Ming Shu had realized that his life now was very different from what it used to be.
Back when he and Xiao Yu'an had been in a long-distance relationship, Ming Shu would stubbornly stick to Xiao Yu'an whenever Xiao Yu'an visited. He went everywhere Xiao Yu'an went. If Xiao Yu'an went from the balcony to the kitchen, or from the study to the bedroom, Ming Shu followed.
And Xiao Yu'an let him. He would only tease Ming Shu sometimes, asking, "Captain Ming, do your subordinates know you turn into a koala at home?"
Ming Shu would press Xiao Yu'an down on the couch and straddle his waist. He would bend down to kiss him, and to whisper, "No one else knows. Only you."
In truth, Ming Shu was quite tall. And he held such an important, impressive position at the Serious Crimes Division. It didn't really suit him to cling to his lover like a koala. But the times he got to see Xiao Yu'an were too short and too rare, and he loved Xiao Yu'an too much. Whenever those rare chances to meet came up, Ming Shu tried to make them last longer and longer.
If only he could make them last a lifetime.
He was only so clingy because he treasured every minute, every second he spent with Xiao Yu'an.
Now that Xiao Yu'an had been transferred to Dongye City, they could finally do away with the long-distance part of their long-distance relationship. Ming Shu felt like a man who'd lived half his life in poverty, only to win the lottery all of a sudden. He finally didn't have to cling so tightly to every precious moment with Xiao Yu'an.
When Xiao Yu'an went from the study to the bedroom, Ming Shu would still follow him. But when Xiao Yu'an went from the kitchen to the balcony, sometimes Ming Shu was too lazy to go along.
Xiao Yu'an brought in the laundry that they'd hung out to dry and smiled as he asked, "Captain Ming. Not in the mood to be a koala today?"
Ming Shu looked up from where he was sprawled out on the couch and decided to play dumb. "What koala? Who's a koala? Which zoo lost a koala?"
Xiao Yu'an left the laundry on the rack next to the sliding balcony door for a moment. He moved over to the couch and, through Ming Shu's pajama pants, gave Ming Shu's ass a firm slap.
Obviously, it didn't hurt. But Ming Shu still howled exaggeratedly, feigning pain. "It hurts! I'm injured! You can't treat an invalid like that!"
There was actually no 'injury' to speak of. It was just that a certain place had been overused last night.
Xiao Yu'an had already applied a soothing ointment to that certain place under Ming Shu's pajama pants, and the ache had disappeared a long time ago. Ming Shu lifted his upper body and flopped down across Xiao Yu'an's lap, settling in for a midday nap.
The entire Serious Crimes Division had a week off, but the Deputy Director of the Criminal Investigation Bureau wasn't able to enjoy such a luxury. Xiao Yu'an still had to go to the Bureau every day while Ming Shu slept until he woke on his own. For once, Ming Shu finally felt like he was living a relaxing, leisurely life.
Their rare, fleeting meetings were a thing of a past. And those times had truly been hell.
News eventually came from Luocheng. They reported that the village chief, Hou Jianjun, had made the arrangements to honor his deceased son Hou Jiang. The village chief's emotional state was slowly starting to stabilize.
Occasionally, the police from Luocheng and from the local police post would head out to the village to speak to Hou Jianjun. They patiently explained to him what the insurance policy Hou Jiang had purchased meant for him.
"Little Jiang made sure that I would live my final years in peace, that I could have any illness treated…" Hou Jianjun's face was streaked with tears. He clutched the cigarette lighter that he would never be able to give away. The police had placed Hou Jiang's bank cards and insurance documents in front of him.
The bank card was tied to an account with nearly a hundred thousand yuan in savings. It was all money that Hou Jiang had saved by working part-time during his studies. If he hadn't been afflicted by a brain tumor, it would have been enough for him to start a proper life for himself in Luocheng. He might even have brought his old man, who had only ever known the life of a farmer, out to live with him.
"Little Jiang wasn't an unfilial son. I know it! I know better than anyone!" Hou Jianjun tightly hugged the memorial photo of his son to his chest. A long while later, he lifted his head and said to the police, "Don't you worry about me. For Little Jiang's sake, I'll live a long and healthy life. If I die, there will be no one left to correct the people who think the worst of Little Jiang…"
Upon receiving that news from Luocheng, Ming Shu felt a swelling at the rims of his eyes.
In Dongye City, Fang Yuanhang took Chen Quanhan's letters and paid Chen Mi another visit.
Chen Mi refused to accept the letters, and she refused to accept Chen Quanhan's repentance.
She shut the door on Fang Yuanhang and kept it tightly locked, saying, "Please don't disturb me again. If Chen Quanhan is dead, then he's dead. It doesn't matter to me, and I don't care why he died. I don't have anything to do with him. Blood ties are actually the easiest things to sever. From the time he began to abuse and beat me, I haven't considered him my father.
"To me, the people who support you and the people you support in return are your family. Those bonds are eternal. Now, please leave. I don't want anything from that man. Whether it's good or bad, I don't want any of it."
The irreconcilable differences between this father and daughter made Ming Shu think of his own family situation.
During his time in Luocheng, Ming Shu had already given some thought to paying his parents a visit. But Luo Xiangfu's case had yet to be closed at that point. There was no way he could have taken time off work.
Now he finally had time.
But to go home so suddenly… felt incredibly awkward.
Over the past years, he'd gone home with Xiao Yu'an many times. His visits to the Xiao family vastly outnumbered his visits to the Ming family. The older generation of the Xiao family adored Ming Shu, and Xiao Yu'an's siblings and cousins had long since come to consider Ming Shu their own little brother.
Sometimes, Ming Shu just couldn't understand it. Their families had similar backgrounds, similar structures. His own parents and Xiao Yu'an's parents. His own paternal grandparents and Xiao Yu'an's paternal grandparents. How could these people be so different?
After Ming Shu and Xiao Yu'an confirmed their relationship, Xiao Yu'an had once spoken to his own father alone. Ming Shu didn't know what they talked about, but after that conversation, the Xiao family completely accepted Ming Shu as one of their own.
As for Ming Shu and his parents, it had taken countless years of friction just to reach a point where they mostly stayed out of each other's lives.
Chen Mi had said blood ties were the easiest things to sever, and that true family bonds were forged between people who supported one another.
Ming Shu agreed wholeheartedly with the latter part of her words.
The most valuable family ties were the ones forged out of mutual love, respect, and support. Those bonds often happened by chance, and they had to be treasured. But for some, cutting off their blood ties was no easy matter.
Otherwise, Ming Shu wouldn't have thought of his parents when he heard the stories of Hou Jianjun and Chen Quanhan. He wouldn't have been possessed by the urge to go home.
"I'll go back with you," Xiao Yu'an said as he took an extension cord out of the cabinet.
Ming Shu had wanted to eat hotpot that day, but he felt hotpot restaurants were too crowded and noisy. They'd ordered the ingredients for delivery, and he had gotten out their portable induction burner. But the cord wasn't long enough to reach the nearest plug.
Plates of various meats and vegetables covered the whole dining table once their ingredients arrived. The two of them could enjoy a feast that would have satisfied a whole roomful of guests.
"You have time?" Ming Shu asked. He took the extension cord from Xiao Yu'an and finally plugged in the induction burner. Soon after he turned it on, the soup in the pot began to gurgle.
"My workload is relatively light right now," Xiao Yu'an said. "I can free up two days over the weekend."
Ming Shu was still a little hesitant. "Do you think it would be a nuisance for me to go back right now?"
"Your mother's birthday is next month," Xiao Yu'an said while mixing a dipping sauce for Ming Shu. "We can consider this visit a chance to wish her an early happy birthday."
Ming Shu blinked. "I almost forgot."
"You didn't forget. You just didn't know how to bring it up," Xiao Yu'an said as he started adding ingredients to the hotpot. "Although you never received much affection as a child, you always saved a spot in your heart for your parents. And they never forgot their son, either."
Ming Shu lowered his head. His lashes trembled faintly.
"You don't need to compare your parents to my parents. Every family is different," Xiao Yu'an continued. After letting the beef cook for ten seconds, he fished out a few slices and placed them in Ming Shu's bowl. "Since you want to see them, go see them. There's no need to overthink things. We're all adults now, and we don't have to cling too tightly to the past. There isn't a deep loathing between you and your parents. Simply a distance, a coldness. You aren't like Chen Mi and Chen Quanhan."
Ming Shu picked up a piece of the thinly sliced beef with his chopsticks. "I know. I just… I don't know how to explain it. I just feel awkward."
Xiao Yu'an set down his chopsticks. "Lift your head. Look at me."
Ming Shu instantly lifted his head.
Xiao Yu'an's eyes were warm, but it wasn't a soft and gentle sort of warmth. His eyes burned with a heat that could have reinvigorated all living things.
"Ge…" Ming Shu breathed, almost subconsciously.
"You want to care for your parents, but you feel some shame over wanting to show that concern. That isn't necessary. They aren't strangers, they're your family," Xiao Yu'an said. "I'll go with you, and if ever there's anything you struggle to cope with, just turn to me. I'll be with you, so you won't have to worry about anything."
The soup boiled. The roiling bubbles individually only made a small noise, but they came together to create a cacophony of sound.
In the end, they only finished half of the food they'd laid out. They both knew it was because Ming Shu had heavier matters weighing on his heart.
After washing the dishes, Ming Shu wrapped his arms around Xiao Yu'an's waist. "Ge, do you think I'm a bit too sensitive?"
Xiao Yu'an gave him a meaningful look. "That depends on what kind of 'sensitive' you're talking about."
Ming Shu instantly picked up on the implication and pinched Xiao Yu'an's waist without holding back any of his strength. "Emotionally! I mean emotionally! Are you still thinking about doing 'homework', you deviant?"
The other day, in the car after the raid, Lu Yanzhou had called Ming Shu sensitive. Ming Shu had been mulling that over for a while, and he was starting to think he might really be a bit sensitive. Otherwise, he wouldn't have spent an entire hotpot meal anguishing over something like paying a visit to his parents.
"Your heart is very soft," Xiao Yu'an said.
"Tsk." Ming Shu frowned. "That doesn't sound like a compliment."
Xiao Yu'an wrapped his arms around Ming Shu in an answering embrace. "You just need a hard shell to protect you."
"And you're that hard shell?" Ming Shu's playful, indecent streak flared up. "Alright, boss. I get it. You just really want to stress that… you're very hard?"
Xiao Yu'an smacked Ming Shu's lower back. "You smell like hotpot. Go take a shower."
Ming Shu's parents, Ming Haofeng and Wen Yue, currently lived in the capital. When Ming Shu called to ask if they had time over the weekend, Wen Yue instantly replied, "Yes. Yes, we do. Are you coming back by yourself, or…"
Ming Shu's tone was extremely formal. He sounded even more professional and business-like than he did when making a report to Director Li.
"I'll be coming with Xiao Yu'an."
Wen Yue was silent for a few seconds, and her tone had changed slightly when she spoke again. "Okay, please do. I'll prepare a room in advance."
On Saturday morning, Ming Shu and Xiao Yu'an boarded a flight to the capital and arrived at the Ming family's house by four that afternoon.
The timing was good. They didn't have to sit down together at a dining table right away, but dinnertime wasn't far off either. It gave them a good amount of time to get used to one another.
Ming Haofeng was an extremely busy man, and he rarely spent any time at home. Ming Shu had known that fact ever since he was little. But as soon as he stepped into the courtyard of his house, he saw Ming Haofeng standing outside., dressed rather stiffly and formally.
There were some things that didn't need to be said. Ming Shu knew right away that Ming Haofeng had gone out of his way to clear his schedule in order to wait for Ming Shu at home.
It was rare for them to come together as a family, but there was very little they could say to each other. When they sat together, the tension in the room was palpable. Ming Haofeng and Wen Yue had been absent during Ming Shu's childhood and youth, and in the few years before Ming Shu became self-sufficient, he'd treated Ming Haofeng and Wen Yue like they were strangers who simply passed through his life every now and then.
They couldn't make up for that now, and none of them felt a need to try.
In some ways, Ming Shu was extremely similar to Ming Haofeng and Wen Yue. They were all people who kept their eyes on the future. What happened in the past could stay in the past, as far as they were concerned.
Ming Shu presented the gift they'd prepared for his mother—a jade carving. Wen Yue's reaction was muted when she accepted it, but her voice finally held a small tremor when she said, "Thank you."
Ming Haofeng received a gift from his son as well. It was a rather hard-to-find box of tea leaves.
Both of these gifts were handed over by Ming Shu himself. Xiao Yu'an stood beside him and watched on in silence.
Dinner was a strained affair. The conversation between Ming Shu and his parents remained awkward and stilted, but Ming Shu could suddenly tell—they were all trying to find their footing. His parents were doing their best to find a way to communicate with him, and to ask how he and Xiao Yu'an had been doing in the year since their last visit.
That was probably the most Ming Haofeng and Wen Yue were capable of doing, considering their positions and dispositions. They would never be like other families, other parents, who could warmly inquire about their children's lives.
Underneath the table, Xiao Yu'an gently squeezed Ming Shu's hand.
Ming Shu drew a deep breath, then stood up. He reached for a bowl and filled it with soup, offering it to his mother. "Mom, this soup is very fragrant. Please, try some."
In that moment, Ming Shu saw tears well up in Wen Yue's eyes.
"Okay. Thank you." Wen Yue accepted the bowl, but her gaze lingered on Ming Shu's face for a long moment.
"Dad, let's have a toast." Ming Shu poured a cup of liquor for his father. "Just one drink, it'll be fine."
Ming Haofeng's facial features were cold and stiff, but his expression had softened somewhat a long time ago. He stood, lifted his cup, and clinked it against Ming Shu's before downing the liquor in one gulp.
When Ming Shu sat back down, Ming Haofeng remained standing. He filled his cup again and turned to Xiao Yu'an. In that thick and overly formal tone that many important public figures had, he said, "Let's have a toast as well."
Xiao Yu'an stood, calm and dignified.
The clink of their cups was quiet, but that soft, crisp noise said as much as a thousand words.
After dinner, Ming Shu and Xiao Yu'an didn't return to the Ming family's house to stay the night. They'd booked a hotel room in advance.
It had been Xiao Yu'an's idea to stay at a hotel.
Xiao Yu'an was the most level-headed one when it came to matters of the Ming family's situation. He was also the one who had the clearest understanding of how they functioned as a family. Wen Yue had prepared a room for them bright and early that morning, and Ming Shu had a faint desire to stay at home, but Xiao Yu'an had told him—
It wouldn't have been appropriate.
Wen Yue wanted to play the part of a good mother, and Ming Haofeng wanted to bring harmony to their family as well. But this was a long process. They could dine together, but staying the night was sure to bring some tightly hidden thoughts and emotions to the surface.
They had to get closer while maintaining a healthy distance as well. It was difficult to strike that balance, and Ming Shu wouldn't have been able to do it on his own.
Fortunately, he had Xiao Yu'an there to help him.
"Compared to you, I'm like a child who doesn't know anything," Ming Shu said back at their hotel room. He sat at the edge of the bed and dried his hair as he spoke. An aromatherapy diffuser spread a faintly sweet scent through the room.
"Children should just concern themselves with work," Xiao Yu'an said, leaning back against the headrest of their bed. "They can let others help them with personal matters."
Ming Shu grinned. "Why do I feel like I'm being trained?"
"Aren't you being loved?"
"I'm being reminded to worry about work even while visiting my parents," Ming Shu complained.
Xiao Yu'an shifted and nudged Ming Shu's waist with his foot. "Come here."
Before returning to Dongye City, Ming Shu met with Wen Yue one more time. This time, they met at an elegant teahouse. Ming Haofeng hadn't come, and Xiao Yu'an also kept a distance, not sticking to Ming Shu's side.
Compared to yesterday, Wen Yue seemed much more relaxed. She asked her son about his life, about his work, and Ming Shu answered her questions one by one. The two of them finally seemed, at least somewhat, like a mother and son.
Later, Wen Yue wanted to ask about Xiao Yu'an, but couldn't seem to find the words. Ming Shu could tell what she was struggling with, and he earnestly answered, "We're doing well. Really well. He's my boss after his transfer, and we're living together now."
A light flashed through Wen Yue's eyes. After a moment, she smiled faintly and shook her head. "Did you know? Your father and I didn't marry for love."
No one in the Ming family had ever spoken of this before, but Ming Shu had known from a very young age that his father didn't love his mother and his mother didn't love his father.
When he grew a little older, Ming Shu came to understand their situation. His parents had married solely for business reasons. Theirs was a union of power and influence. They were less like romantic partners and more like business colleagues.
And Ming Shu wasn't a product of love. He was a living business contract.
Wen Yue and Ming Haofeng didn't love each other. So how could they love Ming Shu like ordinary parents?
Ming Shu wasn't terribly surprised that Wen Yue brought this up today, but he suddenly came to a realization—
He'd always known his parents and Xiao Yu'an's parents were very different, despite coming from similar backgrounds. But those differences had nothing to do with their backgrounds or their social status. Xiao Yu'an's mother and father loved each other, while Ming Shu's parents were simply chess pieces in a game played by their respective families.
"I didn't want to marry him, and he didn't want to marry me," Wen Yue said, looking down into her teacup. "But we had no choice. We had to marry, and we had to have you. In the blink of an eye, tens of years passed. Your father and I have both suffered for this fabricated family. I know I never showed you the love of a mother. When you were small, I was afraid of seeing you. I… every time I saw you, I would remember everything I'd lost because of this marriage."
Ming Shu listened calmly. His mood and expression hardly changed.
At this point in time, he didn't hate Wen Yue. He only felt sorry for her.
"We've both lost many things, and gained many others. Ming Haofeng and I both gave up on the ones we loved when we entered our marriage. I've never regretted it. Even now, the Wen family and the Ming family are on good terms. They benefit each other greatly. But…" Wen Yue drew a long, slow breath. A helpless smile came over her. "Sometimes I do wonder what my life would be like now if I had rebelled against my parents' wishes."
Ming Shu watched her silently, listening patiently.
"When you were determined to enroll in the University of Public Security despite our opposition, I thought about my own past more than ever," Wen Yue continued. "Setting aside our relationship as mother and son, I feel we went through many of the same things."
Ming Shu nodded. "Right."
"But you feel for a m… for Xiao Yu'an. And you were brave enough to chase after him. You renounced the path we'd laid out for you in order to pursue him. You were willing to cut all ties with us." Wen Yue paused there for a moment. "When I was eighteen, why wasn't I as wild and free as you? Why wasn't I as brave?"
Ming Shu didn't know how to answer her.
There was no way for an eighteen-year-old youth to know what the future held, but not all decisions made by young people were based solely on impulses. Even at eighteen, Ming Shu had known—or at least firmly believed—that Xiao Yu'an was worth any sacrifice.
That was the foundation of his courage and his rebellion, of his drive to carve a path through life that led him to Xiao Yu'an.
"I don't regret my decision. I don't regret marrying your father or having you," Wen Yue continued softly. "But, these past years, I've often thought that I truly admire my son. He did what he believed was right. He chose his own career and became an elite in his field. He pursued the person his heart desired and caught him. He's living a happy life."
An indefinable feeling suddenly surged up in Ming Shu's chest.
He had never known his mother was a woman with such fine, delicate emotions.
Wen Yue let out a long sigh. "I'm glad. My incredible son is walking the path I once gave up, and he's walking it well. Any regrets I may have had are soothed by what you've achieved for yourself."
"Mom…" Ming Shu's voice was deep with emotion.
Wen Yue smiled. "If you ever want to visit again, the Ming family's doors will always be open to you and Xiao Yu'an."
Their weekend trip came to an end. When their plane landed back in Dongye City, Ming Shu's week-long vacation came to an end as well.
Yi Fei had sent him a message on WeChat—
A band of traditional instrumentalists are going to be performing at Jiangnan Theater soon. They're still running previews before their official opening, and the higher-ups say we should attend a showing to unwind since we've been working so hard. You're the captain. When the time comes, you lead the charge.