Shiwu was focusing his whole being on the training sword in his hand. He tried to ignore is thoughts, to stop thinking alltogether and let his inner qi flow and determine his movements, while he went through another sequence of the Azurewave Sword Arts. His shizun had shown it to him and his two shidi Yuwen Song and Duan Ying only two days ago and they had been repeating it since then. Today they had gathered on a small patch of grass and went through the sequence again and again while their shizun was having a meeting with the elders.
Shiwu took a step forward and made a stabbing motion with his sword.
"I thought the esteemed Mount Xuandu Sect taught the Azurewave Sword Art. By how low you hold the tip of your sword one would assume it was called Brown earth Sword Art. What are you fighting? A vole?" The voice cut through the quiet atmosphere like a sharp sword through a bamboo forest, sharpened by arrogance and mockery, cutting everything before it.
Shiwu couldn't help it as a shiver ran down his spine and he stopped his movements immediately. Out of the corner of his eyes he saw that his shidi had stopped as well and stared at the two men who had appeared to their right.
Both men needed no introduction as they were regular guests on Mount Xuandu. It was the Sect Leader of Huanyue Sect Yan Wushi and his disciple Yu Shengyan.
And right now this Sect Leader, a person Shiwu normaly tried to avoid whenever possible, was looking right at him, his gaze utterly unimpressed, his hands clasped behind his back, as always exuding an air of absolute superiority. Shiwu gulped and couldn't bring any of his limps to move. He had never been able to overcome the fear he felt whenever he saw this man. And he had never understood how his shizun... his good natured, kind and good in every way possible shizun had found himself drawn to someone like the Sect Leader of Huanyue Sect, who was so at odds with every character trait the Sect Leader of Mount Xuandu embodied. He assumed that he was still too young and inexperienced to understand. And he trusted his shizun.
His shidi Duan Ying saved him from further embarrassment when he clasped his hands and bowed before the sect leader. "Welcome back to Mount Xuandu, Sect Leader Yan. Please advise these poor disciples." Drawing the attention and thus the penetrating gaze of the Sect Leader of Huanyue Sect to himself and away from Shiwu, Shiwu was able to breathe again and scrambled to greet the Sect Leader as well. He clasped his hands, bowed and also uttered a weak "please", supporting Duan Ying's plea. Yuwen Song finally bowed as well but rather reluctantly and wasn't even trying to hide it. Shiwu was convinced that this shidi would someday get them all killed... but at least not today.
Yan Wushi looked at the three strays... disciples Shen Qiao had aquired when he hadn't been watching. Shiwu, the eager one. Duan Ying, the calm one. And the troublesome Yuwen Sin? Sang? San? He inwardly sighed. Why bother with their names? They were so far beneath him he couldn't even see them from where he stood... leave it to Shen Qiao to again and again drag them into his field of vision... Now at least two pair of eyes were watching him expectantly and he was tempted to just wander off and see their hopeful expectations being crushed under his heels... what a funny endeavour it would be! Then he remembered that thin boy in rags, he and Shen Qiao had met in front of the city gate of Xuandu town, closer to death than to life, who despite all odds had come out on top and had saved Shen Qiao's life after Yan Wushi himself had knowingly thrown him to the wolves and left him to die... this child...
"Hand me your sword!" He held out his hand towards Duan Ying, his eyes still on Shiwu. Duan Ying scrambled to follow the order and dilligently handed his sword over to the sect leader.
"Do it again!", the Sect Leader of Huanyue Sect ordered with a harsh voice and Shiwu dared not to hesitate.
Shiwu took the opening stance, let his qi flow and moved through the first few steps without difficulty. When he came to the critical part, the stab that had caused him problems before, he focused everything he had on the execution of the move. He took a lunge forward and made the stabbing motion. As soon as he finished, a soft metallic sound could be heard and he felt his sword being lifted by something and finally held in a certain position. When he opened his eyes, he saw that Sect Leader Yan had used Duan Ying's training sword to guide his sword into the correct position. His sword now perfectly aligned with the ground he stood on.
"Your sword is a wave. The wave wanders along the river. The river follows the slope of the ground beneath it. A line meandering between earth and sky. Its flow is contained by its bed. When the river spills over and strays from its bed, it leaves chaos in its wake.", Sect Leader Yan said, his voice oddly calm. "Do it again!"
Shiwu nodded. This time he tried to be more aware of the ground beneath his feet and where it led him. Again Sect Leader Yan had to correct the position of his sword, but a little less than before.
„Yes!“ Shiwu got into the opening stance but before he could begin another voice carried over to where they were training, halting Shiwu's movements.
"Is the Leader of the Huanyue Sect trying to corrupt the techniques of the disciples of Mount Xuandu?" It was the clear voice of Shen Qiao, who came over with some of the elders in tow. He was smiling warmly, when he clasped his hands and bowed to the Sect Leader of Huanyue Sect.
Those familiar with him noticed immediately that he held no real accusation in his tone of voice. Over the months since the Sect Leader of Mount Xuandu and the Sect Leader of Huanyue Sect had entered a relationship they all had learned to read between the lines, when those two communicated. More often than not they meant the exact opposite of what they were saying to each other or conveyed hidden agendas only they were privy to. While both of them obviously didn't have any problems to discern the real messages behind the actual words, their way of communicating with each other had caused quite the headaches when it came to the people around them. Especially in the beginning... But the disciples and elders had learned to look for other clues like facial expression, gestures, tone inflexion, context and the overall situation and were now pretty confident in interpreting the language between those two. Although there had been slight panic when elder Kong Zen voiced his concerns over the Leader of Huanyue Sect rubbing off on Shen Qiao. Weeks and months of painstaking observation had followed and in the end they concluded that, yes, the Sect Leader of Huanyue Sect might have rubbed off on Shen Qiao but it only showed when Shen Qiao was dealing with the Sect Leader of Huanyue Sect himself or outsiders. So they let it slide, inwardly being proud of the formerly shy Shen Qiao for developing the kind of confidence needed to persevere in the harsh outside world and secretly cheering their sect leader on for rising to the challenge of talking back to the menace that was Yan Wushi.
"I might be tempted if these disciples had any technique to speak of...", the Sect Leader of Huanyue Sect finally answered without turning around, his tone bored; his brows knitted as if he himself was trying to understand how he had ended up helping the disciples of Mount Xuandu with their sword skills in the first place.
Yu Shengyan couldn't help the snicker that escaped his lips, which died as soon as he saw his shizun throwing him an annoyed glare out of the corner of his eyes. It was so shortlived that Yu Shengyan was certain most of the people present hadn't even noticed. But he knew his shizun like almost nobody else did and he knew his shizun's glares inside and out. He had been on the receiving end of them much too often. And he knew his shizun was telling him off for laughing at the shortcomings of those disciples while he was still stuck at the fourth stage of the Phoenix-Qilin... after all this time...
The elders, who might have gotten an apoplexy a few months ago, when hearing the Sect Leader of Huanyue Sect talking like this about their sect and its disciples, now only sighed silently. They had made quite the progress dealing with the notorious sect leader, getting fewer headaches in the process.
"Shizun teaches us very well!", Yuwen Song exclaimed petulantly, eager to defend his shizun. Shiwu inwardly groaned. His shidi still had troubles to adequately read a situation and didn’t know when to better stay silent instead of faning the flames.
"Is that so?" Yan Wushi eyed the training sword in his hand with barely any interest, turning it this way and that as though to get a feeling of it resting in his palm. Shen Qiao knew that this hand hadn't used a sword in many years. He knew that the calluses so very well known to any sword cultivator had long since disappeared from Yan Wushi's hands. Yan Wushi's hands were now those of an aristocrat and yet the Sect Leader of Huanyue Sect could not be farer from being a simple aristocrat...
He had barely any time to conjure Shiwu's training sword out of his disciple's hands with a hand seal in order to block the attack Yan Wushi had directed at his chest after using lightness skills to bridge the gap between them in the blink of an eye.
After receiving the blow Shan Qiao used Rainbow Shadow to back off, moving the fight out of the direct vicinity of uninvolved bystanders. Yan Wushi recognized Shen Qiao's action for what it was and couldn't help rolling his eyes good naturedly before following after Shen Qiao with a smirk playing on his lips.
He met Shen Qiao with a wide swing. The blades of their swords emiting a cold clang when meeting each other. Shen Qiao forcefully pushed against him, flinging him away and thus forcing him to take a few steps backwards. When he came to a stop, Shen Qiao had changed into an inside stance awaiting Yan Wushi's next attack.
Shen Qiao watched the Sect Leader of Huanyue Sect raising his sword into a high guard and for a moment neither of them moved, both waiting for the other to advance.
It was Shen Qiao who finally took action, feinting a rising cut to Yan Wushi's midsection, changing direction midway and instead aiming a thrust at Yan Wushi's throat. Yan Wushi blocked the attack but again chose to retreat of few steps. Shen Qiao followed him with a high jump using Rainbow Shadow to cover the distance and attacked him from above with a mighty downward cut. Yan Wushi evaded the attack with a backflip. But Shen Qiao was persistant, following him immediately and leaving him no room and time to think. Shen Qiao knew he had to closely engage, to nag at Yan Wushi constantly, otherwise he wouldn’t stand a chance. If Yan Wushi gained control of a fight, the fight was over.
He attacked Yan Wushi with a series of quick cuts to Yan Wushi's chest, each blocked by the other, but still Yan Wushi had to retreat a few steps because of how Shen Qiao pressed forward. Yet while being constantly forced to retreat the Sect Leader of Huanyue Sect didn't seem the least bit bothered, his face impassive and Shen Qiao knew, Yan Wushi was just biding his time.
Shen Qiao knew Yan Wushi had found the flaw in the attack when his sword was parried and thrust to his right, leaving his left exposed. Yan Wushi immediately aimed for his left shoulder with a vicious stab, Shen Qiao could only evade by turning around his axis, bringing his shoulder out of harm's way and when he completed his spin he grabed Yan Wushi's sword hand, which had come close enough when Yan Wushi's stab had been met with nothing but empty air.
With Yan Wushi's sword now detained, Shen Qiao aimed for Yan Wushi's head and neck, but Yan Wushi either blocked Shen Qiao's attacks by blocking Shen Qiao's sword hand with his still free hand or by evading the sword by moving like smoke in the wind, a smirk on his face, the sleeves of his black robe billowing. Shen Qiao realized there was no way he could break through Yan Wushi's defenses in such close combat. The Sect Leader of Huanyue Sect had after all perfected close hand combat after losing his Taihua Sword when he had lost against Cui Youwang. So Shen Qiao backed away, knowing his chances of winning would be higher if he kept his distance.
He wasn't the least bit surprised, when Yan Wushi followed his retreat with a series of stabs to Shen Qiao's upper body, which Shen Qiao had trouble to meet. The stabs were again vicious, precise and perfectly executed as though Yan Wushi was attacking with his Spring Water Fingering. Shen Qiao had to break the attack by jumping on a nearby roof ridge. Yan Wushi didn't follow immediately. Instead both of them watched each other for a few moments.
"A-Qiao, are you evading me?", Yan Wushi asked from below, his tone mocking Shen Qiao good naturedly.
Shen Qiao made use of the short respite by controlling his breath and calming his pulse. While their fight up till now had been rather short, it was a fast paced one and with Yan Wushi as his opponent, he couldn't afford to lose focus for even the blink of an eye while engaging if he wanted to win. A quick glance around told him that his disciples and the elders had followed them keeping a respectful distance and even had been joined by a few more spectators.
"The view is breathtaking up here. Why doesn’t Sect Leader Yan join me?", Shen Qiao finally answered.
Yan Wushi smiled at him. It was the warm smile Shen Qiao knew Yan Wushi had reserved only for him. And Shen Qiao answered with a smile of his own. Yan Wushi finally sighed as if it would be a major inconvenience for him and using lightness skills followed Shen Qiao onto the ridge of the roof. As soon has the tip of his foot touched the roof he surged forward, the sword extented before him.
There was no way for Shen Qiao to effectively parry the attack on the small ridge. Instead he decided to evade it alltogether. A well timed somersault brought him behind Yan Wushi. With the tip of his foot on the ridge a swift turn brought him face to face with Yan Wushi's back. He attacked with a downward cut, but Yan Wushi had anticipated his move, swirled around and their blades met and held.
Yan Wushi tsked. "Attacking from behind, A-Qiao?", there was no real malice in the question and Shen Qiao smiled.
"Sect Leader Yan brings out the worst in me."
Yan Wushi laughed at that and his eyes flashed. "That I do, A-Qiao. But you won't hear me complain. The results bring me too much joy."
Shen Qiao blushed. Leave it to the Sect Leader of Huanyue Sect to bring up the intimate part of their relationship during a sword fight.
Shen Qiao barely saw the attack coming and just managed to block it at the last moment, stopping Yan Wushi's blade only a finger width from his neck. An evil smile played on Yan Wushi's lips. That devil! And Shen Qiao had fallen for the ruse like a first year disciple. He had given Yan Wushi an opening and the onslaught that followed was brutal. There was nothing he could do but parry the powerful downward cuts that forced him back along the ridge. Brutal force mixed with elegance and masterly execution.
And yet.... and yet there it was again...
Shen Qiao had noticed a flaw in Yan Wushi's movements right at the beginning of their fight. While Yan Wushi had been a sword cultivator for most of his life, after the loss of his Taihua Sword and never finding an adequat replacement and thus finally giving up on swords all together, cutting out the sword as intermediary and making his fingers the sword, Yan Wushi's movements had also adapted. His movements were now finely atuned to fighting with his fingers instead of fighting with a sword that functioned as an elongation of one's arm. And while after those many years Yan Wushi's body still seemed to remember how to move with a sword, a master of the art such as Shen Qiao could detect the tiniest flaws where body movement and weapon were not in perfect synch.
The flaw, although tiny as it was, was most pronounced when cutting downward from a high guard... While Shen Qiao had no illusions that in a normal fight he stood almost no chance against Yan Wushi's cunning, power and experience, he also knew that as banal as those flaws were, in a fight between two masters of their level it was enough to decide the fight. And when Yan Wushi entered another high guard to bring down another powerful downward cut, Shen Qiao took his chance and with another swift turn around his axis he brought himself close enough to his opponent and the tip of his training sword to Yan Wushi's neck.
Yan Wushi's movements stopped immediately and after a short moment he slowly let the tip of his own sword sink to the ground, accepting defeat.
To the initial surprise of everyone Yan Wushi was actually a fair loser, when he lost due to his own shortcomings. Although seeing Yan Wushi lose was a rather rare occurrence. While after a few months into their relationship both sect leaders began to meet for the occasional training fight, most often the Sect Leader of Hanyue Sect came out on top. Only during fights like today, when as per silent agreement the use of qi in direct attacks was forbidden, Shen Qiao occasionally managed to snatch a victory right from under the other man's hand. And most of the time like today he caught Yan Wushi's proud gaze and a warm feeling spread in his chest.
"Very well, A-Qiao."
The head of the Sect Leader of Huanyue Sect rested on Shen Qiao's chest, moving with the rise and fall of his breaths. While Shen Qiao had always been an early riser, the other man was still fast asleep as was often the case, when they shared a bed.
At Mount Xuandu Sect the first training session of the day started with the rising sun before breakfast. And while Shen Qiao oversaw those training sessions regularly, he indulged himself in staying in bed till breakfast when the Leader of Huanyue Sect was with him.
Shen Qiao let his fingers travel through the silky hair of Yan Wushi. Like water it flowed between his fingers. Black interspersed with white. Like yin and yang... sometimes fast, sometimes slow, sometimes hard, sometimes soft, sometimes solid, sometimes yielding, sometimes warm, sometimes cold, sometimes active, sometimes passive. The person before him the embodiment of dual forces opposing each other, interdepending on each other and transforming each other, resulting in the conundrum that was Yan Wushi, the person that had, despite all odds caught Shen Qiao's heart. The person that once had trempled all over it now treating it with utmost care. Sometimes with words laced with arrogance bordering on mockery, sometimes with words as tender as the first rays of sunshine on a cold winter morning. And yet Shen Qiao knew in Yan Wushi's hands his heart was as safe as it could ever be.
His finger dove deeper into the mane of Yan Wushi. His fingertips finding the soft scalp and beginning to softly caress the skin. A quiet sigh escaped the lips of the still sleeping man and a small smile appeared on Shen Qiao's.
He knew he was fortunate to be trusted to such an extent, for being the person Yan Wushi chose to trust so explicitly to show the vulnerable core that was hidden behind all that sneering, degrading, vicious wit, arrogance and cold aloofness.
It had taken its time but eventually, even at his most vulnerable, while being intimate with another person, Yan Wushi had relinguished control, had cast his overbearence aside and let himself and Shen Qiao just enjoy their togetherness... no walls, no hiding places. It had opened a whole new world to them. Both of them discovering new aspects of themselves, like both of them enjoying giving as well as receiving.
They had grown together and with each step strengthened their relationship a little more. A relationship nobody would have thought stable enough to last one incense at the beginning. They were just too different, too far apart on the spectrum. Who knew that because of this they perfectly complimented each other, fit together like the two sides of the taijitu, closely interlocking with each other and thus forming a perfect unit while each side carried a little of the other inside himself.
„What are you thinking, A-Qiao?“
The sudden unexpected voice threw Shen Qiao out of his reverie. His hand stopped caressing Yan Wushi’s head and when he looked down, brown eyes were staring back at him. He hadn’t noticed Yan Wushi waking up.
He resumed to tenderly stroke the soft skin beneath his fingers and gave Yan Wushi a warm smile. "I never asked yesterday... how long can you stay this time?"
"I told this disciple of mine, not to contact me for at least one month unless the enemy stands in front of the sleeping chambers of his Highness." Yan Wushi’s voice was still rough from sleep.
"Did you glare at him while saying this?"
Shen Qiao inwardly winced and sent some silent prayers to Bian Yanmei... But Yan Wushi knew him too well.
"Don't pity them. Those two disciples are the bane of my existence.", Yan Wushi said in an overly dramatic tone of suffering.
Shen Qiao couldn't help the soft chuckle that escaped his lips. He knew, while the Leader of Huanyue Sect was a strict shizun, he also had a soft spot for his two disciples.
"Don't mock me, A-Qiao. Yesterday I thought I saw one of those disciples of mine perfoming a sword sequence that heavily reminded me of the Azurewave Sword Arts of Mount Xuandu Sect. I must be getting old... my eyes are starting to betray me..."
Shen Qiao smiled and tugged one strand of that soft hair of Yan Wushi behind his ear. He knew that Yu Shengyan had taught his disciples at least two sequences of Phoenix-Qilin as well. They tried to hide it, to change the movements, incorporate elements of the Azurewave Sword Arts to make it less obvious, but Shen Qiao could still discern it without problems. He was too intimately familiar with both styles. And yet in his opinion there was nothing wrong with it. One aspect of Azurewave Sword Arts was to change the basic movements to match your own style, to develop your own version, to make it your own. In his opinion his disciples were doing nothing but that, only maybe chosing a rather unconventional way. And he knew, that Yan Wushi had also detected it already. There was simply no way the Sect Leader of Huanyue Sect had not recognized those modified movements that had their roots in the Phoenix-Qilin.
"Maybe I can convince Yu Shengyan to come to Mount Xuandu Sect and follow the way of Tao... One less headache inducing disciple for Sect Leader Yan."
Yan Wushi raised his head at that. His eyes searching Shen Qiao's in order to determine to true intention behind the words. The topic hitting too close to home to a time when their paths had not been aligned but had led in opposite directions. Shen Qiao knew that and thus softened his gaze and the expression on his face as far as he could, showing that it had been a quip in good faith without any ulterior motives.
The worry in Yan Wushi's eyes was gone as fast as it had appeared but Shen Qiao could not help but feel a little guilty for bringing those unwanted memories back. His palm found Yan Wushi's cheek. It was still warm from where it had lain on Shen Qiao's chest for hours. With tender strokes did he carress the cheek, each stroke easing the worry in the other man, each stroke whipping away those memories.
When Yan Wushi finally closed his eyes and pressed his cheek into Shen Qiao's palm, Shen Qiao cupped Yan Wushi's other cheek with his free hand and pulled Yan Wushi upwards towards his face, where their lips met in a tender kiss. It was a slow kiss. There was no need for haste. At least for now they had all the time they wanted.
Shen Qiao closed his eyes and let his hands drop to his sides, enjoying those soft lips on his own, the warm tongue begging for entry, the warmth of another body. He knew, he had been forgiven for his rather poor quip, when the Sect Leader of Huanyue Sect whispered between kisses that he might just accept the offer, that he had to consider his old age and his proclivity for getting headaches.