Meiling sat upon a cushioned bench as it gently swung back and forth. Ropes attached it to the ceiling, keeping it stable. The entire thing creaked gently to the rhythmic rocking.
Sitting in the shade, listening to the sounds of nature, and curled up next to another warm body. Jin was quiet and contemplative, his brow slightly furrowed, but he still smelled normal, so he wasn’t too distressed. Ri Zu sat in her lap, and Meiling’s fingers drifted through soft fur. The rat had been quiet for a few days, clearly thinking something over, and had started conversations a few times, only to veer off.
Meiling would give her a few more days, as it obviously wasn’t anything urgent, before she would start to push the issue.
It was a bit of effort not to fall asleep, even with the scene in front of her.
Tigu was sparring with Gou Ren. Xiulan had said it would be good if he knew how to better defend himself, and so Tigu had taken it upon herself to help him.
It was quite interesting. She knew he and Yun Ren knew how to fight. And fight quite well, if she was honest. The brawls they had with each other were frequent. The occasional fight in the city, one fought on her behalf after a particularly rude boy, were ungainly things. Fists flew, but she could see the calculation in their eyes, the slight hesitation they sometimes had before they committed to a move. They missed, they tripped, and eventually, things devolved into somebody tackling somebody else, and the grunting grappling matches in the mud.
There was none of that here. Gou Ren’s body moved with grace and power, as he flowed from one move to the next, like he was some manner of martial sage. His eyes saw blows that he never would have before, and he struck precisely with little hesitation.
Even while his opponent danced circles around him.
Tigu bounced around nearly too fast to see. Meiling tutted as her shirt spilled open again, the cat-turned-girl’s muscles flexing visibly under her skin, with only the bandages preserving her modesty.
But Meiling knew a losing battle when she saw one. The girl absolutely loathed anything with too many layers, and skirts held a special ire in her eyes.
A kick slammed into Gou Ren’s guard. Meiling winced as his footing failed, and he was launched into a tree. A blow that would have absolutely killed a normal person, and Gou Ren stood back up like he had been lightly slapped, not struck with enough force to shatter stone.
Like children play-fighting, she told herself, forcing her behind to stay firmly in her seat, instead of rushing off to check him for broken bones.
Tigu crawled onto his back, her arm wrapped around his neck in a light chokehold, as she said something to him that set him laughing.
They were boisterous, and excited. Looking forward to seeing something new.
“What do you think of the tournament?” Jin asked, out of the blue.
Meiling pondered the question.
“It's a bit much for a glorified fist fight, but what do I know about matters of cultivation? The battles do not interest me, but from what I’ve heard, the rest of it does sound quite fun. I think I would like to see it, at least once. To hear the crowds, and the fanfare,” she said, staring at the sky. A festival a thousand times bigger than any she had ever seen before. “There are sure to be interesting things to see, new herbs to find. Or maybe even some scrolls?”
Her husband nodded, considering her words.
“...do you want to go?” The question was asked. A loaded question if she had ever heard one. She liked to think that she had gotten good enough to read his desires, not that they were hard to discern most days.
But she could tell.
He didn’t want to go. There would be a conversation, if she said yes. He was concerned for her safety. For the life growing in her stomach. And while she wasn’t exactly fragile…
The nervousness was certainly there.
She did kind of want to see it, but...
“Maybe someday,” she said instead. “But I don’t think this year.”
Jin nodded. “When you do want to see it… we’ll go.”
A promise and a compromise. They lapsed into silence again, as Gou Ren and Tigu went through the same form, Tigu grinning as they worked together.
‘Master?’ Ri Zu squeaked, and Meiling gave her her full attention. The rat was standing up, her eyes set.
“Yes, Ri Zu?”
‘Ri Zu wishes to go to this tournament as well, if she can be spared.’ A declaration.
Oh? Now that was interesting.
Jin startled at the question, and turned his attention to Ri Zu as well, raising an eyebrow.
‘If one of them is hurt, or needs aid… Ri Zu thinks there should be someone there for them. Ri Zu let Bi De go alone, out of fear and thinking he would be alright without her, and she regrets it. She would like to experience the world herself, and grow, as the others have!’
Meiling smiled at the fire in her voice.
‘The others wish to go and see, or fight, but Ri Zu will find the medical secrets of that place!’
“You know the dangers?” Jin asked Ri Zu.
She nodded resolutely.
Jin turned to Meiling.
“Look after them for us then, Ri Zu. They need somebody with a good head on their shoulders, who won’t go galavanting off. Really, Xiulan is going to have her hands full as it is!” Meiling said. The rat brightened up.
Her eyes blazed with inner fire, and she dipped into a bow. Ri Zu scampered off, squeaking excitedly at Tigu. The girl’s eyes widened, and she shouted with joy, hoisting the rat onto her shoulder and nodding her head as she continued to squeak.
Wa Shi poked his head out of the river to see what the commotion was about, and Meiling turned back to her work.
“What are you making, anyway?” Jin asked her.
She turned the piece around, so that he could see the design on the back.
Jin choked at the sight of it, his face flashing through shock and bemusement. Half a Maple Leaf, half a wheat stalk, surrounded in a circle.
“You know, people are going to think that we’re a sect or something if they see that, love,” he muttered.
For a moment, she thought he didn’t like it, but a slow smile spread across his face.
“It looks great, and I think Little Tigu is going to be over the moon with that.” He stared at it a moment longer. “You know what? We’ll see about putting that on everything.”
Meiling nodded, even as Jin started chuckling, muttering about ‘turtle homes’ and ‘Dragon Spheres.’
Meiling went back to stitching the symbol into the back of Gou Ren’s shirt.
Maybe Xiulan would like one as well?
I was still amused that Meimei was making everybody uniforms as I finished cleaning up after dinner. And “branding” our stuff. Turns out the Hong family had a symbol, an unobtrusive little circle with the character for “warehouse” in it. I hadn’t even really noticed it.
It was going to be a change, but… in the end? It was something to have pride in. And her stitching had been really good.
I wandered back into the living room. Xiulan and Gou Ren were out, reading poetry again. Tigu was leaning against Chunky, gesticulating to Babe about something or another, a single Qi blade hovering over her finger. The ox was silent, but considering, as Chunky oinked at Washy, a pile of nuts between the fish and the boar.
Peppa and Rizzo were last, drinking tea and watching everybody else, soft smiles on their faces.
They really did look like a family.
I glanced at Meiling, who nodded.
Time to bite the bullet. Rizzo had asked, but I wanted to see if anybody else was holding back.
“Hey everybody,” I called, and the room perked up, turning their attention to me as I sat down, Meiling walking over to sit with me.
“Does anybody else want to go to the tournament?” I asked them all. It would be a bit awkward, if they said yes, but we could probably accommodate them by putting a mark on a piece of clothing. That would prevent your average joe from trying to take them.
Chunky and Peppa shook their heads near immediately. Babe declined too, as he had a road to work on.
The surprising one was Washy.
‘Leave, so soon after the harvest, when you will be making the most delicious, and freshest of meals?!’ the fish asked, scandalized.
I snorted at how offended he sounded.
‘While the rest may bring back tribute to my glorious personage, I shall dine upon the fruits of our home!’ he declared.
“Tribute?” Tigu asked him dangerously.
‘My dear friends taking pity upon this poor soul, and in their infinite grace, bestowing upon him but part of their bounty,’ he switched immediately.
It still amazed me how he could go from being an arrogant shit to that in a heartbeat. I chuckled at him, but my amusement was short lived, as the other question was a bit… personal.
“The second thing is… Well, it’s about names. Surnames. It only really occurred to me after Big D left. If you want to start your own family… well, it may be a good idea. If you want to take one of ours, you may. If you want to choose your own, you can. If you don’t want one… that’s fine too.”
A link. Mine may have changed, with my transition to this place, but… there was still the connection. Pride, in who you were.
I had once asked to take the name Hong from Hong Xian. To be adopted into their clan in truth. Though the man had been touched… he had eventually refused. He said that I should keep it.
I may not have much pride, or even attachment to the name Rou, or Jin. I did flop them around without a second thought.
But maybe… Maybe we could make it into something I could be proud of. Maybe it was a bit stupid, attatching that to a name.
I saw the light shine in Tigu’s eyes.
Something I expected, really.
“Ah, um, may I…?” she stuttered.
“Yes, Rou Tigu?” I asked. She swallowed thickly, and scampered from her seat, settling down beside us. There was a dampness to her eyes, as she embraced us both. It had obviously meant a lot to her.
Meiling nodded at Rizzo.
“I have already spoken to Father,” she told the little one. “He said he would adopt one so skilled into our family without a second thought.
The little rat sat up straighter.
The others were a bit more considering. Babe shook his head, disregarding having a last name.
Chunky began chuckling. ‘Chunky Shan,’ he chortled. Chunky Mountain.
I spluttered as he used his name to make a pun. A pun using english naming conventions.
He grinned away, as Peppa nodded along. ‘Shan Peppa,” she stated primly.
I was about to ask Chunky how much he knew, when we were interrupted again.
“Great Lordly Supreme Being,” Washy stated, a smug smile upon his face.
Everybody turned to look at him.
‘Master of the Heavens and the Sea?’
People kept staring.
The fish paused, and pouted.
‘He?’ the fish finally settled on, shortening it to just “river”.
I snorted. Never change, you crazy fish.