That afternoon, Xiao Jincheng had abandoned his hobby of mournfully reciting poetry in his room. He was more interested in loitering outside Xiao Yu'an's door.
Xiao Jincheng had started to think their family's little brat really had been led astray by Xiao Yu'an. Back when Ming Shu was a tiny little sprout, he would totter over to the Xiao family's house and call Xiao Jincheng, as expected, 'Jincheng-gege'. But now he just called Xiao Jincheng by his name. He showed no sense of brotherly respect for his elders at all!
Ming Shu had no manners, no respect, no shame. He was becoming a pretty irritating kid.
Had Ming Shu forgotten who it was that warned him when Xiao Yu'an was last called in by his teacher?
And today, when Ming Shu ran into their house with all those bags, he wouldn't even let Xiao Jincheng have a single cake. Ming Shu said they were all for his gege, as rewards for tutoring him.
Xiao Yu'an was going to tutor Ming Shu?
That was something Xiao Jincheng just had to see. He was way too eager to find out if Xiao Yu'an would lose it in the middle of a tutoring session and whoop Ming Shu.
Xiao Jincheng had personal experience with these things. Xiao Mu'ting had tutored him in math before, and it totally wasn't Xiao Jincheng's fault that he didn't get what Xiao Mu'ting was trying to teach him. Xiao Mu'ting was just a bad teacher. There was no problem with Xiao Jincheng's ability to learn; the problem lay in Xiao Mu'ting's teaching methods. Of course, when Xiao Jincheng said stuff like that, Xiao Mu'ting never agreed and usually awarded Xiao Jincheng a resounding smack.
And when Xiao Jincheng got mad and hit back, Xiao Mu'ting would just smack him again, harder.
Point being, Xiao Jincheng knew all tutoring sessions were destined to descend into chaos. He was used to that.
Tutoring Ming Shu would probably be even harder than tutoring Xiao Jincheng. Now, Xiao Jincheng was just waiting to see if Xiao Yu'an would lose his temper or not.
When Xiao Mu'ting got upstairs and found Xiao Jincheng lurking outside Xiao Yu'an's room, he instantly crept up and gave Xiao Jincheng's protruding butt a kick. "What are you doing? Why are you crouching out here like a toad?"
"Shhh!" Xiao Jincheng quickly reached into his pants pocket and dug out a ten yuan bill, slapping it down on the floor. "Wanna bet?"
Xiao Mu'ting couldn't be bothered to entertain him. "You think ten yuan is worth betting over?"
"Then I'll bet a hundred!" Xiao Jincheng declared. He turned out all his pockets, but only produced a total of twenty-five yuan. "Just wait, I'll get the rest from my room!"
Xiao Jincheng's voice was just in the middle of breaking; it was extraordinarily grating to listen to those days. He was going through a rapid growth spurt as well, but his weight was struggling to keep up. Xiao Mu'ting caught him in one hand like he was a gangly chicken.
"What do you want to bet on?" Xiao Mu'ting asked, tossing his little brother aside by the back of the collar.
Xiao Jincheng told him what was going on, then added, "I bet you one hundred yen that Xiao Yu'an still won't trounce Ming Shu today. We're on! Right?"
Xiao Mu'ting gave him a blank look, then turned and walked away.
"Hey! What are you running for? Put up your cash!" Xiao Jincheng called out, chasing after him. "You can bet that Xiao Yu'an's gonna whoop Ming Shu today. Come on!"
"Are you crazy?" Xiao Mu'ting retorted. "You think he would ever whoop Ming Shu? He can't stay mad at Ming Shu to save his life."
Xiao Jincheng was getting so worked up that he had started to sweat. He wanted to bet on something so bad, even if it meant he had to lose. In a panic, he hurriedly proposed a compromise: "Let's do this, then. I'll bet ten yuan that Xiao Yu'an is gonna whoop Ming Shu. You'll get one hundred yuan if he doesn't. If you're right about him, then this is free money for you."
Xiao Mu'ting was really starting to think his little brother was beyond help.
As a kid, Xiao Jincheng had been like a hyperactive monkey. Now he'd grown up, and no one could say anything bad about his face. He'd grown into a beautiful boy, and he was one of the most popular guys at his middle school. But did boys—especially boys in the Xiao family—need to be that pretty? Xiao Mu'ting would've preferred it if Xiao Jincheng traded his looks for some brain cells, just so he could finally stop behaving like such a brat.
After Xiao Jincheng whined some more, Xiao Mu'ting relented and agreed to bet with him.
Xiao Jincheng was pretty sure he would be losing ten yuan soon enough. But, before long, they saw Ming Shu slink out of Xiao Yu'an's room like a wilted flower. His whole face was scrunched up with displeasure, making him look more like an old man than a kid.
"What's wrong with you?" Xiao Jincheng asked. "Did Xiao Yu'an scold you?"
A lecture didn't qualify as a whooping. When Xiao Yu'an scolded this kid, he was always warm and gentle about it. He was like a calm sky without any thunder or rain. That was how Ming Shu had turned into a bit of a brat.
Ming Shu climbed onto a stool, set his hands on the edge of the table, and sighed.
If an adult had worn that expression and sighed like that, it might have elicited a bit of sympathy. But on Ming Shu, the act just seemed kind of funny.
Xiao Jincheng was beyond delighted by his apparent misfortune. He even forgot all about losing ten yuan.
"My ge just whooped me," Ming Shu said. "He whooped me real good."
Xiao Jincheng froze. His first reaction was to wonder if his ears were malfunctioning. Then he leapt to his feet and demanded, "What? Xiao Yu'an whooped you? How? Tell me everything."
Ming Shu was still mired in his own sorrow. He didn't know, and didn't care, why Xiao Jincheng's reaction was so exaggerated. "Last time, when he had to go meet my teacher, he already punished me and made me show him all my homework. Then, just now, I didn't understand a problem he was teaching me, because he didn't explain it right, so obviously I didn't understand, and he… he…"
If there were an award for World's Best Listener, it certainly would have been awarded to Xiao Jincheng in that moment. He listened raptly, demanding, "He what?"
"He hit me," Ming Shu complained, pointing at the spot on his head that had been whacked. "Anyway, he whooped me, I tried to hit him back in the same spot, but he wouldn't let me."
Xiao Jincheng scooted closer and peered at the top of Ming Shu's hair. "Aiyo, you poor thing. He even smacked your hair whorl off."
"You wanna know why I came out here?" Ming Shu asked.
"Why?" Xiao Jincheng asked.
"Just getting some air," Ming Shu said. He held up both hands with all his fingers stretched out. "I have ten minutes. Then I have to go back and do more problems."
Xiao Jincheng was thrilled. He dashed off to demand one hundred yuan from Xiao Mu'ting.
That night, Xiao Mu'ting asked Xiao Yu'an, "Did you really whoop Ming Shu today?"
Xiao Yu'an was baffled.
Was it that strange if he did?
Did these people think he couldn't? Or wouldn't?
In the blink of an eye, the last month of the lunar calendar arrived. Now that someone was micromanaging his studies, Ming Shu's grades soared. As soon as school let out for winter break, he ran to First High every single day.
Winter break started earlier for elementary school students, but high school students didn't have it that easy. Particularly not the ones in science-track honors courses. After his exams, Xiao Yu'an still had to continue practicing with the Physics Olympiad class. He would be busy until at least the 27th of the month.
When Ming Shu was five years old, he'd looked forward to Chinese New Year more than anything. Because that was when he could see his mother. Back then, he didn't understand why his mother and father didn't like him. He could only think it was because he wasn't a good kid, or at least not as good as other kids. He worked hard to always be obedient to his grandmother and grandfather, but no matter how well-behaved he was, his mother and father still didn't like him.
Now, he understood. His parents didn't love each other, and so they had no way of loving Ming Shu.
But Ming Shu didn't care about that anymore. He didn't love his parents either, and he didn't love his grandparents. Now that he was all grown up, he didn't need them to love him back.
He still looked forward to New Year's, though. He'd spent New Year's with his gege last year, and his gege had said this year, if they had time, he would take Ming Shu with him to visit his other grandpa by the sea.
Ming Shu got to the high school bright and early in the morning and waited there all day.
Xia Zhong was a year younger than Xiao Yu'an and Cheng Yue. The three of them had grown up together, so he still liked hanging out with Xiao Yu'an and Cheng Yue even though he was only a first-year.
That afternoon, when the high schoolers got out of class, Ming Shu ran into Xia Zhong and Cheng Yue on campus. Cheng Yue wanted to ruffle Ming Shu's hair as soon as he saw him, but Ming Shu deftly dodged his hand.
"Oh, we've got a wild one, huh?" Cheng Yue grinned and started bouncing his basketball instead. "Now you won't let us pat your head."
When Ming Shu was just a little thing, he'd let all these gege pat his head. But now he wouldn't let them anymore.
"If you pick up your gege every day like this, people are going to start thinking he's still an elementary school student," Cheng Yue joked. "Wait for us to play some basketball before you go home, okay?"
The Olympiad classes were getting out early that day, and Cheng Yue had arranged to play some ball with Xiao Yu'an.
Ming Shu liked watching his gege play basketball, so he nodded very earnestly and said, "Then I'll go buy you guys some milk tea."
Xia Zhong smiled and instantly got out some money for Ming Shu. "Our didi is so nice."
Ming Shu shook his head; he had his own money. "I don't need yours."
Soon enough, Xiao Yu'an reached the basketball courts. Xia Zhong wasn't interested in playing, so it was Cheng Yue, Xiao Yu'an, and two other boys playing 2v2 that day.
Xia Zhong had been pretty pale as a kid, and he was still handsome in a delicate way. After watching the game for a while, Xia Zhong suddenly asked, "Has your ge ever mentioned anyone he likes?"
Ming Shu instantly sat up straight and declared, without even thinking about it, "He likes me, because I'm his didi."
"Pfft!" Xia Zhong laughed. "I'm not talking about that kind of like. I like you too. We all watched you grow up. How could we not like you?"
As a fifth grader, Ming Shu was already old enough to know about this sort of thing. Or he wouldn't have wrongly accused Xiao Yu'an of having an illicit schoolyard romance.
Hearing Xia Zhong say all that, Ming Shu finally understood. "You're talking about that kind of like?"
Xia Zhong smiled warmly. "Mhm."
"Nope!" Ming Shu answered, loud and clear. He was so loud that Xia Zhong had to hurriedly cover his mouth with one hand.
"Be a little quieter," Xia Zhong urged. "Otherwise they'll hear us."
Ming Shu struggled a little and grumbled a complaint. His gege was so studious. How could he get into a relationship when he was still in school?
"I said no, so there's no one! My ge said, he won't date while he's in school!"
Xia Zhong froze, though his smile remained intact. "Is that so?"
Ming Shu was starting to feel a little annoyed with Xia Zhong. His gege had personally told him that he wasn't dating in school. So why did Xia Zhong still look so skeptical?