In all his time within captivity, Shen Qingqiu had learned to control himself, to not let out a single peep even if he wanted to. Because he would never let Luo Binghe have the satisfaction of hearing him cry out from whatever ‘games’ he had decided to play with him.
So when he regained consciousness, he didn’t immediately react. His breath was controlled, muscles relaxed, and he waited a few minutes to ensure nobody was around before he slowly opened his eyes— both his eyes. He was surprised, but his suspicion and curiosity trumped over his shock, and he carefully examined his surroundings.
No matter how many years passed, he would never forget the place of his torment, the place that he razed to the ground.
The Qiu Household.
This was unpleasant. Was this another one of that Beast’s torture?
… No , he thought, as he observed the rope tied around his upper body, individual threads easily felt and still visible even if the only thing helping him see was the sliver of moonlight seeping in from the window slightly. There were too many details in the surroundings that should be impossible for him to replicate.
The only other conclusion he could come up with was that he had somehow ended up in the past.
Shen Jiu snorted to himself. Out of the pot and into the fire. Away from Luo Binghe’s creative tortures only to relive a different kind of hell that was a permanent black spot in his past.
He remembered this day. The day the Qiu family bought him. He braced himself for the events that were to come.
As if summoned,Qiu Jianluo and, after a while, Qiu Haitang walked in.
What happened after that was exactly as he remembered. He didn’t need to do much, aside from glaring and talking when told to.
After he was left alone, after he had calmed down, he took the opportunity to fully process what was happening.
He was in the past. Why? A second chance? No. Shen Jiu did not believe in second chances. Even if they existed, he should be the last person to be given one. There must be a different reason why he ended up back here. He tried to wrack his brain to find said reason.
“Man, that’s really fucked up.”
He tensed, but that was the only reaction he showed. He took a cursory glance at his surroundings again. He hadn’t felt anyone coming close, so where did that voice come from?
"I guess that was one of the reasons why you were such an asshole.”
He finally realized where the voice was. It didn’t come from anywhere around him, rather it echoed in his mind. Seemed like he had a freeloader in his mind.
“Get the fuck out of my head.”
“By god, I would if I could. You think I want to be stuck in the head of a scum villain like you?”
The voice in his head called himself ‘System’, though the slight pause in his introduction hinted that there was something more than that. He let it go. It really didn’t matter who this System was.
What irritated him to no end were these ‘missions’ that he had to complete. System said that they were out of his control and that they were predetermined before he arrived. The consequence of not completing said missions was point deduction, and if his points hit zero he would be ejected back to his old body.
Back to the Beast’s mercy.
He would rather avoid that.
However, this complicated things for him. Before, he had been planning to stay as far away as possible from Luo Binghe and anything that concerned him. The safest option he could think of was to not involve himself with the cultivation world in the first place. But the missions System gave him essentially told him that he was going to have to retrace his previous footsteps.
Burn the Qiu Household down. Become Wu Yanzi’s disciple. Meet Yue Qingyuan at the Immortal Alliance Conference. Kill Wu Yanzi. Enter Cang Qiong Mountain. Become Peak Lord of Qing Jing Peak.
He resisted the urge to pull his hair in frustration. How was he supposed to avoid being a human stick now?!
“How about by not being an asshole?” System offered, bemused.
That’s a really tall order, but for the sake of surviving, he’d put up with it.
Yue Qingyuan. Yue Qi.
Yue Qi promised to come back for him. Shen Jiu refused to acknowledge it. He made the older teen take back his words.
He didn’t want to experience that again.
The first time was when he had been abandoned in his past life. The second was when Yue Qingyuan lost his life for him.
He refused to be heartbroken for the third time.
He didn’t need to explain. They both knew what he was talking about.
Yue Qingyuan flinched, as if he were burned, but made no move to explain himself.
“... Qi-ge has let you down.”
The man in front of him paled as he heard that, this time looking like he had been stabbed in the heart, and the comparison only made Shen Jiu feel worse.
The silence that stretched between them was unbearable.
After debating with himself (and System), Shen Jiu finally spat out, “I want to forgive you.”
Yue Qingyuan’s head snapped so hard that he was surprised it didn’t break. His eyes were filled with complete astonishment and poorly hidden hope, as if he had not even dared to think that redemption was possible.
“Let me finish!” he snapped. Yue Qingyuan shut up immediately, not wanting to aggravate Shen Jiu further.
“I want to forgive you, but if you don’t give me a good reason, I won’t be able to. Is that too much to ask?”
That was as closest to a plea as he had ever made. He had never done it before, too prideful to beg for anything. Yue Qingyuan knew this—knew him very well. So it didn’t take long for the man to give in and explain.
And explain he did.
I forgive you, he didn’t say. But he didn’t need to, because his actions said it all. That’s all that Yue Qingyuan needed to feel the heavy burden he had felt for years, the burden of having let someone he loved down, be lifted from his shoulders, however undeserving he was.
“All this time I thought you were a cold-blooded asshole. Now I know you really just don’t know how to fucking communicate.”
“How rude. I know how to communicate just fine.”
“You know how to talk, not to communicate. How the fuck are you gonna expect others to understand you when you can’t even get your message across clearly. Stop sending mixed signals!”
And so the Scum Villain’s Self-Presentation Program was created.
(Ironic of him to be giving pointers, because in his original world, System—Shen Yuan—never really had any constant human interaction beyond his family. But he couldn’t just stand and watch as Shen Jiu completely fucked himself over by making everyone around him misunderstand his intentions.)
“I hate you.”
Liu Qingge didn’t know how to react to the declaration that came out of nowhere from the boy he barely interacted with.
It was the head disciple of Qing Jing Peak, Shen Qingqiu. They never talked much, if at all, because whenever their eyes met the other would always look indignant and stomp away. Not that Liu Qingge much cared; he had no time to spare for people who won’t even speak to him about what he had seemingly done wrong.
Now that he was approached, he had no qualms on responding.
“I noticed,” he said. “What do you want?”
(“Remember to state your intentions clearly. Communicate!”
“Yes, I get it. You can stop whining about it every five minutes.”)
“Fight me,” he paused. Then continued, as if to clarify, “I want to beat you up.”
(If System had a body, he would be slapping his face right now. “This is gonna take a while,” he mumbled.)
Never one to back down from a fight, Liu Qingge accepted.
It became a habit between the two of them. Whenever Shen Qingqiu was in an irritable mood (which was most of the time) he would seek out the Bai Zhan Peak head disciple and pick a fight. Each time, Liu Qingge would take him up on the challenge, and wipe the floor with him.
Shen Qingqiu would bitch after he lost (which was all the time) but when he saw the bruises from whatever hits he managed to land on Liu Qingge, his scowl would loosen a bit as a self-satisfied smirk made its way to his face.
His stomach fluttered.
He didn’t let up, kept the same effort he put in all their spars. Liu Qingge wasn’t so dishonorable as to purposefully go easy on his opponent just to see that expression again—Shen Qingqiu himself would probably be insulted if he found out—but when Shen Qingqiu did breach his defenses and landed a few strikes on him, he felt a sense of… pride?
Whatever it was, he had no intentions of stopping it.
Spending time with Shen Qingqiu, he noticed some things.
Never let it be said that just because Liu Qingge liked to fight first and ask questions later, he had no working brain between his ears.
Shen Qingqiu was a liar through and through. That much was obvious to everyone who ever had the pleasure (or displeasure) to be acquainted with him.
But there was a pattern to his dishonesty, and before long Liu Qingge had figured out how to glean the truth behind Shen Qingqiu’s words, and it wasn’t just a simple case of ‘when he says no, he means yes’, either.
When Shen Qingqiu said “You look pathetic” after their spars, he meant “Get yourself treated.”
When he scathingly remarked, “Did you have fun fooling around down the mountain last night?” he meant “Did you even manage to rest at all?”
Under all that pretense, Shen Qingqiu was a decent human being who was, in fact, capable of worrying about others. So it baffled Liu Qingge to no end how he kept acting as if he were the worst scum to ever walk the face of the earth.
He had long discarded the mindset that Shen Qingqiu’s ‘lies’ were lies, and instead looked at them as his own special way of getting his message across.
And it seemed that he was one of the rare few who understood this. The others being the Qing Jing Peak Lord himself and, somehow, the head disciple of Qiong Ding Peak, Yue Qingyuan.
The two seemed to have history between the two of them. It was something of a hot gossip between the disciples of Cang Qiong Mountain that even he, who had no care for such a frivolous pastime, knew of it. But everyone knew not to pry.
Another thing to note about Shen Qingqiu was the fact that he, apparently, thought very lowly of himself.
He figured it out easily enough. The burning glare Shen Qingqiu threw him whenever he accomplished something was enough to light up the entire mountain. Shen Qingqiu was jealous of Liu Qingge, of what he had, and his jealousy blinded him to his own merits.
Liu Qingge didn’t have Shen Qingqiu’s smarts, his insight, and couldn’t even dream of having even a drop of the grace that the Qing Jing Peak head disciple seemed to exude all the time.
Despite what the boy himself seemed to think, he was well admired amongst the disciples within Cang Qiong Mountain. Shen Qingqiu was someone who started cultivating very late, in no way a born genius like how some people seemed to call Liu Qingge. Yet, he managed to climb his way up and became the head disciple of one of the highest peaks, second only to Qiong Ding Peak itself, all thanks to his own hard work and dedication. He was a role model for many, yet he blinded himself by focusing on the things he didn’t have instead of the ones he did.
It hurt seeing Shen Qingqiu act as if the whole world was his enemy, and Liu Qingge vowed to find a way to rip off the blindfold that Shen Qingqiu had put on by himself.
“He’s so cute! How could you have slept soundly at night knowing that you’ve tormented such a cute white sheep?”
Shen Qingqiu shivered. “How can you see that thing as a ‘cute white sheep’? All I see is a wolf in a seamless sheep clothing and that’s what makes him scarier.”
“Well that wolf won’t bare his fangs at you as long as you show him a decorum of respect! Despite what you think, acting like a decent human being won’t cost you a limb!”
Shen Qingqiu scowled. System’s sense of humor seemed to include throwing in distasteful jokes, and had he been a tangible being Shen Qingqiu would have bashed him across the head by now.
“Speaking of, here he comes now!”
He turned his attention to the approaching child, covered in sweat from having run twenty laps around the mountain. His bright smile remained present on his face and his eyes twinkled, looking very eager to please him.
“Shizun! This disciple has finished the task Shizun had set! Is there anything else that Shizun wishes me to do?”
… This wolf pup. Well, Shen Qingqiu could teach him to never bite the hands that raised him. Besides, if System would stop complaining to him about his treatment to Luo Binghe, he would count it as hitting two birds with one stone.
With one hand holding his fan that was splayed open, covering his mouth, he raised the other to the top of Luo Binghe’s head and carefully patted as gently as possible. He was afraid the child would snap and bit his hand off if he did it too hard.
“Go rest,” he ordered and turned to walk away, leaving Luo Binghe to stare at his back in a daze as his hands touched where Shen Qingqiu’s had been.
“... You’re not gonna do it, are you?”
Had it been the old him who was asked this question, Shen Qingqiu’s response would be, “Of course I will. This is my only chance.”
Now, though, the sight of the Bai Zhan Peak Lord sitting in the middle of his own pool of blood, the inside of the spiritual cave looking as if a great war had happened within its walls, only brought an indescribable feeling of something crushing his heart as it got harder for him to breathe.
Ignoring System’s question, he walked towards the figure sitting on the ground and did something he didn’t think he was capable of doing—helping others.
“You’re telling me, I went through all this trouble to get on Luo Binghe’s good side, but in the end I still have to push him into the Endless Abyss?”
That day the disciples of Qing Jing peak were greeted with a most terrifying sight; their elegant and graceful Shizun was pulling on his hair in apparent frustration.
A lot of them ran all the way to Qian Cao Peak immediately, some seeking medication for hallucination, others coming up to Mu Qingfang directly to request his presence back at their peak because “There’s something terribly wrong with Shizun!”
Shen Qingqiu didn’t much care about what others thought of him at that moment, more concerned over the threat of losing his hard-earned peace and trying to think of ways to salvage it.
“Shut up. It’s not as if he’s dead.”
System ignored him and continued to wail in his head, making it pound as he felt a headache coming. There was nothing he could do about it though, and he had expected this would happen seeing as System was ‘Luo Binghe’s No. 1 Fan’, as he so eloquently put. He opted to wait for the cries in his head to stop before waking up all the passed out disciples (and one peak lord, he noted in annoyance).
Someone found him before he could start.
Liu Qingge walked to the clearing, took one look at him, and sprinted forward, surprising Shen Qingqiu slightly. The Bai Zhan Peak Lord grabbed his hand and inspected him from top to bottom before asking, “Where are you hurt? Do you need help walking?”
Shen Qingqiu was bewildered. What was with this line of questioning? He was perfectly fine.
The War Lord didn’t give him a chance to reply as he immediately asked after looking around the area, “Where’s that disciple of yours? I thought you two would have met up by now.”
Really. Liu Qingge just had to remind him that his days were practically numbered at this point, hadn’t he?
He looked back to the spot where the ground had split not too long ago and replied emotionlessly, “He fell into the Endless Abyss.”
Silence. Then, the hand that had been holding his went up to his shoulder and gripped it comfortingly.
In an uncharacteristically somber tone, Liu Qingge asked, “Are you okay?”
“Of course I am.”
“If so, then why are you crying?”
Shen Qingqiu brought a hand to his face and realized that yes, he was crying. But he was not the one who was in sorrow. He reluctantly admitted that he felt guilty for having pushed Luo Binghe down that abyss, but the tears were not his.
It was System’s.
Not that he could explain it to Liu Qingge. So he remained silent.
On the tallest rooftop within the city, Shen Qingqiu watched as Luo Binghe acted recklessly, drawing the sword that he had yet to fully master, and felt like it was time to repay back all the things he had done— would have done.
“Just in case this doesn’t work,” he said to System, “will you tell me your name now?”
As he waited for a response, he prepared to detonate.
It felt like an eternity before the voice finally said, “My name is Shen — ”
He was cut off by the blast of Shen Qingqiu’s self-destruction. His head was ringing, and he could hear voices from all over the place, both around him and inside his head, but he couldn’t process any of it.
Shen Qingqiu dragged his eyes to settle on Luo Binghe again, who was now looking at him in horror. Ah, foolish child. He shouldn’t have acted so thoughtlessly in the first place. If anything happened to him, System—Shen something —would have been devastated and would dump all his woes on him, the only person he could talk to.
“Everything that’s happened in the past, I’ll repay it all to you today.”
As he fell, he thought he saw Liu Qingge flying towards him, hand outstretched as if to reach him. But before he could try to confirm, everything had turned dark.
A corner of his mouth curled up slightly. What wishful thinking.
He managed to dig his way out of the ground.
“Would you look at that. It worked. System, do you mind repeating what you said? I didn’t quite catch it.”
There was no reply. His stomach sank, dread filling it, and he tried calling out one more time.
There was no more System in his mind.
… Well. Good riddance.
He walked away, fully intent on starting anew and leaving his past behind with his previous body.
(There was a gut-wrenching feeling in him as he pretended not to feel as if his head was too quiet with only himself in it.)
The man’s eyes widened in shock. He had been hoping for this day to come, yet hadn’t thought it actually would. Tears flow without stop as he ran to the side of the bed and took the hand of the bedridden person. With trembling lips, he smiled.
“Good morning, Shizun.”
The tight grip Luo Binghe had on his hand was painful, but he didn’t have the heart nor the energy to pull away. Instead, he gave the man a soft smile like he usually did.
Luo Binghe felt his breath caught in his throat. Never in his wildest dreams did he think he would ever see that smile outside of his dreams. The real Shizun would never make such an expression, much less aim such a look towards him.
He hesitated, “... Shizun?”
Perhaps he was dreaming? Maybe he had fallen asleep without him realizing it.
But that thought was thrown away when Shen Qingqiu answered, voice hoarse from five years of disuse.
“Good morning, Binghe.”
This was not Shen Qingqiu
“You’re not Shen Qingqiu.”
Beside him, Luo Binghe bristled like a cat that got doused in water. ‘Shen Qingqiu’ patted his arm to placate him, the other man calming down as soon as he was touched, then turned to him and gave him a soft (?!) smile.
“Liu-shidi, would you like to have tea with me?”
He set out as soon as ‘Shen Qingqiu’ finished explaining what he had deigned to explain. With Cheng Luan flying at top speed, his thoughts went to the Shen Qingqiu he knew—Shen Jiu.
He was on his way.
He stiffened when he felt someone drop down behind him, the sound of a sword being sheathed signifying that the person didn’t wish to fight. That person wasn’t just anyone either; Liu Qingge had found him.
It hadn’t even been a week yet!
Without turning back, Shen Jiu made to run, but Liu Qingge caught his hand before he could go far. His grip on Shen Jiu’s arm was tight, he had no doubt that it would leave a bruise later on. He couldn’t hold back his flinch when the Bai Zhan Peak Lord looked at him with an intense gaze, his hold tightening, before relaxing again as he seemed to notice Shen Jiu’s discomfort.
He didn’t let go, however.
Silence continued to stretch between the two, with Shen Jiu not knowing what to think and Liu Qingge not knowing what to say. The latter made an attempt to break the silence, mouth opened and pushing out sound for a split second, but only managing to release a cut-off “Ah” before he closed his mouth, seeming to mull over his words. Then he started again, only to leave his mouth hanging open without a sound before closing it again .
He continued to open and close his mouth several times that Shen Jiu would have laughed had they been in any other situation.
Finally, finally , Liu Qingge made up his mind.
He opened his mouth with more confidence than the times before, and Shen Jiu braced himself for what he had to say.
Shen Jiu waited for the man to continue… Except he didn’t. He looked at Liu Qingge questioningly only to find that the other man had turned his head to the side, looking away from him, face red up to the tips of his ears.
The sight filled him with mirth, and he failed to stop a rather inelegant snort from escaping.
Liu Qingge scowled at him, still red in the face, but soon the lines on his forehead smoothened and his shoulders relaxed.
“Come back with me. To Cang Qiong Mountain.”
Shen Jiu lowered his gaze, eyes settling on their still-connected hands, then he shifted his sight a bit to the side so he wouldn’t focus on it.
For some reason, seeing Liu Qingge hold his hand so firmly caused his face to warm up.
Liu Qingge made to drag him away but Shen Jiu stopped in his tracks, tugging his hand from his junior martial brother’s grip. He pushed the disappointment at the loss of contact to the back of his mind and shook his head at Liu Qingge.
The War Lord was about to argue when Shen Jiu cut him off before he could begin.
He looked to the side, to the view of the world bathed in the orange-ish light of the twilight sun, and asked, “Liu-shidi, I want to see the world.”
Liu Qingge knew. He had always known. Sometimes, back in Qing Jing Peak, when the Bai Zhan Peak Lord paid him a visit, Shen Qingqiu would have a faraway look when he thought nobody was paying attention. Like his mind was nowhere close to where his body was. He stumbled into such a scene enough times to be convinced that Shen Qingqiu hadn’t wanted to stay put.
Their excursions during the three years when his favorite disciple was gone was proof enough.
“I’ll accompany you.”
“There is no need to be so cautious. I promise I will return back to Cang Qiong Mountain as soon as I’m done. That is, if you would still have me by then. So you don’t have to force yourself to—”
“I’m not forcing myself,” he interjected before Shen Jiu could misunderstand, “I want to.” Be with you.
Don’t leave me again.
After the initial confusion of seeing two Shen Qingqiu’s, and the explanation that had come after, he received a tearful welcome as soon as they returned to Cang Qiong Mountain one year later, the disciples of Qing Jing Peak bawling their eyes out at the sight of their Shizun alive.
Shen Jiu was bewildered. Based on Liu Qingge’s story, System should have had taken over his duty as peak lord. So how come they were still crying over his supposed ‘death’?
“Elder Yuan is a great teacher! But he wasn’t you , Shizun!” Ning Yingying sobbed as she clung to his arm.
He was stunned. He never expected anyone would actually miss him. ‘Shen Qingqiu’ hadn’t disappeared, after all. He returned to Qing Jing Peak not long after waking up, Luo Binghe at his side. There was some conflict afterward but it had died down throughout the year. Though there should be some changes in personality, everything could have been chalked down as the aftereffects of having basically died . Things should have turned out fine.
Liu Qingge, who had stood back to give the disciples a chance to reunite with their Shizun, noticed his confusion and simply said and with a sense of finality, “You are loved.”
He was loved.
It felt… nice.
It was awkward standing in front of the other. After all, despite their non-stop companionship before the separation, they had never looked at each other even once since it had been impossible.
“I’m glad to see that you are well, Shifu.”
Luo Binghe’s greeting snapped the both of them out of their daze. Shen Jiu raised an eyebrow at the different way the half-demon had referred to him, but the man just stared at him challengingly, as if daring him to comment.
Shen Yuan noticed the weird tension that had came out of nowhere and tapped his fan at Luo Binghe’s arm in reprimand, knowing full well he had started it. Luo Binghe wilted (and wasn’t that an interesting sight?) but he didn’t seem willing to change his mind.
Shen Jiu opened his own fan and released a small sigh behind it. “Shizun or Shifu, both mean the same thing. It matters not whichever he wishes to call me.”
From the start, Shen Jiu noticed the closeness between the two. How Luo Binghe tried to be as close as possible to Shen Yuan, sticking close to the older (?) man as if he would disappear the moment he was off guard. How Shen Yuan let all this happen as if it were nothing out of the ordinary.
Then he remembered random moments from years past. How the young disciple would sometimes look at him oddly, how he didn’t hesitate to treat Shen Qingqiu with the utmost form of respect and unveiled adoration. Shen Jiu knew he didn’t do anything in particular to be deserving of that treatment, but he chalked it up as Luo Binghe’s personality changing due to not being ostracized.
He remembered times when Shen Yuan, still incorporeal, would act (speak) weirdly. Or, rather, weirder than usual. He had always been a hardcore Luo Binghe fan, it seemed, but somewhere along the lines that blind infatuation had muted and became … something else. He couldn’t pinpoint the start, but he guessed that it was around the same time as Luo Binghe’s own change in behavior.
Another thing he recalled was that Luo Binghe had the ability to control dreams.
His attention went back to the two in front of him. Shen Yuan seemed to realize that he was putting the pieces together, because he kept averting his gaze and refused to meet his eyes.
“... I’m not angry, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
Shen Yuan snapped his head up, then a relieved smile graced his face.
Oh. Now he understood what Liu Qingge’s expression meant when Shen Jiu had asked him about Shen Yuan. It was indeed rather unsettling to see such an out of character expression on his face.
Well, he could learn to live with it.
Shen Yuan left Luo Binghe’s side to reach him and took his hand in his. Soft smile still hung on his lips, he said, “Welcome back.”
Shen Jiu eyed their joined hands for a while before he closed his eyes, returning the hold.