Suddenly, a bubble seemed to burst with an audible pop.
As soon as Hua Cheng broke the circle and pulled the eyes of the people scrambling around onto himself, the shift in energy was palpable. The threat to the surrounding students, which had come solely from Xie Lian, now subdued on the floor, suddenly came from a much bigger, much more dangerous presence. It felt like a just slightly rabid chihuahua was now replaced by a huge, snarling, blood-thirsty hound, just heartbeats away from pouncing and tearing out the throats of the frozen people. The air immediately got tense.
Qi Rong was still wheezing and rolling on the ground when he noticed the students going quiet. He stopped in his movements at once, and then, with a grunt, sat up to assess the situation. When his sight fell on Hua Cheng, his face immediately went white, then red, then yellow, then green, then purple. His lips trembled open to say something, but for some reason, not a word escaped them. Eyes bloodshot, all he could do was stare at Hua Cheng in silent hatred, contempt, and fear.
Because at that moment, Hua Cheng was to be feared. Although he hadn’t said anything, his aura of animosity was so intense, the students locked in the circle felt shivers running down their spines. Hua Cheng was looming over all, his black mane fluttering in the rising wind. His one red eye gleamed with ambers from hell, spewing with pure killing intent. The threat was real, and everybody felt it to their cores.
However, one of the students pressing their weight onto Xie Lian seemed to be a bit slower than the rest. He suddenly pointed his finger and exclaimed loudly:
„Holy crap, isn’t that Hua Ch—“
After the crisp sound of impact, only the clattering sound of loose teeth hitting the ground could be heard, followed by muffled gasps all around.
Shortly after, there was a gurgling sound of pain, coming from the student who was now writhing on the ground, blood spilling through the fingers which were tightly pressed against his mouth. Seeing this horrifying sight, all eyes immediately darted back to Hua Cheng, who was standing over him, fist clenched and bloodied. He had smashed the student’s teeth in without even a sliver of hesitation.
For a moment, time itself seemed to be shocked into standstill, and nobody moved a muscle. Then, a ripple seemed to course through the crowd as Hua Cheng shifted his weight onto his right leg and turned his head towards Xie Lian. A crimson rain of bloodlust seemed to crash in on the students still restraining Xie Lian, and they felt their knees go weak with fear. Immediately, they got the message, tucked in their tails and frantically retreated into the safety of the crowd around them.
Hua Cheng threw one more scathing glare at the people around, then immediately dropped down to the ground beside Xie Lian. When the people who had been pressing down on him dispersed, Xie Lian had flipped onto his back, spine arched and face distorted in agony. Seeing him like this, Hua Cheng felt like it was his own heart that was being crushed to bits… it was worse than pain. It was overwhelming fear, fear that this attack would be too much for Xie Lian’s body to handle. Trying to suppress such thoughts, Hua Cheng frantically scooped Xie Lian up from the cold ground and held him in his arms. He searched through the howling storm that was his mind for any memory on how to respond to a heart attack… all while pouring whispers of worry and pleads down on Xie Lian.
„Gege… Gege, don’t worry, you’re going to be fine… Gege, look at me, don’t worry, San Lang is here… I’m sorry… I’m sorry I couldn’t protect you… San Lang is worthle— ah“ Hua Cheng quickly stopped his words when he remembered that he shouldn’t be self-depreciating anymore, even though at that moment he very much felt like he deserved it. If he had been here, this wouldn’t have happened. And what if Xie Lian was about to…
He again shook off these thoughts as he finally remembered what he was supposed to do. He needed an aspirin, and to call an ambulance… but every fiber of his being resisted against asking the people standing around for anything. He’d rather sacrifice his own arms than ask his enemies for help, he thought with a deadly expression.
But more than that… he’d rather be ripped to pieces from head to toe a million times than see Xie Lian die in his own arms.
So he grit his teeth, raised his head and with a gaze that could incinerate a thousand souls, growled: „Somebody give me an aspirin, now.“
Being addressed so suddenly, the people in the vicinity visibly recoiled and averted their eyes. Of course, nobody dared to speak up or step forward.
Witnessing the cowardice of these students, who didn’t even have the balls to do the right thing after bullying somebody weaker than them, Hua Cheng erupted into fury. He felt the need to tear into the crowd and rip the students apart one by one. His teeth creaked as he gnashed them together further, but the weight in his arms prevented him from moving even a single inch. His most precious person needed his protection right now, and he couldn’t afford to fight.
But if he knew this, others could notice as well. Others, or in this case, Qi Rong.
When Qi Rong saw that despite his eye screaming murder, Hua Cheng didn’t move, an indescribable grin settled over his lips.
As if he had forgotten that he had been strangled just a minute ago, Qi Rong cackled in a venomous manner and stood up. Instantly, the field of tension on the stage broadened again, now including the green-haired man on whom this entire fiasco hinged upon.
As he heard the disgusting laugh, Hua Cheng’s brows furrowed, casting a deep shadow over his eyes. But yet, he didn’t move, didn’t even acknowledge Qi Rong’s presence. Instead, he kept trying to comfort Xie Lian, and with one hand, pulled out his phone. He knew, against the wishes of his heart, that the top priority right now was to get Xie Lian out of here. Smashing Qi Rong’s head in could wait.
He was just about to dial for emergency, when he heard a pained, squeezed-out voice from below him.
Immediately, Hua Cheng’s head snapped to look down, pulling his ear away from his phone.
Xie Lian’s eyes had, with great effort, rolled back into a normal position, where they now bulged to stare desperately at Hua Cheng. His body was still shaking and trembling, but the uncontrolled spasms and convulsions had died down quite a bit. His hands were grasping at Hua Cheng’s coat, as if he were drowning and the figure embracing him were his only lifeline. Hua Cheng felt a deep sting in his chest at this sight, but responded as softly and reassuringly as he could.
„Gege, Gege, I’m here, San Lang is here. Gege is going to be fine, don’t worry. You’re gonna go to the hospital and everything will be all right. Trust me. It’s okay, you’re okay.“
Yet, although Hua Cheng spoke with all the gentleness in the world, at his words, Xie Lian’s eyes widened even more and his trembling got stronger. He seemed to want to say something, but his body wasn’t allowing it. A flash of panic washed over his face as only separate vowels escaped his constricted chest, and his expression turned into horror.
Hua Cheng was shocked at this reaction, it looked like he had only agitated him more. Frantic and helpless, he cupped Xie Lian’s face, trying to calm him down again, confused as to what could have made him so reactive. Just as he was about to ask Xie Lian what the matter was, he again heard a demonic sneer from behind him. This time, Hua Cheng turned his head and glared at Qi Rong over his shoulder… but this time, Qi Rong didn’t seem intimidated.
He was standing there with his arms crossed, as if he was enjoying the spectacle in front of him… as if he had nothing to do with it. At Hua Cheng’s glance, Qi Rong’s grin widened into a deceptive smile. With a false voice of empathy, he said: „Oh my dear Hua Cheng!! What an unfortunate creature you are… too late to save your dear Xie Lian, but too early to drive him to the morgue!!! Now you’ve got all this shit to deal with inbetween… I really feel sorry for you.“ Qi Rong fake sniffled and wiped his nose, clearly mocking the gravity of the situation.
But nobody laughed anymore. Instead, people shuffled in discomfort and averted their eyes. The crowd that had been captured in herd mentality just minutes earlier now felt torn between the opposing sides of the green goblin and the man with the red jacket.
Qi Rong as well felt that his support had waned, as at the ensuing silence, he furrowed his brows and spat on the ground. With a nasty tone, he exclaimed: „Don’t forget that I am the victim here!! Didn’t I prove my point? Xie Lian is a psychopath!! He tried to fucking strangle me!!! You all saw it! He killed his own parents and now he wants to kill me! He is insane!!!“ While he started tirading, he began walking along the perimeter of the circle and pointed his fingers at the people he addressed.
The crowd exchanged unsure glances and whispers among each other. Indeed, they had seen this Xie Lian person try and attack Qi Rong, and if what he had said was the truth, then…
Qi Rong smirked as he sensed that his words worked on turning the people back over to his side. Flashing his teeth, he abruptly stopped and pointed at Hua Cheng. „And this guy!!!“, he screeched, „isn’t any fucking better!! He almost destroyed our band for that psycho asshole, and tried to smash my head in when I spoke up about it!! Where’s my justice, huh?? I’ve never told anything but the truth!!! Yet I have to suffer for everything, every fucking time!!!!“
This whole time while Qi Rong spoke, Hua Cheng felt his insides churn with disgust and the overwhelming desire to get up use any means necessary to make sure he would never utter another word. Yet the only thing he could do was to pull Xie Lian closer to his chest and sneer: „Yes, Qi Rong, I’m really sorry for what I did back then. I regret it a lot.“
At this, Qi Rong’s eyes narrowed; he knew that Hua Cheng wasn’t sincere at all, and wondered what he was up to. As expected, Hua Cheng continued: „I regret not crushing your head between my hands and the ground and putting an end to your miserable existence once and for all. Then, I wouldn’t have to sit here and worry that Xie Lian might die in my own two arms. You motherfucker.“
Qi Rong’s jaw loosened at Hua Cheng’s insults, then opened and closed a few times in an attempt to say something, but he looked more alike to washed-up fish, mindlessly gulping for air. Hua Cheng closed his eyes to settle his raging anger, then looked back down at Xie Lian in his arms, who was still desperately grasping at him. Hua Cheng ever so gently stroked his hair and murmured: „Don’t worry, Gege, once you’re in the hospital everything will be alright.“
But at that sentence, Xie Lian suddenly seemed to convulse and in a broken voice, croaked out: „NO!!!“
Hua Cheng went pale with worry, and frantically responded: „N..no? Gege, what are you saying? You might die if you don’t—“
But before he could continue, Xie Lian’s arched back suddenly snapped upwards, so that his head pressed against the nape of Hua Cheng’s neck.
Through his winter clothes, Hua Cheng could feel his hot and shivering body clinging onto him, and immediately wrapped his arms around him, to prevent him from falling back down. Hua Cheng could hear Xie Lian’s laborous breathing, filling him with anxiety from head to toe. But then, he heard Xie Lian whisper inbetween his gasps:
„N. N-o, p…p-please, n…. not th.. the…. h, h, hospital, no, n-no, S-San Lang… p…please, I… I just…“ Xie Lian trailed off as he lost the air to speak, but he clenched his fists even harder. Seemingly gathering all the energy left in his body, he raised his head to meet Hua Cheng’s gaze.
Xie Lian’s face was as pale as death, eyes bloodshot and dark, looking as if he struggled greatly to stay conscious through overpowering agony. Yet he prevailed, and with a pleading voice, said: „I... I just- just want to go h-h-home, p… uh.. please San Lang…“ Although he was trembling all over, his eyes were unwavering, conveying a will so strong, it made Hua Cheng swallow hard. He could only stare back helplessly, torn between what he was supposed to do and what Xie Lian wanted.
Suddenly, there was an exasperated sigh from inside the crowd. The people turned their heads to find the source, curious to see who would dare enter this dramatic scene.
The person who stepped forward was the male student who had first called out to Xie Lian as he pushed through the crowd, and started this whole process of antagonizing. Hua Cheng only glanced at him, but his face darkened.
The student rubbed the top of his buzz-cut head and wore an impatient and annoyed expression. With an arrogant tone, he said: „What the fuck… look, I don’t know what happened here, all I know is that that… nutcase“, he gestured at Xie Lian, „barged into the crowd and started pushing us around without so much as a single „excuse me“ or „sorry“. So all we wanted was an apology, nothing more! But man, instead, he started insulting this passerby“, this time he pointed at Qi Rong, „and in the end, he tried to strangle him. I don’t know about you guys, but that really sounds like criminal behavior to me. He’s already a murderer who killed his parents. If he’s really that volatile and indiscriminate, he’s a danger to everybody. Who knows what he’ll do. We don’t want him here. Get him out.“
The student spoke calmly and with cutting conviction. He was very concise, and what he said painted a clear picture of Xie Lian as the villain. It was a picture that everybody could envision and get behind. Fear always lingered in people’s hearts, and once it was incited, it very easily replaced reason.
At the student’s words, a terrible grin settled on Qi Rong’s face. With a sense of victory, he thought: Yes, that’s right! I am the victim, and Xie Lian the evildoer!! Khehahahahahahaha!!!!
Another voice emerged from the crowd. „That’s right! He was the one who acted out of line in the first place! And look at him now… he’s clearly not in the right state, mentally or physically.“ The student looked at Xie Lian with an appalled expression, as if he were a dirty, disgusting insect.
„Yeah, he’s dangerous. Get him out!“
„Get him out! Get him out! Get him out!“
All of a sudden, the crowd entered into a chant one by one, until the entire circle was calling for Xie Lian’s removal in unison, growing in volume and confidence. In Hua Cheng’s arms, Xie Lian’s sweat-covered face lost all its remaining life and color. His body abandoned tension and seemed to fall into itself, finally so limp that he felt more like an empty shell, a shadow of himself.
Hua Cheng felt like he was going insane with fury. With burning anger, he bellowed: „SHUT THE FUCK UP!! WHAT DO YOU KNOW!!!“ But this time, there was no reaction, no recoil. As Hua Cheng met the eyes of the people standing over him, he saw no fear, not an ounce of compassion. The people welded together into a massive creature, a monster that knew no logic but that of the cruel. They chanted on, louder, faster, until the air seemed to vibrate with their merciless voices.
Hua Cheng could feel his heart breaking in his chest. He felt helplessness consume his mind, suddenly aware that even though Xie Lian was suffering so greatly and was being treated so horribly right in front of his eye, there was nothing he could do. There was nothing he could do to protect him. Despair crashed in on him.
How come he was this powerless? How come he had this little control? He wished it was different. He wished that with one word, he could change the minds of these people. He wished he had power, he wished his voice could reach further… but alas, he was only human. He was a lone, powerless human. He wished so much it were different.
Suddenly, there was a voice divergent from the crowd breaking the rhythm of the chant. It was assertive and dominant as it said: „What selective memory. All of you should see a neurologist, or maybe an eye doctor.“
Hua Cheng started as he recognized the voice, and he looked up with a wide eye. Sure enough, when he saw whom the voice belonged to, he felt a drop of hope return to his heart. „Class president.“
The person who had spoken up was indeed the same person Xie Lian had talked to earlier in the day, the sophomore psychology class representative. He was the friendly person whom Xie Lian had asked about Hua Cheng’s whereabouts. He was standing up tall and confident, emanating a charismatic aura. His comment was so surprising, the chant actually died down. Deep down, the crowd was exasperated. Why did another guy have to show up? Was there ever an end to this drama??
The male student with the buzz cut frowned, then said provocatively: „And who might mr. bigshot here be? An obstructor of justice, perhaps? If you don’t know what you’re talking about, you better keep your mouth shut. Or what? Do you think we’re lying??“ He flexed his hands and stepped closer to the class president, no doubt meaning to intimidate him.
But the class president’s expression didn’t change in the least. He just raised one eyebrow and said calmly: „That’s easy to prove.“ He then turned slightly and addressed a girl that was standing a bit further away. „You there, student with the purple bag; I saw you were recording the situation on your phone. Might we be so presumptuous as to ask to view the video?“ The class president’s tone was polite but firm, making it very hard to refuse. But the girl was still a bit unsure, and glanced at the buzz cut student.
The buzz cut student saw her hesitant gaze and sneered. „What, I said the truth. There’s nothing to be afraid of.“ The class president’s gaze was still burning into the girl, so she relented and handed over her phone with the video on screen. The class president took it, and as he pressed play, turned the volume up all the way.
The video started early, when Xie Lian was pushing through the crowd. The girl probably thought it would make good gossip and recorded the act. Thanks to this, the video captured the initial confrontation, as well as Xie Lian’s crystal clear apology. At that point, the buzz cut-head started to look a bit uncomfortable, as if he had forgotten that Xie Lian had offered his apology in the first place. The video played on.
At the point when Qi Rong had revealed Hua Cheng’s real name, Hua Cheng froze, breath stuck in his chest. He was dismayed, but as he listened on, he heard Xie Lian’s response… and immediately, his eye started to glisten. He quietly gasped, and looked back down at Xie Lian, feeling warmth spread from deep inside him.
„It doesn’t matter what his name is. He told me his name was San Lang, so to me, it’s San Lang.“
This sentence reverberated inside Hua Cheng’s mind over and over again, making him forget all the pain and anxiety he suffered over his lie. He suddenly felt like an idiot. Did he really believe in Xie Lian this little? He should have told him the truth. What was there to hide from his beloved? Nothing. Nothing.
Gently, he squeezed Xie Lian closer to his chest, hoping that his feelings could somehow be conveyed purely by his heartbeat. Once they were home… he would tell him everything, Hua Cheng decided.
But although Hua Cheng was happy and relieved beyond measure, as the video progressed, all the joy was very quickly washed away and replaced first by shock, then dismay, then mind-numbing fury. Listening to the audio alone was already pure torture. As it got to the point where Qi Rong had grabbed Xie Lian’s hair, making him cry out in pain, it took all that Hua Cheng had to remain in control of himself. His muscles trembled with tension, his sinews twitched under his taut skin. Two emotions, killing intention and self-loathing were colliding with each other in his mind, fighting for dominance. He couldn’t believe that this could have happened to Xie Lian while he was so close… that he wasn’t able to prevent this. It made him go crazy.
Suddenly, there was the stark sound of something colliding with the pavement coming from the phone. Hua Cheng saw the class president’s eyes widen in shock, then dart to look at Xie Lian’s head. Hua Cheng followed his stare with a horrifying feeling of premonition. Slowly, he retracted the hand that had been holding and stroking the back of Xie Lian’s head incessantly up until now. He unfurled his fingers to reveal his palm… which was now completely covered in crimson. Hua Cheng felt his blood freeze, as he touched Xie Lian’s head back again and brought the fingers back glistening and moist.
The crowd broke out in gasps and murmurs, and a dark expression settled over the class president. The buzz cut’s eyes started wavering, and his shoulders sunk more and more. His restless and fidgeting fingers indicated how he slowly realized just what his unnecessary confrontation had escalated into. The only one who was still thinking they were in the right was of course Qi Rong, who seemed to puff up with stubborn denial.
As if on cue, shocked exclamations emanated from the video and a flurry of action began. But loudest of all was Qi Rong’s screeching and yelling, piercing through the speakers into the defenseless ears of the listeners. The clamoring went on for a bit longer, and separate action was no longer discernible from sound alone.
Through a dry tongue and lifeless lips, Hua Cheng asked: „Class president, what happened?“
The class president watched the video a bit longer, before he finally closed his eyes and stopped it from playing. The crowd was silent.
Hua Cheng’s classmate looked down at Xie Lian with an unknown expression… a mixture of pity, worry, and scrutiny. Then, he responded:
„Xie Lian had indeed tried to cause some harm to… um, this kind man over here…“ the class president gestured at Qi Rong, obviously hiding sarcasm in the word „kind“, „…but collapsed before he could inflict any serious damage. Even if he had…“ Suddenly, the class president’s voice grew in volume and intensity. His words were very grave and scathing.
„…I believe it would have been justified self-defense. Honestly speaking, this video is enough evidence to blacklist half of the people present here, and incriminate you two.“ He obviously meant Qi Rong and the buzz cut. „This is more than just campus violence, this is criminal assault. You better prepare yourselves. Although I am no law student, I assume--“
„Well, I am a motherfucking law student!!!! AND LET ME TELL YOU!!!“
Suddenly, another voice interrupted the class president. The sudden uninhibited shouting made the crowd flinch, and as they saw who was approaching, many hearts in the circle sank.
Shi Qingxuan’s face was distorted with tears, popping veins and an expression of limitless rage as she rushed towards the gathered students. She was holding nothing but her phone; somebody must have informed her of the happenings. As she approached the people, although they parted to let her inside, she still pushed and elbowed as hard as she could, not sparing any opportunity to let the students know how furious she was.
Through a vision blurred with tears, she stopped to look down at Xie Lian in Hua Cheng’s arms. She seemed to want to say something, but heavy breathing was all that left her lips. As if feeling great pain, she then averted her eyes and turned to glare at Qi Rong.
„Qi Rong. You might have had the easy way out all those years ago, but the way you hurt Xie Lian today, I won’t let you off. I won’t let ANYBODY off!!!“, she shouted as she turned around once, addressing every student in the circle. „YOU INHUMAN MOTHERFUCKERS!!!! YOUR PARENTS SHOULD BEG THE GODS FOR FORGIVENESS FOR EVER CONCEIVING YOU!!! XIE LIAN NEVER DID ANYTHING WRONG!!!!!!“
The class president closed his mouth and nodded. „I can only agree. This will have repercussions, I swear it on my honor as class president. Don’t worry, friend of Xie Lian.“ His voice was gentle, reassured that there was another person on his side.
But this class president didn’t know Shi Qingxuan when she was angry. After yelling everybody into the ground and turning Qi Rong’s head beet-read, she snapped around and shouted: „WHO THE FUCK ARE YOU???“
The class president visibly recoiled, shocked. His eyebrow twitched, and he breathed in to start explaining his identity… but then, looking at Shi Qingxuan’s expression dark with fury, he closed his mouth again and smiled slightly. „I’m nobody important, just a person on your side.“
Shi Qingxuan’s face relaxed a little, and she raised her brows. „Is that so? Well good!! You better be, if you wanna live! Call an ambulance!!“, she demanded with an irrefutable voice. The class president blinked a few times, but then could only submit to her orders and did as he was told. But at that moment, Hua Cheng spoke up.
„Wait, class president. Shi… Shi Qingxuan. Thank you… but, um, Xie Lian doesn’t want to go to the hospital…“, he said in a hesitant voice.
The two looked at him, surprised. But then, Shi Qingxuan exploded into his face.
„Do you think I give a flying fuck about what he wants right now?? Boohoo, he doesn’t want to go to the hospital, well would he rather wanna die instead?! He’s injured, he’s having a heart attack, he’s going to the hospital, PERIOD!!!!“
Just like his class president, Hua Cheng was rendered speechless. There was nothing for him to retort.
He looked down at Xie Lian, who had finally submit to his pain and exhaustion. Looking at his faded skin and ruined hair, Hua Cheng felt a kind of sadness he had never felt before. He was so sorry, in a lot of ways. But now, he had to focus on what was in front of him. The sky was already dark as Hua Cheng stood up, Xie Lian resting in his arms. After having taken everybody’s pictures, his class representative told the students to disperse.
Fists clenched and trembling, Qi Rong stood there, not being able to flee under Shi Qingxuan’s relentless glare. Finally, the ambulance rolled into the forecourt with flashing lights, painting a painfully similar picture to one they had almost all witnessed before. As Hua Cheng slowly walked past Qi Rong towards the vehicle, he paused to speak, voice colder than death.
„I don’t think I need to tell you that if you ever cross my path again, you’re a dead man. I’ll make sure you’ll suffer for the rest of your life for what you did to Xie Lian. Also… tell the boss that I’m quitting the band. I’m done.“
Qi Rong had been listening with a seething sneer, but at this, his eyes widened. „You… what did you say?? You’re quitting?!“
Hua Cheng didn’t say anything more and continued towards the medics which were now rushing out of the vehicle. Qi Rong’s expression descended to reflect the depths of hell. His voice was dark as tar when he said: „You’ll regret this. You know he won’t let you off this easily. Hua Cheng, you’re forgetting who you belong to!!! San Lang?? Don’t fucking kid me, you’re Hua Cheng!! YOU WILL ALWAYS BE HUA CHENG!!!! YOU WILL ALWAYS BE HI-„
The rest of Qi Rong’s sentence got cut off as the doors to the ambulance closed, and the vehicle started moving with howling sirens.
The day, which had started with so much excitement, had ended in the worst possible manner. Thinking about all the ways he had screwed up today, Hua Cheng couldn’t help but bury his head in his hands. In the morning light, he had made Xie Lian cry. Then, at the crossroad, he had made him fake a smile. Then, after school, he had… he had failed to protect him. And now, here he was, worrying about whether Xie Lian was going to wake up the next day or not. Hua Cheng felt guilt wrap itself around his neck like a noose, tightening, suffocating him.
Suddenly, he felt a slight kick against his shin. He lifted his head from his hands and looked up; his sight fell on an equally distraught-looking Shi Qingxuan, sitting opposite from him against the ambulance wall. As he hadn’t even noticed her entering, Hua Cheng was surprised.
For a moment, there was silence between them, all while the medics were busy bandaging up Xie Lian’s head and checking up on his condition.
Just as Hua Cheng was about to open his mouth to speak, he suddenly felt his head snap ninety degrees to the right.
Immediately following the sound, he felt a burning sensation spread on his left cheek. His eye widened.
Sure enough, Shi Qingxuan had just slapped him with all her might!!
—-TO BE CONTINUED—