Chapter 1: Prologue
He had been asked to meet with Rector Jin late in the evening. The building was silent. Most of his colleagues had already left. Zhou Zishu did not mind working late. The quiet time between six and ten pm was his preferred time for writing, and he had hoped to finally get around to continuing with that article he had been working on for half a year now. It was a theoretical piece, a comment to an ongoing debate about controversy in the philosophy of science, and not a part of any of his research projects. As such, it did not get priority and thus was always postponed when anything else became pressing. He sighed. Since he had accepted the position four years ago, something pressing had been going on almost every week.
He had always known that the position of a full professor would be demanding, and that it might challenge him a bit more than others, as he was young, and comparatively inexperienced when he accepted it. Teaching, counselling, supervising papers, administrative tasks – all of these needed to be taken care off alongside the research he was expected to do. And of course it was not enough to occasionally write a paper these days. Universities wanted big impressive research projects and external funding. Which included proposals, reports, meetings, job interviews. Zhou Zishu had been prepared to work more than the forty hours of a normal office job. But even thought he worked fifty, sometimes sixty hours a week, he still felt like he never got around to doing those parts of the job he really enjoyed. He struggled to stay on top of things and make his deadlines. And whenever he felt like he was catching up, he was asked to get in on another big project. QuanGen was the latest nail in his coffin – Quantum Genetics, the new shit. Research of the future. The way to revolutionize both medicine and agriculture and possibly some other major areas of human life. The time they had worked on that proposal he had often slept at the office and barely made it home at all. And after a brief respite while waiting for the decision, they had been granted the funding. It should have been great, awesome, a first big success for his career. But Zhou Zishu felt spread too thin. In theory he had three assistants, in practice it was only two right now, and he did neither do them, nor his students justice, nor had he any idea when to find the time to hire someone new to fill the empty position.
He should talk about all of this with Rector Jin. But Zhou Zishu knew well enough that the man was part of the problem and would not offer him a solution. Rector Jin was more likely to present him with a new project he should get in on every time they met, rather than accepting any confessions of Zhou Zishu having too much on his plate.
Reluctantly, he knocked on the door and followed the command to come in.
“Rector Jin”, he greeted politely.
“Professor Zhou, I am glad you found the time to come. Please, take a seat. I would offer you a coffee, but I fear my secretary has already gone home for the day. Some water, perhaps?”
Zhou Zishu declined. He had everything he needed in his own office, two floors down.
“Alright, I guess in that case we best get to the point. I read the paper you sent me and I have a few minor suggestions marked down in it.” He handed over a stack of paper and Zhou Zishu made to read them, but rector Jin stopped him. Of course. The other never had any interest in actually talking about research. “It is nothing major. You can look at it later, and I am sure you will easily understand all the requests I made and make the changes. There is one other issue I wanted to talk to you about, though” he proceeded.
Zhou Zishu looked up at the man sceptically. The article had been the reason he had been asked to come. Surprise topics from the man were never anything good. Antagonizing Rector Jin, though, wasn’t a good idea either. “Of course, what else can I do for you?” he enquired.
“The follow-up funding proposal for QuanGen – I saw in the paperwork that you suggested your new assistant for the position?”
Zhou Zishu nodded. “Yes, he is working on QuanGen at the moment. It seemed the logical choice.” Liang Jiuxiao had been with him for a year now. He was still a bit inexperienced, but dedicated and learning. If the project received funding for another three years, it would hopefully give him enough time to finish his PhD.
The other gave some noncommittal ‘hm’ sound as an answer. “However, his reputation is not quite what one would expect for such a project. He hardly has any publications in international peer-reviewed journals.”
Zhou Zishu knew where this was going, but he had to disagree. “He is very talented. He will have no trouble fulfilling the high standards of the project.”
“Nevertheless”, Rector Jin took a sip of his water, “he is not of the calibre that will insure the success of the proposal. We would like your other assistant to work on it.”
“Han Ying?” The idea was ridiculous. Yes, Han Ying was a PostDoc with a more impressive CV. But his area of specialisation was completely different. And also, Han Ying had his work laid out for him for the next three years. Diplomatically, Zhou Zishu only gave one of his reasons. “The project he is working on has only just started. He would be right in the middle of it, when QuanGen gets into round two and I would have to refill that position.”
“Of course you would.” Rector Jin did not seem to care at all. “But why not replace it with the other one? You pointed out that he is quite talented just now.”
The suggestion was simply ridiculous. As if any two researchers were basically just the same, their value to be measured in terms of their reputation. Han Ying and Liang Juixiao had very different strengths and weaknesses, a completely different background, and different areas of interest. Han Ying was strong in theoretical physics, but had never worked in an interdisciplinary context. Jiuxiao was young, but had studied biology as a second subject. A background very helpful in the context of QuanGen. If he followed Rector Jin’s request, both projects would deliver nothing but mediocre publications and both of his assistants would be unhappy with their work.
“I will consider it”, he said, knowing full well that he would not. Zhou Zishu was quickly reaching the end of his willingness to compromise.
In his office, he read through the corrections on the article, and fumed. Minor changes? What the fuck! They had discussed a possibly risky area of application for quantum genetics at the last conference. It touched on the question whether unintended side effects could be transmitted from one generation to the next. In their most recent models, they had looked at one prerequisite of such a transmission and had gotten results that seemed to indicate that it might indeed be possible. The study was not conclusive at all in regard to the question – this was one prerequisite of many, where the preliminary answer was that it might be possible. But rector Jin had asked them to strike the whole paragraph. As the paper mainly covered two sets of data and this was the most useful conclusion that could be drawn from one of them, it meant they would have to cut half the paper. And doing so would be very obviously bad scientific conduct. The ethicists working with them in the project were waiting for exactly such results so that they could decide what questions to focus on, and which ones to ignore for now. Coming to some conclusions on what a future would look like if Quantum Genetics were possible was the whole point of the paper.
But they could not publish it without rector Jin’s consent. The man himself had early on requested to take part in writing it. He had contributed little beyond an introductory paragraph in practice. But he had contributed and thus had to be treated as a co-author. If he did not agree with the final paper, it could not be submitted. Zhou Zishu sighed and put it to the side.
He was not equipped to deal with this now. Instead, he dug into a stack of unopened letters that had been accumulating on his desk for the course of a week. Most mail reached him electronically, and most of the snail mail he received was simply a copy of something he had already gotten as a mail – printed solely for representative purposes. There was hardly ever anything important, so he had become a little negligent in even opening it. He startled when he noticed the black inner lining of one of the envelopes. A death announcement? His thoughts quickly went to the list of retired colleagues he knew. But when his eyes found the name on the card it was not any he had expected. Zhen Yan. Zhen Yan was not an emeritus. Zhen Yan was the PhD student who had filled his third assistant position until a few months ago. The boy had resigned for health reasons. Zhou Zishu had suspected a burn out, but had meant to follow up on it and make sure the boy knew he would be welcome to come back and finish his thesis any time. Zhen Yan. Dead.
Six weeks later, the whole question of who would work on which project had become a moot point. The scandal around QuanGen had started when another scientist from a smaller university had taken the trouble to proof that the data set used in one of the first publications of the alliance had been his – and had certainly not been credited accurately. Rector Jin had tried to sacrifice the head of the medical department as a scape goat, but questions had been asked and attention had been brought to the project. Two junior researchers who had left a while ago – one from the ethics department, one form biology – reported on how they had been asked to disregard accepted standards of research to produce the anticipated results more quickly. The funding agency had reacted at that point, and started an in-depth investigation – and had quickly found irregularities in the distribution of funds.
Zhou Zishu had at first declared his full cooperation for the investigation, delivered his paperwork on the follow up proposal to his waste paper basket with the full intention of never picking it up again and considered how to best protect his assistants from the worst of the fallout. But then more and more irregularities were discovered, Liang Jiuxiao was revealed to have forged data sets, Journalists started to swarm campus, and Han Ying handed in his letter of resignation. The final straw was when Jing An, a girl he had recommended for a job in the biology department, had been arrested by the police in front of his eyes. Zhou Zishu hardly knew the girl, she had only ever been to one of his classes. But Liang Jiuxiao had begged him to help and finally, he had given in. Now she was accused of having accepted industry bribes. Her academic career was likely over.
Zhou Zishu went to his office, found a bottle of whiskey he had received months ago at some official function, and poured himself a generous glass. Only after draining it in one go and topping it up once more did he set out to formulate his letter of resignation. He had failed utterly and completely at this job. The best he could do now was to get away as far and as fast as he could.
Chapter 2: First Encounters
Zhou Zishu makes some new acquaintances.
Zhou Zishu stopped running and sat down on one of a few big stones lining the side of the meadow near the exit of the park. He hadn’t been running long, but his legs felt heavy today. He had been out late and had probably drunk a bit too much. He would push on in a few minutes, anyway. He just needed a brief rest. He stared at the chairs and benches on the other side of a small street. It was 9.30 am on a Thursday morning in March and the place was expectedly rather empty. A young couple was sitting there and drinking a coffee, an old man with an unkempt look to him was reading a newspaper. A middle-aged woman came over from one of the buildings beyond the cafeteria and walked straight inside. She looked busy. Zhou Zishu would have placed a bet on her getting a large cup of coffee to go and walking straight back to her office. But she emerged with a tray of cups and a paper back some minutes later. Ah, a meeting with colleagues. Before that thought could lead him anywhere else, he left. Tired legs be damned, he was here to run. Not to let his thoughts drift to places he would rather not be, even if only in memory.
The next morning, he stayed away and chose to run in the small park behind is apartment complex. It was a much inferior course for running. But he didn’t trust himself that day. He had almost opened his emails last night when he realized that it was Han Ying’s birthday. He would have liked to send greetings. But he had no way to contact the man aside via mail. That, however, was far from a good enough reason to face his inbox.
The morning after that, he felt pretty good about himself and there was no question about choosing the track that ran along that place. He simply ignored everything around him and concentrated on his body. There. No harm done. He would not be defeated by a random collection of buildings.
On Monday, he stopped there for a cup of coffee. He was not sure why he did it. There were a few more people present today. Clusters of young men and women – students. But also a lone boy. And an older man with a woman at his side. His partner? Daughter? Assistant? It was hard to tell.
Zhou Zishu stepped inside the brightly lit place and walked straight to the counter to order a coffee. The woman behind it was distracted by sorting some baked goods into the shelf and took a moment to come over and take his offer. He glanced around. It was a modern place. Bright and white, with some armchairs in pink and blue and purple in an apparently random pattern arranged in the room. Windows on three sides. And a strange colour-changing light under the ceiling. As if the request had been to design something modern and someone had thought young people spent their time at clubs anyway, and colour changing lights would make them feel at home. Luckily, the lights were not too obvious. No flashlight effects or anything like that. Zhou Zishu briefly thought back to his old haunts when he himself had been a student and in need of a place for studying away from his tiny one bedroom apartment. He had always preferred places with dark woods and muted colours. Something very different from this. With a small smile and a happy thank you, he received his coffee and walked outside to sit down. It was an exceptionally sunny day and he wanted to enjoy it.
As he wasn’t eager for any interaction, he looked around to find the best spot to sit. A pair of two women had arrived in his absence and picked the table he would have favoured to spread out their books and paperwork. Exams approaching? Or were they merely of the diligent type, meeting up to prepare for next semester?
The lone boy seemed to have noticed his searching glance. He looked up at him, smiled, and gestured to his table. The tables out here were large, each one easily seating six people. It probably would be rude to reject the invitation to share. Slowly, he walked over and took a seat next to the boy, leaving ample space between them. He had hoped to drink his coffee in silence and observe, but it seemed he would not be so lucky.
The boy smiled. “Good morning. I don’t think I have ever seen your around. Are you new?”
Zhou Zishu stared at the other for a moment. He had a book in hand. So he was probably just starting a conversation to procrastinate? Which wouldn’t have been too odd, if Zhou Zishu had been a fellow student. But he was a middle-aged man in running clothes. Where would this conversation go? Anyway, he was too polite to not answer. “In a way”, he said. He took a moment to decide what he wanted to share about himself. “I am new to the city.”
The boy seemed quite happy with that answer. “Do you like it? I moved here two years ago, and in the beginning, I loved the place. It is so big, there is so much to see!”
Zhou Zishu caught the past tense and wondered. Did the other not like it anymore right now? And big wasn’t exactly a word he would have chosen to describe the place. Sure, it was a city. But he himself had chosen it because it was rather small and remote. “I guess I like it well enough. Not sure I am ready yet to pass a final judgement.” He decided to give an evasive answer.
The other allowed the silence to reign for a few minutes. Zhou Zishu was hoping it would last until he finished his coffee. But he was not that lucky.
It wasn’t the young boy, but the girl he had nominated as daughter/assistant/partner who turned around and rather loudly addressed the two of them. “Hey, you! Do you Know where the science building is? And where that presentation on metaphors in epigenetics is going to happen today?”
Zhou Zishu glared at her. She was sitting two tables away and thus had to speak in a way that interrupted absolutely everyone’s conversation around them. And made all eyes turn to the pair. He hated eyes on him.
The boy answered something so quietly that even Zhou Zishu had trouble understanding what he had said. “Behind the library” had possibly been in there, but he couldn’t be sure.
The girl looked irritated. “Hey, speak a bit louder, would you? No one is gonna hear you if you mumble to yourself.” Her companion, who had seemed to ignore her antics so far, turned around apparently meaning to intervene. But Zhou Zishu was faster than him, and he had no trouble raising his voice. “If you have a question to ask, why don’t you get up and walk over here instead of being a nuisance to everyone?” He challenged her. They were the centre of attention anyway, now, so there was hardly much use in trying to stay quiet.
The girl took his advice and stood up to walk over, but her manner was not exactly friendly. She was short, dark haired, slender, but with a very expressive body language. Hands on hips in a commanding posture, she stepped in front of them. Her gesture was ridiculed a little by her very girly purple outfit. She had no choice but to stop on the other side of the table. The boy next to Zhou Zishu seemed intimidated anyway.
“Got a problem with a stranger asking for directions?” She glared at Zhou Zishu to no effect.
“Nope.” Zhou Zishu did not think she deserved a longer answer and continued to sip his coffee. He would rather get out of here soon.
“So, mister ‘I am better than you and on a perpetual mission to teach the world around me some manners’ – are you at least also helpful enough to answer my question?”
He shrugged. “Can’t. I really don’t know the place. But I think the boy here might help you, if you ask nicely.”
While he was talking to the girl – well, young woman, she was probably in her early twenties, actually looking a bit more grown up than most of the students around them – her companion had gotten up and walked over. Zhou Zishu tried, but failed, to ignore the man. Which wasn’t his fault, really. The other was tall, light skinned, with long black hair running down his back and a pair of fascinatingly expressive eyes in his face. He was fashionably dressed and his posture exuded self-confidence. He was undeniably attractive in an unconventional manner and very obviously aware of the fact.
“A-Xiang. You really should be a bit more polite when talking to strangers. Did you even introduce yourself?” His voice sounded like it was dripping honey, while he put a hand on the woman’s shoulder that seemed to stop her more effectively than the words he directed at her. His eyes were focused on Zhou Zishu.
“I am Wen Kexing, and this is my assistant Gu Xiang. It is our pleasure to make the acquaintance of two such striking young men. My I inquire about your names?”
Zhou Zishu had to keep himself from choking on his coffee. Striking young men? He wasn’t sure whether that descriptor was more out of place in referring to himself or to the timid, barely grown boy at his side. Whichever it was, grouping them together in this manner was very obviously ridiculous.
The boy, polite as he was, answered immediately. “I am Zhang Chengling. It is nice to meet you.”
The man who had introduced himself as Wen Kexing gave him the briefest of nods, barely taking his eyes from Zhou Zishu for a second. It was rather obvious where his interests lay. What Zhou Zishu couldn’t understand was why the other was so interested in him. Did he know him? He was sure they had never met before. But he could theoretically recognize him from some magazine cover? Or a video presentation? He really hoped that was not the case.
“And this outstanding beauty? Do you have a name as well?” The other proceeded. Zhou Zishu felt the heat rising to his cheeks at the words. Preposterous.
“Who are you talking about, man?” He asked back.
A bright smile. “You, of course. It has been a while since I have met such a striking figure. Will you not grace me with an introduction? Is asking for such a favour too much?”
The woman at his side made some choking noises. She apparently agreed with Zhou Zishu in regard to the behaviour of her companion. He was apparently not her partner, or the two would have interacted differently.
“Stop the nonsense, boss! We have a lecture to attend. And you must have spent too much time in the heat, when you think that dirty and sweaty man is a beauty. He smells, and he very obviously does not know how to dress himself. Really, you must have better taste than that!” She exclaimed.
“Ah, you just don’t have an eye for beauty!” The man who was apparently her boss exclaimed and continued to fall into a tone of recitation:
“And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.”
Zhou Zishu had heard those lines before but wasn’t sure about the author. Before he had time to think about it, the other continued in his normal voice: “I, however, am a true connoisseur. And I will not be able to drag myself to any boring lecture, before I have acquired the name of this man”, he insisted.
Zhou Zishu sighed. As it seemed the other would not be easily convinced to give up, answering seemed his best choice to get rid of him. Not that he intended to give his real name. “I am Zhou Xu. And I have finished my coffee now, so if you will excuse me, I’ll be on my way. Chengling here seems to know the place. I am sure he will direct you successfully to your lecture.” He got up and squeezed himself past the boy to avoid having to walk close to Wen Kexing. While he made his way over to the entrance to deposit his cup and proceeded to the stairs that separated the small courtyard from the street, the other kept talking.
“I have been graced by making your acquaintance, A-Xu! It is a pity that our meeting has been so short but I will remember your beauty forever and trust that the fates will lead us to meet again!”
What a shameless guy. It was a pity that one so attractive had to have such an atrocious character, Zhou Zishu thought to himself. The man’s eyes really had been stunning. Doing his best to empty his mind, Zhou Zishu started running again. But despite doing an extra large round that day, he was not quite able to shake the image of the other from his mind. He resolved to avoid that place for the next few days to prevent another encounter. The man and his assistant had seemed to be visitors, so they likely would not stay in the city for long. And running laps in the park really wasn’t all that bad.
The lines of poetry are from Lord Byron: She walks in beauty.
Zhou Zishu had moved into his new apartment about a month ago. It had been an experience mixed with relief and trepidation. Finally, he was able to leave his old home and life behind. So much for the relief. But his new home had mainly been chosen for that reason: sufficiently far away and different. He had no clear idea what he was meant to do in this city. He had no great plans. It had taken him a week to unpack those of his things he wanted or needed to have around. Most of his belongings remained safely stacked away in some boxes in the cellar. Aside from that, he had visited a few bars and pubs in the neighbourhood until finding a place that had a good whiskey as well as a clientele that would mostly leave him alone. Once he had found that place he had spent most of his evenings there.
By week three, there was little left to do in his apartment, even though it felt like he had taken an extraordinary amount of time for every little thing he did. His final project had been to sort through and rearrange the items he had found in the kitchen – it had come fully equipped and he had little intention of using anything but basic dishes and cutlery. He had sorted it all anyways.
Shortly after his arrival he had started jogging early in the mornings to clear his head and get some exercise and fresh air. He used to enjoy physical exercise, and even though it felt mostly like a chore these days, it was a suitable distraction.
In week four, his thoughts had threatened to overwhelm him during empty afternoons and he had taken up walking around the city to distract himself. He had done his best to explore every part of it, from the bustling centre to the quiet neighbourhoods, but Jianghu wasn’t actually all that large. Soon, he had seen it all, aside from its campus, which he had no intention to visit. Ever.
Zhou Zishu had considered moving to a city without a University. But he had never liked small towns and anything that sounded attractive to him had turned out to have some kind of academic institution. In the end, he had decided to not make it a factor in his decision. Whatever he was going to do in his life, it would be nice to do it in a city where he felt kind of at home. And he craved the anonymity of a large town, as well.
In week five, his feet first carried him into the city library. Even with regular morning jogs, a visit to the pub almost every night, and regular afternoon walks, his days felt empty. He had tried his best to stay away from old habits. Reading news on his smartphone, staying away from his computer, not unpacking any of his books or work-related paperwork. But in the absence of deadlines, requests and meetings, he did not know what to do with himself. He had read three crime fiction novels after picking them up at a local bookstore. They had been unbearably boring.
The city library presented itself as an acceptable escape. It was marginally larger than the bookstores Zhou Zishu used to frequent, spread over three floors but in a rather small building. It was light and bright and frequented mostly by the elderly, children and teenagers and some lonely people who seemed to have nothing better to do. Zhou Zishu wondered about their backgrounds and stories – he was basically one of them now, after all. After just a first look around he got his own id. He wasn’t sure whether he would ever want to take any books home, but supporting the institution seemed the right thing to do. Once he was officially settled as a member, he took his time strolling around, learning where each category was placed and what kind of books could be found in each. The first few days he picked a book from every lettered section, in an attempt to broaden his horizon. But he couldn’t really get into cooking or gardening and pet care seemed mute as he did not have an animal living with him. In the pedagogy section, he found a rather interesting volume about fashion ideals in teenagers on Instagram. In the medical section he looked into a book on current recommendations for life care planning but found he couldn’t really get himself to care about what would happen to him if he ever got Alzheimer’s disease which was rather the single focus of the volume.
Among the books about religion he found a short introduction into Islam that kept him well entertained, in the poetry section he selected a volume of poetry written for children that made him chuckle once or twice. There were a number of sections he ended up passing right by because they contained too many titles familiar to him.
On his third visit to the library, he found his way into the history section and realized that this old and almost forgotten passion of his could still hold his attention. After browsing some tables of content, he picked out a thick volume on the history of the Mongolian empire under Genghis Khan and formed a new habit of coming in every day to read one chapter.
He was sitting in his favourite corner in one of the windows, reading the second to last chapter of the book, when he noticed someone moving towards him in the corner of his eyes and raised his head only to look at a familiar figure. It was Wen Kexing. It had been over a week since their first encounter on campus and the other had obviously not left town, as he had hoped. Zhou Zishu lowered his book to the table before realising what he was doing. If he had just looked back onto its pages, maybe the other would have walked past. This, he obviously took as an invitation to sit down.
“A-Xu, what a pleasure to meet you again.” The man had a smile on his face so bright that it was frightening. Zhou Zishu wasn’t sure why, but somehow it seemed fake to him. Even though it wasn’t an obvious fake smile – it did reach the other man’s eyes. Maybe it was just his inability to believe that anyone could smile so brightly.
When he didn’t answer, Wen Kexing picked up the book from the table. “Mongolian history? Is that an interest of yours? How fascinating! I like men with unusual interests!” he proclaimed.
“It isn’t”, Zhou Zishu answered to spite him. “Just a book I picked up at random. I have never read anything on Mongolian history before.”
Wen Kexing was not to be discouraged:
The languid world went by me as I found
A jewel on the ground,
Under a silent weed,
A nameless glory set for none to heed.
“Stoop, see, and wonder!” was my joyful cry,
But still the languid world went only by.
I drew it forth, and set it on a hill;
They passed it still.
“Wouldn’t life be boring if we didn’t all discover a fascination for something new once in a while?” He questioned after the quote.
Zhou Zishu noticed that his statement very much ignored the implication that no one else would care – and wondered if that was a test of his attention or whether the other simply didn’t care all that much whether his quoted lines fit the context. This poem, he had certainly never heard before. But then he wasn’t particularly well read when it came to poetry.
“I guess it would be”, he answered. “In the interest of permitting me to discover new aspects of my personality – would you mind handing over the book again so I can finish reading it?” The other seemed honestly disappointed at his request, but complied with the wish. What a nuisance of a man, Zhou Zishu thought while searching for his place on the side he had stopped. By the time he finished the chapter and was ready to leave, no sign of Wen Kexing could be seen anymore. He told himself that the feeling in his breast was pure relieve and not mixed with any regret at all.
That evening, Zhou Zishu couldn’t keep the thoughts at bay. He blamed his encounter with Kexing for it. The man was so alive, so full of energy, that he reminded Zhou Zishu of one of his former assistants. Bi Chang had been brilliant, a force to be reckoned with. She had been a fashion aficionada and she had not been shy at all. Quoting poetry had admittedly never been her thing, but still, Wen Kexing reminded him of her. She had left his employ two years ago in the middle of her second burnout. After the first, she had done the impossible and fought her way back in after a break of three months and hardly anyone believing in her comeback. A few months later, he knew she had aborted her first baby to not sacrifice her job for the demands of a family. Another year later the second burnout had hit. She had sent him a very polite letter of resignation, not putting any blame on him at all. Zhou Zishu knew better. He had done absolutely nothing to help that brilliant young woman find her way. His only function as her employer had been to pile heaps and heaps of work on her, and to find more in case she managed to complete what he had already assigned.
After his third glass of whiskey, he stopped counting. Quite a few more must have followed, he deduced from the splitting headache that plagued him when he woke way past noon the next day. He was pretty good at holding his liquor, usually. When he wasn’t, then because he had drunk an extraordinary amount. He was beyond even the state where he was willing to force his body to go running despite the pain. The exertion usually helped if paired with drinking enough water. But today, every step felled like a plague. He spent the time in front of his TV instead. Watching all kinds of shows and not really remembering any one of them. Right before the shops closed he forced himself to go shopping. He had a rule. Whenever he slept later then 8 p.m. he would not go drinking the next night. But not drinking meant not going out and that also implied that he could not just order food at the bar.
With putting away the groceries and figuring out how to actually prepare the vegetables he had bought it was almost midnight before he had a plate of food in front of him. It tasted bad. Cooking was something he had never attempted before and apparently, he lacked the talent to learn it now. He sighed. He should really stick to frozen stuff. He needed to buy a freezer.
The next time he encountered Wen Kexing at the library he had just started in on a new book on the foreign politics of the Soviet Union in the 60s and 70s. It was way more fascinating than he had thought such a topic might be. It had put him in such a good mood that he almost didn’t mind the other man approaching him.
Wen Kexing waxed something poetic about chance encounters before sitting down. “And so we meet again. Is your book any good?”
Zhou Zishu frowned. “Yes, actually. I can recommend it.”
“Better than the Mongols? Is it a topic that will keep your interest?” the other continued on.
Zhou Zishu thought about it. “I don’t know. Maybe not. But it is interesting enough that I intend to finish the book.”
Wen Kexing nodded. “Mind if I keep you company while you do?” He asked. Zhou Zishu looked at him sceptically. The other did not seem to have anything to read with him at all. But the library was a public place, so who was he to tell the other to get lost?
“Sure. If you like.” He agreed and turned his attention back to his book. The other actually got up and seemed to leave, which confused him for a moment. But then he came back a few minutes later with a book in hand. 100 French poems of the 19th century you must read. He could read on the cover, and the design with a moon and stars promised this to be one of those cheesy collections for people who didn’t usually read poetry but thought they should get into it to impress a new love interest. Well, the man’s interest in poetry was apparently limitless.
For about 10 minutes they both read in silence, until Wen Kexing started to chuckle. “You have to listen to this, wait”, and he fell into recitation:
À deux beaux yeux.
Vous avez un regard singulier et charmant ;
Comme la lune au fond du lac qui la reflète,
Votre prunelle, où brille une humide paillette,
Au coin de vos doux yeux roule languissamment ;
Ils semblent avoir pris ses feux au diamant ;
Ils sont de plus belle eau qu'une perle parfaite,
Et vos grands cils émus, de leur aile inquiète,
Ne voilent qu'à demi leur vif rayonnement.
Mille petits amours, à leur miroir de flamme,
Se viennent regarder et s'y trouvent plus beaux,
Et les désirs y vont rallumer leurs flambeaux.
Ils sont si transparents, qu'ils laissent voir votre âme,
Comme une fleur céleste au calice idéal
Que l'on apercevrait à travers un cristal.
“Is there a love poem more cliché than this? Her eyes like pearls and diamonds and flames – and of course he can see her soul through them, I mean, really, what else?” Wen Kexing seemed to take great pleasure in mocking the lines he had just read.
Zhou Zishu frowned. His French was a bit rusty and he had hardly understood the words the other had spoken – which had certainly nothing to do with the fact that he had been paying attention to Wen Kexing’s voice instead! “Who is it by?” he asked, just to say something somewhat intelligent.
“Théophile Gautier, it says here. Lived 1811 to 1872. I wonder at what age he wrote the poem. I guess I should look up his work and see if everything he wrote is like this.”
“Mmh,” Zhou Zishu answered, trying to find the place where he had stopped in his book. “Don’t let me keep you.”
It took a moment before the other answered. “I doubt they have any more of his work here. I guess I will have to take a look at the university library. They are much better stocked.” Another pause in conversation. Zhou Zishu had thought the other had gone back to his poems when he spoke again. “Do you ever go?”
He heard the question but wasn’t sure about the context anymore. Had he missed something? “Where?”
“The university library. I am sure their selection on history books isn’t bad either.”
Zhou Zishu turned his eyes back to his book. “No.” He answered firmly.
“No?” The single word seemed to ask a lot more than what was usually contained in two letters.
“No.” He repeated.
Wen Kexing sighed but Zhou Zishu was not in the mood to continue this conversation and kept his eyes on the page.
“Well, I guess I will leave you to it”, the other spoke about five minutes later and stood up. Zhou Zishu raised his eyes briefly to nod a goodbye. He felt heat rising to his face, so he kept his glance extra brief. Why the hell was the other so interested in him? There were a number of people at this place, and he was sure he must be the least interesting of the whole bunch.
First poem: Menella Bute Smedley: A Discovery
Chapter 4: Fire at the Dormitories
Chengling looses his home.
With Wen Kexing dropping in at the library at regular intervals now, Zhou Zishu had one less reason to avoid the campus cafeteria on his morning runs. So he ended up picking the much nicer route again on this beautiful sunny morning. As soon as he got close to the cafeteria, however, he noticed that something was off. The air had been smelling of smoke for a while. Now he could hear sirens, and there was an unusual crowd of people in front of the cafeteria. Sure, term was approaching. But it was Friday. Not usually a crowded day at any university…
Zhou Zishu approached slowly, and soon spotted Chengling in the crowd. The boy was in the company of no other but Wen Kexing and Gu Xiang. Chengling noticed him as well and raised a hand in a shy gesture of greeting. This led to Wen Kexing spotting him as well. “A-Xu!” the other greeted him while making his way through the crowd as if he had spotted an old acquaintance at a party. “It is good to see you, even though the circumstances are a bit grave, I fear. Are you alright?” The other enquired cryptically.
“Of course I am alright. Why shouldn’t I be?” he asked right back.
“Oh, lots of chaos today. The student dormitories are on fire.” While speaking, Wen Kexing had taken his arm and was leading him back over to the other two. Zhou Zishu considered shrugging him off for just a second, but ended up following without much protest.
“No one quite seems to know what happened, but there were quite a few injured.” Wen Kexing continued to explain. “And there is no coffee today either, I fear! Something about the electricity in the buildings being connected. The lunch hall and cafeteria are both without power and thus cannot prepare any hot drinks.”
Zhou Zishu wondered if the other was just being ridiculous once more, or rather really confused. Why should he of all people have gotten hurt in one of the student dormitories? “I am fine. I guess not being able to get a coffee is a less than ideal start to my day, but I guess I will survive. And you? Are you sure you yourself are alright today?”
Gu Xiang chimed in before Wen Kexing could answer. “Aside from his lingering obsession over you which I am starting to fear might be an expression of a serious mental defect, he is fine. It’s certainly Chengling here who was caught in the brunt of things.”
Zhou Zishu had not really had a closer look at the boy so far, his attention taken up by Wen Kexing and his antics, as usual. Now he turned around and observed the boy. He was presenting a somewhat pitiful figure. Dressed in what looked like a pair of lounge pants and sweater rather than his usual neat clothes, but with a much too warm winter coat thrown over, he had an assortment of things strewn around him. His usual backpack was there, but also a half empty sports bag, as well as a sleeping bag and a bright yellow frisbee. The boy had dried tear tracks on his face.
“What happened to you?” He inquired, directly addressing the shy boy.
“He lives in that building, idiot” Gu Xiang answered in his stead.
Chengling offered a somewhat more comprehensive explanation. “The sirens started to flare up, and then we were told over loudspeaker to evacuate the building. They told us not to linger, and only take the most important things with us, so I grabbed what I could at the moment.”
Zhou Zishu wondered who in his right mind would grab a frisbee when told to evacuate. The boy did not seem to have the most practical mind. Chengling started sniffling. “I guess all my other things are gone. Probably burned. The fire kept spreading for quite a while before they got it under control. Oh god, what am I going to do? I am homeless!” He seemed to be talking himself into a panic.
“Stop whining”, Gu Xiang interrupted him rather abruptly. “Look at you. You are healthy. Not a hair burned on your head. You have a bunch of stuff you took out of your room. They will provide some place for all of you to sleep tonight, and if not, you will just have to drop in at a friend’s place. People survive all kinds of catastrophes. Yours is just minor in comparison. Just a few burned books and clothes.”
She had a point, of course, but Zhou Zishu did not think Chengling was in any state of mind to appreciate it.
“Oh god! My books! Why did I not grab my books!” the boy started again. “I just ordered everything for the upcoming turn. I spent a small fortune on those books and they were brand new, and I left them all on my desk! And the library books as well. The librarians will kill me!” His face blanched at the thought.
Zhou Zishu put a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t worry”, he tried for a calm voice. “You will hardly have been the only university students with books in their rooms. The library will be informed, and they will understand. Insurance is likely to pay for the damage. Gu Xiang is right. You being well and healthy really is the most important thing in this situation.” Chengling calmed down a little, while Gu Xiang and Wen Kexing were both staring at him. The first was obviously just shocked that he was taking her side. The second looked calculating.
“You are so right, A-Xu. Chengling’s wellbeing is the most important thing for now. And we can’t really expect the boy to calm down and find his bearings while he watches the building he used to live in burn down.” The description was a monstrous exaggeration. The fire seemed to be long under control and only a little smoke could still be seen in the sky. “Let’s pack up here and go and eat lunch together! That will be a much better way to calm down. And after, Chengling can call the student union and see if they have managed to organize replacement quarters for the students. No use trying them now, while everyone is frantic.”
Gu Xiang nodded her head vehemently. “Yes, lunch! What a brilliant idea.” She immediately grabbed Chengling’s sports bag and sleeping bag and made to go.
Zhou Zishu hesitated. But Wen Kexing gave him no chance to stay behind, simply grabbing his arm and dragging him along.
“Come! My car is parked that way.”
Zhou Zishu grumbled. “I am dressed for running and sweaty. I would hardly do anyone a favour by stepping into a restaurant like this.”
Wen Kexing looked him up and down. “You are right. I didn’t even notice!” He exclaimed cheerfully. “I guess you will have to give me your address so that I can drop you off on the way for you to get changed.”
Zhou Zishu was not about to give out his address to anyone. “How about you just go and eat without me?” he asked.
Wen Kexing raised his eyebrows in a dramatic fashion. “What? You want to leave Chengling all alone in his suffering?” He spoke loud enough that the boy heard and turned around to stare at Zhou Zishu with those puppy dog eyes of his. He really just couldn’t.
“Alright. Tell me where you mean to go. I will finish my run, get changed, and meet you there.”
Wen Kexing tried once more. “Do you really not want me to drop you off?” But when he shot him down again the other relented and gave him the name and address of a small restaurant in the old town and allowed Zhou Zishu to take off on his own.
After getting home and taking a quick shower Zhou Zishu almost changed his mind about attending while despairing in front of his cupboard. He had absolutely no idea where the urge to dress up to impress came from. He was certainly not going to give in to it. But its presence alone made him question his decision. He ended up grabbing an old shirt to go with the jeans he wore to the library the day before. There. Nothing special about this. It used to be one of his favourites but it was so worn out by now that he could surely not be accused of trying to impress anyone with this.
The others had drinks in front of them when he arrived but had apparently waited to order food. Gu Xiang stared at him. “Zhou Xu! You look like a decent human being. What a shock! Why do you need to scare an innocent woman like me that way?”
He frowned. Had he really left such a bad impression on her before or was she mocking him? It took him a moment to realize that Gu Xiang – and Chengling as well, for that matter – had only over seen him in his worn running outfit. He did not care much about appearances while exercising.
“Did you think I lived in sports clothes all my life?” He decided to snap back.
The girl had the decency to blush. “I wasn’t sure. But I guess I did underestimate you.”
Curiously, he turned his eyes to Wen Kexing. The other had met him at the library several times, when Zhou Zishu was dressed like a normal human being. But he still seemed to study his figure appreciatively now. He really wondered what a man as stunning and extraordinary as Wen Kexing could find in him to look at. Zhou Zishu had never considered himself ugly. But in comparison to the other, everything about his appearance certainly had to count as plain. Noticing that the other was about to return his regard, he quickly sat down and grabbed a menu. “Have you been here before? Any recommendations?”
Wen Kexing and Gu Xiang both recommended the different varieties of sandwiches the place offered, all served with salad and crisps, and all four of them ended up ordering the club sandwich. It did turn out to be a good choice. The table was mostly quiet while eating – after Kexing had fulfilled his role of resident poet and quoted a few lines about the importance of food.
Afterwards, the conversation turned back to Chengling’s situation. The boy had briefly excused himself to call the help desk of the student union but despite their name they had not been very helpful at all. No emergency accommodation could be offered so far. They were apparently about to find a gym and some blankets to offer shelter to those students who had absolutely no other place to sleep. But the option sounded admittedly bad. After some prodding from the others about friends, family and acquaintances, Chengling called a distant cousin of his, a woman a few years older who happened to study in the same city as him, and secured a place on her couch for the night.
Gu Xiang meanwhile checked the market for rental apartments. “Ah, this looks rather bad. There are really only a few options online right now that would seem to meet the requirements and not be too expensive. According to their webpage, that building housed forty-eight rooms for students. And the neighbouring building thirty-six. No idea if those need to move out as well. The few rooms out there will be gone in no time…”
Chengling looked defeated. “How am I going to survive this semester without even having a room?”
Wen Kexing looked at him apologetically. “Ah, I am so sorry. I am sure you will find something eventually. If we were home, I would find someone willing to give you a room in no time. But here, I hardly know anyone either. How about you, A-Xu? Made any acquaintances recently who might have a room to rent out?”
Zhou Zishu made sure not to let any reaction show on his face while he thought of his apartment, with its living room, open kitchen, two bedrooms and a study. He had settled himself into the main living area and one of the bedrooms. When he had signed the contract for the flat, the attendant had convinced him that even if he didn’t need an office, he would appreciate having a room for his hobbies, and that anyone his age who moved some distance was absolutely in need of a guest room. Zhou Zishu had not found a hobby so far that justified its own room. And he did not have any guests, ever. But that certainly didn’t mean he was prepared to take a flatmate.
“Sorry, I fear I do not know anyone. But if I hear of something, I will certainly let you know.”
Chengling thanked him profusely for that token gesture, and insisted on giving him his mobile number so that he would be able to contact the boy if any opportunity to rent a room arose. Soon after, they broke up their party and went their separate ways. Wen Kexing offering to drive Chengling to his cousin’s place – and not missing the opportunity to offer to drive Zhou Zishu home as well. Both of them declined the offer. Chengling’s cousin did not live far, apparently.
Chapter 5: Assumptions
Wen Kexing annoys Zhou Zishu by making a few assumptions.
Wen Kexing stood in front of his table, a random volume of poetry in his hands as usual. But while the book seemed to indicate otherwise, the man did not look like he wanted to sit down to quietly keep Zhou Zishu company while reading. There was something urgent and restless about his expression. Zhou Zishu put his book down on the table in front of him.
“Lao Wen. How are you today?” It was the first time he addressed the other by name, and Wen Kexing was apparently stunned by that fact if his expression was anything to go by. Or perhaps it was more the particular way he had chosen to address him. Zhou Zishu had often been tempted to call the other ‘Kexing’ in his head, but it seemed much too familiar to actually pronounce out loud. ‘Mister Wen’, while on the surface perfectly normal considering they were all living in a western country, sounded wrong to his ears. While Zhou Zishu did not usually care much about his Chinese heritage, in this instance, it was the only comfortable solution he had come up with. Lao Wen seemed to fit the other.
“A-Xu!” Wen Kexing finally exclaimed. “How can you do this to me? I want to hug you, and love at you, for addressing me in such a familiar manner. But instead, I come with a serious concern and I will not be distracted.” He took a short, deep breath, before continuing on. “Chengling. The boy is miserable. He cannot stay with his cousin for long. Gu Xiang has tried her best, but it is impossible to find an apartment for him. A-Xu! We need to do something!”
Ah. So that was his concern. Zhou Zishu was a little surprised. He had not taken Wen Kexing for someone who cared much about the people around him. But he was very obviously wrong. The man hardly new the boy, and yet he had made his problems his own concern.
“What do you suggest I do? If you and Gu Xiang can’t find a place for him, how should I?”
“Well”, the other seemed to hesitate. “Where do you live, exactly? Isn’t there possibly a room in your flat you might not need? Gu Xiang and I only have a two-room apartment to share between ourselves, you see”, he hastened to add. “It is hardly suitable for three people. But you are on your own. And somehow, I cannot imagine you in a tiny and cramped apartment. Even though, if you do live in a tiny and cramped apartment, it would not be a problem at all. I would still love to visit any time you invite me over!” He added, in his usual shameless manner.
Zhou Zishu sighed. “I will not invite you over anytime soon. And I do not want a flatmate. I am not suitable for co-habitation.” He stated as clearly as he could.
“Not anytime soon?” Wen Kexing concentrated on the first part of his statement. “So that means you are not saying never? You are just asking me to have a bit more patience? Ah, A-Xu. You are so cute. Of course I will be patient! I will wait however long it takes until you are ready to allow me into your heart and into your home”, the man underlined his words with some theatrical gestures.
“Lao Wen”, Zhou Zishu interrupted, „we were talking about Chengling.”
“Right”, the other looked slightly disappointed. “Right, of course. Chengling. You should take some time, you know. Consider it. Don’t say no immediately. It is your place, so he would obviously have to follow your rules. He is a very polite kind of boy and he seems rather quiet. And he would pay rent of course. Some extra cash might be welcome, at some point?”
Zhou Zishu raised an eyebrow at him. “First you assume I live in a big apartment, now you assume I need extra money? Which one is it? Your assumptions seem kind of contradictory to me.” He was kind of having fun with this.
“Ah, A-Xu, I would much prefer not to assume anything about you! But then you just never answer my questions, so what else can I do? You do not seem worried about keeping up your lifestyle. But things change. At some point in the future you might have a boyfriend. Someone with expensive tastes, possibly. And some extra cash could always come in handy at such a time, don’t you agree?”
Zhou Zishu started laughing out loud. Yes, he had no trouble at all imagining Wen Kexing demanding to be indulged by a lover! Some of the other guests of the library sent angry glares in their direction.
“Ah, Lao Wen. You are a treasure. Fine. I will think about it. But I will let you know the most likely result of that thought process: I do not believe I am suited for co-habitation. Certainly not with a boy in his early twenties. I understand that his situation is bad, and that a solution is needed. But don’t place your bet on me being that solution. Alright?”
The other nodded mutely. “Alright. And if ever you want another flatmate – possibly someone older and with better taste in fashion, you will let me know, right?” Suddenly, he had a picture in front of his eyes, of Wen Kexing lounging around on his couch, watching stupid TV shows and commenting on the character’s bad fashion choices. Zhou Zishu shook his head to clear it of the image. “I have to go. See you around, Lao Wen.”
“See you around, A-Xu”, the other answered in a voice much lower and much more sincere than his usual tone.
Chapter 6: A New Flatmate
Zhou Zishu is defeated by Chengling's kindness.
It was two days later that Zhou Zishu met Chengling again at the cafeteria. The boy had his tablet set up in front of him and seemed to be watching some kind of medical drama. Zhou Zishu walked passed him at first to get his traditional cup of coffee before returning outside and sitting down next to the boy. It was rather crowded anyway, no need to block a whole table just by himself.
The boy noticed him when he had sat down and hit pause, before removing a pair of headphones from his ears. He smiled at Zhou Zishu brightly. How could a grown boy who was technically an adult be so naively cheerful and friendly, he wondered. He had hardly been friendly towards the other, had talked to him just a few times, and still he was greeted with a smile that in Zhou Zishu’s experience most people reserved for close friends.
He felt like he didn’t deserve it. But Chengling did not seem to care.
“Are you running again this morning? It is so admirable to have such discipline! I really should exercise more, but I can never motivate myself.” The boy chirped like a happy little bird.
He, disciplined? Motivated? The boy had obviously no idea how far off he was. Once upon a time, Zhou Zishu had been disciplined and motivated. It had not done him much good. Right now, a decent exercise regime was probably the only thing he got kind of right in his life. It was counteracted by bad sleeping habits, junk food, and too much alcohol. His lifestyle could hardly be called healthy. And beyond not caring well for his body, there was hardly anything at all to his life. He was still adrift, not sure why he was even bothering to go on. But no matter how close he might be to drifting into clinical depression – or was he possibly already there? – suicide had never been something that occupied Zhou Zishu’s mind. So meaningless or not, he would keep on existing and see what life had in store for him. Shaking away those gloomy thoughts, he forced himself to make some small talk.
“What are you watching?” seemed an innocent enough question.
“Chicago Med. It’s a hospital drama. Not very realistic, I guess, but it keeps me entertained.”
“Taking a break from studying?” Zhou Zishu went on.
“Not really. I just passed my last exam and classes are yet to start. There isn’t much to do, so I have a bit of time to relax.”
“Oh, great, I guess.” Zhou Zishu hesitated a moment before continuing. “But, if I may ask, why are you here? Wouldn’t it be more comfortable to watch this at your cousin’s place?”
The boy blushed. “I didn’t want to be in her way. She has to study for her finals and had some friends coming over for quizzing each other.”
Zhou Zishu had the image of his empty second bedroom once more in front of his mind. “Couldn’t you just like – I don’t know, sit in the kitchen or something?”
Chengling shook his head. “This is fine,” he proclaimed without really answering the question. But Zhou Zishu, vaguely aware that this might be to his own detriment, couldn’t let the question go. “Is her apartment that small?”
The boy blushed. “Yeah, kind of. She has a small entrance and living area with a tiny kitchen corner in there, a tiny bathroom, and one small bedroom. Cousin doesn’t like me being in her bedroom. And I can understand. It is a rather personal space after all, and she hardly has enough furniture to really pack away all her private stuff and the only place to sit down is on her bed. And the living area is also where she studies. And it is important for her to do well on her exams. She offered to cancel the meeting today. But she really shouldn’t. Not because of me.”
The boy was right, of course. It was to his cousin’s credit that she had agreed to take him in even though she had such a small space. Expecting her to cut down on her study time for finals would be too much. Zhou Zishu had noticed that the boy was once more carrying two bags around with him. He had likely prepared to spent most of the day out to get out of the way of the young woman. Zhou Zishu realized that he was being unreasonable. He had more space then he could ever need. And sure, he did not feel very comfortable about having anyone in his apartment. But he knew Chengling. And the boy, if anything, was nice and polite to a fault.
“Come”, he asked the other. “You can finish that video later. Take your bags and I will show you to your new room. You are able to pay rent, right?”
Chengling stared at him. “You have found me a room? How much is it? I mean – sure, I can pay. But it’s not like I have a lot of money, and anything that’s available right now seems to be horribly expensive.” He seemed ashamed of admitting to this.
Zhou Zishu sighed. Well, he had found him a room, of sorts. And while he would insist on renting it out, and refused to provide straight out charity, his flat was not the most expensive and he wouldn’t really need the extra money.
“I am sure it will be fine. How much is the limit of what you could pay?” He tried to be as nonchalant about this as possible.
Chengling seemed to think for a moment. “450. Maybe 500 if I really cut down on all other expenses.”
Zhou Zishu thought back to signing his contract. He paid about 1000 a month, if he remembered correctly. Dividing the rent by half would push the boy to his limits. It would also require him to see the other as an equal partner in sharing the flat. Something he was not really eager to do.
“I would say 350 should cover the rent. But you will be required to also contribute some money to shared grocery shopping. How much that is might change from month to month, but it should not turn out to be more than 100. That alright with you?”
The boy smiled. “That would be great! I really can’t imagine you found me a room in such a short time. Where is it? Who are the people living there? Is it far outside of town?” He was clearly excited.
During their conversation they had been walking, and as Zhou Zishu had chosen the most direct way back home instead of the winding path that was his jogging route, they were about half way there already.
“It is not that far. And you shouldn’t be so enthusiastic before you have seen the place. Maybe it won’t suit you at all. What if it had no heating? Never agree to rent a place before you have seen it,” he chastised.
Chengling, of course, did not understand his intentions. “What? It doesn’t have heating? I guess that is a bit inconvenient. Is it like – one of my aunts used to live in a house without central heating, where she only had an oven to heat up the place. Does it have an oven? I guess that could work out.”
Zhou Zishu shook his head. “No. Of course it has central heating.”
Chengling looked confused. “Then why did you say it might not? Are you sure?”
He sighed deeply. “I am sure. I was telling you not to be so trusting about things a stranger tells you. You should insist on seeing the place, checking it out, before forming an opinion.”
Chengling nodded. “Yes, I understand. One should not trust too easily. But if you have already seen it, and you are sure it is suitable, then that’s fine, no?”
He could only shake his head. “You hardly know me. You should not trust me.” He did not know how to formulate his message any more clearly.
“But you are so nice! Surely I have no reason to mistrust you!” the boy exclaimed. Zhou Zishu accepted defeat. They had reached the door.
“Here we are”, he stated while opening the front door. “First floor, apartment to the left”, he explained while indicating for Chengling to walk ahead. The boy stopped in front of the correct door and allowed him to pass by to open it.
Zhou Zishu stepped inside first and stood hesitantly next to the entrance. He had only lived here for a few weeks and after his first efforts had declared the place to be good enough. Now, for the first time, he was looking at it through the eyes of another person, wondering how it would appear.
The door opened right into a large living area with an open kitchen to one side. The kitchen had come with the flat. It was a bit old and used, but must have been rather expensive once upon a time and still serviceable in every way, as far as Zhou Zishu’s judgment was concerned. The only thing he had done to it was to replace one of the cupboards with a dishwasher. In contrast to its former owner, he had no intention of washing dishes by hand.
He had ordered a table and four chairs off a catalogue to fill the empty space in front of the kitchen counter.
On the left wall, the first door led to a tiny bathroom. In between this one and the second door – the one to the designated study – he had placed a chest of drawers with a TV set on top. A couch – a two-seater he had chosen for its comfort rather than its looks – stood opposite the TV. On the wall facing them were two more doors leading to the bedrooms. The one on the right was the room he had claimed for himself. Its window faced west, while the other had a window facing east. Early morning sun was not something Zhou Zishu appreciated these days.
While he had bought basic furniture for the flat, he had not wasted any of his time on decorating. There was not a single carpet on the floor, not a plant – fake or alive – on the windowsills, and there were certainly no pictures on the walls. Well, they might have to change that if the boy insisted. It would be done easily enough.
Chengling was apparently done staring at the place. Zhou Zishu was not sure he could read his expression. After a while, the boy spoke. “Who lives here?” was the first question that came out of his mouth.
“I do”, Zhou Zishu answered, somewhat defensive now. “And you could, as long as you haven’t found anything better. But as I said, you should check out the place and decide for yourself, instead of trusting someone else’s judgement…” He trailed off, unsure if there was anything else he wanted to add.
“You?” he still sounded disbelieving. “You live here? All on your own?”
“Wow”, the boy said. “The place is so spacious. I mean – I guess it is a bit empty. But you only moved here recently, right, so that is to be expected. You are not quite done decorating, are you?”
Well, until about ten minutes ago he would have readily told anyone that he was absolutely done decorating his new place. But now, he was not so sure anymore. “No, I guess I have not been in the mood to decorate. And honestly, I am not someone who cares a lot about interior design. You might have to put in a bit of effort yourself, if you decide you want to live here and would like the place to look more homely.”
“You would allow me to decorate?” the boy inquired.
“Sure. As long as everything you do is reasonable.” He hesitated a second. “I guess I wouldn’t mind if you asked first, before bringing in new stuff into the living area. We do have to share it after all. Would you like to see the room?” They had not, after all, even made it to the room he meant to rent out to the boy.
Chengling just nodded. “Yes, please.” He sounded excited now. So his first reaction was more likely to be interpreted as being overwhelmed than aghast at the scarcity of the place. Good. They might be able to make this work.
Zhou Zishu walked across the room and over to the left door to open it. In the sunlight that was still shining in, the dust could be seen floating through the air. The room was a more or less standard bedroom size. Maybe sixteen meter square. At the far wall leaned a few empty cardboard boxes that Zhou Zishu had folded up, but he hadn’t yet carried into the cellar.
Chengling did not seem to see those. Instead he walked right past him and over to the window, that overlooked a small side street. He turned back and smiled. “This is great! It is bigger than my room at the student residence. And your place has a real kitchen. We could cook!” He almost squealed. “Would you really allow me to move in here?”
“If you pay the rent”, Zhou Zishu reminded him to not feel like he was giving out favours. The boy’s gratitude made him uncomfortable. “And don’t get your hopes up. I don’t cook. So we will hardly be cooking together.”
Chengling asked back “Do you mind if I cook?”
“No, not at all.”
“Great! Than you can do the groceries and I will make dinner.” Seeing the reaction on Zhou Zishu’s face to his enthusiasm, he amended: “not all the time of course. But sometimes? Maybe we could eat together once a week?”
It seemed like a sufficiently reasonable suggestion. Zhou Zishu nodded. Chengling smiled and proceeded to become even more ridiculous. He walked across the room and proceeded to hug Zhou Zishu. He went stiff and waited for it to pass. He did not want to outright reject the boy’s affection, but he was in no way ready to give the other a hug either. Zhou Zishu did not hug people. He had never been a hugger. Not in the last twenty years of his life, at least.
“Yes, yes.” He placated the other. “You want the place. I understand. I guess you best sit down in the kitchen and start looking for some furniture for the room. I assume you might need a bed. I will be in my room – which, by the way – is off limits to you. You may knock, but not enter without an explicit invitation. I will set up a contract. And I should also be able to find the second key to this place somewhere.”
Zhou Zishu belatedly realized that he would also have to get official permission from his landlord. But the man had seemed uncomplicated and he was sure it would not turn into a problem. And it wasn’t. Half an hour later he had spoken to the man on the phone and had a standard contract written up. It had taken a bit of willpower to get out his notebook and printer, but he had done it.
The one moment he had really hesitated was when it came to putting his name into the contract. There was, of course, no option but to set it up with his true full name. Otherwise, it would not be legally binding. Chengling only knew him as Zhou Xu. He sighed. There was nothing to it. The boy was very unlikely to recognise the name, anyway. He just had to make sure he wouldn’t start using it in front of others.
He gave the papers to the boy a little later. Chengling read through them so superficially, that he almost thought the boy might not comment on the name at all. But of course his hope was in vain – it was written rather prominently right at the bottom where their signatures had to go.
“Zhou Zishu?” Chengling enquired. “Why do you call yourself Zhou Xu?”
He had prepared for the question of course, and had decided that the simplest answer would be the most believable one. “Xu is a nickname I was given during my time at college. It just stuck. So people don’t really use my given name, and personally, I don’t like it much. Please call me Zhou Xu, if you don’t mind.” He tried his best to sound unconcerned and turned away from the boy to hide his expression.
The boy nodded, and that was that. Zhou Zishu just hoped the other would not be curious enough to type his name into google.
Other than that, Chengling signed with his usual attitude – way too much trust in others to even read the contract thoroughly – and by noon they were co-habitants. Zhou Zishu wondered, when he left the apartment to walk to the library, how long it would take for him to come to regret this choice.
Chapter 7: Judgements
A conversation about books
Zhou Zishu arrived at the library later than usual, and found Wen Kexing already seated at what had become their table. Today, the other was not reading poetry, but the book on Mongolian history that Zhou Zishu had been reading through when they first met. He wondered if it was out of interest or if it was another ploy to annoy him. As Wen Kexing noticed his approach, he gave him a bright smile.
“A-Xu! I had been worrying you might not come today and I would be sitting here all alone and bored!” the man exclaimed.
“Is the book not keeping you entertained?” he enquired.
“No”, the answer was short and to the point. “I can’t understand how you made it all the way through. Not that Mongolian history in itself is not interesting – but the book!” He exclaimed ‘the book!’ as if the thing had given him personal affront.
“It is badly written, boring, often vague and uninformative, and keeps contradicting itself. In one sentence Ghengis Khan is proclaimed to be the humane counterpart to evil Chinese conquerors, in the next, he introduced techniques of murder more cruel then any that had ever been used before. It’s not that I can’t deal with judgemental storytelling and colonial worldviews. They were all the vogue for at least a century of scholarly writing after all – but the least, the least! I require, is that those judgements stay kind of consistent. This just makes me think that the author copied all of his books from a variety of other texts without even thinking about the narrative he was construing. And such bad work insults me.” He was putting the book down on the table with an audible thumb.
“Why ever did you read this?” he enquired.
Zhou Zishu noticed that he was smiling involuntarily. “The author. Robert G. Mertens is known for his critical history of the Iranian continent. I had heard about it before, but never got a chance to read it. When I saw the name on the cover I thought this might be written in a similar style.”
Wen Kexing shook his head in a manner that made the tips of his hair fly around his shoulders. “Impossible. Not a line of this book can be called ‘A critical history’. Are you sure the author is the same?” he asked.
Zhou Zishu nodded. “Yes, after I started in on this, I was wondering myself and checked. The author is indeed the same. But this is one of his earliest works, written in parallel to his dissertation, it seems. The critical history of the Iranian continent is a late work, published just before retirement. A good 35 years later. Isn’t it fascinating, how people can change in the course of a lifetime?” It had genuinely impressed him. Wen Kexing was right. This book was bad. The other one he had never read himself, but it was celebrated as an exemplary work of critical history and he trusted the judgement of at least some of the people who had said so. The discrepancy had made him hold out to the end. And the fact that he knew near to nothing about Mongolian history and could at least gather some basic information about it from an admittedly horribly biased text.
Wen Kexing stared at him. “You read”, he picks up the tome again and leaves through to the end, “632 pages of this, to admire that the author learned to write a good book later in life?” His eyes are wide open. “A-Xu! Are you mad?”
The honest sounding question makes him laugh. “Maybe?” he answers, because he can certainly understand the reaction. “But I really was interested in Mongolian history, they didn’t have a better book about it, and neither did they have a later book by Mertens. So it just seemed good enough.”
“It seemed good enough?” the other echoes. “Why didn’t you…” but he trails off without finishing the sentence. What would the question have been? Why didn’t you do something more productive with your time? Why didn’t you go to the University library that was guaranteed to have a way better selection of history books? Why didn’t you just buy the book you wanted to read? The first two questions, he would have refused to answer. The last, he was not sure about himself. For some reason, he was not ready to bring any books into his living space right now. Well, none beyond those crime fiction novels he had bought early on, anyway. He had no problem just giving those away when he was done.
But what would he do with any books he wanted to keep? Put a desk into the study, some bookshelves behind it, stacked with academic works? It would transport him right back into the past, to his life as a professor, as a successful scholar, as a celebrated researcher. A role in which he had utterly failed. He couldn’t do it. Wouldn’t do it. Any step in that direction would be wrong. Or was he cheating himself? Was he already on his way back, by sitting here in the library and reading history books? Talking about their quality with Wen Kexing? For a moment, he wasn’t sure. But it didn’t feel wrong. And they were history books. Maybe he could even bring them back home without feeling bad about it someday. But not yet. He was glad the other never finished his question.
Zhou Zishu turned around to walk to the shelve where he knew to find his current book of choice and settled down opposite Wen Kexing for some quiet reading. The other never took up his book again, but seemed to study him instead, interrupted only by short glances at his smartphone. About a quarter of an hour later, Wen Kexing left.
Chapter 8: Moving in
Chengling starts making himself at home.
The next three days, nothing much happened. Chengling want back to his cousin’s place to pick up the rest of his stuff and settled down in an empty room. He had refolded the empty cardboard boxes and stacked them to make up an improvised shelve and put his sleeping back down on the floor. Zhou Zishu had handed the boy a spare blanket to make his improvised bed a little more comfortable but had otherwise not allowed his new flatmate to disturb his routines. He went jogging in the mornings, visited the library shortly past noon, did some shopping or household chores in the late afternoon, before seeking out a pub in the evening. He seldom drank less than three beers, whiling his evenings away in either his own dry musings or by observing the other patrons around him. But it had been a while since he had felt the need to get full out drunk. And as long as he made it out of bed at 7.30 the next morning and found the motivation to go on his regular run, he saw nothing wrong with his habit. Quiet evenings at home were simply not his thing. Chengling had looked at him a little oddly when he had gone out the second evening in a row but had luckily not dared to comment.
It was on day four after acquiring his new flatmate that he came back from his run and almost fell over some boxes left in the middle of their living area. Chengling was not to be seen, but he could hear noises through the open door to his bedroom. Zhou Zishu made his way around the boxes to the open door. He was surprised to not only see Chengling himself, but also Gu Xiang, both cowering over some wooden boards while more were spread around in the whole room.
“What are you doing?” he inquired.
Gu Xiang was quick to look up, while Chengling apparently needed all of his concentration to put a screw into an already existing hole.
“What does it look like?” the woman asked, provocative as ever. “We are putting together furniture. It is good that you are back, though. Do you have an electric screwdriver hidden away somewhere in this apartment?”
He should probably count it as good manners that she had actually answered his question. The answer to hers was simple. “I do not. I am not particularly capable when it comes to employing tools and I prefer to stay away from them.”
“Ayah!” she exclaimed. “Another useless person. The two of you will make a fine pair!”
Chengling apparently felt the need to defend him. Or maybe the boy was just afraid of being thrown out if his guest behaved too badly. “Shut up, Gu Xiang. Don’t bother him with this.”
The woman huffed. “Dear Chengling. If we do not in the near future speed up the process of getting the screws into this board, we will be hard pressed to get your bed together today, not speaking about the rest of the furniture we bought. As putting together furniture is not the quietest task in the world, I fear your flatmate will be bothered. We will bother him much less if we get the work done quickly.”
Her argument did sound reasonable and it had solved a riddle for him – the boards spread all over the floor were apparently supposed to make a bed. Kind of fitting, as there was also a mattress leaning against the wall. Zhou Zishu surmised that the unpacked boxes in his living room contained more furniture. He had intended to tell Chengling to get them out of their common area and into his room. But apparently, putting together furniture took up quite a lot of floor space. He might have to live with those boxes for the day. He was, however, not ready to live with them for more than one day.
“I really have no skills when it comes to DIY projects and certainly no ambition to learn, either. I am, however, an adequate shopper. Especially when given precise direction. If you can tell me what exactly you need and where to get it, I will be happy to go and procure such an electric screwdriver in the interest of quick proceedings.” It would not kill him to be helpful once in a while. And picking up a tool would hardly ruin his day.
“Great!”, came Gu Xiang’s quick answer, before she proceeded to look at the screen of her smartphone and type in her requests at astonishing speed.
Chengling seemed to hesitate. “That is really nice, and all, and I know I owe you both. A lot. But as far as I remember, electric screwdrivers are not exactly cheap. And we already spent a lot on the furniture today. So – it’s really fine. You can just help me with the first bit, Gu Xiang, and once I get the hang of it I can finish the rest on my own. If it takes a few days, that’s not a problem. Term is only going to start in a week, after all. And I promise I will work on this as quietly as possible!” He exclaimed.
Gu Xiang looked askance. “Do you know nothing?” she asked in a manner that reminded Zhou Zishu of Wen Kexing. Those two were very obviously much more than boss and assistant to each other, even though those were the terms they preferred to use. “It is impossible to assemble Ikea furniture on your own. It even says so in the instructions! Unless you grow a third and fourth arm, preferably of two meters length each, you will not be able to do it. An expert at DIY improvisation – maybe they would manage. But not a silly boy who knows nothing about furniture!”
Chengling blushed and mumbled to the floor. “Maybe my cousin can help me, or something. I will figure it out”, he answered.
Zhou Zishu realized it was time for him to intervene. “Did you get anything for the living room?” he enquired.
“Not yet”, the boy answered. “We thought to get a shoe rack, and a wardrobe, and possibly another chest of drawers. But I did not want to get anything before asking for your approval”, the boy hastened to add. And he had probably been out of money as well.
“How about a deal”, Zhou Zishu continued. “You show me those things, and make a suggestion for some decorative stuff as well – a carpet, possibly a picture, maybe a plant. Stuff like that. In exchange for you doing the research and actually going to collect the stuff, I will pay anything that is dedicated for the living room. And assuming you will need some screws to put those things together as well, I will buy the electric screwdriver and any other tools needed, in exchange for you two putting those things together.” He was quite aware that he was including Gu Xiang in the deal, as she seemed to have taken the lead on this project of furniture shopping and assemblage. And it was not her job to decorate his flat. But she had apparently volunteered to help the boy and thus he had no qualms about making her help a bit more. He wondered only briefly if this had been her own initiative, or if Wen Kexing had put her up to it.
The woman, who had been typing some more into her phone while he spoke, looked up. “Deal,” she said immediately. “I have found what we need. The closest hardware store doesn’t have a decent selection. But you will manage to get to the one in the west city, won’t you? They have a good offer. And we could use a drill, some screws for the wall, and a decent hammer as well.”
Zhou Zishu nodded. “Can you write me a list?”
The girl shook her head. “What an old-fashioned idea! You have a smartphone, don’t you? Give me your number, and I will send you the shopping list, including product numbers and information on where to find each item.”
Zhou Zishu was reluctant to give out his number. Not because he worried about Gu Xiang misusing it, but because he thought it was likely to end up in the hands of Wen Kexing. But her request seemed reasonable. He dictated his number and added “Don’t pass this on to anyone, alright? I value my privacy.” She finished typing and apparently pressed sent, as his own phone vibrated in his pocket before looking up at him. “Don’t worry. I won’t give it to him. But you really should consider being a bit nicer to Kexing, you know? The gods only know why, but he seems to care about you. And it’s not nice that you keep brushing him off.”
Zhou Zishu stared at her but the woman did stare right back without lowering her eyes. “Do I not have the right to decide myself who I wish to spent my time with and who I wish to keep at a distance?” he asked.
Gu Xiang, as always, was not short of an answer. “Sure you do. But if you do not like him, just make it clear once and for all. You keep sending mixed signals, and that is just stringing him along.”
And she was right, of course. While Zhou Zishu kept telling himself that he was mostly annoyed by Wen Kexing and that he would prefer the other man stopped bothering him with his ridiculous compliments and flirting, he did catch himself again and again enjoying the other man’s company. But he was certainly not ready to allow him to get close. Was this cruel? He thought Wen Kexing was not quite as sensitive as Gu Xiang seemed to imply. But he would have to consider this. If he was really being cruel, there was no choice but to tell the other once and for all that Zhou Zishu did not want him around. But for now, he had some shopping to do.
When he returned about one and a half hours later with all of the requested items, not much had changed in the flat. Chengling and Gu Xiang had apparently decided to take a break and wait for his return. The woman had made tea. After he had handed over his purchases, Chengling made him sit down and pressed a cup into his hand. Zhou Zishu noticed the boy’s tablet on the table. The two had obviously taken his suggestion of a deal seriously. He was looking at a list of furniture. They had done a good job. The suggested items were either white, so that they would not stand out against the white walls of the room but keep the place light, or they had muted colours. They had an adequate choice for everything he had suggested and he quickly approved all of them. When he thought he was done, however, Gu Xiang opened a second list.
“Here are a few more things we thought the place could use.” Chengling hastened to add: “You can of course just reject the ideas. None of this is really necessary.”
Zhou Zishu had no intention of straight out rejecting them just because they had not been his idea. He took his time to look through the list. Some throw pillows could make the couch more comfortable. New curtains for the windows were a necessity he really should have thought of himself. The old ones looked worn and were an ugly beige colour. Gu Xiang had suggested a nice pale blue that he liked. He was surprised to find an armchair on the list. “Why do you think we need an armchair. We do have a couch?” He questioned.
“Yes, but it only seats two”, to his surprise it was Chengling who answered.
“Yes?” Zhou Zishu asked again. “As far as I am aware, we are two people. And not actually in the habit of spending a lot of time in the living room together. A couch for two seems fine?”
“Do you never have visitors?” Gu Xiang asked. The answer was, very apparently, no. But Zhou Zishu got the point anyway. Chengling might want to have visitors. Gu Xiang was, in fact, a visitor. He did not imagine the three of them sitting down to watch a TV show together anytime soon. But the other two were probably envisioning a more social future.
“And the list suggests two armchairs, by the way. Having comfortable seats for four people seems reasonable. You did buy four chairs for the dinner table, after all.”
Indeed, he had overlooked the small number written in front of the listing. But the thought of such a cosy round of people made him shiver. “One armchair”, Zhou Zishu decided. “If that should ever be insufficient, we do have chairs. Two would just crowd the living room.”
Chengling seemed to be delighted by his decision, while Gu Xiang scowled. They spent some more time going through the list. Zhou Zishu rejected the suggestion of a mirror, questioned some kitchen supplies that had found their way on the list, but gave in with those once Chengling explained for which dishes he would need the extra equipment. If the boy actually meant to cook, Zhou Zishu was not going to stop him. The sum total of the list only came to about 500, which astonished him considering the number of items on there. He could well afford to spent the money to make himself – and mostly, of course, Chengling – a bit more comfortable. He was taking rent from the boy after all, and in just two months that amount would have compensated for the purchases.
Chapter 9: Reaching Out
Zhou Zishu renews contact with an old friend.
Having exceeded his tolerance for social contact even though he had skipped on his library outing today, Zhou Zishu made his way into his room and shut the door. With some trepidation he noticed that the TV, his usual instrument to kill some time, was in the living room. He lay down on his bed and stared at the window for a while. The active bustling going on in his apartment made him painfully aware of his lack of anything to do. After a while, he grudgingly got out his notebook from the box under the bed where he had stored it once again after setting up Chengling’s contract. He might have to consider getting a second TV for his bedroom, but for now he did have the option of just streaming something on his notebook.
Before he also got out his headphones to do so, he quickly pressed on the mail icon on his desktop. He should really send out at least a brief greeting to some of his old contacts. His inbox proclaimed he had 324 unread messages and Zhou Zishu quickly averted his eyes. He had no interest in looking at most of them. In fact, he thought he might be about to panic. He quickly manoeuvred the cursor into the search field and typed in ‘Beiyuan’. The list of messages in the window immediately shortened down to just six. Four of those were old and had already been read. Two of them were highlighted as unread. Zhou Zishu focused on breathing. He could deal with this.
The first mail was pretty much what he expected. In a light tone, his old friend talked about a few things that had happened in his life, mainly centred around the relationship with his boyfriend, reliably avoiding any mention of work. He inquired after Zhou Zishu’s plans to move and whether he had already found a new place.
The second message was sent three weeks later. The other had obviously tried to be patient with him, but at some point, had lost his patience. The mail was much more forward, outwardly expressing the other man’s worries. Telling him to call if he needed anything. Telling him to at least sent a sign that he was still alive. And suggesting once more, as his friend had done before, that Zhou Zishu seek out a therapist to get professional help. With trepidation he remembered that he had all but promised his friend to do so once he had moved.
He knew he was a mess ever since he had quit his job. And he knew his friend worried. Possibly the only friend he had left after he had broken contact with almost everyone in his life. Most of his colleagues he did not want to see ever again. They had made him into what he had become. They had forced him into a role that went against everything he had learned and valued as a young man and had strengthened him in it by calling him excellent, talented, outstanding. He had been an outstanding catastrophe. His former employees and assistants – those were people he still valued in his heart. But he was sure it was better for them if he did not contact them at all. He had destroyed their careers, pushed them past their limits, betrayed their trust. He was sure they were all better off without him. Most of them certainly deserved an apology - maybe one day he would be strong enough to give it. For whatever that might be worth. He could not, after all, go back and change anything about what he had done. Instead he sat here, mostly alone, so that he could not harm anyone else.
He began to worry that it had been a mistake to allow Chengling to move in. Sure, the other had needed a place to stay. But would they really be able to live together without interacting? Zhou Zishu had promised himself not to get involved in the boy’s life, so that he could do no harm. But was he not already failing at this resolution? Wasn’t he simply lying to himself when he denied that he had started caring for the boy? How could he have allowed this to happen?
Zhou Zishu raised his eyes to the screen again. To the message from Beiyuan.
You need help. It said. You promised.
Have you settled in yet? Have you contacted someone? Talked to a professional? He had not.
Zhou Zishu forced himself to send a quick reply, confirming that he was safe and sound and living in a new city. He apologized for the delay in his response, explaining that he had tried to stay away from his mails as they troubled him. He hesitated a little, but then gave Beiyuan his new mobile number. It would be much more comfortable answering his messages there, without having to see all of his other mails. He trusted the other would not make too much of a nuisance of himself.
He did not write anything in response to the other’s remark on getting professional help. He simply did not know what to say. He acknowledged the advice, was aware of his need to sort himself out, but he was not sure he had the willpower to actively seek help quite yet. And he did not want to make another empty promise. He had no illusions about the other man seeing right through him – Beiyuan knew him well, and had known him long, and his soon to be husband had a knack for understanding people that turned the two of them into a fearsome couple to be around if one wanted to keep certain aspects about one’s life private. But this was the best he could get himself to do for now.
No energy left to look at anything else, he quickly shut the program again, before starting in on his latest TV series. It was an action series with little plot and lots of exploding cars and a few police officers who absolutely always knew to do the right thing. They were thwarted in their efforts, of course, but they could never be stopped. In the end, the good triumphed. He wished the real world were anything like this. And he enjoyed the explosions. After two episodes, however, he was getting restless again and decided to head out.
That night, beer was just not enough to calm his thoughts, and after staring at his first glass without ever finishing it, he gave in and ordered a whiskey. He knew he was developing a problem with alcohol. He knew he should not drink every day, and certainly should not get full out drunk once to twice every week. But knowing didn’t help. Knowing did not shut out the thoughts that were circling too loudly through his head. He was thinking of Beiyuan tonight. Of their early days together at university. Of the exhilarating feeling of being the best, trying his hardest, succeeding at what he set out to do. The feeling of recognition from those he had admired for years.
He remembered his first job and how excited he had been at the opportunities it provided. How he had craved more responsibility, more opportunity, more power. Power he only ever meant to use for good, of course. The power to learn, to generate knowledge, to help humanity understand the world it was living in. To help societies develop. And to help other people to acquire the skills to do the same. To form the young minds of a future generation towards creativity and innovation and critical thinking. To create opportunity and possibility. Those first years, when Beiyuan had been working just across the floor from his own office, he had loved his job and had not once questioned the time and dedication it demanded of him. It did not matter that there was nothing else in his life but work. It did not matter that he only ever got home to sleep. He was willing and ready to dedicate his life to an academic career and did not think he needed anything else.
He did have a social life of sorts. It was simply all set on campus and tied in with the projects he worked on. He thought it was the ideal life. Those years, even in hindsight, had not been bad. But they were only the beginning. They had been meant to prepare him for a steep career, and they had. He had been offered his full professorship soon after. And from there on, he had lost sight of what learning and knowledge had once meant to him in the context of a life that contained more than academic achievement. With his promotion, he had begun to lose himself.
Zhou Zishu ordered a second whiskey, and a third. But somewhere on his third glass, he got a message on his phone from Beiyuan.
Glad to hear from you. Hope you are doing better. Give me a call if you feel like it.
Short. Simple. Caring. And suddenly he remembered Gu Xiang and Chengling slaving away at his apartment, trying to turn it into a friendly and habitable place and he felt bad about sitting here and drowning his thoughts in alcohol. He got up and left without finishing his glass. He got home and drank three large glasses of water before moving on into his room. He tried his best to be quiet and it did seem to work. At least Chengling did not leave his room, if he had woken him. He set himself two alarms before closing his eyes. He would not give in this time. Tomorrow would not be a wasted day. He would get up and go running and follow his routines. He would do his best to behave like a decent human being and not like someone who considered himself a complete failure and had run away from a past he was not ready to deal with.
Chapter 10: Coffee with Lao Wen
“But?” Zhou Zishu inquired. “Do you have more lost souls I am meant to take in? Or a pet, maybe?” How could the other deny that he had been meddling? Without Wen Kexing, he might have never made such an irresponsible decision. Him and a young and naïve, impressionable boy? Not a good combination.
Wen Kexing shook his head. “No, not at all! It’s just – A-Xiang mentioned that her and Chengling are meant to go shopping for some more furniture for the living area, because the place is so bare. Even though you moved in several months ago. I just thought I should offer some help…”
Zishu reacted with anger. He knew it had been a mistake to let the boy move in. And the boy had brought Gu Xiang, and now Wen Kexing insisted on being included on the list of unwelcome visitors intruding on his space. Zhou Zishu had been stupid. Alright, he had had no idea that the first person the brat would invite into their home would be the assistant of the most nosy and bothersome person he had ever met. But he should have known. Letting people into his life was just a recipe for disaster.
“Say your spy to keep her nose out of my business. You have helped enough”, he spat at the other.
He did follow through with what he had promised himself. He got out of bed, made breakfast, went running, and tried his best to wish the boy a cheerful good morning before leaving the house. He had a headache, of course, and his legs felt heavy and his mind felt fuzzy and he had certainly felt better than he did right now. But he knew it would be an excuse. His body was fine. He was able to exercise and it would do him good to do so. In the afternoon he went to the library. He was looking forward to spent some quiet time reading with Wen Kexing. Even though he enjoyed the man’s company, he felt trepidation when the other got up and put away his book as soon as he arrived. ”A-Xu! I missed you yesterday. I want to talk. Let us go and grab a coffee!”
Before he had any chance to protest he had been grabbed by the arm and was dragged outside. And even though it would of course have been within his power to resist, he did not have the will to do so. He felt more than any other day like a failure, and if Wen Kexing thought he needed to accompany him to get a cup of tea than that was probably a good enough idea. Who was Zhou Zishu to reject him?
He was just wondering what the other meant to talk to him about.
After walking down a few streets, they found a nice looking place, set down, and ordered coffee. Wen Kexing kept staring at him in a way that made Zhou Zishu feel slightly uncomfortable, before starting the conversation.
“Now, first of all, thank you for such a generous gesture. I am sure you will not regret it!” Wen Kexing smiled brightly at him.
Zhou Zishu frowned. “What gesture?”
“Allowing Chengling to move in! I have heard the boy is quite happy with the place. Xiang tells me he is basically ecstatic. I knew you would do the right thing!” Wen Kexing proclaimed with the widest smile on his face.
Zhou Zishu answered with a grunt. “No, you did not. You simply tried to meddle in other people’s decisions.”
Wen Kexing raised his hands in a gesture of defence.
The eye it cannot choose but see,
We cannot bid the ear be still;
Our bodies feel, where’er they be,
Against, or with our will.
“I only ever meant to give a little push. Your decisions are still your own, my friend. But…”, he hesitated in going on.
“But?” Zhou Zishu inquired. “Do you have more lost souls I am meant to take in? Or a pet, maybe?” How could the other deny that he had been meddling? Without Wen Kexing, he might have never made such an irresponsible decision. Him and a young and naïve, impressionable boy? Not a good combination.
Wen Kexing shook his head. “No, not at all! It’s just – A-Xiang mentioned that her and Chengling are meant to go shopping for some more furniture for the living area, because the place is so bare. Even though you moved in several months ago. I just thought I should offer some help…”
Zishu reacted with anger. He knew it had been a mistake to let the boy move in. And the boy had brought Gu Xiang, and now Wen Kexing insisted on being included on the list of unwelcome visitors intruding on his space. Zhou Zishu had been stupid. Alright, he had had no idea that the first person the brat would invite into their home would be the assistant of the most nosy and bothersome person he had ever met. But he should have known. Letting people into his life was just a recipe for disaster.
“Say your spy to keep her nose out of my business. You have helped enough”, he spat at the other. He expected Wen Kexing to deflect in the face of a clear rejection of his help, but the opposite was the case. “The high and mighty Zhou Xu! Were you really so important in your past life that you think yourself beyond any offer of help? Gu Xiang is not my spy. She was there to help Chengling, and you know it. And she talked to me, because she was excited about all the changes she had set in motion. Excited, because she thought the boy would do well, living with you. And a little worried, I assume, because your space was so bare. And she didn’t tell me much at all. I just drew my own conclusions from what she said, and thought I should offer help. How could I know that the great Zhou Xu would be insulted by such an offer!” The other spit out those words at a speed that Zhou Zishu had absolutely no chance to get a single word in sideways.
“It is none of your business. Stop being so nosy. I simply enjoy a minimalist style.” Zhou Zishu felt his chest tighten.
Wen Kexing took a deep breath before answering a little more calmly. “If you wish it to be none of my business – you are right, it is not. I was, however, making it my business because I care. As hard as it might be for you to believe that, I care about you, A-Xu. If you really want me to stop, just say the words.” Wen Kexing got so quiet on that last sentence and Zhou Zishu felt a heavy weight settle in his chest. Here they were. Being serious about their intentions. And he was torn. A part of him wanted to take up Wen Kexing on that offer. The part of him that couldn’t shake the blame, that believed it was his fault and he would just continue ruining the lives of people around him, that part of him wanted to tell Wen Kexing to go to hell and stop caring about him.
But another part of him, a treacherous little voice, told him not to do it. To hold on to what was possibly one of the few good things in his life right now – a growing friendship, however tentative and slow that growing process happened to be.
Zhou Zishu stood up. “I need some space”, was the excuse he gave when leaving the store. And he hoped the other understood the message that had lain in the words he had not spoken. Understood what it had cost him to not tell the other that he should stop caring about his A-Xu. A fake name, for a fake man. A person who didn’t exist. Zhou Zishu wondered if at some far point in the future he could find it in himself to become A-Xu. To become the person Wen Kexing wanted him to be.
Poetry lines taken from Expostulation and Reply by William Wordsworth
Chapter 11: Some Steps Forward
What was Zhou Zishu supposed to do? Discourage the boy from cooking? It seemed unreasonable. Declaring that Wen Kexing would never be allowed into their flat? That wasn’t even the point. Zhou Zishu did not think he could accept the man as Chengling’s guest in their shared flat. It would be highly uncomfortable. Even if he was ready to meet the other again, he felt a strong need to stay in control for any of their encounters. As much as anyone could hope to keep control while faced with Wen Kexing.
In the end, he decided to deflect as well as he could: “What a great idea! Make sure Wen Kexing invites you to his place, and I can get some peace and quiet here, and the kitchen will be left in peace until you have managed the skills to not destroy anything.”
Zhou Zishu was somewhat relieved at not seeing Wen Kexing for a while. To avoid running into him in the following days he changed his treasured daily routines. He started visiting the library in the mornings – certain that Wen Kexing would not expect him to do so and thus would not be there – and went running in the afternoons.
While he tried his best to avoid any conversation beyond basic social greetings, Chengling with the help of Gu Xiang transformed the apartment they lived in. New curtains found their way to the windows and were complemented by an assortment of plants in matching pots on the windowsills. Some of the plants looked like herbs and he wondered if Chengling was actually going to use them in his cooking. Throw pillows and a woollen blanket found their way onto his couch and irritated him at first, but he soon found that they were quite comfortable. The coat rack turned out to be rather practical, once he got into the habit of hanging up his jacket instead of throwing it onto a chair. In short: the place was transformed into an inviting living room in a way that made Zhou Zishu aware of his lack of decorating skills whenever he sought privacy – his personal bedroom, off limits to Chengling as well as Gu Xiang, looked bare and sad when compared to their shared space.
On the sixth day of his new avoidance schedule, Zhou Zishu found a real surprise at the city library. He immediately noticed that the history section had been rearranged when he stood in front of it. The book he had last been reading had been moved from the left side of the second board to quite a bit further right. Changes happened when books were put back onto the boards from a display or something like that, but they were usually rare and minor. Zhou Zishu quickly scanned the boards for any new tomes and he found a number of them. He felt vaguely uneasy when he noticed that his first ever choice from this section – the Mongolian history – had gained company. A total of five brand new books on the origin of the Mongols, the conquests of Genghis Khan, and the different realms ruled by his predecessors stood there.
He scanned the other sections and his eyes got caught on a familiar name. Mertens. He took out the book without reading the title while scanning further along the line with his eyes. Another. And another. In total, four books of Robert E. Mertens had been added to the selection. Zhou Zishu hardly needed to glance at the descriptions and titles to figure out that these were his most recent works. The books that had been lauded for their critical perspective on history. As he had told Wen Kexing about two weeks ago. Putting all of the volumes back into place, he scanned the room for one of the librarians and quickly found a young man moving between the shelves whom he had talked to briefly before. Without giving himself the time to hesitate, he approached.
“Excuse me?” The other looked up with a polite smile. “I noticed some new books in the history section”, Zhou Zishu continued. “Did you restock your selection recently?” It could all be a coincidence, after all.
The man smiled. “Oh no. We always restock at the beginning of the year. These were a rather unexpected donation. But we are glad to have them.” The man’s smile remained a little questioning. He was obviously unsure what Zhou Zishu was getting at. But he had already heard everything he needed. The man would not tell him who the generous donor had been. And Zhou Zishu knew anyway.
“Thank you”, he nodded politely at the other, “those are some great books.” He turned back and left without reading anything at all. It felt wrong to accept a gift from the man he was actively avoiding, no matter how indirectly it had been given.
He made his way home but did not find the peace and quiet he had hoped for. Chengling and Gu Xiang were in the kitchen area, apparently busy with cooking. Only their attempts seemed to resemble his own more than was probably recommended. Chengling had talked so much about using that kitchen that Zhou Zishu had assumed the boy knew how to cook. Now, he was not so sure anymore. The two were very obviously arguing over a recipe, while something spilled out of a pot on the oven.
Gu Xiang looked up when he walked in and seemed to study his appearance closely. “You were not out running.” She stated.
“No, I was not.” He answered back.
The girl huffed. “Does it make any sense to ask whether you are alright?”
Zhou Zishu shrugged, amused by her meta-question. “Depends. What do you hope to get out of that question?” He asked back.
“An honest answer? Or at least a vague hint on whether there is reason to worry?” She specified.
Zhou Zishu grinned. “An honest answer is something you are unlikely to get. Hints? I guess that depends more on your skill of reading people than on what I am going to say, no?” He was surprised at his own openness. But the banter with Gu Xiang amused him.
Chengling shifted his attention from the recipe on his tablet to their conversation as well. Neither of the two was paying any attention to the pot boiling over behind them. “I think it would be more appropriate for you two to worry about your cooking, instead of about me. I am going to change, and then I will be running.” Zhou Zishu made to end the conversation.
Observing Chengling quickly turning around to turn down the heat on the oven, he walked over to his room. Just before closing the door behind himself he added with a backward glance: “You can tell Lao Wen I will be at the library at the usual time tomorrow, if you like. And tell him he is not supposed to buy me books.” He closed the door behind him without even checking if Gu Xiang had heard. He was almost certain she had, but if not, it would not matter. He wasn’t even sure why he had said that. If Wen Kexing had not given up on him yet, the man would appear at the library at their usual time sooner or later. It did not matter if they met tomorrow or next week.
He did find out that same day that his worried estimation of Chenglings’s skills in the kitchen had been right. Within the next two hours, the two self-proclaimed cooks managed to ruin the food they had set out to prepare completely, and he ended up ordering some pizza from a nearby restaurant for everyone. For the first time since Chengling had moved in, they settled down to eat dinner together, with the addition of Gu Xiang.
The conversation started out slow, centring around Chengling’s upcoming courses. Term was about to start in just four days and the boy was nervous about his course load. He had apparently selected to do more than in past semesters but was unsure if he would be able to do well with the increased workload. Gu Xiang was ready enough to give him some pointers, mainly focused on time management and organization. Chengling was very obviously hoping for him to join the conversation, but Zhou Zishu refused. The boy was luckily still too shy to ask any direct questions, so the topic was easy enough to get out of.
Zhou Zishu did not want to share his past experiences. He was surprised to notice that Gu Xiang as well was answering in an evasive manner. She talked freely enough about her first semesters as a student but only referred very vaguely to her current work. Zhou Zishu was not surprised to hear the girl had studied literature and very much assumed that Wen Kexing was into the same subject. Even beyond his habit of citing random poetry, it was quite obvious that the other had a solid understanding of literary traditions. Zhou Zishu wondered what had brought the two of them to Jianghu. They obviously visited lectures and workshops at the university. But as both tended to hang around the cafeteria and had never mentioned an office, he doubted that they worked there. Considering he had no intention of telling anyone about his past anytime soon, he reminded himself that it would be hypocritical of him to pry. He should respect their right to keep information to themselves as much as they wanted.
Gu Xiang herself ended up changing their topic of conversation to cooking soon enough. Zhou Zishu happily followed along, telling about his own attempts and dismal adventures, judging the topic safe enough. Until the woman revealed that Wen Kexing was apparently an eager and talented cook. Chengling seemed duly impressed, and inevitably the question arose of whether the man might be willing to teach the boy some basics. And thus a perfectly innocent and agreeable topic turned into a minefield.
What was Zhou Zishu supposed to do? Discourage the boy from cooking? It seemed unreasonable. Declaring that Wen Kexing would never be allowed into their flat? That wasn’t even the point. Zhou Zishu did not think he could accept the man as Chengling’s guest in their shared flat. It would be highly uncomfortable. Even if he was ready to meet the other again, he felt a strong need to stay in control for any of their encounters. As much as anyone could hope to keep control while faced with Wen Kexing.
In the end, he decided to deflect as well as he could: “What a great idea! Make sure Wen Kexing invites you to his place, and I can get some peace and quiet here, and the kitchen will be left in peace until you have managed the skills to not destroy anything.” He couldn’t stop himself from affectionately roughing up the boy’s hair. It had started to become a little bit of a habit. The first time, he had reached out quite unconsciously and had been about to apologize, but the boy had grinned at him so happily that Zhou Zishu had swallowed down the words on his tongue.
Gu Xiang frowned at him. “Yeah, I am sure Kexing wouldn’t mind you coming over to pick up some skills. I will ask.” She looked at Zhou Zishu in a manner that told clearly that she had understood his message well enough, but decided not to say anything about it for the moment. He hoped she would stick to that decision for a long time.
The next afternoon, it was pretty clear that Wen Kexing had received his message. The other was waiting at their usual table, book in hand, and a bottle of wine with a large decorative bow tied to its neck on the table in front of him. He smiled brightly as soon as he saw him.
“A-Xu! There you are! I almost thought you had forgotten me. Luckily, Gu Xiang informed me of your plans or I might have ended up not coming today. You asked her to do that, did you not?” His voice stayed loud and cheery, but the question at the end betrayed his insecurity. Wen Kexing was apparently not entirely sure that he was welcome.
Zhou Zishu took care to look gloomy and did not allow even the hint of a smile to rise to his face. “Yes, I told your assistant to let you know I would be here. Just in case you would not be able to find anyone else to annoy.” He responded gruffly, while sitting down. He sceptically stared at the bottle of wine. “What is this?”
Wen Kexing smiled. “Well, you know. My assistant also told me that you expressed appreciation for my gift. Only, there must have been a misunderstanding, as I did not actually gift you anything so far. As I did want to risk neither disappointing you, nor making her look bad for obviously transmitting a message wrong, I thought I would rectify the problem by simply giving you a gift now.” The smile on his face for once seemed genuine. “I hope you like red wine?”
Zhou Zishu shrugged his shoulders. “I guess I like it well enough.”
Wen Kexing smiled again. “This one goes particularly well with roasted duck, just in case you were wondering.” He added. And Zhou Zishu did not need to ask where he might possibly get roasted duck. He was sure he already knew. “Thank you”, he answered, “that sounds a bit special. Luckily, in my experience almost any wine goes well with a frozen pizza, too.”
Wen Kexing laughed. “Oh, A-Xu. You are really a treasure!”
He turned to hide a small smile. “Talking about treasures. This library recently acquired some very interesting books and I am rather eager to read them. You will have to excuse me for a second while I get one.” He did not wait for an answer before going to pick up his book. He didn’t need to. Their shared habit of reading was established well enough that the following one and a half hours of silence were comfortable. He was astonished at himself at getting over their fight so quickly.
Life settled into a new routine. Zhou Zishu and Chengling developed the habit of getting up at around the same time and sharing a few words over their first cup of coffee. After finishing it, Zhou Zishu got changed to go for his run, while Chengling got settled at the kitchen table to study if he did not need to leave for class. By the time Zhou Zishu got back, the boy was usually either gone or about to leave. Zhou Zishu settled himself in front of the TV and ate a bite, mostly killing time until it was late enough to get up and go to the library. Wen Kexing would be there four days out of five. The other had never explained his attendances or absences and never announced beforehand when he would not come. Zhou Zishu didn’t mind. As the other had never missed their meeting for two days in a row, he was calm enough with telling himself that he would see the other tomorrow. They chatted for a bit, but spent the bulk of their time together reading quietly. Zhou Zishu was very happy with the new books and almost ready to admit that he should probably just buy what he wanted to read instead of relying on the selection of the library. But as the library was their excuse to meet in a neutral space, he was not about to do so anytime soon.
Once he had finished his chapter for the day, he would often go to the city to go shopping for food or to run some unavoidable errands. Only in rare cases did he go directly home. At home, he occupied himself with housework until Chengling came back from campus. The boy had an inherent need to talk about his day, even though Zhou Zishu hardly ever commented at all. At the beginning, he had been loath to listen. But by now, he had kind of gotten used to it. Chengling’s reports about his courses in media studies were funny enough and far enough removed from his own memories that he could mostly avoid identifying himself with the boy.
While the boy talked, the two of them prepared something to eat. Preferably something that involved none to minimal cooking. The boy had taken his first lesson with Wen Kexing, but he would obviously need a lot more time to become a proficient and independent cook. Pasta with ready-made tomato sauce was among the most complex dishes the two managed to prepare without accidents. The simplicity and routine of their days did not make them any less appreciated. If anyone had asked, Zhou Zishu would have had to admit that Chengling’s presence had improved his moods quite a bit. When on Thursday the boy had left early and declared that he would be on campus until late in the day, and Wen Kexing had not shown up at the library, Zhou Zishu had gone home, shifted his housework of the day to Friday, and grabbed his computer to research therapists in the area.
Finding one to call had not been difficult. This had not, however, lead to the appointment he had hoped for. Apparently, long waiting lists were quite common in the profession. And talking to a general practitioner first was recommended. As it was implied, if not stated outright, that his chances to get an appointment anytime soon would increase if he were sent over by a doctor instead of on his own initiative, he decided to proceed to looking for a general practitioner instead. After another five phone calls that had left him quite tired, he had an appointment for the upcoming Tuesday. Zhou Zishu took a deep breath and decided to check the contents of their freezer in preparation for Chengling’s return home.
Chapter 12: An Unwelcome Surprise
“These were being pinned up and lying around on campus everywhere today. Is that normal? I have never before seen anything like that.” Chengling asked his two companions.
Gu Xiang seemed interested. “What is it?” She enquired and proceeded to take the paper out of his hands. Zhou Zishu, though he could only read the flyer upside down, only took a minute to understand what it was. It was a pamphlet decrying academic malpractice. It seemed to address a specific research initiative launched by Yue Yang University. But at the bottom, it also referenced other initiatives that had blown up in scandal in the last five years. Among them, he could easily identify the letters QuanGen.
Zhou Zishu and Chengling did not have the intended pizza that Thursday evening, as the boy did not come home alone but in the company of Gu Xiang. Wisely anticipating that there wouldn’t be enough food in the house for three, the two had brought Chinese takeout. Before they had even settled down to eat, however, Chengling pulled a green sheet of paper from his backpack.
“These were being pinned up and lying around on campus everywhere today. Is that normal? I have never before seen anything like that.” He asked his two companions.
Gu Xiang seemed interested. “What is it?” She enquired and proceeded to take the paper out of his hands. Zhou Zishu, though he could only read the flyer upside down, only took a minute to understand what it was. It was a pamphlet decrying academic malpractice. It seemed to address a specific research initiative launched by Yue Yang University. But at the bottom, it also referenced other initiatives that had blown up in scandal in the last five years. Among them, he could easily identify the letters QuanGen.
Zhou Zishu felt like he was suffocating. He got up and hastened to the bathroom, just to close a door behind himself. Frantically, he tried to calm down by throwing some water onto his face. It didn’t help. He could barely breath. Recognising symptoms he had experienced only twice before in his life, Zhou Zishu acknowledge that he was having a panic attack. He needed to calm down. He needed to breath. But he couldn’t. What he also could not do was leave the bathroom and go back to those two young people out there in his living room who had absolutely no idea what was going on.
Frantically, he started to rummage through his pockets, with absolutely no idea what he was even hoping to find. What he did find was his mobile phone. Damn it all. He did not want to do this. But he did not have much of a choice. With shaking fingers, he selected Beiyuan’s number and pressed the call button. The phone rang for a minute that appeared endless to him, before his old friend replied.
“Zishu?” the other opened the conversation cheerfully. “What a pleasant surprise! I had not dared to hope that you would call anytime soon.”
Zhou Zishu tried to force a deep breath into his lungs before setting out to disappoint the other. “Not exactly a social call. Sorry. I need your help”, he managed to get out in between gasping for air.
Beiyuan swiftly shifted into worried mode. “What is the matter? What do you need me to do?”
Zhou Zishu, in the meantime, had found his way down to the floor. Here, at least, he was not in danger of falling over. “I guess I am having a panic attack”, he spit out. “Talk to me?” he managed to add.
“Oh god, Zishu”, the other exclaimed, immediately checking himself and falling into a deep and calming voice. “Of course. Do not worry. I am here. I am talking to you. You will be alright. The only thing you need to do is breath…”
His friend continued in the same manner for quite a while. Zhou Zishu tried to concentrate on the sound of his voice more than on his words and did his best to slow down his breathing. When he was already starting to feel better, there was an abrupt change in Beiyuan’s manner. “Zishu”, the other informed him. “Wu Xi is right next to me. He would like to talk to you, so I will hand you over now, alright?” He waited, obviously not sure at all if his friend would agree to talk to his husband. Zhou Zishu did not think he had the right to be picky, at this point. “Sure.”
A moment later, another deep voice was talking to him, not wasting any time with pleasantries, but starting right in on a breathing exercise that Zhou Zishu found he was actually able to follow, even in his current state. When his breathing had slowed down significantly, the other stopped with the instructions.
“Your breathing sounds better. Have you calmed down?” the man asked.
“Yes, thank you”, he responded quietly, not wanting to be overheard. “And sorry for bothering you and Beiyuan. I didn’t mean to.”
Wu Xi was quiet for a moment. “Zhou Zishu, no one means to have a panic attack and we are quite happy to help, always, alright?” He nodded. Realizing that the other had no option to see the gesture, he added a brief “Yes. Thank you.”
Wu Xi proceeded. “But even though we will always be happy to help, it would be better if you found some professional help, to prevent this happening in the first place, okay?”
“Yeah, okay, I know.”
“Good. Are you alone?”
The question seemed strange. Should the other not assume he was alone as otherwise he might not have needed to call them? Had he realized that Zhou Zishu was intentionally trying to keep quiet? He decided on honesty. “No. I have acquired a flatmate who is home with a friend. But he is a student, barely more than a kid. I can’t drag him into this.” Zhou Zishu defended.
Wu Xi did not seem to be angry. “That is quite alright. The person closest is by far not always in the best position to provide help. But you should consider letting the boy know what to do in case this happens again. At least make sure he knows what number to call. It can be quite scary to watch someone else having a panic attack and not knowing what to do.”
“Yeah”, Zhou Zishu acknowledged, “yeah, you are probably right. But I can’t do it right now. Not tonight.”
“That’s okay”, Wu Xi replied. “Do whatever you feel like right now. But do me a favour? Please sent a message to Beiyuan in an hour, and one more before going to bed, letting us know that you are well. Okay?”
He agreed readily. This was the least he owed to his friend, to not make him worry unnecessarily. “And add your address to that first message. Just in case.” That was something he was more reluctant to do, but he ended up agreeing anyway before ending the call.
Zhou Zishu must have been sitting on the floor of that bathroom for at least 15 minutes, so he really should not have been surprised when someone started knocking on the door. “Zhou Xu”, he could hear Gu Xiang’s voice. “Are you alright in there?”
He dragged himself off the floor and into a standing position. He was still a little shaky, but much better than before. He would manage fine as long as he was left alone. “I am fine. Go back to your dinner!” He answered.
Gu Xiang was uncooperative as always. “We have finished our dinner. You have been stuck in that bathroom for ages. Whatever is wrong, please come out of there at least.”
He sighed. He should have known that a closed door between them would not be enough to hide his problems. “Give me a second!” he answered, before turning on the faucet to run some water over his face. He felt like crap and he was sure he looked like hell. But at least he was not panicking anymore and could breathe normally. After enjoying the cool feeling of cold water for a moment, he dried off his face and opened the door. Gu Xiang stood right next to it, leaning against the wall. Chengling was still sitting at the table, looking at him with big, worried eyes.
“I am fine”, he said in an attempt to calm the boy. “Don’t worry about me. Do you happen to have any of that dinner left?” he enquired. He could see the partly filled containers left on the table. He also noticed that the green sheet of paper was nowhere in sight.
“People who are fine do not suddenly shut themselves in the bathroom for half an hour.” Gu Xiang stated in a calm matter of fact manner.
“People who would like to be allowed to come over again should make sure not to stick their noses too deep into things that do not concern them”, he answered.
As expected, the girl huffed. “You looked like you were having a panic attack or something. What did you do in there? Do you have medication for it?”
Zhou Zishu was astonished to notice that the young woman had apparently no intention to let this go. “No. I called a friend. I am better.”
“You could have said something”, she huffed again.
“We are not that close”, he answered. And before he could change his mind, he added: “I never said I was a healthy person without any demon’s in their cupboard.” He turned to Chengling: “But I assure you that I do not expect the two of you to deal with it. I will take care of myself, and all I expect from you is to respect my privacy.”
Chengling nodded. “That’s alright. But if you do want my help – just say the word, okay?”
Zhou Zishu hesitated, then gave a small nod when he remembered Wu Xi telling him to at least equip his flatmate with an emergency number to call. “I will. I think I need some time to myself right now”, eyeing the food on the table he added, “if you want to help, you could put some of that dinner on a plate for me and reheat it in the microwave? I think I would prefer to eat in my room tonight.”
Chengling’s face was lit up in a bright smile, obviously very happy that he was allowed to help, even in such a small manner.
Gu Xiang tapped her foot impatiently beside him. “You said you called a friend. That’s all good, but not exactly the recommended way to go about this. Are you receiving professional help?”
The girl was persistent. “Why should I tell you?” he shot back angrily.
“Because if you don’t, I will feel the need to tell my boss. I know that is meddling, and I know you won’t like it. But leaving people who are ill without the help they need is also not the responsible thing to do.”
He took a deep breath to calm himself. He did not like her statement. It felt too much like an ultimatum. But he could understand where she was coming from. “I am about to get professional help. I have an appointment next week.” It was a half-truth. The general practitioner he was going to see was unlikely to have much to say about panic attacks and not the help he needed. But he was a professional, so Zhou Zishu decided it was good enough for Gu Xiang.
As he had hoped, the girl nodded. “I will be off. Give you some space. See you on campus, Chengling!” she waved to the boy before grabbing her bag and letting herself out.
Chapter 13: Difficult Conversations
“A-Xiang is not exactly good at hiding when she is worried”, the other man opened.
“So she tattled on me to her boss”, Zhou Zishu concluded.
“No.” Wen Kexing denied the assumption. “Or not exactly, at least. She was just very bad at hiding that something had gotten her worried when she came home last night. And as I knew where she had gone, and could easily determine that there was no reason to worry about Chengling, there was only a limited number of conclusions left to draw.”
“Something might have happened on her way home”, Zhou Zishu suggested.
“But it didn’t” Wen Kexing just stated. “I do not know what exactly happened last night”, he continued, “but I wanted to ask you to tell me.”
When he went running the next morning, the pamphlets were everywhere. He saw the first one taped to the side of a bus stop three stops away from campus. Several sheets in different states of readability were flying around the park. Someone had gone to a lot of effort in trying to get their message across. Zhou Zishu wondered if the initiative was born from jealousy and resentment, or from a genuine concern.
What he had experienced in the QuanGen scandal was that communication with the public was often very distorted. The project had been badly mismanaged to the detriment of tax payers and many of the young researchers involved and it had been right that the people responsible had been called out. But in the process of those revelations, many practices had been declared as inacceptable that were actually just the established standards. Student helps doing the database requests for a literature review published by their superior? Absolutely normal. Money from different projects being shifted from one assistant to the next to keep everyone their job and possibly without actually shifting the corresponding responsibilities? A practice employed to make the insecurities of the system more bearable, and often implemented in a way that did no harm to anyone. And if fixed term contracts were worth a scandal, all universities in the country would just have to be shut down tomorrow. Among all that false agitation, the real problems had been mentioned in ways they could almost be overlooked. Was Yue Yang University really pushing its professors to mismanage research projects? Or was someone just fed up with admittedly non-optimal academic practices and trying to ride the tide of scandals? Zhou Zishu could not tell. But he was relieved to find out that on his own, and in the bright light of the morning, he could at least contemplate the question without having another panic attack.
Running helped as well, as it made the adrenaline circle through his system. He considered pushing himself harder than usual and skipping his by now common stop at the university cafeteria. But before he had made up his mind, he saw a familiar figure sitting at the side of street looking expectantly towards him.
“A-Xu!” Wen Kexing called out as he came near. “Such dedication to physical health and beauty is really a commendable trait. Running every morning to keep your body lean and slander and steal the muscles in those long legs of yours. It could be counted as a philanthropic act, that you put so much effort into keeping your beauty so all of us may admire it a bit longer.”
Zhou Zishu would have choked if he had not been so out of breath. That man was impossible! Ridiculous! Who said such things with a straight face? When he had caught his breath adequately, he greeted the other. “Lao Wen, what a surprise to see you so early.”
“Is it a pleasant surprise?” the man inquired, raising an eyebrow. Zhou Zishu thought he might actually be able to see the hint of a smile on that face.
“Depends. Is this a chance encounter?” he felt trepidation at the thought that it likely wasn’t. Wen Kexing did not hesitate to confirm. “I fear it is not. I brought you a cup of your favourite drink. Mind walking with me for a bit?” Wen Kexing seemed a little hesitant. He had apparently not yet forgotten their last fight.
Zhou Zishu briefly considered to just keep running and to see how far the other was willing to follow, but he decided against it. While he didn’t think Wen Kexing, in his tight light slacks and fashionable red and green satin jacket, that was obviously a modern interpretation of traditional Chinese dress – while he didn’t think the other would be able to run far, it never did any good to underestimate Wen Kexing. So he settled into a slow pace of walking beside the other, while accepting the coffee he was handed. Wen Kexing lead them to a somewhat more remote place of the park before sitting down on a bench and inviting Zhou Zishu to take a seat beside him.
“I prefer to stand, thanks”, he rejected the offer.
“A-Xiang is not exactly good at hiding when she is worried”, the other man opened.
“So she tattled on me to her boss”, Zhou Zishu concluded.
“No.” Wen Kexing denied the assumption. “Or not exactly, at least. She was just very bad at hiding that something had gotten her worried when she came home last night. And as I knew where she had gone, and could easily determine that there was no reason to worry about Chengling, there was only a limited number of conclusions left to draw.”
“Something might have happened on her way home”, Zhou Zishu suggested.
“But it didn’t” Wen Kexing just stated. “I do not know what exactly happened last night”, he continued, “but I wanted to ask you to tell me.”
Zhou Zishu was stumped. He had expected accusations, a tirade, demands. Wen Kexing was usually a rather forward person, after all. Being asked wasn’t what he had prepared for when this conversation had started. He considered if he should tell the other anything at all.
“I had a panic attack”, he finally admitted. “I dealt with it, and that is that. I am fine today. You have no need to worry.” He hoped that stating the truth would stop Wen Kexing from asking more questions. This part of the truth was easy enough for him to share.
“That explains why Gu Xiang reacted so strongly, I guess”, Wen Kexing gave a cryptic answer. “Please know that we are both willing to help, if you ever need it”, he added, as if for an afterthought. He kept quiet for a moment and then proceeded to change the topic. “As you seem well enough today, and certainly wouldn’t want me to be nosy, I can come to my original intention”, he proceeded, with that bright smile back on his face. “The official semester opening ceremony is being held next Tuesday. I wanted to ask you to attend with me.”
Zhou Zishu stared at the other open mouthed. It took him a moment to formulate any words at all. “Why should I attend that?” was what he finally said.
Wen Kexing’s smile did not falter. “One, it is an important event in this town and you might get to meet some new people”, he started counting on his fingers. “Two, you have started caring about Chengling, taking him under your wing, and you really should get a better idea of the values and ideas of the educational institution he is attending”, the man continued. “Three”, he straightened out another of his elegant and long fingers, “I am asking you to, and it would be a prime opportunity to enjoy my company and four, they offer free food.”
“No”, Zhou Zishu answered without having to think about it.
Wen Kexing kept looking at him, slightly leaning his head to the side in a considering manner. “If you change your mind, just let me know. I do have a second ticket, and I will hold onto it, just in case. And now you must excuse me, I have an appointment with an esteemed colleague from the department of French literature. I am really hoping she will be able to recommend some new contemporary poetry books to me.”
With that, Wen Kexing got up from the bench. After having looked down to the other from his standing position for most of the conversation, Zhou Zishu was irritated to have to look up at him now, as the other was standing rather close, and Wen Kexing was about ten centimetres taller than him. He felt suddenly flushed, and the physical reaction only increased when Wen Kexing reached out to brush a stray lock of hair from his face. “It is such a loss to the world that you insist on hiding your true beauty away. I would love to see you in some flattering clothes as much as I would love to be allowed a glimpse at your beautiful mind.” He turned around and left, while Zhou Zishu could still feel the heat of his fingertips burning on his cheek.
He had not foreseen things to turn out in a way that would make him call Wen Kexing only a week later. When he had been to the doctor, he had explained in rough terms that he was physically healthy but mentally a bit unstable. The woman had insisted on doing his regular check-up that was due anyway, but had ended up confirming his self-diagnoses. There was nothing wrong with him insofar as the results of a standard check-up were confirmed. Only after that had she started asking questions about his mental state.
When he explained that it had been almost half a year since he had been involved in a rather bad scandal at work, that he had quit the position he had been working towards for almost all of his life overnight, and fled to a city about 500 kilometres away from the place he had considered his home for a decade, she had proclaimed him to be a rather thorough person.
Her judgement about him not seeking out a psychotherapist before was less flattering. “Mister Zhou, you seem to be a very intelligent person. You have been severely shaken by some events in your life, but the way you reacted to them I think that your moral compass is quite intact and you do still have an image of yourself that you are holding onto. If you were as disoriented as you seem to claim with some of your statements, you would not have decided so wholeheartedly and without hesitation to leave your past life behind. In my experience, people who do not believe in their own self-worth have much less confidence in their own judgements and are easily manipulated by others.
However,” she proceeded, “you were clearly shaken by the experience and it is understandable that after ending a career that, I will assume, was rather life defining, you are a bit at a loss. And I am telling you nothing new, here.” Her gaze was piercing and felt somewhat accusatory. “It is absolutely essential that you seek out help. Certainly when you are experiencing panic attacks. They can be dealt with, they will likely pass, but not if you sit around at home doing nothing about this.”
He gulped. She reminded him of Jing Beiyuan to an uncomfortable degree. Were doctors not supposed to be compassionate and empathetic? “It didn’t seem to make much sense to find a therapist before moving”, he tried to defend himself, “and when I tried to find one here, I was told it is difficult to get an appointment and waiting lists are long.” He neglected to mention that he had only tried last week.
The woman nodded. “Yes. The system is sadly not well equipped to meet any immediate needs. There are a few options, however. First, you do have the right to at least meet someone for a first appointment. That might not help much, but it might help a little. And you would at least know that you are in the loop for starting a therapy.” She looked at him inquisitively. “Second, you have the option to go to a psychiatric outpatient clinic. They should be able to give you an appointment within a week or two. This is never the best option for a therapy, but I would recommend it for dealing with your panic attacks. They are able to recommend medication and give you a prescription so that you have something you can choose to take the next time you feel overwhelmed.” She took a break, waiting for Zhou Zishu to nod, before she continued. “Lastly, the long waiting times are not caused by a lack of qualified practitioners but by a health care system that sometimes seems to care about cutting cost more than about providing needed services. I have no idea what your financial situation is. But there are ample psychotherapists out there that would take you in on short notice, if you are willing to pay them privately, instead of relying on your health insurance.”
Zhou Zishu had been a bit stumped by the last option, as it was glaringly unfair, obviously. But in the end, he had decided that fighting the unfairness of the systems was not his priority right now and was perhaps not even best done by boycotting is options. Money was not a central concern of his for the time being. Aside from the fact that he had quite a bit saved up from his years on the job – with hardly a private life came little opportunity to spend his income – he also had an inheritance from his former guardian that remained mostly untouched. Once he voiced this decision, the doctor had told him to talk to her assistant, and the man had given him three addresses to call when he left the practice. Not allowing himself to procrastinate again, he had called one of them the same evening and had received an appointment for the next day, as another client had cancelled on short notice.
His therapist turned out to be a kindly man in his fifties, who despite his soft-spoken temperament challenged Zhou Zishu on acting against his own better judgement much like the doctor had the day before. After listening to him for about half an hour, he outlined a vague therapeutic plan that he suggested they work on over the course of the following three months. And he gave Zhou Zishu homework. Considering he had already left his job and his hometown behind, the man tasked him to stop avoiding anything and everything that appeared as a connection to his old life. He conceded that panic attacks might happen if he encountered situations that came too close to what he had experienced in the past. But he also pointed out that panic attacks were triggered by overwhelming experiences and that people tended not to be overwhelmed by what was their normal, day to day life.
“You have shut yourself away, I think. You have defined very narrow borders of your new normal. That is one way to protect yourself and it is perfectly legitimate for a while. But you were saying yourself that overall you are feeling better. I think right now you are harming yourself by keeping those borders up. The more narrow you keep them, the more likely it becomes that you encounter something that throws you off. Challenge yourself a bit more. Expand your normal.”
Chapter 14: An Unusual Date
Expand your normal. He had thought about that for the rest of the night, while stoically clinging to his one glass of beer. He had not mentioned his tendency to drown his memories in alcohol so far. He knew he should. It was one of his coping mechanisms and not a healthy one. But he did not think it was his first and most urgent problem and had not wanted to start out with that. Considering his life and the things he was avoiding; the campus of the Yue Yang University was a glaringly obvious place to start. His flatmate was a student at the university. Wen Kexing and Gu Xiang were researchers and spent a lot of their time there. The fact that Zhou Zishu avoided the place beyond the cafeteria like the plague must appear ridiculous from the outside. This was a university, yes. It was not the place where he had worked, nor the place where he had studied. He was not employed there and had no need to get involved in the institution’s politics. He did not even know anyone working there. He had absolutely no reason to avoid the place the way he was. Before he could change his mind, he sent a message to Gu Xiang, asking her for Wen Kexing’s number.
He did not have to wait long for an answer. Actually figuring out what to write to the other took him much longer. But finally, he settled on a very short and simple message.
Does your offer to accompany you to the semester opening ceremony still stand?
Was the one sentence he sent out. Wen Kexing’s answer came so quick, he wondered how the other had even managed to type it out in that time span.
A-Xu! I am so happy to hear from you! And of course the offer still stands. I will pick you up on Thursday at 6 pm if that works for you?
Zhou Zishu sent back nothing but a brief: Sure, that works.
Wen Kexing could not let the conversation end without some flattery, it seemed.
A-Xu! It will be such an honour to be grazed with your company. I am very much looking forward to an evening with you. And don’t you worry your head about what to wear – I am sure you will look splendid in whatever you choose for the night.
Zhou Zishu could not help the grin that spread over his face. Of course he would not worry about what to wear. But telling him so was very obviously Wen Kexing letting him know that he was curious to see what he picked out. He wondered, sometimes, what the other man’s flattery really meant. Was he like that with everyone? Was it just his way of being friendly? With his extravagant look and personality, that seemed a reasonable assumption. Granted, Wen Kexing behaved different towards Gu Xiang and Chengling. But then those two were much younger than him and Gu Xiang, even though the older of the two and the one much closer to Kexing, was more of a protegee than an equal.
The other option – that Wen Kexing meant, at least to a degree, what he said – that he found Zhou Zishu extraordinarily attractive… It seemed ridiculous when considering the circumstances of their early encounters. He had met Zhou Zishu in his sweaty running outfit and had declared him the most beautiful person in the world. But sometimes, he wondered. Wondered if the exaggerated compliments were used to hide a sincerity that was there, but that Wen Kexing was not ready to show. Zhou Zishu had not been in a relationship for a long time. He had not done serious relationships in the last ten years at least. His longest ever had lasted for about six months, with two breakups in between, and had taken place in third semester at university. The woman he had dated back than had been brilliant and ambitious and very much like himself – focused on her studies. Their similarity was what had finally killed the relationship. Both of them were too ambitious, and too focused on their studies to make much room for the other. And in the end, both of them were also so understanding of that specific character trade, that they had parted ways quite amicably after figuring out that there was just not enough room in their schedules to make things work.
All of his relationships had been with women. But not all of his amorous encounters, possibly not even most of them. Later on, once he had started on his first job, he had realized that his needs for physical company could be fulfilled in a more casual way that would lead to less conflict. Hook-ups with close co-workers tended to end in disaster and after the second one of those, he had given himself a rule not to take that option anymore. But conference hook-ups were not unusual among his acquaintances and something that turned out to work for him well enough. A heated discussion in the lecture hall could turn into an intense debate over dinner. And sometimes, when both parties agreed, the passion that had started in the debate could be carried over into other activities. As each party was usually staying at a hotel room anyway, often all of them at the same hotel, arrangements were easy to make and never became too personal. And as soon as the conference ended everyone went back home and there were no extended expectations. Sure, some people liked to sleep with each other whenever they met. But exclusivity was the exception, not the rule.
In that context, Zhou Zishu had started sleeping with men, as much as with women, and he had liked both. But in recent years, when he had been more and more busy and more and more sought after for his reputation and influential position, he had chosen to reject many more offers than he accepted. It had been a while since he had shared a bed with anyone. He wasn’t even sure when the last time had been.
As soon as he realized where his thoughts had carried him, Zhou Zishu felt a blush spread over his face and chastised himself. He was under no illusions that it was Wen Kexing – the very attractive physical appearance as well as the charming smiles of the man – that made him think of past sexual encounters. Wen Kexing made him want in a way he had not in a number of years. But he was not sure at all that the other man actually wanted him back. Neither was he sure that a casual arrangement would work between them. Staying far away from this option seemed like the best course to take.
Nevertheless, having agreed to attend the event with the other, Zhou Zishu did want to look decent. Being the underdressed outsider was not a role he wanted to fill. Of course, he had boxes of clothes in the cellar that would have made him fit in with everyone in the room. But he did not want to touch them. He had no interest in wearing his old suits and shirts. Even if no one else recognized him in them, he would have felt like his old self. As he had nothing in his cupboard currently that seemed suitable for a semi-formal event, he had no choice but to go shopping.
He ended up buying a simple pair of black jeans that looked dressy enough without actually being fancy and a light grey cashmere sweater that felt very agreeable on his skin. He liked that these clothes were much more casual than what he had used to wear, but yet felt good on his skin and made him look attractive. He also decided in the spur of a moment to go to the hairdresser. He had allowed his hair to grow out since quitting his job. Probably the most obvious change in his exterior – while he had over years always kept his hair short, it now fell to his shoulders. Due to that, he gave the hairdresser clear instructions to not take away much of the base length that he had now. The man agreed easily, and quickly set out to trim his hair into something that looked less of a mess and more like an intentional haircut.
When the cutting was done and his hair was blow dried and made to lie as it was supposed to, the other commented on his looks: “You really do have a beautiful face. And the longer hair gives it a nice softness to it, where I guess it might otherwise look a little harsh. I love those dark eyes with the dark locks. Do you ever wear eyeliner? I think it would suit you.”
Zhou Zishu stared at the man who was playing with his hair in the mirror and noticed a slight blush creeping onto his cheeks. Was the man flirting with him? He really wasn’t used to human interaction outside the academic context anymore.
“Hm, no, I never have.” He admitted.
The other’s smile seemed to soften. “You should try it out if you ever feel like it. Just a thin line above your eyes. Or, if you would like some help, feel free to come back. We do offer make-up and I am sure my colleagues would also be happy to teach you how to apply it yourself.”
He nodded briefly. “Thanks, I will consider it.”
Wen Kexing had of course not been able to pass up the opportunity that Zhou Zishu’s mobile phone number provided to him. But he had been rather more restrained than expected. He had simply sent Zhou Zishu a cheerful good morning every day coupled with some cute picture or another, and a spontaneous message or two throughout the day when he encountered something funny or something that made him think of his “A-Xu”, as he still called him.
Zhou Zishu had answered politely to the good morning wishes and not at all to any of the other messages. One message a day was probably already more than he should offer. Wen Kexing was, after all, the master of taking a hand where he had been offered a fingertip.
What he had not done was ask Zhou Zishu for his address. Neven the less, he stood in front of his door at three minutes to six just as promised. The other looked stunning, clad in black pants and a new jacket that was black as well but embroidered with a red and green dragon. His hair was piled up into a knot on his head from where it flowed down his back. He looked regal. Zhou Zishu thought for a second that he should have chosen something more formal after all. But when Wen Kexing’s eyes moved up and down his body, taking him in, finally resting his eyes on his hair, while reaching out with a hand to give the lightest of brushes to his new sweater, he was able to let go of that doubt. His date was obviously pleased. His statement that ‘A-Xu’s splendour will outshine everyone in the room!’ was nevertheless outrages. Wen Kexing himself would make sure that hardly anyone would take notice of his companion.
They arrived at a quarter to seven and Zhou Zishu quickly realized that the event was much smaller than he had been made to believe. They were not in a lecture hall, but in an auditorium that had been filled with maybe a dozen tables that would each seat eight people.
Many of the assembled obviously were university personnel. Others seemed to be important people of the town: politicians, representatives of funding organizations, generous donors. They were far from what one understood as ‘general public’ and Zhou Zishu wondered how Wen Kexing had gotten tickets for the event. He quickly found out that they were to be seated with the dean of the faculty for arts and literature studies, his wife, as well as three other professors of the same institution, one of them in the company of her husband. Zhou Zishu felt uncomfortable. Not in the way of fearing another panic attack, but in not knowing what the hell he was supposed to talk about with anyone at that table. But Wen Kexing made it clear quickly that he would not have to talk at all if he did not want to. He introduced himself and ‘Zhou Xu’ as independent scholars who had moved to town recently and were eager to meet more likeminded people.
It did put Zhou Zishu on the spot a little when asked about his current research interests. But Wen Kexing had of course declared him a historian and so he basically rephrased the contents of his latest reading list without going into detail. It seemed to satisfy everyone easily. Before Wen Kexing even had a chance to elaborate on his own research interests – a topic Zhou Zishu had been looking forward to, even though he was not sure at all the other man meant to tell their audience the truth, they were interrupted by the opening words of the University’s current rector: “Dear colleagues, dear friends, dear guests. I am honoured to be able to welcome you to a new academic year. As is tradition at our valued institution...”
The woman droned on about recent achievements and future plans for the university. The best that could be said about her speech was that it was kept comparatively short. Afterwards, they were served drinks and dinner. The conversation circled around a number of topics for a while, before Wen Kexing was invited by the dean to talk about his own research. And now, for the first time, Zhou Zishu got to witness what it looked like when Wen Kexing was in full out dazzling mode directed at someone else. He was polite and charming. He presented his research with side remarks and references to related questions that made clear he was at the height of the debate but without ever losing his humble attitude. Many of his remarks, Zhou Zishu realized, seemed to be tailored to their audience. What appeared as a random side note often provoked a comment from someone at the table because it directly related to something they had done recently. And it always appeared like a lucky coincidence. But after the third time, Zhou Zishu did not believe in coincidences anymore. Wen Kexing had that tiny little line in the corner of his eyes that always showed when the other was exaggerating too much with his comments. This speech was rehearsed. It was calculated. Zhou Zishu wondered for what purpose.
Not long after he had begun talking, Wen Kexing was invited to give a guest lecture at the romance department on the relations between romance and anglo-saxon poetry and everyone seemed to be satisfied that new bonds had been formed to a promising young colleague. The topic of conversation shifted once more. And while Wen Kexing was still being agreeable to everyone, laughing at jokes and dropping flattering remarks, he also returned more of his attention back on Zhou Zishu. And Zhou Zishu was surprised to realize that in comparison to how he treated the others at the table, his regard seemed genuine. His gestures had a bit less of a studied air to them, his smiles were softer. His remarks less flattering and more teasing.
Had he not wondered just a few days ago how to gauge the sincerity of Wen Kexing’s attentions? Here, in the midst of an exercise in self-control that Zhou Zishu had put to himself to prove that he was not a coward, he was given a surprising answer: Wen Kexing cared about him.
The evening was interrupted rather abruptly, when the sound of drums started outside and the ventilation system suddenly stopped working. There seemed to be a bit of a commotion at the door. The dean excused himself from their table to go see what was up. The others remained seated, waiting patiently.
The man came back a few minutes later: “Dear colleagues, cherished friends, it looks like we will end the evening here. Nothing bad has happened, do not worry. There is just a bit of a commotion outside. It looks like some acts of vandalism have been executed against the university. It is unclear who is behind them – possibly a radicalized group of students. But the rectorate feels it is better to send us all home. Be safe – not sorry. I wish you a good evening and thank you all for your pleasant company!” At the last words, he had turned explicitly to the two outsiders at the table. Wen Kexing answered his words with an exaggerated bow while Zhou Zishu offered just a tiny polite nod.
“It is a pity the evening has to end so soon, as it was really pleasant. But of course, we fully support this decision. I hope to see you all again soon.” They took their leave from everyone present and made their way to the door. Wen Kexing had, to navigate him through the mass of people that had now started moving towards the main exit, placed a hand on the small of his back. When they came to a short stop to let another group pass them by, that hand started moving in small circles over his lower back. Zhou Zishu felt the heat rise to his skin. Was it a reflexive gesture, in response to the soft woollen fabric of his sweater? Or was the other intentionally caressing him? It stopped before he could decide on an answer, and he was instead pressed towards the door again. They had to squeeze out with everyone else, but as soon as they had made it through the door, Wen Kexing removed the hand only to grab his wrist instead and pulled him sideways, into a narrow and deserted alley.
“Such a crunch!” he exclaimed. “Let’s take a little detour to avoid the masses. It is still early and so beautiful outside.”
Zhou Zishu’s heart was beating fast. He had certainly not felt comfortable back there, and the cool outside air would likely do him good. The night was beautiful. One of the first really mild nights of spring this year. The sky was clear, the moon a sliver visible at the horizon, and the longer they were out here, the more stars Zhou Zishu could see in the sky. Wen Kexing’s hand was still holding onto his own, and the other man’s fingers slowly began to caress the back of his hand. Certainly no accident. The poem of choice for the night, however, distracted Zhou Zishu. Wen Kexing was staring up at the moon while reciting with flawless cadence:
O friend, should one, as beautiful as the moon,
Delight in breaking hearts by playing false in love?
He plunged into my heart his pointed dart,
Showing no more pity than a swordsman in war.
He shot me from afar, but how could I hide the wound?
O how beautiful he is, but how cruel his sport!
O archer! Was the forked shaft that pierced my heart
Tongued with fire, or dipped in the deadliest venom?
They were both silent for a moment, Wen Kexing’s hand having stilled, before Zhou Zishu decided for once to answer the cryptic message. “Do you really think me cruel?” he enquired.
Wen Kexing turned towards him, surprise written on his face. “A-Xu! How could you say such a thing? I was just reciting poetry to the moon. Do you not think it has a cruel touch to it? So beautiful, but ever out of reach?” He raised an eyebrow.
Zhou Zishu leaned forward, touching his forehead to the other man’s, their hands still intertwined. He could hear Wen Kexing drawing in an audible breath. “Are your thoughts really occupied by the moon?” He asked quietly, his words hardly more than a whisper.
Wen Kexing stared at him, his eyes wide open, his pupils dark in the night. When he finally mouthed a “No” that Zhou Zishu could see, but hardly hear, their lips met. It was tentative, a chaste kiss, as if neither man knew exactly what they were about. But it felt good, so good, and it made Zhou Zishu’s blood burn with longing. There was no use denying it. Physically, he wanted Wen Kexing like he had not wanted a human being in a very long time – if ever. But he also knew it was not as simple as his past affairs. It was not just longing. He also cared for the other, and that was what made him draw back after just a few seconds.
“Drive me home?” he asked.
Wen Kexing had not stopped staring into his eyes for even a second. “Of course”, was his immediate answer, “whatever my love requires.” The lack of jest in his words send shivers down Zhou Zishu’s back. He could still hear them ringing in his ears when he was getting ready for bed, alone in his room about half an hour later.
The kiss would not repeat itself for a while, but instead Wen Kexing turned back to full out flirting mode with their next meeting. He was being such a menace at the city library, that Zhou Zishu gave in to his suggestion to go out for a cup of tea instead, as he could hardly take responsibility for the other disturbing all of the patrons at the library.
Zhou Zishu enjoyed the other man’s company. But it also raised his insecurities again. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust Wen Kexing. He was aware that the man was hiding things from him. And he knew the other was someone who was following his own agenda in a calculated manner. But he could not believe that the other was acting with bad intentions. Whatever Wen Kexing was hiding, Zhou Zishu decided he did not need to concern himself with it. He had less trust in himself. He had used others in the past, had instrumentalised them for his own aims, had been too callused and preoccupied to notice their suffering. Would he inevitably hurt Wen Kexing, if he allowed the other to play a more important role in his life? He did not feel prepared to take the risk.
When Gu Xiang transmitted an invitation for him and Chengling to come visit the two for dinner, Zhou Zishu declined. He knew Gu Xiang was just the messenger. The woman would not care much about his presence either way. But Wen Kexing would. Going to visit him, allowing the other to cook for him, it would feel too much like a date. He could not go. Staying at home alone, however, also proved to be impossible. Not ten minutes after the boy and the woman had left, Zhou Zishu grabbed his jacket to head out to his pub and proceeded to order a beer. An hour later, he ordered a whiskey instead. He did not know why this evening was so difficult. But it was. He could not shake the picture out of his head of him and Wen Kexing sitting around a table with Gu Xiang and Chengling. As if they were family.
Zhou Zishu had only very vague memories of what it was like to be a family. His parents had died when he was ten. He had been taken in by Uncle Qin, a friend of his father’s. The man’s care, as well meant as it was, was focused very much on his physical well-being as well as his intellectual education. Zhou Zishu had been to the best schools and had had some very excellent private instructors. He had never lacked any material goods, and he had always found an open ear when he was concerned about some choice to make that would affect his future. It was his ‘uncle’ who had originally furthered his interest in history, who had encouraged him to sign up for the program, who had also supported him in his decision to pick up physics as a second subject, and later on to change his focus towards the sciences completely.
Zhou Zishu remembered many shared dinners at the house that had been their home. In hindsight, they seemed stiff affairs, lacking the warmth and cheer that he now longed for. Love was not something he had experienced much after the death of his parents. He had not been aware that he was missing that feeling of unconditional acceptance. How much he was missing it.
He got home late that night, after way too much to drink, and the next morning, for the first time in a while, he had to skip his morning run because he simply could not drag himself out of bed. Luckily, Chengling did not seem to be home when he did rise at last, and Zhou Zishu could wallow in his misery in peace, at least until the late afternoon, by which time he had kind of managed to put himself together again.
Zhou Zishu forced himself to stay home the next evening. He had another appointment with his therapist on Friday and he did not want to tell the man that he had been out drinking every evening that week. He made a deal with himself that going to the pub every second evening was the most he would allow himself. He stayed home and binge watched some rather boring medical TV series instead.
The next day, when he was just about to head out, his mobile phone rang. A first glance told him that it was Wen Kexing calling. With some trepidation, he answered.
“Lao Wen, good evening.”
“And a good evening to you, as well, A-Xu”, the man answered enthusiastically. “It is so nice to hear your voice. I really should call you more often. Would you mind if I did?”
Would he? He wasn’t sure.
“I am not sure. But as we have established that you are not currently in the habit of calling me just to hear my voice... Instead of discussing how much of a nuisance it would be for me to change that in the near future – why are you calling?”
“A-Xu. You are rejecting me again! Don’t you know by now how hard that hurts? But as usual, I will follow your every wish and request. I am calling on behalf of Chengling.”
“And why would you do that?” Zhou Zishu was honestly surprised. “I am quite sure the boy does have my number and hopefully he still remembers how to use his phone, as well.”
“Yes, yes, as he seems to play around with the thing all day, I am sure he does. But that’s not the point. Chengling is too shy to ask, and it was my suggestion, so you will have to deal with me calling you for now.”
“Lao Wen, get to the point. What is the question?” Zhou Zishu was quite aware that despite his choice of words he did not sound annoyed at all. He was way too happy to have Wen Kexing on the phone to project any real annoyance.
“You see, I promised Chengling to help him with a paper and presentation today. The presentation is due tomorrow and the paper by the end of the week. We were to meet at the library, and we did, but I showed up rather later than I had hoped. So the library is closing soon, and we are both hungry, but the boy is not done yet.”
“So take him home to your place and help him finish?” Zhou Zishu did not see the problem at all.
“Ah,” Wen Kexing sighed. “I would. But I promised Gu Xiang to return home late today and I certainly can’t bring a visitor. She has a friend over, and does not wish to be disturbed.”
“So instead of disturbing her and her friend, you mean to disturb me?” That’s what it came down to, if he had not misread this whole conversation. Wen Kexing wanted to come over to his place. To help Chengling. He was not sure how he felt about that. He could probably just proceed with his plan to go out and leave the two to it without getting involved? But the idea of Wen Kexing nosing around in his home while he was not there did not please him either. If the other did set foot into his private space, Zhou Zishu wanted to be around to keep an eye on him.
“A-Xu. As loath as I am to admit it, Gu Xiang’s friend is not just a friend. I am pretty sure this is supposed to be their first date. And as much as I hate her dating and would love to get a closer look at that boy – he seems rather useless, if you ask me – I think she might kill me if I did?”
Zhou Zishu smiled. Ah, how he enjoyed knowing that his friend was suffering. “How do you know I don’t have a date as well tonight?” he asked back, teasing.
“A-Xu! You don’t, do you?” the man sounded like he was in equal parts exasperated and insecure. “I mean, if you did… You would certainly have the right…“, he broke off, obviously at a loss for words.
Zhou Zishu smirked in satisfaction at having unsettled the other.
“I don’t. Come over, if you must. If you are lucky, Chengling still remembers the place where he lives. And bring some food”, he added as an afterthought, when he realized that his plans to eat out were cancelled now, as well.
The poem in this chapter is O Friend, Should One, as Beautiful as The Moon, by Ghulam Ahmad Mahjoor
Chapter 16: Small Concessions
The two arrived at the apartment about half an hour later, with two bags of groceries in tow. Zhou Zishu had spent the time cleaning up a bit. He had explained to himself that they would need an empty table to work on. He was not quite sure himself how that had translated into him cleaning his own bedroom. Well, opportunity was probably a good enough reason. He had already taken out the cleaning supplies and started working with them, so why not continue as long as he was waiting, anyway? When the two arrived, he had just finished putting everything away and was throwing the last dishtowel into the laundry.
Chengling opened the door and announced that he was home. When Wen Kexing immediately took possession of the kitchen and started to unload their bags, Zhou Zishu noticed with some trepidation that he had obviously bought a lot of fresh food – vegetables, fruit, pasta and some fresh meat appeared one after the other. But none of the simple, ready-made dishes that constituted his and Chengling’s usual dinner.
“What is all of this?” he asked.
Wen Kexing looked up at him in confusion. “You said to bring dinner?”
“Yes”, he confirmed. “And none of this looks much like dinner to me.”
“Well”, Wen Kexing answered, “maybe it does not right now. But as soon as I am done preparing the curry I have planned, I am sure you will be delighted with it.”
“You mean to cook?”
“Yes? How else do you prepare dinner?”
“As Chengling might have told you, we don’t. We buy frozen food and throw it into the oven, or we get some take away. Cooking is not something that commonly happens in this apartment.”
“But A-Xu! Eating take-out and frozen foods all the time is not healthy for you! Chengling needs to eat healthy so he has the energy to concentrate on his studies. And you should take more care of your own health, as well. How could you expect me to bring you unhealthy food and support your bad habits?”
The other dared to pout at him and Zhou Zishu had to turn around to not melt at the cute expression. “fine. But I hope you are able to multitask. You will have to do all of the cooking on your own, and you did promise Chengling to help him as well, as far as I understand.”
At this point, Chengling chirped in. The boy seemed to be in a decidedly too good mood at the prospect of Wen Kexing cooking in their kitchen. “I can help prepare dinner first and we can get back to my project later”, he suggested.
But here, Wen Kexing turned out to be a strict taskmaster. “No way. You can’t get out of doing your work by helping me cook. I will manage quite well on my own. And you still need to put some serious effort into this if you want to get a decent mark.” He turned his stern eyes from the boy back to Zhou Zishu and looked calculating. “Now, as you insist that you have no skills in the kitchen – would you mind helping Chengling a bit while I am busy? He has a rough outline written for his paper but needs some help with figuring out where to streamline and where to add references.”
He had to leave it to Wen Kexing, the man was good. Zhou Zishu had managed to not get involved in the boy’s course work for over two weeks now. Chengling had asked often enough, but Zhou Zishu had always found an excuse not to do it. Could he get out of it now? Did he want to? His masquerade of not knowing anything about academic work was probably something no one had ever bought. Wen Kexing certainly not, after introducing him at the semester opening as a fellow scholar. And he had played along, had he not? Pretended he had his own research topics. Did Wen Kexing even know that it was a lie? That he had not done any historical research at all in the last ten years of his life? But the other seemed to have accepted the identity Zhou Zishu had allowed him to construe for Zhou Xu by throwing out breadcrumbs. If he denied it now, he would possibly just reawaken the other man’s curiosity. The task he had been set was easy enough. Anyone who had received a master’s degree in any text related subject should know enough to see where references were missing in a draft. He could refuse, he knew that. But he could not plausibly claim not to be able to do the work.
With a sigh, he turned to the boy. “You really should start earlier on your work. Finishing a presentation the night before it is due is not the way to work within your full potential. When are you even going to do a full practice run, if you are still working on what to say? Promise me you will start working on your next assignment early!”
Chengling blushed. “I promise.”
Wen Kexing chimed in. “Don’t be too harsh with the boy. He did start early this week. But the topic is one that is giving him trouble. And when he asked me to help, I just could not make the time any earlier than today.”
The last statement surprised Zhou Zishu, as they had spent the last two afternoons at the library together. The other had not said anything about having too much to do. Did he really make their time together a priority in the way that he would not cancel it for something like helping Chengling with an assignment? Apparently.
Zhou Zishu put that thought aside to contemplate later and took the draft Chengling had taken out of his bag. It was a rather theoretical topic, on the role of traditional and digital media in democratic societies. He had been given the task to choose one political topic of the past three years and do a short analysis on how it had been covered in the media, focusing on one traditional medium and one digital platform. Chengling had chosen to cover the new immigration policy that had been implemented last year. For the media outlets, he had noted down some ideas, but not made a definite decision yet. As this was not his specialty, Zhou Zishu ignored the practical analysis part for now and focused on the theoretical parts of the paper. The boy had one paragraph on differences between traditional and digital media that did reference one appropriate source, but he should probably consider at least one more, if not two or three.
After that, he wrote a bit about the characteristics of newspapers in contrast to TV, print editions in comparison to digital news outlets, and then characterised the distribution of news through social networks. References were sparse and not sufficient for either of the topics. Depending on which media outlets he decided to focus on, half of this would not have any impact to the paper at all. Zhou Zishu considered it for a moment. The paragraph on print newspapers in contrast to digital outlets seemed the most promising one. The text on traditional newspapers the boy quoted earlier would fit to this paragraph as well. It would certainly take the least effort to build on this, in contrast to anything else.
Zhou Zishu turned to Chengling. “This does look like a promising start”, he made sure to begin with some positive reinforcement. “But I have put in some comments that should make your work easier and more focused…” he proceeded to explain his reasoning. After being sure the boy had been able to follow, he handed him a piece of paper. “I have noted down a few more things you should look up. Maybe it is best if you start by finding the necessary references for the theoretical parts, before proceeding to the example analysis.” Chengling nodded eagerly while taking the sheet of paper and proceeded to spread his books all over the table. Wen Kexing stopped him. “The paste of spices is almost ready but I will have to cut the vegetables now so I can get cooking. I fear I will have to occupy the table for that. Why don’t you take those books to your desk and see how well you can match them to A-Xu’s suggestions? We will let you know when dinner is ready. And afterwards, we should talk about the structure of that presentation.”
Chengling seemed a little disappointed about being sent to the other room, but did not dare protest. Zhou Zishu was amused to realize how well the boy listened to Wen Kexing. Once he had marched off with his books and backpack in tow, and closed the door to his room, Wen Kexing started talking to Zhou Zishu.
“Well done!” the other exclaimed first. “I knew you would be a great help to the boy if he could just convince you to do it. I really don’t understand why you were so reluctant before. You really did great!” He exclaimed.
Wen Kexing was standing with his face to the refrigerator, taking out the vegetables he would need next, so Zhou Zishu had no chance to read his expression. Was this honest praise or some kind of test?
“Sure.” He kept his answer as short as possible. Wen Kexing was not deterred. “How you started out with complimenting his work, pointing out the options, before recommending the easiest road to go, and suggesting just the next few steps, to not overwhelm him. I have met many a professor with less of a talent to encourage students and give advice on papers.” Carrying the vegetables over to the table, he was now facing Zhou Zishu. “Of course, the responsible ones do make sure to develop the skill. The way you went about it, one could get the impression that you are quite used to giving this kind of advice.”
This was the closest Wen Kexing had ever come to asking about Zhou Zishu’s past and career. They were playing a game of cat and mouse here, that the other man seemed to enjoy. Zhou Zishu considered how much he wanted to give in tonight.
“I guess I did take the time to help out fellow students once or twice, when I was still studying”, was the answer he settled on with a small grin on his face. It wouldn’t hurt to give an inch. It was little enough and certainly not an answer to what the other had really been asking.
Wen Kexing’s smile equalled his own. “How generous of you. You must have been well liked at your university.”
Zhou Zishu laughed. “Yeah, I guess most people liked me well enough. But don’t get me wrong. I spent way too much time studying and too little time drinking, to ever become really popular. While they did not dislike me, I would assume that most of them thought me rather boring.”
“What a tragic misjudgement on their part” Wen Kexing shot back. “You might be many things. But boring is not an adjective that could ever adequately describe you.”
Zhou Zishu decided they had talked about his past enough and it was time to reciprocate. “What about you? Were you popular as a student?”
Wen Kexing took a moment before he answered. “For a while, I was, and for a while, I wasn’t. I fear being helpful was a skill I only acquired later on in life.”
Zhou Zishu nodded. “Then what were you popular for?” he asked.
Wen Kexing smirked. “Partying, of course! In contrast to you I did not refuse my classmates invitations and I was quite happy to drink away the first few semesters of my studies. When I changed my attitude and became driven, rather than giving a shit, they stopped liking me so well, I fear.”
Zhou Zishu nodded. “A mistake. You caring about something is a thing to behold and an experience I would not want to miss.” He could see Wen Kexing’s ears turning red. It looked rather cute.
“A-Xu!” the other exclaimed but did not add any words to his protest.
“Should I help with cutting some of those carrots? I won’t claim to be very good at it, but I usually manage to cut vegetables without injury to myself.”
Wen Kexing agreed and for about a quarter of an hour they worked alongside each other in companionable silence.
The other man turning to the oven and starting on the cooking itself provided Zhou Zishu with a much-appreciated opportunity to observe his figure and movements. Wen Kexing was simply and undeniably stunning. He had never heard the other mention any kind of exercise, but the way he looked he must be working out or doing some kind of sport regularly. Zhou Zishu could not help but wonder if those nice muscles only decorated his shoulder and arms, or if he would find the man’s abs equally developed. What he was fixated on most, however, were the long black tresses that fell over the other’s shoulders, right down to his lower back. They were thick and straight and black. It made him look a little like he had just come from the set of some Wuxia production. While Zhou Zishu himself did in other regards fit well into the ideal of the modern Chinese man – one not necessarily much appreciated in the west, he had never fit the ideal of the Chinese martial arts warrior. He had to laugh at his own thoughts. They were both modern men and he was pretty sure that Wen Kexing like himself had never lived in China at all.
Chengling was still busy in his room when Wen Kexing declared their dinner to be ready. It turned out to be delicious, and Chengling enquiring about how it had been prepared was the main topic of their dinner conversation. Wen Kexing was ready enough to share his knowledge.
After they had cleared away the plates, they got back to helping Chengling. The boy had made acceptable progress with finding more material to reference. As the presentation was due the next day and the paper still had a bit of time, they left it at that for now and focused on the boy’s slides and outline for his talk.
Zhou Zishu made a suggestion about the structure of the talk that gained him another considering glance from Wen Kexing – possibly because he had indirectly contradicted the other man’s suggestion, but other than that, they quickly reached a point where Chengling felt confident that he would be able to finish on his own without further help.
Wen Kexing seemed a little reluctant when he rose from the table.
“Well, I geuss that means my job is done for today. And it is 10 pm, so Gu Xiang’s date better be over, or it is high time that I throw the boy out of the flat. Unless you need me for anything else?”
The last question was addressed to Zhou Zishu and could probably be translated into ‘Unless you want me to stay?’ And part of him wanted to yes, yes, please stay! And wanted to take the other man to his room to see more of those smiles and facial expressions. To see how Wen Kexing’s face would transform in a moment of pleasure. He was sure the look would do very well for him. But if he did, he was not sure if he would be able to send the other home afterwards. And if he did not, he was not sure if he was ready to face Wen Kexing over breakfast. And also – Chengling would be next door finishing his presentation. And while Zhou Zishu certainly didn’t intend to never have sex just because he had a flatmate – they did have walls and doors, after all, he did not think tonight was the right moment to confront the boy with that.
“Thank you for the dinner, Lao Wen”, he said instead. “And don’t be too harsh on Gu Xiang, no matter if her date has left or is still there. She is a grown woman, and you won’t do yourself any favours if you meddle too much in her personal life, if you ask me.”
Wen Kexing nodded. “I am not sure I am ready yet for my little A-Xiang having a personal life. But you are probably right. She is rather headstrong and might just decide to move out if I throw the boy out of the apartment. I will try to keep my calm.” He stepped half a step forward, before checking his movement, and stopping himself. “It was a pleasure to cook for you, A-Xu. I would be happy to do so any time.”
Zhou Zishu gave him a small nod. “I will let you know when Chengling and I are in need of some healthy sustenance. But do not worry about us too much. We do know how to heat up frozen vegetable dishes as well. And as far as I know studies have shown that frozen vegetables tend to hold their vitamins better than anything bought in the supermarket.”
“That’s why you have to go shopping at the market when you can, instead of the supermarket!” Wen Kexing did have to have the last word in their conversation but after that, turned around to let himself out of the flat. Zhou Zishu finished cleaning up the kitchen and smiled when he realized that their fridge was well stocked with many more things then the other had needed to prepare dinner. Healthy things that could be consumed without needing to be cooked. He had not expected Wen Kexing to be such a mother hen when he had first met the man.
That night, he dreamed of Wen Kexing. Dreamed of his lips on his own, of his mouth devouring him, his hands all over his body. Zhou Zishu woke up hard in a way he had not been for a long time. He lingered in bed until Chengling had left for campus, before he got up to take an extended, comfortably hot shower. With his eyes closed and an image of Wen Kexing fixed to his mind, laying over him, long black hair surrounding him while the other smiled down, Zhou Zishu touched himself and came hard, feeling equal parts of relaxation and trepidation in the face of his own desires.
A few days later, Wen Kexing invited him to come to the guest lecture that had finally been scheduled for the upcoming week. Even though they had spent a lot of time together, things had not actually developed between them the way Zhou Zishu had expected they would. Even though he was loath to admit to those expectations even to himself. But he felt like there was more and more of an awkward tension spreading between them and he hoped somehow that coming to the lecture would help to clear the air. It did, but not quite in the way he had expected.
Sitting somewhere in the middle rows, right at the edge, in a half-filled lecture hall – a pretty good turn-out for a guest lecture by a mostly unknown scholar in the middle of the semester – he had felt quite a bit of trepidation at first and had worried for a short moment that the situation might trigger another panic attack. He stopped worrying as soon as Wen Kexing began to speak. The other man’s voice was so familiar to him that it was soothing. And not only that, his speech was very engaging even by Zhou Zishu’s standards who had heard everything – the worst, the best, and anything in between. Wen Kexing was a good speaker, engaging and entertaining, but also a good scholar, whose presentation was informative and critically reflective at the same time. And he kept his talk comparatively short.
Zhou Zishu was looking forward to an engaging discussion but figured out quickly that he would be disappointed on that point. The first few questions were mostly factual, relating to minor points where Wen Kexing had skipped a bit of information – and thus boring by Zhou Zishu’s standards. The other answered each one patiently, of course. But the glint he had carried in his eyes while presenting his research seemed to be gone. When the number of raised hands dwindled without anything being asked that actually challenged the central points of the lecture, Zhou Zishu broke his intention of acting quietly to not stand out in the room and raised his hand instead.
When it was his turn to speak and Wen Kexing realized who it was, that tiny spark seemed to return immediately to his eyes.
“You talked about the relation of middle English and Old French poetry, referencing the exchange between the two cultures in the 12th century. Mostly referring to Young and Miller. In another place, you quoted Lin and Qung. If I remember correctly, Lin and Qung’s work includes a chapter on marriage alliances in the 12th century being much more common than usually assumed. And you did say that writing poetry was often a privilege of those in high positions. Is there anything known about possible marriage alliances of the particular time the poems were written? You pointed out such similarities, did anyone ever consider the possibility that they were written by the same author?”
Wen Kexing seemed to be delighted by this challenge. “Ah, such an interesting idea. Indeed, Young and Miller are the standard work on the period, but Lin and Qung make some excellent observations that question some of their theories. And poetic traditions being spread over the continent by poets actually traveling from one place to the other is an option little considered in the research so far. It is certainly not something I can exclude. But I have two reasons not to believe it. First, while there are specific similarities, there are also clear differences in style...” Wen Kexing went on to excitedly defend his point.
Zhou Zishu considered the answer and limited himself to a short replique. He had noticed some more hands being raised during their exchange and hoped they would follow up on the point he had raised. He was not to be disappointed. An expert on medieval English history, a PhD student who analysed poetry from the early 13th century, as well as someone working on computer linguistic methods to analyse likely authorship added to the conversation with either further questions or interesting suggestions on how to solve them. What had started out as a stale question and answer session quickly turned into a lively debate. When the time for discussion was over, half a dozen people were obviously not ready to leave yet and quickly made sure that the room was not needed for the next half hour. Most of them grouped around Wen Kexing at the front and Zhou Zishu was considering if he should join them or retreat from the room, when he himself was approached by an older woman.
“Are you in a hurry to leave?” She inquired at first. Zhou Zishu shook his head. “Excellent! With the points you raised, I got the impression that you are interested in new developments of critical history and I must say, it is a subject I do not have enough opportunity to talk about. It is so fascinating! But not many people here seem to care and I have little time to get into it myself with all the other work piling up on my desk. Are you working in that area? Have you published anything on it?”
The woman seemed genuinely interested and it was a refreshing experience to Zhou Zishu. She had not asked about his position, or his research projects, but genuinely seemed to seek a discussion on a topic she enjoyed. Being evasive about his own work, he answered her question as best as he could, naming the works he had read recently, outlining the theories he thought most plausible in the context and criticising other approaches. The woman listened, but soon started to challenge some of his positions by referencing other work, he had not, so far, had an opportunity to read. Another of her colleagues seemed to take an interest in the conversations and drew some parallels between movements in critical history and critical literary studies and another young man defended some rather strong claims from a perspective of gender studies. Soon enough, the two discussion circles merged, and Wen Kexing and Zhou Zishu ended up in a heated debate about the plausibility of some finer points of feminist standpoint theory. Their discussion partners excused themselves one after the other, as they had important work waiting for them.
Zhou Zishu surprised himself by suggesting they should continue the debate over dinner. Wen Kexing immediately agreed and stated he had the perfect restaurant in mind. In the car, they paused their discussion and for a brief moment, when they settled down at a quiet corner table in a nice French restaurant, Zhou Zishu was unsure if they would manage to find back to that relaxed atmosphere in the lecture hall. They ordered first, and Wen Kexing did not stop staring at him.
“A-Xu! You have been holding out on me! I knew you were hiding a brilliant mind behind that quiet façade. But really, did you need to deny me for so long? I have not felt so alive in ages! And you did enjoy yourself, did you not?” The other enquired.
There was no denying the point. He had enjoyed himself. He had felt transported back to his most enthusiastic years as a student, to a time when he had devoured books, and had longed for nothing more but to discuss his new knowledge and insights with someone. A time when university had been all about the research, before prestige, and projects, networking and money, had come into it and had started to claim central place. Tonight had made him remember why he became a professor in the first place, and it had shown him how ridiculous the idea was that he could leave all of this behind. He could leave behind his position. He had no interest in staying in contact with the other members of the research alliance, had no ambition to plan the next big project and compete for the largest research funds. But this? Stimulating intellectual debate? Being challenged by other bright minds who came at a subject from a different perspective instead of mutely arguing with a book that was never able to ament its answer in the face of a convincing argument? Oh, he had missed this.
Wen Kexing brought him out of his musings. “A-Xu?” he sounded less secure this time around. “Are you alright?”
“Yes”, Zhou Zishu answered confidently. “Yes, I am alright. Better than I have been in quite a while, actually. But please, let’s get back to the topic. You mentioned in your presentation that there is one other poem of Slavic origin, that shares striking similarities with the other two. I did not yet get the chance to ask about that. Tell me?” There was nothing he wanted more than to listen to Wen Kexing all night while bathing in the shine of those bright eyes.
He realized in between that his knowledge was lacking. That he had not read enough on the topics they were talking about and was not as well equipped to defend his positions as he would like. But the spark, the interest, they were exhilarating.
They stayed at the restaurant for hours, neither wanting the evening to end. They were asked to leave as the place closed shortly before midnight. Wen Kexing hesitated when they stood in front of his car. “Would you like to go somewhere else? A bar maybe?” Zhou Zishu considered the offer briefly, but ended up shaking his head. Without giving himself time to reconsider the impulse, he invited the other to his place instead. Wen Kexing took in a surprised breath before accepting.
They drove once more in silence. When they arrived, Chengling had apparently gone to bed. The door to his room was closed, no light was visible underneath, and his jacket and shoes were put down in their usual place. Zhou Zishu signalled to Wen Kexing to not be too loud, while making his way into the kitchen to rummage in his cupboards. Wen Kexing followed and stopped right behind him, his hand settling on Zhou Zishou’s waist.
“What are you looking for?” he asked, his breath noticeably caressing Zhou Zishu’s ear. “Two wine glasses and an opener”, Zhuo Zishu answered, holding his body very very still. “I still have that wine bottle you gave me and I thought tonight might be a good opportunity to open it.”
Seeing the glasses in the cupboard, he reached out to take them down. Wen Kexing stayed still behind him, until he had settled back down. “You take the glasses. I will get the opener”, he commented.
Zhou Zishu was reluctant to step away, but knew the other would only be able to actually open a drawer if he himself stopped standing in front of them. The bottle was already in his room, so they carried the things over, turned on the light, and closed the door behind them. Despairingly, Zhou Zishu noticed that there was nowhere to sit in his room aside from a single desk chair in front of a very small table and his bed. He had really done his best to keep the room uninviting.
Seeing his dilemma, Wen Kexing suggested they settle down on the floor. But Zhou Zishu shook his head. “I can’t have guests sitting on the floor. Sit on the bed, it is certainly more comfortable. I will see to the wine.”
Wen Kexing did not move. “If I am invited to your bed, A-Xu, I would like it for something other than to sit on it, and I have certainly no interest in being in it on my own.” Zhou Zishu swallowed. “What about the wine?” He asked without turning around.
Wen Kexing approached him again pressing his chest to his back. “I don’t really care about the wine, A-Xu”, he whispered in his ear. Zhou Zishu put the bottle back down on the table before turning around. He found himself held tightly in Wen Kexing’s arms. Hesitantly, he raised his head to look into the taller man’s eyes. Zhou Zishu wanted this. Had wanted it for a while. But he was not quite sure what this was, precisely, what it was going to be, nor how to initiate it.
When Wen Kexing’s lips started moving, it wasn’t for the purpose Zhou Zishu had expected.
I love your lips when they’re wet with wine
And red with a wild desire;
I love your eyes when the lovelight lies
Lit with a passionate fire...
Before he had finished reciting another fucking poem, Zhou Zishu had lost his patience and leaned in. For a second time, his lips touched those of the other man. Where their first kiss had been tentative and sweet, this time around it immediately turned passionate and urgent. He wanted to feel Wen Kexing, wanted to taste him. Wanted to transport the passion they had shared in discussion earlier to a physical level. Wen Kexing did not hesitate to reciprocate. While alternately licking and biting Zhou Zishu’s lips, his hands started moving along his sides, up to his neck, brushing through his hair, and down again to his hips. And wherever the other touched Zhou Zishu felt like his skin was on fire – despite the fact that he was actually still fully dressed.
A moment later, after appreciatively cradling his ass, Wen Kexing drew back a step, moving toward the bed. “I believe this is where you wanted me?” he quested. Zhou Zishu did not answer, lost in the man’s black pupils. But he did follow, and when Wen Kexing sat down on the bed, he immediately straddled the other man’s lap. They kissed for a while longer before Wen Kexing leaned back, dragging Zhou Zishu down with him. A bit later, those delightful hands found their way under Zhou Zishu’s clothes, and with a short moment of panic he remembered that he was not actually ready to allow the other man to see him naked. The memento on his chest that he had gotten months ago would almost certainly prompt a request for an explanation and might destroy the current mood entirely. Deciding quickly, Zhou Zishu found the other man’s hands with his own and directed them downward.
Moving his mouth to the other’s ear, he whispered. “Please, touch me.”
Wen Kexing withdrew his hands completely. “You want this?” he questioned. Zhou Zishu nodded. “Can I see you?” he continued to ask. Zhou Zishu shook his head. The other frowned. “Why not?” there was a pleading tone in his question. Zhou Zishu realized with frustration that the other would not just accept this without an explanation. He gave a half-truth as an answer. “I have a rather personal tattoo on my chest. I am not quite ready to share the story behind it, yet.”
Wen Kexing seemed to consider. “And if I promised not to ask?” he pressed further.
Zhou Zishu grinned up at him. “You would not be able to keep your promise. Sorry. Some other time, I promise. Just not tonight.” To his great relieve, the other nodded. But the series of questions was apparently not over. “Do you have lube?” was the next thing he wanted to know. Zhou Zishu’s heart stopped for a moment. He wanted Wen Kexing, oh yes, how he wanted. But he had not expected that any penetration was on the plan for this night. It was not usually something he considered for a one-night stand with another man, as it rather took a lot of trust.
Wen Kexing must have read the hesitation on his face. “I have absolutely no intention of doing anything you don’t like. But even if we only touch each other, it can make things more agreeable. I simply wanted to know our options.” He explained.
Zhou Zishu gulped and nodded. “Yeah, right. No, it is always good to check our options. But I fear I don’t have anything here right now. Sorry”, he wasn’t sure why he felt the need to apologize. Of course he was not prepared for this. He had had no intention of taking Wen Kexing home tonight. Wen Kexing raised his hand to caress his cheek and push some wayward strands of hair out of his face. “That’s fine. It certainly won’t keep us from enjoying ourselves.”
And it didn’t. While what they did to each other could be described as rather tame when measured against the many possibilities of two people pleasuring each other, it was no less enjoyable for that. And to Zhou Zishu, who had not been with anyone for a long time, had not been with anyone at all since his life had been turned upside down, it was already a pretty earth-shattering experience. It was certainly the best sex he had had in years, one of his highlights being the moment when he had pulled Wen Kexing on top of himself and loosened the other’s hair tie, so that the long black tresses fell down, surrounded him, and tickled his skin all over. It felt exactly as good as he had imagined it would.
They tried their best to stay silent and mostly succeeded but Zhou Zishu did not count on Chengling staying in the dark about their activities. It completely depended on the boy’s depth of sleep – if he was all out to the world, he might not have heard anything. If he had woken up at any point during the hour after they had come home, well, if he managed to use more than a single braincell he would be able to tell what they had been up to easily enough.
It turned out to be a moot point to worry about, as Wen Kexing proved his shamelessness once again the next morning by walking through the common area covered in nothing but a towel while Zhou Zishu was making coffee. While he himself had kept his chest dressed for all of the night, Wen Kexing had had no qualms in shedding his own clothes and presenting his body freely. His abs were divine, better than anything Zhou Zishu had dared to hope. Chengling, of course, had to choose that exact moment to emerge from his room. With a surprised squeal the boy made a 180 degree turn and banged the door closed behind himself. When he dared to come out once more about five minutes later, Zhou Zishu had sent Wen Kexing to his room with an admonishment not to come out again before he was properly dressed.
Chengling did not dare to make a sound. Zhou Zishu pressed a cup of coffee into his hands, hoping it would work as a peace offering. “You do not mind me having someone over, do you?” he asked. Chengling frantically shook his head. After taking a sip of coffee, he seemed to have found his voice. “No, not at all. You just caught me by surprise”, he explained his reaction. Yeah, Zhou Zishu was certain they had. He was also certain that the realization that his two older role models were likely fucking each other made the boy feel uncomfortable. But he was of age. He had to grow up at some point.
He realized that he had underestimated the other, when Chengling proceeded to question him. “So…”, he started out. “Are you two an item, now?” Zhou Zishu startled. He was not sure how to answer that. “I do not think we are at a stage where we feel the need to define what exactly we are to each other”, was his somewhat evasive answer. Of course, Wen Kexing chose exactly that moment to exit the bedroom. Zhou Zishu was sure he had heard his answer, but to his relief the other did not comment.
The contents of Wen Kexing's talk and the following discussion are completely made up, not historically accurate, and not referencing any real research ever made. I could not think of an appropriate topic and could not be bothered to invest the time to really research. If you have an idea feel free to make a suggestion! I might replace this bogus discussion with something realistic, if it seems to fit…
Poem in this chapter: 'I Love You' by Ella Wheeler Wilcox
Chapter 18: Interrogation
“Let’s go about this in order than. Where did you grow up?”
“North from here.”
“Really? That’s your answer? ‘North from here’?’”
“I said you may ask. I never promised satisfactory answers.” His remark made Wen Kexing chuckle. “Ah, A-Xiang, you might have met your match in stubbornness. This promises to become quite interesting.
Their relationship remained close and exciting but undefined for the next couple of weeks. As they spent more time together in the evenings, Zhou Zishu saw less of Wen Kexing in the afternoons – the other excused himself with having to dedicate some of his time to his work. And as he did not want to do so in the evenings anymore – he made it very clear that he wanted to spent time with Zhou Zishu – he had to sacrifice their shared afternoons.
It did not matter much, as Zhou Zishu himself was ready to say goodbye to the city library by now. There were few books there that interested him that he had not yet read through – among them some of those that were donated by Wen Kexing with the purpose of pleasing him. Instead, he added a small bookrack to his own room, waiting to be filled with books that he mostly ordered online. His therapist had decidedly supported this plan when he had shared it. Of course, only a small part of current research could actually be found in books. Zhou Zishu had never before realized how expensive it was to get access to journal articles. Luckily, Chengling was only too ready to share his library password with him and Yue Yang University had a decent amount of subscriptions. One of the publications the university did not pay for but Zhou Zishu desperately wanted to read, he simply decided to pay for himself. As it was a rather new Journal that was still establishing its reputation, the fees were not too high for now.
Thus well equipped with reading material, his desk soon turned into his central area of work again. But in contrast to recent years it was not covered in proposals and requests. The stacks of paper on there were not ordered by urgency and deadline. For the first time since the early years of his studies he delighted in the freedom of reading what caught his attention, of taking notes on what he thought interesting, with only some vague ideas in mind how this might possibly be turned into a paper at some far point in the future.
But the afternoons spent at his desk were mostly a means to pass the time until Wen Kexing called. They saw each other about three to four evenings a week. Chengling was still insisting on the cooking lessons he had been promised. Wen Kexing was not about to cancel them, but loath to miss an evening he could spent with Zhou Zishu, so he was quickly invited along. In hindsight, he was not sure whether that had helped or hindered Chengling’s lessons. Wen Kexing seemed to have a habit of simply doing things himself when they became too difficult to explain. Now, with him seated beside Zhou Zishu, their fingers twined together under the table, he was reluctant to get up and often told Chengling that whatever he decided to do would be good enough and unlikely to ruin their dinner. Zhou Zishu might have missed how unusual that was for him, if Gu Xiang had not constantly commented on it and enquired after Wen Kexing’s health about once every five minutes. Chengling seemed in equal parts flattered and despaired. He obviously enjoyed being the main cook and taking over the kitchen. But he had often also no idea what Wen Kexing was telling him to do, and thus could only improvise to the best of his knowledge.
After a while, Gu Xiang was apparently bored by watching and commenting on the interaction between the two. “So, Zhou Xu, tell me about yourself.” She commanded.
Wen Kexing turned around and sent a glare her way. “A-Xiang! That is not a way to treat a guest!” The woman harrumphed in protest. “Isn’t it? I think it is exactly the right way to treat your new boyfriend! I have certainly been more friendly to him than you ever were to Cao Weining”, she pointed out, and Zhou Zishu was sure that she was absolutely right. Wen Kexing did not try hard to hide the fact that he was not thrilled with the young man from the cultural studies department that she was spending more and more of her time with.
Zhou Zishu was a little surprised at the slight pain in his chest in response to Wen Kexing’s answer. “He is not my boyfriend. Don’t pressure him, and stay out of things that do not concern you.”
“Aiyah!” she protested. “You stay out of things that do not concern you. How come you get to meddle in my love life ALL THE TIME and I am not even allowed to question the guy you bring home for a family dinner?” She insisted on her point.
Wen Kexing was about to respond again, but this time, Zhou Zishu was faster. “It is fine. Let her ask. I am not going to answer all of her questions. But I can answer some. And I can certainly tell her off for being too nosy myself.” He insisted. He really did not want to cause bad blood between Wen Kexing and the woman he still kept referring to as his assistant, while treating her like a sister. The way she had referred to their evening as a family dinner pleased him.
“Great” she expressed her pleasure at his concession. “Let’s go about this in order than. Where did you grow up?”
“North from here.”
“Really? That’s your answer? ‘North from here’?’”
“I said you may ask. I never promised satisfactory answers.” His remark made Wen Kexing chuckle. “Ah, A-Xiang, you might have met your match in stubbornness. This promises to become quite interesting.
“With your parents? What did they do?”
“Yes, I grew up with my parents until I was eleven years old. My father and mother worked in editing.”
“What happened then?” It was the logical follow up, even though he disliked the question.
“They died. I do not wish to say more about it.”
“Fair enough”, she conceded. “With whom did you live afterwards?” She continued.
“Uncle Qin,” was his prompt and possibly not very informative answer.
She raised an eyebrow at him. “Your uncle?”
He thought it would not hurt to elaborate a little at this point. “He was not really my uncle. There was no family to take me in. He was a close friend of my father’s and probably already designated as my godfather in a way. He was close to the family, and there was little discussion about me going to stay with him until I was old enough to live on my own.”
“What did he do?” she asked next.
Here, Zhou Zishu became a little less comfortable. “He was a professor at University.”
“Which University? What subject?”
For a moment, he considered not answering. Then he noticed the tenseness in Wen Kexing’s shoulders and realized that the other man really wanted to know.
“He worked at Four Seasons State University for the time I was staying with him and his area of expertise was philosophy. Ethics, mostly.” He was pleased to notice how Wen Kexing’s posture became a little less tense.
Gu Xiang asked a few more questions about his youth, before she moved on.
“Where did you go to study? Assuming you did and are not a self-trained genius.”
He chuckled. “No, I am not a self-trained genius. Uncle Qin was very invested in my education. And as he was not quite ready to let me out of his sight at a tender age, I first studied at Four Seasons.”
He wondered if he had given her too much of a hint with referring to his tender age. Zhou Zishu had taken his first College courses at the age of sixteen. He had been taken as a prodigy and been invited to study while still going to highschool, a fact he had never much liked to share in personal conversation. Mostly because he had never believed that this had much to do with inborn talent. After his parents’ death, his mentor had very much supported any intellectual pursuit, providing him with books, stimulating discussions, and even private tutors, when he expressed an interest in a particular topic. Zhou Zishu was pretty sure that many others would have done just as well as him – if they had been provided with the same resources.
Gu Xiang did not press the point. “Did you finish your education there as well?”
“Yes and no”, he was a little evasive. “I got scholarships at a number of different institutions. I did end up finishing the degree I started at Four Seasons, though.”
“Where else did you go?”
Zhou Zishu pondered how to answer that for a moment. “I do not wish to list all of the Universities I visited. It is a bit of a long list.” And it would sound a lot like name dropping. The kind that had made him the youngest professor ever at Helian Yi University. Just because his uncle had been so well connected that he had gotten invitations to almost all of the prestigious universities in the country and a good number beyond its borders.
Gu Xiang raised an eyebrow.
“I guess Oxford was the most memorable one.” Zhou Zishu decided to share. “It was fun to study in the UK for a while and the place is a walking history book.” He had studied physics in Oxford. But the place had made him long for his old area of specialisation and he had taken the time out of a very busy schedule to visit some history lectures. He had fallen in love with the city, as well, and had later returned for another half year to officially finish his physics degree in Oxford. But he had graduated in history at Four Seasons University. So his earlier answer was kind of true. Zhou Zishu did realize that he was lying by omission a lot here and that was still a form of intentionally misleading the others. But he thought Wen Kexing would be fine with it. The other did know that there were things in the past he did not want to talk about after all.
At this point, the other did enter the conversation. “A-Xu! You got to study at Oxford? I am so jealous. I have always wanted to visit the place. You will have to take me there on a holiday at some point in the future. I insist!” And for a moment he smiled at the thought of being Wen Kexing’s tour guide through the streets of Oxford. Then he remembered that he knew quite a number of colleagues there, who would all have heard about the big scandal he was involved in, and his heart sank. Maybe at some point in the future he would be ready to face them. Or they could just wait until all of his old professor’s and friends were retired, Zhou Zishu told himself.
Gu Xiang was not done with her questions quite yet. “Did you work at University after you graduated?” She asked.
She did not ask “What did you do after graduation?” or “What did you work as?” he noted. She had her own theory already made up in her mind and wanted him to confirm it. But this part of his life, he was not willing to talk about. And he decided it would be easiest to say just that.
“Yes, I did. But I do not wish to talk about it.” Was what he chose to say.
She harrumphed. “Will you tell us if you are currently employed at any University?” she tried to push the topic.
“Have you seen me set foot onto campus? Or leave the city? When would I have the time to hide such a position from you?” He really thought the question was stupid.
“Aiya, no reason to be so testy over it! Remote working is a thing these days,” she exclaimed. And Zhou Zishu wondered if here he had been given a hint to her and Wen Kexing’s position. They were obviously not employed at Yue Yang University. But did they work for another institution? Fulfilling their roles remotely? As he had never done so himself, it was an option he had not before considered.
Gu Xiang seemed to accept that she would not receive any more answers on this topic but it did not make her stop with the questions. “Alright, let’s move on to past relationships. Anything you want to confess to on your own?” She started out.
Zhou Zishu laughed. “No, I have nothing to confess. Maybe it will satisfy you to know that I was never married?” He offered.
“Yes, a good point to start. So not married. How many long-term relationships have you had?” She proceeded.
“What do you count as long term?” He threw back.
“Half a year or more.” She said after taking a little time to consider.
“One” was his answer. The answer would always have been one. But he did not want to make this easy for her.
They continued like this for a bit. Zhou Zishu shared that his only long-term relationship had been at the age of nineteen. That later on he had certainly dated, but it had never turned into anything serious. When Gu Xiang pressed him on the people he had dated, he confessed that all of them had been women. This seemed to surprise Wen Kexing, who suddenly turned around and seemed very interested: “All of them?”, he asked.
Zhou Zishu turned to answer him directly, gauging his reaction. “For the relationships, yes, all of them.”
It was nevertheless Gu Xiang who continued with the questions. “You were never interested in men?”
He raised an eyebrow at her. “It would be rather strange for me to say I am not interested in men, would it not?”
“I mean before, obviously!” she exclaimed.
Zhou Zishu thought about it for a while. He had fucked more men than women, probably. Why had he never dated any of them? Why had he never even tried for a relationship? The answer turned out to be simple enough.
“Most of the women I dated or entered a relationship with were either pushed towards me by a family member or common acquaintance who thought it was time for either her or me to settle down, get married, and start a family. Very few of them were themselves searching for someone to settle down with and have children. I guess no one ever thought it was suitable to push men at me for the same purpose?”
Gu Xiang objected. “But there is no reason you could not happily settle down with a man, as well!” she exclaimed.
“Yes, I am aware. But few of the people who saw fit to meddle in my personal life ever thought of deviating from the cliché picture of husband, wife and biological children, I fear.”
“Fair enough”, Gu Xiang seemed satisfied, Wen Kexing, however, did not. “And you never gave them any reason to think that a husband might be more to your liking?” He sounded a bit insecure. Was he doubting Zhou Zishu’s affections based on the fact that he himself did not have the same gender as the people he had formerly been in a relationship with? It was kind of cute. Zhou Zishu knew the other had absolutely nothing to worry about in that regard. But the man was apparently in need of some reassurance.
“Honestly, most of those relationships fell in my early twenties. And I was not much interested in any one of them, so I guess I did not give anyone any particular impression at all. I was focused very much on my books and my studies, and some people around me thought that I was too lonely for my own good and that women were the solution to solve the problem. The fact that none of the relationships ever lasted more than a few weeks should tell you clearly that they were wrong.”
Gu Xiang followed that with an inquiry that made Chengling choke on his lemonade. “So, no interesting relationships in the last years. What about sex? You are not going to tell me that you were abstinent for a number of years, are you?”
Zhou Zishu patted Chengling on the back and waited for the boy’s breathing to return to normal before answering. “No, I was not. I found that casual sex suited my lifestyle rather better than any committed relationship. But that is all I am going to say on the topic in current company.”
Later that night, when they had finished dinner, Chengling had set out to go home, and Gu Xiang had politely withdrawn into her room, Wen Kexing decided to continue their conversation.
“So, casual sex. Wish to elaborate on that? Do I have to worry about you sleeping around whenever the opportunity arises?” He tried to sound casual, but only partly succeeded in hiding the worry underneath the question.
Zhou Zishu took another sip of his wine, before answering. “No. I don’t think I am very much interested in sleeping with others right now. Are you?” The last was meant to provoke. He wanted Wen Kexing to speak his mind.
“A-Xu! Since the first day I saw you I have been so blinded by your beauty that I have not even looked at anyone else! Of course I do not wish to have sex with anyone else! How could I?” He granted the other a small smile. He had expected this to be the answer, but it was still nice to hear.
“The fact that I preferred casual sex over relationships for the last decade does not mean that I had a lot of casual sex, actually. It mostly just means that I didn’t do relationships.” He returned to the original point of discussion.
“And when you said earlier that all your relationships were with women…” The other did not finish the question, but Zhou Zishu knew what he was asking.
“I was referring to relationships, not to casual lovers. They were both men and women.”
Wen Kexing leaned back. “You never had a clear preference?” He asked after a while.
Zhou Zishu considered this carefully. “I think I did. I preferred men. But I was never all that active about seeking them out. Mostly, I took opportunities to hook up when they were presented to me. And I guess I was propositioned more by women than by men. And I have enjoyed sex with women. Just – possibly not to the same degree.”
Wen Kexing smirked. “And may I enquire about your sexual preferences in detail now?” His eyes gleamed with obvious interest and mischief.
Zhou Zishu chuckled. “Sadly, I fear this is not the right moment for that. I have a feeling that that conversation would inevitably end with the two of us in the bedroom. And you know that I have to go home tonight. I have an appointment at the doctor tomorrow.” He had informed Wen Kexing about that before the dinner, to avoid any disappointment.
Wen Kexing asked one more question: “What kind of doctor?”
And among all the questions he had answered that night, Zhou Zishu thought that this was possibly the one that made him feel most vulnerable. “A psychiatrist,” he answered honestly.
Wen Kexing stood up and walked over to him. He took Zhou Zishu by the hands and waited until he had risen as well. “Thank you for your honesty tonight” he whispered at him, before kissing him gently goodbye.
Chapter 19: A Double Date
Without restarting any of their former activity, Wen Kexing moved his hands down to the hem of his shirt and pulled it up and over Zhou Zishu’s chest. His skin lay bare underneath, with the names of his former assistants clearly sketched into it, among a number of thorny wines. Wen Kexing stared in confusion. Zhou Zishu felt the memories flood his mind and moisture collect in his eyes.
“Who were they?” Wen Kexing asked. “Your family?”
Zhou Zishu shook his head. “No”, his voice came out so croaking. He cleared his throat before speaking again. “No. They were people who trusted me before a failed them.”
Gu Xiang had invited Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing for dinner, without deeming it necessary to inform them that Cao Weining would also be coming along, effectively transforming the evening into a double date. Zhou Zishu didn’t mind, but was amused that Wen Kexing seemed to be fuming. Honestly, he thought the other man was exaggerating a lot in being so wary of the young man. But Wen Kexing did tend to be a little overprotective of Gu Xiang, and in this more than everything else, he was acting like an overbearing father who could not accept that his little girl was growing up.
Cao Weining, a PhD student from the department of cultural studies and with a large fascination for different cultural traditions in food seemed a nice, unassuming boy. Zhou Zishu was not sure how anyone could perceive him as a threat. He might not have been the dream of an ambitious parent – he seemed a little clumsy and not particularly driven. But he was doing well enough for himself and he was obviously smitten with Gu Xiang. Zhou Zishu rather thought that the girl might get bored with him sooner or later and break the boy’s heart. But if this happened it would not be his problem.
Wen Kexing, however, was very apparently determined to make the boy his problem and to regard him as a threat to his young and innocent girl. Ridiculous as it was.
“Korean Tapas? A-Xiang, I did not know you had developed an interest in Korean foods!” He exclaimed, when they had arrived and he had gotten over his first shock of Cao Weining waiting for them in front of the restaurant.
“Weining recommended the place. He said the food is really good.”
A glare. “Did he? And do you believe everything he says, or did you at least look up the place and check that it meets minimal hygienic standards?”
“Ah, Kexing, behave!” Gu Xiang chastised. “This is a reputable restaurant right in the city centre. It would not be so difficult to even get a reservation here if they had any tendency to poison their customers. There is no need to worry!”
Once they had stepped inside and been led to their table, Gu Xiang and Zhou Zishu sat down opposite from each other. Gu Xiang had looked at him pleadingly when he took the seat across from her. But he had just smiled at the woman. He had no intention of playing buffer between her overbearing older brother and her new boyfriend.
When Wen Kexing had tried to sit next to her to prevent Cao Weining from claiming that place, Zhou Zishu had intervened. “Lao Wen! I was so looking forward to an evening with you at my side. Will you honestly abandon me and make me feel all bereft and lonely?” The other gave in quickly, of course. But not without an admonishing glare at Weining.
“I am watching you. You keep a respectable distance from her, or you will be out of this restaurant more quickly than you are able to spell PDA. No touching!” He admonished.
Gu Xiang was looking red like a tomato and they had not even ordered drinks. Zhou Zishu made sure to placate Wen Kexing a little. “Lao Wen, I never knew you were so opposed to public demonstrations of affection. I must apologize. I think I might have overstepped in the past, and I will do my best to not do so today.” He had placed his hand on the other man’s thigh when Wen Kexing had sat down, and demonstratively removed it now, placing both his hands on the table. Wen Kexing looked bereft.
“A-Xu! You know I did not mean it like that. You and I, we are grown men. The situation is not comparable?” He looked comically forlorn.
“Isn’t it?” Zhou Zishu raised an eyebrow. “It seems to me that Gu Xiang and Cao Weining are adults, pursuing a relationship. Where is the difference?”
Wen Kexing seemed to stutter. Instead of answering, he turned back to Cao Weining. “Listen, boy. I do not know what you do with other girls. But better be careful with Gu Xiang. If your intentions towards her are not honest, I will have your head!”
Cao Weining seemed at a loss for words. Zhou Zishu thought the boy might be ready to agree to marry the woman, if pressed. But so far, as far as he was informed, Gu Xiang had not even agreed to an official relationship with him. Saying that he wanted to spent the rest of his life with her would probably not be welcomed. Zhou Zishu also had the distinct impression that Gu Xiang would have physically attacked Wen Kexing at this moment, if the other had not simply been seated too far away for her to easily reach him.
“Wen Kexing! You are stopping this behaviour right now!” She had no choice but to fight with words. “I invited you out tonight. And if anyone here gets to make rules about who will or will not be sent home for misbehaviour, it is me, not you!” Wen Kexing seemed to finally register her honest anger. He swallowed visibly, and picked up his menu with the clear intention of hiding behind it.
The rest of the dinner proceeded in a stiff, but somewhat more polite manner. Zhou Zishu had decided to do his best to loosen the atmosphere, by plying Wen Kexing with alcohol. The other had seemed uninterested in drinking at first. But when Zhou Zishu had ordered an expensive and rather excellent bottle of wine for them, he had given in. Now, on his third glass, Wen Kexing was back to his normal behaviour. At least one of his hands was searching contact with Zhou Zishu constantly, touching his thigh, his arm, or grabbing one of his hands. His mouth was still spouting utterly ridiculous nonsense, but he was safely back in the realm of quoting poetry, which was either directed at Zhou Zishu, citing his beauty, or at Cao Weining, with badly veiled hints to men with ill character and bad intentions. Gu Xiang, at least, did not seem to take those seriously, and looked like she was enjoying herself.
The food was excellent, and the fact that they ate so well was in part due to Cao Weining’s recommendations for what they should order. The man had not only chosen an excellent restaurant. He also seemed to know which dishes went well with each other, building a nice contrast of tastes, and often talked to the staff about some detail or another, making sure to underline they got their dishes prepared as closely as possible to the way they would be eaten in Korea, and without some of the adjustments that were usually made to please the taste of western customers. People who came to a Korean restaurant wanted Korean food, of course, but Cao Weining did not tire of complaining that they were often not looking for the genuine experience, but also wanted food that would please their own palate. As such, many dishes offered were often overly salted, or not so spicy, or less sour, than they were originally meant to be.
Zhou Zishu learned to appreciate the young man in the course of the evening, and started to hope that him and Gu Xiang would work out, so that he could profit from his excellent knowledge in food more often. That him and Wen Kexing staying together would be another prerequisite for this was a thought he quickly suppressed again. Right now, he did not wish to entertain the possibility of Wen Kexing not being a part of his life for the foreseeable future.
After they had finished desert, Wen Kexing, not distracted by the food anymore, seemed to be determined to go back to drilling Cao Weining and Zhou Zishu decided he had seen quite enough of this for a while. “Lao Wen, I am tired. We have eaten well. The wine is empty. Don’t you think it is time to go home?”
“A-Xu! The night is young! How can you talk about going home? Do you wish to abandon your Lao Wen so soon?” He pouted. Wen Kexing should not be allowed to pout. That expression on his face was simply irresistible.
Zhou Zishu smiled. “Who said that I meant to abandon you? I did not say we would have to go home separately, did I? I just think that we have spent enough time at a restaurant and in company for tonight. Do you not wish to take me somewhere more quiet, possibly with a bed?”
The pout was gone in a second, replaced with an expression of clear desire. “A-Xu! I am sorry I misunderstood. Of course, if you wish me to take you home, I will be your loyal servant.”
Zhou Zishu nodded. “Great. I think the role as my loyal servant suits you quite well.” He glanced at Gu Xiang. “What are your plans for the night?” He enquired. The girl shrugged. “Not sure. Why do you ask?”
“Oh”, he pretended to be disinterested. “It’s just that Chengling is home and likely already in bed. If Lao Wen and I move to my place, we might disturb him.”
Cao Weining seemed to choke on his desert wine. Apparently, the man was a bit more of a prude about sex than everyone else at the table.
Gu Xiang just smiled. “Well, I guess that is unfortunate. You should go to our apartment. I don’t think I am ready to retire yet, but I will make sure not to disturb you in case I come home later. Weining and I still wanted to try that cocktail bar around the corner from here, did we not?”
She glanced at the man next to her, who eagerly nodded his assent. Wen Kexing was glaring again. Zhou Zishu had seen enough of it. He wanted the man’s eyes on himself for the rest of the night. “Lao Wen, take me to your bed?” He asked in his best husky and seductive voice. The other man turned to him, his pupils seemed impossibly wide with desire.
“You pay, A-Xiang. You invited us, after all” he said without even looking at her. Getting up, he moved behind Zhou Zishu, to assist him in rising from his chair.
They left the restaurant quietly and walked without talking to Gu Xiang’s and Wen Kexing’s apartment. The silence was laden with desire, and not uncomfortable at all. Zhou Zishu had seldom looked forward to having sex with someone the way he did right now. He was so filled with anticipation that he could simply not even look at the other without risking pushing him against a wall to kiss him right then and there. It was an agreeable thought, but at the same time it would be so inconvenient. Without a bed nearby, they would have to stop at some point. Sex in public was not quite his thing. But stopping did not seem desirable either. So instead, he kept his desire on a tight leash for just a little longer.
His self-control broke the moment Wen Kexing had closed the door to the apartment behind them. Zhou Zishu turned on him, stepped close, and locked their lips together. While kissing him deeply, he pressed himself to Wen Kexing, making the man step back until his back pressed against the door. Wen Kexing was taller than himself, so Zhou Zishu had to raise himself up on tiptoes to get the best angle. It kind of made him even more excited. Lightly rubbing his already half hard length against Wen Kexing’s thigh, he brushed over the other’s lips with his tongue, demanding entrance. Wen Kexing gave in willingly.
Soon, they were drowning in passion and Zhou Zishu’s actions become rather less conscious and more instinctual. He had no idea what he was doing anymore, but he knew very well that it felt good. At some point, Wen Kexing’s hands found their way under his shirt. After caressing his skin for a little, he tried to break their kiss. Zhou Zishu did not let him. With an angry huff, Wen Kexing grabbed his waist, almost lifted him off the ground, and forced them to switch positions. Now Zhou Zishu found himself pressed to the door, Wen Kexing towering over him, consuming him, and he was delighted. When Wen Kexing raised his hands over his head, pinning them against the door, only to withdraw his lips from Zhou Zishu. He heard a pleading whine escape from his own lips. “Lao Wen! What are you doing?” Zhou Zishu noticed that he was panting heavily.
Wen Kexing did not release him and just stared at him for a moment. “I need you to return to your senses for just a second” the man stated. “I want to fuck you tonight”, he proceeded to say, and that announcement did not help to clear Zhou Zishu’s mind at all. Instead, he pressed his lower body greedily into the other’s.
“A-Xu”, Wen Kexing admonished. “Listen to me. I want to fuck you, but to do that, I want you naked in my bed. I want to see you, all of you. And I want to touch all of you.” Zhou Zishu swallowed. All of that sounded very enticing, but he also understood now why the other had forced him to slow down. He had not yet revealed the tattoos on his chest to Wen Kexing. His desire overcame his fears easily. “Alright”, he simply agreed.
Without restarting any of their former activity, Wen Kexing moved his hands down to the hem of his shirt and pulled it up and over Zhou Zishu’s chest. His skin lay bare underneath, with the names of his former assistants clearly sketched into it, among a number of thorny wines. Wen Kexing stared in confusion. Zhou Zishu felt the memories flood his mind and moisture collect in his eyes.
“Who were they?” Wen Kexing asked. “Your family?”
Zhou Zishu shook his head. “No”, his voice came out so croaking. He cleared his throat before speaking again. “No. They were people who trusted me before a failed them.”
“And you felt the need to etch their names into your chest?” Wen Kexing seemed doubtful.
“Yes”, he answered. Explanations were running through his head. About how badly he failed them, how he needed to remember to not repeat the mistake. But in the end, all of that was mute. The names were there, because he failed them and he couldn’t allow himself to forget.
Wen Kexing nodded, apparently ready to accept the spoken message, as well as the unspoken one: That Zhou Zishu was still not ready to talk about it. “Will you tell me about them some day?” he asked. And Zhou Zishu nodded a promise. Wen Kexing seemed satisfied with that, and proceeded to lower his mouth to Zhou Zishu’s skin, to breath over and lick every part of it, inked or uninked, in an obvious attempt to taste every centimetre of his skin. It was endlessly sexy to Zhou Zishu and soon enough all thoughts of the past were pushed from his mind.
Chapter 20: Ghosts
A few days later, Wen Kexing had invited Zhou Zishu to join him on campus for a performance of the local student theatre group. Zhou Zishu was not sure he was interested in the play, but he would be happy to spent the time with Wen Kexing, so he had agreed. He had also had another appointment with his therapist and they had talked about all the different reasons that made him dread stepping a foot into any university building, but also all of the reasons that he wanted to do so. In a tiring fifty-minute conversation they had tried to separate his ties to the institution into positives and negatives – the good memories: associations to his uncle, friends, the curiosity and inspiration that the opportunity to learn had inspired in him for most of his life. And the bad memories: the pressure, the competition, the feeling of having to perform and proof himself. And most of all his realizations of how much pressure he had put on others. So much so that some of them had fallen seriously ill, while others had lost all interest in what had formerly been a passion to them, as well.
Zhou Zishu had felt the guilt rising in him when talking about the bad memories. But they had made an agreement at the beginning of the session to look at the things he associated with this descriptively, keeping a distance, and leaving out any judgements as far as that was possible for him. And Zhou Zishu had been astonished to realize that it had helped. Sure, the guilt was still there. He had not changed his opinion about his own past failures at all. But he noticed that the guilt was a lot less crushing if he did not linger on it.
Visiting a theatre performance with Wen Kexing thus seemed like a good opportunity to form some more positive associations to Yue Yang University in particular. The two of them had really been on only a handful of dates so far, and every one of them still appeared special and exciting. Wen Kexing had picked him up at his apartment, and the two had been out for lunch before driving over in time for the play. The performance, a cabaret piece on political reactions to climate change, was actually rather good, and Zhou Zishu enjoyed himself right up until the end. An end that was a performance in itself, but certainly not part of the play.
When the actors of the final scene had spoken their last lines and vanished behind the curtain under applause, likely to reappear a minute later with all of their co-stars, a different group of people appeared on stage. They were dressed in dark robes and their faces were hidden behind the plain white masks of ghosts. Possibly a leftover from a past performance?
Abruptly, most of the lights turned off, and only a single spot was pointed at the figures on stage. It was hard to make out anything in the rest of the room. But there was movement in the aisles between the tables, more figures seemed to be coming in through the doors. Whispers rose in the room and mixed with an earie melody that was rising up from the sound system. A moment later, paper pamphlets started falling from above like oversized snowflakes. Zhou Zishu thought they must have been thrown from the balustrade in the back that was meant for the lighting crew.
One of the ghosts stood in front of the microphone. The man – or woman? – had a voice changing device in front of her mouth. In a strangely distorted voice, they started to speak.
“We have blocked the exits with no intention to harm you. We merely ask for a moment of your attention. We apologize for having to take such measures, but important issues on this campus keep getting ignored. This is not acceptable to us. The Yue Yang University claims in its statutes to value honesty, fairness, and education. But the current efforts of forming a large research alliance are betraying those values. These efforts are fuelled by the interest to gain reputation, to claim money, and to destroy the competition. They are born from greed and arrogance.” The speaker took a deep breath, allowing the words take effect.
On a rational level Zhou Zishu could acknowledge that the speech was well written and well delivered for its purpose. The introduction was followed by a long list of accusations addressing wrongs that had been committed in the past. False research results, unfair hiring practices, stolen authorship. Zhou Zishu tried his best not to listen. But as he was caught in one of the rows between Wen Kexing and some unknown woman, and as all efforts by some of the less compliant members of the audience to force their way through the doors had been without success so far, he had little choice. Apparently noticing how tense he was, Wen Kexing grabbed his hand. Zhou Zishu gladly accepted this help to anchor himself, and clamped down, hard, trying to concentrate on that point of heat and pressure.
But the speech was not over. And no matter how hard he tried, the words filtered into his head, woke memories and fed into his guilt: “You have betrayed us. You have destroyed us. You have wilfully destroyed the careers of young men and women. You have not given chances to those who deserve them. You have piled your work on us and claimed the credit, you have pressured us into breakdown. We will not allow you to continue with this. We will destroy you. We will expose you…” he was not capable anymore to distinguish between the words that were actually spoken and the ones that were rising from his memory and his unconscious mind. It all become a tumbled mix of words and images, of reality and imagination, pressing down on him.
In the end, there were no voices anymore at all. Only fear and guilt, overwhelming him completely. The panic attack had taken a full hold of him. He was barely aware that he was bent over, head on his knees, still clasping Wen Kexing’s hand and gasping for breath. He wanted to confess. Wanted to shout out that he had not meant to do it. Wanted to beg for the voices to stop. But at the same time he was losing control, his chest tightening, his breathing going ever faster, bile rising in his throat.
He barely registered when he was picked up by strong arms, half walking and half being carried out of the room. He noticed fresh air hitting his face and it brought a tiny little bit of relieve. The strong arms enveloping him from behind also helped to anchor him. Slowly, very slowly, he noticed how his breathing returned to normal and the pressure on his chest eased. He was outside. He was in Wen Kexing’s arms. He would be fine.
He was half sitting, half kneeling on the floor, Wen Kexing crouching behind him, the slow rhythm of the other man’s breath directly in his ear. He tried to match his own breath to Wen Kexing’s. When he felt his control coming back, he carefully raised one of his hands to touch the man’s arm, signalling that he was back to awareness. Wen Kexing slowly released his grip. Zhou Zishu leaned forward for a moment, resting his hands on the cool and slightly wet grass. He took three slow and deep breaths, before getting up onto his legs. Slowly, he turned to Wen Kexing, rather grateful for the fact that they were alone.
“Sorry. I am sorry you had to witness that. I am fine now.” He felt endlessly embarrassed for being so weak.
“A-Xu!” Wen Kexing looked at him in accusation. “Don’t you dare apologize! I am just glad I was around to help. You looked scary bad there for a moment and if your breathing had taken a minute more to even out, I would have called an ambulance. I was so worried.”
Zhou Zishu looked down at his feet. “You should not have to deal with this. Call an ambulance the next time. At least then you don’t have to witness this and be scared for me.”
Wen Kexing raised a hand to his face. “This is not the first panic attack of someone close to me I have dealt with. I would tell you more, but I can’t without betraying her trust.” Zhou Zishu wondered if he was referring to Gu Xiang. From all he knew about how close they were, it seemed likely. On the other hand, he could not imagine the bright and stubborn young woman suffering from panic attacks. “I know that they are not actually dangerous most of the time, and that getting out of the situation that is causing it and feeling anchored is often enough for them to pass.” Wen Kexing explained. “The ambulance is not actually the best way to help with them. Whenever you are having one of these – promise to call me?” he asked.
Zhou Zishu raised his head to stare into his eyes. The other was very obviously genuine about his wish to help. Could he take the offer? Could he promise to bother Wen Kexing every time his past mistakes caught up with him and became too much to bear? He could not. The other did not deserve to carry that burden. “I can’t do that”, he replied honestly. “It is too much to ask of you. Too much for you to deal with. I am sorry that I am so broken. But I can’t make it your problem.”
Wen Kexing stared back. Zhou Zishu noticed how his eyes were appearing more bright than usual. A single tear seemed to form in them. “A-Xu. You are not a burden. Never.”
But Zhou Zishu knew at the bottom of his heart that the other was wrong. “I am. I am sorry, Lao Wen. I should go home now.” And with those words, Zhou Zishu turned around and left him behind. He walked home, gladly accepting that it would take him a good half an hour, needing the time to collect himself.
For the rest of the day as well as the next, Zhou Zishu ignored all of Wen Kexing’s calls and messages. There weren’t that many of them, actually. Until the evening, he did not receive anything from the man at all. And only the next morning did he try to call.
Zhou Zishu went running, just because Chengling was at home for most of the morning and he did not want the boy to notice that anything was wrong. For the same reason, he left to go to the library after lunch, instead of sitting down at his desk. Escaping the apartment was the best way to escape unwanted questions. He only dropped in briefly in the afternoon to grab the jacket he had not thought to take earlier in the day, before heading out to the bar. He needed a drink. How could he have been so stupid? How could he have ever thought he could be good enough for Wen Kexing? That this thing between them, whatever it was, was a good idea? He had no right to burden anyone with his guilt and failures. No right at all. It was probably best he had come to that realisation now. It would hurt Wen Kexing, but it would have only hurt him more if that fling had gone on any longer.
He was on his second glass of Whiskey – he had not bothered to even start with beer tonight – when Wen Kexing walked into the bar. It was impossible not to notice him, the way he stood out among the other patrons. Tall, proud, endlessly charming. He did not belong to a place that was mostly frequented by the lonely and desperate. It took a moment for the man to scan the crowd before his eyes settled on Zhou Zishu. On his way over, he was briefly stopped by the waitress, but the woman was quickly sent on her way again. Without hesitation, Wen Kexing sat down opposite of Zhou Zishu.
She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes;
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.
One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impaired the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
Or softly lightens o’er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express,
How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.
Zhou Zishu had been prepared to tell Wen Kexing to leave him alone. But the other recited the poem so fluently that he found no opportunity to interrupt. “Byron? Really? You are here to quote Byron at me?”
The other shrugged. “I considered quite a number of poems, in the beginning. But it was not hard to decide. This one is must suited to describe how you appear to me. The first part aptly captures how subtle your outer beauty is – you are not gaudy, you attempt in no way to stand out, and yet, you are striking. And the second stanza references the beauty of her thoughts. There are not all that many poems that cover both aspects. And none of the others do you justice at all.”
They were interrupted by the waitress putting a glass down in front of Wen Kexing. Zhou Zishu averted his eyes while the other took a first sip of the dark liquor. “Whatever. I guess you have the right to have your own delusions.”
Wen Kexing sighed. “We just discussed standpoint theory a few days ago, did we not? I concede that my impression of you might not reflect how you see yourself. But why must you deny my sincerity and mental health?”
Damn him. Zhou Zishu was not in the mood to take a reflected, academic position. He wanted to be left alone. “What are you doing here? And how did you even find me?”
Wen Kexing sent him an obviously fake smile. “Ah, so you are aware that you neglected answering any of my messages and responding to my urgent entreaty to tell me where you were? As you could have known if you had read my messages, I also asked you to reassure me that you were well and not – I don’t know, having another attack, or falling into a spiral of self-hatred, or anything like that. As I took the time to ask Gu Xiang for permission, I can be more open than I was yesterday. In her case, the panic attacks came with a rather bad case of clinical depression and some suicidal episodes.” Wen Kexing took a deep breath while Zhou Zishu felt the words sink in. Gu Xiang? Suicidal? He could hardly believe it of the loud and happy girl.
“While it was difficult to help her through that,” Wen Kexing continued, “I have never regretted the decision to help her for a single second in my life. But,“ he took a deep breath again, “I cannot claim that I have remained totally unaffected. I worry. I am rather good at painting horror scenarios in my mind. And thus, no matter how much you wish to push me away right now – I could not accept getting no response from you at all.” His glance was intense, and he seemed strangely vulnerable through the determination written on his face. “I will thus not apologize for going to your apartment, forcing Chengling to let me in, telling him that you had a panic attack – another panic attack I should say, as he informed me that it was not the first in recent time – and after that little conversation he was quite happy to help me as best he could. He was not sure himself where you went, but you mentioned the bar to him some time ago, and he thought it would be my best bet to start here. Actually, that reminds me…“ He took out his phone. “I promised the brat to let him know if I found you. Excuse me, I will just send a short message.” He typed for a little while, and Zhou Zishu appreciated the opportunity to sort his alcohol muddled thoughts.
Gu Xiang had been trying to kill herself at some point in her life. And Wen Kexing had been by her side through that time. What must it feel like, to know someone you cared for was considering taking their own life? When Wen Kexing was done writing, he spoke. “I am not suicidal. Haven’t considered it once. So you do not need to worry about that.”
Wen Kexing stared at him. “Thanks. I guess that might help with the horror scenarios in my mind, next time. But do not fool yourself – it will not stop me from worrying.”
“So, what now?” Zhou Zishu asked. He had no idea where to go from here. He still thought him and Wen Kexing were a bad idea. But he could not make the other leave right now. It would be too cruel. He did not mean to make anyone else suffer for his mistakes.
“Now”, the other replied with fake cheerfulness “we drink. I have no right to tell you what to do, and I certainly did not come here to drag you home. You are the master of your own life. If drinking is what you wish to do tonight, we will drink. But don’t believe for one minute that I will let you out of my sight.”
Zhou Zishu raised an eyebrow in amusement. “Ever? Are you sure you thought this through? When will you sleep? Do you think I will allow you to move in at the apartment?”
Wen Kexing huffed. “Well, alright. I will not let you out of my eyes for the next few hours. And later, I will bring you home. And I will only leave when you have made a promise to go straight to bed. If you refuse, I will have Chengling watching you in my stead. And tomorrow morning, you will send me a text telling me that you are doing alright. And if you do not, I will come over. And if I do not believe you, I will do the same. And we will continue like this until I am reassured that you are better.”
“You are rather persistent, are you not?” Zhou Zishu questioned. “One could accuse you of stalking me if you follow through with all that. What if I don’t agree?”
“It is very simple. If you do not agree, you are breaking my heart, and betraying our friendship. And even if you put a restraining order on me, I will find you at regular intervals and glare at you accusingly with puppy dog eyes.” He took a sip from his drink, demonstrating what he would look like in such a case.
“If you wish to get rid of me, A-Xu, I will tell you how to do it. It is simple enough. Convince me that you are happy without me in your life. Either by convincing me that you are happy on your own. Or by finding someone else who will make you happy. If you do, I will step away without a word of complaint. Will I be hurt? Sure. But if I know you are happy, I’ll be able to deal with it well enough. But you need to believe one thing – I have never met anyone like you, A-Xu. I am doing this for you. I care about you. I will not go away until you make me understand that that is really what you want.” Wen Kexing was staring at him with the most intense expression Zhou Zishu had ever seen on the other man’s face. He bowed his head in acceptance. It seemed like he would have to allow the man’s presence in his life for now. There was no chance at all that he would be able to convince Wen Kexing that he would be happier without the other in his life. It was simply too far from the truth.
“What if I am never happy again, Lao Wen?” Zhou Zishu gave voice to his fear. “What if I have lost the ability to be happy? Will you stay around and watch my misery for the rest of my pitiful life?”
The other reached over the table, fingers brushing lightly over the hand with which Zhou Zishu was holding his glass of Whiskey. “Life is a tricky thing. And I cannot promise you will never be miserable again. But I promise you, A-Xu. You will also be happy. There will be moments when you are happy. And they are worth fighting for.”
“What if I don’t deserve them?” he could not help himself but add.
“But you do. A-Xu, you do deserve them.” Wen Kexing reassured. Zhou Zishu could not believe it. But for the moment he was ready to allow the other his own point of view. For now, it was enough that Wen Kexing could believe it.
The rest of the evening, they drank and talked of unimportant things. After Zhou Zishu had finished his third whiskey and was pleasantly drunk, Wen Kexing accompanied him home and put him to bed.
Lord Byron: She walks in beauty.
Chapter 22: One Happy Day
“Are you happy today?”
“Mmh”, he confirmed, not allowing his own thoughts to stray too far away from the current moment.
May I fuck you tonight?” Zhou Zishu was about to hum in consent once more before processing the words the other had spoken. In reflex, he stared down and into the eyes of the other. “What?”
He kept his promise of informing the other of his state of mind the next morning. He did not write he was feeling well, as it would have been a blatant and transparent lie. But he wrote that he had a headache, and that his therapist had called to reschedule an appointment they were to have at the end of the week. And that he would drink a lot of water, and read a bit, and consider if he felt good enough to go running later in the day. It was the longest message he had ever sent the other so far.
Wen Kexing sent back a smiley face and a question – if his therapy session was moved from Thursday to Friday – did that mean that he had no important plans for Thursday so far? Zhou Zishu confirmed, and suddenly found himself invited to a medieval market that was apparently taking place all week in a town close by. The market opened at noon, Wen Kexing proposed meeting him at 2 pm and spending the afternoon there before grabbing some dinner in town.
The outing turned into one of the most relaxed days he had had since the scandal. During the drive, Wen Kexing was excited to tell him about the history of the place they were going to. Once there, the other was excited by almost everything around them. When he first exclaimed about the price of a nice leather cover for a book – that he apparently liked very much – and Zhou Zishu insisted to buy it for him, Wen Kexing apparently decided to see how much he could get Zhou Zishu to spent on him in the span of one afternoon. He exaggeratedly exclaimed about the beauty of some handmade wooden bracelets, declared his absolutely unrivalled craving for strawberries in chocolate, needed a picture of the two of them in medieval costume, and even convinced Zhou Zishu to pay for a practice session in shooting with bow and arrow that was clearly targeted at children. In short: Wen Kexing was being absolutely childish and ridiculous, and Zhou Zishu enjoyed every second of it, the enthusiasm of the other infecting him as well.
In the afternoon, a falconer’s show took place, and they set down on the meadow with an assortment of savoury snacks around them, admiring the birds and their tricks. When he was done eating, Wen Kexing proceeded to stretch out on the grass and rest his head on Zhou Zishu’s thigh. It was a pleasant weight, and he absentmindedly allowed his hand to comb through the other’s hair.
“Are you happy today?”
“Mmh”, he confirmed, not allowing his own thoughts to stray too far away from the current moment.
“May I fuck you tonight?” Zhou Zishu was about to hum in consent once more before processing the words the other had spoken. In reflex, he stared down and into the eyes of the other. “What?”
“A-Xu!” Wen Kexing complained. “Don’t stop playing with my hair, please.” He pouted. Only at his words did Zhou Zishu realize that he had stopped the movement of his hand. As requested, he took it up again.
“It is fine if you don’t want me to. If you prefer to top, that would be alright with me as well” his tone of voice was nonchalant. But even Zhou Zishu did not believe that this was a casual question for just a moment. He moved his hand from Wen Kexing’s hair to the nape of his neck, and began teasingly caressing the bare skin back there.
“I will consider it”, he promised.
Wen Kexing took a moment to react. “You would be really welcome to, you know. I have bottomed often enough, and I find it rather agreeable. And if you wish, I will make sure to prepare myself for you very well, so that you do not have to bother with it.”
Zhou Zishu looked down once again. Were these really things the other man thought he worried about? Wen Kexing, as beautiful and stunning and confident as he often appeared, must have made some rather bad experiences in the past, if he thought he had to make concessions on the technicalities of preparation to get Zhou Zishu into his bed.
“If we did that, I would not allow it. I claim the privileged to prepare you myself, and to enjoy every second of it, thank you very much. But for tonight”, he observed with delight how the eyes of the other man lightened at those words, “if I decide to spent the night with you at all, I would very much like for you to take care of me. I very much prefer to bottom, even though I have not had the opportunity often, in the past.” He felt a light blush spreading over his cheeks. No matter how hard he tried, he could not talk about these things so casually. He had been raised to believe that sex was not to be discussed in public. And they were very much out in the open, in the middle of couples and families and groups of friends. Even though none of those were strictly speaking close enough to be able to easily listen in on their conversation.
“Ah, A-Xu, I thought it impossible, but you have just proven yourself to be even more perfect than I had believed you to be so far. I cannot stand to wait for tonight, and I will dread the idea that you might decide you prefer to be alone for every second of the afternoon.”
Zhou Zishu did make him wait a bit longer, but he dropped enough hints throughout the afternoon that the other did not have to worry much about the possibility of him deciding he would prefer to be alone. It was still early evening when they decided to head home – Wen Kexing’s place in this case, as Gu Xiang apparently had plans to be out tonight. Their time alone turned out to be quite as agreeable and pleasant as the afternoon had been.
Chapter 23: An Invitation to a Conference
Zhou Zishu had another exhausting but also helpful conversation with his therapist, and finally received some medication from his psychiatrist that he could take whenever he felt his mood and thoughts of blame were getting out of control. In the meantime, he and Wen Kexing spent almost every evening and a significant number of their nights together and things seemed to be going quite well for them.
Zhou Zishu was at first delighted when Wen Kexing asked him to accompany him on an upcoming trip out of town. He was less delighted with the idea when the other explained that the trip was for the sake of an upcoming conference. Wen Kexing had apparently made plans to attend quite a while ago. But now he was loath to go and leave Zhou Zishu behind for several days.
Zhou Zishu had absolutely no interest in attending such an event. While some of the presentations could potentially be interesting, conferences were meant for networking. In his experience, they encompassed endless introductions and discussions of the who is who of academia. And the one Wen Kexing was asking him to attend was an interdisciplinary event. The topic seemed mostly suitable for the humanities and social sciences. But still. Zhou Zishu could not be sure not to run into any old acquaintances there.
He would have right out refused, if Wen Kexing had not painted such a bright picture of their time together – and highlighted the fact that he would not have to attend the conference at all. Wen Kexing himself suggested that he could likely limit his attendance to two or three events a day, with Zhou Zishu free to either join him or to simply relax while he was working, and elaborated on all the time they would have to wander around town, eat delicious food, and enjoy each other’s company.
Charmed by the picture the other was painting, Zhou Zishu hesitantly agreed to come along. Whether he would attend any events of the conference or not, they would be spending several days – and nights – together at a nice hotel, away from Gu Xiang and Chengling. He wanted that, and he did not wish to disappoint Wen Kexing, and he was also afraid of rousing suspicion if he refused to explain why a part of him would have preferred to stay as far away from the event as possible.
On the day they arrived, he realized that his decision had been a mistake. This was exactly the kind of event he had no wish to attend. As a regional conference, it was apparently the prime network opportunity for all the members of the local universities and the event of the year, where finding partners for research proposals was the prime opportunity. The conference took place at the one big hotel in town, so everyone, including him and Wen Kexing, were staying at the same venue. Almost everyone around them seemed to be here for the event. At every corner, they were asked if they had come for the conference, what their research topics were, if they were going to give a presentation, or which of the roundtables they intended to take part in. And that was before they had even set one foot into the conference building. It took them almost half an hour to get from the reception into the cafeteria – as their room was apparently not ready and they had been told that they would need to wait for about an hour. They were not the only ones waiting. The cafeteria was full of people with small luggage and high opinions of themselves. Zhou Zishu sighed. Wen Kexing of course, immediately noticed his unease.
“Ah, A-Xu. I am so sorry. I know this is not your kind of crowd. I promise we are not here for the conference alone. There are only some talks and panels I would like to attend. We will have ample time to explore the town and the land around it. And tomorrow night , I have some dinner reservations for us, at a very fancy restaurant. I am sure you will like it.”
Zhou Zishu forced a fake smile onto his face. “I am sure I will. But for now, maybe a coffee while we wait?” they had just found seats and Zhou Zishu was hoping he could sit down and do his best to ignore everyone around them. Wen Kexing did not need much convincing. “One large coffee coming right up! You just sit there, and I will get us drinks and a little snack. An hour will pass in no time, you’ll see!”
He really hoped the other was right.
The half hour did not exactly pass in no time, but pass it did. Only a few people approached Zhou Zishu while he was sitting on his own, and to every one of them he simply said that no, he was not there for their stupid conference. It was true, after all. He had only come for Wen Kexing. As the man who had brought him here seemed much more concerned about being at least polite to the people who talked to him, it took a quarter of an hour for him to return with their drinks. The fact that he also brought a delicious looking piece of chocolate cake – on piece, for the two of them to share – did improve Zhou Zishu’s mood a little.
For the rest of their waiting time he managed to keep the man’s attention on himself and away from the people around them quite well by making the other feet him chocolate cake and doing his best to devour it in a manner as lascivious as possible. Luckily, that also made most of the people in the room turn away from them. Zhou Zishu was very happy about that, because he had already seen a few faces that seemed passingly familiar. He had experienced a brief moment of panic at that – few people here in the area would know him and he knew he looked different. Even those he had met him were unlikely to recognize him now. And Wen Kexing’s presence at his side, acting as his boyfriend, would further mislead anyone who might think him familiar at first glance.
He determined to simply do his best to stay out of everyone’s way. Acting out of character to dissuade anyone who thought to see a familiar face, however, could certainly not hurt. Wen Kexing getting impatient and looking like he might soon be ready to devour him right then and was an added bonus.
It did not take long for them to get the key to their room, as he had expected, Wen Kexing did not lose any time in throwing him onto the bed.
There last time together had been only a few days ago, and it had been slow and gentle. This time, anything but fast and hard seemed to be out of the question. Wen Kexing pressed him to the wall, devoured his face, dug at his clothes insistently, and had him naked on the bed only a few minutes later. Zhou Zishu felt slightly lost and exposed, but also good, so good, with Wen Kexing hovering over him and touching him everywhere.
A little while later, they showered together as Wen Kexing had to get ready for the opening lecture. Zhou Zishu had brought some books along and was prepared to enjoy his time alone.
Beyond the opening speech, there was nothing much of interest to either of them happening on that first day, so they went to stroll through town instead and looked at some of the more interesting buildings. They had dinner at a quaint Italian place they found in a tiny side street with just a few young people around them – who were apparently enjoying the holiday and certainly not part of the conference crowd. And Zhou Zishu almost forgot about his past, and his guilt, and his mental problems and began to think that life with Wen Kexing was good, would be good, that they could have a future together and that that future might turn into a life they could both thoroughly enjoy. When two women with a small girl in their midst walked by, he wondered if Wen Kexing wanted children. Gu Xiang seemed to be something close to either a daughter or a small sister to him and from what Zhou Zishu knew about them, Wen Kexing had done an excellent job in helping her grow up for those years that he had been around. And while Chengling was not a kid anymore, he himself kind of liked having the young man around, who often enough behaved like he was still a boy. And he certainly liked looking out for him and guiding him. He could imagine it now, what he had never been able to imagine before, when he was young and others had tried to press a partner on him. Could imagine himself, and Wen Kexing, and a child, possibly two, the perfect little family, each one of them looking out for the others, with Gu Xiang and Chengling acting as aunt and uncle for the younger kids.
Chapter 24: A not so Romantic Dinner
The next day, there were some interesting presentations in the morning and Zhou Zishu had promised Wen Kexing he would accompany him to listen to those. He took some time to consider his outfit. In the end, he settled on his normal pair of jeans, a loose t-shirt with a funny print on it, and a baseball cap that he had originally brought to protect him from the sun on long walks. When Wen Kexing came out of the bathroom and saw his attire, he looked him sceptically up and down.
“This is what you want to wear to the conference?” he asked.
Zhou Zishu nodded. “Yes. Is there a problem with that?” he tried for an innocent tone of voice.
“You have been to a conference before, right? This is not one addressed to students. Most people attending will dress a little more”, he seemed to need a moment to find the right word, “professionally” was what he settled on.
Zhou Zishu smiled. “But I am not attending in a professional capacity. So why should I care about appearing to do so?” he asked.
Wen Kexing sighed. “You are doing this intentionally, yes? You want to appear as the lonesome older student who does not fit in?”
Zhou Zishu shrugged. “Maybe I just want to stand out. And going for casual and beautiful is not going to work for me, because you will easily beat anyone in those two categories. I would not stand a chance.” He had some little hope that flattery would get him out of discussing this question further. It seemed to work to a certain degree.
“As you wish. If you think you are ready to leave in that outfit, then by all means, let us get going.”
Zhou Zishu stopped for a moment in the door that Wen Kexing was holding open for him. “Do you mind being seen with me looking like that? Are you afraid I will ruin your reputation?” He did not want to truly embarrass Kexing.
“No.” the other answered quickly. “I do not understand why you choose to do this, but it is not going to affect me beyond making me puzzle about an ill-advised fashion choice. I will proudly be seen with you whatever you wear – and as you already remarked, I am quite well able to dazzle people myself. The looks of the person standing next to me are quite irrelevant.” Wen Kexing had said that last part in his most arrogant voice, and Zhou Zishu realized once more how he enjoyed observing the other when the man was acting. He smirked.
“Lead the way then, my beautiful sugar daddy. This unruly student of yours is quite ready to follow and learn.” Wen Kexing scoffed at that joke, but did as he had been told.
The presentations were given by two young scholars of literature studies, more fitting to Wen Kexing’s research interests than Zhou Zishu’s own, but the eagerness and excitement the two had towards their own topic and the happiness with which they received suggestions and answered questions made Zhou Zishu enjoy himself. In a surprisingly good mood, he decided to also attend two history talks later, at a time when Wen Kexing would be taking part in a plenary discussion. Before it was time for that, the two of them had lunch in their room, opting for privacy instead of joining the crowd.
When they rejoined the venue, there was about a quarter of an hour left until the beginning of the next session. Getting himself a coffee to pass the time, Zhou Zishu could not help but overhear two older women talking about a big funding proposal that was apparently in the making with members from the five Lakes Alliance contributing to the venture. Of course, it was inevitable that people would talk about their projects and planned proposals at such an event. But the way those two talked about it riled him up. They did not seem concerned with the topic of their research at all, but rather tried to impress each other but comparing sums of money. The advice shared was solely focused on strategies of getting more money and projects of higher prestige. It sounded exactly like the way rector Jin had talked to him all those years ago, when they had first discussed how to best get funding for the QuanGen project. At the time, he had considered it a necessity. Had assumed that even when talking all strategy, the motivation for every project came from the dedication of the researchers to their subject. He knew better, now.
Zhou Zishu ended up seeking out the room he was supposed to be in early, and settled down in the second row by himself, using the time to calm down a little before the talk began. He was soon followed by a young woman who turned out to be the speaker for this session. She had apparently come in early to connect her notebook and test her presentation and quickly turned flushed when things did not go as she expected them to. Zhou Zishu quickly understood that the problem lay not with her notebook, but with the settings of the projector in the room. Calmly, he got up and approached her desk.
Asking for permission first, he grabbed the remote and switched to the appropriate settings until the presentation appeared on the wall behind him. The woman sent him a relieved smile. “Thank you”, she said. He smiled back, wondering if this was her first presenting in front of such a large crowd. “No problem at all. I used to work with the same thing. Whenever the students got a hold of the remote, it would not work anymore, and half of my colleagues never managed to get the settings back to normal. It is easy enough if you know what you are doing. I am looking forward to your talk” he ended the conversation, and returned to his seat.
The woman remained nervous, but her topic was interesting anyway. The second lecture he attended was much more professionally presented, but much less exciting in its content. Not exactly a waste of his time, but a little of a disappointment none the less. He was happy to meet Wen Kexing afterwards and to hear about the other’s impressions. They did not talk for long, however, as they had to get ready to make their reservation at that fine restaurant that Wen Kexing had promised to take him out to in the evening.
While Zhou Zishu had felt rather comfortable in his casual outfit during the afternoon, he would not disappoint Wen Kexing by wearing the same thing for their special dinner. Instead, he had brought that soft sweater that he had worn to the term opening dinner he still secretly considered their first date. Wen Kexing seemed appropriately appreciative.
“Ah, you are so soft to the touch. Of course, your skin itself is also really soft. But cashmere? I might have to take you to bed in that thing at some point, and rub myself all over you. Only I fear it would ruin the sweater forever, so I am trying to supress the urge as long as I can.”
Zhou Zishu laughed out loud. “Really? You want to have sex with me in a soft sweater?” The other pouted, and Zhou Zishu could not stand it. “Fine. One day I will have sex with you wearing nothing but this sweater. Afterwards, you can just buy me a new one if you indeed manage to ruin it.”
They arrived at the restaurant, and the evening was starting out rather nicely, until a group of elder men and one woman entered the establishment. Dressed in suits, they were obviously meeting for business. And as it turned out, they had a reservation for a table that was quite close to where Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing themselves were seated, with just a thin partition in between. Zhou Zishu was glad for that much separation at least, because he was sure that he had met at least one of the men before, even though he did not quite remember the where and when. He tried his hardest to focus on Wen Kexing instead, but it was difficult, as the men talked loudly and it was easy to understand every word they spoke. Five Lakes Alliance. Big research initiative. Elaborate Young Scholar’s Program. It was all of the common buzzwords, but everyone at the table sounded very convinced that their approach was unique and superior.
When their dinner got delivered, Zhou Zishu tried to concentrate on his food. He was rather surprised to see that Wen Kexing did not seem to be bothered by the intrusion at all and instead took his time eating. When they were finally done, Zhou Zishu suggested leaving early and possibly getting a drink somewhere else. Wen Kexing, however, seemed reluctant to leave. “We didn’t even finish the wine!” he protested. “Let’s stay a little longer. After all, this is a holiday – we do not have anywhere else to be.” Zhou Zishu reluctantly conceded. But while he continued nipping his wine, he could not shake the feeling that something was wrong. Wen Kexing seemed unusually quiet tonight. He had not noticed it so much while they were eating, but now they were done it became rather obvious. When Zhou Zishu asked how the plenary discussion had been, his answer was brief and hesitant. As if his mind were elsewhere.
A feeling of dread began to rise slowly in his chest when the conversation from the neighbouring table drifted to his ears once more. Was it possible that they were not here by accident at all? Had Wen Kexing not been unusually quiet because he was enjoying his food, but possibly because of the conversation going on at the other table?
Zhou Zishu did not want to believe it. But he could not shake the suspicion when Wen Kexing urged him to order desert and took an inordinate amount of time to pick something for himself from the menu. He remembered all the things he did not know about Wen Kexing. Where did the other come from? Where were him and Gu Xiang employed? Why had they moved to Jianghu and were spending their time at Yue Yang university even though they were clearly not interested in working there? The questions Zhou Zihsu had avoided asking for weeks suddenly appeared pressing.
With more attention than before, he listened to the conversation at the other table. Blended learning. Bringing new research methods to the humanities with support from computer science and digital technologies research. It was the usual thing, a project that was in its essence similar to a dozen others that had been funded in the country in the last ten years and to a dozen others that would be funded in the near future. Because they were even more up to date, even more reformative, transporting universities to the 21st century, preparing them for the 22nd century, finally making sure that the digital revolution transcended all of academia.
Hesitatingly, Zhou Zishu started talking about the young woman he had heard in the afternoon. At first, Wen Kexing smiled and appeared to listen. But the more he went into details, the more the other drifted off. Zhou Zishu pretended to be a little tipsy and talked louder. The signs of Wen Kexing’s irritation with him were subtle, but present. His fingers were restless, his forehead appeared lightly frowned. Zhou Zishu stopped talking again, and the other appeared to relax. When Zhou Zishu started talking again right when the conversation at the neighbouring table seemed to be turning towards the particular funding agencies that were meant to support the project, Wen Kexing interrupted him with a shushing motion.
And Zhou Zishu was suddenly sure he had been used. A special dinner with him? It had been an excuse. A ruse, to not appear conspicuous. The moment he realized that this had never been a romantic dinner at all, that Wen Kexing had not invited him there because they wanted them to experience something special, but to spy on the plans of the Five Lakes Alliance, he felt something inside him break open. It wasn’t the same feeling as a panic attack. It was at the same time less suffocating and much more hurtful. He had to get out of there.
As if in a stupor, Zhou Zishu stood up, threw his napkin onto the table, and walked stiffly to the exit, without taking note of anything around him. Only when he was outside, and some ten steps away from the restaurant, did he start to run. He simply felt the need to get away from that place as quickly as he possibly could. To get away from Lao Wen.
He ran until he was out of breath, before stopping, resting his hands on his knees and gasping for breath. He had no sense of orientation in this town, but had somehow managed to reach the riverside. The wide open space made him feel a little better, a little less caught. The feeling did not last, however. It was only a minute or two before he heard someone approach him.
“A-Xu”, the voice was unusually hesitant. Zhou Zishu spun around. “How dare you?” He accused the other.
“A-Xu…” Wen Kexing was lacking words.
“How dare you use me like that!” he noticed that he was screaming.
“A-Xu, I did not mean to…”
“Tell me honestly, Wen Kexing. Tell me that we were not at that particular restaurant to allow you to listen in to the conversation at the table next to ours.” He had little hope to receive the answer he was hoping for and as expected, Wen Kexing remained silent.
Zhou Zishu did not. “You did not mean to do what? To betray my trust? To use me as a cover up to spy on other people? But that’s what you did!” He felt nausea rising within him.
“I made a mistake, A-Xu.” Wen Kexing suddenly looked small and miserable. “Please, let me apologize! I simply thought I could kill two birds with one stone…”
A bitter laugh rose in his throat. “Really? You thought I would not mind being manipulated for the purpose of your dirty schemes? If that is what you thought, you do not know me at all!” The other looked like a kicked puppy, but Zhou Zishu had absolutely no capacity for compassion right now. He made to leave, but Wen Kexing grabbed his arm.
“A-Xu!” he hurried to say. “I might not know you well. But I know that I love you. Is that not enough?”
Zhou Zishu dragged his arm away violently. “You are mad! If you think this is love, you are simply mad! Leave me alone, I want nothing to do with you anymore!” He turned around and left, praying that Wen Kexing would not follow him any further.
Chapter 25: Unexpected Meetings
With no expectation to return to the hotel, ever, Zhou Zishu wondered around the town aimlessly for a while. He was vaguely planning to go home but could not stand the thought of being shut in on a train right now. Not surprisingly, he ended up at a bar, with the full intention of getting as drunk as he could possibly manage.
He was on his second glass of Whiskey, when Han Ying’s face suddenly appeared in front of him. For a moment, he thought he was hallucinating.
“Zishu? Is that really you?”
The other smiled. “It is so nice to see you! I have tried to contact you, but never really managed to figure out how. I guess it doesn’t matter now! Even though, I have to say, you do not necessarily look your best…”
Zhou Zishu shook his head in an attempt to clear it. “No, I do not. But I guess that is no less than I deserve. How are you doing, Han Ying? I did not expect you to willingly talk to me.”
The other stared at him with wide eyes. “What? Why would I not?
Zhou Zishu stared back. “I utterly failed you until you had no option but to resign your position.” Was how he finally formulated his thoughts.
“Ah, Zishu, did you really never read the mail I sent with that resignation? I had just received a really good offer for another project.” Han Ying appeared so utterly cheerful and normal that to Zhou Zishu, the whole situation appeared unreal.
The other did not seem to take note of his confusion. “And with all that was going on at Helian Yi, I thought you would understand that it seemed like an opportune moment to take another step and get to experience something new. I was sure you would understand, I am sorry if I have disappointed you”, he finished, looking at him expectantly.
“You think you have disappointed me?” Zhou Zishu could not believe he was hearing this correctly.
“Have I not?” Han Ying asked back. Zhou Zishu could do nothing but stand up, walk around the table, and hug the other. A tiny voice in the back of his head tried to tell him that he was being ridiculous and overly emotional, but Han Ying hugged him back in a way that felt too good to let go. “Zishu, you are really not doing well, are you?” he enquired carefully.
Zhou Zishu tried to answer that question only after he had set back down. “I guess I wasn’t doing well for quite a while. I always knew that I was not doing my job as well as I had hoped. But the realization that I had basically been cooperating with people who cared about nothing but reputation and money and did not shy away from fraud hit me hard. And then Zhen Yan…” he did not know how to finish that sentence. “I could only step away from it all – but that in itself will never be enough to make up for my mistakes.”
Han Ying finally sat down in a chair opposite from him. “You are not being serious!” He exclaimed. “Or, I guess you are being serious, which makes it worse! All of that was not your fault! Have you really been drowning in guilt all this time?” The other appeared aghast at the thought.
Zhou Zishu shrugged his shoulders. “Yes. No”, he corrected himself. “I guess I was getting somewhat better. Learning to deal with it. Falling in love”, he whispered those last three words. He was not sure why he even spoke them, other than that they felt utterly true. Maybe he really needed to voice that truth to make sense of his own feelings right now.
Han Ying and him had been close when they were working together. The other had an open temperament and never used to hide his feelings. While in the past, Zhou Zishu himself had never been very open, Han Ying had often told him about his obsessions and disappointments. If there was anyone in this world who deserved to hear him speak about Wen Kexing, maybe it was Han Ying.
He felt a hand settle on his arm, rubbing it comfortingly. “Tell me about it, if you like.”
And he told him. Told him about meeting Kexing, about the other’s ridiculous flirting and tendency to quote poetry. About rediscovering his passion for knowledge, while at the same time fighting his over the top reaction to anything relating to his past. And finally, he told him about a dinner, and a trip that he had thought might take them to the next level in a developing relationship but had turned out to be a strategic step in a larger scheme that he did not understand and did not care to know about. Han Ying had listened, and allowed him to continue to drink, and in the end he must have dragged him back to his own hotel room, because that is where Zhou Zishu awoke the next morning, with a splitting headache.
Next to Zhou Zishu, the double bed was empty, and so neatly made up that he hoped Han Ying had not been ridiculous enough to sleep on the floor. On his bedside table, he found a note.
Zishu, I understand that you are deeply hurt, and it is not my place to meddle. But from all I have heard, the FLA is pulling a really shit stunt. And if WK is doing something to oppose them, he might be a fucking hero. Not saying that he has not done wrong to you – just, if you care about him, maybe try not to make a final judgement too quickly. I would love to see you for my talk, later at 2 pm. In any case, I expect you to be still there when I return tonight. Because I really think we need to talk about what happened back at Helian Yi. If you just up and leave, I will track you down. Promise!
Zhou Zishu stared at the message. He could not be sure, as he had been totally out of it last night, but he thought he was likely still in the same hotel where the conference took place. The walls and décor looked certainly similar to his and Wen Kexing’s room. As he still felt that it would be unbearable to encounter the other, what he really wanted to do was go home. But Han Ying’s promise kept him back. The man had said he did not blame Zhou Zishu for what had happened at Helian Yi. But whatever the other thought, Zhou Zishu knew that he had not done right by him. He owed him. He owed him an apology. He owed him any attempt to make up for his mistakes that he could possibly make. Staying until the evening, as the other requested, thus seemed a request impossible to turn down. Attending his talk later in the day? Zhou Zishu was not sure he was physically able to do that.
But it was only 11 am, so he had quite some time left to decide. He ordered some breakfast from room service first. Food would hopefully help with the queasy feeling in his stomach. At least as far as that feeling was related to the amounts of alcohol he had consumed last night.
He ate, he lay down on the bed without falling asleep, his thoughts running circles in his mind. He could not get himself to do anything – he knew he could have called his therapist. Or taken some of his emergency medication. He did not want to. He did not really want to feel better. He only moved when his phone started beeping incessantly. Checking the screen, he realized it was already past 3.30 pm. The messages were from Han Ying. He wondered that he could not remember having given the man his phone number last night, but concluded that he must have.
Zhou Zishu, if you are reading this and happen to sit in front of your laptop, you might want to go to the conference livestream.
Your boyfriend is confronting the Five Lakes Alliance in front of everyone. I do not know what he thinks he has against them, but this is…
Oh gods, he was Rong Xuan’s fucking ward? No wonder he hates them.
Oh, oh, I did not see this coming. Gao Chang was a little bit too dismissive of these accusations for his own good, it seems. The advisory board of the Qingha foundation seems to be taking an interest in what Wen is saying right now. Damn, the man is good. Has he ever been an actor?
Zhou Zishu threw the phone down on the bed. He could not deal with his former assistant hero worshipping Wen Kexing right now. Neither could he stop asking himself questions. Was Han Ying right? Was Wen Kexing fighting the Five Lakes Alliance for the right reasons? Was the other simply doing what Zhou Zishu had failed at so spectacularly during his own career? Seeing and calling out the misbehaviour of others?
He needed to know. At the same time, he felt paralyzed. He could not confront Wen Kexing before he knew. He did not even feel like he could stand watching him in a stream. And anyway, the confrontation must be almost over by now, right? At that thought, he realized that Wen Kexing was in the conference rooms right now. Which meant that he was not in their own room. Which meant that Zhou Zishu had the option of going there, without meeting the other.
He wasn’t exactly sure what he was hoping to find. But the question answered itself when he stepped into the room. Wen Kexing had left his computer on the desk, and had apparently not bothered to lock it. The folder with all the information he had on the Five Lakes Alliance was easily found.
It contained a lot of material, but three things caught Zhou Zishu’s attention. The first was a folder titled ‘Qingya Mountain Foundation’. It contained the statutes and principles of the foundation, as they had been laid down twenty-five years ago. And from those documents it was easy to see that the origins of the foundation lay in the donation of some man named Rong Xuan, who had basically put all his money into it upon his own death. Together with that money, he had left some very clear instructions that this money was supposed to help support students from underprivileged backgrounds in pursuing academic careers. Zhou Zishu was not sure this stuff was legally binding, but the language chosen was certainly clear enough for anyone who cared to read it.
Second, he found copies of documents Wen Kexing should likely not have been in the possession of. Drafts of the proposal from the Five Lakes Alliance for the Qingya Mountain funding, but also copies from protocols of the meetings where these proposals had been drafted. And reading those was indeed very enlightening.
But it was the third folder he opened that made his heart stop. It contained materials on a campaign called ‘ghost’s revenge’. And the material in it was familiar. Drafts for pamphlets accusing the alliance. Plans for disrupting a term opening ceremony, as well as a speech to be given uninvitedly at a theatre production. Zhou Zishu was sick. The dinner last night had apparently not been the first event he had been dragged to in the name of Wen Kexing’s revenge plans. Most of his invitations, it seemed, had been in the name of supervising his own plans. Yes, those plans might have been just in a certain perspective. Han Ying might well consider them admirable. But it did not change the fact that Zhou Zishu had been deceived. He had never believed Wen Kexing capable of instrumentalizing him in such a way. Had his feelings ever been genuine at all?
With an angry gesture, Zhou Zishu shoved the notebook shut and turned towards the door. Instead of returning to Han Ying’s room, he left the hotel to catch some fresh air. He needed to clear his head and control his emotions. He would not do Wen Kexing the pleasure of breaking down in their shared room. He had simply been a fool, and now he needed to face the consequences.
It was a rather cool spring day, and as he had not thought to bring a jacket, he started getting cold quickly. To counter the feeling, he started running. He made it about two blocks, before he turned back, realizing that he had no where to run too, and also that he owed it to Han Ying to talk to him before leaving the town. Reaching the hotel again took him longer than he would have thought and on top of it all, it started raining heavily. He was tired and drenched when he finally stood in front of its entrance again.
He ran into fucking Wen Kexing right in the entrance hall. Zhou Zishu was quite aware that he looked a mess, possibly the least attractive the other had ever seen him, after being out running in bad weather and in clothes that were actually not suited for it. His shirt was soaked with rain and sweat and sticking to his skin. Wen Kexing looked brilliant as ever. Splendid, in an outfit that was cut to underline his impressive stature, modern yet with that nod to Chinese traditional dress that the other seemed to like so much. His hair was hanging down in perfect straight tresses and shining like a night sky. Zhou Zishu’s breath almost stopped in his throat.
Of course, Wen Kexing did not make it any easier for him, when he turned those brilliant eyes to him immediately, full of regret, and called out his fake name. “A-Xu!” He sounded surprised.
The situation turned even more messy, when another voice echoed Wen Kexing’s call and surprise, addressing him with another name. “Zhou Zishu!” His heart stopped for a second at hearing the name.
The man next to Wen Kexing, that he had not taken any notice of so far, was dressed in an all-white suite. Zhou Zishu would have recognised him anywhere, in any clothes. But Ye Baiyi had the tendency to make recognising him very easy by never wearing any colour but white. Zhou Zishu had mocked him about it often enough, in the past.
He was not the only one who had turned to Ye Baiyi at the call of his name. Wen Kexing had turned to the other as well. “Zhou Zishu?” he echoed.
Baiyi seemed to be the only one who had not frozen. “Zishu, man you look bad. I had heard that you didn’t deal with the fallout at Helian Yi well. But I had not imagined that you would take it so hard. Man, it is a pity that you resigned. Your replacement is crap. He hasn’t put out one decent proposal since he started. Not that we haven’t funded anything at all – his assistant seems to be more talented then him, luckily, and she has an interesting theoretical project running. I have high hopes for the career of that woman. But tell me – what have you done with yourself all this time? You didn’t honestly turn your back on research completely, did you? It seems unimaginable.”
Zhou Zishu heard what the other was saying, but he was not actually processing it. His eyes and attention were fixed on Wen Kexing’s face. The emotions there seemed to shift so quickly that he had trouble following them. Was there recognition mixed in among them?
“Zhou Zishu”, the other repeated, before turning his back on him and marching off.
Ye Baiyi turned his attention from Zhou Zishu to the retreating back of the other man. “You two know each other?” He inquired with obvious curiosity.
Zhou Zishu shrugged first, then nodded. Ye Baiyi started laughing hard. “You look like you were run over by a train. Are you sure you are alright?”
Zhou Zishu took a moment to sort his thoughts until he could process the question. “No. No, we are not alright.”
Ye Baiyi raised an eyebrow at that answer. “You? As in plural? Don’t tell me I missed such a delicate bit of gossip! You know I pride myself of being aware of every single rumour in the academic world.”
Ye Baiyi was indeed the biggest gossip ever. He was, Zhou Zishu knew, also a well-intentioned man at heart, even though he often felt bothered by the forwardness of the other.
“Don’t worry. There has been no gossip so far, so you didn’t miss out on anything.”
Ye Baiyi, of course, did not miss the details. “You don’t deny that there is something to gossip about, though? Please, tell me more.” He seemed excited.
At that moment, Han Ying stepped over to them. “Zishu, you look worse than yesterday! What happened to you?”
Zhou Zishu had had enough. Did no one care about anything but him looking bad anymore? “Don’t you have your own business to take care of?” He bit at the two men. “Leave me the hell alone! You have done enough.” He stalked off, noticing belatedly that the only key card he had belonged to Wen Kexing’s room and that that was also the only place where he could find some clean clothes.
Resigned that this week everything that could possibly go wrong would go wrong – but that he had also absolutely no way to prevent more chaos coming down on him, he made his way up to the third floor and knocked at the door. He did not hear anything for a while but unsure if that meant Wen Kexing was not there or if it was simply a sign of the other ignoring him, he knocked again. This time, the door opened a tiny bit.
Wen Kexing stared at him through the barely opened door. “What do you want, Zhou Zishu?”
The words sounded so strange, so unfamiliar. It took Zhou Zishu a moment to realize that this was the first time the other had addressed him by his full name. He had longed to hear it on his lips. But the circumstances he had been imagining had been quite different. In reality, the words had been spat at him like a curse.
“My things are still here. And I really need to change.” He did not want a confrontation right now. The only thing he really wanted were clean clothes. Wen Kexing shut the door in front of his nose. He had almost turned around, ready to go back to Han Ying’s room, when the door opened again. Wen Kexing had grabbed a coat and bag. “I am going for a walk. I imagine the great Zhou Zishu, youngest elite professor of all times, will manage to remove his things and take care of his own accommodation. I would prefer to suffer my humiliation in peace, once I am gone.”
“Your humiliation?” Zhou Zishu could not let the provocation pass. “Who ever humiliated you? The great strategist, leader of the ghosts, orchestrating the downfall of the Five Lakes Alliance? Were you not the one who degraded me to being a distracting ornament on your arm? Do you really want to talk about humiliation to me, Lao Wen?”
The eyes of the other man burned at him. Zhou Zishu could not tell apart pain and rage anymore. They were certainly filled with passion. Oh, how he longed to turn back to those moments where that passion had been directed at him in a quite different manner. For a moment, he wondered if Wen Kexing would push him against the wall and kiss him. Instead, the other simply spat “I hate you” before walking down the corridor in long angry strides.
Zhou Zishu stared after him for a while, the pain attempting to find the right place to settle permanently in his heart. When he moved again, the door to the room was still open. He stepped in hesitantly.
Chapter 26: A Lone Trip Home
The way both of their things were haphazardly strewn around the room, carelessly mixed together, a pair of Zhou Zishu’s socks on top of Wen Kexing’s shirt – it all transported him painfully back to a time just two days ago. A time when he and Wen Kexing had almost been a couple – had been a couple? After all his partner had insisted to take him along on a trip so they would not have to spent four days without one another. And while the venue and the purpose of the trip had stressed Zhou Zishu from the beginning, for the first twenty-four hours here, he had been happy.
He remembered, vividly, how Wen Kexing had blown him the moment they entered this room, allegedly as a punishment for the way he had eaten the chocolate cake. He remembered eating that chocolate cake, in the most lascivious manner he could imagine, with no shame, no thought for the opinion of others, only wanting Wen Kexing to watch him. To want him. To make his life evolve around Zhou Zishu.
What a ridiculous and naïve romantic thought. In this world, no one could afford to make their life evolve around just one person. Zhou Zishu could not, and Wen Kexing couldn’t either. Zhou Zishu had thought that if he simply vanished, no one would care, and he could stop caring as well. Had only grudgingly accepted that Jing Beiyuan was not willing to forget about him and insisted on being informed about his well-being. But he had simply made himself forget about Han Ying. Not Han Ying the assistant who handed in his resignation. But Han Ying the friend. Han Ying who used to tease, and draw him out, and suggested Zhou Zishu start knitting so that he could pretend to have some kind of private life beyond the doors of the University.
And Ye Baiyi, who was a business contact, but who had also been a close friend of Uncle Qin. A regular dinner guest when Zhou Zishu had still lived with his mentor. And a person who had always listened with interest to what he wanted to do, and had given him some hints on where he might find support to realize his plans. He remembered, painfully, that Ye Baiyi was the only one who had voiced some doubts when he had talked about taking up physics instead of history as it seemed the more promising choice for a career. Ye Baiyi had told him that life was too long but too short at the same time. Too long to keep going with something he did not have the passion for. And too short to waist it on things he did not really care about.
He sighed. Lost in his thoughts, he had collected all of his things on the bed and proceeded to throw them into his bag. When his eyes once again caught on one of Wen Kexing’s jackets – the soft black one with the red dragon stitched onto the chest – he spontaneously grabbed it and packed it into his bag as well. Once he realized that he was stealing the other man’s clothes, he made to put it back. Stopped. Hesitated again. It could have been a mistake, right? He did not mean to steal it, certainly. He would more than readily give it back, anytime, back home. If Wen Kexing called and asked for it. And if – and it was a thought he could hardly stand, even though he had wished the other man to hell just last night – if the other really did not contact him again, he would at least have a memento of their time together. Zhou Zishu knew this was an underhanded thing to do. But he did it anyway.
With one last glance behind him, he turned around. Placed his key card on the desk, left the room, and pulled the door close behind him. He had not forgotten about Han Ying’s message, but he felt an absolute need to be alone for a while. Taking out his mobile phone, he started typing. It took him about ten tries to come out with two very simple lines.
HY, thanks for your help. I need some time to myself right now.
I’ll look forward to catching up with you another time. ZZ
After a moment of thought, he added a third.
P.S. Please give Ye Baiyi my number, if you meet him. Or sent me his, if you have it.
The way home felt endless. Zhou Zishu sat on the train, observing the people around him, not speaking a word to anyone. He felt empty. Had he done wrong by Wen Kexing? Had he overreacted when he had learned that the other had been following a secret agenda? Zhou Zishu felt, on the one hand, justified in being angry over being made into a decoy without his consent. On the other hand – had he not himself avoided asking himself questions and settled happily into not knowing what Wen Kexing was about? For a researcher to just appear in a new city without apparently having a job, but also without looking for one, and still being busy as if he did have full time obligations was certainly question begging. And he had speculated at some point that Gu Xiang and him were working remotely. Should he not have proceeded to ask himself why the two had chosen to do so? Should he not have asked questions – any questions – about Wen Kexing’s past? If he himself had not made any effort to understand the other’s situation – did he have the right to be affronted about finding out? He sighed. There were certainly mistakes he himself had made, that had let to this situation. He still did not think he had much of a choice in his reaction. Being confronted with the past, being dragged into the dirty waters of academic politics was painful for him. Too painful to wish to make this a part of his life on a regular basis. Even if Wen Kexing was a hero and fighting for justice. He, Zhou Zishu, was not the right person to stand at his side. He was not strong enough for this. And he still felt that Wen Kexing should have known that, should have known enough about him to spare him the pain of starting something that they could not continue. Of promising a future to the both of them that they simply could not have. But did he have the right to blame the other for not knowing him? Did he not have to relate that back to his own mistakes, as well? He had hidden his name from him. had barely admitted to his past in academia at all. Had been vague about the reasons for his currently fragile mental state and the causes of his panic attacks.
He remembered that day at the theatre. Remembered coming back to himself in Wen Kexing’s arms. Outside on that meadow. Being held so strongly, being kept safe, and the endlessly caring eyes of the other man. No, he could not make himself believe that the other had caused that situation intentionally. Even though right now hating Wen Kexing would be easier than loving him. Zhou Zishu choked on the thought, but could not take it back. He loved him.
He arrived home late in the evening and was happy to see that there was no sign of Chengling being home. That would give him until the next morning to sort out his thoughts on what actually happened and how much he wanted to tell the boy. First, he needed to sleep.
Despite the strong feeling of complete exhaustion that had taken host in his body, Zhou Zishu slept badly. The What-ifs and Whys and What-fors kept circling through his head. Whenever he felt he was getting closer to some kind of answer to any of these, he also seemed to find three new questions. It was of no use. At 5 am, he gave up any attempt to sleep.
He took out his laptop and for the first time in months he took a closer look at the several hundred mails in his inbox without feeling any panic about them. On an abstract level, he appreciated the irony. The whole fallout with Wen Kexing had made him feel so numb in general, that the dread of confronting his past, which had been overwhelming for so long, did not affect him right now.
He scanned through them superficially, starting with the most recent ones. He deleted many – newsletters, invitations to events long past, requests from students he was not responsible for anymore – and ignored most. Some select few, he opened. There was a request on whether he would like to contribute a chapter to a planned volume on good interdisciplinary research. He would not, but he appreciated the request. A former student asked for a letter of recommendation for an application that was due soon. He marked it as ‘to do’. He remembered the girl, who had been in a number of his classes and had always contributed excellent, and often unusual thoughts. If she thought his recommendation would help her, he would certainly give it. He noticed that Ye Baiyi had written him regularly, with information on funding opportunities. That was nothing unusual in itself, but still surprised him. Zhou Zishu had been convinced that no one would want to award him any grants at all after his involvement in the scandal. But if that were the case, Ye Baiyi would not have sent him those. The other was, after all, well tuned in to all the gossip in their circle, but not prone to misleading or intentionally hurting anyone.
A number of former colleagues had sent him small requests – inviting him to an event, informing him about a book they had published, asking for advice on a project. Looking at just the mails of those last two weeks, Zhou Zishu felt as if his career had never ended at all. All these people certainly still treated him as one of their own.
Zhou Zishu closed his notebook as soon as he heard some sounds from the kitchen, indicating that Chengling was awake. He made his way into the kitchen and asked for a cup of coffee. Chengling seemed to be surprised that he was back.
“Oh, when did you get here? Are you alright?” The boy enquired. His face, that he was awkwardly trying to keep relaxed and normal, immediately gave away that he had somehow heard something about what had happened at the conference.
“I am not alright. It is, after all, seven in the morning and I have not had a cup of coffee. But if you stopped blocking the machine, I would easily be able to solve that problem, I imagine.”
Chengling almost jumped to the side, giving the way free to the senseo machine they used for making their coffee. Zhou Zishu grabbed a new pad of his favourite coffee and quickly made himself a cup. Slowly, he took a first sip before turning to the boy.
“What do you know?” he asked.
Chengling seemed to shrink in front of his eyes. “Nothing?” The boy simply could not lie at all.
“Well, Gu Xiang might have called. Eh, like, she called two days ago and asked if you were home. Apparently, Wen Kexing had called her and mumbled some things about having lost you?”
Ridiculous. But he should not have expected anything else from the other. “And?” Chengling had an expression on his face that clearly stated that he had more to share.
“And then she called again yesterday? Honestly, what she said was a bit confusing. First, she made me watch a recording of Wen Kexing confronting the Five Lakes Alliance and bragged about him being a hero. I guess he was rather convincing? But I did not understand the meaning of half of what he said. But she kind of interrupted our phone conversation, and sent me a message later, saying you were a deceitful traitor and that your real name was Zhou Zishu?”
Typical. Of course the girl could not be patient enough to make her own judgements but simply trusted in Wen Kexing completely. But had it been necessary to drag Chengling into that?
“And, do you think I am a traitor now?” He faced the boy.
Chengling shrugged, but avoided eye contact.
“The name Zhou Zishu was not new to you. It is on the contract. I told you, I just don’t use it anymore.”
Another shrug. Zhou Zishu grew suspicious. “Did Gu Xiang say anything else?”
Chengling pulled his bottom lip between his teeth to chew on it, before he started speaking. “She said to google your name, and I guess I was just curious what she was so angry about, so I did.”
Zhou Zishu nodded. “Alright, fine. And now you have some questions about the things you found?”
Really, was this boy physically unable to simply speak his mind?
“Well, it’s only -. You said you had not used the name Zishu in a long time. But the articles all indicated that you were using it. As long –“ he interrupted himself, “you know, while you were working at Helian Yi.”
Zhou Zishu sighed. With all the drama and things he had not told the boy, what he had to pick out was the one outright lie he had told him.
“I apologize. Yes, I did indeed use the name until recently. But I very much did not want to be identified with my past here, so I thought it would be better to discourage you from using the name. I was intentionally deceptive. It was wrong of me.”
To his total astonishment, the boy took two steps towards him and slung his arms awkwardly around his middle in a childish hug. “I forgive you. I admit, I was a little upset at first. But it is just a name, right? And you always said you did not like talking about your past, so we all knew there were things you were not speaking about. But all the things you told us, when Gu Xiang asked questions at that dinner, they were right, no? I checked, I could not find all of them online. But what I found seemed to match, so I thought she was wrong in saying you had been deceiving us all along.”
He sighed, and briefly hugged the boy back, before letting go and forcing the other to release him. “I left out a lot of my past, but yes, I tried not to lie to you. That I was not willing to be connected to my past does not mean I had any ill intentions towards you.”
The boy nodded. “Were you really the youngest professor the University hired, ever?”
That was what the boy cared about? Zhou Zishu was certain he would never understand what was going on in Chengling’s mind. “Yes, I was. Though it does not mean much. The age at which professors are hired is generally decreasing. Soon, they will hire someone younger than me to take the title, I am sure.”
The boy had one other question. “Was Wen Kexing very disappointed with you, when he found out?” He hastened to explain, “It is only – Gu Xiang seemed to think that the two of you were over. But you were such a great couple. I really can’t imagine Wen Kexing would not forgive you for not talking about your past…”
Ah, this was a more difficult matter to explain. Thinking about the other did not hurt as much as it had a day ago, but he still felt a numb pain in his chest. “It is complicated, Chengling. Wen Kexing and I – I guess we avoided talking about a lot of things we should have talked about. And that led to some rather serious disagreements. I do not think he will be able to forgive me anytime soon. Nor am I sure that I have forgiven him, for some of the things I learned he has done. And I am certainly not ready to talk about that any further than this. But”, his eyes had wondered to his hands, while talking. Now he looked up again “this does not have to influence you. Please treat him and Gu Xiang as you have before and form your own opinions of the two.”
Chengling nodded, hesitated, opened his mouth. “But maybe if you two…” Zhou Zishu stopped him right there. “It is not your job to meddle in our relationship. Stay out of it.” He excused himself to go jogging, for a chance to clear his head.
Chapter 27: Unexpected Visitors
The next three days were difficult, but not as difficult as Zhou Zishu had expected them to be. The pain of Wen Kexing not being a part of his life was a constant companion. But it was exactly this pain that made facing his past easier. For Wen Kexing, he had been Zhou Xu. Without Wen Kexing, he had little choice but to return to being Zhou Zishu again. But at the same time, he was much less invested in his own identity. What did he care if others hated him or not if Wen Kexing did not speak to him? What did it matter that his life was a mess if he could not share it with the one person he really wanted in it right now, anyway?
He worked through his mails, contacted some former acquaintances, and tried to readjust to allowing his past into his current live. He had a long phone conversation with Jing Beiyuan, and a brief one with Han Ying. His therapist recommended him for making progress – even though he had frowned when Zhou Zishu had talked about Wen Kexing. He had felt it necessary, as the man was most certainly forefront on his mind right now, but had kept the story as short as possible. He had been seeing someone. They had very much enjoyed each other’s company, but for different reasons had avoided talking much about their past lives and professional roles. He had been invited to what he thought should have been a romantic trip and found out the other had taken him along as a decoy to some convoluted plans. His trust was broken. Due to running into some old acquaintances of his, the other had in turn found out about his past, and had decided to hate him.
The therapist had asked some probing questions about Zhou Zishu’s emotions that he had mostly attempted to avoid answering. The man had stopped, but he had a feeling they might revisit this topic at a later point in time. Zhou Zishu was not sure how he felt about that prospect.
He answered weeks old messages from some other colleagues and acquaintances, letting them know he was still alive, and wrote that recommendation his former student had asked for. He also unpacked some of the boxes from the cellar. Chengling stared with huge eyes, as he opened one box of books after the other. Even though he immediately repacked about half of them that he did not want to have around, the limited shelf space they had was quickly filled.
“Should we order some bookcases?” Chengling asked, when he was trying to fit a few more essential volumes on top of a chest of drawers. Zhou Zishu looked around himself. Almost every surface was covered in books, and half of the boxes he had brought upstairs had not yet been opened. “But where should we put them? Would they not make the living space a bit too crowded?” We wondered out loud.
“Zhou Xu”, Chengling turned from him towards the far wall. “I am not sure you remember. But this apartment has a third room? Your hobby room? The one we use for absolutely nothing but drying laundry? Why not turn it into a book room instead?”
He was embarrassed to admit that he had indeed all but forgotten about the room that the estate agent had done his best to present to him as not-an-office. It was of course the perfect space for an office and reading room and they spent the next half hour measuring it out and planning which furniture to get for it. They would find space for hanging up laundry to dry elsewhere.
They were still in the middle of their impromptu project when someone started loudly banging against the door. Zhou Zishu looked at Chengling expectantly, wondering if the boy was expecting a visitor. The boy shrugged and looked rather intimidated. Zhou Zishu got up and stepped over to the door. He meant to open it slightly to see who was on the other side, but as soon as he had pushed the handle down it was pushed open forcefully. In the entry stood a dishevelled looking and obviously distressed Gu Xiang. The young woman was probably the second to last person Zhou Zishu had expected to knock on their door today.
“You – “ she started to speak. Zhou Zishu raised a hand to stop her and was fascinated to see that she did.
“Please, come in and allow me to close the door.”
She did but without moving far. As soon as the door had been shut, she was crowding in on him.
“You! How dare you? How could you? You were supposed to be good for him! But instead you broke him!” She was hammering with her fists against his chest. It was such a childish gesture (even though Gu Xiang certainly hit him way harder than any child ever would) that he felt an impulse to wrap her in his arms. Knowing Gu Xiang, he decided to step back instead. He did not have to ask who she was talking about, of course, but he did want to know what had brought her here.
“I am sorry for hurting him. But in my defense – it was kind of mutual.” He tried to deflect her anger a little.
“Sorry? You are sorry?” She was screaming again. “You are standing here. On your two feet. Talking. While he is back at home and braking things and throwing me out of the apartment! This? This was very obviously not mutual. You broke Wen Kexing! And I will have to put him back together! But I don’t know if I can.” She was gasping for air in between her words and tears were running over her face. “I might not be strong enough. He might not let me. And in the meantime, Qingya will go down.” Her hits had become less frequent, more pointed, to underline each of her sentences. She moved back half a step to stare into his eyes and point her finger at his chest. “They – will – close – it – down.” Every word was underlined by pushing into his chest. “And it will be all your fault. He had a plan. And he was almost successful! And even if he had not been, he would have known what to do. But now he is broken – because – of – you.”
Zhou Zishu had first felt an impulse to calm her down, then had tried to understand what she was saying. But the longer she stood in front of him, the more he thought he could see Wen Kexing’s features in her face. And the lump in his chest that had been tight, and dry, and numbing, started to expand and overwhelm his whole body, and he felt tears running down his face. Suddenly, Gu Xiang vanished from his now blurry line of sight.
Belatedly, he realized that Chengling must have pushed her away. “Leave him alone!” The boy was shouting as well, now. Zhou Zishu was not sure he had ever heard the boy shouting. “He did not mean to do it! He would not intentionally hurt Kexing. He is not a bad person, and you – are – hurting – him!” Chengling seemed to do his best to imitate Gu Xiang by pushing against her with every one of his final words.
Zhou Zishu stepped forward and enveloped the boy in a hug. He turned his still wet eyes to Gu Xiang. “I never meant to hurt him. I am really sorry.”
She just stared. “What am I supposed to do now?” She asked him.
“I don’t know.” He answered honestly. “But the most difficult times are the right times to call on our friends. I do not know a lot about Wen Kexing. But I cannot believe that he and you, that you have no friends at all. I am not the right person to help you now, but I hope you will find someone to help.”
A sudden revelation seemed to cross her face. “Aunt Luo!” Zhou Zishu thought he heard her exclaim before she turned around to the door and left.
Zhou Zishu and Chengling found a local furniture store that had appropriate bookshelves in store, and ordered them for delivery, plus a team of men to put them together. Chengling had suggested they do it themselves but Zhou Zishu had loudly protested. He liked his books. He did not want them to get damaged in the middle of a heap of broken-down shelves. He had an inkling that Chengling was skipping some of his classes to keep him company, as the boy was definitely spending more time in their home than usual, but he did not call him out on it. Zhou Zishu appreciated the company. Keeping busy with their project kept him from opening that bottle of whiskey he had stored in the kitchen for now.
The shelves would cover two walls of the room, completely framing the doorway to allow for maximum space. To the left, Zhou Zishu would place his desk. They had moved the small desk he had bought upon first moving in to the spot for now. He would likely get a larger desk later, but he was not sure yet what he wanted. They also made plans to place two small armchairs under the window for comfortable reading. Chengling had insisted on two chairs, so that they could read there together. Zhou Zishu did not like the idea much, knowing exactly whom he would be imaging in that second chair whenever he was alone. But he did not have the strength to deny the boy right now. Maybe it would work out. And if not, he would simply ban the second armchair to the living room. Problem solved.
They were waiting for the team with the furniture to arrive when the doorbell rang. Chengling was ecstatic, Zhou Zishu was a bit surprised. The team wanted to arrive between eight and twelve o’clock. They had agreed to take breakfast at seven, so that they would be ready, but Zhou Zishu had been prepared for a long wait. It was not even eight o’clock yet. He wondered if the team was really early.
It wasn’t. In the doorway stood two men who absolutely did not look like carpeting was their main occupation. Certainly not with the clothes they were dressed in. The scene was completed by two large dogs, eagerly barking at Chengling and being told to stop by the shorter of their two visitors.
“Pegasus, Diva, down!” To Zhou Zishu’s astonishment, the dogs did back down and sat on the floor, not giving another sound. Chengling seemed equal parts intimidated and fascinated. Good. At least the boy did not seem to suffer from a phobia. Wu Xi might have taken that as an excuse to cure him and they likely would have never gotten rid of his beasts in their apartment.
It was Beiyuan who spoke first. “You must be Chengling. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance. I hope your studies are going well?” Jing Beiyuan, polite to a fault, had obviously become comfortable with the role of teacher and mentor in the years they had not seen each other. Once upon a time, he had been rather awkward in dealing with his students and Zhou Zishu had tried to help him out. Now, he seemed a little overbearing, but certainly not insecure.
Chengling stuttered. “Ah, yeah, sure. I mean – it has been a rather quiet week, actually” here, he glanced back at Zishu, which just functioned to remind him that the boy had been skipping classes for him. “But overall, everything is going fine, thank you.”
Judging by the frown on his forehead Beiyuan was not quite satisfied with that answer. But for now he let the topic slide. “Well, that is good to hear. We should chat a bit more about this, later. But for now – would you mind letting us in? We have had a rather long drive and would like to sit down.”
Zhou Zishu, realizing he had been frozen in place, stepped to the side but not without raising an eyebrow. A long drive? It should have indeed taken you about six hours. Yet you arrive at eight in the morning, well dressed and without the slightest crinkling to your clothes and without any luggage? Whatever you just did, you have not been on the road sine 2 am this morning.”
The two men stepped inside and looked around while the dogs got comfortable on their couch – Wu Xi kept a critical eye on them, but apparently saw no reason to intervene.
“I never said we arrived right now, did I?” Beiyuan returned. “We drove south yesterday, as – as you said – you insisted on moving all across the country, and it is hardly feasible to make the journey and still look presentable once one arrives. We stayed at the hotel of course, not sure that you would be equipped to accommodate guests. But we made sure to come over bright and early today. Are you not grateful?”
Zhou Zishu knew that Jing Beiyuan knew that he was certainly happy to see his friend, even though he was not sure feeling grateful was quite within his emotional capacity right at this moment. The two had always had a habit of riling each other up, and it did not surprise him that this was the way the other opened their conversation. If Beiyuan had been open about why he came, Zhou Zishu had an inkling that this would have become quite emotional. It still might, later on. He should cling to his composure as long as he could.
“Well, who are we to deny your need for rest after such a strenuous version and what must have been quite an uncomfortable night at a hotel. Sit.” They had all wandered over to the breakfast table. “I am sure Chengling will be happy to make more coffee.”
The boy hastened to comply with his request, offering Wu Xi what they had left before adding fresh water to the machine and starting a second batch. Beiyuan was less easy to direct. “I would like nothing more than to sit down. But your table is a bit cramped, don’t you think?”
Their kitchen table, as usual, was covered in a number of knick-knacks that any less fuzzy person would have simply moved to the side. Not Jing Beiyuan, who was too posh for his own good. With a sigh, Zhou Zishu got up and cleaned up the table, before walking over to the cupboard. Gu Xiang had brought them some fabric napkins as a housewarming gift at some point. He had frowned and decided to keep them out of politeness without seeing any need for such an item. Now he made a show of setting two places for Wu Xi and Jing Beiyuan, imitating a hotel breakfast setup as best as he could. “I fear we might not be equipped for your exacting standards, but if this will do, you are welcome to join us for breakfast. I guess I could possibly procure a candle somewhere, if you insist you need one?”
Jing Beiyuan tried to keep a straight face, but the smile tugging at the corner of his lips was rather obvious.
“It is not quite up to the standards of the Hyatt, but I guess it will do for now.”
“The Hyatt? Don’t these fine places usually have a no animal policy? How did you convince them to let Wu Xi’s latest pets into the place?” He wondered out loud.
“Money, my friend. They look posh, but the only thing a place like the Hyatt actually relies upon is money. They have no standards at all. Pitiful!”
Zhou Zishu laughed. And noticed at the same time how the knot in his throat tightened. It had been a while since he had laughed like this. Wen Kexing had made him laugh like this. Wen Kexing would have appreciated the joke, if he had been there. But he was not. Zhou Zishu quickly looked down and focused on his cup of coffee taking a moment to regain his composure. Very briefly, he felt a hand on his shoulder. As Beiyuan was sitting on the other side of the table it must have been Wu Xi. He was grateful for the gesture but also grateful that the other man kept it brief. Zhou Zishu was not quite ready to fall apart, yet. He was kind of certain that he would not be able to prevent that from happening later in the day.
Chapter 28: The Meaning of Care
Zhou Zishu kept focusing on his breakfast while the two men got acquainted with Chengling. After enough grilling, the boy admitted that he should be attending two classes right about now and was sent off to get ready for going to campus. Beiyuan and Wu Xi promised to take care of Zhou Zishu. Beiyuan suggested getting out of the city and going for a long walk. But Zhou Zishu remembered soon enough the reason why he had been up so early.
“Actually, Chengling and I made a bit of a project out of setting up a book room, and the carpenters are supposed to come today. Sometime between now and noon, so I fear I will have to stay home. You are welcome to go for a walk and come back later, of course. I fear I have little idea how long they are going to take.”
Beiyuan shook his head. “We will certainly go nowhere before we have talked. I am sure we can while away our time here at the apartment well enough. There must be something around here we can help with?”
In the meantime, Wu Xi had gotten up and opened the fridge. “As I feared. There is nothing of any nutritional value in here. My dogs eat better than the two of you, Zishu!” He proclaimed. “Beiyuan, I fear we will have to leave your friend for a little while, at least. We have to do some serious shopping.”
The two did not hesitate long over their decision. As the dogs were apparently not to be trusted in a supermarket and also preferred to sleep at this time of day, it was quickly decided that Zhou Zishu would have to keep them there and be dog sitter, while the men took care of the pitiful situation that was his and Chengling’s food supplies. He sighed. Zhou Zishu was neither afraid nor particularly fond of dogs. As long as those two slept peacefully on the couch he could go and read a book and would not be bothered. He was worried a little about the carpenters arriving, though. Two dogs he had no control over greeting foreigners in his own apartment? It sounded like a recipe for disaster.
Luckily, no one arrived at all in the time it took the two to go shopping. Beiyuan and Wu Xi had just returned and started unloading their loot in the kitchen when the doorbell rang again. The dogs, of course, did take that as their cue to get up and start barking but Zhou Zishu felt no need to step in. The other two had basically taken over his household. He would let them deal with this. After briefly opening the door to his study and showing the men into the room he withdrew into his bedroom. His composure was slipping. With him and Chengling, he had been able to focus on only one thing. To keep a sense of normalcy. To simply avoid thinking about much of anything, for the most part. The quiet atmosphere had allowed him to be sad and depressed, without dissolving into tears.
Now, though, there was too much going on. Too many things requiring his attention. His two friends being here, caring for him, as if it were a matter of course, as if they had not lived apart for a good half decade. Tears started streaming down his face right after he had closed the door behind himself. How had the young man who had once shared an office with Beiyuan at Helian Yi University shortly before he was appointed as their youngest professor, a man so enthusiastic, so happy, so looking forward to the future, ever turned into the mess that he found himself to be right now? Where had he gone wrong? Was it the place? Should he simply have left with Beiyuan when the other had decided he would prefer to work in a place with less repute, but more freedom?
Or was it his decision – or lack thereof – to establish his own personal life beyond the university? He had never once visited Beiyuan in his new home. They had talked, and exchanged mails, and sometimes met at a conference. And whenever they did, they had gotten along as if nothing had changed, as if they were still the two eager young men trying to proof themselves in a new position.
If he had taken the advice of the people around him, if he had married, would things have been different? Zhou Zishu laughed at himself. Of course not. Of course it would have been wrong to get married to any of the women back then. He had never really cared enough about any of them. He had not loved them. His chest threatened to split open when he thought of Wen Kexing. The pain was horrible, it felt unbearable, part of him wanted to be rid of it for any price in the world. But another part did not. Because beyond the pain, there was his love. His love for Wen Kexing, for a man like no other, who had stolen his breath with his silly attempts at quoting poetry. And while it did hurt, it also was the most precious experience he had ever made in his life.
Zhou Zishu had set down on the bed, feeling the tears run wet over his face while he was lost in his memories. He only noticed that Beiyuan had entered the room when the bed moved under him as the other man sat down. “That bad?” he asked.
Zhou Zishu was not sure if he should nod or shake his head. It was brilliant and bad, after all. He took a deep breath and cleared his throat. “Why did you come?”
He was sure that the arrival of his two friends right at this moment had been no coincidence. And he wanted to know how much they already knew before he wasted his breath.
“Ye Baiyi called. That guy is funny” Beiyuan chuckled, apparently in memory of the call. Zhou Zishu turned his eyes towards the other. “How? Beyond the obvious, of course.”
“Oh, you know. The old guy pretends not to care about you more than anyone else, but deep at heart he is an old mother hen who still regards you as her chicken. Did you know that he enquired about you – like, all the time, after you had quit?”
Zhou Zishu shook his head. No, he had not known. He probably should have paid more attention to Ye Baiyi long ago.
“Well, as much as he seems to want to fuss, he seems to believe that he would not be welcome to meddle in your personal affairs too much. He was at a loss to find the right person to meddle in his place, so he called me up to ask if I remembered any close friends of yours from back when we had worked together. Apparently, he never considered that I would take charge of this personally. Actually grumbled quite a bit when I told him I had known where you were for quite a while and that he could stop worrying, as Wu Xi and I had some time off, anyway, and would come down here to look after you.”
Zhou Zishu swallowed down the feelings in his chest once more. “So, I assume Baiyi told you about our last encounter.”
Jing Beiyuan looked at him. “About you and Wen Kexing, you mean? Yes. He told us what he knew. It wasn’t much, though, so I am quite eager to hear the rest of the story. As soon as you are ready to spill.”
Zhou Zishu felt the tears on his face once again, just because the other said his name. He had trouble putting his thoughts in order. “Of course. I am just not sure where to start.”
“What do you feel about the other?” Jing Beiyuan got right to the point, and Zhou Zishu felt that it was the worst question and yet the only question worth answering. “I love him. As unbelievable as it sounds, it hasn’t taken him more than three months to completely steal my heart and then break it.” Zhou Zishu was sobbing. All of the grief seemed to take over his body at once.
Jing Beiyuan’s arms wrapped around him, pulling him to his chest. Zhou Zishu was surprised at how good it felt. He had not been taking comfort this way in anyone for a good few years. He was glad that the other did not insist on talking, even after he had calmed down. Instead, he excused himself to see how the carpenters were doing with the shelving and came back to report that Wu Xi had prepared some lunch for them – if Zhou Zishu felt up to coming out of his room. He nodded meekly. He did not feel like eating much but he did not want to worry his friends either. He would be able to take a meal. Of course, his first step was into the bathroom, to make himself look somewhat presentable. Really, why was he so fucking emotional about all of this?
While they ate, the two men entertained him with some stories from their life back home. In between the lines Zhou Zishu found out that they had bought a house and settled down, apparently intending to make a home for themselves. He wondered if they meant to formalize their relationship anytime soon. There was a ring on Wu Xi’s hand, but none on Jing Beiyuan’s, and he was too chicken to ask them outright.
After dinner, and once the carpenters had left, they went for a walk. Once they were out in the open, Jing Beiyuan did start to ask questions. But luckily, he was focusing on Zhou Zishu’s new life for now. How he found the city. What he had been doing with his free time. If he had any intention of finding work. Things like that. Zhou Zishu tried his best to not be reticent in his answers, even though he had a hard time caring. He ended up talking most about his visit to the doctor and meetings with his therapist, as these, at least, seemed to be somewhat meaningful without involving any thoughts about Wen Kexing. It was Wu Xi who praised him for this.
“It takes courage to admit that you need help. Especially if you have been used to standing on your own since a young age, and when you have been independent for a long while. None of us know what life has in store for us, and the most unexpected events can proof to challenge us and to become overwhelming. There is no shame in seeking professional help. Or at least there should not be. But too large a part of our society still believes there is. That being adult and autonomous means leading a life in which we are never weak and never need to ask for assistance. You were always strong and unbendable, Zhou Zishu, when we met before. I commend you for allowing yourself to be vulnerable, at last.”
“It is strange, is it not? I have never in the past judged anyone for needing help. But to take that step myself – to admit to myself that I did not have the willpower to solve my own problems in this instance. It took time. It was more difficult than I thought it would be.”
Jing Beiyuan stared at him from the side. His thoughtful expression made Zhou Zishu uncomfortable. “You seem to have come a long way in comparison to the last time we talked. Just a few weeks ago, you were killing yourself over having failed in your job. And now, you are so calm and reflected about it. Your therapist must be a miracle worker?”
As the last was framed as a question, Zhou Zishu knew very well that the other was only waiting for him to deny this assumption. “Are you having fun torturing me, Beiyuan? Is it not enough that I am dealing with my past in a better way? That events have obviously changed me?” For once, he was feeling melancholy, rather than overwhelmed with grief.
A small smile graced the other man’s face. “You have changed.” He insisted.
“Yes, indeed. I have changed.” He conceded. He was not looking at the other anymore, but staring straight ahead.
Later at night, once they had opened a bottle of good wine, Zhou Zishu started talking about Wen Kexing. Started remembering their first meetings, their first date. Tried to explain a little how he had started to fall for the other and felt like he failed spectacularly at accurately describing how special the other was. His two guests seemed to be amply entertained no matter how awkward he was with his words. Talking made him cry again. Zhou Zishu was surprised that he had any tears left. But crying, to his surprise, was a relief. It allowed him to express and acknowledge how deep his feelings for the other ran.
At some point, when he had told everything up to their fight at the conference, Jing Beiyuan started to talk again.
“Zhou Zishu. You might have changed in some ways, but I am getting the distinct impression that you are still being an idiot in regard to your feelings. You really care for this man. Looking at all you have said, it seems like he cares about you as well. Why have the two of you not made up? Why did you not go and apologize? So you both kept things hidden from each other and both had unreasonable expectations? Fine. Shit happens. But that does not sound like something you cannot overcome?”
Zhou Zishu stared at him. Was it really that simple? Could Wen Kexing forgive him, if he apologized? Could he forgive the other? The truth, he admitted to himself, was that it wasn’t primarily their fight that was standing between them.
“But I couldn’t do that, could I? I failed once, in my position. I am all broken about it. Wen Kexing deserves better. He deserves someone to stand at his side who is not broken. Someone who can actually give him their full support. And if I fall into a panic attack just because I am listening to a speech that he initiated as a bit of a surprise for the alliance and he fucking has to pick me up and carry me outside – how am I supposed to do that?”
Jing Beiyuan stared back. “Don’t you think he deserves to make that choice?”
“No.” He realized he needed to specify that. “It is not that he doesn’t deserve that choice. It is that he has already made it, hasn’t he? I had a panic attack. But that certainly did not stop him from pursuing his plans. I wanted nothing but to spent time with him, but the only way he could think of integrating that with his other plans was by dragging me to that conference. His fight – be it for justice, of revenge, or whatever. He has been on it for years. It defines him. He might care about me. But he does not care about me more than he cares about this. His life’s work, if you want to believe Gu Xiang. So the only thing I can do to help him reach his goal is to stay away, is it not? Begging him to make another decision, forcing him to voice that decision to my face – to tell me that even though he cares, I am simply not the most important thing in his life. Would it not simply be cruel to do that? Where is the point?”
Jing Beiyuan was frowning at him. “I see where you are coming from. But that does not mean I agree. We are humans. Humans do stupid things, without considering their outcomes, all of the time. The fact that Wen Kexing made a mistake, dragged you into a situation you were not able to deal with, is certainly not enough to proof that he cares about his projects more than he cares about you. Neither does it show that there is no way for him to do both. I ask you to give him the benefit of the doubt.” Jing Beiyuan insisted.
Zhou Zishu did not have an answer to this. They continued to talk a little while, about some unimportant matters, but soon Jing Beiyuan and Wu Xi excused themselves and collected their dogs to return to their hotel. Zhou Zishu went to bed.
Chapter 29: A Strange Dream
That night, he was caught in a really strange dream. He was lost in a forest, surrounded by fog, when a vague red shape appeared in the distance. Walking straight towards it, slowly inching closer and closer, the figure of a man became visible. It was the most beautiful man he had ever seen. He was clad in a red jacket. It was not the typical modern jacket that Wen Kexing tended to wear. It was actually full out traditional Chinese dress. Red, traditional Chinese wedding dress. Wen Kexing stood expectantly, smiling at him, holding out his hand. Zhou Zishu hesitated. He looked down at himself and realized that he was clad in red as well. Far from being as elegant as the other, he was wearing black slacks and a red silk shirt. He suddenly remembered that he was carrying a box with two rings in it in the pocket of his shirt.
Behind Wen Kexing, on a clearing in the forest, he could vaguely make out some shapes. Were those tents, set up to cover a wedding party? Slowly, hesitantly, he approached. He was getting closer, almost close enough to grab Wen Kexing’s hand. He felt the smile spreading over his face. Suddenly, the sun that had apparently started to shine through the fog while he was walking forwards was covered by thick black clouds. Voices started speaking up around him. “You failed, Zhou Zishu!” “You have never been good enough, Zhou Zishu!” “Come back here, Zhou Zishu!” they were whispered accusations. They were sounding from all around him. They seemed familiar but at the same time he could not make out a single one of them. He did not know who was speaking. He felt regret, felt responsible for the suffering in those voices. He turned around himself to see them, to figure out who they were, to try to help. But he could not make them out.
When he turned back towards Wen Kexing, the other had become distant again. About half of the distance he had brooked between them was back. He could barely make out the expression on his face. Did Wen Kexing look hurt? Was he crying? Zhou Zishu tried to step forward again, but got stuck in the mist of voices. “You cannot go forward!” “You do not deserve this!” “You are broken, broken, broken…” They echoed around him. The harder he tried to push through, the stronger their hold on him became. Wen Kexing was drifting farther and farther away. Shortly before the other vanished completely, he could make out his voice one more time.
“I hate you, Zhou Zishu! Why will you not help me, Zhou Zishu?” The accusation stabbed into him like an arrow. Zhou Zishu woke with a start.
He was back in his rooms, blankets tangled around him, his skin covered in sweat. Restless, he got up and walked into the kitchen, to get himself a glass of water. Jing Beiyuan told him he had given up too quickly. Now he was dreaming of him and Wen Kexing in wedding dress. What was the message here? Was he really giving in too quickly? He did not feel like he could ask Wen Kexing for forgiveness, without offering the other his full support. And he could not offer his full support as long as he was running away and hiding from his past. With a shudder of sudden realization, he knew what he needed to do. He was not sure at all that he could do it. But the least he owed to everyone around him was to try. He needed to face his past. He needed to do his best to fix what had been broken. Maybe he would fail, and in that case, nothing would change. But if he actually managed, if he could get himself back together, he could approach Wen Kexing again. He could ask for forgiveness. He could offer to do his best. He just needed to fix himself first.
Jing Beiyuan and Wu Xi stayed for another two days and encouraged Zhou Zishu to get back in contact with Wen Kexing and apologize for his part in all of their misunderstandings. Zhou Zishu responded with non-committal answers. He wanted to approach the other, but he really felt like he needed to make some progress about his own problems first before he deserved to even hope for them to get a second chance.
It was only a few days after his friends had left that a registered letter from the legal department of Helian Yi University reached him. Reluctantly, he opened it, and felt his chest begin to tighten when he read the carefully worded missive that was threatening him with legal action for not fulfilling his contractual obligations in implementing the projects he had been handling in the name of the university. Shit. He quickly shut the notebook before the panic that was rising in his chest could get a full hold on him. He walked slowly over to his night table to get out the medication he had stored in there.
Chapter 30: A Trip to Helian Yi University
He had cancelled an appointment with his therapist and left a note for Chengling, apologizing for his abrupt departure. With only a small bag, he sat out for his first visit to the city of Tian Chuang in half a year. His old home. He had written to legal and received an appointment for the day after tomorrow. He had decided to leave early so that he would have one day to himself to face his demons.
The train ride took almost all of the day. He used the time to read through some more of his emails, to take a look at his old contract, and to recapitulate the different projects he had left behind. He did not quite understand what the legal department was about. Yes, his contract put down a three months timespan for a notice of resignation. So technically, he had indeed broken its terms. But his projects? There had been one project he had overseen together with some colleagues from the humanities. It had been almost completed when he left and he was sure they had been well able to handle it without him. He had only been peripherally involved anyway. Han Ying’s project had always been tied to his person and he had paid back the money according to its terms when he had left Helian Yi. The only other project they could be talking about – where Zhou Zishu had apparently broken his agreements and caused a damage of an alleged 3 Mio $ to the university – had been the QuanGen project. But surely, they must be joking? The whole thing had blown up in scandal. Half of the responsible members had been fired for academic misconduct and straight out fraud. The university could not have expected him to continue with this farce under the circumstances, could they? Sadly, he was honestly unsure. Money ruled the world, even in academics. Apparently, they could.
He sighed. He had no idea what he hoped for in this trip. He simply knew that it was time to face his troubles head on. It was almost dark when he arrived. He had booked a room in the hotel right across from campus where they had usually accommodated any invited guests. He had never before stayed there himself. It felt strange. After quickly checking in and dropping of his luggage, he sought out his favourite restaurant. Here, at least, he felt a little bit at home.
When he was back in his hotel room, he looked at his phone. 10 missed calls. He wasn’t surprised by the number. Jing Beiyuan and Wu Xi had been trying to reach him ever since he sent them a short message about where he was going from the train. He had not answered them. He had only informed them in case things went wrong and he needed there help later. Zhou Zishu knew in his heart that he had to do this and could not risk anyone talking him out of it. He would apologize for ignoring them later. What did surprise him was that not all of the calls were from the two of them. Ye Baiyi had tried to call twice, and one call from Han Ying was listed as well. Zhou Zishu wondered for a moment if he should answer, but decided against it. It was possible that these two had called on an unrelated matter. But it was also quite possible that Beiyuan had asked them to call in his name. He would talk to everyone once he was back home. Turning his phone back on ‘don’t disturb’, he went to bed.
The next morning, he decided to take a walk around the area. To his surprise, this didn’t affect him much at all. As soon as he wondered away from campus the area around him seemed hardly familiar. Sure, he would have recognized the part of town he had lived in. But he decided to stay away from there. Walking around aimlessly, he realized how little he had ever gotten to know this city. The buildings on campus, the restaurants in the vicinity, his own house and surrounding infrastructure. His life had been limited to those.
After little more than an hour, he decided to return to campus. If he wanted to face his demons walking through a foreign city would not help. His next stop was his old institute. Zhou Zishu had only ever cleared out some of his personal things from the office. But he was under no illusion that the space would have been cleared out and given to his successor. He realized that he had actually no idea who had been given his position. Well, it did not really matter. At 9.30 am, half an hour after their secretary usually started working, he walked into her office. The woman looked up at him, seemed to take a moment to recognise him, before her face split into a smile. “Professor Zhou! What a surprise. I was not informed that you would be coming in today at all!” She exclaimed.
Zhou Zishu smiled. The woman, Eva, had always been very competent at her job and he felt sorry at the thought that he must have caused a lot of extra work for her with his sudden resignation.
“It is no surprise at all, as I did not really inform anyone of my intention to visit. I hope I am not too much of an inconvenience?”
She got up, put her hands on her hips, and glared at him in mock anger. “Professor Zhou, you have never been an inconvenience. Is there anything in particular I can do for you? Are you here to collect your things? I certainly have a box of mail for you. I was never given any address to forward it to, so I fear the best I could do was to collect it…”
He nodded. “Yes, I guess the mail would be a good point to start. I have travelled by train, so I am not sure if I will actually be able to take a lot of luggage back. But we could have a look at what you have, and maybe arrange for everything to be sent by post.”
She agreed. “That would be best. I have five boxes in storage, I am sure you would not want to carry them on a train. I am sorry I had to go through your things, but I was told to clean out the office months ago.”
He simply nodded. This situation felt much more familiar and made him want to walk right back outside. The fearful part of his brain told him to run. That he should not deal with this, could not deal with his. Instead of listening, he forced himself to take a deep breath. Assuring himself that he was strong enough to do this.
He was startled when Eva put her hand on his shoulder to get his attention. He had hardly noticed her walking over to him and the door. “Come, I will open a room for you that you can use for now.” They walked along the corridor in silence at first, before he regained his bearings enough to speak. “I apologize for not taking care of matters appropriately myself, when I left.” The woman glanced back at him briefly. “Zishu, in all of my years at university, I have not experienced such a mess. I promise you, no one here blames you for your resignation and decision to leave. People might have wanted you to stay, but we all understood how difficult that would have been. Let’s go! I will show you a desk you can use for the day and go and collect your mail right afterwards. If you feel like a coffee later, come see me.” And with no more fuzz he found himself in a chair in front of a desk, as if he had never left.
There was a lot of mail. A good two dozen envelopes at least, and an extra stack where Eva had already put aside anything that came from organizations and publishers and likely included some newsletter or invitation and nothing specifically addressed to him. Apparently, when he had stopped responding to his emails people had started sending him physical mail instead, hoping that through some miracle the old-fashioned snail mail would end up reaching him. Of course, it had not. He had made sure of that.
Eight of the letters were from different departments of the university, two of those from legal. He decided to start with those. Human resources had first sent a confirmation of receiving his resignation, adding that this did not mean they were accepting it and that they would have to check back with him on the terms of his contract. The second letter did exactly that, and pointed out that he owed the university at least three months of a resignation period, plus potential additional duties in relation to the projects he had accepted. That was the last letter from human resources. At this point, they had probably handed over to legal.
The next letter he opened was from the dean of faculty. She asked for a personal conversation in regard to QuanGen. The letter contained no hint on what the conversation should be about. The second letter was clearer, and formulated a request for him to take over and continue the cooperation. While many things had obviously gone wrong and a lot of clean up would be necessary, the funding organization had apparently reiterated that they were highly interested in the project’s continuation. And the university, of course, was interested in keeping the money.
Her third letter was apologetic. She had not been able to stop the issue being handed over to legal. She would have hoped that this could be resolved differently. He should contact her, whenever he was back. Zhou Zishu took a moment to get up and get himself a cup of tea after having read these. He was honestly surprised. He had not been directly involved in the worst of the QuanGen scandal, sure, but he had worked so closely with the people who were responsible for it, that he certainly had kept himself accountable for not noticing what was going on. He had expected everyone else to think worse of him than he himself did. Apparently, he had been wrong. They had wanted him to continue the fucking project? This was messed up. He had had no idea himself who among the number of his colleagues had known about what was going on, and who had not. Yes, of course their research had been important and the results would have been valuable. But what was the value of any research when you could not trust that it had been conducted correctly?
He returned to his desk. Keeping the letters from legal for last, he opened the remaining one. Helian Yi University, office of public communication. It was short and to the point. Zhou Zishu checked the date. One week after his resignation they had asked him to give a public statement about the inner workings of the QuanGen project. An obvious attempt at damage control in regard to the university’s image.
The letters from legal came next. The first one seemed a bit strange and Zhou Zishu had to read it three times to understand the messages hidden between the words. They had asked for a conversation ‘in regard to his intent to resign’ not mentioning the fact that he had already resigned at all. They were including some hints to his responsibilities towards the institution, but also mentioned that he had been wronged by other parties at the university and that ‘some compensation’ could likely be arranged. Zhou Zishu checked the date of the letter and googled the day rector Jin had been fired from the institution. Both must have happened at about the same time. Assuming legal had certainly known about the next steps before the press release, this might have been a reaction to that. They had wanted to bargain with Zhou Zishu. Had possibly been afraid that he might have grounds to sue them in regard to the conduct of rector Jin. Undue pressure on subordinates? Meddling in hiring decisions he should not have been a part of? Zhou Zishu only had some vague ideas on how he could have gotten the university in trouble.
The tone of the last letter, sent three weeks later, was very different. They had apparently lost all fear of him blaming them or hurting the university further. Now they were clearly focused on listing several instances of breach of contract, giving him a deadline to respond to these issues before they would file it at court. Which apparently, they had now done.
Zhou Zishu looked at the letter in resignation. Just three months ago, this would likely have deeply shaken him. With relief, he noticed that he did not care much about it right now. It would be bothersome if he had to appear before a court. But whatever might happen afterwards seemed of little importance to him. They would make him pay? He would willingly give all his money for a chance at a life at Wen Kexing’s side. He doubted it would be enough. He doubted any money in the world could solve the problems that stood between them. Wen Kexing might be fighting for funding, but Zhou Zishu was pretty sure that he would not accept a cent that was given to him out of charity. Wen Kexing was very much a person of principles. And if Zhou Zishu wanted to have a chance at any kind of relationship with the other, he would likely need to find his own. Principles. He was sure he had had them, when he was young. He was not so sure if he had any now, or what exactly they were.
He took a short break and ate half a sandwich for lunch before he started to tackle the second stack of letters in the afternoon. Personal messages from colleagues and acquaintances. They ranged from impolite curiosity over heartfelt concern to simple ignorance – many had tried to gain his interest in a project without even taking note of the fact that he had left his position, apparently. The stack of ‘unimportant mail’ was mostly more interesting than these. As Zhou Zishu had not been in touch, he found he held a detached sort of interest in seeing which books had been released in his absence and who had cooperated with whom for a high-profile conference where they would have liked to have him as a keynote.
At about 5.30 pm he was done with all the mail. He took a select few letters with him and asked Eva to discard the rest before returning to his hotel. He debated skipping dinner completely, but finally decided that he should eat and chose a Tapas place he had been to often for the simple fact that it was nearby.
He regretted his choice when he spotted a familiar face sitting alone at a corner table when he entered. The dean of the science faculty. He had read three letters from the woman earlier. He knew her well. They had gone to this place late in the evening to discuss one thing or another more often than he cared to remember. The woman had had as little of a life as himself. He considered ignoring her but she had already raised her eyes to him and seemed at the brink of recognition. Reluctantly, he stepped over.
As soon as he got close, she could apparently place him easily enough.
“Zhou Zishu! What a surprise to see you here. Please, have a seat.”
He hesitated a moment but felt it would be too impolite to refuse the invitation. He did not do her the favour of starting a conversation, however, but busied himself with studying the menu and ordering a simple paella and a glass of water.
“How have you been, Zhou Zishu?” She asked at last.
He took a deep breath. In and out. “Not too well”, he finally answered. This woman was not a friend of his or anything. They had only ever been polite acquaintances. But they had always gotten along and he had never lied to her. He did not feel like right now was the correct moment to start. He was not sure she deserved a lie that would make her feel more comfortable, either.
“You were kind of hard to get a hold of, for a while,” she continued.
He simply nodded in answer. “Yes. I needed some distance.”
“But you are doing well now?” she continued to enquire.
“Well enough” he knew his answer sounded abrupt. But he was in no mood to go into any detail.
She sighed. “Of course. It is none of my business.”
They both stayed quiet for a while longer. Zhou Zishu was brought his drink and food and took a few bites. He had not appetite.
When his companion had finished her own dinner, she made an attempt at conversation once more. “What have you done with yourself since you left?” She enquired.
Zhou Zishu laughed without humour. “Nothing much. I guess I have mostly been very useless. But I am getting better now.”
“I can’t imagine it. You were always one of the most driven people in my acquaintance.” He was sure it was meant as a compliment, but it did not sit well with him at all.
“Maybe I was. But I guess that did not keep me from failing. Maybe I was driven towards the wrong things.”
She looked doubtful. “That scandal – you know it was not your fault, don’t you?”
He glared at her. “How could I know that? I was a core member of the team. I had access to all the paperwork. Every number, every official protocol, I had access to it all. As well as the inofficial conversations and gossip. How could I not feel responsible?” He asks her.
“Zhou Zishu – we all had access to the paperwork. But that does not mean we read it. Nor that we had reason to question it. No one in this institution has the time to read every piece of paper that ends up on their desk. It is simply not possible. You were in no better a position to know what had been going on than any of us.”
He nodded. And that was the point, wasn’t it? They all should have known. They all had taken on a position of responsibility, had signed documents, and had not followed through on their duty to keep an eye on things. For the first time since leaving, he did not only feel guilty. He also felt angry. It was a refreshing change. “Yes, many of us had the chance to realise, and none of us did. Does that really make it any better in your eyes?” He noticed how the woman was slowly getting angry in the face of him putting blame on her as well, even though he had not said so outright.
“What? You think I am not allowed to trust my colleagues anymore? That none of us should?” She was apparently trying not to raise her voice.
“Well, I guess it depends. They did not prove to be particularly trustworthy, did they?” He knew he was provoking her. He did not care.
The glared at him before shaking her head. “I have no intention to fight with you. If you really think we were all to blame, I can only wonder why you came back.”
He stared at her for a moment. “You used to be better informed than this. I would expect you to know well enough that legal has decided to sue for breach of contract. I am here to meet with them.”
As expected, she did not seem surprised. Just resigned. “I guess I have heard of that. I am not allowed to talk about it, though. I would have gladly tried to help but as you did not respond to anyone, there was little I could do.”
He simply nodded.
The woman continued hesitantly. “If you are considering a compromise now, I guess I could see if there is anything I can do. But if you are determined you do not want to work here anymore, I will likely be of little use to you. I can only wish you luck. Legal are bastards, as we all know.”
Zhou Zishu wondered if he really knew that. Yes, he had assumed once upon a time that he could tell friend from enemy in this institution. He had learned that he could not. He ended up laughing in the face of his own doubts, though. Legal suddenly turning out to be the good guys? That could only happen in a fairy tale.
Chapter 31: A Meeting with Legal
The next morning, when he entered the room where his meeting with the legal department of Helian Yi University would take place, he realized immediately and with certainty that coming here coming here on his own had been a mistake. He had expected to meet one or two people. Someone from the department, and possibly an assistant. Instead, there were five figures sitting in a straight row awaiting him. Two women and three men, all dressed in dark suits, all with blank expressions on their faces.
He sat alone opposite of them, behind a table that had been prepared with three chairs.
“Mister Zhou Zishu?” the woman to the left opened the conversation.
“Yes”, he answered.
She asked again. “You are Mister Zhou Zishu? You requested a meeting with the legal department of Helian Yi university today?”
“Yes”, he confirmed once more. “I am Zhou Zishu, which you know rather well, as I believe we have met at least half a dozen times to consult on one matter or another during my time as a professor here.”
The woman did not even blush at him calling her out.
“I am simply following standard protocol”, was her only answer. And indeed, the man to her left, who looked younger than the rest, seemed to write down every word she spoke.
The woman proceeded. “You have come alone today?” Another useless question. Yes, obviously, he had come alone. Or did she believe in invisibility cloaks or rings? “Yes, I have come alone.”
“You are aware that we are meeting to discuss a legal matter and that you have a right to bring a lawyer into this at any time.”
He sighed. “Yes. I have, however, not come to sign any contract, or bargain with you, nor are we at court. I am aware that I have been unavailable for a while. I have received letters from your department that I did not answer. And thus, I thought it might be reasonable to have a conversation. I do not intend to take any decisions today that require the presence of my lawyer.” He was getting rather impatient with her. He was considering adding another few choice words on what this meeting would or would not be, but was distracted by his mobile phone suddenly ringing. He had apparently forgotten to turn the notifications off again after checking for messages this morning. He had not contacted anyone but Chengling. The boy had had an important exam the last night and he had hoped to hear from him.
By the time Zhou Zishu had corrected the settings on his phone to avoid any further disturbance, the woman had started to continue.
“If you agree, we would like to record this meeting, so that both sides can refer to what was discussed today at a later stage if…” He did not let her finish.
“No, I do not consent.”
For the first time, she seemed to be a bit confused.
“You do not consent?” She enquired again.
“Indeed”, he was happy to repeat himself, “I do not consent. As I already explained, I do not intend to make any deals or take any important decisions today. I asked for an informal meeting with your department. I am sorry if you misunderstood my request. I think you have rather overdone it by bringing your whole team. But I do not think the wording of my message was very ambiguous. I am here to talk to you, in an informal conversation, and with no intention of delivering you anything that you might later use in court.”
There were some murmurs from the three people to the right, but they were talking at too low a voice for him to understand. The woman sighed. “Mister Zhou Zishu, I am not sure if you are fully aware of the severity of the situation. We have already filed an official complaint for breach of contract. This case is on its way to court. If we can reach an agreement today further consequences can possibly be avoided. But if we do not…” She did not finish her sentence.
Zhou Zishu wondered if that was a psychological strategy taught at law school. Leave your opponent to imagine their own fears by not actually telling them anything about the consequences they might actually face?
“I am quite aware of the situation and I do not understand how you thought I was not when receiving my email asking for an informal conversation.” He did not know what to do but to repeat himself. After some more whispering in the row of his opponents, two women stood up and excused themselves. Zhou Zishu counted that as a first win. But his euphoria left him quickly. The next half hour consisted of one of the most dreary and exasperating conversations he had ever had. He had to confirm any sentence he said at least once. He was asked three more times if he did not want to include his lawyer at this point or if he would agree to one statement or another being recorded. It made no sense at all.
“No, I do not wish for my statement that I thought the QuanGen project to be done for after the scandal to be recorded. It is not that I am unsure about this statement. It is rather the fact that I have no understanding at all why you would want to have this on record. I do not see how putting anything at all on the record could be of any advantage to me when the only reason I came here is to figure out what it is that you actually want to achieve in this matter.”
The woman who had been the only one ever talking to him during the whole conversation repeated more or less verbatim what she had said at least twice before. “The university is demanding compensation for breach of contract to compensate for the financial losses it suffered due to your irregular resignation.”
He sighed. “Fine. So you want money. And you will take me to court, and I assume you will likely get it. I am not really certain you will be able to get a sum out of me that is of any real importance to Helian Yi University. But you will likely get some. I would have thought that this institution is more concerned with its reputation and future prospects than some negligible sum payed by a former professor who left his desk three months too early. But if this is all you have to say I will take my leave.”
The woman had started to look stiff at some point during their conversation. He was not sure why. “Do not misunderstand me, Zhou Zishu, the university cares of course very much about its reputation. Which is why we also have to take action when members of it do see fit to leave their responsibilities in an inappropriate manner. I hope that despite our differences you still feel that we have all in all been fair to you?”
What the hell was she getting at? He went over the words of his last sentence again. Reputation. That was it, wasn’t it? The only thing he had brought into the conversation that had not been brought up before. The thing she had reacted to immediately. Zhou Zishu started to laugh. He thought he was beginning to understand why they were here.
“This is the only reason you agreed to meet with me, is it not? You are afraid I will damage the reputation of Helian Yi University.” He was explaining the situation more to himself than to her. “As long as I had vanished to the public and was not responding to any correspondence, you were not much afraid of me at all. But now that I have reappeared you are worried. QuanGen was given back to the funding organization. A few people lost their jobs, scapegoats in a larger scheme. Most others could stay on, simply promising to behave better in the future. They still work for you. They have all played their role, decided on their parts, said what they had to say. But I have not spoken so far. You are afraid I will change my mind.”
The woman only looked slightly irritated. “Mr Zhou, the university has fully cooperated in the investigation that followed after some irregularities in the implementation of the Quantum Genetics project were discovered. The investigation has been closed. All parties that were misconducting themselves were held responsible. There is really not much use in revisiting this topic.”
She tried. She did not have the best poker face. Zhou Zishu was sure that she was bluffing.
For the first time, the man in the middle of the table started to speak. “We have completed all investigation aside from one. One member of the steering committee from QuanGen was not available for questioning during the investigation, after all. Mr Zhou, off the record, as you like to insist today, I can let you know that we are quite able to re-open this investigation – if you think we should?”
The man sounded cold. And Zhou Zishu suddenly wondered if he had made a mistake in threatening a team of lawyers. Yes, he had some hold over them. But was he really sure that they did not have a hold over him as well? Or were possibly scrupulous enough to fabricate something if they thought it worth their time? He felt cold. And with the cold came the awareness of where he was. He began to shiver. The man was still talking at him, but Zhou Zishu did not understand a word. His chest was tightening. He had trouble breathing. Damn it all. He could not be having a panic attack right here, right now. He should not have come. He should have brought a lawyer, like they suggested. He needed to get out of this room but at the same time he could not make himself move.
The voices in his head became a confusing mumble until they were interrupted by a loud knock on the door. Zhou Zishu was not quite able to understand the turmoil that followed, until he heard a familiar but unexpected voice. “Don’t sign anything!” Wen Kexing shouted from the doorway and Zhou Zishu wondered if he had lost consciousness and started dreaming. Did people dream when unconscious? He wasn’t sure. But it seemed the most plausible theory. He was almost certain that he must be right when Han Ying’s voice was added to the first. “Get him out of here. I will take care of his things.” Right. His unconscious brain had put together an unlikely rescue team for him. He was just a little annoyed that it was still simulating the tightness in his chest. He continued to have a lot of trouble with breathing.
Zhou Zishu became inclined to reconsider his dream theory when he was picked up by strong arms that rather awkwardly draped his upper body over a shoulder while slinging around his waist and almost bumped him into the doorframe on their way out. The smell of fresh air mingled with the much more enticing smell of Wen Kexing and his cologne and Zhou Zishu felt his breathing even out. He was settled on a bench in the sunshine. Only when a tender finger brushed over his cheek did he notice that it was wet. He must have been crying.
“A-Xu”, a voice was calling his name. And again, “A-Xu!” He took one last deep breath making sure that his lungs were once again filled with a generous amount of oxygen, before looking up. “Lao Wen”, he answered. And as his voice sounded crooked, he cleared his throat, and tried once more “Lao Wen”. The face of the other started to smile. On autopilot, he leaned in to press his lips against the other’s.
It was a chaste, but sweet and lingering kiss.
They got interrupted by a booming and much less pleasant voice. “Ah, there you are! The car is fully packed and ready for you.”
Zhou Zishu reluctantly allowed Wen Kexing’s lips to withdraw from his and looked over at Ye Baiyi. Was all of this a dream after all? “What in the world are you two doing here? I think I must have lost my mind. I even thought I heard Han Ying back in that room?”
Wen Kexing blushed slightly. “I was told by a friend of yours that you might be getting yourself in trouble and organised a rescue mission. And as I am lacking strategic knowledge of the terrain…” he demonstratively gazed at the buildings around him. Before he could finish his sentence, Han Ying chimed in.
“I have everything. Including the name of the responsible person in legal, and I also left them the address of his lawyer.” Zhou Zishu simply stared. Whatever was happening around him, it was too much for his brain to process. And he was loath to admit that at the mention of an lawyer, his breath started to quicken again. Damn his weakness and those stupid panic attacks.
Wen Kexing seemed to notice the state he was in with ease. One of the arms that had left his sides a while ago to wildly underline his speech with gestures came to rest on his shoulders. “Don’t worry. We will explain it all soon enough. For now, you just need to relax and get out of here. If the car is ready, we best just head out.”
Zhou Zishu had at least a little reason left. “I need to go back to the hotel. My things are still there.”
Ye Baiyi shook his head and grinned in triumph. “No, they are not. I got them all out and into the car.”
Han Ying was the one who raised the obvious question. “How the hell did you get into his room?”
But Wen Kexing was not patient enough to wait for an answer. He simply picked him up again – bridal style this time around – which made Zhou Zishu at the same time very uncomfortable and kind of excited, and carried him over to a silver, medium sized car that had the typical neutral look of a rental. Zhou Zishu was deposited in the passenger seat and not five minutes later they were off.
Zhou Zishu found out later that Ye Baiyi had claimed at the hotel that his friend had been brought into hospital for an emergency and had sweet talked the staff into letting him into the room to collect his things while also settling the bill. The fact that he could name the place and date of birth given in his ID had apparently been enough to convince them that he was an old friend with no ill intentions.
Han Ying and Wen Kexing, in the meantime, had gone straight to Eva, to figure out his whereabouts. Zhou Zishu was not surprised to hear that his former secretary had willingly given all requested information to Han Ying. The woman had always had a soft spot for his young colleague and obviously knew that the two had been quite close when they still worked together. How Wen Kexing had gotten Ye Baiyi and Han Ying to accompany him on a ‘rescue mission’ to Helian Yi University remained somewhat of a mystery. But Zhou Zishu had no doubts that Chengling and Beiyuan were deeply involved in that plot.
For now, though, he was concentrating on little else but to calm his breathing, regain his composure, and accept the fact that Wen Kexing was sitting next to him, in a rented car, driving them out of the city. The other seemed to be in a good mood. While he had sent a sideward glance to him about once a minute for the first quarter of an hour, he was now mostly focusing on the road and humming the melody of some rock ballad that Zhou Zishu definitely knew but could not remember the name of under his breath.
Looking out the window and at the street signs, Zhou Zishu figured out to his surprise that they were entering a highway leading east. “Are we not going home?” he asked in surprise.
Wen Kexing grinned.
“The road goes ever on and on…” luckily, he limited himself to that one line. “A-Xu, do you really think I would kidnap you? Is it not enough that we are here, you and me, in one car and going in the same direction?”
Zhou Zishu smiled. His heart was making somersaults in his chest. He was confused, he was still agitated, and he was so, so happy to have Wen Kexing at his side.
“You know what? You are right. Kidnap me! Go ahead! What do I care? With the most beautiful man at my side, I will simply do nothing! I will entrust myself into the care of my kidnapper. There you go. Happy?” He had spoken in an exaggerated and mocking voice, but of course Wen Kexing could not be fooled. In a very soft and way too serious voice the other answered. “Yes, I am happy.”
Zhou Zishu swallowed. After taking one deep breath to calm his nerves, he said “Could you please stop this car at the next opportunity? There must be a resting place somewhere up ahead, no?”
Wen Kexing glanced at him, worry clearly written on his face. “Are you alright, A-Xu? Of course I can stop. But if I am being too much, please, just tell me.” Zhou Zishu simply shook his head, stared straight ahead, and waited. It took only a few minutes for them to reach the next motorway station with a picnic area behind it. But these minutes they spent in absolute silence and the tension became almost unbearable. The moment Wen Kexing had stopped the car, Zhou Zishu got himself out of his seat and walked around to the driver’s side to open the door for Wen Kexing. The other had not moved so far and stared at him in trepidation, and Zhou Zishu realized that Wen Kexing was nervous about his request. He smirked and held out his hand.
Wen Kexing slowly took it and led himself be pulled out of the car. The moment he had closed the door behind him, Zhou Zishu crowded in on him until he was pressed with his back to the vehicle. He raised himself on tiptoes, and moved his hands into the other man’s hair. Wen Kexing seemed to have understood what he meant to do by now, because he leaned down quickly and their lips crushed together in the most forceful and bruising kiss they had shared so far. Zhou Zishu did not care. All he needed right now was to feel Wen Kexing and to reduce any distance between them. He was hungry for the other man, starving, and sitting next to him in a car, a distance of only fifty centimetres between them but one that could not be breached without risking an accident, had become unbearable when the other had expressed so earnestly that he was happy to be with Zhou Zishu.
He was not sure how long they kissed. Their lips settled into somewhat more gentle movements after a while, Wen Kexing’s arms had sneaked around him, settled on his hips first, then moved up along his back to tangle in his hair. Zhou Zishu’s had gone the other way in the meantime, leaving those long tresses reluctantly to wrap around Wen Kexing’s middle and use the leverage to press his own shorter body into the other. It did not matter where they were going. He felt like he was right at home.
At some point, Wen Kexing drew his head back up and Zhou Zishu, not quite willing to let go completely, burrowed his face in the other man’s chest.
“For a moment there I thought you wanted me to stop so you could get away from me.”
“Never”, Zhou Zishu answered.
“Does that mean you are willing to forgive me for being a stupid idiot who risked your health and wellbeing for some ridiculous scheme of ill-judged justice and revenge?” he asked.
“Are you willing to forgive me for being a coward who cared about nothing else but running away from his past?” Zhou Zishu asked back.
He felt a strange movement. When he looked up he noticed that Wen Kexing was vehemently shaking his head. “You were never a coward. Being weak, and overwhelmed, and in need of help is not cowardice.”
“But running away usually is”, Zhou Zishu mumbled.
The other put his hand on his shoulder and forced him back. Hesitantly, Zhou Zishu looked up into Wen Kexing’s eyes. “Is that why you returned?”
He nodded. “Yes. I needed to stop being a coward. How could I ever dream of standing at your side, when you were trying to be a hero and all I did was holding you back?”
“Well…” Wen Kexing took a moment to answer. “If I were a true hero, I would have simply allowed you to stay home. Or told you everything, and asked you to accompany me. But I was being sneaky and underhanded, and keeping secrets. How could I blame you for reacting badly to that?”
“So we both believe that we are not good enough for each other?” Zhou Zishu summed up their discussion. “I am sorry, but I have a hard time accepting that judgement coming from the most brilliant man on this planet”, he countered.
“Right back at you”, Wen Kexing returned. They both started laughing.
“Did you ever hit your head as a child, or something?”
Wen Kexing raised an eyebrow.
“It’s just – I think you must be the man with the worst judgement of people in this country. Like, ever.”
“I will teach you that you are perfect, Zhou Zishu, even if it takes me a lifetime.” For just a moment, Zhou Zishu thought the other wanted to add something else. But in the end, he did not. He leaned back into the other man’s warm chest and they simple stood there out in the open and next to a rented car, for a little while.
“Where are we going?” Zhou Zishu enquired at last.
“Jing Beiyuan’s place first. He insists on a strategy meeting regarding your legal situation. After that, Qingha University, if you agree to accompany me. We have an institution to rescue from the nefarious plans of the five Lakes alliance. And I was rather hoping you might have some ideas on how to help us…”
“Don’t you think a guy being prosecuted by Helian Yi University might rather be a burden for you?”
Wen Kexing laughed. “After having an idea of your connections? Not at all! Jing Beiyuan got you one of the best lawyers in the country, I believe. And Ye Baiyi is the best-connected man among all funding agencies I have ever met. And were you aware that your friend Han Ying is dating an ace reporter with an interest in academic malpractice? I think we will be fine.”
Hope you liked the story! This is far from perfect in my own eyes - especially the pacing seems to me to be all over the place - but I did not want to attempt editing it to perfection and risk loosing the motivation to work on it at all while doing so. If you read and enjoyed it I would love your feedback. Critical feedback is very welcome but I do, of course, prefer it to be constructive...
I would also love to hear what your favorite chapters were!