In the days that followed, Nie Qingzhou continued to pick up Xia Yan from school as usual, and they walked home together. However, he didn't visit her for piano practice anymore, and talked less.

As the sun was setting, Nie Qingzhou sat on his bicycle with one foot on the ground, waiting for Xia Yan to finish school under a perpetually shedding phoenix tree.

Xia Yan's junior high also offered evening study sessions, but they were optional. If he attended, Xia Yi would pick him up after school as long as he stayed a bit longer.

Yet, Xia Yan didn't attend these evening sessions; he didn't seem to like school very much.

Soon, Xia Yan appeared, walking slowly from the door of the teaching building towards the school gate. Just in the first year of junior high, he hadn't grown tall yet, standing at just under 1.7 meters. Like Xia Yi, he had a slender, pale appearance, with narrow phoenix eyes. Even the white part of his school uniform remained unblemished, free from any hint of yellowing.

He walked at a leisurely pace, and despite a noticeable limp, his posture wasn't overly awkward. Even so, he stumbled slightly while descending the steps. Nie Qingzhou saw a few unfriendly students nearby laughing at him; someone even seemed like he wanted to pull him, but he was held back by the people next to him.

Xia Yan continued forward as if he hadn't noticed them, steadying himself and maintaining his gaze straight ahead.

Nie Qingzhou thought that Xia Yan shared some similarities with Xia Yi in terms of determination.

When Xia Yan walked out of the school gate, Nie Qingzhou pedaled his bicycle a few times, coasting to meet him. He smiled and said, "Hop on, young master."

Xia Yan clearly disliked the nickname. He pouted but patiently took out a bag full of snacks from his backpack and tossed it into Nie Qingzhou's bike basket.

"Grandma said you've been inconvenienced by picking me up, so she sent snacks for you." He said stiffly.

Nie Qingzhou glanced inside the bag and saw two large packets of lollipops on top.

"My sister put the candy there. She told me not to tell you," Xia Yan said as he hopped onto the back seat of Nie Qingzhou's bike, his tone awkward. "But I won't listen to her."

Nie Qingzhou couldn't help but chuckle. He pedaled forward and said, "Are you going through a rebellious phase? Have to defy your sister?"

Xia Yan fell silent for a moment. Instead of answering his question, he suddenly asked, "Are you angry with my sister?"

This question left Nie Qingzhou momentarily speechless. If he were to say he was angry, there was no need for him to be at odds with a sixteen-year-old girl. If he were to say he wasn't angry, well, there was still a trace of irritation, indeed.

He increased his pedaling speed in silence, leaves and wind rustling around them. When Xia Yan saw that he didn't reply, he took it as confirmation and continued, "That's how she is. She doesn't understand why anyone would be upset. She lacks normal human emotions."

Nie Qingzhou immediately retorted, "You're heartless for saying that, little bro. Weren't you the one who used to have your sister pick you up after school? And your sister isn't one to stir up trouble. All those fights you got into before, weren't they because of you? I bet nobody dares to bully you at your school now, right?"

"Everything's because of me! I never asked her! She should mind her own business!" Xia Yan suddenly raised his voice, even kicking the side of the bicycle in frustration.

The bicycle teetered slightly under the impact of the kicks. To ensure safety, Nie Qingzhou felt compelled to pacify him, saying, "My goodness, you two are siblings. You've shared your days and nights for more than ten years. Is it really necessary to act as if there's some enormous grievance between you?"

"I haven't spent ten years with her," Xia Yan fumed. "I lived with my grandmother when I was little, and she stayed with our mother. We only started living together four years ago."

"Huh? Why did you separate?" Nie Qingzhou was puzzled.

There was a brief silence on Xia Yan's end. He spoke softly, "My mom's too busy. And maybe she doesn't like me. I'm not as outstanding as Xia Yi, and I'm not even healthy."

The lazy evening sun cast a warm glow on Nie Qingzhou. He glanced at the shadow by the bike, seeing the young boy on the back seat, head lowered in a despondent manner. He felt he might understand why the atmosphere between these siblings was always strained, as if there was an invisible barrier.

Nie Qingzhou wanted to use that clichéd phrase, "Parents never dislike their own children," to comfort Xia Yan, but he found it hard to say. Even as an adult, he sometimes wondered if his accomplished parents would reject him if he was no longer "outstanding."

He tried to recall information he'd learned about Xia Yi's mother ten years later and said, "Auntie used to be a music teacher at an elementary school, right?"

"How did you know?" Xia Yan was surprised at first, then realized something and said in an inexplicably resentful tone, "Xia Yi actually talked to you about my mom? What else did she say?"

"...No, she rarely brings up those things."

Xia Yan's legs dangled behind. As Nie Qingzhou started to pedal uphill and the speed slowed down, Xia Yan suddenly said, "Grandma forbids us from talking about mom. She despises my mom, hates her music. Grandma says people who make music are full of fantasies, fragile, and selfish, and irresponsible."

He rambled on, seemingly without a clear purpose, perhaps not even understanding himself. Nie Qingzhou was reminded of what Xia Yi had told him— "Don't tell Grandma I play the piano. She hides her earphones every time she comes home and stashes away her mp3 player. She hums when she's lost in thought, but he's never heard her make music-like sounds in front of Grandma or Xia Yan."

In front of their grandmother, she concealed her deepest self, keeping silent about her mother.

No wonder he always felt she was polite, and acted like a guest wherever she went.

As Xia Yan hopped off the bike, he stood still for a moment before speaking rapidly, "Actually, my sister asked me to give you all those snacks."

He paused and added, "If you eat her snacks, then don't hold grudges against her."

Nie Qingzhou froze for a moment, and couldn't help but chuckle when he saw Xia Yan limping and hurriedly walking into the commissary.

After evening self-study, Xia Yi walked towards the distant parking shed as usual. And just as usual, Nie Qingzhou had already wheeled out his bike and leaned against it, reading under the lamplight.

Nie Qingzhou seemed to enjoy reading. Before the midterms, he focused on reading study guides, but now he often had some unfamiliar, strange books in his hands, like the one he was holding now—"The Rights of Heretics." His left hand rested against his right elbow, while his right hand held the book tagged from the school library, deftly flipping pages with his thumb and pinky, fully absorbed. His fingers were well-spaced and actually very well suited for playing the piano.

Such Nie Qingzhou looked a bit unfamiliar.

Lately, he had been acting strangely, as if he was angry with her, but she didn't know why.

As Xia Yi approached, Nie Qingzhou lifted his head from the book and smiled, "Hey, you're here! Come over!"

Puzzled, she took a few steps towards him.

"Extend your hand," he said.

Following his words, she extended her hand towards him.

Nie Qingzhou pulled his left hand out from under his right elbow and placed it in Xia Yi's palm. His fingers were slightly pale due to being pressed for a while, yet they were very warm.

His fingers spread open, and four cola-flavored lollipops fell into Xia Yi's hand, all wrapped in uniformly brown packaging.

"Grandma thanked me for picking up Xiao Yan after school and gave me a big bag of snacks. In order to thank you for giving me this job opportunity, I'll share the spoils with you."

Nie Qingzhou pretended not to know anything. Putting the book away, he mischievously said, "But the main credit still goes to me, so that's all you have."

Xia Yi looked down at the lollipops in her palm, then back at Nie Qingzhou. Her eyes held a hint of surprise. With an easy grin, Nie Qingzhou mounted the bike and said, "Let's go."

Xia Yi thought, Nie Qingzhou seems back to his usual self; he doesn't seem to be upset anymore.

It was already late autumn, and whenever the wind rustled through the trees, leaves fell like rain. Nie Qingzhou and Xia Yi rode one after the other on the leaf-strewn road. Nie Qingzhou took a deep breath and said, "Actually, just a few days ago, I felt a little uncomfortable when I heard you say it wasn't normal for me to get first place."

Xia Yi turned her gaze to him. Nie Qingzhou's school uniform jacket revealed a navy blue hoodie, along with a stretch of fair neck. Amidst the interplay of light and shadow, he spoke, "But I've also thought about it seriously, and I feel there's no need to be angry. Everyone would think this way, after all, it is really abnormal to make such rapid progress, from nearly a thousandth to the top rank."

At this moment, Xia Yi seemed to have grasped the reason for Nie Qingzhou's unhappiness, but she didn't quite understand it. "But you've achieved it."

Nie Qingzhou seemed to be taken aback. He braked suddenly and stopped by the side of the road with his feet on the ground. Xia Yi didn't react in time and rode past him for a bit before stopping and turning back to look at him.

"What do you mean by this?" Nie Qingzhou gazed at Xia Yi, the lamplight reflecting in his eyes, confusion evident just like in hers.

"I mean, you've achieved something really difficult," she said with sincerity.

"So... you don't think I cheated to get the top spot in the grade?"

Nie Qingzhou stared into Xia Yi's pitch-black eyes. She seemed a bit taken aback, her eyes widening slightly.

"I don't think so," she said.

Nie Qingzhou prodded, "Why not? Didn't you also say that this kind of progress isn't normal?"

"This kind of situation is indeed abnormal, but it's even more abnormal for you to cheat. There's still a possibility for improvement, but I don't believe there's a possibility for you to cheat."

Xia Yi, rarely this talkative, paused for a moment before continuing, "And you said you wanted to get into the experimental class."

There would be many more exams in the future. Relying solely on cheating couldn't possibly lead to consistently good results, nor could it get him into the experimental class.

Nie Qingzhou opened his mouth, but he didn't know what to say.

"Haven't you ever doubted me?"

Xia Yi shook her head, firmly replying, "No."

"Why not?"

"You have your pride; you won't do something like this."

Autumn winds blew, and leaves fluttered down onto Xia Yi's hair and shoulders, then rolled to the ground. There was a glint of depth and clarity in her eyes.

Nie Qingzhou fell silent for a moment, then suddenly burst into laughter. He covered his forehead and said, "I'm so stupid, really so so dumb. What have I been fussing about these days? So, those misunderstandings from those cheesy TV dramas can really happen! Luckily I asked; otherwise, I'd have been ridiculously foolish."

To be able to mock himself so cheerfully, perhaps there wasn't another person in the world who could do the same at this moment.

Standing under the lamplight, Xia Yi watched him quietly. Her sleeves were rolled up to her elbows, her slender and fair arms supporting the handlebars, resembling a seagull perched on a treetop.

Just as he had hoped, she believed in him.

That was alright then. It didn't matter if everyone else doubted him. As long as this was the case, he would be content.

Nie Qingzhou mounted his bike again. The wheels rolled over the fallen leaves, making a crisp crackling sound. He chuckled, "Let's go, let's head home!"


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