First Published on Chaleuria
041 – Ah, it’s fine.
The Dian Ji students all wore grey gym uniforms with a vertical blue streak on one sleeve. Their uniform was their sign, and Erzhong students would give them a wide berth to avoid any unnecessary trouble if they saw them.
Shen Jie held on to his pocket the whole time. He sat to one side and observed the restaurant as well as the people at the other tables.
As He Zhao was flipping through the menu, someone at another table knocked on the table with a beer glass and said, like he was picking a fight, “Another carton of beer!”
Shen Jie dragged his line of sight back to his own table and saw that his Zhao-ge was also looking at the available drinks. He Zhao’s finger landed on the menu and he said, “Green bean soup?”
Xie Yu’s finger landed just under He Zhao’s, less than half an inch away. “I’ll have this.”
“Mineral water again,” He Zhao said. “Your life is really boring, isn’t it?”
Shen Jie watched with wide eyes as they decided on drinks and started to select dishes. He felt as if he was invisible. A second later, he said, “Are… neither of you going to ask me? What I want to drink?”
“Order for yourself what food and drinks you want.” He Zhao didn’t even raise his head, and turned to Xie Yu after he finished speaking. “Will you eat this?”
Damn it, I should just not have come along for this meal. You two go and eat your fill.
Shen Jie gripped his chopsticks tightly with complex feelings.
The table next to them was very raucous, and the sounds of beer bottles being popped open occasionally reached their table. There was even a girl among them, wearing a very short miniskirt and a row of piercings along one ear. She had big hoop earrings and a loud voice.
“Sis-in-law, when is Ji-ge coming? Come on, give him a call and hurry him up,” someone said drunkenly, waving his beer bottle. “We’ve already almost finished two rounds. If he still doesn’t come… hic.”
Big hoop earrings picked up her phone from the table and said generously, “Right, I’ll rush him.”
Shen Jie wasn’t very picky about food either, but the two people opposite him were really getting to be too much. He Zhao ordered a bowl of noodles and specifically mentioned not to add spices. Shen Jie, unable to hold it in, interrupted. “Why not?”
The moment he asked he regretted asking.
He Zhao replied, “My little friend won’t eat them.”
Shen Jie: “……I’m full. I haven’t even eaten anything and I’m full.”
Who could remember the long list of foods Xie Yu wouldn’t eat, anyway?
Xie Yu’s appetite wasn’t very good; he had been under the hot sun for a long time today. He ate several pieces of vegetables and half a bowl of noodles, then put down his chopsticks and went to the counter to pay.
As he got up, someone entered the restaurant.
Xie Yu saw the silhouette out of the corner of his eye and didn’t pay much attention to it. He looked down at his phone, swiping in his passcode. “A hundred and two?”
The lady boss punched numbers into her calculator, looked at the bill, then did the sums over again for fear of collecting too little. Then she nodded and said, “Aye, that’s right.”
“Ji-ge!” The people at the neighboring table had also finished eating and now they all stood up, applauding as they welcomed the newcomer. “You’re late! Finish these seven bottles! They’ve been waiting for you for a long time and you have to drink them.”
The newcomer also wore the Information Technology school uniform, the gym clothes big on him. Although he was tall, his looks were ordinary and one might not be able to pick him out of a crowd. But he had one identifying feature: a scar at his forehead, running from his hairline all the way down to his eyebrows.
“Ji-ge.” Shen Jie didn’t dare look up and whispered. “The one from Dian Ji who stabbed someone?”
Shen Jie didn’t look up, so he hadn’t seen the strange expression on He Zhao’s face and how he had been about to take some food but stilled his hand. Then He Zhao put his chopsticks back on the table and didn’t continue eating.
Shen Jie was still murmuring: “I think I heard Wan Da talk about him when discussing the top ten figures in Dian Ji. He’s quite formidable. He has at least seven underlings, and when other people fight he squats on a trashcan lid to watch. That’s why he’s called Ji-ge.”¹
Before Shen Jie had finished speaking, he noticed that ‘one of the top ten figures in Dian Ji’ was now standing beside him and not moving. He suddenly froze, and shot a glance downward through the space between his wrist and his elbow which was propped on the table. He saw a pair of Nike tennis shoes. “……”
Shen Jie wondered if he had talked too loudly and been overheard, then started to think about the three of them: with Zhao-ge and Big Bro Yu’s fighting skills, would they be able to win this fight?
While he was still comparing tiers in his head, he heard Ji-ge say, “He Zhao?”
When Xie Yu had finished paying his bill and returned to the table, this was the scene he saw:
The guy in the Dian Ji uniform had gotten a beer from someone and now stood opposite He Zhao, holding the mouth of the bottle to the side of the table. He exerted force and the bottlecap popped off and fell to the floor.
It rolled around twice on the ground, cleanly, then fell.
The person handed the bottle to He Zhao, his meaning unclear. “Give me some face?”
He Zhao didn’t take it. With a smile he said, “Old friend. We haven’t seen each other in three years, so no need to be so enthusiastic.”
Neither had openly expressed enmity, and the challenge in their words could only be discerned if one listened very closely. But Xie Yu leaned against the wall and watched for a while. He could tell that He Zhao’s smile was put on, and very false.
“Ji-ge,” someone from the neighboring table asked. “What’s the matter? You know him?”
Then they started chattering. “Looking at the uniform he’s from Erzhong.”
While sitting at the table He Zhao had had his back toward them, and when he had walked in they had been busy drinking and hadn’t paid attention. Now that they looked more closely, one of them who was more familiar with Erzhong’s ‘famous figures’ was surprised. “Damn it, isn’t this Erzhong’s He Zhao?”
As he finished, he lowered his voice and added, “…And the one over there, Xie Yu?”
Ji-ge didn’t keep pressing He Zhao to drink. He raised his head and drank it all himself. Amidst applause and cheers he wiped his mouth with one hand, then raised the empty bottle and said, “If you hadn’t mentioned it, I wouldn’t have remembered. Three years. Time does pass really damn fast.”
Ji-ge took two steps forward. “Since you remember it so well, do you remember what I said to you at that time? I said never show your face in front of me again. Remember?”
The atmosphere up to this point had been somewhat ambiguous, but now it was clear that someone was trying to start a fight.
The eight or nine people at the other two tables weren’t content to just look on any more. They stood up, the sound of their chairs scraping against the floor making an earsplitting noise.
He Zhao placed one hand on the table; he still wore his ‘Love and Peace’ vest, but the words seemed rather sarcastic under these circumstances. Just like the Black Water Street chat group that sent messages like, ‘Fuck your mom, I’ll kill your whole family,’ all the time but named their chatroom ‘Don’t fight.’
After a moment, He Zhao said, “Settle your fight with me. Let them leave first.”
Shen Jie was among the ‘them’ He Zhao was referring to. He still held his chopsticks, unsure what to do. But even an idiot could tell that the atmosphere wasn’t right, so he put down his chopsticks and said, “I’m not going anywhere. We’re bros, so how can I leave at this time? Zhao-ge, there’s nothing to fear. We’ll meet them head on, and we have Old Xie here who can take seven of them.”
If this were a different scenario, He Zhao would have patted his shoulder and said, “You call him Old Xie, too?”
But He Zhao only said, “Head-on my ass. This has nothing to do with you. Leave now.”
“Bros?” Ji-ge laughed. The word seemed to have hit a nerve. His laughter was very exaggerated; he clutched his stomach and bent over and didn’t stop for a long time. He raised one hand to wipe tears from his eyes and said, “…Little friend, you treat him as a bro, but do you know what your Zhao-ge’s best at?”
As Ji-ge spoke, his words slowed and eventually he paused for several seconds before saying, “He’s best at stabbing his bros in the back.”
He Zhao said nothing.
Or it could be said that the whole restaurant suddenly fell into an inexplicable silence.
The two stood face to face. Clearly, something had happened here—a lot had happened here and it looked quite exciting. Even Shen Jie couldn’t help trying to imagine: how had He Zhao stabbed his bro in the back?
Xie Yu leaned against the wall, looking on as if watching a show. Then Shen Jie heard Old Xie—Old Xie who had negative interest in gossip and who could take seven on in one go—say lazily, “Don’t spout rubbish. I don’t want to hear it. Do you want to go one by one or all at once?”
So the fight happened after all. Xie Yu’s skill at provoking others was top notch.
No one was sure who flipped the table first, but the dishes and the beer bottles all shattered on the ground.
Xie Yu fought with a chair. Seeing that Shen Jie was surrounded by three people, he finished off his side of things in a few blows and let go of the chair, which crashed into the ground with a bang. Then he kicked it over and it rammed into the three people’s calves.
This lot was terrible. No challenge at all. Only the girl among them was a little troublesome—he couldn’t touch her, and on top of that he had to worry about accidentally injuring her.
The restaurant’s lady boss had dared open her shop near Dian Ji so she was clearly familiar with the ways of the world. She didn’t turn a hair as she continued pressing keys on her calculator by the counter, starting to tally up how much she would need to ask of them for compensation.
He Zhao and Ji-ge went one-on-one. At first, He Zhao was clearly holding back and didn’t retaliate, but Ji-ge was not about to let him off so easily. As if venting his frustration, each of his blows was fiercer than the last.
He Zhao didn’t have the patience of a saint, either, and even he was a little annoyed after several rounds. “Are you done?”
Ji-ge said something only the two of them could hear, and then He Zhao went all out with his fists.
“You’re a damn fucking good-for-nothing, He Zhao.” Ji-ge took a fist to the stomach and fell down. He caught himself on the back of a chair, then smiled, long and meaningful. “…You’re in Erzhong now?”
He Zhao’s retaliatory punch seemed to have sapped all the strength from his body, and the memories of the past that were screaming for attention in his mind now left him dazed.
A vein was throbbing at his temple.
He stood frozen to the spot for a long time until Xie Yu called, “Let’s go.”
On the way back, no one spoke.
Xie Yu really had no interest in this matter… or it shouldn’t be said that he had zero interest. If He Zhao was willing to explain, then he would listen. If it were anyone else, he probably wouldn’t even hear them out.
Xie Yu suddenly realized that He Zhao had become an exception to him at some point.
At the crossroads, Shen Jie had to say goodbye and broke the silence. He waved to them and said, “I’ll go back. You be careful on the way home.”
“And your injuries?” He Zhao stuck his hands in his pockets as he stood under the streetlight. “…How are you going to explain to your mom when you get home?”
Shen Jie touched the small scrape on his face. “It’s all right. I’ll say I fell.”
He Zhao took his hand out of his pocket and waved back. “Go home. And be careful.”
Xie Yu stared at He Zhao’s face in profile, a little dazed.
He Zhao was clearly emotionally a wreck, but he was still worrying about whether Shen Jie would get yelled at when he got home.
Evening self-study was about to end so there was no point going back to class. If they got caught they’d even get reprimanded for repeated offences. So the two of them went straight back to the dorms. Before they entered the building, He Zhao suddenly said, “I’m sorry.”
“Sorry for what?”
“Just, today’s dinner.” He Zhao scratched his head. “How it turned out.”
By the time He Zhao got to his room door, he seemed to have calmed down to his normal state, and even smiled as he told his little friend to rest early.
Xie Yu asked him, “You all right?”
At Xie Yu’s words, He Zhao was stunned for a moment, then he said, “Ah, I’m fine.”
It sounded like the truth.
If Xie Yu hadn’t gotten up in the middle of the night to go to the toilet and seen He Zhao sitting in the stairwell smoking, he might even have believed it.
The handsome devil sat on the highest step, a cigarette hanging between his fingers. When he took a drag, the light at the end of the cigarette suddenly flared, dancing in the darkness.
The motion sensor lights in the stairwell hadn’t come on, and the stairwell was lit only very faintly by the lights from the corridor.
Then the handsome devil looked down and slowly exhaled a mouthful of smoke. His movements were practiced, and when the cigarette was half gone he stubbed it out and prepared to get up. When he looked up, he saw his cold little friend standing in the stairwell entrance.