Before Nian Yinghong left, she repeatedly urged and instructed Nie Qingzhou to study hard, do his homework well, dye his hair back, and so on. Nie Qingzhou agreed to everything one by one. After seeing Nian Yinghong off, Nie Qingzhou finally heaved a sigh of relief. He tidied up the pots and pans, washed them clean, and then walked to the bathroom, looking at the face reflected in the mirror.

The bathroom's bright white light was very strong, casting a pale, ghostly hue on Nie Qingzhou's face, making the red marks on his cheeks even more pronounced. He looked at this unfamiliar face, with well-defined features, fair smooth skin, a high nose bridge, and single eyelids—a face that should be quite appealing to girls. However, with his eyes set close together, the slightest raise of his eyebrows gave him a menacing look that made people want to stay away.

Then he smiled, and that smile instantly softened the hostility on his youthful face, instantly transforming his fierce countenance into a friendly one.

"No wonder I have to wear glasses ten years later and grow my hair long, constantly smiling all day long," Nie Qingzhou muttered to himself.

Pausing for a moment, he addressed the unfamiliar face in the mirror, "Is this the reason why I came here? You wanted a 'Nie Qingzhou' who could satisfy your parents and your aunt."

While Nian Yinghong was scolding him, he followed the clues she provided and gained more memories of Nie Qingzhou.

"Nie Qingzhou" was a hot-tempered, aggressive, and spiteful child. However, deep down, he also longed for love, attention, and the meaning of his existence in this vast world. But he was still too young; clueless how to attain them, and no one guided him. In his childhood, his grandfather raised him and provided him with food and shelter, but his grandfather was silent and not good at expressing himself, leading to a lack of communication between them. It seemed that he had never received truly genuine love and recognition in a serious sense.

So he was full of doubt and anger toward the world.

In fact, he didn't actually pass the entrance exam for Changchuan No.1 Middle School. It was his aunt who went through a lot of trouble to get him enrolled there. During this summer vacation, he went to the place where his parents worked for the first time and witnessed their hardships. He was still angry at his parents for abandoning him, but what was even more heavier and burdensome were the expectations and hopes they had for him. It was as if a fire had been lit inside his small chest. He became even more fearful and restless, skipping classes, pocketing money, getting into fights aimlessly, and squandering his youth, all in an attempt to escape this fright.

He was also full of doubts and anger towards himself.

He felt that his parents' hardships were meaningless because he wasn't worth it. He was rotten wood, just mud. There would never be any improvement in his life; he was not that piece of material. No matter how much blood, sweat, and tears his parents spent, no matter how much effort his aunt put in, it was all in vain.

At the tender age of sixteen, he firmly believed that his life was over, and he anxiously wanted to find a way to make his parents and loved ones believe that he was beyond saving, that they shouldn't try to rescue him anymore.

But at certain moments, he also hated himself and wondered why he wasn't one of those smart top students, the kind of child that would make his parents hold their heads up high in pride. Why was he only capable of disappointing his parents' wishes? If he wasn't himself, if he could be replaced by a child from "another family," that would be better. After all, no one loved him, no one cared about him. If only he could swap himself with a child from "another family."

Perhaps the heavens heard his wish, and today, this child from "another family" came into his body.

Nie Qingzhou folded his arms and sighed softly, "Do you think I'm the kind of child your parents and aunt want, or am I the kind of person you want to become?"

If you exchange lives with me, would you prefer my life that satisfies everyone around me but leaves me invisible?

With that, he turned around and looked at the filthy bathroom and the floor covered in footprints. He thought of what his aunt said before leaving—the house is too dirty, so you should clean it up.

Instead of pondering over these conflicting thoughts, couldn't "Nie Qingzhou" at least mop the floor first?

In the prime of youth, the most dangerous thing is to have a bunch of random nonsensical thoughts swirling in your head but do nothing.

"You kid, did you hire a cleaning lady, ah? I washed your shoes while holding my nose, and now you want me to clean your room too? Not to mention that on my first day here, I already took a beating for you! Looks like I won't be able to leave for the next ten years. Where did you run off to, you punk?" Nie Qingzhou cursed while looking up to the sky.

Sympathy to sympathy, cursing to cursing, Nie Qingzhou was a diligent person. He cleaned the small house thoroughly that night. The next morning, when he woke up and realized he still couldn't return to 2021, he was only sad for a few moments before he went downstairs and rode his bicycle to withdraw money.

No matter what time, money is the foundation of life and the source of all things.

Previously, Xia Yi's feeling was right. Nie Qingzhou, the one who would blush when buying on credit at the convenience store, had never lacked money from childhood to adulthood. The Zhou family wasn't wealthy, but they were middle class. Both of his parents were civil servants who never skimped on him in terms of money. His job in a state-owned enterprise after graduation was also decent, ensuring his livelihood.

However, the Nie family was much more financially constrained. Otherwise, they wouldn't have left their son here and both gone out to work. But clinging to the belief that the child shouldn't suffer hardships, Nie Qingzhou's parents were still generous toward him—generous within the limits of their ability.

Every 1st of the month at 9:00 a.m., Nie Qingzhou would receive a consistent 700 yuan from his father without fail. This money covered his whole month's living expenses, including meals and daily expenditures.

Although it was only 700 yuan, Nie Qingzhou felt his back straightened up when he got the money. He rode his bicycle swiftly, his white T-shirt fluttering like a flag in the wind. Arriving in front of the building, he stopped his bike and hurried to the convenience store to repay his debt. However, he arrived at an inconvenient time as there was no one behind the counter.

Feeling disappointed that his excitement as a nouveau riche had no audience, Nie Qingzhou wandered around the convenience store in a somewhat resentful manner while waiting. Snacks and stationery were the most common items in the store, neatly arranged on the shelves. The entire store along with the goods on the shelves were kept clean.

He had no interest in snacks, but his attention was drawn to a brightly colored bag of multi-flavored Alpenliebe lollipops.

He still remembered from one of Xia Yi's interviews ten years later, she said that she liked Alpenliebe lollipops the most, especially the cola flavored ones.

It was said that since then, Xia Yi's fans would stuff lollipops in their gifts, and there were even fans who made bouquets with 999 lollipops to welcome her at the airport. His cousin didn't want to be outdone and hoarded a pile of "Xia Yi-style" Alpenliebe lollipops at home, many of which ended up in his stomach.

The recent events seemed like a distant memory now. Nie Qingzhou couldn't help but bend down and pick up the bag of lollipops. It was a mixed variety pack, with the flavors and quantities written on the square and colorful packaging. The wind rustled the wind chimes in front of the convenience store, and a girl's voice came amidst the gentle tinkling of the bells.

"Zhou Bin."

Nie Qingzhou froze.

He turned around and saw Xia Yi, who had appeared behind the counter at some point.

She still had her boyish short black hair, wearing a gray hoodie, but she seemed to merge with the brilliant genius she would become ten years later.

His heart leaped into his throat, and he took a few steps toward Xia Yi, his eyes shining. "How did you know..."

At that moment, Xia Yi picked up a ledger and shook it in front of him, pointing to the line where he signed for credit yesterday, which was clearly written with the two big words "Zhou Bin".

Nie Qingzhou felt like a balloon pricked by a needle, and all his excitement quickly deflated. He looked at his confident signature in the ledger and felt awkward. "Ah... I accidentally wrote the wrong name."

As soon as those words left his mouth, Nie Qingzhou thought there were probably only two possibilities: either Xia Yi thought he was a fool or she assumed he was taking her for a fool.

So, he immediately took out a 100 yuan note from his pocket and respectfully handed it over with both hands.

"I didn't want to renege on the debt, I just came to pay back the money."

Xia Yi glanced at him but didn't say much. In their few encounters, she had always been economical with words. She took the money, ran it through a currency validator, and then looked at the bag of lollipops he held.

"Do you want these?" she asked.

Nie Qingzhou looked at the lollipops in his hand. Given his current financial situation, it would be best for him to put the whole bag back on the shelf.

However, he placed the lollipops on the counter and said, "I'll take them."

While Xia Yi scanned the barcode and looked down to get his change, Nie Qingzhou opened the bag and rummaged through it, finding two cola-flavored lollipops and placed them on the counter.

"These are for you. Thank you for letting me buy on credit yesterday.

Xia Yi raised her eyes to look up at him and calmly replied, "It was my grandmother who allowed you to buy on credit, not me."

Nie Qingzhou smiled. He picked up the remaining lollipops and walked away, saying, "Then each of you can have one. Thank grandmother for me as well."

Waving his hand, he walked into the sunlight. The sunlight shone on his swaying arms with protruding veins. He seemed to be unaware of the bruise on his face that hadn't faded yet. It was as if he wasn't a cocky and violent boy who would pick fights but a gentle, well-mannered good student excelling in academics.

Xia Yi watched this weird guy go further away, glanced down at the lollipops on the counter, peeled one open, and put it in her mouth. She continued to be the guardian of her little convenience store.

The pen twirled in her hand as she took out her homework and a piece of draft paper. In the messy drafts, she wrote down, "1=C 2/4," followed by a series of musical notes.

The sound of this unfamiliar neighbor's footsteps suddenly changed for her. Now, his footsteps sounded like the beat of a march.

Regarding what Zhou Bin saw in the interview about Xia Yi liking lollipops ten years later, there were some clips that were cut off that he didn't know about.

In a certain clip, after listening to Xia Yi's snack preferences, the host said, "Hahaha, these are all our childhood memories. Teacher Xia, why are you so fond of Alpenliebe lollipops?"

Behind the camera, Xia Yi had her wavy hair scattered, wearing a black shiny lace dress, like the vast night sky—beautiful and unattainable. No one would have expected that in her first year of high school, she kept her hair short like a boy and never wore skirts all year round.

She thought for a moment, then replied, "I used to dislike eating candy. But then, I had a friend who loved candy. He would always give me cola-flavored Alpenliebe lollipops. As I ate them often, I grew to like them."

Her answer was always concise, but that day it was the longest sentence she had spoken.

Within these concealed clues, the causal cycle of time circled endlessly, and no one knew what was the beginning and what was the end.

Or perhaps, every moment, right here and right now, is the beginning.


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