Fanfiction3: A-Li's Three Lives, Three Worlds - Chapter 31 (Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms 三生三世十里桃花)

Chapter 31

written by LigayaCroft
edited by kakashi and Panda

Two months later…

It was a harsh winter.

It wasn’t just once that A-Li wished he still had magick so he could keep his plants safe from storms nor did he enjoy trudging up the snow. But a tea farmer had to do what a tea farmer had to do and so the first part of the mornings was always spent out in the freezing cold inspecting the health of tea shrubs in the West Tea Farm.

After working the fields, he and Gun Gun would spend the rest of the day helping out in the Huo house. Huo Mao appeared to not mind and often told the neighbors how inspiring it was to have a house blessed with so much beauty walking around despite the fact that she could only see with one eye.

It was also the happiest mortal winter of A-Li’s life.

Laughter abounded in the Huo household. In between their times in the kitchen where Gun Gun taught Mei Lin how to cook, the two spent a lot of time chasing the nine-month-old Qianling around and folding to every whim the tiny tyrant had. Despite her blind eye, Huo Mao wove fabrics for spring clothing on her loom which was set-up by the largest window in the house. Huo Zheng flitted in and out, caught between her duties as granddaughter, mother, village chief and healer.

A-Li had volunteered to walk with her whenever he had the time — which, because it was winter, was all the time — but Huo Zheng did not appear to mind. In fact, she seemed to enjoy his company and was very curious about his life before Huicūn. A-Li tried to be vague but something in her eyes— something about the way she said, Interesting or Well, that’s good— told him she did not necessarily believe his half-truths but found it fascinating nonetheless.

He mostly kept out of the way during her rounds but was always ready should she or anyone need a helping hand. His reward was her word of thanks and her smile, and it was enough to keep his heart bright and light for quite a bit of time.

A-Li’s own Father was a great leader, but the Heavenly Emperor had immortals who attended his every need, who assisted him with his duties or simply followed his every command. In contrast, Huo Zheng had no one. She had elders she consulted with but ultimately, every decision rested on her own judgment and wisdom. She was expectedly busy especially because the woman did whatever was required of her: be it the usual of setting goals and giving directions to townsfolk, climbing up a tree to chop off dead branches by herself, crawling into tight spaces to fetch items for the elderly, and one time, she even swam in the freezing, raging river to help rescue a local’s ox. When she was not moving around, she sat at home with her abacus in her left hand and a brush and a paper in the other, as she calculated the village’s expenditures and adjusted budgets for the following weeks.

That did not even include the times her presence as a healer was required because somebody fell sick or was about to give birth. A-Li found out later on that Huo Zheng also helped augment their income by taking advantage of her notoriety as a midwife. She would sometimes attend to the affluent pregnant mothers from nearby villages and cities who had moved to birthing huts in Huicūn a month or so prior to their estimated due dates.

Hence, how she looked cheerful and well-rested in the mornings surprised A-Li now that it was clear it took a miracle for Huo Zheng to even have the time to lay down her head to rest. Mei Lin once alluded that Huo Zheng took a concoction to help revitalize her energy but A-Li had yet to see her drink one. She was a mystery, and the more he got to know her, the more perplexed he ended up being.

And the more attracted, too. Not just because her beauty reminded him of Xue Jiaolong — whom he hadn’t thought of for a while now — but because he admired the strength of her character.

A leader.

One who led by example.

One who wouldn’t demand of her people what she couldn’t deliver herself.

One who was wise as she was intelligent, and had a kind and selfless heart.

One he could only hope to be, should his Father continue to insist on one day passing the throne to him.

“I bet she destroyed something massive in her past life and that is why she is so upright and self-sacrificing in this life,” Mei Lin remarked with a smirk the previous week as she took Huo Zheng’s token sweets for him and tea for Gun Gun to their house. “Nobody would be so benevolent unless they were paying for a huge sin.”

“You’re just annoyed she never rises to your bait, Zūzu,” Gun Gun remarked as he poured Mei Lin some tea. “We all know you admire her and lately, you’ve been wanting to become a better version of yourself because of her. There’s no need to be so harshly critical. We can see through your disguise and I’m sure she can, too.” He sat down in front of Mei Lin and flicked his long silvery mane over his right shoulder. “I bet Xiăohŭ would not appreciate a friend like you.”

“And why wouldn’t she?” Mei Lin shot back through gritted teeth. “She’s stupid if she doesn’t know that there is no friend more loyal than me!”

Mei Lin had left that day with a renewed gleam in her eyes. As usual, Gun Gun knew exactly which of Mei Lin’s buttons to push and by how far. If A-Li was still in the habit of making bets, he would have put money on Huo Zheng’s shock to find a new friend waiting for her when she got home that day.

Yet, if Huo Zheng found Mei Lin’s sudden change in demeanor strange, she did not show it. Instead, she welcomed Mei Lin’s extra attentiveness and began bringing her along during her morning rounds as a healer, which left Qianling in the care of A-Li and Gun Gun.

For his part, A-Li discovered that he was sad to see the women go daily and thought maybe it wasn’t such a great idea to have goaded their baby phoenix into trying to make friends with Huo Zheng. Because now that Huo Zheng had found somebody else to walk with, he realized how much he had looked forward to the little routines they had built into their daily walks.

How they always had a cup of tea before leaving.

How he always held out her winter cloak for her to wear.

How she would put her hand in his as he led her safely down the steps to the ground.

And how he especially loved rainy days when they had shared an umbrella. Even the moisture in the air could not dampen that heady floral smell that came from her and never failed to warm his heart.

I miss her.

Now, he had to make do with the company of Huo Mao and Gun Gun instead.

It was not hard to please Huo Mao, however. The old woman was never the fussy type and if they let her carry on believing she was helping out instead of doing more damage than good, she became even more cheerful.

One day, after they allowed Huo Mao to help sweep cobwebs off the ceiling, A-Li noticed the old woman barely hiding a grimace as she sat back to rest. He immediately volunteered to give the woman a back massage while Gun Gun put Qianling to sleep. His inventive nephew had created a makeshift hammock using a large blanket that hung from the ceiling.

“What a kind boy you are, A-Li” Huo Mao cooed as she reached up to pat his hand. “I thought that Prince from Nanking who had steadfastly courted Huo Zheng for several years was my favorite. I think you’re my new favorite.”

A Prince? This was the first time he had heard of another man. He felt the stirrings of an unpleasant feeling in his stomach. But he had to clarify one thing first. “Nǎinai, I’m not courting Huo Zheng.”

“You aren’t?”

“Yes,” He nodded and felt the woman’s back tremble under his palms. “Nǎinai, are you crying?”

Huo Mao sniffled. “I just want to have a grandson-in-law to bully and order around.”

It was a strange wish, especially since culturally, mortal women belonged to their husband’s family after marriage, not the other way around. But then, Huo Zheng was married and yet still lived with Huo Mao, a testament to how Huo Zheng’s in-laws had no power over her.

And speaking of in-laws — “Nǎinai, you already have a grandson-in-law.”

Huo Mao stiffened, her next sob caught midway in her throat. The old woman shook his hands off her back and turned, eyes ablaze. “Might as well walk me to my grave! I’ve never met a more spineless man.”

“You said she had a prince for a suitor, Nǎinai?” The question came from Gun Gun who wore a strained smile as he rocked Qianling in the cloth hammock. “Does he still come around?”

“He first came here for the same reason you kids did: to look at our tea. Then he saw my Xiăohŭ and wanted to make her his wife so, he came back and forth twice a year for about four years. He was not as pretty to look at as the two of you are but he was a kind man. He never forced Xiăohŭ to accept him and only gave up when she had Qianling.”

That a mortal royal had come in close proximity to Huo Zheng, much like princes and the Emperor came close to Xue Jiaolong 5’000 years ago, was too much of a coincidence. And for both women to have met him and Gun Gun too — what were the chances?

It was at this point that Mei Lin and Huo Zheng entered the house, still wearing their fur-lined thick cloaks now tipped with snow flurries. How regal the two tall women looked except these ones carried live chickens hanging upside down from their hands.

And then, like she had done many times since that night at the bamboo grove, Huo Zheng turned to him and gave him her first smile before she turned her eyes to her grandmother.

“Nǎinai, we’re back. What were you discussing?”

“That I need a grandson-in-law, Xiăohŭ. This house hasn’t had a man to head it for quite some time now. When I pass on, you will be alone. Also, you need to think about Ling’er who is growing up without a father. Every child needs a father.”

“She has me, Nǎinai. You worry too much.” Although her tone was sweet, the look in Huo Zheng’s eyes was not. “Now excuse us while we bring these chickens to the coop before they pass out.”

Making sure she had the last word, Huo Mao called out, “You need to give Qianling a new father, Xiăohŭ! That is my dying wish! You cannot make me wait forever!”

The sound of a closing door was the only response to the old woman’s demand. Huo Mao shrugged and grinned as she turned to A-Li and Gun Gun. “She will give in one of these days, you’ll see.”

Gun Gun continued humming his tune to put Qianling to sleep. Meanwhile, Huo Mao slowly relaxed once again under A-Li’s ministrations and thanked him once the back massage was finished.

“Nǎinai,” A-Li said gently as he sat down beside the old woman. “Did it ever occur to you that Huo Zheng is not yet ready to get married again? Ling’er’s father might still be alive and will return.”

Huo Mao visibly cringed, her expression pained. “He better not return! If he does, I will run my blade through him myself,” she hissed. “She shouldn’t have met him. He ruined my Xiăohŭ’s chances to find a better match! What unmarried man would take a single mother now?”

“I would!” Gun Gun’s voice pierced through A-Li’s thoughts like lightning.

His eyes flew to his nephew’s somber expression then to Huo Mao who suddenly wore a glint in her eye. A-Li held on to Huo Mao’s right forearm and gave it a gentle shake.

“He was brought up for several years by his mother on her own, Nǎinai,” he explained in a rush as he cast a warning look at Gun Gun. “That is why single mothers have a special place in Gun Gun’s heart. He was certainly not serious about his proposition just now.”

“But, I am, Li-Gē,” Gun Gun insisted, his gaze unwavering. “It would be an honor to marry somebody like Xiăohŭ.”

“Really?” Huo Mao beamed as she straightened up and clapped her hands. “You would take my Xiăohŭ as your wife?”

A-Li’s head felt like it was about to explode. He never liked how Gun Gun called Huo Zheng by her family pet name, and neither did he like that she allowed his nephew to do so. It felt too intimate and he didn’t like that Gun Gun did it so casually as if it was right to do so. And he certainly didn’t like the fact that Gun Gun’s declaration had just put the stars back into Huo Mao’s eyes.

“Which one of you two idiots just volunteered to marry Huo Zheng?”

Mei Lin’s growl caught A-Li mid-glare at Gun Gun. He turned his head to the right to see his cousin standing there with a dark and ferocious expression on her face.

Given how territorial Mei Lin had been of Huo Zheng lately, A-Li was certainly not up for the shouting match that was about to ensue between these two.

“Where’s Huo Zheng?” he asked his cousin before she could put another word in.

“She’s out with Weixiao to hunt for truffles.” Mei Lin crossed her arms over her chest whilst giving the evil side-eye to Gun Gun. “They left not too long ago so you can catch up with them if you want to.”

It had been a while since A-Li accompanied Huo Zheng as she walked her pig, and given the animosity that was quickly ripening between Mei Lin and Gun Gun, he couldn’t wait to get out of the house.

“You and I will talk later,” He told Gun Gun and to the old woman beside him he said, “Nǎinai, please don’t let that scoundrel’s words excite you so.”

“Scoundrel?” Gun Gun’s gaze flicked upwards. “Me?”

A-Li pointed at Gun Gun and flashed him a warning look before he walked out of the house.

It was not hard to follow the direction that Huo Zheng had taken as her footprints had left a trail in the snow. The sun was bright in the sky, making the snow on the ground pristinely white and glittering brightly, causing A-Li to shield his eyes and squint as he made his way.

The cold air was crisp and clear that A-Li could see his clouded breath like fog as he continued his walk. It turned out to be quite a walk, too, as it seemed Huo Zheng and Weixiao had gone far up into the mountains. The huge pig, an orphaned wild boar Huo Zheng had taken in about year ago, appeared to have depleted the truffles supply in the woodland behind the Huo house that they now had to go farther up to get more.

A-Li followed Huo Zheng’s tracks all the way to the hill where the town kept their livestock cows, sheep, and goats. There he found Weixiao digging his snout through the soft mud inside the pen where the village kept the goats that were valued for their fur.

“Huo Zheng?” A-Li called out as he entered the pen and headed to the hut where shepherds gathered for rest and shelter. “Huo Zheng?” He called out again as he entered. His head scanned left and right searching through the dimly lit hut. “Huo—“ His voice dropped as he saw the edge of her cloak lying against the hay at the northeast corner of the room. A-Li approached the stacked bales of hay and turned the corner. He called her name again, this time softly, “Huo Zheng?”

And there she was, curled asleep on her side on top of a hay bale with her cloak on top of her as a blanket. A small jade flask lay open and empty near her left hand — as if it had rolled off her fingers just before she dozed off.

A-Li picked up the bottle and took a whiff, surprised to find that instead of alcohol, he smelled something potently fragrant — initially of delicate flowers with undertones of citrus before it mellowed and rested on unfamiliar wood notes.

Whatever was in the flask was strong enough to put Huo Zheng to sleep. A-Li knelt down and gazed at her intently. He realized now that the bright sparkle in her eyes and her vibrant smile had distracted him from noticing the dull pallor of her skin and the dark circles that she had had under her eyes all this time.

His hand lifted to touch her cheek but he caught himself and sighed with regret as he rose and stepped back. Afternoon beams of light that shone through the hut’s crevices and narrows spaces played over her form, narrowly missing her face, as if the heavens themselves willed to shade her and leave her to her sleep, undisturbed.

Something shifted in his heart once again — that dull ache and tightness in his chest, a pang that felt as delicious as it was painful. A-Li took a moment, sighed, and look up at the ceiling.

The sound of her moving made him look back at her again and for several breaths, A-Li stood there riveted by the mere image of her slanted brown eyes as she lay under her cloak staring up at him sleepily.

He forced himself to blink and to ignore how the shepherd’s hut suddenly felt small and intimate.

“What were you doing sleeping here, Huo Zheng?” He asked as he tried to calm his breathing. “It’s cold in here and there’s no fire.”

“I was dreaming…of you,” she replied softly as she slowly pushed herself to stand up, the cloak dropping to the ground with a soft swish. Her unbound hair tumbled down her back to her waist like a waterfall, black with highlights of amber only visible under sunlight. It was a damning contrast to the drab gray peasant shirt that she wore, like black lava that flowed down a volcano’s mountain face, dangerous as it was beautiful. “I was dreaming about you and now, you’re here.”

“Me?” He coughed as he pointed to his own chest. Huo Zheng’s dreams about his eyes had never made A-Li feel comfortable. “You were dreaming about me? It's that Jiě Fu of yours again, right?”

“I haven't dreamt about him, much less thought about him for several months now.”

Maybe it was the mischievous way she was looking at him but A-Li could feel the beginnings of arousal and heat spread throughout his body.

Then she all but tipped him over the edge with just three words, “A-Li? Come here.”

A command. And her first time to use his familiar name.

He swallowed hard.

How did we get to this point?

His breathing grew heavier.


His feet moved.

No. Don’t.

But Huo Zheng also met him halfway. As she stood right in front of him, her face tilted up to his and she placed both palms on top of his chest.

A-Li’s heart thundered in his chest so loud he was sure she could hear it.

No. Don’t. No.

With his rational mind’s appeal over a longstanding principle on never getting entangled with married women now decimated to ashes by flames of desire; alas, A-Li could only stare at her for his feet were firmly rooted to the ground. She challenged him, mesmerized him, with a beckoning look. Then her gaze slowly lowered until it stopped at his lips just as her right hand slid upwards and wound its way around his neck.

Her tongue darted out to slowly lick her lower lip, causing A-Li’s breath to catch in his throat as he followed its movement. Before he could even recover, her hand on his neck put on firm pressure to pull him down.

He picked up the fragrant scent of her breath right before his lips finally discovered what she tasted like.


Chapter 32