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Gou Ren’s ass hurt.

It really hurt.

It really hurt, and he was bending over and sanding a floor, which added to his misery.

His ass hadn’t hurt this bad since his mother had caught him pilfering father’s traps, and claiming the pelts as his own catch, and that was half a decade ago.

Though he never would have expected it to be one of his friends administering punishment. It looked like Jin’s patience wasn’t so infinite after all. He supposed he kind of deserved it, he had been rather incessant in his jokes about Jin’s manhood.

The worst part was though, he did feel a bit better after Jin smacked him around with the branches.

He yawned, as his arms continued moving, sanding the floor as his mind wandered. They had gotten things done extremely quickly yesterday, and even though he had worked so much, he still felt vigorous and ready for more. He had even been able to play a bit of Ha Qi with Chun Ke and his brother, and he still felt fine.

He idly wondered about his newfound energy. He rarely seemed to get tired anymore, even when he worked all day. Maybe Jin was onto something about the rice--but Gou Ren had mostly eaten brown rice before, so that couldn’t be that different. Or maybe it was the eggs and the vegetables that Jin occasionally gave them, the ones that tasted better than anything he had ever eaten. Was it because they were grown by a cultivator?

He didn’t know. Maybe he was just growing into his strength? Father said that young men were at their strongest in their early twenties, and he had just turned eighteen. Maybe that was it. He was growing up.

He finished sanding the section of the floor, and Bi De walked in. He nodded to the rooster, who used his wings to whip up a gust and sweep all the wood dust from the house.

Useful. He thought. All this Qi stuff was useful. No wonder cultivators could sit around all day in the stories. If they even did this kind of stuff at all. He supposed that other people took care of it all-- even with Qi Jin was constantly busy.

He started sanding again.

And soon he would be too, working on the farm for Jin. His friend had kept his shack well maintained throughout the winter, and told Gou Ren that he could have it, if he wanted some privacy. Gou Ren decided he might take Jin up on his offer, but Jin’s new house was so nice that a room in here would be just fine.

And it would help that Meiling would be here. He liked Jin, he really did, but something would feel wrong without her to patch up his cuts and scrapes. Or maybe he would just get homesick. His brother would be at home. They’d never been separated for more than a week, as far back as he could remember.

Oh well, no second thoughts. He’d give it his all, like he always did. Besides, Hong Yaowu wasn’t that far away. A day and a bit. Less, if he could convince Chun Ke to give him a ride, and the boar...well, his friend, if he was being honest, was always agreeable.

He hit the other side of the room. It was the last pass, and it was probably near lunch. He ran his fingers along the smooth floor, making sure he hadn missed any spots. No splinters tugged at his fingers. He nodded to Bi De again, the rooster examining him in that creepy way chickens looked at people, before the bird nodded back, and once more cleared out the dust.

He stretched, his back not as sore as he was expecting it to be, after having been bent down for hours. He went to go find Jin. He met up with his brother, who had similarly finished upstairs. They nodded to each other, and stepped out into the sun.

Jin and Elder Hong were preparing the lacquer, and talking excitedly about bees of all things. The only experience Gou Ren had with bees was finding the occasional wild nest. The captured hives that were used for medicine were completely off limits.

Honey was delicious.

“We’re done the floors.” Yun Ren called, and both Jin and Elder Hong looked surprised.

“Already?” Elder Hong asked, looking skeptical, but not questioning them at Gou Ren’s nod. After the pelt incident, he never lied about finishing work.

“Thanks. You guys can take a break, I’ll finish up the floors.” Jin said, looking impressed. “It's still a few hours till noon, you guys are fast.”

Both Gou Ren and Yun Ren started. They really hadn't been working for long, had they? Yun Ren was frowning, but didn’t say much as they grabbed the Ha Qi sticks again. They had tried Jin’s bladed shoes--once. They were too unwieldy, and Gou Ren preferred to run, no matter how Jin said that the blades were how Ha Qi was meant to be played!

Before they went onto the ice, they turned around to look again at the house.

“Gods,” Yun Ren muttered, “sometimes I wish I was a girl, so someone would build me a house that nice.”

Gou Ren laughed. “You’re reedy enough for it, little brother.” The fact that Gou Ren was taller than his older brother was a bit of a sore spot. “Maybe some blind noble will mistake you for a girl?”

Yun Ren huffed. “You’re just mad I inherited all mom’s good looks, monkey boy. But being a girl is too boring. I’ll just freeload here.”

Gou Ren shoved his brother for the monkey boy remark. Yun Ren smacked the back of his knee with his stick.

And so began their Ha Qi game. Well, it was less of a game, and more just them tackling each other repeatedly and trying to keep a hold of the puck. There wasn’t even a token attempt at scoring.

They clashed, over and over, as they had done for years. Gou Ren was stronger, Yun Ren more wily and cunning. They weren’t truly trying to harm each other, just force the other one to submit.

They didn’t know how long they fought and feinted, as stopping was the only thing that meant defeat.

So engrossed in their game that they didn’t notice that they were watched.

Until finally, they were interrupted by Jin.

“Mind if I join in?” he asked, his blades on his feet. The brothers paused in their battle, sizing up the interloper. A stinging on their rear end sealed the deal.

Me and my brother against my friend.

They struck as one. Their sticks flew through the air, and their bodies shoved at Jin as they sought to take the puck from him, but he was always one step ahead. He glided across the ice with grace, never taking his eyes off them, and foiling any attempt at a pincer attack.

Direct attacks failed. They pushed and shoved, but this time, Jin didn’t budge. He just smirked an infuriating smirk, and brushed them off, even on his unwieldy, bladed feet.

Gou Ren knew Jin let them push him when they normally played. It was a game, and he carefully controlled his strength and speed so that everyone could have some fun. But this time, he was pushing them. Taunting them.

What had started out as fun now had their full concentration. Gou Ren took a deep breath, and settled himself. His brother did the same from beside him.

They nodded to each other. Even if Jin was a cultivator, they were going to take the puck at least once! They moved as fast as they could, trying to catch him, but Jin moved faster still, skating backwards leisurely, and ducking around their blows.

Jin shoved Gou Ren off to the side, as Yun Ren came in like a comet, and they clashed, both spun off to the side, and Gou saw his brother’s eyes open fully, his exhale coming out in a steaming bellow.

His eyes briefly met his brother’s. The index finger of Yun Ren’s right hand crossed over his middle. Gou Ren nodded, the message received.

Gou Ren inhaled, breath filling his lungs. He and his brother lunged.

They pushed off from the ice, attacking from two separate angles. They concentrated, pushing themselves to the limit--

And then Yun Ren’s stick shattered. His concentration broken, Gou Ren tripped, and careened along the ice, slamming into a snowdrift.

“Gods damn it, not again!” Yun Ren wailed. Throwing the wood to the side in frustration. “Why does that keep happening!?”

“....because you’re a cultivator.” Jin said, an odd expression on his face. “Both of you.”

There was stunned silence, as Yun Ren gaped.

“This some kind of joke, Jin?!” Gou Ren asked, clambering out of the snowdrift.

Jin shrugged. “Well, maybe not cultivators yet… but breaking bows, lifting twenty floorboards, sanding a floor in minutes, instead of hours… You’re using Qi for sure.”

“But shouldn’t we have felt it?” Yun Ren asked.

“You probably have been. You’ve been feeling pretty good lately, right? Lots of energy?”

The Xong brothers eyed each other. That did make sense…

“But shouldn’t it feel different?” Yun Ren asked, “just feeling a bit more energetic is...

“Most people have to be taught how to feel their Qi. Its a part of you. Can you feel your stomach digesting food? Your liver and kidneys doing their work? Sure, Qi is easier to feel than that, but...“

Jin sighed.

“Looks like you two are staying a bit longer. I’ll get you to the point where you don’t break things from uncontrolled Qi discharge, at least.”

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