The night breeze caressed Zhou Qin's face, its warmth thawing the chill on her skin. Finally she felt like she could breathe again. Behind her, the double door closed with a loud bang, dampening the cacophony of cheers and yells from the hall until it became a distant din. Once they were out the door, Cheng Cheng quickened her pace, and Zhou Qin watched as her wheelchair rolled towards the side of the grand hall where several benches were sat side by side. They stopped beside one of the benches, and Cheng Cheng sat down with a sigh.
"Thank you, xuejie," Zhou Qin said. "For taking care of me."
Cheng Cheng looked up from her hands and gave Zhou Qin a weak smile. "Don't mention it. We can wait here for Li Yundong to come back."
Zhou Qin nodded and resumed her observation of her xuejie's demeanor. Cheng Cheng's face seemed a bit ashen, and her hands were trembling against her lap.
Zhou Qin could definitely relate to those visceral reactions. In fact, she was pretty sure she would be experiencing them too if she wasn't so benumbed by her own circumstances.
"Are you okay, Zhou Qin?"
Zhou Qin looked up and met Cheng Cheng's concerned gaze.
Zhou Qin smiled. "I'm fine, xuejie. What about you? Are you okay?"
"Just shocked," said Cheng Cheng. "I mean... What happened back there... That was..." Cheng Cheng shook her head in disbelief. "God... I don't even know what to say."
Zhou Qin sighed and said nothing.
What else was there to say?
Anyone with a functioning brain would've realized by now that Li Yundong wasn't normal, that he was capable of superhuman feats. Only those foolish students inside the hall would believe the impromptu story that Feng Na xuejie came up with in order to salvage what was left of the event. Then again, it was probably a good thing that the students bought the story. After all, Zhou Qin no longer had the power to bail Li Yundong out if he got into trouble.
"That needle thing was trying to kill him," Cheng Cheng said out of the blue.
Zhou Qin glanced at her xuejie, then nodded. "That sword as well."
"First he dodged bullets. And now this?" Cheng Cheng ran a hand through her hair. "What else can't he do?"
Zhou Qin wondered what Cheng Cheng xuejie's reaction would be if she told her that Li Yundong was slowly healing her legs by giving her head massages.
God. Zhou Qin still didn't know how he was able to do it. Like, she accepted that he could, but she still wanted to know how he did it.
It suddenly felt like there was a world of things out there that she didn't know anything about. Wealth and status seemed like nothing now compared to the mysterious world out there, the world of the unknown, the realm of the unfathomable.
"Well, Feng Na xuejie's quick thinking kinda saved the event," Zhou Qin remarked dryly.
Cheng Cheng let out a laugh, which quickly turned into a snort.
"I can't believe that lame-ass excuse actually worked," said Cheng Cheng. "I thought the event's gonna tank for sure."
Zhou Qin laughed. God it felt good to laugh openly.
"But it didn't." Zhou Qin smirked. "In fact, I think the students are pretty excited about the whole thing."
Cheng Cheng rolled her eyes. "Those idiots." Then, Cheng Cheng sighed. "Well... At least nothing is broken and nobody was hurt. So there's that."
The double doors of the grand hall burst open, and the students poured out into the night in their rowdy and boisterous fashion.
"Hmm. I guess the event has wrapped up," Cheng Cheng said, looking over at the grand hall.
Zhou Qin forced herself to look away from the main entrance and focused her eyes on her front.
"You can go look for Feng Na xuejie if you want," Zhou Qin said. "I'm fine on my own."
"No way," Cheng Cheng protested. "What kind of friend would I be if I leave you on your own like this?"
Zhou Qin twisted her head around in surprise and nearly regretted doing that. The determination and sincerity she saw on Cheng Cheng's face brought tears to her eyes. Crying in front of a xuejie? Great job, Zhou Qin. Great job.
"W- What?" Zhou Qin said lamely.
Cheng Cheng smiled. "I'm staying, Zhou Qin. At least until Li Yundong gets here. So deal with it."
Zhou Qin nodded and quickly looked away.
What started out as a conjecture, a mere hypothesis, had finally been validated. Zhou Qin had real friends; even though she had been stripped of everything and turned into a cripple, there was actually a living person—other than Li Yundong and Su Chan—who saw her as a friend.
It amazed her how that simple knowledge could bring far more satisfaction than all the wealth and status she had once possessed. Don't cry, Zhou Qin. Don't cry.
"Uh-oh… Incoming, 9 o'clock," Cheng Cheng mumbled suddenly.
Zhou Qin glanced to her left and immediately froze. Then, she recovered quickly and turned away, cursing her bad luck.
Go away... Please make her go away... I'm not in the mood to deal with her. Please… Not now...
Zhou Qin tightened her grip on the armrest of her wheelchair.
Cheng Cheng rose to her feet and leaned down. "Hey, we can wait somewhere else if you want."
Zhou Qin shook her head. "It's okay, xuejie."
She had already seen them anyway, which was why she was heading over; she would just follow them if they tried to leave.
"Well, well, well... If it isn't the great Miss Zhou. What a surprise to see you here."
Zhou Qin clenched her jaw.
She was smart enough to read between the lines: I can't believe you have the courage to show your face here in your state.
Zhou Qin took a deep breath and turned around to face the woman.
Stay cool, Zhou Qin. Stay cool. You can handle this.
Zhou Qin smirked. "I didn't know you're an active participant of club activities, Ding Nan. When did that happen?"
Zhou Qin could sense Cheng Cheng's movements behind her. A second later, Zhou Qin felt a firm pressure on the top of the wheelchair's backrest; Cheng Cheng's hands were gripping the push handles tightly as though she was ready to push Zhou Qin away any time.
Zhou Qin sent a silent thank you to her new friend.
To her surprise, Ding Nan didn't answer her taunt with some venomous riposte right away. Instead, Ding Nan was just studying her like she was some kind of specimen.
Zhou Qin felt a sudden urge to stand up even though she knew she would fall over if she did. She hated the height difference between them; she hated the fact that Ding Nan was literally looking down on her with those smug eyes.
Then, Ding Nan started laughing. "Oh… Look at how much you've changed in two months."
You have no idea how much I've changed. No idea.
"But one thing about you still hasn't changed, I suppose," Ding Nan sneered. "That smart mouth of yours!"
Zhou Qin's grip on the armrest tightened a little as she fought against the impulse to drown Ding Nan in a litany of sarcastic and witty remarks.
She isn't worth it, Zhou Qin. Just let her talk.
Ding Nan laughed snidely. "What? Nothing to say for yourself, O Great Miss Zhou Qin? Aha! I know…" Ding Nan clapped her hands together. "You're scared, aren't you? You're scared of me coz you're a nobody now. You have nothing else to threaten me with, and that terrifies you." Ding Nan took a few steps closer. "Tsk, tsk. I never thought I'd live to see the day where the great Miss Zhou Qin got turned into a helpless cripple. How the tides have turned..."
"Enough, Ding Nan!" Cheng Cheng's voice sounded behind her.
Zhou Qin turned around in surprise. What surprised Zhou Qin even more, though, was the anger and protectiveness she saw on Cheng Cheng's face.
This was the real deal.
Her xuejie was defending her even though doing so wouldn't confer any benefits at all. Cheng Cheng was doing this because she actually cared about a helpless cripple like her.
"You've gone too far, Ding Nan," Cheng Cheng growled. "Now back off!"
Ding Nan's venomous laughter drew Zhou Qin's attention away from Cheng Cheng's face.
"Me? I've gone too far?" Ding Nan's eyes flashed angrily. "So it's okay for her to walk all over me with her status and power? It's okay for her to force me to jump off a rooftop, and I can't even say a few things to her face?"
Zhou Qin sighed inwardly. This again…
"How many times do I have to tell you that I had a plan that day?" Zhou Qin said coolly. "Neither of us would have to fall off the rooftop if you would just listen—"
"That's a lie!" Ding Nan screamed. "You're a liar!"
"Let's just go, Zhou Qin," Cheng Cheng said. "Let's not waste our breaths on this crazy bitch."
The wheelchair rolled forward.
"Hey! I'm not done with you!" Ding Nan stopped the wheelchair by pressing both of her hands on the armrest. Then, Ding Nan leaned down until her face was mere inches away from Zhou Qin's.
Zhou Qin met Ding Nan's gaze head on. Crippled or not, Zhou Qin had already stared death right in the face and survived. Ding Nan didn't even come close to intimidating her.
"Let. Go. Ding Nan," Cheng Cheng said. "I'm warning you..."
"It's okay, xuejie," Zhou Qin said without taking her eyes off Ding Nan.
She had to deal with Ding Nan sooner or later, so she might as well get this over with.
"Ding Nan... You said that I walked all over you in the past," Zhou Qin said. "But ask yourself this— did I really?"
"Didn't you?" Ding Nan sneered.
"It was a deal, Ding Nan," Zhou Qin said. "A two-way agreement. And you know it. You could back out any time. And not once did I let those men do anything to disrespect you. I even protected you." Zhou Qin quirked her brow. "I don't have to remind you how I saved you from He Shao, do I?"
It brought Zhou Qin a small amount of satisfaction to see the look on Ding Nan's face falter.
"You chose to take the deal, Ding Nan," Zhou Qin said. "Everyone is responsible for their own choices."
Their glaring match lasted for a few more seconds before Ding Nan released the armrest and straightened herself.
Just when Zhou Qin thought the conversation was finally over, Ding Nan started laughing hysterically.
"Everyone is responsible for their own choices... Hah!" Ding Nan stopped laughing. "How fitting!" With her foot, Ding Nan tapped the side of the wheelchair a few times. "So this must be the consequence of your past choices then, huh?" Ding Nan laughed derisively. "So much for your holier-than-thou speech earlier. Just look at how the Heavens have punished you! You must be such a bitch in the past that the Heavens decided to turn you into a cripple." Ding Nan laughed again. "You and karma must be best buddies now. Since you're both bitches."
"Shut. Up. Ding Nan," Cheng Cheng growled.
"No, you shut up!" Ding Nan glared at Cheng Cheng. "This is between me and her. It's none of your business, so get lost!"
"Zhou Qin is my friend," Cheng Cheng said in a raised voice. "Her business is my business!"
Silence followed Cheng Cheng's fervent declaration.
Once again, Zhou Qin found herself teetering between elation and disbelief. Oh God, she'd been such a fool for not believing in the good of people sooner.
What a blind fool I've been...
Alas, Ding Nan's delirious laughter shattered the moment to pieces.
"Hahaha… Oh my God... That's a good one."
"What the hell is so funny?" Cheng Cheng said coldly.
Zhou Qin could hear the push handles straining under Cheng Cheng's tight grip.
Ding Nan stopped laughing to catch her breath. "Oh, God... That was hilarious."
"You..." Cheng Cheng growled.
"You do know that Zhou Qin is just a nobody now, right?" Ding Nan said in a smug tone.
"She's not a nobody," Cheng Cheng said. "She's my friend."
Ding Nan smirked. "But she's not the same person anymore."
"Yeah... I've heard about it from Nana," Cheng Cheng challenged. "So what?"
"So?" Ding Nan laughed. "Why bother sticking up for her? You won't get any benefits at all. In fact, it's the opposite. People might start shunning you if you stick around. Just like they're shunning her."
"I'd rather stick around her than the likes of you," Cheng Cheng scorned.
"Is that so?" Ding Nan chuckled. "What do you have to gain, I wonder? Let's see... Her prestige? Her status? But no. Those are all gone. She's lost everything." Ding Nan's eyes darted to Zhou Qin's legs briefly. "Including her ability to stand up, it would seem. Ah, well... I guess I see now what you've gained." Ding Nan smirked. "A burden."
"You despicable bitch!" Cheng Cheng growled. "I'll end you—"
Zhou Qin placed a hand on top of Cheng Cheng's hand on the push handle. Then, she twisted her head around and gave Cheng Cheng a grateful smile.
Cheng Cheng's face was flushed in anger and she looked like she was about to pounce forward and start pulling hairs.
Zhou Qin gave her xuejie a nod: I'll take it from here.
The gesture seemed to have calmed Cheng Cheng down a little as she turned away with a huff.
Zhou Qin set her cold gaze upon Ding Nan. "Everything you said is true, Ding Nan. I did lose everything." But I've gain true friends, she added silently. "I have no status and no power. I can't even walk. So, yes. What you said is completely true. I am a nobody." Zhou Qin smirked. "But I'm a nobody with honor. You, on the other hand, are a disgrace."
Ding Nan's lips twisted in displeasure, but Zhou Qin didn't give her the opportunity to speak.
"Mock me all you want, Ding Nan. Call me whatever you like." Zhou Qin shrugged. "A fallen angel. A disgraced phoenix. I don't care." Zhou Qin smirked. "I actually pity you."
"You are pitying me?" Ding Nan laughed incredulously. "You're out of your mind."
"Why, yes, I do pity you," Zhou Qin said casually. "Not just you, of course." She smirked. "I pity those who can only feel a sense of superiority through their mockery of others and not through actual achievements."
"What did you say?" Ding Nan snarled.
"If I'm a disgraced phoenix, then you would be..." Zhou Qin smirked. "A chicken, I suppose."
A giggle sounded behind her.
Ding Nan shot Cheng Cheng a glare.
"At least a disgraced phoenix can still fly," Zhou Qin said. "It just lost its luster and beauty, that's all. A chicken, on the other hand, will never be able to fly."
"You're one to talk!" Ding Nan roared angrily. "You can't even stand up! You can't walk! You're a cripple! Get it?! An invalid!"
"And what the hell are you, Ding Nan?"
Zhou Qin raised her gaze at the voice. At the same time, Ding Nan turned around to look behind her.
Striding towards them was the man whom Zhou Qin was willing to die for.
"Li Yundong…" Zhou Qin whispered.
"Stay out of this, Li Yundong," Ding Nan said. "This is between me and Zhou Qin!"
Zhou Qin's heart raced as she watched Li Yundong approach them with confident strides. The makeup on his face was still there, but the wig and the beard were both gone. He'd changed out of his costume as well.
"Stay out of this?" Li Yundong said coldly. "You want me to stand by and watch you insult my friend like you did just now?" Li Yundong stopped in front of Ding Nan. "Like hell I'm gonna do that."
Li Yundong had growled out that last statement.
Ding Nan snorted derisively. "Look at you. Zhou Qin's knight in shining armor. Some idealist who is too naive to realize that he's being manipulated."
Li Yundong took a step forward.
"And look at you," Li Yundong said icily. "The nasty viper who throws hurtful words at others. The lowlife who kicks people when they are down."
"Can't you see that she's manipulating you?!" Ding Nan screamed. "You don't know her as well as I do! She's acting pitiful to win your compassion! This kind of deception is her forte! You're being fooled, Li Yundong! Once she's done using you, she—"
Li Yundong's roar ended Ding Nan's outburst.
"I thought you'd changed after the shooting, Ding Nan," Li Yundong said coldly. "I guess I was wrong. You're still the same heartless woman from those months ago." Li Yundong laughed darkly. "Actually no. You're even worse than before. I guess you've finally shown us your true colors."
"Li Yundong! You—"
"Get out of my sight," Li Yundong cut in. "You repulse me."
Ding Nan gasped. Seconds later, she burst into tears and ran off. Zhou Qin sighed in relief, glad that the ordeal was over.
"I'm sorry, Zhou Qin," Li Yundong said once Ding Nan was gone. He crouched down beside her wheelchair. "I didn't mean to run off after the performance. I just..." He scratched his neck awkwardly. "I had to take care of... stuff."
Zhou Qin smiled. By stuff, he probably meant: freaky, supernatural things.
"Don't worry about it," she said.
"Are you okay?" he asked.
"I'm fine. Just a little tired."
Li Yundong rose to his feet instantly. "Then I'll take you back now."
"Wait!" Zhou Qin grabbed Li Yundong's sleeve. "Hold on a sec."
Li Yundong gave her a quizzical look.
Turning away from him, Zhou Qin reached out with both hands and clasped Cheng Cheng's hand in them.
"Xuejie," Zhou Qin said, gazing deeply into Cheng Cheng's eyes, hoping to convey every ounce of gratitude she felt towards the other woman.
Cheng Cheng shifted awkwardly. "Y- Yeah?"
"Thank you," Zhou Qin said in an earnest tone. "For everything."
"O-Oh..." Cheng Cheng chuckled a few times. "It's nothing, really. It's what friends are for, right?"
Zhou Qin grasped Cheng Cheng's hand tighter when she felt Cheng Cheng's hand slipping away.
"I mean it, xuejie," Zhou Qin said. "Thank you."
Cheng Cheng grinned and patted Zhou Qin's hand a few times. "I know you mean it. And you're welcome." Cheng Cheng cleared her throat. "Well, I gotta go look for Nana now." She rolled her eyes. "Before she sends out a search party to look for me."
Li Yundong's chuckles sounded behind her.
"Good night, Cheng Cheng," he said. "Say hi to Feng Na for me, would you?"
"Sure," Cheng Cheng said with a casual wave of her hand.
"Oh! And uh... Sorry about the performance..."
Zhou Qin could imagine Li Yundong's grimace even though she couldn't see her face.
"You and your superhuman theatrics." Cheng Cheng rolled her eyes. "Honestly."
"Hey!" Li Yundong said, then laughed. "You guys were the one who roped me into it in the first place."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Cheng Cheng said, waving her hand. Then, she flashed them a smile. "Good night, guys."
Zhou Qin smiled. "Good night, xuejie."
Cheng Cheng nodded, then pointed at Li Yundong. "Hey dude. You'll be careful, right?" Cheng Cheng's eyes narrowed. "Those freakish needles aren't gonna attack you again, are they?"
Li Yundong's laughter rang out behind her. "Nah. Took care of them."
For the life of her, Zhou Qin couldn't imagine what "taking care" might entail.
As soon as Cheng Cheng's figure vanished through the grand hall's main entrance, Zhou Qin felt a hand on her shoulder.
"Shall we?" Li Yundong asked.
Zhou Qin nodded.
Li Yundong turned the wheelchair right, then rolled it forward.
"It's still early," Li Yundong commented, "so we might be able to catch a cab."
Zhou Qin snorted. "Can't you just... I don't know, fly us back or something?"
Li Yundong chuckled. "I wish I could, Zhou Qin. I wish I could."
There was something wistful in his tone, but Zhou Qin decided not to push. They had had enough excitement for one night.
Neither of them spoke for a while as the wheelchair rolled past the academic building towards the gates. Li Yundong had tried to avoid crowded paths, but they still encountered a few groups of students who were on their way towards the gates as well.
The students were pointing fingers at her, whispering, and... well, the usual drill.
A while later, Zhou Qin broke the silence.
"Hey, Li Yundong..."
Her tone must've sounded strange to him because the wheelchair slowed to a stop.
"I..." Zhou Qin cleared her throat. "Was I really that bad? I mean, before I'm like this." She gestured at her own legs, then let her hands drop. "I just..." She sighed. "Ding Nan hated me so much..."
"Honestly?" Li Yundong said. "I don't think you're that bad."
Zhou Qin turned her head around to look at the man. "Really?"
"A little standoffish, maybe?" He shrugged. "But other than that, you're fine."
Zhou Qin heaved a sigh of relief.
"Look, just ignore whatever Ding Nan said to you, okay? You should know by now how jealousy can drive people to say hurtful things." Li Yundong paused for a moment. "Just focus on getting better for now."
Zhou Qin pondered his words silently, reflecting on her past actions. Admittedly, she had been too cynical in the past. She was so disillusioned with society and with her own upbringing that she was incapable of believing the good in people.
"Everyone has their own path to follow, Zhou Qin," Li Yundong said. "The past isn't as important as the now and the future. The important thing is that we learn from the past and keep growing as a person." Li Yundong laughed. "I mean, just look at me. I used to be a hot-headed idiot with anger issues."
"Oh? You mean you're not a hot-headed idiot now?" Zhou Qin said archly.
"Hey!" Li Yundong said, feigning a hurt tone.
Okay, that was a little mean, but she just couldn't resist.
"Okay... yeah... Maybe I'm still a little bit of a hot-headed idiot," Li Yundong mumbled.
Zhou Qin chuckled. "Relax. I was kidding."
Li Yundong laughed and pushed the wheelchair forward again. "Sure you are."
Neither of them spoke until about a minute later.
Again, it was Zhou Qin who broke the silence.
"Thank you for defending me just now," Zhou Qin said.
"Mm-hmm," Li Yundong said, then paused for a moment. "And it seems like I'm not the only one who did."
Zhou Qin froze. He almost sounded cheerful.
"Oh, you mean Cheng Cheng xuejie?"
"Yep," Li Yundong said. "Clearly, something must have happened before I showed up."
"Mm. Xuejie defended me," Zhou Qin said, then chuckled. "Rather fiercely, in fact."
"And how do you feel about that?"
Zhou Qin sighed and considered the question for a moment.
"Grateful? Happy? Touched? Amazed?" She chuckled. "Something in between? I don't even know."
Li Yundong hummed. "So you were wrong before."
"At the hospital, you told me that you no longer have friends," Li Yundong said. "You were wrong."
"I guess so."
"True friends reveal themselves in times of trouble, Zhou Qin. You mentioned that all your friends started avoiding you after your accident. Here's the thing. They aren't even your friends to begin with."
Zhou Qin sighed. "Yeah." Then, she forced out a chuckle. "Good riddance, then."
"You still have friends, Zhou Qin. People still care, and it's got nothing to do with your status or whatever," Li Yundong said earnestly. "So don't give up, okay?"
Zhou Qin bit her lip and said nothing. The truth was that she would have to give up on something. She just hoped that her heart would still be in one piece after that.
Ding Nan stumbled along the street, not knowing at all where she was or where she was going. Her grand plan, the plan to taunt Zhou Qin the same way she had taunted her in the past, had backfired. It had blown up in her face.
When the need for oxygen became too great, Ding Nan stopped running and leaned her side against a lamp post. Her chest heaved as she tried to catch her breath. She was standing in a dark street, one that she didn't recognize.
Ding Nan swiped her tears, hoping that her failure to recognize the street was due to the blurriness in her vision, not the fact that she had gotten lost.
A powerful gust of wind blew past her face.
The next thing she knew, she was airborne.
She couldn't even scream; she was too terrified.
To her surprise, her landing wasn't a hard drop, but a slow descent until both of her heels touch the ground.
Fear speared through her when she realized where she was: some kind of dark alley.
A hand shot out from the darkness just as she was about to turn tail and run. She gasped and swung her fists wildly, but she couldn't hit anything.
"Not bad... Not bad... Definitely a good dinglu! And she's got some fight in her too..." said the voice of an old man.
What the hell?
"Well? How about this one, my dear disciple?" said the old man. "We've gone through so many candidates for the past few months, but none of them were good enough for you..."
Ding Nan stopped struggling when a green apparition of a woman appeared beside her.
Ding Nan screamed and kicked her legs harder.
A ghost. She was seeing a ghost.
The ghost and the old man ignored her screams. The ghost circled her, looking her body up and down.
"You're right, Master. This one is perfect," said the ghost. "Such a wonderful dinglu... And she's a virgin too."
"What do you guys want from me?!"
"Aww.... You poor thing," said the ghost. "Save yourself some strength and stop struggling, okay? This will be over very soon, I promise..." The ghost hovered in front of her face. "Oh... And before we begin... I suggest you remember my name."
Begin? Begin what?
The ghost flew right at her face. "The name is Lyu Fengping!"