MINT-STAINED SHIRT

Chapter 80

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"I miss my cats."

Dark clouds devoured the light that fell from the stars and moon. A police Jeep carved a path through the ink-black night. The four occupants of the car were all dressed in black combat uniforms, each wearing a utility vest and a helmet. They each held their own firearm as the Jeep shook and rumbled down the road.

The one who'd spoken was Yi Zhuo. He sat by the window, and his tone and expression were both gentle, warm. He didn't look at all like a man who was about to dive into a life-or-death mission.

"Have Jian-ge and the others been giving them wet food every day? Have they been showing them my pictures every day?" Yi Zhuo mused. "My cats definitely miss me when they can't see me. And whenever they miss me, they claw the hell out of my couch. Little rascals.

"I bought a three-month supply of canned cat food this time," Yi Zhuo continued. "I wanted to buy some more, but they would have expired if I stocked up on too much. Before I left, I opened up a can for my cats, but they could tell I was going to leave. They didn't even want to eat. I… I forgot to tell Jian-ge to buy the same brand as me."

"You'll buy it yourself when you get back," Xiao Yu'an interrupted. "Jian-ge is already helping you feed your cats. You want him to buy your cat food too?"

Yi Zhuo froze for a second, then sighed with a smile. "My bad, I misspoke. I'll take a shot as punishment when I get back. I… I just got a little nervous."

"Man up." Xiao Yu'an's voice was colder than usual. His black-gloved hands were wrapped around a sniper rifle. "How many missions have we already carried out? What's there to be nervous about?"

Yi Zhuo smiled again and patted his helmet a few times. "You guys, don't learn from me. Everything's fine. No matter how big the mission is, our squad won't panic!"

After that, no one in the car spoke again. The harsh wind whipped up a storm of sand and gravel, smashing a bone-chilling cacophony of sound against the sides of the Jeep.

Xiao Yu'an faced forward. His features were cold and grave.

He and Yi Zhuo had joined their squadron at the same time, and their skills left nothing to be desired. Yi Zhuo always became chatty before they set out on a mission, but this was the first time Yi Zhuo worried about his cats like this. It was the first time he worried that they wouldn't have anyone to feed them anymore, that he hadn't bought them enough food.

This mission was extremely high-risk. Before setting out, their captain had spoken to each of them and told them to be prepared to sacrifice their lives.

An itch suddenly flared up at Xiao Yu'an's lower back. He subconsciously touched the back of his hand to that spot.

At first, he didn't realize where the itch was coming from. But then, when his hand pressed up against that spot, he remembered—it was the injury he'd sustained during his first live-combat mission, carried out in his second year of college.

After so many years, that ugly, gnarled scar had become faint and light. But strangely enough, it still sometimes itched, as though to remind Xiao Yu'an of its existence.

Each and every one of his brothers on this team wore their own battle scars. And when they talked about their old injuries, everyone's experience was the same—sometimes, their old scars would itch.

Xiao Yu'an pulled his hand away and closed his eyes for a while.

That faint itch made him think of Ming Shu.

When Ming Shu discovered that scar, he'd still been a middle school student. He'd cried, with the sun just starting to rise outside, until his face was streaky with snot and tears. He'd touched the scar so carefully, afraid of hurting Xiao Yu'an, and he'd asked over and over again—

Gege, does it hurt?

It hadn't hurt at all, but Ming Shu's touch had caused the scar to itch.

Now, it was like the scar remembered the sensation of being stroked by Ming Shu's fingers. Whenever it itched now, it felt like Ming Shu, with his tear-streaked face, was carefully touching the scar again.

The little kid had been so sensitive. His heart had ached, and he'd shed so many tears over such a small wound.

If Xiao Yu'an sustained a more serious wound…

If he never returned…

Xiao Yu'an's eyes suddenly snapped open. He pulled himself out of those thoughts of a hypothetical future. It was only then that he realized he and Yi Zhuo were the same. They were both unsettled and unnerved by this mission.

Yi Zhuo was worried about his cats, and Xiao Yu'an had thought of Ming Shu—who he'd jokingly called his own shorthair cat.

In their division, the ultimate sacrifice wasn't a faraway, impossible thing. Many photos hung on the wall honoring fallen officers. Each year, young lives were lost and memorialized on that wall.

Compared to the others in his division, Xiao Yu'an was more familiar with the idea of sacrifice. Because he'd been born to a military family, his elders and cousins—except Xiao Jincheng, who'd also become a police officer—were all soldiers.

Growing up in an environment like that, and still choosing this path in life, meant Xiao Yu'an was prepared to make any sacrifice.

But now, the itch of his old scar became a persistent buzz in his mind. It reminded him again and again that Ming Shu wasn't prepared.

If there came a day when Xiao Yu'an was gone from this world, how would Ming Shu face it?

Ming Shu was undergoing his special training in isolation. He didn't even know that Xiao Yu'an had set out on a mission that would put his life at risk.

Xiao Yu'an understood Ming Shu. He knew that Ming Shu saw him as his target, his goal. Ming Shu would be determined to do everything in his power to become the top-ranked student at his training camp, to show off his accomplishments to Xiao Yu'an.

But what if Xiao Yu'an couldn't return to see those accomplishments?

He exhaled lightly. A strange, foreign emotion came over him—

Regret.

He should have told Ming Shu that he was setting out on a mission. This mission was like none of the others that had come before it. It was more dangerous; he couldn't guarantee his safe return.

If he'd spoken up about it, Ming Shu would have had time to prepare himself for the worst.

But if time rewound now… would Xiao Yu'an really have been able to bring himself to say anything?

When he first learned of Ming Shu's training camp, Xiao Yu'an had silently breathed a sigh of relief. He knew that meant he wouldn't have to explain this upcoming mission to Ming Shu.

That day, when Xiao Yu'an drove Ming Shu back to school, Ming Shu had been full of youthful pride and vigor. That energy and readiness to fight had been like a glowing ball of light, and Ming Shu had glowed at the center of that light.

Ming Shu had been reluctant to leave the car. He'd scooted closer and asked for a kiss, and Xiao Yu'an had lost himself in it as well. He'd kissed Ming Shu like it was the first time all over again, until they were panting breathlessly against each other's lips.

The Jeep suddenly pulled to a stop. Behind Xiao Yu'an, the sound of his teammates gearing up rang out.

Xiao Yu'an instantly collected his thoughts and swiftly entered a battle-ready state.

They were due to join another small squadron. The targets of their mission were the key members of an international criminal enterprise.

The battle began in the deepest, darkest hours of the night. Explosions burst through the sky, coloring it a vibrant, bloody red. The sound of gunfire rang out nonstop. Xiao Yu'an calmly locked onto his target through the scope of his rifle and steadily pulled the trigger.

His field of vision was filled up by hostile, malevolent criminals and the teammates who needed him to cover them. Bullets flew through the air, zipping past his ears. Every breath he took was full of the suffocating scent of smoke.

In the heat of battle, Ming Shu was completely erased from his mind. His little boyfriend shouldn't ever have to experience the blood and fire of such a grim battlefield.

His helmet was dented by a stray bullet. A second bullet tore through the flesh of his thigh. Blood instantly soaked through his pants. The shot that had rattled his helmet left his ears ringing and his vision blurred. From a distance, he could see Yi Zhuo shouting something at him.

A rescue helicopter descended through the raging winds. The wounded, including Xiao Yu'an, were carried on board for emergency treatment.

The first rays of daybreak were already starting to rise, staining the sky a pale blue-green.

Xiao Yu'an grit his teeth. It was only then that he felt the fierce, concentrated pain in his leg, and it was also then that thoughts of Ming Shu flooded back into his mind.

"It didn't hit an artery," said the doctor. He was in his thirties, with ample experience in the field. He swiftly treated Xiao Yu'an's gunshot wound, then patted him on the shoulder. "Get some sleep."

Xiao Yu'an closed his eyes, but he felt even more alert now than he'd been when he was first carried onto the helicopter.

He heard the sound of crying. Sobs rang out in his ears. It was the sound of Ming Shu, shedding tears.

The image of Ming Shu surfaced in his mind. This Ming Shu was staring at his wound, wanting to touch it, just like before. But this time, the wound was bloody, and Ming Shu's hands hung suspended in midair, afraid of making contact.

Ge, does it hurt?

Ge, you scared me to death!

Ge, why didn't you tell me?

Xiao Yu'an wanted to say something, but his mouth filled up with the coppery taste of blood. He couldn't utter a single word.

He could only let Ming Shu's accusations fill his mind.

Ming Shu was nearly twenty now, and he had won the honor of attending a special training camp. He'd grown into a tall, handsome young man. But when he cried, he would be the same as he once was. Sobbing and hiccuping, like a child, and fearfully worrying that Xiao Yu'an wouldn't want him anymore.

I won't. I won't ever stop wanting you.

The medicine injected into Xiao Yu'an's veins was starting to take effect. His mind became foggy, but those words lingered in his consciousness—

I won't ever stop wanting you.

Reality and the scene in Xiao Yu'an's imagination began to mix. Xiao Yu'an could practically see Ming Shu right next to him. He could practically feel himself wrapping an arm around Ming Shu, pulling him close and comforting him.

I won't ever stop wanting you.

But you're hurt! You're hurt so badly, and you didn't tell me! You almost didn't make it home!

The Ming Shu in Xiao Yu'an's mind was still shedding tears, but when he was wrapped up in Xiao Yu'an's embrace, he didn't dare move or struggle, for fear of aggravating Xiao Yu'an's wounds.

So Xiao Yu'an hugged Ming Shu tighter, in his mind, and swore—

I'll tell you. From now on, whenever I go, I'll always tell you.

 

Sunlight spilled into the hospital room. Xiao Yu'an woke slowly, squinting against the piercing rays that flooded in through the windows.

It had been a week since he returned, and he'd been recuperating in the hospital the whole time.

There had been casualties. Yi Zhuo had nearly taken a bullet to the head, but he didn't sustain any serious injuries in the end. He ran back and forth between the hospital and his house every day. Once he fed his cats, he rushed straight back to the hospital to look after his wounded brothers-in-arms.

Xiao Yu'an gazed out the window for a while, then got out of bed to get some exercise.

He couldn't do any sort of strenuous exercise now, but he had to move his legs every day. Xiao Yu'an was in good health, and his recovery was smooth. The doctor from their team came to see him several times. That morning, he'd told Xiao Yu'an that he could go home to recuperate after spending three more days at the hospital.

Ming Shu's training camp just so happened to end in three days. That was when he would come home, laden with awards and badges of honor.

Xiao Yu'an didn't know exactly what the training camp would be like. Ming Shu was the cream of the crop at his own university, but he might not have led the pack when mixed in with elites from other schools as well. But for some reason, Xiao Yu'an could see it so clearly—Ming Shu coming home, decorated with countless honors.

Ming Shu would smile at him with all his teeth, proud enough to glow like the sun.

During combat, Xiao Yu'an body and mind had been wholly devoted to the fight. There had been no time whatsoever to think about anything else.

But now that he was resting in a hospital, he had all the time in the world to think back on those moments, over and over again—

The pungent stench of fresh blood in his nose. The deafening explosions in his ears. The bullets that tore through his flesh…

He shivered faintly.

It wasn't a fear of death that came over him. Rather, it was… a sudden feeling of emptiness in his heart.

He never took that final step. No matter how Ming Shu hinted at it, no matter how he clung and rubbed against Xiao Yu'an's body, Xiao Yu'an didn't take that final step to claim and possess him.

But now, Xiao Yu'an himself was possessed by a fierce, intense desire.

He wanted Ming Shu.

Not the way an older brother cared for his didi, but the way an older lover desired his young boyfriend.

He didn't want to make his little boyfriend wait any longer. Xiao Yu'an wanted to give Ming Shu anything and everything he desired.

And he desired Ming Shu, too.

 

When the isolated training camp was declared to be over, Ming Shu flopped down on the ground and stared up at the sky. His mind was totally blank. He could only focus on his own harsh, rapid breathing.

No one came to pull him up. He was enveloped by the sound of his own ragged breaths.

He was tired. He was so fucking tired. How could he be this tired?

He'd been worked to the bone over the past forty-five days. He'd thought again and again that this wasn't the type of thing anyone could survive.

When their trainer shouted for them all to get up and go pack their things, all the muscles in Ming Shu's body tensed.

But that demonic trainer of theirs was so kind and mellow now. He even wore a smile on his face, showing obvious satisfaction with his students.

One by one, the students staggered to their feet. They clasped each other's forearms and patted each other on the back. Ming Shu finally managed to climb to his feet as well. He packed hastily and left their training camp with everyone else.

He was much stronger than he'd been when he first arrived at the camp, but he'd sustained some injuries as well. Once, he'd fallen off a high wall, hurting his waist. And just yesterday, he'd fallen again and cut open his forearm; the scab had just started to form.

During training, he hadn't had time to think about Xiao Yu'an at all. But now, on the bus, he couldn't wait to get home.

He'd made up his mind. It was still early in the day. Xiao Yu'an would still be at work. Ming Shu planned on going home to shower and clean himself up. After Xiao Yu'an got home, he would coax Xiao Yu'an into playing with him for a round.

No, not one round. That wasn't enough. Two rounds. He would insist on two.

He'd brought home all sorts of medals and badges. After forty-five days of exhaustion, Ming Shu was sure Xiao Yu'an would spoil him.

No one was home when Ming Shu arrived, just as he'd expected. But Ming Shu instantly noticed that no one had been home for a long time.

Xiao Yu'an had gone on a mission.

Ming Shu's eyes flew open wide. His hands trembled before he hurriedly grabbed his cell phone, dialing Xiao Yu'an's number.

He thought the call wouldn't go through.

But after ringing just twice, the call connected.

"Ge!" Ming Shu exclaimed. "Where are you? You went on a mission?"

"Mm." Xiao Yu'an had already arrived at the gates of their community. "I'm coming home now."

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