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43 A Thick-skinned Gues

 At the age of thirteen, Gu Nianzhi had flown to Scotland on a holiday with Huo Shaoheng. While there, she had had fish and chips at the famous Caroline Tavern, the very best in town.

She had fallen in love with it, and never forgotten the taste. She had even gone so far as to learn to make the dish for herself after returning from Scotland, but Chen Lie had eventually imposed a ban on it; it was just too greasy, too unhealthy, and much too fattening...

The look in Mei Xiawen's eyes had grown even more sympathetic.

To him, fish and chips were nothing more than fast food, the kind served at McDonald's and KFC. It was not worthy of being served at a proper restaurant. Anyone with money or any sort of social standing would never choose to eat something like that.

"...I think you better get fried onion and calamari rings instead." Mei Xiawen gently squeezed Gu Nianzhi's hand as he said to the young waitress standing at the door, "I'll have two more fried onion and calamari rings, please."

Gu Nianzhi did not like either onions or calamari.

But before she could object, the waitress had already served them. She could not very well raise a fuss now, so she politely took a few bites. It was easy enough for her to pretend to like them.

Everyone else at the table devoured their food happily. Gu Nianzhi merely sipped at her milk tea, smiling at everyone over the cup.

After they were done with the appetizer, it was now time for the main dish.

They were having Italian tonight, which meant that the food was served on individual plates, Western-style.

Everyone had their own plate of food; it was not necessary for anyone to get up and serve from a sharing platter.

Mei Xiawen had ordered two dishes for Gu Nianzhi: Veal Milanese, seasoned with onions and bay leaf, and grilled cod in tomato sauce.

Gu Nianzhi surreptitiously quarantined the onions to one side, then cut a small piece of the beef to taste.

"Nianzhi, a toast to your admission to B University Law School!" Mei Xiawen was all smiles as he raised a glass of Moscato d'Asti - a sweet white wine from Italy - in Gu Nianzhi's direction.

"What? Lil Sis, you got your admission letter?! When?!" said Little Temptress, surprised and happy. She immediately lifted the glass in front of her.

The alcohol content for the Moscato d'Asti was only 5.5%; it was more of a carbonated drink, barely qualifying as an alcoholic beverage. Mei Xiawen had chosen this because he was going to be driving later.

"Just this morning. Professor He sent me the letter of admission right after the interview. It's just an email, though. He said I'll get the official letter in three days," said Gu Nianzhi happily as she, too, held up her glass.

She was over the moon right now.

It was one of her dearest wishes to study under Professor He Zhichu at B University Law School.

"Well done!" Green Tea Fang had also raised her glass; she smiled gracefully as she said, "When you missed the interview because you were sick, I almost died of nausea watching that Feng Yixi from the opposite dorm strut around campus. Thank god she got herself into trouble. Otherwise I would have to graduate knowing that Feng Yixi had been admitted to B University Law School - that would be such a distasteful stain on my college memories."

Gu Nianzhi had been worried that her roommates would be mad at her for keeping her interview a secret.

But her roommates were not bothered by that at all. They smiled and laughed as they congratulated her.

She had worried herself silly over nothing.

Gu Nianzhi was smiling so hard now her lips seemed to be permanently curved upwards, like a buffalo nut. She raised her glass and they had a merry time clinking glasses.

Everyone downed the contents of their glasses; almost immediately, the atmosphere relaxed.

Mei Xiawen very thoughtfully refilled Gu Nianzhi's glass, but was careful not to give her too much; it was just enough to cover the bottom of her glass.

Everyone talked in soft voices, caught up in the classy ambience at Red Manor Restaurant.

A phone suddenly rang; it sounded more disruptive and out of place here than usual.

Mei Xiawen frowned as he looked at his phone. It was an incoming call from Ai Weinan. He didn't feel like taking the call, so he cancelled it.

But Ai Weinan immediately followed this up with a text message: "Class Rep, I'm right outside the entrance to Red Manor Restaurant."

Mei Xiawen: "..."

He put his phone back into his pocket, stood, and said to Gu Nianzhi, "I'm going outside for a bit. Take your time eating - don't leave without me." He patted Strongman on the shoulder, and told him, "Help me entertain them. I'll be back soon."

After Mei Xiawen left, Little Temptress, who was sitting beside Gu Nianzhi, took a sip of her wine, and asked, "Why did Class Rep leave?"

"Seems like something came up. Someone just called him on the phone." Gu Nianzhi did not know why either, so she made only a half-hearted attempt at a reply before changing the subject entirely. "Little Temptress, I hear you'll be returning to the capital city after graduation?"

"Yeah, my family's been harping on about it." Little Temptress was having parmesan chicken and a salad made of lettuce, bell peppers and baby octopuses. With a fork, she blended the finely cut cheese into the tomato sauce, before spreading the sauce on the chicken breast. She then cut a small piece and chewed slowly, relishing it.

The cheese was rich, the ketchup fresh and delicious; mixed together, the taste was a little heavy on the palate. A white wine with a low alcohol percentage was just the thing to complement her meal.

Green Tea Fang ate a few mouthfuls of squid ink pasta, then stopped and stared vacantly at the door as she nursed her sweet white wine, her thoughts elsewhere.

It wasn't until Mei Xiawen led a good-looking, moderately shapely girl into the room that she smiled, gave a small cough, and said, in a tone laden with significance, "Class Rep, I see that you've been busy picking up pretty ladies."

Mei Xiawen pulled a chair out for Ai Weinan, and introduced her to his classmates: "This is Ai Weinan, my classmate from high school. She's a law student at Z University."

He then did the same for his classmates. "These are my classmates. You already know Strongman here. The others are... my classmates Fang Wenxin, Cao Yunshan, Wang Junya, and Gu Nianzhi."

Mei Xiawen had briefly considered using their nicknames, but ultimately decided on introducing them with their proper names.

Ai Weinan did not hesitate to pour herself a generous glass of wine. She said, as though she was hosting tonight, "Sorry I'm late. I'll drink three glasses of wine as punishment. Go on, help yourselves, Xiawen here is real generous with his friends. Really, don't be shy now, eat whatever you want." Having said all that, she downed her glass in one go, then repeated her feat with another two glasses of wine. She was behaving as though everyone at the table were her guests, and were only there on her account.

Gu Nianzhi's roommates were shrewd, worldly ladies. They saw at once that this newcomer was, ever so subtly, trying to assert her dominance...

Green Tea Fang laughed lightly as she silently thought to herself: Look at this silly girl Ai Weinan, making a complete fool of herself in front of us, the real experts. C'mon, your tricks are crude and unsophisticated - I've stopped using them after grade school!

She turned the glass of wine in her hand, and said slowly, "There's nothing particularly "punishing" about drinking three glasses of this grape juice. It should be three cups of sake."

Little Temptress immediately echoed this. "That's right! If Miss Ai here is truly sincere about redeeming herself, she should drink three cups of sake!"

"Ooh, I like that! Say, did Class Rep actually invite you to dinner here?" Lady Cao smiled beatifically as she raised her own glass.

Ai Weinan stared dumbly in surprise. She shook her head, and said, "Class Rep had no idea I was coming to C City today. Why on earth would he invite me?"

Lady Cao set her wine glass down on the table with a firm thunk, but her voice was light and casual as she said, "In that case, what's all this nonsense about "punishing" yourself? You make it sound like we've been sitting here waiting for you to show up. Your skin must be as thick as the bottom of this wine glass."

Ai Weinan flushed. She looked at Mei Xiawen, bit her lip, and said, "Class Rep..."

Mei Xiawen smiled as he tried to ease the tension. "These ladies here are always quick to crack a joke. Their tongues may be sharp as knives, but they're sweet, gentle creatures inside, really. They're just having some fun with you."