When Liu Qingge opened his eyes, he saw red.
That, in and of itself, wasn’t surprising. He had seen red before he closed his eyes as well. So for a moment, the only thing he felt was a kind of quiet acceptance. Until he realized that the red around him wasn’t the red of his own blood, spilling out across the polished stone floor of the Garden pavilion.
Shock and confusion overrode the sense of acceptance. The red around him was the red of dyed cloth. Familiar. His heart sped up a little as he lifted a hand, and found his movement hindered by the heavy weight of wedding attire. The veil he was wearing was thick, but not entirely opaque. It coloured the interior of the small space around him with swaths of crimson, but after a moment, Liu Qingge knew for certain that he would see a lot of red even if he were to lift the veil up.
Because he was in a wedding sedan.
From outside, he could hear the sounds of the procession.
The last thing he remembered, however, was dying.
It was a strange death, in that the circumstances surrounding it were as peculiar as they came, but the way it had happened was, in the end, more or less how he had expected to die when all was said and done. A confusion of events involving a double of his lord, another version of Luo Binghe, had ended with most of the spouses and concubines fleeing his lord’s harem. He and Mu Qingfang had been among the ones to stay behind.
His lord’s anger had been expected. Mu Qingfang had gone to attend to his wounds, but Luo Binghe hadn’t even let him try before he had struck out at him. Liu Qingge had moved to intercept, to spare his friend’s life. In the confusion that followed, with an injured and spiteful lord lashing out wildly, Liu Qingge had at last felt a blow land on him that he knew would not be mended.
It had been a strange kind of relief to think that it was all over. Finally, finally done. Both Luo Binghe and Mu Qingfang had rushed to him, and that was maybe his chief regret; that he didn’t know if his lord would let Fourth Husband survive that calamity. Maybe he might, if he saw it as Liu Qingge’s last wish. Or he absolutely would not, if he blamed Mu Qingfang for the incident. It was hard to say.
The sedan he was riding in shifted. As he balanced himself against the seat again, Liu Qingge got another shock.
His phantom arm reached out, but it wasn’t that. The limb felt heavy. Solid. A rush of sensation traveled up his arm as his fingers made contact with his own sleeves. His breath caught, and his eyes widened, and his heart sped up as he lifted both his hands up.
Through the veil, he stared in disbelief at his two fully present and functional limbs.
Was this a memory?
The embroidery on his heavy sleeves was familiar, the material rich and fine, resistant to being pulled back as he looked at his hands. Hands that still showed signs of frequent sword use, as if most of his days had not been taken up with trying to manage the politics of Luo Binghe’s inner court; as if he still hunted and fought on a regular basis. They were the hands he had possessed years ago, before he lost one. When he was still young and knew some semblance of freedom.
It couldn’t be that he was remembering his marriage to Luo Binghe, then. He had worn finery at his second wedding, too, but one of his sleeves had hung empty. And the demonic procession had been louder, more furious; keen to announce their lord’s success to all and sundry. The outfit had been different.
Tentatively, one of his hands came up to press at his throat.
There was an adornment there. But it was loose and delicate; some tiny piece of jewelry that Liu Qingge could not recall the particulars of, most likely because it had been worn once and then locked away in a box somewhere, never to be bothered with again. The familiar weight of his red coral sigil was gone.
Panic struck him. His breaths quickened, and he broke out into a cold sweat. He couldn’t - no - it, without it, he’d be so angry…
But it wasn’t real.
Liu Qingge focused on his breaths, imagining a familiar voice talking him through it. I know how to breathe, he thought. At some point those words had become less of a rebuke against a healer’s coddling, and more of a reassurance to himself. He knew how to breathe, and for the moment, in the private red of the sedan, that was all that was required of him. Whatever the situation actually was, whatever happened next or had come before, it was all more complicated than breathing, and wouldn’t matter if he didn’t manage one breath to the next. So he was allowed to focus on that.
He was capable of it.
One breath, two, three, deep and steady and even.
Liu Qingge was still breathing by the time the procession stopped. He was led from the sedan chair to confirm that, indeed, this was a memory.
A dream of a memory. Maybe that was what had come of his death; maybe Yue Qingyuan had come to meet him, somehow. They were both dead now, and through the red veil, his vision utterly failed to focus on most of the other faces around. So perhaps it made sense.
He drifted through the memory of his first wedding. It wasn’t either something he held particularly dear, nor considered especially unpleasant; but he supposed these things were supposed to be momentous in a person’s life, and it had been the day when his life had changed and been set to a new, irreversible course.
Some part of him lamented. If he could have chosen, he would have gone back further. To his youth, to the time when he lived in his parents’ home with his sister, and focused on training and studying. But his parents and Mingyan were alive, so perhaps that wouldn’t have made sense. His head felt heavy, and his mouth was dry, and it all felt very real in a way that confused him. He kept forgetting he could use two arms. Ironic, considering that one of his major difficulties for years and years had been forgetting that he couldn’t.
Yue Qingyuan looked happy. Handsome. His features were lighter than Liu Qingge recalled; unburdened by stress and tragedy, the many calamities which would befall him from this day onward. His heart twisted in his chest.
On this day, the first time, he hadn’t known for certain if he loved Yue Qingyuan or not.
Standing with him again, Liu Qingge still felt as if he couldn’t really answer that question. It was different, but it was also still the same. The dream he drifted through persisted anyway, guiding him with the motions of memory until he had somehow made his way through many events without incident. Almost as if he was really reliving this day from his past.
And then he found himself face to face with Shen Qingqiu again.
His eyes widened. His throat constricted. An ugly mix of feelings unfurled in his chest, acrid and unpleasant, far too complex for his liking.
It had been a long time since he had looked at Shen Qingqiu with his own two eyes. Memory had dulled his impression of the man down to a parody. A perpetual sneer of disdain, an impression of slender grace, resentful glares, and barbed words.
But time had complicated what had once seemed like a straightforward villain, in his youthful perception. On this day, it was strange to think, but Liu Qingge had only been twenty years old. He had never lived anywhere except for his family home, and had been encouraged in his tendency to view the world in terms of simple black-and-white situations. The eyes that had first beheld Shen Qingqiu had been prepared to see disdain, to watch the viper try and work his poison.
It was only with hindsight and maturity that he had begun to comprehend the situation better. Shen Qingqiu hadn’t killed Liu Qingge’s child, as he had once firmly believed. He had tormented and mistreated Luo Binghe, but in the end, it was Luo Binghe who had lied and betrayed and killed his former master.
And in another life, in another world, a softer Luo Binghe had wished dearly to return to the man he called ‘shizun’. He had even seemed utterly devoted to him.
Yue Qingyuan, too, had been utterly devoted to Shen Qingqiu.
No person who was simply wicked could inspire such feelings. Liu Qingge knew that, now. Having become devoted to someone who he knew to be capable of such terrible things that, at times, Liu Qingge had also raised his sword against him, he… understood.
There was more at play than he would have ever been able to appreciate as a young man.
Somehow, then, the most ‘real’ moment he had experienced since opening his eyes to the interior of the sedan came when he saw Shen Qingqiu’s face. When he really, truly looked at his old enemy.
He didn’t see a viper.
If anything, Shen Qingqiu was pale and tense. Very much like he was valiantly attempting to disguise his own stress. He looked like a man who couldn’t believe the situation he was in, like his face was a mask that was threatening to fall off at any moment and expose some kind of panic underneath.
As Liu Qingge waited for the fear in his eyes to contort into disdain, for Shen Qingqiu to fling hot tea across his fine clothes, a different scene altogether unfolded.
Shen Qingqiu tripped. By mistake. His foot caught on his hem.
The tea splashed across the wedding dress.
Liu Qingge felt the shock of it all the way down to his bones.
It wasn’t a dream.
At least, Liu Qingge was becoming increasingly convinced that it wasn’t. Events seemed too… real, for it to be a dream. Even with the disconnected nature of his thoughts, still, time progressed in an orderly fashion. The world around him seemed structured, and his inability to focus on details felt more like a result of his own disorientation than the usual, ‘fuzzy’ quality of dreams. Even Luo Binghe’s carefully constructed dream-realities, with all their mercies and torments, had telltale signs to pick up on.
What was more, events seemed to be deviating along reasonable lines, too.
Yue Qingyuan picked up on the fact that there was something wrong with Liu Qingge. With a kind of courtesy that Liu Qingge had to remind himself wouldn’t be two-faced when coming from this person, the lord sat beside him and talked peacefully with him. Events of the wedding night did not progress in their usual fashion. Yue Qingyuan made one move, while kissing him - reaching for his collar.
Liu Qingge flinched. His stomach was in knots. He didn’t know why; it wasn’t as if he was being hurt or forced. He remember this wedding night. It hadn’t been bad.
Yue Qingyuan pulled back in surprise. The look on his face was that of someone who had recognized something, but hadn’t expected to.
Then it softened into understanding.
“It’s alright,” the lord said, only touching Liu Qingge’s shoulder after that. “We don’t have to do anything. Let’s just sit awhile, eh, Qingge? It’s been a long day…”
Liu Qingge, for lack of any other response he felt safe to offer, nodded once in agreement.
The two of them drifted into an odd silence that might have been comfortable under other circumstances. After a while, Yue Qingyuan began to fill the quiet with attempts at conversation. He talked about the estate, and the servants. Told Liu Qingge a little of the history. Things Liu Qingge couldn’t remember being told about before. His voice was gentle, cadence smooth and even. The voice of a man accustomed to calming skittish creatures.
Many of Liu Qingge’s memories of Yue Qingyuan had been lost in the fog of nostalgia and grief, overwhelmed by the more pressing matters which followed afterwards. He had not forgotten his capacity for gentleness, but some part of his mind had subsequently assumed that his memories exaggerated it.
But no. He really had been like this, hadn’t he?
As the night drew on, Liu Qingge let himself rest against Yue Qingyuan’s side in the bed. He let himself close his eyes, and moved his not-phantom arm over so he could press it against the other man’s. The weight of the body on the bed beside him felt solid. Grounding. Some part of him desperately wanted to ask to be held.
It felt like it wouldn’t be allowed, somehow. As if the second man he had married would find out, and rip into this not-dream and not-memory, to tear him apart for the crime of wanting another man’s arms around him.
Yue Qingyuan’s hand moved. Their fingers tangled together.
“Is this alright?” the lord asked.
Liu Qingge swallowed.
They were married. This was their wedding night. This was…
“Of course,” he said.
In the dark, the blankets rustled. Yue Qingyuan squeezed his hand reassuringly, but did nothing further.
Liu Qingge didn’t need to do anything but breathe until the sun came up.
Watching the dull rays of light begin to build up convinced him. There were dust motes in the air. There was an uncomfortable bunch of his own hair beneath his neck. Yue Qingyuan had let him go and rolled over during the night, putting his broad back towards him. One of the bed posts had a slight inconsistency in the wood grain; some ancient stain that was barely noticeable, but nevertheless, definitely still there.
Liu Qingge pressed his nails into his palms, and felt them both sting.
The tenor of his panic changed again.
It was real.
It was real?
He sat up, and stared at Yue Qingyuan’s sleeping face. He watched the rise and fall of his chest; took note of the faint shadow of drool on the pillow just beneath his cheek. Even when Luo Binghe had conjured dreams of this man to test Liu Qingge, he had never conjured him drooling in his sleep.
It was real.
But if it was real, then… this was before everything. The gods had sent him back to the beginning.
His first response to the revelation was to be astonished by the cruelty of it. He had already gone through this once, had finally achieved some measure of freedom from it all again, only to be sent back to live it out a second time? The heavens were pitiless. Not that Liu Qingge couldn’t think of many reasons why they might despise him, but still. Forsake his soul, banish it, destroy it - but sending him back to do it all over again?
He wouldn’t! He couldn’t! He…
Or, perhaps… would not have to…?
As the thought came to him, Liu Qingge stilled. His gaze locked onto the arm he had regained.
A chance to live his life again was not something he would have expected. Nor chosen, precisely. Even if he could, he wouldn’t have begun the attempt here. If he had come to his senses sooner, in fact, he might have even fled the wedding procession and let the consequences be what they were on that front. Better to never marry Yue Qingyuan in the first place, to never contribute to all the messes which had followed. His heart ached at the thought of being able to go home, and ached even harder at the prospect of having missed a chance at it.
But it was what it was. That opportunity had passed.
Others, however, remained.
Luo Binghe was… young, he realized. Not yet grown. Still a teenager working in Shen Qingqiu’s service. Liu Qingge had not paid too much attention to him at this point in his actual past. He had only noted, once, that Shen Qingqiu didn’t seem to treat his servants very well, and added it to his internal tally of the man’s faults and transgressions. It wasn’t until Luo Binghe killed Shen Qingqiu, in fact, that Liu Qingge found himself paying him much attention at all as an individual person.
And it wasn’t until they met up again during Liu Qingge’s kidnapping by Mobei-Jun that he felt as if he really ‘met’ Luo Binghe as a fully-developed person, and not a hazy figure indistinctly connected to a sequence of personal tragedies.
But he recalled, vividly, the ‘Kindly Lord Luo’ who had turned up to flip the world onto its head not too long ago. The one from another world. And he knew, from the early days of his own relationship with this person, that Luo Binghe had once been someone who tried. Who wanted to be good to the people he cared for. Xin Mo and the weight of the world’s rejections had hammered him down and warped every noble intention he ever had, but Liu Qingge knew the man was complicated enough that it didn’t have to be that way.
That other Luo Binghe just proved it further.
Things could be different. And if they were different, then… Luo Binghe might become more like that other self. Yue Qingyuan and Shen Qingqiu might not have to die. The unwilling members of the demon lord’s harem could be spared.
Perhaps even Liu Qingge himself would not have to suffer so much.
The fingers on his restored hand flexed.
Things could be different… he could do things differently… he…
…He had no idea how to make them be different. No idea if this was something he wouldn’t just make worse. Part of him was afraid to try. Part of him had been very afraid, for a very long time, to try for anything. Hope was dangerous. Wanting something was so, so risky.
But trying was definitely still better than just sitting back and letting it all happen the same way twice.
Liu Qingge was almost surprised to find that he could still feel that way.
Despite his resolve, it was still a struggle to take any definitive actions for the first week of his new ‘situation’.
Shen Qingqiu was confined, which meant that he was probably taking his frustrations with the situation out on Luo Binghe, and that was something Liu Qingge knew he ought to interfere with. But there was no reasonable way for him to go about it just yet. Yue Qingyuan requested that he leave Shen Qingqiu be, and it wasn’t an unreasonable request. The man was still lord of the estate, and Liu Qingge had brought along his own servants and apprentices, and technically did not ‘know’ any of the current household staff yet. He was supposed to be adjusting to his new station, and focusing on making a good impression with the right people in order to keep Shen Qingqiu from wrestling back control of the household.
For the young Liu Qingge who had first married in, the grace period afforded to him by Shen Qingqiu’s confinement was definitely needed. It let him establish authority over some aspects of household management that, even with his inexperience and disinterest, he knew would be better to have in his own hands. Like the accounts.
But with his current level of experience, Liu Qingge knew that unless he did something monumentally stupid, the odds of him retaining control of the estate were stacked hugely in his favour anyway. Shen Qingqiu wasn’t popular. He had few allies. No influential noble family was going to get offended over his treatment. The emperor had rebuked him. He had some allies in the imperial court, but they hadn’t availed him much even when Liu Qingge had been clumsy and naive.
He wouldn’t underestimate the man even so. If anything, the absence of support just underlined that Shen Qingqiu was someone who was dangerous in his own right, and not because of advantageous social positioning.
All he had to do to secure the support of the household, however, was avoid making a fool of himself.
That would be much easier if he avoided letting himself go into another qi deviation.
His younger body was as he remembered it, cultivation and all. Only his mind seemed to be different. Even his reflexes still favoured having both arms intact; there, his thoughts were what hindered him, as he had to stop himself from ‘correcting’ for the absence of a missing arm that was no longer missing. Practice was needed in order to retrain his thinking again.
Liu Qingge told himself all of that, but the truth was, he was overwhelmed in ways that he didn’t know how to describe.
Yue Qingyuan was solicitous and attentive, possibly even moreso than he remembered. The man had clearly gleaned that there was something wrong with his new husband, but rather than expressing frustration or disappointment, he seemed determined to be kind and made no issue of their lack of ‘marital intimacy’.
Luo Binghe had been a jealous lover, and Liu Qingge had learned to aggressively reject any sentiments or advances towards other people for their sake as well as his own. Even when his lord decided to arrange entanglements with the other husbands, Liu Qingge had to conduct himself in a very particular way to ensure that he didn’t make his lord feel slighted. Even though the situation was different, his mind skittered and his body froze up at the thought of sleeping with Yue Qingyuan again. He had been trained, he knew. Like a dog. Punished and rewarded until his behaviour was reshaped to fit another’s desires.
Knowing it was happening had not stopped it.
Internally chafing, gritting his teeth and despising who he had become with every inch of his being didn’t turn him back into the person he once was, either.
Nothing made that more apparent than literally being in his own past again.
But there were things he had forgotten that came back to him with enough force to knock the breath from his lungs as he tried to deal with this situation, too.
Like what it was like to rise with the sun and have no more pressing obligation than early training and perhaps breakfast. Like the way his body used to feel - not just with both arms intact, but without several of the other scars he had gained. Without Luo Binghe’s blood in his system, without the residual effects of however many poisons, curses, and aborted possessions he had accumulated over the years. Without Xin Mo around. Immortality was one thing, but certain mistreatment still inevitably left marks. Liu Qingge hadn’t realized before how heavy he had become with the weight of it all. At this age, he hadn’t even suffered a single qi deviation.
He felt light.
He felt like he could almost remember what it was like to see simplicity again. To live without tethers. Sometimes it was frightening; as if part of him was simultaneously enamored with and terrified of the prospect of floating away.
Not that being married to Yue Qingyuan didn’t have its restrictions, but compared to before…
Liu Qingge could leave the estate any time he pleased, just so long as he announced it and took a few servants with him. He could train how he liked, dress how he liked, spar with his apprentices, even simply sit and meditate for a few hours without trouble.
External trouble, anyway.
In his mind he still expected something to come of it. If it weren’t for the fact that he needed to keep up some appearance of being his younger self, he probably would not have been able to resist the urge to still walk within the boundaries he had previously learned. And even so, a habitual, nebulous anxiety clung to him. Some part of him kept waiting.
For Luo Binghe, fully-grown and furious, to rend a hole in reality with Xin Mo and come reclaim him?
It wasn’t as if that hadn’t happened before. It wasn’t as if he could completely discount it happening again now.
But Luo Binghe was a young servant sequestered away in the confinement courtyard with Shen Qingqiu. Xin Mo was lost somewhere in the demonic realms. Time had reversed on itself. Even with his many lessons on the inevitability of his lord, Liu Qingge would have to concede - it didn’t seem likely he would be able to do such a thing.
And if he did, there wasn’t much Liu Qingge could do to either anticipate or prevent it.
Still, an unnamed wariness kept him from approaching the confinement courtyard, or letting himself frequent the kitchens where a certain servant might be found fetching meals for his master. At least, at first.
Let me breathe a little first, he begged himself, and permitted a week’s mercy for the sake of his own terror.
That was all he permitted, however.
After the first week, when Yue Qingyuan came to lie politely down beside him again, Liu Qingge rolled over and tugged the other man closer. He was a married man; he knew his duties.
Yue Qingyuan fretted a little, but eventually gave in and tangled with him. He had forgotten how solicitous the man was, even in the midst of passionate embrace. It wasn’t exactly thrilling, but Liu Qingge wasn’t looking to be thrilled. And the careful caresses, reassuring words, warm arms wrapped around him - it was good. He didn’t want to lose himself. Yue Qingyuan meant well, but he couldn’t really look after anyone, and Liu Qingge had been lost for too long to trust him.
Afterwards, Yue Qingyuan lay quietly beside him in the bed. Liu Qingge supposed he would start spending his nights with Shen Qingqiu more frequently again, once the Second Husband was out of confinement and able to start competing on that front.
He took a moment to decide what he thought of that. The first time, he had fought back for Yue Qingyuan’s regard.
But even with all the advantages, the status of First Husband, the backing of his family, the support of most of the estate staff, and the approval of the emperor… in the end, there was no pushing Shen Qingqiu out of Yue Qingyuan’s heart.
This time, Liu Qingge decided, he wouldn’t try.
His thoughts drifted towards the memory of his wedding day.
In his mind, there existed two distinct impressions of what had happened. One version, earlier and more faded with time, had Shen Qingqiu sneering disdainfully and flinging a cup of tea deliberately onto Liu Qingge’s red dress. The other version, more recent and clear, saw a shaken and barely-together man trip on his hem, and accidentally drench Liu Qingge with tea to his discreet-but-discernible horror.
…Had things always gone that way? Had Liu Qingge just been too young and socially inept and riddled with preconceptions to notice the reality of the situation? So concerned with his lofty mission of rescuing Yue Qingyuan from his viper husband that he had misinterpreted the reality in front of him?
It wasn’t the first time he had badly misjudged things. Luo Binghe had often pointed out his own patience with Liu Qingge’s terrible memory and capacity to misunderstand social cues.
If something had changed, Liu Qingge would have to assume that his behaviour was the reason for the change. So early on in events, he couldn’t see how anything he did would create an entirely different attitude in Shen Qingqiu.
So he must had misjudged. And thinking that, he could only conclude that most of his recollections of the man, and his relationship with Yue Qingyuan, and assumptions on certain events going on in the Yue estate, were all unreliable.
If he put aside his prior opinions and looked at the matter with fresh eyes, Liu Qingge could only conclude that he had been fighting a completely different battle from the one he had prepared himself for in his youth. Shen Qingqiu’s position… it really did depend almost entirely on Yue Qingyuan, didn’t it? The man could be as clever and ambitious and ruthless as he pleased, but in the end, without his lord’s affection he could easily be relegated to some untenable position in the background somewhere. Locked quietly away, unable to influence anything, or claim any sort of authority. Liu Qingge knew. He had seen a lot of talented and capable persons meet that fate in the Garden.
But even at the worst of it, Yue Qingyuan had still been desperately in love with Shen Qingqiu. Even Liu Qingge’s younger and more foolish self had seen that.
There was no winning the battlefield of Yue Qingyuan’s heart. Oh, he was fond of Liu Qingge. He wanted to be good to him. There was affection, admiration, and camaraderie between them. But if Liu Qingge died, Yue Qingyuan would make sure his funeral was respectful; his remains properly attended to, the motions of grief adequately observed. He would shed tears for him. Possibly even avenge him. He would be good to him.
He wouldn’t follow him. He wouldn’t even think to. Losing Liu Qingge would not destroy Yue Qingyuan - and Liu Qingge found he was glad for that.
A plan was starting to take shape.
If Liu Qingge didn’t fight Shen Qingqiu, then the man could have his lord back. Arrangements could be made. Agreements reached. It would be beyond unreasonable for Liu Qingge, under the circumstances, to take Shen Qingqiu’s only personal servant away from him. But if Shen Qingqiu let the boy go willingly, then Liu Qingge would let him have Yue Qingyuan without conflict. Luo Binghe would be spared the mistreatment that drove him to eventually betray and kill his master. Shen Qingqiu would have fewer reasons to sabotage Liu Qingge’s happiness. When the time was right, he could leave, and… go from there.
Perhaps all of them could be saved.
Turning a little, he saw on Yue Qingyuan’s face a contemplative expression of his own.
“Sorry for delaying such things,” Liu Qingge said.
Yue Qingyuan startled from his thoughts, and shook his head.
“It’s fine,” he refuted. “This lord would have waited longer. Even if First Husband never felt comfortable enough, that would also be fine. These things shouldn’t be forced.”
Liu Qingge nodded in understanding.
Words like that would have also left Luo Binghe’s mouth. But the difference was, Luo Binghe never meant them. In his mouth, such sentiments were invariably manipulation. ‘I won’t do anything you don’t want me to’ was less of an assurance, and more of a command that anything which he did do must be welcomed as though it were wanted. In other words, ‘stop showing displeasure over my actions’ was the real sentiment.
It had made him wonder how much sincerity there really had been to Yue Qingyuan too. At times, he had supposed that much of it must have been a result of his own naivety.
But no. Hearing this, Liu Qingge could almost believe that he really could have gotten away with never consummating the marriage and still been treated well.
It made him feel… conflicted.
After a few more minutes, Yue Qingyuan rolled over to face him.
“Qingge,” he said. “This lord was thinking he might let Second Husband out of confinement soon.”
Liu Qingge blinked, a little surprised. He tried to remember how long Shen Qingqiu had been confined before. Longer than a week, he thought, so perhaps his behaviour had changed this somehow? But then again, he might not be remembering correctly.
It wasn’t too important.
“Fine,” he agreed.
“Second Husband has been… wait, just ‘fine’?” Yue Qingyuan checked, pausing in the midst of what seemed to be a mentally rehearsed speech.
“Yes. Fine,” Liu Qingge reiterated.
“...Qingge is not still offended about the wedding ceremony…?”
“He tripped,” Liu Qingge said, simply. “Clumsiness is not a crime.”
Slowly, Yue Qingyuan’s expression slid towards happiness and relief.
“First Husband really is generous,” he praised.
Liu Qingge shook his head a little. The compliment didn’t resonate with him. Few ever did anymore. Without any desire to discuss the matter further, he closed his eyes and focused on drifting off to sleep.
When Shen Qingqiu was let out of confinement, Luo Binghe would also be more free to roam the estate.
Liu Qingge wasn’t sure if he felt more dread or anticipation.
Conflicting feelings about Luo Binghe were far more familiar than the affectionate weight of Yue Qingyuan’s arm around his waist.
Two days after Shen Qingqiu was let out of confinement, Lord Yue arranged for all three of them to have a meal together. Naturally, with the Yue estate’s small number of permanent residents, even the preparations for the lord to dine with all his husbands still weren’t very extensive. Only three people needed to attend, after all. It was a far cry from formal affairs in the Garden. Liu Qingge and Shen Qingqiu sat at either side of Yue Qingyuan, while their servants attended them at a relatively small but very pretty table.
Shen Qingqiu was quiet. He made less than a handful of barbed comments throughout the meal. What few there were seemed directed almost exclusively at Yue Qingyuan. When he spoke to Liu Qingge, he was polite, but he didn’t try to fill the silence with a lot of useless talk.
Luo Binghe served him.
Seeing his lordly demon husband as a skinny young apprentice was definitely unnerving. Liu Qingge stared at him for long enough that the boy seemed to notice, and fidgeted a little beneath the weight of his gaze. His expressions at this age were much more open and easy to read. His clothes were simple; befitting a servant, but not… bad, actually. Liu Qingge wondered at his own recollections again. He seemed to have an impression of Luo Binghe’s attire always being too shabby for the dining room; something Shen Qingqiu might have cited from time to time in order to have someone else serve him at meals. But looking around, the youth’s appearance wasn’t incongruous with the other servants.
In fact, his clothes seemed new. There was even a modest silver ornament in his hair, helping to hold it back.
The meal was definitely awkward. But it felt more like the fumbling unease of strangers trying to figure out how to interact with another than the fraught tension of two rivals and their shared target. Not that Liu Qingge considered himself as such anymore, but still.
Shen Qingqiu was not... trying to fight with him?
Nor was he pointedly ignoring him. If anything, he seemed to be trying to make polite conversation with him.
Liu Qingge left the meal feeling even more uncertain of his grasp on the situation.
Had it always been like this?
But he couldn’t entirely wrong. He knew Shen Qingqiu had acted against him, and resented his marriage into the family. Perhaps Liu Qingge had simply forgotten some of the early details, or exaggerated his unpleasantness after the fact. Certainly, if things followed the same trajectory, matters in the estate were bound to become more stressful. Any veil of nicety was more likely to fall away under those conditions.
When he retired for the evening, he called his most capable apprentice to come and attend him.
Yang Yixuan’s features were still soft with youth, even though his bearing already showed signs of the promising fighter he would become. The promising fighter who had nevertheless died at Luo Binghe’s hands, and precipitated Liu Qingge’s first attempt to actually kill the man he’d sworn to love and obey for all of his days.
It was a futile effort. He’d known it even at the time. But some part of him back then had thought it would at least be better to die trying than to leave his student without even the effort of vengeance.
Looking at his face now, Liu Qingge wondered if he should send him away. If that would save him.
“Yixuan,” he said. The boy fumbled, surprised at being called so familiarly.
“Shizun?” he answered. Perking up like a hopeful bird.
“Make friends with Shen Qingqiu’s servant. Luo Binghe,” Liu Qingge instructed.
Yang Yixuan’s elation over being addressed quieted into obvious confusion over the task.
“Why?” he asked. Blunt as Liu Qingge himself was at that age; and for many years after, if he was being honest with himself.
He supposed a reason would need to be provided, or else Yang Yixuan would draw his own conclusions, and might not act as was in either of their best interest. This was something he had learned through many mistakes in dealing with matters of the Garden.
“Strategy,” Liu Qingge said, nevertheless leaving it simple. “Be kind to him. Do not ask him for anything or try to get information from him. Just be friendly.”
Yang Yixuan’s confused only eased a little, but after a moment, he obediently nodded and showed that he understood.
That Liu Qingge’s ‘strategy’ was more of an effort to prevent his own demise didn’t need to be discussed, and couldn’t be easily explained either. Yang Yixuan would probably think this was part of the contest between husbands, but so long as he still trusted Liu Qingge and did as he was told, that particular misunderstanding wouldn’t matter.
Satisfied, he continued getting ready for the evening. When one of his other servants approached, he was surprised.
“The lord is on his way,” she said. Pleased.
Pleased because Shen Qingqiu had just been let out of confinement, but Yue Qingyuan was still coming here to spend the night.
Liu Qingge frowned. That didn’t seem right… hadn’t he slept with Shen Qingqiu the last time? He could have sworn that was how it had gone. That some of his servants had muttered about it among themselves, offended on his behalf that the lord was favouring Second Husband so soon after the wedding, and with Second Husband having insulted Liu Qingge so gravely.
But maybe he was mixing things up from another incident…?
He couldn’t recall.
When Yue Qingyuan arrived, he looked like nothing so much as a kicked dog. Liu Qingge wasn’t sure what to make of it. The lord lay down with him, and their intimacies would probably be called ‘halfhearted’ at best. It felt even more confusing, and afterwards Liu Qingge stared at Yue Qingyuan’s back in the dark. His mind became preoccupied with the strangeness of the situation, the mess of contradictions which seemed to be Shen Qingqiu’s behaviour and his memories, and the progression of events around him.
He wished he had a more reliable memory. He wished Luo Binghe hadn’t used his dreams so often to make him doubt reality. Everything was confusing enough as it was.
Was this even real?
He dug his nails into his palms again, and fought the urge to run outside and look at the faces of every random person he crossed. To make sure that they had them. That they existed.
It doesn’t matter, a voice that sounded strangely like his younger self said within his thoughts. Just deal with things as they come.
But if he did that then things might turn out the same way twice. Liu Qingge would have to live through all of it a second time.
I can’t, he thought. I can’t, I can’t, I can’t please I can’t…
As Yue Qingyuan’s breaths evened out, Liu Qingge pressed a hand to his own face and silently wept.
He went through the qi deviation again.
It wasn’t precisely the same as the first time. Liu Qingge had been careful, and he and Yue Qingyuan hadn’t been having very much sex at all, actually. But qi deviations weren’t only caused by disruptions of the body. The mind played a roll as well, and on that front, Liu Qingge knew he was something of a mess. Even with care and diligence to try and avoid the same outcome, in the end, he felt himself veering into dangerous territory even faster than he had the first time around.
It was terrifying.
That only made it worse.
Not the deviation itself so much as the fact that it was happening again. Because if he couldn’t avoid this, then could he avoid anything? He could tell what was going on, but once again, he was powerless to stop it. He could only watch. Just watch himself worsen and struggle and feel his spirit become tangled, turning in on itself like a maddened creature trying to rip him apart from the inside.
All of his efforts to stop it just seemed to turn into more claws that dug into himself.
He hated himself too much. The temptation to rip out all these things that disgusted him was too strong.
The warning meant that he had enough presence of mind to try and lock himself away before it got too far along. He tried to send Yang Yixuan for help, but he wasn’t sure if he articulated anything well enough. Before long there was no more time to wonder as his head swam and agony seared through his body. Fire danced up his spine. Blood poured from his mouth, his nose; even his ears and eyes. The hot thrumming of his heartbeat drowned everything else out, and Liu Qingge almost preferred it. The numbness, the absence, the way there was only fire and pain and no room left for him.
It was simple.
Simple, but terrible.
At some point, past the dull roar in his head, he became aware of someone breaking down the door to his room. A voice called out. Liu Qingge struggled, but only with himself. He didn’t know what to make of it. There was green and pale blue, steadying hands and someone shouting, someone pressing something against him.
No, it wasn’t him. But the spiritual energy he felt being passed into his body was nevertheless like a cool stream, soothing but strong. Liu Qingge swallowed the thick taste of iron on his tongue. Red swam across his vision. Red, red, everything was red. God, just let him die already. He closed his eyes. It hurt, eyelids scraping down like sandpaper, but the darkness was better. He clutched something nearby. Someone. They steadied him.
“First Husband, First Husband, can you hear me?”
That voice made his head hurt. Made his chest hurt, too. But it sounded so different. Gentle. Worried.
“First Husband, you need to breathe.”
A hand settled on his chest. The gesture was familiar. Breathe with me, First Husband. This is all you have to do. Don’t think of anything else…
He drew in a breath. Someone praised him. The hand at his chest patted gently, and the roar in his head began to sound less like the consuming violence of flames, and more like the sea. He had liked to visit the sea when he was younger. His father always liked to tell the story of when Liu Qingge was four, and tried to challenge the waves to fight him. How his uncle had to chase after him to keep him from wading out to find a shark to punch.
Did that determined child even exist anymore?
It felt like he had been dead a long time.
Beyond the sound of the sea, Liu Qingge heard a sharp intake of breath.
“Shizun?!” a young voice asked, astonished, light but familiar in a way that made him blink his eyes open.
The room swam around him.
It seemed bigger somehow.
And whoever was holding him was massive; a giant. A giant with Shen Qingqiu’s face, staring down at him in obvious shock. Swaths of uncomfortably over-sized fabric were wrapped around him as well. Liu Qingge struggled, weak and confused, and then stared uncomprehendingly at the tiny hand that emerged from the mess of weird blankets. A distant part of his mind recognized the material as being the same sort as the clothes he’d put on that morning.
Everything was big…?
He had shrunk.
Not even down to child size, it seemed, but something smaller. Miniature? Splashes of blood practically covered his skin. A glance down revealed that the floor was very far away, and the only thing keeping him was the bulk of his clothing, and the fact that Shen Qingqiu had cupped both of his hands underneath him.
The shocked look on the Second Husband’s face didn’t let up even a little.
“First Husband imploded…” Luo Binghe - the young servant Luo Binghe - murmured.
Liu Qingge felt like he nearly broke apart again, hearing him say ‘first husband’.
Shen Qingqiu finally snapped out of his daze, and shook his head a little.
“No, he shrank,” the other man said. “It… this, shouldn’t have happened…?”
It was very rare for qi deviations to result in this sort of thing, but not unheard of. Still, Liu Qingge only knew that because of Mu Qingfang, and the man’s extensive knowledge of spiritual and physical calamities. He opened his mouth, but found to his mortification that he could only cough up more blood.
Shen Qingqiu’s brows furrowed above him.
“Binghe, fetch some warm water and soft cloths,” he instructed. “First Husband, please keep calm. Everything will be alright. Lord Yue is on his way and will doubtless fetch a healer as well. Everything will be fine, I… apologize if my interference made things worse, somehow…”
Liu Qingge stared uncomprehendingly at the massive face above him.
“Why are you nice?” he asked. His voice came out in a rasping squeak that didn’t even sound comprehensible to his own ears. Shen Qingqiu didn’t seem to understand it either. His hands were ridiculously gentle, movements very slow, underlying the mystery further as he carefully tried to clean Liu Qingge of blood with a spare corner of his sleeve.
When the door burst open, Liu Qingge jumped, and nearly toppled from his grasp.
He found himself being pressed protectively close to the man’s chest instead.
“What is going on?!” Yue Qingyuan’s voice demanded, carrying shades of fear and horror.
There was a lot of blood on the floor.
“First Husband has suffered a qi deviation - keep your voice down, he is very tiny!” Shen Qingqiu snapped back, rattled. Liu Qingge wasn’t sure he followed his logic, but the hand covered his back somehow made his heart quiet some of its frantic beating anyway.
“...What?” Yue Qingyuan blurted.
The world tilted and shifted as Shen Qingqiu moved. Liu Qingge clutched one of his fingers reflexively, uneasy and disoriented. Where was Cheng Luan? His hand moved to his belt, but found only bare skin and swiftly drying blood. For a moment the world went frighteningly open and bright, and then he found himself being awkwardly deposited in Yue Qingyuan’s hands.
The lord stared down at him with wide eyes.
“...Qingge…?” he asked in a whisper.
Liu Qingge was tiny, naked, covered in blood, and sitting on his palms.
In combination with reliving his own past, this might actually have been the strangest thing to happen to him.
“My servant is fetching some warm water and cloths. My lord, please wait and look after First Husband while this Second Husband goes to retrieve Mu Qingfang. His expertise is clearly required.”
Liu Qingge swallowed and surrendered. He lay in Yue Qingyuan’s hold and decided to wait. If anyone could make sense of things, it would be that person. Even in the past, even with none of their shared history between them, he had confidence that the healer would be able to simplify things into steps which he could handle again.
He should have sought him out sooner. Except that he hadn’t thought of it. Hadn’t really had a reason to offer, either.
Yue Qingyuan looked dazed and Shen Qingqiu still seemed faintly shocked even as he straightened his bloodied clothes, and then hurried out of Liu Qingge’s rooms.
“...Qingge?” Yue Qingyuan inquired again, staring back down at him.
Liu Qingge blinked back up at him.
“En,” he confirmed. His voice was too small and tinny, but at least that simple sound came out more or less correct.
The hands around him curved a little, holding him a little more protectively.
“Is First Husband hurt?”
Liu Qingge gave that some thought. He looked down at himself. Apart from being smaller, he didn’t actually seem to be deformed or particularly injured. His eyes and ears hurt, and he could still taste and smell nothing but blood. His spiritual energy was also very badly disrupted. However, the pain was minimal.
Looking back up at Yue Qingyuan, he shook his head.
The lord nodded slowly back at him.
“Everything will be alright,” he said.
These people really needed to stop saying that to him.
Liu Qingge couldn’t possibly afford to believe it.