Xiao Jincheng was used to being a complete rascal at home, but he knew how to put on a 'good kid' act when he saw other people. Wearing a white dress shirt, shorts, and spotless white shoes, he faced Ming Han and greeted, "Good morning, Grandpa Ming!"
Ming Han nodded faintly. "Ming Shu will be down soon."
A while ago, Xiao Jincheng's aunt had bought him a waterproof children's watch. It was sky blue and super cool. Xiao Jincheng wore it all the time, and he always made a grand show of lifting his wrist to flaunt it while pretending to check the time. He lifted it so high that his wrist practically touched his forehead.
"Grandpa Ming," he said. "We're going to be late. I'm going up to check on him!"
The kids in their residential community always barged in and out of each other's homes. Ming Han didn't stop Xiao Jincheng from shooting into the house like a rocket and thundering up the stairs.
Ming Shu had already finished washing his face, brushing his teeth, and eating breakfast. He was now standing on his bed while getting dressed in his school uniform.
He was in elementary school now, attending the same school as Xiao Jincheng.
School had already been in session for a month. First Middle, Xiao Yu'an's junior high school, wasn't actually too far from the elementary school. Ming Shu's gege would normally walk him to school, but for the past two days he'd been away at military training. He would be gone for the better part of a month, and Xiao Jincheng had taken over the task of walking Ming Shu to school and bringing him home during that time.
Jincheng-gege wasn't bad, but Ming Shu missed his gege. School tired him out anyway, and when he woke up knowing his gege wouldn't be the one to walk him to school, he lost all motivation to get out of bed. Jincheng-gege always rushed him and made him run to school. Ming Shu was still a lot shorter than Jincheng-gege. How could he possibly keep up? Even when Ming Shu panted and shouted that he couldn't run fast enough, Jincheng-gege didn't stop to wait for him.
Yesterday, Ming Shu had even fallen on the way to school. He'd scraped his knee, which was slathered in an unsightly purple medicine now. Jincheng-gege blamed it all on him, saying it was his fault that his legs had yet to grow long enough.
But Ming Shu knew his legs would still grow. They would definitely grow longer.
His gege had never told him his legs were too short. Last time, when Ming Shu whined and acted like he was too tired to take another step, Xiao Yu'an had picked him up and carried him on his back.
When Ming Shu thought of that, he sat down on his bed and picked at the scab on his knee while wondering when his gege would return.
Xiao Jincheng raced upstairs to find Ming Shu idling on his bed, swinging his short little legs like they weren't about to be late for school. He huffed, instantly getting worked up by the sight of the useless little thing.
As a member of the disciplinary committee, Xiao Jincheng got to school early almost every day and stood guard at the gates to make sure everyone was wearing their uniforms properly and arriving on time. Last year, his very own brother had once come in with a few of his shirt buttons undone. Xiao Jincheng had chased after Xiao Mu'ting, shouting, "This student is going to get a demerit! I'm going to give you a demerit!"
Xiao Jincheng had been assigned to gate duty that week too, and there was nothing he liked more than gate duty. It was the perfect opportunity to stand in front of all his peers, abusing his authority and showing off his waterproof watch. There was nothing more impressive than that!
But because of the little sprout, Xiao Jincheng had had no choice but to swap shifts with one of the other members of the disciplinary committee. Before going off to military training, Xiao Yu'an had asked Xiao Jincheng to watch over the little thing and to bring him to school if he had time in the mornings.
In truth, Xiao Yu'an hadn't told Xiao Jincheng that it was absolutely necessary for him to take Ming Shu to school and bring him home. Ming Shu had a grandmother and a grandfather. If Xiao Jincheng didn't walk with him, his grandparents surely would have taken him.
But Xiao Jincheng had a responsible heart. Since he'd been given this task, he got up early every morning to get Ming Shu on the road. He played the part of a disciplinary committee member even in Ming Shu's home, scolding him and making sure he got himself dressed properly.
"I can't believe you're still sitting here!" Xiao Jincheng raged as soon as he stepped into Ming Shu's room. "Are you waiting for me to put your socks on for you?!"
Ming Shu jumped, scared half to death. He was still a bit of a scaredy-cat, and he could never stand Xiao Jincheng's hollering. He quickly grabbed his own white socks and said, "I'll put them on, I don't need you to do it."
Xiao Jincheng was like a factory foreman. He watched Ming Shu like a hawk as Ming Shu finished getting ready, and Ming Shu silently missed his gege even more.
As soon as Ming Shu got his socks on, Xiao Jincheng grabbed him and hauled him out of the house. Ming Shu, with his injured knee still covered in an ugly splotch of purple medicine, was forced to run again.
At least he wasn't late.
Ming Shu was in Class 2 of first grade, and Xiao Jincheng was in Class 3 of fourth grade. Their elementary school was pretty big. The older kids and younger kids didn't have class in the same building, but the buildings weren't completely separate either. A long promenade connected the two.
After dropping Ming Shu off at his building, Xiao Jincheng didn't leave right away. He walked a patrol around the front doors and caught a chubby little kid littering. He asserted his authority and made the kid pick up his trash before finally trotting away to his own classroom, radiating an air of satisfaction.
"Is that your gege?" asked Du Hao, the chubby kid who'd been scolded by Xiao Jincheng. He was Ming Shu's deskmate. "He patrols outside our class every day."
Ming Shu shook his head at first, but then remembered what his gege had told him before going to military training. Xiao Yu'an had asked him to be good and listen to Jincheng-gege. So, in the end, Ming Shu nodded. "I guess he's my gege too."
"That's so cool. My gege is already in junior high. I'm afraid people will bully me."
"My gege is in junior high too," Ming Shu said.
Du Hao blinked. "Isn't your gege in fourth grade?"
"A different gege."
"Ah, do you have a lot of gege?"
Ming Shu suddenly beamed proudly. He batted his eyes and held up four fingers, bragging in a childish tone, "I have three gege and one jiejie!"
"Wow!" Du Hao exclaimed.
At first, Ming Shu had only acknowledged Xiao Yu'an as his gege. But after spending more time with the Xiao family than his own grandparents over the past year, Ming Shu had come to see himself as the Xiao family's didi. In that case, weren't Xiao Mu'ting, Xiao Jincheng, and Xiao Jinlan his gege and jiejie as well?
But his gege was still special. His gege wasn't Yu'an-gege. His gege was just gege.
"I only have one gege," Du Hao said with a melancholy sigh. "If my mama had given birth to me sooner, I could have gone to elementary school with my gege."
Ming Shu deflated. He didn't feel like bragging about anything anymore, because he felt the same melancholy as his deskmate. This was something that had been weighing on him for a long time already. Because he was six years younger than his gege, he only started elementary school when his gege was already in middle school. By the time Ming Shu started middle school, his gege would be in college.
No matter how hard he chased Xiao Yu'an, he would never be only five years younger than his gege.
"Were you scolded by your teachers today?" Xiao Jincheng asked after school that day. When he met up with Ming Shu, he could tell the kid was feeling down. He gave Ming Shu a pat on the head.
Fourth graders got out of school a lot later than first graders, but Ming Shu always waited for Xiao Jincheng. He was never in a hurry to get home. Every day, Ming Shu helped out with after school cleaning duties, even when it wasn't his turn. That quickly made him one of the most well-liked kids in his class.
"Don't hit me!" Ming Shu complained in a small voice, shielding his head from Xiao Jincheng. "If you hit me, I'll turn stupid!"
"You're already stupid!" Xiao Jincheng laughed. Then, acting like a responsible young man, he urged, "Tell me the truth. Why were you scolded? Did you do your homework wrong?"
Ming Shu pouted. "Of course not. I'm smart!"
"Oh, you think you're smart? You think you're 'cong ming'? Your last name may be 'Ming', but that doesn't mean you're cong ming!"
"I am! Gege said I'm smart!"
The two of them bickered as they walked. Xiao Jincheng wanted to have some mala skewers from a shop outside the school, so he bought two skewers for Ming Shu as well. When he got home, he knew he would be scolded, and he planned to insist that it was Ming Shu who'd cried and begged for food.
Ming Shu obviously didn't know he was about to be framed. He ate the spicy skewers happily, but little kids had sensitive stomachs. That night, Ming Shu came down with an upset tummy. It wasn't too serious, but Xiao Jincheng was worried enough that he skipped his own classes just to take Ming Shu to see a doctor at the hospital.
Neither of them told their families about this little incident. Xiao Jincheng was afraid his grandpa would scold him, and Ming Shu was extremely perceptive for his age. He was afraid his own grandparents would blame Jincheng-gege if they found out, and he feared they would forbid him from going over to play with the Xiao family in the future.
Ming Shu absolutely couldn't allow that to happen.
Ming Shu's stomach hurt for two days. He and Xiao Jincheng skipped class on both those days, sneaking out to the hospital together. Once Ming Shu got better, they should have been able to put the whole ordeal behind them.
After National Day, Xiao Yu'an and Xiao Mu'ting came home from military training. They had both tanned while they were away. Xiao Jincheng ran circles around them, laughing and making fun of their tan lines.
Ming Shu stared at Xiao Yu'an for a long while. Then he reached out, took Xiao Yu'an's hand, and led him into the courtyard.
"What are we doing?" Xiao Yu'an asked.
"Gege is dirty," Ming Shu answered solemnly. "Didi will help you wash."