All parent-teacher conferences at Ming Shu's elementary school were held at the same time. In the building for the younger kids, Ming Shu sullenly stood out in the hall. In the other building, Xiao Jincheng also hovered anxiously near his own classroom. His father had come to attend his parent-teacher conference.
The Xiao family and the Ming family were very different in some ways. Although both sets of parents had their kids live with their paternal grandparents, the Xiao family's parents always made time to attend important events such as parent-teacher conferences, first days of school, and competitions or festivals. The Xiao kids always had their mom or dad at those events; their parents didn't leave everything to the grandparents.
Xiao Jincheng actually wished his grandfather, or his aunt, could have been the one to attend his parent-teacher conference. But his mom and dad had always been the ones to show up, which put him under a lot of stress.
Ming Shu, in the other building, was unhappy. And when he was unhappy, he wanted to see his gege. But his gege was at middle school, so he could only go find Jincheng-gege.
In truth, Ming Shu was a little afraid of going over to the other building for older kids. All the kids there were so big and tall. But Ming Shu didn't want to stay in his own building either.
Since it was the first parent-teacher conference day for all the first graders in Ming Shu's class, everyone was gathered in the hall, chattering excitedly, while their teachers spoke to their parents or guardians inside the classroom. The kids all talked about one another's parents, and Ming Shu heard everything.
He heard plenty of kids wondering why a grandpa was sitting at Ming Shu's desk.
Where were Ming Shu's mom and dad?
His classmates' words weren't malicious, but the curious children continued to gossip. One whispered that maybe Ming Shu didn't have a mom or dad. Another whispered that the old man sitting at Ming Shu's desk might have been his father, not his grandfather.
Ming Shu was incredibly uncomfortable. He felt like everyone was looking at him and talking about him. Their gazes were like hot flames, lapping at his feet. He shuffled away, dodging those curious looks, and somehow found himself in the walkway that connected the two school buildings.
"Gege…" He whispered this just for himself to hear, wishing desperately that he could see his gege.
The walkway was crowded, and Ming Shu was short. But he pushed and squeezed and finally made his way over to the fourth graders' classrooms.
Xiao Jincheng was extremely anxious. Inside his classroom, various teachers were handing out test results to the parents of their students. Xiao Jincheng had gotten way too into playing over the summer, and he hadn't gotten back into 'school mode' yet. Last year, he'd managed to raise his test scores and rank in the Top 5 of his class. But now, he'd fallen back down the rankings. He was definitely going to be scolded.
It was just then that Xiao Jincheng looked up and suddenly saw Ming Shu standing in the middle of a crowd. The little kid was looking left and right like he was lost, or like he was looking for something.
Xiao Jincheng hurriedly ran over and took Ming Shu's hand, fiercely demanding, "What are you doing here?"
Ming Shu had been scared and nervous. When he arrived in the halls of the older students' building, he didn't know where he was going and he didn't recognize anyone. Now that Jincheng-gege was there, Ming Shu let out a breath of relief. "I was looking for you."
"Why? What are you looking for me for? You wanna see me make a fool of myself?"
Ming Shu didn't understand. "Huh?"
Xiao Jincheng huffed. "My dad's definitely gonna whoop me tonight!"
"Uncle is here for your parent-teacher meeting?" Ming Shu asked. Xiao Jincheng's father was Xiao Yu'an's uncle, so Ming Shu had naturally started calling him 'Uncle' as well.
"Yeah, he took a day off to come," Xiao Jincheng said. "Honestly, if he was busy, he shouldn't have come. Wouldn't it have been fine for my aunt or uncle to come instead?"
As soon as Ming Shu heard that, his shoulders drooped and his heart plummeted. He whispered, "I wish my father was here today."
Xiao Jincheng hadn't heard him clearly. "What?"
Ming Shu didn't repeat himself, and he didn't say anything else. He suddenly felt like Jincheng-gege was the worst. Jincheng-gege was obviously showing off because his dad had come to his parent-teacher conference.
The teachers had a lot to tell the parents, so the conferences would run on for a while yet. Xiao Jincheng was the type that couldn't sit still, so he took Ming Shu outside with him to buy some ice cream.
Ming Shu loved sweets. Xiao Yu'an and Xiao Mu'ting were already old enough that they didn't like these snacks that they thought were just for kids. Xiao Jinlan was even older, and she was a girl; she spent all day wailing about how she needed to lose weight. The snacks at the Xiao family's house were basically all divvied up between Xiao Jincheng and Ming Shu.
The seasons were changing. Since the days were getting colder, the Xiao family didn't keep popsicles in the freezer anymore. If Xiao Jincheng and Ming Shu wanted ice cream now, they would have to sneak out and eat in secret.
Xiao Jincheng thought that Ming Shu would beam at him and call him 'Jincheng-gege' if he treated him to some ice cream, but Ming Shu didn't fulfill his expectations at all. Instead, the little kid stubbornly insisted it wasn't the right time for ice cream and even threatened to snitch.
Xiao Jincheng was pissed. He was seriously close to imploding.
Ming Shu wouldn't eat ice cream, and he wouldn't eat mala skewers. But neither of them wanted to go back inside, so they wound up hanging out at the playground for a while.
The middle school had had their parent-teacher conferences earlier in the year, after one of their monthly exams. Xiao Mu'ting knew the elementary school was having their conferences that day. After school, he skipped his usual soccer game with friends and hollered for Xiao Yu'an to come to the elementary school with him. He was keen to see Xiao Jincheng get a proper scolding.
Xiao Jincheng's parent-teacher conference days were a hilarious spectacle for all the other kids in the Xiao family. They all liked to watch him get his usual lecture, and no one delighted in Xiao Jincheng's suffering more than Xiao Mu'ting.
When they got to the elementary school, the parent-teacher conferences were still going. But right away, the two older boys saw Xiao Jincheng and Ming Shu sitting outside, both looking rather upset.
Xiao Mu'ting was thrilled.
But Xiao Yu'an, seeing Ming Shu, furrowed his brows.
"Gege!" As soon as Ming Shu saw Xiao Yu'an, his mood brightened and he sprinted over.
Xiao Yu'an studied him for a moment, but he didn't ask what was wrong right away. The little thing wasn't usually like this. Ming Shu wasn't happy today, which must have had something to do with the parent-teacher conference. Maybe his teacher had scolded him for getting bad grades.
Before long, the first graders' parent-teacher conferences came to an end. Ming Han was as expressionless as ever when he emerged from the building. He didn't look any different, but Xiao Yu'an could tell he was incredibly displeased that day. Because when Xiao Yu'an said he would take Ming Shu home, Ming Han flatly refused and took Ming Shu home with him right away.
As he was led away, Ming Shu kept frantically looking back at Xiao Yu'an. There was an obvious helplessness in his eyes.
"I'm doomed, I'm doomed! Ming Shu's present is my future!" Xiao Jincheng wailed, jumping to his feet. "We can't escape our fate! We're so dead!"
That night, Xiao Jincheng's dad really let him have it. But Xiao Yu'an didn't laugh along with Xiao Mu'ting. He was worried about Ming Shu. But the neighboring house was quiet. Xiao Yu'an didn't hear any yelling or scolding coming from the Ming family's yard.
The next day, Xiao Yu'an went over to pick Ming Shu up as per usual. Ming Shu slipped his hand into Xiao Yu'an's as soon as he came outside, passing Xiao Yu'an a few pieces of nougat.
"What's this?" Xiao Yu'an asked. He got the feeling something wasn't right with Ming Shu today.
The Ming family didn't keep any snacks in the house. Ming Shu always ate his fill at the Xiao family's house, and sometimes he would even take some snacks home with him. None of the kids really liked nougat; they considered it old-people food. If Ming Shu was giving Xiao Yu'an some of his stash, that could only mean Ming Shu wanted something.
"Gege, you take it," Ming Shu insisted. "It's really yummy."
Xiao Yu'an lightly gave him a whack over the back of the head. "Who was it that said nougat was hard to eat?"
Ming Shu blurted out an 'aiya' and blushed, ducking his head and refusing to look at his gege. "But I only have nougat."
"Why are you giving it to me?" Xiao Yu'an asked, deliberately pretending to have no clue. "Did you do something wrong?"
Ming Shu furiously shook his head.
"Then is there something you want from me?"
This time, Ming Shu instantly began to nod.
"Are you struggling with your homework?" Xiao Yu'an asked. "Or is it that you want to go play somewhere on Sunday?"
"No," Ming Shu said. "And no."
"Then what do you want?"
Ming Shu started to stammer, unable to form an intelligible sentence. Xiao Yu'an placed the nougat in the hood of his coat.
They almost made it to school before Ming Shu finally said, with the elementary school looming in the distance, "Gege, can you come to my next parent-teacher meeting?"
Xiao Yu'an never would have been able to guess that this was what Ming Shu wanted to get with his nougat 'bribe'. But how could Xiao Yu'an possibly go to Ming Shu's parent-teacher conference? He was a middle school student.
"When my grandfather went to my parent-teacher meeting yesterday, I was made fun of. The other kids said I didn't have a mom or dad," Ming Shu said. He had felt miserable about that all night, until he managed to console himself. He'd convinced himself that it was fine if his mother didn't come. It was fine if his father didn't come. Because he had his gege.
His gege could go to his parent-teacher meetings from now on!
His gege took such good care of him. He would definitely agree. Especially since Ming Shu had given his gege some nougat.
He waited, patiently, for his gege to say yes.
Xiao Yu'an did dote on Ming Shu, but this just wasn't something he could do just because he liked to spoil the kid. He had to rush off to his own school after dropping Ming Shu off, so he didn't have time to try to figure out what Ming Shu was thinking. He could only say, "That won't work. I can't go to your parent-teacher conferences."
Ming Shu had forged the perfect plan.
But now, with just a few words, that plan had been obliterated.