They don’t encounter any more demons, for which Shen Qingqiu is most grateful. Qing Jing Peak is a scholarly peak, so neither the original Shen Qingqiu nor his own lazy self has engaged his body in as much physical training as Liu Qingge has. That fight with the plant lizard demons lasted far longer than his aching bones could take, a gripe that Liu Qingge chooses to ignore when Shen Qingqiu mutters it under his breath like a cranky old man.
But Shen Qingqiu doesn’t miss the way Liu Qingge slows his pace and shortens his strides, the way he’d wait for Shen Qingqiu to catch up to him, gaze averted to some far point in the distance.
What kindness! What consideration!
The next pause, however, doesn’t feel like an act of thoughtfulness.
Shen Qingqiu stops by Liu Qingge’s side, following his line of sight to the fork in the path, both of which lead into a thick canopy of trees. He turns to Liu Qingge, who seems to be mentally outlining the map of their journey in his head. “Are we unclear on which one to take, shidi?”
“Mn,” Liu Qingge says. “I know the next town is past this forest, but it’d be good to clarify where these paths go.”
“There’s an old man fishing by the riverbank,” Shen Qingqiu points out. “He might know the way?”
Liu Qingge nods. “I’ll ask.”
Awed by Liu Qingge’s overwhelming aura, the old man bows and scrapes as he stutters out his greeting. He explains, at more length than necessary, that he’s fishing for his pregnant daughter, whose lover had abandoned her for a wealthier woman. Liu Qingge listens, with Shen Qingqiu making compassionate sounds by his side. Then, he gets right to the point, gesturing at the fork in the path. The right path is the way to go, the old man says, for it’s a straight line through the forest, unlike the winding path that is the left.
Liu Qingge thanks the old man, tossing him a bag of coins for “fresher bait” before he sweeps away, white robes glowing like a halo in the sunlight.
“You’re too kind, Master Cultivator, Sir!” the old man blubbers, clutching the bag to his skinny chest. “Too kind!”
“That much money will give him far more than fresh bait,” Shen Qingqiu says, after they’re out of earshot.
“The bait was a suggestion,” Liu Qingge grunts. “He can use it as he sees fit.”
Shen Qingqiu hides a smile behind his fan.
Truly, his shidi’s kindness knew no bounds. Even if he were too embarrassed to admit it.
* * *
It turns out, the path they take is the winding one.
And, right as they make that unfortunate discovery deep within the forest, thunder rumbles above them and storm clouds roll in, turning the sky a dark, dreary grey.
Before Shen Qingqiu can utter the word “shelter,” the heavens begin to weep, big, fat rain droplets cascading upon them in a sudden, heavy torrent.
The old man had a 50-50 chance of getting it right.
Liu Qingge doesn’t say it, but Shen Qingqiu really wants their money back.
After a mad dash through the downpour, they manage to duck into a cave, the mouth of its entrance covered with moss and vines. While Liu Qingge frowns at the sheet of rain outside, Shen Qingqiu explores the inside of their makeshift shelter, blanching at the drag of wet robes against his skin, the squelch of his feet in rain-soaked boots with every step he takes.
Of all the crazy things cultivation can do, why can’t it magically dry a person? Better yet, why didn’t Airplane bro write that ability into this ridiculous world of his!? No, he’d rather throw in some badly named poison that has papapa jizz as the sole antidote, the useless idiot!
“Looks like we’ll be here a while,” Liu Qingge says.
Shen Qingqiu rubs his hands up and down his arms, quelling the chilled shiver that runs through his body. “Great,” he says, teeth clacking, with just a hint of petulance. “And I don’t see anything that can serve as firewood…”
Liu Qingge turns to him then, damp hair clinging to his cheeks in an impossibly artful manner. He gives a long stare, longer than when Shen Qingqiu cracked his first lame joke, his eyes dark and penetrating and pensive.
Times like these, Shen Qingqiu wishes he could read his shidi’s mind. “Liu-shidi,” he starts…
...only to choke on his next words when Liu Qingge starts to slip out of his robes… ??
"Liu-shidi," Shen Qingqiu says again, higher and more frantic, but Liu Qingge is already naked from the waist up, the planes of his chest glistening like a well-oiled—Shen Qingqiu tears his gaze away, eyes wrenched shut.
"What are you doing?" Liu Qingge says. "Take your clothes off and get over here."
Who the hell are you and what have you done with my Liu-shidi!?
"I'm not taking anything off," Shen Qingqiu says, with as much dignity as he can muster.
"You'd rather stay in your wet clothes?" Liu Qingge snorts.
“I’d rather stay in my clothes, wet or not," Shen Qingqiu snaps, eyes still closed.
Liu Qingge makes a noise that's far too reminiscent of Shen Qingqiu's deep sighs around his disciples. "You're cold," he says, as if he were talking to a child. "Through skin-to-skin contact, we can share body heat, and I can ensure proper circulation of your meridians."
Cultivation can't dry off his skin and clothes, but his qi should keep him warm. If it weren't clogged by the poison with a name that's not even worth a single mention.
“Fine,” Shen Qingqiu mutters. “But I’m leaving my pants on.”
Liu Qingge lets out another sigh. “Just come to me when you’re ready,” he says.
With anyone else, Shen Qingqiu might have struck them with Xiu Ya’s handle and taken his chances with the rain outside.
But he trusts his shidi. Inappropriate as that command may sound.
After peeling his robes off, Shen Qingqiu scoots over, arms folded across his bare chest, to where Liu Qingge is seated. He keeps his eyes on Liu Qingge’s face, steadfastly refusing to let them wander any lower than his neck. His tanned, slim neck, tragically hidden beneath the high collar of his peak robes.
Fuck, maybe he should keep his eyes above Liu Qingge’s jaw.
“Sit,” Liu Qingge says.
Slowly, Shen Qingqiu sits, arms kept wrapped over his chest.
Baffled, Shen Qingqiu does as he’s told. Right before a pair of arms slide around his shoulders and tug him back into the hard lines of a finely sculpted chest.
Bold, too bold!
Shen Qingqiu opens his mouth to protest, but the surge of energy through his body—the flood of much-needed warmth—makes him close it, sinking his teeth into his bottom lip instead. His shidi has the best of intentions; his own treacherous mind is to blame for making this filthier than it actually is.
“Better?” Liu Qingge asks, his lips too close to Shen Qingqiu’s ear.
“Better,” Shen Qingqiu murmurs, flushing.
They sit in silence for a while, Liu Qingge channeling his qi into Shen Qingqiu, Shen Qingqiu desperately trying to distract himself from the muscled lines of Liu Qingge’s chest against his back, the warmth of Liu Qingge’s breath on his neck. The thud of Liu Qingge’s heart, slow compared to Shen Qingqiu’s pounding, staccato beat.
It’s one thing if Liu Qingge weren’t attractive, but oh, he is. Every male in this stupid world looks like a god descended from above, and this particular god also happens to have the heavenly physique of one.
It’d be inhuman for Shen Qingqiu to not have any sort of reaction.
“Sleep,” Liu Qingge says, voice low. “I’ll take first watch.”
Sleep, half-naked, held in Liu Qingge’s arms? No way in hell.
But Shen Qingqiu knows better than to argue with Liu Qingge.
“Thank you, shidi.”
By the time dawn rolls around, the rain has subsided, their robes have dried, and they leave the cave, ready to resume their trek through the forest.
They don’t talk about that night. Not for a long while.