Guo caught Chu frowning at a shop display of shiny, foil-wrapped chocolates and treats, the sign declaring a holiday sale.
“What’s all this about?”
“Oh, Sweetest day? It's when you buy chocolate and go do stuff for someone you really like, like a girlfriend or wife or…” he trailed off for a moment as Chu’s frown deepened, looking at the bright boxes. “Well, I never have a girlfriend, so I always buy my aunts some chocolate every year!”
“It’s a Haxing holiday?”
“You don’t have one like it in Dixing?”
“No, we don’t have chocolates or… are they good?”
“I think so? I don’t eat a lot of sweets…” he curled his fingers in Chu’s coat. “Do you want to get some for Professor Shen?”
Something flickered across the older man’s face, touching the store window for a moment before pulling away. “I’m sure Lao-Zhao will get him plenty.”
“But these would be from you.”
“I’m not his…” he turned on his heel, pulling away from Guo and the shop window. “Stop nattering on about nonsense. We have work to do.”
“There’s a pastry place down the road, they make chocolate buns filled with cherries. My Uncle always gets them for my aunt every year.”
Chu stopped long enough to let Guo catch up to him, still scowling at the ground.
“Is… there anything else Haxingren do for this holiday?” he asked, not looking at Guo.
“Oh, usually couples will go out to eat, or if they stay in, make a nice meal. Or watch a romantic movie. Usually there’s music and dancing in the main square, they decorate it up with red fairy lights! It’s really nice.”
“Sounds ridiculous.” he rubbed his stomach unconsciously, like he did a lot of the time when he mentioned the professor, or must be thinking about him. Like his belly hurt thinking about him. Love shouldn’t give someone a stomachache, should it?
It made him sad to think about it. He wanted to make it better, so Chu-ge could be happy.
“You could make him something from back home again? He liked the food you made him before.” Guo watched his face soften, that same look when he watched the professor eat the stuffed bun.
“We don’t… well I could try…” he murmured, glancing at another window display of sweets and fruit. “No, that’d be too obvious.”
“Do you like chocolate, Chu-ge?”
“I guess?” he looked a little bewildered at the question. “Why?”
“No reason.” Chu paced restlessly for a few moments before looking back up at him.
“...chocolate buns, you said? You want me to buy some for you?”
“You don’t have to buy me anything, Chu-ge, but thank you.”
“Okay.” he looked down again, but let Guo hold onto his arm as they walked to Bright street.
“That’s pretty.” his aunt commented, watching him finish wrapping up some candied fruit and chocolates in a little box. “Xiao-guo, is there a girl you haven't been telling us about?”
“No, it’s for a friend at work, he’s never celebrated Sweetest day before. So I thought I’d give him something.”
“That’s very sweet of you, but he doesn’t have a girl to give him chocolate?”
“Oh, ah… he liked someone… and that person cares about him alot too, I think… but that person is in love with someone else. So…”
“Ah. it sounds messy.” she said sympathetically, helping him fluff the ribbon bow.
“It’s so messy!” he could cry just thinking about it. “I want to help, I want them to be happy, but I don’t know what to do!”
“Sometimes there is nothing you can do and it’s best to stay out of it.” She hugged him. “You’re a good boy.”
The office on Bright street was as it usually was. Zhu-jie was playing on her phone, Da Qing stretched out on the table where a sunbeam was warming up the wood. Lin Jing was in his lab, doing something that hummed and made the lights flicker ominously from time to time. Guo was delighted to note that it didn’t smell like burning metal today.
Chu was sitting at his desk, flicking through browser tabs, usual grumpy face on.
“Good morning, Chu-ge!”
“I made you up a little present for Sweetest day.”
He blinked at Guo, then at the wrapped box as if his brain could not make sense of this.
“Thank you?” he tried, taking it from him. “I bought you those buns, they are on your desk. You can give them to your Aunts if you don’t want them.”
“Thank you Chu-ge.” he touched his shoulder, feeling how stiff and tense he was under his sweater. “I’ll make a pot of tea and we can have some.”
“He got you treats? Oh those look good.” Zhu Hong ignored Chu’s glare, raiding the pastry box.
“Get your own.”
“Mmm.” she ignored him, taking a happy bite. “Oh, these are good, thank you Lao-Chu.”
“Those weren’t-” he huffed as she kept ignoring him, licking chocolate off her fingers. He patted Chu’s shoulder again before putting his satchel away and getting the tea.
“Has the professor stopped by today?” he asked quietly, bringing tea and a couple small plates. He put a bun on each and poured the tea for them.
“He has classes today. I doubt he will.” He looked like he was trying hard not to sulk.
“We can always go to my second aunt’s house for dinner, and then go listen to the music in town?” he’d decided the best way to deal with this was just to take him along on his normal routine for this holiday. Guo Changcheng knew he wasn’t much of a catch for women, and he didn't mind. He was happy to be fussed over by his female relatives, spend time with his friends. He usually just wandered around on his own during the music, admiring the decorations and lights, and people watching. It wasn’t usually to take a male friend out for this sort of thing, but Guo didn’t mind and Chu didn’t know better. It’d be nice to have company, and it would be fun to introduce Chu to something new, something he might enjoy.
“Okay.” Chu agreed, looking unsure as if that was the right response.
“Morning everyone!” Zhao swept in, the professor a step behind with a pastry box in his hands. “Oh, chocolate buns! The good ones!”
“Chu-ge brought them in.” Guo didn’t have the courage to tell his chief not to help himself to one as he raided the box. Then he had a thought. “Professor, would you like one?”
Chu was staring at his desk, pretending to be absorbed in the pattern of the fake wood grain. The professor glanced at him before smiling at Guo and nodding.
“They look very good, I’d love to have one. I brought in some sweets for everyone too.” he glanced at Chu again, who flicked his eyes up and then back at his desk looking so… hungry. “I hope everyone enjoys them.”
He passed them out, pausing at Chu’s desk. He looked up and smiled, that bright, soft smile that was so rare. Shen Wei returned it, ducking his shily as he put the small tart next to Chu’s teacup.
This was so messy! Guo wanted to lay on the floor and cry about how messy this was. He really should have watched more romantic movies to prepare for this sort of situation and now here he was. Stuck watching these two make eyes at each other, but never saying anything.
“Are you going to do anything for the holiday, Lao-chu?” the professor asked politely.
“Xiao-guo invited me to dinner with his second aunt, then we’re going to go listen to music in town.” he said, voice unusually soft.
“Good, I’m glad you’ll be getting out. I hope you’ll enjoy it.”
“Are… you doing anything?”
“Yulan is taking us out for dinner. He says it’s a very nice place.”
“That sounds nice.” the words sounded like they wanted to get stuck in his throat. Just ask him, Guo begged in his head. Tell him!
“Please enjoy your treat, Shuzhi.” he said it so softly, Guo almost didn't hear it, or Chu’s murmured reply.
The professor brought one of the little tarts to Guo, smiling. “Thank you for taking him out with you tonight.”
“My pleasure.” he bowed a little, feeling like he was being used somehow. So messy.
“That went okay, right?” Chu asked after dinner with Guo’s aunt, sounding a little strained.
“Yeah, I think she liked you.”
“Oh. okay. Good.”
“You’re not used to family dinners, are you?” he looked nervous through the whole thing, answering questions with one word answers. Which, to be fair, was better than his usual habit of answering with grunts.
“Not really.” he was staring intently at the ground.
“You did well.” he reassured. Something relaxed in Chu's shoulders at that. They walked in silence together, approaching the town center where music could be heard. There was a good part of the city already there, chattering rising as they got closer. Chu’s brow furrowed, looking around.
“Is this a courtship holiday?”
“Yeah, but I never had a date, so-”
“Why did you ask me to come with you?” He sounded a little confused, looking at all the couples.
“Because we’re friends, and it’s fun to do stuff with friends.”
“Oh… thank you.” he got a small smile, one of those rare things that were usually reserved for the professor. “Are there… What do Haxingren do for courtship, usually?”
“Ah, I never date, so… I’m not really sure. I guess people go do stuff together? Visit family, go on walks, go out to eat. My uncle said he fell in love with his wife after she made him some really good baozi.” he glanced over at Chu, who was looking at all the couples around them, almost wistful. “Thinking of the professor again?”
He expected Chu to shut down again, but he just looked sad. “I don’t know. I’ve never dated… it’d be… it looks nice.”
“You should tell him how you feel.” he was going to cry again.
“He loves lao-zhao.” and he sounded so tired. “I was just.. We were just lonely, it wasn’t supposed to be anything.” he rubbed his stomach again, that ever-present ache. “But I miss him. He’s there, and I miss him.”
“Oh…” he really was going to cry again so he hugged Chu’s arm.
“It’s fine. I’ll.. It's fine.” he said quietly, as if to reassure himself. “Just being this close to him is enough.”
“Do you want to go home?”
“No, we’re going to listen to the music, you wanted to listen to it.” he patted Guo’s arm, putting his usual face back on. A few people gave them odd looks, Guo still clinging like a limpet to this apparently-grouchy man’s arm. But Chu didn’t shake him off, so he stayed there and it was kind of nice. Maybe Chu liked it too.
The town center was a nice green space used for everything from little concerts like this, to a farmer’s market, summer activities for small children and other such stuff. It was crowded tonight, decorated in red and white lights, people sitting paired up on the grass as the band set up.
“Are you cold?” Chu finally asked.
“You’re holding on to me.”
“Here.'' He took off his scarf and wrapped it around Guo’s neck. “There.”
“Thank you Chu-ge.” he said softly.
“It’s chilly tonight.” he muttered, as if he didn’t hear the thanks, or ignored it on purpose. “You should dress warmer.”
“Chu-ge-” he started, reaching down to take the Dixingren’s hand-
Then then an explosion and screaming-
He lost track of Chu somewhere in the chaos as he helped civilians into a restaurant that had stayed open late for the concert crowd. It seemed safer to be inside and out of the way, and he’d be proud of himself for thinking of it once he stopped freaking out.
Right now, he didn’t know where Chu was and there was an awful lot going on outside. He wanted to go peek out the door, see if he could see anything, but the one uniformed officer that had helped him herd people inside literally dragged him back by his shirt.
“Stay down, kid!”
“But my partner is out there-” he stuttered, shivering. He was scared, but he was really scared for Chu and he wanted to make sure he was okay.
Then there was that ozone smell, a familiar prickle that raised the fine hairs on the back of his neck. Hei Pao Shi! The professor was here!
After a few minutes things settled, the uniformed cop and Guo peering out. The damage wasn’t too bad from their vantage point, but there was a lot of smoke and dust in the air.
He hesitantly stepped out, something bad pooling in his stomach as he looked around. It was so utterly quiet after all that noise-
He looked around desperately for Chu, for the professor, for anyone he knew. But when he found them- he wasn’t sure he’d ever forget it. Chu, his shirt and black jeans shiny with blood, pale and looking up at the panicking professor so gently, so happy- then he coughed up a mouthful of blood choking on it and the professor gathered that dark energy around his hands and put it against the wound in chu’s stomach- and chu suddenly started screaming as if he was being torn apart, the worst sound Guo’d ever heard.
It faded after feeling like hours of it, the professor curling over Chu.
“Shuzhi-” the professor whispered desperately, “wake up, please…”
“Professor?” he jerked up to look at him, cradling Chu’s head. He was… crying. Guo felt like he should be more upset or afraid, but he felt like he was watching this from outside of himself. This was a thing that was happening.
“I stopped the bleeding, but shock, the blood loss…” he looked rather grey and exhausted, blood dripping from his nose.
“How about I stay with him, and you bring emergency services here?” he sounded rather calm, he thought. Maybe it was because the normally-collected professor sounded so panicked.
“Yes.” he slipped off his torn suit jacket, draping it over chu. “Right. I’ll be right back.”
Guo settled down, cradling Chu’s head in his lap.
The older man came around slowly, trying to sit up and failing.
“Shhh.” he soothed him, trying to keep him calm. “Stay still, it’s okay. He went to get you some help.”
“I’m…” Chu was starting to shiver, eyes unfocused and distant. “I’m sorry…”
“Shh,” he said again, tucking the coat around him tighter as the shivering got worse. “Don’t talk, just hold on.”
Chu wasn’t quite lucid, fighting the EMTs as they tried to work on him. Shen Wei had stopped the bleeding, but hadn’t been able to heal it completely. The medics packed it with gauze, trying to get an IV, his blood pressure dangerously low. Somehow they wrestled him onto a gurney, into an ambulance, Guo holding onto Chu’s hand in an attempt to keep him calm and keep him from punching out one of the medics. Finally, to his relief, someone gave Chu something for pain. His face relaxed, eyes fluttering shut as it worked. He wasn’t totally out, he slowly rubbed his thumb over Guo's knuckles as he drifted, The EMTS working to get him stabilized now that he wasn’t trying to fight them.
“Didi?” he murmured, half opening his eyes. The nearest medic put an oxygen mask over his face, frowning at Guo.
“Shh, it’s okay, we’re going to the hospital.”
“Where-” he started to ask before fading out, letting Guo pat his hand, his face.
Dr. Cheng met them at the hospital when the Ambulance doors opened, her face looking at the mess that was Chu, then up at Guo.
“Are you hurt?”
“No, just Chu-ge.”
“Okay.” she said gently. “Why don’t you come out and have some tea?” She sounded odd to Guo, like he was about to break if she raised her voice, but he accepted her hand out.
“Can I stay with Chu-ge?”
“We need to take a look at him first. How about you go with this nice nurse for a few minutes?”
He was passed off to an older nurse and steered to a small, quiet room. She helped him wash the blood off his hands- (how did that get there?) and offered him a cold cloth for his face. Oh, he must have been crying, he didn’t remember that. Things didn’t feel quite real still, and the nurse settled him in a chair with a cup of tea and a blanket. Someone would come and let him know what was going on soon, she told him.
And all of the sudden he was very tired. The blanket was warm and the nurse lowered the lights for him, like she was expecting him to fall asleep.
He blinked awake a while later when the door opened, Chief Zhao turning on the light.
“Xiao-guo? There you are.”
“Your uncle is coming to pick you up. You okay?”
“I think so.” Why was everyone asking if he was okay? He hadn’t been hurt. “How’s Chu-ge?”
“Out of surgery, just resting now.”
“Can I see him?” Chief Zhao hesitated before nodding.
“Yeah, I think that’d be okay. Come on.” he was speaking gently too, like Guo would crumble apart if he spoke too loudly or too harshly. Why was everyone treating him like that? It was Professor Shen they should be gentle with. He and Chu-ge… but maybe he shouldn’t point that out right now. Now… that was heartbreaking to think of. Someone you cared about was hurt, and then because, for some reason, it was a secret so you couldn’t be open with how worried you were…
Professor Shen was sitting outside the curtain where Chu was sleeping, face carefully unreadable. He really wanted to ask if the professor was okay, how was he holding up? Had he seen chu-ge, had he woken up for him?
But Guo was a coward, and didn’t ask any of these questions, didn’t dare with the Chief right there because he didn’t know what was going on. Just that it was so messy…
Chu was sleeping, a blanket tucked up under his chin. He noticed his shirt had been cut off and dumped off to the side, he should pick up another one for him to wear home. Jeans too, there had been a lot of blood. At least he looked comfortable, his color a bit better. He felt very warm, but maybe that was good? He wasn’t shivering anymore. He should learn more about this sort of thing, something far and detached from the rest of him said.
He wanted to give him a kiss, just something quick. But would that be okay in front of the professor? Or should he do it for him, something he wanted to do but would not? Like going out for a family dinner, walking out in the holiday lights… oh this was so messy and he hated being in between this.
Chu never asked him to be in between. He gave Guo the buns because he thought he might like them. Went to the dinner and to the music because Guo wanted to go, and not because he was pretending to be with someone else... Right?
He kissed Chu's forehead anyway, fussing with the blanket to make sure he was tucked in. thing he imagined that the professor was wanting to do, the care he wanted to give. Chu scowled in his sleep, then his expression smoothed out, relaxing in a way it rarely did when he was awake. And he might have heard the professor make the smallest noise, something like a sigh or a huff.
Down the hall he heard his uncle’s voice. It was time to go.
His aunt sat with him in the back of the towncar, hugging him tightly.
“I’m okay, I really am.” he tried to protest, but it was sinking in that lots of people were hurt, that chu had been really really hurt and he could have- if the professor hadn’t been there in time-
“It’ll be okay, Changcheng.” his aunt said soothingly, rubbing his back. “The doctor said your friend will be fine in a few days.”
“I know, he’s…” the tears were coming again and he couldn’t stop them and he was very very cold all of the sudden.
“They gave me something to help you sleep, would you like to take it when we get home?”
He couldn’t get words out between sobs so he nodded, curling into his aunt.