When Shen Jiu woke up, the first thing he noticed was that he was alone. That was alarming, because he’d fallen asleep in Qiu Haitang’s bed and if she was already awake then that meant he’d overslept which meant he’d failed to get Qiu Jianluo his breakfast on time which meant he’d be beaten which meant pain which meant—
Shen Jiu’s eyes shot open, and he scrambled from the bed to hurry to Qiu Jianluo’s room and beg his forgiveness. Except the bed had shrunk overnight somehow, and he overshot and dumped himself onto the floor.
The wrong floor. Qiu Haitang’s floors were definitely darker than this.
Bewildered, he looked around. Not-Qiu-Haitang’s room was elegantly decorated, with elegant trinkets and pale green drapes and an intricate writing desk. It was a small room, but there was a side door that probably led to a kitchen or some kind of storage room. Through a nearby window, bamboo swayed gently in the wind.
The whole thing was almost idyllic in its perfection. Something about it, despite its unfamiliarity, set him immediately at ease.
It looked like the sort of room he would like to live in, if he was rich enough to have his own space.
Hesitantly, he sat up. Cold air brushed against his collarbone, and he looked down to find himself wearing too-large sleeping robes. Wrapping them more firmly about himself, he stood. “Miss Haitang?” he called, uncertainly.
There was no response.
He glanced back at the bed, hoping to find some clues, but there was nothing. Whoever owned the bed had far too many pillows and apparently slept with a handheld fan. It was a pretty thing, ludicrously expensive and painted black and silver. It didn’t match anything else in the room.
A deeper search of the room only further confirmed that the owner of this house had excellent taste and far too much money. The calligraphy brushes alone could probably feed a street kid for a month.
Shen Jiu’s fingers itched to pocket some of them, but he reluctantly put everything back where he’d found them. If he had even the slightest idea of who the house’s owner was, he might’ve risked it. But it was hard to gauge risk when he didn’t even know who he’d be angering.
Which was a good decision, he thought a little hysterically, because now he was staring at a chest emblazoned with Cang Qiong Mountain’s symbol.
Cang Qiong Mountain wasn’t anywhere near the Qiu manor. Cang Qiong Mountain was Shen Jiu’s dream.
Years ago, long before the Qius, a pair of cultivators had come into town to take care of a minor haunting. Shen Jiu had performed his usual teary orphan routine and cried prettily into Qi-ge’s shoulder, but neither of them had really been expecting the cultivators to stop. They’d looked too important and too busy to care about street brats, even if they cried nicely.
But these cultivators had stopped. They’d pressed a pair of buns, still warm and fresh, into Qi-ge’s grubby hands and a handful of gold coins into Shen Jiu’s.
Later, Shen Jiu eavesdropped on them just long enough to discover which sect they’d hailed from, and then that was that. All of their silly formless dreams became dreams of cultivation, of secretly impressing an immortal master who would whisk them away from the dirty, hopeless streets.
Shen Jiu pinched himself.
He failed to wake up.
Slowly, half-afraid that the chest would vanish as soon as he touched it, Shen Jiu brushed his fingers over Cang Qiong’s familiar crest.
But that was impossible.
He was at the Qiu estate.
He was a slave.
He couldn’t be here.
. . . could he?
Shen Jiu looked down at his hands. They didn’t look any different than he remembered. Had they grown? Had time passed? Why couldn’t he remember?
A knock on the door startled him. “Shizun?”
Shen Jiu panicked. He slipped behind one of the decorative drapes and flattened his back to the wall.
“Shizun?” the voice called again.
Shen Jiu narrowed his eyes. He didn’t have any weapons, but he could see a sword in a stand by the bed. It was a pretty sword, just as tasteful and elegant as the rest of the room, and it didn’t look too heavy. He could probably use it, if he managed to get there before the newcomer noticed something was amiss.
Damn. He should’ve hid closer to the sword.
The door slid open. “Begging Shizun’s forgiveness for this disciple’s impertinence!” A young boy entered the room, a platter of breakfast food clutched in his hands. He was older and bigger than Shen Jiu by a few years, perhaps sixteen or seventeen, with a face that could charitably be called plain. He didn’t have a sword, which was good, but his shoulders were broad and he had the look of a boy who’d be able to hold his own in a fight.
Also, he was clearly a cultivation disciple. His robes were made from the same expensive, intricate material that all cultivators wore.
Shen Jiu’s eyes flicked to the sword again. He definitely should have hid closer to it. There was a bookshelf nearby, though, decorated with fancy-looking books and fancy-looking ornaments. Shen Jiu snatched one—a long jade piece shaped like some animal he didn’t recognize—as quickly and quietly as he could. It was reassuringly solid in his hands.
The boy looked around uncertainty, eyes flicking over the empty room and the disturbed bed. “Shizun?”
Shen Jiu wondered if the boy’s shizun was a pervert and if that was why he was here. He hadn’t thought that cultivators did things like sleep with slave boys, but he wouldn’t be surprised. Rich people were all terrible.
He should run, probably. He could find Qi-ge, if he was still alive.
“Is anybody here?” the boy asked, stepping further into the room.
Shen Jiu lunged. His qi infused the jade ornament with the slightest prompting, and it hit the back of the boy's head with a solid crack. The boy crumpled like a sack of bricks.
Satisfied, Shen Jiu dropped the jade ornament on the ground. He would’ve stolen it, but he didn’t trust cultivators to not have magic spells to track down thieves dumb enough to steal from them.
Still, he needed something to wear. The silky underrobes he was wearing were too big and far too inappropriate to wander around in, even if they had the soft feel of expensive cloth.
Shen Jiu eyed the closet he’d been poking through earlier. Well. It wasn’t like they’d miss a single robe, right?
New clothes acquired, stolen kitchen knife in hand, Shen Jiu was forced to conclude that he was, in fact, on Cang Qiong Mountain. The scenery outside the little bamboo house he’d woken up in was beautifully vibrant. In the distance, he could see the peaks of the neighboring mountains and the little black specks of disciples darting through the air or running around.
It was just as absurdly idyllic as the bamboo house had been.
Shen Jiu definitely needed to get out. He’d long since learned that the prettier something was, the fouler it was beneath its facade.
Unfortunately, he had no idea where out was. He skirted around the edge of any public spaces he found, sticking to the trees and their shadows, and keeping an eye out for a main road. The robes he’d stolen were still too big for him, but they’d been the plainest, roughest set he could find. He didn’t even want to know why an esteemed immortal cultivator would have plain robes like these shoved behind all his pretty ones.
A bubble of laughter caught his attention, and he paused. In a nearby courtyard, a cluster of young boys practiced their sword forms. Most of them looked older than him, but it was difficult to tell with well-fed, well-bred young lordlings.
As he watched, one of them took off at a sprint, only to leap into the air with a dramatic flip. A bright flash of light exploded from his sword, and one of the other boys caught it with the edge of his blade.
Shen Jiu yearned. He wanted that. He wanted it so badly. He hadn’t realized he’d stepped closer, but all of them heard the crack of a twig breaking beneath his feet.
The boys turned towards him.
Shen Jiu’s heart beat a staccato rhythm in his ears.
One of the older boys—Qiu Jianluo’s age, with hard eyes and a suspicious frown—stepped towards him. “Are you one of the kitchen workers?” he asked, doubtfully, “What’re you doing over here?”
Shen Jiu’s eyes flicked to the bare steel of his blade. Maybe if he agreed, he could bullshit his way out of this situation.
One of the other boys leaned forwards, eyes narrowing. Shen Jiu’s heart rate picked up, because that expression was recognition, and that never boded well for him. “Hey, you look like—”
Shen Jiu scooped up a rock from the ground and threw it at him. At the shrieks of outrage that followed, he whirled around and sprinted away as fast as he could.
The angry shouts turn into pounding footsteps, and Shen Jiu knew that he couldn’t let them catch him. These were cultivation disciples. They could do so much worse than Qiu Jianluo ever could.
Desperation sent him barreling away from the buildings, aiming for the forest he’d seen out of the bamboo house’s window.
He’d just turned a corner when a low building separated from everything else caught his eye. It looked like a woodshed of some sort, placed out of the way so it wouldn’t disturb the otherwise beautifully designed landscape.
More importantly, it was the perfect place to hide.
Shen Jiu wasted no time throwing himself at it. The door refused to budge, and Shen Jiu sent a flash of qi into the lock. Qi-ge had always told him not to use his skills in case other people saw, but Shen Jiu was running out of time. The lock melted, and he darted inside and slammed the door shut. The woodshed only appeared half full, and he retreated against the stack of wood, one eye locked on the gap between the door and the wall.
The group of boys came into view, looking around with confused expressions.
Go to the forest go to the forest go to the forest, Shen Jiu thought desperately.
After a moment of fruitless searching, one of the boys said, “I think I hear something over there!” Somebody else made a noise of agreement, and they ran out of view.
Shen Jiu relaxed.
“Um,” a voice said.
Shen Jiu whirled around, drawing the kitchen knife and brandishing it at—
He was dressed like a cultivation disciple, but his clothes were ill-fitting and there was a fresh bruise across his cheek. He looked like he was Shen Jiu’s age, with a pretty face and wide grey eyes that the slavers would have loved.
The boy flinched away, jerking back into the section of the woodshed that wasn’t filled with wood. His feet trod on a ratty set of blankets.
Shen Jiu didn’t lower the knife, because he wasn’t an idiot, but he did relax a little. He had little to fear from the sort of boy that people like Qiu Jianluo would eat alive. “Who’re you?” he asked, suspiciously.
The boy seemed to be torn between averting his eyes and staring openly. They kept flicking up to Shen Jiu’s face and then away. “This disciple’s name is Luo Binghe.”
Right. That didn’t mean anything to Shen Jiu. But he’d said disciple, which meant he wasn’t a slave, which made sense. Shen Jiu doubted the esteemed immortal cultivators would clothe their slaves in their garb, even if it was shittily fitted garb. “Why are you here?”
The boy’s expression tilted uncertainly, and Shen Jiu’s hackles instinctively went up. Should he know the answer? Was it strange that he didn’t? But the boy just lowered his head and mumbled, “This one is being punished.”
That made sense. If Shen Jiu was going to punish a stuffy lord’s son, he’d lock him in a woodshed too. Kids like that would probably even think it was a horrible punishment. “How long have you been here?”
The boy’s eyes flicked back up. “Two and a half days.”
“I meant how long have you been here, at Cang Qiong,” Shen Jiu said, lips curling derisively. Why should he care how long the brat had been locked in the woodshed? Two and a half days wasn’t even that bad. Especially if he was being fed, and the dirty dishes tucked neatly in the corner were proof enough of that.
The boy seemed to shrink in on himself. “A month.”
A snort of derisive laughter escaped Shen Jiu’s lips. “How did you fuck up that bad in a month?” He wondered if he’d done something terrible, like feel up one of his shizun’s slaves or accidentally kill another disciple in a practice fight.
But the boy just shrunk further in, and oh. Shen Jiu understood.
He hadn’t done anything at all.
Some of the mocking viciousness seeped from his expression, and he lowered his knife. “You should figure out what you did,” Shen Jiu advised him, voice going haughty and all-important, “Only idiots who like being beaten can’t figure out the rules.” He’d figured them out quick enough, under Qiu Jianluo’s thumb. “The trick is making them think you’re helpless and that they have all the power. If they don’t think you have anything worth taking, then they won’t try taking it.”
This time, the boy—Luo Binghe—looked up. His gaze was curious rather than judgemental, but it still made Shen Jiu narrow his eyes and bare his teeth defensively. He didn’t look away, though. “Are you giving me advice?”
Shen Jiu sneered. “I’m only telling you what everybody knows. If you hadn’t figured that out by now, you’re stupid.”
Luo Binghe’s brows furrowed prettily over his grey eyes. The slavers would have eaten him alive. “You look very familiar.”
Shen Jiu hesitated. He normally wouldn’t dare to admit weakness of any kind, wouldn’t want to give anybody else that sort of power over him, but—
Luo Binghe was helpless. A rat at the bottom of the totem pole, even if he was a cultivation disciple.
And so Shen Jiu asked, “Do you know who I am?”
Luo Binghe hesitated. “You don’t remember?”
Shen Jiu bared his teeth. “Just answer the question.”
Luo Binghe inched forwards, careful to keep out of reach of Shen Jiu’s knife, but his eyes seemed to bore into Shen Jiu’s. His expression was oddly intense, for a boy his age. After a moment, the confusion in his face deepened—and then cleared. “Do you know my shizun?”
Shen Jiu was instantly on edge. “You mean the bastard who hides slaves in his room?”
Luo Binghe’s eyes went huge, and he immediately exclaimed, “No! Shizun would never!”
Shen Jiu couldn’t help the bark of laughter that escaped him. “You’d defend the scum who locked you in here? You really are an idiot.”
But Luo Binghe was shaking his head. “Shizun is just punishing this disciple for his mistakes. Shizun would never—”
Disgusted, Shen Jiu turned away. He may be a rat, but at least he wasn’t going to defend the scummy masters that put him down. This Luo Binghe was worse than stupid if he really thought this—being forced to sleep in a woodshed while the rest of the disciples got those pretty, elegant dormitories—was just some punishment. He was just peeking out of the crack in the door to check if the coast was clear when Luo Binghe let out a soft squeak. “What?!” Shen Jiu demanded, sick of him.
Very, very quickly, Luo Binghe said, “Didn’t you ask me who you are?”
Slowly, warily, Shen Jiu turned around. “Yes?”
Luo Binghe’s jaw was set stubbornly, and there was an oddly determined light in his eyes, as if he were steeling himself for a fight. “You’re Shen-shixiong.”
Shen Jiu felt as if the floor had fallen out from under him. That was—
That was impossible.
There was no way he was here, at Cang Qiong Mountain, to learn how to cultivate.
There was no way Qiu Jianluo would have ever let him go.
But Luo Binghe had said—
Shen-shixiong. And Shen Jiu hadn’t introduced himself.
Swallowing hard, Shen Jiu demanded, “Then why was I in your shizun’s house?
Still all in a rush, Luo Binghe said, “Shizun suffered a qi deviation recently, and so you must’ve come to visit right when it happened. Your own qi might have gotten disturbed if it got caught up in his.”
Immediately, Shen Jiu said, “Qi deviations just addle the mind and kill you.”
Luo Binghe shook his head urgently. “They can also cause memory loss and age regression and loss of senses and other physical side effects.” He ducked his head, shying away from Shen Jiu’s glare. “This disciple has had to learn a lot about qi deviations, because Shizun gets them so frequently.” Head still bowed, he mumbled, “Most of us know better than to approach him when he’s like that, but I suppose a Qiong Ding Peak disciple wouldn’t have known.”
Shen Jiu froze. “Is that— Is that me?”
Gaze still pinned to his feet, Luo Binghe nodded.
Shen Jiu wanted to cry. He didn’t know anything about Cang Qiong’s peaks, but just the name—Qiong Ding Peak—sounded like something out of his wildest dreams. A thought occurred to him, desperate and tantalizing, and he nearly tripped over himself as he lunged forwards to grab Luo Binghe’s arms. “Do you know— When I came here, did I come with—” He couldn’t breathe.
But Luo Binghe was already shaking his head. “I don’t know. I only came a month ago.”
With a shudder, Shen Jiu released him. Because how else could he be here, if it wasn’t for Qi-ge? He’d thought Qi-ge was dead in a ditch somewhere, turned away from Cang Qiong’s majestic gates, but surely—surely!—he’d succeeded and that was why Shen Jiu was here too?
He felt as if there were flowers blooming in his chest. He felt so full of emotions that he could drown in it. He felt like he could fly.
He needed to see Qi-ge right now.
“You—” He stopped, because instead he could say— “Luo-shidi.” And that was— that was good. It felt good. “Come with me to Qiong Ding Peak.”
Luo Binghe nodded. “Yes, shiz— shixiong!”
Shen Jiu stuffed his knife into his sleeve. He probably didn’t need it, if he was a real disciple with a real sword somewhere, but he felt bare without some kind of weapon on him.
And so Luo Binghe led him through the peak. The peak felt different, now that Shen Jiu knew that he was supposed to be here. It still felt dangerous, but that was just because he was missing memories and anything uncertain was dangerous. For the first time, however, the uncertainty was also exciting.
This was a real cultivation sect, and it was his home.
He had a place in this world.
Luo Bingh, in contrast, was careful to keep his head low whenever they passed his—their—sect siblings. His body language—shoulders hunched, eyes averted—was familiar enough that Shen Jiu knew immediately that the boy’s shizun wasn’t his only bully.
A few of the other disciples followed, undoubtedly to harass the dumb brat, but Shen Jiu stuck his chin up and glared imperiously at them. Normally, he would never have dared to. But he was Shen-shixiong here. He was an equal.
He liked the reactions he got: wide-eyed stares and startled faces.
None of them dared to approach after that, and Shen Jiu couldn’t help grinning.
Luo Binghe was watching him out of the corner of his eyes, curious and watchful and as hungry to learn as Shen Jiu was.
It was nice, being looked at like he had something to teach instead of like he was a piece of meat.
Luo Binghe’s bruise was much more apparent in the light.
A thought occurred to Shen Jiu. “Are you supposed to stay in the woodshed?”
Luo Binghe flinched. “If shixiong needs my help, then it’s alright.”
Shen Jiu had to bite back an instinctive who needs your help, beast, but the fact of the matter was that he did need Luo Binghe’s help. He had no idea where he was going. “You’re not going to get punished?”
Luo Binghe’s eyes flicked to him, brows furrowed in confusion. “Does shixiong care?”
No, shixiong decidedly did not care. But— “So your shizun’s the type to lock you up and sic his other disciples on you, and you still defend him?”
For some reason, the confused expression just deepened. “I’m sure he has his reasons.”
Shen Jiu snorted and looked away. “You’re lucky you’re some rich young master. Slavers would’ve turned someone as soft as you to mincemeat if you’d grown up on the streets.”
Luo Binghe stopped walking, and Shen Jiu reluctantly slowed because—again—he had no idea where he was going.
“What?” he snapped. “Hurry up.” He wanted to get to Qi-ge.
Luo Binghe was staring at him as if he’d grown a second head. “I’ve been on the streets,” he protested, “You’ve been on the streets?”
Well. Shen Jiu supposed that made sense. If Luo Binghe was related to some influential family, then his master wouldn’t dare to abuse him like that. “Did you think my mom just named me Shen Jiu as a joke? That’s a slave name, idiot.”
Luo Binghe was still staring at him.
Uncertainty trickled down Shen Jiu’s spine. He didn’t like feeling uncertain. “. . . do I not go by Shen Jiu here?”
Luo Binghe ducked his head. “This shidi is just stupid and never . . . never realized.”
“Stupid.” Still uneasy, Shen Jiu turned and started walking in the same direction that Luo Binghe had been going in. He didn’t get more than a few steps before Luo Binghe caught up to him, wordlessly adjusting their course in the right direction.
Shen Jiu ignored him.
Ignoring his problems had rarely ever helped him in the past, but his next best choice—stabbing them until they went away—wasn’t an option.
The silence was awkward and heavier than it’d been before, but Shen Jiu was stubborn and Luo Binghe didn’t seem inclined to initiate a conversation. Their silence carried them all the way across a rainbow bridge and to a peak that signs betrayed as Qiong Ding Peak, where they discovered a group of disciples loitering in another courtyard. These ones wore black and silver instead of teals and whites, and they had practice swords scattered at their feet. An older girl with her hair tied up in a high ponytail was calling, “We’ll start back up again in a few minutes! Get some water and take a break.”
“Yes, shijie,” the disciples chorused.
Shen Jiu scanned them, but none of them were Qi-ge. The older girl caught his eye, frowned, and trotted over. She was tall, and her robes were more elaborate than her fellow sect siblings’. She had a real sword, too, a shiny thing with geometric patterns at its hilt.
Shen Jiu wondered if he had a sword as pretty as that.
The girl stopped in front of them and crossed her arms, one brow arching upwards. “If you two are here because Shen-shishu was pissed about Shizun’s gift, then don’t bother. I already told him that wasn’t going to go over well.”
Shen Jiu startled at hearing his name, but it wasn’t like it was a particularly uncommon surname. Luo Binghe’s eyes flicked towards him, but the smaller boy just shook his head. “We’re not here for that.”
The girl squinted at them, but eventually she just shrugged. “Alright, well, you know where to find him. Try not to get his hopes up.”
Luo Binghe nodded again and quickly ushered Shen Jiu further up the path when he opened his mouth.
“What?” Shen Jiu snapped, “Can’t I ask questions?” He’d wanted to ask where Qi-ge was.
Because obviously Qi-ge was here. Qi-ge not being here wasn’t an option.
Luo Binghe just waved his hands urgently. “Of course! But this shidi thinks it might be better to talk to Zhangmen-shibo first, to figure out your memory issues.”
Shen Jiu frowned suspiciously at him, but he supposed that made sense. “Are we supposed to have brought a gift?”
Luo Binghe’s face did something interesting. “No, Zhangmen-shibo just sends Shizun gifts sometimes. He always hates them, though.”
Baffled, Shen Jiu asked, “Why doesn’t he just send better gifts?”
Luo Binghe ducked his head. “Maybe shixiong should advise our sect leader on what gifts Shizun would like.”
Shen Jiu instinctively recoiled from the idea before he paused and realized that that was probably a thing he was actually allowed to do. The other girl—something-shijie—had certainly been candid enough when talking about this sect leader.
They turned a corner, and a small house appeared. It was surprisingly simple, wood dark and austere behind a garden of pale flowers.
Shen Jiu liked it. Not as much as he’d liked the bamboo house and all its light, airy elegance, but this building was still beautiful in a subdued sort of way.
There was a man standing in the garden. He was tall and garbed in the same black and silver as the disciples training on his peak, and his dark hair spilled down his back as he leaned over to inspect a flower. He was handsome, his mien placid and gentle, and something in Shen Jiu’s ratty, thorny chest unfurled at the sight.
Safe, that face promised, with a certainty that even Qiu Haitang’s gentle arms had never offered, Safe.
The feeling was so foreign that Shen Jiu’s feet froze to the ground, breath caught in his chest.
“Zhangmen-shibo,” Luo Binghe greeted, raising his arms in a bow.
The man turned towards them, a small smile settling over his lips. Shen Jiu knew he should bow, but it was like his limbs had been locked in place. The man’s eyes slipped past Luo Binghe and locked onto Shen Jiu. His smile vanished. “Xiao Jiu?”
Shen Jiu flinched, snapped out of whatever weird spell that feeling of safety had given him, and hastily copied Luo Binghe’s bow.
Immediately, there were hands under his forearms, pulling him gently upright. “Xiao Jiu,” the man said again, eyes huge and expression lost.
Shen Jiu was frozen again, skin burning beneath the man’s touch. Xiao Jiu, as if his name was something precious. “I— I—”
Luo Binghe blurted out, “Shizun suffered a qi deviation last night.”
The man jerked as if struck, and the hands on Shen Jiu’s forearms shifted, fingers seeking out his pulse point. The touch tingled, and Shen Jiu felt something probing at his qi.
Shen Jiu instinctively jerked his hand away, wary of anything he didn’t understand.
“Xiao Jiu,” the man said, still with that same reverence, “Do you— do you remember me?”
Shen Jiu’s eyes flicked up to him and then quickly away. He looked familiar, but Shen Jiu couldn’t remember anybody dressed that nicely who looked at him with kindness in their eyes. “No.” Remembering Luo Binghe’s turn of phrase, he added, “This disciple apologizes.”
The man sucked in a sharp breath. “Luo Binghe,” he began, before stopping and visibly collecting himself. “Luo Binghe, what happened?”
Luo Binghe, head still bowed, said, “Shizun suffered a qi deviation last night. This morning, Sh— Shen-shixiong came to me without his memories. I brought him to Zhangmen-shibo after— after telling him that he was a disciple of Zhangmen-shibo’s.”
Shen Jiu shot the other boy a look, because he wasn’t stupid. Something about the boy’s tone was odd, but he couldn’t pin it down. Nothing he said reeked of a lie, but they didn’t feel entirely true either.
“I see,” the man said. And then: “Thank you for your help. Luo-shizhi is dismissed.”
“Thank you, shibo.” Luo Binghe cast one last glance at Shen Jiu. It was filled with a burning sort of curiosity, and Shen Jiu shied instinctively from it. But then he just bowed and walked down the path back towards his own peak.
Uncertain how to behave now that he couldn’t copy somebody else, Shen Jiu looked up through his eyelashes at the sect leader. He was staring at him, but not in a weird way. Qiu Jianluo had taught him to be wary of attention that tasted of obsession, but this man’s gaze was just achingly sorrowful.
Shen Jiu wondered if the man had accepted him as a disciple because he bore some resemblance to a dead son or brother. That would probably make sense.
“Would Xiao Jiu like to come inside?” the man asked, smiling pleasantly, “I have tea, and we can investigate the matter of your memory.”
“Thank you,” Shen Jiu said. And then, uncertainly: “Shizun?”
“Ah—” The man’s face did something strange and uncomfortable at that. “Yes. I suppose.” He smiled again, but it seemed more like a default reflex than anything genuine. “Come in.”
As they left the garden and entered the house, Shen Jiu felt some of the tension in his shoulders loosen. The house—darker and more austere than the bamboo house, both less personal and less affected all at once—promised safety in the same nebulous, undefinable way that the sect leader’s face did.
At his gesture, Shen Jiu slid into a seat. The sect leader prepared and served the tea himself, which seemed strange. Shen Jiu had the vague impression that, as the disciple, that should be his job, but the older man insisted, so fondly and firmly that Shen Jiu was helpless to argue.
It made him feel—
He didn’t know what to make of it.
After the sect leader sat down and took a sip of his own tea, his gaze settled on Shen Jiu. His smile was gone, but the sorrowful, longing look in his eyes wasn’t. Shen Jiu instinctively straightened his shoulders, adopting the posture that he used for dinners with the Qius. As nice as the sect leader seemed, he would probably still react poorly if Shen Jiu revealed his true, loathsome self. He needed to be pleasant and obedient, the sort of disciple that would never be thrown out or hit.
The sect leader didn’t comment on his posture. “May I check your meridians?”
Shen Jiu hesitated, as wary as ever to let anybody touch him, but then he steeled himself and held out his arm. “Luo B— Luo-shidi said that this one’s qi might have gotten disturbed by—” He couldn’t remember the name of Luo Binghe’s shizun. “—by his shizun?”
“Luo-shizhi has a quick mind,” the sect leader said, a touch wry, “I’m pleased to see you getting along with him.”
Shen Jiu shrugged and very carefully did not mention the disciple he’d knocked out in the bamboo house. They’d find him eventually. No need to bring it up now. “He’s alright.”
The sect leader made a soft noise of agreement. With two fingers hovering above Shen Jiu’s wrist, he sent out a stream of qi. It felt cool and reassuring against Shen Jiu’s spiritual sense, as unfamiliar with it as he was. That same sense of safety permeated his consciousness.
Eyes half shut, qi still circulating gently through Shen Jiu’s meridians, the sect leader asked, “If you don’t mind, what is the last thing you remember?”
Shen Jiu’s first instinct was to bristle and lie through his teeth. But— he was here, wasn’t he? Despite his name, despite his nothing background, he was here. “This disciple remembers being— where he was, before he came here.”
The sect leader’s brow furrowed. “Where you were?”
Shen Jiu’s fingers tightened around his tea cup, and his eyes dropped to his knees. “I remember being at the Qiu estate.”
The sect leader sucked in an audible breath, and the flow of qi ceased. When he spoke, his voice trembled slightly, “That must not be very pleasant.”
Shen Jiu put the tea cup down and folded his hands in his lap. His fingers tingled, and he could still feel the phantom warmth of the sect leader’s touch. “It’s not so bad.” He wondered if Qiu Haitang missed him. He wondered if it was wrong to wonder. “Did Shizun—” The sect leader’s expression twisted, and so Shen Jiu uncertainly corrected, “Did you find anything strange in this disciple’s qi?”
The sect leader's eyes fluttered shut, and he drew in a deep breath. When he opened his eyes, his expression was just as placid as before. It made Shen Jiu nervous. He didn’t like adults who hid their feelings and intentions. But he didn’t scold. He just nodded. “We may have to ask Mu-shidi to confirm, but I believe you experienced a qi deviation triggered by some strong emotion. If we resolve the emotional dilemma, then we may be able to return your memories. Perhaps your last memories can provide some sort of clue to what the dilemma may be?”
Dismayed, Shen Jiu stared at him. Living at the Qiu manor had been literal hell. He didn’t think it was possible to resolve that, other than by just ignoring it. Why should he have to think about it? It wasn’t like he was there anymore. He was a cultivator now. Nobody else had to know what kind of dirt he’d sprung from. “Does it have to be those specific emotions?” he demanded, “Or can I— this disciple just be—um—calm?”
“I’m not sure,” the sect leader admitted, “Have you been calm since you awoke?”
Reluctantly, Shen Jiu nodded. That moment when he’d realized that Qi-ge had rescued him— That had been good. He couldn’t remember feeling that good in years. A thought occurred to him, and he brightened immediately. “Qi-ge!” he exclaimed, “Could I talk to Qi-ge? He would help, I’m sure of it.”
The sect leader’s face went stark white. “I— I—”
Leaning forwards, Shen Jiu said, “He would! He’s the one who rescued me and brought me here, right? He’d be able to fix whatever emotional block I have.” He realized, abruptly, how impolite he was being. Hastily sitting back, he lowered his eyes as demurely and politely as he could. “This disciple is confident that Qi— um, Yue-shixiong—?” He faltered briefly, stumbling on the strange address before finishing, “—would help.”
When there was no response, he dared to look up. The sect leader was still staring at him, face bloodless and eyes huge.
A horrible pit opened in Shen Jiu’s stomach. That was the look of somebody who’d seen a ghost. “. . . Qi-ge’s not here, is he.” And then, as hollow as the rest of him: “Is he dead?”
The sect leader made a noise like he’d been gutted. His eyes slipped shut, but Shen Jiu saw them before he could hide them away: bright and red with unshed tears.
Qi-ge had never been a crier. Even when he’d been beaten, even when he was starving, he would just squeeze his eyes shut and endure.
It was a ridiculous connection to make. A stupid one, even.
But Shen Jiu had lived his whole life for one person and one person alone.
“Qi-ge?” he asked, tentatively, breathlessly.
The sect leader—Qi-ge—opened his eyes. He looked like he might shatter at the slightest touch. “. . . Xiao Jiu.”
Shen Jiu should have known, as soon as he heard his name from this person’s mouth. He should’ve known, as soon as he saw that gentle smile.
“I’m not really a disciple, am I?” he asked, voice small.
Qi-ge shook his head. “I’m sorry.”
Shen Jiu couldn’t help the sharp laugh that escaped him. “Qi-ge is always apologizing,” he said, voice loud and mocking to hide the sound of his heart shattering in his chest. Luo Binghe had said that qi deviations could cause age regression. How old was he really? How long had he been here? “Who am I?”
“You’re the peak lord of Qing Jing Peak,” Qi-ge said, bowing his head as if that was some kind of admission, “You probably woke up in your own home.”
Shen Jiu stared at him. “Then— Luo Binghe’s shizun is me?”
Qi-ge nodded. “And all the other disciples on Qing Jing Peak.”
That was impossible. He’d barely wrapped his head around the fact that he’d been accepted to Cang Qiong Mountain at all. He’d never even imagined being a peak lord.
It should’ve been a good thing. But Qi-ge was still looking at him as if somebody had died.
“What did I do?”
Qi-ge twitched. “What do you mean?”
“Don’t play stupid.” Shen Jiu got to his feet and smoothed his hands over the fabric of his apparently-not-stolen robes—fuck, he’d knocked out his own disciple—to hide their trembling. One more glimpse of Qi-ge’s shattered expression would be enough to undo him, and so he turned away and glared sightlessly at the wall. “You can hardly even look at me. I found one of my supposed disciples locked in a woodshed.” A shudder ran through him. “What did I do that was so horrible that you can’t even tell me?”
“Nothing!” Qi-ge exclaimed, “Xiao Jiu has done nothing wrong. Everything is all Qi-ge's fault.”
The empty cavern in his chest groaned. “Of course it is,” he snarled, each word as spiteful as his black, bitter heart, “Why would Zhangmen-shixiong feel anything but regret for rescuing a dirty, worthless rat and giving it a title meant for immortals.”
Qi-ge made that same choking noise again, the one stuck halfway between sobbing and dying. “You— You have it backwards. I didn’t rescue you.”
Ice froze in Shen Jiu’s veins, as raw and painful as frost in an open wound. “Of course,” he said, a hysterical laugh bubbling at the back of his throat, “I’m not even worth that.”
How long had he lived in the Qiu manor, before he’d finally snapped and run? Had he married Haitang? What horrible thing had Qiu Jianluo done, to be so monstrous that Shen Jiu hadn’t been able to endure it anymore?
“No!” A hand grabbed Shen Jiu’s wrist, turning him around. He fought instinctively, as repulsed as ever by an unexpected touch, but the look in Qi-ge’s eyes froze him where he stood. “Xiao Jiu is worth everything,” Qi-ge said fiercely, “He deserves everything.”
Shen Jiu’s eyes prickled, but he refused to rub them even when the tears blurred his vision and trickled down his cheeks. “But you didn't save me?”
Qi-ge flinched, but he reluctantly shook his head.
“Why not?” Shen Jiu demanded.
Qi-ge didn’t answer.
Shen Jiu tore his hand away and crawled into a chair. He was smaller, somehow, limbs practically swimming in his robes. He curled his arms around his tiny knees and clutched them to his chest, burying his face in the pale fabric of his robes.
He wished the world would just collapse on him, swallow him whole and return him to the dirt he belonged to.
He couldn’t breathe.
“Does Xiao Jiu really believe that?” Qi-ge asked, voice small, “That you’re worthless?”
Another laugh rose out of Shen Jiu’s chest, nearly choking him with it. “Why not?” he demanded, but the rebuttal was hollow, stripped of its knives by the self-loathing in his voice, “My mother sold me.” His newly childish voice cracked on the last word, and a fresh sob rose out of his lungs. "Even Qi-ge left as soon as he could."
There was a flurry of movement in Shen Jiu’s vision, just as jagged with desperation as the air clogging his lungs. When he blinked, he found Qi-ge kneeling on the ground in front of him, hands held towards him but frozen in mid-air.
Qi-ge was crying.
The sight was so shocking that Shen Jiu uncurled slightly to make sure that his eyes weren’t playing tricks on him.
“Qi-ge came back for you,” Qi-ge whispered, “I didn’t know you thought— Of course I came back for you.”
The declaration rang like an explosion in the air. Shen Jiu stared at him. He looked watery and unsubstantial, through the sheen of tears. Voice strangely flat, he asked, “Why should I believe you?”
“I swear it on my life.” Qi-ge shuddered, hands twitching forwards as if to grab Shen Jiu’s. “That was all I ever wanted, the entire time I was here. I pushed so hard to get the power I needed to free you, but I was too late.” He bowed his head, shoulders shaking with the weight of his emotion. “When I returned, you were already gone.”
“Did I know that already?”
Qi-ge’s expression crumpled. “I . . . don’t know. I could never bring myself to tell you.”
Shen Jiu considered that. The taste of those truths—that he’d had to rescue himself, that Qi-ge had returned but too late, that they were both successful and powerful and immortal now—tasted bitter on his tongue.
Bitter, but not terrible. He’d always known that he could depend on nobody but himself. He’d chosen to trust Qi-ge anyways.
Qi-ge came back for me.
Nobody had ever come back for him before.
“Why?” Shen Jiu asked.
Qi-ge gave a watery smile. “I didn’t want you to hate me.”
“That’s stupid,” Shen Jiu said immediately, “You came back, right?”
“But I failed—”
“But you came back.” Shen Jiu smiled. It was one of his real ones, small and shy and a little crooked. “Qi-ge came back for me.”
“Always,” Qi-ge said, “Qi-ge will always come back for Xiao Jiu.”
And something inside of him clicked. An aching-twisting-pressure deep in his chest lifted slightly, just enough for him to realize how much of it had been there before.
When he looked up, he found that he had to look down on Yue Qingyuan. A burst of warmth flooded his chest, and the grief and regret and bitterness tangled in it was no longer crippling. Mostly he just felt unbearable fondness, made sharp with the ache of vulnerability, for this stupid fool.
“You look ridiculous,” he said, and his voice was the smooth, confident tone of an adult despite its tremulousness, “What will people think, if they see their sect leader kneeling on the ground and blubbering like this?”
Yue Qingyuan’s head snapped up and his eyes widened. “Xiao Jiu!” He rocketed to his feet, arms flying around Shen Qingqiu, and buried his face in the crook of his neck.
Shen Qingqiu considered that, too. “Why didn’t you ever tell me you came back?”
“I thought you knew,” Yue Qingyuan said, words muffled against Shen Qingqiu’s skin, “I thought you knew that not coming back was never an option for me.”
Ah. Shen Qingqiu supposed that was the unconditional love that some people talked about.
It was a foreign concept. He’d never been worthy of anything, much less something unconditional.
Some part of him didn’t care, though. As long as it was Qi-ge offering it, he’d grab onto it with both hands and swallow it whole.
“I believe you.”
Tentatively, Shen Qingqiu patted Yue Qingyuan’s head. Yue Qingyuan’s shoulders shuddered spastically, and his arms tightened around Shen Qingqiu’s body.
Neither of them mentioned the tears streaming down their faces.
When Shen Qingqiu woke next, it was dark and he was tucked into a bed. For a second, he registered the warm weight at his side and assumed, in a fit of confusion, that he was at the Warm Red Pavilion.
But the air lacked the heavy scent of the brothel’s preferred incense, and the girls knew better than to clutch at him this tightly. It took him several seconds longer before his mind, exhausted from his qi deviation and his emotional outbursts, realized that the heavy weight clinging to him like a limpet was Yue Qingyuan.
His first thought was to feel irritated. He despised being touched when he didn’t want it, and he’d never appreciated such blatant displays of affection.
It was just a thought, though. The rest of him, after assuring itself of the darkness and the privacy, sank fully into Yue Qingyuan’s arms.
Yue Qingyuan made a sleepily content noise, a little incomprehensible grunt that warmed Shen Qingqiu’s withered, blackened heart, and pressed right back, hooking his chin over the top of Shen Qingqiu’s head and tugging him even closer.
Shen Qingqiu buried his face in Yue Qingyuan’s neck, breathing in the scent of his soap and allowing his eyelids to slip shut.
The solid weight of Yue Qingyuan’s warmth smothered that restless, vicious part of Shen Qingqiu’s soul into calmness. It would come awake again in the morning, roused by responsibilities and consequences and pride.
But that was for the morning. Now, in the dark, it slept.
And every part of Shen Qingqiu wrapped up in Yue Qingyuan breathed safe.
It was still too early to be awake, but Shen Qingqiu could feel the prickle of somebody staring at him. Yue Qingyuan’s presence was diminished to a single toe brushed up against his ankle, which meant that he was awake enough to be embarrassed about his clinginess.
Shen Qingqiu grumbled and blindly threw out a hand, fumbling for an arm he could tug back over his waist.
“Xiao Jiu,” Yue Qingyuan murmured, voice sleep-rough and unbearably fond.
Shen Qingqiu buried his face in the bed. Even despite the revelation that Yue Qingyuan had never abandoned him, the name still sent an instinctual shudder through him. “No.”
Smile audible in his voice, Yue Qingyuan asked, “Why not?”
Shen Qingqiu cracked open an eye to glare at him. “That’s not my name.”
The expression on Yue Qinyuan’s face—disgustingly fond—faltered. It was the first time that Shen Qingqiu could identify the encroaching emotion as guilt instead of placation. “Ah. Yes. I’m sorry.”
Shen Qingqiu heaved a sigh and reluctantly opened his other eye. He could explain it, he supposed. If anybody could understand the way his past felt like a shackle and a stain all at once, then it would be Yue Qingyuan.
The words wouldn’t come.
Instead, he flicked Yue Qingyuan in the forehead and said, “Stop apologizing. Nobody wants to see you pout.”
The guilt on Yue Qingyuan’s face deepened and he drew away, slipping out from the blankets and pulling his knees up to sit cross-legged. “Qingqiu-shidi is right.”
That was— “No,” Shen Qingqiu protested, “Stop it. That’s not what I—” He let out a little growl, frustrated with his own inept words. He supposed the issue was that he’d never been anything but a liar. His first instinct had always been to arm himself with knives. “What are you even apologizing for?”
Yue Qingyuan’s eyes dropped to his lap, where his fingers were twisted into a white tangle. “I failed you.”
“So?” Shen Qingqiu scoffed. The world was not kind to rats like them, and yet this was a world where they were both alive and in the same bed and Yue Qingyuan had come back for him. Didn’t he understand that that made all the difference? “Did you really expect to find me there, after you took so long?”
Yue Qingyuan flinched even further away, and Shen Qingqiu’s scowl deepened.
He opened his mouth, thought better of what he’d been about to say, and closed it. With great reluctance, he abandoned the warm nest of blankets and pushed himself into a sitting position. Yue Qingyuan twitched further away, but Shen Qingqiu’s hands darted out to snatch his and hold them in place. “So you failed. What do you expect me to do about it?”
Yue Qingyuan was frozen under his touch, eyes wide and startlingly young. They were wells of longing, dark and fathomless. “I deserve to be punished.”
Shen Qingqiu recoiled. Later, when he had the time and the energy, he would reevaluate every moment he’d spent with the boy who became his Yue-shixiong and find the guilt and self-flagellation that festered in all of their interactions. Now, he simply saw himself for what he was: a knife, to be turned on others. He didn’t want to be turned on Yue Qingyuan.
Yue Qingyuan had chosen him. That was enough.
Thinking quickly, Shen Qingqiu lifted his chin and pitched his voice sharp and haughty because it was better than voicing the squirmy knot of vulnerability tangled in his throat. “You came back for me, right?”
Yue Qingyuan didn’t even hesitate. “Yes. Always.”
Despite himself, Shen Qingqiu relaxed at the reassurance. It rattled as deeply as it had yesterday, when his mind had been full of holes and strange assumptions. “Right. Qingyuan came back for me.”
Yue Qingyuan’s eyes widened at his name, and Shen Qingqiu's stomach flipped.
“That means that Qingyuan chose me,” Shen Qingqiu continued, revelling in the concept and in the wonder dawning on Yue Qingyuan’s face, “and that means Qingyuan is mine.”
“Yes,” Yue Qingyuan said, breathlessly, helplessly.
“That means that you can’t go away. Not ever.”
Yue Qingyuan nodded, and the hands in Shen Qingqiu’s twisted until they were hands holding hands holding hands. “I won’t.”
Shen Qingqiu’s felt a rush of something fizz through his veins, into his bones. There was no part of him that didn’t delight in that promise, in the idea that there was somebody who would never leave him. It felt good. It felt like living.
“You’re mine. And that means that I get to punish you however I see fit.”
“Yes,” Yue Qingyuan said, just as unhesitatingly as he had anything else.
Satisfied, Shen Qingqiu sat back. “Good.”
A hint of confusion flashed across Yue Qingyuan’s face. Slowly, uncertainly, he asked, “Are you—”
Shen Qingqiu scoffed. “Why should I punish you? I don’t care. Next time, just come a little faster.”
Yue Qingyuan’s lips parted, and he swallowed. His eyes welled with tears.
Shen Qingqiu blinked. That hadn’t at all been what he was aiming for, and he frowned. “What are you doing?”
Yue Qingyuan tugged one hand free to wipe at his eyes before the tears could overflow. “Nothing. I’m sorry. I—” He buried his face in his hand, and the hand still in Shen Qingqiu’s grip twitched. “I thought you would hate me, if you ever found out.”
Baffled, Shen Qingqiu stared at him. “You thought I would hate you if I learned that you’d actually come back for me?”
“I didn’t know you didn’t know that!” Yue Qingyuan said, muffled into his hand, “I thought you would hate me for failing.”
I thought you knew that not coming back was never an option for me.
Something else clicked into place, with nearly the same finality that had snapped him out of his qi deviation. “Qi-ge,” he said, slowly, tentatively.
Yue Qingyuan’s head snapped up, eyes locking onto his.
Shen Qingqiu stared back, turning over the novel idea that their names—their pasts—might mean something entirely different to each of them. “Qi-ge,” he repeated. And then: “Hating you was never an option for me.”
Yue Qingyuan’s eyes widened. “Oh,” he said, a breathless, desperate sort of sound.
Shen Qingqiu hastily wrapped his arms around his abdomen and averted his eyes, because that was— That was terrible. He was never saying anything that saccharine again, ever. He was blushing. He could feel it. Fuck. “Qi-ge is stupid,” he said, instead of any of the flustered screaming rattling in his skull.
“Qi-ge is very stupid,” Yue Qingyuan agreed, sounding far too pleased to be calling himself both Qi-ge and stupid in the same sentence.
Shen Qingqiu chanced a glance at him, but nope Yue Qingyuan’s expression was still flustered-scream-inducing. “I’m going to go now,” he declared, swinging himself gracelessly out of the bed.
A hand grabbed his. “Can I call you—”
Shen Qingqiu looked over his shoulder. He wished he had a fan to hide behind. “You can call me Qingqiu.”
Yue Qingyuan nodded. His expression cleared, as if he, too, were having a revelation. “Qingqiu.”
“Yes,” Shen Qingqiu said, tugging his hands free and looking around for his boots. His face was burning.
“Qingqiu,” Yue Qingyuan repeated, as if he hadn’t said it loud enough the first time.
“Well now I’m going to take it back,” Shen Qingqiu mumbled under his breath as he shoved his feet into his boots. He was utterly indecent; this robe was a simple thing he’d used to sneak out to the Warm Red Pavilion back when he’d still been a disciple and in need of sneaking out to leave his own peak.
With a sigh that was far more affected than genuine, Shen Qingqiu whirled around to glare at Yue Qingyuan. The sight that met his eyes—the esteemed leader of the all-powerful Cang Qiong Mountain Sect with his hair loose around his shoulders and his blanket bunched up around his knees—left him breathless. A fierce surge of some red-hot emotion stole through him, filling him with an absurd, selfish joy because this was his.
“What?” Shen Qingqiu asked, softer than he’d meant to. And, the parallel thought: he was Qi-ge's.
It was a remarkable thought, after so long of having nothing and belonging to no one.
Yue Qingyuan’s expression twisted into something strange. “Don’t you want to know why?”
“Why what?” Shen Qingqiu asked archly, remembering to inject some sharpness into the question this time.
“Why I didn’t come back,” Yue Qingyuan said, his expression closing off as if he expected Shen Qingqiu to suddenly decide that this was the line and that he hated him actually.
Shen Qingqiu just stared at him, baffled. “No,” he said, bluntly, “Why should I care?” And then, as if that wasn’t clear enough: “You came back for me. You chose me. Why should I need anything else?”
A separate thought occurred to him, breaking him away from his endless bewilderment. His expression turned searching, dark eyes sharp on the man still sitting in the bed and his miserable expression. “Do you want me to know why?”
Yue Qingyuan blinked, startled. “What?”
“Do you want me to know why?” Shen Qingqiu repeated, chin tilting into the air. He'd always assumed that Yue Qingyuan's inability to express his desires was an intentional thing from a man who fancied himself above such earthly, selfish wants. Shen Qingqiu took that assumption, held it up to Yue Qingyuan’s voice saying I deserve to be punished, and silently put it aside.
Yue Qingyuan floundered under his stare. “You deserve to know.”
Shen Qingqiu shrugged. He deserved many things. He rarely ever got them. “Qi-ge,” he said, and oh how his heart leapt at the way Yue Qingyuan’s eyes widened at the name, “Do you want me to know?”
Yue Qingyuan fell silent, eyes still huge. Several long seconds passed, and Shen Qingqiu was just wondering if he should start to feel annoyed when Yue Qingyuan’s shoulders dropped in defeat. Eyes still locked onto Shen Qingqiu’s, he admitted, “Yes.”
Shen Qingqiu couldn’t help the smile that flickered across his face. It was a small, crooked thing for a small, crooked admittance. It felt like a victory nonetheless. “Then tell me.”
And Yue Qingyuan did.