MINT-STAINED SHIRT

Chapter 28

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Xiao Yu'an left Ming Shu at the gates of his elementary school. He didn't hear Ming Shu utter another word. Figuring the little kid was just going to seethe quietly, Xiao Yu'an turned to go. It was only after some time that he heard Ming Shu call out for his 'gege' again.

"Hm?" Xiao Yu'an turned back around.

Ming Shu had thought about it, but he couldn't figure it out. And he couldn't stop himself from asking, "Why can't you come to my parent-teacher meetings?"

This wasn't actually a difficult question to answer, but it was hard to properly explain it to a clingy six-year-old kid. Xiao Yu'an was still in a rush to get to his own school. He had some class duties he needed to take care of that morning, so he simply said, "Because I'm not your parent."

Ming Shu sighed, his shoulders slumping with obvious disappointment.

Xiao Yu'an gave it some thought and decided to properly explain things to Ming Shu when he got the chance.

At just that moment, the arrogant Xiao Jincheng from their own family called out from the gates: "Oi! The kid from Class 2 of Year 1 over there! Are you coming to class or not? What are you doing hanging out with weirdos from other schools at your young age?"

Ming Shu jumped and hurriedly ran towards the gates, clutching his backpack tight. "I'm coming, I'm coming!"

Xiao Yu'an watched Ming Shu run through the gates, then glanced over at Xiao Jincheng. That little brat was standing guard at the gates with his chest puffed up, as though he were the highest authority on campus. One had to wonder who it was that had cried like a baby last night.

But Xiao Yu'an supposed he was a bit grateful. If Xiao Jincheng hadn't called out to Ming Shu, then Ming Shu probably would have kept dithering and wasted a lot more of Xiao Yu'an's time.

As soon as Ming Shu stepped into his classroom, before he even made it to his seat, he felt like something wasn't right. Why were so many people looking at him? And they were just looking. Not speaking. The way their gazes bored into him made him feel incredibly uncomfortable.

Even his deskmate Du Hao subtly snuck a glance at him. Du Hao opened and closed his mouth a few times, like he wanted to say something to Ming Shu. But in the end he swallowed it all down and didn't say anything at all.

After their morning classes, Ming Shu turned to Du Hao and asked, "Why do you guys keep looking at me?"

Du Hao was usually an extremely chatty kid. If their teacher wasn't strict enough with them, Du Hao could have spent the whole day talking Ming Shu's ear off. But now, Du Hao stammered for ages without managing to spit a single coherent word out.

Ming Shu was beyond annoyed. He wasn't happy today, and he hadn't been happy yesterday. He'd been upset for two days already, and he could no longer hold back his temper. Without any awareness of his own strength, he lifted his arms and gave Du Hao a solid push.

Du Hao lost his balance and tumbled onto his butt. He shouted, in surprise, "Ming Shu hit me!"

The homeroom teacher was shocked when this was reported to her. Although Ming Shu's test scores weren't good, Ming Shu was an extremely well-behaved student. He was the most obedient kid in class, and he was pretty, and he got along with everyone. Anyone could tell with just one glance that he was the sort of kid that had been brought up in a strict household.

It was almost unthinkable that such a well-behaved boy could push his deskmate down. And after a cursory investigation, the teacher learned Ming Shu had even been the one who'd started it.

Ming Shu actually knew, as soon as he acted, that he'd done something wrong. As soon as he pushed his deskmate down, he reached a hand out to help him back up. The chubby Du Hao took his hand and got back up, then dusted himself off and seemed content to forget about the whole thing.

But everyone had seen Ming Shu push Du Hao, and someone told the teacher.

Ming Shu was miserable. He felt like the whole world was against him. Last night, he had been fiercely scolded by his grandfather for his poor grades. That morning, his gege had refused to do him a favor. At the school gates, Xiao Jincheng had yelled at him. And in class, everyone had stared at him for no reason.

He knew he had been wrong to push Du Hao. But why had everyone else been looking at him like that?

Their homeroom teacher had just gotten married. She was kind and patient as she asked, "Ming Shu, please tell me. Why did you fight with Du Hao?"

Ming Shu's head drooped so low that his chin almost touched his chest. "They were all looking at me," he mumbled.

"Looking at you?"

"I asked Du Hao why, and he wouldn't tell me, so I pushed him."

Du Hao was sitting right next to him. Hearing this, he hurriedly apologized. "I'm sorry, Ming Shu. But I'm not on their side. I'm on your side."

The homeroom teacher was baffled as she listened to Du Hao explain. He hastily blurted everything out—

Yesterday, everyone's parents had come to attend parent-teacher conference day. Ming Shu was the only one who'd had his grandfather come. Someone started a rumor that Ming Shu didn't have any parents, and by that morning it was the only thing anyone was talking about.

"I told them all that my deskmate does have a mom and a dad, but they didn't believe me!" Du Hao said. He was the one who felt wronged now. He'd stuck up for Ming Shu, and Ming Shu had pushed him.

After Ming Shu heard Du Hao say all this, his head sank even lower. He turned red from his cheeks to the base of his neck, fiercely biting his lower lip and balling his hands into fists.

He wasn't even sad anymore. He was miserable with shame. His whole sense of self was collapsing.

Most homeroom teachers in charge of these early grades had studied child psychology. Ming Shu's homeroom teacher could instantly tell what he was feeling as he retreated into himself.

To kids this young, the accusation of having no parents was a heavy one. Kids who were perceived to have no parents were sometimes even ostracized by their peers. Ming Shu's homeroom teacher simply couldn't sit back and do nothing.

In truth, she had been a little disappointed to see Ming Shu's grandfather at their parent-teacher conference yesterday. Ming Shu had some minor behavioral problems that she'd wanted to discuss with his parents. He got distracted easily, and he didn't like eating fruits or vegetables. After the conference, she had even gone out of her way to talk to Ming Shu's grandfather alone. It was then that she learned Ming Shu had lived with his grandparents ever since he was born.

Ming Shu's homeroom teacher had taught many kids whose parents weren't very present in their lives. A majority of those kids demonstrated some personality or behavioral problems; among them, Ming Shu could have been considered one of the most well-adjusted ones. But after today's incident, Ming Shu's teacher had to wonder if he was getting enough care and affection at home.

She would have to talk to his parents about this.

The teacher chose her words carefully. She spent a long time calming Ming Shu before gently asking, "Can you ask your parents to come meet with me?"

Ming Shu blinked slowly. A sullen expression returned to his face. "Didn't my grandfather come just yesterday?"

His teacher worried that it would be difficult to explain a child's problems to the older generation. It would be best to talk to his parents. If his parents couldn't come, then an aunt or uncle would be okay. If that wasn't possible, even an older brother or sister would have worked.

When she said all this to Ming Shu, the boy's eyes instantly reddened.

"But my gege said he isn't my parent," Ming Shu said, echoing Xiao Yu'an's words. "So he can't come to my parent-teacher meetings."

Ming Shu's homeroom teacher instantly felt bad for him. She quickly reassured him with a few soothing words and set aside the issue of meeting with his parents for the time being. She decided she would simply watch over Ming Shu herself. She could pay a little more attention to him. He was such a good kid; surely he wouldn't fight often.

 

The first year of middle school was chock full of extracurricular activities, and Xiao Yu'an was an honors student. After midterms, his responsibilities were endless. He had to help prepare for the upcoming sports festival as well as an upcoming arts and culture fair. He stayed late every day, never leaving his school until night had fallen. There was no way for him to walk Ming Shu home, which meant Ming Shu had to go home by himself or with Xiao Jincheng.

Ever since their conversation about Ming Shu's parent-teacher conferences, Ming Shu had been a bit weird and awkward with Xiao Yu'an. He'd grown more distant. It wasn't that he ignored Xiao Yu'an, but he wasn't as clingy as he used to be. He clearly had something on his mind.

Xiao Yu'an really just didn't have time to worry too much about Ming Shu those days. He figured he would get past this busy period at school before getting to the bottom of Ming Shu's troubles at school.

But before Xiao Yu'an's workload lightened, something happened. He got home one night to hear Xiao Jincheng shouting, "Extra! Extra!"

Xiao Jincheng had big news. Apparently, Ming Shu had gotten into a fight at school. And a rather serious one at that. A table had been overturned. Stationery had flown everywhere.

Xiao Yu'an furrowed his brows. Since when did Ming Shu get into fights?

He really couldn't imagine Ming Shu flipping over a table at all.

Xiao Jincheng babbled a whole load of nonsense. He rambled about Ming Shu's teacher asking to see his parents, about Ming Shu walking home with his head drooping low the whole time, and about how Ming Shu was totally doomed. He would definitely be pummeled by Old Man Ming that night.

Xiao Yu'an checked the time. It was already nine in the evening. But after a moment's hesitation, he still grabbed a coat and headed out the door.

The downstairs lights were on in the Ming family's house, but Ming Shu's bedroom window was dark. Xiao Yu'an was just about to make his way into the Ming family's yard when he suddenly felt an oddly familiar sensation. He took two steps back and glanced up.

Ming Shu was perched in the branches of a tree, looking down at him with big, red eyes.

It was the same tree Xiao Yu'an had once helped Ming Shu out of.

It had been a long time since Ming Shu last climbed a tree.

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