*** = Scene change
***** = Timeskip
Immediately, the gap between their palms disappeared.
When they met up the next day, Qingruo immediately noticed the scarlet wounds on Xu Nianyang’s arms. Their bright color made obvious their recency.
The little girl’s eyes reddened as she stared at them.
Xu Nianyang tugged down at his sleeves, but they were too short to provide any coverage. With every movement, the glaring wounds stabbed deeper into her eyes.
Qingruo forced herself to look away. Reaching into her little purse, she took out a carton of milk and poked the straw through the opening before handing it to him. A cookie, wrapped in plastic that she quickly removed, followed.
She was silent from start to finish, but her red-rimmed eyes and tightly pursed lips made her look just like an aggrieved bunny rabbit. Xu Nianyang accepted the carton of milk and rubbed her head, enjoying the feeling of her soft hair beneath his hand. Her skin was delicate, easily turning pink where a broken callus on his finger accidentally scratched her forehead.
While a tsunami surged in the depths of his eyes, his expression remained indifferent. “Why aren’t you talking?”
Qingruo didn’t look at him. She wiped her eyes on her sleeve, rubbing away the tears that were threatening to fall, before raising her head. “Gege. When you grow up, don’t come back here anymore.”
It was likely that, even with her presence, the Zhang family would arrive to take him away and make him into a scapegoat.
As she stared into his deep yet desolate eyes, she showed a sweet smile. It didn’t matter—she would accompany him till the end. The world should not have abandoned this desolated boy; he had never been given a choice, and yet the wrongs were always his to take.
Of all the features on Qingruo’s dainty face, Xu Nianyang liked her eyes the most. They seemed to contain him, and only him, as though he was all she could see.
He held the straw between his lips and took occasional sips. ”Then I won’t be able to see you anymore,” he answered, his tone clear and light.
When Qingruo tried to respond, he stopped her by stuffing the straw in her mouth. He watched as she instinctively latched on and took two gulps before pushing his hand away.
“I don’t want to drink. Gege, you drink it.” As she spoke, she pulled out the day’s allowance and handed it to him. “And it’s okay. When I grow up, I’ll go find you.”
As the only child of two loving parents, she fully intended to carry out her filial duties; however, she couldn’t give up Xu Nianyang. Fortunately, it would be easy to satisfy both sides.
Xu Nianyang drained the carton, and this time, it landed accurately in the garbage bin nearby. He reached into a pocket and took out the accumulated sum of Qingruo’s daily allowances. Although the wad consisted of only one-yuan notes, its thickness was commendable.
Seeing the money, Qingruo frowned and gently smacked his arm, displeased but still mindful of his injuries.
“Gege, you promised me you would eat breakfast!”
Xu Nianyang gave a very faint smile. “I did. Really. One yuan an egg1,” he said seriously, so seriously that she had no choice but to give up on pursuing the matter.
Suddenly, he called her name, “Ruoruo,” and continued, “I don’t have parents. The kids here call me a bastard. If they see you playing with me, they’ll hate you.” As he spoke, he straightened out and tidied up the bills, the word “bastard” slipping through his lips as easily as any other.
A small and fair hand forcefully pressed down on his grimy one, stopping his movements. When he looked up, Qingruo gave him a toothy smile.
“Gege is not a bastard. Gege, you’re not allowed to say that word anymore. We are friends, and maybe family too. So you’re not… that word!” One of her pearly whites had fallen out and was still in the process of growing back, taking away a fraction of the toothiness, but her words filled him with warmth.
‘What is a nine-year-old like?’ Xu Chaoyang was nine years old. The greedy beast had a malicious tongue and was incredibly willful. He treated others like dogs and bullied the weak while fearing the strong.
What about Qingruo, who was also nine years old? In his mind, Xu Nianyang conceived a selection of pictures and adjectives before settling on a blank. He didn’t even know how to describe her; or perhaps, he felt that he was unworthy of doing so.
Qingruo’s hand was small, but very, very warm. Like water at high tide, her warmth surged through him.
Xu Nianyang put the money back into his pocket and grasped her hand, and a clumsy attempt to intertwine their fingers ensued. When only their pinkies remained untwined, Qingruo drew them together—immediately, the gap between their palms disappeared.
Eyes wide, Xu Nianyang stared at their hands. A current passed through his heart, and he wondered…
‘Why don’t I feel happy?’
Instead, he felt pain—an unforgettable, bone-deep pain.
“See, gege? We’re connected, so you can’t call yourself a bastard. Gege has family too.”
He lowered his head to look at her and smiled gently. The isolation on his face slowly dissipated, colored over by a brilliant warmth. Lowering his head further, he landed a kiss on the space between her eyebrows. ”Mhm, I won’t,” he agreed softly.
When she smiled back, her doe eyes curved into crescents, and the apples of her cheeks puffed up like cotton candy. Golden sunlight spilled over a part of her face, and for the first time, Xu Nianyang realized how beautiful the words “fresh and alive” could be.
In September, Qingruo started school. Due to the proximity of their homes, she attended the same school as Xu Chaoyang; as a matter of fact, they belonged to the same grade. However, they weren’t in the same class.
Xu Nianyang was in his second year of middle school, which was free owing to the nine-year Compulsory Education Law. It was also the reason the Xu couple allowed him to attend school.
Because they had registered him as an orphan, he qualified to receive a financial subsidiary of two thousand yuan2 from the school every year. However, his pencils and notebooks were always from Xu Chaoyang’s pile of old and used ones, and the “notebooks” were actually just sheets of paper torn out from Xu Chaoyang’s discarded notebooks and stapled together.
Since school started, Xu Nianyang and Qingruo were not able to meet up as often. Her parents drove her to and from school every weekday, and she always had homework to do after dinner. They could only meet on the weekends, and even then, they found it hard to match each other’s timing.
With the addition of breakfast money, Qingruo’s daily allowance increased to a total of seven yuan. She would spend two on breakfast and leave five for Xu Nianyang.
Two months passed, and more wounds had appeared on Xu Nianyang’s body.
It was a November night in City K. The cold season had stripped bare nearly all of the trees by the roadside, laying a blanket of crisp leaves over the ground. A little girl ran across the blanket, crunching the leaves underfoot.
Xu Nianyang was standing at the entrance of their usual desolate alleyway. He had grown a little taller and was clad no longer in tattered clothes, but old-fashioned clothes. They seemed to belong to Mr. Xu.
Despite the slight growth, the boy was still shorter and thinner than his peers, and he had had to roll up his sleeves and trouser legs several times to attain a minimal accommodation. The length of his hair was also a bit longer than before.
Disregarding his height, he gave off the feeling of a soldier as often described in books: A lonely tree standing tall and straight, forever firm and silent.
However, when he caught sight of Qingruo, a warm smile to spread over his indifferent face. When the little girl bounced to a stop in front of him, he reached out to steady her, and raising a hand, he fixed her slightly disheveled hair.
“Slow down, and don’t run,” he chided without an ounce of strictness.
“Uh-huh.” She nodded, though the words had clearly went in one ear and out the other. She gave him a carton of milk before pushing up his sleeves and checking his arms.
There were no new wounds today, but the skin around the crisscrossed scars on his arms was beginning to turn black and blue.
Qingruo reached into her purse and pulled out a tube of ointment, instantly causing a frown to take over the boy’s placid expression. His gaze became piercing and cold. ”Where did you get that from?”
She raised her head and looked at him strangely. ”I found it at home. What’s wrong?”
No matter how natural she made it sound, he didn’t believe that a nine-year-old child would know how to find medicine like that at home.
He stuffed the milk carton in her hand before taking her arm and forcefully pushing up the sleeve.
Nothing on either side.
She wrested her arm from his hold and glared at him unhappily. “Gege, what are you doing?”
Instead of answering, he pulled her toward him with one arm hooked around her waist. Since they were both around the same height, their faces were almost level, and the distance shortened until she could feel his breath on her cheeks. His other hand rested on the zipper of her coat. ”Ruoruo, be good,” he said, his voice dangerous. “Tell gege, are you hurt anywhere?”
Qingruo shook her head, her wide eyes the epitome of innocence. ”I’m really not. I asked the auntie at home, she said this cream will help heal bruises and other stuff.”
He pursed his lips. ”Ruoruo, don’t lie. You’re still young, I don’t want to have to do a full body check.”
She was stunned. Looking into his eyes, she saw that they were dark and cold. Giving up, she lowered her head and grabbed the hem of his shirt, her voice soft and obedient. ”Y-Yesterday, I accidentally bumped my knee. Mommy put this cream on it.”
He squatted down. ”Which side?”
Xu Nianyang pressed his lips together and very carefully and gently rolled up her left pant leg. After inspecting the wound, he breathed a sigh of relief. There was only light discoloration, nothing serious.
”Did you apply the medicine today?”
Qingruo nodded, ”Yes.”
He let her pant leg drop and stood up, sighing as he rubbed her head. ”How did it happen?” Then before she could respond, he started grumbling, ”How are the people in your house taking care of you? Don’t run so often, and don’t walk too fast.”
She scrunched up her little nose as she listened. ‘It’s normal for kids to accidentally bump into things, you know?’ Still, she went on her tiptoes and placatingly patted his head. “Okay, okay, I know. Can I put the cream on you now?”
“Mhm,” he responded, and lightly closed his eyes.
After she carefully and clumsily applied the ointment to his arms, she put the tube in his hand, leaned in, and whispered in his ear, ”Gege, go back and rub it on the rest of your body. Don’t let those bad guys see you!”
He cracked a smile as he played with the medicine. “Ruoruo.”
“Do you not like seeing me hurt?”
Qingruo nodded like it was obvious. ”Because it looks like it hurts a lot.”
She scrunched up her nose and took his arm again. She lowered her head, her nose twitching from the smell of the ointment, and gently blew on his wounds. ”Gege, if I blow on it will it not hurt anymore?” she asked, looking up at him.
He rubbed her head. ”Mhm, it doesn’t hurt anymore. Not at all.”
Does it hurt?
Are you hurting for me?