Ming Shu left the Ming family's house with a half-packed suitcase. The suitcase was bright orange, and it flashed dazzlingly under the sun.
College entrance exams marked a change in every student's life. At eighteen, Ming Shu left behind nearly all his worldly possessions. The important things, the precious things that had carried him through life, had mostly all been moved into the Xiao family's house a long time ago, where they were arranged neatly in Xiao Yu'an's bedroom.
He pulled his suitcase along. With the wheels clattering against the ground, he stepped into the Xiao family's house. Xiao Zhengyun's hair had already gone completely while, and he wasn't anywhere near as spry and athletic as he used to be.
"Grandpa," Ming Shu called out softly.
The grandfather of the Xiao family hobbled over to him on his cane and looked up to take in the sight of Ming Shu. Ming Shu had long since grown into a young man with a height of over 1.8 meters, and Xiao Zhengyun had shriveled with age. He had to lift his head to look at Ming Shu.
After a moment, Xiao Zhengyun let out a sigh and patted Ming Shu's arm. "Come in. This is your home. There will always be a place for you here with Grandpa."
Ming Shu nodded, and after dipping his head, he couldn't bring himself to look up again.
His eyes had reddened.
When cutting off all ties with Ming Haofeng and his own family, Ming Shu hadn't cried. His eyes hadn't even gone red. When he was told to scram, he hadn't felt anything.
But in front of Xiao Zhengyun, his eyes started to burn.
In truth, Ming Shu wasn't sad at all. He had been waiting for this day for many years. Xiao Zhengyun said this was his home, and it was true. Ming Shu firmly believed with all this heart that the warmth and belonging the Xiao family offered to him was the only true home he'd ever known.
The Xiao family was the standard to which Ming Shu measured everything. The Ming family had never been his home.
Now, after being formally kicked out by Ming Haofeng, Ming Shu felt pretty good. He no longer had to act as an accessory to a failed marriage.
Xiao Zhengyun made steamed pork ribs and a cold chicken dish, which Ming Shu loved. After eating and washing the dishes, he slept for a while. Then he started to pack.
It was still too soon to leave school. His acceptance letter from the University of Public Security had yet to arrive. He'd written that in as his top choice of college, and he'd left Xiao Yu'an's address as his mailing address.
He bought a train ticket for the day after tomorrow, with money borrowed from Du Hao. He promised to work over the summer to pay it back.
Du Hao punched his arm while crying, saying he would completely cut Ming Shu out of his life if Ming Shu dared pay him back. He even insisted on making Ming Shu return the train ticket to buy a plane ticket instead, but Ming Shu refused.
Before leaving, Ming Shu made several calls to Xiao Yu'an, but none of them went through.
Xiao Yu'an was on a mission somewhere. Where he was and when he would return—Ming Shu didn't know any of that for certain.
But he'd already set a date for his own departure.
"Why don't you wait some more?" Du Hao suggested, nagging at him like a mother-in-law. "It's pointless if you go now. What if Yu'an-ge doesn't get back for half a month or more? What'll you do, sleep on the street?"
"I've never done that before," Ming Shu mused. "Wouldn't hurt to try it."
Du Hao scrunched up his face. "Not everything is an experience worth having!"
"Haohao, relax. Stop worrying so much." Ming Shu grinned as he glanced over at his childhood friend. "I stayed there for a while last year, remember? I'm familiar with the area. I can find part-time work at an internet cafe or restaurant, the sort that provides room and board. I'll get by, and it'll be no time at all before I pay you back for my travel expenses."
"Fuck that!" Du Hao spat viciously. "Don't even think about bringing up those travel expenses again!"
Ming Shu smiled. The train station was crowded and chaotic. The crackling speakers continuously announced arriving, departing, and delayed trains. In just ten minutes, Ming Shu was due to board his train.
"Go on," Ming Shu urged. He shelved the unaffected look he usually wore and grew serious. "I'm going to pursue someone. If you're my brother, just don't worry about me so much."
Du Hao pursed his lips for a long moment before he earnestly nodded. "Okay!"
Ming Shu was so surprised that his eyebrows jumped up.
He'd intentionally used the word 'pursue' just now. Du Hao was his best friend. When he came out to his family, he'd severed all ties with them as a result. He could pursue his love alone, but everyone wished for their love to be blessed and supported by the ones they cared about.
Ming Shu was about to leave his hometown. He was about to move away, to a new place. He didn't want to keep hiding the truth from his best friend. Privately, secretly, he wanted his friend's support.
He'd thought that Du Hao would be shocked when he heard the word 'pursue', which was so deeply loaded with meaning. He thought Du Hao would freeze, then recoil, then take some time before accepting it.
But it seemed Du Hao had already known. For a long time, at that.
"You…" He looked at Du Hao and found the answer in Du Hao's eyes.
"I'm so freaking smart and understanding. I realized it a long time ago," Du Hao boasted. "If you didn't say anything, I would've helped you hide it for as long as you wanted. I was just waiting for you to come clean."
Ming Shu sighed. The heavy weight on his heart suddenly turned to dust, blowing away on the wind like glittering sparks in the air.
"Go, go. Go after him," Du Hao urged. He was pretty sad to see Ming Shu depart. They'd grown up together since first grade, but his brother was determined to pursue his love, so Du Hao was determined to put on a brave face and encourage him. "Don't pay attention to what anyone else says. Just remember that I, your brother, will always support you!"
The train ground against the tracks as it took off, rumbling away into the distance.
Ming Shu watched as the city and the horizon grew smaller behind him. He rubbed at the soreness in his eyes.
Xiao Yu'an really wasn't home when Ming Shu arrived, but Ming Shu had been prepared for that. He got a room at a nearby hotel, put his luggage inside, ate a bowl of fried rice, and instantly started looking for work.
It was extremely easy for him to pick up some part-time work at his age, and his striking appearance was a boon as well. His train arrived at noon, and he'd secured a job by that very same evening—at a 24-hour convenience store.
The convenience store had a staff lounge area in the back that was usually unoccupied. Ming Shu talked it over with the manager of the shop, who decided it was no problem to have him work the night shift and sleep in the lounge during the day.
As a boy who'd just become a man, Ming Shu was inexhaustible. After working hard all day, he wasn't tired. He wanted to go find another job.
It just so happened that the milk tea store across the street was short-staffed. Ming Shu ran over to apply, and he was hired right away.
By the time Xiao Yu'an returned, Ming Shu had worked at the convenience store for sixteen days and the milk tea store for nine days.
And a while ago, he'd received his acceptance letter.
Xiao Yu'an was still a little weary and beaten from travel. He looked Ming Shu up and down with a slight furrow in his brow. "What are you doing here?"
Ming Shu hurriedly set down the crate of water he'd been moving. "I was accepted. I'll be here for the next four years."
After saying that, he ran into the lounge where he was staying and grabbed the acceptance letter from his cabinet. He proudly rushed back out to show it off. It was written all over his face that he was waiting to be praised.
At that time, there were no other customers in the convenience store. Xiao Yu'an took the acceptance letter and looked it over before returning it to Ming Shu. "When did you arrive?"
"Half a month ago," Ming Shu answered.
"Why didn't you contact me?"
"I tried, but I couldn't get through." Ming Shu's ears had grown a little hot. He didn't know how to describe it, but seeing Xiao Yu'an now… made his heart flip in his chest and heat up, so much that it was almost uncomfortable.
His gege had just come back from a mission. The familiar warmth and gentleness that Xiao Yu'an usually exuded had yet to return. Xiao Yu'an still wore the cold and fierce demeanor he adopted when suppressing hardened criminals.
This was a different gege.
And Ming Shu felt a bit like he was a criminal.
He even kind of… wanted to be suppressed like a criminal.
This was also the first time he'd come face-to-face with Xiao Yu'an since turning eighteen. He'd grown up now. He'd become a man. His excitement sparked across his face, unbridled.
Xiao Yu'an had meant to say that Ming Shu shouldn't have come if he'd known Xiao Yu'an wasn't in town. But the excitement flashing through Ming Shu's eyes said it all—
I wanted to come. I had to come, no matter what. Whether you were here or not.
Ever since last summer, when Ming Shu confessed his feelings, something had changed between them. But Ming Shu had spent all year preparing for his college entrance exams, so they had come to an unspoken agreement to not mention the conversation they'd had on that rainy night.
But now, this matter that had been left unresolved for so long… had to be resolved.
"Where are you staying?" Xiao Yu'an asked before glancing into the lounge. "There?"
"Yeah," Ming Shu said. "The manager knows I don't have any money, so I'm getting special treatment."
"Go pack up." Regardless of what else needed to be said and resolved between them, Xiao Yu'an couldn't allow Ming Shu to live out here. What kind of arrangement was that? "After work, come back with me."
It was the middle of the night, and there would be a few more hours until Ming Shu's shift ended. Ming Shu was elated. Of course, he wanted to go with Xiao Yu'an right away. But he couldn't leave until someone came to take his shift.
As a man with a job, he was a member of society. And members of society had to fulfill their responsibilities.
"I get off at six," Ming Shu said. "Ge, you go ahead. I'll go back by myself after work."
Xiao Yu'an checked the time and thought for a moment. "Do you know how to make noodles?"
Ming Shu blinked. "You want to eat here?"
"I can't be bothered to cook for myself," Xiao Yu'an said. "Do you know how, or not?"
The convenience store sold oden and all sorts of meat skewers and baozi, and they had made-to-order noodles too. Xiao Yu'an didn't really want to eat anything in particular; he just wanted to fill up his stomach.
Ming Shu instantly said, "Ge, don't underestimate me. I've worked here for half a month. Everyone praises me for my delicious noodles."
Xiao Yu'an smiled and grabbed a bottle of unsweetened tea from a shelf. "I'll take this too."
Ming Shu scanned the bottle at the checkout counter, but refused to take Xiao Yu'an's money. "Ge, it's my treat."
Xiao Yu'an didn't argue with him. He took a seat by the window.
Ming Shu rushed off to boil the noodles and prepare the condiments. His hands shook, but he wasn't nervous. He was just so excited that he couldn't contain it all.
He'd never imagined they would reunite like this. Early in the morning, before dawn, at a convenience store with no other customers. A travel-worn man had returned, and Ming Shu was there to make him a steaming bowl of noodles.
Xiao Yu'an looked out the window, gazing into the dark. His mind went blank for a while.
He knew that Ming Shu would come find him, but he didn't think Ming Shu would've found a job already.
When he took in Ming Shu's vigor and energy, he wasn't sure whether he should laugh or cry.
The Ming family definitely would have wanted Ming Shu to study business. Xiao Yu'an was pretty sure they'd already paved the way for him. When Ming Shu enrolled in the University of Public Security, he must have gone to 'war' with his family.
And Ming Shu had emerged like a victorious general.
"Ge, here you go!" Ming Shu placed a tray on the table with an expectant look in his eyes. "Try it, see if you like it. I decided to add some oden for you."
Xiao Yu'an stirred the noodles. "Stealing food from work?"
"As if!" Ming Shu exclaimed. "I paid for it!"
The portions and cooking time of convenience store noodles were strictly regulated. It wasn't exactly bad, but it wasn't amazingly delicious either.
Xiao Yu'an ate, and Ming Shu watched from across the table.
After Xiao Yu'an finished eating and cleaning up, there was less than an hour left until the end of Ming Shu's shift.
Xiao Yu'an didn't go back. He stayed in the store and waited.
There were no other customers, anyway, so Ming Shu went to the lounge to pack his things. His suitcase lay open. It was full of his clothes, important documents, chargers, and other basic necessities—as well as some not-so-necessary trinkets.
The mint-colored bracelet that Ming Shu had grown out of a long time ago. The watch he'd received as a gift in middle school. And the present he'd gotten for his eighteenth birthday.
It was all there.
Xiao Yu'an stood in the doorway. Ming Shu stooped down next to his suitcase with his back to him.
"You brought them all," Xiao Yu'an said.
Ming Shu's shoulders tensed for an instant. He turned around and looked at Xiao Yu'an. After a moment, he reached out with his right hand and grabbed hold of the leg of Xiao Yu'an's pants.
"Ge, I've cut all ties with them. I don't have anywhere else to go. I came to rely on you.
"Will you take me in?"