Ming Shu clutched the corners of the covers. His hands tensed and froze.
The sleeves of his pure cotton pajamas had slid down to his elbows, and the tendons in his forearms had popped out, taut with tension. Ming Shu himself didn't even notice how visible they'd become.
Xiao Yu'an's tone was calm and even, but Ming Shu could hear the deeper meaning hidden in his words.
But the laughable thing was—
Even though he clearly knew what Xiao Yu'an was getting at, he still wanted to play dumb.
"Huh?" He blinked innocently. He put on such an innocent face that he almost bought his own act. "Ge, what are you saying?"
Xiao Yu'an watched as a faint blush crept into Ming Shu's cheeks. After their eyes met for an instant, Ming Shu hastily averted his gaze. His lashes swept over his eyes, casting shadows across his cheekbones. The fluttering of his eyes lent a softer air to his handsome, and at times even slightly aggressive, face.
Xiao Yu'an couldn't look away.
Ming Shu knew exactly what sort of reaction would make Xiao Yu'an's heart soften. He was a genius when it came to getting Xiao Yu'an to forgive him or let things slide.
But that wasn't because Ming Shu was some sort of evil, scheming mastermind. It was simply a habit he'd picked up throughout the years.
Xiao Yu'an reached over and took the corners of the comforter out of Ming Shu's hands.
Ming Shu reflexively tugged a little harder. He glanced shiftily, restlessly at Xiao Yu'an.
The tips of his ears were even redder now.
Xiao Yu'an studied the deep red that tinged Ming Shu's ears. He was seized by a baffling urge—
He wanted to reach out and stroke his fingers over the shell of Ming Shu's ears, to feel for himself just how hotly they burned.
The slippers Ming Shu wore were brand new. He'd worn them for the first time during his visit last week. They were made of a soft, thick wool. Jinlan-jie had sent two pairs over a while ago, with a promise that they would be perfect for staying warm over the winter.
Ming Shu was sweating from the soles of his feet now. His toes were tightly curled.
Xiao Yu'an suddenly jerked the covers aside, revealing the freshly washed sheets that had just been laid out on the bed.
Ming Shu could smell the fresh scent of the laundry detergent. He could smell the wintersweet flowers in the room. But those two scents, intermingling in the air of the room, made him burn up.
Because it seemed… it seemed he could also detect the faint scent he'd left behind.
It shouldn't have been possible. He'd opened the window to let in fresh air. He'd stripped off the bedsheets and washed them, and he'd even moved the vase of wintersweet branches into the room. How could his own scent still remain?
"The sheets and covers had been dirtied, so you had to wash them right away," Xiao Yu'an said. He followed Ming Shu's line of sight to the sheets, then returned his gaze to Ming Shu's eyes. "But you wouldn't have been able to explain it to your ge if you only washed the sheets in the bedroom, so you washed your own sheets too. Is that right?"
Ming Shu tensed. His back went ramrod straight, giving him the appearance of a tall, rigid stick of wood, protruding from the mud.
It wasn't just Xiao Yu'an's frankness that made him tense up. It was because Xiao Yu'an was speaking to him as his ge.
Ming Shu felt like his head was swelling. All the heated thoughts that he'd bottled up were ballooning right behind his temples. When he exploded, he blurted out a declaration that neither he nor Xiao Yu'an had seen coming—
"Not my ge! You're not—you're Xiao Yu'an!"
At first, Xiao Yu'an didn't understand. But realization dawned after just a few seconds. He found his answer in Ming Shu's ire and agitation.
It wasn't that Ming Shu wouldn't have been able to explain it to his ge. He wouldn't have been able to explain it to 'Xiao Yu'an'.
Xiao Yu'an's smile disappeared.
He was Xiao Yu'an, and he was Ming Shu's ge. Both names referred to him. But even though Ming Shu still called him 'ge' and 'gege', in Ming Shu's heart, Xiao Yu'an had stopped being his ge a long time ago.
"I'm sorry," Ming Shu mumbled. He spun around in a panic, lifting a hand to cover his eyes.
He'd shocked and alarmed himself with his own words just now. He started playing the part of an ostrich, sticking its head in the sand. It was like his embarrassment would disappear, just because he looked away.
But there was no sand here.
And he was no ostrich.
When he heard Xiao Yu'an call his name again, he didn't even want to play the part of an ostrich anymore. He spun around, puffing up his chest and putting on a false, aggressive sense of bravado.
Xiao Yu'an had originally called Ming Shu into the bedroom because he'd sensed something was wrong. He'd planned on doing his best to have a calm, level-headed discussion with Ming Shu. But when Ming Shu turned around now, Xiao Yu'an could see how riled up he'd become. Ming Shu was like a caged beast, with all his hair standing up on end.
The words Xiao Yu'an wanted to say all remained trapped in his throat, because the little beast took the initiative and started talking first.
"I haven't considered you my ge for a long time. I only call you 'ge' because I'm afraid of you pushing me farther away. I've been lying to you!" Ming Shu blurted out. His words spilled out quickly, and his voice grew louder and louder.
But the words he spat out carried a tremor, and his eyes were reddening again. Longing and desire flooded out from his pupils.
His eyes couldn't contain his longing anymore. That desire swelled up and overflowed.
He lifted a hand and slapped it to his own chest, hard. His chest had become broader and sturdier, though his build was still no match for that of an elite police detective.
"In my heart, right here, I call you Xiao Yu'an!" he declared. "Ever since I confessed to you, every time my heart thinks of you, it's called you Xiao Yu'an. Not 'gege'! So why do you… why…"
Ming Shu grit and gnashed his teeth. His breathing grew even sharper, more unsteady. "Why do you still call yourself my ge? Do you really want to be my ge that bad? You've been my ge since I was five years old. From then, to now. Haven't you had enough?"
Ming Shu blindly, roughly scrubbed a hand over his eyes.
He didn't cry. But his eyes felt swollen to the point of aching.
"You were my gege when I was little. Does that mean you have to be my gege for the rest of our lives?" The courage and energy that had surged up from within him finally seemed to diminish. His voice gradually grew smaller, and his shoulders started to shake. "I don't want to spend the rest of my life as your didi!"
Xiao Yu'an hadn't expected their conversation to take this sudden turn.
His fingers twitched, and then his arms moved, as though of their own accord. As though to draw Ming Shu closer.
A foreign sensation coursed through his body.
It was a complete and utter loss of control.
He could no longer control this back-and-forth with Ming Shu. He'd lost his footing, his balance.
He lightly furrowed his brows. Right now, Ming Shu was trying to tug him into a raging riptide. Xiao Yu'an had already fallen into the water, but he still had one hand on the shore. As long as he didn't let go, he wouldn't be swept away by the tide.
But the force behind Ming Shu's eyes was softening, turning into something tender, gentle, and even sorrowful. Those feelings hadn't moved Xiao Yu'an in the past, but now—he released his grip on the shore, of his own accord.
He fell into that riptide.
"I dirtied the sheets, because I breathed in the scent of you. I lay there and thought of you, and when I thought of you, I…" Ming Shu clenched his hands into fists. He hadn't shouted much, but his voice was still turning into a hoarse rasp. "I washed the sheets, and you still want to scold me? Yell at me?
"I can't even like you secretly, silently? You don't want me, but you want to support me. You keep me fed and clothed, you give me everything I need. What am I supposed to do? I like you! I can't stop liking you!"
Xiao Yu'an's hands finally landed on Ming Shu's arms. He pulled Ming Shu into his embrace, calm and unhurried, as though he were completely unflustered by Ming Shu's outburst.
But Xiao Yu'an knew there was nothing unflustered about his response.
How could a person drowning in a riptide remain unflustered?
Ming Shu was shivering. In Xiao Yu'an's arms, that shivering only intensified. When Xiao Yu'an hugged him, he could even hear Ming Shu's teeth chattering.
What could be said, at a time like this?
Xiao Yu'an didn't know. He didn't know what he could say to calm Ming Shu. He could only smooth a hand down Ming Shu's back, trying to soothe the wounded, frantic little beast trembling in his arms.
Ming Shu buried his face against Xiao Yu'an's shoulder. The hot sparks bursting in his chest had destroyed his last shreds of rationality. He didn't even realize Xiao Yu'an had pulled him closer. He thought he'd flung himself into Xiao Yu'an's arms, and he thought Xiao Yu'an only didn't push him away out of pity.
He took slow, deep breaths, trying to calm himself as quickly as possible. He didn't want to show his impatience now. He didn't want to be hated.
But his hands had already subconsciously found their way to Xiao Yu'an's clothes, gripping tightly.
"I just like you," he mumbled. "Why don't you just throw me out? Just stop caring about me. You can even beat me up, cuss me out, before you push me away. It's all my fault, anyway. My fault for clinging to you."
Hearing those outlandish, borderline crazy words, Xiao Yu'an stilled his hand against Ming Shu's back.
It was then that he realized…
Ming Shu claimed he couldn't control himself. But Xiao Yu'an was the one who truly had no control.
Ming Shu said Xiao Yu'an could throw him out.
But how could Xiao Yu'an possibly do that?
He and Ming Shu… perhaps they were only making things difficult for each other now. Perhaps they were only troubling each other.
But that wasn't quite right either. Because Xiao Yu'an wasn't completely cold to Ming Shu. His heart wasn't devoid of feeling, for Ming Shu.
Ming Shu wasn't troubling him.
"You won't chase me away, and you won't let me like you," Ming Shu whispered, his voice growing even smaller now. "I snuck into your bed and touched myself, thinking of you. I didn't do it in front of you. I even washed the dirtied sheets. But you won't allow that either.
"You can't do that. You're unreasonable. How can you forbid everything I want? Everything good? Why can't you allow me just—just one thing, one path?"
Xiao Yu'an drew a deep breath. Ming Shu's words were like a physical touch, slowly wearing away at the soft spot in Xiao Yu'an's heart.
The hand resting on Ming Shu's back finally began to move again, stroking a path over the thin fabric of Ming Shu's pajamas. Xiao Yu'an didn't know if the warmth of his hand would be enough to seep through the shirt, to warm that trembling spine.
Ming Shu did feel a bolt of electricity shoot through his spine. That current was enough of a shock to help him regain his calm. It woke him up, brought him back to his senses. And at the same time, it stoked the impulsiveness, the fearlessness within him.
He suddenly planted his hands against Xiao Yu'an's chest and pulled himself back, opening up a distance between them.
He gazed into Xiao Yu'an's eyes. His youth, his vigor, his possessiveness all flashed through his own eyes. He'd resisted. He'd done everything in his power to resist, but in that instant, the last blocks of his self-restraint crumbled to dust.
Xiao Yu'an fell back onto the bed. A shadow passed through his eyes, and Ming Shu bore down on him.
When Ming Shu pushed him, Xiao Yu'an could have fended him off. Ming Shu's strength was a far cry from his own. If Xiao Yu'an had intended to resist, he could have already thrown Ming Shu out into the living room by now.
But when Ming Shu pushed, Xiao Yu'an hesitated. Only for a second. And in that second, he fell. His back slammed into the freshly made bed.
As he fell, he even pulled Ming Shu down with him.
He couldn't have extended a grander invitation.
Ming Shu pressed himself flush to Xiao Yu'an's body. His eyes burned. His whole body burned. When he took Xiao Yu'an's hands and pressed them down against the bed, he thought—
You ignited me. You lit this fire within me. You didn't resist, and now it's too late!
The fire had already been lit, engulfing them both.
Who could possibly escape?
Even if they could, would the scars from this scorching fire ever fade?
Xiao Yu'an closed his eyes.
Ming Shu's hands were searingly hot. His fingers were uncalloused. These hands were that of a young man, not yet worn and trained from years of work. They were the same as the body that bore down on Xiao Yu'an now—pure and inexperienced, like unpolished jade.
"Xiao Yu'an." Ming Shu's voice fell directly upon his ear. A tremor ran through that whispered name. "Xiao Yu'an, will you accept it? You'll never be my gege again, unless… unless you kick me down and throw me out right now. I…"
Before those final words fell from Ming Shu's lips, Xiao Yu'an opened his half-closed eyes again.
When he looked at Ming Shu, Ming Shu faltered. His heart practically stopped beating.
Xiao Yu'an didn't kick him down. He didn't stop Ming Shu from moving. He only took hold of Ming Shu and flipped him onto his back, reversing their positions.
It was Ming Shu who froze. When his back hit the mattress with a dull thud, he felt weightless. Lost. And after a moment, it was Ming Shu who parted his lips and called out, "Gege."
Xiao Yu'an enveloped him. With the light behind him, his eyes were pitch black—like the sea at night.
When Xiao Yu'an sank down against him, Ming Shu's pupils constricted. His whole body tensed with anticipation.
He had longed for the scent of the sea, and now—he was submerged by the sea he'd so fiercely desired.