Gou Ren frowned at his reflection in the burnished disk, as the blade carefully scraped along his cheeks. It was an annoying morning ritual. People had asked why he didn’t shave his sideburns down before, and this was the reason. Overnight they would just grow up and puff out again, reverting him to his previous look. Shave them off completely? They’d be back in two days. So it was every morning. It was annoying. In Hong Yaowu there weren’t actually that many reflective surfaces, and getting the sideburns accurate used to be a pain and a half.
And it was a bit embarrassing to ask your brother or your mother every morning to help straighten things out.
So he had just stopped. He didn’t exactly mind the look. He was himself. Sure, he got the comments, but over the years they had stopped hurting, and just turned into the joke they were. Like Meiling being boney, or his brother being a fox.
He rubbed at his cheeks as he finished. At least he was a lot more accurate now. He couldn’t make the squaring quite as exact as Xiulan could, but it was still good enough. He looked sharp as Jin had called him.
There was a rustling, as Pi Pa entered his room, and dropped off a stack of laundry.
“Thank you, Pi Pa.” The pig nodded, and a whisper reached his ears. Still quiet, but it was getting a bit more clear with each day.
‘Any time, Young Sir,’ she said with a smile, before bustling out and going to grab the rest of the laundry. She had recently taken it on herself to do everybody’s laundry, along with Chun Ke. Though for the boar, it was probably more about playing with the suds than cleaning the clothing.
He shook his head, and padded across his new floor. He smirked as he collapsed onto his new bed. A house in a day. It may not be as grand as Jin’s. He might only use it for the rest of this year, but his friend had been happy to lend a hand, and turn the shack into something better.
He smiled at his possessions, his table, and his nice clothes. Meimei had truly outdone herself with this set. It looked a bit like what Jin wore, really. It was the same colours, almost like a uniform.
He liked it. He finished getting dressed, and walked outside into the predawn light.
He’d go and teach everybody back home like he said… but he really hoped Jin would need more help.
He liked working here. Building the farm. He didn’t know exactly if he liked the idea of setting off on his own, just yet. Of starting up his own thing. He had direction, he was learning, and he didn’t think a mere year would cut it.
He meandered over to the main house, yawning, and scratching at his chest. Past the half finished prototypes of the tilling machine. It was coming along, and Yao Che had delivered, but the carriage needed to be redesigned.
“Mornin’,” he greeted as he entered the house.
A chorus of greetings sounded out. Ri Zu and Wa Shi just gave him a nod, while Chun Ke’s happy and loud ‘GOOD MORNING!’ boomed.
Gou Ren scratched the boar’s head affectionately, and sniffed the air as he sat down at the table.
“Mushroom soup?” he asked, curious.
Jin nodded from where he was braiding Tigu’s hair. He looked quite at ease, and Tigu was looking at a slate with a few questions on it, pondering them intently.
“We had a good haul yesterday,” Meiling stated with a smile. “They’re bigger than any I've ever seen.” She glanced at Jin and smiled.
Gou Ren nodded. Another bonus of living here. Foraging was simple. Everything seemed to hide an edible mushroom or berry. Jin was even making jams with the surplus.
And where the food was, animals were. It was practically unfair. He could just walk out and bag a catch with little issue. He hadn’t really been challenged by any quarry in a while… and he was just fine with that. Sometimes he’d purposefully prolong things just to wander. To check on the rest of the property, and fill his mind with images of what it would look like in a few years.
He was broken out of his introspection as Xiulan floated out, standing on the flats of her blades, and sweating. It was slower than her walking pace, and she didn’t look very steady, but there was a gleam of triumph in her eyes.
The food was passed out, setting themselves down of their own accord after being delivered on flying knives. Only once the last pot landed did Xiulan thump to the floor, barely catching herself from tripping over.
“You managed the entire time. Each day is a little bit forward, eh?” Jin asked, checking briefly for any marks on the floor. There were none.
“Yes,” she said, panting, and staring at her swords with pride.
They began their meal.
“Thanks, Xiulan, this is great!” he complimented after he swallowed.
Xiulan smiled at him. The sight still made his heart skip a beat.
It still stung a bit, the rejection, but he had been resolved that he would accept it, hadn’t he?
He shook off the feeling, glancing away and finishing his food.
“Ya sure it's this way?” Jin asked, staring at the diagram like it was some kind of arcane formation.
“Pretty sure.” he said, looking over Jin’s shoulder and then back to the contraption,”This connects to here, so that when you pull this it activates it.”
Jin glanced down at the diagram one more time, then back up at the assembly of gears. He nodded.
“Well, here's hoping for no spontaneous disassembly, like the last time…” he muttered. Gou Ren winced. He didn’t even know why the damn thing had decided to fall apart.
Still, he was confident in this one. They had triple checked everything, and made sure it was going to go fine!
The gears slid together with a thunk and the assembly engaged. The grindstone began to spin, as the river dragged the paddle around.
Jin looked over the whole thing, at first with worry, and then, increasingly, with a smile as everything kept spinning.
Jin reached into a sack, and carefully poured some grain into the millstone.
His grin got wider, as the flour began to spill into the collection bucket.
“Hell yeah, Brother!” he shouted, and swung an arm around Gou Ren’s shoulder.
Pride welled in his chest at the sight of the spinning wheels. At the grinding stone. At the smell of the flour.
“It's beautiful, isn’t it?” Jin asked, as the wheels turned.
“Yeah,” Gou Ren said, watching the gears spin, and looking around at their work. Especially at the other portion. “But why did we do this part?”
Jin pointed. “Well, if we disengage this part, and restructure it here, you could lift and drop a hammer with it. Kind of useless for us, but anybody without Qi? Well, have the water hammer your stuff for you, eh?”
Gou Ren thought about it. Using it for mills was one thing, but yes, being able to have the river drop your hammer for you was another. He had done some smithing before, and all it left him with was sore shoulders, and a respect for Yao Che.
“So that’s why it’s two separate rooms?” he asked, walking through the thick wall, and into the part of the building that was stone.
“Yup. Dunno how much it’ll be used, but interesting to test out, yeah?” Jin asked.
A year ago, he might have said “wasteful”. Now, he just nodded his head. It was pretty interesting.
“Now, come on, let’s go brag,” he said with a grin. Gou Ren laughed at his enthusiasm, but felt just as eager to show off. Even if Xiulan didn’t think it was interesting, Chun Ke and Pi Pa would probably be intrigued.
They set off, Jin’s arm still around his shoulder as he praised Gou Ren’s craftsmanship in putting most of it together.
“Behold! Us manly men crafting the tools of civilization!” Jin shouted. Xiulan and Tigu paused in their spar, while Meimei perked up.
“You got it working?” she asked, and Jin nodded.
“Yes we did!” he enthused, and thumped Gou Ren on the shoulder again.
She smirked, and hugged first Jin, and then Gou Ren. “Our manly men.” There was a hint of humor in her voice, mixed with pride.
Gou Ren stuck his tongue out at her, and she responded in kind.
“We’ll have a feast tomorrow. I need to prepare some things first and it's a bit too late to get started now. But it is a good stopping point.” She turned back to the combatants on the poles. “Tigu, we need to continue—no, do not pout, you’re doing well. You didn’t answer ‘kill them’ or ‘maim them’ once on that last set of questions!”
The girl grumbled but hopped off the pole.
Jin chuckled at the scene. “I’ll give some moral support. You go relax. We don’t have anything else to do today,” he said, and went with Meimei.
leaving Gou Ren with Xiulan.
He shrugged and sat down, putting his feet in the cool water, as Xiulan hopped off the training pole.
“Junior Brother!” she declared. “I have devised another avenue for you to pursue!”
Well, the last one had worked out.
“I wake up with the sun up high,
Birds chirp everywhere in the sky.
Last night a rainstorm passed by.
Flowers must have fallen down.”
Gou Ren frowned at the page as he finished speaking.
“…does this even work?” he asked. “Do women really like poetry?”
“It is to show you are cultured,” she stated. Gou Ren looked down at his bare chest, and back up at Xiulan.
She nodded. “You give an air of wildness, yet are not. There is great depth beneath the surface.”
Gou Ren frowned. That did make sense, he supposed.
“Do you like poetry?” he asked idly.
“I do enjoy reading the works of Masters,” she stated. “Searching for meaning, and finding it is quite enjoyable. And comprehending the full meaning of a poem is somewhat similar to comprehending a cultivation method.”
It did come back to cultivation. Most things with Xiulan did.
He didn’t particularly enjoy poetry, but he could try.
He read onward, and glanced up when a door opened, and Tigu staggered out. She looked tired, and wandered over to them.
“What are you doing here?” Tigu asked, as she leaned over Gou Ren’s back without a care in the world.
It was easier than he thought it would be, to not see the cat he used to give belly rubs to in his mind’s eye when Tigu did things like this. It helped that she looked so different, but she was still rather touchy.
Enough to make him blush some times, especially when her shirt was open.
She was cute. Even with all the muscle.
“I am aiding our Junior brother with finding a woman,” Xiulan stated with a remarkable lack of tact.
Tigu cocked her head to the side, her brow furrowing.
“A woman?” she asked.
“Like Master Jin and Senior Sister,” Xiulan explained. Tigu nodded her head in understanding.
“A monumental task.” she declared, and Gou Ren felt like somebody had just punched him in the chest.
He slumped. She had said it with such conviction, like it was self evident—!
“What woman is good enough for our Brother Disciple?” she asked, turning to Xiulan. “She would need to be of uncommon stock, a truly exemplary specimen in order to be worth his time!”
‘Eh?’ he thought as he raised his head. Tigu was nodding to herself.
“I see why you need help, Disciple. It will be a grand search! Few women are worthy of those who are Disciples of Fa Ram!” Tigu was starting to get worked up, her eyes gleaming.
“And you asked the Blade of Grass for aid? Hmph! Worry not, Disciple Gou Ren, This Young Mistress will also lend you her strength! With my help, which is superior to the Blade of Grass’ help, we shall find you a woman!” She smiled brilliantly at him.
Gou Ren felt a slight sinking sensation.
Xiulan’s lips were twitching with amusement.
“Why don’t you marry me then?” he muttered sarcastically.
The orange-haired girl paused, and smiled brightly, bouncing up and planting her hands on her hips.
“I see! I just learned this! In this case, then, I am to inform our Master of any who ask to marry me! Worry not, my fellow Disciple! This Young Mistress shall carry your intentions to our Master and Mistress clearly!”
Gou Ren paled, as Tigu dashed off, almost skipping. Xiulan clapped a hand over her mouth. Her shoulders started to shake.
Her laughter sounded very nice and was just enough to make Gou Ren realise what was happening. He leapt to his feet, only to be caught for just an instant as Xiulan reached out with a single hand grabbing his leg, and letting Tigu get further away.
His heart leapt to his throat, and he stared at the woman who had captured him. She was completely doubled over facing the water and laughing.
She wanted a Junior Brother?! Well, she was certainly about to get the brother part.
His legs moved with speed, as he twisted and kicked. Xiulan’s eyes widened with surprise as a rather vicious blow, learned and refined from a thousand brawls with his older brother, planted itself into her back.
Xiulan skipped across the river.
“Wait— wait, Tigu. Tigu!” he yelped, racing after the girl, but it was to no avail. He had been paused for just long enough. Just long enough for the married couple to be sporting shit-eating grins as he entered the room, frantic.
“So… What are your intentions for my Tigu’er?” Jin asked, stroking a nonexistent beard like he was some sort of sage.
I chuckled, as Gou Ren kept frowning at his plate. From triumph to the depths of despair.
Meimei was similarly amused. She had been ribbing him all night. I poked her in the side as she opened her mouth again, cutting off whatever gleeful comment was coming. She pouted at me ruining her fun, but stopped bugging him about it.
Honestly, once Tigu was a bit… well, more aware of that kind of thing, and maybe a bit older, I certainly wouldn't be opposed if that’s what both of them wanted. Not that it was really my business anyway. Meiling had taught her that one, and for now, well, it seemed like it might be a good idea? Just in case.
But if she asked, and did seek my approval, guy, girl, cat… What she wanted was what she wanted.
Gou Ren glanced at Xiulan, and cleared his throat.
“Hey Jin, you know, after the harvest— how Xiulan has that tournament?” he asked.
I nodded. Cultivator place. I had no real desire to go anywhere near the Dueling Peaks. Well, maybe if I could find something interesting like tomatoes, I’d go, but eh.
“Uhhhh… can I go?” he asked. “I want to see what kind of stalls there are, and check things out.”
He hardly needed to ask me. It wasn’t like he was going to fight in the tournament—
“Yes! I as well, Master!” Tigu shouted, her eyes gleaming. ”I wish to go to this tournament!”
That one made me pause. Mostly because she had her fists clenched, and had the look on her like when she went to spar with Xiulan.
I worked my jaw, and glanced at Meiling.
She was frowning.
One part of me nearly said “no” before I could even really think about it. That it was too dangerous, to be around so many cultivators. Memories of pain, and flashes of agony, rage, hate—
But… was that the correct choice?
During that talk under the moonlight last winter I had said that they had their own choices to make. Was that the same as this? What should I do about it?
Big D was already out there, fighting spirit beasts and saving towns. He was traveling the world, doing what he felt he needed to do.
Was it really so different? Tigu had mellowed out a lot in just a few weeks; she was still excitable and eager to do things, but not quite as intense.
Shit. Would she actually stay if I said no? Would she sneak out, or act out? She was pretty obedient, but I hadn’t really tested those boundaries yet.
I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to see the tournament or the fighting. Sure, I watched Tigu and Xiulan sometimes. It was a bit amusing when I knew that they wouldn’t really try to hurt each other. I had seen enough pulled punches and suddenly blunt blades to know that they weren’t trying to harm.
Protectiveness warred against my own issues. I had stuff to do here, and I probably couldn’t go since Meimei was pregnant. I certainly wasn’t taking her along to a place like that.
I chewed on my lip.
A hand landed on my arm, startling me out of my thoughts. Meiling squeezed, and I glanced over. Her eyes were calm.
My decision, huh?
Some of Tigu’s eagerness had faded. She was nervous, and shifting in her seat.
Fuck. She needed an answer.
“...there will be a test in Verdant Hill, to see if you are ready,” I finally decided. Tigu’s eyes brightened and cheered.
I finished my meal, and left as Tigu began talking about going on a journey.
I leaned against the wall, and ran a hand through my hair.
“Was that the right decision?” I asked, as Meimei padded up beside me.
Her hands wrapped around my waist.
“I don’t know,” she said simply.