Xiao Yu'an turned to face him. He looked upon Ming Shu with a gaze that seemed somehow different from any of the ones he'd worn before.
This was the first time Ming Shu had mentioned money to him since becoming an adult. The Ming family and the Wen family were both well off, but Ming Shu didn't want their money. When he left home, he'd finally freed himself from that suffocating family.
But coming of age and getting into college… in modern society, that didn't mean a person was completely independent. Xiao Yu'an thought back to his own days, shortly after his college entrance exams. He hadn't stopped accepting financial help from his family right after graduating from high school, and he'd never worried about money. He'd never had to work from morning to night just to earn his tuition.
A nineteen-year-old boy could indeed support himself. Kids with difficult family lives often started working right after middle school.
But this was a boy who'd grown up right in front of Xiao Yu'an's eyes. When Xiao Yu'an thought of that, he couldn't help but feel an ache in his heart. He didn't want Ming Shu to suffer. He wanted him to live happily, freely.
Ming Shu could no longer be the baobei of the Ming family. Couldn't he be the baobei of the Xiao family? The Xiao family's kids had all grown up in a fairly strict household, but each and every one of them had been spoiled.
There was no reason for Ming Shu, who was just about to start his first year of college, to worry about money for his tuition or his job at a milk tea shop. There was no reason for him to be in such a rush to find another job.
Ming Shu had never been poor before. Xiao Yu'an wasn't going to let him be poor now, or in the future.
It wasn't that Ming Shu couldn't worry about money. It was that he didn't have to.
Ming Shu had grown up as the proud Ming-ge who always carried his own burdens. He still carried his burdens now, without complaint, and he would continue to carry them in the future.
But he didn't have to carry this one. Ming Shu didn't have to suffer the exhaustion of living in poverty.
Ming Shu should only concern himself with shining brightly. Xiao Yu'an had raised a proud and brilliant Ming Shu. How could he let him burn out now?
Xiao Yu'an had stared at Ming Shu for so long that Ming Shu started to fidget. Ming Shu couldn't help but glance away.
"Ge, you… what are you looking at?"
Xiao Yu'an started the car and slowly pulled into the flow of traffic. "How much money have you saved?"
"Huh?" Ming Shu didn't expect to hear a question like that from Xiao Yu'an. He thought for a while, then lowered his head. "Only a few thousand."
If he spent all summer working two jobs and saving diligently, he would've had no problem saving enough for his tuition and living expenses for the next year.
But he hadn't lived frugally. Although he'd earned a lot, he'd also spent a lot. He treated Xiao Yu'an's apartment like his own home, often buying expensive flowers or imported fruits to bring home. They were all discreet little tokens of affection.
If it weren't for the clothes Jinlan-jie had sent over, Ming Shu also would have had to spend a lot of money on new clothes.
The other kids at First High had adoringly called him Ming-ge for a reason—he was handsome, and he knew how to dress himself. He knew he wouldn't be able to spend exorbitant sums on new clothes forever, but asking him to trade his name-brand clothes for generic outfits already…
It left him feeling a little frantic.
So he spent and spent, and his hard-earned money slipped right through his fingers. He'd already read up on the workload he could expect from his first year of college. He would be busy, but he wouldn't be so busy that he couldn't keep a part-time job. If he tried to keep up two jobs, though, that would definitely have a negative effect on his schoolwork.
The subject of money made him squirm now. He'd never lacked money before. He'd never been poor. And now, his financial situation left him feeling a bit ashamed. He hung his head lower, as though hoping to disappear through a crack in the ground.
"You don't plan on using your grandfather's money?" Xiao Yu'an asked.
Ming Shu nodded. "I won't. I'll earn my own money."
"You'll keep working in school?"
Ming Shu didn't answer right away. He was still thinking about that. If he kept working, he would lose a lot of valuable time that he could have spent on schoolwork. Getting into the University of Public Security had only been the first step. Xiao Yu'an had been far more outstanding than any ordinary student; he'd gotten into the special training course for elites.
Already, Ming Shu was a step behind him. If he didn't devote all his time to catching up, the gap between him and Xiao Yu'an would only grow wider and wider.
"I'm not saying it's bad to work. Using your efforts to support yourself is something to be proud of," Xiao Yu'an said. He chose his words carefully, knowing Ming Shu's self-esteem was on the line here. "You left your parents and gained a lot of new life experiences. Making money, saving money—that's nothing to be ashamed of."
Ming Shu clasped his hands together and lightly tensed his fingers. His pulse was quickening, and his thoughts felt both muddled and clear at once. He felt like he could guess what Xiao Yu'an wanted to say to him, but at the same time his mind also felt totally blank.
"But I don't want to see you held back from living your life just because of money," Xiao Yu'an continued. His voice was deep and captivating, blending perfectly into the night. "You can continue working at the convenience store, but there's no need for you to look for a second job again."
Ming Shu swiftly turned to look at Xiao Yu'an. "But…"
Xiao Yu'an kept his eyes on the road, gazing straight ahead. His gaze didn't even flicker to his side. "You know you need to stand on your own two feet. But that doesn't mean you can't sometimes lean on the person next to you."
Ming Shu's fingers tensed even more, laced together. He swallowed thickly. "Ge…"
"You don't need to worry about your tuition or living expenses," Xiao Yu'an said. "Continue living the way you were living before."
Ming Shu's heart thudded loudly in his chest. In the short time it had taken for them to exchange those words, sweat had started beading along his forehead.
"Ge. It's not good for you to talk like that," Ming Shu mumbled. His mind had been thrown into chaos, and those words fell from his lips before he could think about them. He'd blurted them out before he even fully understood what he was trying to say.
There was a Western restaurant near their apartment. When they approached, Xiao Yu'an parked outside.
He couldn't be bothered to cook that night, so he figured he may as well take Ming Shu out to dinner.
"Let's go," Xiao Yu'an said, unbuckling his seatbelt. "We can talk while we eat."
Ming Shu was still wrapped up in his own thoughts and turbulent mood. When he lifted his head and looked up, he saw that stylish Western restaurant right outside. The walls were mostly glass, and the lights of the city at night twinkled across those panes, casting a beautiful and romantic glow.
"We're eating out tonight?"
"Mm. They have the crab rice dish you like."
It was already fairly late; not many people were still dining. The seats by the window were quiet. Next to the restaurant bar, a woman in a long gown played a violin.
Xiao Yu'an ordered the crab dish and a steak. Both came with a bowl of seafood chowder, and both were on the pricier end of the menu.
Ming Shu was still mulling over what had been said in the car earlier. As soon as their server left, he immediately asked, "Ge, what did you mean by what you said earlier?"
"I was going to ask you," Xiao Yu'an said. "Why isn't it 'good' for me to talk like that?"
Ming Shu ducked his head, embarrassed. "You heard that?"
He was glad the lighting in the restaurant was so warm. That way, the reddening glow of his cheeks wouldn't be as obvious.
"Mm. I heard." Xiao Yu'an's tone was perfectly calm. "If there's something on your mind, you can tell me."
Ming Shu fidgeted for a long while. He didn't start speaking again until the steak had already been served to their table.
"You're telling me not to work, not to worry about money," Ming Shu said. "Are you saying you'll take care of my tuition and living expenses?"
Xiao Yu'an nodded. "I'll give you a credit card. Use it as you see fit. You're an adult already. I trust you to know when to spend money, and what to spend money on."
"But…" Ming Shu furrowed his brow. He held his knife and fork in his hands, though he didn't move to start cutting into the steak.
He was still feeling a little anxious, a little frantic. He was afraid he hadn't expressed himself clearly.
But how was he supposed to express himself? He didn't even fully understand what he was feeling.
Xiao Yu'an patiently asked, "But what?"
"But what right do you have to do that?" Ming Shu blurted out. As soon as the words left him, he suddenly felt a wave of anger—directed at himself—pass through him. He obviously hadn't meant to say that. It had come out all wrong. He didn't know how to question Xiao Yu'an in a way that didn't sound completely awful.
Xiao Yu'an raised his eyebrows. "What right?"
Ming Shu set down his fork and knife. He wasn't in the right state of mind. He hadn't been in the right state of mind for days.
Seeing Ming Shu's obvious anxiousness, Xiao Yu'an softened his tone and warmly said, "Calm down. Take your time."
"I… I'm going to be nineteen soon. I'll have been an adult for over a year. I won't spend Ming Haofeng's money or Wen Yue's money, and I won't spend my grandfather's money. I have to prove to them that I can support myself and my own way of living!"
Ming Shu grew emotional as he spoke. A slight redness came to the corners of his eyes.
Boys at this age looked all grown up, but they weren't really. They cared a lot about making money, but not for the same reason as real adults in their thirties or forties.
They just wanted to prove to the world that they were capable, reliable men who could support themselves.
"It's true that I don't make a lot doing these part-time jobs, but it's still money that I earn hour by hour. I feel good, spending that money," Ming Shu said. He was like a young beast that had just wobbled out from its mother's den for the first time. His eyes gleamed with a pure, untainted light. "I won't rely on them, and I can't rely on you."
"Why can't you rely on me?" Xiao Yu'an asked.
"Because…" Ming Shu faltered.
He wasn't sure how to answer that question. He thought he'd already given an answer. Didn't Xiao Yu'an understand? If Ming Shu absolutely had to explain himself again, he wasn't sure that he could have found any better way of putting it.
"Because you're an adult? Because you'll be nineteen soon?" Xiao Yu'an asked. "Coming of age is a dividing point in your life. It means you can now face the storms of adulthood head-on, but it doesn't mean you lose the safe harbors behind you."
Ming Shu's eyes flashed again. He swallowed the saliva pooling in his mouth.
"Forget about nineteen. Xiao Jincheng is in his twenties already, and he's still begging Xiao Mu'ting to buy him watches." Xiao Yu'an smiled. "Does that change the fact that he's independent? An adult?"
Ming Shu had nothing to say to that.
"You won't rely on the Ming family. You won't spend a single cent of their money. That's because you've decided to draw a line between you and them," Xiao Yu'an continued. "But have you also drawn a line between you and me? Between you and my family?"
Ming Shu instantly shook his head.
How could he draw a line between himself and the Xiao family? Xiao Yu'an had just spoken of his safe harbor. Hadn't the Xiao family always been his harbor?
"Then is there anything wrong," Xiao Yu'an continued, "with me telling you not to worry about your tuition and living expenses? Is there anything wrong with me wanting you to continue living your life as before?"
Ming Shu's eyelids felt like they were burning. He had to lift a hand to cover his eyes, but his hand wasn't cool either. After covering his eyes for a while, the heat didn't subside. His hidden eyes turned even redder.
All their food had already been served. Xiao Yu'an didn't say much more, only urging Ming Shu to hurry up and eat.
Everything that had been served to the table was one of Ming Shu's favorites. He practically wolfed down the meal.
He wasn't all that hungry, but a fierceness had been bottled up within him for too long. That fire had been ignited again, fueled by the words Xiao Yu'an had just poured into his ears.
How could Xiao Yu'an be such a bastard?
He was always saying the things that struck Ming Shu squarely in the heart. Being loved and cherished like this was something Ming Shu couldn't handle. He was definitely going to keep working! He would rise before the sun and go right back to work!
After they ate, Xiao Yu'an ordered a dessert as well. He waited until Ming Shu was burping with every other bite he took before smiling and going to pay the bill.
On their way home, they passed the stall where they often stopped for breakfast. At night, that stall sold mala tang.
Ming Shu gazed at that stall for a while, then said, "Ge, I'll get up a little earlier tomorrow and buy some baozi for breakfast. They should still be hot when you wake up."
Xiao Yu'an shook his head. "No need, I can…"
"I want to!" Ming Shu interrupted insistently.
Xiao Yu'an was a little taken aback.
Underneath the streetlights, Ming Shu looked as though every hair on his body had been ignited. He was possessed by a baffling sort of energy.
"I want to do something for you too," Ming Shu said. "I can't just spend your money without doing anything in return."
Xiao Yu'an didn't argue with him as they continued making their way home.
Ming Shu worried at his lower lip, and his voice almost quivered with tension as he continued, "You won't accept me, but you'll feed me and shelter me. I… I…"
Ming Shu's voice trailed off into silence. Xiao Yu'an stopped walking and turned to face him again.
That worrisome tail of his was trailing behind him, lingering in his shadow. With equal measures of heat and aggrievement in his eyes, Ming Shu mumbled, "I'll start to feel like a kept boy."