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Into Exile

Chapter Text

As he slowly came to, lying on the floor, Shen Qingqiu was surprised he was alive. That wasn’t how things were supposed to go. Hadn’t he angered Luo Binghe to the point of madness? His vision was blurred as he opened his eyes, blinking against the light. A person’s shape blocked most of his view.  

The cut on Shen Qingqiu’s cheek felt numb, just like the rest of his wounds. He was warm, too, which he didn’t understand. The water prison was always so cold. Adjusting to the light, Shen Qingqiu saw that Yue Qingyuan was in front of him. Just like before, he was kneeling, taking Shen Qingqiu’s hand in his own so he could channel his spiritual energy into him. Instead of looking him in the eye, Yue Qingyuan was staring at where Shen Qingqiu’s fingers were curled limply around his hand.

Shen Qingqiu had thought Luo Binghe was going to strangle him to death. His last thoughts had been of Yue Qingyuan, never expecting to see him again in the flesh. Never wanting to see him again, because it would mean that Shen Qingqiu was dragging Yue Qingyuan down with him.

Yue Qingyuan looked even more defeated now than when he’d seen him last. What had Luo Binghe demanded of him for this second visit? And what had possessed Yue Qingyuan to come back?

Stirring, Shen Qingqiu’s fingers twitched in Yue Qingyuan’s hold. “I told you to scram.”

Yue Qingyuan sighed. “You did.” His gaze settled on Shen Qingqiu’s throat, where Luo Binghe must have left the imprint of his fingers.

“That bastard hasn’t even begun to torture me, Sect Leader Yue. You know that.”

Shen Qingqiu struggled to sit upright while keeping his hand in Yue Qingyuan’s, his body weaker than it had ever been. His back was suddenly cooler, and he saw Yue Qingyuan’s outer robe pool around his waist. Yue Qingyuan must have put it over him while he was unconscious. Shen Qingqiu wanted to laugh at the useless kindness, but pulled the robe around himself instead. It was cold, after all. He wondered if Yue Qingyuan would try to leave it with him, and when Luo Binghe would take it away.

This was dangerous. Before he’d wrapped his fingers around Shen Qingqiu’s throat, Luo Binghe had said he knew about Qiu Jianluo. And if Luo Binghe could find out about Qiu Jianluo, he could also find out about Yue Qi. Would he spare Yue Qingyuan, if he knew about his past with Shen Qingqiu? And how ridiculous would it be if Luo Binghe saw Shen Qingqiu huddled under Yue Qingyuan’s robe, like a favored courtesan in a novel? Shen Qingqiu frowned.

“It was pointless for you to come,” Shen Qingqiu said. “You lost face for Cang Qiong Mountain Sect for nothing. How do you think it looks, for the Sect Leader to keep visiting scum like me?”  

“It reflects poorly on the sect.”

“So why come back? You’re just prolonging my ending.”

Yue Qingyuan looked down at their hands.

“Is it only bothering you today?” Shen Qingqiu asked, yanking his hand away. “That I’m dying. You abandoned me while I waited for you, and came back when I didn’t need you.”

“I can leave, if that’s what shidi would prefer.”

That was the last thing Shen Qingqiu wanted. He didn’t want to die, and he didn’t want Yue Qingyuan to leave.

“Qingqiu, I wanted to say goodbye.”

Shen Qingqiu was stunned. All he could focus on was the bruise from Luo Binghe’s fingers on his thigh, how it was starting to throb again. He’d been convinced Luo Binghe was going to tear his leg off. Would he stop there? Or would he rip off the other leg, his arms, blind him, pluck out his tongue… until Shen Qingqiu was just a spark of consciousness in the dark.

“Should we say goodbye like we did before?” Shen Qingqiu asked, knowing that Yue Qingyuan understood which ‘before’ it was. “Let me look at you.”

Yue Qingyuan came closer. Shen Qingqiu’s chains rattled as he reached out to touch Yue Qingyuan’s face. As a child, Shen Jiu had starved for Yue Qi. He’d needed no one else in the world, wanted no other rescuer. Shen Jiu used to remember how Yue Qi had looked through the crack in the door and long for him to come back. But then that hope had faded to a fantasy of digging Yue Qi’s grave with his bare hands—he’d wanted Yue Qi’s ending to belong to him. Yue Qingyuan hadn’t given him that, hadn’t even given him an answer to why he never came.

If Shen Qingqiu wanted, he could… He rubbed his thumb against Yue Qingyuan’s cheek. There was no door separating them now, nothing keeping them apart. Yue Qingyuan’s expression was pained, just like when they’d parted at the Qiu manor, and he knew that Yue Qingyuan was preparing to abandon him again. All Shen Qingqiu had left to do was to let him go.

But Yue Qingyuan wasn’t safe anymore. Luo Binghe was curious, peeling back Shen Qingqiu’s past. He’d find out. What was the purpose of Shen Qingqiu’s death, if it couldn’t even protect Yue Qingyuan?

Shen Qingqiu was a self-interested person; the threat of death just made him more so. He leaned forward to press his lips to Yue Qingyuan’s, slow and careful. Yue Qingyuan inhaled sharply, but didn’t jerk away. It was enough. Shen Qingqiu kissed him, trying to memorize how his mouth tasted and the softness of his lips. He could only ever have Yue Qingyuan like this once. 

When he pulled back, Shen Qingqiu kept his eyes closed as he pressed their foreheads together. He didn’t want to know how Yue Qingyuan looked right now, whether he was disgusted or simply shocked.

Shen Qingqiu tucked his head against Yue Qingyuan’s neck as he fisted his hands in his robe. “Save me,” he whispered.

He waited. Yue Qingyuan must be weighing their old bond against the shame for Cang Qiong Mountain Sect—or thinking about whether he cared enough about Shen Qingqiu to throw his own reputation away. Shen Qingqiu didn’t know why he still hoped Yue Qingyuan would sacrifice for him when he’d abandoned him before.

But he kept waiting.

An incense time passed before Yue Qingyuan asked, “Can you stand?”

“Does it matter?” Shen Qingqiu asked, with a laugh. “Would you carry me?”

“If I must.”

Shen Qingqiu swallowed the question boiling in his throat—why was Yue Qingyuan saving him now, when it would cost everything? Still too late! Yue Qingyuan reached for the shackles around Shen Qingqiu’s ankles, breaking them open with spiritual energy, then followed with the ones around his wrists.

“Close your eyes,” Yue Qingyuan said. Shen Qingqiu heard a sword being drawn as bright light flashed against his eyelids and the Immortal Binding Cable fell from him. The shock of having his circulation restored nearly brought tears to Shen Qingqiu’s eyes. He’d worn the cable for so long that his spiritual energy was completely drained, leaving him just an ordinary man, who’d been starved and tortured for over a month.

Yue Qingyuan helped Shen Qingqiu get his arms into his outer robe and tie it around himself. There was already dirt and dried blood staining the sleeves of Yue Qingyuan’s white inner robe, reminding Shen Qingqiu of how filthy he was. Shen Qingqiu doubted that he could stand. He struggled to get his legs under him, his body clumsy now that he was unrestrained. Yue Qingyuan wrapped his arm around Shen Qingqiu’s waist and lifted him as he stood up. Shen Qingqiu tried to support his own weight, but his legs could barely hold him upright.

“I can’t,” Shen Qingqiu said, frustration lacing his voice.

“That’s fine. Don’t waste energy on losing your temper.”

Shen Qingqiu was about to show Yue Qingyuan that he still had plenty of energy for his temper left when he heard footsteps coming towards them. They were unhurried; there was no need to, when there was only one way out of the water prison.

Luo Binghe stepped inside the cell. His eyes skimmed over Shen Qingqiu, settling on Yue Qingyuan. “What is he to you?” Luo Binghe asked. “You’re about to trade the sect’s reputation for something so low.”

“Move aside.”

Resting his hand on his sword, Luo Binghe said, “I’m eager to receive your teaching, Sect Leader Yue.”

Even in the annual spars, Yue Qingyuan never took his sword from its scabbard. He still won. This time, the light as he unsheathed Xuan Su was blinding. After spending so long in the dark, Shen Qingqiu struggled to keep his eyes open as an array of curse seals appeared in the air, forming a barrier between them and Luo Binghe. Yue Qingyuan started to help Shen Qingqiu move forward when Luo Binghe drew his sword and slashed through the barrier.

The fight began in earnest as the swords clashed in the air. Weakened as he was, the flow of spiritual energy around Shen Qingqiu felt like hundreds of needles were pricking his aching flesh. Shen Qingqiu followed the fight’s course with his heart in his throat—when had Luo Binghe become so powerful? What had happened in the Abyss that made him able to fight against Yue Qingyuan? 

A deep gash appeared across Luo Binghe’s chest, making him stumble backwards. Xuan Su struck Luo Binghe’s sword aside, sending it flying into the wall to embed itself deeply in the stone. Yue Qingyuan quickly created another barrier as Luo Binghe tried to pull his sword back, but the stone held its grip. Furious, Luo Binghe tried to tear the barrier apart with his bare hands, then slammed his shoulder against it. The barrier flickered, but held. 

Luo Binghe bared his teeth. “You won’t know any peace,” he said. Blood was dripping from his wound at the same time it was healing. He was truly monstrous. “I’ll hunt down the both of you and bring you back here, break you apart slowly in front of each other. Do you understand?”

“Kill him,” Shen Qingqiu said, tugging on Yue Qingyuan’s sleeve.

“I can’t.”

“If you don’t kill the bastard now—”

“I know.” Yue Qingyuan shook his head. “Qingqiu, we must leave. I don’t have much longer, and there’s still the labyrinth.”

Not much longer? Luo Binghe hadn’t even been able to hit him. Yet Yue Qingyuan was pale, the color draining from his lips. He continued supporting Shen Qingqiu by the waist as they navigated the labyrinth, seemingly tireless.

“They didn’t blindfold me on the way in,” Yue Qingyuan said, smiling a little, “because of my status as Sect Leader.”

“You remember the way out?”

“We’ll see.”

It wasn’t long before they encountered some of Huan Hua Palace’s disciples. None of them lasted long enough to raise an alarm, though Yue Qingyuan did nothing more than knocking them out. Xuan Su’s power was astounding, but…

As they approached the exit, Yue Qingyuan staggered, tumbling to the floor and twisting his body to take the force of the fall. Shen Qingqiu tried to make his legs bear his weight as he struggled to help Yue Qingyuan back on his feet. Yue Qingyuan’s hands trembled in Shen Qingqiu’s as he coughed up blood, staining his robes.

“Shixiong?” Shen Qingqiu asked, wiping at Yue Qingyuan’s mouth with his sleeve. What was happening to him?

“Don’t worry. My apologies for the indignity, but we need to move faster.”

Yue Qingyuan gathered Shen Qingqiu in his arms and rose to his feet. Shen Qingqiu didn’t spare a thought for his face while Yue Qingyuan was pushing himself past all endurance. If anyone came to challenge Yue Qingyuan now, Shen Qingqiu wasn’t sure he could defeat them. Yue Qingyuan’s breathing was labored as they entered the courtyard, where a group of practicing disciples turned to look at them. They were both bloody, and Shen Qingqiu’s appearance was ghoulish, his hair wild and completely unbound. The disciples unsheathed their swords.

Yue Qingyuan stepped on Xuan Su and lowered Shen Qingqiu to his feet again. He gripped Shen Qingqiu’s waist and took off into the air, so quickly that the wind felt like it was snapping at his face.

“Stop pushing yourself,” Shen Qingqiu said.

“And die?”

“You’ll die anyway! What’s wrong with Xuan Su?”

“Haven’t you already thought of it?” 

Shen Qingqiu swallowed, then looked behind them. At least a dozen disciples were following, though they couldn’t keep up with Yue Qingyuan’s speed. Even so, they were too close. Yue Qingyuan couldn’t fly for much longer. His breath was rattling in his throat, and he coughed weakly, bringing up more blood for Shen Qingqiu to wipe away. The red barely showed on his black sleeve.

He was powerless to do anything but watch Yue Qingyuan destroy himself for his sake. “Dive,” Shen Qingqiu urged.

Yue Qingyuan tightened his hold on Shen Qingqiu, and Xuan Su fell like an arrow. They stopped just a zhang above the ground before doubling back. Shen Qingqiu was helpless to do anything more than watch as Yue Qingyuan sent them flying through the trees, each moment seemingly a near fatal miss. He didn’t dare say a word. Yue Qingyuan slumped forward as they finally slowed, landing on the forest floor with a thump.

Shen Qingqiu fell backwards with Yue Qingyuan on top of him.

“Xuan Su,” Yue Qingyuan said weakly, “the sheath…”

Taking the scabbard from Yue Qingyuan’s hands, Shen Qingqiu scrambled out from under him and crawled towards where Xuan Su was lying in the grass. The sword felt like it was burning as he sheathed it. He turned back to Yue Qingyuan, whose color was a little better.

But he still seemed like he was dying. Shen Qingqiu looked around and nearly disbelieved his luck.

There was a hunter’s hut close by. It was disused, the roof partially collapsed. But it was shelter, and it might even be enough to hide them. Shen Qingqiu tried to stand again, and this time he had just enough spiritual energy to force it, shakily. He grabbed Yue Qingyuan by the collar and dragged him towards the hut. Every step hurt, and his arms felt like they were being torn from their sockets. But he didn’t let Yue Qingyuan go until they were inside and he could collapse with his back to the wall. He pulled Yue Qingyuan closer to him, lowering his head into his lap.

At least he could make Yue Qingyuan comfortable.

They’d escaped from the most secure prison in the cultivation world, yet that was only the beginning of their troubles. What would follow?

His gaze drifted down to Yue Qingyuan, and how the front of his white robe was dyed red. Shen Qingqiu gently touched his cheek, making Yue Qingyuan’s eyes flutter open.


“Please rest, shixiong.”

It was what Yue Qingyuan needed, even though every time his eyes closed, Shen Qingqiu was terrified he’d never open them again. He kept one hand on Yue Qingyuan’s pulse, feeling his life growing weaker and weaker.

Chapter Text

Shen Jiu was led into a small, dark room that was crowded with children.

“This is Shen Jiu, your new brother.”

The slaver took his hand off Shen Jiu’s shoulder and pushed him towards the other boys. They stepped out of the way as Shen Jiu stumbled forward. Most of them looked dirty, with ragged, ill-fitting clothes. The eldest of them couldn’t have been more than fourteen, and he was stick-thin, with a black eye that matched Shen Jiu’s.

One boy didn’t move away. He caught Shen Jiu by the elbow, steadying him. Shen Jiu looked up, seeing that the boy was a few years older than him—probably around ten—and much taller. He seemed calm, like he never raised his voice or got into fights.

“I’m Yue Qi,” said the boy.

The other children flocked closer, staring at Shen Jiu. He didn’t want their eyes on him, not when his face was so swollen and ugly. Shen Jiu fisted his hands in Yue Qi’s shirt and tucked his head against his shoulder.

“You’ll be all right. They won’t beat your face again. It was just to scare you.”

Shen Jiu clung to him.

“Come on, let’s go sit down. You can sleep next to me.”

Yue Qi gently peeled Shen Jiu off of him, but took his hand as he led him to a back corner of the room. Since Yue Qi was ‘Seven,’ it made sense that the older boys got the better spots—though Shen Jiu counted only five in the room, including him. What had happened to the rest? One of the boys, close to Shen Jiu’s age, tugged at Yue Qi’s sleeve as he passed by.

“Qi-ge,” the boy said. “What about me?”

“Aren’t you getting big now, Lang Ba?” Yue Qi replied. “Shen Jiu is new.”

Lang Ba glared at Shen Jiu. He’d already made an enemy. Shen Jiu considered letting go of Yue Qi, leaving him to Lang Ba and trying to get some older, tougher looking boy on his side. He’d grown up with five older brothers—he knew how important it was to back the right sibling. But Yue Qi… Shen Jiu didn’t know why, but he squeezed Yue Qi’s hand harder.   

“I’ll introduce you to our sisters tomorrow,” Yue Qi said, sitting down. Shen Jiu joined him, his teeth chattering from the cold in the room. They were too far from the brazier.

Yue Qi handed Shen Jiu his own blanket. “It’s not that cold; I don’t need it.”

Shen Jiu wrapped the blanket around his shoulders. Why had Yue Qi given the blanket to him so easily? Was he stupid?

“What happened?” Yue Qi asked.

“My parents sold me,” Shen Jiu said. “I hope the money they got poisons them, or that they get killed by barbarians, or that they’re trampled under their oxen. I hate them! I want them dead.”

Yue Qi looked at him sadly. “You shouldn’t talk about them that way.”

“What did your parents do to you?”

“There was a bad harvest, and there wasn’t enough food for me. It wasn’t their fault.”

Shen Jiu found that hard to believe. It was always someone’s fault. That someone usually ended up being Shen Jiu, no matter how many times he said it wasn’t him. Yue Qi asked Shen Jiu more questions about his family, where he was from, what kind of farmers were they, did he have any favorite animals? He was strange, but his blanket was keeping Shen Jiu warm.

Yue Qi didn’t look like he could win very many fights, not with his kind face. That was fine, though; Shen Jiu could teach him some tricks. Flopping down on the straw mat, Shen Jiu let the exhaustion of the day take him. 

The next day, Shen Jiu was put right to work. His face wasn’t as swollen, though it was still bruised. He was sent out with Yue Qi, who took him to a corner of the marketplace that got a lot of foot traffic. Yue Qi gestured for Shen Jiu to sit down with him, then put a worn placard in front of them.

“What’s it say?” Shen Jiu asked.

Yue Qi pulled Shen Jiu closer to him, keeping his arm around Shen Jiu’s shoulders. “That we’re orphans trying to find our relatives.”

“Who wrote it?”

Shen Jiu was already learning that Yue Qi wasn’t very expressive, but his face turned into even more of a blank. “Someone who’s gone now. Can you cry?”


“It works better when you cry, and I can’t.”

“I can try.”

First, Shen Jiu tried physically pushing out some tears, but that didn’t work. It just made his bruises hurt. He’d spent years learning not to cry, and he felt pretty good right now, since Yue Qi was holding him.

People walked by them without even glancing down at the placard, even though Shen Jiu thought he and Yue Qi were pathetic enough. Hadn’t one of the slavers told Shen Jiu that he looked small and pitiful? Hadn’t his brothers said it too? Shen Jiu was always the small one, the overlooked one, the one who got the least of everything.

Well-loved children passed by, snacking on tanghulu and tugging their parents towards whatever stall they liked. Rich folk walked beside the poor, but all of them seemed better off than Shen Jiu, who was wearing rags and recovering from a beating. Unfair! It was all so unfair. Or maybe the world was just that cruel to Shen Jiu, and to Yue Qi, who didn’t even have enough sense to be angry about being sold off. 

Shen Jiu started to cry, and then he couldn’t stop. He sobbed into Yue Qi’s arms while he heard the clink of coins in their begging bowl.

Yue Qi patted Shen Jiu’s back. “Good job. You can take a break now. Here,” he said, handing Shen Jiu a stick of tanghulu. “Someone gave this to us. I don’t like sweets—you take it.”

Still sniffling, Shen Jiu wolfed down the first few fruits, so hungry that he barely tasted them, before he looked suspiciously at Yue Qi. “You don’t like sweets?”

Yue Qi shook his head. What a liar—everyone liked sweets. Shen Jiu pulled a hawthorn off the stick and shoved it in Yue Qi’s mouth.

“We’re sharing,” Shen Jiu announced.

Yue Qi didn’t reply, but obediently ate everything Shen Jiu gave him. When their break was over, Shen Jiu went straight back to crying, finding it easier this time. He hardly had to think at all.

Lang Ba was glaring at him when they got back to the room where all the boys slept. Yue Qi was drawn into a conversation with one of the older boys, leaving Shen Jiu alone with Lang Ba.

“I saw you eating tanghulu,” Lang Ba said. He’d been spying on them. Lang Ba was a problem.

“Someone gave it to me out of pity.” Just a few days ago, and Shen Jiu would’ve been ashamed of that. Now it was to his advantage, and he knew Lang Ba was jealous. He wasn’t as small as Shen Jiu, and his face was ugly. Crying wouldn’t have improved it.

“That tanghulu would’ve been mine if you weren’t the one with Qi-ge. He was my brother first!”

Lang Ba wanted Yue Qi to himself? Shen Jiu sneered. “What are you going to do about it?”  

“Come outside. I know where there are some more sweets.”

The boys were locked in at night, but it wasn’t late enough for that yet. Pretending to be clueless, Shen Jiu followed Lang Ba out. Lang Ba led him a little way down the street, then turned sharply, fist raised. Shen Jiu kicked him in the shins before Lang Ba could strike him, then kicked again between his legs. Lang Ba doubled over. Perfect. Tackling him to the ground, Shen Jiu hit Lang Ba across the face.

“Is this what you planned on doing to me?” Shen Jiu asked.

“No, there really were sweets—”

Shen Jiu slapped him again. “Do I seem stupid to you? What was your plan, huh? Beat me up and scare me? You thought that would keep me from taking your place?”

Lang Ba started to cry. “I just wanted tanghulu… I just wanted my brother…”

Shen Jiu shook him, trying to tamp down the urge to beat him bloody—that’d get him into trouble. He had to scare Lang Ba so he wouldn’t try anything against him ever again. Shen Jiu grabbed a rock. He raised it up, preparing to bring it down right next to Lang Ba’s head.

Someone gripped Shen Jiu’s wrist and pulled it back.

“Xiao Jiu.”

Shen Jiu’s heart turned into a rabbit’s. He looked behind him, feeling hit by Yue Qi’s stern expression. Yue Qi wasn’t supposed to have that face! 

Lang Ba scrambled out from under Shen Jiu. “He was going to kill me! He kicked me and hit me and then he was going to kill me.” 

Yue Qi was going to find out. He was going to find out that Shen Jiu was bad, and then he’d never look at him kindly again. Which one of them was Yue Qi going to believe—someone he’d known for a day?

“Qi-ge, he’s lying!” Shen Jiu said, tears coming to his eyes as he dropped the rock. “I was just trying to defend myself.”

“He’s a little demon!”

Shen Jiu threw himself into Yue Qi’s arms. “I’m not a demon,” Shen Jiu sniffled, barely able to speak through the sobs. “He wanted to hurt me, and I was scared. I wasn’t really going to hit him with the rock.”

Yue Qi patted Shen Jiu’s head, then sighed. “I believe you, so you can stop crying.”

Shen Jiu just cried harder.

“It’s fine,” Yue Qi said, holding him. “It’ll be fine.”

Shen Qingqiu ransacked the abandoned hut, looking for anything that might help. Shouldn’t the hunter have kept medicine with him, in case he was injured and alone? What a fool. An ancient string of garlic hung from the ceiling, but there was little else. The cooking pot held the blackened remains of a meal that was at least a season old. He searched everywhere, too desperate to risk missing anything that could have been held in a jar or hidden behind a piece of junk. Shen Qingqiu kicked the hunter’s sleeping mat aside, disturbing a centipede. He tried to catch it, but it was too fast for him. They were used in medicine, weren’t they? But for what?

He looked back at Yue Qingyuan resting on the floor, going so pale that his lips were turning blue. Shen Qingqiu hadn’t wanted this when he asked Yue Qingyuan to save him, not at the cost of his life. How could he have known Yue Qingyuan would sacrifice so much for the sake of a promise he’d broken years ago? His head was pounding and the hut suddenly felt too hot, even though night had fallen.

Yue Qingyuan had lost too much blood and spiritual energy—unless Shen Qingqiu could replenish one of them, Yue Qingyuan wouldn’t wake up. Transferring spiritual energy was impossible in Shen Qingqiu’s current state. But blood? That was something he still had.

He remembered one of Shizun’s brief, eclectic lessons as he’d ground ink for him. There were outer disciples for the task, but Shizun had insisted that they were all too clumsy. “You’ve got better hands for it,” Shizun had said. So Shen Jiu took care of it, like all the other tasks that kept him waiting on Shizun throughout the day and night.

“There was a young girl whose father was ailing,” Shizun had begun. “As her father drew closer to death, she despaired, as she was a very filial girl. After the family pooled all their wealth into hiring a doctor, he advised her to give some of her strength to him. So, she bled into a bowl and spooned her blood into her father’s mouth. He made a full recovery.”

“That’s grotesque.”

Shizun had lazily waved his fan, warding off the summer heat. “Mm. Would you let me drink your blood?”

“Without hesitation, Shizun,” Shen Jiu had said. He’d wondered what sort of test Shizun was setting him this time.

“What a little liar you are,” Shizun had replied, lips quirked.

If there was even a chance of saving Yue Qingyuan, Shen Qingqiu would take it. Seizing a knife that the hunter had left behind, he returned to Yue Qingyuan’s side. He fumbled it out of its sheath, dropping it to the floor from numb fingers. Cursing, he picked up the knife again and held it to his left wrist. He quickly drew it across the skin. With his cultivation unsealed, it shouldn’t take too long to stop bleeding. But now, as he bled freely, he put his hand beneath Yue Qingyuan’s head and tilted it up so he could press his wrist to his mouth. The first few drops trickled in while Shen Qingqiu carefully watched for any sign of health returning.

Yue Qingyuan’s eyes opened and he started to struggle, taking hold of Shen Qingqiu’s arm as he tried to twist his head away. He was strong, even like this.

“Shh, it’s all right, it’s just me,” Shen Qingqiu said, putting his knee on Yue Qingyuan’s chest to keep him down. He shifted his hand to grip him by the hair and hold him steady. “It’s just me.”  

Yue Qingyuan relaxed, his gaze settling on Shen Qingqiu. He released his hold, and Shen Qingqiu watched his throat work as he swallowed, his lips brushing against Shen Qingqiu’s skin. In an apology, Shen Qingqiu stroked Yue Qingyuan’s hair. He almost didn’t want the strangely intimate moment to end, with Yue Qingyuan docile beneath him.

Color was slowly returning to Yue Qingyuan’s face, and his eyes looked less glassy. Shen Qingqiu withdrew his wrist and tore off a strip of his already ruined inner robe to wrap around the cut. Yue Qingyuan started to sit up, so Shen Qingqiu helped him rest his back against the wall. Shen Qingqiu was reluctant to let Yue Qingyuan go, but he forced himself to release him.

The worst had passed, but Shen Qingqiu’s panic didn’t abate. It merely changed. How could he feel relieved when the whole cultivation world was against them, and Luo Binghe was still alive? At any moment cultivators could break into the hut and drag both of them back to Huan Hua Palace. It would be worse than if Shen Qingqiu had never said anything. Selfish! If only he could’ve trusted Yue Qingyuan to flee if Shen Qingqiu told him he was in danger, but nothing could have taken Yue Qingyuan away from Cang Qiong Mountain Sect.

Except for Shen Qingqiu, evidently. It was what Shen Qingqiu had longed for, to be chosen over Yue Qingyuan’s years of loyalty to the sect. Shen Qingqiu had expected nothing when he kissed Yue Qingyuan and asked to be saved—he’d thought Yue Qingyuan was leaving him to die, so what did it matter if he bared himself? Yet they were together now, so weak that even an outer disciple could’ve beaten them. Shen Qingqiu didn’t know what to do. He didn’t know how to get out of the hole that he’d dug for the two of them.

But before he could even think of what needed to happen next, there was the sword.

“What did Xuan Su do to you?” Shen Qingqiu asked.

Yue Qingyuan still looked so pale that Shen Qingqiu didn’t even expect an answer. But instead, Yue Qingyuan immediately said, “It’s my fault.” 


Holding out his hand, Yue Qingyuan made Xuan Su fly towards him. He laid the sword over his lap. “My life is linked to the sword. Whenever I draw Xuan Su, it consumes me.”

“It was a qi deviation, wasn’t it?” At Yue Qingyuan’s nod, Shen Qingqiu asked, “When did it happen?”

Yue Qingyuan was silent.

“When did it happen?” Shen Qingqiu repeated, sharper this time. He thought of when he’d visited the Ling Xi Caves, and the signs of struggle on the walls. It explained Yue Qingyuan’s strange silence when he joined Shen Qingqiu there, his reluctance to answer any of Shen Qingqiu’s questions. They’d barely spoken to each other for years, yet Yue Qingyuan chose that time to cut off any conversation?

“While you were with the Qius.”

“For how long?”

“A year.”

There was one last thing Shen Qingqiu needed to know, though he was afraid of the answer. He’d been certain for so long that he’d been abandoned—that fact was closer to him than Xiu Ya. If he lost that…

“Where did you go after it was over?”

“I went to find you.”  

Something broke that none of Luo Binghe’s torture had been able to touch.

“But I was already gone,” Shen Qingqiu said.

His own flat voice sounded strange to him.  

Chapter Text

Shen Qingqiu pictured Yue Qi standing in the ruins of the Qiu manor. Had he looked for Shen Jiu’s remains? Thought of digging him a grave, like Shen Jiu had imagined for Yue Qi? Had he cried?

Probably not.

“I was too focused on advancing as quickly as I could,” Yue Qingyuan said. “I made a mistake, and you suffered for it. I’m sorry.”

I suffered for it? You have no idea,” Shen Qingqiu replied, cycling through his old grievances. He’d endured years of abuse and humiliation, every one of Qiu Jianluo’s hideous whims. His cultivation was fundamentally flawed, and it was all because Yue Qingyuan had wanted too badly to save him. Everything that Shen Qingqiu had believed was crumbling. He got to his feet, needing to pace.

“Have you ever thought of how I suffered because you made me believe that I wasn’t worth saving? That I’d given my loyalty to someone who could forget about me?”

“I didn’t want to burden you.”

Shen Qingqiu laughed. “So you burdened me with being abandoned?”

“Wasn’t that what I did?”

Damn Yue Qingyuan’s logic! It must have made sense in his head, with his image of Shen Qingqiu. The selfish, mean-spirited, unforgiving Shen Qingqiu, to whom only the result mattered, and Yue Qingyuan’s feelings, his own suffering in the cave, never entered into it. How could Yue Qingyuan have saved that Shen Qingqiu from the water prison?   

“You gave up everything for someone like me,” Shen Qingqiu said. “What’s wrong with you?”

Looking away from Shen Qingqiu, Yue Qingyuan said, “I don’t know what you expect me to say.”

Yue Qingyuan wasn’t even going to put up a fight. He always did that, no matter how much Shen Qingqiu wished he would just disagree.

“I want you to admit that you think I deserved to feel like a worthless rat because I’m a nasty person.”

“No,” Yue Qingyuan replied, meeting Shen Qingqiu’s eyes.

“Then are you going to tell me I’m good? Are you going to lie?”

“Shidi, you’ve already decided how you feel. Nothing I say can change that.”

Shen Qingqiu turned on his heel and slammed the door shut behind him. He leaned against the wall, feeling exhausted. The only thing that hadn’t changed in the space of the last shichen was their miserable circumstances. 

Yue Qingyuan had spent a year trapped in that cave, now scarred and covered with old blood. How much had he endured? How was he even still alive, after that? Shen Qingqiu hadn’t needed to ask; the answer was in Xuan Su, and its terrible power. There was a way to survive a qi deviation: Yue Qingyuan’s master would have had to shatter his body and piece him back together.  He imagined her coldly cutting into Yue Qingyuan’s flesh, ignoring any pleas for mercy.

Any pleas to let him leave.

It was Shen Qingqiu’s fault. He’d pushed Yue Qingyuan too hard. To go into a qi deviation for someone else’s sake… For the sake of someone that he didn’t even trust to care that he’d gone through something so awful. For the helpless, filthy thing he’d found in the depths of the water prison.

Shen Qingqiu had seen the narrow line of a river to the east when they were riding Xuan Su. Greater danger be damned, Shen Qingqiu was going to bathe in it. He wasn’t human as he was now—he was surprised Yue Qingyuan had taken him seriously at all, looking like he’d crawled out of the grave. Luo Binghe had occasionally thought of cleanliness, tossing water on him and then letting his servants wash Shen Qingqiu as he walked out.

There was a bucket left by the hut that Shen Qingqiu picked up, and he’d kept the knife with him. It wasn’t a sword, but it was something. By the time he reached the river, his legs were sore. He unbelted the outer robe Yue Qingyuan had given him, then stripped. If he was going to be recaptured, it may as well be in the most humiliating circumstance possible. He stepped into the river and advanced until it reached his waist.

Without soap, he had only his hands and nails to clean himself with. He hesitated when he reached his thigh. Luo Binghe had left the imprint of his fingers, staining Shen Qingqiu’s skin with purple.

The memory forced itself up, like bad blood he couldn’t expel.

Shen Qingqiu’s world was a windowless cell. He hated being shackled in the dark, the long periods of boredom interrupted by horror. Luo Binghe was patient, and worse, inventive. He rarely repeated the same torture twice, unless it had been particularly effective. Leaving Shen Qingqiu with nothing but his own head was slowly becoming the worst torment of all. The sutras he’d memorized gave him no comfort, and little distraction. It would be a mercy when isolation finally drove him mad.

The bastard had become the center of Shen Qingqiu’s dwindling life. Shen Qingqiu wasn’t afraid of dying. He knew what was coming, and that Luo Binghe would take his time, killing him with a thousand cuts rather than giving in to his hatred and ending Shen Qingqiu’s existence on the spot.

The door swung open, and Shen Qingqiu had to shut his stinging eyes against the weak lanternlight. Then he smelled it.

Food. Luo Binghe had brought food with him. Shen Qingqiu’s stomach twisted.

“I’ve neglected you,” said Luo Binghe. Shen Qingqiu felt his chains being pulled, until he was forced into a standing position against the wall. There was a click as Luo Binghe locked them in place. “Do you know it’s been four days since you last ate? And with your cultivation sealed off, you must be starving.”

Shen Qingqiu opened his eyes. Luo Binghe was holding a plate of bright red fried pork, each slice curling up and releasing a mouthwatering smell. He took a seat, crossing his legs as he brought one fragrant piece to his lips.

“Would Shizun like some?” Luo Binghe asked. He popped the slice into his mouth, chewing appreciatively.

Shen Qingqiu stayed silent. Luo Binghe continued to eat while the smell tormented Shen Qingqiu. When there was only one piece left, Luo Binghe stopped, holding it up with his chopsticks.

“In all our time together, Shizun has never tried my cooking. What kind of brutish disciple would I be if I didn’t offer you any?”

“You’re exactly what I’ve always said you are.”

Smiling, Luo Binghe approached Shen Qingqiu. He pressed the pork to Shen Qingqiu’s lips. This close, the smell was overwhelming.

“You’re hungry, aren’t you?” Luo Binghe asked. “But you hate me so much that it won’t let you eat. That’s all right—I’ll give Shizun some face.”

Luo Binghe grabbed Shen Qingqiu’s chin. Since he’d been imprisoned, no matter what Luo Binghe did, he’d never touched Shen Qingqiu directly. But now, he was forcing Shen Qingqiu’s mouth open with enough strength that it felt like he could tear off Shen Qingqiu’s jaw if he wanted to. Shen Qingqiu struggled anyway, his skin crawling and his throat filling with bile. Luo Binghe placed the slice of pork on Shen Qingqiu’s tongue and forced his mouth closed, then covered it with his hand.

“Chew, then swallow,” Luo Binghe said soothingly. “Don’t be rude and spit it back at me.” 

The pork was delicious, perfectly cooked. Shen Qingqiu wanted to vomit. He chewed a few times, the taste making his mouth water and his stomach twinge, then swallowed. It felt like he’d eaten a rock, but he would’ve humiliated himself for more. Luo Binghe released him.

“I’d never cooked for a man before,” Luo Binghe observed, wiping his hand off on his robe. “You’ve been so many firsts for me since you came here.”

The last time Luo Binghe had tortured Shen Qingqiu, he’d said he’d never heard such a pleasing scream. Luo Binghe was standing too close to him, and Shen Qingqiu wished he could shrink back against the wall. Had Luo Binghe figured out that being this near to another man was its own form of torture?

Luo Binghe lifted his hand to stroke Shen Qingqiu’s face. Shen Qingqiu winced and jerked his head away. Dragging his thumb over Shen Qingqiu’s cheek, Luo Binghe pressed it against his eye. “I used to think you were quite beautiful.”

“Filthy,” Shen Qingqiu said through gritted teeth.

“I’ll show you how filthy I can be.” Luo Binghe trailed his hand along Shen Qingqiu’s body, pausing to squeeze his waist before settling on his thigh. Shen Qingqiu’s disgust was so strong that he was trembling with it. “Such shapely legs.” Gripping Shen Qingqiu’s thigh, Luo Binghe’s hand tightened until Shen Qingqiu couldn’t hold back a pained gasp, and Luo Binghe smiled again.

“I investigated the Qius.”

Shen Qingqiu’s blood turned to ice. No one was supposed to know what Qiu Jianluo had done to him.

“Their son was infamous for being a sadist. He liked to bully the beggar children, because no one would stop him. I even heard that he bought a slave who’d offended him, and took him home.” Luo Binghe leaned in so he could whisper in Shen Qingqiu’s ear. “Is he who you’re flinching away from?”

Backing away, Luo Binghe’s hand drifted to his sword’s hilt. There was an intensity in his gaze that Shen Qingqiu hadn’t seen before, even when he put Shen Qingqiu through so much pain that it brought tears to his eyes.

“I thought you were just a monster,” Luo Binghe said. “That you had no idea what it was like to be trussed up like a pig and beaten bloody, to live every moment in terror of my master. You were very creative with your torments—how could I ever compare to Shizun, who could so terrify a little boy that he went to sleep afraid to wake up? I wanted to die!”

Luo Binghe gripped his sword so hard that his knuckles went white.

“But I was wrong. There’s always been another monster standing behind you. You knew exactly what I went through, and you chose to inflict that same pain on someone else. What did I ever do to deserve it?”

“Nothing,” Shen Qingqiu said flatly.

“Then why!” Luo Binghe shouted. “Why did you put me through hell?”

Because Luo Binghe’s mother had loved him. Because of his natural talent. Because there was something about Luo Binghe’s upturned face the first time he looked at Shen Qingqiu, that hope in his bright eyes, that Shen Qingqiu wanted to crush.

“Because I wanted to.”

Luo Binghe struck Shen Qingqiu across the face with his sword’s hilt, slicing open his cheek and narrowly missing his eye. He felt blood welling up from the cut and dripping down to stain his already filthy robes. The wound throbbed.

“Did that make you feel any better?” Shen Qingqiu asked.


“It never does.”

Luo Binghe dropped his sword to the dirty floor, his fingers twitching, then seized Shen Qingqiu by the throat and slammed his head against the wall.

Shen Qingqiu held back a smile. He’d done it. He’d finally angered Luo Binghe past all restraint. Luo Binghe’s fingers tightened around Shen Qingqiu’s throat, cutting off his air completely. His expression had returned to its normal calm, belying the rage in his grip. Shen Qingqiu found himself struggling automatically, his body fighting what his mind welcomed.

Back in the river, Shen Qingqiu was still staring at the bruise on his thigh, his hands reaching up to feel the matching bruise on his throat. His stomach turned. Was Luo Binghe actively searching for them, or would he send agents to nearby towns and wait? It was more like him to let Yue Qingyuan and Shen Qingqiu wander into a trap, rather than waste his energy pursuing two half-dead cultivators. They couldn’t hide in the hut forever.

When he returned to the shore, he let some of the water drip off of him before he put his clothes back on and filled the bucket. A rabbit paused at the edge of the trees, sniffing at the air while its chest rose rapidly. It was deciding whether or not to run. 

Shen Qingqiu was so hungry that he felt ill just looking at the rabbit.

“Unlucky thing,” Shen Qingqiu murmured, picking up a fallen leaf. He’d never used the technique before, but he was familiar with the theory of it. Transferring spiritual energy to the leaf, he sent it flying towards the rabbit. The leaf struck the rabbit across the throat, knocking it over.

Shen Qingqiu picked up the rabbit and did his best to prepare it with nothing but the hunter’s old knife. He’d never skinned anything before, and removing the innards was a disgusting task. At least the river was there for him to wash the gore off his hands. By the time he was done, the sun was starting to set. He tramped back up to the hut, holding the rabbit by the ears.  

When he entered the hut, he saw that Yue Qingyuan hadn’t moved. Before Shen Qingqiu could worry, Yue Qingyuan opened his eyes at the sound of the creaking door.

“I was about to look for you,” Yue Qingyuan said, his expression warming. As if he hadn’t just slapped Shen Qingqiu in the face with his own failings.

“You’re in worse shape than I am. Don’t go anywhere.”

After setting the rabbit on the table and putting the bucket down, Shen Qingqiu dipped a cup into the water. He knelt by Yue Qingyuan’s side and held the cup to his lips. Yue Qingyuan drank deeply, draining the entire cup. After refilling it, Shen Qingqiu set the cup by Yue Qingyuan and went to starting a fire. The hunter had left the house well-stocked with wood, at least, and there was some millet left in a jar.

“Are you sure it’s safe? They might see the smoke,” Yue Qingyuan said.

Shen Qingqiu hadn’t had to cook for himself since he was a child. He remembered it well enough, measuring out some millet and water for the cooking pot.

“If they’re searching that closely, they’ll find us from the air regardless,” Shen Qingqiu said, putting the rabbit on a skewer. “The bastard hasn’t fed me in days, and you need to restore your strength.”

“We should leave tomorrow,” Yue Qingyuan said. “They’ll be looking for somewhere like this.”

“And go where? No one would mistake us for cultivators minding our own business.”

“They might mistake us for people who were captured and escaped,” Yue Qingyuan replied.

“You think we’ll find someone that stupid?”

“It’s the best we have.”

There was no arguing with him. They couldn’t cultivate themselves some unstained clothing; they could barely cultivate at all. Shen Qingqiu had probably just delayed their inevitable ends and given Luo Binghe a way to toy with them.

Shen Qingqiu brooded on what they should do while the food cooked. By the time the food was done, he’d come up with nothing better than Yue Qingyuan’s lie. Shen Qingqiu piled Yue Qingyuan’s bowl with meat, hoping he’d replenish more of the blood that he’d lost. He forced himself to eat his own portion slowly so that he wouldn’t make himself sick. The millet was undercooked, but the rabbit tasted slightly better. It was such a relief to finally be able to eat his fill, though he hated the weakness that made him hungry at all.  

They were dead to Cang Qiong Mountain Sect; Yue Qingyuan had cut his ties with it himself, choosing Shen Qingqiu over the sect. It was what Shen Qingqiu had dearly wanted, yet it came at the cost of everything else. He’d lost his status as Peak Lord, Xiu Ya, and his face. Any one of those things should have left him choking on resentment.

“You should take the mat,” Shen Qingqiu said, clearing away the dishes. “I’ll sleep on the floor.”

“There’s enough room for both of us.”

Shen Qingqiu looked doubtfully at the mat, but he wasn’t going to argue. Yue Qingyuan stretched out on the mat, keeping close to the wall as he tried to leave Shen Qingqiu enough room. There’d been little to do in the water prison other than doze, so despite the exhausting escape, Shen Qingqiu wasn’t tired. He joined Yue Qingyuan on the mat anyway. 

A faint shiver passed over Yue Qingyuan, despite the warmth of the night. Judging by his breathing, he was asleep. Shen Qingqiu took off his outer robe and moved closer so he could throw it over them both. He was almost flush against Yue Qingyuan’s back and could feel the warmth of his body. This was nothing, Shen Qingqiu reminded himself. They had slept curled against each other as children, until Yue Qi decided that he was too old for it.   

Yue Qingyuan shuddered again. Being cold would impair his healing. Shen Qingqiu moved closer again, this time bringing their bodies together. Yue Qingyuan stirred, but didn’t wake. Unsure of where to put his arm, Shen Qingqiu left his hand at his side and focused on keeping very still—Yue Qingyuan had always been a light sleeper. Yue Qingyuan’s breathing deepened, and he stopped shivering.

As Shen Qingqiu allowed himself to close his eyes, he realized that he never wanted to leave the hut. The world was finally small enough, with only him and Yue Qingyuan in it.

Chapter Text


She wasn’t listening to him. Her focus was on the scalpel in her hands.


“Don’t distract me, A-Qi, and don’t struggle.”

Yue Qi bit his lip when the scalpel sliced into the flesh of his arm. He wished he could get used to the pain of Shizun searching for his spiritual veins, studying the misplaced flow of qi as she forcibly realigned the channels. At least he couldn’t feel the pain in his legs anymore, now that they’d gone numb.

“Please let this disciple go. I need to—he’s waiting for me, he’s trapped—”

“Concern yourself with your circulation.” Shizun tilted her head. “This master has to go further. You’ve destroyed yourself down to the bone.”

She wiped her hands off on a cloth before she grabbed hold of his arm and twisted.

Pain flared along his meridians, and for a few moments, Yue Qingyuan was back in the Ling Xi Caves, waiting for Shizun to break him. But the morning sun filtering through the cracks in the doorway wasn’t like the harsh light of his master’s lantern. The pain in his body was from Xuan Su, not her.

Yue Qingyuan’s back felt warm. He carefully turned over, disturbing the arm that Shen Qingqiu had wrapped around him. Frowning in his sleep, Shen Qingqiu tucked his arm tightly against his chest. The bandage around his left wrist was stained red. Yue Qingyuan could still remember the coppery taste in his throat, shocking him awake.

Shen Qingqiu had sacrificed himself for Yue Qingyuan’s sake. Nothing Shen Qingqiu had done over the past day made sense. Only the argument after Yue Qingyuan regained consciousness had fit his expectations. But even after storming out, Shen Qingqiu had returned to tend to him. It would have been less surprising if Shen Qingqiu had left Yue Qingyuan behind, deciding that he was better off without the burden of someone who’d disappointed him so much.

The marks of Shen Qingqiu’s imprisonment hadn’t faded—his cultivation was slow to recover. Shen Qingqiu was thinner now, bony rather than slender. The cut on his cheek was swollen, and the marks of Luo Binghe’s fingers were still dark against the pale skin of his throat. Perhaps there were more injuries Yue Qingyuan couldn’t see.  

Yue Qingyuan had allowed it all. Now that Shen Qingqiu was with him, safe and healing, Yue Qingyuan looked back at himself in horror. It had seemed so inevitable then, that Shen Qingqiu would die, and that Yue Qingyuan would find a way to follow him.

His eyes were drawn to Shen Qingqiu’s mouth. When Shen Qingqiu had kissed him, he hadn’t known what to do. It must have been some temporary madness brought on by being confined. The best thing to do would be to put it out of his mind, but Yue Qingyuan couldn’t. Why had Shen Qingqiu done it? What did he stand to gain by it?

Slowly rising to his feet, Yue Qingyuan braced himself against dizziness and the feeling of needles sliding along his meridians. He’d never pushed himself so far with Xuan Su before—whether he survived or not hadn’t been as important as getting Shen Qingqiu out. Yue Qingyuan busied himself with preparing more millet for breakfast. They had a long day of walking ahead of them.

The millet was done by the time Shen Qingqiu joined him by the fire. It was strange seeing his appearance so disordered, though he had the same grace.

“Are we leaving?” Shen Qingqiu asked.

“We have to.” Yue Qingyuan took up the poker and drew a map on the dirt floor. “We traveled west from Huan Hua Palace. That’s in the direction of Cang Qiong Mountain Sect. The advantage of having possible allies there is outweighed by being more recognizable.”

Shen Qingqiu sneered. “You think anyone from the sect would be willing to help us?”

Perhaps no one would be willing to help Shen Qingqiu. “You have a point. We could go south, which is Zhao Hua Temple’s sphere of influence. I don’t think Wu Wang and Wu Chen would actively assist with finding us. There’s a small city not too many li away. It’s large enough to get lost in.”

“Even looking the way we do?”

“I have money. We may be able to buy clean clothes off a farmer.”

“But do you still remember how to sound like a farmer?” Shen Qingqiu asked, his voice low.

It felt like Shen Qingqiu was asking another question entirely. Did Yue Qingyuan remember being a child? Was that it? “Yes.”

“Then I suppose you’ve thought of everything.” Shen Qingqiu helped himself to a bowl of millet, ending the conversation.

They traveled near the river, but away from the road. Yue Qingyuan was forced to ask for breaks. Xuan Su had left his body too weak, and he could either rest by choice, or collapse. This also spared Shen Qingqiu and his thin face from having to admit to his own temporary frailty. Every time they stopped, Shen Qingqiu couldn’t fully disguise his fatigue as he sat down.

Yue Qingyuan wiped the cold sweat off his forehead. His body was as sore as it was in the morning, and they’d walked until close to dusk. They would have to search for whatever shelter could be had soon. As he turned towards Shen Qingqiu, he was reminded of how warm he’d felt pressed against his back. Would Shen Qingqiu try to sleep so close again? They weren’t children anymore—it had long been inappropriate.

“Look,” Shen Qingqiu said, taking hold of Yue Qingyuan’s arm and pointing to the east. “There’s a house.”

Expecting another hut, Yue Qingyuan turned. What he saw in the distance was a manor, sprawling improbably in the middle of the forest. There was no path leading to it, no sign that anyone lived inside beyond the lit lanterns dangling from the eaves. As Yue Qingyuan stared, the mournful tones of a flute drifted through the air.

“Why didn’t we see it earlier?” Shen Qingqiu asked.

“We must have been distracted.”

Shen Qingqiu raised his eyebrows. “By what? Our nice walk?”

“I can protect us.”

“With Xuan Su?” Shen Qingqiu lifted his chin. “Don’t touch it. I don’t have enough blood left in my body to keep you going again.”

Yue Qingyuan was exhausted. Whatever was inside, he hoped it had a bed. “Would you rather continue walking?”

Looking back at the manor, Shen Qingqiu frowned. “…No. But we should be careful.”

“Of course.”

As they approached the manor, the flute grew louder. The tune was unfamiliar and set off Yue Qingyuan’s sense of alarm even more than the manor itself. It felt like the music was tugging at Yue Qingyuan’s feet, pulling him past the snarling lion statues and holding him at the threshold.

The flute fell silent when Yue Qingyuan knocked on the door. Next to him, Shen Qingqiu was pulling his hair even more out of order, affecting a wide-eyed stare, as if he’d just escaped the “bandits” who’d ambushed them. Yue Qingyuan held back a smile. He hadn’t seen Shen Qingqiu’s theatrical side in years.

A young man answered the door. Judging by the fine quality of his red scholar’s robes, he had to be the master of the house. Strange then, that such a high-ranking scholar would answer his own door. His looks were striking, though Yue Qingyuan rarely noticed such things. The scholar’s eyes swept over the two of them, lingering only a little on the blood staining Yue Qingyuan’s robe.

Shen Qingqiu and Yue Qingyuan both cupped their hands. “Sir, please don’t be alarmed at our appearance,” Shen Qingqiu began. “We were waylaid by bandits along the road and barely escaped with our lives. We’ve been wandering through the woods ever since.”

“How unfortunate for you,” the scholar replied. “But you’re very lucky to have come across me. Mine is the only home for several li.”

The scholar opened the door wider and gestured for them to come in. They entered the courtyard, which was dominated by a pond filled with large orange and silver carp. As the scholar came near the pond, the carp gathered at the edge, waiting for food.

“You’ve been held far longer than he has,” the scholar remarked to Shen Qingqiu.

“A sad observation, yes. I was kept for many days, until my companion rescued me as he fought his way out.” Shen Qingqiu kept his eyes off Yue Qingyuan as he said it.

Yue Qingyuan was forced to swallow his guilt. It wasn’t even the first time he’d left Shen Qingqiu in captivity.

“How kind of him,” said the scholar. “What are your names?”

Coming up with false names hadn’t occurred to either of them, but they couldn’t introduce themselves as they were.

“Yue Qi,” Yue Qingyuan said, returning to his old name on impulse.

“Shen Jiu.”

The scholar raised one eyebrow. “What happened to Eight?” With a shake of his head, he said, “That’s all right—I don’t need your real names. I’m often bored living out here, and you two have surely been given much to distrust over the past few days. My name is Hu Wen. You may have the use of the eastern wing. My servants will prepare a bath and set out some clothes for you, then I would be honored if you’d join me for dinner.”

Two servants appeared, as if just being mentioned was enough to summon them. They bowed.

“Please follow us.”

As they followed the servants to the eastern wing, Yue Qingyuan couldn’t help feeling the hairs on the back of his neck rising. There was something odd about the manor and Hu Wen. But they needed somewhere to recover, and Hu Wen’s welcome was generous. The real cost of it they would doubtlessly find out later. 

Yue Qingyuan was led away from Shen Qingqiu, into a room that looked like it had already been made ready for a guest.

“There are clothes in the wardrobe. Please, take whatever is needed,” said the servant, then left to fetch water for the bath.

The wardrobe was filled with clothes for a variety of sizes. They ranged from plain to extravagant. Why did Hu Wen have such a collection? Yue Qingyuan had expected hand-me-downs, not a tailor’s stockroom. He settled on a pair of black robes that suited his height—they were well-made, but not ornate enough to draw attention.

By the time there was enough water in the bath and the servant left, Yue Qingyuan had checked all the clothes for signs of a struggle, finding nothing. Yue Qingyuan lowered himself into the bath and sighed as the water lapped soothingly at his aching body. He shouldn’t have pushed himself so hard after Xuan Su had nearly killed him, but he’d had no other choice.

Shen Qingqiu must be just as close to his limits. He’d had his cultivation sealed for over a month, been starved and tortured. Yet he’d given his blood to keep Yue Qingyuan alive, when he would have been right to have left the man who’d abandoned him twice to die. Yue Qingyuan covered his eyes. 

“Let me look at you,” Shen Qingqiu had said. Then he’d kissed Yue Qingyuan, lightly. But Yue Qingyuan couldn’t move; his body felt carved from stone. Shen Qingqiu had closed his eyes afterward, as if he couldn’t bear to see him.

After he finished bathing, Yue Qingyuan dried himself off and dressed in his new robes. It was a relief to leave his bloody clothes behind. He decided to walk into the courtyard while he waited for Shen Qingqiu. Shen Qingqiu wouldn’t have finished before him, not with how fastidious he was.

Hu Wen was feeding the carp. Their mouths gaped and they jumped over each other in their eagerness. “Those robes suit you,” Hu Wen said.

“Thank you for your kindness.”

“It’s nothing. As you saw, I have more than enough.”

“Forgive me for prying, but why do you own so many things you cannot wear?”

“Some are gifts. Others are left behind. You’re not the only wanderers in this part of the forest. Although, I must confess that you interest me more than most.” Hu Wen stroked his chin, then smiled. “I’m rarely visited by cultivators. You are both cultivators, correct? Your companion doesn’t have a sword.” 

“It was lost. But yes, he is.”

“I’ve always found cultivation fascinating, particularly the more ascetic paths. What must it be like, to cultivate to immortality yet deny the flesh? Is it a sad existence?”

“I have not cultivated so highly,” Yue Qingyuan lied, “but there’s no loneliness in asceticism. We have strong bonds amongst our generation.”

“Mm. I’m sure you do. I apologize for making a judgment. I often find myself very alone, in this place. Perhaps if I had one of your generational bonds it would be easier. Is Shen Jiu of your sect?”

“He’s my shidi.”

“Then it must have hurt you deeply to see him imprisoned. Oh, I see I’ve misspoken again—you look very pale.”

Yue Qingyuan smiled reflexively. “It’s nothing.”

“It’s not.” Hu Wen turned back to the carp. “Your companion is here.”

Shen Qingqiu’s appearance was flawless. He was wearing his familiar green, his hair up in a high crown with a jeweled pin. The robes he’d chosen were elegant, with embroidery along the lapels. Shen Qingqiu looked like a Peak Lord again—he had returned to being unapproachable. Yue Qingyuan found that he missed seeing Shen Qingqiu wearing his robe and with his hair in disorder. That Shen Qingqiu had clung to Yue Qingyuan in the night; the Peak Lord, on the other hand, couldn’t stand him.

Yue Qingyuan was ashamed of himself for thinking in such a way. He should be glad to see Shen Qingqiu restored to himself.

They headed to the north wing, where the servants brought out enough food for double their number. There was abundant meat at the table, but hardly any vegetables. Each dish was beautifully prepared. Shen Qingqiu visibly struggled to eat slowly and politely, belying his immortal aura; Yue Qingyuan caught himself smiling more than once.

After the meal was over, the servants cleared away the dishes. Hu Wen sipped at his tea, glancing at Yue Qingyuan over the rim of the cup.

“Do you like strange tales?” Hu Wen asked. “Ah, you probably don’t. As cultivators, you encounter things that would make a mere scholar like myself swoon. My interest in demons and monsters must seem quaint.”

“On the contrary,” Shen Qingqiu said, “I’m fascinated by strange tales.”

“Good, good. Then have you ever heard the story of the cultivator and the fox spirit?”

Yue Qingyuan looked to Shen Qingqiu, who shook his head. “We have not.”

“It’s rather a long story, and I have no patience for the ending, so I will leave it unfinished. It begins with a cultivator named He Shican. One day, he encountered an old woman traveling with an enchanting young man. He Shican invited them in, paying special attention to the young man, Huang. When night fell, He Shican insisted that they stay.

“Though He Shican knew his cultivation would be impaired, he was too inflamed with lust to resist Huang. He Shican made his way to Huang’s bed, but was rebuffed. Shocked, He Shican asked why. Huang said only that He Shican wouldn’t understand how it was for his own good. After many entreaties, Huang agreed to sleep in only his pants, and He Shican draped himself over him, kissing him passionately. But Huang still refused He Shican.

“The next day, Huang asked He Shican if he would buy medicine for his mother. He Shican agreed. The journey to town took so long to go there and back that it was night by the time He Shican returned with the medicine. That time, Huang allowed He Shican’s affections, but pleaded with him that it could only be once.

“He Shican awoke in the morning feeling drained. Once again he went to town for medicine, and once again he made love to Huang. This continued for several days, until the doctor remarked that He Shican was near death, and should cease whatever was leaving him so depleted. But He Shican didn’t listen, going to Huang every night. He thought that any life without Huang wasn’t worth living.”

Hu Wen paused.

“And then he died?” Shen Qingqiu said.


“So, if that’s not the real end of the story, what is?”

“He Shican was reborn in another body and reunited with Huang, just for Huang to make arrangements for He Shican to wed his beautiful female cousin. As I said, the ending does not appeal to me.”

“You’d rather he stayed dead?” Shen Qingqiu asked.

Hu Wen smiled. “It’s tragic, is it not? Huang didn’t wish to kill He Shican, but he couldn’t fight his nature. When the story continues, it just becomes a commoner’s meditation on the joys of having children and the hypocrisy of cultivators. Which ending do you prefer, Immortal Shen?”

Shen Qingqiu seemed to be seriously considering the question. “I prefer the tragedy.”

“And you, Immortal Yue?”

It was polite to agree with the host. “The tragedy, as well.” 

“Well,” Hu Wen said. “I’m glad to find we share similar tastes.”

They made casual conversation after that. Hu Wen asked no personal questions, and they responded in kind. Instead, Shen Qingqiu engaged Hu Wen in a conversation about literature, deftly leading him from one great work to another. Though Yue Qingyuan stayed out of it, Hu Wen kept glancing at him, seemingly only half-listening to Shen Qingqiu.

Shen Qingqiu must be furious, but he kept it out of his face. Instead, he was the perfectly gracious guest. It eventually grew late enough that they were able to excuse themselves. Hu Wen wished them well, and told them that they could move as they liked through the house.

As they approached the east wing, Shen Qingqiu sighed, at last letting some of his exasperation show. He turned to Yue Qingyuan, opening his mouth as if to speak, then thinking better of it. But finally, he said, “You’re looking better.”

“Thank you.”

Despite the lanternlight, the courtyard was mostly dark. The carp were nothing more than pale shapes, the sound of their bodies breaking through the water drowned out by crickets chirping.

Shen Qingqiu stepped forward, standing close enough to Yue Qingyuan that he could smell the hibiscus soap he’d used in the bath.

“Why do you think he chose that story?” Shen Qingqiu asked.

“I don’t know.”

“His interest in death is… unsettling.” After checking for any listeners, he leaned in to whisper, “What was he talking about with you earlier?”

Yue Qingyuan tried to think of a time when Shen Qingqiu, dressed and collected as he was, had chosen to come so close to him. He’d felt Shen Qingqiu’s breath on his neck.

“Yue-shixiong?” Shen Qingqiu asked. “Did you hear me?” There was a familiar tinge of annoyance in his voice.

The conversation with Hu Wen had struck him as odd at the time; it was even odder to recount. “He wanted to know about asceticism.”

Shen Qingqiu curled his lip. “I’m sure he did. Be careful of him.”

“I will.”

A firefly landed on Shen Qingqiu’s shoulder, and Yue Qingyuan reached out to brush it off before he could catch himself. Shen Qingqiu breathed in, as if Yue Qingyuan had offended him.

“There was an insect,” Yue Qingyuan said.

Shen Qingqiu exhaled. “I see.” He turned away. “Goodnight, Yue Qi.”

Yue Qingyuan wished he’d chosen another name. “Goodnight, Shen Jiu.”

He lingered in the courtyard, watching the fireflies. Only when their light faded did he retreat to his room. 

Chapter Text

Something was snuffling at the door to Yue Qingyuan’s room. There was just enough moonlight for its shadow to spill across the floor, claws striking the wood as it paced back and forth. When it returned to sniffing under the crack in the door, Yue Qingyuan put his hand on Xuan Su. Hu Wen didn’t keep any dogs.

The creature on the other side of the door whined, then ran off. 

He awoke long past sunrise. Unsurprisingly, the extra sleep just made him feel groggy as he went to the wardrobe and dressed himself. The pain in his meridians had faded to numbness, and a tingling feeling in his fingers if he twisted his wrists a certain way. With another day or two of rest, he might be well. 

Yue Qingyuan opened the door, blinking against the morning sun. In the full light of day, the courtyard looked entirely different. Bees hummed as they passed between the blooming flower bushes, and a mynah hopped from branch to branch in a loquat tree. Its wings seemed clipped; a captive, then. The mynah eyed him as he passed.

“Anything to say?” Yue Qingyuan asked.

“Hello,” the mynah said.

“Good bird.”

“Pretty bird,” the mynah corrected.

The bird’s owner was nowhere in sight. Qin music rose from the south wing, with the same haunting quality as the flute from yesterday. Yue Qingyuan followed the music—it was a familiar piece, Dialogue between the Undertaker and the Widow. It didn’t suit the summer day. As he pushed the door open, he expected to see Hu Wen.

But the player was Shen Qingqiu. He didn’t look up as Yue Qingyuan entered the room, too lost in playing. Yue Qingyuan had never seen him absorbed so calmly before. Shen Qingqiu’s fingers delicately plucked at the strings, allowing each note the proper amount of time to fade before he played the next. His expression had a softness to it as he tilted his head, finally catching Yue Qingyuan out of the corner of his eye. He stopped playing at once, resting his hands on the strings to silence them.

Yue Qingyuan felt like an intruder. He’d never heard Shen Qingqiu play before.

“You can keep playing,” Yue Qingyuan said.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve had an audience.” Shen Qingqiu fidgeted with one of the strings, causing a discordant note. “Shizun used to have me play for his guests.”

Yue Qingyuan remembered Shen Qingqiu’s master well. He was an eccentric man, and a cold one. Every year that they spent as disciples, Yue Qingyuan saw how Shen Qingqiu took on more of his master’s mannerisms. 

“He also used to punish me whenever my playing displeased him.” Shen Qingqiu played the same harsh note as before. “But he wasn’t very clever about it.”

Yue Qingyuan remembered Luo Binghe’s swollen face, the pained way the child had walked. And Yue Qingyuan had allowed it, his guilt rising until it felt like something alive, crawling up his chest and covering his mouth. Luo Binghe had grown into what Shen Qingqiu and Yue Qingyuan deserved. Perhaps if Yue Qingyuan had gotten to the Qiu manor in time, he could’ve saved Luo Binghe, as much as Shen Jiu.

Shen Qingqiu looked up at Yue Qingyuan from under his lashes. The cut on his cheek was fading, and the bruises on his throat were gone. It was a relief to see him healing. Yue Qingyuan took a seat across from Shen Qingqiu.

“And you?” Shen Qingqiu asked. “Did your master ever punish you?”

“No.” She had never even raised her voice against him, always keeping the same soft, soothing tone.

“Because you were the perfect disciple.”

Shizun had broken his legs the first time he’d tried to escape the cave. After, he’d learned to lie there passively, though he hadn’t stopped begging. “I wasn’t.”

Shen Qingqiu looked down at the qin, his mouth hardening. “Is there anything you want me to play?”

A Crane Descends from Cang Qiong.

“That’s a very simple piece. Disciples start on it.”

“I’ve never heard it played by an expert.”

“If that’s what you want,” Shen Qingqiu replied, then plucked the first note. As the sound rose, Shen Qingqiu asked, “Do you miss Cang Qiong Mountain?”

Should he? He was with Shen Qingqiu, speaking on friendly terms, at least for now. Yue Qingyuan worried about how the peaks were faring without him, but not as much as he ought to.

“Of course,” Shen Qingqiu said, “shixiong must miss the sect more than he can say. How foolish of me to ask.”

There was a different quality to Shen Qingqiu’s playing now, a new harshness to every note. Cang Qiong Mountain Sect had turned its back on him; Yue Qingyuan had been mistaken in asking for the piece. Still, he had never listened to A Crane Descends from Cang Qiong played so well, and so without longing.

After the piece was finished, Yue Qingyuan excused himself to go outside the manor. He wanted to check for tracks left by the creature who’d been at his door, though he doubted he’d find any sign.

Instead of tracks, Yue Qingyuan found his host. Hu Wen was in the middle of painting the winding track of the river. He dragged the brush across the silk one final time before he turned to Yue Qingyuan.

“My apologies for interrupting you,” Yue Qingyuan said.

“I was nearly finished. The quality of the light is not so good after the early morning.”

“Sir Hu is an accomplished painter.”

“Painting is the only one of the Four Arts I have ever shown any talent in, so I will accept your compliment. Please never challenge me to weiqi—my defeats are so absolute that it is nearly as humiliating to win.” Hu Wen smiled, then began to pack his painting supplies. “Your shidi plays the qin like a true master.”

“He’s very gifted.”

“You favor him.”

Stiffening, Yue Qingyuan replied, “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Forgive me. Once again, I have proven myself ignorant of cultivation. You have a generational bond—I am trying to understand. Will you walk with me back to the house?”

Yue Qingyuan didn’t have much choice, unless he wanted to veer off in the opposite direction. So he nodded, falling into step beside Hu Wen.

“This bond,” Hu Wen said. “Is yours unusually strong?”

What did Hu Wen really want to know? “There is nothing unusual about it.”

“You look at him as if you’re searching for something. But I suppose that is expected of someone looking out for his shidi.”

“I do feel protective of him.” That was safe enough to admit, though Hu Wen had no way of knowing how badly Yue Qingyuan had failed.

“And that is enough for you?”

Shen Qingqiu still needed him; it truly was enough. 

“Are you so preoccupied with bonds because you live alone?” Yue Qingyuan asked.

“You have a point,” Hu Wen replied. “I am quite alone. But I’m fortunate to have had many guests here, though none have been as fascinating as you.”

The way Hu Wen said ‘fascinating’ made the hairs on the back of Yue Qingyuan’s neck stand up. “I find that hard to believe.”

“You don’t think you’re interesting? But your cultivation…” Hu Wen smiled, modestly looking at the ground. “Even I can tell it’s truly remarkable.”

“You think too highly of me.”

Hu Wen’s questions about Shen Qingqiu had left him unsettled. What was between him and Shen Qingqiu was private, something to be guarded.

One of the servants opened the door to the manor for them. For a moment, as they passed under the darkness of the gate, he thought he saw Hu Wen’s eyes turn golden. But when they reentered the light, they were only an ordinary brown.

Yue Qingyuan had seen golden eyes once before, when he was still a disciple.

Shuanghu City had always had a close relationship with Cang Qiong Mountain, so when attractive young people started going missing, the sect was called in to investigate. Demons were suspected—the victims had been found half-eaten. Because of the danger, Yue Qingyuan and Qi Qingqi were selected to go down the mountain. As they descended towards the city on their swords, Yue Qingyuan couldn’t help but remember the last time he’d left the mountain: to retrieve Shen Qingqiu from the Warm Red Pavilion.

They landed in front of the city gates and were waved inside without a word. Just inside the gates were the usual array of vendors, some of whom specialized in catering to visiting cultivators. Qi Qingqi bought a mantou and ate as they walked.

“The food at Xian Shu Peak is terrible,” Qi Qingqi said. “I get away from it whenever I can.”

“Let’s find you something more substantial, then.”

Yue Qingyuan had heard the same about the food at Qiong Ding Peak, though he’d found it far better than what he’d grown up eating. It had taken him months to get used to eating as much as he wanted, without having to hide food for later, hungrier days. He hadn’t saved food for himself, but Shen Jiu was always starving, and he was already such a skinny little thing. Shizun hadn’t scolded him when she found out that he was hiding food. She had just considered him for a while, then reminded him that he could always take as much food as he needed from the kitchens.

Qi Qingqi ducked into an inn that had a steady stream of people going in and out, selecting a table near the door. The server looked unusually harried, and had difficulty balancing dishes. He was also a little on the older side for a server—he was approaching middle-age. After rushing back and forth between the other customers, the server finally arrived at their table with some tea.

“My apologies for the wait, Immortal Masters,” he said. “I’m filling in for one of my servers today. He was eaten.”

“By the demon?” Yue Qingyuan asked.

“Or possibly something else,” Qi Qingqi added.

The owner nodded. “Nice boy. He was good at his job, unlike me. I think I’ve dropped four bowls today already.”

Up close, the owner looked vaguely ill. He was pale, and there was sweat on his brow. Perhaps that was just the stress of waiting tables, but it shouldn’t have made his eyes so bloodshot.

“How was he found?” Yue Qingyuan said.

“His mother discovered the body. He was mostly intact, except his tongue, eyes, and parts of the… well, the best cuts of meat on a pig were missing.”

“Did the missing parts look like they were cut away, or bitten?”

“Bitten,” the owner replied.

So, probably not a demon. They were pickier about how they ate their food—at least the mature ones.

“Was he handsome?” Qi Qingqi asked, likely suspecting the same thing as Yue Qingyuan.

Furrowing his brows, the owner said, “Handsome? I suppose. I’m sorry, I really must go wait on others until my other server can get here, but I’ll bring you the best from the kitchen, free of charge. Do you need somewhere to stay? I have two excellent rooms available.”

“That would be very kind of you,” Yue Qingyuan said.

“It’s an honor to host cultivators. My name is Zhang Min—please call for me if you need anything.”

Zhang Min bustled off to the kitchen. After sipping at her tea, Qi Qingqi said, “Fox spirit.”

“It explains the youth of everyone who went missing. The fox spirit could be seducing them before eating them.”

“Playing with its food.” Qi Qingqi leaned in to whisper, “Zhang Min isn’t bad looking, even if he’s a little old for a fox spirit’s taste. Should we see if he has a lover? Someone who’s taking her time?”

“I agree.” If their hunch was correct, they’d been fortunate indeed to have chosen this inn.

Qi Qingqi took another sip of tea, raising her eyebrow. “I heard you went to the Warm Red Pavilion.”

Yue Qingyuan held Qi Qingqi’s gaze. “Who told you that?” 

“A disciple of Bai Zhan Peak. Of course, I said to her that Yue Qingyuan would never go to a brothel. But then she told me that you came to retrieve Shen Qingqiu, and my surprise faded.”

“You shouldn’t listen to gossip.”

“Why are you always covering for Shen Qingqiu?”

“Do you expect me to tell you?” Yue Qingyuan asked.

Qi Qingqi frowned. “I expected shixiong to deny it.”

Yue Qingyuan adjusted his sleeves, then took a drink of tea. “There’s no point. You’ve already made up your mind.”

“Tying yourself to him—it’ll only bring you down. You have a good reputation in the sect, you’re well-respected… Shen Qingqiu is Shen Qingqiu. What hold does he have over you? Did you know each other before becoming disciples?”

She was too close. Was it obvious to everyone, or just Qi Qingqi? “Shimei, there is nothing between me and Shen Qingqiu that concerns you.”

“Shen Qingqiu concerns me. Going to brothels? At his rank?”

“We’re not a celibate sect,” Yue Qingyuan replied, echoing Shen Qingqiu’s earlier words.

“Then he should fulfill his urges with one of his fellow disciples, rather than a—” Qi Qingqi cut herself off. 

Fulfilling an urge. The thought of Shen Qingqiu rutting with a prostitute felt poisonous. Yue Qingyuan remembered very well how Shen Qingqiu had looked in the Warm Red Pavilion, his hair loose around his shoulders, his skin flushed. From… He looked down to see that his hand was still lightly wrapped around his teacup, somehow not clenching.

Taking another sip of tea, Yue Qingyuan said, “Don’t trouble yourself with Shen Qingqiu’s reputation. It’s his to ruin.” 

Qi Qingqi sighed. “Very well, I won’t press further.”

Yue Qingyuan smiled. “So, tell me what’s happened at Xian Shu Peak since the last time we traveled together.”

That night, Yue Qingyuan and Qi Qingqi settled themselves on the inn’s roof, using a weak concealment charm to blend into the shadows. Waiting was boring work—Yue Qingyuan had to nudge Qi Qingqi awake twice. But their patience was rewarded when they saw a fox running across a shaft of moonlight in the courtyard. When it flicked its tail from side to side, there was an afterimage, as if it had more than one. 

Halfway across the courtyard, the fox went up on two legs, then stretched. Its body elongated until it was the height of a human, its face flattening and losing its hair as Yue Qingyuan’s heightened senses picked up the sound of bones breaking. A row of sharp teeth was replaced by blunt molars, and the not-yet-human yawned, licking its lips. The rest of the body followed, shifting and trembling, until a naked woman was standing in the courtyard. Yue Qingyuan was about to look away when she made a seal with her hands and robes appeared on her body. After briefly considering the roof with a golden-eyed stare, she shook her head and walked into the house.

“I knew it,” Qi Qingqi whispered. “The innkeeper’s her lover. He can help us kill her.”

“You think he’d turn on her?”

“She ate his server. If he knew her nature, of course he would.”

“What does her nature matter, if he loves her?”

“She’s a maneater, and she’s killing him too, just more slowly.” Tilting her head, Qi Qingqi said, “I never thought shixiong was the type to be so romantic.” 

Romantic? Had Qi Qingqi never cared for anyone? “I merely think that he may not help us so easily as you assume.”

“It’s a strange thing, to assume a man would side against his own kind for the sake of a monster.” Qi Qingqi reached up to tap her hairpin, furrowing her brows as she thought. “We have to warn him regardless. We’ll see.”

They waited for the fox spirit to cross the courtyard again, transforming back into an animal as it ran off into the night. Qi Qingqi lightly jumped to the ground and Yue Qingyuan followed her. Zhang Min was leaning against a column, sipping wine. He seemed at peace, though he was even paler than before. At the sight of two cultivators, he straightened.

“Immortal Masters,” he said, bowing. “How may I help you?”

“Can we speak to you inside?” Yue Qingyuan took Zhang Min by the arm as he led him into his own house.

“What’s wrong?”

Qi Qingqi said, “Your lover is a fox spirit. She’s the one eating young people, including your server.”

“She’s inhuman? But, but—” Zhang Min looked from Qi Qingqi to Yue Qingyuan, as if Yue Qingyuan could help him. “She’s gentle! She’d never hurt anyone.”

“Do you really know her so well?” Yue Qingyuan asked. “You thought she was human only moments ago.”

“She wouldn’t kill!”

“Wouldn’t she?” Qi Qingqi said. “How do you feel after she visits you? Rejuvenated by a beautiful woman? Or drained?”

Zhang Min flinched. “My illness is unrelated.”

“We saw her transform,” Yue Qingyuan said. “There is no denying what she is.”

Zhang Min kept trying to disbelieve them. It felt like they would never get through to him—like Yue Qingyuan had expected—until tears gathered in his eyes and he asked, “Then what do you want me to do?”

“Help us,” Qi Qingqi pleaded. “We can stop her from killing again.”

“By killing her instead?”

“I’m sorry,” Yue Qingyuan said.

Hanging his head, Zhang Min listened to Qi Qingqi explain what they needed from him, how he would lure the fox spirit in for Qi Qingqi to deal the fatal strike. Zhang Min kept looking towards Yue Qingyuan, as if he knew something.  

But it was just like Shen Jiu had told him, when they first reunited: Yue Qingyuan only knew how to apologize.

Yue Qingyuan had had to hold Zhang Min back as Qi Qingqi decapitated the fox spirit. The fox spirit had called out for him, reaching out with her last gesture. Her body had transformed back into a fox after she died, and Zhang Min had taken the headless animal into his arms, sobbing. Yue Qingyuan hadn’t known then whether he pitied Zhang Min more for losing his beloved, or for betraying her.

Qi Qingqi hadn’t understood why Yue Qingyuan had been so silent after that. As far as she was concerned, they’d only killed a monster and saved a man’s life. But when the news traveled back to the peaks that the innkeeper had wasted away, Yue Qingyuan had been unsurprised.

In the present, Yue Qingyuan returned to the courtyard. Shen Qingqiu was standing in the shade, his eyes downcast as he watched the carp—unaware that he was being watched himself. Yue Qingyuan allowed his gaze to linger. Stillness suited Shen Qingqiu, making the curve of his mouth look carved from jade. Unguarded, he had the face of a gentler person.

Yue Qingyuan ought to look away. He was already too aware of his need for Shen Qingqiu, his desire to lose himself to whatever Shen Qingqiu wanted of him. Even if Shen Qingqiu asked him for his arm, he would take Xuan Su and chop it off.

Hu Wen cleared his throat, his lips turned up in the start of a smile. “Should I have my cook prepare breakfast for you?” he asked. “You must be hungry.”

“That would be very kind.”

Chapter Text

At the sound of voices by the gate, Shen Qingqiu turned his head. Hu Wen nodded to him, then crossed the courtyard to the northern wing. Shen Qingqiu’s gaze followed Hu Wen, shifting back to Yue Qingyuan only when Hu Wen was gone. Should Yue Qingyuan tell Shen Qingqiu about Hu Wen? But he didn’t want to risk Shen Qingqiu taking action, not when he lacked a weapon.

Yue Qingyuan would take care of Hu Wen. 

“What were you two talking about?” Shen Qingqiu asked.

“His painting.”

“I’ve never known you to be interested in art.”

The mynah Yue Qingyuan had seen in the morning let out a squawk, flapping its wings as it hopped to the end of the branch, tilted its head as it seemed to listen to them.

“Hello,” chirped the mynah.

After glaring at the mynah, Shen Qingqiu said, “How long do you intend to stay here?” 

“Until I’m recovered.”

“Our host is certainly gracious enough to allow it. You could take all the time you need to recover from saving me.” Shen Qingqiu looked down at the carp. “We should part ways.”

“What?” Yue Qingyuan barely held himself back from saying more, not when they could be overheard. Shen Qingqiu had chosen his moment well.

“I am a burden on you.”

“You’re not—”

Shen Qingqiu turned towards him. “I’m not? You nearly killed yourself for me. You tried to abandon everything for me, but you could still go back. It’s not too late for you.”

Yue Qingyuan had attacked over a dozen Huan Hua Palace disciples. He’d gone back on his word and abused his position before the entire cultivation world. “But it is.”

“Then at least do yourself the courtesy of leaving me behind. You did it before,” Shen Qingqiu said, fisting his hands at his sides. “Do it for your own sake instead of mine, this time.”

What had possessed Shen Qingqiu? What had Yue Qingyuan done wrong since they last parted?

“Where do you want me to go?” Yue Qingyuan asked.

“Elsewhere—away from me. You can give me some money if that’ll make you feel less guilty.”

“I don’t want to leave you.”

Sneering, Shen Qingqiu asked, “Why not?”

Because he couldn’t. Not again, not when Shen Qingqiu needed him. How would he protect himself, traveling alone?  

“What if I asked?” Shen Qingqiu said. “Just like I asked you to save me? Would you do it, Yue Qi?”

Yue Qingyuan didn’t know if he could make himself leave. Shen Qingqiu was testing him—but what he wanted, Yue Qingyuan had no idea. As he’d expected, their time before coming to the manor had been an aberration, a break in Shen Qingqiu’s behavior brought on by being imprisoned. How ashamed and angry must Shen Qingqiu be now, that he’d kissed Yue Qingyuan?

The mynah squawked again, drawing Yue Qingyuan’s attention to the servant who had walked behind them during the argument.

Sheepishly, the servant bowed and said, “Breakfast is prepared.”

“I’m not hungry,” Shen Qingqiu said, turning around with a flick of his sleeves. “Don’t let me keep you.”  

“Pretty bird,” the mynah said to Shen Qingqiu’s retreating back.

By storming off, Shen Qingqiu had spared Yue Qingyuan from having to answer. Whatever he might have said, it wouldn’t have been what Shen Qingqiu wanted to hear. Yue Qingyuan watched Shen Qingqiu return to his room and shut the door, then followed the servant to the north wing.

“Where’s Shen Jiu?” Hu Wen asked as Yue Qingyuan joined him at the table.


“What a shame. I wonder if there’s anything we can do to cajole him into playing again.”

“That’s unlikely.”

“Oh well, we shall entertain ourselves,” Hu Wen said with a smile. 

Now that Yue Qingyuan had seen, Hu Wen’s nature as a fox spirit was clear. Every movement was so careful that it was like the fox was manipulating a human doll. Yue Qingyuan would wait until he’d gained back more of his strength before he acted. Hu Wen had probably cultivated for a long time, longer than Yue Qingyuan had been alive. The important thing was to keep Hu Wen away from Shen Qingqiu.

After breakfast, Hu Wen made good on his promise to lose at weiqi. Even distracted by his earlier conversation with Shen Qingqiu, Yue Qingyuan beat Hu Wen handily, all the way to the afternoon. Would Shen Qingqiu ask Yue Qingyuan to leave again?

“You’re barely here,” Hu Wen observed, “and yet you’re still winning.”

“My apologies.”

“None needed. I imagine it must be boring for a skilled player like yourself to face someone like me.”

“You’re improving,” Yue Qingyuan lied.

Hu Wen chuckled and pushed a black stone forward. “You flatterer.”

Yue Qingyuan closed off the last liberty of one of Hu Wen’s chains, capturing it. “This game has lasted longer than the others.”

“Yet I’m about to lose, nonetheless.” Hu Wen made another move, going for the stone Yue Qingyuan had left as a distraction. “I must confess that I overheard your last conversation with your shidi. Your relationship seems… complicated.”

“That’s enough said about it.”

“I am prying, aren’t I? But you seem unhappy, and as your host, your happiness is my concern.” Hu Wen tucked his hands into his sleeves. “I am a bachelor, with no plans to marry, so what I’m about to say may be quite unwelcome, and is certainly unqualified by experience.

“If you are asked to let go, there’s nothing to gain by holding on. There are many thousands of people in the world, and while only a few are remarkable, like minds may always be found.”

Shen Qingqiu hadn’t asked Yue Qingyuan to let go. He’d only asked if Yue Qingyuan would, and Yue Qingyuan had already refused once, when he came back to the water prison after Shen Qingqiu ordered him to leave.

“Then where is your like mind, Sir Hu?”

“Ah, you always know how to direct a question back outwards. It’s an excellent skill in a leader. I think that my like mind is very close. I’ve certainly waited long enough; a little longer is nothing.”

The conversation did not wander back to Shen Qingqiu again.

Yue Qingyuan kept Hu Wen occupied until dinner, when Shen Qingqiu reappeared to eat with them. He tried to keep his relief out of his face—he didn’t want Hu Wen to know anything more about him and Shen Qingqiu. But it was hard not to stare, to look for any hints towards Shen Qingqiu’s mood. Shen Qingqiu’s eyes raked over Yue Qingyuan, his gaze softening when he turned to Hu Wen.

“I’m pleased to see that Immortal Master Shen is feeling better after this morning,” Hu Wen said.

“I would feel guilty for being such a poor guest, but I’m sure Yue Qi was good company.” Shen Qingqiu smiled, delicately lifting his cup to his lips.

“He’s ferocious at weiqi.”

“Oh? I’ve never played him.”

“That surprises me,” Hu Wen replied, “coming from such close friends.”

“Childhood friends,” Shen Qingqiu said, as if ‘childhood’ and ‘close’ excluded each other.

“How charming.”

As they ate, Shen Qingqiu ignored Yue Qingyuan and asked Hu Wen questions about art. Yue Qingyuan had kept mostly out of the conversation last dinner as well, but the air was more tense today. To Yue Qingyuan’s eyes, Shen Qingqiu was clearly concealing his temper. After taking care of Hu Wen, they would be alone again—leaving Yue Qingyuan to handle the explosion.

After the servants arrived to take the plates away, they moved to the courtyard to enjoy the garden while they spoke.

“I have a strange tale of my own to share,” Yue Qingyuan said, “if you’d like to hear it.”

Shen Qingqiu looked at him questioningly as Hu Wen replied, “Please.”

“It happened when I was still a young man, and was largely inexperienced with the world.”

Yue Qingyuan told the story of Zhang Min and his lover, without embellishment. Storytelling wasn’t one of his strengths. Hu Wen listened without ever giving himself away, though he was paying careful attention, his eyes never leaving Yue Qingyuan’s face. When Yue Qingyuan reached the beheading and Zhang Min’s early death, Hu Wen smiled.

“What a beautifully tragic account,” Hu Wen declared. “It’s well-crafted enough to be fiction, but delightful in its truth. I confess that I did not expect a cultivator like Yue Qi to be such a romantic.”

“That was what my companion called me, and I’m still uncertain as to why.”

“It’s the way you tell the story,” Shen Qingqiu said quietly. “Your sympathies are for Zhang Min, not the people the fox spirit killed.”

“I knew him,” Yue Qingyuan replied.

“What would you have done, if you were Zhang Min?” Hu Wen asked. “Would you have helped the cultivators?”

The story was meant to be a warning to Hu Wen—that he hadn’t taken it as one was concerning. Yue Qingyuan had to stop himself from putting his hand on Xuan Su.

“That is a question I cannot answer,” Yue Qingyuan said, “as someone with no experience of romance.”

“What a pity,” Hu Wen replied.

The sound of Shen Qingqiu’s cup being set on the table startled them both. “I’m very tired,” Shen Qingqiu announced, rising to his feet. “I apologize, but I must leave you both for the night. Thank you for the story, shixiong, and for your continued hospitality, Sir Hu.”

As Shen Qingqiu passed the loquat tree, the mynah shuffled forward on one of its branches and squawked at him. “Play?” the mynah asked him, in its childlike bird’s voice.

Hu Wen sat next to Yue Qingyuan. Yue Qingyuan was uncomfortable with the closeness.

“Are you afraid of me?” Hu Wen asked, his tone playful. “I know you’ve discovered me. So why did you tell that story, hmm? As a challenge?”

This time, Yue Qingyuan allowed himself to rest his hand on Xuan Su. “I don’t want to fight you.”

“Because I’ve been such a gracious host, or do you think I might win?” Hu Wen looked pointedly at Xuan Su.

“You have done nothing to offend me.”

“Ah yes, other than eating dozens of humans, some of them cultivators. None of them were a match for you.” Hu Wen ran one finger down Yue Qingyuan’s arm, making him stiffen. “We don’t have to drain our lovers. The fox spirit with the innkeeper—she was clumsy, young, didn’t know what she was doing. But I?” Hu Wen smiled. “I could bring you to an ecstasy unmatched by cultivation.”

Yue Qingyuan was too shocked to do anything. How did one politely decline what Hu Wen was offering?

“You’re not a monk,” Hu Wen continued. “You want him, your shidi, but he doesn’t want you. It’s painful to look at.”

Hu Wen was wrong. Yue Qingyuan didn’t want Shen Qingqiu in the base way that was being implied. It would tarnish what they’d had before, for Yue Qingyuan to want. He remembered how Shen Qingqiu’s lips had felt on his, and how still he’d held himself, afraid to disturb whatever Shen Qingqiu was feeling. To startle him, when he was being so fragile.

“You’re mistaken. There is nothing of that nature between us.”

“Then why not try me?” Hu Wen asked. “I could be so good to you, you know…”

Something changed about Hu Wen’s face, making Yue Qingyuan’s vision briefly blur. When it cleared again, Hu Wen looked strangely different, his eyes darker, somehow more like Shen Qingqiu’s. Hu Wen tilted his head, leaning closer, as if he were about to kiss Yue Qingyuan.

A door slammed across the courtyard. Yue Qingyuan turned, staring at Shen Qingqiu’s closed door.

“I’m sorry,” Yue Qingyuan muttered, rising to his feet. “Sir Hu is generous, as always. I have to go.”

What did Shen Qingqiu think he’d seen? Yue Qingyuan would have to set it right immediately. After crossing the courtyard, he had just enough presence of mind to knock on the door before he threw it open.

Shen Qingqiu was facing him, as if he’d expected Yue Qingyuan to come running. He smiled coldly, looking down his chin. Knowing what was to follow, Yue Qingyuan closed the door behind him.

“How dare you,” Shen Qingqiu said. “Allowing whatever kind of monster that thing is to speak to you that way. Would you have let him kiss you? Was that what you wanted?”


“No? Then why? Why let him get so far? He’s been panting after you since we came here! Have you no thought for your cultivation? For your own personal safety? Or is this all a game to you, where you let someone get close and then you shut them out!” 

“That’s not—”

“Don’t lie to me! Stop treating me like a child and look at me! Look at who I am. I’m disgusting—the cultivation world reviles me. You only saved me out of pity. Pity’s the best I can expect from you, isn’t it?” Shen Qingqiu stepped forward, crowding Yue Qingyuan against the door. “You want to act as if nothing’s changed since we were boys. Yet I’ve changed, even if you haven’t. I want things from you. I know you don’t feel the same way—I’m not a fool. You rejected me quite kindly in the water prison. But if a monster will do, why not me?” Shen Qingqiu asked, voice breaking.

Rejected him? Yue Qingyuan hadn’t done anything.

I want things from you. 

Shen Qingqiu was so angry he was flushed with it, two spots of color high on his cheeks. There wasn’t any placating him; Yue Qingyuan just had to wait for the mood to pass.

“I already allowed you to kiss me,” Yue Qingyuan said.

With a laugh, Shen Qingqiu replied, “Of course, you allowed it. Would you allow me to do it again?”


Shen Qingqiu tentatively ran his hands over Yue Qingyuan’s collar before his grip tightened. A thin line of worry appeared between Shen Qingqiu’s brows as he wouldn’t quite meet Yue Qingyuan’s eyes, reminding him of how Shen Qingqiu hadn’t looked at him after the kiss in the water prison. Yue Qingyuan wanted to comfort him, but didn’t dare get it wrong. Closing his eyes, Shen Qingqiu pulled him into a kiss.

Yue Qingyuan’s blood was roaring in his ears. He felt deafened, as if every sense but touch was shutting down while Shen Qingqiu kissed him. As Shen Qingqiu lifted his hands to Yue Qingyuan’s neck, Yue Qingyuan had no doubt that Shen Qingqiu felt how wild his pulse was.

But Shen Qingqiu stopped. Rubbing his cheek against Yue Qingyuan’s, he said, “Kiss me back, or push me away.”

Shen Qingqiu kissed him again. Yue Qingyuan fought the urge to freeze; instead, he pressed their lips together. A shudder passed over Shen Qingqiu, and Yue Qingyuan reached out to steady him by the waist. Pushing Yue Qingyuan against the door, Shen Qingqiu tangled his hands in Yue Qingyuan’s hair, lining up their bodies against each other. Shen Qingqiu felt like a long line of heat that Yue Qingyuan couldn’t help but respond to. This was—this was a mistake, he and Shen Qingqiu weren’t like this—

“Come to bed with me,” Shen Qingqiu asked, his hands moving to Yue Qingyuan’s belt. “Don’t leave.”

When Shen Qingqiu tugged him towards the bed, still kissing his lips, Yue Qingyuan followed. Shen Qingqiu made a needy noise in the back of his throat when his legs hit the bed. He reached up to quickly take his hair out of its crown, and did the same to Yue Qingyuan. Breaking the kiss for just a moment, he pulled Yue Qingyuan down next to him, until they were lying face to face. It was so dark in the room that Yue Qingyuan had to strain to read the raw need in Shen Qingqiu’s expression before he pressed his lips against Yue Qingyuan’s again.

For the first time, Yue Qingyuan realized that there could’ve been no stopping this. What was happening now was as inevitable as anything else Shen Qingqiu did.

Shen Qingqiu was slowly running his hand up and down Yue Qingyuan’s arm. His touch was light, his fingers lingering in the creases of the sleeve. There was something timid about the way Shen Qingqiu dipped his hand down to clutch at Yue Qingyuan’s waist, grasping at the fabric of Yue Qingyuan’s robe before touching his hip. Shen Qingqiu’s breath was coming faster as he moved on to the ties of Yue Qingyuan’s robes at the same time he pushed his tongue past Yue Qingyuan’s lips. If Shen Qingqiu wanted more, he could have it. He fumbled with the ties, his hands unsteady, so Yue Qingyuan reached down to help him. Shen Qingqiu tangled their fingers together, squeezing his hand before he opened Yue Qingyuan’s robes.

Splaying his fingers out over Yue Qingyuan’s stomach, Shen Qingqiu slowly dragged his hand up to explore the muscles of Yue Qingyuan’s chest, making Yue Qingyuan squirm when his fingers brushed against a nipple. Yue Qingyuan was painfully hard. Shen Qingqiu felt it when he tentatively passed his hand over Yue Qingyuan’s groin, inhaling sharply as he followed the outline of his cock, touching him so gently that he barely felt it. Biting down on Yue Qingyuan’s lip, Shen Qingqiu untied his pants and pushed past his waistband to outline the curve of Yue Qingyuan’s backside.    

Yue Qingyuan knew what Shen Qingqiu was planning to do, but he kept touching Yue Qingyuan everywhere but there. Instead, he rubbed his knuckles against Yue Qingyuan’s thigh, let the pads of his fingers drag against the line of his pelvis. There was sometimes the briefest contact, like a brush of Shen Qingqiu’s wrist against the sensitive skin of his cock.


At last, Shen Qingqiu broke the kiss and wrapped his fingers around Yue Qingyuan’s cock. After waiting so long, it felt overwhelming when Shen Qingqiu started to stroke him, and Yue Qingyuan bucked into Shen Qingqiu’s hand. Shen Qingqiu made a noise that sounded almost pained. His eyes were on Yue Qingyuan’s arousal, brows knit in concentration as he sped up, his grip tightening into something like when Yue Qingyuan would guiltily touch himself, not even daring to fantasize. Would Yue Qingyuan have thought of this, had he known that it was what Shen Qingqiu wanted?

“I’m close,” Yue Qingyuan said, the pleasure mounting. No one had ever touched him like this before—he couldn’t hold back. “I’m sorry,” he added, not knowing why.

“You can come,” Shen Qingqiu replied, pressing a kiss to Yue Qingyuan’s mouth as he moved his other hand to cover the head of his cock. “I won’t let you make a mess.”

Yue Qingyuan anchored himself by holding on to Shen Qingqiu’s collar as he thrust into his hands and shut his eyes. Shen Qingqiu was panting, making enough noise for both of them as Yue Qingyuan came without making a sound. His mind still in a fog, Yue Qingyuan found himself kissing Shen Qingqiu’s forehead and running his fingers through his hair, feeling strangely grateful as a shiver passed through him.

After wiping his dirty hand off on the quilt, Shen Qingqiu pressed up to Yue Qingyuan, burying his head against Yue Qingyuan’s neck as he thrust against his hip. The sound of Shen Qingqiu’s hand on his own cock seemed far too loud in the quiet room. Shen Qingqiu bit down on Yue Qingyuan’s shoulder, muffling a cry as his body stiffened. Finished, Shen Qingqiu stayed where he was, his tall body slotted against Yue Qingyuan’s.

“Do you want to leave now?” Shen Qingqiu asked.


Shen Qingqiu chuckled, his breath tickling Yue Qingyuan’s neck. “Sect Leader is so dutiful,” Shen Qingqiu said, starting to put Yue Qingyuan’s robes back in order. “Still taking care of his shidi, even after what I’ve done.”

Yue Qingyuan had no words to reassure Shen Qingqiu. What was he supposed to say—that he understood what Shen Qingqiu wanted? When had it started? Was Shen Qingqiu’s desire old, or had something about the water prison changed him? How long had it laced their every interaction?

How much would change? Yue Qingyuan shouldn’t mourn what they’d had since their reunion, the decades of being at odds. Yet it was something familiar. Shen Qingqiu was agreeable now, his arm wrapped around Yue Qingyuan’s waist, but for how long?

They were still in Hu Wen’s manor. An outright attack was unlikely, not when he had spent days on seduction, but Yue Qingyuan couldn’t chance falling asleep. Fox spirits were capricious and greedy creatures.     

Yue Qingyuan put his hand on the back of Shen Qingqiu’s head, keeping him close.

Chapter Text

It was the day of the Annual Spars, and Shen Qingqiu was spending his morning cleaning the bamboo house.

Sweeping the doorway should have been left to lesser disciples. Shen Qingqiu hated doing it—Yue Qingyuan certainly never had to dirty his hands with manual labor. Now, the An Ding runt Shang Qinghua… he probably had to do it. Chores were a humiliating start to a humiliating day. How long would it take Liu Qingge to beat him this time? Or Qi Qingqi? And while Shen Qingqiu watched his more gifted fellow head disciples (and Shang Qinghua) fight, Yue Qingyuan would be inquiring after Shen Qingqiu’s health.

Something shattered inside the house. Shen Qingqiu froze, trying to guess what could have angered Shizun so suddenly. He considered pretending not to hear it and going on an errand, until he heard retching. Shizun was having one of his headaches. Shen Qingqiu opened the door and saw Shizun collapsed on his hands and knees, broken porcelain surrounding him, his hair nearly falling forward into his own vomit. This was why Shizun never let other disciples attend him—Shen Qingqiu had to keep his secret.

“Help me,” Shizun said.

Shen Qingqiu took Shizun by the hand and put his other arm around Shizun’s waist, supporting most of his weight. Normally, Shizun wasn’t quite this helpless, but he leaned heavily against Shen Qingqiu as he walked. After gently lowering Shizun into bed, Shen Qingqiu swiped his hand over Shizun’s forehead, feeling it come away clammy with sweat.

“We can’t go,” Shizun mumbled. “You must say that you’re too ill.”

The others would think that Shen Qingqiu’s cultivation was even weaker than they’d thought, or worse, that Shen Qingqiu was feigning illness to avoid being beaten. Cold fury descended on Shen Qingqiu at being used as a shield against indignity. Shizun’s face was drawn with pain and his skin was going pale as death, but Shen Qingqiu felt no sympathy. He wanted to rip the paper off the windows and let in the harsh morning light.

“Yes, Shizun.” Shen Qingqiu turned away. “This disciple will clean up.”

Shen Qingqiu picked up the porcelain, noticing a spot of blood on one of the shards. Looking back, Shizun was cradling his hand. He could wait for Shen Qingqiu to finish tending to his filth first. After fetching a rag, Shen Qingqiu cleaned the rest of the mess off the floor. He opened the door and left the rag outside—he’d make an outer disciple carry it to the rubbish heap later. The inevitable peak gossip would have Shen Qingqiu throwing up before the Annual Spars.

It was the sort of thing Yue Qingyuan would ask about. “Shidi, are you often unwell? You must be more gentle with yourself.” Shen Qingqiu could hear him so perfectly in his absence. It made no difference that he wouldn’t get to stand next to Yue Qingyuan this year, listening to his low voice. Shen Qingqiu wouldn’t have to go to the trouble of acknowledging that he’d heard, not daring to be rude while the other disciples stared at the future Sect Leader flouting the rules.

Just to talk to Shen Qingqiu. But Yue Qingyuan would have to save his questions for next year, because it was Shen Qingqiu’s duty to play nursemaid to the pathetic man inside the bamboo house. He went back inside, his hand shaking as he forced himself to quietly shut the door.

“Don’t be so loud,” Shizun muttered from his bed.

Shen Qingqiu found another rag to tear into a bandage. As he approached the bedside with a bowl of water, Shizun meekly held out his hand. Despite his anger, Shen Qingqiu played the good disciple, washing the cut and then gently wrapping the bandage around Shizun’s palm.

“Thank you.”

“Shizun is very welcome.” Shen Qingqiu rose to his feet, eager to leave.

As he closed his eyes, Shizun asked, “Do you know why I chose you?”

Shen Qingqiu had dared to think it was his talent. He didn’t want to know otherwise. “Whatever Shizun’s reason, this disciple is humbled by the choice.”

“Because your cultivation is flawed like mine.”

The words made Shen Qingqiu’s stomach turn. Flawed cultivation. Chosen not for what he had, but what he lacked. Shen Qingqiu’s eyes stung. His one success was just another failure. He was going to be a rat for the rest of his life, scrabbling after garbage.

“And why did Shizun’s master choose him?” Shen Qingqiu asked, forcing his voice to stay even.

Shizun laughed softly. “That I will not burden you with, Qingqiu. You may go now.”

Shen Qingqiu stormed outside and grabbed the first disciple he found to announce that he was “too sick” to attend the Annual Spars, and that his Shizun would be staying home as well. The disciple’s eyes widened—no doubt awed that their master would be so devoted as to stay behind with his disciple. Shen Qingqiu felt dizzy, and it wasn’t hard to pretend that he was ill.

Returning to the bamboo house, he went straight for the room that Shizun had built when he found out that Shen Qingqiu kept avoiding the dormitory. It was a kindness that had greatly affected him at the time, until he realized that it was just to make it easier for Shen Qingqiu to wait on Shizun. As with everything else Shizun did, any sign of favor was rotten at the core. 

Shen Qingqiu wanted the distraction of playing the qin, but the noise would disturb Shizun. Instead, he settled for reading a book of qin tablatures, letting the music run through his head. The qin, at least, Shen Qingqiu was undeniably skilled with. Shen Qingqiu wasted the day on books, though he supposed he’d never needed to apply himself to reading them. His flawed cultivation was good enough on its own to have earned him his position. He occasionally checked on Shizun, putting a soaked cloth over his forehead or fetching him cups of water.

When night fell, Shen Qingqiu tried to fall asleep. He wanted to be unconscious, spared from thinking about his cultivation. But after lying with his eyes closed for over a shichen, he was still awake.

The door opened. Shen Qingqiu kept his eyes tightly shut and pretended to be asleep. Shizun stepped inside the room, his footsteps dragging along the floor as he approached Shen Qingqiu’s bed. What was Shizun doing? Shen Qingqiu tried to slow his racing heart, afraid that Shizun could tell he was awake. He heard Shizun lay his hand on the quilt by Shen Qingqiu’s side. After a few moments, Shizun took his hand away. Then he left the room, closing the door behind him.

With Shizun gone, Shen Qingqiu finally allowed himself to tremble.

Shen Qingqiu gradually awoke to the morning sun warming his back. He stirred, blood growing cold as he realized he was being held by another person. Eyes snapping open, Shen Qingqiu saw Yue Qingyuan. All that had happened last night returned in a rush. They were still entangled together, Yue Qingyuan’s arm around him.

Earlier, Shen Qingqiu had been too angry to think. All reason fled when he saw Hu Wen leaning in to kiss Yue Qingyuan. He’d felt betrayed, rejected yet again. When Yue Qingyuan had said that he’d “allowed” Shen Qingqiu to kiss him in the water prison, why not see what else he would allow? Why not push him, if it was already so easy to lose him to someone else? 

Yue Qingyuan had permitted everything. He’d been hard when Shen Qingqiu touched him. If he hadn’t been… Shen Qingqiu had already prepared himself to stop and push Yue Qingyuan away. Perhaps Shen Qingqiu would have loathed himself too much to remain and left the manor. Like he’d threatened before, just because he’d wanted Yue Qingyuan to beg him to stay. 

Lightly, Shen Qingqiu reached out to touch Yue Qingyuan’s face. He traced Yue Qingyuan’s cheekbone, moving down to the strong line of his jaw, his fingers finding their way to the lips he’d kissed the night before. Yue Qingyuan slowly opened his eyes, a gentle expression settling over his features.

“Did I wake you?” Shen Qingqiu asked, withdrawing his hand.

“No. I was waiting for you.”

“Did you sleep at all?”

Yue Qingyuan shook his head. Did he regret what they’d done? Was that what had kept him up all night? Shen Qingqiu nearly asked, but he was too afraid of the answer.

“I had to stay awake. Hu Wen’s a fox spirit,” Yue Qingyuan said.

“And how long did you know that?” Shen Qingqiu asked, his voice taking on an edge.

“Since yesterday morning.”

That was why Yue Qingyuan had hovered around Hu Wen all day. Shen Qingqiu nearly laughed in relief, though he was irritated that Yue Qingyuan hadn’t told him.

“He’ll be displeased with you. He lost his prey to me,” Shen Qingqiu said, smiling at how he’d won.

“I’ve recovered enough. I can handle him.”

Shen Qingqiu sat up, reluctantly displacing Yue Qingyuan’s arm. “We have to leave. I’m surprised he’s left us alone this long.”

Going to the wardrobe, Shen Qingqiu searched for something less ostentatious than what he’d chosen before. They would have to pose as rogue cultivators, and couldn’t be too memorable. He chose another green outer robe, though it was simpler than his first choice. As he put it on, a fan fell out of one sleeve and clattered to the floor. The guard was made with abalone and a mountain landscape was painted on one side. Shen Qingqiu tucked it back into his sleeve, feeling like he’d gained back a little of what he’d lost. Then he put his hair up in a plain crown, though he kept the jeweled pin with him.

Yue Qingyuan was already at the door by the time Shen Qingqiu turned around. “Ready?” he asked.


The courtyard felt different. There were no more bees, and the carp pond was silent. Even the damn mynah in the loquat tree seemed to have lost its tongue. Two juvenile foxes peered out from behind a beam in the north wing. Were they the servants? They scampered away before Shen Qingqiu could investigate.

Yue Qingyuan crouched down, picking up a scroll. He frowned as he read it.

“What does it say?” Shen Qingqiu asked, taking the scroll out of his hands. At the first two words, Shen Qingqiu knew why Yue Qingyuan had been so displeased.

Yue Qingyuan,

I remembered seeing you once at the Immortal Alliance Conference, when you were still a disciple. Your monster-slaying abilities made quite an impression on me. Imagine my surprise when you showed up at my doorstep, covered in blood! Ah, were I more monstrous, I could’ve ripped your companion down to the sinews and had you right then. But I have always appreciated a game, even if I eventually lose. It is unfortunate that you had encountered one of my kind before; otherwise, you might have spared me a little trust.

Do give Shen Qingqiu my regards. I did not expect him to outplay me. You two are welcome to the clothes—as you saw, I have quite enough, and my collection will only grow.

Don’t waste any time looking for me. I have grown bored of this place.

Hu Wen

Shen Qingqiu flung the letter into one of the hibiscus bushes. Ripped him down to the sinews? “Have” Yue Qingyuan? They had both come so close to death. If Hu Wen hadn’t preferred to play with his food… they had been too weak to defend themselves when they had arrived.

“Let’s go,” Shen Qingqiu said, tugging on Yue Qingyuan’s sleeve.

After their narrow escape, Yue Qingyuan was reciting poetry. It felt like every tree they passed triggered another poem about summer—more poems than Shen Qingqiu thought existed, since it seemed poets knew no other seasons than spring and autumn. He supposed he was lucky that Yue Qingyuan was ignoring autumn. Shen Qingqiu’s head was filled with descriptions of sailing on lakes, sipping wine with one’s hair loose, and longing for old friends. The last part gave Shen Qingqiu pause.

He’d killed the last of their friendship, hadn’t he? Shen Qingqiu had been damaging it for years, every time he’d turned Yue Qingyuan away because the pain of being abandoned was too keen. Because he’d thought Yue Qingyuan was pitying him, instead of trying to preserve what they’d had. But now that they had slept together, what did they have? Shen Qingqiu didn’t know.   



“Please stop.”

Yue Qingyuan was silent for the rest of the morning.

It was midday before they encountered others along the road. A group of cultivators had been attacked, leaving no survivors. Shen Qingqiu thought it might have been Hu Wen’s work, until he sensed the demonic qi still hanging in the air. Without a sword, Shen Qingqiu had to rely on Yue Qingyuan to protect him. But here were half a dozen swords lying on the ground, with no one to claim them. Shen Qingqiu started to inspect the swords. None were a match for anything from Wan Jian Peak, and Shen Qingqiu was struck by how much he missed Xiu Ya. One looked like it might do, however. Shen Qingqiu experimentally sent it flying into a nearby tree.

The sword hit the tree hard enough for it to crack and fall over. Promising. As he pulled the sword out, Shen Qingqiu asked, “Do you think the demons are still close?”

“It’s very likely.”

Some of the bloodstains on the ground seemed unconnected to any of the bodies; perhaps the demons had lost some of their own and taken the corpses with them. There were also deep ruts at the fork in the road where a caravan had passed by. If the demons were still around, they’d certainly go for the caravan next.

“Should we fly?” Shen Qingqiu asked. “If we protect the caravan, there could be some reward in it for us. I know you never carry much money with you.”

Yue Qingyuan looked down at the bodies of the cultivators.

“We don’t have time to bury them,” Shen Qingqiu said.

“You’re right,” Yue Qingyuan said, his eyes still on the corpses. “We should leave.”

Shen Qingqiu was glad to get off the ground, though they still stayed below the treetops and over the road. It wasn’t long before they found the caravan. The merchant had a full complement of guards, but the sight of two cultivators on swords was clearly a relief to him. Everyone in the caravan looked frightened. Shen Qingqiu and Yue Qingyuan introduced themselves, giving proper false names this time.

“Immortal Masters, it would be an honor to have you with us,” the merchant said.

They barely had time to settle themselves before the demons arrived. There were five of them, and the leader immediately seized one of the guards and broke his spine. Another demon lunged for Shen Qingqiu. Lightly dodging out of the way, Shen Qingqiu brought up his sword to cut through the demon’s neck. The next demon he knocked off her feet with qi before he slashed her throat. Turning, he looked for the next.

Three dead demons surrounded Yue Qingyuan, who hadn’t even drawn Xuan Su. The merchant rushed forward to prostrate himself in front of Yue Qingyuan.

“Please,” the merchant said, “allow this one to reward the Immortal Masters. There is a guesthouse at my manor—I would be delighted if you would stay with me until you wish to move on.”

Yue Qingyuan looked inquiringly at Shen Qingqiu. The reward was a good one, and they were less likely to be found staying with someone than if they went to an inn, where Luo Binghe’s servants might be searching. Shen Qingqiu nodded.

“We accept your gift,” Yue Qingyuan said. 

When night fell, they were given a tent to share. The merchant apologized that he didn’t have enough to let them sleep separately.

“It’s no trouble,” Yue Qingyuan had told him. “He is my shidi.”

Shen Qingqiu lay awake next to Yue Qingyuan, staring at the roof of the tent. What was going through Yue Qingyuan’s head? Turning over and resting his chin on his hand, Shen Qingqiu saw that Yue Qingyuan was already closing his eyes. Just like before, it was hard to see Yue Qingyuan in the dark, but Shen Qingqiu knew his face well. He could just barely make out the tense way he often held his mouth when he slept, the tightness around his eyes. It made Shen Qingqiu want to touch him.

Yue Qingyuan was probably pretending nothing had happened. If Shen Qingqiu neither said nor did anything like last night ever again, Yue Qingyuan wouldn’t mention it.

Remembering how Yue Qingyuan had kissed him back, the way he’d thrust into Shen Qingqiu’s hand, his breathing ragged, was enough to make Shen Qingqiu start to get hard again. Shen Qingqiu had felt desired, and he needed that again, more than he ever thought he could. He reached out to touch Yue Qingyuan’s thigh. Yue Qingyuan opened his eyes.

Shen Qingqiu tucked his hair behind his ear, then leaned down to kiss him. Yue Qingyuan responded, his hand going up to cradle the back of Shen Qingqiu’s head. Fingers clenching on Yue Qingyuan’s thigh, Shen Qingqiu swiped his tongue across Yue Qingyuan’s lips, making him open his mouth. Shen Qingqiu thrust his tongue inside, greedy for more contact. Yue Qingyuan’s hand on his head was still gentle, but perhaps Shen Qingqiu could change that later. He stroked up and down Yue Qingyuan’s thigh, rucking up his inner robe so he could get at the tie of his pants.

“I’m going to do something different this time,” Shen Qingqiu said, pulling Yue Qingyuan’s pants down past his knees, then spreading his legs and settling between them.

While keeping his hands on Yue Qingyuan’s thighs, Shen Qingqiu took the head of Yue Qingyuan’s half-hard cock into his mouth. Yue Qingyuan tensed underneath Shen Qingqiu’s fingers. Curling his tongue around the head, Shen Qingqiu listened for the faint hitch in Yue Qingyuan’s breathing. Yue Qingyuan was thickening under his tongue, and Shen Qingqiu had to open his mouth wider. He could already tell how much he’d have to strain, and the thought made him even harder.

When he sucked for the first time, Shen Qingqiu finally earned a cut-off gasp from Yue Qingyuan. Wanting to hear him again, Shen Qingqiu took more, wrapping his hand around what he couldn’t fit in his mouth. He reached out for Yue Qingyuan’s hand and put in his hair, tightening his fingers over Yue Qingyuan’s until he understood what Shen Qingqiu wanted. As Yue Qingyuan finally tugged on his hair, Shen Qingqiu moaned. His gaze flicked up to Yue Qingyuan’s face, feeling thrilled when he saw how closely he was being watched.

Reaching down, Shen Qingqiu started to touch himself through his pants. Was Yue Qingyuan watching the motion of his arm? Would he rather be the one touching Shen Qingqiu? Yue Qingyuan tugged on Shen Qingqiu’s hair again, and it was perfect.

“Qingqiu—I—” Yue Qingyuan weakly pushed at Shen Qingqiu’s shoulder. “You shouldn’t—”

Shen Qingqiu didn’t stop. He wanted to bring Yue Qingyuan off with his mouth, even if that meant… Shen Qingqiu wanted it. Yue Qingyuan tensed again, the only warning before his climax spilled down Shen Qingqiu’s throat. Shen Qingqiu tried to swallow, but ended up gagging instead, pulling off so he could spit everything out.

Yue Qingyuan sat up, immediately reaching out to comfort Shen Qingqiu. “I’m sorry,” he said, rubbing Shen Qingqiu’s back.

Shen Qingqiu wiped his mouth. His eyes were burning from swallowing wrong, and he knew he was blushing bright red. “I’m fine,” he replied. “It was my fault. Don’t be sorry.”

“Do you want me to… do the same?” Yue Qingyuan asked, his hand tentatively going to Shen Qingqiu’s belt. “Or use my hand?”

A few moments ago, Shen Qingqiu would’ve breathlessly agreed. But he’d lost too much face, so he lightly smacked Yue Qingyuan’s hand away.

“I’m going to sleep,” he said, lying down and turning away from Yue Qingyuan.

Chapter Text

After his qi deviation came to an end, Shizun gave him his new name: Qingyuan. Yue Qingyuan was clumsy, uncertain of his limbs now that they had been broken so many times. In many ways, he’d been granted a rebirth, yet he felt dead. Only Xuan Su felt alive, pulsing with his life force at his side. Yue Qingyuan prostrated himself before Shizun, his joints screaming in protest. He wondered if he’d ever be free of pain again.

“Please, allow this disciple to leave the mountain.”

“So you can rescue your friend?” Shizun asked, tapping her chin. “This master will accompany you.”


“It’s been too long since this master has gone out into the world. Cultivating in seclusion is meaningless if you are unaware of what you are secluding yourself from. Besides, Qingyuan is still so weak. This master may have to attend to you.”

Knowing what ‘attend’ could mean from her, Yue Qingyuan forced himself to smile. “Shizun is truly too kind to this disciple.”

Yue Qingyuan wanted to fly, but he still hadn’t recovered enough control of his qi. Although he was the head disciple of Qiong Ding Peak, he was weaker than most of the disciples he ranked above. Despite Shizun’s assurances that he would become even stronger than before, he had his doubts.

Without Shizun, he wouldn’t have had the means to rescue Shen Jiu at all. He wondered if that was the real reason she was accompanying him. It was unlike her to care about her disciple’s worldly attachment, yet he felt such a surge of gratitude that it almost overwhelmed his suspicion of her motives. What if she tried to dissuade him from bringing Shen Jiu back to Cang Qiong Mountain Sect? No—she wouldn’t. She could have simply forbidden him to go, though that wouldn’t have stopped Yue Qingyuan from leaving. Shizun probably knew that too.

They left in a carriage. Instead of meditating, Shizun looked out the window, observing all there was to see of the world. Sometimes they stayed in inns, sometimes they would stay with humble farmers that they passed. Few people knew quite how to act towards Shizun, who wore xuanduan and had the air of a true immortal. It wasn’t that she never smiled, or that she lacked warmth—she was just completely unattached. 

On their last night before they reached Yue Qingyuan’s former home, they stayed at a monastery. The monks were awkward, unused to being in the company of a woman. But as a fellow Daoist and a person of great rank, she was welcomed. After their simple meal of rice and pickled vegetables, the abbot tucked his hands in his sleeves and cleared his throat.

“Daozhang,” he said. “One of our number is very sick, and he’s still a child. Your medical knowledge is renowned. Would you care to visit him?”

Shizun nodded, and she and Yue Qingyuan were escorted to the child’s room. The smell of sickness was heavy—sour and stale. One look at the child and Yue Qingyuan could tell he was dying. His cheeks were sunken and his eyes looked bruised. He took in the sight of Shizun kneeling by his bed with a dull expression. As she took his pulse, the abbot looked at her hopefully.

“How long has he been like this?” Shizun asked.

“Over a month.”

Shizun took a ginseng root out of her sleeve and handed it to the abbot. “This is a hundred-year-old ginseng,” she said, and he looked so awed that he nearly dropped the root. Shizun put her hand under the abbot’s, closing his fingers over the ginseng. “Brew a tea with it.”

“Daozhang is so generous—”

While the abbot blustered, Shizun ignored him, her interest all on the child. As she turned the child’s wrist over in her hand, she said, “Qingyuan, this master can heal him through the knowledge gained from your qi deviation.”

“Is Shizun going to cut him up?” Yue Qingyuan asked, horrified.

Shizun laughed softly. “There’s no need.”  

Yue Qingyuan exhaled. The child wouldn’t suffer, then. Shizun stayed with the child all night, redirecting his meridians to promote healing. By morning, the child’s eyes were bright and he was well enough to thank Shizun for her care. Knowing that he’d saved a life, however indirectly, made the constant pain in Yue Qingyuan’s body easier to endure.

After the boy was done thanking her, Yue Qingyuan said, “Is Shizun prepared to leave now?”

“This master knows you want to hurry. Yes, we’re ready to go.”

They arrived at the town when it was close to dusk. The carriage felt like it was going too slowly, but it wouldn’t do to open the door and break into a run—not that Yue Qingyuan thought he could run. Yue Qingyuan forced himself to be calm as he gave the driver directions. What would Shen Jiu do when he saw him again? Would he run into Yue Qingyuan’s arms, like he had when he was small, or would he hang back and ask what took so long? Shen Jiu would be around fifteen now… a difficult age. Yue Qingyuan couldn’t help smiling.

“We’re here,” said the driver, a strange note in his voice. Yue Qingyuan opened the curtain and stepped out.

A ruin greeted him. The charred bones of the Qiu manor jutted out from the ground; Yue Qingyuan could see the remains of the kitchen, the rooms where the Qius must have slept, and even the frame of the door where Yue Qingyuan had said goodbye. Yue Qingyuan rushed forward, stumbling over the threshold of what had once been a wall.

For once, Yue Qingyuan’s body didn’t ache. He felt nothing, except for the world crashing down around him. Shen Jiu wasn’t here. Shen Jiu was nowhere at all. How was it that Yue Qingyuan was still standing? How could he, when Shen Jiu was gone?

All the bodies would have already been buried. A slave wouldn’t have gotten a memorial tablet—probably not even a coffin. Just thrown into a hole in the dirt. Yue Qingyuan found himself moving from room to room, a heavy drumming in his ears.

“Xiao Jiu,” he murmured, as he tripped over a fallen beam and fell to his knees. “Xiao Jiu…”

He started digging in the dirt. Maybe Shen Jiu’s bones were here; maybe they had left the poor slave child to the ashes. Two droplets of water fell to the ground. Tears?

Oh. Shen Jiu would tease him when he found out that Yue Qingyuan had learned how to cry.

He woke up in a bed, with his hands bandaged and Shizun sitting beside him.

“Qingyuan. This master asked about what happened to the Qiu family. They said that all the bodies were accounted for.”

Yue Qingyuan stared at the ceiling. Shizun squeezed his shoulder.

“One moment it goes, the next it comes,” Shizun said. “Do not lose awareness of the Dao.”

The merchant had given them the use of his own carriage after making abundant apologies for its shabbiness. He was right; it wasn’t fine enough for a Peak Lord.

Shen Qingqiu was seated opposite Yue Qingyuan, his fan held in front of his face, which he slowly waved to ward off the stale air inside. It was a familiar sight, and Yue Qingyuan was glad to see Shen Qingqiu looking so well. Shen Qingqiu didn’t have his usual sharp expression, through perhaps that was only because Yue Qingyuan couldn’t see his frowning mouth.

“I used to keep five tea sets in my carriage on Qing Jing Peak,” Shen Qingqiu said, “and now I don’t have any.”

“We can buy one when we reach the city.”

“One? Why not five? Will shixiong buy me one made from porcelain, and another from purple sand? How about a gilded set?” His tone was teasing, and Yue Qingyuan thought he might be smiling behind the fan. But then his gaze flicked away from Yue Qingyuan. “What do you miss about Cang Qiong Mountain?” 

Yue Qingyuan had barely thought of the sect. Shen Qingqiu had needed him too much. But if he had to answer… “I miss how mist would gather outside my home on Qiong Ding Peak. When I would leave in the morning, I could barely see a zhang in front of me.”

“Is that all you miss? Humidity?” Shen Qingqiu looked back at Yue Qingyuan. “Not the dinners on Zui Xian Peak?”

Yue Qingyuan remembered them well. The Peak Lords could be a raucous group, removed from their responsibilities and given strong wine. Qi Qingqi was always quick to laugh, particularly when Mu Qingfang showed off his dry humor. Shang Qinghua had no head for wine and would start muttering nonsense to himself. But Shen Qingqiu held himself apart, though he would occasionally look up from his cup to deliver a snide jab at Liu Qingge. After Liu Qingge’s death, Shen Qingqiu was silent, pinned under the cold, wounded stares of the other Peak Lords. Yue Qingyuan had thought of nothing to say in Shen Qingqiu’s defense.

“They were like the other children to you, weren’t they?” Shen Qingqiu asked. “You have to take care of them, as if they weren’t responsible for their own mistakes. Their own mess. Just like Shi Wu.”

Shen Qingqiu was still thinking of the boy who’d betrayed him to the Qius. Yue Qingyuan’s memory of the other slave children grew poorer every year, and he could barely remember most of their faces. How many of them were dead now?

“It’s hurting you to be away from the peaks,” Shen Qingqiu continued. “I took you away from everyone else. You’ll never be happy as long as you’re with me—you’ll always be worrying about them. You miss your comfortable home, your duties, your disciples.” Slapping his fan shut, Shen Qingqiu gestured to the carriage. “How can you be content with this? Relying on some trifling merchant’s gratitude? Exiled and on the run from the people who would have been your brothers and sisters, if only I had been a better man? If I hadn’t asked you to save me, there’s not a single way your life wouldn’t be improved.”   

Shen Qingqiu’s eyes were bright, his mouth twisted with loathing. Yue Qingyuan’s first impulse was to say nothing at all. But Shen Qingqiu had completely misunderstood him.

“I don’t regret saving you,” Yue Qingyuan said.

“What?” Shen Qingqiu asked, his fingers tightening around the fan’s guard.

“I’m content.”

“Oh?” Shen Qingqiu raised one eyebrow. “So, what do you have now?”

“I was able to hear shidi play the qin. And…” How could Yue Qingyuan say that just being with Shen Qingqiu was enough for him? And how could he make Shen Qingqiu believe it?

Shen Qingqiu’s expression softened as he waited for Yue Qingyuan to continue. But as Yue Qingyuan was about to speak, the carriage went over a rock, and Shen Qingqiu fell forward. Yue Qingyuan caught him by the arms as the fan clattered to the floor. Shen Qingqiu’s startled face was close to his.

“And what?” Shen Qingqiu asked.

“Your company.”

With a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth, Shen Qingqiu leaned in for a kiss. Yue Qingyuan didn’t hesitate to return it—he knew what Shen Qingqiu wanted from him. Everything was becoming more familiar and less strange, from how Shen Qingqiu tasted to the way Yue Qingyuan’s pulse raced. When the carriage went over another bump, Shen Qingqiu settled in Yue Qingyuan’s lap as he tangled his hands in Yue Qingyuan’s hair. The position was intimate, yet Shen Qingqiu seemed in no hurry to do more than kiss, his fingers brushing against Yue Qingyuan’s scalp. Yue Qingyuan wrapped his arms around Shen Qingqiu’s waist to hold him securely. As Shen Qingqiu thrust his tongue past Yue Qingyuan’s lips, Yue Qingyuan found himself gripping him tighter.

He was reminded of last night, with Shen Qingqiu’s warm mouth around him in the darkness of the tent. Shen Qingqiu’s face had been mostly shadows, but Yue Qingyuan had still been able to see his cheeks hollow, his eyes nearly black in the dark as he met Yue Qingyuan’s gaze. Yue Qingyuan had wanted so badly to see Shen Qingqiu in the full light of day, rather than night’s obscurity.

The carriage came to a stop. Shen Qingqiu stiffened in Yue Qingyuan’s arms as he slipped his hands down to cup Yue Qingyuan’s face. “Don’t stop yet,” Shen Qingqiu pleaded, kissing him again. Someone might see—Yue Qingyuan could picture a servant opening the curtain to see the two Immortal Masters entangled with each other instead of sitting decorously apart. But he didn’t push Shen Qingqiu away. In the end, Shen Qingqiu was the one who broke the kiss and returned to his side of the carriage, perfectly poised by the time their host arrived to welcome them to his home.  

Hu Wen’s dinner conversation had been pointed; the merchant’s, on the other hand, was rambling. In the space of a shichen, Yue Qingyuan learned about the man’s extended family and the complete lifecycle of a silkworm. Shen Qingqiu was in no mood to help Yue Qingyuan this time, as he let the merchant drone on without engaging him at all. Yue Qingyuan was forced to politely smile and nod while Shen Qingqiu kept glancing at him, his eyes laughing. The advantage of the merchant’s loquaciousness was that Yue Qingyuan had to make up nothing at all, because he asked not a single detail about them.

At last, the dinner wound down. But before they could fully extricate themselves, Shen Qingqiu spoke up for the first time that night.

“May I borrow a qin?” he asked.

“You may have one,” the merchant said, beaming at his own generosity. “I’ll send one of my servants over with a qin right away.”

“Thank you.”

Since the merchant was provoked to share his thoughts on the Four Arts, the qin arrived at the guesthouse before they did. Yue Qingyuan investigated the rooms, glad to find nothing suspicious. When he was done, he saw Shen Qingqiu had seated himself beside the qin.

“Shixiong said you enjoyed my playing,” Shen Qingqiu said. “Would you like to hear it again?”

“Very much,” Yue Qingyuan replied, sitting down across from Shen Qingqiu. He wondered how Shen Qingqiu had gotten into such an obliging mood. Was it all because of what Yue Qingyuan had said in the carriage?

“I know a piece about mist.” Shen Qingqiu experimentally plucked a few notes, then frowned as he started to adjust the tuning pegs. “I should’ve asked for a tuning fork,” he muttered to himself. “I don’t think this qin has been in tune for its entire existence. The fox spirit kept his things in much better condition.”

“Yes, and he probably ate the player of the one you used.”

Shen Qingqiu’s whole attention was on the qin until it was tuned to his satisfaction. When he was done, Shen Qingqiu began to play. It was an unfamiliar piece, with complicated fingerings that Yue Qingyuan had never seen before—Qiong Ding Peak was not known for its musicians. The music evoked the same feeling as the misty mornings outside his home, the sense of the world becoming obscured and unknown.

The silence that came after Shen Qingqiu finished seemed emptier than usual, as if the qin had taken something out of the air.

“Shall I play another piece?” Shen Qingqiu asked. “There’s one about autumn that I think you would enjoy.”

As Shen Qingqiu played, Yue Qingyuan wondered where the two of them would be in autumn. The season was so uncertain now, when just six days ago he could’ve told anyone where he would be on any day of the year: on Qiong Ding Peak, waiting to hear of Shen Qingqiu’s death, so he could follow him. Being with Shen Qingqiu now was more than he’d ever expected, or thought to hope for. He kept waiting for the blow that was surely to come.

“Yue-shixiong?” Shen Qingqiu said when he was done. “Did I bore you?”

“No,” Yue Qingyuan replied, forcing a smile. “I was merely thinking about autumn.”

“It will be here soon enough.” A line of worry appeared between Shen Qingqiu’s brows. Were his thoughts the same as Yue Qingyuan’s? “Enough about seasons.”

Shen Qingqiu played several more pieces, each delicately performed. It felt like Shen Qingqiu was telling him a secret, and Yue Qingyuan was strangely outraged that Shen Qingqiu’s master had made him play for others, when it was clearly so personal to him.

“That’s enough,” Shen Qingqiu said, laying his hands on the strings. “I’ve played nearly ten for you; I should save some for later.”

“Thank you, Qingqiu.”

Shen Qingqiu rose, then offered his hand to help Yue Qingyuan up. “Goodnight,” Shen Qingqiu said, his fingers sliding along Yue Qingyuan’s palm as he let him go.


Chapter Text

Yue Qingyuan changed into a sleeping robe and got into bed. After spending only two nights with Shen Qingqiu, the bed felt oddly empty and cold. He should be thinking about what they would do next, how they would stay out of Luo Binghe’s grip, but instead he was preoccupied with the carriage. Shen Qingqiu had felt… right, in his arms. A weight that should have been there long ago. Was his distraction why Shizun had been so strict in warning him against intimacy?

The door creaked open. Shen Qingqiu crossed the room and straddled Yue Qingyuan. He was wearing nothing more than a sleeping robe himself, revealing more of his silhouette than Yue Qingyuan had seen since they were children. His shoulders were still narrow, his waist slim. As he leaned forward, hands on Yue Qingyuan’s chest, his hair fell past his shoulder, casting a shadow over his face.

“Shixiong,” Shen Qingqiu said, his lips curving into a smile. “Did you expect my company?”

At Yue Qingyuan’s nod, Shen Qingqiu pulled the quilt away from him, settling back on top of Yue Qingyuan, but this time pressing his backside against Yue Qingyuan’s groin. Yue Qingyuan could already feel himself responding. As Shen Qingqiu’s hands went to untie his belt, Yue Qingyuan stopped him with a hand over his. He wanted to ask if he could light the lamp, then hesitated. Perhaps Shen Qingqiu felt like what they did needed darkness. A tense look passed over Shen Qingqiu’s face. Fearing that Shen Qingqiu would leave, Yue Qingyuan untied Shen Qingqiu’s belt himself, and Shen Qingqiu relaxed.

Shen Qingqiu slipped his robe off his shoulder, exposing the lithe muscles of his chest. “Touch me,” he said, so Yue Qingyuan did, placing his hands on Shen Qingqiu’s hips, then dragging them up his sides. The other times they’d done this, Yue Qingyuan hadn’t been able to touch Shen Qingqiu or see his body, and now Yue Qingyuan had everything. It seemed like it shouldn’t be allowed. Shen Qingqiu arched into Yue Qingyuan’s touch, his soft skin passing under Yue Qingyuan’s fingers. Grabbing hold of Yue Qingyuan’s collar, Shen Qingqiu tugged him into a sitting position. As Shen Qingqiu leaned forward to kiss him, Yue Qingyuan ran his hands along Shen Qingqiu’s back. Shen Qingqiu made a pleased noise as gooseflesh rose on his skin, despite the warm summer night.

Yue Qingyuan felt a tug on his belt before Shen Qingqiu stripped him of his robe. Just the brief break in contact made Yue Qingyuan desperate to get his hands back on Shen Qingqiu. Shen Qingqiu’s tongue was in Yue Qingyuan’s mouth, one hand in his hair and the other toying with the ties of Yue Qingyuan’s pants. As Yue Qingyuan rubbed where Shen Qingqiu’s bare skin met his waistband, he wanted to go further, take Shen Qingqiu in his hand like he’d done for him. But would that be permitted? Last night, Shen Qingqiu hadn’t let Yue Qingyuan touch him, after Yue Qingyuan’s selfish lapse in control.      

Nibbling at Yue Qingyuan’s bottom lip, Shen Qingqiu untied his pants and guided Yue Qingyuan’s hand to his cock. As Yue Qingyuan wrapped his fingers around him and gave the first stroke, Shen Qingqiu gasped. He felt incredibly hot in Yue Qingyuan’s hand, and he squeezed Yue Qingyuan’s shoulders, breaking the kiss as he thrust into Yue Qingyuan’s grip. Shen Qingqiu briefly closed his eyes, lips parting as his expression relaxed, even as the rest of his body remained tense. Yue Qingyuan wished he could memorize how Shen Qingqiu looked in a moment of pleasure like this one. 

Shen Qingqiu took Yue Qingyuan’s free hand and slid it over his backside. “I want you inside me,” Shen Qingqiu said, reaching under Yue Qingyuan’s chin to tilt his head up. “Do you understand what I mean?”

Yue Qingyuan froze. He did know what Shen Qingqiu meant—he’d heard the other slave boys talking about it, how humiliating it was, how much pain there was to be taken that way. “I don’t want to hurt you.”

“It doesn’t have to if we go slowly,” Shen Qingqiu said, running his hands through Yue Qingyuan’s hair.

“You’ve done this before?” A pit opened up in Yue Qingyuan’s stomach at the thought of Shen Qingqiu with another man, someone who wouldn’t have been gentle enough.

“Would that make you jealous?” Shen Qingqiu asked, a smile passing across his face. Tracing the line of Yue Qingyuan’s lower lip with his thumb, Shen Qingqiu said, “There’s been no other men. You can wipe that beaten look off your face now.”

Was Yue Qingyuan so obvious even in the dark?

“You don’t have to worry about hurting me—I’ll prepare myself. I’ve used my fingers before.”

Yue Qingyuan imagined what it must have looked like, with Shen Qingqiu lying back in his canopied bed, slender fingers inside himself, the same look of pleasure that Yue Qingyuan had just seen on his face. In the present, Shen Qingqiu slipped off his pants and tugged at Yue Qingyuan’s until Yue Qingyuan took them off, exposing how hard he was. He felt like he ought to be ashamed, for his need to be so obvious. Shen Qingqiu felt around for his robe and took out a small jar, coating his fingers with lotion.

“Lie back,” Shen Qingqiu said, sighing as he reached behind himself. Yue Qingyuan’s gaze was drawn to how the muscles of Shen Qingqiu’s shoulder were flexing. Bracing against Yue Qingyuan with his free hand, Shen Qingqiu leaned over him, nails digging into the skin of Yue Qingyuan’s chest as his hair slid down to caress Yue Qingyuan’s arms, blocking off more light.

“You’re so much bigger than my fingers, I wonder how you’ll feel,” Shen Qingqiu said. “Don’t you dare start to apologize for your size.”

Yue Qingyuan closed his mouth. Tracing the line of Shen Qingqiu’s arm with his fingers, Yue Qingyuan reached over to touch where Shen Qingqiu was tensing his wrist. Shen Qingqiu froze.

“Let me help, then,” Yue Qingyuan said. “Tell me what to do.”

“So obedient, Sect Leader Yue,” Shen Qingqiu replied, withdrawing his hand. He dipped his head to lightly kiss Yue Qingyuan’s lips, using just the barest hint of teeth. “Just rub some lotion on your fingers before you stick them in. You’re trying to open me up—it’s not complicated.”

Yue Qingyuan did as he was told, then slid his fingers down Shen Qingqiu’s backside, pressing them into the cleft. Shen Qingqiu jerked when Yue Qingyuan’s fingertips brushed against his rim.

“It’s nothing,” Shen Qingqiu said. “It just feels different when it’s you. Keep going.”

Slowly, Yue Qingyuan worked one finger in. There was more resistance than he’d thought, and he watched Shen Qingqiu carefully for any sign of discomfort. How could this invasion possibly feel good? Shen Qingqiu had closed his eyes.

“Push it in and out a few times, then add a second finger. When it gets easier, give me the third. You didn’t read any spring books as a disciple, did you?”

“No,” Yue Qingyuan replied, moving his finger. He tried not to think too much on how soft Shen Qingqiu was inside, and how that might feel around him.

“The confiscated ones went to Qing Jing Peak—ah, yes, like that.” Shen Qingqiu pressed back against Yue Qingyuan’s hand. “There were all kinds,” Shen Qingqiu murmured, seeming to be talking to himself more than Yue Qingyuan, “but I liked the ones with men the best.”

Yue Qingyuan thrust in a second finger, swallowing a question about the brothels. Shen Qingqiu kept moving with Yue Qingyuan’s fingers, eyes still closed and tense. The action felt close enough to sex that Yue Qingyuan was achingly hard beneath Shen Qingqiu. When Shen Qingqiu started to relax, Yue Qingyuan added the third, and Shen Qingqiu suddenly felt far too tight.

“Keep going,” Shen Qingqiu said, his voice quiet as his eyelids fluttered. “It feels good. You’re not hurting me.”

“But what if I do?”

Shen Qingqiu kissed Yue Qingyuan’s forehead, then both his cheeks, and finally, his mouth. “You won’t.”

When Yue Qingyuan’s fingers could slide in and out with ease, Shen Qingqiu put his hand on Yue Qingyuan’s wrist to stop him.

“I’m ready,” Shen Qingqiu said, sitting back up as Yue Qingyuan withdrew his hand. Shen Qingqiu pressed his fingers along the thin line of precome on Yue Qingyuan’s stomach. “Are you?”


Shen Qingqiu spread more lotion over Yue Qingyuan’s cock and lifted his hips, lining up the head with his entrance. It was shockingly obscene, and for a moment, Yue Qingyuan wondered how they had come to this. But then Shen Qingqiu started to take him in, and any other thought fled his mind. Shen Qingqiu’s breathing turned deep as Yue Qingyuan felt like he was being slowly enveloped in heat. There was so much resistance that it had to be painful, yet Shen Qingqiu didn’t reveal anything as he tilted his head back, eyes going half-lidded.

“Thrust a little,” Shen Qingqiu said. “It’ll be easier.”

Yue Qingyuan pushed inside just the barest amount, studying Shen Qingqiu’s face. Shen Qingqiu’s mouth was firmly set as he started to move, taking more each time, his breathing shallow. When he was fully seated, Shen Qingqiu made a satisfied noise.

“It doesn’t hurt,” Shen Qingqiu said, stroking Yue Qingyuan’s arm. “It just feels like there’s so much of you.”

Slowly, Shen Qingqiu shifted his hips, bearing down on Yue Qingyuan. Even that slight movement threatened to be overwhelming—because now, Shen Qingqiu was completely exposed before his eyes, and Yue Qingyuan could touch him. Yue Qingyuan slid his hands along Shen Qingqiu’s thighs, resting them on his hips as Shen Qingqiu began to ride him. Looking down, Yue Qingyuan could see where their bodies were so closely joined and Shen Qingqiu was tight around him, and he quickly glanced away before it was too much. Shen Qingqiu’s gaze met his.

“Do I feel good for you?” Shen Qingqiu asked, a needy tone in his voice.

“Yes—” His breath felt cut off as Shen Qingqiu clenched his fingers where they were resting on Yue Qingyuan’s stomach.

Shen Qingqiu’s thighs trembled for a moment, and Yue Qingyuan steadied him. Yue Qingyuan tried not to lose himself, to stay cautious and careful, to be gentle. Shen Qingqiu moaned, and Yue Qingyuan feared he’d do anything to hear that sound again, seemingly quiet against the noise of their bodies. Fingers going unforgivably tight on Shen Qingqiu’s hips, Yue Qingyuan thrust in deeper, making Shen Qingqiu cry out again, his nails digging into Yue Qingyuan’s skin.

“Yes, like that, please,” Shen Qingqiu murmured. “It doesn’t hurt—I promise—”

Yue Qingyuan couldn’t refuse him. Sex felt like being drunk, his self-control fraying at the edges. All Yue Qingyuan could think about was Shen Qingqiu around him and on top of him as he chased any sign of Shen Qingqiu’s pleasure. Yue Qingyuan started moving faster as Shen Qingqiu seemed to weaken, losing all the tension in his muscles as his body opened for Yue Qingyuan. Even his hands on Yue Qingyuan’s stomach relaxed.

“Yue-shixiong,” Shen Qingqiu gasped.

It wasn’t how Yue Qingyuan truly wanted to be called, but it was enough. He spilled inside Shen Qingqiu as Shen Qingqiu kept moving, grinding down against Yue Qingyuan as he took himself into his hand. Shen Qingqiu came over Yue Qingyuan’s chest only a few moments after. Slumping over, Shen Qingqiu gave him a weary, pleased look as he stroked Yue Qingyuan’s cheek.

“I want to stay here tonight,” Shen Qingqiu said.

“Of course, Qingqiu,” Yue Qingyuan replied, and Shen Qingqiu smiled for the fourth time that day.  

Yue Qingyuan woke up shortly before dawn—his usual time. Shen Qingqiu’s arm was thrown over him, his leg tucked against Yue Qingyuan’s. As the morning light slowly illuminated the room, it spilled over Shen Qingqiu’s bare back and the hollow of his neck, touching where his eyelashes were dark against his cheek. Every time Yue Qingyuan woke up next to Shen Qingqiu, it felt unreal, and undeserved.

Shen Qingqiu was a late riser and a heavy sleeper, so Yue Qingyuan wasn’t worried about waking him as he extricated himself. Still, Shen Qingqiu frowned when Yue Qingyuan got out of bed, his fingers tightening on the quilt. The unconscious clinginess sent an overly familiar twinge of guilt through Yue Qingyuan. It would be fine. He’d have more than enough time to go to town and return before Shen Qingqiu woke up. Yue Qingyuan got dressed and left the guesthouse, intending to have breakfast in town.

There had to be news from Cang Qiong Mountain Sect by now. He had no regrets about choosing Shen Qingqiu over the sect, but he was still anxious for it. How were the other Peak Lords doing without his guidance? And how much had Yue Qingyuan’s choice damaged the sect’s reputation? These were questions he couldn’t answer with Shen Qingqiu around, who’d turn every misfortune of the sect upon himself. 

Early as it was, the town’s marketplace was full of merchants just beginning to set up their wares. Yue Qingyuan paused by a bookseller, thumbing through general volumes about cultivation. One claimed to have been written by Shizun, though of course it wasn’t. He listened in on the conversations growing around him, hearing nothing of interest. When a teahouse opened its doors, Yue Qingyuan ducked inside.

The server brought out some tea and promised breakfast as soon as the cook had woken up properly. He was friendly, but had no news about the cultivation world, though his eyes drifted to Yue Qingyuan’s sword.

“Someone’s bound to come in with news,” the server said, before bustling off to greet the second customer of the day.  

Yue Qingyuan’s thoughts kept drifting back to last night. Each time they had lain together, it had felt like Shen Qingqiu was becoming both less and more like someone he knew. They had spent so many years bitterly parted because of Yue Qingyuan’s weakness, and now they’d hardly been separated since the escape from the water prison. Shen Qingqiu smiled at him now, and… other things.

His attraction to Shen Qingqiu had to be acknowledged. He could see now that it had been there for a long time, though he couldn’t say the first time he had looked at Shen Qingqiu differently. Being with Shen Qingqiu that way—it clearly satisfied Shen Qingqiu, and made Yue Qingyuan feel closer to him in a manner that he could easily see tipping over into a need. And Yue Qingyuan couldn’t need anything from him. Yue Qingyuan had first left Shen Qingqiu to the Qius, and then again to the water prison. He hadn’t earned asking for Shen Qingqiu to look at him, let alone anything more.

There was also the matter of Yue Qingyuan’s cultivation. It had barely been enough to overcome Luo Binghe, and then only temporarily. Yue Qingyuan needed to be at the height of his strength if they encountered Luo Binghe again, and even the smallest decrease in Yue Qingyuan’s cultivation could mean Shen Qingqiu’s life. He hadn’t felt any change in his cultivation, but would he notice? Could he bring himself to stop if he did—to reject Shen Qingqiu?

While Yue Qingyuan was brooding, the teahouse filled with people. A group of rogue cultivators were seated across from him.

“Did you hear about Cang Qiong Mountain Sect? Huan Hua Palace has laid siege to it.”

Yue Qingyuan felt a shot of cold go down his spine.

“How’s Huan Hua Palace getting away with attacking another righteous sect?” asked one of the cultivators.

The first speaker leaned back, clearly enjoying being the center of attention. “Cang Qiong Mountain Sect’s reputation is in tatters. Yue Qingyuan, the sect leader, lied to the Old Palace Master in order to break that scum Shen Qingqiu out of prison. He attacked dozens of disciples.”

“Yue Qingyuan? But he was always so upright.”

Another cultivator snorted. “Clearly not, if he did that. I wonder what could have moved him to save Shen Qingqiu, after he’d already given him away to Huan Hua Palace. A little late for him to be changing his mind!”

“Seduction?” asked a cultivator, and the others laughed. “Is it so unlikely? Shen Qingqiu already had a reputation for going to brothels, and was a former slave besides. He’s clearly a man without any pride.”

“Come on,” said the first speaker. “Give Yue Qingyuan a little face. Shen Qingqiu must have had something to hold over him.”

“How many Peak Lords are even left? They’ve lost four. One went missing, another murdered… Cang Qiong Mountain Sect is blighted. No one will stand up for it. And Huan Hua Palace has the right—the sect is probably sheltering Yue Qingyuan and Shen Qingqiu. Of course, Qi Qingqi claims they’re not there, but why would she tell the truth?”

“No one from that sect can be trusted.”

In the carriage, Shen Qingqiu had said that Yue Qingyuan would always worry about the sect. That it hurt him to be away from the peaks. Yue Qingyuan hadn’t lied about being content with Shen Qingqiu, but now? He couldn’t leave Cang Qiong Mountain Sect to its fate, not when it was his own fault. Nor could Shen Qingqiu ever be safe as long as they were wanted men. They had evaded capture for a few days, but if Luo Binghe was wrathful enough to besiege one of the most powerful sects just on the chance that it was sheltering Shen Qingqiu, how much more time could they really have?

The only correct action to take, the only way to spare both Shen Qingqiu and the sect, was to prove Shen Qingqiu’s “innocence”—but how? How could it be done when everything Shen Qingqiu had been accused of was true? He had slaughtered the Qius. He had been Wu Yanzi’s disciple. He had killed Liu Qingge. And Yue Qingyuan had seen very well how Shen Qingqiu treated his disciples, Luo Binghe chief among them.

Shen Qingqiu didn’t care for the sect’s reputation. He wouldn’t listen to any arguments that it was for his own good as well. All he would hear was that Yue Qingyuan was concerned for the sect and wanted Shen Qingqiu to risk himself for its sake. Shen Qingqiu would refuse to help, and be hurt besides.

But Yue Qingyuan couldn’t fail to act. He had to save Shen Qingqiu and the sect both. The indecision he felt was paralyzing. It was like his body itself was ill-fitting. He wanted to be far away, back on Qiong Ding Peak, educating his disciples, or perhaps return to his youth on the streets, tending to the other children. But there was no escape. Yue Qingyuan was here, and the past couldn’t be changed. He and Shen Qingqiu had made a mountain of wrongs between them.

Neither of them deserved any peace. Yue Qingyuan would carve some out for them, nevertheless.       

Chapter Text

It hurt. It hurt so much. Luo Binghe tried to curl into a ball to protect himself as the kicks kept coming. He didn’t even know what he’d done to provoke Ming Fan this time. Maybe it had been nothing at all. Luo Binghe would just have to bear it until Ming Fan and the others grew tired of beating him.

Despite the ringing in his ears, Luo Binghe heard footsteps approaching. The boys halted. Luo Binghe looked up to see Shen Qingqiu standing nearby.

“Ming Fan,” Shen Qingqiu said, snapping his fan open, “why are you abusing the whelp this time?”

“He questioned me,” Ming Fan replied.

Luo Binghe hadn’t even said a word to Ming Fan, but he didn’t speak up in his own defense. It wouldn’t matter. Ming Fan kicked him in the ribs, harder than before, driving the breath out of his lungs before another boy’s boot connected with his shoulder. Luo Binghe kept his eyes on Shen Qingqiu, wishing for the mercy that would never come.

Shen Qingqiu was slowly fanning himself, each flick of his wrist seeming to keep time with the boys’ kicks. There was a smile on his beautiful face. Unable to tear his eyes away, Luo Binghe watched Shen Qingqiu until his vision blacked out at the edges. 

Luo Binghe woke up gasping for breath. His ribs felt cracked and his body ached. As he wiped the sweat off his face, Luo Binghe was grateful he’d chosen to sleep alone. He never wanted to be seen like this.

Meng Mo was sitting nearby, a worried look on his kindly face.

“Shifu,” Luo Binghe asked, “why couldn’t I control it? I was trapped there.”

“Because you lost control before the dream even began,” Meng Mo replied, tucking his hands into his sleeves. “You will master your nightmares eventually. Have some patience.”

Meng Mo’s presence alone was enough to calm him down, though Luo Binghe’s breathing was still ragged. Without Meng Mo’s advice, Luo Binghe would have never survived the Endless Abyss. He’d nearly forgotten what it was like to be helped by someone.

“You were only a child at the time,” Meng Mo said. “It’s all right to still be frightened of him.”

Luo Binghe couldn’t stop thinking of how unfair it was, for that monster to go free. He regretted never thinking to give Shen Qingqiu his blood, because he’d never thought he would be taken away from him. It would be the first thing he did when he caught Shen Qingqiu again.   

“I need him back, Shifu.”

Before Meng Mo could reply, Luo Binghe noticed a shadow by the tent’s entrance, and Meng Mo disappeared.

“Luo-shixiong?” asked a disciple. “A party from Xian Shu Peak has requested to see you.”

“I’ll be on my way,” Luo Binghe said. “Bring them some tea. We are, after all, a righteous sect.”

Luo Binghe took his time getting ready. Cang Qiong Mountain Sect had not acknowledged that it was surrounded until now, two days after Huan Hua Palace had cut off all entrances and exits to the peaks. Headless and weakened as it was, how could Cang Qiong Mountain Sect respond to the challenge? Qi Qingqi had emerged as the closest thing that the sect had to a leader.

When he was fully dressed in black, allowing no mark of the nightmare he’d recently suffered to show in his expression, Luo Binghe walked into the reception tent. Qi Qingqi was coolly sipping tea, surrounded by some of her best disciples. Among them was Liu Mingyan, her eyes meeting Luo Binghe’s across the tent.

Setting down her teacup, Qi Qingqi inclined her head. “Luo Binghe. You and the rest of Huan Hua Palace will leave today.”

He’d only seen Qi Qingqi a few times before. She had always avoided Qing Jing Peak, viewing its master with poorly veiled contempt. Once, she had made eye contact with Luo Binghe, taken in the bruises on his face from Shen Qingqiu’s ‘discipline,’ and turned away. Now she had to look at Luo Binghe again, and see how he’d grown into someone she was forced to reason with. 

“I’m afraid that I’m unable to do that yet,” Luo Binghe said, taking a seat opposite her. “You see, I’m looking for two criminals.”

“Shen Qingqiu is not here.”

“And Yue Qingyuan?”

Mouth firmly set, Qi Qingqi replied, “He is not a criminal, and also not here. You have no right to be doing this. It is not for Huan Hua Palace to decide who enters and who leaves our peaks.”

“I mean no disrespect to your sect,” Luo Binghe lied. “I am merely assisting with the apprehension of two wanted men. Shen Qingqiu has already been judged. But Yue Qingyuan—ah, I know you will not like hearing this, though I’m sure you already aware—attacked over a dozen of my fellow disciples as he escaped with Shen Qingqiu.”

“I will believe that Sect Leader did that when someone more reliable than a wayward disciple of Qing Jing Peak comes to tell me.”

Luo Binghe smiled as he imagined Cang Qiong Mountain Sect burning. “I will not trouble Cang Qiong Mountain Sect with an old association. Please consider me only as a representative of Huan Hua Palace.”

“Then the Old Palace Master oversteps.”

“He is offering assistance. Cang Qiong Mountain Sect seems to have such trouble lately, keeping track of its Peak Lords. This is the most likely place that Yue Qingyuan and Shen Qingqiu will return to.”

Qi Qingqi’s eyes narrowed. A fragile peace could be maintained, as long as neither of them admitted the threat Huan Hua Palace was making. The real uncertainty was how much time Qi Qingqi wanted to gain by pretending. Was she stalling for Yue Qingyuan’s return?

Because he certainly would, as soon as word reached him in whatever dark hole he’d fled to with Shen Qingqiu. Yue Qingyuan had gone against Luo Binghe’s understanding of him by stealing Shen Qingqiu, but he couldn’t be so different from what Luo Binghe knew that he would abandon Cang Qiong Mountain Sect when it was in danger. Luo Binghe shouldn’t have been as surprised as he was that Yue Qingyuan had lied to him—he’d long known the man was a hypocrite, presenting a kindly face to the world while he allowed Shen Qingqiu’s abuse.

“And what do you plan to do, if you capture Sect Leader and Shen Qingqiu?” Qi Qingqi asked.

“Nothing inappropriate. Yue Qingyuan must be judged, and Shen Qingqiu returned to Huan Hua Palace.”

“You think Sect Leader would be judged fairly?”

Tilting his head, Luo Binghe replied, “Wasn’t Shen Qingqiu?”

Qi Qingqi’s hands tightened on her robe, and Luo Binghe wanted to grin. Shen Qingqiu was so loathed by his own sect that no one had cared when he was imprisoned. But now that the same thing could happen to Yue Qingyuan, suddenly Qi Qingqi found objections.

“You may stay at the foot of the mountain for six more days,” Qi Qingqi said, and rose gracefully to her feet. Her disciples joined her. “Any longer, and the sect will send you all back to Huan Hua Palace.”

Six days was more than Luo Binghe had expected from her—she must be afraid. He escorted her to the edge of the camp and bid her a courteous goodbye.

It irritated him that he still had to hide behind the Old Palace Master. Luo Binghe had come far since he had arrived at Huan Hua Palace less than a year ago, but it still wasn’t enough. At least he shouldn’t need the old man for much longer; the palace disciples were already looking more to Luo Binghe than to the Old Palace Master for authority. And when the time came, the Old Palace Master’s daughter wouldn’t care enough to think her father’s death suspicious. 

Yue Qingyuan was his greatest problem now. Luo Binghe’s defeat in the water prison had been humiliating in a way that he hadn’t felt since he was a child. What could have made Yue Qingyuan so monstrously strong? No blade was supposed to be the equal to Xin Mo. As much as Luo Binghe’s pride wanted a rematch, he couldn’t risk another fair fight—not when the prize was as important as Shen Qingqiu.

Luo Binghe turned his mind towards something more pleasing. He’d spent a great deal of time imagining what he would do to Shen Qingqiu when he was in his power again. Shen Qingqiu’s pain tolerance was so high that conventional torture wasn’t as satisfying, though he always screamed in the end. Yet being touched repulsed him. It was strange then, how Shen Qingqiu had been clinging to Yue Qingyuan when Luo Binghe had found them, accepting Yue Qingyuan’s arm around his waist. They must have shared some bond that even Shen Qingqiu’s crimes couldn’t break.

Luo Binghe wanted to make an ornament of Shen Qingqiu. He wanted to take Shen Qingqiu to bed—not to fuck, but to lie next to him, like the doll Luo Binghe had never had. Luo Binghe could hold Shen Qingqiu’s bound body close, feel the trembling under that porcelain skin as his tormenter’s humiliation chased every nightmare away. Just the thought made Luo Binghe’s heart beat faster.

Shen Qingqiu woke up to an empty bed. He reached over to touch Yue Qingyuan’s side of the quilt, finding it already cold. It wasn’t much of a surprise—Yue Qingyuan always rose first. Still, Shen Qingqiu wished Yue Qingyuan had stayed with him, like he had back at the fox spirit’s manor. After what they’d done last night, it seemed only polite. Shen Qingqiu was a little sore.  

He picked his clothes off the floor and dressed himself, then headed out of the room. A servant was sweeping the courtyard, quickly looking away at the sight of a cultivator in his nightclothes. “You,” Shen Qingqiu said. “Where’s my companion?”

“There’s no one else here right now,” the servant replied.

“Get out,” Shen Qingqiu snarled. The servant nearly dropped his broom in his hurry to obey.

Shen Qingqiu searched the house, finding it empty. Perhaps the merchant had drawn Yue Qingyuan into a conversation and he was trapped in a discussion about mulberry bushes. Shen Qingqiu was nearly out the door before he remembered he wasn’t fully dressed, so he rushed back to his room to put on proper clothes. After the second time dropping the pin for his hair, he threw the crown on the bed and decided to leave as he was.

The servant who answered the merchant’s door looked askance at Shen Qingqiu’s unbound hair. “Sir?” he asked, nonetheless.

“Where is he?” Shen Qingqiu couldn’t recall Yue Qingyuan’s false name. “The man who came with me, where is he?”

“I don’t know who you’re talking about.”

“Yue Qi!” Shen Qingqiu blurted out. No, that was wrong too. They weren’t at the manor, where it had all started, or had it been the water prison? Where was the point of no return? “Your master, we had dinner last night, the three of us—is he here? My companion?”

“Oh,” the servant said, his manner improving slightly. “No, Master isn’t entertaining anyone today.”

Should Shen Qingqiu go into town and look for him there? No, the town was too large—he might walk past Yue Qingyuan and never find him again. Maybe Yue Qingyuan had gone on an errand? There might be a note somewhere; he hadn’t been looking for a note. Shen Qingqiu turned his back on the servant and stumbled back to the guesthouse.

But after inspecting every surface and pulling out every drawer, there was no note. Thinking that Yue Qingyuan might have slipped some paper into a book, Shen Qingqiu opened each one in the guesthouse’s small library, dropping the books to the floor when he was done. All he accomplished was making a pile. Suddenly tired, Shen Qingqiu sank to the floor. Realizing he’d sat on a book, he pulled it out and flung it at the wall, cracking the spine and making pages flutter to the floor.

Yue Qingyuan couldn’t have left. He wouldn’t have, not when Shen Qingqiu had… Shen Qingqiu had made sure it was good for Yue Qingyuan. He’d been on his best behavior yesterday. Yue Qingyuan had said he liked to hear the qin, so Shen Qingqiu had played the qin. Yue Qingyuan had said he liked Shen Qingqiu’s company, so Shen Qingqiu had given him everything he could. Had Yue Qingyuan lied? But of all the ways Yue Qingyuan had hurt Shen Qingqiu, lying had never been one of them.

His thoughts kept returning to last night when he’d gone to untie his belt and Yue Qingyuan had put his hand on his, as if to stop him. Shen Qingqiu should have taken the rejection for what it was, but then Yue Qingyuan had undone Shen Qingqiu’s belt for him, and Shen Qingqiu had assumed what he was doing was welcome. But it hadn’t been, had it? Yue Qingyuan was so passive, always willing to accommodate what others wanted without thinking of his own desires. What if he’d been doing the same when it came to sex?

Yue Qingyuan had never initiated anything, not even a kiss. Shen Qingqiu went over every interaction, every time Yue Qingyuan’s response was delayed, as if he were weighing what to do. Why had Shen Qingqiu kept going? He’d convinced himself that Yue Qingyuan wanted him just because he’d been hard every time Shen Qingqiu had touched him, but that could have been an automatic response to being groped and pawed at. Was he so self-delusional, so dirty, that he’d take advantage of Yue Qingyuan’s body that way?

Last night must have been Yue Qingyuan’s limit. Shen Qingqiu had asked him to do something obscene, worse than using his mouth or his hand. He’d made Yue Qingyuan fuck him. What had been on Yue Qingyuan’s mind as Shen Qingqiu writhed on top of him, humiliating himself? How much had Yue Qingyuan just wanted it all to end?

Yue Qingyuan had left because Shen Qingqiu disgusted him. Shen Qingqiu buried his hands in his hair and stared at the door that Yue Qingyuan would never open, because he was never coming back. He was free of the awful thing that was Shen Qingqiu. Cang Qiong Mountain Sect would certainly welcome Yue Qingyuan back—he had been manipulated, his kind nature taken advantage of. In a way, it was good for Yue Qingyuan that Shen Qingqiu had finally pushed him too far.

Shen Qingqiu felt disconnected from time. How long had he spent on the floor? It could’ve been a shichen for all he knew. He should go. Yue Qingyuan hadn’t thought to give Shen Qingqiu any money, but Shen Qingqiu could pawn the jeweled hairpin and the qin the merchant had given him. Where he went didn’t matter, as long as he went away.

There were footsteps by the door. His fingers went scrabbling for a sword that wasn’t there. Had Shen Qingqiu been discovered?

But when the door opened, it was Yue Qingyuan. His eyes quickly skimmed the room, taking in the mess before settling on Shen Qingqiu.

“Were you looking for something?” Yue Qingyuan asked.

“A note.”

“Ah.” Yue Qingyuan had the nerve to look ashamed. “I thought I would be back sooner.”

Shen Qingqiu picked up a book and flung it square at Yue Qingyuan’s chest. Instead of blocking it, he let it strike him and fall harmlessly to the floor.

“You can hit me with as many books as you want.”

Rising to his feet, Shen Qingqiu said, “You’d love for it to be that easy, wouldn’t you?”

The mild expression on Yue Qingyuan’s face made Shen Qingqiu itch to throw another book at him. 

“You’ve always let me do whatever I willed, like I’m some brat you don’t have the heart to punish. I can do anything to you—hit you, curse you, fuck you—and you’ll just take it.”

Shen Qingqiu looked for any trace of anger in Yue Qingyuan, but there was nothing. Yue Qingyuan was just waiting for Shen Qingqiu to wear himself out.

“Do you think that makes me happy? To be tolerated? I’m something you endure because you broke a promise to a child years ago. You don’t feel anything for me but guilt. You don’t desire me.”

After a long pause, as if Yue Qingyuan was dredging up the words, he said, “We had sex every time you wanted.”

It was true, then. Shen Qingqiu had forced Yue Qingyuan. He’d done something sick to the one person he cared about. Tears sprang to his eyes, and he gritted his teeth to stop the trembling in his lip. Crying was humiliating. He wanted to go, but Yue Qingyuan was blocking the door.

“Get out of my way,” Shen Qingqiu growled, trying to push Yue Qingyuan aside.

Yue Qingyuan wouldn’t move; worse, he put his arm around Shen Qingqiu’s waist to hold him back. “I don’t know how I said something so wrong—”

“This isn’t about what you said!” Shen Qingqiu yanked at Yue Qingyuan’s arm, but couldn’t disentangle himself. “This is about what I am! I’m disgusting. I’m a vile person. If I weren’t, do you think any of the accusations against me would have held weight? Everyone wants to believe the worst of me and they’re not even wrong, are they? You let them take me away.”

Yue Qingyuan released Shen Qingqiu.

“I spent months in there,” Shen Qingqiu said, sneering. “Do you want me to tell you about the torture? How Luo Binghe made me scream?”

“Please—not right now, not when you’re like this.”

“Why not? Because I’ll make you feel guilty? Guilty enough to fuck me again? Is that what gets you hot?”

Yue Qingyuan’s expression went from stricken to horrified. Finally, a proper response.

“Xiao Jiu—”

How could Yue Qingyuan still call for him, after all this? When Shen Qingqiu had gone so far against their former bond? “Don’t,” Shen Qingqiu muttered, refusing to be moved. That name was still nothing but an annoyance to him. He started to laugh. “Was it too much for you, Sect Leader Yue? Getting caught condescending to me? Don’t worry, no one else would ever believe that you would lower yourself enough to touch something so foul.” 

Yue Qingyuan gently wrapped his fingers around Shen Qingqiu’s wrist. “I do desire you.”

Shen Qingqiu didn’t understand why Yue Qingyuan would take it this far. His skin felt like it was burning where they were touching. “Don’t lie to me.”

“How can I convince you that I’m not?”

There was nothing Yue Qingyuan could do. Shen Qingqiu had already found the lie, and that was all that mattered. He shuddered at the feeling of Yue Qingyuan’s thumb against his pulse point.

Chapter Text

Last night, it had seemed like Yue Qingyuan had touched Shen Qingqiu everywhere—today, all Shen Qingqiu had was the narrow circle of his wrist, and even that felt like it could undo him.

When Yue Qingyuan leaned forward, Shen Qingqiu closed his eyes. He almost disbelieved it when he felt Yue Qingyuan’s lips on his, as if Shen Qingqiu had slipped into a pleasant dream. This time, Shen Qingqiu was the frozen one, merely allowing it to happen. But when Yue Qingyuan raised his hand to Shen Qingqiu’s chin, Shen Qingqiu weakly pushed him away. 

“Don’t pity me,” Shen Qingqiu whispered. "You tried to stop me last night when you put your hand on mine—you’re too spineless to refuse me."

“It wasn’t to stop you. I meant to ask if I could light the lamp, but I didn’t want to demand too much of you.”

“Too much of me?” Shen Qingqiu curled his lip, then grabbed Yue Qingyuan by the collar. He was crying again, for some reason. “Like I’m a rat scared of the light? Like it was shameful, but you wanted a better view anyhow?”

“I know I’ve done everything wrong today—”

“Just today?” Shen Qingqiu’s hands tightened on Yue Qingyuan’s robe.

“I’ve wronged you many times,” Yue Qingyuan said, putting his hand over Shen Qingqiu’s. “But I do want you.”

“Even when I’m like this?”

Yue Qingyuan kissed him again. Shen Qingqiu’s hands relaxed enough for Yue Qingyuan to twine their fingers together. He let Yue Qingyuan control the pace, and it was slow, as if Shen Qingqiu could be easily startled. Yue Qingyuan reached up to lightly wipe the tears from Shen Qingqiu’s face. Cheeks burning in shame, Shen Qingqiu opened his mouth for Yue Qingyuan’s tongue. Yue Qingyuan put his hand on Shen Qingqiu’s nape to guide him into deepening the kiss, and Shen Qingqiu stumbled closer. Shen Qingqiu’s body grew more insistent and he wanted to press himself up against Yue Qingyuan, but if Yue Qingyuan just wanted to kiss, Shen Qingqiu wouldn’t push for more.

“Let me take you to bed,” Yue Qingyuan said, his voice low as he rubbed at the small of Shen Qingqiu’s back.

Shen Qingqiu was lifted off his feet. He was so surprised that he struggled for a moment, until he realized he was being held securely. Tucking his head against Yue Qingyuan’s shoulder, Shen Qingqiu’s heart beat rapidly as they crossed the courtyard. It was like when Yue Qingyuan had carried him in the water prison—except the circumstances were infinitely better now.

Yue Qingyuan carefully set him down on the bed, immediately kneeling to take off Shen Qingqiu’s shoes and socks. His hands lingered over the thin skin of Shen Qingqiu’s ankles before he dragged them up Shen Qingqiu’s legs. Obligingly, Shen Qingqiu leaned back on his elbows and lifted his hips so Yue Qingyuan could pull off his pants. Though nothing was showing, Shen Qingqiu felt somehow exposed. Yue Qingyuan started working on the ties of Shen Qingqiu’s clothing. His hands rarely left Shen Qingqiu’s body as he tugged the robes off. There was no holding back the blush that rose up at the heated look Yue Qingyuan was giving him. Shen Qingqiu wanted nothing more than to bask in his attention.

Lowering his head, Yue Qingyuan kissed Shen Qingqiu’s neck as he caressed his shoulder, his hand moving along Shen Qingqiu’s side as he mouthed a line down his chest. The muscles of Shen Qingqiu’s abdomen jumped at the ticklish feeling of Yue Qingyuan’s lips on the skin there, and Yue Qingyuan did it again before licking the dip of Shen Qingqiu’s pelvis.


“May I use my mouth?” Yue Qingyuan asked.

Shen Qingqiu reddened again, remembering the circumstances behind the first time Yue Qingyuan had offered. It seemed impossible for the esteemed, virtuous Sect Leader of Cang Qiong Mountain to want to put his mouth down there, but Yue Qingyuan was gazing up at Shen Qingqiu, expectant, without a hint of shame. Shen Qingqiu nodded. Yue Qingyuan wrapped his fingers around the base of Shen Qingqiu’s cock, copying what Shen Qingqiu had done before he took the head into his mouth.

There was so much heat, and just the slow, soft motion of Yue Qingyuan’s tongue was enough to make Shen Qingqiu’s teeth catch on his lip. Shen Qingqiu had had no idea it felt this good. His hand went to Yue Qingyuan’s hair, stroking it gently as Yue Qingyuan sucked, his eyes fluttering closed in concentration. Yue Qingyuan kept taking more of him, until Shen Qingqiu felt a warning tightening of the back of Yue Qingyuan’s throat and he had to pull him back with a tug on his hair.

“Don’t push yourself,” Shen Qingqiu said, relaxing his grip with effort. His whole body was tense and oversensitive, as if he was being touched everywhere at once.

Yue Qingyuan opened his eyes, watching Shen Qingqiu as he bobbed his head, his tongue sliding along the length of Shen Qingqiu’s cock. Shen Qingqiu nearly turned away, too aware of how he might look, but he held Yue Qingyuan’s gaze as long as he could, until it was too much, too baring.

Pleasure slowly building, Shen Qingqiu found it harder and harder not to thrust up into Yue Qingyuan’s mouth, but he forced himself to remain passive, to enjoy whatever Yue Qingyuan gave him. With every move of Yue Qingyuan’s, Shen Qingqiu grew closer to climax—he could feel it low in his gut. Fingers tight on Yue Qingyuan’s hair, Shen Qingqiu pulled him away.

“Qingqiu?” Yue Qingyuan asked, brow furrowed in concern. “Did I do something wrong?”

“No,” Shen Qingqiu said in a rush, “but I don’t want to finish in your mouth.” It would dirty Yue Qingyuan.

“Then…” Yue Qingyuan thoughtfully stroked Shen Qingqiu’s hip with his thumb. “We could repeat last night, if you’re not sore.”

“I’m not,” Shen Qingqiu lied. It wasn’t much, anyhow.

Yue Qingyuan leaned over to kiss Shen Qingqiu, then took Shen Qingqiu’s hand and pressed it to where he was fully hard under his robes. “This is all because of you,” Yue Qingyuan said, and Shen Qingqiu had to capture his lips again, feeling surprised and relieved, somehow lighter than before. Yue Qingyuan straightened and quickly stripped, leaving his clothes in a heap on the floor.

It was Shen Qingqiu’s turn to stare. It was difficult to believe that they had had sex before yet he was only seeing Yue Qingyuan properly now. He’d long thought Yue Qingyuan was handsome—distractingly so, when Shen Qingqiu had been trying his best to be angry at him—but now he could see the trim lines of his body, everywhere that Shen Qingqiu had felt under his hands. The last thing Yue Qingyuan did was take his hair out of its crown, allowing it to spill over his shoulders. When Yue Qingyuan rejoined him on the bed, it was all Shen Qingqiu could do not to yank Yue Qingyuan on top of himself.

Yue Qingyuan reached for the jar of lotion they’d left nearby, coating his fingers with it. Shen Qingqiu spread his legs without any hesitation, sparing only a thought for how shameless he was being. But Yue Qingyuan was in no hurry, pausing to stroke Shen Qingqiu’s inner thighs before he pressed one finger inside. Shen Qingqiu let out a pleased noise—it felt different than it had last night, when he was just learning what someone else’s touch was like.

“You can go faster—I think I’m still open, from before,” Shen Qingqiu said, watching Yue Qingyuan flush. Obediently, Yue Qingyuan added a second finger, and that stung a little. Shen Qingqiu had rushed things earlier in his eagerness to have Yue Qingyuan inside him, and it was going to be no different now. He looked down at where Yue Qingyuan’s cock was jutting up between his legs. When Yue Qingyuan caught the direction of Shen Qingqiu’s gaze, he leaned over to kiss him, distracting him from anything else. Until Yue Qingyuan touched something inside him that made him gasp.

“Did I hurt you?” Yue Qingyuan asked, freezing.

“It felt good,” Shen Qingqiu reassured him. It turned out that felt different too when it was someone else’s fingers and not his own. “Touch me there again.”

Yue Qingyuan hesitantly pressed against that place, watching Shen Qingqiu closely. Shen Qingqiu had to let everything show or Yue Qingyuan would stop. So Shen Qingqiu allowed his mouth to fall open slightly as he exhaled, letting his eyes go half-lidded. Yue Qingyuan’s eyes widened, and Shen Qingqiu knew he didn’t need to worry about him stopping anymore.

As good as it felt to have Yue Qingyuan touching him there, it wasn’t all that Shen Qingqiu wanted. The moment he began to relax, he pulled at Yue Qingyuan’s wrist.

“That’s enough,” Shen Qingqiu said. “I want more of you.”

“But you still feel so…” Yue Qingyuan trailed off, unable to say ‘tight.’

“Please.” Shen Qingqiu cupped Yue Qingyuan’s face in his hands and kissed him. “Aren’t you eager for it too? Please, shixiong.”

Relenting, Yue Qingyuan briefly withdrew so he could spread lotion over his cock. Shen Qingqiu wrapped his legs around him, his breath already coming faster. He needed Yue Qingyuan inside him, to be pinned by how full he would feel, and more than anything else, wanted. Sex could have been agony for him, and he’d still be desperate for it. But it wasn’t—it would feel so good, the initial discomfort fading into pleasure.

Yue Qingyuan pressed the head of his cock against Shen Qingqiu, hesitating before he began to push inside. Shen Qingqiu raggedly inhaled, a needy sound escaping his throat as Yue Qingyuan withdrew, then thrust in again, careful and slow.

“I wish you would split me open,” Shen Qingqiu said.

“Qingqiu—I can’t, if I hurt you…”

Shen Qingqiu dug his heels into Yue Qingyuan’s backside, nudging him forward to penetrate him deeper. Yue Qingyuan made a cut-off noise, something like a gasp as he leaned over Shen Qingqiu, and Shen Qingqiu drank it in, relishing every reaction. The sharp sensation of being stretched was already being overtaken by pleasure. Yue Qingyuan continued to work himself inside, Shen Qingqiu insistently lifting his hips.

“Come here,” Shen Qingqiu said, pulling Yue Qingyuan closer with one hand on his nape and another on his waist. Yue Qingyuan kissed Shen Qingqiu as he pushed in the last of his cock, and Shen Qingqiu greedily nipped at his bottom lip. Shen Qingqiu felt Yue Qingyuan’s solid weight against his thighs and held him close as Yue Qingyuan started to thrust; it made each one shallower, but Shen Qingqiu wanted Yue Qingyuan’s mouth on his for now. Arousal was spreading through him, suffusing him down to the fingertips. He’d never thought it would be like this when he’d fantasized alone in his bedroom, thinking of Yue Qingyuan treating him gently, except for when it was too much, and Shen Qingqiu had to imagine a rough stranger.

When Shen Qingqiu’s legs relaxed, Yue Qingyuan hooked his arms under them, supporting their weight. Shen Qingqiu felt like he was going to melt if they kept up this pace—it didn’t hurt at all anymore, and Shen Qingqiu was panting into Yue Qingyuan’s mouth. Tugging at Yue Qingyuan’s arm, Shen Qingqiu whispered, “Harder.”

Kissing Shen Qingqiu’s neck, Yue Qingyuan made Shen Qingqiu turn up his chin, and Shen Qingqiu expected him to object. But instead he straightened his back, pausing just a moment before he thrust back in again. Shen Qingqiu moaned, looking up at Yue Qingyuan with wide eyes. “More,” Shen Qingqiu pleaded. “Let me feel you.”

Yue Qingyuan did exactly what Shen Qingqiu wanted, pumping his hips against him hard and fast. Shen Qingqiu couldn’t keep himself quiet, babbling praise whenever he could force a word out. Already feeling close, he reached out for Yue Qingyuan’s hand, bringing it to his cock. As Yue Qingyuan stroked him, Shen Qingqiu gasped, his legs tightening around him again. He couldn’t last. He didn’t want to last, not with Yue Qingyuan deep inside him. Shen Qingqiu banged his head back against the bed as he came, crying out for Yue Qingyuan. While Shen Qingqiu trembled from the orgasm still lingering beneath his skin, Yue Qingyuan braced himself with one hand against the bed, thrusting a few more times before he joined Shen Qingqiu, eyes tightly shut.

“Ah, I’ve made a mess of shidi again,” Yue Qingyuan said as he carefully pulled out. Shen Qingqiu held back a wince—he was too sensitive now.

“I like when you finish inside me,” Shen Qingqiu replied, watching the tips of Yue Qingyuan’s ears turn pink.

“Well.” Yue Qingyuan cleared his throat. “Let me clean you up.”

Throwing on just his outer robe, Yue Qingyuan headed out the door. He returned a few moments later with a basin of water and a rag. Contented, Shen Qingqiu enjoyed being fussed over as Yue Qingyuan dabbed at his stomach before gently swiping between his legs. When Yue Qingyuan was done, Shen Qingqiu tugged Yue Qingyuan’s robe back off, then pulled him into bed.

“Don’t leave again.” Shen Qingqiu wrapped his arm around Yue Qingyuan’s waist and rested his head on his chest. He closed his eyes in satisfaction when he felt Yue Qingyuan’s fingers running through his hair, and his lips on his forehead. In the peaceful silence that followed, Shen Qingqiu dozed.

Judging by the light streaming into the room, it was the afternoon by the time Shen Qingqiu woke up. Yue Qingyuan was still with him—he hadn’t even moved. Things were as they should have been that morning, except Shen Qingqiu found that he couldn’t trust it. Why had Yue Qingyuan spent so long in town? Shen Qingqiu sat up and stretched.

“I want to eat something,” Shen Qingqiu said, even though he didn’t particularly want to eat. He needed time to gather himself for whatever Yue Qingyuan had to say.

“I’ll fetch you lunch.”

Yue Qingyuan slipped out of bed and got dressed. After he was gone, Shen Qingqiu rose, wrapping his sleeping robe around himself and walking into the courtyard. The guesthouse was fairly modest—there was no carp pond, no trees, just a few bushes and a landscaped path. Nevertheless, Shen Qingqiu stayed there for a while, enjoying the afternoon sun. Perhaps he would track down the servant and make him clean up the library.

Shen Qingqiu went into his bedroom and put on proper clothes. After a moment’s thought, he packed up what few things he had and carried them into Yue Qingyuan’s room. He didn’t see any point in keeping up the pretense of sleeping separately when he didn’t intend to do it again.

It wasn’t long before Yue Qingyuan came back from the merchant’s kitchen with lunch. He’d brought a little bit of everything, and enough food for double their number. Shen Qingqiu picked at a few of the dishes. When he set his chopsticks down, Yue Qingyuan said exactly what Shen Qingqiu had expected.

“I need to talk to you about what I heard in town.”

Shen Qingqiu took out his fan and flicked it open. “Was that what kept you so late?”

Yue Qingyuan nodded. “My first concern is always for Qingqiu’s safety. I went to see if people were already talking about us. They were. But they were also discussing Cang Qiong Mountain Sect. Luo Binghe has laid siege to it.”

So that was the news that had held Yue Qingyuan paralyzed. How long must he have spent weighing his loyalties? Shen Qingqiu’s hand tightened on the guard of his fan.

“What do I care? The sect abandoned me.”

“Luo Binghe’s influence is great enough for him to bring Huan Hua Palace’s forces to the foot of the mountain. He’s surrounded a fellow righteous sect merely on the suspicion that it’s either sheltering us, or that we’ll try to go back. What are our chances of hiding from that determination forever?”

Shen Qingqiu thought their chances very poor. Every moment since escaping the prison had felt stolen, like Luo Binghe would find him at any time and drag him back. Except it would be so much worse whenever it came, because Shen Qingqiu had pulled Yue Qingyuan into his bad fortune.

“Keep going,” Shen Qingqiu said, fanning himself. “You clearly have more to say.”

“Luo Binghe can do whatever he wants to you because you’ve been condemned by the cultivation world. But if you’re exonerated, he can’t bring Huan Hua Palace to bear on you.”

Now Yue Qingyuan thinks of clearing Shen Qingqiu’s name? Shen Qingqiu laughed. “But didn’t I do all those things I was accused of?”

Yue Qingyuan was looking at Shen Qingqiu in a way that he hated—he could see how Yue Qingyuan’s thoughts were turning on a way to appease him. “The accusations were only taken seriously because they were given by an honorable person. If we could convince Qiu Haitang to recant her testimony—”

“Why would she? I killed her brother.”

“If she understood why…”

“You’re naïve if you think she’ll be moved by my sob story,” Shen Qingqiu snapped.

“You were engaged. She must have loved you.”

The ‘engagement’ had been yet another way to trap him with the Qius. Of course, Qiu Haitang had been innocent of its true purpose: to keep her in her brother’s household. To her, it had been what she sincerely wanted. To Shen Jiu, it was a looming duty. Qiu Haitang had been dear to him, but not in the way a wife is dear to her husband. There had been no desire, and the thought of consummating the marriage had filled Shen Jiu with dread.

“I was only her favorite plaything.”

That didn’t dissuade Yue Qingyuan. “Your master is skilled at memory sharing charms.”

Qiu Haitang had been mild in every way, the one small mercy in that house. She had doted on Shen Jiu, giving him pastries and asking him to read to her.  When Qiu Jianluo had said they would be married, Qiu Haitang had beamed and taken Shen Jiu’s hands, promising to be a perfect wife. It hadn’t changed how she treated him like a pet, though Shen Jiu hadn’t minded. At least she was kind, though ignorant of her brother’s cruelty. Her reaction to seeing Shen Jiu with a split lip or bruises was to look at him with pity, and say it was sad that he was so clumsy. Even when Qiu Jianluo had beaten him so badly he couldn’t leave his bed, she’d been happy to fuss over Shen Jiu without raising a single question.

Shen Qingqiu couldn’t reconcile that sweet, docile girl he’d known with the fierce woman who’d accused him. Even though she was only the leader of a minor sect, she had stood up to Cang Qiong Mountain and called Shen Qingqiu a ‘thing.’ Where had Qiu Haitang found the strength? What had happened to her, after Shen Jiu had left the manor behind? 

The plan would never work. Qiu Haitang couldn’t be moved.

“I’ll write to Zhao Hua Temple and Tian Yi Overlook,” Yue Qingyuan said. “They’ll come to listen to Qiu Haitang, and even the Old Palace Master couldn’t bear the loss of face if he went against the will of two other sects.”

Yue Qingyuan wanted Shen Qingqiu to walk into the jaws of a trap. “All of this depends on Shizun being willing to help us.”

“You two were close, were you not? Do you know where he retired to?”

Shen Qingqiu remembered the night Shizun came into his room to watch him, and suppressed a shiver of disgust. “Yes,” he admitted. “He’s not far.”

Yue Qingyuan had never mentioned going back to Cang Qiong Mountain Sect afterwards, but it was implied by everything he said. If only the troublesome accusations against Shen Qingqiu were lifted, Yue Qingyuan could return to his responsibilities without being burdened with protecting Shen Qingqiu. Their lives could go back to the way they were before, and Shen Qingqiu would never have Yue Qingyuan’s sole attention again.

Shen Qingqiu didn’t want to return to Cang Qiong Mountain Sect. But he didn’t dare ask for that—not when it meant Yue Qingyuan would have to choose between Shen Qingqiu and the sect. If Shen Qingqiu refused, perhaps Yue Qingyuan wouldn’t abandon Shen Qingqiu right away; he might stick around for a while out of a sense of duty, thinking every moment of his beloved sect in danger. Shen Qingqiu wouldn’t truly have Yue Qingyuan, not in the way he’d had him over the past few days.

“Fine,” Shen Qingqiu said. “We’ll visit Shizun.”