When I had first arrived, it had been a necessary thing. Self-Discipline did not come naturally to me. It had to be focused on, and worked at every day. Things needed to get done, and I was the only one who could do them. It was a desperate sort of drive, at first.
But quickly, that changed. I enjoyed my work. The reason why I was able to get off my ass and start everyday was because it was fun. Because it was interesting. Because I could see the tangible effects of my efforts.
It started by myself. Wake up. Eat. Run through the stretches gramps had taught me--Jin Rou. “Each and every day!” the old bastard had commanded. It… it wasn’t particularly cultivator-y. It was basic, so I did it, and it got the blood pumping in the morning.
It was one of the few vibrantly fond memories Jin Rou had too, so… well, it didn’t hurt to remember.
And then get to work, refreshed and ready to begin the day. Time passed in a blur. Wake up, eat, stretch, work, sleep.
Each and every day. One man against the world.
I...honestly wouldn’t recommend it.
Slowly, that routine changed. First, it was a chicken I had ignored, hopping and kicking along my fence. Then, it was two pigs, a cat, and a rat. Then a fish, and now…
I ran through my stretches. Big D hopped and kicked. Chunky and Peppa were laying together in the morning sun. Tigger was standing beside Xiulan, as she went through some kind of kata. It was nice looking. Elegant. Gou Ren was stretching beside me. Meiling and Rizzo were seated on the veranda, sorting through dried herbs.
My mind added a third participant, a child, who looked vaguely like a combination of myself and my wife.
It was a good image.
The only one missing was Washy, who had been gone for a while now. I missed the greedy little shit. Hopefully he would come home soon--
“Hey, Jin?” Gou Ren asked, interrupting my thoughts.
“Could you go through that form a little slower, next time?” He asked hopefully.
Ah, I did go through it pretty fast. Muscle memory was one hell of a drug, and I’d..we’d...he’d? Whatever, I had been doing it for years.
And if he wanted to learn, that was fine. It was a nice way to wake up.
“Hey, Meimei, you want to join us?” I asked. My wife paused in her teaching, and turned to us. She smiled softly, and nodded her head.
“I’ll try.” She agreed. She looked interested and excited.
And while she probably had better things than this…
“Xiulan?” I offered tentatively. She too paused, her face twisting for a moment, before settling back into a placid look.
“I thank you for the offer, Master Jin, but I must decline.” She stated apologetically.
She bowed her head, and walked off. Tigger followed.
Meiling eyed her back as she left, concern in her eyes.
“....The smell is getting worse.” my wife whispered to me.
“I heard her muttering last night.” I replied, sighing. Xiulan was wrestling with some demons when she slept. It was something… well, I recognised the look in her eyes, when she woke up. Before the mask clamped firmly into place.
“You should talk to her. She’s...nice. A friend.” she recommended, looking up at me.
I frowned, considering her question. “I don’t know if I’m the right person to ask. She's more guarded around me than you, and… I’ve seen the way she looks at me sometimes. Like I’m going to smack her for getting something wrong.” Honestly, it hurt a little. I’m fine with rough housing, but did I come off as violent? I hope I didn’t.
“But.. wouldn’t you be better for cultivator problems?” She asked, chewing her bottom lip.
“The last time I encountered a cultivator problem I ran 8,000 Li in the other direction and became a hermit for six months.” I mused, “The other time, you talked me out of it.” I smiled at Meiling, and she nodded, still working at her lip. “We’ll make ourselves available, but... “
She sighed, looking at the ground. “Most would say ‘just get over it.’” she whispered.
“That’s what she's probably been told. ‘You face heaven alone.’”
My wife frowned once more at the quote. Some of Gramp’s lines were better than others. “That’s no way to live.” She whispered.
As always, the Great Pillars were truly the best place to be in the whole of Great Fa Ram. More than the Great Master’s coop. Bi De stood upon them, going through his daily forms. His legs whirled through the air. His beak thrusted and stabbed. His wings swept, redirecting his momentum, and making the very air cry out in pain when he thrust them with all his might. When he commanded, gales exploded outward to rush along the grass and stir the trees.
It was not a technique. Not yet, merely being brute force. It was an inelegant thing, meant only to chastise and rebuke. But... he was getting closer. In time, it would be refined. In time, it would be elegant. Perhaps not as elegant as the moon, but something beautiful. His eyes turned from his training, from the spiralling gales of wind, and observed far and wide the Great Master’s domain.
He catalogued each change, comparing it to his earliest, haziest memories. Most were blatant changes. The lack of giant rocks, the thinning of the softwood forests, The Great Master’s new coop, and the rising coops for the larger animals. These things were easy to spot, and reflect upon.
Yet it was the subtler things that Bi De focused upon. The sweetness of the air. The soft breeze. The soil, that was ever so slightly darker than last year, the plants, ever so slightly greener.
Fa Ram was growing in strength. It’s might was so clear, the vast majority of interlopers had finally abandoned their assaults. There was the occasional one of Chow Ji’s ilk, but Tigu took care of them with brutal efficiency. The rest, those like Basi Bu Shi, had retired, rather than attempt to brave the defenders.
He checked the position of the sun. The time for his contemplations was over. He had a job to do. Proof of his Great Master’s trust. First, finding the bees, and now, a mission of even greater importance.
He hopped down from the Great Pillars, and began a sedate walk towards the new, large coop. There was a bit of an urge to simply leap the distance-- and he had, once, just to see if he could. It was an enjoyable experience.
He restrained himself. This sedate pace was superior. He plucked the occasional interloper out of the air as he marched. These were the only interlopers that came in their multitudes. Though he supposed that they were barely interlopers at all. They were merely food, sustenance like the rice and the leafy greens.
The Great Coop loomed in his vision, half the planks red, and the other half, ready to be painted.
His Great Master seemed to enjoy the lucky colour. His mighty sleigh, his hat, and now his new coop. Perhaps he meant it as protection?
‘Oh yes, girls, it was dreadful. The little things tried to sting my dear, after he was so kind to them! He asked them so kindly! Well, such a thing is not permitted, no, such a thing is not! I scooped them up, and put them in the box Young Sir Gou Ren had for them. They were quite a bit more docile after that!’
Bi De was surprised at Sister Pi Pa’s voice. She was speaking to the newest additions? Had they ascended already?!
He quickened his pace, and entered the coop, excited. Sister Pi Pa was laying on the floor in the Great Coop. She was surrounded by his own offspring, buried into her side, and some sitting on her back. He paused at the image, a sharp pang in his chest at the lack of sparks among them. He shook his head, turning it to the cows, who were sure to have a spark!
Instead, dull eyes stared back at him, placidly chewing cud.
‘Ah, Bi De. Here to assume your watch?’ she asked him pleasantly, offering him a smile.
He recentered himself. His Great Master spoke to the new ones as well, and lavished affection on them. He lavished so much affection on them, and checked on them so often that the Healing Sage had gotten annoyed. The Great Master had been greatly worried about the cows giving birth, for some reason. The Healing Sage had decreed if he was that worried, he should set up a watch.
He had received this mission, after that. They were to have a guard rotation upon the cows, day and night, and immediately inform the Great Master if they seemed in any distress, no matter the circumstances.
He bowed his head at Sister Pi Pa’s question. There was nothing at the perimeter to report, and Tigu was once more on the war-path.
Pi Pa chuckled. ‘That girl.’ she spoke, amusement rolling off her form. Bi De knew what she meant. Stubborn, that little one.
Pi Pa stood, and the chicks cheeped from near her bulk. ‘Well, keep these ladies entertained now.’ She demanded as she exited, dainty steps carrying her out of the coop, the little ones chirping and following after her.
Bi De cleared his throat, and swiftly took stock of his domain. There were no holes chewed in the boards, and with the walls up, the perimeter was secured. No interlopers, should they get past the other guardians, would be able to sneak in.
He hopped along the cow’s backs, and inspected them for parasites. They were clean, as they had been for the past few days.
There was a harsh buzzing sound, and his head snapped up, ready to defeat any flies that thought to bother the cows-- when he observed the bee. The one he had taken back to Fa Ram. She was aided by the Benevolence of his Great Master, and himself. She had to be fed, and he had the task once of feeding her. She buzzed, and flew around the room for a moment, alighting on a water bucket, and beginning to drink. He paid her no more mind.
He settled in for his watch, when Pi Pa’s words hung in his head. Entertain them, hmm?
He knew only how to entertain the hens, and he rarely bothered with that anymore. He doubted they would appreciate this, but Sister Pi Pa would give him an earful if he did not make at least a token attempt.
He preened his feathers swiftly then he began his walk. He strutted, and displayed his colours for them, his head held high and proud.
It was most likely more amusing for him, than it was the cows. The absurdity! Entertainment for animals without a spark? Even the insect was staring at him intently!
He turned in his walk, his strut, and froze at a sharp intake of breath.
Sister Ri Zu squeaked in embarrassment, nearly dropping the small platter of food she had. Her eyes darted around the coop, before settling on him again.
‘.....continue?’ she asked him, staring wide eyed at his form.
Bi De nodded his head imperiously. Well, a request from Sister Ri Zu? How could he deny her?
He enjoyed her eyes upon him as he showed off his colours. The cows chewed their cud. The bee watched as well.
It was an amusing, uneventful afternoon.
An instrument twanged. It was inexpertly played, but improving with each repetition.
“What's this one called?” Meimei asked from my lap, her fingers going through unfamiliar notes, in an unfamiliar style. We were sitting on the giant rock I had pulled beside our house from out near Verdant Hill. Our special rock. It was the first time we had used it in a long while, but there was something so great about sitting up here, playing an instrument, and watching the moon.
“Dueling Pipas is the closest translation.” I told her. They didn’t have banjos here, and by the heavens, I’m going to change that. The pipa was serviceable, but it was no replacement for the king of country. “We need a second to get it right. One person plays each verse, and it all comes together at the end.”
She looked interested at the thought of a duet, but that warred against more practical thoughts like ‘do we need a second pipa?’ The answer is obviously yes. Activity time with your loved ones is never wasted. A pipa won’t put a dent in the finances any.
The night was nice and warm. I had a beautiful woman in my lap, I had finished painting my barn red, and the rice shoots were nearly at the size we needed to transplant. The last big job. Then off to Hong Yaowu, to see pops and little Xian, probably Yun Ren, Gou Ren’s older brother, too.
I was looking forward to it. To having family again.
My grip tightened on my wife’s waist. Meiling looked up at me, her expression curious. Our lips met. She tasted a bit like tea this time. I had intended for it to be sweet and chaste. Meiling set the pipa to the side.
Maybe it was the rock. We had our first kiss on it, so maybe it just provoked these things. We broke our kiss. Her robes were in slight disarray from my hands and there was a happy blush high on her cheeks.
Both of our eyes roved over the immediate area. Gou Ren was in the hut, Xiulan and Tigger nowhere to be seen. Her hands went to my chest, and she licked her lips, leaning in--
There was an urgent crow from the barn, as Big D called us to action.
We both froze at the interruption. Meiling looked slightly frustrated by the call. Well, these things wait for no man. We would have to postpone things.
We hopped off our rock. This time, Meimei did it under her own power instead of me carrying her down, landing with a soft thump.
The disciples had been put on watch after Meimei had gotten annoyed at the fact that I was constantly wandering in and out of the barn checking on the cows. I had seen a calf die once, in the Before. Not breathing as it came out into the world. Even when I was younger, I understood the frowns on the adult’s faces, and the sigh that the man produced, when they stopped trying to get it to breathe.
That part was understandable, but I had been a bit…. Obsessive in my checking. I shouldn’t have said I was going to get a cup of water that one time. My wife standing in the doorway to the barn, a distinctly unimpressed look on her face when she found me scratching a cow and telling her that she was a good girl was pretty embarrassing.
And thats how my animals got another job. Call me when the cow starts to give birth. Like all things I had tasked them with, they were diligent. I had peeked in one or two more times, and when I did, there was normally somebody hanging out. Chunky or Peppa sitting there at peace, Big D training, Rizzo reading a scroll. Even Tigger got in on it once or twice I think.
The poor girl was in a mood, ever since she had failed to find a bee like the rest. She was really upset about it, and no amount of scratches would convince her that I wasn’t angry or disappointed in her.
We got the stuff ready, and prepared. I didn’t know whether it would be one, or both of them that would start up tonight, but I settled in for a long wait.
Two hours later, the calf hadn't fully appeared, which was a bit of a cause for concern. Unlike human woman, who can be put in traction for over half a day, cows are supposed to come out pretty quick.
It was then that the other cow decided that hers needed to come out too. But for now, we were focusing on this one. I could see the feet, but the rest of the calf was still kind of stuck. I think it’s head somehow got turned a bit.
Well, time for some intervention.
“Now, gently so it doesn’t tear.” Meiling said calmly, as I held the calf’s legs. My wife's eyes were intent, but she was relaxed. Well, it was to be expected. I had a lot less experience with larger animals, and the Hong family being the healers of Hong Yaowu meant that they doubled as the vets. The poor cow was rolled on her side, clearly in distress that the calf wasn’t coming out properly.
Well, this is what we were here for, and why I asked for the alarm. We had an audience of disciples, excepting Xiulan and Tigger, watching the process intently.
I gently reached in further, Qi assisting in parting the flesh without tearing, and manipulated the head that had started to fold backwards, bringing it once more to the proper position.
Then you grab the legs and pull. This could actually take a few people, some times, or even mechanical assistance, but here? No such thing was needed. Strength would suffice. The little one was freed from the canal, and I caught it before it could hit the ground. They could survive a bit of bashing around, but no sense in making things more painful for the little creature.
I presented her to her mother, instincts immediately taking over as he tongue went to work, cleaning her baby.
A little gasp, and a cry of new life, feeling this strange new world for the first time.
I let out the breath I had been holding.
Meimei gave the cow a once-over, and nodded her head. Her robe was still loose, exposing the freckles that dotted the top of her chest. She had a bit of blood on her hands, and there was a bit of fluid where she had wiped her cheek. Her hair was down, and she honestly looked a bit disheveled.
She turned to me and smiled, a big toothy grin. I couldn't help but smile back at that radiant, brilliant smile.
The second birth turned out to be spectacularly anti-climactic. Everything went perfectly. A few hours later, and we were convinced that both mother and child were going to be alright.
Two little girls, hale and hearty.