At six in the morning, right after Ming Shu's shift ended, the streets started filling up with senior citizens coming out for their morning exercises.
Ming Shu walked along behind Xiao Yu'an. The wheels of his suitcase clattered and clanged against the unevenly paved ground.
Xiao Yu'an had some luggage with him too. They walked along, one in front and one behind. They passed several food stalls selling piping hot breakfast foods. They made their way around the grandpas practicing tai chi. They approached a cluster of buildings that all looked quiet on the outside, but were distinct and filled with life inside.
Ming Shu subconsciously straightened his back and snuck a glance at Xiao Yu'an.
He felt like they were lovers who'd taken different paths to the same destination. He could imagine that he was a police officer, just like Xiao Yu'an. He could imagine that they'd both been away from home, carrying out different missions, and that they were coming home together now.
Ming Shu had to purse his lips to keep himself from smiling in triumph.
But he couldn't hide the light in his eyes. That light was even brighter than the sun that had just started to rise above the city.
Only a year had passed, but Ming Shu felt completely changed.
Last year, he'd left this place alone. He'd gone to the airport by himself, with ashen gloom heavy on his face. He'd been burdened with countless worries when he last departed. But now, he was back, and all that melancholy had been swept out of his mind.
He was all grown up now, and he'd gotten into the university that Xiao Yu'an had started attending six years ago. What did he have to fear now?
If Xiao Yu'an wanted to use that excuse of Ming Shu being his didi again, Ming Shu wouldn't accept it.
He would push Xiao Yu'an down on the couch and ask, So what if I'm your didi? We're not related by blood, and I was never adopted by your family. Other people can pursue you. Why can't I? I've chased after you ever since I was little. Isn't it natural for me to pursue you now that I've grown up?
He was willing to bet that Xiao Yu'an wouldn't be able to argue with that.
And he knew doing that would make him a bit of a bully.
He wanted to shed his identity as Xiao Yu'an's didi, but at the same time he wanted to leverage it to get what he wanted. Countless people had pursued Xiao Yu'an. Could any of them argue like Ming Shu? As Xiao Yu'an's didi, Ming Shu was the only one who could speak to Xiao Yu'an so shamelessly.
He knew Xiao Yu'an adored him and doted on him. He knew Xiao Yu'an would spoil him.
Last year, before he entered his final year of high school, Ming Shu had yet to come of age. He hadn't had the courage to do anything. Xiao Yu'an could have simply said, You're still young. School is more important.
That would have made Ming Shu swallow down all his feelings and bottle them up again.
But now he'd struck out on his own. Although his college entrance exam scores weren't as good as the ones Xiao Yu'an had gotten several years ago, Ming Shu had still received an acceptance letter.
He would be specializing in Criminal Investigation. It was a bright and promising badge for him to wear.
But getting into college wasn't a major milestone for Ming Shu. The significance of his arrival here was that he would be able to continue pursuing Xiao Yu'an, and that he had well and truly gotten away from the Ming family.
His youthful vigor flashed proudly through his eyes, on full display. Even with his heavy suitcase behind him, he looked as though he were walking on air.
Xiao Yu'an sensed the restlessness brewing behind him. He stopped and turned around, but Ming Shu couldn't hide his delight quickly enough.
Xiao Yu'an furrowed his brow. "What are you thinking about?"
Ming Shu's gaze darted around. He set his sights on a baozi shop next to them. "Ge, let's eat breakfast before we go back."
Xiao Yu'an had had a bowl of noodles in the middle of the night. He wasn't starving, but he could eat. And Ming Shu was young. He was past the age where he could practically eat a whole cow in one sitting, but he could definitely still polish off two steamers of baozi by himself.
"Sure," Xiao Yu'an agreed.
Ming Shu ate breakfast at that baozi shop every day. He was already on great terms with the boss. As soon as he entered, he called out to her, "Chen-jie! Meat dumplings, pumpkin congee, and salted duck eggs, please!"
After ordering for himself, he turned to Xiao Yu'an and said, "Ge, I'll treat you to breakfast. Don't argue with me… ai, ge, what are you staring at me for?"
Ming Shu felt pretty good, but he was still a little nervous. He was obviously happy about Xiao Yu'an looking at him, and he hadn't been named the most handsome boy at First High for nothing. He'd grown even more confident and self-assured now that he was working two jobs and making his own money.
But there was something different about the way Xiao Yu'an looked at him now. There was an investigative, scrutinizing edge to his gaze.
Ming Shu couldn't tell what Xiao Yu'an was investigating.
And he definitely couldn't tell that, in Xiao Yu'an's eyes, his overflowing confidence was a little bit funny.
Most kids who'd just left high school were probably like this. They were eager to act dignified and mature in front of the person they liked, but sometimes they went over the top and tried way too hard.
Moreover, just how mature could an eighteen-year-old boy be? Putting on an act like this with other kids of the same age was fine. But a kid acting cool and mature in front of the gege he'd grown up with… that made it way too easy to see through the facade of confidence.
But Ming Shu couldn't read Xiao Yu'an's mind. Once the boss brought over their baozi and congee, Ming Shu started up his act again.
"Ge, try this. Ge, try that."
He acted like he was the local, the host, treating a visitor to a meal.
Xiao Yu'an didn't draw attention to the fact that Ming Shu was trying way too hard. But he felt that sitting in front of him… no, jumping around in front of him was a peacock with its tail feathers spread.
Ming Shu talked a lot, but that didn't stop him from eating a lot too. Xiao Yu'an had had that bowl of noodles earlier, so he didn't eat much. But Ming Shu managed to finish the rest before he wandered away to pay.
The boss grinned at him. "So you two are brothers."
Ming Shu had just opened his mouth to say 'yeah', but then he suddenly changed his mind. "No, not really. We're neighbors. We grew up together!"
"You little brat," the boss teased. "I heard you call him 'ge'. What are you being shy for now?"
It wasn't that Ming Shu felt shy. Never in his life had he been shy about calling Xiao Yu'an 'ge'. But he had grander dreams now.
He wanted to be Xiao Yu'an's boyfriend.
Xiao Yu'an's apartment had been unoccupied for quite a while. He opened a window to let in some fresh air.
Ming Shu had been so proud and confident while walking back. But now that he was finally in this apartment again, he felt his nerves and apprehension rising up. He dawdled by the door for ages, changing his shoes. It wasn't until Xiao Yu'an called out to him that he slowly stood up.
They'd both stayed up all night, so Xiao Yu'an told Ming Shu to go shower first. But Ming Shu insisted on being overly courteous; he declined and told Xiao Yu'an to go first.
Xiao Yu'an didn't bother arguing with him. He went ahead to the bathroom.
Once he heard the sound of running water, Ming Shu stood in the middle of the living room and dazedly pressed a hand to his chest.
It was only then that he realized that his heart was racing, and his chest was burning up.
"I…" He drew a deep breath and balled his hands up into fists. He took a moment to psych himself up, then quietly declared, "I! Ming Shu! Am back!"
In his heart, he was prepared for a long, drawn-out battle. He would advance slowly, step by step. He would stay calm, never succumbing to impatience. Once in a while, he would allow himself to act like the spoiled brat Xiao Yu'an knew and loved. Xiao Yu'an was used to his little fits of brattiness, anyway. He was used to spoiling Ming Shu, so why shouldn't Ming Shu ask to be spoiled?
When Xiao Yu'an came out of the shower, he saw Ming Shu wiping down a table with a cloth. And in the bedroom, fresh sheets and covers had been laid out.
"Ge," Ming Shu said. "You must be tired, so you can get some sleep. I'll clean up. You won't go back to your squad right away, will you? Do you want to eat lunch at noon, or do you want to eat when we wake up naturally?"
Xiao Yu'an looked down at the cloth. "Where did you get that?"
"From the balcony," Ming Shu said.
"That's the towel I use to dry my hair," Xiao Yu'an said.
Ming Shu blinked. "Huh?"
Xiao Yu'an was speechless for a moment. But when he spoke again, there was no anger or irritation in his tone. His voice was as gentle and indulgent as ever. "You just got here, and you're causing trouble already."
Ming Shu shrugged. "Then I'll go out and buy you a new towel this afternoon. What are you going to use to dry your hair now? Want me to help you?"
"No, that's fine." Xiao Yu'an moved into the bedroom to grab a new towel from the closet. He called back out to Ming Shu, rushing him to go shower quickly.
By the time Ming Shu got out of the bathroom, Xiao Yu'an was already lying in bed. Xiao Yu'an kept his hair buzzed short, barely an inch long, and it was a hot summer. His hair would dry after just a few seconds with a blow dryer.
"Ge." Ming Shu leaned against the door. He wanted to go inside, but his heart reminded him of his plan to take things slow. Step by step. "What do you want to eat for lunch? I'll go buy the ingredients."
They'd already talked about it earlier. Xiao Yu'an knew that Ming Shu worked at the convenience store overnight, and at a milk tea shop from two in the afternoon to ten in the evening.
That meant Ming Shu only had the mornings off.
"Don't tire yourself out, go sleep," Xiao Yu'an said. "You don't have to worry about lunch."
Ming Shu carded a hand through his hair. "Then I'll go to sleep now."
In truth, he really wanted to fling himself down next to Xiao Yu'an and just lie there with him without doing anything else. He missed Xiao Yu'an's scent. It wasn't something he could describe, but it was a scent that had been with him all his life. Whenever it enveloped him, he felt calm and relaxed.
But he had to keep his cool. His heart reminded him again and again to take things slow.
He would take it slow.
Ming Shu strode through the apartment with his long legs, crashing onto the couch and falling asleep in no time at all.
In the past two weeks or so, he hadn't slept well. The lounge at the convenience store wasn't home. When he slept there during the days, he could hear noises from outside even with the door closed. And occasionally, one of the other employees would come in to change clothes. Ming Shu would wake up at least four or five times every time he tried to sleep. He only managed to make it through those weeks because he was young and healthy.
Now that he was at home, everything was different. He could have slept well even if he'd crashed on the ground.
The one who couldn't sleep was Xiao Yu'an.
In the past, every time he returned from a long mission, Xiao Yu'an fell into a deep sleep as soon as he got home. He didn't set an alarm or worry about the time. He just slept until he woke up naturally, then went about his business.
But Ming Shu was in the living room now. Even though he didn't make a peep, his presence was strong. He couldn't be ignored.
This sort of feeling was quite new to Xiao Yu'an.
The missions assigned to Xiao Yu'an were almost never simple or easy. They were high-risk, high-tension missions that left him feeling frayed. Every time he came home, he would be tense and on edge until he managed to get a good night's sleep. It was only after sleeping for a long while that he would manage to calm down.
But now there was suddenly another person in his apartment. Ming Shu's breathing filled the air like a pair of invisible hands, caressing and soothing away Xiao Yu'an's stress in a way he'd never felt before.
He could feel the lingering tension from his mission already starting to melt away.
Ming Shu's presence soothed away Xiao Yu'an's tension just as effectively as a good night's sleep.
Xiao Yu'an had a teammate named Yi Zhuo; they were fairly close. Yi Zhuo had three cats at home. Whenever he went out on a mission, he would get their teammates who would be staying behind to look after his cats. Even Xiao Yu'an had gone over to clean their litter boxes a few times.
Yi Zhuo said those cats were lifesavers. Every time he came home from a mission, the first thing he would do was greet his cats. No matter how bad his mood was, no matter how on edge he was, he would instantly feel better after snuggling his cats.
Yi Zhuo had even suggested that Xiao Yu'an raise a cat of his own, but Xiao Yu'an didn't have that much free time.
"Ai, you just don't understand the benefits of raising a cat. That's a living being, you know," Yi Zhuo had said. "Think about it. When you get home, being tired isn't the worst part. The worst part is how tense you are, right? And when you get home to a cold and quiet apartment, without any sense of life, how do you adjust your mood?
"Getting a good night's sleep is one way, but you have to sleep at least seven or eight hours before it takes effect, right? There's no way that's better than being greeted by your cats as soon as you get home! The second you open your door, they're right there, meow-meowing up at you. They cling to you like crazy. This sort of feeling, it's really… ah, it just makes you feel better in a snap. You have to experience it for yourself!"
Ming Shu slept soundly. He shifted in his sleep and kicked his covers onto the floor.
The sound of the covers falling was extremely quiet, but Xiao Yu'an had the ears of a marksman. That quiet rustle was enough to bring him back to his senses.
The air conditioning was on in the apartment. Sleeping without a blanket made it too easy to catch a chill. Xiao Yu'an got out of bed and walked out to the couch. He picked up the covers and lightly draped the sheet over Ming Shu again.
Ming Shu wasn't aware of any of this. In his sleep, he'd lost all that false bravado he'd affected earlier. He looked like a sweet, well-behaved kid again.
Xiao Yu'an watched him for a while. Yi Zhuo's words drifted back into his mind.
He didn't have a mewling cat waiting for him at home. But he had a didi who called out 'gege'.
And this didi was perhaps no less clingy than a needy cat.