Xiao Jinlan didn't understand why Ming Shu looked so down when Xiao Yu'an brought him over. Ming Shu had raced over to Xiao Yu'an just a moment earlier, brimming over with joy.
"You're not bullying our Little Shu, are you?" Xiao Jinlan asked, flabbergasted. She looked at Ming Shu, then at Xiao Yu'an.
That was impossible. She obviously knew what her little brother was like. Xiao Yu'an was incapable of doing anything like bullying Ming Shu.
Ming Shu snuck a glance at Xiao Yu'an with his big eyes. He still seemed a little put out, but he politely said, "Ge, give me your luggage."
Boys going through growth spurts were almost universally lanky. No matter how much they ate, they burned it all up. Their arms and legs became long and skinny, like bare bamboo poles without any meat. Ming Shu ate more than ever that year, but his face had still become slimmer. He'd shed all his baby fat and become a striking young man.
And because his face was so thin, his eyes looked extraordinarily large.
Ming Shu thought he'd been sneaky enough while glancing over at Xiao Yu'an; his brother wouldn't know. But with those big, bright eyes of his, there was no way Ming Shu could have actually concealed his gaze. Xiao Yu'an noticed right away.
"No need," Xiao Yu'an answered, smiling as he blocked Ming Shu from taking his suitcase. "My sister will say I'm bullying you again."
Xiao Jinlan laughed. "Ai, I was wrong, okay? But what's the matter, Little Shu? Weren't you feeling fine a minute ago?"
Ming Shu acted like he didn't hear that. He stuck his hands into the pockets of his jeans and looked off to the side. "Ah…"
"We'll solve that on our own, later." Xiao Yu'an carried his luggage in one hand. He slung his other arm around Ming Shu's shoulders, letting his hand dangle in front of Ming Shu's chest as he pulled Ming Shu to his side. "Right, Little Shu?"
Mostly, it was only the adults in the Xiao family who called Ming Shu 'Little Shu'. The kids didn't like that form of address. They either called Ming Shu by his name directly, or they copied Xiao Jinlan and called him 'baobei'er'.
Xiao Jinlan had already started working, so she considered herself an adult now. Last year, she'd even given the four younger boys money on New Year's. So to her, Ming Shu had become 'Little Shu'.
Although Xiao Yu'an had deliberately mimicked Xiao Jinlan this time, even he felt weird saying 'Little Shu'.
Ming Shu felt even weirder. He broke out in goosebumps.
He'd already been distracted. When he was suddenly called 'Little Shu' by his ge, and when his ge suddenly dragged him closer, he lost his balance right away and bumped into Xiao Yu'an. Hurriedly, he reassured, "Right! Jie, we'll solve it on our own. Don't worry!"
Xiao Jinlan laughed again. "Okay, okay. Take care of it yourselves. I'm not going to get between you."
Ming Shu didn't talk much on the road from the airport to the Xiao family's house. There was actually a lot he wanted to say, and a lot he wanted to ask. He wanted to know about his ge's training, and he wanted to know what missions his ge had carried out.
But there was a shadow hanging over him. His voice was too unpleasant. After participating in that scam of an online course, he'd made his voice even worse. He hated the sound of his own voice. His ge had every right to laugh at him.
When you encounter something funny, you naturally can't keep yourself from laughing.
So, Ming Shu was stressing out.
His ge was so busy; he would only be home for a few days. Ming Shu's awful voice definitely wasn't going to get better in just a few days, but he missed his ge like crazy. His stomach was full of bottled up things he wanted to say. Holding it all back just because of his voice made him almost too miserable to bear.
But if he talked, then his ge would only ever hear his hoarse quacking in his ear. Until they met again, his ge would think of his ugly voice every time he thought of him.
Xiao Yu'an had long since realized Ming Shu was in a mood. Although this little thing was the fearsome Ming-ge at school, he turned into a chatty, clingy little imp as soon as he was with Xiao Yu'an. The little kid had grown into a dashing young man and learned to be a bit more reserved, but he still wouldn't have shrunk to the side and kept so quiet if all had been well.
However, boys had to talk about boy things in private. Xiao Jinlan was still in the car with them. If they talked about anything unsuitable for her ears, Ming Shu would get even more antsy, and he would probably start ignoring Xiao Yu'an entirely.
Xiao Jinlan didn't notice anything off about Ming Shu. She also hadn't seen Xiao Yu'an in a while, and she'd worried about him. She gave him endless warnings and instructions and life lessons, which became a well-meaning lecture that lasted until they reached their front door.
Xiao Jincheng was about to be a third year in high school. He didn't even get a summer break this year; he was still at school. Their grandma had already passed away, leaving their grandpa Xiao Zhengyun as the only elder in the house. Luckily, he was in good health. He'd already prepared iced watermelon and salted edamame for the kids. When he heard the car approach, he hurriedly got them out.
Xiao Zhengyun greeted Xiao Yu'an with a proud look. "Our Yu'an has grown so tall. Good, good."
Xiao Jinlan went to help prepare dinner. First High had study sessions that stretched on into the evening, and the cafeteria provided dinner for the students who attended. But hearing Xiao Yu'an would be coming back, Xiao Jincheng had insisted on coming home for dinner even if he had to move heaven and earth. He'd even called Xiao Jinlan ahead of time to order specific dishes.
The Xiao family's house had been equipped with air conditioning by then, but the trees in the neighborhood were flourishing. The branches were thick with leaves, and relaxing in the shade of those trees was even more comfortable that relaxing in an air-conditioned room.
Xiao Yu'an went inside and took a shower first. After getting changed, he came back out to see Ming Shu coming into the house with a faceful of sweat, carrying a bag of ice cream and popsicles.
"Ge!" Ming Shu, in the end, couldn't resist speaking. "Me and Xiao Jincheng don't eat too much ice cream these days, so we didn't have anything in the fridge. I just went to buy some."
Xiao Yu'an grinned. "You guys don't eat it anymore, but you think I do?"
Ming Shu blinked.
In his memory, there were a few absolutely necessary components of summer—watermelon cut into triangles, Grandpa Xiao's boiled edamame, swimming pools in the shade, and frozen treats bought in bulk.
When he was little, Ming Shu loved mint popsicles. But lately, more and more drinks and sweets had been coming out on the market. Most people didn't stuff their fridges with discount ice cream anymore. Last year, Xiao Jincheng had brought home a ton of popsicles at the start of the summer, and in the end he didn't finish them. No one even mentioned buying ice cream this year.
But while his ge was in the shower, Ming Shu had suddenly remembered their traditions. Without ice cream, the taste of summer just wasn't complete. So he'd run out to buy a bunch.
The bulk discount store where they used to buy ice cream when he was a kid was already gone. Ming Shu had actually gotten that bag of ice cream and popsicles from a nearby convenience store, paying full price.
The refrigerator in the Xiao family's house had been replaced as well. Sheriff Blackcat no longer graced the doors. Those stickers had been replaced by refrigerator magnets, which pinned various notes to the fridge.
Ming Shu and Xiao Yu'an put away the ice cream and popsicles in the freezer. Xiao Yu'an spotted one of the notes on the refrigerator door. In a messy scrawl, someone had written today's date and the words 'ge is coming back'.
It was Ming Shu's handwriting. His joy was practically leaping off the page in those squiggly strokes.
Xiao Yu'an smiled.
Ming Shu unwrapped a mint popsicle. "Ge, you really don't want one?"
Xiao Yu'an really didn't, but he still accepted the popsicle in the end. Ming Shu hurriedly grabbed and unwrapped another one for himself.
The mint popsicles tasted the same as ever. Instantly, they transported Xiao Yu'an back to memories of his childhood. He could still remember the sugary stains Ming Shu had left on his white dress shirt back then. In the blink of an eye, that little sprout had turned into a young man whose voice was already breaking.
"Still angry?" Xiao Yu'an asked. He was ready to apologize for bruising the kid's fragile ego.
Ming Shu's hand, which held the popsicle, trembled once. But he acted calm and said, "I'm not angry."
"Not angry, but not happy," Xiao Yu'an said. "Our Ming-ge feels like he's been wronged."
At that age, Ming Shu carried around a lot of emotional baggage, and he was particularly sensitive. Just a few words could make his face turn red. Still, he insisted, "Ge, what are you talking about? I've never felt wronged in my life."
Never felt wronged, huh? Xiao Yu'an was pretty sure, in their family, no one played the victim better than Ming Shu.
"At the airport, you were frowning so hard that your mouth was going to fall off your chin," Xiao Yu'an said. "And you wanna say you didn't feel wronged?"
"That was because you laughed at me!" Ming Shu blurted out.
"Mm," Xiao Yu'an agreed. "I apologize, Ming-ge."
Ming Shu blushed so fiercely that even his ears turned red.
His ge's voice was so deep. It felt like an almost physical touch against his ear. The sound drifted in and seeped in deeper and deeper, settling in his chest.
Ming Shu had always thought his ge had a nice voice, but now it was more obvious than ever. His ge had the mature, manly sort of voice that Ming Shu envied and longed for.
It was so unlike his voice, which broke every few words.
Which had even caused him to be mocked.
"Everyone goes through this phase. It's just like growing taller," Xiao Yu'an continued. "Xiao Mu'ting and I were just like you when our voices changed, weren't we?"
"Were you?" Ming Shu echoed. "Ge, you never sounded like a duck."
Xiao Yu'an had to smile again, amused by that description. "That's not true. We've all been ducks before."
"Then why don't I remember?"
"Because that phase only lasted a short while. It passed quickly."
Ming Shu thought about it for a while. He sort of believed that, but sort of didn't.
"Back then, I thought my voice sounded bad too. It was a heavy weight to bear. I would avoid speaking whenever possible," Xiao Yu'an continued to explain. "But look, once you get past this phase, you won't even remember all this grief."
Ming Shu didn't know if his ge was making sense, or if he just believed whatever his ge said without questioning it. Either way, he was sufficiently soothed. "Then after my duck phase, will my voice sound like yours?"
All this talk of ducks made Xiao Yu'an have to hold back a laugh again. "You want to copy everything about me?"
"Because you're my ge," Ming Shu explained. He'd previously suppressed his voice as much as possible while speaking, but now he didn't hold back. When his voice came out now, it was bright and clear and hilariously bad. "I want to be just like you!"
Xiao Yu'an was, inevitably, moved by the little kid's naive words.
A few years ago, Xiao Yu'an himself had only been a child. He didn't know how to take care of a kid, but Ming Shu was already his responsibility. He had to take care of Ming Shu and set a good example for him. But without any guidance, Xiao Yu'an could only lead him in the simplest and most basic way—he could only 'mold' Ming Shu into the sort of person he liked and approved of.
And Ming Shu did indeed grow up to be an outstanding teen.
Now that he had more life experience, Xiao Yu'an looked at Ming Shu and felt like he should have done more to give Ming Shu a choice. Xiao Yu'an was Xiao Yu'an, and Ming Shu was Ming Shu. Xiao Yu'an shouldn't have molded Ming Shu into a little Xiao Yu'an clone.
But Ming Shu had apparently already gotten used to imitating Xiao Yu'an. He treated Xiao Yu'an's path in life like his own path as well. Ming Shu was only in middle school, and he was already thinking about becoming Xiao Yu'an's subordinate in the future.
That left Xiao Yu'an with some complex feelings. On the one hand, he thought it would be great for Ming Shu to be a police officer. It would make it easier for Xiao Yu'an to look after him. On the other hand, he thought it would be best for Ming Shu to step out from his shadow and consider for himself what he actually wanted to do with his life.
But Xiao Yu'an couldn't think of a way to actually talk about those things with a boy who'd just hit puberty.
This kid was still stressing out about sounding like a duck. He worried about things like his next test, his next fight. Maybe he was even busy experiencing his first love, developing a crush on a girl in the neighboring class or something.
Xiao Yu'an had never had to worry about anything like a crush, but Xiao Jincheng had started falling in love in junior high, which became big news in the Xiao family. Ming Shu was that age now, so it wouldn't be strange if he liked someone.
Their elders all liked to say raising a boy meant they could worry less about these things, but Xiao Yu'an was pretty sure boys were still quite worrisome.
Ming Shu, naturally, had no idea his ge was wondering about whether or not he'd developed a crush on some hypothetical girl next door. All Ming Shu was thinking was that his ge had become even more handsome, and his ge was alluring even while scolding him.
He actually found himself thinking he should maybe take advantage of those few days and misbehave a bit, just so that his ge would rough him up a little.
But later, when he came back to his senses, he gave his own head a whack and thought to himself—
What's wrong with you?