Two boys sat behind Ming Shu and Du Hao in class. Those boys were mean and ugly, and they were a lot bigger than Ming Shu. They were about the same size as Du Hao, but Du Hao was fat while those two boys were sturdy.
The homeroom teacher had already explained to the whole class that Ming Shu did have parents. He was simply living with his grandparents for now. The more reasonable kids accepted that explanation and stopped gossiping about Ming Shu. But others continued to mock him for having no parents. Soon enough, even the word 'orphan' started to be thrown around.
Those boys who sat behind Ming Shu in class started up their harassment as soon as their teacher wasn't paying attention.
"Hey, orphan," they jeered. "Orphan, where's your mom? Where's your dad?"
When Ming Shu turned around to look at them, their grins only grew wider and meaner.
"The orphan looked at us!" they crowed.
Although Ming Shu's gege had told him not to let other people bully him, Ming Shu had been raised to be extremely polite and courteous. He choked back his anger and sat through the whole class, fuming. His face was red and hot, and his nails bit crescents into the palms of his hands.
But Du Hao didn't hold back. As soon as class ended, he spun around and planted his elbow on the desk behind him, demanding, "What did you say?!"
Du Hao was big enough that those two boys didn't want to get into a physical altercation with him. The three of them just snapped at each other, back and forth and back and forth, until Ming Shu pulled Du Hao away, urging him not to pay attention to those 'crows'.
The word 'crows' riled up those two boys even more. They began to chant 'orphan' over and over again, eventually even spinning it into a tune and starting to sing in Ming Shu's face.
Ming Shu bore it for as long as he could. But that wasn't because he was particularly mild-mannered. It was because he'd been raised to behave, and it was also because he thought kids who fought weren't good kids. And he didn't want his gege to think he wasn't a good kid.
But these past few days, his gege hadn't paid much attention to him. He would always wait for his gege after school, but his gege never showed up. In the end, Ming Shu always had to go home with Jincheng-gege.
Ming Shu couldn't help but feel vexed. He kept wondering if his gege hated him now. The more he thought about that, the gloomier he felt. He was already feeling down those days, and when he heard those two boys start chanting 'orphan, orphan' at him again one day, he snapped.
The anger he had suppressed for so long surged up. In the middle of class, he spun around and shoved their desk over.
All the books in the desk drawer flew out, spilling over the floor. One of the bullies reacted quickly enough to leap out of the way, but the other was pinned under the desk, hollering for help.
The teacher was shocked. Everyone in class stared. That was Ming Shu! The quiet, obedient Ming Shu!
Ming Shu's eyes were wild with rage. He hadn't vented enough. While one of the boys was still trapped under the desk, he leapt on top and started throwing punches, all while shouting, "You're the orphan! You're the orphan!"
The other bully finally reacted and lurched forward, intending to attack Ming Shu. But Du Hao was a fiercely loyal friend, and he'd always wanted to teach those two a lesson. There was no way he would let them hit Ming Shu. He leapt into the fray and clashed with the second boy.
Naturally, the teacher rushed over to break up the fight. A few students, particularly the taller boys, also moved in to pull the four boys apart. But Ming Shu had learned to fight from his gege, and his target was pinned under a table. In no time at all, that bully was crying and screaming, "I was wrong! I was wrong!"
The two boys in the back were obviously to blame. All four of them were called into the office, standing around looking spotted and bruised. Ming Shu hadn't been hit, and he hadn't cried. His face was only smudged with dust.
Du Hao was the one who cried the hardest. While sobbing, he recounted how Ming Shu had been wrongly accused of being an orphan.
The homeroom teacher found herself in a difficult position. She sympathized with Ming Shu, but the two bullies were the ones who'd been beaten the most fiercely. Their parents were sure to take it up with the school. There was no choice; all their parents would have to be called in.
Furthermore, the homeroom teacher strongly believed Ming Shu's parents couldn't keep doing this. They couldn't avoid coming to his school forever. All this had started because they failed to attend Ming Shu's last parent-teacher conference.
Upon hearing their parents would be called in, Du Hao bawled even harder. Ming Shu didn't make a single sound. He even reached for a tissue and wiped Du Hao's face for him.
When Ming Shu got home, he didn't tell his grandfather about the fight. His homeroom teacher had specifically instructed him to tell his mother or father this time.
Ming Shu was supposed to ask his grandfather to call his mother or his father, but Ming Shu didn't want to say anything to anyone. This was the first time he'd ever gotten into a serious fight. He didn't think it was anything to be proud of, but he wasn't afraid of being scolded by his mom or dad.
He was afraid that he would call them, and they still wouldn't come.
He'd lost count of the number of times he'd begged his grandfather to call his parents.
He was starting to lose hope that they would ever come when he called.
Ming Shu had washed his hands and face at school. Even when they ate dinner together, his grandparents didn't realize anything had happened. When it was time for bed, Ming Shu snuck out of the house and quietly climbed into that familiar tree by himself.
It was quiet in the tree. Almost eerily silent. It was only then that Ming Shu started to cry.
He wasn't an orphan. He didn't mean to hit anyone. They were bullying him. He'd held back his anger for such a long time.
But in the end, he'd fought. And that meant he wasn't a good kid anymore.
From his perch in the tree, he could see into the Xiao family's yard. He wanted to go find his gege, but would his gege be there for him? Would his gege still like him? Or would he hate him, now that Ming Shu was no longer a good kid?
The more he thought about it, the worse he felt. His tears soaked through his shirt sleeves.
A memory, more than a year old, suddenly flowed through his mind. Over a year ago, he'd gotten stuck in this tree. He hadn't been able to get down, and his gege had saved him.
It would be nice if his gege came now.
But when his gege really did appear, Ming Shu didn't even know how to react.
Xiao Yu'an hadn't expected to see Ming Shu in such a place either. For a moment, they both just stared at each other, shocked. Seeing Ming Shu's reddened eyes and tear-streaked face, Xiao Yu'an was possessed by a feeling he couldn't express in words.
He walked over to the tree and held out his arms. "Come."
Ming Shu whispered, "Gege."
But he didn't move.
"Be good," Xiao Yu'an coaxed gently. "Come down."
Ming Shu wanted so, so badly to be good. Hearing that word, he couldn't hold back another wave of tears.
Once Xiao Yu'an finally helped Ming Shu out of the tree, he didn't set Ming Shu down on the ground. He carried him all the way home.
The Ming family didn't know about the fight Ming Shu had gotten into at school, but the Xiao family had all heard about it by now. Xiao Zhengyun thought it would be best to tell Ming Han, but Xiao Yu'an insisted they could take care of it on their own.
Xiao Zhengyun gave that some thought. Ultimately, he decided to trust in the boy.
Xiao Yu'an carried Ming Shu into his own room, wiped away his tears, and brought up a cup of warm milk. Xiao Jinlan doted on Ming Shu as much as Xiao Yu'an. She brought him the cherry cake she'd bought earlier that day and hugged him for a while, whispering, "Don't be afraid, little baobei. Jiejie is here."
Xiao Yu'an shooed Xiao Jinlan out of his room after a while, then turned to Ming Shu and asked Ming Shu to recount what happened that day in his own words. Ming Shu started to talk, but he kept his head down the whole time. He left the cake uneaten, untouched. And by the end of his story, he was lifting his hands to rub at his eyes again.
The more Xiao Yu'an heard, the more twisted his expression became. He was enraged.
Even if those boys in Ming Shu's class were simply ignorant, 'orphan' was too heavy of a word to throw around so carelessly. Those boys were simply cruel, rotten to the core. Xiao Yu'an had no idea Ming Shu had been bullied so severely at school since his parent-teacher conference. If Xiao Yu'an had known, he would have gone to talk to Ming Shu's teacher even if the teacher hadn't asked for Ming Shu's parents to come in.
"I'll go to school with you tomorrow," Xiao Yu'an said. "I'll talk to your homeroom teacher."
Ming Shu lifted his head. His eyes were still shiny with tears. "But… but…"
Xiao Yu'an felt every ounce of patience he possessed would eventually be spent on Ming Shu. "But what?"
"But you aren't my parent," Ming Shu mumbled, echoing Xiao Yu'an's words once more. He suddenly hiccuped out of sheer misery. "You said you aren't my parent, so you can't come to my parent-teacher meetings."
Xiao Yu'an froze for a moment. Thinking back, he realized he had indeed said something like that. He could hardly believe the little kid had become so miserable because of those words.
After he calmed down and thought about it for a while, Xiao Yu'an realized it wasn't all that appropriate for him to go see Ming Shu's teacher. But he more or less understood Ming Shu's family situation. Ming Shu's parents wouldn't come. Calling them would be pointless.
Xiao Yu'an deliberated for a long time before he came to a decision. He presented his idea to Ming Shu, like it was something they could discuss: "How about this? You make those two phone calls first. Tell your parents that your teacher wants to see them. If they don't want to come, then we'll think of something together. Okay?"
Ming Shu was silent and still for a long time before he finally nodded.
Their two families both used landlines, and there was a phone set in the study right next to Xiao Yu'an's room. Xiao Yu'an led Ming Shu to the phone and worried, for a moment, that Ming Shu wouldn't know his parents' numbers. But Ming Shu dialed without any hesitation.
Xiao Yu'an felt even more troubled now. He didn't know his own parents' numbers, yet Ming Shu, who had never dialed a phone by himself before, had his parents' phone numbers memorized perfectly.
The call connected. Ming Shu's mother, Wen Yue, picked up.
Before Ming Shu even finished making his request, Wen Yue interrupted to say that she was out of the country and wouldn't be able to come back anytime in the near future. Ming Shu wanted to talk to her a bit more, but the call had already been disconnected.
Ming Shu stood by the phone and sniffled slightly. Then he called his father, Ming Haofeng.
Xiao Yu'an had to suppress a strong impulse to tell Ming Shu not to make that call.
The call connected again. Ming Haofeng, at the very least, listened until Ming Shu finished speaking. But after a brief pause, the answer was the same—
"I'm too busy. I don't have time. Your grandfather will go."
Ming Shu set down the phone again and turned to Xiao Yu'an. His eyes were full of helplessness and still wet with unshed tears. He opened his eyes as wide as possible, like that was the only way he could keep those tears from falling. But the way he bit his lip, and the way his lips trembled, betrayed the anguish he felt deep in his heart.
Xiao Yu'an stooped down in front of him and took his hand. "It's okay," he promised. "It's going to be okay. I'll think of a way."