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During the Snowstorm

10.5

The Return of the Glory

52

The sky had plunged into darkness, and a gentle breeze slipped through the slightly ajar window, causing the curtain to cling to the wall. Through the sheer fabric, the contours of the window were faintly discernible, illuminated by the soft glow of moonlight and streetlights beyond.

 

She rested her head on his arm, looking up at him, seeing the curve of his jaw and the Adam's apple that signified his masculinity. Suddenly, she thought of the box of blades in the bathroom, the sharp, paper-thin silver edges tracing over the skin, imagining the scruffy, unkempt look of his beard.

 

She had sneaked off to Washington on his birthday, waiting in the billiard room. When Lin Yi Yang arrived, fresh from the elevator, he was completely disheveled and unshaven for a month due to busyness. Everyone even teased him to kiss her to show the joy of seeing his heart's desire descending from the heavens. As a result, all those who teased were thoroughly scolded by him.

 

He wasn't a particularly expressive person; even amid the roomful of laughter, they didn't even embrace, but she could tell he was delighted.

 

...

 

"Lin Lin talked to me once during the training camp," she recalled something.

 

Lin Lin, aware of Lin Yi Yang and Yin Guo's relationship, feared the couple might overly trust external measures and end up with an accident affecting the World Championship. She privately chatted with Yin Guo, even sharing her own experience of getting caught off guard. At the time, Yin Guo was ablaze with curiosity, but given one was Lin Yi Yang's childhood friend and the other her brother, gossiping about them felt awkward... so she kept it as a secret.

 

Concerning Lin Lin's privacy, Yin Guo didn't want to go into detail with Lin Yi Yang but circled around to ask, "Has she ever liked anyone else? Besides my brother?"

 

Lin Yi Yang, leaning against the headboard, shook his head: "I don't think so."

 

Though they hadn't been in touch much in the past, judging by the atmosphere between Lin Lin and Meng Xiaodong that day and his understanding of Lin Lin, she probably still had feelings for Meng Xiaodong. Lin Lin was decisive; if she truly moved on, she would have completely cut off contact.

 

"Do you think... my brother's lack of form over the past year could be related to emotional issues?"

 

"No," he was familiar with his old rival. He wouldn't be that fragile.

 

"Since he was nineteen, he always advanced directly in open competitions, never playing in qualifiers. But he had to for the European Masters Cup because he fell out of the top sixteen, and I heard he was upset about it for over half a month."

 

Yin Guo was brought into the field by Meng Xiaodong. Despite their not-so-close contact due to Meng Xiaodong's personality, she deeply cared for him and worried about his downturn.

 

Last year was just turbulent, but this year, his performance has been declining, with the best result being the semi-finals of the recently concluded China Open, only sparked by Lin Yi Yang's aggressive performance.

 

Lin Yi Yang touched her hair: "It will pass."

 

"My brother is younger than you; he should still have a chance, right? If he really goes downhill, I'm afraid he won't take it well."

 

Meng Xiaodong started playing since he was seven and has always been the most dazzling player among his peers. For over a decade, his entire life has revolved around snooker—22 balls, cues, and tables...

 

She couldn't imagine him retiring and didn't even dare to think about it.

 

Lin Yi Yang objectively told her: "In this profession, effort doesn't always equate to reward. No matter how good the achievements, the future is always uncertain. It's just a matter of sooner or later, whether one can handle it or not."

 

Having experienced both highs and lows, Lin Yi Yang's words carried weight but were also harsh.

 

Her heart sank.

 

Seeing her silent for a long time, he sensed he might have been too stern. After a half-minute of self-reflection, thinking his little girlfriend seemed interested in Lin Lin and Meng Xiaodong's past, he mentioned, "Lin Lin will help him."

 

Her interest was piqued by his sudden mention.

 

"Lin Lin once told your brother she loves watching him maintain a straight face, prettier than a girl's, as he crushes opponents until they cry, without even a smile, that infuriating look."

 

He concluded, "If Meng Xiaodong still has her in his heart, he'll pick himself up."

 

Yin Guo was intrigued: "Tell me more about them."

 

Lin Yi Yang smiled: "That's all."

 

"You always say you don't know, but you actually know a lot," she wasn't ready to let him off after just getting her appetite whetted, "Think about it more. I'm sure you'll remember something."

 

He shook his head: "I'll tell you when I remember."

 

Just then, there was some noise outside.

 

"An An is awake," Lin Yi Yang changed the subject.

 

Coinciding with him, a knock came: "Are you awake?"

 

"Just woke up," he replied.

 

"Last time I came, Jiang Yang mentioned a billiard hall nearby? Where is it? I should go train."

 

Lin Yi Yang answered, "Wait a bit, let's go together."

 

With Chen Anán awake, it wasn't appropriate for them to linger in bed any longer.

 

They tidied the bed and dressed. While dressing, he told her, "Right after the World Nine-ball Championship ends, An'an is retiring. This place marks his last open competition."

 

So soon? Chen An'an was about the same age as him, not yet thirty... but indeed, his recent performance hadn't been stellar, lagging behind the younger players.

 

"Keep it quiet when we go out," he stroked her hair.

 

"Okay."

 

This trip to the U.S. was partly to accompany Yin Guo and partly for Chen An'an.

 

The kid was stubborn, his performance not outstanding, so he focused solely on competitions and the club.

 

Whether in domestic or international competitions, he always went straight from training to the hotel, not wanting to waste the club's money. The moment a competition ended, he was among the first to return home. Thus, even though he had been here last year, it was all about training and hotels, occasionally visiting this apartment to see Lin Yi Yang.

 

Lin Yi Yang thought, taking the chance of this last open competition to hang out with him.

 

Being the elder brother, the younger brother wouldn't dare refuse.

 

After dinner, they went to the billiard hall for training.

 

Returning after a year, she couldn't help but glance at every familiar corner as she descended the stairs.

 

Lin Yi Yang had been living in this apartment for a year, naturally practicing in this billiard hall, so the private room he frequently used had a snooker table installed just for him, reserved for his use throughout the year.

 

Yin Guo and Chen An'an each practiced on one of the two nine-ball tables in a private room.

 

As a practice partner, Lin Yi Yang appeared utterly relaxed and thoroughly enjoying himself. He still loved this lifestyle, reserving a table for his girlfriend and friend to practice. At the same time, he kept company, occasionally stepping out to play a few games with others. Grabbing a bucket of beer, champions, national winners, or amateurs all mixed together, freely sharing advice, guzzling drinks, and cracking jokes in a straightforward and pure manner.

 

That night, Yin Guo saw the Lin Yi Yang she had missed for so long.

 

He resembled the man she saw in Flushing that night, dressed in a black cotton casual top, trousers, sports shoes, holding a public cue in an obscure little billiard room, acting like an unknown master.

 

This was the man unconstrained by rules, the talented man who enjoyed playing billiards and living life, regardless of the competition or prize money.

 

"How good it is for him to be so free," Chen An'an commented next to Yin Guo, becoming unusually talkative after a few beers, "The uncontrollable Lin Yi Yang is truly himself."

 

She agreed, "The first time I saw him play was in another Chinese billiard room. That day, he was very arrogant, telling a well-known regional champion—come at me, let me see your strength."

 

She still remembered him holding a cue, juggling a ball, talking to his opponent with his back to her.

 

Chen An'an laughed upon hearing this, holding a brown glass bottle, and continued to reflect, "He's a contradictory person. On one hand, he's carefree, ready to give up anything; on the other, he's deeply loyal, which can sometimes tie him down."

But isn't everyone contradictory? People are multifaceted.

 

After a pause, Chen An'an suddenly said, "Sometimes I think, if we hadn't appeared, it wouldn't be bad for him to stay here."

 

"You don't want him to go back?" She thought everyone from Dongxin City who came last year had the same goal—to persuade Lin Yi Yang to return to China.

 

Chen An'an shook his head.

 

After a while, he added, "Jiang Yang wants him to go back, to take over Dongxin City."

 

To take over Dongxin City?

 

Yin Guo glanced at the man by the snooker table in the distance, who was exchanging tips with a white-haired elderly enthusiast. The elderly man was just a hobbyist, not on Lin Yi Yang's technical level, yet keen on asking questions. Lin Yi Yang, serious in his explanations, seemed to be both playing and teaching.

 

"He didn't agree?" Yin Guo asked softly.

 

She guessed he must have refused; if he had agreed, he would have told her.

 

"Right, he didn't agree."

 

Chen An'an paused, as if he had much to say but, due to his usual lack of communication with women, eventually returned to discussing the past, "Among us, only he and Jiang Yang were Master He's disciples. The others had their mentors. My mentor left in my second year at Dongxin City when I was in the seventh grade, with average talent. No other mentors wanted to take me... But I didn't want to leave, I wanted to continue playing, there was no way to stay without a mentor."

 

Yin Guo guessed, "He asked Master He to help?"

 

Chen An'an laughed, shaking his head, "He told the people at Dongxin City that, since he was a champion, he would teach me. The things he said were so arrogant that he offended several Dongxin City mentors, accused of being disrespectful and spoiled by Master He, daring to say and do anything."

 

Without Lin Yi Yang's proud insistence, Chen An'an would have changed careers long ago, leading to a different life path. Maybe it would have been better, maybe not as good as now, but certainly without any connection to billiards.

 

"Chen An'an, a person who doesn't sugarcoat, lives by the philosophy that being strong oneself is the true strength, disliking the pretenses of social networking. When you're doing well, you won't see him cozying up; it's when everyone else has left during your tough times that you'll find him still by your side."

 

Lin Yi Yang beckoned her to step outside for a breath of fresh air.

 

Yin Guo placed her cue on the rack and quickly followed him up the stairs through the crowd.

 

The scaffolding outside the billiard hall was still up, surprising her. She grabbed Lin Yi Yang's hand and looked up, "What are they fixing? It's been a year and it's still not down."

 

He laughed, who knows?

 

Lin Yi Yang held a pack of cigarettes from the hall owner. Feeling good, he leaned against the doorway, watching the street scene, tapping the bottom of the pack to slide out a cigarette, lighting it with a lighter, and taking a puff.

 

The faint smoke dispersed into the night. Squinting through the smoke at her, he remained silent until it vanished.

 

"Drunk?" Her hand waved in front of his face.

 

This amount of alcohol could barely make him tipsy.

 

"Look there." Suddenly, he grabbed Yin Guo's wrist, pulling her arm and embracing her from behind, the hand with the cigarette pointing towards the next street corner.

 

An ice cream truck was parked there.

 

She knew he was about to treat her again...

 

"So, being nice to someone is just feeding them good food?"

 

That seemed about right.

 

Having lost his parents early, initially without close relatives, it was just him and his brother. Scaring, beating, and buying food were the only strategies that were quite effective. In the beginning, life was hard. He had to attend school, go to the billiard hall, and transport his brother to and from kindergarten by bike. Living wasn't easy; eating something delicious was a huge joy.

 

Getting into the spirit, he quickly finished the cigarette, pulling out his wallet from his pocket.

 

Chen An'an came out, also receiving an ice cream, one for him and Yin Guo.

 

"For a grown man," Chen An'an, a rugged guy holding an ice cream cone, "to buy me this..."

 

He chuckled to Yin Guo, "When we were kids, he always took his brother around. He only knew three tricks: scare, beat, and buy food. Seems he's gone straight to the third trick with you; he doesn't know any other."

 

Yin Guo laughed, "Right, right, he loves treating people to meals. That's how he wooed me."

 

"The little junior sister from Beijing still needs someone to treat her to a meal?" Chen An'an smiled.

 

She smiled back. Not really lacking, but no one compared to him. Not even close.

 

A man carrying all he had, planning to take you here and there to eat, wishing to spend his last penny on a vintage wine from the year you were born. No one can compare to such a person.

 

Lin Yi Yang lit another cigarette, watching them finish their ice cream like watching children. Inside, someone ordered a few more buckets of beer, loudly asking, "Lin, are you covering the bill until midnight?"

 

Leaning there, Lin Yi Yang laughed in response, "Until dawn tomorrow, no matter how much they drink, I'll buy it all."

 

The enthusiastic cheers and thanks made Lin Yi Yang feel even better. Noticing two homeless people also watching, he tossed them the half-pack of cigarettes he had: "Enjoy."

 

The continuous exclamations of "Amazing" from the homeless people further lifted everyone's spirits.

 

Yin Guo stood to his left, and he to her right. He smoked, watching her.

 

Captured by his gaze, she took two steps towards him, arms wrapping around his neck. Lin Yi Yang looked down at her, his dark pupils intense but contained.

 

He leaned down on this street corner, where he first embraced her, beside the busy road filled with cars and pedestrians. Concerned she might dislike the smell of smoke, he kissed the corner of her mouth, his tongue briefly intertwining with hers before quickly pulling away.

 

Then, he softly commented with a smile, "The ice cream wasn't bad."

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