Xiao Yu'an stayed at home for a few days. He didn't manage to get much done. He passed by the Ming family's courtyard every day, looking up at the second floor. And every day, Ming Shu's window remained closed.
Xiao Lanyue hadn't simply reassured his son and forgotten all about his worries. The day before yesterday, he went to talk to Ming Haofeng in an attempt to better understand Ming Shu's situation.
The two fathers were close in age, and they'd known each other as kids. They weren't complete strangers, but they weren't the best of friends either. Xiao Lanyue and Ming Haofeng were very different people, and they'd each kept their own circle of friends when they were young.
Ming Haofeng couldn't possibly address Xiao Lanyue with the same attitude he'd taken with Xiao Yu'an. The two men exchanged small talk for a while before Xiao Lanyue extended an olive branch.
He said Xiao Yu'an and the other kids of the Xiao family all lacked a didi. When they met Ming Shu, they'd naturally thought he was something rare and precious. The kids had started treating Ming Shu as their own little brother, like he was a member of their own family. They might not have always watched what they said or how they behaved around Ming Shu, and as a result may have been bad influences.
After hearing Xiao Lanyue say all that, Ming Haofeng knew it wasn't appropriate for him to remain so harsh and unforgiving. He gave his own concession and said kids were just immature, and adults had to be understanding.
It was only then that Xiao Lanyue asked how Ming Shu was doing. Ming Haofeng simply replied that the boy had been taught a lesson, that he'd admitted his wrongdoings, and that he was staying home now because he didn't feel like going out.
Half-jokingly, but half-seriously, Xiao Lanyue asked, "A lesson? You didn't beat him, did you?"
Ming Haofeng frowned. "Wen Yue has lifted a hand before. I haven't."
Xiao Lanyue nodded. "When it comes to boys, you see, you have to talk to them. Reason with them, make them understand. Just hitting them isn't okay. You think you can hit them now, but when they grow up, you won't be able to beat them. What then?"
Ming Haofeng only hummed. His expression was inscrutable.
Xiao Lanyue wasn't in a position where he could say too much. He patted Ming Haofeng on the shoulder and added, smiling, "I'm just asking on behalf of that son of mine. He's the sort who won't talk to me even when he's worried about something. It isn't my place, as an outsider, to interfere with your family matters. But the bond between a parent and child is precious. The sooner you make peace with your kid, the better."
Ming Haofeng looked like he wanted to say something else, but in the end he held it back. He only said, "Ming Shu is fine. He'll just sulk for a while, like a child."
"Alright," Xiao Lanyue said. "It's rare for you to be home, so be sure to spend some more time with him. Build that father-son relationship of yours a bit."
After going home, Xiao Lanyue told Xiao Yu'an about what he'd heard from Ming Haofeng.
Xiao Yu'an lowered his head. It was a long while before he said, "I got it."
People often tried to escape from their troubles and their more complicated emotions.
The realization of his own powerlessness had brought Xiao Yu'an some pain. He was seventeen years old. At school, there was nothing he couldn't do. But in the world of adults, his power was meaningless.
With his abilities and his position in life, there was almost nothing he could do for Ming Shu.
So each day, when he heard no noise from the Ming family's house, he had to tell himself that Ming Shu had already made peace with his parents. Their relationship would improve, slowly but surely. They would just need to take their time.
A few days later, Xiao Jincheng came up to his room and told him that Xia Zhong was looking for him downstairs.
Xiao Yu'an was a bit surprised. Xia Zhong rarely came looking for him alone; he always came with Cheng Yue. Out of that surprise, he asked, "Is Cheng Yue here too?"
"Just Xia Zhong," Xiao Jincheng said.
Xia Zhong used to follow Xiao Yu'an and Cheng Yue around all the time, but after starting high school, Xiao Yu'an had gotten too busy to hang out with them all the time. He could still find time to play basketball with Cheng Yue once in a while, but he didn't see much of Xia Zhong. They didn't have much in common, so they were no longer as close as they used to be.
Upon learning Xia Zhong was looking for him, Xiao Yu'an's first reaction was that that was pretty weird. His second reaction was that he didn't really want to move. He couldn't be bothered.
"How long have you been cooped up at home?" Xiao Jincheng asked, trying to drag him up. "Just looking at you makes me antsy. Someone wants to hang out with you, and you don't want to go? Just go, go! Quit hogging the study. I wanna play games."
Once Xiao Jincheng started harping on someone, he was inexhaustible. If Xiao Yu'an didn't hurry up and make his escape, he might even be subjected to one of Xiao Jincheng's awful poems.
So, finally, Xiao Yu'an went downstairs.
Boys his age were at a time in life where they cared about looking good. They usually liked to tidy themselves up before going outside. Xiao Yu'an was typically like that too, but that day he just couldn't be bothered. He only carded a hand through his hair and grabbed an orange down jacket before heading out.
Xia Zhong was downstairs, and he actually looked like he'd put some proper work into his appearance. He had his hair coiffed in a style that was popular with boys these days, and he'd dyed it as well. He also wore a silver stud earring, a white jacket, and an exaggeratedly large pendant on a chain around his neck.
Xiao Yu'an found he'd even put on some sort of lip gloss, and not the colorless sort of lip balm either.
"Xiao-ge," Xia Zhong greeted, waving enthusiastically. "Happy New Year!"
His breath was visible in the cold air when he spoke. The puff of white ghosted over his lips, making the pale lipstick even more conspicuous.
The day Xiao Yu'an played basketball with Cheng Yue was the last time he'd seen Xia Zhong. The New Year's break had been hectic and tumultuous, and it felt like time had dragged on. Xiao Yu'an got the feeling he hadn't seen Xia Zhong in a long time.
"Happy New Year," he answered, with a polite smile that wasn't too cold or too warm. "Did you need something?"
Xia Zhong instantly tapped the backpack hanging over his shoulder. That kind of backpack wasn't commonly worn by high school boys. It was a big, terraced bag made of some sort of leather-like material, with two dark green shoulder straps. It was fashionable in an over-the-top way. Unisex, but more typically worn by girls who fawned over models in magazines.
Although he was only a first-year, Xia Zhong was tall and lanky, and his facial features had started to mature. He was no longer a pouty kid, but was instead starting to show the bone structure of a young man. A bag like that didn't seem too out of place on him.
"Ge, do you have time today? If you do, can we go to a coffee shop for a bit?" Xia Zhong asked. After his initial greeting, he'd dropped Xiao Yu'an's surname and started simply calling out 'ge'.
That wasn't anything out of the ordinary. Xia Zhong often called Xiao Yu'an and Cheng Yue 'ge'.
"We have to enroll in an Olympiad class next term, and I chose physics," Xia Zhong continued. "I did a bunch of practice problems at home over the break, but there's a lot I don't understand. Can you explain some of this stuff to me?"
Xiao Yu'an really wasn't in the mood to go over schoolwork with anyone. He had plenty of his own holiday homework that he'd yet to complete. He'd looked over his own practice problems yesterday and tried a few, but they were difficult enough that he really needed to focus. After attempting a couple, he got fed up and tossed it all aside.
Now, when Xia Zhong asked him to help with these problems, his first instinct was to refuse. If it had been Cheng Yue asking him to play ball, Xiao Yu'an might have gone along. That would have been a good way to vent. But solving practice problems? That didn't really qualify as an outlet for all the frustration he had pent up inside.
But Xia Zhong was giving him such a sincere look, and his breath was still puffing out in the late winter air.
Xia Zhong had run all the way out here in the cold, instead of staying at home. Xiao Yu'an didn't really know how to refuse.
"Ge, I barely got into an Olympiad class. I'm afraid I won't be able to keep up," Xia Zhong added, furrowing his brows with a look of worry. "If you have time, you can just give me a few random tips. I can't figure this stuff out on my own, but if you give me some pointers, I should be able to get by."
That made it all the harder for Xiao Yu'an to refuse. Ultimately, he said, "Alright, come wait inside. I'll go get a few practice workbooks."
Xia Zhong's eyes lit up. "Ge, I'll wait for you right here."
Xiao Yu'an didn't bother insisting. "Sure. I'll be right back."
The desk in his room was a cluttered mess. He picked up a few workbooks and stuffed them into his backpack, and he packed some scratch paper as well. He figured he could do some of his own homework while tutoring Xia Zhong, and that would at least be a more efficient use of his time than sitting at home, spacing out.
Xiao Jincheng originally thought Xia Zhong had come to hang out with Xiao Yu'an. Seeing Xiao Yu'an heading out with a bookbag, Xiao Jincheng's eyes went dark with disappointment. "You guys are going out to do homework? Are you crazy? It's winter break!"
Xiao Yu'an turned back and shouted up to the second floor, "Xiao Mu'ting! When you have time, check Xiao Jincheng's holiday homework."
Xiao Jincheng instantly leapt up from the couch, stuffed his handheld game console between the couch cushions, and frantically shushed Xiao Yu'an.
But it was too late for that. Xiao Mu'ting came downstairs and held out a hand. "Give me the console."
There were coffee shops all over the place, but the kids from First High had their own meeting spot. Most of them usually went to a place near the northern gate of their school. The coffee shop occupied three floors, and nearly seventy percent of the customers were students. Before exams, the place became almost like an off-campus classroom.
Winter break was reaching its end. Plenty of kids were already gathered at the coffee shop, trying to finish their homework. But there were lots of seats still available, especially on the second and third floors.
Xiao Yu'an grabbed a table by the window, and Xia Zhong hurriedly got out his wallet to go place an order.
"Ge, what do you want to drink? What kind of cake do you want? It's my treat today, don't argue with me."
"Black tea," Xiao Yu'an said. He didn't really have any intentions of arguing with Xia Zhong. Studying wasn't something that would only take an hour or two, anyway. If Xia Zhong got drinks and snacks now, Xiao Yu'an would just pay for dinner later. There was no need to fight over the bill between friends.
"Not coffee?" Xia Zhong asked. "What about the cake?"
Xiao Yu'an shook his head. "You can just order whatever you want to eat."
He'd come to this coffee shop quite a few times before, and he'd even signed up for a membership card. But the membership card was for Ming Shu, and it was currently at Ming Shu's place.