For once in his life, Li Yundong had beaten Su Chan in her own game. Chuckling, he dodged another one of Su Chan's attempts to steal the drumsticks on his plate.
"Why won't you let me eat, you meanie!" Su Chan glared at him.
It might've worked if she didn't look so adorable having her feathers ruffled like that.
"Geez, just go get your own plate, dummy," Li Yundong said, cackling.
"No way!" Su Chan protested adorably. "You'd have finished all the food by the time I got a plate!"
Before Li Yundong could say anything else, Su Chan grabbed the entire rotisserie chicken from the table and took a huge bite into its breast.
Li Yundong nearly choked on his own chicken.
"Hey!" Li Yundong hissed, and smacked Su Chan's arm before she could take another bite. "Christ! Where are you manners? I told you to grab a plate first, didn't I?" Li Yundong glanced around briefly. "Everyone's looking at you now. Have you no shame?"
Su Chan looked around a few times, her cheeks turning into the same color as the rotisserie chicken.
"Oh," Su Chan said.
Su Chan dumped the half-eaten rotisserie chicken back onto the plate.
This time, Li Yundong did choke on his chicken.
Li Yundong patted his chest harshly in an attempt to smother his coughs.
"Oh, come on," he said exasperatedly. "Why'd you put it back? You think it's polite to let someone else have the food that you've already bitten into?"
Su Chan lowered her gaze and stared at her feet remorsefully. Seconds later, he noticed her sneaking furtive glances at the rotisserie chicken. She looked like she wanted to grab the whole poultry goodness and shove it down her throat, but was too afraid to do so lest he chastised her again.
Li Yundong stifled a laugh, then removed the chicken from the plate. "Don't worry," he said. "I don't mind the food that you've bitten into."
They'd already kissed before, for crying out loud.
Li Yundong placed the chicken on his plate.
"See?" Li Yundong said, waving his plate in front of Su Chan's face.
Su Chan looked at Li Yundong as though he was her savior, her eyes sparkling with gratitude. Then...
Li Yundong turned away with his plate and tore off a drumstick from the chicken.
He heard Su Chan gasp.
A moment later, Su Chan pounced.
"Mmm... You're so mean!" Su Chan whined. "You stole my chicken!"
Li Yundong laughed and took another bite into the juicy drumstick, sticking his butt out to prevent Su Chan from reaching his plate.
"How does it feel like to have your food stolen from you, hm?"
"Meanie, meanie, meanie!!!!"
Feng Na groaned into her palms.
"Oh, God... Just please don't tell people that we know those two," Feng Na said, then glanced at Cheng Cheng beside her.
Cheng Cheng's eyes were fixed upon Li Yundong and Su Chan, who were apparently engaged in a bout of intense poultry war. Cheng Cheng's eyes were filled with envy and admiration.
Feng Na rolled her eyes and smacked Cheng Cheng's arm.
"Tsk! Stop staring at them, dammit," Feng Na hissed. "You're gonna give us away!"
Cheng Cheng rubbed her arm a few times, though she didn't look away from the beautiful couple at the head table.
"Aren't they beautiful? This is what true love looks like," Cheng Cheng said dreamily. "So cute... At least they're cuter than those pretentious couples out there. I'll die a happy girl if I have a boyfriend like that..."
"Pfft... hahaha!" Feng Na poked Cheng Cheng's head a few times. "You're just saying that because you have a crush on him. When you're infatuated with someone, even their flaws become points of attraction."
The conversation stalled. Silence hung thick in the air between them.
Feng Na studied her bestie quietly, not knowing what else to say.
Suddenly, Cheng Cheng turned and looked at her strangely. "Nana..." she said.
Feng Na had honestly never seen her bestie looking so pensive.
"What is it?" Feng Na nudged Cheng Cheng with her elbow.
Cheng Cheng turned back towards Li Yundong and Su Chan, who were still stealing food off each others' plates.
"Suppose you had the chance to date a guy like that, and experience happy moments like that..." Cheng Cheng said, trailing off.
Feng Na waited patiently for Cheng Cheng to continue.
Cheng Cheng looked at Feng Na again. "You'd still be happy even if the relationship didn't work out, right? I mean, all those little moments you get to spend with him. No matter how childish or how fleeting those moments are, they can still fill your heart with happiness..."
Feng Na stared at her bestie blankly. She didn't know what to say.
Cheng Cheng returned her gaze towards the happy couple. "Don't get me wrong. I still don't buy that everlasting happiness BS. To me, the most important thing is the experience of such pure love. No matter how fleeting and fragile it is, I still get to experience it for once in my life."
Feng Na shook her head and chuckled wryly. "You know that's basically the same mindset that most homewreckers have, right?"
Cheng Cheng raised her head with faux haughtiness. "Hah. At least I'm not a gold-digger," Cheng Cheng said. "So I can still mock them without sounding like a hypocrite, thank you very much."
The smile on Feng Na's face faltered before it faded away entirely.
"You mentioned earlier that what matters is the experience, right?" Feng Na said pensively. "Fine, let's say you found true love but then lost it afterwards. What if you couldn't get over the loss? What if, instead of all the happy memories, all you can think about is the hurt and sadness?"
Cheng Cheng chuckled. "Nobody in this world is immortal. Nothing lasts forever. Every love story will come to an end. It's inevitable. It's just a matter of time."
Feng Na gave Cheng Cheng a half-smile. "Look at you. Should I start calling you the Philosopher of Love or something?" she teased.
Amidst Cheng Cheng's smile was a hint of melancholy and longing.
"Well, blame those two," Cheng Cheng said with a sigh. "I got all sappy after watching them."
With that, the two women looked towards Li Yundong and Su Chan.
Can a love that pure last?
If it does, will it remain pure?
Li Yundong hadn't been kidding when he said that he was trashing Su Chan in her own game. First, he'd devoured the majority of the rotisserie chicken. Then, he'd managed to get his hands on the roasted duck before Su Chan did.
Victory was sweet.
That is until he realized at one point that Su Chan had stopped trying to reach for his plate. But was sitting quietly beside him, staring at the empty plate that had once held the rotisserie chicken. Unshed tears swirled in her eyes, and her pout was so large that it was as though she had grown a snout.
All of a sudden, victory tasted bitter.
Li Yundong sighed and set his plate on the table. Then, he reached over and stroked Su Chan's cheek.
"Don't look so sad, my little princess," Li Yundong coaxed. "There are a lot of foods served here that taste much better than the chicken. See, check out that creamy stuff over there. It's basically the same as the ice cream cone you like so much. And take a look at those cube-like things. Those are cakes, they taste very sweet. Go on, then." Li Yundong gave Su Chan a little nudge. "Grab a plate and eat all you want. I won't try to steal them from you again."
Su Chan eyed him warily. "Promise?"
Li Yundong held out his pinky. "Here, let's make a pinky swear."
Su Chan looked at him as though he had suddenly grown twenty heads. Still, she slowly held out her pinky.
"What's a pinky swear?"
Li Yundong chuckled and wrapped his pinky around Su Chan's. Then, he began to chant. "Pinky, pinky, bow-bell. Whoever tells a lie will sink down to the bad place and never rise again!"
After that, Li Yundong retracted his hand. "Alright, princess. Dinner time!"
Su Chan pounced onto the table.
Li Yundong shook his head in laughter.
He must've lost his damn mind in thinking that dressing her up in fancy clothing could conceal her childlike innocence.
"Did you enjoy your meal?"
Li Yundong placed his napkin beside his plate and turned towards the voice.
"Yes, I did. Thank you for inviting us," he said, a deep blush adorning his sheepish expression. "Sorry for all the..." Li Yundong gestured at Su Chan. "You know." Li Yundong cleared his throat. "You must think that I've embarrassed you in front of your guests."
However, Li Yundong did a double-take when he saw that Zhou Qin was looking at him with admiration instead of disdain.
"Uh... I mean—"
"Don't sweat it, really," Zhou Qin said with a megawatt smile. "It's rather refreshing to see people being so carefree and honest with their feelings. We don't really have too much of that around here. It's nice."
Li Yundong stared at Zhou Qin blankly, too stunned by her smile to come up with a response.
Ever since he got rejected by Zhou Qin, Li Yundong had pretty much assumed that Zhou Qin was an unapproachable and cold-blooded woman who was incapable of any warmth. Tonight, he finally realized how wrong his assumptions were.
No cold-blooded woman could smile like that.
"Well!" Zhou Qin said, breaking the comfortable silence between them. "I, for one, think that a real man should be candid and open about his feelings!"
Then, Zhou Qin looked at him in a way that made him blush.
"One of the most precious things in the world, to me, is having the chance to meet a kind and virtuous man with a heart of gold." There was a pregnant pause. "A good man," Zhou Qin said after a while, then chuckled. "That's really hard to come by."
Li Yundong cleared his throat.
"A real man should be open about his feelings, huh? That's deep," he said jokingly, trying to keep the conversation light.
Zhou Qin answered with another chuckle.
Damn, she seems so different today, Li Yundong thought. I don't think I've ever seen her laugh so openly.
"That's just my honest opinion," Zhou Qin said. "I mean, look at those men who walk around with poker faces all day. I don't find them to be especially masculine to be honest."
Li Yundong gave Zhou Qin a tiny smile.
"Then you should take your own advice," he remarked. "You know, you look so much more beautiful when you smile."
Zhou Qin looked at him in shock, much to Li Yundong's amusement.
"What? It's an honest opinion," Li Yundong said, throwing her own words back at her.
Li Yundong nearly laughed at the blush he detected on Zhou Qin's cheeks. Seriously, was today uncover-Zhou-Qin's-hidden-facets day?
"Yep," Li Yundong said, his lips curving slowly into a grin. "A real man must be honest with his feelings right?"
Instead of replying, Zhou Qin glanced around them a few times.
When Li Yundong did the same, he noticed that they had drawn the attention of a lot of the guests.
Zhou Qin tucked a loose strand of her hair behind her ear. "Do you mind if we talk over there?"
Li Yundong's eyes followed the direction of Zhou Qin's finger until he found himself looking at a balcony.
"Of course," Li Yundong said with a nod.
The two of them moved towards the balcony where they could converse in private. Zhou Qin moved in a relaxed, almost lazy, gait. When they reached the balcony, the sounds of the party had diminished to a soft echo. Zhou Qin turned around to face him. Again, she was smiling that warm smile.
"Just now you said of course," Zhou Qin said.
Li Yundong gave her a funny look.
"Yeah, I did," he said. "Why?"
"Just wondering if you meant of course I mind, or of course I don't mind."
Li Yundong chuckled. "Oh, it's definitely the second one," he said. "Why would I mind the company of a beautiful lady such as yourself?" Then, he gave Zhou Qin a teasing look. "I mean, you do know that most men would kill to have a conversation like this with you, right?"
Silence filled the balcony.
Li Yundong could sense that Zhou Qin was scrutinizing him.
"I don't know," Zhou Qin said after a while. "I didn't expect you to agree to my request since you already have Su Chan as a girlfriend."
Li Yundong chuckled.
"Come on, this ain't that," he said. "This is just a conversation between friends, that's all. Besides, it's impossible for me to never look at or talk to a beautiful woman just because I'm dating a girl." Li Yundong shot Zhou Qin a look of mock horror. "What do you want me to do? Walk around with duct tape covering my eyes?"
Zhou Qin chuckled, then the balcony fell silent again.
"If... If I accepted your confession the other day... Would you... Would you still be together with Su Chan?"
Li Yundong stared at Zhou Qin for a moment, his expression serious and somber.
"Nobody can change the past," he said. "The best thing anyone can do is move forward."
Zhou Qin's hopes shattered into smithereens the moment she heard Li Yundong's words. What they implied was a finality, something as irrevocable as the passage of time itself — it was too late.
She tried to put on a smile, to wear her usual veil of aloofness, but then realized moments later that it was merely an exercise in futility. Not even her icy facade could conceal the sharp pain she was feeling in her chest and the sheer vulnerability that was associated with it.
For the first time in the nineteen years of her life, Zhou Qin felt the helpless feeling of wanting something she could never have. She sighed and lowered her gaze to the floor, vanquished.
"You're a very beautiful woman, Zhou Qin," Li Yundong said. "You're going to meet an amazing man in the future. Someone far better than me."
Li Yundong was smiling at her. Somehow, that smile made her chest hurt even more.
"Seriously, though," Li Yundong went on. "You should really ditch the poker face and smile more. You have a beautiful smile."
When Zhou Qin raised her head, Li Yundong was already leaving the balcony to rejoin the party.
"What if you're the only person I want to smile for?" she whispered.
Li Yundong halted his steps as soon as those words left her mouth. Had he heard her? She didn't think he could hear her.
A moment later, she got her answer.
Li Yundong turned around to look at her, his eyes filled with pity and compassion.
"Even so, your smile doesn't belong to me," he said. "I've already found mine." Li Yundong pointed towards the banquet hall.
Zhou Qin cast a glance in that direction and had to bite her lip to stifle her laugh.
Zhou Qin allowed her eyes to linger at the head table for several more seconds, but immediately realized that it was a mistake.
Zhou Qin slapped a hand over mouth and turned away.
"Hey..." Li Yundong swiveled his head and cast a glance towards the banquet hall. "What's so funny—"
Li Yundong's jaw hung open.
In front of the head table, Su Chan was walking back and forth carrying a huge plate with both hands while the poor party-goers in her vicinity were practically diving out of her way like she was a carrier of the bubonic plague.
Not that he could blame them.
In her quest for food, Su Chan had somehow managed to erect a miniature Mount Everest on the plate. To be fair, it wouldn't be so bad if Mount Everest wasn't: A) so tall that it reached Su Chan's forehead; and B) on the verge of toppling over.
Su Chan halted her steps, then glanced around a few times. Mount Everest swayed dangerously as though taunting the laws of gravity. By some miracle, it remained upright. Catastrophe was avoided. For now, at least.
Then the penny dropped. Li Yundong suddenly figured out what his clueless girlfriend was searching for — a dining table. Why didn't he tell her that this was a buffet reception where people are free to sit, or stand, wherever they like while they eat?
Going bankrupt must've fried a good half of his brain cells.
Just then, a waiter walked past Su Chan while she was searching for a quiet place where she could finally begin feasting on her Mount Everest of desserts, fish, and cakes. Su Chan's eyes practically gleamed when she saw the two-tier serving cart that the waiter was pushing. The bottom level of the cart was stocked with expensive champagne and wine bottles while the top level was empty except for a few flutes.
What Li Yundong saw next might very well have fried his remaining brain cells. Su Chan grabbed the cart's handle, then dropped her plate onto the cart with a loud clank.
"Thanks! I've been trying to find a table for so long! You're a lifesaver!" Su Chan said to the stunned waiter.
Li Yundong had no idea what shocked him more: Su Chan's utter cluelessness; or the fact that the frigging monstrosity on the plate had remained upright through all that.
Li Yundong rushed out of the balcony, then made a beeline towards Su Chan. He had to intervene before all the waitstaff here rage-quit their damned jobs.
Back on the balcony, Zhou Qin was trying her best not to laugh as Li Yundong smiled and bowed slightly to the waiter. Then, he pulled Su Chan to one side and began reprimanding the poor girl in a muted tone.
Zhou Qin bit down on her lip, hard. She kept her eyes on Su Chan, whose head was currently hung so low on her shoulders that it was as though there was a weight attached to her head. Occasionally, the girl would sneak longing glances at the serving cart nearby.
Zhou Qin couldn't keep her laughter at bay anymore.
"Pfft... Hahaha.... Good Lord, this girl..." Zhou Qin said, turning away to stare out of the balcony at the beautiful night view.
After a while, Zhou Qin calmed down.
Taking a deep breath, she turned back to face the banquet hall. Su Chan was now smiling sweetly at Li Yundong. She had to admit that Su Chan's smile was pure and downright adorable.
So that was the smile that belonged to Li Yundong.
A sad smile crept onto Zhou Qin's countenance. It didn't matter how bright her own smile was. She knew that it would never belong to Li Yundong.