National Day typically heralded the start of autumn, but it was still pretty hot after National Day that year. There was nothing wrong with playing with water in the yard for a while.
But Xiao Yu'an was kind of sick of washing with a tub. Military training had been rough; even trying to take a shower was like a battle.
The girls were treated well. They could shower for as long as they pleased. But that meant the boys' showering time had to be strictly limited. They were only given a total of five minutes per day, and in those five minutes every single boy at the training camp had to get themselves clean.
That was absolutely preposterous. It left them each with barely enough time for a cursory rinse.
Xiao Yu'an had a mild case of mysophobia, so he quickly came up with a plan to extend their showering time. He got Xiao Mu'ting, Cheng Yue, and a few other guys to go along with it. Every night, they filled up some plastic tubs in the communal bathrooms. Then they took them outside, stripped down to their underpants, and doused each other. That way, they could take their time.
But that was why Xiao Yu'an had seriously had enough of washing with cold water in a tub for a while.
Of course, Ming Shu had no idea about any of that. He filled a big washbasin with water and wobbled over to Xiao Yu'an. It looked like he was trying pretty hard to lift the tub, until he finally set it down in front of Xiao Yu'an and got ready to wash his gege.
Seeing Ming Shu like this, Xiao Yu'an felt a little amused. And a bit helpless.
Xiao Yu'an had been gone for the better part of a month. Surprisingly enough, he found he'd actually missed those constant cries of 'gege' in his ear.
Over the recent summer break, Ming Shu had stuck to him like glue. It had gotten to the point that Xiao Yu'an would sometimes find him annoying. Once in a while, Xiao Yu'an would demand that Ming Shu stay at least three meters away from him. Ming Shu obviously wasn't happy about that, but he was afraid of angering his gege, so he would stand three meters away and stamp his feet.
Now, after their month apart, Ming Shu didn't listen when Xiao Yu'an told him to stand three meters away.
Well, if he wouldn't stay away, then he wouldn't stay away. Xiao Yu'an supposed he could live with that.
Ming Shu genuinely believed his gege needed a bath; he'd never seen Xiao Yu'an so tanned before, and he didn't recognize the tan for what it was. Plus, when he got close and gave Xiao Yu'an a sniff, he discovered his gege was a bit smelly too. But Ming Shu wasn't like Xiao Jincheng, who was still delightedly running circles around Mu'ting-gege and crowing about how stinky he'd gotten. Ming Shu wanted to help his gege save face, so he'd only gently insisted on a bath.
It was better to say his gege was dirty than to say he was stinky.
This time, Xiao Yu'an didn't see through to the heart of Ming Shu's intentions. He insisted he didn't need a bath right away and that he would have a hot shower after dinner.
Ming Shu stood by the washbasin and rolled his eyes.
Xiao Yu'an studied him for a while, then ruffled his hair. "Did you lose weight?"
Of course Ming Shu had lost weight. He'd suffered an upset stomach for two days, which meant two days of diarrhea. Then, in the following days, he hadn't had much of an appetite and hadn't eaten much. He'd definitely grown skinnier.
But the matter of his upset stomach was a secret between him and Xiao Jincheng. He couldn't just blurt it out. Ming Shu was pretty sure it would have been okay to tell his gege, but he actually still liked the taste of mala skewers. If his gege found out they'd given him stomach pains, Ming Shu knew he wouldn't be allowed to eat them again.
Ming Shu really didn't want that to happen, so he decided to lie. Even to his gege. He shook his head and claimed, "Nope."
He never imagined his gege would bend down and pick him up right away.
"I'll be able to tell if I pick you up," Xiao Yu'an said.
As soon as he picked Ming Shu up, Xiao Yu'an could tell the boy had gotten lighter. But before he could ask about it again, he saw Ming Shu scrunch up his little face, looking absolutely miserable.
Gege is so stinky, Ming Shu thought.
He'd known his gege would be getting back that day, so he'd taken care to shower and change into a clean school uniform before rushing over to the Xiao family's house. Now, his gege was the one refusing to take a bath. His gege was getting him all stinky too.
But he still didn't want to call his gege stinky.
The little kid didn't say anything, but it wasn't long before Xiao Yu'an realized what he was thinking. Ming Shu had spent over a year sticking to him; how could Xiao Yu'an not figure it out? The little sprout obviously thought he smelled bad after getting home from military training, and yet Ming Shu was bearing it without saying a word.
Xiao Yu'an couldn't help but grin. He didn't bully Ming Shu often, but he didn't never bully Ming Shu. And today, he definitely wanted to bully him a little.
So the little kid thought he stunk? Then Xiao Yu'an would just have to get his sweat all over Ming Shu's nice, clean uniform.
When Xiao Yu'an suddenly hugged him tight, Ming Shu froze in shock. The only thing running through his head at first—
But after a short while, Ming Shu was overwhelmed by joy. He loved nothing more than being hugged by his gege. Whenever his grandparents scolded him, whenever he missed his mother, he would run over to the Xiao family's house and wriggle his way into his gege's arms. After a while, he wouldn't feel bad anymore.
His gege's hugs were magic.
Xiao Yu'an had thought that Ming Shu would start crying. In the past year, he'd corrected Ming Shu's habit of whimpering and mumbling to himself for no reason. But, perhaps because they'd gotten to know each other, Ming Shu wasn't so shy and withdrawn anymore. Nowadays, whenever he was unhappy, he didn't hold back. He would just run to Xiao Yu'an and cry.
But this time, not only did Ming Shu not cry, he cracked a huge grin instead.
Xiao Yu'an smiled too. "Not gonna cry?"
Ming Shu brought his hands up to his gege's face. "A stinky gege is still my gege!"
But the matter of Ming Shu losing weight wasn't forgotten so easily. After dinner, Xiao Yu'an showered, then called Ming Shu back over to his side and asked him why he'd lost weight.
It was an important matter because, half a year ago, Ming Shu had suddenly lost a ton of weight.
Wen Yue, Ming Shu's mother, had come for a visit during that time. Ming Shu had been so excited that he didn't visit the Xiao family for several days. It seemed his mother was planning to divorce Ming Haofeng, his father. But in the end, the divorce didn't go through.
Though Ming Shu was beside himself with joy over his mother's visit, his mother took her foul mood out on him. She didn't give him a smile or any warmth during her entire visit.
By the time Ming Shu returned to the Xiao family's house, he'd gotten a lot skinnier. The liveliness he'd gained over half a year with the Xiao family had disappeared, and he was down in the dumps for more than a week before his mood gradually started to improve again.
Now that Ming Shu had lost weight once more, Xiao Yu'an couldn't help but wonder if something else had happened within Ming Shu's family.
Ming Shu couldn't hide the truth any longer. He'd never lied to his gege much. If his gege hadn't kept asking, maybe Ming Shu could have hidden the truth. But now, the whole story came tumbling out.
As Xiao Yu'an listened, his eyebrows jumped up several times.
Getting an upset stomach was no small matter for a little kid, but at least Xiao Jincheng had taken Ming Shu to see a doctor. He'd even used his own New Year's money to pay for their bus fare. But in order to keep their families from finding out, the two kids had skipped class.
Ming Shu was only in first grade, and he'd already skipped class with Xiao Jincheng.
Xiao Jincheng was still hounding Xiao Mu'ting about playing junqi with him. He never could have expected disaster to befall him so soon. Although news of Ming Shu's stomach problems didn't reach the Ming family, everyone in the Xiao family soon found out. Xiao Zhengyun dragged Xiao Jincheng off for a lecture, and Ming Shu was scolded by Xiao Yu'an as well.
It wasn't that Xiao Yu'an forbade Ming Shu from eating food from the stalls outside their school. During Ming Shu's last year of kindergarten, Xiao Yu'an had personally bought him a lot of stuff from those food stalls. But there were things Ming Shu could eat and couldn't eat. Mala skewers were too spicy and seasoned too strongly; Ming Shu couldn't have them at his age.
Xiao Yu'an patiently explained his reasoning to Ming Shu, and Ming Shu just obediently nodded. There was no way for Xiao Yu'an to know whether or not the kid was actually listening. But Xiao Yu'an understood Ming Shu well. The little sprout was extremely well-behaved. If he promised not to eat mala skewers anymore, then he wouldn't eat them anymore. Even if Xiao Jincheng tried to goad him into it.
After patiently lecturing Ming Shu for a while, Xiao Yu'an suddenly got the sense that he had been doing quite a lot of lecturing for a kid his age. In his year of looking after Ming Shu, he'd taught the boy a ton of lessons. Although Ming Shu was well-behaved, he was still a little kid. And little kids naturally had a lot of bad habits. Ming Shu basically didn't have a mom or dad to educate him, and that meant he was left in Xiao Yu'an's hands, for Xiao Yu'an to mold any way he liked.
And Ming Shu seemed pretty happy to be molded.
Now that his gege was back, Ming Shu wouldn't have to walk to school with Xiao Jincheng. And now that Xiao Jincheng was relieved of his duty of watching over Ming Shu, he hastily got himself back on gate duty and began to flaunt his authority again.
Ming Shu passed him every day when he got to school, and he could never figure out what Xiao Jincheng was so proud of.
Even elementary school students were assigned a heavy load of schoolwork. Half the semester went by in the blink of an eye, and midterms came around before Ming Shu grasped any of the material. He didn't do well on his exams, placing 37th in a class of 40.
Parent-teacher conferences took place right after their midterm exams. His poor scores already weighed heavily on him, and now he saw the classroom fill up with other students' parents. While only his grandfather came for him.
Instantly, Ming Shu realized he wasn't the same as everyone else.