Knitting was an interesting art, Meiling reflected, as her needles clacked together beside the fire. The string was woven together and tied tightly in a perfect pattern to create a greater whole.
Maybe it was a bit too philosophical, to think that the knots represented the people in her life, but it was still a nice thought. A chain that had come together, with hard work and effort.
All these seemingly unconnected people, who had found their way here. Stumbling and connecting to this place and the girl from Hong Yaowu.
Two bodies impacted with enough force to create a small shockwave. Their weapons clashed, as they sought to gain dominance over each other. The blades on their feet bit deep into the ice.
Xiulan smirked at the look of wide-eyed excitement on Xianghua’s face, her entire body coiled as she sought to master this new area of combat. Balance and reflexes all in one. Truly, Ha Qi was a powerful sport.
In the end, experience, though Xiulan had only really played once before, was what won the day. Xiulan twisted, and Xianghua went spinning away as Xiulan grabbed the puck shooting across the river, and bolted towards her next adversary.
Pi Pa sat daintily in the goal, her eyes as sharp as ever, watching Xiulan’s approach, ready to defend. Xiulan displayed the skills that marked her training, her strike was one of precision and grace. A line drive into the corner of the net, faster than the eye could see.
The puck slammed into the stick in Pi Pa’s mouth, deflecting off and being caught out of the air by Gou Ren, who immediately started back towards Xiulan’s team’s net. Tigu was quick to intercept, but Gou Ren was a Wreckerball, simply slamming into the smaller girl and sending her skidding backwards as he built up momentum.
Xiulan pirouetted, and shot back the way she came… only to be intercepted by Xianghua again.
“You know the point of the game is the puck, right?!” She demanded.
“Master Jin said blocking is a perfectly valid tactic,” Xianghua returned, stopping her from getting to Gou Ren. They shoved and skidded along the ice, which was creaking a bit ominously. It still wasn’t very thick, but they were cultivators. A bit of cold water wouldn't hurt them.
They pushed and shoved, until Xianghua managed to sway slightly and twist, sending Xiulan flying into a snowbank.
Grunting, Xiulan shook her head, clearing off the snow, even as Gou Ren got the puck taken off him by Tigu—
Ri Zu slammed the gong, indicating the end of the round. Meiling was sitting beside her, looking amused at their antics, the red thread and needles clacking away.
Xiulan took Xianghua’s hand as the other woman pulled her out of the snowbank.
“You were right, Xiulan. It is good training,” Xianghua said with a smile, her breath misting around her.
“It's pretty fun too,” Xiulan said, as she looked around the frozen river.
Jin was with Bowu and Hou Ten, the monkey, teaching both how to skate. Hou Ten was a bit surprising. The monkey had been relatively reclusive these past months… though Jin had given him leave to dig as he pleased.
Xiulan just hadn't expected the monkey to mine out an entire tunnel complex in the back forest.
Xinghua sniffed. “You’ll see how fun it is when you are defeated and at my feet, Cai.”
Xiulan snorted at the challenge. “I wish you the luck of the heavens. You’ll need it, Damp Pond.”
Xiulan skated to the sidelines and took a drink of water, as her heart began to calm its beating. She had been looking forward to playing Ha Qi again. It was fast paced, took immense concentration and skill, and had just the right touch of violence.
It really was the ideal sport. One could even pretend they were on a flying sword, with the blades attached to their feet.
She smiled at Xianghua, and skated off to her own team. Yun Ren and Tigu both nodded to her. “So? What's the plan?” Tigu asked. They were tied at two-two.
“Switch me in,” Yun Ren said, rubbing at his thigh. “I’ve got an idea.” His foxlike eyes were narrow, and he was smirking.
Xiulan raised an eyebrow, and Tigu grinned viciously.
The gong sounded again, and they got into position. Ri Zu stood on her raised stone, and threw the puck between them.
The match was relatively inconclusive, as they traded the puck back and forth for a while, shoving and dancing around each other— until Gou managed to slam into Yun and steal the puck. He had a giant grin on his face as he streaked towards Tigu, drawing his stick back for a slapshot. Qi started to swirl around his arms visibly. Technically illegal, since they said no technique use… but Xiulan had a feeling there was going to be a foul from both sides.
He let fly—only for the stick to just pass through the puck, the illusion dissipating. He looked utterly dumbfounded at what had happened.
Yun Ren chuckled when the puck suddenly appeared in Pi Pa’s net, his own lazy strike sending it in.
“Ha! Take it Gou—ack!”
Peppa slammed into Yun Ren’s stomach, folding him in half for the treachery.
Ri Zu bashed her gong, squawking about fouls from both sides, as Xiulan and Xianghua skidded to a stop to watch the fireworks.
Xiulan could only watch as Yun Ren managed to get to his feet, and had to run from his brother and the enraged pig.
Xiulan started laughing.
“Hey! Cut me into the next game?” Jin asked, as he skated up to them.
“Only if you’re ready to lose!” Xiulan called back, sticking out her tongue.
Jin grinned, and slung an arm over her shoulder.
Xiulan punched at his stomach good-naturedly.
They ended up losing the next game, as Jin cheerfully skated circles around them all, one of the few times when he didn’t hold back so much. It wasn’t even his strength, it was simply his skill. It was probably something that he had practiced all his life.
By the end of it, they were all tired and soaked with sweat, while Jin whistled a jaunty tune, a smug smile on his face.
“Master is too strong,” Tigu muttered.
“I’ll draw a bath. Then we can have a bit more fun,” Jin called back to them, as they all walked home.
Xiulan snorted at the phrasing.
A year ago she had thought the worst.
A year ago, she had expected the worst.
Today, she thanked her friend for preparing a bath for her, ready for the rousing game of Answer Go that would follow.
The fires burned. The hearth crackled, and the days passed.
The dyed red thread was warm and strong. A bond, perhaps. Like the red threads of fate in all the stories?
The bond between people.
Or maybe she was getting just a tad too sentimental.
A Dragon descended from the heavens, twisting and undulating. He curled through the grey skies, the rider upon his back bundled up for the cold. They landed before a man on a hill, whose arms were crossed as he stared upon his work.
“It's looking good, bro,” Meiling heard Yun Ren tell Gou, as he brought out the recording crystal. He had recorded many images of the project from the air. Gou Ren studied them critically, his eyes narrow with thought and concentration.
It was a good look on him. The intensity and the passion as he planned and made. Architecture was honestly the last thing Meiling would have guessed Gou Ren would take an interest in. Too much math and planning but her brother in all but blood had surprised her.
Gou Ren grinned, as the images were apparently satisfactory. “It's looking good, everybody! I think we can get started on the next part!”
There was a great cheer from his laborers— which consisted of basically everybody from the farm.
Gou Ren had decided that the packable snow was perfect for testing out how his architectural drawings would actually look, and had roped most of the farm into helping him make his grand visions a reality.
Now, they had two towers, a bridge, and what looked like a section of a castle rising up off the hills.
Meiling was one of the few sitting out, as she knit a sock. She watched on as the castle wall started extending, a small smile on her face. Jin was packing snow along with Gou. Both laughed about something, bumping their fists together.
Jin, before turning to start to work again, noticed her watching and grinned even brighter, waving at her. Meiling shook her head in amusement and waved back.
Her husband had been in an even better mood than normal this past week… and to be honest, so had she. Mei brought her attention back to her knitting as she thought over the reason she felt more connected to her husband than she had ever before.
A different world.
There were stories about this kind of thing. Lingering spirits, who took over the bodies of the dying, to get their revenge against the wicked. Cultivators who had been born in the long past, and somehow returned in the body of somebody weak.
Meiling didn’t know enough to tell if any of them were actually true. But it was a common enough theme.
Similarly, the thought of another world wasn’t quite so alien. There had to be something up in the heavens. Other realms to travel to, and cultivate there.
Meiling chewed on her lip, as she remembered asking Xiulan about what exactly was out there.
“There are supposed to be planes beyond the heavens. Other worlds floating in the Sea Between Worlds… But I don’t actually know Meiling. Nobody really does, until they have enough power to travel there. I doubt any that do gain such power ever return.”
Reincarnation. The memories of two lives. As soon as Jin had said that, it was as if everything had fit… she knew it to be true.
It was the small things that gave it away. The things out of place that couldn’t be explained by being raised outside the Azure Hills.
His manner of speech. The odd slurs in his tone that he sometimes had. The way he had spoken the other language, something which she now knew was entirely of another world. His music had been a completely different style and he’d had tales about celebrations that were like nothing she had heard of. It all made sense now.
It hadn’t really changed anything, though, had it?
Meiling was sure most people would have been fairly shocked, but it helped that he had brought it up himself. He told the truth of his own volition and he never had really lied to her.
Everything he had told her had been the truth. It was just sometimes that “a man from a far off land” was a lot further away than one might have thought.
He had told her. Revealed his secret to her, a secret that came with wounds that still bleed when he spoke of his own death.
Jin had trusted her.
And that was enough.
So even as he told her of a place that was beyond the heavens, of another world… things didn’t really change between them. They still told each other silly things in the mornings. They still made breakfast together, they bathed together, and slept together.
Jin was Jin. And she wouldn’t have it any other way.
The days turned to night, and the night turned to day.
Needles clattered together. She cast off and wove in her ends.
Meiling hung her completed sock above the fire.
It was a strange tradition, if she was honest.
But the look of shock and happiness on Jin’s face was everything she had hoped for.
She knew that whatever came, it would be worth it in the end.