Xiao Yu'an had originally been sitting across from Xia Zhong, but once their dinner arrived, there wasn't enough space on the table to lay everything out. Xia Zhong had cleared away some papers and moved over to Xiao Yu'an's side of the table.
While they ate, Xiao Yu'an didn't speak much. It was mostly Xia Zhong talking while Xiao Yu'an gave a mild reaction every so often.
Xia Zhong had gotten onto the subject of the pearl bracelet Xiao Yu'an had given him back in elementary school. He tugged on the oversized pendant hanging from his neck and said, "I can't wear the bracelet anymore, but the pearls were good. I used them for a DIY project and made this necklace. What do you think?"
Xiao Yu'an brought gifts back for his neighbors and classmates every time he visited his other grandpa by the sea. He'd given out too many gifts over the years, and he couldn't remember them unless they were unique in some way—like the seashell guns he'd given Xiao Mu'ting and Xiao Jincheng.
But now that Xia Zhong mentioned it, Xiao Yu'an did vaguely remember giving him something like that in the past. No wonder the pendant had looked faintly familiar when he saw it earlier.
"I thought you bought it somewhere," he said. "I didn't know you made it yourself."
"DIY is way more interesting than just buying stuff," Xia Zhong said, smiling. "You can transform the things you like, but can no longer wear, into something else entirely."
Xiao Yu'an nodded. "Sounds nice."
Now that the subject had come up, Xiao Yu'an's memories of that summer became clearer and clearer. Ming Shu had asked him for a gift that year, but Xiao Yu'an hadn't brought him anything. He'd planned on humoring Ming Shu with a bracelet, but Ming Shu ran off before he could. After that, the nicest string of pearls he brought back had been given to Xia Zhong.
In the end, Xiao Yu'an had picked out two bracelets from Xiao Jinlan's stash. One pink, one mint-colored. Ming Shu had worn them all summer.
There was a distance between their seats by the window and the mouth of the stairs. When Xiao Yu'an glanced over in the direction of the stairs, it was purely by coincidence.
So when he saw Ming Shu standing there, he felt it was a bit inconceivable.
To Ming Shu, that look of incredulity in his gege's eyes could only mean one thing. His gege was shocked because he'd been caught dating while he was still in school. Because he'd been caught lying. Because…
Ming Shu couldn't think of any other reasons, but that look on his gege's face stabbed him in the chest. He glared right back. Two emotions battled within him—anger and indignation.
Or perhaps they didn't battle at all. They co-existed and fueled each other.
Xia Zhong looked over at the stairs too. After freezing for a moment in surprise, he uttered, "Ming Shu?"
His reaction was much more straightforward, and Ming Shu had grown up as a perceptive child. Although Xiao Jincheng had led him astray in some ways, leading him to be insensitive about some things, Ming Shu's old habits of analyzing all the fine details of someone's expression reemerged in that moment.
He could tell that Xia Zhong's surprise included shades of disgust, disappointment, and even fear.
Xia Zhong hadn't wanted to see him there.
Because he was butting in on their relationship? Because he'd disrupted their date?
Xiao Yu'an's seat was closer to the window. He would have to pass Xia Zhong on his way out. When he stood up to make his way over to Ming Shu, Xia Zhong suddenly grabbed his wrist.
Xiao Yu'an furrowed his brows with a frown and pulled his hand away. Xia Zhong's behavior hadn't been anything out of the ordinary until then, but with that grab, Xiao Yu'an began to think Xia Zhong hadn't called him out just to ask him about physics.
Since starting high school, Xiao Yu'an had had plenty of girls approaching him under the guise of needing help with schoolwork. But Xia Zhong was a guy, and he'd grown up with Xiao Yu'an and Cheng Yue. Xiao Yu'an didn't want to make those sorts of assumptions just yet.
"I'm going over there for a bit," he stated simply.
Xia Zhong pursed his lips, quite obviously displeased. "Mm. Alright, ge."
When Ming Shu saw his gege walking towards him, he surprised even himself by taking a step back. The stairs were right behind him. He hadn't eaten all day, and he'd run all the way there.
He felt dizzy.
Thankfully, Xiao Yu'an reached out and grabbed hold of him. "Your dad let you out?"
Ming Haofeng yelled at me again today.
He didn't let me out. I climbed out the window all by myself.
I haven't eaten anything. I'm starving.
I looked for you at your house, but Xiao Jincheng said you went out with Xia Zhong.
I looked for you for a long, long time.
Ming Shu gazed up at his gege. With every unspoken word that passed through his mind, his heart felt a little heavier. In the end, he didn't manage to say any of the things he wanted to say. He could only utter a single, monotone hum: "Mm."
Xiao Yu'an could tell with just one look that something was wrong. If Ming Shu had really found him after being released by Ming Haofeng, he wouldn't be reacting this way.
Ming Shu should have been jumping for joy—or, well, maybe not. The little kid had grown up already, and he'd learned to restrain his emotions a bit. But if all had been well, he would have at least rushed over to Xiao Yu'an, called out 'gege', and asked for a hug. Then he would have recounted everything that had happened with the Wen family, with intermingling notes of complaint and brattiness in his tone. And then he would have ordered at least three pieces of cake.
"What's wrong?" Xiao Yu'an took a seat in a chair near the stairs, pulling Ming Shu over with him.
Ming Shu, from where he was standing, could still see Xia Zhong. He looked past his gege and briefly met Xia Zhong's gaze before quickly looking away again.
There was loathing mixed in with the disgust on Xia Zhong's face now. Those dark feelings crawled over Ming Shu's feet like rapidly growing moss. He could easily identify the revulsion in Xia Zhong's expression.
Xia Zhong didn't like him. Because he'd interrupted this date? Or was there another reason?
Ming Shu couldn't be bothered to think about it too much. He didn't like Xia Zhong either, anyway.
"I…" He looked at his gege with anguish weighing heavily on his heart. Suddenly, he pulled his hand back. He knew he should have confessed that he'd left home without permission, but instead he only asked, "You… you guys are in a relationship?"
Xiao Yu'an was shocked to his core. Even if he understood Ming Shu well, he couldn't have imagined Ming Shu would ask a question like that.
Almost subconsciously, Xiao Yu'an turned back and glanced at Xia Zhong. He saw that Xia Zhong had already packed up his belongings, and was now standing next to the table, watching the two of them.
"Ge, you said you weren't dating in school." Ming Shu heard a buzzing in his ears, but he didn't know whether that was his own brain humming, or the air conditioner humming, or something else entirely.
The only thing he knew for sure was that he didn't want his gege to be dating so early. He didn't want his gege to date anyone. They would steal his gege away, and his gege belonged to him.
Ming Shu had so little in life. Other people had mothers and fathers and siblings of their own. They had doting grandfathers and grandmothers, from both sides of the family.
Ming Shu only had his gege. His one and only gege.
Jinlan-jiejie, Ting-ge, and Xiao Jincheng all came along with his gege. They were great, but only Ming Shu's gege belonged to Ming Shu. The others weren't the same.
He couldn't let anyone steal away his gege.
Otherwise, he would have nothing.
Xia Zhong was so fortunate. He had a happy family, and he even kept a few dogs. Xia Zhong had Cheng Yue, too. He already had so much. Why did he have to try to steal Ming Shu's gege?
Xiao Yu'an was finding it quite difficult to explain things to Ming Shu. It wasn't hard to explain that he wasn't dating anyone. He and Xia Zhong didn't have that kind of relationship, and it was impossible for him to feel that way about Xia Zhong. But Ming Shu's baffling mood made it difficult for Xiao Yu'an to find the right words to say.
A while ago, when Xiao Yu'an had been confessed to by Tong Yu, Ming Shu had brought up the matter of dating in school. He seemed to be extremely invested in Xiao Yu'an not getting into a relationship. But Ming Shu was still only a fifth grader; there were some things Xiao Yu'an, as an older adolescent, couldn't explain to him yet. Ming Shu needed to grow up first. Once he was around Xiao Jincheng's age, he would naturally have teachers who taught him what he needed to know.
Once Ming Shu was the right age, Xiao Yu'an obviously could have taught him those things as well. But by the time Ming Shu started middle school, Xiao Yu'an would have long since left their residential compound. There was a chance he wouldn't even have time to visit during breaks.
"You're dating, I just know you are," Ming Shu mumbled. His anger and agony were practically palpable. "You're dating Xia Zhong even though you're still in school."
Ming Shu's voice grew louder there; Xia Zhong clearly heard that part.
Xiao Yu'an was just about to deny it when Xia Zhong came over. He was already carrying his backpack, ready to leave. Warmly, he said, "Ge, you guys have a lot to talk about. I'll head back first. Thank you for helping me with those problems today, and for dinner."
Ming Shu glared at Xia Zhong with open hostility in his eyes. Ge? Besides him, there was someone who addressed his gege like that?
Xiao Yu'an called out a warning, telling him to stay safe. Xia Zhong smiled and even waved at Ming Shu before making his way downstairs.
At that, Ming Shu's delicate, hypersensitive nerves simply snapped. In his eyes, that wave was nothing short of a provocation. To him, Xia Zhong was saying, You don't have a gege anymore. Xiao Yu'an is my gege now.
After Xia Zhong left, Xiao Yu'an decided he needed to have a nice, long chat with Ming Shu. Ever since Ming Shu was abruptly taken away before New Year's, they hadn't had a good talk. Xiao Yu'an had only heard about what happened from Ming Haofeng and Xiao Lanyue. He needed to hear from Ming Shu himself what had happened in the time since they last managed to have a proper conversation.
But Ming Shu was still more concerned with this 'date' than anything else.
After buying two of Ming Shu's favorite cakes, Xiao Yu'an came back up and asked Ming Shu about what had happened with the Wen family. But Ming Shu still stubbornly only said, "You said you wouldn't date in school."
Xiao Yu'an sighed and said, as gently as possible, "I was working on Olympiad practice problems with Xia Zhong."
"He called you 'ge'."
"Is that something I can't be called?"
Ming Shu stared at him blankly, suddenly stricken by an unpleasant realization. If he could call his gege 'ge' and 'gege', then other people could call him that as well.
Xiao Yu'an saw the shadows that passed through Ming Shu's eyes, but now wasn't the time to argue about a nickname. "Tell me everything, slowly and clearly. I heard from your father that you had a problem with Auntie Wen. What exactly happened?"
He didn't say Ming Shu had 'hurt' Wen Yue, even if that was what Ming Haofeng had told him.
"I bought a knife for you, and they lost it," Ming Shu said with his head hanging low. He balled up his hands into tight fists. "I didn't yell at them. You told me to always be polite, so I was polite. I waited until the funeral was over before I asked her about the knife. But she yelled at me, and she tried to hit me!"
"A knife?" Xiao Yu'an asked. "What knife?"
"I wanted to give it to you at the beach! I used my prize money to buy it!" Ming Shu's eyes reddened. Tears threatened to fall. "They couldn't take it on the plane with them, so they threw it away!"
The little kid told his story in bits and pieces, stammering and stuttering every so often. But Xiao Yu'an understood, and he couldn't deny that he felt a bit moved. No wonder Ming Shu had refused to let him check his suitcase before they left. Ming Shu had insisted that he'd packed everything he needed, and that he could take care of his luggage by himself.
So all that had been because he'd wanted to hide a gift.
"Alright, alright." Xiao Yu'an patted Ming Shu on the back. "It wasn't your fault. Tomorrow, let's go see what kind of knife you bought. We'll buy a new one."
"But I don't have any money."
"I'll lend it to you. Next time you win a contest, you can pay me back."
Just as Ming Shu seemed like he was close to calming down, Ming Haofeng found them.
It hadn't taken long for the Ming family to notice that Ming Shu was missing. Ming Haofeng went to the Xiao family, but no one there knew where Xiao Yu'an had gone. It was only when Ming Haofeng ran into Xia Zhong that he learned Ming Shu and Xiao Yu'an were at a coffee shop to the north of First High. That was when he rushed over.
Ming Haofeng roughly pulled Ming Shu to his side. Xiao Yu'an wanted to stop him, but he couldn't forcibly pull Ming Shu back; that would only hurt Ming Shu.
"Didn't I make it clear enough last time? Stop leading my family's child astray," Ming Haofeng snapped icily. "I know how to raise him. I don't need any input from you people from the Xiao family!"
At first, Xiao Yu'an didn't understand how Ming Haofeng had found them. But after thinking about it for a while, he realized it could only have been Xia Zhong who told. But he couldn't exactly blame Xia Zhong, because Xia Zhong was only an outsider.
Still, when Xia Zhong invited him to study at the coffee shop again, Xiao Yu'an always found an excuse to get out of it. And when Xia Zhong eventually confessed his feelings, Xiao Yu'an straightforwardly turned him down.
This was something that should have stayed between him and Xia Zhong, but Cheng Yue decided to stick his nose into it. He demanded a reason from Xiao Yu'an.
Xiao Yu'an was baffled by that. He didn't return Xia Zhong's feelings, and he didn't have any interest in dating. So he'd rejected Xia Zhong. What other reason could there have been?
But Cheng Yue was acting like he'd swallowed a bunch of fireworks that day. He blew up, refusing to listen to reason. He insisted that Xiao Yu'an had hurt Xia Zhong's feelings, and that Xiao Yu'an didn't treat them like brothers, even though they all grew up together.
Xiao Yu'an was in a bad mood to begin with. After Ming Shu was taken away that day, Xiao Yu'an didn't hear from him again. He felt like he was suspended in midair, caught between these feelings of wanting to help and the knowledge that there was nothing he could do to help. He may have been a patient young man under normal circumstances, but even he had his breaking point.
His heart wasn't completely soft, after all. He had his hard edges. He only seemed warm and kind because he was typically tolerant and patient.
So when Cheng Yue provoked him, Xiao Yu'an exploded as well. The two of them got into a huge fight and walked away angry, parting on bad terms.
But that eventful winter break wasn't over yet.