MINT-STAINED SHIRT

Chapter 10

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When Ming Shu saw Xiao Yu'an, his eyes grew big and round. Just when he was feeling so miserable that he could have died, his gege appeared!

"Gege!" Ming Shu called out with all his might. He thought his voice would burst out of him, big and strong, but it came out as weak as the buzzing of a sickly mosquito.

Xiao Yu'an approached and pressed a hand to Ming Shu's forehead. Ming Shu didn't move a muscle. Xiao Yu'an's hand was cooler than his own skin, and it felt incredibly nice against his forehead. He nuzzled his head against Xiao Yu'an's hand after a moment, his long lashes brushing Xiao Yu'an's wrist.

His tears were gone, replaced by a brilliant smile. "Gege, you came to see me?"

The adults in their community were familiar with all the children who lived there. Ming Shu's grandfather, who had just left the room to wash an apple, recognized Xiao Yu'an when he came back to the room. He felt no need to continue sitting next to Ming Shu with another visitor there, so he stepped back out into the hall to get some fresh air.

Xiao Yu'an sat down on the edge of the bed. Just as he tried to take his hand back, Ming Shu cried out again, "Gege."

The little kid was so weak and sickly. Xiao Yu'an softened his voice by several measures when he asked, "Hm?"

"Touch it some more," Ming Shu pleaded. He didn't want Xiao Yu'an to take his hand away. "I have a fever."

Xiao Yu'an still felt bad for the kid, but he had to smile as well. What was up with the little sprout? Was he bragging about having a fever?

"Your hand feels nice against my forehead," Ming Shu mumbled meekly. "Can you keep it there for a little bit?"

Xiao Yu'an had never met such a clingy child. Once he stuck himself to Xiao Yu'an, there was just no way to tear him off. He left his hand on Ming Shu's forehead for a while, but Ming Shu quickly got tired of it.

"Gege," Ming Shu said. "Your hand isn't cold anymore. It doesn't feel good now."

Xiao Yu'an quickly snatched his hand back. Ming Shu had been using him as an ice pack?

When he touched Ming Shu's forehead, Xiao Yu'an had already noticed that Ming Shu didn't feel too feverish anymore. After spending the whole morning in the hospital, his fever must have started to go down.

But Xiao Yu'an still found himself asking, "Do you want a towel? I can get a damp one for you."

Ming Shu looked so pitiful that an unbidden memory came to Xiao Yu'an. He suddenly remembered a litter of puppies he had seen last winter.

A stray dog had given birth to a litter in the coldest season. Someone had thrown out a cardboard box, padded with shredded newspaper, for the dog and her puppies. Xiao Yu'an had seen the dog move her pups into the box, one by one, but he knew they were probably still cold.

When he passed the box with Cheng Yue and his other friends, Xia Zhong had teared up and wailed about how pitiful the puppies were. He squatted down, intent on petting and hugging them. Xiao Yu'an had stooped down and held one of the puppies as well. He still remembered the way that puppy had nuzzled into his hands, whimpering softly, just like Ming Shu sometimes whimpered.

The puppies and their mother were eventually taken in by Xia Zhong's mom. Once the puppies were weaned in the spring, they were adopted by other families in the community. One of the puppies was exceptionally bright, and it joined the army canines for training. The one that had stuck to Xiao Yu'an was the dumbest one, and Xia Zhong's mom was worried it wouldn't be able to get used to living with another family. She wound up keeping that puppy, as well as the stray who'd given birth to the litter, at her house.

Ming Shu was sniffling again. Xiao Yu'an came back to his senses and asked, gravely, "What are you crying about now?"

Instantly, Ming Shu stopped sniffling. He took two deep breaths before he said, "I don't want a towel. I don't want you to leave."

As he spoke, he reached out with the hand that wasn't attached to an IV drip. His hand crept closer and closer to Xiao Yu'an's, until he grabbed hold of one of Xiao Yu'an's fingers with a triumphant smile.

Xiao Yu'an had two cousins on his dad's side and even more on his mom's side. There were older kids and younger ones, but even the youngest kids weren't as clingy as Ming Shu. Xiao Yu'an pinched the back of Ming Shu's chubby little hand, which made Ming Shu giggle. He was almost like a beautiful toy doll.

After a while, Xiao Yu'an got bored. Whenever he stopped pinching Ming Shu's hand, Ming Shu would grip his fingers tighter. But Xiao Yu'an had no interest in playing these silly, childish games with the kid. He hadn't been there all that long, though; it was still too early to leave.

Just as he was trying to think of something they could talk about, a nurse came in and peeled away Ming Shu's blankets to apply some medicine for him.

It was only then that Xiao Yu'an saw huge swaths of heat rash covering Ming Shu's legs.

Ming Shu had been fine the day before yesterday, when he waited at Xiao Yu'an's house for a present. Xiao Yu'an obviously couldn't see through Ming Shu's clothes, but his legs, exposed by his shorts, had been pale and unblemished. There had been no redness on his skin at all. How could the heat rash have gotten so bad in just one day?

Ming Shu held up his own hospital gown and didn't make a peep while the nurse applied his medicine. But it must have made him itchy. Whenever the nurse touched him, his stomach tensed up. It was a bit funny.

"You little rascal. It's the middle of the summer, and you had your fan off? No wonder you got heat rash!" the nurse admonished as she applied the medicine. She already knew the reason for Ming Shu's admittance to the hospital. "Don't do anything so stupid again, understand?"

Ming Shu nodded obediently. "Thank you, auntie. I'll keep the fan on when I get home."

"But you can't keep the fan pointing at you all the time. That's how you got sick, you know?" the nurse warned. After she finished tending to Ming Shu's legs, she helped him straighten out his hospital gown and glanced at Xiao Yu'an. "Is this your gege?"

Xiao Yu'an instinctively wanted to say he wasn't Ming Shu's gege, he was just a neighbor. But then he saw Ming Shu look at him. Ming Shu's eyes were dark and damp, and needy and clingy. Xiao Yu'an got the feeling that if he said he wasn't Ming Shu's gege, Ming Shu would start whimpering again right away.

After a moment, Ming Shu murmured, "He's my gege."

He wanted a gege so, so badly.

The nurse smiled. "Gege, huh? That's good," she said. Turning to Xiao Yu'an, she continued, "A gege has to take good care of his didi. The next time he keeps himself cooped up at home, gege should go check on him. Make sure he's using his fan, but also make sure he isn't using it too much."

Xiao Yu'an couldn't say he was just a neighbor now, so he simply nodded and said he understood.

The nurse had other patients to attend to, so once she'd given Xiao Yu'an those instructions, she pushed her tool cart away and left.

Ming Shu's hospital room had three beds, but the other two beds were currently unoccupied. The patients who had shared his room had already gone home after taking an IV drip in the morning.

The afternoon sun was a little too harsh. Xiao Yu'an got up and drew the curtains halfway shut before returning to the bed. "You don't keep the fan on at home?"

Ming Shu lowered his head and nervously wrung his hands. Of course he'd wanted to keep the fan on yesterday. He'd almost passed out from the heat. But when the fan was on, it blew his craft paper everywhere. And his gege hadn't brought him a seashell gun, so he'd had to make one himself.

"Yesterday, I…" The gun was still incomplete, and Ming Shu didn't want to tell Xiao Yu'an about it yet. After thinking about it for a long moment, Ming Shu finally answered, ambiguously, "I had some stuff to do."

The vague answer, and the somewhat petulant tone, made Xiao Yu'an laugh. "Stuff? What kind of stuff made it so that you couldn't turn on the fan?"

Ming Shu had an even harder time answering that question. He fidgeted in bed, his hands drifting absently over the covers. "Just stuff."

Normally, Xiao Yu'an wouldn't go out of his way to ask any question twice. He just couldn't be bothered asking the same question multiple times when he didn't get an answer right away. Often, Xiao Jincheng would run up to him, claiming to have a secret, and those conversations would always go the same way.

Do you want to know my secret? Xiao Jincheng would say. Do you want me to tell you? You do? Well, I won't tell you! Ah, wait—no, don't go! Ask me again! Listen to me!

But seeing Ming Shu squirm like that elicited a rare curiosity from Xiao Yu'an.

"What stuff?" he asked with uncharacteristic persistence.

Ming Shu snuck a few glances at him and mumbled something unintelligible under his breath.

Xiao Yu'an could tell Ming Shu didn't want him to leave, so he deliberately stood up and said, "If you don't tell me, I'll leave."

Ming Shu instantly fell for it and panicked. "Gege, I'll talk!"

Bullying a sick child wasn't exactly a morally upstanding thing to do, and as a class monitor Xiao Yu'an was typically pretty upstanding. He felt bad after sending Ming Shu into an obvious panic, so he decided he would stop somewhere and buy something for the kid after he left. Maybe a tin of sweetened mints.

"I wanted to make a cardboard gun," Ming Shu confessed. He sat up and crossed his legs. His posture was good, but his face was incredibly red, and he soon started to wobble like a roly-poly toy. "The fan blew all my paper away."

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