Her bed was much lumpier than she remembered, Ling Qi thought fuzzily. She winced as she made to open her eyes, only to let out a hiss of pain at the glimpse of early morning sunlight. Her head felt like it was going to split in half and her mouth felt painfully dry. What had happened last night?
She tried to ignore the pounding in her skull as she vaguely recalled her impromptu performance on the stage, a hastily thrown together composition drawing on elements from her mother’s work and her own idle thoughts. Everything else was fuzzier.
The light shining through her eyelids dimmed and then faded entirely. It was soothing for a moment, but then, Ling Qi felt a chill down her spine and a cold prickling on her skin.
“I see my lessons have been entirely wasted.” Meizhen’s cold voice cut through her pounding headache like a knife of ice.
Ling Qi winced, cracking her eyes open to peer up at the white blur of her housemate. “Meizhen? What are you doing in my bedroom?”
Her friend’s unamused face swam into view… and so did the open window of the dining room. “We are not in your chambers, Ling Qi. Perhaps you should attend to your surroundings.” She sounded pretty mad.
Then the bed under her squirmed, and Ling Qi looked down, only to freeze. Disheveled hair that shimmered in the colors of a rainbow were pooled behind a pretty, slightly androgynous face with blue-tinged skin and elfin features. They were on the table, and she could feel the spirit girl’s lithe limbs shifting under her. Ling Qi was suddenly all too aware of the fact that her gown was hiked up to her knees and the spirit’s gown had fallen off her shoulder.
Ling Qi yelped in surprise, pushing herself off the tabletop in shock only to slam painfully into the ceiling, the back of her head cracking against the stone. She fell back to the floor in a tangle of confused limbs just in time to see Meizhen’s back as her friend all but stomped out, her shadow pooling beneath her like a pitch black puddle of ink.
Ling Qi squeezed her eyes shut in frustration, letting her forehead thunk against the floor, and groaned. Wasn’t that just great.
“Mm, she was pretty scary for a human, wasn’t she?” A musical voice cut off her budding self-recriminations, causing Ling Qi to lift her head up and glare at the source.
The spirit she had been unknowingly sleeping on had pushed herself up into a seated position and was looking down at her with a bemused expression. Her eyes were black and mult-ifaceted like an insect’s, and her gown still hung from her shoulder, exposing a pale shoulder and part of her slim chest.
She should have been more alarmed, Ling Qi knew, but memories were slowly coming back to her. She remembered talking to this girl after her performance and dragging her out onto the dance floor, chattering like an excited child.
“You were never actually asleep, were you? Why did you let me pass out on the table?” And on you, Ling Qi left unsaid.
The moon spirit hummed thoughtfully, pressing a finger to her cheek just below the little beauty mark there. “Isn’t this how humans do this kind of thing? I thought it would be more authentic,” she said with an enthusiastic nod, clapping her hands to punctuate the words.
Ling Qi groaned, forcing herself to rise off the floor, trying not to wobble as her vision spun. “I… don’t have any response to that,” she mumbled, rubbing her eyes. “Fix your dress,” she added, glancing away and grimacing when she found the memory she was searching for still missing. “... I don’t remember your name.”
“Most don’t, as a rule,” the spirit replied cheerfully, the rustle of cloth indicating that she was doing as Ling Qi asked. “Then again, most don’t leave Grandmother’s galas either. You can call me Sixiang!” Ling Qi looked back up to see that her guest’s clothes were at least not falling off anymore, although the shimmering pink gown was as low cut as the most risque of Xiulan’s.
At least Sixiang didn’t have anything to be jealous of, Ling Qi thought grumpily.
“Hm. Should you really be chatting with me? Your lover seemed pretty mad. You shouldn’t just let that kind of misunderstanding fester!” Ling Qi blinked as the spirit on her table scolded her.
“We’re not… that,” Ling Qi replied immediately, only to grimace again. “I mean, we’re friends, but not…”
“Huh,” Sixiang seemed nonplussed, cocking her head to the side in thought. “Are you sure?” she asked dubiously. “Her feelings seemed pretty clear, and you talked about her a lot. Didn’t you dedicate your whole second song to her?”
“We’re both women, and I don’t...” Ling Qi rubbed her forehead in frustration. By her nonexistent ancestors, she had. She remembered swaying on the stage, announcing her second melody for the night and finally setting forth just what she felt for Meizhen in song. For a moment, Ling Qi stood paralyzed as memories and emotions flooded back, but she shook her head. That was a conversation she needed to have with Meizhen, not some strange moon spirit.
“I don’t follow.” The spirit sounded confused. “Why doesn’t one of you change your sex if that’s a problem?” Sixiang frowned, swinging her legs off the edge of the table, the lacey hem of her gown fluttering up over bare feet. “You didn’t mind when I turned into a girl for our dance.”
“Sex doesn’t work like that for humans,” Ling Qi replied dryly. Probably. In any case, even if cultivators could, Ling Qi doubted she or Meizhen wanted to be male. “And…” She narrowed her eyes. “Wait. Are you a boy or a girl?” Had she just slept on top of a man?
“I don’t understand the question.” The spirit’s hair fluttered in a phantom wind and something about the spirit’s form subtly changed. “Why would I just be one or the other? You were taking the lead last night, so I felt more like a woman.” The spirit’s voice was now a little deeper, and the lines of their face slightly more masculine. “But now you need a push! You’re distracting yourself! Why are you chatting with me when your friend is upset? Go talk to her, you silly human.”
“I really shouldn’t bother her when she's upset,” Ling Qi hedged. “We can-”
“Nope,” Sixiang interrupted her, hopping down from the tabletop. “Excuses are no good!” the moon spirit declared, poking her in the shoulder as if to prod Ling Qi toward the door. “If you leave her to stew on it, things are just going to get worse!”
The most annoying thing was that she knew the spirit was right, despite the questions she still had floating around. She really wished she could recall last night more clearly. She batted Sixiang’s finger away with a huff.
“Stop that,” she said, trying to gather her thoughts. She could feel Zhengui asleep in the garden, so she didn’t need to worry about him, but… “And what are you going to do? Why did you follow me home?”
Placated by Ling Qi’s agreement, the spirit, which she thought was a girl again, hopped back a step. “Well,” Sixiang said, drawing out the word. “You seemed pretty fun, so I figured I’d come take a look around for a while. Don’t worry,” the spirit added, waving a hand. “I won’t impose. I’m just going to have a look around the mountain.”
“What do you mean by-” Ling Qi began, but by the time the words were out, Sixiang had already dissolved before her eyes into a mass of psychedelic mist and butterflies which flowed rapidly out of the open window. LIng Qi sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose. She could worry about the spirit later. She… or he... was in the third stage of the third realm. Sixiang would be fine regardless on the mountain.
Meizhen, on the other hand...
Ling Qi winced as she made her way outside, noting the emptiness of the street and… yes, there was a crying first realm girl being consoled by a friend. Ling Qi was glad the Ma Sisters hadn’t been guarding the door; Meizhen was obviously pretty unhappy. It made her easy to follow. A single light jump carried her to the rooftop, and soon, the residential district blurred around her as she followed Meizhen’s trail.
She finally caught up to her just outside the district on the road to the market. She landed a few steps behind her with a flutter of cloth. “Meizhen, look, I’m sorry…”
She winced as the other girl ignored her, only picking her pace up imperceptibly in response to Ling Qi’s words. She hurried after her, but her next call was ignored as well, as was the one after that. Frustrated, Ling Qi took a blurring step forward, letting her qi flow through her legs, and caught Meizhen by the hand.
“Please listen for a minute,” Ling Qi pleaded, still talking to the back of her friend’s head.
Ling Qi shivered. The prickling feeling on the back of her neck that she suspected would be atavistic terror to anyone else told her all she needed to know about Bai Meizhen’s mood.
“Ling Qi, release me now.” Her friend's words were sharp and clipped, but at least she had finally stopped walking.
“Sorry,” she apologized again, letting go of the girl's hand. “You know that was just a misunderstanding, right? I met the Dreaming Moon last night and-”
“You allowed yourself to become intoxicated on Delusion Nectar,” Meizhen interrupted without turning her head. “The smell is rather obvious. You require a bath.”
Ling Qi winced, holding a hand up in front of her face. Letting out a breath, she could only grimace. There was definitely a strong sweet scent clinging to her. “Yes, that. Is that what it’s called?”
“Grandfather, as well as my aunts and uncles, partook of it during feast days,” Meizhen answered stiffly.
Ling Qi paused, trying to imagine a drunk Bai, then shook her head. Still, she guessed that explained why she remembered drinking out of a cup that was practically a thimble. “So that back there was just a spirit doing spirit things. Nothing-”
“Obviously not,” Meizhen replied, finally turning to look at her, golden eyes cold. “Nor have I any right to be upset even so. You made that quite clear.”
That was fair, even if the venom in her friend’s tone hurt. “Alright,” Ling Qi said. “Then why are you so upset?”
Meizhen bit her lip, a stronger display of emotion than she was used to from the reticent girl. “How can you be so… dense?” Meizhen asked, frustration leaking into her tone. “I am upset with you because you put yourself in such a position with no thought for your safety or reputation.” She glanced around at the empty road. “Even in this, you…”
“Ah, this isn’t really an appropriate venue,” Ling Qi admitted. Then again, Meizhen’s aura was a pretty strong deterrent. She was pretty sure she had seen a bird dropping out of the sky out of the corner of her eye. “But I was safe. I just had to perform music for the Moon spirits. It was embarrassing, but-”
“Do you imagine that such revels are not dangerous?” Meizhen asked incredulously. “Greater cultivators than you or I have failed to leave them with an intact mind. You are lucky the Dreamer’s whims were benevolent.”
... She didn’t regret attending, and going by the harsh breath her friend released, Meizhen could tell. “Enough. I have tasks to accomplish.”
“You’re right that this isn’t a good place to talk,” Ling Qi admitted. “So… later, can we? It’s been awhile since we’ve just spent time together and talked, hasn’t it? I heard you got another spirit?”
Meizhen paused in the midst of turning away, a defeated glimmer in her eyes. “I did. Grandfather is pleased with my progress and wished to ensure my continued success.”
“He wants you to embarrass Sun Liling, you mean,” Ling Qi pointed out, managing a smile.
“That would be a pleasant side effect,” Bai Meizhen replied without expression. “I suppose I might have time to talk later. It is not good to become entirely consumed by cultivation. I will let you know when I have decided upon a time.”
Ling Qi let out a quiet sigh of relief. “Sounds good. I’d like to explain myself, and there’s a new song I’d like to hear your thoughts on.”
Meizhen closed her eyes briefly and finished turning away. “I think I would like that.”
Ling Qi sighed, cradling her head in her hands as she leaned against a tree. Between her conversation with Cai Renxiang and now her encounter with the Dreaming Moon, her thoughts were really muddled. What was she even doing? Why was she doing it? It seemed that there were many conversations that she needed to have.
But not right at this moment.
She returned home to clean herself up and then headed to her meditation room. The cool darkness of the stone chamber was inviting given her pounding head, and frankly, Ling Qi just wanted to focus on something simple and straightforward. A little closed door cultivation was just what she needed.
The rest of the day and much of the next had passed by the time she awoke from her breakthrough attempt, having fallen short again of her goal, leaving her muscles cramped and wracked with pain. Ling Qi was truly beginning to feel bad for those who could be stuck doing this for months or years before succeeding, if ever. She was thoroughly sick of it after only a few weeks.
It did give her reason to seek out Li Suyin though.
“Are you sure you want me to do this?” Li Suyin asked worriedly from beside her. “Surely, simply going to the White Room would be superior to my paltry skills…”
Ling Qi raised her head from the fluffy towel it had been laid on to meet her friend’s eyes. She was once again resting on the table in Li Suyin’s workroom, which was increasingly coming to resemble the inside of a silk cocoon.
“But then I would have to wobble my way down the mountain to do that,” Ling Qi pointed out. She had done it a few times over the past couple of weeks. It hadn’t been fun, and she’d needed support from Xiulan once or twice for the trip. “And Bai Meizhen reminded me that I should take more care with my reputation,” she added with a sigh, letting her head hit the table with a soft thump. She still felt uncomfortable, laying here stripped to the waist, but Li Suyin was the least threatening person she knew, and besides, she trusted her.
“I won’t object,” Li Suyin said quietly, her voice fading as her footfalls took her to the shelves lining the room before padding back. “I owe you too much after all. I am glad to help however I can.”
Ling Qi felt some of the tension leave her horribly cramped muscles as Suyin poured just a little of something cool and sweet-smelling onto her back and began to spread it across her prickling skin, slowly numbing the pain of her failed breakthrough.
“You don’t though,” Ling Qi said, turning her head so that she could see her friend out of the corner of her eye.
Suyin had changed, she decided. While the melancholy that had taken her after she had lost her eye was still there, hanging over her like a shroud, her shoulders were no longer hunched with fear. Li Suyin had the buds of quiet confidence growing in her now. She was even beginning to let her hair grow out again. Somehow, that just made the girl’s usual self-deprecation bother Ling Qi more.
“I don’t what?” Li Suyin asked, glancing at her curiously as her hands worked small circles on Ling Qi’s shoulders, slowly easing the knots of pain that festered under her skin.
“You don’t owe me,” Ling Qi answered. “I haven’t done all that much for you. You’ve more than paid me back by now.”
Li Suyin frowned, her one-eyed gaze falling back to Ling Qi’s shoulders. “I haven’t. Without you, I would not be here. I was very fragile in those days. I would have given up without you.”
“In those days,” Ling Qi mused. “Was it really less than a year ago when we were both excited to open one meridian?”
“It does not seem like it,” Li Suyin admitted, a wry smile tugging at her lips. “It feels like looking back at a different person entirely.”
“Yeah,” Ling Qi agreed, letting out a soft breath as the pain continued to flee her body. “But you still don’t owe me. I only did what any friend might have. What did I really offer you besides words?”
“You showed me that a cultivator could be more than a thug and a bully and still be successful,” Suyin replied, emotion coloring her voice even as her hands remained steady in their motions. “You showed me that you could be kind without being weak, despite suffering from cruelty yourself. Virtue is so easy when it is never challenged. I am not sure that I am strong enough to be a good person.”
“I’m not a good person,” Ling Qi disagreed, laying her head back down and closing her eyes. She was still babbling; did that nectar stuff really last this long? “Li Suyin, I don’t know what you imagine I’m like but… After I ran away from my mother, I was a thief. I’ve hurt more people than I can remember. I’ve probably even caused some people who never did me wrong to die. You shouldn’t treat a selfish girl like me as a role model.”
It was easy to suppress the memories of her time before the Sect. Life as a mortal was so much less vibrant, so much less real, like a dull dream. Yet she could still remember the gnawing feeling of hunger and the bite of the cold. She could still remember when she had stopped feeling sympathy for the other street children and started feeling the base animal urge for survival that overrode everything else.
For the first time, Li Suyin’s hands stilled. “You are right. I cannot really imagine it.” The girl's words were quiet but firm. “I can’t imagine living without a home or parents to care for me, yet how many people suffer from that?”
“It’s not really an excuse,” Ling Qi said with a mirthless chuckle. She hadn’t really changed after all. She just had the resources to avoid doing some of things she disliked now.
“I think it is,” Suyin replied firmly. “Only the ascended can be said to be an ideal. Senior Sister Bao taught me that. Whatever you were, you’ve grown beyond it, haven’t you? A selfish person would not have supported me when I was weak and useless. I think you are being too hard on yourself.”
“I’m not sure I have,” Ling Qi replied, remembering the two people whose chances she had ruined for the New Year Tournament. “I think I’ve just expanded my selfishness to include a few other people.”
“Then you have an odd definition of selfishness,” Li Suyin huffed, resuming her work on Ling Qi’s tingling back. You are my friend, Ling Qi, and I think you have the most important part of being a good person. You regret doing wrong and want to be better.”
“That doesn’t help the people who I’ve already hurt,” Ling Qi replied mulishly.
“It doesn’t, so carve those regrets into your heart so that you don’t err again,” Li Suyin said primly.
“Hmph, when did you start sounding like a grandmother? Your hair is going to go grey, Li Suyin,” Ling Qi laughed. Had she really been worried about this girl? Suyin had grown, and she had barely noticed.
“Eh! I was just quoting Senior Sister Bao. I thought it sounded very wise,” Suyin said, sounding put out. “I didn't mean to sound condescending. My apologies, Ling Qi.”
Well, maybe she wasn’t quite as mature as all that, Ling Qi supposed. “You're fine. I was only teasing,” she said, turning her head to smile at the flustered girl. “Would you like to come down to the White Room with me after this?”
“I would not want to impose,” her friend hedged.
“Suyin,” she said, catching the girl’s attention. “I do mean it. You don’t owe me anything… so please accept my thanks for helping me today.”
“I’ll accept then,” Li Suyin sighed. “Please don’t hesitate to come to me in the future though, even without debt. I will always find time to help you. Now, please lie still, or we will be here all afternoon.”
“Sorry, doctor. I’ll try to be good.” Still smiling, Ling Qi closed her eyes. That had gone better than she could have hoped. She still wasn’t sure she bought Suyin’s words, not completely, but she was glad her friend knew enough to not treat her as perfect.