Shi Qingxuan and Xie Lian sat at the living room table, with only a single overhead spotlight illuminating the space around them. Neither of them uttered a word; both were pensively staring at the maroon object lying quietly inbetween them.
After today‘s tiring but also fruitful encounter, the two of them had all the information they needed and more. Xie Lian could barely believe his luck. A performance... and he happened to possess one of the probably only couple dozen keys to access it out there.
It was beyond good fortune. But now came the hard part.
After what felt like minutes of complete silence, Xie Lian finally looked up at Shi Qingxuan, who felt his gaze on her and returned it. But still, neither of them knew how to start talking. Finally, Xie Lian breathed out and smiled.
„It‘s only a little drop of blood, nothing dangerous. Don‘t be so tense, Shi Qingxuan“, he said with a soft voice.
Shi Qingxuan looked at him with glassy eyes. „You‘re gonna do it?“
Xie Lian‘s smile broadened. „I know you‘re afraid of knives and needles on your skin, so leave this to me. It‘s not a big deal.“
Shi Qingxuan continued to stare at him. How strange, you‘re suddenly taking care of me now, she thought wordlessly. Then, she sighed and returned his smile, grateful.
„Okay. Thank you.“ Quickly she added: „Be careful.“
Xie Lian grinned and nodded. He had the tools all ready.
First, however, he needed to peel away the label from the cassette. Surprising even him, this sent a pang of reluctance through his heart; he didn‘t want to damage or even take apart this object which in his mind had saved him from despair. It seemed... sacrilegious. But thinking about the performance, Xie Lian was able to ignore those thoughts and completely focus on the removal.
Stemming from his arduous ballet practice, Xie Lian‘s hands were steady and careful. With a thin kitchen knife, he created a gap all around the label, slowly working his way to the center of it from underneath. After a while, he could lift the label off the cassette between two fingers. Relieved, he sighed; as far as he could see, he hadn‘t damaged any part of it.
Next, he got out a tissue and a lighter. The singular light above them cast deep shadows onto the two people’s faces, only lighting up the table and making the scene look somber and cold.
Briefly holding the needle into the small flame, he sterilized it, then wiped it with the tissue to get rid of the soot. Then, he slowly lowered it towards his right index finger.
„Wa...wait a second.“
Surprised, Xie Lian stopped midway in his movement and looked up at Shi Qingxuan. Where there normally would have been a healthy blush, her cheeks looked thin and pale, her shadow-cast eyes dark and without shine. Not being able to speak any more, her lips were quivering in place, looking dry and parched. She seemed distraught.
„Shi Qingxuan, if you can‘t watch you should close your eyes...“, Xie Lian gently suggested, surprised at his friend‘s condition.
„It‘s not that“, Shi Qingxuan suddenly exclaimed, her tone still quiet but unmistakably traced with anger. As if not being able to bear sitting anymore, she stood up and paced back and forth behind her chair, wearing a serious expression.
„Do you even realize what we‘re doing, Xie Lian? Poking ourselves open, spilling our blood for, for a band we‘ve barely known a week, and frankly, don‘t make the LEAST trustworthy impression on me?? What if something went wrong? What, what if—“
Xie Lian interrupted his breathlessly stuttering friend with a gentle, but firm voice.
„Nothing‘s going to go wrong, this isn‘t a big deal.“ He tried to sound reassuring. „It‘s just a tiny pin prick, look!“
Without waiting for her answer, he swiftly nicked his skin with the tip of the needle, feeling nothing more than a little pinching sensation where it left its mark. Applying pressure to the little wound, a singular, deep-red drop of blood emerged from his finger, almost fascinating Xie Lian. Quickly, he brought the finger to the flipped label and carefully transferred the pearl of blood to its surface. With an uninjured finger, he distributed the liquid evenly, dyeing the white flip-side crimson as well.
Face flushed with excitement, he looked back up to meet Shi Qingxuan‘s gaze. „See, perfectly safe, it doesn‘t even hurt!“
But Shi Qingxuan‘s expression didn‘t change. Staring at him from the shadow surrounding the table, she spoke, her voice dark.
„What if they had wanted more?“
Xie Lian‘s smile dropped, and he looked at her in confusion. „More?“
„If they had wanted more than just a drop of your blood, would you have given it to them?“
Xie Lian didn‘t know how to respond. Lowering his eyes from her face to the table, he stared at the red cassette and bloodied label in front of him. For a performance, for CALAMITY... how far would he have gone?
Seeing her friend‘s excitement disappear and his expression turning serious, Shi Qingxuan felt a wave of guilt wash over her. She breathed in deeply, trying to settle down herself, then spoke again.
„Sorry, I didn‘t mean to make you unhappy. It‘s already over, and hopefully you won‘t have to do it again. Just... be careful, okay?“
She didn‘t mean CALAMITY. She meant Xie Lian himself.
Xie Lian gave her a soft smile. „It‘s okay, Shi Qingxuan. You‘re right, I shouldn‘t just jump into these things carelessly. I‘ll be careful, I promise.“
Shi Qingxuan sighed in relief at his answer and smiled as well. „Alright, alright. You promised! That‘s that, now let‘s look at what secrets that bloody cassette holds!“
The tension at the table quickly dissipating and being replaced again with excitement and curiosity, Shi Qingxuan took her seat and bent over the table to get a better look at the label. During their conversation, the blood had already worked its wonder, and true to what Mu Qing had said, tiny, black letters appeared on the label where there had been none.
„Amazing, he really said the truth. And to think I almost doubted him“, Shi Qingxuan said sarcastically, at which Xie Lian snorted in amusement. He responded: „I‘ll have to buy him another cup of coffee one of these days.“
He had obviously already forgotten about the whole “don‘t ever contact me again“ end of the deal.
The black letters formed an adress and a time, the key to the performance! But beneath that information, there was also a long strand of seemingly random numbers, jumbled in random order.
Xie Lian studied them with a frown, but couldn‘t figure out any meaning or sense behind them. Just as he was about to state the obvious, he heard Shi Qingxuan sigh and fall back in her chair. Puzzled, Xie Lian looked at her questioningly.
Shi Qingxuan scoffed. „Isn‘t it obvious? It‘s a code. Most likely, only people with a correct code can enter the venue. This way, even if somebody made the concert information public, still only one person per code can actually attend it. Which means, my friend... congratulations, you‘ve won the golden fucking ticket.“
Xie Lian looked at her dumbfounded. Only one person per code?
Did CALAMITY even want people to attend their performance???
Then, he remembered something else. „But that means! Only one of us can go??“, he cried, looking up at Shi Qingxuan with a lamenting expression. At this, Shi Qingxuan snorted with laughter and waved.
„What are you saying? This is YOUR cassette, your ticket, your one-in-a-lifetime chance. Don‘t worry about it, I‘ll definitely get my chance later. But you won‘t get rid of me until the very last step in front of the venue. Even if I can‘t enter, I will try my damn hardest to at least catch a glimpse of them, mark my words. Shi Qingxuan isn‘t a quitter!“, she finally exclaimed, licking her lips mischeviously.
Xie Lian broke out into laughter at her words, then suddenly, excitement bubbled over within him; he stood up with a beaming grin, got out the cassette recorder and put in the crimson tape. Pressing play with the volume on max, he danced around the apartment in a frenzy, hopping and jumping and laughing.
„I‘m seeing CALAMITY!!!! I‘m seeing CALAMITY!!!! I‘m seeing CALAMITY HAHAHA!!!!
With overwhelming joy, he kept repeating that phrase, infecting Shi Qingxuan with his excitement. Grin inflating her cheeks until it hurt, she joined Xie Lian in his crazy dance.
„You‘re seeing CALAMITY!!! You‘re seeing CALAMITY!!! You‘re seeing CALAMITY OMG!!!!!!
Music blasting through the apartment, they danced, then opened a bottle of red wine and tormented Xie Lian‘s unfortunate neighbors deep into the night.
Never in his entire life had Xie Lian experienced a week this long and arduous. Time seemed to move like honey, the solid type; during classes, he simply couldn‘t sit still and kept moving his knees in impatience, looking at the clock every couple of minutes when it felt like hours had passed already.
His schoolwork left him uninterested and frustrated, and he didn‘t manage to focus on lectures for more than seconds at a time before drifting off into his imagination.
The coming performance consumed him and set his nerves on fire. Gnawing at his well-kept nails, Xie Lian‘s thoughts were racing and making his head spin. What should he wear?? Should he talk to people? What if he stands out too much, what if he gets trampled by the crowd, what if he doesn‘t even get to see the singer?! What if this is their only performance? What if—
His frantic thoughts suddenly came to a halt as he looked at the clock for the hundreth time today, but this time, it felt like the clock‘s hands meant more. Narrowing his eyes, he stared at them. They caused a twang in Xie Lian‘s brain, triggering a memory... and then it all came crashing down on him. Hissing a string of curses, Xie Lian sprang up from his seat, grabbed his coat and stormed out of the building into the cold evening.
Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit shit, shit!!!!!!!
How could he forget??? He had ballet practice!!!!
Fuck... professor’s gonna kill him.
Sprinting as if his life depended on it, Xie Lian ran through the roads of the grand campus, not noticing in his frenzy that it was starting to snow. The snowflakes were big and wet, coating the asphalt with a treacherous layer of slush.
Xie Lian‘s vision was concealed by the big plume of white vapor he kept creating with his ragged breathing, when he finally slithered to a stop in front of the double-winged glass door of the performing arts department. Although he had nearly slipped a couple of times, he had trained his balance for years and reached the building safely, although shaking with exertion and gasping for breath.
Although he was still heaving and sweating heavily, Xie Lian couldn‘t rest; pressing his weight against the door, it swung inward and let him stumble into the empty foyer. He dragged himself up two flights of stairs and into the changing room: He had two minutes left.
Grasping at his locker door and tearing it open, he barely caught his breath as he wriggled out of his clothes and put on his training garment, looking completely dissheveled.
For the first time, he cursed its tightness aloud: „Who the hell made ballet attire this fucking hard to change into??“
Finally, half a minute past starting time, he crashed into the shiny practice hall, making the other students who were already standing in a neat line turn their heads at the noise. In front of them stood two figures, obviously in authoritative positions. One of them, a male only a few years Xie Lian‘s senior, huffed in amusement at his entrance and made a mark on a board he held in his hands. Apparently, Xie Lian had made it just in the nick of time for attendance.
The young male, still smiling, put his board down and crossed his arms.
„Ah, Xie Lian Xuedi(1), how wonderful that you‘re joining us this week. I hope you enjoyed your little break. Are you ready to come back?“
His words could have been snide, condescending or reprimanding; but he said them all in a calm, warm tone. There wasn‘t a trace of anger or irony to be heard.
Still, Xie Lian didn‘t dare to look at him. Trying to control his erratic breathing, he quickly joined the lined-up students, squared his shoulders and bowed deep.
„Please forgive this student for his tardiness, and his negligence of practice. He is unworthy of Xuezhang‘s(2) leniency.“
Xie Lian‘s Xuezhang chuckled warmly, then clapped his hands.
„Now now, we‘re all present, and that‘s all that matters. Let‘s get started with practice. Professor, if you will.“ With that, he gave the word to the person standing on his left, a middle-aged woman who looked like she had just bit into the world‘s sourest lemon. Obviously, she didn‘t intend to let Xie Lian off the hook this easily, but Xuezhang‘s words had obstructed her chance to say anything.
Glaring at Xie Lian one last time, she cleared her throat and started practice. Sighing with a wave of fatigue, Xie Lian braced himself for the following two hours and got into first position.
Dropping to his knees in a puddle of sweat, Xie Lian finally gave up on standing. His entire body was shaking with exhaustion.
The entire two hours were like torture; obviously, Xie Lian‘s actions had put the professor into a bad mood, and she didn‘t let any of the students even take a break for drinking. This in turn made the students direct their frustration at Xie Lian, and more than once during formation training he secretly got kicked at or stomped on. But of course, he couldn‘t defend himself; speaking up would only make everything worse.
Suddenly, a large hand entered his vision and made Xie Lian look up. Standing in front of him was his Xuezhang, reaching out for him with a slightly apologetic smile on his lips. Feeling like he really couldn‘t stand up again without somebody‘s help, Xie Lian accepted his support and pulled himself up on shaking legs.
Just as he wanted to thank the other man and retract his hand, he noticed his Xuezhang’s eyes fixated on the small hand which was still clasped tightly within his grip. Following his gaze, Xie Lian saw that he was staring at his bandaged index finger, or maybe at his disastrously ravaged nails. In any case, his expression wasn‘t good. Flatly, he asked: „What happened?“
Noticing his tone, Xie Lian broke out in cold sweat. He tried pulling away his hand, but his Xuezhang‘s grip was iron. He could only awkwardly sputter out an excuse.
„Ah Xue-Xuezhang, this is nothing big. This clumsy student only cut himself on some paper. It‘ll heal in a day, you don‘t need to look so worried.“ Xie Lian tried to smile, but he probably looked more frightened than reassuring.
His Xuezhang studied Xie Lian‘s face wordlessly, penetrating him with his deep, dark eyes which left no escape. Xie Lian could only stare back with big, unblinking eyes.
Finally, cathartically, Xie Lian‘s Xuezhang lowered his eyes and released his hand. It felt like Xie Lian had been holding his breath all this time and only now could pour fresh air into his lungs.
„Xuedi, please take better care of yourself. Whatever shall we do if you‘re injured and unable to dance?“, the man asked softly.
Xie Lian lowered his gaze. Why don‘t you tell that to the other students, he thought in spite of himself. Then, he gathered his remaining strength and stood up straight in attention.
„This Xuedi apologizes profusely and promises to take better care of himself. He thanks Xuezhang for his kind words and help. If that is all, may Xuedi take his leave?“
His Xuezhang smiled helplessly. „Of course, it is late, and today‘s practice was rather... intense. Why don‘t you go home and take a good rest? I‘ll see you next week. Goodbye, Xie Xuedi.“
Xie Lian bowed respectfully, and was innerly relieved.
„Until next week, Bai Xuezhang.“
—-TO BE CONTINUED—-
1 Xuedi = Younger male in the same school/university, similar to Kouhai in Japan, or Hoobae in Korea
2 Xuezhang = Older male in the same school, f.e. senpai/sunbae