First Published on Chaleuria
094 – Old Xie, are you coming?
He Zhao was about to say something when half a stick of chalk landed perfectly on the corner of his desk.
Old Wu gave them several minutes to do the question. He thought that the question was simple and they should all have understood, but when he looked up, he saw the two worst students in the year intimately putting their heads together. “The two of you in the back, I know you’re close, but could you give me your attention while you’re in class? …Am I that un-charming?”
“You’re charming, you’re charming.” He Zhao was very obliging and raised his voice. “Old Tang is Erzhong’s Aaron Kwok and you’re Erzhong’s Andy Lau.”
Xie Yu was very impressed by He Zhao’s ability to kiss ass without batting an eye.
Old Wu was on cloud nine from the praise. Amidst raucous laughter, the middle-aged man—about 18,000 li away from Aaron Kwok— lifted a hand and ran it through his hair, then calmly continued to say, “Years ago, I cut quite a popular figure in school too.”
The class laughed till they couldn’t sit straight.
After the racket, some of the students who had been dozing off were now much more alert. Old Wu stopped while he was ahead and told everyone to quiet down. “Did you get the answer for the question I told you to do just now?”
He had spent the class period going over a few new concepts and the in-class exercise wasn’t a hard one. Xie Yu was listening with his head propped on his hand, but suddenly He Zhao reached out and tugged his collar up. “What are you doing?”
“That…” He Zhao paused, then said uncomfortably, “There’s a mark.”
He Zhao said, “I’ll be more careful next time.”
Xie Yu was about to say, ‘Get lost,’ but he noticed the tips of his ears were warm before the words left his mouth.
Old Wu finished going through the questions just in time for the bell.
Everyone was already staring at the timetable on the left of the board, which listed ‘Gym class’ next, and thought only about the coming class period.
After class let out, Old Wu was still worried about the two worst students in the year so he called both of them over. “Both of you, stay a while. Did you understand the questions I went over in class?”
The question wasn’t difficult, so Xie Yu said thoughtfully, “I understood.”
He Zhao said, “Me too.”
Old Wu didn’t believe it at all. “Did you understand?!”
“I already told you. If you don’t understand, don’t pretend you do. Don’t think that I don’t know your next class period is gym and you just want to go down to the court and play, right?”
“No, I really…”
Old Wu mercilessly cut them off. “I know all your little tricks. I’m going to go over this question again with you.”
Xie Yu: “……”
He Zhao: “……”
Once Old Wu explained the question and left, Luo Wenqiang picked up where he left off during the last break and started blustering again. “Anyone have any thoughts? Anyone else want to join?”
Liu Cunhao and the others already regularly teamed up, but for a real competition Luo Wenqiang was trying his utmost to win a prize for their class. Luo Wenqiang continued, hinting, “This is what I think. If Yu-ge can play support and Zhao-ge plays a bit more sincerely with a few less tricks, our class should make it to the finals.”
The implication of his words was clear.
Xie Yu had just been force-fed a life philosophy of, ‘It’s fine not to know. Don’t pretend to know if you don’t,’ by Old Wu and was very exhausted. He said coldly, “Then you can keep thinking.”
He Zhao said, “I think my deskmate is right.”
Luo Wenqiang was speechless. “…Aren’t you two going a bit overboard?”
On hearing the first bit about ‘Yu-ge playing support,’ Liu Cunhao had already concluded this plan was a no-go. “You might as well hope for me, your teammate, to suddenly improve by leaps and bounds and become Erzhong’s Liu Chuanfeng.”¹
Luo Wenqiang’s expression was complicated. “Hao-zi, you can get lost.”
He Zhao was completely uninterested in the tournament. He was fine playing a game with friends, but competition was no fun.
“Really, I’ll pass.” He Zhao gave a half-smile. “Watch out for the team from Class 4.”
The timetable had changed for the new term and Class 3 now had gym class at the same time as Class 4.
Before class started, the courtyard was already full of people who sat here and there on the track, forming small clusters. It wasn’t clear at a glance who belonged to which class.
The sun shone down, so bright it was blinding. Xie Yu sat behind He Zhao so He Zhao would block the sun for him and glanced down at his phone, replying to Madam Gu’s text.
How have you been? Remember to eat and don’t stay up late.
Xie Yu typed out the word. His phone still reflected some sunlight, so he leaned forward a little more. His forehead made contact with He Zhao’s back and he felt He Zhao laugh, his chest heaving slightly.
Then he replied, Got it. I’m doing quite well.
While they were chatting, Class 4 walked over, carrying their balls. They passed by the little group of Class 3 students, then stopped and glanced at them. “Who’s signed up from your class?”
Before anyone could reply, they continued, “See you on the court.”
Liang Hui walked right at the back. He was not wearing the school uniform and a rebellious metal chain hung carelessly at his waist, a cross hanging from the slender chain. He didn’t say anything, but when he walked past, he silently turned back and looked at them again.
Last semester, they had gotten into a disagreement with Class 4 on the court, but Luo Wenqiang and the others hadn’t taken the matter to heart.
Luo Wenqiang watched them go and thought something seemed off. He scratched his head. “What was that about?”
Xie Yu finished replying and looked up just in time to meet Liang Hui’s dark eyes.
Then he saw Liang Hui raise one hand and give him the middle finger. He only held it up for a moment and it was not clear who he was gesturing at.
There was still nearly a month before the basketball tournament.
Erzhong’s tournament did not follow the standard rules. In order to save time, the matches were shortened.
To prepare for the basketball tournament, Luo Wenqiang increased the intensity of training. Not only during gym class and lunch break, but even in the ten minutes between class periods, he led the basketball team downstairs to practice.
He Zhao and Xie Yu both weren’t participating, but when they had time, they still practised with the others and acted as their ‘opponents.’
“Hao-zi, I think you’re not only good at running, your throwing skills are also incredible.” He Zhao stopped and wiped his face with his collar. “You landed every basket yesterday, but today you play like your arm is broken?”
Their class had big dreams, but the basketball team was actually not very good.
Liu Cunhao, especially, did not perform consistently. When he played well, he did everything well, but when he was not in top form, he couldn’t land a basket for anything. Class 3 had already prepared to drop out in the first round.
Unexpectedly, they won narrowly in the first round and entered the second.
Xie Yu stopped and asked, “Have the matches for the second round been decided? Which class are we up against?”
Luo Wenqiang said, “Not yet. They’re drawing lots tomorrow before the match.”
Class 3 had bad luck and drew Class 4 as their second round opponent.
While drawing lots, Mad Dog was repeating over the intercom, “—All students participating in the basketball tournament, meet on the courts at 12 noon.”
Luo Wenqiang opened the folded piece of paper and saw the stark number on it: 4.
Class 3 was sitting in the audience stands to the side, cheering them on. The stands were filled and even students from the other years had come to join in the fun, chattering and making a racket.
The referee took the paper and reported the name of Class 4. Liang Hui and the others got up and walked to the middle of the court.
When the referee blew his whistle, Xie Yu felt his right eyelid twitch.
Then the feeling that something was wrong grew more and more intense.
At the start of the match, Class 3 had the advantage. Luo Wenqiang snatched the ball, then was about to pass to Liu Cunhao when the boy wearing the No.6 jersey stuck to Luo Wenqiang and wouldn’t leave.
Where the referee couldn’t see, he shoved Luo Wenqiang.
Wan Da got the ball and was about to throw when Liang Hui jumped up in front of him. Not only did he try to beat the ball back down, he even intentionally collided with Liu Cunhao, causing an ‘accidental injury.’
There were many people on the court and both of them had moved quickly. With the constant crowding, attack and defense, and confrontation, Xie Yu nearly thought that these little movements that had happened in the blink of an eye had just been his imagination.
But it wasn’t just twice.
When they were fighting over the rebound ball, he saw Liang Hui deliberately send his elbow in the direction of Liu Cunhao’s eye.
Liu Cunhao let go in pain, and clutched onto his eye as he squatted down.
The referee blew his whistle.
Their underhanded tactics were very stealthy. They did it with their backs to the referee and shielded each other from view. Xie Yu’s mind was filled with the single word, ‘Fuck,’ and a vein jumped violently at his temple.
He had heard He Zhao say that this team played dirty but he had not imagined they were this shameless.
In front of Class 4, all the preparation Luo Wenqiang and the others had done for a month for this basketball tournament now seemed like a joke.
“Ref, they broke the rules again! Who plays basketball like that? What are you trying to do?”
In just a short ten minutes, many of these occurrences happened. Luo Wenqiang tried to endure it but he finally had enough.
Liang Hui spread his hands and said innocently, “Sorry, it really was an accident.”
Although Liang Hui was not especially good at making friends and many people didn’t like him, a basketball tournament was a team event and played on group spirit. Class 4 all spoke up for him and one girl was especially loud. “We didn’t break the rules…”
Xu Qingqing exploded on the spot. She turned and said, “Are you blind?”
Xie Yu couldn’t sit still either. But before he could get up, he saw He Zhao slowly screw the cap back onto his bottle of mineral water before throwing it.
The bottle was still more than half full. When it landed on the raised edge of the stairs, it made a loud bang, then landed on the rubber floor.
The classes, still fighting, were shocked by the noise and instantly quieted.
He Zhao’s face was thunderous. Ever since Luo Wenqiang had pulled the number 4, his gaze had grown darker and darker.
After tossing the bottle, He Zhao stood up and stripped off his uniform jacket without another word. Inside, he wore only a short-sleeved shirt. He tossed his jacket to the side. “—Hao-zi, come back.”
The other people in the audience knew that Xie Yu of the West Building killed people without batting an eye. He Zhao, in the legends, was a little easier to get along with. But looking at him now, he didn’t seem easy to get along with at all.
The name of ‘school tyrant’ was not an empty title. He gave off an air so overbearing, one did not even dare breathe too hard.
Liang Hui had hit Liu Cunhao very hard, and Liu Cunhao was still on the ground and had not recovered. He clutched his eye with one hand and watched through blurry vision as He Zhao climbed over the divider and walked onto the basketball court.
Liu Cunhao remembered He Zhao, with an aura of tyranny, holding Goody-two-shoes Yang on the toilet and rubbing his face on the ground. But this time He Zhao’s aura seemed completely different from before.
He Zhao took two steps, then stopped. Without looking back, he called out, “Old Xie, are you coming?”
Then Liu Cunhao saw the grandpa from their class—who hated being bothered, who refused point-blank to join the competition and who announced publicly that he wouldn’t play support— also stand up.
Xie Yu folded up his sleeves and replied, “I’m coming.”
Looking at them, one might have thought they were going to a fight.
Class 3 was the first to react.
A rush of adrenaline and pride enveloped them. Their morale, which Class 4 had previously beaten down, lifted again. Their hearts beat wildly.
Liu Cunhao took heart from the momentum and he yelled back as he left the court, “Class 4, you’re asking for it.”