Zhang Hongru, a 25-year-old man with heavy features and a handsome-ish face.
He used to be an intelligence agent of certain security bureau and acted on orders to get acquainted with the two. He had taken the "template" of Lu Ningning for his imitation. Lu Ningning was a real person who was indeed the owner of a styling studio near Jiang Zhou University and a feminine man that had been travelling around the country healing his broken heart.
Zhang Hongru took over Lu's entire background and became the very image of the latter. Anyway, those two had never met Lu Ningning before.
Gu Yu and Xiaozhai were not at all offended by the revelation. Instead, they found it rather amusing. They did not mind the "full-time liaison officer" either, for it was nothing out of their expectations. The government was bound to station someone nearby for the convenience of communication.
Now that Zhang Hongru was rid of his disguise and revealed his true self, the young, talkative, and candid man had left them with a much better impression.
Afternoon, Shengtian Airport.
Returning to the city after two months, they found it noisy and clamorous as always. The streets were still crowded with people and traffic and the only difference was that the air quality seemed much better.
It was right in the middle of the central heating season in the north. With boilers of all sizes turned on all at once, the city would usually look like the ultimate spell of "Great Smog" had been cast upon it. This year, however, something was different. The sky was still misty gray, but a hint of liveness and fluidity was apparent. The stifling feeling and stuffiness was gone.
The three of them walked out of the arrival hall, fatigued after the journey. Gu Yu looked up at the sky and noted in silence, 'The speed of the nodes expanding is faster than expected. Maybe we don't have to wait long before Shengtian becomes cultivation-able as well.'
Long Qiu, however, was filled with curiosity as she took in the surroundings. She announced out of the blue, "Brother, Sister, I like it here."
"And you based that decision on an airport?" Gu Yu chuckled.
"Yes, my feeling tells me, this is a very nice place."
"Haha, feelings are the least reliable things."
Xiaozhai rubbed her head. The three got to the airport bus station together. A bus was just pulling out and the next one was slowing down while approaching the stop. A few more people were in the line.
They stood by the side of the road and said a brief farewell.
"We're going straight back home."
"Ok, I'll go to the bus station first."
Looking into each other's eyes, Gu Yu and Xiaozhai extended their arms at the same time and hugged lightly, both taking in the most familiar warmth and scent of one another. The intimacy was brief. They soon let go of each other.
Explicit words were no longer necessary between the two.
Gu Yu got on the bus, while Xiaozhai hailed a taxi for Long Qiu and herself, going into a different direction without hesitation.
Long Qiu was struck dumb by the quick turn of events and only came to herself just now. She asked hastily, "Why did he leave us?"
"You are going home with me first. We'll go to him in a few days."
Our girl had been tearing her hair off with whose home she would be staying at all this time, but as it turned out, the decision had been made for her already. This was how her life would be from now on. Two experienced drivers versus a newbie—she would need a while to get used to that.
Gu Yu sat down on the bus. Before long, Zhang Hongru also got on and beamed at him, "Hello, Mr. Gu, may I join you?"
"Sure, but we'd better sit somewhere else."
With that, they walked towards the end of the bus and sat down in a corner of the last row. Six or seven passengers scattered around in the front seats. Soon, the bus drove slowly out of the airport.
Zhang Hongru looked out of the window, taking in the boundless winter scenery of the north of the country. He smiled, "It's my first time here. I might have to bother you every now and then for some advice."
"With pleasure. I guess we'll have to meet up on a regular basis from now on, we don't have to be so formal all the time."
"Haha, in that case, I'll be straightforward."
Zhang Hongru paused, then asked, "Mr. Gu, what are you going to do about Phoenix Mountain?"
"To be honest, we haven't figured it out yet. But, we have a general idea. First of all, the tourist area will stay. I'll do some survey of the mountain and find a route to divide it into inner and outer sections."
"I was worried for a moment that you might close the mountain off. In that case, the local government would have a hell of work to do."
Zhang Hongru let out a breath with relief. There wasn't much he could do about it. Nominally, the entire mountain was Gu Yu's. If he decided not to go on with the tourist site, the mountain would have to be closed down and the local authorities had to obey, however disgruntled they might be.
"How are you going to run the outer section?" he asked again.
"I'm not exactly running it; I don't have the time. You guys will still be running it on a daily basis."
"I see. I'll talk to them about it."
By that, Gu Yu was saying: the inner section was restricted area and no entry was allowed. The outer part would be held in trust to the government with the tourist area unchanged. They would split the profit.
Don't despise Gu Yu for being vulgar. Money and wealth of the mortal world were key resources at the early stage of cultivation.
That brief conversation had decided the fate of Phoenix Mountain's scenic area along with that of hundreds of people making a living out of it. In case you were wondering how Zhang Hongru would proceed from there, it was a piece of cake. Being a special commissioner, he had the right to act first and report afterwards.
The bus drove all the way to downtown Shengtian. The long-distance bus station was among the stops—they would get off there and make their way to Bai Town on another bus.
The two remained seated in the back row, deep in conversation. Zhang Hongru suddenly remembered something and said, "By the way, if you guys are thinking of building new lodgings, we can help you with that."
"Actually… well, we'll see about that," nodded Gu Yu.
New houses were a must. They would be built either under the big tree or on the clearing by the two rivers. There was enough space. Of course, there was a Ziyang Temple in the outer mountain, but he wasn't planning to drive the current residents away, nor was he going to move into the scenic area.
Since Zhang Hongru had raised the subject, Gu Yu could not help but sink in thought.
He would need at least three meditation rooms for daily cultivating practice. There should also be three bedrooms along with living rooms, bathrooms, a kitchen, the whole shebang… oh, don't forget the Dan- and instrument-refining rooms. All in all, they would need a dozen rooms at least.
That was quite some project. They could never carry it out all by themselves.
He could read between Zhang Hongru's lines. The "help" would no longer be a friendly favor, but something in line with Gu Yu's own words—an exchange.
Evening, Phoenix Fair.
Everything here looked exactly as he had left it—peaceful, serene, and amiable. Houses lined the criss-crossing lanes and sporadic lights were turned on here and there.
Gu Yu walked slowly towards his own courtyard with a huge bag on his back. A cultivator he might be, but the old life did not repel him. The petty household affairs, the daily necessities and errands—the world of mortals had its own lasting appeal.
When he reached his own home, he found the lights on; someone was inside. He pushed open the gate with a deliberate loud noise and there came an immediate shout from inside, "Who is it?"
Gu Yu smiled at the voice. "Qing Qing, is that you?"
There was a silence for a few seconds—the person inside was probably stunned, then came a shriek that made Gu Yu's hair stand.
A girl rushed out, shouting as she ran towards him. "Brother? Wow, it's really you. You're finally back!"
She plunged at him and rolled around between his arms, words flowing out of her mouth. "Where have you been? You were away for over two months. If it were not for your phone calls, we'd have called the police!"
The uproar had stirred the neighborhood and everyone was coming out to watch the bustle.
"Yo, Xiao Yu is back!"
"I heard you went to the south to do business. How was it? Businesses are hard to run these days."
"No, he wasn't. He was travelling. Haven't you ever heard of outdoor activities?"
"Hadn't he gone off, getting married somewhere? I heard he had left here for good, marrying himself into some girl's family."
"Oh shut up! Xiao Yu is not that type of boy!"
In the hubbub of excited conversation, Uncle Fang and Aunt Fang also joined in, exhilarated. It took Gu Yu forever to send all the neighbors away—along with a huge dog—before returning to his place with the Fang family.
Someone had obviously been keeping things in order. The rooms were spotless and the laptop on the table was switched on; Fang Qing was using it just then. After everyone took a seat, Uncle Fang naturally followed up with a string of questions.
Gu Yu smiled as he replied, "I was just travelling around with friends and talked about some business ideas on selling incense while we were at it. Now that I've acquired a stable distribution channel and good profit, I might be away a lot."
"Oh, that's good! Don't worry about the house, we'll keep an eye for you."
After some more chit-chat and being reassured that Gu Yu was all fine, the elder couple went back to cook dinner.
Gu Yu filled the kettle with water and set it on the stove, then turned to the carefree Fang Qing, who was still busying with the laptop. "Qing Qing, has your winter vacation started yet?"
"Uh huh, just a few days ago."
"How's high school?"
"It's all right. I was the fifteenth of my class in the final exams… hey, Brother!"
Suddenly struck by an idea, Fang Qing hopped near and asked, "Did you go out with sister Xiaozhai this time?"
"Then how far have you got?"
"What are you talking about? What far?"
"Tsk! Have you done it?"
"Nope." He nodded indifferently.
The girls eyes were wide open as she asked incredulously, "You've been out together for two months and you haven't slept together?"
"Mind your own business! Go away now, I need to get changed. Go home!"
Gu Yu was given a headache by her questions. He lifted Fang Qing to her feet, ready to throw her out.
"Oh my, Brother, let me tell you something…"
She pestered on as she held on to the door frame, bombarding Gu Yu at the same time, "This just won't do. How long have you been single for? Finally someone actually likes you and you have to grab the chance… hey, if you don't know how to hook up with girls, let me help you…"
Utterly annoyed, Gu Yu threw the girl out and slammed the door behind her.
He turned around, unzipped his backpack, and started reorganizing his stuff. While he was busying himself with the unpacking, he chuckled involuntarily: it had been a long time since he felt this kind of warmth.
Meanwhile, in her home in Shengtian, Xiaozhai was experiencing the same feeling.
She had taken a shower and was now lying on the cot in her study, wearing loose and comfortable pajamas. Incense was burning on the side table, a teacup within her reach, and the heated floor was so warm that Xiao Qing was skipping and jumping around, not thinking of hibernation at all.
She sighed with satisfaction. The bed felt like a magnet she could not part herself from.
At that moment, Long Qiu shuffled in after blow-drying her hair and said, "I want to use the computer."
"Sure, go on. Try to watch some TV and check the internet everyday from now on. It won't harm you to know more about the outside world."
Long Qiu sat down at the desk and switched on the computer, then scrolled through the web news with a bit awkwardness. Despite her innocent appearance, the girl was unexpectedly very interested in entertainment news, apparently finding gossips rather appealing.
Xiaozhai lay on her side and watched Long Qiu from behind. She suddenly stretched out her long leg and landed on one side of the latter's shoulder.
Long Qiu turned to look and saw a fair, pretty, and delicate foot by her face. She flushed despite herself. "Stop messing around with me, or I'll set the Golden Silkworm on you!"
Well, unlike the usual girly threats such as "do this one more time I'll cry" or "do that I'll break up with you", etc… hers was to use the undead insect.
"You certainly can, but it can't eat me now."
Xiaozhai sipped her tea and remembered something. "Oh, by the way, can you take in more undead insects now?"
"Of course, as long as my body can take it. But, I don't see many poisonous worms around here."
"There are, in Phoenix Mountain. First, we'll have to let your Brother Yu…"
Before she could finish the sentence, her phone rang, which turned out to be a call from her mother. She showered Xiaozhai with complaints and made her an offer she couldn't refuse—tomorrow, dinner at home.
The phone rang again just as she hung up. This time, it was Jiang Xiaojin.
"Hello? Sister, I heard you're back… hahaha, it's my winter vacation time. I'm coming to visit you!"