Ever since Xiao Yu'an and Xiao Mu'ting graduated from high school, it had become increasingly rare for the Xiao family to celebrate New Year's with every member of their younger generation present.
Xiao Yu'an was a police officer. Forget about traveling home for New Year's. It was hard for him to even get a day off.
Xiao Mu'ting was in the army. He wasn't as busy as Xiao Yu'an over New Year's, but the army had its strict regulations. Special Forces, especially, wouldn't set their soldiers loose so easily.
But during the New Year's of Ming Shu's first year of college, all four of the Xiao kids managed to make the trip home. Including Ming Shu, the 'outsider', all five of the Xiao children celebrated at home that year.
The Xiao family's house had been decked out in colorful lights and lanterns. Xiao Jinlan had bought all sorts of lanterns and vibrant decorations. As soon as Ming Shu set down his luggage, he was roped into helping her put everything up.
He'd come back with Xiao Yu'an. Winter break had started for Ming Shu quite a while ago, but Xiao Yu'an had been busy until the 29th of the last lunar month. It was only then that he'd finally received a notice of his approved vacation.
Xiao Jincheng had arrived two days before them, and he'd been worked half to death by Xiao Jinlan. As soon as he saw Ming Shu, he trotted out his status as Ming Shu's gege and instantly started commanding Ming Shu to do this or that.
When he was little, Ming Shu had always suffered at Xiao Jincheng's hands. He couldn't win a fight against Xiao Jincheng, and he couldn't win an argument against him either.
But now, their positions were reversed. Ming Shu was taller than Xiao Jincheng now. If he weren't afraid of being chased around and beaten to a pulp, Ming Shu could have easily patted Xiao Jincheng on the head.
Ming Shu's newfound height advantage came with a change of heart. In the past, when Xiao Jincheng ordered him around, Ming Shu would skulk around feeling aggrieved as he had no choice but to obey. But now, Ming Shu didn't feel that way at all. If there was something that needed to be done, he would simply do it.
There was no harm in helping out the shorty. Ming Shu could consider it his good deed of the day.
Xiao Jinlan was extremely considerate. She told Ming Shu to go home and hang some lanterns for his own grandfather too. She'd already prepared enough.
Ming Shu nodded. "Jie, I know."
Even if Xiao Jinlan hadn't brought it up, Ming Shu would have gone next door to see Ming Han. He'd cut all ties with Ming Haofeng and Wen Yue. But Ming Han was someone he was indebted to, someone he was grateful for.
Half a year had passed since Ming Shu left the Ming family's house with his suitcase in tow. Now, he could make his way over from the Xiao family's house in less than five minutes.
Ming Han lived alone at the Ming family's house now. It was cold and quiet. Ming Haofeng and Wen Yue had driven out at noon to take Ming Han out for a New Year's meal. Afterwards, they'd dropped him off at the house again.
Ming Shu knew all of that.
He also knew Ming Haofeng and Wen Yue wouldn't stay with Ming Han for long. They'd only come to fulfill their filial duty, so as not to lose face. That was enough for them.
Sure enough, when night fell, the car parked in front of the Ming family's house took off. It hadn't been parked there for long at all.
The Xiao family was still having their reunion dinner. Xiao Jincheng had gotten drunk. He was raucously demanding to play junqi with Xiao Yu'an and Xiao Mu'ting, like they used to as kids.
When Ming Shu heard the car from next door depart, he waited a few minutes, then set down his chopsticks.
Xiao Yu'an knew Ming Shu would go spend some time with Ming Han. He pulled the rambling Xiao Jincheng over to his own side and lightly said, "Go ahead. I'll be here."
Ming Shu excused himself and left the table. He picked up the lanterns Xiao Jinlan had prepared for him, as well as the gifts he and Xiao Yu'an had brought. Everyone was aware of his departure, but they didn't draw attention to it, letting him leave undisturbed.
He made his way over to the Ming family's house.
Ming Han was sitting at the stone table in the courtyard, writing a dui lian, when he heard a familiar voice.
When he turned, he found Ming Shu standing outside the garden. Ming Shu waved one hand at him, holding the paper lanterns and gift bags in the other.
Ming Han's face was now full of wrinkles, and he deeply furrowed his brow. He was a man who practically didn't know how to smile. Always serious, always severe. But Ming Shu could tell. His appearance had brought Ming Han some joy.
"There's no dinner for you here," Ming Han said, nodding towards their neighbor's house. "Come back after you eat."
Ming Shu smiled. "I've already eaten, haven't I?"
"Have you really?" Ming Han asked.
"Really," Ming Shu promised.
He felt like everything had changed since he left home. Standing there, outside the courtyard, he did feel a sliver of anxiousness. But Ming Han seemed much more nervous than him.
"Are you putting up your dui lian?" Ming Shu asked as he walked over and set down the things he'd brought. "Go ahead, finish writing. Once you're done, I'll hang it up for you."
Ming Han lifted his head to look up at him. His eyes were murky. He could see, but not everything was clear.
The grandfather and grandson simply looked at each other for a while. Finally, Ming Shu said, "Okay, you keep writing, and I'll hang up the lanterns first?"
Ming Han seemed to want to say something, but didn't. He picked up his calligraphy brush again.
Growing up had turned many insurmountable challenges into small, simple tasks. Ming Shu used to see the Ming family as a towering mountain, and Ming Haofeng had been the indomitable peak of that mountain. No matter what he did, Ming Shu could never get past him. But now, that mountain had become a little bump in the road. Ming Shu could easily step over it.
He hung up the lanterns and lights. He and Ming Han didn't talk much, until Ming Han called out to say that he was done writing the dui lian.
"Coming," Ming Shu called back. He hopped down from the stepladder.
"Don't fall," Ming Han cautioned with his still stern, still emotionless face.
"I won't." Ming Shu took the dui lian and the glue, making his way back to the front door.
Ming Han had written several sets of dui lian. Besides the gates to the courtyard and the front doors to the house, several of the doorways inside the house would need to be decorated as well.
Ming Shu worked swiftly. After fixing all the dui lian in place, he'd worked up a sweat. Once he finished, he heard Ming Han call out to him again, asking if he wanted to stay to have some dumplings.
Ming Shu hadn't stopped eating since that afternoon. Whenever Xiao Jincheng stole something to snack on, he would swipe some for Ming Shu as well.
But Ming Shu wasn't so full that he couldn't have a plate of dumplings now.
"Sure," he said.
Ming Han nodded and slowly hobbled into the kitchen.
While the Ming family made dumplings, the Xiao family finished their dinner. Xiao Jincheng whined and wailed about wanting to play junqi, but then Xiao Mu'ting said he had a bunch of firecrackers in the trunk of his car. At that, Xiao Jincheng instantly changed his tune and said he wanted to set off firecrackers instead.
The city no longer permitted the use of firecrackers in residential areas. They would have to go down to the river. Xiao Yu'an was just debating with Xiao Mu'ting over which one of them would drive when Xiao Lanyue came and patted him on the shoulder.
"Got a minute?" Xiao Lanyue greeted him casually, as though he and Xiao Yu'an were old friends rather than father and son.
Xiao Yu'an could tell that Xiao Lanyue had something he wanted to talk about, so he told Xiao Mu'ting to take Xiao Jincheng down to the river first. He said he would go meet up with them later.
"Ming Shu went back?" Xiao Lanyue asked. He ducked back into the house to grab two coats, tossing one to Xiao Yu'an.
"Mm." Xiao Yu'an shrugged on his coat and glanced over at the Ming family's house.
The father and son walked along the deserted road for a while before Xiao Lanyue said, "Ming Shu's father came to see me a while ago."
Xiao Yu'an had already guessed what his own father wanted to talk to him about.
"I knew Ming Shu had fought with them, and I knew he's been living with you since his college entrance exams. But I thought Ming Shu had fought with them about the same thing as always, the same thing as before," Xiao Lanyue said. He paused for a moment and stopped walking as well, turning to gaze at Xiao Yu'an. His tone was more serious than usual, but there was no anger in his voice. "Ming Haofeng said Ming Shu cut ties with the Ming family because he wanted to be with you."
Xiao Yu'an tucked his hands into the pockets of his coat and fixed his gaze on the shadows dancing around the glow of the streetlights.
"Is it true?" Xiao Lanyue asked. "Your relationship with Ming Shu. Is it what Ming Haofeng says it is?"
Xiao Yu'an, up to that moment, had no definitive answer for that question.
What was his relationship with Ming Shu? Neither he nor Ming Shu could really answer that.
That weekend, when Xiao Yu'an had exposed the truth of the freshly cleaned bedsheets, Ming Shu had pushed him down onto the bed with reddened eyes. He'd torn at Xiao Yu'an's clothes, and instead of stopping him, Xiao Yu'an had allowed himself to lose control with Ming Shu.
Ming Shu had pressed him down at first, but then it was Xiao Yu'an flipping them over and bearing down on Ming Shu.
Ming Shu's hands still weren't those of a police detective. The only callus he had was the one on his middle finger, born of many long years of holding a pen.
Meanwhile, Xiao Yu'an's hands were already rough with calluses from years of training with guns and other weapons.
He was six years older than Ming Shu. Although Ming Shu was forward and aggressive, he was still only a little leopard. He could tease and provoke, but he was quickly overwhelmed. His eyes clouded over, and he could only call out Xiao Yu'an's name over and over again.
Xiao Yu'an, Xiao Yu'an.
Ming Shu seemed to love that name with ardent devotion. He breathed it again and again, never missing a word, a sound.
But in the end, Ming Shu still fell upon his old way of address. The fog in his eyes became a mist of tears, trickling down his cheeks.
Ge, gege. Ge…
Again and again. Each fall of 'gege' from Ming Shu's lips bled deep into Xiao Yu'an's mind, replacing all the calls of 'gege' he'd heard from Ming Shu throughout his life.
The meaning of 'gege' had changed.
He was still Ming Shu's gege, but he would never be Ming Shu's big brother again.
That Friday marked the start of an unspoken agreement between them. Ming Shu never talked about liking Xiao Yu'an again. It was like they'd stepped out of the fire, only to fall into a brand new blaze.
Ming Shu still came back to the apartment every Friday, and he still returned to his dorm every Sunday night. He spent two days at home, in Xiao Yu'an's bed.
They never went all the way, but Xiao Yu'an never rejected Ming Shu's kisses and touches again.
Besides that final step, they did everything with each other.
Their flight home had been scheduled for nine in the morning, which meant they had to rise before dawn. Xiao Yu'an had set an alarm, but Ming Shu woke before that. He squirmed closer under the covers, with the first rays of daylight trickling into the bedroom.
When Xiao Yu'an hauled Ming Shu out of bed, Ming Shu looked at him slyly and licked his lips, before scooting closer to kiss Xiao Yu'an's chin.
They weren't lovers, and they weren't brothers. It seemed a 'mutually beneficial arrangement' was the only way to describe their relationship.
The cold winds of winter blew across the street, carrying Xiao Yu'an's unformed answer away with it.
Xiao Yu'an closed his eyes against the chill.
And Xiao Lanyue waited patiently for his answer.
Ever since Xiao Yu'an was little, he had been Xiao Lanyue's pride and joy. Xiao Lanyue had never been stingy with his praise, and Xiao Yu'an had never stepped out of line as a son.
But this time, he knew he was incapable of giving Xiao Lanyue the answer he wanted to hear.
In the end, Xiao Yu'an met Xiao Lanyue's gaze and answered, honestly, "It's what you think it is."
Xiao Lanyue sank into silence, as though focusing all his attention on processing this not-too-surprising revelation.
The Xiao family was lax on the outside, but strict on the inside. Unlike the patriarchs of the Ming family, Xiao Zhengyun and Xiao Lanyue didn't have such rigid expectations for the younger generation. But within their family, on the matter of choosing an appropriate spouse, they had rather old-fashioned, traditional requirements.
A long while later, Xiao Lanyue let out a deep sigh. He maintained his calm and asked, "When did it start?"
There had been no start.
Rationally, Xiao Yu'an knew he should have denied it. As long as he denied it, they could have drawn this conversation to a close.
But in that moment, he thought only of Ming Shu.
Ming Shu wouldn't know what Xiao Yu'an said to Xiao Lanyue, and their relationship truly wasn't at the point of needing to seek their parents' approval yet.
But he thought of Ming Shu's reddened eyes, Ming Shu's swollen lips, the way Ming Shu's body trembled, the soft and delicate way Ming Shu called him 'gege'…
Ming Shu often acted like he'd been bullied, and Xiao Yu'an had countless ways of bullying him.
But on the matter of their undefined relationship, Xiao Yu'an didn't want Ming Shu to feel wronged.
If Xiao Yu'an denied it now, Ming Shu would surely suffer more than ever before.
"The summer," Xiao Yu'an said. "It started this summer."
At the Ming family's house, Ming Shu finished eating his dumplings and cleaning up in the kitchen for Ming Han.
Far away, a shopping center had already started setting off their fireworks. Ming Shu watched the show with his grandfather for a while, before receiving a text from Xiao Yu'an, asking if he was finished and inviting him out to the riverbank to set off firecrackers.