The three medics gasped in surprise. Hua Cheng himself was stunned into full alertness. He spun his head back to face forward, wondering just what Shi Qingxuan meant by slapping him.
Shi Qingxuan’s lips were tightly pressed together, and at first glance, her face almost seemed expressionless. But when Hua Cheng looked closer, the skin over her clenched jaw was trembling slightly, just barely containing all the rage that was hidden beneath. Hua Cheng’s eye darted back to meet her’s, gaze apprehensive but questioning.
Finally, Shi Qingxuan grit her teeth and started speaking, although her voice was more akin to a snarl. „I hope you know that you deserve a thousand of those, but I’m holding back for Xie Lian’s sake. Now you listen here, and you listen well.“ Shi Qingxuan leaned closer, her voice dark and full of warning.
„If you are not ready to take responsibility for this relationship and take care of Xie Lian, then you better stop this right fucking now. If not, if I ever see anything remotely close to what I saw today, I will hold you accountable. Over lunch, you made Xie Lian look for you; he didn’t even eat a single bite!! What just happened probably did because he was waiting for you after school, but you never showed up, except you did, too late. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Xie Lian doesn’t have anybody at his side except for me!! He’s all alone!!! What is he supposed to do in a situation like that?! If you are serious about this relationship, then I expect you to think of him as half of your body, half of your heart; if something happens to him, you will suffer just as much. You will do everything in your power to prevent him from getting hurt. Anything less, and you can fuck right off. Am I making myself clear, Hua Cheng??“
Hua Cheng’s chest constricted. He felt unbearable pain at the fact that his devotion was questioned to this extent, that its mere existence was being questioned. But Shi Qingxuan was right… he had failed, in every aspect, he had failed. He wanted to plow into the ground with his head, to beg the gods to let him take on Xie Lian’s agony and hardship instead. He so badly wanted to atone, to sacrifice his own soul to make things right. But the only thing he could do right in this moment was to face his failures and do everything he could to ensure that tomorrow would be better. He couldn’t erase the past, but at least, he could create the future. And the only future he could and wanted to imagine was one in which Xie Lian didn’t have to suffer anymore.
The ambers in Hua Cheng’s eye started to glow. He had never felt more sure about anything in his life.
Shi Qingxuan had stared at him this whole time without blinking, and noticed his change in expression. Quietly, she waited for his response.
Hua Cheng’s gaze had turned as solid as silver and as profound as the ocean. With a deep, steady voice, he answered: „Xie Lian’s pain is my pain. It has always been so. And it will always be so. No tomorrow will be like today, I swear it, or so help me god. I wish to protect Xie Lian with my entire being, so much that it tears me apart. Please… maybe not now, maybe not for a long time, but I hope that one day, you will be able to forgive me for my failures. I regret so much. I wish I could have been there for him, more than anything. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.“ With this, he brought his arms together in front of his forehead and bowed as deep as he could.
For a moment, the interior of the ambulance was silent. Although the medics were still working, they were doing so quietly, as not to perturb the two.
After almost a minute of nobody talking, Shi Qingxuan finally let out a long, exhausted sigh. She released her tension and leaned back against the wall, rubbing her forehead. Hua Cheng didn’t dare to look up.
When she noticed that he was still frozen in that position, Shi Qingxuan made a dismissive exclamation and waved her hands. Still, Hua Cheng didn’t budge. After a short pause of surprise, Shi Qingxuan cocked her head, then let out a „pfft“ through pursed lips. Hua Cheng’s ear twitched at this, but still he didn’t move. With laughter tucked away at the back of her throat, Shi Qingxuan breathed out with exasperation, then pushed up from underneath Hua Cheng’s wrists. When he finally was back upright, Shi Qingxuan finally couldn’t help but release a chuckle.
„If nothing else, I’m at least impressed at your stubbornness. Almost matches mine!“ Hua Cheng’s expression didn’t change from its stoic seriousness, making Shi Qingxuan stop her chuckle, and continue talking with honesty. „I do sense your conviction, but words mean nothing without action. I’ll be watching you. I know Xie Lian trusts you blindly, but it’ll take a little more work with me. Show me how serious you are about this, Hua Cheng.“
Hua Cheng’s gaze deepened even further. As if responding to a military officer, he bellowed: „I will!!“
The medics flinched, then broke out into discreet huffs of laughter. Shi Qingxuan joined them, although she didn’t hold back at all and filled the space with sounds of delight.
Hua Cheng blinked in confusion. He didn’t quite follow the situation. He had just been slapped, asked to prove his undying love, and now he was being laughed at?? He couldn’t make sense of it at all. But he guessed… if the people around him were happy, then it was fine.
After Shi Qingxuan had laughed herself dry, she suddenly leaned forward on her knees and looked at Hua Cheng with an eager expression. She licked her lips and said deviously: „So, now that it’s just the two of us, you’ve got no choice but to spill the tea.“
Hua Cheng frowned in confusion. „Tea? I’ve got no tea… and why would I spill it?“
Shi Qingxuan smirked and made a gesture as if she wanted to elbow him, jokingly of course. „Ay c’mon, I know you’ve got some tea! This is the whole reason I got on this car, of course! If not you, who else would I ask?“
Hua Cheng’s confusion deepened and started to take visible shape on his face. He responded: „I’m sorry, I really don’t have any tea… but maybe the medics will give you some water, if you ask nice enough.“
Shi Qingxuan’s smile faltered. It was at that moment that she realized that all her criticism, all her scrutiny of Hua Cheng’s and Xie Lian’s relationship had been wrong. Now she saw; they were made for each other!! They were both clueless idiots!!!!
An expression of deep, emphasizing pity overcame Shi Qingxuan. Wiping a fake tear, she leaned forward and patted Hua Cheng’s shoulder. „It’s okay. I don’t need any tea, after all. Sorry for confusing you.“
Hua Cheng sensed that there was something that he had missed, but he wasn’t interested in pursuing the matter any further. He was still very much filled with worry for Xie Lian. He looked to his right, where he was lying on a stretcher, head bandaged all around with white gauze. Oxygen flowed into his lungs through a translucent tube, fogging it up every other second. The spasms had completely disappeared, and he seemed calm and stable. Still… the sight of him unconscious and hurt made Hua Cheng feel like he was living his worst nightmare… and not for the first time.
When Shi Qingxuan noticed his unwavering gaze upon Xie Lian, she also recalled the gravity of the situation… and the lightness in her spirit disappeared again. This time more mindful of her tone, she asked softly: „By the way, Hua Cheng, how did you get to know Xie Lian?“
Hua Cheng’s breath hitched, and in the ensuing silence, his eyes became gradually glassy and unfocussed, as if his vision retreated into the inside of his mind, playing back memories of a time long past. It was almost a minute before Hua Cheng finally opened his mouth and started to speak.
„When Xie Lian and I met for the first time, it was… well, it was a long time ago. I’m sure he doesn’t remember it. At that time, it was very difficult. I won’t go into details, but my upbringing was… unhealthy. I was in a situation where I needed to escape. I must have been about twelve years old, perhaps. I had decided to run away from home. After running and running, and not knowing where I was going, I ended up… “
Memories, faded at the edges like old photographs.
Flickers of light, forgotten feelings and sensations. An old, unmaintained playground, sitting abandoned amidst grey apartment blocks. The dirt, the gravel, wet with rain. A lifeless sky. No sound except for the prattling rain.
Hua Cheng was sitting with his knees pulled up to his ears, his trembling arms tightly wrapped around them to keep them close, so that he could bury his head between them. He wanted to sink into the darkness and never look up again. He wanted to stop existing, just stop. It hurt too much to live.
The dim light filtered through the red plastic shell of one of the playground constructions. It was a narrow space he had just barely crawled into through a hole, clearly meant for toddlers and children. And although Hua Cheng was legally seen still a child, he was a lot taller than his peers, but more importantly, inside, he had long lost his innocence.
Hua Cheng had escaped his home in the dead of night and had run without stopping, had run with nothing but a small pack on his shoulders, through unknown streets between unknown buildings. Hua Cheng had never entered the city before, and after a few hours, he had already been helplessly lost and overwhelmed. How come the buildings were so big? How come the people were so cold? How come… he had no idea where he should go?
After many hours passed since Hua Cheng had snuck away, he realized that he had nowhere to go, no place he could escape to. He knew nothing and nobody… he was all alone. Now, curled up in a plastic box on an abandoned playground, Hua Cheng felt like the loneliest creature on the planet. Nowhere to go, nowhere to return to. What… what should he do from now on? If he went back now, he would… they would…
Hua Cheng trembled and abruptly forced his thoughts to derail from that track. It was impossible to continue thinking without going mad with fear. Without realizing, he covered the right side of his face, where in place of his eye, there were only layers and layers of bandages.
As the minutes trickled by with the falling rain, Hua Cheng got lost in the darkness of his vision and imagination. He didn’t know how long he had been sitting there, quiet and immobile, before his limbo was suddenly interrupted by the sound of clinking chains.
Hua Cheng’s immediate reaction was his head shooting up, all blood drained from his face in horror… before he realized that the sound was coming from the rusty swings outside the plastic box. He released his held breath and relaxed a little… before inevitably wondering who would ride a swing on this dilapidated playground all alone, in the rain.
Although he was curious, Hua Cheng didn’t move for a few more minutes, just to make sure that his assumption was right, and that the sound wasn’t some sort of trap or danger. But as he thought, all he heard was the steady creak of the rusty chains, swinging back and forth, back and forth. It sounded like the person on the swing was just moving absentmindedly, without much effort; it felt like the person was stalling for time instead of actually wanting to ride the swing. There was no joy behind the sound.
But anybody coming out to this playground in this kind of weather must be a pretty sad person, Hua Cheng thought dryly while looking down at his own soaked clothes. Finally, his curiosity got the better of him. Maybe, this person was some sort of kindred spirit, Hua Cheng thought with naïve anticipation.
Very slowly, very carefully, Hua Cheng peeked around the edge of the circular entrance to spy towards the source of the sound.
There, from the corner of his eye, Hua Cheng saw… a white-clad boy sitting on the swing’s seat, repeatedly stemming his feet into the ground with his head sunk low. He pushed, but his feet never left the ground… the effort was without strength or will. It was more like he was dangling a bit rather than swinging. The boy’s long, straight hair was tied together in a tight bun, but strands of his bangs were loose and covered his eyes, making his expression indiscernible.
The boy had been sitting on the swing for several minutes now, letting the rain fall on him without any effort of blocking it. His hair and coat were soaked, yet he didn’t seem bothered, or rather, he simply ignored it. His downcast eyes stared at the ground in passivity, showing no sign of anger, sadness or joy. He seemed like a ghost, belonging neither to heaven nor earth.
For some reason, Hua Cheng felt his heart squeeze at this sight. He felt like he was looking at a reflection of himself, out in the merciless greyness of the world, with nowhere to escape from it. While he was staring so intently, Hua Cheng didn’t notice how he had stopped breathing and blinking. He didn’t notice how utterly mesmerized the white-clad figure had rendered him.
Suddenly, as the boy swung a bit harder, so did the disruptive strands hanging from his forehead… and Hua Cheng was finally able to see the boy’s face.
To him, it felt like time stopped. He thought he could see each separate raindrop suspended in mid-air, reflecting the light like diamonds and crystals to frame the boy’s face. Hua Cheng’s eye widened. There, right in front of him, was a person so beautiful, so ethereal, that he believed that he must have died and ascended to heaven. There was no way somebody as breathtakingly gorgeous as that could exist in real life, Hua Cheng thought in disbelief and admiration. So beautiful… so pretty… sparkling eyes… pink cheeks… so beautiful… so beautiful…
Hua Cheng was entirely, absolutely entranced. So much so, with laden eyes and a completely flushed complexion, he suddenly lost his sense of balance and toppled forward, out of the hole onto the wet gravel. As his chest hit the ground and he realized what had happened, shock pierced through Hua Cheng’s body like a thunderbolt. He was so stunned, he froze in place in utter dismay. He didn’t dare to move as he heard the swinging come to an abrupt stop, and then the following jingle of the chains rattling as the angel-like boy stood up in surprise.
Hua Cheng’s vision was pulsating in rhythm with his raging heartbeat. His entire body tensed up and started to tremble in horror as he heard footsteps approaching from his right. He didn’t know what to do… he had never felt this kind of burning shame in his life. Mind being completely overwhelmed with a thousand thoughts, all he could do was lay still and stare at the cold ground while anxiety filled him more with every step.
Finally, the steps came to a halt just feet away. A second later, a voice as soft as feathers and as vibrant as the sun asked: „Hey, are you okay? Did you hurt yourself?“ The voice was gentle and full of worry. Hua Cheng remained frozen, although his chest kept burning with an unknown heat. Swallowing hard once, he finally stemmed his hands against the gravel and sat up. He stubbornly locked his neck in place, not daring to face the boy who was kneeling right next to him.
Hua Cheng felt his heartbeat hammer up to his throat, making an unbearable heat spread on his cheeks. Don’t make him look at my face, he thought. He’ll be appalled. He’ll be disgusted. Don’t look—
But every thought immediately got washed away and was replaced by blankness as the boy next to him leaned forward, torso twisted so that he was able to stare straight into his face. Hua Cheng felt his jaw slacken.
There he was, just inches away. Nothing but pure light and warmth. Wide, bright eyes looking at him, emanating an air of such profound serenity, all of Hua Cheng’s worries and anxiety immediately disintegrated into nothingness.
The boy’s skin glistened in the rain, separate drops pearling on his long eyelashes, making him look mystical, almost like a fairy. Despite himself, Hua Cheng couldn’t help but let out a soft, trembling breath as he was awestruck into muteness. But more than the all-encompassing beauty that he visually witnessed, Hua Cheng felt like at the depths of his despair and hopelessness, an angel had come to rescue him, soft hand reaching out with saving grace.
Dazed, Hua Cheng subconsciously extended his hand, feeling completely detached from reality. Too late he noticed that his palms were wet and dirty from touching the ground, but by then, the white-clad boy had already grabbed them and pulled Hua Cheng up from his knees.
Now, they were both standing face to face. Although Hua Cheng was taller than average for his age, he realized with surprise that his eye met those of the boy on even height. The boy must be a bit older than him, he thought with a strange mixture of admiration and excitement.
The boy finally smiled at Hua Cheng and gently asked: „What’s your name? What are you doing out here, all alone?“
Hua Cheng had already averted his eyes, desperately trying to hide his blush… but those questions made him freeze for a moment. Both of them… he didn’t want this person to know. He hated both their answers. So all he could do was gather all his courage and respond with a voice barely audible: „Wh-what about you?“
The boy was obviously surprised at this retort, but then immediately looked down in embarrassment. A strangely guilty expression overcame his face.
„Ah, my apologies… I’m Xie Lian. Last name spelled like the character for „thank you“, given name like the first character for „mercy“. What I’m doing here… well, I guess I’m running away.“
Hua Cheng’s head shot up in surprise. His wide eye captured the boy’s delicate figure, not spotting any sign of hardship or misfortune. A person like this… was running away?? „R-really?“, Hua Cheng couldn’t help but gasp. „You’re running away too?“
Too late he noticed that he had given himself away, and he slapped his hands over his mouth in shock. Xie Lian also looked at him, startled.
But then, his eyes started to sparkle, and he grinned from cheek to cheek. „Hahaha, yes, I’m running away! I’m also running away!! Don’t worry, I won’t tell on you; fugitive’s promise!“ The boy called Xie Lian was strangely giddy, as if he only now decided that he was also a runaway… but when he extended his fist with only his pinky unfurled, Hua Cheng’s hand moved instinctively to hook his own pinky around it and squeeze. With Xie Lian still giggling, an unknown promise was cast between them, linking them together.
With this gesture, Hua Cheng got to see Xie Lian’s hand up close, and couldn’t help but marvel at its beauty, all the way from his delicate wrist up to his perfectly-shaped fingernails. But with great dismay he saw that it was dirtied, undoubtedly stemming from when he had helped Hua Cheng off the ground.
Hua Cheng swallowed with guilt. Suddenly, just as Xie Lian was about to retract his hand, Hua Cheng reached forward and ever so softly held his wrist in place. Xie Lian breathed out with surprise, looking at Hua Cheng questioningly. Hua Cheng pulled out a neatly folded handkerchief form his pocket and gently pulled it over Xie Lian’s upturned palm until it was clean. In the silence, Xie Lian could only stand there with his eyes locked on their mingling hands, feeling rather bashful.
When Hua Cheng was satisfied and put his handkerchief away, he looked back up at Xie Lian, and was surprised to find a soft pinkness resting on his cheeks. Xie Lian shyly smiled and said: „Thank you.“ Hua Cheng felt his heart skip a beat.
The rain slowly subsided. The two of them were now both sitting on the swings, ignoring the wet seats and chains. As Xie Lian had done before, they both lazily let themselves swing back and forth while not leaving the ground. Finally, Xie Lian turned his head towards Hua Cheng and asked:
„So, what do you like?“
Hua Cheng was taken aback. Even after Xie Lian had asked, he hadn’t told him who he was or where he came from… he had barely said more than a few words. He was a dirty, one-eyed kid that had stumbled out of the opening of a filthy plastic box… he must seem disgusting. And yet, despite all of this, Xie Lian was still interested in him, treating him like… a normal human being. It was almost unfathomable.
As Hua Cheng mused at this, he pondered Xie Lian’s question. What he liked… his likes and dislikes… his preferences… what were they? Hua Cheng had never been allowed to even think about something like that. A thing as simple as that, he had no idea about. What he liked… what did he enjoy?
While racing through his thoughts and memories, Hua Cheng quietly started speaking. „I like… I like… olives.“
After he said it, Hua Cheng felt rather dumb. Was that really the best answer he could come up with?
But Xie Lian didn’t change his curious expression at all. „Oh, Olives! Hmm… not really my taste, but I get where you come from. I prefer sweeter things, like cherry tomatoes. Anything else?“ Xie Lian kept swinging back and forth.
Hua Cheng retreated back into his mind, very seriously thinking about his question. What did he like… what did he like the most in the world, more than anything else?
„Sing“, he suddenly blurted out. His eye immediately widened… he had said it without thinking, it was as if his lips had moved on their own.
Sing? He wasn’t allowed to sing back at home. But sometimes, in the depth of the night, when he felt most alone, most afraid… he would sing. He would sing quietly to himself for hours, through the night, until his throat was sore and hoarse. Singing was liberation, it was the sole thing that brought him joy. This really was… the only answer.
To his surprise, Xie Lian jumped up from his swing and hopped over to face him. With an excited voice, he bubbled: „Sing? You like to sing?? That’s amazing! What do you like to sing? Pop? Jazz? Classical?“
Hua Cheng could only stare back at him in utter confusion. Obviously, he had no answers to his onslaught of questions… he just liked to sing… he didn’t know anything else. He tried to convey this through stutters: „I-I don’t know, sorry, I just… sing, I don’t know, I’m sorry…“
Xie Lian smiled delightfully and responded: „That’s fine, no need to apologize! We all have our own styles anyway, no need to fit into a niche. It’s better to be free!“
Hua Cheng glanced at him with curiosity. „D-do you also like to sing?“, he asked shyly. At this, Xie Lian laughed, then paused and twirled around once. „No, but I dance!“, he said with his arms spread out.
Hua Cheng’s eye widened. When Xie Lian twirled, it looked like feathered wings spread out from his back. Xie Lian was beautiful. He was so incredibly beautiful.
For lack of anything better to say, Hua Cheng echoed: „What do you dance?“
Xie Lian folded his arms back together and smiled, but this time, it looked to Hua Cheng as if it were just a bit forced. „I dance ballet.“
Hua Cheng knew ballet… he had seen it once on the TV. He couldn’t help but think that it suited Xie Lian. But then why… did he seem so pained?
„Do you like it?“, Hua Cheng blurted out. He cursed himself for his abnormally loose mouth.
Xie Lian’s face seemed to freeze up for a second, and he responded softly: „Hmm… I enjoy dancing, you know, dancing freely, but in ballet, you have all these rules you gotta follow, all this discipline… so umm… well, I guess, umm… I… don’t really like it that much, ahaha…“ Xie Lian very hesitantly squeezed out the sentence, as if it hurt as the words rolled over his lips. His hand was rubbing the back of his head in embarrassment, but then suddenly, his expression lit up. As if realizing something, he exclaimed: „But maybe if I dance to your singing, I’ll come to like it! If you sing what you want and I dance what I want, maybe then I’ll—“
While he was talking with such great excitement, Xie Lian had grabbed both Hua Cheng’s hands and pulled him up from the swing, as if he wanted to dance with him. Hua Cheng let himself be moved, suddenly feeling excitement warming his chest.
But before Xie Lian could finish his sentence, the loud noise of tires screeching to a halt tore through the air and made them both spin around in shock. Seeing the car, Hua Cheng’s blood froze in panic. He immediately recognized it… it was them. They had found him.
Before either of them could react, two tall and burly men had already exited the car and raced towards them. Xie Lian only had time to register Hua Cheng’s deathly pale face before the men had reached them and each roughly grabbed one of Hua Cheng’s arms. Only then did Hua Cheng seem to snap out of his shock and start thrashing and struggling against the iron hold. „No!!! Let me go, let me go!!! NO!!!!!“, he screamed with all his might, but his scrawny physique didn’t have a chance against those of the two men. Without so much as flinching, the men dragged the squirming and screaming Hua Cheng towards the car… when suddenly, a small, white figure jumped in front of them, with his arms spread wide, a fearful, but determined expression on its face.
As if at the expense of all his courage, he yelled: „Who are you?! Let him go!!!“
The two men paused, then looked at each other. The trapped Hua Cheng between them breathed out with a pain-tinged voice: „Gege…“
Despite trembling with fear, Xie Lian smiled and stared deep into Hua Cheng’s eye. Gently, he said: „Don’t worry, it’s gonna be okay. You’re gonna be ok–“
And then, Xie Lian’s vision was suddenly filled with flashes and stars.
Not even having a second to react, one of the men had stepped forward and struck Xie Lian so hard, he flew sideways and rolled on the ground several times before coming to a stop.
„GEGE!!!!!“ Hua Cheng tore against the hands holding him, his entire being filled with the will to get where Xie Lian was lying lifelessly on the cold, dirty gravel. Tears filled his eye. Why did this have to happen?!
The man returned to Hua Cheng’s side and wanted to continue to the car. They were nearly there when they felt a tug from where Hua Cheng was. When they looked down, they saw two thin arms, dressed in a now dirtied white garment tightly wrapped around his torso from behind. When they glanced back, they saw Xie Lian hanging onto Hua Cheng for dear life, stemming his heels into the ground with all his strength. His right eye was nearly swollen shut, and from a wound on his forehead, blood trickled down his face in a thin stream… but despite all of this, his expression was frightful. It was distorted into a mask of anger and contempt, lips pulled up to reveal his teeth grinding through the exertion. His eyes were sparking with fury.
The two men at first didn’t mind, but as they wanted to pull, they found the resistance to be more bothersome than they had anticipated. This boy… he was a lot more powerful than he looked. Finally annoyed, the same man as before released Hua Cheng and turned around to repeat the earlier action, this time with more force. But as he stepped towards him, Xie Lian jumped back several feet, eyes watching the man’s movements very closely. The man huffed with impatience and followed, approaching closer and closer… but suddenly, Xie Lian jumped sideways, lifted his arm and hurled a handful of gravel at the man still locking Hua Cheng in place.
The man inadvertently lifted his hand as pebbles and shrapnels hit his face, some small particles getting into his eyes. At the same time, Xie Lian yelled: „NOW!!“ Hua Cheng didn’t wait for another second. Lifting his leg high, he kicked against the remaining arm holding him, making it release its grasp… and finally, letting him run free.
Hua Cheng didn’t even think. Adrenaline filled his body from head to toe, electrifying his nerves and muscles. Taut as a bowstring, he rammed his heels against the ground and bounded away from the men, with only a single word ringing in his head over and over again: Escape, Escape, Escape, Escape. Through his hazy vision and muffled ears, he only perceived the white silhouette running in front of him, moving as if in slow motion. If he could just catch up to it, Hua Cheng thought, he could be free. He could escape together with Xie Lian. He could be…
A deep, masculine voice rang out over the playground. It seemed metallic, almost like a gong, reverberating unbearably inside the ears it pierced. Upon hearing it, everything inside Hua Cheng crumbled to dust. It was as if he was suddenly locked in ice, feet rooted to the ground without moving another single inch. His knees started shaking with overwhelming fright, and his breath felt like it was locked in his throat, not coming out, and blocking any from streaming in… he was completely petrified.
Xie Lian noticed that something was wrong and spun around. What he saw filled him with dismay… in the few seconds that Hua Cheng had stopped moving, the two men had already caught up to him, rendering him immobile just like before. Horrified, he called out: „NO!!“ But strangely, Hua Cheng didn’t resist this time… face deathly pale, he seemed to have lost all strength and control over his body. He let himself be restrained by the men, deep-set shadows covering his eyes.
Xie Lian only hesitated for a heartbeat before he leapt back towards Hua Cheng, ready to fight again. But when Hua Cheng registered that Xie Lian was coming back for him, panic manifested on his expression. With his eye torn open wide, he screamed: „NO!!! DON’T COME ANY CLOSER!!“
Abruptly, Xie Lian stopped in his tracks with shock. Tangible confusion and fear took shape on his face. „W-what do you mean? What is going on??“, he asked with a wavering voice. But all Hua Cheng could do was stare at him with an expression darkened with horror, mortification and helplessness. To Xie Lian, it felt as if something was slipping out of his grasp, as if he was watching somebody die right in front of him. It was the most maddening feeling he had ever felt in his life, and he didn’t want it… he wanted to save this person who needed his help, who looked like he was on the verge of falling and drowning. But why was this person pushing him away…?
The same resonating voice as earlier called out from behind the two men and demanded in a composed manner: „Bring him to the car. Ignore the boy.“ With that, all shine and life faded from Hua Cheng’s eye. Before the men dragged him away, he whispered: „I’m sorry, Gege… thank you…“
Xie Lian felt his hands start to tremble and his eyes fill with tears. No, he thought, no… he was slipping away…
With his heart unable to bear the pain, a last bolt of courage pierced through him and made him clench his fists. Tears spilling over, he shouted: „We promised!!! We promised, didn’t we?? We’ll be free!!!!“
And the last expression Xie Lian saw of Hua Cheng was one that broke his heart.
„—eng? Hua Cheng? Hua Cheng!!“ with a kick against his leg, Hua Cheng was suddenly snapped out of his daze. When he looked up, he saw Shi Qingxuan staring at him with scrutiny. „You alright? You need some water?“ Hua Cheng felt his dry throat, but shook his head. „No. I’m fine.“
Shi Qingxuan sighed and rested her chin on her palm. „So? What happened after the car came?“ Hua Cheng started, then realized that he had stopped talking halfway through the story, and had completely lost himself in his memories.
He thinned his lips, and with downcast eyes said: „I got caught. First I resisted, and Xie Lian tried to defend me… but he got hurt while he did. So I stopped struggling and went back home. Several years passed… I thought I would never see him again. But then, there he was. Down the hall, in front of the lockers, smiling and laughing like all those years ago. I couldn’t believe my eyes— I mean, eye. But I was sure he wouldn’t recognize me, and even if he did, he would be appalled and disgusted. Don’t ask why, I just felt he would be. So I didn’t have any courage to approach him… all I did was give him white flowers month after month, year after year. I’m a coward. I messed up. I made so many mistakes and regret so much… but I don’t want that any more. Shi Qingxuan, believe me. I don’t want to break another promise ever again.“ In the end, he raised his gaze to look deep into Shi Qingxuan’s eyes.
Shi Qingxuan returned his gaze and looked like she was deeply pondering his words. After several seconds, she broke the silence, but Hua Cheng didn’t expect what she asked next.
„Do you know… what happened to Xie Lian two years ago?“
„His parents passed away“, Hua Cheng responded quietly. Shi Qingxuan kept looking at him. Finally, Hua Cheng murmured: „…he was responsible.“
„Did you know at the time?“, Shi Qingxuan inquired. Hua Cheng nodded.
Shi Qingxuan sighed with a sad and troubled expression. „I’ve been his best friend for many, many years, and knew his parents well. They weren’t good people. They held him in a cage with no space to breathe… he had no chance to develop his own identity. They damaged him very severely, and he will always carry that mark. But on that day… I don’t know what happened. Something must have happened. Things weren’t normal… I don’t know. It’s a fact that Xie Lian’s mother tried to strangle him and he simply resisted, and things ended badly. I honestly can’t blame him. But the fact that his mother tried to kill him… although she was strict to the point of being cruel, she had such high expectations and hopes for Xie Lian… it’s strange that she would try to kill him without reason. I think at that moment, Xie Lian snapped, and that’s why his father…“ Shi Qingxuan trailed off, face suddenly tinged with sorrow. The memories of that time must have been very painful for her to recollect.
She breathed in and out deeply once, then looked back up at Hua Cheng with reddened eyes. „Xie Lian has been changed ever since. There were times where it almost got too much… but he has survived all this time. But that’s all it was, survive. For the past two years, he hasn’t really lived… until he found that red cassette. Once he heard your music, suddenly, he returned to life.“
Hua Cheng felt a tremor course through his body. That… was that really true? „You mean“… he breathed in disbelief, „…my voice reached him?“
Shi Qingxuan slightly cringed, but then couldn’t help but admit: „Yeah… I guess it did. I was very sceptical at first, thinking that this was a step in the wrong direction. But now… well. You’ll prove me wrong, won’t you, Hua Cheng?“
Shi Qingxuan smirked with a mixture of taunting and cockiness… but in her voice, there was also a faint trace of hopefulness. Inside, she now had a bit of faith in Hua Cheng. For so long, she had just learned, his devotion had been unbroken, all through the longest and darkest years of Xie Lian’s life. And although she had ridiculed the incessant stream of flowers in Xie Lian’s locker all this time, in this very moment, she was extremely thankful for every single one of them. It gave her an incredible feeling of reassurance.
Hua Cheng turned his head to look at Xie Lian. His expression softening and eye shining, he responded with all the affection in the world: „I will.“
Finally, the ambulance arrived at the hospital. Although Xie Lian’s condition had been stabilized, the nurses still rushed him to the ER, just to be safe. Hua Cheng and Shi Qingxuan also ran inside, following him all the way to his room, where he was once again hooked up to tubes, wires and monitors. The two of them were asked by staff to wait outside, and although they were both worried and reluctant, they eventually conceded and sat down in the waiting room. Silence filled the linoleum-traced space. Unsurprisingly, the both of them were exhausted and didn’t speak a word with each other.
But suddenly, Shi Qingxuan got the impulse to say: „If you break Xie Lian’s heart, I’ll rip your dick off and shove it so far down your throat it’ll come out of your ass.“
Hua Cheng nodded. „Yes.“
A moment later, he added: „Also, make sure to surgically extract my heart and put it through a meat grinder, then serve it to be shat on by the worst scum on the earth, but maybe not Qi Rong. That’d be a bit too much.“
Shi Qingxuan turned her head to stare at Hua Cheng with a blank expression. „Man, you’re fucked up.“
Silence filled the room again.
The both of them flinched when the obnoxious electronic chime of a ringing phone disrupted the quietude. Hua Cheng quickly got it out of his pocket, but when he saw the name displayed on the screen, his expression immediately darkened.
Shi Qingxuan saw the change of face and asked: „Who is it?“
Snarling, Hua Cheng answered: „My band leader.“
—TO BE CONTINUED—