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A note from Yrsillar

Here is the compiled version of the Bai Meizhen sidestory

It was the taste of corrosion in the air which drew Bai Meizhen’s attention. It was a familiar scent, which reminded her of home where she would sometimes lurk about in the alchemy district to avoid her more aggressive cousins' attentions. A glance to her side revealed the source, a young woman a year or two her elder.

It had taken her a moment to recognize the odd Bao daughter, the one who did not fit that clan’s mold. Bai Meizhen knew of her, but only in the sense that she was vaguely aware of the names and positions of every noble member of the Inner Sect.

She studied the girl out of the corner of her eye as they joined the little path leading up to Cai Renxiang’s rented pavilion. It was the silk of her rather mannish clothing giving off that scent. What was…? Ah, that was interesting.

“Venom-infused silk? That is hardly a common style in this region,” Bai Meizhen commented idly, a single sliding step carrying her into polite speaking range. Through her parted lips, she tasted the composition of the toxin on her tongue. It was odd, one she didn’t recognize.

The reaction to her words was interesting. The Bao made a full body twitch too minute to notice without close attention and a rustling motion in the girl’s qi as she jerked her head to the side. Bao Qingling’s eyes came to rest on her face, but it was subtly awkward, not quite natural. Blindness? No, that wasn’t quite right.

“Not anymore,” Bao Qingling agreed curtly, her tone indicating disinterest.

Bai Meizhen shifted her stance slightly, leaning her head to one side as if examining the other disciple. Sure enough, there was another twitch and a slightly delayed movement from the girl’s eyes in reaction to her movement. A non-standard perception art? That was rare outside old spirit-blooded clans like her own.

“I see,” Meizhen said and considered ending the discussion there, but with so much posturing awaiting her, speaking on an actual enjoyable subject seemed tempting. “Is it your own work?”

“Yes. Spider silk with my own custom toxin,” Bao Qingling replied, turning her gaze back toward the path. “I am not accepting commissions at this time.”

How difficult, Bai Meizhen mused. “I would not wish to commission incomplete work regardless.”

That drew a sharp look. “And what about it is incomplete?” the Bao asked coolly.

“The corrosion effect is too strong. The silk will decay in a matter of days,” Bai Meizhen answered matter-of-factly.

“The shelf life is a month at minimum. I don’t know what you’re getting at.” Bao Qingling was starting to scowl.

“I am Bai. Do not question my mastery of venoms.” Meizhen sniffed. Really, she had been hoping to discuss the girl’s mixing process and perhaps give some pointers. There was no need to be… huffy.

This time, Bao Qingling stopped, staring hard at her through squinted eyes, and Bai Meizhen raised an eyebrow, stopping as well. “... So you are,” she said after a long moment of inspection. Her tone was grudging.

“I do not doubt the quality of the work, but the intensity is rather high,” Bai Meizhen continued as they resumed walking. “The qualities, texture, and toughness of the silk is a significant divergence. How is the retention of toxin potency?”

“Seventy-five percent,” Bao replied gruffly. Her fingers twitched with nervous energy. “Still needs workshopping, but progress has been satisfactory so far.” Or so she thought, her tone seemed to say.

The set of Bao’s shoulders was less closed off and hostile now though. It seemed she was not so dull as to not recognize actual expertise when it was given. Still, perhaps Meizhen had phrased her own criticism poorly.

“The work reminds me of the crafts of certain family artifacts. The quality is not quite there, obviously, but it is an intriguing project. The use of treated spider webbing, rather than traditional silk, is an interesting twist.” That should smooth any ruffled feathers.

Indeed, the slouching girl straightened up in obvious pride. It seemed that she was aware of the shadow she worked under. How nice.

“You’re too kind. The works of Bai Xiong are treasured masterworks for a reason.”

They were approaching the entrance now, and the conversation needed to be put on hold. Cai Renxiang and Ling Qi were there, greeting guests.

“Miss Bai, Miss Bao,” Cai Renxiang greeted formally as they stepped inside. “Welcome to my hall. You honor me with your presence.”

“Thank you very much for coming,” Ling Qi echoed. “I hope that you find the afternoon enjoyable.”

“And I am honored by your invitation,” Bai Meizhen replied evenly. She could not help but give Ling Qi an amused look, remembering the sloppy ragamuffin which she had shared her home with a year ago. Some things truly did change. She did her best to ignore the niggling pain in her heart.

“As am I,” Bao Qingling added stiffly, dipping her head with a twitchy jerk. “You’ve outdone yourself, Lady Cai.”

“Thank you for your kind words. Please partake as you will of refreshments while the other guests arrive,” Cai Renxiang said, gesturing that they were free to pass.

All four of them exchanged the necessary pleasantries and motions before Meizhen and Bao Qingling stepped past into the pavillion. Meizhen would have to speak with her friends later, but they would be busy for some time with greeting attendees, and it would be rude to monopolize the host's time.

She could worry about her duties later. She had been having a pleasant conversation.

“I would be interested to see the reaction of your silk to some Bai venoms,” Bai Meizhen said as they approached the refreshments. Poison craft was something of a hobby of hers. While all Bai were instructed in the basics of the craft in order to make the cultivation of their arts more efficient, it was beneath a White Serpent to perform material alchemy past childhood. Not unacceptably so, if the poison was for personal use.

“Is that so,” Bao Qingling said, sounding slightly suspicious. “I don’t mean any insult to your knowledge, but why the sudden interest?”

Because she was lonely, a quiet part of Meizhen’s mind whispered. Because she saw how Ling Qi flitted between groups of friends, and she wanted that too. Why shouldn’t she have someone to discuss her hobby with?

“Poison crafting is not a much honored art in the Emerald Seas. It is not something which I have had much opportunity to discuss or practise with peers.”

“I won’t refuse advice from a Bai,” Bao Qingling said grudgingly, accepting a cup of cider from the server at the table. “If you’re right about the silk.”

“I shall expect your message in three days time then,” Bai Meizhen said, smiling thinly.

“Hmph,” the girl grumbled. “I need to go, Miss Bai. I have things to do at this… party.”

“I as well.” Meizhen sighed as they turned away from each other. She did hope that Bao Qingling would contact her.

***​

“I believe I have discovered the source of the issue,” the dangerous creature standing over her work table said placidly.

Bao Qingling felt the shift in familiar air currents as the other girl moved, even as she worked on the skein of silk forming on her loom. The fact that her work had been flawed still stuck in her throat like a bitter pill with a flawed casing. “Is that so?” she asked flatly. “What is your insight?”

Bao Qingling did not like being off-balance. She did not like uncertainty. She did not like mysteries.

Usually, this was not a problem. Her fellow disciples assumed that her brusque manner implied a lack of understanding, of simplicity. No, she understood most of them perfectly well. That was why she held them in such contempt. However, Bai Meizhen was refusing to be categorized properly, and it irked her.

“It is a flaw in your approach to the subject as a whole,” the girl said, speaking words which effortlessly and openly insulted her. Yet there was no malice in them. Bao Qingling’s fingers twitched in agitation as she spun on her heel, looking down at the pale white blob occupying her lab. If that were her only sense, then she would have shot back a barb of her own.

But Bao Qingling had stopped relying on her eyes a long time ago. The delicate sense-threads of qi which radiated from her meridians shuddered and vibrated. The nigh invisible hairs of her body prickled despite the thick clothing she wore. This was all because she had focused on that girl.

The Bai was an abyssal vortex, descending into the depths, and her current commanded both attention and respect. Bao Qingling was the stronger of them - for now - but she was pragmatic enough to know the power of blood. This was a temporary state of affairs at best.

“Explain,” she said curtly. She did not understand this woman’s purpose. The Bai was not interested in a commission. She was not interested in denigrating Bao Qingling, else she would have voiced the flaw at the party. Neither did she seem to simply be bored and playing, as some highborn individuals were wont to do.

Everything Bao Qingling understood about social interactions indicated that the Bai was merely seeking to indulge a shared hobby, but that was absurd. There was obviously some factor she was missing. Were the Bai clan seeking something in regards to the routes which ran through Bao lands? If so, this was an odd way to go about it.

“You began from the basis of a medicinal cultivator. This has resulted in a serious flaw in your mixtures. You treat poisoncraft as an extension of medicinal arts,” Bai Meizhen explained, derailing her thoughts.

Bao Qingling narrowed her eyes, her foot tapping impatiently. Replies tripped over one another in her thoughts as she examined the words for meaning, picking them apart. Discard condescension, habitual affectation. Implication of some insight available to the Bai not available in the public archives which had formed her own foundation.

“How is it not?” she asked bluntly. “Poison is merely the principle of medicine turned to harm.”

“Not inaccurate in some ways, and sufficient for most projects. Certainly, both crafts require a similar understanding of the anatomy of body and spirit,” Bai Meizhen noted. There was a whisper of moving air, and then, Bao Qingling scented the faintly acidic smell of her fourteenth test batch. The Bai must have unsealed a vial. “However, this mindset leads to you having integrated the concept of excess into your mixtures. This batch, in particular - your final mix - is merely a heart-soothing medication with its potency raised to the point where it will cause a fatal slackening and loss of pressure in the veins.”

Bao Qingling’s foot stopped tapping. Bai Meizhen’s voice was pleasant when tinged with excitement. Discard. “The corrosion is caused by the inclusion of the concept of excess. Despite all of the safeguards.”

“Indeed so,” Bai Meizhen said. There was a faint sizzling and a fluctuation in qi as the other girl drew the venom from the vial with a flick of her finger, a glittering cord of liquid visible in Bao Qingling’s spirit senses. “So, while the quality and potency of the toxin is high, it is unsuitable for the task of envenoming organic fiber. Such a conceptual element is incompatible with materials with lives shorter than stone or metal.”

Such a simple but fundamental error. So much wasted time.

“It should be possible to reinforce silk to have a similar lifetime,” Bao Qingling said slowly. “But the conceptual excess will constantly damage such safeguards. It would be possible to counteract this, but it would be -”

“Inefficient,” Bai Meizhen said, overlapping her words.

She stared at Bai Meizhen in silence. “And what is the secret I am missing then, Lady Bai?”

This was likely the end of their cooperation. Her curiosity satisfied, Bai Meizhen would take her leave, and Bao Qingling would have to begin reconstructing her projects from the ground up. Again.

Perhaps this time, Father could be persuaded to make the purchases which he had previously rebuffed. Even with her increased allowance, she could not afford the texts she wanted without dangerously curtailing her cultivation.

“Oh, the root of it is simple enough. It is hardly a secret. You must develop your venoms from the beginning with only the intent to harm and no thought to any beneficial effects. Your intent must be to inflict suffering and cripple to the exact extent which you desire and no more.” There was a shift in the pale blob, and an odd vibration resounded through her strands. “It will require some shift in mindset, but I am willing to assist you, should you desire.”

That was… self-consciousness there at the end, as if accepting a Bai’s offer of assistance was Bao Qingling doing her a favor. Nonsensical.

But could she really afford to reject such aid, no matter what plot lay beyond?

***

The training field was unrecognizable.

It had begun as an artificial cavern with a high ceiling and uneven scalloped floor, full of columns and other stone growths to obstruct combatants. Now, sizzling acid pooled in the pockmarked floor, and glittering crystalline webbing had consumed the ceiling. Hanging prismatic sheets and nets obscured above, and rising clouds of toxic mist mingled with dissolved minerals below.

Bai Meizhen advanced, liquid coils noiselessly parting the acidic pool below. In her hand, the ribbons of her blade shifted restlessly, filling the cavern with their metallic hiss.

She was having fun.

Out of the corner of her eye, she caught the quiver of a crystal thread, and a twitch of her hand had ribbon blades lashing out to intercept the gleaming silver needles which erupted through the pouring acid rain. The high ring of metal on metal sounded, and needles scattered, burning finger-thick holes through already pockmarked stone columns to impact the walls. Her tail lashed out and smashed apart the figure dangling from the threads. Another decoy, already falling apart into shredded webbing. Where…?

Bai Meizhen raised her empty left hand and caught the tines of Bao Qingling’s tigerclaw blades on her forearm. The force of the blow sent a ripple through her mantle, and the sizzling liquid pool beneath exploded backward at the sudden pressure, cracking the stone beneath. For a single moment, she met the girl’s dark eyes as her arm trembled with the effort of holding back the girl’s superior strength.

Bao Qingling parted her lips and spat a glimmering needle of black jade. Bai Meizhen jerked her head to the side as the jet black missile cut through her mantle and scored her cheek. Pain spread from the wound, burning hot.

How fast did her heart beat.

With a skirling cry, ribbons lashed out, and Bao Qingling danced backward, balanced upon a nigh invisible thread, her arms blurring as she batted away the reaching blades of venomous steel. Though Bai Meizhen’s burning rain fell upon her, it affected her no more than mundane water, weighing her heavy clothing and soaking her hair. Yet the envenomed silk drank in the harmful properties of the rain, growing all the stronger for it.

It seemed that her companion's project truly was a success.

Bai Meizhen smiled, and a thunderclap split the air as her flying sword shot from the shadows, trailing rings of broken air. Bao Qingling let out a frustrated hiss through her teeth as she fell to the side, clinging to her thread by the bottom of her feet, wet hair dangling down as she scurried backward. Prismatic light gleamed, and the other girl vanished, reappearing crouched upon a thread further into the cavern.

Meizhen had long since given up on severing them all. The twin needles of carved red jade which were Bao Qingling’s own domain weapon spun them faster than they could be destroyed, and the weapons themselves were indestructible at her current strength.

Bai Meizhen advanced. Threads snapped beneath the bulk of her coils, and a score of arrays spun in thread flared, raining down silvery needles. The air howled as her ribbon blades batted them away by the dozen. More still impacted her mantle in clouds of sizzling spray and steam. Half a score, she caught and flung away, their venom doing little more than making her skin itch.

The rain ended, and she stood tall. Such was the way of a Bai, implacable, unmoved, imperious.

But Bao Qingling was gone again, vanishing back into her nest of webs.

Bai Meizhen advanced. With confirmation that her venomous rain would avail her not, she pulled back on the qi invested, and burning clouds and sizzling liquid alike spiraled down to shroud her ribbon blades. Flicking her wrist, meters-long lashes carved their way through the cavern, ripping trenches in stone and snapping threads.

Bai Meizhen peered into the nest of snapped and ruined webbing. There, a decoy, and there, another, and there… Bai Meizhen shrouded herself in a sphere of black water as crystal spikes erupted from the ground, blooming fractally with hundreds of spikes. Her tail lashed out, shattering them and launching her forward to where Bao Qingling even now crouched, ready against the far wall.

Bai Meizhen’s smile grew. She wanted to clash again, to feel Bao Qingling's breath on her face, to…

She felt a pressure and then a snap. At her waist, the torn ends of a single invisible thread curled away, crumbling into nothing. All around her, explosive arrays woven from crystal thread flared.

... Perhaps she had been a touch arrogant.

***​

The cavern rocked with the roar of the explosion.

Let it not be said that the Bao clan library was useless to her. Millenia of experience in mining had led to a library of some of the most advanced blasting formations in the Empire. Some would call it crude, but to Bao Qingling, transforming the chaotic undirected power of an explosion into something shaped and controlled could only be called art.

She smiled thinly as she felt the ripple of surprise pass through the other girl’s qi. For any other disciple two steps beneath her, Eight Mantle Piercer charges would have been wasteful and excessive.

However, she was facing a Bai. To hold back was to lose.

Bao Qingling clung to her thread as the rush of waste heat flash-dried her clothing and hair and vaporized more than two-thirds of her web. She felt the rush of air rising from the molten stone of the crater, twelve meters deep exactly, carved by the blast.

Force gathered in her legs, earthen qi resonating through her remaining threads. Stone splintered and then crumbled to powder as she launched herself down into the cloud of scalding steam. A mass of pale white waited for her there, ragged tatters of water qi, cool even now, clinging to her frame. The Bai was nearly unharmed by the blast itself, as expected given previous observations. The hairs on the back of her neck rose as the ribbons shifted, and crystal threads erupted from her clawed gloves, shielding her with crystal silk. It wouldn’t last more than a single blow, but it didn’t need to.

The points of her claws impacted Bai Meizhen’s throat in a spray of water, and the force of her charge slammed the girl backwards. Into the side of the crater she flew, and molten rock splashed outward, the solid stone behind that cracking as well, and only then did her foe let out a gasp of pain.

Bao Qingling felt her blades prick flesh. She twisted her wrist, letting her hand impart the rest of the force. Her feet finally touched the ground, and she loomed over the other girl, breathing heavily. This close, she could see Bai Meizhen clearly, even with her reduced acuity. Droplets of burning stone clung to Bai Meizhen’s gown and hair, sizzling faintly. She, too, was breathing heavily, her golden eyes wide.

Bao Qingling could feel her heartbeat. It was irregular. For a moment, concern that she had done serious harm skittered across her thoughts. No, she recalled, the oddity was just the three-chambered heart of a true blooded Bai in action. Bai Meizhen was fine. She had mild burns, a constricted and bruised windpipe, low blood toxicity, abrasions, and depleted qi; only light rest would be required.

The pale girl’s lips parted. It was strangely fascinating. “I yield.”

Bao Qingling blinked and then stiffened, pulling her face away from Bai Meizhen’s. Irritating. She was not a child to get lost on the roads of thought. She withdrew her hand from Bai Meizhen’s throat and straightened up, stepping back. “Accepted,” she said crisply.

The girl grimaced, prying herself out of the drying crater of liquid stone with a grimace. “Your project has been a complete success, it seems. My congratulations.”

Bao Qingling fingered the silken sleeve of her tunic. It had held up remarkably well, and the processed threads fed into her domain weapon even more so. Their resilience against toxins and corrosive qi was impressive. “Offensive use still requires testing.”

“Of course, but for that, you shall need other subjects,” Bai Meizhen said, brushing fingers through her own hair. “My own advantages would rather ruin the experiment.”

She would have to test this on beasts, or perhaps, she would have to offer Sect Points to an Outer Sect student. She would decide on that later.

Bao Qingling regarded Bai Meizhen silently, noting the discomfort radiating through her aura. “There are solutions for the removal of dried stone from hair. I have no objections to lending you a vial.”

“Are there? It is not something which has come up before,” Bai Meizhen said. “I would be thankful.”

Bao Qingling nodded sharply, turning to head for the exit. “It is useful. I keep it with my hygiene items, so we will need to return to my workshop. Unless you wish me to bring it to you.”

She still did not understand Bai Meizhen. The Bai scion’s actions remained confusing, and her goals mysterious. Bai’s assistance had shaved months off of her project however, and at this point, Bao Qingling no longer begrudged the girl for the favor she would no doubt ask in the future.

“I do not mind being your guest, if you will have me,” Bai Meizhen said serenely. Her heartbeat was still a touch faster than mere exertion would indicate. It was not in line with her normal pattern either. “Although, perhaps…”

Bao Qingling turned her head to “look” at Bai Meizhen. Uncertainty. That was unusual for her. Was that favor coming more quickly than she had thought? What could she possibly intend to ask that she was uncertain of? Bao Qingling felt cold.

“Would you care to come out with me for a tea after we have cleaned up?” Bai Meizhen asked, cutting off her thoughts at the root.

Bao Qingling nearly missed a step. Nonsensical. Completely nonsensical. She suspected the other girl was deliberately sowing confusion. She could not, even with the most robust of mental contortions, call that a favor. Even then, she was not going to be so rude as to refuse. “... Acceptable.”

Bai Meizhen was pleased at the answer. However, as they stepped through the partially melted entrance of the training ground, Bao Qingling was not. How could she be pleased when the assistance given to her was being valued so lowly?

“After, I would have you look through my project pieces. I will customize one for you,” Bao Qingling said shortly, deliberately looking ahead.

“You need not -” Bai Meizhen began.

“I want to,” she interrupted. Doing less was unacceptable. She did not accept charity.

“... Very well. I am sure it will be lovely,” Bai Meizhen said serenely. She seemed terribly pleased with herself. A deliberate manipulation?

Bao Qingling could not quite bring herself to care.

***

When was it, Bao Qingling wondered, that she had grown used to having a peer in her workshop? She listened to the swish of a gown over the sound of clinking vials and the rustle of bundles of herbs being moved. The cohabitation with Li Suyin had not been comparable. There, the roles were clear. She was the master, and Li Suyin the student.

The imperious serpent who had made herself at home here was not the same at all. It was her workshop, and Bai Meizhen respected that and deferred to her on these grounds. Their relationship remained frustratingly unclear however. The Bai’s skill and knowledge matched hers in the field they shared, so neither was the student or assistant.

Bao Qingling still did not know what the Bai wanted from her, but she had given up on investigating the matter. Bai Meizhen’s aid and company was invaluable, even if, on occasion, Bao Qingling had to spend time clearing her head of the useless musings born by physical reactions. The minor loss in productivity was outweighed by the aid in her work and the inspiration to her cultivation. For now, she would simply take advantage of the assistance. Given recent events, it was required.

Hmmm, Perhaps that was the source of her comfort with the situation. It was a well known phenomena that shared experience in lethal combat bred familiarity. Bao Qingling scowled as her fingers danced over the cluttered table top, snatching the next sample out of a disorganized container. She had not expected her workshop to come under serious attack. Her defenses had been lacking.

“It is unlike you to fall behind in your tasks,” Bai Meizhen noted.

Bao Qingling paused but did not bristle as she would otherwise at such an accusation. “Certain familial matters have recently overtaken my time. My apologies for seeking your assistance with such menial tasks.”

“I see,” Bai Meizhen said over the clink of glass. “It is no bother.”

There were so many tissue and fluid samples that required review. Bao Qingling had been confident in taking the load that she had, but that had been before those wretched letters had started coming.

“Betrothals,” Bao Qingling bit out. She did not bother to hide the venom that dripped from her voice. Then, she regretted voicing such bile; it was pointless, and she would only be chided for childishness. “So many suitors, all seeking to ask after my health, to express their concern. To make their offers again. As if I could not maintain my own safety.”

That was not even considering the persistent pest right here in the Sect.

She felt Bai Meizhen still, and the thrumming threads of Bao Qingling’s senses twisted and broke under the brief pulse of pressure that the other girl exuded.

“I was not aware that you were so sought after,” Bai Meizhen said quietly with a voice like a knife.

It was pleasing to be understood for once. Despite herself, Bao Qingling felt a thread of satisfaction. Bai Meizhen, it seemed, shared her irritation with such nonsense. Bao Qingling closed the sample container a touch harder than was necessary, and the sound echoed dully through the workshop.

“There are always those seeking connection to the Bao, and my Father is not a particularly fecund man,” Bao Qingling said bitterly. “I am his last unmarried child, and so the wolves circle, desperate for a scrap of favor from the wealthiest man in the province. It has nothing to do with me.”

Of that, she was quite certain. She had met few of her suitors in person, but in every instance, their vapid pleasantries and clear disinterest in her work had made it difficult not to scream at them. It was saying something that Luo Zhong was among the best of her suitors. For all of his irritating persistence, he at least respected her abilities, if not her person.

“That seems unfortunate,” Bai Meizhen said stiffly. “Perhaps you should speak to your father about… quality control.”

Bao Qingling frowned again, closing the latches on the sample case. One click followed after another as she activated the sixteen locks, and a pulse of heat warmed her hands as the security formation activated. The samples were ready for shipment. Unfortunately, she was not able to feel much of the satisfaction at a completed task.

“It is my responsibility.”

Father had granted her the control to make her own decisions in the matter. If she gave that up, or offended too many, he would take it back.

“It is merely unfortunate then,” Bai Meizhen said quietly. Bao Qingling turned toward her, striding over to observe as Bai Meizhen finished her own case.

“It is inevitable that my suitors will only be interested in my familial wealth. I lack any attractive personal qualities to a partner,” Bao Qingling said flippantly. She was perfectly comfortable with herself naturally, but she was aware that both her appearance and personality were distinctly suboptimal by standard measures. She knew because it was at least partially by design.

She could, if she was stubborn and valuable to her family, avoid the nonsense altogether. She had a great-uncle who had never married. She had never met him since he was both a clan elder and only rarely emerged from the labyrinth of tunnels, gears, steam, and clockwork that he made his home.

It was aspirational.

Bao Qingling leaned in as she studied Bai Meizhen’s work. Every sample was tested, organized, and properly arranged. Through her threads, Bao Qingling felt the precise and graceful movements of her fingers, and the scent of Bai Meizhen’s hair reached her nose.

It was something exotic and floral. Pleasant. Discard.

“Hmph, if one of them was like you, perhaps it would not be so bad.”

***​

The sound of her own heartbeat was loud in Bai Meizhen’s ears. Bao Qingling peered over her shoulder, a step closer than was really appropriate. It was, in Bai Meizhen’s opinion, a victory for her efforts to familiarize herself with the other girl. But by the Eight did it make things difficult in some ways.

Bai Meizhen placed the last sample in the case and began to arrange the packing. She had decided that she wanted more than friendship from Bao Qingling some time ago. She was even quite certain that this time, the target of her affection was at least slightly attracted to her in a physical sense.

Still, it was hard to move past the fear born that night by the lake.

But she had promised herself that she would move forward. So, when Bao Qingling said those words, her response came to her lips almost unbidden. “It is truly a shame that I am not in position to press my suit.”

There was a pause, and then, a snort. Bao Qingling let out a rare bark of laughter. “You are not usually the type to jest, but even I must admit to the quality of your timing.”

Bai Meizhen squared her shoulders, turning so that she could meet the other girl’s half-focused eyes. “I am not joking. Your intelligence and dedication to your tasks are most admirable. I would not object to courting you if I could.”

Bao Qingling’s wry expression slowly became blank. To Bai Meizhen’s distress, she saw a shift in the girl’s body language, closing her off. “Stop. It is not amusing any more.”

“Neither are you as unlovely as you think. Though you work hard to avoid flattering yourself, it is not truly effective,” Bai Meizhen pressed on instead.

“Stop mocking me,” Bao Qingling said. “Why are you doing this now?”

Bai Meizhen closed her eyes for a moment, her grip on the edge of the specimen case tightening. The wood groaned. Why was this so hard?

“Because of the attack on the Sect,” Meizhen admitted. Her eyes remained shut.

“What does that have to do with anything?” Bao Qingling now sounded more nonplussed than anything.

“It reminded me that we do not have all the time in the world,” Bai Meizhen said. “And you gave me an opening to strike.”

Bao Qingling was silent.

“I am attracted to you, you dense girl,” Bai Meizhen said, opening her eyes to glare up at her. “How much more plainly must I state it?”

“I do not understand what you think you have to gain out of doing this,” Bao Qingling said coolly. “I was already prepared to return the favors you have given me.”

“What are you speaking of?” Bai Meizhen asked. “Do you believe that I was seeking some favor from you?”

Bao Qingling’s blank stare was her answer.

“Bao Qingling,” Bai Meizhen began, speaking slowly and distinctly, “I began spending time with you in order to indulge my hobbies. I continued doing so because I enjoyed your company, and in time, more.”

“I do not believe that that is your only reason,” Bao Qingling scoffed, crossing her arms. She looked away, and Bai Meizhen saw discomfort in her frame.

“Will you allow me to show you then?” Bai Meizhen asked.

The other girl gave her a suspicious look. “What do you intend?”

Bai Meizhen turned to face her fully. Her mouth was dry. Was she really going to be this bold again? “I propose a kiss. Do you think I could fool you with such a thing?”

Bao Qingling was off-balance, visibly so. Bai Meizhen stepped forward. Bao Qingling stepped back. Even if this was not a battle, she knew that she had to press the attack.

“You can’t be serious,” the other girl muttered, still not looking at her. “Fine. If you wish to push this far with this, I will call your bluff.”

Bai Meizhen felt a thrill, both fear and anticipation as she stepped up. It was only then that she realized a problem.

“Well?” Bao Qingling challenged, looking down at her.

“You’re too tall,” Meizhen muttered. She felt her cheeks burning. “You - that is, you would need to bend down.”

Her voice sounded so horribly awkward that she almost wished to fall into her own shadow and disappear.

“Oh,” Bao Qingling said, once more off-balance. “... Fine. I won’t give you an excuse to back out.”

Bao Qingling lowered her head. Bai Meizhen raised herself on her toes.

Their lips met.

It wasn’t like the night on the lake. There was no drawing back, no fear, no perceived disgust.

She hadn’t made a mistake this time.

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