MINT-STAINED SHIRT

Chapter 8

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Cheng Yue was Xiao Yu'an's classmate. Xiao Yu'an was the class monitor, and Cheng Yue was a member of the sports committee.

These were the two most desirable positions for elementary school boys, and they were also the positions which commanded the most power. Whenever Xiao Yu'an and Cheng Yue suggested an activity, all the other boys in their class leapt at the chance to participate.

Xiao Yu'an was athletic and good at sports. When his class held competitions amongst themselves, he and Cheng Yue would always each lead a team, and they would each win some, lose some. But when they teamed up to compete against other classes, they were a golden duo that practically never lost.

Cheng Yue also lived in their community; he and Xiao Yu'an had grown up together. They would soon be starting sixth grade, so of course they were very good friends by now.

"This is for me?" Cheng Yue asked. He was holding a huge gift bag of dried seafood. There was a little of everything in there. He would probably be able to eat and eat and still not finish everything by the expiration date on the bag.

Xiao Yu'an said, "If it's not for you, who would it be for? No one can eat as much as you."

Cheng Yue laughed. "That's true. I'm a growing boy."

Eleven-year-old boys did indeed grow fast. After not having seen Cheng Yue for half the summer, Xiao Yu'an noticed his friend had grown even taller than him.

"Where's mine? Where's mine?" Xia Zhong chirped, squeezing in between the two older boys. Sweetly, he pleaded, "Gege, where's mine?"

Xia Zhong and Xiao Yu'an weren't in the same class; the younger boy was younger by a year. Ever since he was little, he would follow Xiao Yu'an and Cheng Yue around, calling them 'gege'.

Most of the boys in their community liked to fight, but not Xia Zhong. He was like a girl, and he used to be bullied quite frequently. Xiao Yu'an and Cheng Yue hadn't been able to let it go, so they protected him. And ever since then, they'd had a loyal follower.

But Xiao Yu'an wasn't so keen on having a follower, so Xia Zhong was more prone to following Cheng Yue around.

Xia Zhong was pretty and delicate, like a porcelain doll. Every time Xiao Yu'an came back from visiting his other grandpa by the sea, he brought back pearls for Xia Zhong. And this time was no different.

He gave Xia Zhong a pearl bracelet, which Xia Zhong instantly slipped on. After turning his hand this way and that for a while, Xia Zhong exclaimed, "It's so pretty! Thank you, gege!"

"How old are you already? You're still calling us 'gege'?" Cheng Yue flicked Xia Zhong on the forehead. "When you become a middle school student, are you still going to call us 'gege'?"

"Why can't I call you 'gege'?" Xia Zhong asked distractedly. He was still admiring his new bracelet. "Even when we grow up, you'll still be my gege, won't you?"

Hearing all this 'gege' talk made Xiao Yu'an feel a little restless and bothered. He'd heard from Xiao Jincheng that Ming Shu had planned on having dinner with them, but then Ming Shu had run off for some reason that Xiao Yu'an still couldn't fully comprehend.

Though, truthfully, it wasn't like Xiao Yu'an didn't understand at all. Ming Shu had obviously run off because he hadn't received a gift.

The little kid had gotten angry.

"We'll still be your gege, but you can't keep calling out to us in that childish way, got it?" Cheng Yue said, still explaining his reasoning to Xia Zhong off to the side. "If you call out 'gege', both Yu'an and I will take a hit to our reputations. Next year, we'll be going to middle school, so you have to call us something else."

"Like what?"

"Xiao-ge, Cheng-ge."

"Isn't that the same as 'gege'?"

"It's not the same! When you hear Xiao-ge and Cheng-ge, you think of big, tough dudes. You're only a year younger than us, anyway. You shouldn't be calling us 'gege' at all. Only kids call people 'gege'."

Only kids call people 'gege'.

Xiao Yu'an thought of the little kid who did call him 'gege'. Xia Zhong's voice wasn't actually childish at all; at best, it was a little thin. It was Ming Shu's voice that was truly pure and childlike.

After being on the road all day, Xiao Yu'an and Xiao Jinlan were exhausted. They didn't start unpacking until the next day.

Xiao Jinlan had brought back even more stuff than Xiao Yu'an. Most of what she brought back were gifts made out of pearls. She had pearl bracelets, pearl hair clips, pearl handbags, and all sorts of other pearl-related things for her friends.

Xiao Yu'an helped her unpack for a while until he remembered the way Ming Shu had looked at him yesterday. Ming Shu's eyes had been blazingly bright with hope and anticipation at first. Then, when he realized there was no gift waiting for him, his eyes had instantly dimmed and lost their luster.

Originally, Xiao Yu'an had planned on giving Ming Shu a pearl to appease him, but the kid had been so angry that he'd stormed off in a huff without giving Xiao Yu'an a chance to smooth things over.

Xiao Yu'an actually hadn't brought back many pearls. He had given the nicest bracelet to Xia Zhong last night, and when he looked over the other things in his suitcase, he decided none of them looked very good.

"Jie, do you have any extra pearl bracelets over there?"

Xiao Jinlan looked up from a heap of colorful beads. "You want one?"

"As a gift for someone," Xiao Yu'an explained.

Xiao Jinlan blinked, then suddenly smiled. "For a girl in your class?"

She was three years older than Xiao Yu'an. When school started up again, she would already be a third-year in middle school. She had a lot of thoughts and feelings about things like this.

"Not a girl in my class," Xiao Yu'an said, frowning. "Do you have extras?"

"Everything I have here is for girls, y'know," Xiao Jinlan said in a sing-song tone. She didn't believe his denial for a second. "Tell me, tell me. Does she sit at the same table as you?"

Xiao Yu'an suddenly saw a string of mint-green pearls in the massive pile in front of his sister. The color was extremely pale. The pearls were almost translucent, refracting the sunbeams that passed through them, and emitting a softer, cooler light.

It was a taste of summer.

Xiao Yu'an picked up the mint-colored bracelet and held it up to the light.

"You have a good eye, that's my best one," Xiao Jinlan said, smiling. "If you like it, you can have it. But you have to tell me… which girl in your class are you giving it to?"

Xiao Yu'an sighed. His sister was still stuck on this supposed girl in his class. "I want to give it to the kid from the Ming family next door."

Xiao Jinlan looked surprised. "The one who helped you wash your shirt?"

He was just playing with water, Xiao Yu'an corrected silently.

"Ah, so it's him," Xiao Jinlan mused. She nodded generously. "Okay, go ahead and give it to him. We don't have any good boys like that in our family."

 

Ming Shu spent all night wallowing in his own self-pity, but when he woke up in the morning and brushed his teeth, he came to a realization. His gege hadn't given him a present, but that was fine. He could make himself a present that was just like Xiao Jincheng's.

In kindergarten, Ming Shu's class had received some crafts lessons. He'd built an airplane out of cardboard and wooden blocks, which placed first in their class-wide competition. His teacher had taken the plane in one hand and Ming Shu's hand in the other, leading him around to the other classes to show off his creation. All the other kids were wowed. And after it was shown around, the plane had been placed in a glass case in their kindergarten's activity room, where it could be seen but not touched.

He had never made a seashell gun before, and he didn't have any seashells, but he had gotten a lot of cardboard and colored markers for winning first place in that competition. He could make a rainbow cardboard gun.

 

Xiao Yu'an took the mint-colored bracelet from Xiao Jinlan and found a silk pouch to store it in. He planned on giving it to Ming Shu in two days. He definitely wouldn't be able to go see Ming Shu today, because he'd agreed to go swimming with Cheng Yue and the others.

And the kid had obviously gotten angry and sulky yesterday. Xiao Yu'an didn't like going out of his way to placate people; he thought it was too troublesome. And Ming Shu was just a tiny little thing, prone to whimpering and whining. There was no way to reason with him. Plus, when it came to the irritating little cousin in his own family, Xiao Yu'an could just smack him a bit when he got too annoying. But he could never raise a hand against Ming Shu. The kid would probably… drop some 'gold beans' in his pants.

After lunch, Xiao Jinlan grabbed another bracelet from the pile of her own accord and offered it to Xiao Yu'an. This one was a string of peach-blossom pink pearls, with a single golden pearl insinuated between the others; it was beautiful.

"Give this one to Ming-didi too," Xiao Jinlan said. "Make it a pair."

Xiao Yu'an thought there was something very suspicious about the way Xiao Jinlan was smiling. Why did a bracelet need to come in a pair? And this pink one… wouldn't it be better-suited for a girl?

Before Xiao Yu'an could voice any of his suspicions, Xiao Jinlan explained, "I think Ming-didi really likes you, so treat him well and have him play with you boys more often. The three of you just fight all day. There's never a moment of peace in this house. As your jiejie, I never get to relax."

Ah, so she had also realized Ming Shu was a very well-behaved child and wanted to sway him over to being her didi.

Xiao Yu'an tried to give the pink bracelet back. "Give it to him yourself."

Xiao Jinlan sighed and pressed the bracelet back into Xiao Yu'an's hand. "I can't. Doesn't jiejie treat you well? Don't quibble with jiejie."

Xiao Yu'an was stumped. He really couldn't argue with her. Xiao Jinlan was their family's only daughter. She was precious, and in their family there was no such thing as the older siblings doting on the younger ones. The three boys always caved to Xiao Jinlan's demands.

It was too much of a hassle to argue with her, anyway. Xiao Yu'an accepted the bracelet and said, "Fine, I got it."

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