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First Published on Chaleuria
042 – First place for sure.
He Zhao held the half-cigarette between his fingers, the smell of smoke all around him. For some reason, he felt as if he had been caught doing something bad. After a second of silence, he said, "You haven't been good… you're not asleep yet?"
Probably because he had been smoking, He Zhao's voice sounded very hoa.r.s.e. Pitched low and deep, even his tone descended as he spoke.
As he finished speaking, he let go and the cigarette fell onto the floor. Then he went quiet again.
This was the first time Xie Yu was seeing He Zhao do this. Or, should he say, this was his first time seeing He Zhao in this state.
When he met He Zhao, the idiot had already quit smoking. He ate lollipops all day and kept the stick in his mouth. Now Xie Yu smelled the nicotine in the air and wondered, what had the Big Bro of the East Building whose name struck fear into people's hearts been like?
Had he been like this?
His spirits seemed low, but he still had a strong presence, even an air of tyranny. He seemed a little tired, as if he was in a bad mood.
"I'm going to the bathroom." Xie Yu used He Zhao's excuse from before, but a stronger version of it. He turned around and said, "You, d.a.m.n it, stay right there and don't go anywhere."
He Zhao made an "Ah" of acknowledgement. Only after Xie Yu had walked past him did he wonder out loud, "Why did you come all this way to go to the bathroom?"
Everything else aside, Erzhong's dormitories were famously good. All the dorm rooms had their own thermostats and private bathrooms, and the rooms themselves were s.p.a.cious.
Xie Yu's voice came from far away. "Leaking pipe. Reported to maintenance."
He Zhao sat on the stairs and didn't move.
He had gone to bed very early. He had gone to his room, showered, and lain down, but then he had jolted awake from a dream covered in a cold sweat. And then, on this beautiful autumn night, he'd tossed and turned, unable to go back to sleep.
Ringing in his ears were the words Lei Jun had suddenly bent down and said into his ear at the restaurant. "He Zhao, you left Erlei in such a state. Why haven't you killed yourself?"
Even in his dreams he felt an invisible hand at his throat, choking him so he couldn't say a word.
He Zhao glanced down and toyed with the lighter in his hand. With a click, a small flame shot out.
He released his thumb. The spot where his thumb pressed down felt slightly warm, like a fire was burning upwards from his fingertips.
Lei Jun was now Ji-ge, a fourth-year at the Information Technology school. He had been held back one year. He couldn't be considered a school tyrant, but he'd attended the school long enough that the previous Dian Ji 'big bros' had pretty much all left, so the burden now fell to him.
Although they were enemies now, before… they had been as thick as thieves.
In junior high, He Zhao had been popular and made many friends, but had only a few close friends. He had met Lei Jun at a concession stand where Lei Jun was drinking a bottle of soda, as if it were alcohol, after going through a breakup. Another boy stood beside him, consoling him. "Girls come and go, but I, your bro, will always be here."
Lei Jun said, "Erlei, you like me? But I don't like men."
That was how they met.
Lei Jun and Fang Xiaolei both got such bad grades that the teachers stopped bothering about them. As long as they weren't a bad influence on the other students, the teachers closed one eye and let things slide.
And He Zhao, at the start, had really been the hope of the village. He had been a promising, exceptional student in everyone's eyes.
Seeing a promising student like He Zhao get involved with two bad students, all the teachers were heartbroken, especially his homeroom teacher. "Don't a.s.sociate with them so much. You're not the same as they are."
How terrible could junior high students be? They hadn't even begun to mix with the bad side of society. Their grades were poor, that was all.
He Zhao always said, "Teacher, hypothetically speaking… if I were to go down the wrong path, that's no one's fault but mine. And I'm doing all right now, aren't I? Can you not be prejudiced toward the other students?"
He Zhao thought about it, then he suddenly lay back, hands crossed behind his neck.
His clothes were thin, and he felt a cool breeze slip under the fabric at his lower back as he moved.
He hadn't been lying down for very long when Xie Yu finished was.h.i.+ng his hands, crossed the stairwell, and sat down next to him. "Got lollipops?"
He Zhao thought Xie Yu wanted one. "Pocket. There's one left. Look for it."
Seeing the handsome devil had no intention of moving, Xie Yu reached out to get it. "Which side?"
He Zhao said, "The left, probably."
He Zhao was wearing only a short-sleeved t-s.h.i.+rt on his upper body, clearly without any pockets. Xie Yu reached halfway across He Zhao then paused.
He Zhao had remembered wrongly. He thought he was still wearing the 'Love and Peace' vest whose pocket he had stuffed a handful of lollipops into when he left his dorm room in the morning. When Xie Yu's hand lightly touched the top of his thigh through his pants, the shock finally jolted his memory.
He Zhao wore a low-waisted pair of jeans. Black and frayed in places.
Xie Yu looked down, hands fumbling in He Zhao's pockets for a long time. He didn't find anything, but he did feel the person next to him growing more rigid.
He Zhao couldn't lie down any longer. He sat up, subconsciously catching Xie Yu's wrist. His skin was warm, and the jutting bone of his wrist landed in He Zhao's palm.
He internally cursed.
"I remembered wrong," He Zhao said. "No sweets, they're all in my room. If you want one, I…"
He Zhao didn't finish before scrambling up from the floor, palms against the ground. Then he walked down the stairs two at a time, skipping the last steps entirely and leaping onto the landing, the hem of his s.h.i.+rt lifting in the wind.
As if he was flying.
Xie Yu sat on the stairs, internally wondering how mad this guy had gone this time.
After several minutes, He Zhao came back holding a metal can. Quite a big one. Even bigger than the can Xie Yu had seen on his desk in his dorm room. He had probably brought his entire stock with him.
An a.s.sortment of all kinds of flavors met Xie Yu's eyes.
He Zhao took off the cover and handed it to Xie Yu. "Here." Take all of them.
Xie Yu took the can, balancing it on his knees. He attentively sorted through them for a long time before pulling out a strawberry-flavored one.
He Zhao just watched as his cold little friend unwrapped the lollipop. Then, unexpectedly, he heard a word from Xie Yu's lips. He even dragged out the sound. "Ahh."
He Zhao: "Ah?"
He Zhao had just opened his mouth when Xie Yu stuffed the lollipop in, quickly and accurately. The sweet and cloying taste spread on He Zhao's tongue, was.h.i.+ng away the bitter taste of tobacco.
"Eat it, little friend." Xie Yu seemed to be quite happy at finally being able to retaliate for the nickname 'little friend,' his lips curving into a faint smile. But his tone was habitually chilly. "And remember to brush your teeth when you're done."
He Zhao was stunned for a moment, only reacting when he heard the bit about brus.h.i.+ng his teeth. With the lollipop still in his mouth, he said, "You…"
He cut himself off halfway. "Forget it. I'll let you win this once."
When He Zhao had come back, the light turned on by the motion sensor had gone out again.
After a while, Xie Yu asked, "That piece of trash. Old friend of yours?"
"Ji-ge? His name is Lei Jun," He Zhao said. "Junior high schoolmates. He's not bad, but he and I… have some history."
I could tell.
Xie Yu thought, if it was over a stupid grudge, they wouldn't have been able to leave so easily. A fight is fair. You brawl and then you go your separate ways.
He'd seen many grudge-holders on Black Water Street; they wouldn't leave you be, even after you made phone calls to get your friends as back-up. Like a bad band-aid, they couldn't be ripped off without also losing some of your skin in the process.
Be more ruthless than them, or more stupid than them, and they'll be afraid of you.
Xie Yu didn't keep asking and He Zhao wasn't sure what to say.
—Actually, I'm a supergenius. I'm faking my bad grades. If he said it, he'd probably be beaten to death.
He Zhao thought about it and thought some more. As if possessed, words from the past started echoing in his ears again.
"He Zhao, I'll solve this problem for you. Just focus on preparing for exams and win glory for the school."
His homeroom teacher's face was a little blurry in his mind, but she was clearly smiling. "I understand you. I know you're a good kid and this was an accident. Besides, you didn't do it on purpose… Don't think about it too much."
He Zhao slowly closed his eyes, then opened them again. Xie Yu was getting up, about to go back to his dorm room to sleep.
He Zhao wasn't sure what he was thinking when he reached out to catch them hem of Xie Yu's s.h.i.+rt. When he touched the soft material, he finally came back to his senses and let go.
Xie Yu hadn't gotten stable footing on the stairs and now that He Zhao let go, he lost his balance and grit out as he fell, "…He Zhao, are you G.o.dd.a.m.n sick or what?"
The next day.
Luo Wenqiang was gving pep talks to the partic.i.p.ants who had yet to partic.i.p.ate in any events, and mentioned his hopes for the 3000m boys' long distance event. He already a.s.sumed that they had first and second place in the bag.
"This time, our cla.s.s has got it for sure. We're the best in the year, all right? Even though our cultural quotient is negative, at least we're good at gym! With Zhao-ge and Yu-ge…"
Before he finished, he saw He Zhao helping Xie Yu through the back door.
"…The two of you, uh, our two long distance runners." Luo Wenqiang swallowed. "What happened to you?"
A medicinal patch was stuck on Xie Yu's ankle and his pant leg was folded up. He leaned against He Zhao and pointed at him. "Ask him."
"It really wasn't on purpose." He Zhao carefully held Xie Yu's waist and said, "Does it hurt? Do you want to go to the doctor's office again? Or back to the dorm?"
Xie Yu said, "I want you to shut up."
So He Zhao was the lone man standing for the long distance event.
As they carried chairs downstairs, Luo Wenqiang was still grieving. "I shouldn't have joked about it. What hopes of the whole village? Now he really is the village's one and only hope."
He Zhao carried one chair in each hand. He'd come back later to get his little friend, too.
Luo Wenqiang said, "Zhao-ge, tell me, can I believe in you, Zhao-ge?"
"First place, right? No problem." When they got to the quad, He Zhao put the chairs down. "Qiangqiang, rest a.s.sured. I'm not fighting alone. I still have the spirit of my deskmate with me."
"The remaining events for today are the long jump finals, the 100m finals, the boys' 3000m long distance, the 100m relay, and the group event, the tug-of-war…. And lastly, the teachers' 400m race." Dean Jiang started his pep talk again. "Looking at everyone running around on the quad, I feel very happy. This is how youths should be! Do your best, athletes!"
Xie Yu sat in his seat, looking down at his phone. On his head lay the big jacket He Zhao had forcibly put on his head, saying it was to block out the sun.
The 3000m long distance run was always the most antic.i.p.ated and the longest in duration. In a little while, He Zhao would have to go to the flagpoles to report in. Before he left, he said very confidently, "You all can start thinking about what to say in the acceptance speech when we win first place."
Wan Da applauded. "First place for sure."
Liu Cunhao said, "Impressive. We're counting on you, Zhao-ge."
Xie Yu kicked him with his uninjured leg. "Cut the c.r.a.p and get lost."
He Zhao went and the numbers 4286 on his back shone in the sunlight.
When He Zhao had gone, Luo Wenqiang and the others got together to discuss the script to cheer for Cla.s.s 3's only long distance runner. They put their heads together and discussed it for a while. Wan Da turned. "Yu-ge, take a look at this for us. Will this do?"
Xie Yu took it and found that it wasn't any sort of encouraging script to be announced over the intercom, but the prize acceptance script He Zhao had requested.
On it was Liu Cunhao's handwriting, leaning in all directions.
Victory to Zhao-ge and to Cla.s.s 3. Thank you to the other partic.i.p.ants for partic.i.p.ating in the long distance event. Very regretfully, and very helplessly, you only turned out to be small supporting actors with no speaking lines in this wonderful drama.
Liu Cunhao blinked and asked, "How about that! Talented, aren't I."
"Thick-skinned and shameless. After the sports meet, someone might put a sack over your head and beat you up." Xie Yu paused, then continued, "But your Zhao-ge will definitely like it."