MINT-STAINED SHIRT

Chapter 44

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Ming Shu was a little glutton. Although he only ever came to the coffee shop with Xiao Yu'an to do homework, he could eat three pieces of cake all by himself. And he would always make his gege take the first bite of each piece.

Xiao Yu'an didn't like sweets, but he'd already been forced to taste every single pastry sold at this coffee shop. They were all cloyingly sweet to him, so he always had to order a tea for himself to wash down the taste. As a result, he'd tried all the tea at the coffee shop too.

When Xia Zhong returned with a tray, Xiao Yu'an had already taken out the practice workbooks, scratch paper, and pens that he'd brought. Everything was arranged neatly on one side of the table.

There was one good thing about the tables at that coffee shop—they were big. Two students could sit at one and still spread all their stuff out.

"Ge, your black tea." Xia Zhong passed over the tea first, then placed a piece of Black Forest cake in front of Xiao Yu'an. He'd gotten a piece of cherry cheesecake and a chocolate milk for himself. "I didn't know what kind of pastry you'd like, so I just picked one at random."

Xiao Yu'an didn't like any kind of pastry, but he still uttered a thanks before asking, "Which problems do you not understand? Show me."

Xia Zhong hurriedly took out some practice workbooks. "I'm working on the problems you guys did last year. All the ones circled in red are the ones I don't get."

 

The cold war at the Ming family's house persisted.

Ming Haofeng had told Xiao Lanyue that the father-son relationship between him and Ming Shu had already been repaired. They'd even had a heart-to-heart talk. But in reality, no such thing had happened.

Ming Shu refused to say a single word to Ming Haofeng, and Ming Haofeng was too prideful to compromise with Ming Shu. Each day Ming Shu refused to apologize was another day Ming Haofeng refused to let him leave his room.

Just now, he and Ming Shu had had another explosive row. Ming Haofeng brought Ming Shu his lunch and greeted him in as gentle of a tone as possible. But Ming Shu only gave him a cold look and asked, "Can I go see my gege now?"

Ming Haofeng didn't even know whether it was Ming Shu's expression or Ming Shu's words that pissed him off more. Perhaps it was a combination of both. His anger, which he had spent all day trying to tamp down, flared up again. It flared even hotter than what it had been.

Plates and bowls shattered on the floor. Rice, soup, and cooked dishes flew out in every direction. Fixing Ming Shu with a fierce glare, Ming Haofeng bellowed, "You remember this, and you remember it well! You are a son of the Ming family! No matter how well the Xiao family treats you, they will always be outsiders!"

When the bowls and chopsticks clattered onto the floor, Ming Shu reflexively blinked. After that, he didn't show any trace of a reaction at all. Not even his lashes trembled.

"Outsiders treat me better than family," he said.

These words only served to fuel Ming Haofeng's rage. He stabbed a finger at Ming Shu, and his hand even trembled faintly, twice, before he managed to find his voice again. "Continue to reflect upon your mistakes!"

After the door slammed in its frame, the room became quiet again. Ming Shu hugged his legs to his chest and sat like that for a long while before he realized he was starving.

Lately, he hadn't had much to eat. He hadn't had much to drink, either. He loved nothing more than sweets, and his gege's house always had candy and juice and sometimes even cake. Ming Shu hadn't gotten to eat anything like that in a long time.

Three days ago, he'd eaten the last piece of chocolate in his drawers. Xiao Jincheng had lost that piece of chocolate to him over a bet before New Year's, and Ming Shu had wanted to share it with his gege. But his gege told him to eat it by himself. Ming Shu had tossed it into a drawer and forgotten all about it until he was locked up in his room.

Some noise started to flow in from outside. More noise than usual.

Ming Shu listened carefully and realized there were visitors in their home. It sounded like they were Ming Haofeng's colleagues and superiors.

Suddenly, Ming Shu realized that this was a good opportunity to escape. Ming Haofeng was all about keeping up appearances. Ming Shu wouldn't even need to try very hard to get out. All he had to do was walk downstairs and say he wanted to go see his friends. With so many watchful eyes on them, Ming Haofeng definitely wouldn't keep him caged.

Ming Shu put on a jacket and got ready to go. Out of habit, he stuck his hands into his pockets. He found a stiff card inside, which he realized was the membership card for the coffee shop near First High.

He would go find his gege at the Xiao family's house first. Then he and his gege could go to the coffee shop for cake.

He wanted to personally ask why his gege hadn't come upstairs to see him the other day.

Before going downstairs, Ming Shu hesitated. Although passing in front of so many strangers would put Ming Haofeng in a tough spot, it would make Ming Shu uncomfortable as well.

In the end, Ming Shu changed his mind. He quietly pushed open his bedroom window instead and slowly climbed down from the second floor.

No one noticed him. After he steadied himself on the ground, he took off at a dead sprint and didn't slow down until he reached the Xiao family's house.

 

After having his game console taken away, Xiao Jincheng was struggling with his homework in the living room on the first floor. When he saw Ming Shu, he swore like he'd seen a ghost. "Holy shit! Your dad let you out?"

Ming Shu didn't have time to explain. "Where's my ge?"

"Your ge went out of his mind," Xiao Jincheng said.

Ming Shu didn't understand. He'd run too fast a moment ago, and now he was panting for breath. With his cheeks tinged bright red, he gasped, "Huh?"

"He went out to do homework of all things. Crazy, right?" Xiao Jincheng pointed at his own head as he spoke. "Xia Zhong is out of his mind too. Maybe all high schoolers are weird like that."

Ming Shu finally managed to calm his breathing. "My ge and Xia Zhong went out? Where?"

Xiao Jincheng gave him a look of utter bafflement. "How should I know?"

Ming Shu started running again, this time sprinting out of their residential community.

As soon as he heard his gege had gone out with Xia Zhong, Ming Shu started feeling uneasy. His gege hadn't come to save him. Instead, he'd gone to play with someone else. Now that Ming Shu had escaped, for the sole purpose of seeing his gege, his gege wasn't home. His gege hadn't even left word of where he would be going.

Then, if he couldn't find his gege… what was he supposed to do?

Over winter break, there were more people on the streets than usual. Ming Shu's breath manifested in white puffs as he ran. His heart pounded in his chest, but his hands were almost numb from the cold.

He slipped his hands into his pockets and felt that card once more.

Could his gege have gone to the coffee shop?

 

Xia Zhong wasn't in the Physics Olympiad class at all. Xiao Yu'an figured that out after explaining just a few problems to him. But Xia Zhong did seem to have a genuine interest in physics, and Xiao Yu'an didn't want to dampen his enthusiasm now.

The questions Xia Zhong asked were all very easy to answer. After Xiao Yu'an finished answering his questions, he started working on the homework he'd brought for himself. By six that evening, he'd finished all the problems he'd brought along.

But Xia Zhong was still struggling with some calculations. He scribbled intensely at his scratch paper and showed no signs of wanting to go home anytime soon.

In addition to drinks and cakes, that coffee shop also offered simple meals. Xiao Yu'an said, "Take a break. Are you hungry?"

Xia Zhong lifted his head, looking a bit worried. "Ge, are you going home for dinner?"

"I'm in no rush," Xiao Yu'an said. "We can just eat here. You still have some questions for me, right?"

Xia Zhong nodded.

Xiao Yu'an got up and tapped his hand along the edge of the table. "I'll go downstairs and order some food."

Xia Zhong's eyes were bright again. "Okay. Thank you, ge."

When Ming Shu barged into the coffee shop, his nostrils were instantly filled by the scent of steak. It was already dinnertime. The afternoon crowd had either already left or ordered food for themselves.

Ming Shu hastily scanned the area, but he didn't see his gege. He rushed up to the second floor, but his gege wasn't there either.

Then he ran up to the third floor. The third floor had the least number of occupants, and next to the window, Ming Shu saw a figure he would recognize anywhere.

It was his gege.

But Xia Zhong was next to his gege. They were sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, and they were sitting super close to each other. Ming Shu could see they were currently using a fork and knife to cut into a slab of steak.

Xia Zhong said something to Ming Shu's gege, and Ming Shu's gege laughed.

During the winter, the sun set early. Outside, streetlights were already coming on. The splendid glow spilled in through the windows, dancing over his gege's face like an ethereal sort of candlelight.

A while back, Xiao Jincheng had made Ming Shu watch some idol dramas with him. In those dramas, people on dates always ate steak while basking in a glow of candlelight.

Ming Shu's eyes widened. He suddenly felt hollow, like a void had opened somewhere inside him. And it felt like the winter chill from outside swept in to fill that void, making him tremble all over.

His gege was a liar.

Ming Shu had worked so hard to escape and find his gege, and his gege was dating Xia Zhong.

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Chapter 44

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