First Published on Chaleuria
074 – King vs. King, cont’d
He Zhao took the mock exam. Out of habit, he glanced over the paper from start to finish and got a general sense of the difficulty before he started writing. He began drafting a solution in the blank space.
His mind was in disarray and his handwriting was unsteady too.
He sat on the first step of the flight of ascending stairs while Xie Yu sat in the corner of the bend in the stairwell. They sat face to face, one higher and one lower.
While drafting his answers, He Zhao remembered what he had said to Xie Yu under the alias ‘Question King.’
None of it was very polite.
He Zhao was very distracted. His pen moved over the thin paper, writing down the square root of 2, then stopped. Ink gradually spread out from where the nib met paper, and as He Zhao stared at the spreading black ink blob, he thought about the most dastardly thing he had said. He said it aloud now: “…I’ll give you a three-question head start.”
Xie Yu still hadn’t removed his hood. He had also lowered his head, so from He Zhao’s position he could only see Xie Yu’s nose and chin. His mouth was set in a thin line and he didn’t seem to be in a good mood.
How could his mood possibly be good?
Xie Yu squeezed the pen in his hand. It actually seemed more likely that he would meet this idiot in a dream. Perhaps this really was a dream.
Xie Yu slowly exhaled on his question paper. “All right, give me the headstart. Then I’ll give you a ten-question headstart.”
He Zhao: “……”
The two last-places-in-the-year, who slept in class or played phone games, who dragged Class 3’s average grades so far down that every subject teacher was a step away from jumping off a cliff, who never even knew which page of the textbook they were going through in class—were now sitting in the stairwell trashtalking each other.
In school, their most frequent conversation was, “Which question is the teacher going over?”
“Do you know how to do this question?”
“Phew, you don’t know, either. Did you finish copying the homework?”
Now, after the trash talk, even Xie Yu felt shocked.
He had looked through the Best of the College Exams He Zhao had brought, and all the mock papers looked about equally difficult, so he tore a set out at random. He glanced at the time, then tossed his phone to the floor.
Half an hour. They stopped writing around 11 a.m.
Since Xie Yu had still not seen He Zhao’s answers, he remained suspicious. Even though an inexplicable notion was currently bubbling up in his mind.
He Zhao did two questions, emotions still in disarray.
He held his pen, knuckles jutting out. He stared at his terrible, shaky handwriting. Then, still dazed, he switched his pen to his left hand.
When Xie Yu finished writing, it was not yet 11 a.m. He glanced up and saw the idiot on the steps had also just stopped writing. He Zhao put his paper on his knee and looked at Xie Yu.
They stared at each other quietly for a while.
Xie Yu went to sit on the step too, taking the mock paper with him. He reached out for the paper on He Zhao’s knee, but He Zhao held it in place with one hand, then caught hold of Xie Yu’s hand with the other. He said quietly, “Can you… let me off this once?”
“Weren’t you so sure of yourself?” Xie Yu said, pulling the paper out little by little from underneath He Zhao’s hand. He got it halfway out, then couldn’t pull it any further. He said, “Let go.”
Xie Yu was still internally thinking this was impossible, but upon seeing the paper… he was speechless.
The first few lines were written in ugly handwriting, but the rest of it… the handwriting was still messy, but in a sharp, imposing manner. Firm, and beautiful in an unrestrained way. They could have been written by a completely different person than had written the first few lines.
Xie Yu wasn’t sure what to say. He flipped the page and looked again to make sure his eyes were not deceiving him.
“I’m left-handed.” He Zhao explained a little nervously. “Although I write fine with my right hand, too. The style’s just a little different. I’m much more bold and carefree when I write with my left…”
Since a young age, He Zhao had found it easier to use his left hand, but his parents had made him train his right hand, thinking it would be easier to correct him while he was young. Time went on, and his lefty tendencies remained unobtrusive.
“Correction. You’re much more dogshit.”
Xie Yu thought, since he dares call himself Question King, it’s not that surprising that his handwriting is nicer, too. Professionalism. He’s living up to his handle completely. But Xie Yu was still annoyed for some reason he didn’t understand. He continued, “I don’t think you understand what ‘bold and carefree’ means.”
Half an hour was not much time to answer questions. He Zhao had condensed his answers and completed three steps in one. He only used half the available space to answer the question—he had calculated the answer in his working area, then put a circle around it and called it a solution.
Xie Yu started examining the paper, starting with the first question, all the way through to the end. Aside from the final question, on which He Zhao had dropped a decimal point, there were no mistakes.
He Zhao was looking at Xie Yu’s paper, too.
He glanced it over and saw that his boyfriend had really left the first ten questions blank.
He had really given He Zhao a 10-question head start. How arrogant.
But He Zhao kept reading. Every solution was elegant, simple, and to the point.
He Zhao had seen ‘God X’ doing problem sets. His logical thought process couldn’t be faked. His approach to answering, his habit of underlining the key points in a question… were all identical to what was on this mock paper in front of him.
He Zhao finished checking the answers. He still wasn’t sure if he could believe it, but the facts were right there in front of him.
—Only now did Xie Yu notice something uncontrollably bubbling forth in his mind. He couldn’t name it. Aside from shock, the most he could say about it was—although he thought the person in front of him was an idiot, it turned out he himself was an even bigger idiot.
He Zhao opened his mouth, but before he could say anything, Xie Yu folded up his sleeves and said, “I’m not sure what to say about this, but let’s go a few rounds.”
He Zhao said, “Let’s not. Violence doesn’t solve anything. Let’s sit down and calmly…”
Xie Yu was already in motion before the words ‘talk it out’ left He Zhao’s mouth.
He Zhao pushed himself off the stairs with one hand and backed away to the side, but before he could find his footing a punch came flying his way.
A merciless punch, trailing wind.
The stairwell was cramped and neither of them could move freely. Although neither of them were fighting their best, they weren’t playing around, either. Especially Xie Yu, the little hooligan of Black Water Street who never bothered with bullshit talk when he could fight instead, and who had grown up pinning everyone with a problem he couldn’t solve to the ground.
While taking the beating, He Zhao thought, My boyfriend is really damn cute when he skips the talk and goes straight for the fight.
Xie Yu started off brutally attacking, then slowly let up. He Zhao, obliging, pulled Xie Yu into his arms. He trapped his disobedient little friend, then kissed him.
Xie Yu was self-righteous and very haughty, but his lips were very soft.
Xie Yu’s back was to the wall, the loose hood of his jacket covering his forehead and blocking his vision. The strongest sensation he felt was the hand at his waist and how He Zhao was plundering his lips and teeth, willful, harsh, and invasive.
The stairwell was very narrow.
Several floors below, people were coming and going, and the sound of their footsteps echoed up from below through the winding corridor.
“I don’t know what to say either.”
He Zhao hadn’t completely let go of him, and now his lips moved slightly, brushing against Xie Yu’s own. When he spoke, he lifted his hand to pull down the hood on Xie Yu’s head. “Come on. Let me kiss you for another twenty minutes then.”
After this tussle, the feelings he had not been able to contain since meeting He Zhao at the Century City entrance, and again when he saw He Zhao’s near-perfect-score mock paper, now finally subsided.
They sat side by side on the steps, gathering their own thoughts.
Xie Yu rubbed at the corner of his mouth with one finger; he hurt from being kissed. After steadying himself, he asked, “Do you have a cigarette?”
“Little kids shouldn’t smoke.” He Zhao pulled out a lollipop from his pocket that was wrapped in distracting pink packaging. He held on to the stick and asked, “…Compromise?”
Xie Yu took it and unwrapped the paper.
“What on earth are you doing?” Halfway through unwrapping, Xie Yu thought again about the study guide he had spent so much time putting together. “Do you know how much I goddamn… to put together that…”
He Zhao cut him off. “Second-to-last place in the year. What on earth are you doing?”
After mentioning the two study guide emails, Xie Yu stopped himself. Then he thought about the Complete Guide to the College Exams that had mysteriously appeared on his desk. Something didn’t seem right. He was onto something.
“You bought the books?”
He Zhao, mulling over the words ‘put together,’ also remembered something. “You sent the email?”
Xie Yu said nothing and crumpled the candy wrapper in his palm.
Fuck. What the hell is all of this?
After going in a big circle, it turned out they both had worried over nothing.
He Zhao leaned back on his hands, the corner of the step digging into his hand, and he suddenly wanted to laugh. “I thought… it’s because Wan Da and the others made it sound like it was really true.”
Xie Yu said, “True, my ass. They went so far off track and you still believed them?”
The footsteps several floors below, which had gone on for a while, now finally stopped.
The stairwell felt a little empty.
He Zhao hid his smile. He looked downward from where he sat on the stairs and was silent for a while before saying, “Do you remember, the last time when we went to Dian Ji to eat and we ran into someone called Ji-ge?”
Xie Yu, chewing the sweet, mumbled ‘Mm’ with his mouth full.
He Zhao had thought that matter would stay locked up in his heart and there would never come a day where he volunteered that story.
He had locked it up so tightly it lost its shape.
It stuck in his chest. Couldn’t go up and couldn’t go down.
It had already been a few years and many of the details had faded from He Zhao’s memory with time. But every time he thought he had forgotten it, on some night of some day, he would wake up in a cold sweat.
He finished telling the story all at once and didn’t dare look at Xie Yu’s face.
Would his little friend look down on him for it? Would he be disappointed in him? Would he…
He Zhao kept thinking and didn’t notice that he was pushing down harder and harder against the step, the hard edge leaving a deep impression in his hand.
Xie Yu didn’t say, ‘It’s nothing, and you’re not to blame,’ but he also didn’t say, ‘You were wrong.’ He didn’t blame, but he didn’t comfort, either.
He Zhao was getting more and more uncertain, but then Xie Yu took hold of the narrow plastic stick and pulled the lollipop from his mouth. Then he put it to He Zhao’s lips.
“Ge, want some?”