Fanfiction3: A-Li's Three Lives, Three Worlds - Chapter 29 (Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms 三生三世十里桃花)

Chapter 29

written by LigayaCroft
edited by Panda and kakashi

Three mortal months later...

"The saplings are growing perfectly," Huo Zheng beamed at Gun Gun as they knelt shoulder to shoulder over the plants Gun Gun had planted three months ago. "The roots are digging deep into the soil. You're a natural at this!"

A-Li noted the look of absolute delight on Gun Gun’s face as his nephew's lips reflected Huo Zheng's smile. He sighed. It had become troublesome lately how Gun Gun had been extra attentive to Huo Zheng's happiness and needs. It seemed everybody— his nephew and cousin included— in this tiny village all served at Huo Zheng's pleasure.

"Bai Li, look! Your nephew's plants are growing better than yours."

"Why would I want to take a look at something that's better than mine?" He scowled, crouched and shook his shoulders to remove the bamboo pole that he had used to carry two earthen containers of compost, retrieved from the pit at the bottom of the hill. Three months ago, a mere whiff of the decaying organic materials from the pit had been enough to make him throw up; now, the smell barely bothered him at all. With his hands, he scooped the slightly pungent material on top of a sapling, packed it, and proceeded to move on to the next one.

But A-Li made the mistake of taking another glance at her before he moved. He saw her stand up to survey the tea farm with a tiny, peaceful smile on her face. And just like the many other times he had cast his eyes on her without her knowledge, he reminded himself to breathe.

Huo Zheng looked like a queen who looked over her domain. Despite her common folk attire, her tanned, sun-freckled skin, and the hemp sandals she wore on her feet— she possessed the regality of one, too.

As if she was born to rule this world and everything in it.

Despite her assurance that night three months ago that he could, A-Li still preferred to look at her when she was not looking. Maybe part of it was guilt— because, for the first time in 5’000 years, the memory of Xue Jiaolong was not as potent as it used to be. It was with a slight sense of panic he realized that although he could remember Xue Jiaolong very well — fondly and at times, sadly — he could hardly remember the feelings she had used to evoke from him anymore.

Was this what it meant to really move on from her, which a few immortal days ago Cheng Yu had impatiently pointed out he was yet to do?

Huo Zheng moved and the wind picked up loose strands of her hair, which caused some of the tendrils to float right behind her. A-Li forced himself to take a breath. He liked how the shadow from her conical straw hat fell to cover her face, and that from his angle, he was the only one who could see the steel in her eyes. He liked that even during her unguarded moments, she never looked soft, even during that night that she had unapologetically leaned on him for strength.

They never talked about that incident nor did she look at him with embarrassment afterward. In retrospect, A-Li surmised she had close ties with everyone in the village and probably leaned on any shoulder she could. Maybe, in some odd way, that night was his initiation to the community because despite the gravity of the damage their trio had caused, the town did soften toward them within a few days.

A-Li thus couldn’t help but wonder if his Shifu had known he would be meeting Xue Jiaolong’s lookalike when she pushed him to go back to their house in the mortal realm because his test was due.

Was Huo Zheng the test?

Because the longer A-Li stayed in Huicūn, the more keenly aware he was of what a remarkable, hands-on leader she was.

Or was it Time?

Because except for the fact that he now had to use his hands and feet to get what he wanted — something that he still needed some adjusting to — A-Li realized he actually enjoyed the perks of being mortal.

He finally understood the concept of Time.

Even though his Shifu lived in Hùndùn, she had always been conscious of the passage of time between created realms, as if her mind had an incense clock for each. Shifu was also cautious of what to teach him and when, and would not hesitate to slow down even if A-Li had sometimes begged for his lessons to speed up.

Now A-Li understood that there was indeed a time and a season for everything. Farmers knew this first and foremost. A couple of months ago, they had harvested the last of the spring leaves of the Eastern Tea Farm. A-Li now knew the reason why everyone roused early to pick leaves in a race against sunlight. The cooler weather of dawn provided necessary moisture and tenderness to each leaf sprout, which then needed to be roasted by hand with full attention in gigantic woks before noon. A breath too late and a whole batch could get ruined, thus decreasing its value and affecting the village's economy for the coming winter, meaning the village would have to resort to rations of goods to survive. He now knew how much the sun hurt against one's skin if one was overexposed, like during the earliest weeks from late spring to midsummer when they devoted so much time to repairing the West Tea Farm's irrigation system. Hence, the goal was always to finish what needed to be done way before dragon hour [1], so everyone could take shelter and only return once the sun had slid further down the horizon.

Flies and insects at noon no longer bothered him anymore either. A-Li was always only too glad for the short opportunities to close his eyes and rest under the nearest shade. He had learned that to be truly happy after a long morning at work, all one needed was solid ground to lie on and a straw hat to put over one's face.

And her.

A-Li was keenly aware that she was not Xue Jiaolong, and there now lay the problem: he could still spend all day staring slack-jawed at Huo Zheng. For some reason, she reminded him of his Shifu whose laughter contained all the joy and whose eyes contained all the sadness in the universe. Huo Zheng visibly vibrated with the life and energy of the whole town of Huicun. Did the woman ever get tired of having so many people look up to her for guidance, direction, and inspiration? If so, it didn't show.

So, was village leader Huo Zheng the lesson, or was it Time?

Three months in and he still had no idea.

He would go back into Hùndùn to ask his Shifu directly— but he couldn’t and not for the lack of trying. Meditating had never gotten him closer to this world’s Liánzi as it normally and effortlessly would have, and all three of them had tried going past the village’s borders to no avail and to extremely excruciating results.

"A-Zheng! A-Zheng! Something terrible has happened!"

Huo Zheng turned to the direction of the harried voice from a boy of about eleven mortal years of age, and so did A-Li and Gun Gun.

"Bo'er fell from the roof of their house. He has an ugly wound on his side and we think he broke his arm!"

Huo Zheng didn’t even lose a breath to think. “Run back and tell everyone not to move him— not even by a chi [2]!" she fired off before setting off to run downhill towards the direction of the Huo house.

As it turned out, Huo Zheng could run as fast as any man could, too.

"Mei Lin!" She shouted as soon as she crossed the small courtyard of the Huo compound. "Mei Lin!"

Mei Lin rushed out of the house holding a ladle, eyes aflame.

"What now? I just put Ling'er to sleep; are you trying to wake her up?"

"Remember the wooden trunk I asked you to set aside the other night? Bring it out!" Then without looking back, slippers flying to the dry ground, Huo Zheng rushed inside the house.

Mei Lin frowned at the dust that flew in the air in Huo Zheng's wake. "What is up with her?" She asked aloud then frowned deeper when she met A-Li's eyes. "And what are the two of you doing here?"

A-Li and Gun Gun exchanged glances. What were they doing? As far as A-Li was concerned, his feet had moved on their own to follow Huo Zheng and he was suddenly here but he had no idea that Gun Gun had followed, too.

"Might as well make yourselves useful. The trunk she mentioned was heavy and it almost broke my back when I stored it like she asked me to. Come, follow me."

They followed Mei Lin as she turned the corner to the back of the house. She knelt on the ground and used a key from her keyring to unlock the cellar, pulled the doors open and climbed down. A-Li and Gun Gun followed down the wooden steps into the cold darkness, which Mei Lin alertly resolved by lighting a candle.

Now bathed in the glow of soft, amber light, A-Li took stock of the cellar’s contents and was amazed to discover that apart for the stored vegetables on one side, the rest of the room looked like the storage room of the Medicine King's mansion.

Rows and rows of jars and cabinets filled with liquids and powders lined up the walls, a big cauldron hung on top of a fire pit, smaller pots and glassware were laid out in organized chaos on top of a long table, and bunched stalks of herbs tied together hung from clotheslines that crisscrossed the room.

Would wonders never cease? As it turned out, Huo Zheng was not just the village's leader; she was its healer, too.

"I'm not supposed to touch anything without her explicit permission but over there's the small trunk she was talking about," Mei Lin said, her finger pointed toward a trunk two-chi high and four-chi long that sat on top of a smaller table. Suddenly, she gasped, snapped up straighter and turned toward them. "Bring the trunk out. I will meet you outside!"

Mei Lin almost flew out of the cellar as she shouted her command.

A-Li signaled to Gun Gun to take a handle of the trunk while he took the opposite one and lifted it with a slight grunt. They climbed out of the cellar and turned the corner to walk into Mei Lin and Huo Zheng, who were arguing right outside the main door.

"You promised! You promised to take me the next time you have to treat someone!"

It was not lost on A-Li that Huo Zheng had already cleaned herself up and put on a fresh change of clothes. She looked past Mei Lin toward them and her face softened upon sighting the trunk.

"This is different. Bo'er is gravely injured." Huo Zheng motioned for A-Li and Gun Gun to hurry. "Let's go."

Mei Lin held Huo Zheng back with one arm. "Do you think I am squeamish about blood? Woman, I've seen more blood than you would in your entire lifetime."

Huo Zheng's eyes narrowed. "You're talking strangely again." With a shrug, she sighed, "Very well, if you insist. And find somebody to hold Ling'er for you. Why do you have to have her with you anywhere you go?"

Mei Lin walked apace with Huo Zheng, the five-month-old baby tied in a wrap and asleep on her back.

"Because I am a better mother to Ling'er than you are," Mei Lin declared with much pride. “I told you, she prefers me to you now."

“And I keep warning you: don't get too attached to Ling'er. She's not yours. You'll only break her heart when you eventually have to leave."

"Whoever said I'm leaving her behind? You're an incompetent mother to her, always running off to save the world in one way or another, putting the needs of others above her own.”

Huo Zheng cut back with her own retort. “Are we still talking about me or your own parents? I told you to stop projecting your frustrations toward them on my daughter and I.”

A-Li watched the two women share an intense look, but he was not alarmed. The past several weeks had enabled him to get used to Mei Lin's rabid goal to be the best at whatever Huo Zheng did and her penchant for pointing out all of Huo Zheng's deficiencies.

The student always trumps the teacher, and it'll be the same with her and me, mark my words,' Mei Lin declared one night two months ago when she had the rare opportunity to drink with A-Li and Gun Gun to toast their newly-built hut located behind the Huo property line.

“So Zūzu told Xiăohŭ about the Demon Ancestor and High God Mo Yuan?” Gun Gun said in a low voice as the two women continued to argue a few steps ahead of them. “And while sober, most probably, because I have yet to see Xiăohŭ take a sip of liquor.”

“It seems like it, yes. But how much she told Huo Zheng is the bigger question.”

Gun Gun shook his head, his eyes wistful as he watched Mei Lin’s back. “Is it too much to hope she exercised tact and did not reveal our real identities to Xiăohŭ?”

“Have faith in my cousin,” He assured his nephew, as he adjusted his hold of the trunk. “Do you think Huo Zheng would still look at us like normal people if she knew we were gods?“

As they rushed closer to Bo'er's house, A-Li observed in growing amazement how Huo Zheng became visibly calmer — almost as if she had found her inner beast and had leashed it in. Mei Lin probably noticed the change, too, because his mouthy cousin stopped talking and instead satisfied herself with throwing side-glances at her mistress.

By the time they got to where a small crowd had gathered, Huo Zheng was already so cool and collected she was like ice.

"Let me pass," she announced.

The crowd willingly parted to show Bo'er lying on the ground. His left arm was in an unnatural angle inside the skin. Blood gushed from the wicked wound on the side of his waist that could only have been caused by a blade. Other than those two details, the boy was conscious and smiled brighter upon seeing Huo Zheng approach.

"Oh, Bo'er, you weren't careful," she sighed as she knelt beside the boy.

"Will I lose my arm, A-Zheng?"

"The arm is the least of your worries," She turned to A-Li and Gun Gun and wordlessly asked for her trunk. "Where's the blade that did this to you?"

As Bo'er explained how he got into an accident, A-Li and Gun Gun placed the trunk right beside Huo Zheng who flipped it open to show carefully-arranged jars of dried powders, herbs and liquids, as well as pre-cut strips of cloths of different lengths and sizes. There were other instruments, too, and they all looked clean. Mei Lin had mentioned once before that Huo Zheng liked to boil objects in water — and sometimes with vinegar — to sanitize them.

Huo Zheng fished out a large piece of cloth, folded it four or five times and then pressed it on top of Bo'er's wound. She motioned for Gun Gun to take over and directed the right amount of constant pressure before letting the cloth go so she could scan her hands along Bo'er's leg and arms. She pinched the skin and gently knocked against the bone with a smooth rock to check if the youngster could still feel his extremities. When she was satisfied with the results of her prodding, she turned to the crowd and asked for a dozen eggs, a straw mat and a long table. To A-Li and Gun Gun, she made an early request to move the youngster on top of the table once it was ready.

While waiting, Huo Zheng took out two wooden cases and a flask and a liquids container from the trunk. Turning to Mei Lin, she asked, "Are you sure you want to assist?"

Mei Lin gave an unladylike snort and unloaded Ling'er over to the nearest middle-aged woman in the crowd.

"Please take care of my baby," Mei Lin respectfully requested. A-Li and Gun Gun shared a stunned look. Mei Lin had never used such a tone on anyone that far beneath here before.


Huo Zheng opened a wooden case and her index finger ran over the number-labels carved into the wood right below the partitions that housed needles of different lengths and sizes. There was also a small blade with a handle in the last partition.

"I will need the Number 3 needle. I need you to string about five-chi of thread that you can get from the other case through the eye of the needle before handing it over to me. Do you know how to properly tie the end of the thread?"

"You already taught me that the last week. I am not stupid."

"Use the blade to cut the string but make sure to keep the blade clean. Hold it only by the handle.” Huo Zheng pushed the two cases toward Mei Lin.

Next, she uncapped a small flask and gently lifted Bo'er's head by supporting his neck to help him drink. The youngster almost choked and complained that the liquor was too strong, but Huo Zheng only shook her head and offered to give him several more gulps as soon as he could breathe. Once satisfied with the amount Bo'er had imbibed, she put his head down, returned the flask inside the trunk, then lifted the bigger container to A-Li. "Can you pour this over our hands, please?"

A-Li took the container and uncapped it. The smell of strong alcohol immediately wafted under his nose, too strong, and he grimaced.

"What is this?"

"Báijiǔ [3]," She answered then turned to a bystander to give instructions to find bamboo splints with specific dimensions. "Mei Lin, do you remember the proper way to wash hands like I taught you to?”

"Yes, yes, don't forget to include the fingernails, the spaces between fingers and to thoroughly scrub the skin," Mei Lin stepped closer to A-Li and held out her hands. "Please do a slow but steady pour, Li-Ge."

A-Li nodded and watched with fascination as Mei Lin carefully and consciously washed her hands.

"Why are you doing that?" he whispered, this being the first time that he had seen somebody wash one's hands with liquor.

"Because she said so. And also because mortals are puny," Mei Lin whispered back, keeping one eye on Huo Zheng who was mixing a paste from a mixture of oils, herbs and powders. "If we don't do this, their injuries might increase in severity. It's fascinating to know you can actually heal someone without magick.”

By the time Mei Lin was done washing her hands, Huo Zheng had finished mixing and had placed a cover over the bowl. Then she stood up, rolled up her sleeves and using her free hand and mouth, efficiently tied the ends above her elbow with cloth ties after which she approached A-Li and Mei Lin with her hands held out. Like Mei Lin, she washed from the elbows down and finished right when the straw mat and table had arrived.

The real work began. Huo Zheng ordered everyone except for Mei Lin, Gun Gun and A-Li to leave. The last of the stragglers were gone by the time they transferred Bo'er to the table, with Huo Zheng carefully supporting his arm during the entire process. Next, she asked Gun Gun to take a leather strap from the trunk and place it between Bo'er's lips. As if deaf to Bo'er's muffled screams, she began cleaning the wound and with Mei Lin's assistance, sewed it closed. A-Li barely had time to admire her excellent skin-sewing skills because she immediately topped it with the poultice she had mixed a while ago and wrapped a long bandage around the girth of Bo'er's waist.

The kid had guts. While he had screamed in agony, he did not pass out.

Huo Zheng motioned for A-Li and Gun Gun to help Bo'er to slowly sit up. Meanwhile, she ordered Mei Lin to mix powdered lime and egg whites in a bowl.

"I'll set your forearm," She said calmly as she looked Bo'er in the eye. "Just a little bit more pain but in a month or two's time, you'll be good as new." She pressed her fingers along the damaged arm, her eyes never leaving Bo'er’s, whose teeth were still clenched on the leather strap. Saliva dribbled down his chin from exertion but the boy remained brave under Huo Zheng's ministrations.

"As I suspected: it is a clean break. However, I think you also dislocated your shoulder. Bai Li, can you gently support his forearm right here while I snap his arm back into its socket?"

A-Li had no idea what Huo Zheng was talking about but he did as told. She moved to the side of Bo'er's shoulder, and angled her left forearm behind his shoulder while the other hand held his arm. Then with a quick series of pushes and pulls and muffled yowls of pain from Bo'er, the arm settled back nicely into its original place.

"You're young, Bo'er. This arm will heal nicely in a short time," she said soothingly as she wrapped a long strip of cloth around Bao'er's broken arm. Then she carefully poured the lime-and-eggwhite mixture over the cloth. “This will prevent you from moving this arm until it's time for me to take it out," she explained with a comforting smile. Once the mixture settled into a nice hardness, Huo Zheng tied bamboo splints into place before unfurling a large swatch of hemp cloth to form a sling around Bao'er's neck and arm.

"You did well, Bo'er. I am so proud of you," She said soothingly as she finally straightened. "Mei Lin, thank you for your assistance today."

Mei Lin shook her head, her eyes still wide. "You are amazing."

A-Li had to agree. Huo Zheng's steady expression all throughout the treatment rivaled that of Zhe Yan's.

"Don't thank me," Mei Lin added. "Teach me. I want to learn everything."

Huo Zheng shook her head with a frown. "A princess doesn't need to learn how to be a healer. You're also unmarried so I cannot take you with me when I help women give birth. Your time is better spent elsewhere."

"I beg to differ," Mei Lin insisted, stepping in front of Huo Zheng so they could look at each other eye-to-eye. "My Father always told me I could be anyone I wanted to be. After years of searching, I have finally decided who I want to be."

Huo Zheng just smiled at Mei Lin's passionate rhetoric as she knelt down to fix the contents of her trunk. "Please go and fetch my daughter, Mei Lin. Let's go home."

Mei Lin stomped so fiercely right where she stood that injured Bo'er jumped away to hide behind Gun Gun.

"Huo Zheng!"

Huo Zheng looked up and A-Li saw the momentary exhaustion in her eyes but it was immediately replaced with curiosity. "Yes, Mei Lin?"

“I want to be like you. Teach me how to be like you.” Mei Lin’s eyes watered with unshed tears. “Please."

Chapter 30


1. Between 7am-9am

2. Similar, but not exactly equivalent to, Western measurement for feet (China 1/3 m, Taiwan & Japan 10/33 m)

3. (白酒) is a Chinese alcoholic beverage made from grain, usually fermented sorghum. Báijiǔ literally means "white (clear) alcohol" or liquor, and is a strong distilled spirit, generally 52% alcohol by volume (ABV). It is closer to vodka in strength and mouth-feel.