Hou Jianjun was unable to accept the reality that his son had been murdered. His muddy, disoriented gaze lingered on Ming Shu's face. Throughout his career as a detective, Ming Shu had spoken to countless family members of victims of homicide. But each and every time, he was filled with a deep sense of helplessness.
There was a saying: Each unfortunate family is unfortunate in its own way.
A detective wouldn't grow immune to tragedy simply after being exposed to a great many tragedies.
The pain was always deep and sharp. They could bring a killer like Hou Cheng to justice, but they had no way of healing a broken family or restoring what was lost.
Compared to Yang Nanke's death, the death of Hou Jiang caused even more heartache.
Hou Jiang may have been bad at expressing affection towards his father, and he may have rushed to escape their little village. To any outsiders, their relationship would have seemed cold and distant at best. But those two insurance policies were enough to prove that Hou Jianjun had always remained an important person in Hou Jiang's life.
Upon discovering he was ill, Hou Jiang didn't tell anyone. When he was desperate, he didn't rely on others. He went to work at a place like Pink Snow Paradise to support himself. Perhaps that was a stupid or ignorant decision, but it was an undeniably valiant, youthful struggle against death.
Had Hou Jiang been so desperate to make money so he could treat his illness?
Or had he known he wouldn't survive long enough to support his aging father? Had he worked hard, with an explosive burst of determination, in order to save enough money to allow his father to retire in peace?
"I suspect Hou Jiang intended to send the money he made back to Hou Jianjun," Hua Chong said. "Hou Jiang only went to the hospital twice. The doctors recommended he be hospitalized for treatment, but Hou Jiang only picked up his medication once. It's likely he had given up on surviving."
"If he'd told Hou Jianjun…" Ming Shu thought about it for a while. "The old man may have sold his house and his fields, just to scrape together enough money for Hou Jiang's treatment."
"Hou Jiang wouldn't do that." Hua Chong sighed. "Even a middle-class family can be bankrupt by a serious illness, never mind a single-parent family from a rural village like theirs. Hou Jiang didn't tell his father because he didn't want his father to know. This way, even if he passed away, he knew Hou Jianjun wouldn't live the rest of his life in poverty."
Ming Shu shook his head. "But he didn't consider the fact that Hou Jianjun would live with misery and regret for the rest of his life."
After a long moment of silence, Hua Chong added, "This may have been the best decision Hou Jiang had available to him."
Ming Shu couldn't argue with that.
People encountered all sorts of struggles and dead ends in life. Outsiders had no right to judge the decisions they made in moments of desperation.
"I'll take Hou Jianjun to the hospital," Ming Shu said, getting up from his seat. "From the hospital, I'll have to go straight to the high-speed rail station."
"You should rest for a while," Hua Chong urged.
"I'm fine, I can sleep on the train." Ming Shu flashed a smile. "I'll head out now. I'll treat you and Liu-laoshi to that drink next time."
By the time Hou Jianjun was taken to the hospital, he could no longer speak. In addition to Ming Shu, he was accompanied by a few members of the Luocheng police force. After getting Hou Jianjun settled, Ming Shu realized his train was due to depart pretty soon. He was just getting ready to head out to meet up with the other detectives at the rail station when he heard a clamor upstairs.
A phrase he had heard far too often lately shot through the air—
"You deserve to fucking die! You deserve to die! I'll kill you!"
It only took an instant for Ming Shu to realize what was happening. Upstairs, a patient or the relative of a patient was fiercely berating and perhaps even attacking a doctor.
Ming Shu pushed through the people milling about the halls of the hospital and sprinted up two flights of stairs. As he'd expected, he came across a tightly knit crowd locked in a scuffle.
From the center of all the chaos, a few shrill shrieks rang out. And suddenly, blood began to pool on the floor.
"Help!" someone screamed. "Dr. Wang has been stabbed! Someone has a knife!"
In emergencies, the security guards were always a beat too slow to react. Ming Shu caught sight of the bloodstained knife and instantly carved a path through the crowd, surging forward, flying through the air. His right foot shot out, forcefully kicking the knife free from the assailant's hands with a well-aimed strike.
The perpetrator dropped to the ground, clutching his wrist and howling in pain. Ming Shu was on him in an instant, flipping him over and yanking his hands behind his back to secure them.
It was only then that several security guards arrived, swarming up to help pin down the attacker.
The victim, Dr. Wang, had been stabbed in the thigh. He had already been lifted onto a gurney.
Chaos persisted. When the officers from the local police post arrived, the assailant was still screaming, "That Wang bastard couldn't save my mother! Why are you protecting him?! He deserves to die!"
Ming Shu sealed the knife in an evidence bag and handed it to one of the local officers. The local officer hastily accepted it, thanking Ming Shu over and over again.
"This Liu Hui fellow has caused a commotion many times before," the officer explained. "He keeps insisting Dr. Wang hurt his mother, but we looked into it. It's perfectly clear that Dr. Wang did nothing wrong, so why should he die?"
The officer sighed and shook his head before adding, "Now, the most troublesome thing is getting the doctor and patients…"
"The most troublesome thing is this violent mentality," Ming Shu murmured under his breath. "It's this trend of so easily deciding others deserve to die."
"Huh?" The officer hadn't heard him clearly. "Did you say something?"
"This is a suspect in an assault case," Ming Shu said. "Please take him back to the station and investigate the matter properly."
Due to the unexpected emergency at the hospital, the train had already departed by the time Ming Shu rushed to the rail station. Xiao Yu'an had changed their tickets for a later train and was waiting for him at the station's entrance.
"The others all left?" Ming Shu asked.
"No," Xiao Yu'an answered. "Your little rookie insisted on waiting for you."
"Tsk, he didn't have to do that." Ming Shu thought back and recalled that their seats had all been in the same carriage. He wondered if they would still sit together, after changing their tickets.
In truth, he didn't want to ride in the same carriage as Fang Yuanhang and the other detectives. Ming Shu didn't have any untoward intentions, it was just that… he was so fucking tired. This trip to Luocheng, especially these past few days, had completely wiped him out. He was on the verge of crashing, and all he wanted was to close his eyes, lean on Xiao Yu'an's shoulder, and sleep.
If his teammates were in the carriage with them, there would certainly be no leaning of any sort.
"We've all been split up," Xiao Yu'an said, as though easily reading Ming Shu's mind. "Since we changed our tickets at the last minute, we couldn't all be seated together. You and I are the only ones in Carriage 8."
Ming Shu let out a breath of relief. He entered the station with Xiao Yu'an to check in and board their train.
They were on the last train of the night now, which was much like a red-eye flight. There were no children on board, and nearly all the passengers fell asleep after the train left the station. It was an exceptionally quiet trip.
Ming Shu was worried Fang Yuanhang would suddenly come looking for him without warning. When the train first departed, he allowed himself to lean on Xiao Yu'an for a moment, but then straightened up again.
"Relax and sleep," Xiao Yu'an said. "If anything happens, I'll wake you."
Ming Shu was truly too tired. With just those words of reassurance, he allowed himself to sink in against Xiao Yu'an and fall into a deep sleep.
The train sliced through the dark, racing towards Dongye City. The window was like a mirror, reflecting Xiao Yu'an's profile with perfect clarity.
Ming Shu fell asleep with his head on Xiao Yu'an's shoulder, but soon he slipped and pillowed his head on Xiao Yu'an's lap. He slept deeply and began to dream.
In his dream, he was still working. Still investigating a case. The case. But the result, in this dream, was the exact opposite of the result he had achieved in real life.
He dreamt of setting aside the important case of Luo Xiangfu's death to chase after the scant few threads of clues he had on the Lu Kun and Li Hongmei cases. He rushed all the way out to Luocheng, talked to Hou Cheng and all the others, but in the end… couldn't prove Hou Cheng's guilt.
In Ming Shu's dream, Hou Cheng didn't kill Yang Nanke. And he didn't kill Hou Jiang. He only wrote a few suspense novels, filling them with the idea that 'some people deserve to die'. The publishers didn't confess to any wrongdoing in their manuscript review process, and Hou Cheng adamantly insisted he never had any intentions of inciting violence with his work.
And in this dream, Ming Shu didn't have Xiao Yu'an beside him. He only had Liang Zhao, the former captain of the Serious Crimes Division.
Ming Shu wanted to continue investigating. He had already seen madness, cruelty, and darkness in Hou Cheng's eyes. But no matter what he did, Ming Shu couldn't produce enough evidence to convict Hou Cheng of any crime.
The books of Entombed Heart continued to be displayed on the best-sellers shelf in bookstores across the nation.
More and more people continued to mumble, 'Some people deserve to die.' And more and more of those people began to pick up the executioner's knife.
New homicide cases popped up all over the country. People killed children for being too noisy. People killed doctors for being 'irresponsible' and failing to save their loved ones. The killers were all plainly Entombed Heart's fanatic followers, but Entombed Heart remained a free man.
Free to release a new book.
A book about butchering police officers.
It was then that Liang Zhao gave Ming Shu an ultimatum, ordering him to return to Dongye City immediately. Ming Shu wanted to plead for just a little more time, but Liang Zhao exploded in a fit of rage. He berated Ming Shu harshly for calling himself the captain of the Serious Crimes Division yet neglecting his open cases in favor of chasing down a meaningless lead. In Liang Zhao's eyes, Ming Shu had failed to do his duty.
Entombed Heart paid off various tabloid publications to dirty Ming Shu's name. Online, hordes of people began to malign Ming Shu and all the useless cops like him.
Attacked from every direction, Ming Shu had no choice but to hurry back to Dongye City. And just as he stepped back into the Criminal Investigation Bureau, another case was reported—
The victim matched Luo Xiangfu's description perfectly. A man in his sixties, who happened to be a hobbyist street photographer.
Liang Zhao summoned Ming Shu to his office and fiercely lectured him, insisting the killer in this new case was either the same person who'd killed Luo Xiangfu or a copycat killer. In any case, the second murder was undoubtedly related to Luo Xiangfu's death. Liang Zhao even said that if Ming Shu hadn't run off to Luocheng in the middle of this case, it would have been solved long ago and a second victim never would have been claimed.
Ming Shu was already blaming himself, and in the face of Liang Zhao's fury, he felt his whole body grow cold.
He had known, all along, that Liang Zhao didn't truly trust him or believe in him.
The only person Liang Zhao trusted was himself.
At this point, the dream became hazier and more convoluted. Ming Shu shifted restlessly in Xiao Yu'an's lap, making quiet sounds of discomfort every now and then.
Xiao Yu'an had placed a hand on Ming Shu's shoulder before closing his own eyes to rest for a while. When he heard Ming Shu's quiet mumbling, he looked down and moved his hand to the nape of Ming Shu's neck, gently massaging it to soothe away his unease.
Before long, Ming Shu woke up.
The lights streaking past outside were reflected in Xiao Yu'an's deep, calm eyes.
"What did you dream of?" he asked.
Ming Shu was still disoriented, not quite yet able to distinguish his dreams from reality. Before waking, he had just been under investigation by the internal affairs department. Accused of abusing his position and neglecting his responsibilities, he had to explain again and again why he'd gone to Luocheng to investigate Entombed Heart. And all the while, the panel of officers from internal affairs had only stared coldly, blankly at him.
No one believed him. No one believed in him. And no one would support him.
He dreamt, at just that time, that another murder, in another city, was committed by a perpetrator who cried, 'Some people deserve to die!' The victim was a woman in her fifties who had aggressively lectured a young man for not giving her his seat on the bus.
Ming Shu finally registered that he was looking at Xiao Yu'an's face, and it was only then that he was able to shake off his dream. Before he pushed himself up, he rasped, hoarsely, "Ge, are we there yet?"
"We're still a little more than twenty minutes away," Xiao Yu'an said. When he saw Ming Shu lifting his hands to rub at his eyes, he instantly slapped them away.
This was an extremely gentle slap, but Ming Shu still pouted.
Little gestures like that, little signs of care and concern… Ming Shu could only experience them when he was alone with Xiao Yu'an.
"You haven't told me," Xiao Yu'an said, "what you dreamt of just now."
"It was nothing, really. Just…" Ming Shu recounted the events of his dream to Xiao Yu'an, lightly taking Xiao Yu'an's hand as he spoke. "Ge, I feel really lucky. You let me go investigate Entombed Heart, and you always gave me advice and set me straight when I stumbled in the wrong direction. You handled everything over in Dongye as well. If it weren't for your support, Hou Cheng definitely would still be a free man."
Xiao Yu'an flipped his hand over and slid his fingers between Ming Shu's, lacing their ten fingers together.
"I've told you before. I'll always support you, and you can always depend on me." Xiao Yu'an squeezed his hand, adding just a little bit of pressure. "Some cases will go cold as soon as you take your focus off them for a second. If you go back to them after a long while has passed, they'll only be more difficult to crack. If someone has a suspect in mind, then it's worthwhile to chase that thread to its end. A detective needs a keen mind, and with this case—you did an exceptional job."
Ming Shu started to relax. "You're flattering me again."
Xiao Yu'an smiled. "What, you can't handle being flattered?"
"That's not it." Ming Shu's eyes brightened, filling up with light once more. "I like it."
They chatted for a short while before the train entered Dongye City. In just a few minutes, the train was due to pull into the station.
Ming Shu got up and reached for the luggage they had placed in the overhead compartment. When he stretched to grab their bags, the hem of his t-shirt rode up, revealing a sliver of his stomach.
Xiao Yu'an didn't say a word as he reached out and helped Ming Shu tug the hem back down.
"I'm still pretty sleepy," Ming Shu grumbled, punctuating his words with a yawn. "I can't sleep well on the train, and I even had nightmares."
"You can sleep in a proper bed when we get home," Xiao Yu'an said, taking their bags from Ming Shu. "You don't need to head into the Bureau tomorrow morning, so you can sleep in as late as you want."
Ming Shu raised his eyebrows. "The boss is encouraging me to skip work, huh?"
"I decided we would come back a day early just so I could give you some time off," Xiao Yu'an said. "Once you've slept enough, come by tomorrow afternoon. If you haven't slept enough by then, you can come back the day after tomorrow."
"Oi…" The corners of Ming Shu's lips twitched with a smile. "With a boss like you, I'll become pampered and spoiled."
"Be spoiled," Xiao Yu'an said. "Your boss wants to spoil you."
Ming Shu lowered his voice and whispered, "Boss, don't be like that. We're at the station already, and when we get off, I'll have to talk to Fang Yuanhang and the others."
"Hm?" Xiao Yu'an hummed, acting like he didn't understand what Ming Shu was getting at.
"Don't talk to me with that voice of yours anymore," Ming Shu said, covering his own face. "Can't you see you're making me blush?"
Xiao Yu'an laughed. When the doors opened, he stopped his playful teasing.
They briefly met with the other detectives at the exit, before everyone went their own way. Xiao Yu'an didn't just arrange for Ming Shu to have most of the next day off. He gave the others the same treatment; everyone who had gone to Luocheng was told they didn't need to report in at the Bureau until tomorrow afternoon or evening.
"I don't need a break!" Fang Yuanhang declared. He was the only one of the detectives on the scene who still seemed to have some energy. "Chief, I'll be at the office bright and early tomorrow morning."
Ming Shu stared at him blankly. "If you're told to rest, then rest. Where is all this energy coming from?"
"Is it wrong to be energetic?" Fang Yuanfang asked with a cheeky grin. "I don't have a wife waiting for me at home, anyway. There's no point hanging around there."
Those words were like an attack that caught nearly everyone in the blast. Most of the detectives present weren't married; naturally, Ming Shu didn't have a wife at home either.
Fang Yuanhang blinked as his colleagues all fell silent around him, finally seeming to realize: "Did I say something wrong?"
Xiao Yu'an smiled and said, "Even if you don't have a partner, go home and get some sleep. Once you're well-rested, you'll be able to do your best to solve Luo Xiangfu's case."
The high-speed rail station was a little out of the way, far removed from the heart of the city. Xiao Yu'an's home happened to be on the way back.
Ming Shu naturally went home with Xiao Yu'an, saying he wanted to take a bath there and relax. But after soaking in the tub for just a few minutes, he fell asleep.
Xiao Yu'an was tidying up in the bedroom when he heard a sudden absence of noise from the bathroom. He had already anticipated Ming Shu would fall asleep in there. This sort of thing had happened before, after all. Xiao Yu'an grabbed a thick towel and quietly nudged open the door to the bathroom, smiling fondly as he let out a sigh.
The position Ming Shu had dozed off in was really… not very elegant at all.
He had one leg slung over the edge of the tub and his other leg propped up against the wall. He had both arms folded behind his head, which lolled slightly to the side, and he was snoring softly as he dozed.
In the entire Criminal Investigation Bureau, perhaps even in the entire police force of Dongye City, there was no man who cared about his appearance more than Ming Shu. If he could allow himself to be seen dozing in such a haphazard state, he must have truly been exhausted.
Xiao Yu'an thought he made for an amusing sight, but of course his heart ached for Ming Shu as well. The water was still hot, though, and wouldn't cool down anytime soon… so Xiao Yu'an set down the towel and ducked back out to the living room to fetch his cell phone.
He took a picture of Ming Shu like that, snoring in the tub, naked, with his limbs flung out every which way.
But he'd neglected to turn off the sound of the shutter, and Ming Shu seemed to hear that snap of the phone. He shifted and mumbled something under his breath, but didn't fully wake up before settling again.
Xiao Yu'an thought back to when he had first accepted Ming Shu's feelings. Ming Shu had been determined not to show any of his flaws to Xiao Yu'an, always dressing up for him and making every effort to appear utterly captivating. He never showed Xiao Yu'an any hint of an 'ugly' side, always striving to be dazzling and beautiful.
Now, things were different.
The 'ugly' side had emerged.
Xiao Yu'an bent down over the tub and lifted Ming Shu into his arms. He heard a woosh of water, and instantly his chest, stomach, and legs were soaked.
Ming Shu didn't stir.
Xiao Yu'an wrapped him up in the thick towel and carried him out to the couch. After drying him off, he tossed the towel aside and didn't bother to dress Ming Shu. Instead, he only draped a light silk blanket over Ming Shu's waist.
This time, Ming Shu didn't have any nightmares. He slept deeply, soundly. The next time he woke, it was already the middle of the night. He blinked blearily and noticed there was only a dim light on in the living room, and Xiao Yu'an was nowhere to be found.
When he stood up, the thin blanket around his waist slipped off and fluttered to the floor. The silk caressed his body as it slid down, making him shiver. It was only then that he looked at himself and noticed he was buck naked. He huffed at Xiao Yu'an for being so irresponsible and leaving him in that state, then started to make his way towards the bedroom and study, calling out, "Ge?"
Xiao Yu'an was sitting up in bed, holding his cell phone.
Ming Shu, assuming Xiao Yu'an was still busy with work, leapt towards him with every intention of snatching his phone away. But not only did he miss the phone, he slipped along the way and flung himself directly onto the bed.
Well, in all honesty, the 'slip' was more or less intentional.
If the captain of the Serious Crimes Division was really clumsy enough to slip and fall, that would be far too lame.
Xiao Yu'an patted the space next to him and gestured for Ming Shu to come closer.
"I fell asleep in the bath earlier, didn't I?" Ming Shu asked, wriggling his way up the bed to sprawl out at Xiao Yu'an's side. "You fished me out. Why didn't you take me to bed? You made me walk over here all by myself, and you didn't even put any underwear on me. Are you a civilized man or not?"
"You seemed pretty comfortable without any underwear," Xiao Yu'an said. In the dim light of the bedroom, his features looked even softer and warmer than usual. "So, I didn't bother putting any on you."
"Is that so?" Ming Shu hummed. "No way, I'm not comfortable in the buff. I'm not a degenerate."
Xiao Yu'an smiled, though it was just a small, almost imperceptible, quirk of his lips.
Ming Shu shivered. "Ge, what's with the devious smile?"
"Sexy! It's sexy, okay?"
Xiao Yu'an waved his phone. "Come here, I'll show you something nice."
Ming Shu hurriedly stretched up to see. "What nice th…"
The end of the question got stuck in his throat as his eyes landed on the photo on Xiao Yu'an's phone. After blinking once, he exclaimed, "Holy shit! What kind of fucked up pose is that?!"
In the photo, a certain someone was sleeping soundly and gracelessly.
"I really looked like this when I was sleeping just now?" Ming Shu bemoaned. "I don't believe it! This is impossible! Ge, I'm not supposed to show this side of myself to you!"
Xiao Yu'an let him snatch the phone away, watching fondly as Ming Shu panicked over the photo. "It's real," he said, "and you were even snoring. It's too bad I didn't take a video."
"I'm deleting it," Ming Shu threatened as he clutched the phone in his hands.
Xiao Yu'an didn't move to stop him. "Go ahead."
"I can really delete it?" Ming Shu asked, looking up at Xiao Yu'an.
"I said I wanted to show you something nice, and now you've seen it," Xiao Yu'an said. "Of course you can delete it. It would be troublesome if someone else saw it, anyway."
And so Ming Shu deleted the incriminating evidence and threw Xiao Yu'an's cell phone aside. "What kind of 'nice' thing is this? Don't take any pictures like that ever again."
"How could it not be something nice?" Xiao Yu'an's gaze was deep and steady. His eyes were like dark pools in which Ming Shu could fully submerge himself.
Ming Shu instantly understood what Xiao Yu'an was thinking and feeling, but still he muttered, "Well, the 'nice' thing has been deleted now."
"That's alright." Xiao Yu'an wrapped his arms around Ming Shu. "A photo of the nice thing was deleted, but the nice thing is still right here."