Although Hua Zhendan looked sharp as always at work, throughout the day, his emotions were shrouded with anxiety.
As he drove, the red decorations on the street plagued his heart and filled him with inexplicable misery. He remembered clearly that around this time the year before, he had sat on a barstool reminding himself to give Shen Rui a call sometime. Now, he was driving to her place for dinner. A tradition that had been abandoned for four years.
His most disturbing thought, however, was the memory of that crisp voice that had disturbed his solitude while he had sat in that bar. Those beautiful eyes and lips that had hit on him shamelessly and stolen his heart. Long legs that had wrapped around his waist and drawn him into a world of constant longing and turmoil. Legs that had invaded his space so carefreely, then walked out of his life a week earlier, leaving a void on his bed, his office couch and in his heart.
Hua Zhendan turned up the radio to block out the thoughts of Xuan Tianyi that disrupted his drive. But even the DJ played such festive songs that his mind just wandered back to the man he loved. This day, as beautiful as it was for others, seemed to have become something that would haunt his memories every year.
As he pulled by the driveway of his childhood home, thoughts of Xuan Tianyi were replaced with nostalgia and blissful memories of a beautiful childhood. Memories so strong, they made him smile.
Memories of a love that was given while nothing was expected in return.
Standing at the door, Hua Zhendan thought about knocking but eventually decided against it. He wasn't a stranger here after all.
He looked at the pile of rocks gathered in a pail near the door and thoughtfully picked the fake rock that used to hold the key specifically kept outside for him. It was a long shot to expect to find a key there, but the key was there. What made it even more heartwarming was that he noticed it was a new key. The door had a new lock. Still, Shen Rui had kept his key just where she knew he'd look for it.
With a heart filled with love and happiness, he turned the lock and entered the house.
Almost immediately, he heard indistinct sounds coming from the kitchen and realized Shen Rui was still cooking. Of course, the food wasn't ready. His mother knew he only ate his food hot and wouldn't prepare it until she knew he was almost there.
Wondering how much still remained the same from his childhood, his legs took him wandering around the house, upstairs to his childhood bedroom and then back downstairs to the porch.
While his bedroom had filled him with angst and hallucinations the last time he was here, this time, he could only view it with fondness and love. Other than the fresh coat of painting on the walls, everything else was exactly like he remembered it.
The porch still housed that hammock. That hammock that as a child, Shen Rui had cuddled him on until he fell asleep. The hammock on which he had sat apart from Qiu Dawei, so that their relationship wasn't so obvious to Shen Rui, even though, all they wanted to do back then was lie together on it and showed the world their love for each other.
Hua Zhendan walked towards the hammock and sat down on it. These memories were still vivid in his mind. But somehow, the feelings he used to have for Qiu Dawei appeared very distant from his heart. Something he didn't think would be possible back then. Maybe with time, he would be able to get over Xuan Tianyi as well.
As that thought crossed his mind, he almost laughed at himself. If ever he would get over Xuan Tianyi, that time wasn't very soon, because, at the moment, he still felt Xuan Tianyi's presence in his heart. So strongly, it almost seems like they aren't apart.
Hua Zhendan was startled. How had he heard Xuan Tianyi's voice the moment he thought about him?
\"Zhendan. Can you hear me? Shen Rui says to call you for dinner.\"
Hua Zhendan turned around and discovered Xuan Tianyi's voice hadn't come from his imagination. Xuan Tianyi was indeed there, standing right on the porch.
Hua Zhendan stared at him wordlessly and realized his surprise was uncalled for. After all, it seemed that as the days went by, Shen Rui and Xuan Tianyi's relationship grew stronger.
\"Come on.\" Xuan Tianyi said when Hua Zhendan said nothing. He couldn't help but think Hua Zhendan was mad at him. Slowly, he turned and walked away. Hua Zhendan followed closely.
When Hua Zhendan got to the dining hall, he hugged Shen Rui before taking his place on the table. \"How did you know I was here?\"
\"I heard you come in.\"
Hua Zhendan glanced at Xuan Tianyi meaningfully.
Shen Rui studied his expression and spoke, \"Xuan Tianyi is here to discuss something with me. He offered to help me in the kitchen, so I asked him to stay for dinner.\"
Hua Zhendan gave Shen Rui a small, polite smile as he ate. He then said to Xuan Tianyi. \"I thought you always spent the New Year's eve with your sister.\"
Hua Zhendan's words spread a warmth in Xuan Tianyi's heart and a blush on his face as it was his turn to remember their first night together. He replied, \"Turns out that tradition is more important to me than it is to Xuan Tianmei. She won't leave her lover's side to be with me.\"
Hua Zhendan laughed at the irony of the situation. He didn't dare undermine Xuan Tianmei's affections for her brother, but it was funny that while Xuan Tianyi had abandoned him just one year ago to be with her, she wouldn't do the same for him.
\"I blame you, by the way.\" Xuan Tianyi added.
Hua Zhendan raised a brow at Xuan Tianyi. \"What did I do?\"
\"If it wasn't for you, Su Yang would never have come into my sister's life.\"
Hua Zhendan smiled. \"If there's one thing I know for sure, it was your sister who asked out Su Yang and not the other way around. Your sister is really into her.\"
\"Did Su Yang tell you that?\"
\"No. I just noticed from the way she stares at her.\"
\"Is it that obvious?\" Xuan Tianyi had a genuine look of confusion on his face.
Hua Zhendan nodded.
\"I'm so clueless.\" Xuan Tianyi scolded himself.
\"No. You're self-absorbed. The difference is that you only care about yourself and your feelings—\"
Shen Rui cleared her throat to interrupt Hua Zhendan. And possibly impede a disaster. \"There's something I wanted to discuss with you.\" She said to Hua Zhendan.
\"What's it about?\"
\"I... Was thinking about retiring.\"
\"Why not? I started this business because of you. You're old enough to take care of it all by yourself.\" Shen Rui shrugged. \"I really don't know why I'm still there.\"
\"So, what are you going to do if you retire?\"
\"I don't know. Anything. Travel perhaps. Or open a small business to sell crocheted items.\"
\"Yeah. That's what I was going to do initially. Just so I had something doing. But after you came into my life, I realized I had to build something for you. So I gave up on the whole idea.\"
Hua Zhendan chewed silently and nodded to show he was paying attention.
Shen Rui continued. \"But, I think I'll travel first. That's also something else I've always wanted to do. Have sex with different guys from different countries.\"
Xuan Tianyi chuckled while Hua Zhendan shook his head with a look of disgust on his face. \"I did not need to hear that.\"
Shen Rui smiled. She looked from Xuan Tianyi to Hua Zhendan before speaking. \"When I do retire. Maybe sometime before the end of the month... The first thing you should do is take over Qiu Dawei's project.\"
Xuan Tianyi immediately found it difficult to swallow his food. He coughed and took a drink from a glass of water Shen Rui had earlier placed in front of him.
Hua Zhendan stared at him with and asked with a voice filled with concern. \"Are you okay?\"
Xuan Tianyi nodded. \"I'm fine.\"
Hua Zhendan gave Shen Rui a scornful look. \"Mum, I know you asked him to come back to Beijing.\"
\"He told you?\"
\"Not until recently. And only because he had to.\"
\"And you're not mad at me?\"
\"No. I'm not.\"
\"Good then.\" She smiled. Then added, \"The project wasn't a part of the plan.\"
\"It wasn't? Wasn't that why you approved it without any second thoughts?\"
\"No. I suppose he thought about it when he was thinking about how to approach you. He's a very clever person.\"
\"He is.\" Hua Zhendan nodded in reply.
Xuan Tianyi suddenly felt full. He looked from mother to son and stood up. Picking up his plates, he said, \"I'll just take this to the kitchen.\"
\"You don't need to.\" Shen Rui stood up to stop him from doing that.
\"No, it's okay.\" Xuan Tianyi insisted.
\"You don't worry about this—\"
\"Mum, just let him.\" Hua Zhendan said, causing Shen Rui to release the plates.
With his head bowed down slightly, Xuan Tianyi carried his used plates to the kitchen.
\"Mum,\" Hua Zhendan called.
\"I know you're aware that Xuan Tianyi and I are no longer dating.\"
Shen Rui nodded.
\"If ever... I wanted to ask him out again. Or perhaps, some other guy, do I have your blessing?\"
Shen Rui stared at her son thoughtfully. With a small smile, she nodded. \"Yes, that'll be fine.\"
Hua Zhendan stared at her and could immediately tell her consent hadn't come from the bottom of her heart. Still, he was satisfied. Satisfied that at least, she could now pretend to be okay with him. Although it was a small step, it was still a step in the right direction.
Mother and son exchanged a glance and continued their reunion dinner in silence.
Xuan Tianyi thought of returning to the dining room, but decided against it. Instead, he walked towards the front door and out of the apartment.