pond to him. 

He grabbed her hand, adjusted her scarf, tightly wrapping her rosy face, and then stuffed her hands into the pockets of her coat. 

He chuckled, “Don’t let your hands freeze, you still need them to play the piano.
But seriously, you ran away from home for me.
I’m truly touched.
Now go back home before your parents worry.”

“You’re being presumptuous,” she snapped, brushing his hand away and turning to leave.

That time, he was gone for a long time. 

On the tenth day, she looked at his empty seat with some concern.
After school, she skipped piano class for the first time and secretly ran to this secluded place, which used to be bustling with people. 

The short buildings were filled with residents, and unless you entered, you couldn’t imagine that these two small rundown houses could accommodate so many people.

This was the first time that Xu Qingyan had ventured into this place. 

She tiptoed every step of the way, the hallway was pitch black, and the floor was greasy.
Each corner was piled high with discarded rubbish.
She didn’t even know which room he was in, so she proceeded to explore her way from one room to the next.

When she reached the second floor, a woman on the first floor was shouting and berating her husband for being a useless, philandering man.
In a fit of anger, the woman added an extra dose of chili pepper into her cooking, sending a choking smell wafting up to the second floor, causing Xu Qingyan to cover her mouth and flee. 

Little did she expect to collide with someone, and as she clutched her forehead in pain, an overwhelming stench of sweat engulfed her senses.
The individual erupted into a string of profanities, his choice of words far beyond Xu Qingyan’s level of comprehension.

Xu Qingyan lowered her head to apologize, hoping to settle things peacefully.

However, the burly man not only persisted in his verbal assault but also started to harass her, taking advantage of her vulnerable position as a young girl.
Just as she found herself trapped and helpless, a figure suddenly appeared beside her, swiftly pulling her behind him and ushering her into a nearby room.

“It’s me,” he said.

His voice immediately calmed her down, but in the darkness, she couldn’t tell which direction he was in.
After a while, she finally adapted to the dim light and vaguely saw his figure.

She furrowed her brow and fumbled for the light switch.
He noticed her movement and quickly said, “Don’t turn on the light…” But it was too late.
As the light came on, she saw him hastily raise his hand to shield his face, but there was still a moment when she caught a glimpse of tear stains on his face.

Her hand was still on the switch, the next second, she switched off the light again. 

The room plunged into darkness, and for a while, neither of them spoke. 

It was him who eventually broke the silence, “Weren’t you supposed to have piano lessons today?”

He tried to control his voice, but a hint of nasal tone still slipped through.

“Yeah, the teacher said you haven’t been attending classes for such a long time, so I came to check on you,” she lied, omitting the fact that she had come out of her own concern.

“This isn’t the place you should come to.
I’ll be back at school in a couple of days.
Don’t worry.” He assured her.

She was never good with words, and now she didn’t know what comforting words would be appropriate. 

She hesitated before saying, “Take care of yourself.” 

She heard him chuckle softly.
If it were any other time, he would have teased her relentlessly, but this time he said, “Let me wash my face and I’ll walk you back.” 

He escorted her out of the old building, and once outside, she could finally see his face clearly.
However by then, he had appeared calm and unaffected, just like his usual self. 

He kept his gaze straight ahead but playfully said, “Do you see a flower on my face, princess?” Xu Qingyan let out a sigh and silently shook her head.

He walked her to the small intersection in front of her house, as he always did due to her family’s circumstances.
He watched her until she entered her home before leaving. 

On this particular day, she continued walking alone, knowing that he was still watching her from behind.

Suddenly, she thought she heard his voice, but couldn’t make out what he said.

She turned around, only to see him smiling brightly and waving at her.
Perhaps she had misheard him.

The untimely ringing of her phone jolted Xu Qingyan back to reality.

It had been a long, long time since she had ventured into the forbidden area deep in her heart, and now, as if unlocking a sealed chamber, a flurry of memories rushed in,engulfing her in an instant.

She felt as if she had been pulled out of icy water, her hands and feet freezing cold, her temples throbbing with pain.
As she answered the call, she couldn’t help but rub her temples incessantly.
“Ling Ling?”

“Yan’er, where are you? Didn’t we agree to have hot pot together tonight?”

Xu Qingyan had been living in a daze all day, only now realizing that she had made plans to have dinner with her best friend.
She quickly got up and hailed a taxi.
“I’m sorry, I got stuck in traffic.
I’ll be there soon.”

“Alright, take your time.
I’ve already arrived, I’ll wait for you,” came the reply on the other end.

After hanging up the phone, Xu Qingyan struggled to find a cab.
She sent a WeChat message to Ling Qiao: “The traffic is really bad.
You go ahead and eat.”

The response came swiftly, “Haha, Dr.
Xu, I’ve already started eating.”

Xu Qingyan persistently continued to hail a cab, but it was proving to be a difficult task given the location and the time.
Just as she was fretting, a black car pulled up in front of her.

Thinking that the driver was pulling over, Xu Qingyan took a few steps forward.
To her surprise, the car also moved forward slightly.

Puzzled, Xu Qingyan looked towards the car window, which reflected her own plain face.
Then, the window slowly rolled down, revealing half of a profile.

Xu Qingyan subconsciously took a step back, and stood frozen in place.

The person inside the car tilted their head slightly, their thin lips curving into a faint smile, cold and distant.
Xu,” he said.

She clearly remembered his words: “Don’t appear in front of me again.”

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