Jiang Cheng flicked away his cigarette and turned to walk towards the alley entrance.
"Hey! Don't go out!" Wang Xu called out, "Do you think I'm afraid of trouble? Monkey and the rest really can't be offended! Last semester someone from the No. 7 High was beaten so badly they were in the hospital for months!"
"Can't handle it?" Jiang Cheng looked back at him, "Someone so awesome, and you only called Gu Fei over to handle it?"
"Gu Fei is different," Wang Xu said, "He grew up around here, and also... anyway just listen to me, you did me a favor, I can't let you go out there and get your head bashed in!"
And also... and also what?
Jiang Cheng suddenly remembered Li Baoguo's words, and strangely felt amused. These old inner-city neighborhoods really did have their own legends, which was pretty interesting.
"What the f*ck are you laughing at!" Wang Xu was pissed off at his laughter.
Jiang Cheng ignored him and prepared to continue walking, but as soon as he took a step Wang Xu grabbed him from behind in a bear hug, dragging him back.
"Hey, hey, hey!" Jiang Cheng was startled, "Let go! What's your problem!"
"Problem?" Wang Xu was confused for a moment, then hastily let go, "I don't have a problem... I didn't mean anything else! Don't get the wrong idea! Don't get the wrong idea!"
Jiang Cheng looked at him for a moment: "Did I say you meant something else?"
Wang Xu didn't reply, taking out his phone to make a call.
Jiang Cheng sighed, lighting another cigarette to smoke while squatting against the wall out of the wind. He idly scratched random patterns in the snow with a twig.
"Da Fei, Da Fei," Wang Xu held his phone, speaking in a low voice as if Monkey and his gang were hiding in the next courtyard, "We got blocked by Monkey... ran away, no, I mean we can't get out now... he beat him bloody, how could we leave! Who else could it be, it's just me and Jiang Cheng."
Wang Xu glanced at Jiang Cheng as he spoke.
Jiang Cheng didn't make eye contact, just focusing on the wisps of smoke dissipating rapidly in the wind. Although Wang Xu wasn't very capable, he also wasn't a complete coward. For him to be so frightened, these people really weren't easy to provoke.
In fact, when he made trouble in school in the past, Jiang Cheng would also avoid provoking outsiders. It was too much hassle.
But thinking that he was calling Gu Fei, he felt that just going out and taking a beating might be better. He still had some sense though, this wasn't a situation that could be resolved in a fight or two.
"Da Fei will be here soon," Wang Xu said, poking around the trash heap with his foot, "He's eating noodles with his sister, they haven't finished yet."
Jiang Cheng was speechless.
Wang Xu found a half-meter long wooden stick in the trash and tossed it at Jiang Cheng's feet, then kept rummaging without finding anything else worthwhile before starting to dismantle a rickety three-legged chair.
"What are you doing?" Jiang Cheng looked at him.
"Finding weapons," Wang Xu said, "Monkey knows this area well, what if they come looking for us before Da Fei gets here?"
Jiang Cheng sighed, searching through his backpack and taking out a knife, tossing it at Wang Xu's feet: "Use this."
"Holy sh*t!" Wang Xu jumped in fright at the sight of the knife, looking back at him in shock, "Are you really a top student? What top student goes around with a knife!"
"I've never used it before," Jiang Cheng said, "It's just for scaring people, never sharpened the edge."
Wang Xu picked up the knife and inspected it carefully for a while before walking over and squatting down in front of him: "Jiang Cheng, you're out of my league."
Jiang Cheng glanced at him without responding.
"Let's put our issues behind us," Wang Xu continued, "From now on we won't cross each other's lines, how about it?"
"Just remember that yourself," Jiang Cheng said, "Top students like me are busy with studies, there's no time to mess around with you."
After saying this, both of them fell silent as they squatted facing each other.
After squatting for a while, Wang Xu spoke again: "Let me give you some advice."
"Oh?" Jiang Cheng watched the smoldering cigarette butt, the rising smoke writhing wildly for a brief moment before swiftly dissipating without a trace.
"If Monkey gets here first, play nice," Wang Xu said, "No matter how tough we act, we're still students. Can't go head-to-head with those society punks."
Jiang Cheng looked at him in surprise, seems like this kid still had some brains left.
"Da Fei said that." Wang Xu added.
Jiang Cheng kind of wanted to stub out his cigarette on his face now.
Gu Fei actually arrived pretty quickly, in around ten minutes. Jiang Cheng was confused that he had brought Gu Miao along.
The little girl had tied a rope from her skateboard to the back of Gu Fei's bike to tow it.
A whole family of psychos!
Gu Fei had just put his foot down when Gu Miao hopped off her skateboard, kicking it to pop it into her hand in one smooth move.
She walked over to Jiang Cheng and smiled at him, before running back to stand by Gu Fei's leg.
"Who beat them up?" Gu Fei asked.
"Me," Jiang Cheng stood up, "What about it."
"You ran into Monkey?" Wang Xu immediately asked.
"At the alley entrance," Gu Fei glanced back, "Probably on their way here now."
"F*ck," Wang Xu frowned, "Can we get out?"
"Depends how you want to get out," Gu Fei said, looking at Jiang Cheng again, "Two options."
Jiang Cheng understood he really was in some trouble now, sighing as he leaned against the wall with his hands in his pockets: "Let's hear them."
"Let him come get payback, call it even," Gu Fei said, "If you're not willing, I'll get you out now, but you'll have to rely on luck if they try blocking you again in the future."
Wang Xu immediately looked to Jiang Cheng.
"Payback is fine, but I'll fight back if they go overboard," Jiang Cheng said.
When Monkey arrived, he still had cotton stuffed up his nose. Jiang Cheng figured his platelets must be low since the bleeding hadn't stopped for so long.
Like Wang Xu said, Monkey had brought more people today, at a glance at least seven or eight guys, with a strong small town hooligan vibe.
"Er Miao, wait for me at the entrance." Gu Fei said.
Gu Miao glanced at Jiang Cheng before putting her skateboard down and kicking off, darting through the crowd like an arrow.
"You also go out." Jiang Cheng said.
Gu Fei stared at him silently for a while leaning on his bike handlebars: "Wang Xu, come out with me."
"I..." Wang Xu hesitated, looking at Jiang Cheng.
"Go on out." Jiang Cheng said. He didn't want an audience for this kind of pure beating.
Gu Fei wheeled his bike around without another word and headed for the alley entrance, Wang Xu following behind.
Monkey walked over to Jiang Cheng with a dark expression.
As Gu Fei passed by him, he suddenly grabbed Monkey's right wrist, pulling his hand out of his pocket.
"What are you doing?" Monkey looked at him.
Gu Fei didn't reply, forcefully jerking his arm downwards to remove something, tossing it aside against the wall.
The metallic sound when it hit the bricks was quite clear.
Jiang Cheng glanced over following the sound. It was a black brass knuckle.
"There are still rules to follow." Gu Fei said in a low voice, then pedaled away towards the entrance.
"He won't be in trouble, right?" Wang Xu stood under a bare tree at the entrance, hunching his shoulders against the cold while watching Gu Miao nimbly weave around a snow pile on her skateboard.
"If you're afraid of trouble then don't cause it." Gu Fei said.
"I didn't cause trouble, I ran the moment I saw Monkey," Wang Xu said, "F*ck, how was I supposed to know I'd run into him today. Jiang Cheng didn't know the situation, he went straight for it."
"You settled things with him?" Gu Fei glanced at Wang Xu's face, "Did you get on your knees and beg him not to hit your face?"
"...it's over with," Wang Xu sighed, glancing back towards the alley, "My eyes are opened now. Top students even come in this model, I'm out of my depth."
Gu Fei smiled.
After just a few minutes, Monkey and his crew came out.
Monkey still looked a bit unhappy, but otherwise seemed normal. The guy behind him though didn't look good, with a clearly visible large lump swelling on his forehead.
"He fought back?" Wang Xu's fear returned at the sight.
Monkey exchanged a look with Gu Fei but didn't say anything more, leaving with his guys.
"F*ck, where's that dumbass Jiang Cheng?" Wang Xu looked into the alley.
Gu Fei frowned. Based on this, Jiang Cheng must have fought back, likely not initiating but in response to "going overboard". But by rights Monkey shouldn't break the rules again in this case.
So where was Jiang Cheng?
Even taking a roundabout way, it wouldn't take this long to come out... Gu Fei's phone rang in his pocket, he took it out to see it was surprisingly Jiang Cheng calling.
"Where are you?" he answered.
"I... got lost." Jiang Cheng said.
"What?" Gu Fei was very surprised, "Lost?"
"Yeah lost! It was already a maze when we first came in, now I've gone around so much I don't know how to get back. These alleys really are built like a damn labyrinth!" Jiang Cheng said, extremely unhappy.
"Okay, wait," Gu Fei looked at Gu Miao, "Er Miao, go bring Jiang Cheng out."
Gu Miao spun her skateboard around and sped into the alley.
When Jiang Cheng heard the sound of skateboard wheels he called out: "Gu Miao?"
Gu Miao's figure darted out from a bend up ahead, waving at him.
Jiang Cheng followed her. He had come this way earlier, after one more turn with Gu Miao he saw the small street from before.
Damn, if he had known it was this close he wouldn't have called Gu Fei and embarrassed himself.
Today had been a parade of disgrace.
"You're okay right?" Wang Xu asked as soon as he emerged, staring at his face.
"Fine." Jiang Cheng rubbed his stomach.
"Didn't hit your face?" Wang Xu looked at his hand.
"No," Jiang Cheng met his gaze, "Why, you want to?"
"Just asking," Wang Xu said, "Hit your stomach? Does it hurt?"
"I'm hungry." Jiang Cheng said.
"Did you fight back?" Wang Xu kept probing, "I saw that guy come out with a huge bump on his head, how'd that happen?"
"I said I'd retaliate if they went too far," Jiang Cheng was getting impatient with the questions, "I smashed his head against the wall, want me to try it out on you?"
"I'm going home," Wang Xu said, "I'm leaving... oh right, Da Fei, I'll treat you to lunch tomorrow at noon."
After Wang Xu left, Jiang Cheng stood with Gu Fei watching Gu Miao play with her skateboard for a while before speaking up to say: "Thanks."
Although he still got beaten up, and Monkey's two punches to his stomach made him still feel like throwing up, without Gu Fei there wouldn't have been the option to resolve this. Hust going outside would probably mean running into Monkey patrolling, and he wouldn't be able to live like that.
"You're really okay?" Gu Fei glanced at him.
"Yeah," Jiang Cheng didn't want to discuss this further, and thought for a moment, "Have you eaten?"
"No." Gu Fei replied.
"...Wang Xu said you were eating noodles, and had to finish before coming over." Jiang Cheng said.
"Then you two would've been beaten to a pulp by now," Gu Fei said, "I was eating noodles at the street, if I actually waited to finish eating it would've taken half an hour to get here."
"Let's go eat something else," Jiang Cheng looked at Gu Miao, "What do you want to eat?"
Of course Gu Miao didn't reply, only looking to Gu Fei.
"Lead the way." Gu Fei lightly patted her head.
Gu Miao immediately kicked off, clearly heading towards the barbecue street from before.
“Come on up,” Gu Fei looked at Jiang Cheng.
“I’ll walk over,” Jiang Cheng said.
Gu Fei didn’t say any more, just rode his bike over himself.
Jiang Cheng sighed, pressing on his stomach which was a bit nauseous. He wasn’t sure if it was from hunger or getting punched by that monkey.
Gu Miao had picked the stall furthest to the side. By the time Jiang Cheng ambled over, she had already picked out a bunch of food.
As Jiang Cheng smelled the barbecue, the discomfort in his stomach finally disappeared, leaving only intense hunger. He pointed at the meat, “Same ones, ten skewers, and two jin of spicy rabbit heads.”
This stall didn’t have the spicy rabbit heads, so he ran to the stall half a block down to buy two jin and bring it over.
When piles of meat were stacked on the table, Gu Fei couldn't help asking: "Do you always eat this much?"
"Xiao Ming's grandpa lived to 103*." Jiang Cheng bit into a lamb skewer.
*T/N: By not digging his nose into other people's business.
Gu Fei smiled. He had the owner bring a bottle of beer.
Jiang Cheng was about to ask if he really had to drink every meal, but Xiao Ming's 103-year-old grandpa stopped him.
Gu Miao was silent as always, and they didn't have much to talk about either, so the meal passed in silence like their previous barbecue dinner.
This was nice too, eating their fill. Whenever he ate with Pan Zhi, too much talking often led to not eating enough, needing second helpings.
Sitting quietly at their table in the lively barbecue joint, they were like a vivid stroke of scenery. The owner glanced their way more often, probably thinking they were gangsters meeting to negotiate and could break into knife fights at any moment.
It wasn't until Gu Miao finished eating, taking off her hat to scratch her head, that Jiang Cheng broke the silence.
"Why buy her a green hat?" he asked Gu Fei. This question had been bothering him since seeing Gu Miao in the store with the hat.
"She likes green." Gu Fei said.
"Oh," Jiang Cheng looked at Gu Miao's green hat, Gu Fei's answers were always so logical that he couldn't follow up, "Finding a hat this color is a miracle in itself."
Gu Miao shook her head.
"Hm?" Jiang Cheng looked at her.
"Didn't buy it." Gu Fei said.
"Knitted it?" Jiang Cheng felt the hat, the handiwork was pretty good, he hadn't noticed, "Who made it for you? Your mom?"
Gu Miao smiled and pointed at Gu Fei.
Jiang Cheng whipped his head around to stare at Gu Fei: "F*ck me?"
"Watch your language." Gu Fei's expression was calm.
"Oh," Jiang Cheng smiled awkwardly at Gu Miao, then turned back to Gu Fei, "You knitted this? You can knit?"
"Mm." Gu Fei grunted in affirmation.
Jiang Cheng suddenly felt his impression of Gu Fei becoming muddled. A person who kept candy in his pocket, knitted wool hats, a murderer who killed his own dad.
After eating, Gu Fei got on his bike while Gu Miao untied a rope from the back and took it in hand, stepping onto her skateboard.
"Be... safe." Jiang Cheng really didn't know what to say now.
"See you tomorrow." Gu Fei said, then rode off towing Gu Miao, disappearing into the crowds on the small street.
Jiang Cheng only reacted after settling the bill.
See you tomorrow?
Had today ended already?
Of course today wasn't over yet, there were still three afternoon classes, two of which were on politics, and the mere sight of the schedule made Jiang Cheng drowsy.
Gu Fei didn't show up at all that afternoon, so it really was "see you tomorrow".
Jiang Cheng napped on his desk all afternoon. One benefit of Gu Fei not being there was Zhou Jing didn't keep turning around to chat. Pretty peaceful.
The Politics teacher had even less presence than Old Xu, the most transparent of all the teachers that day.
He even had to keep raising his voice at the podium for his words to cut through the relentless droning chatter in the classroom.
In the last period, Pan Zhi sent a message over.
-No teacher for self-study, feels good
Jiang Cheng glanced at the teacher on the podium and replied to Pan Zhi.
-I'm always feeling good, this class is like a marketplace
-You'd be sleeping either way, isn't it just disturbing your nap right
-What do you know
Jiang Cheng sighed. Pan Zhi really didn't know. He did sleep in class, but not every time. With eyes closed he still listened to the lectures, and didn't sleep or skip when exams were approaching.
In this kind of environment, he really was a bit worried that his capability as a study god would drop.
As the bell rang to signal the end of class, the classroom instantly burst into noise. Almost everyone packed up their belongings in an instant - some left while chatting happily with others. It was a cheerful scene.
Jiang Cheng packed up his things and left the classroom, bag in hand. As he walked down the hallway, he felt numerous gazes on him. He glanced to the side and saw many people leaning on the railings watching him, though he couldn't tell if they were second- or third-years. Their eyes held curiosity and probing.
He looked back for Wang Xu. That guy must have said something, maybe even boasted wildly about this matter.
As he walked downstairs, his phone rang. He figured it was Pan Zhi, but when he took it out, it was an unknown number.
"Hello?" he answered the call.
"Jiang Cheng right? You have a delivery here, come pick it up." said the voice on the other end.
Jiang Cheng was puzzled for a moment before realizing this wasn't a courier, but a logistics company. He'd have to go pick it up himself. After asking for the address, he inquired where the package was sent from, then hung up.
It was from his mother. It was probably those odds and ends from his room.
She had prepared a bank card for him before he arrived, and thoughtfully sent his belongings over too, yet didn't contact him again.
He didn't know whether to be thankful to his mother, or resent her.
But he wasn't feeling too awful - he seemed to have grown numb these past few days. When he thought about it, there would be a wrenching feeling in his chest, but it would quickly pass.
He slowly wandered back, knowing Li Baoguo definitely wouldn't be home now. He'd probably be eating alone tonight. As he walked, he contemplated what to eat. Dumplings it was - he ate a lot at lunch and wasn't even hungry now.
Near Li Baoguo's home was a small plaza with many restaurants. Jiang Cheng had passed by during a stroll before; it was quite lively. One dumpling restaurant looked particularly clean.
To get to the plaza, he had to cross a small pedestrian bridge. As Jiang Cheng approached the bridge, he glanced over and his steps faltered.
The snow had stopped at noon and the sun had been bright all afternoon. Though the sun had set now, half the sky was still suffused with a faint golden glow like veins.
The small bridge was also cast in the warm light.
In that moment, Jiang Cheng felt strangely tranquil inside. All the stuffy irritation from this chaotic day dissipated.
He quickened his pace towards the bridge. If he had come half an hour earlier, it would probably have looked even more beautiful.
This was likely the most stunning spot he had seen in this shabby little city so far.
There weren't many people on the bridge. As he walked nearer the middle, he saw someone ahead with a camera, probably photographing the bridge and sky.
From the side...no, just the legs and he knew who it was.
It wasn't surprising at all to recognize Gu Fei. What was surprising was seeing Gu Fei, who had skipped class all afternoon, here with a professional-looking camera and bag.
No wonder he wouldn't lend his camera to Zhou Jing.
Jiang Cheng hesitated over whether to approach Gu Fei or go the other way pretending he hadn't seen him. They didn't really have anything to talk about anyway.
Just as he was about to step away, Gu Fei seemed to finish taking photos and turned around, walking in his direction.
It would be impossible to feign ignorance now. Jiang Cheng sighed and walked over to meet him.
He was trying to figure out how to greet Gu Fei and make small talk when Gu Fei saw him. He paused briefly, then raised his camera towards Jiang Cheng.
Too shocked to raise his hand to block his face, Jiang Cheng heard the camera shutter sound.