The first time Chu Shuzhi experienced that celebration the Haixingren called Halloween was the day he crossed the portal into Dragon City for the first time.
Later, much later he learned that the origin of that holiday actually wasn’t as silly as he had thought: It was a pagan festival, the barrier between worlds said to be brittle, ghosts and spirits roaming the mortal realm with unsavory intentions. Therefore, he was told, people used to dress in scary costumes, lighting their homes with candles and lanterns to drive the evil away, to bar ghosts and lost souls from coming into their homes. How ironic, he’d thought then, that the humans didn’t know the light would draw them all in, the lost and scared and displaced ghosts of Dixing, would pull them like moths to a flame, eventually burning them with the reality of not belonging anywhere, of not having a home anymore.
He felt like a ghost himself, a shadow of another life, that evening when he first set foot into Dragon City. It was the last day of October, he learned later, and so the first thing that greeted him as he rounded a corner was a group of children wearing bright red masks, yelling and running in his direction. For a split second the image wavered, joy and light turning into blood and violence and he was in the palace again, ready to defend himself, when the moment passed, leaving him trembling with past terror.
It had taken him a while to get used to the sight of people in strange costumes, with fake blood and fake wounds, but real joy and real smiles, and he had wondered about it, if the feeling of not-belonging would pass some day, if he could look at them without the ugly tug of envy in his heart.
So, when the next Halloween approaches, he has resigned himself to yet another day of silently watching others’ happiness from afar, and thus is startled when, on the 30th, he finds an invitation on his desk, in Xiao Guo’s neat handwriting and decorated with little glittery bats. Looking from the invitation to his coworker, his frown deepens. “What are you planning,” he starts, when he realises that there is an invitation on every desk. Guo Changcheng fidgets nervously with his sleeves, not meeting his eyes.
“I thought,” he says quietly, “we kinda are a family now, so we could... celebrate... I mean, if... Or...” He trails off, biting his lip, when suddenly the door slams open and their boss rushes in, waving another one of the colourful invitations.
“Xiao Guo”, he drawls when he reaches them, clapping the younger man forcefully on the back, “that party of yours is an excellent idea. Do you need any help with the preparations?”
Xiao Guo’s face has turned a dark red by now, but he nods enthusiastically, then shakes his head equally enthusiastically. “No, no help,” he says breathlessly, then smiles at Chu Shuzhi. “You all just need to arrive on time, Wang Zheng and Sang Zan are going to help with the decorations and Old Li has offered to make food, so...” His smile brightens another degree and Chu Shuzhi has to look away briefly, then gives him a curt nod. He’s got nothing better to do anyway and Old Li’s food is always worth the effort, so there really is no downside to this. If it gets too much, he thinks, he can just leave.
“Wonderful,” his boss exclaims in his most obnoxious voice, ruffling Xiao Guo’s hair. “It’s gonna be great, I’m sure,” he adds magnanimously, sauntering off into his office.
The remaining two look at each other, then Xiao Guo smiles again. “I’m looking forward to it,” he says softly, and all Chu Shuzhi manages is a hummed agreement, before turning briskly to sit down at his desk, looking away from that dangerous smile.
On the evening of Halloween, Chu Shuzhi only casts a brief look at his wardrobe, then, shrugging inwardly, opts for his usual style in cheerful black. He had a brief conversation with Lin Jing the previous day about the tradition of costumes – and a very firm declaration on his part that he would rather come naked than wear one – and so nobody expects him to dress up. There isn’t much to prepare otherwise, so he makes to leave his apartment, when he suddenly halts in the doorway. Keys in hand, he turns around to glance around his tiny one-room apartment for a moment, the sparse furniture in grey and black, the old fridge with a gifted radio on top that he never uses, heavy curtains and a worn carpet. It has been the place he sleeps at for some years now, but he never considered it his home, he realises as he stands there in the flickering hallway light. Just as Haixing never felt like his home, the memories of Dixing’s soft glow, of dark streets and bright windows, of family, of his brother too fresh, too aching to be put aside. With a sigh, he steps out into the hallway, closing the door behind him.
When he arrives at Bright Street Nr. 4, the windows are decorated with bats and spiderwebs, between them candles and lanterns that give a slightly eerie, orange glow. It is supposed to look spooky, Chu Shuzhi thinks, but all he can see is his Dixing home with illuminated windows and he feels unexpectedly fond. Suppressing a smile, he opens the heavy wooden door and enters the bullpen.
It looks exactly as strange as the decoration in the windows suggested: black paper bats and spider webs hanging from the ceiling and in the corners, bright orange jack o’lanterns grace almost every surface, real and LED candles are put everywhere, casting dancing shadows on the walls – it looks a bit weird, but at the same time he can see the love and care that went into the preparations, and he has to suppress another smile.
The party, or what Guo Changcheng proclaimed as such, is wonderful, and Chu Shuzhi feels his perpetual frown ease with every passing minute. The food is delicious, the mood light, the conversations animated, and as he silently watches the others around the large table, he suddenly realises that for the first time in a decade, the weight on his soul seems to have eased – for the first time he understands that he doesn’t betray his old family by having a new one. They are his family, he realises: Old Li, whose fried noodles taste the same as his mother’s, Wang Zheng, who reminded him of his childhood best friend the moment he saw her, Zhu Hong, who shares his dark humor and his penchant for bullying Lin Jing, even Da Qing and Zhao Yunlan, whose bickering is equally annoying and entertaining, but who both are fiercely loyal and protective when it comes to the team.
And Xiao Guo, who resembles Nianzhi so much, who is kind and friendly to everyone, who is brave when it matters, who has trusted Chu Shuzhi from the first day, when Zhao Yunlan had assigned him to watch over the newbie, probably just to annoy him. But Changcheng has proven all of them wrong, has won them over with his bright soul and gentle heart and sometimes Chu Shuzhi can’t even look at this radiant smile without risking a smile of his own. They are his family, he realises, as much as he scoffed inwardly when Guo Changcheng said it a day ago, and for the first time in years this thought doesn’t feel like betrayal, he doesn’t feel undeserving of it. For the first time in years, he has a home again, a family who loves him and respects him, who shares their food and warmth with him.
He takes a shuddering breath at this realisation, hoping that nobody notices his inner turmoil, when suddenly a hand is laid over his, grasping his fingers in a firm grip. Slightly bewildered, he turns to the side, only to see another of Guo Changcheng’s radiant smiles directed at him. The other doesn’t say a word, just keeps holding his hand in a reassuring grip, and Chu Shuzhi finds he doesn’t want to pull away for once, wants to have that warmth in his life for longer, for as long as he’ll be granted it. With a small smile of his own, he nods once, then breathes in deeply, feeling home .