She parted ways with Han Jian after a couple hours of work and study, satisfied with the explanation. It was growing dark by the time she left so Ling Qi headed back home to settle in and continue her cultivation of Eight Phase Ceremony. Now that she had fully broken through, she wanted to advance her cultivation art.
The next phase continued to elude her throughout the night, seeming to flit out of reach every time she thought that she had found some new insight in the stellar qi. It was frustrating, but with the morning sun heating her skin, Ling Qi had little recourse but to move on with her plans to check on her friends.
Those plans ran into a snag when she found that Su Ling and the Ma sisters were nowhere to be found on the mountain. Eventually, she went to Li Suyin, who told her that their mutual friend had gone out on a hunting trip the day before and wasn’t back yet.
With that knowledge in hand, Ling Qi descended the mountain to search for clues. Thankfully, Su Ling had been seen going into the forest, so picking up their trail wasn’t too hard. The scene she came upon when she found them was a little strange though.
Su Ling and the Ma sisters were in a newly made clearing created by several destroyed trees which laid on the ground, their trunks splintered and cracked. Ma Jun was seated on a rock, a gloomy expression on her face as she plucked twigs and dirt clods out of her mussed hair. The rest of herr wasn’t much cleaner.
“C’mon, put your back into it.” Ling Qi’s attention was then drawn to Su Ling, who seemed rather more pleased at the state of things if one could read past her natural surly expression. She was speaking to Ma Lei, who was red-faced and panting as she worked to haul a truly massive boar out of a pit in the earth.
The beast was dead, one of its tusks broken, and many of the bony growths on its head cracked. Its hide was split in many places by deep cuts which no longer bled. It was also more than twice the height of a full grown horse and several times the mass.
“... You three look like you’re having an adventure,” Ling Qi said dryly, calling their attention to her as she lit on the branch of a still standing tree. “I’m surprised you aren’t helping though, Su Ling. Don’t tell me you’ve gotten lazy.”
Su Ling had startled when she first spoke up, her twin tails shooting straight up, but she relaxed as she looked over her shoulder at Ling Qi. “Nah, this is just punishment detail.” She looked back to the other girl, who had taken the opportunity to catch her breath. “What’d we learn today?”
“To follow the plan,” Ma Lei replied between ragged breaths, her tone good-natured despite the grumbling. “... and that I can’t stop a Centennial Crag Boar head-on yet.”
“Obviously,” Ma Jun huffed, plucking sadly at a wide rip in the sleeve of her gown. She then stood and bowed toward Ling Qi though. “Congratulations on your breakthrough, Lady Ling.”
“Huh, looks like you did finish. Congrats, Ling Qi,” Su Ling added after looking her over more closely. “Did ya fall in a bag of glitter though?”
“Ha ha,” Ling Qi said dryly. “Thank you though,” she added more politely to Ma Jun. “What are you guys doing out here anyway?”
“Sect job,” Su Ling replied with a shrug. “This fella wandered out of the mountains. I needed to restock on some stuff too.”
“And we needed some points. Sis and I wanna get some tutoring,” Ma Lei said cheerfully as she got back to work.
She was glad to see that they were getting along well enough to take on cooperative jobs. It eased her worries about leaving Su Ling alone in the Outer Sect.
“So what brought you out here?” Su Ling asked, eyeing her shrewdly.
“It’s just been awhile, hasn’t it?” Ling Qi said sheepishly, knowing that the other girl wouldn’t appreciate being checked up on like a child. Ling Qi didn’t see it that way, but she suspected Su Ling would. “How are you all holding up now that the mess with Sun Liling is over? I’ve been out of contact for some time.”
“We are ready to resume guarding you or your home if needed, Lady Ling,” Ma Jun said humbly. “Things have been very peaceful, so enforcer patrols have been scaled down somewhat.”
“Been kinda boring,” Ma Lei grunted. “Got into a duel with this angry pink-haired girl over a hunting job though. She really cleaned my clock.” Ma Lei added the last with a laugh, seemingly unbothered by the loss.
“Just been working on some projects. Think I might have found some good places for harvesting out here,” Su Ling shrugged. “Ah, if you want, I refined another silverblood pill.”
“Oh? I might be needing those soon,” Ling Qi said, hopping down from the tree and gesturing to Jun that she could sit back down. “How much did you want for it?”
Su Ling scratched her cheek, looking away. “Had a chat with Fatty. Seems like I managed something pretty high quality. Two hundred stones sound good?” She sounded apologetic.
That was pretty expensive. “Hm… would a hundred and another lesson on Argent Current work for you?” Ling Qi asked. She didn’t want to deprive her friend of hard-earned gains, but she did have to consider her own resources as well.
Su Ling blinked, her fuzzy ears twitching. “Yeah, I could go for that. I’m kinda stuck on it.”
“Let me see what I can manage then,” Ling Qi replied with a smile, noting with some amusement the way Jun’s eyes darted back and forth between them as they spoke. “I’ll let you know when I have some time free.”
“That’s great and all… but could I please get a little help with this?” Ma Lei asked, her voice muffled by the massive boar on her shoulders.
Ling Qi glanced at Su Ling, who raised an eyebrow but then shrugged. “Fine, fine. I made my point,” she grumbled. “You want to come back with us? Gonna take this to Fatty and get some good pork out of it. He’s got a friend who's a real good chef.”
Ling Qi thought it over then nodded. “Sure. Sounds fun.”
She would likely be doubling down on training soon herself, so it would be best to take her relaxation where she could.
Meizhen’s invitation asked her to come to the lake. Ling Qi was pretty sure she knew which lake her friend meant.
When she arrived, somewhat apprehensively, the moon was already high in the sky, and Meizhen was seated at the shore. Conflicting with Meizhen’s almost ethereal appearance under the moonlight was the polished bamboo fishing rod in her hands.
Ling Qi dropped down soundlessly from the trees a polite distance away, eyeing the ripples made by the bobbing lure out in the water. She approached in silence but made no effort to hide her presence. Finally, she came to a stop on the shore a few meters from where Meizhen sat with her eyes half-closed.
“Anything biting?” she asked lightly, not sure how to broach the more obvious topics.
“Yes,” her friend replied simply without looking up. “Cui is sleeping off her meal in the grass.”
Ling Qi nodded as she considered her words. “Why here?”
“It is a good place to fish,” Meizhen said dryly, finally cracking an eye fully open to look at Ling Qi. “There are few enough of those here at the Sect.” She met Ling Qi’s gaze steadily before turning her eyes back to the water. “However poorly it ended, I did enjoy the rest of that evening, Qi.”
Ling Qi let out a breath. They had talked before, tried to hash out things between them, but in the end, the events of that night still stood between them like a silent gulf. “... Will you listen to one of those songs I mentioned?” she finally asked. Somehow, at the Dreaming Moon’s revel, she had managed to put into music what she couldn’t manage with words as to how she felt about Bai Meizhen. Heavens knew she was better with the former.
Meizhen inclined her head slightly in agreement. Ling Qi’s gown fluttered in the breeze as she raised her flute to her lips and closed her eyes, focusing on burning away the delusional haze that stood between her and the clear memory of what she had played that night at the Gala when the spirits had called for an encore.
The song that flowed from her flute was a happier one than her usual fare. It spoke of first meetings and admiration, of growing safety and confidence sheltered by another’s strength. It spoke of affection and repayment, a desire to stand as equals, to support and be supported. Her music spoke of all these feelings and so much more, echoing out over the clear water of the lake.
When it finally ended, Ling Qi felt drained. She opened her eyes to look at her friend.
Meizhen’s fishing line hung slack, the hook and bait stolen, and Meizhen sat with her head down, her eyes shadowed by her hair. Silence, deafening in the absence of her song. hung over the lake as time ticked by, the both of them unmoving.
“There really is no chance that you will feel what I do, is there?” Meizhen’s quiet voice was the first to break the silence.
“No, there isn’t,” Ling Qi replied, slumping to the ground to sit with her legs splayed toward the water. “I’m so sorry, Meizhen. You are my best friend, maybe even something like a sister, but not that.” She lowered her own head, ashamed. “I was cruel to make you think I might.”
The other girl’s shoulders shook slightly, and she did not respond. “It is not fair.” The words were spoken so quietly that Ling Qi did not doubt they were not meant to be said aloud. “You were cruel, but I hold blame as well. Only my own delusion allowed that hope to persist,” she said, as if to cover her slip. Ling Qi did her best to ignore the hint of redness in the girl's faintly glowing eyes.
“I was a poor friend for not making it clear,” Ling Qi agreed, drawing her knees up to her chest. “You know, when we first met, you seemed like an impossible goal, invincible and untouchable,” she said with a wry smile.
“And you seemed hopeless and fragile,” Bai Meizhen responded with a huff, laying her fishing rod aside. “I think I came to treasure your reliance on me. I had always been alone before but for Cui, even among family.” Left unsaid was that she had certainly never had anyone look up to her.
“And I never had anyone who could actually protect me,” Ling Qi said with a sigh. “That little house Sun Liling ruined - that was the first place that had felt like home in so long.”
“Another reason to grind that barbarian’s face into the dirt,” Meizhen muttered darkly. “I have said it before… but I do not know where to go from here. I cannot call what is between us mere friendship, but…”
“But we’re not… we’re not lovers either,” Ling Qi stumbled over the words, a heated flush rising on her cheeks. The thought was still slightly strange and alien to her. “... Sisters, then?” she asked, glancing at Meizhen out of the corner of her eye.
“I hardly have that authority,” Meizhen replied dryly.
“No, not like actual adoption,” Ling Qi said, gesturing vaguely. “I remember seeing boys do that little brotherhood ritual. They’d steal a cup of rice wine and cut each other’s thumbs to mix blood in the wine, then swear to be brothers over the drink.” Meizhen gave her a dubious look, and Ling Qi could only shrug sheepishly. “I dunno. I never did it,” she mumbled defensively.
“I believe I recall the existence of such customs,” Meizhen said after a pause. “It originated in Ebon Rivers among the Zheng, if I recall correctly.” Her lips twisted a bit in distaste on the mention of the Zheng. “I cannot imagine Grandfather would approve of such a thing.”
“It was a silly idea,” Ling Qi apologized, leaning back to look up at the sky.
“Perhaps,” Meizhen said quietly. “I appreciate the spirit of the offer. You will not cease risking yourself as you did with the Dreaming Moon, will you?”
“I won’t,” Ling Qi admitted. “I can’t afford to.”
“You will build a strong house someday,” Bai Meizhen said with a sigh. “My apologies. I have no right to stunt your Way with my worries.”
“I don’t mind having someone worry about me,” Ling Qi said. “But I will try to be more cautious. Zhengui is growing up. He’ll be able to help protect me soon.”
“Assuming you can get the little glutton to stop eating the flowerbeds and porch,” Meizhen huffed. “At least Cui limits herself to the vermin.”
“Ah, did Zhengui start chewing on the garden porch again?” Ling Qi asked sheepishly. “I’ll have a talk with him.”
She laughed, and Meizhen did that little huff that Ling Qi knew was the closest she came to doing the same.
Part of her almost wanted to insist on following Meizhen to Thousand Lakes still, but Ling Qi knew that was just her greed and selfishness speaking. Ling Qi and Bai Meizhen had both grown up alone, and in their loneliness, they had grabbed onto each other too tightly to be healthy.
And just as Bai Meizhen had loosened her grip on Ling Qi for both of their sakes, so too would Ling Qi. They were friends, even the best of friends, but that was all. They didn’t need to be anything more.