Her fingers were entwined with her husband’s. The forest was a soothing temperature, with a cool breeze contrasting wonderfully with the blazing sun. The canopy of new growth provided just enough shade.
Jin’s voice washed over her as he gesticulated with his other hand, regaling her of what had happened on the farm in her absence. The smile on his face, his bright eyes, his excited voice as she talked about how well the crops were growing… all of it was just perfect.
Ah, this was what she had missed.
She leaned into his side, laying her head against the side of his arm. She wasn’t quite tall enough to rest it on his shoulder. His hand tightened slightly around her own, and he looked down at her, a warm smile on his face. His story trailed off as their walk paused.
“....I missed you.” He told her. A thumb brushed some of her hair off the side of her face as he cupped her cheek, turning fully to face her. How those words made her face flush and her heart beat faster, and sent a delightful shiver down her spine.
Their lips met. It was short and chaste, much to her disappointment.
“And I’ll say it again. What you did was amazing.”
Her story had been well received. His eyes widening as she told her tale. Then the look of fierce pride and joy.
Xiulan nodding her head, as if it was a matter of course that she had found and destroyed a burgeoning plague. She would have to catch up with her soon. She looked more at peace than Meiling had ever seen her, and Meiling could smell the strength that spread from her, like grass growing over barren ground.
Even the Xong brothers had been appreciative, clapping her on the back and smirking.
“Guess you really are a Medical Sage now.” Yun Ren had japed, calling back to an old, old boast, before her little brother was even born.
It was something that her father had done before. It wasn’t that impressive, save she had used Qi instead of herbs for the most part… but it still felt good. It felt good to know what she had done made a difference.
“....you may say it as many times as you wish.” She told him with a slight smirk, and a flush high on her cheeks.
Jin laughed at her fishing for compliments.
“Amazing. Brilliant. Beautiful.” He declared, indulging her and interspacing each with a kiss.
Okay… maybe it was a bit embarrassing to be praised so much.
She closed her eyes, and let out a content sigh as they found a tree to sit down against. She was scooped up into Jin’s lap as they rested. His arms curled around her, pressing her up against his body.
“Keep telling me about home.” She asked.
Her husband obliged her. She listened to a tale that was so fantastic, and yet so mundane. A dragon dishwasher watering crops. A symphony of knives crafting meals. A young man weeding a garden, with a rock bigger than he was on his back.
She closed her eyes, and let the story flow over her.
Xiulan studied the scene before her. The people crowded around Meihua. Her father, the only man who she had met as tall as Master Jin, was crying as he beheld his grandson. The other men of the house were doting on Meihua like she was their own blood.
Indeed, the first child being a son was auspicious indeed.
She was happy for the other woman. The firstborn being a son solved all sorts of problems.
Xiulan was not a part of their family. She did not truly take part in their joy. So she watched and waited.
“Yoh!” The fox brother greeted, using the odd sound that Master Jin sometimes used. “Xiulan, you wanna come with us and get some tea? They’re gonna be at that all day.” He gestured to the bed and child.
Xiulan considered the offer. It was innocent enough, and he didn’t have the recording crystal, so she knew he wasn’t going to try and capture her face while she was eating again. It was quite embarrassing, to have her face seen like that, but… well, he meant little harm. Her eyes drifted to Disciple Gou Ren, who looked remarkably kept today. His hair was brushed, and he was wearing nicer clothes. His shirt was actually closed at the front, instead of baring his chest.
“Thank you for the invitation.” She said quietly, and stood Yun Ren’s smile got wider, and he took the lead, whistling merrily as he lead them onwards.
Disciple Gou Ren was quiet, and slightly unsettled.. He kept his eyes forward, like he was marching to a battlefield. She was about to ask him what was wrong, when his elder brother suddenly called out.
“Hey! Buddy! Long time no see!” Yun Ren called, waving to a man. The other man greeted him back, and they clasped arms in companionship. They talked for a moment. The other man glanced behind Yun Ren, nodding at Gou Ren, and his eyes widening on seeing her own face. He seemed about to say something, when Yun Ren spun him around, and slung an arm over his shoulder.
“Hey, I’m gonna go catch up with my buddy, yeah? Its been a while, so you two go on without me!” He didn’t even wait for a response, instead setting off.
Xiulan raised an eyebrow at the swift departure mildly confused. She looked at Gou Ren out of the corner of her eye. He stole a glance at her, his face slightly red.
Oh. she had a slight sinking feeling, with how this was going to go. Her shoulders sagged ever so slightly, but… she would not say anything just yet.
The teahouse she was led to was quite quaint
Well, quaint for what she knew of tea houses. She supposed this one must be one of the more expensive ones in the sleepy town, but it was still incredibly rustic.
They were seated at a table by a polite serving girl. Gou Ren winced slightly when he saw the prices, but ordered anyway.
Xiulan gazed at the lacking selection, and ordered one at random.
The serving girl left. The silence stretched, as a bead of sweat rolled down his temple.
“....Nice weather we’re having, isn’t it?” He asked.
Oh? A fine question. They spoke often of the weather at the sect, discussing the movement of clouds, and the impact of rain.
“Yes, the breeze is refreshing and sweet. Life and new growth abounds. An auspicious transition from spring, soon to be summer.” Xiulan said, trying to summarise her own feelings. The Disciple had picked a good topic. He nodded his head, more confident now.
“I can’t wait for it to get hotter. A long day’s work, and then see if Wa Shi will give us a ride through the river.” He said with a smile.
Xiulan agreed with him. She would have to bribe the gluttonous creature greatly, but she was confident she would fly again.
“Yes. The dishwasher is a most amusing one.” She noted. “To witness Fa Ram from the air was.. Indescribable.” Really, there were no words in Xiulan’s mind to accurately explain her feelings, but Disciple Gou Ren seemed to understand.
The serving girl returned with tea and snacks.
“Yeah. I wonder if you could make a map from up there? Or plan buildings?”
Xiulan agreed with this insight. “A fine idea.” she said, considering the merits of his statement. “It would certainly be a boon to city planners. After working on the road, I do appreciate how much work goes into such things.”
The younger man nodded rapidly, as they began to discuss the way they were building the road. The disciple complained about his back. At first, she had been put off by his constant bellyaching, thinking it a ruse to shirk his duties. But as she observed him, she noted that that was just how he was. He worked diligently no matter how he complained. More diligently than some of her own sect members.
Now, it was mildly amusing background noise. Giving out some of her own traitorous thoughts on work that she would have been chastised should she have ever uttered them. In front of her father.
But the conversation was not to last. Eventually, the boy trailed off. He took a sip of tea, and Xiulan did as well.
Serviceable, but not great.
“...adequate, for such a quaint place.” She mused.
The snacks weren’t any better. Gou Ren chewed on one thoughtfully, clearly working up his nerve.
He swallowed, and opened his mouth.
Xiulan interrupted him.
“Disciple Gou Ren, are you going to ask to court me?” she asked. She hoped he didn’t. She did not wish this to escalate into a fight.
The young man swallowed thickly, but gained some confidence, squaring his shoulders.
“Yes.” He stated.
The sinking feeling completed. Xiulan closed her eyes and sighed internally as to what was to come. The same reactions were played out over and over.
“I refuse.” She stated bluntly, and winced internally. That had come out slightly harsher than she intended. But best to nip these things in the bud. Being nice often had the opposite effect. “Your advances are unwelcome.”
Still, she prepared for the reaction. The rage. The insults. The fury at being rejected. Maybe he would even disregard her completely, and attempt to force the issue. He was one of Master Jin’s disciples, so she could likely not chastise him too badly. She did not want to chastise him.
The boy swallowed.
“...Okay.” He said quietly. “I kind of expected that, but… well, you never know if you don’t try, right?”
He smiled at her. It was a brittle thing.
….He was accepting her decision? This was not in the standard script. They normally got angry by this point.
“Sorry that it bothered yeh so much. Wasn’t expectin’ it to be that bad of an idea, but more fool me.” His voice was thick with emotion. He looked away. He was frustrated, and dejected… but he wasn’t angry.
He started to get up to leave
Something twinged in her chest. Now she felt a bit bad. He wasn’t some young master who was used to getting his way, he was.. Well, he was more like Master Jin and Senior Sister. And she had just cast doubt upon his character to think of him that way. He probably didn’t even know why she had refused him.
She could let him go. She could have him never bother her again. He probably wouldn’t even glance at her after this.
But… he did not deserve that.
Her hand caught his shoulder. He froze at the contact, but allowed himself to be gently pushed back into his seat.
He looked as if he might resist for a moment, but in the end, allowed himself to be guided, looking away from her and at the floor.
“...okay?” she asked, her voice was quiet. “You are not going to call me a whore or harlot, and demand that you are able to have me anyway?” It was a rude question, but one she had to be sure of.
Gou Ren turned back around, his jaw dropping open. “Wha?! The Hells you talkin’ bout woman? I ain’t no scum suckin’ bastard!” Anger tinged his words. Rage that she would even say something like that.
Xiulan’s mask faded. He paused, as he saw her regret. The way her body relaxed, as she stopped preparing for an altercation that would never come. She was tired, so tired of that happening.
And she was glad that it didn’t
“...forgive my harsh words. They were completely unwarranted, and cast slander upon your character. You did not deserve it.” She bowed her head in sincerity.
Gou Ren bit his lip as she took a breath, and let it out in a sigh.
“You… well, you could not have known, either, but I did not speak of it. My husband is the choice of my father, for the good of the sect.”
It was something that she had long since come to terms with. She was a dutiful daughter, and the fact that some would even ask her to betray her own father was another mark against them.
Even if recently she was starting to feel a bit tapped by that statement.
Disciple Gou Ren actually relaxed a bit at that, nodding in understanding. He hadn’t known.
“The men who ask for his blessing are the virtuous ones. The men who ask such questions directly of me… Well, normally such incidents result in a fight.”
Disciple Gou Ren froze as he considered her words.
“Wait, they try to--?” She nodded. His eyes flashed with rage, and his muscles unconsciously flexed beneath his skin.
Xiulan smiled at his reaction. Only the most loyal of her sect reacted that way. Her hand tightened slightly on his shoulder, as he started to squeeze hard enough to break skin, startling him out of his dark thoughts.
“The strong can take as they will.” Xiulan quietly informed him. “My mother taught me that there are times to resist… and times to…”
She shrugged. “I normally have my sect behind me, so only the boldest attempt such things. Normally, it is just insults. They are particularly fond of calling me a harlot, or a whore.”
He scowled and crossed his arms, trying to glare a hole in the table for daring to exist. Her heart warmed just a bit more. She had seen how Senior Sister acted around him. She paused for a moment, as he brooded, clearly imagining fighting off those who would dare to say that to his fellow disciple. It was nearly cute, in a boyish way. He wanted to protect her. Unnecessary, as he was not yet strong enough, but flattering.
Xiulan’s hand went from his shoulder to his hair, running through the short locks affectionately. He jolted again, and his face flushed as she smiled at him. Was this what it was like to have a sibling? She didn’t know. But it was a nice feeling.
There was a slight bit of hurt in his eyes, as he took in her expression.. But more of the tension drained out of him.
He sighed, exhausted by the conversation.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t…” He began, but Xiulan just shook her head.
“No, no apologies, Junior Brother. It is again my apology to give. I was unduly harsh and you did nothing to deserve my reaction. You are right. It is no sin to strive for something.” He blushed and looked away.
“No apologies.” He finally said quietly. “It's fine.”
She ruffled his hair again. Now she knew why Senior Sister did it so often, even if she had to stand on the tips of her toes to reach the taller boy. It was kind of nice.
But… there was something she wanted to know.
“Junior Brother… what was it that compelled you to ask?” she asked quietly.
Everybody always said it was her beauty that drew them in. Was that all they saw? Was that all even Disciple Gou Ren saw?
Gou Ren sighed.
“At first… it was because you're the prettiest girl I’ve ever met.” He admitted, and her heart sunk slightly. “But… the other things were pretty too. You practise every day. You work as hard as you can. Like.. you learning to cook. Or going on that balance pole thing. It was… well it was beautiful too, ya know?”
“And then.. Well, when we were back home, and you came in wearing that flower brown, and carrying the kids I thought “man, she’d make a good mom.””
She felt her own face heat slightly at the words, as her Junior Brother looked away. He had seen something beyond her skin. The things she liked about herself.
“..I want… I want what Mei and Jin have, ya know?”
Yes. she did know. She saw their relationship, and her heart yearned for it. Called for it. “I do.” She stated simply. It ran up against everything she was taught all her cultivation. The other part of her tried to reject it. “But at the same time… I do not know what I wish for.”
Disciple Gou Ren nodded at her words. They lapsed into silence again. Xiulan absently kept her hand on his head, occasionally brushing her fingers through the short strands.
Finally she turned back to him, her eyes set. “You wish for that, do you? I believe you shall find it. You are not unattractive, Junior Brother. And you have a fine character.” She declared.
...it was honestly the largest compliment she had ever given to a man.
Gou Ren snorted, even as his face went red from the tips of his ears to the bottom of his chest. “You’re just being nice. I look like a monkey.” he muttered.
“None of that. Your Senior Sister has a good eye for these things, you know?” She shot back haughtily. “And, she shall give you whatever aid you require in your endeavours!”
Yes, she would repay him a hundredfold for her ill thoughts! By the time every kind beauty in the Azure Hills would know his name!
He huffed and shook his head.
“Sure, Senior Sister. Help your poor junior out.” He griped.
“You doubt me?” She asked reproachfully.
“Yup.” He answered bluntly.
Xiulan’s eyes narrowed at the goading. She accepted his challenge.
“So, you’re headed back to Verdant Hill after talking to Father?” Jin asked, sounding dejected.
The tone nearly made her tell him that she was coming back home immediately, but she refrained. Their time together had been entirely too short.
“Yes. only for a few more days. I’ll be able to come back home soon, one they’re out of the critical time, and I’ve spoken to Lady Wu a bit more.”
Her husband once more nodded his head, as they jogged along the road. She looked back to Gou Ren and Xiulan, who were, surprisingly, talking quite amicably. It was a bit awkward between them. They sometimes paused, like they didn’t know what to say, or go for a shove or some other physical sign of camaraderie and pause, like they weren’t sure they should go through with it.
“Lady Wu seems nice.” Jin mused. “She and the Magistrate are good people.”
“Yes. She's a wealth of information. She's also offered me some harder to get things, in case I get morning sickness. I should be getting it soon if I do at all, at the stage I’m at.” She stated blandly.
Jin nodded his head, and then froze. His face made an interesting expression, as he kept jogging. She could practically hear him thinking, as they approached a bend.
She had considered a different way of telling him. Of something private, or profound, or even in the forest… but she had finally worked up the courage, and so this was happening now.
Jin kept running. The bend came and went.
Jin ran right off the edge.
There was a thud as he slammed down on the bottom of the ravine, and a kind of grinding sound.
Jin shot straight back up the ravine, grabbing her by her shoulders, his face a mix of joy and panic.
“You’re--!” he gasped out.
Jin collapsed to his knees in front of her, and buried his face in her stomach, laughing so hard he shook.
She ignored the slight dampness, as she patted his head.