Upon receiving Ming Shu's text, Xiao Yu'an had instantly taken the rest of the day off and rushed to the airport.
The airport was crowded, but the orange sportswear Ming Shu had donned was extremely eye-catching. Xiao Yu'an spotted him right away.
The youth was sitting by himself on a long bench, sticking to the very edge. His silver suitcase sat in front of him, and he held a backpack that had been squashed flat under his right arm.
The crowd in the airport flowed around him. Boarding information was announced over the intercom system. Ming Shu sat with his head bowed, looking down at his cell phone. His hair had been styled with copious amounts of hair gel. It stood up in a youthful, spirited style, with a flashy hair clip adorning one side.
But no matter how spirited Ming Shu's hair looked, the boy himself was clearly down in the dumps.
Xiao Yu'an originally wanted to go over to him, but what could he possibly say if he did go over there?
Things had been awkward between the two of them. At home, Ming Shu avoided him. He spoke politely. In the past, he would strip down to his underwear before running into the bathroom for a shower. But now, he always dressed and undressed in the bathroom.
As the gege, Xiao Yu'an should have experienced a great deal more than Ming Shu. If Ming Shu wanted to throw a tantrum, Xiao Yu'an should have calmly explained things to him and resolved the problem as he normally would have.
But this time, things weren't so simple.
That night, Ming Shu had sobbed while he confessed, talking and acting like a completely irrational child. And Xiao Yu'an couldn't just ignore that child. He couldn't just let him suffer.
Ming Shu had said a lot that night. It was obvious that some of his words only came from a place of anger, but some came from his heart.
That was the first time Xiao Yu'an had ever felt at a loss when rejecting someone's confession. At the time, he only had one thing on his mind. He wanted to comfort Ming Shu, he wanted to get him to calm down and stop crying. They could talk about everything later, once they'd both calmed down.
But Ming Shu had lifted his head and said, Ge, you told me I could cry. You told me to listen to gege.
Those words had stung the softest part of Xiao Yu'an's heart. His heart felt almost swollen, and the totally foreign sensation rendered him motionless for a moment, freezing him in place.
He'd never felt so conflicted, so trapped.
Yes, it was true. Years ago, he had been the one who told Ming Shu it was okay to cry when he felt bad or wronged. He'd told Ming Shu to listen to his gege, to cry.
Ming Shu felt bad now. He felt wronged.
So what right did Xiao Yu'an have to pass him some tissues and tell him not to cry?
Things between them remained frozen in that awkward, uncomfortable state. Human emotions were unpredictable, and at times even unfathomable.
When Xiao Yu'an first perceived Ming Shu's feelings for him, he'd thought he could handle the situation the way he'd handled all his previous admirers. He thought he could offer a rational and appropriate rejection.
But as soon as their conversation started, everything spiraled out of control.
Ming Shu wasn't just his admirer. He was the didi Xiao Yu'an had loved and cherished for over ten years. He'd watched Ming Shu grow up, stumbling and struggling over all the bumps in his rocky life.
When Ming Shu hurt, Xiao Yu'an hurt as well.
After that fateful night, Xiao Yu'an tried to talk to Ming Shu about these feelings several times. But Ming Shu didn't want to hear it.
Of course, Xiao Yu'an understood. Ming Shu was upset, and he was ashamed.
Xiao Yu'an didn't think there was anything Ming Shu needed to be ashamed of. Ming Shu had cried until his face was streaky with snot and tears that night, and in the end Xiao Yu'an had had to lead him into the bathroom to wash up. All Xiao Yu'an had felt was that stuffy, swollen feeling in his chest. Whether or not Ming Shu was an ugly crier, whether or not he'd done something to lose face—Xiao Yu'an didn't care about any of that.
After giving Ming Shu some time to calm down, Xiao Yu'an had calmed down as well. He wanted to pick up their conversation again, but Ming Shu told him he wasn't going to stay in the capital any longer. He was going home.
That was fine. Going back and putting some distance between them wasn't necessarily a bad thing. It would perhaps be better than seeing each other every day with such heavy emotions weighing on their hearts. Besides, school would start for Ming Shu in August, and Ming Shu was going to be a third year. He couldn't afford to waste time on matters of love.
Xiao Yu'an had gone through the experience of his third year of high school already. He put Ming Shu first, above all else. This issue couldn't be allowed to interfere with Ming Shu's future.
But they'd agreed that Xiao Yu'an would drive Ming Shu to the airport after lunch that day, and Ming Shu had still run off on his own. It was a good thing he'd at least remembered to send a text.
Xiao Yu'an watched Ming Shu from afar for a while. Eventually, he dismissed the idea of going over to sit with Ming Shu for a while.
Ming Shu was going to be an adult soon. He had to learn how to process his own emotions. Xiao Yu'an wouldn't be able to help him if he went over there now; he would probably only have gotten Ming Shu all worked up again.
But Xiao Yu'an didn't leave the airport until he watched Ming Shu go through the security checkpoint. Ming Shu stood in line like a little tree, with his plane ticket clenched between his teeth. After Ming Shu passed through security, Xiao Yu'an finally turned and left.
There was no end to the missions Xiao Yu'an's team received. After returning to work, Xiao Yu'an's mind lingered on Ming Shu for days on end. When his team's next mission came, he geared up and set out. No matter how much he thought of Ming Shu, he had to put his work first.
Although it was summer break, the campus of First High was pretty lively. Last year's third years, who'd just graduated, came back to volunteer around the school. The students who lived nearby came out to play basketball. And the most diligent soon-to-be third years asked their teachers for classroom keys; they started coming back to school as early as July to lead their own study sessions.
When Ming Shu wandered into a classroom with two cups of milk tea in his hands and his backpack slung over a shoulder, he drew everyone's attention—even though there were only a few students in the classroom at the time.
Ming Shu minded his own business and made his way over to his own desk in the back row. He took out a paper towel and started wiping down his desk.
"Ming-ge!" The representative from the math class was a busybody with a bowl cut. Everyone was shocked by Ming Shu's arrival, and he was the first to come back to his senses. "Wh-wh-what are you doing here?"
"Studying." Ming Shu tossed away the used paper towel, then grabbed another sheet. "Same as you."
All the other kids in the room were known as hardworking students on the science track, but Ming Shu wasn't like them. In his entire high school career, he'd never demonstrated anything close to 'diligence' when it came to his studies.
The math rep and the other curious students exchanged looks with one another before someone asked, "You study too?"
Ming Shu tsked. "Am I not allowed to study?"
"No, no! Of course you can study, Ming-ge!" the math rep said. "I was just curious…"
"Go do your own work." Ming Shu wasn't in a good mood, and he didn't really want to talk to anyone. "We'll all be third years soon. Worry more about your own studies."
After receiving an inexplicable scolding from their class's big ge, the math rep turned back to his own work, baffled.
The other students didn't stay curious for long, either. After they whispered to one another for a short while, the classroom fell silent again.
Although Ming Shu was a fierce fighter who liked to act cold and aloof sometimes, he didn't use his imposing aura to intimidate his classmates for no reason. He got along with the studious students in his class, and he got along with the delinquents. The girls all said he was cute when he smiled.
After cleaning up his desk, Ming Shu took out his books and placed them neatly on his table. Then, after pondering for a moment, he decided to start with physics.
He'd bought all these study guides earlier that day. Ming Shu had a decent foundation, and he was pretty smart. His test scores always depended on whether or not he put in the effort to study beforehand.
Doing mass amounts of practice problems was most beneficial for people like him. After running through dozens of questions, the results were evident in his rapidly rising practice test scores.
It was a hot afternoon. The cicadas buzzed noisily outside the window. Ming Shu found them annoying at first, but after burying himself in his study problems, he couldn't hear them anymore.
At five in the evening, Ming Shu finished checking his own answers. He tossed his pen onto his desk and stretched, and it was then that he realized the bowl cut math rep and some other students were staring at him again.
"What the—" He laughed as he swore. "What are you looking at?"
"Ming-ge, what exactly happened to you?" the math rep asked. "Did you have some sort of life-changing encounter?"
The math rep looked genuinely concerned. Ming Shu was fearsome in serious fights, but he was particularly sensitive to people who were kind to him. Whenever someone treated him well, his heart softened. He couldn't bring himself to treat them badly in return.
"It's nothing. I just feel like my foundations aren't strong enough, and I want to work harder. I want to get into a good university too."
This time, he gave a sincere answer, unlike the dismissive ones he'd thrown out earlier.
The math rep was instantly moved. "Then if there's anything you don't understand, you can ask me anytime! I'm not good at anything else, but I'm great at math. I can definitely explain anything you don't get!"
Ming Shu smiled. "Thanks."
They all had dinner together that night, then returned to the classroom to continue studying.
When he had some time to take a break, Ming Shu suddenly remembered that the bowl cut math rep had been bullied by kids from another class during their first year of high school. Ming Shu had intervened, which wasn't that big of a deal to him. But the math rep had remembered it all this time.
Ming Shu didn't know if it was because of that memory or if it was because he'd been working on practice problems all day. Either way, the tension and anxiety that had weighed on his mind seemed to have lightened a little.
He had to keep moving forward. He had to run faster.
One week later, the incoming third years reported in for the start of their school year, and First High became even more lively. Ming Shu tried his very best not to think of the rejection he'd received; he focused all his efforts on bringing up his grades and test scores.
At the end of August, the third years had a big mock exam to evaluate their progress. Then came their parent-teacher conferences. But the meetings this year weren't like the meetings of any other year; these would be more like a pep rally, meant to boost the students' morale.
Ming Shu hesitated for a long while before he called Ming Haofeng.
When Ming Shu had been in elementary school, Ming Haofeng and Wen Yue never attended his parent-teacher meetings. But ever since Ming Shu entered high school, his parents had reconciled and even started living together. They hadn't missed a parent-teacher meeting since.
But Ming Shu didn't really want them to come to his parent-teacher meetings anymore.
Ming Haofeng asked what time the meeting would be, saying he would definitely attend.
Ming Shu didn't care, either way.
On the day of the parent-teacher conference, Ming Haofeng really did show up. Ming Shu's homeroom teacher praised him, saying he'd done brilliantly on his mock exam. His teacher boasted of how hard Ming Shu had worked all through August and said there would be greater challenges coming, so Ming Shu would have to continue working hard.
Ming Shu didn't go into the school building, and he didn't go back to his dorm either. He went into the third years' auxiliary building and continued to study by himself. After the parent-teacher meeting, Ming Haofeng gave him a call and said there was something he wanted to talk about.
Ming Shu went to meet him.
The father and son walked around the campus together. Ming Haofeng seemed to be in a fairly good mood. He asked some things about Ming Shu's studies, and Ming Shu answered each question curtly and coldly.
When they reached the fountain, Ming Haofeng suddenly stopped. His tone became much more serious. "I've discussed it with your mother," he said. "We'd like you to study business. When you were little, you didn't want to go abroad. But you've grown up now. You should understand the benefits of studying overseas.
"But if you still don't want to go, we won't force you. You can major in business management at a university here. Spend two years studying first. Then, if you want to go abroad, we'll make the arrangements."
The fountain was noisy. With the sound of the spray filling his ears, Ming Shu turned away and tightly furrowed his brow.
His facial features had grown sharp and well-defined, but he was still a teenager, still somewhat delicate. But his eyes were sharp and steady; they didn't dart all over the place.
"What I study, what I do," Ming Shu said, "is something I'll decide for myself."
Ming Haofeng wasn't as ill-tempered as he used to be, but it was still difficult for him to accept the cold defiance of his only son. As soon as he heard Ming Shu's words, his face stiffened. "We've already paved this road for you!"
Ming Shu smiled icily. "What makes you think I want anything to do with the road you paved?"
Ming Haofeng had obviously been prepared for this. He did his best to suppress his rage. "I don't want to fight with you. As a parent, it's impossible for me to harm my own child. You should understand by now. Your teacher says that you've been working hard at your studies, that you want to score high marks on your entrance exams.
"You take your time and calm down. The choices I've made for you are the best ones. You'll understand."
"That's not necessary," Ming Shu said.
"Not necessary?" Ming Haofeng echoed.
"I mean, it isn't necessary for me to think about it," Ming Shu stated with an edge of contempt in his voice. "I decided on my path a long time ago. I don't need you two to stick your nose into my business. There's nothing you can do to interfere. I won't study business.
"I'm going to do the same as my ge. I'm going to the University of Public Security."