Arc Three: Wangquan Road
That slip of the tongue made things extremely awkward.
Of course, Wen Shi wasn’t planning on explaining his entire past to someone, so he could only pray that Xie Wen was a good-looking but empty embroidered pillow and couldn’t understand what he meant by his slip up.
Except then the embroidered pillow spoke. “You wouldn’t touch anything in that huge pot just now, but you eat this?”
Wen Shi: “…”
Why are you so smart…
He wasn’t the type of person to beat around the bush, and for the time being, he couldn’t come up with a good excuse either. He had no choice but to make an impassive face and stand off against Xie Wen, attempting to force the enemy back using the look in his eyes.
However, rather than retreating, the enemy advanced instead. “When did you become like this?”
Wen Shi chose to surrender. He felt like Xie Wen was his fated nemesis.
“It’s been a while now,” he said.
Actually, a very long time ago, he was able to consume normal meals. That sort of normal condition persisted for quite a while; a slow change only occurred after the previous time he came out from the Gate of Oblivion.
Shen Qiao had watched helplessly as Wen Shi transformed from someone who loved eating, especially sweets, to someone who didn’t want to eat anything at all.
Fortunately, it had been a gradual process, so he had time to prepare for it and it hadn’t been discovered by other people.
After coming out from the Gate of Oblivion this time, not only had he lost his stockpile, his condition had also worsened. At last, he was a little unable to hide it.
Look, didn’t his food itself just end up realizing the truth.
The food even furrowed his eyebrows…
Even though they hadn’t known each other for long, Xie Wen was always smiling. This was actually Wen Shi’s first time seeing him frown, and he couldn’t really get a grasp on what Xie Wen was thinking.
But from an ordinary person’s viewpoint, upon finding out that someone thought of them as food, they would probably at least feel repulsed, if not horrified. In any case, it wouldn’t be a pleasant surprise.
Wen Shi didn’t really care about that. He just suddenly felt a little uninterested.
He shifted his gaze away and glanced toward the far end of the short corridor. Lao Mao was clinging to the wall, peering over like he wanted to hasten Xie Wen along but also didn’t dare to.
“Your employee is waiting for you.” Wen Shi pointed at Lao Mao and walked out of the hallway first without waiting for Xie Wen to reply.
“You’re finally back.”
The twins crisply echoed each other, like electronic repeaters.
At some unknown point in time, they had changed seats and were now bracketing Xia Qiao in the middle.
Xia Qiao gripped his chopsticks and stared anxiously at Wen Shi with a helpless and weak appearance. “Wen-ge.”
“You should eat some more.”
“Yeah, eat some more.”
The two girls said to Wen Shi, pointing at the copper hot pot.
“No need, I’m full.” Wen Shi said.
“You’re full?” Xia Qiao was shocked. He digested the meaning behind Wen Shi’s words and stretched his head in the direction of the short corridor.
His attitude made it seem as if Wen Shi was some monster who solely sucked out the vital energy of scholars or something. Obviously, in terms of bearing and temperament, Xie Wen was the one who was more like that monster.
“Are you done eating yet?” Wen Shi slapped him on the back and said evenly, “If you are, we’re leaving.”
“Aw, you’re leaving?”
“How about you don’t go, stay here in the shop and help us out.”
The two girls started teasing Xia Qiao again, and he hastily backed up. Though he was saying “thank you thank you, that was a really good meal,” his body truthfully shrank behind Wen Shi as he followed his ge downstairs.
The twins were somewhat the type to play it up only in front of guests. Despite chattering away noisily just a few moments ago, they quieted down now.
One of them ladled herself a bowl of soup and drank it before she smacked her lips and said softly, “He’s changed quite a bit. Here I was thinking that it was because our cooking skills got worse, but this clearly tastes pretty good, how come he doesn’t eat any of it anymore?”
Lao Mao also sighed. He was short and had a round stomach, so when he flopped down, he looked just like a bald pug. “Didn’t I tell you, when Boss found him the other day, he discovered that he’d lost his soul. Since his soul is gone, of course there’ll be some changes.”
“How could he lose his soul?”
“How should I know.” Lao Mao heaved another sigh. “We were sealed away for how many years now, unable to see daylight? We haven’t even been out for very long.”
“Is it because of that time—”
Lao Mao clicked his tongue and interrupted her before he made a ‘shh’ noise, as if the incident she was talking about was taboo.
The twin was actually obedient this time around and didn’t bring it up again. She lowered her voice even more. “So Boss wants to move in over there to help him find his soul?”
Lao Mao nodded. “Probably.”
“It shouldn’t take too long to find his soul. Then what?”
“Then? Then, it’s time to leave.” Lao Mao settled his hands over his stomach, like an old man of an indeterminate age. “Boss is more or less done taking care of his own affairs too. Wasn’t his original intention just to see him once before leaving anyway?”
The twin opened her mouth to speak but stopped again. Finally, she murmured, “And he’ll leave him on his own after that?”
Lao Mao wore an “are you dreaming” expression and said, “Do you think having no attachments and no hindrances is something said for show? Isn’t that exactly what Boss has been cultivating all along. If he goes even the slightest bit astray, then…”
In the middle of his prattling, he abruptly saw the twins make faces at him. He froze for a moment before he turned his head and realized that Xie Wen was standing right behind him, watching him with downcast eyes that were long and good-looking.
Startled, Lao Mao almost flapped his arms.
Luckily, though Xie Wen had overheard his useless chattering from earlier, he didn’t really say anything in response. Perhaps it was a tacit agreement, or perhaps he was too lazy to give his opinion on it.
He merely swept a glance over the mess on the table and said, “Whoever ate the most should clean it up,” before he headed downstairs.
Lao Mao let out an aggrieved sigh.
Half of Xiping Gallery’s store on the first floor was closed. The only light source was from a lamp on the sales counter.
When Wen Shi came down, he saw a woman standing there wrapped in a thin windbreaker. There were distinct patches of water on it, as she most likely hadn’t brought an umbrella with her on her way here, making her seem a bit pitiful.
Hearing the sound of footsteps, she turned her head. Upon catching sight of Wen Shi and Xia Qiao, she looked taken aback.
Xia Qiao was even more stunned than she was. “Eh? So it was you, ma’am.”
Wen Shi wasn’t very good at remembering people, so he just got a feeling that she looked familiar. It was only when Xia Qiao greeted her with an “Aunt Zhang” that Wen Shi recalled that this woman had gone to offer her condolences for Shen Qiao. Her name seemed to be Zhang Biling.
Originally, she was also going to accompany them the day Shen Qiao was buried, but later, something came up at the last minute, so she wasn’t able to go.
Wen Shi actually had quite a deep impression of her ranking on the name register mural, because this branch of his was sunk at the first position from the bottom, while Zhang Biling’s was second from last.
They could be called birds of a feather.
“Why are you two here?” Zhang Biling was also very surprised to see them.
“We came to—” Xia Qiao showed some respect for their previous excuse and said, “We wanted to buy something, so we came to our f-friend’s shop to take a look, and then while we were at it, we ate here.”
“Friend?” Zhang Biling was even more astonished. “The friend you’re talking about is…?”
“Er… just, this shop’s boss.” Xia Qiao forced out.
They had entered a cage together, shared a meal together, and were about to live together—so no matter what, they should at least be considered friends by now. But for some reason, Xia Qiao just felt very guilty classifying Xie Wen as a friend.
“You two know Xie Wen?” Zhang Biling said.
Xia Qiao had no choice but to answer with a “yup.”
Wen Shi added, “We only met recently.”
“Oh oh.” Zhang Biling nodded. “No wonder, that’s why I haven’t seen you guys here when I visited before.”
“Do you also know Xie Wen, Aunt Zhang?”
As soon as the question left Xia Qiao’s mouth, he realized that he had said something stupid.
Although Zhang Biling and Xie Wen didn’t share the same surname, they both still belonged to branch families of the Zhang clan, so it wasn’t strange if they did know one another. What’s more, they were in similar situations: one had his name struck off, while the other’s ranking padded the bottom. They were both part of the category that was of no interest to anyone else; perhaps they even sympathized a bit with each other.
However, Xia Qiao soon discovered that they were still extremely far from being at the point where they would sympathize with each other. Because after Xie Wen came downstairs, Zhang Biling didn’t actually talk to him in a manner that indicated she was familiar with him.
She started off with some typical courtesies before broaching the main subject.
“You’re here to pick up something?” Xie Wen said, “Then I’ll have to tell Lao Mao to find it.”
“No, that’s not it.” Zhang Biling waved her hands and said, “None of them are that important, it’s nothing big. Originally, since it was raining and I just happened to pass by here, I wanted to drop in and ask you for a tiny favor. If you have guests, I won’t be staying any longer. You guys can keep chatting, I’ll visit again next time.”
She tugged her shoulder bag higher up and bid them farewell before she departed. She left in a rush and disappeared in the blink of an eye, without giving anyone a chance to call out to her.
Everyone was confused by her abrupt exit, and they only snapped out of it once Lao Mao came downstairs with a trash bag.
Wen Shi wasn’t planning on staying much longer. He said, “We’re also leaving,” before he walked over to the door to fetch that black umbrella.
Unexpectedly, the stand was completely empty, and only damp traces of water were left in it.
Wen Shi was startled. “Where’s the umbrella?”
Xia Qiao mimicked him. “That’s right, where’s the umbrella?”
After he was given a fright by the twins, he kept feeling like there was something wrong with that black umbrella and didn’t want to use it on their way back at all. But not using it was one thing; it was an entirely different issue if it had vanished into thin air.
That umbrella was already strange enough before. Now that it had disappeared, he felt his blood run even more cold.
A gust of wind suddenly whirled by outside and flew into the shop, carrying light droplets of rain with it. As it slipped past his neck, it was just as if something was pressed against him and was softly blowing against that spot.
Xia Qiao instantly trembled. Goosebumps covered half of his body, and he reflexively grabbed onto Wen Shi’s elbow.
Wen Shi was about to shove him away when he saw a checkered umbrella shake open next to him from the corner of his eye.
“Take this one.” Xie Wen’s voice sounded.
Wen Shi took the umbrella and turned his head to see Xie Wen open up another umbrella and say, “Let’s go, I’ll walk you two out.”
“No need.” Wen Shi said.
“There is a need.” The breeze in the entryway was a bit chilly, so Xie Wen pulled on a jacket and flipped up his collar, but he still ended up weakly making a fist and coughing into it a few times. He advised, “You’ve definitely never taken the road here at night before, you’ll understand after walking it once.”
Wen Shi: “…I’m very brave.”
“I know.” Xie Wen’s glove-wearing hand was still pressed against his nose, and his eyes curved in the dim light of the night. “You don’t have to emphasize it so strongly, anyone with eyes can see that. But for someone with his level of bravery—”
He pointed at Xia Qiao and said, “Two people are useless, you have to form a group.”
Wen Shi thought, Even if I was forming a group, I wouldn’t need to drag in a sick person to make up for the numbers. With this big of a wind, if he fell ill from it, whose fault would that be?
But Xie Wen had already gripped his shoulder. He indicated for Wen Shi to stop being so stubborn and to quickly prop up his umbrella as Xie Wen both coaxed and pushed him out the door.
Wen Shi was actually somewhat puzzled. He wanted to say, “You know what kind of things I consider food, are you not afraid?”, but at the same time, he felt like it was a bit dramatic to ask such a question, so he didn’t speak again.
The street outside of Xiping Gallery was indeed a little odd. Perhaps because business wasn’t very good, shops on both sides of the road were already closed, even though it wasn’t eight PM yet.
Those stores weren’t too particular about their appearances. Who knows how long it had been since those storefronts were cleaned; there was a thick layer of dust across the windows, and the rain drenching them left behind streaks of water, making them look like faces that had been slashed apart.
The items in the shops were flickering shadows with indistinct outlines. Sometimes, if you looked too quickly, there was always this feeling that someone was standing stiffly in the pitch-blackness of the stores.
There weren’t any street lamps on the entire road, and the only bit of light came from Xiping Gallery. It was left far behind them, shrouded by the rain and fog, giving it a somewhat antiquated air.
Cars weren’t allowed in on this street, so they had to walk over to the intersection of Wangquan Road and this street.
Xia Qiao was probably scared out of his wits, as he didn’t dare to say anything the entire time. It was because there was an echo if someone spoke on this road, and at first, it sounded just like a person was following behind you, sighing.
Xia Qiao could only follow them blindly, his presence diminished to the sound of his footsteps alone.
Near a trash can on the side of the road, a shadow suddenly flashed by. Wen Shi glanced in its direction. It was most likely a stray cat, and it called out raspily before climbing over the perimeter wall into Wangquan Estates.
“Just turn the corner and it’s Wangquan Road.” Xie Wen’s voice wasn’t very clear amidst the rain.
“Mn.” Wen Shi replied.
He felt Xie Wen pat his shoulder, and his fingers accidentally brushed against the skin of Wen Shi’s neck. Perhaps due to his illness, his fingers were frighteningly cold to the touch.
Another second passed before Wen Shi suddenly remembered: Xie Wen was wearing gloves, so his fingers couldn’t possibly give off that kind of sensation.
Then who was just patting him?