Sometimes, dreams were bad. Most of the time, really. Nightmares could be anything you could imagine, things you didn’t know you could imagine. Or just worse versions of what had already happened. Memories of loss, hunger, solitude… all of those quite frequently graced Velvet’s dreams.
This one involved her father. Usually those weren’t good dreams. However, this one sparked a particular memory. She hadn’t been old enough to remember details, but she knew he’d come to tell her stories before bed. Stories of princes and princesses and cultivators and magic, where everything always had a happy ending.
Normally Velvet’s mind would wander to later in her life, when she was lying in her bed at night with no one to tuck her in- or later when a hard bed seemed like a luxury. This dream didn’t go there. Instead, her father read her stories and held her hand as she fell asleep. Her mother came in and kissed her forehead too. Then she fell asleep.
It was strange to feel comfortable when waking up. Velvet knew her bed was technically nice, but it never felt like it. The air was always too warm or too cold. Sometimes she kicked off the sheets or fell onto the floor. But this time was comfortable. Memories of the dream she’d been having quickly faded. It was something nice though.
The weirdest part was when she realized she wasn’t on her bed. When her eyes opened, she only saw the ceiling. Wasn’t this one of her hallways? She turned her head, following the line of her arm to what she was holding on to. Someone’s wrist? She quickly let go.
“Good morning, young lady. Did you sleep well?”
Her immediate thought was to answer ‘yes’. Instead, she chose to take a better stock of her situation. She felt comfortable, but she’d definitely been sleeping on the hard floor. Her fingers were pale- how hard had she been gripping?
Anton sat next to her, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Velvet wasn’t willing to answer the question, so she asked one of her own. “Why am I here?” As she spoke, she found her throat was dry, her lips cracked. How had she felt comfort like that?
“A good question. Not where I’d recommend people take a nap, but to each their own.” Anton stood, reaching out a hand to help her up.
She took it. Or she tried to, but the fingers in her right hand wouldn’t move properly. She switched hands and let herself be pulled up at a strange angle. There was something… she vaguely remembered stumbling back home. “Why are you here?”
Anton smiled. It almost seemed sincere. “I noticed a distinct lack of your presence, so I came to check up on you. You didn’t respond so I quite rudely let myself in.”
That… didn’t actually bother her as much as she thought it would. She tried to remember. She’d come back because… she figured it out. She wasn’t being taught because she couldn’t learn. You’re good enough. A voice echoed in her mind. It wasn’t hers.
This wasn’t right. What had he done?
You have to trust someone.
A stupid thought. Why would Anton have to mess with her head? She did that enough on her own. And he was almost nice to her.
“I-” she tried to speak, but her throat cracked.
“Perhaps you should get something to drink. We can talk later, if you wish.”
She nodded. Her body felt bad, but everything else was… fine. “Okay.” That was all she said.
Anton inclined his head and turned around. Something was weird about that. He held one hand behind him the whole time, out of her view. Was he taking something?
But she didn’t have anything of value. She shook her head. Everything was so fuzzy. She needed that water. And… food, apparently. She could hear her stomach rumbling along with Anton’s as he stepped out the door.
As he carefully inspected his wrist, Anton found it wasn’t that bad. Oh, it was broken all right. Shattered, even. But there was no internal bleeding to worry about. He just had to coax it back into shape and let it heal up.
Tiny strands of his energy latched onto each piece of bone, shifting it around. He should stop by the central area later to pick up a bone healing pill. He’d not had use for medicines wish such specific function, but this was exactly the sort of thing they were for.
He circulated his energy through the area, very carefully. It was a soothing feeling, reducing the heat and pain. He carefully coaxed each part, reminding it where it belonged. Then there was a knock on his door.
Well. Velvet was rather swifter than normal. Hopefully that was a good thing. He put on his best face and opened the door with his good hand, keeping the other behind his back. “Good morning once more.”
Velvet looked at him for a moment. “…Are you okay?”
That was something she’d never asked before. Did he really look that bad? Actually, he supposed that was true. “Just a few days with little sleep. Nothing to worry about.” Of course, there was a big difference between little sleep and no sleep, but he didn’t mention that. “Would you like to come in?”
Velvet nodded, and he led her to the sitting room. It was not really used that much, since most of Anton’s activities took place outside. He brought them each cups, along with pitchers of water juice. He was quite certain she couldn’t have recovered from her dehydration yet, because he certainly hadn’t. He also set out food- simple bread and cheese.
She nibbled on the bread and cheese he’d set out. She looked like she should be taking big bites, but he supposed she was keeping busy and trying to find excuses not to talk. Anton matched her, sipping from his cup and munching food. He slowly circulated his energy, as he usually did when not engaged in anything else.
Then they ran out of food, an entire loaf and a wedge of cheese devoured in fifteen minutes. The pitchers were both drained as well. “Should I get some more?” Anton asked.
“I- um…” he could tell she certainly wanted to say yes. But also that she wanted to say something. “I actually… can you… I’m ready to let you see me cultivate. So you can help.” She took a deep breath. “Everyone else does it. And they’re making so much progress.” She clearly had more to say, so Anton waited patiently. “I don’t… I mean…” she bit her lip. “I’m sorry. I’ve not been helpful, even though you were trying. I just thought… nobody would so easily reveal important secrets.”
She apologized. Good. Even without a verbal apology, he’d felt it… but the words were important. “Very well. When do you want to start?”
“Right now?” she said cautiously.
“… how about we eat a little bit more first?” Anton knew he was still old and wrinkly, but at least his stomach felt like he was a young man again.
“… yes please.”
It turned out Velvet had been doing everything wrong. Well, not everything. But it sure felt like it. Whenever she described areas she was having trouble, Anton had her demonstrate and then at least two or three different pieces of advice. He even had a whole notebook he consulted- but she could see his handwriting in it. How had he gotten so much experience? She figured that out when he added more notes to it.
“I haven’t come across that exact problem before,” Anton said. “But it might be that your meridians are better suited to a certain pattern of circulation.”
He explained what he meant. For that, he talked about how blood flowed through the body. The exact layout didn’t match the meridians, but it was the best analog. Most importantly was how blood returned to the heart and lungs, and valves. Velvet’s meridians always felt like hollow tubes, but as she tried different directions of circulation for each branch of meridians going away from her dantian, she felt a strong difference. She hadn’t really thought about it, but now she could tell that one way was wrong. The cultivation technique had just said which meridians to circulate through in order, but not which direction.
And Anton said he hadn’t found a difference.
“… Does that make me weird?” Velvet asked.
His response came fairly quickly. “Human bodies are all different. Height and hair and skin are all obviously visible, but there’s much more inside that nobody really interacts with. Meridians should be no different.”
“… You didn’t say I’m not weird,” Velvet muttered.
“One of my toes is longer,” Anton said.
As an answer, Anton removed his shoes, placing his feet on the table. They were old and wrinkly and gnarled, but they were actually quite clean. “See these two?” Anton pressed his feet together. “The fourth toe on the left is quite a bit longer, isn’t it?”
“That’s right!” Anton said. “It is a bit weird. Did you notice Pete is left handed? Makes quite a difference in a spar.”
“Yeah.” Velvet knew that Anton was just trying to make her feel normal… but it worked. “What about muscle? I’m not sure I did everything right there…”
She was working on the tenth star, which was the second full body tempering. She had so many mistakes to make up for, but strangely enough just asking about it got her answers. She just hoped Anton didn’t suddenly leave.