The deep and embarrassing feelings Ming Shu kept buried in his heart leapt into his throat when he heard his ge had someone at home. His heart flipped and plummeted, and it was only after it sank to the pit of his stomach that he looked at his ge and realized—
His ge was messing with him.
Ming Shu huffed and hoisted his suitcase out of the car. "Ge, you're teasing me!"
Xiao Yu'an silently thought, Weren't you asking for it?
This was Ming Shu's first time visiting the place where his gege lived after becoming independent. He was keenly curious and overexcited as soon as they got into the elevator, and he could barely contain his glee as he stood outside Xiao Yu'an's front door with light flashing through his eyes.
Before he even changed his shoes, he asked, "Ge, what kind of air freshener do you use?"
"There are a few mint and jasmine plants on the balcony," Xiao Yu'an said. He'd tidied up the apartment before Ming Shu's arrival, and he'd set out a pair of slippers for Ming Shu. They were blue, with cartoon cows.
The floorboards were clean. Ming Shu ran in, barefoot.
Xiao Yu'an kicked the slippers towards him. "Get back here. Put on your slippers."
"No!" Ming Shu called back, without any concern for politeness. "Ge, those slippers are for little kids."
Xiao Yu'an looked down at his own feet, which wore normal gray slippers without any unnecessary decorations or patterns. The pair he'd set out for Ming Shu really was a bit comical.
But, to him, Ming Shu was still a kid.
"I'm almost eighteen!" Ming Shu argued. "I won't wear slippers like that."
It was summer, so it wasn't a big deal to go barefoot. Xiao Yu'an let it go, but he did herd Ming Shu into the bathroom to wash his hands.
All this was part of Ming Shu's plan.
At school, Ming Shu loved cleanliness. He carried wet wipes and hand sanitizer with him everywhere. After playing around all day, he would always wash his hands as soon as he got back to his dorm. But if he went to wash his hands of his own volition here, his ge wouldn't follow him and nag at him.
And Ming Shu wanted his ge to nag at him and watch over him. Sometimes, Ming Shu did wonder if something was wrong for him, for having an interest like that. But then he decided, even if there was a problem with him, it was a problem he would gladly keep.
He certainly didn't want to get better.
Xiao Yu'an's apartment wasn't too big. One living room, one bedroom. A balcony extended from the living room. It was the perfect size for one person, but with two people it seemed a little cramped. Ming Shu was already so tall now. He ran here and there, exploring every nook and cranny of the apartment. Xiao Yu'an couldn't help but feel like there was a shadow wobbling in front of him.
Ming Shu's first order of business was to step out onto the balcony and admire the potted mint and jasmine plants. Then he rushed into the bedroom and shouted, "Ge! Your bed isn't big enough!"
Xiao Yu'an's bed was a single. It wasn't impossible for two people to squeeze onto it, but it would be uncomfortable. He and Ming Shu were both too tall. Before Ming Shu arrived, Xiao Yu'an had already decided—Ming Shu could take the bed, and he would take the couch.
"Don't worry, I won't make you sleep on the floor this time," Xiao Yu'an said, thinking back to the summer he'd visited home during his second year of college. Back then, Ming Shu had refused to go home or even to sleep in the guest room; he'd insisted on sleeping on the floor in Xiao Yu'an's room. Xiao Yu'an hadn't been indulgent enough to let him sleep on the bed.
Now, with a couch in the living room, they could make do. No one would have to sleep on the floor.
Ming Shu poked his head out from the bedroom. "Ge, we can just squeeze in."
Xiao Yu'an smiled. "I'm letting you have the bed all to yourself, and you're not happy?"
Ming Shu ran out and squatted in front of Xiao Yu'an. Last term, he and Du Hao had gone out to get their hair dyed. Ming Shu had wound up with a head of golden hair, and he'd refused to dye it back even after being scolded by his teachers. But before coming to visit Xiao Yu'an, he had dyed it back to black, like a good kid.
The hairdresser at the salon had given Ming Shu a treatment that left his hair extra smooth and shiny. Now, when he looked up at someone so quietly, with that head of black hair, he looked extraordinarily sweet and cute and well-behaved.
"Ge, we can fit. You have air conditioning in your room, so it won't be too hot even if we squeeze in. I want to be able to talk to you."
Xiao Yu'an didn't know anything about Ming Shu dying his hair and dying it back again. He lifted a hand and tousled it. "You can't get enough of talking to me during the day?"
"Daytime talking and nighttime talking are two different matters," Ming Shu explained like it should have been obvious. "There's an atmosphere to nighttime talking. We can talk about things that we can't talk about during the day."
Xiao Yu'an didn't cave, but he didn't immediately refuse either. Although Ming Shu hadn't been playing the part of Xiao Yu'an's tail for a few years now, Ming Shu's habit of sticking to him like glue returned with a vengeance as soon as they came face to face again.
And Xiao Yu'an still had a habit of spoiling Ming Shu.
After Ming Shu unpacked, Xiao Yu'an took him out to eat.
In the middle of summer, the heat outdoors was inescapable. Staying at home was more comfortable than going out, and Ming Shu actually wanted to spend more time with his ge at home. But he wanted to go out with his ge even more.
He was so tall now that he couldn't possibly be mistaken for some snotty little brat who followed his ge around. And he was basically all grown up now. When he went out with his ge, he could secretly, quietly act like his ge's boyfriend.
Just imagining that made him feel good.
"Why are you grinning for no reason?" Xiao Yu'an asked as they made their way to the restaurant.
Before they left the apartment, Xiao Yu'an had already sensed that Ming Shu was overly excited. Ming Shu had spent ages just picking out an outfit. He'd strewn all his luggage out over the living room floor, trying on outfit after outfit. In the end, he went with the first outfit he'd tried on.
After deciding on his clothes, Ming Shu had spent a good deal of time fussing over his hair as well, expertly styling it with hair gel and hair spray and all that. He didn't act like he was going out for a casual meal at all. He seemed more like he was getting ready to go on stage.
For the first time, Xiao Yu'an found himself thinking this vain little di of his had the potential to be a peacock.
Wasn't Ming Shu… not like this before?
Ming Shu could admit that he had been smiling, but he wouldn't admit that it was for no reason. He was going on a date with his gege. Wasn't that reason enough to smile?
"I'm happy," he said, raising his brows with a distinctly high-spirited gleam in his eyes. "Ge, I missed you a lot."
Xiao Yu'an felt a wave of warmth pass through his heart. Ming Shu had always been like this, ever since he was a kid. Sometimes, he was incredibly annoying. And sometimes he said all the right things, like a genuinely good kid.
When other people said they missed someone, it was debatable whether they meant it or not. Some people said it just because it was the polite thing to say. But when Ming Shu said it, he meant it. His words were clear and earnest, and they obviously came from the bottom of his heart.
No one could remain unmoved in the face of such direct and honest feelings.
Xiao Yu'an took Ming Shu to a Western restaurant. At his age, Ming Shu could eat like a bottomless pit. He wasn't ashamed of ordering a lot, and he didn't need Xiao Yu'an to urge him to eat more. He ate until he was stuffed.
Du Hao didn't know Ming Shu had gone to the capital. He sent Ming Shu several texts in a row, inviting him to go on a camping trip in the mountains. It would be their last hurrah before they became third years.
Ming Shu simply took a picture of the table and sent it over with the message—
Du Hao looked at the picture and instantly got worked up. He wrote back—
Holy shit! Where are you eating? Why wasn't I invited? Are you forgetting we've been friends since our potty training days?!
Ming Shu answered—
You were still being potty trained in first grade?
I was just trying to make a point!!!
Du Hao could blather on endlessly. Unless his mom confiscated his phone, he could literally yammer on all afternoon. Ming Shu didn't have time to entertain him. He was with his ge. So he simply wrote back—
I'm visiting my ge. I'll attend your last hurrah in spirit.
Du Hao didn't answer for a long while. The tone of his next message was clearly different—
Then how far have you guys gone?
Ming Shu felt like he could recognize those words, but the meaning when they were all stitched together was lost on him.
How far? What was that supposed to mean?
He'd gone to the capital, obviously. Where else would he have gone?
Ming Shu was baffled.
After a while, Du Hao wrote again—
Forget it. Just pretend I didn't say anything important.
Ming Shu felt like Du Hao was being a total weirdo. There was no need to pretend. Du Hao really hadn't said anything important.
Xiao Yu'an watched as Ming Shu texted, figuring Ming Shu was chatting with a classmate. Ming Shu had made quite a lot of friends after starting middle school. Over the past five years, Xiao Yu'an hadn't been able to stay with Ming Shu, but the little kid had grown up just fine without him. The psychological and emotional problems Xiao Yu'an had worried about never resurfaced in Ming Shu. Most of the people who knew Ming Shu now probably didn't even know what had happened to him in fifth and sixth grade.
The little kid who used to whimper and mumble to himself was about to turn eighteen in the blink of an eye. He was confident, and even a little narcissistic in a cute way. One second, he was the cool and somewhat haughty teen known as the most handsome boy in his class. The next second, he turned into a clingy little brat who could smile and ask to be spoiled.
When he thought of the entangled fates of Ming Shu and the Xiao family, Xiao Yu'an couldn't help but feel deeply moved.
Ming Shu stopped talking to Du Hao and stuck his phone back into the pocket of his jeans.
Xiao Yu'an ordered him two more servings of dessert. One was a mint-flavored cake.
Ming Shu grinned right away. "Ge, are you the one who likes mint, or am I the one who likes mint?"
"Hm?" Xiao Yu'an asked.
"You're even growing mint at home," Ming Shu said. "You like it even more than I do."
In truth, Xiao Yu'an hadn't bought those two pots of mint back home because he liked them or wanted them. One day, on his way home, he'd seen an old man carrying a big basket of plants and flowers on his back. It was raining, and the old man had four potted plants left. Whenever he saw someone, he would ask if they wanted to buy one, for cheap.
Xiao Yu'an bought all four pots and set them out on his balcony. He just watered them every day, and they somehow all managed to live.
"We'll steep it in water for you," Xiao Yu'an said, somewhat changing the subject. "Let's stop at the supermarket later. We'll pick up some snacks you like."
Ming Shu happily agreed.
The restaurant they'd gone to was located in a mall, surrounded by plenty of places to dine and shop. Ming Shu made his gege browse around for clothes with him before they went to the supermarket, and they stopped to see an action movie too. They didn't get home until eight that night.
Ming Shu stole the gray slippers when they got home, putting them on first thing. Xiao Yu'an couldn't be bothered to argue with him. He just put on the blue slippers with cartoon cows, which made Ming Shu laugh again.
When the time for sleep came around, Ming Shu still wanted to argue. "Ge, let's just squeeze in together. It's not like I stink. I smell just like you. If you don't believe me, have a sniff."
He smelled just like Xiao Yu'an's soap. Since he'd just showered, he knew he smelled fresh.
Xiao Yu'an took a pillow from the closet and laughed. "Go ahead and smell yourself."
Ming Shu snatched the pillow and shamelessly persisted, "Ge, are you bothered by me?"
He sat cross-legged at the side of the bed, clutching the pillow with both hands. He tilted his head up to look at Xiao Yu'an. His hair was black, and his eyes were even darker, gleaming with a damp sort of shine.
Xiao Yu'an's heart softened. "How could I be bothered by you?"
"Well, you won't sleep with me." Ming Shu pouted and reached out to wrap his arms around his ge's waist, and once he had him in his hold, he didn't let go. "In your first and second years of college, you could still regularly visit every year. But now, you don't come back much at all, and sometimes I can't even get in touch with you. Your phone is always off or out of range.
"I only know when you're on a mission. I never get to know where you've gone, or whether you're okay or not. I worry a lot, ge. You don't know how much I worry."
Xiao Yu'an pulled the pillow out from between them and stroked his right hand over the nape of Ming Shu's neck. In that moment, he couldn't think of any other way to comfort Ming Shu.
Sometimes, words were useless. Xiao Yu'an had chosen this career, even knowing all the dangers that it entailed. There were risks in every mission. He couldn't tell Ming Shu, Don't worry. Everything will be okay. Xiao Yu'an couldn't even make that promise to himself.
After a moment, he lightly patted Ming Shu's back.
"I just want to follow you, I want to see you. I can't see you when I'm at home, and sometimes I can't even hear your voice over the phone," Ming Shu said. His eyes were even wetter now, and his voice took on a possibly subconscious sort of neediness. "I don't want to be separated from you by a wall when I can see you. Me sleeping in the bedroom, you in the living room—why? It's not like we're strangers."
Xiao Yu'an wanted to say something, but in the end he held it in and simply continued soothing Ming Shu's back.
He felt like Ming Shu was a frightened animal who'd wrapped itself around him. He could have shooed Ming Shu away, but that would have been cruel.
"Ge." Ming Shu stretched out the word and buried his face against Xiao Yu'an's abdomen. "Just sleep here. I want to talk to you some more."
In the end, the extra pillow Xiao Yu'an had intended to bring into the living room was placed on the bed.