Frostbite

Chapter 15

The bowl and chopsticks originally laid out for She Xiao eventually became Lin Xigu’s tableware of choice. He reused them for every meal. It was a guilty pleasure that he couldn’t deny himself. He was always careful with them out of fear that they might accidentally crack or break.

She Xiao had used these, after all…

Lin Xigu washed and dried the bowl, carefully placing it back in the drawer in a prominent spot.

His phone buzzed in his pocket. She Xiao had finally replied to his last message.

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Lin Xigu would remind She Xiao to apply ointment to his neck every night, and that had been the last thing he asked.

Reading those three words, Lin Xigu’s mouth twitched, his heart dipped in honey. Perhaps he’d gotten better at savouring the saccharine flavours of one-sided love because whenever She Xiao spoke to him, whether in person or in text, he always felt ripe with sweetness from the inside out.

She Xiao was different now than before. The cold and heartless image he projected was eroding, his actions and expressions more animated than ever.

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Nkd Dktw nswze pvkzz alnyzz vbspl lyazu eyup obld Fbl Dkys bye pvsse, pnsozkdt, obldlhla bl dllele Nkd Dktw vs xshl swv sq bkp oyu. Tl oswze dso tldvzu dwetl Nkd Dktw’p yax obldlhla bl dllele vs pvlr swv yqvla nzypp.

Nkd Dktw oswze vlypl bkx psxlvkxlp cu ralvldekdt dsv vs wdelapvyde obyv y vswnb sd vbl yax xlydv. Tl oswze zssj yv bkx yde ypj, “Ebyv kp kv?”

Gde Fbl Dkys oswze pyu, “R dlle vs zlyhl.”

Gde Nkd Dktw oswze dse, “Xb, uwr, vbyv’p aktbv, sjyu.”

Tl oswze vbld tzyezu xyjl oyu qsa Fbl Dkys, yde pvyde swv sq vbl oyu vs zlv bkx cynj kd yp pssd yp bl pyo Fbl Dkys alvwadkdt. Nkd Dktw jdlo vbyv Fbl Dkys byvle vs prlyj, ps pkvvkdt sd vbl swvpkel oswze byhl clld xsal nsdhldkldv qsa bkx, cwv bl ayvbla zkjle vblka nwaaldv eudyxkn.

Fsxlbso, bl bye vbl pvaydtlpv qllzkdt vbyv… Fbl Dkys valyvle bkx ekqqlaldvzu vbyd lhlaucseu lzpl.

Fllkdt yp vbl svbla pvweldvp kd vblka nzypp pvkzz tsv vbl pkzldv valyvxldv qasx bkx, Nkd Dktw oyp qykazu nsdqkeldv vbyv Fbl Dkys oyp dsv vlmvkdt ydusdl lzpl lkvbla.

Mbl dktbv clqsal zypv, Fbl Dkys bye pldv yd wdlmrlnvle alrzu.

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But how could anybody sleep after receiving a message like that? Wasn’t it standard procedure to squirm around in excitement for half an hour, at the very least?

His last class had just ended and Lin Xigu found himself reliving the memory of that text again. He was jittery and decided a walk was necessary to clear his head. Otherwise, his next class was going to be another write-off. 

He made a trip to the bathroom and on his way back, he happened to pass by Class 5.

He had an aversion to Class 5. Whenever he walked by their door, he always sped up, keeping his head down. The students he had previously reported to the dean were from Class 5 and they often hung around in the hallway, much to Lin Xigu’s chagrin.

“Aren’t you that pretty boy from Class 3?” One of them spotted Lin Xigu and shot his friend a knowing look.

His friend stuck out his leg and blocked his path. 

Lin Xigu looked at him coolly. “Bored much?”

“Yo, and he’s mouthy too.” They quickly surrounded Lin Xigu. Someone even patted his shoulder.

“Only when it’s deserved,” Lin Xigu said, turning to the person who had patted him.

The boy in the middle, Wang Biao, was the one who had spoken first and he leered at Lin Xigu. “So you’re She Xiao’s tongzhuo? Didn’t know anyone could stand to be around a fuckwit like him.”

Lin Xigu could not tolerate anybody insulting She Xiao. Words directed against She Xiao were no different than stab wounds. He furrowed his brow, his voice cold. “You should tell that to your tongzhuo instead. I’m sure he could empathize.”

With that, he pushed through the boys blocking his way without looking back.

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In actuality, the skinheads weren’t interested in bullying Lin Xigu. He was never their original target and at most, they only gave him a little cheek every time they saw him because his tattling had landed them in trouble with the school.

To them, Lin Xigu was a good kid who stayed out of trouble. It was fine to thumb their noses at him every now and then, but there was no real fun in picking on him or doing anything too out-of-line; he was too much of a square for that.

Lin Xigu stormed back to his seat where he seethed in sullen silence. She Xiao turned to look at him. His gaze was still trained on him ten seconds later. Lin Xigu could feel him staring. No matter how upset he was, She Xiao’s attention never failed to make him want to smile. He turned and flashed She Xiao a brief smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes.

She Xiao was blatantly standoffish and wasn’t the type of person who went around picking fights. Why couldn’t everyone else just leave him alone? He felt sickened just thinking about the malice those people channeled towards She Xiao. His disgust deepened as his mind turned to the many injuries that would appear on She Xiao’s face and neck every so often.

But his train of thought was suddenly interrupted by a seismic event. 

Their newest desk neighbour in the row ahead was a plump boy who could fill an entire aisle by himself. He required ample space to move in and out of his seat, otherwise he was at risk of running into their desks like he had, with a loud bang.

“My bad, it was an accident.” The plump boy’s name was Dong Xuan. He was very proactive with his apologies but never seemed to learn from his mistakes. Lin Xigu was easygoing most of the time, but he always reminded Dong Xuan to step carefully whenever he tried to stand while She Xiao was napping,

Although he did secretly want to see She Xiao’s eyes rimmed in red, the way they often were when he was woken from sleep, he never had the heart to allow it.  

“No worries.” Lin Xigu shifted his desk back to allow for more room in the front. 

“My weight is the real tragedy of the commons.” Dong Xuan said glumly. 

“Don’t say it to them, say it to my face.” His tongzhuo pointed down at his chair with a grave expression. “I’ll become part of the radiator if you shift any more to the left.”

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Dong Xuan moved his chair the other way, unable to contain his laughter. “One of me’s probably worth two of you. It must be hard on you too, sharing desks with me.”

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“It was fated to be.” His tongzhuo massaged his face wearily and quickly moved his books closer to the boundary between their two desks before Dong Xuan had a chance to scooch his chair back.

Lin Xigu was greatly amused by their antics, gradually leaving his gloomy thoughts behind. She Xiao had resumed writing his math homework. The late afternoon sun was low in the western sky, its gentle rays slanting across She Xiao’s body, his edges soft and bathed in sunlight. 

Lin Xigu admired the scene before him and sighed. There was truly nothing better than being seated next to a young Adonis. 

There were still two more classes to go. Lin Xigu had started looking forward to the last bell after his recent discovery that taking a detour home placed him on the same homeward route as She Xiao. 

Although this new route was by no means a shortcut, the added travel time was a worthy trade-off for the twenty minutes he got to spend with She Xiao for that shared stretch of their respective commutes.

The street on this new route did not see much foot traffic. The first time Lin Xigu had taken this path, he could only muster the courage to follow She Xiao from behind, his eyes trained on his silhouette. But She Xiao had set too brisk a pace and he’d struggled to keep up.

She Xiao couldn’t ignore the fact that he was being followed. Glancing over his shoulder, he had been taken aback when he saw Lin Xigu.

Lin Xigu had also been caught off-guard, not expecting She Xiao to suddenly turn around. He’d struggled to come up with a sensible explanation for why he was there without sounding too performative or nervous. For a while, the two of them had simply stood there, staring at each other. 

She Xiao spoke at last, breaking the silence. “Going somewhere?”

”Going home!” Lin Xigu answered quickly, running up to She Xiao. “The main road’s too dusty and it’s always backed up, so I figured I’d take a different way back. It looks like we’re going the same way? What a coincidence…”

She Xiao had nodded.

From that day on, Lin Xigu had the pleasure of sharing twenty minutes of his daily walk with She Xiao. Most of their walks proceeded in silence, because he often ran out of things to chatter about; the number of topics suited for a one-sided conversation was unsurprisingly limited.

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Lin Xigu packed up his backpack as soon as he heard the last bell, and stood off to one side, waiting for She Xiao.

He always made sure he was the first one ready at all times. He didn’t know whether She Xiao would leave without him if he were slow to put away his things and didn’t want to chance it.

After leaving from the main gate, they still had to walk a ways down a bustling street before turning onto the quieter side street. They made a habit of walking along the innermost edge, seeing as She Xiao disliked crowds and always reacted strongly to pedestrians brushing past him. Lin Xigu knew this about him, so he always kept to his left, shielding She Xiao from others sharing the sidewalk.

“The weather’s getting chilly,” Lin Xigu rubbed his hands together and stuffed them deep into his pockets. “You need to wear more layers. Can’t just wear short sleeves anymore. I’m shivering even with my coat on.”

”I’m not cold,” She Xiao said.

“How are you not cold? Your hands are always freezing.” Lin Xigu recalled the coolness of She Xiao’s fingers, even on a hot summer day. 

”Not cold.” She Xiao reiterated.

Lin Xigu had exhausted the topic of weather in fewer than three sentences. He didn’t want to nag so he retreated into silence for the remainder of the walk. As they drew nearer to his home, Lin Xigu said, “Don’t forget to put ointment on when you get home so your neck doesn’t scar. If you end up with a scar there, others will stare, and that will make you uncomfortable.”

He was telling the truth, which was why he reminded She Xiao to apply ointment every night like a broken record. That wound was frightening, looking too much like a botched decapitation.

She Xiao gently acquiesced. “Okay.”

“Then tomorrow, I…” Lin Xigu was almost too embarrassed to ask, but he reminded himself that it was for the benefit of starting every day on the right foot. He gritted his teeth against the discomfort. “I’ll wait for you here tomorrow morning? Let’s also walk to school together… yeah?”

She Xiao’s reply came quickly as he nodded without a moment’s hesitation. ”Okay.”

The double “okay” was strangely wonderful. Had She Xiao not been standing right in front of him, Lin Xigu might have bounced a little. 

“Then I’ll see you tomorrow!” Lin Xigu could hardly control his elation. He beamed as he waved to She Xiao. “See you in the morning! I’ll make sure I leave the house early!”

As Lin Xigu turned the corner, he wanted to reward himself 10 points for his stroke of genius. With both trips to and from school accounted for, he was going to be spending a whole extra forty minutes with She Xiao every day. 

Forty whole minutes! It was practically an hour, and what a precious almost-hour it would be. 


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