In the afternoon after school, Xia Yi stopped Wen Zhong. He was very surprised. Ever since the last incident of buying textbooks, they hadn't spoken to each other. Moreover, ever since he knew Xia Yi, she had never taken the initiative to talk to him.

Xia Yi said, "I have a question to ask you."

Wen Zhong subconsciously looked around, seeing no one nearby before answering, "What is it?"

"Do you have a girl you like?"

Wen Zhong was stunned, unable to believe his ears. "You...what did you say?"

Xia Yi just looked at him with a pair of quiet, dark eyes, making even the most absurd question seem serious.

This question wasn't that absurd, it was just that he had never thought he would hear it from Xia Yi.

Wen Zhong cleared his throat and said, "High school is the most important stage of life... I focus on studying and don't have such thoughts."

Xia Yi looked at him for a while, as if to confirm that what he said was the truth. In this silence, Wen Zhong's heart gradually started to race, inexplicably filled with a strange sense of anticipation. He also didn't know what he was expecting.

"Okay, I understand."

Unexpectedly, Xia Yi nodded, turned around decisively, and quickly disappeared around the corner of the teaching building.

Wen Zhong stood there in a daze.

That's it? Nothing else?

What does she know? She just...she has nothing to say?

What does she want to do!?

Nie Qingzhou felt that Xia Yi had been acting a bit strange lately, often looking at him with a hesitant expression as if she wanted to say something.

It was during the short break after school in the afternoon when Xia Yi, who was supposed to go to the hospital to practice the piano after picking up Xia Yan, stayed in Nie Qingzhou's hospital room for a long time. Nie Qingzhou sat on the hospital bed and joked with her, "Time is precious, you quickly go to play the piano ah."

Xia Yi lowered her eyes, seemingly lost in thought. She suddenly sat on the edge of Nie Qingzhou's bed. She propped her elbows on the bed, leaned forward slowly, and scrutinized him up close. The sunlight shone brightly on her face, every eyelash clear and distinct.

Nie Qingzhou was startled that he sat up straight.

"What...what's wrong?"

"Nie Qingzhou."

"...Hmm?"

Xia Yi looked into his eyes. She opened her mouth then closed it again. Nie Qingzhou rarely saw such a hesitant look in her eyes, and became even more nervous for a moment.

After a long silence, she pointed to his cheek and said, "You have a grain of rice there."

Nie Qingzhou couldn't laugh or cry for a moment, his body relaxed, and he raised his hand to wipe it away, asking, "Where?"

Xia Yi reached out and wiped the side of his face with her cold fingertips, causing Nie Qingzhou to shudder.

Surprised, he looked at her and asked, "Are you cold?"

"I'm not cold."

"Not cold?" Nie Qingzhou stretched out his hand to touch hers. His hand was clearly much warmer than her. Xia Yi's hand stayed in place, not avoiding his touch.

Then he turned to ask the nurse if the air conditioner temperature could be turned up a bit. Xia Yi slowly retracted her fingers.

"Don't you have anything else to say?" Nie Qingzhou turned to look at Xia Yi.

Xia Yi replied bluntly: "No."

"...Alright. I didn't get a chance to ask before, but did that Aunt Yang also cause trouble before? Did you have to move because of her?"

Xia Yi nodded. She took out some photocopied materials from her school bag and handed them to him. "She came six times, and we moved twice."

"How much does she want?"

"Two hundred thousand."

Nie Qingzhou remained silent for a moment, then asked, "So this time...are you going to move again?"

Xia Yi looked into his eyes and shook her head. "I don't know."

Nie Qingzhou frowned and thought for a while, then temporarily set aside the topic. He lowered his head to look at the stack of papers Xia Yi had given him, and his eyes widened.

"This… is this a photocopy of your class notes from this week?" Nie Qingzhou said while flipping through them. Xia Yi's writing was neat and elegant, with all the key points and additional explanations for each topic, with none of the nine subjects missing.

Xia Yi nodded and said, "You can take a look."

Pausing for a moment, she added, "Just don't let Lai Ning and Zhang Yukun know."

Nie Qingzhou's gaze met hers, and he smiled meaningfully. The two of them understood each other without saying a word.

When Zhang Yukun and Lai Ning came to Nie Qingzhou's ward, Xia Yi's photocopied notes had already been hidden away securely. Nie Qingzhou acted as if he had never known the content of the classes, he eagerly stretched out his hands to them and acted like a child waiting to be fed: "Quick, let me see your notes for today."

Unaware of anything, Zhang Yukun and Lai Ning happily took out their own notebooks.

As the lively hospital room returned to calm, the moon had risen high in the sky. The patients in the room chatted idly, discussing the stock market, houses, and their children—anything they could make small talk about.

Nie Qingzhou didn't participate in the discussion. He walked out to the balcony and made a phone call.

"Hello, Zhao-Ge? It's Xiao-Zhou."

"Well, I want to ask you a favor."

On the fourth day of Nie Qingzhou's injury, it was a sunny day with rare calm winds in Changchuan. It was a dry and comfortable winter day. A group of burly men with dragon and phoenix tattoos on their bodies were carrying a person in a patient gown, walking majestically through the residential alley. The residents passing by could tell they were up to no good and they gossiped as they made way for them.

These people accurately blocked Yang Feng as she was returning home after buying groceries, right at the entrance of the building.

"You're Yang Feng, right?" The leading middle-aged man with a scar on his forehead, tanned skin, held a cigarette in his mouth and looked Yang Feng up and down.

Yang Feng watched this group warily and shouted loudly, "What do you want? What are you going to do?"

The big man pointed at the person lying on their stretcher and spat, "What do we want? You put my younger brother in this state, and you're asking me what we want? You pushed my brother down, those glass shards stabbed his whole back. If they had gone a little deeper and injured his spine, he would have been paralyzed. After doing something like this, you ran away quickly without a trace, not even paying any medical fees. And now you still have the nerve to ask what we want?"

The person on the stretcher raised his head, revealing a pale face—it was the high school boy she had seen a few days ago.

Yang Feng's face turned pale, but she stubbornly retorted, "What nonsense are you talking about? Who pushed your brother? He fell on his own!"

The man took out two pieces of paper from his pocket, turned his head and said to the onlooking crowd, "Everyone take a good look. This woman is called Yang Feng, she lives on the third floor of this building. A few days ago she injured my younger brother. These are the hospital examination report and the police statement. The police’s report shows that it was her who pushed my brother.”

After saying that, he showed several color-printed A4-sized photos to the people nearby. They were photos of Nie Qingzhou's injured back, with the blurred bloody mess before the stitches and countless fresh scars after the treatment, still tinged with red.

Upon seeing this, the surrounding people immediately let out emotional sighs. Seeing Nie Qingzhou's young, pale face, they felt even more sympathetic.

"Why would I push him for no reason? He was saying all kinds of nonsense, defending the family who killed my husband - who could tolerate that!" Yang Feng yelled with a strained neck.

"Pei! My brother is in the top three students at Changchuan No. 1 Middle School. He is one of the best students with high moral character and academics. He doesn't even know how to curse. But you, your mouth is dirtier than his! You have a grudge against others but bully my brother, you bitch is really vicious!"

The big man put his hands on his hips and scolded, "You're also someone's mother. You have a daughter, what's her name? Wu Jing, right? She's in Class 3 of Grade 2 in Haining Junior High School, right?"

Yang Feng glared at him and shouted furiously, "What do you want? You dare touch my daughter! I'll fight you to the death!"

She lunged forward, but the big man stepped back, not letting her touch him.

"Oh, so your daughter is precious, my younger brother is just grass? There is not much age difference between your daughter and my brother. Put yourself in my shoes - how can you shamelessly refuse to even pay my brother's medical expenses? His parents are working in the provincial capital, leaving him all alone here without anyone to take care of him in the hospital. How can you be so cruel?"

As the woman lunged forward, she ended up in front of Nie Qingzhou's stretcher and didn't dare make a move against him anymore. Her face was livid, as if she had ten thousand curses but she didn't dare utter.

"Brother, she's also quite pitiful, just let it go." Nie Qingzhou propped himself up on the stretcher and tugged at the big man's clothes.

The man patted Nie Qingzhou's head and said to the woman, "Listen, listen to my brother! My little brother is just too kind-hearted! I'm not as kind as him - you figure out the medical fees yourself and if you dare show up around my brother again, or cause trouble for him and his friends..."

The man blew out a smoke ring and lowered his voice, "Heaven's watching. You and your daughter better watch your step when you're out."

Yang Feng shuddered in fright. Facing this group of unfriendly men, she had lost the arrogance she had at the Xia family's door that day. Her eyes met the boy on the stretcher. His gaze was very calm, devoid of the innocence a child his age should have. He turned his head slightly and gave a faint smile.

That smile sent chills down Yang Feng's spine.

After making a commotion below the apartment building for a while, this group carried the person away swaggeringly. Once they reached a secluded corner, Nie Qingzhou got off the stretcher and said to the leading man, "Thank you, Zhao-Ge."

Then he said to the others around him, "Thank you brothers for being willing to do me this favor."

The men around waved their hands. The one called Zhao-Ge lit another cigarette, seemingly not satisfied enough yet. "Just a threat and that's it? She got you into this situation, or I'll find someone to beat her up at night."

"No, no need." Nie Qingzhou smiled and shook his head. "Just scaring her is enough."

Brother Zhao exhaled smoke and laughed as he said to the others, "Alright, everyone, go about your own business. Don't forget about the barbecue stall tonight."

After they left, he walked over to Nie Qingzhou and ruffled his hair. "It's been a long time, let's take a stroll with Zhao-Ge."

Nie Qingzhou agreed. They strolled leisurely through the alleys of Changchuan. All the passing peddlers would call out "Zhao-Ge" when they saw them. Brother Zhao would wave his hand in greeting. He laughed and said to Nie Qingzhou, "After Qian Fengyang beat you last time, I thought you kid would never come looking for me again in this life."

"That was a personal grudge between him and me. I can't always trouble you by taking advantage of the friendship between us." Nie Qingzhou smiled. His steps were still a bit stiff, but his tone was natural.

Zhao-Ge turned to look at him, sizing him up and down. "Qian-Ge told me you've changed, and I didn't believe it at first. But seeing you like this, forget just changing, I'd even believe it if someone says you've changed your soul."

Nie Qingzhou could only smile and play dumb.

Zhao-Ge took another puff of his cigarette and flicked off some ash. "I heard your grades are pretty good now, you're really top three in your grade?"

"Ai, just lucky."

"What luck, you're just a smart kid who finally figured things out. If you get the top grade and go to a good school and become a big official in the future, don't forget about us."

"Of course, if I have that ability, I'll treat you all to a meal back in Changchuan. I'll invite Qian-Ge too." Nie Qingzhou played along, said with a smile that was neither humble nor overbearing.

Zhao-Ge looked at him for a long time, then laughed leisurely, the scar on his forehead wrinkled as he spat and said, "Damn, I really envy you."

So young, smart, and fortunate - their future lives would be completely different.

"You don't need to say such pretty words. You didn't contact us before because you don't want anything more to do with us. Brother knows that, what hasn't brother seen in all these years? Brother doesn't blame you either." Zhao-Ge pointed at both sides of the street. "When you first started following me, you said you wanted to be like me in the future, having people calling 'Zhao-Ge' wherever you go."

"Since you've quit, you have to make something of yourself in the future. Not just in Changchuan, but even in the city or the province, everyone should know your name."

Nie Qingzhou looked at Zhao-Ge. In "Nie Qingzhou's" memories, he had known Zhao-Ge since he first started junior high school. During the days when he was skipping school, he followed Zhao-Ge around. He helped Zhao-Ge block knives and got into fights. Later, it was Zhao-Ge who recommended him to Qian-Ge.

When Nie Qingzhou and Xia Yi were cornered in the alley, the one who helped him fight with Qian Fengyang was also Zhao-Ge.

When Nie Qingzhou decided to quit, Zhao-Ge even called to scold him, asking why he didn't tell him in advance.

The former Nie Qingzhou truly regarded Zhao-Ge as an elder brother. At this moment, Nie Qingzhou felt that Zhao-Ge might also truly considered the former him as his younger brother.

"Okay, I'll work hard."

These words were Nie Qingzhou's first sincere words to Zhao-Ge.

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