In the following days, more and more people gathered outside Qi Yin and Fu Lan’s house, with some senior brothers even perching on the roof to watch. The black cat was especially bold, walking up to Lan Xian’er and hooking her leg with its tail, lifting up the hem of her blue and white floral pants to reveal a pale ankle. Everyone was left stunned. Lan Xian’er smiled lightly, crouched down to stroke the black cat’s back for a while, then looked up to see a group of mischievous youngsters at Qi Yin’s doorstep, covering their mouths and snickering. She brushed her hair back with her slender fingers, turned around, and walked away, going down the mountain.
“Damn, it’s better to be a cat,” someone said.
Lan Xian’er and Sang Ruo became good friends at some point. They would stop by for tea and rest when they passed by the house. Qi Yin dared not approach, only sitting in the courtyard pretending to recite scriptures, his eyes constantly sneaking glances towards Sang Ruo’s house. Through the fence, Lan Xian’er chatted and laughed with a gentle posture, sitting with her legs crossed and knees together, wearing a white cloth blue floral shirt, like a flower floating down from the sky.
After sitting for a while, Lan Xian’er left. Qi Yin’s eyes were sharp, and he happened to see her drop a piece of cloth by the fence. While no one was looking, Qi Yin stood up with a start, pulled Fu Lan over, and asked him to bring the cloth over. Fu Lan was washing clothes. He raised his hand, which was covered in soap bubbles, and gestured with his fingertips. The cloth then flew over and stuck to the ground.
“Let’s go down the mountain and buy some toothpicks,” Qi Yin said.
Fu Lan was still dazed and said, “But I haven’t finished washing the clothes yet.”
“Dai Ge, is washing clothes more important, or is my lifelong matter as your brother more important?” Qi Yin turned around and put on a coat, then picked up the fat cat and gave it to Fu Lan.
The black cat bared its teeth and said, “This kid likes people with the word ‘Xian’ in their names. Fool, you should change your name to ‘Dai Xian.’ This little brat might fall for you.”
“Lord Cat, don’t talk nonsense. We must walk the right path and not take the crooked path.” Qi Yin hooked Fu Lan’s neck and walked out. “Dai Ge, once I settle things on my side, I’ll help you find a good wife!”
When they reached the foot of the mountain, it was already noon. Despite learning the art of fasting, they still couldn’t avoid hunger and thirst, so they bought toothpicks and two bowls of noodles. Fu Lan didn’t eat anything and let the black cat lick the bowls clean. Qi Yin asked them to wait under the bitter melon tree at the entrance of Chang Le Fang Brothel while he went into the alley to ask about Lan Xian’er’s whereabouts.
As he left, he turned back and saw Fu Lan holding the black cat under a withered tree, his shadow stretching out like he had been abandoned, looking lonely and desolate. Qi Yin felt inexplicably guilty, but he had no choice. He couldn’t stay with Fu Lan as a bachelor forever. Scratching his head and hesitating for a while, he finally left.
Qi Yin stopped in front of a herbal medicine store in the back alley. A fat shopkeeper was tinkering with an abacus behind the black counter. She said, “Who is Lan Xian’er? Never heard of her. Look for her somewhere else.”
“Auntie, please think again,” Qi Yin pleaded.
“I’ve been living here for decades. I know every rat in this alley, and I haven’t heard of anyone called Lan Xian’er,” the fat shopkeeper teased him. “But I can’t say for sure about the girls in the brothels. You should focus on cultivating your Dao and chanting sutras. I’ll tell your sect leader if you laze off.”
“It’s impossible. She’s a good girl from a respectable family!” Qi Yin insisted. Dejected, he left the shop, still carrying the handkerchief. The sky was overcast, and it looked like it was going to rain. He sat on a stone stool on the side of the street and sighed. Should he wait until tomorrow morning to return it to her when she came up the mountain? But his senior brothers were like wolves waiting to pounce, and it wasn’t appropriate to talk to her alone.
As he was about to ask around again, someone suddenly stopped in front of him. She wore a green floral skirt with a white top, and two embroidered flower tips could be seen under her hem. Qi Yin looked up and saw Lan Xian’er’s fair face. He was startled and almost fell off the stool.
“Senior Brother Yun Yin, what are you doing here?” Lan Xian’er asked, tilting her head and revealing her red lips and white teeth.
As she approached, a faint scent of orchid spread out, making Qi Yin feel dazed. Suddenly, he realized something and asked, “How do you know my Dao name?”
“I asked around.” Lan Xian’er tilted her head and smiled. Swaying her waist, she walked into the alley.
“Asked around?” Qi Yin’s heart beat faster. Why did she need to ask about him? Did she also like him? He suddenly remembered that Lan Xian’er always rested at Sang Ruo’s place, sitting sideways, holding up a small mirror she carried with her to do her hair. The mirror was always facing her face and also facing his fence courtyard.
Flames seemed to surge to life in his heart, igniting his face. Qi Yin’s heart was pounding, and Lan Xian’er walked a few steps before turning back, lifting the corner of her eye with a clear and charming look that hooked him playfully. His face was all red. She covered her mouth and giggled a few times, twisted her body, and walked away.
Qi Yin followed her into the alley and took out her handkerchief, saying, “Your handkerchief was left behind on the mountain. I came to return it to you.”
Lan Xian’er stopped in front of two red-painted doors and took the handkerchief from his hand. Her cold fingertips touched his, and a tingling sensation climbed up Qi Yin’s arm. He couldn’t help but shiver.
“Come in and have a seat. I have some tea at home. I’ll make a drink for you,” Lan Xian’er said, opening the door.
“It’s not appropriate, I mean, we’re alone…” Qi Yin scratched his head, feeling embarrassed.
Lan Xian’er stood at the doorstep and beckoned him. “What are you afraid of? You’re a man. Are you afraid that I’ll eat you?”
As she waved her hand, a faint fragrance of orchids emanated from her sleeve, misty and elusive. Suddenly, a voice in his mind urged him to go in. He stared at the doorstep, just one step away from crossing it, when suddenly a twisting bolt of lightning like a white snake shot out from the sky, followed by a deafening thunder that seemed to roll right over his head.
Startled, Qi Yin snapped out of his trance and looked up at the dark and turbulent sky, which seemed to be pressing down on him. Before long, rain poured down in torrents. Qi Yin suddenly remembered that his friend was still waiting for him, and said, “I’m not going in after all. My friend is waiting for me. Goodbye!” With that, he turned his head and ran off, hunching his neck to keep the rain out.
Just then, the old lady from the medicine store came out to fetch water and saw Qi Yin shouting at a brick wall, muttering to himself. She sighed and thought to herself that young people these days were getting less and less serious.
The rain came down so hard that halfway there, Qi Yin could no longer run and had to take shelter under the eaves of someone else’s house. Fu Lan should be able to find shelter on his own, so Qi Yin patiently waited for the rain to stop. The raindrops were as big as beans and pitter-pattered down on the roof, forming dense lines of water. After waiting for a long time, the rain showed no signs of stopping, and Qi Yin couldn’t bear it any longer. He turned around and knocked on a door to borrow an umbrella, then braved the wind and rain to go to the market to find Fu Lan.
Just as he arrived at the market, he saw the black-clothed youth standing under a bitter melon tree, completely drenched from the rain, with black hair sticking to his pale face. The black cat was hiding in his arms, and Fu Lan was using his clothes to shield it from the rain. Qi Yin was stunned. The guy was standing there motionless, not taking a single step. He looked up and saw Qi Yin, his gaze penetrating through the layers of rain, appearing hazy.
Qi Yin ran over and held the umbrella over his head, shouting, “Are you two crazy? Why didn’t you find shelter?”
The black cat whimpered, “He didn’t want to!”
“I was afraid you wouldn’t find me,” Fu Lan said.
“How could I not find you?” Qi Yin was exasperated. “Quick, use the water-avoiding technique and dry your clothes.”
Fu Lan frowned and said, “I don’t know how.”
“What?” Qi Yin was surprised.
“I only know killing techniques,” Fu Lan said.
“No wonder.” Qi Yin suddenly remembered that he had never seen Fu Lan use any small spells like light talismans. Fu Lan had learned how to fight and survive in the midst of corpses and bloodshed, but he had not learned how to live. Qi Yin sighed. “Let me borrow some of your spiritual power.”
Fu Lan gave him spiritual power, and Qi Yin pointed his finger at his chest, drawing a water avoidance spell stroke by stroke. Faint blue light flickered continuously, and the water droplets on Fu Lan’s clothes emerged one by one, evaporating into the air. Fu Lan lowered his head, somewhat dazed. Qi Yin’s strokes were gentle, his fingertips moving on his chest, causing a slight itchiness that felt very comfortable.
Fu Lan wanted him to draw it again.
Raindrops kept dripping onto the clear round umbrella, pouring out along the edge. Qi Yin held the umbrella, covering Fu Lan as they climbed the mountain. Most of the umbrella was over Fu Lan’s head, and Qi Yin’s coarse cloth shirt was soaked through. Fu Lan carefully fell behind, and the raindrops that drifted over dampened his shoulders. He pulled on Qi Yin’s collar and said, “Your clothes are wet again.”
“The rain is too heavy, it can’t be helped. I’ll draw the spell for you when we get home,” Qi Yin said.
Fu Lan looked disappointed, seeming a little upset.
“Puppy, did you deliver the handkerchief?” The black cat popped its head out from Fu Lan’s arms, in a bad mood.
“I delivered it. You know what happened? I hit it off with the young lady. It’s really fate.” Qi Yin scratched his head in embarrassment.
The rain poured down heavily, and the world was shrouded in hazy water. A reflection of Fu Lan’s figure appeared on moist cobblestone steps. Fu Lan lowered his head, gazing at his blurry reflection and asked, “Xiao Yin, will you marry her?”
“If she’s willing, I will.” Qi Yin imagined their future life: a spacious house with a blue-tiled roof, a gentle woman in a plain cloth floral jacket, and a chubby child in split pants. It would be so nice, he thought sweetly. He didn’t have parents, so he wanted to give his child the best parents in the world.
“I’m willing too. Why won’t you marry me?” Fu Lan frowned and looked at him.
The gentle woman in a plain cloth floral jacket suddenly turned into a solemn young man in black, sitting quietly under the eaves with a nursing baby in his arms. Qi Yin was startled by his own imagination and helplessly said, “Dai Ge, why are you so persistent?”
“A Fu said we would get married when we grew up.” Fu Lan stopped walking and looked at him. “Someone told me that a wife is someone you take care of for a lifetime. I want to take care of Xiao Yin for a lifetime.” He lowered his eyes, and his long and dense eyelashes settled on his fair cheeks, making him look exceptionally beautiful. “Washing clothes, hanging blankets, making porridge, stir-frying green vegetables.”
Qi Yin raised his hand to his forehead and said, “Having a wife is not just like that, Dai Ge. Your wife is the person you like – not the kind of liking between brothers, but the kind between men and women. It’s when you want to see each other when you haven’t met. You want to hold hands, hug, kiss, and your heart feels like it’s going to jump out of your chest. Do you understand, Dai Ge?”
Fu Lan looked at him with a confused expression.
“Just treat me like a brother.” Qi Yin patted his shoulder. “Brothers can take care of each other for a lifetime. We can buy a house together… forget it, you can live with me. You’re so silly, it’s better for me to take care of you.”
The black cat muttered disdainfully, “What’s the difference? Brothers can still sleep together.”
Qi Yin took out a steamed bun from his pocket and stuffed it into the black cat’s mouth.
“I like you not like a brother, right?” Fu Lan frowned slightly, looking very puzzled.
“Brothers and spouses are not the same.”
Rain continued to pour down, reflecting their eye-to-eye confrontation on the slate. In that hazy area, Fu Lan’s shadow suddenly took a step forward. His long and powerful hand reached over Qi Yin’s shoulder, and their lips met against a backdrop of glistening rain.
Qi Yin’s eyes went wide. Fu Lan’s fair cheek was so close, and he forgot to breathe, forgot to resist, and became a stiff doll. Something was beating in his chest, thump, thump, faster and faster. The rain continued to fall. The raindrops were loud, but Qi Yin still heard his own heartbeat reverberating in his ears.
The black cat was also stunned. It squeezed between the two people’s chests, looking up at their overlapping lips, pupils blown wide.
Fu Lan let go of Qi Yin and touched his chest in confusion, saying, “Your heart did not jump out of your chest.”
Qi Yin’s mind went blank for a while before he regained his senses, pointing at Fu Lan with a trembling finger. “You…you pervert…”
Morning, he hugged him, afternoon, he kissed him, and at night, he would go to his bed? Qi Yin felt like crying. He couldn’t go on like this!