55 The Return Journey
I know I’m not fickle-minded but, Gao Qi, neither have I ever forgotten that I was the murderer who killed you. Even if I have no recollection of that moment, I could still remember the wave of panic and helplessness when I first saw Gaoqin Jiuye. I can’t define it exactly… Just like how I feel towards you, Gao Qi.
Those numerous meetings atop our school roof when you—the popular you, who captured everybody’s attention—would willingly give me the time of day just to listen quietly as I recited Faust. I was barely audible even to myself.
“The demon Mephisto said, ‘this world is an abyss of misery and it will never change.’”
Gao Qi, if you’re still here… Would you remember that day? You tilted your head and all the warmth of the sky melted in your eyes. You smiled at me, then said, “Ah Shen, if this world’s really just an abyss of misery, what do you think is the most miserable of all?”
I don’t blush, not even when you looked at me with that smile of yours but I would drop my gaze timidly, as though direct eye contact with you was enough to swallow my sight. It was why I had the tendency of lowering my eyes and the habit of talking to you in whispers.
That time wasn’t any different either, when all I could manage was a soft mumble. “I guess… it’ll be loneliness.”
And as always, you said, “That’s a great answer.”
I used to get tired about the definition of time and love in romance novels, but I believed in them nonetheless. Throughout countless meetings with you by my side on that roof, I had always hoped for time to freeze into eternity. Instead, I ended your eternity and in that, I’ve ended my own.
Now, I’m faced with another you.
Actually, Gao Qi, what do I have to complain about? Wouldn’t I be able to share my forever with you if we’re both here?
Even if Gaoqin Jiuye isn’t really you, I could tell myself that it was fine. Murdering you isn’t something I could convince myself that it’s fine, but what if the split zone was really giving me the opportunity to start over? Whatever four districts of this world, there will still be no one better than you in my heart.
Except… Is there really no one else?
If loneliness is truly the most tragic in this abyss of misery, then who is the loneliest out of us? Is it me—the ostracized, mentally-ill loner—or you, the popular senior who felt like no one understood despite being surrounded by thousands of others?
Or perhaps it is…
Somehow, during the serene darkness of tonight and the rare chance I had to reminisce about Gao Qi, the moment was inadvertently interrupted by another.
Perhaps it is… Nie Zun.
As expected, you are the loneliest, right?
Unable to understand my true feelings, unable to comprehend the bond I have with Nie Zun, I slowly opened my eyes. As it turns out, Nie Zun wasn’t sleeping at all. His lean but strong body was slouched against his favorite wall with both hands tucked into the pockets of his windbreaker, and his gaze was cast towards the ground.
I wondered what was on his mind.
In the dark, I scrutinized the silhouette of Nie Zun from head to toe.
His fine bangs drooped over his forehead, covering the idle, indifferent eyes of his that seemed to coat with loneliness. His head was lowered and the collar to his windbreaker was pulled up high, hiding his sharp chin within its confines.
I couldn’t put my finger on it, but the longer I looked at him, the more foreign he felt to me. It was like watching a stranger I’ve never met. An surreal sense of solitude surrounded him, blurring into my vision.
Nie Zun… if the world is an abyss of misery, would you need to be saved? Why do you always act as though you don’t need saving? Why does that other identity of mine resonate with you? No matter how much I’ve searched for an answer, we still have nothing in common apart from our loneliness. Could it be that you were once ostracized too?
Even so, you’re so much stronger than me and I’m truly envious of you. I’m jealous of the way you don’t seem to care about anything.
I really want to know if you have something you care about too.
As I stared at Nie Zun in the dark, that question rippled in my heart. While I couldn’t explain the reason behind this sudden curiosity, it felt strangely logical at the same time. At that moment, as if he had heard the words spoken in my heart, Nie Zun lifted his head suddenly.
His bright and indifferent eyes swept over to me casually yet seemingly deliberate. He met my eyes which had widened in shock by his abrupt movement. It was as if everything went without saying, like he understood all of it. Looking at me, a corner of his lips lifted slightly; an indecipherable smile spilled, flowing into my sight.
What are you thinking about? His eyes seemed to question.
Then… I averted my gaze. What about you? What are you thinking about?
“What are the two of you doing, exchanging affectionate looks instead of sleeping?” The hoarse and deep voice of Jiao S sounded from above me.
Startled by the intrusion, I was yanked back into reality. I tilted my head up to see Jiao S hanging down from the edge of the top bunk, her straight hair cascading down from the side of the bed, a pair of hollow eyes flitting from me to Nie Zun.
“Can you not scare others like that?” I rolled my eyes and straightened my back, trying to get into a more comfortable position.
Jiao S actually smiled for a moment; that rigid face of hers was still strange, but she seemed to be smiling a lot more these days and I’ve begun to grow accustomed to them.
“Seriously though, the two of you better get some rest. We don’t know what awaits us tomorrow. Eastern District may be faring better; after all, I still have the S Clan. Western District has already fallen into the hands of the enemy, and you are still awake? Hurry up and rest so you can head back to regroup.” Looking towards Nie Zun, she continued, “You too, Nie Zun, get some rest soon.”
Nie Zun was surprisingly compliant. Nodding his head, he laid on the floor with a simple, “Alright.”
I was taken aback. My gaze drifted from Nie Zun, who was already lying on his back with his eyes closed, to Jiao S who still had the slightest hint of a smile on her face. It has been a long time since I felt a rush of affection and for some reason, the sight warmed my heart tonight.
I smiled back. “Alright, I’m going to sleep now.”
I managed to have a peaceful night of sleep without dreams and had just woken up when Jie Pa knocked on our door. Jiao S and Nie Zun were both awake.
“There are still three hours till daybreak, should we hurry on to the boundary lines?” Jie Pa asked while he made his way in. “What should we do about Mr Huan Qing though, do we bring him along?”
“Is Guan Nie watching over them now? Neither of them woke up?” I asked, rubbing the sleep from my eyes.
Jie Pa nodded. “They are still unconscious and from what I can tell, they probably will be for a long while. Mr Yu Liang is still missing, so it may be better that Ms Song Lu doesn’t wake. She will be devastated if she finds out that we are retreating without searching for him.”
Sitting on the bed, I couldn’t help the slight jerk of my fingers when I processed Jie Pa’s words. It will definitely be a difficult task heading back to the district; Nie Zun and I will have to protect Jie Pa, along with the unconscious Song Lu and Huan Qing. Once Jiao S and Guan Nie part with us at the Eastern District, the two of us will have the sole responsibility of keeping the three of them safe. I’m afraid that our ability may fall short of our ambitions, but if we don’t try then I will never know what is going on in the Western District.
Besides, Old Man Fan is missing too.
Jiao S lowered her head in deep contemplation before speaking up. “How about this, Li Shen. Seeing as the current situation has made both retreat or advance difficult, why don’t we adopt a tactic of neither?
“While I’m sure my Eastern District must have lost quite a few lives as the situation stands, I can still trust in S Clan’s loyalty towards me. Since we are allies in this, I won’t just sit idly by you and your companions’ plight. So, how about this: come back to the Eastern District with me, I will gather the right people and we will decide what to do from there.”
Noting my silence, she continued, “I know you’re worried about the Western District and all that you hold dear, but your district may be suffering persecution by now. All around us are pitfalls waiting to drag us down; we really have no other option. We’ll be worried if you returned to the Western District too.
“Li Shen, you know what kind of place the split zone is, you don’t have time to take care of everyone. This is not the world we came from. Here, you have to learn to abandon them when you must because even if you don’t, they won’t survive in the long run if they don’t learn to protect themselves. You don’t even have time to protect yourself, much less their forever.”
Nie Zun looked at me, his eyes flowing with an ink-black radiance. “She’s right. I know you’re worried about Old Man Fan, but you can’t even save yourself now.”
In a baffling way, I felt dispirited by their words. It wasn’t like I had thought that much about it, but could it be that I had made my concerns this apparent? Burying my face in my hands, I conceded. “Fine, fine, fine. I’ll listen; I’ll do whatever you think I should do.”
Jie Pa cut in, “Ms Jiao S, will you be able to use your whirlwind to transport both Mr Huang Qing and Ms Song Lu at the same time?”
Jiao S didn’t answer his question immediately. Instead, she asked, “Why do you address everyone so formally?”
My lips curled upwards at once, my eyes held a teasing glint. “No no no, Nie Zun’s the only exception to that.”
Jie Pa straightened up, lifting his hand to adjust his glasses then spoke in his usual, respectful manner. “That’s because I’m a gentleman.”
Though Jie Pa was indeed a gentleman, but I couldn’t help doing a spit-take as I watched such a composed person sing their own praises.
Jiao S smiled rigidly but I have learnt by now that these smiles came from the bottom of her heart. She waved a hand, “I’ll go ahead and place those two unconscious people in my whirlwind, but this means that I’ll need your protection on this journey back. After all, I’ll have to spend a lot of MF to support them.”
Tch, tch… Jiao S’ coquettish behaviour was honestly unsettling.
Eventually, our discussion concluded and we left the academy in preparation to depart for Eastern District. Before we left, Jie Pa carefully stored a bottle with the huge beetle in his bag.
Walking along the Southern District in broad daylight, it was only natural that we would attract quite a bit of attention. After all, we have a ‘beauty’ like Guan Nie, Nie Zun in all his Dark Lord glory, along with Jiao S’ Sadako cosplay.
Of course, if one must attest that I am equally attention-grabbing, then it must be due to my beauty and not those bright red hair or skirt of mine. (Passerby A flew backwards from the impact of my kick before he could get a word in.)