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Xiang Ning reached home earlier than usual today. Even before Xu Tingsheng had departed to pick her up, she had already entered the house herself.
Xu Tingsheng came out from the kitchen with the vegetables that he was washing, asking her what was up.
Xiang Ning said that she was slacking off, having taken leave from their last period, physical education.
Upon returning each week, she was usually always all smiles and bouncing about with energy, recounting to Xu Tingsheng all that had happened in school over the past week. Fun or boring, major or minor, she would still be chattering happily away regardless.
Yet, Miss Xiang was uncharacteristically silent this time.
She put her dirty clothes in the washing machine, did her homework, put her clothes out to dry and quietly ate dinner before continuing with her homework. Her lips were pressed together all throughout, whether because of stubbornness or a sense of aggrievedness or both.
When Xu Tingsheng was washing the dishes in the kitchen, Xiang Ning leaned against the door and asked, “I’ve finished my homework. Can I play the computer for a while?”
She had requested this in a piteous tone. Already basically able to deduce what the matter was, Xu Tingsheng hesitated for a moment before saying yes.
Xiang Ning went to the study. Distracted, Xu Tingsheng’s mind drifted away as his dish-washing speed fell greatly.
At some point in time, Xiang Ning had soundlessly snuck out of the study. She now hugged Xu Tingsheng from behind without prior warning.
There was a momentary silence.
“When are you going to not want me anymore, Xu Tingsheng? When will you be shooing me away?” Grabbing onto his apron from both sides, the person behind him was forcibly holding back tears as she asked softly, in a tone and manner that really...caused one’s heart to ache.
“I was actually going to ignore you today, to not come back to our home but return to my house instead,” Xiang Ning continued, “But I also couldn’t bear to do so. I also really missed you and very much wanted to come here. And then, after I came here, you still ended up ignoring me.”
Xu Tingsheng set the dishes down, washed his hands and turned back to hug the little girl, saying comfortingly, “How could I possibly not want you? I only didn’t say anything because I didn’t know what I should say and also felt a bit guilty. Ask me whatever you want to ask, and I’ll answer all of it, alright?”
Little Xiang Ning raised her head to look at him in his arms, a light mist visible over her eyes…
“When I was eating lunch in the cafeteria, many people were saying that Big Sis Apple has a boyfriend, that it’s even been announced. I very happily went over to ask them: Who is it? Who is it? I also wondered why Big Sis Apple didn’t even tell me about it. Then they said that the guy is called...Xu Tingsheng.”
“They were actually saying that you are Big Sis Apple’s boyfriend. How is that possible, right? I didn’t believe it at first. I felt that you are just good friends and everybody had misunderstood. But they all said that Big Sis Apple wrote this on Weibo herself, that everybody knew about it.”
“Then...I didn’t eat afterwards. I secretly went back to my dormitory room and cried for a while.”
“I wanted to call you at first, but then I was afraid that you would admit it outright and I wouldn’t even be able to come to look for you. So I went to attend lessons after I had finished crying before applying for leave and hurrying here straightaway, even if it’ll only mean… getting shooed away by you.”
Xiang Ning spoke of her excruciating afternoon, how she had forcibly reined in her sorrow and confusion as she thought that they definitely had to meet.
His heart aching and feeling guilty as well, Xu Tingsheng gently but forcefully kissed her forehead before cupping her cheeks and asking, “Did you look it up on the net earlier?”
Xiang Ning nodded, “Yeah.”
“You must have seen it too then. It was actually just a name. There was nothing about a boyfriend. Also, it was deleted very quickly.”
“But...that’s very strange too.”
“It was a little strange. That’s why I’m a bit bewildered too.”
“You’re bewildered too? Have you asked Big Sis Apple about it then? I wanted to ask, but I didn’t dare to call her number.”
“I did try calling her. I wanted to ask her about this, but her phone was turned off.”
“The situation now is like this,” Xu Tingsheng recounted the stances of Xingchen and Tianyi as well as he himself before adding, “I think that rather than me actually stepping forward to say something, it would probably still be better if Apple does so herself. I fear I may accidentally produce a ‘Absolutely no gold is buried underfoot at this very spot’, exacerbating the issue…”
“You’re also afraid of hurting Big Sis Apple by wrecking her image, making it seem like she’s a liar,” The ever-intelligent Xiang Ning guessed.
“That’s right,” Xu Tingsheng nodded, then continued, “But the person I’m more afraid of hurting is really you. So, I wanted to wait for you to come back to discuss this matter together with you, just like...a couple planning their everyday contingencies together.”
The slightly bashful Xiang Ning smiled despite her tears as she now asked, “Big Sis Apple likes you, doesn’t she?”
Xu Tingsheng was nonplussed by this bolt from the blue as Xiang Ning gazed straight into his eyes.
“She used to,” Xu Tingsheng said.
“Do you like her then?”
“When I knew her, I had already started coming over from far away to see you, giving you noodles, delivering dumplings to you, shamelessly getting close to you. You were merely fourteen then. So, who do you think I like? ...I like you.”
Xu Tingsheng’s answer was actually equivalent to sneakily maneuvering past this question.
Little Xiang Ning glanced doubtfully at him before making a mental calculation of times past.
She deduced an unoccupied period…
“Were the two of you in a relationship before? After we had met, the two of you were together before, right? Why did you break up then?”
Xu Tingsheng had no way of knowing how Miss Xiang had deduced this. Shock, panic, and an absolute resolve overcame him...he definitely could not reveal the truth here. Xu Tingsheng and Xiang Ning had actually already been very close during that period of time, both vaguely able to sense their feelings for each other.
How was Xu Tingsheng supposed to admit to the three months he had taken care of Apple for under those circumstances?
No, that would be too much of a sucker punch for their relationship, wrecking the happiness in Xiang Ning’s heart…
“Please tell me the truth. Don’t lie to me, okay? ...I may feel sad for a while, but I won’t blame you, really. My Mum and Dad were treating you that way then, and we couldn’t meet too. So, even if you entered a relationship then, it would actually be very normal. Su Nannan and her boyfriend did not enter the same senior high, so they broke up and found new people. It’s all really very normal. It would be unreasonable if I blamed you over something like that.”
As Xu Tingsheng hesitated, Xiang Ning gave him space, expressing her magnanimity and understanding.
Still, Xu Tingsheng ultimately chose to persist with his lie, “But really, nothing happened.”
Xiang Ning looked at him, “Really? I already said that I won’t blame you. Actually, I’m already very happy that you still want me.”
Xu Tingsheng laughed and replied, “Really, I know that you wouldn’t blame me. Still, it is true that nothing happened. You can’t force me to admit something where there’s nothing, right?”
“So…” Xiang Ning lowered her head in deep thought for a moment, “You’re being honest?”
“I’ll believe you then?”
“Right,” Xiang Ning nodded happily, patting her chest as tears slid down the arching corners of her mouth, “Wah, I was devastated and scared to death. I was so afraid that you wouldn’t want me anymore...Big Sis Apple is so beautiful, and she is a famous celebrity too. I would never be able to snatch you over her…”
Xu Tingsheng wiped her tears and smiled, telling her, “So long as you still want me, no one can possibly outsnatch you.”
As she considered this, Xiang Ning’s gaze suddenly changed slightly as she said earnestly, “In truth, I have many admirers too.”
Xu Tingsheng was momentarily taken aback before he understood and laughed, “I know, I know. Our Xiang Ning is so pretty and adorable. She definitely has many admirers. Luckily, shameless Uncle swooped fast...otherwise, he might not even have been able to get in the running.”
Xiang Ning was not happy at all to hear that as she pouted, exclaiming quite furiously, “Don’t you dare laugh! You make it sound like I’m boasting or something…”
“Huh?!” Xu Tingsheng panicked, “There really are?”
He really meant: There really are? In that case, I’ve got to fix’em, take up some precautions.
This was not what Xiang Ning heard, though. She felt like Xu Tingsheng’s stunned tone and expression clearly showed that he had totally disregarded and not believed her words earlier…
“Look at you, look at you...what do you mean there really are? So, you really didn’t believe it. Huh, you don’t know the words that I said most often in the past.”
“You guys stop fighting over me already. Any more of this and I’ll go tell teacher.”
Showing off unintentionally and matter-of-factly is the most fatal. These words...were actually some unholy status-bragging.
Girls who usually have the chance to say them have surely been the centre of attention since young, receiving the admiration of countless others...moreover, they were ‘most often said’ too.
Seeing Xu Tingsheng visibly stunned, Little Xiang Ning made a triumphant noise and feigned an emotional tone, saying, “Sigh, I really couldn’t stand those childish little boys...hey, what are you doing...don’t you laugh! ...Hey, why are you still laughing! It’s true...I really have many admirers!”
Miss Xiang got angry as the two started messing around for a bit. Xu Tingsheng hugged her to keep her from moving, keeping her trapped against the sofa as he undid his apron with his other hand.
“Alright, I believe you, I really do,” Xu Tingsheng said, “Now, how about we sit down together as a couple and discuss what exactly we should do about Apple’s Weibo post?”
Xiang Ning looked at him, “Didn’t you say it’d be better if Big Sis Apple says it herself?”
Xu Tingsheng hesitated for a moment before replying, “But she’s uncontactable at the moment.”
“We can just wait a couple more days then.”
“Huh? Is that fine?”
“It’s fine! Why would it not be? I’m fine with it, so everything’s fine. We don’t have to care about anyone else,” Xiang Ning paused before switching her tone, “I’ve thought about it. The methods you talked about and you saying something on Weibo would actually all hurt Big Sis Apple who is a public figure. Also, I’ve already snatched away the person she likes...I don’t want to hurt her any more than that.”
“It’s fine if I just suffer a little. I, I can just get back at you by bullying you.”
It could actually be seen from her face how she was feeling wronged. Xu Tingsheng brought the benevolent, magnanimous girl into his embrace, hugging her tightly.
“How are you going to bully me then?” He asked.
“Hm...send me to school on Sunday night. Also, you can’t drive. You always hide inside the car. They all think that the one sending me over every week is my Dad. Also, I want to hold...hold your clothes. Everyone else’s boyfriends send them over, and they’re all holding hands...I’ll simply be holding your sleeve...is that okay?”
In truth, Xu Tingsheng had always been hiding the relationship between him and Xiang Ning as much as possible in Yanzhou save with close friends. This was to protect her as she grew up. Thus, he was always very careful about this as Xiang Ning’s protests were simply overruled.
Still, faced with these wronged, pleading eyes, Xu Tingsheng’s heart ached. He knew why Xiang Ning was currently requesting this of him. Having to hide her boyfriend, it was still fine if a bit pitiful normally. Yet, when the entire school was talking about the relationship between Xu Tingsheng and Apple now, she really needed to raise her own morale. She would refuse unhappily to talk about it usually while harrumphing to herself: Xu Tingsheng’s clearly here in my clutches...otherwise, she would really feel too aggrieved.
“Okay,” Xu Tingsheng agreed.
“Yeah,” Xiang Ning nodded happily but was not super excited as she furtively cast Xu Tingsheng a sidelong glance before stammering, “Also…”
“Also,” Xiang Ning clenched her teeth and opened up her arms, “Lift me up...horizontally…to the room...yours...place me on the bed…”
Xu Tingsheng did as per her instructions.
“Bully me, Xu Tingsheng,” Lying on his bed, Little Xiang Ning suddenly said bravely and resolutely as she looked at him.
“...” Xu Tingsheng was unable to respond to that.
“I’m serious this time. I’ll really give it to you.”
There was the sound of swallowing saliva.
Xiang Ning closed her eyes, “Come on.”
She opened her eyes again, “What’s the matter?”
Xu Tingsheng forced a smile, “I’d like to ask-what’s with you?”
“I, I want you to like me more.”
Xiang Ning looked at Xu Tingsheng, explaining, “If you bully me, Xu Tingsheng, will you like me more then? Even if it’s only a little more, I’d be willing...”
Xu Tingsheng’s heart felt like it was about to dissolve.
“I was afraid today, afraid that you had lied to me, afraid that you’d run off with someone else. Xu Tingsheng, you’ve been by my side for very long. Only today when I thought I was gonna lose you did I realise that I’ve long since grown used to and come to like having you with me.”
“My heart wants to contain you, my mind wants to think about you, my hands want to hold yours, my mouth wants to kiss yours.”
“My nose smells your scent, my ears hear you.”
“My eyes take photographs of you, my feet walk towards you.”
“If you went away, Little Xiang Ning wouldn’t know what to do. I feel like I might even die.”
There could not be nothings sweeter than this. Xu Tingsheng felt as if he would dissolve.
“So I’d like you to like me a little more. I think, I just thought you may if I let you bully me."
Xiang Ning regained her bashfulness. She was already seventeen, tall and thin, beguiling. A seventeen-year-old girl saying such things in such a manner-it was actually very hard to resist.
Yet, under such circumstances, Xu Tingsheng just couldn’t.
She had been rejected, and yet Uncle’s words seemed to make perfect sense. Miss Xiang could only give up on her ‘sacrifice’ for now. Concealing her embarrassment with rage, she hassled Xu Tingsheng for a long time…
Fighting on the bed, the two ended up in a tangle.
Xiang Ning flipped over and landed on Xu Tingsheng. Suddenly...she stopped, and looked at him.
A hint of slyness flashing across her eyes, feeling as if she could finally get back at him, Miss Xiang deliberately emphasised, “Someone was still all righteous and justified earlier. He even said that he didn’t want to, and...say, what’s with this then?”
For surety’s sake, she moved and indicated where she was referring to. Then...she was shell shocked as she froze.
Feeling that some things already no longer had to be hidden with Xiang Ning being seventeen and all, Xu Tingsheng said very blatantly, “Whatever do you mean? It’s a normal reaction.”
Xiang Ning hesitated for a while before leaning over and whispering into his ear, “Are you suffering then? Do you, do you need...me to help you?”
“You know how to?!”
“Who taught you?”
“Big Sis Ye Qing. On our third night in Chengdu...I slept with her. She asked me if you really haven’t done anything to me. I said yes. She said you’re pretty pitiful then. Then, she, she...took out a banana.”
Xu Tingsheng smiled and shook his head, exclaiming, “That Ye Qing, really…”
He suddenly realised something, “Did you say, the third night in Chengdu?”
Xiang Ning felt puzzled as to his enquiry but still replied honestly, “Yeah.”
“Are you sure?”
Xiang Ning thought about it, “Yeah.”
Xu Tingsheng could be certain about something else regarding that third night in Chengdu. He was certain that Tan Yao had taken the room card to one of the big double rooms that day, not having stayed in the suite. Also, having finished his ‘tools’, he had borrowed two from Old Wai. That being so...how could Ye Qing have stayed with Xiang Ning?
“Was anyone not in your suite that night?” Xu Tingsheng asked.
Xiang Ning thought intently on this, “Big Sis Fang Chen. She said a classmate asked her out to play.”
Xu Tingsheng thought: The heck, what’s up with this...
Xiang Ning asked, “Is there something wrong?”
Xu Tingsheng hesitated for a moment before answering, “No, I was just curious. Ye Qing looks so respectable, so I thought it must have been someone else who taught you.”
He had dodged the question, and as for what exactly was up here, he could only speculate for the time being.
Actually, even if this was certain, Xu Tingsheng would still have no way of talking to Xiang Ning about it. In fact, it was not just Xiang Ning to whom this was hard to raise. Even Tan Yao...could outsiders get involved in matters like these?
“Oh,” Xiang Ning looked to be quite intrigued as she ventured, “Then…”
“Then what? Off to bed.”
“You...huh, fine...I won’t agree even if you beg me next time. Also, no buying bananas at home.”
“What’s this got to do with bananas?”
“Humph! I hate bananas.”
Apple completely relaxed herself for three days in Hawaii. She would get up in the morning and go for a run before lazily basking in the sun for the entire day. At night, she would watch some local performances with their unique flavours. All in all, she was in a pretty much comfortable state.
She forced herself not to think about it.
Awaiting the result.
Unbeknownst to Apple, Li Juan had secretly paid attention to the situation back in the country for the first two days. She had found that Xu Tingsheng, Tianyi and Xingchen had not reacted to this matter in any way as things seemed to be going down the path of gradually dying down just like that…
This was somewhat out of her expectations.
If Apple would habitually think non-stop about things that she could not accept and get over, Li Juan’s habit was much better as she would generally just not think about them. She turned off her phone completely as well, accompanying Apple in relaxing on vacation.
On their fourth evening in Hawaii, after disembarking a yacht, they heard two girls discussing something near the wharf.
“Have you heard the new single Apple released today?”
“Not yet, but I will later. Is it good?”
“Of course! That’s Apple, alright? The quality’s guaranteed as always.”
“Well, that’s true. Right, what’s the new song called?”
Apple and Li Juan exchanged glances, both momentarily shaken. The release of a new single-it logically concerned the two of them the most, but they had actually both forgotten about it.
Over a month ago, the company had already decided on today’s date for this song’s release.
While Apple wasn’t around now, her new single was still released as per their original schedule.
How could Tianyi possibly not capitalise on this opportunity?
This <> should originally have appeared in Apple’s first album. Still, seeing as there was already an abundance of sorrowful songs in that album, the company had left it for later to try and holistically round things out.
In releasing this song as a single now, the company’s considerations were that it was difficult to collect songs for Apple’s new album due to the quality of her previous one having been too high. While they could not rush things, they should also release songs to maintain her popularity...and so they were using this single as a stopgap of sorts.
One would be mistaken to say that Apple had not had singing this for Xu Tingsheng in mind...of course, the underlying meaning should only be understandable by the two of them in the original plan.
Yet, the current situation seemed a little wrong somehow.
The appearance of this song, along with that Weibo post from a few days back, perfectly came together to construct the following sentence: What more do you want me to do, Xu Tingsheng?
One’s mind could not help but make wander at that. Many would even feel that these two were self-evidently and indisputably connected...
“Sis, we’re done for. I’ve got to post a clarification on Weibo right away,” Apple said panickedly.
Li Juan sighed, “If you post it now...who would still believe it?! We’ve really sparked a bushfire this time.”
Just as Apple worried.
<> went viral.
More viral was: What more do you want me to do, Xu Tingsheng?
Even as fans and netizens alike erupted mightily.
Cheers could be heard throughout all of Tianyi as they were all but going to open the champagne bottles to celebrate. If this had been an intentional manipulation...it would be classified grandmaster grade without question. No conceivable arrangement could have been more subtle, more effective, more bedazzling in raising those popularity levels.
As a result of Apple’s influence, coupled with Xu Tingsheng, coupled with the divine might of ‘gossip’, this song was possibly being enthusiastically heard and discussed by upward of ten million people across the entire country right now.
Xu Tingsheng too was listening to it, helplessly, bemusedly…
“Could this really have been an intentional manipulation? But it’s Apple! That’s impossible!”
While feeling dismal, he was not infuriated.
Yet, at the very same moment, somebody else who was listening to this song was hopping mad.
The handsome, elegant middle-aged man stood up and flung the cup in his hand on the ground.
His assistant entered the room.
“I’m surnamed Cen.”
“Yes, Mister Cen…”
Cen Xishan drew in a breath to ease his emotions before saying, “Go, bring over the materials that I asked you to gather last time.”
His assistant snuck a glance at him, asking a little timidly, “Sorry, may I ask if you are referring to…”
“The one concerning that person called Xu Tingsheng.”
“Yes, I’ll go fetch it right away.”
His assistant strode briskly towards the door.
“Wait,” Cen Xishan said, “Make a copy before you bring it over. Then, you lot convene a meeting with that copy. Come up with a proposal for suppressing all Xu Tingsheng’s industries as quickly as possible and show it to me.”
An all-out suppression of all the industries of a commercial black horse? Why? An irreconcilable conflict of interest? A personal grudge?
Despite being taken aback, the assistant immediately checked himself. This was not something that he needed to know or enquire about. He simply had to fulfil his duties as were asked of him.
The assistant left the room.
Cen Xishan looked at the MV that was playing on the screen…
“It’s okay, Xiyu. Leave it to Dad.”
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