Li Ningyu was pleasant to everyone in the office, including Xiaomeng, but that was about the extent of it. Concluding that her superior was the shy, brittle type, Xiaomeng took the initiative. She began with small talks during cigarette breaks, gradually moving to invitations for a girls' day or night out. She never chided Li for preferring to nurse drinks at the bar over dancing. Patience and lots of natural laughter; all part of the tapestry.
"Why are you here?" Li asked one evening in the office. The others had gone home while Li was yet to finish her work for the day. Declaring that she would keep Li company, Xiaomeng pulled a chair and sat next to Li's desk. "Your family is well-off. You don't need to work if you don't want to."
Xiaomeng dragged on her cigarette, breathed out a wreath of smoke. "What do you think?"
Some people tended to be flustered by her smile, which radiated charm and unabashed slyness in equal measures. Not Li, who would flash a smile in return, as she did now. Had Li been a more self-confident person, Xiaomeng would have considered recruiting her. But Li would buckle under the pressure of walking a tight rope all the time.
"The usual," Li replied. "You'd like to carve your own path. You're putting off marriages that your parents most likely have in mind. And a city like Nanjing is certainly more exciting than any village."
"Ah." Xiaomeng squinted at the deepening twilight beyond the open window, then looked back at Li. "To be honest, I like my village just fine. There isn't even any arranged marriage, at least not in my mother's last letter."
The letters to and from her mother had, in fact, become an exercise in routines. No, she hadn't met any nice man she wanted to marry; yes, her salary was adequate. "We worry about you," was how her mother ended each and every letter. "We wish you'd come home and find a job here." And Xiaomeng would respond with the verbal equivalent of soothing noises.
"So you're here for..."
Xiaomeng's voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. "The gorgeous men."
Li nodded with polite interest as she began to tidy up her desk. Yes, Xiaomeng noted, Li would indeed make an unstable revolutionary. Still, she had to play her part, and Xiaomeng would help her.
"By the way, I know this great guy I think you should meet." On came the smile, mischievous now, and a playful tilt of the head. "Are you busy this weekend?"
Xiaomeng learned that Liu the actor had won Li Ningyu's heart completely from Liu himself. He shared Xiaomeng's opinion that the sooner he vanished from Li's life, the better. "Not to mention your friend sort of brings out the protective instinct in me," he admitted. "Ridiculous as it is."
"How far has Li Ningyu trusted you?"
"Enough to talk about her work, but never with details."
About to tell him to keep going, Xiaomeng bit her bottom lip instead. Could the protective instinct be contagious? Blast it. "Good job," she murmured.
The attacks on officials and facilities continued unabated. Since Li never commented on the subject, Xiaomeng took another initiative. On their way to their favorite bar, she made a show of sidling up to Li and linking her arm through the other woman's, which earned her an indulgent look.
"This is such a quiet night," Xiaomeng said. "I bet the rebels are slinking around, ready to strike."
Li shook her head. "Don't speak like that. If the wrong ears hear you..."
"There's only you here, I'm not worried." Xiaomeng grinned. "What, don't you approve of the rebels?"
"It's not that, and you know it." Li sighed. "Just be careful with what you say or do. Remember your parents at home. You don't want them to get into trouble."
"No," Xiaomeng agreed, squeezing Li's arm. "I suppose I don't."
When it was announced that five officers would be questioned in a separate location, Xiaomeng was gripped with a moment of panic. She hated being carsick in front of others, the humbling indignity of it. She was also filled foreboding - had her identity been revealed, and the other four officers were brought along as red herrings? But they could have just dragged her to the basement and been done with it.
Perhaps they had arrested Liu and were now targeting his girlfriend.
Or they had made a list of select suspects and now wanted to examine it with a fine-tooth comb. What had Xiaomeng done to alert them, exactly?
She sipped some hot tea and ate nothing before the trip, and still it didn't do her any good.
"You have such a solemn look on your face," Li remarked and sat down next to Xiaomeng. "Is my qipao that difficult to mend?"
It was the second night of their confinement. Xiaomeng was acutely aware of the rising tension, of the uncertainty that dogged her fellow officers' footsteps. For one thing, they had no idea when they would leave the castle, if ever. The presence of that Japanese colonel wasn't a good sign, either. Sewing a message along the qipao's hem, however, had helped calm her down.
In the meantime, October 31 was approaching too fast. Xiaomeng was no longer afraid to die, but she was yet to find a way to make that death useful.
She inhaled the soap fragrance coming off Li's skin, and it cleared her mind for a comforting second or two. "No, it's not that." She put aside the qipao, needle and all. "I'm just bored out of my skull. They don't even allow us to listen to the radio, the brutes."
Li stroked her arm and laid her hand on the qipao. "Let's go outside to the balcony, get some fresh air. You rather than Captain Wu can sing that song from your village."
Xiaomeng pouted. "Li-jie, my voice is horrible, are you trying to make them laugh at me?"
She had expected Li to smile; what she didn't foresee was how much her heart ached at the sight. When all this was over, she hoped Li wouldn't blame her too much. Then she would die happy. After all, a life spent pursuing a dream should end in a similar manner -
Scolding herself inwardly for her own cowardice, Xiaomeng clapped her hands together. "You're right, we should go to the balcony," she said brightly. "But you're the one who's going to sing, not me."