Hua Cheng answered the phone with a seething voice, trying to convey all the contempt he could muster. He could guess that this wasn’t going to be a pretty conversation, so he had stepped outside the hospital and was now slowly pacing up and down the large ambulance driveway. The night was cold, but he didn’t feel any of it. His heart was burning with rage.
A disappointed sigh reached his ear from the other end of the line, making Hua Cheng resist the temptation of grinding his teeth together. Then, with a patronizing voice, Bai Wuxiang started to chide: „Why must you go about things like this, Hua Cheng. I’ve been hearing rather disturbing rumors about you, and what Qi Rong told me just now didn’t really reassure me… but you know how he can be. I thought it to be better to hear your side of the story. So, Hua Cheng, won’t you tell me what’s going on?“
Hua Cheng hated the way Bai Wuxiang spoke. He despised the way he sounded so condescending, so all-mighty and high, as if everybody else other than him were the most despicable scum on earth. But alas, Hua Cheng was patient. He knew in the end, he’d have the upper hand.
„Well, boss, since I can make a fair guess about how Qi Rong’s version sounded, let me tell you the truth instead. The truth is, Qi Rong slandered, antagonized and eventually assaulted Xie Lian in front of crowd of other contemptuous students, all while he was having a heart attack. Despite all of this, Qi Rong got away scot-free, which is a hundred billion fucking times better than he deserved. Xie Lian could’ve died. I don’t think I need to tell you that I will fucking rip his head off if I see him again… so I thought I’d save you a lot of trouble and leave the band, so a scenario like that can be avoided. Sounds like a deal we can both profit from, no?“
Hua Cheng suppressed his anger, but made sure that it was implied with every word. After his outburst, the other end of the line was silent for a while. Hua Cheng furrowed his brow and tried to listen in on any sound, but there was nothing. Then, Bai Wuxiang finally spoke again, sounding as calm as ever.
„Hua Cheng, I know how much Xie Lian means to you. But you also need to understand… from Qi Rong’s point of view, he has robbed him of family and has given him a lot of pain too. I wish you wouldn’t be so harsh on him. And— ah, don’t yell at me just yet! I also understand that Qi Rong has gone too far this time. I will talk to him and give you enough time to cool down… I can only imagine how high your emotions are right now. We can talk about this more when your head is clearer“, Bai Wuxiang finally finished with a very diplomatic tone.
Hua Cheng stopped pacing at once and was suddenly very, very still.
„Boss“, he said.
„What is it?“, Bai Wuxiang responded.
Hua Cheng’s voice was colder than ice. „My head is abundantly clear right now. This is not a negotiation. I have no intention of staying in a band that tolerates violent abusers. I’M QUITTING. I hope I’m making myself clear.“
It was at that moment that Hua Cheng should have dropped his arm, pressed the red button and ended the call. He should have left no room for a response… but Hua Cheng didn’t. There was a particular reason for this: He was conditioned to wait for approval. He had never in his life made a decision for himself without anybody else’s permission. So his brain didn’t even think about selfishly ending the call and casting his point in iron… he waited.
And Bai Wuxiang’s response came, but this time, all kindness, all gentleness had been wiped from his voice. It instead breathed darkness, an indescribable sense of danger and violence carried within. It almost sounded… metallic, like a gong.
„My. How you have grown, Hua Cheng. Listen to you, all confident and rebellious. It is refreshing to see. But I do hope you’re not forgetting… who you belong to.“
With the shift of tone, all blood drained from Hua Cheng’s already pale face. He couldn’t help his muscles tense and start trembling… this manner of speaking, this dominant, uncompromising nature, he was very well acquainted with. His fist was clenched, and when he opened his mouth to speak, he found his chest constricted. With great dismay he realized that his age old fear and horror was still sitting as deep in his bones as ever, petrifying him into submission.
„You… I-I don’t belong there anymore! You don’t own me!! I… I’m free now… you can’t…?“
With every word, insecurity and doubt crept into his mind, making chaos and turmoil spread and wreck his train of thought. In his ear, Bai Wuxiang chuckled. But when he continued talking, he sounded cold and disappointed.
„Hua Cheng, you really are a terrible person. How could you forget all my kindness and your debt to me? I risked a lot for your sake! I granted your independence! The least you can do is repay me by listening to me and following my orders. You forget whom you owe your freedom to. What I ask of you is not a lot… can’t you do even this little thing for me?“ Bai Wuxiang sighed. „I thought you had grown, had become dependable… but maybe I was wrong.“
During this whole time while Bai Wuxiang was talking, Hua Cheng didn’t realize that his shoulders had slumped forward and his eye had started wavering from left to right. Very quickly, he was losing his firm standing and started questioning his own argument, his own righteousness.
Bai Wuxiang was right… he had indeed saved him… was what he demanded from him really that much…?
Bai Wuxiang continued. „Also, rumors nowadays are that a new internet superstar by the name of Hua Ch… haha, well, Hua Ching? is making his rounds. Really, what is this silly game you’re playing, Hua Cheng? Is CALAMITY not good enough for you anymore? Or what… is this an act of rebellion?“ With this last sentence, his voice had turned sinister once more.
Hua Cheng’s mind by now was completely muddled… he didn’t know what was right or wrong anymore. The stinging voice in is ear had latched onto his one big weakness and gnawed on it like a bone, exploiting it for all it had to offer. Hua Cheng’s throat was dry.
„I-I just thought… with this… I could finally go my own way. I am thankful to you… but I want to… I-I just want to be…“
„What, free?“, Bai Wuxiang cut in when Hua Cheng trailed off. He scoffed. „When have I ever oppressed you, Hua Cheng? I’ve never made you do things against your will. I think you seriously need to reevaluate what I have done for you these past few years. Frankly, Hua Cheng… without me, you’re nothing. You’re worthless. But it’s okay! CALAMITY is here for you, and I’m here for you. You know this, don’t you?“
In the cold night, Hua Cheng heard nothing, felt nothing. He stood frozen to the ground, staring ahead into the darkness. His breathing got slower and slower... but with every passing second, in that space devoid of movement or sound, a thought crystallized within his mind. More than a thought, it was a memory, tinged with the rays of the morning sun, reverberating within him with such warmth, it made his heart ache. He saw two wide eyes glistening with tears, blushed cheeks… he heard words that he barely believed himself.
With a tremble, his lips parted.
In his ear, Bai Wuxiang’s breath hitched. „What?“
„No“, Hua Cheng repeated, this time louder, firmer. „You’re wrong. I’m not worthless. I’m not worthless. I thought I was, but I was wrong! YOU were wrong!! Bai Wuxiang… I’m not alone anymore. I can see with my own eye now.“ Hua Cheng’s back had straightened again, and on his face, an expression brimming with determination made his eye glow. There was not a trace of hesitation in his voice.
„Bai Wuxiang, thank you for all your guidance and generosity over the past years. I believe it is time for me to go my own way from hereon. And should you refuse…“ The darkness falling into Hua Cheng’s voice was as clear as it was frightening. „…you’ll get to know just what kind of person you have raised with your own hands. I don’t think I need to explain myself further. Goodbye.“
This time, Hua Cheng didn’t wait for an answer, but he didn’t believe there would have been one anyway. There was nothing more to say. He immediately hung up on Bai Wuxiang, ending not only a call, but a relationship. Hua Cheng knew that from now on, there would be no going back.
Still standing in the same place, he breathed in and out deeply, feeling like a crushing weight had been lifted from his shoulders. Then, with a jumble of emotions suddenly welling up within him, he thought about how this couldn’t have been possible if he hadn’t met Xie Lian… if Xie Lian hadn’t come and given him a sense of purpose. What if he hadn’t met him? Hua Cheng quickly shook his head… it was unthinkable.
With his pupil glistening, Hua Cheng smiled at last. „Gege, I’m finally free now. I’m free, just like I promised! Now we can—“
„Hua Cheng!! What the fuck’s taking so long? You running away again?!“
Hua Cheng flinched as his solitude was disrupted by a huffing and shouting Shi Qingxuan. She had come storming out of the entrance, shortly looked around and spotted him standing in the driveway. Now she came stomping towards him with furrowed eyebrows.
From the past few hours together, Hua Cheng already had a pretty good picture of her character, and both pitied and admired Xie Lian. She was as much a great friend as she was a scary one… Hua Cheng knew that even he’d have a hard time winning against her. But maybe with his new-found confidence…
Hua Cheng as well tensed his body and billowed up like a rooster, ready to defend his ego and integrity. With a dramatic growl, he retorted: „I dare you to say that again! Who else is there to protect Xie Lian if not for me?! Are you doubting me??“
Shi Qingxuan came to a stop in front of him, and as a response, promptly kicked him in the shin. Hua Cheng immediately buckled and grunted in pain, but Shi Qingxuan completely ignored this as she raged: „Are you stupid??? Who else?? Obviously ANYBODY other than you!!! You fucking idiot! What’s with your bullshit?? If you’re done come back inside, maybe you can put your crappy attitude to work where they need it!!“
With that, Shi Qingxuan turned on her heel and left as quickly as she had come. Feeling as if a balloon had been pricked with a needle, all of Hua Cheng’s inflated confidence fell in on itself, leaving him with a stunned and defeated feeling. He sniffled once with shame, then did as he was told and limped back towards the illuminated entrance of the hospital.
It seemed he still had a lot of work to do on the road towards independence.
All during the night, the two of them took turns resting and watching over Xie Lian, who was lying in undisturbed sleep on the bed. The doctors repeatedly asked them to leave, but they wouldn’t budge. Finally, when dawn had already broken, the doctors assessed Xie Lian’s condition again and found it completely stable. Since he was in no immediate danger and they found no irregularities, they told Hua Cheng and Shi Qingxuan that he could go home once he woke up. This news greatly relieved the two of them, who had been on edge the entire night. Now, the two sat slumped over with exhaustion, deep circles sitting under their eyes. It had been a long, long twenty-four hours.
In the silence, Hua Cheng said with a coarse voice: „Shi Qingxuan, why don’t you go home first? I can take care of the rest.“
With seemingly great effort, Shi Qingxuan turned her lowered head to look at Hua Cheng, scanning his face under heavy eyelids. Hua Cheng knew what she was thinking. Lips turning up into a faint smile, he said: „Trust me.“
After a few more seconds, Shi Qingxuan let her head dangle again with a sigh… it really looked like she was at the end of her powers. She then nodded and responded: „Okay. You better text me when he wakes up, or else.“ Hua Cheng marvelled that at the verge of collapsing, Shi Qingxuan still had the energy to threaten him. To appease her, he quickly agreed.
Shi Qingxuan sighed again, and on wobbling knees, forced herself to stand up. She turned to grab her coat and bag, threw one more glance towards Xie Lian’s still figure, then moved to leave. Just one more time she paused in her steps, and with averted eyes murmured: „Thank you.“
Hua Cheng’s eye widened, but then he breathed out with a smile and didn’t respond. Shi Qingxuan also didn’t say another word as she finally walked out the door.
Hua Cheng leaned his head back against the wall, his eye intermittently closing with waves of sleep… but he desperately fought to stay awake. He had promised Shi Qingxuan to be here for Xie Lian. Now, he had to prove his words to be true.
But his solitude didn’t last long before a doctor entered the room and headed straight for Hua Cheng. At that moment, Hua Cheng had his eyes closed, and was startled awake by the clearing of a throat. He whipped his head towards the man, and was a bit confused as he didn’t recognize him, but clearly saw that he was wearing a disgruntled and rather angry expression. Apprehensive, Hua Cheng stood up to face him. Before he could ask any questions of his own, however, the doctor asked bluntly: „Are you this person’s guardian?“
Trying to sound as polite as he could, Hua Cheng answered: „I am. Is there a problem, sir?“
At this questions, the doctor suddenly looked enraged. Exasperated, he huffed: „Yes! The problem is, this patient had fled this hospital in his last stay, abandoning his recuperation program and entirely failing to pay the hospital bill! I thought it unnecessary to involve law enforcement in this case, however, and I do hope we can solve this problem on different channels. Was I correct to assume so, Mr…?“
Hua Cheng felt a sour taste spread inside his mouth and his lips twitching. But then, his eye fell back onto Xie Lian… and immediately, his expression softened again. He faced the doctor and extended his hand. „Hua Cheng, sir. Of course, that will be no problem. Please send both the bills for his previous stay and the current one to my address. I promise to reimburse you for all your efforts.“
The doctor was stunned for a moment at the swift response, and with a slightly baffled grumble, shook Hua Cheng’s hand.
„Well then! I guess my concern was unneeded. Excuse my rash words. But I wonder, are you Mr. Bai Wuxiong… no, Wuxiang’s acquaintance?“
Immediately, Hua Cheng froze and his hand clamped around the doctor’s, gripping it hard. The doctor recoiled and was visibly shocked, but Hua Cheng’s ice-cold, violent stare made him immediately swallow his words. With a dangerous voice, Hua Cheng asked: „Bai Wuxiang? Sir, was Bai Wuxiang here when Xie Lian was hospitalized?“
The doctor was alone and could do nothing as his hand was firmly locked within Hua Cheng’s unrelenting grip. His crimson eye pierced into him and left him with no escape. It was an almost animalistic phenomenon, as if a giant, blood-thirsty hound made the doctor lose all control over his muscles and left him defenseless. Eventually, the doctor had no choice but to respond: „What… well yes, he was!! Is there a problem? Isn’t he also his guardian?“
The shadow over Hua Cheng’s eyes only got darker. With a voice as black as tar, he snarled: „The fuck he is his guardian. What did he do?? What the fuck did he do??!!“ His grip got tighter, finally making the doctor wince and grasp with his free hand at the fingers crushing his other. But of course all such measures were futile. It was as if Hua Cheng’s fingers were made out of iron… they were unmovable.
Seething through clenched teeth, the doctor finally howled: „Jesus Christ! At least he knew how to treat people with respect!!“
Hua Cheng’s expression didn’t change, neither did his pressure. Pain intensifying, the doctor relented. „Kuuhh… he was there when Xie Lian woke up for the first time… and also— AH!!“ The doctor exclaimed in agony as Hua Cheng’s grip suddenly tightened even more. When he searched for his gaze, he only saw pure, uninhibited hatred. „Continue“, Hua Cheng said calmly.
„Ughh… h-he… had authority over… whether or not… Xie Lian would undergo… s.. sr… gr…“
„Speak up.“ Hua Cheng’s voice was monotonous and calm, definitely everything he was not at that moment… but he tried to control himself, to stay cool. All the while, the doctor’s fingers turned white and translucent, with every drop of blood having been squeezed out of them. The doctor finally felt a pang of fear, and now impatient to end the situation, he yelled: „SURGERY!!! Fu— He decided that Xie Lian wouldn’t have surgery!! AH, please let go, let go!!“
Hua Cheng didn’t let go. „What kind of surgery?“
A flash of madness swept over the doctor’s face as his wish didn’t get fulfilled. He stuttered on through clenched teeth. „A kind of b-bypass surgery, a very risky one!! Chances of success are only sixty percent! If he never does surgery, he’s at a heightened r-ris-risk of getting a h-heart attack and dying… ugh… if he experiences excessively exciting or stressful situations! B-Bai Wuxiang’s decision was not to operate!! That’s all!! NOW PLEASE LET GO OF MY HAND!!!“
After another moment of standing frozen, Hua Cheng finally unfurled his fingers, letting the doctor retract his hand and press it against his chest with a distorted expression. His body was trembling ever so slightly, and his brow was glistening with sweat. He glared at Hua Cheng with contempt, but didn’t say anything else.
Hua Cheng’s mind was thrown into turmoil. More than the knowledge that Bai Wuxiang had been here and made such an important decision all by himself, Hua Cheng was distraught to hear that Xie Lian was at such high risk of having a heart attack, perhaps for the rest of his life. But this meant… when they were in his apartment… and they… they… it could have killed Xie Lian. He could have literally f—
Hua Cheng suddenly staggered and was attacked by a bout dizziness. In his ears, a metallic ringing reverberated. Everything today had been shocking and angering… Hua Cheng was nearing his limits as well. He needed rest. Head buried in his hand, he found support at the head of Xie Lian’s bed, where he stood for a while, gathering himself.
But not yet, he told himself. It wasn’t over yet. „This surgery“, he muttered, „can it still be done?“
The doctor adjusted his necktie, trying to gain back his composure. He wanted nothing more than to ignore Hua Cheng, but had to answer as a professional. „Yes, it can. But it also needs authorization from his guardian, which is already registered to be Bai Wuxiang. I’m afraid if you want to reverse his decision, you’ll need to talk to him directly.“
„That’s bullshit!“, Hua Cheng couldn’t help but spit. The doctor threw a scathing glare at him before reprimanding: „If we just changed around guardianship at will, where would we be?? We’d get random people claiming to be this or that, and there’d be no control at all!“
Hua Cheng was dumbfounded. Wasn’t that exactly what happened with Bai Wuxiang?! What kinda weird excuse was that??
He was suddenly alert and wary. Something wasn’t right, he thought… but just as he was about to ask more questions, the doctor was already walking out the door without sparing him another glance. Hua Cheng wanted to rush after him, but at that moment, he heard a soft moan from behind his back. His eye widened and he whipped around.
On the bed, movement finally entered Xie Lian’s face, his features furrowed and scrunched up. He was waking up.
Without a second thought, Hua Cheng sat down next to him, ready to be give him all the reassurance and support he needed. He thought Xie Lian just needed to open his eyes… but suddenly, he threw his head left and right, as if fighting against restraints, and his breathing became heavy. Immediately, Hua Cheng’s stomach sunk. No no no no, no, what was happening??
A pained expression distorted Xie Lian’s face. Breaking out into cold sweat, he groaned and tensed up all over. His eyelids were flickering, and it was then that Hua Cheng realized that he must be seeing a nightmare. True to his assumption, Xie Lian suddenly pressed out chopped up sentences and words.
„N— no, no… not sick… I’m not sick… I swear, doctor… no… please, I just want to go home… n-no, NO!!! MOM!! DAD!!!!“
With his screams, he started thrashing around with his entire body, making his sheets fly off the bed. Hua Cheng felt a maddening pain in his chest and immediately flew from his chair to wake him up, to relieve him from his torture. With his own arms, he tied Xie Lian’s flailing limbs to his torso and pressed his small, shaking body against his own. Frantically, he whispered words of affection and reassurance into his ear, lips brushing against his tangled hair. „It’s okay gege, I’m here. It’s okay. It’s me, San Lang. Shh, you’re alright.“
As Xie Lian’s eyelids finally opened all the way and he returned to reality, the shadows of the horror he had experienced in his mind slowly trickled away. When he realized who was embracing him so gently and had woken him from his nightmare, all tension immediately left his body. Burrowing his face in Hua Cheng’s chest, Xie Lian whispered: „San Lang… San Lang… I’m sorry…“
Hua Cheng was dismayed. He paused in his caressing and faced Xie Lian. „Gege, what are you saying? What are you sorry for?“ He felt a great, inexplicable sadness that Xie Lian felt that he needed to apologize for anything.
Xie Lian averted his eyes and looked ashamed. „I… I lost control again. I made San Lang worry about me again… I’m sorry.“
With a sigh, Hua Cheng pressed Xie Lian right back to his chest, softly rocking him back and forth. „You carry no blame, gege. Please don’t say sorry. Everybody except for gege has guilt… most of all myself. But gege… we made a promise, remember?“
Xie Lian sniffled, then paused, confused. „Promise…? The one not to insult ourselves anymore?“
Hua Cheng hummed, then continued: „That one too. But there’s one that is far more important. Don’t you remember, gege? On that rainy afternoon… that horrid playground… the promise we made with our pinkies interlinked…“
There was a moment of silence. Then another, then another. Suddenly, Xie Lian flew away from Hua Cheng, sitting up to stare him in the face with wide eyes, expression a jumble of shock, disbelief and heart-crushing recollection. All the memories that came rushing in on him took visible shape on his face. Slowly, he extended his trembling hands and cupped Hua Cheng’s face. Vision blurring with tears, he breathed: „That… that was you? That boy on the playground? The one who got taken away…?“ Suddenly, Xie Lian got frantic. „I—! I worried so much… I was mortified, I thought that I let a boy get abducted in front of my very eyes… but how… why… what happened to you then?? What—“
Before Xie Lian could continue, Hua Cheng leaned forward and put his lips against his. Xie Lian froze in surprise, but then relaxed and leaned into the kiss too. What did it matter… San Lang was here now, alive and well.
When the two of them parted again, Hua Cheng smiled, but then became somber. „Gege… I don’t want to hide anything from you anymore. I don’t want to hurt or deceive you. I want you to know that I trust you and what our promise means to me. So… I will tell you. The truth.“
Xie Lian looked deep into his eyes and nodded. „If San Lang is ready to tell me, I will listen.“
Hua Cheng returned his gaze, and for a moment, it seemed as if they were connected by their souls alone, being able to feel all they felt, all they meant to each other. Caught in that state, Hua Cheng breathed out and started talking softly, but steadfastly.
„Since the time of my first memory, I was raised in a closed community. I had many brothers, many sisters… many parents. We called ourselves the “Ambassadors of Paradise“. We were told we were one big family and that everyone was equal, blessed by the True One. We were told that we were the saviors of the human race, and that we owed our lives to the True One. We were to worship this figure for all eternity.“
Xie Lian’s breath got caught in his chest. „But that is…“
„Yes“, Hua Cheng said with pain in his voice. „A cult.“
—TO BE CONTINUED—