MINT-STAINED SHIRT

Chapter 41

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Xiao Yu'an returned with Xiao Lanyue. At that time, Xiao Yu'an was already the same height as his father. He was displeased, insisting he didn't need anyone to send him home. But Xiao Lanyue had insisted on going with him.

"Don't be such a baby," Xiao Yu'an's mother chided fondly, tousling his hair as she explained on his father's behalf. "Your papa is about to be deployed again. He was planning on leaving soon anyway. No one's going out of their way to take you home."

Xiao Yu'an thought, Then do you have to call me a baby?

The bonds in their family had always been nice and harmonious. There wasn't much distance between the parents and the children, and issues rarely arose. Sometimes, Xiao Yu'an didn't understand why Ming Shu's life was so hard when they came from families with such similar backgrounds. Xiao Yu'an could think endlessly about it and still come up with no answer, except that each family faced its own struggles.

When they got home, their car passed the Ming family's yard. Xiao Yu'an looked up at the second floor of their house. He'd passed that house countless times before, and he would often see Ming Shu leaning out a window on the second floor, waving to him and calling out, 'Gege!'

Back when Ming Shu had only been five or six, Xiao Yu'an had worried about the little sprout falling out of the window. He'd forbidden Ming Shu from leaning out of windows like that. But now that Ming Shu was bigger, Xiao Yu'an didn't watch over him as closely anymore.

Ming Shu, at the very least, knew how to take care of himself and ensure his own safety. As his gege, Xiao Yu'an understood that much.

Now, all the windows on the second floor of the Ming family's house were closed. Ming Shu probably hadn't gotten back yet.

"Worried about Little Shu?" Xiao Lanyue asked. He'd attended two parent-teacher meetings on Ming Shu's behalf. Even if he didn't consider the boy his own son, he at least felt some concern for the kid as well. "Ming Haofeng is very similar to Old Man Ming. They're not very patient with kids like you. But Little Shu is his own son. He wouldn't go so far as to do anything to Little Shu."

The car stopped in front of the Xiao family's house. Xiao Yu'an got out with his luggage. "They haven't done anything for Ming Shu," he said. "He's already been hurt by their neglect."

Xiao Lanyue froze for a moment, then sighed. "But at the end of the day, they're Little Shu's family. No matter how much you care, you're an outsider. Understand?"

Xiao Yu'an frowned, like he wanted to say something, but he swallowed it back in the end.

Blood ties were extremely important. Blood ties should have been enough to foster affection, and an unconditional sort of affection at that. Ming Shu had spent many years with Xiao Yu'an as well as the other kids from the Xiao family. Xiao Yu'an, his sister, and his cousins were all Ming Shu's gege and jiejie. But they weren't qualified to fully take responsibility for Ming Shu's life.

Ming Shu's last name was Ming, and he carried the Ming family's blood in his veins. Years ago, when they first attended a parent-teacher meeting for Ming Shu, Xiao Lanyue had said they were crossing a line.

It was just that they'd had no other choice back then. Ming Shu had needed an adult to visit his homeroom teacher.

Xiao Yu'an found the significance of these blood ties rather hard to accept.

Using the excuse of blood ties, grown relatives could do anything they wanted to a child and call it an act of love. If a kid didn't understand, then that was their fault. They were labeled ungrateful and unfilial.

But if that was what it meant for familial love to be 'unconditional', then unconditional wasn't a good thing.

Among people who weren't related by blood, even more intimate and caring relationships required a greater deal of caution. Even when acting out of affection and concern, one had to always think of whether or not their actions were appropriate.

In elementary school and middle school, Xiao Yu'an hadn't understood all these things. But now, he did finally understand why his father had been so hesitant about stepping in for Ming Shu's parents back then.

Xiao Jincheng was out somewhere, running around like the wild child that he was. Xiao Mu'ting came downstairs to greet them, giving Xiao Yu'an a solemn look.

Xiao Yu'an instantly knew something was wrong. He followed his cousin out to the courtyard.

New Year's had come late that year, and the weather was already growing warmer and warmer. Tender green sprouts were already emerging from the branches of the barren trees. They swayed in the wind as a breeze blew past.

But a blanket of dark gray clouds pressed down from above, making it difficult for anyone to feel the joy of the approaching spring.

"Ming Shu is back." Xiao Mu'ting jerked his chin in the direction of the Ming family's house. "They had a huge row over there last night, but I couldn't hear what they were saying. And it's been all quiet today."

"When did he come back?" Xiao Yu'an asked in a deep, grave voice.

Ming Shu usually kept his window open, especially after getting heatstroke as a kid. That was why Xiao Yu'an had taken the closed windows as a sign that Ming Shu hadn't gotten home yet.

"Just last night," Xiao Mu'ting said. "Ming Haofeng brought him back. I didn't see Wen Yue. Based on what I heard… I think they beat Ming Shu."

A dark, twisted expression came over Xiao Yu'an's face.

"People usually wouldn't come back so soon from a funeral, right?" Xiao Mu'ting asked. He clapped Xiao Yu'an on the shoulder. "It's a good thing you're back. You can go over and see what's going on. Xiao Jincheng wanted to go, but I stopped him. He can't handle serious stuff like this. He's always causing trouble."

Had he still been in middle school, Xiao Yu'an would have gone over without thinking twice. But he was older now, and he had to take a lot of things into consideration. He went into his own house first and unpacked some of his things, finding some souvenirs he'd brought back before heading over to the Ming family's house.

Ming Haofeng was in the courtyard. He frowned as soon as he saw Xiao Yu'an.

Xiao Yu'an had only met Ming Haofeng a few times, and he had a very basic impression of the man. Ming Haofeng's expression was always cold and stiff, and his eyebrows were always furrowed with a frown.

"Uncle Ming," Xiao Yu'an greeted. Although he didn't like this family, he never failed to be courteous. "You've returned? This is something I brought back from the sea. It's good for making soup."

Ming Haofeng took a moment to study Xiao Yu'an. His lips remained twisted into a stiff frown. "Thank you. Come have a seat inside."

Xiao Yu'an followed him into the living room.

The living room was only dimly lit. Ming Han was sitting with his eyes closed, listening to a Chinese opera. Subconsciously, Xiao Yu'an's eyes flickered to the stairs.

If everything were normal, Ming Shu would have raced down the stairs long ago. But those stairs were quiet now. That quiet was almost eerie beneath the music of the opera.

"Is Ming Shu not home?" Xiao Yu'an asked. He deeply suppressed the fire in his heart and spoke with a calm that was well beyond his years.

"He's upstairs," Ming Haofeng stated plainly, locking eyes with Xiao Yu'an.

The clash of their gazes was like a silent crossing of swords.

After a moment, Ming Haofeng added, "He's reflecting on his mistakes."

Xiao Yu'an's brows jumped slightly, and a shadow passed through the pupils of his eyes. Just as he was thinking about how he could politely voice his concerns, Ming Haofeng spoke again.

"From now on, unless it's necessary, you and your siblings shouldn't come in contact with Ming Shu too much," Ming Haofeng said. "I know your relationship is good, and Ming Shu always goes over to your house to play. But he's still small, and there's a lot he still doesn't understand. You older kids can't be as unreasonable as he is, can you?"

The opera climbed, reaching its climax. The female opera singer's voice rose and rose, hitting an ear-piercing note. Ming Han's eyes were still closed, but he moved his hands along with the music, seemingly enthralled.

Xiao Yu'an looked straight at Ming Haofeng, his gaze unwavering. "May I ask what Ming Shu has done? Ming Shu spends a lot of time with me, but I don't believe I've been a bad role model to him."

Ming Haofeng had thought the boy in front of him would quietly leave, after all that Ming Haofeng had already said. Whatever happened here was the business of the Ming family. No matter what, it wasn't up to an outsider to interfere.

But Xiao Yu'an didn't leave. Not only that, he actually asked about Ming Shu.

Ming Haofeng had rarely ever been confronted in such a way, either directly or indirectly. He furrowed his brows even more tightly and said, "Ming Shu is still young. He copies whatever he sees, even when that behavior is inappropriate. You don't have the ability to distinguish between right and wrong, you…"

Hearing that much, Xiao Yu'an couldn't hold his tongue any longer. He couldn't help but argue, "He's already in fifth grade. He has the ability to recognize what's appropriate for himself."

Ming Haofeng's expression twisted. Not only had he been questioned, he'd been interrupted as well.

"Interrupting your elders when they speak. Is this the type of example you've been setting for Ming Shu?" he demanded harshly. "No wonder he has no respect for his elders and no love for his family. No wonder he's capable of hurting his mother!"

Xiao Yu'an was somewhat stunned. Ming Shu had hurt Wen Yue? That was impossible. Xiao Yu'an had taught Ming Shu to fight, but he'd also taught Ming Shu about protecting the weak and only doing what was necessary. Ming Shu had gotten into many fights at school, but it was always for a good cause. He only ever fought when he had a reason.

Xiao Yu'an didn't believe for a second that Ming Shu would hurt Wen Yue for no reason. He didn't even believe Ming Shu would hurt Wen Yue at all.

"It's impossible," he said unthinkingly. Before he could concoct a rational response in his mind, his mouth was already continuing, "If he really did something wrong, it would have been because you guys left him no other choice."

Ming Haofeng laughed coldly, derisively. "What right do you have to make such a judgement?"

"Because he grew up with me. I understand him," Xiao Yu'an said, even as a voice inside his heart told him he needed to regain control. He had to stop now. It wasn't the time for a dispute like this.

The tendons of Ming Haofeng's neck leapt out. "You understand him?" he snapped. "So his bizarre, unacceptable attitude was brought out by you and your family?"

"Can I see him?" Xiao Yu'an persisted. "It's possible there's a misunderstanding between you. No matter what, you shouldn't be keeping him locked up."

"I don't need to be lectured by a brat!" Ming Haofeng roared. "For Xiao Lanyue's sake, I won't say anything more to you. From now on, don't come looking for Ming Shu. My son doesn't need to be led astray by the Xiao family!"

Suddenly, at that moment, a loud banging came from the second floor. It was a frantic, muffled pounding against a door.

"Gege!" Ming Shu cried out. His voice was hoarse, but he didn't sound like he was crying or even near tears. "Gege! Gege!"

The opera music suddenly crescendoed. Ming Han, holding the remote, had turned the volume up as high as it would go.

Xiao Yu'an's first reaction was to rush towards the stairs, but he was blocked by Ming Haofeng.

Although Xiao Yu'an had already grown tall, he couldn't beat an adult when it came to strength. And this was the Ming family. Xiao Yu'an's own manners kept him in check, even as he clenched his fists hard enough to turn his knuckles white.

"Go home," Ming Han said, suddenly speaking up from the living room. "Ming Shu has troubled you over the years. How he grows up, and what he grows up to be, is for his father to worry about."

"Gege—"

The shouting from upstairs continued to rain down, nonstop. But Ming Haofeng stood in front of Xiao Yu'an, like an indomitable mountain that couldn't be scaled.

Xiao Yu'an experienced a rare moment of hesitation. It wasn't that he didn't have the guts to try to race past Ming Haofeng. But he had to consider whether or not that would be good for Ming Shu.

The most important thing now was that, even while Ming Shu called him 'gege', he wasn't Ming Shu's real brother. Legally speaking, and morally speaking, he had no right to oppose Ming Haofeng.

He had to calm down.

Calm down.

Sweat soaked his underclothes. He reined in his temper and his instincts. Even as he turned to leave, he could still hear Ming Shu calling out for him. For the first time in his life, Xiao Yu'an questioned what was reasonable and what was right. For the first time, he didn't know what he was supposed to do.

 

"It's good you didn't rush up," Xiao Lanyue said. "The Ming family has an extremely problematic way of raising their child, but that doesn't mean outsiders can freely interfere."

Xiao Yu'an didn't even change out of his clothes after getting home. Usually, he was a neat and orderly person. After coming home from his other grandpa's place, he would always quickly change and unpack. He would sort the gifts he brought back and have his room tidied up while Xiao Jinlan still sat in a chaotic mess of her own luggage.

But this time, Xiao Yu'an left his luggage strewn all over his room. He didn't have the heart to care.

"They locked Ming Shu up, and they said Ming Shu  hurt Wen Yue." Xiao Yu'an was still sure of one thing. "That's impossible."

"Maybe he made a mistake while visiting the Wen family. You're taking this too seriously," Xiao Lanyue said. "Ming Haofeng isn't so bad that he would abuse Ming Shu."

Xiao Yu'an pursed his lips.

"I know you're worried about Ming Shu," Xiao Lanyue continued. "But you have to understand, Ming Shu isn't Xiao Jincheng. You and Ming Shu were born with a wall between you. When Ming Haofeng and Old Man Ming had no problem with it, you could play with Ming Shu as much as you wanted.

"But they have a problem with it now. There's no way to tear down that wall. There's no rational or emotional justification for you charging in now."

Xiao Yu'an was silent for a long while before he muttered, "I know."

"Let's wait and see," Xiao Lanyue said. He could tell his son was depressed, so he went over to squeeze the nape of Xiao Yu'an's neck. But his attempt at reassuring Xiao Yu'an was knocked away by one hand.

Xiao Lanyue wasn't particularly bothered by that.

"You've always said Ming Haofeng doesn't care for Ming Shu," he said. "This may be an opportunity for their relationship to change."

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