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Humans, Demons, And Everything In Between

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"Garbage." Shen Jiu tears the paper in two, then four, then eight pieces. Useless. As always, a piece of filth like him would only be able to make more filth, he doesn't know why he even bothers sometimes. 

"Hey, I was reading that!" he hears someone say and instinctively throws a punch at the person behind him. 

The stranger ducks, then lunges towards him. Shen Jiu rushes to unsheathe his sword, his hand barely touches the hilt when the person jumps backwards. 

A young man stands some distance away. His black robe is plain, but clearly made of good silk, and his hair, although filled with knots, is decorated by a fancy looking headpiece. Shen Jiu only realizes what happened when the man holds up the pieces of torn paper, put together again. 

"You shouldn't throw this away, the story was just getting to the good part!" 

Shen Jiu clenches his fists and bites his lower lip. He knows his face's turned red, both from rage and shame. 

How dare this fucking asshole to make fun of him like this?! He knows he has no talent! That's why he only attempts to write or draw during the few moments he has when Wu Yanzi isn't around, far away from their camp, and then destroys whatever he clumsily made long before his master returns. 

The guy makes a show of carefully reading the collected paper and Shen Jiu can't stand this disrespect any longer, "What the fuck is wrong with you?!" he yells as he grabs his sword and attacks. 

Instead of being cut in half, like Shen Jiu wants to, the stranger takes a step to the left and easily dodges right before the sword connects. He tries once more and his attack is, again, easily avoided. 

This keeps on for a while, Shen Jiu's movements becoming more erratic and desperate as the stranger, (all the while reading from the papers), effortlessly sidesteps his attempts at killing him, until soon enough Shen Jiu just throws the weapon aside and tries to grab him, kick him, bite him. This proves to be about as effective as slashing with the sword, and eventually he's left down on one knee, sweating and gasping for breath, while the guy stands there, perfectly rested and pristine. 

"Yes, indeed, this is very good," the guy nods, flicking the torn sheets, and then has the fucking courage to lean down and tuck the papers insiste Shen Jiu's robe. He tries to bite him, but the stranger retrieves his hand in time to avoid it, "you should keep writing it, I would love to read the continuation! Who knows? You could even end becoming a famous author!" 

"Fuck off!" 

The man leaves after mocking him a bit more, and Shen Jiu hurries to collect his things after regaining his breath. The ink bottle was spilled at some point during the confrontation, but he manages to rescue about half of its contents. Some of the clean paper got wrinkled, but that's hardly a problem. 

Back at the campsite, he gets to work washing dirty clothes and boiling some meat. Yesterday his master said he was leaving him to attend some urgent business, which means the fucker went to a brothel, which means he will be gone for anything between two days and a week. 

Shen Jiu eats an unappetizing meal and reads from the pile of trash books they weren't able to sell after stealing them, and only when he takes off his outer robe to go to sleep and the pieces of paper fall off does he remember the stranger's mockery. 

"Talent my ass!" he swears, the humiliation from earlier coming back to the forefront of his mind. He grabs the pieces of paper, rips them apart into pieces about the size of a nail, and then stuffs his mouth with them just so he can spit them and step on them. That fucking asshole, "I'm  definitely going to kill him if I am to ever see him again!"

 


 

Despite having cursed him and sworn revenge, Shen Jiu forgets the man pretty easily. There are too many imbeciles in the world and he has no time nor energy to waste thinking about unimportant people. He doesn't spare a single thought towards him until around four months after, when destiny joins them once more. 

Wu Yanzi sets his eyes on two lone travelers on the road that goes through the mountains, a man on black robes accompanied by a child around She Jiu's age, and it's only as they're approaching from the forest, close enough to see their faces, that Shen Jiu remembers him. 

The recognition makes him slower by half a second, but half a second is all it takes. Wu Yanzi moves first, his sword aimed at the man in black, and half a second later he's lying in a pool of his own blood, his limbs torn apart and half of his head just gone. Over him stands the kid, holding the missing other half, his hands covered on green scales. 

The demons, because that's what they have to be, turn their gaze towards Shen Jiu, still hiding in the foliage. He turns to run, but before he can escape he's dragged by the back of the neck, thrown next to Wu Yanzi's corpse. 

"Oh, it's you!" the man exclaims, retiring the clawed hand he just had pressed against Shen Jiu's neck, "Have you advanced on your story?"

Too stunned to think of doing anything else, he answers honestly, "...I scraped it and started another one instead." 

"Huh, a pity, I liked that one," he says, looking genuinely sad, "Oh well, good luck with this one!, Zhuzhi, let's go!" 

With that both of them just… walk away, uncaring of Shen Jiu nor the corpse that used to be his master. 

.

.

What a fucking piece of shit!

"You two, where do you think you're going?!" he exclaims, before he can think better of it, "You just killed my fucking teacher! How am I supposed to learn cultivation now?!" 

The man stops, turns towards him, looks at Shen Jiu, then the corpse, then back at him, "How long has he been teaching you?"

"About seven months."

"Then clearly he wasn't a good teacher, hardly any loss," with that casual insult against his cultivation, the man turns around and resumes walking.

Oh, he's going to fucking kill this person if that's the last thing he gets to do. "Wait!" he hurries forward, moving to stand on the demons' path "You attacked and killed my master! You have to compensate me for it!"

"It seemed like he was the one attacking us," the demon answers, walking around him, "besides, it wasn't me who killed him but my nephew." 

"If he's your nephew it's still your responsibility, and he killed him as soon as he left the trees, you can't prove he was going to attack you," Shen Jiu argues, "He might as well have been trying to say hello!"

"Really? Humans really have the weirdest ways to greet each other," the demon comments, clearly not buying it.

"Whatever, you have to compensate me somehow. If not for my shit master at least for my robes!" he gestures at his clothes, drenched in blood from when he was thrown to the gory mess that was once Wu Yanzi, "this is going to leave a hell of a stain, you have to pay for a new set!" 

The demon looks at the red splotches, then tilts his head from side to side, considering, "Do we have any money left, anything at all?" he asks the younger demon. 

"I- I d- don't think so, Junshang." 

Shen Jiu feels his eye twitch. Of course, of course his scum of a teacher would manage to get gutted by such a worthless pair of demons they don't even have cash. Of course. 

"Well, you have to compensate me somehow!" he insists, because so far it doesn't seem like they have any interest in killing him and that just means he has to take the chance to get something out of this, "You can't just kill my teacher, ruin my clothes, and then go away without even paying for it!" 

The demon blinks, then smiles. "Oh, you're an amusing person," he says, sounding oh so fucking full of himself, "Very well, since we killed your teacher I'll teach you how to cultivate!"

"J- Junshang?!" 

"I refuse."

"Eh, really?!" the demon gapes at him, "I'm actually offering to teach you! Me, a heavenly demon! Do you know how rare of a chance that is?!"

"Heavenly demon my ass, you're annoying so no thanks, just pay me up and we're done."

"Junshang i- isn't annoying," the kid demon mutters, they ignore him. 

"Are you sure? You would really flourish under my tutelage!"

"Do you even know about human cultivation? Demons' and humans' power don't work the same." 

"You'll come to learn I'm very knowledgeable," he brushes the concern off, "Let me teach you, I promise you'll learn more in one week than you have with that useless teacher in months!"

Shen Jiu has half a mind to keep rejecting the offer. After all, he's always been very prideful for someone with no pride, lowering the head and learning from this person that's humiliated him time and time again, it sounds like the ultimate defeat to his ego. Not to mention, who would trust such a suspicious looking man?

On the other hand, he can't think just of himself. He must become powerful, twice as powerful as the average cultivator at the very least, to make up for Qi-ge's lost potential. It's not only his own wishes he's carrying here. He knows he won't get far by himself, and he doubts there's any sect that would take in a piece of shit like him, not if they didn't even give someone as great as his brother a chance. 

So… better to risk it with this demon, than to set course for a sure defeat. He can't be worse than Wu Yanzi anyway, so really what is there to lose?

"Fine, but if I change my mind at any point I will just leave."

"Ju- Junshang, a- are, are you sure it's a g- good idea?" 

"You won't regret it!" the demon, again, ignores the kid, "Ah, but in exchange for my lessons I have one condition!"

"Aren't you the one repaying me?! Are you really in a position to demand anything in exchange?!" he scowls, "Fine, whatever, let's hear it out, what do you want?" 

"You have to let me read your writing!" 

"LIKE HELL I WILL!" 

Chapter Text

He hates admitting it. Shen Jiu really, really hates admitting it, but his new demon teacher, "Tianlang-Jun" he said he was called, is… actually quite a good teacher.

Well, no. He is not a good teacher, not by any stretch of the word, he doesn't know how to explain even the simplest of concepts and his approach to teaching things is "I showed this to you that one time so, just do it!" and "Do you really not know about it?! Zhuzhi, Zhuzhi can you believe it?! He doesn't know about it!" and "This is getting boring, let's do something else!" 

But, Shen Jiu is used to bad teachers, he has a lifetime of experience on how to extract information from a bad explanation, how to learn from seeing how to do something just once. As long as the person he's learning from actually knows some shit, he knows how to dig that information out of them no matter how much of a bad teacher they actually are.

Tianlang is a bad teacher, but he does know quite a lot, and that's enough for Shen Jiu to progress in big strides with just a couple of weeks learning from the man. He truly hates admitting it, but the demon was right, he's truly improved more in his cultivation in this short time than in the entirety of his stay with Wu Yanzi. 

He's fucking annoying though.

"Oh, we're writing poetry now?" 

"Fucking stop that!" With a flick of his wrist, Shen Jiu activates the seal he's become accustomed to draw on the underside of the paper anytime he's going to write or draw anything, and the sheet promptly turns to ashes. 

"That's mean, Jiu'er." Tianlang pouts, actually pouts.

"Are you five years old?!" he unsheathes his sword and lunges against the man. 

Tianlang, as usual, sidesteps his attacks with ease, now and then commenting "Pay more attention to where your feet are or you'll trip," or "You're too tense, you're going to break something like that," Shen Jiu works very hard and does his best, but it still ends as it always does, with him sprawled on the floor struggling to catch his breath and Tianlang standing over him, an infuriating smile on his face. 

"That was much better than last time!" 

"I fucking hate you."

"You wound my heart!" he cheerfully says, "Anyway, take a bath and change your clothes, the next city is only two hours of travel away."

"We are entering the city?" he grunts as he tries to sit up. It's harder than it looks, his whole body aches, "We still got enough provisions for another month."

"Is that really the only reason you can think of for approaching a city? How sad." 

"Shouldn't demons try to stay away from urban areas?" The city he's talking about isn't a small one either, they might even find cultivators if they're unlucky enough, and Shen Jiu is only talented at being unlucky so it might as well happen, "Humans don't appreciate when demons wander into their territory."

"I wouldn't be in the human realm if I was scared of humans realizing what I am!" Tianlang laughs, "But don't worry, our disguises are perfect!" 

Shen Jiu eyes the over the top young man with expensive looking accessories, yet unkempt appearance, who would stick like a sore thumb wherever you place him, and the kid with fangs too long for a human who's sitting nearby, eating raw meat. 

"If you get killed I'm going to say you had me as a hostage." 

"Seems fair, I'm not going to be killed by any human though." 

"Whatever," Shen Jiu rolls his eyes and finishes pushing himself to stand up, "Let's just make sure we arrive before nightfall." 

 


 

Surprisingly, the guards at the city wall have no problem letting a weird ass man accompanied by two weird ass kids inside. Once they've passed the gates Tianlang even dares give him this stupid I-told-you-so grin. He tries to punch him, but he just evades it as usual. Moron.

From the door onward they've barely passed four buildings when suddenly Tianlang turns to the left and Zhuzhi to the right, and they keep walking without acknowledging that. 

"Where are you going, exactly?" Shen Jiu asks, standing in the middle where they separated.

"I'm going to look for libraries and bookstores," Tianlang says.

"U- usually I g- gain us money, d- during the first day staying in a city." 

"Ah, I see," he sighs, "I'll go with Zhuzhi then. Bye, Tianlang.' 

"Take good care of my nephew!" the man exclaims, as he retakes walking who knows where. Asshole.

"Yes, yes, whatever." 

 


 

He follows Zhuzhi as the demon finds a busy enough street and sits down. 

'Begging, huh?' Shen Jiu would be lying if he said he never had to beg while with Wu Yanzi, so he gets it, one does what one must.

Personally he doesn't like it, worthless pride aside, he's just not good at it, his complexion is just too pointy and his eyes too sharp to create pity, he lost the ability to give a proper spectacle years ago. Even as children, it was usually Qi-ge who would cry and beg, while Shen Jiu lied down pretending to be the poor sick little brother he needed to buy medicine for. 

He supposes Zhuzhi can do a good job at begging, his face is more rounded, his eyes are big and tilted in a way that makes him always look a little bit sad, even as his mouth permanently curves at the ends as if he's holding back a smile. With some tears and a soft "please great masters, could you spare some coin for this lowly one?" he can probably make good cash. 

Instead of starting crying, Zhuzhi digs into his sleeves and pulls out a small ceramic bowl and a dizi. 

'Oh, so a street act' Shen Jiu also has experience with that, while he was with Wu Yanzi he would sometimes juggle knives, it would bring him more money than crying by himself, but less than begging with Qi-ge ever did. 

Zhuzhi surprises him again when from the same sleeve he got the flute from comes crawling a fucking snake. It's not a harmless one either, it's one of these very, very venomous ones that even Wu Yanzi wouldn't fuck with. 

Shen Jiu takes three steps back. 

"Ah, d- don't worry, it won't bite you," Zhuzhi says, noticing Shen Jiu's obvious discomfort with the animal. He waits for him to get closer again, and when it becomes obvious Shen Jiu isn't going to retake those three steps between them he just brings the dizi to his mouth and begins to play. 

As it turns out, it is a street act, just not what he originally expected. While Zhuzhi plays well enough, the music is clearly secondary to the snake raising its head and almost dancing to the song. Soon enough, people start throwing coins into the bowl. 

Once he's pretty, pretty sure the snake isn't going to bite him, Shen Jiu retakes the three steps and peers at the money. There's twice the coins a usual street performance would make. So, still not a lot. 

"Do you need the flute to control it?" he asks, kneeling next to the demon, the kid stops playing and shakes his head. 

"Do you have more snakes?" Zhuzhi nods.

"I'll teach you how to pickpocket the normal way and then we'll see if your snakes can do it too." 

 


 

Zhuzhi's snakes can, in fact, pickpocket. They can pickpocket very, very well. They crawl under people's robes, move through their clothes without being noticed, crawling out again with strings of coins between their jaws. Zhuzhi can control up to twenty different snakes on a distance of almost half the city's radius, and after moving their operation to one of the richer neighborhoods She Jiu can confidently say this has been the most lucrative day of his entire life. 

Fuck fake crying and spinning heartbreaking tales, fuck ambushing merchants in the mountains, fuck juggling! Pickpocketing snakes is where it's at! 

They rejoin Tianlang when the sun is just starting to set, not on purpose. They're systematically making their way through the wealthy parts of the city, and just so happen to walk in front of a small, expensive looking bookstore at the same time the man is being thrown out. 

"Oh, Zhuzhi! Jiu'er!" he exclaims, running towards them as soon as he spots them, "You're right on time! There's this great book I really really want to read but the owner wouldn't let me without buying it first!" 

Unthinking, Zhuzhi reaches for the bag where they've been keeping their hard earned money, Shen Jiu slaps it from his hands before he can hand it over to Tianlang.

"Jiu'er?"

"S-Shen Jiu?"

Without saying a word, Shen Jiu walks towards a nearby restaurant, one of those with some tables outside, then empties the contents of the bag on one of said tables. 

"This," he says, as he separates the pile of coins on roughly two equal parts, "is our budget for food, accommodations and travel supplies. This," he says, separating the other part into two big piles and a small one, he holds the small amount in Tianlang's direction, "is for you to spend on petty stuff." 

The demon wastes no time on receiving his money, grinning from ear to ear, "You made quite a lot more than usual, huh? This should be enough for the book I want!" 

"W-what a- are the other two parts?"

"This is my salary," he answers, pocketing one of the piles of coins left, then slides the other one towards Zhuzhi, "this is yours." 

"W-what?" he gasps, "n-no, I- I would rather Junshang-" it seems like he's going to push the money towards Tianlang, so Shen Jiu snatched it away.

"He should already have enough for his petty spending, if you don't want the money I'll keep it, since at least I did some of the work." 

"B-but.."

Tianlang looks between the two of them, looking amused. It makes Shen Jiu want to strangle him, "Take the money, Zhuzhi," he tells his nephew, then, on a loud, fake whisper, "You'll just have to give it to me when Jiu'er isn't looking!"

"He won't give you any!" he scolds, even though Shen Jiu knows the kid will, in fact, hand the coins over as soon as the man asks. He turns towards the demon kid in question, "Don't you dare give him any!" he tells him as he gives him his part of the money, his face very serious and his voice harsh. It's a useless warning, but still. 

Tianlang pats their heads, Shen Jiu tries to bite him, he fails. 

The man re-enters the bookstore he was just thrown out of, this time with Zhuzhi following him, and when they don't come back out Shen Jiu decides it falls on him to find an inn. 

Chapter Text

Shen Jiu is very talented. In just the three months they've traveled together he's gone from the beginnings of an unsteady, dangerously shaky foundation, to being well in the way of a firm and well established one. 

Not only is he well suited for cultivation, he's also started to fight properly, his rough just-swing-the-weapon-around style slowly getting replaced by proper technique. It's in its infancy: He'll still grow frustrated and throw the sword away in order to rely on his fists, and hasn't stopped trying to bite him in the middle of sparing like a wild animal either, but Tianlang-jun can see the seedlings of a more refined swordplay. 

And of course, there's also the talent with the arts that caught Tianlang-jun's attention in the first place. The kid still won't show him whatever art he makes, but from the sneak peaks he's been able to steal he can tell Shen Jiu would make a great scholar. 

It's not so much that his work is high quality, it certainly isn't, as amusing as his stories are, it's still the writings of a uneducated child (Not that Tianlang-jun personally cares about quality, as long as a story is sentimental he'll gladly devour it, but that doesn't mean he isn't able to tell.) But rather, Shen Jiu actively tries to improve, spending part of his own money on more well regarded books than the ones Tianlang-jun prefers, and quickly reading them front to back at least twice each. Recently he seems to have found a specific author he really likes, and has started to copy that style with his latest works. 

He keeps working on his painting too, it's not too odd to find him covered in graphite up to the elbows, trying to capture some shape that caught his eyes, or staring at a painting hung in an inn for hours, trying to figure out how to recreate this or that. One time during their travels they found an expert painter, sitting on a mountain, trying to capture the clearing below, and after the man gave him permission to observe the kid refused to move until the thing was done, eyes stuck to the canvas, taking in each and every movement of the brush. The painting took a whole week. 

It might be that Shen Jiu is just good at learning in general. The kid might complain and grumble all he wants, but it's clear he actually pays attention to what Tianlang-jun teaches, and then goes out of his way to study by himself for good measure.

In that regard Shen Jiu is exactly the same as a wild weed, he just needs enough room to grow and he'll build himself up from there. It makes Tianlang-jun wonder just how bad of an instructor his previous teacher was, for him to have such little, mostly detrimental progress with this low maintenance student. 

At the end of the day, Tianlang-jun can't help but to like strong spirited people, and as much as the kid drags them wherever he wants, yells about anything and has a horrible temper, he just can't regret having taken him on a whim. 

One day, watching the kid struggle with this or that, Tianlang-jun suddenly gets this idea to imitate one of these grand gestures the good teachers in his favorite stories would sometimes come up with, because wouldn't it be great and heroic and all the things he loves about these tales? The romantic ideal of the good hearted shizun nurturing the young and all that.

"We're going to get you a spiritual sword." 

Shen Jiu stares. Really, would it be too much to ask for him to at least look a little excited at the prospect of such a generous gift? "I haven't even reached core formation yet." 

"Details," he brushes it off, "If I say you're ready then you're ready, don't question me." 

"Right…" the kid drawls, looking utterly unimpressed. Tianlang-jun sighs, why can't this prickly disciple of him let him live one of his fantastic ideals at least once? For someone so adept at reading Shen Jiu doesn't seem to share Tianlang-jun's sense of wonder at all! "And where are we going to get this sword from, exactly?"

"I'm glad you asked!" 

 


 

"The creation of spiritual weapons is beautifully difficult in its simplicity. A weapon made with a metal of enough purity, crafted by a skilled enough artisan, set to receive high amounts of qi for something between one hundred and one thousand years, with enough luck will develop its own spirit and become a spiritual weapon. 

"For demons, that usually means finding a good quality weapon and then creating the spirit themselves, either providing it with their own energy or meditating in a spiritual place for the number of years it takes. 

"Humans don't have naturally long lifespans, and their collaborative nature means they can afford to be impatient. As such, the human realm has several spiritually charged places where people from the past have left swords to gain their own life and await to serve future generations, some owned by certain sects, some not. 

"The will necessary to leave something that will serve others long after you're gone, the effort it must have taken to set such places, the mere thought someone decided to think of helping perfect strangers who haven't even been born yet! That you likely won't get to see! 

"And the nonchalance with which current cultivators regard the existence of such places!! 

"Ah, humans really are amazing. So small and ignorant, weak and fleeting, and yet they're able to get together, think of a future without themselves in it, and build things bigger than a single one of them could have built-"

"Stop mumbling and get to the point!"

"I'm not mumbling, I'm complimenting your entire species, brat!"

"Yeah yeah yeah," the kid rolls his eyes, "So, I'm assuming we're going to one of those places where people left weapons?" 

"Correct! Oh, I can see the entrance from here!" Tianlang-jun rushes forward, Shen Jiu and Zhuzhi-lang close behind him. Making their way through an overgrown forest, far away from the main path, they eventually reach a place where the mountain's side cracks, giving away to a narrow entrance to the grotto. 

"Behold! The I-don't-remember-what temple!" he opens his arms to gesture towards the location.

"That's a cave, not a temple," Shen Jiu points out with his usual unimpressed attitude. 

"The temple is built inside the cave," he explains, "There you'll find thousands of swords to choose from!" 

"Is this really an important place?" the kid wonders, walking to look inside the entrance, "it's filled with cobwebs, there are no signs, and there wasn't any path leading towards it either, are you sure you didn't just lead us nowhere?" 

"Didn't you hear my explanation?" he shrugs, "There are hundreds of places like this, all of them created centuries if not millennia in the past, of course some of them would be forgotten." 

Shen Jiu raises an eyebrow and Tianlang-jun has to shake his head at the scepticism conveyed in that single look, seriously, such lack of fate on this poor teacher. 

"I'm serious! You just have to enter, claim a sword, and get out with a powerful spiritual weapon! We'll wait here for you."

"You aren't coming with me?!" the kid retorts, taking a step away from the cave.

"The sword has to accept you as its master for you to take it," he explains, "it won't work if other people go with you, no weapon will accept that," 

"You're not filling me with confidence."

"Oh, don't worry so much!" he insists, "I wouldn't tell you to do this if I didn't think you're ready!"

Shen Jiu takes one step forward, then two steps back. "Will it be dangerous?"

"Since you're claiming a sword left here by someone else it might want to test you," he says, "but don't worry, it will be purely mental, maybe it'll show you a small illusion or two, just ignore whatever it shows you, as long as you're determined and remember why you're here you won't have any problem!" 

"Oh, great, so nothing to worry about," Shen Jiu deadpans, Tianlang-jun nods. 

"That's the spirit!" 

She Jiu stares at him, looks at the cave, stares at Tianlang-jun again.

"Will I be powerful?" he asks, "With one of the weapons in there?"

"At least twice as powerful as the average cultivator. I picked this place because the weapons here are especially strong." 

That seems to be what decides it. Shen Jiu takes a deep breath, squares his shoulders, and marches in. 

"I know you can do it!" he exclaims, as the kid disappears inside the mountain, then sits down to wait.

"Ju- Junshang," Zhuzhi-Lang mutters, sitting next to him when Tianlang-jun gestures to join him, "i- is h- he really going to be alright?"

"Don't worry, don't worry!" he reassures. 

It's odd for his nephew to express worry about other people, but the kids have been doing chores together, and Shen Jiu always accompanies Zhuzhi-Lang when they have to split their little party, supposedly so he isn't stuck with Tianlang-jun instead. Maybe he's finally warming up to humans? That would be nice, more people should appreciate human culture! 

"I- if Junshang says so," the kid says, "i-it's j-just, his cu-cultivation isn't very high,"

"A high cultivation might help with claiming his sword, but at the end of the day everything relies on having a strong spirit," he explains, "Don't you know Jiu'er? That kid's determined to his core! We should only have to wait two hours top, and he'll come dragging along a powerful sword! You'll see!"

Zhuzhi-Lang nods, seemingly satisfied, and doesn't say anything else, just sits and waits.

Because his nephew gives great reactions when embarrassed, and because he's come to offer his hand in marriage as a way of teasing him, he adds, "Don't worry Zhuzhi, your future husband will be alright!"

"W-wha-! J- J- Jun- Junshang! P-please d-d-d-don't joke with that!" 

Zhuzhi-Lang's face gets all red, like anytime Tianlang-jun's joked like this, and he ends laughing for a good five minutes at his nephew's embarrassment. 

After that's passed, they just sit and wait. Tianlang-jun gets comfortable lying on the floor, watching the clouds pass and listening to nature and the like, and waits.

And waits.

And waits.

And waits.

And waits.

And waits.

And waits.

And waits.

And waits.

And waits.





































"J- Junshang, it- it's been two weeks."

"Ahhh… I fucked up." 



Chapter Text

The I-don't-remember-what temple is, surprisingly, a temple. 

Soon after entering, just as the light coming from the entrance stops reaching the interior, the rocks start to glow on brilliant, colorful patterns. Shen Jiu holds up his hand, and takes a moment to observe how it's dyed by the colorful mosaic-like lights that surround him, before moving on. Soon after, the uneven walls and floors of the cave turn into smooth stone, and soon after that, the path gives way to a man-made, black staircase that sinks into the depths of the earth, from which comes a cold breeze. 

Shen Jiu breathes, closes his fists, and goes down. 

The stairs go down and down and down, and just when Shen Jiu is starting to grow worried they will never end, he reaches the bottom. 

From the stairs follows a door, a short one, to the point Shen Jiu has to double down not to hit his head. And at the other side the cave opens to a huge circular space. 

In the center of the room rises a giant statue of a woman. The statue glows red, except for the contents of the basket it's carrying, which is filled by a pile of rocks, each glowing with a different color. Surrounding the statue are smaller figures, carved from shiny blue stones, of people on their knees, their faces looking up towards the woman. 

The patterns of light, that looked so random and natural upstairs, take a different configuration in this space. Greens and yellows, oranges and pinks, blue, green, and all other colors combine into intricate designs that loop and repeat themselves on the walls and ceilings. The only thing that doesn't expel light is the floor, the same black material as the stairs, and, of course, Shen Jiu. 

There are doors cut around the room, leading to other pathways. Confident he'll remember the way back, Shen Jiu picks one at random and keeps walking. 

The path he picks starts as a narrow, short hallway, but it soon turns into a huge, empty space, bigger than the one with the statue. The pathway continues, now turning into a bridge that goes through this void. Shen Jiu takes a peek at the fall and can't see the bottom, bright shiny walls keep sinking into the earth until disappearing into the darkness. Something catches his eyes, and he looks up. 

The ceiling of this space, the height of five people stacked together, is filled with swords, the blades embedded on the rock, so closely packed he can't see what color it is. 

There's no way he can reach them, so he keeps walking. Soon enough, he reaches the other side of the… hole. There, stuck to the wall, is a ladder, same black material as the bridge. 

The thing to do is obvious. He climbs. 

Once at the top, he grabs a sword and random and pulls, it slides off much, much easier than he expected, and in his surprise he drops it. 

The sword falls to the void below, never to be seen again, alongside with… was that a skull, embedded on its blade? 

Shen Jiu looks back up, really looks this time. It's hard to make out, with how close the swords are to each other, but now that he's properly looking… There are skeletons. There are hundreds and hundreds of human skeletons pinned to the ceiling by the blades.

"I'm going to get sick…" he mutters. It's not like he's never seen death and rot, but this… this is just creepy. 

Whatever. He reaches for another one, his grip more secure this time. It comes off with a femur stuck on it, Shen Jiu waves the blade until the bone slides off. 

It's not a bad sword, it has a wooden handle, without any decoration on it, and the blade is sleek and long. He can feel how it hums against his skin, thrumming with power.

"With this I will be-"

"Xiao Jiu?"

.

.


















Slowly. 

Slowly. 

Shen Jiu looks up. 

On the space cleared up after retiring the sword, a face. A person, pinned to the ceiling by the blades.

"Qi… ge?" 

"Ah, it's really Xiao Jiu." Qi-ge says, smiling that sad smile he wore so often, "Xiao Jiu, I'm sorry. I wanted to be powerful to save you, but instead I ended up like this." 

He extends his hand to touch that face, that stupid, naive face he sees anytime he goes to sleep "Qi-"

His fingers make contact with a skull.




"A small illusion," he remembers Tianlang's words, "just a small illusion." 

He blinks. Once, twice, thrice. He won't cry, he refuses to. He blinks hard to keep the tears at bay, and once his vision stops being blurry begins his descent, the hilt of the sword firmly held in his mouth. 

He starts making his way through the bridge, not looking anywhere but forward-

"Xiao Jiu, I'll come back for you."

Qi-ge is dangling from the bridge, holding himself with only one hand. As soon as Shen Jiu lays eyes on him, he lets go. His body sparkles with the light coming from the walls as his silhouette becomes smaller, smaller, and disappears. 

 

"A small illusion or two." 

 

He walks. The bridge gives way to a narrow pathway with low ceilings, much longer that he remembers it being. 

Something small passes beside him, he doesn't look. 

Another thing runs past him. Another, another. He hears laughter. 

Something pulls from his robes. He makes a mistake. He looks down. 

"A-Jiu, let's go play?" His fiance smiles at him, naive, small, and without a care in the world, as she always did. 

Another pull of his robes, another Qiu Haitang clings to him. "Today you're so clingy, A-Jiu, you want a hug?" 

The laughter becomes louder. More Qiu Haitangs surround him.

"I saved you some dessert!" "Good morning!" "Let's go shopping, A-Jiu!" "Do you think this dress suits me?" "A-Jiu! Let's play! You're it!" "Good night!" "How unfair, I can never beat you at this, A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu, come look at this!" "Hey, hey, A-Jiu, tell me a bedtime story!" "A-Jiu, you should smile more!" "What is wrong? Why are you crying? Does your stomach hurt?" "A-Jiu! A-Jiu! Hurry up!" "A-Jiu, brush my hair!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!" "A-Jiu!"

"SHUT UP!" 

Once his clothes are completely covered with little hands, and he can't move forward anymore, he swings the sword. 

Warm blood splashes his face. One Qiu Haitang falls to the floor, legs and hips separated from each other. The other children run away, crying and screaming. 

"How could you?!" "Murderer!" "My family!" "How could you?!" "I loved you!" "How could you?!" they say, running far, far away from him. 

He stares at the body. 

"Just an illusion," he reminds himself. 

He stares. 

The blood spreads on the floor, it permeates the inside of his shoes, then stops pooling, and grows cold. 

"Just an illusion." 

He pushes the body away with his foot, it feels solid. He keeps walking. 

His feet feel sticky. He drags a hand against his face, when he looks at it it comes off bloodied. 

He looks back. The body is still there.

"It's just an illusion," he reminds himself, and keeps walking. 

He reaches the room with the statue. The stairs are on the other side, he's almost done. 

The blue figures are now broken, and the woman's basket is now filled with children, all crying, screaming, begging. She reaches into it, and one by one picks them, and one by one brings them to her mouth. Their bones breaking as she chews sound like firecrackers and the blood oozing from her mouth mixes with the red light of her body. 

Shen Jiu walks. The kids cry. He walks. A kid calls for her mother. He walks. Firecrackers. He walks. The room is cold like winters on the street. He walks. His feet feel sticky. He walks. He feels hungry. He walks. There's blood on his hands. 

He reaches the stairs.

"Xiao Jiu!"

.

.

.

"It's an illusion," he reminds himself, and then turns around. 

The woman- no, now it's Qiu Jianluo. He holds Qi-ge between two fingers, dangling him on top of his face.

"It's just an illusion," he repeats, then readies his sword, and lunges against it.

The statue lets go of the basket, the kids fall to the floor and dissolve into light and loud sounds. It reaches with the hand that isn't holding Qi-ge, catches the sword between its thumb and middle finger, and the weapon snaps in two. 

 

"Ah." Shen Jiu really is an idiot. 

 

Qiu Jianluo picks him by the hem of his robes, holds him up. He reaches towards Qi-ge, Qi-ge reaches back. 

Qiu Jianluo let's go of Qi-ge, Shen Jiu watches as he disappears inside his mouth and becomes firecrackers and red light. 

Qiu Jianluo opens his mouth. 

Shen Jiu closes his eyes. The hand opens. 

He failed. 

 

Chapter Text

Shen Jiu wakes up to a pair of golden eyes staring at him. 

Zhuzhi gasps, turns towards something that isn't Shen Jiu, "Ju- Junshang, h- he woke up!"

Now he's greeted by brown eyes, "Oh, you're finally awake, Jiu'er!" Tianlang exclaims, "You worried us for a moment."

.

.

"You're the worst teacher I've ever had." he mutters, then tries to roll onto his side, but everything hurts.

"You shouldn't move yet," the worst teacher says, "you almost died, you know." 

He glares. Tianlang looks away, he actually looks away, it's the first time he's ever looked away from Shen Jiu's anger. 

Good.

"I admit, I may have miscalculated-"

"You MAY have miscalculated?!" he exclaims and immediately regrets it when his chest is hit by a painful pang. 

"D- don't ra- raise your voice," Zhuzhi says, "y- your ribs," 

"You broke three ribs and bruised the rest, Jiu'er," Tianlang says, "also broke an arm, hit your head badly and twisted an ankle, not to mention the dehydration and malnutrition. Oh, and you had a minor Qi deviation!" 

"And who's fault is that?" he wants to yell, but it has to come in almost a whisper so it doesn't hurt, "didn't you say nothing would touch me?" 

"And nothing did!"

"Explain the broken bones then." 

"Y-you hurt yourself."

"Eh?!" 

Zhuzhi rushes to hide behind Tianlang. "Um, w- when w-we found you, y-you were hitting yourself with a rock," 

Shen Jiu stares. Sighs. 

"...Yeah, that makes sense," 

Tianlang scoots closet, "Um, are you-?"

"I don't want to see you right now," he spits out, with as much venom as he can pour into it. 

"Alright, I'll be outside if you need me," Tianlang actually backs down and leaves the room. They're in a room, he's on a bed, now that he notices. Probably an inn. Hm.

"Ju- Junshang didn't mean-"

"I truly hate your stutter," he bites. Zhuzhi jolts, and shrinks.

"I- I- I'm sorry, I- I'll leave," 

Zhuzhi moves to leave. Shen Jiu grabs his arm, "Stay, just don't talk." 

Zhuzhi opens his mouth, closes it, opens it, closes it again, he sits next to the bed and nods. 

Shen Jiu stares at the ceiling. His eyes feel heavy.

Ah, this is bad. If he falls asleep he'll have a horrible nightmare. 

"Talk about something." 

"B- but y-y-you said,"

"I know what I said. Now I'm bored, entertain me."

"E-en-enterta-tain how?"

This kid really needs someone to hold his hand at all times, doesn't he? Ah, Shen Jiu really is stupid, he can't help but to like being around weak people. 

"Tell me what happened after I entered the cave." 

"A- af-after y- you le-e-eft-"

"Can you really not speak clearly? You're doing way worse than usual." 

Zhuzhi lowers his head,

"Are you crying? Are you going to cry? Don't, I don't need you crying on top of not knowing how to speak,"

Zhuzhi shrinks, his shoulders begin to shake, "I- I- I'm s-s-sss-zzzzzzzz" 

"Ah, you really piss me off, you can't even apologize properly, did you never learn how to sp-"

"W-w-wordzzzzzz are h-haaa-hard!" Zhuzhi raises his voice. He actually raises his voice, he even cut him off, holy shit. It's the opposite day today? Next thing he knows Tianlang will be responsible with money and Shen Jiu will be kind with children. "D-don't m-make me zzzzo ne-nervouzzzzzzzzzz, y-you only ma- make it worzzzzz- orzzzz- orse- wo-orse! Worse! You ooonly- You only make it worse!" 

"You really worked hard on that last sentence, didn't you? It only took you like ten tries this time, congratulations."

"Sh-zzzzshut up!"

Ah, Zhuzhi really did start crying. His shoulders hitch as tears run down his face and his lower lip wobbles. Shen Jiu was right, he would be good at begging, he looks pretty when he cries. At some point his tongue darts out and Zhuzhi rushes to cover his mouth with his hands, more tears fall.

Shen Jiu doesn't do nor says anything, just stares, and eventually the kid's able to calm himself down.

Shen Jiu really is the worst, "I think it'll be better if you leave." 

Zhuzhi stands up, starts moving towards the door, slows down, stops,

"What are you waiting for?"

Zhuzhi blushes, "Y-you k-keep changing your mind, so I th- thought," 

Shen Jiu can't help it, he starts to laugh. 

"Ah, d-don't laugh, your ribs!"

His ribs do hurt. It only makes him laugh harder, until eventually a particularly hard pang forces him to stop, and he starts coughing. Zhuzhi rushes to hand him a glass of water. It helps a little.

"A-are y-you ok?"

"I'm fine," he brushes his concern off, "you can stay if you want, it's not my fault if you start crying again though," 

Zhuzhi doesn't say anything, but he sits down again.

The silence is uncomfortable.

"I'm not going to apologize for what I said, your stutter is annoying." 

He just nods and takes it, what a useless person.

"You should speak,"

"B-but you said-"

"If someone tells you something you do is annoying, you should start annoying them on purpose, are you really your uncle's nephew?"

"W-what? b-but-"

"Ah, you really are pathetic, why do I even bother? You should just-"

Zhuzhi hits his forehead. Not hard, it's more a tap than a hit, but it shuts him up. 

"Y- you aren't making any s-s-senzzze today. It- it's confusing. I- I don't like it." 

"Hmm..." is he not making any sense? "I guess my head's still fuzzy from the I-don't-remember-what temple." 

"Y-you're usually kin-kinder." 

"Me? Now you're the one not making any sense, I'm not kind at all." 

"Y-you help me g-get money."

"It's my money too, of course I want us to get as much as we can."

"Y- you insist I ke-keep a part,"

"I just don't want it all going to Tianlang, and I don't want anyone to whine about injustice if I keep it all myself."

"Y-you, you help me do chores,"

"It's faster with two people, that way you also help me with mine." 

"I- I s-still… I still appreciate it." 

Shen Jiu blinks, "You warm up to people too easily, and are too easy to take advantage of." 

Zhuzhi lowers his head. "I- I'm not used t-to people being k-kind to me."

Ah...

Shen Jiu supposes he can relate. Didn't he hold onto Qi-ge for the same reason, even after all this time? Just like Zhuzhi holds to Tianlang, when warmth is hard to come by, if you happen to find a friendly hand you can't let it go no matter what. He gets it.

This stupid demon is actually going to make him feel feelings. Unbelievable. 

"Get out."

"Uh?"

"Get out, I want you to get out."

"A-are you sure?"

"I'm sure this time, get out, or I'll kick you out myself."

"O-ok." 

Zhuzhi stands up and goes to the door, watching Shen Jiu all the time, as if expecting he's just going to change his mind again.

He glares at him, and that's enough for Zhuzhi to quicken his pace. He leaves, and Shen Jiu is left alone, just as he wanted.

"Qi-ge…" he mutters. 

Heavens

When was the last time he felt lonely? 

No

More like, when was the last time he noticed he felt lonely?

"Qi-ge, are you watching me from heaven?" 

"I miss you."

"I'm sorry. You shouldn't have left to save me, at the end I can only ruin things." 

"Is your corpse unburied somewhere?" 

His breath hitches. How stupid. 

"I promise I'll find you and bury you." 

Shen Jiu closes his eyes, and dreams about a girl made an orphan and a teenager's corpse rotting on the street. 

 

 

Chapter Text

"Two hawberry and tangerine tanghulu please." Ah. He got it out in one try.

"There you go!" The seller hands him the sticks of candy and Zhuzhi-lang hands over a coin. 

"T-thank you." Oh...

As always, the first word is where he stumbles. That's fine. It's fine.

Back at the inn they're staying at, he finds Junshang camping outside Shen Jiu's room, a pile of books surrounding him.

"Ah, my dear nephew!" he calls, setting aside the novel he was currently reading. Zhuzhi-lang gets the feeling if it wasn't because the inn they choose is mostly empty, they would get kicked out for loitering in the hallway... wouldn't be the first time. 

"Junshang," he greets, and oh, that word came out right too. 

"Did you bring the peace offerings?" Zhuzhi-lang hands him the candy, "Excellent!" 

Then, armed with tanghulu and a charming smile, Junshang valiantly charges in. He comes back out almost immediately, still with the candy but having lost the smile.

“He wouldn’t even take it,” he recounts, “When has Jiu’er ever rejected food? I can’t believe this!”

“I’m… sure he will forgive you eventually.” He’s doing very well today! He almost stutters on the second word, but he was able to make a pause and go on, this is a very good day. 

“I know, I know,” Junshang sighs, then eyes the candy, seems to consider something, and pushes it towards Zhuzhi-lang, “You try it.”

“W-what-?”

“He won’t hear me out,” he says, “Since you’re the only one he’s letting in, you might as well apologize in my name.” 

‘He’s probably going to throw me out the moment I mention you,’ he does not say. Instead he merely receives the tanghulu and accepts his fate.

“I-... I will do my best.”

Shen Jiu is sitting on his bed, reading a book, not too dissimilar from Junshang just a while ago. Zhuzhi-lang knows he would get punched if he were to ever voice such a comparison. 

"Ah, so the worst teacher sent you to take his place," Shen Jiu says, closing the book, "like the coward he is." 

'Junshang is not a coward' he very consciously does not say, instead, he sits next to the bed and offers a tanghulu. 

Shen Jiu looks at it, and Zhuzhi-lang can see his pupils dilate just a bit. Shen Jiu always denies it, but he's got a sweet tooth. 

It doesn't seem enough to compel him to take it though, and the kid looks away, opens his book, and continues reading. Since he doesn't tell him to leave, Zhuzhi-lang supposes he can stay. 

He considers the candy. Personally Zhuzhi-lang isn't a fan of sweets, he prefers bitter foods, but the idea was for Junshang to make amends by eating candy with Shen Jiu, and he's acting as substitute, so he might as well do half the deed. 

The tanghulu isn't too bad, it's less sweet than he expected, and the tangerine is actually kind of nice. As it turns out, watching someone else eating is Shen Jiu's breaking point, because Zhuzhi-lang's barely licked the candy twice when Shen Jiu snatches the other one from his hand, the fruit soon disappearing into his mouth in quick succession. 

Since it seems like as good of a moment as he will get, Zhuzhi-lang decides he will deliver his message now. 

'Junshang is really sorry, he didn't mean it and he'll be more careful in the future.' seems simple enough. It's been a good day so far, if he says it slowly he thinks he can make it. 

Zhuzhi-lang takes a deep breath, and goes ahead, "J-Ju- Junsh-shang is r-really s-sorry, h-he di- d-did't mean…" he wants to cut off his tongue!

Zhuzhi-lang's usually good at talking… or, good-ish. Really, he usually doesn't make this many mistakes, it's just, Shen Jiu made it clear he dislikes the stutter, so he wants to do it well, so that makes him nervous around him and that just makes everything harder… Ahhhh. It's such a problem. 

As predicted, Shen Jiu glares at the mention of Junshang. Finishing the sentence isn't worth the effort when he knows he's going to be kicked either way, so he lowers his head and moves towards the door. 

"Where are you going?" Shen Jiu calls.

"S-since you are going t-to t-throw me out anyway," he replies. Shen Jiu raises an eyebrow, but doesn't say anything otherwise, instead going back to his book, holding it open on his lap while the hand that isn't on a cast plays with the now bare stick. 

He isn't denying it, so that means he did think of throwing him out. Zhuzhi-lang turns to open the door, when he remembers he's still holding the tanghulu. He already licked it, but he's seen Shen Jiu eat food that fell to the floor, so he doesn't think he'll mind. He returns to leave it beside Shen Jiu, and then leaves. 

"How did it go?" Junshang asks once he closes the door.

"He ate," he says, there's not much else to report. 

Junshang still smiles at that, "That's progress!" he says, "I knew you were the right person for the job!"

"I-If Junshang says so." 

 


 

Shen Jiu is weird. He says he thinks something, then does the opposite of that, he tells Junshang 'I will never forgive you' on the regular, then sticks around nonetheless, acts some way one day and then changes his mind soon after. Zhuzhi-lang doesn't understand him.

He's kind. He says he isn't, but he is. Or perhaps Zhuzhi-lang's standards are too low. Shen Jiu talks to him, like a person, hasn't tried to kill him or hurt him, not really, and he's helped him and Junshang. 

That last one is probably the most important, he helps keeping track of the money, he helps with the chores, he makes sure they always have enough water and food. He says it's because those things affect him too, not because he wants to help, but that doesn't really matter, does it? 

People hate a rock they trip with, not because the rock meant it, and like the trees they hide from the sun under, not because the trees want to help. Shen Jiu is helpful, and Junshang likes him, so Zhuzhi-lang likes him too. 

And because Shen Jiu is helpful and Zhuzhi-lang likes him, he wants to return that somehow, but can't think of anything concrete to repay it, so the least he can do is not being annoying. 

Which is harder than it sounds. 

"Oh, for fuck's sake, can't you walk any faster?!" 

"Y-your ankle s-still hasn't-" 

"My ankle this! My ribs that! I'm fine!" 

As if to prove it, Shen Jiu's steps quicken. He maintains it until they reach the end of the alleyway, and then rests his back against a wall, takes slow, careful breaths, and starts coughing. 

Zhuzhi-lang swallows a sigh. It's been a little over a week since they got Shen Jiu from the I-don't-remember-what temple, and even with his cultivation aiding the healing process, he's still nowhere near recovered, but it's not like they could tell him that. So, as soon as Shen Jiu could walk three paces without bending over he decided he was going outside and damn whoever tried to stop him. 

"I- I think the market is-"

"I know where the market is!" Shen Jiu hisses, and then starts walking in the wrong direction.

Zhuzhi-lang fails at swallowing another sigh. 

 


 

Shen Jiu is staring at a booth's fans. He's acting like he isn't, entertaining himself with buying ink, oil, talisman paper and other things they're short on, but now and then he'll look at them. They're well made, not as high quality as a demon noble would use, but still good. 

They're terribly overpriced though, no wonder Shen Jiu isn't approaching them. Zhuzhi-lang's seen him visit fifteen different stores just to find a 5% cheaper camping tent, Shen Jiu is as stingy with money as Junshang is spendthrift, there's just no way in hell he'll so much as touch these.

But he's still looking at them. 

Hmm. Zhuzhi-lang doesn't think he has enough money to buy one. While he does get a good part of the money they make, he still gives most of it to Junshang on principle, and since he doesn't really spend it on himself, his savings are the first place they draw from when they're running out of money for necessities. So, his pockets are quite empty at the time. 

As they're moving to a different section of the market Shen Jiu sneaks a last peek at the fans.

Hm. 

 


 

As anyone could have predicted, walking on a bad ankle as fast as he can, insisting on carrying all his purchases by himself, even the ones that were quite heavy, (with one arm in a cast no less), and refusing to take breaks to catch his breath, are not great ways to speed someone's recovery, and by late afternoon Shen Jiu develops a mild fever and has to (is forced to) retrieve to his room to rest.

"I could swear humans usually have a better self preservation than that," Junshang says, after they're sure Shen Jiu fell asleep and won't, like, jump through the window or something, "he's as bad as a demon in that sense, and just as impatient."

"I… think he just wants to prove he isn't weak," Zhuzhi-lang muses, "si-since he didn't get the sword." 

"That's on me," Junshang sighs, "I was so sure he could make it, you know! And now he's all mad at me, ahhhh…"

"Mhmm," Zhuzhi-lang hums, not knowing what else to add. 

"Maybe I should find a potion to make him forget this happened, I know some people who make them…" 

"I-I'm p-pretty sure he would be more angry if you tried to do that, Junshang." 

"You think? Ah, then I'm out of ideas!" he says. 

Then Zhuzhi-lang remembers the fans from earlier, and, well it's better than nothing, "I- I think I have an idea." 

 


 

"S-Shen Jiu, c-can I enter?" he knocks on the door the next morning, "I-I brought br-breakfast."

There's no answer, so he takes that as permission to enter. 

As son as he enters, he's greeted with a glare. Zhuzhi-lang does his best to ignore it and brings the tray inside. 

"Put it here," Shen Jiu says, scooting away to make a space on the bed. 

Zhuzhi-lang stays whole Shen Jiu eats, and he doesn't complain about it, so he assumes it's fine. He waits until he's almost done, and then takes out the fan. 

It's one of the cheaper ones, not because they didn't have enough for a more expensive one… not entirely because they didn't have enough for a more expensive one, also because they (Junshang) thought it suited him most. The wood is oak and the cloth depicts a stylized drawing of a bamboo forest. 

Shen Jiu frowns at it, "Do you really have enough money to spend on such frivolous things?"

"J-Junshang h-helped," he says, and if anything it makes Shen Jiu glares harder at it, "s-since you s-seemed interested-" 

"Ah, you mean at the market?" he says, "These fans catched my attention because they were so awful! terrible design and laughable quality, not to mention the prices were as high as heaven. Truly, only someone with shit for brains would so much as consider buying one."

"Ah, I-I see."

The silence that follows is awkward, Shen Jiu isn't looking at him and Zhuzhi-lang isn't looking at him either.

"I-I never t-told you what happened… after you entered the temple." 

"You realized I wasn't coming out, entered after me and found me beating myself up, what else is there to tell?" 

"J-Junshang lost an arm,"

"What?! No, he didn't!" Shen Jiu snaps, "I saw him, he's fine!"

"I-it grew back,"

"Are you for real?" he gapes, Zhuzhi-lang nods. "Fucking demons… How?"

"It- t-the temple raises a barrier, after someone enters. S-so, to pull it open…"

Junshang had to break the seal by himself, his hand being ripped off bit by bit as he breached it. It grew back soon after, but Zhuzhi-lang knows it still hurt. 

They ended finding Shen Jiu at the deepest part of the cave, smacking a rock against his chest, screaming, bleeding from all the holes in his head, his clothes shredded. Shen Jiu is likely aware it was worse than 'You were hitting yourself with a rock,' after waking up with bite marks on his arms and legs and his nails broken from scratching the walls and floors, but he hasn't mentioned it so Zhuzhi-lang won't say anything either.

"What an idiot." Shen Jiu says. Then, miraculously, takes the fan, "I haven't forgiven him, just so we're clear. You don't even know what I saw in there, you have no right asking for me to forgive that."

"Ri-right…" 

"But…" he covers his face with the fan and looks away, "I suppose it isn't practical to keep ignoring him, since we're still traveling together." 

"Ri-right!" 

"Tell him I'm willing to talk with him again, but any of you mention this again and I'll kill you," he threatens, falling back on the bed, "now leave, I'm tired." 

"O-of course," he answers, moving towards the door, "t-thank you,"

"Why are you thanking me?! Spirits, you're so annoying!" 

"S-sorry," he mutters. 

As he closes the door he thinks he hears an "Idiots, the both of them." 






Chapter Text

Since it's a good day for fishing, Shen Jiu leaves the campsite early to visit the nearby river. He finds a nice spot under a bent tree and spends all morning lazing around waiting for the fish to bite. 

By midday he’s got a basket full of carps, and is idly wondering how to cook them, maybe he could use some for soup and salt the rest? when an imposing figure appears on his path. 

“Human, are you one of the emperor’s servants?” asks a tall, muscular man with goat horns. He stands very straight, not looking like he has any intention to attack, but Shen Jiu’s hand still moves to his sword as his mind works on possible escape plans.

“Why do you ask?”

“You carry his scent.”

He has an idea of who this demon is talking about. Either answer has the potential to be the wrong one, but one less than the other, and the man hasn't tried to hurt him yet, so,  “Yes, I am in fact one of the emperor’s servants, of course.”

 


 

"You got a letter," is his greeting as he reaches camp, throwing the sealed scroll to the back of Tianlang’s head. The man catches it before it hits him, because the world isn’t fair, “Also we’re eating fish today.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t open it,” the man comments, eyeing the scroll.

“Not everyone is as disrespectful of others’ privacy as you,” Shen Jiu answers, even though he very much did try to open it, but couldn’t get past the seal. He moves to handle the fish basket to Zhuzhi, who immediately takes one still alive carp and bites into it. Shen Jiu grimaces, “I will never understand how you like it raw.” Zhuzhi shrugs. 

"Oh no!" Tianlang exclaims, reading over the letter, "I'm needed to sort some stuff in the demon realm and I don't want to!" 

"Let me see," Shen Jiu says, taking the letter and pushing him away. Its contents are as follows: 

To the great emperor of the south something something something conflicts in the frontier something something something this and that clan something something something unrest something something something meeting with the council something something something your presence is needed immediately.

"Sounds important," he comments, passing the scroll to Zhuzhi, who receives it and proceeds to read it too without caring about the fact he's dirtying the paper with carp blood, "Guess you'll have to take care of that." 

Tianlang's following sigh is so overdramatic he bends over backwards until he falls to the ground, "I guess it really can't be helped," he whines, "Even though I really don't want to…."

"Aren't you an emperor or something?!" Shen Jiu exclaims, kicking Tianlang on the stomach. The man doesn't even have the decency to act like it hurt, "Stop slacking off and take your responsibilities seriously!"

"I take care of my responsibilities just fine," he pouts like a child, "You just have no idea how many things other people could perfectly take care of ends falling on a demon lord! I just wish to travel in peace, that's not too much to ask..."

"Then renounce your throne."

"No, it took a lot to get it."

"I hold no sympathy for you," he moves to retrieve the fish, "I'm going to make fish soup."

"I prefer it steamed." 

"C-could we smoke some later?" 

"I'm making fish soup and salting the rest." 

"Use ginger,"

"I'm using garlic and taro, nothing else." 

"How about green onion?"

"We ran out like a week ago." 

"I t-think we still have chili oil." 

"I'm not using that for fish soup."

"Oh, alright..."

"Why not? Don't be like that Jiu'er,"

"I'm saving it for when we find pork,"

"Soy sauce?" 

"Ran out. Hm, where's the pot?"

"How about adding the mushrooms we found yesterday?" 

"I would use them, if someone had not eaten them!"

"Here. Th-the pot."

"Thanks, Zhuzhi." 

"You ate them?"

"You ate them, you asshole!"

"No? I didn't? I wanted to pickle half of them!"

"So what, a wild animal ate them?" 

"Wouldn't be the first time, like the time you didn't tie a knot right and a bear-"

"It was one time! One time! It was forever ago! Can't you just forget about it already?!" 

"Of course not, it was such a thrilling adventure!" 

"I- I- I a-ate the mushrooms, actually."

"IT WAS YOU?!" 

"An unexpected plot twist!"

"S-sorry."

"Whatever, they were probably poisonous anyway."

"You're so lax with my nephew… Had I eaten them you would be trying to open my stomach to retrieve them!"

"Sorry…"

"It's not my fault you're the more annoying of the two."

"Oh my, you heard that Zhuzhi? Such a moving complement! Could it be that you've finally won over Jiu'er's frozen heart?!" 

"J-J-Junshang p-please d-d-don't joke about that!" 

"I'm going to cut you open and add both of your hearts to this soup if you don't shut up already!" 

 


 

Some hours later the food's been served and they are wrapping the leftover fish on paper cut from the imperial scroll. 

"I expect you to take back some money from your palace," Shen Jiu says, as he rubs salt on one of the carps, "we have seventy two copper coins total, I counted."

"The... last three towns d-didn't have many people carrying currency," Zhuzhi laments. 

"If this keeps going on we'll have to sell your books," Shen Jiu threatens, "Starting with the graphic ones!"

"Alright, alright!" Tianlang throws his hands up, "I was going to restock either way, no need for this violence!" 

"Should we start packing?" Zhuzhi asks, moving to wash his hands on a basin, "We are parting soon, ri-right?"

"Oh, you're going with Tianlang?" Somehow Shen Jiu thought only Tianlang would be leaving. He supposes it's fine, it'll be a well deserved vacation from these bothersome demons.

"What are you talking about?",  Tianlang says, "Obviously you're coming as well!" 

"Me?!"

"You don't really expect us to just leave you on your own for who knows how long, do you?" 

"I don't know if you've realized, but I'm a human," he replies, "a cultivator no less."

"And I'm a demon in the human realm, in case you didn't notice," he counters, "You wouldn't be the first human going there, not even the first human I bring to the southern kingdom. It'll be a learning experience!" 

"Like other learning experiences I can recall," he scoffs, "which ended with broken ribs."

"Now that's not fair, that was like half a year ago!"

"How did you put it? ah yes, 'It was such a thrilling adventure', I just couldn't forget about it oh my dear Shizun!" he tips his head to the side and makes his eyes go very wide, "What kind of student would I be not to learn from such a great learning experience?" 

"That face is not cute at all, brat,"

"I already know that, asshole," 

"Look, I know things got a bit out of hand that time-"

"A hell of an understatement."

"-but I learned my lesson, this time really no harm will happen, no physical, no mental, trust me with this!" 

Shen Jiu frowns at him, but, he does take a moment to think it over. 

It is true he hasn't been hurt like the time he tried to get a spiritual sword again. He hates thinking about it, but the man's teachings have been almost... bearable since then? Trying to explain things better and not assuming he'll just know how to do something as much. Not that it's turned into anything near a good teacher, but, he isn't as bad lately.

He certainly has been making an effort to avoid unnecessary danger he didn't put prior to that incident, going so far as changing their route if they hear there's an infestation of powerful monsters ahead. It usually rubs Shen Jiu the wrong way, he has always hated being babied like that, but it does give his promise a bit of weight. 

"If you're wrong I want two thousand golden coins in retribution."  

"Deal!"

 


 

The trip to the frontier between the human and demon realms takes three days. They go by flying on Tianlang's sword, as it would take too long otherwise, Shen Jiu standing behind him and Zhuzhi as a snake curled around Tianlang's wrist. 

In the time Shen Jiu's traveled with the demons he can count the times they've flied on one hand, partly because Tianlang says it takes away the fun of wandering, partly because Shen Jiu hates having to share a ride. 

In front of the stands frontier between the realms, more of a metaphysical line than a geographical one. 

"Ready for your first time in the demon realm, Jiu'er?" 

"I hope so," he scowls, "for your sake."

"Ah, so intimidating," Tianlang mocks, then bites his fingertip and draws something on Shen Jiu's forehead, "This way no one will confuse you with dinner," he explains. 

"T-this s-should help too," Zhuzhi says, dropping a handful of snakes on Shen Jiu, which quickly crawl under his clothes, "t-to ke-keep you safe, just in c-case." 

"Oh, also a pendant with the royal sigil," Tianlang digs a necklace from his sleeves and puts it on Shen Jiu's neck, "to be extra sure no one will confuse you with dinner," 

"M-maybe one more," Zhuzhi says, adding another snake,

"Oh, now that I think about it..." Tianlang moves to search for something else inside his robes,

"Enough!" Shen Jiu snaps, "We'll be here all day!"

"So impatient! Better caution than regret, Jiu'er!" the least apt person in the world to utter such a sentence dares to say, "but I suppose we might as well go." 

"Finally!" he exclaims, and takes a step across the border. 

 

Chapter Text

Shen Jiu will die before he admits it…

Screw that, Shen Jiu will kill every single person in the demo realm, then kill himself, before he admits it…

But he really

Really

Enjoys wearing nice clothes. 

Several garments were supplied for him after arriving at the southern land's palace, alongside a room for himself, way bigger and more luxurious than any he's stayed in before but that's not the point, the clothes are the point. 

He's never thought much of clothing, he went from the tattered robes of a street urchin to the plain gray two layers of a slave, to the cheapest clothes he could find, at first because of Wu Yanzi refusing to spend more than necessary on him, later because of himself refusing to waste money on frivolities. The fanciest decorations he ever wore on his robes probably were Qiu Haitang's messy embroidery she would sometimes practice on his sleeves. 

Here in the demon realm he was given a trunk worth of clothes, of many colors and cuts, all made with nice silk. He begrudgingly agreed to dress like a noble during his stay, if only so Tianlang would stop whining about how his official disciple couldn't be seen wearing rags, but…

He actually likes it. 

Shen Jiu stands in front of a tall mirror, and admires himself. 

Today he wears a black unde robe, followed by a second layer of black, the sleeves long enough to completely hide his hands. The third layer is dark green, with silver embroidery on the collar, and then a last layer he decided to wear open on top the belt, is a short sleeves black robe with a slightly darker black pattern on top, that can only be distinguished by holding the cloth close enough for one's nose to touch it. His hair is out of his usual ponytail, instead half down, secured with an obsidian hairpin. The symbol drawn on his forehead he hasn't been able to erase shining red.

He looks like a son from a noble household, the kind that makes him want to kill on sight. 

He opens his fan in front of his face, the painted bamboo mixes well with the green on his outfit and hides his expression. Had he not known himself, he might even have been fooled to think he was seeing the image of a proper cultivator. 

He hates it, he wants to burn these clothes, he loves it, he wants to dress like this everyday, he's going to fucking kill someone. 

Tianlang-jun's palace is a big fortress at the heart of the southern lands made out of white and black stone, its hallways always busy with multitude of servants and diplomats, not all of them of humanoid shape. The demons either look at him with disdain or ignore him altogether, but no one seems surprised by his presence here.

Considering who Tianlang is, he wouldn't be surprised in their place either. The demon lord's fondness for humans is clearly not a secret, at every corner, on every wall, he will find works of art depicting humans or the human realm. 

He asked at some point if he had gotten the art from the human realm, or had commissioned demons to depict these scenes. Tianlang just crocked his head and said "what would be the appeal of having other demons make it?" as if She Jiu was incredibly stupid just for asking. 

He did feel stupid after asking, the answer should have been obvious given the person he was speaking with. He almost asked if that was what he meant when he said Shen Jiu wasn't the first human he brought to the demon realm, as some of the art was painted directly on the walls or chiseled from the columns, but quickly realized the answer to that was also an obvious yes. 

Personally, surprisingly, Shen Jiu doesn't dislike the place. Tianlang's taste in art is pure vulgar trash, which reflects on several of the paintings and statues, but even if he wasn't already used to ignoring pornography from being raised in the streets, Shen Jiu would have learned to just from traveling with the man, so it doesn't bother him. The food is good, certainly better than what he's used to. The view from the windows, oddly colored vegetation under red skies, is pleasant. Really, the only thing he can say he truly dislikes is the rush of people running from room to room, yelling and throwing official documents at each other, is a bit of peace and quiet too much to ask?

Come to think of it, it might be Tianlang's fault for this too. From the moment he set a foot at this place he's barely seen it. Even outside of the meetings with his ministers, he seems to be permanently hassled by an army of employees surrounding him with the fervor only someone who's spent the last twenty years collecting very important paperwork for their lord to sign and desperately wants to get rid of such a collection could have. 

Zhuzhi is busy too, as he shares some of Tianlang's authority, but not as much, he still catches a sight of him now and then. Whatever the case, Shen Jiu has barely seen these two, so he was half right on this being a vacation from these bothersome demons. 

He spends most of his days in the library, exploring old and thick tomes he likely won't be able to find anywhere else. He might or might have not stolen some for himself.

He finds himself mostly drawn to the books about the monsters, animals, plants and other wonders from the demon realm. There's just something about the descriptions of such beings, such places, that speaks to his sense of wonder, most of the bestiaries have no illustrations, and it makes him want to try and draw these creatures from the descriptions alone. 

He's reading one of such books, when he finds this:

  The fingers that reach everything:

Also known as the six fingers. This small lake, found in the southern hemisphere of the demon realm, is said to be connected to everything there is. It is easily recognizable by its pink colored waters and lily-like plants that lead to it. It's location, same as with the rest of places listed on the encyclopedia, is marked on the map at the back of this book.

By employing the ritual described at the end of this section, it is possible to open a direct path to any place, object, person or animal desired, independent if the exact location is unknown. 

After the ritual has taken place, thirty years are needed for the lake to gather enough energy to be employed again. 



 

Huh.

 


 

"Sorry, but we can't," the person who Shen Jiu is going to fucking murder dares to answer. 

"Why not?!" he exclaims, outraged "Don't you want us to go on some great adventure, oh amazing shizun?! It'll be a learning experience, oh best shizun ever!" 

"Tempting," Tianlang says, touching his chin, "but the fingers that reach everything are near the frontier with the northern kingdom." 

"So what?!" 

"Didn't you pay any attention to why we are here? Any at all?" he mocks, "Some northern clans have been trying to get past the border, no one knows why. It's a delicate situation, so it would be a bad idea for me to be seen there."

"Because you care so deeply for the politics of the demon realm," he draws.

"I do care!" Tianlang gasps, grasping his chest, "my Jiu'er, you offend me!"

"Oh, drop it, what is the real reason?"

"Isn't it obvious?" the demon rolls his eyes, "It would be fine if I went there, I'm considering going either way to set the matter once and for all," he says, "but I'm not sure I can properly protect you if I bring you too, so..."

"And you care for my safety so much," he says with as much sarcasm as he can muster. Still, he hates that a part of him believes him a little. 

"Why, it's just I don't want to lose two thousand golden coins!" Tianlang winks, "If you really want to go, we can set a trip for another time, after it's safe to. Maybe in a couple of months."

"Right," he grumbles. 

Before either of them can add anything else, the employees finally spot where their boss has run to, and the man's quickly swarmed and dragged back to his office like a soul sent to hell. 

Shen Jiu sighs. 

So waiting, eh?

 

No. 

No, he can't wait. He doesn't know when was the last time the ritual was used, as far as he knows it might be too late already, he might already have to wait another several years, but if he's still in time then It's a matter of time for someone to steal his chance. He can't wait, he can't wait, his feet and hands itch with the idea, he can't wait. 

But he's still aware that as much as his cultivation has been steadily improving, he's still weak compared to the average demon, and will likely die if he goes alone, and then everything will be for nothing. 

Shen Jiu bites his thumb while he thinks about it, and just then the person he needs to appear shows up.

"Zhuzhi!" he calls, "Come here, I need your help with something!" 

Chapter Text

This is a bad idea.

It's a horrible idea.

He's actually doing something behind Junshang's back, this is the worst idea

But… 

"I- I don't think…" Zhuzhi-lang says, starting to move away.

"Zhuzhi-lang, please!" Shen Jiu exclaims, jumping forward to grab his wrist. 

It's the first time he's ever heard Shen Jiu say please without it being a joke or a jest. And, when he looks at his expression, he's pretty sure it's not his imagination, the edge of barely suppressed desperation he sees in it. 

How was he supposed to say no in that position?! Shen Jiu never asks for anything, and Zhuzhi-lang has wanted to do something to repay his constant help for a while now with no success, then he's thrown into that?! He was basically forced to agree!

This is still such a horrible, horrible idea. He thinks he's going to be sick. 

"According to the map, it should be inside this forest," Shen Jiu says, stepping down from where he was sitting on Zhuzhi-lang's back, and then the snake goes back to his human form. 

He peers at the map. While a section of the forest is marked, the exact placement of the clearing inside of it is not. 

"I-it m-might take a while to find it." 

"According to the book, we will start to see flowers similar to lilies as we get closer," Shen Jiu says, ignoring him "so keep your eyes open and tell me if you see anything." 

As they make their way through the forest, Zhuzhi-lang keeps his guard up for threats, but luckily animals seem to ignore them. Most beasts in the demon realm would be intimidated by Junshang's blood mark on Shen Jiu's forehead, not only because of what the symbol represents, as they're too dumb to recognize such concepts, but the power that accompanies it, and leaving that aside there aren't many creatures willing to attack one of the great southern snakes. As such, they mostly encounter small parasites that live from absorbing lingering qi, and tiny birds and rodents running around.

He's just beginning to grow reassured they'll manage to accomplish their objective and go back to the fortress without any incident, when he hears Shen Jiu say:

"Is that… ice?" 

Zhuzhi-lang's head snaps towards whatever Shen Jiu is pointing at. 

Certainly, under the shade of a group of tall trees small patches of grass have been frozen. The trail continues for some distance, until it leaves the shade and disappears, likely having been melted by the sun. 

"L-lets go t-the other direction," Zhuzhi-lang lang suggests, and Shen Jiu, although grumpy about it, agrees it's best to try avoiding anyone from the northern tribes if that ends being what caused the ice. 

It doesn't last though. 

As they continue their search, the lilies slowly start to pop up. They try to follow its appearance at the same time they avoid the cooler parts of the forest, but the overlap between the flowers and the ice only grows bigger as they continue their search. 

It all comes to a head when a sharp presence cuts through the air, the prickling on the back of his neck and palms that comes with the awareness of a stronger predator, a terribly familiar feeling. 

Zhuzhi-lang grabs Shen Jiu by the arm and bolts to hide between the high vegetation. 

"Wha- hmph!" Shen Jiu begins to say, but Zhuzhi-lang covers his mouth just in time for someone to walk into the space they were standing on just a moment ago. 

Zhuzhi-lang doesn't even have to look at the black clock dragging behind him, nor the blue sigil glowing on the man's forehead, the power that the figure exudes, like cold needles against his skin, is more than enough to know who this person is.

Mobei-jun, king of the southern tribes.  

They don't dare to move as Mobei-jun strolls towards a patch of lilies, the air misting around him. He reaches for one of the flowers, which is quickly covered in frost, and after turning between his fingers takes the path that leads to more of them. Zhuzhi-lang waits until he can't hear his footsteps to relax. 

"He's going after the six fingers too!" Shen Jiu hisses, pushing himself up.

"M-Mobei-jun is more powerful than us, M-maybe we should j-just give up-" A venomous glare silences him. 

"Let's keep moving," Shen Jiu says, "he might have gotten ahead, but he's slow. The lilies have been steadily increasing towards the west, we'll round him and get there first." 

Zhuzhi-lang wants to argue, but he's wanted to argue from the start, and he knows it won't do anything. Instead he wordlessly nods, and follows Shen Jiu as he advances through the forest. 

 


 

Now that he's aware Mobei-jun's presence is near, Zhuzhi-lang can't ignore it anymore. The demon lord's aura forms a heavy point in his awareness, the temperature of their surroundings constantly telling him just how close he is. 

Shen Jiu either doesn't notice or doesn't care. Instead, he merely focuses on following the flowers while Zhuzhi-lang does his best to steer them away from where the cold energy emanates. 

Their path turns and twists, and it feels like anytime they take two steps forward they have to take one step back. The opressing cold aura is like someone constantly breathing on his neck, and trying to keep Shen Jiu away from it is like guiding a wild horse, and just as Zhuzhi-lang's nerves are bad enough he's about to try suggesting they give up again, the trees suddenly open and they step into a clearing. 

A circular lake lies in the middle of the space, its waters dyed pink and with small a platform on the middle of it. All around it white lilies bloom, extending from the lake to the trees, and among the flowers, six pillars raise high into the air, made out of white rock and slightly bent inwards. Zhuzhi-lang supposes they do kind of look like the fingers of a hand. 

"We made it," Shen Jiu breathes, and when Zhuzhi-lang turns to look at him there's a wild look in his eyes "We made it!" 

"H-hurry up and do the ritual," he says, keenly aware Mobei-jun is still close. Shen Jiu nods and quickly jumps into the platform and the middle. He bites the tip of his figers, and begins to draw whatever symbols he needs to draw into the stone. 

Zhuzhi-lang follows, anxiously standing beside the kid while he watching their surroundings. Shen Jiu has a crumbled piece of paper on one hand, his eyes quickly moving from it to the stone where the other is drawing blood, black to the paper, black to the stone. "Fuck," he curses, then erases what he's drawn so far and starts again. 

"H-he's g-going to get here soon!" he hurries, if they well might have gotten there first, that doesn't mean the demon lord isn't still following. With the air growing colder and colder, Zhuzhi-lang knows it's a matter of time for Mobei-jun to find the clearing. Shen Jiu doesn't acknowledge his words, but his traces quickens, just a bit. 

The aura coming from the forest keeps increasing, bit by bit. The design that must be drawn in the pedestal is complicated, and Shen Jiu has to erase and start over another two times. He's in the middle of the next try, bitting his fingers again to extract more blood, when a sudden spike of power in the vicinity makes Zhuzhi-lang's heart come to a halt. 

A figure emerges from the treeline. Slowly, his steps are as calm as the power swirling around him is powerful. Mobei-jun's eyes land on the pedestal where they stand, cold and uncaring, like he's looking at an insect. 

"S-S-Shen Jiu!" he gasps. There's no time left. His companion keeps scribbling onto the rock, but Zhuzhi-lang knows, he knows he won't be done by the time Mobei-jun reaches them. 

Mobei-jun walks, the lake freezing under his feet as he makes his way to them. Shen Jiu keeps drawing, desperately so, but it's still not enough. It feels like an eternity, but, eventually, the king of the northern tribes is standing in front of him. 

His presence is even stronger this close, like a storm contained into a single person. Zhuzhi-lang's breath becomes visible in the cold, the ground beneath his feet has freezed, and he has to close his hands to keep them from shaking.

Ah. Zhuzhi-lang realizes. This is how he's going to die. In the middle of a run of the mill forest, with Shen Jiu rubbing blood on a stone behind him, at the hands of a foe that won't remember him. 

Well, death happens to everyone. He wishes he could have died helping Junshang in some way, not while doing something behind his back, but very few people can choose how to go and he's already lived longer and better than he ever imagined. He has no complains. 








"Move." 





"Huh?" 






He is… alive. Mobei-jun frowns at him, then gestures with his head, and repeats "Move." 

Zhuzhi-lang has never moved faster in his life, he pushes Shen Jiu aside, and both of them fall into the lake.

"What the fuck do you think you're doing?!" he exclaims, as Zhuzhi-lang grabs him by the middle and pulls them away, until they're out of the water and on the flower bed. 

Mobei-jun doesn't spare them a second glance. The man swipes away the blood Shen Jiu left on the stone, bites one of his fingers, and draws his own symbol. Unlike them, he gets it right in one try. The lilies grow red and open completely as the pink water clears, and when the lake turns into a white portal Mobei-jun takes a step forward and dissapears. 

Shen Jiu's been screaming and struggling against his hold during all that, and only when the cold aura lingering after Mobei-jun's departure dissipated does Zhuzhi-lang let him go. 

"Why the fuck did you do that?!" he exclaims, throwing a punch. Zhuzhi-lang doesn't dodge, and it doesn't really hurt, "H-he could have- W-we almost d-died," he tries to reason. 

Shen Jiu glares at him, an ugly glare filled with hate, but does not attack him again. Instead, he lowers his eyes and starts tearing flowers from the ground. 

Zhuzhi-lang looks away, giving him space. Shen Jiu growls and crushes the lilies, eventually pressing his face against the soil and letting out a rage fueled yell. 

By the end he's breathing hard, body sagging with each one, hands and head resting against the ground. 

"L-let's g-get going…" he says, standing up, trying to ignore the recent outburst. 

He holds a hand for Shen Jiu to take. The kid looks at it, then shakes his head.

"I'm going to wait." he says, moving to sit properly in the direction of the lake.

"Wa-wait? Wait what?" 

"I'm going to wait until he comes back." he clarifies. 

"S-Shen Jiu?"

"I want to see what was so important I lost my chance to it," he says, "So we wait."

 

Chapter Text

Soon enough, the light from the portal dissipates and the lilies begin to rot. From the now clear lake, a figure begins to emerge.

'Show me, show me what makes you deserve this more than me' 

The demon is giving him his back when he raises from the water. And so, Shen Jiu waits, he waits to see what invaluable relic or lost magical item, what legendary plant or powerful beast is more worthy to be found than—

….

Mobei-jun finally turns around, and in his arms, is a kid. Covered in bruises and crying while at the same time having no expression on his face, looking oh so similar to the older demon, same eyes, same nose, same mark on his forehead. 

The demon lord climbs out of the lake, and without so much as glancing at Shen Jiu, disappears between the trees.

"Fuck." he mutters, lowering his head, "why couldn't it be a magnificent, legendary weapon?" 

Damnit

Damnit 

He wants to hate this person so bad, he just wants to hate someone, why must everyone make it harder?! 

Damnit. 

"A-are… you alright?" He hears someone say and, oh, right, Zhuzhi is here. He forgot for a moment. 

"Perfectly," he replies, moving to stand up. 

"What… What were you trying to find?" this useless snake asks. 

"What do you care?" he scoffs, "I was so close and you had to fuck everything up!"

"Y-you- ...M-Mobei-jun could have killed us." 

He knows. Shen Jiu knows and he hates so much he knows. "So what?!" he replied and ah, wonderful comeback, truly wonderful, very fitting of an insignificant person. Yes, that'll show that snake! Fucking moron. 

"I-if you tell me what you're looking for, I- I could hel—"

"I don't need your stupid help!" he snaps, who does he think he is, how dare—

"But… if you tell us, Junshang and I…"

"I don't want your stupid help!"

"Y-you- You already asked me, t-to help you come here, so," the demon argues.

"I don't owe you anything!" Shen Jiu exclmaims and, fuck, he shouldn't have told him to come with him, fuck.  

"I-I d-did't say that!" Zhuzhi exclaims, "I-I ju-just want to help!" 

'I want to help! I want to help!' what an infuriating set of words. What an infuriating voice, so broken and useless. What an infuriating expression. He wants to hit him, so he does. 

Zhuzhi places a hand where Shen Jiu slapped him, but otherwise doesn't react, doesn't take a step back, doesn't gasps, doesn't cry, doesn't even turn his head, merely touches his cheek and that's infuriating too. 

Shen Jiu walks away, there's nothing for him here anymore. He wants to go back to that stupid castle and forget this every happened, "Let's get going, we might be able to get back before Tianlang knows we're gone," Not that it's a hard task, they could be gone for an entire week and he doubts the man would notice, he can be very clueless sometimes. 

He takes three steps when this asshole grabs his wrist. 

"Let go," he grunts through his teeth. He pulls his hand once, twice, but the stupid snake's grip won't budge.  

"I- it's important to you, isn't it? Y-you almost died to find whatever it is." 

"I don't have to tell you anything," he bites out. He pulls his hand again and nothing, seriously, isn't this dumb demon going to let him go? 

"I-I j-just want to help!" 

"And I don't want your help!"

"Why?!" 

"Because I don't want it!"

"B-but! Why?!" 

"I don't have to tell you that!" 

"I-I just—!"

"No, shut up! Let me go!" 

He yanks his arm again, kicks him, tries pushing Zhuzhi away, and suddenly he's on his back, and the demon's holding his wrists down.

He can see in Zhuzhi's expression, his eyes wide open, his mouth a thin line, that it wasn't intentional. Still, he makes no attempt at getting off. Shen Jiu tugs at his trapped wrists, knees his stomach, but it's like fighting a statue.

"Get. Off. Me. Now" he orders. The stupid snake shakes his head.

"T-tell me... Tell me what we came here for." 

"No."

"Please." 

It's been a while since he truly wanted to kill one of his companions, but right now it would feel really nice to strangle this one.

"Why should I?"

"I-I want to know!"

"Such a compelling reason." 

The thin line of Zhuzhi's mouth becomes thinner, and still, still he won't let go. 

Asshole. 

He waits, and waits, and still, the stupid snake won't get off. Is he for real? 

Well, that's fine with him, does this demon want to play the waiting game? Shen Jiu has an entire life worth of experience with being manhandled by people stronger than him. If it comes to playing dead until his opponent gets bored just leave it to Shen Jiu, he's the champion at it. 

This time he isn't even being hit. The fingers around his wrists dig into his skin a little, it's uncomfortable, but it doesn't hurt, this is nothing compared with the beat ups he's so used to receiving. Compared to the adults on the street doing cleaning duty, the constant beatings from the Qiu, the occasional punch to the face by Wu Yanzi, this is absolutely nothing. 

 

Oh, but how he hates this though. 

 

"If you don't let me go I'm going to bite off my tongue." at the end he decides to fight back. His opponent is this weak after all, he might as well win one time, why stand more of the usual humiliation than necessary? 

Zhuzhi's eyes grow wider, and there's a short quiver of the fingers around his wrists, but he still doesn't get off.

Oh, does he think he's bluffing? Well, he is, but Shen Jiu has never tried a bluff he isn't ready to go through with. 

He opens his mouth, makes a show of sticking out his tongue, and bites. 

It hurts, it hurts more than he thought it would, and that thought only makes him sink his teeth in harder. The very second he feels the metallic taste he dislikes so much fills his mouth Zhuzhi-lang leaps away. 

Shen Jiu sits up and spits out the blood. Shit, it's such a small cut, and yet it keeps bleeding, he has to spit it out a second time. 

Zhuzhi is on the floor, a dazed expression on his face, 'Do you really think you have the right to look like I was the one doing something bad?'   Fucking asshole. 

"I really hate you," he spits a third time. In that moment, from the bottom of his heart, he couldn't mean it more. 

Finally someone's giving him reasons to hate them, oh joy, let's throw a party! Stupid snake. Go and choke on a rat or something.

Shen Jiu turns towards the forest and begins to walk, if the snake follows him it's fine, if he doesn't it's also fine, he doesn't give a shit. 

He really shouldn't have asked for help with this, should never ask for help with anything, ahhh, what a moron, he forgot nothing good comes from depending on other people. Now he remembers. Good. 

 

Chapter Text

Shen Jiu can't read. He's too restless lately and can't properly sit in the library to read. He opens a book, and his eyes just gloss over, one of his hands idly playing with his new fan.

He realizes what he's doing and stops. He glares at the fan. 

"We got you this!" Tianlang says, holding out a fan. 

"Are you going to turn this into a habit?" he drawls, "one of you offends me, then the other comes with a cheap fan and I have to forgive you?"

"Rude, this isn't cheap," the man says, "I still don't know why you're even mad at my nephew." 

Yes, because this man is so stupid he hasn't realized they were gone for four entire days and neither of them is going to tell him. Idiot. 

"Fuck off."

"It was worth a try," he shrugs, then moves to leave.

"Wait, leave the fan." 

It is a nice fan, made out of black wood, with silver and golden bird silhouettes flying against a black background. He likes it, he can admit that much, so he took it, but he's still fucking mad. If anything it makes him angrier, how dare them try to bribe him. Did they really think it would work? How insulting. 

The snake tried to apologize, but after the first three rebuttals he just stopped. That's good, he supposes, Shen Jiu hates those empty apologies, and he doesn't think Zhuzhi even knows what he's apologizing for. 

Being surrounded by books while unable to read is boring, so Shen Jiu leaves the library and begins to wander.

In truth, he muses as he walks aimlessly through the hallways, in truth Shen Jiu knows he's being silly. Nothing that happened was a big deal, it's less of a big deal than when he wouldn't speak with Tianlang, and he let go of that easily enough. 

There's something about this that bothers him though, although he isn't sure what.

He stops in front of a window and rubs his wrists while looking at the landscape below. It's been a long while since the last time Wu Yanzi chained him to a tree as punishment for literally anything, or that Qiu Jianluo tied his wrists and ankles together while beating him up, and this time it didn't even hurt, so he doesn't understand why his wrists are still tingling almost two weeks later. 

It's probably the place, he decides, the clothes and the food and the presence of so many strangers what is making him feel weird. They're set to leave the demon realm soon, so he just has to keep wandering for a couple of days and surely then he'll stop feeling weird. 

"You! What do you think you're doing?!" someone calls. He turns towards the voice, and finds a female demon, about twice the height of a human, with red skin and four arms holding several scrolls, walking quickly towards him.

"Nothing," he answers, and that makes the demon frown harder.

"Exactly! Don't you know we're understaffed?!" she exclaims, then, without stopping, casually picks him up by the back of his robes, "Since you're oh so unoccupied you might as well help with the archives." 

"Hey, wait a second!" he argues, kicking his feet in the air, "What makes you think I'm your employee?! Drop me right now!" 

The woman raises him so they're eye to eye, and gives him a wonderful imitation of the old head of servants in the Qiu household anytime she would catch him stealing food, down to the twist of the mouth and the raised eyebrow, and it makes him shut up. 

"You're here and we're understaffed," she repeats, throwing him over her shoulder and continuing walking, "in my eyes that makes you an employee." 

"But I'm not—"

"Employee!" 

Goddamnit. If this was a man he would be drawing his sword by now, screaming at him not to touch him, but, as always, Shen Jiu is weak against women. 

 


 

The giant takes him to a big office and drops him in front of a desk with a pile of paper that rises halfway to the roof, then turns towards the rest of the room, where other demons are quickly working on organizing similarly sized piles, "I got us extra hands!" she exclaims, "MingMing! Where the fuck is MingMing?!" 

"I'm right here, boss!" Another demon, this one looking human except for the big horn growing on her forehead, raises from where she had been buried on paper and quickly bows at the taller one. 

"Good! I'm leaving you in charge of teaching the newbie our filling system!" she exclaims, pointing at Shen Jiu, "I trust it won't take long!"

"Yes boss! Right away boss!" The demon bows again. 

Satisfied, the giant nods once before leaving to supervise, command and scold other workers making their way through the papers. 

"This is how it works," begins the demon left in charge of him, reaching for a set of stamps under the desk, "mark all the requisitions with this one, the political threats that seem real with this one, the political threats that sound fake with this one, the marriage proposals with this one, unless it's written as a joke in which case you use this one, you can use both if you aren't sure, for the territorial disputes you use this one, if any letter mentions the human realm in more than three sentences forget protocol and just mark it with this big one on the back. If you find something that doesn't fall in any of these categories hand it to someone else. Now, once you mark them..." she reaches for three identical boxes, also under the desk, "These are qiankun items, put anything written in red ink in this one, unless it has a blue dot on the upper right corner, put all those in this one, and the rest go here. No matter what, don't mix them up. Understood? Yes? Good, so get to work!" 

Shen Jiu barely has time to blink before the demon is shooting straight into another pile of paper, disappearing from sight.

"I don't work here," he mumbles, moving to take a random paper. He isn't actually planning on doing any work, just look as if he does. He reads over the page and—

"This is dated twenty years ago," he gasps, quickly moving to take another one, "and this one fifty," another, "seventynine," another, "And this petition is five hundred years overdue?!" 

"Well, A-Jie surely told you we're understaffed, didn't she?!" a demon sitting nearby turns towards him, the gem embedded on her forehead shining an ominous shade of purple, "so stop complaining and get to work!" 

The indignation is too much for him to stick to his original plan. Shen Jiu takes a piece of paper and begins to work in earnest.

 


 

He's in the middle of deciphering whether this letter is in another language or the sender just happens to have horrible handwriting when a bell rings through the office.

"That's enough!" exclaims the giant demon, standing in the middle of the room while holding a bell, "break time! Go eat lunch! Take a nap! Everyone put their papers down."

"I'm almost done with this one!" complains one of the workers, but a glare from their supervisor quickly shuts them up. 

"Everyone, papers down, you know well the recess is mandatory for a reason!" she repeats, "tired people make mistakes, I don't want to repeat five years ago's disaster!"

Between grumbles and sighs, the demons bring their work to a halt, and one by one leave the room.

Shen Jiu doesn't stand up, not sure this applies to him too. The giant demon catches his eyes and gestures for him to follow.

"And you? Come on, the cafeteria will run out of the good food." 

"I have never gone there," he admits. For as long as he's stayed here he's eaten his meals in his room or in the main dining hall. 

The demon shakes her head, "Follow me, I'll show you the way." 

He tips his head to the side, "Will it be fine if I go and eat with everyone else?" he asks, half remembering Tianlang's words about being seen as dinner "I'm a human." 

The woman raises an eyebrow, "You think I didn't notice? what does that have to do with anything?"

Shen Jiu doesn't need to be told twice, he follows her out of the office. 

 

Chapter Text

"But man…" MingMing sighs, "you would have thought with Junshang here we would have less work, and yet…"

"Can't be helped, he's busy filling all the blood oaths he's postponed for so long," YangYang tells her.

"Ugh, don't remind me," RenRen wrinkles her nose, "he's, what? Halfway done?" 

"I don't think he'll be done before he leaves," MingMing hangs her head. 

"Don't curse it!" HuaHua gasps.

"This place seems to have problems with logistics," comments… huh.

"Now that I realize, I never asked your name," Zhang Hong says. 

"I'm Shen Jiu," answers the human, pushing the food he hasn't so much as tried around his plate, a sharp contrast with everyone else’s empty bowls, "nice to meet you."

"I'm Hu Yang, but call me YangYang!" 

"Fu Ming, but MingMing is better."

"Mao Zhiren, RenRen is fine."

"I'm Sha Huadi, call me HuaHua."

 "And I'm Zhang Hong," Zhang Hong finishes, "but you can call me HongHong!"

"We usually call her A-jie though," adds HuaHua, "or boss, if we're working." 

"Anyway," MingMing shrugs, "it's good having you on board, JiuJiu—"

"JiuJiu—?"

"—we're always lacking extra help, as you no doubt have noticed." 

"Don't get too used to him," comments YangYang, "he's going with the emperor once he leaves."

"Eh?! No way!" HuaHua gasps, "but he's so efficient! So full of potential!" 

"It's always the good employees who leave, only the bad ones stay..." MingMing laments.

"Hey now, then what does that say about me?" Zhang Hong jokingly complains, "I'm the oldest worker here!"

"Of course, A-jie is the exception that proves the rule!" MingMing proclaims.

"Good, good," Zhang Hong nods, "so since he's leaving soon, everyone better appreciate JiuJiu while he's here, understood?!"

"Yes boss!" the rest of them cheer. When Zhang Hong turns to look at the human, he's hiding behind a fan and what's visible of his face has turned red. Cute!

"JiuJiu, you have to join too," HuaHua places a hand on his shoulder, "Come on, say 'Yes boss!', it'll be our initiation rite!" 

"Eh? That's a little…"

"Come on, come on," MingMing joins the peer pressure, throwing a hand around JiuJiu's other shoulder and pulling him closer "You're already leaving soon, indulge us a little!"

"Everyone already did it, so we will accept no excuses," adds YangYang. 

"Do it! do it! do it!" RenRen chants under her breath, tapping on the table softly with each sentence.

"Fine, fine," JiuJiu finally yields, saying softly "...yes boss."

"Louder!" MingMing urges.

"Yes boss."

"I can't hear you!" Encourages HuaHua.

"Yes boss!"

"Too tame!" insists YangYang.

"Yes! boss!"

"Laaaameee!" exclaims RenRen.

"YES BOSS!!!" 

"THAT'S THE SPIRIT!" they all cheer raising their cups in the air, immediately following by breaking down in laughter. By the time they're done the human has his entire head hidden behind his fan, going so far as to open a second one just in case the first wasn't enough, and that has them laughing again.

Eventually they go back to idle chatter, JiuJiu adding a comment now and then, when Zhang Hong stops someone in the crowd, 

"ZhuZhu!" she calls, "Come here, sit with us!" 

The snake in question waves, starts walking towards their table, stops, and continues walking at a much slower pace. 

"M-madame Zhang, um, Shen Jiu." he bows before taking a sit, his eyes darting towards JiuJiu once before quickly looking away. Zhang Hong glances at the human in question, and notices his posture has become rigid, and he’s also not looking at ZhuZhu.

Oh. Ohhhhhhh. She found some drama here. 

“Oh, now that I think about it, you two are friends, aren’t you?” MingMing comments, unaware of the underlying tension. 

JiuJiu snorts, “As if.”

“Oh, I’m wrong?”

“No, no, I saw them when they just arrived,” YangYang declares, “They were talking all friendly and stuff, they’re friends for sure.”

“That’s right, I’m sure I’ve seen them together once or twice before,” comments HuaHua, “I thought they seemed close!” 

“Don’t insult me just because I’m forced to travel with this vermin,” argues the human, making ZhuZhu shrink with each word, “he’s nothing but an unending source of annoyance for me,”

“Sorry…” mutters the other kid. Zhang Hong and the other girls exchange a look. 

“Did something happen?” asks RenRen, her eyes shining with the hunger for a good gossip. 

Some way or another, they manage to tear the story from the kids piece by piece. Both of them are unwilling to share, but Shen Jiu turns out to be weak against their combined insistence, and Zhuzhi-lang is weak to peer pressure in general. The story they get goes something like this: Recently the kids went looking for something somewhere that Shen Jiu wanted to find, some undisclosed danger happened, they almost died and did not get what they wanted. Zhuzhi-lang asked started asking what the hell it was they were after on the first place anyway?, but got very pushy, tried to force the human to tell him and Shen Jiu got mad and still is.

“I don’t know, I would have done the same as ZhuZhu,” comments HuaHua, and receives a glare from JiuJiu in return, “I mean, wouldn’t you want to at least know what you’re risking your life for? he deserves that much!”

“There’s something admirable about no taking no for an answer!” opines RenRen, “if anything his mistake was giving up at the end on getting an answer!”

“No, no, JiuJiu didn’t have to tell him anything!” argues YangYang, “if he was going to demand to be told about it he should have asked before they went, I hate so much those people who expect to get something that wasn’t on the contract! JiuJiu is right to be mad!”

“I don’t know, would JiuJiu have told him if he asked beforehand?” wonders MingMing, “taking advantage of the opponent's weakness is basic barging! he waited for a good moment to strike, like the snake he is! That’s smart!”

“I-I didn’t mean it like that!” ZhuZhu quickly interrupts, “I-I just, I mean, i-it’s like, a-at the time, I j-just—”

“For fuck’s sake! Speak clearly!” JiuJiu glares, “what did you mean it like?”

ZhuZhu lowers his head, “So-sorry…” he apologizes, but that only seems to work for fueling JiuJiu’s anger.

“What are you even apologizing for?!” ZhuZhu stays silent, and JiuJiu’s face goes red, this time clearly not out of embarrassment, “ ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry’, those words are already half empty, but not knowing what you’re even saying sorry for makes it completely hollow!” 

“...Sorry.”

“Are you trying to annoy me on purpose?!” 

“I- No! But, y-you’re already mad, w-what else co-could I…?”

“Well, what do you think he should apologize for, JiuJiu?” Zhang Hong interjects.

“Isn’t it obvious?” he crosses his arms, “it’s none of his busyness, and I’m not going to tell him anything, yet he keeps insisting. It’s annoying.” 

“It is kind of his busyness, though, don’t you think?” HuaHua argues, “he almost died for whatever it was.”

“I didn’t force him to come,” JiuJiu answers.

“Y-you- Y-you would have gone either way!” ZhuZhu exclaims.

“So?”

“I- I couldn’t let- Y-you know I had to- Shen Jiu!”

“Why? Why did you have to come? Why do you care?! My life is none of your busyness, just because you agreed to help doesn’t make it so! It’s obvious you didn’t want to go so why did you?! Why didn’t you just leave when it became obvious you could die?! How much of a pushover can you be?!”

“I…” ZhuZhu’s shoulders drop, “...isn’t …isn't it obvious I care about you?”

JiuJiu blinks. He opens his mouth but no sound comes. He looks away and after a moment is able to say “I don’t understand you at all.”

 "Wow,” MingMing breathes, the awe at getting to experience such a nice melodrama in real life clear on her face, “You two are speaking two different languages." 

JiuJiu frowns at her, but before he can say anything Zhang Hong interrupts.

"That's enough. I think I see the problem," she says.

“Oh, A-Jie is giving relationship advice?” RenRen pipes in.

“A-Jie gives the best advice, she helped me break up with my boyfriend!” comments YangYang. 

Zhang Hong basks on the praise, then turns towards the kids.

"Shen Jiu, you work quickly and were able to adapt to our filling system easily and I love you for it, but I must say your personality is hot garbage." 

"Wha—?!"

"Zhuzhi-lang,” she addresses the other one, “you're really sweet and nice to hang out with, but half of the staff secretly hates you for being a bootlicker, and the other half openly hates you for being too much of a pushover to talk Junshang into working more."

"I… I d-did not know that." 

"So here's my advice," she pauses here, for dramatic effect, "Give up!"

The surprise at her words is apparent on the boys’ faces. Zhang Hong nods at herself and keeps talking now that she has their attention.

"Zhuzhi-lang, relationships are a bridge tied from both sides. If you keep trying to be nice to someone who doesn't want you to, you'll just wear yourself out as well as become a royal annoyance, so stop trying. Just give it up! Shen Jiu doesn't want to get along with you! It isn't worth it! Do everyone a favor and stop!" 

"I… I don't know if I can do that."

"Too bad!" she turns towards the other kid, "Shen Jiu, it's fine if you don't want to get along with someone, but if you are dead set on not making friends just cut that relationship off! No one is forcing you to stay around Zhuzhi-lang, you know? Lingering in this middle space is just bad for both of you, especially when it's clear you can't keep yourself from taking advantage of the fact he doesn't know how to say no to you, just cut it off!" 

Shen Jiu seems taken aback for half a second, before he quickly retorts, "I would love to do that, but sadly it's not like I can stop seeing him, Tianlang-jun is teaching me cultivation, as you might know, so I'm forced to be around this stupid demon."

"That sounds a lot like an excuse, you know? If you just want to learn to cultivate you could stay here," and, ah, she didn't start giving this advice with this intention, but now that she's in the middle of it Zhang Hong can't keep herself from thinking 'please stay, please stay, you know we're understaffed' "we can find you a cultivation tutor, hell, Junshang will probably find you one himself if you were to stay here, don't act like you're a martyr suffering other people's company because you don't have a choice, because you very clearly do, kid." 

JiuJiu frowns, his mind clearly working on an answer to that, before he gives up and looks away. 

Both kids seem uncomfortable at her conclusion, but Zhang Hong knows well that a good compromise is that in which no one is happy with the outcome.She places her hands on top of the kids’ heads and congratulates “Good, problem solved!” very pleased with herself. 

“Oh, A-Jie since you’re giving relationship advice!” speaks HuaHua, “Since uncle Jiuzhong killed my father my family has been filled with infights and it’s truly bothersome, I can’t even go back home for fear I’ll lose my temper and kill someone, what should I do?”

“Oh, I’ve been having problems with my mom lately!” adds MingMing, “What do you advise, A-Jie?!”

“And my friend has been acting weird ever since he married!” complaints RenRen, “What can you make out of that?!”

“Now, now, one at a time. The break is almost over, but let’s see what we can cover.” 

Chapter Text

"Do you need-…. C-can I help?" 

Shen Jiu looks up. Zhuzhi is standing next to his desk. He hasn't seen him since the boss told them to cut each other off two days ago. He was half sure the snake had come to his senses and taken the advice to heart.

"Sit down." he gestures to the space next to him. 

Zhuzhi does just that. He stares at the —relatively small— pile of documents in front of them, then at Shen Jiu. 

Shen Jiu sighs, "This is how it works," he says, reaching for the sheet on top of the pile, "We're answering letters, take one missive and white paper, this note here," he says, tapping the small square of paper clipped to the document, "someone already went through the messages and decided how to handle them, it says how you must answer, whether to accept or reject a petition, if you must be polite or rude, etc. You just have to elaborate on it, it's very mechanical," he goes back to the letter he's currently working on, "Hand me the ones that demand for threats while you handle the official apologies, since you have so much practice with empty platitudes."

Zhuzhi nods. He picks a small stack of documents and starts sorting them in two groups, once he finishes he slides one towards half Shen Jiu and begins working on the other one. 

They work in silence for a while, it would be almost peaceful, were it not for the tension beneath. Just as Shen Jiu's brush raises from the last character of his third letter, one of them speaks.

"I'm sorry." Zhuzhi mutters. Shen Jiu frowns, this again?

"I told you—"

"I- I am sorry!" he insists, raising his hands as if to shield himself from Shen Jiu's words, "I just... d-don't know what about." 

"How can you be sorry if you don't know what you're sorry for? You're just spouting bullshit," he scoffs.

"Y-you're mad. I... I must have done something…"

Seriously, this person. Shen Jiu grabs another document.

"You're really self centered, not everything is about you," he says, forcing himself to relax the muscles of his arms and shoulders to keep his calligraphy neat, "I hate when people act like they're entitled to know me, shouldn't be hard to understand." 

"I- I understand that much, I think, but-..." the snake sighs, "But I really j-just want to be helpful, w-whatever it is you're looking for is important, i-isn't it? W-why won't you accept help to find it?" 

"Why do you want to help me on this so badly?"

"You… y-you never ask for help with anything, this- this was the first time. An-and anytime I try to do something good I just annoy you… I... I j-just want to be useful somehow."

"Seriously, you," he grimaces and sets his brush down, "You're always doing this or that for Tianlang, always subservient and meek, it's really annoying, and now you want to be 'useful' to me too? To be 'helpful'? Why do you need to serve others so badly?! It pisses me off."

"I just do," the demon answers without missing a beat. 

"That's stupid."

"Maybe, but it's the truth."

Shen Jiu sighs. He takes the letter Zhuzhi just wrote, then sets it aside when he finds it up to the boss' standards —which admittedly aren't high, quantity over quality is the only way they can keep this place running— and gestures for him to continue with the next one. 

"And you, in my position, would accept any help, just like that?" he tries to reason. 

"If- If I t-think someone will truly help… I-I think I would accept it," the snake shrugs. 

Shen Jiu doesn't answer, focused on his current message. He spends a moment pondering how to address the incident the note asks to reference in a demeaning manner without giving away he has no idea what said incident was about, and only replies once he figures a good way to do so.

"You're so simple, it's like you don't even realize people can take advantage of other people," he says.

"I'm- I'm not stupid," Zhuzhi pauses on his work to look at him. Shen Jiu doesn't look at him back, "I k-know people lie, betray, ch-change their mind, I… I don't say you should trust everyone, but… i-if you know, really know someone will help, why- why not accepting it?...." here he pauses, his eyebrows shoot up as if he just had a revelation, and looks down, "O-or… or... m-maybe... y-you think I won't help you, on-once I know what you want to find?"

It's tempting to reply that yes, in fact that is the problem, so stop bothering me please, but at the end he decides to be honest for once.

"No, by now it's obvious if I ask for help you will help. I don't understand why, but I can get that much."

"The-then why don't you want...?"

"Why should I accept other people's help?!" he slams his hands on the table, "I've always been fine by myself, you have no right to humiliate me after all that! I don't need your help, I will find Q—!" shit "I'll find it alone, as usual," he didn't mean to put that much emotion on that explanation, so he reaches for his fan and begins calmly fanning himself to cover the outburst, "so stop bothering me."

Zhuzhi stays silent for a moment, eyes cast down, and when he does speak, his words come out soft, but steady.

"But doesn't… doesn't everyone really want for someone else to help them?" 

Shen Jiu stares. What kind of stupidity is that? That right there is a string of words that should never be put together, that's how senseless that sentence was. Somehow he's surprised the ceiling didn't cave over them as punishment for giving form to such an idea.

"How can you even say that?" he replies, he doesn't even put venom into it, that's how stunned he is at the thought this person actually believes such barbarity. 

Zhuzhi insists, "Wha-what does it matter if you don't need it? If it's easier, i-isn't it better?"

"Are you some kind of saint who goes around saving people?" he squints, "You get off of that? is that it?" 

"N-no, It's not like that, I don't care about strangers, not even a little, and I- I know how to hold grudges, s-so it's n-not that at all."

"Then I don't understand why you would care about me," and really, that's the most bemusing part of all this, isn't it?

"I- I have said this before... Y-you assist us during our tr-travels, and we've been together for a while now. So..."

"That's all?" There's no way it's that easy.

"That's all," the demon actually replies.

"Whatever you think was me being nice to you, it's a misunderstanding," he explains, "I've never thought about you, not even for a second, I've never thought about being nice to you in any way as far as I've known you."

"Do-does it matter? I can't see inside people's hearts, s-so if someone is nice then they're... nice." 

"Someday you'll be betrayed with that way of thinking." 

"I'm fine with that." 

Shen Jiu shakes his head, what even is this? What language is this person speaking?

"MingMing is right, I can't understand a single word that comes out of your mouth, and not just because of the stutter." 

"I... don't understand you either," Zhuzhi admits. 

"Good, so we agree." 

He thinks it'll be left at that, but it takes no more than another two missives for the snake to attempt conversation once more:

"We're leaving tomorrow," he says, as if Shen Jiu didn't know already, "A-are you…" he looks away, "a-at the end, a-are you going to stay here? L-like madam Zhang suggested?"

"No," he answers quickly, "I'm going with you and Tianlang."

"Oh."

"Too much paperwork, I would grow tired of it."

"I- I see."

Shen Jiu dares to glance at the other's expression, and finds a small, relieved smile on his face. How infuriating.

He sighs. As tiring as communicating is, he has to admit the boss is right about something, whatever it is they've been doing here is even more exhausting in the long run. 

"I'm not mad at you anymore," he admits, "haven't been for a while now, I'm just... mad." 

Zhuzhi blinks, "That's… good?" 

"It's not, but it doesn't matter."

"I mean, y-you're mad all the time anyway, so it isn't much of a change." 

Shen Jiu's head snaps to the side, "Are you mocking me?!"

"N-no, of course not," Zhuzhi looks away, very unconvincingly, and the smile is still there. Unbelievable, of every possible moment he chooses this one to start getting an attitude?

"Asshole," he huffs. 

They go back to writing letters and Zhuzhi doesn't say anything else, it's… not awful, there's something comforting about monotonous work next to another living being, like when he used to count coins with Qi-ge stitching clothes next to him, washing clothes beside the older girls in the manor, it's… almost nice. 

...But Shen Jiu finds there's still something bothering him. 

At the end of the day they never came to any understanding whatsoever, did they? Even if Zhuzhi apologizes it's obviously always hollow, so they will continue fighting around this.

That would be tiring… so how about… maybe if he gives this dog a bone it'll stop begging for meat?...

He fiddles with his fan, tapping it against the desk with the right hand at the same time the left leaves strokes on the paper. 

It's worth a try...

"If I tell you a way to be useful, will you let go of this whole…?"

"Yes, o-of course!" Zhuzhi immediately answers, as expected. 

"Fine, so…" he bites the inside of his mouth, he wants to ask for something unimportant, but it's hard when everything matters, "If you happen to find human remains, bury them. That's all," is what he settles on. There are many corpses in the world anyway, what's the chance he'll rob him of burying the one that truly should be buried? If Zhuzhi finds it first that will only mean Shen Jiu was never going to get to it. 

"How will that—?"

"I'm not explaining!" he exclaims, "You don't need to know more than the fact you'll be doing me a favor. Consider yourself lucky I'm telling you this much." 

"R-right. Right!" the demon nods four times in quick succession. 

"So stop worrying so much with the idea of being helpful and don't use every single breath to apologize, it's annoying." 

"I- I'll try my best," 

With that they settle back on working until it's time for the mandatory break. Zhuzhi ends joining Shen Jiu's table again at the cafeteria alongside the boss and the other sisters. He expects them to comment on him not following the boss' advice, but they don't say a word about it.

He uselessly hopes that doesn't mean they'll just gossip about it once he leaves tomorrow. 

 

Chapter Text

"It certainly appears you hit a bottleneck," Tianlang declares, releasing Shen Jiu's wrist.

So it's as he feared. Shen Jiu noticed his progress was slowing down, basically coming to a halt in the last two months. He hoped it wouldn't be anything important, that it would get solved by itself, but clearly it hasn't.

Shen Jiu opens his eyes and moves out of the meditative pose, "So now what? I've been following all the exercises exactly as you told me and they're clearly not helping!" he accuses.

"Don't worry so much about it," Tianlang brushes off, "It was bound to happen eventually!" 

"I'm not even that far into my cultivation! I can't start stagnating this early!" 

"Kid, do you hear yourself? You're about to enter core formation, that's actually quite advanced for your age, you're doing well," he says, "bottlenecks can happen at any stage for any reason and usually get resolved naturally by simple personal growth, if you start stressing over how to get past it you will just make it worse. For now let's continue as usual and if in one year you haven't moved past it then we'll start looking into possible solutions." 

"One year?!" he all but screeches, "You're going to ignore the problem for one entire year?! And you call yourself a teacher?!" 

"Ah, always so impatient," Tianlang sighs, "a year isn't a long time for cultivators at all, Jiu'er. You better start thinking in terms of decades and centuries if you're serious about becoming an immortal!" 

"How about seclusion?" he proposes, "It's what most cultivators do to advance, right?" 

"Secluded cultivation can be very helpful to some cultivators, but it's not for everyone, and depending on the nature of the bottleneck it might actually lead to a qi deviation. Personally I would like to wait until you have a fully formed golden core before starting with it." 

"So we just ignore it," he scowls, "My progress has completely stopped and we just ignore it." 

"You act like there aren't plenty of other things to work on already," Tianlang raises an eyebrow, "Not taking into account the theoretical lessons there's sword training and martial arts in general. There's also crafting talismans and designing arrays, and it's about time I start teaching you how to play some instruments," here he pauses and taps his chin, "You know, now that I think about it there's this master artisan and painter I know in the demon realm, since your progress seems to be somewhat linked to artistic growth it could be a good idea having you learn from her for a while. If you're still stuck by next year let's take some months off to focus only on the arts and that might be just extreme enough to deal with the problem." 

Shen Jiu glares, not at all satisfied with the explanation. Tianlang stares back, a stupid smile on his face. Eventually he gives up.

"Fine." 

"Glad to see we're in agreement!" he nods, "the next town we'll be approaching is set near a cultivation sect so it's bound to have part of its economy centered around spiritual articles and the like, maybe look for pills and teas for clearing up the mind and soul if you're still worried about that bottleneck, can't hurt."

"If that's the case we should start making extra talismans," Shen Jiu says as he reaches for the bag where they keep the paper and writing supplies, "they sold well last time we traveled to a place familiar with cultivators," 

"T-the heating and cooling ones were very well received," Zhuzhi pipes in, moving to receive his own stack of paper to draw the enchantments on.

"The muffling ones too," Shen Jiu adds, already starting to grind some ink. 

 


 

"Well then, I'll see you later!" Tianlang proclaims his goodbyes as soon as they enter the city, as usual. 

Shen Jiu and Zhuzhi promptly move to a populated area and begin the labour of advertising the amazing properties of their talismans, giving demonstrations such as setting wood on fire and quickly cooling it down.

They don't usually sell this stuff. It's easy to make and can go for gullibly high prices, but normal people are often too scared or intimidated by magical stuff, always thinking if they buy these grand artifacts there will be a horrible catch later on like in so many folk tales. 

People in this town are more used to cultivators however, if not familiar enough with cultivation itself to realize they're being scammed paying a silver coin for a pathetic low grade talisman, so they sell well. 

Personally Shen Jiu would prefer to use Zhuzhi's snakes to rob everyone and be done with, but they've learned the hard way controlling too many at the same time leaves traces of demonic qi in the air, and risking it in a place so close to a cultivation sect is just asking for troubles. They still use them of course, just more selectively. 

Sure thing, they soon run out of talismans, the townspeople delighted by the little one-time-use things. They decide to stop working for the day, instead of drawing more talismans on the spot it'll be better if they take the evening and night to replenish stock and continue tomorrow, it'll give their very dear customers time to use the ones they bought, spread the word about the rouge cultivators selling wonderful shit, and then come back looking for more. 

They buy roujiamo for lunch, and then proceed to kill time by looking around different stores. Shen Jiu isn't interested in looking for pills or teas for clearing up the mind and soul: Same as their low grade talismans, medicines and other special objects tend to reach obscenely prices in these kinds of towns, but sometimes one can find rare books lost from the nearby sect's library. 

Visiting bookstores also has the added benefit it'll make them run into Tianlang earlier, which can be a blessing or a curse depending on whether they're able to drag the man into checking in an inn, or fail and get dragged into assisting mediocre theatre plays instead. 

It's in these meanderings that Shen Jiu finds an incredible treasure. Not a sacred text about cultivation, a diagram on rare magical herbs or a lost manual on a long forgotten technique, but sometimes much, much more valuable.

He finds a book by his favorite writer he doesn't own already. 

Not only that but it's very thick, thicker than any other novels he owns from this person, and as he gingerly opens the cover he sees the printing date on the first page, this was just published last year! This person's work isn't very popular so very rarely gets reprints, this very well might be the author's newest work! He wants to read it, ah, he wants to read it. He wants to read it so badly! 

Shen Jiu is often very careful with his money, and yet he finds himself reaching for his pouch before even checking the price.

"Shen Jiu?" Zhuzhi's voice drags him out of his hypnosis. When he turns towards the demon, he's raising an eyebrow and looking equal parts curious and concerned. Shen Jiu covers his face with his fan, realizing he might have made a weird expression in that short bout of infatuation. 

"I think I saw a genuine cultivation manual earlier," he says, pointing at the pile of clearly ass fake cultivation manuals set on the other side of the store, "go see if you can find it." 

Zhuzhi blinks, "Why—" he starts, Shen Jiu whacks the top of his head with his fan. 

"Just go!" he orders. Zhuzhi's expression grows in confusion, but he's still a pushover so he nevertheless goes. 

Shen Jiu turns his attention back to the book. He picks it up and quickly looks for the seller. He spots the man soon enough, talking with some old lady some five shelves away. 

His new treasure firmly held against his chest, Shen Jiu is about to start walking in that direction—

And then he feels a sharp pain as something metallic buries itself into his side. 

Shen Jiu's head snaps in that direction, one hand moving to his sword, his attention focusing on cutting the threat down—

 

A familiar face. 

 

The book falls to the floor. It's quickly followed by a small, very small and bloodstained knife. In the pale face of the girl he sees reflected his own shocked expression. 

"It was really you…" Qiu Haitang whispers, hugging her own form as if trying to stop the trembling that consumes her entire body. 

Shen Jiu opens his mouth to say something, anything, whatever, and instead of word what comes pooling out is a cough and a mouthful of warm blood.

Ah

Poison. 

Death by poison for the poisonous person, inflicted by a knife so short it wouldn't even leave a scar otherwise. He can see why she would think it a fitting way to go about things, he agrees, it's a little poetic. 

He takes a step back and ends sending an entire stack of books tumbling down. His head feels light and his extremities heavy, and in his daze he would have followed the books in their way to the floor had it not been for a hand on his shoulder and a firm body against his back.

"S-Shen Jiu?!" Zhuzhi's eyes are very open, and the expression he gets as they move from Shen Jiu's face to the wound to Qiu Haitang —Fangs bared, pupils nothing but tiny slints, a hiss escaping from between his teeth— feels completely foreign in this person's face. 

He feels Zhuzhi move and suddenly all Shen Jiu can see is the memory of Wu Yanzi's body with his jaw crushed like a squashed fruit, the upper part of his head lying separated from the rest with his dentadure perfectly exposed. 

"Don't kill her," he forces himself to push past the knot in his throat, "DON'T KILL HER!" 

He can't hear anything over the ringing scraping against the inside of his ears, can't be sure if the words made it past the blood clogging his mouth. The last thing he sees before passing out is the small figure of Qiu Haitang turn around and start to run.  



Chapter Text

"Shimen, would you like to go to the town with us?" 

"I'm sorry, Shixiong, I won't be able to go." 

"Oh, alright." 

 

When Qiu Haitang first reaches Kangfu sect she's a small, weak child, her feet swollen from eating dirt and her stomach hurting from drinking nothing but air, the only keepsake from home a handful of ashes on her hair she doesn't dare to wash.

Shifu takes a look at her pitiful figure kneeling at the entrance and tells her to come in. The food is disgusting and the clothes poor, the disciples' rooms are cold and for every two days of classes she collapses another three. She's never felt more grateful for anything in her life. 

Training is hard on her body and soul, never having grown accustomed to working for anything, a pampered baby thrown into the world of adults, but she wears the memory of warm hugs and happier days as an amulet, the image of a demon covered in blood as a target, and before she realizes her arms and legs grow thicker and she's able to finish her daily exercises without throwing up. 

Only when her body has gained the strength it never needed in the past does Shifu hand her a cultivation manual. Qiu Haitang reads it from beginning to end in two days, memorizes the exercises, takes to heart the advices scrawled on the notes, and some time after warm energy begins to gather under her stomach. 

Four months after joining the sect Shifu compliments her progress with a simple "You're making acceptable progress," and it's the first time she's been able to feel proud of something she achieved by herself. 

 

"Shimei, we'll have a small gathering for my birthday tomorrow, would you like to attend? There will be food."

"That's very kind of you Shijie, but I'm afraid I just don't have the time."

"That's alright Shimei, just thought I should ask." 

 

Eight months after joining the sect she's allowed to assist night hunts. She's only allowed to watch, and cannot separate from the group, but it's an important step. 

On her first outing they find a great beast, stronger than she ever thought possible, yet, her Shijie shoots an arrow at it and the monster immediately falls dead.

"We're taught to hunt using poison," later one of the seniors in charge of supervising them explains, "Venoms and medicines are the speciality of Kangfu. You'll learn to make and use your own with time." 

Even the weakest person in the world can defeat a god by slipping the right substance into their veins. She takes this lesson to heart. 

 

"Qiu Shimei, there's a festival tomorrow, we were wondering if you would want to assist with us?"

"Ah, that sounds fun, but I'm too busy for that."

"Oh, that's a shame." 

 

As the anniversary of her family's demise approaches the nightmares grow in number. That's fine, she's used to it. What really hurts are the nice dreams, the warm memories of better times that have her waking up in tears.

Concerned, her roomates force her to see the healer. She's prescribed a calming tea that brings her dreamless sleep, and the sweet memories stop.

 

"Haitang Shimei, are you free after caligraphy class? We'll have a dance tournament in the music hall! The winner gets everyone else to do her chores for a month!" 

"Sadly I have something else to do, but I wish you the best of lucks in the competition, Shijie." 

"Well, your loss." 

 

Her fellow disciples keep inviting her to this or that. They watch out for her health, give her their advice, help her studying, and are all so incredibly nice.

Somehow it hurts. She doesn't know why it hurts, maybe it's because she's so used to associate kindness with home that it brings painful memories. 

She feels rude and terrible anytime she has to decline their attempts at getting closer to her, but she tells herself it's necessary in order to dedicate herself to growing stronger. 

Her efforts are payed off when a year and a half after joining the sect she's allowed to start mixing venoms and medicines. She starts carrying a small bottle of poison between her clothes. It brings her comfort, somehow. 

 

"Shimei! Meng Shidi is returning to his home next month, so we're going to the town to buy him a goodbye present, would you like to come?"

"I don't really know Meng Shixiong that well, so I wouldn't be of much help with that, it'll be better if you take care of it without me."

"Hm, you're probably right." 

 

Two years after joining the sect Shifu regards her concoctions as "Quite effective", "Quick acting", "Excelent work", and she ends bursting into tears in the middle of class. 

Her Shifu looks uncomfortable, a soft blush crawling into her face. Shifu has no idea what to do with crying children, she knows this from personal experience, so Qiu Haitang dries her eyes and assures everyone she's fine. 

 

"Qiu Haitang Shimei, do you like popular novels? We're trying to found a book club!"

"I'm sorry, but I'm not familiar with them."

"I see…" 

"But… Maybe ask Zhu Shixiong? I've seen him reading them."

"Oh, thank you! I'll make sure to ask him!" 

 

Two years and a half after joining the sect she's allowed to properly participate in night hunts. 

She's hopelessly bad at archery, but she manages to master throwing needles and knives. She lives through many, many battles against many, many creatures, and somehow she begins getting a reputation as a promising cultivator you can rely on.

She doesn't know how to deal with having her classmates asking her for help studying for exams, much less when Shifu names her the official teacher assistant for alchemy class.

Still, she forces herself to smile and accept everything that comes her way with grace and dignity. Only later hiding where no one will find her and shedding tears she isn't sure come from joy or homesickness. 

 

"Qiu Shimei, did you hear? A famous acting troupe is coming to the nearby town! Shifu gave us permission to attend, why don't you join us?!"

"Ah, I would love to Shixiong, but I really have to finish helping Shifu grading the papers on brewings with spider venom, you see…"

"Qiu Shimei is working hard as always! Very well, maybe we can bring you something from the town?"

"Oh, um, I suppose that would be nice. Maybe some egg tarts?"

"Of course!" 

 

Three years after joining the sect, they hold trials for new students to join. Kangfu only takes in new disciples every five years, plus the odd cases like her own, and when the time comes Shifu asks her to stand next to her and help with the selection. 

She has no idea what makes a candidate promising or not, and as such remains silent for most of the trials. 

Still, Shifu keeps Qiu Haitang close and points at this or that kid, explaining what they exhibit or lack. Qiu Haitang doesn't know why she's being told this, nor why she has been picked to attend the trials, but still makes sure to remember every single word. 

 

"Qiu Shimei, we'll have a study session tonight, we were wondering if you could come?"

"A… study session?" 

"That's right. The main topic will be how to refine rare beasts into useful components."

"...I … suppose I can go, but only for a couple of hours." 

"That will be of great help Qiu Shimei!"

 

The new students are small and cute, most of them being younger than her by half a decade or more, and it's here her reputation as a reliable source of studying advice betrays her, as her Shixiongs and Shijies evade the little ducklings by sending them her way.

She has no idea how to deal with the adoring eyes that surround her, nor knows how to respond when someone calls her 'Shijie' on such a reverent way , but she still tries her best at giving directions and making her voice sound kind and sweet. 

She tries to channel her older brother, always enduring her silly games with a smile, never raising his voice, petting her hair and surprising her with toys and sweets, and succeeds on becoming popular with the little ones.

This turns out to be the worst possible outcome, as it creates a feedback loop in which the kids decide she's great, so they look her up, so she's nice to them, so they decide she's great, so they keep coming back. 

By the time her Shifu compliments her by saying "I'm glad you're good with kids, it'll help you in the future," she's given up to her fate. 

 

"Shimei, would you like to go to the town with us?"

"I guess I can make the time."

"Oh, I see— wait, you agreed?!"  

"Well, yes. I suppose I could take a break from looking after our newest disciples."

"That- That's great! That's great Shimei! I'm glad!" 

 


 

Even though she agreed to go to the town with others, it doesn't take long for them to get separated as they look at this or that thing. It's the first time Qiu Haitang goes to the nearby town without it being some official business, and as such ends entering to this and that store looking at everything with very round eyes. 

At some point she enters a decently sized bookstore, and spends some time looking at the poetry sections, picking this and that thing she might as well spend her —by now very decently sized— savings on. 

She's considering looking at the novels, vaguely remembering some of her roomates have joined a reading club, when—

 

"Shen Jiu?"

 

She freezes, every nerve of her body going into panic. It's just a name, all it takes is for her to hear a name, and suddenly all her training is evaporating and she stands there frozen like the small cowardly child that passed out in the fire. 

The two people behind her keep talking, one of them leaves to look at something at the other side of the store and the other one remains. The other one who is— Could be— That—

She sees white. Everything, all of it, becomes just a solid wall of white. When the colors slowly return she finds herself standing somewhere else, one of her knives buried into something— Someone—

She stares at it. Her knife cutting through human clothes and human skin. She. She stabbed a person. She doesn't know how, when, but— A person, these aren't made for people, the medicine is for humans, the venom for hunting beasts, that's what Shifu always says, these should only be used with monsters, and yet she—

She stabbed a person with a poisoned knife!!!

She slowly raises her head, and sees who she attacked. In the pale face of the boy she sees reflected her own shocked expression. 

The boy lets go of what he's holding. She also lets the knife fall.

"It was really you…" she whispers, a relief so, so deep invading her body it leaves her shaking. She didn't hurt a person, this is a monster, not a human, she didn't hurt anyone. She puts her hands around her stomach and starts to hyperventilate. 

Shen Jiu takes a step back, sending an entire stack of books tumbling down as he trips. And he would have fallen to the floor was it not for

For—

Ah

Her body recognizes the threat before her mind does. 

Death. 

Death is looking at her. This isn't a person either, death is coming for her, there's something in her soul that recognizes it as such. 

'Run. Run. Run!' urges every hair, every pore, every drop of blood in her body. A primordial part of her being that is able to recognize she just became prey is screaming.

As death lunges towards her she turns around and tries to run. "DON'T KILL HER!" is the last thing she hears before something hits her on the back of the head and she is knocked unconscious.

Chapter Text

"A-Jiu, let's play! I'll be the mouse and you the cat!" A-Tang says, standing up from where they were looking at the flowers and beginning to run.

"Ah… A-Tang, wouldn't you prefer another game?" he proposes, but the kid just shakes her head and pouts. 

"I want to play this one!" she says, "A-Jiu, pleaseee!"

"Alright, alright," he complies. As he stands up his legs ache with yesterday's injuries, but he makes sure it doesn't show on his face, "Then here comes the cat!" 

A-Tang laughs as she runs, and Shen Jiu gives his best to endure. His mistreated legs scream, his feet swelling inside his shoes, he's going slower than usual, and breathing harder as well, but luckily it seems like A-Tang doesn't notice. 

He desperately hopes A-Tang grows bored and changes the game before his feet give up on him, but, sadly, that's not what happens. He's acting as mouse, trying to stick to walking by making them go forth and backwards around a pillar, when his ankle twists and he falls to the floor.

"Ah," he lands on his hands. Shen Jiu tries to push himself up but… it's too much. Qiu Jianluo was especially angry yesterday and now his body is completely covered in bandages under his clothes. His arms give up too and he hits his face against the floor. 'Ah, great way to hurt the only part Qiu Jianluo doesn't hit, you fucking idiot'

"A-Jiu, are you alright?!" A-Tang is besides him in a second, her eyes very wide and scared, obviously not knowing what's going on.

"I guess I'm a little tired," he lies, "give me a moment to rest." 

That should be good enough, right? A-Tang doesn't pressure him into playing when it's so obvious he's 'tired'. He just needs to lay here a moment and then maybe he'll be able to walk again.

It becomes oddly silent, usually A-Tang would continue talking and talking and never shut up, but it's silent. He's starting to believe she left when suddenly two arms are picking him up. Or, trying to.

"A-Tang, what the fuck?!" he exclaims, quickly covering his mouth when he realizes he let out a swear.  

If A-Tang repeats that in front of her family he's as good as dead. 

A-Tang doesn't seem to be paying attention to him though, instead struggling —really struggling— to carry him, an arm under his knees and another supporting his hips. 

A-Tang is pretty weak, never having to do shores and having servants carry everything she could possibly need to lift, but Shen Jiu is malnourished and short, so he doesn't weight much. She manages to lift him, but it has her sweating and frowning and fighting to catch her breath. 

"A-Tang, put me down!" he exclaims, "I'm too heavy for you!"

"No!" she shakes her head, "It's ok, I can do it!" 

"A-Tang! Come on! It's improper!" If someone else sees this— He doesn't even want to think of what a beat up he'll receive if someone else sees this.

"My father carries me like this all the time!"

"He's your family, it's different!"

"You're my fiance so you're family too!"

"That's not how it works, if anything that only makes it more improper!" 

"It'll be fine!" she insists, starting to take a step forward, and then another, "We're going to be married, so I should be able to take care of you too!" Soon she's actually walking while carrying Shen Jiu.

"Where are we even going?! A-Tang!" 

"To my room! You can take a nap and then we can play something else there!"

"That's at the other side of the estate!" he tries to reason, but the girl just takes a deep breath and keeps matching forward. 

A-Tang keeps walking, actually managing to reach the end of the courtyard, and Shen Jiu keeps trying to make her drop him to save his life, when—

"A-Tang, stairs! You'll trip!"

"I can do it!"

"You can't!"

"I can—! Aah!" 

She couldn't. A-Tang trips at the stairs and the two of them are sent tumbling down. It's not a long flight, only six steps or so, but the stairs dig painfully into his bruises and he thinks might even have opened some stitches. 

He lies there for a moment, bitting his cheeks trying to get past the pain, when Shen Jiu suddenly realizes he wasn't the only one to fall and quickly sits up. "A-Tang!" 

A-Tang is holding her shoulder, making a pained expression and oh gods, she's going to cry, she's going to cry and everyone will say it's his fault and she won't want to play with him anymore and they won't have any reason not to kill him and he'll become food for the dogs and will never see Qi-ge again and—

"Heh… Hahahaha!" A-Tang begins laughing. She's still holding her shoulder and it still seems like she's hurt but she's laughing, "hahahaha! I'm sorry, A-Jiu, it seems I couldn't after all hahaha! You hurt?" 

Shen Jiu lets go of a breath he didn't know he was holding. It'll be alright, somehow. A-Tang is laughing and he allows a small smile to form on his face.

"I'm fine. I told you you couldn't!" he pouts, "I won't tell anyone if you don't, but you better listen to me next time!" 

"Hahaha! Alright, alright, I'm sorry, hahaha!" 

"Pfff…. hahaha"

"Hahahaha"

"Hahahaha!" 

His injuries hurt and he hates this place and his only ally is away, but— 

But A-Tang's outer robe is all messed up from the fall and her shoulder is probably going to get a nasty bruise and she's laughing so hard she's beginning to choke. And this moment. This one, single moment, is alright. 

 

Shen Jiu wakes up to a starry sky. 

He sits up. 

"Ah!" someone gasps nearby. He looks at the source of the sound and finds Zhuzhi, his eyes round like plates, "Y-y-you woke up!"

"Clearly," he looks around. They aren't in a town, but in a valley, a fire and a tent set nearby. 

Shouldn't they be in a town? He feels like they were in a town, but he can't remember—

A book, a knife, poison, Qiu Haitang—

Qiu Haitang

He grabs Zhuzhi by the front of his robes, "Did you kill her?!"  

"I-I-I" he uselessly stutter. Shen Jiu twists the cloth and starts shaking him. 

"Did you FUCKING kill her you bastard snake?!"

If Qiu Haitang is dead he'll

He'll

He'll be the only one left 

"I-I-I did not!" 

Shen Jiu lets go, then doubles over until his forehead touches the floor, and just breathes. 

She's alive. 

She's alive. Oh thanks heavens she's alive! Qiu Haitang is fucking alive

"That's good," he mutters, as mechanically and devoid of emotion as humanly possible. 

"She's here, actually," he hears Tianlang say and quickly looks up, "sleeping in the tent," he points at it. 

"You—" he gapes, did these guys really— "You fucking kidnaped her?!" 

"She poisoned you," Tianlang shrugs. 

Which reminds him... "How am I alive?" he places a hand where the injury should be, but isn't. He could have sworn he was going to die, when the pain enveloped the entirety of his skin and it felt like he was puking his own melted guts.

Inexplicably, Zhuzhi looks away. 

"I-I'm sorry…" he mutters. Again with this old habit? 

"You're sorry I'm alive?" he teases, but the snake still won't look at him. Shen Jiu frowns. Something's wrong. "What. Did. You. Do?" 

Zhuzhi-lang opens and closes his mouth, no sounds coming out.

Probably as bored of this charade as She Jiu is annoyed Tianlang speaks in his place. "He had to make you drink his blood." 

Shen Jiu blinks, "What does that mean?" He knows blood is important for heavenly demons, he hasn't been told exactly how. 

"Zhuzhi-Lang's half a heavenly demon, half a great snake from the south, so his blood is an all uses antidote," Tianlang explains, "you're basically immune to most poisons now, congrats." 

Shen Jiu crooks his head. That's… good? That's obviously good. Even an idiot like Zhuzhi should realize giving someone immunity to poison is a good thing. Why is this idiot apologizing? Does he think Shen Jiu was planning on suicide by drinking poison in the future? 

His confusion must be evident in his face, as Tianlang pushes Zhuzhi's shoulder in a 'you tell him' kind of gesture. 

The opening and closing of his mouth is repeated. Tianlang sighs at his nephew's inability to talk and resumes the explanation, "It also means he can take full control over your body at any time, that's how he healed your wound too." 

.

.

.

"WHAT?!" 

"I'M SORRY!" Zhuzhi kowtows, "J-J-Junshang wazzzzn't cl-clozzze an-and I panicked a-a-and you were dying a-a-and I- I don't- I didn't know w-what to- I'm zzzzo, zzzzo zzzzorry!" 

"Then get the blood out!" 

"I-I-I can't!" 

"Once you drink a heavenly demon's blood it becomes part of your own blood," Tianlang says, "Not even I know of a method to extract it." 

"Oh for fuck's sake!" he covers his face with his hands.

This is fucking awful. 

"Did you at least see if she carried the antidote before doing something so drastic?!" 

"S-s-sorry…"

"We did check later and she didn't carry any though," Tianlang points out, "if that helps,"

"But not before he gave me the blood."

"No, he didn't check before that." 

Shen Jiu groans into his hands. 

He takes a deep breath.

"I suppose it could be worse," he concedes. 

There could be worse people to hold total, complete control over him, he knows that from experience. At least with this person he knows Zhuzhi is too much of a coward to try anything. Probably. 

Fuck.

"I swear, if you ever attempt to control me—"

"I- I won't!" he exclaims, his face still pressed to the floor "I p-promise!"

Shen Jiu sighs, "Fine," he lowers his hands, "then I forgive you." 

Zhuzhi raises himself slowly, looking like he can't believe it, so Shen Jiu repeats, "I forgive you, as long as you don't try to control me with it I forgive you." 

"T-thank you…"

"Aww, you two are so heartwarming! I'll tell this anecdote in your wedding," Tianlang coos, placing an arm around each of their shoulders, "now how about you tell us who the lady inside the tent is?"

Shen Jiu looks away, "I don't know."

Tianlang blinks. "Jiu'er, if you're going to lie at least come up with something decent, I know you're better at it than this." 

Shen Jiu rolls his eyes, "She's just… a girl I knew years ago, no one important."

"She's obviously important to you."

"She isn't." 

"Then let's just kill her—"

"NO!"  

Tianlang's smile at Shen Jiu's reaction is disgustingly smug. 

Where are his fucking fans? He could really use one right now. 

"Just a girl you knew huh?"

"She is," he insists, "I knew her years ago."

"She's wearing the uniform of the sect nearby, I thought you didn't know other cultivators other than your old teacher?" 

"I suppose she joined it at some point, I don't really know what's been of her since last time I saw her." 

"And she's important to you," Tianlang finishes. It's not a question. 

Shen Jiu shrugs, "somewhat important." 

"And now she wants to kill you," 

"That much is obvious,"

"So, how are we going to fix this?"

"Fix what?!" Shen Jiu laughs, "There's nothing to fix! I'm fine now, so let's just leave her in some inn back in the town and continue traveling!"

"She will keep trying to kill you," no shit genius 

"So?" he raises an eyebrow, "let her keep trying, she won't make it. We met by pure coincidence and now we know she's here, we won't find her again." 

"Hm, no, we can't do that," Tianlang shakes his head. 

"Why not?! I'm sure you have many people wanting to kill you too!"

"Maybe if you were a demon it would be fine," the man muses, "but as a human I can't let you leave it like that,"

"I'm not as weak as you think I am!" he snaps, "I can fucking look out for myself, you—" 

Tianlang shuts him up by placing his hand over Shen Jiu's mouth. 

"Would you ever just let me explain? Seriously," he sighs, "Demons cultivate by embracing their base nature and allowing themselves to feel strong emotions. If you were a demon I would actually encourage making emotionally loaded enemies, as that would incentivize internal struggle and more complex interactions with the world, which are important for us to advance. But! You're not! You're a human, and as such your cultivation will improve by achieving inner peace and gaining control over your own desires. There's a reason demons start conquering as they gain power while really advanced cultivators end locking themselves up and grow apart from the world! Having someone you care about wanting to kill you will hurt your growth in the long run, and as your teacher I just can't allow that." 

He rips Tianlang's hand off his face, "You always choose the worst times to pretend you're a good teacher,"

"You hurt me! I'm a great teacher all the time!" 

"Bullshit," he cleans his mouth with the back of his hand, "how do you even want me to fix anything? She hates me, I can't change that."

"I still don't know what's going on with you and that girl, but whatever it is you should at least talk to her," he insists, "you might resolve something!"

"Like hell!" 

"At least try it," he pats his head, Shen Jiu tries to bite him, "if nothing comes out of it we'll knock her out again and leave her where we found her, how does that sound?" 

He glares. Tianlang smiles.

As always, he ends giving up. Between the two of them the demon is the more stubborn one. 

"Whatever, fine." 

"Great!" he claps, "let's wake her up!" 

 

Chapter Text

They gather inside the tent, kneeling around Qiu Haitang, who is in the middle of it, resting on top of a bedroll. 

She doesn't… seem hurt. So that's a good thing. 

Tianlang ties her wrists and ankles together, then binds them to the floor with a sticky charm. He draws a symbol in the air in front of her face and immediately her eyes fly open. 

She looks around, clearly confused, and struggles against her bindings, then her gaze lands on Shen Jiu and her expression grows hateful. 

"You!"

"...Hi" he weakly waves. Seriously where are his fans? He needs to cover his face.

"I see you survived," she hisses, venom like he's never heard before coming from her dripping from each word, "Now what, are you going to kill me? Complete the job?!" 

"No, I won't."

"Then what do you—" Qiu Haitang's eyes grow wider, her face becomes pale, and the struggling grows in intensity "If you think you can take advantage to—!"

"I would never—!"

"Just because you were my fiance doesn't mean I will allow—!"

"I told you I won't—!"

"I swear, if you touch me—!"

"Stop saying that!" 

"You disgusting—!"

"Ok, enough," Tianlang snaps his fingers and both Qiu Haitang and Shen Jiu's mouths snap closed by themselves. 

"It's a pleasure to meet you, young lady," he ignores the 'mmhm's 'hmhmh?'s and 'hmnnhmh!'s both humans make in an attempt to regain their ability to speak, instead bowing at the girl, "My name is Tianlang-jun, I'm Shen Jiu's shizun, and this is my nephew, Zhuzhi-lang," he gestures at Zhuzhi and Qiu Haitang's eyebrows shoot up, he ignores it, "I believe whatever conflict there is between you and my student could impede his ability to cultivate in the future, so it's important for me to solve it. I'll allow you to speak now, but know I can, and will silence you at any moment so try to remain civil." 

He snaps his finger and Qiu Haitang gasps while Shen Jiu's lips continue stubbornly shut. 

"You say you're his teacher?" she says, "then you must know your student is a murderer and a monster! A disgusting demon, ready to betray you at any time!" 

"I will let you know I happen to be a demon too," he makes his eyes glow red, along with the mark on his forehead, "A real one." 

Qiu Haitang stops, she looks between Tianlang and Zhuzhi, then scoffs, "Of course such a scum could only be received by literal demons."

"That's a little prejudiced, don't you think, Miss? One can't help what one's born as." 

"Demon or not, the fact you associate yourself with this," she spits, Qiu Haitang actually spits in Shen Jiu's direction, he's never seen her do something like that, "piece of manure tells me all I need to know about your character." 

"A little harsh, but alright. Jiu'er, anything to add?" he snaps his fingers again. Qiu Haitang's mouth is pulled closed while Shen Jiu's opens.

"Are you planning to make us speak in turns?" he realizes. 

"It's the best way to keep order!" Tianlang smiles.

Shen Jiu glares at him, "You're ridiculous. I finish my turn." 

"Ok then," Another snap, another switch, "Would you mind telling us why you want to kill Jiu'er?" 

"Why?! I'll tell you why!" she yells, "That son of a bitch murdered my family! Burned down my house! We took him in, gave him food, a roof over his head! Treated him like family, even promised my damn hand in marriage! We gave him everything, saved him from the streets, and as a reward everyone was killed by him! My brother! My father! Half of all the servants! I can only assume he left me alive to see me suffer carrying that loss! To rejoice in the knowledge I would have to beg on the streets, go through hunger beyond measure, and live without a place to call home! He deserves a fate worse than death for what he's done to us! I swore on that day I wouldn't rest until I could see his face in agony as—"

"I get the gist of it," Switch, "Shen Jiu, your version of the events?"

"It's exactly as she says, word for word, from the actions to the motive, her recollection is accurate. I merely wanted to make them suffer, so I did. I finish my turn." 

"Good to know," Switch "Now, you—"

"And you even admit to it! You disgusting sack of—!" 

Tianlang silences her, "Don't interrupt me, I'm still talking," he says, "Now, you seem pretty determined on killing my student, but you must realize I can't allow that. Is there some other way for you to let go of this?" Snap.

"Do you hear yourself?! You— How can you be alright continuing teaching him after what he's admited to?! Do demons truly have no heart?!" 

"I've done worse," he shrugs, "I'm not proud of it, but I'm no one to judge. And you Zhuzhi-lang? Do you mind Shen Jiu killed this lady's family?"

"I-I don't really care about strangers..." 

"You all disgust me—!" Snap.

"Good to know, but not the point. Answer no or yes only, is there anything my dear student can do to compensate you other than dying?" Snap.

"Yes." Snap.

"What would suffice?" Snap.

"The only appropriate punishment would be to cut off his arms and legs! Take out of his eyes, cut off his tongue and—!" Snap.

"You must understand I can't allow that either. Is there anything that won't permanently damage him? Yes and no answers only," Snap.

"NO!" Snap.

"Good. In that case we'll knock you out and leave you where you found us. And believe me when I say you will never see us again. Are you truly satisfied with that? It's pretty much the same as just letting it go, only sadder. Please think carefully about your answer," Snap.

It takes a while for Qiu Haitang to speak, "You say I'll never find him again. I already found him once, why should I believe such a thing?" Snap.

"Because now I know you exist, and I won't allow you to meet him ever again," Snap.

"How would you even do that?!" Snap.

"It seems you aren't familiar with my name, if you were, you would know. Let me put it like this, it would take the entirety of the cultivation world to defeat me, and even then I doubt they could kill me. Maybe seal me, at most. Do you think I can't manage something as simple as keeping two people separated with that power?" Snap.

"Why should I believe such a thing? You're bluffing!" Snap.

Tianlang moves very, very close to her, his face right next to Qiu Haitang's, eyes and sigil glowing red, an expression on his face Shen Jiu's never seem before, one that sends shills down his spine,

When he speaks, he does so softly, and calmly, and cold, "How about I go to Kangfu and kill every single student and every single teacher and level all the buildings to the ground using only my little finger? Would that demostration suffice?" 

Qiu Haitang's face grows very, very pale, paler than it's ever been so far, white like a sheet of paper.

Snap.

"I believe you, please don't do that," she whispers. 

"Good!" Tianlang sits up and goes back to his usual, happy self, "So you better think of some compensation that doesn't involve hurting Shen Jiu or just straight up give up this revenge thing! Come on, you look smart, I'm sure you can think of something!" 

The tent grows quiet. It takes a while, but eventually…

"I want him to go with me to the ruins of the Qiu household and apologize to the spirits of those he's killed." 

"Sounds good to me!" 

"Alone. I don't want either of you there, I don't want either of you for the trip," she adds, "it must be a completely personal thing, only that will work,"

"I've never heard a more obvious ploy to kill someone," Tianlang nods, then reaches into his sleeve and retrieves a small cup. He cuts his wrist with one claw and fills it with blood, "then my condition will be for you to drink my blood, that way I will be able to stop you if you try anything. I'll unstick your wrists from the floor so you can drink this, and I hope you realize I can restrain you again at any moment so don't try anything stupid." 

Qiu Haitang's hands separate from where they were splayed on the floor. She sits up and moves to accept the cup. Shen Jiu starts hitting Tianlang on the arm because hey hey hey hey stop that! "Mhmhmhmnhm!! Mhmhn! Mhmhnmnnmn!!" 

"Oh, Jiu'er wants to say something," Tianlang snaps his fingers.

"Don't consent to that!" he exclaims, "He's a heavenly demon, he can control anyone who drinks his blood! He isn't lying when he says it'll prevent you from hurting me! If you drink that you'll really be renouncing the chance to get your revenge! Ever! Is that worth an apology that won't even be sincere?!" 

Qiu Haitang holds the cup between her fingers, she looks at it, at Tianlang, at Shen Jiu, "How do I know he'll cooperate? He might run away in the middle of the trip to the remains of the manor." 

"Glad you ask!" he says, "Jiu'er has already drank my nephew's blood, so he can make sure he complies,"

Zhuzhi and Shen Jiu jolt at that,

"You fuckin asshole—!" 

"J-J-Junshang, I promised—" 

He snaps his finger and the tent goes silent again. "He'll make sure Jiu'er complies, not by controlling him, but simply by telling me if he's moving in the right direction," he turns towards Zhuzhi, "You never promised anything about not sensing his location with your blood," he looks back at Qiu Haitang, "If we notice he's deviating from the path I will personally fly there, tie him up, and hand him back to you. We'll make sure he goes where you want him to, I promise." 

Snap. Only Qiu Haitang's mouth gets free.

"Why should I believe you will keep your word?"

"Would you prefer we knock you out and leave?" 

Before She Jiu can stop her, Qiu Haitang brings the cup to her lips and downs the whole thing. 

"It's a deal. As soon the sun raises, we begin the trip home." 

 

Chapter Text

They untie her and leave her inside the tent. As he exits, Shen Jiu turns to look at her. She glares at him.

Qiu Haitang is left alone. She sits there and massages her ankles and wrists until the pink marks from the ropes fade away. She doesn't check if her knives and needles and everything else is where it should be, because the thought of these people inspecting her person, manhandling her while she's out, taking off her robes— It sickens her, so she doesn't check. 

Instead she sets to explore what she's left with. The tent is relatively small, only the very center is tall enough for her to stand straight without her head hitting the canvas, and she can walk from end to end in six paces. 

Apart from the bedroll she was set on, there's a leather bag and a wooden box, she opens both of them, and finds nothing that would be out of the ordinary for a camping trip: Incense, paper, a bag of dried fruit, a blanket, basic medical supplies, etc. 

She tries going out, but as she's about to open the tent her body freezes. It's not painful, she can breathe, her head can move, but her legs and arms are frozen in place. Before she can start getting scared however, it's gone, like it didn't happen. She goes through the bag and box a second time before she tries again. Once more, she can't. 

It doesn't happen if she just sets herself to place her hands over the entrance, she can stand next to it and touch the flap that closes and opens all she wants, she can even mimic moving to open it, as long as she doesn't actually mean to, but the second she's going to actually pull from it her muscles stop responding to her. 

She sighs, "So that's how it's going to be." 

She knows well what a great effect drinking a single drop of medicine can have. It's not like she didn't believe the claim about the blood, and she doesn't regret it, not yet, but it's still unnerving to experience the control first hand. 

Still, it's a bit unfair she isn't allowed merely going outside, isn't it?! The guarantee is supposed to protect the murderer, not to restrict her. Tomorrow she'll negotiate more exact terms with the demon, not that she has any hopes he'll stick to them. 

...No, she still doesn't regret it. When that man, that thing, Tianlang-jun, looked at her in the eyes, told her he could destroy what little she has left, what little she's built by herself, she felt his power reverberate through her bones and knew she had no chance against it. She gained time, and the space to be alone with that monster. The restriction is still better than having the two signs of death looming nearby, she will find a way around it. Probably. 

She's… it's embarrassing to admit it, but she's a little proud of not having passed out. It's a low bar to cross, but she faced death twice and was still able to make a deal with the devil. As much as that deal might fuck her over in the future, 'I talked— I argued with this being and lived' is more than what she believes most people can say and she can't help but getting some sort of giddiness from it. 

With nothing else she can do, she decides to try to sleep. She spends the entire night not batting an eye, of course.

 


 

As morning arrives, the demons bring her breakfast, and she mentions not being able to go out last night. Tianlang-jun says he wanted to keep Shen Jiu and her apart for the time being, she says she didn't agree to the guarantee to become a puppet, he says most people who become a puppet don't agree to become a puppet and besides why would she have wanted to leave the tent yesterday? Didn't she hate them anyway? she says it's a matter of principles, he says hmm we'll see, so she drops it.

After breakfast she traces the route she wants to take on a map, it should take about two weeks to reach the manor if they only stop to rest. She intentionally picks the long way there and no one calls her out on it.

When the time arrives, she walks away to let them exchange their farewells in private, not because of any kind of respect or sympathy, but rather having those monsters acting like people, saying stuff like "take care" and "good luck" rubs her the wrong way. 

Soon enough, the demons hand her some bags with enough supplies for a trip back and forth for two people, as well as a small pouch they say contains her personal stuff. Inside she finds her weapons, money, and the small bottle of poison she keeps as an amulet inside her under robes. She decides not to think about it. 

Shen Jiu follows her lead at first, but having him walking behind her unnerves her. Qiu Haitang might be impeded from killing him, but there's nothing to keep him from stabbing her while her back's turned, and soon she's looking over her shoulders every three steps, so when he suggest they exchange places she has no choice but to agree, as much as she hates having him being the one setting the pace. 

All in all, the first day of travel passes by rather peacefully. Shen Jiu doesn't say nor does anything of note, and she still feels the lingering traces of yesterday's tension, so isn't quite willing to try anything yet. 

Only after they find a nice set of trees beside the road to set their bedrolls, each against a different trunk, does she reach for a knife coated in venom, and tries to aim at the form of the monster sleeping nearby. She gets to the point where she's bending her elbow, and then her muscles lock.

Fine. She puts the knife back and reaches instead for a needle, the clean ones used for hitting acupuncture spots. She aims, in a way it won't kill him, but will cause some considerable pain, and her muscles still lock. 

Fine. She changes her aim to the spot between the neck and shoulder. It's a common point to hit to release stress, and shouldn't really hurt, it'll be like an insect's sting, at most. Still, her hand won't throw it. 

She wonders why. The last one isn't really harmful, not really. She raises her aim and throws the needle so it's nailed on the trunk behind Shen Jiu, a couple of fingers on top of his head. He doesn't give a satisfying startle, instead calmly sits up and raises an eyebrow at her. 

She lies down on her bedroll and rolls onto her back. 

Again, she doesn't sleep, but this time she doesn't try to. Who knows what might happen if she closes her eyes next to this beast. 

 


 

The second day is the same as the first, they get up, they eat, they walk. This time however, as they make their way through the road, she takes out one of her knives. She holds it so it's pointing forward, directly at Shen Jiu's back, and begins walking faster.

'I'm just walking, I'm just walking' she repeats inside her mind, but it only takes two steps for her feet to stop. She puts the knife away, as expected, it's just impossible to convince yourself you aren't about to kill someone. 

She walks forward and places her hand against Shen Jiu's back. He turns towards her.

"What?" he scoffs. Qiu Haitang ignores him and moves her hand to pull his hair, but her fingers stop before she can touch the strand she's targeting, "The hell is wrong with you?!" Shen Jiu slaps her hand away. 

"Nothing," she shrugs, "why are we stopping?"

"You are the one who—"

"Shut up and keep walking, we have a long way to go."

Shen Jiu glares, but he turns around and keep walking, muttering something that sounds like "Fucking weird," 

That night she lies awake once more. Once she's sure Shen Jiu is sleeping, or at least pretending to sleep, she gathers some vendanges, needles, and her personal bottle of poison. 

It's clear the blood curse works by intent, not the action itself, and Tianlang-jun didn't act like he knew she tried to leave the tent before she complained, so she isn't being monitored, it's an automatic response. She's allowed to touch, but not to harm, not even a little, that means she should be able to kill him, as long as it's an accident.

She wraps her middle finger on vendanges, breaks the tip of a needle, coats it on poison, puts that on her fingertip and wraps it again, so it protrudes a little, but isn't noticeable at first sight. 

She's bound to touch him eventually, it's a two weeks trip. She will make sure to forget it's there, and one of these days she'll touch him with that finger without realizing. She's used to avoiding touching her face, so it's unlikely she'll poison herself without realizing. She still might brew some antidote later though, just in case. 

She lies on her back and stares at the sky, trying not to think about the needle in her finger, but not to think about something is hard, so she tries thinking about something else instead.

'I wonder if Shifu is having a hard time with the little ones without me to assist her…' she thinks, and after more than two days of being awake, she accidentally falls asleep. 



 

Chapter Text

Shen Jiu falls to the floor, the basket is knocked out of his hands and the laundry scatters around him.

He curls around his stomach, and then a second kick lands on his back.

"Stand up, you dog," Qiu Jianluo scoffs. 

Ah. He must be really angry to attack him out in the open. When did he even arrive? Didn't he go to an auction in another city? Shen Jiu was looking forward to some more weeks without bruises. 

He closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, and scrambles to stand up. Qiu Jianluo is immediately grabbing his wrist, dragging him to the usual place. 

Before they reach Qiu Jianluo's study however, 

"A-Luo, you're back!" A-Tang appears from the other side of the hallway and her brother immediately moves his hand from around Shen Jiu's wrist to resting on Shen Jiu's shoulder. 

"A-Tang!" he exclaims, his face immediately softening, "it's so good to see you!" 

A-Tang launches herself to her brother, who immediately doubles down to properly embrace her. He lets go of Shen Jiu to do so, and the child dares to hope he will be able to run. He tries taking a step back, but a quick look sent his way stops him in his tracks. 

"I'm so glad to see you too!" A-Tang exclaims, her face firmly squashed against Qiu Jianluo's chest, unaware of the tension holding Shen Jiu where he stands, "did the auction go well?" 

"Ah, at the end it was canceled, sadly," he replies, letting go of his little sister.

"Oh no! You were so excited about it!"

"It's fine, it's fine," he laughs it off like someone who wasn't about to take out his rage about it on Shen Jiu. It's so different from the way he laughs when kicking him but it doesn't even sound forced, he fucking hates it,  "those things happen, one has to accept things as they come with a smile, A-Tang!" Hypocrite. 

"Oh, I get it! That's so smart!" The hell are you getting anything.

"Well, I'm happy to see you're well, but there are so many things I need to sort out after being away for so long, so," he pats A-Tang's head, and placing a hand on Shen Jiu's back, attempts to push him past the other kid. 

"But you just came back!" she gasps, pulling from Qiu Jianluo's clothes, "I've missed you so much! Can't we do something together first? Pleaseee!" 

Qiu Jianluo sighs, he lets go of Shen Jiu, his shoulders fall, his posture relaxes and a resigned smile grows on his face, "Well, if you insist it can't be helped!" He picks A-Tang by the armpits, and places the laughing child on top of his shoulders, "What do you want to do, A-Tang?" 

"You must see the new dress dad bought me!" she exclaims, grabbing a few strands of Qiu Jianluo's hair and pulling, hard, "Go, my brave steed! Go!"

"A-ah, I'm going, I'm going, A-Tang," Qiu Jianluo's smile strains as he attempts not to show a painful grimace. 

Shen Jiu thinks it's safe for him to escape, but just as he's moving away A-Tang turns towards him, "A-Jiu, you aren't coming?" she asks. He wasn't sure she had even noticed he was there.

"Ah, I'm busy," he forces himself to smile, "I'm sorry, A-Tang!" 

A-Tang frowns, "Weren't you helping A-Luo with his paperwork like always? So if he has time you're free too!" 

"There are other things A-Jiu needs to take care of other than paperwork, A-Tang," Qiu Jianluo explains, "Let him be, now come on, show me your beautiful new dress!" 

"Oh, alright!" she grins, pulls from Qiu Jianluo's hair once more, and Shen Jiu is finally allowed to leave. 

He hopes Qiu Jianluo will be in a better mood after playing with A-Tang, but he knows that's unlikely. 

 

 

He tries to ignore the promise of pain hanging over his head. It's not like there's ever a moment said promise isn't there, but— But he can't help but to be specially unnerved today. Maybe it's because it's been a while since he's been thoroughly damaged, maybe it's because the violence had already been escalating before he left for his trip, but for the first time in a long, long while, he's scared of the pain that's coming. 

So that's why later, when he spots Qiu Jianluo coming his way from the other side of the hall, instead of obediently lowering his head and following, he turns around and runs towards Qiu Haitang's rooms. 

It's stupid, it's incredibly stupid, and he knows he'll be punished later, but he just wants to be fine for no, just for now, just a little longer. He knocks on the door, begs heavens the kid is inside, and when the door opens wastes no time rushing in. 

"A-Jiu? You need something?" she asks, rubbing her eyes, she's in her underobes, and the only light in the room comes from a small lantern in a corner... ah, that's right, A-Tang goes to sleep at eight and it's nine. Qiu Jianluo is going to fucking murder him for this tomorrow.

"We haven't played for a while," he manages to say, "I thought maybe you had time? I- I could read you a story from that book you like!" He doesn't know how to read more than ten characters, but he's heard bits and pieces of A-Tang's father reading to her, he's sure he can fake it. 

"It's late," she yawns, "you should be sleeping too, we'll play tomorrow. Dad always says sleeping is important to have energy the next day!" 

She starts going back to bed in an obvious dismissal, but he reaches to grab arm with both hands and makes her turn towards him.

"A-Tang, can I sleep here tonight?!" The words rush out of his mouth before he can think them over, "I know it's improper, but it's how you say, who cares, right?! It'll be a secret sleepover, doesn't that sound fun?!" 

A-Tang blinks, "Are you ok?" she asks, and if A-Tang is actually noticing something isn't going perfectly around her Shen Jiu must be in a worse state than he thought, "are you sick? Should I tell my dad to call the doctor?" 

"I'm fine, I'm fine!" he tries to regain his usual strained smile, "I just… I just miss you, is all." 

There's a knock on the door. 

"A-Tang?" Qiu Jianluo's voice comes from the other side, "A-Jiu is with you, isn't he? I need to talk with him about something."

A-Tang opens her mouth to reply, but then hesitates when Shen Jiu frantically shakes his head, "No, I was sleeping. You woke me up." 

There's a beat.

"Ah, hahaha, sorry A-Tang, just go back to sleep! Don't tell dad I woke you up!" 

Shen Jiu listens and Qiu Jianluo's steps grow fainter, and then lets himself relax.

"Are you sure you aren't sick?" 

"I just miss you a lot." 

A-Tang smiles, "Alright, I've missed you too, A-Jiu." 

A-Tang pushes him towards the bed, and then insists he climbs in too, and then places her arms around him. Qiu Jianluo is really, truly going to kill him if he ever learns about this. 

He decides he doesn't care right now. He'll be hurt tomorrow, but for now he's fine. So he rests his head against A-Tang's chest and lets himself smell the scent of begonias he's come to associate with temporary safety. 



The sound of something hitting against wood wakes him up. He remains still, opens his eyes slowly, looks around, and sees something shiny stuck to the tree next to him. 

He sits up and turns towards Qiu Haitang, raising one eyebrow. 

She turns around and goes back to sleep. 

Whatever, it's fine, he trusts Tianlang to make sure she doesn't kill him…. 

Oh heavens, did he really just think 'I trust Tianlang to do something'?! Maybe part of his brain stopped working after the poison incident, or Zhuzhi's blood not only gives immunity to toxins but also spreads fucking stupidity. 

Ah, these two are really infecting him with their ridiculousness, as awful as this all is maybe it'll be a good thing he spends some time away from them. 

 

Chapter Text

They travel, and Shen Jiu is pretty sure he can count in one hand how many words they exchange. 

Qiu Haitang tries to never expose her back to him, and he isn't sure if she's sleeping or not. He would be doing the same if he didn't already have the guarantee, so he isn't surprised by that.

She's trying to kill him, he thinks, because sometimes, every three days or so, she'll take a knife to cut meat, or an ax to cut wood, and then she'll freeze for a small moment, before acting like nothing happened. 

It doesn't bother him, not more than usual, if anything it's comforting to know she's trying, because that also means she's failing, so she really can't touch him. 

It's… a bitter kind of comfort. 

He doesn't want to die, of course. He has things to do, becoming strong enough to honor the wishes of two people, finding a corpse, and other less important things, so he can't die, but it seems unfair to take away her chance at revenge. 

He did kill her family. The Qiu were good to Qiu Haitang, he has no doubt about it, and not a fake kind of good either. So what if they were assholes to him? That's for him to get revenge, and he did. If someone killed Qi-ge —if he ever finds who killed Qi-ge— he won't give a shit if it was justified or not, so he can't complain.

He wasn't going to let her kill him either way, so was it really necessary to make her drink the blood? Surely Tianlang had other ways to protect him, he himself said it was permanent, shouldn't it be a last resource? 

But of course Tianlang doesn't care about Qiu Haitang, she's just a step in Shen Jiu's growth. He doesn't care about Shen Jiu either! He himself said if he was a demon he would push him into making more enemies, what kind of care is that? 

He didn't even ask Shen Jiu if he agreed to come. 

It isn't going to solve anything anyways, as if someone would drop a resentment over a stupid hollow apology. This is just inconveniencing everyone. 

 

"Why did you let me live?" 

Shen Jiu stops strocking the fire. He puts the piece of wood down.

They're one day away from their destination, and he can count on one hand the number of times they've spoken. 

"Didn't I already tell you? To make you suffer."

"I'm not suffering right now.'

"So?"

"So why don't you kill me? With the restriction I cannot fight you." 

He forces himself to laugh, "You really think you aren't suffering? You'll pass the rest of your life regretting drinking that blood! You'll stay awake at night, knowing I'm alive and you can't hurt me, knowing you're a useless little child who can't avenge your family anymore! You've tried to hurt me already, haven't you? I've noticed how you freeze sometimes. Nothing will come out of it, you know that, don't you? You say you aren't suffering, but I'm having a great time watching you struggle!" 

By the end of his monologue he's breathing hard, leaning forward towards Qiu Haitang, the light from the dying fire illuminating his face in a way he knows makes him look unstable.

He expects her to yell at him, as she did before, and get a repetition of the argument, this time with no one to mediate. 

Instead she nods, extends her hand as if to touch him, freezes, retracts it, "I thought it was something like that," she says, "but retribution will come eventually. I have to hope for that," and they don't speak anymore. 

That's the only conversation they have on the entire trip there. 







They reach the city, a place he never wanted to see again. The streets are filled with street urchins, as filled as they were when he was one. He recognizes his old favorite spot to beg, now occupied by someone else, some girl with sunken cheeks that isn't cute at all. She would do good teaming up with someone else, ugly kids can only make good money if they team up with someone cuter. 

As they enter the more well off parts of town, Qiu Haitang actually starts walking in front of him, he tries to speed up, to walk beside her, but she just increases her own speed, until eventually they're almost running. 

It suddenly occurs to him he also walked quickly while making his way through the slumps. He wonders if she recognizes the buildings around here. He doesn't, even though he accompanied people many times to these markets, he can't even tell where it was that he met Wu Yanzi for the first time. 

At the very end of the richer parts of town, lies the old property of the Qiu. The remains of charred wood haven't been cleaned away, It looks just how he left it. 

Qiu Haitang stops, just long enough for Shen Jiu to wonder if she's alright, and then walks in, not even saying a word. 

He follows. 

She reaches what used to be the courtyard and… ah, that's right, here's where she saw him, right before passing out.

She kneels. He follows suit.

"Dad. A-Luo." She says, voice surprisingly steady, "I've brought the monster who took your life. I hope having an apology will help you rest in peace." 

She doesn't say anything else, and he realizes that signals it's his turn.

Shen Jiu sighs, what a stupid piece of bullshit. Fine, he's good at saying things he doesn't mean. He kowtows and tries to look remorseful, even though he isn't.

"I sincerely apologize for taking your lives," he lies. When Qiu Haitang doesn't say anything, he assumes that isn't enough, "you took me in, and I turned against the hand that fed me, I know my ungratefulness can't be forgiven, but I express my most sincere apologies," He waits… still not enough? Hm, "this humble beast isn't and was never worthy of your consideration, but I still wholeheartedly hope with this apology your souls might find some semblance of peace." 

….Still not enough? What the fuck does this girl want?! He turns towards her with the intention to ask just that, and finds Qiu Haitang shaking in silence, curled around herself.

"...Qiu Haitang?" he asks, slowly moving closer. When he tilts to look at her face, she finds a bleeding set of eyes, nose and mouth. 

Oh. So this is what a qi deviation looks like.

He rushes to grab her wrist, the other hand moving to rest on her forehead. He has knowledge of the theory of how to treat this, if not practical experience. 

Shen Jiu allows his qi to circulate outside of himself and into the other body, he works in aligning the chaotic energy, straightening the worst of the deviation, he can feel how Qiu Haitang's also fighting to get her own body under control, and for a moment, with both of their efforts, he thinks they'll be able to pull her out of it.

Then her qi blows up, suddenly, erratically and out of proportion, and Shen Jiu, too, is dragged under that wave. 





 

 

 






 

 




 


 

 


 

 


 


 


























 

He wakes up.

He's on a bed, a comfortable, warm bed. It takes him a while to recognize the wooden ceiling, but once he does…

This is… Qiu Haitang's old room. 

A dream? His dreams are more often than not memories, and he's been remembering these times more and more with everything that's been happening, but he's also never been able to recognize when he's asleep as he's now.

He hears water hit against the rooftop, and smells the scent of rain. The bed feels real, his body feels solid. His dreams are detailed, but not to this extent, is this really a dream? 

Before this… he was in the burned estate, helping Qiu Haitang with a qi deviation, and then… he thinks he started to deviate too.

There's a knock at the door, "A-Tang, are still asleep? It's late!" 

Shen Jiu recognizes that voice. It's a voice that makes all his muscles lock into place and his breathing stop. This really must be a dream, for this voice to be here it really must be a dream.

The door slides open, and Shen Jiu remains very, very still, "A-Tang? Come on, it's time to get up." Maybe if he doesn't move he won't see him, maybe he will notice him but won't pay him any attention, maybe it'll be fine, "A-Tang? Is something wrong?"

A hand is placed on his forehead, and Shen Jiu can hear his own blood thrumming between his ears.

"You don't have a fever," Qiu Jianluo says, moving to take hold of his hand, "Your skin is a bit clammy, can you squeeze my hand?" 

Shen Jiu just blinks at this, having no idea what the actual fuck is going on, and Qiu Jianluo's face… it makes a weird expression, it's a frown, but he doesn't seem angry, his eyes are looking right at him, but they don't show the usual disgust, he doesn't look like he's staring at a pile of shit. 

"A-Tang, does something hurt? Why aren't you talking? Can you get up?" Qiu Jianluo's hands move to the sides of his head, close to his neck, too close to his neck, and Shen Jiu can't take it anymore, he kicks him on the stomach, scrambles out of the bed and tries to escape. 

"A-Tang?!" 

He feels a pair of big hands closing around his arms, and instinctively struggles against that hold 'No, no, no! I don't want this again, I can't go through this again'  

He doesn't actually expect the struggle to do anything, it's never done anything, it's never been of any use but to make Qiu Jianluo more angry... But, to his surprise, he actually lets go. 

Shen Jiu rushes to the other side of the room. That's not where the door is, he should have run towards the door, but at the moment, all he can think is getting as far away as this man as possible. He hits the opposite wall, and slides to the floor while fighting to regain control of his breathing.

When he looks again at Qiu Jianluo, the man's eyes are very open, his mouth hangs slack. He stands from where he was sitting on the bed, and with uncharacteristic slowness comes to kneel in front of Shen Jiu.

"What's wrong?" he says, and Shen Jiu is in too much of a panic to do little more than shiver when Qiu Jianluo tucks a strand of hair behind his ear, "Did you have a nightmare? You know you can tell gege about it," he gives a hesitant smile.

Shen Jiu blinks. "Are you…" he swallows, "are you talking to me?" 

Qiu Jianluo tips his head to a side "Do I have any other sister I don't know about?" he tries to joke.

Shen Jiu pushes him away and marches towards the full body mirror hanging next to the dresser as if possessed, the rushing of blood moving through his veins becoming louder and louder with each step. 

Inside the mirror, to his horror, instead of his own reflection a young Qiu Haitang stares back. 

"What the fuck?" 




Chapter Text

"Is he following the path?" 

"He is." 

"Good," Tianlang-jun picks up his book and retakes his readings.

It's been a couple of days since Shen Jiu left alongside the lady, hm, Qiu Haitang he thinks she was called? 

He and Zhuzhi-lang went back to the town and rented a good space in an expensive inn, because the gremling of money savings isn't here to yell at them for once. 

"I-is that a human rib?" Zhuzhi-lang says, he looks up. His nephew is watching something through the window, he moves closer to take a peak.

Down on the street a dog is chewing on a bone. 

"Human ribs are curved, other animals' tend to be more straight. Monkeys' are also curved but they're smaller." it certainly seems like a human bone, "it either comes from a human or from another humanoid creature."

"What's the chance of it not being human?"

"Unlikely." 

Zhuzhi-lang nods. Tianlang-jun raises an eyebrow, what's up with that? 

Hm. Oh, well, whatever, he goes back to his book. 

As he's turning a page, he feels the girl fighting against the restriction again. He isn't checking on exactly what she's doing, between him keeping her actions in check and Zhuzhi-lang monitoring Shen Jiu's health he isn't worried about her murder attempts, and direct surveylance would take too much of his attention. For the moment he just set the parameters to 'freeze when intending to cause physical harm' and let the blood do its thing, but he still feels a weak pull from it when it flares up. 

He's got to respect her stubbornness, this is the third time today.

Twenty pages later he asks again, "Is he still following the path?" 

 


 

"How is Jiu'er doing?" Tianlang-jun asks, and when he receives no answer he looks up.

Hm. He's the only person in the store. Now where did his precious nephew go? 

He stands at the door and looks around, he spots him in a nearby alleyway…. opening a cat's stomach? And retrieving something from it? Huh.

Well, let him have his snack in peace, he isn't going to scold him for playing with his food. 

Tianlang-jun goes back inside the store. The young lady is walking at a constant pace anyway, she probably wouldn't if Shen Jiu had ran away.

 


 

"How… How many bones does a human have?" Zhuzhi-lang asks over breakfast. 

"270 as babies, 206 as adults," he immediately answers. 

"H-how can one tell if t-two bones belong to the same skeleton?" 

Tianlang-jun blinks. Oh, what is this? What is this? Is his nephew finally getting interested in humans?! 

Ah, although Tianlang-jun is more into their culture than biology— but hey! He isn't going to be picky with how Zhuzhi-lang shows his interest! Everyone has their own entry points! He himself first got interested in humans via learning about farming techniques, you know! Let the kid like biology, and Tianlang-jun will later find how to link that interest to other areas!

"If it's related to humans leave it to me!" he proclaims, puffing out his chest, "now, on how to know if two bones have the same source you'll have to break a piece of each one and……." 

 


 

The young lady is very impatient today. It seemed like she had calmed down, but today she's been trying to go against the blood restriction at least twenty times now. Shen Jiu must be really pissing her off.

It's honestly making it hard to concentrate on the poetry book he bought yesterday. 

He has half a mind of twisting her insides a little, just to send a message that some people are trying to relax, but if she starts crying in pain in front of Shen Jiu he's going to know who did it and then get mad about it, so it's best not to. 

'Still, damn, lady, it's too early for murder attempts! Do you at least have a plan to exploit the loopholes?! Or are you just trying to get past the rules through brute force?!'

"I-I'm heading out," Zhuzhi-lang says, he waves goodbye at him. With the blood constantly telling him the girl's trying to kill Shen Jiu, Tianlang-jun doesn't think he'll need his nephew to know if the kid's still near her.

"Have fun." 

He returns some hours later, covered in mud up to his waist, "Junshang, is this a rock or a bone?" he asks, but Tianlang-jun is too invested in this part of the book, so he doesn't even look up.

"If it sticks to your tongue it's a bone, otherwise it's a rock," he simply says. 

".........oh, it's a bone." 

 


 

He oversleeps, and exactly in the day he was supposed to be actually paying attention. When he wakes up, the lady has already reached the city. However, he doesn't think she's at the ruins of her old home just yet. 

Her breathing is more irregular than usual and her heart is beating fast, but it's not to the extreme he would expect if she was back in the crime scene. 

He looks for his nephew and does not find him in their expensive rooms, so he moves downstairs to ask the owner. 

"Oh, he went to the graveyard," the owner answers with an admirable level of disinterest. 

"The graveyard?" 

"That's right, he came to the reception carrying a big leather bag and a shovel, and asked where the graveyard was."

"Huh."

Well, at least he's being proactive on his interests. Good for him!

Tianlang-jun could go there to find him, but he's pretty confident Shen Jiu will be with the girl, and what follows isn't too hard, so at the end he decides to take care of things himself. 

Besides, today is such a perfect day to spend it lazing around inside, and the inn they got is so nice for once, they can never get nice inns with Shen Jiu here, he might as well enjoy it.

About three hours later, the young lady stops moving, her heart is beating even faster than before, and it seems she's forcing her breathing to slow down in order to avoid hyperventilating. She's most likely in position, so Tianlang-jun stirs this and that and gives her a small qi deviation. She was already in an altered state anyway, this plan wouldn't work otherwise, so he just needs to give a small push for her to take the half step left. 

He waits a couple of minutes, but no one interferes… Was he wrong? Maybe Shen Jiu isn't present? Or is he going to let her die in front of him? Doesn't sound like him, he did seem to clearly care about this girl before they left.

Tianlang-jun's about to call it a failure and set things back in order, when a familiar energy enters the lady's body. There he is!

Shen Jiu attempts to straighten the flow, and Qiu Haitang is also fighting, trying to close and open this and that path. Soon they almost have the minor deviation under control and he feels very proud of his student for remembering what to do in these situations.

Still. Tianlang-jun hooks a finger and pulls from both treads, he braids them together, switching the side of each end, and coils the resulting string, then holds thigh for a moment before letting it go. He sends a wisp of qi through the blood to fix any misalignment when he's done, and both strands line up nicely before Shen Jiu's energy disconnects from the girl's.

He's just making sure the experience wasn't too harsh on the girl's body when Zhuzhi-lang bursts through the door.

"J-J-Junshang!" he exclaims, "W-what did you—!" Ah, no doubt his nephew felt him twisting Shen Jiu a little. Just a little bit, really. His concern is very cute. 

"Don't worry, don't worry," he brushes it off, "it'll be good for them in the long run!" 

Tianlang-jun's confident his plan will be a success at the end. As much as Shen Jiu says he killed the girl's family for no reason, that's unlikely given how much he cared about her life. He doesn't know what exactly happened, but he's pretty sure if this doesn't force them to address whatever conflict they have then it's truly a futile battle, understanding is at the core of any reconciliation after all.

It's in moments like this he wishes he had learned how to properly manipulate dreams though! Then he could have skipped all this trip and fixed things two weeks ago by himself! But as it stands, he only knows enough to stimulate already existing feelings and guide them into constructing their own illusion, instead of just building it for them. 

Ah, but in that case he wouldn't have been able to rent a good place, so maybe it's for the best they had to travel!

His nephew still looks apprehensive, biting his fingernails and looking at a side. Zhuzhi-lang frowns, as if concentrating and, oh, is he also making sure the experience didn't hurt their precious companion too much? Truly, these two's friendship is adorable. 

"Anyway, where's your skeleton?" Tianlang-jun changes the topic. His nephew blinks.

"My… skeleton?"

"You know, the one you stole from the graveyard." 

Zhuzhi-lang blinks again, once, twice, then straightens up, "Ah, n-no, it's the other way around! I was burying something! Burying! N-not—" 

"There's no shame in digging up corpses, Zhuzhi-lang!" he insists, "don't feel bad for admitting to it!" 

"I- I wasn't—"

"I won't judge you! I desecrated many graves when I was young too, this uncle understands!" 

"Junshang, I really wasn't—" 

"Anyway, Jiu'er will probably be mad when he gets back," if he realizes the experience was Tianlang-jun's doing, there's no doubt he'll have a couple of rude things to say about it. Ungrateful brat, "let's see if we can find a store selling quality fans!" 

Chapter Text

"A-Tang, I asked the cooks to make your favorite,"

"Go away."

"I'll let it here, just, in front of the door..."

"Go away."

"A-Luo and I are very worried, if anything happened to make you…"

"Go. Away." 

"Well, I know I've been busy… and haven't been able to spend time with you lately, I understand if you're angry about that... but I want to make sure you know baba loves you, right?"

"Is everyone in this damn house fucking deaf?! Go the fuck away! Get away from me! Leave! Me! Alone!" 

"...Alright. Please at least try to eat, even if it's just a little." 

Shen Jiu hears the person at the other side of the door stand up and walk away. 

He takes a deep breath, and slides the door open, just a little. As promised, a bowl of wonton noodles and another smaller plate with fried tofu has been left by the door. Shen Jiu slides the plate of tofu inside. He's able to get three bites past the lump clogging his throat before his stomach protests and he vomits a mouthful of tofu and bile on the same plate. 

"Seriously…" He's never been someone who throws up easily, that would be such a desperdice of food. If anything he's the kind of person who can eat anything at any moment and any place. 

Qiu Haitang's body seems to throw up easily though, it's such an inconvenience.

He throws the plate out, the sound of it breaking is nice. He shuts the door again. 

What a waste. 

It's been… some time since he ended in this… dream. It's honestly hard to tell how long it's been, it feels like days, like weeks, but also like hours.

He hasn't left this room at all in that time and somehow they haven't dragged him out, only shoved a poor doctor inside and after hearing nothing's really wrong with him left him be. He's glad about it, he doesn't think he could bear it, if he had to keep seeing their faces. 

Both Qiu Haitang's father and brother have been coming to talk to him through the door every now and then though. It would be nice if that stopped too. Somehow this misplaced concern is more unsettling than what he's used to. 

Shen Jiu curls up in a corner and hugs his legs. He hopes he wakes up soon. 










"A-Tang, I brought some congee."

"I don't want it."

"I know you don't really like it, but me and dad thought it might be easier for you to eat…"

"Leave. Now."

"It's got bits of braised pork! That's… probably not as good for your stomach, now that I think about it, but, I thought it would make it a bit tastier, so—"

"Is it too fucking hard to understand you're the person I want to see the least in the entire world?! Leave!" 

"...Alright. I'll just leave it here." 





Shen Jiu doesn't sleep on Qiu Haitang's bed. He refuses. He curls up in a corner and rests there. The smell of begonias sticks to his skin, viscous and warm, sickly sweet, and with each breath he feels the walls constricting around him. 

This place used to be his sanctuary, the only place he could run to in order to breath. But it was only meant to be that, a momentary rest. He doesn't belong here in the long run, this isn't his place. 

The manor is a place to get hurt, that's all it can be for him, that's all it could have ever been for him. Wearing nice clothes, eating warm food, sleeping in a soft bedding. That's wrong. That's so wrong. It doesn't go with this place, it never did, it never could have, and each nice thing only serves to make him ever more aware of the scars he isn't carrying right now.

People like him can't find more than a momentary peace in here, that's a lesson carved in every corner of his soul. This is different from his memories, and that compassion burns.

It makes him sick. 





"A-Tang, I was thinking we could go to the market today, how does that sound? Just you, me, and maybe A-Luo too, it'll be a fun family outing! We haven't had those in a while."

"It sounds awful. Let me be."

"O-oh… alright. I just thought… Is there anything else you would rather do? Anything at all? Do you want me to read you a story?"

"No. Now leave."

"A-Tang, please, won't you just tell baba what's wrong?"

"I would rather die." 






His stomach hurts and he recognizes this sensation as hunger. It's been a while since he's been so hungry his stomach starts to twist itself, ah, how nostalgic. How are you doing old friend? 

He opens the door, and finds a bowl of soup. He thinks it's what they left this morning, but when he goes to retrieve it, it's warm. He didn't notice when they changed it, he really must be in a worse state than he originally thought if he didn't notice. 

He downs half the bowl, firmly covers his mouth with one hand and only stops when he's sure it's settled in his stomach. 

It tastes good. He wishes it tasted bad. He wishes it was cold. 





"How about we walk to the garden and back? Just a short walk. Staying in your room like this isn't really healthy,"

"I don't give a shit and you shouldn't either."

"Of course I care! I'm your brother, I—"

"Leave!" 

"I'll leave, don't worry. Just… think about leaving your room and walking around, it's fine if it's by yourself. Just— Maybe try to get some sunlight?" 






One night the walls are especially oppressive, Shen Jiu steps outside Qiu Haitang's room. 

Shen Jiu's good at avoiding people in these hallways, he still remembers the paths people avoid at these hours, what boards make sound when stepped on, what's the best position to stick to the shadows. 

He isn't going anywhere, he isn't trying to go anywhere, and yet, suddenly, he realizes his feet are taking him to Qiu Jianluo's study. 

He should leave. This is the one place he never wants to visit again. And yet… And yet, he approaches this room and places his ear against the door. 

There's the soft sound of something being hit, muffled grunts, he thinks he can make out Qiu Jianluo's voice saying something like "Disgusting little beast, if you don't stand up right now I'll kill you, don't test me," 

He closes his eyes, and just listens to it, and it's like each hit scratched his skin bit by bit, this ill fitting suit, branded again the scars he knows should be there, fixed his reflection. It burns. 

He hears Qiu Jianluo's steps approaching the door, but Shen Jiu doesn't run. He just stands there, and waits. 

Qiu Jianluo opens the door. His face is decorated by very dark eyebags, his skin pale. Shen Jiu feels his shredded costume's got to be transparent right now, and waits for the recognition of the street rat he so obviously is, waits for his face to twist into an ugly glare and for him to raise his hand.

Qiu Jianluo's face brightens. "A-Tang!" 

Ah.

Shen Jiu feels sick. 

He turns around and starts marching back to the borrowed room.

"A-Tang, wait!" Qiu Jianluo follows, "I- I know it's very late, but since you left your room why don't we make an exception and do something? Anything you want!"

Shen Jiu stops, but doesn't turn around, "Anything?"

"Sure, anything!"

"Can I enter your study?"

"Ah"

"You never let me, can I enter your study?" 

"Maybe… Maybe tomorrow,"

"Why not right now?"

"One of our dogs bit one of the servants. I have it locked in there."

"I thought I heard something being hit. Was that it?"

"I was punishing it, just a little... it almost bit off that girl's hand, you see. Something has to be done." 

"Ah, I see." Shen Jiu keeps walking, "I'm going back to my room."

"Don't- Don't you want me to at least carry you?!" Shen Jiu feels two hands coming to his sides and quickly slaps them away.

"Don't touch me!" he exclaims, turning to glare at Qiu Jianluo.

"...I'm sorry," he simply answers, actually looking remorseful for once.

He can't take any more of this. He's going to throw up. Shen Jiu runs towards Qiu Haitang's room.

"A-Tang wait!" Qiu Jianluo follows, but doesn't open the door when Shen Jiu locks himself inside, "A-Tang, come on…"

"Leave me alone!"

"A-Tang!" Qiu Jianluo lets out a strangled, frustrated sound, and Shen Jiu feels more than hears him resting his back against the door and sliding to the floor. "A-Tang, please, just tell me what's wrong! Why won't you leave your room?! Why won't you talk to us?!"

"It's none of your business. Now leave." 

"A-Tang…" he whines, "Come on, at least tell me what's wrong!"

"It's not your fucking problem!"

"Of course it's my problem…"

Neither of them say anything for a moment, just enough for the silence to become uncomfortable, and then,

"I still have the bracelet you made me," Qiu Jianluo says. The meaning is lost in Shen Jiu.

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"Ah, well, I suppose you were very young…" his voice wavers just a moment, and then becomes steady again, "When you were, like, four or five I think, you were making bracelets for everyone, me, dad, the servants.

"I don't know how, you said it was a bird but I'm still not so sure, but, somehow one of them, the one you later gave to me, it ended dangling from the top branches of a tree. I don't really know how you climbed all the way up, I just know I came running as soon as I heard you scream,

"You were stuck and didn't know how to get down. It wasn't even that tall of a tree… I told you to jump, and that I would catch you, but you were too scared to do that,

"And I said… Do you remember what I promised back then?"

"I don't, and I don't care. Just shut up and leave." 

"I told you," his voice cracks a little, "that I would never let anything bad happen to you. I still stand by it. But, A-Tang, your gege can't read minds. If you don't tell me what's wrong, I won't be able to fix it! So please…" 

Shen Jiu breathes. He forces himself to breathe. The pressure that's been building inside his chest ever since he came here feels like it's swelling and it's going to crack his ribs.

Ahhh… 

He finally realizes why he dislikes having these people being nice to him so, so, much. He finally realizes why not being hurt hurts so much more than being hit.

"You can be so kind."

"Hm? Well, I guess I try to—"

"And that just makes everything so much worse."

"Huh?" 

Shen Jiu stands up, he walks towards the mirror, the one he covered with the bedsheets, he pulls from the cloth, and that wrong reflection greets him.

All this time. 

All that time.

He always thought, he was always so sure, there was something about him, there was something about these people, there was just a very basic thing that separated them, that made it so they could only bring him pain.

Of course the Qiu used to beat him up, it was in their nature to recognize the likes of him, to hurt the likes of him!

But is there really such a difference? 

Qiu Jianluo is being nice to him. Qiu Jianluo doesn't recognize him, doesn't see he's a rat from the streets. Was there really something inside him that set things so he had to bring him pain? 

No… No… Shen Jiu realizes just now, and the discovery is enough to almost make him trip.

That son of a bitch didn't have to, he just chose to be cruel!

All this time it seemed so natural, so normal, that of course they weren't nice to him, he was a street rat. How could he ever deserve their kindness?! He always resented the extra cruelness, but it's not like he thought there was the option for them to ever be good!

And yet what he sees in his reflection, isn't it superficial? Isn't the costume paper thin? This is Shen Jiu, despite the appearance, despite the lack of scars, be it that he smells like blood and sweat or begonias, this is definitely, unequivocally Shen Jiu.

These people chose this. It wasn't an inevitable destiny, it had nothing to do with him, someone just wanted to hurt him and so he did. Someone who didn't have to choose that. 

Ah. 

He wants to kill them

He wants to see the house burn again

He wishes he had tortured them more 

He thought he hated them but no. No, he was just angry about finding himself in pain.

Now he hates them. 

With the little strength of this body, he takes the mirror off the wall and throws it to the floor.

"I HATE YOU EVEN MORE THAN BEFORE!"  

All this time. 

ALL THIS TIME. 

ALL THIS FUCKING TIME THIS PERSON KNEW HOW TO BE NICE. 

"A-Tang, what are you doing?!" the noise of the crash must have been enough to push Qiu Jianluo into entering the room. 

Shen Jiu grabs a piece of the broken mirror and slashes him with it. It's just a cut, a superficial cut on the arm, but it feels more satisfying than running a sword through him. 

Qiu Jianluo grabs his wrists, forces him to let go of the shard, and for a moment, just a moment, Shen Jiu is convinced he'll hit him again, just like before. Just like he should. 

'Show me you were never human. Show me you don't really know how to be good. Show me this is just the kind of people we are' 

Warm arms wrap around him. His face is pressed against Qiu Jianluo's chest, and he's held so he can't move. But it doesn't hurt.  

"Shhhhh, shhhhh. It's ok, A-Tang. It's ok. I got you, don't cry..."

Ah….

It never had anything to do with what they were, did it? At the end even Qiu Jianluo is a person. Just as himself. Humans, nothing more, nothing less.

And to think Shen Jiu always believed himself to be hateful.

And to think he didn't realize anger and hatred were different things.

The truth is, the truth he just realizes, right now, right this second… All his life, Shen Jiu never really experienced what hatred is... until now.

Now he knows what hating someone is like.

"Please die." 

 


 

Some time later, the remains of the mirror have been removed and his hands have been bandaged from when he cut himself with the shards. He's back in Qiu Haitang's room.

On the bed.

There's no reason for him not to lie on it. It isn't too good for him, there's no reason for him to feel pain, and this bed isn't too good for him. 

Everything was just the whim of a person who knew how to be nice, and wasn't. 

What a waste.

If he wants to lie on it he will damn well lie on it.

There's a knock at the door.

"I said I don't want to see anyone."

"....Can I please come in?"

Oh

He recognizes that voice too. Even better than the voices of the Qiu.

Shen Jiu opens the door, and finds his reflection standing at the other side, the right one this time, shaking from head to toe.

He is so small…

He never thought it mattered, but he really was oh so very small.

Someone chose to hurt this small kid.

Shen Jiu grabs his own hands, and draws the kid to sit on the bed. He sits next to him, and immediately the little Shen Jiu buries his face on the fake Qiu Haitang's shoulder and begins to cry.

Shen Jiu doesn't remember being so obvious. There were one or two incidents in which he was specially careless, but he doesn't remember being this obvious. 

In the back of his head, this is a thought that's been circling for a while now...

If he's here, wearing this appearance, then this person who looks like him...

"Are you—?" 

No

No

That would be too horrible.

He doesn't want to know.

Shen Jiu shakes his head "Nevermind," he mutters, and the other him doesn't seem like he heard.

His memory from this time is filled with little holes anyway. Who knows, maybe there was a time he was this obvious about crying.




But man…

He really was very, very small. 

 

Chapter Text

He doesn't know how long it's been. This world's sense of time seems to be a little distorted, at first time stretched and stretched and kept stretching until Shen Jiu could have sworn there were entire years slotted between each day, and part of it was probably his own discomfort, yes, but not everything. Now it's moving faster.

Since the day he broke the mirror, it's like each week skips one entire year. It's not really like he goes to sleep and wakes up in the future, he has some vague awareness of days and days and days passing by, but rather, like in a dream, it feels like a speeding blur with short spots of lucidity. He realizes time's passed, but can't really feel it until it's already behind him. 

That's a relief, he doesn't want to stay too long in this world. If he were to go back to reality right this second it wouldn't be soon enough.

It could be worse, he supposes. He spends all his time in Qiu Haitang's room, insistent on not having to see these people's faces if it isn't needed, and other than leaving him food and speaking to him through the door they don't really try anything else to drag him out, even as the growth of this body and the change of seasons tell him the years have started to pass. 

The only person he lets in is the younger version of himself. The other Shen Jiu will knock at his door now and then, sometimes with the pretext of wanting to play a game, as used to do, sometimes just to take a moment to rest in this safe space, with neither of them saying anything, just sitting close by. 

He hasn't cried again, not in front of him, and the visits have turned more and more sporadic as time passes. He very consciously does not think about this other Shen Jiu more than strictly necessary. 

Now that some time passed, things have calmed down and Shen Jiu is able to think more clearly, he's pretty sure by now this world is, at least partially, made out of memories, both his and Qiu Haitang's. It took him a while to remember, but this situation isn't completely unprecedented. 

There was this one time, when he was around thirteen, that Qiu Haitang had a horrible tantrum, he doesn't know what caused it. She locked herself in her room, and her family had to leave her food just as they do now. He doesn't know if they also spoke to her through the door as they do here, but it wouldn't surprise him.

The whole affair lasted a great total of two and a half day, and Shen Jiu didn't remember it until now because that time has been fondly labeled in his memories as 'That one time Qiu Jianluo almost fucking kills him for real', leaving little space to care about how the lady of the house was doing.

It would make sense, if neither he nor Qiu Haitang know how her family would react to the current situation, for this world to drag from the most extreme case they know about. 

Shen Jiu expected noticing this world isn't quite right would take away some of the uncomfortable feelings he found while in here, after all, realizations found via lies ouch to be lies too, right? But that doesn't happen. He still hates, he isn't merely angry, he hates. Because even if it isn't fully real, fake isn't the same as false, and it's still based on real things, isn't it? 

A part of him already knew Qiu Jianluo could be kind, he didn't want to admit it, but he knew, he saw it, back then. When he would drop everything to play with his sister, when he would joke with his friends the few times they had visitors and he thought no one was watching, when he had to act as if he was nice to Shen Jiu because Qiu Haitang was watching. The asshole was capable of being good, there wasn't anything forcing him not to be. He just wanted to. Shen Jiu already knew, this experience just drilled it in. 

Really, the only thing noticing the inconsistencies of this place has done is keeping him from burning the building again. He has no interest in killing a copy, no matter how well done, and he also has no interest in having Qiu Haitang kill her brother without him ever knowing why, if Qiu Jianluo's going to die, he has to know it comes from Shen Jiu's hand. 

Because… the fire will still happen, won't it? 

It has to. When thinking about this house, about everything that happened here, that's the linchpin. Everything that transpired after everything that came before, it culminates in that event, he can't imagine a world in which it doesn't happen, in which this situation leads to anything but the killing and the fire, so the dream shouldn't be able to show such a world either… Well, maybe Qiu Haitang can imagine it. 

If the final date comes and goes, and this simulacrum goes on as if nothing happened, he supposes he'll have no choice but to tarnish this costume with the blood of her own family. But for now, he's willing to wait. 

 


 

There's not a single indicator of when the fire is bound to happen, at least none he can catch from Qiu Haitang's room. No sound, no sighs, no special event to tell him it's the time, and yet, when the day comes, he knows. He knows for a long time before he even smells smoke. There's just something, some feeling in the air, that tells him it's coming.

He doesn't sleep the night before, and decided to forgo eating for the day. He spends the entire morning and afternoon curled next to the door, still like a statue while at the same time every nerve in his body begs him to move.

In the evening, just as he's getting anxious about whether or not it'll happen again, he hears quick steps rushing through the hallway, accompanied by hushed voices, quietly panicking. 

He opens the door, and the servants moving from one place to another ignore him as he makes his way to the other side of the building, where Qiu Jianluo's study is. 

The door is open, he enters and closes it behind him. It takes him a moment to find him, with how disorganized the room is, the broken furniture scattered through the floor, decoration pulled from the walls, but eventually he sees him, on a corner of the room, Qiu Jianluo's corpse lies. 

Shen Jiu squats next to it. "You brought this upon yourself," he says. His eyes are closed, so Shen Jiu pokes at the eyelids until one of them is resting open again, "You know you brought this upon yourself, don't you? You have nothing to complain about, this is your own fault.

"You know, I used to tell myself it couldn't be helped, but it really could, couldn't it? You basically pointed a knife to your neck, was it worth it having something to kick?

"Why couldn't you have learned to punch walls or lock yourself inside your room to scream? I don't care how bad your temper was, there are people who break furniture when they get angry. Although I suppose it was cheaper to use me for that than breaking your own stuff… is it still cheaper now?

"I know I already apologized, but honestly I don't regret it one bit. I'm not sorry at all. What did you expect would happen?"

He sighs. Shen Jiu doesn't even know why he's doing this. What's the use of speaking to a corpse? A fake corpse at that.

Still. He brings his face closer to Qiu Jianluo's, and smiles.

"This little sister is very disappointed in her big brother, A-Luo. I hope your soul rots in hell."

He leaves the study, just in time for the first wisps of smoke to come from the hallway.

Shen Jiu thinks he knows where Qiu Haitang's father lies, and even contemplates visiting him too, but at the end decides against it.

It's not like he doesn't despise the man too, he knew what was happening, was perfectly ok with it. But, at least he never touched Shen Jiu, not because he ever thought of him as a person, just out of respect for others' property. Still, it means he doesn't feel much of a need to visit him.

It's about time he gets in position anyway, isn't it? 

The main courtyard isn't far. He gets there, sits where he's supposed to, and waits for the building to burn.

The smoke keeps accumulating around him, and eventually, the fire starts to show, spreading through the walls to the ceiling, consuming the wooden columns, making this and that part of the structures fall on top of itself. 

The servants run all around him, either carrying water buckets or stolen stuff, first in high quantities, but dwelling as the fire rides. By the time none of them are left running around the courtyard, the person he was waiting for appears.

He has to agree with Qiu Haitang on this, he really looks like a monster. A robe covered in bloody patches, his hair completely undone, eyes wide open bouncing inside his skull the only fraction of his face that hasn't been turned gray and black with ashes. 

On his right hand, a sword with its' blade turned red.

"Ah, what is happening," he recites from memory, not really putting any effort into giving it the proper emotion, "A-Jiu, is that you, it can't be, it can't be, what is the meaning of this, what have you done," 

The figure turns towards him, and begins to approach. This is the point where he's supposed to lie down and pretend to sleep, but he doesn't feel like it.

He's always wondered: what would he have said, if Qiu Haitang hadn't passed out? 

Shen Jiu comes to a stop, only a couple of steps apart from him, sword starting to shake with the force he's putting into holding it.

"Pathetic imitation," the other him mutters, "pathetic imitation, badly done, why is she still awake?" 

Shen Jiu blinks, "...what are you—"

"Wrong. Wrong! This is all wrong. Why are you still awake?! Don't look at me like that!" the reflection yells, slashing the air around him with the sword, the hand that isn't holding it tugging from his own hair, "You are nothing more than a badly done illusion! What would you know?! Go away, go away! None of this is real!" 

Ah… this is 

The sword falls to the floor as the other person throws themselves at Shen Jiu. Both of them end on the floor, faces very close from each other, bloody hands gripping his shoulders, pinning Shen Jiu to the ground.

The can feel warm tears landing on his face.

"This isn't how it happened! You're wrong! My family— My family was good! Kind! Dad! A-Luo! I didn't do this, this isn't how it happened! I love them, I didn't do this! I would never do this! They would never do this! They love me! He betrayed us! None of this is true! This is all nothing but a stupid farce!"

Shen Jiu feels his stomach drop. Those words, those words that can only belong to someone—

Well, of course, if he's wearing this skin then isn't an obvious question to ask where was the other person? All this time, where was the other person? 

He's been trying very hard not to think of this obvious question. He's been trying to ignore this obvious answer. Because…

 

Because if he's right

 

That's cruel. 

 

That's way too cruel. 
















"A-Tang? Is that you?"











"......A-Jiu?"