Liu Qingge woke up. The room blurred and spun, and he soon sank into sleep again.
Liu Qingge woke up, confused and overwhelmingly tired. He heard the light tap-tap of rain against the window pane. There was an elegant man sitting in his line of sight, his manner and bearing similar to the immortals who sometimes visited his father. The man was writing, supplementing the dwindling afternoon light with a glowing night pearl. Liu Qingge watched him muzzily for awhile before falling back to sleep.
Liu Qingge woke up and tried to rise. The room was slightly cool, the open window carrying the scent of a recently passed rainstorm.
"Who are you? Where is--."
The man looked up. He looked vaguely familiar. "This one is Immortal Master Shen. Drink some water while you're awake."
"You've been exposed to the venom of the Lesser Reticulated Ocher Baboon Viper. It causes confusion, fatigue, and--in creatures with complex nervous systems--temporary memory loss. You'll be fine with rest. This is an inn in Jiangzhou province, 300 li from Cang Qiong."
Exhaustion dragged him down again, as he tried to remember what a Reticulated Ocher Viper was.
Liu Qingge woke up and growled.
"Shen Qingqiu. What are you doing here?" He struggled against his fatigue to rise.
Shen Qingqiu held up a staying hand. "Be at peace, Liu-shidi. Cheng Luan is leaning against the wall on your right. We're in Jiangzhou, at an inn. You've been exposed to the venom of the Lesser Reticulated Ocher Baboon Viper, causing some confusion and memory loss. It's temporary and harmless. Rest again, and you'll be yourself in a matter of hours."
Liu Qingge sat up and twisted to confirm the presence of his spirit sword. Not that he needed a weapon to defend against this untrustworthy scholar, but Shen Qingqiu was full of dirty tricks. "But why are you here?"
Shen Qingqiu idly waved his fan, causing the lamp on the small table to flicker. "We were investigating a troublesome creature nearby. It's been taken care of. Yours was the only injury, and that's really more of an inconvenience than anything else. It shouldn't even delay our return to the sect."
Liu Qingge scowled, intensified by the gray fatigue rising inexorably to drag him down again. "That's no kind of explanation."
Shen Qingqiu continued to wave the fan as he replied. "No, it isn't, but your wakeful periods are brief and I suspect you won't retain the information next time you wake. You haven't the past few times. So, for now, the most productive course is to allow you to sleep." The regular movement of the fan was strangely compelling, with its counterpoint of flickering lamplight. As Liu Qingge sank once more into sleep, he cursed Shen Qingqiu in his heart. More dirty tricks...
Liu Qingge woke up and frowned. It was late into the night, and a low lamp dimly illuminated the room while Shen Qingqiu read by the brighter light of a night pearl.
"Shen Qingqiu. Why are you still awake at this hour?"
Shen Qingqiu looked up and closed the book around his finger. "Ah, up again. Your sleeping periods are getting shorter. Drink some water while you're awake, Liu-shidi. You're experiencing some temporary confusion and memory loss, due to an encounter with the local wildlife. You will be fine with time and rest."
"Were you injured?"
Shen Qingqiu shook his head and smiled. A few years ago, Liu Qingge would have bet a substantial sum that the expression would crack his face like ice. These days, he would have lost that bet of spirit stones many times over.
Liu Qingge hesitated. "You said we're in Jiangzhou province? Why?"
"You remember waking up last time? That's a good sign. The venom is clearing rapidly. Another few hours, and you should recover fully. Drink some water." As Liu Qingge complied, he continued. "We were here with some students on a training trip. They're fine, too."
Liu Qingge sipped the water to soothe his parched throat. "What were we hunting? This Lesser Reticulated--."
Shen Qingqiu smiled again. Where was his fan? It was Shen Qingqiu's habit to conceal these expressions, when he noticed he was making them.
"No, we were looking into the deaths of some livestock. It turned out to be a wild dog, which had turned monstrous. The students did quite well, identifying it and tracking it down on their own. Their teamwork is improving." Shen Qingqiu's smile grew. "No, we ran into the Ocher Baboon Viper on the way back. They're usually quite docile, you see, and well camouflaged. It's difficult to provoke them to attack unless you actually step on them. Which you did."
Liu Qingge's unamused stare finally prompted Shen Qingqiu to hide his laughter behind his closed book.
"I, I think you scared it worse than it hurt you. It certainly fled quickly. But they spit venom to help them escape from predators--spit very accurately, too--and body heat almost instantly turns the liquid into a vapor. You inhaled, and--well, it was another exercise in teamwork to get you back to the inn."
Liu Qingge was appalled. "The students--."
"Are fine. You were confused, not aggressive. They were mostly worried about the toxicity, since they didn't recognize the Ocher Viper." Shen Qingqiu paused before continuing with badly hidden laughter in his voice. "They had no reason to recognize it, since they focus on dangerous creatures and the Ocher Viper is classified as "mostly harmless."
Liu Qingge grimaced at the jab and waved a hand to acknowledge it. The brief surge of worry combined with the fatigue from the venom to call him back to sleep. He leaned back. "I suppose you'll be telling this story when we return."
"Oh, yes," Shen Qingqiu replied gleefully. "For years. With embellishments."
Liu Qingge woke up and froze. There was a man sitting across from him who had been dead for years, lost for years, staring pensively out the window into the empty night.
"Shen Qingqiu. You're--," he tried to breathe, "You're--."
"Oh." Shen Qingqiu rose instantly and crossed to the bed. The lamp flickered in the wake of his movement. Not dead. Not dead. Here, and solid, and--. "Yes, yes, I'm fine," murmured Shen Qingqiu. And. Shen Qingqiu took his hand, the way Liu Qingge sometimes guiltily imagined on the bad days, and curled up next to him in the bed, the way he tried not to imagine at all, and he was. Warm, breathing, alive, alive, alive.
"You succeeded. I'm fine, I'm fine..."
Liu Qingge pulled Shen Qingqiu close with an arm around his waist, hiding shaky and wet breaths in his hair. His hand moved until it found Shen Qingqiu's wrist, the pulse tapping reassuringly against his fingers. He fell back to sleep like that, heartbeats counting out lost seconds.
Liu Qingge woke up, in his favorite way, which was with Shen Qingqiu breathing peacefully against his shoulder. The gray light of predawn was just beginning to hint at the warmer tones of sunrise.
Shen Qingqiu blinked out of his doze. "Mm, back to the present, are we?"
"Mm," he echoed. "The students?" he asked, after a while.
"Are fine. I've been checking up on them while you slept. And they're tired after all that excitement, which helps."
"Well, I meant, ‘were they injured,’ not ‘are they causing trouble,’ but..."
"One often follows the other, yes." Shen Qingqiu hid a smile against his shoulder.
"If they're being reckless, they're at least being quiet about it."
"They were worried about you, even knowing the effect was temporary. They'll appreciate seeing you at breakfast."
"It's nearly dawn; let's stay here for a while."
Shen Qingqiu settled closer. "Yes. We have the whole day ahead of us."
And they did.