In this prosperous coastal province, Changchuan was just an unknown small county town, where the poor were not too poor, and the rich were not particularly rich. Life here ambled along like an old cow carelessly swinging its cowbell, taking one step at a time.

The winters here were long, cold, and dry, while the summers were long, hot, and humid. Spring and autumn were comfortable and pleasant but extremely fleeting, making for an unfavorable climate. There were no bustling skyscrapers to be seen, only gray buildings that didn't differ much from one another, with people sitting in the convenience stores downstairs, casually chatting and munching on melon seeds.

On sunny days, the clotheslines outside the windows resembled an exhibition of national flags, filled with all kinds of clothes, bedsheets, and quilts. The air carried the unique scent of sun-dried bedding, making it difficult to open one's eyes and tempting one to lay down and take a nap.

For Xia Yi, this was the entire world she knew, as she had never been to a faraway place.

She parked her bicycle in front of her home, and her younger brother, Xia Yan, who was in the first grade of junior high school, jumped down from the back seat of her bike, clutching his school bag. He didn't even look at her and awkwardly said, "Thank you" before limping inside.

"Grandma, we're back!" Xia Yan's voice came from the front.

Xia Yi entered the small convenience store they owned. Behind the counter stood an elderly lady with a kind and gentle expression, wearing an old black and red floral shirt. She had neatly organized herself. Despite the deep wrinkles on her face, which sagged at the corners of her eyes, her gentle and warm smile brought a sense of comfort.

"Xiaxia, Xiaoyan! Hurry up and wash your hands," she called out affectionately. "Grandma got a small watermelon, so each of you can scoop out your portions with a spoon and savor it!"

Xia Yi was about to take her backpack off when she heard an abrupt screeching sound of brakes from behind, followed by a clanging noise. She turned around and saw a dazzling golden head lowering to lock a bicycle outside their convenience store.

Grandma wondered, "Oh my, who's this new neighbor?"

The young man quickly locked his bike and hurriedly turned to run into the building. The soundproofing of the building was poor, and his footsteps were clearly audible, as if they were right next to her ear.

Xia Yi paused in taking off her backpack and looked towards the empty space outside the door.

Even the sound of his footsteps has changed.

"He's not a new neighbor; he lives upstairs." Xia Yi replied.

"Ah, it's that kid? did his hair become like this?"

Grandma's surprise hadn't faded yet when they heard a piercing scream coming from upstairs. The boy ran down the stairs with a precise rhythm, plunging into the convenience store. He still had his hand pinching his nose and only let go of it when he entered the store, wanting to take a deep breath of fresh air. That's when he saw Xia Yi standing in the store.

Unfortunately, as a result, he still couldn't catch his breath.

In the convenience store, Nie Qingzhou stared at Xia Yi in disbelief for a moment. After choking for a few moments, he caught his breath and said, "What a coincidence. Are you here to buy something too?"

The elderly lady behind the counter brightened up and she asked with a smile, "Oh, young man, you know our Xia Xia!?"

Nie Qingzhou's gaze shifted between the elderly lady and Xia Yi, his astonishment evident. He couldn't help but ask, "Wait, so is this your family's store? You live... downstairs from my house?"

Xia Yi nodded, and Grandma enthusiastically said, "Young man, what would you like to buy?"

Only then did Nie Qingzhou remember the purpose of his visit. With a sincere expression on his face, he asked, "Do you have gas masks here?"

As soon as he entered his house and opened the door, Nie Qingzhou was hit by the pungent smell emanating from a pair of foul-smelling shoes left at the doorstep. It seemed that "Nie Qingzhou" had no idea about opening windows for ventilation. Under the scorching sun, the stench from the shoes had fermented and permeated every corner of the house, rivaling that of a biochemical weapon.

How did "Nie Qingzhou" live before? Could it be that the kid had lost his sense of smell?

Upon closer inspection, Nie Qingzhou realized that the shoes were actually white, but they appeared black because "Nie Qingzhou" had never bothered to clean them.

This small convenience store, with an area of just over twenty square meters, naturally did not stock advanced items like gas masks. Nie Qingzhou grabbed a pack of face masks, a brush, and a pair of rubber gloves. The elderly lady smiled warmly and said, "Twenty-five yuan and fifty cents."

Instinctively, Nie Qingzhou reached for his phone to make payment, only to realize that he didn't have any mobile payment options. He began searching his own pockets.

As he rummaged through his pockets, his movements came to a halt. A suspicious blush slowly crept up from his neck to his earlobes, eventually coloring his entire face. Clutching his clothes tightly, he struggled to lift his head and looked at the elderly lady. With a tremor in his voice, he asked, "Can... Can I... first ...... have credit?"

His gaze then shifted towards Xia Yi, as if pleading for her help.

Xia Yi observed the person in front of her, with golden hair and a flushed complexion. At that moment, he appeared to be a well-bred young man who had never experienced financial difficulties.

She had no intention of coming to his rescue.

"I... My dad will give me my living expenses tomorrow. I will definitely pay it back tomorrow! I live upstairs... I can't run away," Nie Qingzhou pleaded pitifully.

Mixed emotions filled his heart. When did he become so embarrassed because of money?

Fortunately, the elderly lady smoothed things over, kindly agreeing to his request and recording the amount he owed in a small notebook. Nie Qingzhou obediently signed his name at the back, expressing his gratitude repeatedly before leaving with his purchases, taking a deep breath as he rushed upstairs.

The elderly lady held the account book and sighed, "So this child's name is Zhou Bin."

Xia Yi had already started to walk away but turned back to glance at the account book in the elderly lady's hands. After a moment of silence, she said, "He probably doesn't intend to pay back the money."

As the night darkened and the city lights came on, Nie Yinghong appeared in front of the gray building. She clacked up the stairs in her high heels, pulled out her keys, and swiftly opened the door to Room 203 on the second floor. Inhaling deeply, just as she was about to shout Nie Qingzhou's name, a pungent stench assaulted her, forcing her into a fit of coughing.

A boy wearing the uniform of Changchuan First Middle School, with a mask covering his face and rubber gloves on his hands, rushed out of the bathroom while holding a pair of shoes and a brush. The dazzling golden hair made Nie Yinghong not only unable to catch her breath but also caused her heart to skip a beat.

She pointed at Nie Qingzhou's hair, her fingertips trembling, unable to form words. However, Nie Qingzhou immediately took off his gloves, retrieved a mask from his pocket, and, with remorse in his eyes, said, "Auntie, I'm really sorry. The smell in the house is too strong. I opened the windows and aired it out for a while, but it still didn't completely dissipate. Please put on the mask to at least block some of it."

Wide-eyed, Nie Yinghong allowed Nie Qingzhou to guide her to the sofa and sit down. Holding his nose, he threw the freshly washed shoes onto the balcony and securely closed the balcony door. He then hurried to the kitchen to wash his hands carefully before returning with a cup of hot water, placing it in front of Nie Yinghong.

"Auntie, please have some water first." he said gently.

Nie Yinghong examined Nie Qingzhou from head to toe. She was sure that she had never seen this polite and well-mannered version of Nie Qingzhou before. After contemplating for a while, she said angrily, "Don't try to deceive me with these actions. What did you do with the accommodation fee? And what's the matter with your hair?"

Nie Qingzhou scratched his head and began to talk nonsense in a serious manner, "Auntie... you see, yesterday I passed by a hair salon and they were having a promotion where hair dyeing was discounted by 50%. The salon manager said that this offer would be gone after the busy season, and I thought it was a good deal, so I dyed my hair on a whim."

"How much did it cost?"


"I asked you, how much did it cost?"

"...Over four hundred."

Nie Yinghong's eyes blazed with anger. Pressing her hand against her chest, she asked, "Where did you spend all your money? How much money do you have left?"

Nie Qingzhou felt his temples throbbing. With the poor sound insulation of the building, the neighbors should have received the live broadcast of his aunt's loud voice. He earnestly said, "Auntie, please keep your voice down. That money is spent. But the deed is done, the money is all spent, I..."

A resounding slap accompanied by intense pain interrupted him. Nie Qingzhou froze for a moment, and saw the mask he had been holding fly to the ground. In disbelief, he turned to Nie Yinghong. Her hand was still suspended in the air, trembling with anger, and her eyes were red.

"Spent it all? You really... you have the audacity to speak so boldly! Don't you know how hard your parents worked to earn that money? During summer vacation, you went to the provincial city, and your parents helped others move. They carried heavy refrigerators, cabinets, and sofas layer by layer, drenching their clothes in sweat under the scorching sun. They are reluctant to spend even a bit of money, even reluctant to eat anything good all year round.  They saved every bit they could to buy this house for you, to provide for your education, hoping that you'll have a bright future! Look at yourself now, what have you done? Are you willing to squander your parents' hard-earned money like this? You even dyed your hair, are you trying to piss me off?"

As Nie Yinghong continued speaking, she became so enraged that she began to cry. Choking with emotion, she said, "You don't want to study, do you? You would be happy only when you cause trouble until you drop out of school, right? Your father was an excellent student. Due to financial difficulties after your grandmother passed away, he had to drop out and work. How he longed to continue his education! Later, he worked tirelessly to support me through college, and now, despite the hardships, he wants to support you. When you were young, I was too busy with my teaching job and you stayed with your grandpa. I didn't have the time to take care of you. I never imagined that you would mix with those unsavory people in society, not caring about your studies at all. Do you have any future like this? Do you still have a conscience? Do you want your parents to worry about you for the rest of their lives?"

She gradually became incoherent and broke down in tears, while the young boy in front of her had a swollen face, looking at her with an incredibly calm and even helpless expression.

He took out a few tissues and handed them to his aunt, saying in agreement, "Yes, I have no conscience. I know. Auntie, please wipe away your tears and calm down."

Pausing for a moment, he earnestly looked into Nie Yinghong's eyes and said gently, "Auntie, I'm sorry. Explaining the past won't change anything. I've caused you and the family so much heartache, disappointing your expectations. From now on, I will face my life seriously and focus on studying. I know I've fallen behind on many subjects, but during this period, I will make the most of my time at home to catch up."

Nie Yinghong held the tissues, looking at her only nephew with a deep sense of confusion. How did he change suddenly? What is he up to?

"You won't be staying in the dormitory anymore?" Nie Yinghong caught the implication in his words.

"I think studying at home will allow me to have more time for studying." Nie Qingzhou spoke earnestly.

Nie Yinghong looked at him intently. "No, there won't be anyone to keep an eye on you at home, and it's unknown who you'll end up mingling with if you commute."

"How about this, let me stay at home for now. Auntie, you set a goal for me. I will continue commuting if I achieve a certain rank in the midterm exams, and if I fail to meet that goal, I'll move to the dormitory."

Nie Yinghong hesitated for a moment and said, "You must at least be in the top 600 of your grade."

Changchuan First High School had over 50 students in each class, and there were 20 classes in a grade, totaling over 1,000 students. In the previous preliminary exam, Nie Qingzhou happened to be ranked 1,000 in his grade.

Nie Yinghong asked him to improve by more than 400 at once, obviously she didn't want to agree to his request.

However, Nie Qingzhou smiled and said, "Aunt, you can expect more from me."

"I do want to have high expectations and it's good to aim for improvement, but it also has to be realistic. Can you do it if I say top 100 in your grade?" Nie Yinghong felt that her nephew was setting his sights too high.

Nie Qingzhou thought carefully and replied, "It may take some time to get familiar at first, but aiming for the top 50 should be achievable."

"Top 50 in your class, why don't you say the bottom three?" she retorted.

"It's the top 50 in the grade," clarified Nie Qingzhou.

Nie Yinghong was astonished. Nie Qingzhou seemed to know his aunt wouldn't believe him, so he stood up and said with a smile, "Aunt, I guess you haven't had dinner yet. I used the leftover money to buy some vegetables. The porridge is already simmering. Just wait for me to prepare the food."

After saying that, he turned around and skillfully put on an apron before walking into the kitchen.

Nie Yinghong looked at Nie Qingzhou's back in surprise.

In fact, she didn't have many opportunities to see him. She was a core primary school teacher and was busy all day long, living on the other side of Changchuan with her family. Over the years, Nie Qingzhou had grown quickly, almost changing his appearance every time she saw him, but his rebellious and violent temper has only intensified day by day.

But the Nie Qingzhou she saw today, despite the flashy golden hair, had a calm demeanor and spoke with a composed tone. His brown eyes looked at her, giving her the impression that she was sitting in front of a mature adult. Even throughout their conversation, she unintentionally followed Nie Qingzhou's lead.

What had happened to this child? Could he really mature overnight?

Nie Yinghong followed him into the kitchen, thinking that her nephew wouldn't know how to cook. However, to her surprise, Nie Qingzhou skillfully chopped vegetables, putting them into the wok. He stir-fried the dishes, and seasoned them perfectly. She was persuaded and pushed to leave the kitchen.

That evening, Nie Qingzhou served two dishes – one vegetarian and one with a bit of meat – both glistening with oil. Nie Yinghong hesitated, but she picked up a chopstick and tasted it. Surprisingly, it was cooked through and not bad at all.

She looked up at Nie Qingzhou and received a confident smile from him. He nudged the dishes toward her and said, "Auntie, you've been waiting for quite a while, and I'm sure you're hungry. Please, enjoy."

Nie Yinghong felt like she might be going crazy or hallucinating. She never expected that one day Nie Qingzhou would say such things.

But even if it was an illusion, it was a comforting one.

"Is your face still hurting? After dinner, pack your bags and come to Aunt's house." Nie Yinghong said, her tone softening as she picked up the dishes.

Nie Qingzhou shook his head. "Let's forget about it this year."

"Didn't you always come to auntie's house during the holidays?"

"You're usually busy, and it's rare for you to have a break. You should spend time with Uncle and Xiaoyu to have fun after you finally have a vacation. If I come, it'll only create an awkward atmosphere. Not only will you not enjoy yourselves, but Uncle will also be unhappy."

Seeing that Nie Yinghong wanted to explain, Nie Qingzhou interrupted, "Aunt, as you can see, I can take care of myself. If you're worried, you can visit me when you have time. Uncle doesn't like me, and I think it's normal. If I'm there, we'll end up arguing. He's also concerned about you and afraid that I'll have a bad influence on Xiaoyu. I'm fine on my own, so you don't need to feel torn."

Under the dim lighting, Nie Qingzhou appeared calm and spoke sincerely and gently. He was well aware that he wasn't well-liked.

Suddenly, Nie Yinghong felt her eyes becoming moist, unsure if it was guilt or something else. She lowered her head to drink the porridge and was unable to speak again.


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