The last exam had started seven minutes and twenty-five seconds ago. Anxiously awaiting parents loitered outside First High, eagerly peering at the school gates instead of stepping into the shade.
In previous years, there were parents who'd suffered heatstroke while waiting for their kids to finish their tests. In light of that, the school had arranged plenty of plastic tables and chairs, as well as large parasols, outside to create an area where the parents could cool off.
This year, the school was exceptionally generous. They'd even set out chilled mung bean soup and suanmeitang.
But only a few parents rested in the shade. Most of them preferred to stand right outside the school gates, peering inside with anticipation written all over their faces.
Their children were fighting an intense battle inside. They couldn't be there with them, but they could stand out here and suffer along with their children.
Standing out in the sun in the middle of a heated summer day was indeed a form of suffering.
Among the parents standing by the gate, there were two little figures who weren't very parent-like at all.
Ming Shu's face was drenched in sweat. He didn't like that the school gates were obstructing his vision, and he would occasionally lift himself up on tiptoes.
Although Xiao Jincheng was three years older, he wasn't much taller than Ming Shu. He often had to go up on tiptoes as well.
Xiao Lanyue, watching from the side, laughed so heartily that tears came to his eyes. He patted them both on the shoulder and asked, "Have you seen enough yet? How about you come join me in the shade?"
"I'm staying right here," Ming Shu said. "I'll wait for gege to come back."
"Xiao Mu'ting and Xiao Yu'an are fighting inside," Xiao Jincheng said. "It isn't fair for us to go cool off, right?"
"They have fans and AC in there," Xiao Lanyue chided. "What are you two so worried about?"
Xiao Lanyue was actually a bit worried. Xiao Jincheng's grades weren't all that good, and he had his own high school entrance exams to worry about soon. If he got sick from standing out in the sun for too long and missed his exams, the Xiao family would fall into chaos.
Ming Shu was a concern, too. He'd just run away from home for nearly half a week. They'd only found him a short while ago, and he must have suffered on the road. If he got heatstroke now, it wouldn't be good for anyone.
But it was pointless to talk about reason and logic with half-grown boys. The two older ones were inside taking their exams, and the two younger ones were determined to stand guard right outside. None of them would listen to reason. Ming Shu had even said something about needing to keep his heart strong and sincere for his gege, in order to make sure his gege scored well.
Weren't they just being superstitious?
But seeing the two little ones care so much softened Xiao Lanyue's heart. Xiao Jincheng had fought with Xiao Mu'ting and Xiao Yu'an ever since he was little, but he still cared about his gege in these critical moments. He was more worried about their entrance exams than his own.
The sun was growing hotter and hotter in the sky. Xiao Lanyue thought about it some more and decided he really couldn't let the two kids stand there all day. He started ushering them towards the shade.
Xiao Jincheng begrudgingly obeyed, but Ming Shu remained stubborn. He looked up with his already sunburned face and claimed, "I have to stand there!"
"Why do you have to stand there?" Xiao Lanyue asked. "Waiting in the shade is still waiting. They still have more than an hour. You can go back over to the gates once they turn in their papers."
Ming Shu furrowed his brow. His expression grew solemn. "Gege couldn't study for two whole days."
Xiao Lanyue sighed. He knew Ming Shu had a guilty conscience, and he knew Ming Shu was trying to 'punish' himself to alleviate that guilt. But there was no point to it. Plus, with Xiao Yu'an's grades, it didn't really matter whether he missed out on two days of review or not.
"You've already made trouble for your gege once. You made it impossible for him to study. Do you want to anger him again?" Xiao Lanyue asked, resorting to fighting this child's logic with some childish logic of his own. "What will you do if your gege comes out and sees you burned beyond recognition? He'll be mad, you know."
Xiao Jincheng laughed. "Your cheeks are already super red!"
Ming Shu made a soft sound of realization. After hesitating for a moment longer, he finally relented and reluctantly went to drink some suanmeitang under the parasols.
The last two days had passed in a blur for him, feeling both real and surreal at the same time. When Xiao Yu'an brought him home, Wen Yue and Ming Haofeng had both been there. Wen Yue was crying. She wanted to take Ming Shu's hand, but Ming Shu ducked away.
He thought Wen Yue was going to slap him again, like she had in the car almost two years ago. But Wen Yue only apologized to him over and over again, telling him all was well as long as he was safe.
Ming Haofeng's face was as grim and inscrutable as ever.
"Can I stay with my grandfather?" Ming Shu asked. "I don't want to leave the country. Can I go to middle school here?"
This question brought a heavy silence over the entire family. In the end, it was Wen Yue who said, "You don't have to go abroad. From today on, I won't force you to do anything. If you want to stay with your grandfather, you can stay. Just don't run away from home again."
Ming Shu nodded.
At that time, he was already thinking that he hadn't run away from home. He'd simply returned to his real home.
With his gege's entrance exams coming up, Ming Shu didn't dare go over to disturb him at the Xiao family's house. His gege said missing two days of study was no big deal for him, but Ming Shu was still worried. On the first day of Xiao Yu'an's exams, Ming Shu and Xiao Jincheng had both headed out to stand guard at the school gates.
After every test, Xiao Yu'an said he felt like he did well. Ming Shu would be happy for a while, then he would start worrying again. His feelings fluctuated so much, and for so long, that Xiao Jincheng told him he was starting to look like a little old grandpa.
Wen Yue had left yesterday, but Ming Haofeng was still in town. Ming Shu didn't have much to say to either of them. He only told his grandfather that he wanted to attend First Middle.
His grandfather had grown old, and he was no longer as severe as he once was. He only asked Ming Shu if he was sure. When Ming Shu nodded, his grandfather nodded as well. Later, Ming Shu heard his grandfather talking to Ming Haofeng.
"Ming Shu will stay here with me," his grandfather said. "You two didn't watch over him before. You don't have to watch over him now, or in the future."
Ming Shu had stayed with Wen Yue for a year and a half. Time had dragged on so slowly that those months had felt even longer than the rest of his life, from the time he was five to the time he was taken away.
Now he was back, and he knew Wen Yue and Ming Haofeng had well and truly given up on him. But he didn't feel sad about that at all. In fact, he thought it was a good thing.
His bitter days of suffering were over. Now, he could pass on his good luck to his gege. He could make sure his gege scored well.
After the last test, Xiao Yu'an wasn't able to leave the building right away. High school was officially over for the third years now. Soon, they would all scatter to the wind, each going their own way. The class monitor notified them all of the plan to have dinner together. Xiao Yu'an had just asked where they would be meeting when he heard someone call out to him.
It was Cheng Yue.
Cheng Yue could be considered Xiao Yu'an's childhood friend, but the incident with Xia Zhong had caused an irreconcilable rift between them. Xia Zhong had moved abroad halfway through his second year, cutting off contact with everyone from back home. But the relationship between Xiao Yu'an and Cheng Yue didn't improve with Xia Zhong's absence. If anything, they drifted farther and farther apart.
Xiao Yu'an had heard Cheng Yue intended to enlist. From that day on, they really would be going their separate ways.
Cheng Yue had called out to Xiao Yu'an, but he didn't say much. Other students streamed around the room. Some laughed, some cried. Xiao Yu'an and Cheng Yue were both silent, as though they were caught in the current.
Before long, Xiao Yu'an stepped up and clapped a hand against Cheng Yue's back. A smile finally touched Cheng Yue's face.
The two shared a quick and somewhat awkward hug, just patting each other's back before stepping apart again.
"I'm heading out first," Xiao Yu'an said when they parted. "A little kid is waiting for me outside."
Cheng Yue nodded. "Let's have a drink before I leave."
Xiao Yu'an waved on his way out. "Alright."
Ming Shu watched wave after wave of people spilling out from the school building. The longer he went without seeing his gege, the redder his face grew with impatience. Xiao Mu'ting emerged first. Xiao Jincheng instantly rushed up and asked if he managed to scrape by with the bare minimum, and Xiao Mu'ting reflexively swatted him away.
After saying his goodbyes to Cheng Yue, Xiao Yu'an made his way outside without further delay. Before he even saw Ming Shu, he heard someone call out to him.
Ming Shu's voice was loud and clear. Xiao Yu'an followed it to the gates, just in time for Ming Shu to run up to him.
"Gege, how did you do?"
Students all hated being asked that question by their parents. Xiao Yu'an didn't really want to talk about it either, but he knew Ming Shu would just worry about it endlessly if he didn't get an answer. Ming Shu was sensitive, and if Xiao Yu'an avoided the question, he would definitely default to thinking of the worst case scenario.
"Not bad," Xiao Yu'an said. "Easy pass."
Ming Shu took his gege's hand and managed to feel more at ease. He hadn't seen his gege in over a year and a half. There was so much he wanted to say. Although he'd already been back for a few days, he'd kept himself away because of his gege's entrance exams. Now those exams were over, and Ming Shu didn't have to keep everything to himself anymore. He could stick to his gege and talk to him all day and night!
But he hadn't considered that his gege would go out to play with his classmates all day and night.
Xiao Yu'an doted on Ming Shu, but he cared about the classmates he'd spent the past three years with as well. He'd made plans to have dinner with them a long time ago, and he was even looking forward to it. He couldn't leave them all in the lurch just because of Ming Shu.
It wasn't appropriate to bring along a little kid, either. Ming Shu was ultimately sent to have barbecue with Xiao Jincheng and some of Xiao Jincheng's junior high classmates.
Xiao Yu'an didn't get home until a little after two in the morning. Xiao Mu'ting's class gathering had ended a little earlier. When Xiao Yu'an got back to his house, he saw Xiao Mu'ting and Ming Shu sitting outside, eating watermelon.
It was a pretty comical sight. Xiao Mu'ting was having some watermelon to sober up after drinking all night. Ming Shu was just there to keep him company. There wasn't much they could talk about, so they just talked about any random thing.
Xiao Mu'ting slurred that he was going to join the army soon, and that Xiao Jincheng was a little troublemaking gremlin, so Ming Shu would have to watch over him on Xiao Mu'ting's behalf.
Ming Shu obviously couldn't control Xiao Jincheng, but he still played the part of a little adult and gamely agreed. He said, "Ting-ge, don't worry. I'll protect Xiao Jincheng."
Xiao Yu'an had to laugh when he heard that, and Xiao Mu'ting was still drunkenly babbling some nonsense.
As soon as he saw that his gege was back, Ming Shu grabbed another piece of watermelon and ran up, declaring, "I cut it all by myself!"
Xiao Mu'ting slumped over the table after he finished his slice of watermelon. Xiao Yu'an hauled him upstairs and threw him into bed before coming back downstairs.
Ming Shu was truly free now. Even when he stayed out this late instead of going home to sleep, the Ming family didn't do anything to stop him. Xiao Yu'an was relieved, but he still felt a bit of pity for Ming Shu.
Even though he had been busy in the year and a half that Ming Shu was gone, Xiao Yu'an still worried about him sometimes. But whenever he worried, he came back to the fact that there had been nothing he could do.
Then he'd learned Ming Shu had gone missing. At that moment, all the events of the past few years replayed in his mind. He began to regret stepping down because of his 'powerlessness'.
It was true that he wasn't Ming Shu's blood-related family member. But was there anyone in the Xiao family who didn't consider Ming Shu family too? And now, with the news of Ming Shu's disappearance, they all knew Ming Shu had been hurt by his own parents. He'd even vanished.
Xiao Yu'an had already decided, in that moment, that he absolutely had to protect Ming Shu. Regardless of what the Ming family decided, he would stand in front of Ming Shu and defend him.
The conflict he'd anticipated didn't come to pass. Perhaps due to genuine concern for her biological son, Wen Yue had relented. From that day on, Ming Shu became the Xiao family's responsibility.
"Gege," Ming Shu said. "How often will you visit once you go to college?"
The neighborhood was quiet, and the moon shone brightly overhead. Summer insects buzzed intermittently in the night.
"As a freshman, I can come back twice a year," Xiao Yu'an said.
Ming Shu pursed his lips. "That's not a lot. Then, can I visit you?"
"You aren't going to go to school?" Xiao Yu'an asked.
"But what if I miss you?"
"Call me. We'll get you a cell phone."
Ming Shu was thrilled.
But after that initial thrill passed, he still wanted to bargain a little. "But I still want to see you. Ge, are you really going to be a police officer? Isn't that dangerous?"
Xiao Yu'an sank into thought for a moment, then nodded. "Dangerous work needs to be done too."
Ming Shu gave that some thought as well. "Ge, you just wait. I'll go to the same university as you. When I graduate, I'll go work with you, and you'll be my boss."