Xiao Yu'an had been called out by Tong Yu, the class flower of their grade. She was widely acknowledged as the prettiest girl in their year.
The two of them had both gone to First Middle, the affiliated junior high of First High, before entering high school. Back in their second year of junior high, they'd been deskmates for a brief while. Once they started high school, they were no longer in the same class. Xiao Yu'an was in Honors Class 1, and Tong Yu was in Honors Class 2; they were both on the science track.
Tong Yu was extremely pretty, lofty, and smart. The third-year class flower and the first-year class flower were both on the humanities track; only the second-year class flower, Tong Yu, was on the science track.
In truth, as soon as they entered high school, Xiao Yu'an had guessed Tong Yu's intentions towards him.
All students on the science track had to apply for an Olympiad class in a subject of their choice. Tong Yu's strongest subject was math; it would have been natural for her to choose the Mathematical Olympiad class. But she chose physics. The same as Xiao Yu'an.
Seats in Olympiad classes weren't assigned. Students could sit wherever they pleased when they arrived. Tong Yu always got to class early and saved a seat for Xiao Yu'an, and she even brought him a drink every time.
Xiao Yu'an didn't have any feelings for her. He never accepted the drinks she brought, and he always sat with a group of his friends.
The other kids in his class and Tong Yu's class liked to gossip about them, and Tong Yu only ever smiled faintly without denying anything. Truthfully, Xiao Yu'an found that a bit irritating.
But Tong Yu had yet to say anything to him directly. If she didn't bring it up, it was difficult for Xiao Yu'an to mention it first.
Cheng Yue and Xia Zhong had both pestered him several times about it. "Xiao-ge," they would say. "Is there something going on with you and the class flower or not?"
Xiao Yu'an gave the same answer every time: There was nothing going on with Tong Yu, and there was nothing going on with any other girl either.
He simply had no intentions of getting into a relationship yet.
Cheng Yue and Xia Zhong both listened to his answer, and their reactions were always the exact opposite.
Cheng Yue sighed heavily and scolded, "Xiao-ge, are you stupid or what? That's our class flower! Not only is she pretty, she gets good grades too. Last year, weren't her math scores on our finals even better than yours? She even gave up the Math Olympiad class for you. Once you two win a physics competition together, you'll be a lock to get into the same university. Then you'll be all set. Just imagine how high your kid's IQ is going to be."
Xia Zhong, on the other hand, scolded Cheng Yue for being unreasonable. "Xiao-ge is right to not like pretty girls right now. You think everyone is like you? When you see a pretty girl, you lose your mind."
"What do you mean I lose my mind? God, what's your problem?"
"The one who has a problem is you. Don't deny it."
They would bicker for ages, then turn to Xiao Yu'an and asked him to decide which one of them had a problem.
Xiao Yu'an actually thought there was something wrong with both of them. One of them was already thinking about the IQ of a kid two physics competition champions could have, and one of them was saying some nonsense about not liking pretty girls.
Why were they both putting so much more thought into this than him?
He didn't have time to think about dating, and he probably wouldn't have time to think about dating for a long time. Xiao Yu'an had extremely clear plans for his future, and he'd already planned out the next several years of his life. That plan didn't involve getting into a relationship.
He wasn't even planning on going to a normal university.
His father and his paternal grandfather were both army men, and Xiao Yu'an was expected to enlist as well. But Xiao Yu'an was more interested in becoming a police officer. Specifically, the type that worked in special ops.
Tong Yu's way of half-heartedly, indirectly pursuing him was really troublesome, but Xiao Yu'an couldn't find a good opportunity to make things clear to her.
Today, when Tong Yu asked him to meet her at the botanical garden, Xiao Yu'an hadn't wanted to go. He had a basketball game that afternoon. But he saw that Tong Yu seemed quite serious, and he suspected she was finally going to have an honest conversation with him.
In that case, he obviously had to meet her. If Tong Yu was going to be straightforward with him, he would finally have the opportunity to be straightforward right back.
Sure enough, Tong Yu had called him out to confess.
Xiao Yu'an let out a breath of relief. He gave her a simple, clear-cut rejection and took the blame upon himself for being unable to reciprocate her feelings.
Tong Yu looked a little regretful, but she accepted it with a sigh. "Actually, I knew you would reject me."
That gave Xiao Yu'an a bit of a surprise.
"I gave you hints about how I felt, and you gave me hints about how you felt as well," Tong Yu said. "You never took the seat I saved for you, and you never accepted the drinks I brought for you. When we split into groups in class, you usually wouldn't join my group. If I didn't catch on to what you were implying, I really wouldn't be smart enough to be in an Olympiad class."
Xiao Yu'an watched her and patiently waited for her to finish speaking.
The botanical garden was full of various plants and flowers in bloom. The wind carried a sweet, floral scent through the air.
Tong Yu tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. "But even science students can't be rational all the time, right? You aren't interested in me, but I still wanted to try my best. I still wanted to hear you reject me directly. Or else I would keep guessing and wondering and fantasizing about the most ridiculous things, thinking I might have a chance."
She took a deep breath, then smiled. Her expression was remorseful, but accepting. "Now I know there's no chance. Let's continue to be friends in the future, okay? But I won't save seats for you anymore. I'll have to transfer to the Mathematical Olympiad class. With half a year left to prepare, I don't know what kind of result I'll be able to achieve."
"Good luck," Xiao Yu'an said.
Tong Yu sighed again. "You're not even going to comfort me? You really don't know how to treat a girl. You should have said, 'You're so smart, you're so good at studying, you'll definitely be fine.'"
Xiao Yu'an only smiled without saying anything more.
He was used to taking control in many situations, when he could be certain of the outcome. Sometimes, one of the other guys on the basketball team would ask him, "What if we lose today?"
And he would say, "Don't worry. We'll win."
But when it came to things he couldn't be sure of, like someone transferring from the Physics Olympiad class to the Mathematical Olympiad class in the middle of their high school career, he simply couldn't offer empty reassurances.
If he didn't know, then he couldn't say, 'You can definitely do it.'
Those words would be meaningless, and he was intentionally holding back from comforting Tong Yu.
There was no point in muddying the waters.
"Let's leave it at that," Tong Yu said. Before she left, she offered him the bottled drinks she'd brought. "I brought you drinks so many times in physics class, but you never took them. Just this once should be fine, right?"
Xiao Yu'an furrowed his brow.
"Don't take it so seriously. We've already cleared things up between us," Tong Yu said. "This is just a normal drink from a normal classmate. I won't pursue you anymore. I wish you good luck at your game this afternoon. Be sure to take your team to victory."
In the end, Xiao Yu'an accepted the drinks.
Ming Shu saw the girl leave first. His gege stayed in place, holding those two bottled drinks, and seemed to watch his classmate leave.
Ming Shu recognized that girl. She was Tong Yu, and she had been his gege's classmate in middle school. Once, when he visited First Middle, she had spotted him and looked at him like he was a refreshingly new sight. She'd called him cute, and she'd even bought him a Cornetto.
He didn't hear what Tong Yu and his gege said to each other. He only stood nearby for ages, petrified. He gripped the bag of drinks in his hand tightly, and he felt some inexplicable discomfort in his chest.
But he really didn't know what made him feel so uncomfortable.
Hadn't he rushed out here just to see his gege's match that afternoon? Now he'd found his gege. Why didn't he feel happy?
He remained frozen in place for a while, staring numbly at the bag of drinks in his hand. Gradually, he started to form an explanation in his mind. Maybe he was feeling bad because he'd bought drinks for his gege, but his gege had accepted drinks from someone else.
Ming Shu had brought drinks and water to his gege ever since he was a kid. He'd lost track of how many times he'd raced up to his gege with a drink during sports festivals and basketball games. In the beginning, Ming Shu hadn't actually brought drinks to his gege's sporting events. He would just show up to watch his gege's matches, and his gege would let him hold his water bottle. If his water bottle had a long enough cord on it, he would even hang it around Ming Shu's neck.
Auntie—his gege's aunt, that is—had even taken a picture of him once.
In that picture, Ming Shu was sitting on a bench with a huge thermos in his arms. He was wearing a white hoodie, and his hood had a pair of ears attached. The thermos was red, and from a distance, he looked every bit like a bunny rabbit holding a massive carrot.
When he was a little older, Ming Shu started bringing all sorts of drinks to his gege after matches, and they would drink them together.
Xiao Yu'an didn't want to leave the garden with Tong Yu, so he waited several minutes before exiting. As soon as he stepped out, he found Ming Shu standing right outside.
Ming Shu knew about the basketball game, so Xiao Yu'an had figured Ming Shu would definitely be there to watch. But he hadn't expected Ming Shu to be standing right there.
"Have you eaten?" Xiao Yu'an asked, walking up and giving Ming Shu's head a gentle push.
Ming Shu finally came back to his senses and looked up at Xiao Yu'an. "Ge."
By now, their height difference had really become ridiculous. Boys grew like crazy in high school, and Xiao Yu'an was already over 1.8 meters tall. Ming Shu was only in fifth grade. He'd certainly grown from the time when he was just a little sprout, but he couldn't catch up to Xiao Yu'an.
That was something Ming Shu agonized over every day. He drank milk like it was water, and had once even chugged so much that he upset his stomach. It was only after Xiao Yu'an scolded him that he started to limit his milk intake.
Xiao Yu'an took one look at the bag of drinks and bread that Ming Shu held and realized Ming Shu definitely hadn't eaten yet. He took the bag from Ming Shu and put the drinks from Tong Yu in there, then led Ming Shu to one of the school cafeterias for a proper meal.
Ming Shu felt himself getting upset as soon as he saw those two bottles join the ones he'd bought.
Those drinks were from an outsider. How could they go in the same bag as his drinks?
Recently, Xiao Yu'an had started to think that this kid was getting harder and harder to figure out. Ming Shu had followed him for years now, to the point where he could be considered a member of the Xiao family.
Maybe Ming Shu had picked up some bad habits from Xiao Jincheng. Every now and then, a look of gloom would cross his face for no apparent reason. When Xiao Yu'an asked about it, Ming Shu wouldn't answer. Or, if he did answer, he would only say, "Ge, I'm fine."
Xiao Yu'an never pressured him to give a real answer. If Ming Shu had any serious problems, he would always speak to Xiao Yu'an. If he didn't say anything, then it was just a small fluctuation in his mood. It would pass. All kids his age were like that.
Of course, Ming Shu no longer saw himself as a little kid. He was already Ming-ge to all the other kids at school, and he'd even just taken care of a group of ill-mannered sixth graders earlier that day.
But Ming-ge had been feeling down and depressed more often these days. The main thing that perplexed him was that there was no way to bridge the six-year gap between him and Xiao Yu'an. No matter what, he would never get to go to the same school as Xiao Yu'an. And with Xiao Yu'an growing so much taller now, that gap seemed like it would only grow wider and wider.
The cafeteria on the third floor was just for stir-fry dishes; not many people were there. Xiao Yu'an had already eaten, so he didn't order anything for himself. The beef with pickled peppers and the sweet-and-sour pork he ordered were both for Ming Shu. When he brought the dishes over to their table, he saw Ming Shu messing with that bag of drinks.
Ming Shu had taken out the two bottles that Xiao Yu'an had put in.
What a troublesome little kid. Was that what he'd been pouting about?