“Yaochi”1 was an Old World-styled bathhouse located at the road intersection near the old street.
The robots at the entrance of Yaochi bowed to welcome the guests.
They were antiqued models left over from the Old World that required batteries to be installed. They could only understand simple commands and would not process complex information; for that reason, they were exempted from destruction and were allowed to remain here to serve as front-door decorations and ushers.
But even so, they all had chips with serial numbers marked by Punisher of Heaven and were regularly subjected to checks by the Armed Squad. They were prohibited from venturing out and could only stay within the boundaries of the store.
Su Heting stepped out from under the umbrella, switched the tip of his tail, and swiped it at the entrance. “I’m a distinguished monthly VIP member here,” he explained.
His tone was rather restrained, as if this was merely a small flaunt.
“Impressive.” Xie Zhenshu kept away the umbrella, still thinking about why he had to accept the invitation.
His common face was slightly at odds with the rest of his body. Even if they were already comrades in battles who had fought alongside each other, Su Heting only had to shift his gaze away, and he would forget what Xie Zhenshu looked like—it was that common.
This kind of common was not as simple as being “unattractive”, but one that had been through a calculated face modeling customization that could ensure the anonymity of its user.
Su Heting stared at Xie Zhenshu’s nose and eyes in an attempt to fight against the facial obscurer device. He was extremely worried that after tonight, he could not make Xie Zhenshu out from the rest of them tomorrow morning.
After all, Xie Zhenshu was a new buddy he had just made. It would be rather embarrassing if he could not recognize him.
“Yaochi welcomes both of you gentlemen.” The lead robot finally retrieved and read Su Heting’s data. It interrupted his death stare and raised an arm to lift the hanging screen of the bathhouse for them. “This way, please!”
The hall inside was small, and many robots were running all over the place. They were short, with barrel-shaped bodies and trays on their heads containing refreshments and towels for guests.
As soon as the hanging screen was lifted, they cheerfully shouted, “welcome!”
It was noisy and chaotic.
“A bath for two has already been prepared…” The lead robot walked along the fake bamboo corridor. “A private space, specially selected for both of you.”
The pillars along the corridor were all imitations of ancient vermillion pillars, and suspended overhead were two rows of highly distinctive palace lanterns that would cast delicate figure paintings as they turned. The names of the private rooms, all written in cursive calligraphy with wild strokes, were quaint with an air of classical beauty to it. The guests of each private room would close the door after entering, but there was a small moon gate at the bottom with a hanging screen draped over it for the little robots to deliver tea.
“To the left at the end of the corridor is the public bathing pool. There’s a back-rub master available on standby at all times. Both of you are welcome to give it a try if you’re interested. To the right at the end of the corridor is the Old World Culture Experience Zone exclusively for guest use. You can role-play here and feel the charm of the Old World…”
The robot leading them stopped at the entrance of the private room and opened the door for them. Special effect stars appeared in its electronic eyes. “Gentlemen, please go in. If you have any further requests, please just give us the instructions!”
◈ ◈ ◈
Steam permeated the air in the room.
Su Heting and Xie Zhenshu stood in the undressing area. There were even imitation flowers before the mirror blowing soap bubbles.
Su Heting actually did not have that much money. His monthly membership only covered the regular rooms. It was all to thank Xie Zhenshu tonight that he had booked a premium room, but he never expected it to be so flashy.
To avoid embarrassment, he decided to take the initiative to undress and make a display of his experience with bathhouses.
Su Heting crossed his hands at the wrists to grab at the corners of his shirt and pulled upward to reveal his waist.
His waist was fair and thin, but very shapely, and his abs could be visibly seen when he moved.
Xie Zhenshu raised a finger to touch the facial obscurer he was wearing on his nape. He reckoned the device was still fully charged and had not shut down yet.
But the cat was observing him tonight. What’s more, he was also feeling him out.
Su Heting stripped off his sweater, baring his upper body. The wound from the butt of the gun at the corner of his mouth had still yet to heal, and it was a little red, making him seem like he wasn’t here to soak in the bath but to fight.
He looked at Xie Zhenshu in the mirror and suddenly pointed to his own nape. “Are you going to wear it in the bath?” he asked.
Xie Zhenshu tapped his index finger a few times on the device as if he was considering it. But instead of turning it off, he answered, “I have no confidence in my real looks.”
Yeah, right. I’d be a fool to believe you.
“Looks aren’t important.” Su Heting stared at Xie Zhenshu. “Aren’t you going to strip?”
There was nothing to cover up Su Heting’s face now. No wonder there were always people doubting his identity in the coliseum. The cat indeed looked very pretty. Even with his hair in a mess, one could still see the smooth and rounded curves of his eyes.
Su Heting gave off a strong, youthful vibe. He also had a little rebellious air to him, like a prick who would play truant. In fact, he did often skipped classes. As long as he passed all those Black Panthers tests he used to do, it was hip, hip, hooray for him.
But never underestimate him.
Xie Zhenshu started to unbutton his shirt. He seemed to be used to doing so with just one hand. Halfway through, he sensed Su Heting’s eyes glued to his hand.
Su Heting was staring at him rather seriously.
Su Heting kept feeling like he had seen this hand somewhere before. He could not shake off the sense of déjà vu.
“Where do you usually hang out?” Su Heting asked.
“The trading center.” Xie Zhenshu took off his shirt. “To take on some commissioned missions.”
“Business must be good, right?” Su Heting did not forget the sports car he lost today. “From the looks of it, you’ve made quite the sum.”
“Barely enough to make ends meet.” Xie Zhenshu took off his watch and met Su Heting’s eyes in the mirror. “I’m single, live alone, and have no bad habits.”
“What a coincidence. I’m also single, live alone, and have no bad habits.” Su Heting had taken notice of Xie Zhenshu’s body.
Well-proportioned muscles, broad shoulders, and a slender waist. Not at all exaggerated, but radiating power.
He finished the rest of his words, “but I have to service my implants regularly, and that makes it a challenge for me to save money.”
Xie Zhenshu was wearing the obscurer at the back of his neck, which could be connected to his brain-computer interface. Su Heting could not see the interface type, so he was unable to determine its model. To this day, he still did not know which part of Xie Zhenshu had undergone modification before and what his implant was.
This guy was too mysterious, having concealed himself under such an impenetrable wall.
“My implant is a tad more special and doesn’t require regular maintenance.” Xie Zhenshu looked back and intercepted Su Heting’s gaze. Before Su Heting could ask, he glanced at the shower. “Do we have to shower before soaking in the bath?”
His answer was really flawless.
“Yes,” Su Heting said. “You go first.”
Xie Zhenshu went into the shower.
Su Heting’s cat ears twitched as he heard the sound of water running inside.
Steam filled the shower. The steaming temperature turned the obscurer damp, and it made his face feel even more uncomfortable now.
Xie Zhenshu propped himself against the wall and lowered his head to let the hot water spray down on him.
The water was turned up to the maximum as it poured over his shoulders and back. His vision blurred even more to the point he could hardly see clearly, but this would not affect any of his reactions. Even if someone were to burst through the door now, he knew how to break the other person’s neck.
He carefully reviewed his speech and behavior, trying to draw a distinction between “Xie Zhenshu” and the “Inspector”. Perhaps he should act with more enthusiasm.
Xie Zhenshu raised his head from the hot water and reached out to wipe down the mirror on the wall.
What had the Hermit said at the bar earlier?
I was so afraid you’d get caught.
Xie Zhenshu looked into the mirror and soundlessly practiced, “I was so afraid you’d get caught.”
I was so afraid…
Words like these that were obviously emotional had to be uttered animatedly.
Xie Zhenshu didn’t think his imitation was spot on. He was not adept at this. He knew of calm and fear, but he was different from other people. Even his fear was calm too.
Ten minutes or so later, Xie Zhenshu emerged from the shower.
Su Heting happened to be playing with the hair drying. He was blowing on his tail, fluffing his fur up. It was only when he saw Xie Zhenshu step out that he reluctantly turned off the hairdryer.
“The pool is inside.” Su Heting stepped into the shower, then popped his head back out. “You might faint if you enter wearing the obscurer.”
Xie Zhenshu’s mental concept of time was very accurate, but he picked up the watch, looked at the time, and answered in what could be considered a response to Su Heting’s reminder, “I’ll come out for air at regular intervals.”
Su Heting, “…”
◈ ◈ ◈
Su Heting showered quickly, taking only five minutes. His heart was on taking a soak in the bath. However, he had never soaked with anyone else before. There was some kind of psychological burden that came with stripping naked. Xie Zhenshu had a towel wrapped around himself, so Su Heting entered with a towel around himself too.
Both men were not far from the other in the bath. A wooden basin floated between them, containing clean towels for wiping hands.
As they were not that familiar with one another, the place was very quiet.
The tip of Su Heting’s tail floated up and gently nudged the wooden basin in Xie Zhenshu’s direction. He folded his arms and tried to make conversation. “… Where do you live?”
“Near the trading center.” Xie Zhenshu put his arms up. The wooden basin bumped lightly into the side of his waist.
He shifted his gaze slightly and saw a tail, with only the tip showing, swaying slowly in the water.
“Where do you live?” He tried to make conversation too.
“I lived in a dormitory-like apartment…” Su Heting grabbed a towel, folded it into a square, and covered his forehead with it. “Don’t you know that?”
Xie Zhenshu forced himself to shift his gaze away. But that tail sank in his peripheral vision, then popped up again.
Xie Zhenshu, “…”
He eventually asked, “is your implant automatic?”
“Sort of, but not really either.” There was no way Su Heting could ignore Xie Zhenshu’s gaze, so he grabbed his tail and pressed it into the water before turning his head to say expressionlessly, “I can’t explain it.”
The tail could be considered an expression of Su Heting’s mood, but he did not want to admit it.
And so it was in this way both of them forced themselves to keep soaking in the hot bath as if they were competing to use up the time allocated.
This was truly one awkward bath.
When the robot knocked on the door to remind them of the time, both men each breathed a long sigh of relief – as if they were finally freed at long last – and tumbled out of the pool.
A little dwarf robot entered through the moon gate and said politely, “please give me your clothes. Automatic cleaning at your service!”
Su Heting immediately lifted his sweater and shook it.
A bunch of objects fell out of it—lollipop, discount coupons, storage device… and one Viper’s modified eye.
That modified eye rolled to a stop beside Xie Zhenshu’s foot.
Su Heting was in a conundrum—he could not pick it up, but he could not just leave it there either.
Xie Zhenshu bent down and used a towel to pick it up. “For collection?” he asked.
“No,” Su Heting replied.
He gave a thumb up and proudly raised his chin.
“That’s a trophy that I can sell.”
Thank you, Viper, for reimbursing this cat for tonight’s appreciation-of-thanks expense.
The material of this eye was excellent. It could fetch a good price if he put it up for sale at the trading center.
Viper’s tail was not bad too. Su Heting had never seen that kind of mechanical innovation before. It was highly flexible, dexterous, and could even store venom. A pity he did not manage to break it off tonight.
He felt rather regretful when he thought to this point. He handed the sweater to the little dwarf robot and switched on the hairdryer, and thought, “I wonder if he will still come again next time.”
Warm wind started blowing with a whoosh, pulling his cat’s ears to the sides.
Su Heting was now happy again.
Xie Zhenshu heard thumping sounds, and the moment he lowered his eyes, he saw Su Heting’s tail thumping against the side of his leg.