Ming Shu didn't tell his gege that he was running away from home, because he didn't want to distract his gege from the all-important college entrance exams.
To Ming Shu, college entrance exams were still a faraway thing. His parents didn't even intend on letting him take those exams. But they were a big deal. Although Ming Shu was still young, he understood the significance of those exams.
So he didn't want his gege to score poorly because of him. His gege was First High's top student, and his gege deserved to get into all the top universities.
But in his desperation to escape, Ming Shu had neglected one thing—upon discovering him missing, Wen Yue and Ming Haofeng would definitely contact his grandfather. And his grandfather would definitely contact the Xiao family.
The college entrance exams were just a few days away now, but the atmosphere in the Xiao family was still reasonably relaxed. Xiao Mu'ting didn't plan on going to college; he was prepared to join the army right after high school. To him, taking the college entrance exams was just a formality. It was his way of standing on the same battlefield as Xiao Yu'an, offering some moral support.
But Xiao Yu'an didn't consider the college entrance exams a battlefield at all. With his grades and the awards he'd won at the national Physics Olympiad competition, he could go to any renowned college in the country. Those universities weren't his target, though. He wanted to get into the University of Public Security.
"You could test into that place with your eyes closed, right?" Xiao Mu'ting asked.
"Even so, I still have to take the test," Xiao Yu'an said. He was extremely confident that he would have no problem scoring well enough to gain admission to his school of choice, but he wanted to score higher than the bare minimum.
He knew that, within the University of Public Security, there was a special selection process. The most promising students were all placed in a special training course, and those who completed that course with high marks would graduate as well-rounded cadets.
That special training course was Xiao Yu'an's goal.
"Alright. In the future, I'll wear a military uniform, and you'll wear a police uniform." Xiao Mu'ting was leaning against the railing of the second-floor balcony, watching Xiao Jincheng play with a dog out in the courtyard. "The little monkey will follow in your footsteps."
Xiao Jincheng was only in his third year of middle school, but he had already declared his intent to join the Special Police Force. When asked why, he said it was because the Special Police Force uniforms were better looking than the camouflage of army fatigues.
The sun was starting to set. Sunsets in early summer were always gorgeous. Gold and red intermingled in the sky.
Xiao Yu'an suddenly thought of Ming Shu. What would the little sprout grow up to be? Would he become a police officer like Xiao Yu'an and Xiao Jincheng?
Xiao Yu'an had asked Ming Shu that question before, and Ming Shu had answered, "Gege, what do you want to be?"
"I'm going to become a police officer," Xiao Yu'an had answered.
"Then I want to be a police officer too," Ming Shu answered right away. "Whatever gege does is what I'll do!"
Xiao Yu'an tousled Ming Shu's hair. "Don't just think about doing what I do. Think about what you actually like doing."
"Hm…" Ming Shu thought for a moment, then blinked his pitch black eyes. "I like chasing after gege!"
Anyone's heart would have softened after hearing a declaration like that. Ming Shu was naive, but he was sincere. Back then, Xiao Yu'an had thought, if Ming Shu wanted to become a police officer, then why not? If Xiao Yu'an could walk that path, why couldn't Ming Shu? He was six years older than Ming Shu. If Ming Shu really did become a police officer in the future, then Xiao Yu'an—and Xiao Jincheng—could take care of him.
Evenings in their residential community were calm and serene. Xiao Yu'an and Xiao Mu'ting chatted idly on the balcony, both feeling a sense of melancholy. They had spent their whole lives in that community, born only a day apart. They'd fought countless times throughout the years, and now, in the blink of an eye, they would leave this place after just one more summer.
But teenage melancholy was no match for their desire to spread their wings and become independent. Those bittersweet feelings over their impending separation passed quickly.
Just as the two of them got ready to go back inside, Xiao Yu'an saw Ming Han hurriedly making his way towards their house.
Due to what happened with Ming Shu, Xiao Jincheng harbored no good feelings for the Ming family. He scowled and demanded, "What do you want, sir?"
"Is Ming Shu here?" Ming Han's hair had gone completely gray, and his breathing was a little shallow. "He came looking for you, didn't he?"
Xiao Yu'an furrowed his brows.
Xiao Jincheng was stunned, too. "Didn't you guys take him away last year? I haven't seen him in over a year and a half!"
Xiao Mu'ting understood the problem right away. "What happened? Ming Shu disappeared?"
Xiao Yu'an instantly hurried downstairs.
Ming Han relayed the news of Ming Shu's disappearance. Canxin Elementary had already confirmed that Ming Shu left by himself. Judging by what he took with him, he'd run away from home.
And if Ming Shu had run away from home, he would definitely go to the Xiao family.
But in the entire Xiao family, no one had heard a word about any of this.
Ming Shu didn't know that, because of him, his gege had already missed two whole days of school. He was sure he'd chosen a route that Wen Yue and Ming Haofeng wouldn't be able to track. After taking several detours, he arrived in the city where he'd grown up three days after he left Canxin Elementary.
When he stepped off the minibus he took into the city, the sun was blindingly bright. Ming Shu drew a deep, long breath of the familiar air and felt so moved that he almost could have cried.
He had been terrified for most of the past two days. He'd taken several long bus rides, avoiding shady peddlers and drivers at every stop. He stayed in drafty rooms at small hostels. When the receptionists asked him why he was alone, he would loudly declare that he was already working part-time.
Now that he was finally home, he couldn't wait to see his gege. But he was just too hungry, so he stopped at a KFC along the way and bought a sandwich. Since he was there, he bought one for his gege too.
It was only when he reached First High that he learned his gege hadn't come to school in several days.
"You little shit!" Cheng Yue bellowed. Because of what had happened with Xia Zhong, Cheng Yue hadn't spoken to Xiao Yu'an much over the past year or so. But even he had heard of Ming Shu's disappearance and the reason for Xiao Yu'an's absence from school.
When he saw Ming Shu standing outside their classroom in a dazed stupor, holding a KFC bag of all things, he flew into a rage. He instantly got up and dragged Ming Shu back outside, demanding, "Where the hell did you go? Do you have any idea how worried your ge has been? He's taking his college entrance exams the day after tomorrow! Are you trying to make him fail?"
Ming Shu was rendered speechless. All he could think about now was the threat of Xiao Yu'an failing.
Cheng Yue didn't release Ming Shu for a second, afraid the kid would run off again if he got the chance. He took out his cell phone with his free hand and called Xiao Yu'an.
The Xiao family and Ming family were all looking for Ming Shu. When Xiao Yu'an saw Cheng Yue's number on his phone, he was surprised, but he still took the call in the end.
"Your worrisome brat was looking for you in class," Cheng Yue snapped impatiently. "I've got him. You come pick him up right now."
Until Xiao Yu'an rushed to the scene, Ming Shu trembled. His pale face had broken out in a cold sweat.
He felt so guilty that his eyes reddened. Tears were already swelling at the corners of his eyes.
He thought he wouldn't have any chances to escape after the end of the school year. And if he didn't escape, he wouldn't be able to see his gege. He thought he'd come up with the perfect plan. He wouldn't be caught, and he wouldn't make his gege worry.
But what had he done? At this critical time, right before college entrance exams, his gege had spent two days looking for him.
After not seeing his gege for over a year and a half, Ming Shu missed him so, so much. His vision blurred as his tears began to fall. His gege appeared at the end of the hall, running towards him. Xiao Yu'an had grown taller again, and his hair was shorter than it had been the last time they met.
Ming Shu let out an uncontrollable sob. He wanted to race up to hug his gege, but he instinctively took a step back instead.
I hurt my gege, he thought. That was all he could think. I did something bad. I didn't know what I was doing, and I did something wrong again.
Ever since he was little, his family members regularly scolded him for doing this or that wrong. In his year of living with Wen Yue, her attitude also often made Ming Shu feel like he'd done something wrong.
His overwhelming, subconscious guilt made him feel like he had no right to see his gege.
He could only whisper, in a pitifully small voice, "Gege. I'm back, gege."
He never imagined that, in the next instant, his gege would drop down in front of him and pull him into a crushingly tight hug. His grip was so strong that Ming Shu could hardly breathe.
First High was to be a testing site for the upcoming college entrance exams. The classrooms were already being prepared for test day, and not many people were in the halls. Xiao Yu'an hugged Ming Shu tight and didn't say a word for a very long time.
Cheng Yue stood beside them. He was big and tall, and in his third year, he'd gained a reputation as a thuggish leader around their school. With him standing there, even the people who wanted to stop and spectate dissuaded themselves of that notion.
It was only after all those curious onlookers scattered that Cheng Yue tsked and walked away, making his way downstairs.
Ming Shu's eyes were wide, and he couldn't stop his tears from falling. His tears soaked his gege's shoulder. When his vision finally cleared, Ming Shu hesitantly reached out and grabbed hold of his gege's school uniform, clinging with hands that still trembled and shook.
His gege's heartbeat pounded against his chest. His gege's breath washed over him, and he could feel his gege's sweat on his hands. His gege was like fire.
"Gege," he finally called out. "Ge—"
In all his eighteen years of life, Xiao Yu'an had never been more panicked than he was in the past two days. Ming Shu had disappeared. The Xiao family couldn't find him, and the Ming family couldn't find him. Ming Shu was only a sixth grader. Where could he have gone by himself?
They'd checked every bus and train station between there and Yancheng, but Ming Shu wasn't to be found at any of those places. Xiao Yu'an, like the Ming family, was sure Ming Shu would come looking for him after leaving home. But Ming Shu didn't show up, which meant it was very likely that—something had happened to Ming Shu on the road, like being abducted by human traffickers.
Wen Yue and Ming Haofeng had both returned; they looked remorseful, but they also knew it was too late for regrets. One of them said they would never make Ming Shu do anything he didn't want to do again. The other said they would allow Ming Shu to stay there, for as long as he wanted.
Xiao Yu'an had only had a vague feeling that not all was well with Ming Shu. Ming Shu hadn't been completely honest in his letters. He'd suffered, living so far away from Xiao Yu'an. But he hadn't wanted Xiao Yu'an to worry, so he'd only written about the good things in his letters.
Ming Shu was still the same little kid Xiao Yu'an had picked up so many years ago. Kind and oversensitive, prone to dwelling on things and hiding his feelings to resolve his own problems by himself.
Ming Shu's parents weren't the only ones filled with regret. Xiao Yu'an regretted a lot of things too.
Over the past two days, Xiao Yu'an hadn't stopped anxiously thinking back. If only he hadn't cared so much about what was right and what was proper. If only he'd stood against Ming Haofeng before Ming Shu was taken away, everything would have been better.
When he received Cheng Yue's call, Xiao Yu'an had raced to school. And when he arrived to find Ming Shu staring at him with reddened eyes, softly calling out 'gege', the scene around them seemed to twist and change. It didn't feel like they were standing in the halls of First High anymore. It felt like they'd been transported back to that fateful summer day, with cicadas noisily buzzing all around them.
The way Ming Shu looked at him had never changed. Ming Shu's eyes saw Xiao Yu'an as hope, as light, as everything.
In that moment, all Xiao Yu'an wanted was to hug Ming Shu and tell this poor child who had suffered so much, Don't be scared. Your gege is here.
But emotions often transcended words. Their body heat, their tears, their heavy breaths choked with sobs… words paled in comparison to these things, which said it all.
He led Ming Shu home by the hand, taking the road they had walked together countless times. He bought Ming Shu some fried meat skewers on the way; starting tomorrow, in preparation for the college entrance exams, the little stalls would have to close up. He bought Ming Shu milk tea as well, even though he usually didn't let Ming Shu drink those artificially sweetened things.
"Ge." Ming Shu lowered his head, still obviously feeling deeply depressed. "I'm sorry."
"It's not your fault," Xiao Yu'an said. "Don't apologize."
"But it's my fault you couldn't study." Ming Shu was still more concerned about this than anything else. He lifted his head and looked at his gege's profile. "What will you do?"
Xiao Yu'an lowered his gaze and met Ming Shu's eyes. "Don't worry. Your ge won't be affected by two days off."