MINT-STAINED SHIRT

Chapter 78

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Ming Shu only sat in the passenger seat for a short while before he realized something wasn't quite right with Xiao Yu'an's mood.

Earlier, after the New Year's reunion dinner at the Xiao family's house, Xiao Yu'an had invited Ming Shu to go out to the river to set off firecrackers. He'd sounded calm and tranquil then. Normal. Now, his whole being seemed to be pulled taut with tension, like something had happened in the two hours that Ming Shu was gone.

"Ge?" Ming Shu turned in his seat and looked over at Xiao Yu'an. "What's the matter?"

It was New Year's Eve. The streets on either side of the road were adorned with bright lights. Every nook and cranny of the city looked festive, but there were only a few cars on the road.

Xiao Yu'an drove steadily. He glanced over at Ming Shu and gave a light, inquisitive hum: "Hm?"

Ming Shu furrowed his brow.

He knew Xiao Yu'an way too well. Just from that hum, he could tell that something was really wrong. Xiao Yu'an was acting like nothing had happened. He was bottling up whatever had transpired in those two hours, refusing to say a word to Ming Shu.

"Ge." Ming Shu squeezed in closer to Xiao Yu'an. If he got any closer, he would make it difficult for Xiao Yu'an to drive. "Ge, something's going on with you."

Streetlights spilled in through the windows of the car, flashing over Xiao Yu'an's face as they passed. Light and shadow alternatingly played across his cheeks. Ming Shu didn't look away for a second. He caught the subtle flash of a reaction when Xiao Yu'an pursed his lips.

"I'm bringing you to the river to set off firecrackers. Isn't that what I have 'going on'?" Xiao Yu'an smiled. Just like that, the tension creasing his brow seemed to disappear.

But Ming Shu was too sensitive to these things. He knew. "Don't play with me, ge. I can tell."

Xiao Yu'an crinkled the corners of his eyes with his smile, and he didn't answer Ming Shu again.

Ming Shu didn't pester him any longer. He settled back in the passenger seat and gnawed on the inside of his cheek, mulling things over on his own.

It definitely didn't have something to do with work. If something had happened to one of his teammates, Xiao Yu'an wouldn't still be bringing Ming Shu out to the river to set off firecrackers.

Then was it a family matter?

Earlier that evening, everyone had been perfectly fine. A big, happy family. Besides, if it was a family matter, there would be no need to hide it from Ming Shu.

Ming Shu took a long, deep breath.

He was starting to understand.

This matter had to be related to him.

But during this visit, the elders of the Xiao family hadn't treated Ming Shu any differently than before. They still treated him as their own family's child. They doted on him, and they fussed over him.

It was only when Ming Shu wasn't present that Xiao Yu'an had been called out to talk about something relating to him. That talk had left Xiao Yu'an perplexed, and he wanted to hide the matter from Ming Shu. He was even sticking to their plans of going to set off firecrackers.

No, this hadn't been the plan.

Ming Shu actually could have spent longer with his grandfather, but Xiao Yu'an had called him back.

Xiao Yu'an had wanted to see him.

Ming Shu felt something swell in his chest.

Over summer break, while cutting ties with Ming Haofeng and Wen Yue, Ming Shu had plainly declared that he couldn't be without Xiao Yu'an. He'd laid all his cards on the table in front of the Ming family, but he hadn't been prepared to reveal everything to the elders of the Xiao family just yet.

He couldn't possibly face the Xiao family as carelessly as he'd faced Ming Haofeng and Wen Yue.

He would freely admit that he was a little scared. He was bold enough to bare his heart to Xiao Yu'an and deliver himself into Xiao Yu'an's hands, but he wasn't bold enough to declare to the Xiao family's elders—

I like Xiao Yu'an. I want to be with him.

Because he was afraid of hurting them.

Ming Shu had never received care and love from the Ming family, but the Xiao family had more than made up for it. The first time Ming Shu needed a parent to attend a meeting with his teacher, Xiao Lanyue had gone for him. All of Ming Shu's new toys had come from Xiao Yu'an's mother and aunt.

The Xiao family loved him like one of their own kids. And now that he'd grown up, he was trying to steal Xiao Yu'an away.

Normally, Ming Shu didn't dare think about these things. Because no matter how he thought of it, he was the one in the wrong.

He was the one who couldn't look the Xiao family's elders in the eye.

There was no right or wrong when it came to feelings like love. It wasn't something that could easily be controlled. Ming Shu liked who he liked. There was no way for him to stop liking Xiao Yu'an.

But the Xiao family's elders would soon be hurt by Ming Shu's inability to control his feelings.

They must have already known, and yet they waited for Ming Shu to slip away before confronting Xiao Yu'an. They wanted to leave Ming Shu his dignity.

At some point, Ming Shu had subconsciously curled his hands into fists against his knees. He clenched his fists so tightly that his shoulders started to shake.

The car suddenly slowed to a stop.

They had yet to reach the riverbank, but they could already hear the sounds of fireworks from afar. Xiao Yu'an parked at the side of the road.

Ming Shu came back to his senses and turned to look at Xiao Yu'an.

For a few minutes, neither of them spoke.

The one who opened his mouth first was Ming Shu.

"Ge. I think I know what happened." He lowered his head, and his voice dropped to a lower whisper as well. "Ming Haofeng told Uncle, didn't he?"

After a few seconds passed, Xiao Yu'an said, "Mm."

Ming Shu's suspicions were now confirmed. Even if he'd had all the time in the world to steel himself, he would have panicked. His heart pounded in his chest, and his palms began to sweat.

He wasn't even sure what he was panicking about.

Was he afraid Xiao Lanyue wouldn't approve? Was he afraid they would berate Xiao Yu'an? Was he afraid that their relationship would enter a stage of being obstructed by the Xiao family?

Or was he panicking because he was really, really desperate to know what Xiao Yu'an had said?

Xiao Lanyue was an extremely poised and dignified man. Moreover, he was a father who respected his children. Xiao Yu'an had inherited his disposition from Xiao Lanyue.

Ming Shu could imagine how Xiao Lanyue asked Xiao Yu'an about the matter.

But he couldn't imagine how Xiao Yu'an might have answered.

It's not what you think. Ming Shu is only living at my place.

Yes, Ming Shu did tell his parents what you heard. I can't control his feelings.

Us? There's no us. I still consider him my didi.

Really, there's nothing. You don't have to worry.

I'll take care of it. He's still young. It could be a phase, an impulse.

Nothing happened between us.

Ming Shu dug his nails into the flesh of his palms. If Xiao Yu'an had answered like that, what would Ming Shu do? What could he say?

They weren't really dating. Everything had been initiated by Ming Shu. Every time they touched each other, it was Ming Shu who made the first move. He was the demanding one, the needy one.

Xiao Yu'an allowed him everything he asked for, but it was like nothing had changed. It was like Xiao Yu'an was still only indulging him, the way he'd done for so many years.

Ming Shu had yet to truly steal Xiao Yu'an away. He had yet to become Xiao Yu'an's boyfriend. Xiao Yu'an was still the pride and joy of the Xiao family.

Desperation and despair rose within him. He felt aggrieved all over again, and those feelings clutched and clawed at his gut, twisting his stomach into a crumpled ball.

"He asked, when did things start between us," Xiao Yu'an said. His voice was as rich and mellow as smooth liquor, gently enveloping Ming Shu in its warmth.

Ming Shu couldn't make a sound.

They hadn't started anything at all.

Xiao Yu'an didn't even need to come up with any excuses. He could have just told his father the truth.

The car was silent for a while, except for the gentle whir of the heater that still ran.

"I told him, this summer," Xiao Yu'an said. "It started this summer."

Ming Shu's eyes suddenly flew wide open. Two pinpoints of light, like stars fixed in space and time, glowed from his pupils.

It felt like his brain had crashed, completely shutting down and failing to process the information he'd just received.

"This… this summer…"

After another pause, Xiao Yu'an confirmed, "Mm."

Blood raced through Ming Shu's veins. His pulse thundered in his ears. He'd thought, earlier, that his limbs were starting to go numb. But now, an explosive burst of vigor had filled him up, making him tingle and practically vibrate with energy.

"But we…" Ming Shu clutched at his pants, curling and uncurling his fingers several times and wiping all his sweat off on the fabric.

What was he supposed to say? What did he want to say? How was he supposed to express this… this excitement he felt? Was it simply shock? Or was it exhilaration?

He couldn't find the right words. He'd totally lost the capacity to form a full sentence.

He blurted out all the wrong things.

"But we haven't started anything yet."

Those, of all things, were the words that ultimately fell from his lips.

That obviously wasn't what he'd wanted to say. He grit his teeth in frustration, but he already heard Xiao Yu'an hum his agreement again.

Ming Shu suddenly regained a sense of calm.

His blood still felt like it was racing too quickly through his veins. Earlier, it had been speeding up. And now, it finally seemed to gradually slow.

He gazed at Xiao Yu'an, and Xiao Yu'an turned to him, calmly meeting his gaze.

No.

No, not calmly.

Xiao Yu'an wasn't calm at all. He was only able to keep his composure because he'd experienced six more years of life than Ming Shu.

Time and experience allowed Xiao Yu'an to appear calmer than Ming Shu, but that was only a facade. On the matter of love, how much more composed could Xiao Yu'an possibly be?

Ming Shu had even fallen in love early, shredding the promise he'd written Xiao Yu'an in his own handwriting. He'd started embracing those feelings when he was still in high school, while Xiao Yu'an never dated so early. Ming Shu was the one who'd dragged him closer and closer, into what they had now.

So there was no way Xiao Yu'an could be calmer than him.

Ming Shu suddenly felt a wave of immense satisfaction. The person he loved had lied to his family for him. The family had waited until Ming Shu was elsewhere to talk about him, and Xiao Yu'an had protected him. Xiao Yu'an had given an answer that wouldn't make Ming Shu seem like a fool who was alone in the way he felt.

Their relationship hadn't actually progressed to that step yet, but Xiao Yu'an already stood in front of Ming Shu, shielding him and taking the brunt of the blame upon himself.

"Ge." Ming Shu's heart felt swollen and sore. "Gege."

"Shall we walk?" Xiao Yu'an didn't know how to resolve the matter at hand either. He could only open the car door and change the subject.

He had just turned a corner in his life, stepping into uncharted waters.

After confessing a nonexistent relationship to Xiao Lanyue, Xiao Yu'an should have taken some time to be by himself. He should have taken the time to get his thoughts and feelings into order. But when he heard Xiao Lanyue heave a long sigh, all Xiao Yu'an wanted was to bring Ming Shu back to his own side.

If the thing that 'started that summer' was something wrong, then Xiao Yu'an was already embroiled in that wrongness. And he needed the one who'd wrapped him up in that 'wrongness' to reappear right away.

Outside the car, the harsh winter winds blew sharply in their faces. Ming Shu tightly clutched the collar of his coat. Xiao Yu'an walked in front of him. Ming Shu fell back two steps, not rushing to catch up, but not pulling too far away either.

The closer they got to the riverbank, the louder the sound of the fireworks became. Xiao Mu'ting and Xiao Jincheng were in the crowd of people setting off firecrackers. If Xiao Yu'an and Ming Shu advanced a little more, they would blend into that crowd.

Ming Shu stopped. He didn't want to set off firecrackers.

This place felt like the edge of the world, where only he and Xiao Yu'an stood. If they kept walking, their world would be filled with the breathing, the heartbeats, the existence of other people.

And love was something exclusive. Something that belonged to them and them alone.

"Ge." Ming Shu's gaze came to rest on Xiao Yu'an's back. "Then what are we, now?"

Xiao Yu'an stopped, but he didn't turn around right away.

Someone lit an extravagant firework that soared into the sky and exploded, like a billion stars bursting and dimming in the span of a second.

Those lights and shadows all flashed through Ming Shu's eyes.

"You said we started this summer," Ming Shu said. "But we didn't. This summer, I clung to you. But you didn't answer me. Even now, you haven't answered me."

He paused for a few seconds, then continued, "We're nothing."

Ming Shu knew he was putting on a cunning, perhaps even despicable, act.

He said all these things on purpose. He wanted Xiao Yu'an to think that he'd been wronged, that he deserved to be pitied and comforted. He was conspiring to get more of what he wanted. He'd been given an inch, and he wanted to take a mile.

He'd become bold and shameless again.

His plan to take things slowly, step-by-step, had already been shattered by his own two hands. But now, he was advancing again. Step by step.

Who told Xiao Yu'an to lie for him?

When Xiao Yu'an turned, Ming Shu had fixed his gaze to the ground. He didn't look up at Xiao Yu'an.

A distance of two steps remained between the two of them. But they were facing each other now.

"You won't go out with me, and you won't do it with me," Ming Shu mumbled. "You only touch me when I stick to you and cling to you. We… we've only touched each other…"

As those last words fell, Ming Shu saw Xiao Yu'an's boots enter his field of vision.

He wanted to lift his head, but a force had already hooked his chin.

His pupils constricted as another burst of fireworks lit up the sky. His lips met Xiao Yu'an's, and his every breath filled up with Xiao Yu'an's taste and scent.

His cunning plan had worked. Xiao Yu'an was kissing him, when all Ming Shu had wanted was to hear—

We aren't nothing.

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