Ming Shu, at his young age, was already getting a chance to be a grandpa.
Cheng Yue and the others were already half-grown. At the end of summer break, they would become sixth graders. To adults, they were of course still children. But they no longer saw themselves that way. These older boys all liked to mimic what they saw in the action movies they rented. To them, there was nothing cooler than being someone's big bro or granddaddy. In fact, they could often be heard running around, calling themselves 'Godfather' and 'Your Esteemed Grandpappy' and whatnot.
Xiao Yu'an had never called himself 'Grandpa Xiao'. But, for better or worse, he was a class monitor. Many of the younger kids in his class called him Xiao-ye, and Xiao Yu'an had reluctantly grown accustomed to answering to that name.
Ming Shu had never seen any old action movies, so he had no idea there were older kids who considered 'grandpa' a highly respected title. He hastily waved a hand to deny it. "I'm not a grandpa, you have the wrong person!"
His voice, ringing out through a cluster of boys who were all around eleven, was so soft and delicate that a few people laughed. Cheng Yue was one of them, laughing hard and slapping his thigh. "Wooow, I found a bona fide good boy! Whose kid is this?"
Ming Shu wanted to make lots of friends and play with lots of people, but he had gotten used to being alone. Now, finally surrounded by others, he started to feel a little scared.
And when he got scared, he instinctively looked for his gege.
His gege was right next to him. Xiao Yu'an lifted a hand and pulled Ming Shu closer, protectively throwing an arm across his chest to shield him from the other boys. Ming Shu turned around and felt more at ease as soon as he laid eyes on his gege.
But Cheng Yue wasn't finished. He stooped down in front of Ming Shu and teased, "Little Grandpa."
He was tall and dark, and he'd shaved his head at the start of summer break. Only a bit of fuzz had grown back so far. Combined with his rather fierce facial features, he looked like a villain.
Ming Shu hastily shrank back even more. He plastered his back to his gege, and he even reached out and clung to one of his gege's fingers. His chest was practically vibrating with quick, shallow breaths.
Xiao Yu'an got the feeling that Ming Shu was close to whimpering or crying again.
"Not a grandpa," Ming Shu mumbled. He didn't even realize that his tight grip on his gege's finger was making his gege's skin turn red. "I'm not a little grandpa."
Cheng Yue had gotten addicted to teasing Ming Shu. "Oh? If you're not a little grandpa, what are you? A little baobei?"
Ming Shu had heard this word at kindergarten. There, many aunties and uncles called their own children 'baobei'. Ming Shu understood that 'baobei' was a very precious nickname, and he had never been called 'baobei' by his own mother or father.
He knew that meant he wasn't precious. He wasn't anyone's baobei.
Hearing himself called a 'little baobei' now, Ming Shu felt both astonished and ashamed. He lowered his head and protested, "I'm not a little baobei either."
"Oh? Not a little grandpa, and not a little baobei. Then what are you?"
"I…" Ming Shu's voice was growing weaker and weaker. "I'm just not a little baobei."
Xiao Yu'an had already perceived that something was wrong. When Ming Shu denied being a little grandpa, he'd just sounded a bit bashful. But when Ming Shu denied being a little baobei, he wilted. It was easy to tell he was sad about that.
Xiao Yu'an couldn't figure out why Ming Shu was sad now, but if Cheng Yue kept teasing him, Ming Shu was probably—almost definitely—going to cry.
"That's enough." Xiao Yu'an took Ming Shu's hand and pulled him back, letting Ming Shu hide behind him. "What do you care what he is? You're insufferable."
"It's just a bit of harmless teasing, isn't it?" Cheng Yue stood up with a playful grin. "And I'm teasing the little baobei, not you. What are you getting so worked up for? Is this your little baobei?"
Xiao Yu'an heard Ming Shu let out a soft whimper. Little kids really were troublesome. It was impossible to figure out what made them whimper and whine all the time.
"That's right," Xiao Yu'an said. "He's mine."
The little tail attached to Xiao Yu'an suddenly made a different sound: "Huh?"
"I knew it." Cheng Yue laughed gleefully, then clicked his tongue at Ming Shu. "He even shelled edamame for you. Who else could he belong to?"
The setting sun painted the sky red, and the group of boys disbanded, noisily chattering as they wandered down the promenade to head back to their own homes.
Xiao Yu'an couldn't remember the last time he'd walked hand-in-hand with someone. It must have been ages ago. The last time his mom came to visit, she'd wanted to take his hand, but he'd refused and complained that he was too old for it.
His mom had laughed and teased him for acting all mature, before taking Xiao Jincheng's hand instead.
Now, he walked a long way with Ming Shu's hand in his own.
He didn't know if Ming Shu had been scared out of his wits or what. The kid was clearly lost in thought. If he hadn't seemed so distracted and distraught, Xiao Yu'an definitely wouldn't have held his hand. It was so hot outside and everyone's hands were sweaty. Holding hands just wasn't comfortable.
The houses in their residential community sat side by side, and they were divided into districts. Ming Shu and Xiao Yu'an lived in one district while Cheng Yue lived in another. Every time their big group passed a small walkway, a few boys split off and went home. Their numbers continued to dwindle as they made their way down the promenade, until only Xiao Yu'an, Xiao Mu'ting, and Ming Shu remained.
Xiao Yu'an led Ming Shu all the way back to the gates of the Ming family's house. When he let go of Ming Shu's hand there, he felt Ming Shu trying to grab hold of one of his fingers. Ming Shu was clearly reluctant to let go.
This wasn't the first time Xiao Yu'an had walked Ming Shu back to his house. Ming Shu was always clingy, but he was never this bad. It seemed he'd had a heavy weight on his shoulders ever since he heard the words 'little baobei'.
"Time to go home," Xiao Yu'an said, jerking his chin at Ming Shu's house.
Ming Shu shifted in place. "Gege, I'm not a baobei."
"I'm not a baobei."
Xiao Yu'an could tell Ming Shu sounded down about that, but he couldn't figure out why. What exactly bothered Ming Shu about that word?
But it wasn't a good time to ask. Xiao Mu'ting was shouting for Xiao Yu'an to hurry back to their house next door, saying dinner was already being served. Ming Shu's grandfather had also come out of the Ming family's house, looking out from the courtyard.
"Go eat dinner first," Xiao Yu'an said, tousling Ming Shu's hair.
Ming Shu turned around and saw his own grandfather. It was only then that he nodded. If he'd had a puppy's ears, they would have been drooping.
Xiao Yu'an caught up to Xiao Mu'ting, who was still ribbing him over the edamame thing. When they turned to head into their own courtyard, Xiao Yu'an turned around, almost subconsciously, but Ming Shu was no longer in front of his house.
A blindingly bright streak of sunlight doused the spot where Ming Shu had been.
The start of the sports festival was approaching, and Xiao Yu'an didn't have time to figure out what was going on in Ming Shu's head. He had to practice badminton with Xiao Mu'ting in the evenings, and he had track and field training with the other boys during the day.
He really just didn't have time to worry about anything else.
Ming Shu came over again the next morning. He sprawled out on the bed and fiddled with the pieces of the paper and cardboard gun, which looked nearly complete.
"Are you coming to the sports festival tomorrow?" Xiao Yu'an asked. He had just gotten back from training outside. After taking a quick shower, he'd grabbed two mint popsicles from the freezer and brought them upstairs. One for himself, one for Ming Shu.
Xiao Yu'an had started liking mint popsicles. He no longer thought the taste was too sharp.
Naturally, Ming Shu did want to go to the sports festival. He'd even wanted to participate, but only kids who had already started elementary school were eligible.
"Gege, I'll come cheer you on."
Xiao Yu'an sat backwards in his chair and slung one arm over the back of the chair.
His room used to be extremely neat and tidy. But ever since Ming Shu started coming over, it had become a veritable disaster zone. The random little things Ming Shu brought over were scattered everywhere. Even the chair Xiao Yu'an was sitting on had been afflicted by a Sheriff Blackcat sticker.
Ming Shu had stuck it on. He would have been scolded for that sort of thing at his own house, so he came over and wreaked havoc on Xiao Yu'an's room. Ming Shu had even traded stickers with Xiao Jincheng several times.
Of course, Ming Shu hadn't done it without permission. He'd looked up at Xiao Yu'an, blinked with those big eyes of his, and asked, "Gege, can I put a sticker here?"
Xiao Yu'an had wanted to say no, but he couldn't bring himself to actually say it in the end.
It was just a few stickers, right? So what if Ming Shu put some up?
And Ming Shu was really well-behaved. He got permission to put up one sticker, so he only put one up. He saved all the others in a drawer.
"How are you going to cheer me on?" Xiao Yu'an asked.
It was just an offhanded question, but Ming Shu seemed to contemplate his answer very seriously.
The cheering squads Ming Shu saw on television were always dressed in uniform colors. Those people waved around things that looked like big, multicolored jianzi and always livened up a crowd. Ming Shu glanced at his gun, which was also very colorful.
"Gege, I'll bring the gun with me."
Xiao Yu'an had never heard of someone being cheered on by a gun before. After thinking about it for a moment, he thought it sounded pretty interesting. Last year, someone in the crowd had dressed up as Sun Wukong. This year, Ming Shu could be a gunslinger. There was nothing wrong with that.
"The gun is finished?" Xiao Yu'an asked.
The gun could have been finished a long, long time ago if Ming Shu hadn't intentionally slowed them down. He thought about it for a long moment before lifting his head. "Gege, I can finish the gun tonight."
Xiao Yu'an could see that Ming Shu looked completely serious and earnest, but a little reluctant as well. He couldn't help but laugh. "Okay. Then I'll wait for you to cheer me on tomorrow."
Ming Shu couldn't fall asleep that night. He climbed out of bed in the middle of the night and went to admire the paper and cardboard gun that he had finally finished. It was beautiful. Way better than Xiao Jincheng's seashell gun.
There was a recreation center in their community, and that was where the sports festival was held each year. Previously, the festival only lasted half a day, but a proper opening ceremony had been added to the festivities this year. For the first time, the sports festival would run all day.
"Hey, hey. Look over there." Cheng Yue elbowed Xiao Yu'an and pointed into the crowd as they got ready for the 400-meter dash.
Xiao Yu'an was busy stretching. He couldn't be bothered to look.
"You won't even look at your little baobei?"
At that, Xiao Yu'an did look up. Ming Shu was indeed in the crowd, and he was pretty easy to spot. He'd squeezed up to the front row, and he was holding his colorful paper gun in his hands. When he saw Xiao Yu'an look his way, he bounced excitedly and called out, "Gege! Gege!"
It was extremely crowded over there, and unruly children had a tendency to push at other people without realizing their own strength. Xiao Yu'an glanced to the side and saw Xiao Jinlan next to Ming Shu, protecting the little thing.
"What's he holding? A gun?" Cheng Yue asked. "You don't see that very often at a place like this. Is he going to give it to you if you win the race?"
"What are you talking about?" Xiao Yu'an retorted exasperatedly. "It belongs to him."
The starter pistol sounded, and the runners were off. Besides two kids who fell down at the starting line, everyone blazed down the track. Xiao Yu'an fell behind Cheng Yue and one other runner, lagging a considerable distance behind first and second place.
Ming Shu grew more and more anxious as he watched. How could his gege lose?
The thunderous cheers from the crowd split the sky. Ming Shu waved his paper gun and did his best to shout as well: "Gege, run! Run! Run!"
But his voice was small and soft to begin with, and it grew even weaker as his nervousness spiked.
Xiao Jinlan had stopped participating in sports after entering junior high school, and there was a bit of a generation gap between junior high school students and elementary school students. She saw Xiao Yu'an and her two cousins the way Xiao Yu'an saw Ming Shu.
Ming Shu was getting so anxious that she couldn't help but laugh.
"Didi, the one racing is Yu'an. Why are you so worried?"
Ming Shu was so worried. "My voice is too small. Gege can't hear me, so he can't run fast. I promised I would cheer for gege."
"Gege can hear you," Xiao Jinlan reassured. "Gege has very, very good ears."
"Then why can't gege run fast?"
"Because gege is a bit stupid."
There was no way Xiao Yu'an could have known his dear sister was bad-mouthing him in the crowd, and there was no way for him to know how nervous Ming Shu had gotten. He hadn't actually fallen behind at the start of the race. Rather, he was intentionally taking it easy until the 200-meter mark. At that point, he started sprinting at full speed and quickly passed the runner in second place. Soon, he would pass Cheng Yue as well.
When Ming Shu saw his gege catching up, he hurried protested, "Gege isn't stupid! Go, gege, go!"
All Xiao Yu'an heard when he raced past the spectators was that first part: 'Gege isn't stupid!'
He had just narrowly passed Cheng Yue before bursting through the ribbon stretched across the finish line. When he turned around, breathing hard, he saw a short little figure zooming up to him.
It was Ming Shu.
When he saw Ming Shu, Xiao Yu'an instantly thought of that cheer again: 'Gege isn't stupid!' Besides Ming Shu, who could possibly cheer like that?
"Gege!" Ming Shu exclaimed. He was overjoyed, like he was the one who'd won first place. "Gege, you were first!"
The paper gun was too big, so Ming Shu couldn't leap onto Xiao Yu'an. He shifted awkwardly, adjusting and readjusting his hold on the gun, but he couldn't free up an arm no matter what.
Xiao Yu'an was drenched in sweat, and he hated the thought of touching anyone or being touched in that moment. But as he watched Ming Shu fidget, his heart softened and he picked Ming Shu up.
"Oh!" Ming Shu jumped, clearly shocked. "Gege?"