MINT-STAINED SHIRT

Chapter 24

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Moving on to middle school was a big deal for elementary school students. As soon as sixth grade began, the atmosphere in Xiao Yu'an's class instantly changed.

Xiao Yu'an's elementary school was one of the best in the city. Most of the kids at his school all aspired to get into a good middle school and high school; they didn't want to be shuffled off to some mediocre junior high.

Soon after the start of the school year, their homeroom teacher laid out study plans for everyone and even called Xiao Yu'an in to have a one-on-one chat.

"I'm not worried about your grades. You'll definitely get into Yi Junior High," said the homeroom teacher. "However, you're the class monitor. Your own studies are the most important thing, but be sure to find time to help your classmates as well."

And so Xiao Yu'an was assigned a new task for the year. In truth, even if the homeroom teacher hadn't said anything to him, Xiao Yu'an felt a strong sense of responsibility as the class monitor. He had already started helping his classmates. He watched over Cheng Yue from time to time and made sure he was doing his homework, and he patiently explained difficult problems to anyone who came to him for help.

But the task the homeroom teacher gave Xiao Yu'an was a bit more of a commitment than what Xiao Yu'an would have normally done of his own accord. In sixth grade, students were assigned extra cram school classes based on their academic rankings. The students who were ranked highest didn't need to stay for cram school as long as they kept their grades up. But the homeroom teacher hoped Xiao Yu'an, and a few other good students, would occasionally show up at these supplementary lessons to set a good example for all the other kids who had to attend.

That would take up quite a lot of Xiao Yu'an's time.

After the incident with the yo-yos, Ming Shu had told Xiao Yu'an about his fear of getting out of kindergarten. Ever since then, Xiao Yu'an had picked Ming Shu up from kindergarten twice a week. He'd told Ming Shu's grandfather about it, but he didn't tell Ming Shu's grandfather about taking Ming Shu to buy toys and street food.

If Xiao Yu'an had to start sitting in on cram school classes, he wouldn't reach the kindergarten in time to pick Ming Shu up.

But he would only have to stay late once in a while, rotating with the other top students in his class. Most likely, he would only need to attend extra classes once a week. In the end, after thinking about it for a while, he agreed to take on the task.

 

The Xiao family's courtyard wasn't as noisy now as it had been over the summer. Xiao Jinlan would be taking her high school entrance exams soon, and the three boys were all fairly well-behaved. They stopped fighting in the yard and disturbing her around the house. Xiao Mu'ting was also shipped off for extracurricular classes, and he was always dead tired when his dad brought him home at nine in the evening or so.

"You don't have any extra classes?" Xiao Lanyue asked Xiao Yu'an.

"I don't have to take any," Xiao Yu'an answered coolly. He was holed up inside his room with his nose buried in his homework.

Xiao Lanyue gave him a pat on the head. "If you don't want to go, don't go."

He wasn't overly concerned with his son's studies, and he didn't have strict expectations for Xiao Yu'an's grades. Xiao Lanyue was the type to let nature take its course when it came to raising his son, but he still had to poke his head in every time he visited.

Xiao Lanyue picked up a toy train that sat on Xiao Yu'an's desk. "I heard from Grandpa that you have a new didi?"

With his dad trying to talk to him, Xiao Yu'an had to take a break from his homework. He set down his pen and looked up at the toy train. That was something Ming Shu had wailed about wanting last week.

Well, in truth, he hadn't wailed at all. He'd just stopped in front of the vendor when Xiao Yu'an picked him up after school, and he hadn't budged when Xiao Yu'an tugged on his hand. Xiao Yu'an had looked back at him and asked, "You want one?"

And Ming Shu had turned to him with a somewhat embarrassed smile.

At least he knew to be embarrassed. But his thoughts were written all over his face: Gege, will you buy me a train?

Xiao Yu'an had a lot of pocket money. His parents gave him an allowance, his aunt gave him an allowance, and sometimes Xiao Jinlan would even give him some spending money from her savings. Buying a toy train was no big deal to him.

Ming Shu was ecstatic after receiving the train. He said, at least ten times, "Gege is the best!"

But after playing with the train for just three days, Ming Shu had gotten tired of it. The last time he played with it, he'd been over at Xiao Yu'an's place, and he'd forgotten to take it home with him. It had been sitting on Xiao Yu'an's desk ever since.

The toy train wasn't the first thing Ming Shu had left in his room. Upon close inspection, one could see that more and more of Ming Shu's things were gathering in Xiao Yu'an's room. Ming Shu had once even proudly declared he was giving Xiao Yu'an a golden pinwheel, without a care for whether or not Xiao Yu'an actually needed a golden pinwheel.

When his son didn't answer right away, Xiao Lanyue smiled. "Don't bully him now."

"How could I?" Xiao Yu'an retorted. He almost blurted out that he was super good to Ming Shu.

Xiao Lanyue had only dropped by for a quick visit after conducting some business in the area. After checking in on his kids, he took his leave.

By the time Xiao Yu'an finished his homework, Xiao Mu'ting's voice was ringing out from downstairs. He'd just gotten home, dead on his feet again, and he wouldn't stop complaining about how tired he was. He insisted he didn't want to study for even one more minute, and even said he would join the army right then and there.

Their grandpa just laughed.

The Xiao family had been a military family for two generations, and it was expected that the boys from Xiao Yu'an's generation would join the army as well when they came of age. But Xiao Yu'an wasn't actually all that interested in enlisting; he was more keen on becoming a police officer. It was one of the very, very few things he and Xiao Jincheng agreed on.

Tomorrow was Friday, and Xiao Yu'an always picked Ming Shu up from kindergarten on Fridays. He had already struck that agreement with Ming Shu's grandfather. Before going to bed, Xiao Yu'an checked his school calendar to confirm that someone else would be sitting in on cram school classes tomorrow.

The little thing would definitely want a new toy or some bozigao, or both. After getting into bed, Xiao Yu'an got back up just to grab some extra cash from his drawer. He slipped it into his backpack to make sure he had enough.

But on Friday, at lunch, the academic committee member who had been assigned to cram school duty that day wobbled up to Xiao Yu'an, obviously sick.

"Class monitor, I'm running a fever. I'm going to the hospital right now. Can we switch shifts for later?"

Xiao Yu'an was the class monitor, so this was a responsibility that naturally fell to him. Normally, he might have been able to swap with someone else, but it was Friday. Who wanted to stay late on a Friday?

Xiao Yu'an had no choice but to trade shifts with the sickly academic committee member. But he didn't forget about Ming Shu. During his break, he went into the teachers' office and called home. He asked his grandpa to tell Ming Shu's grandfather that he wouldn't be able to pick Ming Shu up that afternoon.

And that was that. Xiao Yu'an played the part of the perfect role model in that afternoon's supplementary lessons. Cram school didn't end until seven, and Xiao Yu'an even checked all the windows and lights before leaving.

Xiao Yu'an didn't have to pass by the kindergarten on his way home, but he suddenly remembered Ming Shu whining about wanting to eat bozigao a few days ago. So Xiao Yu'an made a detour, planning to pick some up from the stall in front of the kindergarten.

Bozigao wasn't local to their city, and Xiao Yu'an hadn't seen it sold anywhere except in front of the kindergarten. He'd brought plenty of money that day anyway, so he figured it would be no trouble to bring some back for Ming Shu.

He hadn't been able to pick Ming Shu up that day. There was a good chance Ming Shu was waiting for him outside of his house like a lost little puppy right now.

But when he approached the kindergarten, he saw Ming Shu and Ming Shu's grandfather standing outside the school building. The doors to the building were already closed. Ming Shu was holding onto the door with both hands, and his grandfather seemed to be saying something.

When Xiao Yu'an got a little closer, he could see that Ming Han's face was extremely dark and twisted with anger. And Ming Shu was crying.

When Xiao Yu'an got even closer, he heard Ming Shu wail, "I don't want my grandfather, I want my gege! Gege said he would pick me up!"

Xiao Yu'an was so shocked that he froze in place.

The little kid had already screamed himself hoarse. His voice was splitting, but Xiao Yu'an could still hear a thread of determination in his words.

Xiao Yu'an sprinted the rest of the way over. When Ming Han saw him, he looked surprised and asked what Xiao Yu'an was doing there. Ming Shu looked over in that moment as well. As soon as he laid eyes on Xiao Yu'an, his tears instantly stopped.

"I knew my gege would come!"

Ming Shu's face was red and streaked with tears. Some of the rust from the door had even gotten stuck to his cheeks. Xiao Yu'an instantly rushed over and picked Ming Shu up, hastily explaining everything to Ming Han.

While Xiao Yu'an spoke, Ming Han's face remained completely expressionless. Xiao Yu'an couldn't remember a single time he had seen the man smile. After Xiao Yu'an finished his explanation, Ming Han nodded faintly and glanced at Ming Shu.

"He said the two of you made a deal that you would pick him up. So he refused to leave. He had to wait for you."

Ming Shu didn't look at his grandfather. He buried his face against Xiao Yu'an's chest and muttered, "I told you my gege would come."

"Then I'll trouble you to bring him home," Ming Han said.

"Okay," Xiao Yu'an agreed quickly. "I'll play with him for a while first."

As soon as Ming Han left, Xiao Yu'an set Ming Shu down. It was already late autumn, and Ming Shu was bundled up in plenty of layers. He hadn't grown much taller since the summer, and he looked more like a little dumpling now than ever. He gazed up at Xiao Yu'an with those big eyes of his. Even though he had been bawling just a minute ago, he was beaming now.

"What are you smiling for?" Xiao Yu'an poked him in the center of the forehead. "Why didn't you listen to your grandfather?"

Ming Shu pouted. "You said you would pick me up."

No matter how Xiao Yu'an thought about it, this came down to Ming Shu being a bad kid. But Xiao Yu'an just couldn't bring himself to get angry. It was already dark out, and Ming Shu had waited for him for all that time. He'd even dared to rebel against his grandfather, to throw a tantrum, and to cling onto the door so fiercely that he couldn't be torn away.

Xiao Yu'an had to find it a little funny. He offered Ming Shu his hand, and Ming Shu instantly took it.

All the little street stalls were closed by then, but the shop that sold bozigao was a proper, permanent store. They were still open, so Xiao Yu'an bought a few bozigao for Ming Shu, and Ming Shu ate as they walked home.

To avoid anything like this happening in the future, Xiao Yu'an told Ming Shu about the supplementary classes that he had to sit in on sometimes. Inevitably, he also had to explain why sixth graders had to have supplementary classes, which meant telling Ming Shu about sixth graders ascending to middle school after that year.

Ming Shu furrowed his brows. His whole face scrunched up. "Then when I start elementary school next year, I still won't be going to school with you."

Xiao Yu'an laughed. He was six years older than Ming Shu. Regardless of whether it was elementary school or middle school, they wouldn't ever attend the same school at the same time.

"Xiao Jincheng will be a fourth grader next year. The two of you can go to school together."

Ming Shu was distraught. "But I want to go to school with gege."

Xiao Yu'an thought to himself, Does he want me to repeat a year?

"I'm going to be with gege no matter what," Ming Shu declared. "I'll run faster, and I'll catch up to you!"

Xiao Yu'an tousled his hair. "We're six years apart. You won't catch me no matter how fast you run."

"I will!" Ming Shu insisted unthinkingly. "I'll catch you!"

The little kid's expression was simply too earnest. Xiao Yu'an didn't have the heart to tease him. He just smiled and urged, "Eat your bozigao."

Xiao Yu'an walked ahead, leaving Ming Shu a few steps behind. Ming Shu quickly raced up to him, holding his bozigao in one hand and catching Xiao Yu'an's hand with the other.

"I caught you, gege! I'll always catch up to you!"

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