Sun Xiang once said that Tang Hao was an insensitive blockhead—even if some girl were to confess her feelings in front of him and say, I like you, he’d just glance at her and go, Oh, I also like myself. Tang Hao rolled his eyes at this. “Fuck you, don’t drag everyone’s IQ down to your level and then use your own rich experience to try to beat the other side.” And even though Sun Xiang heard Tang Hao swear at him, he still looked elated as he said, “That’s a pretty good line! I’m gonna keep it to use on Liu Xiaobie later.”
In truth, Tang Hao was slow to react to many emotions, and didn’t have any skill points applied to this inborn trait. It was no wonder that, as he was growing up, he’d never earned points for reading comprehension outside of multiple-choice questions. If I read that they smiled then the answer’s that they’re happy. Who cares if it’s a grim smile or mocking smile or sneering smile or bitter smile, who the fuck invented so many words? Just draw back your lips and smile if you want to! Breaking it down to analyze frame by frame, or dividing its curve to explain each degree—haven’t we got better things to do than this pain in the ass? He didn’t get to finish his words before his literature teacher kicked him out of the office along with his 50-percent graded exam.
Tang Hao’s mother just sighed in despair, as if her throat were clogged with mucus that she couldn’t cough up. His father was simpler and cruder in his approach to the matter; drawing upon all his resources, he rolled up the exam paper like a stick and chased Tang Hao across eight streets. But he could no longer run as fast as Tang Hao, and nearly sprained his waist. While he gasped for breath and supported himself against a wall, Tang Hao squatted in the doorway of a small snack shop and smoked a cigarette.
The 50-percent graded literature exam didn’t just serve as proof to make him lose face, but was also quite painful when used to hit him. Then, through a succession of kicks, Tang Hao was punted through the entrance of Hundred Blossoms’ training camp. At that time, Hundred Blossoms was quite the impressive thing in Kunming, so impressive that when Tang Hao was waiting for the bus on his way to school he could see Zhang Jiale, grinning in a pink uniform and looking down upon the apathetic masses bustling at the public transport stop. Even though Tang Hao didn’t understand what was so awesome about second place, his father just smacked his head—“One runner-up is nothing amazing, but this guy’s got two!” Tang Hao stuck his hands in his pockets and thought carelessly, It’s not like you could turn this double negative into a positive. Exchange two runners-up for a championship? Obviously you can’t, runners-up is runners-up.
When he had still been in school, the student who’d placed second had once cried so much that her eyes were swollen like walnuts. As Tang Hao was carrying the mop around to do general cleanup, she’d lain on her desk with shaking shoulders. There’d been a pool of water on the ground; when she sensed Tang Hao approaching her, she lifted her head and kept watching him as he mopped the floor clean beneath her seat. Tang Hao hadn’t said anything to her. Under the force of gravity, her tears were dropping on Tang Hao’s white sneakers, but he didn’t even wait for the next stream of tears to fall before mopping them dry along with the wet traces left on the floor. Perhaps her tears were the same as the water she’d accidentally knocked over, absorbed by the mop. To Tang Hao, it was meaningless. It was all just water, and its chemical formula was all the same H2O.
What he didn’t like, he didn’t like. Tang Hao had always been like a foul, hard, unfeeling rock. There wasn’t any sea wave that could erode him into some other form.
Tang Hao quite liked his life in Hundred Blossoms. At the very least, he only needed to knock down his opponent and hammer at their prone figure until they couldn’t stand up, and didn’t have to analyze his opponent’s mentality or emotion when they used a technical skill. After a blowout, he didn’t even have to care about the look in his opponent’s eyes, whether it was unwillingness or jealousy or utter helplessness. He found it unnecessary to bother with such things, because no one had ever told him he ought to care about the feelings of his defeated opponents. That was for the captain to worry about, whereas Tang Hao was still just some boy in the training camp who might well be driven out the next day to continue his studies in reading comprehension.
When Tang Hao first entered the training camp, there were several cycles of seniors lined up in front of him. He sneered to himself when he heard this—they’d stayed on for two years and were still in the training camp, so on what grounds could they actually be considered seniors? In the eyes of many trainees, shy and docile due to the unfamiliar environment, Tang Hao seemed like a crane among chickens. He recoiled from any shot at currying favor, and didn’t go along with the other new trainees to ask, Seniors, please advise. He stationed himself like a thorn, or a rusty nail protruding from a glossy smooth wall; whoever saw it would want to yank it out, even if it’d leave behind a dark hole.
As new trainees entered, they’d be taken down a peg or two, though who knew what generation had passed down this unwritten rule. Of course Tang Hao didn’t know this; even if the rules were plainly written and hung up above the entrance to the training camp, he wouldn’t necessarily think to take a look at them, let alone these phony tricks. And so one senior called him out, saying, “Let’s play a test round.”
The trainee next to him pulled Tang Hao aside and told him, “That senior’s a third-year trainee.”
Tang Hao snorted. “So he’s been stuck as a leftover for three years running?”
The other guy’s face immediately went sour. He jabbed a finger at Tang Hao’s nose. “Just watch, I’ll teach you a lesson.”
Tang Hao didn’t know if the guy was blind or if, in the end, he’d clearly seen Tang Hao return him the favor. When Tang Hao stood, he coolly picked up the jacket he’d put on his chair, draped it over his shoulders, and walked out of the crowd without a single glance at his opponent’s ashen face.
This was the first senior he defeated, and they wouldn’t be the last.
Tang Hao was always lacking in the reverence due to seniors and any people of authority. At the very least, he didn’t fear them. Just because they’d eaten a few more years’ worth of rice, did that translate to a few more years’ worth of insight? Stupidity wasn’t allocated based on age. If everyone said someone was amazing, were they amazing? He refused to trust in such things and insisted on testing them himself, smashing with his fists to see if the so-called flawless golden Buddhas were made of reinforced steel or clay.
Thus, within Hundred Blossoms and its high Zhang-Jiale-fan per capita status quo, Tang Hao couldn’t care less about Zhang Jiale. He certainly didn’t think that the offender who’d chosen pink as the main color for Hundred Blossoms could be any normal sort of person. When he returned home wearing the trainee uniform, his mother had even dragged him aside and asked, “Does your team have a lot of boys?”
Tang Hao rolled his eyes. “It’s all guys.”
His mother hesitated. “Then your captain’s a girl?”
“The captain’s also a guy. Mom, don’t you see him every day when you go to work? The Hundred Blossoms ad’s been up at the bus stop for over a year,” Tang Hao said.
Wearing the pink team uniform, Zhang Jiale stood surrounded by his teammates on the billboard. Its text read: Come to Hundred Blossoms, let’s witness Glory together. But what Glory? The Glory of second place or the Glory of Blossoms and Blood? Tang Hao held in especial contempt the Hundred Blossoms propaganda that always drew upon Blossoms and Blood. When Sun Zheping was still there, a mention was good enough. But fucking Sun Zheping had been gone a year, yet the team still stirred up emotions with the line that Zhang Jiale still represented Blossoms and Blood on his own. There was no lower limit to the sentiment they were trying to sell; when Tang Hao clicked into the comments of the official team Weibo, he nearly thought he was looking at a funeral hall, with a white flower pinned to each person’s chest and the words “Blossoms and Blood” writ large upon the spirit tablet.
Speak of Zhang Jiale, and people would mention Blossoms and Blood right away. To Tang Hao, what difference was there between those people and his mother, who’d gone to work in the textile mills after graduating elementary school and who only thought of girls when someone brought up the color pink?
Tang Hao had few opportunities to meet Zhang Jiale. The character class he played was Brawler, and at the moment Hundred Blossoms didn’t have a set place for Brawler in its standard match formation. Spitfires and Berserkers made up most of the training camp, so many that if Tang Hao threw down a rock from the second floor he had a 50-50 chance to hit a player from one of those two classes. And every time Zhang Jiale came to look over the training camp, they’d swarm and surround him all at once; the Spitfire players would gaze at Dazzling Hundred Blossoms, held in his hand, while the Berserkers would also fix their eyes on Zhang Jiale, imagining that with a nod of approval from him they’d receive the key to unlock Blossoming Chaos.
Tang Hao was always watching with cold eyes on the side. Blossoming Chaos had no key; it was already long buried in Zhang Jiale’s heart, though he’d set up neither monument nor tombstone. Those children who still imagined a glorious future in their feverish dreams were merely engaging in wishful thinking. Zhang Jiale had never wavered—rather than let Blossoming Chaos fall into the hands of some mediocrity, better to let Burial Blossoms rust and fall upon the altar, and let all turn to dust.
“Tang Hao,” the manager said to him, “you have great talent—why don’t you think about changing your class? Actually, your playstyle doesn’t really fit a Brawler at all. Just look at Lin Jingyan, his style…”
“Why should I care about his style?” Tang Hao interrupted. “You want me to play Berserker, but that’s not gonna happen.”
The manager’s face turned a little ugly.
Tang Hao didn’t care. He just wanted to be the one and only Tang Hao. He wasn’t there to be someone’s substitute, or to mend a dream from which people stubbornly refused to wake, a dream they doggedly clutched in their hands. They wouldn’t even open their fists to take a look, for fear that they’d only see a hollow shell in their palms which would turn to ashes with the wind.
He didn’t see his name on the official player roster that summer. “This isn't fair,” Zou Yuan said in a small voice. “I’ll ask the manager what’s going on.”
Tang Hao pulled him back. In contrast to everyone’s expected fury, he appeared all the more calm. But Zou Yuan understood Tang Hao well: this was nothing more than anger repressed to the extreme, like magma buried deep within a volcano—and when it erupted, it’d plunge people into misery and turn the land so barren that not even a blade of grass could grow.
“If they don't give it to me,” he said, “I’ll go get it myself.”
“So you won against Zhang Wei?” Zhang Jiale asked.
“Right.” Tang Hao nodded. Next to them, Zhang Wei stood rather awkwardly, but it also seemed that he’d been used to this from the start. The most that could be said of his career was that he was diligent; or in other words, besides diligence, his natural aptitude didn’t merit much praise.
“Then next season let’s add another name to the roster. Tang Hao, it’s which hao?” Zhang Jiale smiled as he turned his head and asked Tang Hao.
“Ah?” Tang Hao stared blankly for a moment. In such a short time, his language proficiency temporarily failed to come up with any phrase he could use for himself. He racked his brains. “It’s just… the tang hao for that Tang Hao.”
All of a sudden, Zhang Jiale broke into laughter. “Tang San’s father, is it that hao?”
“Right.” Tang Hao nodded, relieved of his heavy burden.
Zhang Jiale gazed at Tang Hao with evident delight. Tang Hao couldn’t figure out what was so funny about himself—but he remembered that, no matter what, the captain was in front of him, so he buried his temper and stood before Zhang Jiale, waiting for him to finish laughing. “Can I go back now?”
“Sure. Just sort out your things and you can move to this side of the club.” Zhang Jiale stood up, and clapped Tang Hao’s shoulder. “We’ll be teammates in the future.”
Later, Tang Hao thought that Zhang Jiale’s words were bullshit. How was he Zhang Jiale’s teammate? He was obviously the bench’s teammate; he spent much more time fighting side by side with the bench and the bottles of mineral spring water than he did with Zhang Jiale. Beside him, Zou Yuan would attempt to console Tang Hao. “Hao-ge, it doesn’t matter. You’re so amazing, after a while the team will definitely notice you.”
Tang Hao let out a grim laugh. Sure they’d notice him—so long as any bit of his brain agreed to playing Berserker, then he’d become a real player without a doubt. Blossoming Chaos, to hell with Blossoming Chaos! Whoever wanted it could have it. Whatever he wanted he could get for himself, and what he didn’t want he wouldn’t keep for a second—no matter how stubbornly it was stuffed into his hands, or smeared on with glue so sticky it could tear off a bloody layer of skin and flesh.
But Zhang Jiale basically had no time to manage the moving undercurrents of the team, because he’d wholeheartedly thrown himself into the competitions. He treated every match like it was his last, and he reached the pinnacle of madness every time as he fought to his last breath. He seemed utterly oblivious to the meaning of exhaustion; so long as Dazzling Hundred Blossoms hadn’t fallen, his opponent couldn’t dare relax at the last remaining bit of blood. Even if Zhang Jiale could only let loose with one final technique, he was hell-bent on taking his opponent down with himself to end as remains beneath an explosion of light and shadow.
One day, Tang Hao was smoking as he sat on a bench across the street from Club Hundred Blossoms. He didn’t wear his mask, because in any case a benchwarmer like him didn’t need to be worried about someone recognizing him. He didn’t even have the qualifications to show his face on the billboard at the bus stop; from beginning to end all that had shown up was his name, which alone had been enough for his mother to flaunt in her friends circles for half a month. So he looked at the silently burning cigarette in his fingers; he didn’t move to tap the ash off, but lowered his head and watched his own shadow.
An enormous shadow enveloped him. Tang Hao lifted his head, and saw Zhang Jiale.
Zhang Jiale stopped his motorbike on the side of the road, then bent down to crouch in front of Tang Hao. With his thumb and index finger, he flicked at the cigarette in Tang Hao’s hand and shook a bit of blazing ash out onto the ground. “With such an experienced pose, this isn’t your first time then? Smoking’s bad for your health,” Zhang Jiale grinned and spread out his hands. “So, hurry up and hand it all over.”
Tang Hao didn’t move.
“At least hand over one?” Zhang Jiale haggled.
Tang Hao fished another cigarette out of his pocket. “Lighter’s broken, I haven’t got a light.”
“No problem, don’t you have one here?”
Tang Hao kept his arms stiff as he watched Zhang Jiale’s downy head draw near. The two cigarettes touched; Zhang Jiale inhaled; and white smoke poured out between his fingers, rising up in spirals and shrouding their faces.
Tang Hao was watching Zhang Jiale through the screen of smoke; Zhang Jiale had drawn his eyes down, and was watching the smoke. They were closer than they’d ever been before, so close that Tang Hao could even hear the sound of Zhang Jiale’s breath and heartbeat, steady and strong—exploding in his eardrums, bursting till his mind almost wandered. It wasn’t until the cigarette he held had burned to the end and its ash fell on the back of his hand that he suddenly dropped his cigarette butt.
Zhang Jiale smiled at his sorry figure, and said, “What are you blanking out for?” For he didn’t know that he himself was the main culprit, and that his victim Tang Hao was in the dark too.
“Let’s go, Le-ge’s taking you for a spin.” Zhang Jiale tossed his own extinguished cigarette butt into the trash can, straddled his motorbike parked next to the street lamp, and beckoned to Tang Hao. He’s calling me like a dog, Tang Hao vented in his heart—and yet he couldn’t tell if he’d been bewitched or he’d left his brain behind when going out, for in the next second he found himself getting on the motorbike behind Zhang Jiale, putting on the helmet and protective gear that Zhang Jiale handed over. Tang Hao was a little taller than him, and when he sat he could dip his head just right to catch sight of Zhang Jiale's bare nape. His ponytail was blown to and fro by the wind, and hit Tang Hao’s helmet several times.
Zhang Jiale rode his motorbike as wildly as he played his matches. They were on a scenic road that had recently been repaired; other than street lamps, there wasn’t even the shadow of a human figure. At first Tang Hao could see the whirling shadows of the trees cast upon the asphalt road, but once Zhang Jiale shifted gears he could only see the street lamps on both sides of the road receding swifly behind them, so far back that he could barely catch any impression of them at all. Tang Hao could no longer hear the engine sound that had boomed earlier in his ears; he heard only the roaring wind, blowing through the cracks in his helmet and striking his face like a knife.
The pointer on the motorbike gauge was still veering to the right. Tang Hao swore. “Zhang Jiale, you’re crazy! If you want to fucking die don’t drag me down with you.”
“You said—what—bike’s going too fast—“ Zhang Jiale’s ears were filled with the sound of the wind.
“I said—Zhang Jiale, you’re fucking crazy!” Tang Hao’s voice echoed across the deserted highway, and burrowed along with the wind into Zhang Jiale’s ears. When he heard Tang Hao cursing at him, Zhang Jiale laughed a little. The pointer shifted from red to its starting position.
In the end, they parked the motorbike next to a bridge. Zhang Jiale leaned against the motorbike, holding his red helmet in his hand, and groped about in his pockets for a while before fishing out a lollipop at last. He smiled and asked Tang Hao, “Want it?”
Tang Hao shook his head in disgust.
It seemed that Zhang Jiale hadn’t any intention of giving it to Tang Hao in the first place but was just asking for courtesy’s sake, because he’d already torn open the wrapper. He said indistinctly, around the lollipop in his mouth, “Big Sun and I bought this motorbike with the third season’s runners-up award money.”
“Oh,” Tang Hao responded with cold indifference. So what did this have to do with him?
“You’re in a bad mood?” Zhang Jiale glanced at him and smiled. “If you’re in a bad mood, don’t smoke—the more you smoke, the worse it is. Just eat a bit of candy to cancel it out.”
“You’ve got a lot of experience?” Tang Hao looked over.
“That’s right, I’m very experienced.” Zhang Jiale held the lollipop in his hand, and curved his lips.
Tang Hao felt somewhat jittery. He sensed a hidden meaning in Zhang Jiale’s words, yet he couldn’t directly ask just what the fuck do you mean when Zhang Jiale would probably reply and look at him like he was still a child. He didn’t understand why Zhang Jiale was always smiling; and, in the end, he didn’t understand what was different in spirit behind Zhang Jiale’s each and every smile. Just as he’d always scored zero in reading comprehension, so he was as ever the poor student in facing Zhang Jiale.
“I haven’t come here in a long time.” Zhang Jiale propped his elbows on the railing. The lake breeze blew past and lifted some stray strands of hair that he hadn’t pulled back. “In the past, when we got tired of training, we’d go for a spin in the fresh air and ride the motorbike here. The scenic road only just finished its repairs—we used to make a detour on another road to get here. But it didn’t matter. Every time we came here, I felt my heart settle and calm down, like the wind had carried away all my worries.”
Tang Hao knew that this we certainly didn’t refer to him.
“Anyway, no more talk about this. It’s not easy for me to revisit old haunts, so let’s check in.” Zhang Jiale pulled his cell phone out of his pocket, and grabbed hold of Tang Hao. “Oh hey, don’t run away! Isn’t it just a selfie? It’s not like I’m making you go into battle.”
“I’d rather go into battle.” Tang Hao’s face was all revulsion—Zhang Jiale really was tasteless, the kind that was especially crass, so much so that whenever he did anything meaningful the first thing he’d think of would be to quickly take a picture and send it out to his friends. It annoyed Tang Hao so much that he thought about breaking his screen.
But he didn’t do that in the end. Gradually, he’d begin to think that if he could open his cell phone every day to see a certain person joyfully sharing his own life, it wasn’t so annoying.
(Though Huang Shaotian, who shared similar interests with Zhang Jiale and yet had been dragged into Tang Hao’s blacklist on the first day he’d been added as a friend, silently condemned his double standard.)
Zhang Jiale spent all his effort to finally pull Tang Hao into the scope of the camera lens. He silently rubbed at the front cam, then asked, “Tang Hao, where are you?”
“Fuck, you didn’t turn on flash in the middle of the night, of course you can’t see anyone.” Tang Hao was speechless when he looked at the abnormally white Zhang Jiale on the phone screen. He almost wondered if Kunming’s ultraviolet rays had allowed Zhang Jiale to cheat—otherwise why would other people tan when they were outdoors while Zhang Jiale didn’t? He just reflected the light under the sun.
Zhang Jiale very diligently assured Tang Hao that he’d definitely turn on the flash and edit Tang Hao to be even paler than he was, but Tang Hao immediately ran to stand underneath a street lamp, looking as if he’d rather die than cooperate. Zhang Jiale was aware of Tang Hao’s stubborn temper, and so tossed his phone to Tang Hao instead. “Then it should be fine if you take a picture of me, right?”
Tang Hao readied the phone focus. Through the lens, he saw Zhang Jiale naturally throw up two fingers like a dumb scissor hand, before showing a mouthful of white teeth as if he had no fear of the night wind battering against them. Tang Hao went through the perfunctory motion of pressing the camera button and threw the phone back at Zhang Jiale; then he leaned against the railing and watched Zhang Jiale busy himself with editing the photo and adding a caption for his friends circle.
After all the trouble Zhang Jiale had gone through to post the photo, the first comment was: you’re even this chuuni when you take pictures? Zhang Jiale swore, and gloomily shoved his phone back into his pocket. He took out another lollipop, stuffed it in his mouth, and said to Tang Hao in a muffled voice, “I’ll be even busier with the upcoming matches, who knows if I’ll have a chance to come here again.”
“You will.” Tang Hao didn’t think through what he was saying, but just blurted it out. “When Hundred Blossoms wins the championship, I’ll bring you here on the motorbike.” He didn’t know just what he wanted to prove to Zhang Jiale, or what he wanted to erase.
Only the lake wind and the distant whistle of traffic answered him.
Tang Hao realized that he liked Zhang Jiale.
He was very dimwitted about feelings, and rarely took the initiative to make any concrete sense of them, so it was his body that told him he liked Zhang Jiale in a way which couldn’t be more direct. For he dreamed of going to bed with Zhang Jiale.
They didn’t seem to be making love, but were more like wild beasts fighting in close quarters. Zhang Jiale bit his shoulder with such force that even within the dream he could feel the pain. He pressed Zhang Jiale down and thrust into his body inch by inch. He could even see Zhang Jiale’s teeth sinking into his flesh, leaving behind a mark with the trace of blood. But Tang Hao wouldn’t yield in the slightest as he faced Zhang Jiale, whose eyes were burning like flames; this wasn’t the Zhang Jiale who usually grinned with all his edges dulled, but the Zhang Jiale of the arena who went mad when he fought, who was unstoppable when he went mad.
Tang Hao. He heard Zhang Jiale call out to him, but couldn’t make out the emotion in his voice. You get lost! Zhang Jiale looked as if he could kill Tang Hao with his eyes; and yet Tang Hao pushed his chest onto Zhang Jiale’s dagger.
They exchanged a bloody kiss, and kissed until Tang Hao could taste a tang of sweetness—it was the lollipop that Zhang Jiale had eaten the night before.
Fuck. Tang Hao opened his eyes, and before even opening his mouth he felt a sore ache inside. A cluster of blisters had formed in his mouth, some already broken, so it was only natural that his mouth was bloody.
Agitated, he walked out of his room—and saw Zhang Jiale the moment he opened his door. Zhang Jiale wore pajamas and was yawning as he emerged from the other side of the hall; he even waved when he saw Tang Hao, as if nothing had happened last night.
As far as Zhang Jiale was concerned, of course nothing had happened. But it laid bare the hole in Tang Hao’s heart, where Zhang Jiale had stabbed him in his dream. Still, he couldn’t openly seek out Zhang Jiale and ask him, Why the fuck did you appear in my dream last night? He could only face himself in the bathroom mirror, open his mouth to look at the blisters, and ask himself, deep down in his heart, Why do I like Zhang Jiale? If I have to like someone then why of all people do I have to like him?
Then Zhang Jiale came in as well, and commiserated with Tang Hao when he saw his miserable state. “Ah, young people are so full of vigor, your internal heat goes into overdrive. It’s pretty normal, just relieve yourself a bit.” He even bumped Tang Hao’s shoulder nonchalantly. How could he be like this? As if nothing had happened, saying those words so naturally—plainly the main culprit was him, yet he didn’t seem to know this at all and even talked like some bystander to Tang Hao, saying, “It’s pretty normal.” Fuck you, I want to fuck you, is this normal? Tang Hao angrily threw his cup into the bathroom sink, which bounced against the faucet and then shot toward the ground.
Zhang Wei was a bit frightened when he saw Tang Hao exit furiously from the bathroom. Puzzled and uncertain, Zhang Jiale asked Zhang Wei, “How come he’s unhappy again?”
“Him being happy, now that’s the rare miracle.” Zhang Wei still bore a bit of ill feeling in his heart for Tang Hao, and shrugged his shoulders.
Tang Hao ran off to the club lounge. At first he thought he could go calm down, but when he raised his head he saw a very large picture of Zhang Jiale posted there. Tang Hao nearly blacked out—why did Zhang Jiale have to linger like a ghost? The more he wanted to flee the more he couldn’t, for Zhang Jiale was everywhere: the one who’d smiled at Tang Hao and said just relieve yourself a bit, the one who’d gone silent and cold the night before, the one who’d lain beneath Tang Hao in his dreams. He was besieged by Zhang Jiale, and had no way to escape.
Over the next few days, Tang Hao wasn’t in a particularly good state of mind. Once in a while, as they reviewed a match, Zou Yuan would have to prod Tang Hao quite a few times before he reacted. Anyway, perhaps it wasn’t so bad that he was a benchwarmer, because the bench didn’t care what his condition was like and was as cold as it ought to be. He sat together with Zou Yuan in the players’ seats and looked up, watching Dazzling Hundred Blossoms on the fluorescent screen. The stage lighting shone brightly, but couldn’t outshine Zhang Jiale; his whole body seemed to be bound up in a halo, and no one could see just where he was, or where he would appear in the next second.
“The captain really is amazing,” Zou Yuan said. “You think we can be like him in the future?”
“There’s only one Zhang Jiale,” said Tang Hao.
“Ah, this…” Zou Yuan lowered his head. “I hope I can get the captain’s acknowledgment soon. I want to fight beside him.”
Tang Hao wanted to say, Me too. But in the end the only thing that came out of his mouth was a cold and scornful grunt.
The closer the finals approached, the more unstoppable Zhang Jiale became. He seemed almost unaware of his exhaustion, as if his whole body was immersed in water; and no one dared to dredge him up, because they couldn’t guarantee that what they dredged up would be Zhang Jiale rather than a corpse. The number of times he laughed in the club became fewer and fewer, and Tang Hao would often see him sitting among the flower beds and smoking, trading a breath of hot air for the toxins entering his lungs. Near the flower beds, the cigarettes were quickly piling up into a tiny mountain. Sure enough, Zhang Jiale’s words were bullshit. What “smoking is bad for your health,” what “if you’re in a bad mood better to eat candy than smoke”? He’d just been fooling a dumb moron, and Tang Hao was said dumb moron who’d been fooled.
Once, Tang Hao plucked the cigarette from Zhang Jiale’s hand and said, “Zhang Jiale, just what are you like right now?”
Zhang Jiale raised his head to look at him. Because the sun was fixed above Tang Hao’s head and shone so intensely, Zhang Jiale couldn’t clearly see who he was. When his eyes adjusted to the sunlight, Zhang Jiale narrowed his eyes. “None of your business. Go.”
Tang Hao didn’t move.
“Get lost!” Zhang Jiale’s eyes seemed to flare up with sparks, sparks that splashed onto Tang Hao’s heart and scorched new blisters into existence. The look in his eyes suddenly matched up with a certain glance in Tang Hao’s dreams, and Tang Hao fled from Zhang Jiale’s presence again.
No one could salvage Zhang Jiale. This was his own choice; he staked it all on one throw and sank himself, for he would fight to his last breath in this battle. He was like a falling meteor forcing itself down through the atmosphere to the human world, with its last glimmer of light.
In the end, that glimmer of light became a crater in the ground, and at the bottom of the hole lay Zhang Jiale.
Zhang Jiale walked down from the stage, with his back to the teeming masses of Tiny Herb fans and the trophy that was being awarded to Wang Jiexi. Step by step, he gave up his brilliant radiance to the stage, and then threw himself into the darkness. When they saw him come down, everyone in Hundred Blossoms stood up, their voices rising and falling. “Captain! Captain! We’ll come back next year, right? Captain?”
Zhang Jiale didn’t say a single word, or make a single sound.
No one spoke in the train carriage on their return trip. He was the only one who sat in the first row, propping up his chin. No one sat next to him. In Tang Hao’s eyes, it seemed as if he were turning into a silent rock.
The night they returned to Kunming, Tang Hao rode the motorbike with Zhang Jiale sitting behind him. Without a word, they sped along the edge of the lake on the main road. Zhang Jiale didn’t speak, so neither did Tang Hao. They arrived again at the bridge; the lights were scattering to pieces on the surface of the lake, gleaming crystal clear amid the waves. Zhang Jiale kept his back to the lake and tilted his head up to look at the moon.
“I’ve never thought about what comes after,” Zhang Jiale said. “From the start of this season, I just never thought about what to do after the end.”
“I hadn’t thought about it either,” Tang Hao said. “But none of it matters. In any case I’ll still be playing Glory.”
“Ah, that’s good.” Zhang Jiale suddenly smiled. “I’d like to keep playing too.” His smile turned a little different, rather unlike what Tang Hao understood to be Zhang Jiale’s smile. But Tang Hao really wasn’t an expert in understanding; and so, once again, he flunked his reading comprehension problem.
Zhang Jiale propped his elbows on the railing, smiling as he looked up, and let the light from the street lamps spill on his fair face. Underneath the light he was so pale as to appear transparent. Tang Hao turned his head, and in that split second thought Zhang Jiale might fade away before his eyes—that if Tang Hao were to reach out and touch him, he’d turn into bright specks, like fireflies, which would slip bit by bit through his fingers and take refuge in the crystal waters of the lake.
All his thoughts of the fors and againsts flooded Tang Hao’s chest in a flash. He drew another breath on the cigarette in his hand, which had almost burned to its end, and threw it into the trash can. Apparently someone had already poured out alcohol into it—because, as it came into contact with the sparks, the trash ignited with a bang.
And as if he’d borrowed a bit of courage from the flames, Tang Hao kissed Zhang Jiale.
Zhang Jiale struggled, but couldn’t free himself from Tang Hao’s grasp. In the end, he bit down hard. But Tang Hao didn’t let go, even though his mouth was filled with the taste of blood.
“Zhang Jiale, I like you,” said Tang Hao.
Within Zhang Jiale’s black pupils, he saw the reflection of the burning blaze in the trash can, as if the fire had leapt to life. And then that life drowned in Zhang Jiale’s eyes, swallowed up by the tides of the night.
Zhang Jiale didn’t say a single word. He turned and walked away.
Tang Hao chased a few steps after him, but then stopped. He could see the flames still burning in the trash can, and for some unknown reason suddenly thought of the student in the past, who had watched him as he mopped the floor. As she was watching, she’d wept a trail of scalding tears, tears for which he wasn’t culpable at all.
And so this fire, too, had no connection with Zhang Jiale from start to end. It could burn and blaze into a roaring fire, and turn the whole city to ashes; but Zhang Jiale would not change. No matter how high the temperature was, the flames couldn’t make him transform. All along, he’d been like an unfeeling rock, standing still within the depths of the great fire.
From then on, after the great fire, not even a blade of grass could grow in their wasteland.