MINT-STAINED SHIRT

Chapter 54

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A girl with twintails stood in front of Ming Shu. She held a delicate, light blue paper pouch in her hands. Shyly, she said, "Ming… Ming-ge…"

Ming Shu sighed.

Back when he thought his gege was dating in school, he'd thrown a fit. But now that he was a student at First Middle, he realized schoolyard relationships weren't all that rare. Teachers tried to prevent them, but sometimes there was just nothing a teacher could do.

After starting junior high, Ming Shu had been cornered by girls a bunch of times. They would give him love letters and sweets. When he played basketball, they would scream encouragement from the crowd and bring him water.

But he didn't accept any of their confessions.

He had no interest in any of the girls, not even the prettiest ones. Xiao Jincheng watched him like a hawk, anyway. He said he wouldn't hesitate to snitch to Xiao Yu'an if Ming Shu got into an illicit relationship at school.

Ming Shu had received too many little gifts like this. As he watched the nervous girl in front of him, he tried to think of a polite way to turn down her confession. But what she ultimately said was, "Ming-ge, can you give this to Du Hao for me?"

Ming Shu instantly grinned. "Hao-zi? Sure!"

Du Hao had been a little chubster in elementary school. Back then, Ming Shu fought like a bolt of lightning. Du Hao, on the other hand, was more like a cannonball. They had completely different fighting styles, but were both incredibly formidable.

At the start of their second year of middle school, the chubster had started to grow. He shot up in the blink of an eye. All his weight turned into excess height, and he soon became known as a handsome ge on par with Ming Shu.

When Ming Shu was sent to boarding school for the last year and a half of elementary school, he'd lost touch with Du Hao. But they entered First Middle together, and they were even sorted into the same class again. Their friendship picked up right where it had left off.

Before Du Hao's growth spurt, he was always the one delivering love letters to Ming Shu. Now, Ming Shu delivered plenty of them to Du Hao as well.

Ming Shu had no interest in dating so early, but as long as girls were interested in Du Hao, he had no problem 'marketing' his good friend to them.

When Ming Shu set that light blue pouch on Du Hao's desk, Du Hao looked up with a miserable, pinched expression. "What are you up to?"

Ming Shu's assigned seat was right in front of Du Hao's. He sat down and took a bottle of Coke out of his desk drawer. "Have a look?"

"No, nope, no way. Only heartbreak awaits if I look." Despite saying that, Du Hao still snuck a glance at the pouch.

Ming Shu tsked. "As if you've ever been heartbroken."

"I've been through loads of breakups already!" Du Hao protested. "How could I not know all about heartbreak?"

Ming Shu only smiled.

He knew all about Du Hao's various breakups. Du Hao had a good personality, and he had a pretty handsome face. In the past, he'd been unlucky in love due to his weight, but now girls flocked to him. However, the ones who confessed to him all wound up seeing him more as a brother or friend after dating him for a while. They thought he was funny, but not boyfriend material.

So Du Hao was constantly losing love.

"In order to never break up again, I'll never date again," Du Hao swore sadly. "This is my punishment for dating in school."

Ming Shu turned back to face him. "You're really going to let this one go?"

"Really!" Du Hao puffed out his chest. "I've decided to focus on my studies. I'll go to cram school over the summer. We'll be third-year middle school students next year, right? Hao-ge swears not to fall in love again!"

Ming Shu didn't buy that for a second. He wanted to tease Du Hao some more, but suddenly remembered summer vacation was right around the corner.

They had finals next week. Then summer break would begin.

That made him a little anxious.

His gege hadn't come home for New Year's that year. Instead, he'd been busy with special training. Ming Shu didn't know why his gege was attending special training when he was only a second-year college student. Was he really so busy that he couldn't even come home for New Year's?

Xiao Yu'an had called on New Year's Eve. At that time, Ming Shu and Xiao Jincheng were setting off firecrackers by the river.

Before Ming Shu's gege and Ting-ge went off to college and the army, they would always join Ming Shu and Xiao Jincheng on the riverbank for their tradition of setting off firecrackers before New Year's. Sometimes, Jinlan-jie would join them as well. Now, it was just Ming Shu and Xiao Jincheng. There was almost no fun in playing with firecrackers anymore.

Ming Shu missed his gege to death. During that call, he asked if his gege would come back for the next New Year's. At that time, Ming Shu was afraid his gege wouldn't even come back for summer break, since he'd already missed New Year's.

But his gege had promised to find time to visit over the summer.

Ever since that call, Ming Shu had been looking forward to summer break.

But now that summer break was right around the corner, Ming Shu was starting to panic.

He was afraid his gege would make fun of him.

Many boys went through puberty in their third year of middle school. They went through notable physical changes and developed characteristics distinct to their sex. First Middle had offered a health class to all its students, providing students with guidance on how to navigate these turbulent years of adolescence.

Ming Shu had gone through another sudden growth spurt, becoming the tallest boy in his class. There was a chance he would reach Xiao Jincheng's height before he even started high school.

He had even 'wet' his pants. But he didn't want to tell anyone about that, so he got up early in the morning and quietly washed his pants and the sheets by himself.

He didn't usually stay at his own house anymore. There was still a bed for him at the Ming family's house. His room was still his room. But after Ming Shu's disappearance at the end of elementary school, the conflict between him and Wen Yue and Ming Haofeng had been laid bare.

Ming Shu hadn't seen Wen Yue or Ming Haofeng in the two years since he came back to his grandfather's house, but his relationship with his grandfather actually got a lot better. When he wanted to stay at the Xiao family's house for a few days, he would just tell his grandfather, and his grandfather would allow it.

The first night he 'wet' his pants, he'd slept in his gege's room.

He wanted to tell his gege, because the health teacher had said this was a sign of growing up. It wasn't something shameful. But after writing and rewriting a text on his cell phone countless times, Ming Shu wound up deleting it all and sending nothing.

Maybe it wasn't shameful, but it was still a little embarrassing.

Even if he wanted to brag about it, he would have to wait for his gege to come back.

Ming Shu had even decided what he wanted to say—

Ge, I'm just like you now. I'm a man!

And he was a handsome man at that.

Then, after some more time passed, Ming Shu discovered getting taller and having wet dreams weren't the only signs of growing up. His voice was changing too, and he was getting acne.

When a pimple popped up every so often, whether or not it was horrifying depended on the position. It wasn't so bad if it grew on Ming Shu's forehead or cheek. The worst were the ones that grew near his nose or lips.

Xiao Jincheng didn't get acne; he claimed it was a part of his natural beauty. He laughed at Ming Shu when he saw Ming Shu sporting a pimple on his nose, saying Ming Shu looked like a clown.

In the end, Jinlan-jie came back for a visit and took Ming Shu to see a traditional doctor. Ming Shu was prescribed a bunch of medicine, some to drink and some to apply to his skin. After a while, it seemed to take effect. In the last month or so, he hadn't grown any pimples.

What really perplexed Ming Shu was his changing voice.

He had three gege. When their voices broke, Ming Shu couldn't remember any of them sounding all that awful. But now it was Ming Shu's turn. Why did he sound like his throat had been burnt to a crisp? It was all scratchy and broken. Not too high, not too low. And it cracked all the time.

Lately, as soon as Ming Shu spoke, Xiao Jincheng would laugh and say, "You just stay quiet. Even ducks sound better than you."

"Oh, and you never had a duck phase?" Ming Shu shot back, irritated.

"Sure I have." Xiao Jincheng cleared his throat. "But I'm past it, aren't I? No more quacking for me."

"You stutter," Ming Shu accused. He was getting worked up, and his voice cracked again.

Xiao Jincheng laughed so hard that his whole body spasmed. "Aiyo, my stupid little didi. Seriously, stop talking. If you keep talking, I'll have to record it and send it to Xiao Yu'an."

That did the trick. Ming Shu was scared enough that he instantly snatched away Xiao Jincheng's phone.

Now, with summer break coming up, Ming Shu was worried.

Maybe it wouldn't actually have been a bad thing to let Xiao Jincheng record him and send it along to Xiao Yu'an. That way, his ge would at least know his voice was changing. He could have mentally prepared himself.

Then finals ended, and summer vacation arrived.

Du Hao proudly trotted off to cram school every day. He was apparently even receiving a constant flow of love letters there.

Ming Shu didn't enroll in any summer classes. He looked online for a home remedy for his breaking voice. He found a course that was supposedly devised by experts. It claimed it could help young men with changing voices sound less like belligerent ducks.

In reality, those 'experts' were all quacks.

Ming Shu practiced and practiced and became a hoarse, belligerent duck.

And it was just then that his gege came home.

For most students of the University of Public Security, winter and summer breaks were guaranteed. But Xiao Yu'an's college entrance exam scores had far exceeded the minimum needed to get into that university, and he'd also passed a rigorous series of physical and written assessments after gaining admission.

With that, he was admitted to the secretive special training course. Starting from his second year, he was already being sent on practical missions, and his vacations weren't guaranteed.

Since he hadn't gotten to come home for New Year's, he filed an application with his squadron and received a ten-day 'summer break'.

Ming Shu got a cell phone as soon as he started middle school. He would use it like a diary, texting Xiao Yu'an each day about his life. Xiao Yu'an couldn't always check his phone right away. Usually, when he turned it on, it would vibrate nonstop with new messages. And most of those messages would be from Ming Shu.

Xiao Yu'an would read them all. Sometimes he would write back, and sometimes he would just call.

Ming Shu had bragged about getting taller several times. Xiao Yu'an had been Ming Shu's age once. He didn't need to think long about it to realize Ming Shu must have been going through a lot of changes in these past few months.

But since Ming Shu didn't bring up any of these changes, Xiao Yu'an didn't ask. First Middle was pretty good about educating their students in these matters. Xiao Yu'an didn't need to worry about it.

When Ming Shu stopped calling him, Xiao Yu'an guessed right away that it was because Ming Shu's voice was changing. Ming Shu must have thought he sounded bad.

But Xiao Yu'an really couldn't have imagined just how bad that voice actually was.

 

Xiao Jinlan loaded Ming Shu into the car and drove him to the airport. Ming Shu searched for his ge with wide eyes, and Xiao Yu'an spotted him right away. They hadn't seen each other in a year, and the little kid had gotten a lot taller. He was lanky, like a lot of boys his age.

That day, Ming Shu was wearing a white t-shirt, jeans, and white basketball shoes. He wore a tennis wristband on one wrist and a watch on the other. His hair was neat and stylish. With just one glance, anyone could tell he was very popular at school.

Xiao Yu'an smiled and lifted a hand in greeting.

The instant Ming Shu saw his gege, that demeanor of a reserved little prince vanished. He grinned, flashing all his perfectly white teeth, and ran against the crowd to make his way to Xiao Yu'an, without any regard for Xiao Jinlan calling out, "Slow down!"

Of course, Ming Shu had also forgotten about his own ugly duck-ish voice.

"Ge—ge—"

The first 'ge' had come out fine, but the second one was so broken that a passing office worker couldn't help but laugh.

Ming Shu had frozen as soon as he heard his own broken voice. And now, when he looked at his ge, he saw his ge looking away, hiding a laugh of his own.

Xiao Yu'an had always fulfilled the role of a stable and responsible older brother, and he was a soon-to-be police officer too. He shouldn't have laughed at something like this. But Ming Shu's call had really hit his funny bone.

The little kid that had grown up following him was now an eye-catching adolescent. He was like a thriving sprig of bamboo, tall and vibrant. Even in the crowded airport, he stood out like a handsome thumb.

It was because Ming Shu had grown into such a handsome young man that this broken 'ge' was so ridiculously funny.

It was like opening an exquisitely wrapped gift box, only to have a little creature with missing teeth pop out from inside.

Ming Shu was pale, so he couldn't hide the blush that crept into his cheeks.

He froze halfway to Xiao Yu'an. His face grew so red that it looked like he could start bleeding at any second. He knew exactly what he'd seen. His ge had laughed, at him. His ge was seriously making fun of him!

Xiao Yu'an knew he'd hurt the little kid's pride. He schooled his expression into a mask of calm, even though he still wanted to laugh. He held in his laughter so fiercely that his abdominal muscles went taut. Then he made his way over, planning on consoling Ming Shu with a few words.

As Ming Shu watched his ge walk towards him, he pursed his lips harder and harder. He felt deeply, grievously wronged.

He'd thought his ge might laugh at him, but now that it had actually happened, he felt his hardy pride shatter and crumble to dust. One breath could have blown it all away.

He didn't want to say a single word now.

He just wanted to hear his ge console him.

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