MINT-STAINED SHIRT

Chapter 34

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Ming Shu practically glowed as he watched his ge step up to the winner's podium. But that glow gradually faded, replaced by a sense of discomfort. There were so many people surrounding his ge. Even Tong Yu, from earlier that day, was there. Ming Shu was the only one who couldn't go up to him.

Ming Shu was desperate to run up and congratulate his ge, but his ge would definitely get mad. Even though Ming Shu was only skipping gym! Was that really such a big deal? But his gege had said no skipping, which meant Ming Shu couldn't allow himself to be discovered.

He was brave enough to skip school. But he wasn't brave enough to let his ge find out.

In truth, the physical education teachers taught their classes with one eye closed. Girls often snuck out to go shopping, and boys often snuck off to the pool hall. As long as they didn't cause trouble or draw too much attention to themselves, they could skip once in a while and the teachers wouldn't complain.

Ming Shu hadn't skipped a single time that year. His teacher would surely know that, and his teacher definitely wouldn't cause problems for him this time.

But even if Ming Shu had thought of a thousand different outcomes, he couldn't have predicted that the idiotic Du Hao would get an extraordinarily stupid idea lodged in his brain.

Du Hao and the others had just won a fierce battle at the start of their lunch break, and they'd won against sixth graders. Halfway through their celebratory meal, Du Hao's mind started to drift. This was the meal to commemorate their victory, and they were eating at the barbecue place in front of their school. All the customers at that place were elementary school students. What kind of celebration was that?

Where was the honor? Where was the glory?!

Originally, Du Hao and the other boys planned on going right back to school after lunch. Du Hao had even promised to make excuses for Ming Shu's absence that afternoon. But after a few plates of skewers had been served up, Du Hao was practically intoxicated. It seemed even meat was capable of getting a fifth grader drunk.

"Du-ge, why isn't Ming-ge here?" asked one of the boys from Class 1. The little martial arts master looked left and right, but didn't see Ming Shu anywhere. He was starting to think Du Hao had forgotten to invite Ming Shu.

That wouldn't do. This sort of celebration needed Ming-ge.

Du Hao knew Ming Shu had gone over to First High to watch a basketball game. Of course, there was nothing really special about that basketball game. Ming Shu was mainly just going to see his ge, Xiao Yu'an. As Ming Shu's first deskmate and best bud, Du Hao had a perfect understanding of what Ming Shu was like around Xiao Yu'an.

Around Xiao Yu'an, Ming Shu turned from Ming-ge into a little kid again!

Every time Du Hao heard Ming Shu call out for his 'gege', his arms broke out in goosebumps. It was a bit unsettling how easily 'Ming-ge' disappeared.

After thinking about it for a moment, Du Hao decided he was the only one who needed to know about this other side of Ming Shu. He couldn't let anyone else find out. Otherwise, wouldn't Ming-ge lose face?

And Ming-ge was the face of all the fifth graders.

If he lost face, then all fifth graders would lose face.

Du Hao's grades weren't very good, but even he could puzzle out the result of this equation.

But the other boys were all eager to hear about Ming-ge now. As soon as one person asked, everyone else started asking. Du Hao didn't have an excuse prepared, and in a moment of panic, he slapped his own forehead and blurted out, "Ming-ge, ah! Well, we beat the dung out of Cowdung, right? Ming-ge thought it would be cool to celebrate by skipping class. He went ahead and set an example for us by leaving first!"

After spinning that lie, Du Hao felt quite proud of himself. This was a clear sign that he understood Ming Shu better than anyone. Those were totally words that their Ming-ge would say.

Right away, the other boys started to clamor.

"Why didn't Ming-ge take us with him?"

"Then we have to skip class to celebrate too!"

As the old saying goes, one lie leads to another.

Du Hao steeled his nerve and slapped the table, making up his mind. "Ming-ge obviously wants us to go with him! Something like skipping class has to be done together, right? Ming-ge wouldn't leave us behind. He told me to bring you guys along!"

The physical education teacher knew that a few students would skip class every so often. That was nothing out of the ordinary. But he never would have imagined that half the fifth-grade boys in Class 2, and even a few of the fifth-grade boys from Class 1, would go missing that afternoon.

How could a teacher let that slide?

Du Hao and the others didn't go far. They slipped off to the nearby pool hall, where they watched middle school students play pool. Du Hao and the other boys who'd skipped all felt a little dissatisfied at first. There were no free tables at the pool hall, and they certainly couldn't win a fight against middle school students, so they had no choice but to watch.

But they really got into it as they watched, and they soon grew even more excited about it than they'd been about their fight.

The teachers found them easily with how much noise they were making, and all the kids were soon brought back and asked why they skipped school. Everyone rushed to make their own excuses, but in the end one common thread emerged—

They all seemed to be in agreement that Ming-ge had told them to skip in order to celebrate their victory in a fight.

Du Hao kept his  head down the whole time and thought, Ming-ge, I am so sorry.

Ming Shu was afraid of being caught by his gege, so he left the basketball courts long before the crowd began to disperse. Just last night, he'd heard Xiao Jincheng dourly reciting some poem in the window of his room—something about leaving the past with no regrets.

He decided to head back and have a chat with Xiao Jincheng about the meaning of that poem.

Since his gege had won the match, Ming Shu knew he would definitely go out to eat with his teammates. And after taking the long way around the high school campus to escape unseen, Ming Shu had pretty much burned off his lunch. He headed straight home for dinner, but before he even reached the entrance of their residential community, he saw Xiao Jincheng running towards him.

"Xiao Jincheng!" he called out. "That poem you were reading last night…"

Ming Shu used to call out Jincheng-gege and Mu'ting-gege, but he now simply called Xiao Jincheng by his name. Xiao Mu'ting had become Ting-ge, and Xiao Yu'an had simply become 'ge'. Although, when Ming Shu was whining and throwing a fit to get his way, he would still default to 'gege' with Xiao Yu'an.

"You little brat! I got you now!" Xiao Jincheng hollered. He grabbed Ming Shu by the back of his shirt collar as soon as he was within arm's reach. "Did you skip class? Did you get into a fight?"

Ming Shu froze. "Huh?"

Xiao Jincheng gave him a big thumbs up. "You are truly worthy of being my successor. But, also, you're dead meat. Xiao Yu'an was called in by your homeroom teacher."

Four years ago, Xiao Yu'an had appeared before Ming Shu's homeroom teacher and said, "I'm Ming Shu's gege. If you need to speak to his parent or guardian in the future, please contact me."

And every year since, Xiao Yu'an had voluntarily visited the elementary school to meet with Ming Shu's homeroom teacher and hear about how Ming Shu was doing at school.

At first, the teacher always told Xiao Yu'an that Ming Shu was too delicate and sensitive. It was clear he wasn't receiving enough affection and love at home. Without his parents' support and approval, Ming Shu had no way of building his confidence. That was why he had become sensitive and withdrawn.

After a while, Ming Shu's homeroom teacher never had to say such things again.

Children were as malleable as a ball of putty. Ming Shu's sensitivity and lack of confidence had come as a result of his upbringing in the Ming household, but he had yet to be set in stone. He was molded by all the care and attention he received from the Xiao family, and he ultimately became a bold little troublemaker worthy of taking Xiao Jincheng's playground crown.

Since Ming Shu started fourth grade, Xiao Yu'an had been called in several times because Ming Shu had gotten into some sort of trouble. Ming Shu was always quick to admit his mistakes. As soon as Ming Shu thought Xiao Yu'an was about to get angry, he would latch onto Xiao Yu'an and say, "Gege, I was wrong. I'll never do it again."

Ming Shu was an annoying nuisance when he stirred up trouble, much like Xiao Jincheng had been when he was eight. But when Ming Shu apologized, he was sweet and demure, showing hints of the soft little sprout he used to be.

After being called 'gege, gege' for half a day, Xiao Yu'an's anger would always dissipate. He would only scold Ming Shu a little before letting him off. He'd never gotten truly fierce with Ming Shu.

But Ming Shu didn't actually change his ways. And this time, he'd even gone as far as getting a whole herd of boys to skip class.

"Please go back and talk to him," Ming Shu's homeroom teacher said, her face creased with worry. "But don't be too hard on him. At that age, he's bound to feel rebellious."

Xiao Yu'an apologized to the teacher once more before he left. As soon as he exited the elementary school, he saw a text on his phone from Cheng Yue.

Are you done meeting with that teacher? We saved a seat for you, hurry up and get over here!

Xiao Yu'an texted back: You guys eat, I'm not coming.

Ai, you can't do that! You're the captain, and you aren't coming? You're in a rush to go home and teach that didi of yours a lesson, right? How about you just forget it for today? That can wait. You can school your didi any day, right?

But Xiao Yu'an remained firm in his refusal. I'll owe you guys one. My treat next time.

Cheng Yue sent back one more text, clearly taking delight in Ming Shu's impending misfortune: Then at least hold back a little. Everyone has a rebellious phase. Don't make him cry, you hear?

Xiao Yu'an put his phone away. As soon as he lifted his head, he saw a familiar figure in the distance.

Who could it be, besides Ming Shu?

The little troublemaker was standing near the flower bed on the other side of the road. When he saw Xiao Yu'an look up, he quickly ducked behind a pillar.

But did he really think he could hide now?

Xiao Yu'an breathed out slowly and didn't move any closer. He simply fixed his gaze to the pillar and said, "Come out."

He didn't think there was any point in getting angry with the little kid, but Ming Shu really had been going too far lately. And Ming Haofeng and Wen Yue hadn't visited in over two years. Xiao Yu'an was the only one who could take care of Ming Shu.

He'd thought Ming Shu would behave and go back to class after lunch, like a good kid. But Ming Shu hadn't listened to him at all.

This kid was clearly ready to spread his wings and fly in a direction of his own making.

Ming Shu was still hiding behind the pillar, refusing to move. He was clever and perceptive. He could tell whether his gege was really mad or not just by listening to him.

And today, his gege was really mad. Ming Shu was a little scared. He wanted to go out and calm his gege, but he was scared of being scolded.

Xiao Yu'an spoke again: "Do I have to repeat myself?"

Ming Shu's heart quivered. He couldn't stay put any longer. He slowly inched out, exposing just a shoulder at first.

"Come here!" Xiao Yu'an ordered in a deep, commanding voice.

His gege's voice had changed a while ago. It was no longer the voice of a child. Ming Shu was compelled by that deeper voice. He moved out from behind the pillar and began to shuffle forward, but stopped after two steps and froze again.

Quietly, he whispered, "Gege."

Xiao Yu'an had no intentions of spoiling him today. In that deep and dangerous voice, he repeated, "I told you to come here."

Just earlier that day, Ming Shu had chased and beaten down some bullies as the formidable Ming-ge. But now, all the fight had gone out of him. With his head buried in his chest, he continued to shuffle forward haltingly.

Xiao Yu'an almost suspected he would soon hear an old, familiar whimpering again.

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