Just a few days later, Xiao Yu'an happened upon a huge bag of condoms in the dresser. They came in all sorts of colors. A box from every major brand was there. There were different patterns, different textures… and they were all hidden under a pile of Ming Shu's clothes.
Xiao Yu'an stared.
The apartment wasn't big. There were only two rooms. It was the perfect size for him, but felt a little cramped after Ming Shu moved in. There was no closet or dresser in the living room, and the cabinets on the balcony were filled with miscellaneous knickknacks, so Ming Shu's clothes and various other possessions had all made their way into Xiao Yu'an's closet and dresser in the bedroom.
Xiao Yu'an had gone out of his way to make space for Ming Shu's things. There was a place where Ming Shu could hang up his clothes, a place where he could place his folded clothes, and even a dedicated drawer for his socks and underwear.
And Xiao Yu'an wasn't in the habit of rummaging through other people's things. The space he'd made for Ming Shu now belonged to Ming Shu. He didn't bother checking what Ming Shu stored in his space.
It was just…
After she found out Ming Shu had fought with the Ming family and started living with Xiao Yu'an, Xiao Jinlan had brimmed over with sympathy. She'd bought all sorts of name-brand menswear, perfect for the summer and fall, and mailed them over.
Xiao Yu'an had the day off, and her package just happened to be delivered that day. He'd just wanted to help Ming Shu put his new things away.
And as soon as he opened up a drawer, he saw the condoms.
He wasn't sure, at first, if he should put them back or confiscate them. He wound up picking up the bag and reeling back a few steps to sit down at the edge of his bed.
When he counted them up, he found there were thirteen boxes.
It was extremely normal for Ming Shu to be having these thoughts at his present age. But those thoughts were directed at Xiao Yu'an. As someone inexorably involved in Ming Shu's thoughts, Xiao Yu'an couldn't treat this matter so lightly.
After that day on the couch, neither of them spoke of what had happened. It was like that conversation on a stormy night all over again.
But Ming Shu was a year older than he'd been on that rainy night; he'd come of age. He didn't avoid Xiao Yu'an like he had last year, skulking around like a sullen punching bag. He spoke to Xiao Yu'an normally, and he more or less went about his business as he normally would. But when Xiao Yu'an studied him carefully, he would notice that it was all a facade.
Ming Shu was only acting mature. He was only acting steady and stable.
In truth, Ming Shu was barely keeping it together.
A half-grown nineteen-year-old boy, fresh out of high school. How steady and mature could he possibly be?
That was exactly what made it so difficult for Xiao Yu'an to accept Ming Shu.
Ming Shu was six years younger than him. Although Ming Shu was of age, did crossing the hurdle of turning eighteen suddenly make him capable of taking full responsibility for all his own actions and choices?
No. Not really.
Ming Shu insisted he liked Xiao Yu'an. He said it out loud, and he showed it through his actions. But did Ming Shu really understand what his feelings for Xiao Yu'an were? Was it love? Or was it simply a reluctance to lose Xiao Yu'an after having grown up with him?
Xiao Yu'an felt like Ming Shu couldn't tell the difference at all.
The youth was hot-headed and impulsive. He could boldly claim to like someone without thinking anything of it, and he could brazenly wait and hope to start up a relationship with Xiao Yu'an.
But Xiao Yu'an was the elder. He couldn't let Ming Shu do whatever he pleased.
After a moment, Xiao Yu'an tensed his grip on the bag. He didn't put the condoms back in Ming Shu's drawer in the end, but he didn't throw them out either. He tossed the bag with all thirteen boxes into his own drawer.
Xiao Yu'an had originally agreed to teach Ming Shu to drive, but now something unpredictable and totally out of his control had happened. Neither of them brought up their prior agreement. But Ming Shu still rushed out to pick Xiao Yu'an up after work every day, after finishing his own shift at the milk tea shop. He still acted light and breezy, like everything was perfectly fine.
Ming Shu had started feeling like he was out of moves, and he didn't have anyone he could talk to about the matter of pursuing someone either.
He'd confessed. He'd climbed into Xiao Yu'an's lap. And Xiao Yu'an hadn't given him even a hint of a reaction.
Xiao Yu'an was his ge. In truth, Ming Shu did understand Xiao Yu'an's concerns. The little boy who'd followed him around like a tail didn't want to be his didi anymore; he wanted to become his boyfriend. That was probably hard to accept.
But Ming Shu didn't need Xiao Yu'an to accept it right away.
He'd just wanted to give Xiao Yu'an a hand, so to speak. Help him blow off some steam. They were two men. What was so inappropriate about that? In his third year of high school, the guys in the dorm next to his had all helped 'relieve' each other. Ming Shu had his heart set on someone, so naturally he'd never gone to participate.
But Xiao Yu'an wouldn't even agree to that much. He'd even shut Ming Shu up in the bedroom alone.
If Ming Shu didn't know for a fact that Xiao Yu'an was extremely healthy, he would have started to suspect that Xiao Yu'an had some sort of problem down there.
Ming Shu's restlessness persisted. He wanted to get closer to Xiao Yu'an, but he was afraid he wouldn't be able to restrain himself if he did. He was even more afraid of hearing Xiao Yu'an rejecting him outright.
But if he didn't get closer to Xiao Yu'an, what kind of pursuit was that?
When he was in his third year of high school, Ming Shu had been fairly innocent. His thoughts had all been relatively pure. He only thought of dating Xiao Yu'an, of holding his hand and kissing him. But now, they were living under one roof. Now, Ming Shu couldn't hold back.
He wanted Xiao Yu'an's body.
"I'm gross," he muttered to himself.
"What are you mumbling about?" The manager of the milk tea shop, Li-jie, elbowed him in the side. "What's with the dour face, kiddo?"
Ming Shu hastily lifted his head and smiled at a new customer. "Welcome in!"
There was no way to resolve this problem, so Ming Shu just kept dragging it out. Since Xiao Yu'an hadn't kicked him out of the apartment, Ming Shu figured he could afford to wait. He could keep relying on Xiao Yu'an.
If push came to shove, he could bring up their gege-didi relationship. There was no way Xiao Yu'an would be able to kick him out then. A ge couldn't possibly neglect his didi.
But that was Plan B. Ming Shu had already said he wouldn't be Xiao Yu'an's didi anymore. It would be too despicable of him to try to take that back now.
Those summer days were scorchingly hot. Ming Shu couldn't wear any of the autumn clothes that Jinlan-jie had sent him, but he tried on the summer clothes. He loved them all.
As for the condoms that had gone missing from his drawer, he didn't have a clue. He'd forgotten all about them.
Some time later, Ming Shu visited Xiao Yu'an at work a few more times and ran into Yi Zhuo again. That guy seriously loved his cats more than he loved his own life. As soon as he saw Ming Shu, he started asking about their supposed cat and their new cat tower.
The cat tower had just been gathering dust at their place. Once, while cleaning, Xiao Yu'an had dismantled it and stuffed it into their junk cabinet. But Ming Shu couldn't tell Yi Zhuo about that, and he couldn't explain exactly who the shorthair cat was either.
Ming Shu just gamely answered every question he was asked. He said their cat loved the cat tower to death. It climbed up every day and refused to come down.
"Then, have you given it a name?" Yi Zhuo asked, eagerly seizing upon a very important question. "You wouldn't just call it kitty-kitty, right?"
Ming Shu shivered at that sort of baby talk, and he quickly blurted out, "Of course it has a name."
"What's it called?"
Yi Zhuo nearly did a spit take. "Really? It's that cutesy? Did you name it, or did Xiao Yu'an? It was definitely you, right? Xiao Yu'an wouldn't pick such a cutesy name."
"My ge named it," Ming Shu said. "It's his cat."
Yi Zhuo didn't dare believe him.
Xiao Yu'an didn't hear that exchange; his special training was running long. By the time he came outside, Ming Shu had already been waiting around for a while.
Ming Shu didn't tell him anything about the name he'd given their completely nonexistent cat. The next day, Yi Zhuo kept wandering around in front of Xiao Yu'an, until he finally blurted out, "Xiao-ge, ah! My Xiao-ge is a man of steel with a mushy heart!"
Xiao Yu'an was speechless. "Are you drunk?"
"Who's drunk?! We're in training!" Yi Zhuo exclaimed. Then, lowering his voice to a whisper, he continued, "I heard you named your family's cat… Baobei'er?"
Xiao Yu'an instantly looked up. He seemed to understand right away what had happened.
There was no cat. Yi Zhuo could only have heard about this nonexistent cat's nonexistent name from Ming Shu.
Yi Zhuo cackled and slapped Xiao Yu'an's shoulder a few times. "So you really do have a mushy heart. Baobei'er, Baobei'er. You really spoil that cat, don't you?"
Xiao Yu'an smiled too, but he didn't answer.
At the milk tea shop, Ming Shu had just changed into his uniform when his ears suddenly started to feel hot. He tried to cool them with his hands, but they just burned hotter and hotter.
"Who's talking about me?" he grumbled.
Just then, Li-jie suddenly leaned over and waved at him. She looked a little embarrassed, as though summoning him to discuss something that would be difficult to say.
Xiao Yu'an started his special training for the day. During a break, he couldn't help but think back to Yi Zhuo's words again.
Ming Shu knew perfectly well that he was the shorthair cat, and yet he'd still told Yi Zhuo that the cat had a name like Baobei'er. He'd even said it was Xiao Yu'an who'd named the cat.
Ming Shu's wishes were a little too transparent.
Ming Shu had been called out into the alleyway behind the milk tea shop by Li-jie. For the time being, no one else was in the area. Ming Shu was extremely perceptive. As soon as he saw Li-jie's expression, he knew she wouldn't have very good news for him.
"It's like this," she began. "Our shop has been doing pretty well lately, right? The boss hired a few experienced workers, all for full-time positions. He basically wants to say we don't need part-timers anymore."
As she spoke, Li-jie grew more and more embarrassed. "I already spoke to Little Nan, and she's okay with transferring to our location on Changsheng Street. That leaves you as our shop's last part-timer. Would you want to transfer? Or could you accept a full-time position here?"
Ming Shu understood perfectly. He was, for the first time since becoming a working member of society, being laid off.
He had been a full-time employee here at first, but continuing his full-time work here meant he wouldn't have any time left to spend with Xiao Yu'an. So he'd asked to become a part-timer instead, and he wasn't willing to switch back now.
As for transferring to a different shop, that was even more out of the question. He'd chosen this place because it was close to home and the convenience store where he worked. He wouldn't be able to make it to a farther location.
Since both options wouldn't work out, Li-jie could only regretfully say, "In that case…"
Ming Shu wasn't exactly desperate for this job; he could live without it. He was more concerned with someone else suffering on his behalf, so he quickly reassured, "It's not a problem, Li-jie. School is starting for me in a month, anyway. Just let me know if you still want me to come in tomorrow, okay?"
Li-jie breathed a sigh of relief, but she still looked extremely apologetic. "I'll pay you through to the end of the week, and we'll get you a VIP card too. In the future, you can drink here for free."
Ming Shu smiled and happily accepted her gesture of goodwill. That afternoon, he continued to work enthusiastically. But after his shift ended, he couldn't help but feel a bit down.
He didn't actually want to work so much. It was pretty tiring to hold two jobs, one at the convenience store and one at the milk tea shop. He had to get up at five in the morning, and besides a break for lunch, he didn't have any time to rest during the day. He could only handle it all because he was young and fit.
Du Hao and the bowl cut math rep were all traveling or learning instruments. All of Ming Shu's old classmates were using this long summer, their one and only extended break before college, to improve themselves and experience things they'd never experienced before.
Ming Shu was the only one working and worrying about money.
For the past nineteen years, he'd never once worried about money.
Just before leaving the Ming family, Ming Shu had actually received a sizable sum from his grandfather. It would have been enough to cover his expenses in college. But Ming Shu didn't want to touch that money.
He was already nineteen years old. He was old enough to support himself. If he kept spending the Ming family's money, he wouldn't be able to walk through life with his head held high.
His tuition, his living expenses—he would pay for it all by himself. He hoped to get a scholarship by the end of his first year of college, which would take the pressure off him in the future.
Now that he only had the job at the convenience store, he would have to find another part-time position. Fast.
Xiao Yu'an had gotten used to seeing Ming Shu in high spirits every time they met up at night. But that night, he could tell with just one look that Ming Shu was lost in thought.
Ming Shu didn't notice him until he'd drawn close. And when he did notice Xiao Yu'an, he jumped in surprise.
"Ge! Why are you so quiet when you walk?!"
"You're blaming me for the fact that you were spacing out?" Xiao Yu'an asked. "What happened?"
As soon as he heard that question, Ming Shu brightened. Xiao Yu'an could tell what he was thinking and feeling just by looking at him. Wasn't that a sign of care and concern?
On the way home, Ming Shu told Xiao Yu'an about being laid off. He sighed several times as he recounted the story, and ultimately asked, "Ge, what kind of job do you think I should look for next?"
"Take it easy," Xiao Yu'an said. "One job is enough. You can't handle two."
"I can handle it," Ming Shu insisted.
"It's not just a matter of your health," Xiao Yu'an said. "You could be spending that time on other things instead. Learning new skills, bettering yourself."
Ming Shu thought for a while. In the end, he was still sullen.
"But I need a lot of money right now. Compared to everything else, I have to put money first."