Chapter V (Part 1): Souvenirs of Love.
Ming Xing took a rare leave from work and started getting ready to just go out and get a life.
It’s been a very long time since she slept without nightmares. And yesterday night, it wasn’t any different, having been plagued by the worst memories of her life the entire night.
Naturally, she looked gaunt. But her looks dominated the tiredness and the aura of power around her hid all her weaknesses well.
She dressed up in a loose Tee Shirt and worn-out jeans, before walking out of the apartment and getting into the pre-ordered taxi.
“P University,” she told the taxi driver, ignoring his stunned look at her. Not many people have seen the famous reporter Ming Xing in casual clothing.
After ten whole years, she’s going to visit her old alma mater, the P University. And also the library in it, where the entire saga began. As she stepped inside the hallowed grounds, her emotions underwent an intense turmoil. She felt a sense of belonging and nostalgia.
This was the place where she’d found her ground and also her love.
She touched the huge iron-wrought gates, and wiped away the tears that formed in her eyes. Sighing, she walked inside the campus. The students curiously followed her, while the Professors stopped in their tracks when they saw her.
But everybody recognized her as The Li Ming Xing of ‘Open Heart’, the nation’s biggest television show.
Some of the old Professors in her faculty, who’d taught her, were still working here. And when they saw her, the first thing that they asked her was, “How have you been all these years?”
The suppressed emotions boiled out, and finally she wept tears of joy. She bowed to them and her head touched the ground. This was the only way she could pay back all the love that her teachers had given her.
After a long time, they reluctantly separated because they had to attend their classes, but not before they extracted a promise from her that she would return to give a lecture to all the Broadcast Journalism students of the University.
Then she started walking down the cobbled path to the library. When she entered, the very silence of the library felt sacred to her. She saw an old hunched lady sitting near the librarian’s desk and shook her head in disbelief. It’s been so many years and Madam Qin is still working here…
The old lady was writing something in the Register, so Ming Xing approached her, and asked, “I’m looking for a part-time job and am interested in taking over the job of the Senior Assistant Librarian.”
Madam Qin didn’t look up, as she said, “That job hasn’t been given to anybody in ten years and won’t be given to anyone else until the original employee returns.”
“And what if the employee has returned to claim her job?” asked Ming Xing, softly.
Madam Qin stopped writing and finally looked up. Her eyes filled up with tears and her lips trembled, as she asked, “Ming Xing, is that you?”
Ming Xing tearfully nodded. She hugged old Madam Qin, as Madam Qin shed tears of joy. “You foolish girl! Where were you gone all these years? We’ve all been waiting for you to return home!”
Home. Ming Xing’s heart finally calmed down. She’s home. And her home’s in the University. She’s always belonged here, so she didn’t know how she’s managed to stay away from home so long! She knew that she missed her home only after being away from it for ten years.
Madam Qin affectionately ruffled her hair, and said, “Little girl, go take a look at what these foolish Administrative people have done to our library! I hope that now you’ve returned, at least you will drum some sense into those fogeys!”
Ming Xing frowned and nodded. When she started to take a proper look at the library, she was shocked.
The old and huge wooden bookshelves, and also the paperback books were all gone. They were replaced by electric plugs and tablets and iPads were connected there.
In short, the P University’s library is now a ‘Digital Library’.
Ming Xing felt her heart break into pieces. This library held so many memories for her. It was behind those bookshelves that she and Xue Zhao had first fallen in love with each other. It was the ink and paper of the books over here that became her best friends. She found solace over here whenever she needed it.
“They have transferred all the books to the storeroom. They were about to throw away the old bookshelves before someone came forward to buy all of them. They were even going to give me a computer to work on, but I refused saying that I’m happier writing entries in the old Registers. They resisted, but I was firm. Finally, they had no choice but to give in,” said Madam Qin.
Ming Xing had an urge to see those bookshelves one last time. She wanted to touch the rough wood and see the engravings that many lovesick couples make on them, and which admittedly, has even her name and Xue Zhao’s engraved upon them.
But she knew that the ship has sailed. Turning to Madam Qin, she asked, “May I know where I can find the old copy of ‘Dream of the Red Chamber’?”
Madam Qin frowned, before apologetically saying, “I’m sorry, my dear, but the same unknown person who’d bought the bookshelves had also bought the book’s copy too. That and one more book had been sold to him.”
Ming Xing nodded, feeling disappointed. Hugging Madam Qin, she bid her goodbye and walked out.
And when she saw a red Ferrari waiting outside the library, she stopped in her tracks.
Because Liu Jin, looking carelessly handsome, was leaning on that Ferrari.
Chapter V (Part 2): Souvenirs of Love.
Ming Xing and Liu Jin were never particularly close. All she knew about him was that he’s Xue Zhao’s closest friend. She never really paid much attention to him, but mainly because he’d insulted her long back in the Chess Hall.
Liu Jin was more like the faithful sidekick of the demanding boss Xue Zhao. Liu Jin was undoubtedly talented, but Xue Zhao’s brilliance outshone his. He never felt bitter or complained about it. That’s because he’s the only person who can say that he’s very close to Xue Zhao and feels that he’s his one and true friend.
And also, it’s because he’s one of the few people who know what drastic changes Xue Zhao’s undergone since Ming Xing left him and went away to South Korea.
“Senior Brother Liu,” muttered Ming Xing, stiffly.
He laughed. “Still bearing old grudges against me, Ming Xing? You’re one hell of a stubborn woman! Same as your friend!”
“Aren’t you supposed to be on your honeymoon with Xiao Xi?” asked Ming Xing, censoriously.
“Oh, yeah! Poor Xue Zhao’s determined to pack me off on a vacation, so much so that he even went on that godforsaken business trip to Japan! But I have some unfinished business left with you which I wanted to sort out now,” replied he, nonchalantly.
Ming Xing froze. He’s gone. She swallowed, before frowning and asking, “Unfinished business?”
He nodded, smiling mockingly. Catching hold of her hand, he said, “Come along, now!”
He made her sit in his Ferrari, and zoomed off. “Where are we going now?” she asked, a bit apprehensively.
His eyes glittered. “It’s a secret!”
“How did you get to know that I’m at the University?”
“Xue Zhao’s now on the University’s Board. But since he’s out of town, almost all of the urgent calls get forwarded to me. And you’ve been a very high priority to him all these years. So once you appeared in the Campus, one of our people in the Varsity called me up to inform me!” he replied.
She felt the breath knock out of her when she heard his explanation. She understood the hidden implication behind his words. Xue Zhao’s been searching for her since ten years, waiting for her to return to him. And he hoped to find her at the University if she would have gone there on one of those ten years.
“Honestly, none of us ever understood why Xue Zhao was so crazy about you! I mean, it’s not as if you were the Campus Beauty or something! No offence, but we’d never even knew you’d existed in the University until we saw him running after you after that Chess Match. But after that day, he was very different,” continued Liu Jin.
“He almost never attended his classes and disappeared for long time every day without informing anyone as to where he’s going. Then I’d convinced Xiao Xi to ask you whether he’s around you. It was only then that we all understood what was going on, and that you were blissfully unaware of the storm brewing around you. We all used to laugh wondering how he’s going to woo someone with such a low EQ as you.”
Ming Xing looked out of the window to hide her sad smile. All this seems a lifetime ago.
“And then when we saw him work so hard, we were all shocked. Xue Zhao was like the King in the campus and to see him lower himself was an eye-opener for all of us who roamed around as if we owned the place. Even after you’d accepted his feelings, there were times when he used to get frustrated with your obliviousness and those days were the worst in the dormitory because he used to vent his frustrations on us by not helping us out during our Semester Exams,” laughed Liu Jin, shaking his head.
When he saw the red light in front of him, he stopped. Turning to face her, he said, “But there were also times when he was unknowingly made happy by you. And it was in those days that we all saw a new side of Xue Zhao that none of us had ever seen before — tenderness. Even now, none of us are able to understand how you were able to break a heart that was so sincere towards you.”
His gaze on her felt as though it was piercing her with needles. She looked away, not meeting his eye. And when the light turned green, he started driving again. None of them said a word the rest of the journey.
He stopped the car in front of a high-rise building, in the most expensive residential area of the city. The valet came running out, and Liu Jin handed him the keys.
She stepped out of the car, and Liu Jin leaded her to the elevator. He pressed the button for the topmost floor of the building. She hesitated to follow him further, but he was insistent.
Finally, she put her foot down and said, “Liu Jin, tell me where are you taking me?”
“Don’t you want to know what kind of a life Xue Zhao’s been living all these years?” calmly asked Liu Jin.
Ming Xing struggled to swallow down her tears, as she slowly nodded. She silently followed him, as he led her to a penthouse apartment, the lone one in the entire floor, starkly indicating the solitude of the person who lives there.
Liu Jin quickly entered the security code in the lock-pad and entered inside. She followed suit.
Xue Zhao’s house’s like a museum, with everything being neat and ordered. There wasn’t much in the house to begin with, except some really expensive electronic gadgets and simple furniture. The kitchen too looked more or less sterile.
And the entire house seemed as though it has barely been lived in.
Her legs automatically led her from one room to another, as though they knew this house intimately. She opened the door of a room that was very dark. She groped her hand on the wall to find the switch.
When the lights turned on, she remained rooted to her spot.
All the bookshelves of the library were there in this room. All of them. But there were only two books in all. Nervously, she approached them.
Her eyes welled up with fresh tears when she found the old copies of ‘Dream of the Red Chamber’ and Laozi’s ‘The Way’, the two books that were witness to her accepting his love.
She hugged the books and closed her eyes, trying to stop her tears from overflowing. Everything about their shared past hurt her, and yet, it is that past which means a lot to her than anything else.
But more than that, she recognized the layout of the house. She recognized parts of the house that she felt familiar with.
“This was where he’d planned to live with you after you graduated,” quietly informed Liu Jin. “He was going to propose to you the very night you left.”
She opened her eyes and looked at him with disbelief written all over her face. Then the dam broke. She sank down on her knees and broke down. He’d loved her so much… and she…
This house is the concrete proof for that. This was her dream house, the place where she’d always wanted to live in.
Li Ming Xing had never regretted the decision she’d taken ten years ago, but now she did. She wished that she could turn back the time and go back to ten years ago, just once… she wished she could go back to being carefree and happy again and make a different choice, just once.
She remembered her father’s words. You can choose differently. You can choose to work together to build something that’s ever-lasting and forever.
But she’d chosen to end something that was actually very precious to her. Something that meant her own life. Her choice had led to the breaking of two hearts that beat as one.
“Xue Zhao will be back tomorrow night,” said Liu Jin. “I’ll leave now. When you leave, all you have to do is close the door and it will automatically get locked.”
Ming Xing nodded, wiping away her tears. When he started to leave, she called out to him. “Senior Brother Liu!”
He turned back, surprised. “Xiao Xi…” choked Ming Xing. “Take care of her… never let her feel sad.”
Liu Jin’s eyes softened for the first time since she’d ever known him, and that says a lot. “I fully intend to!” he said, gently.
She let out a tiny smile and he nodded back at her.
Once he left, she slowly got up and searched for their names that’d been engraved on the wooden bookshelves. Finally, she found them on one of the many bookshelves in this huge room. ‘Li Ming Xing and Han Xue Zhao’ was etched into the wood of the bookshelf.
A new wave of tears pooled into her eyes, when she saw that there’s another engraving that wasn’t there ten years ago:
‘In Han Xue Zhao’s constellation, there’s only Li Ming Xing.’
Smiling through her tears, she brushed her fingers on the inscription.