There was a child at Shen Qingqiu's door.
There was also another Peak Lord, Mu Qingfang, but that was unimportant. First of all, Shen Qingqiu outranked Mu Qingfang. Second of all, he didn't allow his disciples to bother the Qian Cao Peak lord or his medical disciples with petty injuries the way Bai Zhan Peak's disciples did. The two of them didn't get along, but they weren't at odds.
So the Peak Lord wasn't important.
There was a child at Shen Qingqiu's door.
There was a child at Shen Qingqiu's door, in tiny Qiong Ding Peak robes, hair pulled back in a tidy ponytail, face clean and round-cheeked and visibly healthy.
"Explain," Shen Qingqiu said, staring at Mu Qingfang. His tone was flat, controlled, and utterly without inflection.
"Ah, Shen-shidi," Mu Qingfang said. "If we might come in first?"
Shen Qingqiu looked at the child grasping lightly onto Mu Qingfang's hand and nodded, once, the gesture harsh.
"Fine," he said, and stepped out of the way. "Get in here before the whole mountain has even more to gossip about."
The child looked up at him with keen eyes and — inexplicably — smiled at the harshness of his words, bright as the sun coming out from behind a cloud.
"A-Jiu!" he chirped. "It is you!"
Shen Qingqiu was an accomplished cultivator. He was the lord of the scholarly peak, unquestioned master of the four arts. He snapped a fan open to hide his face and led the way into his bamboo hut without another word.
That child was unmistakably Yue Qingyuan. No, worse than that. It was Yue Qi. His Qi-ge.
Shen Qingqiu settled at the table, watching as Mu Qingfang tugged the child in with him. The boy looked around, wonder all too obvious on his face, and didn't even appear to be casing the joint for valuables to steal, looking for exits, or doing any of the many things Shen Qingqiu had tried to teach him all those years ago.
It looked like he just — trusted them.
"Tell me what happened," Shen Qingqiu said, and it was not a request.
Mu Qingfang settled at the table and patted the mats next to him when the boy hesitated.
"I woke up like this," Yue Qi said, still hovering between the two men.
Shen Qingqiu had a moment of hope that Qi-ge was demonstrating some ounce of self-preservation, trying to avoid being pinned down by an unfamiliar adult. His hopes were dashed when the boy kept talking, hands moving to illustrate his points, and took no notice when Mu Qingfang stepped between him and the door.
"I woke up, and I was in such a nice big bed but my clothes were all too big and they fell off. A nice man was very surprised and dropped a teapot, and a lady yelled a lot, and the nice man brought me clothes that fit, and then the doctor came, and he said he knew where A-Jiu was but that everyone was big now, so I shouldn't be surprised, and he brought me here! And you're here just like he said! And you're so big!"
He looked at Shen Qingqiu and cocked his head to one side, the gesture familiar even after all these years. He hadn't done it in decades, not since before Shen Jiu had been bought by the Qiu family, before Yue Qi had gone off to become a cultivator and abandoned Shen Jiu to his fate.
It hurt to see the childish gesture again. He scowled, and didn't bother hiding it behind a fan this time.
"It is you!" Yue Qi said. He sounded unaccountably happy for a child who was being stared at by two strange men, one of whom was visibly angry. Qi-ge had never had an ounce of self-preservation.
He'd had A-Jiu for that, once upon a time, said a tiny voice in Shen Qingqiu's mind.
"You never did have any sense," Shen Qingqiu said. "You can't just trust anyone who looks friendly, you idiot child."
Yue Qi just smiled wider, and came over to settle next to him without even asking.
"A-Jiu is A-Jiu," he said, as if that made any kind of sense. Then he reached out with curious hands and started stroking the embroidery on Shen Qingqiu's sleeve very gently. There were no calluses on his fingers to catch on the threads.
"What happened," Shen Qingqiu said, glaring at Mu Qingfang to prevent himself from staring with hungry eyes at this tiny, healthy Qi-ge. They had never been so chubby as children, not even in the good summers, the few weeks of plenty after especially good harvests.
The physician shrugged.
"It appears to be a very unusual qi deviation," he said. "Yue-shixiong has suffered one before, of course, but even as severe as that one was, it had nothing like this kind of effect."
Shen Qingqiu kept his face impassive through sheer force of will. Yue Qingyuan had not had a qi deviation in the time since Shen Qingqiu had come to Cang Qiong Mountain Sect. Ever since entering the sect Shen Qingqiu had made it his business to know who was in seclusion, who was weakened, who was at risk of unstable cultivation.
It only made sense to know your enemy's weaknesses, your allies' soft points. If the list of enemies far outstripped the list of allies, that was neither here nor there.
The fact of the matter was that he would have known if Yue Qingyuan had suffered a qi deviation in that time. So Yue Qingyuan's qi deviation — a severe one — had happened before Shen Qingqiu joined the sect and Yue Qingyuan had never brought it up. So much for trust, Shen Qingqiu thought.
"Explain," he said to Mu Qingfang, carefully ignoring the way Yue Qi's hands were brushing thoughtlessly over his wrists under the embroidered cuffs. No one touched him; that was surely why it felt like a brand even through the cloth.
"He appears to be approximately nine years old," Mu Qingfang said.
"Mn," Yue Qi agreed, pausing with one hand resting on Shen Qingqiu's wrist, unthinking, tiny, fragile. "I think so, probably."
He'd been ten or twelve before he'd been this tall before, Shen Qingqiu thought.
"He's healthy?" he asked, because he couldn't very well ask any of the questions he really wanted the answers to: why isn't he malnourished, why isn't he bruised, why isn't he starving, why isn't he grubby and bony and still all mine?
"May I examine you, Yue-shixiong?" Mu Qingfang asked. "You said I could if I brought you to Shen Qingqiu."
Yue Qi looked at him.
"How?" he asked. "I promised maybe, if you brought me to A-Jiu."
Shen Qingqiu let out a tiny breath, relieved Yue Qi had demonstrated at least that much sense.
"Let me touch your wrist and feel your pulse and your meridians," Mu Qingfang explained. "That's all, to start."
Yue Qi held out one wrist immediately, fingers of the other hand clutching Shen Qingqiu's sleeve and wrinkling it. Shen Qingqiu did not brush him away.
"What are meridians?" Yue Qi asked.
Mu Qingfang explained the basics of cultivation, and Yue Qi listened, sitting perfectly still. He answered questions about his memory, about the last things he remembered.
"He's eight," Shen Qingqiu," said at one point. "Not nine."
Shen Qingqiu had had the chance to count the years backwards in the time after Yue Qi's father had come for him, to do the math on which seasons and which harvests had gone to which years, had assigned Yue Qi a more definite age in his own mind.
It had been his way of keeping a memorial, in those years in the Qiu household after he had begun to realize he would never escape, would never know anything more about his own past. Even if Qi-ge never came for him, even if Shen Jiu had no birthday of his own, he had made a point of remembering his friend's. He had curled tighter and tighter around that cold comfort as betrayal settled into his bones like unending snowfall.
It was absurd that he now knew Yue Qi's age better than his own, even when Yue Qi had been reduced to childhood by a qi deviation. A second qi deviation, according to Mu Qingfang's earlier words, but Shen Qingqiu knew better than to ask for more detail. It would only annoy Mu Qingfang to be pressed on a patient's private information. Doing so would gain no benefit, no advantage, no information. Better to find out later, in another way.
Finally Mu Qingfang declared the examination over.
"He's perfectly healthy," he announced. "His meridians are sealed, but intact, and his core is stable. He's in no risk so long as he doesn't draw Xuan Su."
With that he got to his feet, and headed for the door.
"Where are you going?" Shen Qingqiu demanded.
Mu Qingfang blinked at him.
"You have this well under control, Shen-shixiong," he said. "I leave Yue-shixiong in your capable hands until tomorrow. I have research to do."
And then he walked away, the utter bastard, leaving Shen Qingqiu sitting in his own home with an impossible eight-year-old child who appeared to trust him for no reason at all, and no idea what on earth to do with him.
“A-Jiu?” Yue Qi asked. He looked almost uncertain, then clearly made up his mind. “You’re big now,” he said. “Should I call you Shen-ge?”
Shen Qingqiu blinked at him and only long years of practice kept his features from showing the turmoil roiling inside him.
“That will do,” he said. He couldn’t very well take a fellow Peak Lord as a disciple. “You’ll have to be a distant cousin’s child, I suppose.”
No one would believe it, given the rumors about Shen Qingqiu’s background and lack of family.
But he couldn’t very well admit this was the head of their sect: Yue Qingyuan would be too vulnerable in this state. There would be plenty of people who would assume Yue Qi was Shen Qingqiu’s illegitimate child, but most of those bold enough to spread such rumors were too timid to do so in the hearing of those involved. It would damage his reputation in the short term, but it would be a way to ferret out more people with grudges against him, if he played his cards right.
“A-Qi,” he said. “Don’t tell anyone your family name. If anyone asks, tell them it’s the same as mine.” He paused. “And then —“ he started, and Yue Qi smiled.
“And then remember who it was, and tell you,” he said. “I know.”
The amount of faith he had in Shen Qingqiu — in his xiao-Jiu — was truly staggering, given that the xiao-Jiu he remembered would have been at most six years old himself, too small to do anything except hiss like a wet cat and flee from the worst kinds of people, dragging Qi-ge with him even when the strangers offered food.
“Your name is Shen Qi,” he said, instead. “Repeat that.”
Yue Qi repeated it after him, little face very serious. Then he smiled.
“You’re so big, a-Jiu,” he said. “And you’re a cultivator and you have so many pretty things and a sword!”
He beamed at Shen Qingqiu, radiating unselfish happiness.
No thanks to you, Shen Qingqiu thought, and bit it back before the words could leave his lips. This version of Yue Qi had not yet betrayed him, did not recall leaving him behind. This version did not look at him with shadowed eyes.
It was weak to crave the uncomplicated regard of a child, but Shen Qingqiu had always been aware of his weak points. Qi-ge had always been most of them.
“Hm,” he said. “You do too,” he pointed out, because he didn't see Xuan Su and needed to know where it was.
Yue Qi frowned.
“The doctor said I can’t have my sword,” he said. “He has it for now. It’s too dangerous.”
If someone had told Shen Qingqiu, aged eight, that his adult self had a sword, and then tried to keep him from it, he would have broken a vase and stabbed them with the shards of it until he could get his hands on the sword he was being denied.
Yue Qi had always been better suited to diplomacy.
Shen Qingqiu heard a small grumbling sound, and looked down. Yue Qi’s cheeks were flushed.
“They didn’t feed you,” he said. It came out judgmental, angry.
“The nice man tried,” Yue Qi said. “But the angry lady said to get the doctor first.” He looked down. “I’m not that hungry,” he said.
He probably wasn’t: he’d had a full meal last night, after all, before the qi deviation. One meal a day was more than they had often managed. But Shen Qingqiu felt his heart twist at the idea of Qi-ge going hungry under his roof.
He summoned a servant, and was only mildly surprised when Ning Yingying showed up instead. His second-youngest disciple was unceasingly curious and perceptive, and had a way of persuading the older boys to let her do as she wanted.
It was a surprise to see that she had the brat in tow. Luo Binghe’s hair was mussed, as usual, and he had the beginnings of a black eye. Brawling again, Shen Qingqiu thought, and spared the boy only a brief glare before focusing on Ning Yingying.
“Breakfast for two,” he said. “Plainer foods, I think.”
Yue Qi looked at the two other children, and smiled.
“I’m Shen Qi,” he said, and hopped to his feet to give them a small, awkward bow. It was almost painfully adorable seeing him imitate the formal manners he must only remember seeing from rich people as they passed by, ignoring the children who lived in the streets. “I’m staying with Shen-ge for a little while!”
Shen Qingqiu hid his grimace behind a fan: offering unasked-for information was one of the best ways to signal a lie.
Ning Yingying looked at Shen Qingqiu as if for permission, and then nodded back, smiling brightly in welcome.
“This one is Ning Yingying,” she said. “And this is Luo Binghe, my shidi!”
She pushed the brat forward, and he bowed, a little stiff, like he resented having to show respect to a child younger than himself. He was already a disgrace to the Peak. Shen Qingqiu wished he had picked another child for Ning Yingying to dote on, not this half-starved waif who moved like his limbs were made of clay.
“Enough,” Shen Qingqiu said, tone sharp. “Ning Yingying, have a servant bring the food. Then go and make sure everyone is assembled on time for today's calligraphy lessons.”
She nodded, and shot Yue Qi a small smile, almost conspiratorial.
“Of course, Shizun,” she chirped, and darted off, pulling the brat behind her.
Yue Qi watched them go, and then sat down next to Shen Qingqiu, nestling against his side as if they still needed to huddle together to share warmth. Shen Qingqiu supposed he didn't hate it.
"Sit up properly," he snapped, elbowing Yue Qi away from him. "What will people think."
"There's no one here," Yue Qi said, but he sat up, and looked at Shen Qingqiu carefully before mirroring his posture.
He had always been a good mimic, good at observing manners and behavior. If only he'd ever known when not to trust people, Shen Qingqiu might have had more faith in Qi-ge's ability to survive on his own when he'd left, all those years ago.
Yue Qi sat still, looking around the room with something like pleasure, visibly soaking in the surroundings. Shen Qingqiu did his best to make plans, and contingency plans. Mu Qingfang hadn't told him who on Qiong Ding Peak was aware, or what kind of damage control they were doing. He decided to start there, and drafted a swift letter to the physician to ask who else had been present.
It had been foolish of him to introduce Yue Qi as his cousin before ascertaining these details: it was an easily-found hole in his lie. Shen Qingqiu chided himself even as he wrote another pair of letters for the nice man and angry lady, whom he presumed to be Yue Qingyuan's head and second disciples.
When a servant arrived a few moments later and laid out bowls of congee, Yue Qi's stomach growled audibly. The woman bowed, looked nervously between the two of them, and backed out without a word, even when Yue Qi gave her a small wave.
"Don't acknowledge servants," Shen Qingqiu directed. "Their job is to be invisible."
Yue Qi frowned.
"Come eat," Shen Qingqiu told him, redirecting the boy before he could get any stubborn ideas into his head. "I have to lead lessons soon, and I suppose you'll be joining me."
Yue Qi nodded, and stopped just short of eating with his fingers only when Shen Qingqiu glared at him.
"Manners," he said. "You are not a half-starved animal. Do not give anyone reason to think you are one."
Yue Qi ate neatly, and with a desperate, unseemly haste Shen Qingqiu would have to train out of him lest anyone notice and comment.
The library, when they arrived, was full of inquisitive-looking students. Even Ming Fan, usually placid and reliably incurious, looked at Yue Qi with naked curiosity.
Shen Qingqiu assigned them a simple poem to copy out from memory, something of middling length, and sat at his desk to observe their form. Toward the edge of the room, the brat's posture was still resentfully stiff, and he moved his arms as if he were maneuvering a puppet. Beside him at the shared desk, Ning Yingying whispered what were obviously corrections.
"I want to try too," Yue Qi whispered.
Shen Qingqiu was not going to allow his Sect Leader to embarrass himself on the instructor's platform, in full sight of all of his disciples, even if no one knew who he was. It would come out eventually, and he would preserve Yue Qingyuan's reputation now, as he always did, hiding his weaknesses and ugly secrets behind a veil of silence, of simulation. He stood, beckoning for Yue Qi to follow, and led him over to stand before Ning Yingying's desk.
"Ning Yingying," he said, and looked down at her calligraphy. It was passable, if not yet particularly impressive or elegant. "I will leave Shen Qi in your care for the rest of the lesson," he said. "Start him with the basics."
Beside her, the brat looked mutinous at the idea of his shijie looking after anyone else, and Shen Qingqiu shot him a glare that appeared to have very little effect.
"Of course, shizun," Ning Yingying chirped. She looked at Yue Qi, and then scooted over, patting the empty space next to her. "Sit here, Shen-shidi."
Yue Qi settled down, mirroring Shen Qingqiu's posture at breakfast almost perfectly.
"Good," Shen Qingqiu said, knowing it was inane even as he spoke.
Then he did his rounds of the room, correcting and criticizing in turn. For all that most of his students were from high-born families, and had benefited from private tutors for all of their childhoods before coming to the peak, very few of them had a truly elegant hand with a brush.
Only after he had done a full circuit of the room and assigned a second poem to be written out from memory did he allow himself to look back at Ning Yingying and Yue Qi. The two were leaning close together. The brat was watching with something akin to envy, though he was also clearly copying and committing to memory every gesture Ning Yingying was showing Yue Qi. His form was still stiff, but it already looked a little better.
By the time Shen Qingqiu reached that side of the room again he was well and truly tired of lackluster excuses. Too many disciples had not bothered to memorize the previous day's assigned poetry. Several had even thought they could pass something else off in place of the specified work, as if he would not notice.
They had access to the entire library of the scholarly peak, and they wasted their time on novels instead of doing the least bit of work, slacking off as if good birth were all it took to succeed as a cultivator. If he could ascend, despite his disadvantages, he saw no reason to go easily on these paragons of the gentry, who had been educated and coddled for their whole lives.
"Shen-ge!" Yue Qi exclaimed, and hopped to his feet. "See?"
He held up a very sloppy approximation of his borrowed name with a wide smile on his face.
"Hm," Shen Qingqiu said. "It's sloppy," he said. "Don't apply so much ink to the brush at once," he said, because he was soft for Qi-ge, had always been.
Ning Yingying looked at him, expression too-carefully schooled into a placid mask.
"Now, shidi," she said. "Sit down. Shizun is busy."
Yue Qi looked at her, and then at the brat, who appeared to be trying to light Yue Qi's paper on fire with the power of his glare.
Shen Qingqiu returned an ice-cold look of his own, and went back to the teacher's platform to give a lecture on the importance of memorization for a scholarly cultivator. If he happened to demonstrate mastery of several different poetic forms in the process of his lecture, that was only to be expected of someone in his position, wasn't it.
When he finished, several students had the fixed posture that spoke of numb ankles, despite having never known anything remotely approaching discomfort. Even Ming Fan looked like he was holding to attention by sheer willpower alone. In the corner, Ning Yingying appeared to be covertly directing the two younger boys as they pretended to take notes. At least they were being quiet, Shen Qingqiu allowed.
"You are dismissed," he said. "Qin tomorrow."
Disciples filed out until only Ning Yingying, the brat, and Yue Qi remained.
"You're my shijie," the brat was saying to Ning Yingying, hands screwed into fists at his sides. He sounded fierce, possessive, almost ready to either fight or burst into tears.
Shen Qingqiu wondered for a moment at the brat's seeming inability to hide his distress. It raised questions about his life before the sect, if he was such an open book despite being an orphan. He put the thoughts aside.
"She can be my shijie at the same time," Yue Qi said, as if he was completely unaware of the trouble that might put him in. "But that also makes you my shixiong, doesn't it?"
Oddly, that seemed to calm the situation entirely. Both disciples blinked at him, and Ning Yingying smiled.
"Oh," the brat said, and his voice was far softer than Shen Qingqiu had heard it before. "I — All right."
Yue Qi grinned at him, and gave them both a small bow.
"Thanking Ning-shijie and Luo-shixiong for their help!" he chirped, and turned to Shen Qingqiu. "A-j— I mean, Shen-ge, are you all done now?"
Shen Qingqiu nodded, and folded his hands behind his back when Yue Qi looked like he might reach out to grab his hand, which would be embarrassing and extremely improper.
Shen Qingqiu was not well-liked: he has known this for years. But his behavior was at all times unimpeachable, a perfect defense made up of equal parts poise and propriety. His detractors were free to complain all they liked: he had long since learned how to tread the lines prescribed for him. Now, more than ever, when Yue Qingyuan was unable to protect himself, Shen Qingqiu will protect them both.
So he pretended not to see the child reaching for him, turned away, and walked out into the falling night, listening for the patter of small feet on the hard floor behind him. If he slowed his pace just a little bit so it would be easier for Yue Qi to keep up, that was no one's business but his own.
* * *
The afternoon was usually tiresome, taken up with correspondence and administration that couldn't be pushed off onto An Ding Peak's cowardly, paper-spined Peak Lord.
Today Shen Qingqiu set up a second inkstone and had Yue Qi demonstrate writing for him, and then set him exercises while he took care of paperwork. The boy's calligraphy was predictably terrible, but then, at this age, he had never had a chance to learn.
Shen Qingqiu corrected his grasp on the brush, the way he ground the ink, too impatient to get an even tone, and even the way he laid out the paper. Yue Qi smiled and thanked him every time, no matter how sharp Shen Qingqiu's tone. He was just as soft and forgiving as he had ever been. Shen Qingqiu had started to think he had imagined Qi-ge's good nature, made it up, but here it was, visible in this child's every move.
He had cleared away Yue Qi's shoddy work and made space on the table before a knock sounded on the door, and made a show of putting down his own brush mid-letter as Ning Yingying entered with dinner.
"Ning-shijie," Yue Qi exclaimed, and bounced to his feet to help her with the tray.
The brat was behind her, carrying a smaller tray with tea on it, and a cup of soy milk. He bowed stiffly and set it on the table, moving with exaggerated care.
"Luo-shixiong," Yue Qi said, and gave a tiny little bow.
The brat smiled, and nodded back, form almost correct. Shen Qingqiu only mostly stifled his sniff of distaste.
"Shen-ge," Yue Qi piped up. "Can they stay? There's so much food!"
There was a completely normal amount of food for a Peak Lord and his guest, but it must look like a feast to Qi-ge, whose most recent memories were of starving on the streets.
"Shizun?" Ning Yingying asked, but she looked hopeful.
The brat, seeming to know his opinion was not wanted, said nothing.
"Please, Shen-ge," Yue Qi said. "We have to share!"
He had clearly already adopted these two disciples. Shen Qingqiu was not jealous of his own students. That would be irrational, and useless.
"Very well," he said. "You," he said, looking at the brat. "Go fetch two more bowls and sets of utensils. Be quick about it."
"Yes, shizun," the brat breathed, and bowed low before racing off. He favored one leg slightly. Shen Qingqiu frowned, and Yue Qi looked between the disappearing form and Shen Qingqiu's face.
"He's hurt," Yue Qi said, looking upset about it. "He wouldn't tell me why, Shen-ge, but why is anyone hurting? It's so nice here."
People were the same everywhere, Shen Qingqiu wanted to tell him: cruelty wasn't only born of desperation, hunger, or fear, as it so often had been in their youth. There was more to the unkindness of the human soul than mere need or necessity: the Qiu had taught him that all too well.
But he couldn't talk about their shared past in front of Ning Yingying, and he wouldn't scold his child-sized sect leader's naivete in front of an inferior, even when it was this glaringly obvious that he didn't understand the first thing about how the world worked.
"He'll be fine," Shen Qingqiu said.
The brat was always getting into one scrape or another, and he always recovered almost alarmingly quickly. There was no need to worry. Either he would learn to bear himself with more grace, or he would not.
Ning Yingying settled into an acceptably graceful posture across the table, and only barely blinked when Yue Qi settled next to Shen Qingqiu. It was not an appropriate place for a disciple, and borderline for even a close family member. Shen Qingqiu had always been soft for Yue Qi: he did not require him to move.
The brat returned a few moments later with more bowls, more rice, and more utensils.
"Begging shizun's pardon," he said, bowing. "This disciple brought more rice as well."
Shen Qingqiu sniffed, but nodded him toward a seat. It was not a bad idea: it would stretch the food farther. Yue Qi, at his side, brightened.
"Good idea," he chirped, free with his praise as ever. "But won't they miss it?"
Shen Qingqiu raised his fan to hide a grimace. It sounded as if Yue Qi — even pretending to be Shen Qi, distant cousin of a Peak Lord — had never been fed properly in his life.
"The kitchens were planning on feeding the assembled disciples in the dining hall," he explained, before either of his disciples could say anything. "This is no trouble."
The brat beamed, and settled down next to Ning Yingying. He glanced at Yue Qi, questioning, and took a breath when no one moved for a long moment.
"Shidi," he said, and he was smiling just a little bit at that, around the eyes. "May this disciple have the honor of serving the table?"
It was, Shen Qingqiu realized, deftly done. Yue Qi didn't know the peak's customs, that the youngest served the table. This approach showed more grace than he would have expected from his youngest disciple.
"Oh!" Yue Qi said. "Yes, please, Luo-shixiong, and thank you!"
The brat served the food perfectly properly, putting the best cuts and choicest morsels in Shen Qingqiu and Ning Yingying's bowls. He even gave himself the smallest portion of everything, deferring to Yue Qi — theoretically his shizun's distant cousin, but still his junior — without a second thought.
Ning Yingying put a few items in Luo Binghe's bowl while he wasn't looking, and the meal passed in tolerable quiet. Yue Qi asked Ning Yingying a few questions about calligraphy, and the brat hung on her every word. If either of his disciples was surprised to see Yue Qi inching closer over the course of the meal, or Shen Qingqiu dropping choice morsels into his bowl, they were too wise to say anything about it.
Finally Ning Yingying gathered up the dishes onto a single tray. The brat bowed, and took the tray away from her.
"I'll take them back, Ning-shijie," he said. "It's on the way."
Yue Qi blinked. Ning Yingying flushed, and Shen Qingqiu snapped open his fan to hide his face. He should have anticipated this, letting the brat stay for dinner.
"But the kitchens are the opposite way from the disciple's dormitories," Yue Qi said.
He'd always had a good head for directions, when he paid any kind of attention. Of course he had paid attention to this.
"Oh," the brat said, easily. "I don't sleep in the dormitories. There's no room." He gave a bright smile as he shifted his grip on the tray. "It's easier to chop wood and refill water first thing in the morning if I sleep in the woodshed, anyway."
Yue Qi looked at him, and frowned, expression going stern.
"But," he said, "you're a disciple, not a servant."
The brat blinked at him, seemingly completely confused.
"I'm the lowest-ranked disciple," he explained. "My shixiongs are only trying to help me get stronger."
Yue Qi almost looked convinced by that utter bullshit, but Ning Yingying stomped her foot, temper clearly getting the better of her.
"Luo-shidi," she said. "You know that's not true. I keep telling you they're beating you up for fun, and I keep telling you to tell shizun, and I keep telling you they're making you do things that the kitchen staff ought to be doing, and you should be meditating and working on your cultivation, not chopping down trees with a blunt axe! Shizun!" she exclaimed, and turned big eyes on Shen Qingqiu. "Shizun, he wouldn't tell you, but Ming-shixiong and the other boys are horrible. They bully him for fun, and they're only ever careful not to leave bruises in places you might notice."
Yue Qi frowned, looking back and forth between the three of them.
"They're why you were limping," he said. He sounded like he'd made up his mind. "Shen-ge," he said. "That's not how things should be!"
Shen Qingqiu was privately of the opinion that if the brat couldn't get away from a few larger boys, he'd never manage to prove himself as a cultivator, but he wasn't going to say that to Yue Qi.
"You'll stay here tonight," Yue Qi said, and gave the brat a winning smile, and one that Shen Qingqiu recognized as utterly unyielding. "First I'm coming with you to make sure you come back. Shen-ge has a whole extra room and the bed is huge. We can share."
The brat glanced at Shen Qingqiu, and at Ning Yingying, his expression completely flummoxed.
"Shidi," he said. "I don't think —"
"Shen-ge," Yue Qi said, and there it was, the iron glare that had scared off some of the other street kids, the spine under it all. "It's all right, isn't it?"
Shen Qingqiu hadn't seen that glare in decades. He could, he thought, perhaps be granted some face for giving in so easily.
"For tonight," he allowed. "Go and come back swiftly."
Ning Yingying stayed a moment after the boys departed, and bowed low.
"Begging shizun's pardon for this one's outburst," she said, which at least demonstrated an awareness, however belated, of how bad her behavior had been. "Luo-shidi is given so many chores, and so little time to meditate, this disciple worries for the foundation of his cultivation."
She bowed a little lower, and gulped a little bit, looking at the floor, before continuing, words firm, though her voice was very quiet.
"This one has hoped shizun was entirely unaware of Ming-shixiong's behavior," she said.
Then she backed out, practically fleeing before he could react to her brazen accusation.
By the time the boys returned, Shen Qingqiu had put linens on the bed in the adjoining chamber, and laid out a set of Yue Qi's sleeping robes from the pouch Ming Qingfang had left behind.
Yue Qi dragged the brat in by his hand, bowed to Shen Qingqiu, and then made a beeline for the little room, slamming the door behind them almost in Shen Qingqiu's face.
"No grown-ups," he called. "Sorry, Shen-ge, but you're big now. No grown-ups while we're sleeping."
It was a rule Shen Qingqiu himself had picked up from some of the older girls, the ones who were probably going to be sold to brothels soon. Being on the outside of it felt, wrong, somehow, as if he were being cast as the slaver, the cruel adult, the dangerous one.
He shook that line of thought aside, burying memories of tipping boiling tea onto the brat's head, and settled himself into bed. If he caught snatches of chatter from the other room, well, that was only because he had a cultivator's keen senses.
There are so many soft blankets, he heard from Yue Qi, and then And it's already so warm in here, in the brat's cadence, but hushed, almost reverent.
The next morning Ning Yingying brought breakfast for four without being called, and helped herself to a place at her shizun's table without asking.
"Luo-shidi," she said, putting a piece of pork in his bowl. "Perhaps if shizun agrees, you could spend the morning showing Shen-shidi how to meditate?"
The brat was famously bad at the qin, impatient and too rough when he got frustrated. Shen Qingqiu thought about spending a morning watching him nearly snap strings, and nodded, once.
"Very well," he said, and pulled a small cultivation manual from his pocket, passing it to Yue Qi. "Use this."
Qin lessons went about as well as they ever did, which was to say that some of the students made a passable showing, others plucked and plunked as if they thought they were brothel-keepers' daughters, or minstrels, and some pouted and looked bored, as if they were not young gentlemen being taught one of the four scholarly arts. Even his best disciple, a young boy whose family had a musical bent, was distracted during the whole lesson, gossipping with Ming Fan about "that kid" in tones too loud to be ignored.
All in all, Shen Qingqiu was not in a good mood when he returned to the bamboo hut, and was very much looking forward to tea and some peace and quiet.
What he got, instead, was a glaring, furious child, and a very cowed disciple kneeling at the table, hands clenched into fists at his knees.
"Shen-ge," Yue Qi declared, bouncing to his feet as soon as Shen Qingqiu opened the door. "Shen-ge, look at this."
His tone was the kind of flat it only went when he was very, very angry indeed. He slammed two different cultivation booklets onto the low table with a thud, entirely inelegant. Shen Qingqiu only barely stopped himself from looking around for witnesses to such uncouth behavior.
"Look," Yue Qi repeated, and glared until Shen Qingqiu came over and settled to his knees before the table.
"This is the one you gave me," Yue Qi said, and poked a finger at the thicker manual, which was Qing Jing Peak's standard manual. This is the one Ming Fan gave to Luo-shixiong."
He glared at Shen Qingqiu, practically vibrating with feeling.
"They're not the same," he said. "Luo-shixiong, tell him what you told me."
The brat looked down at his own hands. His knuckles were white, and he was holding very, very still. He had held that still the last time he had been whipped for wilful disobedience, Shen Qingqiu remembered.
"I'm sure this disciple misunderstood," the brat said, and his voice was very soft, almost pleading. "Shizun, I don't want to make trouble. I'll just —"
Yue Qi slammed his hands on the table, a tiny explosion of fury.
"Shen-ge," he said, and standing he was almost the same height as Shen Qingqiu as he knelt. "They're not the same. Luo-shixiong read them to me and the one Ming Fan gave him is different!"
The brat, in Shen Qingiu's line of sight, flinched very slightly.
"Show me," Shen Qingqiu said, and Yue Qi stomped one foot, eyes brimming with frustrated tears. He could barely read, Shen Qingqiu remembered. He couldn't embarrass Yue Qi that way.
"Luo Binghe," Shen Qingqiu said, and the brat's head snapped up to stare at him in shock. "Show me the differences."
The manual the brat had been using was clearly trash, barely fit to be called a description of cultivation at all. That he'd learned as much as he had from this piece of garbage was shocking. Shen Qingqiu swallowed acid at the thought of how much more progress the child might have made with proper training.
"Well," Shen Qingqiu said. "You will take the correct one," he said, nodding to Luo Binghe. "I will destroy the other one."
The brat blinked at him, and nodded fractionally. He hadn't relaxed his hands yet.
"I —" he said. "Ming-shixiong just made a mistake," he said. "Shizun, I'm sure—"
His loyalty might be admirable, if Shen Qingqiu thought it stemmed from anything other than a desire to avoid beatings when the older boys found out he had squealed to their shizun.
"Hm," Shen Qingqiu said, and the brat's shoulders slumped just a tiny bit. Then his eyes fell on the booklet on the table, and a kind of wonder passed over his features.
"Thank you for the manual, shizun," he said, and managed an almost passable bow.
Shen Qingqiu waved him off, sending him to retrieve dinner for three: Yue Qi had insisted that the brat would be staying here again tonight, and Shen Qingqiu had conceded without much of a fight. He would rather have the brat close by while he figured out how to deal with the issue of the false cultivation manual.
Then, just as the brat was laying out dishes, the door slammed open.
Yue Qingyuan's age-mate and the second-ranked cultivator of his generation, a man whose name Shen Qingqiu had intentionally neglected to commit to memory, strode into the room in a flurry of grey robes, anger written across his heavy features.
Beside Shen Qingqiu, Yue Qi startled, dropped a teacup, and watched with wide eyes as it landed on the inkstone. It shattered and splattered ink everywhere, including all over Shen Qingqiu's last letter of the day.
The brat, kneeling across the table with his back to the door, froze in place, utterly still, like a rabbit under a stooping hawk.
"Shen Qingqiu, you utter bastard!" the head disciple yelled. "What the fuck have you done to my shixiong?"
The brat looked like he was torn between wanting to scuttle away and hoping that if he did not move, he would not be noticed. He looked like the weakest children had all those years ago when his and Qi-ge's owner had been on a violently drunken bender and looking for a target. Shen Qingqiu shook that thought away.
"A-j—," Yue Qi glanced at the man in the doorway, visibly dismissed him, and looked down at the mess. "Shen-ge, I'm sorry."
"Hello," Shen Qingqiu said, glaring at the man in his doorway. He did not stand. "Is this Qiong Ding's courtesy? Entering uninvited and startling my charges?"
The man glanced at the mess, at Yue Qi, and at the brat.
"Your charges," he spit, as if he couldn't believe what he had just heard.
"A-Qi," Shen Qingqiu said. "Please have Binghe help you draw water. You'll need to wash the ink off those robes before they stain."
They exchanged a look, and Shen Qingqiu felt his heart ache with how quickly this version of Yue Qi understood him. Luo Binghe didn't know who 'Shen-shidi' was: better to get him out of the way.
"Luo-shixiong," Yue Qi said, and coaxed the older boy to his feet and out of the room with gentle words, like he was gentling a startled animal.
"Now," Shen Qingqiu said, and gestured at the mess before him. "If you please, explain what was so urgent that you had to ruin my correspondence."
"You!" the man exclaimed.
"Me," Shen Qingqiu agreed. "As for your question, Yue Qingyuan is well. Peak Lord Mu left him in my care while he pursued his own medical research. As I'm sure even you can see, no harm has come to him, other than being startled by inconsiderate oafs."
The man opened his mouth and Shen Qingqiu shut him up with a glare.
"I would thank you not to advertise his condition. He is in no fit state to defend himself as things stand, and it would be tiresome to fight off an invasion by another sect or an ambitious demon Saint or Saintess, should word get out."
The man stared at him, and Shen Qingqiu sniffed.
"Really," he said. "Did you think, or did you just storm over here as soon as you returned from whatever mission you were on."
He did not expect an answer to his question, and was unsurprised when he did not receive one.
"If you hurt him—" the cultivator said. He clearly meant it to be a threat, but Shen Qingqiu had spent much of his life being threatened by people who actually held power over him. This jumped-up lackey was no danger at all.
"Yes, yes," he said, and snapped a fan open. "Now go away. I don't recall inviting you to dinner."
He set to rearranging the mess of his desk, pointedly ignoring the other man until he huffed and stomped out, leaving the door open in his wake. Shen Qingqiu tidied as best he could, and looked up when he heard a single set of footsteps in the internal corridor.
It was Yue Qi, and he looked distressed. Shen Qingqiu had opened his arms before he had consciously thought about what he was doing, and Yue Qi all but threw himself into the embrace, burying his face against Shen Qingqiu's chest. It was decidedly odd to be the larger one, Shen Qingqiu thought. Then he wondered where the brat was, and who might see them like this.
"Luo-shixiong is washing my clothes," Yue Qi mumbled. "He wouldn't let me say no. He looked so scared when I tried to take them away, A-jiu, why is he so scared?"
Shen Qingqiu remembered whipping the boy for meditating badly; remembered dumping hot tea on his head.
That may have been poorly done, he thought, heart sinking. He'd certainly never have thought to do such things to his Qi-ge. It hadn't even occurred to him to punish Yue Qi for breaking the teacup. He tugged Yue Qi closer, remembering countless small cruelties inflicted on the brat for less reason than a broken teacup or ruined correspondence.
"Mm. He has had few protectors," he offered, because that was at least the truth.
Yue Qi pulled back, and stared at him, face serious, eyes a little teary at the edges. He looked so much like Shen Qingqiu's fading memories, like the little boy who had held A-Jiu in his arms while they begged for pennies, the boy who had defended A-Jiu against the other children's casual cruelties even when Shen Jiu hadn't deserved protection.
"Then I'll protect him" Yue Qi declared. "Until he can protect himself. Like I protected A-Jiu."
His expression broke into a wide smile and he looked around the room.
"I must have been good at protecting A-Jiu," he said, gesturing at their surroundings as if to demonstrate his point. "We ended up cultivators together, and you're a Peak Lord, and you're so good at so many things."
Shen Qingqiu's heart froze in his chest. He wanted to scream; he wanted to rage; he wanted to smack Yue Qingyuan across the face. He wanted desperately, more desperately than he has allowed himself to want anything in such a long time, for this to have been true.
"Mm," he said. "Don't make promises you can't keep."
Yue Qi just blinked at him.
"I always keep my promises," he said. "A-Jiu knows I keep my promises."
His tone was completely assured, as if this wasn't an utter lie, as if he hadn't broken every promise that mattered. He didn't know yet. He didn't know that he had broken his promise. He didn't know — he couldn't ever know — that his breaking it had broken Shen Jiu's heart.
"Go check on your clothes," he said instead of any other reply, and took a deep, shuddering breath only when Yue Qi had left the room.
Shen Qingqiu needed space, he needed not to see that smiling, assured face, not to hear that piping voice telling him the worst lie of his life. He needed not to believe it. He could not bear to believe that Yue Qingyuan had tried to keep his promise. It was so much easier to have been betrayed than to ever attempt to nurture false hope.
The brat did not emerge for dinner, and Yue Qi took two bowls into the small room, shutting the door firmly behind him. Shen Qinqiu practiced the qin until the early hours of the night, so that he could not overhear anything they might say to each other, any promises that would tear his fragile, blackened heart into any more shreds.
It was a relief when Mu Qingfang knocked on the door the next morning just after breakfast.
The brat hugged Yue Qi, bowed to Shen Qingqiu and Mu Qingfang, and ran out of the bamboo hut with the tray of dishes all without being told to leave. He might have some meager amount of promise or perception after all, Shen Qingqiu grudgingly admitted.
Yue Qi looked up at Mu Qingfang, and frowned.
"If you're back, does that mean I get to be big again?" he asked.
Mu Qingfang gave him a small smile.
"Indeed," he said. He pulled a medicine vial from his sleeve, and showed it to Shen Qingqiu. "One of these every two hours, with an infusion of spiritual energy from a powerful cultivator to encourage it to work through his meridians. The return to adulthood may be gradual, or it may be very abrupt."
"That's all?" Yue Qi said. "Do I get to have my sword back too? I want to fly!"
Mu Qingfang's expression flickered.
"We'll see," he said. "Get back to normal first, and then we'll talk about it."
Yue Qi gave the doctor his best adorable expression, and Mu Qingfang only smiled and ruffled his hair.
"Begging shixiong's pardon," he said, "but we really will have to discuss that once your memory has returned."
Yue Qi frowned.
"Fine," he said. "But you're letting me fly with you on your sword back to your peak so you can fix me. You're the doctor, it's your job. And Shen-ge is busy. He has to teach poetry today."
And just like that, with a tiny bow, a broad smile, and a hushed conversation with the brat in the yard, Yue Qi was gone. The hut had been just this empty for years, Shen Qingqiu thought, looking around. There was no reason for this absence to hurt so badly.
The brat hovered in the door, looking concerned.
"Shizun," he said, and took a deep breath. "My shidi. Will he be all right?"
"Peak Lord Mu is an excellent doctor," Shen Qingqiu said, which was not an answer.
The brat nodded.
"Begging shizun's pardon," he said. "May I come in to get the cultivation manual?"
Shen Qingqiu looked at Luo Binghe, really looked at him. He'd taken the boy as a disciple to spite Liu Qingge, to please Ning Yingying. But he had proven to be stubborn, and strong-willed, and evidently willing to submit to harsh discipline without complaint. And, in the end, he appeared to be more forgiving than Shen Qingqiu had ever been.
"Are you going somewhere?" Shen Qingqiu snapped. "I won't have my disciples sleeping in the woodshed. Stay in the small room, I'm accustomed to the noise by now."
The brat — Luo Binghe — beamed, expression bright with a simple, uncomplicated joy.
"Yes, shizun!" he exclaimed, delight written across every inch of his face.
"Go get ready for lessons," Shen Qingqiu directed.
Poetry lessons were passable, even if the older disciples gossipped about the lack of their shizun's cousin, and Ning Yingying looked like she might cry at not having been able to say goodbye to her little Shen-shidi.
* * *
It was more than a week before the adult Yue Qingyuan deigned to visit Qing Jing Peak.
Shen Qingqiu's spies had long since told him that Yue Qinguan had returned from secluded meditation a full two days after Mu Qingfang had retrieved Yue Qi from the bamboo hut. Shen Qingqiu had grudgingly admitted to himself that he would have been hard pressed to maintain medical care for forty-eight straight hours. Mu Qingfang's cultivation base was more solidly developed than Shen Qingqiu's own, as much as it galled him to admit it, the product of early childhood training in the medical arts.
But that left five more days of silence.
Shen Qingqiu insisted that Luo Binghe stay in the extra room in the bamboo hut, unwilling to allow him to go back to the chill of the woodshed. The boy was pathetically grateful for even the smallest sop of kindness, the most basic amenities. After the first few days, he even stopped visibly flinching when Shen Qingqiu moved too swiftly, or frowned, or expressed the slightest displeasure, as if he trusted that his shizun's changed attitude might persist.
Shen Qingqiu tried not to allow himself to compare the boy's behavior to his own past, to his acclimation to the abundance of food and warmth that others around him took for granted. He told himself that if he lost sleep, it was because of the silence from Yue Qingyuan, and not from distaste at his own past behavior toward Luo Binghe, not from discomfort at the parallels between himself and his youngest disciple, and how badly he had reacted to them until Yue Qi's childhood self had intervened.
Yue Qingyuan did not write.
Shen Qingqiu had not expected gratitude, he told himself. He should not have expected even a letter. He had taken care of a fellow Peak Lord in a moment of ill health, and had performed adequately. There were no new rumors of Cang Qiong's weakness, and even the rumors about Shen Qi, his distant cousin, were more focused on disciples placing bets on the boy's parentage than on his abrupt departure from the Peak.
No one appeared to have connected the ill-educated child with their Sect Leader, with the man so accomplished he need not even draw his sword to stop a battle in its tracks.
Shen Qingqiu had been successful, he told himself. Success had never meant a reward, or recognition of his efforts. It has only ever meant survival, the promise of another day to keep fighting onwards.
By the time a full week had passed, Shen Qingqiu had wrapped up his memories of Yue Qi and stowed them away in the back of his mind, where the sharp edges of that trusting smile couldn't cut him to shreds, where he couldn't wonder, couldn't worry at them, couldn't drive himself mad with what-ifs.
He was completing a letter to one of his spies in the whorehouse when a soft knock on the door interrupted his attention.
"What," he said, tone flat.
Luo Binghe was out meditating in the forest. No one else should be bothering him.
Yue Qingyuan stepped into the room without a word. He was dressed in his usual impeccable Peak Lord robes, grey and silver and white, and his hair was perfectly coiffed again, the strands that fell into his face looking intentional in a way it had taken Shen Qingqiu several years to give up on emulating.
Shen Qingqiu watched as Yue Qingyuan closed the door behind himself, visibly took the time to listen to ensure they were alone, and settled to his knees in the middle of the room, not approaching the table.
Shen Qingqiu snapped a fan open to hide his expression, because he had no idea what was going on.
"You think I broke my promise," Yue Qingyuan said, without preamble.
Shen Qingqiu stared at him.
He had thought himself prepared for this reunion, to see Yue Qingyuan grown, beautiful, a perfect model of a cultivator. He was not at all prepared to see the man with the memory of his Qi-ge so fresh in his mind. The contrast cut like a knife.
"Am I wrong?" he shot back, because he needed to drive Yue Qingyuan away, and sharp words had been his most effective weapons these last many years. He was not prepared: he might never be prepared, after having his Qi-ge back in his life, even so briefly.
Yue Qingquan put his hands on the floor, bowing low.
"A-Jiu," he said. His voice was a croak, hoarse with what might be grief. "I came back for you. The house had burned down. They said everyone had died."
Shen Qingqiu stared at him for a long moment. The silence hung between them, heavy and oppressive as it always was now, as it had been ever since Shen Qingqiu had arrived at the sect in Yue Qingyuan's shadow.
"You were too late," Shen Qingqiu said.
He looked away, directing his words at the door, at the windows, at the tiny white jade ornaments hanging in the window to catch the light. He sniffed.
"I saved myself," he said, and then, when he saw Yue Qingyuan start to move, he lashed out before he could allow the other man to speak. He would not allow Yue Qingyuan to let loose words that would hurt him, that would lodge in the soft parts of his soul that he had not yet been able to cauterize or cut away as a weakness.
"You don't need to worry that I'll disclose the dirty secrets of your childhood," he heard himself continue. "If I didn't expose your origins while you were a child, I hope you'd believe I won't blackmail you now. There's no need to be so obsequious or accommodating."
Yue Qingyuan's stillness took on a shocked quality. Shen Qingqiu took a breath, and told himself what he felt was satisfaction, was the relief of an enemy neutralized before they could strike.
"You think that's why —" he said, and took a shuddering breath. "Of course. Of course you do. A-Jiu—"
"Don't call me that" Shen Qingqiu snapped. "A-Jiu is dead. A-Jiu waited for his Qi-ge for years, and he never came. A-Jiu burned a house down and killed everyone inside and took up with a wandering cultivator who was no better than anyone expected him to be. A-Jiu finally killed him, too, and that time, A-Jiu did not survive."
He bit back something that felt like a sob.
"I am Shen Qingqiu," he said. "And I belong to no one except myself."
Yue Qingyuan lifted his head, and stretched a hand out toward him, sitting back up on his knees, looking like he wanted nothing so much as to get up, to cross the room. Something held him back.
"I failed you," he said. "A-Jiu. I am so sorry."
Shen Qingqiu glared at him, met his eyes, saw Yue Qingyuan flinch away as he always had these long years. He scowled, feeling resentment rise up in him. His Yue Qi had never backed down, not when Shen Jiu had needed him to have a spine. Not when it had mattered. But they were neither of them the same as they had been, were they?
"You may not call me that," he said, and his words sounded calm, matter-of-fact, even as they tore at his throat. "You are not my Qi-ge, and I am not your A-Jiu any more. You left me to die, and you never came back for me. You lost that right years ago, Yue Qingyuan."
Yue Qingyuan crumpled, tears streaming down his face.
"I came for you," he said. "As soon as I could, I came for you, but the house had burned down, and the ashes were long cold."
Shen Qingqiu stared at him, and felt his expression go glacial.
"Then you were too late," he said. "Perhaps you should have acted with more haste."
That seemed to shock Yue Qingyuan out of his misery. He shook his head, and sat up, putting one hand on the pommel of Xuan Su.
"How many times have you seen me draw this sword?" he asked.
Shen Qingqiu blinked. He had no patience for diversions, for distractions.
"Twice," he said, tone icy. "What does that have to do with anything."
Yue Qingyuan took a breath.
"I can't draw it," he said. "Or. I can. But — I formed a poor base, when I first joined the sect. I was in such a hurry to get back, to make progress, to be allowed to go back for you. So I chose this sword, and it overpowered me, and it sent me into a qi deviation. My shizun shut me in the Ling Xi caves in the hopes the abundance of spiritual energy would save my life." He swallowed. "When I came out, they said it had been years. I was too impatient, and it cost me years, and when I got out, I went to the Qiu estate, and I was too late. I thought I had failed you, A-Jiu."
Shen Qingqiu stared at him. He had been to the Ling Xi caves, had seen the blood soaking the stone, the cuts in the walls, evidence of a desperate attempt to escape. Words failed him, and Yue Qingyuan kept talking. His tone was even, calm, as if he weren't upending Shen Qingqiu's entire world with his confession.
"My life is tied to the sword," he said. "I've drawn it twice, once during the ceremony of office, and once to seal Tianlang-Jun. Drawing it dissipates my life." He shrugged. "That was why Mu-shidi wouldn't let me have it as a child."
Shen Qingqiu put all of that aside, a problem for later, mind whirring with just one question.
"You," he paused. It hurt to ask, it would hurt to know — but it hurt so much not to know. He forced himself to continue. "You came for me.”
His voice was a bare whisper. It sounded like he was a small, scared child again, like he was asking his Qi-ge for reassurance in the dark. He frowned, and closed his eyes against the anticipated hurt.
"Of course I came for you," Yue Qingyuan said. He sounded wrecked, wretched. "You thought I broke my promise. You thought I — what — ascended to the Peak and shook off our childhood and was ashamed of you?"
He sounded like he was still crying. Shen Qingqiu opened his eyes to see that he was correct. Tears rolled down Yue Qingyuan's cheeks. He was appallingly handsome even while he was weeping.
Shen Qingqiu nodded.
"Of course," he said. "You were the long-lost child of a noble house, and a cultivator of a major sect. I'm an orphaned murderous ex-slave who killed his first shizun. Why on earth would you allow yourself to be tied to me?"
There was no reason to admit to their past, to their shared history, no advantage to be gained, and so much to be lost. Shen Qingqiu had thought it over, gone through the details time and again, and found nothing but this answer: Yue Qingyuan was ashamed of him, was afraid of blackmail. Surely it was not unreasonable to expect blackmail of someone you had witnessed kill his own master, someone with no family or lineage to tie them to propriety. What did it matter they had grown up together, had shared food, had starved and shivered beside one another? That had been a different life, and Shen Qingqiu had shown up and shoved Yue Qingyuan's face into his worst memories, just by existing. It was a wonder he tolerated Shen Qingqiu as well as he did.
Yue Qingyuan just stared at him.
"You—" he said. "How could I forget you? How could I let you go? You fed me when I was starving and cared for me when I was sick, and lied to me about your legs being broken to make me leave for a better life when you could have held me back. You're my A-Jiu."
His voice broke, and he wrapped his arms around himself, the gesture devoid of grace, of courtesy, of any of the training and poise that Yue Qingyuan exuded so effortlessly. It was the pose of a skinny child who expected no comfort, and clutched at himself to make the pain feel less.
It was a gesture that was only and always his Qi-ge, fine robes be damned, and Shen Qingqiu couldn't stand seeing it. He stood, and swept across the short distance between them, robes swishing with the speed of his movement.
"You idiot," he said, and pulled Qi-ge into his arms as he had just a week ago, holding him close.
It was awkward: Yue Qingyuan was taller than he was, and didn't seem to know how to be held any more than Shen Qingqiu knew how to do the holding.
"You idiot," he repeated. "You should have told me. Qi-ge. You should have told me."
Yue Qingyuan clutched at the front of his robes and wept.
They sat on the floor, clutching at each other, for an indeterminate amount of time, and separated only when Shen Qingqiu heard footsteps.
Luo Binghe paused when he stepped into the hut. Then he smiled at Yue Qingyuan, recognition lighting up his eyes.
"You're late," he said. "Shizun missed you. I'm making dinner, so don't go anywhere, I want to show you my meditation. The book shizun gave you is so much better, you were right about that."
Yue Qingyuan laughed, just a little bit, before standing and attempting to smooth out his robes.
"He's very perceptive," he said, and looked at Shen Qingqiu. The steel was back in his eyes, Qi-ge again, and not the guilty, secretive Sect Leader of the past years. "Will I have to keep my promise to him?"
They both knew what he was asking: Yue Qingyuan had looked away time and again as Shen Qingqiu had mistreated the boy.
"Binghe has been learning faster," Shen Qingqiu allowed. "I suppose he can stay in the extra room until I'm sure the other boys won't bully him too badly."
Yue Qingyuan smiled, and Shen Qingqiu gave him a small, tentative smile back.
He could already feel his mind turning over the questions, the details, the people he would need to interrogate, the interactions he would need to re-assess. This didn't solve everything: it couldn't. Shen Qingqiu was still an orphaned ex-slave with a poor cultivation base and blood on his hands, no matter that he was also a Peak Lord.
He reached out a hand, asking for help he didn't need to rise to his feet. All of that didn't have to matter. Not right now.
His Qi-ge had come back for him, after all.