Since the start of summer break, Ming Shu had basically been living at the Xiao family's house. He'd taken over his gege's room and laid claim to his gege's bed. But now that his gege was back, he had to clear out.
Two years ago, after Xiao Yu'an and Xiao Mu'ting graduated from high school and left home, the Xiao family's house underwent some renovations. They remodeled nearly every room. Some of the old furniture remained, but some was simply too old to be kept. What needed to be replaced was summarily replaced.
All the bedrooms had gotten new beds. The one in Xiao Yu'an's room was about the same size as the one he used to have.
Ming Shu was reluctant to leave. It was so rare for his gege to visit. Even if Ming Shu had to sleep on the floor, he wanted to stay right there in Xiao Yu'an's room.
It was hot during the summers, anyway. Sleeping on a mat on the floor was comfortable.
While Xiao Yu'an played chess with Xiao Zhengyun that night, he saw Ming Shu enthusiastically dragging a bamboo mat out into the courtyard. Ming Shu scrubbed it clean, and he hurriedly tried to dry it with a fan afterwards.
Xiao Zhengyun claimed one of Xiao Yu'an's chess pieces and smiled. "You really know how to get people to work for you. You've already got Little Shu doing this and that on your first day back."
Xiao Yu'an felt like he was being wrongly accused. When had he asked Ming Shu to brush the bamboo mat?
He'd only told Ming Shu that the bed in his room wasn't big enough for both of them. Ming Shu either had to sleep at his own house and come back the next day, or he had to go sleep in the guest room.
At first, Ming Shu had outright refused. He'd insisted on squeezing into bed with Xiao Yu'an.
But Xiao Yu'an stood his ground.
Ming Shu had gotten far too used to growing up in the nest of Xiao Yu'an's covers. He was obviously starting to think that was his nest. When Xiao Yu'an wasn't home, that wasn't a big deal. But now that he was back, there was just no good way of letting Ming Shu squeeze in with him.
The boy had grown up. It was no good for him to still be that clingy.
"Stop brushing now," Xiao Zhengyun called out into the courtyard. "Come in and have some suanmeitang."
But Ming Shu was busy. "Grandpa, my mat isn't dry yet!"
"No one needs you to dry the mat," Xiao Zhengyun insisted. "Your gege will do it himself later!"
Ming Shu had his back to the house. He was wearing an athletic orange tank top, and he seemed truly invested in his task. "This is my mat!"
Xiao Zhengyun looked back at Xiao Yu'an. "You're making him sleep on the floor?"
"It's his choice." Xiao Yu'an took one of Xiao Zhengyun's chess pieces too. "If he wants to sleep on the floor, how am I supposed to stop him?"
"Absolutely not!" Xiao Zhengyun declared. As he grew older, he'd become even more doting on the young ones. He could only spoil the two little ones now. The three older ones had already flown the coop, pursuing their own ambitions. Only Xiao Jincheng and Ming Shu remained, filling up the house with life.
"We have so many rooms here. What so fun about sleeping on the floor?" Xiao Zhengyun continued. He was so concerned about his grandkids that he lost all interest in their chess match. "Go talk to him, and help him bring the mat back in."
Xiao Yu'an smiled and said, "Alright, alright. Don't touch the chess board."
He'd only started the chess game to keep Xiao Zhengyun company. If Xiao Zhengyun wasn't interested anymore, then they could stop. Xiao Yu'an headed out into the yard. As soon as Ming Shu heard a noise, he turned around.
"Ge, you aren't keeping Grandpa company anymore?"
The mat was still a bit wet, but with the summer heat, it would definitely dry out in another fifteen minutes or so.
"I'll put it in the next-door guest room for you?" Xiao Yu'an offered.
That guest room was right next to Xiao Yu'an's room, and it was unoccupied.
Ming Shu instantly refused. "No!"
Xiao Yu'an fell silent.
Xiao Jincheng had rushed back to school after dinner. He didn't trudge back home, thoroughly pooped, until around ten that night. He was just in time to see Xiao Yu'an and Ming Shu playing video games in the living room.
The soon-to-be third year immediately lost his mind. "You heathens! You monsters! Don't you know there's someone here who's heading into his fateful final year of high school? You dare play video games in front of this poor, hardworking soul?!"
As he ranted, Xiao Jincheng planted himself in front of the television and fiercely jabbed at his own chest. "You two are heartless!"
With his view obstructed, Ming Shu nearly killed off his own character. He panickedly yelled, "Xiao Jincheng, you can stand anywhere, just not there! Move!"
Xiao Jincheng refused.
Xiao Yu'an also waved a hand at him, shooing him away. "Will the most handsome boy in school please step aside?"
Xiao Jincheng had just been glaring fiercely, ready to pick a fight. But with Xiao Yu'an saying all that, Xiao Jincheng was suddenly all smiles and laughs. He laughed almost stupidly hard, in fact.
First High named a boy as the 'most handsome' of their grade every year. Xiao Jincheng's face had grown more and more striking over the years, and he'd been crowned the most handsome in his class since his first year of high school.
But this 'most handsome' boy was a bit two-faced.
Xiao Jincheng often acted like he didn't care about this title. He claimed men shouldn't care about their looks, but should value their strength and inner strength.
But as soon as he got home, he bragged endlessly about his title. He may as well have written it all over his face. When Xiao Yu'an and Xiao Mu'ting visited, they could call Xiao Jincheng 'the most handsome boy in school' just once and thrill him to the point that he would offer to do all their chores.
The handsome Xiao Jincheng obediently moved aside. Without even taking off his backpack, he watched as Xiao Yu'an carried Ming Shu into the next level of their game.
"Let me play a round, let me play!" Xiao Jincheng exclaimed. After watching the fun, he had to experience it for himself.
Ming Shu knew his own controller was about to be snatched away. He instinctively shrank back and leaned into his gege's side.
He was like a fox hiding behind a tiger. With his gege there, would Xiao Jincheng really be able to bully him?
"Go do your homework," Xiao Yu'an said, protecting Ming Shu. He glanced over at the stairs, nodding for Xiao Jincheng to go up.
Xiao Jincheng refused to budge. "You only dote on Ming Shu! Am I not your di?"
Ming Shu was so overjoyed he could have died happy. He pulled a face at Xiao Jincheng.
They were always like this. When they fought, they fought for real, but they were never genuinely angry with each other. It was all just for fun.
Xiao Jincheng's reaction was instantaneous. He whipped out his cell phone and snapped a picture with a ka-chak.
Ming Shu heard the sound of the shutter and froze.
Xiao Jincheng sent the photo to Xiao Yu'an as soon as he took it, huffing triumphantly. To Ming Shu, he said, "Just have a peek at how ugly you looked."
That phone had been bought by Xiao Mu'ting the last time he came home. It was the best on the market, with a top of the line camera that claimed it could capture every one of a subject's pores.
Ming Shu didn't know how well it captured pores, but he could see the awful face he was pulling, with his eyes rolled up, showing only the whites.
And his gege even zoomed in on the photo before grinning. "Is something wrong with this kid?"
Ming Shu was silent.
He was going to get mad if his ge said anything else!
Ming Shu leapt and hopped, trying to grab the phone. But Xiao Yu'an lifted his hand, holding it out of reach.
"Ge, ge!" Ming Shu was beyond anxious. "You're keeping it?"
"You won't let me?" Xiao Yu'an teased.
"Of course not!" Ming Shu exclaimed.
What kind of monstrous photo was that?
Xiao Yu'an slipped his phone back into his pockets and lightly pushed Ming Shu's head away. "I'm still keeping it."
Ming Shu was both annoyed and helpless, but who could he blame? He could only blame himself for pulling such an ugly face at Xiao Jincheng.
By the time the three of them stopped messing around, it was already late. Xiao Yu'an asked Ming Shu again if he was really sure he wanted to sleep on the floor in his room.
Ming Shu nodded adamantly. He didn't misbehave at all after getting back into Xiao Yu'an's room, only quietly laying out his mat on the floor.
Xiao Yu'an was actually pretty tired after traveling back from college that day. After turning out the lights, he wanted to go to sleep right away. But the little kid was like a night owl; his mouth just wouldn't quit.
"Ge, what do you usually do in training?"
"Ge, what rank are you in your major?"
"Ge, do you think I can get into your school?"
"Ge, are your missions dangerous? Have you ever been injured?"
Xiao Yu'an felt like he was sleeping next to a chatty robot that would just blah, blah, blah all night. He did offer some sleepy, hazy answers to the first few questions, but the question about whether or not he'd been injured made him pause. He didn't answer right away.
He had indeed been injured, though it wasn't serious. It was around New Year's. He and his team had been sent out on a live combat mission. It wasn't anything too dangerous, and they would be accompanied by their seniors. The risk was minimal.
But in the middle of the mission, something went wrong. They had received bad intel. He and his four squadmates were ambushed and trapped in a smugglers' warehouse. Explosions were going off outside, one after another. Certain death awaited them if they couldn't fight their way out.
One of their seniors said to them, "I'm the one who brought you here. I swear I'll bring you back, safely. Listen to my exact orders. Do you understand?"
A hail of bullets tore through the sky. They alternatingly fired back and took shelter, holding on until help arrived.
It wasn't until he climbed into the rescue helicopter that Xiao Yu'an felt an excruciating pain in his lower back. When he touched that spot, his hand came away bloody.
His teammates cut away his shirt and applied emergency first aid. Luckily, the bullet had only grazed him, tearing through skin and flesh, but not damaging his bones or internal organs.
Afterwards, Xiao Yu'an was laid up in a hospital for half a month. It was only after he recovered that he learned the senior who'd shielded them had been badly wounded in combat. The senior had pulled through with his life, but he had been crippled.
That was Xiao Yu'an's first brush with grave injuries, and with death.
And this had only been an ordinary, routine mission. In the future, he would undoubtedly face many more missions, each one more dangerous than the last.
The wound on his back had healed, but the scar was still there. Sometimes, when he showered, he would touch the scar. It was rougher than the skin around it, just like the calluses on his fingers were rough. Rubbing his fingers over the scar created a coarse and distinct sensation.
"Ge?" Ming Shu hadn't received an answer in a long while. He sat up halfway, peering over the side of his gege's bed. "Ge, did you fall asleep?"
Xiao Yu'an obviously hadn't fallen asleep, but Ming Shu's last question wasn't one he could easily answer.
It wasn't hard to talk about the scar, per se. It was the weight of what the scar meant that was difficult to voice.
He wasn't ready to talk calmly about that battle, or about his crippled senior.
So he didn't answer. In the dark, he closed his eyes.
At Ming Shu's age, imagining the reality of Xiao Yu'an's missions was impossible. He thought his gege had really fallen asleep, so he quietly lay back down as well. After throwing off his thin blanket, he fell asleep.
After hearing Ming Shu's breathing even out, Xiao Yu'an rolled onto his side. Under the soft light spilling in from outside, he reached out and pulled Ming Shu's blanket back up, covering him properly again.
With a semester of health class under his belt, Ming Shu knew everything he was supposed to know at his age. But knowing was one thing, and seeing was another. He was still curious.
He woke up very early, because he'd given himself a big mission that day—he wanted to sneak a peek at what his gege looked like in the morning.
But his gege was sleeping on his other side, facing the wall. It wasn't easy for Ming Shu to peek at what he was curious about. He crept closer like a thief in the night, until he suddenly saw an exposed sliver of his gege's waist—
Marred by an ugly scar.