After the car drove away, peace returned to the street. The taillights grew dimmer and dimmer, eventually being swallowed up by the dark and fully disappearing around a bend.
Xiao Yu'an stood in the doorway. He stared at the retreating lights, somewhat spaced out until he heard Xiao Jincheng's voice. It was only then that he realized he was starting to get cold.
Snow fell intermittently during those winter months. Xiao Yu'an had been so focused on getting Ming Shu dressed and bringing down his luggage that he'd forgotten to grab a coat for himself.
Xiao Jincheng came up to him, looking surprised. "What happened? Who took the little sprout away?"
Ming Shu hadn't been a little sprout in a very long time; he was taller than most boys his age. But Xiao Jincheng had gotten used to calling him that, and he was too lazy to change his ways.
The commotion had woken up the entire Xiao family. All the lights in the house had gone on. Xiao Mu'ting tossed a coat to Xiao Yu'an and said, "Put it on."
Everything had happened so suddenly. Ming Shu wasn't the only one who had been caught off guard; Xiao Yu'an had been totally unprepared as well. None of them could have seen it coming before his grandpa came upstairs with Ming Shu's parents, saying that Ming Shu's maternal grandfather had passed away and that Ming Shu would have to go attend the memorial service and see his other grandfather one last time.
Xiao Yu'an had subconsciously looked at Ming Shu as soon as they received the news. Ming Shu had definitely heard everything, but he'd stayed in bed with his hands fisted in the covers. He'd only stared blankly at Wen Yue, like he was incapable of processing what he'd just heard.
Wen Yue said they were leaving right away, but still Ming Shu didn't move. Xiao Yu'an had been the one to get Ming Shu out of bed, telling him to get dressed. Ming Shu only looked at him and softly called out, "Gege."
There wasn't a chance to say much in a situation like that. Xiao Yu'an simply picked up Ming Shu's clothes and helped him get dressed.
Ming Shu didn't move to help at all, only letting Xiao Yu'an move his limbs and dress him.
Throughout the years, Xiao Yu'an had helped Ming Shu get dressed plenty of times. Whenever he hit a ticklish spot, Ming Shu would giggle softly. If Xiao Yu'an was in a rush, sometimes Ming Shu's arm would get caught or his shirt would get tangled around his neck, and Ming Shu would scrunch up his face and say, "Gege, you're hurting me."
But this time, Ming Shu was silent. He'd never been this quiet before.
For a long time after Ming Shu left, Xiao Yu'an was left with a complicated feeling in his heart.
Wen Yue had stood at his bedroom door, incessantly telling them to hurry up. Ming Haofeng stood outside with Xiao Yu'an's grandpa, talking about how things were for Ming Shu at home.
It was the first time Xiao Yu'an had been faced with a situation like this. He also felt like he was floundering. After getting Ming Shu dressed, he pushed him towards the door. But Ming Shu grabbed hold of his hand and looked up at him, his eyes wide and helpless.
"Gege," he whispered again.
At that time, Xiao Yu'an thought Ming Shu had grabbed onto him because he was devastated by the news of his grandfather's passing. Xiao Yu'an uttered a few comforting words, then spotted Ming Shu's little suitcase and went to pick it up.
The suitcase was full of the clothes Ming Shu had packed for their trip to the ocean. But now, Ming Shu had no choice but to take that suitcase with him to his grandfather's memorial service.
When they all went downstairs, Ming Shu moved woodenly, like a puppet. Xiao Yu'an called out to him a few times, but Ming Shu didn't respond.
Wen Yue dragged Ming Shu out the door and into the waiting car. It was only then that Ming Shu turned back to Xiao Yu'an, jerking abruptly as though trying to free himself. But Wen Yue's grip was tight.
Before long, Ming Haofeng nodded to Xiao Yu'an's grandfather, then quickly moved up to join his wife and son. He put an arm around Ming Shu's shoulders, completely blocking his view of the Xiao family's house.
Xiao Yu'an had met Ming Haofeng and Wen Yue before. But this was the first time he had seen the two of them gathered around Ming Shu, holding his hand or hugging him.
It should have been a heartwarming sight, to see a pair of parents guiding their child along. But there was something about this sight that struck Xiao Yu'an as somewhat cold and cruel. Ming Shu and his parents were like a photograph that had been torn apart and forcibly taped back together.
When Wen Yue shoved Ming Shu into the car so roughly, Xiao Yu'an couldn't help but furrow his brows. He nearly shouted, Hey! What are you doing?
Before the car door closed, Ming Shu called out one more time: "Gege!"
His voice was soft, but full of panic and confusion.
But it was already too late for Xiao Yu'an to respond.
"What should we do about tomorrow?" Xiao Jinlan asked. "Should we wait for Ming Shu to get back?"
"Haofeng told me just now," Xiao Zhengyun said. "The Wen family's memorial service won't go by so quickly. Ming Shu won't be back until after New Year's."
Even Xiao Jincheng, who usually loved tormenting Ming Shu, looked miserable. "The little sprout must hate this."
"All of you, go back to bed," Xiao Zhengyun said. "You'll all have to learn how to face these things eventually."
Those words made all the kids fall silent.
Growing up meant their family members would get older, one by one. And one by one, they would depart.
Xiao Jinlan gave Xiao Zhengyun a big hug. "You're not allowed to talk like that," she chided. "You'll live to be well over a hundred."
Xiao Zhengyun smiled. "Okay, okay. Whatever you say, my precious granddaughter."
Xiao Yu'an sat in the living room for a while. He was the last to go back upstairs, and he couldn't fall asleep even after lying in bed for a long while. In the end, he got back up and started cleaning his room.
He hadn't been able to think clearly earlier, but now he realized. When Ming Shu had held his hand so tightly, he had wanted Xiao Yu'an to hold him back.
The passing of a relative was a sad occasion. But Xiao Yu'an understood Ming Shu, and he understood the Ming family's situation. Ming Shu used to miss his parents, but that longing had already turned into resentment. Ming Shu had guarded his heart against his parents. He surely still felt something for the grandmother and grandfather he lived with, but he'd never met his maternal grandfather. How could he foster any familial feelings for a stranger?
Ming Shu's stupor probably hadn't been caused by the news of his grandfather's passing. It was more likely that it had been due to his long-awaited trip to the ocean ending before it ever got a chance to begin.
Xiao Yu'an knew, better than anyone, how much Ming Shu had looked forward to this trip.
But Ming Shu had been dragged away so abruptly, all for the sake of attending the memorial service of a 'stranger'.
Xiao Yu'an glanced over at his own suitcase. Just a short while ago, there had been another suitcase there. Gradually, his gaze grew heavy and gloomy. He generally avoided judging Ming Shu's parents, and he had never said anything bad about Wen Yue or Ming Haofeng to Ming Shu.
But, in that moment, he felt like he'd witnessed an injustice.
Ming Shu's mother and father had never fulfilled their duties as parents to him. Especially Wen Yue, who hadn't come back to see Ming Shu in over two years.
But now they expected Ming Shu to do his duty as their son.
Of course, Ming Shu should have gone to his grandfather's memorial service. But couldn't his parents have shown some consideration for Ming Shu's feelings? How could they drag him out of the house and throw him into a car like that? Couldn't they have at least listened to what Ming Shu had to say?
Ming Shu wasn't an unreasonable child. Although he had been spoiled by Xiao Yu'an over these past few years, and could be a bit of a brat sometimes, he surely would have gone if Wen Yue had calmly told him, Your maternal grandfather has passed away. I know you're keen to go on a trip with your gege, but will you come with me to the memorial service this time?
Of course Ming Shu would have been reluctant. But he would have gone.
Wen Yue, however, hadn't done anything of the sort.
Ming Shu's family, his relatives, had never given him a sense of stability or belonging. Xiao Yu'an opened a drawer and found two bracelets inside. One pink, one mint green. Both were a little old and worn by now.
Those were the first gifts Xiao Yu'an had given Ming Shu, and they were the first gifts Ming Shu had ever received in his life. Some time later, Ming Shu had placed those bracelets in Xiao Yu'an's drawer. When Xiao Yu'an asked why, Ming Shu had said it was because they were precious and he had to hide them somewhere safe.
To Ming Shu, his own home—his own house—wasn't safe.
Xiao Lanyue came to pick up the kids early the next morning. It was only then that he heard about Ming Shu being taken away so abruptly. For a while, he looked as helpless as Xiao Yu'an had felt last night.
The trip started poorly, and Xiao Yu'an's mood never improved. Although his maternal grandpa's house was lively on New Year's Eve, Xiao Yu'an couldn't get into the festivities, and he didn't stop thinking about Ming Shu. He didn't even set off firecrackers with the others. Instead, he retreated to the balcony and gazed out at the slow, rolling tide of the sea.
His maternal grandpa joined him after a while. "You guys… ah, you're still young," he said. "You take everything to heart. When you're older, you'll understand. You'll accept these things, and you'll learn how to let nature take its course. Little Shu couldn't make it this year, so why don't you just bring him next year? If next year doesn't work, then the year after that. Your grandpa will wait right here for you both."
Xiao Yu'an lifted his head and looked at his grandpa. The old man had a head of white hair that shone a silvery gray in the pale moonlight.
The weight in Xiao Yu'an's heart gradually lightened. He spread his arms and gave his grandpa a hug.
For as long as Xiao Yu'an could remember, he'd visited his maternal grandpa every year. Many years ago, his grandpa was still spry and active. He would take Xiao Yu'an and Xiao Jinlan running on the beach. But now, his grandpa had aged. Even taking more than a few steps could make him short of breath.
What his paternal grandpa had said, back at the house, was right. They would have to learn how to face these things one day. They would have to accept this sort of inevitable parting. But Xiao Yu'an hoped these partings wouldn't come for a long, long while.
The Wen family was a large clan, and their funeral proceedings went on for seven days. Ming Shu finally saw his maternal grandfather, for the first time, when he laid eyes on the man's memorial photograph.
Joss sticks burned, and the ashes of the offerings of paper money flew through the air. The suitcase that Ming Shu had spent half a month packing was lost by Wen Yue. All his New Year's clothes were gone.
But he wouldn't have been able to wear those colorful clothes at a funeral, anyway. People he didn't recognize made him put on mourning clothes, and Ming Shu didn't protest. But his eyes gradually grew gloomier and gloomier.
The suitcase that had been lost contained a gift he'd planned on giving to his gege. Last year, Ming Shu had represented his class in a crafts competition. With his prize money, he'd bought an ornate dagger for his gege.
The first gift Ming Shu had ever received were the bracelets his gege had brought back from the ocean. And so, Ming Shu had hidden the dagger from his gege all this time, waiting for the opportunity to give him a gift when they reached the ocean together.
But now, the dagger was gone.