There was nothing much to do on the first day of the new semester. After collecting their books and cleaning up their classrooms, the students gathered in small groups and started chatting.
Zhang Ganggang’s bear had been delivered a day ago, and Rourou even took a photo and sent it to him. In the photo was only a gigantic plush teddy bear sleeping in a bed.
“Now, I hug the bear every night to sleep, just like I’m hugging you.”
Zhang Ganggang’s ears turned red with agitation. He secretly showed Xie Meng the content of the message, and vowed solemnly that this was “true love”.
“…” Xie Meng was curious. “So how did you respond to her?”
Zhang Ganggang was a little embarrassed. “I sent her my photo.”
“… Then did she send you her photo?”
“No.” Zhang Ganggang said naively. “But she took a photo of the bear and sent it to me, and they even slept together.”
Listening by the side, Qi Fei finally could not endure it anymore. He scoffed, “Please, she’s sleeping with the bear, are you a bear?! Also, that bear was purchased by you… Why do you still want a photo of the bear?”
With his mouth open blankly, Zhang Ganggang was unable to respond.
Xie Meng inhaled deeply. Clasping Zhang Ganggang’s shoulder, he gravely said, “No matter what, you shouldn’t casually give your photos to strangers. You’ve never even met before, you should at least get a photo of them for confirmation.”
Zhang Ganggang slowly nodded his head. Xie Meng ruffled his hair, and did not know if he was listening to what he said.
Maitreya had let them out of school early, and Xie Meng refused Zhang Ganggang’s invitation to walk home together. He waited outside the door of Class Six, and the door to the classroom finally opened after about ten minutes.
“Hello.” Xie Meng stopped a girl who was the first to step out. “May I ask, which one is Zhuo Xiaoyuan?”
The girl studied him, then smiled and shouted into the classroom. “Zhuo Xiaoyuan! Someone’s looking for you!”
A boy sitting in the last row turned his head, and when he saw Xie Meng, his eyes narrowed.
Zhuo Xiaoyuan slowly stood up. He was very tall, and his hair was coarse and in a crew cut. His eyes were narrow, and was very handsome.
He walked up to Xie Meng and placed a hand against the door frame, looking down at him, “Why are you looking for me?”
“I’m called Xie Meng…”
“I know.” Zhuo Xiaoyuan’s expression was aloof. Someone behind him called out to him, and he turned to answer, “Coming.”
Xie Meng hesitated for a moment. “I came looking for you, because I want…”
Zhuo Xiaoyuan interrupted him suddenly. “I have to go play basketball. If there’s anything, we’ll talk about it tomorrow.”
Xie Meng frowned. “But…”
“Both our classes happen to be having our physical education session tomorrow, come and look for me then?”
“…” Xie Meng looked at him. He thought about it, and finally compromised. “Alright.”
Zhuo Xiaoyuan did not say anything else. He stared at Xie Meng’s face, then suddenly reached out to pinch his arm. Unconsciously, Xie Meng blocked him, shoving a palm at him only for Zhuo Xiaoyuan to dodge it.
“Why are you so nervous?” Zhuo Xiaoyuan snorted. “What do you think I was going to do to you?”
When Qi Fei arrived at the court, Ji Qinyang had already been playing for quite some time. A few boys from Class Six were watching from the sidelines, and the tallest one seemed a little familiar to Qi Fei.
Ji Qinyang was playing 3v3 on a half-court, and it looked like he had won.
“Why are you going all out today?” Qi Fei walked to the court as he looked at Ji Qinyang. It was a rare occasion that the boy did not have a smile on his face. His brows were tight, and his expression cold.
Ji Qinyang did not reply him, but raised his chin towards the boys of Class Six. “Which one is Zhuo Xiaoyuan?”
“It should be that tallest one… What do you want to do?”
Holding a bottle of water, Ji Qinyang walked in the direction of that group of boys. His height was comparable to Zhuo Xiaoyuan, and standing in front of them, he was very intimidating.
Zhuo Xiaoyuan unconsciously straightened up.
Ji Qinyang looked at him and smiled lazily. “Let’s have a match together?”
Zhuo Xiaoyuan had his hands facing Ji Qinyang in a half-crouch and was defending against him. At first, he had only thought that the boy only had an excessively pretty face, but after getting attacked a few times in a row, he realised that some things really could not be judged by their covers.
“I’ve already scored three times.” Ji Qinyang’s breathing remained steady, and a smile hung around the corner of his lips. “Shall we have a bet?”
Zhuo Xiaoyuan did not reply. The back of his jersey was soaked, and his eyes were fixed on the basketball in Ji Qinyang’s hand.
Ji Qinyang dribbled the ball between his hands for a while, and suddenly said. “5-0, then you’ll give me that video of Xie Meng.”
Zhuo Xiaoyuan looked up in astonishment. With a great force through his shoulder, Ji Qinyang broke through the defense. Jumping up, he slammed the ball into the basket. Letting go for that swaying basket, he landed in front of Zhuo Xiaoyuan on one foot, “It’s now 4-0.”
Zhuo Xiaoyuan narrowed his eyes slightly. “Why do you know about Xie Meng’s incident?”
“That’s not for you to worry about,” Ji Qinyang said lazily. “Just give me that thing.”
Zhuo Xiaoyuan sneered. “Who knows what you’re going to do with it.”
Ji Qinyang chuckled. He leaned forward, his face almost against Zhuo Xiaoyuan, and coldly said, “Then, keeping it, what do you plan on doing with it? Blackmail? Threaten him with it? Since you didn’t use it to clear Xie Meng’s name, how are you any different from that scum?”
Qi Fei was wondering how the two players ended up so close together while playing basketball. A second later, he saw Zhuo Xiaoyuan grabbed Ji Qinyang’s collar and threw a fist. However, Ji Qinyang was not a person who would sit back and let this happen. Before anyone from either side could react, his fist had already landed in Zhuo Xiaoyuan’s face.
“Speak nicely! There’s no need to fight!” Qi Fei ran up and caught Ji Qinyang’s waist. “Why are you going crazy again?”
Ji Qinyang was still struggling. Zhuo Xiaoyuan had already taken a few steps back while covering his face. He was obviously angry, and yelled at Ji Qinyang with bloodshot eyes, “As if you know anything?! Were you from the same middle school as Xie Meng?! You think you can fight this on his behalf?! You know nothing!!”
Ji Qinyang’s lips thinned. He broke out from Qi Fei’s hold, and stared at Zhuo Xiaoyuan frostily. “I’m still better than you. At least I didn’t release the photos randomly and refused to clarify it later. If not for you, would he even be in this situation?!”
Zhuo Xiaoyuan’s eyes flashed. He opened his mouth as if to explain, clenching his fists over and over again, but giving up in the end.
As more and more students gathered around them, Qi Fei reminded him, “Boss Ji…”
Ji Qinyang’s eyes swept through the crowd. He did not want to expose Xie Meng’s incident, so he reached out and grabbed Zhuo Xiaoyuan’s collar, pulling him to one side. Leaning into his ear, he gritted, “I give you three days to hand that thing to me. If anything negative about Xie Meng is spread, you’ll be the first one that I’ll come after.”
Zhuo Xiaoyuan responded coldly. “That’s exactly what I wanted to say to you. You better take care of yourself.”
Ji Qinyang could not be bothered to continue the conversation. He boorishly gave Zhuo Xiaoyuan a middle finger, then left the court and pulled on his coat. While buttoning up his coat, he then realised that his punch had been too vicious, and his knuckles were now swollen.
Qi Fei was still nagging, “Boss, why are you so irritable today… What happened exactly?”
Ji Qinyang was fed up. “Don’t ask.”
Qi Fei had no choice but to shut his mouth. As they walked through the corridor in front of the classroom building, Qi Fei followed behind Ji Qinyang. When Ji Qinyang abruptly stopped, Qi Fei nearly crashed into his back.
“Why did you suddenly…” Before he could finish his complaint, Qi Fei saw Cie Meng slowly approaching from the other end of the corridor.
The boy had his head bowed, looking like he was in a daze, and his black coat made him look even thinner. Only when he drew closer to them did he look up, and he was a little startled when he saw Ji Qinyang, his eyes widening slightly.\
“Ji Qinyang?” Xie Meng called his name.
“Hi.” Ji Qinyang greeted him in a natural manner. “You’re not going home yet?”
Xie Meng paused, then smiled.
“Isn’t it the same for you?” He laughed.
Ji Qinyang just looked at his smiling face, and did not speak. Maybe because his stare was too direct, Xie Meng stopped smiling after a while. He suspiciously touched his own cheeks and asked with slight embarrassment. “Is there something on my face?”
Ji Qinyang looked away. “No.”
“Oh…” Xie Meng was bewildered. He stood in place for a few moments, before asking uncertainly, “Well, then I’ll head back first?”
“Let’s go together.” Ji Qinyang suddenly said. “Qi Fei has some school work that he’ll like to ask you about.”
“???” Qi Fei looked completely confused…
Xie Meng smiled again, looking somewhat resigned.
“Then let’s go.”
All three persons were not heading in the same direction. Qi Fei pretended to ask a few questions, and when his bus arrived, he ran away faster than anyone else, leaving only Ji Qinyang standing next to Xie Meng with his hands in his pockets, waiting for the bus with him.
As the bus gradually came to a stop, it could be seen that it was very crowded inside. Xie Meng followed the crowd up the bus, and he was squeezed to the side of the door. Ji Qinyang followed behind him, and circled him with his arms against the wall of the bus.
People behind were still pushing, and Ji Qinyang tried his best to create a circle of space. An old man with a child squeezed over, and the bus happened to move. Reaching out, Xie Meng curled his arm around Ji Qinyang’s waist and they faced each other closely.
The old man steadied himself, then smiled at Xie Meng. He tugged at the child’s hand, “Nan Nan, say thanks.”
The child shyly hid behind the adult, and when he noticed that Xie Meng was looking at him, he buried his face down again.
Xie Meng said, “You’re welcome.” He pulled himself close to Ji Qinyang’s neck. “There’s a little too many people, please bear with it.”
Ji Qinyang adjusted his standing posture. He had one hand against the bus, another hand holding the rail, forming a triangle. He was very close to Xie Meng, and just by looking down, he could see his forehead.
Xie Meng’s arm was still around his waist, simply to steady Ji Qinyang.
“I forgot to bring the scarf.” Ji Qinyang’s eyes fell on Xie Meng’s clean and fair neck.
“?” Xie Meng only understood after a moment and smiled, “That thing… It’s fine.”
The two of them swayed along with the bus, and more and more people crowded around them. Xie Meng leaned closer against the wall, and told Ji Qinyang, “Come in closer.”
Ji Qinyang hesitated, then circled Xie Meng’s shoulders with his arm.
Ji Qinyang explained indifferently. “There’s more space like this, and it’s more stable as well.”
Xie Meng glanced at the empty spot behind the boy that was occupied immediately, and then said nothing.
Shantang Street was the final stop, and most people got off there. There was nothing strange about them holding their hugging positions all the way to the end of the route. The spring cold in the evening of May was severe, along the long streets and narrow lanes, it was crowded and noisy.
“Where do you stay?” Ji Qinyang asked casually.
Xie Meng pointed, “That innermost lane of Shantang Street.”
He asked Ji Qinyang, “What about you?”
“I don’t live here, I’m here to see my grandfather.”
This was not false. Mo Zhaohe really did live near Shantang Street, and Mo Suyuan would occasionally leave the shop to visit him.
“I’ll walk with you to the entrance of the lane.” Ji Qinyang raised his chin. “Let’s go.”
When Mo Suyuan received her son’s phone call, she had just left the tearoom. Surprised, she asked, “You’re at your grandpa’s place? Why did you think of going there?”
“I didn’t go in, and just walked around Shantang Street.” Ji Qinyang spoke lazily as he sat by the bridge. He was waiting by a fried stinky-tofu hawker, and pulled his phone slightly away and instructed, “Add a little chili and some coriander… Yes. How much is it?”
Mo Suyuan laughed. “Just wait there, I’ll come and pick you up.”
Ji Qinyang hung up his phone, holding a plastic bowl as he sat alone by the pier. Under his feet were ripples of green. A boat drifted closer, and at the tail end of the boat was a cormorant. Under the setting sun, it squinted and flapped its wings. The boatman tossed a fish at it, and the long and heavy oar knocked gently against the side of the boat. The cormorant stretched its long and slender neck, then plunged into the water.
The winter had yet to be over, but Sucheng was already blooming with spring.