"Well, well, well, what's a rich young miss like you doing in a place like this?"
"Look, I'm not looking for trouble so just let me through and we can both continue on our day."
"Now wait a minute. You see, this here's my turf and I don't appreciate anybody feeling like they can just waltz in. So you made it my business, Princess."
"Well that's unfortunate because I don't see-"
Lightning fast, they lunged at each other, slashing viciously-
Su Mucheng jerked back in surprise, nearly choking on her ice cream. She'd been taking a break from the heat at a small, shaded, outdoor table when a mangy, black cat and a collared, white Persian cat had come across each other on the street. While they were both yowling and tearing at each other, the ferocity coming from the latter completely blindsided her. A breed like that would typically be living a spoiled and pampered life in an affluent household. For it to be able to match this stray claw-for-claw spoke of some kind of history. (Though for it to even be out on the street on it's own at all was pretty unusual already.) But now that she looked closer, it's fur wasn't as clean as she had first assumed, rather stringy really. And oh WOW - Su Mucheng hissed in sympathy - that was some horrendous scarring along its flank. This must not be its first rodeo then. Hmmm, gotta change the script.
["Awww, back again? Pretty Perfect Princess too bored with her cushy life? Gotta slum it up with us gutter scum? What's got you coming back huh?"
"None of your fucking business."
"Oooh Pretty Perfect Princess learned how to say some dirty words! Looks like that little gift I gave you last time didn't teach you any respect. "
"YOU SHUT THE FUCK UP YOU PIECE OF-"]
"Aaaand there they go again," Chu Yunxiu sighed, blowing out a puff of smoke. A few weeks ago, house help of the Zhong household would have come running any time now, calling for their precious kitty. But looking at the state of its fur, they probably hadn't succeeded in a while. Local shop keeps didn't even bother taking a peek anymore with how frequent these cat fights erupted. Who knows if Madame Zhong would even want her prized cat back, what with that vicious gash down its side. The wound had healed badly and the fur now went every which way.
These cat fights were now Chu Yunxiu's new weekly afternoon drama: Stifled young miss takes to the streets, itching for an outlet for the burning chaos inside of her, when she runs into the local gang boss. (It was nice to vent vicariously sometimes, especially with a lot of embellishment.)
Chu Yunxiu had been prepared for this drama to take any number of turns or even just finish as a one shot but it looked like these cats were too alpha to get along. Their fights had been escalating and it was kill or be killed at this point. And as much as she enjoyed drama, she didn't actually want to watch two animals slash each other to death. She raised a rock she'd brought up with her, aiming for the garbage can for a good clang when suddenly-
"AaaaaAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH!" Su Mucheng yelled, whacking her plastic chair on the street, trying to break up the fight.
The cats scrambled apart (yay!), frantically looking for the new threat, only to zero in...on her.
"Crap." Mucheng quickly tried to remember if there was any door she could quickly get behind but as far as she knew, all the stores nearby had that same open shopfront. She climbed onto her chair and raised her hands slowly.
"Heyyyyyyyy bloodthirsty kitties," she breathed nervously as the cats slowly prowled towards her. This was not the enemies-to-reluctant-allies arc she wanted *sob*. "Maybe we can aaaaaaall just get along and not attack me or each other and we can aaaaalll be ooooooone happyyyyyy-"
Su Mucheng screeched, losing her balance and grabbing onto the table for dear life. The cats bolted away in different directions. Hopefully that meant the fighting was done for the day. She slowly wobbled down to solid ground, taking deep breaths to calm her racing heart.
"Uh, sorry about that! Are you...okay?"
Su Mucheng looked up in the direction of the voice only to see...a tree? She walked closer to get a better look.
"Um, up here, on the stairs, hi."
Mucheng turned to look and oh, of course. Glory High's Laboratory Building's northernmost Fire Escape, otherwise known as the Smoker's Escape. Sufficiently hidden from the rest of the school as its most remote point and hidden from the shops behind the school perimeter wall by the dense treeline. This really brought back memories.
"So you okay?" The high school girl repeated. "I couldn't see you from behind the trees but I heard the yelling. The first one. And the cats looked like they were gonna get the jump on someone…"
Su Mucheng laughed. "No, no, it's much appreciated. I didn't expect that me trying to break up their fight would turn me into a common enemy for them to band together against."
The girl laughed, "Yeah, I'd been hoping for an enemies-to-reluctant-allies arc for a while but having them band together on the dark side is a bit-"
"You made a mental drama of them too????" Su Mucheng squealed in excitement.
"You've been watching them too?" the high schooler asked, shocked. "I've never seen you around before!"
"Oh no, no, no. This is my first time here in years! It's just that it had such a perfect drama setup! What with the pedigree cat-"
"Versus the scruffy street cat-"
"Like a rich, young miss rebelling-"
"AND GETTING IN TROUBLE WITH THE LOCAL GANG BOSS-
""AND THEN SHOWDOWNS FOR WHO COMES OUT ON TOP AAAAAAHHHH!!!!!!!!!"" The two squealed in unison. There was nothing quite like fangirling with someone on the same wavelength.
"So," Su Mucheng asked, after they introduced themselves. "Why are you all the way out here by yourself? Isn't it club time?" They had met at the school’s rear gate and were now walking along the street.
Chu Yunxiu shifted evasively. "Not everyone has a club."
"Mmmm", Mucheng hummed knowingly. The girl hadn't been able to spray any anti-smoke odour spray after all. "I was just asking because that’s where my brother used to smoke. I never liked it but...it's nostalgic."
"Your bro one of the rough crowd?"
"Yes? And no?" Su Mucheng smiled uncertainly. "He was a top student in the honors class and an officer of the tennis club who took commissions for gaming jobs on the side and ran an underground betting ring for gaming matches sometimes."
"The fuck?" Chu Yunxiu stared, dumbfounded. "Can you even do that? Where did he get the time?"
"Ah well, he had a hard time sitting still and shutting off his brain. The smoking helped a bit, especially when he needed to calm down or sleep but...I always hoped that we would find a different solution.
"Mmmm" Chu Yunxiu nodded in understanding. She was a bit afraid to ask this lady more though, seeing as she kept speaking about her brother in the past tense. "So what are you doing here? You said it's your first time back in a while."
"Oh that!" Su Mucheng grinned excitedly. "I'm here for research!"
"Research…" Chu Yunxiu frowned at her dubiously. "This place isn't really the...new discoveries and inventions type…"
Su Mucheng laughed "No, no, not that kind of research. I'm here to observe the people and economy of this town at present and from there make calculated predictions of what's in store for it in the future. What happens in 10 years if the current trend continues? What happens if X variable is introduced? Will that change anything? If yes, how and by how much? It's all very exciting." she finished, eyes sparkling in delight.
They'd been at home when Xiu-ge had clapped both hands on her shoulders and said that he had the vague beginnings of a project. It wasn't a routine project with a clear goal, property to be acquired, building to be built, product to be developed, and money to be made. Thus it wasn't something he could propose to the company. He was also sadly (sadly?!) on vacation and wouldn't be allowed to set foot into any of the company's offices anyway, under pain of bodily removal for his own good. However, it was something that he felt would be important in figuring out the direction of future developments for both the company and the country. And it just so happened that she, with her intimate knowledge of the neighborhoods' local atmosphere and her double major in anthropology and economics, was absolutely perfect for the job. If she was interested, of course.
She had poked him in the ribs, hard. Once because he shouldn't complain about being on vacation and again because of course she was interested.
"Why're you so interested in what happens to this town anyway?" Chu Yunxiu frowned. "As in real, academic kind of interested. What makes us special?"
Su Mucheng tilted her head, "Mmmm, it's not so much only this town but all the towns like it all over the country. The main idea of the study is Revitalizing the Local Neighborhood. The How's are still being figured out and still pretty much a hit or miss. So this is going to be a Case Study to add to that pool of information."
"Ohh kaaaay…?" Chu Yunxiu squinted, it was kinda interesting? "Do you need help with that, maybe? Or...how are you going to research...us?"
Su Mucheng smiled brightly. "I do need help! Thanks for asking. The first thing to do is hit the books. Any information the local government can give, historical records of the area, newspaper articles, online articles, and the like. I've already contacted Yang-Jie from the Town Hall and Cheng Siyan from the local newspaper, so those are covered. The rest are interviews with as many people from as many walks of life as possible."
“So is that where you’re going now? To interview them?”
“Ah no, I’m still waiting for them to accept my request for information and from there set appointments for interviews. Right now, I’m on my way to Happy Day Care to meet up with my brother.”
‘Oh good,’ Chu Yunxiu thought in relief, glad the death flags had turned out to be false alarms. “So he ended up working as a daycare worker?” Kinda surprising with a history like that. Smelled like a good drama plot.
“Um yes, currently... but just to clarify, he’s not the same brother we were talking about earlier.”
“YOU HAVE TWO BROTHERS???” Chu Yunxiu blurted out. Not just one brother BUT TWO??? And all three siblings definitely older than 18??? It was only 2024! The two child policy only took effect eight years ago! Just how loaded was this family to pay off social service fees?????
Su Mucheng chuckled sheepishly. She had a pretty clear idea of what was going through the young woman’s head, what with her openly gobsmacked expression. ‘What would she think, I wonder, if she knew that I do have two brothers but neither is even the first one I mentioned and I’m not even related to them by blood?’ Though on second thought, that earlier description applied to Xiu-ge as well. He and Gege had been thick as thieves in everything after all. She smiled awkwardly, “It’s...a long story…”
Chu Yunxiu wondered if that was the new euphemism for “rich”.
“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH ❤ SU MUCHEEEEEEEEEEEENG ❤!!!!!!!!!!!! ❤❤❤❤ヾ(≧▽≦*)o ❤❤❤❤! YOU DIDN’T TELL ME SU MUCHENG WAS YOUR SISTER! AAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!” Chen Guo continued slapping Ye Xiu’s arm in excitement.
“Ow- Ow! Boss! I can’t feel my arm! Ow! What would the kids think if they saw you like this!” Ye Xiu cried desperately as he tried to fend of her excitement. In fairness to him, she was part of the community volleyball team. Those slaps hurt.
Chen Guo clasped her hands (to Ye Xiu’s relief) in a heroic effort to not endlessly shake Su Mucheng’s. “I- I- I’m such a big fan, you have no idea! I absolutely love your videos! We follow the Crafts for Beginners series here with the kids! I can’t keep up with your more difficult projects but everything’s just so beautiful and amazing and the lights and the carpentry and your painting skills and the materials and they look so good and they could totally be in movies and I remember you got commissioned to make something for a fantasy photoshoot and I was so happy for you because I’ve been following you since you had less than twenty thousand subscribers and now your channel’s so big but your personality is still so lovelyandyougivesomuchhelpfuladviceandsafetyremindersandyougiveyourprojectsawaysometimesandit’salwaysbeenmy-”
“Breathe, Guo Guo, breeeaaaathe,” Wu Chen said slowly as he rubbed her back.
As Chen Guo calmed herself down, Mucheng reached out and took her hand (!). “Thank you so much for your support these past years. I would have never gotten to where I am now if people like you hadn’t stuck with me when I was still figuring it all out. If it’s alright with you, I would love to see your class projects!”
“Oh!” Chen Guo breathed, one octave higher than usual, “Of course! Just give me a sec and I’ll get them out of storage!” Finally having something to focus her nervous energy on, she turned around and sped inside, dragging Wu Chen with her.
Ye Xiu smirked at Su Mucheng, “Well look who’s popular.” She grinned and elbowed him good-naturedly before he followed his colleagues at a more sedate pace.
“Soooooooooo,” Chu Yunxiu started awkwardly, feeling a bit out of place, “you have a craft vlog?”
“Yup!” Su Mucheng smiled. “I do crafts of different skill levels. But my favorite things to build are fantasy and sci-fi props.”
“Oh!” Chu Yunxiu exclaimed, glad to be legitimately interested and not have to pretend for politeness’ sake. “That sounds cool. What’s your account name?”
“Ah it’s Weibo, @DancingRain.”
Chu Yunxiu keyed it into her phone before showing the screen. “This the one?”
“Yup! That’s the one!”
“Nice, I’ll be sure to check it out.”
“Thank you for your kind patronage,” Mucheng chuckled. She gestured to where the rest had gone, “Shall we?”
Chu Yunxiu looked ahead. This day had definitely taken a turn for the unexpected, but somehow this crowd seemed alright enough. She wouldn’t mind sticking around a bit longer.