Long ago, there lived a vast white serpent— Graceful, ethereal, and the epitome of knowledge. Countless legends were born from the times. Many tales were false or exaggerated— the problem that happens when legends are passed by word of mouth from one country to another— but the one solid truth is that the snake did exist.
Never would anyone associate those traits if they saw that same being in the legends now.
“This venison is clearly old— over a week even,” Ai argues, placing her hands on her hips.
“That’s fresh meat. Old age may have crippled me, but I’m not blind,” the old lady defends fiercely.
Predictably, Ai snaps again. “Clearly, there’s something wrong with them.”
Linh chuckles helplessly. It’s been the same routine for almost over a year now after moving into the neighborhood. Well, it’s not exactly a neighborhood as they live secluded in the mountains, two hours of walking from the village. Every time they come to this section of the village, Ai manages to find herself haggling with the same meat seller all over again.
“I apologize, Shopkeeper,” Linh says in Japanese, physically getting in front of her wife and handing over the bills and a bottle of ointment that Jinhai made. “She didn’t sleep well this morning, cold weather and all.”
The Shopkeeper takes one look at Linh, and instantly a smile comes to her face. “Ah deary, now here’s a sensible one.” She gives a sharp-eyed look at Ai, almost as if she’s sizing her up. “I’ll serve you extra since it takes up so much energy to handle your friend there.”
Ai bristles at the snide comment, her mouth opening to retort—
Linh pinches her wife’s side. They had plenty of money to spend. No need to make an enemy of an old lady trying to make a living now. Taking the bag of meat, Linh says, “Thank you, Shopkeeper. We’ll visit again in two weeks. Jinhai will visit shortly.” Swiftly, she grabs Ai’s arm and drags them away from the stall. When they’re finally out of earshot, she sighs and says wearily, “Must you pick a fight with her every single time?”
Ai tenses and the urge to cross her arms is written on her face, but instead, she lets Linh hold onto her arm and huffs. “She was trying to cheat us.”
Linh sighs, picking at Ai’s argument. “She’s the only one running her small shop, supporting her growing grandchild.”
“Doesn’t mean we’re still not getting cheated,” Ai mutters under her breath, blowing the hair out of her eyes with a sigh.
Linh bites her tongue to stifle her laughter. Well, your ego certainly hasn’t done you any favors, she wants to say but settles for, “With all your knowledge, surely you could find a way to negotiate.”
“If I had my way, she would simply not be in business. She should be grateful she still has it.” They could hunt their own meat as they used to do, but out of respect for the village and to improve their economy, they decided to mostly buy their produce from the villagers.
“Her family are the only ones around here that hunt. Her legs are only barely getting better, she doesn’t need the extra stress.” Linh sighs, taking the path out of the village market.
“She’s still a stubborn coot,” Ai complains under her breath, walking after Linh.
Linh pretends she did not hear that and promptly ignores her wife as she turns right at the corner of the bamboo groves. Less than a fifteen minute walk, they make it to the other side of the village. The silence has stretched long enough that Linh feels the need to say something.
“You’re acting like a child, Ai.” It certainly does bring up a memory of her tiny child form. Now that one was a firecracker waiting to explode with the amount of energy she had.
Linh is the first to spot the red hair of their partner, along with a tiny gaggle of children following her like little ducklings.
It’s funny that it was actually Ai’s idea to move to Jinhai’s homeland, seeing as it might do for a change in scenery. Jinhai is good with people, children in particular. Seeing as Jinhai has become the resident walk-in physician, she’s also taken up a side job educating the children of the town. She’s always been an excellent teacher and the parents of the village appreciate their children being taught to read and write.
Though it might be easier to invest in a horse, they didn’t want anyone to trail them back to their house, so Jinhai decided to make the two hour trek every second day starting from an hour before the sun rises, eager to see her students.
When Ai doesn’t respond, Linh stops in her tracks and turns around. Ai looks deeply in concentration, with her eyes looking past her rather than at her.
“Do you know if you would like to have children?” Linh finds herself asking, taking her lover’s hand in hers.
Ai blinks, coming out of her thoughts and looks down at Linh. She raises an eyebrow and the corner of her lips lift into a cocky smirk.
“Did I not proposition you more than half a century ago to carry my egg?”
Linh scratches her cheek. She almost forgot about that. “Aside from that, I mean. Would you like to raise a child? I think you’d make a good mother.” She looks over at Jinhai near the edge of the pond with the group of children behind her. “You both would.”
“Are you sure?” Ai asks, almost hesitant.
“I am,” Linh says with absolute confidence.
Ai makes a noise in the back of her throat, coughing into her hand. “Adoption is not out of the question, but still, I want you to bear my children.”
“Maybe one day.” Linh squeezes Ai’s hand. “Though I think Jinhai has done more of the child-raising then I have,” she jokes.
As if on cue, Jinhai looks over at them and waves at them with a kind lovely smile. Linh waves back with her free hand.
Out of the corner of Linh’s eyes, Ai looks at Jinhai and the group of children with an expression akin to wistful, almost melancholic by nature.
“Jinhai would make a good mother…” Ai pauses, giving herself a moment to collect her thoughts. “Many things have changed in the past several centuries, and I too, have changed.” She huffs gruffly. “In part, thanks to your influences.”
Is this what you envisioned for us all of these years ago, Linh thinks, getting on her tiptoes to kiss Ai’s cheeks.
The water pours onto a bamboo shoot, making a clicking sound as it falls and rises again to be refilled. The moon is high in the sky as the pond reflects its beauty along with a sea of stars. It’s reminiscent of Ai’s old place of residence. Perhaps it was nostalgia, but Ai finds herself coming out onto the deck to admire the moonlight on nights that she cannot sleep. She would take a swim on another night like this, but she’s not feeling up to the task.
Familiar footsteps, silent to the human ears, make their way across the hallway and a mop of red hair pops out with a blanket in her arm. Once, Ai would have ignored her, but in the half century, she’s spent with them, Jinhai has grown on her. She nods, giving Jinhai permission to come closer.
“Did you ever think we would end up like this,” Jinhai asks, taking a seat next to Ai. She closes her eyes, and from experience, Ai can tell she’s going into a half meditated state.
Ai gives her a glance and sits up against the wooden support structure.
“Not particularly,” she says as casually as possible. Love was never a possibility in her mind, barely a thought despite her long life. "Though I must say, this pond is much cleaner than the old one.”
“It’s because Linh cleans it weekly. She thought it would be nice for you to have a place to spend with your thoughts.”
“How thoughtful,” Ai says dryly, but she feels her cheeks warm, a giddily feeling crawling up from her stomach.
Jinhai doesn’t exactly chuckle, but it’s close to the sound she would make. Ai files it away in her mind. Despite spending hundreds of years together, there are so many sides to Jinhai that even she doesn’t know about.
“The structure is almost done, we just need to fill it with water by next week,” Jinhai says, without opening her eyes. “We should be finished in time.”
“Perfect. She’ll never suspect a thing.” Ai smiles triumphantly. She can just picture the look on Linh's face.
“Would you like to join me?” Jinhai asks, opening an eye. A teasing sparkle hidden behind her calm exterior.
“Will I find myself dunked at the bottom of the pond again?” Ai harrumphs, crossing her arms. “No, thanks.”
There’s that teasing smirk that’s been coming so often. “Ah, you were napping so soundly. I would have hated to wake you in that state. Had I known I would have moved you aside.”
“Of course you would have,” she says, her tone full of doubt. With a touch of willpower, light gathers around her body as she shrinks, transforming into her smallest snake form. Curling up on Jinhai’s lap, she nests herself against the warmth.
“Ah, you’re adorable in this form,” Jinhai almost coos.
I’m adorable in every form, Ai says telegraphically.
Jinhai chuckles indulgently. “Of course,” she mimics Ai’s earlier words. A comfortable silence falls over them, and the last thing Ai could feel was a calloused fingertip stroking her head.
“You’re up early,” Jinhai says, sliding the paper door to the left. The sun has barely peaked over the mountains and the birds haven’t shaken their bodies awake from sleep yet.
Linh wipes her brow with her rolled-up sleeves, throwing the wet laundry on the clothesline to dry. “Well, you know me, I like to get chores done as soon as possible.”
Jinhai chuckles, picking up the rest of the wet clothing. “Let me assist.”
“I can do it,” Linh says, trying to tug the clothing away but Jinhai is slippery.
“I insist,” she says with a smile so blindingly bright, it’s practically a crime to refuse her.
Linh sighs knowing well when she’s been defeated. “If you insist, I can’t stop you but,” she raises a finger as she lists her condition, “I want to come with you while you’re hunting for mushrooms today.”
Jinhai looks crossed eye at the finger in front of her nose and laughs lightly. “It would be my pleasure to have you accompany me.”
“Great! Let’s finish this up quickly then,” Linh chirps with a pep in her step.
Despite relocating more than a handful of times, they rarely ever forgot to make time for each other. Sure, some of them may like to take their own solo journeys and travel the world, but they always came back in the end. Linh and Jinhai’s mental bonds to Ai made sure they wouldn’t get too far from each other.
An hour after they finished with the laundry, they took a stroll through the forest. From memory, there should be more mushrooms growing just a little past the cliffs.
“This reminds me of the first time you taught me how to cook.” Linh looks at the top of the trees, gauging the distance from the ground.
“Oh?” Jinhai hums, looking up from picking up a mushroom on the ground. “I had almost forgotten that,” she says apologetically.
Linh shakes her head, leaning down to grab a particularly tasty looking mushroom.
“Oh? Including the time I fell off a tree?”
Jinhai wheezes, almost doubling over in her mirth. It’s sweet music to her ears that Linh can’t get enough of it sometimes.
Jinhai stands up, moving to brush a strand of hair away from Linh’s face.
“They are some of my most fondest memories.”
“I’m glad.” Linh grins widely and rocks forward to kiss Jinhai’s lips.
The sun is well above the sky by the time they make it back to their residence. Ai’s there to greet them along with a pot of boiling tea.
“Imagine my surprise when I woke up to find both of you gone,” she says, placing the teacups in their respective spots.
“Sorry, I couldn’t sleep, Love.” Linh places her hands together in front of her.
Ai pouts. “The bed was cold.”
“Awww,” Linh says, making her way over. She embraces Ai, placing her forehead against her chests.
“We’re together now, aren’t we?” Linh tries to smile winsomely, giving the best pair of doe eyes she could muster.
“Why did I decide to marry you again?” Ai rubs her temples, her shoulders slouching.
“It was because of my charming personality, wasn’t it?” The pinch Linh receives is answer enough as she squeaks.
“Where are you taking me?” Linh laughs, putting up no resistance despite having her eyes closed. Her lovers knew better than to blindfold her.
“Somewhere nice,” Jinhai says secretively.
“Well, you have me surprised. We just had dinner. Where on earth could you be taking me?”
“The moon,” Ai says cryptically.
Linh rolls her eyes behind her closed eyelids. Those two have been disappearing in the middle of the night for the last two weeks now. It’s suspicious, but Linh knows for sure they don’t have ill intentions to play a prank on her. Well, Jinhai wouldn’t, but Ai…
She wonders where they’re going since they’ve been walking for almost ten minutes now. The path does feel oddly familiar, yet there’s never been much gravel tightly packed together.
She can smell fresh trees and the faint scent of lilies along the path, but that doesn’t mean anything when they live right in the middle of the forest. There’s some banter between the two but other than that it’s a quiet atmosphere. It’s comfortable enough that she could spend hours in silence with them, but the suspense of the mystery is itching at her patience.
“We’re almost there, just a few minutes more,” Jinhai says calmly, giving Linh’s hand a squeeze. Her grip is warm and comforting. The more and more they walk, the hotter it seems to be getting. Which isn’t unnatural since it’s the end of summer now with autumn close on its heels. It’ll be a relief when the cascades finally hibernate.
A longer distance up a steep path and just as Linh was going to speak up again, Ai says, “We’re here. You can open your eyes now.”
Opening her eyes, Linh sees that they’ve reached a cleaning. As the moon peeks out from behind the clouds, it illuminates the sight in front of her.
Ai places a grounding hand on her back while Jinhai squeezes their linked hands, and together they say, “Happy Birthday, Linh.”
Linh’s jaw is loose, and she closes it with a snap, astonished. The steam billows out from the springs enveloping her in the nostalgic scent, each rock hand craved to complete the aesthetics.
“You mentioned once that you wanted to soak in a hot spring,” Jinhai says helpfully.
“I did, but I wasn’t expecting you to— oh, what am I saying,” Linh shakes her head fondly. “Of course, you both would.”
Ai’s already at the edge of the spring, shedding her clothing quickly. “Shall we take a dip?” Modesty was never a concern for Ai.
“You look more excited to try out the hot springs than I do,” Linh teases.
Jinhai snorts and smiles innocently when Ai shoots her a glare. “Why don’t you join her, Linh.” Jinhai lets go of their hand temporarily. “I still have to wash myself.”
The steam of the springs is inviting enough, Linh doesn’t want to wait to hop in. “That sounds heavenly.” Quickly undressing, she takes Ai’s hand and then dips her big toe into the water. The temperature is perfect as she sinks into the water. Linh sighs blissfully. “It feels heavenly.”
“I have to agree,” Ai says, snuggling up to Linh.
Bathing in the river is fine and all, but nothing beats the comfort of a well-tended homemade hot spring. Linh sighs at the temperature. Jinhai places a warm soaked towel behind her back, slipping into the water beside her.
“Happy birthday, Linh,” Jinhai says again. This has to be one of the best birthday presents she’s received in a long time, if not the best.
“I,” Ai stresses, “came up with the idea.”
Jinhai chuckles. “Indeed, she did.”
“…Admittedly Jinhai laid out the plans,” Ai admits after a pause, giving credit when it’s due. She leans her head on Linh’s shoulder, closing her eyes.
“It was a division of labour.” Jinhai takes Linh’s hand and presses a kiss on the back.
Linh blushes at the attention, even as she relaxes against the both of them. Leaning back, she looks up at the stars, sparkling up in the night sky, content with her lovers by her side.