MINT-STAINED SHIRT

Chapter 21

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School was back in session. On class registration day, Xiao Yu'an woke up and left the house bright and early in the morning.

Cheng Yue was squatting outside, waiting for him. Upon seeing Xiao Yu'an, he instantly complained, "Hurry up! We won't be able to get the good books if you waste any more time. Why are you dragging your feet today?!"

Class registration day was always a busy time for class officials. The taller, stronger boys were in charge of bringing the new textbooks for the year into each classroom.

This was the sort of thing elementary school students loved competing over. At the start of every term, there was a rush to get the best books. Those who arrived early could pick the nice ones, and those who got there late were left with books that were damaged in some way. Either the spines would be ugly or the covers would be crinkled and bent. In any case, those leftovers were the books that nobody wanted.

As a sports committee member, Cheng Yue felt responsible for getting the best books for his class every year. He urged all the capable boys in their class to rush for books early, and he felt Xiao Yu'an, as the class monitor, was equally responsible for securing good materials for their class.

Of course, normally, Xiao Yu'an also rushed into the fray to do his part. He was usually the one who went over to the Cheng family's house and waited for Cheng Yue on class registration days. But that morning, he had been delayed by Ming Shu.

After the sports festival, Ming Shu began to stick to Xiao Yu'an in earnest. Every day, Xiao Yu'an heard nothing more frequently than the little kid's sickly sweet voice calling out, "Gege."

But that was a problem of Xiao Yu'an's own making. Who'd told him to tell Ming Shu to listen to his gege?

He was the one who'd called himself Ming Shu's gege. How could he refuse to let Ming Shu stick to him now?

It was Xiao Yu'an's first day of school now, and Ming Shu would also have to start attending kindergarten. For a while, they wouldn't be able to see each other during the day. So, for the past few days, Ming Shu had come over to the Xiao family's house with his own pillow, saying he would miss his gege too much during the school year and wanted to sleep with him for at least a few nights.

Xiao Yu'an's bed was wide and plenty big enough to share with a little sprout. But Xiao Yu'an had slept alone for as long as he could remember. He just wasn't used to having someone else sleep next to him.

But Ming Shu had curled up stubbornly at the foot of his bed, saying he'd already told his grandfather that he was going to stay over.

Xiao Yu'an felt a bit helpless. Ming Shu had gotten way too used to clinging to him. Now, he didn't even want to go home to sleep. Xiao Yu'an took care of the little sprout at every turn, but he didn't want to suffer just for the sake of making Ming Shu happy.

If he didn't want to sleep with another person, then he shouldn't have to sleep with another person. It was no good, even if it was Ming Shu.

"Then I won't be a person," Ming Shu said. He sounded so bratty and petulant that Xiao Yu'an, despite his anger, laughed.

"If you won't be a person, what will you be?"

"Um… um…"

"Speak properly," Xiao Yu'an chided, a bit fiercely. Recently, Ming Shu hadn't been humming and whimpering as much. Whenever he would start, Xiao Yu'an would remind him to stop, and Ming Shu would obediently cut it out right away.

"You don't like sleeping with other people," Ming Shu said persistently. "So I won't be a person."

That wasn't an answer to Xiao Yu'an's question at all. Xiao Yu'an could only sigh and repeat, patiently, "If you're not going to be a person, what are you going to be?"

Ming Shu blinked his big, round eyes. "I'll be Mimi."

Xiao Yu'an was speechless.

Last week, his mom had visited and brought home a Persian cat for Xiao Jinlan. Xiao Jinlan had been beside herself with glee. She took the cat with her everywhere, and she even let it sleep in the center of her bed while she squeezed in on the edge. She cooed "Mimi, Mimi" at it all day and refused to let her three didi touch it; only Ming Shu was allowed.

Ming Shu had spent a lot of time playing with stray cats and dogs in the past, but it was his first time getting to pet and hold a cat that was someone's pet. He soon picked up Xiao Jinlan's habits, sweetly calling out to Mimi all the time.

"I can be Mimi," Ming Shu repeated earnestly. "But I won't sleep in the middle of the bed like Mimi. I'll sleep on the edge. Gege, just let me squeeze onto the side. I have to start school soon, you know."

Xiao Yu'an remained unconvinced. He wanted to say, What kind of cat are you? What kind of cat is as big as you?

But before Xiao Yu'an could say anything, Ming Shu started meowing. He just meowed and meowed in that soft, delicate voice of his, and there was simply no way Xiao Yu'an could refuse him.

And just like that, Ming Shu managed to con his way into Xiao Yu'an's bed.

Every night, Ming Shu would fall asleep on the side of the bed that was pushed up against the wall. The little thing had said he would just cling to the edge, but there was no way Xiao Yu'an could allow that. What if Ming Shu fell off in the middle of the night?

But by morning, every morning, Ming Shu would have rolled over to Xiao Yu'an's side. He grabbed at Xiao Yu'an's arms in his sleep, and even kicked at Xiao Yu'an's legs and waist. He wasn't like Mimi at all. He was just a little troublemaker.

And the little troublemaker liked to sleep in. During summer break, that was fine. He could sleep in all he wanted. Even if he said 'five more minutes' twice, that would only be a ten-minute delay. But on the first day of school, those were ten precious minutes that Xiao Yu'an couldn't afford to lose.

That morning, Xiao Yu'an had to get up early. Ming Shu was sprawled out over his stomach when he woke, still sleeping deeply. Xiao Yu'an had picked him up and put him down on the other side of the bed, at which point Ming Shu started mumbling something about how mean and annoying his gege was.

Hearing that, Xiao Yu'an poked and prodded Ming Shu's forehead until the kid woke up. Then he'd thoroughly scolded Ming Shu before heading out.

After wasting all that time, Xiao Yu'an finally got downstairs and Cheng Yue had long since grown impatient waiting for him.

But that delay didn't prevent Class 2 from claiming all the best books. A horde of sweaty boys made trip after trip from the textbook dispensary to their classroom until each and every one of their classmates had a set of pristine textbooks. No bent spines, no folded pages.

The homeroom teacher and a few others sat at the front of the room, collecting textbook fees as students trickled in to claim their books. The class soon filled up with noise. Everyone had missed each other over summer break, and their lessons wouldn't start in earnest just yet, so they spent the morning chatting and catching up. All the kids were eager to talk about what they had done over the break.

Xiao Yu'an wasn't in charge of handing out the textbooks; he'd split his duties with the members of the academic committee. He was in charge of claiming the books, and they were in charge of issuing them to students. While everyone else was busy, Xiao Yu'an sat near the back of the classroom and fanned himself with a notebook.

Lots of other boys in the class gathered around him as soon as they'd gotten their textbooks. There had been a World Cup that summer, and the boys were fighting over whether some quarterfinals match was more exciting than some semifinals match. They could get really worked up about that sort of thing.

Just as Xiao Yu'an was thinking about finding a quieter place to sit, he saw the top student in their class approach. This was an extremely skinny boy who loved nothing more than studying. After every break, he would always ask the other studious students what they read over the summer and how many practice questions they did.

Xiao Yu'an only ever did the summer homework they were assigned. Instead of extra practice questions, he would take some extracurricular courses over the break. Every time he said that, the top student would let out a breath of relief. But this time, after Xiao Yu'an finished recounting his summer, that skinny kid furrowed his eyebrows like an old man who'd eaten something sour.

"You're lying to me."

"How am I lying to you?"

"You said you didn't do any extra practice problems, but you didn't take any extracurricular classes either. What were you doing?"

The top student's voice was pretty loud. That question of his was enough to make the boys who'd been arguing about soccer turn around.

All of a sudden, Xiao Yu'an remembered that something had in fact been missing from his summer. He hadn't noticed it sooner because every day had felt pretty full and interesting. It was only when his class's top student brought it up that he realized.

After coming back from his visit to his other grandpa by the sea, Xiao Yu'an had planned on enrolling in a class to learn an instrument. But then Ming Shu started following him around, and Xiao Yu'an hadn't managed to learn anything new at all. He'd been too busy looking after the little kid.

But he didn't feel the need to explain all that to his classmates.

"You lied to me!" the top student accused again, getting worked up now. "Class monitor, you've been secretly doing practice problems!"

"Practice problems, practice problems, practice problems are all you care about. Who wants to be like you?" Cheng Yue retorted, striding up and giving the top student's head a push. "Our Xiao-ge has a didi now. He was busy taking care of his didi over the summer."

Xiao Yu'an wanted to shut Cheng Yue up, but it was too late. Everyone was interested now.

"Class monitor, your mom gave you a little didi?"

"It's the neighbor's kid," Xiao Yu'an explained wearily. His classmates were just too curious. Why couldn't they be this enthusiastic about math?

The boys clustered around him bugged him for a while longer before getting distracted by some other topic of conversation.

But Xiao Yu'an continued to think about his summer. He really hadn't done anything productive over the whole break. Xiao Jinlan had taken piano lessons, and Xiao Mu'ting had taken ice skating lessons. Only Xiao Yu'an and Xiao Jincheng had stayed home all summer, wasting away the days. Xiao Jincheng just didn't have any goals or ambitions, but Xiao Yu'an had purely been sidetracked by Ming Shu.

And yet, when he thought of Ming Shu trailing behind him all day, Xiao Yu'an didn't feel himself getting angry. So what if Ming Shu had taken up his summer? Playing with the little kid had been pretty fun, anyway.

Although he wasn't angry, Xiao Yu'an did still think it was pretty strange that he had allowed Ming Shu to dominate so much of his time over the summer.

Registration day ended after everyone reported in for class and picked up their textbooks. Classes wouldn't start until the next day, so the boys decided to have a soccer match before going home. After the game, Cheng Yue suggested going out to the ice skating rink in the city. A new rink had just opened up, and that was still something of a novelty in their area.

On their way to the rink, they just so happened to pass the kindergarten. It was nearly time for those little kids to get out for the day, and many parents had gathered outside. Xiao Yu'an saw Ming Shu's grandfather among them. He looked in that direction for a while before he suddenly turned to Cheng Yue and asked, "When you were in kindergarten, who picked you up?"

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