MINT-STAINED SHIRT

Chapter 82

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Around New Year's, in Dongye City.

The rookies' dormitory had been lively since that morning.

Every year, around the time of the Spring Festival break, the police were busier than ever. They patrolled at all hours of the day in shifts, and it was rare for officers to get a chance to go home even on New Year's Eve.

The captain, taking into consideration the fact that this was the rookies' last year as students, didn't put any of them on the schedule for patrol. As soon as the 28th of the last lunar month came around, he sent them all on vacation.

Ming Shu lived in a two-man dorm. His roommate, Lu Yanzhou, was a member of the Special Police Force. Dongye City was a big, sprawling metropolis, and the police rookies were like rough gems that the Bureau would refine. All rookies, regardless of where they would eventually end up, were thrown into the same fire to carry out all sorts of missions. No matter where they wound up, they had to be familiar with all aspects of police work.

Ming Shu was a criminal detective, but he had to train with the Special Police Force. Fortunately, he'd attended a special training camp during his first year of college, and he had a guardian who'd graduated as an elite from the University of Public Security's most intense and selective course. The rigorous training of the Special Police Force was no sweat for Ming Shu.

Lu Yanzhou was fairly well-known among the Special Police Force recruits. Ming Shu had trained with him a few times in the past, so he knew the guy was formidable. Lu Yanzhou's main flaw was that he was just a little too chatty.

Since they were due to go home soon, Lu Yanzhou didn't sleep well the night before. He spent all night packing, as excited as a little kid getting ready for a springtime school trip.

He was so exuberant, all night, that Ming Shu didn't manage to sleep much either.

Lu Yanzhou's train was at ten in the morning. By six on the morning of his departure, he was already up and sitting at the table, jittering his legs.

Ming Shu got out of bed and applied an exfoliating face mask, which subjected him to a deeply curious look from the straight guy in the room.

"Captain Ming, you use face masks?" Lu Yanzhou exclaimed.

Naturally, there was no way a rookie could be a captain. But rookies could dream big—they could dream of taking charge of their own division one day, as a proud and capable captain.

All the rookies in Ming Shu's squad called each other 'captain'. It was just a way of boosting each other's morale, and perhaps a way to bring each other good luck as well.

"You want one?" Ming Shu tossed him a pack.

Lu Yanzhou caught it like he was catching a hot potato. He instantly tossed it aside. "No way, no way!"

Ming Shu laughed, inwardly.

This Lu Yanzhou… strictly based on his appearance, he could be considered handsome. But he didn't care enough about his looks, and as a result he was a bit rough around the edges.

Ming Shu didn't usually pamper himself with a face mask in front of this rough-around-the-edges brother of his, but Xiao Yu'an was coming to Dongye City that day. He would be picking Ming Shu up so that they could make the trip home for New Year's together.

It had been quite a while since Ming Shu last saw Xiao Yu'an. He'd planned on getting a solid night of beauty sleep, but his rough-around-the-edges brother had ruined that plan. So Ming Shu had no choice but to do a face mask in the morning.

"You still have time to waste?" Lu Yanzhou asked. "Aren't you leaving today too?"

Ming Shu patted the mask a few times and answered, "I am, yeah."

"But you're still not packing? When's your train?"

"Someone's coming to pick me up."

Lu Yanzhou suddenly perked up with interest. "Who, who, who? Girlfriend?"

Ming Shu nearly laughed hard enough to displace his face mask. "Girlfriends are all you ever think about."

"Well, obviously! Because I'm still a single dog!" Lu Yanzhou exclaimed, filling up with envy. "I've never even dated."

Ming Shu went to wash his face. He and Lu Yanzhou continued their banter as they went out for breakfast. Since Lu Yanzhou was afraid of getting stuck in traffic, he picked up his suitcase and headed out before the clock even struck eight. Right before he left, he sighed mournfully and said, "Too bad I won't be able to see your girlfriend."

After the door to their dorm room closed, Ming Shu sat around for a while, then started to pack his own things.

That dorm building was dedicated to housing rookies-in-training. The energetic chatter from outside never ceased.

But that sort of buzzing noise was a bit soothing at a time like this. While Ming Shu packed, he suddenly heard the sound of a festive New Year's song blasting down the hall. He even started humming along.

The matter of going home for New Year's…

Ming Shu was excited. But he was apprehensive, too.

He would be visiting his two old homes. The Xiao family, and the Ming family. He would go back to the Ming family's place to have some dumplings with his grandfather, and to clean up around the house.

Then he would stay with the Xiao family for several days.

He used to dread his trips back to the Ming family, but in the past few years, he'd started to feel more relaxed about those visits.

His grandfather knew everything. Ming Shu had never hidden any of it since leaving after his high school graduation. He'd fallen in love with Xiao Yu'an. He wouldn't enter a loveless arranged marriage like Ming Haofeng. He wouldn't live up to the Ming family's expectations.

But the Ming family had failed him, too.

He and the Ming family had mutually disappointed each other in a way that allowed them to reach an unspoken sort of balance. There was no need for Ming Shu to feel constrained by guilt towards them.

But that wasn't the case with the Xiao family.

Throughout his childhood and youth, Ming Shu had received all the care and love he needed from the Xiao family. And when he grew up, he stole away their pride and joy.

He was like a greedy thief.

During the New Year's of Ming Shu's first year at college, Xiao Yu'an had admitted their then-nonexistent relationship to Xiao Lanyue. During the New Year's of Ming Shu's second year, Xiao Yu'an had been out of the country; Ming Shu had gone back by himself. The next year, however, they'd gone back together.

The elders of the Xiao family treated Ming Shu the same as they'd always treated him. Even the most old-fashioned Xiao Zhengyun never once spoke harsh words to Ming Shu or gave him the cold shoulder.

Xiao Yu'an's aunt also never, ever left Ming Shu out when giving gifts to the younger generation.

But their continued warm, loving treatment of Ming Shu only made the guilt in his heart intensify.

The Xiao family had only ever asked about the relationship between Xiao Yu'an and Ming Shu once. After that, it was like they'd all reached an unspoken understanding. No one brought it up again.

If this matter never came up again, nothing would ever change. Ming Shu would forever be a beloved child of the Xiao family.

He almost couldn't handle their tolerance and kindness any longer.

By that afternoon, most of the rookies had cleared out of the dorms. The halls grew quiet. Ming Shu had finished packing as well. He was carding his hand through his hair in the mirror when his cell phone rang.

Xiao Yu'an greeted, "I'm here."

The corners of Ming Shu's lips instantly curved into a smile. The apprehension in his heart was swept away, like it had never been there in the first place.

There was nothing that made him happier than seeing Xiao Yu'an.

As he ran outside with his luggage to find Xiao Yu'an waiting for him at the side of the road, Ming Shu suddenly felt like he was a kid once more—carrying his backpack, running out from his elementary school, and finding his tall and 'elegant' gege waiting to pick him up at the gates.

'Elegant' was a term he'd just learned back then. As soon as it entered his vocabulary, he'd instantly associated it with his gege.

That sort of description had nearly made Xiao Jincheng laugh himself to death.

"Ge—!"

Ming Shu didn't spare a single thought for anyone who might see or hear him. He was still only a faceless police rookie, after all. When he ran up to Xiao Yu'an, he unreservedly threw himself into the man's arms.

Luckily, Xiao Yu'an had the strength of a special operations officer who could catch and support this clingy little thing. Otherwise, they would have both toppled over to the ground.

Xiao Yu'an gently brushed Ming Shu's lips, then set him down and smiled. "You tanned."

"I've been training hard!" Ming Shu instantly retorted. "How could I not tan?"

Xiao Yu'an didn't actually care if he'd tanned or not. He just loved teasing Ming Shu. "You've gotten so dark. Will you ever go back?"

"As long as my ge spoils me lots," Ming Shu said, "I can do anything."

Xiao Yu'an massaged the nape of Ming Shu's neck.

 

That night, they reached the Xiao family's house.

The Xiao family's courtyard was still the same as always, adorned in lanterns and colorful lights. Everyone crowded into the kitchen, preparing dishes for tomorrow's New Year's Eve dinner. That night, they would have a simple hotpot.

That year, the Ming family's house had astonishingly been adorned with lanterns as well. Ming Shu had planned on going to visit his grandfather first, but he saw a car parked outside. Since there were visitors, he decided to wait.

As soon as he arrived at the Xiao family's house, he could feel that the atmosphere was a little different. But he couldn't pin down what was different about it.

After thinking about it for a while, Ming Shu decided it was just his own nerves. He was nervous every time he came back to visit, but he was especially nervous that year. Perhaps that was what made him feel as though something were different.

They set up the hotpot in the courtyard. Not everyone could fit at one table, so they set up a second table too.

Ming Shu was starving. He sat next to Xiao Yu'an and focused only on eating.

Xiao Yu'an's aunt had hauled back all the ingredients in her car. It was way better than eating out at a restaurant. Ming Shu had been a rookie for nearly half a year already; he could hardly remember the last time he wasn't tired, and it had been a long while since he'd gotten to eat to his heart's content. So he didn't even notice that Xiao Yu'an was continually scalding meat for him.

As soon as a piece was ready, Xiao Yu'an placed it in Ming Shu's bowl. Again and again.

Over the past three years, he and Xiao Yu'an had deliberately kept their distance from each other during their visits over New Year's. They practically never showed any signs of intimacy. Ming Shu sometimes even stuck to Xiao Jincheng like glue, just to avoid getting too close to Xiao Yu'an.

He was afraid the elders would be uncomfortable, seeing them together.

But this year, Xiao Yu'an's behavior was like a sign. A declaration.

Xiao Yu'an wanted to confirm their relationship in front of their whole family.

After scarfing down a piece of perfectly cooked tripe, Ming Shu finally realized what felt different about the atmosphere this year. He froze for a second, then turned to look at Xiao Yu'an. His heart suddenly leapt into his throat.

"Ge…" His voice was quiet, a hoarse whisper.

Across the table, Xiao Lanyue set down his chopsticks and calmly looked at the two of them.

Xiao Yu'an didn't respond to Ming Shu's call of 'ge', but he reached out and took one of Ming Shu's hands in his own. Ming Shu subconsciously tried to jerk his hand back, but he couldn't.

Xiao Yu'an's grip was firm. Ming Shu couldn't break free.

The hotpot continued to rumble. The night, the festivity of New Year's, and the bonds of their family all seemed to rumble in that pot.

Xiao Yu'an stood up, still holding tight to Ming Shu's hand. "Grandpa. Dad. Mom. The relationship between me and Ming Shu… thank you for silently tolerating it, for all these years. I know it isn't an easy thing for you to accept."

Ming Shu lowered his head. He didn't dare look at anyone seated around the table. Heat scorched through his chest and rose into his cheeks.

"You hoped that I could be like you. That I could get married and have children. When you first found out, you had no way of accepting it," Xiao Yu'an continued. He paused for a moment, then went on, "But you didn't lash out at Ming Shu. You continued to tolerate us, and you tried to understand our relationship. I'm so grateful to have been born into a family like this.

"Ming Shu will turn twenty-three soon, and he'll officially become a police officer. We might not return for New Year's next year." Xiao Yu'an lowered his head as well, looking down at Ming Shu. His voice was gentle, but firm. "Ming Shu is my lover. He's a wonderful, outstanding partner. This year, I brought him back in this new capacity. As my partner.

"I hope our loved ones will be able to accept the new role he holds in my life."

Ming Shu's throat tightened. When he lifted his gaze again, the rims of his eyes had reddened. The tears he couldn't hold back started to escape. Before he could wipe at his own face, Xiao Yu'an lifted a hand and brushed those tears away.

Even as his heart thundered in his chest, Ming Shu felt an unexpected sense of calm come over him. He gazed up at Xiao Yu'an, like he was looking at the light of his life and the home of his faith.

His gege was his everything.

He was the one who'd pursued Xiao Yu'an, and he had received all the love and adoration he desired.

At the other table, Xiao Yu'an's mother stood up and walked into the house. It seemed almost like she'd marched off in anger, but she returned after just a few moments, holding a small black box in her hands.

She approached Ming Shu and placed the box in his hands, then lifted her arms and pulled him into a hug.

Ming Shu stared at the woman in front of him, frozen in a daze.

When he was little, Ming Shu had always looked forward to her visits. Every time she came around, she would bring countless new toys for the kids, and she would always take them out to play.

"Have a look," she urged. "What's in there?"

Ming Shu opened the box. Inside, there were two keys.

Xiao Lanyue stood up and approached them as well. He let out a soft sigh. "We've made you suffer these past few years. In truth, we came to terms with things a long time ago. We found our own happiness in life. Why should we obstruct our children from seeking their happiness as well?"

Xiao Lanyue clapped Xiao Yu'an on the shoulder. "This apartment is located in the heart of the city. The location is pretty good, with lots of public transit options in the area. Our children have started a family. As your parents, the least we can do is take care of your new home.

"When you get a chance, go have a look in a few days. We know you're both very busy and won't get a chance to stay there often, but this is a necessary gesture that comes from the bottom of our hearts."

Ming Shu's fingers started to tremble.

He'd never imagined Xiao Yu'an would suddenly seek their parents' blessing. He'd never imagined their parents would accept them. And he simply couldn't ever have fathomed that their parents would even prepare a home for them, like an ordinary pair of parents, blessing their children's relationship.

He lost the ability to speak. He only felt a dizzyingly intense wave of joy.

He had once been so miserable, so unfortunate. But now, he was fortunate beyond his wildest dreams.

He had a gege, and he had a big family of people who loved him.

"Put your keys away. Finish eating," Xiao Zhengyun said, finally speaking up. "The meat will dry out in the pot, and we still have so many things to cook. Are you boys going to eat more or not?"

After everyone finished eating, only the kids from Xiao Yu'an's generation remained at the table.

Once, they had all been children. But now, Xiao Jinlan had her own child. And the youngest one of them, Ming Shu, had already graduated from college. They were no longer the youngest generation of this family.

Xiao Yu'an and Xiao Mu'ting had a drink together, and Ming Shu drank with Xiao Jincheng. Xiao Jinlan watched them happily and didn't bother to nag them about not drinking too much.

It wasn't easy for all the boys of the Xiao family to get together.

Ming Shu had a little too much to drink. When he was carried away by Xiao Yu'an, Xiao Jincheng grinned and waved after them, heartily calling out, "Bye-bye, little sister-in-law! Little sister-in-law!"

Ming Shu instantly blushed to the tips of his ears. "Ge, Xiao Jincheng is drunk. Just listen to the nonsense he's saying!"

Xiao Mu'ting gave Xiao Jincheng's head a slap. Xiao Jincheng turned to him and grumbled, "He is our little sister-in-law! Xiao Mu'ting, are you going to bring back a sister-in-law for me too?"

 

The Spring Festival break was short. Starting on the third of the new year, the officers and soldiers of the Xiao family began to depart. On the fifth, it was finally time for Ming Shu and Xiao Yu'an to leave.

They each took one of the keys to their new home. Xiao Yu'an drove Ming Shu back to Dongye City. He was only able to stay for two hours before a helicopter from his team came to pick him up.

Outside the Bureau in Dongye City, Ming Shu wrapped his arms around Xiao Yu'an's waist. He looked up with a deep longing in his eyes, already missing Xiao Yu'an.

"Ge, am I the most awesome didi in the world?"

Xiao Yu'an smiled indulgently.

"I caught up to you, our family has acknowledged us, and I'm going to be an official criminal detective soon," Ming Shu said. "I know I'm awesome."

"Of course," Xiao Yu'an said. "You're Ming-ge, after all."

Ming Shu was brimming over with pride, but he felt a little melancholic as well.

He was finally ready to stand on his own two feet and make his mark on this brand new place—Dongye City. He hadn't received special ops training like Xiao Yu'an; after graduation, he'd traveled to various places to continue his education. He and Xiao Yu'an and his university had all agreed that Dongye City was the right place for him to officially don his police uniform.

"Then, ge, you just wait for me for a few more years," Ming Shu said. "Wait for me to become a mature, accomplished detective. Then I'll come find you."

Xiao Yu'an brushed a finger over the tip of Ming Shu's nose. "Maybe I'll come find you."

"You'll find me?" Ming Shu asked.

Xiao Yu'an smiled. "The future is long. Let's see where it takes us."

Winter had yet to pass, and the festive air of New Year's still hung all around them. Ming Shu waved his goodbye to Xiao Yu'an, and Xiao Yu'an watched as he blended into the gray clouds and towering buildings of this sprawling cityscape.

Before long, Ming Shu would become the guardian of this city.

"I'll find you. I'll come to you, to be with you," Xiao Yu'an murmured to himself as he turned. "You've already chased me for so long."

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