He was so relaxed that he barely registered Cheng Qian drying his hair for him and pushing his seat upright. He didn't even notice the hairstylist had picked up a pair of scissors until the first snip sounded.

Yan Zhengming's eyes snapped open, and they trembled in shock at the sight in the mirror. "Why are you cutting it?" He demanded, raising his voice in alarm. "I never said I wanted to cut my hair."

"It's just a trim. I'm not altering the length."

"I have my own stylist, I don't need you to cut my hair for me!" He made to get out of the seat, but a firm hand on his shoulder stopped him.

"Don't move, I'm holding scissors to your head right now," said Cheng Qian, voice impassive. "You wouldn't want my hand to slip, would you?"

"Are you threatening me?" Yan Zhengming asked incredulously. "This is illegal. You're infringing on my personal rights as a customer."

"You can file a complaint with the owner later."

"What--why are you still cutting?"

He tried to duck out of the way of the unrelenting scissors, but the hand on his hair and the cold, heartless glimmer in Cheng Qian's dark eyes made him freeze. Cheng Qian wielded his scissors as one might wield a sword: with focus, determination, and intent to kill.

Yan Zhengming's hands balled into fists at his sides, and he squeezed his eyes shut in resignation. Maybe he should call Professor Han and let him know he couldn't make it to lunch; his precious hair made up 50% of his sense of self-worth, and there was no way he could mentally recover from such a devastating blow to his ego in such a short time. It was asking the impossible from him.

After what seemed like an eternity but was actually only 15 minutes, Cheng Qian lowered his scissors and stepped back. "It's done."

Yan Zhengming opened one eye first to peek in the mirror. Good, he wasn't bald. At least there was that. He slowly opened the other eye, bracing himself for the horror he was about to witness, only to see--wait, this was really good. The difference between his current hairstyle and previous one was barely visible to the untrained eye--Cheng Qian hadn't been lying when he said he wouldn't alter the length--but to someone with as much theoretical experience as Yan Zhengming, the subtle layering effect, the slight adjustments to the length of the hair framing his face...

"It's perfect," whispered Yan Zhengming.

The corners of Cheng Qian's lips tilted up. When he smiled, all the ice in his eyes melted, leaving only shimmering pools of light behind. For the second time that day, Yan Zhengming found it hard to look away from Cheng Qian's face.

"You pay at the counter," Cheng Qian spoke up, interrupting his reverie. He removed the black gown from Yan Zhengming and dusted it off onto the ground. 

They moved locations to the cash register near the entrance of the salon, where Yan Zhengming slipped out his credit card from his wallet in one fluid motion. Holding it between two fingers, he passed it to Cheng Qian with a flourish. "Here."

"We only accept cash," said Cheng Qian.

Yan Zhengming's smirk slid off his face at the sound of those terrifying words. "What about debit?"

"Cash."

"WeChat Pay?"

"Cash."

"Alipay? Apple Pay? E-transfers?"

"Cash only."

"What about a cheque?" Yan Zhengming asked desperately, fidgeting with his phone. "Do you take cheques?"

Cheng Qian gave him a look filled with such contempt that he immediately shut up.

After shutting up, however, Yan Zhengming realized that he had no reason to do so, and reopened his mouth. "I know what you're thinking," he said accusingly. "You think I'm trying to scam you out of your earnings, don't you?"

"Yes," Cheng Qian said plainly.

Yan Zhengming was taken aback by the brutal honesty, but his surprise soon morphed into anger. "You can insult my personality, but you can't insult my account balance," he bit out. "I'll get you your 100 yuan and more. I'll give you 1,000, no, 2,000 yuan."

"I'm not going to say no to more money."

"In fact, I'm going to offer you a job as my personal hairstylist," said Yan Zhengming, resting his hand on his hip with confidence. "With a monthly salary of 50,000 yuan. No need to thank me, I can recognize talent when I see it."

It wasn't just because he was leagues more attractive than his current stylist; he wasn't that shallow. Cheng Qian's prowess with scissors and the fact that he had just given Yan Zhengming the best haircut he had ever received in his 27 years of life was why he instantly decided he needed this man by his side. Though the good looks did help.

"Didn't you say you already had a stylist?"

Yan Zhengming whipped out his phone from his pocket and punched a number into it. "Hello? Yes, it's me. You're fired." He hung up and turned back to Cheng Qian with a proud grin. "I don't have a stylist anymore."

"I didn't accept the job," said Cheng Qian.

"But you're going to accept it," Yan Zhengming insisted with a strange sort of naive confidence. "There's no reason for you to turn down the offer."

"I can think of a lot of reasons."

"Uh...excuse me," a small voice interrupted. Nian Dada scratched his neck sheepishly when they both turned to stare at him. "I actually have WeChat Pay, so you can pay me instead?"

In the end, Yan Zhengming transferred some money to Nian Dada on his phone and narrowly avoided having to sell his body to Cheng Qian to repay his debt. Before he left, he made sure to save Cheng Qian's number in his phone and force him to swear an oath that he wouldn't ignore his calls.

 

***

"--lunch with my old student today. He was one of the first graduate students I ever supervised when I first became a professor and one of my favourite undergraduate students before that..."

Cheng Qian's phone buzzed loudly.

"I watched him grow up all these years, and it's nice to see that he's doing well..."

His phone buzzed again. And again. And again. Cheng Qian glanced at the annoying messages filling up the screen, and promptly flipped his phone over so he wouldn't have to look at them anymore.

"--said he started his own company, and to be honest, I was a little surprised; he wasn't the most diligent student while he was in school--"

Cheng Qian's phone buzzed five times in rapid succession on the table, and the noise was enough to finally catch Han Muchun's attention.

"Who's texting you? A girl?" asked Han Muchun, trying to sound nonchalant and failing miserably. 

"It's a guy."

"That's okay too, you know your father and I don't mind what your preferences are. You could even fall in love with a rock or a chicken and we would still love you as always. Well, maybe not a chicken because they can't consent, but a man or a woman dressed as a chicken is totally fine."

Cheng Qian quickly cut him off before the speculations could get out of hand. "It's a customer. They want me to be their personal hairstylist."

"That sounds exciting." Han Muchun's eyes brightened as he took a sip of his tea. "How much did they offer to pay you?"

"50,000 a month."

Han Muchun choked on his drink and nearly spat it out. Cheng Qian silently offered him a tissue. "50,000?" he asked as he wiped his mouth. "Are you sure this isn't a scam?"

"No, he just has too much money and nothing to do," Cheng Qian replied. "But part of the job requirement is that I have to go to his house whenever he calls me, including weekends."

"No one needs a hairstylist that often, do they?" asked Han Muchun, rubbing his chin in thought. "I'm sure it'll be an easy side job." His eyes suddenly brightened as he thought of something, and he tapped his fist against his palm. "Since you're going to be going to his house alone, you should take this with you as a means of self-defence." He reached into his pocket and handed Cheng Qian a wooden spoon. "If he ever tries to do something inappropriate to you, attack his weak point with this."

Cheng Qian could barely hide his confusion as he took it. "Why a spoon? Shouldn't it be a knife or a dagger?"

"Steel will bend, but wood is forever," Han Muchun said wisely.

"Can I at least have a metal spoon?"

Han Muchun ruffled his hair with a loving look in his eyes. "You'll understand when you get older."

Speechless, Cheng Qian stuck the spoon in the front pocket of his shirt as Han Muchun watched on with the expression of a proud dad.

"While we're on the topic of being cautious, did I ever tell you the story of how I met your father?" 

"You did," said Cheng Qian. "Multiple times."

Han Muchun continued on like he hadn't heard him. "When I was in my first year of university, he was the Teacher's Assistant for one of the courses I was taking, and he--"

Tong Ru was currently away overseas at an academic conference, which meant Han Muchun was living vicariously through his stories about him. However, just because Cheng Qian understood his sentiments, didn't mean he ever stopped wishing there was a way he could listen to him without actually hearing anything.

"My phone is ringing, I have to go," said Cheng Qian, deadpan.

"Nice try, I don't hear anything. Where did I leave off? Anyway, I was taking Basic Genetics, which as you know, is a rather challenging course for first years--"

Cheng Qian's mind whirred as he tried to come up with another excuse, anything to distract Han Muchun from another hour-long retelling of his torrid love affair with Tong Ru. "Shui Keng failed her Chinese literature test last week."

"She did?" As predicted, Han Muchun took the bait. "But she told me she didn't get the results back yet."

Sorry, Shui Keng. 

Listening to Han Muchun mourning Han Tan's general hatred of books was still boring, but it was a lot better than listening to him talk about Cheng Qian's (lack of a) love life, or even worse, his own. It was already embarrassing enough to have to pretend he didn't know what went on in their bedroom late at night; hearing his dad tell him the same PG13 version of their love story over and over again when he knew things were very obviously not PG13 was simply unnecessary salt on the wound. Shui Keng was lucky she was too innocent to understand why her parents kept getting bitten by mosquitoes indoors. 

Shui Keng arrived home after a while and distracted Han Muchun enough for Cheng Qian to get away. He went upstairs to his room and locked his door before padding across the floor and sitting down on his chair. Taking his phone out of his pocket, he set it down on the desk in front of him and turned it on. 

Yan Zhengming had sent him a total of 15 texts, all of which were variations on the same theme of "Hurry up and accept the money I'm throwing at you already."

While Yan Zhengming's naivety was annoying, he could tell he didn't have any bad intentions. It would also be good practice--Cheng Qian wanted to open his own salon one day, and dealing with difficult clients was a useful life skill to have. Besides, 50,000 a month was a good deal no matter which way he looked at it. People regularly sold their souls for a lot less.

His phone buzzed with another incoming text, and Cheng Qian furrowed his brows in irritation. Making up his mind, he pressed a few numbers and made a call.

"Hello?" 

Yan Zhengming did have a nice voice, even if it was constantly spouting off useless garbage. "I'll take the job, so stop texting me."

"You will?" Yan Zhengming sounded like a small child who was just awarded a handful of candy. "I mean, of course you will. You'd be an idiot not to."

"Don't call me to your house on weekends though," warned Cheng Qian. "I have other things to do."

"But what if I need you?" Yan Zhengming protested. "What if I have an important meeting on a Saturday and need to look my best for it?"

He had a point. Cheng Qian sighed and rolled over on his bed. "Emergencies only on weekends then."

It turned out everything was an emergency when it came to Yan Zhengming. Cheng Qian should've known.

"You called me to your house to comb your hair for you," he repeated in a bland voice.

"Yes, that's what I said." Yan Zhengming turned around in his chair with an impatient huff and gestured at his hair. "Well, what are you waiting for? Hurry up and comb it.

He'll comb it, alright. Cheng Qian adjusted his grip on the comb and lifted it to Yan Zhengming's head, eyes flashing as he brought it down in one swift, brutal stroke.

Yan Zhengming nearly choked on the kale smoothie he was sipping through a metal straw. "Are you trying to pull my hair out, idiot?"

Cheng Qian ignored him.

"Not that hard! Gentler, be gentler--"

Cheng Qian tried not to think about how much Yan Zhengming sounded like an actress in the terrible pornos Han Yuan used to watch as a rebellious teenager. "Stop complaining. You're distracting me."

"Do you not know how to comb hair?" Yan Zhengming demanded, spinning around in his seat to glare at him. He was clutching his scalp with one hand as he tried to hold back his wince. "My hair is delicate, you can't treat it so roughly or it'll fall out. What are you, an oaf?"

"I only have one strength setting. You can either deal with it or fire me."

"Reverse psychology doesn't work on me," Yan Zhengming sniffed. "I'm not letting you go that easily."

"Fine. Keep losing 50,000 a month then."

"Fine!"

And so Cheng Qian remained employed, and Yan Zhengming remained in pain.

 

***

"Your phone's been ringing nonstop for the past five minutes," said Han Yuan, watching him through narrowed eyes over the rim of his bowl of porridge. "Hurry up and answer it."

Cheng Qian picked up his phone and looked at the screen. It was Yan Zhengming. He set his phone back down on the table. If this was really an emergency and not another of his fleeting fancies, he would call back.

Han Yuan was still staring at him. "Who was that? A girlfriend?" 

"Shouldn't you be at work?" he deflected.

The sound of a bowl slamming down on the counter answered him. "I quit my job," Han Yuan growled, stomping out of the kitchen.

Cheng Qian watched him disappear down the corridor, before turning his gaze back to his phone. He had no idea what his brother got up to these days and didn't really care, though Han Muchun claimed he was "finding himself", whatever that meant. Cheng Qian was pretty sure Han Yuan couldn't even find a girlfriend, much less himself, but each to their own.

Speaking of people who couldn't find a girlfriend...

"She was clearly a gold-digger," Yan Zhengming seethed as Cheng Qian straightened his hair with an iron for him. "And even if she wasn't, she had six layers of make-up caked on her face and enough perfume to knock out a skunk. I don't understand why they think I would ever be interested in an attention-seeking idiot who thinks wearing nothing but gaudy fake flowers and body paint to a dinner party is acceptable. She got body paint all over my--are you listening, Xiao Qian?"

"No."

Yan Zhengming frowned at him in the mirror. "You should pay attention when people are talking to you," he said in a disapproving voice.

"I don't get paid to have conversations."

"Are you unhappy with your salary? Is that what this is?"

I'm unhappy with your personality.  But that was a little too harsh, even for him. Even though Yan Zhengming was the most annoying person he had ever met, he was ultimately harmless. Case in point, the rudest word in Yan Zhengming's vocabulary was 'moron', which was no match for the things that came out of Han Yuan's mouth regularly.

In Cheng Qian's unvoiced opinion, Yan Zhengming didn't need a hairstylist, he needed someone to talk to. He didn't have many friends either, but he had his family and everyone at the Mingming Salon. 

Yan Zhengming had maids and bodyguards and secretaries and plenty of people to fill up that big house of his, sure, but all of them were on his payroll and clearly weren't friends with him. He never spoke of his family either, and in the few months Cheng Qian spent as his personal hairstylist, he had never once seen a family member drop by Yan Zhengming's house.

His situation reminded him of the CEO novel Shui Keng was reading the other day, where the main male lead was the orphaned child of billionaires and grew up with no friends or family and was doomed to a life of solitude. Cheng Qian had also been an orphan before he was adopted by Han Muchun, and he still remembered what it felt like to be alone in the world with no one beside him. And because he understood the feeling of loneliness better than anyone, he was capable of recognizing it in others.

The two of them were polar opposites in so many ways, but there was a part of them that was the same. All things considered, he found it impossible to dislike him.

When he looked down, Yan Zhengming was tracing his finger on the grain of the wooden dressing table in front of him, expression sullen and lips turned down. There was a weird feeling in Cheng Qian's chest like a balloon expanding in the heat. Even if he would never admit it out loud, he secretly liked listening to the sound of Yan Zhengming's laughter.

Which was why he found himself saying out of the blue, "Do you want to see a movie with me on Saturday morning?"

Yan Zhengming's eyes widened in surprise. They stared at each other in the mirror for a few heavy moments before Yan Zhengming hastily averted his eyes, clearing his throat. "...I'll check my schedule," he said airily. "But I think I'm free."

"Sure."

When it became obvious Cheng Qian wasn't going to say anything else, Yan Zhengming piped up again. "Which movie are we seeing? I can book out the theatre in advance," he asked, unlocking his phone with an elegant sweep of his thumb.

Cheng Qian wasn't impressed. "Why do you need to book anything? You can buy tickets at the door."

"Fine. We'll do it your way," huffed Yan Zhengming. But he looked pleased. "Anyway, what was I saying before you interrupted me earlier? Right, that girl I told you about got body paint all over my couch and I had to get it dry cleaned..."

This time, Cheng Qian didn't interrupt him.