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During the Snowstorm

9.2

The Day of the Return of the King

77

The smell of Lin Yi Yang's cologne on his T-shirt acted like a tranquilizer that gradually calmed Yin Guo's racing heart.

 

After releasing her from their tight embrace, he looked at her and noticed her reddened nose and eyes. "You seem to have blossomed and become even more beautiful. I didn't dare to recognize you directly when I first came out," he complimented her.

 

Though she knew he was flattering her, she still felt gratified. After gazing at each other for a few seconds, his eyes shifted from her red forehead, which had been pressed tightly against him moments ago, to the group of brothers standing behind her.

 

Jiang Yang chuckled from behind Yin Guo and said, "You two catch up. We've met a few times before, so we don't need to catch up anymore."

 

"Right," Wu Wei chimed in, "It's An'an who hasn't had the chance to meet up since she came back from the United States. And Lin Lin, we haven't seen him in ages, have we?"

 

Lin Lin folded her arms and peeked at Lin Yi Yang from behind the group of men. "You haven't changed much," she commented. "Okay, I've seen enough. You guys continue."

 

The group laughed and willingly made space for the young couple to chat.

 

Only Chen An'an was calculating their schedules seriously: "The itinerary is so tight; you and sister-in-law haven't had much chance to catch up, have you?"

 

Chen An'an regarded Yin Guo as her sister-in-law and turned her gaze toward her after speaking.

 

Yin Guo sighed and said, "Yeah, we haven't been able to meet much. My brother has seen him more times than I have."

 

Over the past year, Lin Yi Yang and Yin Guo had both been competing in their respective fields, which felt like they were living in parallel worlds.

 

As athletes, they had their own unique set of competitions and sponsor systems, much like Formula 1 drivers and golfers. Their lives revolved around registering for as many approved tournaments as possible, earning prize money, and accumulating points.

 

Since snooker and nine-ball are not under the same association, with one originating from the UK and the other from the US, they don't share the same ranking system. Therefore, no matter which tournaments Lin Yi Yang participated in, it had no impact on Yin Guo's career.

 

The only thing that intersects their lives is that Lin Yi Yang still plays nine-ball. However, his participation is limited to local tournaments in the US and regional events in different states, which are entirely unrelated to Yin Guo. It's similar to Yin Guo participating in domestic or provincial games, which are only for internal purposes and do not provide external exposure.

 

Of course, there are mixed tournaments that can be quite complicated, with various issues such as lack of recognition by the association, exclusion from ranking, poor management, or low prize money. As Lin Yi Yang and Yin Guo already have high rankings on the global leaderboard, they usually do not participate in such competitions.

 

Nonetheless, since Lin Yi Yang has returned to China, they might have opportunities to train and compete in major competitions requiring national team representation. It also depends on whether both of them can join the national team.

But for now, everything remains in the future.

 

***

 

Jiang Yang had arranged for a car to pick them up, and everyone made their way toward the underground parking lot after leaving the airport.

 

The elevator was cramped with people, and Sun Yao had wheeled in a large luggage cart, which made Lin Yi Yang worried that it was overloaded. So, he and Yin Guo decided to take another elevator.

 

Although Yin Guo wanted to discuss something with Lin Yi Yang, she knew she couldn't stay out overnight due to the club's rules. Hence, she planned to bring it up after everyone was in the car. However, before the elevator could reach the ground floor, Yin Guo was surprised to see her cousin waiting there.

 

She wondered how he had managed to find her at the airport.

 

Meng Xiaodong had hired a coach overseas for training and competitions, so she hadn't seen him in a while. The sight of him standing in the parking lot in casual clothes, with the smell of gasoline mixed with water vapor surrounding them, startled her.

 

It was already past three in the morning, and Yin Guo could feel her cousin's gaze focused on something behind her.

 

Curious, Yin Guo turned around to see what he was looking at and noticed that Lin Lin and Chen Anan hadn't made it onto the elevator with them. They were stuck behind the group and had to take the next one, which was about ten floors below. Lin Lin, who was taller than most girls and had a striking appearance, had left a deep impression on Yin Guo when she saw her at a competition in Hangzhou.

 

Yin Guo couldn't help but think about the saying of the "Twin Lin" of Dongxincheng, as they both had unforgettable faces. As they grew older, praising their good looks felt too simple and shallow, there was an air of grace and charm mixed in.

 

When Meng Xiaodong looked at Lin Lin, she didn't dodge his gaze and smiled slightly, asking him, "Did you come to pick up your sister?"

 

"Yep," replied Meng Xiaodong, his gaze fixed on Lin Lin, "How are you? Your body?"

 

"I'm fine," answered Lin Lin.

 

Yin Guo noticed Meng Xiaodong's furrowed brow and took an extra glance at Lin Lin's waist. Her cousin's gaze reminded her to pay attention to the high-waisted short-sleeved white lamb leather jacket that Lin Lin was wearing. It revealed a hint of skin, not easily noticeable unless one looked closely.

 

In her heart, Yin Guo suspected that Lin Yi Yang and Wu Wei had left out some important details in the story they shared that one morning.

 

After that brief exchange, Meng Xiaodong gestured for everyone to hurry up. "If we don't leave now, my mom will call me again," he explained to Lin Yi Yang. "I had originally arranged for the club's driver to pick her up, but I was worried he might see the flight number and realize the time was wrong. So I came myself."

 

It was clear that Meng Xiaodong wanted to emphasize that he was there for his sister. Lin Lin replied lightly, "You're her older cousin, so it's normal for you to come to pick her up."

 

"Yes," Meng Xiaodong paused for a moment and then added, "Normal."

 

After this sentence, there was no more communication between Meng Xiaodong and Lin Lin.

 

The tense atmosphere made Yin Guo feel like they were the main focus of the moment. Lin Lin had just returned from overseas, and Meng Xiaodong was there to pick her up, making them the center of attention. Yin Guo and Lin Yi Yang had become mere bystanders.

 

Feeling pressured to leave, Yin Guo took Lin Yi Yang's hand and explained, "I have to go back now. My family doesn't allow me to stay out late."

 

Despite the fact that it was already morning and they wouldn't arrive home until daylight, breaking the rules was not an option.

 

Lin Yi Yang noticed Yin Guo stayed home except for competitions, so her need to leave early didn't surprise him. He suggested to Meng Xiaodong, "Why don't you two catch up for a bit."

 

Then, he took Yin Guo's hand and led her to a quieter area by the side of the road.

 

Finding a secluded spot in the underground parking lot of the airport was challenging. Except for fewer people and cars at night, it was similar to any other day. Elevators had a constant flow of passengers, and lanes were filled with vehicles, including private and official cars, driving in queues. The only way for them to have some privacy was to avoid Meng Xiaodong's group and speak whispered words in a quieter spot.

 

Yin Guo cast her eyes on Lin Yi Yang's hair, which had grown longer since the last time they met. On his birthday, he had shaved his head and looked like a character straight out of a prison drama. But now, with his long hair gently swaying in the night breeze, he looked much better.

 

As she reflected on it further, Yin Guo thought this hairstyle suited Lin Yi Yang's personality better. After all, wearing shirts and trousers for competitions felt too uncomfortable for him.

 

Although Lin Yi Yang tried to conceal it, Yin Guo could sense his streetwise aura developed through various experiences and deeply ingrained in his being. Despite burying this part of himself under layers of books, he remained a vibrant man at heart.

 

Without a word, Yin Guo reached for the zipper on his black short-sleeved shirt and saw the handwritten Saint Laurent in white. As expected, it was the one she had given him this year. She had carried the white one in her suitcase all this while.

 

"What are you up to?" he asked with a knowing smile, catching her in the act of pulling down his zipper when they were alone.

 

Feeling embarrassed and flustered by his teasing, Yin Guo tried to fix his zipper again. But then, she heard him say, "Don't tell your family about me. Give me some time."

 

"I haven't mentioned you at all, and my brother also suggested keeping it a secret," she whispered. "I was afraid you would be upset, so I didn't tell you directly."

 

Before she could finish her sentence, he cupped her face with both hands, interrupting her. Their eyes met, and Yin Guo's heart raced as if they had never been intimate before. He held her face gently. Their eyes locked, and their breaths became shallow.

 

As Yin Guo stood by the roadside, cars zoomed past on the right lane, spewing out exhaust fumes that filled the air. The noise was deafening, but Lin Yi Yang's voice was clear as he spoke to her. "Can we meet tomorrow?"

 

"Tomorrow, the family will have to go together to sweep the graves. Many people are expected to come," she replied, her tone apologetic.

 

They fell into silence, the air thick with unspoken words. Lin Yi Yang leaned his forehead against hers, the pressure of his touch causing her heart to race. Suddenly, he lowered his head and whispered something, but he just smiled before she could grasp his words.

 

Yin Guo couldn't shake off the memory of that final smile as she got into her cousin's car and buckled her seatbelt. She replayed their conversation in her head, wondering if her words had been inadequate. Lin Yi Yang's smile, however, seemed to hold a deeper meaning, one that she couldn't decipher.

 

As Yin Guo got to know Lin Yi Yang more, she began to notice even the smallest, intricate details that were once hidden from her view.

 

Meng Xiaodong preferred not to chat while driving, and the brief encounter with Lin Yi Yang left little room for conversation. The car cruised down the empty airport highway, the only sound being the hum of the engine. After a while, Yin Guo's mind wandered to a practical matter, and she messaged Lin Yi Yang on WeChat to ask for his advice.

 

Lin Li Guo: Where are you staying tonight?

 

Lin: I rented a place but haven't had time to clean it up. We'll just have to make do for the night.

 

Lin: Everyone's there, so I doubt we'll be getting much sleep.

 

Lin Li Guo: Want to grab a drink tonight?

 

Lin: Maybe not.

 

Lin Li Guo: Drink less.

 

Recalling the last time he got drunk, Yin Guo was still frightened.

 

Lin: Okay.

 

Lin Li Guo: I was so nervous when I saw you earlier. It felt like we were just starting to date.

 

Lin: :)

 

Lin: Same here.

 

"Zongzong..." Suddenly, a voice broke the silence in the car. It was Meng Xiaodong, who had just turned off the airport expressway and was holding the steering wheel. "Did she tell you something about me?"

 

Yin Guo had heard from Wu Wei that Lin Lin's nickname was "Zongzong," She believed that only the people within Dongxincheng called her that, just like how their group would call him "Dunzhe."

 

"No," she replied truthfully, not wanting to lie to her cousin.

 

Meng Xiaodong fell silent, and Yin Guo sneakily glanced at him.

 

"Is there something you want to ask me?" Meng Xiaodong unexpectedly invited her to inquire as if he had the desire to confide in someone.

 

"You didn't like Lin Lin in the beginning, did you?" Yin Guo asked her cousin, finally vocalizing the question in her mind.

"They told me about it. Otherwise, I wouldn't have known."

 

Meng Xiaodong fell silent for a long time, so long that Yin Guo began to wonder if he would answer.

 

Finally, he spoke up. "It wasn't just the one time," he said. "I've had three relationships with Lin Lin."

 

Yin Guo was taken aback. Three relationships? With Lin Lin, who was pursuing him now?

 

She wondered why there had been no rumors or gossip about this. If Meng Xiaodong had had three girlfriends, it was unlikely that he could have hidden each one. It wasn't as if there was something scandalous or shameful about it that others wouldn't discuss. Usually, during family gatherings or festivals, relatives would gossip in private.

 

"All three times were with Zongzong," Meng Xiaodong continued, breaking the silence. Yin Guo was stunned.

 

So her cousin's first love was Lin Lin? And they had broken up and gotten back together three times?

 

Yin Guo's curiosity burned within her, but Meng Xiaodong seemed unwilling to reveal more. However, she knew there was always someone who could ask.

 

Just as she was about to unlock her phone, Meng Xiaodong saw through her little scheme: "Are you planning to ask Lin Yi Yang? He may not know, and probably no one in Dongxincheng knows."

 

After her cousin said that, she decided not to discuss the topic again and kept her doubts to herself until they arrived home.

When they arrived, Meng Xiaodong dropped her off at her doorstep. As the car drove away, Yin Guo sent a message to Lin Yi Yang.

 

Lin Li Guo: Hey, are you home yet?

 

Lin: I'm almost there.

 

Lin Li Guo: Guess what? My cousin just told me he and Lin Lin have something going on.

 

Lin: Yeah, I know.

 

Lin Li Guo: My cousin mentioned that you might not know.

 

Lin: I just happened to stumble upon it one time.

 

Lin Li Guo: Oh? Did you tell Wu Wei last time that you didn't know if my cousin liked Lin Lin?

 

Lin: Are you curious about their relationship?

 

Lin Li Guo: Well, he's my older cousin, and it's the first time he's ever confided in me about his affairs since we were young. I was just a bit emotional when I heard it.

 

Lin: I understand, but Meng Xiaodong has his own life. You should focus more on your own life.

 

Lin: It doesn't feel good to have a wife who's always concerned about others.

 

***

 

Lin Yi Yang hopped out of the sleek business car, landing on the concrete pavement in his stylish sneakers. As he stood facing the row of unlit shop facades on the commercial street, he took a deep breath, taking in the familiar scent of the bustling city.

 

To his left was a bubble tea shop, its large windows plastered with photos of gigantic cups of bubble tea and flashy discount promotions. On his right was a gold shop, its shiny display windows showcasing glittering jewelry and watches.

 

Lin Yi Yang felt a pang of nostalgia hit him. How many years had it been since he had been back here? He had left the province to attend college and never considered returning until two years after graduation, when he made a brief visit to handle some paperwork before going abroad for further studies. Since then, he had no connection to this place almost a decade ago.

 

Jiang Yang chimed in, pointing to a flight of stairs leading to a hotel: "These stairs are connected to a hotel. It used to be an old hotpot restaurant. The location is prime, even better than our Dongxincheng, but it's small. The second and third floors are all yours."

 

The space was, in fact, quite spacious, with two large levels that dwarfed the ballroom at the Washington Youth Hostel basement. However, the one who made this remark was Jiang Yang, and the brothers who exited the car with him were the backbone of Dongxincheng. Compared to their usual hangouts, this place seemed somewhat inferior.

 

As they stepped inside, Sun Yao's eyes widened as he took in the vastness of the space.

 

"Impressive, Yang Ge. You're making big moves as soon as you return to China," he exclaimed.

 

But Lin Yi Yang corrected him, "It's just rented, not bought."

 

The hallway was eerily quiet in the early morning hours, and the narrow passageway was cluttered with heaps of renovation debris, such as broken bricks and cement. Bags of waste were piled up, awaiting disposal. A mismatched collection of newspapers and scraps covered the floor, making distinguishing between the original flooring and the cement base difficult. The elevator shaft was vacant, and a black cloth covered the entrance.

 

The entire building was undergoing renovation and was being re-leased.

 

Lin Yi Yang slowly climbed the stairs to the second floor and approached the door. It was painted a bold red and had a simple, old-fashioned, large black lock hanging on it.

 

He took the key given to him by Jiang Yang, opened the lock, and grasped the heavy lock in his hand, giving it a gentle shake. "This thing could easily be pried open. Is it just for decoration?" he wondered aloud.

 

Jiang Yang laughed, "It's just for show. We don't want people to squat here for free. There's nothing valuable inside."

 

And it was true. As they pushed open the door, the interior was empty. The previous hotpot restaurant had vacated the space, but they left behind what they couldn't take with them, such as the wooden tables and benches fixed onto the walls and the decorative red pillars.

 

"Or why not just open a hotpot restaurant? Everything is ready-made," Wu Wei joked from behind.

 

Lin Yi Yang grinned as the morning light streamed into the dusty room through the windows on the left. In his mind's eye, he could already see the pool tables, bar, cue rack, and pool chairs arranged in a perfect layout, along with the location of his living quarters.

 

"Get all the brothers back," he told Wu Wei, taking a step forward, "even those who haven't been doing well."

 

Lin Yi Yang joined the billiard club in his second year and left in his first year of high school. He had a few brothers by his side, but only a handful had the talent to stand out each year. Most of the students who joined the billiard club were those who struggled with their studies, sinking to the bottom like sand in a rough sea scattered across the city.

 

As they discussed their friends who had fallen on hard times but still loved playing pool, Wu Wei and Lin Yi Yang reminisced about them all, their memories vivid and detailed.

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