Tong Ning stayed a distance away.
The journey took roughly forty minutes by car.
Neither of them spoke much along the way, and the inside of the car was very quiet.
When they reached, Tao Xiaodong helped him move his things down.
Tong Ning said, “Thank you for sending me, Director Tao.
Sorry to make you go out of your way.”
“Don’t mention it, Dr.
Tong, besides it’d have been cumbersome to get a cabbie to take you here.” Tao Xiaodong asked, “Will you be going back I can wait a while for you”
“That won’t be necessary.” Tong Ning shook his head.
“I’m not going back.”
And so Tao Xiaodong nodded, “I’ll be off, then.”
“I haven’t packed my place so I can’t invite you up today.
If there comes the opportunity, let’s have tea together another time.” Tong Ning thanked Tao Xiaodong again.
Tao Xiaodong waved his hand dismissively and got into the car.
The two young ones at home had already eaten by the time he got home.
When Tao Xiaodong entered, Tao Huainan was hugging his knees, seated on the couch, listening to the telly, whereas Chi Cheng was reading in his room.
“Ge,” Tao Huainan called, and asked him, “Back from lunch with Dr.
Have the two of you eaten”
“Yep.” Tao Huainan nodded.
“Ku ge cooked noodles for me.”
“I can smell it,” said Tao Xiaodong.
After changing, Tao Xiaodong came out to watch the telly with his younger brother.
Tao Huainan reached out and felt for him, then lightly lay down sideways, pillowing his head on his legs.
Automatically, Tao Xiaodong set his hand on his brother’s head, gently playing with his soft head of fine hair.
“What did you talk about” Tao Huainan asked with a gentle lilt at the end.
“Nothing in particular, a bit of everything,” Tao Xiaodong said.
Tao Huainan went “oh”.
After a while, he asked again, “Did you talk about me”
Chuckling, Tao Xiaodong said, “We did.
He said to bring you next time.”
Tao Huainan’s eyes crinkled into crescents.
He docilely set his hands on his brother’s leg.
He grew up by Tao Xiaodong’s side since young, and this was ever true after their parent’s death, for he only had Tao Xiaodong to take care of him.
Tao Huainan actually stuck to his brother a lot.
It got better in recent years, but in the beginning, as long as Tao Xiaodong was at home, he’d basically be in his vicinity.
Even from young, he’d never had a mischievous streak.
He was easy to raise, just that he would get a bit clingy.
But he didn’t make a fuss whenever Tao Xiaodong needed to go to work; he was always well-behaved.
Now, he lay quietly on Tao Xiaodong, scratching his legs delicately every now and then, a bit like how he used to as a child.
Tao Xiaodong twirled his hair, asking him, “What’s churning in your brain”
“Nothing.” Tao Huainan pointed at his head and softly said, “It’s empty inside.”
Tao Huainan was stuck by his side this evening, and Tao Xiaodong accompanied him to listen to the telly all night until Tao Huainan fell asleep with his head pillowed on his leg.
Tao Xiaodong carried him back into his room, and Chi Cheng quietly asked, “He fell asleep”
“Yeah,” Tao Xiaodong asked Chi Cheng.
“Are you still studying at this hour”
Chi Cheng said, “I’m just reading for a bit.”
“Don’t tire yourself out.
Turn in to bed earlier.” Tao Xiaodong ruffled his hair before he left the room.
“Xiao Nan can be a bit wilful sometimes.
If he upsets you, don’t hold a grudge.”
Chi Cheng didn’t lift his head, simply saying, “I wasn’t actually angry with him. Ge, don’t worry.”
“I know,” Tao Xiaodong smiled.
“You’ve always been the sensible one.”
Having Chi Cheng around saved Tao Xiaodong a lot of worry.
Otherwise, he would have had much more to fret about over the years.
Tao Xiaodong’s younger brother was born when he was in university.
He hadn’t been home for a year, and when he did it was suddenly to a new addition in the family.
Tao Xiaodong had frozen up on the spot, unable to get a word out for a long time.
After recovering, his mother placed the small bundle in his arms and got him to support its neck as he cradled it.
A clean, white, and small meat dumpling, yet to even grow teeth.
Less than a minute of being held by Tao Xiaodong, it peed all over his front.
By that time, Tao Xiaodong’s father’s eyesight was already deteriorating.
He was essentially blind.
The household expenses were solely shouldered by his mother, and the weight of this new addition was hers to carry alone.
Tao Xiaodong had actually been furious, yet also resigned, thinking that his parents were too muddle-headed.
But when he looked at the little thing lying in the cot, its limbs flailing wildly… that was his young brother.
A brother that was almost eighteen years younger than him, almost a generation apart.
But since the boy had come, it was their destiny.
The next day was a holiday for Tao Huainan and Chi Cheng.
Tao Xiaodong brought them to the parlour with him.
Just the day before, his face still carried stubble, and today it was clean-shaven.
Everyone at the store wasn’t quite able to get used to it, asking him, “Dong ge, are you switching up your style”
“Ah,” uttered Tao Xiaodong.
He asked, “How’s it Handsome”
“Yeah, just that you look younger now.”
Huan Ge looked at Dong ge then at Xiao Nan, laughing.
“I didn’t see it before, but now that you’ve shaved your stubble the two of you look really alike.”
“What do you think” Huang Yida rubbed Tao Huainan’s head.
“They’re real brothers.”
Tao Huainan tugged his brother’s arm, nodding.
“This is my real brother.”
Tao Xiaodong would still be making a trip out this month; there was a second phase to the mission trip from before, and this one would keep him for another half-month.
Lately, Tao Huainan had been sticking to him even more so than usual, and one day he said that he wanted to travel with him.
Tao Xiaodong asked him, “What about school”
Tao Huainan said, “I’ll make up for it when I get back.”
Urging him not to be obstinate, Tao Xiaodong said that he’d take him out during the holidays.
Tao Huainan simply said that he wanted to go to many places.
He did have something on his mind during this period.
Tao Xiaodong was also used to spoiling the child; it didn’t really matter to him if the boy missed a few days of school.
He could just take it as taking him out for a walk.
However, at the end of the day, that was a mission trip under the hospital, so Tao Xiaodong still had to inform Tang Suoyan.
He texted Tang Suoyan that night, calling “Yan ge“.
Tang Suoyan replied: Yes What is it
Tao Xiaodong asked: Are you also leading the upcoming trip to Gansu
> Gansu is in Northwest China; one of its poorest provinces.
Tang Suoyan: I am.
Tao Xiaodong: Xiao Nan hasn’t been himself lately.
I’m thinking I want to bring him out.
Tang Suoyan: What happened to Xiao Nan
Tao Xiaodong: Nothing much.
He’s reached the age when children would sometimes have some stuff on his mind, that’s all.
Tang Suoyan: How is he physically When you’re free, take him over for a check-up.
Tao Xiaodong: He’s fine, just not quite in a good emotional place.
They’d gotten more familiar with each other and now could go back and forth chatting for a long time like this.
If this were before, Tao Xiaodong would have been unable to chat with Tang Suoyan like this; he’d do his best to convey everything in a single message.
Eventually, Tang Suoyan said: It’s good to take him out for fresh air.
Don’t keep him cooped up just because he can’t see.
After Huang Yida found out about this, he said that Tao Xiaodong really spoiled his children too much.
The second that his brother said that he wanted to go, Tao Xiaodong had even applied for his leave of absence from school.
At that time, Tao Xiaodong was in the midst of a freehand sketch.
Tattoo artists always had sudden flashes of inspiration, and they’d let the rise of that feeling guide them in their illustration.
Thereafter, it would be saved to his portfolio, waiting for someone who resonated with it to claim.
Tao Xiaodong’s portfolio was well-stocked.
He didn’t have to rely on inspiration and could sketch something out as long as he had a pen in his hand.
He wielded the drawing pen and tattoo machine with finesse.
“He’s just a child; it’s normal for his age.
In another few years, that childish temper would be gone even if I want to let him be headstrong.” Tao Xiaodong’s hand didn’t stop moving as he spoke.
He was drawing a palm-sized eye.
The style wasn’t particularly beautiful and even looked a bit skewed and out-of-proportion at first glance.
It was dynamic with messy lines in disarray and a scatter of tiny objects, flowing like a river of light into the eye, carrying fragmented images.
Huang Yida said, “This design looks good.
It’ll fit nicely on the inner arm.”
Tao Xiaodong said, “It can go anywhere.
I’m not fussy.”
Huang Yida studied the illustration.
In truth, it was a delight to watch Tao Xiaodong sketch or tattoo.
He had called it back then; Tao Xiaodong was born to do this.
His hands were always able to smoothly finish a piece in one sitting, and it was magical to observe as a blank piece of skin or drawing paper gradually took on another form under his hands.
Huang Yida said, “This one will get snatched up real quick.”
Tao Xiaodong chuckled but didn’t speak.
Eyes were a common motif in his art.
He had tattooed many eyes.
Tattoo artists were very particular about quality.
Some of them were very versatile but refused to tattoo eyes under any circumstance.
Tao Xiaodong was different.
He enjoyed drawing eyes.
“I still think that this should go on the inner arm.
It’ll look very animated an inch above the wrist,” Huang Yida sighed in wonder.
After a while, Tao Xiaodong spoke, “I’d probably tattoo this one on the lower back.”
“Lower back” Huang Yida’s brows lifted.
“Two inches above the waist.” Tao Xiaodong’s pen didn’t stop.
His head was bowed as he slowly said, “The narrowest strip.”
Huang Yida never contested with him in this area.
He was only a foot into the industry, so whatever Tao Xiaodong said went.
When the artwork was complete, Huang Yida admired it for ages, saying, “Shall I scan it Upload it into your portfolio”
However, Tao Xiaodong picked it up, tucking it into a book.
“I won’t be flashing this.”
Huang Yida looked up at him.
Tao Xiaodong said, “No reason.
It’s just a doodle, don’t put it up.”