Shen Qingqiu came awake slowly. He kept his eyes closed, languidly, and allowed himself to luxuriate, for a moment of two, in the softness of the mattress beneath him, the warmth of the blankets, the texture of the furs against his skin.
There was an hand resting lightly on his hip. It was a man’s hand, broad and calloused, scorchingly hot through the thin fabric of his inner robes.
He had been certain, the night before - or what he’d presumed was night; he’d had no way to tell the passing of the hours for a long, long time - as he’d let himself drift, that he would never awake again. The little beast had been careful, not allowing blood loss to claim him, or infection to set in, but there was only so long a weakened, mutilated man could survive, left to stew in the filth and the cold, and he’d been burning with fever these past few days. And the little beast, who had seemed to have long since grown bored with him, had not been by to cure him.
Shen Qingqiu had allowed himself to hope that he’d finally be released. It had been stupid to do so. He had known for a long time there was no hope in this world for the likes of him. Here he was. He wasn’t dead. Instead, he was awake. He could feel sunlight on his face. He had all his limbs, and the bed was soft, and there was no pain save, perhaps, the deep, pleasant burn of muscles well-exercised. And there was a hand touching him.
An awfully, terrifyingly familiar hand.
Heart hammering, he tried to move away. The hand shifted, looping around his stomach and tugging him, with casual possessiveness, against a broad chest. The movement jostled Shen Qingqiu, and he almost moaned when it made him aware of a well-known ache deep in his body.
It had been a while since he had been subjected to that particular indignity; the little beast had certainly never stooped so low before, though that was probably more out of disgust for Shen Qingqiu than because he recognized the act itself as distasteful. He had heard whispers, even secluded in the dungeons as he’d been, of how the most reluctant of Luo Binghe’s wives had been convinced.
Why start now?
He shook away the thought like one would an annoying insect. It didn’t matter; knowing the reason wouldn’t undo it. Assess the damage, first. See if there was some edge he could gain, second.
Gingerly, careful to bring no part of his lower body in contact with the man behind him, he tried moving his legs. The pain, he was surprised to find, was much milder than it might’ve been, almost as if whoever had- had been tender; it was, in fact, barely pain at all. Rather, it was the sort of deep, almost-pleasant ache that someone (someone else) might consider a reminder of a night well-spent.
“Shizun,” rumbled a voice, rough and drowsy with sleep, as a sloppy kiss was pressed against Shen Qingqiu’s nape. “It’s early yet. Let us sleep a little longer. This disciple is tired.”
He couldn’t help stiffening at the words, and at the mocking way the little beast ran his fingers on Shen Qingqiu’s abdomen, slowly circling his belly-button.
Focus, he chided himself. He was well enough that he could stand; he was even well enough that he could fight, if need be, though he certainly couldn’t fight Luo Binghe.
The little beast, damn him, was far too perceptive to have overlooked his slip-up. He crowded in closer, pressing a small rain of kisses on Shen Qingqiu’s shoulders through the fabric of his robes. “Shizun,” he murmured, his voice a parody of concern, “is something the matter? Did this disciple hurt you, last night? I’m sorry if I did, I tried so hard to be careful…”
He could run. But was there something to run to? This wasn’t his real body; his real body was chained up in a dungeon and this had to be some kind of illusion. And if it wasn’t, if Luo Binghe had found a way to give him a new body so that he could enjoy breaking him anew, what was the point of running? There was no one left in the world who would harbor him.
No. There would be no rescue for him, no respite. He might as well ruin the little beast’s fun, goad him into abandoning this new, subtle from of torture and take what satisfaction he could from that. With this thought, he opened his eyes, and immediately had to suppress a gasp.
This was his home.
No. This had been his home, until Luo Binghe had come and burnt it to the ground. It was less tidy than he remembered it being, knick-knacks cluttering almost every available surface, and there were some details that didn’t quite fit, like the black robes slung carelessly over the changing screen, the unfamiliar sword hung on the wall, the handful of accessories he never would’ve picked for himself scattered over the vanity.
Beyond that, however, it was a flawless replica; the carvings in the furniture, the quality of the dappled sunlight, the scent of the wind, all these were precisely the same as he remembered them. If he strained himself, he almost fancied he could hear the far-away shouts of his disciples training along the slope of Qing Jing Peak.
“Little beast,” Shen Qingqiu said, careful to keep his voice level. His gaze was fixed, almost unseeing, on the the bamboo leaves swaying outside his window. “I grow tired of this charade.”
The arm around him tightened, almost convulsively, though not, Shen Qingqiu noted with some surprise, to the point of pain. “Shizun,” came the odiously meek voice again. It sounded thick with tears. Shen Qingqiu waited, tense, for some sort of follow-up, some further taunting, but was instead subjected to a long interval of sobbing.
“Is Shizun so displeased with this disciple?” Luo Binghe choked out, eventually, the words barely intelligible through his tears. “Shizun, pray forgive this disciple, but he doesn’t known what he has done to draw Shizun’s ire.”
“Don’t know?” Shen Qingqiu repeated, barely holding on to the edges of his self control. He ripped himself out of Luo Binghe’s arms, who - surprisingly - let him. “How could you not know? Do you really expect your cheap tricks to fool me?”
Did the little beast know how to say anything else?
“I remember you being more eloquent than this,” Shen Qingqiu said, turning so that he was finally facing his tormentor. Luo Binghe’s cheeks were red and splotchy; his thick, dark eyelashes stuck together in clumps. He had clenched his jaw, as though trying to hold in his sobs, but his lips still trembled, and his tears still fell, soundless, over his face.
“If… if Shizun doesn’t want to speak to me,” Luo Binghe eventually said, each word slow and carefully enunciated, as though it took a great deal of effort for him to speak, “perhaps this disciple could call someone who might help? Like Shang-shishu?”
Shen Qingqiu blinked. Shang Qinghua? The man was long dead, and, even when he’d been alive, his relationship to Shen Qingqiu had been remarkably neutral.
“Or- or perhaps Yue-shibo?”
Oh. So this was what the little beast had been getting at. Surprisingly complicated, if it was just to revisit an old hurt, but Luo Binghe had always enjoyed taunting Shen Qingqiu over his inability to save the one person he’d cared for.
“Terribly unimaginative of you,” Shen Qingqiu said, striving to keep his tone perfectly level and failing. His voice caught, just a little, stumbling over the words. He dug his fingernails into his own palm, hidden beneath the bed’s covers. Steady. Steady.. “Am I to forget what you did to him? Are you hoping I’ll be devastated, when you remind me of his death?”
“Death?” the little beast repeated, in a small voice. He was quite a good actor; Shen Qingqiu was almost impressed. With trembling hands, Luo Binghe raised his arm to his face, and used his sleeve to wipe his cheeks dry. With this gesture, he finally dropped and meek and subservient act, squaring his shoulders and drawing himself up as much as he could while still half-lying on the bed. A new determination shone form his eyes, though he still showed none of his malice in his gaze. “Shizun,” he said, “forgive your disciple for this.”
Ah! Begging for forgiveness? That was certainly new. Shen Qingqiu fully intended to tell the little beast what he though of that, but he found that his limbs had suddenly grown terribly heavy. Something moved, deep in his blood, slow and unfathomable.
The last, jumbled thought Shen Qingqiu had, as darkness overtook him, was that this did not hurt.
Shang Qinghua stood with his back to the wall, squeezed between Liu Qingge’s shoulder and a dresser, and tried not to breathe too loudly. Luo Binghe was near the bed, eyes red and demon mark pulsating sickly on his brow, looming over Mu Qingfang as the healer pored over Shen Qingqiu’s unconscious form.
“He isn’t undergoing qi deviation,” Mu Qinfang said eventually, drawing back. “Which is fortunate, because using demonic influence to subdue a righteous cultivator undergoing qi deviation would have been exceedingly dangerous.”
Luo Binghe winced. “I acted hastily,” he said, “and failed to think things through properly.”
Mu Qingfang waved the remark away. He was still staring at Shen Qingqiu’s face, expression pinched.
“Does Mu-shishu have a diagnosis?” Luo Binghe prodded.
“There isn’t anything wrong with him,” said Mu Qingfang. “Not physically.”
Luo Binghe’s lips thinned, eyes darkening with displeasure. “That’s not possible. He was acting like a completely different person!”
“We already had Wei-shidi check Shen-shidi for possession,” intervened Yue Qingyuan, not as courteously as he should have in the face of the protagonist’s ire, at least in Shang Qinghua’s modest opinion. “And if Mu-shidi says he’s fine physically, then he’s fine. Perhaps Luo Binghe might allow him to wake, so that we might assess the situation.”
Luo Binghe’s nostrils flared. Shang Qinghua braced himself for an explosion of some kind, and wondered how well Liu Qingge would serve as a human shield, if it came down to that.
Luo Binghe slowly breathed out. The tense atmosphere relaxed a little. He bent over Shen Qingqiu, gently stroking a few dark strands away from his face and then cupping his cheek. “Shizun,” he called, in a sweet, low voice, as Shen Qingqiu’s eyes blinked open.
Shen Qingqiu pushed himself up on his elbows. Something flickered in his eyes, there and gone too quickly for Shang Qinghua to identify what it was, before his expression smoothed out, into something as calm and imperscrutable as the surface of a lake.
He looked at the gathering of Peak Lords in his chambers, gaze assessing. Then, Shen Qingqiu laughed; a smooth, musical sound. “This is a surprisingly elaborate set-up,” he said. “Aren’t you tired of it? I know you’re bored now that you’re all out of limbs to rip off, but surely this is too much effort for this old master of yours.”
Shang Qinghua startled so badly that he jostled Liu Qingge, something he normally would have been far too afraid to risk doing. Liu Qingge, for his part, actually allowed himself to be shoved into the wall by Shang Qinghua, because he was too busy gaping at Shen Qingqiu to keep a half-decent stance.
Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck.
It couldn’t be.
He had to have heard wrong. Or he was jumping to conclusion. There had to be another explanation for this. A better one. Maybe this was just a very elaborate dream, and Shang Qinghua could wake up in the morning and laugh about it with Cucumber bro, who was definitely still himself.
Liu Qingge was the first of the Peak Lords to get over the surprise and pull himself together. “Mu-shidi,” he said, sounding exceedingly reluctant, “are you sure he’s not having a qi deviation?”
Shang Qinghua never would have expected to witness the mild-mannered Mu Qingfang glare so witheringly at the war god of Bai Zhen Peak that Liu Qingge took a step back and lowered his head in a chastened manner; he would’ve been very impressed with the display, had he not been so busy trying to contain his impending melt-down.
Alright. He needed a plan. A way to determine whether or not the man in Shen Qingqiu’s body actually was the original goods, and then he needed to make sure Cucumber bro was still hanging around in there. Because Cucumber bro was his friend, and Shang Qinghua wasn’t going to let anything bad happen to him.
And also because, if something bad happened to him, Luo Binghe, in his grief, was probably going to burn the world down to its foundations, and Shang Qinghua liked the world. It might have been the product of far too many sleepless nights jacked up on caffeine, but he had put real effort in it, and he didn’t want to see it go to waste.
Plus, he lived there.
He listened with half an ear as the others discussed how to proceed. They mostly said obvious things, anyway, like how this needed to be kept under wraps, or how Mu Qingfang would be consulting the medical texts in his library to see if this strange behavior could be the result of some rare condition he wasn’t aware of.
Hurry up, already, your author is on a schedule!
Finally, the Peak Lords all left the bamboo house. Shang Qinghua walked a good chunk of the way to An Ding Peak, trying to make himself as inconspicuous as possible. It was good that his martial brothers always ignored him, because it made it easier to make it look like he was returning to his peak quickly rather than going with them to chat some more about the situation. As soon as he was reasonably sure no one would notice, he doubled back.
Shen Qingqiu was still lying in his bed in the bamboo house, though he was eying the desk - and, presumably, the neat stacks of papers on it - speculatively when Shang Qinghua walked in. Luo Binghe was nowhere to be seen, but that didn’t mean anything.
“Shang-shidi,” Shen Qingqiu drawled, an affected tilt to his brows. “Did you forget something?”
Trying to ignore the sight of the familiar face twisted by the unfamiliar expression, Shang Qinghua took a deep, fortifying breath and braced himself for pain.
Well, here goes nothing. “Xiao Jiu?”
Shen Qingqiu had him pinned to the wall before he could blink, nails digging into the soft flesh of Shang Qinghua’s throat. “Where have you heard that name?” he hissed. His eyes were very bright, and very cold.
Shang Qinghua swallowed, as well as he could with the hand gripping his neck. He banged a fist against the wall behind him, trying to make the blow as loud as possible, because he wasn’t actually suicidal enough to attempt to strike Shen Qingqiu.
Sure enough, Luo Binghe came running. “Shizun!” he cried, and then, very gently, forced Shen Qingqiu’s hand away from Shang Qinghua’s throat.
From his vantage point, he could see how Shen Qingqiu’s expression shuttered, and how he stiffened as Luo Binhge wrapped an arm around his shoulders to steer him back towards the bed. Shang Qinghua’s heart clenched.
“Um,” he said. “Perhaps it would be best to knock Shen-shixiong out again, for the time being.”
Luo Binghe nodded, looking wretched. Shen Qingqiu struggled a little, when he was pushed down onto the bed, but in the end he went easily enough. He stared up at Luo Binghe in defiance, though, jaw clenched and eyes shining with hatred, until they fluttered closed with sleep.
“Why did Shang-shishu return?” Luo Binghe asked. He was still looking at Shen Qingqiu’s face, fingers trembling a little where they rested against his cheekbone.
Shang Qinghua sighed, and with as much resolve as he could muster, said, “We need to talk.”
“This is starting to give me a headache,” Shen Qingqiu said, pushing himself up on his elbows and glaring balefully out at the room. Shang Qinghua was cowering behind Luo Binghe, as though afraid Shen Qingqiu might go for his throat again.
He blinked, trying to gauge from the quality of the light the amount of time he’d spent unconscious. The sun had shifted, but it was still high in the sky; it was about midmorning, as near as he could tell. He hand’t slept for too long.
“Begging your pardon,” Luo Binghe said, a little stiffly. No Shizun this time. “I will strive to make this the last time.”
Which meant absolutely nothing, as far as assurances or apologies went. Shen Qingqiu sighed, resisting the urge to rub at his eyes with the palms of his hands. Slowly, he pushed the blankets aside and stood. The floor was wood, sanded smooth, cool beneath the bare skin of his feet.
“I’m not having this conversation in my underclothes,” he said, as he walked across the room to the dresser and selected a green robe at random, moving behind the changing screen to dress himself. Luo Binghe twitched, but didn’t stop him, which was about as good as it got.
He allowed himself a small moment to just breathe, in the relative privacy the screen afforded him. As he slipped the robe on, he could mull over things, come up with a plan of action, without the little beast reading every single thought he had as it passed over his face.
There were three possibilities.
One. This was some scheme the little beast had concocted to torture him further. If it was, the torture ought to have started by now, in some way or another.
What was more, if this was an illusion, there were many things that didn’t quite add up.
The Peak Lords’ mannerisms had been recreated perfectly, down to the supercilious look on Liu Qingge’s face. Luo Binghe had never met Liu Qingge, because the man had died when the little beast was still a child.
Shang Qinghua, on the other hand… he had been very good at dissembling, when he’d been alive, but it had been obvious he knew something, far before he had shown his hand with his little… test? Was that what it had been? And Shang Qinghua had been the spy of one of the little beast’s demonic allies; among all the Peak Lords, he was the one Luo Binghe must have been best acquainted with.
Why, then, would the illusion be so precise with the others and paint him so inaccurately?
Alternatively, this wasn’t the little beast’s doing, and the fever had simply driven Shen Qingqiu insane while he was rotting away in his cell. He liked to think his mind would’ve come up with a better scenario for his madness than this, though.
In any case, if this was a fever-dream, it would be over soon, and there was no point in concerning himself with it.
This left the third hypothesis - that everything that had happened since he’d woken up with Luo Binghe in his bed was real. And if it was real, he needed answers.
He needed answers, and Shang Qinghua had them.
“Let’s have it, then,” he said, pitching his voice so that it would carry, and then he counted to three before he left the space behind the screen, adjusting his belt with a disaffected air.
Shang Qinghua spluttered. “Let’s have what?”
Shen Qingqiu had to suppress a snort. This one was terrible at dissembling. It was almost as though he were a completely different man from the one he’d known.
A different man.
Hadn’t the little beast said something along those lines, too? That Shen Qingqiu was acting like a different person. Impulsively, Shen Qingqiu looked at the bronze mirror propped up on the vanity, out of a strange desire to check his own features - he was too far away to tell anything, and it wouldn’t have made any sense for him to look different, anyway. He had the same name, the same role and the same house - why should he have a different face?
But if he was the same person he’d always been, why would Shang Qinghua have tested him by gauging his reaction to being called that?
“Who are you?” Shen Qingqiu asked. “How do you know me?”
Shang Qinghua chuckled nervously. “Shen-shixiong, we’ve known each other for years.”
Wringing his neck is not going to be helpful. Wringing his neck isn’t going to be helpful. Shen Qingqiu gritted his teeth. “You’re going to have to do better than that,” he said. And refrained from beating the idiot to a pulp, which was an exercise in self-restraint deserving of commendation.
“Alright,” said Shang Qinghua. “You - or your consciousness - come from a parallel universe.”
That was… not the most implausible explanation for the situation. And he looked like he was telling the truth. For a change.
Still, it left a lot to be desired.
“And you know this, because?” Shen Qingqiu prodded.
Shang Qinghua cleared his throat, his gaze darting to the side. “Ah… I’ve done extensive research on the subject?”
Really. Shen Qingqiu raised his brows. “And this extensive research also included minute details about the past of an alternate version of one of your martial brothers?”
For a long moment, Shang Qinghua just gaped at him.
“Shang-shishu,” said Luo Binghe. He had wandered over to the writing desk during the conversation, picked up a folding fan, and was idly spinning it between his fingers. “Just tell him the truth. You’ve said it yourself, you’re not sure when Shizun’s conscience will resurface, or even if we can call it forth unaided. We’ve agreed that this Shen Qingqiu’s collaboration might be useful.”
Shang Qinghua breathed in deeply a few times, as though bracing himself. “I am not from this world, either,” he confessed. And then, as though a hurdle had been cleared, started talking very quickly. “And neither is Cucumber-bro. We were different men, and when we died in our world, our souls were transported into these bodies. This body was a small child’s when it happened to me, let me tell you, going through puberty twice was no joke-”
“So your friend killed me?” Shen Qingqiu cut in. “This world’s version of me,” he clarified. Fuck, this situation was convoluted. Also - Cucumber-bro? What fucking name was that? Had a version of Shen Qingqiu really been murdered by a man named after a suggestively-shaped vegetable?
“No! You were- he was- this world’s Shen Qingqiu was already dead when it happened. A fever killed him.”
A fever. In his adult life, he’d gone through only one bout of fever severe enough to pose a threat to his life - before Luo Binghe got his hands on him, anyway. It had been years, though. Decades. It had been before Liu Qingge’s qi deviation, even.
Hm. Was that why the arrogant bastard was still alive, in this world? Had the impostor saved him?
“Were our two worlds identical?” Shen Qingqiu asked, “Until you interfered?”
“Yes,” said Shang Qinghua, “but I didn’t interfere much - it was mostly Cucumber-bro’s doing. He had a vested interest in… y’know.”
“Avoiding my fate?” Shen Qingqiu suggested, a wry twist to his mouth. The impostor was somewhat crafty, then; he’d wanted to save his own skin, and he’d known the surest way to do so was to whore himself out to Luo Binghe. It had worked out well for him, or so it seemed, though Shen Qingqiu would have taken the torture a hundred times over rather than spread his legs for that animal. Except for that one thing… no. It was useless to dwell upon that, now. “This still begs the question,” Shen Qingqiu continued, “of how he knew what that fate was.”
“Oh,” Shang Qinghua said, “in our world, the happenings in this world were recorded in a book.”
“A book?” echoed Luo Binghe. His forehead was creased, and his grip had tightened on the fan, enough that his knuckles had gone white.
“Yes,” Shang Qinghua replied, nodding very earnestly. “A very famous book. Practically on par with the classics! Of course, we didn’t know it was all true. We just thought it was fiction.”
A book. All right. This was so stupid it had to be true. The little beast was many things, but a poor liar was not one of them - he would have come up with a slightly more plausible explanation.
And he wouldn’t have felt the need to run a test on Shen Qingqiu’s identity.
“What do you want from me?” Shen Qingqiu prodded. “You said you needed my collaboration.”
“We’re going to look for a way to get your soul in a different body,” said Luo Binghe, “and Shizun back in his body, if he’s not still there.”
My body, you mean.. That made sense - the little beast wanted his toy back, nothing out of the ordinary there. But they didn’t need Shen Qingqiu’s collaboration for that. Rather, it would’ve been much easier and smoother to just keep him sedated until they had a way to yank his soul out of the body he was occupying and restore the impostor.
Unless they couldn’t. Unless Shen Qingqiu had an ally who would stop them if they tried it.
In this world, Yue Qingyuan still lived.
“You need me to lie to the other Peak Lords,” he guessed. “Though I don’t see why I should.” If he could prove his identity - and he was confident he could, at least to Yue Qingyuan - it was possible they would turn on the little beast’s beloved Shizun. Not out of a particular loyalty to Shen Qingqiu himself, of course - none of them had ever really liked him, when they’d been alive, and even Yue Qingyuan had only stuck by him out of guilt. But they could hardly tolerate an impostor in their ranks.
“We need you to avoid creating unnecessary trouble,” Luo Binghe said. “It would be best if you could stay awake and in control, because Shang-shishu said that observing your behavior might lead him to find a solution quicker, but the demon blood in Shizun’s body gives me extensive control over your actions, should I choose to exert it.”
Shen Qingqiu’s gut churned. “This is more like you,” he said, tilting his head to the side in a display of insouciance, though he felt bile burning up his throat. “I expected more threats, but I suppose you can’t risk damaging this body of mine, can you?”
Luo Binghe’s lips thinned, the mark on his forehead throbbing. “If you require threats to keep you in line,” he said, very coldly, “there is plenty I can do to you without harming an hair on Shizun’s head. But, from what I remember of you, you are an intelligent man. I’m sure it will not come to that.”
Shen Qingqiu smiled at him, poisonous. “Very well,” he said. “I’ll keep your little secret,” for now, “but I refuse to be kept like a prisoner in my own house.”
“You can hardly wander around the mountain,” Shang Qinghua pointed out, “since the other Peak Lords think you’ve gone insane. And you don’t know what relationship you’re supposed to have with many of the disciples. So anyone else you might run into could also think you’ve gone insane or are going through qi deviation. Or that a qi deviation drove you insane.”
“I’ll stay here,” Shen Qingqiu conceded. It wasn’t as though he’d been expecting to be given free reign of the peaks. They couldn’t risk him slipping his leash, no matter what the little beast said.“What I want is entertainment.”
“Entertainment?” echoed Shang Qinghua.
Shen Qingqiu raised his brows, and otherwise did not bother to answer.
“Bro…” Shang Qinghua said, clearing his throat. “Do you want us to get you a prostitute? Because that’s not going to be easy.”
Shen Qingqiu shot him a withering glare. As though he’d bring a poor, unsuspecting girl to Luo Binghe’s attention. “The books will suffice.” Hopefully, the impostor had added to his collection in the past few years, but, if he hadn’t, Shen Qingqiu would be glad to settle for re-reading old favorites. “And the guqin.”
“That’s Shizun’s guqin!”
“That’s my guqin,” Shen Qingqiu snapped. “Your Shizun stole it, the same way he stole my body and my position.”
Luo Binghe bristled. “Shizun’s not a thief,” he bit out, but made no move to stop Shen Qingqiu when he stalked towards the instrument.
He knelt down in front of the guqin, and ran his fingers over its body, feeling the grain of the wood and testing the tautness of the strings. The impostor had cared well for it, at least. He was barely aware of Shang Qinghua taking his leave, as he started plucking at the strings. It had been a long time since he’d last played, long enough that it took him a while to call forth the correct gestures, even aided as he was by decades of muscle memory.
He didn’t mind. He’d spent so long in the little beast’s dungeons that even the constant torment had become monotonous - it had been so long since he’d had diversion, or a pleasant challenge.
It was a sweet thing, when he was able to recall the notes of the songs he’d enjoyed playing in his youth. Sweet enough that he didn’t mind too much that Luo Binghe had stayed in the room and had doubtlessly heard his discordant first attempts. He played for a long time, until his eyelids grew heavy, and he raised his head to find that the shadows had lengthened.
His hands were cramping, and when he turned them over to examine his fingertips, he found them a little swollen. They didn’t feel sore yet, but it was possible that he was going to wake up with new blisters in the morning. He shifted around a little, intending to stand and go lie down on the bed, but his legs were stiff. As he braced himself on the floor, trying to rise, he caught sight of the little beast, who was sitting at the writing desk.
Luo Binghe was looking at him with a bright gaze, a naked, hungry sort of hope stark on his features.
“What?” Shen Qingqiu snapped.
The light in Luo Binghe’s eyes dimmed. “Nothing,” he said. “You were smiling. I thought…”
Shen Qingqiu scoffed, pushing himself on his feet. He swayed a little. He was terribly tired, he realized. He needed to sleep. He stumbled again on his way to the bed, but didn’t fall. Luo Binghe had gotten up, and had reached him in time to catch him. He was steadying Shen Qingqiu, one hand supporting his elbow, the other bracing his shoulder. His touch was very gentle.
It always was, before he started ripping limbs off.
They were standing too close, and they were touching, so there was no way the little beast could have missed Shen Qingqiu’s flinch. As they walked together towards the bed, he said, in a low voice, “The other me… he did something to you, didn’t he?”
Shen Qingqiu laughed. “Do you really want to know?” he asked. His eyelids were so heavy by then that it took a great deal of effort to keep his eyes open. “It was nothing much,” he continued, without bothering to wait for an answer, “only the small matter of cutting off all of my limbs, gouging out my eye…” he trailed off, too tired to speak.
Before he fell asleep, he still got to see the color drain from Luo Binghe’s face.
It was very satisfying.
He was tired, his body aching, which wasn’t surprising, given that he must have slept for an hour or two, at most, and after having been so thoroughly exhausted.
Also, he was cold - the spot on the bed next to him was empty, the sheets cool to the touch, and he’d long since grown used to sleeping with actual (half) human furnace Luo Binghe.
Where was he, anyway? Usually he clung to Shen Qingqiu like a limpet, unless he was actively kicked off or it was time to make breakfast. It was night, so it was too early for breakfast. And they’d had papapa this (last? Was it after midnight?) evening, too! And now his thighs burned like hell! Shen Qingqiu wanted his cuddles. He’d earned them.
With a sigh, he propped himself up on the bed on his elbows, looking around for his wayward husband.
He was easy to spot, working at the desk in the light of a single candle. The flame was low enough that Shen Qingqiu had to bite back an instinctive reprimand about ruining one’s eyes, as though Luo Binghe was a normal human and not a half-demon cultivator with super-healing and the protagonist’s golden halo.
“Binghe!” he called, instead, annoyed. “What are you doing up? It’s the middle of the night!”
Luo Binghe’s head snapped up at the sound of his voice, and he turned hastily around in his chair. In the flickering light of the candle, his gaze was intense.
Intense for Luo Binghe’s standards.
Which meant that it was a minor miracle the force of it didn’t set Shen Qingqiu on fire. Literally.
“Shizun?” he asked, voice tremulous.
What had gotten into him? Had he really gotten to the point where he started missing Shen Qingqiu if they were more than five feet apart?
…If he had, it was his own fault! It wouldn’t have happened if he’d just stayed in bed like he was supposed to!
At least he wasn’t crying.
“Yes?” Shen Qingqiu asked.
“Is it really you?”
Had Luo Binghe had a nightmare? No - that wasn’t possible, not with his dream-controlling abilities. “Who else would I be?” he asked, wearily, “Come back to bed, Binghe, this husband is tired.”
Luo Binghe was across the room in a heartbeat. He clutched Shen Qingqiu’s face with shaking hands, tilting him towards the scant light.
“Shizun,” he breathed, as the brightness in his eyes overflowed and spilled, soundless, down his cheeks. “Shizun.”
Luo Binghe continued to cry - ugly, silent tears. His whole frame shook, as though he was caving in on himself.
“Binghe?” Shen Qingqiu asked softly, reaching up to cup his husband’s face in his hands. He dried what tears he could he could reach with delicate brushes of his fingers, gently pressing his thumbs into the soft, vulnerable spots beneath the hollows of Luo Binghe’s eyes. “Darling, what’s wrong? You’re scaring me.”
Luo Binghe opened his mouth a few times, as though intending to speak, but only managed a few muffled sobs. “Give me a moment,” he choked out, eventually, “just let me hold you for a moment, then I’ll explain.”
“Alright.” Shen Qingqiu’s chest felt tight. He shuffled awkwardly on the bed, until he was more or less sitting up, and pulled Luo Binghe down to him, tucking his head in the hollow of Shen Qingqiu’s shoulder. He’d asked to hold him, but Luo Binghe just curled his fingers weakly into Shen Qingqiu’s robe and pressed his face to his chest, while Shen Qingqiu kept one arm around his husband, tracing slow circles on his back with one hand, gently carding through his hair with the other.
It took a long time for Luo Binghe to collect himself, enough that, when he pulled back, he’d drenched both layers of Shen Qingqiu’s clothes, and wetted his skin. Uncomfortable, Shen Qingqiu pulled the sodden fabric away from his chest.
Strange, he thought vaguely, as he felt the thick material of his outer robe beneath his fingers - he was sure he hadn’t been wearing it when he’d fallen asleep.
“Shizun wasn’t himself today,” Luo Binghe eventually said.
There was something, in the tone of his voice and the set of his jaw, that made Shen Qingqiu suspect he meant that literally. He didn’t say anything, simply waited, as Luo Binghe gave an halting account of the events of the day.
“So Binghe knows,” Shen Qingqiu said, once his husband had finished talking. There was also the small matter of the original goods taking (possibly permanent?) residence in his body, but there wasn’t much he could do about that right then and there. “I’m truly sorry I lied to you.” Even if it had been by omission. Mostly.
Luo Binghe shook his head. He had started crying again halfway through his report, his eyes shining with an odd light. “Shizun doesn’t need to be sorry. This disciple understands.”
Shen Qingqiu found himself smiling. On reflex, he reached up and patted Luo Binghe’s cheek. “Binghe’s too good for me,” he said.
He had known his husband long enough that he was fully expecting to be grabbed and pressed against Luo Binghe’s chest. He braced himself for it, and was left feeling strangely unmoored when Luo Binghe didn’t make any move to reach for him. Instead, Luo Binghe straightened and breathed in deeply, wiping his face with his sleeves. “Shizun,” he said, “the- Shen Qingqiu. He said that that other one cut- cut off…” he trailed off on a sob. “I would never do something like that. You know that, right?”
A stab of irritation went through Shen Qingqiu. Damn the original goods - it wasn’t enough that he’d hijacked Shen Qingqiu’s body for an entire day, he also had to go and upset Luo Binghe, who wasn’t his to upset.
“Of course I do,” he soothed, running a hand through his husband’s hair and down the side of his face, to cup his cheek. “Don’t worry about it.”
Despite the caress, Luo Binghe’s posture didn’t loosen. “But you thought I would. When I came back from the Abyss. That was why you tried to run from me, wasn’t it?”
“I… yes. It was stupid of me.” Shen Qingqiu said, coughing a little. He wished he had have a fan to hide behind, or that he’d been given enough time to prepare himself for this conversation. “I misunderstood you.”
“When did Shizun know?” Luo Binghe asked, and, when Shen Qingqiu only stared at him, pressed, “When did Shizun realize he had misunderstood me?”
What did that matter? Wasn’t it enough that he’d realized it?
Ah, well. Binghe wouldn’t be Binghe if he didn’t fixate on the strangest things. “Sometimes around the Holy Mausoleum.”
Bafflingly enough, this answer seemed to satisfy Luo Binghe; his gaze immediately brightened, and, smiling, he turned to nuzzle his face into Shen Qingqiu’s palm. “This disciple is very glad,” he said warmly.
“That’s good, then,” Shen Qingqiu replied, for lack of a better response. He felt something in him unclench and settle, when Luo Binghe shuffled forward and curled up in his arms, face again pressed into the hollow of Shen Qingqiu’s shoulder, although he’d switched to the side he hadn’t drenched with his tears. They really ought to turn their minds to the small matter of the original goods showing up and possessing (?) Shen Qingqiu’s body, but the discussion of his behavior post-abyss had abruptly reminded him of an issue he had never allowed himself to truly consider.
“Binghe,” he said, slowly. “About the Abyss-“
Luo Binghe pressed his face further into Shen Qingqiu’s shoulder, a firm pressure. “This disciple has put that matter behind him a long time ago.”
Shen Qingqiu stroked his back, once. It was tempting, to take that opening and let the subject drop; it had been a painful time for the both of them, and so many years had passed. It wouldn’t change their lives to reveal the truth now, just as it wouldn’t change their lives if Shen Qingqiu continued to withhold it.
“The… thing, or creature, that brought me into this world wanted some key events to remain unchanged,” he began, eventually. The words felt oddly stilted in his mouth. “To ensure compliance, if I failed to secure such events, my consciousness would have been sent back to my world, and I’m already dead there.”
In his arms, Luo Binghe’s body had stiffened again. “Shizun’s life is being threatened?” he demanded, sounding for all the world like he was going to go and pick a fight with a metaphysical creature with godlike powers about it.
“Not anymore,” Shen Qingqiu said soothingly, dropping a kiss on the top of Luo Binghe’s head when the tone wasn’t enough to make him subside. Once the body in his arms had softened, he continued, “You falling into the Abyss was one such event.”
Luo Binghe’s hands tightened into the fabric of Shen Qingqiu’s robe. There was a noise that sounded suspiciously like fabric tearing, but Shen Qingqiu resolved to pay it no mind. “I realize this is a poor excuse,” he continued, “and it doesn’t undo my actions. I knew you would survive, of course, but-“
“Shizun didn’t want to push me into the Abyss.” Luo Binghe’s voice sounded very small. “If it was to save Shizun’s life, this disciple is glad Shizun pushed him.”
There went any hopes for his robe, Shen Qingqiu thought a little wryly, as Luo Binghe wept into his shoulder. With a sigh, he wrapped his arms tightly around his husband and held him close, resting his chin on the top of his head. His eyes burned, and, though he squeezed them shut, he couldn’t keep a few stray tears from slipping down his cheeks, into Luo Binghe’s hair.
Luo Binghe raised his head, one hand coming up to cup Shen Qingqiu’s chin. His eyes were filled with light, so bright it was almost painful to look at them. “Shizun,” he whispered, sounding awed, like Shen Qingqiu was the miracle, and not him, and then they were kissing.
Shen Qingqiu curled his fingers in Luo Binghe’s hair, heart thumping with relief, and wonder, and sheer, unadulterated relief, feeling like he’d drained poison from a wound he hadn’t even been aware he’d been nursing. Luo Binghe made a noise above him, his mouth opening, hands turning insistent at Shen Qingqiu’s sides, and oh, wasn’t it convenient they were already in a bed-
“Wait,” he gasped out, turning his head to the side. Luo Binghe seemed to take it as his cue to start pressing kisses to the line of his jaw, the sensitive spot behind his earlobe… “Wait,” Shen Qingqiu repeated, a bit more forcefully.
Luo Binghe raised his head, which was both what Shen Qingqiu wanted and the last thing he wanted, at the same time. “Mmmh?” he asked. One of his hands was still resting on Shen Qingqiu’s ribs.
“We can’t,” Shen Qingqiu said. “He’ll be able to tell if you… if I…” Shen Qingqiu hadn’t been aware of things while the original goods had been in control, so presumably Shen Jiu wasn’t currently conscious either, but the after-effects being ***-ed by Luo Binghe were the sort of thing one felt for a few hours.
Luo Binghe’s face, which had clouded over at the mention of the original goods, softened again after a moment. His hand resumed moving, with lazy confidence, over Shen Qingqiu’s chest. He lowered his head. “If that’s what Shizun’s worried about,” he whispered, lips almost pressed to the shell of Shen Qingqiu’s ear. “That other person won’t be able to feel a thing tomorrow if Shizun does me, instead.”
Unfair, Binghe! Who gave you the right to spring this on your old teacher? And with no warning?
And then, even more unfair, Luo Binghe raised his head just enough to glance at Shen Qingqiu’s face (and he was sure, absolutely certain, that he was unattractively gaping like a fish), bent down again to press a kiss against his temple, and said, “Then again, we should go and talk to Shang Qinghua about you waking up. See if he can figure something out on how to get that other person out of Shizun’s body.” And then he started to get up.
Shen Qingqiu, on reflex, caught the hem of his robe to keep him there, and, with great difficulty, swallowed down the whine he could feel building in his throat. He opened and closed his mouth a few times, not quite able to bring himself to ask for what he wanted.
“Would Shizun like to take me up on my offer?” Luo Binghe asked, in a warm, low voice that Shen Qingqiu could feel all the way to his toes.
“Hnnng,” he said.
Luo Binghe put his hand on the side of Shen Qingqiu’s face, thumb tracing the shape of his bottom lip. “When Shizun fucks me,” he said,“I’ll want him to stay inside me for hours. So it’s best if we take care of necessary things, first.” And then he had the nerve, the sheer, unmitigated gall, to lean forward, press a kiss to Shen Qingqiu’s brow and leave the bed to go and fetch him a fresh robe.
“I’ve spoiled you too much,” Shen Qingqiu grumbled, gaze stubbornly fixed on his retreating back and not any lower, regardless of how strong the temptation was.
“Shizun has always treated me very well,” Luo Binghe agreed smoothly. The bastard. Shen Qingqiu could hear the smug amusement in his voice.
He’d come back to his house to find a stack of requests from the outer peaks, since, apparently, not even a sect-wide emergency like the Peak Lord of Qing Jing Peak getting sort-of possessed (again, even if they didn’t know that) could put a damper on requests like new pangolin-grooming brushes (yeah, those were a thing, for some reason). Then, once he’d managed to get halfway trough those, Mobei-Jun had showed up to ask Shang Qinghua to intercede with Luo Binghe about something, something, Southern border, something, something Sha Hualing.
To his king’s credit, Mobei-Jun had stopped talking once he’d noticed Shang Qinghua was listening to at most a word in three. He’d sat down beside Shang Qinghua at his desk, wrapped an arm around him and he’d stayed there all day, as Shang Qinghua worked through the rest of the requests and then turned to writing down every single case of possession, soul-swap (oh, please, let it not be a soul-swap, he didn’t want to think what would happen if Cucumber-bro was off in the original goods’ body being tortured by the original Luo Binghe. To Cucumber-bro and just in general, once this world’s Luo Binghe caught wind of it) and body-sharing that had involved one or more of Luo Binghe’s wives in the entirety of Proud Immortal Demon Way.
There had been a lot of them. Shang Qinghua had maybe, possibly, developed the bad habit of recycling plot-lines, somewhere along the way.
Then, once he was done (at least he hoped so), he finally turned around in Mobei-Jun’s embrace, resting his aching head against his collarbone and allowing himself to feel the soothing, comforting cold seep from his king’s skin to his own, Luo Binghe showed up, Shen Qingqiu in tow.
“Cucumber-bro!” Shang Qinghua exclaimed, shooting to his feet, because, now that he knew what to look for, it was immediately obvious from Shen Qingqiu’s countenance that this wasn’t the original goods. And because he and Luo Binghe were holding hands. Cucumber-bro was trying to hide this using the folds of his robe, but not very well.
Not the soul-swap, then, thank fuck. Body-sharing, maybe? It had to be, unless Luo Binghe had actually managed to resolve the issue already.
“When did you wake up?” he asked. “Were you conscious while the original goods was in control?”
“Around dusk, and no,” Shen Qingqiu replied, quickly stepping into the room and leaving Luo Binghe behind him. “I thought it over on the way here, and I think I know what plot-line this is -“
“Plot-line?” Mobei-Jun inquired quietly, though not quietly enough that it could not be heard by literally everyone in the room.
“Ah, my king,” Shang Qinghua said. He really didn’t want to have to break to anyone else the news that he had technically been lying to them for their entire acquaintance (although also not been lying, because he’d always been this person and the whole thing was headache-inducing and the less he thought about it, the better). “It’s fairly complicated,” he edged.
“It’s best you go,” Luo Binghe cut in. Then, with visible reluctance, “there is an issue with Shizun. I have to resolve it before I can return to the Demon Realm, and it might take a while. I need you and Sha Hualing to look after things while I’m gone.”
Mobei-Jun nodded, but he cast one last, lingering look at Shang Qinghua before he opened up a portal, as though he were debating whether or not to grab him and get him away from the walking disaster-in-waiting that was a worried Luo Binhghe.
“I’ll explain later,” Shang Qinghua promised. He felt stupidly overheated, just from that one glance.
Mobei-Jun nodded at him again, and stepped through, leaving Shang Qinghua alone with Luo Binghe and Shen Qingqiu.
Shang Qinghua spent a few moments looking at the space where his king had disappeared, thinking quickly. “The twins stuck in one body?” he guessed. It had been one of the later plot-points in the book, somewhere past the three-quarters mark; two twin sisters had been cursed with sharing one body. One, virtuous and tender, could only live at night, while her sister, who was clever and full of jealousy, was conscious during the day. This was mostly so that Luo Binghe could papapa with the good sister every night while still having to contend with the evil sister’s schemes during the day, so that there could be some tension to the arc (and so that Airplane-bro could have an excuse to drag it out for forty chapters).
Shen Qingqiu nodded.
“That isn’t so bad,” Shang Qinghua said. At least, the solution hadn’t been for Luo Binghe to papapa with both of the sisters, which was saying something about Shang Qinghua’s integrity as an author, especially because he’d been falling behind on rent as he’d been posting that arc, and the comment section had been teeming with readers demanding that Luo Binghe have his way with the scheming sister, as well, because too many chapters with him having just a sweet, kind bedmate had left them bored.
Shen Qingqiu glared. “Sure, as long as you’re not the one losing control of your body every morning,” he snapped.
Shang Qinghua held up his hands in surrender, because, frankly, it wasn’t worth it. “Whatever you say, Cucumber-bro,” he said meekly, which only served to make Shen Qingqiu look even angrier.
“Since you know what’s wrong with Shizun,” Luo Binghe said, “do you also know how to fix it?”
“There’s a place called the Soul Caves,” Shen Qingqiu said with a pinched look, and yeah, even Shang Qinghua had to cringe a little at that name. “It can separate our souls, and create a new, identical body for the displaced soul.”
Unless trapped both of the souls in a never-ending illusion of their own making, but if Shen Qingqiu wasn’t going to mention that to Luo Binghe, Shang Qinghua wouldn’t, either.
“Shang Qinghua can draw up a map,” Shen Qingqiu continued carelessly.
“Hang on, I don’t know where it is!” There were a lot of places in Proud Immortal Demon Way, ok? And neither of them had ever thought to prepare for this arc, because Shen Qingqiu didn’t have an evil twin! No one could have expected the universe dragging in the original goods from another dimension to fill that role!
“I’m sure you can remember,” Shen Qingqiu said silkily. He had Luo Binghe at his back, so he couldn’t see him as he mouthed, or I’ll let it slip that you’re the author.
Shang Qinghua swallowed. Cucumber-bro was such an asshole, threatening his old friend like this. “I’ll see what I can do,” he conceded mulishly, trying to banish far, far away from his mind the image of what Luo Binghe would do to him if he found out who was (technically!) responsible for all the tragedies in his life.
Shen Qingqiu had fallen asleep suddenly, the previous evening, without even bothering to take off his clothes, but he woke up to find that someone had carefully wrapped a blanket around him and arranged the cushions beneath his head so that he would be comfortable.
He was wearing only a thin inner robe. The material felt clean and soft against his skin, so presumably it was a fresh one, and the same person who had tucked him in had also stripped him down to his skin.
He hoped the little beast hadn’t enjoyed it too much.
Shen Qingqiu sat up, running a hand through his hair and grimacing at the mess of tangles he found there. Granted, he’d left it untied and unbrushed for the entire day, but he didn’t think it had been quite this bad before he’d fallen asleep. He combed it half-heartedly with his fingers for a few moments, before he realized that he was in a house, in a room with a vanity, with an actual brush he could use.
He was sliding a gold-tipped jade pin into his hair when Luo Binghe emerged from wherever he’d been skulking.
“Not that one,” were the first words out of his mouth.
Shen Qingqiu paused halfway through the movement, meeting Luo Binghe’s eyes through the bronze mirror and raising his brows in silent question.
“I gave that to Shizun as a gift, so it wouldn’t be appropriate for someone else to wear it.”
Shen Qingqiu sighed, tamping down on the urge to point out that this was the same body the impostor had inhabited, so it wasn’t really someone else wearing the hairpin. It wasn’t worth it. He reached for a different hairpin, completely at random.
“Not that one, either,” Luo Binghe said.
“Let me guess - you also gave that to him,” Shen Qingqiu said. Did the impostor not buy anything for himself? Was it laziness? Did controlling his lovers’ appearance soothe Luo Binghe’s fragile ego?
Suppressing another sigh, he gestured to the vanity table. “Just point to one that wasn’t bought by you.”
Luo Binghe spent enough time poring over what was, quite frankly, not that large a collection of hair accouterments to confirm that, no, the impostor did not, in fact, buy anything for himself. Eventually, he unearthed a wooden hairpin from a pile of ribbons, holding it up with a strangely triumphant gleam in his eyes.
Shen Qingqiu eyed the ornament with no small amount of trepidation - it was never a good sign when the little beast looked this self-satisfied.
There was no reason to believe the hairpin had been tampered with, though. First, because he couldn’t harm Shen Qingqiu without also damaging his precious Shizun’s body, and second because no one in their right mind kept a cursed or poisoned artifact mixed in with their hair accessories.
Since it wasn’t likely to kill him, he took the hairpin, tilting it and holding it up to the light. It was of a much simpler design than the other ornaments scattered on the vanity; almost austere. He considered, briefly, if handing him a wooden, unadorned hairpin was some sort of subtle insult, as though to imply he wasn’t worthy of the more refined ones, but dismissed the idea immediately. It was clearly expensive; the wood was dark and gleaming, and when Shen Qingqiu ran his fingers over it he found that it had been sanded into perfect smoothness, with no snags or rough patches his hair could be caught in.
While Shen Qingqiu finished putting up his hair, Luo Binghe spoke again, “We should talk.”
Shen Qingqiu didn’t reply, only raising his brows.
He hoped the little beast wasn’t going to make sexual demands of him to make up for the impostor’s absence. He had an harem numbering in the hundreds; if he needed an itch scratched, he could go and find himself a different hole to fuck.
“When you fell asleep, yesterday evening,” Luo Binghe said, “Shizun regained consciousness. He and Shang-shishu have identified what has happened to you.”
“And?” Shen Qingqiu prompted. “Have they also identified a solution, or is that too much to ask?” Fuck. It had been bad when he’d just been stuck in the body of one of the little beast’s lovers. It was worse, now that the impostor could apparently regain control of it with no warning.
Although… he had woken up in the morning, hadn’t he? Same as the day before. And there had been something off about how quickly his exhaustion had come upon him, the previous evening. Maybe the switches didn’t quite occur with no warning.
“It appears you and Shizun are sharing Shizun’s body,” Luo Binghe began, slowly.
“My body,” Shen Qingqiu corrected.
“You’re not from this world, either. You appeared yesterday, and Shizun has lived here these past twenty years,” Luo Binghe replied. His nostrils were flaring, and, if one looked closely, there was a faint crimson glow to his eyes. “Stop accusing him of being a thief.”
Shen Qingqiu suppressed a sneer. He smiled, instead, sickly sweet, because that was bound to be more infuriating, and for the first time since he had emerged from the Abyss, Luo Binghe couldn’t hit him. “Whatever helps you sleep at night.”
The little beast clenched his fist so hard that his knuckles turned white. “I am willing to tolerate a great many things,” he said, “but I will not allow anyone to speak ill of Shizun.”
“Such dedication,” Shen Qingqiu drawled. Whatever the universe, it seemed, the little beast was fond of his theatrics. In another world, he had defended Liu Mingyan and Qiu Haitang with the same fervor, and just as little sincerity.
Luo Binghe took in one deep breath, closed his eyes, and released it. When he opened his eyes again, the red in his irises had receded. “Why?” he asked. “I know you’re just trying to hurt me. Why do you dislike me so much?”
Shen Qingqiu did sneer, this time. “Why?” he repeated. “Do you need an itemized list? You tortured me, destroyed my sect, killed-“ his voice, horrifyingly, broke a little over the word.
“I didn’t,” Luo Binghe replied, “do any of those things. The Luo Binghe of your world did that, and that person isn’t me. And that isn’t the reason, anyway. Before Shizun came, the Shen Qingqiu of this world treated me horribly. Why?”
Shen Qingqiu blinked. The little beast had never actually asked him this question. As a child, he hadn’t had the spine. As an adult, he had long since come up with his own answers. “Because I could,” he replied, sneering. “Why else?”
For a long moment, Luo Binghe only looked at him. “Liar,” he said, eventually. “You didn’t treat Ning-shijie the way you did me, or Ming Fan, or any of your other disciples. Why me?”
Shen Qingqiu pressed his lips together. “Is it so hard to believe you’re not special?” he asked. There was a part of him - a tiny, ugly, cringing part of him - that knew exactly why, but it was not something he liked looking at too closely. He certainly wouldn’t expose it this man.
“Fine,” Luo Binghe snapped. “Keep your secrets. It’s clear the truth would hurt you more than it would me.”
“Keep telling yourself that,” Shen Qingqiu said. It was weak, as far as repartees went; the little beast had always been much easier to goad than this.
Luo Binghe pressed his lips together, nostrils flaring, but when he spoke again his voice was calm. “There is a way to separate your and Shizun’s consciousnesses into two different bodies. There are is a place called the Soul Caves that can accomplish that. You need to spend a week inside them, and the energy there will create a new body, and transfer one of your souls into it.”
“Seems awfully convenient,” Shen Qingqiu said. “Any idea on where this place is?”
“Shang-shishu is working on a map.”
“Why would Shang Qinghua know?” Shen Qingqiu asked, and then immediately answered his own question, “It’s in the book. Obviously.” It was sad that neither the impostor nor whatever was nestled inside Shang Qinghua had not managed to do better for themselves, with so much advance knowledge at their disposal. “How was this place found in the book?”
Luo Binghe shrugged, grimacing a little. “The other me found it. Its location was detailed in a scroll in a lost demonic library. I could still look for the library, but it seemed quicker to have Shang-shishu work on the map.”
Cang Qiong had had quite an impressive library, before the little beast had burned it down; presumably, it was still intact in this world, and with some luck, the location of these Soul Caves would be mentioned in one of the books there, too. They could look for it, or, preferably, Shen Qingqiu could look for it, alone, away from Luo Binghe’s stifling presence.
Then again, the sooner they found out where it was, the sooner Shen Qingqiu would be separated from the impostor. And while there was nothing he wanted more, he did not quite have a plan on what to do once he was free - as long as he was in this body, he was untouchable. As long as he didn’t cross too many lines, the little beast would leave him be; he could stay here, where he was more or less safe, where there were people he could find sanctuary with, if worst came to worst.
Once Shen Qingqiu no longer shared a body with the impostor, nothing would keep Luo Binghe from taking revenge on him.
He needed an escape route. Cang Qiong had fallen to Luo Binghe before; he couldn’t rely on them too much. And to plot an escape route, he needed time. So he kept his tongue, and finished getting dressed, and settled in for a day spent pretending to rifle through the books the impostor had added to his collection, while his mind jumped, nervy and unsettled, from one idea to the next.
It was midmorning when someone knocked on the door of the bamboo hut. Luo Binghe went to answer the knock, while Shen Qingqiu remained seated where he was, a book propped open on his lap. From there, he couldn’t see who was standing on the threshold, but the visitor’s voice was familiar.
“If I could trouble Qingqiu-shidi for some tea,” Yue Qingyuan said, because he was a fucking idiot who could never mind his own fucking business.
“I don’t recall inviting you,” Shen Qingqiu replied, rising to his feet.
Staning, he had a clear view of the entrance to the bamboo hut. Yue Qingyuan’s face clouded over in confusion, and Luo Binghe shot Shen Qingqiu a covert glare.
Pretend to be the impostor.
He forced a stiff smile on his face. “No matter, you’re here now. You might as well come in.”
The two of them settled around the low table, while the little beast, before he disappeared into some inner recess of the house, busied himself brewing tea and setting out a plate of snacks. Shen Qingiu ate several of those in a rush, carried by the old instinct to take full advantage of food when he had access to it. He’d long since suppressed it, but that had been before he’d had to spend years in the little beast’s dungeons, where he’d been denied food and force-fed spiritual energy once he started to let himself waste away.
At the opposite end of the table, Yue Qingyuan sat, looking, quite frankly, like shit. He was pale and washed-out, his hair clumsily arranged, wisps of it tangled around the jade crown he was wearing, and the skin around his eyes looked dark and bruised. He was also, infuriatingly, looking at Shen Qingqiu with warm, soft eyes, as though seeing him stuff his face had been endearing, of all things.
“What?” he snapped.
“You haven’t touched the walnut pastries,” Yue Qingyuan said.
“I don’t like walnuts,” Shen Qingqiu replied. “They turn my stomach.” It was the truth; they’d been Qi-ge’s favorite sweets, and when they’d been on the streets, pretending to find them disgusting had been the only way to convince Yue Qi not to share them. After joining Cang Qiong, Shen Qingqiu had learned that they truly did not suit his tastes. Whenever he tried eating them, they felt like ashes on his tongue.
Yue Qingyuan smiled, his dark eyes curving into crescents as he reached for a sweet and bit into it. He chewed slowly. “Qingqiu-shidi looks better today,” he said, once he’d swallowed. “I’m glad.”
“That’s an interesting way to put you’ve stopped raving like a madman.”
Yue Qingyuan laughed. He had a way of laughing that was quiet, a little contained. It put a gleam in his eyes like he was trying to get away with something illicit. “I have missed your bluntness.”
“I wasn’t aware there was anything to miss.”
“I suppose not,” Yue Qingyuan said, flushing a little. “But you’ve changed much, in these past years. It is good to see some of the old you.”
“You didn’t like me that much, the way I was before.” You didn’t think I was worth saving until it was much too late.
“That’s not true.” Yue Qingyuan reached across the table to press his wrist. “Xiao Jiu, I’ve always cared for you. Always.”
“Do not call me that,” Shen Qinqiu said, too vehemently, past the lump in his throat, ripping his hand out of Yue Qingyuan’s grip. It was clear, by how Yue Qingyuan’s brows drew together, the way his mouth dropped open, that he had not been expecting this reaction.
The impostor had stolen everything else from him, why not this?
“Leave,” Shen Qingqiu said, hating how brittle it sounded. Then, when Yue Qingyuan made no move to do so, he repeated it, louder. “Leave. Get out.”
Finally, Yue Qingyuan did, shooting Shen Qingqiu poorly concealed looks of concern that just made the rage simmering in his gut twist and curl.
“That went well,” Luo Binghe commented once the sect leader had left, emerging from whatever side room he’d been eavesdropping from.
It was an effort not to throw the teapot at his head.
“Cang Qiong has an extensive library,” Shen Qingqiu said, instead, proud at how level his voice sounded. “We should see if we can find any mention of those Soul Caves you spoke about.”
Not-Shizun yawned again - the fifth time and counting - and rubbed at his eyes; outside, night was falling.
“Go lie down,” Luo Binghe said. “You’ll just hit your head on the desk if you keep this up.”
Not-Shizun scowled; that was his default expression, as far as Binghe had been able to observe over the course of the days. “I’m fine,” he replied, and promptly yawned again.
“When was the last time you even turned a page?”
Not-Shizun, tellingly, didn’t answer. He stared, unblinking, at the book in front of him for a few moments longer, then toppled sideways. He caught himself on his palm, raising his head to shoot a baleful glare at Luo Binghe, who was hovering at his side, ready to grab him if it looked like he was going to fall again. “Not a word.”
Luo Binghe shrugged. He cast his gaze around the library, but found no soft place where one may lay down. So, for lack of a better solution, he took off his outer robe and held it out. “Here.”
Not-Shizun gave such a disgusted glance to the robe that Luo Binghe might as well have offered him a live snake. “Here what?”
“Fold it and put it under your head,” said Luo Binghe, praying for strength. And patience. Lots and lots of patience. He wriggled the robe. “Come on, it’s not going to bite you.”
“Like I would want to lie in your stink,” said Not-Shizun with an offended little sniff. He stood and hobbled over to curl up in a corner, though, so that counted as a win.
Luo Binghe waited until his breathing had evened out in sleep, then walked over and tucked the balled-up robe beneath his head. “Sorry, Not-Shizun,” he said, not feeling very sorry at all. He fussed for a few moments, trying to adjust the robe as well as he could; he didn’t want Shizun to wake up with a crick in his neck. Once he was done, he lingered with his fingertips pressed against one delicate cheekbone.
He always felt a little odd, in this in-between moments. When they were awake, it was very easy to tell Shizun and Not-Shizun apart - even if they wore the same face, Not-Shizun’s expressions tugged at the familiar features all wrong, and there was always a cold, calculating suspicion to his every action that Shizun had always, even in those moments where he’d doubted Luo Binghe the most, lacked.
But at dawn, and at dusk, when he gazed down those well-known, well-loved features, softened in artificial sleep, Luo Binghe was never quite sure who it was he was looking at; if anything it felt the most like it had during those five long years, cradling Shizun’s corpse.
Like he was there, but also not.
Shuddering, Luo Binghe stood, and went back to his abandoned scroll, scanning what was left of it quickly. There wasn’t much of use to be found in it, just a few references to some older manuscripts that would probably lead to nothing at all, just like every single book they’d read over the past five days had contained no clues to the whereabouts of the Soul Caves.
He was halfway through the next book in his pile, when he felt warm arms wrap around him, and soft lips press to his neck, skimming the edge of his collar. Smiling, he captured a fair hand and brought it to his mouth. “Good evening, Shizun.”
Shen Qingqiu squeezed him briefly, then stepped back enough that Luo Binghe could turn around and embrace him properly. “I missed you,” he whispered, running careful fingers through the dark fall of Shizun’s hair.
Shen Qingqiu pressed his face into Luo Binghe’s chest, hands tightening on his shoulders. “I’m sorry I have to leave you with him every day,” he whispered. “I know how unpleasant he can be.”
Luo Binghe silently shook his head, as something warm grew in the pit of his stomach. What was Not-Shizun to the Endless Abyss, to all the trials and torments Luo Binghe had faced in his life? Not-Shizun could scheme and sneer and spit vitriol all he wanted; he couldn’t hurt him.
Still, it was always nice to hear that Shizun worried. It reminded Luo Binghe that he was loved.
They held each other for a moment longer, then Shen Qingqiu stepped back, turning to peer at the abandoned book that Not-Shizun had left open on the low table. He turned a few pages, lips pursed, then his eyes widened.
Luo Binghe peered over his shoulder. “Oh,” he said. Not-Shizun was going to be so bitter about this.
“It’s not quite a map,” Shizun said. “But Shang Qinghua should probably be able to draw one on the basis of this.”
Luo Binghe nodded. “I’ll bring it to him right away,” he offered, eager. Soon, he thought. Soon, he would have Shizun back fully, night and day. Soon, Shen Qingqiu would get to see the sun again.
Still, there was a strangely distant look in Shen Qingqiu’s eyes. He didn’t look happy.
He should’ve looked happy.
“Shizun?” Luo Binghe prodded. “Is something the matter?”
“Have you given any thought to what we’ll do, once me and the original goods are separated?” He smiled, a little self-deprecating. “I haven’t. I suppose that was foolish of me.”
“I would rather not kill him. Unless Shizun would prefer his death, of course.”
Shen Qingqiu’s mouth moved, soundlessly, for a few moments. “Truly? He hasn’t been good to you.”
Luo Binghe shrugged. His feelings on Not-Shizun were rather tangled, which was unusual for him. He was used to being able to neatly sort people into three boxes: hatred, indifference, and love - it would have been more accurate to say he divided people into two boxes, really, because the third box was reserved for Shizun.
Not-Shizun, however, was not the sort of man who inspired indifference, and there was too much history for that, besides. And Luo Binghe found he couldn’t hate him, either, be it because that man was the reason Luo Binghe had gotten to meet the love of his life, because he was used to forgiving and excusing his teacher’s action, or because any transgression the man had committed had already been repaid to him a hundred fold.
“It was a long time ago,” he settled for saying.
Shen Qingqiu smiled, suddenly, startlingly bright. “Binghe is a good and forgiving person. I am very proud.”
Luo Binghe’s face heated a little, and he had to blink several times to dispel a few tears; being complimented by this person always seemed to have that effect on him, regardless of how many times it happened, or how long they’d been married.
He squeezed Shen Qingqiu’s hand, considering. There was something, Luo Binghe, too, had not taken into account yet; mercy was all well and good, but Not-Shizun had amply demonstrated that he was a snake. It was still important to shield themselves from him. “To keep that man from becoming a threat,” he decided, “we can just feed him some of my blood before we let him go.”
“That’s probably for the best,” Shizun admitted, but he the line of his mouth had tightened. “I suppose the safest thing would be to make sure he never returns to Cang Qiong.”
“Shizun has been the Peak Lord of Qing Jing Peak for more than twenty years,” Luo Binghe said. That was longer than Not-Shizun had had the role, at least in this world. “The position’s his by right. But not everyone might see it that way.”
Shen Qingqiu smiled, but there was something weary and sorrowful in it, as though he’d suddenly been saddled by some great burden. “Wouldn’t Binghe be happier if I owed no allegiance to Cang Qiong any longer?”
“This husband is happiest when Shizun is happy,” Luo Binghe replied.
It was true that he couldn’t help but resent having to share his husband’s affection with others; after all, Shizun had the whole of his heart. But, at the end of the day, Qing Jing Peak was Shizun’s home, the other Peak Lords his friends. I would take a poor husband to conspire to part him from them.
Luo Binghe was better than that.
Shen Qingqiu looked up at him, eyes bright, as though such a simple thing was somehow wonderful, and the only thing Luo Binghe could do, at that point, was tug him into his arms, pressing his mouth to the top of his head.
Shizun tilted his chin, so the next kiss found his lips, instead, and they a lost a few, long moments to just that: to the idle meeting of mouths, to Luo Binghe’s hands tracing the ridges of Shen Qingqiu’s spine.
There was a gasp against Luo Binghe’s lips, and then Shizun’s mouth was open, so wonderfully warm and wet. Luo Binghe tightened his grip, fine fabric bunching and soft skin dimpling under his fingers, and pressed forwards, so they were closer, pressed together as much as they could manage without breaking the kiss. He found himself thankful he’d shed his outer layer, because it was so delightfully easy for Shen Qingqiu to part the thin cotton of his inner robe. His hands burned, hot as brands, on the skin above Luo Binghe’s heart.
Still, a nervy tension remained in Shizun’s body; something that had nothing to do with arousal and that couldn’t be coaxed away, regardless of how Luo Binghe tried.
Reluctantly, he drew back, panting shallowly. “Does Shizun want to share what’s on his mind?”
It took a long time for Shen Qingqiu to answer.
Yue Qingyuan sat at his desk, brow creased, as he read through the letter once again, fingers idly tracing the wax imprint of the sigil stamped on it. Territory disputes, yet again. Heavens forbid Cang Qiong disciples hunted some prey that wasn’t theirs by right - what did it matter if in doing so they were shielding a village from tragedy?
Fuck them. If they can’t protect their lands, they shouldn’t get to keep them. It was Xiao Jiu’s voice in his ear, shaping the words with that arrogant, airy tone he’d so favored when they’d been young. If Yue Qingyuan closed his eyes and focused, he could even see the insouciant arch of his brows, the sardonic slant of his mouth.
It was a stupid little fantasy, even if it helped. The Xiao Jiu who teased and smirked and took him into his confidences, who weaved plans to avenge themselves on those who wronged them, whose most spiteful instincts Yue Qingyuan had spent his childhood attempting to curb - that Xiao Jiu was long gone.
Yue Qingyuan had once dreamed of having him at his shoulder, for the span of their days.
He’d hoped that, as time passed, his failures would be forgiven. And they had been.
It was unfair to wish for more.
After that dreadful fever, Shen Qingqiu had blossomed into a calmer, more fulfilled person, someone who didn’t snap, or scheme, or spend days stewing in envy and bitterness. He treated most people, Yue Qingyuan included, with polite remoteness, and only showed his true emotions in the rarest of occasions.
Xiao Jiu had always been hopeless at disguising his feelings, no matter how hard he’d tried.
He was clearly happier this way. What sort of person, what sort of friend, was Yue Qingyuan, if he wished that all that progress could be wiped away the same way it’d appeared, just for the chance of hearing another sly remark, of seeing dark eyes light up once more with self-satisfied mischief?
Who could watch the terrible change that had overcome Shen Qingqiu in the last week and wish for it to be permanent?
Yue Qingyuan had returned to Shen Qingqiu’s house twice more in the past five days, but had never worked up the nerve to knock on the door. He’d stayed outside, instead, taking care to keep himself shielded from view.
He had not gone as far as to look inside. He wasn’t sure what he would’ve found, if he had; wasn’t sure what he’d hoped to see, either.
One day, he’d lingered long enough to see the master and disciple pair (husbands, his mind supplied, remember that) leave the bamboo hut. They were bickering about something inconsequential, which was odd - Shen Qingqiu was not the sort of man who bickered often.
Shen Jiu had been. Shen Jiu’s attitude towards bickering, in fact, was one usually reserved for competitive sports.
On any other, day Yue Qingyuan would’ve taken the sight as a reminder that Shen Qingqiu was comfortable enough to show his true self to Luo Binghe, even casually. That he didn’t need mortal peril to do so.
That it didn’t matter if such closeness had once been Yue Qingyuan’s to claim.
But something had prickled at the back of his mind, as he watched them walk down the path. The feeling that there was something he was missing, hovering just beyond his reach.
With a sigh, he resolutely pushed the thought from his mind. He hastily penned a reply to the letter he still held in his hands, offering monetary compensation for the trophies the Cang Qiong disciples had taken from the hunt; their coffers could cover the expense easily enough.
He did not apologize. Apologizing was tantamount to admitting to wrong-doing and, in such matters, it just tended to give people the wrong impression. The last thing he wanted was to find himself swamped in the requests of idiots who thought Cang Qiong had suddenly become easy pickings.
He was reading his response over, when someone knocked at his door.
“Xiao Jiu looks well this evening,” said Yue Qingyuan, cautiously.
Shen Qingqiu, who had up until that point been observing his cup of hastily brewed tea with inexplicable fascination, looked up at him, a strange twist to his lips. He didn’t look angry, or bitter - only a little rueful, with an hint of melancholy tinging the edges of his expression. “Shixiong,” he said, gently, “I’ve told you before, I’m Qingqiu.”
Yue Qingyuan breathed in deeply, something sharp and painful straining against the confines of his ribcage. “You’re not Shen Jiu at all, are you?”
Shen Qingqiu smiled, and it was wry. “It appears Zhangmen-shixiong already knew.”
“No,” said Yue Qingyuan, “I wasn’t certain, until just now.” He could see, out of the corner of his eye, Luo Binghe shifting, trying to slip into a fighter’s stance without attracting attention.
It had been Shen Jiu he’d spoken to, the previous week.
Was this a conspiracy? Had Luo Binghe and Shen… that man. Had they been keeping the real Shen Qingqiu prisoner and inserted an impostor in his place? And to what purpose? Why come to talk to Yue Qingyuan now? Why allow him to see the real Shen Qingqiu at all?
No. That made no sense; Shen Qingqiu had changed beyond recognition when Luo Binghe was still young, on the cusp of adolescence. He couldn’t have been part of the plan from the start. And why keep the real Shen Qingqiu alive for so long? How had he been kept hidden in the five years the fake had been dead and Luo Binghe in Huan Hua palace?
“Explain,” Yue Qingyuan demanded.
‘Shen Qingqiu’ lowered his eyes again to the cup he still held in his hands. He took a few moments to collect himself, then looked back up at Yue Qingyuan. “I was born in a world very different from this one,” he began. “Twenty years ago, I died there. I woke up in this body. The original Shen Qingqiu had already died.”
“You took his place.”
Yes,” the man admitted. “I am sorry to have lied, but what else could I have done? His soul was already gone - who would the truth have benefitted?”
He sounded so calm about it. Cavalier, almost.
Anger, white-hot and pulsing, spiked in the pit of Yue Qingyuan’s stomach. It demanded bloody retribution from this creature who had deceived him, deceived them all, who had wormed his way into their lives and allowed Shen Jiu to remain uncared for and unmourned for so long. Because of him, there had been no tablet carved, no offerings burned, for the man who had held half of Yue Qingyuan’s soul in the palm of his hand.
And yet, it was hard to hate someone who had been a companion, a friend, for years. Who had fought and bled alongside them.
Who had, at the end of the day, not attempted to claim nearly as much of Yue Qingyuan’s as he could have.
“You say his soul was already gone,” Yue Qingyuan said. “And yet I spoke to him, just a few days ago.”
‘Shen Qingqiu’ cleared his throat. “If a man who died in one world can wake up in another, why should that apply only to me?”
“So the Shen Qingqiu who is here now-“
“He comes from another world, yes. A world almost identical to this one, save that I never existed there.”
So even if his place had never been taken at all, Shen Jiu would’ve lived only a handful of years more; whoever the Yue Qingyuan of that other world was, he too had failed him.
Whatever else was true, he always failed him.
“This is why he was speaking nonsense,” Yue Qingyuan said, almost to himself; it hadn’t been nonsense at all, it turned out. “You’re still alive,” he added. “If the condition for you to come into this world was for the real Shen Qingqiu to have died…”
‘Shen Qingqiu’ shrugged. “I don’t really know how this works, either,” he admitted, “I had no control over it the first time. Shen Jiu and I are sharing this body, for now. He gets days, and I get nights.”
“We may have found a solution. There are caves that can create two separate bodies for us.”
“Why are you telling me this?” If they already had the solution, why hadn’t they just left? Yue Qingyuan wouldn’t have stopped them; he had never been able to deny this person anything. They could’ve returned in a few weeks or months, ‘Shen Qingqiu’ back to normal, and Xiao Jiu silenced forever.
‘Shen Qingqiu’ simply looked at him for a beat, his smile sorrowful and sweet. “Sect leader, do you even need to ask? I know you care for him. When he was dead, there was nothing I could do. But he’s alive, now.”
“Not quite,” said Yue Qingyuan. The Shen Jiu he’d grown up beside, that man was still gone; the person who now slumbered in Shen Qingqiu’s skin was the same in all the ways that mattered, but he had two decades’ worth of experience Yue Qingyuan hadn’t gotten to share with him. No one would be able to bring this world’s Shen Jiu back. Maybe he had already reincarnated. Maybe he was living a happier, easier life, unburdened by the tragedies of his past, by Yue Qingyuan’s unwelcome regrets. He would not know Yue Qingyuan at all, in this new life of his, whatever fate there was between them dissipated like smoke.
Maybe he had someone else to call Qi-Ge.
The hope felt hollow. “You said you died in your own world,” Yue Qingyuan said.
“Do you think it’s possible that when you came here, Xiao Jiu-“
‘Shen Qingiu’ hesitated. “Yes. I suppose it is.”
Yue Qingyuan nodded. “Did you a good life, in your world?”
“No worse and no better than most other people,” he replied. He hesitated again. “My parents were wealthy. I was comfortable.”
“Good,” said Yue Qingyuan, breathing in deeply. “That’s good, then.” He stayed silent for a few moments, then: “What do I call you? You can’t continue to be Shen Qingqiu.”
A shadow passed over the man’s face, but his voice was level when he answered, “My name was Shen Yuan.”
Behind them, Luo Binghe hissed in a sharp breath, the first sound he’d made since he’d slunk in on his husband’s heels. When Yue Qingyuan turned to glance at him, he saw an unnamable emotion in his over-bright eyes; he had the look of a man who had just been handed something precious and fragile. “Shizun has been Shen Qingqiu for more than twenty years,” he said, after a while, a hint of menace in his tone. “He has a right to Qing Jing Peak.”
That overpowered brat. He had never been taught to respect his elders.
“Binghe,” said Shen Yuan, gently scolding.
Shen Yuan shot him a quelling look, and Luo Binghe subsided somewhat, retreating a little further into the shadows and glaring mullishly at Yue Qingyuan’s back.
“I want to talk to him,” Yue Qingyuan said. “Shen Qingqiu.”
“Yes. I expected you would.” Shen Yuan glanced around the room. “He’ll wake up at dawn. Is there any place where I could lie down?”
He wound up settling on the daybed, Yue Qingyuan’s own quilt pulled up around his shoulders; Yue Qingyuan tried not to think too hard on why he had elected to strip his own bed rather than find a spare set of blankets.
Luo Binghe sat at his husband’s feet like a guard-dog, sword pulled across his lap, fingers resting casually on its hilt. “I’m not going to hurt you,” he said, like he was making some great concession. “Shizun is fond of you.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure of your ability of harming me, if I were you,” Yue Qingyuan told him, mildly, but backed off and went to sit on the other side of the room; as long as Shen Jiu and Shan Yuan were in the same body, his and Luo Binghe’s goals aligned.
Sighing he leaned back and settled in to wait for the dawn.
The mattress under his back was harder than what he was used to, the comforter heavier. Even the quality of the air was different; it carried no trace of the sweet scent of the bamboo grove, the strains of the guqin. There was something, however, in smell of the blankets wrapped around him that felt oddly comforting, like he could just stay there, safe and warm, and would be taken care of, all his aches soothed.
It was foolish, of course. There ware no such things as enduring safety and warmth, in this world.
He forced himself to open his eyes, blinking in the gray dawn light. It took him a while for his vision to clear, but when it did, it was to the sight of Yue Qingyuan’s face, bent over him, fingers hovering above Shen Qingqiu’s cheekbone, so close he could feel their warmth, if he focused.
“Xiao Jiu.” There words were a sigh.
Cold certainty washed over him. “They told you.” He pushed himself into a sitting position, the movement forcing Yue Qingyuan back.
Luo Binghe was standing a few paces away, a sheathed sword held loosely in his fist.
It was not Xin Mo. How odd.
The little beast graced them with one of his saccharine smiles. “Good morning,” he said. “Shizun found the location of the Soul Caves.”
Of course he had. Lucky wretch.
“I’ll be coming with you to look for them,” said Yue Qingyuan. He laid his hand on Shen Qingqiu’s shoulder, squeezing gently. “When we come back, Qingqiu-shidi will be able to fully retake his position.” There was an undercurrent of steel in his voice, and he wasn’t looking at Shen Qingqiu as he spoke.
He was looking at Luo Binghe.
Why had they told him? As long as only Shang Qinghua, who was rat and a spy, knew of his existence, it would’ve been ridiculously easy to make Shen Qingqiu and the problem he represented disappear. And even if his very existence hadn’t been a threat, the little beast wasn’t someone who forgave slights easily - he ought to have wanted Shen Qingqiu back in the water prison, his for the breaking.
Now that Yue Qingyuan knew, they couldn’t just make Shen Qingqiu quietly disappear. Yue Qingyuan would defend him, and the might of Cang Qiong mountain would fall in line behind him.
The little beast was many things, none of them good, but he was not a fool. He only did things if they benefitted him.
In what situation would ensuring that the Peak Lords forsook the impostor benefit Luo Binghe?
In the situation in which Luo Binghe had long desired to destroy Cang Qiong, but the impostor’s allegiance to them stood in his way. The beast was an avaricious creature, and had always disliked not having the whole of a person’s soul - Shen Qinqgiu had seen it before, in how thoroughly he’d destroyed Ning Yingying’s bond with Qing Jing.
If he attacked the sect unprompted, and the impostor mourned, then Luo Binghe wouldn’t be able to stand it, but it he could spin it so that he could claim to have acted in defense and be believed… He might even start with Yue Qingyuan. Without their leader, the sect would falter, and collapse at the slightest prodding.
Shen Qingqiu had walked this path before; he knew were it lead: to a shattered sword, to blood on stone.
“It’s too early to be worrying on who will take the Peak Lord position,” he said. The words were bitter on his tongue. “We should focus on trying to find an explanation for us walking away from Cang Qiong with one Shen Qingqiu and returning with two, instead.”
Yue Qingyuan looked, inexplicably, crest-fallen. “Doesn’t Xiao - doesn’t Qingqiu-shidi want Qing Jing?”
Qingqiu-shidi did want Qing Jing, thank you very much. But it would prove to be a hollow victory indeed, if Luo Binghe promptly set the peak on fire as soon as as Shen Qingqiu obtained it.
“It simply isn’t that pressing an issue,” he insisted. He forced himself to smile. “Zhangmen-shixiong should talk to-“, fuck, Shen Qingqiu could hardly call him impostor, not without undoing all his efforts, “- the night-time Qing Jing Peak Lord on how to best tackle the situation of there suddenly being two of us. He has a great deal of knowledge of this world and may be able to come up with something.” There. That had to be clear enough: talk to Luo Binghe’s pet Shizun and make sure he knows you’re still on his side.
“How very generous of you,” commented Luo Binghe coldly.
Shen Qingqiu smiled at him, and found that it was completely genuine. Good luck spinning this against Qi-Ge, you bastard. “We’re all on the same side here, after all,” he replied sweetly. This was, perhaps, a little too much; he could feel Yue Qingyuan watching him keenly.
“I would like to talk to Qingqiu-shidi. Alone.”
No. That wouldn’t do. “I’m tired,” Shen Qingiu said. “Shixiong will have to forgive me.” He made to walk off, but a hand closed around his wrist, gently tugging him back. He froze, guided by an instinct that had been carved into his bones through blood and fire, a cold ball of dread settling in his stomach.
How idiotic. It was just Qi-Ge.
“I’m afraid this is a matter that cannot be delayed,” Yue Qingyuan said, as ever stubborn about all the wrong things.
“It’s fine,” interjected Luo Binghe, an odious little smile on his face. “I’ll be waiting outside.”
Shen Qingqiu scoffed. “Eavesdropping outside, more like.”
The little beast’s eyes glittered. “You wound me,” he said, not sounding very wounded at all. He sauntered outside, making a big production of shutting the door behind himself.
Leaving Shen Qingqiu and Yue Qingyuan alone in the room.
Luo Binghe had planned to lean against the wall of Yue Qingyuan’s house to eavesdrop his conversation with Not-Shizun - a little obvious, perhaps, but people just tended to assume that he was acting within his rights if he acted brazenly.
However, a few moments after he’d settled himself there, a Qiong Ding disciple caught sight of him and gestured at him to come closer to her.
He complied, sighing as he went.
He tried to stop a little ways from her, hoping that she would meet him halfway - that way, he’d still been close enough to the house to be able to catch the gist of what was going on inside, but too far for a human, even a cultivator, to listen in as well.
She didn’t budge, serenely waiting until he started moving again.
“Shijie,” he greeted.
“Luo-shidi,” she replied, stiffly. She had to be young - young enough to have joined after his time as a Qing Jing disciple, since he didn’t remember her from back then. He attempted a smile. Blinking, a faintly stunned look in her eyes, she smiled back at him, her fair cheeks coloring. Young, and clearly susceptible to his charms.
Even if she couldn’t be forced, it was possible she might be coaxed.
“What brings Shjie here?” he asked, pitching his voice low, so that she had to sway closer to hear him.
“I was supposed meet with Shizun this morning,” she said. Her posture was loosening quickly. “I’ve hit a blockage in my cultivation.” A pause. “Since Luo-shidi’s here, does that mean Shen-shishu is, as well?”
Luo Binghe nodded. “Something came up,” he said. “I’m supposed to wait outside the door in case Shizun needs something,” he added, pressing a hand to her arm. “It’s best that Shijie wait here.”
The girl looked down, to where his fingers rested against the dark fabric of her robes. She swallowed, her throat working. “I…” she said, dazed. “Yes. Of course.”
He squeezed her wrist gently, smiling again for good measure. “Good,” he said, keeping his tone warm, and hurried back to the house.
“- died, and you didn’t even notice,” Not-Shizun was saying. There was a long pause immediately after that, long enough that Luo Binghe almost started worrying that they’d moved to another room. Then, there was a bitter laugh. “No. It’s worse than that, isn’t it? I died, and you were relieved. I had finally stopped being such a headache.”
There was a rustling sound, then Yue Qingyuan started speaking, in a low, fervent tone. Luo Binghe could only catch an handful of disjointed words: Sorry, and Xiao Jiu and didn’t mean to.
“Spare your breath,” Not-Shizun said. “You know how much your apologies have always been worth.” These, it seemed, where his parting words. He strode out of the house a few seconds later, his eyes oddly bright. For the handful of moments the door was open, Luo Binghe was able to catch a glimpse of a dark-robed figure, kneeling on the ground in supplication.
Not-Shizun would have stormed past Luo Binghe without even acknowledging his presence, but had Luo Binghe not caught his elbow. “Compose yourself,” he hissed. “You’ve got an audience.”
Not-Shizun turned towards him. He was white-faced, his lips pressed into a tight, thin line. For a moment, Luo Binghe almost flinched, sure he was about to be struck.
Then, the rage receded. Not-Shizun glanced out at the Qiong Ding disciple, who was looking at them, wide-eyed. “Are you waiting to talk to Zhangmen-shixiong?”
“Go on, then,” Not-Shizun said, in a far gentler tone than the one he usually employed. His gaze lingered on the girl, as she hurried up the steps and into Yue Qingyuan’s house, a faint furrow between his brows.
“Do you know her?” Luo Binghe asked.
“No,” Not-Shizun replied, sounding faintly surprised. “I’ve never seen her before in my life. I don’t think she ever was a Cang Qiong disciple.”
The walked in silence for a while, until Not-Shizun spoke again. “How old are you?”
The question was so odd it took Luo Binghe a while to answer. “Thirty-seven.”
Not-Shizun sighed - a soft, near-silent exhalation. “Thirty-seven,” he repeated, almost to himself. “Has it really been that long?”
He probably wasn’t really expecting an answer. Luo Binghe looked at him for a while. out of the corner of his eye, deliberating. Not-Shizun was holding himself oddly, an unfamiliar vulnerability to his features. Before, he’d always looked sharp, the lines of his face twisted and harsh, but in that moment, he was brittle. A glazed porcelain cup, rather than a blade.
For the first time, he didn’t look like a monster making a mockery of someone else’s skin.
“We don’t know how this works,” said Luo Binghe, cautiously, “Maybe you were brought to this point in time randomly.”
Shen Jiu scoffed. “Trying to comfort me? That’s new.”
Luo Binghe shrugged.
There was a long silence. “It might’ve been that long.” Shen Jiu’s voice soured with familiar bitterness. “There was no way to tell, down there. And he was careful to keep me alive.”
“It’s more fun that way, is it not? If I have to live with the consequences. You should know.”
He supposed he did know. There had been a time he would have taken that same kind of dark, vicious satisfaction, in that sort of vengeance, in breaking a person’s life down piece by piece, the same way it had been done to him.
Part of it had been Xin Mo, whispering in the back of his mind, and part of it had been him. He could still feel the thrill of it, even then, even as the mere thought of what he’d almost wrought made bile rise up in his throat.
He hadn’t allowed himself to dwell to much on it, because it had been impossible to disentangle that Shen Qingqiu and his own Shizun, but it wasn’t hard to imagine what the other him had done - what he might’ve done, to someone like Shen Jiu.
“What did he do?”
Shen Jiu gave a low, bitter laugh. “I think I’ve already told you. In detail.”
“Not to you,” said Luo Binghe, “To everyone else.”
Shen Jiu paused in his step, his mouth working soundlessly for a few moments. “He burned Qing Jing to the ground,” he hissed, low, wielding his words like whips, “He destroyed Cang Qiong.”
For a moment, Luo Binghe imagined it. The flames licking at the foundations of Shizun’s bamboo hut. The roof caving in. The entire grove set alight.
For a moment, the image almost swallowed him.
He didn’t let it.
“That wasn’t what hurt you most, though. Was it?”
Shen Jiu’s face was very white. “He lured Yue Qingyuan in an ambush. There wasn’t enough left of him to bury. The beast just brought me back his shattered sword. He left it in my cell, just far away enough that I could never touch it. I might’ve used to kill myself, you see.”
Oh. Luo Binghe could see the shape of it, now. “You care for him, then,” he commented, “More than anything else in the world.”
Shen Jiu’s mouth trembled. “I will not allow you to hurt him again.”
“Is this what your sudden desire for harmony was about?”
Tellingly, Shen Jiu didn’t answer.
“Well,” said Luo Binghe conversationally, “you’re in luck. I have no plans to hurt him. Nor any desire to do so.”
“And you expect me to believe you?”
He shrugged. “Believe what you like.”
“So what? You’ll let him live, knowing who I am?”
“That was the idea, yes.”
Shen Jiu gave a disbelieving little laugh. “You know it won’t be as simple as just making me disappear, if he knows. You’re not an idiot.”
“No,” Luo Binghe agreed, “I’m not. Nor I won’t suffer for any threat to Shizun to live.”
Shen Jiu’s expression twisted, something like genuine confusion in his eyes, though he tried to dissimulate it.
“I suppose it’s up to you, then.” Luo Binghe let himself smile, slow and wide. “Are you planning on being a threat?”
Unexpectedly, they were a party of five.
“Who invited him along?” Shen Qingqiu hissed, jerking his chin in Liu Qingge’s direction.
“Not me.” Luo Binghe shrugged. “No one, I think. You know how he is.”
“Yes, and I imagine he came up with this idea all by his lonesome.”
“Doubting his faculties?” Luo Binghe asked, a faint note of derision in his voice. “But he’s so brilliant.”
Shen Qingqiu almost bristled, before he realized Luo Binghe wasn’t laughing at him.“You don’t like him.”
Another shrug. “He has his uses.”
Ah. So it had been Luo Binghe who had coaxed or goaded him into joining. “The other you used to go on at length on what great friends you two would’ve been, had he lived.”
Luo Binghe chuckled, the sound startlingly loud in the still morning air. “No chance of that happening.”
The noise had attracted the attention of the object of their conversation, who swiveled to look at them, glowering.
Shen Qingqiu almost smiled. It had been a long time since he’d last seen that supercilious expression, and, as little as he liked the man, the more he saw him like this, the easier it was to forget what it had been like, in those caves - the roiling qi, the warm, wet blood, Shen Qingqiu’s trembling hands as he tried to keep his life inside him, and failed.
Liu Qingge’s looked away from Luo Binghe, turning his attention to Shen Qingqiu, and something in his face untwisted, the harsh lines of his expression softening. His gaze slid from Shen Qingqiu’s face, upwards - looking at his forehead, maybe? Or at his hair, perhaps.
Liu Qingge’s eyes widened, just for a moment, so quickly Shen Qingqiu might’ve missed it, if he hadn’t been looking. Then, he turned away, his fair complexion turning splotchy.
That was… odd. Liu Qingge had never been the sort of person to hide his rage, or his disgust.
And this wasn’t what disgust looked like on him, anyway, nor rage.
Shen Qingqiu could feel an idea, hovering at the edges of his mind, but before he was able to grasp it, Yue Qingyuan spoke, for the first time that morning. “We should go,” he said. He wasn’t looking at Shen Qingqiu. He hadn’t looked at Shen Qingqiu even once, avoiding his gaze so studiously he couldn’t have been more conspicuous if he’d spent the entire time staring. “Make the most of the daylight.”
Shen Qingqiu sighed, unsheathing Xiu Ya. Beside him, Luo Binghe was unsheathing his sword, as well - still not Xin Mo. Shen Qingqiu was going to have to figure out what that was about.
Shang Qinghua, who had, until then, been trying to make himself as invisible as possible, cleared his throat. “It’s going to look odd if you ride on separate swords,” he whispered, glancing meaningfully at Liu Qingge.
Luo Binghe resheathed his sword. At Shen Qingqiu’s disbelieving look, he said, “He’s right.” A pause. “I don’t like this any better than you do.”
“I find that hard to believe,” replied Shen Qingqiu. He glared at Shang Qinghua, who shrank back. “Since Shidi’s the one with the map,” he continued, in a low, saccharine tone, “He should be the one to take point.”
Shang Qinghua swallowed. “Here,” he said, extending a folded piece of parchment, “you can take this.”
Shen Qingqiu took it, opening it to glance at the map - better to have at least a vague idea of where they were going. Just in case. Then, he pushed it back into Shang Qinghua’s hands. “I can’t read your atrocious calligraphy,” he said. “And besides, you’re the head of logistics. I would hate to deprive you of your only function.”
Shang Qinghua got on his sword, turning his head to look beseechingly in Yue Qingyuan’s direction. The sect leader looked at him, then at Shen Qingqiu, still with that annoying, kicked-dog expression. “I’ll fly alongside you,” he said, moving forward to hover at Shang Qinghua’s side.
Shen Qingqiu scoffed, but didn’t otherwise comment. At least, this meant he wouldn’t need to deal with Yue Qingyuan nor with Shang Qinghua - two nuisances down, two to go.
The greater of the nuisances - both in size and in capacity - clambered onto Xiu Ya behind Shen Qingqiu. Silently, they rose in the air.
As he watched the ground grow further and further away beneath his feet, Shen Qingqiu allowed himself a brief, explicit fantasy of pushing Luo Binghe off the sword.
There was a dry chuckle behind him. “You know I would survive that fall.”
“We could test it,” Shen Qingqiu offered.
“Shizun wouldn’t do such a thing to his beloved husband.”
“Maybe not,” Shen Qingqiu conceded, “but there is always room for tragic accidents.”
Luo Binghe hummed. “Unfortunately, we’re on a schedule.”
Shen Qingqiu opened his mouth to reply, and promptly swallowed an mouthful of insects, displaced by the current of air Liu Qingge had created as he’d broken formation and rushed forwards to join Yue Qingyuan and Shang Qinghua in the vanguard - though it could hardly still be called a vanguard, now that it comprised of more than half their group.
Shen Qingqiu coughed. “What do you think you’re doing?” he shouted, over the rushing of the wind.
Liu Qingge turned to look at him, and then, miracle of miracles, actually slowed down so he would fall back, looking cowed. He glowered at Luo Binghe, and then sent another strangely longing glance at the side of Shen Qingqiu’s head, before he turned away from them entirely.
Tentatively, Shen Qingqiu raised his hand to touch the spot where Liu Qingge’s stare had focused. Under his fingers, he felt the smooth surface of the wooden pin he still wore - the one Luo Binghe had offered to him with an oddly gleeful expression.
That idea started to form again, in the recesses of Shen Qingqiu’s mind. “Is he in love with me?”
“Shizun is very lovable,” replied Luo Binghe. “How much often comes as a surprise even to him.”
Wonderful. The impostor had apparently decided to make it a point to seduce all the people Shen Qingqiu most despised.
Or, if he was clever, he’d decided to cover his bases in case the little beast still turned on him. After all, Liu Qingge and Yue Qingyuan combined might just have been enough to counter Luo Binghe, even once he reached his full power.
“It must make things awkward with Liu Mingyan,” Shen Qingqiu commented, idly, probing to see if he could find a chink there.
“Why?” asked Luo Binghe, “Because of the massive amount of erotic drivel she writes about me and Shizun? Sure, it might be an embarrassment to poor Liu-shishu that even his sister has so little faith in him, but it’s hardly a concern to me.”
“I meant because you’re married to her,” Shen Qingqiu said, a little faintly. He hadn’t thought anything could surprise him, not after he’d woken up in this world. Apparently, he had been wrong.
Perhaps it was best if he just accepted that there was no limit to the absurdities the universe has to offer.
“I’m not married to Liu Mingyan,” Luo Binghe said. “I’m married to Shizun.”
“Yes,” Shen Qingqiu replied. “I know that. Besides the - your Shizun, you must have other… spouses.” Wives, he’d almost said, but perhaps this version of Luo Binghe liked more diversity between his sheets.
“I only need Shizun.”
“So you don’t have an harem?” Shen Qingqiu asked, the thought somehow even more inconceivable than Liu Mingyan, peddler of filth. “What about Sha Hualing?” Ning Yingying?” He swallowed. “Qiu Haitang?”
“What about them?” Luo Binghe’s voice was calm and light, speaking as though this was something obvious, a factual truth: the sky is blue, fire burns. Not at all like he was rewriting a fundamental part of Shen Qingqiu’s understanding of him.
So what - had he been sincere, all those times he’d said that the impostor was his entire world, the person he cared for above all others? Had they not just been his usual hyperboles, his capricious, avaricious nature at play?
He had to stay calm. This didn’t change anything, strategy-wise - Luo Binghe would’ve been just as stubborn in protecting the most insignificant member of his harem: as little as he played with them, he didn’t like other people breaking his toys.
Swallowing, Shen Qingqiu pushed his tumultuous thoughts down, forcing himself to focus on his flight.
Far away, on the horizon, there was a storm brewing.
The rain met them halfway through the second day - a relentless, miserable deluge that made it impossible to fly and forced them to wade through the mud on foot. The route they had chosen would not take them through any villages until they were almost upon the caves, so, at least, the impostor’s nights were bound to be as uncomfortable as Shen Qingqiu’s days.
It was a poor consolation, when each morning he woke up stiff-necked and shivering, forced to concede to huddling against Luo Binghe for warmth.
Worse than the cold and the damp and the endless rivers of mud was how empty their days were, so that the long hours stretched, and Shen Qingqiu’s dread grew and expanded outwards, with nothing concrete to focus on, until he was excruciatingly aware of every beat of his heart, every drop of water sliding down his skin.
Under the circumstances, it was almost a relief when the demons attacked.
They first made their appearance as fine pale mist, soundlessly slipping in their midst. Shen Qingqiu felt a flicker of unease, as the fog thickened, but he dismissed it.
After all, he had been jumping at shadows for five days.
Then, there was a spike of dark energy. Before Shen Qingqiu could draw Xiu Ya, there was an heavy arm across his throat, a cold, thin blade against his ribs. Other figures solidified out of the mist, nine of them, with pale, blazing eyes and clawed hands, swords and bows and sabres slung across their backs.
“Lay down your weapons,” a voice declared, uncomfortably loud against his ear, “We have Luo Binghe’s consort.”
Luo Binghe, caught in the act of reaching for his sword, paused and frowned. “Who are you?”
“Don’t pretend not to know me,” the demon that had seized Shen Qingqiu growled. “You murdered my father and stole my lands.”
Luo Binghe’s face remained blank. He probably had murdered enough fathers and stolen enough lands that he’d lost count of them, to say nothing of remembering their names, or their faces.
“Let Shizun go,” he said, “or I’ll make you sorry I ever spared you.” But he unbuckled his sword, the sword that was not Xin Mo, and kicked it away. The rest of their companions followed his example, with various degrees of reticence.
Shen Qingqiu scowled at them. If he had only been himself, they would have known not to give themselves up for his sake. “Wonderful,” he commented, “Now we can all be captured.” He craned his neck, as though to catch a glimpse of his captor. The demon shifted his grip, enough that Shen Qingqiu had the second’s leeway he needed to slam his shoulder into the demon’s chest. The arm slid across his throat, the knife skidding over his ribs and leaving behind a shallow, burning cut.
Before the demon could tighten his hold, Shen Qingqiu bit him.
The demon shouted, probably less pained than surprised - it wasn’t every day that a lofty, immortal master stooped to a street rat’s tactics. He tried to jerk his arm away. Shen Qingqiu set his jaw and held fast, allowing himself to be driven forward, until the demon’s blade plunged into his stomach.
The pain of such a paltry wound didn’t even come close to the mildest of Luo Binghe’s torments, but Shen Qingqiu still made a show of crying out, twisting and turning like a fish on a line, until the demon’s hand slipped on the blood-slick hilt of the knife, and he was free. It only took a flick of his fingers, and Xiu Ya unsheathed with a ringing sound, flashing forward to draw a crimson line across the demon’s throat.
The demon collapsed with a whimper. Shen Qingqiu bent down to make sure he had stopped breathing, and then he spat on the corpse for good measure.
He straightened, ready to turn his attention to their other attackers, but found that his companions had made short work of them.
“Do we know who they were?” asked Luo Binghe, ineffectually trying to clean the blood and gore off of his face with his drenched hands; he was the filthiest of them, including Shen Qingqiu himself. He looked like he had torn the assailants apart with his bare hand.
Knowing him, he probably had.
Shang Qinghua shook his head. “I might have been able to discern more, if your lordship had left a little more of them behind.”
“They stabbed Shizun,” replied Luo Binghe sullenly.
Shang Qinghua swallowed. “I didn’t, of course, mean to imply that your lordship’s conduct was wrong.”
Luo Binghe was no longer listening to him. “That was reckless,” he said, scowling at Shen Qingqiu.
Shen Qingqiu shrugged. “It’s a scratch. With my cultivation, it’ll be gone by nightfall.” Meaning, your Shizun won’t need to concern himself with it.
“The blade might’ve been poisoned.”
“It wouldn’t have been,” Shen Qingqiu replied. Speaking of the wound had made him aware of its presence, of how it twinged and throbbed with each movement. “A dead hostage is a poor one. And even if it had been, the heavenly demon blood in my veins would’ve been able to suppress it.”
Luo Binghe pressed his lips together. “You still shouldn’t have done it,” he insisted, a stubborn light in his eyes, but that wasn’t much of an argument at all.
Shen Qingqiu allowed himself a triumphant smile. He was starting to feel a bit light-headed, so he sat down, and risked a glance at his ruined abdomen.
He grimaced. Long exposure, it seemed, had not made him any fonder of the sight of his own blood.
Yue Qingyuan knelt next to him, pressing one hand to his shoulder, the other across his ribs. His touch burned, where the rest of Shen Qingqiu felt so terribly cold.
Yue Qingyuan started to syphon spiritual energy into him. “Shidi should take more care,” he chided softly. “You lost a lot of blood.”
Shen Qingqiu ought to have rebuffed him. This was a comfort he could ill afford, but he still allowed himself to list against Yue Qingyuan’s warm side, and to drift drowsily as voices murmured above him.
When he came to, he was feeling much more himself, though his head ached fiercely. He had been stripped of his outer robe, his skin cleaned of the blood and grime. The wound had stopped bleeding; nothing more than a thin red line remained. Fingers were moving through his hair, slow and gentle.
“See,” he said, voice rough, turning his head. “I told you this wound was nothing.”
“Yes,” agreed Yue Qingyuan. His careful strokes had ceased, but he didn’t move away his hand. “Qingqiu-shidi is very wise.”
“I can tell you’re humoring me,” Shen Qingiu muttered, but there was no bite behind it. It was easy, for a moment, to rest in this man’s arms and let the doubt and resentment fall away. He shifted a little, looking for a more comfortable position, and his gaze fell on Xuan Su, laid diagonally across its owner’s lap, sheath still crusted with dried blood and what looked suspiciously like bits of brain matter. “Shixiong,” he asked, with false casualness. “How come I’ve never seen you draw your sword?”
“I grew used to fighting like this during my training,” Yue Qingyuan replied, too quickly. His body, against Shen Qingqiu’s, had stiffened. “My master thought it would be a good exercise.” He forced an awkward laugh. “There’s not actually many occasions that require drawing it.”
Always such a terrible liar, Qi-ge, Shen Qingqiu thought, almost fondly, I would’ve known it for a lie even if I hadn’t known the truth. Still, he didn’t call Yue Qingyuan out on it, only hummed noncommittally and shut his eyes against the memory of Xuan Su’s shattered shards, gleaming white against the filthy floor of his cell.
He drifted off again to the steady, comforting flow of spiritual energy into his body.
The next day, their pace slowed considerably. Even though Shen Qingqiu was perfectly fine, the idiots he accompanied himself with appeared convinced he was in danger of keeling over, and wouldn’t quicken their steps no matter how far ahead from them he walked.
At least, the rain had let up a little. Timid shafts of sunlight filtered through the leaves overhead, painting the raindrops golden, and the air smelled fresh. Soon, they would be able to fly again, and then he wouldn’t have to put up with his companions and their ridiculous worry any longer.
He heard Liu Qingge walk up to him, but when he attempted to quicken his pace a stabbing pain in his abdomen stopped him in his tracks. He allowed himself a few minutes to catch his breath, then started walking again at the same speed he’d kept all morning; he would be forced to permit Liu Qingge to reach him, but at least he wouldn’t show weakness.
As soon as Liu Qingge reached him, he demanded, with his customary abruptness, “Who are you?”
Shen Qingqiu didn’t bother to turn to face him. Liu Qingge would see it as dismissal, and he wouldn’t risk anything on his face betraying him. “If shidi doesn’t know, he might have to see Mu-shidi about his eyesight.”
“You are not Shen Qingqiu,” Liu Qingge insisted, doggedly. “You are nothing like him.”
Well, that was rich. “Aren’t I?”
“Shen Qingqiu is wise, and loyal. He is a good man.”
How touching; an ode to the impostor’s virtues. “There was a time you didn’t think Shen Qingqiu was wise, nor loyal,” Shen Qingqiu said. He could hear the bitterness in his own voice. “You certainly didn’t think he was a good man.”
“That was a long time ago,” replied Liu Qingge. “He was completely different, then.”
“Almost like he was a different man?” Shen Qingqiu asked sharply, turning to scowl at him - a mistake. He saw understanding kindle and catch in Liu Qingge’s eyes.
Well… since things had already gotten to this state… “You must’ve noticed,” Shen Qingqiu said. His voice sounded brittle to his own ears. “You must’ve wondered, at first. But none of you wondered too hard. After all, you all liked him better then me.”
“I asked you to explain.” Liu Qingge’s voice shook.
“Fine,” Shen Qingqiu said. “I’ll explain.” He paused, making a show of reticence.“I had a brother, once,” he began, coming up with more as he spoke. “Until he fell ill. No matter what our parents did, he wouldn’t get better. No matter what they tried, he wouldn’t wake. In her desperation, our mother sought and used an ancient artifact. It would contain my brother’s soul, until it could be stored in a different body.”
“I’ve never heard of any artifacts that could do such a thing.”
“How would you know?” asked Shen Qingqiu loftily. “I don’t recall ever seeing you in the library.”
“I’m not accusing you of anything,” he said sullenly, although he had.
Shen Qingqiu lifted his chin. “In any case, the ritual failed, or so it seemed. I mourned my brother, and went on with my life.” This bit, he thought bitterly, was true enough. “And then I came to Cang Qiong, and a qi deviation gave him the control of my body, and took it away from me.”
Liu Qingge frowned. “And now?”
“What else?” Shen Qingqiu asked. “Another qi deviation changed things. Now I have control of the body during the days, and my brother gets the nights.” He paused. “Don’t you know what the purpose of this journey is? Or did you heel like a dog when my brother snapped his fingers?”
Liu Qingge didn’t answer, his eyes flashing darkly and his jaw clenching.
The second one, then. Shen Qingqiu allowed himself a small, superior smile. “The Soul Caves should be able to separate us into two different bodies. That is why we’re going there.”
Liu Qingge was quiet for a long time. Then, “Give me back the hairpin.”
Shen Qingqiu blinked at the non-sequitur, then laughed incredulously, reaching up to touch the ornament in his hair. “What?”
“It was a gift for your brother. You don’t have a right to wear it.”
“Disappointed he isn’t wearing you little love token?”
Liu Qingge’s face reddened. “He is my friend. He saved my life. You never would have.”
A white-hot, leaden weight coalesced into Shen Qingqiu’s stomach. He bared his teeth. “A curious thing to say,” he replied, “since I saved your life, too. Just yesterday. Or have you already forgotten?”
Shen Qingqiu allowed a little smile to himself, before he fed the scrap of linen to the fire. Lacking paper and ink, Shen Jiu had written his message in his own blood, on a torn-off piece of his inner robe. Despite the urgency of the message and the limitations of his medium, he had still dedicated an entire paragraph to insults.
When he’d woken, Shen Qingqiu had found the folded piece of cloth hidden underneath his clothes, pressed against his heart. He’d waited until it had been Yue Qingyuan’s turn to stand guard, then he’d gone to the campfire to read the letter. Neither of them had spoken, Yue Qingyuan’s gaze turned outwards, beyond the confines of their camp.
Shen Qingqiu cleared his throat, feeling a little awkward. “Shen Jiu told Liu Qingge that we’re brothers.”
Yue Qingyuan nodded, looking at him for the first time. “I know.”
“Shen Jiu told you?” Shen Qingqiu asked. Shen Jiu had left half the linen blank. Enough that, after tearing off his massage and burning it, Shen Qingqiu still had space to leave a missive of his own.
Shen Qingqiu wasn’t sure how to respond to that, so he simply nodded and busied himself with biting his fingers and starting on his letter. There’s no need to use such language to refer to Liu-Shidi.
It was not a bad story you concocted, but if we are to be brothers we should agree on a story about our past, so that we will not be discovered in any inconsistencies. And you ought to call me Shen Yuan.
He paused, his finger resting on the linen for so long the blood spread and formed a stain that skimmed the edges of the characters of his old name.
Your past with the Qiu is a matter of some renown, but a mother who would resort to magic to save her son’s life would not sell her children to slavers. So it would be best to say our parents died shortly after we wound up in the same body. He half-wanted to include other siblings for them - older brothers who would steal their toys, a younger sister to be their parter in crime, but he knew it was foolishness - the less complicated the lie, the better.
And the more it was based on truth, the better. “Do you know where Shen Jiu was from, originally?”
Yue Qingyuan shook his head. “We never spoke of our families. On the streets, if you want to survive, you don’t think of what you’ve lost.” He was silent for a time. “I don’t even know if he remembers. He was young when they sold him.”
“Seven. He was so scrawny, he looked at least two years younger,” he smiled, faintly. “If you can believe it, I was nine when we met. My parents sold me a few months before his did. I still hoped I could go home again, and I cried myself to sleep every night.” His voice sounded thick. “Xiao Jiu never cried, not once. Not for real.”
Shen Qingqiu swallowed. Stupidly, he felt like he was intruding on something private, even though Yue Qingyuan was willingly telling him these things, even though this one was one of the first conversations they had that wasn’t under false pretenses. “What was he like, as a child?”
Yue Qingyuan was quiet for a long time. “Much the same as he is now,” he said, eventually, “Resentful. Quick to anger. Intelligent. Fiercely loyal. He was captured for my sake, did you know? If it hadn’t been for me, Qiu Jianluo would have never known he existed.”
“Is that why you still care for him? Because he sacrificed himself for you?”
Yue Qingyuan shook his head, his eyes bright. “I care for him because I remember what it was like, to be one with him against the world.” He swallowed. “Even if I no longer have any rights to it, or to him.”
The stars glittered like shards of glass in the sliver of sky Shen Qingqiu could see out of his narrow window. Luo Binghe slumbered beside him, curled up like a cat, his chest rising and falling slowly.
They were only an handful’s hours travel from the Soul Caves. Less, if they flew on their swords. Their group had arrived at this inn in the late afternoon, as far as Shen Qingqiu had been able to gather, and had unanimously decided to wait until morning and bridge the remaining distance then.
Shen Qingqiu could understand why - after more than ten days on the road, eating in the wind and sleeping in the dew, the appeal of a warm bed and a bath was undeniable. And it had been good, to be able to once again lie with his husband properly.
But now, it was impossible for him to relax. He could feel the pull of the caves, like a distant song at the edges of his consciousness. He looked at Luo Binghe, warm and trusting at his side, and allowed himself a fleeting touch to those familiar, beloved features, and then he followed that call.
He moved soundlessly across the room, slipping on his boots and outer robes. Remembering that, if things went well, there would be two of them on the way back, he took up his pouch and hastily shoved a change of clothes inside it. He strapped Xiu Ya to his back, and went.
He had no need of the map Shang Qinghua had so painstakingly drawn up, for this last stretch. His feet guided him, steady and sure, the path winding through the slumbering village and into the forest beyond. At first, the road was paved and wide, but it narrowed the longer he walked, and the smooth stones were replaced by cutting bits of gravel, so pale they almost glowed in the night. The pouch swung against his hip as he walked, a relentless thumping that slowly became painful.
Still, there was a peace to be found in the road, in the night, in the sharp pebbles beneath his feet. In the stillness, and the solitude.
He noticed a shadow out the corner of his eye, and he stopped walking, looking carefully around, but he noticed nothing more. Still he was certain he hadn’t imagined it - the movement, the brief flare of familiar qi.
Binghe, he thought, and his heart squeezed.
He kept going forward and indeed found him there, at the next curve in the road. He was windswept, his still unsheathed sword cradled in his hands. He looked at Shen Qingqiu with wide eyes, like a lost child. “I woke up and Shizun wasn’t there,” he said, plaintively.
“I’m sorry,” Shen Qingqiu stammered. He always felt unspeakably cruel, when he caused Luo Binghe to look like that - genuinely upset, the way he had in those muddled days that had almost ended in tragedy, none of his usual affectations in the line of his brows.
“You can’t come with me into the caves,” Shen Qingqiu said, which was only half the truth.
“Shizun,” Luo Binghe murmured. “We’ve been married for so long, and Shizun still thinks I wouldn’t be able to tell when he’s hiding something from me?” He walked the few steps that separated them and took Shen Qingqiu’s hand in his own. “Of course I know that a place like the Soul Caves must be dangerous,” he said. “And that I won’t be able to protect Shizun from those dangers. That doesn’t mean that I won’t take on as much of the burden as I can.”
Shen Qingqiu half-wanted to take his hand back, but it was dark; there was no one to see them. And if things went badly, he didn’t want Luo Binghe’s last memory of him to be a refusal. He twined their fingers together. “I thought you wouldn’t allow me to endanger myself.”
Luo Binghe shrugged. “I don’t like it,” he admitted with a rueful little smile. “But who am I to decide what dangers Shizun does or doesn’t run, in this matter? If he doesn’t go to the caves, he’ll never be able to see the sun again.”
Shen Qingqiu’s eyes felt hot, pressure building behind them. What if I don’t come back? he wanted to ask, but couldn’t bring himself to. Binghe had already grieved him for so long, it wasn’t fair to ask him to bear that pain again.
Luo Binghe’s smile widened a little, and he squeezed Shen Qingqiu’s hand. “I’ll see you to the entrance,” he promised, warmly.
From that moment on, they walked together.
Half the night had already passed when they came to the shores of a lake, milky white in the moonlight. Shen Qingqiu swallowed, looking at the still waters that called and beckoned to him. With sudden boldness, he turned and enfolded Luo Binghe in his arms.
They kissed for a long time, languidly, and when Shen Qingqiu made to move back, the lure of the lake and the caves proving too strong for him to resist, Luo Binghe pressed his hand. “I will wait for Shizun here,” he said.
Something in Shen Qingqiu’s chest twisted. “Wait for me back at the inn,” he begged.
Luo Binghe shook his head. “Here.”
Shen Qingqiu couldn’t quite bring himself to meet his eyes. “I may not…” An image flashed through his mind, of Luo Binghe waiting out eternity by the shores of his lake, wasting away until only his spirit was left. “Please,” he whispered, “I can’t-“
“Come back to me,” Luo Binghe said, and pressed a kiss to his mouth, brief and dry. “I will wait.”
There were no words left to be said. Shen Qingqiu stepped back. Wordlessly, he disrobed, leaving his clothes strewn on the bank. Then, he stepped into the lake.
The pale, cold water closed above his head, but he did not fight it, and allowed himself to be swept under, to the bottom of the lake, and then into a subterranean river, and the he was spat out onto dry land, on a bare strip of rock. He was naked and wet, but he didn’t feel the cold.
Moonlight filtered in from some unseen crevice, casting a round beam of light on the stone. It was in that silver glow he laid himself out, and settled to wait for the dawn.
He was laying naked against a hard, rough surface, weak sunlight shining directly in his eyes. Irritated and squinting, he rolled over, to find himself face to face with his reflection.
No - not his reflection.
“Are we here, then?” he asked.
Shen Yuan nodded. He, too, was naked, his long hair dried in clumps around his pale face. His eyes were very wide on his pinched features, and very dark, and his lips were trembling and bloodless.
Behind his shoulders, the rock was parting, impossibly soundless; first, a crack appeared, white, blinding light spilling forth, then, slowly, it widened, until it formed a doorway wide enough for two men to walk abreast.
Shen Qingqiu swallowed, gathering his courage, and stood. Experimentally, he stuck his hand in the opening in the rock; the light was cool, so thick it had an almost physical presence. It brushed like cotton against his skin.
He made to step through, but Shen Yuan stopped him with a brief touch to his wrist. “Be careful, in there,” he said. “Don’t let it sweep you under.”
“You too,” Shen Qingqiu replied. From here on onwards, they were going to have to rely on each other. They would be walking out together, or not at all.
They went as one into the light, but when Shen Qingqiu stepped out, he was alone. He found himself not in a cave, but in a circular, low-ceilinged room, the walls cozily paneled with wood. He was no longer naked, but his clothes weren’t the finery he had grown accustomed to - he was wearing a hemp robe, shabby and faded, the fabric scratching against his skin with every movement. There were places where it had ripped, and been mended clumsily.
He walked around the room, examining the objects he found. A low table. A pot. Two wooden bowls, two sets of cutlery. There were no weapons, save for a bow and a quiverfull of arrows, simply but cunningly made. There were no inkstones, no scrolls, no musical instruments. No jewelry. The quilt on the bed had been made with obvious care but no talent, what little embroidery it bore lopsided and faded.
A stoppered bottle had been discretely tucked between the bed’s headboard and the wall. He opened it and sniffed it cautiously, then dipped a finger inside. Some kind of oil, he realized, flushing.
Hastily, he put it back where he had found it, and moved on to look through the closet. There were more robes as threadbare as the one he was wearing, and then, tucked at the very back, two sets of groom’s attire. These, too, were of poor quality, the embroidery sparse and the fabric of cheap. Still, Shen Qingqiu’s breath caught in his throat at the sight of them.
With nothing left to explore in the room, he stepped through the only door, to find himself on a sturdy wooden patio, looking out on a small vegetable garden, and beyond that a bamboo grove.
And, kneeling in the dirt, digging at a carrot, was Yue Qingyuan - except he wasn’t Yue Qingyuan at all. His hair was unkempt and tangled, continually threatening to slide from the simple knot it had been arranged in. He was as poorly dressed as Shen Qingqiu, with the addition of dirt staining his knees and clinging to his sleeves.
Nothing remained about him of the grace and refinement of the Cang Qiong sect leader; this was Yue Qi.
And if Yue Qingyuan wasn’t Yue Qingyuan, how could Shen Qingqiu be Shen Qingqiu?
Yue Qi had raised his head when Shen Jiu had exited the house, and he gave a distracted smile. “Xiao Jiu,” he said “I thought you were going to go hunting.”
“Qi-ge,” Shen Jiu breathed, a wounded sound. He knew, suddenly, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that this was world where there had been no Qiu family, no separation, no cultivation sects. No death, and blood, and dismemberment. No betrayal.
They had survived the streets, until they were old enough to get themselves out, to build this for themselves. A humble life, one Shen Qingqiu would’ve scoffed at, the life Shen Jiu had once dreamed of, when he’d huddled desperately for warmth against Yue Qi, when he’d dressed in rags, when he’d been so hungry he’d felt like his stomach was about to turn in on itself.
A roof over their heads, enough to fill their plates, a warm, soft bed to rest in at night.
A world shrunken down to only two people.
Shen Jiu’s eyes burned, but he swallowed down his tears. He said, with something approaching a neutral tone, “I changed my mind. It looks like it’ll rain soon.”
Yue Qi looked doubtfully up at the cloudless sky, then back at Shen Jiu. A slow smile was spreading over his features. “Does it?” he asked, moving to advance up the steps and join Shen Jiu on the patio. “It doesn’t seem like that to me,” he added, “but I would never doubt my Xiao-Jiu’s wisdom.”
Shen Jiu opened his mouth to reply, but lips were pressed against his, and he was backed into the house, hands opening his clothing with easy confidence. Up close, Yue Qi smelled of sweat, of dirt. There were callouses on his palms, from holding a spade, and on his fingers, from holding a needle.
His mouth moved against Shen Jiu’s, slow and purposeful, as he pushed the outer robe off his shoulders. Shen Jiu shivered.
“Cold?” Yue Qi whispered across his lips. “I’ll warm you up.”
Shen Jiu’s head spun. He felt like a doll, his hands hanging limply at his sides as he allowed himself to be maneuvered, allowed Yue Qi to touch him. Yue Qi had to have noticed something was amiss, because his hands stopped moving across Shen Jiu’s body, but he stayed close, close enough Shen Jiu could still feel his breath against his face. “What’s wrong?” he asked, softly. He brushed away a strand of hair from Shen Jiu’s eyes. “Did you change your mind?”
“I…” Shen Jiu said sluggishly. “I should go hunting.”
“I thought it was going to rain,” Yue Qi replied, the edge of a laugh to his words. He leaned forward and pressed a swift, dry kiss to Shen Jiu’s brow. “I’ll see you later, then,” he added, and swept out of the room, leaving Shen Jiu feeling stupidly cold.
He hadn’t wanted Yue Qi to stop at all, he realized, with mounting mortification. He had just let his nerves get the better of him, as though he were some shy maiden.
Still, he wasn’t going outside and announce he’d changed his mind again - though really, he hadn’t made it up in the first place until that moment. Resigned, he walked over to the bow and quiver he had inspected earlier. He was swinging them over his shoulder when he realized with a jolt that he should have left the second he’d seen Yue Qi.
It had been so easy to forget that for every moment he spent in this place, a little more of his life-force was drained away. So easy to forget that none of this was real. That Yue Qi was a specter, an illusion spun from grief and longing.
It was fine, he reasoned, as cold sweat beaded his forehead. He would simply leave right away.
However, as soon as he walked out of the house and saw Yue Qi kneeling in the dirt once more, his resolve faltered, and he found he couldn’t bear to bid him farewell. Not just yet. One day, he thought to himself, as he took the path leading into the bamboo grove. I’ll stay here for one day, and tomorrow morning I’ll leave.
Hunting proved to be more of a challenge than he’d been expecting, since he had neither the strength nor the speed he was used to. Still, even in this weakened body, his aim proved true, and he returned home in the late afternoon with two fat hares. Yue Qi cooked them into a soup.
Once they were done eating, Yue Qi nudged him. “Your turn to wash the dishes.”
“Why is my turn?” he complained. “I caught our dinner.”
“And I harvested all the vegetables. And cooked,” Yue Qi replied. “Come on, Xiao Jiu, don’t try to slack off.”
Grumbling to himself, Shen Jiu went. It had been decades since he’d had to wash anything on his own. It took him a long time to accomplish the task, and he soaked his sleeves in the process.
When he was finished, he found that Yue Qi was readying himself for bed. He stripped off most of his clothes, and was bent over the washbasin in only his thin cotton trousers, as he wiped a damp towel across his neck. Rivulets of water were running down his back, following the curves and the groves of his muscles.
There was heat, rising in Shen Jiu’s cheeks, in his chest, as he stripped off his sopping wet clothes. “Qi-ge,” he called, softly, before he could talk himself out of it.
Yue Qi turned his head towards him lazily, as though this was a commonplace occurrence. For him, it was. “Hhm?”
“I want it,” said Shen Jiu. He felt unspeakably foolish. He was still half-wearing his inner robe, bunched up around his elbows, and he twisted his fingers in the wet fabric, so that Yue Qi wouldn’t be able to see how white-knuckled his grip was.
There had been dust, on those wedding robes. A man who had been married for that long wouldn’t feel this much trepidation at the prospect of intimacy.
Yue Qi smiled, and walked over to him. They kissed for a long time, slowly, languorously. Shen Jiu felt himself unwinding, inch by inch, and when Yue Qi pushed at the fabric he still held fisted in his hands, he let it go, allowing the white inner robe to flutter to the floor.
“So beautiful, Xiao Jiu,” Yue Qi whispered, when he drew back for breath. “You’re so beautiful.”
Shen Jiu flushed at the compliment, unsure how to receive it. He had been complimented before, but not like this. “I suppose you look… passable,” he allowed.
Yue Qi looked at him for a long moment, and then he burst into laughter.
Something in Shen Jiu’s chest loosened, hearing that laugh, and suddenly it was easy.
“I’m very lucky indeed,” Yue Qi was saying, still laughing, even as he drew Shen Jiu back into his arms and laid sloppy, uncoordinated kisses over his brow, his cheeks, his nose, the point of his chin. “That a peerless beauty like you has allowed me in his bed.”
“I haven’t allowed you anywhere just yet,” Shen Jiu replied haughtily, to more laughter.
They were still laughing, when they tumbled onto the bed together.
Shen Qingqiu woke with a gasp.
The fist thing he felt was the cold, which he felt more keenly than he had in decades, shrouding his bones and seeping in his very marrow.
Slowly, bit by bit, he became aware of the scraping of the stone against his bare skin, of the wetness on his face. As he’d slept, a myriad of tiny, firefly-like insects had come to rest upon his skin, and he brushed them away as best he could. The places where they’d stuck to his skin were left raw and stinging, as the creatures rose into the air in a shining silver cloud.
They were pragmatically called, in true Airplane-bro fashion, Man-Eating Fireflies. They were creatures that lived in symbiosis with the caves, preying on the spiritual energy of their victims and then imbuing the places they inhabited with it. Since they were small, each of them could suck out only a little bit of qi at a time, and was not, taken alone, dangerous. However, they hunted by swarming, gathering in the thousands on one person.
Shen Qingqiu’s head swam as he gingerly pushed himself up to his elbows. The dream-world he had just escaped was still dragging at the edges of his consciousness, beckoning him back - the sight of his sister’s tear-stained face, the touch of her hands on his, the warmth of his brothers’ embrace. And lingering at the edges of the reunion, his husband, impossibly there.
It had been so sweet, so tempting. It had taken real effort to remember that Luo Binghe, the real Luo Binghe, was out there, waiting for him, counting on him to be strong enough to return.
This was the power of the Soul Caves, how they had, over the years, trapped so many victims and sucked them dry: they could pluck the deepest desire of a person’s soul, the longing they wouldn’t acknowledge even in their dreams, and give it shape, turn it into something that could be beholden, heard, held.
It had nearly broken Shen Qingqiu’s heart, to tear himself from his siblings’ grip, to ignore Luo Binghe’s reaching hands, and to leave.
But he had, and it might still have been for naught, because the room he was in had no exits.
A figure lay next to Shen Qingqiu, curled up around itself. It was human in shape, covered from head to toe in small, shining silver specks, as though it had been bathed in starlight. It hurt to look at it directly, but Shen Qingqiu forced himself to focus on its face, till he could distinguish its features - the straight nose, thin lips, the shape of the eyes, the hint of brows.
“Shen Jiu,” he hissed, prodding the unconscious man with his foot, but Shen Jiu, of course, didn’t stir. A small crease had formed between his brows, and the silver light pooled there, burning brightly. The fireflies had gathered on him more closely than they had on Shen Qingqiu, perhaps sensing weakness; they clung to the creases of his face, the arch of his collarbones, the corner of his eyes.
Shen Qingqiu reached forwards and brushed the creatures away from Shen Jiu’s face. His skin was freezing cold to the touch, and clammy, almost like he was already dead. The caves had taken a lot out of him, and fast, faster than Shen Qingqiu had believed possible. Like he hadn’t attempted to reject the illusion at all.
The way out of the caves would remain closed, so long as at least one of them remained unconscious.
In Proud Immortal Demon Way, the two sisters trapped in one body had remained trapped in the caves, because the wicked sister, Feng Xuan, hadn’t been able to resist the world the caves had offered her. Proud Immortal Demon Way being Proud Immortal Demon way, this had been resolved by Bingge using Xin Mo to slash his way into the caves and rescue his new wife. This had had the added bonus of leading into a new arc, wherein he tried to find a way to wake Feng Xuan from the illusion she was still stuck in.
The solution to that particular issue had, of course, been to enter her dreamscape and papapa her into wakefulness, because Airplane-bro’s readers had been dissatisfied that Bingge’s magic dick hadn’t been the answer to any of the other problems. And you couldn’t introduce a pair of identical twins in a novel like Proud Immortal Demon way and not have the protagonist screw them both.
But that scarcely mattered; Bingge was Bingge, and Bingmei was Bingmei. And Bingmei didn’t have Xin Mo, something Shen Qingqiu was appropriately thankful for, regardless of how inconvenient it was at times.
It’ll be fine, he thought, desperately, as the fireflies resettled against his skin. Shen Jiu would wake up. Shen Qingqiu would see his husband again.
He just had to hold on a little longer.
He had expected that the illusion would remain still, to help him forget the passing time, but one morning, about six months into his stay, he woke up to find snow on the ground.
It was still early, early enough that Yue Qi still slept in their bed, slightly turned onto his side, half-laying on the space Shen Jiu had just left. I’ll go once it thaws, Shen Jiu thought, hazily, as he walked out onto the ice-covered patio. I can’t leave Qi-ge alone during the winter, and it’s dangerous to travel in this weather anyway..
He felt cold, all of a sudden, down to the tips of his toes, and very awake. Agitated, he walked into the snow, past their garden and the little fence that always needed mending, and into the bamboo grove. He looked around as he walked, as though a fracture would reveal itself to him, a place where this world bled into his own. But of course, there was nothing. He couldn’t even be sure there still was a reality for him to return to. Had he really spent half a year in this place? Did time pass the same way here as it did outside?
Yue Qi was awake when Shen Jiu returned to the house. He was sitting up in bed, his long, unbound hair a mess of knots and curls and tangles, his face lined where the creases of the quilt had pressed into it. “It’s cold outside,” he said. He was smiling, easy and soft. “Come back to bed.”
Shen Jiu swallowed. His heart felt too small for his chest, like someone had squeezed it until all the blood had been wrung from it, leaving only a hunk of blackened stone behind.“I have to go.”
The smile turned quizzical. “Go where?”
“Home,” Shen Jiu said. He had to force himself to spit the word out. It was a lie, and he knew it, and he knew, deep in his bones and in his blood, that falsehood wouldn’t serve him here. “I don’t belong here,” he amended. It was more painful to say that, because it was closer to the truth.
“Do you belong there?” Yue Qi asked. His voice was very gentle. “Xiao Jiu, they don’t care for you out there. They won’t even notice you’re gone. Why shouldn’t you stay?” He pushed away the blanket and stood, crossing the space that separated them and taking Shen Jiu’s hand in his. “You’re happy here, right? Your Qi-ge makes you happy.”
“They’ll notice Shen Yuan’s gone,” Shen Jiu replied, still dealing in half-truths. “Luo Binghe will make them notice.”
Yue Qi’s hand was very warm around his. “And why is that a concern of yours? You’ll be here.”
“He will kill people,” Shen Jiu said. “Either in retaliation, or because he will be driven mad by grief, or in an attempt to bring his husband back.” There was bile burning up his throat. There was a reason he couldn’t stay, beyond death, beyond what Luo Binghe would do to the world in his grief. “Don’t you care?”
Yue Qi gently caressed his cheek. “I only care if Xiao Jiu is happy. What does it matter what happens to the rest of the world?”
“My Qi-ge would care,” Shen Jiu said, and it was like lancing a boil, like draining poison from a wound. “My Qi-ge would never have been content with this,” he raised his hand, to encompass the hut, the garden, the bamboo grove. The world shrunken down to fit two people. “It would have killed him, bit by bit, to hide himself away in here, when people out there were suffering, and he had the power to help them.” It had killed him, too, to bear witness to Shen Qingqiu’s cruelty, through the years, and to shield him from its consequences. It had killed him, bit by bit, and then it had killed him all at once.
The hand that had been on the side of his face was now stroking through his hair. “You’ve always hated that about him,” the shade who was not Yue Qingyuan said, still so unbearably gentle.
Shen Jiu laughed. It was an ugly, wet sound. “No,” he said. “I envied it. I would not have liked him so well, without it.” He swallowed. “I have no use for a pale imitation.”
This time, when he opened the door, he found only a stark, blinding light beyond it.
He lurched on his side, shaking and retching. The insects had coated the inside of his mouth; there were gleaming specks of silver mixed in with the deep red blood and the lurid yellow bile. Once it was done, he collapsed on his side, his face pale and drawn and wet; he cried silently, with barely a tremble, weakly attempting to turn his head so that Shen Qingqiu wouldn’t be able to see him.
It was natural, then, to think of Yue Qingyuan’s words, of the tale he’d spun of the little boy whose parents had sold him, and who had not wept.
A doorway was opening in the stone, creaking and groaning, and it drowned out the sound of Shen Jiu’s hitched breaths, his occasional quiet sobs. Beyond it, the milky waters of the lake lapped at the underground shore.
Shen Qingqiu allowed him to cry for a little while before he reached out and touched his arm, gently. “We need to go,” he said, pretending he couldn’t see the tears. “Can you walk?”
Shen Jiu looked at him, blankly, for a long moment. Then, he cracked the ghost of a bitter smile. “You should ask if I can swim,” he said. His voice was ruined, as though the inside of his throat had been scraped raw. Before Shen Qingqiu could reply, Shen Jiu grimaced and pulled himself to his feet, supporting himself with a white-knuckled grip on Shen Qingqiu. Together, they staggered out of the cave.
At first, entering the water was pleasant, as it washed away the shining insects still clinging to their skin, but the relief it provided was short-lived; the descent had been easy, the current buffeting Shen Qingqiu and leading him to his destination.
In this direction, the current worked against them.
Shen Jiu clung to his arm, kicking weakly with his legs, but he was little more than dead weight. The caves had taken too much out of them both, and, as his lungs burned and he fought against the dragging waters, Shen Qingqiu realized that there was no way he could carry them both to shore.
He glanced back at Shen Jiu. Something must’ve shown on his face, because Shen Jiu’s eyes widened, and he tightened his fingers spasmodically over Shen Qingqiu’s shoulder, bringing his other arm up to lock around him. In the state he was in, his strength was no match for Shen Qingqiu’s.
He still had to push Shen Jiu’s fingers off his arm, one by one.
He didn’t turn around to watch him sink. He kept his gaze focused on the vague shape of the surface above him, not looking away or blinking regardless of how much his eyes burned.
He was so exhausted when he broke the surface that he immediately went back under. He emerged again a few seconds later, coughing, his eyes streaming. It was day, cloudless and bright, the first true sunlight Shen Qingqiu had seen in weeks. Luo Binghe, as he’d sworn, was waiting nearby, sitting cross-legged near the shore of the lake.
He stood when he saw Shen Qingqiu. “Shizun?” he asked, running forward. “Is it you?”
“Binghe,” Shen Qingqiu rasped, grabbing his husband’s hand and allowing Luo Binghe to drag him onto dry land. His arms were warm, when they wrapped around Shen Qingqiu, as was the rest of him. Shen Qingqiu still felt cold, the coldest he had felt in years, and he curled up against Luo Binghe’s chest, tried to make himself as small as possible to fit into his husband’s warmth.
“Shizun,” Luo Binghe said after an handful of seconds, as he ran gentle fingers through Shen Qingqiu’s hair. “Why are you alone?”
Shen Qingqiu swallowed against his neck. His tongue felt too thick in his mouth. It made speech difficult. “Still alive,” he managed. Then, “He,” and again, “Alive,” and, finally. “Lake.”
“He’s in the lake?” Luo Binghe asked.
Shen Qingqiu nodded. The motion made his head spin.
The moment stretched between them, a heavy, expectant quality to the air. Shen Jiu had been beastly to Luo Binghe when he’d needed protection the most; it was one thing to spare him, quite another save him.
Who could prove it, if they simply left him to die?
There was a dry press of lips against Shen Qingqiu’s forehead. “Shizun, if I go looking for him, will you be all right out here?”
“Not dangerous,” Shen Qingqiu managed. He cleared his throat, and immediately regretted it when it left him feeling nauseous. “It’s not dangerous out here,” he clarified.
“I’ll be right back,” Luo Binghe promised, stripping off his outer robe, and draping it around Shen Qingqiu’s shoulders. Then, he turned and dove into the water.
Shen Qingqiu shook his head to himself, though it left him dizzy, clutching the robe with one hand as he watched his husband disappear beneath the deceptively still surface, an entirely inappropriate curl of amusement lancing through him. Trust Binghe to contrive a way to put me in his clothes.
Soon, the amusement dissipated, and he was left staring at the water, straining to discern a ripple or wave that could herald Luo Binghe’s return. The world was too bright, and he had no sense of how much time had passed.
Eventually, Luo Binghe emerged, dragging Shen Jiu by the arm. Shen Qingqiu stumbled to his feet and reached towards them. He almost fell back into the water, but managed to hook his hands under Shen Jiu’s armpits and to pull him out of the lake and onto dry land.
For the second time since he’d woken, Shen Jiu turned over onto his side, choking and spitting. Once he was done, he remained laying on his side in the dirt for a long time, panting harshly. “I thought you’d abandoned me,” he said, eventually.
“I thought about it,” Shen Qingqiu admitted.
The corner of Shen Jiu’s lips ticked up, almost a smile. “But you didn’t.”
“No,” Shen Qingqiu said, “I got you help.”
“Yes.” Shen Jiu’s eyes shone brightly. As he spoke, his gaze grew more and more unfocused, as though he was looking as something beyond them. “I was drowning, and Luo Binghe jumped to my rescue.” A pause. “Isn’t that hilarious?” His fingers clung to the soaked hem of Luo Binghe’s inner robe. “Why did you do it?”
“Come up with your own answer,” Luo Binghe replied, not unkindly. He crouched down for a moment, pressing the back of his hand to Shen Jiu’s brow. “Shizun,” he called, looking back at Shen Qingqiu. “He has a fever.”