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131 Stepping up to the Plate

 A spark flickered in Huo Shaoheng's eyes. He recalled the savage witticism that had turned the tables at the crucial moment.

He had not expected Gu Nianzhi to be so cunning and witty-she had always behaved like an obedient, harmless little kitten before him. He put his hand in his trouser pocket, raised his wine glass, and said, in a rare display of humor, "Oopsie, my bad."

Huo Shaoheng turned his head. The corners of his mouth lifted ever so slightly. His face, usually cold and intimidating, was now relaxed and amused. A low, irresistibly alluring laugh reverberated from his chest. His achingly beautiful face seemed to glow from within by some hidden source of warmth.

The smile had been fleeting, but Gu Nianzhi saw it through the video feed, all the same.

Huo Shaoheng, who had always been cold and aloof towards everyone, had smiled happily at Bai Shuang. Gu Nianzhi felt as though she had been struck in the chest with a sledgehammer. Her eyes stung.

Her hands began to tremble uncontrollably.

She looked up and stared at the patterns on her bedroom ceiling for a long moment, before abruptly ending the video call with Zhao Liangze with a flick of a finger.

Bai Shuang had never seen Huo Shaoheng smile before this. The smile had disappeared almost immediately, but she was nevertheless encouraged by it. She blurted out, "Yes, that phrase was absolutely perfect! I couldn't have done it without Mr. Zhao. I have to thank him, I really must..." She trailer off as she absentmindedly began to look around the room for him.

Huo Shaoheng suddenly felt as though someone were spying on him from behind.

He turned and saw Zhao Liangze on the balcony, frowning at his phone.

Zhao Liangze saw Huo Shaoheng turn towards him through the camera of his phone, and quickly closed the video messaging app. He looked up, and waved at Huo Shaoheng with a smile.

Huo Shaoheng inclined his head at Zhao Liangze and motioned for him to come over.

Zhao Liangze hastily put his phone in his shirt pocket. He jogged over to Huo Shaoheng, smiling, and accepted a glass of champagne from a passing waiter. He toasted Bai Shuang with it. "Congratulations on your promotion, Deputy Director Bai."

The role of spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was traditionally assumed by either the director or the deputy director of the Information Department. Bai Shuang was the new spokesperson, meaning that she had been promoted, and was now the deputy director of the Information Department.

Bai Shuang blushed, and graciously clinked glasses with Zhao Liangze. She said, smiling, "I was just talking about you. If it weren't for you, I would have failed, disastrously."

"I couldn't very well let that happen now, could I?" Zhao Liangze's smile widened. "Actually, though, that wasn't me-"

Huo Shaoheng, who had been silent, suddenly gave a cough. He turned to Bai Shuang and said, "Please excuse me. You can find me over there if you need me." With that, he turned and left them.

Zhao Liangze understood: Huo Shaoheng had warned him not to drag Gu Nianzhi into this.

He felt bad about taking credit for Gu Nianzhi's work, but an order was an order. Huo Shaoheng was right, anyway: mentioning Gu Nianzhi's involvement in the matter could potentially cause problems for her later on. It was best to keep it a secret for now.

Zhao Liangze quickly saluted Huo Shaoheng's retreating back. "Take care, sir!"

Gu Yanran had been standing beside Huo Shaoheng the entire time, but he had not looked at her, not even once.

Gu Yanran had not felt left out, however. She had stood to the side, fascinated, and listened with great interest to their conversation.

She had not really understood what they had been talking about; she could only surmise that it had been about official business. However, she could see that Miss Bai, the spokesperson, had turned bright red the moment the tall, handsome Mr. Zhao-who was presumably a secretary to General Huo-had joined them. Miss Bai had kept her eyes on the floor before her, but Gu Yanran could see that she had been watching Mr. Zhao out of the corner of her eye.

As for Mr. Zhao, Gu Yanran could make neither heads nor tails out of his behavior: was he already taken? Was he completely oblivious? Or was he simply not interested in Miss Bai? The man was charming but polite towards Miss Bai; it was impossible to tell what he thought of her.

Gu Yanran saw Huo Shaoheng turn and walk towards a small lounge in one corner of the hall, partitioned from the rest of the hall by a row of leafy potted plants. She watched him sit down, and then followed after him.

"General Huo, I cannot express how happy I am to see you at this party. Deputy Minister Feng is truly a man of his word." Gu Yanran smiled as she sat opposite him. She raised her wine glass, meaning to clink glasses with Huo Shaoheng. "Cheers."

Huo Shaoheng placed a hand on the back of the sofa, and swirled the wine in his glass with his other hand. His long legs were crossed, and his free hand rested on his knee.

"Miss Gu, please look up the definition for charity, as you seem to have forgotten what it means. It is not a tool for coercion." With that, he set his wine glass down, stood up, and walked away without a second glance.

Deputy Minister Feng pranced gleefully over to Gu Yanran just then. He said, smiling, "Miss Gu, look, General Huo came, just like I said he would."

Gu Yanran could not help but laugh at this. She nodded. "Indeed. Don't worry, I will uphold my end of the bargain."

General Huo had not only come to the party, but also engaged in conversation with her. He had said no more than two sentences to her, but still!

Gu Yanran thought cynically: I can't very well ask Huo Shaoheng to be like all the other boot-lickers, can I?

A spineless man was next to useless.

She needed someone strong enough to protect her massive business, empire, and wealth. She wanted a wild and ferocious lion, not a silly, yapping dog that was all bark and no bite.

...

Gu Nianzhi lay on her bed, shell-shocked. She could not get the image of Huo Shaoheng's smile out of her head.

Her eyes stung. She forced herself to look up, her eyes wide open and unblinking, to stop the tears from flowing.

She lay like this, oblivious to the passing of time, when her phone suddenly rang.

Gu Nianzhi wanted to ignore it, but her phone would not stop ringing. It was beginning to get on her nerves.

She grabbed her phone and was about to turn it off when she saw that Zhao Quan was calling her.

The "Adonis" from the School of Engineering...

Gu Nianzhi hesitated, then decided to take the call. "What's up, Dreamboat?"

Zhao Quan snorted. "This isn't the time to be silly, Nianzhi. This is serious."

"What is it?" Gu Nianzhi was, by now, good friends with the students from the Huaxia Student Association.

After Xin Xinggao had been exposed, the Huaxia Student Association had not only issued a scathing statement condemning her, but had also made absolutely clear that they no longer wanted anything to do with her. Gu Nianzhi had naturally had a hand in that, as well.

That had been the best the students could do against Xin Xinggao; she was currently under the protection of the US military, after all.

"Here's the thing: we're having a women's softball match with the Indian Student Association today. We kicked Xin Xinggao off the team, and she joined the Indian team instead. We're one player short. Do you know how to play softball? Can you take her place?"

Gu Nianzhi was eager to get out of her room, away from her jumbled thoughts and traitorous imagination. She was feeling miserable, and was desperate to do something, anything, to vent her frustrations.

"Softball? That's pretty much baseball, isn't it? Sure, I'll play. Wait for me, I'll be right over. What's the address?" Gu Nianzhi got up, her phone held against her ear, and began rummaging through her closet and drawers for her baseball uniform, cap, and bat.

"It's the baseball field over on the west side." Zhao Quan was delighted. "Come over as soon as you can. We have a huge turnout today."

The Special Ops soldiers had taught Gu Nianzhi how to play baseball. She had been good at it, but she had not had many opportunities to play since moving out from the base. She hoped she wasn't rusty; the last thing she wanted was to disappoint her teammates.

Gu Nianzhi changed into her uniform. She walked out of her room and said to Yin Shixiong, "Brother Xiong, I'm going out for a bit."

Yin Shixiong looked over her baseball uniform and the baseball bat in her hand. He smiled and said, "Off to play some baseball?"

"Yup. We're playing against the Indian women's team today. I needed to stretch my muscles anyway," said Gu Nianzhi as she swung her baseball bat, her eyes blazing.