First Published on Chaleuria
049 – Burning
Xie Yu often called him idiot, stupid, and various other insults. The only respectful name he had called him was ‘Big Bro Flirt,’ but that wasn’t complimentary, either.
So now the words ‘Zhao-ge,’ said in an even tone without inflection, left He Zhao stunned.
He almost dropped his chopsticks.
By the time He Zhao came back to his senses, Luo Wenqiang had snatched the final piece of corn pie with his bare hands.
Luo Wenqiang had one foot on his chair, his posture open. He had done his utmost to seize food, forgoing chopsticks and using his hands directly. “Ha ha ha ha ha, Zhao-ge, admit defeat!”
Xu Qingqing said, “Gym rep, I really didn’t imagine you to be this sort of person.”
Liu Cunhao shook his head. “I didn’t, either… There’s nothing he won’t stoop to for food. Tell me, did you really forgo just dinner? Surely you didn’t go the whole day without food.”
Luo Wenqiang bit into the corn pie and explained, “Not that far, not that far. I just have a big appetite, that’s all.”
He Zhao cleared his throat, about to ask why Xie Yu was calling him big bro.
Xie Yu said, “I don’t like corn pie.”
“I didn’t get the pie, anyway,” He Zhao said. “Then what do you want to eat?”
Xie Yu pointed at the steaming pot of three-ingredient soup.¹
The food on the table was already a mess. The remaining dishes were a plate of vegetables on which were piled several shrimp, and a small rib that had come from a different dish.
He Zhao stared at the mess and thought, Let alone a bowl of soup, I’ll do anything!
He Zhao reached out to turn the lazy susan. After it had rotated halfway, his hand stilled and he asked, “You want some soup, right? Call me big bro again and I’ll get it for you.”
He Zhao thought the little bastard certainly wouldn’t listen to him and might even kick him instead. Or even fold up his sleeves and, in his cold and haughty manner, bestow the words, “Get lost.”
But the little bastard just called him again. “Zhao-ge.”
He Zhao felt his throat tighten.
Almost everyone he knew called him Zhao-ge.
But the words were different coming from Xie Yu.
When he said them, a piece of He Zhao’s heart seemed to collapse in his chest.
His thoughts were in chaos. Eventually the hundreds and thousands of words formed a sentence: Fuck, something is very wrong.
Xie Yu’s mind was in chaos, too.
He stared at the bowl of soup for a long time, then stirred it with a spoon.
Actually, he didn’t really dislike corn pie and didn’t really want the three-ingredient soup, either.
So… what was he really trying to do?
Did he simply, having touched some nerve, want to call He Zhao big bro?
“How about some wine?” Liu Cunhao asked.
Luo Wenqiang said with his mouth full, “Yes, yes! That little bit isn’t enough to fill the gaps in my teeth.”
The group rarely went out and, without supervision, they all acted like grown-ups, ordering food and wine. The alcohol especially seemed to erase a line of some sort; the moment they drank, the boundaries they usually maintained all disappeared.
He Zhao and Liu Cunhao both downed a few bottles.
Xie Yu drank a little, too. He didn’t drink too much, but he felt it go to his head.
The service at the restaurant Liu Cunhao had found was very good. When the birthday cake was brought out, the lights in the private room went out. Xie Yu was still drinking soup when the surroundings went dark.
Someone asked, “Did the power go out?”
The next moment, the waiter pushed open the door to the private room. On the trolley was a big birthday cake with 17 lit candles on it, the small flames glowing faintly, flickering in the wind as the trolley moved forward.
Someone started singing a birthday song, and then everyone joined in. “Happy birthday to you~”
Xie Yu sang, too. His voice was overpowered by Wan Da and the others, but He Zhao, who was close by, caught a few notes.
He sang quite well.
After the song, everyone applauded and shouted, “Make a wish! Blow out the candles!”
Liu Cunhao closed his eyes and made a wish, then blew out the candles. He didn’t blow them all out in a single breath and the others joined in on blowing them out, too. After they all went out, Luo Wenqiang said excitedly, “Let’s cut the cake!”
Liu Cunhao laughed and nudged him. “You haven’t eaten your damn fill yet? All you do is eat. How do you manage it in the school cafeteria?”
“I make do,” Luo Wenqiang said. “…I get two sets every day. What else can I do?”
After making a ruckus, everyone got a piece of chocolate cake.
Wan Da quietly stole some icing from the remainder of the cake on the trolley, crept up behind Liu Cunhao, waved his icing covered hand over Liu Cunhao’s head, and winked at everyone.
Everyone paid attention.
Liu Cunhao was occupied with opening presents. He had had a thick enough face to demand them, but when he opened them he still acted surprised, as if they were unexpected. “Wow, heavens, I’ve always wanted this! My dear Da, you understand me so well…”
Before he finished, his dear Da had given him a faceful of cake icing.
Wan Da had struck the first blow.
More and more people joined in the icing game until everyone was running back and forth in the private room.
Xie Yu hadn’t eaten more than a few bites of cake. He Zhao backed out of the huge fight but hadn’t had his fill of excitement, and seeing his little friend sitting alone, he walked over and slapped Xie Yu’s shoulder. When Xie Yu glanced up at him, he smeared icing on Xie Yu’s face.
Xie Yu: “……”
“Old Xie, you can’t escape,” He Zhao said. “The icing has to be smeared.”
Then Liu Cunhao and the others watched the two fist-happy big bros of their class start fighting again.
Only this time it was an icing war.
Xie Yu grabbed a fistful of icing and dropped it on He Zhao’s head. “You fucking—it’s fun, is it, is this fun?”
Although everyone called Xu Qingqing Qing-ge, she was a girl after all, and although she was on the offensive, no one attacked her. When she grew tired, she stopped to rest, then pulled out her phone and smiled as she took a photo. “Ah—Shall we take a group photo? I’ll count three, two, one, and everyone yell eggplant.”
He Zhao was naturally performative in front of a camera, and even though there was icing on his face and in his hair, he still hooked an arm around Xie Yu’s neck, trying to pose. “Eggplant! Old Xie, look at the camera.”
Xie Yu clearly didn’t want to cooperate. “Look, my ass.”
Xu Qingqing didn’t worry about whether they were ready. She was ready, anyway, and hit the camera button with a click.
The class rep had turned seventeen.
Everyone’s face was a mess, especially Liu Cunhao’s; only his eyes were still showing.
And in the last row, two boys, one in black, one in white.
Xu Qingqing suddenly thought, How nice.
After reading so many YA novels, she felt that her daily life wasn’t very exciting, and was very ordinary and unspecial—all she did was worry about the exams and light a desk lamp late into the night doing homework—but this was very nice.
After they finished dinner and destroyed the cake, Xie Yu pulled out several napkins to clean his face and found that he couldn’t wipe the stickiness away.
He Zhao suggested he go to the washroom to wash it off. Worried that the bathroom would be crammed full later, they slipped out through the back door.
“You went too hard.” He Zhao put his head under the tap and washed. “Where else?”
Xie Yu washed up quickly—he only had a little on his face and nose—then started meticulously cleaning his hands. He glanced sideways and said, “Back of neck.”
He Zhao lowered his head and put a hand behind his neck to check. “Here?”
“No,” Xie Yu said. “Lower.”
He Zhao fumbled around for a while and didn’t find anything. His back was getting sore from bending over the sink and he leant against the sink, saying, “You’re kidding, right?”
Xie Yu reached out—his hands were still wet and the feeling of his hands on He Zhao’s neck was chilly. “Here.”
He Zhao: “……”
Liu Cunhao and the others couldn’t get clean with napkins, either, and ended up following them to the bathroom.
Seeing He Zhao and Xie Yu in the bathroom, both wearing strange expressions on their faces, he asked curiously, “What are you doing?”
Xie Yu said nothing. He let someone else use the sink and walked out of the bathroom.
He Zhao blinked, water dripping from his hair and catching on his eyelashes. He wiped his face with one hand. “Nothing. Then… I’m done. You all wash up.”
Liu Cunhao didn’t think too much more about it. Wan Da and Luo Wenqiang had rushed over to take the two empty spots and he said with pain, “The two of you… can you treat the birthday boy a little nicer?”
Luo Wenqiang shook his head, laughing as he stuck his head even further under the sink—and out of the stream of water.
Wan Da wasn’t doing much better. He started twisting in front of the mirror. “Music.”
Liu Cunhao felt that something was wrong. “You all aren’t… drunk, are you?”
They had agreed to sing karaoke, but now that several drunkards had appeared among them they had to give up.
“Hao-zi, you and Dingding carry the gym rep back,” He Zhao said as he helped Wan Da along. “Old Xie and I will take care of this one. Take them straight back to school.”
Wan Da’s steps were wobbly and when he heard ‘back to school,’ he bid the class rep farewell with his last shred of conscious thought. “Hao, Hao-zi, happy birthday.”
Liu Cunhao was having a tough time holding Luo Wenqiang up. “Thank you. Let’s do that, then… Damn it, how are these two so bad at holding their drinks?”
“If he were just a lightweight, that would be fine,” Xie Yu said. “But he was even boasting so much about how he could drink a thousand cups without getting drunk.”
He Zhao said, “These two don’t know their true abilities.”
They had still called for bottle after bottle of beer.
Yelling about how this little bit of beer is nothing, I don’t feel anything, I’m definitely the stuff of legends who won’t get drunk even after a thousand cups! Come on! Cheers!
They hailed a cab. Thank goodness Wan Da wasn’t that awful a drunk and stopped dancing and making a scene. When he got into the car, he fell asleep.
“Sir, we’re going to Erzhong.”
“Erzhong, huh? You’re a hardworking one.” The driver checked the route and then focused on driving.
Silence the whole way.
He Zhao was quite good at holding his alcohol, but today he was drinking with Liu Cunhao so he drank a little more. Now that he had calmed down he felt warm all over.
His stomach felt like it was burning up, too.
He turned to the window to get some air and saw that his little friend had fallen asleep by his side.
Xie Yu’s hand was just next to his. The hand which had touched his neck, still dripping water. The hand he had grasped on the first day of school as he asked Xie Yu about the black nail polish.
The night whistled by outside the window.
He Zhao felt that the feelings he had been pushing down all day, brought out by these insignificant little details, were now all pouring out.
As Shen Jie said, about to explode.
Xie Yu had a headache and the bumping of the car made it worse. He shut his eyes to rest, but his mind was clear. As he dozed, he felt someone grasp his hand.
But this time it was different. Their fingers were laced together.
The boy’s fingers were long and solid and got in the way. He Zhao held it carefully, as if trying not to jolt him, or trying not to use too much force. And his hand was warm, so warm it seemed to be burning up, the heat transferring to Xie Yu alongside the rhythm of his heartbeat.
Xie Yu felt himself start to burn up, too.