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The Sweet Scent of Love

1

A Return to Beginnings

28

Amid the twilight hues of the setting sun, Li Mei returned to her hometown of Suyin Village.

It is a place where every corner whispered echoes of her past.

 

She had left the bustling streets of Xi'an, where she worked as a ceramic artist, to recover from a minor surgery that had sapped her strength.

 

Clad in a soft, blue hanfu that fluttered with each step, Li Mei navigated the crowded station.

She arrived early for her train and decided to indulge in a brief phone call to her friend in Xi'an.

Her laughter drew the attention of passers-by, but she paid no mind.

 

She scanned the shops for a bottle of water to take her medication.

 

Finally, she spotted a small convenience store. She made a quick detour, purchased her water, and returned just in time to join the queue for the ticket check.

 

The platform buzzed with activity as travelers hurried about. Li Mei found her seat by the window, the seat next to her still empty.

 

While she organized her belongings, a voice announced the arrival of a late passenger.

Glancing up, she saw a man in an impeccably tailored suit stride down the aisle.

 

His features were sharp and distinct—a high nose, thin lips, and an aura of composed authority. He paused briefly before taking the seat next to her. He crossed his legs and closed his eyes without a word.

 

Li Mei, ever curious, watched him out of the corner of her eye while drinking her water.

 

Unable to contain her curiosity, she can help but ask, "Are you heading to Suyin Village?"

 

The man remained silent, his eyes still closed, seemingly lost in thought or perhaps feigning sleep.

 

Li Mei shrugged off the lack of response and pulled out her sketchbook. She immersed herself in her designs.

 

The rhythmic clatter of the train lulled her into a serene focus, but occasionally, her gaze would drift back to the man. She noticed the small scar near his eyebrow. Somehow this guy seems familiar to her.

 

The train ride was smooth, and as they neared their destination, the conductor's voice broke the quiet hum of the cabin, announcing their approach.

 

Li Mei began to gather her things, the anticipation of home bringing a faint smile to her lips.

Just as she stood to exit, the man finally opened his eyes, glanced at her with an air of mild annoyance.

 

"I’m not interested in idle chatter," he said curtly.

 

Li Mei blinked, momentarily taken aback by his bluntness.

 

Luckily, she recovered quickly, and followed him out of the train. Her mood was undimmed by the brief encounter.

 

Outside, the crisp evening air filled her lungs. She spotted a group of smokers nearby and, feeling a sudden urge, walked over to ask for a light.

 

She had barely taken a drag when she saw the man on the train walking towards the parking lot.

 

Acting on impulse, she called out to him.

 

"Yu Sheng!"

 

The man stopped and turned, his expression one of surprise mingled with confusion.

 

Li Mei stepped closer, offering a friendly smile.

 

"It's Li Mei from Li Hua School. We were in the same class."

 

Recognition dawned in Yu Sheng's eyes.

 

"So it was you," he replied, his tone neutral.

 

Li Mei tapped her temple with her fingers playfully, "I recognized you by the scar on your brow. You were quite the rebel back in school."

 

Yu Sheng's lips curled into a semblance of a smile, more out of courtesy than genuine warmth. "That was a long time ago."

 

They stood there in silence for a moment. Li Mei broke the silence first, glancing at the parking lot.

 

"Do you have a car here? I could use a ride if you’re heading into the village."

 

Yu Sheng hesitated before nodding. "Yes, but I’m in a hurry."

 

"Of course, another time then." Li Mei watched as he walked away.

 

Left alone, she flagged down a motorcycle taxi, negotiating a fare with ease.

 

As the motorcycle taxi bounced along the winding roads of Suyin Village, Li Mei lifted her hair, tousled by the wind, and gazed out at the familiar yet subtly changed landscape.

 

The driver, a talkative older man with deep laugh lines, filled the silence with snippets of local news and observations.

 

"The village is different now," he shouted over the noise of the engine. "Less farming, more factories. The land isn't what it used to be."

 

Li Mei nodded, recalling the verdant fields of her childhood, now interspersed with industrial buildings. "I heard the factories were supposed to close down because of the pollution."

 

The driver scoffed. "Officially, they did. But some still operate at night, avoiding inspections. They’re clever, those factory owners, always finding a way."

 

He swerved to avoid a pothole, then continued, "But lately, they’ve been cracking down harder. Officials have been confiscating equipment. Might be better for the village in the long run."

 

Li Mei let the conversation flow over her as she soaked in the sights. The road curved around a newly cleared field, where she saw signs for a grand development project.

 

"What’s happening over there?" she asked, pointing.

 

"A resort," the driver replied with a hint of pride. "They’re building the biggest hot spring resort in the region. They say it will bring tourists and money."

 

Li Mei raised an eyebrow, intrigued. "That’s ambitious. I guess tourism is the new lifeline."

 

"Exactly," he nodded enthusiastically. "We’ve got to adapt. The old ways don’t always work anymore."

 

As they neared the village center, the driver turned to her with a curious look. "You’re the eldest daughter of the Li family, right? Haven’t seen you around much."

 

"Yes, that’s me," Li Mei confirmed with a smile. "Work keeps me busy in Xi’an. I try to visit a few times a year, though."

 

The driver chuckled. "You city folk always have the same excuse. My son and his wife are in Hangzhou and barely come back once a year."

 

They passed through the ornate archway that marked the entrance to Suyin Village. Li Mei’s heart warmed at the sight of familiar storefronts and bustling markets. She pointed to a new construction site. "And that? What's going up there?"

 

"A community center," the driver explained. "They’re hoping it’ll become a hub for both locals and tourists. Bring some life back into the village."

 

Li Mei nodded, impressed by the village's transformation. She couldn’t help but feel a pang of nostalgia mixed with admiration for how her hometown was adapting to new times. The driver’s voice interrupted her thoughts.

 

"Your family must be proud of you, working in the big city," he said "What exactly do you do?"

 

"I work with ceramics. I create and sell handcrafted pottery and art pieces."

 

The driver’s eyes lit up with interest. "Really? You should set up a shop here when you have time. People around here would love that. Maybe even tourists would be interested!"

 

Li Mei laughed, but knowing her work thrived best in the vibrant, fast-paced city. "I’ll think about it," she said diplomatically.

 

"Here’s fine," she said "I want to surprise my mother."

 

The driver pulled over and refused her money with a wave of his hand. "No charge for an old neighbor. Besides, I’m glad to see you back."

 

Li Mei thanked him warmly and stepped off.

 

She took a deep breath, feeling the crisp autumn air fill her lungs, and looked around at the quaint houses and shops. She hoisted her bag over her shoulder and walked towards her family’s house, nestled on a quiet street lined with blooming chrysanthemums.

 

Li Mei’s family had settled in Suyin Village when she was fourteen, her mother bringing her and her younger siblings here after remarrying. Her stepfather, Han Wei, was a kind man who had been a close friend of her late father. After her father's untimely death in a car accident, which had also cost Li Mei her left leg, Han Wei had taken them in as his own.

 

Li Mei’s mother had quickly made a name for herself in the village with her secret recipe for marinated duck. Their small shop had grown over the years, becoming a beloved local business.

 

Li Mei slowed her pace, savoring the moment before reuniting with her family. She peeked through the gate, but she didn’t find her mother. Perhaps, she’s still on the shop tending to their customers. Just as she was about to step inside, a familiar voice called out from behind.

"Li Mei! You're back!"

 

It was her stepfather, Han Wei, approaching with a wide smile.

 

He took her bag from her hands with practiced ease. "Why didn’t you let us know you were coming? We could have picked you up."

 

"It’s fine, I wanted to surprise you. I took a taxi. It’s good to see you."

 

Han Wei's eyes twinkled as he glanced at her prosthetic leg, hidden beneath her skirt. "How’s the leg? Still getting used to it?"

 

Li Mei lifted the hem slightly, revealing the sleek prosthesis. "It’s great. It feels almost natural now, though I’m still adjusting to the balance."

 

Her stepfather nodded approvingly. "You’re doing amazing. Come on, let’s not keep your mother waiting."

 

Han Wei, a tall man with gentle eyes and a kind smile, placed her suitcase neatly by the door and rubbed his hands together, looking slightly unsure. "Are you hungry? I can make you a bowl of noodles."

 

Li Mei shook her head, her lips curling into a gentle smile. "No, Uncle Han, I'm not hungry right now."

 

He nodded and seemed to ponder something before heading towards the stairs. "I should air out your quilt. It’s been stored away for a while."

 

Li Mei glanced out the window at the setting sun.

 

"It’s getting late. Maybe we can do that tomorrow."

 

"Yes, you’re right," he agreed, looking relieved. "I’ll call your mother and let her know you’re home."

 

Li Mei placed a hand on his arm, stopping him gently. "No need, I’ll go see her at the shop later. It’s been a while since I visited."

 

Han Wei paused, his expression softening. "She’ll be thrilled to see you. Your sister is still at school, though. They have extra classes for the upcoming exams."

 

"National Day classes, huh?" Li Mei mused, remembering the academic pressures that never seemed to change. "I’ll see her later. For now, maybe something light for dinner? My stomach’s been a bit sensitive lately."

 

Han Wei’s face lit up with concern. "Of course. You need to take care of yourself. Too much takeout and irregular meals are no good for you. I’ll make some nourishing porridge tonight."

 

Li Mei smiled, touched by his concern. She glanced at his blood-stained apron and the faint scent of fresh poultry. "Busy day at the shop?"

 

Han Wei looked down at his apron and chuckled.

 

"Yes, the usual. We’ve been preparing for the weekend rush."

 

With a nod, Li Mei decided to freshen up and head to their family’s roast duck shop later in the evening. She took a long, soothing bath. By the time she was ready, the sun had dipped below the horizon, and the village was bathed in the soft glow of twilight.

 

Li Mei made her way to the shop. The store was bustling with activity. Customers queued at the entrance, chatting animatedly as they waited for their turn.

 

Peering inside, Li Mei saw her mother, Shen Xia, efficiently wrapping orders. Each package was carefully bundled in oil paper, then placed into bright red bags emblazoned with their family’s logo: "Li Shen Duck,". Above the logo, a vibrant golden duck was proudly displayed.

 

Shen Xia looked up from her work. Her eyes widened in surprise as she spotted Li Mei.

 

"Mei! You’re here!" she exclaimed

 

"I thought I’d surprise you."

 

"You look well. Why didn’t you call? We could have prepared something special."

 

"I wanted to see your reaction," Li Mei replied with a laugh. "Besides, I’m here for a while. The company gave me a couple of weeks off."

 

"Must be because you’re their best employee," Shen Xia said proudly, as she handed a customer their order with a gracious nod. "Come, help me out for a bit, then we can head home together."

 

Li Mei joined her behind the counter, quickly falling into the rhythm of their routine. As she wrapped and handed over packages, she exchanged small talk with the familiar faces of her youth. It was as if no time had passed at all.

 

After a while, Shen Xia packed a few duck feet for her daughter to snack on. "Try these," she said. "I’ve been experimenting with new recipes."

 

Li Mei took a bite, savoring the rich flavors. "Delicious as always, Mom."

 

As the evening wore on, Li Mei noticed a pair of men hanging flags outside each shop. Curious, she watched as they worked their way down the street.

 

"Why the flags?" she asked.

 

Shen Xia glanced outside and smiled. "This year is the 75th anniversary of the village's founding. Everyone is getting ready for the celebration."

 

"It looks festive," she remarked. "Our village has come a long way. It’s amazing to see how much it’s changed."

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