Chapter 86 Poetic Feelings
Ding Nan had already entered the academic building by the time Zhou Qin stopped beside him.
"What happened between you two? You guys used to be so tight." Li Yundong turned away from the building’s façade to face Zhou Qin. "And now it's like she hates your guts."
Truth be told, he already had a pretty good idea what happened between them; Su Chan had given him the full play-by-play of what happened between Zhou Qin and Ding Nan on the rooftop yesterday. But for appearance's sake, he had to ask and pretend he didn't know anything. He knew how perceptive Zhou Qin was, and he didn't want to risk rousing her suspicions. As far as Zhou Qin was concerned, there was no way Li Yundong could've known why things had turned sour between her and Ding Nan.
When Zhou Qin didn't answer right away, Li Yundong studied her expression, which, as always, was cold and aloof.
All of a sudden, she sighed. "I guess things have changed," she said cryptically.
"What changed?" he asked, again for appearance's sake.
Zhou Qin shook her head, then hooked a strand of her dark hair behind her ear. She met his gaze. The subtle curve of her lips revealed a smile that was tinged with sadness and regret. "It doesn't matter," she said. "Time heals all wounds."
Suddenly, Li Yundong had the feeling that there was more to the story between them than what he knew from yesterday's incident at the rooftop. However, he didn't want to push. Everyone had the right to keep secrets. Hell, he himself was keeping quite a few secrets, and so was Su Chan.
Li Yundong returned her smile and gave her a quick wave. "Well, then, have a good day. He stepped away and headed for the academic building. His little princess must be starving by now. It seemed like they would be lunching at the cafeteria again today; going home and then cooking lunch would probably take too long.
Zhou Qin's voice stopped him after a few steps.
He turned back around. "Yeah? What is it?"
Zhou Qin strode over. "Oh, well, it's nothing," she said, smiling at him. "I haven't really thanked you for saving my life. So. Here I am. Expressing my gratitude."
Li Yundong chuckled. "Nah... It's no big deal. I told Ding Nan the same thing earlier. Any decent human being would've done something to help. You don't really have to thank me." Li Yundong paused, then regarded Zhou Qin briefly. A moment later, he gave Zhou Qin a nod. "But you're welcome."
Zhou Qin stared at him as though he was nuts. "You can't be serious…"
"I am," he said with a shrug.
"Of course I have to thank you! You risked your life for me. Like it or not, I owe you one."
Li Yundong held up his palm. "Okay. First of all, I'm really glad you made it out alive. And secondly, you don't owe me anything. Like I said, it's what any decent human being would do."
The slack-jawed expression on Zhou Qin's face nearly made him laugh. He figured this was as flabbergasted as the Ice Queen could get.
"What? Did I say something weird?" Li Yundong said, smirking.
Zhou Qin sighed. "No..." She shook her head. "Well… I mean, yes."
Li Yundong's smirk widened. "So is that a yes or a no?"
Zhou Qin looked at him with a frown. "You really are a strange person, Li Yundong."
Li Yundong chuckled. "I'll take that as a yes, then." He looked at Zhou Qin questioningly. "But now I'm curious. Why am I strange?"
Apart from having the ability to dodge bullets, of course.
Zhou Qin regarded him for several moments. "Well, for one, you aren't trying to curry favors with me right now."
Li Yundong laughed. "I guess that happened often with you, huh?"
Zhou Qin smiled. "Oh, you have no idea," she said. "If it were anybody else who saved my life yesterday, this conversation would've gone differently."
Li Yundong raised a brow. "Let me guess, it would end with the other party giving you their bank details?"
Zhou Qin smiled. "Something like that."
The conversation stilled for a moment or two.
Zhou Qin sighed. "Seriously, why aren't you asking me for something in return?" she said in a tone of utter disbelief. "Most people would be all over it by now with their demands."
Li Yundong wondered what kind of life Zhou Qin had led to make her so disillusioned with humanity. It was like she didn't believe in basic human kindness.
Li Yundong shook his head. "Guess I’m not most people then," he said, moving past Zhou Qin towards the academic building.
"You know I have the power to change a person's life, right?"
Li Yundong stopped short and turned back around. He nodded. "I suppose you do." Then, he shrugged. "But what does that have to do with me?"
"I can change your life too if you let me."
A smirk pulled at Li Yundong's lips. Someone already did. And that someone was currently sitting in a lecture hall, waiting for his return, no doubt wondering if he had once again abandoned her.
"I appreciate your gratitude," Li Yundong said, then gave her a pointed look. "And your offer, of course. But, I'll have to decline." He grinned. "I'm a firm believer of hard work and good old grit."
Zhou Qin was now looking at him as though he'd grown twenty heads.
Li Yundong laughed. "I guess there's a first for everything." He slapped his thighs. "Well! I'll see you around, then? I'm gonna head to lunch, so..." He jerked his thumb in the direction behind him.
It surprised him when Zhou Qin suddenly ran forward and grabbed his arm. "Wait, don't go..." Her voice sounded like a plea, which made Li Yundong frown.
"Is something wrong?"
"No, no, I just..." Zhou Qin shook her head. "Can we talk some more?"
"Uh... but I..." Li Yundong glanced towards the academic building. Su Chan must be worried sick by now.
"Just for a while," Zhou Qin added. "It won’t take long. I promise."
Li Yundong turned away from the building and regarded Zhou Qin. He really should say no and go back to Su Chan, but denying Zhou Qin right now felt too much like an asshole thing to do. Especially when she was giving him that pleading look which would probably make other guys go weak at the knees. Oh, what the hell.
Li Yundong sighed. "Okay, then. But just for a while."
Zhou Qin smiled. "Thank you," she said, then jerked her head towards the garden. "Follow me."
Li Yundong was surprised a while later when Zhou Qin moved past the garden entirely and led him to a footpath lined with trees on both sides. He knew this footpath. It was the same one he and Su Chan took when he gave Su Chan a nickel tour of the campus a few days after they met. By the time the copse of trees near the end of the footpath came into view, Li Yundong had a pretty good idea where Zhou Qin was heading towards.
When Li Yundong reached a low hedge near the edge of the copse, he stopped. Warm feelings flooded his chest and he couldn't help the smile forming on his face. This was the same hedge where he and Su Chan had hidden behind during their little mischief. Li Yundong glanced ahead, and there it was, the gazebo where Zhao Yujian's love confession to Zhou Qin had taken place. His smile widened into a grin. He and Su Chan had been spying and eavesdropping on the love confession until the end.
"Is something wrong?"
Li Yundong glanced up from the hedge. Zhou Qin was already standing a few feet away from the steps leading up to the gazebo, looking at him quizzically.
"Why are you standing over there?" she asked.
"Oh, it's nothing..." Li Yundong said, moving past the hedge towards the gazebo.
Zhou Qin waited for him in front of the gazebo, then suddenly took his hand when he was within reach.
Li Yundong flinched and shot her a panicked look. "Um... what are you...?"
Zhou Qin wasn't even listening; she started pulling him towards the gazebo.
Li Yundong was in too much of a daze to resist, so he let himself be pulled along. They climbed up the steps and stepped onto the gazebo’s huge deck.
Once they were at the center of the deck, Zhou Qin let go of his hand and turned away from him. Li Yundong stared at Zhou Qin's back, his mind still puzzling over what just happened. Zhou Qin's shoulders rose and fell a few times as she took several deep breaths. The awkwardness in the air was palpable.
When a ray of sunlight shone into the gazebo, Li Yundong could make out the redness on the tip of Zhou Qin's ears. Zhou Qin was blushing. Zhou Qin, the Ice Queen, was blushing.
Then, realization hit him like a ton of bricks. Holy shit... it can't be...
The sound of Zhou Qin's giggles shook Li Yundong out of his reverie. Li Yundong raised his gaze and noticed that Zhou Qin no longer had her back facing him; instead, she was smiling at him.
No way this is happening... No f*cking way...
Zhou Qin cleared her throat, then raised one of her eyebrows. "You wanna know something?"
"What?" Li Yundong croaked.
She glanced towards the steps of the gazebo. "That was actually the first time I reached out to hold a man's hand."
Li Yundong's eyes widened in alarm.
"O- Oh! U-uh... Well... I'm… honored?" Li Yundong said. Suddenly, he shot her a worried look. "Wait, don't tell me you're asking me to... to... t- take responsibility?"
Zhou Qin burst into giggles. "You're cute," she said. Something flickered inside her eyes, and she looked away. "Even if I want you to take responsibility, would you?"
Li Yundong chuckled, then rubbed the back of his neck a few times. This has got to be some kind of joke...
An awkward silence filled the gazebo until Zhou Qin broke it with a chuckle. By the time Li Yundong tore his gaze away from his shoe, Zhou Qin had already moved towards the edge of the gazebo's deck. "Do you know that my father is a government official," she said, her hand reaching out to touch a sprig that had slipped between two of the gazebo's balusters. The white petals of the cape jasmine flower bobbed under the touch of her fingers.
Somehow, Li Yundong managed to find his voice. "Yeah... I do. Heard about it during your party."
"Then do you know that my grandfather is with the government too?"
"No... No I don't."
"Well, he is," Zhou Qin said, her hand falling away from the sprig. "They both are. High ranking government officials, I mean."
Li Yundong frowned. Why is she telling me all this?
"Well, that's me," Zhou Qin went on. "The descendent of one of the founders of the Communist Party of China."
Li Yundong's eyes widened a tad. "No shit?"
"Mm-hmm." Zhou Qin chuckled. She cast him a glance. The amusement in her eyes was accentuated by the arch of her brow. "You can say it, you know? That I'm one of those rich, spoiled princesses. That's usually the image associated with a background like mine."
Li Yundong laughed, glad that the awkward tension had eased a little.
"Shall I address you by your title from now on then, Your Royal Highness?" Li Yundong said, adding a little bow at the end.
Zhou Qin looked at him with a faint smile. "You really speak whatever that comes to your mind, don't you?" She rolled her eyes. "You don't have a filter at all, I swear."
Li Yundong rubbed the back of his neck and shrugged. "Oops."
All of a sudden, Zhou Qin moved back to the center of the deck, stopping just a few feet away from him. She was standing close enough to him that he could see the blush dusting her cheeks even without his telescopic vision.
"It used to be so annoying, you know?"
"Your callous mouth," Zhou Qin said. "It used to be so infuriating. But now..." Their gazes met, and the air hung thick between them. "Now I just find it endearing."
Li Yundong felt his own cheeks grow hot. So much for diffusing the awkwardness.
A breeze drifted into the gazebo, carrying the scent of flowers with it. The silence between them was like a tight noose around his neck, choking him. Li Yundong knew he had to change the subject before this conversation spiraled out of his control. In fact, this conversation never should have happened in the first place.
Li Yundong cleared his throat. "A-Anyway. Here's what I don't get. Why Tiannan University? I mean, with your background, I’m sure you could apply to any university and get accepted easily. Hell, you could even go overseas if you wanted to. So why here?"
Something flickered inside Zhou Qin's eyes. "Because of my background, my life has pretty much been decided since I was born." Zhou Qin shook her head. "Every single detail of my life has been planned out. My father's plan was to send me to Renming University of China. He wanted me to complete a business and finance program there, and then take over his position in the government after I graduate. To be fair, it isn't a bad path to follow. Female politicians are in high demand these days. The path that my father had chosen for me pretty much guarantees a bright future for me..."
"Then how come you're here?"
That wasn't a ploy to change the subject. Li Yundong was genuinely curious.
"I... I don't like the fact that I'm just a puppet hanging from strings, that someone else has control over my life."
"Okay... But how did you pull it off? I don't think going behind your father's back is that easy."
Zhou Qin smirked. "Not if you're resourceful."
When Li Yundong looked at her questioningly, she added, "I gained access to the State Education Commission's files using my father's name, then changed my father's entry for my university of choice."
Li Yundong burst into laughter. "Okay, that's pretty sneaky, I'll give you that," he said, giving her a thumbs up. Then, another thought crossed his mind. "Wait, and of all places, you picked Tiannan University? This piece of sh—" Li Yundong cleared his throat. "This tenth-rate university?"
Zhou Qin hid her smile behind her hand. "I admit that this... tenth-rate university, as you called it, wasn't my first choice. But in the end, I chose it precisely because of its low popularity. I figured it'd help me keep a low profile, you know."
Li Yundong nodded. "Right. Makes sense."
"But I'm glad I decided to come here."
Zhou Qin's strange tone shifted something in the air. Li Yundong looked up and saw Zhou Qin staring at him through her lashes.
"Because I met you," Zhou Qin said. "I think it's fate."
Okay. Now they had officially treaded into deep waters. Dangerous and treacherous waters, filled with sharks that could maul his sorry ass off in a single bite.
If this conversation happened months ago, before he met Su Chan, it would have propelled him straight to cloud nine and had him wallowing in eternal bliss. However, the fact remained that this conversation wouldn't even take place if he'd never met Su Chan.
Right. As if the beautiful Ice Queen would confess her undying love to a pathetic ball of fat.
Was this one of karma's fancy little tricks again?
Regardless, it was time for him to make things right.
Li Yundong smiled. "Listen, Zhou Qin. I think there's something we need to address—"
The rest of his words were muffled by the pressure of Zhou Qin's palm. "Please don't. Whatever you're about to say, please don't say it."
Li Yundong stared at Zhou Qin with wide eyes. The mild chilliness of Zhou Qin's hand on his lips was a stark reminder that he really should put some distance between them before someone walked by and got the wrong idea.
Li Yundong took a step back and sighed. "We should—"
The intensity in Zhou Qin's eyes stilled his words. "Everything I said earlier... is... is meant as a clarification. So please don't read too much into it."
"Clarification? I don't understand."
Zhou Qin sighed. "I just want you to get to know me better," she said, finding his gaze. "As a person. I guess I want you to hear things about me from my own lips, not from other people. Does that make sense?"
Li Yundong nodded.
"And I want to clear up some potential... misunderstandings or misconceptions you might have about me."
Li Yundong frowned slightly. What does that mean?
He smiled despite his confusion. "Well... I'm listening."
Zhou Qin seemed relieved by his compliance. He wondered how many times she had rehearsed this conversation in her head.
Suddenly, Zhou Qin laughed. "Do you know how many guys confessed to me after I came to Tiannan University? My God. 78 in just the first month! Can you imagine that? It nearly drove me crazy."
Li Yundong chuckled, then gave her a strange look. "What number am I?"
Zhou Qin's eyes went wide in panic as she eyed him cautiously. Li Yundong couldn't help but wonder if he'd said something to offend her. Zhou Qin spoke before he could backtrack. "I'm sorry," she said. "There were so many of them that I can't even keep track. Around 200-ish? I guess?"
Li Yundong burst into laughter. "Hey, relax, okay?" he said after his laughter had subsided. "I was just asking. I don't really care about the answer anyway. But, come on. Don't tell me you never saw this coming. A beautiful girl like you being confessed to? That's pretty much inevitable!"
Li Yundong's smile faltered when he noticed the hurt look on Zhou Qin's face. What? What the hell did I say? I just told her she's beautiful! How's that even offensive?
Zhou Qin sighed. "Most people think that people like us, us as in the descendants of government officials, are showy and ostentatious. But that couldn't be further from the truth. Most children of high-ranking officials tend to keep a low profile. They wouldn't try to draw extra attention to themselves...”
Li Yundong nodded. "Right. What they do reflects back to their family. One wrong move could cause their parents to lose their positions in the government."
"Exactly. There are, of course, several exceptions. But those cases didn't end well."
"I can imagine."
Zhou Qin nodded. "Anyway, you have to understand that those men…" The subtle frown on Zhou Qin’s face betrayed her disgust. "They are relentless. They won’t stop coming after me if I reject them nicely."
Li Yundong nodded. "I can imagine that too."
"And I was sick and tired of it, of their relentless pursuits. And I needed a way to deal with them harshly without making myself look bad. So I struck a deal..."
Understanding dawned upon Li Yundong. "Ding Nan..."
Zhou Qin nodded gravely. "Yes. She came from a poor family, but she craves the lifestyle of the rich and wealthy."
"So, she says those harsh things and basically acts like a bitch to make those guys stop harassing you in exchange for... what, money?"
Zhou Qin sighed. "That's the gist of it, yes. I'll give her designer dresses, branded handbags, and fancy jewelry. But in return, she has to ward off those men."
Li Yundong closed his eyes as the pieces began to fall together: the fact that Ding Nan never left Zhou Qin’s side whenever they were both out in public; Ding Nan’s dismissive and caustic treatment of all those guys who had tried to approach Zhou Qin; Ding Nan’s behavior during their conversation earlier; Ding Nan’s insistence that none of her past actions reflected the real her.
So it was all part of a deal, a mutualism.
Zhou Qin's pleading tone made Li Yundong open his eyes.
"I know what you're thinking..." Zhou Qin shook her head. "It isn't like that, okay? I have never asked her to sell her body for me. Gosh, do you really think so little of me—"
Li Yundong held up his hand. "Whoa, whoa, whoa... Chill. That thought never even crossed my mind."
"But just now you looked like you were thinking hard about something... So I thought maybe..."
Li Yundong waved his hand. "Nah... Your words just helped me make sense of a few things, that's all."
Zhou Qin cleared her throat. "Anyway. I truly believe that I wasn’t in the wrong in all this. It was just a business deal, a transaction where both parties walk away with benefits. I never blackmailed her or forced her into doing anything she didn't want—"
Li Yundong held up his hand. "I get it. I do," he said with a firm nod. "Besides, it isn't my place to judge. But I don't understand. Why are you telling me all this? It’s not like you owe me any explanations."
The intensity of Zhou Qin's gaze surprised him a little. "Like I said, I want to clear up some misunderstandings you might have about me. I... I don't want you to think of me as a horrible person."
Li Yundong regarded her silently. After a while, he smiled. "You've got nothing to worry about, okay? I have eyes and ears, you know?" His smile turned into a smirk. "And I know this might be hard to believe, but I have a functioning brain too. I can make my own judgment about things."
"Oh, no. I wasn’t implying that," Zhou Qin said, shaking her head. "It’s just… No matter how harsh the truth is, it can never be as scary as those negative rumors surrounding it. Rumors color and distort one's judgment, causing prejudices and preconceptions. And if you’re already prejudiced against me..." Zhou Qin stared into his eyes. "Then nothing I say will matter, even if it is the truth."
Li Yundong nodded. "A valid point," he said with a smile. "But, for what it’s worth, this conversation did clear up a few things. And I think it's safe to say that I know you better now. Anyway, can we go now? I'm kinda starving... so."
Zhou Qin chuckled. "We don't have any classes in the afternoon... Got a place in mind for lunch?”
"Err… usually we just—"
"My treat, of course." Zhou Qin smiled. There was a hopeful look in her eyes. "Consider it repayment for saving my life."
"Hmm… I might take you up on that, actually." He hesitated for a moment, then regarded Zhou Qin seriously. "But I'm taking Su Chan with me. I'll only go if she agrees."
Zhou Qin's smile faltered, but a moment later, it returned in full bloom. "Oh, of course! That's not gonna be a problem. In a way, I kinda owe her too. Without her, you'd probably be wearing shoulder slings now, which will add to my guilt."
Truth be told, Li Yundong probably wouldn't have been able to save anyone yesterday without Su Chan's help. If anything, Zhou Qin owed her life to Su Chan. Then again, Zhou Qin would never know, and Li Yundong had no plans of ever telling her, since it would lead to all kinds of questions that would foil the whole cloak-and-dagger business he and Su Chan were involved in.
Li Yundong chuckled. "Okay, then. Any suggestions?"
Zhou Qin smiled back at him. "I'm just paying. It’s your pick."
Li Yundong waved his hand in a wide arc. "Alright then! Today, we shall feast to our hearts’ content!"
The two of them left the gazebo and made their way back along the footpath. In front of the academic building, Zhou Qin suddenly stopped. Li Yundong turned and looked at her quizzically.
"Li Yundong... If... If I had accepted your confession the other day... would you... I mean, would we..."
Li Yundong gave her a self-deprecating smile.
"Would you be asking me this question now if I was still the fat nobody I used to be?"
The ensuing silence was charged and heavy with meaning.
Li Yundong turned around and strode away, leaving Zhou Qin there in a daze. He didn’t plan on waiting around for an answer. He didn’t need to. He already knew the answer.