When Du Hao saw Ming Shu at the Enchanted Pool Hall, he thought for a second that he'd traveled through time and space.
Hadn't his Ming-ge gone to the capital to play the part of a precious little didi?
But the young man in the green t-shirt, violently sending the pool balls clattering across the table, wearing an expression that clearly said 'I'm pissed as hell, don't fucking talk to me'… who could it be, except Ming-ge?
The Enchanted Pool Hall was a popular spot for the delinquents of First High.
That wasn't to say good kids never went there, but the students that teachers considered academically and morally excellent rarely frequented the place. If they did go, they crept in sneakily.
Du Hao had gone with Ming Shu a few times. Since they would soon be entering the hellish fires of their third year of high school, Du Hao had decided to seize this last chance to pay the place a visit. He'd gathered up a few of his buddies and headed out.
If he'd known Ming Shu had returned, he wouldn't have met up with anyone else. He would have only invited Ming Shu.
Playing pool with Ming Shu was more fun than playing with anyone else. Ming Shu didn't waste time on trash talk. He pocketed ball after ball without ever saying much, unlike other braggarts who would stop to boast between every shot.
"When'd you get back?" Du Hao asked. After getting the guys he'd come with settled at a table, he ditched them and ran off to greet Ming Shu. "Why didn't you say anything?"
Ming Shu didn't look up. He pocketed another ball with a clean, sharp jab of his cue stick.
"Phew, slick!" Du Hao exclaimed. He watched for a while longer, then suddenly realized something wasn't quite right with Ming Shu.
Although his Ming-ge could be a bit high and mighty, Du Hao knew his disposition really depended on who he was with. When Ming-ge was with his good old childhood friend Du Hao, he should have at least expressed some spring-like warmth.
But Ming Shu was frozen over, like a beautiful winter in the middle of a sweltering summer. Something must have happened.
But what could have happened to Ming Shu?
Du Hao didn't even need to think about it to decide it must have had something to do with Wen Yue and Ming Haofeng.
"Fuck! Are those guys trying to send you overseas again?" Du Hao blurted out, balling his hands into fists. "Don't listen to them, and don't get mad. We're going to turn eighteen soon. They won't be able to make you do anything!"
Ming Shu circled the pool table, finding an angle for his next shot. Du Hao followed him around. When Ming Shu suddenly turned, the two of them collided.
Ming Shu clicked his tongue irritably. "Move. Stand over there."
"Hey! I'm worried about you, y'know?" Du Hao protested. "If you're pissed, don't hold it all in. Don't take it out on the pool balls either. Can the pool balls understand what you're feeling?"
Ming Shu deftly pocketed several more balls in a row, then abandoned the table and went to his seat to have a drink.
The pool balls were his best friend. They couldn't understand, and that was the best thing about them. They wouldn't nag at him about any nonsense.
Du Hao chased after Ming Shu again. "Have you told your ge? He would definitely be able to help you, right?"
Ming Shu choked on a mouthful of mint-flavored water. He coughed for a long while before he stopped, and the corners of his eyes turned noticeably red.
Du Hao was alarmed. "What the fuck! How'd you cough yourself to tears?!"
Ming Shu wiped his forearm over his face. He picked up his bag and turned to leave.
He knew the tears hadn't come because of his cough. There was no reason for them at all. Absolutely none. In fact, there were no tears. None at all.
But he couldn't deny that the corners of his eyes felt hot, and he knew that had nothing to do with the water he'd choked on.
Du Hao had guessed a bunch of bullshit. Ming Shu's parents weren't planning to send him overseas, and his problem definitely wasn't something Xiao Yu'an could help with.
If everything had gone according to plan, Ming Shu really would have still been in the capital. He hadn't planned on returning until the day before the first day of school.
But he'd come back last night, buying a ticket on an earlier flight. He'd even taken a cab from Xiao Yu'an's place to the airport by himself.
When he thought of Xiao Yu'an now, he didn't even want to call him 'ge'.
A week ago, a torrential downpour had hit the capital. It should have been an ordinary day, but then Xiao Yu'an had asked him about matters of the heart. Ming Shu had frozen with confusion for a moment, before realizing—Xiao Yu'an knew everything.
If he had been a little calmer, he would have realized that Xiao Yu'an wanted to talk to him and convince him to give up. To move past his feelings.
But in the heat of the moment, Ming Shu had gotten it into his head that Xiao Yu'an was supposed to accept his confession.
He couldn't remember exactly what he said at the time. Or maybe he could remember, but he didn't dare. He didn't dare think back to that conversation.
He'd spilled everything in his heart to Xiao Yu'an. And while his heart pounded in his chest, he saw Xiao Yu'an furrow his brows with a troubled look in his eyes.
If Ming Shu had left some things unsaid, perhaps they could have continued living with a paper-thin veil between them.
But now that he'd said it all, the veil was gone.
They couldn't go on.
Ming Shu had seen Xiao Yu'an reject others before. Xiao Yu'an was so curt and clear with his rejections that it was almost heartless.
In the past, Ming Shu had thought his ge was doing the right thing. The best thing.
But now, the knife of rejection was pointed at Ming Shu.
What was so good about it? What was so right? Couldn't Xiao Yu'an just give him a chance?
The rain continued to pour down that day. Xiao Yu'an listened to his whole confession, patiently hearing him spill out the messy feelings and secrets from his chest. Then he asked Ming Shu to sit.
Ming Shu's memories of his confession were hazy, and his memories of the aftermath were hazy too. With the wind and rain and thunder howling outside, he could only clearly remember a few things that Xiao Yu'an had said—
"I watched you grow up. I've always treated you as my didi."
"You're the same as Xiao Mu'ting and Xiao Jincheng. You're all my brothers."
"No, you're mistaken. This has nothing to do with the fact that you're a man."
"I can't foster that sort of relationship with my didi."
"Yes, you're right. I can't accept your feelings."
Ming Shu had cried to the point of sobbing. He scrubbed his hands frantically over his messy face, but it didn't help one bit. Xiao Yu'an told him to go wash his face in the bathroom, but Ming Shu wouldn't go. He just sat there in the living room, babbling things that he barely heard himself say—
"Why can't it be me? Me and Xiao Jincheng, me and Ting-ge. How are we the same?"
"They're related to you by blood. Am I? I'm just your neighbor!"
"I'm not your didi."
"And you're not my ge."
"I don't want to be your brother."
"Ge, what do you not like about me? I'm sweet and well-behaved. You know better than anyone how sweet I am. Why do you still dislike me?"
"I always listen to you. When you told me not to lie in the window, when you told me not to get into too many fights, when you made me eat fruits I didn't like—I always listened."
"Can't you just give me a chance?"
The more he cried, the harder he cried. It was pathetic, but Ming Shu wasn't in the right mind to care about that.
"You told me not to date in school, and I listened to you about that too. Am I not a good enough kid? You're not allowed to hate me."
A shadow fell over him, and he knew it was Xiao Yu'an who'd approached. He lifted his head. His nose was quivering, dripping snot, and he couldn't control his emotions at all. His resentment had built and built. He'd never felt so wronged in his life.
"When I go back to school, I'll be eighteen. Eighteen isn't too young to date anymore. If you didn't bring it up today, I wouldn't have said all this to you. I'm a good kid, I'm so well-behaved, I didn't date when I was underage, I didn't plan on saying anything to you today…"
Xiao Yu'an handed him a few tissues. His voice sounded almost a little foreign when he urged, "Don't cry."
Ming Shu really did need some tissues. There wasn't a single dry spot on his hands anymore. If he kept wiping at his face, he would only smear his tears and snot around.
But Xiao Yu'an dared to tell him not to cry.
Ming Shu fixed his gaze on Xiao Yu'an. He didn't take the tissues. Instead, he let out another broken sob as soon as he opened his mouth. "But… but you were the one who told me. You said it was okay to cry."
Xiao Yu'an's eyes suddenly darkened, like a whirlpool had formed in his pupils, sweeping both of them away.
"You said I could cry, you told me to listen to gege," Ming Shu continued, still feeling deeply aggrieved. "Now you're telling me not to cry? You don't like me."
Xiao Yu'an seemed like he wanted to say something else, but Ming Shu didn't want to listen.
He barreled on, continuing, "You told me to listen to you when I was little, so I listened. Now you want to push me away, and you don't want me to listen to you anymore. Then what am I supposed to do? Am I supposed to listen to you or not?
"I don't want to be your didi. I was never your little brother. We're not related by blood at all. Ge… Xiao Yu'an…"
Every time Ming Shu thought back to all those incoherent words he'd babbled that night, his ears burned up. Heat spread up and down, engulfing his whole head in flames.
That day, the rain had persisted until the middle of the night. Xiao Yu'an had ushered him into the bedroom long before the rain stopped.
Ming Shu hadn't been in the right mind. He clung to Xiao Yu'an's wrist, trying to keep Xiao Yu'an with him.
But, that night, Xiao Yu'an didn't oblige.
The next day, Xiao Yu'an's vacation came to an end. He had to go rejoin his team. During the middle of the day, he called to tell Ming Shu there were ingredients in the fridge. Ming Shu could try cooking for himself, or he could go out to have lunch. They would go out for dinner together after Xiao Yu'an got home.
After coming to his senses, Ming Shu couldn't sit still. He felt restless whenever he thought of the events of the previous night. But Xiao Yu'an didn't start to avoid him because of what he'd said. Two days later, Xiao Yu'an tried to talk to him about it again.
The one who avoided the subject was Ming Shu. He didn't want to talk about it, and he didn't want to hear whatever Xiao Yu'an had to say.
It would be a rejection, regardless. He didn't want to hear it all again.
Of course, their coexistence became awkward. Xiao Yu'an started to sleep on the couch, and Ming Shu wasn't shameless enough to cling to him anymore.
The day before yesterday, Ming Shu had mentioned wanting to go home early. Xiao Yu'an studied him for a while before asking, "When is your flight? I'll drop you off."
"I'll go by myself," Ming Shu said with a sudden wave of stubbornness. "I'm leaving tomorrow."
In truth, Ming Shu's flight was in the afternoon. Xiao Yu'an would have been able to drive him to the airport. But Ming Shu left while Xiao Yu'an was still at work. He climbed into a cab on his own and even sent Xiao Yu'an a curt and casual text message—
I'm leaving, You don't need to see me off.
But Ming Shu was obviously nowhere near as carefree as his text made him sound. The night before his flight, he couldn't sleep at all. But he didn't really think about anything either. His brain had practically stopped turning. He just felt irritated. He felt wronged. He felt bad.
Xiao Yu'an was the only one for him. The only one in his eyes, the only one in his heart. Ming Shu knew he could make himself even better, but the problem now wasn't whether or not he was good enough. It was that Xiao Yu'an simply didn't want anything to do with him.
Because he'd been picked up by Xiao Yu'an when he was five years old. Because Xiao Yu'an had played the part of his guardian, practically acting as his parent.
And a parent couldn't fall in love with a kid in their own family.
Was that what Xiao Yu'an meant?
But Xiao Yu'an wasn't his real brother, and he definitely wasn't Ming Shu's real parent. They didn't have the tiniest bit of a blood connection between them, and Ming Shu hadn't ever been adopted into the Xiao family.
What was wrong with him pursuing Xiao Yu'an?
Xiao Yu'an just wouldn't give him a chance.
Ming Shu had visited the Enchanted Pool Hall to blow off some steam, but then he just had to run into the chatty Du Hao.
Truthfully, Ming Shu did want to talk about what had happened. But it wasn't easy to talk to Du Hao about these things.
What was he supposed to say?
I fell in love with my ge, but he doesn't like me back. He only sees me as his di. What do I do?
Yeah, no. That kind of talk would scare Du Hao out of his wits.
Du Hao pestered Ming Shu for ages without getting any real answers. But once he was sure that Ming Shu's mood had nothing to do with Wen Yue and Ming Haofeng, he let out a breath of relief.
He clapped Ming Shu on the shoulder and said, "Don't sulk over nothing. We're almost third years. We have to focus on our entrance exams, right? Let go of everything else. You want to pursue your ge, don't you? Your ge got such good test scores. If you don't try hard, you won't get into his college."
Ming Shu's eyes flickered up as he listened.
There were two very different meanings of 'pursue'. The 'pursuit' that Du Hao spoke of was a different sort of pursuit than the one in Ming Shu's heart, the one that led to Ming Shu being rejected. But that word was still enough to poke at Ming Shu's wounded heart.
After their conversation at the pool hall, Du Hao invited everyone out to eat. But Ming Shu didn't accept the invitation, saying he had to go home to study and work on practice tests.
Du Hao stared at him for a moment.
Was Ming-ge already starting his pursuit?
Their third year of high school began in the blink of an eye. Ming Shu didn't contact Xiao Yu'an. The words Du Hao had spoken to him that day at the pool hall had given him a push—
Dwelling on whether or not he could pursue Xiao Yu'an now, romantically, was a waste of time. Ming Shu had never planned on courting Xiao Yu'an in high school, anyway.
His first priority was to get into the University of Public Security. He had to follow in Xiao Yu'an's footsteps. He would think about his next step after that.
He'd made a misstep over summer break, and now he had to take that step back. Ever since he was little, he hadn't had a lot of stability in his life. There wasn't much he dared to believe in.
But there was one thing he would never have to doubt:
Xiao Yu'an walked in front of him, and the road Ming Shu walked was the same one Xiao Yu'an had charted.
Xiao Yu'an was still in front of him now. He wasn't too far away for Ming Shu to see, to chase.
He wouldn't be able to run away.
Ming Shu had nothing to fear.