MINT-STAINED SHIRT

Chapter 69

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"You don't want to work the night shift anymore?" The manager of the convenience store was a good-natured man, always laughing and smiling. He was very easy to talk to. When he heard that Ming Shu wanted to switch shifts, he agreed right away. "Sure. You've been working the night shift for a while now, it's good to switch things up. How about the morning shift that starts at six? Does that work for you?"

That was the exact shift Ming Shu had wanted. "That works great, Liao-ge."

The manager had also noticed that Ming Shu's things had been moved out of the lounge. "Hey, kiddo. Your ge moved you out to his place?"

Ming Shu's expression instantly relaxed, showing an unrestrained sort of energy and joy that spirited youths couldn't hide. "Yeah, he just got back."

When he started working at that convenience store, Ming Shu had told the manager about his situation. The manager knew he was looking for his ge, but Ming Shu was also hiding some things.

He'd told people he was looking for his ge. But he didn't tell anyone he was pursuing him.

The shop manager patted him on the shoulder. "That takes a weight off my mind. You know, you ran over here from so far away without setting up a place to stay. It must have been pretty stifling, living in the lounge all this time."

After taking care of his schedule at the convenience store, Ming Shu started to think about his shift at the milk tea shop.

When Xiao Yu'an was out of town, Ming Shu had filled up his whole day. Besides work, he only left time for sleep. He didn't leave himself any free time at all.

But now, he had to move things around.

He'd worked two jobs because he needed money. From the moment he walked out on the Ming family, he'd decided not to spend another cent of their money. He would pay for everything he needed by himself.

But working two jobs meant he had no time to spend with Xiao Yu'an. Ming Shu couldn't live with that.

Fortunately, the milk tea shop didn't only hire full-time staff members. They took part-timers too. Ming Shu chatted with Li-jie, the store manager, and had his hours reduced from 2:00 to 7:30—only five and a half hours per shift, instead of eight.

"The last kid who wanted to reduce his hours was pursuing a girl," Li-jie said. "What are you up to?"

Ming Shu gulped.

He couldn't very well say he was pursuing a boy…

"I've just been a bit tired. A bit overwhelmed," he said. He was tall, and he'd even gone through another unexpected growth spurt that summer. Dressed in a white, athletic outfit, with his hands on his hips, he cut a dazzling figure. He almost glowed.

Li-jie could see right through him. She smiled and said, "Would a rascal like you get tired so easily? You look pretty spirited to me."

Ming Shu bit back a smile too, subconsciously fussing with his bangs.

"Go change and get to work," Li-jie urged. "Don't try to charm your jiejie."

In just a few days, Ming Shu got used to working from 6:00 in the morning to 7:30 at night.

And so, when Xiao Yu'an left work at around eight one night, he saw a tall and lanky youth wearing a sporty, silver-gray outfit, with the hood thrown over his head, waving at him with the rainbow neon lights of the city glowing behind him.

"Ge!" Ming Shu called out. He was holding a bag from the milk tea shop in his other hand. Due to the lights and shadows playing across his face, his maturing features looked even more striking than they did in the day.

Xiao Yu'an was just about to make his way to the parking lot. He stopped along the way.

Ming Shu rushed up to him with obvious excitement in his voice. "I came to pick you up from work."

Xiao Yu'an furrowed his brow and looked straight into Ming Shu's eyes.

Ming Shu had stayed at his place for a week now. And neither of them had brought up what had happened last year.

Xiao Yu'an was busy, working long hours every day. Ming Shu used to work nights, but after trading shifts at the convenience store, he left the apartment even earlier than Xiao Yu'an every morning. When Xiao Yu'an got up to get ready for the day, he would always find something from the convenience store waiting for him on the kitchen table—red bean paste buns, or chocolate bread, or canned congee that was a few days away from expiring.

Usually, Xiao Yu'an didn't eat breakfast at home. He typically ate at work. And he didn't really like the sort of food that Ming Shu left behind, but he couldn't just throw it away either. Every day, he picked up what Ming Shu left for him and put it in his bag. He felt a bit like he was being fed.

And because of what he'd talked about with Yi Zhuo in the past, he felt a bit like Ming Shu was a cat.

Was he being domesticated by his own cat?

But besides leaving out a few things from the convenience store, Xiao Yu'an's cat basically had no cooking skills. When Xiao Yu'an came home in the evenings, Ming Shu would always be curled up on the couch with his knees pulled up to his chest, waiting to be fed.

In another two months, Ming Shu would turn nineteen. And he was already so tall. Based on outer appearances alone, Xiao Yu'an could no longer consider him a child.

But when Ming Shu begged him for food, he would always sweetly say, "Ge, I'm a bit hungry." And right away, Xiao Yu'an would feel like he was once more looking at the same kid who always clung to him.

Xiao Yu'an didn't cook much at home; it was too much of a hassle. He could eat three square meals a day at work, so he usually ate before going home. He only bought some groceries and cooked for himself on his days off.

But now he had a demanding cat. He couldn't exactly let Ming Shu starve.

There was a small fresh produce shop near his apartment. He would pick up some things when he passed by, and everything he cooked at home was simple.

Ming Shu loved eating anything and everything he cooked, and the youth ate a hell of a lot. It didn't take long for him to clean his plate.

Since Ming Shu couldn't help in the kitchen when it came to cooking, he always insisted on washing the dishes and cleaning up afterwards. After Ming Shu finished the chores around the house, it was usually already ten at night. Ming Shu had to wake up at 5:30 every morning, so he would say goodnight to Xiao Yu'an right away and settle down on the couch.

Compared to the kid who'd clung to his arm even in his sleep last year, this Ming Shu was suspiciously well-behaved.

But it seemed Ming Shu wasn't going to be able to keep up the act forever.

Xiao Yu'an reached out and tugged down the hood Ming Shu had thrown over his head.

This sudden touch made Ming Shu tense with surprise. When Xiao Yu'an's hand passed over his ear, Ming Shu could practically hear the sound of those fingers stroking over his hair.

That fleeting touch was enough to bring heat into his cheeks.

"Must have been a hassle," Xiao Yu'an said. "This place is too far out of the way."

Home was around five kilometers away from Xiao Yu'an's apartment. It was a quick trip by car, but Ming Shu didn't have a car or a driver's license. He could only take the bus or subway. It must have been exhausting, and it was a waste of time.

Ming Shu mulled over those words. Didn't that mean Xiao Yu'an was thinking of him? Worrying about him? His heart instantly swelled with delight. "It's fine. There's no dinner if I go home early, anyway. So I figured it'd be just as easy to go home with you."

As he spoke, he lifted the bag from the milk tea shop. "I brought milk tea. Freshly made, and I added some toppings. It'll tide us over until dinner."

"You've only got your feet to carry you," Xiao Yu'an said. "And yet you're here to pick me up?"

Ming Shu grinned. He turned his back to Xiao Yu'an and stretched his hands out at his sides, like a penguin. "Why not? Why can't I pick you up like this? How about you climb on, and I'll carry you back? That counts as picking you up, right?"

Xiao Yu'an laughed and unlocked his car. "Get in."

Ming Shu quickly hopped into the car and buckled up his seatbelt in the passenger seat.

The two of them picked up groceries together before going home. Usually, Ming Shu didn't make any requests for dinner. He ate anything Xiao Yu'an made. But that day, perhaps because he'd come to the shops himself, he got a little picky.

Xiao Yu'an watched him for a while. "Write a shopping list for me tomorrow."

Ming Shu was about to agree, but he suddenly stopped himself. "No way. I'm going to pick you up tomorrow too. Ge, you can take me shopping with you."

"You really don't think it's too tiring to go out there?"

"Just let me pick you up, okay?"

Xiao Yu'an didn't stop him. Really, there would have been no way for him to put a stop to this anyway. Ming Shu had legs. He had the freedom to go wherever he pleased.

Xiao Yu'an was used to spoiling Ming Shu, and old habits couldn't be broken overnight.

Ming Shu was smart. He'd told himself he would take things step by step. Slow and steady. And that meant he couldn't rush. He couldn't panic.

A week passed just like that. Then, Ming Shu came up with a new plan. He obviously couldn't afford a car for a while, but he could learn how to drive. He could at least get his license. After that, he would be able to act as Xiao Yu'an's chauffeur.

But the summer after his third year of high school, although long, still wasn't long enough. Ming Shu did the math in his head, and he realized he wouldn't have enough time to get his license. He didn't want to give up either of his two jobs; saving money was more important. If he enrolled in driving school, he would have to quit one of his jobs.

In the end, he decided to talk it over with Xiao Yu'an. And right away, Xiao Yu'an ruthlessly shut him down.

"I won't sit in a car if you're driving."

Ming Shu huffed and argued, "I'm a fast learner!"

"I still won't ride with you." Xiao Yu'an smiled. "But if you want to learn to drive, I'll teach you. When you have a day off, you can come practice at my workplace."

Ming Shu never expected such a fortuitous turn of events. He started looking forward to his next day off with stars in his eyes.

 

Yi Zhuo was the first to notice that something was off about Xiao Yu'an. He stopped in the hallway and gave Xiao Yu'an a deeply scrutinizing look.

Xiao Yu'an glanced at him out of the corner of his eye. "What? Do I have gold stuck to my body?"

"Don't move," Yi Zhuo said. "Let me confirm my suspicions with my own eyes!"

Xiao Yu'an was rendered speechless for a moment. He pushed Yi Zhuo's head aside. "What are you suspicious of?"

Yi Zhuo lifted his head and cut to the chase. "You… finally, inspired by me, adopted a cat!"

Xiao Yu'an fell silent.

Yi Zhuo cleared his throat and continued, "I may not have enough evidence yet, but… hm. You've clearly taken in a cat, but there isn't a single cat hair on you. What's up with that?"

Hearing all this talk about a cat, Xiao Yu'an instantly thought of Ming Shu.

Ming Shu may have been a big, clingy guy, but he wasn't actually a cat.

Xiao Yu'an asked, genuinely curious, "Why are you so sure I have a cat?"

"Do you even need to ask?" Yi Zhuo waved a hand dismissively. "You only eat lunch at the cafeteria these days, not breakfast or dinner. If you don't have a cat at home, what do you have? A person?"

Xiao Yu'an said nothing.

That was sort of a good point.

"Your current situation is just like mine, you know. I want to spend more time with my cats too, so I eat breakfast at home before I head out," Yi Zhuo said, nodding like he was imparting some sort of sage wisdom. "At night, I have to rush home to feed them little fish treats, or they'll be so hungry that they stare up at me with those big, dewy eyes of theirs. It really makes my heart ache. So obviously guys like us can't waste time eating in the cafeteria here."

Xiao Yu'an thought back to a few days ago.

Before Ming Shu started picking him up at work, Xiao Yu'an would indeed get home to see Ming Shu with a dewy, hungry look on his face.

Ming Shu was always waiting. Waiting for him to get home. Waiting for him to cook.

"But what kind of cat did you adopt?" Yi Zhuo asked. "How come it doesn't shed? Does it not roll all over you?"

Xiao Yu'an was too lazy to explain. He casually answered, "A shorthair."

"Shorthair cats still shed! They shed like crazy, man." As he spoke, Yi Zhuo suddenly seemed to understand something. He gave Xiao Yu'an a pitying look. "It must be that your cat isn't clingy with you. You have to pamper it more, you know."

Xiao Yu'an thought to himself, He's been clingy ever since he was a kid. What do you think would happen if I pampered him even more?

This supposed 'shorthair' was in the middle of restocking shelves at a convenience store. He suddenly sneezed.

"Is the air conditioning bothering you?" the store manager asked as he passed by. "I can turn up the temperature."

Ming Shu rubbed his nose. "It's fine. Liao-ge, don't worry about it. I'm heading out soon."

The manager laughed. "What're you being so polite for?"

Ming Shu's shift ended after he finished moving around the stock. He rushed over to the milk tea shop. His idea of getting his license to drive Xiao Yu'an to and from work had been rejected, but in a few days, he could go meet up with Xiao Yu'an and learn to drive.

It had been a particularly hot few days. Every time he went to pick Xiao Yu'an up at night, Ming Shu brought two cups of milk tea with him.

He always waited at the side of the road, never going inside. After waiting fifteen minutes or so, he would see Xiao Yu'an emerge from the building, wearing a white dress shirt and black slacks. Xiao Yu'an was sturdy, but not overly so.

Ming Shu would look at him, and as he looked, his gaze would inevitably travel down.

He'd played the part of an upstanding gentleman all this time. But, in truth, his heart was full of inappropriate thoughts and feelings.

When Xiao Yu'an wore formal clothes, Ming Shu was especially prone to feeling hot under the collar. He had every intention of holding back and taking things slow.

But he was holding back so much that he was ready to choke.

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