Some time after Zhou Qin started crying, it occurred to Li Yundong that this was the first time he had seen Zhou Qin shed tears. For as long as he knew her, Zhou Qin had always been this proud and feisty woman who never showed weakness in front of anyone.
Watching her tough exterior crumble to pieces was akin to being stab in the heart with a knife and then having that knife twisted over and over again. Drawing in a shaky breath, Li Yundong reached over and began stroking Zhou Qin's hair. Although his movements were awkward, he hoped that they would provide Zhou Qin with some comfort.
"It's gonna be okay, Zhou Qin. Everything's gonna be alright..." Li Yundong whispered. "I'm gonna do everything in my power to help you stand up again, okay? Just don't give up."
Zhou Qin stopped sobbing and looked up at him. With her hands holding on to the half-eaten apple and her eyes brimming with hope, she looked like an innocent child.
She nodded twice.
Relief coursed through Li Yundong. That's progress...
During his cab ride to the First People's Hospital, Li Yundong had come up with a simple game plan to approach the problem. The first step, Li Yundong knew, was to pull Zhou Qin out of this ocean of hopelessness that had driven her to take her own life in the first place. In other words, he had to give her a sense of purpose once again. Yes, ultimately, the goal was to help her get better physically, but he had to first give her a reason to do that; otherwise, his effort would just fizzle out before it could bear any fruit.
The best way to restore the sense of purpose in Zhou Qin's life, Li Yundong realized, was to show her that there were still people who genuinely cared about her beyond her wealth and status. Although he came alone today, he had already made plans to bring Feng Na and Cheng Cheng along with him for his future visits. Things would be easier once Zhou Qin found her reason to fight, her reason to get better. For one, she would be more receptive to his help, which would make the job of treating her a lot easier. And then once she saw that his treatment was working, which he had no doubt it would, the rest would take care of itself. Evidence of her recovery would encourage her even further and bolster her drive to get better.
Yes. The plan would definitely work, but he had to take it slow considering how delicate the situation was. Zhou Qin was still in a fragile mental state, and he didn't want to do something to jeopardize her trust in him.
Zhou Qin was still sobbing when she finished the apple.
Li Yundong reached over to take the apple's core from her.
"Stop crying already," he said with a smile. "You'll ruin your face if you keep crying like that."
"So what?!" Zhou Qin began swiping harshly at her cheeks. "How I look doesn't concern you!"
Li Yundong raised his hands in a gesture of surrender. "Okay, okay. You're absolutely right. It's none of my business, so I will say no more."
Zhou Qin made one last swipe at her cheek before lowering her hands. Her mask of aloofness was back up again, though when she spoke a second later, her voice wasn't as harsh and biting as it was before.
"Leave," she said. "I don't want your help. And... You don't have to feel obliged to help me. It was my choice."
"Being here is my choice too," Li Yundong fired back, then paused for a few seconds. "I'm not here out of obligation."
At least not entirely.
Zhou Qin stared at him for a moment, then let out a sad chuckle.
"And what difference will your presence make?" She averted her gaze. "You said you're going to help me stand up again." There was another chuckle, though this one sounded so bitter that it made Li Yundong cringe. "Stop joking around. I'll never be able stand up again. It's just impossible."
"Is dodging bullets possible?" Li Yundong paused to let his words sink in, then chuckled. "Sometimes, things only seem impossible because no one has the courage to try them yet."
Zhou Qin sighed. "Look. It's useless, okay? Even the doctors said that it's impossible for me to stand up again. It's over for me. I'm crippled for life."
"Just because his methods fell short, doesn't mean that mine will too," Li Yundong argued stubbornly.
Zhou Qin turned around and shot him a skeptical look.
Li Yundong held his ground. "We won't know unless we try."
Zhou Qin sighed again. "Fine. Even if you manage to pull it off and help me stand up again, then what? I've still lost everything."
"Then rebuild," Li Yundong said. "Stand up and rebuild your life."
Zhou Qin kept staring at her hands without saying anything.
Li Yundong sighed inwardly and walked over towards the cabinet. He picked up the cage and walked back towards the bed.
"Look at your new friends," Li Yundong said, stopping at the foot of the bed.
Thankfully, Zhou Qin complied.
Li Yundong pointed at one of the hamsters, who appeared to be performing sprints on the hamster wheel with seemingly unparalleled enthusiasm.
"Are they showing any signs of giving up?" Li Yundong asked.
Zhou Qin curled her lips. "So? They can run till they drop dead, and they'll still remain inside the cage. Their efforts are futile. Pointless."
"That's where you're wrong," Li Yundong said firmly. "You said that the hamsters can never escape from their cage no matter how hard they push themselves." He paused to look at her. "But that's exactly the point I'm trying to make." He rapped the cage with his knuckles. "They kept trying even though they were aware of how small their chances are of escaping."
"Maybe they're unaware," Zhou Qin fired back. "Maybe they're just fools who don't even realize how futile their efforts are."
Li Yundong smiled, pulled the overbed table towards himself, and then set the cage onto the table. "Sure, they might not know. But does it matter?" Li Yundong brought his face closer to the cage and peered in through the bars. "As long as they keep running, new possibilities will open up to them." Li Yundong glanced at Zhou Qin on the bed. "I mean, who knows right? The wheel might fall off due to all the wear and tear, and then the owner will be forced to open the cage. And then when the cage is open, these little things can make their escape. Or maybe… Maybe all that running can make the hamsters stronger and faster, which gives them a better chance of escaping the next time the cage is opened. On the other hand... if they just sit around and do nothing, nothing will ever happen. They might become fat, or get sick and die before they even have a chance to escape." Li Yundong picked up the cage and carried it back towards the cabinet. "Well, that much applies to two hamsters in a cage." He turned around and walked back towards the bed. Once he reached the bed, he took a seat in the chair beside the bed, then eyed Zhou Qin steadily. "But you're not in a cage anymore, Zhou Qin. You're free."
Zhou Qin's lips parted slightly. He could see that Zhou Qin wanted to argue back, but he held up his hand to silence her.
"No, please let me finish."
Zhou Qin's mouth clicked shut.
"If two hamsters never gave up despite being trapped inside a cage with little to no chance of escaping, then why should you? Like I said, you're free from your shackles now. You have a chance to rebuild your life."
"Free from my shackles?" Zhou Qin said incredulously, then gestured at her legs. "Then what do you call this? A gift?" Zhou Qin laughed derisively. "I jumped out of my cage! And I was supposed to die, but I didn't. Instead, I fell out of the cage and turned into a cripple!"
"And I will heal you," Li Yundong said firmly. "I will help you stand up again. I told you I will."
Zhou Qin looked away again. "I won't hold my breath."
Zhou Keqiang almost couldn't believe his eyes when he opened the door of Room 502 and peeked inside: Zhou Qin was giggling.
His distraught and demoralized daughter was now giggling despite not having uttered a single word ever since Li Yundong left the hospital yesterday. From the door, Zhou Keqiang watched silently as that boy whispered something inaudible to his daughter. A second later, another round of giggles escaped his daughter's lips. Zhou Keqiang sighed and closed the door as quietly as he could. For days, Zhou Keqiang had tried everything he could think of to get a reaction out of his daughter. Even then, his efforts had fallen short.
Some father he was.
No. He wasn't even a father. Zhou Qin herself had denounced him, claiming that she no longer wanted him as her father.
With a heavy heart, Zhou Keqiang trudged away from the room and left the hospital building.
His legs carried him to the lawn where he and Li Yundong had their conversation yesterday. He even ended up sitting on the same bench. Some time later, he felt another presence beside him. The other person sat down, and Zhou Keqiang got the impression that the person was staring at him.
"I'm sorry, but I'm not looking for company," Zhou Keqiang said without taking his eyes off the lawn. "I just need some time alone, if you don't mind."
"Ignoring me already, eh, Old Zhou? That's a little cruel."
Zhou Keqiang whipped his head to the side and saw a familiar face smiling back at him.
"Old Li?" Zhou Keqiang said after he'd recovered from his initial surprise. "What are you doing here, man?" Zhou Keqiang reached out a hand to the other man.
Old Li laughed and clasped his hand in a brief handshake.
"Can't I drop by to see my old buddy?" Old Li pulled out a packet of cigarette and passed it to Zhou Keqiang. "Want a smoke?"
Zhou Keqiang's hand reached out instinctively to pull out a cigarette. However, his hand stilled moments before it touched the pack.
He chuckled and lowered his hand back down. "Nah. It's alright. I'm quitting."
Old Li shifted in his seat and gave him a look of surprise. "Going cold turkey? Since when?"
"Well." Zhou Keqiang smiled. "Since... just now."
Old Li nodded and lit up his cigarette.
Zhou Keqiang watched his old friend take a long drag before releasing a smoke ring.
"I know you must have a lot of grievances after everything that happened," said Old Li. "But you should just let it all go, man. There's more to life than all this, you know? You just have to be open to other possibilities, right?"
"Thanks for the advice, pal." Zhou Keqiang laughed. "But I've already done that. I've been doing a lot of thinking ever since I got sacked. After a while, I realized that this isn't so bad." Zhou Keqiang sighed. "I was too blinded by power before... And... well. I suppose I deserved all this. Everything happened because I mishandled things with the He family. I know that now, and I accept my fate and my failings. But what pains me is that my daughter paid the price too." Zhou Keqiang sighed and shook his head. "I suppose that's my fault as well. I was a terrible father to her."
After a moment of silence, Old Li snorted. "F*cking He family."
Zhou Keqiang sighed but said nothing.
"They say that He Shao was struck down by lightning," Old Li remarked.
Zhou Keqiang nodded. "Qinqin swore by it. Said she saw it with her own eyes. She even recorded the whole thing on her phone." Zhou Keqiang paused to look at his old friend. "What do you believe, old friend?"
"That son of a bitch had it coming. That's what I believe," Old Li said in a sharp tone. "We all know that He Shao was about as corrupt as they come."
Zhou Keqiang released a noncommittal hum. And yet I pushed my only daughter into the arms of such a man for no reason other than my own selfishness...
"The He family had really gone too far this time," said Old Li, pulling Zhou Keqiang out of his thoughts.
Zhou Keqiang glanced sideways and saw Old Li taking another long drag from his cigarette.
"They'll pay for what they did to you and Zhou Qin," said Old Li, smiling at Zhou Keqiang. "Those bastards won't get away with it, you'll see."
Zhou Keqiang smiled and clasped Old Li's shoulder. "It's all thanks to you that we both made it out in one piece, old pal. Otherwise..."
Old Li chuckled, releasing several puffs of smoke. "Hey, don't mention it. I never saw eye to eye with the He family anyway."
Zhou Keqiang smiled wryly. "Guess it's true what they say, eh?" He clapped Old Li's shoulder again. "You only know who your true friends are during times of trouble."
"And yet you refuse my cigarette offer just like that," said Old Li. "Tsk, tsk. Some friend you are."
Zhou Keqiang burst into laughter. "I'm still saying no to the cigarette, but I could do with a good game of chess." Zhou Keqiang rose from the bench. "What do you say, old pal? For old times' sake?"
Old Li slapped his thigh and stubbed out his cigarette. "Well said, old pal!" Old Li stood up and clapped Zhou Keqiang's shoulder. "You know that old saying?"
"Which one?" Zhou Keqiang asked as the two of them headed towards a stone table nearby for their game.
"Oh, you know, the one that says: life is like a game of chess," said Old Li, pulling out a chess set from inside his pocket.
Zhou Keqiang laughed. He'd been about to start asking around for a chess set, but it seemed like his old buddy came prepared.
"If it is, then I'm afraid I just lost a huge game, pal," Zhou Keqiang remarked wistfully.
"Well, that's exactly my point, buddy," said Old Li. "There are wins and losses in life, just like in chess. It's a truth that we all have to accept at some point."
Zhou Keqiang grunted in response. Good old buddy. Wise as ever.
"And you wanna know how else life is like chess?"
Zhou Keqiang took a seat at one end of the stone table. "Yeah?"
Old Li placed the chess set onto table. "You can analyze your game after you lost, and then start new one." Old Li smiled. "And what's stopping you from winning your next game?"
Li Yundong strode into Room 502 with the bags of food that he'd purchased from the hospital's canteen. He'd spent the whole morning hanging out with Zhou Qin and was proud of the progress he'd made with her so far. Granted, Zhou Qin would still scowl at him once every few minutes, but at least they were on speaking terms.
Zhou Qin had blatantly refused to look at him when he served up the food on the overbed table.
"And… lunch is served," Li Yundong said after he'd placed the chopsticks beside the bowl.
When Zhou Qin didn't even look at the food, Li Yundong waved a hand in front of her face to get her attention. "Come on. Time to eat up."
Zhou Qin's eyes darted to the table briefly. Then, she snorted haughtily. "The food here tastes horrible."
And yet he'd seen her wolfing down her porridge when he arrived this morning. Li Yundong suppressed a laugh.
Clearly, the woman was still trying to annoy him.
Li Yundong smiled at her and put the food away. "What do you feel like having, then? I'll get them for you."
Li Yundong made a mental note to buy a variety of dishes from different restaurants. Just in case Zhou Qin decided to pull another I-don't-want-X-but-I-want-Y stunt later.
"Well?" Li Yundong asked again when he got a glare instead of an answer.
Suddenly, a challenging glint formed in Zhou Qin's eyes. There was a tiny smirk too. "I want your cooking."
Li Yundong froze. "Err..." He glanced at the door. "Um..."
"See? You can't handle me already," Zhou Qin said in a smug tone. "So give up and leave."
"No, it's not that," Li Yundong said, looking from the door back to Zhou Qin. "It's just... It's gonna take a while to go back to my apartment to cook, and then come back again. Aren't you hungry now?"
"I—" Zhou Qin gaped at him for a moment. Then, her eyes flashed angrily. "I don't care! I'm not going to eat anything unless you made it!"
Li Yundong went silent in thought. Should he lie? Would she be able to tell if he bought something from a restaurant and then pack them into a container from home to make it look like he'd made them?
Li Yundong stole a glance at Zhou Qin on the bed. Nah, she's too clever to fall for that. She'd probably only believe it when she saw the same dishes he'd made when she came over to his apartment the other day.
Besides, lying to her would just defeat the purpose of the whole thing. The idea was to show her that he cared. He would lose her trust if she found out that he had tricked her.
"Okay, then." Li Yundong stood up and grabbed his backpack. "Wait here. I'll be back as soon as I can."
"Hey! Wait! I was—"
Li Yundong didn't hear the rest of her sentence since he was already out the door.