First Published on Chaleuria
064 – This time, I’ll protect you
When He Zhao was done and the last note died away, no one said anything for several minutes.
Surprising. No one had expected it.
Xu Qingqing had been watching a video on her phone. Four minutes had passed while she hadn’t been paying attention to the video’s contents.
“Impossible,” Xu Qingqing said, looking back. “Zhao-ge, he…”
She cut herself off halfway.
Because she saw He Zhao turn, as if to meet Xie Yu’s eyes.
Yu-ge, whom no one in their class dared provoke, had not fully closed the curtain next to him. Sunlight shone through the small gap onto his hair.
The sunlight made him look warm.
—Xie Yu, who, at first glance, looked like a person without warmth.
Liu Cunhao was the first to react. “Prince of love songs, Zhao-ge.”
Wan Da, bag of chips in hand and mouth open, said, “How about… how about an encore?”
He Zhao shut off the megaphone and handed it forward. “Nah. I’ll let you all live.”
The others started calling for an encore, too, but He Zhao really had no intention of singing any more. After passing the megaphone back, he turned off the music on his phone. He looked up and found that Xie Yu was watching him. “Stunned? Was it so good…”
He wasn’t content with the praises of others and was about to praise himself to the skies, too.
As he drew nearer, Xie Yu stopped the praise in its tracks, smiled and said, “Yeah.”
Since the singer with actual ability no longer wanted to sing any more, Class 3 had to listen to Old Tang sing. He sang oldies, with a very strong sense of the time period, which made all who listened feel like they had aged twenty years.
Two songs later they really couldn’t take it anymore, but they couldn’t bear to take a swing at Old Tang’s confidence, either.
So, even though the bus seemed calm on the surface, their group chat was roiling.
[Liu Cunhao]: Who’ll stop him?
[Xu Qingqing]: I can’t think of a good reason. Next, please?
[Luo Wenqiang]: Beyond me, too. Next.
Xie Yu watched them discuss for a while and actually came up with something, albeit a strange approach.
Liu Cunhao raised his hand and said, “Teach, we’d better quiet down so we don’t distract the driver.”
The driver: “……”
Xie Yu had been tapping out a reply with one hand. His position was uncomfortable, so he just exited the group chat and took out a pair of earphones from his pocket. “Want to watch a movie, Prince of Love Songs?”
This newly coined nickname already sounded embarrassing.
He Zhao took one earbud and said, “Drop it. It sounds like I sing love songs to harass people all the time. I’ve only ever sung for you… what movie is this?”
Xie Yu had just randomly downloaded it.
It had been on his phone for a long time. Xie Yu had never had much patience for watching movies; occasionally he would put one on to kill time, but he didn’t get invested and often fast-forwarded through it.
There was a mini-theater on Black Water Street where Dalei and the others would go when they had some spare change.
Xie Yu had been once before. An hour and 20 minutes. He had gone in blank-faced and come out blank-faced.
Dalei and Da Mei had walked out behind him, both bawling their eyes out, unable to extricate themselves from the emotions the movie had evoked. They had cried the whole way back. “It’s terrible. A terminal illness separated them…”
Xie Yu endured them for a block, then couldn’t hold back any longer. “It was the script that separated them.”
He Zhao glanced at the thumbnail: it was an absurdist comedy film. Both the male and female lead looked familiar and the plot sounded familiar, too. He thought for a while, then remembered. “I’ve seen this before. It’s quite good.”
Before he finished speaking, Xie Yu had already pressed the top right corner to close out of the video.
“—What did you shut it off for?”
After closing it, Xie Yu hooked a finger around the earbud wire, trying to get it back from He Zhao. “You’ve already seen it, right?”
“I’ve seen it,” He Zhao said, raising one hand to hold the earbud in place so Xie Yu couldn’t take it back. He smiled and said, “But I haven’t seen it with you.”
Liu Cunhao, on He Zhao’s other side, sensed something wasn’t right. Ever since He Zhao had sung that love song, an indescribable atmosphere had surrounded him.
He glanced left and right, his gaze finally landing on the two Big Bros watching a movie together, and realized he had found the source.
Eventually, he tapped Wan Da and asked hesitantly, “Do you think there’s… something between them?”
C City was not far, about forty minutes away.
They had watched less than half the movie before the bus pulled into a parking lot near Northlake Park. Everyone packed up their things and started getting off the bus.
Xie Yu waited until most of the passengers had left, then held onto the backs of the seats in front of him and got up.
He Zhao let go of his hand and, while no one was looking, placed his hand on Xie Yu’s waist instead. Through the material, he felt Xie Yu’s familiar warmth. As if possessed, he asked, “Are… you going home this weekend?”
Xie Yu had been about to squeeze through the gap between He Zhao’s knees and the seats in front, but now he paused and faintly smiled, glancing back. “Boyfriend, what are you thinking of?”
What else would he be thinking of?
Both of them were well aware.
“Let’s line up and go in. Later, I’ll take you around Northlake Park once and then you can go off on your own,” the tour guide shouted into his megaphone. “Free activity time lasts till two. Please come back on time.”
The scenic spots were by the lake. After circling the lake once and listening to three stories about the locale from the tour guide, they split into small groups and went off on their own.
A group of six gathered by the road.
He Zhao asked, “Where do you want to go?”
Luo Wenqiang enthusiastically considered the question. “The cinema? Let’s see what movies are playing.”
Liu Cunhao had no interest in the cinema and pointed to the upper right corner of the map. “If you’re a man, it’s the archery range.”
“No! The cinema!”
“Luo Wenqiang, you aren’t a man!”
Xie Yu was indifferent. He had no interest in any of it, anyway.
Luo Wenqiang and Liu Cunhao continued arguing. Group Leader He squatted by the roadside listening to them for a while, and felt a headache coming on.
He eventually showcased his leadership talent. He pulled a lollipop from his pocket and unwrapped it as he said, “All right, stop it. Rock-paper-scissors. Best of three.”
It was a rather wishy-washy way of handling things.
During the argument, Wan Da had carefully examined the map and two words tucked away in a corner eventually caught his attention: Haunted House.
Wan Da’s eyes lit up. He glanced up and said, “There’s a haunted house! Shall we go?”
Xie Yu saw He Zhao’s hand tremble around the lollipop.
“That’s good. Thrilling.” Luo Wenqiang put the cinema to the back of his mind, then leaned over to read the description of the haunted house out loud. “…Fierce ghosts galore! They died in all sorts of ways. Guaranteed scares. You’ll scream out loud.”
He Zhao hadn’t even had the time to persuade him otherwise.
Liu Cunhao nodded, primarily impressed by the description. “It sounds interesting. Let’s go.”
“Yu-ge, what do you think?” After discussing it, Liu Cunhao turned to ask Xie Yu. “Shall we go to the haunted house?”
Xie Yu squatted by the road, originally intending to put in his two cents after they had argued another half an hour, but they had resolved the quibble quickly, after all. He then glanced at He Zhao, lollipop in mouth as he pretended to be calm, and thought it might be interesting. “Sure.”
Group Leader He, who had completely lost his say in anything: “……”
The others in the group happily walked on, map in hand. He Zhao walked at the back, slowing down. “Who betrays their boyfriend like that?”
“Who’s as timid as you are?” Xie Yu slowed down too, then said, “…Don’t say anything about avoiding superstition.”
He Zhao was speechless. “Heartless.”
Fallen leaves covered the ground. The crowds parted, the roads growing more empty and less crowded than before on either side.
He Zhao was still thinking about just how much of a white-eyed wolf¹ his boyfriend was. After thinking about it for a while, Xie Yu suddenly stopped in front of him.
Then he heard the white-eyed wolf say to him, “No need to be scared. This time, I’ll protect you.”
These words sounded familiar. He Zhao remembered the incident in the dorm building where the ghost had turned out to be a farce. Mad Dog had said he would discipline them but the monthly exams had passed and nothing had happened, so he had probably forgotten about it amidst all the other things he had to do.
He Zhao couldn’t hold back a laugh. He crunched up the lollipop in his mouth, sweetness spreading over his tongue, then said, “Sure, big bro.”
Although Northlake Park was called a park, it was very big. Around the lake many tourist attractions spanned a wide area. They could walk all day and still not manage to see it all.
“Where is it? If we keep walking we’ll leave the park.” Liu Cunhao studied the map as he walked. Although he had said he didn’t want to be the group leader, he had taken on the heavy responsibility in the end, anyway. “This is very mysterious.”
They wandered about for a while and finally noticed an unobtrusive entrance with a short line of people outside.
There was a sign to one side, too.
It was decorated with several handprints in red paint that dripped downward from the fingertips. A word was written on the side: HELP.
“It’s here! It’s definitely here! Leader, go get tickets!”
When He Zhao went to get the tickets he nearly asked for five.
“Six tickets.” He Zhao bent down, glancing through the counter window. After receiving the tickets, he said, “Thank you.”
He was about to leave when the cashier asked, “Which school are you from?”
“Which Erzhong? The one in this city?”
“No, A City. Liyang Erzhong, beautiful school grounds, well-staffed, with sixty years of history…”
He Zhao looked as if he wanted to stay and chat with the cashier about Liyang Erzhong’s history for another half an hour.
“Friend.” Xie Yu leaned against the wall, looking at him. “The way you go on, you could be a student ambassador.”
Wan Da and the others were anxious, too. The line was moving quickly and it would be their turn after the group ahead of them entered, but they still hadn’t gotten their tickets. “Leader, are you done over there? So slow. They’re about to check tickets.”
The group ahead of them went in, and not long after came the terrified scream of a girl.
The screams continued for more than ten minutes.
It made their hair stand on end.
After the screams slowly faded, someone lifted a corner of the black curtain in front of them and a black-gloved hand reached out. A hoarse voice said, “Tickets.”
They didn’t expect the ticket checker to be their first surprise.
Xie Yu handed the tickets over, then the group ducked under the curtain and went in. When they looked up again, they saw the twisted face and scary smile of a ‘ghost’ still holding their tickets.
This ‘ghost’ was very immersed in his act and gave a terrifying laugh.
Xie Yu’s face was blank. “……”
He glanced around. The design of the haunted house was very ordinary: pitch-dark, the weak lighting illuminating skeletons and human remains on the wall.
And there was a ‘female ghost’ sitting on a chair in front of them.
She wore a red dress, long hair reaching her knees, the black and the red combining to form a strange aura.
After they entered, things started to move very slowly around them.
The audio and lighting effects were good, but the content was still rather cliche.
They had only taken two steps in when Wan Da commented, “How boring.”
Luo Wenqiang said, “Not scared at all. I’m even a bit amused.”
Liu Cunhao said, “Shall we show some respect for their craft? Scream a bit? Or they might be very embarrassed.”
Although the haunted house wasn’t up to par, Xie Yu thought about it for a while and considered that maybe a certain idiot would still have been scared.
So he reached behind him. It took two tries before he caught hold of He Zhao’s hand.
He Zhao had never done this before. He had been scared stiff just by the words ‘haunted house’ and the gaps his own imagination had filled in. But after he had really come in, a person wearing a mask and calling himself a ghost wasn’t enough to scare him.
But the feeling of his little friend reaching out to hold his hand was really too good.
“I’m really scared,” He Zhao emphasized.
Xie Yu said, “Shall I pull off their masks for you? Tell me which one you want to see.”
He Zhao had no doubt that Xie Yu really would do it.
Worried that Xie Yu would act on his word, He Zhao said, “No need. I think I can hold on.”
They left the haunted house near noon.
No one talked about going to the cinema or the archery range. They only wanted to find a spot to sit down and eat.
Liu Cunhao glanced at the class group chat. “Qing-ge says the rest area is very crowded and there are no seats. She asks if any of us want to go picnic with her.”
“Where is she?”
“Just up ahead. Not far.”
When they got there, Xu Qingqing and the others were about to play truth or dare. She opened up the Hard Mode edition deck of cards she had bought at the mall and glanced at the punishments in it.
“This is terrible. If you get one, you’re done for.” Seeing He Zhao and Xie Yu approach, Xu Qingqing smiled and glanced up. “You’re just in time. Want to play?”
He Zhao asked for two cards and handed one to Xie Yu. “Old Xie, up for it?”
Xie Yu: “All right.”
“If we play you’re not to choose dare.”
Xie Yu didn’t understand. “Huh?”
He Zhao continued, “What if you end up getting handsy with someone?”