Yue Qingyuan doesn’t know how long he and Xiao Jiu have remained here, in the place where they died, where Yue Qingyuan failed to protect the one most precious to him, ever fighting off other spirits that want to take their haunting grounds. He doesn’t know how much time has passed until he notices metal carriages moving on strangely paved roads, carriages without horses, in the distance. Human ingenuity has advanced so much and yet he and Xiao Jiu are ever frozen between life and death. His time is ever static yet constant, being yelled at by Xiao Jiu for his incompetence yet being snatched up if he ever moves two rooms away from Xiao Jiu.
Maybe they will spend the rest of eternity haunting each other with Yue Qingyuan never able to fight off the guilt of how Xiao Jiu died (those damned Qius with their hands on his Xiao Jiu’s body, Yue Qingyuan tearing them apart, Xiao Jiu deciding to burn it all to the ground when the Qiu heir wouldn’t let go-- ) while Xiao Jiu’s anger never cools. They tore apart the Qiu heir’s spirit long ago. Now they chase off every being that dares to enter the Qiu estate ruins, living or dead. Now they can’t stand to be too close to each other or too far.
It hurts to see Xiao Jiu like this. But it hurts even more to stay away from him.
This is his punishment.
Time doesn’t start moving again until a young child stumbles into the Qiu estate’s ruins. The child is obviously living. His clothes are foreign, with long Western style pants and a short shirt. His hair is cut too short and he has strange glass things on against his eyes. Unlike other children that have wandered into the ruins, this child doesn’t quiver or come in a pack of children to vandalize the ruins. No, this child is humming, as if taking a casual stroll through a garden and peering at every detail with a fascinated hum. Too strange for a child! But so well-behaved!
At first, Yue Qingyuan merely raises his sword, ready to do the usual ‘leave or die’ speech he gives to all the living (not that they can hear him, but apparently his voice sounds like static moans which are enough to scare any living being away), until he sees the child’s face.
“Xiao Jiu?” he gasps, but of course the child can’t hear him. Instead the Xiao Jiu look alike skips past him, looking at the scorch marks on the still preserved library of scrolls (Yue Qingyuan's rather proud of his efforts to restore that part of the estate.)
Silently, Yue Qingyuan tiptoes further to get a closer look at the child. His feet hover just above the floor, but living habits are hard to forget.
Seeing the child, it's like walking into the past but better. The child has Xiao Jiu's adorable features--his regal nose and chin, his intense eyes, and thin build. But the child is less skinny, with a sunny smile, the way Xiao Jiu might have been had they never been born as street orphans. The child's looks may be all Xiao Jiu but his quiet demeanor reminds Yue Qingyuan of himself… The child's innocent curiosity is all the child.
Yue Qingyuan moves closer, this new desire to watch the child burning through him. As a spirit, Yue Qingyuan doesn't have many desires besides destroying any evil spirits that come near Xiao Jiu. And protecting Xiao Jiu, of course (not that Xiao Jiu ever seems to need him.). And guilt. This feeling though is… new. But not unwelcome.
The child continues to wander through the ruins. A few times, the child's fingers nearly graze against something dangerous and Yue Qingyuan gives a shout in warning. The child obviously doesn't hear him but thankfully always changes his mind at the last minute and continues on his way.
But then the child stumbles upon Xiao Jiu's old collection of fans, still preserved from the fire, and Yue Qingyuan wonders if spirits can have heart attacks. Child or not, Xiao Jiu will maim him!
"Please get away from there, young one!" Yue Qingyuan finds himself gently saying.
The child only steps closer to the emerald painted fan. Yue Qingyuan considers making his internal screams out loud.
“So pretty,” the child says, leaning down so his nose is a breath away from the fan, while his little hands stay behind his back. “I wonder if it was made during Han dynasty? Or maybe it’s even older! How does it stay so pretty? Maybe someone came in and took care of them…?”
“I did,” Yue Qingyuan finds himself saying. “They were the first things I tried to restore with my powers… the first gifts I ever gave Xiao Jiu…”
But of course, that fan was just a shoddy thing he nicked from a festival stall when they were street children once. And yet Xiao Jiu carried it around everywhere, hissing if Yue Qingyuan tried to replace it with a newer one. And yet the Qius took that fan away from Xiao Jiu and locked it up…
“Whoever gave this gift must have cared about that person very much.”
Yue Qingyuan’s head snaps up, through the bitter tears, and he sees the child smiling tenderly at the fan, the way Xiao Jiu would in secret when they were younger.
Oh . He forgot he had happy memories like that with Xiao Jiu. He actually forgot…
“Ah!” the child looks down at a strange bracelet on his wrist. “It’s almost seven! I better get back before the maid notices I’m gone!” Then the child clasps his hands together and gives a little bow. “Thank you spirits for letting me visit today. I’ll come back tomorrow, same time!”
Then the child leaves.
“Who was that?” a cold voice says from behind.
Yue Qingyuan turns around to his Xiao Jiu, because of course Xiao Jiu was watching. Xiao Jiu knows everything that happens in the ruined estate.
“Ah, it was just a child, nothing that needed chasing off.”
“Oh?” Xiao Jiu holds up a ghostly fan and narrows his eyes. “And yet you normally chase them all away, young or otherwise.”
“He was harmless.”
“One brat is the same as any other brat.”
“Not this one!” Yue Qingyuan snaps, then stops because how dare he yell at his one and only? How dare he raise his voice when he’s unworthy? When all he can do is stain his hands so Xiao Jiu remains untouched?
Xiao Jiu’s face twists in rage. But as always, he keeps his face hidden behind his fan, never letting Yue Qingyuan see anything but his chiling eyes.
“Fine. Then since you’re too incompetent to do so, next time, I’ll drive him off.”
“What?!” Images of Xiao Jiu traumatizing the poor child with visions of blood and corpses plague Yue Qingyuan’s mind. “No, Xiao Jiu, you can’t!”
The wooden frames for the doors fly into splinters. “ Don’t call me that. Not when you’re like this still!”
Xiao Jiu leaves to the next room, his chilling presence still ever frigid even with a wall between them, and Yue Qingyuan feels a deep ache he doesn’t know how to name…
The wait for tomorrow, for the child’s visit, makes Yue Qingyuan want to disintegrate himself. But finally, as if no time has passed at all, the child skips back into the ruined Qiu estate, carrying several scrolls and a book.
“Hello, I’m back spirits! If you’re still here, I hope you weren’t bored! I just had to research what happened here and see if I got it right. Now, I don’t know if you’re here and listening, but if you are maybe you can, I don’t know, make things colder if I’m right and warmer if I’m wrong? Whoops,” the child stumbles, nearly dropping of the scrolls on his foot. “I’m fine!”
Yue Qingyuan whirls his head towards Xiao Jiu. If Xiao Jiu were a cat, he’d be hissing with all of his fur ramrod straight on his back.
“Not my fault the brat is clumsy. Maybe he’ll trip onto a sharp piece of wood and finish the job for us.”
“ Xiao Jiu! ”
Xiao Jiu only slaps his fan against Yue Qingyuan’s lips.
The child sits down, unwisely, on the dirt and begins to flip open his books and scrolls. He hums for a moment then lights up and points at a few sentences on his left.
“It says here that the last people who lived here were called the Qius!”
Xiao Jiu scoffs. “Any idiot could have figured that out.”
But the air grows colder.
The child lights up. “Good, I got the right book! Okay, um… let’s see… apparently they all died in a fire? All the men were killed. Miraculously, the women and children survived. Any attempts to rebuild here always fails. According to this scroll, people think that it was an accident. Just a fallen torch or pipe, then death.”
“Hmph, as if they could have accidentally killed themselves.”
“But I don’t think that’s what happened! See, I found this old scroll by the daughter who survived the fire! I think her name was… Qiu Haitang?”
Xiao Jiu and Yue Qingyuan go very still.
“She wrote down everything that happened to her. The Qius had a servant with them, someone named Shen Jiu, and while she treated him really well. I think, well I think the rest of the family… didn’t.”
Slowly, Xiao Jiu starts to hover closer to the child, to Qiu Haitang’s writings.
“It says here that ‘A-Jiu must have tripped again, he had bruises hidden under his sleeves so I offered him some salve. I wish A-Jiu would come to me more often with his injuries.’ But if this Shen Jiu was so capable of balancing different trays when he served his mistress, and of cultivating in secret under her instruction, I don’t think he’d be clumsy enough to trip so often. He was smart . I think the Qiu heir did something bad to him. I can’t imagine what that would be like. I would have just given up. But Shen Jiu doesn’t seem like me. He seems like a fighter. I bet he fought back and then the fire happened.”
If Yue Qingyuan could still breathe, he would have stopped breathing then.
His Xiao Jiu still has his back to him, he can’t imagine what expression Xiao Jiu has from a mere child uncovering his past like this…
“So?” the child shyly looks around, “Did I get it right?”
Yue Qingyuan doesn’t dare move. Then Xiao Jiu’s hand twitches and moves towards the child. Yue Qingyuan nearly shouts at Xiao Jiu not to hurt him but…
Xiao Jiu only lightly taps the child on the head with his fan.
The child shivers from the cool breeze and then glows at the sensation, making Xiao Jiu blink back at him.
“So I did! Ah, I’m so happy! Okay, I’ll do more research and I’ll do my best to make friends with you, spirits! Maybe one of you is the Shen Jiu? Ahh… I wish I could see you, I could ask for more of your story!”
“YOUNG MASTER SHEN YUAN!” an elderly woman practically stumbles into the ruins, her hair in disarray. “ THIS is where you’ve been?! What have I told you about playing around in dirty places like this?! What if the Madame and Master here of this? Great gods, pick up those books and come with me right now!”
“But I was making friends--”
“With spirits? That’s bad luck,” the woman makes a sign against evil. “I will hear no more talk of this. Now come or no snacks!”
“Ah! Not snacks!” the child, Shen Yuan, races back to the woman’s side. Before he steps out, he turns back and whispers, “Be back later, spirits!”
“Young Master!” the woman scolds. “This is what I get for leaving those horror movies on the television… any child would be traumatized but this one feels sorry for the monsters… Aieee me.”
When the two living humans leave, Yue Qingyuan turns his bewildered stare towards Xiao Jiu.
Silently, Xiao Jiu stares at the spot where Shen Yuan sat. Then he says, “Tomorrow, if the child comes back, I’d better hear more about what he has to say about me.”
Warmth fills Yue Qingyuan’s chest, this tingling feeling that he forgot, this hope .
“So… you won’t chase him off?”
“Did I stutter ? He’s just a prattling brat to pass the time so I don’t have to listen to you all the time. Didn’t you want the child to stay and visit? Honestly…”
Ah, his eyes could fill with tears. Such kindness his Xiao Jiu has given him, such consideration…
“As soon as the child starts to bore me, I’ll chase him off,” Xiao Jiu insists, hiding his blush behind his fan. Another rare treasure! He hasn’t seen that blush in such a long time.
“Of course, Xiao Jiu,” he almost coos, thankful to the child for bringing this out.
“I said don’t call me that!”
But for the first time in centuries, Yue Qingyuan doesn’t shrink away from those words.
“We’ll see if the child returns,” he says placantly instead. Anything to please his Xiao Jiu, and ‘their’ child…
The child Shen Yuan does indeed return every day, to Yue Qingyuan’s delight, bringing back more and more uncovered facts about the “mysterious and cool Shen Jiu” to Xiao Jiu’s secret delight. Over time, the stories die down and A-Yuan begins sharing more theories of how the fans stay preserved, how the mansion must have looked when it was still standing, how cultivation techniques must have worked.
Xiao Jiu always stands and listens patiently. He never says he gets bored.
Yue Qingyuan and Xiao Jiu begin conversing again, the way they used to. Xiao Jiu is still sharp, still cruel, still cold because of his time with the Qius and yet Yue Qingyuan can see the tenderness in flashes. Yue Qingyuan learns to read to Xiao Jiu again and wonders why he never figured out how sooner. Death freezes so many things, so much time…
“I wonder what story A-Yuan will tell today,” Yue Qingyuan hums.
“Maybe he’ll tell us something useful about this era,” Xiao Jiu scowls. But his eyes are calm. Content even.
A-Yuan always has something new to teach them after school, something strange and inventive like cars or popcorn, to ‘catch them up on years past.’
But today is different.
A-Yuan looks dejected and too thin for his age. He wears a paper mask over his nose and mouth while his eyes are rimmed red.
The air grows frigid from Xiao Jiu’s presence. Yue Qingyuan has the forgotten urge to hunt whoever made A-Yuan like this…
“I wish I could keep coming here forever,” A-Yuan suddenly says. “My house is really big and I have lots of brothers and sisters… but they never pay attention to me. Mother and Father are never home. It’s just me and you spirits. I don’t feel lonely here.”
“Then keep coming here as you always do, little idiot,” Xiao Jiu snaps. “Tell us what has happened to you!”
His hand passes through A-Yuan’s head.
Then A-Yuan begins to cry.
Yue Qingyuan has never felt more helpless (except when he found out what the Qius did to Xiao Jiu and he helped Xiao Jiu make everything burn so beautifully-- )
But A-Yuan never tells them.
Both Yue Qingyuan and Xiao Jiu watch in stunned silence as A-Yuan wipes away his tears, tries to smile, and murmurs a quick sorry before leaving.
Xiao Jiu’s eyes flash. He glares at Yue Qingyuan. “We’re following him.”
Yue Qingyuan nearly gapes. They’ve never been able to leave the ruined estate before. Not on their own.
“Take my hand. We can do it if we’re together. I won’t say it twice!”
What if it doesn’t work? What if they can’t cross the boundaries of the Qiu Estate?
“Our little human is being bullied and disgraced! We can’t teach him to fight for himself so we’ll have to haunt those who dare belittle our human ourselves!”
Ah. Yue Qingyuan has never felt this ecstatic joy before. Yes, of course. In the end, Xiao Jiu and Yue Qingyuan are bound together. Of course, this child, this Shen Yuan, is their child too now.
He takes Xiao Jiu’s hand, complete at last.
For the rest of his living lifespan, Shen Yuan notices that strange things happen to those who belittle him. His bullies or snooty classmates become oddly clumsy, bruises all over their limbs, or their things become easily ruined. Not very high quality things?
These bullies and snooty classmates also stop looking at him or acknowledging his existence. Another form of bullying?
Oh well, Shen Yuan shrugs. More time to doodle about ghost theories and monsters.
Behind him, two spirits link arms and return to the Qiu Estate.