Room 502. The regular wards. To think that Zhou Qin would be placed anywhere other than the most luxurious VIP ward in this hospital. If it weren't for Ding Nan's spiels about Zhou Qin losing her status, Li Yundong would've found the notion laughable. Now it just made his heart heavy with guilt.
The sick feeling at the pit of his stomach grew as he moved past the reception and headed toward the corridors. The smell of drugs and iodoform was everywhere. Somehow, being here reminded Li Yundong of those concentration camps he'd seen in the documentaries.
But of course, this was just a hospital, not a concentration camp per se. Unlike in the Nazi camps during the Second World War, the occupants here actually had freedom of movement. For one, the place wasn't surrounded by electric fences. Nor were there guards lingering around to beat the occupants with sticks if they so much as step out of line. The occupants could even leave the place if they so choose. And, obviously, this place was legal.
All the same, this place still reminded him of those dreaded concentration camps thanks to a glaring similarity they share: once you're in, you're unlikely to get out, either due to incapacitation or sheer loss of willpower.
The hospital, like a concentration camp, was a final destination of life.
The corridors of the fifth floor was pretty crowded. As Li Yundong made his way towards room 502, old folks with walking sticks limped past him while their relatives hovered beside them, holding their hands, steadying their IV drips.
He was instantly hit by that feeling of surrealness again, that Zhou Qin was now among these regular folks.
Room 502 came with four beds. He didn't see Zhou Qin in the room when he entered, but he knew that the bed at the furthest end of the room was hers—it was the only occupied bed in the room.
The partition curtains were drawn, so his view of the bed was obscured.
"H- Hello?" he said, slowly making his way past the empty beds. "Zhou Qin? Are you there?"
Idiot! What if she's asleep?
There was a gasp, which was immediately followed by a crash.
Li Yundong froze.
A second later, a wheelchair rolled out from behind the curtains. The wheelchair turned around sharply, then stopped moving altogether.
That was when Li Yundong felt the weight of guilt crashing down on his entire existence. For a moment there, he thought he felt lightheaded, like someone had clobbered his head with a mace. His knees grew weak, and his ears rang like crazy.
"Oh my God, Zhou Qin..."
Zhou Qin was there in the wheelchair, staring back at him. Her face was so pale that it almost seemed like she'd replaced her makeup with chalk, and God, she had lost so much weight. But what ultimately ripped Li Yundong's heart asunder were those lifeless eyes.
Those were the eyes of someone who had lost the will to live.
His legs moved on their own.
However, Zhou Qin tensed up the moment he got close, so he stopped at the foot of the bed. From where he stood, he could see the slight trembling in her lips. Suddenly, one of her hands rose from her lap and extended towards him.
Li Yundong took the cue and reached out with his own hand, but then she withdrew her hand before their hands could touch.
Her icy glare smothered the rest of his words. Then, she averted her gaze as though she couldn't stand the sight of him.
Li Yundong clenched his jaw and closed the distance between them.
He knelt down in front of the wheelchair and tried to look into her eyes.
She wouldn't let him.
"Zhou Qin... What happened to you?" he whispered, refusing to give up. "Who did this to you? Was it the He family?"
Zhou Qin said nothing, and she gave him nothing except for that blank, lifeless expression.
Panic rose inside his chest. "Zhou Qin... Please tell me what happened. Please. I wanna help. Please let me help..."
Zhou Qin's eyes remained cold, but he could tell that her resolve was crumbling: her shoulders was shaking slightly; and she was white-knuckling the wheelchair's armrest, like she was trying to hold herself back from touching him.
"Zhou Qin... Please say something," Li Yundong prodded gently. "I'll do everything I can to help you. But you need to tell me what happen—"
"I think it would be best if you stop pushing her," said a deep baritone.
Li Yundong spun around so quickly that the Fan of Seven Treasures smacked into the overbed table beside him. A man in a grey Mao suit stood at the doorway.
The man was carrying a thermos flask in one hand, and a lunch box in the other.
"I don't think she's ready to talk," said Deputy Governor Zhou as he walked in.
Li Yundong rose to his feet and waited for Deputy Governor Zhou to reach Zhou Qin's bed.
"I will answer any questions you have," Deputy Governor Zhou said, putting the thermos and the lunch box on the table. Li Yundong eyed the lunch box briefly just to see if Zhou Qin had eaten anything.
The lunch box was empty and had clearly just been washed.
Deputy Governor Zhou looked completely different from the proud man Li Yundong once saw in the campus months ago. Wisps of grey peppered his sideburns, and most, if not all, of his confident mien was gone. Dull eyes had replaced intent, purposeful ones.
For the first time, Deputy Governor Zhou actually looked... plain. Ordinary.
"Let's talk outside," said Deputy Governor Zhou before turning around and moving towards the door.
Li Yundong gave Zhou Qin a final glance before he followed Deputy Governor Zhou out of the room.
No words were exchanged as Deputy Governor Zhou led him out of the hospital building. At the front lawn, they turned left and ambled down a cobbled footpath.
"Let's sit down over here," Deputy Governor Zhou said, pointing at a long bench at the side of the footpath.
Li Yundong followed the man wordlessly. His senses had failed him ever since he stepped into Room 502. Now he just felt numb all over.
The two men sat down on the bench and stared out into the lawn for a moment.
"I'm no longer a Deputy Governor," Zhou Keqiang cut in. "Now I'm just a normal citizen like you."
The tightness in his chest returned.
Li Yundong lowered his gaze and stared numbly at the cobbled ground.
"Please tell me what happened, Uncle Zhou."
Silence followed his question.
Uncle Zhou was clearly still trying to decide whether he should divulge everything that had happened to Zhou Qin. Li Yundong decided to respect the man's need for space; he waited patiently for the man to open up instead of pushing him.
A moment later, Uncle Zhou began to shift around on the bench. Li Yundong kept staring at the ground. He didn't bother to look, not even to check if Uncle Zhou was getting up to leave. He was too caught up in his own thoughts at that point to care.
"Do you mind if I have a smoke?" Uncle Zhou asked a while later.
Li Yundong turned and saw Uncle Zhou waving a cigarette at him.
"Sure..." he said, then returned his gaze to the cobbled ground.
Uncle Zhou reached for his pocket again, probably to get a lighter or something.
The words began pouring out of Li Yundong's mouth like he had no control over his lips.
"Have you been experiencing frequent ringing in your ears, Uncle Zhou?" Li Yundong said without looking away from the cobbled ground. Even to his own ears, his voice sounded mechanical, like he was some sort of automaton. "And perhaps blurriness in your eyes? Does your breath feel warm whenever you exhale?"
There was a drawn out silence.
"Hey, that's exactly—"
There was a pause.
"How on earth do you know all that?" Uncle Zhou asked in a tone of surprise.
"The ears are linked to the kidneys, the eyes to the liver, and the nose to the lungs," Li Yundong said numbly. "The ringing in your ears implies unhealthy kidneys and your blurry vision implies compromised liver health. You should know that the liver and kidneys determine a person's overall health, and right now, you have neither. Your overall health is compromised, so I would highly advise against smoking unless you plan to damage your lungs even further."
Uncle Zhou chuckled loudly.
"I've been smoking for over ten years, kid. My lungs are probably damaged beyond repair."
Li Yundong said nothing. He sat there silently, waiting for the sound of a lighter or the smell of cigarette smoke, neither of which came.
"The He family," Li Yundong said without taking his eyes off the cobbled footpath. "What did they do to her?"
There was a loud and weary sigh.
"They have a vendetta against you, boy," Uncle Zhou said.
The familiar sensation of rage sparked inside Li Yundong, but he tamped it down.
"What did they do?" Li Yundong repeated his question calmly.
"They wanted to ruin you, and they tried to accomplish that through Qinqin," Uncle Zhou said bluntly.
There was a long pause. Li Yundong waited patiently for the man to continue.
"They wanted you prosecuted for He Shao's murder. So that they can slowly ruin you when you're in jail."
"If they wanted me dead, why not just hire someone to kill me?" Li Yundong asked bluntly. "What's the point of throwing me in jail?"
Uncle Zhou chuckled. "Believe me when I say that there are ways to murder you from within prison." There was a pause. "Ways that are less likely to implicate them of any foul play."
Li Yundong turned his head to look at Uncle Zhou.
The older man gave him a humorless smile. "Death due to a fight between inmates is more common than you think. And it's less suspicious and incriminating than an assassination." Uncle Zhou chuckled. "And those who have been in the game long enough know better than to leave behind loose ends that could be used against you." Uncle Zhou gestured at himself, then shrugged. "Just look what happened to me."
Li Yundong chewed over Uncle Zhou's words until understanding dawned on him. He turned in his seat to look at Uncle Zhou. "They forced her to testify against me."
Uncle Zhou laughed wryly. "So you're not as naive as I thought."
Li Yundong kept his eyes on the Uncle Zhou until the older man stopped laughing.
"Yes," Uncle Zhou said with a sigh. "That was their plan. There wasn't enough physical evidence to prove that you killed He Shao." Uncle Zhou gave him a strange look. "They thought it was more practical and economical to incriminate you through a reliable eye-witness account rather than, say, fabricated physical evidence." Uncle Zhou chuckled humorlessly. "Guess they underestimated Qinqin's tenacity."
Something inside Li Yundong's stomach twisted. "What did they do to her?" he asked sharply. "Did they torture her?"
"No," Uncle Zhou said. "They didn't physically torture her, no."
Uncle Zhou shook his head. "They dragged her into a military facility before I could do anything about it and then incarcerated her there. By the time I found out about what they did, I was already suspended from my position. I was..." Uncle Zhou sighed. "I was completely blindsided."
Li Yundong stared at Uncle Zhou.
"They kept her at the facility for days," Uncle Zhou said, then shot a brief glance at him. "They starved her, thinking that she would eventually break and yield to their demands if they kept her there long enough. But Qinqin is no delicate flower." Uncle Zhou sighed. "Once her mind is set on something, nobody can change it. She'd rather be broken than bent."
"Why's she in a wheelchair?" Li Yundong asked the question whose answer he dreaded.
Uncle Zhou met his gaze right then. For a moment, Li Yundong saw anger in the man's eyes before it was replaced by a look of utter defeat. Uncle Zhou sighed. "On the fourth day of her incarceration, Qinqin requested to be transferred into the facility's living quarters, where she would be fed and taken care of. She asked to be given a pen and a piece of paper..." Uncle Zhou chuckled derisively. "Said she needed them to write down her full account of He Shao's murder. The He family complied to her request and took her to a comfortable room on the fourth floor. I was so relieved. I thought she had finally yielded and decided to take the deal that the He family was offering." Suddenly, Uncle Zhou hardened his tone. "But I was a fool. She demanded full privacy. She wanted her room to be free from any form of surveillance... No cameras, no microphones, nothing. She wanted to be left alone and..." Uncle Zhao sighed and rubbed his forehead. "I should've suspected that something was amiss right then. Goddamnit, I should've known..."
Li Yundong gripped Uncle Zhou's shoulder. "Uncle Zhou..." Li Yundong said pointedly. "What did…" He paused to take a breath. "What did she do?"
"She wrote down seven words on that piece of paper..." Uncle Zhou gave Li Yundong a hard stare. "Name of He Shao's Murderer: Zhou Qin. That's what she wrote."
Li Yundong let his hand drop limply from Uncle Zhou's shoulder.
"And then she jumped out of the window to kill herself."