On Saturday morning, Ning Yiwei nervously returned home.
He unlocked the door and smelled a mixture of cooked food and smoke. He could hear the sound of someone frying in the kitchen. His father was facing away, talking on the phone, unaware of any movement behind him.
Ning Yiwei put his backpack down and timidly called out, “Dad.”
Ning Qiang turned around and immediately exclaimed loudly to the person on the phone, “I won’t talk to you anymore, my son has come back!” He then walked toward Ning Yiwei.
Ning Qiang was tall, with a crew cut, and wore a light brown leather jacket. He held a cigarette in his right hand. He had been too focused on the phone call and hadn’t flicked the ash, which had accumulated and was now falling to the ground as he walked. He asked, “Did you finish class early today?”
“Hmm,” Ning Yiwei recited the ventilation message Liang Chong had sent him, “I only had two classes this morning. We have fewer classes in our fourth year, so we have more free time. Although I’ve been busy lately, it’s been a month since I last saw you all. I missed you so much, so I didn’t go to the library after class today. I came straight home.”
“You’ve suffered, Weiwei,” Ning Qiang patted Ning Yiwei’s shoulder affectionately and said with a hint of annoyance, “I told you, your mother always thinks of unnecessary things. Our son works so hard in his studies, and she even suspiciously showed me news about college students being expelled for playing games.”
The commotion in the kitchen ceased. Lu Jiaqin, wearing a cultural promotional apron given by the community, came out carrying a dish, complaining to Ning Yiwei, “You finally decided to come home.”
“Weiwei is busy studying!” Ning Qiang hurriedly defended Ning Yiwei, “He was supposed to go to the library this morning but didn’t go there today just to come home.”
Lu Jiaqin placed the dish on the table and glared at Ning Qiang. “Let’s eat.”
Ning Yiwei had a modest upbringing. When he was two years old, Lu Jiaqin’s factory had poor performance and she was laid off. Lu Jiaqin had to work in different places, and during times of poverty, the three of them squeezed into a small compartment in a low-rent housing, but Ning Yiwei never lacked anything.
Lu Jiaqin was always afraid that Ning Yiwei would be bullied at school due to his young age, so she only bought expensive clothes for him to wear.
Understanding how hard his parents worked, Ning Yiwei was very sensible and never asked Lu Jiaqin for anything.
When Ning Qiang opened his second fresh supermarket in partnership with someone, they faced shortages of funds and manpower. The cashier who worked at night quit after a week, complaining about the tiring job. Ning Yiwei was in the second year of middle school at that time and, after hearing Ning Qiang talk about it at home, he skipped his evening self-study classes every day to help out at the store.
Lu Jiaqin and Ning Qiang didn’t want Ning Yiwei to get involved, but he insisted on coming. Despite his small stature, Ning Yiwei was indeed capable. He stood on a short stool behind the cash register, from half-past five in the evening until ten o’clock, and even helped Ning Qiang reconcile the day’s finances, never making a mistake.
Ning Yiwei had been living the routine of coming home in the early morning, sleeping, and then going to class early the next day for over half a year. Ning Qiang would later say that it was fortunate that at that time, customers had a weak sense of labor laws, and no one reported him for employing underage workers.
Nowadays, the scale of the fresh supermarket had grown significantly and could be seen everywhere in D City. The annual income kept increasing, but Ning Qiang and Lu Jiaqin continued to live a simple and frugal life. Ning Qiang still smoked soft Yuxi cigarettes, and Lu Jiaqin still styled permed hair at a small barber shop in the neighborhood. They only felt the least reluctant when it came to spending money on Ning Yiwei.
However, despite giving Ning Yiwei a considerable monthly allowance, they never saw him spend it.
Having not seen Ning Yiwei for over a month this time, although Lu Jiaqin didn’t mention it, she couldn’t help but worry. Looking at Ning Yiwei’s prominent wrist bones, tears welled up in her eyes.
Ning Yiwei, observing his mother’s gaze, thought to himself that it was a good thing she didn’t see the wound behind his ear. Otherwise, Lu Jiaqin would surely be holding him and crying, and no one would feel like eating.
“Weiwei, you’ve been recommended for graduate school,” Ning Qiang took a sip of his drink and asked Ning Yiwei, “What will you study?”
Ning Yiwei pondered for a moment and explained in simple language the research direction he intended to choose. Ning Qiang and Lu Jiaqin pretended to suddenly understand, saying “Oh” and “Oh” as if they had just realized it, even though they didn’t really understand anything.
But just like how Ning Yiwei didn’t need his parents to worry about his studies from childhood to adulthood, they knew they didn’t need to worry too much. They didn’t need to grasp all the details. After all, no matter how much they understood, it wouldn’t affect Ning Yiwei’s relationship with them.
“Anyway,” Ning Yiwei summed up his statement, “it’s good to follow Professor Kong.”
Finally, Ning Qiang and Lu Jiaqin understood that sentence and nodded continuously. “Yes, yes, it’s good, it’s good.”
The steamer in the kitchen made a “ding” sound, indicating that Lu Jiaqin’s steamed fish was ready.
“This fish is the freshest. Have some more,” she brought it out from the kitchen and placed it in front of Ning Yiwei. “I gave two to Mrs. Liang yesterday, and she just messaged me saying it was delicious and asked if there were any more left.”
“Mrs. Liang?” Ning Yiwei casually asked, “Isn’t she in the south with Uncle?”
“She came back recently,” Lu Jiaqin shook her head and explained, “Their group seems to be acquiring some company. She was afraid that Xiao Liang would have a hard time handling it alone, so she came back to help him.”
Ning Qiang chimed in, “I didn’t see her in the news yesterday, only saw Xiao Liang.”
“Yes,” Lu Jiaqin nodded, “I went to deliver the fish and vegetables yesterday. It seems like Mrs. Liang wasn’t busy with much. She told me she had recently fired her chef and was learning to cook herself. She talked to me for a long time.”
“Does he have a girlfriend?” Ning Qiang asked again, “He’s not young anymore, and his business is doing well. It’s time for him to settle down.”
“No,” Ning Yiwei and Lu Jiaqin both replied simultaneously.
“Weiwei knows,” Lu Jiaqin saw Ning Yiwei listening attentively without touching his chopsticks, so she picked up a large piece of fish meat and put it in his bowl, urging him to eat. She continued, “Mrs. Liang told me yesterday that her friend’s daughter is very well-educated and exceptionally beautiful. She wanted her to meet Xiao Liang, but he didn’t even spare her a glance. I don’t know what to do.”
Ning Qiang was surprised. “He’s not like that. He’s always polite to us. Why would he ignore her like that?”
“Mrs. Liang didn’t provide details,” Lu Jiaqin shook her head in confusion and added, “Oh, by the way—” she glanced at Ning Yiwei, “Weiwei, Mrs. Liang said she wants you to advise him when you have the time. He might appreciate hearing from someone of your generation.”
“No,” Ning Yiwei strongly rejected the proposal, showing great reluctance.
“Why?” Lu Jiaqin asked him.
“Liang Chong said he doesn’t like her,” Ning Yiwei felt a bit frustrated for some reason and repeated the words Liang Chong had said to him on the phone that day, “They don’t like each other.”
“That can’t be true,” Lu Jiaqin argued, “That young lady must certainly like Xiao Liang.”
“Even so, it’s not possible,” Ning Yiwei gave an example, “Two deuterium atoms cannot combine to form helium without external intervention. If you force them together, it will result in nuclear fusion and cause an explosion.”
“You, my son,” Lu Jiaqin teased, “always say things that your old mom can’t understand. I just felt sorry for Mrs. Liang and wanted to help her.”
Ning Yiwei remained silent. He finished eating the fish in his bowl and then said to Lu Jiaqin with a hint of frustration, “Liang Chong is also troubled. If he doesn’t like her, why force them together?”
Lu Jiaqin rarely saw Ning Yiwei so visibly angry. She was silent for a while before whispering, “How could we force Xiao Liang…”
“Let’s not bring this up again.” Ning Yiwei thought of Liang Chong’s tired face when he returned home a few days ago and felt frustrated that the elders didn’t understand empathy. He emphasized to his mother, “He’s exhausted every day, and you all have no idea. You don’t understand at all.”
“Alright, alright,” Ning Qiang intervened to defuse the tension, “Weiwei, continue talking about your research on solid-state.”
After finishing the meal, Ning Yiwei sat with his parents in the living room and watched TV series for a while. The partner from the supermarket called Ning Qiang and informed him that a shipment of mangoes had been seized, and they needed to re-establish the contact for the supply. Ning Qiang and Lu Jiaqin hurriedly left again.
Ning Yiwei was bored at home, so he called Zhou Zirui to ask what he was up to.
Zhou Zirui said he was working on a presentation for his brother. Ning Yiwei grabbed his laptop and went to Zhou Zirui’s dorm room. They carefully worked on the slides for the linear algebra course that his brother would be taking in the second half of the semester, and then sent them over.
Thirty minutes later, Zhou Zirui’s brother transferred five hundred yuan to Zhou Zirui, saying it was for their hard work.
“Ma-Mathematics professors from the College of Science are r-really stingy!” Zhou Zirui looked at the notification message of the transferred money with a touch of bitterness. “Yiwei, let me treat you to a nice m-meal.”
Ning Yiwei sighed and said, “Forget it, Zirui. Let’s just eat at the cafeteria.”
Zhou Zirui insisted that even if they ate at the cafeteria, they should go to the most expensive one. He took Ning Yiwei to the coffee shop near the library on campus and ordered three servings of braised rice. Ning Yiwei only had half a serving, while Zhou Zirui had two and a half servings.
At the adjacent table in the coffee shop, several students were sitting with textbooks, likely from the Finance Department. They placed a tablet on the table and were watching a live stream. Two of them were taking notes, probably working on a group assignment.
The sound from the live stream was being played out loud, but it wasn’t too loud, so Ning Yiwei and Zhou Zirui didn’t pay much attention.
After a while, possibly during an exciting part of the live stream, the students raised the volume slightly. Ning Yiwei overheard the host of the live stream saying that this was Mr. Liang’s biggest gamble since taking over, and it was one of the largest acquisitions in real estate development history.
Immediately after, the host began introducing Liang Chong. Ning Yiwei glanced up and happened to see Liang Chong stepping down from the podium.
Watching Liang Chong smile and shake hands with someone, a boy at the adjacent table shook his head and jokingly sighed, “Seeing a winner in life like him makes me lose all motivation to study. I just want to go buy lottery tickets.”
“Buy the tickets and keep studying,” a girl next to him said. “Even if you don’t win the lottery, you still have a chance to work for successful seniors like him.”
“Did everyone notice?” the host’s voice became a bit gossipy. “Mr. Liang Chong started making a phone call as soon as he stepped down. His parents are also present, so is he calling the future heiress of the group?”
The girl who spoke immediately picked up her own phone and cast a spell on the screen. “Ring, ring, ring!”
Shortly after, Ning Yiwei’s phone started ringing. He picked it up, pressed the answer button, and held the receiver to his ear. “Hello.”
“You answered so quickly,” Liang Chong’s voice sounded relaxed. He asked Ning Yiwei, “Where are you?”
Ning Yiwei glanced at the live stream screen not far away, where Liang Chong was shown with his head lowered, and the camera couldn’t capture his expression. Ning Yiwei thought, so this is how Liang Chong calls me—sneaky and secretive.
But Ning Yiwei didn’t expose it. He told Liang Chong, “I’m at school, having dinner with Zirui.”
In the screen, Liang Chong raised his head slightly, and the camera finally captured him. Liang Chong had his eyes lowered, with a subtle smile on his face.
He said to Ning Yiwei, “I’ve finished work. I’m coming to pick you up now.”
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