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454 Threes a Crowd

 "Hello? Professor He?" Gu Nianzhi asked as she answered her phone. She didn't know what he needed from her on a Sunday night but, even though they had just been together that morning, she was his teaching assistant, so it was normal for him to call her at odd hours.

He Zhichu held his phone with one hand and put the other in this trouser pocket. He stood in front of the French windows and watched the beautiful dusk sky as he listened to Gu Nianzhi's voice. He certainly enjoyed the sound of her voice, but he also thought he heard background music, people chatting, and the sound people placing orders. He Zhichu's expression warmed, but his tone was still aloof. "Nianzhi, did you finish the Powerpoint presentation for the undergraduate students?"

Gu Nianzhi replied quickly, "I just finished it at the library this afternoon but didn't send it to you yet. I'm out at dinner right now. I'll send it when I get home."

He Zhichu was a little surprised. "You're out for dinner? Where? Are you alone?"

"I'm at a new Hubei style restaurant outside the south entrance. I'm not alone, I'm eating with Qiqi," Gu Nianzhi said as she eyed the steaming plate of spareribs and lotus root being served. She swallowed instinctively. He Zhichu heard the sound of Gu Nianzhi swallowing from over the phone. It sounds like she's looking at something very delicious, he thought.

"I haven't eaten yet," He Zhichu blurted out then immediately regretted it. It was true he hadn't eaten yet. He'd skipped both lunch and dinner. The only thing he'd eaten all day was the breakfast with Gu Nianzhi, and he'd had no appetite to eat alone afterward.

Gu Nianzhi's full lips gaped in shock. After a long pause, she finally answered. She stuttered a little and whispered, "Well, would you like to eat with us?"

He Zhichu agreed immediately. "I'll join you for dinner, Nianzhi. I'll come over right away." He Zhichu strode quickly to the door and took his trenchcoat from his rosewood coat rack. He slid his arms through the sleeves of his light grey coat and went downstairs. He wasn't familiar with the restaurants by the south entrance so he used his GPS to find Gu Nianzhi's location and the restaurant's address.

Gu Nianzhi was sitting with Ma Qiqi at a table for two, but she asked the waitress to move them to a four-person table by a window. The new table was directly behind where they'd first sat. He Zhichu saw the sign for the Hubei style restaurant then instantly glimpsed Gu Nianzhi through the window. She was smiling. Her side profile was nearly flawless. Through the pane of crystal-like glass, it almost looked like her luminous face was glowing. He Zhichu gazed longingly for a second, then averted his eyes and walked up the steps. By the time he stood in front of Gu Nianzhi and Ma Qiqi's table, his expression had resumed its characteristic aloofness.

"Professor He?" Ma Qiqi blurted out in surprise when she saw him, "That was fast!"

Gu Nianzhi was a little embarrassed, and she was about to change the subject when He Zhichu said, "Yes, I'm hungry."

He was hungry so he came to the restaurant quickly. That makes sense, Gu Nianzhi thought to herself.

Ma Qiqi nodded furiously. "Understood! Wow, I'm having dinner with Professor He. It's almost like you're one of us!"

He Zhichu stared at her. What was this child blabbering about! He couldn't understand her, and he was getting annoyed. Maybe it was a generational thing, he thought to himself. He Zhichu sat down next to Gu Nianzhi. Even though it was a table for four, the space felt cramped.

Gu Nianzhi wanted to shift to the side, but if she moved anymore, she'd be flattened like a pancake against the restaurant window.

He Zhichu, however, didn't seem to notice the cramped table. He looked down at the menu and asked, "What did you two order?"

"Nianzhi ordered spareribs and lotus root, and I picked crock braised chicken and rice meatballs," Ma Qiqi answered quickly. She loved food and always remembered the names of the dishes people ordered.

He Zhichu nodded. "Then I'll have sea cucumber with vegetables and gold and silver dumplings." He waved the waitress over and ordered. They had chosen all the restaurant's bestsellers, so the kitchen had ample amounts prepared and was able to serve it quickly. Soon after Gu Nianzhi's and Ma Qiqi's meals arrived, He Zhichu's sea cucumber with vegetables and gold and silver dumplings was also served. He Zhichu noticed the girls hadn't ordered drinks, so he asked for two glasses of fresh coconut juice and one draft beer.

Gu Nianzhi loved coconut juice, but not many people knew that about her. She didn't typically have it when she was out. When she was younger, she had secretly used thickened coconut juice to trick Huo Shaoheng into thinking it was milk. She didn't know if he noticed back then. Gu Nianzhi drank the coconut juice and found herself missing Huo Shaoheng. Stop right there, Gu Nianzhi warned herself. She put the straw away and looked up at He Zhichu with a smile. "You sure know how to order, Professor He. How did you know I like coconut juice? It's delicious."

Ma Qiqi also took a sip but frowned. "I don't like coconut juice. It isn't like milk or fruit juice and it's sweet too! Yuck!"

"Hmm? So there's something even Qiqi doesn't like!" Gu Nianzhi gave a dramatic gasp of mock shock but forgot about the window beside her. She hit her head hard with a loud bang!

"Ouch!" Gu Nianzhi wailed quietly as she shot Ma Qiqi a dirty look. Ma Qiqi muffled her giggles, but she was shaking hard with laughter.

He Zhichu gracefully reached out to press his fingers against the right side of Gu Nianzhi's head. "Thankfully it's not swollen." Then he pressed down gently to massage her. His fingers were very cold and the sensation felt nice against her aching head. It didn't seem to hurt as much anymore. She couldn't help looking like a relaxed kitten, and she even squinted her huge eyes slightly. Her full lips curved into a smile, and she leaned into his touch.

Ma Qiqi wanted to tease her some more, but she swallowed her laughter when she saw He Zhichu's warning glance. She wagged her fingers at Gu Nianzhi. "Nianzhi, how many fingers am I holding up? Maybe you have brain damage?"

"Two fingers, Qiqi. Jeez, I never knew you were this kind of person!" Gu Nianzhi joked and angled her head towards He Zhichu. The massage felt so nice. He Zhixhu's hand paused, then he continued rubbing outwards to prevent a bruise from forming.

Ma Qiqi stuck out her tongue. "Girl, there's a ton of things you don't know! I'll let you off this time, on the account of Professor He's presence. Here, have some sea cucumber. You need the protein."

"Sea cucumbers have protein?" Gu Nianzhi asked blankly.

"Nope." Ma Qiqi nibbled on a gold and silver dumpling. "But it might fix your brain cells."

"Qiqi!" Gu Nianzhi was only just discovering Ma Qiqi's tongue was quick enough to spare with. If it hadn't been for He Zhichu, Gu Nianzhi would have argued back. She glared at Ma Qiqi, but Ma Qiqi could see the smile shining through her eyes.

He Zhichu watched them, removed his hand, and began eating. He had always been intelligent and graceful, but the glass of draft beer in his hand made him appear more masculine.

Gu Nianzhi smiled as she ate her favorite food and drank her coconut juice. The dinner was very pleasant, and she momentarily forgot that Huo Shaoheng was ignoring her call. She even stared greedily at He Zhichu's draft beer and wanted to order one for herself. However, He Zhichu didn't agree. "Wait till you're 22. I'll take you out for drinks," he told Gu Nianzhi.

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Gu Nianzhi grimaced. "Wait until I'm 22! Professor He, you're being difficult on purpose!"

"Of course it's on purpose. What are you going to do about it?" He Zhichu's expression was aloof, but his words were daring.

Gu Nianzhi and Ma Qiqi remained silent. Professor He was much more attractive when he acted like this, Gu Nianzhi thought.

Ma Qiqi was a talkative person by nature and she respected He Zhichu. She chatted throughout the dinner, and there were no awkward silences. By the time they'd finished eating, Ma Qiqi wanted to become one of his students. She would have even settled for being his janitor.

...

As Gu Nianzhi and the others were having dinner, Huo Shaoheng was finishing all his work, and he had no reason to ignore Gu Nianzhi's calls. He sat on the swivel chair in his office and considered Gu Nianzhi's two missed two calls while he played with his personal phone. After thinking for a long time, he finally called her back.