Once again, Xiao Yu'an got the feeling that something wasn't quite right with Ming Shu.
Everyone said boys became more independent as they grow up. They stopped being so clingy around the time they entered middle school, and they became too self-aware and prideful to keep sticking to people like glue. But their Ming Shu was an exception to this rule. Although Ming Shu was plenty self-aware, with a tendency to overthink things, it didn't stop him from clinging to people.
And that clinginess only seemed to grow with age. Ming Shu wasn't the slightest bit ashamed of it.
In the few days since Xiao Yu'an's return, Ming Shu practically cuffed himself to him. He even dared fling his arms around Xiao Yu'an's neck like he wanted to be carried. It was only when Xiao Yu'an batted him away that Ming Shu resigned himself to following Xiao Yu'an around like a tail, waiting for the opportunity to leap onto him again.
Ming Shu even insisted on squeezing into the bathroom with him so that they could brush their teeth together in the morning.
He even gave himself a perfectly serious reason for doing so.
"Ge, you haven't been back in such a long time, and who knows how long you'll be gone next time? Isn't it fine to pay more attention to me now?"
But one morning, over breakfast, that absurdly clingy little thing suddenly changed his tune. Ming Shu started saying things like—
"Ge, I'm heading out later. You don't have to come."
"Ge, I'm going to do some homework by myself."
"Ge, I'm going home to sleep tonight."
That definitely meant he was hiding something.
Ming Shu did actually go home after saying he would, and the Xiao family's house quieted down for once. Xiao Yu'an spent some time watching TV with Xiao Zhengyun. Later that night, when Xiao Jincheng got back from his extra lessons, he slapped down a ludicrously messy set of physics problems in front of Xiao Yu'an and modestly said, "Ge, my beloved ge. Wanna explain these problems to your cute and handsome didi?"
Xiao Jincheng's grades weren't too good, but they also weren't too bad. He just never got a proper foundation. Now, as a third year at First High, he had gained a fighting spirit after weathering several tough academic battles. He figured, since there was a Physics Olympiad champ at home, there was no sense in not taking advantage.
Xiao Yu'an hadn't done high school practice sets in two years, but he had no problem teaching Xiao Jincheng the main points.
The two cousins treated to the study, each with a cup of coffee, and worked until two in the morning. Xiao Jincheng yawned so wide that tears sprang to his eyes. After finishing his last problem, he wobbled off to sleep. But Xiao Yu'an didn't go back to his own room right away.
Working on those problems had woken Xiao Yu'an up. He felt alert now, and since he couldn't fall asleep yet, he started mulling over what was going on with Ming Shu.
Ming Shu had been a little weird before going to bed last night, but he was a different sort of weird the next morning. After insisting on going to bed early, Ming Shu had also gotten up early. He'd already been out of the room by the time Xiao Yu'an woke up.
Xiao Yu'an's grandpa had made congee for breakfast, and he'd picked up some youtiao and soy sauce eggs from a local shop as well. The past few days, Ming Shu had happily chattered while eating with Xiao Yu'an. Long after Xiao Yu'an's grandpa finished eating and left the table, Xiao Yu'an and Ming Shu would still be there.
That morning, Ming Shu had almost finished eating by the time Xiao Yu'an made it to the breakfast table. Ming Shu looked at him a little shiftily and seemed to avoid his gaze before saying, "Good morning, ge."
He was so reserved and aloof. Maybe that was what Ming-ge was like at First Middle.
Not long after breakfast, Ming Shu took off, saying he had to go buy some study guides per his teachers' instructions.
Since it had to do with school, Xiao Yu'an naturally offered to go along as Ming Shu's ge. He could accompany him to the bookstore and help him pick the right books.
But Ming Shu had, shockingly, refused.
Xiao Yu'an could count on one hand the number of times the little kid had refused him anything.
But it was extremely normal for a boy who was about to enter his third year of middle school to want more independence. Xiao Yu'an didn't overthink it at the time; he just went to help his grandpa in the garden.
Ming Shu went back to the Xiao family's house for lunch, but then he picked up his backpack and said he wanted to do some homework.
Xiao Yu'an let him have the study. After Ming Shu had been working for a while, Xiao Yu'an cut a plate of fruit and brought it up for him. It was then that he noticed Ming Shu hadn't written a single word in the practice workbooks spread out before him. All his scratch paper was blank, too.
What kind of homework was he doing?
And when Ming Shu heard him come in, he seemed a little nervous.
Xiao Yu'an didn't poke any holes in Ming Shu's story at the time. If the kid had something on his mind, something he didn't want to talk about, Xiao Yu'an wouldn't ask right away.
His university class's group chat got lively that afternoon, so he clicked in to have a look. Since it was summer break, most students had gone home. Some had already started roasting their own younger siblings. One was talking about his little brother, who'd fallen in love with a girl at his table at school. The boy and girl had apparently 'eloped', and it became a whole ordeal. Both families were anxious; they'd even called the police.
Of course, the kids hadn't gotten far. They'd only 'eloped' to an amusement park near the outskirts of the city. When the police found them, they were still on the Ferris wheel.
Once that topic was brought up, everyone started talking about it. People who had younger siblings talked about their younger siblings dating in school, and people who didn't talked about their younger neighbors dating in school. Either way, it seemed schoolyard romances were an exceptionally common thing.
After reading everything, Xiao Yu'an got the feeling these accounts were quite similar to whatever Ming Shu was going through.
Leaving home under mysterious pretenses.
Going out alone, and strictly forbidding anyone from following him.
Saying he wanted to study, but in reality just spacing out at his desk.
Xiao Yu'an laughed to himself. Xiao Jincheng had gotten mixed up in a schoolyard romance in his first or second year of junior high, and his parents had even been called in to address it. Ming Shu was at that age too.
The study at the Xiao family's house belonged to Xiao Jincheng and Ming Shu now. Half of it was full of college entrance exam practice tests, and a smaller half was dedicated to high school entrance exam practice tests.
After studying with Xiao Jincheng into the early hours of morning, Xiao Yu'an went over to Ming Shu's pile of stuff and rifled through. He flipped through some of the tests and idly opened a drawer, finding an old notebook inside.
It was Ming Shu's weekly diary from elementary school.
When Ming Shu had been taken away by Wen Yue and Ming Haofeng, he'd taken that diary with him. When he came back, the diary had come back with him too. It had stayed right there, through all the renovations the Xiao family's house had gone through.
Lots of little cards and drawings on scraps of paper were tucked into that notebook. When Xiao Yu'an flipped through, they all spilled out. Among them was a piece of paper that was a different color, clearly not belonging to that notebook.
Xiao Yu'an picked it up and took a look. He was more than a bit surprised.
It was his handwriting, and he'd written—
I, Xiao Yu'an, swear not to date in school.
Xiao Yu'an stared at it.
When Xiao Yu'an was in his second year of high school, Ming Shu had wrongly accused him of dating early. The little kid had thrown a tantrum and everything. Even after Xiao Yu'an explained everything clearly, Ming Shu had asked him for a written promise. The little kid was in the hospital after the bike crash, and he had obvious wounds—physical and emotional ones. When he'd asked with those big, shiny eyes…
Xiao Yu'an hadn't wanted to write any sort of note at the time, and he didn't feel obligated to make the little kid any sort of promise. But he'd wanted to comfort Ming Shu and have the hurt little kid feel better soon, so he'd written the note.
After he wrote it, he finally saw Ming Shu smile again.
Xiao Yu'an thought that scrap of paper had been lost long ago. But Ming Shu had actually kept it.
That gave Xiao Yu'an a sudden idea.
Ming Shu lay in his own bed, too perplexed to sleep.
He had been uncomfortably energetic all day, like he'd been pumped full of adrenaline. No matter what he did, he couldn't get it out of his system.
He shouldn't have peeked at his gege.
Even elementary school teachers had taught them that this sort of thing was rude and unethical. Ming Shu knew he'd done something untoward, but he'd already looked. And since looking, he hadn't been able to stop thinking about it.
All morning, he felt like he was on pins and needles. When he ate breakfast with his gege, all he wanted was to run away. He was afraid his gege would know he'd done something bad, and he was afraid his gege would ask exactly what he'd done.
After buying his study guides, Ming Shu knew he should have just gone back to his own house. But he couldn't let go of this chance to be near his gege. His gege would only be home for three more days, after all. How could he not stay with his gege?
In the end, he went back to the Xiao family's house. But his face still burned, so he retreated to the study to hide.
He jumped, startled and scared out of his wits, when his gege came to deliver a plate of fruit in the middle of the day. Ming Shu didn't even feel that nervous when he sneakily read leisure books in class.
Luckily, his gege didn't seem to realize anything was wrong.
Even as the sun started to rise, Ming Shu still hadn't slept a wink.
Last term, a bunch of boys from Ming Shu's class had gone next door to peek at the class flower who'd transferred in to the neighboring class. Later, their own class monitor had berated them fiercely, saying, "Why are you all so perverted?"
Ming Shu hadn't gone along with those boys. Du Hao had invited him, but Ming Shu couldn't be bothered to squeeze in with the crowd. So he wasn't scolded.
But now, he scolded himself. He muttered to himself, "Ming-ge, why are you so perverted? What were you looking for?"
The troubles of adolescence really were endless. After spending a sleepless night worrying over his own actions, Ming Shu never imagined he would suddenly be confronted by a stern talk from his ge the next day.
"Tell me the truth. Do you have your eye on a girl at school?"
Ming Shu was in the middle of yawning when Xiao Yu'an asked. He nearly dislocated his jaw.
Seeing that reaction of fear and shock, Xiao Yu'an figured he must have hit the nail on the head. He tousled Ming Shu's hair. "At your age, these feelings are normal. And feelings are okay, but acting on them isn't. Got it?"
Ming Shu closed his mouth and started to sweat furiously.
What was his ge talking about? Him, liking a girl? Who? When? Lots of girls had confessed to him last term, and he'd turned them all down. He had no intention of feeling that way, okay?! He didn't even go peek at the class flower next door!
"Ge…" He wanted to say something, but he didn't know what to say. How was he supposed to respond to something like this? And his ge was being weird too! Why did he bring this up all of a sudden? It didn't make sense!
Seeing that Ming Shu wanted to argue, Xiao Yu'an felt he needed to say a few more words. He reasoned, "You're not even in high school yet. Even in high school, your guardians and teachers will watch over you if you date. But you're still in middle school. Keep that in mind, okay?"
Ming Shu's face went red with anger. "I'm not dating!"
His voice was still in the middle of changing. With that overenthusiastic defense, his voice split again, in such a funny way that anyone would have laughed.
Xiao Yu'an stifled his laughter as best as he could. Acting as Ming Shu's guardian and big brother, he continued, "That's good. Don't be like Xiao Jincheng. He had his parents called in and everything."
Ming Shu was now feeling anxious for more than one reason. He still hadn't cleared up this whole mess about dating in school, and his duckish voice had returned with a vengeance.
Why was he so unlucky today?
Xiao Yu'an could only give some advice. He couldn't watch over Ming Shu like he used to. If Ming Shu got some improper ideas in his head, Xiao Yu'an could only take some precautionary measures now.
If Ming Shu really got into a relationship in school, Xiao Yu'an obviously couldn't fly back from college just to make him break up with his girlfriend.
He could only hope Ming Shu would take his advice and finish his last year of middle school without stirring up any trouble.
As for high school, that would be up to Ming Shu. A lot of kids who picked up bad or improper habits picked them up in middle school. By high school, they mostly had the ability to judge right from wrong for themselves. Xiao Yu'an had watched Ming Shu grow up right in front of his eyes. He had faith that Ming Shu would make the right choices when it came to dating.
"Remember this piece of paper?" Xiao Yu'an waved the note he'd written so many years ago in front of Ming Shu's eyes.
Ming Shu blurted out, "Ah!"
Xiao Yu'an smiled. "You watched me write it."
Ming Shu was too embarrassed to speak.
"Let's make this a fair trade, Ming-ge. Why don't you write one too?" Xiao Yu'an tore a page out of that old diary with yellowing pages. He'd already prepared a pen. "Come, you can copy what I wrote."
Ming Shu held the pen and spaced out for a moment. "But I haven't started dating!"
Xiao Yu'an raised his eyebrows. "Was I dating when you made me write this?"
Ming Shu pouted. "Ge, you're just getting revenge on me!"
"Then let's call it revenge," Xiao Yu'an said, tapping the piece of paper he'd torn out. "Enough talk. Write."
With that, Ming Shu's pent up energy dissipated. He stayed at the Xiao family's house for the next two days, perfectly well-behaved.
And then, it was time for his gege to leave.