“Qi’ge looks grown,” is Shen Jiu’s first thought upon seeing those familiar gentle features.
Well, maybe that’s a lie. His mind is significantly more disorganized than having the ability to think singular thoughts. A medley of fear fear pain anger echoing throughout his blood until he can hear it in every thump of his veins.
Not here, not near Wu Yanzi please please please -
— how dare he appear now, after so long, after all the fires have been lit all the pyres have been burnt, after Shen Jiu spent years in that godforsaken manner calling his name over and over again —
— go away go away go away, stop looking at me, don’t touch me, don’t call my name —
— Qi’ge please don’t leave me again, please look at me, please take me away from here —
He’s felt this madness before, back when he burnt the Qiu household to cinders and woke up in the smoke as though from a dream, body aching, brain throbbing. He’s felt echoes of it throughout his time with Wu Yanzi, the insanity creeping into his veins as his master (not again, not again please please please) watched with glee.
He’d say it’s been a long time in the coming, but Shen Jiu doesn’t think this madness ever left.
Which is why it is only natural that after all is said and done, after he has driven a sword into his master’s heart (“I’ll give all my loyalty to you!”), after he has set that wretch’s body to burn, he turns to Qi’ge. Stops. Takes a step back.
“Qi’ge?” His voice comes out weak and he hates it, hates every sign that he is still that wretched pitiful child who relied on his Qi’ge for survival. But it’s hard to think about that right now, not with the boy who is simultaneously the monster of his nightmares and the savior of his dreams standing next to him.
At the back of his tired, pained mind, something start’s screaming.
Something’s wrong, something’s wrong, something’s wrong, something’s w rong -
Shen Jiu is a fool. He should have seen it hours ago, should have seen it the moment he saw Qi’ge and the older boy just politely smiled at him, as if he didn’t carry the weight of Shen Jiu’s life around his neck all these years, as if they were just strangers —
Intellectually, Shen Jiu knows that it’s been many, many years since he’s last seen the boy. If he’s got his numbers right, in only a couple of years, he’ll have lived separate from Qi’ge longer than he lived with him.
In those years, Qi’ge has grown: from a scrawny perpetually underfed who still insisted on sharing his scraps with Shen Jiu until the latter kicked his ankles and forced him to eat, to a healthy, strong man, carrying with him an undeniable aura of confidence and power.
Maybe before, Shen Jiu wasn’t able to notice it, trapped as he was in that tumult of action and emotion. But now that things have calmed down, he’s able to turn to Qi’ge fully, pay attention to all the features he’s glossed over before.
His blood freezes.
He tries again, “Qi’ge?”
The boy turns to him from where they are watching his master’s pyre burn, expression confused as though he hadn’t heard him the first time. ‘Qi’ge’ opens his mouth to speak and every molecule of Shen Jiu’s being screams.
A gentle expression, a kind tone. All of it is meaningless.
“I’m afraid that’s not my name, Mister Shen. You must be a bit rattled from today’s events - why don’t I pay for an inn so you can rest, and then we can talk about your future opportunities?” He paused. “You’re a bit old for cultivation, but you have talent. Cang Qiong Sect will surely welcome you.“
All sound stops, until all Shen Jiu can hear is the frantic beating of his heart, thudding as though it wants to fall out of his chest. His blood roars, and yet he feels so, so cold.
As if he could rest now.
Shen Jiu would say that it’s been a long time in the coming, but to tell the truth, he thinks his madness never left.
Cang Qiong’s future head can only watch, dumbfounded, as the boy who remained composed throughout the act of killing his teacher suddenly fell into a qi deviation.
In the future Shen Jiu will maintain that if he had been in his right mind, he would never have allowed Yue Qingyuan to take him to the Cang Qiong Sect.
Unfortunately, as luck would have it, he isn’t in his right mind. Yue Qingyuan basically dragged him to the mountain, obviously worried by the sudden fluctuations in his spiritual energy.
“It’s nothing to worry about,” he assured the younger, “our Qian Cao peak will surely be able to help you stabilize your spiritual energy. I’ll put in a word on your behalf.”
It’s the most that Shen Jiu can do to follow the man, silent, his perception of reality fading in-and-out. It’s a shock: only half from the qi deviation. The other half walks in front of him, wearing his Qi’ge’s face.
...alright, maybe that’s a lie. It is still Qi’ge, Shen Jiu can tell. Having grown up with him on the streets, he had watched as the elder developed all his mannerisms: the way the left side of his mouth quirked just slightly higher than the right when he smiled, how he always walked first with his right leg, then with his left, the way he furrowed his brows whenever he was confused…
...the way he looked at Shen Jiu, as though he were someone precious, something worth protecting and not the gutter-trash that he was.
There was nothing of the latter in this boy’s gaze, even if all the other mannerisms were there. He looked at Shen Jiu with kindness, sure, but it was that detached concern, the kind held by some strangers who still believed in things like “justice,” or “goodness,” concepts that Shen Jiu had long since abandoned.
It was the same gaze with which he looked at trash like the other children on the street with them, the same trash that he protected, the same trash that got them thrown into that hellhole.
This was Qi’ge.
This wasn’t Qi’ge.
Something’s wrong, something’s wrong, something’s wrong, every breath in his body whispered. His Qi’ge couldn’t be like this, couldn’t just forget him, right?
The alternative was - what? That he was pretending to not know him? Did he think that just because he joined some fancy set, got some fancy name, was now in possession of some fancy sword, he was better than Shen Jiu?
Ha, as if! They were both born of the same scum.
….but Shen Jiu could admit, he suited their beginnings more than Qi’ge ever did.
A hand on his shoulder jarred him.
Qi’ge had insisted that they take a carriage back to his sect, stating that Shen Jiu’s condition was in no way fit to walk such a far distance. He had taken Shen Jiu’s dazes silence as agreement, because the next thing the younger knew he was sitting on the softest material he had ever felt in his life.
“Are you alright?” The elder boy’s eyes held nothing but concern. The snarling voices at the back of Shen Jiu’s head abruptly died down: that concern, those eyes, that soft voice -
Qi’ge would never pretend to forget him, would never be ashamed for him and commit such acts for his status. That was more Shen Jiu’s territory anyway.
Shen Jiu nodded silently, keeping his eyes large and pitiful, trained on the figure of his Qi’ge.
Something’s wrong, something’s wrong, something’s wrong.
Shen Jiu couldn’t leave before he found out exactly what that something was.
The then peak lord of Qing Jing peak was a kind woman.
If anyone else heard Shen Jiu think such things, they would laugh until they spat out blood. Lan MeiLien was a strict teacher; she tolerated no slacking off from her disciples. Under her charge, the disciples of Qing Jing peak numbered lower than ever. Regardless of what nobility one came from, regardless of what riches their family held: what mattered at the peak was one’s own dedication and talent.
Shen Jiu liked her. And, inexplicably, she liked Shen Jiu too.
“You’ve got sharp eyes, boy,” she had spoken when they first met, tilting his head back with the tip of her fan, “Tell me, would you like to turn that sharpness into a blade?”
Shen Jiu had smiled. Stood up. Followed her home.
Life at Qing Jing peak was calm enough under his master, even if she did run him ragged on worthless errands designed to simply torment him. But Shen Jiu would be blind and deaf to not hear the storm that brewed up under his feet.
“Senior disciple Yue escorted him personally!”
“And now he wins the affections of Master Lan?”
“Money - bribery - corruption -”
“I’ve never heard of any Shen family anyway! How could a nobody like him achieve such a high status?!”
The rumors about his sudden appearance and acceptance in the sect grew day-by-day, not helped by the constant presence of Yue Qingyuan, who viewed Shen Jiu as if he were some charity case that he had to look after, constantly asking after his health and studies with that same kind attitude, never once not smiling even as Shen Jiu replied to him in one-word monotonous answers.
Shen Jiu hated the elder boy’s presence.
He was no closer to finding out what had happened to Qi’ge. Seeing him on a regular basis like this - without the familiar light of affection in his eyes, without that indulgent look he had for his Xiao Jiu - it hurt, more than Shen Jiu cared to think about.
He knew that Yue Qingyuan was coming to feel affection for Shen Jiu in his own way, but petty as it was, Shen Jiu didn’t want it. Not like this, not when Qi’ge looked at him and only saw Shen Jiu, the unexpected talent at cultivation that he’d saved from the streets, the future head disciple of Qing Jing peak, and remembered no trace of Xiao Jiu, with his foul mouth and fouler thoughts who Qi’ge still loved so much.
It filled a bitter taste in his mouth. He gulped down a still steaming cup of tea that the courtesans at the Red Warm Pavilion had provided him and grimaced as it did nothing to chase the taste away. He supposed that he should be thankful for the emptiness of the room: if any of his acquaintances at the Pavilion had seen him do such things, there would undoubtedly be a talk later that night about “speaking about your emotions,” and “not trying to drown your humanity in tea” or other such nonsense.
Alone like this, Shen Jiu could finally begin to sort his thoughts out.
Many years ago, Shen Jiu stood in front of the burning Qiu household, hands covered in blood and the ashes of what might once have been and said, “I won’t wait anymore.”
How ridiculous. How fucking pathetic.
All these years, all that broken hope and… he never stopped waiting, did he?
Shen Jiu was not in the habit of lying to himself. It was one of the thing’s Lan MieLein liked the most about him: he was the only disciple she never had to chide on growing overconfident of his place in the world.
“You make this teacher’s job easier,” she said to him one day, “you’re a harsher critic to yourself than this teacher could ever be.”
It was a comment delivered in an unconcerned manner, but Shen Jiu was clever enough to hear the question underneath it.
When will you be happy with yourself?
Never, he thought back. If Qi’ge forgot where they came from, he’d remember enough for the both of them.
Draped in new finery, in possession of new power, Shen Jiu was still the same petty, stupid weak child he had always been. He was still waiting.
“Qi’ge, come back to me.”
The most annoying rumors came from his own peak’s bottom feeders, but surprisingly they made their way to the top whole. Shen Jiu was well aware that among his generation of head disciples, who would ascend to the position of peak lords as one, he had very few allies.
To be fair, he hadn’t done much to endear himself to them. He didn’t want to endear himself to them. He liked Qing Jing well enough, but he didn’t forget what he came to Cang Qiong for.
His Qi’ge, the reason for the life he led now, had taken to showering him with presents and medicines, even as Shen Jiu’s health suffered more and more as he tried to undo years of damage to his cultivation and re-build anew.
It wasn’t an easy task, made harder by how prone he was to qi deviations.
The mountain whispered of how the future sect leader doted on Qing Jing’s peak disciple and how the disciple gave him nothing in turn.
“He doesn’t even reply to him properly,” one of the female senior disciples whined out, “it’s always ‘yes eldest disciple Yue,’ ‘no eldest disciple Yue’, ‘I wish to be left alone eldest disciple Yue,’” she mimicked Shen Jiu’s monotone voice. “It’s clear that he’s taking advantage of eldest brother!”
It was a surprisingly popular sentiment throughout the peaks, but in Shen Jiu’s defense, he practiced that ‘as few words as possible’ policy with everyone.
No exceptions. Well, except maybe Lan MeiLien, who’d beat his head in if he tried such nonsense when she wasn’t in the mood, and Mu Qingfang, the future sect head of Qian Cao, whom he had befriended to get access to their libraries. The fact that the man wasn’t unbearable like some of his other fellow disciples (looking at you, Liu Qingge) was all the better.
Still, his diplomacy skills were something which concerned others on the peak. Qing Jing was the second highest peak, its lord was meant to go into conferences and build relations with other sects: how could such a duty be left with to one so rude?!
His teacher thought it was hilarious.
They were watching a contingent from the Huan Hua Palace exit their mountains with the other peak lords and their head disciples. It had been a tough meeting about re-defining a tricky border area, made all the more tougher by the fact that Shen Jiu had frankly refused to greet the palace master.
“Well, disciple?” His teacher questioned him as they watched the party of cultivators leave, “What do you think?”
Shen Jiu could feel his some of his fellow disciples glare at him subtly, some of their masters clearly wishing to discipline his conduct. He was calm still: no one would dare touch him while Lan MeiLien was here.
(From the corner of his eye he could see Yue Qingyuan look at him again with those concerned eyes and for a moment Shen Jiu entertained the thought of gouging them out with his bare hands.)
In response to his teacher’s question, he simply narrowed his eyes, never once moving them from the backs of the leaving party.
Lan MeiLien gave a hearty laugh. “As expected, my disciple remains the smartest!” She boasted. The other peak lord’s bristled, but with the current sect leader escorting the party out of Cang Qiong’s man border, they dared not question the one in-charge.
His teacher moved closer to him, putting a hand on his shoulder as she watched the leaving cultivators which a dangerous smile. “Clever, clever boy,” her eyes narrowed upon the small figure of the palace master and darkened with disgust, “you must never forget who the true scum are.”
“This disciple understands.”
His teacher left, leaving him with the title of QingQiu and it took every piece of control that Shen Jiu had to not break down at the very sound of that syllable.
“Maybe your days be full of peace,” she said. Shen Jiu (Jiu, Jiu, not Qiu, never Qiu) bowed to her and pretended to not see the disgruntled looks his fellow peak lords sent him at the fact that he didn’t spare her a reply.
For her past, his teacher looked like she understood the turmoil in his mind. She had grown very good at recognizing what Shen Jiu meant, even when he didn’t open his mouth.
Her eyes softened, in ways that they never had before. Before the startled eyes of everyone, she reached up, bringing his head down with a hand behind his neck, and pressed a soft kiss on his forehead.
All around them whispers broke out, but Shen Jiu could pay them no attention, staring wide-eyed at his teacher.
She hugged him close, bringing his ear to her lips. “A-Jiu,” she began, voice so soft that Shen Jiu had to strain his cultivation-trained senses to hear it, a sentence only for them, “this master’s greatest wish is that you may live to forgive yourself.”
Shen Jiu bowed his head. “Disciple is sorry to disappoint.”
Lan MeiLien chuckled. “That’s alright,” she caressed his cheek, “you have time to improve on that still.
The next week, Shen Qingqiu heard newfound rumors of the old peak lord being his mother, and took the time to laugh himself until he felt nearly drunk with it before he went out to tear those who spread this nonsense to the ground.
To his disgruntlement, he always ended up standing next to Liu Qingge at any event.
Shen Qingqiu didn’t know how this happened: both he and the Bai Zhan lord had gone out of their way to avoid each other since they were mere disciples (Master Lan thought that was hilarious and kept coming up with schemes to send them on missions together) and everyone around them knew that they disliked each other to the point of loathing.
Truth be told, Shen Jiu couldn’t exactly pin-point when their conflict started, but he knew himself enough to know that he probably started it. Even as he raged about Qi’ge’s memories, the irony of his life was that a lifetime of qi deviations had not been good for his memory either.
Oh well. Who cares about how it started. Shen Qingqiu, here and now, had a duty to play it out. He had long since wanted a target to bother anyway, keeping himself down sheerly because he didn’t know how Qi’ge would respond to his Shen Jiu antics.
If Liu Qingge wanted to be a willing target, who was he to stop him?
The Bai Zhan peak lord barely concealed his distaste at standing next to his senior, choosing instead to look out into the field as if to distract himself from Shen Qingqiu’s very existence.
Shen Qingqiu fought the urge to giggle.
Liu Qingge’s eyes narrowed in focus. “That one,” he said, pointing to a child with truly messy hair, earnestly digging a hole in the field, “he’s the only one with any potential.” He broke off, gritting his teeth as Shen Qingqiu moved nearer to him, purposefully invading his space.
Shen Qingqiu internally snickered before he followed the sight of the finger to the child who had caught the Bai Zhan lord’s interest, only to freeze.
The next second, he turned to an indulgently smiling Yue Qingyuan and spoke in his usual succinct manner. “I want him.”
Liu Qingge looked ready to kill him even as Qi’ge gave his usual kind smile. This was a day well spent.
“So,” Shen Qingqiu waved Ming Fan’s twitchy hands away from his nearly full tea cup, “what brings you to Cang Qiong mountain?”
In the future, Luo Binghe will describe that moment as the most important event in his life. People would speak about the intelligence of the Qing Jing lord, of his foresight in securing such a strong ally to his side so casually.
Shen Qingqiu would hide behind his fan and never tell them that he did it out of a mere whim.
Because that’s what it was.
The boy’s clothes and patches of skin were cloaked in dirt, the filth far surpassing what had been present on the clothes of any of the other digging children. Shen Qingqiu suspected that he was only peak lord who understood what was in front of him: yet another street brat who had crawled his way on the mountain.
Accepting the kid was like hitting two targets with the same arrow - he’d finally get a disciple who didn’t irritate the shit out him with their airs and - an always appreciated bonus - he got to piss Liu Qingge off.
Hearing his answer made Shen Jiu’s hand violently twitch.
A mother. A good cultivational foundation. No sign of mistreatment expect some little specks dirt.
Lucky little shit.
Deep breathes Qingqiu, he reminded himself, god knows what Qi’ge would say if rumors of him mistreating his hand-picked disciple on the first day made their way out of the mountain.
“Your mother?” he inquired tersely.
Luo Binghe’s eyes widened. He clearly hadn’t expected that the peak lord would take interest in his matters to this extent.
Bravely, he ventured on, “She passed away recently, but she always tried her best to provide for me…”
“So now that she isn’t here, you think of this sect as yet another provider?” Shen Jiu fanned himself calmly, uncaring of how the child’s face paled. After a long minute of stuttering replies, he grew fed up and interrupted the child. “Good,” he declared. “You came here with a simple, achievable goal, nothing like those rich brats who think this master can help them ascend to immortality in a mere week.”
Luo Binghe’s excuses stuttered to a stop, and he looked at the peak lord with large, disbelieving eyes.
Still fanning himself with one hand, Shen Jiu took a sip of his tea and grimaced. He poured it on the ground next to him, ignoring the small yelp of shock which the boy let out.
“Your brewing skills are atrocious,” he informed his newest disciple. “Fortunately, we’ll have time to fix that.”
The way the child simply exuded eagerness was alarming, but now that Shen Qingqiu had a willing pack mule - there was no way he was going to let it go!
“Do not make the mistake of thinking that this master will allow to achieve your dreams free of charge, Luo Binghe,” Shen Jiu smiled, a facsimile of Lan MieLien’s smile that he had practiced so often in the mirror. The boy gulped, which only made Shen Qingqiu smile wider.
Finally. Some fucking survival instinct.
“Consider this your first lesson: nothing in this world is free of cost.”
Shen Jiu had finally reunited with Qi’ge, but the price of the reunion almost made him wish it didn’t happen, made him wish he had burnt alive along with the rest of that accursed household -
“Now, go on and make this master some decent tea. The next one that’s that disgusting goes on your head.”
Unlike Qi’ge, Shen Jiu always kept his promises.
Having a competent disciple was so helpful! If this was how easy he made his teacher’s life all that time ago, then Shen Qingqiu completely understand why she was went so easy on him.
(It definitely didn’t have anything to with the fact that Luo Binghe made more flavorful food than any other person in this godforsaken sect, Shen Qingqiu tells himself. But he never had been good at lying to himself like that.)
It took some time for the boy to adjust to the sect: Shen Qingqiu could immediately see the parallels - a clanless brat, picked off by the stern peak head for no reason…
That was alright. This sort of thing built character. Which is why when he saw Luo Binghe bring his breakfast to him one morning - half an hour late, body half battered - he simply tossed a vial of numbing balm at his head.
“Next time,” he advised the boy who lay crouched on the ground, rubbing his head from where the vial had hit him, “instead of fighting harder, fight smarter. ” He paused and glared at the boy, “Or did this master accept another brainless ape into his peak?”
Binghe bowed low enough that his nose touched the ground. “No, Shizun! This disciple understands, Shizun!”
Shen Qingqiu huffed, turning his attention back to the papers lying scattered on his desk. “Get out of my sight.”
A newly competent disciple means that Shen Qingqiu is free of many of the responsibilities he held before: rather than being the one who ran around the peak fulfilling his master’s orders like a dog, he was now the one giving the orders. He’d be lying if he said he didn’t like it.
This freedom also meant that he had so much more time in his hand - and, as a peak lord, so many more resources. After this many years of insisting to himself that he came back to Cang Qiong to fix Qi’ge, for once he’s finally in a position to figure things out.
Looking at the documents he requisitioned from the personal library of the peak lord of Qian Cao, he can’t help the familiar voices which had started arising at the back of his head.
Fix him? What’s to say that he wants to be fixed?
Why would Yue Qingyuan, Sect Leader of the strong sect on the face of the earth, want to remember himself as a brother to a pathetic gutter rat?
Once, Shen Qingqiu had internally sighed, “Damn it, Qi’ge, after all these years I’m still saving you,” and had to retreat to the bamboo house in the middle of a peak lord meeting citing a sudden headache.
You really think you’re saving him? How presumptuous.
Don’t lie to yourself Shen Jiu, this is still you trying to save yourself like the pathetic self-interested scum you are.
Shen Qingqiu grasped his fan, grabbed Xiu Ya, and promptly decided to head into secluded cultivation to avoid having a public meltdown.
So it turned out he wasn’t the only one who decided to have a private meltdown in the caves.
He could almost respect that, if the other person wasn’t Liu fucking Qingge who decided to involve him into his private meltdown for some reason??
How rude. Shen Qingqiu would never trouble anyone with his meltdowns.
Maybe that’s a part of the problem, a voice that sounded suspiciously like Lan MieLien echoed in his ear. And because it’s just an imaginary voice and not his teacher herself, Shen Qingqiu can find it in himself to whisper right back, shut the fuck up.
“Liu Qingge!” Fuck he wasn’t qualified for this, where was Qingfang, “Liu Qingge, listen to me you idiotic meathead!”
For some reason, Liu Qingge only turned to him and growled? Wow, see if Shen Qingqiu ever tried to pass good advice to this guy again.
As he watched Cheng Luan unsheathe, he couldn’t help but remember words that Mu Qingfang had said to him back when they were disciples and he, frustrated with having to go to Qian Cao monthly when his qi verged on a deviation, had asked if he could possibility calm his spiritual pathways himself.
Anything to stop depending on others so much.
Mu Qingfang, tired and annoyed at having to see him as a patient every month despite all his warnings, had simply snapped back, “Forgive me, shixiong, but I think your talents lie in causing such deviations far more than they do in healing them.”
He had frozen then, aware of how rude that statement was, especially spoken to a senior. Before he could stutter out apologies, the sight of Shen Jiu’s shaking shoulders had arrested his gaze. Horrified at the thought that he had somehow made his composed senior cry (“Master Lan is going to kill me, no one will ever find my body,”) he looked up only to see that Shen Jiu had broken out into quiet, uncontrollable laughter.
“That sounds about right,” Shen Jiu wheezed through his amusement.
Why would Shen Jiu be offended? He was right.
Never was Shen Qingqiu more aware of that than when he watched Liu Qingge approach him, more the beast that Shen Jiu accused him of being than man.
‘Fuck it,’ Shen Qingqiu prepared Xiu Ya with one hand and gathered his energy into his fingertips with another. Mu Qingfang, still feeling bad about snapping at him in such a manner, had tried to make unneeded amends by teaching him the theory behind calming qi deviations. It wasn’t a theory that Shen Qingqiu ever put into practice but -
No time like the present, huh.
After leaving Liu Qingge in another cave, surprising, embarrassed, indebted, and wasn’t that just so lovely, Shen Jiu moved to the other side of the cave system. He wanted to get as far away from Liu Qingge as possible.
- aggressive hands, a beastly snarl, the intent to ruin, all things that Shen Jiu had felt before, all things that he never wanted to feel again-
After finding a suitably secluded cave, he quickly entered in, only to pause at the wild markings on its walls.
This cave...really looked like someone had wreaked havoc on it.
Did they trap a demon here? Shen Jiu thought as he reached out to touch one of the scratches. Immediately, his blood froze and his mind erupted in a frenzy because - because -
He knew this qi signature, which had embedded itself into these walls.
In another conversation with Mu Qingfang, where Shen Jiu had reluctantly confessed his fears about his worsening memory, Mu Qingfang had shaken his head to calm him. “Qi deviations are actually far more common than people think,” he replied, “most cultivators face them at least once in their life.”
Shen Jiu snorted inelegantly. “I think I’ve gone far over that number, Qingfang,” he retorted.
Mu Qingfang smiled, “Yes, that’s true. But such small deviations shouldn’t cause irreversible damage.”
Shen Jiu raised one eyebrow in question. “You mean it is possible?” he asked.
Mu Qingfang nodded. “Indeed, however the possibility of one dying from a deviation that strong is far more than the possibility of them surviving at the cost of their memory.”
Shen Qingqiu had considered the possibility then, but had dismissed it. Yue Qingyuan is the beloved throughout the peak, he had thought, if such a thing happened to him, everyone would have known.
But, as always, Shen Jiu was wrong - wrong - and a fool, he should have looked more into it, he shouldn’t have dismissed it so eagerly -
(Lan MieLien had once tutted in discontent after seeing Shen Jiu return to the peak with his hands once more full of gifts from Yue Qingyuan. “I don’t know what’s between you and that boy,” she had warned him, “but you should be careful. He’s far too impulse and reckless for people like us.”
At the time, Shen Jiu had fought back a smile at the warning. Ahh the irony of anyone lecturing him about Qi’ge’s recklessness. Still, he asked, “Why does teacher say so?”
In place of a response, Lan MieLien had simply looked at him, scanning him up and down. “Hmph,” she finally sounded, “if it’s you, then I guess it’ll be fine. You’re far too cautious to allow such disasters to occur again anyway.”
Immediately after, she ordered Shen Jiu to carry out more errands, on the opposite side of the mountain range (“Master, you just like seeing me run around, don’t you?” “Don’t push your luck, brat.”) and Shen Jiu promptly forgot about all the inquiries which that conversation should have created.)
Fool, fool, fool, you got too cocky and complacent, how could you not see it, it was right there in front of you -
- foolish - impulsive - reckless -
Qi’ge, Qi’ge, what did you do?
His mood being absolutely foul by the time he got out meant that he didn’t even pay a single drop of attention to the little demoness’ demands before he got Xiu Ya out and promptly slaughtered half the forces himself. All around him, the students broke out in whispers, the peak lord of Qing Jing, the scholarly diplomatic peak, being this aggressive?
But his mind in disarray, his heart in pieces, Shen Jiu couldn’t bring himself to give a single shit.
“Shizun…” Luo Binghe’s eyes were wide and concerned when they looked at him, and for a minute Shen Qingqiu looked at the boy and saw shadows of another - another child with a heart too big for him, with eyes that shone all though he wore all his emotions on his sleeve, another child who was under Shen Jiu’s protection -
A hand on his shoulder startled him. He swung Xiu Ya, only to stop as a clang! saw it clash with Cheng Luan.
Surprisingly, the Bai Zhan peak lord didn’t appear offended, peering at him with a strange expression instead. “Are you ok?” He asked gruffly.
Shen Jiu felt his heart twist.
He wanted to say: how dare you ask me that.
Do you not see the havoc I’ve single handedly wreaked on a dangerous enemy? And yet, you dare doubt me? Think of me as weak?
He wanted to say: No, no I’m not.
I don’t think I have been for a long time. I don’t think I ever will be.
But Shen Jiu had nothing left for him in this world except for his masks, so he knocked aside the hand on his shoulder. Sneering at the Bai Zhan lord, he spat out, “Be grateful shidi, this Qingqiu leaves the rest of these beasts to you. May they sate your appetite.” A subtle jab on the ravenous way he behaved in the caves, one that the Bai Zhan lord was undoubtedly too thick to pick up.
The moment Liu Qingge arrived on the field, Shen Qingqiu did the smart thing and fled back to his peak, uncaring of what chaos he left behind him.
Unlike other people, he preferred to have his emotional breakdowns in private, thank you very much.
The peak lord of Qing Jing arrived in his bamboo house immediately after the fight, and, not even bothering to change his clothes, fell asleep.
For an entire month, no one saw the Qing Jing lord outside his house. If they wandered close enough, they could hear the twang of strings, the quiet murmuring of a voice as he spoke to Luo Binghe.
He refused all invitations, forbade all his fellow peak lords from entering his territory. The one day when Yue Qingyuan entered, concerned enough to finally push the way he had all those years ago when he dragged Shen Qingqiu to Cang Qiong, he was met with cold silence and a sharp voice telling him, “Qingqiu would prefer to be alone now, Sect Leader.”
With a heavy heart, he turned back and left.
“Shizun won’t even let me in,” Binghe complained one day, obvious sorrow in his words. “He just tells me to make him tea and leave it on the doorstep and go. He hasn’t even eaten food in the past month!” It wasn’t a big concern, what with Shen Qingqiu being capable of living without food, but still. His master never refused Binghe’s cooking.
Ming Fan frowned, “Didn’t he just come back from seclusion? Why would he go into another retreat so soon?”
The object of their curiosity himself was lying on the floor of his house, looking emptily at the ceiling, eyes lazily tracing the places where sunshine slipped into through small cracks.
What the fuck was he doing here?
Qingfang told him that such deviations were irreversible, didn’t he?
That meant that Qi’ge was gone, wasn’t he?
Bitter laughter spilled from Shen Jiu’s lips. Who was he trying to fool? Qi’ge was long gone, gone far before they had met again that disastrous day. It was only that Shen Jiu, weak, pathetic, a child still, who could not move on from those dumb childish memories, who clutched the smile of a dead boy close to his heart.
The word rankled in his ear.
Qi’ge was dead. He died alone in that cave, fighting like a beast against the cold hard stone, with no one coming to rescue him. He crawled out of his shackles a new man, leaving behind his burdens of the past to finally assume the character of the man he was always meant to be.
Xiao Jiu was dead. He died alone in that burning house, blood on his hands, ash on his face, with no one coming to rescue him. He died in his shackles, leash passing on one cruel master to another, getting heavier and heavier with every day. He would still walk the earth, still live among the living, but Shen Jiu was never in the habit of lying to himself.
Qi’ge……..if you could see me now, what would you think?
Shen Jiu was a fool. Who had heard of a dead man answering a question, much less asking one?
Shen Jiu was selfish, a coward incapable of moving on from his past.
“In this life, I’ll give all my loyalty to you!”
Qi’ge was dead. Qi’ge was dead.
Dead as he was, dead as the recipient of his loyalty was, Shen Jiu would still continue chasing that empty shell, hoping for even a wisp of the soul within it.
After leaving his second unofficial seclusion, Shen Qingqiu took on as many missions outside of the peak as he could.
People commended Qing Jing disciples for having a dedicated master, but honestly, Shen Qingqiu was just sick and tired of going back to that fucking peak.
Ah, speaking of the goddamn devil.
Shen Qingqiu turned to where he could see Yue Qingyuan’s outline emerge from the bamboo thicket. He was well aware of what a sight he must be by now: the mission this time was undoubtedly hard. He had spent a night and a day searching for his dumb-fuck disciples who had got themselves stuck in some goddamn ravine, and the final fight the monster responsible for the kidnapping had taken a serious toll on his clothes and normally smooth hair.
Still, what should he care about what this fucking shell thinks about him?
“Zhangmen-shixiong,” he bowed. “What brings you to Qing Jing?”
Yue Qingyuan chuckled. “Can I not check on the wellbeing of one of my own?”
Shen Qingqiu stayed silent, not caring about how his unresponsiveness turned the conversation awkward.
Yue Qingyuan paused. Looked at Shen Qingqiu for a long moment, taking in the filth on his body. “Are you hurt anywhere, shidi? Should I call for Qingfang?”
Shen Qingqiu shook his head. “That’s unneeded, Zhangmen-shixiong.” He paused. “What did you wish to tell me?”
Yue Qingyuan smiled yet again. “Ah, shidi is as sharp as ever,” he stopped, looking at the bamboo house. “I came to inquire about the selection you’re going to send for the Immortal Alliance Conference. May we go in and speak about it over tea?”
Absolutely fucking not.
“I’m afraid that I’m far too much of a mess to sit with sect leader right now. I’ll send a list with one of my disciples.”
Yue Qingyuan had the nerve to look disappointed. “Very well then,” he spoke regardless, “we will have plenty of time to speak at the conference itself, as well as the journey to and back.”
Shen Qingqiu’s mind blanked.
Oh hell no.
Sorry to disappoint, Sect Leader, but I think I’m overdue a qi deviation.
As it turns out, Shen Qingqiu is, in fact, overdue a qi deviation.
“The gods smile on me for once,” he announces from where he’s lying on the bed.
Mu Qingfang, tending to him after having been called by Ning Yingying in tears, shoots him a look that suggests he’s insane. “Shixiong,” he spoke, “you’ll never realize this but I really do worry about you, you know?”
Shen Qingqiu is spared a lecture by faint knocking at his door, Mu Qingfang getting up to receive his visitor. A familiar black mane filled the doorway.
Dear lord, the boy just gets bigger and bigger every time he appears! Surely children must stop growing at some point?
“Shizun,” Luo Binghe’s familiar handsome features bow, a faint smile on his face as Mu Qingfang dismisses himself with terse instructions to the younger. “This disciple greets Shizun.”
Shen Qingqiu huffs, snapping open his fan to cover his face. “And here I thought that you had forgotten your way home,” he drawled.
Luo Binghe let out a small laugh. “I could never.” He came to sit beside his teacher, putting the tray with the teapot and cup within a hand’s reach before beginning to pour it. “This disciple merely got distracted tracking down the herb meant to grant one mental relief.”
Shen Qingqiu raised an eyebrow. “Do you presume to provide for this master now, boy?”
Luo Binghe gave a strange laugh. “I would never dare.” Filling the cup till the brim, he sat by Shen Qingqiu’s bed on his knees, arms folded in his lap. After a minute of watching as Shen Qingqiu calmly took the cup in his hands, bringing it to his face to smell the scent properly and sip it, he could no longer hold back his words.
“Shizun,” he bowed his head, “Shizun this disciple has a request.”
Shen Qingqiu fanned himself lazily, having set the teacup down. “Speak.”
Luo Binghe kept his head down. “Shizun, when this disciple comes back from the conference, I have to ask you something. Will...will you listen to what I have to say?”
Shen Qingqiu keeps fanning himself, smirking behind the cover as he sees the boy squirm harder every second without an answer. Finally, “ When you come back from the conference? Isn’t that putting too much faith in yourself boy?”
Luo Binghe’s eyes shot open wide and he looked up with a jerk, a wide smile overtaking his face. He knew that with a master like his, this was as much of an agreement as he would get. “This disciple will surely return Shizun!” he gushed. Unnoticed by the teacher, his hands twitched as though they wanted to hold Shen Qingqiu’s. “I promise to come back with honor!”
Behind the fan, Shen Qingqiu let out a rare smile. “Mark your words, boy.”
Luo Binghe does not return from the conference.
The only sign of his attendance were the shattered pieces of Zheng Yang which Liu Qingge deposited in Shen Qingqiu’s arms.
Shen Jiu should know better than to believe in anyone’s promises by now.
For some fucking reason people don’t seem to leave Shen Jiu alone after that.
If it’s not Mu Qingfang, it’s Liu Qingge or Yue Qingyuan, lurking in his bamboo forest like some demented pet that no one asked for.
Hell, even Qi Qingqi visits him! Qi Qingqi! The one who sent him promises of castration with her eyes ever since she discovered that Shen Qingqiu frequents the Pavillion!
Shen Qingqiu says, “I’m alright, I’m fine,” but annoyingly enough, not a single person seems to believe him. They hover around him like they expect him to go insane with grief any second and Shen Qingqiu wants to laugh in their face.
If he was this susceptible to losing his sense every time someone broke a promise to him, every time he lost people he had even a modicum of affection for, he would have died long ago.
Fools. What do they know about grief?
What do they know about insanity?
Luo Binghe has the fucking nerve to smile at him, as if he didn’t lie to Shen Jiu’s face about being dead for three years. As if he isn’t standing next to the most monstrous man Shen Jiu has ever known, not doing anything to refute the claim that he’s a part of the Huan Hua while Shen Qingqiu, his motherfucking teacher, is standing right there.
Insolent little shit.
“Shizun,” the little beast grins, bowing his head in a mockery of respect. He still looks the same, despite how he has grown, still as genuine and sticky-
“Who’s your Shizun?” Shen Qingqiu snaps back, furious at the familiarity, at that same damned affection rising in his heart.
Luo Binghe raises his head and his eyes flash red. The small smile twists into a bitter smirk. “Shizun is still Shizun,” he recites solemnly.
Shen Qingqiu takes a step forward, ignoring the way Liu Qingge attempts to hold him back, obviously realizing that something about the situation was wrong. “Then leave the Huan Hua Palace. A disciple’s proper place is by their teacher’s side: is your memory so bad as to forget that?”
Luo Binghe smiles. “This disciple fears he cannot do that.” He walks until he appears right in front of Shen Qingqiu, forcing him to look up to meet the younger’s eyes. He bends, his lips right next to Shen Qingqiu’s ears, and the elder fights the urge to shudder as warm breath blows across his ear.
“Shizun, you once told me that no ambition is achieved without a price. And I’m afraid...since then my ambitions have only gotten more grand.”
He withdraws, smiles at Shen Qingqiu once again and walks away without a word. Watching the retreating back, Shen Qingqiu clenches his fist until he can feel skin break under his nails, the lightest trickle of blood seeping down from the closed fist.
Qi’ge and Luo Binghe both broke a promise. Both left without warning. Only one of them left through choice.
Shen Jiu doesn’t know who he hates more.
Taking care of the goddamned demon infestation which the Huan Hua allowed to seep into their territory was easy enough. It’s what came after that which made Shen Qingqiu wish his qi fucking helped him out for once and malfunctioned right there and then.
“Shen Jiu, you treacherous slave!” Qiu Haitang had only grown more beautiful in the years but the sneer in her face, the hatred and disdain in her eyes: those were all her brother and father’s features, coming alive.
Shen Jiu had made a conscious effort to not think about Qiu Haitang in the past years. Remembering her was the easiest way to send himself into a deviation because - because -
-on the one hand, he was aware that he would never have survived the Qiu household without her kindness. She was his one anchor in the place after Qi’ge had gone, the only hope he had of respite from the constant torment which surrounded him-
-on the other hand, how dare she live like that, happy and innocent while Shen Jiu withered away in front of her eyes? Was she truly that dumb? Did she really not see through the flimsy masks her family wore in front of her, how they tracked her with roving eyes which would settle upon Shen Jiu when she left?
What gave her the right to remain that innocent when her blood had ripped apart Shen Jiu’s innocence the moment he entered the household?
“My family took him in out of good will,” the woman claimed and Shen Jiu fought to swallow the bile which arose in his throat, “we fed him, we clothed him, they even sought to marry him to me! Him, a common slave! And he repays that by burning us to the ground!” She faltered, her voice hitching with tears. Shen Qingqiu watches, disgusted, as she swayed as though the mere memories of her family brought her enough sorrow to make her weak at the knees. “My father...my brother...h-he…”
An attendant of the Huan Hua Palace caught the woman before she fell into a dead faint.
“Mass murder of innocents - abuse of his disciples - corruption resulting in his rise to power - ”
Shen Qingqiu gritted his teeth as his hands were bound behind his back, all the spiritual power he worked so hard to accumulate sealed away. Feeling eyes on him, he looked up to see Luo Binghe, his face blank. Next to his ex-disciple, the Huan Hua Palace Master’s visage was as serene as it always was, but one scum to another, Shen Jiu could see the echoes of delight underneath his mask.
He walked to the dungeon, his head held high, as members of Cang Qiong bargained and threatened his captors into hastening his trial. As he walked past the Palace Master, he spat at his feet.
If I’m going down, then I’m taking you with me.
Nothing incensed him more than seeing Luo Binghe’s face appear in the water prison.
Because truly, this was the one betrayal that didn’t make any sense! How exactly had he abused Luo Binghe?!
Sure, he had poured tea on his face once or twice, but he had pre-warned him about that! Yes, he did run him ragged on the peak without any hope of respite, but that was how the disciple system worked! It was meant to build character!
Luo Binghe, did you not read the contract before you signed it?!
“Shizun,” the little idiot greeted him, eyes lingering on where the little wretch who called herself the heir to the Huan Hua Palace had inflicted injuries on him
Oh, this was humiliating.
“Beastling,” Shen Qingqiu replied back spitefully.
“Apologies for not visiting Shizun earlier,” his errant disciple spoke cheerfully, “this one had much work to do.”
“Such as deciding how precisely to betray your teacher?” Shen Qingqiu asked mockingly.
Luo Binghe fell silent. “Shizun you...you really don’t trust me, do you?”
Shen Qingqiu raised an eyebrow at the sudden sorrow in his tone. “Don’t take it personally,” he replied, “I don’t trust anyone.”
For a long, quiet minute, Luo Binghe was silent. And then, in a whisper, “That’s not true, is it?”
He raised his head, a glimmering demon seal appearing on his forehead much to Shen Qingqiu’s shock. “You trust him.”
“Luo Binghe, you lunatic, what are you on about?” Shen Qingqiu straightened his back as best as he could with his bindings, attempting to stand up. “Why do you have that mark? Where have you been all these years?”
Luo Binghe’s lips curled in a smile. “The fact that I am only worthy of Shizun’s concern in these circumstances is something I’ve always known.”
Shen Qingqiu craned his neck as Luo Binghe walked forward, looming over his teacher in a way that made Shen Qingqiu’s body tense. Almost absentminded, he grasped a lock of Shen Qingqiu’s hair and twisted it in his fingers.
“Shizun has never once looked at me,” Luo Binghe began, voice low and intense. “Even when I was at his side, Shizun never once looked at me and saw me.” He leaned forward even more, lips touching Shen Qingqiu’s ears as the latter tensed. “Tell me, Shizun, who are you looking for?”
Shen Qingqiu’s eyes opened wide in surprise. He looked up to meet Luo Binghe’s blank, blank gaze, feeling like any second now his body would start trembling. Simply looking at each other, neither master nor disciple spoke for a long moment.
Binghe’s lips twisted in a parody of a smile. “Shizun,” he crooned, bringing a hand to cup Shen Qingqiu’s chin, “Shizun, this disciple understands.” He undid his outer robe, oblivious to the way Shen Qingqiu’s blood froze and draped it over him. “Shizun, this disciple won’t leave.”
His hand was on Shen Jiu’s shoulder, his breath on Shen Jiu’s face, adoring eyes watching Shen Jiu’s expressions, and Shen Jiu couldn’t breath, couldn’t think, wanted him away away away -
“Don’t touch me!”
Luo Binghe stormed out of the water prison, his vow still on the tip of his tongue, despite the anger which had begun to run anew in his veins. He had a lot left to do if he wanted to protect Shizun in this trial, if he wanted to prove himself to Shizun, if he wanted Shizun to look at him -
Shen Jiu sat where he had collapsed, breath fast, mind in a disarray. With a quick motion, he flung Luo Binghe’s robe in the water, watching as the cloth dissolved with a sizzle.
Neither of them would sleep tonight.
Shen Jiu thought there was nothing he would hate more than the water prison, with its damp dreariness, with himself chained in ways he hadn’t been in years. Turns out, he was wrong about that too.
Because as bad as the water prison was, as much as it made it him look like a wreck, Shen Jiu would have preferred it a thousand times over to coming out of it again, and seeing that fucking expression on Qi’ge’s face.
Of-fucking-course the Huan Hua Palace invited the Cang Qiong Sect leader to the trial of one of his own. And of-fucking-course Yue Qingyuan would look at him that way - eyes so soft, so gentle. He opened his mouth and Shen Jiu could almost imagine the ‘Xiao-jiu’ he would speak but—
—“Qingqiu-shidi? Are you well?”
As if the world would be that kind to him.
In lieu of a response he turned the other way, choosing to face the judgement panel in front of him rather than look at that face again.
People had gathered in large numbers to see Shen Qingqiu’s trial. Understandable - he was hardly a popular figure in the cultivation world, that one Peak Lord who scorned all other Sect leaders, even his own. He had often taken out his frustration on the Huan Hua Palace Master through petty acts of revenge since he had come into power - blocking the supply lines from Qian Cao, delaying goods from An Ding - and while no one had ever been able to pin it on him, everyone knew that only one figure in Cang Qiong held such a grudge against Huan Hua.
The trial was a shit-show, to put it bluntly. Wild accusations flew here and there - and while Luo Binghe fought against the accusation of abuse (which - why, the brat was the one who called him out in the first place!), there was hardly anything he could do against the more damning ones.
Eventually, full of frustration at the words being thrown around with no chance of defense, Yue Qingyuan stood up from his seat and approached his prone junior, who had worrying been staring off into space for the past hour. “Qingqiu-shidi?” His voice was soothing, as if trying to calm a ruffled beast, “A-Jiu, would you like to tell us what happened?”
Immediately after hearing the name, Shen Qingqiu’s attention violently snapped back. His mind blanked. “ Don’t call me by that name!”
All conversations in the hall stopped, people peering to watch the confrontation occur. Even though he had always been curt, even though he had never been particularly inviting to a man who seemed to dote on him, Shen Jiu had never been outright rude to his senior in such a way.
Yue Qingyuan paused from where he stood, hand outstretched on its route to squeeze Shen Qingqiu’s shoulder. Hearing the vehement words, for some reason, his head throbbed.
Yue Qingyuan couldn’t deny that he was somewhat soft on this junior of his. How could he not be, seeing him at his most vulnerable that night, his voice soft and pleading as he called out for a name that wouldn’t answer him? When he collapsed in Yue Qingyuan’s arms minutes seconds later, looking like his entire world had been torn to shreds around him?
-flickers of a child dressed in rags, of another child covered in blood, of the same child draped in green, screaming for a name that would not call him back-
For his part, Shen Jiu simply looked back into those shocked eyes, a familiar emptiness settling in his heart. He didn’t know if he was going to get out of this situation. He didn’t care if he got out of this situation.
But Shen Jiu wouldn’t be Shen Jiu if he didn’t try to get the last word.
He looked into the eyes of the body occupied by the man who was once Qi’ge and pronounced, “Shen Jiu is dead,” wondering if the flicker of pain he saw in them was just his own imagination acting up again.
And naturally, since the pattern of Shen Qingqiu’s life was that things would go from bad to worse, the trial got interrupted.
By fucking demons. Who had somehow managed to snake their way past the Huan Hua defences.
It would probably add to Shen Qingqiu’s list of crimes if anyone heard him, but he never really had anything against demons. Yeah, they were annoying and stupid, but none of them had caused him half as many problems as humans had.
Still, why the fuck would they come here?
A flash of understanding made Shen Qingqiu turn his head towards Luo Binghe, who was watching the on-going fight with clenched teeth and narrowed eyes, an unfamiliar sword held tight in one hand.
In reality, the demons had taken this opportunity to appear and challenge Luo Binghe, who had made more than a few demonic enemies of his own. With alarming power - alarming determination - he had fought his way out of the Abyss, conquered the demonic clans one-by-one. Still, his insistence on not allying himself with a particular clan, his insistence on continuing this charade of humanity, had not won him many favors.
A two-hit strike. Challenge Luo Binghe and ruin his mask. If Shen Jiu had known, he would have admired the strategy.
As it was, Shen Jiu, unaware of anything, had just begun to head towards his disciple when he was unceremoniously tugged back, lifted in a bridal carry in one fell swoop.
He spluttered, “L-Liu Qingge?!” Struggling in his arms, he hit the Bai Zhan peak lord on his chest, “Put me down!”
Next to him, the rest of the Cang Qiong contingent had already drawn their swords. “Huan Hua Palace has been compromised,” Yue Qingyuan addressed them as if they were blind fucking fools who couldn’t draw that conclusion themselves. He turned to where Liu Qingge was holding Shen Qingqiu like an undignified green fish and smiled, “Liu-shidi, I’ll trouble you to get Qingqiu-shidi to safety.”
Shen Qingqiu stopped struggling, watching Yue Qingyuan incredulously as Liu Qingge only nodded solemnly, as if he had just been handed some rich family’s only daughter in marriage.
“You have my word,” the Bai Zhan peak lord swore and took off.
In the corner, red eyes watched the escape and a sharp sword, emanating with black energy, swiftly cut down all beings in Luo Binghe’s path.
“Alright, this is ridiculous,” Shen Qingqiu began, “you’re one of the strongest cultivators to walk this earth, there’s a demon contingent in Huan Hua Palace, and I am perfectly capable of taking care of myself.”
The rope binding his powers had been cut away a while ago, and his body would be weak for a while as they recuperated, but he was a Peak Lord. One didn’t simply earn that title by swinging their sword around with no sense!
Shen Qingqiu’s teacher had always commended on his ability to argue and reason. He had a knack of picking the strongest, most cutting points, expanding them into traps that no one with a sane mind could escape from.
Unfortunately, he reminded himself as the grip around his shoulders got stronger, Liu Qingge wasn’t someone with a mind.
“Too dangerous,” he retorted, curt as ever. “Sect leader orders must be obeyed.”
“Well, sect leader also ordered the both of us to behave at Peak Lord meetings and when have you ever listen to that?!”
Liu Qingge simply kept moving, Cheng Luan steady under his feet. “I’ll drop you off at the peak and go back,” he said, voice stubborn.
“ Or, ” Shen Qingqiu took in a deep breath to calm himself, “you can leave me here and go back yourself! ”
Liu Qingge frowned. “Too dangerous,” he repeated.
“Then how about you leave him with me, shishu?”
Blocking their path, the demon mark pulsing loud and clear on his forehead, his sword dripping blood, Luo Binghe’s lips curled into a smile.
As it turned out, Luo Binghe’s rampage as he saw his teacher get taken away had taken care of most of the demonic forces. Even now, Shen Qingqiu could feel Yue Qingyuan and the rest of the Cang Qiong contingent approach them.
Which just meant that he had to handle this situation until they arrived. Two of the most stubborn, most un-understandable, most insane and powerful cultivators in the land and Shen Qingqiu was meant to babysit them.
“Luo Binghe,” he called out, still in Liu Qingge’s arms, “don’t do anything too rash.”
The boy smiled, all teeth, and promptly went to rashly attack Liu Qingge.
Mid-air! While Shen Qingqiu was still in his arms!!
It was good battle strategy, something that Shen Qingqiu would himself use, but still! Any more of this and Shen Qingqiu would really believe that Luo Binghe was out to kill him.
For many years, Shen Jiu had wanted to see Liu Qingge lose. He wanted to watch that self-assurance fall away, wanted to see the man who built his world on victory understand how flimsy his fabric of existence was, see it fall apart.
Not like this. Never like this.
Luo Binghe stood over Liu Qingge’s prone body. The man was still alive, Shen Qingqiu could still see the rising and falling of his chest, the light groans he let out. He spared a moment of concern for his shidi before focusing on the predator advancing towards him.
“Shizun,” Binghe crooned, “Shizun, I won the conference. I came back. Won’t you listen to my demand?”
All around him, demonic energy writhed and twisted. Shen Qingqiu was only half focused on his words, the rest of his mind observing his sword, which pulsed as though it had a life of his own.
He had enough qi deviations to recognize what one would look like, even if it wasn’t a human suffering it. Shen Qingqiu wished more than ever for his fan to hide his face behind it, for his sword so he could feel the same rush of power he did when he first held one in the Qiu household, but life was never that kind to him.
Unarmed, holding nothing but his pride, Shen Qingqiu watched the monster who wore his disciple’s face approach.
The pulsing of the sword and the stench of demonic energy only grew stronger as Luo Binghe took in his teacher’s unresponsiveness. His lips turned downward in displeasure, a mockery of the boy who would pout every time Shen Qingqiu refused to eat the meal he cooked for him, who would bug Shen Qingqiu until he physically chased him from his house -
“As I thought, Shizun still doesn’t see me,” Luo Binghe’s voice jarred Shen Qingqiu from the onslaught of memories. “Even now, when I’m standing in front of him...Shizun looks for someone else.”
“Luo Binghe,” Shen Qingqiu started, “you’re on the verge of a deviation. Control yourself.”
Unbidden by his master’s words, the half-demon kept moving forward, frowning as Shen Qingqiu instinctively took a step back. “Shizun is always looking at Sect Leader, even when Sect Leader isn’t looking at him,” Binghe said, “Shizun, Shizun, I’m looking at you right now, so won’t you look at me instead?”
Shen Qingqiu had stopped listening to him the moment he mentioned Yue Qingyuan, his blood growing cold. He could feel the man approaching through his senses, and, judging by Luo Binghe’s frown, so could he. He watched with horror as the demonic sword was clenched tighter, pulsating furious medley of red and black.
Qi’ge was strong. Qi’ge was the Sect Leader. Qi’ge had one of the strongest swords to ever be drawn, Qi’ge wouldn’t behave rashly for Shen Qingqiu’s sake, not when he had an entire sect to care for.
Qi’ge had a history of acting rashly, had once acted so impulsively that he entered a qi deviation which should have resulted in death -
-In this life, I’ll give all my loyalty to you!-
“Luo Binghe,” Shen Qingqiu stepped forward, “put down your sword.” He tried to assert all the authoritativeness he had amassed over the years in that one sentence, attempting desperately to break through the trance his student was in. He could see it was working, Binghe blinked once, twice, like he was just waking up-
A snarl, the grip on that wretched sword growing stronger.
Qi’ge, Qi’ge, please please don’t come for me.
Shen Qingqiu kept moving closer to the half-demon, watching as he flickered in between sanity and insanity. How long have you been like this, he found himself wondering, Did insanity become your norm too, Binghe?
Out loud, he said, “Binghe, put down the sword.” He moved close enough to grip the tense hand and force it down. “I’m listening to whatever you’re saying.”
At last, the fog seemed to clear from Binghe’s eyes, his familiar teary-eyed, vibrant disciple appearing from the depths of this possession. “Shizun—”
“Qingqiu-shidi, move away from him!”
Shen Jiu never broke his promises. It’s a good thing that he had never made one this time around.
Before Luo Binghe’s fury could spike, before Yue Qingyuan could properly understanding what was happening, before Liu Qingge could strike the half-demon from the back - a dishonorable strike, he noted, surprised, not that it would have worked on demonic regeneration -
Shen Qingqiu gripped Luo Binghe’s neck and forced it down, pressing a firm kiss on his forehead. He could hear Mu Qingfang screaming about how he was bastarding the transferring process at the back of his head, about how he was just going to send Luo Binghe further down the road of a deviation but Shen Jiu paid it no mind. Half-demons were bound to be more resilient than humans, and creatures like Shen Jiu and Luo Binghe, who crawled their way up from the dirt, were the most resilient of them all.
Finally, he let go of Luo Binghe’s neck, pulling the taller man into a hug. Lips pressed to his ear, “Don’t pick up weapons you can’t handle, you stupid boy.”
Don’t let it suppress you.
Shen Jiu self-destructed.
His qi as depleted as it was, it took a moment for the self-destruction to fully work. In the meantime, he found that someone had clutched his robes from the back, pulling him into strong arms.
Shen Jiu looked up. Smiled. Reached out with a bloody hand.
“Qi’ge, let me see your face...I-I don’t know how long it’ll be….”
Yue Qingyuan watched in horror as his beloved shidi shut his eyes, hand falling limp by his side. All around him, the Cang Qiong contingent shouted, screaming accusations at the half-demon standing still in the middle of the field.
Yue Qi heard none of them.
Once upon a time, Yue Qi promised the child he loved more than anything in the world that he would come back for him. He looked into panicked, uncertain eyes and whispered, “Just a little bit longer,” whispered, “I’ll come right back for you.”
He went to the mountain sect, was lauded by all for his progress, and couldn’t find it in himself to care. Not now, not when Xiao Jiu was still in that damned household, still paying the price of Yue Qi’s recklessness.
You were supposed to protect him , the voices whispered as he entered the cavern to finally chose a sword, you were supposed to protect him and instead you left him behind.
Driven by his rage at not being able to save his little brother, driven by his ambition to go back, go back, fulfill his promise to Xiao Jiu, Yue Qingyuan grasped the nearest sword to hurry out - and in that found the price of his impatience.
It’s the memory of Xiao Jiu which pushes him to survive the deviation, flashes of a rare quicksilver smile, of biting words but gentle hands.
It’s the memory of Xiao Jiu which he pays with to finally leave.
“This isn’t fair,” Luo Binghe says. He sounds like a child, Yue Qingyuan notes, a petulant child who hasn’t gotten his promised treats. Maybe that’s an unflattering description for the man who was perhaps the only one who could match him in power, who could burn down Cang Qiong around them, who was his only hope ever since that terrible day when those blood stained hands touched his cheek - but Yue Qi can’t find it in himself to care.
It’s hard to remember anything but the memory of Xiao Jiu close to this man, his lips upon his forehead, his arms around his neck, before he finally, finally -
“It’s not fair, ” Luo Binghe repeats, tone growing fiercer. “All those years - all that time! Shizun waited for you! He was calling for you!”
Yue Qingyuan closed his eyes. These were accusations he would never defend himself against.
“He always looked at you, so much so that he would never see anyone else! How is that fair?”
Yue Qingyuan kept his eyes closed. “It isn’t fair, not at all.” A deep breath. “I...failed your teacher in ways that I can never forgive myself for.”
Luo Binghe sneered. “This isn’t about you.”
Yue Qingyuan ignored the cutting words in a practiced manner. Only the sight of Luo Binghe climbing the bed, sitting next to the still body of his Xiao Jiu, pulling it into his arms made him move. “Luo Binghe,” his tone warned of consequences to come.
But Binghe, brushing soft hair out with gentle fingers, paid no mind. He had only ever known one master.
“Shizun,” his tone was soft, so soft that no one would ever imagine the half demon well on his way to conquering the world would have it, “Shizun, all the preparations are nearly done. Everything’s going to be ok soon. You’re going to wake up, and everything will be ok.”
Yue Qingyuan’s breath caught at the light which shone on his shidi’s lifeless face, the fire giving his face a healthy glow. Unbidden, his hand tensed around Xuan Su.
It had taken all his restraint to not destroy the sword outright in those first wretched months without Xiao Jiu. Only the presence of Liu Qingge and the other peak lords, only the responsibility of a sect under his protection, kept Yue Qi from bleeding himself out on the same blade which took everything away from him.
And only this project which he conducted with the half demon who shared a responsibility in that loss, the only being who felt it as keenly as Yue Qi himself, gave him any hope for the days to come.
“Sleep for now, Shizun,” brushing his hair off his forehead, Luo Binghe planted a kiss on Shen Qingqiu’s forehead, “This disciple will take care of you.”
The first strings of awareness filtered through Shen Jiu’s consciousness slowly, tugging and pulling him awake in the most annoying ways. Along with them came a familiar cajoling voice.
“Shizun,” a soft touch on his forehead, a hand brushing his hair and tucking it behind his ear, “Shizun, it’s time to wake up.”
Shen Jiu frowned, still half-asleep. He knew this voice - it often came to him in the mornings after long nights spent in a fruitless search browsing through the material Mu Qingfang had given him. “Shizun,” that stupid, sticky boy would say, “Shizun, this disciple has made you breakfast.”
The touch was something entirely new, though.
Normally, Shen Jiu hated being touched. The Qiu household had ruined the sensation for him entirely and Wu Yanzi, the way he would so roughly grab Shen Jiu’s shoulder and push him head first into confrontations, didn’t help.
This touch, though….it was so soft, so reverent, that Shen Jiu couldn’t help but enjoy.
As though seeing the faint stirrings of pleasure in the sleeping man, the owner of the hand laughed. It sounded choked, as though the other was on the verge of tears.
“Shizun,” they began again, voice trembling from the weight of their emotions, “Shizun, don’t you think you’ve been sleeping long enough?”
Unceremoniously, they lifted the prone man and pulled him into an embrace. “Come back to me, Shizun.”
With great effort, Shen Jiu opened his eyes, taking in the warm drapes above his bed and the wild mane of the man who hugged him. He knew this hair, had brushed it on mornings when he felt particularly nostalgic for the days when felt Qi’ge’s hands in his own hair. Had brushed on mornings when his heart felt strange, full of affection for a sticky disciple that he would never admit to himself.
Newly awakened, his body shivered in the embrace, pins and needles spreading across his limbs as they began to follow their owner into the land of consciousness. The man hugging him pulled back suddenly, grabbing him by the shoulders and staring at his face with red eyes, hungrily roaming his form as though he could not believe that Shen Jiu was awake.
“Sh-Shizun!” Luo Binghe hiccuped.
Exhausted, completely confused, Shen Jiu could only watch as his disciple broke down in front of him. “Binghe,” his voice had grown hoarse, he softened it in an effort to soothe the pain of speaking after so long, “Binghe, what did you do?”
If Binghe hadn’t known by now what kind of person his Shizun was, if he still held on to those childish ideals of Shizun’s perfections, he would not have been prepared to deal with the way his Shizun reacted to his resurrection at all.
But as it was, he did know his Shizun now. Had learnt about him in death better than he ever had in life.
“Xiao Jiu,” Yue Qingyuan whispered that day as the sky broke down overhead them, Shen Qingqiu’s still body in his hands, “Xiao Jiu, Xiao Jiu, open your eyes.”
“Xiao Jiu!” Qiu Haitang laughed in her memories, “Xiao Jiu, you’re such a funny boy!”
The Huan Hua Palace still bore traces of the rage that Luo Binghe had driven himself into when he finally saw all of Qiu Haitang’s memories. He could barely stop himself from tearing her brain apart, reminding himself how angry Shizun would be if he hurt the one person who Shizun intentionally spared from his righteous rampage.
He instead settled for taking out his anger on the Huan Hua palace master who tracked down and invited her to inflict harm on his Shizun.
(The Huan Hua palace master’s mind was ridiculously easy to break into for a man his age and spiritual status. Through the cracks in his psyche, widening even as Luo Binghe watched, he could see the war which the palace master and his Shizun played out on each other, each trying their best to inconvenience the other’s sects. He could see the way the palace master’s expression spasmed when he saw Luo Binghe standing by Shen Qingqiu’s side, how his Shizun’s eyes narrowed as he moved to block his disciple from sight.
(Shizun said: “Leave the Huan Hua Palace.” Said: “A disciple’s proper place is by their master’s side.”
And Binghe didn’t listen like a fool, like what he had accused his Shizun of doing, so the pain in his heart, the burden of Shizun’s death around his neck like an anchor weighing him down - that was his penance to bear.)
“Xiyan,” the palace master wheezed, blood streaming down his mouth, “Xiyan, be a good girl. Come to your master, come-”
He couldn’t say another word before Luo Binghe cut his tongue out.)
He’s still has nightmares about that Shizun sometimes, so small, so quiet. The way he would watch the windows with such longing, as if wishing to break out, before ultimately staying put.
There’s someone coming for me. I have to wait.
He preferred the raging Shizun in front of him to that wraith with haunted the Qiu household.
“How dare you,” Shen Qingqiu seethed. Still sitting on the bed, his limbs unused to movement after so long, he held his head up and spat out venom with all the authority of an emperor.
Luo Binghe smiled, demeanor calm in front of the raging man. The sight of his smile only incensed Shen Qingqiu more.
“I didn’t want to be brought back!” he snapped, watching with a vicious pleasure as his disciple’s smile faltered. “I didn’t ask to be revived!”
Luo Binghe moves closer to him, but Shen Jiu holds his ground. His own lips twisted in a vicious parody of a smile. “What, did you think this master would thank you? Did you think that you saved me?”
As if unaffected, Luo Binghe sits down next to him. He pulls him in his arms, rubbing circles on his back with gentle but firm hands as Shen Jiu began to thrash and struggle in the embrace.
“Shizun,” his voice was a whisper, still clearly heard in the room, “Shizun can hit Binghe, Shizun can scream at Binghe, Shizun can insult Binghe in any way he likes.”
The struggle began to die down, the limbs far too tired from such a momentary exertion. Binghe makes a note to make something healthy and hearty for his Shizun’s dinner - no doubt the prideful man would want to be back on his feet as soon as possible.
“But Binghe will never leave Shizun. Binghe will always come back for Shizun. Shizun,” the word leaves his mouth in an exhale, as though it has taken Binghe’s soul with him, “Shizun never has to ask for Binghe to save him. Binghe will do so regardless.”
By now, tears had begun to flow down Binghe’s face. It can’t be helped - his master always said that Binghe’s eyes must have had more water in them than the Luo River, and with his precious person in his arms like this, with all his dreams accomplished, how could he not shed some tears of joy?
The path forward will be hard. Shizun didn’t trust anyone in the world, not even himself. But Binghe was willing to do what was necessary to show Shen Qingqiu, Shen Jiu, that he will never leave him behind.
Trembling hands came to rest on his back, the embrace being awkwardly returned. Shizun whispered, “Who does this disciple of mine think he is,” his voice shaking even as he hugged Binghe closer, “Do you presume to provide for this master?”
Binghe, finally heard, just cried harder.
Shen Qingqiu should have known better than to trust a fucking demon. Regardless of what insults the demonic sovereigns he conquered used for him, Luo Binghe really embodied his father’s heritage through and through.
That was the only explanation - the only explanation for this.
“An important guest, Shizun. Someone who had waited to see Shizun a long time.”
Luo Binghe, when you come back you’re dead meat.
Shen Qingqiu turned his back to the speaker, looking outside the window of the room which constituted his residence in the Huan Hua Palace while he healed and wondering how long the jump below would be.
“Xiao Jiu, a fall at that height would only break your legs.”
“Not if I jump head-first and land on my neck,” Shen Qingqiu snapped. Immediately, he bit his lips in reprimand. Hadn’t he sworn he wouldn’t respond? Was he truly this weak willed?
Qi’ge let out a laugh, sounding weak and teary at the edges. “Even after all these years, Xiao Jiu is still the same. Qi’ge is glad.”
Suddenly, unexplainably, Shen Jiu felt a storm of anger rise in him, emptying his mind until he was filled with nothing but the intent to hurt .
How dare this man.
“Didn’t I tell you to stop calling me that?!” He dared not look back, kept facing the window. He didn’t know what he would do if he saw Qi’ge’s face, but even then he knew that the wretched man was making a face like a kicked dog, the same face Shen Jiu had utilized so many times in the past to swindle rich women of their money.
His hands closed into fists, trembling by his side. A deep breath, then : “Xiao Jiu is dead. Yue Qi is dead.”
A gasp. The sound of footsteps as Yue Qingyuan moved closer to him. Reaching out, he grasped the younger by the shoulder, turning him around with desperate force. Despite the venom his lips were spitting, Shen Jiu’s face was blown wide open with surprise - shock - vulnerability. It was the same face he had worn when Yue Qi had moved to defend him from accusations by the other street children of stealing, and something in Yue Qingyuan’s heart hurt.
“Xiao Jiu,” he began softly. A hand reached out to caress Shen Jiu’s face, and despite it all, despite the rage, the terror, the sheer chaos happening in his mind, Shen Jiu couldn’t help but to lean in.
He had so many ideas of what he would do if Yue Qingyuan ever recovered his memory. Younger, more spiteful : he imagined the sect leader getting on his knees to beg for forgiveness. Imagined himself, standing tall and prideful, spitting out words of venom and making the elder work for his forgiveness.
Older, more desperate : Qi’ge would look at him and see him and Shen Jiu would fling himself into waiting arms, would hold tight and never let go.
So many scenarios, so many dreams. Now, in the moment, they all seemed so silly.
How could Shen Jiu’s broken mind ever hope to conjure up the tumult of emotions he would feel at this moment? How could it hope to understand the way Shen Jiu would be dumbstruck the moment when those eyes turned to him with recognition, the way he wouldn’t be useful for anything but standing still like a statue and staring at Qi’ge as though he were the sun, shining again after years of rain?
“Xiao Jiu, I - I’m sorry.”
The words made him snap out of his trance, frustration once again building up inside him. “What are you sorry for? I got out, didn’t I? I didn’t have to wait for you to rescue me.”
Qi’ge’s expression fell at the clear refusal of his apology. At the sight, Shen Jiu could feel that street scum child in him scream at him, try to rip him apart.
Hadn’t we once promised that we’d protect Qi’ge through everything?!
The anger made his words clumsy, nothing befitting the renowned scholar of Qing Jing peak. “None of this would have happened if you had been patient and waited instead of going crazy and trying to grasp the first powerful sword you came across! Didn’t I tell you that your recklessness and impulsiveness would drive you into trouble again? Didn’t your master teach you the same? Dammit Qi’ge, you never—”
His words cut off at the sight of tears rising in the other’s eyes. For a moment, he could only feel panic. In the next, he felt disdain. Between the both of us, who has the right to cry at this moment?
But despite the tears crawling down his face, Yue Qingyuan’s eyes were happy, a shaky smile pulling at his lips. Between one breath and another, he tugged Shen Jiu close, holding him as though he were something precious, something important - as though without him, Yue Qingyuan’s world would fall apart.
Trembling laughter in his ears. “Yes, yes,” his voice hiccuped, “Qi’ge’s the most impulsive, the most reckless, the most stupid.”
Shen Jiu’s face colored as he remembered his own words.
“Xiao Jiu can call Qi’ge whatever he wants, Qi’ge deserves it. Qi’ge will take whatever Xiao Jiu gives him, will prostrate himself in front of Xiao Jiu if he wants, will give Xiao Jiu his sword so he can cut out Qi’ge’s throat for breaking his word if he wants—”
A relentless stream of words poured from Qi’ge’s mouth. He repeated ‘Xiao Jiu, Xiao Jiu,’ over and over again, as if he was marveling at the sheer existence of the name.
Shen Jiu found that, to his horror, his own eyes were beginning to gather tears too, certain to descend down his cheeks into Yue Qingyuan’s hair. He closed his eyes.
So long, Shen Jiu had lived, died and dreamt this moment. So long, he had imagined making Qi’ge pay for leaving him alone, making Qi’ge regret leaving him behind but - but -
That wasn’t entirely true, was it? In the end, even when he didn’t recognize him, even when he didn’t see him, Qi’ge came for him, didn’t he?
Shen Jiu dreamt about making Qi’ge pay, making him regret and mourn and hurt just as much as he did but right now - in this moment - with Qi’ge in front of him, holding him close, murmuring his name in his hair -
Shaky hands gripped Yue Qingyuan’s shoulders, and the movement of them started a new wave of tears.
“Qi’ge,” Shen Jiu whispered, “Qi’ge, Qi’ge, Qi’ge, you’re here, you’re here, you’re here—”
Yue Qi hastened to comfort him. “Yes, yes, yes, I’m here, I’m here, I’m here, Qi’ge will never leave Xiao Jiu behind again, will always remain by Xiao Jiu’s side—”
As one, they sank to the floor, still wrapped up in each other’s embrace. It was a long time before either of them let go.
(“Xiao Jiu...come home with me.”
Luo Binghe and Yue Qingyuan stared each other down as they wanted to rip each other apart. Stuck in the middle, Shen Qingqiu raised his fan to cover his face and begged for mercy from the world.
Please don’t fight, please don’t fight, please don’t fight—
(The part of him that was still Shen Jiu began, amused, I wonder who would win.)
“Head disciple Luo,” Yue Qingyuan began, tone more frosty than Shen Qingqiu had ever heard, “Thank you for taking care of our peak lord. But I’m afraid that we must head home now.”
Luo Binghe smirked. “Come now, Sect Leader Yue,” he cajoled, “can you not stay for longer? This disciple made so many arrangements for his teacher’s stay. I would be heartbroken if he left this early.”
Voice low, face half hidden by his fan, Shen Qingqiu began, “Luo Binghe, you little demon, what are you going on about?”
The change of expression between when Luo Binghe looked at Yue Qingyuan and when he looked at Shen Qingqiu would have given a less experienced person whiplash.
“Shizun!” Ugh, he looked so eager, Shen Qingqiu hated that he could feel his face heat up at the sudden sickening attention paid to him, “Shizun are you fully healed?! Are you sure you shouldn’t rest more? This disciple has prepared your food for you—”
“Binghe, stop.” If he let Binghe go on, the boy would ramble for eternity! “This master has healed enough for such a small journey. If any problems arise, surely he can heal better on Qian Cao.” He missed Mu Qingfang with a sudden fierce longing. At least that man wouldn’t regularly give him headaches.
Luo Binghe leaned back, a pout on his lips. “Well, then,” he bowed, “This disciple takes his leave. I, too, must prepare for the journey.”
“Where exactly are you going, Head Disciple Luo?” Yue Qingyuan’s eyes shone with suspicion.
In response, Binghe smiled at him, as if butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth. “You have some strange ideas, Sect Leader Yue,” the half demon began, “when this disciple calls Shen Qingqiu ‘Shizun,’ how can he be a part of any other sect?”
Yue Qingyuan’s nostrils flared in anger, but Luo Binghe didn’t pay much attention to it as he turned to Shen Qingqiu again. “Shizun, once said that a disciple’s proper place is by his master’s side. At the time, Binghe disregarded the words, begging Shizun to punish disciple.”
“Mm. Will decide back on Qing Jing.”
“Xiao Jiu, you don’t have to take this burden on yourself, you know? Any other peak in Cang Qiong would be happy to take this errant disciple of yours and discipline him—”
“Sect Leader Yue continues to have strange ideas if he thinks that this disciple would accept any discipline apart from his master’s.”
“Well, disciple’s don’t get a say in their discipline now, do they—”
Shen Qingqiu closed his eyes and prayed for patience. He could foresee the headache he would develop on his travel back home.
But still, he couldn’t wait to go back to the peak. Couldn’t wait to see the bamboo house, to talk to Mu Qingfang, to torment Liu Qingge again. Couldn’t wait to wake up to the smell of food cooked by Binghe, to the promise of Qi’ge’s smiles.
Lifting the fan up so that it covered his whole face so as to avoid seeing the increasingly aggressive passive-aggressive bickering in front of him, Shen Jiu allowed himself a small smile, a happiness that no one else could see.
There was time to share that joy with the world still.