The musical experimentation helped quite a bit, she thought, in letting her reflect on the difficult situation she was in with Meizhen. She was still angry at the breach of her personal space, but more than that, she was worried about her friend. Although Meizhen remained as harsh and unflinching as always during their training together, outside of it, she found the other girl avoiding her eyes and keeping a distance that she hadn’t before. Someone who didn’t know Meizhen as well might not have picked up the difference, but Ling Qi did.
Ling Qi couldn’t say that her own attitude had not changed either. Although she attempted to act normally, she felt awkward around the other girl and that affected her behavior. Despite the occasional teasing word from her friends, she really hadn’t seen it coming. At all. She had been vaguely aware that this sort of thing existed, but it was something old wives gossiped about. Now, she wasn’t sure if she should feel awkward going to the springs with Xiulan or meditating with Suyin or any number of things. At home, she was certainly more careful to avoid wandering out of the bathroom in her underclothes or a towel.
In the end though, despite the fact that things were beginning to settle, or perhaps because of it, she felt the need to talk to the other girl to make things clear, which was difficult because Meizhen had taken to avoiding her outside of training. So, after a few days of trying to get a hold of Meizhen, she finally stopped Meizhen before she left the training room in their home.
Her friend looked back at her with the same blank expression she always wore when they were doing combat training as Ling Qi lowered her hand, already feeling the awkwardness increasing.
“Thanks for stopping, Meizhen,” Ling Qi said, nervously toying with a few loose strands of hair as she considered what to say. “I think we really need to talk.”
Her friend stilled but nodded, folding her arms in front of her stomach as she turned back to face Ling Qi. “I see. Did you have a question about the mental exercises? You are nearing the completion of the beginner’s set,” she said coolly, but Ling Qi could detect a note of worry in her voice because she was pumping qi into all her senses via Argent Mirror. She really didn’t want to screw this conversation up.
“You know that’s not what I’m talking about,” Ling Qi said with a bit more heat than she intended. “I mean, this whole… thing. You liking me,” she said, holding her composure thanks to art thrumming through her channels. “I just… I don’t really know what to think here.”
If Meizhen had been still before, she was a statue now. “I apologized for my misconduct, did I not?” she said quietly, and Ling Qi saw her long sleeves shift, hiding her clenched hands. “It was extremely inappropriate and foolish of me to do such a thing.”
“Yeah, it was,” Ling Qi admitted, looking away. Intimacy of that sort had always frightened her. Her mother’s ill treatment at the hands of her clients had been one of the greatest reasons for her running away, and the things she had witnessed in the streets did not improve on her opinion. Physical relationships were all about power and control, and she was definitely the weaker party here. She wanted to trust Meizhen - she did trust Meizhen, but some part of her was still terrified at Meizhen’s interest. When she looked back, her friend’s expression was just as blank as before. “You are my friend, but please, don’t ever do something like that again. I’ll be more careful not to be… insensitive myself, alright?”
“I already promised that I would not,” Bai Meizhen replied, and even with Discerning Gaze running, Ling Qi couldn’t detect a change in her tone. “It was a mistake and nothing more. Excuse me. I have a task I need to attend to.”
“Meizhen,” Ling Qi called after her, a sinking feeling in her gut telling her that she hadn’t helped matters. “I… I did have fun that night, and I hope you did too. I still appreciate everything you’ve done for me.”
The pale girl paused at the door, glancing back over her shoulder with a flicker of something unreadable in her eyes. “I appreciated your effort as well,” she said simply. “It is for the best that we avoid such overt familiarity in the future though - for the both of us.”
Then she was gone, disappearing through the doorway. Ling Qi felt a hollow. She didn’t know how to fix this, if she even could fix this.
Desperate to bury those feelings, Ling Qi threw herself back into her other tasks and cultivation. She spent her days tending to the kiln, keeping the fires inside roaring and hot as the egg within pulsed, drinking in the heat voraciously. When not working at that project, she poured her efforts into her music. If Ruan Shen noted her slide back into less upbeat melodies, he didn’t comment on it.
It was near the end of the week that her constant care of the egg finally bore fruit. The sun was just beginning to rise over the horizon as Ling Qi fed more of the fragrant wood Su Ling had supplied her with into the kiln when she heard a sharp crack like a firework going off. She looked up, startled as colorful sparks erupted in another series of tiny blasts, and the egg wobbled violently. She felt a sudden cold as the blazing heat radiating from inside the kiln dropped precipitously, the flames flaring and consuming the wood she had just fed in at a monstrous pace before guttering low, reduced to mere embers in an instant.
For the first time in days, Ling Qi’s troubles fled her mind. Excited, she watched the veins of green on the egg go dark as a spider-web of cracks appeared on its surface. Without thinking, she reached in, gently pulling the egg off of the shelf she had built for it, ignoring the brief stinging of the still hot shell on her hands. Something like that wasn’t enough to do her any real harm anymore.
She cradled the egg in her lap as it shook and cracked, bits of shell flaking off and crumbling to ash as they landed on her gown. She soon found herself looking down at the tiny, blunt face of black scaled tortoise with eyes that were a bright, solid green. It blinked up at her in confusion and let out a plaintive sound, a high-pitched mix between a chirp and a squeak.
Its stubby forelegs followed it out of the crumbling shell as it stumbled forward, revealing a dark green shell formed of dull triangular spikes. Suddenly remembering that she should be doing something, Ling Qi rubbed her thumb along the little creature’s head, brushing away some leftover ash.
“Look at you. You’re wonderful,” she breathed out, unable to contain her grin. She had a spirit beast. It was warm to the touch, hot really, and it blinked up at her with an adorably guileless gaze as his stubby little foreclaws scrabbled at her dress, slipping on the sleek fabric. She could feel its - no, his - qi, bright and hot as a newborn flame. Her spirit had been born right into the first realm.
She quickly remembered that spirits were often born quite hungry, and while continuing to pet the little fellow with one hand and make reassuring sounds, she summoned a small grade one core she had acquired from hunting out of her ring. She smiled and lowered her hand, amused by the way his little eyes immediately fixed on the sphere in her hand.
Then she blinked as she heard a hiss, and something snapped the core right out of her hand. There, protruding from the back of her spirit’s shell where his tail should be, was what looked like the front half of a black scaled serpent with bright red eyes. A puff of smoke and ash escaped its mouth as it swallowed down the core and nuzzled against her hand even as the tortoise head let out a distressed squeak.
That… that hadn’t been in any of the books she had read.
She rallied herself quickly enough, pulling out another small core for his first - primary - turtle head. She made sure to feed the snake half of her little spirit too, and belatedly remembered to begin bonding him. Unsurprisingly, the snake turtle didn’t resist at all, his newborn qi easily yielding to hers even as he nudged at her hand expectantly, clearly still hungry.
Within a few moments, she felt the connection form and shivered as she felt a rush of heat and vitality flood through her channels, even as the qi in her dantian dropped precipitously. What little discomfort from the hot ash piling on her dress vanished in an instant, and she shook her head before looking down to find both of her new spirit’s heads peering up at her inquisitively. She could feel his qi more clearly now, fire and wood in aspect, and could tell that he was still very hungry.
Even as she began to draw out the remaining low grade cores she had collected this week, she had to wonder; just what was he? And more importantly, how much qi was she going to need to tether to the little fellow if he needed that much at birth?
What little remained of her week was largely devoted to caring for her as yet unnamed spirit, taking care of his constant hunger and keeping the kiln lit as he seemed to enjoy sleeping in it. She could feel that she could dissolve his physical form and draw the spirit into her dantian, but she didn’t want to do that just yet, perhaps because her best example of a good relationship between cultivator and spirit was Meizhen and Cui
The longest she spent away from him was her last lesson with Ruan Shen, which ended with the older boy passing her a dog-eared and battered looking book on songwriting, composition, and philosophy at their parting, along with a casual encouragement to keep working hard. She wouldn’t necessarily say she liked the older boy yet, but he seemed nice at least.
While she wasn’t entirely happy with how the week had gone given the way Meizhen was avoiding her still, at least something good had come of it.