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Journey to west

Chapter Text

Cang Qiong Peak meetings are rarely noisy.

The monthly meeting is unspeakably boring to everyone in attendance. It would be fair to say it is on most participants’ list of least favorite obligations of their job. 

It’s rare that these meetings are memorable. Peak Lords speak in orderly fashion, following their seniority. They sit on the floor in a rectangle, sip their tea behind ornate carved tables, and politely discuss the agenda. Whose turn is it to upkeep the mountain pass. What should they do for the next conference. There are lots of mn’s, nods, and pauses to acknowledge the tapping of a water clock marking time.

The meeting today, though, is pandemonium by comparison.

So far, Qi Qingqi is the loudest with a stern voice that carries over everyone else’s. “I’m not saying Shen-shidi is negligent of his duties as peak lord, but he really…” She shakes a hand as she reaches for words more polite than what is actually on her mind.

Liu Qingge interrupts her and says plainly, “That’s exactly it! He IS negligent! Those wretched disciples have taken all my weaponry and not returned...”

“Weapons?! He’s failed to pay for food! Those poor children are over in my kitchens every day!” Mu Qingfang remarks with a twitch of his brow.

Even Shang Qinghua, who normally sounds close to a mosquito among his louder peers, is shouting as he waves wildly. “Your kitchens!? Your weapons!? What about my dormitories? It’s like a refugee crisis over there ever since Shen-shixiong has stopped buying materials to maintain his roofs!”

The room dissolves into a buzz of competing complaints and conversations. Curses never before uttered during such a dignified gathering are flying everywhere. Everyone seems to have something to be irate about relating to the actions, or actions lack thereof, from one Shen Qingqiu. The grievances stack up, as if each peak lord were compelled to convince all others their suffering is the worst by far.

“ENOUGH!”

The room freezes and turns to stare. Yue Qingyuan rarely raises his voice, and it’s a shock to everyone when it booms across the room. His face is difficult to read; there are lines etched between his brows in irritation, amplifying his stormy eyes, but he remains seated (the only one), demeanor surprisingly calm otherwise.

“Zhangmen-shixiong...”

“I said enough.”

Shang Qinghua is the first to shrink down and sit, having developed an unglamorous habit of obeying commands on instinct. When no one else makes any move to sit, he gives a sheepish look and starts rising to his feet. 

“Sit! All of you.”

He immediately drops down to the ground again. These social cues were just so hard to read!

The other peak lords grumble under their breath but grudgingly arrange themselves behind their tables. Once they are all seated, Yue Qingyuan speaks, his voice back to its usual timber of mixed authority and friendly chattiness. “I understand you have all been inconvenienced greatly. Your reports do not go unacknowledged,” he says with a heavy look, “However, we are here to find a solution, not to squabble.”

“Of course, zhangmen-shixiong,” Someone from across the room offers, “What do you think we should do?”

Yue Qingyuan looks down at his tea and heaves a weary sigh. Something was gravely wrong, but he also knew Shen Qingqiu was always one for the theatrics. It’d gone a bit extreme though--too much to explain by his flair for personal dramatics. This time wasn’t like the others, where he could tell Xiao Jiu was sneaking glances back to savour the response he provoked. This time, he’d simply stopped functioning.

“Shidi is very unwell...”

“But not unwell of the medical variety. He is physically quite fine,” Mu Qingfang quickly supplies, trying to avoid getting saddled with the problem alone. “It’s more of the...mind.” The heart, he means to say, but it seems inappropriate for this sort of setting.

“Oh yes,” Shang Qinghua agrees with fervent nodding, “Ever since the…”

Liu Qingge rolls his eyes and grips his teacup so hard it fractures. The cracking sound startles his more timid colleague into silence. “Just get to the point!”

“I’ll say it!” Qi Qingqi throws out the truth, never one to beat around the bush, “He hasn’t gotten out of bed in days. He’s too heartbroken over that disciple of his. We have got to do something!”

“Shimei…”

“No no no! Don’t interrupt me. I’m going to say it, and I’d prefer to say it now and not later.” She held up a hand in protest. “The fact of it is he’s depressed! I had an aunt who was like this after her husband died. She wasted away in her room. It wasn’t until she travelled to visit distant relatives that she recovered. We need to get him out of that bamboo house.”

A chorus of agreements scatter across the room as they all nod to her assessment. But where? And how? It wouldn’t do to trick him. But it would certainly take some clever convincing. The scheming quickly begins with murmurs and eager expressions.

Shang Qinghua leans over after the room breaks out in chatter. “So how did that work? What happened to your aunt on her travels? You know, what actually made her better?”

Pouring herself some more tea, Qi Qingqi shrugs. Her nonchalant gaze almost saying on her lips’ behalf that it must be obvious. 

“She met her second husband, of course.”

 

* * *

 

“You want me to go where?”

It’s the third time Yue Qingyuan has repeated the assignment, but Shen Qingqiu still can’t seem to grasp the details. Who can blame him? He barely got it together to comb his hair and put on clean robes in time for the guests in his house. There’s scrolls and clutter strewn everywhere in the room, but he’s long past caring about his reputation in front of his fellow peak lords.

“West, to retrieve sutras from the Theravada monks.”

Shen Qingqiu is a homebody if there ever was one. There’s nothing he hates more than traveling. The burden of the body shuttling the mind around between places sounds terrible. (And a journey to west at that! hah! is he supposed to be the monkey or the monk, he wonders.) 

He narrows his eyes and taps his chin with a closed fan. “But I don’t understand. Zhangmen-shixiong is surely capable of going himself. I do not see why this requires anything of me.”

With a kind smile, Yue Qingyuan answers, “I must stay to manage sect affairs. The west borders very closely with a territory overrun by demons. It requires someone of your skill. You would not go alone of course. Choose someone to go with you.”

“I must politely decline. Have Liu-shidi go. He is more than capable.” That man can clear a field on his own just for the giggles and everyone in the room knows it. Shen Qingqiu snaps his fan open and hides his discomfort. This sounds fishy.

“You--” Liu Qingge frowns and bites something unpleasant back. He glances at Shen Qingqiu but immediately averts his eyes and stares at his shoes. Shouldn’t Liu-juju be happy to be complimented? What a difficult man.

"Your sword skills are unparalleled, master Shen,” someone adds with great deference. He can’t even tell who is saying it. “The western lands need your help.”

He merely sends a glare around.

Qi Qingqi is the next to speak. Her tone is softer than usual, saturated with the sweetness mothers reserve for troublesome children. “Shen-shidi, we care very much about you, and we’ve noticed…”

His eyes dart between her and the rest of the room. Qi Qingqi is still talking, droning on about something, but he quit listening a few sentences ago. His eyes linger on Liu Qingge leaning against the window sill, looking like he’d rather be doing laundry. Yue Qingyuan sitting on his bed looking every bit as concerned as the day he first woke up to that troll of a system. The other peak lords are all crowded around him in a circle, faces gentle like they are about to deliver him some very bad news.

OH HELL NO! GODDAMNIT! He recognizes this kind of thing. When people crowd all around you and ambush you while they all take turns telling you how much they care….

What the fuck! This is an intervention!

They’re still talking. He tries to focus and hear it, but it’s difficult with his heart raging.

“Won’t you just try and go? You can take your disciple Ming Fan, or Liu-shidi, or Shang-shidi.”

At the mention, he scowls at Shang Qinghua who just squeaks and throws up his hands in surrender.

“No.” 

He keeps his voice firm. He doesn’t need this kind of meddling. He’s FINE. It’s so blatant they are all just trying to get him to forget he had to push his favorite disciple down an abyss. These clowns have no subtlety. Sucks to suck! He prefers to wallow at home, thank you!

A long drag of silence accompanies the impasse. A sort of speech formulates in his head. He is about to elaborate his scathing rebuttal when he notices Liu Qingge fidgeting uncharacteristically.

"Do you have something to add, Liu-shidi?"

Liu Qingge flashes a shocked expression at being called upon, then shifts his eyes to the left to avoid the inquiry. It’s clear he’s awkwardly rehearsing something in his head. He does that thing again where he steals a glance before immediately shifts his eyes back to the blank wall. He finally grits through his teeth, "I would...prefer... shixiong to accompany me."

As if working up some courage, the man scuffles his boot on the ground before sighing and meeting Shen Qingqiu’s stare. Those dark eyes are captivating, pleading with an earnestness he didn’t know could exist, so stirring that a “yes” almost tumbles out of Shen Qingqiu’s mouth unfiltered.

Oh. 

Well.

I mean.

How is he supposed to say no to that?

 

Chapter Text

Traveling with Liu Qingge is unexpectedly draining. Not the travel itself, no. They’re cultivators, which in this world, means they’re guaranteed a room at inns by virtue of their status alone. Liu Qingge has also set a pace that is brisk but not too grueling. 

But the man is of few words.

No words, really.

Shen Qingqiu is used to being surrounded by noise; his Qing Jing Peak disciples are like baby birds, always chirping and eager for his attention. 

The one he lost was no exception. 

He chokes down the lump in his throat and turns to Liu Qingge. Anything for a distraction. "How does our journey look today, Liu-shidi?" 

Liu Qingge looks at him, raising an eyebrow. "We went over this at breakfast." 

"It feels different when we're on the road." 

Even to Shen Qingqiu's ears, the excuse sounds lame.

But Liu Qingge turns his gaze back to the winding dirt path they're traversing, and obliges. "The next town is too far for us to make it in a day. We could fly, but that would be an unnecessary expenditure of spiritual energy. Best to conserve that for any demons we come across. So we'll stop and make camp tonight." 

Shen Qingqiu nods, lips curved in a small smile. Unnecessary expenditure of spiritual energy, indeed!  Liu Qingge could get on Cheng Luan and take on an entire demon army with one arm tied behind his back. It's clear that he has taken his shixiong's poisoned meridians into consideration, for which Shen Qingqiu is grateful. 

“Thank you,” he says. 

Liu Qingge grunts and looks away. 

The silence returns, full-force, a crushing weight on Shen Qingqiu’s shoulders. He tries distracting himself from it. Tries to take in the scenery around them, the tall trees and the green grass, swaying slightly in the breeze; the flowers wafting a sweet scent in the air; the occasional passerby, hastening by with a harried look on their faces. It’s serene, it’s tranquil, it’s—

It’s killing Shen Qingqiu, slowly but surely. 

Noise is one reason, but he’s also used to multitasking, a million tabs, sliding from app to another app to yet another app with the zest of a headless chicken streaking wildly across the farm. Having nothing to do, nothing to focus on, is making Shen Qingqiu’s treacherous mind wander to sticky disciples, loud, childish bickering, and the calls of Shizun, Shizun ringing in his ears.

Wasn’t this supposed to get him out of the bamboo house so he’d stop wallowing in his sadness and unending guilt? Not trap him into thinking, over and over, of the way Luo Binghe took the tip of Xiu Ya’s blade without a whimper, the way Luo Binghe’s face twisted in grief, in betrayal, before he fell. The way Zheng Yang now stands at Qing Jing Peak as his only memory of Luo Binghe, who asked for nothing but a hint of kindness and attention. 

Shen Qingqiu flicks his fan open to hide the expression on his face; he’s not sure how the ache in his chest has surfaced, but the last thing he needs is Liu Qingge noticing it. Exhaling, he turns back to the trees and the grass and the—huh. 

That’s not a flower. 

The breeze carries over a stench of rotting meat, and Shen Qingqiu wrinkles his nose, beating the sour smell off with his fan. That poor animal, whatever it used to be. At least it’s resting in peace now, away from the pain and sins of this mortal world.

Without thought, Shen Qingqiu turns to Liu Qingge, his fan held steady over a wry smile. 

“I wish that were me.”

The only way to describe Liu Qingge’s look is… panicked. Panicked, alarmed, maybe even horrified. Expressions Shen Qingqiu never thought he’d see on the face of the most feared and indomitable warrior of Bai Zhan Peak.

“You—” Liu Qingge sinks his teeth into his bottom lip, works at it furiously, before he bites out, “Surely Luo Binghe isn’t worth such—such—” 

Realization hits Shen Qingqiu like a brick to the head as Liu Qingge pauses again, floundering uncharacteristically for words. Shit, this is a xianxia novel, not the modern world with its memes and absurd humor! In light of his apparent depression, it’s no wonder Liu Qingge has taken him so seriously. 

“No, no, no,” Shen Qingqiu amends hastily. “It was a joke, I don’t actually wish for death.”

A pause, then:

“A joke?” Liu Qingge asks, voice gone soft.

Shen Qingqiu nods. “I was simply finding something to say in the silence. You may ignore me, Liu-shidi, I say the oddest things at times.”

Liu Qingge’s stare remains intense as ever, and Shen Qingqiu finds himself fanning at the rising heat on his cheeks. When he had Luo Binghe by his side, he’d often forget how good-looking the Peak Lords were. Now, with Liu Qingge standing before him, all lean-muscled and chisel-faced, he’s remembering, oh yes, and noticing, definitely noticing. 

Flustered, Shen Qingqiu opens his mouth again. “I—”

“What do you call someone with no body and no nose?” Liu Qingge says. “Nobody knows.”

Shen Qingqiu blinks at him, eyes reduced to dots.

For a moment, they look at each other, silent and frozen, Shen Qingqiu still processing Liu Qingge’s words.

This time, it’s Liu Qingge who breaks the awkwardness.

“A joke,” he says, gruffly. 

“Oh,” says Shen Qingqiu.

“Because you just told one,” Liu Qingge feels the need to add.

Something about that fills the gaps in Shen Qingqiu’s chest with ribbons of warmth, lifts the corners of his mouth into a soft smile. Carefully, he schools his expression behind his fan; the last thing he wants is for Liu Qingge to think he’s laughing at him

“It was funny,” he says, as kindly as he can manage.

Liu Qingge studies him for a bit, as though trying to find the sarcasm on his face. When satisfied, he makes a noise through his nose and averts his gaze. 

“Talk as much as you want.”

And then he’s moving again, marching forward as if fleeing from the scene of his crime. The crime of owning the lamest dad joke ever told in this shitty novel. 

Shen Qingqiu follows after him, barely holding back a laugh, heart fuller than he’s felt in weeks.

“Thank you, Liu-shidi.” 

Chapter Text

The next day began with perhaps the lamest joke he’d ever heard.

“What’s brown and sticky?”

Shen Qingqiu chokes.

Not only marginally obscene, but also just so unbecoming for someone of such status...

“It’s a stick.”

Shen Qingqiu bursts out laughing at the absurdity of it. Honestly, he didn’t know such a stiff and serious man like Liu Qingge had it in him. He’s turning out to be a bottomless pit of dad jokes. Whenever conversation runs dry, he always manages to fish one out of his collection worse than the last. Shen Qingqiu finds them all terribly unfunny in essence, but when combined with the deadpan manner his shidi is delivering, they’re absolutely hysterical.

“Liu-shidi,” he waves his fan while coughing lightly to hide his thoughts, “Where did you learn all these from?”

Liu Qingge shrugs and grunts, “disciples”.

Well, Bai Zhan Peak is definitely a stranger place than he’d thought.

“I will have to visit and hear some for myself,” he comments to himself. It has been a long time since he’d gone to any of the other peaks. His mind drifts to the last time he’d been there: sounds of metal clashing, smell of green grass on the training field, greetings of “Shen-shishu” from rowdy Bai Zhan disciples. Brash and quick to draw swords, yes, but also earnest, bright, and attentive. He finds that his memory of them grows more charming with each thought. 

After these few days, it’s clear where they learned it all from. Shen Qingqiu smiles absently.

“Stop.”

He nearly runs into Liu Qingge’s arm.

“What is it?”

Liu Qingge holds a finger to his lips and points toward a large bush ahead. A slight rustling shakes the dark green leaves. Whatever it is, it moves fast, darting sideways behind a willow. Too narrow to truly hide behind, the creature’s backside juts out from the willow trunk.

Squinting, Shen Qingqiu tried to see what it was. The monster’s backside was covered in what looked like bark? It even had moss between its chips of wooden bark. It wasn’t for the clear shape of a foot and tail, he’d have guessed it was just another (incredibly ugly) tree.

“Liu…”

A flash of sword, and Liu Qingge is already after the monster. Geez, Liu-juju, you really are like a hound, chasing everything that moves. 

Cheng Luan sings metallic notes when it makes contact with the monster’s hard bark scales. The monster whips around in anger. Its head is triangular and flat with leaves, like a crocodile tangled in vines. With a roar, it unhinges its jaw and the sheer size of its bite causes even the fearless Liu Qingge to stagger back.

Shen Qingqiu closes his fan and watches in fascination. What a demon! It’s mouth had to be the size of a man. His eyes trace the form of Liu Qingge’s movements. He’s certainly keeping up with the thing, sweeping in graceful arcs of perfect sword form. The pure athleticism of his backstroke shines through the draped lines of his robes. How many hours does it take to always be such a textbook model image?

He silently cheers when Cheng Luan cleaves the beast in half. Mentally, he’s imagining himself swinging his own weapon in the same motions. His shidi really is a pretty cool character. 

“Shen Qingqiu!”

“Eh?” He jumps out of his daydream.

“Are you just going to stand there and watch?” Liu Qingge shouts as he slashes fiercely into the air. He jumps to dodge the violent jaws snapping and sends a blast of energy to push another one back. What a sweet move.

“Shen Qingqiu!”

“Yes! Yes! Of course!” He rolled his eyes. Sounds like mom yelling at him to come out of his room for dinner. 

Drawing out Xiu Ya, he dashes toward the fight. The mental image of them standing back to back, swords slashing in unison, flashes in his mind. 

Aiii yaaah, this is going to be so cool!

 

***

 

An hour later, tired and making no progress, the fight turns out extremely uncool. In a twist of cruel divine joke, they’d only managed to create more of the things rather than kill them. Every time they cut apart a demon, its two parts simply grow into two demons. 

They are haggard, disheveled, and still surrounded by these nasty plant lizards demons. It’s impossible to maintain Shen Qingqiu’s scholarly demeanor like this. Between the fizzling of his spiritual power in and out and the dust in his eyes, he’s probably making all kinds of faces.

And of course Liu Qingge just had to keep hacking at those things.

“We need to do something different, trick them somehow into leaving us alone,” he suggests as he kicked one away.

“No,” Liu Qingge huffs as he stabs at another, “I never run. It is not honorable.”

“Well, do you have a better idea? We obviously can’t beat them into submission.”

Suspicious silence.

“They’re tree demons, right?” Shen Qingqiu reasons, “They would probably give up if they were to think we were trees. Let’s try going up one.”

Liu Qingge seems agitated by the proposal but grunts a reluctant, “Fine.” He reaches out a hand toward Shen Qingqiu. When he receives a quizzical look, he adds, “I’ll take us up on Cheng Luan.”

“Oh! Ok.” 

Shen Qingqiu enthusiastically takes his hand and is pulled onto the floating sword. He’s never flown on someone else’s sword before, and it’s not an unpleasant experience. Liu Qingge has such an unmatched fluid mastery of his sword that the swing upward barely registers any jittering. He holds Shen Qingqiu’s arm to keep him steady as they hop onto the branches of a tall pine tree.

The demons follow them, crawling their way up the tree. Their claws scraping the brittle bark loudly as they inch closer.

“I have just the thing,” Shen Qingqiu smirks. He plucks some needles from the tree and blows them downward with a spark of qi. The green needles dance and form a barrier beneath their feet. 

“What is that supposed to--” 

He quickly covers Liu Qingge’s words and mouths silently, “They’ll hear you.”

They both look down. The monsters have stopped climbing and are looking left and right, as if searching for lost scent. After a moment, they start to descend and scatter.

When they are out of hearing range, Shen Qingqiu lets out a long sigh and leans against the uncomfortable tree trunk. “My old waist can’t take this level of torture.”

Never one to play agony aunt, Liu Qingge ignores him and remarks, “I still think we should devise a way to kill them.”

“Let it go, Liu-shidi. When you encounter something whose will to live is so strong, you should just let it live,” Shen Qingqiu explains. He dramatically massages his neck and lets out another sad, pathetic sigh, “My back is going to break before they all leave.”

Liu Qingge is silent for a long time. His eyes track across Shen Qingqiu’s features, and he remains very still, as though he were an android frozen while running some background program. Finally, he scoots closer and says, “Rest, you can lean on me.”

A strange feeling like falling flickers inside Shen Qingqiu.

His shidi really is a pretty cool guy. 

Chapter Text

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." 

Oh. Right.

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. 

“Turn around.”

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.