In recent years, the business of live performances was booming. Dongye City's Performing Arts Association was practically making more money than they could spend. With their overflowing coffers, they constructed a new office building on a scenic riverbank in Nan District.
That year, with the onset of spring, the various departments of the Performing Arts Association had started moving into their new office. After half a year, their dilapidated old building, located in Dongye City's old arts and culture district, was left completely abandoned.
The last department to move was the traditional instruments department.
One day, in June, Sha Chun hauled her luggage out of the old building and prepared to board a bus that had been sent to take her department to the new office. She paused on the sidewalk and turned back to look at the building where she had worked for nearly ten years.
She had deep feelings for that place.
The sky was gloomy. Black clouds bore down on the rooftops. The threat of rain was heavy in the air.
Beneath those black clouds, the big letters spelling out 'Dongye City's Performing Arts Association' on top of the building were being dismantled by a team of construction workers.
That old building had stood there for over thirty years. It had gone through several renovations. Elevators had been installed where originally there were none, and air conditioning now flowed through the building where originally only electric fans provided relief from summer heat. That building had witnessed many fluctuations in the Performing Arts Association's business, and it had seen Sha Chun grow from a young student to a proper working member of society.
And now, that building had been sold.
The new owners had purchased the building solely because of its location. Situated in the heart of the old arts and culture district, the building was close to many historically significant tourist attractions. Its new owners intended to turn it into a budget hotel for visitors from all over the country.
The black clouds were lit up by a murky flash of lightning. Rolling thunder ensued.
Sha Chun instinctively flinched and drew up her shoulders. Her eyes filled with gloom.
It was a reaction that was perhaps typical of all sensitive souls.
The windows of the bus couldn't be opened. One of Sha Chun's colleagues ran to the door of the bus and called out to her, "It's going to rain soon, come on! Don't hold everyone back!"
It was only then that Sha Chun realized everyone on the bus was waiting for her.
She awkwardly rushed to board the bus, repeatedly apologizing along the way.
As the bus began to move, she heard one of her male colleagues griping in the seat behind hers.
"Everyone is happy about moving to the new building. She's the only one who's throwing a fit about it," he groused. "I mean, for fuck's sake. I heard from Ren-jie that our department was supposed to move last month. But this chick complained that we had a performance coming up, and moving would cut into our rehearsal time. That's why our move got delayed until now.
"Is she crazy? How much time could it possibly take just to move to a new office? She doesn't have any skill or talent. Just because she needs more time to rehearse, she holds us all back from moving? This building is so old and shitty. Traffic to this place is hell, and there isn't much parking. I have to park more than a kilometer away every day! Spending an extra month here… tsk, that really pisses me off!"
The woman sitting next to him whispered, "Forget it, forget it. She's sitting right in front of us. Be careful, she could hear."
"So what if she hears? She should hear it!" the man declared. His voice grew louder and louder. "People without any talent shouldn't be in this industry anyway. But she cries about working hard and gets the bosses on her side. We had to suffer in this shithole for an extra month in order to wait for her to rehearse, and we had to sit on this bus and wait for her to 'take in the sights'. What's next? What are we gonna have to wait for her to do in the future? She shouldn't be called Sha Chun at all. She may as well change her name to Little Princess Sha!"
The bus wasn't full. Sha Chun sat in a row by herself. Hearing all this, she tightly clenched her hands in her skirt.
Rain pounded against the windows as the bus traveled through the heavy downpour that had started up. Outside, the landscape became a blur of white.
That male colleague was still ranting. "See! Look at this rain. We're definitely going to hit traffic on the bridge. If that crazy bitch hadn't dragged her feet, we would have been out of the old arts and culture district ages ago. All of our problems are her fucking fault!"
"Cut it out!" the woman next to him snapped, finally unable to tolerate any more of his complaints. "It's just rain. What could happen? Just stop running your mouth already."
A middle-aged colleague of theirs, sitting one row behind them, actually spoke up in agreement with the man. "I'm sick of her pulling her 'hard work' and 'diligence' cards too. Does that really make her so admirable? If she can't get a song down, of course she has to work overtime to practice. That's to be expected. Is that something we should praise her for, or something she should be proud of?
"For traditional musicians like us, talent is much more important than hard work. Diligence is worth nothing. Less than nothing, even. She should be ashamed of having to put in all that extra work."
Sha Chun's eyes had started to redden. They were covered by her bangs, which fell over her forehead. As the bus was slowed by traffic on the bridge, she listened to the chatter all around her and lifted a hand to wipe at the corners of her eyes.
At the new building, the traditional instruments department had been assigned an entire floor. But only half of the offices on that floor faced the river.
Sha Chun's primary instrument was the guzheng, and she was assigned a practice space that faced away from the river. She didn't have any complaints, and she went about her work as usual. On any day without a recital, she was the first to arrive at the office and the last to leave.
The Performing Arts Association of Dongye City had originated as a government institution. It later transitioned into a public company, but it still received many benefits and resources from the government. It essentially monopolized the music and theater scenes in Dongye City; all plays, concerts, and recitals were planned and marketed by the Performing Arts Association. Their business was, therefore, extremely lucrative.
Most of the positions within the association were given out through 'connections', rather than interviews available to the public.
For those who weren't overly ambitious, working for the Performing Arts Association was a dream come true. The work was easy, the pay was high, and all their business trips felt more like leisurely vacations. All year, they had the privilege of attending concerts and plays for free.
A hard-working person like Sha Chun was an anomaly in a group like that.
In August, the traditional instruments department received a new arrangement for an upcoming recital. They gathered in the main rehearsal hall and practiced until the end of working hours, but their sound still wasn't perfect.
Normally, when such a situation arose, Sha Chun would be the one to suggest working overtime to rehearse a while longer. But she said nothing that day. When working hours ended, she only packed up her guzheng and murmured to everyone, "Good work."
Then she was off, swiftly rushing out of the hall.
The man who had fiercely complained about her on the bus some time ago was shocked. "She's leaving, just like that? She isn't going to work overtime?"
"I heard Sha Chun took a second job at a training institution. She has to get to class," said one of the other women who also played the guzheng.
Everyone began to gossip about this as they packed up their instruments.
"Which institution? Our salary isn't bad. Why does she need a second job?"
"Oh, it's just one of those faux-classy workshops. Sha Chun is teaching the guzheng, pipa, and hulusi there. She's just swindling money from people who don't know the difference between good music and bad music, I suppose."
"How much money could she possibly make from that? She doesn't need to go out of her way to do that sort of thing, does she?"
"Who knows? I also heard a rumor that Sha Chun used our association's name to get in touch with some people from the film and television industry. She's already recorded for a few short films and such."
"Her family situation isn't all that bad, is it?"
"How could it be bad? If they were in a bad financial state, how could they have paid for her to learn to play so many instruments? If they didn't have connections, how did they manage to send her to our association?"
"Then why is she putting herself through so much?"
No one could come up with an answer, and most of the other members of the association simply saw Sha Chun as a sort of joke.
The summer sunset cast a golden, red glow over the river. Sha Chun sped along this illuminated river on her bicycle. Her silhouette soon disappeared into the distance.
As the sun dipped below the horizon, a dark night quietly enveloped the city.
Outskirts of Bei District.
Sirens wailed. Half the street was lit up by flashing red and blue lights. A group of people, all dressed in different styles, were being ushered out of the side door of an old, filthy hot springs inn. They were being escorted into waiting police vans in a single-file line. Officers from the Special Police Force stood around, heavily armed. Three helicopters circling overhead, whirling through the night sky. All the roads to the area had already been closed off.
Three days ago, the Special Police Force had received a valuable and reliable tip. A major deal was going to go down just outside the city. Key players who had always lurked in the shadows were expected to make an appearance.
The police of Dongye City had had their eye on the shady organizations operating in the outskirts of Bei District for a long time already. Their invisible net was in place, just waiting to be reeled in.
This operation was critically important. The Special Police Force had sent their most formidable troops, and Ming Shu had personally led the Serious Crimes Division out to lend support to their flank.
"Little Ming!" Lu Yanzhou took off his helmet, revealing a wound on his head. "Thanks for your help."
"What do I need your thanks for?" Ming Shu retorted. It was rare for criminal detectives to have to wear special gear. He stripped off his combat vest and tossed it into the back seat as soon as he climbed into a waiting police car. Furrowing his brow, he turned back to Lu Yanzhou and asked, "What happened to your head?"
"It's nothing," Lu Yanzhou said. "Just caught a bit of shrapnel."
"Fuck, how is that nothing?" Ming Shu hurriedly pulled a medical kit out from under the car seat. "You weren't wearing your helmet at the start? How come the shrapnel didn't go right through you?"
"Your big bro has fate on his side," Lu Yanzhou gloated with a laugh. "We have a newbie with us. Dunno where he left his helmet, so I gave him mine."
Ming Shu had trained in tactical medicine during his time with special ops. After confirming that Lu Yanzhou's wound wasn't serious, Ming Shu started treating it while mocking, "Is that something to laugh about? Aren't you in charge of all your rookies? And now one of them has forgotten his helmet before going into combat. What the hell have you been teaching them?"
Lu Yanzhou hissed when the medicine stung his wound. He pinched his own thigh, hard, to divert some of the pain. "Oi, be a little gentler! You're fucking hurting your big bro! Fuck!"
Ming Shu felt bad for his friend, but he didn't coddle Lu Yanzhou. He applied all the medicine that needed to be applied, and when he was finished, he even gave Lu Yanzhou a hearty slap on the back. "Take back what you just said."
Lu Yanzhou didn't catch his meaning right away. "Huh? Which part? You fucking hurt me?"
The other officers in the car were fighting back laughter.
"The thing before that!" Ming Shu snapped, impatient and ill-tempered.
"Be gentler?" Lu Yanzhou asked.
Ming Shu shot him a cold glare.
It was only then that Lu Yanzhou remembered. "Oh, you mean that part about your big bro having fate on his side? But I do have fate on my side. If that bit of shrapnel had come at me at a slightly different angle, I would've been in deep shit."
"Don't talk like that." Ming Shu sighed. "You're a member of the Special Police Force. You face drug traffickers and terrorists all the time. Don't raise that kind of flag for yourself."
Lu Yanzhou laughed. "So that's what you're worried about. Little Ming, you're really pretty sensitive, huh? You're so caring, so sweet. You're worried about your Lu-gege, aren't you?"
"Fuck off." Ming Shu gave Lu Yanzhou a push, then hugged his own arms around himself and closed his eyes to rest for a while.
He'd only recently wrapped up the long series of cases that had started with Lu Kun. Before he got the chance to take a proper break, he'd had to join up with the Special Police Force to assist in this raid. He couldn't deny that he was exhausted, and a bit overwhelmed.
"Oh, that's right. I still haven't managed to complete the job you gave me last time," Lu Yanzhou said. He turned to Ming Shu and added, "You're sleeping?"
"No." Ming Shu's voice was faint, barely more than a hum. "What job?"
"You know. Finding Chi Xiaomin," Lu Yanzhou said.
Ming Shu suddenly felt more alert again. "Still nothing?"
"Mm, absolutely nothing. She's completely disappeared. She's definitely not some ordinary unregistered citizen." Lu Yanzhou laced his fingers together behind his head. "I'd say she's definitely a 'ghost', and a very well-trained ghost at that. But I don't get it. If she's a well-trained little ghost, what was her motive for getting close to Li Hongmei?
"She was the one who asked Li Hongmei to read Entombed Heart's book. Why did she have her eye on Li Hongmei? Was she trying to drag Li Hongmei into her organization? But there are no signs that she was interested in anything like that.
"I've put a ton of thought into it, and I can only think of one possible explanation—Chi Xiaomin knew about what happened twelve years ago in Xia Ben Village, or maybe she was also a victim. By setting Li Hongmei off, she could get her revenge as well."
"There's no evidence of that," Ming Shu said.
Ming Shu had also put a great deal of thought into the case of Chi Xiaomin. Perhaps even more than Lu Yanzhou, and certainly not any less. He'd discussed the situation with Xiao Yu'an several times, but neither of them could make heads or tails of the information they had.
It was impossible to say Chi Xiaomin had nothing to do with Li Hongmei's crime. Chi Xiaomin's words and actions had, in part, driven Li Hongmei to act. But if they were to say Chi Xiaomin was a critical piece of the puzzle in Li Hongmei's crime… that didn't really check out either. Li Hongmei had planned her actions a long, long time ago.
And Chi Xiaomin's sudden disappearance was the strangest part.
Ming Shu rolled down the car window to get some air. But the more the wind blew over his face, the hotter he felt.
He had been a police detective for many years now, and he rarely experienced intense emotional fluctuations due to the words and actions of suspects or victims. But this time was different.
Li Hongmei. Hou Jiang. Luo Xiangfu. Yu Caixin.
A complicated, tangled web of fate had ensnared them all, resulting in tragedies that were hard to accept.
When they killed me, did they not feel horror?
Yu Caixin's words still echoed in Ming Shu's ears. And at that very moment, the women of She Tu Village were still suffering under the oppressive men who trampled on their desire for freedom.
For three years, Wen Li had fiercely believed she would be able to change She Tu Village. Even if it took more than a generation. Even if it took two, or three. But when she learned the truth behind Luo Xiangfu's murder, she became unresponsive for a long time. Until finally, she whispered, "It was my fault. Luo-laoshi was hurt because of me."
When she left Dongye City, Wen Li said she wouldn't return to She Tu Village.
"I tried so hard, but I'm left only with regrets. If I hadn't tried so hard, at least Luo-laoshi wouldn't have died. What good did all my efforts do? Everything I did was unnecessary. I made things worse.
A door to freedom had been cracked open for the women of She Tu Village. It had opened, just a sliver, because of Wen Li's relentless efforts. But now, quietly, that door slid back shut as though it had never opened at all.
The police car stopped in front of the Criminal Investigation Bureau; Ming Shu hadn't gone back to the Special Police Force headquarters with Lu Yanzhou. His gaze traveled up the side of the building until he found Xiao Yu'an's office window. The lighters were off.
All capable divisions had been mobilized for that night's operation. Xiao Yu'an might have still been tied up in meetings at the provincial office.
Ming Shu didn't call him, but he didn't go home by himself either. He went upstairs and showered and changed at the Bureau. After tidying himself up, he heard a clamor from downstairs. But before he could go check it out, his cell phone started ringing.
"Not sleeping at the office tonight, are you?" Xiao Yu'an asked.
Ming Shu glanced left and right, checking his surroundings. Then, lowering his voice, he whispered, "Ge, where are you?"
"Come downstairs," Xiao Yu'an said. "I'll wait for you in front of the noodle shop."
The noodle shop referred to a little la mian restaurant about five hundred meters away from the Bureau. Before Xiao Yu'an transferred to Dongye City, he would sometimes park there when visiting Ming Shu.
Ming Shu grabbed his things and a bottle of juice, then rushed downstairs and past the other officers who'd been part of tonight's raid. He made a beeline for the noodle shop.
He finished his drink before reaching Xiao Yu'an's car and flinging himself into the passenger seat.
Just as Xiao Yu'an moved to start the car, Ming Shu reached out and pulled him over by the nape of the neck.
"Do I have the day off tomorrow?"
"You can have the next week off. You've been busy lately."
Ming Shu was already leaning halfway out of his seat and into Xiao Yu'an's arms. "Then kiss me."
Streetlights bled in through the windows of the car, illuminating Xiao Yu'an's eyes.
Xiao Yu'an lowered his head and kissed Ming Shu on the lips.
Ming Shu had just finished a bottle of suanmeitang. His whole mouth tasted sweet and sour. He sucked on Xiao Yu'an's tongue, then thrust his own tongue into Xiao Yu'an's mouth as though to fight for dominance. He threw himself fully into the kiss, but was soon overpowered.
Xiao Yu'an did everything adeptly and unhurriedly. He was that way when it came to solving cases, and he was the same way when it came to kissing Ming Shu.
Ming Shu's eyes widened when a hand settled at the nape of his neck. Xiao Yu'an's kiss consumed him, invading his body and mind. Ming Shu had clearly been the one to take the initiative, but Xiao Yu'an had once again taken the lead.
The sounds of their passionate clash of tongues and teeth filled the car. Ming Shu had bullied his way over to the driver's seat earlier, but he found himself pressed back into the passenger seat now, with Xiao Yu'an's weight bearing down on him. The sweet and sour taste in his mouth was replaced by a burst of copper.
He'd nicked the tip of his tongue.
Xiao Yu'an sucked away the scant few droplets of blood that swelled up. He buckled Ming Shu's seatbelt before pulling back.
Their eyes met, and they held each other's gaze for a long moment. Gradually, Ming Shu began to feel flushed. Almost feverish.
Xiao Yu'an got them on the road. The car sailed down the nearly empty streets. Ming Shu licked over his own teeth with his tongue, then said, "I wasn't finished. I had something else to say."
"What?" Xiao Yu'an asked.
"Xiao-laoshi," Ming Shu stated bluntly. "We have a day off tomorrow. Your student wants to turn in his 'homework'."
Xiao Yu'an smiled. "Of course."
Ming Shu's place was closer to the Bureau, but since he had the next week off, Xiao Yu'an planned on taking him home.
Xiao Yu'an's little neighborhood, far from the heart of the city, was quieter and more tranquil.
The drive wasn't short. After throwing out such a fierce declaration, Ming Shu fell asleep in the passenger seat. Xiao Yu'an watched him for a while after parking in the garage, then reached over and pinched Ming Shu's chin, giving his head a gentle shake.
"Wake up," he murmured. "You can sleep at home."
Ming Shu scrunched up his face, like he wanted to beg for five more minutes before getting out of bed. He blinked blearily at Xiao Yu'an a few times before mumbled, "Ge, you won't carry me?"
"Walk by yourself," Xiao Yu'an said.
Ming Shu grumbled and stayed curled up in his seat for a while longer before finally climbing out. "Tsk, fine. If you want me to walk by myself, I'll walk by myself."
It was only a short walk from the garage to the front door of their building, but it was enough to wake Ming Shu up.
As they stepped into the elevator, Ming Shu patted his own face and mused, "I've become a miserable husband."
Xiao Yu'an gave him a pat on the head. "Please tell me, Ming-xiansheng. In what way have you become a miserable husband?"
"You don't spoil me anymore," Ming Shu complained. "You never used to wake me up when I fell asleep. You would carry me home, in your arms or on your back. Now you don't dote on me anymore."
Xiao Yu'an had indeed carried Ming Shu a lot throughout their lives, especially when they were kids.
Ming Shu had no siblings. Whenever the Xiao family did anything fun, Xiao Yu'an usually brought Ming Shu along.
One year, Xiao Jinlan fell in love at a young age and got herself a handsome boyfriend. She wanted to go on a date, but she was afraid their parents and grandparents would find out. So she decided to take her little brother Xiao Yu'an, as well as their cousins, out with her for a camping trip by the river. Of course, the real purpose the younger boys served was to provide a cover story for her date.
When Ming Shu heard about the trip, he'd been thrilled beyond belief. He spent all night packing his things, messing around with his bags until daybreak. Then he went over to the Xiao family's house to wait outside at the crack of dawn, without having slept a wink all night.
Children had a lot of energy, but even kids couldn't withstand that much excitement. When they got to the riverbank, Xiao Yu'an and his same-age cousin Xiao Mu'ting set up the tent and the grill for their barbecue picnic. Ming Shu had wanted to help, but he was dragged away by Xiao Yu'an's younger cousin, Xiao Jincheng, for a water fight.
By nightfall, Ming Shu was so tired that his head kept drooping forward.
But Xiao Yu'an had told him there would be a meteor shower that night. Ming Shu was desperate not to fall asleep.
Xiao Jinlan spread out a thick blanket on the riverbank and called Ming Shu over. She urged him to nap for a while and promised to wake him as soon as the meteor shower began.
Ming Shu fell asleep as soon as he lay down.
The others waited until they were all yawning nonstop, but the meteors never came. One by one, they gave up and crawled into the tent to sleep. Xiao Yu'an saw that Ming Shu was still sleeping soundly and didn't have the heart to wake him. He picked Ming Shu up and carried him to his sleeping bag.
That was when they were kids.
Many years later, when they were grown, Xiao Yu'an still often carried Ming Shu while he slept. Sometimes Ming Shu was awake and perfectly aware he was being carried, but would pretend to be asleep.
Sometimes, Ming Shu wanted to carry Xiao Yu'an too. But Xiao Yu'an was a light sleeper, and Xiao Yu'an was also taller and heavier than him. Ming Shu couldn't just pick him up, and he would have a hard time carrying Xiao Yu'an on his back as well.
"You're too heavy," Xiao Yu'an deadpanned. "I'll throw out my back if I carry you now."
The elevator doors opened. Ming Shu stepped out and turned back to Xiao Yu'an. "Then I'll never ask you to carry me again," he promised solemnly. "Come. I'll massage your back for you, boss."
He stepped into their apartment as he spoke. As soon as the door was shut behind them, before they even turned on the lights, Ming Shu's back hit the door. His uniform was torn away, and Xiao Yu'an's calloused hands began to travel a well-mapped path down the planes of his back.