The body of the flute was made of a dark wood she did not recognize, etched with lines filled with powdered silver. It was the finest instrument she had ever held, perfectly proportioned and free of imperfections. But the mouthpiece still felt familiar, and the sound held a personal note that was hard to quantify.
Even remade, it was still her flute. Ling Qi left the market that day feeling light, as if a weight had been lifted from her shoulders.
However, Ling Qi had little time to luxuriate in her satisfaction. She had promised both Meizhen and herself that she would see the girl’s recent successes in cultivation celebrated. She had taken care of the funding, thanks to her hunts with Han Jian and the others, and she had taken care of the set up with a little advice from Cui. Now, the most difficult part remained; she had to convince Meizhen to follow her out into the wilderness.
Ling Qi wasn’t going to fail though, not with the effort she had put into arranging the celebration. Her opportunity came late in the week when Meizhen finally emerged from seclusion. Her friend had changed subtly since last she saw her; Meizhen’s hair was a few centimeters longer and her movements even more graceful and flowing. The little patches of white scales on her neck and the back of her hands had become less noticeable or perhaps, her complexion had become even more unnaturally white. Bai Meizhen looked more and more like some spirit princess from a story.
Her friend had seemed a bit off balance from her recent breakthrough so it was easier than usual to get Meizhen to follow along under the premise of Ling Qi needing to show her something. It wasn’t even a lie really.
As they descended the mountain, it became harder to convince Meizhen to keep following her, and Ling Qi couldn’t exactly force her now fully third realm friend along. Ling Qi wasn’t about to give up at this point though, despite her friend’s increasing irritation at Ling Qi’s non-answers.
Soon enough, they approached the little lake Ling Qi had found.
“This is growing absurd,” Bai Meizhen grumbled, seeming to practically float above the root-tangled ground with her smooth movements. “You can at least tell me why this is so important, can you not, Ling Qi?”
“I told you that we’re just about there,” Ling Qi responded with a grin. “Please. It’s just up ahead.”
“I still do not see why we needed to come immediately after my breakthrough,” her companion said cooly. “Could this not have waited? I barely had the time to bathe.”
“Nope!” Ling Qi said brightly as she stepped out past the treeline to the shore of the little lake. “Because you would have become busy again. I told you we were going to celebrate your breakthrough, didn’t I?”
Meizhen blinked as she stepped out of the forest as well, her white gown drifting a bit in the breeze. Ling Qi watched as she scanned the rippling waters, made rosy by the light of the setting sun. Her gaze soon drifted to the shore where a small boat was tied to a sapling. “What is this?”
“Cui told me you missed swimming,” Ling Qi responded. “And the fishing too. Said you liked stuff fresh. So I figured I could find a place where we could relax for the afternoon since you wouldn’t like an actual party. I even practiced with the boat and made an offering to the lake spirit of the lake. You don’t need to worry about anything.” Getting nets and fishing line rated for grade one beasts had been a little pricey, more than the boat really. The boat had just been a pain to transport.
Bai Meizhen stared at her and then looked back to the lake, expression unreadable. Ling Qi shifted from foot to foot nervously as the silence stretched. Had Cui steered her wrong? Ling Qi had thought it wouldn’t be a problem now that they could talk properly.
Then Meizhen raised her sleeve to cover her mouth and made a soft sound, her shoulders shaking. At first, Ling Qi was nonplussed, but it quickly became clear that her friend was laughing. The sound was almost giggly with a sibilant quality to it, although her mind rebelled a bit at applying that term to Bai Meizhen.
“What - did Cui lie to me? We don’t have to do this,” Ling Qi said, looking away. “I just… I wanted to do something nice for you.”
“It is fine,” Meizhen said, lowering her billowy sleeve, a small smile on her lips. “It is just - I have not done something so childish in years. Only Cui would suggest such a thing.”
“So, it’s a no go?” Ling Qi asked, frowning. She had spent a lot of time looking for a nice isolated place too, figuring Meizhen would like some privacy to go swimming.
“Perhaps just this once as an indulgence. It would be a shame to reject your efforts,” the pale girl said after a moment’s pause, the humor fading from her voice. “You said you knew how to use the boat? I’m afraid the ones I am familiar with were powered by qi in one form or another.”
Ling Qi nodded, her smile returning. “Yeah, it took a little practice, but I can probably manage not to tip us over.” She was glad that Meizhen was fine with this; she had feared her friend would reject the idea. “So don’t worry. After all, this one is powered by Qi too.”
Bai Meizhen gave her a flat look. “That was terrible.”
Well, yeah, it was. It had sounded better in her head.
Ling Qi smiled sheepishly and headed down to the shore, followed by her friend. They spent the rest of the afternoon out on the lake. It was relaxing, even if Meizhen had to show her how to not tangle herself up with the line. It was a little more difficult to coax Meizhen out into the water, but after Ling Qi dove in, stripped to the bottommost layer of her gown, the other girl had reluctantly followed.
Ling Qi envied her friend’s grace in the water, but she supposed it was to be expected given the geography of her home, Thousand Lakes. Besides, Meizhen wasn’t so ethereal and elegant once Ling Qi had a chance to mess with her a bit. Even the proud and elegant girl could not help but retaliate against her splashes and horseplay.
On the other hand, Ling Qi found the fishing dull, but she didn’t mind doing it for her friend. It was a little disturbing to watch her friend swallow a still wriggling fish whole and hear its bones crunching as they were crushed in her throat. But Ling Qi kept her reaction to the unsettling sight from her face, choosing to be pleased instead. She had a feeling that Meizhen had only eaten in front of her because Meizhen had momentarily forgotten herself after playing around.
Her friend’s dietary oddity aside, Ling Qi had a lot of fun splashing around in the water and relaxing with her back against the other girl’s in the boat. Eventually, the sun sunk all the way below the horizon, and they settled the boat back on the shore, sitting side by side with their legs dangling in the water.
“Thank you, Ling Qi. This was nice,” Bai Meizhen said quietly, her hand resting atop Ling Qi’s. Her snow white skin looked even more ethereal now, damp under the light of the half moon above.
“Not a problem, Bai Meizhen,” she replied. “You’ve done a lot for me. You still do. I’m just glad that we’re friends.”
“As am I,” Meizhen said quietly. “... I would not be averse to you calling me by name in private.”
Ling Qi blinked then smiled. That was kind of a big deal for a noble like Bai Meizhen, right? “Sure thing. You can do the same with me.”
“Would you turn this way for a moment then, Qi?” Meizhen asked quietly.
Curious, Ling Qi did so, turning her eyes away from the stars to look at her friend, who was leaning forward and…
Meizhen’s lips were cool and dry and had a faint coppery taste. The blood from the fish earlier, she supposed. It only lasted a few seconds before she felt Meizhen pulling away, removing her hand and drawing her legs up to her chest.
“My apologies. That was deeply inappropriate. I hope you can forgive me,” Meizhen said softly, looking out across the lake.
Ling Qi’s first response was an odd, slightly strangled sound. Her second attempt was a bit better. “I - You- I mean, it’s fine, I guess?” The statement sounded like a question to her own ears. “I just- I don’t- You’re a girl,” she said inarticulately, blushing hotly as she turned away. If it had been anyone else that kissed her, Ling Qi would have screamed or slapped them or probably worse if she had a knife on her. She didn’t know what to do.
“I know,” Meizhen said plainly. “It will not happen again. I can only ask that you forgive my… poor impulse control. Grandfather always said I was too emotional. I am sorry. I didn't mean to ruin things with you.”
“No, it’s… Don’t worry about it,” Ling Qi muttered. She was a little angry; she didn’t like being taken advantage of like that, but it was Meizhen, her best friend. “I guess it’s my fault too for pulling you out here when you were tired. Sorry, Meizhen.”
Her friend hummed softly, giving her a worried look. Ling Qi managed to smile, hoping they could just ignore the whole awkward moment. Meizhen seemed to relax at her reaction. “Yes, I apologize again. Perhaps we should head home. A few hours of sleep might do me well.”
And so, on that unsettling note, the night ended.