Chapter 191 Haircu
When Li Yundong stumbled into Apartment 20A, he saw Ruan Hongling lounging comfortably on his couch, clearly making herself at home.
"What is she doing here?" Li Yundong looked towards Zi Yuan, who had just walked through the front door.
Zi Yuan closed the door gently and moved past Li Yundong without answering the question.
"You didn't run into any problems, I hope?" Zi Yuan said.
Ruan Hongling stood up from the couch and greeted Zi Yuan with a bow. "No Elder Sister. They're both fully intact and ready for you inside the Tianyi Pond."
Yeah. Very good. Just fantastic. By all means, ignore a man inside his own home, treat him like he's invisible, coz that's such a polite thing to do.
Li Yundong trudged along the doorway and set down his travel backpack on the floor beside the couch. He didn't put it on the couch; that thing looked so raggedly and dirty that he'd had qualms about bringing it into the apartment in the first place.
He pulled out the Fan of Seven Treasures from the backpack and lay it beside the backpack.
To his surprise, Ruan Hongling suddenly ran over and yanked up his backpack by its straps.
Then, she tossed it out onto the balcony.
Ruan Hongling shut the sliding door and walked back towards the couch. The girl's face was scrunched up like she had just opened a bag of rotten fish.
"What?" Ruan Hongling gritted out.
"Why'd you put the bag outside?" Li Yundong pointed at the balcony.
Ruan Hongling rolled her eyes. "I just cleaned the apartment two days ago. That thing is just gonna make the floor dirty again."
Li Yundong stared at the girl for a moment, then turned to look at Zi Yuan.
"I asked Hongling to stop by from time to time for some upkeep." Zi Yuan smiled, then turned towards Ruan Hongling. "Thank you, Hongling."
Ruan Hongling snorted. "Well. I'm happy to do it as long as Elder Sister Zi Yuan is the one who asked." Ruan Hongling gave Li Yundong a sidelong glance. "And as long as somebody doesn't go off the deep end and start telling me to stay out of his business."
Li Yundong flinched at the jab, but then he remembered the reason he'd said those words to Ruan Hongling—she had picked up his phone without his permission and pranked Su Chan.
That memory eased the guilt a little.
"Hongling…" Zi Yuan's warning tone pulled him out of his thoughts. "We just got back. So be nice and don't start a fight."
Ruan Hongling stuck out her tongue at Zi Yuan, then plopped down on the couch.
Li Yundong sighed and glanced around the living room.
He had to admit that Ruan Hongling had done a superb job in keeping the apartment clean. He'd been away for two months, yet the place didn't seem dusty at all. The floor had clearly been mopped. While Zi Yuan and Ruan Hongling were having a whispered conversation, Li Yundong padded towards the kitchen.
He stopped in front of the fridge and opened it. The fridge had been restocked with fresh fruits and vegetables. He closed the fridge's door and opened the freezer on top. Stacks of frozen meat—poultry, fish, and beef—filled the shelves.
The conversation in the living room halted the moment Li Yundong walked out of the kitchen. Li Yundong stepped over the Fan of Seven Treasures' bulky form and went around the couch to stand in front of the coffee table.
The two women from the Zhengyi School stared at him curiously.
Li Yundong focused his gaze on Ruan Hongling.
"Thank you for cleaning the apartment." He jerked his head towards the kitchen. "And for restocking the fridge." He cleared his throat. "I really appreciate it."
Li Yundong nearly smirked when he saw Ruan Hongling's jaw slackening. He stole a glance at Zi Yuan, who seemed rather amused at their exchange.
Li Yundong returned his eyes to Ruan Hongling, who appeared to be struggling with her words. This time, Li Yundong really did smirk: there's my olive branch, take it or leave it.
After what felt like forever, Ruan Hongling cleared her throat. "Y- You're welcome."
From the corner of his eyes, Li Yundong could make out a satisfied smile spreading across Zi Yuan's features.
Suddenly, a devious glint formed in Ruan Hongling's eyes.
"Why don't you could cook for us again?" Ruan Hongling said triumphantly. "To repay me for all this." She waved a hand across the room.
Zi Yuan's smile instantly turned into a glare.
"Well!" Li Yundong released a loud chuckle. "That's not gonna be a problem." He himself had to eat anyway. It wouldn't be that much harder to cook for three.
My princess… Wherever you are, I hope you're eating well…
"You know… You might be obnoxious, annoying and—Oww!"
"Hongling…" Zi Yuan said. "Be nice."
Li Yundong regarded Ruan Hongling with a raised brow.
Ruan Hongling cleared her throat. "But I have to admit that you're a decent cook."
Li Yundong smirked.
"Still not as good as Elder Zi Yuan though…"
Li Yundong burst out laughing. "Okay, okay. I get it." He stopped laughing and shook his head. Truly, this girl sucked at giving compliments. "Thanks again." He looked straight at Ruan Hongling, then waved a hand across the apartment. "I can't even imagine the mess I'd come home to if you hadn't helped me keep the place clean."
Ruan Hongling shrugged dismissively.
Whatever. He'd take that as a win.
He stretched his arms above his head and then ran his hand through his hair—
He grunted when his fingers got tangled up in his hair.
"Goddamn shampoo didn't even work," he mumbled, giving his fingers a few more tugs before they came loose from his messy strands.
Even now, his hair still smelled a little funny.
He looked up to find Zi Yuan and Ruan Hongling studying him. Zi Yuan had a look of amusement on her face, whereas Ruan Hongling looked like she was trying to hold back her laughter.
Li Yundong let his eyes wandered down his body for a moment, wincing at what he saw.
Ruan Hongling burst into laughter right then. "Pfft! Hahaha! You look like you just stepped out of a forest after spending years in it!"
Li Yundong smiled wryly. He couldn't even disagree with Ruan Hongling on that one. He did look like a beast from the wilderness.
Li Yundong sighed. Guess it was time for another shower.
For the first time in two months, Li Yundong allowed himself to really study his own reflection in the mirror.
He looked leaner now. The muscles of his deltoids and abs looked so much more defined than before. Granted, he didn't look like the next Mr. Olympia, but he looked a lot better than he used to—if those six-pack abs were any indication. More importantly, he could feel the explosive strength underneath his skin, like he could actually support the weight of the sky if it ever came crashing down on him.
With a satisfied smile, Li Yundong grabbed his razor blade and spent the next fifteen minutes shaving off the beard that he'd grown during the past two months. Once he was done, he grabbed a clean set of clothes from the shelf beside the counter and got dressed. He had tossed his clothes—the clothes he'd worn back from his Tibetan trip—straight into the trash can before stepping into the shower earlier. Those clothes were ruined, so there was no point in keeping them.
Zi Yuan and Ruan Hongling were still sitting in the living room when he got out.
He stopped beside the couch and studied Zi Yuan for a moment.
"Aren't you going back to freshen up as well?" he asked.
Indeed, it boggled his mind how Zi Yuan still seemed so put together even after their long journey home.
Zi Yuan rose from the couch and smiled. "Later."
Li Yundong shot her a funny look. "Seriously? After that train ride?" He shuddered at the memory of that dreadful train ride where they had to share space with God knows how many people. China's population size was a force to be reckoned with—a force that could squeeze you until you turn into a flat piece of paper if you let it.
"I really don't get you at all." Zi Yuan shook her head in amusement. "You could reach Tibet on foot without a single word of complaint, yet you're acting all grumpy after a relatively comfortable train ride."
Li Yundong grunted in response. It was best not to let Zi Yuan know just how much he had complained and grumbled over the course of his trip to Tibet.
Zi Yuan flicked her hand: a stool near the dining table floated across the room and landed beside the couch.
Li Yundong stared at the stool, then at Zi Yuan.
On the other end of the couch, he could hear Ruan Hongling giggling.
Li Yundong narrowed his eyes. "Why?"
"Because you still look like someone who had spent ten years out in the wilderness," Zi Yuan said dryly. "You need a haircut."
Li Yundong kept staring at Zi Yuan until the implication of her words hit him. "Wait. Are you going to give me a haircut?"
He glanced back and forth between Zi Yuan and Ruan Hongling. The latter had stopped giggling.
"Of course," Zi Yuan said. "Now sit."
Li Yundong raised his palms. "Oh, no. No thanks." He shook his head. "I'll just go get one on my own tomorrow."
Zi Yuan rolled her eyes, then waved her hand once again. Li Yundong yelped when he levitated off the floor.
His butt landed on the stool's surface.
The next thing he knew, Zi Yuan was using an old tablecloth—where did she even find that thing?—as a makeshift barber cape.
Li Yundong turned his head around to look at Zi Yuan. "Hey… You sure you know how to do this?"
Zi Yuan smirked but said nothing.
"Okay, you know what? Let's not do this at all." Li Yundong reached up to untie the tablecloth around his neck. "I can just—"
His butt hit the surface of the stool once again when Zi Yuan's hand pressed down on his shoulder with a shocking amount of strength.
Oh, wait. He was one too.
"Oh, come on!" Li Yundong yelled.
Ruan Hongling burst into giggles.
"Just sit still," Zi Yuan said. "I'll be done soon."
Zi Yuan held up her palm. Li Yundong watched in horror as a pair of scissors flew from Ruan Hongling's backpack on the coffee table and landed on her palm.
"B- But what if you mess up my hair and I'm forced to shave it all off?" Li Yundong protested. Yes, it was true that he'd read and understood the Mahamudra Tantra and all. But that didn't mean he wanted to become an actual Buddhist monk. "I haven't gone bald since…" Li Yundong froze. "Hey, come to think of it… I've never been bald in my life!"
Zi Yuan arched a brow. "Oh? Is that the hairstyle you want, then? Hmm. Okay. That can be easily remedied." Zi Yuan turned towards Ruan Hongling. "Hongling, go get the electric head shaver from—"
"Okay! Okay!" Li Yundong said. "Just…" Li Yundong sighed. "Just cut it short. No shaving. Alright?"
Zi Yuan smirked. "Sit still."
"Just relax," Zi Yuan said while she placed the tablecloth on Li Yundong's shoulders once again. "I told you before that I practically raised Hongling. Who do you think is the one who cut her hair all these years?"
"You should be honored," Hongling chimed in from the couch. "Elder Sister Zi Yuan is very skilled."
Li Yundong visibly relaxed. "Oh. Great. I thought you were just trying to experiment with my hair."
Zi Yuan chuckled. "With your hair looking like a chicken's nest, I bet nothing I do could make it any worse."
Li Yundong laughed out loud. "Fine. Fine. Do your thing, then. Just don't ruin my hair." Suddenly, he paused. "Or give me a bald patch." He shuddered. "God. Please don't give me a bald patch."
Zi Yuan stifled a smile. "I won't," she said reassuringly, then got to work.
The first ten minutes went by with Li Yundong constantly asking her whether his hair was still fine. But then he eventually grew so quiet that Zi Yuan was starting to wonder if he had fallen asleep.
Zi Yuan leaned forward slightly to check his face.
He was still awake, but staring off into space.
"What's on your mind?" Zi Yuan asked, combing her fingers through his sideburns.
Right. That totally sounded like nothing right there.
"You're thinking about her," Zi Yuan said. She hadn't phrased that as a question. She had stated that as a fact.
For the next few seconds, the only audible sound were the snipping of scissors.
Then, Li Yundong sighed. "Yeah. I am. I miss her."
Zi Yuan didn't miss the slight tremble in his voice.
"Do you know why your hair had grown so long in just two months?" Zi Yuan asked, steering the conversation away from any emotionally-loaded topic. She might not be able to do anything to alleviate the lovesickness he was feeling, but she could at least attempt to distract him.
"Hey… now that you mention it, you're right," Li Yundong said. "I've gone for longer without a haircut, but my hair never got this long. Geez. Look at all this hair. It even got past my shoulders!"
Zi Yuan shifted her position so that she was standing behind him.
SNIP! SNIP! SNIP!
"And do you know why?"
There was a moment of silence.
"No," he said. "Why?"
"Oh, come on." Zi Yuan sighed. "You've already read the Canon of the Yellow Thearch, haven't you? The answer is all there."
Li Yundong went silent in thought again. A moment later, he slapped his thigh. "It's got something to do with my Qi and blood, right? They've become more vigorous over the course of my training."
Zi Yuan nodded. "Which helps boost cellular processes."
"Right. That's why my beard and hair grew faster."
"I've said this before. The art of Cultivation involves more than just Qi-control training or learning how to cast spells. It also involves comprehension and research. It's an ongoing process of acquiring knowledge, you see? You have to keep asking why. Only then can all the knowledge you've acquired be applied."
"Gee. You make Cultivation sound so… I don't know, scientific?" Li Yundong chuckled. "Months ago, I would've scoffed at the idea that magic and Cultivation are in any way related to science. But now I think I know what you mean."
"Here. Let me ask you a question. How do you think computers work?" Zi Yuan paused for a second. "A silicon chip placed on a motherboard along with other components, all functioning together to perform complex computations." Zi Yuan paused again to let her words sink in. "How do you think that's possible?"
Li Yundong grew silent.
"These things work because they obey certain laws and principles," Zi Yuan explained. "Cultivation, too, has its own principles. These principles have to be fully understood before the art of Cultivation itself can be mastered." Another pause. "Computers work because the people who designed them understood their working principles."
"Right. I understand now."
Zi Yuan sighed. "You've already read the Canon of the Yellow Thearch, yet you're still clueless when I asked you basic questions about Cultivation."
"I'm sorry," Li Yundong said. "I know I should've done better."
"You need to get into the habit of constantly asking questions. Learn more. Research more. Otherwise, the truth will elude you forever."
"Okay." Li Yundong nodded, then paused for a few seconds like he was thinking about something. "I'll head down to Xin Hua bookstore tomorrow."
Zi Yuan's hands stilled. She lowered the scissors and stared at Li Yundong. "Why?"
Li Yundong gave her a puzzled look. "Um… To buy more books? You said to do more research, right?"
Zi Yuan chuckled. "Or you can just try the library in your university."
"The Tiannan University library?" Li Yundong said in a skeptical tone. "Is that a joke?"
Zi Yuan smiled and raised the scissors again. "Tiannan University might be a"—Zi Yuan's eyes darted to Li Yundong's face—"third-rate university, as you so often put it, but its library is rather complete. You can find a lot of books there."
Li Yundong stared at her blankly, then nodded. "That's actually not a bad idea. It could even save me some money." Suddenly, Li Yundong sat up straighter, like he'd just thought of something. "The new semester will begin in two days… Have you… Have you heard from Zhou Qin yet?"
Zi Yuan's hands stilled again. "No. I haven't."
Truth be told, Zi Yuan was starting to feel a bit concerned about this as well. Zhou Qin had gone completely radio silent ever since they parted ways the night He Shao died. She was aware that Zhou Qin had been called into interrogation some time ago, but she hadn't made any further inquiries into the matter; Zi Yuan had spent most of her waking hours watching over Li Yundong, as per Senior Wushuang's instructions.
"Nobody tried to detain me when we entered the country," Li Yundong said. "That made no sense to me. I was there at the scene of He Shao's death. The police would've at least tried to bring me in for an interrogation." Li Yundong sighed. "That night, you asked Zhou Qin to handle the police. I think she did it. But now, I'm worried that she herself has gotten into trouble because of that incident."
Zi Yuan lowered the scissors in her hand and studied Li Yundong's face. This man was about to face his own demise in the form of the divine punishment, yet here he was, worrying about someone else.
You're just like him…
"I'm sorry, who?"
Zi Yuan froze. Had she said that out loud?
She meant Master. Li Yundong was just like Master in this regard: always so selfless and putting other people's needs before his own.
Zi Yuan ignored Li Yundong's question and raised the scissors again.
Li Yundong seemed to have sensed her discomfort and didn’t press her for an answer.
"You know, I don't understand why you asked me to return to the university," he said. "Now that I've reached the Shentong phase, I thought you're gonna confine me at home and teach me a bunch of spells."
SNIP! SNIP! SNIP!
"There are two types of Cultivators," Zi Yuan said. "There are the reclusive type, those who sequester themselves in the mountains and focus solely on their Cultivation training. And then there are also those who live and train among mortals."
"Oh. Well, the recluses are preferable, I suppose?"
SNIP! SNIP! SNIP!
Zi Yuan shook her head. "Each has its own advantages and disadvantages. The recluses are powerful because they are so focused on their training. They aren't distracted by worldly affairs. However, all that time spent in isolation will also make them ignorant of the ways of the outside world. It makes them inexperienced." Zi Yuan gave him a pointed look. "I'm sure I don't have to explain to you why ignorance is a disadvantage."
"There is one other thing that the recluses tend to miss out on." SNIP! SNIP! SNIP! "The opportunity to forge and strengthen their will."
"The mortal world is filled with challenges and tribulations. A Cultivator who is forced to face and deal with these challenges will eventually develop the grit and inner strength that are crucial to their success. It helps build character." Zi Yuan paused. "I told you this before. There are times when the outcome of a battle depends not on the combatants' skill level, but on their inner toughness."
"Inner strength, huh?"
"Yes. The ability to stay calm and composed under duress. The ability to handle criticisms. Persistence. Discipline. None of these traits are innate. They are forged from the challenges and tribulations one faces in life."
"Mm. That's why you asked me to go back to school. You want me to still be a part of the real world even though I have chosen the path of Cultivation."
Zi Yuan nodded. "The best outcome can be attained by striking a balance between being a recluse and a Cultivator who is world savvy. That way, you get to experience the advantages of both but avoid being bogged down by their disadvantages."
"That's very wise," Li Yundong remarked.
"Balance is the key," Zi Yuan said. "Although the point of Cultivation is to achieve transcendence, its process doesn't have to involve complete isolation from the real world or worldly affairs. Think of it this way. When you become a Cultivator, you aren't supposed to fly off the face of the Earth and move to another planet. You're just hovering in the sky, looking down at the world from a higher place. You're not completely detached from the world."
Li Yundong nodded. "Balance."
"That's right. And an educational institution is the perfect place to find that balance."
"Imagine if you're out in society… Well, say the corporate world, for instance. You'll be so swarmed with work that it becomes a distraction. You'll also have to deal with people with schemes and agendas." Zi Yuan chuckled. "You'll never be able to fully focus on your training. There are just too many distractions."
"Ah. Now I see..." Li Yundong chuckled. "But a university is relatively quiet, and there won't be as many distractions. And I'll have freedom of movement, plus a lot of resources that I can utilize, like the library..."
Zi Yuan smiled. "Exactly."
Nothing else was said for the rest of the haircut.
"There. All done," Zi Yuan said as she removed the makeshift barber cape from Li Yundong's shoulders.
Li Yundong turned around on the stool to face Hongling and Zi Yuan. "Well? How do I look?"
Zi Yuan studied her handiwork. Gone were the messy locks, and in their place was a full head of neatly-trimmed hair. She hadn't shortened his hair too much, merely trimmed off the messy bits.
She did a fantastic job, if she dared say so herself.
Right now, he looked handsome.
However, Li Yundong clearly had very little faith in her hairstyling skills—even though he hadn't even looked at her work—judging from the wary expression on his face.
"Why don't you go look at yourself in the mirror then?" Zi Yuan said.
Li Yundong rose from the stool and walked into his bedroom, presumably to do what she had suggested.
Minutes later, Zi Yuan heard a loud cheer, which was immediately followed by the sound of footsteps.
The bedroom door swung open, and Li Yundong came barging out.
"She was here!" Li Yundong stopped in front of Zi Yuan. Spread across his face was a megawatt smile. "She's been here recently! She came back!" He waved a small piece of paper in front of Zi Yuan's face.
Zi Yuan shared a glance with Hongling, who had a puzzled look on her face.
Zi Yuan took the paper from his hand, and then glanced down at it. Only three words were written: I miss you.
"Who was here?" Hongling stood up from the couch.
"My little princess Su Chan, of course!" Li Yundong said, taking the note from Zi Yuan's hands.
"You came to that conclusion just because of a note?" Hongling said snidely, then snorted. "Anyone could've left that note."
Li Yundong smiled warmly. "I know it was her. I just know it."
"I don't get it," Zi Yuan said. "It's just three words. You're over the moon because of three simple words?"
Zi Yuan doubted that Li Yundong had even heard her. For a while, he paced around the living room with a silly grin on his face. Then, he opened the sliding door and stepped out into the balcony.
The Jindan's coming ordains thine fate. The sound of the first thunder shalt complete thine soul.
Zi Yuan looked towards the balcony. Li Yundong was still staring at that piece of paper.
That man was without a doubt the most talented Cultivator she had ever seen, a talent that would only appear once every few centuries.
But what did Master's prophecy mean?
In what way would the Jindan's appearance decide her fate? Through its rightful heir? Or was it through some other way?
How could a man so hopelessly and deeply in love with another woman complete her soul?