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During the Snowstorm
0
Prologue

As the indoor lights dimly flickered, the shadows of pedestrians passing outside played a ghostly dance across the glass, lending an otherworldly aura to the scene. The feeble illumination from the window fought to reach the far side of the street, enveloping everything in an eerie half-light. Suddenly, a colossal, pitch-black shadow appeared, descending with a resounding thud onto the roof of a parked car. The car's alarm blared, adding to the noise.


Her friend's voice, laced with panic, broke through the phone's speaker, snapping her back to reality. "What's that noise?


A deafening crash echoed through the streets as a massive tree came crashing down, its branches tearing into a parked car with a loud screech of metal.


A tree just fell and smashed a car," Yin Guo shouted, struggling to hear her friend's voice over the blaring music. She cupped her left ear. "This storm is terrible. Can you believe how freezing it is out here? It's minus 25 degrees!"


"I warned you about New York winters," her friend Zhengyi teased, her voice light. "It snows a ton there. You should've known better."


Yin Guo lacked the energy to even complain anymore; her words escaped as a weary sigh. "I haven't had a shower in three days. You have to help me find a hotel room for tonight."


"Give me a moment; I'm still looking," Zhengyi's voice crackled over the phone. Yin Guo let out a frustrated sigh and ended the call.


As she returned to her cousin Meng Xiaotian's side, she shared the news, "We're just waiting for Zhengyi to find a hotel. She'll message me soon." But her cousin was too engrossed in the festive atmosphere to pay her much mind. He grinned carefreely and replied, "If that doesn't work out, we'll just party here all night."


Yin Guo, however, wasn't feeling the same festive spirit as her cousin. She reclined on the bar counter, staring out of the window, her thoughts consumed by the raging storm outside. She couldn't have predicted encountering the strongest storm in a decade. The wind howled, snow piled up against the windows, and darkness seemed to engulf everything in its path. An unsettling feeling had settled in her stomach, and she couldn't shake it off.


It was undoubtedly one of her most unfortunate moments. First, she found herself seated in the bustling airport terminal, only to hear the announcement that her flight to New York would be delayed by a grueling ten hours. Then, as she boarded the plane and gazed out over the vast expanse of the ocean, a violent storm suddenly materialized. For two harrowing hours, the plane circled the airport, unable to make a safe landing. The hurricane compelled the pilot to reroute the flight to Chicago.


Exhausted and disheartened, she eventually touched down in the Windy City, only to discover that every hotel room was fully booked. This left her stranded, without a place to stay for the night, all due to the airline's inability to arrange accommodation.


As the night wore on, Yin Guo and her cousin found themselves huddled in the dimly lit airport waiting area, surrounded by a diverse group of stranded travelers. With no other options available, they took turns sleeping on uncomfortable plastic chairs and the cold, unforgiving tile floor. The constant hum of conversation and sporadic announcements over the loudspeaker provided the only interruptions to the monotony.


The following morning, they freshened up in the less-than-ideal airport restroom, their spirits lifted by the prospect of finally departing. However, as the day progressed, it became evident that their wait would be longer than expected. They passed the time by reading, striking up conversations with fellow travelers, and observing the comings and goings of airplanes.


As the sun dipped below the horizon, the long-awaited announcement finally came: their flight to New York was boarding. They gathered their belongings and made their way to the gate, their spirits lifting at the prospect of reaching their destination at last.


Touching down in the bustling heart of New York City, Yin Guo and her cousin couldn't help but feel a rush of excitement and relief. After the arduous and tumultuous journey they'd endured, they had finally arrived.


But as soon as the plane came to a stop on the tarmac, their hearts sank when the flight attendant made an announcement. "I'm sorry, folks, but there are no available parking spots, and we won't be able to disembark at the moment," she informed them. Disappointment and frustration swept through the passengers as they absorbed the news that they'd have to wait for the airport to make arrangements.


Yin Guo and her cousin, along with the group of fellow travelers who had spent the night sleeping in the airport, found themselves stuck in limbo once more. They settled back into their seats, unable to shake off their exhaustion, and continued to rest on the plane, eagerly waiting for their ordeal to finally come to an end.


After what seemed like an eternity, Yin Guo was abruptly awakened by the loudspeaker, feeling bleary-eyed and groggy from her extended nap on the plane. She slowly disembarked, her body weighed down by exhaustion.


Once she set foot on solid ground, she sank onto a luggage cart, her mind numb and her body yearning for sleep. She closed her eyes and dozed off once more, only to be abruptly roused by the clatter of her luggage being unloaded from the plane. She stumbled to her feet, collected her bags, and felt her body ache from the long journey and the lack of proper rest.


As she waited for her luggage, a sense of relief washed over her. However, her heart plummeted when her phone rang, delivering the crushing news that her hotel reservation had been canceled due to missing the check-in deadline. Tears welled up in the corners of her eyes as she stood by the arrival gate, overwhelmed by a sense of hopelessness and isolation.


Just as she was on the brink of despair, a kind Chinese-American girl who had also spent the night in the Chicago airport approached her, extending a lifeline. She explained that getting a taxi in the heavy snowstorm was nearly impossible and suggested that Yin Guo stay with her temporarily and venture to Manhattan, a much better alternative to remaining at the airport. 

With a spark of hope reigniting within her, Yin Guo gratefully accepted the girl's offer, appreciative of the kindness shown by a stranger in her time of need.


With the assistance of a kind stranger, Yin Guo and her cousin found themselves in the lobby of a lounge bar. Despite the raging snowstorm outside, they were grateful for the warm surroundings, as well as the food and drinks to sustain them.


Suddenly, a blast of icy wind swept through the room as the door swung open behind them. Yin Guo shivered and pulled her down jacket's collar tighter, while her cousin, Meng Xiaotian, bundled up in his coat beside her.


"What a pain in the ass," he grumbled. "Feels like we've landed in some dystopian nightmare." The scene beyond the window did indeed resemble something straight out of a science fiction film.


Yin Guo couldn't help but draw parallels to her favorite disaster movie, "The Day After Tomorrow." It featured frozen renditions of the Statue of Liberty, cruise ships colliding with the sea, and a library becoming a sanctuary. She had watched the film at least 17 or 18 times, never imagining that a real-life disaster would unfold in the very location depicted in the movie. The situation felt surreal, as if they were inhabiting an alternate universe.


The bitter cold bore down upon them, gnawing at their skin and numbing their bones. Yin Guo's phone displayed a temperature of minus 25 degrees Celsius, and with the wind chill, it felt like a bone-chilling minus 40 degrees Celsius. Even bundled up in their thickest down jackets, they struggled to ward off the harsh weather outside.


As they hauled their luggage out of the car, the cold gripped them instantly. Yin Guo positioned her phone in front of Meng Xiaotian, asking him to keep watch for messages from Zheng Yi, their friend who had promised to help. She then pulled the hood of her down jacket over her head and leaned against the bar, closing her eyes to steal a moment of rest.


"It's freezing," Meng Xiaotian grumbled beside her, his breath forming mist in the frigid air.


The scent of roasting chicken wings wafted by, making Yin Guo's stomach growl with hunger. However, she felt too exhausted and cold to budge, her body weighed down by fatigue.


Onstage, the band played an old song with a sweet, melodious melody that evoked memories of summer days and warm sunshine. The lead singer's voice, low and husky, expressed his deep attraction and love for a girl, his soul ensnared and unable to resist her, yet tinged with hesitance and shyness, unsure of how to approach her. The song was "Yellow."


"Sis," Meng Xiaotian called, getting her attention.


"Mm," Yin Guo replied, her voice weak and tired.


Meng Xiaotian patted her arm gently, concern evident on his face. "Xiaoguo, are you okay?"


Summoning the last of her strength, Yin Guo lifted her head and opened her eyes. Through her blurred vision, she saw something unfamiliar—a glass of wine.


The man holding the glass of wine appeared young, dressed in a black, cold-resistant coat and sporting a matching hat. It was tricky to gauge the length of his hair, but it wasn't overly long. His pupils were deep and dark, his skin had a fair complexion, and his face bore a thin, angular appearance. His chin was pointed, and though his nose bridge wasn't as pronounced as that of Europeans or Americans, it still had a decent height. He had an Asian appearance, but it remained uncertain if he was Chinese.


"Please," the man spoke softly and politely.


Yin Guo pushed back her hood, sat up attentively, and was about to respond when another Chinese individual with glasses approached. They set a second glass of wine in front of Meng Xiaotian. "This one's for you."


"I'm sorry for the mix-up," Meng Xiaotian admitted, a touch of embarrassment coloring his voice.


"No need for apologies," the bespectacled man responded, "We're all Chinese in this."


Meng Xiaotian promptly performed the introductions. "Meet my sister, Yin Guo."


Yin Guo couldn't help but wonder how they knew each other, especially since this was Meng Xiaotian's first visit to New York. However, her cousin quickly explained, "When I received your call, they were already seated at the table next to mine. I overheard them speaking Chinese and asked for their recommendations on what kind of wine to try here."


It all made sense to Yin Guo now.


The man with glasses smiled and asked, "Are you two stuck here? The weather isn't exactly ideal for a night out, is it?"


Yin Guo and Meng Xiaotian exchanged a glance, both grasping the unspoken question beneath the man's words. They had three suitcases with them, clearly indicating they were not simply there for a casual drink.


Meng Xiaotian replied, "Yeah, we had a hotel reservation, but it got canceled. We're waiting for a friend to help us find another one."


He added with a casual shrug, "If not, we'll just hang out here until morning. At least we've got food and drinks."


The man with glasses smiled, "He's already called a car for you, so as soon as you confirm a hotel, we'll take you there straight away." The "he" he referred to was the man who had been quiet until now.


"That's great," Meng Xiaotian exclaimed, his relief and gratitude clear.


"Let's discuss the specifics once you've secured a place," the man with glasses said kindly. "If it's early enough, you can follow his car. If not, I'll personally drive you there. This area has excellent subway connections, so we can reach almost anywhere."


Meng Xiaotian raised his glass in a toast. "Thank you so much, brother."


"No need to thank me," the man with glasses clinked glasses with Meng Xiaotian, and the two of them continued chatting happily.


The man at the small round table next to them ordered some snacks and sipped on his drink while watching the band perform.


Unlike her cousin Meng Xiaotian, Yin Guo focused on her own drink, lowering her head to inspect it closely. She twirled the glass in her hands, observing the orange hue and the fruit chunks afloat within. The scent of alcohol was subtle, and she took a small sip, relishing the sweetness that danced on her taste buds.


In contrast, her cousin's drink had a milky white appearance, clearly suited for a man. As she watched him take a sip, she couldn't help but notice a man at the neighboring table casting a curious gaze in her direction. It was as if he were silently inquiring, "Are you afraid there's something in it?"


Feeling self-conscious, Yin Guo pretended to tuck her long hair behind her ear, brushing it off as a casual gesture. But her mind raced, wondering if the man had somehow picked up on her concerns. Just then, her phone vibrated, grabbing her attention with a message from Zhengyi.


"Fantastic news!" Meng Xiaotian exclaimed as he glanced at his sister's phone. "We've got a confirmed hotel reservation!"


"That was quick," the man with glasses praised. "Seems like your friend is reliable. Where's the hotel?"


"It's in Queens," Yin Guo added quickly. "But we need to move fast; they're only keeping the room for a couple more hours."


"No worries," the man with glasses reassured them. "How long until the car gets here?" he inquired of the other man.


"Ten minutes," the other man responded. It marked his second sentence of the evening.

"That was fast," Meng Xiaotian placed his glass down. "I'll go to the restroom first."


"I'll join you," the man with glasses offered, leading Meng Xiaotian away.


Now, only Yin Guo and the other man remained at the table. Yin Guo was still engrossed in her phone, exchanging messages with her friend Zheng Yi about the encounter with the two Chinese men. She recounted their friendly demeanor and invitation to have a drink, along with their offer to provide her a ride to the hotel.


Though she appreciated their kindness, Yin Guo also had safety concerns. She discreetly talked to Zheng Yi, discussing the potential risks of accepting their offer. Zheng Yi's assessment was that, in such harsh weather, even scammers wouldn't be out in full force, but it was always wise to exercise caution.


"Be careful," Zheng Yi advised Yin Guo before she powered off her phone.


Yin Guo stowed her phone away and took a sip of her drink. Her attention drifted to the man seated at the neighboring table. He seemed to sense her gaze and looked up, locking eyes with her.


"Are you a student or do you work here?" Yin Guo inquired, attempting to strike up a conversation.


"Student," the man responded, his voice resonating with depth and smoothness.


"New York University?" Yin Guo queried, but the man shook his head.


Detecting the hint of uncertainty in Yin Guo's eyes and understanding her hesitation, the man gently asked, "Are you concerned that I might be a bad person?"


Yin Guo smiled, feeling a bit self-conscious about her earlier suspicion. She didn't deny it.


The man then reached into his pocket and retrieved his wallet. From it, he produced a Chinese ID card and placed it on the counter in front of her, along with a magnetic card. "This is my school's magnetic card," he explained, pointing to his name on it. "You can verify it." He then indicated his own face, encouraging her to compare it to the photo on the ID card.


He usually didn't carry his ID card, but he had needed it earlier today and hadn't expected to use it here.


Yin Guo's eyes fell on the magnetic card, and she blinked in surprise. Georgetown University? She'd come across this before—her friend Zheng Yi also had one. Were they actually alumni of the same school?


Yin Guo's thoughts raced as she inspected the ID card and magnetic card. They appeared genuine and aligned with the name on the man's passport. She couldn't help but feel a tad uneasy about the situation and contemplated whether she should seek confirmation from her friend Zheng Yi. However, she didn't want to appear disrespectful by taking a picture and sharing it without the man's consent.


As she cautiously arranged the ID card and magnetic card together, the man reached into his coat pocket once more. Yin Guo's gaze flickered towards him, uncertain about his next move.


To her surprise, he pulled out his phone, unlocked the screen, and opened his photo album. Then, he turned the screen toward Yin Guo. On it, she saw the information page of his passport, and the name on it matched the one on his ID card and magnetic card:


LIN, YI YANG.

A Thousand Faces
1
Chapter 1

In the heart of downtown Seoul, at a busy intersection, a giant screen nestled between high-rise buildings displayed the 9 o’clock news.

 

Breaking News: The identity of the notorious scammer who deceived the entire nation has finally been revealed. Thanks to an anonymous tip, the police have identified the con artist as a 35-year-old male. Investigations are underway.

 

The screen flashed an image of a man with disheveled hair partially covering his face.

 

In the bustling crowd, Junwoo Han, his hat pulled low, lifted his head and grumbled,

 

“Did they have to use that photo?”

 

Junwoo watched the screen. He clicked his tongue in annoyance, but he also couldn’t help but be amused.

 

“Never thought I’d become a national sensation.”

 

He sighed. I’m exhausted. Time to go home and put my feet up.

 

In the bustling traffic, a police car drove past, its siren wailing. Junwoo stretched, casually slipped his hand into his pocket, and melted into the crowd.

 

***

 

30 years ago.

 

“Hey, kid. Did you see something shiny roll by here?”

 

It was Ilnam Go, a member of the most notorious scam ring in Korea known as the Boogeymen.

 

Right now, he was in big trouble.

 

He was at a daycare event for the children of South Korea’s wealthiest families. After scoping out one of the parents, he had managed to switch their real diamond ring for a fake cubic zirconia.

And then it all went wrong—the ring slipped from his grasp and rolled toward a child.

“Tell the truth, kid. Did you pick it up?”

The boy remained tight-lipped, wearing a face that said he had no idea what Ilnam was talking about. His head was bowed fearfully under Ilnam’s persistent questioning.

“I don’t know… I didn’t see nothing,” the boy mumbled.

But under it all, he had an indignant expression at the accusation. This isn’t fair!

It didn’t seem like he was lying to get out of trouble; he seemed genuinely clueless. Maybe the kid really didn’t know anything. After all, it wasn’t as if he was caught red-handed with the ring.

Ilnam scratched his head, muttering, “Where the hell did it go…?”

He continued scanning the area.

The commotion around him grew as people began to gather one by one. Ilnam guessed that some parents might hurry over to comfort the teary-eyed kid before him. He had to leave now. The show would be over if the kid spilled the beans that he was searching for something.

He was heading away, ready to bolt if necessary, when a teacher approached the crying boy.

“You’re not my student. Who’s your teacher?”

“Dad…?” the boy said.

The teacher, mistaking Ilnam for the kid’s father, looked at him, silently asking for an explanation.

Then…

“Dad!”

“Huh?” Ilnam said. “Me?”

“I was wrong. Please don’t leave.”

The boy was clearly speaking to Ilnam.

The hell are you talking about?

Ilnam’s mind came to a standstill. Around him, all the parents were now watching the scene.

The child began to cry even louder. “I’m sorry, take me with you. I’ll listen now, Dad. I won’t ask for a Nerf gun anymore, I promise.”

The boy’s pitiful gaze never left him. If this continued, Ilnam would end up branded as a heartless father who left his young son over a toy.

Quickly backtracking, Ilnam lifted the child into his arms. “Hah. When did I say I was leaving? If my son wants a toy, that’s what he’ll get. Let’s go.”

Striding away from the scene, Ilnam wondered what he was doing. Playing the role of a father wasn’t part of the plan. But staying any longer could be risky.

They reached an alley a few blocks away from the daycare. Ilnam set the child down. “Who are you?”

“What do you mean?”

“Why do you think I’m your Dad?”

“You did the same, sir,” the boy replied.

“I did? When?”

“You lied. Back there, I saw everything.”

Ilnam was baffled. Just a moment ago, the child had acted as if he knew nothing. But this little one had been reading him from the start.

“Is the game over now?” the boy said.

“What game?”

“The one we were playing. It was fun. Everyone fell for it, didn’t they?”

Ilnam was astonished.

That’s it? After making me work so hard, it was all fun and games? Does he think I’m an idiot?

“Alright, the game’s over. Scram.” Ilnam’s mind was still preoccupied with the whereabouts of the ring. How was he going to get back in there?

The child made a sullen face as Ilnam flapped his hand at him in annoyance.

“Aww. I wanted to play more. But at least I won,” the boy said, opening his fist. There, lying in his palm, was the diamond ring Ilnam had been searching for this whole time.

“You…”

Ilnam took the ring, feeling dazed. What was this? He felt like the loser, just as the child had said.

“Where’s your house?” Ilnam asked.

“I don’t have one.”

“Then, where’s your mom?”

“I don’t have one of those either.”

The boy pursed his lips and shrugged, looking up at Ilnam with an innocent expression. His tone sounded dismissive, as if to say, “Do I really need those?”

Ilnam’s curiosity about the child deepened.

“So where have you been staying all this time?”

“I just live like you, sir. I don’t really have a home.”

Live like me? The idea that this child had been living a life similar to his own, lurking in places like this, struck Ilnam.

Was that even possible? But based on what he had seen today, it also made sense.

Is this all a game to him?

Ilnam was suddenly scared of the child in front of him. If he was like this now, what would he be like as an adult?

The boy looked downcast. “Are you scared of me too, sir?”

Ilnam felt like he had done something wrong. If he left now, this kid would end up in a similar situation somewhere else.

Was it pity, or was the chaos of the day just making his judgment hazy?

Before he could even think it through, Ilnam blurted, “Wanna come with me?”

That was the day Junwoo gained not one but four scammer fathers.

***

Junwoo was grumpy. Ever since he had come to this house, there had been nothing fun to play with.

The “fathers,” who had given in once or twice to the boy’s audacity, quickly gave up and left him to his own devices. Now Junwoo was getting bored.

His interest was piqued for the first time when he watched a movie he liked, his face lighting up with excitement.

“What are those people doing?”

“You know the games you like to play?” Ilnam answered. “They’re like that. Well, sort of. They’re just acting.”

“Like our game?”

“Yeah, something like that.”

That was how Ilnam explained it. From that day on, Junwoo spent his days watching movies.

Junwoo’s love for movies was immense. He was so obsessed that he would sit in front of the TV all day, watching every movie he could find, regardless of genre.

Even when the gang was plotting in the living room, Junwoo didn’t give them a second glance. The countless performances of the actors in the movies captured his heart. Plus, he remembered every scene, every piece of dialogue—not a feat that could be achieved by mere effort.

Later, he even began to reenact entire scenes, exchanging lines with imaginary characters in a corner of the living room. But he soon grew tired of even that. What he desperately craved was a companion.

Junhwan Jang, one of the fathers, began to pay closer attention to Junwoo. It was clear that Junwoo’s behavior was more than just mimicking people on TV out of childish curiosity; he definitely had a talent for acting.

That kid might be useful.

“Kid’s a prodigy, isn’t he?” Junwhan said.

Ilnam looked up. “What?”

“You said that the day you brought him in. That he’s a genius.”

“Yeah… I guess so.”

A sense of unease crept over Ilnam as he noticed Junhwan beginning to take an interest in Junwoo, whom he had previously ignored.

Has he already grown attached to him? I didn’t bring him here for this.

Still, there was nothing he could do. Junhwan had agreed to take him in for a while because he felt sorry for him. It was clear that he would be kicked out if he became useless.

Ilnam could only hope that he was wrong about Junwoo being an acting prodigy.

One evening, Junhwan approached Junwoo, who was staying up late in front of the TV.

“Do you wanna do that, kid? The stuff on TV?”

“What?”

“Do you want to give it a try? Act in front of cameras?”

And just like that, Junhwan drew the unsuspecting Junwoo into their scamming world. Junwoo’s eyes lit up.

“Really?” Suddenly, Junwoo, who had been motionless for hours, leaped up from the floor. “Yes! I’ll do it! I know I can do it well!”

Ever since he had come to this house, Junwoo had drifted through his days in boredom. This was the first time he had looked so excited.

And so, Junwoo’s first scam began.

***

Junwoo’s first mission was to distract the target while the gang did the job.

His first role: “The Lost Child.”

He recalled a scene from the movie he had stayed up watching a few days ago. A minor character, after searching for his missing parents all day long, wept uncontrollably. Although it was a scene that appeared only briefly in his favorite show, Junwoo memorized everything in perfect detail.

He frantically ran his hands through his hair. Finally, he pulled the target’s collar. “Sir?”

The target turned around. The child, who was about his height, looked confused and anxious.

“My mom…” As he said those words, Junwoo’s eyes, crinkling in fear, began to water.

How long had he been running? His hair was a mess, his shoes were half off. He burst into tears as soon as he said the word “mom.” It was clear that he was a lost child who had been searching for his parents all day and had finally come to an adult for help.

The target set down his briefcase and crouched in front of the boy, looking him in the eye.

And with that, the first job was a success.

“How was that?” Junwoo said to the gang. “I totally fooled that man. And he even gave me this.”

Junwoo was buzzing with excitement. In his hand, he clutched two crumpled-up banknotes.

“This kid is a born con artist,” Junhwan Jang mused.

“I did good, right?”

From that day on, Junwoo became more and more involved in the cons. His hard work paid off; every game was a success.

At the time, Junwoo could never have guessed where his talent would take him.

***

The moment Junwoo opened the door, he sensed something was wrong. The air was charged with tension, and he noticed the gang’s sidelong glances as he stepped through.

“What? What’s up?”

Everyone was squirming, avoiding his gaze. Even Junhwan Jang, who had never been like that before, couldn’t look him in the eye.

Junwoo was young, but that didn’t stop his highly developed intuition. He had a hunch.

“No way. Is that…?”

“Junwoo, listen…” Ilnam began.

Junwoo knew the instant he saw Ilnam’s resigned expression. The worst had happened.

“I tried to warn you…” Ilnam continued.

“I told you to leave it alone!” Junwoo burst out. “Didn’t I make myself clear?!”

His frustration boiled over. He had always gone along with their schemes, pretending Ilnam was his father. He had done everything he could to make money for him. But it was all for nothing.

He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to control his rage. It was over.

Junwoo had always been a natural. Gradually, their operations had come to revolve around him. If he couldn’t see a solution, the game was off. Junwoo’s decisions were always on the mark. The gang knew that.

They should never have meddled.

“A hundred billion won!” Junhwan Jang retorted, his face flushed with anger. “How could we just give that up? That was my ticket out of here. I didn’t know it would end up like this.”

“Come on, Junwoo. Is there anything we can do? You always have an answer. What do you think?” one of the fathers said, his eyes desperate.

At his words, the others, previously sunken in despair, began to see a glimmer of hope.

Ilnam should have known. Once again, it all came down to Junwoo. They had never truly wanted this kid for who he was; they had only wanted his talent.

A cold realization washed over Junwoo.

What am I even hoping for? I know there’s nothing else I can do.

“There is no answer. It’s all over,” Junwoo said.

“There has to be something.”

“Just let it go.”

“We can’t go back to prison again. We’re all screwed!”

A bitter laugh escaped Junwoo’s lips. He understood now—they wanted him to take the blame.

“You think you can just bail on us?” said one of the fathers. “We’re all going down together!”

So now it was down to threats. Unbelievable. Even if they were panicking, that was going too far.

Where had it gone wrong? As the games got bigger, the fathers became more and more money-hungry. It was sickening to see them still trying to claw something out of this mess.

Junwoo paused. If he wanted to, he could get out of this and put a few scammers behind bars.

“Junwoo, please…! You’re our son. You gotta save your dads, don’t you?”

But it wasn’t going to be easy. His father’s hand was shaking as it gripped his shoulder, a last-ditch plea from a desperate man.

Junwoo didn’t know what to say.

Still, they’re family, even if they see me as just a tool. At the end of the day, they took in an orphan with nowhere to go.

Junwoo sighed and stepped out to get some air. Suddenly, he felt an arm around his shoulder. He turned to see Ilnam’s sad face.

“Don’t stress too much, Junwoo. It’s time to hang it up anyway.”

The moment Junwoo looked into Ilnam’s eyes, he knew what he’d decided. Ilnam had always had concerns about the path he had led the boy down. Junwoo knew that.

Ilnam never wanted things to get this big. He had a criminal record, so if he was caught again, he would have to spend the rest of his life behind bars. Not only that, he had a number of health problems, some of which had him hooked on prescription painkillers.

Junwoo pictured the man slowly dying in pain on the cold floor of a cell.

If I went in…

The truth was, Junwoo had grown weary of the scamming world. It had ensnared him before he fully grasped what he was getting into.

Junwoo’s world was a stage, and he was the director. He enjoyed it in a way.

Yet, for a while now, he had felt a nagging uneasiness in his chest. Was this really the right thing?

Still, regret was a pointless emotion.

He knew there was no going back. Regardless of his intentions, he was a criminal. He had resigned himself to his fate, believing it was the only life he was meant to lead.

But what was he going to do now? He was sick of his fathers and their greed, and he was tired of always having to sneak around.

He longed to escape it all.

That’s when he made up his mind. He had done everything he could.

Might as well take a break, too.

By the end of the day, Junwoo’s face was all over Seoul. No one had any idea it was intentional. It was a masterful last con.

I do have one slight regret.

“Did they have to use that photo?”

If he’d known that was the one they were going to plaster all over the news, he would have taken it out.

***

Junwoo realized the extent of his popularity as soon as they locked him up. The news had even spread among the other prisoners. As the attention from his fellow inmates quickly turned sour, the warden sent him to solitary confinement for his own safety.

Flopping onto his back, Junwoo stared at the stark ceiling above him. A smirk played on his lips.

The cold, quiet solitude of the cell felt unexpectedly comforting. What had been the point of all that sneaking around if he was just going to end up here?

I’m just…

He reflected on the day he first entered the game—the rush of his first role, the exhilaration of having the world at his fingertips.

He had orchestrated countless games, fooled countless people. The puppet master.

Back then, it felt like he was living in a movie. It was the only way he could make sense of his life. As a child surviving on the streets, this was his one and only skill.

But reality had finally caught up with him. No matter how much he wished it were otherwise, Junwoo was just a con artist and criminal. He had been living in a dream world. What more could he have hoped for?

A deep sigh escaped him. If this was what he had to do to atone, then so be it. He could use the rest.

It’s not like I can turn back time.

As his thoughts wound down, an overwhelming drowsiness enveloped him. The cell around him gradually darkened, and his eyes drifted shut.

The world went black as he fell into a deep sleep.

During the Snowstorm
6.1
You in the Story

The man behind the counter was caught off guard for a moment. It was as if Lin Yi Yang had dropped an atomic bomb on a peaceful morning, and nobody knew how to react.

 

After about ten seconds of stunned silence, the man finally found his voice. "Sister-in-law hasn't had breakfast yet? Let me go upstairs and see if there's anything that she'd like to eat."

 

He rushed into the elevator, and a few moments later, he returned to ask Lin Yi Yang if he wanted anything for himself. "No need," Lin Yi Yang replied. He had already eaten something on his way to the supermarket and was more interested in spending time with Yin Guo than in filling his stomach.

 

The young men's eyes lingered on Yin Guo, their interest clear on their faces. They seemed to be enjoying the idea of Lin Yi Yang having a sister-in-law and were eager to know more about her. However, Lin Yi Yang's expression indicated that he hadn't planned on introducing her to everyone yet, at least not during breakfast. He didn't want them to disturb her, so they all kept their distance and simply watched her.

 

Lin Yi Yang picked up a tall stool with one hand and placed it behind Yin Guo. She silently sat down on it, but inside, her heart was in turmoil, with countless emotions rising up within her.

 

Lin Yi Yang turned to her and looked deeply into her eyes, "Are you unhappy?" he asked, concerned.

 

Yin Guo shook her head, her hands instinctively rising to cover her hot cheeks. She felt embarrassed to be the center of attention in a room full of strangers, especially with Lin Yi Yang calling her their sister-in-law so casually.

 

Lin Yi Yang leaned in closer, his elbow resting on the worn wooden counter, and teased her with a hint of mischief in his voice. "Shaking your head means you're happy. Or are you still unhappy?"

 

Ignoring his playful banter, Yin Guo propped her face up with her hands and focused on the scratches on the counter. She knew her blushing was noticeable, but she couldn't help feeling flustered around Lin Yi Yang. Despite her efforts to hide her feelings, she couldn't shake the butterflies in her stomach.

 

Yin Guo asked softly, afraid of guessing wrong, "Is this billiard hall yours?"

 

Lin Yi Yang nodded, "Originally, it was the youth hostel owner's place, but I took over after it was poorly managed by someone else. I'm not here often, though, as that person in charge is responsible for running the business."

 

Yin Guo could sense that the billiard hall wasn't making much money, given that billiards wasn't a popular sport in the area. She could see the burden on Lin Yi Yang's face as he spoke about his struggles to keep the place running. She couldn't help but admire his determination to keep going despite the financial difficulties.

 

As Lin Yi Yang continued to talk about his situation, Yin Guo could feel her respect for him growing. She realized he had more to him than just his good looks and charming personality.

 

The past two months had been difficult for Lin Yi Yang as he had to pay six months' rent at once. The business had been slow for several days due to consecutive heavy snowstorms that caused a power outage in the area. He had to use up all his savings and even withdraw Wu Wei's savings to cover the deficit.

 

It was during this tough half-month that he met Yin Guo. Lin Yi Yang had agreed to go to Flushing to bet on a game of billiards with a friend in exchange for the friend hosting Yin Guo's cousin. Although the friend didn't manage to invite Yin Guo's sibling to dinner, Lin Yi Yang still fulfilled his promise and bet on that game in Flushing.

 

Looking back now, it was fate. The heavens destined him to make a trip to Flushing, destined him to meet Yin Guo again there.

 

"You already have a billiards room. Why did you go to Flushing to gamble?" Yin Guo asked curiously.

 

Lin Yi Yang smiled at her and didn't say anything. He thought to himself, "Actually, I went to gamble in Flushing to treat someone to a meal."

 

And that person is you.

 

Sun Zhou, the person in charge, swiftly brought a generous serving of fruits and cereal, along with milk and empty bowls. This was the most nutritious breakfast option he could think of for the girls. As someone who rented a bed in the youth hostel and watched over the billiard room, he often observed the girls eating in the communal kitchen. He believed that you could never go wrong with fruit when providing a healthy meal.

 

In the morning, Lin Yi Yang's usual routine consists of practicing playing ball. Depending on whether he has classes or not, he wakes up early or late. He doesn't have any specific drills to follow and simply plays whatever he feels like.

 

Playing billiards has become a long-lasting hobby for him that he couldn't give up. It helps him to relax, pass the time, or clear his head when he feels overwhelmed. Even when he's too tired to hold a cue stick, he still finds pleasure in sitting in the pool hall and listening to the sound of the balls colliding with one another.

 

Perhaps this is why he used up all his savings to take over the pool hall.

 

As Lin Yi Yang enjoyed his breakfast with Yin Guo, he felt a sense of familiarity and comfort settle in. He was used to being in the billiards room, used to the people who came and went, and even used to the distinct scent of the place.

 

While she ate, Lin Yi Yang wandered over to the counter and opened a small drawer that was his alone. He retrieved a piece of dark chocolate, unwrapped it, and popped it into his mouth, savoring the rich flavor.

 

Lin Yi Yang nodded and offered her a piece, "Want to try some?"

 

Yin Guo shook her head and said, "I'm afraid of getting fat."

 

Lin Yi Yang held up the chocolate package to Yin Guo and explained, "It's not that fattening. The calorie count isn't high. Just don't eat it on an empty stomach in the morning. It's not good for your stomach."

 

He had developed the habit of eating a piece of chocolate before playing pool every day since he experienced low blood sugar during morning practice in high school. Dark chocolate not only refreshed his mind and provided energy, but it also had heart-healthy benefits. In fact, sometimes, when he didn't have time to eat a proper meal, he would eat two pieces of chocolate and an apple, drink water, and consider it a meal replacement.

 

As they ate cereal with milk in the pool hall, Yin Guo observed Lin Yi Yang eating chocolate on the other side of the counter. It was a simple moment that revealed his most down-to-earth side. It was a far cry from the glamour of buying drinks at Red Fish bar or ordering a glass of wine from her birth year. It was just a quiet morning spent enjoying each other's company.

 

As Lin Yi Yang ate his chocolate, Yin Guo couldn't help but notice his outfit. He was wearing a black jacket and a white shirt with English writing on the chest that read "Saint Laurent" in black font. She couldn't remember ever seeing him in branded clothes before.

 

Lin Yi Yang finished his chocolate quickly and crumpled the wrapper before throwing it into the trash can in the corner. He then picked up a glass and turned on the faucet, filling it halfway with water. He took small sips, enjoying the coolness of the water in his mouth.

 

The memory of last night lingered in Yin Guo's mind as she sat across from Lin Yi Yang at the communal table. She couldn't help but recall how he had kissed her neck and ears, sending a shiver down her spine. She had been tense with anticipation, her fingers instinctively pinching his back in response. He had felt it and whispered in her ear, asking if it was painful or pleasurable.

 

His informal tone had made her realize that this man, six years her senior, was not just handsome but also charming. Compared to the small-time hooligans she had encountered in the billiard hall before, he was a cut above the rest.

 

Yin Guo's mind was lost in a romantic memory, causing her to blush unexpectedly while stirring her cereal. The simple kiss on the neck was enough to ignite a hot and wet memory that distracted her from her meal.

 

Lin Yi Yang noticed her unfinished cereal and asked, "Can't eat anymore?"

 

Yin Guo nodded, hoping to conceal her thoughts from the night before.

 

Lin Yi Yang took her bowl and spoon without asking and lifted the pink bowl to his lips, taking a sip directly from it. His bold and unrefined behavior showed he wasn't concerned about social norms. He didn't bother with a spoon and drank the cereal directly from the bowl. The cereal was thin enough to drink, and Lin Yi Yang finished the entire bowl with another sip.

 

Lin Yi Yang placed the empty bowl in the sink and announced, "I have class in the afternoon, so I'll leave after lunch." Yin Guo nodded absentmindedly, still focused on the image of him finishing the cereal leftovers. It was a small act, but it spoke volumes to her.

 

Her mind wandered to memories of her childhood, where her mother would often chastise her for wasting food and pour the leftovers onto her father's plate. Seeing Lin Yi Yang clean his plate reminded her of how rare it was to see such conscientiousness. She wasn't sure if other people's boyfriends acted the same way, but it didn't matter. At that moment, she was grateful to have him in her life.

 

In front of her, Lin Yi Yang's fingers snapped, bringing her thoughts back to reality. "What's on your mind?" he asked, looking at her quizzically.

 

"I was just thinking about the competition," Yin Guo quickly came up with an excuse for her momentary lapse of attention. "There are so many local players I don't know."

 

Nine-ball is a popular niche sport in the United States and Asia. As luck would have it, this is where it originated, and many players in the area stick to local competitions, forming their own small circles. It's a lot like Chinese chess, where they play amongst themselves.

 

In many tournaments in the Asian region, she couldn't even catch a glimpse of their playing style. It left her feeling bewildered.

 

Yin Guo was lost in thought, weighing her chances of success against the local players in the upcoming nine-ball competition. The variables in the game were huge, and sometimes a serve error could lead to losing seven or eight games in a row and ultimately, the game. It was different from snooker, which required more stability from players.

 

Lin Yi Yang noticed her apprehension and said, "Their shot selection isn't anything new. I'll show you in a bit."

 

"Really?" Yin Guo's eyes lit up with hope.

 

Lin Yi Yang chuckled and mockingly said to her, "Can it be fake?"

 

He had initially planned to go to New York this week to be Yin Guo's practice partner, but his sudden illness jeopardized that plan. However, Lin Yi Yang was confident in Yin Guo's abilities and believed that she would become familiar with the local routes and the competition's rhythm with a bit of guidance.

 

He was careful not to influence her too much in his way. Lin Yi Yang believed everyone has unique characteristics, and losing them would make things dull and uninteresting. He didn't want Yin Guo to become just another competition machine.

 

As they spoke, the young boys and men around the pool tables couldn't hold back any longer. They clamored over, complaining about the dry breakfast and their thirst, but their true intention was to get a closer look at the woman who had appeared out of nowhere or had been hidden away for too long. One of the boys, urged on by his friends, joked, "Can I call her sister-in-law Brother Yang?"

 

Lin Yi Yang's throat was already dry and scratchy, and he had to force himself to speak to Yin Guo. Faced with these kids, he didn't feel like talking. He grabbed a large glass bottle, opened the tap, and filled it with water.

 

It only took him ten seconds to complete the task, and he knew exactly how to handle the boys. They fell silent and dared not make a sound.

 

Lin Yi Yang's billiard club was unlike any other. He didn't take a percentage of his players' competition winnings but only asked for goodwill donations to support the club during major tournaments. He saw the club as a home and himself as a free coach to everyone who walked through the door.

 

The room was silent, and Yin Guo fidgeted in her seat, feeling like she was sitting on needles. Finally, she broke the silence, "I'm Yin Guo. You can just call me that."

 

Upon hearing 'Sao Zi's' introduction, the room erupted in a flurry of excitement. People eagerly crowded around Yin Guo, introducing themselves in a mix of Chinese and English and offering to shake her hand.

 


 

"Hello, Sister-in-law. I'm Zhou Wei."

 

"Sister-in-law, I'm Li Qing."

 

"You look really young, 18 or 19 years old, right?"

 

"Sister-in-law, do you play in competitions too?"

 

......

 

Yin Guo felt a sense of gratitude for growing up in billiard halls and being accustomed to the male-dominated environment. Otherwise, she would have been completely overwhelmed by the throngs of boys surrounding her, each one calling out "Sao Zi." The crowd in front of her eagerly waited to shake her hand.

 

As she looked around, Yin Guo noticed that even the guests from the youth hostel in the distance who were playing ball had taken notice of the commotion and were curious about the identity of the celebrity who had arrived.

 

Thankfully, Lin Yi Yang intervened and saved the day by placing a blue glass bottle on the counter and asking, "Are you all thirsty?" The offer was enough to break the tension and diffuse the situation.

 

His eyes swept around the room, searching for his target without singling anyone out. Wisely, the crowd scattered, and one person went to get a cup, symbolically pouring water to moisten their throat before returning to their billiard table. Even though they had left, they still couldn't suppress the excitement in their hearts. Whispering to each other, they discussed Lin Yi Yang's recent practice schedule, eventually discovering something suspicious. No wonder he wasn't here even on weekends. Rumors had it that he had a date with a beauty.

 

......

 

Lin Yi Yang slipped out of his coat and gestured for Yin Guo to follow him toward the billiard table that had just been wiped clean. He selected a cue stick from the rack and positioned himself near the edge of the table. "Break," he ordered, gesturing for her to take the first shot.

 

Yin Guo had already readied her cue stick and was glancing around the table's perimeter. Lin Yi Yang noticed her searching gaze and quickly surmised her intentions. He located a new box of face powder on a nearby windowsill and tossed her a fresh green compact.

 

Typically, Lin Yi Yang would search for half-used chalk around the room to use during his games. As the owner of the billiard room, he would collect any forgotten or unneeded items left behind by others and repurpose them for his own use. However, he didn't want to inconvenience Yin Guo and decided to provide her with a fresh supply of chalk for their game.

 

As the training session came to an end, Lin Yi Yang quickly made arrangements for Yin Guo's stay. A car was called, and they drove to the hotel together. Yin Guo was surprised to find out that the room had already been booked for her that morning. She wanted to ask Lin Yi Yang more about it, but he seemed to be in a rush and had other matters to attend to.

 

As he dropped her off at the hotel, Lin Yi Yang promised, "I'll pick you up at 7."

 

One minute after she arrived at her room, Lin Yi Yang sent her a WeChat message.

 

Lin: I didn't sleep much last night, so I'm going to take a nap in the afternoon.

 

Xiaoguo: I didn't finish what I was saying earlier. Can we split the bill? I don't want you to keep paying.

 

Lin: :)

 

Xiaoguo: This is a society of gender equality. If you keep doing this, I'll feel burdened.

 

Xiaoguo: You are still a student, and Sun Zhou just told me that the billiards room is losing money, and you're putting more money into it.

 

Lin: Do you regret it?

 

Yin Guo smiled back. She finds his overthinking somehow cute.

 

Xiaoguo: Who hasn't been a poor student before?

 

If it weren't for her special circumstances, she wouldn't have been able to earn prize money so early, and she would still be a poor student.

 

Lin Yi Yang didn't respond, but Yin Guo wasn't too worried about it. She assumed he had entered an area with a poor signal. She decided to take advantage of the quiet moment to catch up on some sleep.

 

Lin was right. Yin Guo didn't get much sleep the previous night and was feeling the effects during her morning training session. Despite this, she pushed through with Lin as her training partner, knowing that one hour with him was worth three hours with anyone else. Despite feeling relaxed after the session, her muscles were sore.

 

In an attempt to wind down and relax, she turned on some music on her iPad. However, as soon as the song "Years of Friendship" began playing, memories of the day when Lin held her outside the billiard room flooded her mind.

 

"Come to forget the wrong and miss the past. I have always had fun in the troubled days... In the rushing wind and rain, uninhibited wakefulness and drunkenness, all the stories seem to have happened in the wandering years..."

 

She took out a white cloth bag from her backpack, which contained clean clothes, and threw the bag onto the bed before heading to the bathroom.

 

Ten minutes later, her phone made a notification sound. Even while blow-drying her hair in the bathroom, she could hear it. Since last week, she had set everyone's notifications on WeChat to "Do Not Disturb," except for Lin Yi Yang's. So this sound could only represent a message from Lin Yi Yang.

 

She dashed out of her room, frantically searching for her phone. When she finally found it, she saw several notifications from Lin, including a few pictures. As she opened them, she realized they were screenshots of bank deposits, some from the pool hall and some from Lin's personal account.

 

Lin: Apart from the pool hall, this is everything.

 

Without a care in the world, Lin had even left his account information visible. Yin Guo was both touched and overwhelmed by his generosity. Tears welled up in her eyes as she gazed at the screenshots. She felt like crying her heart out at that moment.

 

Yin Guo felt like the weight of everyone's opinions about Lin Yi Yang's financial situation was bearing down on her. She couldn't shake off Wu Wei's indirect comment about Lin Yi Yang being a poor student, fearing that Wu Wei might also view Lin in the same way.

 

Even her cousin, Meng Xiaodong, had questioned her, "How's your development going? Don't always spend his money. It's not easy for him to make it this far. I heard his school is quite expensive."

 

And then there was Coach Chen's comment, "It's a pity back then. The benefits weren't good. He had better grades than your brother but didn't get much prize money. If it were now, he would have bought several houses. It's okay. He's young and has a bright future."

 

Yin Guo couldn't help but feel burdened by the expectations and opinions of those around her. She wondered if they truly understood her and Lin's relationship or if they were simply judging them based on their own biases and assumptions.

 

......

 

Yin Guo felt the weight of the world's expectations and judgments bearing down on her. Everyone seemed to fear she would look down on Lin Yi Yang and judge him based on his financial situation. But to her, he was a hardworking and excellent man with nothing but positive qualities and traits.

 

As she opened her online banking app and took a screenshot, she knew she had to show Lin that she valued him for who he was, not for his money. Sending the screenshot with the caption "Mine" was her way of reassuring him that their relationship was not based on material things but on love and respect.

 

Actually, Yin Guo didn't have as many savings as Lin Yi Yang did, but at least it was purely from her personal income and didn't have to support the operation of the billiard hall.

 

Feeling a little uneasy about their financial situation, she messaged Lin Yi Yang, offering to help if he needed it. But he didn't reply.

 

Yin Guo decided to take a relaxing shower to ease her mind. As the warm water washed over her body, drowsiness slowly overtook her. She turned on the TV, intending to watch for a while before sleeping, but fell asleep holding her blanket after just a few minutes.

 

She was abruptly awoken by the sound of knocking on the door. At first, she thought it was just the neighbor, but as she slowly regained her senses, she realized it was coming from her own room. She sat up suddenly, thinking it was already 7 pm, but the bright sun outside reminded her that it was still early in the day.

 

Yin Guo's eyes fluttered open, the hazy disorientation of a nap clinging to her thoughts. She fumbled for her phone to check the time, surprised that only 20 minutes had passed since she had closed her eyes.

 

As she stood up, her gaze instinctively went to the peephole, revealing Lin Yi Yang in the hallway, looking unchanged from earlier in the day. He carried a jacket and wore the same white shirt, the fabric lightly rumpled.

 

She opened the door, surprised to see him so early. "Didn't you say seven o'clock?" she asked, still groggy from her interrupted nap.

 

Lin Yi Yang met her gaze, his expression unreadable. "Yes, seven o'clock," he replied with a hint of a smile.

 

As he stepped into the room, Yin Guo felt a flicker of uncertainty. She watched as he took off his watch and turned the hands back more than six turns, pointing to seven o'clock. The gesture felt meaningful, though she couldn't quite grasp its significance.

 

Without a word, Lin Yi Yang closed the door behind him, and Yin Guo knew he wouldn't leave her side until he saw her off on the train back to New York.

During the Snowstorm
6.3
You in the Story

Yin Guo couldn't bring herself to look any lower than his waistline, so she asked a question to distract herself. "How did you manage to get the tattoo in such a low position? And how many sessions did it take to complete such a large design?"

 

He chuckled, tracing his finger down to a spot that made her blush. "The one on my waist was done in a single session. As for the one inside my arm, it took two sessions because the design is quite extensive."

 

Yin Guo simply nodded, still feeling a little flustered from their conversation.

 

Yin Guo felt her face flush with embarrassment as she realized that Lin Yi Yang had undoubtedly noticed her reaction to his suggestive gesture. She desperately searched for a way to break the awkward silence that had settled between them.

 

Suddenly, his phone began buzzing loudly, interrupting the tension in the room.

 

"Is that your phone?" she asked, grateful for the distraction.

 

Before Lin Yi Yang could answer, Yin Guo got up from the bed and started searching for the phone. She found it behind his waist where it had fallen out of his pocket when they were fooling around earlier. Yin Guo answered the call and handed it to him.

 

As Lin Yi Yang took the phone from Yin Guo's hand, he shifted his weight, causing her to lose balance and fall onto his chest. She could feel his chest rising and falling with each breath he took.

 

With one arm still around her, Lin Yi Yang answered the phone with a soft "hello." Yin Guo heard that the person on the other end was speaking Chinese. It appears that Lin Yi Yang does not intend to listen to the person thoroughly. He was still lying on top of her, one hand holding her firmly.

 

Throughout the lengthy conversation, Lin Yi Yang remained silent as his classmate on the other end of the line urged him to consider going to Duke for his Ph.D. Despite the insistence of his former classmate, Lin Yi Yang gave no indication of interest, and Yin Guo could feel his tension growing as the conversation dragged on.

 

Yin Guo's gaze flickered with surprise as she learned about Lin Yi Yang's decision to forego pursuing a Ph.D. She looked up at him, curious and wondering why.

 

Lin Yi Yang met her gaze and offered a small smile.

 

As the person on the other end of the line continued to question him, Lin Yi Yang's patience grew thin. "Anyway, that's enough. My girlfriend's here," he said firmly.

 

Yin Guo watched as he spoke with authority and conviction, impressed by his unwavering determination. When he finally hung up the phone, she smiled at him approvingly.

 

He carelessly tossed the phone onto the bed, narrowly missing hitting the couch. Yin Guo noticed the sudden change in his demeanor, sensing something was amiss. She wondered what was going through his mind but decided not to pry.

 

Little did she know that Lin Yi Yang had been putting in a lot of effort into applying for the Ph.D. program. He had received an offer and planned to let Wu Wei return to China first without waiting for him. Lin Yi Yang intended to join him after completing his Ph.D.

 

But when Yin Guo appeared at the Union Station, everything changed for Lin Yi Yang. His priorities shifted, and he found himself questioning whether pursuing a Ph.D. was truly what he wanted.

 

Since childhood, Lin Yi Yang had been raised with the belief to live every day as if it was his last, a philosophy instilled by his parents. It was a mindset that led him to live impulsively and follow his heart's desires, even as an adult. When he met Yin Guo, he fell deeply in love and didn't want to waste another moment in his current life nor continue with his studies.

 

As Yin Guo attempted to get up, Lin Yi Yang grabbed hold of her and pulled her closer. Her heart raced as she felt a mixture of excitement and apprehension. Suddenly, she found herself asking, "Have you really not seen it?"

 

The question hung in the air between them, the tension palpable as they gazed at each other, locked in a moment of anticipation.

 

Lin Yi Yang was about to give up and put Yin Guo back onto the bed, tucking her in with a blanket. But when she spoke, he stopped his actions and asked, "Are you asking about a real person or something else?"

 

Was he hinting at an adult film?

 

Besides, she was no stranger to such topics. Being born and raised in a modern society with developed internet, she was well aware that even if schools didn't provide sex education, information about it could quickly spread among dormitory sisters three hundred and sixty degrees.

 

Yin Guo stumbled upon an explicit video while walking around her dormitory during lunchtime, piquing her curiosity. Three dorm mates were gathered around a computer, watching the unsightly footage. The moans and heavy breathing from the video were too much for her, and she took a quick peek before leaving.

 

Lin Yi Yang shared his own experience, "I've seen a few live-action versions before. The first time was in junior high school, at a skating rink that wasn't open then."

 

Yin Guo looked at him incredulously, "Are you serious?"

 

Lin Yi Yang smiled, "Why would I lie to you?"

 

He continued, "They were all people we knew. I didn't expect that guy and his girlfriend to be so wild and open. They just went ahead and did it. After a while, I got bored watching and left. It was just the same action repeated over and over again."

 

......

 

The description was so vivid and explicit that it left Yin Guo speechless. She blinked her eyes in disbelief and coughed nervously, unsure how to react.

 

While this was a new and overwhelming experience for Yin Guo, Lin Yi Yang seemed unfazed. Having been exposed to different aspects of society, he had encountered and witnessed a plethora of shocking and explicit situations before.

 

Lin Yi Yang explained that people who engage in such public displays are often driven by a desire for attention and validation, commonly seen in adolescents. Whether it's through sexual acts, fighting, or even more dangerous behaviors, they seek to prove their individual heroism and stand out from the crowd. While Yin Guo finds it hard to imagine such behavior, Lin Yi Yang, who has seen various aspects of society, is familiar with these attention-seeking tactics.

 

Lin Yi Yang leaned against the head of the bed, his eyes fixed on Yin Guo. Without a second thought, he undid his belt and threw it carelessly on the sofa next to the bed. The buckle hit the phone with a sharp snap, causing Yin Guo to jump slightly.

 

The casualness with which he discarded the belt made Yin Guo feel a little uneasy as if he was intentionally trying to provoke her. She shifted her gaze away, feeling a bit embarrassed by the situation.

 

Yin Guo turned over and faced the wall, feigning sleep. She wasn't sure if she was ready for a conversation that could potentially lead to something more.

 

"Are you sure you don't want to talk?" he whispered in her ear, his warm breath sending shivers down her spine.

 

She hesitated for a moment before giving a noncommittal "um." She couldn't deny the fluttery feeling in her stomach at his proximity.

 

The "um" from Yin Guo was like a spark igniting the embers of Lin Yi Yang's desire. It was as if a fresh log had been thrown onto a dying fire, and suddenly, the flames roared back to life. He remained silent for a moment, savoring the sensation that coursed through his body.

 

Without a word, he got up from the bed and headed to the bathroom. In the warm glow of the yellow light, he turned on the faucet, letting the water flow over his hands as he tried to cool down the heat that had taken hold of him.

 

He turned off the faucet and dried his face and hands with a towel. Walking back to the bed, he slid under the covers and wrapped his arms around Yin Guo, who was still facing away from him. The warmth of his body and the scent of his shower gel enveloped her, making her feel comfortable and relaxed.

 

"Let's rest a little longer," he whispered into her ear.

 

She felt a flurry of emotions inside, her heart beating faster in his embrace. The comfort of his arms was both calming and electrifying, a feeling she couldn't quite describe.

 

As he tried to remove her shirt, Yin Guo's hand gently pushed him away. Lin Yi Yang turned her face towards him and smiled, his eyes full of desire. Without a word, he leaned in and kissed her passionately. His tongue explored her mouth, leaving her trembling with desire.

 

His body pressed against hers, his legs and knees weakening from the intensity of his desire.

 

......

 

The sound of the central air conditioning vent is like a constant reminder of the stifling heat. Despite being set to 25 degrees Celsius, the air blowing out is either too cold or too hot. Yin Guo can't seem to find a comfortable temperature, and her body is starting to perspire.

 

......

 

Yin Guo awoke to a dimly lit room, the curtains barely allowing slivers of light to filter through. She checked her phone and saw it was already 7 o'clock in the morning.

 

She sat up and stretched her arms, feeling the stiffness in her muscles from a long night's sleep. Looking around the room, she noticed a small lamp on the nightstand beside the bed, casting a warm yellow glow on the bedside table. The rest of the room was still shrouded in darkness, giving the space an eerie feeling.

 

Lin Yi Yang was sitting on the sofa, bare-chested and wearing jeans, scrolling through his phone. The room was dark except for a desk lamp on the table beside him, casting a warm glow that highlighted his short, wet hair. Water droplets glistened at the tips of his strands like tiny diamonds.

 

As Yin Guo stirred, he looked up, and their eyes met. His voice was husky as he asked, "Awake?"

 

She propped herself up with her hands, her gaze darting around the room until she realized her phone was missing.

 

Lin Yi Yang threw his phone on the sofa, walked around the bed, and searched for it. He lifted the blanket to help her search. His hands brushed against her bare leg, and he paused, feeling the smoothness of her skin. Yin Guo shifted, pulling the blanket closer around her body.

 

Unable to find the phone, Lin Yi Yang grabbed one end of the blanket and shook it twice, causing it to fall onto the carpet with a soft thud. He picked it up and handed it to her, a mischievous grin on his face.

 

At first, she hesitated to take it, covering herself with the blanket. Lin Yi Yang chuckled; he hadn't undressed her and had no idea what she was covering.

 

The way Yin Guo's gaze flickered over Lin Yi Yang's jeans didn't go unnoticed. It was a common misconception that when a man had a physical reaction, he couldn't control it and had to do something about it. But just like women can control their urges, men can too. Holding back the desire was far easier than holding back tears.

 

Yin Guo's thoughts drifted as she lay in bed. She wondered if Lin Yi Yang had taken care of himself in the shower, as she had learned from her friends that men often do. However, she knew better than to assume and didn't want to make any unwarranted assumptions. As for Lin Yi Yang, he appeared calm and collected, and his attention seemed to be on her. She couldn't help but feel grateful for his self-control and ability to prioritize her needs over his desires.

 

He took a shower because he felt he smelled terrible and wanted to ensure he smelled good before taking her out later.

 

Once they were both ready, Lin Yi Yang took Yin Guo down to the hotel restaurant for breakfast. The aroma of freshly brewed coffee and sizzling bacon filled the air, and Lin Yi Yang recommended the chef's special, which turned out to be a delectable eggs benedict.

 

After the meal, Lin Yi Yang grabbed a few throat lozenges from his pocket and popped two into his mouth. He didn't want his voice to give out during their outing, wherever that may be.

 

A coach bus appeared in the distance and eventually pulled up in front of them. The driver waved, motioning for them to hurry up as he needed to pick up more passengers. Speaking in English, he greeted Lin Yi Yang, "Get in. I'm going to pick up the tourists?"

 

Lin Yi Yang led her onto the bus and directed her to take the first seat on the far left, by the window next to the door. As they settled in, Lin Yi Yang caught up with the driver, reminiscing about old times. Yin Guo listened in, curious about their connection. As they started moving, she turned to Lin Yi Yang and asked in a hushed tone, "Where are we headed?"

 

"We're going on a night tour," he said, flashing her a grin.

 

"Night tour?" she repeated, her curiosity piqued.

 

He nodded. "Yes, it's a popular tourist attraction in DC. You can see all the major landmarks and monuments illuminated by the city lights at night. I used to work as a tour guide myself, so I know the best routes to take."

 

Just when Yin Guo was sleeping, Lin Yi Yang had specifically made arrangements with the driver to take over the tour guide job for the night, wanting to take his girlfriend around.

 

Remembering how Yin Guo had mentioned that her previous visits to the city were rushed, Lin Yi Yang was determined to show her around and give her a deeper understanding of his past.

 

When the tour bus arrived at the pick-up point, they found a group of people already waiting in line. As soon as the bus door opened, Lin Yi Yang stepped off and smoothly transitioned into his role as a professional tour guide. He greeted each person individually, checking their names on the list one by one.

 

Yin Guo leaned her forehead against the car window, her gaze fixed on Lin Yi Yang outside. She couldn't help but admire his handsome features and didn't want to take her eyes off him even a second, staring at him without blinking.

 

However, she couldn't help but think he was also skilled at changing his appearance. The guy who was just a big hooligan in their hotel room had transformed into a tall and handsome Chinese tour guide on the street. A few girls at the back of the queue were whispering and talking about him.

 

Yin Guo remained seated in the first row throughout the night while Lin Yi Yang, with his expertise of the route, rekindled his past as a tour guide. He introduced the illuminated buildings in the dark night to a full bus of tourists, speaking fluently in English.

 

She listened intently, leaning on the railing, and kept a close eye on him as he walked down the aisle, always gazing at him. As she followed behind tourists with different skin tones, she absorbed his explanations, feeling as if she were seeing a glimpse of the past Lin Yi Yang.

 

Yin Guo and Lin Yi Yang arrived at the last stop of the night tour, the Lincoln Memorial. As the other tourists got off the bus, Yin Guo decided to stay behind and rest her sore feet.

 

Lin Yi Yang, on the other hand, as a responsible tour guide, had to stay with the group and ensure everyone returned to the bus safely. He bid farewell to Yin Guo and led the tourists back to the bus.

 

Alone in the first row of the bus, Yin Guo waited for the group to return. The lights were turned off, and the silence was broken only by the sound of her breathing. As she gazed out the window, she thought about the past and present moments she had shared with Lin Yi Yang. She couldn't help but wonder what the future held for them.

 

Yin Guo leaned against the window, her thoughts drifting to Duke University. She wanted to know more about it, but Zheng Yi seemed more interested in her relationship with Lin Yi Yang.

 

Yin Guo mentioned that Lin Yi Yang went to wash his hands before returning for more intimacy, which struck her as a gentlemanly gesture. Sharing these details with Zheng Yi, Yin Guo's enthusiasm was palpable as she described their interactions. Zheng Yi, in turn, was captivated by Yin Guo's account, nodding along with a smile as she remarked, "He sounds like quite the gentleman. Ten out of ten stars for sure."

 

Suddenly, a knock on the window jolted her back to reality. Yin Guo turned to see Lin Yi Yang outside, his tall figure illuminated by the streetlights. His hands were in his pockets, smiling at her and gesturing to ask her to come down.

 

Yin Guo stepped off the bus, her heart racing as she looked up at Lin Yi Yang's handsome face. His voice was smooth like honey, and she felt herself getting lost in his words.

 

"Have you ever seen 'Forrest Gump'?" he asked, his gaze fixed on her.

 

She nodded, her eyes never leaving his.

 

"Well, there's a scene in the movie where Forrest meets Jenny in the reflecting pool," he said, pointing to a spot not far away. "Let me take you there, right in front of the memorial."

 

Lin Yi Yang had seized the moment during the tourists' free time to pick Yin Guo up from the bus. As they strolled on the stone path in the middle of the lawn, Yin Guo couldn't help but feel her heart racing. It had only been a little over ten minutes, yet she already missed him dearly.

 

Her mind was clouded with thoughts of those two girls who had been eyeing Lin Yi Yang earlier. Would they approach him and exchange phone numbers? The thought of others vying for his attention made Yin Guo feel uneasy, a feeling she had never experienced before.

 

Yin Guo never expected to be so petty that just the thought of others paying attention to Lin Yi Yang would make her feel uncomfortable. Lin Yi Yang led her to the reflecting pool, where there were no ripples on the water's surface under the night's lighting. Behind them were men and women taking pictures, running up and down the steps, all tourists.

 

The wind blew her hair, and Yin Guo tidied it up. Lin Yi Yang offered her a piece of dark chocolate, which she gladly took a bite of. They shared the rest of the chocolate as they stood by the reflecting pool, their bodies close enough to feel each other's warmth.

 

The gathering tourists behind them couldn't help but witness the scene and gasp in amazement. It seemed like the tourist's guide irresistible charm had done it, capturing the heart of a girl in just two hours of the Washington night tour.

 

"Where are we going next?" she asked, chewing on the chocolate.

 

He crumpled the wrapper in his hand. "Where do you want to go?"

 

"My feet hurt. Let's just go back. We've seen all the famous sights anyway."

 

"Okay."

 

"I'm really going to sleep this time when we get back," she reiterated.

 

"Okay," he laughed.

 

......

 

"I haven't had enough sleep," she protested, her voice low and raspy. "I didn't sleep well last night."

 

Her eyes drooped, heavy with fatigue from a long and tiring day. Lin Yi Yang couldn't help but feel a twinge of concern at the sight of her exhaustion. He reached out a hand to brush a strand of hair from her face, a tender gesture that made her heart skip a beat.

 

"I'll let you sleep," he said, his voice soft and gentle. It was a simple promise but filled with an unspoken promise of his care and concern for her well-being. Yin Guo couldn't help but feel a warm glow spread through her body at his words, comforted by the knowledge that he was there for her.

 

......

 

Yin Guo felt as though she was stuck in a cycle of repeating the same mistake. Even though she tried to shake off the feeling, she couldn't help but think that she would make the same choices she had in the afternoon.

 

Lost in her thoughts, Lin Yi Yang suddenly showed her something on his phone. Yin Guo looked at the glowing screen in the darkness and saw a screenshot of two tickets for tomorrow morning. She was confused at first, as she had planned to stay for the entire weekend, leaving on Sunday morning.

 

As he spoke, Lin Yi Yang could sense Yin Guo's unease. He placed a gentle hand on her shoulder, hoping to comfort her.

"I understand you have a competition to attend, but I don't want you to worry about the logistics. Let me take care of it. I'll make sure you return to New York in time for your event," he said reassuringly.

 

Yin Guo remained silent, her mind still foggy from sleep.

 

Lin Yi Yang couldn't help but feel a twinge of guilt. He remembered purchasing the train tickets that afternoon and feeling uneasy about it. Yin Guo had been sound asleep, her peaceful expression not revealing any concerns about their abrupt departure.

 

He sighed, hoping that his gesture of kindness wouldn't be misconstrued. After all, he only wanted to ensure that Yin Guo's needs were taken care of.

 

"Are you upset?" He asked, his hands casually resting in his pockets, his gaze locked onto hers.

 

She shook her head, not wanting to cause any trouble. "Just take me to the train station. Why complicate things by going to New York?"

 

She could sense Lin Yi Yang's reluctance to leave, but she had a competition to attend and didn't want to be a burden to him.

 

"Listen to me," he said, "I want to send you off."

 

He was well aware that his plan to take her all the way to New York and back was not logical nor practical. However, his heart yearned for a few more precious moments with her before bidding farewell. He couldn't bear the thought of letting her go just yet, and he hoped that somehow the extra time together would make up for the distance that would soon separate them.

During the Snowstorm
1.2
From Storm to Clear Skies

As the train chugged along, Meng Xiaotian's breathing grew steady and deep. He had quickly fallen asleep, his face obscured by the coat he had pulled over himself. The rhythmic swaying of the train and the hum of the wheels on the tracks had done their job.


The ticket inspector made his way down the aisle, checking each passenger's ticket with a practiced eye. Yin Guo reached over and gently pried Meng Xiaotian's phone from his lax grip, scanning for the electronic ticket before handing it to the inspector. She then placed the phone back in Meng Xiaotian's hand, making sure he was still comfortably asleep.


She sat up straight, her eyes glued to her phone as Lin Yi Yang's message came through on WeChat. "No need to be polite," he wrote, his words brief and to the point.


Yin Guo's heart sank as she saw the notification on her phone that the money transfer had been rejected.


Her fingers lingered over the screen for a moment before she put her phone away, feeling dejected. She couldn't help but think, "I'll talk to him when I see him." As the train came to a stop at a small station, she looked around the carriage and saw that, with only a few passengers boarding and others getting off, the carriage now had less than ten people in it.


She leaned over to her brother and gently nudged him awake. "I'm going to the restroom," she said softly. Meng Xiaotian groggily acknowledged her before making her way to the bathroom.


Yin Guo carefully lifted her bag from the ground and slung it over her shoulder, the straps digging into her flesh as she adjusted it to rest snugly against her back. She then turned to her cousin, Meng Xiaotian. She leaned down and gently pushed the backpack carelessly under his legs.


As she stepped away from her seat for a couple of minutes, a familiar face boarded the train.

The man with glasses scanned the passengers as he made his way through. He was the one they had encountered the other day. As the train moved along its tracks, Meng Xiaotian's head lolled against the window, his face obscured by the thick coat he had draped over himself, shrouding his features from view. The man with the glasses walked passed him, completely oblivious to his presence. He was solely focused on following the instructions on his phone as he searched for Lin Yi Yang's luggage.


He moved through the next two carriages, then he eventually spotted Lin Yi Yang's bags resting beside an unoccupied seat.


He then looked towards the window and saw Lin Yi Yang, sitting alone, the African-descent woman who had been sitting next to him, holding a child, had just disembarked from the train.


I'm glad I made it," Wu Wei exclaimed as he pushed Lin Yi Yang towards the window, taking a seat next to him. He breathed heavily as he undid his coat, "I was afraid I wouldn't catch up with you.


Lin Yi Yang knew exactly why Wu Wei was there and remained silent, avoiding eye contact.


Wu Wei leaned in, his tone serious, "Everyone's there. Why did you leave? What's going on?"


Lin Yi Yang pulled up the collar of his sportswear, concealing his face from Wu Wei's inquisitive gaze. He rested his head against the window glass, attempting to evade the impending conversation.


Wu Wei, undeterred, persisted in trying to pull Lin Yi Yang's clothes down.


Lin Yi Yang let out a sigh and whispered, "I spent all the money buying drinks for a girl that day and didn't have enough left for a train ticket."


Wu Wei's face softened with understanding. He pulled out his wallet and opened it for Lin Yi Yang to see. "I'm in the same situation, buddy. Look, all I've got left is pocket change. But hey, we'll manage. Stick together through thick and thin, right?"


Lin Yi Yang reluctantly sat up straight and took a look at the pitiful contents of Wu Wei's wallet. The two of them were truly struggling, with only a small amount of money between them.


....


The train pulled into Washington D.C. station and the dull grey light of early evening filtered in through the windows. Despite the blizzard that had hit the city, causing work and classes to be suspended for two days, life was slowly returning to normal.


Meng Xiaotian got off the train and headed to the hamburger chain store that Lin Yi Yang had mentioned. He walked through the crowded station, looking for the familiar brand.


After a bit of searching, he found it conveniently located next to a Starbucks. He felt relieved as he entered the store. As a small treat for his cousin, he decided to buy her something to eat. After checking the time, Meng Xiaotian figured it wouldn't be an issue and stepped inside.


Meanwhile, Wu Wei grabbed Lin Yi Yang's sports bag tightly and briskly walked towards the bus station, "Come on, let's go. Time is running out."


Lin Yi Yang reluctantly walked alongside Wu Wei, his hesitation evident.


"Listen, I know I didn't have enough money for train tickets," Wu Wei explained, his voice low and urgent, "But I've worked something out. I managed to snag two discounted bus tickets while we were on the train. However, if you decide not to return to New York with me, it'll say a lot about you as a brother. It would mean you're heartless, ungrateful, and selfish. You'd have the reputation of someone with a heart of stone and no sense of loyalty."


Lin Yi Yang listened to Wu Wei's relentless persuasion, enduring a barrage of Chinese idioms for a full hour.


Familiar with Wu Wei's tenacious nature, Lin Yi Yang likened him to a persistent adhesive plaster, unwilling to let go until he achieved his goal. Despite his initial resistance, Lin Yi Yang recognized that there was no escaping the situation; he would have to return to New York with Wu Wei.


As Lin Yi Yang stood there, he couldn't ignore the gnawing hunger in his stomach. He noticed a hamburger joint in the distance, its vibrant sign beckoning him. He briefly contemplated whether to grab a quick meal but ultimately decided to wait until he was on the bus. Perhaps, he mused, he might come across a budget-friendly slice of pizza, if luck was on his side, and it would only set him back a dollar or so.


"Is there anything to eat in the bag?" Lin Yi Yang asked, his eyes scanning the area for any sign of food.


"Of course there is," Wu Wei replied as he opened his backpack and rummaged through it. He pulled out a third of a chocolate bar and handed it to Lin Yi Yang. "It's not much, but it'll hold you over until we can find something better."


Lin Yi Yang took the chocolate, his stomach grumbling even louder at the sight of it. He unwrapped the foil, revealing the broken pieces of chocolate inside. He took a bite, the sweetness of the chocolate mixing with the bitter taste of disappointment in his mouth. He knew that Wu Wei had probably scavenged it from somewhere, but he didn't want to ask. He crumpled the foil into a ball and tossed it into a nearby trash can.


"Come on," Wu Wei said, slinging the backpack over his shoulder. "Let's find a bus station and get out of here."


Lin Yi Yang nodded and followed Wu Wei, his stomach still grumbling as they walked towards the bus station.


Two minutes later...


Meng Xiaotian emerged from the hamburger joint, clutching a burger, while Yin Guo focused on flagging down a taxi. The scent of the freshly grilled patty wafted through the air as he savored a satisfying bite.


"What do you think we should treat him to? Have you discovered any great places to eat in Washington?" Meng Xiaotian inquired, taking another substantial bite of his burger.


"It's all pretty average," she said. "This city isn't really known for its food. If you want something good, you're better off in New York.".


Meng Xiaotian nodded, understanding the sentiment. He then decided to take out his phone and ask Lin Yi Yang's opinion. After all, they were planning on inviting him to eat, so it would be good to let him choose.


"Oh no!"


"What's wrong?" Meng Xiaotian showed the chat history to Yin Guo, who looked puzzled.

Tian Tian: Hey Lin, my sister and I are here in DC now. How about we grab dinner together tonight?"


Lin: Sorry guys, I'm back in New York already. Have fun though!


Meng Xiaotian and Yin Guo exchanged a disappointed look, both knowing that their plans for the evening had just fallen through. Yin Guo glanced down at the Uber app on his phone, noticing that their ride had just arrived. He sighed, feeling a sense of helplessness wash over him.


"Where should we go now?" Meng Xiaotian inquired, his tone tinged with uncertainty. He found himself at a loss regarding their next steps.


Yin Guo proposed, "Let's make our way to the hotel." The weather in Washington was notably more pleasant than in New York, and she hoped to enjoy it to the fullest. "We've already booked it, so we might as well make the most of our trip."


Despite her suggestion, Yin Guo couldn't conceal her disappointment. She turned to Meng Xiaotian, her frustration evident in her gaze. "This has been such a waste of time and money."


Meng Xiaotian hung his head in shame, knowing he had messed up. "I'm sorry," he muttered, his voice low.


The pair of cousins looked at each other for a moment, before bursting out laughing. This trip to Washington D.C. was definitely not what they had expected. Still, it amuses them how they can make a sudden trip like that.


As they walked through the bustling area, Meng Xiaotian couldn't help but take in the sights and sounds around him. The bright lights and bustling crowds made it feel like a never-ending adventure. He was determined to take as many pictures as he could to capture the memories of this trip.


"I'm giving you five minutes to take all the pictures you want," Yin Guo said, pointing to the various landmarks and sights around them. "I'll wait for you over there," she added, pointing to a nearby hamburger shop.


Meng Xiaotian eagerly took out his camera and began snapping photos of the train station. He took pictures of the grand architecture, the bustling crowds, and even the food vendors selling delicious treats. He wanted to make this trip one to remember.


As he snapped away, his sister Yin Guo patiently waited for him, munching on her own hamburger. After finishing her meal, she looked for a trash can, but before she could found one, her cousin had already returned. "Let's go," she said, and he hummed in response. As they walked away, Yin Guo realized that the trash can was actually behind her and that she had been blindsided. She quickly wrapped the hamburger wrapper into a ball and threw it in the trash can before leaving the train station with her brother.


Before they left the station, Meng Xiaotian specifically took a picture of the hamburger shop and happily posted it on his social media.


"Just tried out this burger joint recommended by one of the most handsome guys I've seen in my entire life. [Heart]"


Yin Guo loves to playfully argue with him, she is used to it and always counters him.


Xiao Guo: [puckering lips] He's not that handsome. You are deceiving your followers.


Zheng Yi replied to Xiao Guo: Got any pictures? Your younger brother's been talking about him for days, and I'm curious to put a face to the name.


Tian Tian replied to Zheng Yi: I wouldn't lie to you guys. If I were a girl, I'd definitely be into him.


Xiao Guo replied to Zheng Yi: My little brother has a tendency to exaggerate when it comes to ordinary-looking people.


Tian Tian replied to Xiao Guo: C'mon, be honest.


Zheng Yi replied to Xiao Guo: Yeah, give it to us straight. don't bring personal emotions into it.


Xiao Guo replied to Tian Tian: Fine, fine. He's not bad, I'll give you that.


Meng Xiaotian sat in the front row; his eyes fixed on Yin Guo as she admitted defeat with a playful grin on her face. He couldn't help but let out a chuckle as he turned to give her a wink, eliciting a ghostly expression from Yin Guo as she gestured towards the car window, silently urging him to take a picture quickly.


As the car glided down the street, Meng Xiaotian couldn't help but crane his neck to take in the impressive architecture that surrounded them. Museums and grand buildings popped up with increasing frequency, each one more awe-inspiring than the last. The driver, a middle-aged white woman, must have noticed his interest, because she slowed the car down and began pointing out the names of each structure as they passed.


Meng Xiaotian listened intently, his phone held up to snap pictures of the impressive sights. The driver, noticing their lack of luggage, couldn't help but ask if they were in the city for a study trip.


As their conversation turned to the topic of George Town University and the cost of education, Meng Xiaotian's mind wandered to his friend Lin Yi Yang. He knew that the Lin family was well-off, but he couldn't help but wonder just how much money was necessary to attend a school like this. He glanced over at Yin Guo, who was listening intently to the driver's words, her expression thoughtful.


"Did you hear what she said?" Meng Xiaotian murmured, leaning in closer to Yin Guo.


She nodded in agreement, her eyes still fixed on the passing scenery. "It's crazy to think about how much money is required to attend a school like this," she murmured, "But I suppose that's just how it is. I remember when Zheng Yi came here for her first year, the cost for tuition, living, and even skiing vacations added up to a fortune. But I suppose that's just how he is, and it's hard to set a standard."


Meng Xiaotian nodded, his mind turning to Lin Yi Yang once more. He couldn't help but think that Brother Lin must be incredibly wealthy to be able to afford a school like this. But he pushed the thought aside.


As Meng Xiaotian and Yin Guo stepped out of the car and into the grand lobby of the hotel, Meng Xiaotian couldn't help but feel a sense of excitement. The marble floor gleamed beneath their feet, and the grand chandeliers above cast a warm glow over the luxurious space.


Yin Guo, however, was all business as she made a beeline for the front desk. She quickly confirmed their room reservation and handed over their passports and credit cards to the staff. She communicated the details of the booking and waited for them to process the check-in procedures.


As they waited, Meng Xiaotian couldn't help but notice the constant stream of notifications on Yin Guo's phone. Curious, he leaned over and saw that she was scrolling through her social media feed. He couldn't help but chuckle when he saw a post about a hamburger joint and a comment from someone named Lin, suggesting a restaurant called OLD EBBITT GRILL near the White House that was worth trying.


Lin: If you're ever near the White House, be sure to check out OLD EBBITT GRILL.


She felt her face flush with embarrassment as she remembered that Lin Yi Yang could see everything she and her cousin had said in their friend circle. She couldn't believe she had been so careless, discussing his looks right in front of him. It was even more awkward than the time she had checked his ID that night. She reread her message several times, feeling mortified and unsure of what to do next. How could she have forgotten something like this? She couldn't believe her own carelessness and wished she could disappear into the floor.


Meng Xiaotian saw her constantly looking at the hamburger picture and realized belatedly that Lin Yi Yang had left a message. He couldn't help but burst out in laughter, his chuckles shaking his entire frame. "Luckily you were honest in the end, otherwise it would have been worse," he exclaimed, still in stitches.


Yin Guo felt her face flush with embarrassment, her anger boiling over. She fiercely elbowed Meng Xiaotian in the ribs, trying to silence his laughter.


The hotel receptionist completed the formalities and handed over the passports, room cards, and bills to Yin Guo. But her mind was elsewhere, still reeling from the comments on her friend's post.


Automatically, she signed her name on the bill without paying attention, her thoughts preoccupied with the thought of deleting the comments or leaving them there for everyone to see.


"How's this restaurant? Have you ever been there?" Yin Guo's cousin asked her, but she was too preoccupied to hear him.


Meng Xiaotian noticed her distant expression and decided to ask the receptionist for more information about the restaurant. "Excuse me, can you tell us more about the OLD EBBITT GRILL? How far is it from here and is it worth visiting?"


The brunette beauty behind the counter perked up at the mention of the restaurant. "Oh, Old Ebbitt Grill is a century-old restaurant located close to the White House. Many congressmen dine there, so it's definitely worth checking out. Plus, it's just a short walk from the hotel."


Meng Xiaotian was impressed. "That sounds great. I'll check my phone and make a reservation."


But Yin Guo, still preoccupied with the message incident, was not interested. "Let's go tomorrow. I'm too lazy to move," she said, her voice distant.


She returned the receipt to the staff, took back her passport and credit card, and looked down at the room number on the door card. Things are barely registering in her mind, still lost in her own thoughts.


As they walked towards the elevator, Meng Xiaotian was engaged in a hushed conversation over the phone. Yin Guo couldn't quite make out what he was saying, but she could see the hint of a smile playing on his lips. As they stepped into the elevator, Meng Xiaotian ended the call and turned to her with a grin. "Da Shuai said sorry for making us come all this way for nothing, he'll treat us to dinner," he announced, his voice filled with excitement.

During the Snowstorm
3.5
The Scenery After the Snowstorm

Her long hair flowed down from her ears as she checked her phone. Her finger hung over the screen, unable to click.

 

The seconds felt like minutes as time seemed to stand still.

 

Lin's sudden question broke the silence, "Bad signal?"

 

Yin Guo was taken aback, quickly looking up at him with a start.

 

He picked up his phone and stood up, stretching his limbs. "The signal here is erratic," he remarked, a hint of frustration in his voice. "I can't connect to WeChat; I'm going to step out for a cigarette break."

 

Lin Yi Yang strolled past the tall uncle, who was a towering figure standing at six feet tall, with a muscular build that weighed around 180 pounds. In contrast, Lin was of a similar height but appeared taller because of his lean build. The stark difference in their physique only added to Lin's carefree and youthful appearance as he walked by with a nonchalant air.

 

As Lin walked out of the laundry room, Yin's gaze followed him. The middle-aged man was sorting his clothes and noticed Lin's departure. He called out to Yin with a friendly tone, "Hey, I thought you two were from different countries. Why are you so quiet?" The man chuckled and continued, "Looks like the low air pressure is getting to us all. I'll just have to hum a tune." He picked up a pile of freshly washed clothes and left the room, leaving Yin alone with her thoughts.

 


 

Yin Guo gazed at her phone, her thoughts swirling as she leaned her head on her arms resting on the long table. Shadows cast by her arms obscured her face as she gazed down at her shoes.

 

A flood of fragmented and chaotic thoughts raced through her mind. She couldn't make sense of what was happening. It all felt like some sort of twisted joke. Yet, there was no denying the reality of the situation. Even in the quiet emptiness of the room, she felt like she was facing this head-on.

 

Yin Guo pondered to herself as she replayed Lin's sudden departure in her mind. "Did he really leave just because of a bad signal, or was it an attempt to dodge the awkwardness of the situation?" she wondered.

 

She weighed her options, considering whether she should ignore it and pretend she had not seen the message. But before she could come to a conclusion, she heard a sound from outside the laundry room. It was Lin, standing there in contemplation.

 

The burly uncle appeared, balancing a pile of clothes in his arms. He was taken aback by Lin's presence, but then recognition dawned on him, and he broke into a smile. In a hushed voice, he gestured for Lin to come back inside and whispered, "Come in."

 

The burly uncle, still humming, made his way up the stairs, believing that he was doing them a favor by giving the bickering couple some space.

 

Lin Yi Yang, meanwhile, strode back and forth outside the door, hands buried deep in his pockets. Eventually, he turned and left the apartment building, his shirt unbuttoned and vulnerable to the cutting wind. He huddled against the door, seeking refuge from the gusts, and produced a classic white cigarette. With a flick of his lighter, he lit it after several attempts.

 

He felt a pang of regret as those words slipped out impulsively. The lack of sleep in the past few days had left him feeling hazy, and the warm shower he had just taken only added to the relaxed state of mind he was in.

 

He couldn't help but think back to the comfortable atmosphere from earlier and how he got carried away at the moment. Despite his eagerness, he knew that rushing things would not produce the desired result.

 

Lin Yi Yang firmly believed in the principle of reaping what you sow, and he saw the same principle applying to pursuing someone. Though he had yet to make any real effort, he didn't expect the girl to be instantly interested in him. It was better to take things slow and steady.

 

With a deep breath, he reminded himself, "Take it slow, Lin Yi Yang."

 

Lin Yi Yang took three deep drags of his cigarette and let out the smoke with a sigh. He then fished out his phone and dialed Wu Wei's number upstairs. "Wu Wei, ask Anmei to come down and bring a piece of clothing."

 

Lin Yi Yang was hoping to find some peace, and he figured that Chen Anan, who was known for being quiet and focused solely on playing pool, would be the perfect person to talk to.

 

As expected, Chen Anan quickly appeared and, without a word, threw the clothes.

 

"I'm feeling a bit down lately," admitted Lin Yi Yang, "but you seem even grumpier. It's been years since we last saw each other. Don't you want to catch up?"

 

Chen Anan smirked and took a cigarette from Lin Yi Yang's hand, "Didn't you call me down just to avoid hearing the teasing?"

 

"Not talking doesn't mean one's thoughts are muddled," replied Lin Yi Yang thoughtfully.

 

Lin Yi Yang chuckled and ruffled Chen Anan's hair, teasing, "You're still so small. You haven't grown a single inch!"

Chen Anan playfully dodged his hand, trying to avoid his touch.

 

Lin Yi Yang smiled, offering him a light for the cigarette he had just handed him. "Allow me to light it for you," he said as he expertly flicked his lighter and brought the flame to the end of the cigarette.

 

Chen Anan was a person who didn't like to talk, with a rich and sensitive emotional range. He always felt that this action was like returning to the past, his eyes red, he hugged Lin Yi Yang tightly before he could light his cigarette. He was short and only reached Lin's nose, burying his head in Lin Yi Yang's shoulder like a grown-up girl.

 

Lin Yi Yang was afraid he would cry, so he held a cigarette and patted his back: "Loosen up. You're giving people the wrong impression. How am I supposed to find a wife?"

 

"Screw you." Chen Anan cursed with a nasal sound.

 

Lin Yi Yang was amused and gently pushed Chen Anan away. The two brothers chatted outside in the bitter cold, with Chen Anan frequently attempting to cling to Lin Yi Yang. Lin Yi Yang teased him, saying it was unbecoming for a teacher to act in such a manner with so many students around.

 

Afterward, Yin Guo emerged from the laundry room, arms filled with freshly cleaned clothes. The guests had all left, and Wu Wei had taken the brothers away. Lin Yi Yang was left to tidy up the room.

 

The living room was quiet, with only a dim floor lamp casting a warm glow.

 

Yin Guo leaned against the door, watching Lin Yi Yang tidy up the bar. He could feel her eyes on him, and it made him feel a little self-conscious. He had been expecting her to ignore him, as she often did when they were alone in the apartment.

To his surprise, she spoke up, breaking the silence. "Are you going back tomorrow?" she asked.

 

Lin Yi Yang looked up at her, meeting her gaze. "Yes," he said, nodding.

 

"Morning or afternoon? If it's in the afternoon, will we have enough time to go to Brooklyn?" asked Yin Guo eagerly. Before Lin Yi Yang could answer, she continued, "I'm just asking casually. If you're busy next week is fine too."

 

Lin Yi Yang was just about to reply when Yin Guo took three quick steps toward the bedroom, cutting him off. He stood at the bar, looking at the closed door, and sighed. He put the white cloth down on the counter and leaned against it, studying the surface for a moment. Suddenly, a smile spread across his face as he thought, "What is this broken table? It's so ugly. I should replace it someday."

 

Meanwhile, inside the bedroom, Yin Guo stood at the door, her hand on the doorknob, lost in thought.

 

"What's the hurry? I haven't even finished asking. So, does he want to go or not? Do I have to ask via WeChat?"

 

Yin Guo was just about to open the WeChat app on her phone, but she hesitated. The thought of having to send a message made her anxious.

 

Just then, there was a knock at the door. Yin Guo's heart began to race as she reluctantly let go of her phone. She heard Lin's voice from the other side of the door, "Don't open the door. Let's plan our schedule."

 

"Her heart was still pounding, and she didn't say a word.

 

'Let's leave at 10 o'clock, what do you think?' Lin Yi Yang asked.

 

Yin Guo made a noise of agreement.

 

'10:30 is also okay,' Lin Yi Yang suggested.

 

'Let's go at 10,' Yin Guo finally spoke with a hoarse voice, '10 o'clock.'

 

.....

 

Outside the door, Lin Yi Yang placed his hand on the door frame and leaned down, speaking in a soft voice, "See you tomorrow."

 

The girl inside replied, "See you tomorrow."

 

Wu Wei, who had just returned, was taken aback at the sight. He wondered about the nature of the encounter between Lin Yi Yang and Yin Guo. Had they just finished a private moment? Or had they shared a kiss? The speed at which events were unfolding was causing Wu Wei to question what had happened in the laundry room just a short while ago.

 

Lin Yi Yang absentmindedly picked up the cloth from the table and used it to wipe his face before realizing his mistake and tossing it into the sink

 

Wu Wei observed Lin Yi Yang's turned back with a puzzled expression, watching him tidy up the room with ease. He regretted not insisting on taking An Mei's place in delivering the clothes. An Mei was useless and couldn't even convey the information clearly after asking him for so long. It was a waste to use the opportunity of pretending to deliver clothes to sneak a peek at Lin Yi Yang's date.

 


 

Meanwhile, Yin Guo was still wide awake at the late hour.

 

She quietly tiptoed to the window and sat down, hugging the blanket closely to her chest. She dialed Zheng Yi's number and started the voice call, her heart beating fast with anxiety that Wu Wei or Lin Yi Yang might still be in the living room using the computer. Despite her nervousness, she tried to keep the conversation going and ended up talking about her struggles with laundry, particularly about the lack of sunlight for drying her clothes.

 

Zheng Yi listened attentively and added a little humor by sharing a similar experience from when she first arrived to study. She had hung her clothes outside her dormitory window, only to be scolded by her classmates for breaking the rules. The memory still made her shiver with fear.

 

Yin Guo finally asked Zheng Yi hesitantly, "What did you say in the past when someone confessed to you?"

 

Zheng Yi responded, "Why do you ask? Is someone pursuing you?"

 

Yin Guo explained, "It's a girl from my club. She's seeking my advice, and I don't know how to give her some advice."

 

Zheng Yi pressed, "What exactly did she say? How did he confess?"

 

Yin Guo recited, "He said, 'Can you tell that I want to chase you?'"

 

Zheng Yi considered the confession and replied, "It doesn't seem too serious."

 

Is it?

 

Yin Guo was actually intrigued: "What if it's serious? How would you respond?"

 

Zheng Yi thought for a moment and replied, "It depends. If I have feelings for the person, I would say, 'I can't quite tell. Why don't you show me more clearly?' But if I don't have any interest, I won't respond and let them figure it out themselves. That way, the situation is clear and resolved."

 

Yin Guo nodded in agreement, recognizing that everyone has their unique way of handling such situations. She was torn about how to respond, unsure how to phrase her answer without hurting the person's feelings or giving false hope.

 

Yin Guo buried her face in the blanket, feeling dejected and discouraged. She decided to stop overthinking and focus on the competition. It was March, and the youth and young adult group were about to start. The official tournament was next month, and she was determined to give it her all. After the competition, she would return home and leave all the possibilities and uncertainties behind. The thought of never seeing him again made her heart heavy, but she pushed it aside and focused on the present moment. As she opened her eyes, she realized it was just after six.

 

On weekdays, Wu Wei and his cousin rise early, and by the time Yin Guo stirs, the two of them have usually already departed for their daily pursuits, leaving Yin Guo alone in the apartment. On this particular day, as she emerges from her room, she heads to the bathroom but finds the lights already on.

 

Yin Guo, dressed in a cozy white sportswear jacket lined with fleece, swayed groggily in the living room. She had just gotten up and wanted to use the bathroom but found the lights still on inside. As she waited for someone to come out, she drifted in and out of sleep, her head drooping and her feet lazily kicking in her slippers, making a soft shuffling sound against the floor. Suddenly, Lin Yi Yang emerged from the bathroom and caught a glimpse of Yin Guo, with her head lowered and hair partially obscuring her face, lost in a drowsy state.

 

"Need the bathroom?" Lin Yi Yang queried, catching her off guard.

 

"Oh, yes. I was waiting for it," Yin Guo replied, feeling slightly self-conscious.

 

Lin Yi Yang moved aside to allow Yin Guo to pass by him and enter the bathroom. As she walked past, she noticed the refreshing scent of soap and shampoo on him.

 

"Didn't he shower last night?" Yin Guo couldn't help but wonder and think to herself. "Why does he need to shower again so soon?"

 

As she turned the lock on the bathroom door, Yin Guo couldn't help but notice the unfamiliar grooming products on the counter by the mirror. She hadn't seen them before, and they clearly didn't belong to her roommate Wu Wei or her cousin. Curiosity got the best of her, and she picked up one of the items, a razor, and examined it.

 

The razor was a blade, not an electric one, which was unusual. She wondered how he managed to shave without nicking himself.

 

Outside the bathroom, Lin Yi Yang rubbed his chin as he leaned against the wall. He had just taken a shower and shaved, but his old towel was falling apart. He had come out to grab a new one but hadn't finished tidying up the bathroom. When he saw Yin Guo approaching, he was momentarily speechless, allowing her to go in first.

 

Yin Guo stood in front of the bathroom mirror, looking at her reflection. It was just 6 AM; the early morning light streamed through the window, casting a warm glow on her face. Despite her morning run and shower, she still looked tired, with dark circles under her eyes. She made a gesture using her index finger and felt a twinge of regret for not taking better care of her skin. A pesky pimple had emerged on her chin, resulting from a poor night's sleep.

 

As she reached for a tissue to absorb the moisture from her bangs, she couldn't help but wish she had some concealer to cover the blemish on her chin. With delicate movements, she combed her hair back into place, trying to restore a more natural look. But the tiredness in her eyes and the pimple on her chin were constant reminders of the demanding week she had been through and the early morning ahead.

 

Lin Yi Yang stood at the kitchen counter, the scent of sizzling eggs filling the air. The sound of the pan echoed throughout the living room as he tended to the food. "Wu Wei went to Boston," he informed Yin Guo, who was just coming out of the bathroom. He gestured towards the two plates, already set with crisp golden potatoes, ready for the eggs.

 

"He left at 5 o'clock," he added, before offering her a warm smile. "Care to join me for breakfast?"

 

Yin Guo eagerly agreed, grateful for the invitation. "Thank you," she replied, taking a seat at the table. The two shared a quiet, peaceful meal together, surrounded by the warm ambiance of the morning.

 

Lin Yi Yang carried a large gym bag with him to their lobster spaghetti date. The bag was stuffed with his laptop and other things, giving the impression that time was of the essence, and they needed to head straight to the train station in Brooklyn. In the crowded subway, they said their goodbyes, but with so many people around and Lin Yi Yang in a rush to catch his train, there wasn't much time for conversation. At the transfer station, they waved goodbye to each other before turning to go their separate ways.

 

With a deep breath, she boarded the train, her eyes fixed on the electronic screens overhead. She could feel the hum of excitement and adventure in her chest as she settled into her seat, ready to take on the city alone.

 

A few minutes later, the lights appeared at the end of the track, and the subway roared in, just the one she was waiting for.

Ying Guo followed a few people into the train carriage and looked around, seeking a suitable seat.

 

Suddenly, she heard a familiar voice.

 

"Go to the right side," the person behind her directed.

 

Yin Guo turned around, staring at him with wide eyes. It was Lin Yi Yang, who had just turned around and was heading to another subway line to catch his train. Lin Yi Yang had just entered the carriage, followed by some people behind him. Without any extra words, he pushed her towards the right and made her sit in front of him on the empty seat.

 

Yin Guo sank into the hard, plastic seat, her mind still racing as her body caught up. The train car was packed with people jostling for space as they made their way through the city. Despite the crowd, Lin Yi Yang found himself standing close to her, his legs brushing against hers as he fought to keep his balance.

 

"Weren't you in a hurry to catch a train?" Yin Guo asked, her voice soft and quiet, barely audible above the din of the bustling subway car.

 

Lin Yi Yang lifted his gaze to meet hers, his eyes dark and serious. "I was afraid you would get off at the wrong stop," he replied, his voice low and steady, "You used to complain about the subways in New York, if I recall correctly," he said, his tone reminding her of their shared history.

 

Yin Guo raised her finger to the electronic display screen hanging above their heads, her expression determined. "I've got this," she said confidently. "I can use it to find our destination." Despite her words, she couldn't shake the worry for Lin Yang. She leaned closer to him and whispered, "You can still make it to the train if you get off at the next stop. I don't want you to miss it."

 

Lin Yang glanced down at her, a small smile playing at the corners of his mouth as he responded with a soft "Mmm."

 

Surrounded by strangers lost in their thoughts, Yin Guo felt her leg brushing against Lin Yang's with every sway of the subway car. The close proximity was causing her face to flush with heat and her hands to grow damp with sweat. She felt increasingly uncomfortable and didn't know where to look, her eyes darting nervously around the crowded carriage.

 

Yin Guo fidgeted impatiently, her thoughts consumed by frustration. "Why is this stop taking so long?" she wondered, glancing around the crowded subway car.

 

Lin Yi Yang opened his mouth to speak, his voice breaking the silence. "Yesterday..." he started, his words trailing off.

Yin Guo hugged her backpack tightly, her gaze lifting to meet his. The expression on his face was unreadable, and she couldn't help but wonder what he was trying to say.

 

Lin Yi Yang had intended to tell her that he impulsively asked her yesterday, but he didn't want her to misinterpret his intentions. He didn't want her to think he was one of those men who would take advantage of her being in a foreign land, hitting on her just to have a fling before moving on.

 

But as he looked into her eyes, he dismissed that thought. He realized that sometimes, words weren't necessary. It was okay to just enjoy each other's company and let things develop at their own pace. "Some words don't need to be spoken," he thought. "It's also good to get along slowly, like today."

 

The sound of the station announcement echoed through the subway car, signaling the arrival of their stop. The train slowly comes to a halt, and Yin Guo can't help but feel a twinge of disappointment. They still hadn't finished their conversation.

 

Lin Yi Yang stepped forward, determined to ensure she arrived safely at her destination. "Tell me when you get to the apartment," he said, his tone filled with concern.

 

As Lin Yi Yang made his way through the throng of passengers disembarking from the train, Yin Guo reached out and grabbed the strap of his sports backpack. He stopped in the stream of people and was jostled by those around him.

Feeling embarrassed, Yin Guo quickly released her grip, her cheeks flaming with embarrassment. She leaned in and whispered, "Let me know when you get to DC."

 

Lin Yi Yang adjusted the shoulder strap of his sports bag, pausing for a half-second before chuckling softly as he looked down at her.

 

Lin Yi Yang stood in front of Yin Guo, torn between the urge to pat her head and the fear of making her uncomfortable. He readjusted the shoulder strap of his sports bag, and with a simple "Okay," he made his way out of the train.

 

Jumping onto the platform, Lin Yi Yang was surrounded by other passengers who spoke the same mother tongue like him and Yin Guo. The train doors closed behind him, and Yin Guo turned to take one final look.

 

Through the grimy glass of the train, Yin Guo caught a glimpse of Lin Yi Yang's figure, surrounded by other passengers who had just disembarked. She had only a few seconds to take in the sight before he disappeared from view, the light fading away and leaving her with just the memory of his form.

 

As the train whisked Yin Guo away, she felt an emptiness in her heart. The compartment was less crowded now, but it felt like Lin Yi Yang was still standing in front of her, their legs touching, sending shivers down her spine. She couldn't help but rub her knee, trying to rid herself of the feeling. "Stop thinking about it," she whispered to herself, trying to shake the lingering memory of their conversation.

During the Snowstorm
8.1
Crossing the Mountain and Seas

Alcohol can give you a euphoric high, but the morning after, it can leave you feeling low and drained, affecting your physical abilities. Even looking at the bright sun can be unbearable, and the girl next to him seem blurry and distant.

 

"Do you know how much you have been drinking? Nearly two bottles of 40-degree alcohol," she said, her voice laced with concern. "We've given you three doses of hangover medicine."

 

Lin Yi Yang's mouth felt like it had been stuffed with cotton, and his head was pounding like a drum. Lin Yi Yang groaned, feeling the full weight of his poor decision-making skills. "Taking hangover medicine now won't do much good," he mumbled, regret lacing his words.

 

He spoke condescendingly to her, thinking she was clueless.

 

"I know, but what else could I do?" she replied.

 

Adding to his troubles, he threw up all three doses of hangover medicine and couldn't keep any of it down.

 

Later on, his friends discussed taking him to the hospital if he still felt unwell in the morning. Luckily, Lin Yi Yang had a robust constitution and could metabolize the copious amount of alcohol himself. His friends kept him hydrated with water, fearing the alcohol might burn him out.

 

Yin Guo arrived at the competition feeling disheartened and dissatisfied. However, Meng Xiaodong quickly offered encouragement, saying, "I have faith that you'll do well today." Having watched Yin Guo's growth over the years, he knew that her pre-competition discontent often fueled her motivation, almost like reverse psychology.

 

As anticipated, Yin Guo and a senior sister teamed up and advanced to the top four of the competition, proving that her drive and determination were a force to be reckoned with.

 

Yin Guo looked at him with concern and asked, "Do you remember if you showered?" She lifted her arm and looked at him. He shook his head, lying to her even though he actually remembered.

 

"Do you even remember eating noodles?" She continued to feed him spoonfuls. He still shook his head slightly, sitting up a bit more.

 

His upper body was in a shirt, but all the buttons were undone. Yin Guo had unbuttoned them so that he could sleep more comfortably. The blanket had slipped from his collarbone to his waist.

 

He reached for the bottle of unopened water on the bedside table behind the lamp, twisted it open, and took a big gulp. His body was so thirsty that he could truly feel a cool stream of water flowing down his throat, entering his stomach and seeping into his organs.

 

As he quenched his thirst with the cool water, he savored the refreshing sensation that spread throughout his body. It was a much-needed relief from the intense alcohol-induced hangover he had been suffering from.

 

But this was nothing compared to the fierce "Up Horse Wine" and "Down Horse Wine" he had experienced while traveling to the west of China. The strong liquor had burned his throat like pure alcohol, leaving him gasping for air. He had also tried the locally-produced raw beers, which were deceptively easy to drink, but packed a stronger punch than any foreign wine he had tasted before.

 


 

This time, he had succumbed to the lure of "heartbreak wine," drowning his sorrows until he passed out. He had feared that if he didn't consume all the remaining bottles, he wouldn't be able to achieve the desired level of drunkenness. As he lay in bed, recovering from the ordeal, he realized that he couldn't always turn to alcohol to numb his pain.

 


 

"Everyone is living for today and waiting for tomorrow. Yesterday is gone and useless," he thought as he put the mineral water bottle back on the bedside table. He couldn't help but wonder what the girl in front of him was thinking.

 

He waited patiently, listening intently to what Yin Guo had to say. Finally, she asked, "Do you remember what we did?"

 

Yin Guo asked the question out of guilt, wanting to bring up the fact that Lin Yi Yang acted indecently while drunk. But in the end, she was too shy to say it and hesitated for a long time. The joke didn't work out and instead made the room fall into an unsettling silence.

 

"What did we do?" he asked, his curiosity piqued.

 

The man's hands, rough at the fingertips and edges, grazed her lips gently as he urged her to tell him what had happened.

 

The first time they met, he affectionately referred to her and her cousin as "little kids" in front of Wu Wei and others. His outlook on life was unscathed by the harsh realities of the world, and he saw people as innocent and naive, like a child.

As Lin Yi Yang spoke, his hands moved towards his belt, unbuckling it and unzipping his pants. Suddenly, he grabbed her wrist and pulled her left hand under the blanket. Adrenaline surged through her body as her fingers touched the fabric of his trousers, then the cotton fabric above it.

 

Panic overtook her, and she blurted out, "I was just kidding."

 

Lin Yi Yang held her tiny hand and clasped her fingers tightly. "Did Jiang Yang and the others say anything a while ago?" he asked, his voice low and urgent.

 

"No... they didn't say anything," she replied, her heart racing as she tried to control her breathing.

 

Her heart raced, pounding in her ears as she struggled to compose herself. The sight of the tattooed arm in the apartment should have been a warning of the fierce beast hidden beneath the gentleman's exterior.

 

Despite her nerves, the conversation continued, expertly led by Lin Yi Yang.

 

"What day is it today?" he asked.

 

"It's Sunday, around noon," she replied, her voice slightly trembling.

 

"And is the competition over?" he inquired further.

 

"Yes, it ended this morning," she answered, still trying to calm her racing heart.

 

The two-week U.S. Open Nine-ball Championship had come to an end, and the Chinese team had achieved remarkable success. The women's team had secured both silver and bronze medals, with her winning the silver medal - the best result among Chinese players in the women's group. However, he chose such an inappropriate time and place to bring it up that she had no interest in discussing it.

 

All she could think was, "Hurry up and get it over with."

 

In the stillness of the room, she became acutely aware of the small sounds that often go unnoticed. The heavy rhythm of his breathing, the rustling of the sheets against her skin, and the sound of her movements were all amplified.

 

Suddenly, he broke the silence. "Come here, kiss me," he said.

 

As if in a trance, she leaned towards him, ready to kiss him. However, he grabbed her head with one hand and pulled her in for a deep, passionate kiss. His muscles flexed under his skin, and the powerful scent of male pheromones filled the room, enveloping her in a dizzying haze.

 

Despite the window being slightly ajar, there was no breeze to relieve the sweltering heat of the day. The sun blazed down on her back, making her feel uncomfortable and sweaty. Yin Guo's breathing was ragged as she gazed at Lin Yi Yang, feeling as though she had been drained of all her energy by the heat.

 

Lin Yi Yang's throat constricted, and for once, he didn't feel invigorated. Instead, he felt an even stronger urge to hold her close. He spoke softly, "Go wash your hands."

 

With that, he released her.

 

At the speed of a hundred-meter dash, Yin Guo rushed into the restroom and lathered a small square gift soap over every inch of her skin. She was still thinking about how foolishly she had spouted that nonsense and tried to provoke him.

 

Yin Guo's heart raced as she scrubbed her skin with the gift soap, trying to wash away the embarrassment from her earlier behavior. The frothy lather coated her fingers and palms as she rubbed and rubbed, lost in thought.

 

She heard the bathroom door creak open as she rinsed the soap from her skin. Lin Yi Yang walked in, carrying a fresh set of clothes. She couldn't bring herself to look at him in the mirror, feeling too ashamed of her earlier actions. She hastily tossed the soap into the ceramic dish and made a run for it.

 

Lin Yi Yang emerged from the bathroom, dressed in jeans with his slippers dragging on the pristine white floor. As he settled next to her on the edge of the couch, he couldn't help but admire her perfectly polished toenails resting on the couch's edge. The desire to carry her to bed after taking a shower grew stronger.

 

"Take a break, and I'll take you to see the sunset," he said with a smile.

 

Yin Guo was a bit confused, "Sunset? It's still noon now. Why watch the sunset?"

 

Lin Yi Yang chuckled, "Yes, sunset. Let's go to Hawaii." He then went to the bathroom to collect his dirty clothes, bundled them up, stuffed them into a hotel paper bag, and prepared to send them to the dry cleaner in the lobby later and pick them up when they were ready.

 

Hawaii? Yin Guo was surprised. Clearly, Lin Yi Yang had already made all the arrangements before coming to watch the game. He had even asked Meng Xiaotian for Yin Guo's passport information, booked the flight and hotel, and everything was set for the end of the game.

 

He yearned to take Yin Guo on an adventure to the Big Island, where they could witness the raw power of the Kilauea volcano as it met the ocean, stand on the edge of an active crater that could erupt at any moment, and sleep in a tent amidst the pungent smell of sulfur. They would bask in the beauty of the sunset and gaze at the twinkling stars of the Milky Way.

 

With only three days remaining until their departure, Lin Yi Yang was determined to make the most of their time. Luckily, Yin Guo was already in the United States, making it convenient for them to travel together.

 

So in this early April, after Yin Guo had won the silver medal, she embarked on a long-distance flight from her city with Lin Yi Yang. They endured a layover and more than ten hours of travel and rest, equivalent to the time and distance it would take to return to China.

 

At 5:46 a.m. on Monday, Yin Guo exited the cabin door and descended the long escalator with the other passengers, searching for Lin Yi Yang in the bustling airport. They had only brought a backpack and thick winter clothing for their adventure to Hawaii. As they made their way through the crowd, Zheng Yi's messages on WeChat still buzzed on Yin Guo's phone.

 

Zheng Yi: Are you sober?

 

Xiaoguo: Yeah.

 

Zheng Yi: Are you doing well?

 

Yin Guo paused for a moment, unsure how to respond.

 

Xiaoguo: ...

 

Zheng Yi: Are you buying condoms? You can act as a purchasing agent for adult products.

 

Xiaoguo: Don't worry...

 

Zheng Yi: I'm worried, thank you.

 

Xiaoguo: Didn't you say the faster you sleep, the faster you shake it off?

 


 

Zheng Yi: At one point, I had the thought that even if I came across a real jerk, I should still go ahead and sleep with him. I mean, who knows? What if the world ends tomorrow, and I miss out on the chance?

 

Xiaoguo: I just got off the plane. I can't sleep.

 

Zheng Yi: ????

 

Xiaoguo: He took me to see the sunset.

 

Zheng Yi: ???????

 

Zheng Yi: Does he have any brothers? If not, I can settle for a sister.

 

Xiaoguo: He has quite a few... I'll introduce you to them when there's a chance.

 

As they emerged from the airport, he quickly secured a rental car, a sleek deep gray vehicle, near the exit. Without hesitation, he pushed Yin Guo into the car, switched on the navigation, and drove directly to the hotel for check-in. The left and right sides of the road were shrouded in black volcanic ash, and the path ahead stretched endlessly.

 

In the warm, orange sunlight, Yin Guo listened attentively to the English navigation, its voice guiding them step by step. Gradually, she drifted off to sleep, lulled by the gentle rhythm of the car. When she woke up again, she was jolted by the sound of raindrops pelting against the car window. Turning her head towards him, she softly asked, "How long have we been driving?"

 

"About twenty minutes. You can keep sleeping," he replied, his voice calm and reassuring.

 

As Lin Yi Yang drove, he steered the wheel with his right hand, a habit he had developed over the years. She couldn't help but notice the complex and beautiful constellation tattoo that adorned the outer side of his arm. She had asked about it before in their apartment, and he had told her it was done by a friend who took three sessions to complete.

 

Lost in her thoughts, she stared at the tattoo for a while, then rubbed her eyes and adjusted her focus to make it clearer. As she looked out of the driver's side window, she saw a large bunch of red flowers or grass appearing on the black and barren land. It was a sight to behold, almost like a dream.

 

This man, she caught a glimpse of him at the airport the previous night, leaning nonchalantly on a towering check-in machine. Was it a dream? Ever since the city was blanketed in snow during the late January storm, she had been haunted by a vivid and surreal dream of a man named Lin Yi Yang, his gloved hand gripping an old and weathered metal door handle, his body and hat dusted with snow.

 

......

 

The rain was beating against the windshield with increasing intensity, making it hard for Yin Guo to see the road ahead.

"Let's chat to keep you awake," Yin Guo said softly, glancing over at her with concern.

 

The navigation continued to prompt them to go straight ahead, even though there were no forks in the road. Yin Guo flexed his driving hand, revealing slender fingers loosely gripping the steering wheel. Yin Guo remembered how he had held her hand earlier, their fingers interlaced, and the warmth that had flowed between them as they lay beneath the soft white blankets.

 

"Can we pull over here?" she asked, pointing to a small clearing on the side of the road.

 

As they drove along the winding road, she caught sight of a sign pointing toward a lava flow and an underground cave. Without hesitation, she suggested they park and explore. Since this island was a popular destination for self-driving tours, she knew rest stops and parking lots were abundant.

 

Lin Yi Yang smoothly applied the brakes and steered the car toward the roadside parking lot. The landscape was dominated by black volcanic ash with no sign of vegetation except for clumps of grass that stubbornly grew on any patch of soil they could find.

 

The car's engine hummed steadily with a faint vibration as they stepped out of the car. "Let's check out the magma terrain and see the volcano flowers," Lin Yi Yang suggested, unbuckling his seatbelt with a press of his thumb. The safety restraint snapped back into place as if it didn't want to interrupt the two of them.

 

"I'd like to chat with you," she said.

 

"Sure, what would you like to talk about?" he asked, leaning over to help her unbuckle her seat belt.

 

As the seat began to recline, she felt his warm breath on her face. "Do you want to talk about something mature or something more innocent?" he asked.

 

After leaving the hotel, the two of them were on the road all the time, on the plane, at the airport, and never had a quiet, uninterrupted private space. When their bodies touched, kisses were no longer enough to satisfy their hearts, and they craved inexhaustible freshness and an unquenchable desire for understanding.

 

It seemed like he hadn't touched himself for more than ten hours.

 

Yin Guo gazed at him and asked, "How was it for you yesterday?" Her voice was soft, and her eyes were curious, wondering if there was any difference between her and others.

 

She idly traced her fingers along the collar of his shirt, creating small wrinkles on the cotton fabric that gathered and dispersed at her fingertips.

 

The rain pounded relentlessly on the car roof, its force seemingly capable of piercing through it.

 

They didn't know who the car belonged to or who had ever sat in it before, but right now, it was theirs to command.

 

He responded without hesitation, "It was comfortable."

 

"What's the difference between doing it alone and with someone else?" She asked, breaking the silence in the room.

 

He turned to face her, his eyes meeting hers. He wondered for a moment how to answer her question. The physical sensation was similar, but there was a deeper satisfaction when it was shared with someone else. With her, it was different. Being with her made everything feel more alive, more intense.

 

"It's hard to say," he replied, a small smile playing at the corners of his lips. "It's kind of the same."

 

Yin Guo was left feeling a bit unsatisfied after hearing his vague response. "I guess that doesn't really answer my question," she said with a slight frown. Though she knew she hadn't done much during their encounter, it was still frustrating not to have a clearer answer.

 

Her mind wandered again, wondering if the experience would be the same with someone else. It reminded her of a drunken question Lin Yi Yang had once asked her, similar to her hypothetical query. She wondered if he had ever felt that she was different from what he had imagined and if the novelty of their relationship would wear off over time.

 

"Genuine first love is both exhilarating and nerve-wracking," he replied, taking her by surprise. "It's a mix of wholeheartedness and anxiety. Before experiencing it, you don't know how to give it, and after experiencing it, you don't know how to give it in the same way again."

 

"What about with someone else?" Yin Guo asked, curious about his answer.

 

......

 

Lin Yi Yang helped Yin Guo fasten her seatbelt once more. He gripped the steering wheel with his right hand and merged onto the highway, the rain falling heavily and lightly, a symphony of near and far sounds. He turned to her and teased, "Hey, little girl, be honest. What do you really think I am? Do you think anyone can just come up and touch me a few times?"

 

During the Snowstorm
8.3
Crossing Mountain and Seas

Yin Guo stirred from her slumber, feeling a cool sensation on her skin. She opened her eyes to see Lin Yi Yang applying mosquito repellent to her hands, feet, arms, and legs. Still groggy, she heard him whisper about the tent owner recommending the use of a local mosquito repellent that works best for her, given the different regions and their respective insect treatments.

 

She tugged at the wristband once more, still feeling the tightness.

 

Seeing her discomfort, Lin Yi Yang took it off and, after a moment of consideration, placed it in her shorts pocket for added security.

 

She woke up from a deep sleep, feeling a bit disoriented at first. As she slowly opened her eyes, she saw Lin Yi Yang sitting on the edge of the bed, a wooden folding chair in front of him with his laptop placed on it. He was quietly browsing through some materials, trying not to disturb her slumber.

 

Yin Guo shifted towards the edge of the bed and snuggled under his arm, resting her head on his lap. She could hear the chorus of frogs and asked him in a soft voice, "What time is it?"

 

Lin Yi Yang stopped scrolling through his laptop and replied, "It's past midnight. We need to leave at one." His fingers resumed typing on the keyboard as he composed a lengthy email. "Let's take a shower first. We'll be flying to New York tomorrow afternoon, and we won't have time to take a shower after this."

 

Inside the tent, there was no light except for the faint glow of the laptop screen.

 

Yin Guo gazed up at the curve of Lin Yi Yang's Adam's apple and chin in the dim white light, mesmerized by its beauty. She longed to reach out and touch it but didn't want to disturb his work. Lost in thought, she slowly retreated from under his arm and crawled back onto the bed, her hand fumbling in search of her slippers.

 

Lin Yi Yang remained engrossed in his work, never once taking his eyes off the computer screen. He used his foot to nudge her slippers toward her. Yin Guo silently slipped on her slippers and left the tent without uttering a word.

 

The stillness outside was deafening, with the neighboring tents already submerged in slumber.

 

Yin Guo gazed up at the sky and saw the vast majority covered by a dense canopy of leaves. Only a tiny part showed no visible stars, most likely obscured by the dark clouds. Her unease grew, suspecting they wouldn't be able to stargaze tonight.

 

At one o'clock in the morning, Lin Yi Yang finished his work on the computer, completing his task. Listening to the raindrops pattering on the tent's roof, he seemed more indifferent than Yin Guo. He placed the laptop on the pillow and picked up their backpacks, saying, "Let's set off first and see if the clouds clear later."

 

As they drove away from the town, a thunderous explosion echoed in the distance, causing her heart to skip a beat. Yin Guo thought Lin Yi Yang would head up the mountain, but instead, he turned on the navigation and drove through two small towns before veering onto a small path.

 

After driving for about half an hour, Lin Yi Yang slammed on the brakes and decided to wait until the rain stopped. The engine shook slightly, and the only sound was the rain hitting the car. The rain sounded muffled and unclear because of the closed windows.

 

Yin Guo turned her head and looked outside, but she couldn't see anything apart from the water droplets on the window. Although she appeared to be focused on the rain, she was actually worrying about what would happen if the rain didn't stop. Would she and Lin Yi Yang just sit there, waiting in the car all night?

 

Suddenly, she felt a warm touch on her wrist, and it was Lin Yi Yang's hand. The man she had been thinking about had finally responded.

 

"Come here," he said.

 

She turned to face Lin Yi Yang and watched as he searched for a button on the left side of the seat, moving the driver's seat backward to expand the cramped space. Yin Guo crawled over from the middle seat and was lifted onto his lap, where she felt his arms wrap around her waist.

 

Despite the extra space, it was still tight, making them both uncomfortable.

 

Lin Yi Yang asked, "What are you thinking about while looking out the window?"

 

They both knew that there was nothing worth seeing outside in this weather. She hesitated before responding, "I'm just wondering when the rain will stop. It looks like it might last all night."

 

She couldn't bring herself to say what she was really thinking - whether they would share a steamy and passionate moment tonight.

 

He placed his hand on her waist, his thumb hanging on the back of the waistband of her jeans, and as he moved closer, he caught a faint scent emanating from her body. Every time she took a shower, she smelled good, and he noticed it was always the same fragrance. As a man, he found it hard to believe that despite the hotel providing free shower gel and shampoo, she preferred to bring her own. Nonetheless, it was a good habit, and when he couldn't hold her in his arms in the days to come, he would reminisce about this scent.

 

Lin Yi Yang turned off the engine.

 

The sound of the rain seemed louder now as if the drops were trying to invade the car. The dim interior of the vehicle made it seem like a cocoon in the night. With their vision restricted, their hearing naturally became more acute. Even the sound of Lin Yi Yang clearing his throat was infinitely amplified, conveying a subtle suggestion that tickled Yin Guo's heart.

 

Lin Yi Yang deliberately refrained from kissing Yin Guo as a way to "keep his distance" from her. He believed that intimacy could become boring if it becomes a habit. He knew that restraint was the most potent aphrodisiac. Now, with his face so close, her heart was already racing.

 

"Not a bad spot for a night," he remarked. "There's no one else around."

 

"What if someone else comes? Someone familiar with this place like you?" she asked.

 

He laughed and replied, "We're all adults here. They can look at us, and we can look at them." After speaking, he chuckled and added, "No harm done."

 

Blushing, Yin Guo pushed his chest with her hand. She could feel the tautness of his waist and abdomen muscles under his short sleeves, and his arms around her were no different. This sensation left her speechless.

 

In the silence, Lin Yi Yang's warmth enveloped her lips. He turned his head and slowly moistened her lips, teasing and intertwining them with his own lips and tongue. The pouring rain cut off all contact between the SUV and the outside world, and they were kissing passionately in the driver's seat.

 

Surrounded by transparent glass on all sides, in the middle of nowhere, amidst the torrential downpour that seemed like the end of the world, their desire grew stronger. Yin Guo felt her chest tighten and struggled to catch her breath, especially when she noticed his physical response and felt him pressing against her body.

 

After a few tantalizing touches, she blushed and stammered, "What are you doing?"

 

He chuckled seductively, "Don't you like it?" And with that, they both lost control, succumbing to the heat of the moment.

But what was strange was that he always hesitated to take things further.

 

However, she became more and more eager for him, craving his touch.

 

In the darkness, their eyes locked: Did she want it?

 

Her heart was about to burst out of her chest, beating painfully as she had been waiting for this moment.

 

He said again, "This position isn't ideal."

 

Then he chuckled softly and said, "The angle is wrong, and I'm afraid you'll get hurt."

 

Yin Guo's heart swelled with anticipation as the seat slowly tilted back. With her chin pressed against his shoulder, she closed her eyes, savoring the moment. His fingers played with the zipper of her coat, flicking it on and off. Though it was freezing outside, he wore only a short-sleeved shirt.

 

"Come on, climb into the back seat," he urged her.

 

Using her hands and feet, Yin Guo made her way to the back row as Lin Yi Yang adjusted the seat to the farthest forward position. She heard the trunk open as he stepped out of the car. For a moment, she wanted to tell him that she had also brought something, but she knew he was a thoughtful person who would have everything they needed, so she waited patiently.

 

With a sharp thud, the trunk slammed shut, and Lin Yi Yang swiftly made his way to the back seat, towel in hand. Gently placing it on the aged leather, he leaned close to her. His warm breath caressed her neck, sending shivers down her spine.

 

"I'm really ticklish," she warned him with a giggle. "Hope I don't start laughing."

 

"I'm afraid you won't be able to laugh," he whispered back, his lips dangerously close to hers. A mischievous grin crossed his face. "You'll probably end up crying."

 

They chatted for a while, but soon her ears and cheeks grew hot, and she became too flustered to speak.

 

Lin Yi Yang was a thoughtful man, always taking his time to consider his actions carefully. But once he started something, his passion was unmatched. He nibbled on Yin Guo's lips and tongue, making it difficult for her to catch her breath. Her eyes glazed over, and she couldn't tell if he was far away or close.

 

In the confined space of the car, the scent of genuine leather seats mixed with his musky scent, growing stronger by the second. Were they running low on oxygen, or had they already run out? The raindrops on the car window were swaying and flowing down in a disorderly fashion, shaking with the movement of the car.

 

......

 

Finally, he whispered in her ear, "Kiss me." Yin Guo's heart raced as she leaned in to kiss him. But instead, he took control and kissed her with an intensity that left her breathless. His lips moved from her lips to her chin and then to her earlobe, sending shivers down her spine as his warm breath tickled her skin.

 

The scent of his masculine cologne filled her senses, and she could feel the drops of sweat from his forehead falling onto her neck. She used the back of her hand to wipe her eyes, noticing that his sweat mixed with hers was flowing down from her neck.

 

Looking at him, she saw that his front and back were also damp with sweat, and several streams were flowing down along his abs. Her eyes drifted down to the tattoo below his waistline, and she noticed that there were no hands on the watch face, just an empty dial.

 

"What are you looking at?" he asked, chuckling knowingly.

 

Feeling uneasy and awkward, Yin Guo shifted her gaze to the foggy window above her head. The glass was all misted up, and she traced a few marks with her finger, feeling incredulous. "Can there really be water mist?"

 

"Is your physics that bad?" he chuckled in a hoarse voice. "Of course, it can happen."

 

She knew the principle, of course. Yin Guo wanted to say that she didn't believe it when it was acted out in movies. The first time she saw it was on Titanic, right? She was still questioning how such a large amount of heat could be emitted. But now, as they were breathing in the car, she realized it really was possible.

 

She drew a small heart on the window and thought for a moment before drawing another one next to it—a pair of them.

The man's emotions had not completely dissipated, and her casual doodles on the window seemed to have reignited a fire within him. He looked her up and down a few times before whispering, "Come here and hug me."

 

That night, the rain had stopped around four in the morning, and Lin Yi Yang retrieved an astronomy telescope from the trunk that he had prepared beforehand. He asked Yin Guo to wait in the car while he set it up underneath, adjusting it to ensure it was stable. Once he was finished, he returned to the car.

 

It seemed like he was tired and didn't want to stargaze with her. Instead, he said, "Let's go down and take a look. The lava rocks are uneven, so be careful where you step; you might get scratched if you fall."

 

Yin Guo wondered if he was not going to accompany her down to the rocks.

 

After a moment of contemplation, Yin Guo exited the car, sensing that Lin Yi Yang was probably familiar with this place and had seen it many times before.

 

As she stepped onto the rough and uneven terrain, the night wind teased her hair, and she leaned back against the car door, gazing up at the vast starry sky. Here, on these boundless black reefs, heaven and earth met, leaving only the bright or dim stars in the Milky Way above.

 

The desolate surroundings seemed like the moon's surface, and the stars in the galaxy shone like jewels. The beauty was breathtaking and could be seen with the naked eye.

 

As they approached the telescope, the galaxy in front of them was infinitely magnified, and she looked carefully at each star as if she could reach out and touch them. Suddenly, her WeChat made a sound, and she wondered if it was Lin Yi Yang.

"It must be him," she thought, as everyone else was set to 'do not disturb.'

 

Yin Guo turned around to face Lin Yi Yang, curious about the mysterious message on his phone. He caught her eye and flashed a smile, tapping his phone screen with his index finger and gesturing for her to come closer.

 

"What's going on? You look like you're up to something," Yin Guo asked, her curiosity piqued.

 

Yin Guo clicked on the image, revealing a breathtaking snapshot of the starry sky, which Lin Yi Yang had just captured from inside the car. She was impressed by the picture's clarity and sharpness.

 

The following image showed an intricate artistic design of a cosmic nebula, inked on the outside of Lin Yi Yang's arm, followed by a photo of a distant range of volcanic mountains, and finally, a snapshot of the mountains tattooed on the inside of his arm.

 

Lin typed out a message, "Remember you said you needed a new screensaver? Well, here it is."

 

Yin Guo gazed at the images in awe, realizing that the tattoos on his arm must have been inspired by the stunning natural scenery around them, the volcanoes, and the stars.

 

The designs on his arm were artistically intricate. Without his explanation, she wouldn't have made the connection between the designs and his planned trip. It was clear that he had been planning it all along, ever since she had asked for a photo of his tattoo that night.

 

But he didn't mention anything beforehand.

 

During the day, they visited the observatory on top of the snowy mountain, and the tour guide gave a detailed introduction to the stargazing paradise. She listened intently and asked him many questions, but he never mentioned the tattoo on his arm. He waited until now.

 

Yin Guo stared at him through the window.

 

Lin rested his hand on the keyboard, leaning back, and quickly began typing sentence after sentence on his phone.

 

Lin: First night we met, the band in the bar kept playing one song over and over again.

 

Lin: Do you remember it?

 

Yin Guo: Yeah, it was "Yellow."

 

Lin: :)

 

Lin: Do you know the lyrics?

 

I remember the first two lines.

 

Look at the stars; look how they shine for you.

 

Looking up at the twinkling stars, she realized that the song fit perfectly with the moment. Lin Yi Yang had intentionally chosen it, and she couldn't help but think of what Jiang Yang had said to her: "He really cares about you."

 

The song, originally about a man's admiration for his beloved girl, now seemed to take on a deeper meaning. It spoke of a deep attraction and love that the man couldn't express. Yin Guo wondered what Lin Yi Yang had thought when he listened to this song on the first night they met.

 

Lost in her thoughts, she wanted nothing more than to look up and see him through the car window.

 

......

 

Her phone vibrated once again in her palm, and she saw that it was another message from Lin Yi Yang.

 

Lin: I don't have much to offer you.

 

Lin: Thank you.

 

Lin: Thank you.

 

She could sense the sincerity in his words as he expressed his gratitude towards her. He thanked her for being a part of his life and allowing him to be a part of hers. He appreciated the fact that she had accepted him, even though he had an unstable future and no real home to offer her.

 

Yin Guo no longer wanted to stargaze. Her heart had been emptied by Lin Yi Yang, and all she wanted was to spend every moment with him, to make the most of their remaining time together. She even began to fear returning to her home country.

Lin got out of the car and approached her as if nothing had happened. He pointed at the telescope and asked, "How's the view?"

 

Yin Guo hugged him tightly and whispered, "You're still pretending... always trying to make me cry." She turned her head and leaned against his chest, listening to his heart's strong and steady beating through his skin and bones.

 

Lin couldn't help but chuckle. "You're the one making me laugh," he said.

 

"Still laughing...I don't even want to go back to my home country anymore. What should we do? Do you plan on going back in the future?" This was the first time she had taken the initiative to discuss their future together. "If you don't want to leave and want to stay here, you'll have to wait for me for a year or two."

 

The statement hinted at the reality of their situation. Yin Guo's family's reluctance to allow her to settle abroad posed a challenge to their future together, and it wasn't going to be easy to overcome.

 

Suddenly, she felt a light tap on her back and turned around to see Lin standing behind her.

 

"I'll go back," he said, with only three simple words.

 

For a man who had spent years away from his hometown, returning for a woman and hoping to build a future with her was no easy feat. Making such a promise meant he had to consider many things and make numerous arrangements.

 

"Yin Guo, just live your life at your own pace, and I'll be there to support you. Let me handle all the difficult things." Lin assured her, his voice filled with determination and love.

 

During the Snowstorm
7.1
The Passion Remains

Lin Yi Yang carefully placed the cue sticks in their designated spots, taking after the habits of Old He, his respected teacher. New cues were always placed on the left, while he himself used the oldest one on the right. He even followed the same practice of searching for used chalk around the court and offering new ones to younger players.

 

Old He's principles of caring for the younger generation and passing on the glory of the sport as a teacher had earned him great respect in the circle. Lin Yi Yang had learned much from him and tried to emulate his ways.

 

With the cues finally arranged, Lin Yi Yang turned his attention to his phone, which he had left on the billiard table. He saw that his Xiao Guo-er had replied.

 

Red Fish: Okay. Three times.

 

Red Fish: Ten times is also fine.

 

Red Fish: Just kidding. I have a good temper and don't like to get angry. Buy me something delicious, and everything will be okay. I'll forget about it in less than half an hour.

 

After sending the animated image of the cartoon bear, Yin Guo waited for a reply from Lin Yi Yang, but it never came. She shrugged her shoulders and went about her business, gathering up her dirty clothes from her trip to Washington.

 

Meanwhile, Lin Yi Yang sat staring at the cartoon bear on his phone screen, eating naively, a small smile lingering on his lips. He didn't reply because he was lost in thought.

 

......

 

Yin Guo unpacked her bag, pulling out the pile of dirty clothes from her trip to Washington. She sorted through them and discovered an unopened plastic box containing a pink apple-shaped charging cable. A smile spread across her face as she held it up to examine it.

 

Her roommate, who had just swiped her card to enter the room, chuckled at the sight. "What's so funny? Is it a limited edition or something?"

 

The roommate rolled her eyes. "You can still laugh, even though you've been assigned to the Purgatory Team,"

 

The lottery results were in, and Yin Guo's group was facing off against seven fierce players, all ranked among the top in the world. Just thinking about it sent chills down her spine - it was like being thrown into a group from hell. But Yin Guo remained unfazed, putting away the charging cable and saying, "We'll have to face them eventually, so it's good to meet them early."

 

After checking the time, she realized it was still early, so she grabbed her cue stick and returned to the hotel's billiard room. As she walked, she mentally prepared herself for the upcoming matches, reminding herself that no matter who they faced on the group stage, their ultimate goal was to win the championship.

 

As the youth and junior competitions ended, the Beijing organizers allotted each competitor their own billiard table for the remainder of the week. Yin Guo arrived at the billiard room and observed that half of the tables were vacant, while the other half was occupied by players from various countries. She searched for an empty table and settled down for practice.

 

At the adjacent table, she noticed a woman named Cheng Yan from Dongxincheng. Cheng Yan was a seasoned veteran in both nine-ball and eight-ball, but Yin Guo didn't know her, so they didn't exchange greetings. Nevertheless, Yin Guo couldn't help but feel a sense of admiration for her skillful moves.

 

The two of them practiced in silence for a while, intently focused on their games. After half an hour, Yin Guo's cue ran out of chalk, prompting her to walk over to the box by the window in search of a fresh one. Upon returning, Cheng Yan finished her game and sat down, smiling warmly at Yin Guo. "I heard you're in the Purgatory Group. Are you feeling nervous?" she asked.

 

Yin Guo returned her smile politely and said, "I'm doing alright so far."

 

"Ah, my junior brothers told me you're quite familiar with Lin Yi Yang," the seasoned player continued.

 

Yin Guo felt a hint of suspicion when Cheng Yan asked about Lin Yi Yang's performance. "Quite familiar" sounded like an insinuation, but she politely answered, "Yes, I know him."

 

"He's a smart guy, isn't he? I heard he has been winning many competitions lately," Cheng Yan commented.

 

Yin Guo relaxed a bit, realizing that Cheng Yan was probably just making small talk. "He's doing well. He graduated with a master's degree this year and also got an offer to pursue a Ph.D.," she replied.

 

Cheng Yan started another game, and Yin Guo returned to her practice, but her mind couldn't help but wander. She wondered if Cheng Yan was trying to gather information about Lin Yi Yang and her team. Was she a spy for another country's team, or was Yin Guo just being paranoid? She shook her head, trying to clear her thoughts, and focused on her shots.

 

Yin Guo decided to put down the cue and sat on a nearby chair, thinking for a moment before deciding to bring up Cheng Yan's question directly.

 

Xiaoguo: Hey, I ran into Cheng Yan in the billiard room, and she asked how you're doing.

 

Lin Yi Yang's reply came almost instantly as if he had anticipated the question.

 

Lin: Still practicing at this late hour?

 

Yin Guo felt a twinge of irritation at his dismissive response, but she continued the conversation nonetheless.

 

Xiaoguo: Anyway, I have nothing else to do, so I'll practice a bit more.

 

Lin: Don't overdo it with training.

 

Xiaoguo: It's only half an hour. I'm not overdoing it.

 

Yin Guo's fingers hesitated over the keyboard as she debated whether to send her message or not. "Were you very familiar with her in the past?" She eventually decided against it and deleted the text. How could two regulars at the same billiard hall not know each other well? Her intuition told her that there was more to the story, but she couldn't tell if it was just her jealousy talking.

 

Lost in thought, Yin Guo sat in silence on the chair.

 

A minute later, Lin Yi Yang's message appeared on the screen –

 

Lin: She pursued me.

 

Yin Guo's heart sank as she read the message.

 

Lin: Xiaoguo.

 

Yin Guo: Hmm.

 

Lin: The first time I saw you, I wanted to get to know you.

 

Yin Guo's heart skipped a beat. She couldn't believe what she was reading.

 

Lin: I saw you at a bar through the window, and I wanted to get to know you. We had never met before. That night at Red Fish, I wanted to talk to you more, but I had no experience talking to girls. All I could do was buy you a drink.

 

Yin Guo felt a mix of emotions - surprise, excitement, and confusion. She didn't know what to say in response. This was the longest sentence Lin Yi Yang had ever written to her.

 

Out of the blue, a message popped up on her phone screen.

 

She stared at it momentarily, trying to process what it meant. It was a heartfelt statement from Lin Yi Yang that caught her off guard.

 

She looked around the billiard hall, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary. People were still playing billiards, and the sound of balls falling into pockets filled the air.

 

Yin Guo's mind raced as she tried to recall their interactions from the past. She couldn't remember any hints or signs that he felt this way.

 

The small episode late at night had turned into something much more significant. Her fingers gripped the phone so tightly that they started to hurt. She had a lot to think about.

 

Another vibration and Yin Guo assumed it was another message from Lin Yi Yang.

 

Wu Suo Wei: Are you in the hotel billiards room?

 

Xiaoguo: How did you know?

 

Wu Suo Wei: What do you think?

 

As the door to the billiards room was pushed open, Wu Wei made his way down the stairs wearing white hotel slippers. Yin Guo knew that because the competition was set to begin the following week, Jiang Yang had required Wu Wei to stay in the hotel during the schedule, so he could be easily reached by Lin Yi Yang in case of an emergency.

 

"Hey, Junior Sister is here," Wu Wei exclaimed, grinning at the sight of Cheng Yan and Yin Guo.

 

Cheng Yan returned the smile and asked, "What brings you here, Wu Wei? I'm leaving."

 

"I couldn't sleep, so I came down for a quick game," Wu Wei replied before turning to Yin Guo. "Oh, and let me introduce you. This is Yin Guo, Brother Six's wife."

 

Although it was common knowledge in Dongxincheng, it still sounded strange to her ears. Cheng Yan seemed to sense her unease and refrained from mentioning it.

 

"Nice to meet you, Sister-in-law," Cheng Yan said politely, extending a hand toward Yin Guo.

 

Yin Guo reciprocated the gesture with a smile, "Please, just call me Yin Guo. I'm younger than you."

 

The tense atmosphere in the room made Wu Wei feel as though he was being punished on behalf of Lin Yi Yang. As for Cheng Yan, she seemed uncomfortable and quickly excused herself, grabbing her cue stick and leaving.

 

Once they were alone, Wu Wei let out a sigh of relief and leaned against the billiard table, his voice dropping to a whisper. "It's quite a coincidence, isn't it? So many people from Dongxincheng, and yet you happened to run into Cheng Yan."

 

Yin Guo shrugged. "It's not that surprising. We would have met on the court eventually, if not today." She tried to keep her composure, but her face betrayed her nerves.

 

Wu Wei chuckled, "Let me give you a heads up. Lin Yi Yang has always been quite popular, especially with his looks, and back in school, a lot of people had a crush on him. But here's the thing: if someone's into him, they're into him, and even if they still have feelings for him, there's nothing you can do about it. However, you should be proud of yourself for being the one who made him fall for you and no one else."

 

After uttering his previous sentence, he paused for a moment and felt uneasy. So, he added, "And he was the one who pursued you."

 

But then he reconsidered and still felt uneasy, so he added another sentence, "Or maybe he had his eyes on you from the very beginning."

 

When he saw a gleam of a smile in Yin Guo's eyes, he continued, "Do you know what he has saved you as in WeChat?"

She shook her head, intrigued.

 

Wu Wei grinned, "Red Fish."

 

It was the bar where the two of them had met.

 

A man's true depth lies in his intentions, especially when he is unconventional.

 

Yin Guo sat in the chair, absently tapping her feet on the small crossbeam beneath it. She felt a softness in her heart as Wu Wei approached her.

 

"Hey, are you happy? Let's go grab some fried chicken wings," he said, tossing the ball onto the billiard table and beckoning her to follow. "I scouted out a great place nearby last night."

 

As they walked to the restaurant, Wu Wei regaled Yin Guo with a colorful tale of how Lin Yi Yang had been pursued by many admirers in Dongxicheng. His storytelling skills were like a bandit taking advantage of a fire, embellishing the story with vivid details.

 

So, was Wu Wei here to sabotage or to save the day?

 

......

 

As they gear up for the group stage matches starting next Tuesday, the open tournament has drawn in an impressive 318 players from all corners of the world. Of the entrants, 109 are female players, with seven hailing from China.

 

Yin Guo, the sole representative from China in the 'purgatory group,' is a newcomer to professional-level competition. Despite having previously won a third-place medal in a youth competition, she hasn't received much recognition from the public. However, by Friday, her name had become synonymous with excellence among those watching the open tournament, cementing her status as a rising star in the Chinese team.

 

The purgatory group was the epitome of excitement in the group stage, boasting remarkable matches with competition intensity rivaling that of the finals. Each day, elimination was inevitable; losing meant being knocked out of the competition. But Yin Guo persevered, fighting her way through with determination and resilience to reach the final match of the group stage on Friday.

 

Come Friday, Yin Guo had three matches to play.

 

In the morning, she played two matches and emerged victorious in both. She defeated a seasoned player from Russia with an astonishing score of 11-3 before moving on to beat a player from Poland with a comfortable 11-4 lead. When she returned to the Chinese player's lounge, she was greeted with resounding applause and congratulations from almost everyone present - not just from her own team in Beijing but also from the Dongxincheng and other clubs throughout China.

 

Yin Guo sat unobtrusively in the corner. Her eyes focused on her meal while the bustle of the lounge swirled around her. Many players had arrived solo or with just one coach, but a handful came as part of larger teams from prestigious clubs and associations. The Dongxincheng players chattered animatedly together near the entrance, while the northern players remained subdued, dealing with their wins and losses in their own way.

 

The group from Beijing was at the center.

 

Yin Guo had found a small stool tucked away by the wall, back to the rest of the lounge, and was enjoying a box of prepared fruits and a freshly heated sandwich. Her earphones were in the melody of a song keeping her company. Unlike many others, her phone remained tucked safely away in her bag.

 

Throughout the competition week, Lin Yi Yang had been considerate of not disturbing Yin Guo's matches and training and would only spend a brief ten minutes chatting with her at night to alleviate her boredom. However, they never talked about the competition during their conversations.

 

Picking at the fruit with a white plastic fork, Yin Guo selected a slice of mango and savored it slowly as a form of mental preparation. She was aware that her desire to win was strong but acknowledged that such an attitude could be hazardous.

Maintaining a neutral disposition was her most significant asset.

 

Yin Guo focused on her food, her mind consumed by thoughts of making it to the quarterfinals. She wanted to play on Saturday, so Lin Yi Yang would have a chance to watch her compete.

 

Taking a deep breath, she continued to chew slowly and calmly, adhering to her philosophy of eating during competitions. She didn't want anything to distract her from performing at her best.

 

Just then, the door to the rest area was pushed open, and a man walked in.

 

Wu Wei was sitting with his legs crossed, chatting away with Chen Anan and a group of kids, when he suddenly noticed someone entering the room. He jumped up from his chair in surprise, and the rest of the Dongxincheng team soon followed suit.

 

Jiang Yang, who was in the middle of consoling two girls who were eliminated from the group stage, also stopped talking and straightened up as the man entered. As the leader of Dongxincheng, Jiang Yang tried to maintain his composure, but his eyes were betraying his emotions.

 

As his first reaction, Jiang Yang reached for a cigarette but remembered that he was indoors and couldn't smoke. He took a deep breath instead, trying to steady himself, and then asked in a trembling voice, "Has Old Six returned?"

 

Lin Yi Yang's eyes welled up with emotion as memories flooded his mind. He took a deep breath and smiled, trying to compose himself. "Yes, I'm back," he said, his voice quivering with emotion.

 

It was a moment that transcended words. The return of Lin Yi Yang was an event that would forever change the team's dynamic. As they looked at him, his former teammates saw the boy they used to know, the one who had inspired them with his passion and dedication.

 

For a moment, everyone was silent, lost in their own thoughts. Then, as if by unspoken agreement, they all stood up and walked towards him, their arms outstretched in a gesture of welcome.

 

On his face, distinct contours and sharp edges gave him a commanding presence. He rarely smiled, opting instead to roam the rest area in a white short-sleeved shirt and jeans, eschewing formal attire unless he was going to play. Sitting among men in suits and dress shirts, he stood out like a sore thumb.

 

Lin Yi Yang rarely engaged in conversation, preferring to greet everyone upon his arrival before finding a corner to sit in and wait for his match. Today was no different.

 

The entire team of Dongxincheng was present, and upon seeing Lin Yi Yang, they all stood up in unison, pushing back their chairs and setting aside their lunches and phones. They called out "Brother Six" and "Uncle Six" repeatedly in greeting.

 

Lin Yi Yang patted the shoulders of several kids who were standing close to him, scanned the field with his eyes, and headed to the corner of the north city on his own.

 

Among the coaches, there were those who knew Lin Yi Yang. They whispered and communicated briefly to their athletes, explaining that he was the man who had defeated Jiang Yang and Meng Xiaodong back in the day.

 

As he walked, he noticed several curious glances cast his way, including that of Cheng Yan. Despite this, he kept his head down and continued to make his way toward the north corner of the field.

 

Yin Guo swayed her head to the music, her dimples peeking through as she smiled to herself. She was lost in her thoughts until she heard a few murmurs of "Sixth Brother" behind her, mistaking them for Meng Xiaodong's arrival.

 

A tap on her shoulder broke her out of her reverie, and she reached for a strawberry with her fork while whispering, "Brother, I think I'm too eager to win, to get into the finals, to let him watch me play." Frustration crept into her voice as she thought about the pressure she had put on herself.

 

Suddenly, her left earphone was taken off.

 

Yin Guo's heart raced as the man she had been secretly berating for being a womanizer bent down with a teasing smile. "What did you call me? Brother?" he asked, his eyes twinkling mischievously.

 

Yin Guo turned to face him, feeling a rush of blood to her head. She tried to collect herself but found it difficult to focus on anything other than his captivating presence.

 

How can she compete like this...

During the Snowstorm
1.1
From Storm to Clear Skies

Upon arriving at the hotel, Yin Guo and Meng Xiaotian were greeted by a remarkable sight on the television. News footage depicted the streets of Boston submerged in seawater, as the tide had risen to flood the city. The iconic Niagara Falls appeared as a frozen wonderland, with the cascading water transformed into ice sculptures. Even the waves, typically a relentless force of nature, had been tamed and reshaped into works of art. 

 

Fortunately, the blizzard that had pummeled the city had finally stopped. The once snow-covered landscape had evolved into a picturesque winter wonderland, gleaming under the sun's rays. The world outside the hotel windows has been transformed into a postcard-worthy scene. 

 

"Experts mention global warming, but I wonder if they're just joking," Meng Xiaotian grumbled as he helped himself to a slice of ham. 

 

"This is the lake effect, something we learned in geography class. Perhaps you have been asleep during that lesson," Yin Guo commented said while waiting for her toast. She let out a yawn and rubbed her eyes. "If we had arrived later, maybe we wouldn't have had such rotten luck with the weather." 

 

She had meticulously planned her trip, carefully choosing the ideal dates for her New York City visit in the spring. However, Meng Xiaotian had other ideas. He insisted on coming during the dead of winter, claiming he wanted to experience the city in all its seasons. But Yin Guo knew the real reason; he wanted to use her as his personal tour guide and take advantage of her local knowledge. Despite her initial reluctance, she eventually gave in to his persistent requests. 

 

Meng Xiaotian recognized his selfishness and chuckled guiltily. "Could you pass me a slice too?" 

 

Yin Guo nodded. "Sure." 

 

"Hey, sis?" 

 

"Yeah?" 

 

"Don't you want to thank Da Shuai?" (A term used to describe an extremely handsome guy) 

 

Yin Guo watched as the toast fell into the stainless-steel toaster pan, the warm aroma of bread filling the air. Carefully, she used the tongs to flip it over, ensuring it toasted perfectly. "I want to thank him, I just haven't figured out how to express it yet," she said, her mind occupied with thoughts of how to convey her gratitude. 

 

"Don't stress over it," her cousin Meng Xiaotian said as he picked up a slice of ham from the plate on the counter. "We're all Chinese here. I'll send you his WeChat contact, and you can message him directly." 

 

Yesterday, as they stepped out of the car, Meng Xiaotian couldn't help but express his gratitude towards Lin Yi Yang, shaking his hand firmly as he exchanged WeChat contacts. The possibility of staying in touch now felt more possible now. 

 

Yin Guo couldn't help but notice how her cousin seemed to have hit it off with Lin Yi Yang. She pondered on the We Chat username "Lin", wondering about the person behind it and the content of their conversations. 

 

Yin Guo used the tongs to retrieve the toast from the toaster, its warm, inviting aroma filling the kitchen. She placed it on a plate, a twinge of guilt nagging at her. She understood that she should express her gratitude to Lin Yi Yang for his kindness, but she couldn't shake the lingering unease. After all, she had been the one to doubt his authenticity and credentials initially. 

 

The toasted bread slice landed on the plate with a satisfying clatter, perfectly browned on both sides. 

 

Holding a slice of bread in one hand, Yin Guo reached for a small container of butter and a jar of strawberry jam with the other. She then returned to the small table by the window where she had been sitting earlier. Her cousin called out, reminding her that he wanted his bread toasted as well, but she was too lost in thought to hear him. 

 

Yin Guo placed the plate on the red checkered tablecloth and stared at Lin Yi Yang's contact information. She considered adding him as a friend on WeChat but hesitated for some reason. She placed her phone aside, picked up her fork, and started digging into her scrambled eggs. The combination of warm toast and sweet jam was a comforting delight, but her mind remained consumed by thoughts of Lin Yi Yang and their recent encounter. 

 

Yin Guo couldn't help but cringe at the memory of that fateful night. Her cousin and the man with glasses had just returned from the restroom, and as they were preparing to leave, they stumbled upon Lin Yi Yang retrieving his ID. The man with glasses had chuckled and playfully asked Yin Guo if she also wanted to inspect Lin Yi Yang's household registration book, poking fun at her earlier doubts. After all, it was daytime in China, and they could have easily requested a photo of the document from Lin Yi Yang's family for her to see. 

 

The memory was simply embarrassing. 

 

Meng Xiaotian returned to Yin Guo's side with a plate of food in one hand. He couldn't help but notice her hesitancy and the tight grip she had on her phone. He shook his head in amusement. "What's the matter?" he asked, taking the phone from her. "Are you worried about adding Lin Yi Yang on WeChat? Don't be so silly. More friends mean more connections." 

 

With a quick tap, Meng Xiaotian sent the friend request. Almost immediately, a notification confirmed that Lin Yi Yang had accepted it. 

 

"There you go," Meng Xiaotian said, grinning as he handed the phone back to Yin Guo, a smiley face already sent to Lin Yi Yang. 

 

Yin Guo swiftly took the phone from Meng Xiaotian. When she saw the emoji he had sent, she realized she needed to initiate the conversation. Her fingers hovered over the screen, contemplating the best way to greet Lin Yi Yang. A hint of nervousness fluttered in her stomach as she aimed to make a memorable first impression. 

 

With a deep breath, she typed out a message, introducing herself, "Hey there, it's Yin Guo. We hung out at RED FISH bar that night with my cousin. I'm the older one." She hit send, but almost immediately, she second-guessed herself. It seemed overly wordy and formal. 

 

Before she could reconsider, Lin Yi Yang had already replied. 

 

"I know," he responded, concise and straightforward. 

 

Xiao Guo: Thanks for your help that day. We reached our hotel safely. If you're free, my brother and I would love to take you out for a meal as a token of our appreciation. What do you say? 

 

Lin: "Aren't you worried about being scammed?" 

 

Xiao Guo: "Back then, I had just landed in New York, stuck in a snowstorm, feeling completely lost. I'm sorry if my skepticism came off the wrong way." 

 

Lin: "No worries." 

 

Xiao Guo: "Are you presently in Manhattan? We could arrange to meet there." 

 

Lin: "I'm currently at the train station, heading back to DC." 

 

"Returning to Washington?" 

 

"What's did he say?" Meng Xiaotian inquired, leaning closer to see her phone. 

 

"He's going back to school," Yin Guo responded, scrolling through the conversation. 

 

"Seems like he's headed back to D.C. Should we consider making a trip out of it?" Meng Xiaotian suggested, munching on his toast. 

 

Yin Guo let out a small sigh and shook her head. "I don't think it's a good idea." 

 

"Joining him in D.C. for some fun could be a great idea. I'm getting restless just sitting around here." 

 

"We didn't plan for this; we have to book our tickets and hotel in advance," Yin Guo protested, "Let's stick to our original plan and enjoy New York first. There's no rush to have a meal with him today." 

 

Besides, it's not really appropriate to go to such lengths just for a meal, especially all the way from New York to Washington. It might come across as a bit too desperate. 

 

Meng Xiaotian could sense Yin Guo's discomfort with the idea, so he decided not to press the matter any further. 

 

The aroma of freshly baked bread filled the air as Meng Xiaotian wrapped up his meal. He rose from his seat, determined to find some food for both himself and Yin Guo. 

 

Although the hotel boasted a restaurant and a bar, the staff appeared to be absent after the usual dining hours. Given the snowstorm that had battered the city for the past two days, the pair preferred to stay indoors and resolve their hunger pangs within the hotel. But, to their dismay, they couldn't find a single chef or waiter. 

 

Feeling a bit anxious, they decided to seek assistance from the front desk. The friendly American girl working behind the counter greeted them with a warm smile and explained that the restaurant staff wouldn't be back until 5:30 PM. 

 

With limited options, they explored the hotel's various floors, hoping to stumble upon vending machines stocked with some snacks. Unfortunately, all they came across were machines offering a variety of beverages. Disappointed and famished, they made their way back to their room. To pass the time, they engaged in conversation, sipped on water, and browsed the internet until, at long last, 5:30 PM arrived, allowing them to indulge in a satisfying steak dinner. 

 

Meng Xiaotian had learned a valuable lesson: never take food for granted. Since that day, he ensured he had a hearty breakfast and seized every opportunity to enjoy a good meal while on the go. 

 

The topic of Washington faded away like steam rising from their breakfast plates. 

 

As the morning unfolded, Meng Xiaotian didn't revisit the subject, and Yin Guo pushed it to the back of her mind. After a brief nap in her hotel room, she awakened and, with Meng Xiaotian in tow, set out to find a nearby supermarket for their everyday needs. Planning to stay in New York for several months, Yin Guo hadn't packed many personal items, so she was eager to purchase essentials locally. 

 

Upon entering the supermarket, Yin Guo headed straight for the section with daily necessities, while Meng Xiaotian headed toward the food aisles. She browsed the shelves, er eyes quickly landing on the shampoo and shower gel section. On the top shelf, she spotted a large bottle, ideal for their three-month stay in New York. 

 

Meng Xiaotian caught up to his sister and asked, "What are you getting?" 

 

"Shampoo," Yin Guo replied, her eyes now scanning the display shelves. "Don't follow me; I have a lot of things to buy." 

 

Meng Xiaotian understood that there were certain tasks his sister preferred to handle herself. 

 

As he trailed behind her, Meng Xiaotian reached over and took the shampoo from Yin Guo's grasp. "Let's leave first; we can pick it up later." 

 

Yin Guo objected, "I just got it," and considering she had to reach so high for it, she added, "Give it back to me." 

 

Meng Xiaotian gently tugged on Yin Guo's arm, guiding her out of the store. "I've bought the tickets," he grumbled. "We're on a tight schedule. Let's hurry back and pack our stuff, or we'll miss our train." 

 

Yin Guo was surprised. "You got the tickets? How and where did you get that?" She glanced around, trying to piece together how he had purchased train tickets without her noticing. 

 

Meng Xiaotian proudly displayed his phone, displaying the electronic train tickets for their journey to Washington. "Da Shuai taught me. I mentioned how you're not exactly a pro at buying train tickets, and he suggested this handy app." 

 

Meng Xiaotian held the train ticket in his hand, a sense of accomplishment washing over him, making him feel more grown-up and capable. Meanwhile, Yin Guo was taken aback by Meng Xiaotian's crafty actions. She swiftly snatched his phone, scrolling through their chat history and realizing that not only had he made her appear naive but he had also exposed all her personal information to Lin Yi Yang. 

 

In their WeChat conversation, Meng Xiaotian had painted a rosy picture of himself, sharing with Lin Yi Yang that he had applied to a university in the vicinity and had arrived early to adjust to campus life while exploring other renowned schools. He even mentioned his determination to reapply next year if he fails the admission this year. 

 

Yin Guo noticed that Lin Yi Yang's responses were concise, with the last message arriving three minutes ago. 

 

Lin: If it's your first time, you could try Shake Shack. There's one at the DC train station. 

 

Meng Xiaotian briefly glanced at his phone. "What's Shake Shack?" he inquired. 

 

"Just a burger joint," Yin Guo explained. 

 

"Why didn't you mention this earlier?" Meng Xiaotian expressed his frustration. "I can't rely on you for anything." 

 

"We just arrived, didn't we?" Yin Guo defended herself. "Besides, they have locations all over, including in New York. If you still want to try it, I can take you there." 

 

However, Meng Xiaotian was already leading her back to the hotel, paying no heed to her words. 

 

As the clock ticked down, Meng Xiaotian and Yin Guo found themselves in a frantic rush. Being relatively inexperienced travelers, Meng Xiaotian had booked train tickets with only a two-hour buffer, leaving them unprepared. They hastily grabbed a change of clothes and a toiletry bag, cramming them into a backpack. Their IDs, credit cards, and phones were snatched up, and they dashed out the door to hail a taxi bound for the train station. 

 

In the taxi, Yin Guo frantically scoured the internet for a hotel, her fingers dancing across her phone's screen. As soon as they arrived at the train station, she was on the phone with hotel staff, selecting rooms and confirming reservations with her credit card. Meng Xiaotian, carrying the backpack in one hand, navigated through the bustling crowd, leading the way to the station's entrance, with Yin Guo following closely behind. 

 

Meng Xiaotian and Yin Guo rushed through the station, their hearts racing with excitement and a touch of anxiety. Their spontaneous decision to travel to Washington had left them unprepared. As they swiped their tickets and entered the station, they felt a sense of adventure, ready for whatever lay ahead. 

 

Onboard the train, they noticed it was about to depart, and most passengers had already taken their seats. "Let's find our seats," Yin Guo suggested, scanning the crowded carriages. However, all the double seats were occupied by individual travelers, so they had to continue to the next carriage. After moving through two carriages, Yin Guo found an unoccupied double seat by the window and quickly claimed it for them. She placed her small shoulder bag at her feet and settled into the seat. 

 

Meng Xiaotian hoisted his heavy backpack into the overhead luggage rack and settled into the seat beside Yin Guo. "This train is moving at a snail's pace," he complained. "Back home, we'd be in Washington within an hour on a high-speed train. But here, they tell me it's a three-hour ride. Can you believe it? The price we paid for these tickets and the speed we're getting? It's just unbelievable." He shook his head, preparing himself for the long journey ahead. 

 

Yin Guo listened to Meng Xiaotian's words, her mind overwhelmed with confusion and frustration. How had she allowed herself to be talked into this spontaneous trip to Washington? Her initial plan had been simple – run errands and stock up on essentials at the supermarket. Now, she found herself on a train with no clear purpose or destination. 

 

Yin Guo gazed out of the window, she watched the platform gradually disappear. Then, a sudden thought struck her. Had he actually handed over the money to Meng Xiaotian for the train ticket? 

 

... 

 

As the train started its journey, Lin Yi Yang found an available seat and settled in beside a young mother holding a fussing baby. The mother offered numerous apologies as she attempted to calm her child, but Lin Yi Yang was too weary to pay much attention. 

 

He nonchalantly shrugged off his coat, carelessly cramming it into the overhead luggage rack before doing the same with his sports bag. Letting out a yawn, he tugged his hat down to shield his eyes from the bright light streaming in through the train window, preparing himself for what seemed to be a long and restless journey. 

 

"Could you help me, please?" a woman of African descent inquired. 

 

Lin Yi Yang was so fatigued that he almost believed he was hearing things. 

 

The woman of African descent made her request once more, this time with a touch of awkwardness, and it roused him from his half-dream state. He pushed up his hat and rubbed his face with his hands to fully awaken, whispering, "I'm sorry." 

 

For the next ten minutes, Lin Yi Yang found himself assisting the young mother with her backpack, retrieving the baby bottle, and carefully pouring in the formula. As the child drank and gradually calmed down, Lin Yi Yang couldn't help but be captivated by the baby's sucking motion. However, just as he was on the verge of drifting off again, the vibration of his phone snapped him back to reality. 

 

He reached into his pocket, pulled out his phone, and unlocked it to discover two new messages waiting for him on WeChat. 

 

The first message was from "Wu Suo Wei": "Are you on the train? I'll come find you at the next station." 

 

The second message, however, piqued his interest. It was from Red Fish, the affectionate nickname he had given to Yin Guo. 

 

To his surprise, the message included a digital money transfer. He furrowed his brow, puzzled by this unexpected turn of events. 

 

Red Fish: "I am so thankful for your help that day, and I look forward to returning the favor someday. But before I can do that, please accept this money as reimbursement for the car and drinks we had that day. [Smiling face]"  

Arcane Awakening
1
Chapter 1 The Enigmatic Dream
萤火星

Eldor’s senses were adrift between reality and illusion, teetering on the precipice of consciousness. 


He was lost in a void where dreams bled into memories, and the boundaries between life and death blurred like smudged ink on parchment.


Was he alive? Dying? Already a specter of the past?


He saw himself as a young boy, wild and curious, roaming the mystical forests of Aetherwood. The trees there whispered secrets in the rustling leaves, and the air was thick with the scent of magic. It was in these woods that he first encountered the Lumina Academy.


Scenes of rigorous training flashed by. Eldor recalled the stern face of Master Kael, the leader of the academy. Kael’s voice was a constant presence, always preaching the delicate balance between power and wisdom.


"Strength without purpose is chaos," Master Kael would say. "Harness your abilities not just to conquer, but to protect."


Eldor often bristled under this constant scrutiny. His natural talent was undeniable, earning him the title of the "Arcane Swordsman," yet he was still a novice in the eyes of the academy. The rules felt stifling, the teachings too rigid for his adventurous spirit.


Why hadn't he seen the truth in those words before? 


The Lumina Academy, with all its constraints, had molded him into who he was. 


Regret weighed heavily on him. If only he had embraced the teachings more fully, if only he had pushed himself harder, perhaps he could have altered his fate.


"Do you wish you had chosen differently?" The voice was gentle, familiar—Master Kael. 


"Yes, Master. I regret so much. I wish I could have been stronger, wiser," Eldor whispered.


"Regret is a heavy burden, my student," Kael’s voice was soft. "But know this: the essence of Lumina is not lost. You are its legacy."


"Master..." Eldor could almost feel Kael’s comforting presence. 


"Because it is the Lumina Academy," Kael's voice echoed, fading into the ether.


Just as Eldor began to feel a semblance of peace, he was jolted back by a sharp, throbbing pain.


"Ahhh! What is this agony? It feels like my head is splitting open!" Eldor’s hand shot up to clutch his throbbing temple. Was it an attack? Had the dark forces he fought not been vanquished?


The response came not from a menacing enemy but from a querulous, gravelly voice. "Oi, are you awake now, you lazy sod?"


Eldor opened his eyes to see a face staring down at him, twisted with annoyance and grime. A beggar, his face lined with the hardships of life, dressed in tattered rags and clutching a knobby staff.


A beggar? 


Eldor blinked. The man’s attire was rough, marked by a novice’s belt—he was a newcomer to the streets.


"What’s happening?" Eldor muttered


"Heh, you’ve got some nerve! Sleeping while the rest of us are out scrounging for a bite to eat!" The beggar’s voice was thick with irritation. 


He gave Eldor a light but firm jab with his staff.


"Wait… am I being threatened by a beggar?" Eldor’s mind reeled. 


This was far from any nightmare he’d ever had, yet it felt disturbingly real. The corners of his mouth curled into a smirk.


The beggar, taken aback by Eldor’s sudden change in demeanor, stepped back. "What are you smiling at, huh? Think this is funny?"


Eldor’s smirk widened.


Eldor’s bemused smirk didn’t fade as the beggar’s staff hovered threateningly close to his face. 


The situation was absurd, almost comical. Who was he again? Eldor, once a celebrated warrior of the Lumina Academy, a prodigious student whose swordsmanship and command over the arcane arts were unparalleled. 


Even at the academy's zenith, few could match his prowess. He had been hailed as the "Arcane Swordsman," his techniques blending the grace of the blade with the mystique of magic.


Yet here he was, confronted by a raggedy beggar who dared to menace him with a crude stick. A thr—what?


The beggar squinted, his face contorting in confusion. "Are you laughing at me?"


"Look here, kid," Eldor began, trying to make sense of the surreal scenario. "I’m not sure what's going on, but you can put that stick down."


The beggar's expression twisted with incredulity. "Ha! You think this is funny?" He laughed. "This isn’t a joke, you fool! Everyone else is out scrapping for a meal, and here you are, sleeping like a pampered prince!"


Eldor’s scowl deepened. The nerve of this beggar! To treat him, of all people, with such disdain. 


Before he could react, the beggar swung the stick. 


Eldor instinctively raised his arm to block, but his movements felt sluggish, as if he were wading through molasses. The staff descended with alarming speed, far faster than his hands could intercept.


Whack!


Pain exploded in his skull as the stick made contact. 


Eldor staggered, his vision blurring from the impact. Why were his reflexes so slow? This wasn’t right. With his training and speed, he should have caught that stick easily. Was it his injuries? Something more sinister?


Desperate to fend off the attack, Eldor caught sight of his own hand reaching out. But it was small, frail, and moving with a lethargic slowness that was utterly foreign to him.


The beggar didn’t pause. He swung again, the stick landing another brutal blow. Eldor collapsed to the ground.


"Argh! Stop! It hurts! What is this?" He writhed on the cobblestones, every inch of his body throbbing with agony. It was a pain unlike anything he had experienced before, sharper and more relentless than the wounds he had suffered in countless battles.


The beggar loomed over him. "Understand your place, you lazy lout! You think you can lie around while the rest of us toil? I’ll beat some sense into you if it’s the last thing I do!"


Eldor’s cries grew more frantic as the beating continued. "Stop! Stop! I don’t even know who you are!" But his pleas went unanswered. The beggar's staff kept raining down, each strike more forceful than the last.


Finally, after what felt like an eternity, the beating ceased. 


Eldor lay sprawled on the ground, gasping for breath. He blinked away tears, his vision swimming as he tried to make sense of his surroundings.


"Please, no more," he groaned, curling into a ball to shield himself from any further blows.


The beggar, breathing heavily, glared down at him. 


"Consider this a lesson. Next time, do your part." With a final huff, he turned and stomped away.


Eldor struggled to his feet. He stumbled toward a nearby puddle of water. He leaned over the water, peering at his reflection, and froze.


Staring back at him was not the face he knew, the face of a seasoned warrior and mage, but that of a young boy.


His hair, once silver and flowing, was now a tousled mess of dark curls. His eyes, once bright and keen, were wide with shock.


"What in the…" Eldor muttered


This wasn’t his body. It was the body of a child, scrawny and weak.


"How did this happen?" He whispered. 


He splashed the water, hoping to clear the image and see his true self again. But the reflection remained unchanged.


A wave of panic surged through him. Who had done this to him? And more importantly, why? What dark magic had torn him from his reality and thrust him into this helpless form?


Eldor's reflection shimmered back at him. The face staring at him was young, much younger than he had ever been since leaving his childhood behind in Aetherwood. He had no memories of this face, but the youthful features didn’t trouble him as much as the fragility of his new body.


He brought his hand up to his face, tracing the unfamiliar contours. The skin was smooth and unmarked by the scars of countless battles. His cheeks were full, his eyes wide and bright, with none of the shadows that had settled there from years of hardship. 


It was, in fact, a charming face, perhaps even more so than his old one. There was a strange satisfaction in the youthful vitality he now possessed, but it came at a cost.


This body was small, weak, and woefully undernourished. His limbs were scrawny, his muscles untested and thin. He was tired, starving, and every inch of him ached from the beating. He tried to push himself up, but his strength failed him.


"Ugh, this is ridiculous," he muttered.


His old self, the Arcane Swordsman, was a figure of awe and respect. He had stood tall, a master of both blade and magic, feared by his enemies and revered by his peers. 


That identity, that power, seemed a distant dream now. 


Eldor clenched his fists. This was not the body of a warrior.


He took a deep breath. "Alright, focus. This means... I’m alive."


The realization brought a flicker of hope. His old self might be gone, but his spirit and memories had survived. 


"Is this some sort of dark sorcery?" he pondered aloud. 


Perhaps it was a curse laid upon him by the enemies he had vanquished, or some twisted form of reincarnation. 


He recalled tales of souls being reborn into new bodies, though he had always considered them mere stories, not something that could happen to him. Or maybe, just maybe, the dark forces he had battled had cast a vile spell to ensnare him in this frail form.


His mind churned with questions. What had happened to his old body? How had he ended up here, in this alley, at the mercy of a beggar’s wrath? And more pressingly, how was he going to survive in this condition?


Eldor pushed himself up to a sitting position, wincing as his bruises protested. He couldn’t afford to sit here and brood. 


He struggled to his feet, he cast a glance around the dingy alley. "First things first, I need to find some answers," 


His eyes landed on the beggars' tent. Perhaps the beggar who had beaten him could shed some light on his predicament.


He took a step, and his legs buckled beneath him. "Damn it!" he cursed, catching himself against a wall. 


The beating had left him weaker than he thought. He tried again, forcing himself to take slow, deliberate steps. His head throbbed with each movement, but he gritted his teeth and pushed on.


Eldor stumbled forward. "I’ll find out what happened," he vowed under his breath. "And when I do, I’ll make sure that beggar pays for this."


His progress was slow and painful, but he finally reached the tent. The flap was partially open, revealing a small group of beggars huddled inside. They looked up as he approached.


"Who are you?" one of them asked, a grizzled man with a long beard and a missing tooth.


Eldor took a deep breath, steeling himself. "I’m..." He hesitated, unsure of how to introduce himself. His old name felt like a relic of a past life, yet it was the only identity he had. "I’m Eldor. I need answers."


The beggars exchanged glances, then the bearded man spoke again, his tone wary. "Answers? About what?"


"About this," Eldor said, gesturing to his frail form. "And how I ended up here."


The man snorted. "You ended up here like the rest of us. Bad luck, no coin, and a world that doesn’t give a damn."


Eldor clenched his jaw, frustration mounting. "No, it’s more than that. I wasn’t always like this. I was... different." He searched for the right words. "I’m not supposed to be here. This body, it’s not mine."


The beggars looked at him as if he were mad.

During the Snowstorm
1.3
From Storm to Clear Skies

Lin Yi Yang and Wu Wei stood next to a parking lot, waiting for the bus to arrive. The sun had set, and the temperature had dropped, a chill wind biting through their clothes. Wu Wei's hands were buried deep in the pockets of his thick winter coat, trying to keep warm as he shivered. Lin Yi Yang, however, seemed unfazed by the cold. He was engrossed in his phone, a small smile playing on his lips. Wu Wei couldn't help but feel curious, trying to sneak a peek at Lin Yi Yang's phone, but was met with a playful elbow nudge from his friend.


Just then, a Chinese bus rumbled by, its windows crowded with passengers. The driver, catching sight of Lin Yi Yang and Wu Wei waiting by the side of the road, pulled over and stuck his head out the window. "Heading to New York?" he called out. "Hop on, I'll give you a ride.


Lin Yi Yang, still on his phone, shook his head and raised a hand in refusal. "Thanks, but your bus is already full," he said, dialing another number as he spoke.


The driver let out a chuckle and flicked his cigarette out of the window. "Fake politeness," he muttered.


A red arc of embers traced through the air, narrowly missing Lin Yi Yang's clothes as he stepped back quickly to avoid it. As the call connected, he spoke urgently into the phone, "I need you to take care of two kids for me. Something came up, and I can't make it. Yeah, the bet, I agreed to it."


....


You agreed to it?" Yin Guo said with a hint of surprise.


The elevator doors slid open, and Yin Guo and her cousin stepped inside. As they made their way to their floor, two men dressed in business attire stepped in, taking up the center position of the elevator, separating the two. The sudden presence of these strangers made Yin Guo feel uneasy, and she leaned closer to the elevator wall.


"Quickly tell me," Yin Guo whispered in Chinese.


Her cousin looked at her. "Nah, he said a buddy would cover it," the younger cousin handed his phone over to Yin Guo, bypassing the two men. "I told him it's cool to have a friend come, but I'll handle the expenses."


Yin Guo's eyes scanned the message, a sense of relief washing over her as she realized that her cousin had handled the situation.


She quickly scrolled through the chat history on her phone; she couldn't help but notice Lin Yi Yang's short and succinct responses. He had mentioned that he was on his way but didn't reveal much else. In his reply to Meng Xiaotian, Lin Yi Yang had emphasized that it was only natural for him to extend an invitation to guests visiting from far away. This is a traditional Chinese etiquette, and it should be upheld even when abroad.


Meng Xiaotian had initially offered to take Lin Yi Yang out for a meal, but Lin Yi Yang had politely declined. The conversation then shifted to the duration of their stay in Washington, with Meng Xiaotian explaining that Yin Guo couldn't be away from New York for too long and they had only booked a one-night stay. He asked Lin Yi Yang when he would be back, but Lin Yi Yang couldn't give a definite answer.


Lin Yi Yang's last message simply read,


Lin: We'll see each other again.


As the night went on, Meng Xiaotian couldn't shake off the thought of that restaurant Lin Yi Yang had recommended. Despite rejecting the invitation, he couldn't help but be curious about the food and atmosphere. He pulled out his phone and tried to book a table, but to his disappointment, it was fully booked.


After a mediocre meal in the hotel's restaurant, Yin Guo and Meng Xiaotian strolled down the walking path near the White House, taking a few photos together. As they returned to their hotel room, Meng Xiaotian noticed the discomfort of their sleeping arrangements. The previous night, they had rushed to book a room and the only option left was a double bed. He and his cousin had slept at opposite ends, but it was a less than ideal situation. As soon as they arrived in Washington, Yin Guo had requested two single beds, finally able to get a good night's rest.


Soon as Yin Guo slipped into bed, she turned to her brother and said "Don't forget, we need to wake up early to visit the nearby museums. There's so much to see." With that, she drifted off to sleep.


The next morning, when Yin Guo woke up, the bright sunlight streaming through the window hit her face. She stretched out her arms and sat up, rubbing her sleepy eyes. As she looked around the room, she noticed that the small table and desk were covered with take-out boxes. It looked like her brother had ordered food for them last night, but he was nowhere to be found.


Feeling a little confused, Yin Guo grabbed her phone and dialed Meng Xiaotian's number. It rang a few times, but there was no answer. She decided to send him a message on WeChat: "Where did you go? Museum?"


A few moments later, she received a reply from Meng Xiaotian: "I'm in Georgetown."


Yin Guo felt a little surprised. She quickly typed out another message: "Did you go by yourself?"


Meng Xiaotian replied: "No, Lin Ge woke me up early this morning and had a friend drive me there. He said, in case I don't get into New York University this year, I can try this school next year."


Yin Guo couldn't help but smile. She typed out another message: "He's really nice to you."


Meng Xiaotian replied: "Yeah, a great person. Wait for me, I'll be back soon, and buy you lunch downstairs."


Yin Guo lazily rolled out of bed, her mind lingering on the thought of Lin Yi Yang. Despite his cold exterior, he truly looked out for Meng Xiaotian. She shuffled into the bathroom, grabbed a new toothbrush from the drawer, and began her morning routine. As she brushed her teeth, she decided that it is only appropriate to send a message of gratitude to Lin.


Xiao Guo: "Thanks for arranging for someone to take my brother to visit the school."


Lin Yi Yang: "No problem, happy to help."


Xiao Guo: "I appreciate it. [smiley face]"


Lin Yi Yang: "No problem. [coffee cup]"


The exchange was brief and to the point. Seems like there is not much for the two of them to talk about.


Yin Guo couldn't shake off the feeling of unease as she leaned against the wall, her phone gently tapping against it as she scrolled through her messages. Lin Yi Yang's cold demeanor had always intimidated her. It was rare to come across someone who spoke so little. She wondered if her cousin and Lin had more in common than she thought. She tried to push the thoughts out of her mind; she had already thanked him for his help, and there was nothing more to say.


From that day on, Yin Guo avoided any one-on-one interactions with Lin Yi Yang. She saw him as her younger brother's new friend in America and nothing more.


After the two returned to New York, the hotel had extra rooms, so Yin Guo quickly took advantage of this and requested for the big room to be exchanged into two small ones. She filled the rooms with various daily necessities and officially began her short-term stay.


Last time she came, she had Zheng Yi as her guide and they visited all the famous landmark buildings as part of a standard tourist itinerary. This year, however, she didn't want to go to those places again and decided to let Meng Xiaotian explore on his own. With Google Maps at his disposal, she knew he wouldn't get lost.


Every morning until noon, they'd explore the city, primarily on the hunt for good food. In the afternoons, they'd go their separate ways. Yin Guo still had competition tasks to complete and needed to stick to her training schedule.


In the following week, Meng Xiaotian occasionally mentioned Lin Yi Yang's name, sharing all the recommendations he had received during his solo travels. With this new friend around, Yin Guo found her travels became much easier. As she listened to Xiaotian's excited chatter, she gradually grew accustomed to Lin Yi Yang's presence. It was a stark contrast to their initial meeting when she couldn't help but feel a twinge of guilt for whatever had transpired between them.


On a lazy Saturday morning, Yin Guo woke up to the distant buzz of her alarm. Groggily rubbing the sleep from her eyes, she stumbled out of bed and headed to the bathroom to brush her teeth. As she scrubbed her teeth with her toothbrush, her cousin Meng Xiaotian knocked on her door, ready to discuss the day's plans.


"Where should we go today?" Yin Guo asked, her words slightly muffled by the foamy toothpaste in her mouth.


"Let's check out the area around New York University," Xiaotian suggested, leaning against the door frame.


Yin Guo finished rinsing her mouth and dried it off with a towel. "Haven't we been there a few times already?" She asked.


"It's supposed to be a fun spot," her cousin enthused, showing Yin Guo a screenshot of a café on his phone. "Caffe Reggio. I want to check it out."


She studied the photo, a vague sense of familiarity creeping over her. "Sure thing," she replied, shrugging. "I don't have any specific plans in mind."


"Oh, and by the way," She added. "We'll be passing by the bar we went to on your first night here. You know, the one where you got lost."


Meng Xiaotian's eyes widened in surprise. "Really? I don't remember how to get there at all."


"Don't worry, I'll show you the way," she reassured him with a smile, as she ran a brush through her hair, deftly braiding it into a loose bun. She always does this on days when it's supposed to snow, that way she can wear a hat without worrying about ruining her hairstyle.


As they left the apartment, she let her mind wander to the nearby specialty shops and boutiques, wondering if her cousin would be interested in a little tour. When they finally reached the entrance of Caffe Reggio, she couldn't help but remember why the name had sounded so familiar to her in the first place: the striking green façade of the building was hard to forget.


The café, Caffe Reggio, stood out with its striking green walls and canopy. As Yin Guo and Meng Xiaotian approached, they noticed that most of the outdoor seats were empty, with only a couple of young people chatting in the wind while wrapped in down jackets. Inside, the café was bustling with customers, with very few empty seats to be found.


"No seats?" Yin Guo looked inside, a hint of disappointment in her voice.


But Meng Xiaotian smiled mysteriously. "It's okay," he said. "Lin Ge has made a reservation."


Yin Guo looked at him strangely. With so many people in the café, why was he still so confident?


"Lin Yi Yang? Did you make a reservation with him?" she asked, still not quite believing it.


"He made the reservation for us," her cousin said as he led her into the café. "He wanted it to be a surprise. He said if he could make it, he'd come see us, but even if he couldn't, we could still grab a coffee together and make the most of our time."


As they walked through the door, the warm and inviting atmosphere of the café enveloped Yin Guo. The walls were adorned with beautiful decorations and the sound of people chatting and laughing filled the room. Despite the crowd, her eyes immediately locked onto a familiar figure sitting in the corner.


Lin Yi Yang was seated under a large portrait painting, his tall frame taking up most of the space on the dark red couch. He was dressed in a black hat and coat, and his winter jacket was hanging off the back of the chair. The small table in front of him seemed almost inadequate for his size, as he had to position one arm on the table and the other on his knee.


As Yin Guo walked into the café with her cousin, Lin Yi Yang immediately picked up on the sound of Chinese being spoken. He knew they had arrived. He looked up from his seat and locked eyes with Yin Guo, noticing that she seemed to hesitate for a moment before approaching the table.


It was their second formal meeting, but despite their previous conversations through text, they were still strangers in person. The familiarity of their features and body shape came from the initial impression they left on each other at the bar, but in the daylight, there were slight differences.


Lin Yi Yang's gaze never wavered from Yin Guo as she made her way to the table and sat down next to her cousin. The table was small and cramped, but she hung her backpack on the chair beside her, making herself comfortable despite the tight space.


He pushed a menu towards her, "Take a look, what would you like to order?"


Yin Guo hesitated, "You order, you're more familiar with this place. I haven't been here before."


Lin Yi Yang nodded, and without hesitation, ordered tiramisu and coffee for them, and a panini for himself. It was clear that he had not had lunch yet as he came straight here.


The conversation between the three of them was stilted at first, the tension in the air evident. Yin Guo didn't want to have a cold and uncomfortable conversation, like the one they had had over WeChat, so she lowered her head and looked at her phone. She flipped through her friends' posts on social media, refreshing her Weibo and eventually returning to delete conversations. She found herself deleting their conversation from ten days ago. The last message from Lin Yi Yang had simply been [coffee].


It was unexpected that they would meet again, and it would be over a cup of coffee.


Meng Xiaotian, noticing the silence, couldn't help but break it. " Hey guys, let's chat a bit. It's a bit uncomfortable with all this silence. "


He initiated a conversation with Lin Yi Yang, talking about their university majors and the coffee shop they were in. Lin Yi Yang shared that the coffee shop was built in the early 20th century and had been a gathering place for artists and writers over the past century. He mentioned that it was possible that a literary figure like Ernest Hemingway had visited the place before becoming famous, or that parts of the book "The Catcher in the Rye" were written here. Places with history often have a certain legendary feel, and the presence of famous people makes them even more interesting.


Lin Yi Yang casually mentioned this and didn't elaborate further. But Yin Guo looked around the table in front of her and at the decorations on the walls around her, and felt that what he said was quite true.


As the coffee arrived at the table, Yin Guo's phone buzzed with a message from Zheng Yi.

She asked Yin Guo where she was today and upon hearing that she was on the New York University side, she remembered that she needed to purchase something. Since Yin Guo was already there, she decided to take the opportunity to save herself a trip. The only problem was, she couldn't remember the name of the store.


"Hey, why don't you ask Lin Yi Yang?" Zheng Yi suggested. "I'm sure he knows the place; he was the one who recommended Caffe Reggio after all."


Feeling a bit embarrassed, Yin Guo turned to Lin Yi Yang. "Hey, my friend mentioned a small shop around here that sells coffee beans. Apparently, a lot of restaurants get their beans from there, and they even put the shop's name on their sign to promote it. I'm having trouble finding it though, you wouldn't happen to know where it is? "


Lin Yi Yang thought for a moment before replying, "I'll take you there."


"No need to trouble yourself," Yin Guo quickly declined, "just give me the name and I'll look it up on my map. I'm sure I'll be able to find it."


Lin Yi Yang offered, "I'll come with you, if you'd like some company."


She was conscious of not wanting to keep him waiting, so she quickly finished her remaining half cup of coffee and said, "Alright, let's go."


But her actions came across as being too eager to leave, making it seem as though she was rushing. Lin Yi Yang smiled and gave a subtle glance towards her empty coffee cup, as if to imply, "In such a hurry?"


She couldn't help but notice the familiar gaze from Lin Yi Yang. It was the same one he had given her on their first night meeting, when she was so engrossed in her drink. Unconsciously, she pulled her long hair behind her ears, feeling a mix of discomfort and nostalgia.


Meanwhile, Meng Xiaotian was completely oblivious to the brief yet meaningful exchange between the two. He finished his cake and coffee swiftly, not noticing the coordinated movements of Lin Yi Yang and Yin Guo as they stood up and put on their coats.


"Wow, you two are really quick," Meng Xiaotian exclaimed, a hint of surprise in his voice.

Meng Xiaotian couldn't shake off the feeling that she was intruding on something intimate between Lin Yi Yang and cousin Yin Guo. He couldn't help but wonder, "Why do I feel like I'm in the way?

During the Snowstorm
7.3
The Passion Remains

Lin Yi Yang felt the weight of their laughter like a heavy stone on his chest. He had been a dominant king on the field since he was thirteen years old, but now he was being ridiculed by others. It was a stark reminder that times had changed, and people's hearts were not as good as they used to be.

 

With a deep breath, he stood up and faced the two boys behind him in the billiard room. They continued to laugh, seemingly unaware of the tension in the air. Lin Yi Yang fiercely scraped the back of the head of one of the boys and said, "Let's go."

 

Lin Yi Yang walked off the billiard area and went backstage. As he entered the restroom, he looked around, making sure no one else was present. He splashed his face with cold water, trying to calm his racing thoughts but he still felt unsatisfied. Without a second thought, he scooped up more water and wet his short hair, staring at himself in the mirror, his face covered in steam.

 

The familiar sight of the pool and the marble countertop brought back memories of all the athletes who had come and gone, competing for the same glory. He wondered how many of them had felt the same way he did now.

 

As he stood there, lost in thought, it all felt like a dream.

 

He remembered walking into an open hall with thirty-four billiard tables arranged inside; each placed very close together.

 

Beside each table stood a referee dressed in black, and rows of black leather chairs were arranged for the players to rest. The sound of balls being struck and dropping into pockets could be heard everywhere, and with more than thirty billiard tables and sixty to seventy players playing together, it was a lively and bustling scene. The impression was profound, and he realized how much this place had shaped him into the player he was today.

 

Lin Yi Yang wiped his chin and short hair with a piece of paper, the steam from the restroom still hanging in the air. As he crumpled the paper and tossed it into the bin, he noticed several male coaches from China walking in.

 

They smiled and greeted him, and he nodded back before leaving. The atmosphere was as lively as making dumplings, with everyone in high spirits and energized by the competition.

 

Note: Describing the process of making dumplings is sometimes used to create a lively and warm atmosphere.

 

Outside the lounge, Meng Xiaodong was with a group of people from Beijing, all of them carrying their cue sticks and luggage, preparing to leave the competition venue.

 

As Lin Yi Yang stepped out of the lounge, he couldn't help but notice Meng Xiaodong among the group. He wore a well-pressed shirt and trousers, every button from his cuff to collar carefully fastened. The two of them had crossed paths numerous times in the lounge, exchanging disdainful glances and brushing past each other without a word.

 

"Do you want to have a drink?" Meng Xiaodong suddenly stopped before Lin Yi Yang, breaking their usual silent exchange.

 

The people from Beijing behind Lin Yi Yang exchanged confused glances, wondering what had gotten into Old Six Meng. His sudden enthusiasm was out of character for him, even as their future brother-in-law. Little did they know that Meng Xiaodong had intentionally arranged the trip to New York before the Ireland competition to watch Yin Guo's match and reunite with this old friend whom he had previously snubbed in the lounge many years ago.

 

Lin Yi Yang grinned, feeling touched by Meng Xiaodong's gesture. He turned to face the group behind him and said, "Sure, let's grab a drink together."

 

Jiang Yang's eyes lit up with excitement as he led the people from Dongxincheng to stand behind Lin Yi Yang. "It's not often that two snooker players come to watch a 9-ball game. Why don't we make the most of it and watch it together? It'll be a good chance for everyone to get to know each other," he suggested.

 

"How about we rent a suite in the hotel?" Jiang Yang proposed, placing his hand on Lin Yi Yang's shoulder. "I'll buy some drinks, and we can enjoy them there."

 

Meng Xiaodong chimed in, "I'm happy to split the bill with you. Alcohol isn't cheap, after all. Let me take care of the drinks."

 

......

 

Lin Yi Yang did not participate in their conversation. Instead, he instructed the two boys from his pool room behind him to disperse and rest, as one had already made it to the quarter-finals the next day and needed to prepare before the match.

 

As the crowd thinned out, he was left standing alone, lost in thought.

 

Lin Yi Yang pulled out a black wallet from his back pocket, opened it, and took out a bank card, handing it to Wu Wei. Wu Wei was taken aback at first, but then he understood. He had been hanging out with Lin Yi Yang for years and knew his character better than anyone. Lin Yi Yang placed his hand on Wu Wei's shoulder and said, "You're used to living here and are more familiar than them, so go buy the alcohol."

 

Before the leaders of the two clubs and the ball society could speak, Lin Yi Yang looked away and watched Yin Guo walk out of the court with her pool cue. "You don't need to fight with me tonight," he said. "I was poor in the past and couldn't afford to treat everyone. Now, I'm not doing that well either, but I can still afford to buy everyone a drink."

 

Lin Yi Yang gave instructions to Jiang Yang in a calm voice, "Send me the hotel room number on my phone, but don't make the appointment too early. I have to accompany her for dinner."

 

After that, he walked past Meng Xiaodong and the group of people from Beijing towards Yin Guo, who had already spotted them at the door of the rest area.

 

While most girls were usually attracted to the charming and successful men on the field, Yin Guo had always been immune to their charms. She had seen too many of them - men who had won countless matches and applause, dressed in sharp suits and leather shoes, who were everywhere in the clubs and rest areas before matches.

 

But at this moment, as Lin Yi Yang walked out of the group of men from Dongxingcheng and Beijing and approached her alone, Yin Guo realized that her immunity wasn't due to overexposure but rather to the fact that she hadn't met the one she truly liked.

 

She liked this humble owner of the affiliated club of the youth hostel, this ordinary international student who takes long-distance trains to come to this city to watch the game, and this "coach" who only had two players and didn't even have a large rest area.

 

This man never boasted about his past achievements but instead focused on the present and future. This man...

 

Every time they met, Yin Guo noticed that Lin Yi Yang's first action was to extend his right hand and ask her to hand over her cue stick.

 

"Brother, I'm leaving first," she said, waving to Meng Xiaodong in the distance.

 

Meng Xiaodong waved back, letting her go.

 

"Going back to the hotel?" Lin Yi Yang asked her, his voice calm and collected.

 

She nodded but then realized something was off. Walking beside him, she leaned in and whispered: "The room is not for me alone."

 

He chuckled, "I know."

 

Yin Guo felt a warmth spread across her chest. It was not the first time she had been to a hotel with Lin Yi Yang.

 

It's a short walk from the gym to the hotel, only ten minutes away. Lin Yi Yang borrowed an umbrella from a staff member at the hotel entrance, and they walked under it to the lobby together. Despite the umbrella, he was still drenched as if he hadn't used it at all. Yin Guo, on the other hand, was completely dry.

 

As they approached the elevator, Yin Guo was still contemplating whether to tell her roommate to return later. She knew that if she did, her roommate would understand the implication. But saying it outright would be too bold for her.

 

The elevator arrived, and they stepped inside. As they ascended, Yin Guo stole glances at Lin Yi Yang, admiring how his wet clothes clung to his toned physique. She wondered what it would feel like to run her fingers over the water droplets on his skin.

 

But she quickly shook the thought away, feeling embarrassed at the idea of being so forward.

 

After days of not seeing each other, Lin Yi Yang couldn't resist the urge to hold Yin Guo's hand, touch her face, and kiss her. As they walked towards the elevator, he whispered to her, "We're almost there," his gaze locked onto hers.

 

Yin Guo held her breath and nodded slightly in response. The elevator doors opened with a "ding," Lin Yi Yang led her out while holding her hand, heading towards Room 1207.

 

Lin Yi Yang retrieved the room key from the back pocket of his jeans while holding her cue stick. As he lowered his head to do so, she couldn't help but admire how he looked, with his sharp jawline and messy hair.

 

As soon as they arrived at the door, he kissed her on the forehead, nose, and down, leaning her against the edge of the door frame. "We're already at the door," she said, but they didn't go in just yet.

 

After days of being apart, they finally arrived at the hotel room door. Lin Yi Yang's hand holding the door key card had slid down from Yin Guo's hand and was now wrapped around her waist, pulling her closer to him.

 

He wanted to kiss her lips badly, but he resisted the urge and instead asked her about their shared love for billiards. "Why did you sink the last ball in the corner pocket? It would have been more impressive if you had banked it off the side and into the middle pocket."

 

After they reached the door, he leaned in closer. Yin Guo's lips parted slightly, each seeming like it would touch his.

 

"I'm good at playing thin shots," she whispered, "not good at bank shots..."

 

His hand holding the door card slid down to grip her waist, pulling her closer to him. As their lips met, a wave of tingling sensations shot up from her waist, causing her to let out a soft moan.

 

Lin Yi Yang chuckled and asked in a low voice, "So you still dare to call me queen?" His tongue pressed against his teeth, making her feel even more dizzy and breathless.

 

Just as the intensity of their kiss was growing, they heard the sound of the door being opened.

 

"I'll make you cry on the court a few times; then you'll behave." Lin Yi Yang chuckled, but then he was overcome emotionally and lifted Yin Guo off the ground, wrapping his arms tightly around her waist.

 

He placed the cue stick on the tea cabinet near the door, not wanting to waste more time. His heart was pounding so hard that he could feel it in his ears, every movement of their kiss sending waves of pleasure through his body.

 

He had been consumed with thoughts of her for a week, longing for her touch and presence. He had gone through the motions of daily life, traveling between school, the apartment, and the billiard room, but all the while, his mind was focused on her. How had he survived with just ten minutes of chatting every night for a week? It was a mystery to him. All he knew was that he needed her, and he needed her now.

 

Lin Yi Yang didn't lead her toward the bed, despite his desire to be close to her. He knew that if things got too heated, they might be unable to stop themselves. He wanted to be intimate with her but also wanted to take it slow and make the moment last. He suggested they go out and get some food instead.

 

The rain was pouring down outside, making it difficult to walk the ten minutes back to the hotel. Lin Yi Yang didn't want her to get wet again, so he bought food and returned it to the room.

 

As they ate, Lin Yi Yang kissed her softly, savoring the taste of her lips. He held her close, occasionally squeezing her waist. Suddenly, he noticed that her eyes were red and asked her why.

 

There was a moment of silence before she replied, "I'm leaving next week."

 

Lin Yi Yang's heart sank. "What day?" he asked.

 

"Wednesday," she replied.

 

He knew he didn't have much time left with her before she had to go. He thought of the competition in Hangzhou in late April.

 

Lin Yi Yang wasn't surprised by Yin Guo's tight schedule and asked, "Can't you hold on until the first open tournament is over?"

 

Yin Guo felt a sudden surge of sadness and pushed his chest, not in the mood for jokes.

 

"Are you thinking about me yet pushing me away?" Lin Yi Yang laughed softly, teasing her, "Let me do the math for you. Today is Friday, and your competition ends on Sunday, so there are only a few days until next Wednesday. Just hold onto me tight; every extra minute counts."

 

Yin Guo looked at him skeptically.

 

Lin Yi Yang noticed her downcast expression and hugged her tightly, letting out a soft sigh. He pressed his chin against the top of her head and held her for a few minutes until he heard a vibration from his phone.

 

It wasn't his phone ringing; it was hers.

 

Yin Guo hesitated to answer the call. She thought her friends and family would know she was busy with the competition and wouldn't call her unless necessary. Her club members were also present at the event, and she had been in touch with them regularly. However, the persistent ringing made her take out her phone and check the caller ID.

 

"Li Qingyan."

 

......

 

Yin Guo's heart sank when her phone rang, feeling inexplicably guilty for receiving a call during her private time with Lin Yi Yang. She saw him glance at her phone and knew he must have also seen the incoming call. Wanting to hang up, she hesitated, not wanting to be rude in front of him.

 

After a moment, she cleared her throat and answered the call, putting it to her ear. "Hello?"

 

"Couldn't talk just now," Li Qingyan's voice said from the other end, "Congratulations on advancing out of the group stage."

She replied with a "Hmm" and looked up at Lin Yi Yang.

 

As Lin Yi Yang stared down at her, Yin Guo felt a mixture of excitement and guilt. His fingers traced the curve of her ear, sending shivers down her spine. Then his hand trailed down to her neck, where he began to play with a strand of her hair.

 

She tried to focus on the call with Li Qingyan, but Lin Yi Yang's touch was too distracting. She could feel his other hand sliding up her waist, pushing her shirt. Her heart raced as she tried to keep her voice steady on the phone.

 

"Xiaoguo," Li Qingyan's voice crackled over the line, "I was planning on waiting until after the Irish Open to tell you... There are some things that can't be explained today. Maybe we can talk when I return to China."

 

Yin Guo fiddled with the volume button on her phone, trying to block out the sensual sensations coursing through her body. But as Lin Yi Yang's touch grew more urgent, she found it hard to concentrate.

 

He stopped and looked at her, silently pointing at the phone, indicating he wanted to take the call. Feeling dizzy and confused, Yin Guo couldn't discern what Lin Yi Yang intended to do. She hesitantly looked at him, wondering, "What do you want to do?"

 

"It's something important," he said firmly.

 

Yin Guo was hesitant for a moment but eventually decided to hand over the phone to him. She had nothing to hide, so it was fine. However, she wanted to explain politely to Li Qingyan on the other end, "Lin Yi Yang is with me, and he wants to talk to you about something important."

 

Li Qingyan immediately agreed, "Okay."

 

Lin Yi Yang took the phone from Yin Guo's fingers, his expression inscrutable as he put it to his ear. After a long silence, he spoke in a low, measured tone, "Li Qingyan, this is Lin Yi Yang. I'm borrowing Yin Guo's phone to ask you a question."

Li Qingyan's voice crackled through the phone, "What is it?"

 

"I need to know if Meng Xiaodong bought the wine," Lin Yi Yang said without preamble.

 

There was a pause, and then Li Qingyan responded, sounding a bit surprised, "Yes, I bought it already. Twelve-year-old Chivas."

 

Lin Yi Yang nodded as if this was the answer he was expecting. "Good, good. That's what I wanted to hear."

 

Li Qingyan seemed to be struggling to keep up with the conversation. "Is there anything else you need to know?"

 

"What time and room number did you book?" Lin Yi Yang continued, his voice still calm and even.

 

"Room 1000, at 8 pm," Li Qingyan replied.

 

"Okay, thanks. That's all I needed to know," Lin Yi Yang said simply. "You can continue your conversation now."

 

Yin Guo felt her anxiety rise as she adjusted the volume to its lowest, hoping Lin Yi Yang wouldn't hear anything that might set him off. She knew that Li Qingyan had a fiery temper in the past and could make the other person lie in bed for three days. In other words, this kind of person was asking for trouble, and as they say in the dialect of Dongxincheng, "looking for a fight."

 


 

As she ended the call, Yin Guo decided it wasn't urgent enough to bring up the conversation with Lin Yi Yang. She would wait for a more appropriate moment later in the evening when they could discuss it calmly.

 

With a sense of relief, Yin Guo hung up the phone and turned her attention back to Lin Yi Yang, who was still standing close to her, his gaze fixed on her.

 

Yin Guo met Lin Yi Yang's gaze, searching for something that she couldn't quite put her finger on. His dark eyes held a hint of mystery and depth that she found intriguing, and she couldn't help but wonder what he was thinking.

 

After staring at her for a while, Lin Yi Yang finally broke the silence and asked, "What are you thinking about?"

 

She shook her head, pretending everything was fine, but her mind was far from calm. The conversation with Li Qingyan still lingered in her thoughts, and she couldn't help but wonder what it all meant.

 

"Xiaoguo?" Lin Yi Yang called her by her nickname, his voice gentle and soothing.

 

She was about to speak but suddenly took a deep breath and hugged his neck. The unfamiliar sensation of being so close to him left her at a loss, but she held onto him, frowning as she struggled to determine whether it felt good or uncomfortable. Her heart raced, and she found it difficult to catch her breath properly.

 

Lin Yi Yang's eyes were fixed on her the whole time, and his hand moved from left to right as if trying to grasp onto something. His throat tightened, wanting to look directly at her or even kiss her, but he held back. He tried to grasp and pinch, but it was all soft, and he couldn't hold it.

During the Snowstorm
3.4
The Scenery After the Snowstorm

If you ask Yin Guo about the time she realized that she had feelings for Lin Yi Yang, it was undoubtedly that day in that crowded billiard room. The sound of the chatter and music filled the room, yet Yin Guo's mind was elsewhere. She put down her phone, only to pick it up again moments later, unable to resist the urge to reread the message from Lin. She read it repeatedly, each time feeling a flutter in her heart.

 

Lin Yi Yang was on his journey back to Washington, seated on the train. He leaned back in his seat, lost in thought, as he gazed at the overhead luggage rack. The realization hit him that his feelings for Yin Guo went beyond just a simple curiosity to know and understand her better. Ever since he left the billiard room, he couldn't shake the thought of returning for a few more minutes to have a proper conversation with her. Ideas, such as inviting her to taste the delicious fried chicken at the ballroom entrance, kept crossing his mind.

 

Lin Yi Yang chuckled to himself as he reminisced about his childhood. Growing up in poverty had left an indelible mark on his character, instilling a deep appreciation for simple pleasures like a delicious meal.

 

He gazed at his reflection in the train window, observing the gentle lines etched into his face and the messy hair that refused to be tamed. Despite the passage of time, he still looked good.

 

Lin Yi Yang sat on the train, lost in thought. Despite living in an era where relationships are formed with ease, he was paralyzed by fear at the thought of asking the girl he was interested in whether she was single. He didn't want to risk facing rejection, but at the same time, he couldn't help but wonder about her relationship status. It was a strange paradox that left him feeling stuck and indecisive. The thought made him smile wryly to himself as he realized that even in this digital age, some things never change. The fear of rejection and the uncertainty of love are still as real as ever.

 

He heard a WeChat notification sound and was jolted back to reality.

 

Excitement filled him as he checked his phone, recognizing the distinct tone of a message from Yin Guo. He had set his phone to Do Not Disturb for everyone except for her, so the sound could only mean it was from her.

 

As he opened the message, he saw a screenshot of a restaurant's location near the Brooklyn Bridge, complete with the address of a well-known eatery not far from the popular carousel.

 

Red Fish: Hey, have you been to this place before?

 

Actually, he has been to Brooklyn a lot, but he hasn't tried this place yet.

 

Lin: No, I haven't. What about you?

 

Red Fish: Want to go together next time you're in town?

 

Lin: Sure, that sounds good.

 

Red Fish: Next time you visit, let me treat you. My friend swears by the lobster pasta here. She's a huge fan of Italian food and has tried plenty of places, but she says this one takes the cake. Don't even think about treating me; that's what friends are for, right? Let's just enjoy a meal together.

 

Lin leaned against the first row of the train window alone. With a soft smile playing on his lips, he gazed out at the passing scenery. He then lifted his left arm, using it to prop up his head as he settled into a comfortable position. His eyes were fixated on his phone screen, reflecting the light as he began to type out a message.

 

Lin hit the "OK" button on his phone and leaned back in his seat. As he watched the scenery pass by outside the train window, a feeling of contentment washed over him. Despite the simplicity of his response, it held within it a sense of excitement and anticipation.

 

After that, Yin Guo had put her phone away.

 

Yin Guo was eager to finalize the plans for the evening. That night, she took a detour and confirmed the restaurant's address with a friend as a precaution. Together, they used the Dianping app to preview the menu and selected several dishes, even choosing a bottle of red wine. Excitedly, she recorded the details in her memo and eagerly awaited Lin's return.

 


 

As the open competition drew near, Yin Guo fine-tuned her training regimen, opting to split her daily six hours of training into two sessions of three hours each, in the morning and afternoon. Her cousin Meng Xiaotian, aware of her upcoming competition, gave her space to focus. He decided to travel to the West Coast for two weeks, making new friends along the way.

 

On Friday evening, Yin Guo completed her training at the ballroom, wrapping up at around 7 p.m.

 

She purchased a bowl of Spanish mixed rice from a roadside eatery and finished her meal at 8 p.m. before returning to her apartment. Upon reaching the door, she heard laughter coming from inside. It appeared that there were people, likely friends of Wu Wei. She nonchalantly inserted her key to unlock the door and stepped into the apartment. But she quickly froze, taken aback by the man sitting on the coffee-colored sofa.

 

Jiang Yang was lounging on the caramel-colored sofa, sipping from a cup of steaming hot coffee. As he glanced up and saw the door open, his eyes fell upon a girl dressed in a white winter outfit, holding a cue stick case and a cue stick. He was momentarily stunned, trying to place her face in his mind.

 

Meanwhile, Fan Wencong, who was searching for food, turned around upon hearing the door but didn't immediately recognize the new arrival.

 

Yin Guo greeted Jiang Yang with a friendly smile, "Hi there!"

 

Jiang Yang was still trying to grasp why Yin Guo was here, but he recovered quickly and replied with a polite smile, "Hi!"

Fan Wencong, looking puzzled, asked Jiang Yang for clarification.

 

Jiang Yang smiled, "She's Meng Xiaodong's younger cousin."

 

Wu Wei, who had just come out of the bathroom, heard the commotion and quickly made his way over. He didn't expect to be faced with two big men when he emerged shirtless.

 

"Can you make something clear here?" Jiang Yang gestured toward the door of Yin Guo's room with his chin, "What's your relationship with her, and why are you sharing a living space?"

 

"That's not my story to tell," Wu Wei slipped on a half-sleeved shirt and took a seat next to Jiang Yang, speaking in hushed tones, "It's all because of Duncuo."

 


 

The unexpected turn of events once again caught the two men off guard.

 

"Is the situation under control?" Jiang Yang shot a curious look towards the closed door and questioned the relationship between Yin Guo and Lin Yi Yang.

 

"Are you kidding?" Wu Wei confidently replied, "Do you think he would be unprepared? Have you ever seen Lin Yi Yang here act scared?"

 

Jiang Yang chuckled. It wasn't easy to say for sure, but judging from Lin Yi Yang's behavior and the way he spoke about Yin Guo in the ballroom, it was evident that he had developed feelings first. Jiang Yang would never have thought that the person in question would be Yin Guo.

 

Life's surprises never cease to amaze, and it seems that this destined encounter was inescapable.

 

When Lin Yi Yang made his debut on the professional billiard scene, he participated in three tournaments. The three reigning champions at the time were Jiang Yang, Meng Xiaodong, and Lin Yi Yang himself. The three were evenly matched, each with unique skills and strengths, making it a thrilling competition as they fought for the top spot. Over the course of the three competitions, the championship title and runner-up positions shifted between the trio. Despite the fierce competition, Lin Yi Yang emerged as the strongest of the group, with one championship victory and two runner-up finishes to his name.

 

Jiang Yang approached the game of billiards with a level head, recognizing that wins and losses are just part of the competition. Despite being evenly matched in skill with his opponents, Meng Xiaodong and Lin Yi Yang, the outcome of each match was unpredictable and dependent on performance and luck. While Jiang took each victory and defeat in stride, Meng was left feeling dejected after losing to the unexpected rising star, Lin Yi Yang. With a family legacy rooted in running a billiards club, Meng couldn't bear the thought of losing to a newcomer like Lin.

 

For three intense years, Meng and Lin engaged in fierce competition, their rivalry only ending when Lin suddenly decided to retire. Had it not been for that surprising turn of events, their intense competition would likely have continued until this day.

Jiang Yang cast another glance at the door, a mixture of confusion and curiosity in his gaze.

 

"Well, well, little Yang, you sure know how to choose your spots," he muttered to himself.

 

Meanwhile, inside the room, Yin Guo was utterly bewildered.

 

"What's going on here? Isn't he playing snooker?" she thought. "Why is Jiang Yang here? And why is he watching a nine-ball match?"

 

Yin Guo sat cozily in the warm brown bed, intently listening to the sounds outside as she opened her laptop. She wanted to wait until the two guests left before emerging from her room. As the clock ticked past 8:30 p.m., everything outside seemed to have fallen into silence.

 

Barefoot, Yin Guo tiptoed towards the door, her ear pressed against the wood as she tried to discern what was happening. Satisfied that the coast was clear, she cautiously cracked open the door.

 

However, what awaited her was a surprise. The living room was bustling with more people than ever before.

 

The silence in the living room was deceiving; the place was filled with people from Dongxin City. Although everyone was adhering to the strict orders given by Fan Wencong, the room was far from quiet. The buzz of quiet conversation filled the air, and the soft sounds of video games mixed with the faint clicks of chess pieces as Wu Wei and Fan Wencong played a game. Meanwhile, Chen Anan, the team leader who had switched to playing Nine-ball, was warming up by the heater and chatting with Jiang Yang. The living room had transformed into a lively but hushed entertainment hub where everyone was fully engaged in their activities.

 

As Yin Guo opened the door, all eyes in the room shifted toward her. A familiar figure appeared from the opposite room, Lin Yi Yang, holding a fresh set of sportswear in his right hand. He looked drowsy and not fully awake, with unkempt hair and bleary eyes. He had planned to take advantage of Yin Guo's sleep and freshen up with a quick shower. But upon seeing her, his steps faltered, and both he and Yin Guo gazed at each other from a distance, desperately struggling to remember the day of the week.

 

The silence in the room was palpable as Lin Yi Yang, and Yin Guo stood on opposite ends, their gazes locked in a tense moment. The older generation present in the room exchanged discreet glances, while the younger generation observed the scene with wide eyes, full of curiosity.

 

Breaking the silence, Lin Yi Yang finally spoke, "I'm going to take a shower." His voice was barely above a whisper, yet it echoed through the room's stillness.

 

Yin Guo, still in a daze, nodded her head unconsciously as she watched Lin Yi Yang make his way toward the bathroom. The attention of everyone in the room was focused on the two of them, making the atmosphere even more awkward.

 

As Lin Yi Yang disappeared into the bathroom, Yin Guo couldn't help but think, "Wasn't he supposed to be away for the whole week?"

 

Suddenly, Wu Wei interjected with a laugh and asked Jiang Yang if they should order takeout. He intended to give Yin Guo an opportunity to escape the awkward situation she was in, as being surrounded by people like this could be overwhelming, and she might feel the urge to retreat to her room and never come out.

 

Jiang Yang, with his hands resting on the bar, replied, "Sure, let me call the delivery guy."

 

"Okay," replied Fan Wencong, fully understanding Wu Wei's motives.

 

With this lighthearted distraction, the room started to buzz with conversation again, as the older generation chimed in, and the younger crowd became lively.

 

Yin Guo retreated to the privacy of her room and collapsed onto the plush red couch, scooping up a spoonful of ice cream as she listened to the sounds of the lively living room filtering in through the crack of the door.

 

Meanwhile, Lin Yi Yang emerged from the shower and was met with Jiang Yang, asking about his food preferences. Lin declined, stating that he had already eaten and didn't require further attention. The sound of his footsteps faded as he retreated to his room, indicating that he was no longer part of the ongoing conversations in the living room.

 

The phone on Yin Guo's knee lit up suddenly.

 

Lin: Hey, what are you doing?

 

Yin Guo placed the ice cream carton beside her feet and picked up her phone to respond.

 

Xiaoguo: Just having some ice cream.

 

Lin: Meet me in the laundry room.

 

Xiaoguo: Sure, I have some laundry to do too.

 

Lin: You go first. I'll come in a bit.

 

Xiaoguo: OK.

 

She took care of her unfinished ice cream, throwing the carton into the trash bag. In search of a bag to carry her dirty clothes, she found a big paper bag neatly stacked behind the door. She swiftly gathered the clothes from the bed and sofa and placed them in the paper bag. After grabbing some coins from the bedside table drawer, she took the bag of dirty clothes and walked through the living room as if nothing had happened, exuding calmness.

 

She dropped the coins into an empty washing machine, tossed in the bundle of dirty clothes, and set the machine in motion. The laundry room was empty, save for a few pieces of clothing hanging from the drying racks. It was quiet, with only the sound of the machines filling the space.

 

Yin Guo spotted a row of chairs against the wall and a blue plastic table in the center. She pulled out a chair and sat down, waiting for Lin Yi Yang. Soon enough, he entered the room, holding a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. He was dressed in fresh sportswear, with his hair still slightly damp from his shower. He looked relaxed and carefree, with nothing but the smoking items in his hands, as if unconcerned with daily life's burdens.

 

He put the cigarette pack and lighter onto the blue plastic table and took a seat next to Yin Guo.

 

Lin Yi Yang lit up a cigarette, inhaling deeply as he leaned back in his chair. Although it had been two years since he last smoked, he wasn't craving it. He simply wanted to give off a bold impression in front of his friends.

 

As they sat at the corner of the table, each facing the other, the conversation flowed easily between the two of them. The sound of the washing machine and dryer humming in the background provided a moderate hum, while the air was thick with the smoke of Lin's cigarette.

 

"Just now, Jiang Yang mentioned that he's seen you," Lin Yi Yang said, taking a puff of his cigarette.

 

"Yeah, he saw me twice when he played against my cousin in China," Yin Guo replied, looking at the dryer whirring nearby.

 

"How's your cousin doing these days?" Lin Yi Yang asked.

 

"He's doing well," Yin Guo said, a hint of pride in her voice. "My cousin wasn't happy with his previous club's location, so he opened a new one. My uncle has retired and invested only half, so he leaves the big decisions to my cousin."

 

The atmosphere in the laundry room became tense as the burly man entered and took a seat at the far end of the plastic table. Yin Guo stopped talking as the stranger approached, and a sense of unease settled over the room.

 

Lin Yi Yang played with a cigarette box, seemingly lost in thought, while the burly man idly watched the dryer, his eyes blank and uninterested. The quiet buzz of the washing machine and dryer filled the room, adding to the eerie silence.

 

She grew increasingly restless as she waited for the clothes to dry. Her gaze kept shifting from the window to the washing machine, counting the minutes until the task was complete. Meanwhile, Lin Yi Yang pulled out his cell phone from his pocket and started scrolling through its screen. In no time, a notification from WeChat lit up on Yin Guo's phone.

 

Lin: Why aren't you talking?

 

Yin Guo raised her eyes and met his gaze. She held her phone tightly in her hands, her lips curling into a small smile as she replied to him.

 

Xiaoguo: You're not talking either.

 

Lin: I'm listening to you.

 

Xiaoguo: ...I'm done speaking.

 

Lin cleared his throat, catching Yin Guo's attention. She thought he was about to say something, but instead, she received another message from him on WeChat.

 

Lin: I'm not sure what you want me to say.

 

Xiaoguo: Let's talk about anything. It's just a casual conversation between friends. You're making it so intense. It's making me nervous.

 

Yin Guo sent the message and then coughed, feeling a slight itch in her throat.

 

She was transported back to her high school days as memories flooded her mind. Back then, she was too shy to speak up in class and would only communicate with her back-desk partner through notes filled with idle small talk. But that was with a girl, not with a man like now.

 

The burly middle-aged man, who had been waiting for his clothes to dry, stifled a yawn and cast a glance at the "young couple" seated at the other end of the plastic table. He surmised that they were currently in a state of tension, each occupied with their own devices.

 

Coincidentally, the middle-aged man's clothes had finished drying, and he began removing them from the machine and stacking them on the long table in front of Yin Guo and Lin.

 

Lin shifted in his seat, leaning against the table and picking up a lighter lying there, absently flipping it over in his hand.

Yin Guo, meanwhile, continued her conversation with Lin, her chin supported by one hand.

 

Xiaoguo: I give up. Can we start speaking now?

 

Lin: You've been pretending to be mute until now, might as well keep pretending.

 

Yin Guo thought. This might be better. If they suddenly start talking now, it's likely to startle someone and make them very embarrassed. Let's continue pretending instead. The middle-aged man seemed to be almost finished folding his clothes.

She continued typing on her phone.

 

Xiaoguo: Why don't we go upstairs? We still have to wait for an hour, and there's nothing to do here.

 

Lin: It's crowded upstairs, not convenient for talking.

 

Xiaoguo: You haven't been talking here either, so it's the same thing.

 

Lin: : )

 

Lin: Let me ask you a question.

 

Xiaoguo: Speak.

 

Yin Guo waited for a while, but she received no message.

 

Yin Guo raised her head in confusion and just happened to catch Lin's gaze. Lin had a slight smile on his lips and used his index finger to tap on the screen of his phone, implying for her to look at it.

 

What's the big secret? Why is he being so mysterious?

 

She smiled and cast a glance, surrounded by the light of the laundry room, the sound of the washing machine, and the booming 90's rock music sung by the middle-aged man.

 

In the chat box, a sentence appeared next to Lin's profile picture –

 

Lin: Do you have a boyfriend?

 

Her fingers stopped mid-air as she read Lin's question.

 

Lin: Or should I say,

 

Lin: Isn't it obvious that I like you?

During the Snowstorm
3.1
The Scenery After the Snowstorm

One week passed, and with Wu Wei's assistance, Yin Guo finally secured a suitable and convenient place to stay. A short-term lease was signed with the landlord for a two-room apartment, valid until the end of April. The lease agreement specified that if Meng Xiaotian's college admission went smoothly, they would renew the lease for a full year. The clarity and simplicity of the contract brought a sense of relief and excitement to Yin Guo.

 

On the day of the move, Yin Guo felt grateful for Wu Wei's help and wanted to express her appreciation. So, she took him out to the local noodle restaurant for a meal. The aroma of spices and sauces wafted through the air, tempting their appetites.

 

Just as they were about to begin their meal, a plate of succulent mustard squid was placed in front of Yin Guo. The restaurant owner beamed at her, speaking in broken English, "For you... miss. Enjoy!"

 

Yin Guo's eyes widened in surprise. The dish looked incredibly delicious, with the mustard sauce glistening in the light and the squid rings perfectly fried. "I bet this tastes good," she thought, eagerly picking up her chopsticks.

 

Yin Guo couldn't help but smile as she received the plate of mustard squid from the boss. "Thank you so much," she said, feeling flattered.

 

The boss just grinned and went to attend to other customers, leaving Yin Guo and Meng Xiaotian to enjoy their meal.

 

"Sis, you really have good connections," Meng Xiaotian said, looking envious.

 

Yin Guo turned to Wu Wei, who was now sipping his soup. "Are you guys regulars here?" she asked.

 

Wu Wei shook his head, "Lin Yi Yang is friends with the owner. He stayed here one night after sending you because he couldn't go home."

 

Meng Xiaotian's eyes widened in surprise. "Really?" He said, clearly surprised by this information.

 

Wu Wei chuckled, a hint of mystery in his voice. "At first, I was just as confused as you. I couldn't understand why Lin Yi Yang would suddenly have to leave like that. He was saying something about an emergency. But then the supposed emergency wasn't addressed, so he just returned home." He shook his head, still smiling as if he knew something that others didn't.

 

That day, Wu Wei was having terrible luck. His phone was frozen and wouldn't turn on, making it difficult for him to get around in a city where the subway system was unreliable. The last thing he wanted was to navigate a dozen disrupted subway lines to get home. So, instead of going home, he decided to drink the night away at a bar.

 

When he stumbled back to the noodle shop in the early morning light, he saw Lin Yi Yang sound asleep at the noodle shop. Fortunately, Lin Yi Yang has friends everywhere and can survive regardless of his circumstances.

 

But then, something dawned on Wu Wei. He realized there was definitely something fishy going on that night.

 

"Man, we really owe Brother Yang one," the younger cousin sighed, taking the blame on himself. "When's he coming back? I want to treat him to a big feast as an apology."

 

"Next time?" Wu Wei replied with a chuckle, "It's hard to say. He's busy studying and earning money, so he doesn't have a lot of free time. Every time he visits, it's just a quick stop, and he's only here for a day or two before leaving again.

 

Don't worry about it," Wu Wei added with a grin, "When he comes back, he'll crash at my place, and you won't be bothered."

 

Yin Guo nodded with a relieved look on her face.

 

Yin Guo couldn't shake the thought of Lin Yi Yang out of her mind. She had heard that he lived in the same neighborhood, and the possibility of bumping into him was high. The thought made her both excited and anxious.

 

She briefly talked to Lin Yi Yang on that night at the noodle shop, but then the topic faded, and the communication stopped. A whole week had flown by, and Yin Guo was torn on whether or not she should reach out. On the one hand, she wanted to see how he was doing and catch up, but on the other hand, she wasn't sure if it was too forward of her.

 

"You can thank him," Wu Wei said kindly. "The landlord agreed to rent the place to you for a short period, and Little Yang spoke highly of you."

 

"We'll thank him. We'll definitely thank him," the younger brother echoed Wu Wei's sentiment. "We'll do it next time Yang Ge comes back."

 

As they spoke, Yin Guo sat listening while waiting for her noodles to arrive. She reached for her phone and pulled up WeChat, opening Lin Yi Yang's chat window.

 

Xiaoguo: Hey! We just moved into the apartment today, and Wu Wei mentioned that you helped us out with the landlord. Thank you so much. We really appreciate it.

 

The response came back quickly.

 

Lin: With pleasure.

 

Upon seeing the two words from Lin, Yin Guo reflexively stopped. Fortunately, this time, Lin started the conversation himself.

 


 

Lin: I'm actually in class right now. Can we chat after?

 

Lin: [Coffee]

 

Xiaoguo: [Happy]

 

Yin Guo couldn't help but smile as she gazed at the cute coffee emoji on her phone screen. She placed the phone aside and reached for her chopsticks, absentmindedly picking up a piece of wasabi-flavored squid and stuffing it into her mouth.

 

As the intense flavor of wasabi hit her, tears welled up in her eyes and streamed down her face. The two men watched in amusement as she struggled to handle the spiciness.

 

"This wasabi... it's very authentic," Yin Guo explained through tears, feeling embarrassed. She wanted to die of embarrassment.

 

After dinner, the house was tidied up. It was time to get back on track with activities like training.

 

Wu Wei could read Yin Guo's mind, so he didn't have to ask. He immediately grabbed the cue stick and led her to the nearest billiard room near the apartment.

 

Billiards isn't a widely known sport, so finding a good place to play in this area was a bit of a challenge. But thanks to Lin Yi Yang's recommendation, they found an apartment close to a suitable billiard room, making it convenient for Wu Wei to train during his free time.

 

As they walked into the dimly lit billiards room, the owner recognized Wu Wei and greeted him with a warm smile. Wu Wei had already made arrangements with the owner, informing him that he was Lin Yi Yang's "female friend" and reserving a table for their daily training sessions. The table was Lin Yi Yang's favorite, a proof to the good relationship he had built with the owner during his time as a billiards instructor.

 

"Lin Yi Yang used to work here, teaching billiards," Wu Wei explained to her. "So he has a pretty good rapport with the owner. His name carries more weight here than mine would."

 

"He worked here?" she asked, surprised.

 

"Yeah, you thought he was a rich kid?" Wu Wei chuckled. "International students aren't allowed to work formal jobs during their first year. So, teaching billiards is one way for them to make some extra cash."

 

At first, she had the image of Lin Yi Yang as a wealthy and privileged student who had everything going smoothly for him. But Wu Wei's words shattered that opinion and revealed a completely different side of Lin Yi Yang. He shared the story of Lin Yi Yang's journey from a struggling junior high student to a top high school student through sheer determination and hard work. Despite all the difficulties, Lin Yi Yang dedicated himself to his studies and only kept playing billiards as a personal outlet.

 

After graduating from university, Lin Yi Yang had successfully paid off all of his high school debts and college student loans from the savings from his scholarships and awards. Despite being in a better financial position, he returned to poverty and worked hard to make money again. With his determination and hard work, he was able to apply to study abroad.

 

Wu Wei stood by the pool table, handing over a chalk to Yin Guo. Yin Guo took the chalk, gently wiping his cue stick.

 

"Lin Yi Yang is the most admirable person in my life," Wu Wei said with admiration. "I admire him for daring to work himself to death."

 

Wu Wei looked at his watch, "Okay, you can go on with your practice. I have to head to work now."

 

As Wu Wei stepped out of the billiard room, Yin Guo was left to practice by herself. The owner of the billiard room soon came over to check on her and reminded her that she could always ask for help if she encountered any trouble or harassment. Yin Guo smiled and nodded, grateful for the owner's concern. The owner then patted her shoulder affectionately, saying, "A friend of Lin is a friend of everyone here."

 

It was clear that she had entered Lin Yi Yang's world all at once, surrounded by people who had a connection to him. As she continued to practice billiards alone, she couldn't help but reflect on how much of an impact Lin Yi Yang had made on those around him. The night passed by as she honed her skills, lost in her thoughts.

 

Despite the late hour, she felt safe enough to walk back to her apartment and decided to practice for an extra hour. The sound of balls clicking, the smell of chalk, and the adrenaline rush from sinking a shot brought back memories of her training in China. So, she stayed put, determined to get back into the swing of things.

 

As the night progressed, the billiards room filled with people, and the sounds of laughter, clinking glasses, and the whoops of excitement echoed through the walls. The billiard room owner, who had been so friendly and welcoming earlier, closed the door to the small room where she was practicing.

 

But the wooden door offered little protection against the noise. The sounds of men drinking and shouting loudly, with the occasional crash of a broken cue stick, only added to the energetic atmosphere of the place. This was familiar to her, reminiscent of the crowded and noisy billiards halls back in China. Despite the chaos, she felt right at home.

 

As a child, Yin Guo was hardened to the raucous environment of billiards halls by her cousin Meng Xiaodong. He would take her to the rowdiest establishments, where smoke and shouting filled the air, and watch as she was thrown into games against random small-time thugs at the innermost billiard table. This regular occurrence helped her build her mental toughness for competitions. So, the current noise outside was a walk in the park for her, almost soothing.

 

Since her cousin opened a club, she had become accustomed to a more refined environment. Suddenly, she was taken aback by the sound of Chinese songs outside. The music stirred up childhood memories, reminding her of a song she used to listen to, "Troubled Times Star." She was surprised to hear it in this foreign billiards hall.

 

As she leaned over the billiard table, her focus was entirely on the three perfectly placed balls before her. With a sharp crack, she struck the cue ball, sending the other four balls careening toward the pockets. And just like that, they all dropped neatly into their respective holes.

 

A smile spread across her face as she straightened up, feeling pleased with her shot. She hummed the same tune from her childhood memories, still echoing in her mind

 

As she bent over the pool table, the sound of the door being yanked open caught her attention. She straightened up and was momentarily blinded by the bright light overhead. When her vision adjusted, she saw a familiar figure entering the room.

 

It was Lin Yi Yang, his imposing form filling the doorway. The song she had been humming in her head died on her lips as she gazed at him.

 

He strode with a warm smile on his face and placed a beer bottle down on the nearby table. "You sing well," he said, his eyes crinkling at the corners.

 

He walked in with a sense of casual ease, his hair messy and unkempt as if he had been running his hands through it all week. Despite the disheveled appearance, there was something undeniably stylish about how the hair on his forehead nearly obscured his eyes. It was clear that he had spent much of his life in the presence of pool halls and had picked up nonchalant, rebellious energy along the way. Though he had matured over the years, moments like this hinted at the mischievous streak still within him.

 

As he shed his jacket and gloves, revealing his toned physique beneath a simple black T-shirt and jeans, it was clear that this was a man who lived and breathed billiards. His long legs, accentuated by his attire, carried him with confidence toward the pool table.

 

She hesitated for a moment before asking, "Didn't you have class?"

 

It seems like Lin Yi Yang appeared out of nowhere. He turned his head to meet Ying Guo's gaze.

 

"I just got out of class and came here," he said, trying to avoid eye contact to avoid being too forward. "I heard you were practicing, so I came to check it out."

 

He gently tapped the pool table as he spoke, "Do you need to make some adjustments when playing here?"

 

Each pool hall has its own unique set of pool tables, and Lin Yi Yang was concerned that Yin Guo might have had trouble adjusting when she first arrived.

 

"The differences aren't significant," Yin Guo gestured towards a nearby public cue stick, "I've used public cues before, and I always have to get used to them."

 

"How long have you been practicing?" Lin Yi Yang leaned against the side of the pool table. "Are you planning on heading back soon?"

 

"I practiced alone today," Ying Guo smiled warmly at him, "If you have some free time, would you like to play a game with me?"

 

"Me?" Lin Yi Yang raised an eyebrow in surprise.

 

Yin Guo nodded with a confident smile.

 

"Not afraid of being beaten by me?" Lin Yi Yang chuckled.

 

Yin Guo was shocked "I... my level is pretty good."

 

At least she's a semi-professional player. She won't cry even if she can't win.

 

"Well then, I accept the challenge," Lin Yi Yang picked up the public cue and twirled it in his hand. "I'll be your training partner."

 

These past few years, he had spent his time either practicing by himself, gambling on billiards, or teaching others how to play. However, he had a strict teaching style and avoided teaching girls because he didn't want them to be upset by his methods.

 

So, how many balls should he give as a handicap? This was his first time as a training partner, and he had to weigh his options carefully.

 

Yin Guo observed as he picked up the chalk and wiped down his cue. Despite her initial excitement, she couldn't help but feel a twinge of unease at the situation unfolding before her.

 

Yin Guo had come to the pool hall with the intention of bonding with Lin Yi Yang over their shared love of billiards. However, as she watched him expertly prepare for their game, she couldn't help but feel intimidated. Her plan to play casually for fun started to feel like a challenging prospect.

 

"Hey, let's grab a bite instead," Yin Guo suggested, a hint of disappointment in her tone. "I totally forgot that you just got off the train; you must be starving."

 

Lin Yi Yang shook his head, "I'm good, thanks." He reached into the pocket and retrieved the colored balls, starting to set them up on the table.

 

Yin Guo watched as he methodically placed the balls in a diamond formation, using a frame to ensure they were arranged correctly.

 

Finally, he placed the white ball on the shot line and pointed at it. "We'll play best of five or best of ten. The one who achieved three wins in five innings or six wins in ten sets wins. Let's make this a serious game."

 

He exuded an air of confidence reminiscent of his older brother.

 

As the song playing in the background restarted, Yin Guo hummed along to the lyrics, "I am born to love, being arrogant as I am... I am born to love, competing with fists. Conquer around all by my abilities..."

 

As Yin Guo looked at Lin Yi Yang standing confidently at the billiards table, she couldn't help but think that the song playing in the background, "Young and Dangerous," fit him perfectly. He exuded the same level of confidence and attitude as the lyrics described.

 

Yin Guo shook her thoughts and approached the table, gripping the cue stick tightly in her hand. She bent down, carefully positioning herself and adjusting her grip on the cue before taking her shot.

 

"Do you want to play fast or take it slow?" Lin Yi Yang's sudden question caught Yin Guo off guard just as she was about to take her shot.

 

She took a moment to think before answering hesitantly, "Either way works for me."

 

Lin Yi Yang nodded, "This year's women's group has a strong contender who plays with a fast-paced style. I'll go first to let you get used to it."

 

Yin Guo's eyebrows shot up in surprise as she looked at him with a mixture of curiosity and apprehension.

 

Yin Guo couldn't help but be intrigued by Lin Yi Yang's insight into the women's pool scene. But she quickly refocused her attention on the task at hand. The white ball became her sole focus as she lined up her shot. The sound of the cue hitting the ball echoed through the room as four colorful balls fell into the pocket.

 

A promising start, she thought to herself with a smile.

 

Yin Guo stepped up, her heart raced with excitement. It was her first time playing with him, and she felt nervous but eager to show off her skills.

 

With no formal competition or betting involved, they took turns making their shots. In the first round, Yin Guo struggled to sink a ball but eventually managed to eke out a win. Lin Yi Yang was a force to be reckoned with in the second round, clearing the table with one swift shot.

 

Feeling discouraged, Yin Guo lost the third round. But as the fourth round began, she noticed a change in Lin Yi Yang's demeanor. He seemed to be playing more aggressively, giving her the space to make her shots. It was then that she realized that he was letting her win.

 

Although she appreciated his kindness, Yin Guo wasn't someone who couldn't handle losing.

 

Lin Yi Yang approached the billiards table. His eyes fixated on the 9-ball that lay tantalizingly close to the bottom pocket. All he had to do was hit the 4-ball, and the game would be his. There were three ways to win a nine-ball game. The first was to hit the balls in numerical order: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and finally sink the 9-ball into the pocket. The second was to target the lowest-numbered ball on the table and indirectly sink the 9-ball. And the third, the most daring and risky of all, was to play a direct shot and hope that the 9-ball would drop into the pocket on its own.

 

"Don't sell yourself short," she said with a smirk, "I'm sure you're more than capable of giving me a good challenge, no need for a handicap." She was confident in her abilities but didn't want to underestimate Lin Yi Yang's skills either. After all, he was known for his billiards prowess.

 

Lin Yi Yang hesitated for a moment.

 

He had been trying to figure out a way to fake a mistake and make it appear real, but the situation was too perfect to fake. As he watched Yin Guo's reaction under the bright lights of the billiards table, he felt a sense of relief.

 

Yin Guo cheered in appreciation of his shot.

 

Lin Yi Yang took care of the final details, returning the cue and paying the bill for their game of pool.

 

Yin Guo attempted to grab her cue case and pay her own way, but Lin Yi Yang stopped her with a gentle hold on her arm. "You are a guest. Today is your first time here. Allow me to treat you," he said as he took her cue case.

 

Yin Guo's reluctance to let Lin Yi Yang pay was still evident. However, the boss of the billiards room had already returned the money to Lin Yi Yang with a warm smile, insisting that it was his to pay.

 

Lin Yi Yang and the boss were close friends, and their conversation was lighthearted and full of laughter as they chatted. Together with Yin Guo, they stepped out of the billiards room into the frigid night air.

 

The temperature had plummeted even further since Yin Guo's arrival, making her shiver. The snow forecast seemed to be coming true, as she could see the flurries starting to swirl in the sky.

 

With a smile, Yin Guo turned to Lin Yi Yang and said, "I've got hot pot waiting at home for us tonight. Let's go enjoy a warm meal together." And, with that, the two made their way to her apartment, braving the snow and the cold.

 

Lin Yi Yang agreed to join Yin Guo for a hot pot. As they walked to the apartment, Yin Guo brought up a topic of conversation.

 

"Actually, I have a good friend who went to the same school as you, an alumna from the law department," said Yin Guo.

 

"Your cousin mentioned her," replied Lin Yi Yang.

 

Yin Guo was not to blame. Meng Xiaotian had talked so much about her that it was no surprise that he already knew about her friend.

 

"Well, I have two chatty companions, Wu Wei and Meng Xiaotian, who will be at home to liven up the atmosphere," she thought as she eagerly anticipated the hot pot dinner.

 

However, they were met with darkness when they arrived at the apartment. The lights were off, and the room was pitch black. The small hot pot that Yin Guo had prepared before leaving was still on the table, along with the uncut vegetables.

Where were the people who were there before she left?

 

Yin Guo took the opportunity while Lin Yi Yang was turning on the lights to quickly wash her hands at the sink and retrieve her phone. She sent a message to Meng Xiaotian, inquiring about his whereabouts.

 

Tian Tian: Wu Wei took me to see a Broadway play this afternoon.

 

Xiaoguo: Haven't you seen it a few times already?

 

Tian Tian: No, I haven't seen the whole show yet. I'm glad I have someone to accompany me this time. In the past, I always come alone. You might have to eat dinner alone.

 

Thankfully, Lin Yi Yang is here. Otherwise, all this food would go to waste. She sighed, putting down her phone in disappointment. "They're both not here. Do you still want to eat?"

 

Lin Yi Yang nodded naturally, "Yes, I do."

 

Lin Yi Yang rolled up his shirt sleeves and turned on the faucet. As he washed the dirty dishes and plates that Wu Wei had left in the sink, Yin Guo couldn't help but notice a flower tattoo on his right arm. The last time they met in Flushing, he was wearing thick clothes, and the sleeves only covered part of his arm, so she hadn't seen the tattoo before.

 

"That looks great," said Lin Yi Yang, noticing her gaze.

 

He shook off the water droplets on the plate, picked up the cloth, and dried the plate while looking back at her.

 

Feeling a bit embarrassed, Yin Guo quickly turned around and said, "I'll go prepare then."

 

She couldn't help but wonder why she kept staring at Lin Yi Yang today.

During the Snowstorm
8.2
Crossing Mountain and Seas

Sometimes he says things that are too straightforward, and no one can catch them," she thought to herself. Even the men who used to make sarcastic comments in the past can't handle his remarks, let alone Yin Guo, who has always been gentle in her speech. However, she has learned to be smart and enjoy the scenery when she can't argue back.

 

"Nothing more to say?" The man next to her was still teasing her.

 

Yin Guo pointed to the car window and shifted the topic, "Look, it seems like the rain has become lighter."

 

Lin Yi Yang was still laughing.

 

"Alright, I won't tease her anymore. If I push it too far, I'll be the one to comfort her." Lin Yi Yang thought to himself as he drove the car, the rain easing up and the water droplets hitting the windshield becoming smaller.

 

The island's weather was unpredictable, and the rain often came and went quickly. The sky cleared up as they continued their journey, and the sun shone brightly.

 

Lin Yi Yang's initial plan was to take Yin Guo to the campsite, but seeing her in good spirits, he decided to drive her straight to the dormant volcano at an altitude of over four thousand meters.

 

Upon arrival, he led her to a private changing room and instructed her to wear warm clothes before heading up the mountain. He stood alone on the edge of the road, his back to the car, viewing the vast grassy slopes. The topography here was much better, with the land no longer blackened by cooled magma but instead covered with large areas of green and yellow grass and semi-dry shrubs.

 

This island had no predators, leading to an ecological imbalance, with wild goats becoming too numerous to handle.

 

Yin Guo secured the buckle of her jeans, her eyes scanning the undulating grasslands outside the car window. The sight of hundreds of wild goats grazing caught her attention and nearby lay scattered white bones of their kind.

 

As soon as she stepped out of the car, Yin Guo's eyes widened at the sight of a stunning neon rainbow arching across the distant mountains. "Rainbow," she exclaimed, pointing at it to Lin Yi Yang.

 

Although it was her first time seeing a rainbow on the island, the novelty soon wore off as she saw another six rainbows in the next few hours. "This is the Rainbow State," Lin Yi Yang remarked, pointing to a car they passed, its license plate bearing a rainbow logo beside the numbers. "People have seen up to fourteen rainbows in a day here. You can try and beat the record."

 

After seeing so many rainbows, Yin Guo no longer found them as fascinating as before.

 

After a brief rest at the foot of the mountain, the two ascended to the tourist center over 2,000 meters above sea level. There, they indulged in hot beverages to warm up their bodies. Lin Yi Yang wanted to give Yin Guo ample time to acclimate to the altitude before they continued the ascent. After half an hour, he was satisfied that she was feeling well enough to continue to the peak, which sat at an altitude of over 4,000 meters.

 

As they ascended, the road conditions worsened, the path becoming sandy with no guardrails. Fortunately, Lin Yi Yang had experience with such terrains and had rented a four-wheel drive off-road vehicle with good climbing ability. He himself was also skilled in driving on mountain roads, which ensured they arrived at the summit safely around noon.

 

The temperature was close to zero degrees Celsius, and the wind was biting. In these harsh conditions, Lin Yi Yang took Yin Guo's hand and led her toward the mountaintop partially covered in thin April snow. The snow couldn't conceal the brown volcanic soil underneath in some places.

 

Above the clouds, this place on Earth had the most Mars-like terrain, desolate and quiet.

 

As Lin Yi Yang searched for the perfect vantage point, Yin Guo gazed at the wild, undulating landscape surrounding them. In the distance, she spotted the active volcano emitting white smoke and red flames, and Lin Yi Yang pointed it out to her. Dozens of white spherical and cylindrical structures dotted the mountain's summit, leaving Yin Guo wondering whether they were the only equipment up there or actual buildings.

 

"It's an observatory," Lin Yi Yang explained, and Yin Guo couldn't contain her excitement as she had never seen one up close before.

 

As they stood there, a timed climbing tour approached them, and the tour guide began to explain the significance of the observatory to the tourists. He described it as one of the world's most exceptional astronomical observation points, with a latitude that allowed for viewing the entire northern hemisphere and over 80% of the southern hemisphere. It was a dream come true for astronomy enthusiasts and ordinary tourists who longed to observe the stars.

 

The tour guide concluded by saying that the place was closest to the sky, not in terms of actual distance, but in the purity of the starry sky. The view was so breathtaking that one could gaze up at night and feel like the Milky Way was within arm's reach.

 

"After dark, the observatory is off-limits to visitors," he said firmly. "The mountaintop must be cleared to ensure the observatory can function properly."

 

Yin Guo was intrigued and asked in a hushed tone, "Do they use these telescopes to observe the stars at night?"

 

If you want to observe the stars, it is possible to do it from anywhere on the island, except for professional astronomers who bring their telescopes or tourists who are willing to wait in line at the tourist center to use their telescopes.

 

Lin Yi Yang had brought her here to show her the breathtaking view of the Milky Way, but that was an experience reserved for the night.

 

The mountaintop was too cold and the altitude too high, making it unsuitable for prolonged stays.

 

Lin Yi Yang unzipped his mountaineering jacket and took it off, wrapping Yin Guo in the warm fabric. He rubbed her hands in his palms, concerned, "Do you have a headache?"

 

Shaking her head, Yin Guo felt a little breathless but otherwise fine.

 

Lin Yi Yang guided her back to the car and turned on the air conditioning to the maximum level to warm her up. He stepped outside briefly, and when he returned, a few snowflakes clung to his sleeves.

 

As he started the engine of the off-road vehicle, he removed his watch from his left wrist and handed it to her. "Put this on"

 

"Why?" she asked.

 

"Keep an eye on the time," he said, "I'll make sure we're back at sea level within three hours."

 

At first, Yin Guo was a little confused about what Lin Yi Yang meant by taking her to sea level within three hours.

 

As they drove down the mountain, Lin Yi Yang stepped on the accelerator and picked up speed. On the flat ground, he was driving much faster than before. As the altitude decreased, the temperature began to rise rapidly, from the freezing cold of the mountain to a balmy 30 degrees Celsius.

 

Halfway through the drive, they stopped to change into their summer clothes and refill the car's gas tank, but they didn't make any other stops. Two hours and seventeen minutes later, they arrived at the coast.

 

Excited to feel the sand between her toes, Yin Guo got out of the car and hurriedly searched for her flip-flops in her backpack. But before she could put them on, Lin Yi Yang had already retrieved a navy blue thermos from the trunk and said, "You don't need those. Let's go to the beach."

 

As she held one slipper in her hand, Lin Yi Yang held her other hand tightly as they ran along a sandy path. Despite the scorching weather, the torches on wooden frames burned brightly, illuminating the coastline like a dream.

 

Upon reaching the beach, he placed the navy blue insulated box on the sand, and Yin Guo thought it contained chilled drinks. However, as soon as the box was opened, a gust of cold air poured out, revealing tightly packed snow inside.

It turned out that he had brought this box of snow from an altitude of over 4,000 meters and had driven the car like a maniac just to make it happen.

 

Their unexpected arrival and the opening of the box drew the attention of tourists from near and far, who curiously looked over at them.

 

Originally, Lin Yi Yang had planned to rent a pickup truck to slowly bring down a carload of snow so that Yin Guo could make a snowman on the beach. However, he changed his mind. Firstly, there was less snow at the mountaintop at this time of the year, and secondly, loading the car would have been too troublesome and would have spoiled the surprise.

 

"Nothing much, just play around," he said as he dumped the snow onto the sand, forming a small pile.

 

Yin Guo watched in awe as the snow began to melt in front of her. Although it had been tightly packed, it couldn't withstand the onslaught of over thirty-degree heat. She frantically tried to salvage the snow, "It's all melting. What should we do?"

 

Meanwhile, Lin Yi Yang sat under the shade of a nearby tree, looking as calm as a cucumber, and watched as Yin Guo shouted about the melting snow and desperately tried to scoop it back up. He looked like a madman, surrounded by curious onlookers from afar.

 

The snow was melting rapidly, seeping into the sand, and soon it became nothing more than a small, wet patch.

 

She finally wrapped her arms around his neck, not minding the sweat on his body or the sand on her hands. She refused to let go of him, amazed by the man who took her from snowy mountains to a summer beach in the center of the Pacific, with torches burning brightly and crowds of bikini and swimwear-clad tourists surrounding them. He gave her a whole box of winter snow on the beach under the watchful eyes of everyone.

 

He lightly patted her back, offering her comfort and indulgence. Nearby, people were speculating that the snow was crushed ice from a beverage freezer, while others thought it was dry ice. But no one knew the truth, nor could anyone guess the answer.

 

Lin Yi Yang's hand slid down to the edge of the girl's hot pants pocket, slowly and gently following the seam line. "Are you happy?" he asked the girl who was holding him.

 

"Mm-hmm." She replied ecstatically.

 

If he had driven a pickup truck full of snow to the beach like a lunatic to create a romantic atmosphere, it wouldn't have been as enjoyable. When you love someone, everything you do to please them is not just for them but also for yourself.

Seeing her happy made him even happier.

 

The empty thermos lay beside them, and soon the melted snow inside it had evaporated completely.

 

Lin Yi Yang went to buy her a pineapple smoothie to cool off. Holding the pineapple shell, Yin Guo sat on the beach and watched people surfing. Sweat rolled down her face as she sucked on the straw, and every few seconds, she wanted to smile at him.

 

She couldn't sit still anymore and dropped the pineapple. She stepped onto the sand in front of him, going round and round like a star revolving around the sun.

 

After a few spins, he suddenly reached out and grabbed her ankle in the sand, "Aren't you afraid of getting dizzy?"

 

Yin Guo shook her head, her lips pursed in a smile, as Lin Yi Yang playfully pulled her down to sit before him. Beads of sweat trickled down her temples and forehead, and one droplet meandered down her neck and disappeared beneath her collar. Lin Yi Yang imagined the sweat pooling in her clothes, and the thought sent a jolt of desire through him.

 

"What are you thinking about?" Yin Guo asked, breaking the momentary silence.

 

"I'm thinking about you," replied Lin Yi Yang, his hand resting on her hot pants.

 

The smile on Yin Guo's face had started on the snow-covered mountain and never faded, blossoming into a radiant expression of joy.

 

His hand was warm and gritty, the sand rubbing against her skin like tiny exfoliating beads.

 

"I was just thinking," he continued, "that maybe we should head back and get some rest."

 

Since it was too late to catch the sunset at the mountaintop, it made more sense to head back to base and recharge before venturing out again to catch the sunrise under the stars.

 

"Are you ready to go?" he asked her.

 

She nodded, ready to follow him anywhere, even to the ends of the Earth.

 

Lin Yi Yang had already booked a spacious tent in a jungle town for them to stay in. As they drove towards their destination, she fidgeted in her seat, opening the car window to let the hot, humid wind of the island blow into the car, bringing a sticky layer of sweat on her skin that refused to evaporate.

 

As the car came to a halt in front of the tent, Yin Guo reached for her flip-flops, but before she could put them on, Lin Yi Yang had already scooped her up, carrying her out of the car. She wrapped her arms around his neck, noticing two umbrellas drifting past her periphery and three girls looking back, their faces flushed with embarrassment. "I can walk on my own," she said.

 

"It's raining again, and you're walking too slowly," he replied.

 

The Pacific rain was just as intense as before. Within minutes, Lin Yi Yang carried her into the jungle-edge tent, kicking aside three wooden folding chairs blocking their way. As he placed her down on the bed, she noticed the dampness of the jungle in the sheets and blankets.

 

Surprisingly, the sound of frogs croaking could still be heard amidst the downpour.

 

The sensation of sleeping in a jungle tent, with the pungent aroma of rain-drenched soil and the rhythmic tapping of raindrops on the canvas roof, made Yin Guo feel exposed and vulnerable, as though unseen eyes were watching her. "Will there be lots of bugs and mosquitoes buzzing around at night?" she asked, her anxiety palpable.

 

Lin Yi Yang was well aware of girls' aversion to creepy crawlies, even though he had never had a girlfriend before. He quickly reassured her, "If you don't want to sleep in the tent, we can stay here."

 

"But wouldn't it be a waste to book the tent then?" she countered, feeling guilty about the unused reservation.

 

As they debated the matter, her restless legs swung back and forth, unconsciously drawing his attention. He had originally intended to let her rest since she was exhausted from a long flight and a day of activity.

 

His initial plan was to rest on the folding chair next to the bed and check his emails, but as he looked at Yin Guo's white and slender legs, he couldn't help but be mesmerized by their beauty. Even in a slightly bent position, her knees had lovely curves that caught his attention.

 

The sound of rain beating against the tent roof grew louder, and Yin Guo gazed up at the ceiling, thinking that sleeping in a tent on a rainy day might not be ideal due to the noise. However, as she lay there, she felt waves of warmth enveloping her body, seeping through her clothes and directly onto her skin.

 

Fatigue can weaken one's resolve and make one susceptible to distraction.

 

Although the tent door was not tightly shut, a gentle breeze still wafted through the opening, cooling the humid air inside. Lin Yi Yang noticed Yin Guo was shivering, so he pulled the blanket out from under her and covered her up.

 

"It's so stuffy in here," she grumbled, sweat beading on her forehead as the humidity seemed to close around her. She fidgeted uncomfortably beneath the blanket that covered her.

 

"If you don't cover up, people outside can see you," he replied nonchalantly.

 

"Why don't you close the door tightly then?" she asked with irritation in her voice.

 

"Too lazy to move," he said with a smirk.

 

Lin Yi Yang himself was appropriately dressed, not even taking off a single piece of clothing. He sat on the folding chair beside her, his eyes fixed on his laptop screen. With her under the blanket, from outside, at most, it looked like he was holding her while talking, and nothing else would be noticed.

 

The sound of the rain hitting the tent grew louder, creating a soothing rhythm in the background. Lin Yi Yang's hand moved down to Yin Guo's shorts, unbuttoning the copper button and slipping his hand inside. Her eyes displayed a momentary hint of confusion and subconscious resistance, but he simply observed her expression without kissing her. The anticipated kiss was postponed indefinitely, creating an anxious mood that made her feel doubly restless.

 

It had been more than twenty hours since their last kiss, and the tension between them was palpable.

 

She was lost in thoughts, pondering how he collected snow on the mountain and tightly packed it into the thermos. Her mind wandered to his fingers touching the snow, and...suddenly, her body seemed to lose all its strength in a split second.

 

For the first time in her life, she witnessed a scene where black shadows and white light intertwined and fused in front of her eyes. She couldn't remember if the white came before the black or vice versa as if her memory had been wiped clean. All she felt was a deep sense of exhaustion and relaxation of her muscles, from her legs and arms to her fingertips, all of which were screaming out: "so tired."

 

"How do you feel?" Lin Yi Yang was the first to ask.

 

"Um..." she replied, feeling strange but very comfortable.

 

For the next thirty seconds, Yin Guo lay motionless, clinging to Lin Yi Yang like a koala, nuzzling against him and using her nose to wipe his collarbone. He noticed her dazed and confused expression and surmised that she probably didn't even remember what had just happened.

 

Eventually, Yin Guo lacked the strength to even turn over. Her throat felt raw, not from thirst but from the intensity of the experience. She snuggled into Lin Yi Yang's embrace, adjusting her position and resting her face in the crook of his arm. Her voice was hoarse as she spoke, "Just ten minutes... I'll sleep for a while."

 

This was the last thing Yin Guo said before drifting off into slumber.

 

In a daze, Lin Yi Yang fastened two rubber bands-like things onto her ankles and wrists. She furrowed her eyebrows and tried to remove the bands from her wrists, but they were too tight. This was the last thing she did before falling asleep.

 

"These are mosquito repellent bands for kids. I thought they looked cute, so I bought them for you to try," Lin Yi Yang said, the last thing Yin Guo heard before succumbing to sleep.

The King of Detectives
2
A Minor Incident at the Press Conference

The temporary assistant slipped out from backstage and into the hall, but they avoided any interaction with the security guards. They merely made a cursory circuit of the room, pretending to have completed the task Han Yun had assigned them.


Before the temporary assistant could return, the host stepped onto the stage and asked the reporters to be quiet.


After a few brief opening remarks, the host invited the director Lin Zhi, the female lead Li Simo, and the male lead Han Yun to the stage. After the three and the host took their seats, the reporters in the room began to stand up and ask their prepared questions.


The questions had been prepared in advance and submitted to the organizers, who then screened them. As a result, the three guests had already prepared their responses, and the atmosphere on stage was harmonious.


While the reporters in the room took turns asking questions to the director and the female lead, Han Yun's eyes were constantly on the suspicious girl.


At first, the girl didn't look up and didn't seem to care about the questions being asked by the others or how the people on stage were answering them.


She seemed to be waiting for a specific moment to do something...


This press conference was scheduled to last an hour, and all the reporters present were aware of that. The girl must have known as well. It wasn't until about twenty minutes into the Q&A session that she raised her head for the first time and looked at the stage.


Her gaze met directly with Han Yun's, who was seated on stage. After a brief moment of eye contact, she lowered her head again.


Twenty minutes into the press conference, she raised her head for the first time to look at the stage. She wasn't looking at the female lead who was currently speaking, nor was she looking at the host. Instead, she directed her gaze straight at him.


Could the girl's intentions be related to him? Han Yun wondered.


"My question is for the male lead, Han Yun," a reporter sitting near the suspicious girl stood up and said, taking the microphone from someone else. "As everyone knows, your popularity has skyrocketed since 'The King of Detectives' premiered. You gained a million fans overnight, and netizens have even dug up videos of you on previous shows, revealing that you have a high IQ in real life. So, my question is, have you always displayed exceptional intelligence since childhood?"


Han Yun straightened up, took the microphone from the host, and shifted his gaze away from the suspicious girl. He replied, "It's not as exaggerated as what's being said online. Some netizens have idolized me after watching the drama. The character I play is indeed highly intelligent and emotionally intelligent, but in real life, I'm just an ordinary person like everyone else."


"You're no ordinary person. Ordinary people wouldn't have your kind of luck, becoming widely recognized after starring in just one drama," another reporter stood up and said. "In the eyes of ordinary people, you're someone blessed by the goddess of luck. With the drama's airing, you've also become a true 'lucky charm.' Today's trending topics even include 'Retweet the Lucky Charm Han Yun.' So, my question is, how do you feel about this sudden rise to fame?"


"Well, I didn't plan on entering the entertainment industry or becoming a professional actor, so fame... doesn't seem to have much significance to me," Han Yun replied with a slight smile. "I hope you'll pay more attention to the director of this drama, and to the female lead next to me, Li Simo. She's the real professional actor."


Han Yun's response seemed to have dampened the enthusiasm of the entertainment reporters present, and the next few questions were directed at the director and the female lead.


The press conference was nearing its end after more than 40 minutes, and the reporters had asked most of their questions. When the suspicious girl finally raised her head and raised her hand again, everyone's attention was drawn to her.


Seeing the girl stand up, the staff in the venue handed her a microphone.


The girl's gaze then turned unabashedly to Han Yun on stage and she asked loudly, "I would like to direct this question to Han Yun. Do you think you are very popular now?"


Before Han Yun on stage could take the microphone to respond, the girl asked another question, "Since the Beidu Police Bureau has hired you as a 'case consultant', you have an inescapable responsibility for the safety of the people of Beidu. But I ask you, do you know how many murders have happened in Beidu recently?"


The girl's two consecutive questions left the entertainment reporters present looking at each other in confusion.


The security guards around the venue did not make any move to stop her. Han Yun on stage refused the microphone handed to him by the host. He knew that the girl who was asking the questions did not want him to answer them.


"You probably don't know, do you? While you're enjoying your fame and being adored by everyone, two precious lives in Beidu City have been brutally murdered, and the killer is still at large," the girl said aggressively. "Do you think you're living up to the trust of the Beidu Police Bureau? Do you think you're worthy of the title of 'case consultant'? Do you think you're worthy of the abilities that the goddess of luck has bestowed upon you?"


The host on stage, seemingly realizing what the girl's words meant, hurriedly stepped off the stage from the side and called over the security guards to have a whispered conversation. Then, two security guards walked over and forcibly dragged her towards the exit of the venue.


As the girl, who had lost her microphone, was being dragged away by the two security guards, she continued to shout, "You should be ashamed! You should be ashamed!"


The girl was pulled out of the venue. Fearing that the reporters in the audience would continue asking questions based on the girl's remarks, the host went straight to the closing remarks before the press conference completely got out of control. Amidst the disgruntled shouts of the reporters in the audience, the host stepped off the stage with the director, the female lead, and Han Yun, and left the hall under the escort of security guards to the arranged lounge.


As he entered the lounge, the organizer of the press conference apologized profusely.


Han Yun ignored them and went straight into the dressing room, taking off his suit and changing back into his own clothes. He only greeted the temporary assistant before leaving.


Fearing that there would be a lot of paparazzi gathered at the hotel's main entrance after the scene just now, planning to dig up more information, Han Yun did not go through the main entrance but left through the side door and went straight to the parking lot to get his car.


However, he did not leave immediately, but instead drove back to the main entrance of the hotel to look for the girl who had just caused a scene at the press conference.

As he had expected, there was a large crowd of reporters and fans gathered at the main entrance of the hotel. However, the girl he was looking for was nowhere to be seen.


It seemed that after being chased out by the security guards, the girl had already left.


Han Yun was not worried about not seeing the girl. Since the girl had been so well-prepared to disguise herself as a reporter and crash the press conference, she must have another trick up her sleeve.


In his estimation, the girl's actions had two goals: first, to make a lasting impression on Han Yun; and second, to provide the assembled reporters with a juicy piece of gossip to exploit.


He could imagine that by now, there were already reports about the incident circulating on short-form video platforms, public WeChat accounts, and Weibo.


Han Yun was indifferent to how the media would spin the story. He was far more curious about what the girl who had disrupted the press conference would do next.

The King of Detectives
1
The Girl Disguised as an Entertainment Reporter

Han Yun stared at the face in the mirror, both familiar and strange, his expression becoming somewhat dazed.


He didn't look like this before. Yes, he was now wearing someone else's face, and this face was handsome, chiseled, and deep-set eyes. It was perfect from every angle.


It was this face that made Han Yun the object of admiration for countless young men and women. He was merely gilding this face, making it look even more noble.


No, he was Han Yun now.


He raised his arm, touched his reflection in the mirror, and came back to his senses.


At this moment, the makeup artist beside him placed her hands on Han Yun's face, looked at him in the mirror, and said the word "perfect."


With the makeup complete, Han Yun's face was indeed even more flawless, yet also more alien to him.


For three years, he had lived with this face day and night, yet he still couldn't fully accept it. Another face, another identity, always popped up unexpectedly, reminding him that he didn't belong to the owner of this face.


Han Yun deliberately averted his gaze from the mirror, no longer looking at himself, no longer thinking about the other face.


"I've been following your show 'The King of Detectives' too lately. Can you tell me who killed that female college student?" the makeup artist asked while styling Han Yun's hair.


"That would spoil the surprise if I told you," Han Yun replied with a faint smile.


"But the next two episodes don't air until next week, and this suspense is killing me!" The makeup artist picked up a hairspray and sprayed it on Han Yun's head, then said, "Actually, I think Xu Bao in the last case died a horrible death. He loved Li Zhenzhen so much, but Li Zhenzhen was just using his love for her. I cried my eyes out when Xu Bao died. I haven't cried like that in a long time."


A year ago, the director of "The King of Detectives" approached Han Yun, saying that the male lead in the drama resembled Han Yun in appearance. Han Yun, seeking a new experience and intrigued by the prospect of life on a film set, decided to take on the role.


At the time, he never imagined that the drama would become such a huge success. After all, it was a low-budget, niche suspense thriller. However, to everyone's surprise, the drama garnered over a hundred million views and millions of discussions on the website within just one day of its release. 


On the night of its premiere, Han Yun's Weibo followers surged by five million.


Reportedly, the last time such a sudden explosion in popularity occurred was for Benedict Cumberbatch, the actor who played Sherlock Holmes in the new adaptation of "Sherlock." Within twenty minutes of the show's premiere, his name was trending on Twitter.


Han Yun's rise to Twitter stardom came just two hours after the drama's release. The trending topic, titled "China's 'King of Detectives' Han Yun: Even More Amazing in Real Life!", unearthed clips from his appearance on the Bei Du Satellite TV show "Ultimate Brain Power" two years prior. Fueled by media hype and online chatter, Han Yun's public image transformed into that of a perfect idol: handsome, aloof, and possessing both high IQ and EQ.


"So... any thoughts on this makeup?" the makeup artist asked after finishing up.


Gazing at the mirror once more, at the face that grew increasingly unfamiliar, Han Yun rose from his seat, stepped away from the vanity table, and uttered nonchalantly, "It's good."


Once Han Yun's makeup was complete, the temporary assistant, who had been scrolling through videos on the couch, hurriedly rose to his feet and approached him with a suit in hand, saying, "This is the outfit prepared by the organizers. Please change into it."


Han Yun took the suit and stepped into the dressing room. After putting on the suit, he emerged once again. The makeup artist who had been assisting him earlier had already left.


The temporary assistant came forward and helped him adjust the details of his suit.


Han Yun checked his phone. It was exactly 8:00 PM. The press conference was scheduled for 8:08 PM, so there were eight minutes left. After tidying up Han Yun's clothes, the temporary assistant handed him a bottle of water and said, "Drink some water to clear your throat. Try not to drink water once you're on stage. We'll head backstage in two minutes. The director and the female lead will be there too."


Taking a sip from the water bottle, the temporary assistant continued, "Don't worry, the questions from the reporters at the press conference have all been screened by the organizers. There won't be any tricky ones, and they'll all be related to the drama. I've been an assistant to many celebrities, especially those who became unexpectedly popular because of a particular work or event. They all get nervous the first time they attend a press conference like this. Just relax."


"Do I look like I'm nervous?" Han Yun snapped at the temporary assistant.


Sensing the awkwardness, the temporary assistant wisely refrained from further comment. Two minutes later, under the temporary assistant's guidance, Han Yun emerged from the lounge, walked through the corridor, and arrived backstage at the press conference room.


The director of "The King of Detectives," Lin Zhi, and the female lead, Li Simo, were also waiting backstage. After exchanging brief greetings, the trio settled in to await the host's invitation to take the stage.


The filming of this drama took about three months, during which time Han Yun lived with the director and the female lead. However, in the six months since filming ended, they had not seen each other again.


It was only after the drama's explosive popularity upon its online release that the trio was once again brought together for promotional events.


This so-called press conference was actually just a formal introduction to the media, an opportunity to answer questions, share some fun anecdotes from the filming process, and offer insights into why the drama had become such a huge hit.


Before Han Yun's makeup, the organizers had already provided him with a list of questions the reporters were likely to ask, so he had a general idea of what to expect.


However, Han Yun was not expecting such a large turnout for the press conference.


Peeking out, he saw that the entire hall was packed with people. He roughly estimated that there must have been over 200 attendees. There were simply not that many media outlets or entertainment reporters in the entire city of Bei Du, so it was likely that some had come from neighboring cities after hearing about the event.


Among the two hundred or so people waiting for the press conference to begin in the hall, Han Yun quickly spotted a "suspicious person" from the crowd of entertainment reporters.


Among the many reporters, there was a young woman, probably between the ages of twenty and twenty-five, with her hair in a ponytail. While her attire and appearance were similar to those of the other reporters around her, she had no interaction with her seatmate and had a slightly furrowed brow and a tense expression, as if she was afraid of being discovered and kicked out of the hall by security.


If she were not a reporter but someone with no connection to the media industry, it would have been difficult for her to slip past the security guards and her fellow reporters.


However, she was not a reporter, and her purpose for being there was different from that of the other reporters around her.


She had infiltrated the event with her own agenda, but... Han Yun took a deep breath. But she was too frail, didn't pose any danger, and wouldn't harm those around her. 


However, since she had disguised herself as a reporter to get in, she must have had a motive, and there was a good chance that she might disrupt the press conference.


With that in mind, Han Yun called over the temporary assistant and asked them to relay a message to the security guards in charge of the venue, telling them to keep an eye on the girl, just in case.

During the Snowstorm
7.5
The Passion Remains

After losing both of his parents and having his younger brother adopted by another family, Yin Guo is the only person he has left in his life. He often finds himself regretting the loss of his favorite cue sticks from many years ago, and now he fears losing Yin Guo as well. But how can he keep her by his side?

 

Feeling a dryness in his throat, he straightened up from the edge of the pool table and reached for the cue stick that was leaning against it. He sauntered to the cue rack and placed the cue stick in the last position on the far right end. Without turning back, he waved his hand to Li Qingyan and walked away, lost in his thoughts.

 

As Lin Yi Yang stepped out of the billiard room and onto the elevator, he was lost in thought. He was deep in contemplation about Yin Guo and their complicated relationship, and before he knew it, he had absentmindedly pressed the wrong button.

 

The elevator doors opened on the first-floor lobby, and Lin Yi Yang stepped out, realizing his mistake. Was his subconscious trying to lead him out of the hotel and away from his problems?

 

Looking around the bustling lobby, he saw people coming and going, some with cue cases and suitcases in hand, checking in and out of the hotel. These were players who had been eliminated from the group matches earlier that day. Lin Yi Yang couldn't help but feel a pang of envy at their freedom to leave and move on from their losses.

 

But his mind was clouded by alcohol, making it difficult for him to differentiate between past, present, and future. The city outside was wet from the recent rainfall, and the reflection of the neon lights on the streets created a surreal atmosphere. Lin Yi Yang wondered how he ended up in New York and if he would ever find a way out of the labyrinth of his own thoughts.

 

It seemed just like yesterday when Lin Yi Yang had been drinking at an unknown roadside stall, and the owner had kindly taken him in, letting him sleep on a bench until he woke up. It was in his hometown, and he woke up in the middle of the night, still drunk. The owner's wife had kindly removed his school uniform and put it in his messenger bag, warning him to be careful not to get caught by the teacher and punished.

 

The memory was hazy. The present-day was today, and he was at the Plaza Hotel. He had come to buy some dessert at the lower-level shop called Lady M for Yin Guo, but he wasn't sure how he ended up there.

 

Wu Wei had warned him not to bother, saying there were already many branches in China, and Yin Guo would see through his plan. But he still wanted to buy it for her. What if she had never tasted it before? The one here was from the original place, and the taste might be even better.

 

......

 

As the clock struck past ten, Yin Guo found herself tossing and turning on the hotel bed, plagued by an uneasy feeling. The reunion party of old friends from two billiards clubs had just begun, and she couldn't help but feel nervous. What if they all got too drunk and things got out of hand?

 

Desperate for some assurance, she took out her phone and sent a message to Lin Yi Yang, but to no avail. She then messaged Meng Xiaodong, but surprisingly, he didn't respond either.

 

In the end, she turned to Wu Wei for answers.

 

"Hey, how much have you guys been drinking?" Yin Guo typed out. "My brother and Lin Yi Yang haven't replied."

 

"Just come over here," Wu Wei replied. "We're at table 1000."

 

"Come over?" Yin Guo repeated in her mind as she read Wu Wei's message. Her heart skipped a beat at the thought of seeing Lin Yi Yang again. She quickly changed her clothes, grabbed her phone, and rushed out of her hotel room.

 

As she arrived at the door of room 1000, a large group of people was pouring out. She spotted Li Qingyan and Xiaozi and pulled the latter aside, urgently asking, "Is Lin Yi Yang still inside?"

 

"He's inside," Xiaozi replied, but before she could say anything else, Yin Guo pushed her way through the crowd, repeatedly saying, "Excuse me," as she squeezed through the twenty or thirty people.

 

When she finally made it into the suite, she was surprised to find three people lying down. Meng Xiaodong and Chen Anan were asleep on one side of the bed.

 

Lin Yi Yang was lying on the sofa, sideways, wearing a clean set of clothes that Wu Wei and the others got for him. The gray trousers and white shirt were all from Jiangyang. His shirt collar was loose for ventilation, and he was resting his head on his left arm, unsure if he was sleeping or awake.

 

Yin Guo quietly walked over to the sofa and squatted down, placing her palm on his sweaty forehead. She noticed a wet towel draped over the sofa's armrest and took it to wipe his face. As she did so, Lin Yi Yang spoke in a low voice, enunciating each word carefully and slurring slightly, "That cake... doesn't taste good if it's left for too long. You go and get it for Xiaoguo."

 

Yin Guo was puzzled by his words. What cake was he talking about? They were already this drunk, yet he was still concerned about a cake?

 

"Don't say I'm drunk," Lin Yi Yang whispered in a barely audible voice.

 

Yin Guo gently placed a cool towel on his forehead, hoping it would ease his discomfort. She didn't want to disturb him and remained silent, knowing it was best not to talk to someone heavily intoxicated.

 

As Lin Yi Yang lay there, his breathing grew heavier, and Yin Guo could tell he had fallen asleep. She quietly got up and walked towards the door, but before leaving, she turned around to take one last look at him.

 

Suddenly, Lin Yi Yang stirred and furrowed his brows. "Didn't you hear me?" he asked in a slightly slurred voice.

 

Yin Guo wrinkled her nose, a sour feeling taking over her senses. Why was he so good to her? They hadn't been together for very long. Didn't he understand the art of playing hard to get? The game of push and pull? He was so handsome, yet he wasted it all by being stupidly nice to her. He was such a fool, and it broke her heart.

 

"Okay," she cooed softly to him, "you can eat soon."

 

Lin Yi Yang was slow to respond, his eyes tightly shut for a few seconds before opening them slowly. His black pupils reflected her figure, as if he didn't recognize her, looking at her...

 

"You drank so much," she whispered, "didn't anyone stop you?"

 

Lin Yi Yang's high cheekbones and nose bridge, more prominent among the average Asian ethnicity, added to his peach blossom-shaped eyes and double eyelids, created a striking appearance. Though he wasn't conventionally handsome, at this moment, he had an inexplicable charm that dug deep into Yin Guo's heart.

 

It was no surprise that many girls couldn't forget about him. Whether playing billiards or sitting on the steps outside the pool hall with a cigarette, just a prolonged gaze from him could make any girl worry about him for the rest of her life.

 

As she wiped his face and hands with a slightly cold towel, Yin Guo considered warming it up with hot water. Suddenly, Lin Yi Yang's right hand wrapped around her neck, pulling her face towards him. His forehead touched hers, and with a heavy drunken tone, he called her "Xiao Guo Er," a term of endearment.

 

In the midst of his discomfort caused by the alcohol, Lin Yi Yang caught a glimpse of Yin Guo and wondered if he was hallucinating. He paused for a moment before posing a question, "Do you have feelings for me now?"

 

From the kiss they shared outside her apartment restroom to the present moment, it had been precisely fourteen days since they had started dating. Lin Yi Yang's inquiry probed deeper into her emotions. Did she truly have genuine feelings for him?

 

But the room was not empty, and Fan Cong and Wu Wei were also present, attending to the other three drunken individuals. Meanwhile, Jiang Yang had brewed tea for Yin Guo and came in to keep her company. All three of them overheard Lin Yi Yang's question to Yin Guo.

 

Lin Yi Yang was known for his obstinacy, which had led him to take a detour in life. For him to ask such a question spoke volumes about how much he desired and was uncertain about their relationship. It also revealed how much he truly cared for the girl before him.

 

As Yin Guo was about to respond, Lin Yi Yang suddenly tugged at the collar of his shirt, his face contorting in discomfort. She watched him use the back of his hand to shield his eyes from the light, and within seconds, he had fallen asleep.

 

Confused and concerned, Yin Guo squatted in front of the sofa, the cold towel still in her hands. She had noticed that he had been in good spirits when they had left earlier, so she couldn't help but wonder what could have caused this sudden change.

 

After a few moments, she got up to check on Meng Xiaodong, one of the other drunken men in the room. When she turned around, she saw that Jiang Yang had already prepared a cup of hot tea for her and had jokingly opened Lin Yi Yang's phone, placing it on the round table.

 

"Come on, let's eat," Jiang Yang said with a smile, trying to lighten the mood.

 

......

 

Yin Guo was puzzled as she looked at the phone screen, which was filled with pictures of cakes - layered matcha, rose, crepes, and more. Wu Wei saw her confusion and pulled her to the table, eager to share the story behind the photos.

 

As Wu Wei recounted, in the dead of night, Lin Yi Yang had ventured out of the hotel and walked several blocks to find the Plaza Restaurant to buy a cake for Yin Guo. Despite the restaurant still being open, the cake shop on the basement level had already closed for the night.

 

Jiang Yang and Wu Wei found Lin Yi Yang slumped on the steps outside the restaurant, curled up in a small corner and dozing off, looking no different from a homeless person. When they woke him up, he handed his phone over to Wu Wei, with all the pictures of cakes he had saved while sober. He pleaded with her to buy one for Yin Guo and then collapsed into their arms.

 

Without hesitation, the two men carried Lin Yi Yang back to the hotel without calling for a car.

 

As they entered the room, they were met with the sight of a few inebriated individuals. Yin Guo and the others quickly went into action, tending to Lin Yi Yang's drunken state and helping him change into clean clothes. In a moment of recklessness, Lin Yi Yang downed the remaining alcohol in the bottles on the table without any resistance.

 

It was evident that Lin Yi Yang was heavily intoxicated, having consumed two bottles of strong liquor in total. Jiang Yang, who knew Lin Yi Yang well, estimated that he would not wake up for at least a day and a night.

 

Initially, Wu Wei didn't want to involve Yin Guo and expose her to Lin Yi Yang's pitiful state. However, Jiang Yang insisted on speaking with Yin Guo about something Meng Xiaodong had said earlier.

 

Wu Wei gestured to the empty bottles on the table and explained, "I used his card, but I didn't dare to buy anything expensive. This pile of bottles is still not worth that small cup he bought for you to drink back then."

 

Upon examining the bottles, Yin Guo was under the impression that Lin Yi Yang had splurged on expensive whiskey for her cousin. However, on closer inspection, she realized it was just the inexpensive and common whiskey found in supermarkets.

 

Jiang Yang spoke softly, "Lin Yi Yang truly cares about you, Yin Guo."

 

"He's not just caring. He's done so much for you that you don't even know about," Wu Wei chimed in, completely agreeing with Jiang Yang and working with him. "It's been almost twelve years since he left Dongxincheng, and during that time, he's never carried any money with him, except for this year when he made an exception."

 

Wu Wei paused, looking at Yin Guo intently. "Do you remember? He did it for you."

 

Yin Guo was stunned, not only because he gambled for her but more importantly because he had never gambled with money before...

 

Yin Guo sat there, her eyes fixed on Lin Yi Yang's sleeping form. She couldn't help but wonder what had led him to this pathetic state. Wu Wei and Jiang Yang exchanged glances; then Wu Wei let out a chuckle.

 

"He wouldn't be this poor if he really gambled on billiards, would he?" she said. "In Flushing, he didn't ask for a penny and had people transfer money to his classmates' accounts."

 

Yin Guo was surprised to hear this. She had assumed that Lin Yi Yang was poor because of his gambling addiction, but it seemed that wasn't the case.

 

"That night, a single game cost $3,000, and he played several games weekly," Jiang Yang continued. "He could have become rich if he had continued."

 

Yin Guo looked at Lin Yi Yang again, wondering why he had given up such a lucrative opportunity.

 

"You're not from Dongxincheng, so you probably don't know," Jiang Yang said, turning to her. "When my teacher brought him into Dongxincheng, they had an agreement: he is not allowed to gamble, he should never fix games, and he couldn't break the law."

 

Yin Guo nodded, still trying to process everything. She had never heard this part of Lin Yi Yang's story before.

 

"This is just the beginning," Jiang Yang said, his voice low and serious. "What I want to tell you is the entire story of the past."

 

In his fourth year as a professional player, Lin Yi Yang had hit a wall in his career. Despite winning two championships in the previous years, he unexpectedly fell into a slump without warning signs. As a young prodigy, he was no stranger to the ups and downs of an athlete's career. But this valley was different.

 

Lin Yi Yang's competitiveness was unmatched, and his drive to win was insatiable. But when he began losing several critical games in a row, rumors started spreading that he was accepting money to throw games. His peers looked down on him, and even in the locker room, he could hear their whispers and discussions about his slump. After another devastating loss on the court, he had a huge argument with his coach, and then he quit the team for good.

 

In his final professional game, Lin Yi Yang's temper flared, leading to a conflict with the referee that resulted in a six-month ban. After June, he vanished from the circle, leaving everyone wondering what had happened to him.

 

"Everyone knew he had given up since the night he left Dongxincheng," Jiang Yang explained.

 

Yin Guo could see the sadness in his eyes as he continued, "Why didn't he explain? Because only a few of us knew about this incident, and we only found out in Mr. He's office that day. He did indeed play a game with money by the roadside. He was wrong."

 

Yin Guo couldn't believe what she was hearing. Poverty had driven him to gamble with money, and his intentions were pure. "Why didn't anyone help him?" she asked.

 

Wu Wei sighed. "He was really broke during that half year. Relatives had just adopted his younger brother, and he wanted to visit but couldn't afford the ticket. Later, he told me that at the time, he thought he just wanted to buy a ticket to celebrate his brother's birthday, and with the leftover money, he could buy some exercise books to practice English and math."

 

The room fell silent as everyone took in this heartbreaking story. The past few years had not been kind to Lin Yi Yang, and it was clear that this incident still haunted him.

 

Yin Guo had heard stories from her cousin about the hardships that athletes faced in the past. In those days, the industry was not doing well, and players would resort to extreme measures to make ends meet. Without commercial sponsorship, a domestic player's annual income would only be around 20,000 to 30,000 yuan. They still had to travel to various competitions, buy clothes and equipment, and support themselves.

 

One of Meng Xiaodong's friends had faced a similar situation when he played pool to earn money for the hotel the night before a competition in Quanzhou. He ended up losing all his money and had to spend the night at the billiard hall. The next day, he went straight to the competition without any rest.

 

If even adult players could face such difficulties, imagine the pressure, Lin Yi Yang was under as a high schooler. Lin Yi Yang's pride and unwillingness to borrow money from his brothers led to his challenging situation.

 

......

 

He was wrong, just plain wrong. But no one gave him a chance to correct it, and he didn't either.

 

The sun's rays beamed onto Lin Yi Yang's face, and his parched throat yearned for a sip of water. He instinctively stretched his arm to his right as if in the comfort of his apartment. From this vantage point, he thought he was reaching for the coffee table by his bed. Normally, he would prepare a glass of water alongside his drink to hydrate himself and avoid a hangover the following day.

 

His fingers reached out, but he felt no table or glass. For a moment, he froze. He realized he was in a hotel room, not his apartment.

 

What time was it? Had he slept for one or two days? He vaguely remembered waking up in the darkness with no one in the room. The stench of his body made him self-conscious that his partner would smell the alcohol on him when she returned from the competition. So he took a shower to freshen up.

 

Upon opening his eyes, Lin Yi Yang's gaze immediately fell on Yin Guo, snuggled up with a pillow beside him. She lay on the white cotton bedsheet, facing him with a dark blue or black T-shirt.

 

"She looks like a porcelain doll with dimples on her face. The kind that used to be sold at temple fairs when we were kids, except those dolls had two red dots painted on their cheeks, and she doesn't. 'I'm afraid you'll sleep too much, stupid,' she said."

 

Her little hand shook in front of his eyes. 'Are you really that stupid?

 

"The arm full of flower tattoos pulled Yin Guo over and pressed her face into his neck. 'If I don't straighten you out, you'll never learn,' he said."

During the Snowstorm
11.2
Tide of Fate

Such heartfelt words, coming from a man of such charm, were enough to move anyone.

 

Unfortunately, he is Lin Yi Yang, and the audience's expectations for him went beyond just that.

 

The female commentator exaggeratedly covered her face: "Is he saying he hasn't succeeded yet?"

 

...

 

The male commentator also laughed, feigning heartache as he pressed on: "Lin, you've let us down. Last year's most valuable star player and he still hasn't got the love he desires?"

 

"It breaks our heart," the female commentator added.

 

Lin Yi Yang was amused by their exaggerated act, playing off each other.

 

Really, there was no dealing with these commentators.

 

Due to their past familiarity, they simply wouldn't let him off, seizing on this suddenly revealed topic.

 

Even Sun Zhou and a few students beside Lin Yi Yang couldn't help but laugh, urging the boss to just reveal the truth already. Clearly, they won't let you off; if this goes on, the whole venue might go crazy.

 

"Let's cut to the chase," the male commentator stated his intention, "Lin, today's viewership peak rests on your shoulders!"

 

"Yes," the female commentator chimed in, "someone who left without a warning must leave behind something meaningful."

 

...

 

The entire audience also joined in the teasing, chanting in unison, "Tell her, tell her!"

 

Amidst the waves of voices, Lin Yi Yang, compelled, switched the microphone to his other hand again.

 

This was the third time he had switched hands.

 

It was an uncommon action for him. Usually, when he picked something up, he picked it up, and when he put it down, he put it down. His character dictated that there was no room for unnecessary hesitation. However, today was different; he felt the weight of caution.

 

"How should I put it?" he looked at the girl in the arena again, quiet for a long moment, slowly expressing his feelings for her with a compliment, "She's so perfect, I might have to chase her for a lifetime."

 

A moment of silence.

 

"So, no rush," he finally looked up at the entire venue, his eyes brimming with laughter under the brim of his cap, looking towards his supporting fans, "you see, I'm not in a hurry at all."

 

...

 

After the silence, thunderous applause followed.

 

Our king of the arena gave his beloved the highest praise, so frank and so direct.

 

In the frame, Lin Yi Yang finally looked towards the commentary booth, asking: Is it okay now?

 

The male commentator, having a great relationship with Lin Yi Yang, gave him a gesture, meaning: Thanks, old friend, let's have a drink after the game.

 

Today's heated atmosphere had everyone's blood boiling and passion surging. They could already anticipate the viewership peak at this moment.

 

He had once been just a young boy.

 

Struggling in subjects like language, mathematics, and English, his aspirations were once limited to watching his younger brother play, buying a few more exercise books, and playing basketball with strangers. His sole goal was to obtain a high school diploma to appease his teachers. And now, here he was, seated among the audience at the U.S. Open, proclaiming his love for a girl to the entire world.

 

No one knew his entire journey; even the closest friends could only see segments of his life. Each phase of his life was disconnected, jumping, including the people around him. He had walked through the lonely days, the moments of discontent, and the burning desire to break free from the fog all on his own.

 

Having said these words, sitting in this cheering arena, even he felt a sense of unreality.

 

Everything today, every step, left a deep footprint, including being able to sit here, including being able to be with her.

Lin Yi Yang turned off the microphone, handing it back to the staff.

 

The scene switched back to the arena.

 

Yin Guo was trying to control her tears. Su Wei hugged Yin Guo, her voice thick with emotion: "Oh my god, I'm crying too."

 

Taking advantage of Su Wei's embrace, Yin Guo wiped her tears with the back of her hand: "Don't let go... let me wipe my tears first..."

 

Thus, Yin Guo, with Su Wei's cover, dried the tears on her face in the live broadcast.

 

...

 

Five minutes later, the match officially began.

 

Yin Guo's eyes were still slightly red as she picked up her cue stick and approached her opponent. She proved to everyone a professional athlete's mental fortitude, especially as she was regarded by her fans as the perfect "master of emotions."

 

The pre-match excitement seemed unrelated to her, standing by the pool table, her calmness surprising.

 

A perfect strike, the serve was hers.

 

After nodding to her opponent, who was a head taller, Yin Guo first approached the table, positioning the white ball.

 

Aiming for five seconds, the white ball flew out with a loud snap, scattering the colored balls across the table.

 

Amid the loud sound of the balls exploding and the powerful impact of the white ball, the venue erupted into even more fervent applause than before. With just one shot, this Chinese girl directly pocketed four balls, including the nine-ball!

 

She won the first game in one shot.

 

She told the fans in the venue, the Lin you like, the person he likes is today's king of the arena.

 

The semifinals of the US Open began perfectly with Yin Guo's first shot.

 

Having won her own game, Yin Guo gracefully set aside her cue stick, exchanged handshakes with the referee, and prepared to depart from the arena. The audience responded with thunderous applause once again. To everyone's surprise, Lin Yiyang promptly rose from his seat, accompanied by his entourage, and began making his way towards the exit.

 

The intention was clear: My girlfriend is leaving, so I'm leaving too...

 

One passed through the corridor within the arena, and the other through a side exit in the spectator area.

 

As Yin Guo arrived backstage, she caught sight of Lin Yiyang descending the stairs and entering the players' lounge.

 

Coincidentally, Barry, who had recently playfully teased Lin Yiyang, was engaged in a conversation with someone in the lounge. Spotting Lin Yiyang, Barry erupted into laughter and enthusiastically extended his fist, celebrating the reunion of old friends.

 

Lin Yiyang playfully pointed at Barry and jokingly warned him in English, "You've crossed the line this time."

 

Barry laughed heartily.

 

Being able to witness the whole process of Lin Yi Yang pursuing Yin Guo was one of the most brag-worthy experiences of his life.

 

Yin Guo leaned against the wall, watching Lin Yi Yang greet everyone and exchange pleasantries with friends he had made in the past year on the circuit.

 

This was his second time in this backstage, a completely different situation from the last.

 

Last time, only the Chinese from Dongxin City and Beijing knew who he was and knew his past.

 

But today, everyone here had competed against him, many of whom had been defeated by him...

 

Lin Yi Yang took off his baseball cap and walked towards Yin Guo.

 

She leaned against the wall, lined with soft wallpaper, watching him approach, close enough for him to tousle her hair and place a warm kiss on her forehead.

 

Lin Yi Yang silently congratulated her on making it to the semifinals.

 

"I wish I was here last year..." she whispered, slipping her hand into the pocket of his sports jacket, "I wanted to see you compete, wanted to see you chased by fans."

 

As staff members called out to them, Lin Yi Yang also slipped his hand into his pocket, holding her small hand.

 

"The fans are waiting for you outside; they came after watching the live broadcast," a young player said behind them, patting Lin Yi Yang on the shoulder in English, "Don't go out through the main entrance later."

 

The player was familiar with Lin Yi Yang and nodded at Yin Guo with a smile as a greeting.

 

Lin Yi Yang just smiled, not responding.

 

Goodbyes are sad, and he preferred to leave the local fans with the impression of him from just moments ago.

 

Now, he was just a bystander.

 

Her making it to the semifinals was no surprise.

 

Chen An'an making it to the semifinals, however, was a pleasant surprise.

 

That evening, they took Chen An'an to Red Fish to celebrate.

 

Chen An'an had heard a snippet of Lin Yi Yang's impromptu speech in the player's rest area and became interested in the place, the bar. But there was nothing special about it; it was just a bar with wooden doors, an old handle, American-style bar counters and seats, a band, and various chicken wings, onion rings, and cocktails.

 

The only thing special was that the bar was famous for its jazz, a well-known secret among a small circle. Yet, why a jazz bar would play "Yellow" that night remained a mystery. Perhaps it was because of the incoming blizzard, and everyone needed a few old songs with a taste of sunshine to soothe their nerves.

 

Yin Guo and Lin Yi Yang sat in the seats she and her cousin had occupied that night, shoulder to shoulder, looking at each other.

 

Chen An'an found a separate seat to give them privacy.

 

Back in China, dawn had already arrived.

 

Yin Guo asked her cousin about the match, and he informed her that it took place between 2 to 3 a.m. in China, so their family couldn't watch it. She reminded her cousin to keep it a secret for now. She hadn't yet figured out how to make it public, but it would be sufficient if she could keep it concealed for one more day.

 

Yin Guo sipped her juice through a straw, "Say something, you've been quiet."

 

"What should I say?" Lin Yi Yang asked back.

 

"About that night," she tilted her head to look at him, "I want to hear the truth."

 

Ever since watching Lin Yi Yang's interview at the China Open, she had a revolutionary understanding of him. He was truly reticent, truly had high EQ, especially in adapting to situations on the spot. Today, under such sudden circumstances, he organized his language in just a dozen seconds, successfully defusing all "interrogations" and "questionings," forcing her to admire him.

 

But no matter how well one speaks in public, it's for outsiders to hear. She wanted to hear the unpolished truth.

 

Lin Yi Yang rested one arm on the edge of the bar, the other around her waist, whispering, "It was all true."

 

Seeing Yin Guo's skeptical look, he laughed.

 

"Come." He pulled her up from the seat, pushed open the wooden door of the bar, and stepped onto the path outside.

 

Outside, they were joined by a group of young international students chatting and laughing. Amidst the lively atmosphere, Lin Yiyang shared with her what had happened that night, saying, "Jiang Yang was also in the United States that day, stuck at the Chicago airport. He called me, wanting to meet up. After we hung up, I felt restless and wanted to find a place to drink."

 

Sometimes, when you think about it, the connections between people are truly destined. If Jiang Yang had smoothly arrived in New York that day, Lin Yiyang and Wu Wei wouldn't have come out, and they wouldn't have met Yin Guo.

 

"When I arrived here that night, I didn't come in. I wanted to have a smoke first," he said, standing in the same spot as that night and continuing his story.

 

His craving for cigarettes wasn't particularly strong, but he often felt the urge when his mood was either extremely good or bad.

 

Unfortunately, it was a bitterly cold night, with temperatures below minus twenty degrees Celsius, strong winds, and heavy snowfall. He attempted to light a cigarette several times but was unsuccessful. Feeling frustrated, he glanced up and spotted her through the adjacent row of glass windows. Among all the different faces, Yin Guo was the only Asian face in the corner, just like him.

 

There is a natural sense of affinity between people of the same race.

 

And that day, a feeling of displacement lingered in his heart due to Jiang Yang stirring up memories of the past. When he laid eyes on Yin Guo at that moment, it was as if he had caught a glimpse of a distant homeland through her.

 

"Right here," Lin Yi Yang pointed to the window, "I watched you for three or four minutes."

 

He observed her tilting her head in frustration, witnessed the blizzard forcefully shaking tree branches, saw the crease on her forehead as she tapped on the glass with her fingers, and witnessed the surprise in her eyes as a branch fell and struck a car...

 

He really wanted to walk in, ask her: Little girl, what's there to worry about? The blizzard will pass.

 

"I did want to go in, wanted to buy you a drink, get to know you, get your contact information, and make sure you got to your hotel safely," he said with a smile, "all true."

 

Following his description, Yin Guo changed her perspective and also looked towards the small corner of the bar where she had made her phone call.

 

It was as if she saw herself at her most helpless and despondent that day.

 

There was nothing particularly captivating about her appearance at the time—having gone days without a shower, stranded at the airport... The mere thought of it was embarrassing.

 

Yet, no matter how disheveled Yin Guo was that day, she had a strange allure to Lin Yi Yang.

 

However, as time passed, it became evident that Lin Yiyang was the only one harboring such attraction towards Yin Guo. Wu Wei, who had also gotten to know her alongside Lin Yiyang, merely remarked that she seemed sweet and didn't entertain any further thoughts. Whenever Wu Wei encountered a Japanese girl at the ramen shop, he would become nervous while talking, and Lin Yiyang would acknowledge the Japanese girl's cuteness, but that was the extent of it.

 

If it had been Lin Lin who made the phone call that day, Yin Guo speculated that she would have scolded him with a stern face, and Lin Yiyang's initial reaction upon witnessing such a scene would have been to quickly find another place. However, if it had been Meng Xiaodong passing by, the outcome would have been entirely different.

 

In truth, it's hard to say.

 

Without your presence, there would have been no initiative, no worries, and everything would have remained in perfect order. Without you, no matter how perfect and outstanding it may be, it would have had no connection to me whatsoever.

 

Perhaps, the term love is specifically meant for that person who belongs to you.

 

That night, as Yin Guo was sound asleep, she was abruptly awakened by his phone ringing. It was for Lin Yi Yang.

 

He quietly slipped out of bed, leaving the room in darkness. The desk lamp remained off, but Yin Guo could feel the warmth of his presence nearby. His voice was hushed and tender as he spoke, "Sun Zhou contacted me. I have to return to the billiard hall. I won't be able to attend your match tomorrow."

 

Yin Guo murmured an acknowledgment in her drowsiness, watching him dress in the dim light from outside. Lin Yi Yang usually moved quickly, even when dressing, but tonight every movement was slow, so silent that it made no sound.

 

By the time she was aware again, he was no longer in the room.

 

The blanket still held Lin Yi Yang's warmth. She moved to his side, smelling his scent on the pillow, and fell into a deeper sleep.

 

In the semifinal the next day, Yin Guo played vigorously and enjoyed the game thoroughly.

 

In the Chinese locker room, everyone congratulated her on winning the semifinal smoothly, while teasingly wishing her love life to flourish as well. Yin Guo, embarrassed by the congratulations, found a corner and started wiping her cue stick with a cloth.

 

A senior player who was about to go on stage grabbed her arm: "Chen An'an withdrew from the competition."

 

"Withdrew?" She was clueless.

 

Yin Guo had left early in the morning and hadn't crossed paths with Chen An'an. The women's matches were scheduled before the men's, so she wouldn't have heard this news during her match...

 

The senior player added: "Only one from Dongxin City is left competing today; the rest have left."

 

Anxiety surged within her.

 

Yin Guo set down her cue stick and rushed out to get her phone back from the coach.

 

She turned it on, anxiously entered her password, and called Lin Yi Yang.

 

The call didn't go through.

 

Yin Guo forced herself to remain calm and checked his WeChat.

 

Lin li Guo: What happened? Chen An'an withdrew?

 

Standing in the corridor, she was greeted enthusiastically by a commentator passing by: "Congratulations."

 

Yin Guo hurriedly smiled: "Thank you."

 

Suddenly, there was a response on WeChat.

 

Lin: Is the match over?

 

Lin Li Guo: Yes, it's over, I'm in the finals. Have you reached Washington? Do you know about Chen An'an withdrawing?

 

Lin: I know.

 

Lin: My teacher passed away.

During the Snowstorm
8.4
Crossing Mountain and Seas

The first light of Wednesday peeked through the towering buildings as they made their way back to Wu Wei's New York apartment. The city was now silent and still, with only the distant hum of a few cars breaking the silence.

 

Before the familiar door in the darkness, Yin Guo hesitated before pushing it open. As the door creaked, she realized that the once-familiar place now felt different, almost alien. She whispered to Lin Yi Yang, who was beside her, "Everyone is still asleep," as they tiptoed inside. The emptiness of the space seemed to amplify the sound of their footsteps, reminding them of how far they were from the familiarity of their past.

 

Yin Guo took Lin Yi Yang's hand and led him through the dimly lit living room, careful not to disturb the sleeping roommates. They soon arrived at Yin Guo's old room, and she fumbled for the doorknob, feeling a wave of nostalgia wash over her. As they opened the door, a bulky suitcase obstructed their path, and Yin Guo accidentally bumped into it, causing a loud thud to echo through the quiet apartment.

 

Reacting quickly, Lin Yi Yang lifted Yin Guo by the waist, kicked the suitcase out of the way with a swift motion, and the two of them looked at each other with a mixture of amusement and relief.

 

"That was close," Yin Guo whispered, and Lin Yi Yang gently set her back on the floor. Despite the noise, he wasn't too concerned about waking up the others as the apartment had decent sound insulation.

 

They proceeded to tidy up their belongings and freshen up themselves. It wasn't until 9 o'clock that the other two roommates finally stirred from their slumber.

 

As the time for departure approached, Yin Guo and Lin Yi Yang relaxed, seeming to have nothing else to do but wait.

 

The bittersweet feeling of parting was palpable. Yin Guo felt like her heart was slowly emptying like an hourglass as time passed. She wished that they could stay in the same space forever.

 

There were no extra words to say, unlike in the past when they had to rely on phone calls or letters. With the advent of WeChat, they could stay in touch any time, even during the dozen hours on the plane.

 

With nothing else to occupy their time, Lin Yi Yang took a cloth and began cleaning the table and tidying up the kitchen.

 

"Have you got any dirty clothes here?" Yin Guo asked from the bar. "Otherwise, should we go to the laundry room?"

 

"Why go there?" Lin Yi Yang asked, looking puzzled.

 

"To do laundry," she said, "and also to take a look around before we leave."

 

The laundry room was nothing special to others, just a common sight in the city. But to Yin Guo, it held a special memory - the place where Lin Yi Yang first expressed his interest in her. She vividly remembered the blue plastic table in the middle, where they sat opposite each other, texting back and forth as if it was just yesterday.

 

Lin Yi Yang gently patted her head and reassured her, "We'll come back to visit in the future."

 

They didn't want to make it seem like a final goodbye. But as they lingered in the living room, time ticked away. Yin Guo felt a growing sense of emptiness in her chest.

 

Suddenly, Wu Wei appeared in the room and found them still there, seemingly at a standstill. He couldn't help but ask, "What's going on? Are you guys fighting before you leave?"

 

Lin Yi Yang, annoyed at the interruption, checked his watch and headed inside to retrieve his suitcase. "We're leaving," he said bluntly, signaling the end of their visit.

 

Wu Wei watched helplessly as Lin Yi Yang and Yin Guo left the apartment, lost in thought for a while. He knew exactly how it felt to leave home and study abroad. The desire to say more to his parents, but feeling like there was nothing left to say. He sat at the dining table, staring at the clock, waiting for the time to come, waiting for the moment when he would have to carry his suitcase out of the door and leave his home. It was a familiar feeling, the difficulty of leaving everything behind.

 

Without a girlfriend, Wu Wei could only imagine the calmness between Lin Yi Yang and Yin Guo. Yin Guo went down the stairs; she felt the sadness creeping in as they passed the laundry room.

 

"Let me take a picture," she said.

 

Lin Yi Yang hesitated for a moment before nodding his head.

 

Yin Guo quickly took out her phone and rushed into the laundry room, taking several photos. As she came out, she said, "Alright, let's go."

 

She knew the car was waiting outside, so she hurriedly snapped some photos without focusing properly. When she got in the car and looked at them, two were blurry, and only the remaining two were usable.

 

Lin Yi Yang noticed her staring at the phone and said, "I'll send you the photos once I drop you off."

 

She made a sound of agreement and rubbed her eyes, pretending to be fine, but tears almost spilled out.

 

On the way to the airport, they sat in silence, lost in their thoughts.

 

Upon arriving at the airport, Lin Yi Yang noticed a dent in her luggage and grew worried it might fall apart on the way home. He quickly found an airport staff member to wrap the suitcase with a thick layer of plastic wrap.

 

Yin Guo attempted to argue over who would pay as they paid for the service but was ultimately unsuccessful.

 

As they stood at the airport, Lin Yi Yang anxiously checked their luggage, afraid it might be problematic during security checks. He hoped that if anything were to happen, he could be there to unpack it. However, he also had a secret motive to spend more time with Yin Guo.

 

"If they unpack our luggage, it will waste the money we spent wrapping it," Yin Guo said.

 

"It should be fine. I checked it before we left home," he replied.

 

Although the apartment wasn't either of theirs, it had become a temporary home for the time being. Yet, as they stood there, Yin Guo felt a sudden sense of homesickness, despite being on her way back home.

 

"It's almost time. We need to go," Lin Yi Yang said suddenly.

 

Yin Guo shook her head. "Just wait one more minute."

 

Lin Yi Yang and Yin Guo locked eyes, feeling the weight of the moment. Finally, after more than ten seconds of hesitation, Lin Yi Yang made a move and wrapped his arms around her. He wanted to tell her that if nothing went wrong, he would return around this time next year. However, the words stuck in his throat, and he knew that only actions could make his words come true; otherwise, they would be just empty promises.

 

As they held each other, Yin Guo buried her head in his chest and let out a deep sigh. "Do you regret it?" he whispered, rubbing his chin against her hair. "Choosing someone who lives in a different place from the beginning?"

 

"Yes," she replied, feeling a pang of regret. "You should have come back to China and chased after me."

 

He chuckled softly, his hand stroking her hair. "Without you, who knows if I would have ever returned."

 

"So, should we keep chatting until I return to my country?" he asked.

 

Yin Guo nodded in agreement.

 

"Are you not afraid that I am a love scammer? We will chat for a year and then eventually break up?" he asked again, his tone filled with concern.

 

Yin Guo's eyes became moist, and tears trickled down her face. Lin Yi Yang quickly wiped her tears with the palm of his hand before using the back of his hand to clean her face. "Don't cry," he said soothingly.

 

He realized that comforting her was not working, so he pulled out a pack of wet wipes from his pocket and handed it to her. "Use it on the way, and if you need more, there are some on the plane, too," he said kindly.

 

......

 

Yin Guo's eyes were still glistening with tears, but Lin Yi Yang managed to make her laugh with his silly jokes and witty banter.

 

In the end, Lin Yi Yang stayed with her until her tears had dried up and then walked to the security checkpoint. He waited there until he could no longer see her figure, then calculated the time until she had probably cleared customs and sent her a WeChat message.

 

Lin: Have a safe trip.

 

Red Fish: Delete the nickname. Delete my nickname.

 

Lin smiled and immediately deleted the nickname.

 

While browsing through her WeChat profile, he noticed that her name had changed – it now read "Lin Li Guo."

 


 

Lin Li Guo: Is a four-character WeChat name too long?

 

He looked at the new name for a while, then fell silent.

 

Lin: No, it's not.

 

Lin Li Guo: That's right; anyway, it's displayed above the chat box.

 

Lin: Okay.

 

Lin Li Guo: I'm really leaving.

 

Lin: Alright.

 

Lin Li's Guo: Send me another of that coffee emoji again?

 

Yin Guo had just passed through the security check, and her untied shoelaces were scattered on both sides of her sneakers. She hoisted her backpack over one shoulder, checked her phone, and waited for a message from Lin Yi Yang. After a long while, there was still no message.

 

She wondered if the signal was terrible and checked her phone's signal, which was showing full bars. Lin Yi Yang should have a good signal outside. People kept emerging from the security checkpoint, some putting their hats back on and others adjusting their bags. Yin Guo bent over to tie one side of her shoelaces, holding her phone in her hand. Suddenly, a notification sound chimed.

 

Lin: [Coffee]

 

This expression felt like a sudden opening of a door. She recalled the first time she saw this expression and remembered feeling that he was annoyed and dismissing her.

 

Yin Guo sat on the cold floor, her hands fumbling with the shoelaces. She tried to make a bow, but the knot refused to cooperate. After several attempts, she finally gave up and hugged her knees tightly. She buried her face in her arms, tears rolling down her cheeks and forming a puddle on the floor. The noise around her faded into the background as she was lost in her thoughts.

 

Meanwhile, Lin Yi Yang took the bus and transferred to the subway, his mind in a state of restlessness. As he boarded the subway car, the sound of drums reverberated through the air. Usually, Lin Yi Yang would have enjoyed the impromptu music, but today it only served to amplify his anxiety. Every drumbeat felt like a jolt to his heart, and his nerves were on edge.

 

With nothing else to do, he took off his watch from his left hand and slipped it onto his right hand. But it felt awkward, and he removed it again before slipping it into the pocket of his jeans. He was lost in his thoughts, the uncertainty of the future weighing heavily on his mind.

 

As the train pulled into the next station, Lin Yi Yang's phone beeped with a delayed WeChat message from Yin Guo. It was the message she had sent just before boarding her flight.

 

Lin Li Guo: [Happy]

 

Lin couldn't help but smile as he read the message. He knew that she had a romantic heart, and this was her way of saying goodbye.

 

He thought back to their time together in Hawaii, recalling the sound of her soft breath and the feeling of her feet on the sandy shore. He remembered the moment she introduced herself as Yin Guo on the subway and how his heart had skipped a beat.

 

He turned off his phone, hoping to clear his mind and shake off his restlessness.

 

As he entered the apartment building, Lin Yi Yang's mind was still restless; his thoughts lingered on Yin Guo. Walking past the laundry room, he remembered that he had to take a photo for her. However, before he could go in, he noticed someone coming out - it was Jiang Yang, who had been waiting there for over an hour.

 

"Why did you turn off your phone?" Jiang Yang asked, his voice full of curiosity.

 

"I ran out of battery," Lin Yi Yang replied, trying to keep his tone casual.

 

"I'm leaving soon, and I was worried I wouldn't see you before I go," Jiang Yang said. Like the rest of the group, including Meng Xiaodong, he was headed to the open tournament in Ireland and had a flight scheduled for today. "But I made it on time," he added with a grin.

 

Lin Yi Yang looked outside and asked, "Do you want me to call a car for you to go to the airport?"

 

"No need, I've already arranged it," Jiang Yang replied, shaking his head.

 

Lin Yi Yang observed Jiang Yang's hesitation and felt it had to do with something he wanted to say but was hesitant to. He wondered if it was related to Jiang Yang's mood.

 

"I just sent Yin Guo off, and my mood isn't great," Lin Yi Yang said directly, "It's not that I have any problem with you, just tell me if you have something to say."

 

Jiang Yang took out a piece of paper from his pocket with a phone number written on it. The area code indicated that it was from his hometown in China.

 

"Here's my teacher's phone number," Jiang Yang said, "I borrowed a piece of paper from someone and wrote it down for you. The teacher hasn't been in touch with anyone for years, and his health isn't great. If you have time, give him a call."

 

Lin Yi Yang took the note and felt its texture but said nothing.

 

Jiang Yang said, placing his hand on Lin Yi Yang's shoulder and giving it a comforting pat. "Stay in touch when you have time," he repeated after a brief pause.

 

Afterward, Jiang Yang pulled his luggage and cuestick case through the narrow corridor, opened the apartment door, and disappeared down the stairs.

 

Inside the laundry room, a young boy was folding clothes with precision, carefully smoothing out each wrinkle. The clothes were most likely his mother's. Lin Yi Yang stood against the doorway, watching the boy in silence. It felt like he had suddenly returned to the ordinary world of daily life.

 

But no one had shown up. Not her, nor any of her siblings.

 

The view outside the window was of a street lined with chaotic houses, each unrelated and dissimilar to the other, just like the people in this immigrant city who came from different hometowns. She was no exception.

 

The feeling of drifting was similar to that of opium; it could be addictive and yet easily obtained.

 

The sense of belonging was a precious emotion, a luxury given to only a few lucky people. I remember an acquaintance once told me, who was unfamiliar to me, that they felt like an orphan when their parents passed away, that they no longer had a place to call home. Only those who had experienced this feeling could truly understand the depth of it.

 

In late January, a girl had arrived from across the ocean and from her hometown, and now she was leaving. When she departed, she called herself "Lin Li Guo." Despite the uncertain future, she was the girl he had pursued and longed to possess.

 

Lin Yi Yang carefully folded the label paper in his hand twice and again, focusing on the crisp sound of the paper creasing. With deliberation, he retrieved his wallet and tucked the paper into the topmost compartment.

 

After a long, harsh winter, it was finally time to awaken from hibernation.

 


During the Snowstorm
9.1
The Day of the Return of the King

One year had passed since their last encounter.

 

Yin Guo stood at the airport terminal's exit, placing her luggage by her side as she sat down on the farthest empty seat to the right. The other seats in the row were already occupied by people eagerly awaiting their loved ones, while she was the only one who had just disembarked from her flight.

 

She glanced at her phone, checking the time and realizing it was still early.

 

The flight her loved one was on lacked satellite wifi, leaving her unable to establish any internet connection to track his whereabouts.

 

All she could do was calculate the time and estimate when he would land in China.

 

Lin Yi Yang was finally returning to his home country.

 

Yin Guo wasn't the only contestant returning from the flight. As they walked out of the exit one after another, the air was filled with whispers and laughter. Most of the men didn't bother changing out of their clothes, simply throwing on a casual suit jacket and hurrying to catch their flights. Meanwhile, the women, still sporting their competition makeup, congregated together, some clutching their cue cases, others leaning on their suitcases, attracting the attention of many passersby.

 

The last group to emerge from the airport were the referees, who had changed out of their plain sportswear into comfortable clothes. During the competition, they were required to wear suits all day long and stand for extended periods, leaving them thoroughly exhausted. As they made their way through the airport, they let out a collective sigh of relief at finally being able to change.

 

As the seven or eight referees walked out, Lin Lin, the team leader, led the way. She had undergone a major surgery and had spent a whole year recovering. This match was her first time officiating after her sick leave.

 

Lin Lin quickly spotted Yin Guo in the corner.

 

Yin Guo was a rising star who had only made her debut a year ago, yet her rankings in the 9-ball, 8-ball, and artistic pool had soared rapidly. Her big eyes were hidden behind the bangs that slid forward as she looked down. She wore a light pink hooded sweatshirt and white jeans, with her legs crossed obediently as she sat on the chair, holding her phone and staring at the screen without moving.

 

As Lin Lin approached Yin Guo, she noticed that Yin Guo appeared to be lost in thought, and she could tell that she was waiting for someone.

 

Lin Lin knew that in the next few hours, many people would rush to this airport and come to the same exit to pick up the same person.

 

"We haven't properly greeted each other, Lin Lin," Yin Guo said, looking up with a smile. "We met in Hangzhou before." She doubted the head referee did not recognize her.

 

"It's different," Lin Lin replied with a smile. "I'm Lin Lin from Dongxincheng, a childhood friend of Lin Yi Yang's."

 

Yin Guo smiled and shook hands with Lin Lin. She felt her grip was quite firm, like a close handshake with a family member.

At that moment, their relationship seemed to have become closer.

 

"I heard you had major surgery? Can you handle such a big competition right after coming back?" Yin Guo whispered to Lin Lin as they took their seats.

 

"It's alright, I actually wanted to take a month off, but this open tournament is too important, and they wouldn't let me rest," replied Lin Lin.

 

As they chatted, Lin Lin suddenly started teasing Yin Guo about Lin Yi Yang, "Can you tell me secretly if Lin Yi Yang owes high-interest loans in the United States? Why did he leave abruptly this time?"

 

Yin Guo's eyes widened as she realized what Lin Lin meant. They were discussing Lin Yi Yang's sudden rise in the rankings and his impressive winnings. It was estimated that he had earned around two million U.S. dollars in prize money from major tournaments, including events in both British pounds and U.S. dollars.

 

As a Chinese player living overseas, Lin Yi Yang burst onto the scene just last year, making a name for himself in various international tournaments. He not only played snooker but also participated in nine-ball and eight-ball competitions, as long as they didn't clash with his snooker schedule, which was a rarity in the sport.

 

It's not uncommon for some nine-ball players to also compete in eight-ball, but it's exceedingly rare to see someone like Lin Yi Yang who dominates in all three disciplines.

 

When a skilled player goes through a rough patch, a more appropriate term would be a "hibernation period," as there's usually a resurgence after a fall.

 

He never let go of his cue stick for over a decade, braving through all kinds of weather and illnesses, always accompanied by a pool table. He may have stayed hidden for a while but never abandoned what he cherished his whole life.

 

***

 

On another flight...

 

The gentle hum of the engine filled the air in the dimly lit cabin.

 

Most passengers were sound asleep, except for a few who were still engrossed in their movies.

 

Lin Yi Yang emerged from the bathroom and quietly made his way back to his seat.

 

Sun Yao, the bulky guy sitting next to him, had dozed off but stirred awake as Lin Yi Yang settled back into his seat.

 

Sun Yao hugged his blanket and lazily leaned against Lin Yi Yang, "Sister-in-law must be coming to pick you up, right? The last time I saw her was at the open tournament; I almost forgot what she looked like."

 

"I'm not sure if she'll make it," Lin Yi Yang replied.

 

He and Yin Guo hadn't had a chance to talk before boarding the plane, as Yin Guo was still competing.

 

Lin Yi Yang put on his headphones, scrolling through the options and settling on an old arthouse film. As the opening credits rolled, clean guitar strings were plucked, and drums provided a soft background beat. The gentle strumming of the guitar gradually grew louder, filling the cabin with its sound as if it had captured the very essence of the sky and the clouds outside the window.

 

In the past year, there were several instances when Yin Guo fell ill but didn't disclose it to Lin Yi Yang. Once, he had a high fever that persisted for three days, yet he still kept to their scheduled video chat time without letting on about his condition. There was also a time when he competed while unwell, a fact that Wu Wei had learned from someone in the northern city. When she asked about it, her first reaction was to offer comfort, nervously saying, "Before I met you, I used to suffer through sickness all alone. Just take your medicine and rest, and you'll feel better soon."

 

Eventually, she whispered some sweet words and expressed how much she missed him, but during their video call, he looked almost unreal, and she had almost forgotten what he looked like in person.

 

They had maintained a platonic relationship for 362 days, communicating through text and voice messages and keeping up with video calls. Yet, they had only met twice—once before and once after their respective birthdays.

 

On Yin Guo's birthday, she had plans to celebrate with her family, but Lin Yi Yang surprised her with a lie that they were going to celebrate with their college classmates and rushed to the hotel where he was staying.

 

It was their first time seeing each other since they separated in the United States. They missed each other so much that they were overcome with impulsiveness, but unfortunately, she happened to be busy. That day, the pain of longing from being apart for so long made them seem more like long-time online lovers as they struggled to understand each other.

 

At first, they were both a bit awkward and didn't know what to say. They sat apart, one on the sofa and the other at the desk, chatting about various topics, almost delving into discussing the complex US-China relationship as seen in the news.

 

In the end, they couldn't even remember how it happened, but they found themselves wrapped in each other's embrace.

 

It all felt so strange and unfamiliar, like holding someone they had just met. On that day, they did everything they could to please each other, as if to prove, "I still love you," and desperately convincing themselves, "you still love me too."

 

Despite the passing of time and the presence of countless attractive people around them, they remained devoted to each other.

 

That night, Yin Guo played with the callus on Lin Yi Yang's palm, saying they should plan a better time to meet next time; otherwise, it would be a waste to come all this way for nothing. Lin Yi Yang couldn't help but laugh, feeling lucky to have such a treasure.

 

Later, on Lin Yi Yang's birthday, Yin Guo was supposed to be in Singapore for a competition. But she surprised him by flying from Singapore to Washington, D.C., right after the competition ended, without taking a minute to rest, just to see him.

 

The two of them didn't venture out anywhere. They stayed in Lin Yi Yang's apartment for two full days, and aside from a trip to the supermarket, they cooked all their meals themselves. Those two days were wild; they made love on the bed, on the bookshelf, and even on the windowsill. Later, the room was in chaos, with the sheets beyond recognition. Yin Guo, feeling responsible, hand-washed the sheets and even carefully laundered Lin Yi Yang's dirty clothes, then had him take them to the laundry room for machine drying.

 

As Yin Guo prepared to leave Lin Yi Yang's apartment and head to the airport, she wanted to make him something to eat. So, she asked him what he wanted for dinner, to which he replied, "Tomato braised noodles."

 

On the day of her departure, Yin Guo was determined to prepare the dish that Lin Yi Yang had requested, even though she had never tasted it before. She knew it was a dish popular during times of scarcity in Lin Yi Yang's parents' generation. She spent a lot of time figuring out how to make it and eventually succeeded in preparing the dish with the tomato-based sauce covering the thin Italian noodles. She then fed him several mouthfuls, delighted to see him enjoy it.

 

Before leaving, Yin Guo took one last look around the apartment and reluctantly took Lin Yi Yang's white T-shirt as a keepsake. She then left him with a new black T-shirt with the same letter design, a small token of their love and commitment to each other.

 

After Yin Guo left, Lin Yi Yang noticed that she had only cleaned the bedsheet, leaving the duvet cover and pillowcases in disarray.

 

He debated whether or not to wash them but ultimately decided against it, as he wanted to keep her scent on them.

 

***

 

When Yin Guo and Lin Lin arrived, they were the first to do so.

 

Around 11 o'clock, Wu Wei rushed to the airport with Chen Anan and Fan Wen, with Wu Wei driving. About half an hour later, Jiang Yang's plane landed, and he joined the group. The former brothers, now occupying various roles within the sports club, including coach, leader, and renowned athlete, reunited in Terminal 3 on this late night.

 

Among this group, Yin Guo stood out as the youngest.

 

As they chatted, Wu Wei noticed that she might feel left out and decided to sit next to her, following Jiang Yang's instructions. He kept her company and started talking about random topics.

 

However, after a while, Wu Wei coughed twice and asked, "Does your family know about Lin Yi Yang?" Yin Guo shook her head, looking worried.

 

Meng Xiaodong advised her not to mention Lin Yi Yang's existence until he returned to China and to avoid causing trouble beforehand. He suggested waiting for a suitable opportunity and then personally intervening and even involving her father to intercede for Lin Yi Yang.

 

"You know, don't you? Your mother was a referee and a leader of the association back then,"

 

Yin Guo nodded, "Yeah, I know that. Mr. He had a disagreement with him and my mom. If it weren't for Mr. He, Lin Yi Yang would have been banned from the game for over six months."

 

Wu Wei was surprised, "Really?"

 

She was also surprised, "Don't you know?"

 

"I have no idea," she replied. How could a dispute between two influential figures in the association and sports community be known to young athletes like them?

 

Yin Guo pondered and realized that even her cousin had only heard about it from her, and she had heard it from her parents while chatting.

 

Recently, Lin Yi Yang's comeback has been a hot topic among his family, and Yin Guo's father, who used to work in sports before venturing into business, often mentioned him. But the things he said about Lin Yi Yang would make Yin Guo think he was a man without principles - arrogant, conceited, obsessed with money, and lacking sportsmanship and competitive spirit if she didn't know him personally.

 

"He's in a tough situation,"

 

Wu Wei let out a heavy sigh and expressed his sympathy toward Lin Yi Yang's challenging situation.

 

Indeed, Lin Yi Yang faced multiple difficulties, including winning approval from Yin Guo's family despite giving his all in their relationship. Furthermore, Yin Guo's mother's career advancement in the Sports Bureau limited her ability to support Lin Yi Yang's career in China. It was a tough situation that required careful consideration and planning.

 

Yin Guo herself understood the situation quite well. She suspected that Lin Yi Yang had been competing overseas for a year to avoid direct conflict until he achieved substantial results and capital. However, Yin Guo also knew her parents well and understood that good results alone would not be sufficient to earn their approval. Even with her own impressive track record of winning medals in public competitions, she did not receive much recognition at home.

 

The topic of Lin Yi Yang was one that Yin Guo and Wu Wei had never discussed before.

 

She didn't want to add more pressure on Lin Yi Yang by bringing up the topic and thought it could be addressed later.

 

As the time ticked past three in the morning, they anxiously waited for Jiang Yang's delayed flight to land.

 

Finally, after more than ten minutes of waiting, the plane landed, and everyone rushed to the exit.

 

Despite the late hour, a small group of people was still waiting outside the airport. They stood in a neat row behind the silver fence, eagerly anticipating the arrival of their loved ones. Yin Guo positioned herself at the best angle where she could see the customs security scanner and the luggage conveyor belt in the distance, hoping to catch a glimpse of Jiang Yang as soon as possible.

 

As more people came out of the exit, Yin Guo's eyes scanned the crowd, trying to find a familiar face. The traveler looked tired and in a hurry, but suddenly, she saw him.

 

Lin Yi Yang was easy to spot with his tall frame towering over the others. He wore a black hat, a black casual top, and carried his sports backpack while pushing a luggage cart full of suitcases. Every piece of luggage had scratches and multiple tags, like a physical representation of the countless competitions he had participated in over the past year.

 

As he saw Yin Guo, he slowed down, and his eyes lit up with a familiar glow.

 

All of his brothers were here, and her too.

 

As she stood leaning on the railing, Yin Guo's eyes were fixed on Lin Yi Yang. Amid the sea of faces, he was the only one who mattered. Her long hair cascaded down her back, and she wore a pink-colored hooded sweatshirt that complemented her pale complexion. Though tears welled up in her eyes, her lips were curved in a smile.

 

"Look at her; she's acting like his wife after being through a setback," Fan Wencong couldn't help but whisper to Chen An'an, "Is she trying to win him over completely?"

 

To Fan Wencong's snide remark, Chen Anan gave a fierce glare.

 

"She can't hear me." Fan Wencong whispered

 

Yin Guo wiped away the tears streaming down her face with the back of her hand. Leaning on the railing in front of her chest, she waved at Lin Yi Yang as he walked towards her, his tall figure standing out among the crowd. As he approached, he reached across the railing and wiped away her tears.

 

For a long time, the two of them stood there looking at each other in silence as if time had stopped.

Then, breaking the silence, Lin Yi Yang asked her with a smile, "Has anyone been pursuing you lately? Tell me about it." He spoke softly but loud enough for everyone to hear.

 

The group behind Yin Guo erupted in laughter, as it was just like old times.

 

Yin Guo responded with a playful tone, "Hmm, let me think... No one has been pursuing me recently. I just don't remember what they look like. No one is as handsome as you are." She exaggerated the last part.

 

Lin Yi Yang chuckled and asked, "Do you only like me for my handsome face?"

 

Yin Guo replied with a playful "Mm-hmm," gazing deeply into his eyes. Her tears started to flow uncontrollably, but she couldn't contain her happiness. Seeing her crying while smiling, Lin Yi Yang's heart swelled with emotion, and he embraced her tightly across the railing.

During the Snowstorm
6.4
You in the Story

Yin Guo's heart raced with excitement as they settled into their seats. This was the first time she would be riding a train with Lin Yi Yang, and she couldn't help but steal glances at him, admiring the way his strong jawline and chiseled features looked even more handsome in the dim light of the train cabin.

 

The rhythmic clickety-clack of the train wheels on the tracks filled the air, and Yin Guo watched with fascination as the passing scenery changed from lush green fields to towering cityscapes as they sped past Philadelphia. She couldn't believe how quickly the time was passing, and the reality that they would soon arrive in New York began to sink in.

 

Yin Guo gazed out of the window, admiring the scenic views that flashed by. However, as the train halted to welcome more passengers on board, she couldn't resist glancing at Lin Yi Yang.

 

Meanwhile, Lin Yi Yang remained glued to his phone, monitoring their journey on Google Maps with unwavering focus. He constantly checked the remaining distance and time, even though the data was being updated in real-time.

 

"What's on your mind?" he asked, his eyes meeting hers.

 

His throat felt rough like he had swallowed a handful of sand. He had talked too much the night before and hadn't rested enough.

 

Yin Guo could sense that he was trying to read her thoughts. She leaned in and whispered in his ear, "You know, you look quite handsome with a beard."

 

Yin Guo couldn't help but marvel at how Lin Yi Yang seemed to defy age as she studied his features. His ruggedly handsome face was still marked by the same traces of recklessness and youthful charm that she had been drawn to all those years ago, yet there was now a hint of weariness that spoke of the many battles he had fought and won.

 

Sitting beside her, Lin Yi Yang's fingers grazed her cheek in a gentle caress. "Really?"

 

She felt a shiver run through her, but he quickly withdrew his hand, not wanting to indulge in public displays of affection.

 

A faint shiver ran down Yin Guo's spine as his rough fingertips brushed over her face and ear, but she kept her composure. "Yes," she replied softly to his question, feeling a tinge of embarrassment at the realization that he had noticed the change in her lingerie.

 

Lin Yi Yang's piercing black eyes bore into her with unwavering intensity, not shying away from their locked gaze. "You changed to blue?" he inquired, his tone playful yet suggestive.

 

Confused at first, Yin Guo soon remembered that she had indeed swapped her usual bra for a blue one today. As she reached up to adjust the strap that had slipped from her shoulder, she felt a flush of warmth spread across her cheeks.

 

Yin Guo felt a slight chill in the air and pulled up her collar. "You can't be any more rogue?" she whispered, giving Lin Yi Yang a playful look.

 

He chuckled and lightly pinched her cheek. "Next time, you'll know," he whispered back, his eyes shining mischievously.

 

Their playful banter was a stark contrast to the deep intimacy they had shared the night before. Yin Guo felt her heart race as she realized how much she was beginning to care for this man.

 

"Next time" naturally referred to the day they would see each other again the next week.

 

Their conversation often shifted to this topic.

 

She pulled out a book from her bag, the cover of which had seen better days, and flipped through it, her eyes skimming over the small black printed letters. However, her thoughts kept drifting back to the previous night.

 

She remembered how Lin Yi Yang had come back after washing his hands with a clear intention of sharing deep intimacy with her. Although she had let him kiss her, she had put a stop to anything else. Despite his initial disappointment, he had kept his promise to let her sleep peacefully. Yin Guo couldn't help but feel grateful for his consideration.

 

Despite his reputation as a rule-breaker, he had never pressured her in bed, always respectful of her boundaries. She appreciated that about him.

 

"Are you coming to my game?" Yin Guo asked, hoping he would say yes.

 

Lin Yi Yang paused for a moment, checking his schedule on his phone. "I'm sorry, I won't be able to make it," he replied regretfully.

 

Yin Guo felt slightly disappointed, but she understood he was busy with work. She nodded and smiled.

 

They arrived at the train station at 2:00 pm.

 

As Lin Yi Yang accompanied Yin Guo back, they took the train together. However, when it was time for him to depart, he opted for a cheaper and more convenient bus ride instead. Despite this, he didn't want to tell Yin Guo the truth and instead came up with an excuse to make his departure appear less suspicious.

 

"I have a friend nearby who needs me to bring something back. It will only take another ten minutes," he said.

 

Yin Guo looked at him skeptically. "Where can we go in ten minutes?" she asked.

 

Yin Guo and Lin Yi Yang found a corner with benches to sit on in the train station's waiting hall. Yin Guo, who was very thin, couldn't sit for long periods, and the journey back had already exhausted her. So she stood while Lin Yi Yang sat, holding hands.

 

As she looked up at the star map on the ceiling of the train station, she recognized a few familiar constellations and asked, "Are those constellations on the ceiling?"

 

Without looking up, Lin Yi Yang answered, "Yes," he had been to this train station many times and knew it by heart.

 

"What month were you born in? What's your zodiac sign?" she asked, feeling guilty a second later. They were so intimate, and she didn't even know his birthday. Yin Guo had been meaning to ask him for a while now.

 

Lin Yi Yang smiled and told her, "I was born in February, so I'm an Aquarius."

 

"Oh, February. What day?" Yin Guo asked.

 

"February 12th," he replied, watching her closely.

 

"Then, we've already met on that date." They first met in late January when they arrived in New York, "I can't seem to recall what I was doing that day," she said. Yin Guo fished out her phone, hoping to jog her memory by looking at their chat history. "Do you remember what we talked about on that day?"

 

Unfortunately, the passage of time had blurred their memories, and despite her efforts, the details of that day remained distant and elusive.

 

"We didn't really talk about anything before we met," Lin Yi Yang replied. "In fact, we hardly know each other at all."

 

"We've met before?" She couldn't recall their previous encounter.

 

Lin Yi Yang smiled, tilting his chin upwards as he handed her his phone, letting her browse through their chat records to confirm their previous conversation.

 

"Are you still trying to keep me guessing?" she thought to herself

 

She scoured through the phone's chat logs, determined to find the conversation in question.

 

As she scrolled, she realized with a jolt that the conversation took place on the same day they met - the day they shared a bowl of ramen. At the time, she had just returned from Washington and assumed Lin Yi Yang had negative opinions about her, so they hadn't communicated for almost ten days. It wasn't until he had dropped her back at her hotel in Queens that they started chatting on WeChat.

 

"We hardly talked about anything significant that day," she remarked. "We mostly chatted about trivial things like whether the watch scratched my ear or whether the chicken soup noodle was better than the pork one."

 

Then, she looked up in surprise and said, "Wait, that day was actually your birthday? Why didn't you tell me?"

 

Lin Yi Yang chuckled in response. "Didn't I treat you to noodles that day?" he teased.

 

Initially, Lin Yi Yang had only planned to invite her for a cup of coffee. But to his surprise, he had run into her in Flushing.

 

Lin Yi Yang was a 27-year-old man who had spent many years wandering and didn't know how to celebrate his birthday. His friends were a rough bunch of guys who didn't pay much attention to specific birth dates. Moreover, Lin Yi Yang had never really celebrated his birthday since he was young, and Wu Wei naturally wouldn't have known about it. So, when the two of them accompanied him to eat noodles that night, they didn't realize what day it was or what they were celebrating.

 

"Was inviting Meng Xiaotian and me for coffee also related to your birthday?" she asked curiously.

 

"It was just a coincidence," he replied, his words leaving room for interpretation.

 

His response seemed both true and false at the same time, leaving her to wonder what he meant. In reality, it wasn't a coincidence at all. He had planned several things that day but didn't reveal his intentions to anyone.

 

Lin Yi Yang didn't make a big deal out of his birthday, but he would still invite his friends to have a meal, drink, and enjoy each other's company. As Yin Guo looked at him, she couldn't help but feel sorry for him. She didn't find the idea of being deceived into eating noodles on his birthday romantic; rather, she thought it was sad that he didn't even celebrate his special day.

 

Feeling a bit unsure of how to react to this sudden rush of emotion, Yin Guo lightly kicked the edge of his sneakers and asked, "Why didn't you tell me that it was your birthday?"

 

Lin Yi Yang chuckled, "On that day, you were still introducing yourself as 'I am Yin Guo' on the subway. Considering our relationship then, do you really think I would have told you?"

 

Yin Guo couldn't argue with that. She couldn't deny that their relationship was quite different back then, and she was still trying to figure out how she felt about him.

 

As Lin Yi Yang checked his watch, he announced it was time to go. He took her hand and patted the back of it as if he wanted to say something, but there was nothing that needed to be said at that moment. Any words he wanted to say could be conveyed via WeChat.

 

Still feeling guilty about not celebrating his birthday, Yin Guo asked, "Are you leaving now?"

 

Lin Yi Yang nodded in response.

 

"Let me know when you arrive," Yin Guo said, holding his hand.

 

Lin Yi Yang squeezed her hand tightly in response, his eyes conveying his gratitude.

 

As he stood up from the bench, Yin Guo took the initiative to slip her hand inside his coat and hugged him tightly. She inhaled the mixed scent on his body - a combination of dust and sweat from a long journey - which wasn't particularly pleasant, but she probably smelled the same.

 

In the embrace, Yin Guo could feel Lin Yi Yang's heartbeat, but she couldn't find the right words to say.

 

Lin Yi Yang sensed Yin Guo wanted to say something, so he lowered his head to accommodate her height. She looked up at him, feeling his hand patting her back, and in the heat of the moment, she blurted out, "Next time... let's give it a try."

 

At that moment, Lin Yi Yang was transported back to the hotel room in Washington, DC, from that morning. Yin Guo had crawled out of the quilt, still in a daze, trying to climb over him without realizing that the curve of her waist had opened up the neckline infinitely. He watched as a patch of snow-white flesh appeared before him, then helped her waist and let her straddle him before they continued their passionate moment.

 

"Why are you not speaking?" Yin Guo lightly kicked his sneakers, not putting much force into them.

 

Lin Yi Yang smiled but still didn't say anything. Instead, he firmly pinched her waist and said, "Okay."

 

......

 

The ache was secondary to the awkward position and Lin Yi Yang's sensual touch. It wasn't that she didn't want to say it; it was that his response made it seem like he was teasing her. Yin Guo tried to wriggle out of his grasp, but Lin Yi Yang tightened his hold on her and spoke in a low, husky voice, "Are you trying to prevent me from getting a good night's sleep all week?" His tone had a hint of amusement.

 

Yin Guo buried her face in his chest, unable to say a word.

 

She knew she had brought this on herself with her impulsiveness, and she would have to deal with the consequences later, perhaps next week.

 

For now, all Yin Guo wanted was to cling to Lin Yi Yang, savoring the warmth of his embrace. They stayed hugged for half a minute on the bench against the wall, exchanging no words, but their bodies communicating a sense of longing and affection that words couldn't express.

 

When it was time for Yin Guo to leave, Lin Yi Yang walked her to the train station, holding her hand firmly, making sure to savor every moment of their fleeting time together. As she boarded the train, he stood by the roadside, watching her car turn the corner and disappear from sight, feeling a sense of emptiness as she left.

 

Taking a deep breath, Lin Yi Yang turned around and headed towards the bus station located downstairs of a nearby shopping building, his thoughts lingering on the precious moments they had shared together.

 

Lin Yi Yang arrived at the Washington clubroom at nine o'clock in the evening, finding it empty except for the receptionist on the counter. Sun Zhou, who was in charge of the accounts, wanted to leave early to celebrate his wedding anniversary.

 

"The key is here, and there's a box of vegetable salad in the fridge that I didn't have time to eat for lunch. I also left some bread slices and apples, so please help yourself," explained Sun Zhou, fearing Lin Yi Yang would starve to death.

 

Lin Yi Yang sat on a high stool by the counter, feeling the familiar atmosphere of the clubroom settle over him. He opened the fridge and found the salad and other snacks, grateful for the small act of kindness from his employee.

 

He saw that Sun Zhou was about to say more, so he waved his hand and pointed to his own throat. The strain in his voice was evident, and he didn't want to push it further.

 

The meaning was, "Stop talking nonsense and go quickly to make up with your wife." As for Lin Yi Yang himself, he honestly couldn't speak anymore.

 

Sun Zhou looked at him with concern. "Isn't it better now? Yesterday you could still talk."

 

Lin Yi Yang shook his head. "Just tired," he replied, knowing he had pushed himself too hard yesterday while showing Yin Guo around Washington.

 

He shook his head again, signaling he didn't want to talk.

 

Sun Zhou noticed the exhaustion written all over Lin Yi Yang's face and assumed he had been up to something with his girlfriend. He gave a knowing smile and patted his back, saying, "Looks like you two had a busy couple of days."

 

Lin Yi Yang picked up on the suggestive undertones in his words and shot Sun Zhou a stern look.

 

Sun Zhou had been meaning to ask Lin Yi Yang about his post-graduation plans for a while now, but seeing the exhaustion etched on his face, he decided against it. He knew that Lin Yi Yang had been torn between his plan to join Xinhua News Agency in Washington and the recent offer he received from Duke University. If he were to choose the latter and pursue a Ph.D., the club would have to find someone to take over his responsibilities.

 

Before departing, Sun Zhou issued a final reminder to Lin Yi Yang regarding the club's affairs. "Just one more thing," he said, his tone serious. "They left for New York today together."

 

Lin Yi Yang nodded in acknowledgment. Everyone was aware of Lin's habit of not watching the game. Therefore, he was not expected to attend the tournament. Sun Zhou was simply letting him know that the team had departed for the event.

 

As Sun Zhou made his exit, Lin Yi Yang gave him a friendly wave, indicating that he should go home and spend time with his wife.

 

Lin Yi Yang closed the iron door behind Sun Zhou and turned the key to lock it. He walked to the small kitchen area of the clubhouse and opened the fridge to find some leftover vegetable salad. Pouring it onto a plate, he added some sliced fruit and grabbed a fork. He sat on a high stool behind the counter and slowly ate his dinner, feeling the exhaustion of the day set in. He had traveled to and from New York, spending over nine hours on the road. Taking off his coat, he felt a wave of heat hit him.

 

As he ate, his phone buzzed with a notification from WeChat. He fished out his phone from his jacket pocket, glancing at the message. It was from Yin Guo, asking if he had arrived home safely. He smiled, feeling a warmth in his chest, and quickly typed out a response.

 

Red Fish: Training's over~

 

Red Fish: I found watching you practice yesterday and this morning particularly helpful. Now, when I look at the competition data of these local players, I seem to understand their thought processes better.

 

Lin: That's good to hear.

 

Red Fish: Lin, why is there such a big difference between you on WeChat and in person?

 

Lin Yi Yang smiled and took a moment to type back a response.

 

Lin: "Is there really a difference?"

 

Red Fish: Of course. If I showed our WeChat conversation to someone else, they would definitely think I'm pursuing you.

Lin felt a little embarrassed at the thought but appreciated Red Fish's candidness.

 

Lin: Is that so?

 

Red Fish: Are you busy? You're typing so little?

 

Lin smiled, realizing that he had a tendency to be brief in his messages.

 

Lin: Not really. Just not a big fan of chatting.

 

Red Fish: I'm back in my room, just by myself.

 

Lin: Video call?

 

Red Fish: Hmm.

 

Lin was aware of the video call feature on WeChat, having observed his roommates use it in the past. But as he tried to initiate a video call for the first time, he struggled to remember how to do it. After a few attempts, he finally managed to send the invitation and waited expectantly for Yin Guo's response.

 

Unfortunately, the call quality was poor, and Lin could barely make out Yin Guo's voice, which kept asking him, "Can you see me? Is the signal bad?"

 

Despite his efforts to adjust the camera angle and his phone's position, the screen remained black. Frustrated, Lin decided to end the call.

 

Yin Guo quickly sent another video call invitation.

 

It was only this time that Lin Yi Yang made sure to connect to the wifi in the billiard room, improving the signal quality significantly.

 

......

 

As soon as the video connected, Yin Guo's face lit up with a warm smile. She had positioned herself in front of a desk lamp that emitted a soft, flattering yellow light, making her look even more beautiful. Her phone was mounted on a metal stand, which held the device steady on the desk.

 

After making some adjustments to the camera angle, they realized that the video was showing the bar counter in the billiards room. They could hear the sound of water, but Lin Yi Yang was not visible on the screen.

 

The sound of water continued in the background as Yin Guo leaned closer to the screen, trying to catch a glimpse of Lin Yi Yang. "What are you doing?" she asked, her eyes fixed on the phone.

 

Lin Yi Yang had been washing glasses, hoping to multitask by chatting with her while finishing his work and leaving early. But he forgot that his voice was in bad shape again. He did not want to let Yin Guo know he was feeling discomfort again. He immediately disconnected the video.

 

"Is the signal really that bad?" Yin Guo asked with a hint of disappointment.

 

Red Fish: Doesn't anyone complain about the poor signal in your billiard room?

 

Lin Yi Yang found a hand towel and dried his hands before responding.

 

Lin: Most people don't complain because the boss has a short fuse.

 

He picked up his phone and the cloth used to wipe the billiard table, enjoying a lighthearted conversation with Yin Guo as he meticulously cleaned each of the more than ten billiard tables in the room. After finishing the cleaning, he neatly arranged the cues on the cue rack while chatting with Yin Guo.

 

Lin Yi-yang carefully placed the black box filled with chalks back in its designated spot, ensuring everything was neat. He then proceeded to switch off the lights one by one, plunging the billiard room into darkness.

 

In the northeast corner of the room lay a cozy resting area consisting of old sofas, a television set, a DVD player, and a makeshift bed. Sun Zhou often stayed here when he had a disagreement with his wife or didn't feel like returning home.

 

As Lin Yi Yang stood in the darkness, he contemplated spending the night there rather than trekking back to his apartment. The only source of illumination was the glow from his phone's screen, casting a faint light on his surroundings.

 

Red Fish: It's getting pretty late. Are you planning on staying at the pool hall all night? You'll be back home so late if you leave now.

 

Lin: I don't plan on going home tonight.

 

Red Fish: Are there beds at the billiard hall or something?

 

Lin: Yeah, there are some makeshift ones.

 

Red Fish: Honestly, I feel bad for you. You have to drive me here and then go back.

 

Lin Yi Yang leaned back and rested his head on his left hand.

 

Li: Are you saying that out of pity or because you miss me?

 

Red Fish: ...Maybe a little bit of both.

 

Red Fish: By the way, can you take a picture of your tattoo for me? I want to use it as my phone screensaver.

Red Fish had a playful idea.

 

Lin: Sure thing. Do you want a picture of the top or bottom part?

 

Red Fish: ...You're such a rogue.

 

Lin: ?

 

Red Fish: Nothing, forget it.

 

Lin turned over with a smile, reaching for the wall lamp and turning it on to get a better view of his tattoo. He took a picture of his right arm and was about to send it when he saw that Yin Guo had sent him another message.

 

Red Fish: By the way, the competition schedule is out. I'll send you a screenshot later to see if you can make it. I've been studying it for a while now, and you might not make it for the group stage. Keep your fingers crossed that I make it to the quarterfinals on Saturday.

 

Red Fish: You should come on Saturday.

 

Red Fish: There will be many people there to watch.

 

Yin Guo's first professional game was significant to her, and Lin Yi Yang could sense it. He had been uneasy all day, feeling as though the sealed memories of the past were being opened up and poured out like hot tea.

 

In the dimly lit room, Lin Yi Yang fumbled around for a new cue stick from the shelf and approached the nearest pool table. The light source was far away, casting long shadows over the colored and black balls. He attempted to aim and shoot, but he still couldn't hit a single shot after half an hour.

 

In his ear, voices overlapped with urgency and frustration.

 

"Old Six, just apologize if it's your fault," one voice implored.

 

"Brother Six, please," another begged.

 

A teacup shattered against the ground, the sound echoing through the room. Hot tea cascaded across the cement floor, soaking into the porous surface and leaving behind a mess of wet leaves and shattered ceramic.

 

......

 

That year, he was a typical teenager in his worn jeans, not a fancy brand, just something borrowed from Jiang Yang's wardrobe. His only pair of sneakers lasted him a whole year, and he washed them when they got dirty before resorting to slippers for school. Back then, Saint Laurent meant nothing to him; he only knew the street name, "Street," which he often misspelled. His English was so poor that he struggled to keep up in school.

 

It was during that year while standing at the entrance of his room in Dongxincheng, that he made a vow to himself - he would never return to this place or step into the arena again. No one heard him utter those words, but they remained embedded in his mind for over a decade.

 

As he left, tears streamed down Lin Yi Yang's face outside the East New City gate, but he quickly wiped them away and put on a brave face for the unknown journey ahead.

 

His focus returned to the billiard table as he lined up another shot, determined to sink the black ball this time. He pulled back the cue stick and hit the ball with precision, watching as it rolled smoothly towards the pocket, but again it missed by a hair's breadth.

 

Frustrated, he leaned on the table and let out a deep sigh, his mind wandering back to the past. Meanwhile, Yin Guo patiently waited for his reply, propping her chin and bathing in the soft glow of the desk lamp.

 

After what seemed like an eternity, a single sentence finally appeared on the screen, indicating a weak signal in the billiards room.

 

Lin: I'm heading to the club room to practice.

 

Xiaoguo: What's the occasion?

 

Lin: Trying out the new cue sticks.

 

Xiaoguo: Why not use the ones in the club room? They have good cue sticks there.

 

Lin: Xiao Guo

 

He suddenly called her, and Yin Guo felt her heart skip a beat at the sound of her phone buzzing. She quickly glanced at the screen and couldn't help but smile at the sight of his name.

 

Yin Guo: Hmmm?

 

Lin: Can you give me a chance to correct my mistakes if I make one in the future

 

Lin: I'm not talking about something like cheating. It's just that sometimes I say or do things without thinking, and I don't want to lose your trust

During the Snowstorm
5.1
The Tide of Time

At first, Yin Guo was puzzled, her mind racing to figure out what Lin Yi Yang meant. It took her a few seconds to grasp his subtle hint.

 

Stretching out his right hand, Lin Yi Yang gestured for the bag of coffee beans. Yin Guo handed him the paper bag, their hands briefly touching. He placed the bag in the drawer but didn't release her hand.

 

Before Yin Guo could react, Lin Yi Yang pulled her towards him; their bodies were now inches apart. She could feel his breath on her face, and she couldn't help but think, "No, I haven't brushed my teeth yet."

 

"It looks like you can turn off the heat on your coffee," Yin Guo said, trying to find an excuse to avoid him.

 

"This batch didn't turn out quite right," he replied in a low voice. "I'll pour it out and start over."

 

Yin Guo was still hesitant. She knew she needed to brush her teeth first. She shook her head and dodged away again.

 

At first, they were both shy and unsure of how to communicate their thoughts. Yin Guo didn't feel comfortable directly telling him she needed to brush her teeth before getting closer. But Lin Yi Yang could see the troubled expression on her face.

 

He turned his head and looked into her eyes. "Changed your mind?" he asked, his tone soft and inviting.

 

The door to the restroom creaked open, breaking the tense silence in the room. Wu Wei stumbled out, his eyes darting from Lin Yi Yang to Yin Guo, taking in the scene before him. Lin Yi Yang shot him an annoyed glance as he turned off the heat and waited for the coffee to cool. Yin Guo stood at the counter, her eyes fixed on the empty bar top, lost in thought.

 

Wu Wei couldn't help but wonder if they had been up to something under the counter. He also couldn't shake off the memory of where Lin Yi Yang had gone the previous night before making the phone call.

 

Lin Yi Yang kicked the drawer shut and cleared his throat, his voice sharp as he warned Wu Wei to mind his own business. Wu Wei coughed nervously and rubbed his neck. "Good morning," he muttered.

 

Yin Guo looked up from the empty bar top, her eyes still a little dazed. But as soon as she saw Wu Wei, she managed a polite smile.

 

"Did we disturb you yesterday? My sister called," said Wu Wei.

 

"Not at all. I didn't hear a thing," she replied, her voice still a little husky from sleep.

 

Wu Wei seemed relieved at her response. "Oh, that's good. It was Lin Lin who called. She's also a nine-ball player," he explained.

 

Yin Guo nodded, her interest piqued. "Yes, I've heard of her. Maybe we'll cross paths at the competition in Hangzhou at the end of April. She'll be there as a referee," she said with a smile.

 

Lin Lin was a legendary player in women's nine-ball, consistently ranking among the top few in the world. She had won three major competitions in a row before retiring and becoming a referee behind the scenes due to poor health.

 

As Yin Guo listened to Wu Wei's mention of Lin Lin, her mind began to wander. Could Lin Lin and Lin Yi Yang have an unusual relationship? The thought lingered in her mind as she glanced at Lin Yi Yang.

 

"Has your brother mentioned her in recent years?" Lin Yi Yang suddenly asked, breaking the silence.

 

Yin Guo's mind scrambled for a moment, confused by the sudden question. "Is my brother close to her?" she finally managed to ask, trying to make sense of the situation.

 

"Not just close," Wu Wei spoke up, now that Lin Yi Yang had opened up about the topic. "Lin Lin has been pursuing your brother for many years," he added, his tone suggesting that this was common knowledge.

 

Yin Guo's eyebrows furrowed in confusion.

 

"Is Lin Lin your sister?" she remembered Wu Wei calling her that.

 

"It's just my term of endearment," Wu Wei said, "but her relationship with me is no different than a real sister."

Lin Yi Yang chimed in, "When we were young, Wu Wei was brilliant in academics, but he was also timid and often bullied by local hooligans. Lin Lin would always stand up for him, so he's always considered her as a true sibling."

 

Wu Wei nodded in agreement, "That's right. I owe her a lot."

 

Then, Lin Yi Yang added, "Lin Lin even risked her life to protect Meng Xiaodong once."

 

Wu Wei pulled up his sleeve and pointed to a spot on his shoulder blade, "That's true. She has a tattoo there which she got to cover up a scar from a fight with some hooligans who held a grudge against your brother."

 

Yin Guo was taken aback. "Wow, that's quite something. My brother has never mentioned her at all,"

 

Yin Guo furrowed her brows, racking her brain to recall any mention of a woman named Lin Lin. However, she couldn't seem to connect the dots.

 

As Lin Yi Yang and Wu Wei exchanged a knowing look, Yin Guo couldn't help but feel like she was missing something. "Did my brother have any feelings for her?" she asked hesitantly, lowering her voice so as not to disturb her cousin's sleep.

 

Lin Yi Yang hesitated before shaking his head. "I'm not entirely sure," he admitted, pouring three cups of steaming coffee and placing them on the table in front of them.

 

Yin Guo gazed at Wu Wei with a furrowed brow, hoping to find some answers in his eyes. But all she got was a shake of the head.

 

"Who knows what your brother was thinking? He's always been closed off emotionally. He is too focused on sports, yet he's only in fifth place now. Jiang Yang has been outperforming him all year."

 

Yin Guo felt the need to defend her brother. "That's not entirely true," she said. "Jiang Yang is only in fourth place this year. Two years ago, my brother even surpassed him."

 

Wu Wei chuckled, "Yes, yes, let's not get too caught up in their rankings. We've been arguing about it for years."

 

Lin Yi Yang listened to their conversation silently, sipping his coffee, seemingly unaffected by their discussion.

 

Wu Wei finished his coffee with a few sips, picked up his keys, and announced that he should go. Yin Guo watched him leave before turning back to Lin Yi Yang.

 

Silence lingered for a moment before Lin Yi Yang spoke up. "Are you tired of hearing about my past?"

 

Yin Guo shook her head. "No, not at all. I find it interesting. Would you get tired of hearing about my childhood stories?"

 

Lin Yi Yang shook his head. He likes hearing anything about her. It's just unfortunate that no one was willing to tell him.

 

The early stages of a relationship are magical, full of excitement, and the thrill of discovering everything about the other person. Every story shared by Wu Wei was like music to Yin Guo's ears, whether it was about Lin Yi Yang or the man sitting across from her. She hung on to his every word, eager to learn more.

 

Lin Yi Yang slid the coffee cup towards her and gestured for her to take a sip. Yin Guo suddenly became self-conscious, realizing she had forgotten to brush her teeth. "Wait, let me brush my teeth before I drink," she said, hurrying off to the bathroom.

 

As soon as the door closed, Lin Yi Yang couldn't help but chuckle to himself.

 

"She's so adorable," he thought to himself.

 

Yin Guo emerged from the bathroom to find Meng Xiaotian awake and chatting with Lin Yi Yang. Lin Yi Yang noticed her and quickly went to brew another pot of coffee since the previous one had cooled down. As she waited for the coffee to brew, Yin Guo and Lin Yi Yang shared a brief moment of eye contact across from her cousin.

 

"Wait a sec," Lin Yi Yang said, gesturing toward the coffee pot.

 

"Sure," Yin Guo replied.

 

As they waited, Yin Guo remembered that she was moving out that day. "I have to leave today," she informed him, "the club's main team has arrived, and the coach wants us to stay at the hotel for a team gathering."

 

Lin Yi Yang looked at her, his eyes flickering with concern.

 

Meng Xiaotian was surprised by Yin Guo's sudden departure. "You're leaving already? My brother is really causing you so much stress just as soon as he came," he exclaimed.

 

Yin Guo's explanation seemed to make sense, prompting Lin Yi Yang to offer, "Pack up. I'll take you there."

 

"But what about your train back to school?" Yin Guo asked, concerned.

 

"I can take you there first and then catch another train back to D.C. if needed," Lin Yi Yang assured her.

 

"Thank you so much," Yin Guo said gratefully. "I'll go pack my things now."

 

Yin Guo looked at her watch and realized she needed to hurry if she was going to make it to the hotel in time. "This way, I can pack before lunch and still have time to get to the train station," she said to her cousins.

 

Lin Yi Yang nodded in agreement. "Go ahead."

 

Meng Xiaotian shifted nervously as the others made plans, unsure of what to do next. Yin Guo took a step towards the door, ready to leave, but Lin Yi Yang grabbed her wrist and pulled her back. She paused for a moment, enjoying the taste of her coffee, before turning to face him.

 

As she turned back, she felt Lin Yi Yang's grip on her wrist tightens. He hadn't let go of her hand since he pulled her back. She tried to pull away gently, but he held her firm.

 

Meng Xiaotian finally spoke up, noticing the tension between Yin Guo and Lin Yi Yang. "Okay, sis, go ahead and pack. I'll visit you at the hotel after my brother leaves. I'm starving, so I'm going to grab some food first. Don't worry about waiting for me."

 

Without wasting any time, Meng Xiaotian quickly left the room.

 

As he made his way down the stairs, he stumbled upon a group of people from Dongxincheng engaging in their morning exercise routine.

 

The group had taken over the nearby billiard hall for their training session, with the younger ones focusing on their skills and the older ones enjoying a free meal. Yin Guo had retreated inside to pack her belongings, hoping to avoid any more scrutiny from Lin Yi Yang's friends.

 

Meanwhile, Lin Yi Yang sat outside, lost in thought, as he sipped his second cup of hot coffee. His friend Jiang Yang tried to strike up a conversation, but Lin Yi Yang wasn't in the mood for small talk. "I didn't sleep all night," he muttered absentmindedly. "You guys stay here. I'm going to take a nap."

 

Without a second glance at Jiang Yang, Lin Yi Yang got up and disappeared.

 

Yin Guo sat nervously in the apartment, anxiously checking her phone for any updates. She knew that if she ran into the group of men outside, she would be outnumbered and vulnerable. So she messaged Lin Yi Yang, hoping he had a solution.

Xiaoguo: When are they leaving?

 

Lin: We'll leave first.

 

Xiaoguo: ...I don't feel comfortable going out.

 

Lin: ?

 

Xiaoguo: I feel embarrassed.

 

Lin: I'll have them go to the restroom. You can leave, and they'll come out later.

 

Xiaoguo: No, no. We won't be able to see each other again in the future if we do that.

 

Xiaoguo: Oh well, I'll just have to muster up the courage to go out.

 

Lin: :)

 

Lin: Alright, let's go then.

 

Xiaoguo: Okay.

 

Yin Guo finished packing and was eager to leave. Lin Yi Yang rummaged through a drawer and fished out a spare key, tossing it to Jiang Yang. "I'm heading back to school," he announced. "You guys can do whatever you want."

 

He grabbed Yin Guo's suitcase and strode out the door, leading the way.

 

As Yin Guo emerged from the apartment building, she felt a group of eyes boring into her back. She fought to maintain her composure and, with a stiff upper lip, turned around and waved farewell to the people who had ordered takeout and shared a meal with them.

 

As the door clicked shut, several burly men exchanged puzzled looks. "Did Lin Yi Yang go back to school, and the girl followed him with a suitcase?" one of them mused aloud.

 

Lin Yi Yang was notorious for his rebellious and unconventional ways, which extended to his approach to love. His reputation preceded him, and his friends knew it well.

 

As they discussed the matter at hand, Jiang Yang quipped, " Dongxincheng can't lose face. Prepare a red envelope, guys."

 


 

Fan Wencong, the practical one in the group, quickly checked his savings on his phone and asked, "How much should we give?"

 

After some consideration, Chen Anan replied, "Let's use our bonus from this year."

 

Jiang Yang readily agreed, feeling that it was a good start and a proper way to congratulate their brother for finally finding someone.

 

Fan Wen quickly checked the rankings and had no objections about being ranked fourth globally. He silently sighed as he put away his phone, knowing that his own ranking was far lower. He grumbled to himself about how he will give Lin Yi Yang a sizable amount of red envelopes, yet they couldn't even spare a closer look at his future wife. "What a waste," he thought, "I didn't even look properly. Next time, I'll make sure to take a good look and see what she really looks like."

 

......

 

The tournament had a specific hotel that offered discounted rates to guests, which was why foreign players usually chose to stay there and train at the hotel's billiard room or the two nearby ball rooms. Upon arriving, Yin Guo discovered that her coach and clubmates were all in the hotel billiard room. Seeing that Lin Yi Yang didn't object, she took him to the third floor.

 

Today, the people from Beijing had just arrived, and Meng Xiaodong had arranged for everyone to practice and adjust to the local time difference. As Yin Guo pushed open the door, she saw that all eight nine-ball tables and four snooker tables outside were packed. Everyone was standing there. Upon seeing the junior sister arrive, they waved and said hello.

 

Yin Guo's eyes widened with surprise as she gazed at the familiar faces gathered around the snooker table. "What brings you all the way here?" she asked, her voice laced with bewilderment.

 

One of the players spoke up, his tone hinting at a touch of mischief. "We were all set to compete in the touring championship, but our boss had other ideas. Liu Ge insisted we should head to the United States first, you know, to cheer you on."

 


 

Yin Guo's cheeks flushed with gratitude. She knew all too well the importance of having a solid support system in the cutthroat world of professional billiards. "That's really thoughtful of you all. Thank you so much," she replied.

 

"Liu Ge" referred to her older cousin, Meng Xiaodong, a seasoned pro himself. "Is my coach inside?" she asked, eager to reunite with the man who had trained her tirelessly over the years.

 

"Yep, he's in the lounge," came the response from one of the players. "Go ahead. They are all waiting for you."

 

Yin Guo scanned the room and noticed a row of chairs by the window. She gave a quick wave to Lin Yi Yang and whispered, "I'll be back in twenty minutes or so."

 

Lin Yi Yang gave her a reassuring pat on the head, "Take your time. I'll be right here."

 

Yin Guo smiled and reluctantly made her way toward the door, feeling the scrutinizing gazes of the people in the room. Unlike her, who felt at ease in the billiards room and didn't notice any differences or scrutiny, Lin Yi Yang was well aware of the attention he was drawing.

 

He walked over to the window but didn't sit down. Instead, he leaned against the glass and observed the players from Beijing, particularly those practicing snooker.

 

Lin Yi Yang had lost interest in sports tournaments over the years. However, because Wu Wei was still playing, he occasionally mentioned the new talents in Beijing and showed him a few videos. After watching them, Lin thought they played in a similar style to Meng Xiaodong.

 

One of the players he had seen in the video, named Li Qingyan, was now at the green snooker table, using chalk to prepare his cue. From the moment they entered, Li had been staring at him and Yin Guo without any pretense, his gaze unwavering.

 

As Lin watched Li play a few shots, he realized that, like Meng Xiaodong, Li's rhythm was stable, and he strictly controlled his shots to be within 25 seconds. That day, after discovering Meng Xiaodong's new habit, Lin had looked up the rules of various snooker competitions.

 

He found that the Super League had particularly strict regulations, including a 25-second time limit for shots. It was evident that Meng Xiaodong was training himself and his players to compete under the most rigorous competition rules.

 

As Lin Yi Yang stood watching the players, two big boys approached him from the Nine Ball area. Yin Guo recognized them and smiled in their direction. The taller one leaned in and extended his hand, introducing himself.

 

"Brother, nice to meet you. Do you play billiards?"

 

Lin Yi Yang saw that these two were still friendly, and out of curiosity, he leaned against the wall and casually replied, "Occasionally."

 

Eagerly listening, everyone thought that he was an amateur.

 

Yin Guo had always been the object of attention, not only for her beauty but also for her remarkable skills. It was no surprise to them that even in New York, she had caught the eye of an amateur enthusiast. As the group of players gathered around, it was evident that they all assumed Lin Yi Yang was just another amateur too. How would Li Ge, who grew up with Yin Guo, feel about it?

 

Next to the snooker table, the opponent who had been practicing with Li Qingyan, Xiaozi, picked up a ball and smiled, pointing at the green table before him, "Anyone who enters our Beijing private room has to make a shot as a formality."

"I don't play snooker,"

 

Lin Yi Yang's refusal to play snooker drew curious stares from the other players. No one dared to challenge him, even Meng Xiaodong, who had only asked him to step back a bit. Lin's reputation preceded him; his skill in billiards was legendary, and he was well-known among the professionals.

 

"Nine-ball?" Xiaozi pointed to the nearby blue table.

 

Lin Yi Yang considered the offer for a moment before declining.

 

The players on the other side of the nine-ball table were all young and energetic participants in the same open tournament. Lin Yi Yang knew it would be unfair to play casually or let them win. Still, it would also be unwise to play seriously against professional players before the tournament.

 

Lin Yi Yang shook his head again, declining the offer to play nine-ball.

 

Everyone looked at each other and thought he wanted to play Chinese eight-ball.

 

"Give him a Chinese eight-ball rack," Xiaozi said, "using the nine-ball table."

 

After Xiaozi finished speaking, everyone looked at Li Qingyan.

 

Li Qingyan cleared his throat, drawing everyone's attention. "Those who enter our exclusive club are either our people or friends," he said, fixing his gaze on Lin Yi Yang. "If you want to be friends, take a shot. Otherwise, it's hard to win the hearts of everyone here."

 

Xiaozi chimed in, "But if you've never touched a pool cue before and don't understand the game, we won't force you."

 

Lin Yi Yang sauntered over to the snooker table, where Li Qingyan and Xiāozi were deep in concentration. He rapped his knuckles against the wooden edge. The room hushed.

 

"I'll take this," he declared, nodding towards the table.

 

Li Qingyan quirked an eyebrow, a smile playing at the corners of his lips. "I thought you weren't interested in snooker," he remarked.

 

"Right, I'm not," Lin Yi Yang shrugged nonchalantly, scanning the room for a cue stick. His eyes fell on a battered one in the corner, but before he could reach for it, Li Qingyan spoke up.

 

"Use mine," he said, pushing his cue toward Lin Yi Yang. Xiāozǐ handed the cue stick to Lin Yi Yang, his own match still in progress. "I still have a match, so take it easy," he said.

 

Lin Yi Yang took the cue stick from Xiāozǐ and gave him a grateful pat on the shoulder. "Thanks."

 

As he approached the table, he could feel the tension in the air. Only three balls were left on the table, and he cleared them away with a quick swipe of his hand, leaving only a red ball and a white ball behind.

 

Turning to the others, he said, "You can put the red ball anywhere you want. I'll take the shot."

 

The onlookers were stunned by his bravado. Who was this guy who dared to take a shot after the ball was placed anywhere? But Lin Yi Yang was undeterred. He picked up the cue chalk from the table's edge and added,

"Fifty shots. If I miss the pocket three times, I'll count it as a loss."

During the Snowstorm
7.2
The Passion Remains

Yin Guo's face turned red as she pressed her left hand on her chest. Her throat choked, and she couldn't utter a word for a long time.

 

Lin Yi Yang laughed softly, teasing her, "You spoke so smoothly to Meng Xiaodong, but now that you see me, you can't say a word?"

 

Yin Guo felt her heart beating so fast that she could barely catch her breath. She pushed Lin Yi Yang gently, trying to hide her embarrassment.

 

"Why didn't you tell me you were coming?" she said, trying to regain her composure. "You scared me so much that I thought I was having a heart attack."

 

"Aren't you happy?" Lin Yi Yang asked with a teasing smile.

 

......

 

Yin Guo's eyes lit up as he posed his question, already anticipating the answer. He couldn't help but feel a sense of excitement, knowing that the response would bring him great joy. His smile widened as he awaited the response, unable to contain his eagerness.

 

Yin Guo observed Lin Yi Yang's appearance closely as he half-crouched down on her left side. His jacket was soaked with water from the rain outside, and his sneakers were wet. She noticed a hint of redness in his eyes as if he had been crying earlier. Yin Guo couldn't help but feel empathy toward him despite not knowing the true extent of his emotional turmoil.

 

Her initial concern was his wet clothes and the fact that he didn't have an umbrella, and she guessed that he must have walked over from the subway station. As she settled in the corner, he gently placed the plastic box and sandwiches on her lap before securing the lid. Then, he crouched down before extending his arms toward her.

 

Yin Guo's heart skipped a beat as she hugged Lin Yi Yang, holding onto his neck like a child for a long time. After a while, she sniffed and lowered her face, burying it in the nape of his neck. "You didn't even bring an umbrella. Your hair is all wet," she said softly.

 

Despite being full of dust and the scent of a train, Lin Yi Yang's presence was powerful enough to conquer Yin Guo's heart. The length of the trips back and forth between New York and Washington on these trains was enough to leave an impact on her.

 

Yin Guo expressed her concern, "With all the running around you're doing, are you still on track to graduate?"

 

Lin Yi Yang appreciated her concern and teasingly asked, "Would you leave me if I didn't?"

 

Yin Guo's response was serious, "Of course not. But you have to graduate, even if you don't want to."

 

Yin Guo nestled closer to him, enjoying the moment of intimacy and connection. The rustling of their clothes was the only sound as they held each other, cherishing the moment.

 

They huddled in a corner, with Lin Yi Yang half-crouching and Yin Guo sitting on a small chair, holding each other and speaking softly. Lin Yi Yang held Yin Guo tightly without any pretense, and they were utterly lost in their world, paying no attention to anyone else around them.

 

The people on the other side of Dongxincheng were taken aback, including Jiang Yang.

 

No one expected Lin Yi Yang's display of affection would be so intense and genuine, causing some to feel envious and others to feel a bit queasy. Those who were once intimidated by Lin Yi Yang, as well as the students who admired him, finally understood what "failed" meant, as Wu Wei had been saying for the past two days.

 


 

The little junior sister from Beijing had made quite an impression; that much was certain.

 

Jiang Yang watched from afar with great interest while Chen Anan whispered, "Don't kiss. If this gets out, it will ruin Meng Xiaodong's sister's reputation." After all, it was an international competition representing the Chinese team, and it's not something an athlete should do in the pre-game waiting room.

 

"Don't worry, Old Six has a sense of propriety," Jiang Yang said in a low voice. "He has respect for this competition."

 

An athlete's respect for the competition is related to the depth of their love for the sport. The more they love it, the more they respect it. Only with a sense of reverence will a person be willing to devote their entire life to their passion.

 

As expected, Lin Yi Yang didn't do anything out of line. He quickly said goodbye to Yin Guo and left the waiting room, his mind entirely focused on the upcoming competition.

 

Before the last match of the women's group stage, three groups of people appeared in the audience seats.

 

In the east were the people from Dongxincheng.

 

Jiang Yang was in the first row with Chen Anan and Fan Wen. The participating nine-ball players, including Wu Wei and Cheng Yan, were in the second row. The third row was occupied by young players from the youth and junior groups, all eagerly discussing stuff about their "sister-in-law."

 

To the west, there was the Beijing group.

 

In the front row, Meng Xiaodong sat alone, his gaze fixed on the players in the arena. Behind him were two groups of players, quietly chatting among themselves. The first group was led by Li Qingyan, a renowned snooker player who was preparing to compete in Ireland after "passing by" New York with Meng Xiaodong. The other group consisted of the 9-ball players eagerly waiting to watch the Little Sister in action.

 

As the matches progressed, Lin Yi Yang entered as a "coach," with no grand team to support him.

 

He sat with two boys who had come all the way from Washington in the south. One of them had just advanced in the tournament and was too nervous about having lunch at noon. Finally, after winning, he bought a hamburger to eat. "Brother-in-law was awesome in this game. Shinya is the champion of the Singapore Open, right?" he asked excitedly.

 

"Yeah," the other boy added, "ranked third in the world."

 

Lin Yi Yang was seated in the first row, his eyes fixed on the pool table where the final match of the women's group stage was taking place. He sat with both elbows resting on his knees and his fingers interlocking, occasionally rubbing his nose with his index finger. His calm exterior belied the intensity of his focus on every detail in the arena, from the players' movements to the referee's calls and the scoreboard.

 

Eleven years ago, Lin Yi Yang had dreamed of winning a Grand Slam, but circumstances had prevented him from leaving the country to compete on the international stage. Now, he had finally returned to the competition, although not in the way he had once envisioned. As he watched the match with rapt attention, he couldn't help but feel a sense of nostalgia and longing for the days when he was a player himself.

 

As the game began, Shinya confidently took the serve, and the balls scattered across the table. The commentator's voice boomed across the sports arena, "Shinya's off to a great start. She's taken the serve with ease. It seems like she's a strong contender for the win today."

 

The break is widely considered one of the most crucial moments in a game of 9-ball. A successful break can set the tone for the rest of the match and determine the outcome.

 

Yin Guo sat still, focused on the game in front of her as her opponent took the first shot. She felt the weight of her cue stick in her hand, the smoothness of its surface soothing her nerves. Despite the opponent's impressive start, Yin Guo refused to give up. She knew that anything could happen in a game of pool and was determined to make a comeback.

 

The audience erupted in applause as her opponent won the first four games in a row, but Yin Guo remained calm and collected. She observed her opponent's every move, analyzing her strategy and looking for weaknesses to exploit. As the fifth game ended, Shinya still held the right to serve, but Yin Guo felt a surge of confidence. She knew that the game was far from over.

 

The open tournament featured an extensive 20 rounds, where the first player to win 11 matches would emerge as the champion. However, Shinya had already secured 5 points, leaving Yin Guo scoreless so far. Lin Yi Yang continued to observe the game closely, his attention alternating between the pool table and Yin Guo, who sat composedly on the spacious sofa. He understood Yin Guo was biding her time, looking for a chance, waiting for her adversary to slip up.

 

"Remarkable performance by Shinya!" exclaimed the commentator, triggering a fresh wave of applause in the arena.

 

The two boys behind Lin Yi Yang were so nervous they couldn't even speak, their eyes fixed on the pool table. The scoreboard showed a 5-0 lead for Shinya, and it looked like it was about to increase to 6-0. However, luck was not on her side this time, as the ball hit the edge of the pocket and didn't go in.

 

The audience gasped as an opportunity presented itself for Yin Guo. With a calm demeanor, she stood up from the sofa and made her way to the pool table, her eyes locked on the two remaining balls. It was now her turn to take control of the game.

 

In the final group match, Yin Guo's true professional skills were on full display on the tournament stage. She was a fierce competitor, always ready to seize any opportunity that came her way. Lin Yi Yang had seen her play before and knew she would go all the way if given the slightest chance.

 

During their conversation in Washington, Yin Guo had asked Lin Yi Yang why he played so fast and whether he was afraid of losing. Lin's response was that, during his time away from competition, he had come to understand the true joy of playing billiards - the freedom to play without any restrictions on winning or losing. Playing fast was simply a reflection of his happiness in the game.

 

Lin Yi Yang looked at Yin Guo with a sense of admiration and respect. He knew how difficult it was to make a career in a sport that is often overlooked and not widely recognized.

 

"Enjoy it, Yin Guo," he wanted to say to her, "because this is your professional career for the next decade."

 

Only by finding joy in the game can you endure the grueling training and long hours of practice. Billiards may not be included in the Olympics, and even the Asian Games have canceled it for many years, but it is a niche sport that requires passion and dedication to succeed.

 

Yin Guo's comeback was nothing short of miraculous.

 

On the scoreboard, the numbers steadily climbed in her favor - 5:1, 5:2, and 5:3 - a testament to her unwavering focus and determination.

 

The boy behind Lin Yi Yang praised Yin Guo's mental strength, and Lin Yi Yang silently agreed. But he knew that the match was far from over.

 

Yin Guo's confidence grew stronger with each win as the game continued. The scoreboard slowly but surely ticked upwards, 5:4, 5:5, 5:6, and so on, until it reached an incredible 9-5 in her favor.

 

Lin Yi Yang watched in awe as Yin Guo won nine consecutive games without a single mistake. He knew that he was witnessing the birth of a true billiards champion.

 

Yin Guo, the season's biggest dark horse, again showed remarkable stability in this final match as she fought back from a large score deficit. Her impressive performance caught the attention of the commentators, who expressed their high expectations for her future career path.

 

"This Chinese player has given us a big surprise this season, and there is finally a new face that cannot be ignored," one of the commentators said.

 

"She's incredibly familiar with the nine-ball table, executing every shot perfectly from rail bounces to table edges," added another commentator with a smile. "One can only imagine what a great doubles partner she would be if there were a women's doubles match."

 

"It's a shame that doubles aren't included in this open tournament," replied the first commentator.

 

"But we can look forward to the upcoming Singapore Open," said the second commentator. "I have no doubt she'll sign up and participate in the eight-ball, nine-ball, and women's nine-ball doubles events."

 

The commentators' words only added to the growing buzz surrounding Yin Guo's rise to prominence in the sport.

 

......

 

The scoreboard now showed a new score - 5:10, and the sound of applause grew even louder. Every ball that Yin Guo potted was greeted with another round of appreciation from the audience.

 

However, Yin Guo seemed to hit a hurdle in the final game as she slowed her pace. Twice, she tried to lean over the table with half of her body hanging in the air, but she still couldn't reach the white ball.

 

The big screen magnified this scene, and Lin Yi Yang couldn't help but laugh.

 

"Shorty, do you need to use the extension cue?" he asked.

 

Yin Guo reached into her case and retrieved her extension cue, twisting it a few times to fix it. She returned to the table and gestured, indicating she could reach the ball now.

 

"The player has chosen the extension," the commentator's voice echoed throughout the arena. "She's going to give it another try."

 

Yin Guo took the shot without hesitation as soon as the commentator finished speaking.

 

With a snap, the ball fell into the pocket. With another snap, another ball went into the pocket. The commentators struggled to keep up with Yin Guo's speed as she quickly pocketed two balls, then aimed for the nine ball.

 

Yin Guo paused again.

 

She circled the black cue stick with her right hand, from the top down to the bottom, and slowly rubbed the cue stick with her palm as if it was a psychological signal. "Come on, let's win," she silently told the cue stick in her mind.

 

"The last shot is very difficult," commented the commentator, "The nine ball is close to the middle of the bottom rail, making it hard to pocket it in the bottom pocket and even riskier to pocket it in the side pocket."

 

Yin Guo leaned forward, her gaze fixed on the yellow 9-ball. She took a moment to assess the situation, then confidently chose to aim for the bottom pocket.

 

Her shot was thin, and it seemed like she barely put any force behind it. The yellow ball glided along the edge of the table, heading towards the pocket. The crowd held their breath as the ball neared the pocket and then let out a collective cheer as it dropped in with a soft sound.

 

"The crowd is going wild! And what a shot by Yin Guo, that was absolutely stunning!" the commentator exclaimed in amazement.

 

"The last shot was no easy feat, but she made it look effortless. Yin Guo has truly outdone herself today, and her performance has earned her a well-deserved spot in the quarterfinals tomorrow," the commentator continued as the applause continued to roar in the background.

 

"Congratulations to Yin Guo, the Chinese player who has entered the quarterfinals! We can't wait to see her play again tomorrow," the commentator concluded as the cheers and applause gradually subsided.

 

......

 

Yin Guo's eyes lit up with joy as she shook hands with her opponent and then hugged her coach tightly. He was also beaming with pride, patting her back several times. The crowd's applause continued to roar, filling the room with electrifying energy.

 

Meanwhile, Lin Yi Yang observed her from a distance, unable to see her face clearly. He looked up at the live broadcast of Yin Guo on the big screen and saw the tears in her eyes. She was still just a child, and the sight of her overwhelmed him with emotion.

 

Just as he was about to leave, Yin Guo, on the big screen, suddenly turned around and ran towards the stands where he was sitting.

 

"Sister-in-law is here; she's coming," the boys behind him exclaimed.

 

Yin Guo had just won the game and was now running toward the stands. The audience craned their necks to see who she was looking for.

 

Lin Yi Yang was sitting in the front row, watching as Yin Guo approached him with a smile on her face. She looked slightly out of breath as she stood in front of the railing, separated by the advertising board.

 

Her cheeks were flushed, and her eyes were shining as she said, "Hey, come over here!"

 

Lin Yi Yang was at a loss for words, but he obliged her request and walked over to the railing, crouching down in front of her across the advertisement board.

 

He noticed she was still live streaming and couldn't help but smile at her silliness.

 

"Give me your hand," she said from below, looking up at him with a pleading expression.

 

Lin Yi Yang hesitated for a moment before eventually reaching his hand out through the gap in the railing. Immediately, Yin Guo hugged his hand with both of hers. Her hands were sweaty from holding the cue for so long during the match and the joy of winning.

 

She looked up at him with a blush through the railing, her eyes shining with excitement. Lin Yi Yang could feel her energy and enthusiasm, and he couldn't help but feel happy for her.

 

"Almost done," he whispered to her, "we can talk backstage."

 

He nodded at Yin Guo and was about to turn away when she urgently asked him to wait.

 

"Just one more thing," she said, her voice filled with excitement.

 

As she prepared for her last shot, Yin Guo had already planned what to say to him. She wanted to express her gratitude and make him smile, just as he had done for her.

 

She remembered the concern in his eyes when he came to the locker room before the game. But now, as she stood before him, she felt confident and grateful.

 

She stood on her tiptoes with a shy smile, trying to get closer to him. Though advertising boards and railings separated them, she could feel his warmth and support.

 

"Today I won," she said softly, suppressing a giggle, "so... I dedicate this match to you, my queen."

 

Lin Yi Yang and Yin Guo stood facing each other across the railing.

 

Yin Guo thought, "Although I arrived much later than you on this field, my glory will be shared with you from now on. The applause I am receiving is also yours."

 

Lin Yi Yang looked at her with a smile, feeling touched by her look.

 

Winner takes all, today I am the king, and you are the queen

 

The two boys behind Lin Yi Yang laughed out loud as they stood there, breaking the moment.

 

Shaking his hand, she asked, "Why aren't you smiling?" Yin Guo's eyes sparkled with amusement, and her laughter was contagious.

 

Lin Yi Yang felt a warmth spread throughout his body, touched by her carefree and light-hearted nature. He had always been a serious and intense person, but being with her made him feel a sense of ease and comfort.

 

The two boys behind them, who had been teasing them all evening, couldn't help but laugh at the sight of the two of them. "Sister-in-law is so cute. She can make Lin Yi Yang, the pool champion, blush like a little kid!"

 

Lin Yi Yang couldn't help but smile at the teasing, feeling grateful for the good-natured banter. "When I won the championship that year, you had just started elementary school. You were neither too young nor too old," he said in a low voice.

During the Snowstorm
9.4
The Day of the Return of the King

The chef discreetly withdrew, putting an end to their conspicuous display of intimacy.

 

He kissed her with an unusual intensity, filled with passion.

 

As their kiss came to a close, he released his hold on her and purposefully questioned, "Did you miss me, or did you come to console me?"

 

Suppressed by her sister's remarks and feeling a wave of distress, Yin Guo grew increasingly upset. Observing him rummaging through the trunk without any words to offer, she watched him intently and responded, "There's nothing. I didn't need to find you."

 

Lin Yi Yang halted his actions, pivoting to face her. "If there's nothing, then go back upstairs. I'm leaving," he declared.

 

In a stiff tone, he continued, emphasizing the urgency of his departure due to his younger brother being in another province and needing a ride back. He stressed the importance of the child's early bedtime.

 

Yin Guo stared at him, sensing his palpable anger. His eyes were turning red from his rage. When she attempted to depart, he once again seized her wrist. Lin Yi Yang sought to kiss her, but Yin Guo turned her face away, firmly stating, "You've been smoking. I don't want to kiss you."

 

Lin Yi Yang firmly held her hands behind her back, restricting her movement. With his free hand, he retrieved a black chocolate bar from his pocket and raised it before her eyes.

 

"Wait for it," he gazed at her intently.

 

Using his teeth, Lin Yi Yang tore open the wrapper and took a bite of the chocolate.

 

...

 

"Chocolate won't do either. It's embarrassing to kiss with chocolate on my lips. Everyone can see," she remarked, aware of the people around them.

 

Lin Yi Yang slowed his actions, but he didn't release his grip. He savored the chocolate slowly, seemingly abandoning the idea of kissing her. Nonetheless, his hold on her wrist tightened noticeably.

 

"Ouch, it hurts. Let go of me," she pleaded, genuinely experiencing pain rather than sulking.

 

Suddenly, his grasp on her wrist loosened.

 

Lin Yi Yang consumed the remaining chocolate and crumpled the wrapper before tossing it onto the mound of cigarette butts. He then turned around once more to search for something in the trunk.

 

Observing his lack of response and engagement, Yin Guo simply pivoted and strode away.

 

"Xiao Guo-er," he called out to her from behind.

 

She had an urge to halt, but her anger persisted.

 

"Yin Guo, stop right there," he uttered in a low, weighty tone.

 

She remained silent and accelerated her pace even further after his words.

 

Lin Yi Yang couldn't call her name loudly or pursue her from the rear of the SUV, and he grew anxious.

 

In his possession was a bag of cherries he had procured from a secluded village, washed, and intended to offer her for a taste. The cherries were so delicate that they would rupture with a gentle squeeze of his fingers...

 

After holding onto the fresh and delicate cherries for a while, Lin Yi Yang eventually discarded them onto the cluster of cigarette butts.

 

As Yin Guo stepped into the restaurant, her family was descending from upstairs. She stepped aside, intending to ascend and retrieve her bag. However, her aunt, who happened to be the last one descending, held her bag and said, "I have it. No need to go upstairs."

 

Auntie swiftly approached Yin Guo in a couple of strides and whispered, "Are you still upset with your sister?"

 

Yin Guo realized her countenance was less than pleasant and replied softly, "No."

 

"You were down there for quite some time. What did you do?" Auntie was perplexed because when she descended, Yin Guo mentioned going to retrieve something, yet she returned empty-handed.

 

"I can't find it," Yin Guo casually remarked, "I suppose it's at home, and I forgot to bring it."

 

Auntie was about to say something when a smile formed on her face, and she nodded toward the person standing behind Yin Guo. "Your friend is quite amusing; he came to our table searching for you."

 

When Yin Guo turned around, she caught sight of Lin Yi Yang holding his coat and courteously nodding to her aunt. "The child doesn't know any better. Please forgive him," he uttered in a subdued and restrained manner, still maintaining his politeness toward strangers.

 

Lin Yi Yang ascended the stairs on Yin Guo's right, casting a final glance at her before proceeding straight upstairs.

 

Yin Guo felt a sense of injustice and avoided looking at the array of seafood crates. She still refrained from making eye contact with him, but she sensed that he halted at the corner of the staircase, gazing in her direction. She could also perceive that he lingered there purposely, observing her...

 

However, their connection was swiftly disrupted by the descending customers, who inadvertently intermingled with the two groups, shoving Yin Guo aside and obstructing her view of the stairs.

 

She glanced upwards once more, only to find that he had already ascended.

 

The journey back was unusually hushed. Yin Guo's mind was consumed by thoughts of Lin Yi Yang—this marked their first disagreement, and it left her feeling unhappy...

 

Beside her, her grandmother suddenly inquired, "Regarding that young man, Lin Yi Yang, can you enlighten grandma further?" Her grandmother held particular concern due to Meng Xiaodong's involvement.

 

"I'll share the details when we arrive home," Yin Guo responded softly, "I'm feeling a bit queasy from the car ride."

 

The sister seated in the passenger seat interjected, "Xiaoguo, are you quite acquainted with him?"

 

"We have a good rapport," Yin Guo replied.

 

"Doesn't Meng Xiaodong look out for you?" the sister asked from the front seat.

 

Yin Guo rested her hand against her face and gazed out the window. "Brother Xiaodong is quite familiar with him."

 

"Didn't Meng Xiaodong ever mention it to you?" the front-seat sister suddenly inquired. "When he was a child, Lin Lin hit him with a brick, and both Lin Yi Yang and Lin Lin accompanied him during the medical treatment."

 

Yin Guo was taken aback.

 

"That's him," Grandma chimed in, expressing sympathy. "I was so frightened at the time. I thought Xiao Dong had offended someone."

 

"But that's all in the past," Yin Guo argued. "Xiao Dong and Lin Lin have a good relationship now."

 

"He's had more than just that one incident; he's had issues since he was young," the sister paused and glanced back at Yin Guo. "It seems like you really have a favorable impression of him."

 

......

 

Yin Guo sensed the strong disapproval her older sister held towards him. She wanted to continue arguing, but her mother interjected, "I've told you many times, don't argue in front of your grandmother."

 

"We're not arguing, Mom," Wu Tong countered, "we're having a discussion."

 

"I wasn't arguing," Yin Guo clarified, "I simply wanted to explain a few things to Lin Yi Yang, who genuinely came to serve tea today. Mom," she hesitated before continuing, "both you and my sister work at the Sports Bureau. If you both hold a grudge against him, wouldn't that be unfair to him?"

 

Yin Guo's mother smiled and replied, "Do you think your mother would allow personal biases to affect him?"

 

"No," Yin Guo replied, but she worried that her mother's attitude could influence her colleagues and indirectly impact him.

 

"Your mother doesn't know him personally, nor has she had any conflicts with him," her mother explained. She briefly paused at the toll station, took the change handed to her by Wu Tong, and handed it out. "However, I genuinely dislike him. Let's set aside Xiaodong's situation for a moment. I used to be a referee and can't appreciate someone who has clashed with her professional peers. Perhaps I won't say much about your friend because she loves you, but my opinion won't change."

 

As her Mom drove past the toll booth, she continued, "Xiaoguo, you're growing up, and you need to understand that no two people share identical thoughts and positions in this world. Everyone has their own perspectives, personalities, and life experiences, even those close to us."

 

Yin Guo maintained her silence, absorbing her mother's words.

 

"Furthermore, regarding what you just mentioned, remember that you can discuss it here in the car since we're family, but you shouldn't bring up those matters in public settings like the bureau, association, or other official events. I'm serious about this, and it's important that you remember," Yin Guo's mother emphasized, glancing at her elder daughter in the front passenger seat.

 

Even Wu Tong refrained from speaking up.

 

"Is the China Open starting soon?" Yin Guo's mother turned her attention to Yin Guo.

 

"Yes," she replied, "it begins next week."

 

Lin Yi Yang's return coincided with the upcoming China Open Snooker tournament, and that was the reason for his presence.

After dropping off his brother and his family, Lin Yi Yang returned to the snooker room where Jiang Yang was still present.

 

The previous night, Lin Yi Yang had mentioned his plan to visit his ancestors' graves, successfully persuading his friends, who had been carrying several boxes of alcohol, to go back to sleep. Only Jiang Yang remained with him, as he had recently completed a closed training session and was currently living alone. Jiang Yang greeted Lin Yi Yang with delight upon his return, seemingly prepared to spend some time together.

 

The third floor of the snooker room had been renovated just last month, while the second floor had experienced a delay due to the late relocation of the hotpot restaurant. As a result, the upper floor was fully equipped and had the appearance of a proper snooker room. Additionally, there were two rooms located in the far north corner of the third floor, complete with a bathroom.

 

Jiang Yang had already arranged some furniture in advance, temporarily filling the space. The furnishings were simple yet stylish, giving the impression of a cozy home.

 

Unable to sleep, Lin Yi Yang leaned back on the sofa and retrieved a note from the middle of his wallet. The tape on one corner of the note was stained with black, indicating its frequent use.

 

"Have you played it?" Jiang Yang inquired, noticing Lin Yi Yang holding the note as he got up to use the restroom.

 

Lin Yi Yang remained silent, not offering a response.

 

Jiang Yang anticipated that Lin Yi Yang wouldn't respond, so he proceeded to search for the bathroom light switch. From behind him, he heard Lin Yi Yang's voice saying, "My body is already not in good condition, and hearing myself speak will only further anger me."

 

Jiang Yang couldn't argue with that statement. The coach hadn't mentioned Lin Yi Yang's name explicitly. Although he had casually mentioned Lin Yi Yang's comeback this year, it was a passing remark without delving into any further details. One was the coach, and the other was the junior brother; their personalities were too similar for Jiang Yang to interfere. After a while, Jiang Yang located the toilet in the northeast corner by the moonlight and entered without turning on the light.

 

Meanwhile, Lin Yi Yang toyed with the notepaper in his hand for a while before stowing it away. Exiting the room, he paused by the nearest nine-ball table, specifically set up for Yin Guo's practice. He had even played a few shots with Chen An'an the previous night. The balls were scattered across the blue felt of the table.

 

Lin Yi Yang grabbed a nearby ball with his right hand, threw it forcefully along the table, and struck the airborne black ball. With a resounding clang, it dropped into the pocket. The sound of the ball falling reverberated throughout the vast hall spanning hundreds of square meters.

 

Jiang Yang removed his glasses, massaged his forehead, leaned against the door, and peered at the indistinct figure illuminated by the pool table light in the dimness, as if searching for a ball.

 

"Is something bothering you?" he inquired.

 

"Just go to sleep," Lin Yi Yang replied.

 

From his tone, Jiang Yang sensed that Lin Yi Yang carried a weighty burden on his mind.

 

Throughout the night, Lin Yi Yang didn't search for her.

 

Despite the arguments Yin Guo had with her mother and sister during the journey home, he didn't approach her or even raise his gaze.

 

Originally, she was scheduled to join the closed training camp in the afternoon. Sporting two prominent dark circles beneath her eyes, she had arranged for a seven-seater business car with several senior sisters and departed early for the training base.

 

During the car ride to the training base, the conversation among the occupants flowed, eventually converging on the Chinese Open Snooker Championship.

 

When the name "Lin Yi Yang" was mentioned, one of her senior sisters discreetly nudged her arm and inquired why Lin Yi Yang hadn't participated in the championship the previous year.

 

Yin Guo shook her head, stating that Lin Yi Yang had never discussed it.

 

"What a shame," added the senior sister sitting beside her, "If he had participated last year, his ranking would definitely have been higher than Jiang Yang's."

 

"It's hard to say," Yin Guo smiled, "Jiang Yang has always been in good form."

 

The car made a stop at a highway rest area halfway through the journey, and they took a thirty-minute break there.

 

Situated at the border between two provinces, this rest area was quite spacious and housed shops selling local specialties from both regions, along with several fast-food restaurants. Since their group had departed early and had ample time, everyone dispersed, agreeing to reconvene in half an hour.

 

Each person went off to purchase snacks and regional delicacies to stock up during the closed training.

 

The driver noticed Yin Guo remained in the car and asked with a smile, "Shall I open the door for you so you can stretch your legs as well?"

 

In the end, she was the only one left inside the vehicle.

 

Wearing a fisherman's hat, Yin Guo sat by the open car door, basking her legs in the sunlight.

 

Half an hour ago, Lin Yi Yang had sent her a WeChat message on her phone.

 

Lin: Are you awake?

 

Lin: I want to talk to you.

 

She hadn't responded all this time.

 

Her lack of reply was twofold. Firstly, she was upset that he hadn't come to find her throughout the night. Secondly, with so many people in the car, it wasn't convenient for her to make a phone call. Holding her phone in her hands, she stared at the two messages, contemplating a response.

 

As if sensing her thoughts, a new message appeared.

 

Lin: ?

 

He knew her daily schedule well, and it was around the time she should have been awake. Gathering her courage, Yin Guo decided to make a voice call to him.

 

The call connected, and she could hear the faint background noise, suggesting he was outdoors, possibly by the roadside.

She remained silent.

 

"Are you still angry with me?" Lin Yi Yang's voice came through the phone.

 

Still, she said nothing.

 

"I'm outside your neighborhood," he revealed. "Whenever you're ready, just come down. But there's no rush."

 

......

 

"I'm not at home," Yin Guo adjusted her hat to shield herself from the sunlight, feeling her heart gradually soften. "I'm currently in closed training, and I've already left the province."

 

There was silence on the other end this time.

 

"I'll be back in time to catch the second half of your tournament," Yin Guo assured him.

 

After a long pause without any response from him, she murmured, "Why didn't you come find me last night? I was so angry that I left early this morning. Otherwise, we could have met for a while today."

 

Half a minute passed, and still, he didn't speak.

 

Yin Guo noticed the driver approaching the car and whispered, "You need to answer quickly; someone is coming. It's not convenient to talk on the phone."

 

"Let me know when you're back," the man on the other end finally spoke, "I miss you."

 

During the morning, Lin Yi Yang had familiarized himself with the entrances and exits of Yin Guo's community, both the front and back gates, as well as the two access points of the underground parking garage.

 

Yesterday, Jiang Yang had driven them in his car, but today he opted for the subway. Lin Yi Yang didn't feel rushed, so he strolled along a small road by the back gate and crossed a stone bridge over a river to the other side. He wanted to explore the paths that Yin Guo usually walked and unexpectedly stumbled upon a motorcycle shop.

 

In the morning, the motorcycle shop was relatively quiet.

 

Several high-end sports bikes and a few Harley-Davidsons were showcased at the far end of the store. The owner, observing Lin Yi Yang's attire and assuming he was a motorcycle enthusiast, approached him and introduced a new all-black Harley model and an Aprilia.

 

The owner also recommended a scenic road for him to ride on. With his long legs, Lin Yi Yang swung onto the motorcycle, donned his helmet, and started the engine. Amidst the roaring noise, he rode out of the store.

 

Upon his return, many people gazed at him while he kept his helmet on, almost like a living advertisement. He removed his helmet and rested it on the bike, then leaned against it as he asked the store owner, "How long does it take to obtain a driver's license in China?"

 

"You can complete the entire examination in a single day. Afterward, you'll only need to wait a few days for the license to be issued. If you want any modifications, just let me know in advance," the store owner replied.

 

Lin Yi Yang requested the shop owner to adjust the handlebar to a lower position, align it with the seat, and pay the deposit using his card. He also expressed interest in purchasing a black helmet, glancing around before adding, "I'll also order a white helmet."

During the Snowstorm
2.4
The World Under the Snow

Yin Guo stepped into her hotel room. She was met with the familiar scent of home. She quickly removed her clothes, eager for a warm shower to wash away the chill of the night. The hot water cascaded down her body, providing both comfort and relaxation. She dried herself and changed into her comfy pajamas, ready for a good night's sleep.

 

However, before she could fully settle in, she remembered that she needed to talk to her friend Zheng Yi about the possibility of renting an apartment. She picked up her phone, ready to send a message, but noticed that Zheng Yi was yet to reply. She checked the time and estimated that she would have to wait another half hour.

 

As she waited, fatigue weighed heavily on her eyelids. While the time difference between the two countries had evened out, jet lag still had its grip on her. She struggled to keep her eyes open, scrolling through her phone to catch up on her friends' messages. However, as she lingered, her fingers gradually slowed and eventually came to a halt on a specific post. There was a short text on it.

 

Wu Suo Wei: Xiaoyang has someone in his heart.

 

She remembered the name Wu Wei as a recent addition to her WeChat contacts. "Yang?" she thought to herself, "Could it be Lin Yi Yang?"

 

Good thing she didn't like the post. She almost made a blunder once again.

 

But her thoughts are interrupted by a sharp pain in her ear. She kicked the remote control off the bed in a moment of distraction and sat up too quickly, causing the pillow to scrape against her ear.

 

Yin Guo rubbed her ear, feeling the tender swelling. She slid out of bed and shuffled over to her luggage in search of erythromycin ointment. But as she tried to twist off the cap, her grip slipped, and the bottle cap fell into the depths of the box.

 

With a sigh of frustration, Yin Guo rummaged through her belongings, but the cap seemed to have vanished. She settled for just applying some of the ointment directly from the bottle, hoping it would soothe the ache in her ear.

 

Yin Guo, back in bed, was scrolling through her phone, waiting for Zheng Yi to reply to her message about the possibility of renting an apartment temporarily. Just as she was about to put down her phone and try to stay awake, a notification from Zheng Yi lit up her screen. Excited to hear her thoughts, she quickly opened the message and read:

 

Zheng Yi: Hey, I've been thinking about it, and I think it's okay for you to rent an apartment with your cousin. You're familiar with everyone there, and they're all good people. Although the dorm is safer, it's also more expensive.

 

Xiaoguo: I was thinking about that too. But if we move, we'll have to find a new place for the billiard room.

 

Zheng Yi: Don't worry about it. Wu Wei is competing soon, right? I'm sure he'll be able to introduce you to a great place to train.

 

Xiaoguo: Yeah, that's true.

 

Zheng Yi: Alright, I've got to run now. Talk to you later!

 

With nothing better to do, Yin Guo's mind started to wander back to that WeChat circle of friends. She couldn't resist the urge to take a look again.

 

Scrolling through her feed, she stumbled upon Wu Wei's page and noticed that there was only one visible message. Out of curiosity, she clicked on it, eager to see what it said.

 

The message read, "Delete it, she can see." with the sender being Lin Yi Yang.

 

Yin Guo was convinced that Wu Wei was talking about Lin Yi Yang having a crush on someone. A minute later, she refreshed the page out of pure curiosity and was disappointed to see that the message had indeed been deleted.

 

It was as if the message had never existed. She couldn't be sure how many people had seen it, but she was one of them, and now she was pretending she never did. The idea of someone else seeing such a personal message made her feel uneasy. It burdened her.

 

Yin Guo leaned back on her bed, her phone turning in her hands as she thought. The idea that Lin Yi Yang might have feelings for someone else didn't come as a surprise to her. He seemed to open up more freely with her cousin than with her. He probably wants to avoid any suspicion.

 

The thought of revealing this to her friend briefly crossed her mind, but she quickly dismissed it. What was she thinking? She didn't want to risk ruining their friendship by getting involved in his personal affairs. With that in mind, she put her phone aside and tried to shake the thoughts from her mind.

 

Lin Yi Yang was sitting in the crowded subway car, surrounded by the hum of excited chatter. The only two people within earshot were two teenagers chatting loudly and animatedly. Yi Yang couldn't help but admire their confident demeanor and how their bodies seemed to come alive as they spoke.

 

He lowered his gaze to his phone, seeking a network signal that would allow him to check his social media and see if Wu Wei had deleted anything. He needed to remind the young man not to be so reckless with his words. As he waited for a signal, Lin Yi Yang raised his wrist and glanced at his watch. He had always been fond of wearing a watch on his right hand, but at one point, he had broken the glass of the watch case. He briefly considered switching to wearing it on his left hand, but after a few days of feeling awkward, he ultimately abandoned the idea.

 

Lin Yi Yang unfastened the metal buckle and removed his watch, lost in thought. It was then that he remembered Yin Guo and realized that his watch might have scraped her ear.

 

As the subway pulled into the station, Lin Yi Yang's attention was immediately drawn to his phone. He quickly checked his social media and breathed a sigh of relief as he saw that Wu Wei had deleted the post as requested.

 

The two teenagers got off the train. He opened the chat window with Yin Guo on WeChat to check if she had been affected by anything during their previous encounter.

 

Lin: Hey, did I hurt your ear earlier?

 

Red Fish: No, you didn't. You just bumped it a little.

 

Lin: [Sends coffee emoji]

 

Red Fish: [Sends happy emoji]

 

Lin Yi Yang tried to evaluate his conversation with her, but he couldn't figure out where he had gone wrong. It appears like he was not very good at chatting with girls. Despite his efforts, their conversation quickly petered out.

 

With a sigh, he put his watch on his left wrist and pondered for a while, unsure what to say next. He estimated it was time for her to sleep, so he put his phone in his pants pocket and leaned back in his seat.

 

Back at Wu Wei's apartment, Wu Wei was in the middle of a workout on a cramped yoga mat next to his bed. Sweat dripped down his face as he pushed himself to the limit.

 

Just then, Lin Yi Yang entered the room and, without a word, threw his heavy winter coat onto Wu Wei. Wu Wei let out a sigh and lay flat on the mat, feeling defeated.

 

"I was just two minutes away from finishing," he complained. "You came back just in time."

 

Wu Wei picked up the winter coat dotted with snowflakes and studied Lin Yi Yang's expression. He seemed alright, and that was a relief.

 

"I sent that message on purpose," Wu Wei announced.

 

Lin Yi Yang shot a warning look at Wu Wei.

 

Wu Wei watched as Lin Yi Yang opened a drawer, searching for coins.

 

"What... are you going to wash clothes now?" Wu Wei asked.

 

Lin Yi Yang ignored Wu Wei's question, took the coins, and found a crumpled paper bag lying on the bed. He gathered the dirty clothes scattered around the room and stuffed them inside. He picked up a zippered sports jacket from the bed, put it on, and picked up the paper bag, ready to leave.

 

"Wait, you haven't answered my question yet," Wu Wei asked from the yoga mat, "Do you have an interest in that little beauty?"

 

Lin Yi Yang glanced at Wu Wei with a knowing look.

 

"Right? When you start thinking about it, it's expected." Wu Wei continued.

 

But before he could receive a reply, the door to the room closed, cutting off Wu Wei's words.

 

As Lin Yi Yang made his way down to the apartment's laundry room, he was greeted by the sister who shared the apartment with Wu Wei. She was in the middle of a lively conversation with her friend and said goodbye as they were moving out the next day.

 

Lin Yi Yang politely chatted with her for a couple of moments before inserting five coins into the washing machine and putting in the dirty clothes. He set the timer and started the wash.

 

After the two women left, Lin Yi Yang sat in the middle chair, leaned against the wall, and pulled out his phone. He saw a post from Yin Guo in his friend circle, a repost of a donation of desks and chairs to an elementary school campus.

 

Lin: Still awake?

 

Red Fish: ...Can't sleep.

 

Lin: Jet lag?

 

Red Fish: I've been here for over ten days; I've already adjusted to the time difference. I guess it's because of how delicious the noodles are?

 

Lin: That place is average in terms of taste.

 

The noodle restaurant is located right under Wu Wei's apartment building, and both he and Wu Wei are regular customers, so it's most convenient for him to go there first.

 

Red Fish: The noodles were spot on. I really enjoyed them.

 

Lin: The chicken soup base tonight doesn't quite compare to the traditional pork, though.

 

Red Fish: I didn't even realize it was chicken soup.

 

Lin: Yeah. You seem pretty familiar with noodles.

 

Lin: I like to try out different places.

 

Lin Yi Yang took the time to search for more noodle joints that are worth trying. He found a handful of great options and promptly sent her their addresses.

 

Red Fish: Thank you so much!

 

Lin: If we get the chance, I'd love to take you to try one.

 

Red Fish: ?

 

Lin: Is everything okay?

 

Red Fish: ...You really do love treating people to food, don't you?

 

Lin chuckled at her remark.

 

She made a misconception that he loved treating others to food. But the truth was, he was very particular about dining experiences. For him, eating was a personal and intimate affair, and he would only invite those whom he had known for years to join him at the table. He rarely enjoyed dining with people he wasn't close to. Even if he was forced to, he would only have a drink for the sake of it before heading out for a more private dining experience.

 

Unsure of how to respond, Lin simply sent a coffee emoji. As expected, Yin Guo replied with a happy emoji.

 

Lin couldn't help but reflect on the rarity of this conversation. It had been long since he'd had a chat like this, especially with a woman. Most of his friends were billiard players, and he had very few female friends. Wu Wei was the closest person to him.

 

That stormy night, he was feeling restless and yearned for a place to have a drink. He called Wu Wei, and the two of them headed to Red Fish. As they approached the bar, he caught a glimpse of a girl through the foggy window - black hair, dark eyes, petite, wrapped in a scarf, talking on the phone. The steam from the window obscured her eye color, sparking his curiosity about this mysterious stranger and leaving him wondering if she was Asian or Chinese.

 

On a blizzard day, when everything seemed to be going wrong with his mood at its lowest, the city's traffic paralyzed, company shut down, and schools suspended, he found solace in the bar where he frequently visited and unexpectedly met a heart-stirring foreign girl of the same ethnicity and ancestry.

 

It was a glimmer of comfort amidst the chaos of the blizzard.

 

His curiosity was piqued, and he longed to get to know her. And it all started with that thought.

 

He wanted to ensure her safe arrival at the hotel, and then an idea struck him. Initially, he had plans to stay out for an all-night drink, but he ended up telling Wu Wei that he had an urgent matter to attend to and asked Wu Wei to inquire with the girl's younger brother if he could "give them a ride" while he was at it.

 

Those few days were a dark period in his life. He was feeling irritable and didn't want to be bothered by anyone, especially by an old friend who had come to visit New York. He spent his days in seclusion, drowning in liquor and billiard games until he finally booked a ticket back to Washington, eager to escape the city and his past.

 

However, just as he was about to leave, a stranger sent him a friend request on social media. This strange encounter piqued his curiosity, and he found himself exchanging messages with her on the train ride back to Washington.

 

It wasn't until tonight that they got to know each other better. Lin Yi Yang was filled with questions. What did this mean for him now? He was lost in thought when another person entered the laundry room, disrupting his solitude. The continuous sound of people doing laundry in the middle of the night only added to his confusion and restlessness.

 

Lin Yi Yang was impatient and couldn't wait any longer. He grabbed an empty paper bag and made his way upstairs. As he passed Wu Wei, he threw five coins at him and instructed him to keep track of the time and go down to the laundry room to dry the clothes. Once done, he was to bring the clothes back up for Lin.

 

Lin spread out a cozy cotton quilt on the couch and curled up, letting sleep take over. When he woke up, he realized it was morning.

 

The sound of moving furniture filled the room as the two sisters busily packed up. Wu Wei was still fast asleep, snuggled under the covers with no intention of getting up. Lin himself turned over, not bothering to say goodbye, and drifted back into a deep sleep. The noise outside eventually died down, and Lin couldn't tell if it was because he was sleeping too soundly or if everyone else had finished moving.

 

At around eleven, the sound of his cell phone alarm jolted Lin Yi Yang out of his slumber. He rubbed his bleary eyes and sat up, covering his face with both hands for a full minute before the sounds of laughter outside reached his ears.

 

Yesterday, he had just recovered from a fever and raced back to catch the train, pushing himself nonstop throughout the day and night. The exhaustion he felt before bed had come back in full force. He rubbed his face, feeling the mess of his forehead hair, and put on his slippers.

 

His sports jacket, worn all night, felt hot and uncomfortable, so he took it off and threw it on the bed before getting up and opening the door. He was searching for a drink of water. In an instant, the world became quiet and peaceful.

 

In the living room, he saw a group of young people - three men and two women - who appeared to be around 17 or 18 years old and two others who looked to be about 13 or 14. Behind the kitchen bar, Wu Wei was leaning against the refrigerator, deep in conversation with a man in his thirties.

 

As soon as the door opened, all eyes in the room turned toward him.

 

The boys on the couch were in awe, thinking, "Wow, it's Little Uncle Shi (or little uncle teacher); he is even taller in person."

 

The girls on the couch couldn't help but blush, thinking, "Little uncle shi. He is even more handsome than we imagined."

 

The mention of Lin Yi Yang's skills in billiards echoed through the halls of the billiards club whispered among the older patrons as the teacher's sixth younger student. They recounted his incredible rise to fame, starting with his championship win at just twelve years old in the juvenile group. By thirteen, he was already competing with the professionals and, alongside their mentor, dominated the competition with a championship win and runner-up finish.

 

In the billiards club, everyone knows him by a different nickname, reflecting his mastery over the game. They call him Little Yang Ye, Stunner (Duncuo), Sixth Older Brother, Sixth Uncle, or Old Six, each name reflects his skill and reputation within the club.

 

Everyone in this room knows that the person in those stories is Lin Yi Yang.

 

The sight of these strangers in his home caused his eyebrows to furrow in frustration. However, his attention was quickly drawn to the 30-year-old man standing at the kitchen bar, Jiang Yang. Dressed in a crisp shirt and western pants and sporting white-rimmed glasses on the bridge of his nose, Jiang Yang was known to Lin Yi Yang as the teacher of the children sitting on the couch.

 

"I heard you guys came by last week and didn't run into Lin," Jiang Yang said with a smirk. "I thought you'd be making another escape this time."

 

Lin Yi Yang opened his mouth to reply, but his throat felt suddenly dry. He cleared his throat, ready to speak, but the words wouldn't come.

 

He trudged over to the bar, his slippers slapping against the floor with each step. Desperate for a drink, he opened the refrigerator door, only to find it barren of water. He settled for a bottle of beer, cracking it open and taking a deep swig.

 

Moistening his dry throat, he leaned against the bar and cast his gaze toward Jiang Yang. In a raspy voice, he asked, "Here for the competition?"

 

"Yeah, mostly to bring the kids here," Jiang Yang gestured towards the group on the couch, "They're all my pupils."

 

"Little Uncle Shi!" they chorused, their voices filled with reverence and respect.

 

Lin Yi Yang waved his hand dismissively, correcting them, "I left the billiards club a long time ago. There's no 'Little Uncle Shi' here. If you think I'm young, call me 'Sixth Older Brother.' If you think I'm old, call me 'Sixth Uncle."

 

Jiang Yang chuckled, "And what should they call me if they call you 'Sixth Older Brother'?"

 


 

Lin Yi Yang simply smiled, not bothering to answer.

 

As Lin Yi Yang took another long swig from his beer bottle, his gaze locked with Jiang Yang's, the two men sizing each other up. After all these years, they had thought that their connection from the past had faded away, but as they stood there, in that moment of reunion, they both realized that the memories of their youth still burned bright within them.

 

They thought back to the early mornings, getting up at 5 to practice at the billiards club, racing to school on their bikes with backpacks in tow. Those memories were etched into their bones, never to be forgotten. The reunion with fellow disciples and close friends only brought those memories back to the surface.

 

The burning pain in Lin Yi Yang's chest, a reminder of all the emotions and experiences he shared with Jiang Yang, had never really gone away. They both became disciples of the billiards club in the same year, just a week apart, with Jiang Yang arriving first and Lin Yi Yang following shortly thereafter.

 

That night, he braved the falling snow, bundled up like a cozy dumpling, and made his way to the billiards club on his bicycle. As he entered the club, he saw Jiang Yang wiping down the billiards tables with a cloth. When Jiang Yang spotted him, he strode over and gestured to his height with a smirk, "So short, did your parents approve of you coming here? Better go back and call them. The teacher only takes on disciples with their parent's permission."

 

The young boy, who had just entered the club, replied, "I don't have parents."

 

Jiang Yang was taken aback. He momentarily became speechless

 

The senior who tried to intimidate him was named Jiang Yang, which had a different pronunciation from the last Chinese character of his name. That year, he was in the second grade, while Jiang Yang was in sixth grade. Comparing height in that manner is not gentlemanly sporting behavior. However, being a young kid, he doesn't yet understand what it means to be a gentleman.

 


 

Lin Yi Yang was only a young boy when he stumbled upon the game of billiards. At the time, the sport wasn't exactly associated with gentlemen in China. The billiards halls were often filled with the smell of smoke, loud noises, and rough language. But he had heard that there was money in this game, and so he was determined to give it a try.

 

Despite the rough atmosphere, he persevered and worked hard to become the last apprentice of his teacher. With his hard work and dedication, Lin Yi Yang eventually proved himself a talented player.

During the Snowstorm
5.3
The Tide of Time

As Yin Guo stared at the screen of her phone, she felt a sudden rush of emotions flood through her. The words "Trust me" echoed in her mind, stirring up a mix of doubt and longing. She leaned against the sink, clutching the edge with white knuckles as if searching for some sort of anchor to hold onto.

 

Despite her doubts, she couldn't help but feel moved by the sincerity in Lin Yi Yang's messages. The repeated plea of "Trust me" struck a chord within her, tugging at the softest part of her heart. At that moment, Yin Guo was overwhelmed with conflicting emotions, feeling both guilty for taking advantage of an honest person and powerless against the force of her desires. Without any additional words, she knew her heart was already beginning to give in.

 

As Yin Guo read the message, she couldn't help but wonder if Lin Yi Yang's sincerity matched his words. She had seen him on the billiards table, cold and ruthless, his face expressionless even after a victory. He was a champion, but he didn't have the face of a sportsman, let alone an honest person.

 

She knew that their sport demanded the highest level of sportsmanship, with an emphasis on being a true gentleman. But she also knew that off the table, these men were just ordinary people with flaws and imperfections like everyone else. Some would tell dirty jokes and flirt with girls in private, while others liked to boast and exaggerate their achievements. And then there were those, like her cousin and Li Qingyan, who were more reserved and restrained.

 

Yin Guo couldn't help but wonder which category Lin Yi Yang belonged to. Was he truly sincere and honest, or was he just another player with a façade of sportsmanship? She knew she needed more time to figure him out, but for now, she chose to believe his words, hoping they held some truth.

 

It's hard to imagine Lin Yi Yang being reserved in the past. If you asked him to describe himself, he would probably say he was a reckless and rebellious teenager. Yin Guo could easily picture the type of person she often saw in junior high school: those who hung out on the parallel bars, skipped classes to smoke, and got into fights with other groups at the pool hall. Lin Yi Yang seemed to fit that profile perfectly.

 

However, despite his tendency to keep a low profile and not boast about his accomplishments, Lin Yi Yang possessed an undeniable charm that was hard to resist. He wasn't the type to spend lavishly on others or engage in grandiose self-promotion, but something about him made him irresistible.

 

The days seemed to crawl by at a snail's pace, taunting Yin Guo as she longed to see Lin Yi Yang. Sunday...Thursday. It felt like an eternity until they could be together again.

 

Realization hit her that there were still five more days of waiting. Five days of yearning, of feeling his absence like a dull ache. But she knew it would be worth it when they finally reunited.

 

Lin Yi Yang stood there, tapping his foot to the beat of the hand drum. His eyes were glued to his phone, waiting for a reply from Yin Guo. He didn't want to risk losing signal again, so he stayed on the platform.

 

The station was located in the heart of the bustling downtown area, with skyscrapers towering above and a sea of people flowing in and out. Despite the chaos, the sound of the hand drum managed to cut through the noise, luring Lin Yi Yang towards the musician.

 

It was only one stop away from her hotel, yet it felt like an eternity until they could meet again. Lin Yi Yang yearned for her company and couldn't wait to hold her in his arms. But for now, he stayed by the old man's side, swaying to the rhythm and waiting for his phone to vibrate with a message from Yin Guo.

 

One minute later, Yin Guo finally replied.

 

Red Fish: I'll go to the train station to see you off.

 

Just then, a subway train pulled up, disgorging a group of rowdy teenagers, all wielding cue sticks. They were clearly gearing up for a public competition next week. They passed by Lin Yi Yang, chattering and laughing. Two dark-haired girls caught sight of a tall, handsome Asian man with black hair and piercing black eyes.

 

They turned back to look at him, giggling and whispering behind their hands, clearly taken aback by his striking appearance. Seeing such a man on the busy city streets was a rare sight.

 

However, the man who caught their attention could only see the text before him.

 

Lin Yi Yang's eyes were fixated on his phone screen as he typed out a reply to Yin Guo amidst the rhythmic beat of the hand drum.

 

The lively atmosphere of the subway station seemed to fade into the background as he sent the message: "I'll be at the next station. On the platform."

 

Meanwhile, Yin Guo dashed into the subway car, panting as she watched the doors close. She couldn't help but reflect on herself for a moment and acknowledge that she was easily distracted by good-looking men.

 


 

It was a single moment in the Chinese billiard room in Flushing that changed her perception of him. He had his back turned to her, clutching a ball in his hand, urging everyone to up the ante. It was then that he uttered those words that sparked something in her: "Let me see what you've got." From that moment on, she started to look at him in a different light.

 

As an athlete, Lin Yi Yang possessed a competitive spirit that ran deep. Whether it was expressed through his actions or kept hidden, it was a trait that drove him to strive for greatness. Some athletes wanted to beat their opponents, while others sought to surpass their limitations. Regardless of their approach, all competitive athletes shared an appreciation for strong opponents.

 

Yin Guo felt her heart racing with anticipation as the train approached the station. She clutched her phone tightly, re-reading the message from Lin Yi Yang. The train announced the upcoming station, and as it slowed to a stop, she stood up, ready to exit.

 

Just as she was about to step off the train, she remembered Lin Yi Yang's request to wait for him on the platform. She hesitated for a moment but then decided to follow his instructions and stay on the train.

 

Lin Yi Yang stepped onto the train carriage, his eyes scanning the sea of commuters for Yin Guo. He carried a sports backpack and looked determined to find her. They had entered the station through the same entrance, so he estimated they couldn't be too far apart.

 

Finally, he spotted her supporting herself on a metal pole and made his way toward her. Yin Guo watched as he crossed most of the carriage and stood before her, feeling a flutter in her chest at his proximity.

 

"I have already seen the coach, and my training schedule is flexible. It's no problem for me to drop you off and come back," Yin Guo said. "It's always you who comes to pick me up, so it's my turn to do it this time."

 

Lin Yi Yang couldn't help but smile at her offer. He admired her determination and independence but also felt a pang of sadness. He knew this would be their last meeting before leaving for his training camp.

 

In public, Lin Yi Yang couldn't make any overly bold moves, but he wanted to express his affection toward her somehow. So, he lowered his head and looked at her, his eyes filled with tenderness and longing.

 

This unfamiliar Lin Yi Yang or the real Lin Yi Yang.

 

At this moment, he was not a gentleman but more like a young man deeply in love, cherishing every moment with the girl he adored.

 

Because of her attractive appearance from a young age, Yin Guo frequently encountered situations where people would give her flirtatious glances. However, her cousin had many friends who warned anyone nearby not to pursue Meng Xiaodong's little sister, so at most, she would only receive occasional looks.

 

Previously, Yin Guo hated these glances, but now...

 

She could feel the warmth slowly rising up her face, layer by layer. It wasn't a burning sensation but a pleasant warmth that made her feel alive.

 

Yin Guo felt slightly frustrated as the train swayed gently along the tracks. She had hoped for a conversation, but it seemed like Lin Yi Yang was content to sit in silence. "If you don't say anything, I might just leave at the next stop," Yin Guo grumbled, her voice barely audible above the hum of the subway.

 

Lin Yi Yang shifted in his seat, frowning. "I'm not very good with words," he admitted, "I don't want to say the wrong thing and upset you."

 

Yin Guo nodded slowly, considering his words. "Were you always like this?" she asked, genuinely curious. "Quiet, I mean."

Lin Yi Yang shrugged. "I guess so. I don't have to worry about offending guys with what I say, though."

 

Yin Guo smiled at that, finding common ground. "I can understand that."

 

Different types of relationships often have different communication styles. For example, among close male friends, insults and vulgar language are common, while among close female friends, gossip and emotional discussions are more frequent.

 

Curious about his communication style with women, Yin Guo asked, "And how about with girls?"

 

Lin Yi Yang replied, "Most girls are probably intimidated by me, so we don't talk much."

 

Yin Guo was skeptical. "Not even one girl that you actively want to talk to?"

 

Lin Yi Yang saw through Yin Guo's intention behind the question and responded with a counter-question, "Has your brother ever shown interest in someone before and taken the initiative to approach them?"

 

Yin Guo shook her head, remembering Meng Xiaodong's odd and overly confident behavior around others.

 

Lin Yi Yang continued, "So, compared to your brother, do you think I'm worse?"

 

The audacity of his question left Yin Guo momentarily speechless, surprised to meet someone who could rival her brother's arrogance finally.

 

Yin Guo quickly caught the inconsistency in his statement. Lin Yi Yang had indeed taken the initiative and pursued her. She looked at him, waiting for an explanation.

 

Lin Yi Yang also noticed his verbal mistake, but instead of correcting himself, he just gave her a brief glance. They both understood each other without the need for words. Yin Guo realized that he wasn't being arrogant or narcissistic, but rather he was just someone who had yet to find someone worth his time. Proud people often believe in equality among all beings, but that doesn't mean they easily give their attention to just anyone.

 

Soon they arrived at a new station, and Yin Guo couldn't help but feel a pang of disappointment that they had one less stop together. She turned her attention back to Lin Yi Yang when he spoke in a low voice, his words hovering above her head.

 

"Why do people say I have a girlfriend in Washington?"

 

Yin Guo's heart skipped a beat. She finally confessed, "I feel like it's too fast. I don't feel very secure about it."

 

Even though she was standing in the subway car with him right before her, it still didn't feel real. It felt fantastical, mysterious, and impulsive. She couldn't quite shake off the feeling of uncertainty.

 

It's hard to explain; she knew she wasn't being rational, but what she feared more was regretting it later.

 

Yin Guo couldn't help but imagine the worst-case scenario if she rejected Lin Yi Yang. They would likely drift apart and stop interacting altogether, or worse, he might move on and start a family with someone else. The thought of him being with someone else made her feel uneasy, to say the least.

 

"Just tell me, how can I prove my innocence?" he asked again, this time with a much more relaxed tone.

 

Yin Guo replied with a chuckle. "There's no need for you to prove anything to me. I'm here to see you off, not to question your innocence."

 

She wouldn't have come to see him off if she didn't believe him.

 

He chuckled too.

 

He wants to say that since he started studying, he has always been busy making money, earning credits, and setting aside time for regular training. During graduation season this year, he was working and applying for a Ph.D. program at the same time. Even he couldn't imagine that he could travel back and forth to New York every week during this time. Indeed, a person's ability to push themselves is limitless.

 

In such a state, having a girlfriend was a luxury, let alone engaging in ambiguous relationships.

 

......

 

At the train station that day, Lin Yi Yang was in a rush and barely made it to his train on time. He quickly scanned his ticket at the gate and waved frantically to Yin Guo, waiting outside the elevator.

 

But despite his urging, Yin Guo remained rooted to the spot until Lin Yi Yang disappeared into the crowd, leaving her feeling lost and dejected for a moment. Just as she was about to leave, a message from Lin Yi Yang popped up on her phone with a screenshot of an Uber ride.

 

Lin: Take the car back.

 

Xiao Guo: I'll take the subway back. It's very convenient.

 

Lin: The car is already here. You don't have to take the subway.

 

Lin: Come on, be a good girl.

 

Lin was gentle but firm, and Yin Guo couldn't resist. She reluctantly agreed and followed him to the car waiting outside the station. The driver in the front row turned around and smiled, asking if it was their ride.

 

Yin Guo nodded, feeling a little uneasy about the situation. She wasn't used to being treated like a child who needed to be told what to do.

 

As the train to Washington departed, Lin Yi Yang took a seat and surveyed the nearly empty carriage. To his surprise, he recognized a fellow passenger - the dark-skinned mother he had encountered on the train during a blizzard with her two babies.

 

Although he couldn't recall her face, he vividly remembered the babies. One was crying while the other played quietly, while the mother desperately tried to prepare formula.

 

Moved by her struggles, Lin Yi Yang threw his sports backpack onto the seat and offered to help.

 

"Let me give you a hand," he said in a soft voice.

 

She didn't immediately recognize him but gratefully smiled and thanked him.

 

As Lin helped mix the formula, memories of their previous encounter flooded back to him. He shook the bottle vigorously and handed it to the African-American mother, hoping it would calm the crying baby. When she received the bottle, the recognition finally dawned on her, and she exclaimed, "Last time, a few months ago, we met on this train?"

 

Lin nodded and replied, "Yes, it was about two months ago."

 

As the mother fed the baby, she introduced herself as someone who had to visit her husband regularly and had to bring two babies with her back and forth. She also asked if he frequently traveled between two places and for what reason - work, girlfriend, or family?

Lin Yi Yang just smiled and said nothing. He didn't feel comfortable sharing his personal life with strangers, but he couldn't help feeling a sense of admiration for this strong and resilient mother.

 

As the train ride continued, Lin Yi Yang dozed off and woke up with a sore throat and a general feeling of malaise. He knew he was coming down with something but tried to ignore it and continue his journey without complaint.

 

The busyness of his life was already overwhelming, with the constant commuting between two cities and the frequent traveling adding to the fatigue. It was a wonder that he hadn't fallen sick sooner.

 

After returning to his apartment that evening, he took some Vitamin C and promptly fell into a deep sleep. He woke up briefly before dawn and noticed a WeChat message he had composed for Yin Guo but hadn't sent.

 

......

 

At 4 am, Yin Guo's phone vibrated under her pillow. She struggled to open her heavy eyelids and reached for her phone, hoping to see a message from Lin Yi Yang, letting her know he was safe. She had been waiting for hours and had asked him about it once, but he didn't reply, so she thought he was probably too busy to respond.

 

The bright screen illuminated her face as she squinted to read the message:

 

Lin: Arrived.

 

Yin Guo was surprised. Did he just arrive at 4 in the morning?

 

Xiao Guo: Did you have trouble on the way? You arrived really late.

 

There was no response from Lin.

 

Yin Guo assumed that if he arrived so late, he probably still had to go home to pack things, take a shower, and sleep.

Yin Guo didn't think much about it and went back to sleep, feeling relieved that Lin had arrived safely.

 

Meanwhile, Yin Guo continued to train hard for the upcoming competitions. She spent most of her time at the hotel, practicing her routines and occasionally meeting fellow competitors from Dongxincheng at breakfast or nearby restaurants. Ever since the incident with Lin Yi Yang, everyone from that club had started treating her as the future wife of their junior master, which made her feel both amused and embarrassed. Her clubmates teased her about it, but Yin Guo just laughed it off and focused on her training.

 

"After fighting against each other for so long, East and North City are now going to 'unite' through marriage. It's funny how time can heal all wounds..."

 

On Thursday morning, Yin Guo received a message from Coach Chen informing her that she needed to attend the youth group competition in the morning.

 

Yin Guo quickly calculated the time and realized that watching the competition would disrupt her training schedule, and she wouldn't have time to catch dinner. So, she sat alone at a small table by the window in the breakfast room, spooning cereal into her mouth while typing out a message to Lin Yi Yang with one hand.

 

Xiaoguo: I won't be able to accompany you for dinner today because I have to go watch the game. You can eat with Wu Wei first.

 

Lin: I can't make it today. Don't worry about me.

 

Yin Guo felt a sense of emptiness inside and didn't know how to respond. She had meticulously planned everything for the past few days, trying to make time for Lin Yi Yang. Although she tried to hide her feelings, she was counting the days until they could meet again.

 

Xiaoguo: Will you be back tomorrow as usual?

 

Lin: I'm very busy at school this week. It's more than expected. I'll come over early next week.

 

Yin Guo felt disappointed after reading Lin's message. She had been looking forward to seeing him tomorrow, but now she had to wait another week.

 

She absentmindedly swirled the spoon in her bowl of cereal, the clinking of the ceramic spoon against the ceramic bowl resonating in the quiet room. Just as she thought the notification on her phone was from Lin Yi Yang, it turned out to be a message from her cousin.

 

Tiantian: Hey, sis, want to spend the weekend together?

 

Xiaoguo: ...Sorry, I won't be able to accompany you this time. You can have fun on your own.

 

Tiantian: It was Lin-ge who asked me to come.

 

Meng Xiaotian sent her several screenshots, all showing different restaurant addresses.

 

Tiantian: He's already booked the tables and even transferred money to me. He asked me to accompany him for meals from Thursday to Sunday.

 

Xiaoguo: Why does he need to pay for your meals?

 

Tiantian: He said it's a private matter between him and you... I'm just helping out.

 

Yin Guo rested her chin on her hand, feeling a sense of relief wash over her as she read the messages.

 

Xiaoguo: Did he tell you this just now?

 

Tiantian: No, it was last night. Let me check the time stamp.

 

Tiantian: It was a little after 2 am.

 

Yin Guo realized that Lin Yi Yang had made the arrangements without informing her. She took a few sips of her cereal, deep in thought.

 

Xiaoguo: I'm not going, but don't tell him that.

 

Tiantian: Oh, okay.

 

Xiaoguo: Send me the money he transferred, don't keep it.

 

Tiantian: Got it. I'll transfer it to you now.

 

Yin Guo felt a sense of control over the situation as she watched the money appear in her account.

 

Yin Guo gobbled up her cereal and fruit, finished her breakfast, and hurried back to her room. She immediately logged on to the internet and searched for an afternoon train ticket. After finding one that fit her schedule, she headed straight to Coach Chen's office. She requested permission to leave the hotel for the weekend starting that afternoon but assured him that her training schedule would not be affected. Trusting her abilities and commitment to training, Coach Chen approved her request without hesitation.

 

Yin Guo sat in her seat on the train to Washington, staring out at the empty station platform. She was lost in thought, wondering when she should tell Lin Yi Yang about her visit. This was her third trip to DC, but she felt unprepared this time because she didn't have the address of his apartment and was hesitant to book a hotel too far away.

 

As the ticket inspector made their rounds, Yin Guo watched the scenery outside the window as it became unfamiliar.

 

She felt like she was in a movie, doing something she would never have done in the past - traveling a long distance alone to see someone. As she got off the train and followed the crowd out of the station, she couldn't help but feel a sense of excitement and nervousness.

 

Standing at the station's entrance, she looked up at the sky and noticed it was turning yellow and red, signaling the approach of night. She knew she needed to act quickly if she wanted to make the most of her time here.

 

Taking a deep breath, she pulled out her phone and dialed his number, hoping for the best but preparing for the worst.

Xiaoguo: Are you at school?

 

Lin: Yes.

 

Yin Guo smiled as she remembered the burger place Lin Yi Yang recommended to her cousin. She decided to go there and sent him a picture of the restaurant.

 

Xiaoguo: I'm here.

 

As she waited for his response, Yin Guo felt a mixture of excitement and nervousness. She wondered if he would be scared off by her sudden arrival.

 

Just as she was about to say something, Lin Yi Yang responded.

 

Lin: Don't move. I'll come over.

 

Xiaoguo: No, no need. I just wanted to give you a surprise. Give me the address, and I'll call a car to come over. You don't have to pick me up.

 

Lin: Stay where you are.

 

Lin Yi Yang was a serious person and didn't like to argue. Yin Guo knew this about him, so she didn't reply and obediently waited. She stood still and sipped on an iced cola, keeping an eye out for him. She finished the cola, threw the cup in the trash can, and looked outside again.

 

The station was quiet and dimly lit, casting an eerie atmosphere on the surroundings. Yin Guo's eyes scanned the area, searching for signs of Lin Yi Yang. As she was about to leave the station, she noticed a familiar figure entering a disheveled state, holding a black wallet and a phone.

 

Upon seeing him, Yin Guo's heart raced as if it was about to leap out of her chest. She mustered the courage to call his name, "Lin Yi Yang, over here!"

 

He turned around at the sound and saw Yin Guo carrying a backpack and a bag of cue sticks. He felt a little relieved. He walked up to Yin Guo, wanting to see her, then she appeared out of nowhere. He wanted to hug her, but in public, he decided against it.

 

"Aren't you cold?" she asked as she approached him and noticed he was wearing a thin jacket with short sleeves underneath. "It's below ten degrees outside, and it's already dark. You're not dressed warmly enough."

 

He looked worn out, and his face appeared slimmer without shaving. She couldn't help but stare at him, "I came here to see you. You can go about your business. You don't have to worry about me. Just find me a place to practice snooker. There should be one, right?"

 

Lin Yi Yang didn't say anything in response, which made Yin Guo feel uneasy.

 

Yin Guo's gaze dimmed for a moment.

 

Lin Yi Yang looked at her, his pupils reflecting only her figure. He wanted to say something, but it was difficult for him to speak. Finally, he managed to rasp out a sentence with a hoarse voice, "What are you thinking about? My throat is sore."

 

As he spoke, he pointed to his own throat and gave a bitter smile, then added, "Can't speak."

During the Snowstorm
6.2
You in the Story

As Lin Yi Yang stood outside the hotel entrance, he couldn't help but feel the urge to smoke. He glanced at his pockets, realizing he had forgotten his cigarettes in the room. He let out a frustrated sigh and scanned the area. A group of travelers was gathered by the trash bin, puffing on their cigarettes. He hesitated for a moment before walking over and politely asking to borrow one.

 

One of the smokers obliged, handing him a cigarette wrapped in white paper. The brown tobacco inside was alluring, and he couldn't resist the temptation any longer. He lit the cigarette and took a deep drag, feeling the smoke fill his lungs. It had been years since he last smoked, but it still felt familiar.

 

His smoking gesture was experienced, almost as if he had been a heavy smoker all his life. But in reality, he had quit smoking a long time ago. He couldn't help but wonder if it was the stress of the situation that made him crave a cigarette or if it was something else entirely.

 

The last time he found himself in a situation like this was downstairs at the New York apartment with Chen Anan, and what was the reason? It was all because of Yin Guo.

 

As he stood outside the hotel entrance, smoking a borrowed cigarette from the other travelers, he couldn't help but think of her. The break gave him a moment to reflect, and he knew what he wanted to do.

 

The idea of spending over six hours just for a round trip seemed like a waste of time, especially since he knew he wouldn't be able to focus on anything important during those six hours except for her. He couldn't let her go so easily.

 

With that realization, he made a decision and started walking toward the hotel lobby. He was going upstairs to see her, to be by her side, and to make the most of their time together.

 

......

 

Lin Yi Yang checked his watch, placing it carefully on the tea counter. The black metal chain glinted in the morning light as he adjusted the dial and hands to read 7:01 am.

 

With a quick and effortless motion, he lifted Yin Guo off the ground, and she instinctively wrapped her arms around his neck. Her left hand rested on his waist while her right hand gripped his thigh tightly. "Hang on tight," he instructed, and she complied, her heart racing with excitement.

 

She knew that all of this was for him - this man who was capable of making her feel so alive.

 

Lin Yi Yang had intended to carry Yin Guo into the room, but as her hair brushed against his face, he found himself momentarily entranced. After taking a shower, Yin Guo had left her hair untied, allowing it to cascade down her back and over her shoulders.

 

As he breathed in her sweet fragrance, he couldn't help but wonder if all girls smelled this good or if it was just his attachment to Yin Guo that made her scent so alluring. But he quickly pushed the thought aside, not wanting to overanalyze the moment.

 

He gently placed her on the tea counter, his gaze fixed on her face. His voice came out hoarse as he asked, "What is it about you that smells so good?"

 

"Just took a shower before bed," she replied, a hint of amusement in her voice at his direct compliment.

 

He chuckled, the warm breath with a slight tinge of cigarette smoke hitting her forehead.

 

She was about to say, "You used to go there—" that he was already quite grown up. Didn't he know that girls always smell nice after taking a shower?

 

"Go where?" he asked, turning his head towards her, his lips just inches away from hers. He lingered there for a moment, savoring the anticipation of the kiss.

 

Yin Guo couldn't help but purse her lips, feeling her heart fluttering inside her chest. She looked into Lin Yi Yang's eyes, seeing his gaze fixed on her. It was like being in the water, with a current pulling her in a certain direction, but she didn't want to resist.

 

Lin Yi Yang observed her subtle expressions, slowly changing his direction as if looking for the best kissing position. He asked, "Aren't you going to say anything?"

 

Yin Guo's heart raced as she realized that this was a trap. Lin Yi Yang was waiting for her to speak, waiting for her to fall into his trap. And she did. Just as she opened her mouth, Lin Yi Yang leaned in and kissed her.

 

There was no breathing space left for her, nor for him. It was a suffocating intimacy that deprived them of oxygen. Lin Yi Yang's kissing was so intense that it made the base of Yin Guo's tongue numb. She tried to pull away, but his grip on her was firm, leaving her no room to escape. She felt trapped, helpless, and overwhelmed by his forceful affection.

 

As the kiss continued, Yin Guo's thoughts raced. She didn't know what to do or how to react. Should she fight back or give in? Was this what she wanted, or was she being manipulated? She couldn't tell anymore, and her confusion only added to the intensity of the moment.

 

When the last bit of oxygen was used up, her nails dug into his shoulders, as if she was released from the kiss, but also as if she was still kissing him. He saw that her eyes were red, and she was still staring at him absentmindedly, trying to make sense of what had just happened.

 

......

 

His lips met her forehead, the warmth of his breath seeping into her skin. Yin Guo's mind was thrown into a whirlwind of memories, a maelstrom of emotions flooding her senses. She could feel her heart pounding like it was trying to escape her chest.

 

As she leaned her head against the cabinet, her eyes met his gaze. Lin Yi Yang's lips curved into a smile, his eyes tracing the contours of her face. "What are you smiling about?" she asked, her voice soft and hushed.

 

He replied, "Why are you so beautiful? How were you born?" The sweetness of his words made her heart flutter. Yin Guo could feel the weight of his words as if they were a physical force melting her heart, leaving her feeling weak and vulnerable.

 

In front of him, Lin Yi Yang couldn't help but admire Yin Guo's beauty. Her eyes sparkled as she talked, and her hair cascaded down her back in waves. He cleared his throat and tried to make conversation, "There are quite a few people pursuing you, right?" he asked. "You're so good-looking; there should be many."

 

Yin Guo shook her head and replied, "My older cousin has many underlings in our school. He made it clear since middle school that no one was allowed to pursue me. I didn't have many male classmates who dared to talk to me during my middle and high school years."

 

He should really thank Meng Xiaodong for that.

 

"In middle school, I was called to the office once," Yin Guo began. "Someone had written my name on the back of his school uniform, and I was accused of early romance. I had no idea about it and was scolded by the teacher. My brother had to attend the parent-teacher conference to clear things up." Yin Guo smiled ruefully. "And to top it off, my homeroom teacher was a big fan of my brother. I suspect she did it on purpose."

 

As he listened, Lin Yi Yang imagined the scene and felt a pang of anger rising within him. Things wouldn't have been so simple if he had known Yin Guo back then. He would have tracked down that cowardly student and given him the beating he deserved.

 

"Afterwards, my brother returned and told me that he looked at the class photo and told our homeroom teacher, 'It's impossible for her to be with that guy. My sister doesn't have good taste; she only likes good-looking guys.'"

 

Lin Yi Yang couldn't help but chuckle at Yin Guo's story. He looked at her and saw how relaxed and cheerful she had become. She was wearing a loose short-sleeved shirt and a pair of cotton sports shorts after taking a shower, and her snow-white legs were fully exposed in front of him. The sight of her made his heart skip a beat.

 

As Yin Guo spoke, she kept adjusting her position before him, trying to find a comfortable sitting posture. Her movements were graceful and effortless, and Lin Yi Yang couldn't help but be mesmerized by her. He was completely captivated by her visual, olfactory, and auditory senses, and he couldn't imagine ever wanting to be with anyone else.

 

"I graduated from No.7 High School," he said, hoping to shift the topic away from her school experience.

 


 

Yin Guo's eyes widened in surprise. "No way! That's just a five-minute walk from our school. Back then, the only people hanging out outside our school gate were either delinquents or students from your high school."

 

He chuckled at her observation, not denying the reputation of his alma mater as a notorious delinquent school in the district. He remembered the times when he and his friends would loiter outside their school gates, smoking and pretending to be tough. But now, as he looked at Yin Guo sitting across from him, he knew he had come a long way from those days.

 

Yin Guo pulled him closer, her arms wrapped tightly around him as she leaned in. Her breath was hot on his skin, sending a shiver down his spine. "Tell me more," she whispered in his ear, her voice laced with desire.

 

Lin Yi Yang felt his heart skip a beat as he looked into her eyes. The way she was holding him, the way she was looking at him, it was like she wanted to know everything about him. He leaned in, his face close to hers, and asked, "What do you want to know about my past?"

 

Yin Guo suddenly became nervous and shifted her focus to something else, "Oh, sorry, I didn't mean to pry. Let's talk about something else then, like your major in college."

 

Lin Yi Yang noticed her discomfort and tried to reassure her, "It's okay; you can ask me anything. I have nothing to hide from you, and I want you to know everything about me."

 

His words were comforting, and his tone was gentle, like a warm hug on a cold day. If his voice had a color, it would be a soft shade of blue, calming and soothing.

 

Lin Yi Yang spoke for an hour, sharing his deepest thoughts and memories with Yin Guo. He talked about his childhood memories, his hometown on the other side of the coast, and in the end, his parents' tragic story.

 

"My parents passed away in a car accident while they were on a business trip," he said with a hint of sadness in his voice. "My dad was in sales, and my mom worked in finance at the same car company. At the time, my mom had been a stay-at-home mom, but she decided to join my dad on the trip because she suspected he was having an affair. Unfortunately, they both passed away in the accident."

 

Lin Yi Yang paused for a moment, collecting his thoughts before continuing. "It wasn't until I grew up and went through their belongings that I discovered the other side of the story. My dad was always away on business trips because he had discovered my mom was having an affair."

 

She wasn't great at comforting others. Whenever her friends were upset, she would offer dry and boring solutions like providing food and napkins, never quite knowing what to say to soothe their hearts. "By being open about it, you must have found some peace," she said, trying to offer some words of comfort to Lin Yi Yang.

 

He replied calmly, "Yes, it ended a long time ago."

 

All the stories of the previous generation had already been written to the end, written to the curtain call.

 

"Do you still believe in marriage?" she asked, trying to steer the conversation to a different topic.

 

As she spoke, Lin Yi Yang lifted his eyes slightly to assess her.

 

"I was just trying to comfort you," she explained, feeling embarrassed at her awkward attempt at reassurance. "Don't think too much about it, don't misunderstand."

 

"What do you think I'm thinking about?" he asked, his tone softening slightly.

 

Yin Guo fell silent, unable to argue with him anymore. She looked at him intently, trying to understand what he meant. He seemed so confident and self-assured as if he had everything figured out.

 

"I believe in myself," he repeated, his voice calm but firm. Lin Yi Yang had his share of ups and downs in life, but he has learned to trust his abilities and instincts. He knows what he wants and what he's capable of.

 

She couldn't help but admire his strength and resilience, having been through so much at such a young age. He had fought hard as a teenager, reached the pinnacle of success, won the national championship, lost everything at the age of sixteen, and had to start over from scratch. Despite all the hardships, he never gave up on himself and kept pushing forward. It was no wonder that he believed in himself so strongly. At the age of twenty-seven, he had a clear vision of the kind of life he wanted to lead, and he was determined to achieve it.

 

"Any other questions?" he inquired.

 

She shook her head, still groggy from sleep, and wrapped her arms around him. "I was in the middle of a dream when you woke me up. I don't want to ask anything anymore," she murmured.

 

Initially, Yin Guo had wanted to question him about why he had left Dongxincheng, but now she found that her curiosity had dissipated. She didn't want to ask about anything at all.

 

In his presence, she found that even if they spoke about inconsequential things, it wouldn't feel like a waste of time.

 

As Lin Yi Yang felt the warmth and curves of his girlfriend's body, he couldn't help but be grateful for her presence in his life. Even the simple act of counting with her was more engaging than any blockbuster film. But now, as he listened to the story of his parents, Yin Guo's silence made him feel her concern for his well-being.

 

As Lin Yi Yang held his girlfriend in his arms, he couldn't help but marvel at the curves of her body that never failed to ignite a fire within him.

 

Feeling the tension in his body, Yin Guo lifted her head to look at him with concern in her eyes. Without a word, she wrapped her arms tighter around him, comforting him the only way she knew how.

 

Not wanting to ruin the peaceful silence between them, Lin Yi Yang decided to change the subject. "Let me carry you to bed," he offered, a small smile tugging at the corner of his lips.

 

Yin Guo nodded in agreement and allowed him to scoop her up in his arms, carrying her into their private sanctuary.

 

He picked up Yin Guo, feeling her warm body against his, and carried her from the porch into the bedroom. As they entered the room, he noticed her slippers had fallen on the carpet along with his coat, which he had left at the entrance. He gently placed her on the bed and lay beside her, pulling the snow-white cotton quilt over them both.

 

Yin Guo and Lin Yi Yang were tangled up in the sheets, their bodies pressed against each other. As they kissed, she couldn't help but feel a rush of desire coursing through her veins. The soft cotton of her short-sleeved shirt brushed against his rough denim jeans, creating a delicious friction that sent shivers down her spine.

 

Lin Yi Yang's lips moved across every inch of her body, leaving a trail of electric sensations in their wake. Yin Guo's mind was consumed by him, and she found herself losing control in the best way possible. This man had a way of making her feel like the only person in the world that mattered.

 

She let herself get lost in the moment, feeling the intensity of his touch and the heat of his body against hers. With him, there was no need for words or explanations. It was just them, at this moment, entirely consumed by their desire for each other.

 

Despite being exhausted from hugging and kissing in their clothes for over three hours, neither of them wanted it to end. Every inch of their body screamed for rest, but they couldn't stop kissing each other. "So tired...So Sleepy,"

 

Yin Guo felt the curiosity about the male body and sex that a girl experiences when she likes someone. Lin Yi Yang was still exploring every inch of her lips, and she tilted her head back to give him better access. They were lost in their own world, kissing each other until they fell asleep.

 

Yin Guo's mind drifted to the feel of his warm, bare skin against hers. She longed to wrap her arms around his waist, explore his body with her hands, and feel his muscles ripple under her touch.

 

He caught her gaze and paused as if waiting for her permission to continue. His eyes seemed to express a yearning desire to take her top off, to reveal her body to him, and to embrace her until they both fell asleep.

 

Yin Guo was acutely aware of his intentions. She had rejected his advances twice before, and the thought of being vulnerable and exposed made her heart race with nervousness. She opened her mouth to speak, but a lump in her throat prevented any sound from escaping.

 

In the silence of the room, they both waited for the other to make a move. The tension between them was palpable, and Yin Guo felt as though she was teetering on the edge of a cliff, unsure whether to take the leap or step back.

 

After a few moments of silence, Yin Guo spoke up, her voice barely above a whisper. "I'm not ready yet."

 

Lin Yi Yang looked at her and gently touched her neck, "I just want to have a look, nothing more."

 

Despite being intimate with each other for hours, Yin Guo still felt shy and nervous. Lin Yi Yang, on the other hand, felt completely at ease with her. He wanted to admire every inch of her but also knew the importance of respecting her boundaries.

 

......

 

Yin Guo's throat was dry, and she felt dizzy. She was overwhelmed by the heat, "All girls are the same, and they don't look different."

 

Her neck was red, as were her ears, bright red.

 

"I don't know," he said, looking at her with a gentle smile. "I haven't seen them."

 

......

 

After hesitating for a while, Yin Guo murmured in rebuttal, "I haven't seen it either." She hoped to dispel his thoughts and put an end to the topic.

 

But Lin Yi Yang was not one to be deterred easily. He propped himself up with his arm, sat beside her, and without a word, he grabbed the hem of his short-sleeved shirt with both hands and pulled it off. Tossing the shirt aside, he leaned down and whispered to her, "Come on, take a good look."

 

As his elbow pressed against her, supporting his arm, Yin Guo's eyes couldn't help but wander over his well-defined muscles and beautifully defined waist. There wasn't a trace of excess fat on his upper body, and even his mermaid line was visible.

 

Her gaze trailed down to the edge of the zipper of his jeans, where she spotted an abstract design pattern above the mermaid line. It was a compass without a dial, with only half of it visible as the rest was covered by his jeans.

 

Yin Guo's fingers twitched involuntarily, wanting to touch the tattoo, but she held back. She didn't want to be too impulsive in front of Lin Yi Yang.

 

Yin Guo's curiosity was piqued as she observed the abstract tattoo on Lin Yi Yang's waist. However, she couldn't help but notice that the compass design was missing a pointer. "Isn't there supposed to be a pointer?" she asked, pointing to the tattoo.

 

"Here," he said.

 

With his right hand, Lin Yi Yang made a rough circle with his index and middle fingers under his waistband, indicating the location below his V-line. His attitude was clear: "If you want to see it, I'll show it to you."

Bitter Bargain BL R18
1
I- The Contract

The morning sky was a heavy blanket of grey, rain drumming a steady rhythm against the windows of the penthouse.

 

Adrian Hartley, a young man with tousled dark hair and piercing blue eyes, lay prone on the silk sheets, his arms tied behind his back.

 

Each breath was a struggle, his chest heaving against the firm mattress, while the bindings cut into his wrists.

 

Elliot Kane, the penthouse's domineering owner, loomed over him, his grip like iron.

 

With each thrust, Elliot's nails dug into Adrian's skin. Adrian's moans were swallowed by the plush bedding. There was a sound of pain and reluctant pleasure coursing through his body.

 

Elliot's movements were unyielding, his focus solely on satisfying his carnal desire. The scent of sweat and the musk of their bodies and the unspoken tension between them is evident.

 

Another thrust and the dam within Elliot finally broke. His juice flowed inside Adrian’s hole and he shoved Adrian away. He left him sprawled across the bed like discarded refuse.

 

Adrian's world tilted as he was unceremoniously pushed off the bed. He landed with a dull thud on the cold, marble floor.

 

His vision blurred momentarily, and he could only just catch his breath. He remained still, muscles trembling, the sting of the impact reverberating through his bones. He didn't expect kindness from Elliot; it was not part of their contract.

 

Elliot, ever indifferent, walked away, the sound of his footsteps receding into the adjoining bathroom.

 

The hiss of the shower followed.

 

Blindfolded and bound, Adrian lay motionless on the floor, the chill of the marble biting into his skin.

 

Adrian gritted his teeth as he struggled against the rope on his wrists. In this penthouse prison, showing weakness was pointless. He was no stranger to this treatment, yet each time it chipped away a little more of his resolve.

 

This wasn't a life he had chosen lightly.

 

Elliot Kane had lured Adrian into a contract born out of necessity. The promise of financial security for his family had been too alluring to refuse, even if it meant enduring Elliot's sadistic needs.

 

In the shadows of Elliot's empire, Adrian was little more than a plaything. He was a puppet bound by invisible strings. His role was clear: to satisfy the dominant man's dark desires, no questions asked, no emotions spared.

 

Elliot's hatred for weakness extended to his partners, his control must be absolute.

As the water continued to run in the bathroom, Adrian attempted to shift, the tight bindings cutting into his skin.

 

He was tired, every muscle aching from the rough encounter. The servant would come soon, as they always did, to untie him. Until then, he could do nothing but wait.

 

The sound of the shower stopped abruptly. Adrian's heart quickened. He anticipated the routine that would follow. Elliot would emerge, as pristine as ever, leaving Adrian to pick up the pieces of his dignity.

 

Moments later, the door creaked open, and the sharp click of footsteps echoed in the room. It wasn't Elliot. The servant, a young man with a look of perpetual boredom, approached and roughly untied Adrian's hands.

 

"Disgusting," the servant muttered.

 

With a quick motion, the blindfold was removed, flooding Adrian's eyes with the dim light of the room. The servant didn't wait for gratitude or a response; he simply turned and left, leaving Adrian to his solitude.

 

Adrian slowly sat up, his limbs trembling with exhaustion. The room was empty, save for the remnants of their earlier encounter scattered across the floor.

 

He pulled himself up, and gingerly made his way to the bathroom.

 

The mirror reflected a sight he was all too familiar with: a young man with shadows under his eyes, bruises marring his pale skin, and a resigned look etched into his features.

 

He washed quickly before retreating back to the bedroom.

 

Elliot's scent lingered in the air. Adrian climbed into the bed and curled up.

 

Finally, the rain had ceased, leaving the city enveloped in a damp, misty stillness.

 

Adrian Hartley sat at the edge of the enormous bed, staring out at the sprawling metropolis below.

 

It had been nearly six years since he had first entered this penthouse.

 

The room, though lavish, had never felt like his own. It was filled with cold, contemporary furniture and impersonal decor that mirrored the man who owned it. Adrian ran a hand through his dark, unruly hair.

 

"Tyler," he whispered the name of his brother into the empty room. "I'm struggling so much without you..."

 

His voice cracked as he spoke to the brother he had lost in a tragic accident years ago.

 

The penthouse was a silent witness to his one-sided conversations. If only he had spent more time with Tyler, cherished their moments together instead of chasing the next dream or ambition. Regret was a relentless companion that came too late to alter the past.

 

Adrian’s role in this contract with Elliot Kane was nothing short of humiliating.

 

In the world outside, alphas were the epitome of genetic superiority, and yet, here he was, an omega reduced to a mere tool for pheromone release.

 

Society revered omegas for their rare and coveted genetics, but in Elliot's eyes, Adrian was just a means to an end.

 

Elliot's disdain for omegas was notorious. Despite his need for Adrian's presence to quell the carnal needs of his alpha nature, he treated him with a detached cruelty that left Adrian feeling hollow and used.

 

The money from this arrangement had saved his family, but it had cost him his dignity and his freedom.

 

Adrian's childhood was a far cry from the luxury he found himself in now. His distinctly exotic features had marked him as different from a young age, leading to years in a series of foster homes.

 

Born to a mother of unknown origin and abandoned shortly after, he had been passed over for adoption until he was ten, his dark hair and striking eyes an unusual sight in the Midwest.

 

It wasn’t until the Millers, long-time volunteers at the orphanage, decided to take him in that Adrian experienced the warmth of a family. They had named him Adrian, a name they chose with care after researching his possible heritage. Though it turned out to be a mix of cultural influences rather than a precise linguistic match, it held a special place in his heart.

 

"Adrian,"

 

At the time, Adrian hadn't thought much about the meaning behind his name. He had been too overwhelmed by the joy of finally belonging somewhere. The Millers had given him everything he had longed for: a place to call home, parents who loved him, and an older brother, Tyler, who he had adored.

 

But that happiness was shattered on a fateful night when a drunk driver had crashed into their car. Tyler had died instantly, protecting Adrian with his own body, while their parents had slipped into comas from which they never awoke.

 

The doctors held out little hope, and Adrian was left to face the world alone, struggling to pay for their care.

 

"Tyler, I'm really having a hard time..." he whispered again,

 

Exhaustion eventually claimed him, and he drifted into a fitful sleep.

 

---

 

Morning arrived with the first light filtering through the rain-slicked windows. Adrian woke with a start, his body aching from the previous night's encounter.

 

Elliot had been particularly harsh, driven by the need to expel his pheromones before an upcoming business trip.

 

Adrian knew the signs all too well; Elliot's rut period was approaching, a time when his dominance turned almost savage.

 

"Ugh..." Adrian groaned as he swung his legs over the side of the bed. His wrists, chafed from the bindings, were bruised and tender. Every movement sent jolts of pain through his body.

 

Elliot demanded perfection. Adrian was to be in peak health at all times, ready to fulfill his role whenever Elliot required it. There was no room for weakness or delay.

 

The contract had been explicit about that, ensuring Adrian's availability to cater to Elliot's demanding schedule.

 

"Just get through today," he muttered to himself.

 

Adrian winced as he stood, his legs still shaky from the previous night's rough treatment. He had to recover quickly, both for his own sake and to avoid any additional ire from Elliot.

 

This weekend, he was determined to visit his parents in the hospital. Their condition had not changed in years, but the visits were his only solace.

 

"Hang in there," he whispered to his reflection in the mirror. The man staring back at him looked haggard, shadows under his eyes and a look of resigned determination etched into his features. "Just a little longer."

 

The contract allowed for these visitst. The financial security provided by Elliot ensured that his parents received the best possible care, their medical bills paid without question. It was the one silver lining in an otherwise bleak existence.

A Thousand Faces
13
Chapter 13

Mansik’s theater, early morning.

“This could use a little loosening.”

A creak echoed across the stage as Mansik, gloves on, adjusted something.

“How about that?”

Stepping back, Mansik checked the piece of equipment he had fixed. A satisfied look crossed his face.

Thinking about the performance that would be held on this stage soon, he started humming without realizing it.

“Wow… The kid and Junho Gil together on my stage? I can’t believe it.”

The more he thought about it, the more incredulous he felt. Junho Gil—a name that could pack a small theater like this in seconds. Already, the thought of managing the expected crowd made Mansik anxious.

In all his years of working in the industry, Mansik had only ever seen a superstar like Junho Gil on the silver screen. Now, to think he would host such a star on this very stage, especially when his theater was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy from constant actor departures, felt surreal. Shaking his head, he could hardly grasp the reality of it.

But then—

“What are you doing here so early?”

The kid had just entered the auditorium.

Mansik’s face lit up. “Oh, there you are.”

The theater owner had been on the stage since morning, cleaning and sorting equipment, all the while thinking of Junwoo.

“Why don’t you leave that to the staff?” Junwoo asked.

“Shouldn’t you be practicing? Or, you know what—take a break, have some fun,” Mansik said, waving off Junwoo’s question.

Junwoo looked surprised by Mansik’s sudden change of attitude. Mansik turned away, hiding a grin of pride.

The boy’s first performance on this stage a few days ago was etched in his mind. Mansik hadn’t just been supportive in his response—he had been in pure awe. It was the thrill of discovering a hidden gem.

And from that moment, the kid’s journey was nothing short of astonishing. Mansik found immense joy in watching Junwoo’s hidden passion for acting slowly blossom day by day.

Soon, he would captivate a vast audience.

Money was the last thing on Mansik’s mind. Never before in his years of loving theater had he wished for someone else’s success this badly, even more than his own. The least he could do was fix the stage.

His deep affection for the theater shone through in his meticulous preparation of the stage for every show.

He had studied the theory until he was sick of it. While he might not have Junwoo’s innate talent, he was determined to leverage his budget to elevate the stage’s quality to its peak. As he touched the stage, it was as if he could feel the echoes of Junwoo’s past performance.

“How does it look? Not bad, right?” Mansik asked as he scanned the stage, hands on hips.

“Um…”

“I wasn’t just watching from the sidelines, you know. I picked up a thing or two.”

“Did you do this for this show?”

“I sure did.”

Junwoo was surprised. He had gotten so used to Mansik being a silent spectator, admiring his acting from afar, that he had forgotten the man had once studied theater.

Did he want to change it?

Seeing Mansik’s dedication, Junwoo realized the high hopes the theater owner had for this upcoming performance. And seeing him so excited also helped Junwoo feel more at ease about all the help he had been receiving.

“It’s much better,” Junwoo said.

Well…

As Junwoo surveyed the neatly arranged stage, he thought to himself, I’ll fix it up later.

As if satisfied with his work, Mansik turned away. He seemed to ponder something for a moment before whirling around.

“I have a question, though.”

“What?”

“I just can’t get my head around it. Why do you want to act with Junho Gil but not sign with NK?”

Junwoo didn’t respond.

Mansik went on, “If you’re with them, you could read scripts written by acclaimed writers and have all the acting opportunities you could want. Much more than here.”

There was genuine curiosity in Mansik’s tone. Alongside that, there was the implication that he thought his theater was less than others.

“I never claimed to understand you before, but I really want to hear it from you this time,” Mansik said.

After a few seconds of silence, Junwoo muttered, “I don’t know.”

“Oh, come on. It’s not because of me, is it?”

“Aren’t you hungry? Let’s go eat breakfast,” Junwoo suggested, diverting the topic as he began to walk out of the auditorium.

“Whoa, hang on there. So it must be true!”

“I feel like kimchi stew. How about you, sir?”

Junwoo’s voice was further away now, his steps echoing behind him.

“Hey!” Mansik called out. He swiped under his nose. What’s up with him?

Perplexed, Mansik hurried to catch up.

***

Voices leaked out from the rehearsal room. Mansik, once again, stuck to the door like a cicada, peering through a small opening.

For the past few days, Mansik had been puzzled about Junho Gil.

This guy must be really interested in theater work.

The kid held the script as he said something to Junho. As Junwoo gestured to the rehearsal room floor, the older actor blinked as if realizing something.

Or is he interested in something else?

It was a rare sight. If anyone were to see it—a top-tier actor being taught by some unknown teen—they would think it a scene from a performance.

Honestly, Mansik had assumed Junho Gil would only come down on the day of the performance. After all, he wasn’t your average actor.

But to go to such lengths…

Junho had recently arranged accommodation nearby so that he and Junwoo could rehearse for the performance.

I thought he’d be in and out.

He had arrived at the theater before Mansik, even before the sun had risen. There hadn’t been an ounce of fatigue on his face. In fact, he had looked ecstatic.

He seemed to enjoy working with the boy and talking about acting, and not just for the sake of practice.

For example, a few days ago…

“Why isn’t he leaving?”

Junwoo, dressed in uniform, whispered to Mansik as he adjusted the curtains.

“Beats me,” Mansik muttered back.

Even though it was past midnight, Junho Gil, seated in the audience seats, showed no intention of leaving. He seemed agitated; he had his nose buried in his script, his leg bouncing up and down, and he was chewing his nails.

Then, as if struck by realization, he flipped frantically through the pages.

“Is he always like that?” Mansik asked.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, does he always have that constipated expression when he’s rehearsing with you?”

“Yeah, sometimes.”

“Huh. I thought he would be stuck up, but he’s actually quite nice.”

That was how Junho Gil usually spent his evenings. Then, as soon as Junwoo finished work, he would run over to him.

That continued for several days.

Mansik was well aware of Junho Gil’s fame and the rumors that followed him.

He was known for his ability to captivate viewers with just a few scenes. Anyone who crossed paths with the actor, regardless of their experience, would bow their heads and beg him to watch their own acting.

And now, that very Junho Gil was following the kid around like a puppy every day the theater was open.

Quite the change from what I saw at the agency…

Junho had probably realized that the kid had been holding back his true potential during his audition. When pressed, the kid had waved him off like he couldn’t be bothered explaining himself.

“No matter what I say, there’s no way it’ll come out the way I interpret it. You have to dig yourself.”

Despite that, Junho hadn’t been offended.

“Oh,” he had said with a nod, his expression serious.

All of this was a spectacle to Mansik.

***

It was a week before the performance. Preparations were in their final stages.

Mansik rubbed his chin as he reviewed the website on the computer.

“Hmm…”

There was one issue.

The play’s information had been updated by the theater’s publicity team. It had the stage background, character introductions, a carefully crafted poster, and the director’s notes.

Naturally, the response was sensational.

The reason for the heated discussion among fans was Junho Gil’s profile photo. The actor only starred in films by big-shot directors, and now, here he was, appearing on a live stage.

-I finally get to see Junho Gil after months and months, but why’s it in the middle of nowhere?

-There’s no reviews or info about his involvement. Am I really gonna see THE Junho Gil in person??

-I actually think that’s good. With that voice of his, he’ll chew up a small theater.

All the attention was focused solely on Junho Gil.

Was it a good thing? Thanks to that, the real issue was being buried.

-Have they cast the lead yet?

-Did the other guy chicken out as soon as Junho Gil’s name came up?

-Haha. Junho can just do the whole thing alone. No one will notice another actor with him around.

One of the leads hadn’t been cast yet. Or at least, that’s what it looked like on the website.

With the performance just a week away, Mansik started feeling the pressure. He couldn’t go on stage without any prior information about the actor.

Mansik walked with a heavy heart. He realized he had been so focused on his excitement that he hadn’t even bothered to ask the kid what he was thinking.

He thought he was doing what was best for the boy, but now he felt ashamed of himself.

It was dawn now, and he could see the auditorium lights blaring. Someone was inside.

Worried, Mansik rushed inside, only to stop dead in his tracks.

“Wow…”

A wave of admiration overcame him.

“Is this… is this really my theater?”

Junwoo, absorbed in working on something at the edge of the stage, looked up at Mansik’s question. “What’re you doing here so early?”

“What’s all this?” Mansik asked.

“Why? Don’t you like it?”

Like it?

He was stunned speechless.

The small theater’s oval stage was completely optimized for the performance. It was like a miniature version of the Seoul Arts Center.

That’s right, Mansik thought, thinking back to all the books on stage direction Junwoo had been devouring. The kid must have reassembled and rearranged all the equipment and props.

It was astonishing how he had changed the atmosphere this much without needing any expensive set pieces.

Talent is talent, indeed.

Mansik felt ashamed. He had harped on and on about how a play was all about the actors’ performances, not the setting in which they acted. The boy had proved him wrong.

“I just added a little to what you had already done.”

Mansik felt embarrassed to think about how confidently he had been acting just a few days ago. He wished he had kept his mouth shut.

This kind of stage will…

Junwoo, who was adjusting the floor lights, smiled and swiped his sweaty bangs aside.

Mansik looked back at him with a bewildered expression. “You look different. Were you always this good-looking?”

When all Junwoo did was give him a confused look, Mansik added, “Why do you always cover that handsome face?”

Junwoo scratched his head. He had always worn a hairstyle that covered his eyes in his previous life, except when he was in character for a scam. The notion of openly showcasing his face hadn’t aligned with his previous profession.

Then, Junwoo noticed something. He saw that Mansik’s face still showed some worry.

I guess he’s been worrying a lot. I feel a little sorry.

Seeing the theater owner floundering, unable to say the obvious, he couldn’t help but laugh, even though it was inappropriate for the situation. It was a sign that he genuinely cared for Junwoo.

Junwoo himself had already sorted out how he felt about everything.

This show would be on a whole new level from the days of performing to crowds of twenty people. He anticipated that word of mouth about himself would spread from there on.

I’m not totally against it.

He had already come too far. Reflecting on it, he berated himself for having dimmed his light for too long. Mansik’s words about spending a lifetime in hiding stuck in his mind.

This was his second chance at life; how should he live it?

Mansik, who knew nothing about the thoughts swirling in Junwoo’s head, cautiously spoke up. “Hey, you know… I forgot to ask, but… are you really okay with—?”

“I’m fine. And don’t worry, I won’t make things awkward for you.”

How did he know? Sometimes, he seemed more mysterious than a ghost.

“If that’s the case, there are ways not to disclose your profile. You could go for a mysterious brand or something like that,” Mansik said jokingly.

Why did I just say that?

What the hell kind of branding was that?

The boy said calmly, “It doesn’t matter anymore.”

“What do you mean it doesn’t matter anymore? You could go viral or end up on the news. The clips will be all over the place.”

“Oh well. It can’t be worse than dying.”

“…Are you serious?”

Junwoo turned to Mansik. It was obvious just from looking at the boy’s eyes that he wasn’t making this decision for Mansik’s sake. He really had made up his mind.

“Come on. It’d be a shame if everyone buried it.”

At that moment, it wasn’t just Junwoo who had made up his mind.

His determination and aura were palpable. Mansik felt a sudden urge to bet everything he had on this boy.

Mansik, who had become quite serious, said, “Just focus on your job and don’t worry about anything else. I’ll take care of the rest. You won’t have any problems because of a play at my theater.”

***

Back at home, Junwoo gazed at his reflection in the mirror.

I guess it is kind of long.

He ran his fingers through his hair, which cascaded down, even curling around his eyes.

Hmm…

In the days leading up to the performance, Mansik found himself extremely busy.

Frankly, he wasn’t worried about the performance itself. In fact, worry was the last thing on his mind. He was excited to see what would happen. He couldn’t wait to see the kid on stage and what kind of chemistry he’d create with Junho Gil.

He just needed to leave the kid to it, and he would take care of his end.

This production demanded a lot more effort than he had thought. It was the biggest crowd the theater had ever seen. In addition, if he wanted to be ready for the media attention, there were many things he needed to prepare in advance. Mansik was already certain; the boy wouldn’t go unnoticed.

Mansik spent several days tidying up any elements that could interfere with the performance. He prepared posters, tickets, and banners of the highest quality, and he also dealt with anything that screamed “rural theater.”

He ensured everyone was on the same page, from the other actors and extras to the lighting, directing, costume, and equipment teams, as well as the staff that Junho Gil had brought from his agency. He wanted to make sure there were no behind-the-scenes gossip or problems that could dampen the team’s morale.

This was all possible because of Mansik’s passion for the art form. He brought the same attitude and drive to every project he worked on.

Although it’s a lot this time.

Meanwhile, the online community of Junho Gil’s fans was abuzz with speculation about the upcoming play.

-Hey, did you see the lead actor’s profile?

-Yeah, a rookie, I think. Never seen him before.

-It must be a publicity stunt for an NK trainee.

Junwoo’s profile picture was plastered on the official website, his hair neatly cut and his face clean-shaven. The information section had no prior works or awards listed. The only thing on it was the name “Junwoo Han.”

During the Snowstorm
9.2
The Day of the Return of the King

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.

During the Snowstorm
9.5
The Day of the Return of the King

The driver held a box of spicy stinky tofu in his hand untouched. Noticing Yin Guo leaning on the armrest, weighed down by thoughts, he extended the box towards her, catching her gaze. She politely declined with a grateful nod, lacking the appetite to eat.

 

As the rest of the group had not yet assembled, the driver seized the moment to make a phone call to his son. He briefly mentioned the recent argument he had with his wife, seeking his son's assistance in mediating the situation.

 

Under the comforting shade of the trees and a gentle breeze caressing the surroundings, the driver, concluding his call, revealed a subtle trace of unease reminiscent of a bygone era. He began, "You see, there was this one day when I neglected to wash my grandson's socks. Mind you, I used to meticulously wash them every single day, but on that particular day, a wave of laziness overcame me, and I decided to forgo the task. To my astonishment, my wife scolded me vehemently for this minor slip-up."

 

Truly, it is bewildering how trivial incidents can spark such unexpected disagreements...

 

"However, a few days later, it dawned on me: Wasn't it just a matter of washing a pair of socks?" the driver added, his voice tinged with newfound perspective.

 

Yin Guo pondered his words for a moment and found herself in agreement.

 

Indeed, it was an inconsequential issue, hardly worth the emotional investment.

 

At noon, Lin Yi Yang made his way back to the billiard room.

 

Jiang Yang rifled through his wardrobe, the search for suitable attire for his upcoming meeting consuming his attention. "I have an important appointment today. Can I borrow something?" he inquired, hoping for a favorable response.

 

"Meeting a lady, are we?" Lin Yi Yang teased, a mischievous glimmer in his eyes.

 

Jiang Yang nodded, willingly divulging the details. "Yes, it's a blind date," he admitted, retrieving a crisp, light gray shirt from within the wardrobe. With calculated precision, he rolled up the sleeves and carefully fastened each button. "She recently went through a divorce, and we've crossed paths twice. She appears pleasant, and if all goes well, we might find ourselves walking down the aisle before you do."

 

Jiang Yang paused, a sudden change of heart evident in his expression. "You know what? I don't think I have the energy for dating anymore. It's become quite exhausting. I observed how drained you were last night on your behalf," he confessed, his tone tinged with weariness.

 

Having finished donning the shirt, Jiang Yang's attention was drawn to a pile of promotional brochures and deposit receipts scattered on the table by Lin Yi Yang. Curiosity piqued, he picked them up and took a quick glance.

 

Recalling a memorable incident from the month before last, both Jiang Yang and Lin Yi Yang had embarked on an adventurous motorcycle journey during an out-of-town competition.

 

Engaging in this popular trend, initially popularized by gentlemen cyclists from Australia and Europe, had captured the imagination of Dongxin City's men. They would dress impeccably in formal suits, complete with shirts and ties while riding their bikes at exhilarating speeds.

 

Intrigued by both the allure of the suits and the thrill of bike riding, Jiang Yang found himself borrowing bikes from locals to indulge in a few laps. During one such occasion, Lin Yi Yang donned a sleek black suit with a shirt, omitting the tie. Jiang Yang, on the other hand, opted for a stylish dark gray suit and even acquired contact lenses specifically to wear under his helmet. Their shared adventure brought immense joy as they raced through the streets. Meanwhile, Fan Wencong observed from the sidelines, playfully commenting on the duo: one a rascal masquerading as a gentleman, and the other a cunning fox camouflaged as a regular person. Any woman who encountered them would undoubtedly be captivated by their charisma.

 

Jiang Yang speculated that he could use this experience as a peace offering to appease his wife.

 

As Jiang Yang witnessed Lin Yi Yang's restless demeanor the previous night, he sensed that his friend had engaged in a heated argument with his girlfriend. Understanding the situation, he offered some words of wisdom, saying, "In the beginning, everything may seem rosy when viewed through tinted lenses. However, the tinted film fades over time, and we must learn to embrace both the positives and negatives. We can discuss this matter further later tonight."

 

Feeling overwhelmed with frustration, Lin Yi Yang waved his hand dismissively, a gesture urging Jiang Yang to depart if necessary.

 


 

Before leaving, Jiang Yang couldn't resist a teasing remark. "You really need to work on your relationship skills, as evident from last night," he jested, a playful grin on his face.

 

Once Jiang Yang departed, Lin Yi Yang exchanged greetings with Sun Yao, a member of the renovation team working on the second floor, before retreating to his own room for some rest.

 

In stark contrast to the guest room's modest size, Lin Yi Yang's personal quarters exuded spaciousness.

 

With a firm pull, he closed the curtains tightly, successfully shutting out any trace of light. Within the dimly lit room, where the boundaries between day and night blurred, Lin Yi Yang positioned his right arm as a comfortable support beneath his head, lying on the bed deep in contemplation. Despite the tranquility of his surroundings, sleep eluded him completely.

 

Resting motionless offered a means of passing the time, yet Lin Yi Yang pondered that engaging in a game of pool would be a more productive choice. He deliberately moved the covers from the bed, orienting himself away from the door. In doing so, he noticed a slender beam of light infiltrating the room, casting a glow upon his feet through a slight gap behind him.

 

"Did I get stood up?" Lin Yi Yang wondered, assuming it was Jiang Yang who failed to meet him as planned.

 

The figure lingering outside the door leaned against the frame, peering into the dimly lit room from the illuminated threshold. "It was me who stood them up, allowing them to proceed without me," the person confessed, their voice filled with a tinge of remorse.

 

Turning around, Lin Yi Yang discovered the silhouette of a young woman who had entered the room. As she quietly closed the door behind her, she approached him in the enveloping darkness.

 

Yin Guo extended her hand, yearning to embrace him, but hesitated momentarily when she noticed he wasn't wearing short sleeves. Without delay, he clasped her hand and guided it around his waist.

 

"Wasn't it supposed to be a training session?" Lin Yi Yang spoke first, breaking the silence.

 

"I was worried that your unhappiness would hinder your performance in the competition," Yin Guo's voice was gentle, barely above a whisper. "I returned solely to be with you."

 

Her wrist luxuriated in the comforting warmth of his palm, a sensation that cascaded down to her elbow. Lin Yi Yang savored this intimacy, appreciating every joint of her body and the velvety texture of her skin. "Do you know how to care for me?" he inquired again.

 

Overwhelmed with emotions, Yin Guo embraced him tightly, her heart heavy with unrequited affection.

 

It was those three simple words he uttered, "I miss you," that resonated deeply within her. She believed that not returning would leave him feeling slighted.

 

Lin Yi Yang, yearning for her presence, sought her face, her lips. "Even if you hadn't come, I would have driven through the night to be by your side," he confessed.

 

The mere thought of arguing with each other was unbearable for both of them. They longed for harmony and understanding.

 

Throughout the night, Lin Yi Yang tossed and turned, consumed by thoughts of when and how to broach the topic with Yin Guo. He hesitated to discuss it during nighttime, fearing another argument would disrupt her sleep. One reason for his hesitation was his concern for her rest, and the other stemmed from the multitude of thoughts swirling in his mind. He contemplated Li Qingyan's discontentment, the approaching open competition and the array of pending matters awaiting his attention upon his return. With his mind in turmoil, sleep evaded him throughout the night.

 

Resting her face upon his shoulder, Yin Guo recounted the events of the previous day. "I had two arguments with my sister yesterday, and both times we were discussing you. And then you suddenly snapped at me, becoming angry for no apparent reason..."

 

"It's irritating to witness," he whispered softly into her ear, "seeing that guy, Meng Xiaodong, with you."

 

"...I have no connection with him whatsoever."

 

Yin Guo's accusation lingered in the air as Lin Yi Yang retaliated, "Cheng Yan has never uttered a word to me in your presence. How many times have you brought this up?"

 

Jealousy continued to corrode their relationship, slowly eroding their bond.

 

Amidst their turbulent emotions, arguments often erupted, becoming the catalyst for their discontent. However, this time, it was rosemary—a symbol of their desires. It pleased their vanity to hear the person they admired express jealousy. His fingers deftly undid her clothing as he inquired, "What is the latest time you need to be there?"

 

"Tonight, there's no specific time," she replied.

 

A dinner engagement loomed ahead, yet it wasn't mandatory for everyone to attend.

 

"That's still early," he remarked.

 

Gently, he posed a question, his voice near her face, "Who once told me that you're easily appeased? That all it takes is something delicious to pacify you? I intended to bring you cherries, but you didn't even turn back when I called."

 

As he spoke, he skillfully undressed her, ensnaring her in his embrace. "You certainly have a fiery temper," he remarked.

 

Feeling unsettled in this unfamiliar space, she realized that the door wasn't locked yet, prompting her to grip his arm firmly. "The door isn't locked..." The sensation of his body against hers incited a desire to bite, and she yielded to the impulse: "Slow down..."

 

In a husky voice, he replied, "I can't slow down."

 

In a spirited struggle, they grappled against the wall before he effortlessly lifted her and carried her onto the bed. The moment Yin Guo's back touched the pristine white sheets, she seized his back without warning, causing her forehead to collide with his collarbone as she called out his name.

 

He acknowledged her fervor. His collarbone bore the weight of Yin Guo's forceful forehead as if she aimed to shatter it. Slowly, she released the tension in her body, tilting her head to bury her face in the soft pillow. Subconsciously, she curled up, yearning to nestle into his embrace and find solace in slumber.

 

"Missed me that much?" he whispered tenderly, nibbling her earlobe. "So swiftly."

 

Yin Guo buried her face in the pillow, causing her cheeks to flush a bright red hue. Even the back of her ears blushed in response.

 

The pillow carried the unmistakable scent of Lin Yi Yang, permeating the room and triggering a flood of memories within her body.

 

In her youth, she had come across an old song titled "Scent," with lyrics that incessantly repeated, "Missing your smile, missing your scent." At that time, she struggled to comprehend the depth of such emotions, wondering what there was to miss, as boys were expected to have an unpleasant odor... After playing basketball, after completing physical education class, especially during the sweltering summer, the scent was often overpowering.

 

Yet now, she grasped its meaning. The lyrics spoke of the unique olfactory connection between two individuals, particularly after sharing intimate moments.

 

As their bodies entwined, a fine sheen of sweat emerged, glistening on their skin. Lin Yi Yang tenderly wiped it away with his hand, mingling their perspiration. He positioned two pillows behind Yin Guo's back, conveying a wordless understanding as their focus shifted to their intimate endeavors.

 

Concerned for her well-being, he carefully draped the blanket over her, mindful of the lingering chill of early April. The room was illuminated by the gentle glow of the bedside lamp, casting a soft and comforting light that suited someone as experienced as Lin Yi Yang. Its gentle radiance accentuated the intimate moment without overwhelming it.

 

After attending to their surroundings, Lin Yi Yang enfolded Yin Guo in his arms, cradling her within the warmth of his embrace. She surrendered to his embrace, her voice a gentle murmur, "This is how it is whenever we meet."

 

He smiled warmly and gently teased, "It's been almost two months. If you still don't desire it, perhaps you should think if finding a new boyfriend is the right path for you."

 

Their previous intimate encounter had taken place on her birthday, marking quite a significant passage of time. Given his current physical condition and age, he was content with modest desires. However, the constraints of their long-distance relationship posed inconveniences, and since they were not yet married, it was important to maintain appropriate boundaries in their encounters.

 

Yin Guo playfully tapped her chin against his collarbone, affectionately calling him a "rascal."

 

Lin Yi Yang couldn't help but chuckle in response.

 

It had been a while since she had addressed him in such a playful manner.

 

As the blanket was intended for her comfort, he didn't bother covering himself.

 

Yin Guo's gaze caught sight of the compass tattoo on his waist, which appeared to have undergone some changes since the last time she saw it. At first, she attributed it to the dim lighting in the room or her own exhaustion, which caused her vision to blur slightly.

 

Upon closer examination, she confirmed that, indeed, there were additional pointers on the compass design.

 

Intrigued, Yin Guo lifted the blanket that covered him, leaning in for a closer look. However, Lin Yi Yang playfully grasped her arm, teasingly remarking, "Who's the rascal here? What piques your curiosity?"

 

Paying no mind to his playful remark, Yin Guo remained fixated on her examination.

 

His skin glistened with a subtle sheen of sweat, giving it a dewy appearance after being cleansed. The intricate design on his waist featured small letterings, resembling pointers at first glance. However, upon closer observation, Yin Guo discerned that they formed a sequence of English letters - "fruitlet."

 

The significance of this word struck her. It was a term she had once contemplated adopting as her English name...

 


 

Her heart swelled with discomfort, and a pang of sourness coursed through her nose. "You never said anything, never mentioned it to me," she voiced her hurt.

 

Lin Yi Yang let out a chuckle, seemingly dismissing the significance of it all.

 

What was there to say? It was merely a tattoo, after all.

 

Originally, Yin Guo had wanted to get a compass tattoo symbolizing her aimless wanderings and lack of a fixed direction in life. That's why the dial had no pointers. During the tattoo session, she and the artist playfully joked that if she ever found a significant other, she would add their name to the design. It had been a lighthearted remark, but after Lin Yi Yang bid her farewell at the airport for her trip to Washington, he felt a profound emptiness inside. At that moment, he made the impulsive decision to have the tattoo artist at the youth hostel add his name to the design.

 

The person who added the English word found it endearing and asked if it was meant for his daughter.

 

At that moment, Lin Yi Yang smiled and replied, "Daughters don't get this treatment. It's the wife who's important."

 

He spoke as if he already had a wife and children.

 

Yin Guo trailed her hand along his waistline, sensing the presence of the tattoo beneath her touch. It wasn't visible to the naked eye, but she could feel a slight protrusion... Lin Yi Yang noticed her eyes turning red and gently brushed his fingers against her face.

 

He recalled there was still a large bag of cherries in the refrigerator and thought of bringing them for her to enjoy. "Stay here," he instructed as he sat on the edge of the bed. He noticed that her hair was slightly damp, and she couldn't seem to take her eyes off his "mermaid line."

 

He settled back down, taking the large white pillow from Yin Guo's embrace and placing it under her waist. "Never mind, we can discuss it later on the way."

 

Yin Guo woke up once more, this time due to Lin Yi Yang's alarm clock. Worried about causing any delays, he had set two alarms. The first one rang for a full half-minute before being followed immediately by the second alarm.

 

Startled awake, Yin Guo felt the warmth against her back and the back of her thighs. She found herself being tenderly held by him, sleeping soundly.

 

In the hazy moment, she struggled to discern the current evening. This sensation of being both sore and relaxed, sleeping while being held, was reminiscent of their time in his college apartment. The surroundings were engulfed in darkness, and for a brief moment, she mistook it for the February apartment. She rolled over and embraced his waist, desiring to linger in bed a little longer.

 

"What were you dreaming about?" Lin Yi Yang's voice came from above. "Still not getting up?"

 

Feeling drowsy, Yin Guo reclined and rested her head on his arm. "I thought I was in your apartment."

 

"I've moved out," he replied. "Even if you wanted to go, we'd have to stay in a hotel."

 

"To be honest, you seemed the most carefree over there," she listened to the rhythm of his heartbeat. "Yesterday, when I saw you brewing tea, it felt like you were a different person."

 

"I wasn't truly myself there either," he fell silent for a moment, his fingers tracing gentle circles through her long hair. "I pursued further studies initially because I found my job mundane and lacked genuine aspirations. I thought studying for a few more years would broaden my horizons."

 

After a pause, he added, "I've always had a desire to compete, even since I left. It's just that my pride got in the way, and I allowed myself to drift."

 

Lin Yi Yang reached for his phone resting on her back and unlocked it.

 

Glancing at the time, Lin Yi Yang gently patted her back through the quilt. "Time to get up."

 

Just as they were preparing to leave, Jiang Yang, who had just returned from a date, handed Lin Yi Yang a printed temporary license plate.

 

"Perfect timing. The temporary license plate for the car is ready," he said. It was the car Lin Yi Yang had purchased before returning to the country, but it had remained parked in the garage without being driven as he hadn't taken the necessary photos. "The first trip in the new car will be with my girlfriend. That's a good omen, my junior."

 

His remark referred to him driving a long distance to see her, and it truly made Lin Yi Yang feel willingly obedient under Yin Guo's influence.

 

Lin Yi Yang didn't pay much attention to the others as he held a bag of cherries in his left hand and glanced at the paper in his right hand. "Should I put it in front of the windshield?"

 

"Yes," Yin Guo replied.

 

He handed the bag of cherries to Yin Guo and proceeded to carry her suitcase downstairs.

 

On the second floor, several men, including Sun Yao, were engaged in a discussion about the renovation schedule. They had returned to assist Lin Yi Yang. When they noticed Yin Guo trailing behind him, Sun Yao greeted her with a warm smile. "Hello, Sister-in-law."

 

Yin Guo nodded and smiled politely at the people standing behind Sun Yao.

 

She glanced around the second and third floors, which were significantly larger than the old city in the north. She hadn't anticipated that he would truly create such a grand sports club this time.

 

Lin Yi Yang instructed her to wait on the roadside while he drove over from the adjacent community.

 

After a short while, a sleek black G65 emerged from the gate of the neighboring community, displaying the temporary license plate on the front windshield. The car came to a halt in front of her, and Lin Yi Yang waved at her through the car window, saying, "Hop in."

 

When Yin Guo got into the car, Lin Yi Yang stepped out briefly and swiftly placed the small suitcase in the trunk.

 

As she settled into the car, Yin Guo noticed him stealing a glance at her as she enjoyed the bag of cherries. "Are they sweet?" he asked with a hint of curiosity.

 

Yin Guo nodded and smiled in response.

 

The night had already fallen upon the city, casting a veil of darkness. Lin Yi Yang opened the navigation system and gazed at the map of this now-unfamiliar city.

 

A sweet taste lingered on his lips as Yin Guo plucked a cherry and delicately offered it to him. "Why didn't you participate in the China Open last year?"

 

"Last year wasn't the right timing," Lin Yi Yang responded, his left hand firmly gripping the steering wheel. Following the guidance of the navigation system, he smoothly executed a U-turn at a small intersection. "But this year feels like the perfect opportunity."

 

He needed to recalibrate himself for the competitive arena, setting aside his past accomplishments and relying solely on his hard work. He required a deep introspection to truly understand himself and reclaim his position on this forgotten battlefield.

Having started his journey here, he yearned to return with a profound sense of homecoming.

During the Snowstorm
7.4
The Passion Remains

Lin Yi Yang rested his forehead against hers and thought, "I really shouldn't call you Xiaoguo."

 

But then he changed his mind and decided to let it go.

 

He couldn't help but reminisce about his youth when he was at the peak of his career and felt invincible. Back then, he would have taken her to bed and conquered her body without a second thought. He had been naive and arrogant, thinking he was untouchable.

 

But now, as he held her close, he felt a different kind of power. It was a power that came from vulnerability and the trust they had built. He didn't need to prove anything to her or anyone else.

 

Yin Guo tried to hide her discomfort, but the soreness from his actions made it difficult to keep her composure. Lin Yi Yang noticed her unease and quickly helped her adjust her clothes.

 

"It's pouring outside. Why don't you wait for me inside? I'll be back shortly," he suggested.

 

Yin Guo silently nodded, relieved to have a moment to herself to gather her thoughts.

 

Her fingers traced the contours of his face, lingering on his chin and nose before traveling upwards to the back of his neck. The short hair there felt stiff under her touch, with the tips brushing against her palm and leaving a teasing itch. It was clear that he had recently trimmed it, especially the back, which was noticeably shorter than the rest.

 

Her eyes met his, and she thought, "You're so tempting."

 

Lin Yi Yang was softened by her touch. In fact, he was just about to check for upscale restaurants nearby to buy dinner for her. He looked at her and asked, "Is there something you want to say?"

 

"I don't know," she said. Her mind was both empty and full, with a jumble of thoughts and emotions.

 

It was all her first time in life. He was the first man to have such intimate contact with her.

 

She suddenly thought of Cheng Yan and how Lin Yi Yang looked when someone pursued him. She brought up Cheng Yan's name, pretending to say casually, "Oh, I saw Cheng Yan the other day. She looked really pretty."

 

Lin Yi Yang raised an eyebrow, sensing that there was more to her statement than met the eye. "Cheng Yan? Why are you mentioning her all of a sudden?"

 

Yin Guo hesitated for a moment before blurting out, "I guess I get jealous when I think about how other girls might pursue you. It's silly, I know."

 

She had never been possessive in the past, but now she couldn't help but feel jealous whenever she liked someone.

 

As he held her hand, Lin Yi Yang could sense her restlessness. He didn't know how to respond to her mention of Cheng Yan, someone he had little to do with. But he could see that her jealousy was consuming her, making him feel a mix of emotions.

 

He squeezed her hand tightly and spoke with a gentle tone, "Let's go."

 

He knew that seeing the person you like getting jealous can deepen their bond. However, he also understood the difficulties of controlling jealousy, as it was a natural human emotion that could cause unnecessary strain on any relationship.

 

As Lin Yi Yang left to buy food, Yin Guo went to the bathroom to freshen up. She cracked open a new bar of soap and washed her hands and face, feeling the grime of the competition wash away. Despite her discomfort, she had to admit that the makeup did make her look good on stage.

 

As she washed her face, she felt the tension in her body ease. But there was still one thing bothering her. No matter how much she adjusted it, her bra was still uncomfortable. She unhooked it and put it back on, hoping it would fit better this time.

She couldn't help but notice the red marks on her neck slowly fading away. A reminder of the intense passion from the night before. She pulled down her collar to get a better look in the mirror.

 

As she stood in front of the sink, lost in thought, her face glowed with soft light, and her eyes misted over. She absentmindedly picked up a strand of white thread from the towel and rubbed it between her fingertips, lost in a memory that reddened her face. With a sudden jolt, she dropped the towel and went to an empty room.

 

A large, single-shoulder sports backpack rested on the carpet in the corner of the room. Yin Guo had noticed it the first time she met Lin Yi Yang, and since then, it has always seemed to be present in his apartment. She had never seen him use any other backpack beside the black one that accompanied him on his travels between the two cities.

 

Yin Guo sat at her desk, a satisfied smile on her face as she gazed at Lin Yi Yang's large sports backpack. With her phone in hand, she couldn't help but ponder Lin Yi Yang's true playing ability, especially after he deliberately asked about her weak skills. Coincidentally, someone close to her had played with Lin Yi Yang before. Despite never bothering to message Meng Xiaodong before, Yin Guo eagerly turned to the perennial iceberg for answers.

 

Yin Guo: Is there anything Lin Yi Yang isn't good at on the court?

 

M: Not really.

 

M: He's good at everything. It just depends on whether he wants to play or not.

 

Yin Guo sighed as she thought about Meng Xiaodong's truthful and straightforward evaluation of Lin Yi Yang's skills. It only made her want him more. As time passed, she grew increasingly restless, wondering where he was and if he got caught in the rain. Unable to resist the temptation, she sent him a private message on WeChat to vent her complaints.

 

Xiaoguo: Secretly, it's a bit sore there.

 

Lin: ?

 

Lin: Be gentler next time, okay?

 

Lin Yi Yang sat by the window of the pizza shop, his sneakers drenched from the heavy downpour outside. Even with an umbrella, there was no escaping the rain. He absentmindedly gazed at her profile picture on WeChat and then looked out at the running and drenched crowd outside.

 

Despite the miserable weather, he couldn't help but laugh as he watched the people outside struggle to avoid the rain. The sight was almost comical, and he found himself smiling at the scene.

 

After escorting Yin Guo to her room, Lin Yi Yang made his way to room 1000. As he approached the door, it was opened by Li Qingyan.

 

"Hey, they're inside," Li Qingyan said, stepping aside to let Lin Yi Yang pass.

 

Lin Yi Yang nodded, a small smile playing on his lips. "Thanks, man. We should play some games later," he suggested, giving Li Qingyan a friendly pat on the shoulder.

 

"Sure, I'm always down for some games," Li Qingyan replied, returning the gesture.

 

Lin Yi Yang entered the suite, feeling the warmth of the cozy atmosphere.

 

Inside, the makeshift round table dominated the center of the room, surrounded by a group of people with nothing on the table but bottles of alcohol. Meng Xiaodong and Jiang Yang led the group, chatting and laughing softly while the others took turns sharing jokes and stories. As soon as Lin Yi Yang walked in, everyone paused, turning their attention towards him.

 

"Better late than never. Let's have a round first," Jiang Yang said with a smile, rolling up his sleeves and swirling his half-filled glass of wine.

 

Without any hesitation, Lin Yi Yang grabbed the full bottle of wine and poured a generous amount into a glass, going around the table to fill up each person's glass. As he did so, the room was filled with clinking glasses and cheerful chatter.

 

As Lin Yi Yang arrived, Meng Xiaodong stood up to welcome him, but Lin Yi-yang gestured for him to sit back down. "Don't get up. I'm not the emperor," he joked, sitting beside him. He clinked his cup with Meng Xiaodong's and downed it in one go, showing off his drinking prowess.

 

After a few rounds of drinking, Lin Yi Yang started to feel the effects of the alcohol. He took a deep breath and leaned back in his chair, wiping his forehead with the back of his hand.

 

Around the table, the men reminisced about their younger days in Dongxincheng, recalling the challenges they set for each other, like downing buckets of cold beer in the scorching summer heat. Despite the passing years and the distance between them, they were grateful to be able to gather together once more.

 

As the night wore on, the group of friends continued to drink and chat. Chen Anan, the honest child, was the first to fall down, succumbing to his poor alcohol tolerance. Wu Wei, the thoughtful child, took it upon himself to help Chen Anan to the bathroom to vomit. The sudden departure of two of their group members didn't seem to faze the rest.

 

Meng Xiaodong, who typically drank little, looked a bit tipsy after finishing a full glass. He sat there silently without saying a word.

 

Jiang Yang leaned in with a smile and asked, "Xiaodong?"

 

Meng Xiaodong shook his head when asked if he was okay.

 

Jiang Yang then slowly poured him another glass of alcohol and said, "Old Six, if you want to know something, now is the time to ask."

 

Lin Yi Yang, who had been observing the exchange, glanced at Jiang Yang but didn't bother with his teasing.

 

"You want to know about my sister's childhood sweetheart, Li Qing Yan?" Meng Xiaodong said, his voice slurring slightly. He was feeling dizzy from the alcohol, but his mind was still clear.

 

"I haven't asked about the specifics of their relationship, but Yin Guo's parents seem to like him," he added, rubbing his temples absentmindedly.

 

Meng Xiaodong looked at Lin Yi Yang for a moment, his eyes unfocused. "You know what I'm talking about. That incident with the other team. The one that got you suspended."

 

The room fell silent for a moment.

 

Everyone could sense that he was referring to Lin Yi Yang's last professional game, and they all turned their attention to him.

 

Jiang Yang quickly took charge, clearing his throat and instructing the vendor to bring some hot tea for Meng Xiaodong. Fan Wencong hurriedly complied, eager to be of service.

 

As he left the room, Jiang Yang glanced at Meng Xiaodong and then at Lin Yi Yang. He had been teasing Lin Yi Yang earlier, but now he realized the situation was more serious than he had thought. Meng Xiaodong's drunken ramblings had revealed a connection between them all that was unexpected and concerning.

 

The sliding door creaked open, and Wu Wei stumbled out with an unconscious Chen Anan draped over his shoulder. He carelessly tossed her onto the bed before making his way to the table, picking up his half-empty cup and downing its contents in one gulp. "I'm exhausted," he muttered under his breath, oblivious to the awkward silence that filled the room.

 

Jiang Yang shook his head, indicating to Wu Wei that he shouldn't ask what was happening. Lin Yi Yang fidgeted with his cup, keeping his emotions hidden. It was impossible to tell if he felt nostalgic, angry, regretful, or at peace. After a moment of silence, he placed his cup on the table and asked if a pool table was available.

 

Meng Xiaodong responded, "I've already reserved half of the billiard room, so you're welcome to play whatever you want."

Jiang Yang suggested, "Let someone clear the table for you first."

 

However, Lin Yi Yang waved his hand and declined the offer.

 

He stood up from the round table and informed Meng Xiaodong, "I arranged to play two rounds with your guys."

 

"They're preparing for the Irish Open, so don't go too hard on them," Jiang Yang reminded Meng Xiaodong.

 

"I understand," Lin Yi Yang replied without looking back, then left the room.

 

The atmosphere outside was electric, with the crowd abuzz with excitement. People from both Dongxincheng and Beijing had gathered here, filling the area with a sense of anticipation. As Lin Yi Yang exited the room, he signaled to Li Qingyan, who had been waiting for him.

 

Without delay, Li Qingyan rose from the sofa and instructed Hua Xiuzi, "Watch Xiaodong inside."

 

The two of them quickly made their way to the billiard room, where the ambiance was relatively quiet. The intense group stage had just finished, and most players had retired for the day. Only a handful of scattered tables had hotel guests enjoying a leisurely game of billiards, none of whom were professional players.

 

Lin Yi Yang picked up the shared cue stick and pointed to a neglected eight-ball pool table, a glint of mischief in his eyes. "Do you know how to play small eight-ball?" he asked Li Qingyan.

 

Small eight-ball was a popular informal playstyle in Lin Yi Yang's hometown pool hall. Unlike traditional eight-ball, the balls were manually racked in a triangle, and the white ball served as the cue ball. There were no specific rules or requirements - after the break, players could hit whichever ball they wanted, and the one who potted the black eight ball would win. It was a fast and profitable game for the pool hall owners, who charged one dollar per game.

 

For the wild kids, winning quickly and playing with excitement was what it was all about. Li Qingyan couldn't help but feel a rush of nostalgia as he stepped up to the table.

 

Since Li Qingyan and Lin Yi Yang are from the same place, they naturally know this type of game. They used to play it often after school during their elementary school days.

 

"Played it before," said Li Qingyan. "It's pretty simple."

 

"Back when I played this with others, the rules were also simple," said Lin Yi Yang as he picked up a chalk from the tableside and wiped the cue stick. "Whoever loses has to code a ball for the other person."

 

"I'm okay with that. If you can make me give you a few points, you'll probably be able to brag about it in our circle for years," said Li Qingyan, as he also picked up a cue stick.

 

Lin Yi Yang chuckled and glanced at him.

 

Looks like it's time to teach this kid a lesson. Lin Yi Yang thought as he watched Li Qingyan silently arrange the eight balls into a triangle on the table and position the white cue ball at the center of the head string. They were about to play a game of small eight-ball, a simple game that requires skill and precision.

 

According to the nine-ball rules, they competed for the right to break. It was no surprise that Lin Yi Yang easily won the right to break. He picked up his cue and walked around to the front of the pool table, examining the angle from which he would hit the ball. He wiped the cue tip with chalk again before bending down for the second time.

 

The whole person and the cue stick formed a straight line, with Lin Yi Yang's focus solely on the pool table. As he entered the game state, the smile on his face gradually faded away.

 

With a powerful stroke, the sound of impact echoed through the billiards room, drowning out all other sounds. The balls scattered in a single-stroke clearance, rolling and racing towards each pocket until all eight balls were pocketed, leaving none remaining.

 

This wasn't a miraculous feat, but rather, it relied on luck. Even Li Qingyan, who was no slouch at the game, would need a bit of luck to pull off a game where he cleared all the balls in a single shot. He hoped this was just a fluke, but it seemed more like a warning shot from Lin Yi Yang in their first game.

 

"Good shot," said Lin Yi Yang calmly as he pointed at the pool table.

 

Li Qingyan, the loser of the first game, had nothing to say and quickly bent down to retrieve the scattered balls from each pocket. He then meticulously racked them up in a triangle formation again, hoping for a better outcome this time.

 

As soon as the white ball was placed on the starting line, without any pause, Lin Yi Yang suddenly bent down and struck it heavily. The balls of various colors flew out with a sound, one after another, all rushing to enter the pockets. Not one was left behind.

 

It was another one-stroke clean-up, leaving Li Qingyan feeling even more defeated. "Well played," Lin Yi Yang pointed calmly at the table as if it was nothing extraordinary.

 

Li Qingyan acknowledged that this was not a coincidence, and he became increasingly silent as he retrieved the balls and placed them on the table for Lin Yi Yang. For the next ten rounds, Li Qingyan would be racking the balls while Lin Yi Yang would be taking shots.

 

Although it wasn't a one-shot-clear every game, it was obvious that Li Qingyan didn't even have a chance to touch the cue stick.

 

Li Qingyan even had a hint of relief before the last game that no peers were around to witness him continuously racking the balls for Lin Yi Yang.

 

He even had to admit that Lin Yi Yang had shown him mercy, as he could have easily invited everyone in Room 1000 to come and watch, but he didn't.

 

Perhaps this was a favor that Lin Yi Yang was giving to Meng Xiaodong.

 

A perfect 10-0.

 

The alcohol had lifted Lin Yi Yang's spirits, and there was a hint of his youthful exuberance in his eyes. He leaned his cue stick against the side of the table and supported himself with both hands, gazing at Li Qingyan across the table and the low-hanging pool table light.

 

"I lost," said Li Qingyan, conceding defeat.

 

In fact, Lin Yi Yang had been feeling a bit lightheaded for a while, having downed five shots of strong alcohol as soon as he entered the room and later drinking another two or three. At this point, the alcohol started affecting him, and he chuckled upon hearing Li Qingyan's words.

 

"Let me tell you something," said Lin Yi Yang, leaning closer to Li Qingyan.

 

Li Qingyan looked at him curiously, wondering what he had to say.

 

"Last time on that snooker table," Lin Yi Yang continued, pointing to the table where he had hit 50 balls, "I saw you were training to hit a ball every 25 seconds following the way Meng Xiaodong did. That's a requirement in the league, but not all public tournaments are like that."

 

Li Qingyan was surprised Lin Yi Yang had noticed his training method during their last brief encounter. He nodded, curious about what Lin Yi Yang had to say next.

 

"Spending 25 seconds on every ball before hitting it is draining your energy," Lin Yi Yang explained, his words slurring slightly due to the effects of alcohol. "You need to conserve your energy and focus on your shots. You're a player, not a match machine."

 

Lin Yi Yang felt like he needed a break. He wanted to drink some hot water or tea and, if possible, take a walk around Yin Guo's door before she went to bed to see her. However, he knew she was probably already asleep. Having played three matches that day, she was undoubtedly exhausted.

 

As Lin Yi Yang leaned against the pool table, he unconsciously reached up to unbutton the top two buttons on his dress shirt. The alcohol had caused his body to heat up, and the crowded room only made it worse. He often made this gesture in non-competitive situations when he was forced to wear a dress shirt. Perhaps it was because he was drinking with his former brothers tonight, or maybe the billiard hall atmosphere made him forget his troubles.

 

As his fingers hovered over the collar of his round-necked short-sleeved shirt, Lin Yi Yang paused for two or three seconds. He then leaned on the edge of the pool table and spoke, "One more thing."

 

With a serious expression on his face, he continued, "No matter what kind of relationship you had with Yin Guo in the past, whether you couldn't win her over or you did, it's over now. It's time to move on."

 

As the alcohol took hold, Lin Yi Yang's eyes became glassy and dark, and his forehead wrinkled with emotion. Despite his inebriation, he spoke slowly and deliberately, "Yin Guo is my wife, and I won't tolerate anyone trying to pursue her. Understand?"

During the Snowstorm
4.3
Affairs of the Rolling Red Dust

Lin Yi Yang felt like a towering giant next to Yin Guo, so he stooped a little to match her height.

 

As he turned his head, the alluring aroma of Yin Guo's perfume filled his nostrils. The fragrance was a mix of fruity scents, light and sweet, and emanated from her chin and neck.

 

After a grueling four-hour train ride, coupled with the long wait for the train and subway, Lin Yi Yang felt exhausted. It would take a total of six or seven hours for a one-way trip, making it a twelve to thirteen-hour round trip every week, almost equivalent to the flight back to China.

 

In a desperate attempt to block out the fatigue, he closed his eyes and focused on the sounds around him, trying to amplify his hearing to drown out his weariness.

 

As Lin Yi Yang listened through the noise of the billiard room, he could hear the chattering of people still discussing his intense match against Meng Xiaodong. Intrigued by the game, some of them were inquiring about the rules of snooker, keen to try their hand at it.

 

In the midst of this, the owner was rummaging through his belongings, searching for the disk that Lin Yi Yang had previously copied for him. When he found it, he put it into the stereo and played the soulful melody of "Years of Friendship."

 

The music filled the air, and Lin Yi Yang's heart stirred with nostalgia. He had always been an avid fan of the "Young and Dangerous" movie franchise, which was popular among his generation. Whenever he worked in the billiard room, he selfishly included all the movie's soundtracks for the boss to play.

 

Listening to the song, Lin Yi Yang reached for his lighter in his pocket, absentmindedly playing with it while reminiscing about his youth. The flickering flame of the lighter illuminated his hand, casting a warm orange glow.

 

The sound of music enveloped the pool room, its upbeat tempo lifting everyone's spirits. Suddenly, someone piped up with a question, "Hey, can we use Lin's private room since it's not being used?"

 

The owner of the pool room shook his head, "No, Lin has made it clear that nobody is allowed in there except for his girlfriend."

 

Yin Guo was taken aback by the owner's response, her mouth hanging open in disbelief.

 

Then, Lin Yi Yang leaned toward her and whispered softly, "Can I get a hug?"

 

......

 

She felt her heart flutter, but she was determined to keep up her guard. Deliberately, she responded in a soft voice, "No."

Lin Yi Yang's smile faded slightly as she spoke, and he turned his head to look deeply into her eyes. The intensity of his gaze was almost overwhelming, and it felt as if he was gazing right into her soul.

 

Meanwhile, two young people appeared from around the corner, their carefree laughter and lively chatter disrupting the moment. They were heading towards the billiard room, looking for a spot to play.

 

Lin Yi Yang and Yin Guo were leaning against the left side of the door, causing the two young men to take a half-step in the opposite direction to avoid them. But the entrance was narrow, and the two guys accidentally collided with Lin Yi Yang and Yin Guo, causing her heel to be kicked. In a polite gesture, Yin Guo took a half-step forward, finding herself leaning on Lin Yi Yang's chest.

 

Lin Yi Yang couldn't help but smile and teasingly remarked, "You said no, but you're still leaning on me?" Despite his words, his right hand remained by his side, behaving itself.

 

As the breeze flowed through the room, Yin Guo felt its cool touch against her face and hair. Realizing the intimacy of their position, she quickly withdrew her hand from Lin Yi Yang's grasp, feeling flustered by the sudden closeness. "It's too narrow here," she explained, trying to distance herself from the awkward situation.

 

Yin Guo turned to the food cart and suggested, "How about we grab a hot dog?" She stared at the boss, waiting for his response, her palms sweaty with anticipation and anxiety. She had to show some consideration for the business.

 

Lin Yi Yang noticed the worry on her face and decided to take action. He straightened up, called over the boss's son, and asked him to bring out the clothes he had prepared for the trip. The clothes were quickly sent out as if they had been waiting behind the door for this exact moment.

 

"I'll take you to Koreatown," Lin Yi Yang said to Yin Guo, offering her a reassuring smile. This time, they wouldn't be taking the subway. He had arranged for a car to pick them up and take them to their destination.

 

Unfortunately, Lin Yi Yang's plans were foiled by a big demonstration that completely blocked the road in Manhattan. As they sat in the car, their driver turned to Lin Yi Yang and asked if they should take a detour or walk to their destination.

 

Deciding to walk, Lin Yi Yang and Yin Guo paid for the fare and stepped out of the taxi. As they made their way through the streets, they were met with a heavy police presence. The officers were holding bundles of white ropes and wooden sticks, guarding the area and making it clear that the situation was not to be taken lightly.

 

Yin Guo's heart was pounding as they approached the mass of people holding up signs and chanting. "Why are they protesting this time?" she whispered to Lin Yi Yang.

 

Lin Yi Yang's face betrayed a hint of boredom. "Protests happen all the time here, and the reasons are different each time," he replied. "Sometimes they're positive, like the National Day parade, but other times they can be dangerous. I remember when I first arrived in San Francisco, there was a violent incident with fighting and looting at night during the winter."

 

As they made their way through the crowded Manhattan street, Lin Yi Yang kept a protective hold on Yin Guo's arms, keeping her close and shielded from the throngs of people holding various signs and chanting slogans. Despite the chaos around them, his tall frame allowed him to navigate the crowd with ease, and he kept a watchful eye on their surroundings.

 

As they approached a particularly congested intersection, the air was thick with tension and the sound of shouting. Lin Yi Yang could see a group of protesters engaging in a physical altercation with some police officers up ahead, and he knew they needed to get out of there quickly.

 

With a firm grip on Yin Guo's arm, he deftly steered them off the main road and onto a side street, away from the chaos. Despite the tense situation, he kept a cool head and managed to navigate their way to safety.

 

As the chaos ensued and the crowd jostled them, Lin Yi Yang's voice appeared next to Yin Guo's right ear, "Quickly, turn right and take a different route." But before she could even react, someone accidentally stepped on her foot, causing her to yelp in pain. Then, someone bumped into her left shoulder, making her stumble.

 

Feeling her distress, Lin Yi Yang instinctively pulled Yin Guo into a tight embrace and led her to the safety of a nearby restaurant. He knew better than to run on the road amidst the ruckus. Instead, he found a corner that was not easy to disperse and gently pushed Yin Guo against the wall, with his back facing the road, acting as a barrier to protect her from the unruly crowd.

 

Yin Guo could feel her heart racing against her chest as Lin Yi Yang pressed her against the dirty wall. Her breathing was labored, and her ears were ringing from the chaos of the crowds around them.

 

Lin Yi Yang held her protectively, shielding her from the jostling of the people pushing past them. He could feel her hot breath through the fabric of his shirt pocket, and his own heart was pounding against his chest. He didn't dare let his guard down, not even for a second.

 

The noise was deafening, and people were still pushing and shoving, but Lin Yi Yang's gaze was fixed firmly on the main road. He needed to keep a clear head and judge whether the situation was worsening and whether they needed to move on.

 

Luckily, it was just a small-scale disturbance.

 

As the commotion died down, Lin Yi Yang loosened his grip on Yin Guo, allowing her to take a deep breath. She turned her head, still feeling shaken, to see the procession moving forward.

 

"It's alright," Lin Yi Yang reassured her. "There's a minor scuffle. Nothing to be afraid of. Those who ran away were probably scaring themselves."

 

He surveyed the surroundings, checking for any signs of further trouble. Satisfied that the situation was under control, he turned his attention back to Yin Guo and let her go.

 

Yin Guo's gaze darted nervously from side to side, her heart still racing with fear after the chaotic scene they had just escaped. As she turned her head to survey their surroundings, she let out a small gasp of relief to see that the procession was still moving forward and the situation had not escalated.

 

Yin Guo tried to steady her breathing. " Let's just go somewhere safe and grab something to eat."

 

Lin Yi Yang nodded and thought about hugging her to cross over, but then he felt it was not appropriate. Lin Yi Yang stepped closer to her and held her right arm gently but firmly, guiding her through the bustling street. The crowds still jostled around them, but he deftly navigated their way through the chaos. He pushed open the glass door as they approached the restaurant, ushering Yin Guo inside to safety.

 

The restaurant was small and bustling with locals. The owner, a portly man with a warm smile, saw Lin Yi Yang's gesture and led them to a cramped table by the wall. As he handed them the menus, the aroma of stir-fried dishes wafted through the air.

Lin Yi Yang quickly scanned the menu and pointed to a few items. "How about we try the chicken wings and French fries?" he suggested.

 

Yin Guo nodded, still shaken by the recent chaos outside. Lin Yi Yang continued, "And the pasta? You once recommended it to me. Do you remember the shape you liked?"

 

Her mind still reeling, Yin Guo gazed blankly at the menu under the bright, yellowish light of the restaurant. The memory of being pressed against the wall, her face buried in his chest for protection, and then being pulled close to him as they navigated through the trash-strewn sidewalk left her feeling disoriented.

 

Yin Guo couldn't help but feel flustered when she locked eyes with Lin Yi Yang. The intensity of his gaze caused her to daydream and blush, and she soon realized that she had fallen completely for him.

 

As they perused the menu, Lin Yi Yang listed off the different types of pasta available. "There's long and flat ones, penne, spiral ones, and layered ones," he said.

 

"Let's go for penne," Yin Guo picked one that sounded appetizing.

 


 

But as soon as Lin Yi Yang ordered the penne, Yin Guo regretted her decision. She realized that she actually hated eating penne and felt disappointed that this would be the worst meal she had eaten since coming for the competition.

 

It was Yin Guo's first official date with Lin Yi Yang, and they had chosen a local restaurant with a homey ambiance. As soon as their pasta arrived, Yin Guo's appetite was completely ruined by the unappetizing look of the dish and its overwhelming size. The same was true for the chicken wings and fries, distasteful but massive compared to typical restaurant servings.

 

Lin Yi Yang had only ordered these three items and a drink, knowing well the quantity of food that would be served.

 

As Yin Guo struggled to eat even a third of her meal, Lin Yi Yang watched her closely and finally spoke up when she put down her fork.

 

"You like it that much?" he asked with a wry smile.

 

He had finished off the chicken wings not because they tasted good, but because he didn't want to let them go to waste. It was clear to him that this restaurant had a reputation for oversized portions rather than quality cuisine.

 

She took another sip of the lemon tea and watched as Lin Yi Yang finished the rest of the chicken wings. "Mm," she said, trying to sound appreciative. "This lemon tea is tasty."

 

Lin Yi Yang chuckled. "Glad you like it. I should've known better than to bring you to this place."

 

Yin Guo felt lost in his features as she looked at him. His striking eyes, sharp nose, and chiseled jawline all seemed to complement each other perfectly. Even his messy hair and rugged beard, now groomed and shaved, looked good on him. How had she never noticed how handsome he was before? No wonder Meng Xiaotian always called him "Dashuaibi."

 

Yin Guo bit the straw, and as their gazes met and shifted, she found herself staring at the peeling wall next to him. The crowded restaurant suddenly felt smaller and more intimate.

 

"It's just okay, not really to my taste," Lin Yi Yang replied, pushing away the plate. "I'll whip up something better when we get back."

 

"Wait, you can cook?" Yin Guo looked at him with surprise.

 

"I can manage simple stuff," he said, picking up the bill and heading to the counter.

 

As they returned home, they found Wu Wei waiting with a spread of late-night snacks on the table. Wu Wei gave Lin Yi Yang a disdainful look as she handed him the bill. Lin Yi Yang had messaged him to prepare a second meal after finding the chicken wings at the restaurant to be subpar.

 

Yin Guo was still full from the pasta they had for dinner, so she didn't eat much of the snacks. She left the rest for her cousin and Wu Wei to devour.

 

As soon as they arrived home, Yin Guo felt a sense of unease with the additional presence of Wu Wei and her cousin, who watched them with scrutinizing eyes. The awkwardness continued throughout dinner, with Lin Yi Yang and Yin Guo struggling to find common ground. In the middle of their meal, Yin Guo's phone rang, interrupting their conversation. She excused herself and went to her room to take the call from her coach, discussing her training progress.

 

When she returned to the living room, Wu Wei was already packing up, and Lin Yi Yang was engrossed in a conversation with his professor over the phone. Their brief exchange left them with an unspoken yearning for more time together. After a long day, they retreated to their respective rooms to shower and sleep, but not before exchanging a few words.

 

Yin Guo hesitated before sending Lin Yi Yang a message, "Are you leaving tomorrow?"

 

Lin: Yes.

 

Yin Guo: In the morning or afternoon?

 

Lin: Same as last week.

 

Yin Guo thought Ok then. If I don't wake up, I'll be a no-show.

 

Yin Guo: Good night. See you tomorrow.

 

Lin: Night.

 

They said good night to each other and turned off their phones but couldn't fall asleep.

 

Yin Guo tossed and turned in bed, her mind buzzing with thoughts about the upcoming competition. She checked her phone and scrolled through the club's large group chat and the nine-ball small group chat. It was the afternoon in China, and everyone was discussing various competitions during their training breaks, chatting passionately.

 

The biggest recent competition in nine-ball is this open tournament. In the group chat, everyone confirms each person's arrival time in New York.

 

In the following days, the anticipation for the upcoming competitions was palpable among the players in the group chat. Yin Guo silently observed their discussions and updates, feeling a mixture of excitement and nervousness for her own competition the week after.

 

Knowing Yin Guo is asleep, no one talks to her directly in the group chat, except for Coach Chen, who left her a message on WeChat two hours ago.

 

Coach Chen: I'll be landing at the airport tomorrow afternoon if there are no delays.

 

Coach Chen: When I arrive, I have arranged for you to move to the hotel, where a room has already been prepared for you. We'll need to adjust your training plan to prepare for the competition. We can discuss the details when we meet.

"Move over?"

 

She had planned for the possibility of having to move out when she and Wu Wei rented the apartment. Despite having rented the room until the end of April, it was only to satisfy the landlord through Wu Wei. They knew it wouldn't be wise to rent it for too short of a time.

 

She realized that they would have to move out by the end of the weekend at the latest, and most likely by the following week.

 

Yin Guo looked up and stared blankly at the door to her room. She could see a crack of light coming through the bottom of the door.

 

Curiosity got the better of her, and she attempted to probe who was in the living room by sending a message via WeChat.

Xiao Guo: Are you asleep?

 

No response, so she assumed it wasn't him.

 

She turned off the bedside lamp and rested her head on the pillow. However, as soon as she did, her phone vibrated on the nightstand for a moment. She quickly sat up and checked her phone.

 

Lin: Just saw it.

 

Xiao Guo: So, are you outside the door?

 

Lin: Yes.

 

Lin: Are you coming out?

 

Yin Guo flung her phone onto the nightstand, hastily threw on a sports jacket, and crept towards the door, her hand tightly clutching the cold brass handle. She slowly turned the handle and opened the door just a sliver when she felt someone suddenly push it open.

 

A tall figure slipped inside and softly shut the door, leaving it slightly ajar to avoid the clicking sound of the lock.

 

"It's me, your brother," he whispered, his voice barely above a murmur.

 

The sound of slippers dragging across the floor reverberated through the hallway, coming closer and then slowly fading away until the only sound left was the soft hum of the air conditioning.

 

"Why didn't you turn off the lights?" Meng Xiaotian grumbled groggily, shutting the door behind him.

 

Lin Yi Yang followed closely behind him, silently closing the door behind him.

 

The room was enveloped in darkness, with the curtains drawn tight and no natural light filtering in.

 

Yin Guo stood frozen in front of Lin Yi Yang, feeling as though she could hear her own heart beating. In the complete darkness, she could barely make out Lin Yi Yang's form in his white sportswear, which he must have changed into after he had already fallen asleep.

 

Both of them waited silently for Meng Xiaotian to settle down in his bed, so that they could talk without being overheard.

 

The footsteps eventually faded away, and Yin Guo let out a quiet sigh of relief. She turned her attention back to Lin Yi Yang, who stood in front of her in his white sportswear. Despite the room's darkness, she could see the outline of his face and the glint of his watch in the moonlight.

 

"Are you still awake?" she whispered, breaking the silence.

 

"Looking for medicine," he replied, his voice just above a murmur. He had been jostled in the crowd earlier and now had a cut on his hand.

 

"Are you sick?" Yin Guo asked with concern.

 

Lin Yi Yang held up his hand to show her the cut, revealing a small gash on his palm. "Just a small cut," he reassured her, showing some ointment, gauze, and band-aids on his hand.

 

Lin Yi Yang scanned the dimly lit room before pointing toward the small sofa by the window. "Mind if I sit over there?"

"Please, go ahead," Yin Guo said as she made her way to the main light switch.

 

But Lin Yi Yang took her hand and pointed towards the bedside lamp. "This will be enough," he said before sitting down on the small, soft sofa. He carefully placed the things in his hand on the floor, revealing a wound on his ankle.

 

Yin Guo couldn't help but notice that this was Lin Yi Yang's first time in her room, despite Wu Wei renting it for quite some time. She had purchased the small sofa as soon as she moved in, but it was little more than a big cushion. While it was comfortable enough for her, Lin Yi Yang's presence made it look even smaller and out of place.

 

Yin Guo squatted beside Lin Yi Yang and examined the wound in the dim light of the bedside lamp. The cut was long but not deep, as if something sharp had sliced through the fabric of his pants. She furrowed her brows and whispered, "How did you get this?"

 

"On the train," he replied nonchalantly, avoiding giving away too many details.

 

"You only noticed it now?" Yin Guo asked in disbelief. "You've been walking around with an open wound all this time?"

"It doesn't hurt, so I didn't realize it," he said with a shrug.

 

Despite his nonchalant attitude, Yin Guo could see the discomfort etched on his face, making her worry. She watched as he applied ointment to the wound and thought about how she could help.

 

Lin Yi Yang decided to use a few adhesive bandages to cover the wound and avoid touching it during his travel the next day. He tore off some bandages from the stack and tried to figure out how to stick them on horizontally.

 

"I'll help you," Yin Guo whispered as she crouched beside him.

 

Not hearing her, Lin Yi Yang looked up and saw her face in the dim light. Her eyes were filled with concern, and she was looking at him with a tenderness he had never experienced before. The way she offered to help him with his wound was so natural and caring that it touched him in a way he couldn't explain.

 

"I'll help you," Yin Guo repeated, noticing the look on his face. "Let me apply the band-aids."

 

Lin Yi Yang felt his heart skip a beat as Yin Guo gently took the band-aids from him and started to stick them on his wound. It was a simple gesture, but it made him feel strangely comforted. No one had ever offered to help him like this before, and he didn't know how to respond.

During the Snowstorm
3.3
The Scenery After the Snowstorm

"There's a DIY Menglong store nearby," Lin Yi Yang said, pointing in a certain direction. "It's just a short walk from here."

 

Yin Guo's eyes lit up with excitement. "Really? A custom store? Can we go check it out?"

 

As Lin Yi Yang observed, all girls seemed to love this type of thing.

 

In fact, Wu Wei doesn't need to send the location; he has been there once.

 

Lin Yi Yang remembered his previous visit to the DIY ice cream shop. It was that time when he met the couple who went to the hotel who had a wild time. They had customized identical ice creams and shared a kiss while eating. Despite drinking his coffee, Lin Yi Yang remained expressionless throughout the experience and was critical of the limited seating available, anticipating that customers would have to stand if the shop got crowded.

 

But his perspective changed when he saw the gleam in Yin Guo's eyes. The sight of her joy made him realize that perhaps the atmosphere and experience of enjoying ice cream together were more important than having a seat.

 

But just 20 minutes later, Lin Yi Yang's perspective on the shop changed again.

 

As they walked through the crisp, cold wind, they arrived at the shop only to find it empty and without a single employee in sight. The two of them looked at each other, and Lin Yi Yang decided to give Wei Wu a call.

 

"Wei, I'm at the DIY Menglong store, but it's closed," he said.

 

"Oh, I forgot to mention, it closes in October," Wei Wu responded after realizing the store was closed. "I didn't notice that either. During the winter, everyone is inactive, so I wouldn't have seen anything. Where are you guys? I'll bring Meng Xiaotian there over in a bit."

 

"I'll send the address to you in a moment," Lin Yi Yang said before hanging up the phone. "The store is closed."

 

After a brief moment of contemplation, he turned to Yin Guo and said, "Come on, let's find a sheltered place to wait for them. I'll send the address to Wei Wu."

 

The two continued down the street in SOHO, and after several turns, they found a cozy restaurant where they could wait.

 

Lin Yi Yang walked into the restaurant, with Yin Guo following close behind. The owner was sitting alone at the bar, intently watching a baseball game broadcast, when Lin Yi Yang approached and knocked on the counter. The owner turned around, his face breaking into a warm smile upon seeing the two of them.

 

"Did you visit this week?" the owner inquired.

 

"Yes," Lin Yi Yang answered. "We'd like to have afternoon tea, and I'd like an ice cream, something similar to the customized Menglong."

 

"Of course," the owner replied. "I'll prepare that for you right away."

 

Lin Yi Yang guided Yin Guo to a cozy spot inside the restaurant, offering respite from the cold wind outside. Before long, the owner returned to their table with a generous scoop of creamy vanilla ice cream and an array of decorating tools.

 

Lin Yi Yang went back outside to purchase a package of fragrant edible rose petals and a handful of bright red berry chips. Upon his return, he eagerly presented the ingredients to the owner, who then expertly topped the ice cream with a layer of rich white chocolate coating and sprinkled it with rose petals and berries. It was a stunning, visually appetizing masterpiece that looked as good as it tasted.

 

Finally, the owner drizzled a rich chocolate syrup on top of the ice cream and presented it to Yin Guo with a friendly smile.

"Thank you," Yin Guo said politely, her eyes lighting up at the sight of the beautifully decorated treat.

 

"No problem, this kid pays anyway," the owner chuckled, giving Lin Yi Yang a friendly pat on the arm. "Hey, want to watch the Dodgers game with me? I've got live tickets."

 

Lin Yi Yang shook his head with a bittersweet smile. "I'm too busy with graduation to watch the game," he said. "But thank you for the offer."

 

The owner nodded understandingly and then turned back to the TV. "Just let me know if you need anything," he called out over his shoulder as he settled back into his seat.

 

Lin Yi Yang and Yin Guo sat at the table, enjoying their ice cream.

 

"Is the person who made the ice cream your friend?" Yin Guo asked in a soft voice.

 

"I know him from the ball room," Lin Yi Yang answered. "He's a retired baseball player, and he's also pretty good at pool."

As they spoke, Lin Yi Yang checked his phone and sent the address to Wei Wu. He also grabbed the menu from the next table and started looking it over.

 

"Graduation is coming up. Aren't you busy?" Yin Guo asked as she savored her ice cream.

 

"It's manageable," Lin Yi Yang replied with a shrug.

 

Actually, Lin Yi Yang was drowning in work. His classmates in Washington, having heard of his visit to New York, have told him that he was crazy.

 

She ate a couple of bites and asked curiously, "Are you planning to stay here, or are you going to return to China after graduation?"

 

Between staying in the bustling city or returning to his home country after graduation, he hasn't thought much about this. Each option presented its unique set of opportunities and challenges, and he had yet to make a final decision.

 

As he sat across from the girl, he felt a rush of uncertainty wash over him. Their relationship was still a mystery to him, and he couldn't shake the feeling that he was missing something important. He didn't know if she had a significant other or not.

 

Lin Yi Yang sat back in his chair, the weight of his uncertain future pressing on him. "I haven't decided yet," he replied to Yín Guǒ's question.

 

She took a couple more bites of her ice cream and then asked, "Are you considering playing professional matches?"

 

Lin Yi Yang chuckled self-deprecatingly. "Me? Never thought about it," he said, shaking his head.

 

Lin Yi Yang never thought about going back to playing billiards.

 

However, in Yin Guo's opinion, it would be a waste for Lin Yi Yang not to give it a try, given his skills.

 

"I think you should try professional billiards," she suggested kindly.

 

Lin Yi Yang closed the menu and tossed it onto the neighboring table. "Many talented players choose not to participate in international competitions and stick to regional ones. Do you know why?"

 

Yin Guo shook her head.

 

Lin Yi Yang explained, "There are a variety of reasons why some players skip international competitions and only participate in regional ones. Some may not be driven to aim for a world ranking, while others may struggle with performance anxiety in larger events."

 

He continued, "As for me, I tend to struggle in big competitions and simply can't seem to perform at my best."

 

Yin Guo couldn't help but chuckle at the thought. "Impossible," she said with a smile.

 

Lin Yi Yang raised an eyebrow and asked playfully, "Why not?"

 

Lin Yi Yang understood that as they continued to get to know each other, the topic of their pasts would inevitably come up. And with Yin Guo's older cousin being Meng Xiaodong, it was only a matter of time before she found out what kind of person Lin Yi Yang was.

 

The thought made Lin Yi Yang feel somewhat uneasy. He didn't even know what kind of person he was, let alone what others might say about him.

 

Yin Guo seemed to sense his discomfort and awkwardly fell silent.

 

He leaned back in his chair and cast his gaze to the shelves of wine bottles, a glint of inspiration in his eyes. "Have you ever tried sweet wine?" he asked with a hint of curiosity.

 

Yin Guo raised an eyebrow, "Is it good?"

 

Lin Yi Yang chuckled, "It's not a matter of being good or bad. It's just a unique experience. The owner of this place had a bottle opened last time I was here. I'm not sure if it's still available."

 

She shook her head, "I've never tried it. What's it like?"

 

Yin Guo eagerly nodded in agreement to try the sweet wine. Lin Yi Yang closed the menu and rose from his seat, making his way over to the man overseeing the billiard match. He returned with a wine glass filled with a dark red liquid in no time.

 

As Yin Guo leaned forward and sniffed the wine, she asked, "How sweet is it?"

 

Lin Yi Yang took a small sip, his eyes lighting up as he remembered the taste from last month. "It's not sweet," he explained, "It's a 20-plus-year-old vintage sweet wine that's quite strong. We're lucky. This is the last glass left."

 

The deep and rich flavor of the aged wine lingered on Yin Guo's tongue as she savored her slow sip. She couldn't help but appreciate the rarity of the opportunity, regardless of one's wealth, to taste a vintage wine that would never exist again once the bottle was consumed.

 

"What do you think?" Lin Yi Yang asked, his gaze fixed on her reaction.

 

"It's intense and burns the throat, but it has such depth and character," she replied, still savoring the flavor.

 

She savored each sip of the rare, vintage sweet wine, knowing it was the last glass available. As she basked in the rich, intense flavor, Wu Wei and the others walked in, observing her and Lin Yi Yang seated across from each other.

 

Recognizing the color and glass, Wu Wei quickly took a seat and realized the significance of what she was drinking. The wine was served in a special glass, reserved only for vintage sweet wines at the establishment.

 

"This wine is excellent. Let's open a bottle and savor its unique flavor," Wu Wei suggested with a warm smile.

 

You've splurged your monthly food budget on this one bottle of antique wine. Why settle for a cheap pizza when you can indulge in the rare taste of this three-hundred-dollar bottle of antique wine for others? If you still think you are not interested in her, I will share the same surname with you.

 


Wu Wei sat down and took out his phone with a steely expression.

 

Wu Suo Wei: The purpose behind giving someone vintage wine to drink is lost if there's no action to back it up. Not only is such an expensive bottle unappreciated, but it's also a waste.

 

Lin Yi Yang glanced at the message from Wu Wei but decided to leave it unopened.

 

Yin Guo savored each sip of the wine, relishing its depth and complexity.

 

Although it was strong, the combination of seafood and wine created a comforting warmth in her stomach.

 

Meng Xiaotian expertly orchestrated the gathering, and the two gentlemen at the table impulsively ordered the most basic champagne. The glasses, filled with sparkling liquid, were arranged on the table. However, the hue of the champagne in Yin Guo's glass was a deep, alluring color that set it apart from the others.

 

As the night progressed, Lin Yi Yang inquired about Yin Guo's practice schedule. Upon discovering that it was almost time, he bid farewell to Wu Wei and Meng Xiaotian, who were still deep in their revelries at SOHO. Lin Yi Yang then escorted Yin Guo to the ball room.

 

The single room remained unchanged, but with the pull of a wooden door, the outside world was shut out, and the room was transformed into a private sanctuary.

 

Lin Yi Yang regretfully informed her that he had to return to school, as the city was a mixed bag of personalities, some good and some bad. "It's not exactly the safest place," he warned, patting the pool table. "But don't worry, this table is my turf. If you ever need anything, just come find me."

 

The young woman softly acknowledged his words with a murmured "um."

 

She couldn't shake the feeling of being coddled and protected.

 

Lin Yi Yang gazed at her as if he had something important to say. She felt a flutter of anticipation as she waited for her to speak.

 

But then, Lin Yi Yang broke the silence by calling out to the owner's 14-year-old son, who was outside. He took a bill from his wallet and whispered something to the boy. The teenager nodded, took the money, and ran off. A few moments later, he returned with two steaming paper cups of latte and handed them to Lin Yi Yang. As an afterthought, the boy closed the door behind him, leaving the two in a quiet, private space.

 

"You didn't have to buy me a coffee, really," she said, feeling guilty for having made him pay for everything. "I should have offered to treat you."

 

Lin Yi Yang took a sip of the latte and smiled. "Don't worry about it. I wanted a coffee and thought you might like one too. Plus, I was up late last night working on a thesis and could use the pick-me-up."

 

Did he stay up all night?

 

She remembered seeing the lights in the living room turn off late into the night and wondered if he had returned to his room after their conversation.

 

Yin Guo was still lost in thought when Lin Yi Yang handed her the paper cup of coffee. She took it absently and held it in her hand without really paying attention. Suddenly realizing what she was holding, she quickly withdrew her hand and apologized with an embarrassed smile, unable to find the words to say.

 

Lin Yi Yang, too, was feeling awkward, clearing his throat and forcing a smile. "I have to catch a train, so I'll be off now," he said. He placed the coffee cup on the edge of the pool table, his hand that was held by Yin Guo slipping into the pocket of his pants. He then opened the door and stepped out.

 

Outside the door, people were gathered around every table, chatting and laughing.

 

Lin Yi Yang greeted a few familiar faces, exchanging quick hellos and goodbyes before shutting the door. As he turned to leave, he fixed her with a stern gaze, his tone resolute. "Just remember, don't hesitate to come find me if you need anything. And keep in mind, I won't be back next week."

 

She strained her ears, trying to pick up the sounds of his footsteps fading away. But all she could hear was the boisterous music and drunken laughter coming from outside, punctuated by the irresistible aroma of crispy fried chicken seeping in through the cracks in the door. Despite the distractions, her focus remained unwavering.

 

As she listened, the sounds of conversation and laughter began to wane, and she could tell that Lin Yi Yang was finally making his departure. She listened as he said goodbye to the boss and the others, his words lost amidst the din of the bar.

 

With Lin Yi Yang gone, she took a deep breath and turned to the pool table, taking the cue stick from its holder and setting it down beside the neatly arranged balls. She took a moment to steady her nerves, placing her hand on the felt surface and feeling its familiar texture. It was time to focus and start her training.

 

Unfortunately, Yin Guo struggled to maintain focus during her training session today. Despite playing billiards on and off until 7 PM, she couldn't seem to get into the right mindset. She eventually decided to take a break and contemplate whether to focus solely on billiards training for the next hour.

 

As she was considering her options, she received a phone call from Coach Chen. As the coach in charge of the 9-ball at the club, Coach Chen was responsible for managing the daily lives and training of the female players. Although he couldn't come to the competition two months early, he kept in touch with Yin Guo by calling her regularly to keep track of her progress.

 

Yin Guo answered the call and quickly got down to business with Coach Chen. They discussed her training progress, tasks completed, and plans for the next day. After a brief talk on work-related matters, Coach Chen shifted to a more relaxed tone and asked with a chuckle, "I saw the news. Did you have another snowstorm there?"

 

"Yes, it snowed, but it has stopped now," replied Ying Guo.

 

In an uncharacteristic move, she decided to steer the conversation toward a personal matter. "Coach, have you heard of Wu Wei? He's a player in this year's open tournament."

 

The club they were at was a bustling hub of activity, with a wide range of billiards games being played, including nine-ball, straight pool, and snooker. It was home to top-notch players and champions and was staffed by an impressive team of coaches. At the moment, the coaches were all gathered in the gym for an early morning workout, eager to get their day started.

 

"Wu Wei is from Dongxin City and has great potential but hasn't been competing in recent years," one of the snooker coaches chimed in after hearing the name.

 

"What about Lin Yi Yang? Have you heard of them?" asked Yin Guo.

 

A laugh echoed through the gym, and Coach Chen flipped on the speakerphone, ready to join in on the discussion.

"I remember the kid," said Coach Fu, who coaches the male nine-ball group. "He's a skilled snooker player. My wife was a referee when he won the championship his first year in the professional circuit."

 

"Did he play professionally?" asked Yin Guo, surprised.

 

"Yes, but it's been a while since he's competed," Coach Fu replied.

 

"What competition was it? And what was his best result?" probed Yin Guo.

 

"He won the championship; it was a big achievement for him. Your older cousin and Lin Yi Yang debuted in the same competition. You could ask him about Lin Yi Yang," Coach Fu suggested.

 

Yin Guo fell silent, considering the information.

 

"It's been over a decade, so don't expect anyone to have a clear memory of it. Why don't you ask Meng Laoliu, although he probably won't remember either," Coach Chen suggested, trying to lighten the mood with a laugh. "What club was Lin Yi Yang from? I haven't heard of him. Does he still play?"

 

"Lin Yi Yang retired over ten years ago and was from Dongxin," Coach Fu added, his memory suddenly jogged. "We had a new coach arrive two days ago who's from that same club. Let me call him over and ask."

 

The line went silent for a moment.

 

Soon, the new coach was called over, and upon hearing the name 'Lin Yi Yang,' he laughed, "He Wenfeng, do you guys know him?

 

Who wouldn't know He Wenfeng? The coach was renowned in the industry, despite having a small number of official disciples. However, he left a lasting impact as the mentor of numerous successful players, many of whom still credit him as the starting point of their careers.

 

The new coach added, "Lin Yi Yang is Master He's closed-door disciple. Although I haven't seen him personally, they say he's a genius. But he's also known to be a bit of a scoundrel, the kind that nobody can handle."

 

The new coach explained that Lin Yi Yang was known for his wild behavior during his teenage years, which led to a falling out with his mentor, Coach He. Despite this, Lin was still well-regarded by his younger peers, and no one dared to bring up his past misdeeds while Coach He was still working. After Coach He's retirement, Jiang Yang, who was Lin's senior brother, took over the club and made it clear that speaking ill of Lin was not tolerated. Over time, people stopped discussing the events of over a decade ago.

 

Lin was still remembered in Dongxin City, with many referring to him affectionately as "Liu Ge" or "Little Master Yang."

"If you're interested in knowing more, I could ask Yang Ye for you," the new coach offered.

 

But as soon as Yin Guo heard they were going to ask Jiang Yang, he quickly replied, "No need, no need to ask specifically. And please don't tell my older cousin. I've already done some research on my own."

 

After the phone call ended in a hurry, Yin Guo was still unsatisfied with the little information he had heard and tried to search for him online.

 

The reputation of Lin Yi Yang lingered on in the Dongxin City Billiards club, with many people still talking about his accomplishments and his presence in the club's history. Despite his achievements, however, information about him was scarce, with only a few mentions of his name on old web pages and records of past competitions. Despite the lack of online presence, his name had left a lasting impact in the small community, cementing his place in the club's history.

 

In a country with a vast array of sports programs, Lin Yi Yang's success was a testament to the hard work and dedication he put into his craft, even in the face of competition from tens of thousands of athletes in niche sports. Despite the passage of time, his name remained remembered, serving as an inspiration to aspiring athletes.

 

The contrast between Jiang Yang's success and Lin Yi Yang's obscurity weighed heavily on Yin Guo's mind. Despite being taught by the same coach, Jiang Yang was now a world-renowned name in the billiard world. At the same time, Lin Yi Yang was almost completely forgotten, with only a few people in the Dongxin City Billiards Club even remembering his name.

 

As Yin Guo stared at Lin Yi Yang's WeChat profile, she felt an overwhelming desire to reach out. She hesitated, her fingers hovering over the keyboard, before ultimately closing the app without sending a message. However, the urge to take action remained, a nagging thought at the back of her mind.

 

Yin Guo finally stumbled upon an old photo of sweet vintage wine she had in the warm afternoon light. She hesitantly sent the picture to a friend's social media circle, accompanied by a brief caption. Despite spending half a day editing the text, she felt unsatisfied and could only write a simple line: "Forgot to ask about the year."

 

As the day dawned in the country, the photo garnered attention, and the notifications on her phone rang incessantly with messages and likes pouring in. She grew restless, logging in and out multiple times before finally mustering the courage to check her message notifications.

 

Her fingers hovered over the phone screen, finally stopping on a short message.

 

Lin: The year you were born.

 

Her eyes widened as she quickly refreshed the screen. Another message appeared.

 

Lin: I'm talking about the wine.

During the Snowstorm
12.2
Dusty Pride

They looked at each other, with Yin Guo's brows furrowed in fear.


"Take your time," he said, placing his right hand behind her head, speaking softly, "I'll go outside for a smoke."


He guessed that waiting by the door might pressure her even more, so it would be better to step outside.


Once outside, he patted his trouser pocket, finding it empty.


Claiming he was going out to smoke without actually bringing anything to smoke with. He randomly chose a dorm, knocked on the next door, pushed it open, and asked the group of shirtless men lounging inside, "Got a cigarette?"


The room was filled with men who had just finished training, some watching blockbuster movies on their computers, others viewing lewd content. Dirty clothes scattered everywhere. "Yeah," one of them quickly responded, handing over a cigarette and lighter.


"Watching this stuff in broad daylight, aren't you afraid of weakening your kidneys?" Lin Yi Yang joked, nodding towards the computer in the corner.


"Come on, Brother Six, don't judge us single guys just because you're in a relationship," someone protested.


Lin Yi Yang left amid their teasing, closing the door behind him.


Stepping outside, he intended to light the cigarette but felt too distracted to follow through. Clutching the cigarette between his fingers, he didn't bother to smoke; instead, he watched the traffic flow by.


Tired of standing, he sat on the steps, and only then did he notice ash falling onto his shoe. He considered lighting another cigarette when suddenly, arms wrapped around him from behind.


It was like reaching the peak of a roller coaster, slowly hanging at the apex.


He froze, even forgetting to smoke.


"Negative," the girl's voice, laden with relief, whispered in his ear, "Negative." She then asked anxiously, "So it's all good, right?"


This roller coaster of life had circled around, soaring and diving unexpectedly, before abruptly reaching its end.


Or rather, it came to a sudden stop.


The initial rush of emotion that reached his throat was forcibly pulled back, leaving an indescribable feeling.


Disappointment? Yes, but not much. Relief? More so.


He had been preparing mentally on how to apologize profusely to her family, to endure any scolding or punishment, and even how to convince his parents to let him marry her. Clearly, it wasn't going to be an easy hurdle.


Turning such a potentially joyous event into something so complicated made him feel sorry for the young girl.


Fortunately, it didn't come to that.


Lin Yi Yang stubbed out the cigarette back into the pack and snapped it shut.


He let out a gentle sigh, smiling.


He turned around and touched her face: "Are you happy now?"

He smiled, too, after feeling her smile.


Yin Guo, turning to look at him, teased, "It seems you're quite happy to know it's negative, aren't you?"


"Of course." Naturally, he preferred things to proceed step by step.


"Then why did you say you'd be very happy if it's positive?" Yin Guo couldn't help but laugh.


"Being happy about that was also true," he said, smiling without feeling any conflict.


He sat there and thought back to when he was twenty-two. He had just graduated from college with a decent job that didn't satisfy him, contemplating another effort to earn more and study further.


If he had paused his life that year, there wouldn't be a Lin Yi Yang as known today.


The paths he had taken, the worlds he had seen, and the friends he had made would all be entirely different. He wouldn't have the ease in facing the media, the calm before international broadcasts, the composure and broad vision of a man who could shoulder Dongxin City.


He would just be an ordinary middle-aged man who once won a national championship.


He would never be content to stop at twenty-two.


And Yin Guo, who was far more remarkable than before, has even greater potential for greatness.


Having children could wait; she was still young.


But marriage needed to be scheduled, perhaps after the Asian Games? That would be about right.


When you love someone, of course, you want to give them the best, including following the steps, winning over the parents, planning a proposal sincere enough to be repeated seventy or eighty times if necessary, as long as she's happy.


Unaware of Lin Yi Yang's considerations about marriage, Yin Guo wrapped her arms around his neck, pondering if the old man was beginning to speak in contradictions. Given his age, he probably wanted children, right?


Resting her chin on his shoulder, she felt that the hug felt different after their recent scare...


When someone entered the dorm building and saw Lin Yi Yang, they casually mentioned, "Brother Six, you're here? Cheng Yan was looking for you earlier and said it was about discussing the Asian Games registration."


Lin Yi Yang acknowledged.


Yin Guo nudged his shoulder with her chin, wanting to say something but hesitating, not wanting to seem petty or irrational...


Lin Yi Yang had been nothing but open and honest.


Yet, she remembered how Cheng Yan looked at Lin Yi Yang the last time they met on the stairs... It's unsettling when outsiders covet the "cabbage" in your own garden, no matter how many fences you build.


Feeling her alternating between rubbing her face and chin against his back, Lin Yi Yang found it amusing. "She's the deputy captain of the nine-ball team," he explained as he put the lighter back in the cigarette pack for her, "It's unavoidable."


"I didn't say anything," she defended playfully.


She was suddenly lifted off the ground, her legs dangling as Lin Yi Yang hoisted her onto his back. His height meant she almost bumped her head against the door frame.


"There are so many people," she struggled, panicking, "Put me down quickly!"


"Are you jealous?" Lin Yi Yang pointed out, walking back along the corridor, "I'm giving you a sense of security."


It was a busy time in the dormitory.


He did it on purpose.


At the staircase, several girls from the nine-ball team stopped in surprise.


The man who had just been passing messages to Cheng Yan, now being stopped by a junior sister to discuss official matters, noticed Lin Yi Yang carrying Yin Guo back to the dorm and immediately followed with concern: "Did sister-in-law hurt her foot? Should we call the team doctor?"


"No need," Lin Yi Yang said seriously, "She's mad at me; I'm just trying to cheer her up."


...


The men were all thinking: Damn, the old rascal is different...

And the women: I want someone like Uncle Six too...


It was meant to tease her.


But carrying her from the entrance to their dorm ignited a fire within him, fueled by her initial struggles and eventual resignation. They hadn't seen each other for two weeks, and their last intimate moment was in a New York apartment.


Entering the room, he tossed her onto the soft quilt and turned on the air conditioner.


His hands busied themselves with her shirt while pulling out a small box from the bedside drawer. After securing a package under the pillow, he pressed down on her, kissing her.


Yin Guo's shirt was pulled open, and she felt a desire for him as well.


Her heart raced, but her feelings for him deepened after that turmoil. In those few seconds of waiting for the result, she even thought that marrying him wouldn't be so bad.


His caresses made her also feel hot. She wanted him, truly: "Watch the time... it'll be a traffic jam later."


Before him, her cheeks blushed faintly. Still shy after all their encounters, she hardly made a sound, except for the low, husky breaths during their most intense moments right by his ear, under his chin.


...


Later, without noticing, she hit her head against the headboard. Thinking he hadn't noticed, but when she hit her head again, she found his warm palm cushioning the blow.


"Does it hurt?" he asked, his voice husky and breathy.


It was just a moment, a simple gesture.


Yin Guo felt emotionally emptied by it. Suddenly overwhelmed, her eyes reddened, and she bit his arm.


She couldn't understand why such a small action made her emotions uncontrollable. It was a minor detail, yet it seemed to show his constant attention and care, instinctive and thoughtful...


Seeing the redness in her eyes, Lin Yi Yang chuckled lowly by her ear, "Not hard enough, try again."


Before she could respond, he silenced her with a kiss.


Now, in mid-May, especially today, it was unusually hot.


Yet, Lin Yi Yang dressed in the long-sleeved shirt and trousers prepared the night before, aiming to make an excellent first impression on her family, trying to be as presentable as possible.


He parked in Yin Guo's family's slot in the residential complex's underground garage, attracting the attention of a curious and enthusiastic neighboring uncle before they even got out of the car.


After parking and locking the car, Lin Yi Yang felt the neighbor's gaze. He adjusted his shirt collar and, carrying a few bags of gifts, nodded politely to the neighbors greeting Yin Guo.


"Is this your boyfriend?" the neighbor asked with a smile.


"Yes," Yin Guo, already nervous from the scrutiny, felt her palms sweat before even leaving the garage.


She led him upstairs, turned left, swiped a card, and entered the elevator, whispering, "I forgot to tell you, my mom has a meeting at the bureau tonight; she won't make dinner."


Lin Yi Yang nodded.


"The Asian Games are coming up, and the bureau is busy," she added, "but she specifically mentioned waiting for her. She wants to see you when she gets back."


He nodded again: "Okay."


Both focused on a notice about gas pipe maintenance between the elevator doors, reading intently. Yin Guo was far more nervous than him, feeling the thrill of bringing her boyfriend home for the first time.


...


Upon arriving home, Meng Xiaodong had arrived first, already having tea with Yin Guo's father.


Clearly, Meng Xiaodong came specifically to ease the atmosphere for Lin Yi Yang's introduction, smoothing over the initial awkwardness. Lin Yi Yang, after setting down the gifts and politely greeting them, shook hands with Yin Guo's father.


Yin Guo's father was favorably impressed at first glance.


Having not seen Lin Yi Yang compete, his impression of him was still based on a suspension for throwing a cue in anger. However, upon Lin Yi Yang's entrance, his posture and gaze indicated the young man's education and personal cultivation were of a high standard.


"Your teacher often mentions you, and I've been on the phone with Yin Guo's mom," Yin Guo's father directed him to the sofa, "Life is full of ups and downs; one must be open-minded. Sit."


With Meng Xiaodong facilitating, Lin Yi Yang was served tea, and the conversation flowed easily.


Starting with the reforms at Dongxin City, Yin Guo's father, having once been passionate about making real changes in his sports association, related deeply to Lin Yi Yang's experiences with opposition. The conversation bridged the gap between generations, finding common ground.


The discussion was so engaging they continued talking through dinner, with Yin Guo's elder sister, Wu Tong, coldly observing until then, serving rice to their grandmother and gently suggesting, "Dad, the guest is here. Let's eat."


"Yes, yes, let's have the guest eat first," the grandmother also chimed in, smiling warmly at Lin Yi Yang, "Little Lin, thank you for taking care of Little Tian in the United States. Tian Tian grew up beside me. His mother passed away early. The boy is naive and not as worldly as Xiaodong. You must have had a hard time."


"Grandma, it's what I should do," Lin Yi Yang said, "Without Yin Guo, Xiaodong and I have been friends for many years."


"Yes," Meng Xiaodong added, "Friends since childhood."


Wu Tong glanced at Meng Xiaodong and served some dishes for the grandmother but remained silent.


After dinner, Yin Guo's father, still having engagements, expressed his wish for Lin Yi Yang to visit again when he was free and then left. Yin Guo went upstairs with her grandmother. Meanwhile, Meng Xiaodong received a call from Yin Guo's mother and stepped out to the balcony to take it.


In the living room, only the sister remained.


She sat opposite Lin Yi Yang.


"Were you from No. 7 Middle School?" Yin Guo's sister suddenly spoke, "We've met before."


Lin Yi Yang glanced at her: "When I first heard your name, it did sound familiar. Yan Fu's girlfriend?"


Wu Tong felt like someone had touched a sore spot in her heart, a foolish teenage affair she didn't even understand why she entered, not even a liking: "I haven't been in contact with him for a long time."


Lin Yi Yang nodded and then returned to watching sports news.

With that, the exchange and reminiscing came to an end.


He indeed had a certain aura, somewhat oppressive, not giving face to those he didn't care to engage with.


In New York, Xiaotian mentioned a few times how Little Guo was bullied by her sister when they were younger, leaving him with a poor impression. No need to be overly polite. Moreover, he and that "Yan Fu" were just friends of friends, their only meeting at a small billiard hall near Drum Tower and a barbecue shop, barely speaking, no old acquaintances to catch up with.


Yin Guo came down from upstairs and immediately became anxious upon seeing her sister sitting near Lin Yi Yang, protectively calling out: "Lin Yi Yang."


Lin Yi Yang looked up, watching her hurry down the stairs, desperately waving and signaling to him: "Come to the kitchen, help me with the fruit platter. My mom will be home soon."


Lin Yi Yang smiled, thinking, I'm a grown man. Do you really think I can be bullied? Do you think everyone is like you, a little fool who can't create an argument?


He followed Yin Guo into the kitchen.


Wu Tong remained seated on the sofa, picking up the remote control and intending to change the channel but didn't, lost in thought about her teenage self during the sports news broadcast.


She and Yin Guo attended the same key high school, while No. 7 Middle School was known for its delinquency closest to their school. Yet, it produced a student praised by the district, invited to give presentations and play exhibition matches. That day, on the steps in front of the key high school's auditorium, a slim, tall boy not wearing their uniform stood out, with a buzz cut, in a white shirt and No. 7 Middle School trousers, attracting the gaze of girls from almost every classroom.


At thirteen, winning a national championship and directly securing a spot in a key high school. Terrible at studies but overly confident.


Lin Yi Yang of No. 7 Middle School, how many girls had harbored a crush, scribbling his name on draft papers and inside their school uniforms, even Lin Yi Yang himself wouldn't know...


Yin Guo was busy preparing fruit in the kitchen.


Lin Yi Yang, having had a great conversation with Yin Guo's father, was in a good mood, knowing he had cleared any potential barriers. Seeing her busy, he wanted to tease her, so he patted her head, leaned in, and in a voice, only she could hear, jokingly asked: Did it hurt this afternoon when you bumped your head?


Yin Guo blushed, elbowing him away.


Suddenly, there was a knock on the open kitchen door.


Both turned to see Yin Guo's mother, just returned home.


"Xiao (Little) Lin, sorry for keeping you waiting so late," Yin Guo's mother could see the unmistakable atmosphere of young love between them, "Come upstairs. Let's talk more leisurely. Xiaodong, you too, all of you come to the study room with me."

During the Snowstorm
5.5
The Tide of Time

Lin Yi Yang took off his coat and casually tossed it onto the coffee table. He was dressed in a simple white short-sleeved shirt, which contrasted with the chill in the room. As he leaned over, he noticed Yin Guo's rosy cheeks but hesitated to reach for her hand as she seemed to be avoiding his touch.

 

He recalled borrowing a thicker jacket from a classmate when the weather was warmer a few days ago. However, today's sudden drop in temperature caught him off guard, and he didn't have time to change before coming over. He couldn't help but feel regretful as Yin Guo's hands were still icy cold, even after some time had passed.

 

Lin Yi Yang's elbow rested on the armrest, his hand cupping Yin Guo's chin, and his face inching closer to hers. The narrow sofa bed they sat on barely accommodated the two of them, but they didn't seem to mind as they sank into its soft cushions. Lin's breath tickled her nose and lips, and she couldn't help but hold her breath in anticipation.

 

But instead of kissing her lips, he changed direction and planted gentle kisses on her chin and behind her ear. Yin Guo let out a small gasp, her heart beating faster as she felt his warm lips on her skin. She turned her face to meet his gaze, a silent question in her eyes.

 

When Lin Yi Yang caught sight of Yin Guo at the Union Station that day, he was struck by a feeling of overwhelming affection. As they reunited, he could see her every concern and worry reflected in her eyes like a mirror. The thought of opening up one's heart to someone only to be met with insincerity was a terrifying prospect for him, but he was willing to take the risk for her.

 

I'll give you ten points; you give me back ten points, no holding back from me, and no backing out for you.

 


 

He knew that he would treat Yin Guo with tenderness and care, even if they encountered rough patches in their future together. Even if she were to fall out of love with him or leave him for someone else, he would never forget her.

 

Once he developed feelings for someone, he could never let go, and that was a quality he valued in himself above all else.

 

......

 

As he deepened the kiss, Yin Guo felt a familiar rush of excitement and nerves wash over her, reminding her of her first kiss. Her breaths became shallow, and her heart thumped erratically in her chest.

 

She couldn't help but think of her friend's long-distance relationship, where every meeting was a cherished opportunity to make up for the lost time. Her friend had described how they would cling to each other, not wanting to waste a single moment together, and how even their kisses felt like the first time.

 

And now, as Lin Yi Yang kissed her, Yin Guo felt the same intensity of emotion and desire as if they had never kissed before. It was a feeling that she never wanted to let go of.

 

Lin Yi Yang gently lifted her and placed her on a soft cushion, his lips trailing kisses on her neck, forehead, ears, and hair. The intensity of their passion increased, and their breathing became heavy as they lost themselves in the moment.

 

But then, Yin Guo remembers something that broke through the spell. "Wait a moment... let me book a hotel first," she said, "there won't be any rooms available if I wait too long."

 

Lin Yi Yang's breath was warm and close, making it hard for her to focus. He whispered in her ear, "Don't bother booking one."

 

His words sent shivers down her spine, and she couldn't help but give in to the moment. They were lost in their world, with nothing but their passion and desire for each other.

 

As Lin Yi Yang's lips pressed against hers, Yin Guo's mind went blank with desire. But suddenly, a loud bang reverberated in her head, like a bomb exploding. It jolted her back to reality, and she pushed Lin Yi Yang's arm away with her elbow. In that split second, a sharp image of the colorful little bags in the living room drawer flashed in her mind, and she couldn't shake off the fear that Lin Yi Yang would go and get them. The bang echoed in her ears, and the sensation lingered, leaving her uneasy and confused.

 

Lin Yi Yang immediately recognized her apprehension and unease. He knew his fervent kissing had caused her to feel uncomfortable and misunderstood.

 

"It's impossible to jump into bed as soon as the window paper is pierced. What would that make us?" she thought.

 


 

Lin Yi Yang retrieved his phone from the coffee table and leaned back against the wall as if holding Yin Guo in his arms. He quickly typed a message in the memo and showed it to her: "I just want to be with you, doing nothing."

 

Her heart skipped a beat as she read the words, but she remained silent, unsure how to respond.

 

Lin Yi Yang was eager to prove his innocence and clear the air between him and Yin Guo. As he got out of bed to find a computer, he accidentally hit her shin with his elbow, causing her to cry out in pain and move away.

 

Concerned, Lin Yi Yang sat back down and gently pulled her leg over, rolling up her pants to examine the injury. A dark bruise was visible below her knee.

 

"It wasn't this bad earlier when I came in," Yin Guo explained, "I accidentally bumped into it again on my way back from the bathroom."

 

Lin Yi Yang left the room without a word; his mind focused on getting an ice pack for Yin Guo's bruise. He rummaged through the medicine box until he found a clean gauze and headed to the fridge to grab some ice.

 

The guy across the room had been keeping an eye on Lin Yi Yang's movements here. He felt thirsty but hesitated to come to the restaurant's dining area, afraid it might disrupt them.

 

The sound of the sliding door caught the guy's attention. Assuming it was halftime, he quickly slipped out to grab water and saw Lin Yi Yang icing Yin Guo's knee. His mind raced with thoughts, imagining countless scenes.

 

He couldn't help but secretly admire Lin Yi Yang's care and attention, thinking to himself, "Wow, this guy is amazing. He started with such an intense kneeling position."

 

......

 

While he was rummaging through the drawers in the dining room, his roommate happily patted his shoulder, trying to strike up a conversation. Communication between men is often straightforward, especially when it comes to sex. But Lin Yi Yang was in no mood for small talk. He grabbed the ointment, took his medicine, and popped a lozenge into his mouth, ignoring his roommate's attempts at conversation.

 

Once he was back in his room, he locked the door behind him.

 

Yin Guo held the small pack of ice with both hands, gazing at Lin Yi Yang curiously. "What did he say to you?" she asked.

 

Lin Yi Yang smiled and pulled out his phone to type a message. "He asked what we're having for breakfast," he showed her the message.

 

Yin Guo giggled at the message. "No wonder they are roommates. These guys get along pretty well," she said to herself.

 

The ice pack was proving to be too uncomfortable, and Yin Guo eventually gave up after only a few minutes. Lin Yi Yang felt a sense of disappointment wash over him. He had been looking forward to spending the night with her, but now the mood had been ruined.

 

He decided to turn off the floor lamp to create a more peaceful atmosphere in the room. As the tiny flame of the scented candle flickered, he extinguished it, and the room was plunged into darkness.

 

Lin Yi Yang grabbed a cushion and covered himself with his jacket, making sure to leave enough space for Yin Guo. He slept on the inner side of the bed to make it easier for her to get up and go to the bathroom at night. As he lay down, he turned his back to Yin Guo and faced the wall.

 

He conveyed his intention to Yin Guo through his actions, silently reassuring her that he wouldn't make any advances. Closing his eyes, he felt his jacket lifted off of him, and a warm blanket tucked up to his waist.

The bed shifted as Yin Guo settled beside him, but he remained still. After a few moments, she spoke softly from behind him, "Goodnight."

 

Xiaoguo: Hey, are you there?

 

Zhengyi: Yes, I'm here.

 

Xiaoguo: Can I tell you something? I'm staying at Lin Yi Yang's place now.

 

There was a moment of silence, then suddenly, the room filled with the sound of a voice call.

 

Yin Guo's heart raced as she quickly declined the call.

 

Xiaoguo: No! He's right behind me!

 

Zheng Yi: COVID-19? Have you taken precautions?

 

Xiaoguo: It's not COVID-19. I haven't told you yet, but he's been pursuing me.

 

Zheng Yi: ???

 

Xiaoguo: And then, I came to see him and didn't stay at a hotel, just slept at his place...

 

Zheng Yi: ???????

 

Zheng Yi: That's quite bold of you.

 

Yin Guo's heart skipped a beat as she nervously pulled up a corner of the blanket and blocked the light.

 

Xiaoguo: I want to tell you I have a boyfriend now.

Yin Guo had a heart-to-heart talk with a close friend, which made her feel like her relationship with Lin Yi Yang was finally out in the open, basking in the sunlight. Previously, they had always sneaked around, uncertain about their status, and engaged in ambiguous intimacy.

 

Zheng Yi: If he's your real boyfriend, then just enjoy it. Turn off your phone, get under the covers, and pounce on him. After all, it's your own relationship, don't waste the opportunity. Men tend to slow down as they age.

 

Xiao Guo: That's not what I want to hear.

 

Zheng Yi: Okay, seriously, no matter what you do, use protection.

 

Xiao Guo: Okay, I know. Goodbye.

 

Zheng Yi: Wait, don't go! I rushed out of the cafe just to chat with you, squatting on the roadside to find a signal. If he sleeps with you too quickly, he's probably not looking for a serious relationship. Don't just give it away like that.

 

Zheng Yi: The faster a man sleeps with you, the more it shows that he has already slept with you countless times in his heart. The easier it is to sleep together, the easier it is to break up. It's an eternal law.

 

Xiaoguo: He didn't sleep with me.

 

Zheng Yi: Did you kiss and touch? That's not a big deal. It's normal for young people, and it's also a way to develop a relationship.

 

Yin Guo was clearly uncomfortable with the conversation and ended it abruptly.

 

Xiaoguo: Goodbye.

 

Yin Guo quietly pulled down the corner of the blanket from her face and placed her phone on the edge of the coffee table. Suddenly, the phone vibrated, causing her hand to tremble. It was Lin Yi Yang's phone. Her heart skipped a beat, but the man beside her didn't stir. He was probably in a deep sleep. She hesitated for a moment before placing her phone next to his on the table. In the darkness, the two rectangular screens went out one after the other.

 

The next time Yin Guo woke up was because of the alarm clock.

 

In her dream, she murmured and, out of habit, assumed that the little girl sleeping in the billiard club on her left had set her alarm too early, saying, "What time did you set your alarm? It's too early..."

 

No one answered the alarm's incessant ringing. Yin Guo furrowed her brows and pouted her lips, feeling annoyed at being roused from her slumber. She tugged at the blanket, but it refused to budge, and a ticklish sensation on the tip of her nose added to her annoyance.

 

As she opened her eyes, the blurry scene gradually came into focus. It was the same white short-sleeved shirt without any designs or words on it, just like the one Lin Yi Yang wore last night.

 

Lin Yi Yang reached over and turned off the alarm clock, noticing that Yin Guo had woken up.

 

Yin Guo stirred awake to find Lin Yi Yang staring at her. His phone was in his hand, but the alarm had already been turned off. She wondered if he had been watching her for a while.

 

It took her a moment to remember the events of the night before. They had fallen asleep after talking about their relationship, or lack thereof. Yin Guo felt a knot in her stomach at the thought of their conversation.

 

With a heavy sigh, he turned his gaze to her and asked in a husky voice, "Are you awake?"

 

His voice sounded hoarse as if he had smoked several packs of cigarettes overnight. Yin Guo couldn't help but notice his Adam's apple and the stubble on his chin.

 

Is willpower the weakest when waking up?

 

The atmosphere in the room felt even more intense than last night, whether it was because the windows were closed or because of the lingering scent of the candle from the previous night, mixed with their morning breath, it all blended into the air.

 

His half-sleeve collar was close to her nose, and she felt an itch, but she didn't think to use her hand to push it away. "What time is it?" she asked softly, her eyes still adjusting to the morning light.

 

"It's seven o'clock," he replied, his breath warm against her forehead.

 

Lin Yi Yang was lying on top of her, his weight supported by his forearms. The blanket was still separating them, but she could feel the heat emanating from his body.

 

He knew that his body was craving her now, not just because of the tension in his heart but because of his physical longing for the person he cared for. There was no right or wrong, only honest reactions.

 

Yin Guo's heart was racing, knowing she had unintentionally triggered his desire. She shifted her leg to the left, trying to avoid further contact.

 

Her embarrassment grew as she felt his eyes burning with longing, but he remained silent. Lin Yi Yang finally broke the silence by sitting up and leaning against the wall. "Go back to sleep," he said softly.

 

Yin Guo nodded and closed her eyes, trying to calm her racing heart. She felt the covers being pulled up over her, and the warmth of the blankets was comforting. She could hear his slow and steady breathing and the sound of his fingers pulling the covers to make her more comfortable.

 

Yin Guo feigned sleep as Lin Yi Yang got out of bed and quietly left the room.

 

At 8 am, Lin Yi Yang was already up and about, his mind racing with the things he needed to do. He rushed to the supermarket as soon as it opened, determined to get everything he needed quickly. As he walked through the aisles, he scanned the shelves for the perfect toothbrush and towel. The stacks of toothbrushes seemed endless, but eventually, he spotted a light blue one that caught his eye. He grabbed a matching set of towels and headed for the checkout counter.

 

As he approached the cashier, his eyes caught sight of a vendor selling Apple power cords. His gaze fell upon a beautifully crafted pink cord, and without hesitation, he reached out to take one. With the thought of charging her phone in mind, he added it to his purchase.

 

Back at the apartment, Lin Yi Yang boiled a pot of water and carefully placed the toothbrush and towel inside to sterilize them. The boiling water steamed around his hands as he delicately picked up the softened towel, wringing it out before hanging it on a clean hanger on the metal handrail outside the bathroom.

 

With everything arranged, he raised his hand to knock on the door, taking a deep breath to steady his nerves. "Get up and go to the bathroom. There are new toothbrushes and towels," he called out, his voice echoing through the house's silence. A muffled reply came from inside, barely audible.

 

Standing there, he gazed at the door to the room where he had slept night after night. For the first time, he found himself outside while someone else was inside - she had just woken up, hadn't freshened up yet, and was sleeping inside on an empty stomach. It all felt somewhat strange.

 

His mind wandered back to a drunken call he had received from his younger brother on his wedding night when he had slurred out, "Find yourself a home, bro." At the time, he had brushed it off as just drunken rambling, but now the words echoed in his mind with a new weight and significance.

 

......

 

The door slid open with a soft hum, and Yin Guo's eyes squinted against the sudden brightness. Peeking out from the crack, she saw Lin Yi Yang standing there, looking a little guilty. As their gazes met, she could see a storm of emotions roiling in the depths of his pupils, threatening to break free.

 

"What are you looking at?" he asked, his voice hoarse with sleep and emotion.

 

"I'm afraid your roommate might come," she replied awkwardly as if trying to justify her presence.

 

Yin Guo felt a pang of discomfort. She tried to push past him to make her way out. "Excuse me, let me pass," she muttered, trying to ignore the tension between them.

 

But Lin Yi Yang remained rooted to the spot, his eyes locked on hers. At that moment, Lin Yi Yang wondered if she had changed her mind.

 

The thought crossed Lin Yi Yang's mind - would she regret being with him once she saw his modest lifestyle? He couldn't help but feel a pang of insecurity at the idea.

 

He knew he should give Yin Guo a chance to choose to understand his situation before making any decisions. But how could he broach the subject without seeming desperate or insecure?

 

Lost in thought, he didn't even notice as Yin Guo slipped past him and into the bathroom. He turned to watch her go, feeling a mix of confusion and frustration. He was still trying to process everything that had happened when she suddenly popped her head out of the bathroom door.

 

"Live your life with me the way you normally do," she said, looking at him earnestly.

Lin Yi Yang felt a wave of relief wash over him. It seemed Yin Guo wasn't put off by his simple lifestyle after all.

 

"You don't have to go out of your way to eat and live extravagantly," she added as if sensing his concerns. He couldn't help but smile at her kindness and understanding. Perhaps this could work after all.

 

Yin Guo's worried expression didn't escape Lin Yi Yang's notice, but he could see the determination in her eyes. He smiled reassuringly and nodded in agreement, understanding her fear that he might spend money on her unnecessarily.

 

......

 

As they walked to the subway station, Lin Yi Yang felt a sense of excitement building up inside him. He wanted to show Yin Guo a side of the city she had never seen before. They rode the subway for more than ten stops, getting off at a bustling district filled with people and colorful shops.

 

After a few minutes of walking, they arrived at a small red building resembling a youth hostel. The lobby was buzzing with guests, but Lin Yi Yang led her to an elevator in the northwest corner of the first floor.

 

Pressing the button for the basement floor, they descended into the depths of the building. The sound of billiards colliding echoed through the halls as they stepped out of the elevator. Lin Yi Yang led her through a maze of dimly lit corridors until they arrived at a spacious room filled with pool tables and lively chatter.

 

About half of the ten or so pool tables in the room were occupied. A man with dark hair behind the counter was wiping down a refrigerator near the entrance. When he turned and saw Yin Guo and Lin Yi Yang, he smiled and called out, "Brother Yang."

 

The sound caught the attention of everyone in the billiard room except for the two tables of foreign tourists from the youth hostel.

 

Young men's voices called out to Lin Yi Yang one after another, "Yang-ge."

 

Like in the billiard room in New York, everyone here seemed to know him well. But there was a difference. It felt more like they were his own people rather than just friends who called each other brothers. At the North City Club, everyone treated Meng Xiaodong the same way.

 

Yin Guo watched as Lin Yi Yang responded to everyone's greetings, feeling slightly overwhelmed by the warm reception. "Make us some breakfast," Lin Yi Yang said to the man behind the counter, placing Yin Guo's cue on the counter. "And clear the table for your sister-in-law for 9-balls."

During the Snowstorm
5.2
The Tide of Time

Lin Yi Yang's hand tightened around the cue chalk, the familiar weight, and texture grounding him in the present. He surveyed the snooker table. The green felt stretched tautly over its surface, and then turned his attention to the group of onlookers gathered around him.

 

"Fifty shots," he declared, his voice steady and confident. "If I miss the pocket three times, I'll count it as a loss."

 

The challenge hung in the air, the tension palpable. This wasn't just any snooker game but a test of precision and accuracy.

 

As Lin Yi Yang began to prepare for the shot, he reflected on his younger days. He thought that when he was a teenager, he could achieve not missing a single ball. But unfortunately, the snooker table was still too unfamiliar to him. He has been playing on a small nine-ball table for years, and he doesn't dare to say that he could avoid missing a ball if he switched to a large snooker table.

 

Li Qingyan searched his memory again for who this Lin Yi Yang was, but he had no conclusion.

 

"He's a pro," Li Qingyan whispered to Xiaozi as he walked behind him.

 

Xiaozi nodded in agreement. "That's right. He knows his stuff."

 

As soon as Lin Yi Yang uttered the words, "I don't play snooker," a murmur rippled through the room, and everyone present knew that he was no mere amateur. His calm and collected demeanor amidst a group of seasoned experts spoke volumes about his experience and skill on the billiards table.

 

Lin Yi Yang's piercing gaze swept across the nine-ball table, sizing up the angles and calculating his moves with the precision of a chess grandmaster. His refusal to play snooker only heightened Xiaozi's confidence that this was a man who knew his way around a cue stick.

 

Xiaozi deftly placed the red ball in the center of the table, an easy position that belied the tension in the air. As the first ball was struck, the sound of the cue meeting the ball echoed through the room, signaling the start of a fierce challenge.

 

Lin Yi Yang felt a sense of admiration for Meng Xiaodong's leadership. He was impressed by these people's ability to challenge him while remaining polite. With a steady hand, he placed the white ball on the service line and sunk it with ease, leaving no room for doubt in anyone's mind.

 

"Next one," he said, pointing to the table and motioning for them to continue setting up. As the minutes ticked by, the red ball was placed in increasingly tricky positions, but Lin Yi Yang didn't falter once. It was as if he was in a trance, fully focused on the game and nothing else.

 

The more complex the setup became, the more he seemed to thrive. He moved with precision and ease, sinking each ball with barely a pause in between. By the time he reached the 20th ball, Shaozi had set them up conventionally, and they all fell into the pockets.

 

But then, something changed. Shaozi began to place the balls in trickier and more challenging positions, hoping to trip up the confident newcomer. But to everyone's surprise, Lin Yi Yang continued to sink them all effortlessly.

 

As they approached the 40th ball, the room was filled with palpable tension. No one had ever seen anything like it before. The silence was broken only by the sound of the balls clinking against each other as Lin Yi Yang lined up his next shot. And then, as if by magic, the white ball flew across the table and sunk the red, leaving everyone stunned.

 

Forty shots in, and not a single miss. Lin Yi Yang was truly a force to be reckoned with.

 

......

 

The younger ones in the room were completely absorbed, their eyes fixed on the forty-odd red snooker balls scattered across the table. The precision required was beyond what these thirteen or fourteen year olds could achieve, and they were fully aware of it.

 

As Shaozi picked up the