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The God of War Who Did Not Hate Me... That Much

Chapter Text

“You said the White Ghost Concubine?  Are you sure?”  At this distance, Jiang Cheng clearly sensed the palpable killing intent emanating from the armed figure slowly approaching them, who could not be described as a concubine in any way, shape or form.

“Or maybe they meant to say the White Ghost Sword?  Couldn’t tell…” Wei Wuxian laughed, a little nervous, backing up until he bumped into Lan Wangji standing behind him.

Sword and concubine did not even remotely sound the same, but Jiang Cheng had come to expect this from Wei Wuxian and just sighed.  He cautiously studied the rumored ghost, tall and slim, sword sheathed at their back, dressed in worn white robes with a tattered greyish veil draped over their head and shoulders like a funeral shroud.  The ghost did not seem to be a phantom nor a fierce corpse, judging by the imprints left on the earth where they walked and the lack of rotting smell.  A living human then, likely possessed by evil spirits which gave off a terrifying aura that scared hapless villagers almost all the way to the gates of Lotus Pier before they chanced upon Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji on the road.  If this person were indeed possessed, Jiang Cheng had one (almost) surefire way to find out.

Zidian sparked and sizzled from where it twined around Jiang Cheng’s finger, and as soon as the ghost came into range of their attack, the three of them dove into action, as if the sorrows of the intervening years had not affected their cooperation.

But Zidian unbound wrapped uselessly around the ghost’s forearm, the purple lightning raging without any effect on the shrouded figure.  Chengqing and Wangji’s melodies neither slowed nor confused the ghost; it instead took advantage of the three’s momentary shock to yank Zidian towards itself.

Jiang Cheng immediately tried to pull the whip back, holding onto the weapon with all of his strength.  Startled, Wei Wuxian stopped playing and grabbed onto Jiang Cheng to help him stand his ground.  It was only when Lan Wangji, in response to Wei Wuxian crying out “Hold onto me, Lan Zhan!” while Jiang Cheng took a moment to roll his eyes, latched stoically onto Wei Wuxian’s waist and dug his heels into the ground that they finally stopped getting dragged towards the implacable ghost. 

The ghost let go of Zidian all of a sudden, and the three nearly tumbled backwards.  Approaching them, stopping just out of striking range, the ghost uttered one word.  “Pathetic.”

Furious, humiliated, Jiang Cheng lunged for the edge of the ghost’s veil and pulled it off.  He had meant to yell out something cool to regain some momentum, something like “Reveal yourself, villain!” or similar, but the words died on his tongue.

“…”

“…”

After a moment of stunned silence, Wei Wuxian commented to no one in particular, “Maybe I did hear it right the first time?”

Because the creature standing before them possessed a divinely gorgeous appearance, enough to take one’s breath away, repeatedly, unto suffocation, and that was even taking into consideration having witnessed Lan Wangji and Lan Xichen at the height of their attractiveness which, according to any female cultivator you ask, was still ongoing.  But the Twin Jades of Gusu Lan had been lauded as paragons of ideal masculine beauty, whereas this person’s looks surpassed mortal understanding of what the concept of “beauty” meant, if “beauty” was even real.  The only possible flaw in that lovely face would have to be the glare in those eyes that predicted a painful and swift death.

“Niang-niang,” Wei Wuxian called out with a charming smile, and the glare now directed at him promised a painful and slow death, but he continued with all the bravery of someone who already did experience a painful and slow death.  “Niang-niang, our apologies.  Witnesses reported a ghost in this forest, not a righteous cultivator, and certainly not a beauty.”

Trying to take over the conversation before the ghost thought to tear their throats out, Jiang Cheng said, “My name is Jiang WanYin, sect leader of Yunmeng Jiang Sect, and that is my brother Wei Wuxian and his… cultivation partner, Lan Wangji of Gusu Lan Sect.  If we have injured you, I will make amends.”

The oppressive killing intent had almost dissipated by now, and the beauty’s expression finally settled onto mild distant scorn, indicating that not only were they not at all injured, the three of them were fools to think they could have landed a single scratch at their current levels.  “You may call me Liu… Cheng… Luan,” they said in a low, cold voice.  “Not Niang-niang.”

That was the fakest name he had ever heard, but Jiang Cheng decided to just go with it at this point.  Better than “Niang-niang” anyway.  “Master Liu, if you are passing through our territory, I can provide an escort to the border to prevent any further misunderstandings among bystanders.”

The fine sweeping brows creased slightly, unsure, at a loss.  “Everything I know is gone.  I no longer have a sect nor clan, no home to return to.”

No one said anything until after a while, Wei Wuxian nudged Jiang Cheng gently in the side.  It sounded as if the beauty had either traveled far or stayed in seclusion for a very long time, and if his sect had gotten decimated during the war while he was separated from them, then they were partly responsible for his current situation.

“In that case, you can stay at Lotus Pier with us as a guest,” Jiang Cheng grudgingly offered, even though he still had his doubts about whether or not the White Ghost Whatever was a demonic cultivator.  “We’ll look into what happened to your sect and clan, and find you someplace to belong.”

“Not we, just you,” Wei Wuxian corrected under his breath.  “Lan Wangji and I are leaving tomorrow.”

“Are you now?”  Jiang Cheng’s eyes, already red-rimmed, narrowed dangerously.  Depending on Wei Wuxian was a fool’s mission on a good day, but he thought surely Lan Wangji would be responsible enough to see the night hunt to its end.  They were not even staying to collect the reward from the villagers.  “You must stay until we resolve this, in case you two end up as his escort.”

“There is no need for that, didn’t you just say he will be staying with you?”

“Only for a little while,” Jiang Cheng returned, feeling aggrieved.  “And what about the reward?”

“You keep our share, spend it on your guest, we have plenty of funds,” Wei Wuxian insisted.

“I’m trying to say…”  A thousand bitter, angry, yearning thoughts ran through Jiang Cheng’s mind, but the time to say such things to his brother had passed long ago, and Wei Wuxian would not care anyway.  “…Never mind.”

Liu Cheng Luan, who had been listening in on this subdued conversation with a growing frown, gathered the discarded veil and stuffed it into Jiang Cheng’s hands decisively.

“You are the one who took off my veil, so I am yours to deal with,” Liu Cheng Luan stated.  “Take responsibility.”

“Responsibility?  For what?” Jiang Cheng protested, red-faced, crumping the veil in a fist. “This is just a funeral shroud, you’re not dead, you’re not even injured.” It was not like he pulled off a maiden bride’s veil in public or anything like that, what need for what responsibility?

Wei Wuxian meanwhile started laughing like a maniac.  “Jiang Cheng,” he wheezed out in between giggle-screams, “consider your reputation, be responsible for Niang-niang.”

“You dare?!” Jiang Cheng ground out, but Lan Wangji was the one who responded.

“Out of us you are the only who can do anything for him.”

And he could not deny that.  Outnumbered, Jiang Cheng had no choice but to welcome the White Ghost Sword (or Concubine, whichever) into his home.

“Is that your sword?” Jiang Cheng asked sullenly, staring at the weapon the other had yet to draw out.  It looked a little more elaborate than the ones they carried, but still recognizably a spiritual sword.

Liu Cheng Luan nodded.

“Good, we don’t have to walk back or find horses.”  The sooner they got this over with…

“Wait, you ought to carry Niang-niang in your arms, don’t let him fly by himself,” Wei Wuxian pointed out, dodging Jiang Cheng trying to smack him on the back of the head.  “Hey, you did attack him.”  Even though they all agreed ahead of time Jiang Cheng should go first due to Zidian’s ability.  “If he should fall, that will be on your shoulders…”

“Sorry about my brother, just ignore him,” Jiang Cheng muttered.  Clenching his fist, he continued, “But I will have to ask you to fly with me.”  If he was going to host this kind of person, he would not let them potentially flee out of his sight, nor draw such a weapon, not until he completed the investigation and got plenty more backup.

Liu Cheng Luan snorted.  “I should be carrying you, all of you.”  But he obediently let himself be maneuvered onto Sandu behind Jiang Cheng.

 


 

 

Sometime later, the four of them made it back to Lotus Pier in one piece, Jiang Cheng a little bit behind the other two due to his guest’s weight and suddenly problematic hand placement around his waist mid-flight.  He descended close behind his own courtyard to avoid attracting attention, but Wei Wuxian was already announcing aloud they had subdued the White Ghost Concubine and had brought the beauty back for questioning.

Several clan members gathered to the main courtyard, hearing something about a beautiful concubine, curious if their bachelor sect leader had decided upon another path if you will, and every one of them who saw the two emerge from the front of the building almost promptly swooned from witnessing Liu Cheng Luan’s beauty.  Fortunately, this caused a backup at the main gate and no one else who was conscious could get in.  Jiang Cheng hurriedly shoved Liu Cheng Luan into a side room, slammed the door shut, and then ordered whoever was still upright and in control of their senses to drag the fainting people out, there was nothing to see, and even less to gossip about to others unless they want their legs broken.

He then remembered the veil tucked into his sleeve and slid the ball of silk fabric into the side room, warning Liu Cheng Luan that he must cover his face at all times in public.

“I know.  Like my sister,” Liu Cheng Luan muttered, and another pang of sympathy struck Jiang Cheng’s heart.  This one… lost his sister, too…

“Stay here for now.  I will get you some clothes and food and we… will talk.”  Then he marched over to where Wei Wuxian was watching with the biggest grin on his face.

“I’m really gonna kill you!” Jiang Cheng hissed, resisting the urge to strangle him.

“Didn’t you already?” Wei Wuxian replied blithely, before adding, “But I, your devoted brother, will still support you any way I can.  Not all of us got to tame a wild beauty and carry them home, your fortunes have truly changed for the better.”

“Shut up.  This isn’t like that, you know that.”  Rather it was preventing a rogue cultivator from causing further terror and chaos among the villagers, recruiting a potential ally for his still recovering sect, just being… nice.  Which they were always griping at him to be nicer, weren’t they?

“All right, but keep an open mind,” Wei Wuxian advised him, as if they were still siblings and not antagonizing each other to death more so than siblings usually antagonized each other to death.  “Someone who is clearly much more powerful than any of us decided to quietly follow you back home instead of demanding compensation for getting attacked.  Be a little more grateful, okay?”

“Or he could be acting all honorable while waiting for the perfect chance to murder me in my sleep and take over the sect,” Jiang Cheng retorted.  Plenty of that going on in recent years.

“Fair enough.  But there is something you can propose that could prevent that, if you know what I mean.”

“What?  What should I propose?”

Wei Wuxian had been winking so hard it looked like he was going to have a seizure but Jiang Cheng was not understanding at all so he gave up with a sigh.  “We’ll leave you to your Niang-niang,” he said, withdrawing with Lan Wangji for the time being to think of another strategy and return later for an assured victory.

“If he assassinates me, my ghost will haunt you for the rest of your second life,” Jiang Cheng called out after them.  If he got killed, then he probably deserved it, he would not lie to himself about his own abilities compared to this person.  In the meantime, because he kept his promises and also didn’t want to paint a target on himself if he did not have to, Jiang Cheng found a set of Yunmeng purples that would fit and brought them to Liu Cheng Luan.  Who refused to change until he got a chance to bathe, as he had crawled out of a half-collapsed cave, swam through a lake and walked through dense forests and overgrown fields for days before being spotted by some farmers.

“Fine.  I’ll get you the bath myself.  Come along.”

He had just finished filling the large tub in his own room with warm water when Liu Cheng Luan started stripping and Jiang Cheng nearly jumped backwards in consternation.

“Wait until I leave!” Jiang Cheng scolded, trying to find a folding screen to place between him and his guest.  Liu Cheng Luan just eyed him and continued taking off his clothes, and Jiang Cheng was not able to avert his gaze in time.  Which actually was fine, as he could confirm for himself they did not invite a fox spirit into Lotus Pier and that Liu Cheng Luan was human, a fine if somewhat travel-worn specimen of one, from head to toe.  Curiosity addressed, Jiang Cheng sat on his bed and faced the wall properly while Liu Cheng Luan washed up.

To distract himself, Jiang Cheng interrogated his guest, but a little more gently than he normally would, no whipping or horrific metal devices or cruel bindings or water clocks that dripped ever so slightly irregularly which drove everyone crazy and could get even the torturer to confess to mass murder and so they eventually had to ban those.  Too bad for him, Liu Cheng Luan had been trained by his sect leader to resist interrogation or he was just naturally antisocial and answered with one-word replies, if anything at all.  After a while, the sounds of splashing water ceased, and Jiang Cheng looked back to see Liu Cheng Luan standing beside him, clean and dressed, combing out his long hair.

He looked just as stunning in purple, and so much more real and tangible than before when dressed in funeral white.  The old robes and veil were saved to be washed, as Liu Cheng Luan seemed reluctant to part with them, perhaps the only things other than his sword remaining from his past life.  As he had lost the hair crown and pin he normally wore, Jiang Cheng let him borrow a ribbon to tie up his hair, as well as a straw hat to partly cover his face for the time being.

Soon afterwards, servants arrived bearing small dishes of snacks as well as tea, then had to leave disappointed once they realized they would not be allowed even one peek at the beauty.  Jiang Cheng resumed his questioning while his guest dug into the flavorful food like a starved wolf.  Very like a starved wolf, he noticed, because Liu Cheng Luan did not grip utensils properly, simply stabbing the meat and dumplings on as if he was eating off a skewer, then shoveling rice from the bowl into his mouth.

“Did you really come from a noble clan?  How did no one teach you any manners?”  Jiang Cheng muttered in slight disgust.   He would not consider himself the epitome of refined culture, but at least he knew how to use chopsticks and did not gulp his tea.

“My parents were cultivators and practiced inedia.”  As if that were an excuse.  “My grandparents and aunts and uncles, too.”  All right, that could be an excuse…

“And so what, your clan let you run free with a wolf pack as a child?”

Liu Cheng Luan paused and then nodded.  “Yes.”

“This person is not normal!”  Annoyed, Jiang Cheng took a deep breath and schooled his expression into one of sternness.  He did grow up alongside Wei Ying and he raised Jin Ling, he had been molded after his unyielding mother and attended to his great-hearted sister.  Teaching one wild cultivator was nothing near so difficult.

“Let me show you how to use your utensils properly.”

“Not necessary.”

“If you intend to stay in my sect,” Jiang Cheng said grimly, “I will not have you disrespect my family’s sacrifice by behaving like a beast in our home.  Unless you are a demonic cultivator?”

Liu Cheng Luan seemed to startle at those words, his expression disgruntled but no longer resistant when Jiang Cheng scooted over to his side with a triumphant smirk. 

“I didn’t think so.”

So despite the willful arrogance, the beauty did have a bottom line, something he could not tolerate, which would be a lot more useful than trying to gamble on so far unpredictable deference to a sect leader’s position.

A little while later, Wei Wuxian randomly opened the door to Jiang Cheng’s bedroom to see his brother sitting intimately close to the beauty, who was re-dressed in his own clothes, their fingers intertwined, in the middle of feeding each other snacks.  Well, it seemed more like Jiang Cheng was trying to force-feed vegetables into Liu Cheng Luan’s mouth by his own hand.  At any rate, getting this close this quickly was unlike Jiang Cheng, and Wei Wuxian could not refrain from expressing his best wishes for them before scampering away behind Lan Wangji as Jiang Cheng surged to his feet and tried to stab his brother with a chopstick.

So it seemed, but in actuality, Jiang Cheng was using this opportunity to slide a piece of folded paper into Wei Wuxian’s hand.  “Wei Ying,” he whispered, “when you leave pass this message to Nie Huaisang as soon as you can.  I need him to investigate this person.”

Grasping (almost) the seriousness of the request, Wei Wuxian glanced at Liu Cheng Luan leaning over to finish off Jiang Cheng’s half-eaten food and murmured back, “…What’s going on with Niang-niang?”

Jiang Cheng, ignoring the niang-niang for now and forever, explained, “This person is an immortal.  A god of war, he called himself.  Assuming he speaks truth, then he must have been in seclusion for hundreds of years and lost contact with his sect that way.” It would make sense, Zidian would surely have no effect on a god, a real actual deity, who would have experienced heavenly tribulations of getting struck by a hundred lightning bolts or something similar, who apparently lived so long ago, the world looked completely different, and the twelve lofty peaks he once called his home became an island in the middle of a lake near Yunmeng territory.

“You are certain about this?  Not even the great sect founders have lived so long,” Lan Wangji said quietly.  Most cultivators passed away after a few centuries or disappeared from human knowledge to never return.  No one could be confirmed as having ascended into true immortality for the last few thousand years, and the ones who did become gods rarely descended to the earthly realm.  This only made the circumstances they found Liu Cheng Luan in even more mysterious.

“Maybe Niang-niang is delusional?  Or misremembering?”  But that wouldn’t explain how a complete stranger could brush off a full-on whip from Zidian like it was nothing, when Zidian could easily strip the flesh right off anyone’s bones and temporarily cripple a cultivator’s meridians, when it could lay even a recognized family member to the ground, Wei Wuxian thought, again from personal experience.

“That’s why I need Nie Huaisang to look into it, he would be able to find out more than we can.”

“Understood.  We’ll leave first thing tomorrow to Qinghe Nie sect.  While you wait for his reply, take care of yourself.”  Wei Wuxian clasped his brother’s shoulder, gazing at him soulfully.  “Like get a bigger bed in here, the two of you can’t fit on such a small bed, how would you have room for activities?”

Smiling with bared teeth, Jiang Cheng grabbed Wei Wuxian’s fingers with crushing strength and sent the two back to their own quarters.

“…What happened to my food?” Jiang Cheng muttered, returning to find the bowl of rice he had set aside for himself had been polished off, along with all of the remaining snacks, while Liu Cheng Luan stared at him guilelessly, as if to imply it couldn’t have been him who ate all of the food, he practiced inedia like his family and did not need much sustenance, but if it had been him who ate all of the food, then he definitely used the best table manners and it was Jiang Cheng’s own fault for not looking.  Liu Cheng Luan would have appeared a lot more innocent except for the grain of rice stuck by the corner of his mouth. 

This person is a god, really?” Jiang Cheng wondered to himself, smiling in disbelief as he brushed at his cheek to get Liu Cheng Luan to wipe his own face until eventually he had to brush off the rice himself with a handkerchief.  He ordered more dishes, guessing that even the most ascetic of cultivators would probably need a lot of sustenance after what, a few thousand years of seclusion.  This time around, he got to eat a little, but mostly he watched Liu Cheng Luan, his heart touched by such pure, almost childish selfishness.  It had been some time since he got to see anyone enjoy something so simple so unabashedly, without any care for losing face or what others might think.  Not like what he had to endure all these years.  He was so deep in thought he did not notice Liu Cheng Luan moving to his side until a beautiful male god face appeared in his vision, so close he could almost feel the warmth of his breath, saying in a low voice, “…Are you going to eat that?”

The sun had only just set by the time they finished eating, and as of that moment, there were no suspicious noises coming from wherever Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji had claimed as their room, but one could never be too cautious.  Clearing his throat, Jiang Cheng suggested, “It is a little early, but I think we should get ready for sleep before it gets too dark.”  And those two start going at it like cats in heat.

Stuffily, Liu Cheng Luan insisted he was not tired, gods did not need to sleep, and in the past he would meditate instead of going to bed.  That being said, his rather cute yawns resulting from a very eventful day started to affect an equally tired Jiang Cheng, who went to retrieve fresh blankets and pillows from storage for the side room, not once considering calling a servant to do so.  The side room now designated as Liu Cheng Luan’s was modestly sized, decorated simply with dark wood carvings and violet accents, included a narrow but comfortable bed intended for someone needing to keep watch over the master and mistress of the sect, such as when the midwife stayed to attend Jiang Cheng’s birth.  There was not much else to the room, and feeling a little embarrassed, Jiang Cheng promised to grab some books and stationary and such to make it more suitable for someone of Liu Cheng Luan’s status.

“This is fine.  Better than my house at the sect,” Liu Cheng Luan declared, setting his sword within reach of the bed.

“You don’t want your own suite?” Jiang Cheng asked, raising an eyebrow.  He had assumed Liu Cheng Luan would be treated well as a ranked officer in his old sect even if he had lived rather neglectedly within his family’s mansion, but perhaps not.  “There are plenty of empty rooms in the main building, you can pick any of them you like.”  He would not be seen as inhospitable or cheap.

“Want to stay here.  You’re responsible for me, remember?”

Could he not use that phrase so casually, Jiang Cheng thought, veins throbbing at his forehead.  “Don’t complain then,” he said sourly, then left his guest for the evening.

 


 

Though Jiang Cheng felt drained physically and mentally and spiritually, as what always happened whenever he reunited with Wei Wuxian these days, sleep did not come to him easily.

For so many years, Jiang Cheng had to live within Wei Wuxian’s shadow, overlooked by his father and harangued by his mother.  When he was a teenager, he witnessed the destruction of his sect by the Wens, then had to work for years to rebuild his home.  Jiang Cheng struggled all of his life to be recognized by his own merit, to not constantly seem like a failure surrounded by others who shone so much brighter.  How was he so unlucky as to play host to a god, a peerless beauty and skilled warrior, glowing with a light as pure as the moon?  In the next room slept the definition of “superior,” while he could not consider himself anything other than “inferior.”  And yet, Wei Wuxian’s teasing stirred up a hidden hope within his heart he dared not ponder too closely in the fear that it would slip away.  That even though this god was extremely rude and not very bright and if truly a martial god, probably committed at least one instance of small-scale genocide or wiped out an endangered species of creature in his mortal lifetime… This god thought he was worthy to look after him.  Jiang Cheng.  Not Wei Wuxian or Lan Wangji or anyone else.  Just Jiang Cheng.

All right, most of this probably resulted from the veil yanking rather than any real belief in his abilities to provide.  But still…  In the end, Jiang Cheng drifted off into a dreamless slumber, for once not plagued by doubts or suspicions, only the memory of someone’s arms around his waist, someone’s breath against his lips…

 


 

 

During breakfast with Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji, Liu Cheng Luan more or less ate like a civilized human, much to Jiang Cheng’s pleased surprise.  As expected, Wei Wuxian approved of their guest’s relishing the spicy cuisine he and his siblings preferred, and so happily chatted to him in a mostly one-sided conversation all throughout the meal. However, the only dish Liu Cheng Luan seemed reluctant to try was the pork rib and lotus root soup, not appearing fond of the lotus root slices or vegetables in general.

“Try the soup, Niang-niang.  Jiang Cheng made it himself.”  Then with a smile harking back to his Yiling Patriarch days, Wei Wuxian pushed a fresh steaming bowl of soup over to Liu Cheng Luan and enunciated very carefully, “It was our sister’s recipe.”

After that, it was not such a struggle to get him to eat his vegetables, and Jiang Cheng proudly refilled Liu Cheng Luan’s bowl with soup twice.

Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji left soon after breakfast, promising to return once they completed their journey.  Though the brothers had fallen out ever since the siege at Burial Grounds with no hope of reconciling even after Wei Wuxian’s rebirth and the revelations that ensued, after this night hunt, they seemed to have reached a point where they might not fully understand or agree with each other’s life choices, but through their combined efforts, their sister’s soup recipe had now been tasted and judged as worthy by a god.  If they never got along again, so be it, but now they would be able to die and let Jiang Yanli’s soul in the afterlife know the good news.

Jiang Cheng waved the couple away, sounding surly, but the smile that alighted on his face once he realized they had to come back and help him with his probably-psychotic guest never quite faded, not even after they had rounded a bend in the road and were lost to sight.

 

“Lan Zhan…  What do you think?  Have I done the right thing?” Wei Wuxian mused aloud to his ever-present, ever-constant husband.  “He and I can no longer be together, our paths have diverged too much.  But if someone else could walk with him for a little while in my place…”

“You did your best for Jiang Cheng,” Lan Wangji said solemnly at his side.  “We will continue doing what we can, together.”

“You’re right, of course.”  Wei Wuxian could never hope to atone for all of the suffering he had caused in his previous life, those choices he made that ended up hurting those he cared about.  This had been a completely chance meeting with a stranger who knew nothing of their trials, yet with luck and maybe some prodding from himself, he believed Jiang Cheng’s destiny could still be turned around before he ended up overcome by bitterness.  “Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian thought helplessly, “it’s up to you now.  Don’t fuck this up.”  He then paused, considering.  “Unless…?  Do fuck…?  …Heheh.”

Chapter Text

After seeing the two off, Jiang Cheng showed his guest around (hat included) Lotus Pier, introducing him formally as a lone cultivator who, upon emerging from decades of seclusion, experienced a minor qi deviation that Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji successfully suppressed, and who would be staying with them as a guest lecturer until he fully recovered.  Under no circumstances, Jiang Cheng emphasized to the sect several times, were they to ask about his past lest the qi deviation return.

They eventually happened across disciples training in the practice fields and stopped to watch.  Liu Cheng Luan expressed his approval at the exercises and techniques chosen.  Fairly standard sword style in his professional opinion, but solid and careful, and wise of them to also work on setting up defensive arrays in preparation for invasion that hopefully would never happen again.

Though he looked eager to join the disciples, Liu Cheng Luan restrained himself, having been nominally forbidden from drawing his sword except for emergencies (as if anyone had the power to stop him if he wanted to draw his sword.)  Thoughtfully, Jiang Cheng handed him a practice sword from the rack of weapons nearby, asking if he wanted to spar.  Sparring, that was what gods of war liked to do in their spare time, right?

“Don’t complain, then,” Liu Cheng Luan said, throwing his words back into Jiang Cheng’s face and attacking.

In the end, Jiang Cheng survived the match with no major injuries that would affect his duties, but the disciples who gathered around to watch were not so lucky.  Screams of fright resounded during the entire afternoon as Liu Cheng Luan, who had been introduced as a guest lecturer, chased every disciple down and delivered what could only be assumed his usual lessons back from when some besotted fool of a sect leader decided, yes this unhinged violent young man would make a great shifu for innocent children, along with these other unhinged violent young people, some of whom may be wanted for various crimes in the mortal world, but who expressed enthusiasm for teaching and were approved of by the previous generation of elders, and all twelve elders could not be wrong… could they??? …Unless???

 “Master Liu, you have taught us all valuable lessons, for which we are grateful.  Thanks.”  With a pained smile, Jiang Cheng gave him a salute on behalf of the disciples being taken away to the infirmary, and Liu Cheng Luan shook his head.

“I am eating your food and sleeping in your halls.  This is the least I can do in return.”  His imperious dark gaze sweeping over the remaining students, he added, “For as long as necessary.”

The disciples who heard this groaned inwardly in despair, many a maiden and not a few youths having had their hearts broken this practice session, along with ankles and fingers and ribs and toes.

 


 

 

Jiang Cheng had feared Liu Cheng Luan would constantly be at odds with him like Wei Wuxian, was not sure if he could stand having his authority being undermined by yet another cultivation genius.  This person was after all, born to nobility and had a correspondingly high rank in his sect, in charge of a large class of disciples, so he would be used to independence and taking charge.  But interestingly, Liu Cheng Luan wanted little to do with anything related to leadership and seemed content to read, very slowly, presumably with some issues if his index finger were to be cut off, some correspondence about the current state of the cultivation world while Jiang Cheng resumed his sect leader duties for the rest of the afternoon.

For dinner, Jiang Cheng proudly showed off the only other two recipes he bothered to learn how to make; spicy and sour pork dumplings, braised chicken that glowed scarlet with how much spice he added to the marinade, not realizing the recipe called for a pinch instead of a handful all these years and the cooks too afraid to correct him.  Liu Cheng Luan himself only knew how to barbecue meat and his former sect favored bland congee and boiled-to-death vegetables, so he judged this dinner a sumptuous feast, or he did after drinking half his weight in water to wash down the spice.

Preening, Jiang Cheng graciously decided Liu Cheng Luan could not possibly be a demonic cultivator assassin intent on overthrowing himself as sect leader.  Of course he had only known him for one day, but everything about Liu Cheng Luan, from his straightforward speech and lack of pretense to his enthusiasm for “teaching,” pointed to one who walked only the righteous path.  He was definitely not like any of the demonic cultivators Jiang Cheng had captured and tortured into confession (only for the majority of them to eventually bite their own tongues and bleed to death because the off-rhythm water clocks were just that maddening), and not just because he seemed like the type to destroy the dungeon and the water clocks himself.  Liu Cheng Luan was an unwaveringly pure force, who never considered betrayal or deceit like nine out of ten cultivators Jiang Cheng knew.  As far as Jiang Cheng could tell, Liu Cheng Luan was almost as good as dogs.  Almost.

 

Jiang Cheng saw his guest to the little side room, fancied up with added books and paper and ink and inkstone, some incense and even fresh flower branches, a set of new candles and lanterns lighting up the partially restored mural on the far wall.  The room looked sweet and cozy now, and seeing Liu Cheng Luan here seemed to chase the lingering shadows of the past away, replacing those bitter memories with a glimmer of hope.  Even while answering Liu Cheng Luan’s questions about this world, showing him the family trees and maps and histories of the five former great sects, Jiang Cheng did not feel that fierce, raw pain in his heart like he used to.  Even when talking about Wei Wuxian and demonic cultivation and all that had transpired since then…  Because it was his wayward brother who requested his help in dealing with the White Ghost Concubine, and the reason he could meet almost-as-good-as-dogs Liu Cheng Luan.

The next day was more of “guest-lecturing,” this time with the adult cultivators of Yunmeng Jiang, all of whom got completely trounced by Liu Cheng Luan and his blunted practice sword after two or three exchanges.  By now the entire sect collectively decided to stop gossiping about the tamed White Ghost Concubine, having lost their appetite for spreading rumors once they lost the feeling in their fingers.  Jiang Cheng could not be happier.

Once the lessons ended for the day and the doctor manning the infirmary told them not to send over any more patients, Jiang Cheng motioned Liu Cheng Luan to the small boats tied by the pier in order to show him more of Yunmeng territory up close.  The boats propelled themselves through the lotus-filled water, but had to be steered by touch, which Jiang Cheng proceeded to show Liu Cheng Luan.  Back at Lotus Pier, a few bandaged and limping female cultivators watching this lovely, almost romantic scene sighed wistfully and clutched their handkerchiefs with bruised white hands.  Could they be jealous of Liu Cheng Luan or Jiang Cheng, one might wonder, but the truth was… they would remain single forever rather than interfere and get scolded and beaten up simultaneously.

Taking a leisurely pace, the sect leader and his guest stopped at the little town across the lake, Jiang Cheng explaining they could do some shopping here and also take a quick look at the dogs being trained to become spirit beasts.

“…You do like dogs, don’t you?” he asked.  It was important to know.

Liu Cheng Luan made a shrugging motion as if to indicate that while he was raised by a pack of wolves, which were related to dogs, he also went on night hunts that must necessarily eliminate spirit foxes and wolves, also related to dogs.  At least that was what Jiang Cheng assumed by his silence.  Ah, well, nobody is perfect, he randomly thought, as long as dogs liked him, he could be satisfied with that.

The couple in charge of training the dogs greeted them and brought out a litter of newly weaned puppies for them to look at.

“Uh, I’m not getting a new dog,” Jiang Cheng told them, but Liu Cheng Luan had already stooped down to let the puppies sniff his hand.  The couple insisted the sect leader consider one or two especially bright puppies as potential spirit beasts, to liven up the gloomy atmosphere at the main house, but Jiang Cheng kept declining, knowing if he was going to adopt one, he would adopt the whole set, and he no longer had time to bond with a spirit beast, much less several.

“You, stop that,” he warned Liu Cheng Luan, in the process of picking up a rambunctious little pup to show him.

“They will be here if you change your mind, Sect Leader,” the wife said in an encouraging tone.  Thanking them for their hard work, Jiang Cheng dragged Liu Cheng Luan away to their next destination before he did change his mind.

A few blocks further up the street, they stopped at a tailor and fabric shop accustomed to dealing with cultivators.  Liu Cheng Luan refused to enter, saying he could just wear these clothes and hat for now, not necessary to spend any of Jiang Cheng’s money.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Jiang Cheng scoffed.  “You can’t wear borrowed clothes forever with your high ranking, and I’m just using the reward money from dealing with you, it is no extra cost to the sect.  Tell them what you would like.”  Actually, he gave the poor villagers back the reward money at the first opportunity and added some silver on top of that to buy their silence regarding the matter of the White Ghost Concubine, which the villagers accepted with beaming smiles.  Meaning this was his own money he was spending, but after Jin Ling became sect leader, he had no one to spend money on, so he did not mind.

The tailor informed them he would be sending the measurements to a weaponsmith in the city for a set of silver armguards, and that the robes will be ready in two days and the armor in three days.  Nodding reservedly, Liu Cheng Luan acknowledged his host’s generosity, and Jiang Cheng led him to the next shop, which sold accessories and charms and talismans for the discerning and tasteful cultivator.  Jiang Cheng picked up another charm for luck in love; although it had been months since an auntie bothered him about a date with some hapless female cultivator, he figured it would not hurt to get one in advance of the next date.

“You pick out a hair crown or pin,” he told Liu Cheng Luan.  When Liu Cheng Luan looked reluctant, he strode over and handed him a set to look at.  “They don’t have any luan designs, but what about this jade crane pin and weeping willow crown together?”

“…Don’t want,” Liu Cheng Luan muttered, eyes averted.

 “How about this one?” Jiang Cheng asked, holding an impressive set in gold with a dragon and cloud motif.

Liu Cheng Luan shook his head.  “For a hat, I won’t need anything more than this ribbon.”

“The tailor is including veils, they attach to the hat or the crown by the pin.  So find something you like, it won’t be a problem.”

In the end, Liu Cheng Luan handed the shop mistress a silvery crown in the simplified shape of a lotus and a pin of red agate.  She added a wooden carved charm and a crystal pendant as complimentary gifts, explaining the charm was for protection, and the pendant would give off an emergency signal in case of mortal danger, or could be set as a basic tracking device during long missions away that could communicate with other crystals on the same wavelength.

“Every cultivator in my sect has these,” Jiang Cheng explained and Liu Cheng Luan nodded, taking the items.

“What about the bell?” he asked, pointing at the silver bell tied to Jiang Cheng’s sash.

“Bells are for the clan members only.”

Looking thoughtful, Liu Cheng Luan nodded again.  He remained quiet the rest of the afternoon as they nibbled snacks sold by street vendors and inspected various shops and restaurants and inns. 

“Is this very different?  From when you were…” Jiang Cheng was about to say alive but changed it to, “…actively cultivating?”

“A little.”

Liu Cheng Luan seemed to understand most of what was being said and written, the clothes and sword he originally had with him were styled differently but not too outdated or barbaric, there was nothing indicating he did not come from the middle kingdom like everyone else… except for the fact that he recognized none of the places and dynasties that had been renowned for thousands of years, and some of the cultivation practices he was familiar with, that of the demonic race, were only heard of in fairytales.  If he was truly a god… Jiang Cheng could not be certain anyone who had ever lived in this world would have heard of Liu Cheng Luan, much less worshipped him.

Jiang Cheng suggested they start heading back soon, before his guest felt overwhelmed and it affect his mental state.  (No need to mention Jiang Cheng’s mental state was already affected.)  They could have had dinner at a popular restaurant in town, but he did not want to be out in the open with Liu Cheng Luan for too long.  Besides, it was best to have a recovering cultivator eat some homemade soup to replenish their qi, and that way Liu Cheng Luan also wouldn’t have to wear a hat, which could not be comfortable to wear constantly.  So Jiang Cheng told himself, very logically, not at all using this as an excuse to watch his divine guest contentedly inhale everything set out on the table.

“You’re not eating?” Liu Cheng Luan asked, gesturing at Jiang Cheng’s mostly untouched dishes.  “Want help?”

“Sure,” Jiang Cheng agreed absentmindedly before realizing Liu Cheng Luan thought he meant help him eat by feeding him and frantically tried to push the spoonful of pork headed towards his mouth away.  “Stop, I mean I can eat by myself.”  What he didn’t want was for Liu Cheng Luan to accidentally stab his tongue with a chopstick.

Wordlessly, Liu Cheng Luan sat back down and started on the desserts; fresh fruits, a sweet soup of chewy lumpy things, fried dumplings.

Before they parted for the night, Liu Cheng Luan muttered under his breath a soft thanks.  Jiang Cheng told him it was nothing, he was happy to provide.

“Don’t worry about paying me back,” Jiang Cheng assured him.  “Just hang in there, we will figure things out soon enough.”

This person had lost his family, his disciple, his entire sect, woke up in an unfamiliar world where mention of his noble and powerful cultivator clan only referred to some small merchant family by the southeast coast. He may be of the immortal class, but he had not yet ascended to the heavens, so he had no gold, no offerings, no temples.  Finding himself alone, understandably confused, the fact that Liu Cheng Luan did not go into qi deviation after breaking out of the collapsed cave and was adjusting so quickly to his surroundings could only mean his mortal cultivator life must have been full of similar hardships as well.

From what he had gathered, he doubted he could do much for Liu Cheng Luan, probably not even with the help of the other allied sects and Wei Wuxian.  Even so, he would not let this person suffer the heartbreak he did, not alone.

 


 

 

The next morning they woke up to a cacophony of lowing cows and squawking chickens.  A female cultivator, Ying Zhu, who had moved in years ago from Madam Yu’s former sect, was standing in the courtyard, taking inventory of the livestock with a bland expression.

“Ying Zhu, what is going on here?” Jiang Cheng asked.  “Where did these animals come from?  Why are they in my house?”

“The villagers offered gifts.”  At her side were baskets of brightly colored pomegranates and other fruits, plus several jars of wine.

“Why?  I told them not to worry about payment, then they did this.”  Very vexing…

“Really have no idea,” Ying Zhu said, not commenting on the fact that she saw the sect leader and his guest came out from the same doorway.

“We don’t need so much, just take a small portion for the sect and send the rest back.”  Jiang Cheng then turned his attention to Liu Cheng Luan, who had never seen a pomegranate before and was biting into it, rind and all.  A quick lesson on beginner’s botany had to be initiated at that point.

Tragically, but not unexpectedly, Liu Cheng Luan was not only terrible at science, he was wretched at math, worse at calligraphy, overall absolutely no help at running a sect diplomatically or even sensibly.  He did have a title in his former sect, but did not have to turn in paperwork or write any reports, apparently his sect brothers took care of that for him.  Still, Liu Cheng Luan wanted to be useful and repay his host for the time and money spent on his boarding. 

“What if I go hunting?”

Jiang Cheng considered the consequences of him unleashed upon the fauna of the surrounding area like a cat let loose to slaughter the local bird and rodent population and decided it would be a bad idea.  “You should only hunt if the household actually needs meat and fish.  Why don’t you… talk to the cooks and find out?  Maybe learn something new from them.  You know, nothing appeals to a woman more than a man who can cook.”

Liu Cheng Luan stared at him for several moments until Jiang Cheng had to cough and look busy with his paperwork.  In the end, he did visit the kitchens, was treated to samples of everything they were working on, and returned successfully with a list of planned dishes and missing ingredients for such that would need to be purchased.  Frowning, Jiang Cheng wondered why these upcoming meals were so fancy and expensive, they did have a guest, but he seemed content with eating whatever Jiang Cheng ate, no need to buy lingzhi and ginseng and yinxing…  And deer antler powder?

In the afternoon, a colorful bird flew in to the main house through an open window and alighted on a little perch by Jiang Cheng’s desk.  Jiang Cheng unhurriedly retrieved the note tied to the bird’s leg while the bird sang a few poem verses in a lilting tune.

He narrowed his eyes at the scrap of paper.  It seemed Nie Huaisang would be arriving at Yunmeng Jiang in a few days with answer to his question.

Wish he could have hinted at what he figured out, but Jiang Cheng could wait, there was no danger, no urgency. 

The bird continued singing sweetly, and Jiang Cheng suddenly realized it was answering Liu Cheng Luan’s whistle.

“I didn’t know you knew any music,” he said curiously.

“…I don’t.”  It turned out all Liu Cheng Luan could perform was an imitation of bird calls, and this probably for the more sinister purpose of luring them out to hunt down than to show off his good breeding.  Playing an instrument, singing, that was as out of his reach as arithmetic or art or poetry.

Jiang Cheng composed a response to Nie Huaisang, retied the message to the bird and watching it fly away back to its master.  Wondering if this person at his side would one day be gone, too, high into the heavens above with the other gods where he belonged.

 


 

 

The next day, Liu Cheng Luan’s new robes were delivered to Lotus Pier, one set of clothing in pure white with silver banding and lavender embroidery, the other deep purple with charcoal banding and black embroidery.  The veil for the second set was made of black diaphanous silk and looked extremely alluring when Liu Cheng Luan tried it on.  Jiang Cheng had some doubts about whether that veil actually did anything to stop passersby from staring open-mouthed and thus walking into walls or falling into the water, but it technically covered the lower half of his face which was what he had ordered.  As for Liu Cheng Luan, he checked his reflection in a bronze mirror and concluded he looked very cool and dangerous and decided he would wear it as much as possible, to which Jiang Cheng had to support.

That doctor will just have to deal with all the people injuring themselves every time they saw Liu Cheng Luan then.

This day even more items arrived from the villagers, pillow cases and sheets of red silk with gold thread embroidery.  Conspicuously not of a luan, but of a phoenix.  Jiang Cheng shook his head and sighed.  He was not even engaged to a young lady from a good cultivating family yet, and these villagers had anticipated the wedding items ahead of time.  All of this too must be sent back; some poor girl was without her dowry because for some reason the (single) sect leader had been sent her wedding goods in error.

“I will take care of it,” Ying Zhu said, saving one set of bedding that she felt will certainly be used by the sect leader soon enough if his guest continued to look more beautiful by the day, and wrapped up the rest to be returned on the next cart heading out.  Liu Cheng Luan followed after her, asking if he could keep the bedding in his own room, and obligingly, she gave him the bundle of red silk.

“Two luans, I’ve never seen that design before, must mean double the luck,” he muttered, stuffing the bundle into the chest containing his old robe and veil like a squirrel hiding food.

“This guy’s an idiot, too,” Ying Zhu thought, smiling incredulously to herself.  “Madame Yu, your idiot son may have found his perfect match.”

 


 

 

By the next morning, the custom armor had arrived for Liu Cheng Luan, and as Jiang Cheng was starting to expect, more gifts from the villagers.  This time it was a pair of matched white horses, decked out in intricate saddles decorated with designs of lotus flowers and singing birds, all of which he knew they could not afford to just give away even in this time of relative prosperity.  The boy who accompanied the horses said the villagers took back the other gifts that had been rejected, but sect leader and the guest must accept these horses in return.

“Why are you getting a horse?” Jiang Cheng grumbled at Liu Cheng Luan.  “You were the pest!  A horse is the last thing you need, I’m keeping both horses.”

But at least now Liu Cheng Luan had something to do besides beating up his sect’s cultivators, and that is taking care of the horses, which thankfully he sort of remembered how to do.

Chapter Text

The long-awaited day had arrived, Sect Leader Nie Huaisang arrived by carriage to Lotus Pier.  He looked ecstatic to see Jiang Cheng, and despite his fatigue, insisted they promptly speak in private about the whole White Ghost Sword/Concubine issue Wei Wuxian had tasked him to investigate.

As soon as Liu Cheng Luan glimpsed Nie Huaisang, set apart from the rest of Yunmeng by his aristocratic dress and manner, fanning himself with an elegantly decorated fan in front of a spectacular carriage, he lunged for his throat, shouting, “You!”

“Aaah!” Nie Huaisang leapt into Jiang Cheng’s arms, screaming, “I swear I didn’t do it!  I don’t know anything, don’t hurt me!”

“Liar!  Traitor!  Haven’t you had enough?”  Liu Cheng Luan did not actually try to strangle him, only wanting to vent some frustration, but to someone who had yet to feel a god’s killing intent, it would be natural that they start to panic.

“Stand down, Liu Cheng Luan,” Jiang Cheng commanded, although he did not lift a finger to stop Liu Cheng Luan from his threatening.   “This is Nie Huaisang, sect leader of Qinghe Nie, my ally.”  Not whoever from your past you apparently still have a feud with, Jiang Cheng added to himself.

Indignantly, with reddened eyes and ferocious scowl, Liu Cheng Luan repeated in a quieter voice, “Really a liar and traitor then…”

“Yes, in the past.  But no longer.”

All three of them stared at each other in awkward silence before Jiang Cheng continued, “…The important thing is no backstabbing will be done today.  I will need to speak to Nie Huaisang alone for some time.  Liu Cheng Luan…  You’ll be fine on your own?”

Liu Cheng Luan glared at Nie Huaisang, but then decided against acting out and nodded, sweeping away.

“Is that your Niang-niang?  So lovely but so intense!” Nie Huaisang commented as they sat down in Jiang Cheng’s study.

“Say that name again,” Jiang Cheng said, clenching his fist.

“Sorry, Wei Wuxian just told me…  Never mind…”  Trailing off, Nie Huaisang pulled out a book and several papers from a pouch and set them on the desk between them.  “Anyway, here is the result of my research,” Nie Huaisang began.  “As you have assumed, Liu Cheng Luan is not of our society, maybe not even of our world.  He called himself a god of war, but did not use the more common term martial god.  You also mentioned his sect was located on twelve mountain peaks, which have never existed in this region, and a cultivating clan name of Liu, which could not be found in any volume of genealogy.  Based on all that you have included in your letter, I have reason to believe Liu Cheng Luan somehow transported from this book into our world.”  Nie Huaisang pointed to the ancient looking book titled “The God of War Who Loved Me” written by a pen name consisting of jumble of familiar and unfamiliar characters but which seemed to be an euphemism.

“Isn’t this a yellow book?” Jiang Cheng uttered in growing horror, the cover he now recalled having seen in Wei Wuxian’s hands back when they were up to mischief at Gusu Lan sect.  “Wait, you think Liu Cheng Luan really came from… pornography?!”

“Umm… Yes?  I know you did not read all of the uhh literature I brought with me back then, but the coincidences cannot be ignored.  According to “The God of War Who Loved Me,” Liu Cheng Luan’s true name is Liu Qingge, it’s his spirit sword which is named Cheng Luan, with a clan motif of a lone luan.  He has a younger sister who is considered another heaven and earth shaking beauty, he is in charge of several disciples at Bai Zhan peak but has only chosen one of his own.  His greatest rival is a half-demon who was his shixiong’s former disciple.  All this can be found in the novel’s passages, just read it for yourself.”

“Nie Huaisang, are you lying to me?”

“Of course not!  Have I ever lied to you, Jiang Cheng?”

“…”

“About something important?”

“……..”

“Jiang Cheng… how can you not trust me?” Nie Huaisang murmured miserably.  “We were friends, weren’t we?”

A million questions were rushing through Jiang Cheng’s mind which was why he remained silent to Nie Huaisang’s questions, but the first point, that Nie Huaisang and/or Liu Cheng Luan were conspiring to mess with him, had to be discarded in the end.  While he could imagine Nie Huaisang putting in this much effort for a prank, Wei Wuxian would not allow it (he hoped), and Liu Cheng Luan certainly did not have the temperament to deliberately cause chaos.  All he could do for now was to entertain this mad theory.  With shaking hands and also wishing he had gloves or something, Jiang Cheng pulled the novel to him and gingerly flipped through the pages in a daze.  Thankfully he only came across one illustration of mostly clothed figures, but the ink drawing, while stylized, depicted Liu Cheng Luan, or rather, Liu Qingge, precisely, down to the bewitching beauty mark under his eye.

“Impossible.”  The book, fragile from age, was actually a copy of a copy of an earlier text whose true origins were lost in time, but had been assumed to be pure fiction because of its outlandish and clearly made-up cultivation setting.  He had not considered it could be based on a real person, no one would have.  Could the book itself be an artifact from another reality where this author, who seemed to know Liu Qingge very well and had apparently gotten away with writing filthy smut about him, lived?  “He came out of a book, or from a world where this book is not considered complete fiction?  How would that even happen?”

“I really don’t know.  I would not have even considered bringing this up with you normally, but only this addresses all of your questions.”  It was also the only answer Wei Wuxian felt was correct when Nie Huaisang sought his opinion, or so Wei Wuxian declared after laughing so hard he cramped up and had to have his stomach rubbed by Lan Wangji.  In the cultivation world, Wei Wuxian was considered among the top intellectual geniuses of their generation, so he thought this as valid a theory as anything else.  “The other possibility, that he is a god of this world, maybe one whose memories somehow got crossed with this book when he descended into a new body, could work except…”

“Zidian would have succeeded…  Or we would have found evidence of his worshippers, some temple ruins or something.”  Jiang Cheng dragged his hands across his face and let out a deep sigh.  “While I have to thank you for your hard work, I am now wishing I didn’t say anything…”  Would have been better to pretend he didn’t see Zidian fail to have any effect and that he simply came across a cultivator who lost his mind after wandering in the wilderness.

“Ah, you’re welcome, it was nothing at all!” Nie Huaisang replied cheerfully, ignoring the last half of the sentence.  “Please keep the book.  It is the only entirely preserved copy in existence, and currently the only source that lists all sixty-nine volumes of “The Adventures of Martial God General Pei Ming. In Bed.”  For some reason, the ‘In Bed’ part is separated from the first part.”

“…Is that so?”  To their knowledge, General Pei Ming, a mortal soldier whose conquests both on and off the battlefield brought him both eternal life and eternal notoriety, did not exist in this world, and the saga was regarded as a work of fiction, but now Jiang Cheng had to consider the hypothesis that maybe Pei Ming did live in another world as Liu Qingge did, and the sheer power of uncensored unadulterated pornography allowed the books to cross into another existence where being read by Wei Wuxian and Nie Huaisang (but thankfully not Lan Wangji otherwise he could never face him again) counted as a form of worship that fueled both gods’ continued existence.

“You may remember some of the more interesting titles from other novels; From the Barbarian City with Love, Goldpillar, You Only Descend Twice, The Jade Emperor’s Secret Service, Diamond Ashes Are Eternal, Die and Let Ascend, The God with the Cursed Sword, Octopussy, The Abyss is Not Enough, Die Another Century, Crimson Rain Seeking Flower’s Gambling Den Royale, Heavensfall, and of course, Calamity.”

“What is Octopussy?”

“I have no idea, but it sounds terrifying.”  Nie Huaisang, fanning himself, continuing in an amused voice, “Legend says the novels depicting General Pei Ming’s escapades were so explicit, if you read all sixty-nine volumes, you would get impregnated, whether or not you had a cultivation partner.  Even a male cultivator would get pregnant, or so it was claimed.” 

“… Why are you telling me this?” Jiang Cheng asked, now cursed as a victim of the phenomenon known as “too much information.”

“It’s interesting, isn’t it?  What the ancients could do?  Like write a novel that manifests a character into our world?  Get a man pregnant?”  Nie Huaisang finally grew serious, snapped his fan closed.  “Listen, if Liu Qingge is truly from our world, either a god descended or a not yet ascended immortal with some memory problems, then all he could do is live out his days here until he ascends or joins the reincarnation cycle.  But if he came out of another world through the means of this book, there must be a way he can get back to that time and place to his own people, who must surely miss him.”

“I suppose so…”

“After Wei Wuxian completes his own research, he will send you a message about the next possible steps we can take.  That is, only if you are willing.”

“Yes, yes…  Of course I am willing, however crazy this is, I would not want to keep someone from their family and sect if I could do something about it…”  Mind still buzzing from these rather sordid revelations that he still could not comprehend, Jiang Cheng sighed again, then stashed the questionable book away.  “But we should ask what Liu Cheng Luan wants to do first.  That is only fair.”

Ying Zhu reported Liu Cheng Luan had followed a group out hunting, but they did not go too far and would be back soon.  Not a single person had any reason to believe the guest would try to escape, assuming, correctly for once, that Liu Cheng Luan was solely Jiang Cheng’s responsibility and he would not stray from their sect leader’s side.  Of course, why they believed this was radically different than what Jiang Cheng thought…

“Ah, being a provider is also just as good,” Nie Huaisang murmured to himself.  Then he flipped through the remaining papers smartly, and Jiang Cheng straightened up in interest.  Real sect business at last.

“Wei Wuxian also advised that you need to feel Liu Cheng Luan up, for confirmation,” Nie Huaisang said instead.

“…Confirmation of what?” Jiang Cheng choked out.  What the hell is Wei Wuxian telling Nie Huaisang?

“A divine body feels different from a human body.  After enduring trials, including that of heaven’s lightning, an immortal’s skin would gradually change and start to feel…” here Nie Huaisang consulted the paper, “cooler than normal, flawlessly smooth, appearing almost hard and translucent like white jade, yet pleasantly yielding to a gentle caress.”

“I’ve never noticed anything like that.”

“Oh, so you’ve already felt him up?”

“No!  I mean, when I took him home on my sword, he felt warm like a regular person.”

Nie Huaisang’s eyes could not get any bigger.  “S-so fast!” he thought to himself, both jealous and proud of his friend just getting right in there.  Then he realized Jiang Cheng most likely meant flying on Sandu.  “Hmm… that’s probably because he was wearing clothes,” he explained carefully.  “You’ll have to caress him while he’s naked.  All over.”

“I’m sure he will bite my hand off if I tried that.” 

Knowing he owed so much to Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji for the danger he put all of them through in the name of his revenge, Nie Huaisang tried once more to pull through, remembering Wei Wuxian’s impassioned pleas for him to help Jiang Cheng with his Niang-niang.  “Just consider it when you get the chance.  It will help a lot if we can determine if he has already ascended or not, don’t you agree?”

“Fine…  I’ll do my best.”

A voice from outside announced the return of the hunters, and Jiang Cheng got up to open the door to let Liu Cheng Luan in.

Holding a pair of pheasants he had caught, Liu Cheng Luan shoved one in Nie Huaisang’s direction, grumbling, “Sorry.”

“Thank you,” Nie Huaisang said, touched by this somewhat inexplicable gesture.  “I’m not sure if I can take it back with me, however…”

Liu Cheng Luan easily snapped the birds’ necks and placed them in Nie Huaisang’s suddenly unresisting hands.  “Emergency rations.”

“Okay.”  Nie Huaisang sat down abruptly, the dead pheasants on the table before him, looking the very definition of “scared and horny.”

Ignoring him, Jiang Cheng motioned Liu Cheng Luan to a seat to his left and asked solemnly, “Liu Cheng Luan, by any chance, is your real name Liu Qingge?”

“…”  He eventually nodded.  “How did you find out?”

“From a book, which leads to my next question.”  Still not quite believing what he was about to say, Jiang Cheng then asked, “Have you ever heard of someone called …Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky?”

“No.”  Though he had heard part of the phrase before.

“Do you know the significance of the number sixty-nine?”

“No idea.”  Seventy-nine he would know…

“What about Martial God General Pei Ming?”

“Sounds familiar.”  He might have seen that particular title on someone’s bookshelf somewhere, but… he recalled nothing else, not wanting to waste time considering treacherous things such as novels.

“Was he worshipped among the mortals that you know of?”

“Wasn’t raised among mortals, can’t tell you.”  That was the entire truth.

“Most importantly, do you have a cultivation partner?”  This one came from Nie Huaisang, who had apparently recovered his spirit once reminded of “The Adventures of General Pei Ming.  In Bed.”

“No!  Why does everyone keep asking me that?”

“Do you want one?”

Reaching over, Jiang Cheng pinched Nie Huaisang’s leg under the table.  “He does not!”

Nie Huaisang only smiled despite the pain, eyes curving over the top of his fan.  “Let him decide.  I am single, by the way.  But seriously,” he continued before Jiang Cheng could hit him again, “Liu Qingge… what do you think is happening to you?”

“I’m having a qi deviation.”

“…But we are real.”

“Are you?  Sounds like something a qi deviation would tell me.”

Taken aback by this reply, the two sect leaders began to question the meaning of life, wondering if they themselves were characters in a book talking to another character who came from a different book…  What is life?  Is living even real???

“But I… I’m too young to have a qi deviation!!!” Nie Huaisang eventually wailed, on the verge of tears.  “Da-ge… I may be joining you soon!”

“You’re not having a qi deviation!” Jiang Cheng shouted at Nie Huaisang in a not very comforting way, then facing Liu Qingge, “And you’re not having one, either!  Both Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji are strong enough cultivators that they should have broken you out when we first met, if you were having one.  Which you weren’t!”

Scowling, Liu Qingge retorted, “The only other answer is that I have been trapped in a hidden dimension or dream world by She--- by my elder brother’s unfilial disciple.”

“There is such an ability?”

“This beast of a disciple is a half demon and wields a demonic sword that can break time and space, so yes.”

“…Again… we are real.”  This time said with even less conviction than before, Liu Qingge just sounded so confident that hidden dimensions and dream worlds and demons who could breed with humans existed.  “This is not a hidden dimension or a dream, it is a real world of its own.”  Jiang Cheng was pretty sure…

“Then I don’t know.  What is your explanation?”

Summoning up every power of persuasion he possessed, Nie Huaisang ventured, “What if it’s your world that is the fake world, and you somehow transported into this world, the real world?”

“Sounds like something someone in a fake world would say.”

“So suspicious…  What did this unfilial disciple do to you, may I ask?”

Liu Qingge’s glare at him was so frosty, ice began to form on the pheasant corpses in front of Nie Huaisang.   He began crying again.

Believing that Nie Huaisang’s presence was only making things worse, Jiang Cheng tried to start over.  “However you got to this place, you still have a sister and a disciple and a sect you must want to see again.  We will do our best to help you find them and hopefully return to them, but you have to trust me and tell me everything you know.  Nie Huaisang and Wei Wuxian have worked hard to gather information, so… let’s keep building on that.”

After a while, Liu Qingge shook his head and said, “Thank you, but there is nothing you can do.  My sect leader and my brothers and sisters will find me and get me back.”  He then lowered his gaze, looking grim and resigned.  “If I end up unable to return… then they have died, or they don’t want me back.  Either way… I am prepared.”

“Got it.”  This time, the really weeping Nie Huaisang pinched Jiang Cheng’s leg, who rolled his eyes in response.  With some effort, Jiang Cheng said as gently as he could, “I mean, I’m sure they are all alive and working as hard as they can to bring you back.  Any day now.  In the meantime, we will do our best, too.  So… don’t be hopeless.  Think of your sister, and the smile on her face when you are reunited.”

Liu Qingge nodded, looking a little more encouraged, although the truth was, he had yelled at his sister right before he went into seclusion, after finding out what she actually wrote about…

All of this postulating about what was real and what was imagined was causing their heads to hurt, so they decided to take a break to eat and drink.

Trying one last time to win over his old friend’s new person, Nie Huaisang asked tentatively if Liu Qingge wanted to see his saber.

“He does not!” Jiang Cheng said almost automatically at this point.

As far as Liu Qingge knew, only barbarians used sabers, but a prominent sect had been cultivating with sabers for centuries now in this existence, so he was curious and wanted to see.  Showing off his rarely-used actual blade and not a metaphor for anything else, Nie Huaisang relayed to him the tragedy of Qinghe Nie sect.  Just practicing with the saber was harmless, but to draw upon its immense power as a cultivator would increase the risk of qi deviation each time, shortening the user’s lifespan to an early and usually violent death, like that of his older brother.

“There are weapons like that here as well…?” Liu Qingge observed solemnly.  “Sorry to hear about your da-ge.  If I had lost my sect leader to such a curse, I would not know how to move on…”

Nie Huaisang nodded in acknowledgement, glad to have somewhat smoothed over the rough first impression, though he had no illusions that someone as sternly righteous as Liu Qingge, who would have probably become best friends with his brother, would ever fully approve of someone like him.  He did his best though, drawing his saber and with one hand, demonstrating a few beginner moves slowly and deliberately, while his other hand motioned the open fan in synchronicity, like a dance.

Before he could finish the first set, Liu Qingge had grasped his wrists, plucking the saber and fan away, causing Nie Huaisang to almost faint from such close (relatively) non-violent contact with a male god.  Copying his moves exactly, but much faster, Liu Qingge then returned the sword and fan to Nie Huaisang with an almost approving glance.

“Stick to the fan.  It suits you better.”

Jiang Cheng had been watching the entire scene before him with narrowed eyes and a hand almost crushing a delicate cup, which had he succeeded in destroying it would amount to a total of seven tea sets with one missing cup in Lotus Pier’s property.  He cleared his throat, pushed a newly composed missive over and said, “If you could do me a favor, Nie Huaisang, if you happen to meet Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji before I do, pass this message along.  I think I know what his next step will be, however, if something else comes up, let me know as soon as possible.”

“Of course, Jiang Cheng.”

After finishing the meal and discussing some sect matters, Nie Huaisang left for his room, but not before giving Jiang Cheng very expressive and meaningful glances.

Watching Nie Huaisang leave, Liu Qingge turned to Jiang Cheng, his expression unreadable.  “Do you know of his feelings for you?”

Jiang Cheng grunted.  “Of course.” It had been obvious for years to everyone.

“Why do you not become sworn brothers with him?”

“Because…  What he did to me, I don’t care about, but the danger he put Jin Ling in, the hurt and distrust he caused… I cannot undo it.  I cannot forgive Nie Huaisang for that, so it is better we don’t try to pretend...”  Jiang Cheng let out his breath explosively, feeling the growing tension in his spine release.  Just to say such a bitter thought stewing for so long in his heart aloud to a complete stranger, somehow felt good.  “But for the sake of our friendship when we were young, for what he and I both suffered… I can endure anything else.”

Relations between cultivators, who let go of petty mortal concerns in favor of power and immortality, could still turn out like this.  Conflicting desires and loyalties, sect versus family versus friends versus lovers; in the end, they were still human, victims to their hearts.

Chapter Text

Not for the first or last time, Jiang Cheng cursed Wei Wuxian in his heart.  Why did he ask his brother for help, why did Wei Wuxian go into so much detail when he spoke to Nie Huaisang?  Not everyone in the cultivating world was perpetually horny like a certain power couple, but here Nie Huaisang was, passing on that brain infection he contracted to Jiang Cheng, and here Jiang Cheng was, staring at “The God of War Who Loved Me” in his hands like it would explode at any moment, killing him instantly and sparing him from what he was about to do.

This is so stupid and crazy, he told himself repeatedly, but the slim chance that they could be right would haunt him forever if he did not verify it with his own eyes.  If reading this could help Liu Qingge return to his family and sect, then he could not overlook this chance.  Taking a breath, then setting the filthy book aside, then reaching for it again, Jiang Cheng finally summoned the courage to open it to the first page.  The first page dedicated this work to a list of unfamiliar names, probably the author’s friends and supporters and editor.  By the light of a nightpearl, Jiang Cheng continued to read…

The writing was not the worst he had ever come across in a yellow book, although far from the best by any standard of literature.  If the plot had not served as a flimsy excuse for Liu Qingge and the reader to be dual cultivating on every surface and in every position at every opportunity, Jiang Cheng would have judged it decently exciting even with all of the loose ends and dropped side stories the author left in the text.  The lead characters were endearingly stupid yet extraordinarily talented, the monsters and spells described unique if rather simply-named, the cultivation setting intriguing in its own specially preposterous way.  Overall, he could be ruining his eyes with worse. 

Jiang Cheng made the executive decision to skip the dual cultivation scenes to preserve the dignity of his guest sleeping in the next room, whom he was sure had never even held a maiden’s hand before outside of combat, and to read just for the plotline.  In this not-so fictional novel based on the reader’s point of view, for which Jiang Cheng decided to find a way to curse the author to the abyss and back, Liu Qingge, a middle-ranked but talented lord from the powerful Twelve Peaks sect, was one day approached by the reader, described as an attractive cultivator with numerous less-than-honorable talents, to work together to retrieve a secret letter hidden on a warship at sea.  The reader’s own boss, a pugilist negotiator between the region’s cultivators and the empire, tried to decode the recovered letter by order of the emperor, but was suddenly assassinated by a mysterious black-clad cultivator whom even Liu Qingge could not defeat.  By chance, Liu Qingge and the reader narrowly escaped the assassin, and somehow the two managed to decipher coordinates from the letter leading to the ruins of a demonic sect, where they discovered a ghost of a demonic cultivator lingering within the arrays.  This ghost boasted to them that the monstrous Red Shadow Court had not been destroyed as previously reported, but had in fact infiltrated the imperial household centuries ago with the goal of controlling the mortal and immortal and demonic realms.  The pair escaped the arrays that had been set off to kill any intruders, and taking refuge in the wilderness, they prepared themselves to take on this greatest enemy of the righteous cultivating sects…

At this point, Jiang Cheng skipped ahead because the next several pages turned out to be one of the extended dual cultivation scenes that lasted eight chapters for some reason when the lead characters were clearly in a hurry to defeat the demonic cultivators before they took over the known realms, but to his dismay, he quickly realized that important plot details had been revealed during the night and early morning they were “cultivating,” such as the identity of the spy within Huan Hua Palace selling information about the other sects to the Red Shadow Court.  What the hell, how can one drop such revelations in the middle of a poorly written sex scene, Jiang Cheng protested in his head, what kind of scum author would do that to the readers?!

Grinding his teeth, Jiang Cheng forced himself to flip back and read the terribly described dual cultivation, cheeks burning bright scarlet within the pearl’s light, not because the writing was arousing in any way, but because he felt sorry for Liu Qingge’s righteous reputation being exploited for money and fame like this by his own sect brother.  To ease his embarrassment, Jiang Cheng decided to mentally refer to the Liu Qingge transmigrated into his world as Liu Chengluan and this Liu Qingge currently ravishing the reader with his heavenly pillar was an immoral second cousin or something.

“After you step into the moonlit pool,” Jiang Cheng read with extreme reluctance, “where the god of war was bathing, you twine your arms about his slender waist, feeling his silken muscles shift against your skin.  Pressing your shapely breast up to his chest, you murmur, “Don’t dry off just yet, Liu-gege.”  With a low and wonderfully seductive laugh,” here Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes, Liu Chengluan never laughed unless it was a manic bark of amusement when he found a hiding disciple he had not yet beaten to a pulp, “Liu Qingge sweeps you up into his muscular arms and smothers your mouth with his lips.  The two of you kiss like you starve and thirst for each other alone.”

Clutching his hair, Jiang Cheng turned the page with a grimace of deep suffering.

“Wrapping your legs about his, you move against his hips enticingly, wanting more of him within you.  He responds swiftly, callused hands clutching at your thighs under the water, rubbing and stroking exactly where you wish until you begin to shake and whine from the escalating pleasure.  Suspended in the water like this, where he enters into you feels liquid, and you cry out and moan, breathless and dizzy from the sensation of being filled up.  Between your bodies, qi builds and surges in ever increasing waves, mixing into your united flesh as orgasm approaches…”

What the hell is this vague and immature description?  Eyes reddening from a torture worse than anything he had ever devised, Jiang Cheng had to read numerous variations of “quivering bosom,” wondering why a bosom would be quivering so much - are you having heart problems, he thought viciously at the reader, which would actually be himself, go see a doctor instead of getting deflowered on hands and knees in the middle of a forest.  And on your back on the table in the abandoned cottage, which then broke in half from the impact.  Then pushed up against the door that also almost broke.  Then on the bed at least three more times before it, too, broke, seriously, who is paying for all of these property damages?

But at least Jiang Cheng got to read for himself the reveal of the spy; a spirit cultivated nightingale raised by the Liu clan delivered a message from the leader of the Twelve Peaks sect, identifying the spy as one of the cultivators who arranged for them to infiltrate the warship but was actually tracking their movements so the assassin could destroy the letter… while the two were in bed right before it broke.

Moving on, with the help of the spirit nightingale (actually a luan who cultivated a human form), Liu Qingge and the reader set out to force information out of the spy at Huan Hua Palace, which quickly triggered the arrival of the black-clad assassin to kill him for his treachery.  During the thrilling confrontation, the assassin was revealed to be Liu Qingge’s shixiong at Bai Zhan peak, their lord’s favored disciple, who sacrificed himself to save Liu Qingge from an ambush by demonic cultivators, only for his broken body to be retrieved and brainwashed and experimented on by the Red Shadow Court.  Escaping the assassin once again - this supposedly undefeated assassin was too soft-hearted, Jiang Cheng criticized, feeling that the shixiong seemed to show more chemistry with his shidi than the actual lover, that is, the reader - the three heroes flew to a hidden realm to find the reader’s boss, whose death had been cleverly faked, and make one final push to eliminate the Red Shadow Court. 

Another wretchedly over-long dual cultivation scene which Jiang Cheng tried to skip, but could not because while Liu Qingge and the reader were dual-cultivating throughout the entire night, the author decided this was the perfect chance for the reader’s boss and the martial artists under his leadership to finalize their plans to destroy the twin demonic dragons which had been enslaved by the Red Shadow Court to hunt down any righteous cultivators threatening the demonic sect’s control over the three realms.  Even though the book was written from the reader’s point of view, so how would they know what was happening in another part of the building while they were getting their back blown out???

Jiang Cheng really wanted to whip this stupid Airplane-whatever to death.

In the final arc of the novel, the Red Shadow Court’s foul plans were exposed to the emperor by the reader’s efforts, the treacherous minister of internal affairs who secretly led the demonic sect slain by the reader’s boss in front of the court, causing an uproar.  Meanwhile, Liu Qingge and the luan rushed to place new talismans on the demonic dragons in order to cancel their previous orders, but Liu Qingge’s shixiong interrupted the two before they finish overriding the second dragon.  Trusting that his shixiong must still remember him, Liu Qingge refused to further engage him in a death-defying battle on a back of a dragon, and in doing so fell from a great height into the river below.  His shixiong, memories now seemingly regained, followed after to rescue him, and left him on the river bank where the reader would later find him.  Then it was time for more dual cultivation to save a life even though Liu Qingge was not in any danger whatsoever, and at last this awful novel haphazardly and unsatisfactorily skimmed over the aftermath in a brief epilogue.

By now the sky was starting to lighten, and Jiang Cheng felt like death.  Not only did he waste the night reading the most infuriatingly written yellow book ever about his guest, a god of war who could kill him in a blink of an eye if he ever found out his host had been reading mediocre porn about him… Not only that, but he also did not gain any more background information to help with getting Liu Qingge home.  Which had been the entire point of Nie Huaisang giving him the book, or so he thought.  Feeling like the butt of someone’s joke, Jiang Cheng shoved the book under the mattress and tried to get some sleep.

He must have blacked out for only a few heartbeats when he woke to the sound of water quietly splashing nearby.  Soothed by the gentle sounds, Jiang Cheng laid in bed with his eyes closed for a little while before cracking them open in growing horror.  Because right there in his room, in front of the tub that had not yet been put away, Liu Qingge was taking off his clothes to bathe.

Jiang Cheng almost screamed.  But he did not.  He instead shut his eyes, tried to calm his suddenly racing heart, turning over in his sleep as naturally as possible.  He refused to recall the dual cultivation scene in the moonlit pool, did not imagine himself in the reader’s place even though he was reading the novel, refused to envision himself naked and grasping and fondling at Liu Qingge’s wet, hard body, his tongue licking sensually against the war god’s lips, other inappropriate things such as this and that.  But it was too late, Little Jiang Cheng awoke as well, very interested in these subjects he was desperately not thinking about.  All Jiang Cheng could do was bring up in his mind the worst moments in his life, of which there were plenty, starting with the death of his parents and family and friends and sect, then the death of his sister, then the death of his adopted brother, so on and so forth, and in this way Little Jiang Cheng was easily suppressed by the psychological burden of untreated post-traumatic-stress-disorder, lingering inferiority complex, unmanaged anger issues, etcetera.

Finally releasing his grip on the quilt, Jiang Cheng made a show of casually waking up, glancing over at Liu Qingge.  Who was still not dressed, only a white robe left open in the front exposing all of that which should not be shown to just anyone.  Choking and averting his gaze, Jiang Cheng coughed out a greeting, then asked what Liu Qingge was doing bathing so early in his room.

“Can’t go outside.”

Right.  They had gone to wash in the much grander clan bathing room a few days ago, but as they were returning, a few maids arriving to tidy things up saw them and fell and nearly cracked their skulls on the slick floor.  So Liu Qingge had been advised to only bathe in Jiang Cheng’s room.  But what was he doing up so early on his own?

The answer came soon after in the form of Nie Huaisang plaintively calling out for Jiang Cheng from his suite next door.  “I- I can’t seem to open my door?  Can you help?”

Exasperated, Jiang Cheng pulled on an outer robe and cracked his own door open a little.  “What are you---?”  He paused mid-sentence, looking across the way to see a pile of dead animals stacked to the rafters blocking Nie Huaisang’s door.

“What’s going on, Jiang Cheng? Is… is that blood?!!”  Nie Huaisang finally got the door propped open just enough to worriedly poke his head out and then proceeded to almost faint seeing all the corpses.

Liu Qingge, who had followed after Jiang Cheng, explained unnecessarily, “Emergency rations.”

Nie Huaisang then noticed the two, and his pale and fearful expression swiftly smoothed out upon seeing them in their current half-dressed state, robes open, hair loose.  “Oh.  Oh… Ohhhh…” was all he could utter, while a devious smile crept over his face. “I see…  I see!  I really see it!”

“What are you seeing?” Jiang Cheng responded tartly, “He was just taking a bath.”

“Just taking a bath… in your room, early in the morning, eh?”

“Shut up.”  Turning to Liu Qingge, Jiang Cheng scolded, “Put your clothes on and go clean up this mess you made.  You want to trap Nie Huaisang here forever or something?”

“I don’t mind!”

“He gets very annoying very quickly,” Jiang Cheng continued, seemingly ignoring Nie Huaisang, but who did not seem at all bothered by such treatment, and instead only laughed to himself, ready to report this development to Wei Wuxian.

It took some time, but they soon gathered some disciples to help unblock Nie Huaisang’s door and clean and prepare the carcasses.  It was reported that the cooks appreciated the bounty of the hunt, as they did request deer antlers to grind into powder, and Liu Qingge had thoughtfully returned with a few excellent stags.

Due to this, breakfast was outstanding and mostly uneventful.  Except for Nie Huaisang repeatedly urging Liu Qingge to not eat so much spicy food because it will “uhh hurt too much later,” then eyeing Jiang Cheng thoughtfully and also including him into this statement, you never know.

He was still mad at Nie Huaisang, for his past deceptions of course, and also for giving him that cursed book, yet out of nowhere, Jiang Cheng had to laugh.  Patting him on the head, Jiang Cheng said, “You are a wretched little man, and still, despite all common sense, my good friend.  Thank you for your hard work for Liu Qingge’s sake, I can’t say how much it means...”  He really couldn’t even if he wanted to.  “Please take the emergency rations with you as our gift.”

“Anything for you, Jiang Cheng,” Nie Huaisang murmured, eyes lowering shyly.  “And thank you, Master Liu, for the... gifts.  You two, look after each other.  We will meet again soon, I’m sure.”  Hopefully with news of an engagement, he thought, all excited to be part of this courtship of the millennium, not realizing the two participants did not know they were courting each other.

Liu Qingge graced Nie Huaisang with a rare almost-smile, having decided just recently that this person, this elegant and ruthless snake of a cultivator too much like someone else he once knew, was also Jiang Cheng’s friend, was also a little brother, therefore deserved to be supplied with as many dead animals as possible, whether or not he wanted it did not matter.  Not wanting to be left out of the conversation like before, at his former sect, Liu Qingge leaned forward, and Jiang Cheng, unsure of what he wanted, patted his head, too.  He had two hands, why not.

Chapter Text

Jiang Cheng thought, incorrectly, that Liu Qingge would think nothing of it; if he could have gone back in time and gotten more pats on the head from his father, he would have, so no need to be sparing with such gestures, even with a guest, who now that he considered it, probably could use some physical reassurances in his difficult situation.

Nie Huaisang thought, also incorrectly, that Jiang Cheng may have sensed Liu Qingge was feeling jealous by not getting his own pat on the head, and any moment now the two would move onto flirting right in front of his vegetables, and he should be witnessing for himself some high-tier dog food to report back to Wei Wuxian and only wished he had purchased one of those fancy new pearls that could record sound to take back with him.

Liu Qingge thought, even more incorrectly than the other two who were extremely incorrect, that Jiang Cheng was pushing at his head like he was a bothersome bearcub getting into the trash, and thus he logically, in his mind, attacked his host.

Luckily for the tea set minus a previously broken tea cup from a year ago and all the plates and bowls on the table, Jiang Cheng sensed the body below his hand tensing to spring, and he moved instinctively after a whole childhood and youth spent rough-housing with a brother who grew up in the streets.  Whereas Liu Qingge expected to meet resistance, he instead fell to the floor with Jiang Cheng, landing into his arms before getting tackled onto his back.  With all the weight of someone who did not practice inedia and was fed very well by a loving older sister as a child, Jiang Cheng sat heavily on Liu Qingge’s stomach and grasped at his wrists.  If it weren’t for the fact that Liu Qingge’s veil flipped up over his face and eyes, he would have freed himself from Jiang Cheng’s grip easily, as the strongest among the sect were like weak little babies to him.  But all he could do was shake his head agitatedly, trying to reorient himself.

All the while, Nie Huaisang was staring with wide eyes.  Among such muscle-headed idiots, this could be counted as basically foreplay!  He bit at his sleeve, really regretting he did not buy a pearl, but all he could do was try to catch Jiang Cheng’s attention and indicate to him via frankly lewd gestures that now would be a perfect time to do as he had advised the previous day, that is, feel Liu Qingge up.  Any moment now, Jiang Cheng would pinch Liu Qingge’s chin, kiss those soft lips that the veil twisted askew now revealed, and Liu Qingge, surprised yet unresisting, would melt under him, and then Jiang Cheng should hopefully take the opportunity to undo his robes and just full-on grope whatever he could, and then… Nie Huaisang would not hope for more but to see a live performance of a yellow book would not be too much to ask in return for all that he had gone through.

None of that happened; rather, Jiang Cheng glared at Nie Huaisang like he had gone insane and yelled, “What the fuck, I am not---“

Below him, Liu Qingge suddenly hoisted himself up and headbutted Jiang Cheng.

There goes the tea set, Nie Huaisang observed glumly, grabbing his own cup and moving out of the way as the two of them crashed onto the table.  The table bravely held up under the impact as they rolled off it and back onto the ground, taking a plate of half-finished mantou with them.  Nie Huaisang sensed no further movement after, only heard some… smacking sounds?  Eager to see if they were maybe kissing, with tongue even, even though up to now he had no evidence that they liked each other much except what his and Wei Wuxian’s fevered imaginations cooked up, Nie Huaisang got up and looked for himself.

No, they were just eating the mantou that fell on the ground.  Not even feeding each other like a real couple would. “What a waste!  Not of the food, but the opportunity!” Nie Huaisang thought to himself, no way he could report back to Wei Wuxian with this little to go from.

Around his mouthful, Liu Qingge was stating most emphatically, “If I had my sword with me…”

“Yeah, yeah, you would have won, that’s what losers always say,” Jiang Cheng interrupted, disentangling himself and brushing crumbs off his mouth.

“Hmph!”  Liu Qingge really got the slighted spoiled princess/concubine huffs down, Nie Huaisang had to admit, even if everything else needed a lot of work.

“Fine,” Jiang Cheng told him with a smirk, “let your older brother teach you some moves later.”

“Huh?!  I’m older than you!”

“Then you can figure it out yourself.”

“…”  Conflicted, not wanting to summon Cheng Luan to his hand and beat up the sect leader sheltering and feeding him, at least not yet, Liu Qingge folded his arms in annoyance.  After another moment of consideration, it seemed he gave up fighting, at least for the moment, and there could be heard a tiny, barely inaudible, “Jiang Cheng… ge… ge…”

Before Jiang Cheng could interpret that as brotherly, Nie Huaisang exclaimed loudly, “Oh, you two!  Please don’t flirt in front of me, just watching you both makes a single dog feel sour.”

“Single corpse you mean?!”

Nie Huaisang screeched as Jiang Cheng lunged for him, while Liu Qingge continued eating their leftovers, still hmphing to himself while also unsure what they were making a fuss about.  Jiang Cheng just shook Nie Huaisang violently by the shoulders, even though it was Jiang Cheng who invited him here, and who out of his own free will read the yellow book, and who was ultimately the only one having difficulties deciding what to make of his house guest.

Outside, the cloudy skies had darkened, thunder softly rumbled in the distance.  In mercy, Jiang Cheng let go of him, and Nie Huaisang said helplessly, “Guess I’m stuck here until the rain stops...”

Jiang Cheng made an annoyed tch sound.  “A little lightning never hurt anyone.”

“It would kill me,” Nie Huaisang countered, looking pitiful on top of rattled and worried.  “I’ve barely cultivated my golden core, you know that.  Do you want me to die?”

“No, of course not,” Jiang Cheng sighed, relenting.  “You can stay another night if you need to, it’s fine.  But I’m sure Wei Wuxian would want to hear from you directly before he moves on.”

Smiling, Nie Huaisang said he would leave this afternoon if the weather clears.  But storms at Lotus Pier often lasted the whole day, they both knew.  More time to observe and gather proof, Nie Huaisang tried to encourage himself, as he did not want to be caught embellishing on the nature of Jiang Cheng’s relationship with his Niang-niang to Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji, who would never trust him again if they found out he lied.

Liu Qingge, the not niang-niang, looked a little glum and restless at this turn of events.  Was he jealous of Nie Huaisang taking up even more of Jiang Cheng’s time and attention?  If so, he did not mention it aloud, but only expressed wanting to go outside.

“It’s about to rain, the horses will be fine without exercise for one day,” Jiang Cheng told him.

“Horses?” Nie Huaisang asked, surprised.  Yunmeng usually used boats to travel by, so their stables were maintained mostly for guests. 

“…Gifts from the villagers who called in the night hunt.”

“Really?  Normally, they would reward you with silver for that.”  This was a new development to him, Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji had left before the reward business was sorted out.

“Usually.  This time, we got two horses from the villagers.  Also some cows and chickens and fruits.  Wine…”

“Blankets.”

Jiang Cheng made a shushing noise at Liu Qingge, looking annoyed.

Nie Huaisang could not refrain from laughing lightly.  “Blankets?  What sort of blankets?”

“None of your business sort of blankets.”

No need to trick an answer out of them, Nie Huaisang had a pretty good guess what all of this could mean.  “Ah, I see,” he said, smiling from behind his fan.  “The important thing, these villagers had good foresight to send such fine gifts, very lucky for you both.”

The way he figured, if all goes well, Jiang Cheng and Liu Qingge would ride these horses out to bid Nie Huaisang farewell, but then it suddenly would start pouring rain as they rode back, and Liu Qingge, his white robes drenched and clinging to his body, would fall sick since he formerly lived in a mountain range and would not be used to the wet and misty weather of Yunmeng Jiang, even though a god would not get a cold most likely, and he would have to be nursed back to health by Jiang Cheng, who would immediately put the mystery blankets to good use to keep his guest dry and warm with some skin to skin contact even, and he would order all of the wine and fruits decocted into a sweet tasting medicine for Liu Qingge, oh, but Liu Qingge still wouldn’t take his medicine, so Jiang Cheng would have to feed it to him mouth to mouth.  And so on and so forth.

Nie Huaisang felt he should be writing his own yellow books with how much brain power he was putting into concocting these romantic scenarios.  If he had put this much effort into his studies and saber practice… well, he would not have needed to put as much effort into his revenge, probably…

Jiang Cheng only gave him an odd look, then excused himself to go work on sect leader duties.  Nie Huaisang wanted to join him in his study to discuss some “things” (for example, pornography, what, he hadn’t really read any in about fifteen years, much less talked about it), but Jiang Cheng really wanted to be alone without company for a while.  Not to be thwarted, Nie Huaisang then insinuated he would be left alone with Liu Qingge, and he may not be able to control himself in the presence of a peerless beauty, despite said peerless beauty being strong enough to break him in half.

In the end, the two of them followed Jiang Cheng into the study.  They easily distracted Liu Qingge with a book with lots of pictures of famous swords of the cultivating sects, and Nie Huaisang got down to business.

“You look like you did not sleep well, Jiang Cheng.  Can I assume you read the book?  Wasn’t it good?”

“It was shit.  Useless shit.”

“But you read it all, that’s how you know, right?”

“Be quiet.”  His face was starting to flush however.  “I’ve had enough of your chatter.”

“That sort of attitude is not going to get you a wife.”  Nie Huaisang had never been optimistic about Jiang Cheng’s chances of getting a wife, and while he never actively sabotaged his friend’s dates, he never tried to help him either.  He really honestly thought no female cultivator could match with Jiang Cheng, if there existed a woman out there who could fulfill even half of his very long list of requirements for the ideal wife.  But a god of war who featured prominently in a classic work of pornography, who incidentally fulfilled at most one of the requirements on Jiang Cheng’s list… that was different, that could work, Nie Huaisang would even bet on it.  Not to mention, Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji approved of this match, so Nie Huaisang had to utilize every resource and experience he possessed to get Jiang Cheng together with Liu Qingge.  It was only right.

He would build on what he had already discovered.  Like this lotus hair crown he just noticed Liu Qingge wearing…  Leaving Jiang Cheng to his unlovely paperwork, Nie Huaisang knelt beside Liu Qingge.

“Liu Qingge, until you can return to your home… what do you think of joining Yunmeng Jiang sect?  As more than a guest lecturer?”  Meeting that blank look, Nie Huaisang added, “It’s the third most powerful sect now, and Jiang Cheng himself is the fourth ranked cultivator in the realm.  If he allowed you to join the clan...”

A cultivator remained in the sect they initially joined until death, and can only officially leave their sect if they got adopted or married into another sect; otherwise, they could leave by giving up their allegiance to the sect leader and become a guest lecturer or rogue cultivator, but never gain the full security and advantages enjoyed by an official sect member.

Liu Qingge considered this with his brow creased in concentration.  He did not mind being a guest, he had no ambition as long as no one defeated him in battle and lived to tell, but what if his shixiong could not figure out a way to bring him back to his home, back to Cang Qiong sect?  In the worst case scenario, there could come a day in which he would be alone, with no clan, no sect…

“…Would I get a bell if I joined?”

Nie Huaisang nodded, eyes glittering at this very encouraging sign.  “Of course!  All the silver bells you want!”

“But… sect leader Jiang Cheng is younger than me.  He can’t adopt me as his son.”

It took every last bit of self-restraint he possessed for Nie Huaisang to not clutch his hair and scream at how stupid these two were.

Eventually, the rain let up and Nie Huaisang set out, carriage laden with qiankun pouches full of fresh meat to last until he got home.  He promised to write often, while hinting very strongly that he would be happy to help plan for a lavish celebration at Lotus Pier, such as a wedding celebration or something similar.

“Take care of yourself first,” Jiang Cheng grumbled, cheeks reddened, “then we’ll see.”

“Remember what I told you, and the book, don’t forget about it,” Nie Huaisang reminded him helpfully as he climbed into the carriage with Jiang Cheng’s assistance.  Then to Liu Qingge, he added, “Come visit Qinghe Nie sect someday, you are always welcome, Liu Qingge.  I will have a saber ready for you, and a fan if you like.”

Liu Qingge nodded.

“Because as you know I am still single!” Nie Huaisang called out through the window, waving good bye while Jiang Cheng tried to find something to throw at him.

 


 

 

Before he reached Qinghe Nie Sect territory, Nie Huaisang met up with two familiar travelers at an inn by the side of the road.

“What did you find out?” Wei Wuxian asked, some time after Nie Huaisang tried to pawn off some of his emergency rations.

“It has only been ten days,” Nie Huaisang answered solemnly.  “What you are asking of Jiang Cheng would take months, if not years to foster.”  The wedding of Lotus Pier would not be happening anytime soon, he believed, would he grow old and gray before he can plan it?

“I don’t think we can wait that long.  Jiang Cheng is on the verge of qi deviation if he keeps lingering in bitterness and guilt.  With all that has happened, our presence would just make things worse, and our only other hope, Lan Xichen, is still in seclusion.  It has to be now, and it has to be Niang-niang.”

Nie Huaisang let out his breath.  “I did my best, I gave Jiang Cheng the book, I told him all of your advice, I even tried flirting with both of them.  But he won’t fall to a scheme like that.”

“Not a scheme,” Wei Wuxian corrected.  “An… intervention.”

“Sure, an intervention…  And as for Liu Qingge, he is still a god of war.  I suppose in times of peace, a god of war could become a god of… fertility.”

“You can say sex.” 

“…Lan Wangji, whenever you say that…”  The disconnect was too unsettling.  “Anyway, Liu Qingge probably could change his role, but I’m just not sure if he can succeed?”  Liu Qingge was just too stupid.  He didn’t know where babies came from, but somehow knew where puppies and kittens came from, how would he think of dual cultivating even after being heavily prompted in as many ways as Nie Huaisang could imagine?

“You’re not wrong, and I did take that into account.  Then that leaves just one more person whom we can ask to help until Uncle can get Lan Xichen out of seclusion.”

“No… you’re not suggesting…  But he’s just a kid!”

“He’s a kid Jiang Cheng would do anything for.”  Wei Wuxian, who had a serious expression this entire time, suddenly grinned.  “I’ve not yet finished with setting up, so I will suggest that Jin Ling invite his uncle and Niang-niang to spend some time in the beautiful and relaxing Koi Tower.  That will give us another week at least.  Who knows what will happen by then?”

“Nie Huaisang…”  Back then, Lan Wangji never expressed much of an opinion regarding Jiang Cheng.  But after coming to love Wei Wuxian, his thoughts followed after Wei Wuxian’s naturally, and to watch someone suffer but not do his best to help was never the path Lan Wangji chose.  In the end, Jiang Cheng was important to him, too.  “What did you see?”

After a moment, Nie Huaisang smiled, maybe a little longingly, or a little enviously, and answered, “I saw… that Liu Qingge would never fade away for as long as Jiang Cheng is alive.”  The enchanting light of the moon that reflects on deep waters, that was what he saw.  Would that amount to anything in the future, well, that was what they have yet to see.

Chapter Text

Wei Wuxian believed that Jiang Cheng might be in danger of qi deviation, however he came to the slightly wrong conclusion.  What he actually sensed was his former body’s golden core now residing within Jiang Cheng destabilizing and so assumed Jiang Cheng had developed a heart demon born from maybe at least fifty different reasons, who knows.  It did not occur to Wei Wuxian that his golden core was agitated because it did not want this second body currently housing it to die a virgin as well (since the chances of getting into a third body seemed nonexistent), and it had found a perfectly compatible cultivation partner within Liu Qingge, and thus was currently trying to signal to anyone that could understand that Jiang Cheng was not getting any younger.  Or something like that.  But in the end, a golden core did not actually have sentience, nor free will, nor a way to communicate to others, and in the end, Jiang Cheng felt only a slight headache, probably from reading bad self-insert porn all night instead of sleeping.

While Jiang Cheng went to catch up on missed sleep, Liu Qingge was left on his own again.  He had already gone hunting, and the local population of wild animals needed time to recover from their fright, and while he could go to the somewhat damp practice fields by himself, he would much rather have someone to spar with.  Holed up in his little room, Liu Qingge spent some time inspecting Cheng Luan carefully, sharpened and buffed the sword to a perfect silver gleam, tried once more to summon the connection between its spirit and his own soul.  The link felt fragile and wavering, and Liu Qingge could not help frowning in concern.  Even if he wanted to draw his sword to attack, he still had not recovered enough to perform his blade arrays and other spiritual sword techniques.  His qi reserves and physical strength had weakened significantly in this world, as if he had not cultivated within the caves but just slept instead; without the thousands of years of accumulated qi found within each of the twelve peaks to access whenever he wanted, he had to draw on the moderate residual energy in the environment of the rivers and Yunmeng sect grounds and circulate qi within his meridians like a child disciple in the qi refining stage.  Liu Qingge meditated for some time to recover a little more, and only came back to reality when he started feeling hungry.  Another side effect of having to start over that he had not felt in years…

When he looked into Jiang Cheng’s room, the sect leader had not yet woken up.  Liu Qingge found his way to the kitchens on his own where the cooks and servants greeted him with cheerful grins.  They let him sample whatever he wanted, and when he asked if he should help, everyone chuckled.  Finally one disciple on kitchen duty, a cousin thrice removed of the Jiang clan, showed him some ingredients he could grind to powder in a mortar and pestle.

“Medicine?” Liu Qingge asked.

“Uh… you can say that, sure,” the disciple, Jiang ChenLing, said solemnly.  “But mostly it is for… recreation.  Be sure to not breathe any particles in even through your veil.  We will save it for later, the powder should only be used when both parties are aware and ready to… partake of its benefits.”

Liu Qingge nodded.  Like one of his shidi’s “special” herbs he never let anyone use after that one time his shixiong “accidentally” set a small field of it on fire, and almost the entire sect had hallucinated for three days straight.

It did not take long for him to complete grinding the powders and filling carefully labeled paper packets with the medicine, which Jiang ChenLing gathered and stored in a specially locked box.  They next had Liu Qingge roll up his sleeves and roll out noodles with a giant rolling pin, which actually used a lot of muscle and core strength.  The two disciples stuck with that chore breathed a sigh of relief as they took advantage of the break to sneak some more tastes out of the simmering pots.  Now a little impressed by the amount of arm and back strength the cooks utilized every day just to make food, Liu Qingge followed after each person, trying to observe without getting in the way, how he imagined Jiang Cheng must have, in order to have learned how to cook…

In order to get a wife, if he remembered right, and he had to ask himself, “How does knowing how to cook get you a wife?”  Liu Qingge never heard of such a thing; the men of his clan never cooked, and none of his brothers at the sect bothered to cook.  But that only brought to mind a certain someone who did cook, exceptionally well, and the bitterness in Liu Qingge’s heart resurfaced, even though he told everyone he was fine, he had already moved on, he was, believe it or not, happy for them, as they all should be…  Because the sect was first, family was second…  (Something not as important was third, he forgot what, apparently it wasn’t that important,) and… one’s self was last… 

“Who told you that?” Jiang ChenLing asked in response to his question.  “If it was Sect Leader, well… you needn’t take it to heart.”  Sect Leader indeed learned some recipes from his talented chef sister, and that was better than nothing, but such spicy versions of her trademark dishes would scare off even the most determined gold-digger who could make it past his nasty attitude.  Then again, this guest lecturer seemed to like eating Sect Leader’s cooking, so maybe… the theory was working a little?

The head cook, a sturdy middle-aged woman who had not cultivated past the first stage but did not command any less respect for it, looked thoughtful and kindly offered, “Did Master Liu want to learn how to cook something?  What about congee?”  Simple enough, only a disaster such as Wei Wuxian could mess up congee.

Nothing in the world could taste worse than congee to Liu Qingge, who would rather go hungry than try to choke it down, and yet that beastly half-demon could…  “Show me your best recipe for congee, then.”

They all took turns teaching Liu Qingge how to make congee, and it looked dicey for a while, until Jiang  ChenLing thought to compare each step to as many battle analogies as he could think of.

“So you want to boil the rice in water, and watch the consistency until the cooked rice resembles… minced up brain matter.  Then slice the ginger and scallions thinly at an angle, as if you are… skinning a demonic cultivator alive but want them to recover quickly for more torture the next day.  Next we will fry the chopped meat and garlic in hot oil, stirring constantly like… when practicing parrying sword forms, until it turns fragrant and golden brown.”

Finally being communicated to in a way he could understand, Liu Qingge followed these instructions with ease, then asked when they were going to add the spice.

“…No, no spices,” the cook said, concerned.  “Just some salt and a little freshly ground white pepper.”

Ladling the finished congee into a bowl and adding some slices of garnishes, Liu Qingge decided to bring his creation to Jiang Cheng, who must have woken up by now and would be hungry.

“Ahh, good luck!” the servants and disciples exclaimed, bringing out a lovely lacquered tray and making a pot of tea for him to take.  Liu Qingge just gave them one of his looks, then left the kitchens with laden tray.

Jiang Cheng roused from his nap surprised and somewhat worried to see Liu Qingge sitting on a chair at his bedside.  Then he smelled the most wonderful aroma, and his stomach growled loudly.

“Were you here the entire time, Liu Qingge?” he asked, sitting up and pinpointing the delicious smell to a covered bowl of still steaming something on a small table nearby.

“No.  Went to the kitchens.”  Looking strangely bashful and all the more charming for it, Liu Qingge brought the bowl of congee over to him.  “Made this.  Do you want to try?”

“Of course.”  Jiang Cheng had slept for nearly half the day, and the last meal was so long ago.  He eagerly took the offered spoon and scooped up a large serving of the snowy white congee, making sure to get a bit of the savory ground meat and herbs and beautifully sliced lotus root.  Carefully blowing on it, he put the spoon into his mouth and then almost spat the food out immediately.  This congee was saltier than anything he had ever eaten and one time he ate a bowl of salt (Wei Wuxian dared him to.)  But looking at Liu Qingge’s hopeful expression, Jiang Cheng swallowed the spoonful and tried his best to smile while not gagging.

“Umm… this congee… sure takes care of your hunger.”  As in, he never wanted to eat ever again.  “Can I get some water?”

Liu Qingge got him water and also the tea.

“Thank you for making this, Liu Qingge,” Jiang Cheng said, bravely eating another spoonful while his tongue grieved.  To take his mind off his suffering, he went on to say, “You didn’t have to stay inside all day, you know you can leave Lotus Pier anytime you want, as long as you stay within Yunmeng Jiang sect territory and have your crystal with you.”

“There is nowhere I want to go.”  Not without Jiang Cheng, anyway, it wasn’t as if he got easily lost, even in a new world, but in case Wei Wuxian had news…  Expressionlessly, Liu Qingge watched Jiang Cheng eat another spoonful.  “It tastes bad, doesn’t it?” he asked.

“N-no…” Jiang Cheng stuttered, not sure how he got caught, then had to sigh.  He had never lied nor held back the truth in the past, no matter how tough, he would not start now.  “All right, maybe you added too much salt.”  Seeing Liu Qingge’s face grow even colder, Jiang Cheng sheepishly sought for something to ease the criticism.  “It’s not a big deal, everyone makes that mistake.  Like that one time when we were kids, Wei Wuxian and I tried to make millet porridge for Mother who wasn’t feeling well, but we got into the wrong container.  The porridge was so salty, she made us taste it, we thought we were going to be punished.  Instead, she took us out to her garden, and the three of us spent the morning putting the porridge around where the slugs were eating up the flowers.”

“…I see…” At each step of cooking, Liu Qingge had added salt, and when he was told to not add spice to congee, he just added more salt to make up for it.  But Jiang Cheng did not seem too bothered by being forced to eat overly salty slug-killing congee out of politeness.

“Anyway, you don’t have to learn how to cook, I can cook for us both,” Jiang Cheng was telling him with an amused look.  “Aren’t you a god of war?  Who makes a god of war cook?  Listen to me, you don’t have to change for anyone, Liu Qingge, don’t pay attention to anyone who says anything like that.  You’re fine the way you are.”

“En…”  However, in his heart, Liu Qingge disagreed.  Staying the way he was, living the manner he always had, believing in the path of righteousness and justice and honor that he had been taught since childhood… he still lost in the end, lost his perfect reputation, his sect and clan name’s dignity… most of all, the attentions of the first and maybe only person he thought willingly cared about him, but in the end had never truly returned his devotion, had been using him the entire time, had went off with another and never once looked back at him nor anyone else in their sect… except for a few times they had to summon him back to the sect to complete some tax paperwork before the deadline set by the local government and it was a scramble but at least they did not get fined. 

Helpless, Liu Qingge endured those repeated humiliations, and in the end, had to pretend everything was more or less fine, while everyone else carried on as if nothing much had changed except that two peak lords were going to be absent much of the time except of course around tax time.  Sect is first, after all, and your own feelings are last.  He made his feelings clear once, and after all the scolding and lecturing and yelling, why was he still causing trouble for sect leader, why did he have to remind everyone, didn’t we all suffer enough already, just let them go brother, there’s nothing you can do now, just deal with it shibo… after all that… he buried his feelings as deep as he could to maintain the peace between the realms.  As a god of war should, right?

“Hey… don’t worry about it,” Jiang Cheng was saying, “I’m not going to tell anyone.  We can just use the stuff to kill slugs later, I’m sure your next try will be much better.”  Jiang Cheng was not the type to offer comfort, but he did notice Liu Qingge looked extremely upset.  The last thing Jiang Cheng wanted was for a god of war to go berserk and Lotus Pier have to be rebuilt a second time in two decades.  No one appreciated how long it took for him to learn carpentry and such.

Setting the bowl aside, Jiang Cheng held out his hand.  “Give me your p- err… hand,” he ordered.

Quietly, Liu Qingge rested his hand on Jiang Cheng’s palm.  A little self-conscious by this sudden meekness, Jiang Cheng cleared his throat and rubbed hesitantly at Liu Qingge’s hand.  There was little difference between their hands in shape or size, but Liu Qingge’s calluses from years of training, the tiny scars and nicks from countless battles marking his knuckles, all of that felt rough to the touch.  Not smooth or jadelike at all, Jiang Cheng thought, deciding Nie Huaisang had to have been tricking him.  Once he felt more confident that Liu Qingge was not going to pull away or react poorly, he sent over a little curl of qi energy, warm and golden and harmless, into his guest’s palm, all the while massaging.  Not caressing, he reassured himself, just massaging, nothing like that time he saw his father try to soothe his mother’s irritability by enveloping her delicate hands with his own, pressing and squeezing and intertwining their fingers until all of a sudden, they got up and suddenly ran off to their rooms hand in hand, and at that point his sister told him to come along, do not bother their parents for the night, and when he asked why, she only asked if he wanted a little brother or sister, to which he excitedly and innocently replied, yes of course, but instead, the next month their father came back with Wei Wuxian in tow, who was not younger incidentally, and let’s just say, events transpired between his mother and father such that there was no chance of him getting a younger brother or sister afterwards.

Letting the qi seep into him, Liu Qingge decided to push back, but he had little to spare, and that tiny strand of qi from Jiang Cheng already burrowed itself deep into his meridians like it belonged there.

“Don’t,” Jiang Cheng commanded.  “Let me.  I can spare it.”  And the golden core that was not quite his wanted to fill that emptiness within Liu Qingge so very much.  “Come sit closer to me.”

“I’m sitting as close as I can without sitting on the bed,” Liu Qingge thought, but he moved to where their shoulders just brushed.  For a while, he watched Jiang Cheng play with now both of his hands and eventually cracked a smile at the sect leader’s expression that could only be imagining little toe beans of the cutest, fluffiest paws and not actually his very human hands at all.

“Feel better?” Jiang Cheng asked, his permanent scowl relaxed into a soft and fond look, again probably still thinking about toe beans.

Liu Qingge nodded, at last able to take his hands back.  “Sorry,” he said, deciding to return Jiang Cheng’s honesty with something he thought he should confess.  “I’m usually the one to give qi, not receive.  I don’t have much qi at the moment even though I’ve been here for half a year.”

“A half year, really?!”  Jiang Cheng had believed Liu Qingge climbed out of the caves as soon as he woke up, this would be five more months than they had estimated.

Briefly, Liu Qingge explained how he had been buried alive when the cave where he secluded himself halfway collapsed.  Weakened from however he transported into this world and lack of air, he had to rest for several weeks, then dig his way out slowly with his bare hands, pausing often to try to regain his lost qi. Several times, the earth almost buried him again, and then when he thought he was almost free, he accidentally punched into a coffin and broke apart the skeleton there.  The funeral shroud of that corpse he carried with him as apology for disturbing its rest.

Jiang Cheng listened to this, feeling pity claw at his heart once more.  The roughness of Liu Qingge’s hands, also from digging his way out of a grave.

“My shixiong will come get me.  But… it has been six months, so…”

Nothing else needed to be said.  Liu Qingge must have thought during the whole time he was digging out that he had been abandoned by his sect to die, didn’t know what he did wrong to deserve such a fate, and when offered shelter with Jiang Cheng, he immediately did all he could to repay them back for giving him a place to belong, despite them having tried to kill him first.  Jiang Cheng’s eyes began to redden, and he grasped Liu Qingge’s hands tightly, rubbing his thumbs over his knuckles.

“Liu Qingge… my home is yours for as long as you need, don’t worry about paying me back.  You will be my little brother now.”  Even though technically Liu Qingge was maybe 5,000 years older, but Jiang Cheng had always wanted a little brother, having never got the chance being the youngest of their group.  Fate had given him one after all these years, even if just for a little while.

For once, Liu Qingge did not correct him. “So I call you gege?  Not shixiong?”

Definitely not shixiong, Jiang Cheng absolutely did not want to be associated in anyway with whatever weird internecine drama Liu Qingge had with his sect brothers and sisters.  “Gege is fine.  That is… only if you want.”

Liu Qingge nodded, the gloom having lifted from his brow a little as he tried to remember this feeling for later when/if he returned, this feeling of warm hands gently holding his own, of his opinions being asked for with some frequency, of being treasured and doted on and pampered (at least, compared to his former experiences in which his shijie and shidi did spend a lot of time caring for him, but tempered with unique conversation starters such as, ‘why the fucking fuck did you do that, do you even think?!’)…  This feeling that could even make one forget their sect.  “Thank you… gege.”

The two of them, honest to the point that the words “Wow, what a fucking asshole” could best describe their bluntness, felt that while some of the truth had been discussed, to each one’s relief, still they were scamming the other.  One thought that acting as a big brother could safely rationalize some of these feelings he had never experienced before yet wanted to keep feeling, the other thought there was no harm giving his endless devotion to another sect to pay them back even after being told he didn’t need to.

They were, as expected, amazingly, incredibly, superbly, cannot believe someone could be this off base, wrong.

Chapter Text

This moment of manly bonding did not linger.  Jiang Cheng sensed Liu Qingge’s gaze slide down towards their clasped hands, and he coughed and hurriedly let go.  Then Liu Qingge reached over and pulled “The God of War Who Loved Me” out from where it had been stashed under the mattress.

“What is this?”

Stunned and mortified, Jiang Cheng did not react quickly enough to snatch the yellow book from Liu Qingge, who was already flipping through it.

“It’s not any of your business.” He tried to grab the book back unsuccessfully.

“Is this a yellow book?”

Surely he saw the racy colored ink illustration in the middle of the book.  “Wh-what do you think?!” he snapped.

“…Was this where you found my real name?”  Liu Qingge’s tone sounded a little judgey, but he remained dreadfully calm, considering.

“Maybe.  Yes.”

“It’s not about my shixiong?”

“Of course not.”  Jiang Cheng had some survival instinct; while Liu Qingge himself expressed wildly contrasting views of his sect siblings and sect leader, he would not suffer anyone else to disrespect them and had indicated murder would never be beyond his morals if he should come across detractors of his sect, even in a completely unrelated dimension.  “Your sect brothers were barely mentioned and only in a righteous and virtuous manner,” Jiang Cheng explained with a sniff.

“Is it about me?”

“….”

“It’s about me.”

“…You had more than a few sentences, yes.”  Starting to perspire from the strain of being questioned, and regretting somewhat his harshness towards the prisoners he tortured to death before, Jiang Cheng swallowed dryness in his throat.

“Jiang Cheng…”  Liu Qingge said evenly.  “Don’t read novels.”

“…Yes…  I realized my mistake afterwards,” Jiang Cheng muttered, deeply regretting every time he listened to Nie Huaisang’s lies and believed them, that no-good head-shaker was just so disarming and convincing.

“Novels rot your brain.  Burn this.”

“…I won’t deny they rot your brain, but this is Nie Huaisang’s, the only copy left in this world, can’t just burn it,” Jiang Cheng countered, miserably embarrassed to be defending such shitty writing.  “Look, I’ll send it back to him, and we will never speak of this again, how about that?”

“You need to destroy this book,” Liu Qingge insisted. “Otherwise you will keep thinking about it, and ruin everything good in your life.”

“…….”  From such a loaded statement, Jiang Cheng began to see why Liu Qingge had turned out a stubborn anti-intellectual who refused to write, could only read the simplest script, couldn’t do math except if it directly related to killing things, same with poetry and music and art, talking included.  “It’s just a novel, completely made up… how can it ruin your life?” he asked anyway.

“Not my life.  My sect.”

Jiang Cheng was then subject once more to the phenomenon of “too much information,” but now from his god of war guest.   It seemed that this particular drama started with a rotten yellow book written about the shixiong and unfilial disciple that became popular throughout the realm during the battle with the demons, specifically Liu Qingge’s one-man battle with the demons, it was really only him fighting.  The sect leader, who had been this shixiong’s childhood friend, naturally tried to ban the book from sect grounds once things settled, but that somehow resulted in circulation of a spicy new novel some months later, graphically illustrated in full color, starring the sect leader himself.  Enraged on his brothers’ behalf, Liu Qingge went out to destroy the remaining stock of the bookshops within the mortal realm, and for his efforts, he got immortalized in book one of an up and coming trilogy of steamy erotica within the next month.  Their initial guess, that this was the work of demons or possibly scheming demonic cultivators, had to be revisited; it must be someone from their own sect writing fiction with such accuracy and high degree of faithfulness to the original, just with added dual cultivating scenes.  So they questioned their sister, whose particular females-only peak had ties to scandalous literature for the past several generations, but she vehemently denied any involvement, being one to plot murder rather than plot character development, later supported by the fact that an extremely explicit novel soon appeared on the black market involving her and some personages, not the least her innocent shidi.  Unable to react to these novels written about the sect without continuous retaliation, the only thing the sect leader could do was ask for royalty profits from the book vendors. Since all of their novels stayed on the empire’s bestseller list for over a year and a few had not yet been shaken from their top earning places, they managed to reap some monetary benefit as unwilling porn stars.

Also the story behind why they paid taxes paid to the local government, which Liu Qingge only discovered later after he was sent to retrieve his errant shixiong, and they came back with the needed documents to find the sect leader, who had always managed to look serene even during a disaster, on the verge of crying and vomiting at the same time while trying to calculate the percentage of taxes due on the royalties they received, and he had set a priceless thousand year-old abacus created by a arithmetician sage near the sales reports sent in by the major book vendors of the empire, but to his horror, the pure and saintly abacus immediately burst into flames from proximity to the reports which listed profits from subjects including but not limited to: enema of wine (alcoholic), orgy (defined by the Official Demonic Cultivator’s Dictionary of Depravity as a sexual encounter with six or more active and conscious participants), sex marathon consisting of no less than fifteen (15) different positions, and of course, items, a variety, inserted into bodily orifices, also a variety.  At that point, their sect leader had to be sedated, and Liu Qingge was ordered to take away the cursed sword that the sect leader had been trying to draw out in an act of self-destruction.

The disaster did not stop there, and Jiang Cheng, who had finally admitted to himself he may have developed some mental issues from trauma and abuse and such, started to feel he grew up into a very well-adjusted person compared to Liu Qingge, who was continuing, completely unasked for, with how his sister begged him to stop attacking the booksellers, stating that whoever wrote the novels did not mean any harm, that no one, no cultivator nor demon nor mortal, actually thought less of the sect after reading the novels and many reviewers had been in fact rather impressed by their endurance and stamina and, one might say, flexibility in facing new situations, that he was only going to increase the remaining books’ popularity anyway by going around destroying their stock.  Unable to believe what he was hearing, Liu Qingge accused his sister of sympathizing with demons and demonic cultivators, forsaking their sect’s reputation just for entertainment, shaming their clan name by taking up writing, while she stood her ground and claimed the writers did nothing that had not been done before, he was taking his anger out on creatives unfairly because he just could not accept what had happened with his shixiong and his former disciple.  Struck through the heart by this more or less true statement, Liu Qingge raised his hand, angered almost to the point of vomiting blood.  But he did not hit her, he would not (outside of sparring, anyway), and turning away, he headed to the caves to seclude himself.

His argument with her was the last thing Liu Qingge remembered of his own world.

Jiang Cheng listened to all this with a concentrated expression, having to interpret much between the pained silences and unintelligible grunts and frequent “hmm”s interrupting Liu Qingge’s reluctant narrative, who, just to reiterate, should not take up a secondary job as a storyteller.  He had thought things were scummy enough in their world, considering that the events during and after the war of the five sects revolved around one particular sect leader who could not keep it in his pants around women and had contracted (although as a cultivator, did not suffer from) at least fifty sexually transmitted diseases, four of which could only be transmitted between sharks, and Koi Tower was located inland.  But at least they did not have mediocre porn written about them circulating throughout the realm.  At least, he hoped they didn’t…

Quietly, Jiang Cheng took the yellow book out of Liu Qingge’s unresisting hands and set it aside.  Feeling sorry for his guest, whose own blood-related sister did not stand with him on the subject which most distressed his soul, ending with them parting on such bad terms possibly forever, Jiang Cheng thought of Wei Wuxian once more.  But no words of comfort came to mind.  Jiang Cheng had to live knowing he chose wrong all those years ago, that he willingly broke ties with Wei Wuxian that day he repudiated him for his demonic cultivation, when he should have noticed how much his brother was suffering to try to bring peace to the realm, should have found another way to work through their differences.  Even now, after all that had been hidden was brought to light, he still could not find it in himself to face the burden of his mistakes, and every meeting with Wei Wuxian ended with them just as far from reconciliation as before, if not farther. So…  What advice could he offer to anyone else?

“I’m sorry,” was all Jiang Cheng could say.

Liu Qingge said nothing for a while, finally asking in a soft voice, “Was I a good person in that book?”

Without hesitation, Jiang Cheng answered, “You were the best person.”  Literally, not figuratively, he was the only good and competent character in the novel.

“Then keep the book if you want.  It may be the only place where I made the right decisions.”

It had not been his intent to unload on Jiang Cheng like that, these thoughts that had been ruminating in his mind for the past months; he had not set out to garner sympathy nor to explain his actions and attitude with an upsetting and somewhat gross story.  Liu Qingge would never act arrogant and coldly competent in public but then cry and pretend to be pathetic around one person privately, like someone he knew, he would of course just be rude to everyone all the time in any place, no explanations.  But… Jiang Cheng, so proud and independent and full of bitterest rage, did explain his own situation to Liu Qingge within the first day of meeting him, revealed his weaknesses and regrets, trusted and confided in him yet did not ask him for favors or attention and instead provided without question. 

For no one else would Liu Qingge confess this much, not even for his beloved sect leader, who got at most, three full sentences at a time, then several days of no communication.  Undoubtedly, Jiang Cheng treated Liu Qingge with deference as a god of war; he was not hiding his intentions of trying to appease his every whim.  Yet here in this strange world, among these even stranger cultivators, Liu Qingge never really felt like an outsider, having only been treated more like a friend they had not yet gotten to know.  All of those years Liu Qingge felt he never quite belonged in his own sect, the sect he joined when he turned eleven years old, until he spent so much time away from the twelve peaks, he did not even remember his own disciples’ names… While here, just ten days passed and he already wished there was a way Jiang Cheng could adopt him even though he was too old to be considered a son.

Liu Qingge felt a hand clasp his shoulder briefly, and he looked up, saw for himself a gaze full of warmth he would often see between others, too rarely directed at him.  That rare and precious striking smile, those glittering dark eyes lowered in gentle bemusement, he found himself wanting to smile in response.

Before he could react, Jiang Cheng abruptly said, “All right, thanks for the story, which I really didn’t need to hear, now let’s get some real food not made of salt.  I’ll pack up the book and send it back to Nie Huaisang, and then we’ll… drink to forget all this.”

“I… don’t really drink.”  While Liu Qingge occasionally partook as a disciple with his brothers, he abstained as a lord, then really abstained once he flipped through a certain piece of pornographic literature.

“Just some plum wine, it’s basically fruit juice, but will take your mind off your troubles.”

“If you say so…”

“After that, how about I try to find a night hunt for us?  The weather should clear up tomorrow, let’s head out.”

Hearing this, Liu Qingge immediately felt blessed, and he nodded, more than ready to kill again.

“Good.  And while I’m at it, let’s also get something for your hands, I thought I was holding bird claws for a bit there.”  Jiang Cheng got out of bed, set the bowl of salty congee on a table in the front room to be used as slug killer later, and called for Ying Zhu.  He requested a non-congee meal for them to share from her, then asked if she knew where to get more of the ointment his mother had used.

“Which ointment?”

“The really expensive one, I think she had an amethyst jar of it on her table, it smelled like lotus flowers maybe.  For her hands.”  He remembered as a child watching his mother scoop a tiny amount from the jar to apply to her flawless hands before rewearing Zidian, and so he had always remembered to try to take care of his hands once he inherited Zidian out of respect… Although he never thought to buy more of what she once used, now might be a good time to indulge for Liu Qingge’s sake.  Can’t have him with bird claw hands all the time, how would that look on Yunmeng Jiang sect?

“That one?”  Ying Zhu looked very surprised and nervously tucked a strand of hair behind her ear.  “Uhhh… the household records have all been destroyed, but I believe I know which shops sell that kind of product.  I can order some.”  How shocking, she thought, blushing, the two of them are already at that stage?  For that particular ointment Madame Yu had used not just for her hands, but also for her husband and certain objects, for nighttime (or daytime) diversions, that, to not put too fine a point on it, would not have biologically resulted in a younger brother or sister for Jiang Cheng.

Noticing Ying Zhu’s odd expression, Jiang Cheng coughed and clarified, “For Liu Qingge’s hands.”

So the concubine will be doing the work?!  Her eyes widened, however she was not prejudiced in any way, Sect Leader deserved to treat himself, too, of course. 

Her expression only intensified with that explanation, and Jiang Cheng was compelled to add, “His hands are dry and scarred.  Look at them.”

"They're not that bad," Liu Qingge said, while holding up a hand, he thought his shijie did a good job making sure they didn't look like madmen all the time.

"Well… Damn..." Ying Zhu thought.  Still, they could not be so naïve as not figure out what else the ointment could be used for someday…  She hoped.

Chapter Text

Without further delay, Jiang Cheng wrapped the offensive erotica in several layers of non-descript paper, included a very brutally worded, barely thankful thank-you note, and addressed the package to Nie Huaisang to be sent out with the next deliveries. He did hesitate while writing the note, could not help but ponder the existence of the other two books in the ‘god of war’ trilogy, if Liu Qingge’s apparently traitorous and disrespectful sect brother ever finished writing them, if those books had made it into this world, for uhhh further research on how to get Liu Qingge back to his own world, but Jiang Cheng decided he already punished himself enough by reading “The God of War Who Loved Me,” and… obviously, Liu Qingge did not need to have his past traumas set off by seeing novels around. That was the main reason, of course.  Right.

Looking a little more excited than her usual imperturbable self, Ying Zhu took the package and also some gold and silver to order the ointments, and promised to have someone bring by some food boxes.

Tonight the kitchens delivered noodles (that Liu Qingge helped make earlier in the day) in spicy broth with thin ribbon-like slices of waterfowl meat, foraged herbs, pickled vegetables and sliced fruits, as well as some jars of light plum wine to wash it down.  Feeling indulgent, Jiang Cheng decided to unfasten Liu Qingge’s veil himself, before he forgot he was wearing one and got food all over it, which had already happened once, getting a surprised look from Liu Qingge for his effort.

“How do you eat in front of others?” Jiang Cheng asked curiously, setting the veil aside.

Liu Qingge demonstrated, as his little sister would, she faced away from everyone else and just leaned over her dish of food and shoveled everything in as fast as she could; drinking was a little more difficult as she had to either sip from a cup or dish at an awkward angle, moving her veil just enough to not wet it, or simply drink from a bottle in private.

…So they were both a little ill-mannered, Jiang Cheng thought, this must be the famed gap between one’s appearance and one’s actual behavior.  “That… sounds very inconvenient.  Do you dislike wearing the veil then?”

Shaking his head, Liu Qingge answered, “It looks cool.”  Not just because his sister and now he looked like one of those barbarian assassins from the eastern islands or the western deserts, but a face veil would have helped as a second layer of protection in preventing bugs in one’s teeth from flying close to the ground, its usefulness outweighing its inconvenience.

“You can stop wearing it if you want, that’s up to you,” Jiang Cheng said, trying to not sound too amused.  “If everyone here still can’t function, that’s their problem now.”

Having his opinion asked instead of just being ordered around, Liu Qingge seemed at a loss.  “En…  What do you prefer, gege?”

Jiang Cheng flushed a little, feeling somehow guilty having him use that term, but he made an effort to seriously consider the question. Without the veil, Liu Qingge’s beauty radiated unfiltered, overwhelming in its blade-like purity, so logically it was best that he only took it off for eating and washing in private.  But with the veil obscuring the lower half of his face, a person naturally focused on his eyes, those finely sweeping brows and luxuriously long lashes and intense obsidian stare… That ever so fascinating beauty mark…  In the end, Jiang Cheng could not decide which was more dangerous.

“Either way is fine to me,” Jiang Cheng eventually replied, after which he glanced over and saw how Liu Qingge was trying to messily slurp up the noodles into his maw.  Even then, he looked beautiful, in his own special and weird way…

Still feeling indulgent, Jiang Cheng proceeded to instruct Liu Qingge on how to eat noodles a little more elegantly without splashing soup everywhere, gently correcting his grip with his own hand resting over Liu Qingge’s fingers, showing him the best way to put the contents of the chopsticks into his mouth.  …Before freezing, realizing he was eating off Liu Qingge’s chopsticks and narrowly missed getting stabbed in the soft palate.  Red-faced, he let go of Liu Qingge’s hand and leaned back, not realizing when he got so close, swallowing the suddenly cold lump of noodles on his tongue.

“Errm… so like that.”  Avoiding Liu Qingge’s stare, Jiang Cheng hurriedly gulped down an entire cup of wine and refilled both their cups.

He felt Liu Qingge’s gaze heavy on him as he tried to focus on eating his own noodles, and Jiang Cheng had to curse himself for allowing himself to get distracted.  What kind of sect leader would be so careless…?  This time, he sensed Liu Qingge scoot closer to him, and again froze once they were almost cheek to cheek.  Liu Qingge met his eyes and then opened his mouth and ate his noodles, very neatly, right off Jiang Cheng’s chopsticks, staring coolly at him the entire time.

“What the fuck, is this some sort of power move?” Jiang Cheng thought irritably, huffing.  “I get it, I won’t eat your food next time,” he grumbled, but the heat from his face had not bled away even after Liu Qingge moved back to his own seat with a small smirk.

Six bowls of noodles, two peaches, a bunch of loquats and four and a half jars of wine later, both Jiang Cheng and Liu Qingge had reached that stage of drunkenness that came after pleasantly tipsy and right before clumsy rage and/or passing out cold without warning.  So far Liu Qingge had not demonstrated any noticeable personality change, still terse combined with a constant low level of arrogantly combative simmering under every movement, but… when Jiang Cheng leaned over to wipe at his didi’s face and mouth with a handkerchief, Liu Qingge promptly turned red and the sleek ends of his hair fluffed and lifted up slightly in an invisible breeze, giving the impression of him bristling like an agitated cat.  Not trusting his increasingly blurry vision, that what he just witnessed actually happened, Jiang Cheng abandoned the handkerchief and with his finger gently poked the side of Liu Qingge’s face, which felt warm and soft and not cold or jade-like at all, that damned Nie Huaisang was such a liar.  Liu Qingge reacted even more violently to that.  By the third poke, which Jiang Cheng thought he had been very sneaky about, Liu Qingge grabbed Jiang Cheng’s wrist in protest of his personal space being invaded in a non-combat, non-rescue situation.

“Do you want me to bite your finger off?!” Liu Qingge hissed, his entire ponytail having frizzed out behind him before settling lightly over his shoulder.  His entire posture and expression promised Jiang Cheng would not get a move past him like before, not without severe consequence.

Feeling a laugh threaten to bubble out of his throat despite the danger, Jiang Cheng shook his head and took his hand back, apologizing for giving into the temptation, promising he would not do so again.

Liu Qingge rubbed his poked cheek and just hmphed.  He had thought he had gotten used to Jiang Cheng treating him more like a brother than his actual sect brothers, but this sort of close contact every day became a new kind of torment for someone who had never been willingly, purposefully, affectionately touched by anyone except his parents and sister, although his own little disciple had made a recent effort and managed to hug him exactly once before running off yelling.  Such good-natured teasing really only brought up memories of his shixiong, thoughtful gestures and affectionate sentiments he thought were meant for him but turned out to be given wholly to someone else in the end.  For assuming such things, that his shixiong actually cared about him as more than a meat shield and a co-worker, that he was worthy to be treated gently by anyone not related to him, Liu Qingge punished himself, could not even look at his own innocent disciple without those bittersweet memories tinging every interaction he would have with him, and consequently punishing himself even more for it.

More than anything, he wanted to pretend Jiang Cheng was intending to fight him, by teasing and bullying him so, which was not actually an inaccurate conclusion based on what he saw of his host’s personality.  But after what he had learned, Liu Qingge also knew Jiang Cheng felt as lonely and betrayed and… stupid as he did, and only wanted to have someone not part of the entire decades-long drama to be at his side, to talk with and eat dinner with and pretend everything was fine, fine, fine, I’m over it, I really am, stop asking.

All Liu Qingge said was, “If you want to do that again, ask first or I’ll kill you.”

“…Okay.”  So his fingers and life will be safe if he got permission beforehand, good to know.

The last jar of wine was already opened, so they finished it off with brimming cups, Jiang Cheng announcing as a toast, “To your recovery and return to your own world, you psychopath,” to which Liu Qingge responded, “To gege, hosting a psychopath instead of finding a wife---“

“You!  Say that again!”

Liu Qingge did not respond, just drank his wine in one gulp.

Sighing, defeated, Jiang Cheng finished his cup and mumbled, “…Guess I did deserve that.”

“Let me pinch you, and we will be even,” Liu Qingge suddenly suggested, and Jiang Cheng had to agree, what he deserved for poking and teasing him in the first place.  He thought he was going to be pinched in the arm or leg and braced himself for the pain, but Liu Qingge only lightly pressed on his ear three times.  Unprepared, Jiang Cheng reached up to hold his now red and sensitive ear, blushing to the roots of his hair.  Liu Qingge smiled, making a pleased hmmm sound.

“I’m satisfied,” was all he said.

Jiang ChenLing, sent to retrieve the dishes before ending his kitchen shift, had watched this latest dog food scene with raised eyebrows.  He was very sure he had promptly locked the box of aphrodisiac medicine after filling it, and he very responsibly kept the key hidden within his robes, but he might have to go back and check now.  Of course he did not gossip, he wanted his fingers and legs to remain unbroken after all, but everyone in the kitchen saw him checking that box.  So they knew what was going on.  They knew.

The two of them, god of war and sect leader, parted ways for the night, unexpectedly falling into a contented slumber as soon as they laid down in bed.

 


 

 

While Jiang Cheng’s mind may have forgotten most of the details of the pornography by liberal application of alcohol to his remaining one (1) brain cell, his body did not forget.  Jiang Cheng woke up with a not-so unexpected morning condition, which he had been waking up with almost every day for the past several days.  Normally, he would think of his own deeply traumatizing past and that would make the sensation of springtime in the lower half of his body quickly dissipate, but this morning such a solution did not work.  Now stuck with an unwanted erection and no better solution to get rid of it, Jiang Cheng had to apply physical measures.  Usually his hand had been enough in the past, a fantasy was not needed since he had no real life experience to affect his preferences either way, just a vague feminine presence would do.  Today, he really had to work to summon up a visual to help the process along, and to his utter lack of surprise, his mind decided to use a familiar and particular set of callused and scarred hands over his own, stroking up and down a very aroused Little Jiang Cheng, then brushing over his sensitive chest and ticklish waist a little more firmly than he would have done.  Nothing had ever felt so stimulating, so right, and he had to bite down around the whining noises in his throat as he approached his peak.

“Jiang Cheng… Gege…” Liu Qingge’s voice floated into his fantasy, low and gravelly, and Jiang Cheng’s hand moved ever faster, trying to bring himself off to that sound of his name rolling off someone’s wet tongue and wine-hued lips.

“I’m ready… are you?” Liu Qingge asked, and Jiang Cheng nodded desperately into his pillow, breathing out in hitched gasps, “Yes, yes… Nnn… So ready.”

“You don’t sound ready…”

“…What?” By then, Jiang Cheng had already come into his hand and a little on his stomach at the same instant he realized Liu Qingge was awake on the other side of his door and asking him if he was prepared to go out on a night hunt when the sun had just clearly risen, achieving one of the most legendary pissed-off orgasms in cultivation history.

If Wei Wuxian’s golden core could high five the current golden core residing with Wei Wuxian’s soul, it would have, but it could not because it was just a golden core.

 


 

 

Eventually opening the door after Jiang Cheng’s hissed curses died down, Liu Qingge peeked in to find the sect leader, shirtless, hair looking especially disheveled, rolling up a large bundle of blanket onto the ground.

“I’m not ready.  Need to uhh… bathe.”

“…Did you forget to go before you went to sleep?” Liu Qingge asked.  That had been a large amount of liquid they both consumed last night after all.

“What?!!!  No, I went!!!  Anyway, I’m going!!!”  Jiang Cheng pulled on a new inner robe and stormed out to the bathing room by himself.

Guessing that he had a hangover, maybe even vomited, Liu Qingge stopped a passing disciple to request a hangover remedy for the sect leader.  They soon returned with a soup bowl of steeped herbs, some floral-scented green tea and a large container of water.  Liu Qingge himself did not feel that sick, it just turned out alcohol stirred up emotions best left forgotten in the void of his mind.  He woke up early with a head stuffed full of memory fragments, and eager to wander outside, away from his thoughts, he dressed and retrieved Cheng Luan and his charms, then went to get Jiang Cheng.

Which had been a mistake, he should have waited in his room instead of jumping ahead and interrupting his host’s sleep.  Opening the door of Jiang Cheng’s bedroom, Liu Qingge bumped into the owner, who looked a lot more awake and less grumpy now that he had cleaned up.

“Uh… sorry for yelling,” Jiang Cheng mumbled.  “I must have overslept because of the wine.”

“…Got you medicine.”  Liu Qingge pointed out the bowl and tea and water, then made to leave.

With a wavering smile, Jiang Cheng tugged at his sleeve to stop him from exiting.  “No, stay, Liu Qingge.  I have to tell you about the mission…”

"Killing?" Liu Qingge asked hopefully.

"No.  At least, not that I know of yet.  But always possible," Jiang Cheng said truthfully, clearly content to be housing a murderer, poacher, destroyer of property, child abuser, committer of multiple war crimes out of prejudice and racism, so on and so forth, having played all of these extra roles the average cultivator performed in his own storied past. "Better yet, a way to help your sect find you and bring you home."

"Oh."  Liu Qingge did not sound as enthusiastic about this as Jiang Cheng expected.  "...Then killing?" he asked again.

"Fine, we'll find something to kill on the way back."

Chapter Text

The journey to the misty island lake where Liu Qingge first woke up in this world could easily be made by sword, but Jiang Cheng was not certain he could tolerate even that short amount of time with Liu Qingge holding onto his waist and pressed up against his back, not after that morning’s business that still shamed him.  So he decided they should head out on horseback with the pair of horses given to them by the villagers, to which Liu Qingge agreed, a little to his surprise.  It would take longer, the journey and task taking up the daylight hours, and they would need to stop at an inn to let the horses rest at night, but Jiang Cheng would not have to be in contact with Liu Qingge at least. 

Thus decided, they quickly made preparations, or rather, Jiang Cheng prepared for sect affairs to be held off until he returned, Ying Zhu named in charge in case of emergencies, then he picked up a few promising sounding night hunts from the stack of letters on his desk along with the latest report from Wei Wuxian, gathered money for lodgings, packed a lunch for two into a qiankun pouch, adding a medical kit and emergency flare to the pouch in case the night hunt resulted in injury, and maybe he should consider bringing a spare set of clothes or two, or at least some socks, even though wet socks could be easily dealt with by even a low-level cultivator, but what if they needed to spare their strength…  Feeling like he was packing for a month-long vacation rather than a day trip, Jiang Cheng glanced over at Liu Qingge who, as far as he could tell, had strapped on Cheng Luan and put on his charms and then just watched him bustle about.  It seemed that Liu Qingge never thought to bring money or clothes or food with him in his own world, depending on his sword to get back to civilization as quickly as possible or making do with sleeping out in the open and eating whatever animal he could barbecue.

With an effort, Jiang Cheng let go of the nagging mother-hen thoughts scrabbling at his mind, for Liu Qingge was not actually a baby chick, they were both grown-ups who had left home plenty of times before and maybe a few instances they didn’t come back in exactly one piece but definitely there was no war going on right now so they should be perfectly safe.  One day away from Lotus Pier would not result in disaster.  At last, Jiang Cheng and Liu Qingge headed to the stables.

 


 

The various sect members gathered to watch the two depart that sparkling bright morning, witness to a stunningly picturesque scene that would not look out of place immortalized on silk or ceramic or wood for future generations to admire.  Two outstanding-looking cultivators, matched in stature and haughtiness, one who inherited the famous brilliant beauty of the Yu clan’s women, the other so peerlessly fair as to shake the heavens and earth even with his face half concealed behind a black veil, astride tall white horses with glossy coats and long braided tails.  Even the gruffest of the warriors in that group had their hearts moved looking at the two of them, and the ever impressionable and outgoing Jiang Chenling could not resist from spontaneous admiration.   

Glimpsing something pink and delicate drift towards them, Liu Qingge reached out and grabbed the lotus blossom tossed their way, then one by one caught all of the various flowers the maidens and youths (somewhat healed from their broken bones by now) were throwing into the air, until he ended up with a large bouquet’s worth in his arms.  Liu Qingge glanced over at Jiang Cheng questioningly, who just rolled his eyes in scorn.

“I see how it is.  Whenever I leave the sect, no one bothers to see me off, but when you are about to depart, you get flowers thrown your way?”  Wasn’t Liu Qingge the focus of a night hunt before, wasn’t he the pest, the uncouth guest lecturer who beat up everyone in the sect on and off for almost half a month?  But he gets the flowers?  Was their sect leader just common trash then?  At his next scheduled training session, he was going to thrash everyone here with Zidian, that will teach them.

With an odd look on his face, Liu Qingge handed Jiang Cheng a single white blossom from his bouquet, the one he felt was heading Jiang Cheng’s direction the most.

“Why are you giving me one?  They were all meant for you, idiot,” Jiang Cheng grumbled, but took the flower from him anyway, tucking it on the horse’s bridle by its ear.  “Anything else?!” he snapped at the crowd, and every single person who had been admiring the dog food scattered their direction now scuttled away from his annoyed expression. 

“Wait, wait for me!” Ying Zhu called out, pushing her way through the fleeing crowd with a small embroidered pouch in her hands.  “Sect leader, what you ordered, I flew especially to town to purchase it!”  With flushed cheeks, she breathlessly pushed the bag into Jiang Cheng’s hand.

Jiang Cheng opened the pouch and saw an amethyst ointment jar similar to the one on his mother’s table within, along with a few other small jars and vials.  “You… didn’t have to hurry to get this,” he said, a little confused.

“Oh, you will be staying overnight at an inn, so you should make use of it while you two are away.”  A little desperately, Ying Zhu winked at him, hoping to pass on some indication of what activities they should participate in while in the relative privacy of an inn room, but the winking fell on useless brains and Jiang Cheng began to wonder if she caught whatever weird seizure Wei Wuxian had.

“Go see a doctor about that, Ying Zhu.”

Liu Qingge had been watching them intently, but unable to conclude anything, he simply forgot about their conversation, erased it from his mind.  While they rode away from the sect grounds, he absently twined the stems of the flowers into his horse’s silvery mane, and the remaining lotus blossom he slipped under his lapel, so its faint scent lingered in his nose.  Then he caught up to Jiang Cheng’s side and held out his hand expectantly towards him.

“Let’s wait until we stopped.”  Jiang Cheng thought he was referring to the ointment.

The hand was still outstretched in his direction, and Jiang Cheng had to smile in understanding.  So he wanted to shake?  “All right, stay by my side then.”  He grasped Liu Qingge’s hand and transferred qi to him where their palms touched, only letting go when the road narrowed and Liu Qingge’s horse obediently fell in line behind his.  For a brief moment, Jiang Cheng considered that they could transfer qi for much longer if Liu Qingge was sitting in his lap and he could hold both his hands while they rode together on one horse…  But while the lower half of his body thought this was a fantastic idea, the best idea ever, why wasn’t he on it yet, the rest of him had to shoot it down quickly, because… they were both big men and there was no need to overburden one horse when they had two horses… Also listening to one’s lower half, the surest way to invite disaster…

 


 

“Your sect is very good to you, I did not expect that,” Liu Qingge observed after they had traveled some distance.  Compared to his own gentle and maybe too forgiving sect leader, Jiang Cheng was a hundred times meaner and a thousand times more unlovable, and yet every single member of Yunmeng Jiang sect was willing to die for the Jiang family, to sacrifice even their golden core for the young sect leader’s safety, to express their affection by humoring him his overly spicy food and love of dogs and torturing probably innocent prisoners and cursing at his wayward brother but letting him stay the night anyway.  Could the same be said for the twelve peaks sect?  All mountain sects have a cold and stand-offish reputation compared to rivers and plains sects, that would be the very reason why they were founded on mountains and not mingling with the mortals in the valleys and fields, and yet Liu Qingge had believed his fellow peak lords, if needed, would die for their sect leader, give up their golden cores to save the children, withstand any amount of torment from demons if it meant the sect would not be harmed… But that unshakable loyalty Liu Qingge thought he and his sect brothers and sister all carried… paled in comparison to the huge sacrifices the clan had made for Yunmeng Jiang sect.  Obviously, loyalty was negotiable for two of his elder brothers, both having left the sect to be with their demon lord lovers, in their defense after great suffering and at least two fake deaths, but more importantly than such betrayals… each and every peak lord had their own concerns that did not necessarily match that of their siblings.  Theirs was a great sect because they were so different and not related by blood except in a few instances, and thus worked independently on their own goals while able to flexibly unite when needed for sect-wide purposes.  Here a great sect was made of family members and servants from the same few households along with those who married in or were adopted in to the clan, and so all necessarily worked towards the same goals because they thought of each other like family.  Neither kind of sect was better than the other, but having now seen life in both sects… Liu Qingge began to comprehend his lack of life experience. Despite being older than Jiang Cheng, he truly knew less about the world, and really did have to be guided by him on these matters.

“If you think that’s good, I hate to see what you think is bad,” Jiang Cheng answered carelessly.  But then he remembered Liu Qingge had doubts his sect wanted him back after six months had passed, so he continued, “Every sect has its good points and also its problems.  Every cultivator was born into this world as a human, not a god.  Mistakes will always happen, so better to make the best of what we are given while we are still alive.”  This was the extent of the comfort he could give, and in concern, Jiang Cheng glanced over his shoulder to see Liu Qingge gazing at him in as much pensiveness as a muscle-brain could summon.

“Gege is very wise,” Liu Qingge commented quietly.

“I just quoted nonsense from three different philosophers...” Jiang Cheng thought wryly, but he felt very smug anyway.  “It’s how the world works.”

 


  

They had reached the lake by mid-afternoon, and as there was no boat moored nearby to get to the island, Jiang Cheng and Liu Qingge hopped onto their swords and flew over.  The first thing they did was to smooth the dirt over the disturbed coffin, which Jiang Cheng believed to be that of a Daoist monk who died of old age some decades ago and had been buried on this island by his brothers.  They stuck some sticks of incense on the gravesite and said prayers for the monk’s soul as the incense burned into sweet smelling ash.  Then Jiang Cheng explained the mission Wei Wuxian had spelled out for them in his letter.

The island, being where Liu Qingge entered this world, would count as one nexus out of three in a large array set across the land that would power a hopefully solid physical connection to Liu Qingge’s own world.  The talismans sent to Jiang Cheng were mostly complete and just needed a drop of Liu Qingge’s blood to activate, and the banner should be planted nearest the cave where he secluded himself.

“Where are the other two locations?”

“One of them is Gusu Lan sect, which is where Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji will meet up with us to activate the array when they finish their preparations.  The third location is Qinghe Nie sect… which is where the… artifacts are.”

He didn’t need to be a scholar to know what kind of artifacts.  “You mean the pornography.”

Embarrassed, Jiang Cheng muttered, “Yes, the pornography.”  Because “The God of War Who Loved Me,” read by Nie Huaisang and Wei Wuxian and now Jiang Cheng, listed Liu Qingge’s name, the name of his sect, as well as the names of his sister and disciple and sect siblings, thus by its existence forming a very convenient bond between that other world and the three nexus points in this world.

“Hmm…” Liu Qingge did not bother to hide his disapproval.  In his world, blood magic and sex magic were the main cultivation techniques that demonic cultivators used, related to the methods used by the demon race themselves which consisted of eating (and, if you will, “drinking”) humans.  A quick glance at the ominous-looking banner stuck near the grave of the monk, and Liu Qingge could not help doubting a little the sanity, much less the morality, of the brothers’ plan.  “Is this… right?”

“…It does sound suspect, but no one will be harmed much,” Jiang Cheng assured him. “Just your finger temporarily.  Everything else… Just trust me.”

As one and one-half demons had been allowed to technically enter the twelve peaks despite the nominal “banishment” shield arrays, Liu Qingge could not call himself completely free of demonic influence either and had to nod grudgingly.  “Trusting you.”

 

Jiang Cheng counted thirty six talismans, to be set in three concentric circles of twelve each surrounding the banner, on the willow trees found all over the island.  Before Liu Qingge could smear his blood on the papers though, he needed to harbor the right feeling in his heart, as the nature and strength of emotion was crucial to how Wei Wuxian cultivated. The most important thing Jiang Cheng needed to do was to invoke a strong emotional desire to go home within Liu Qingge’s heart at this location.  Which… might be a little bit more difficult than anticipated…

Because Liu Qingge thought he had been banished to this world/qi deviation/hidden dimension by his sect, his sect leader, his shixiong, that one’s former disciple.  As best as Jiang Cheng could infer, Liu Qingge felt he had been rejected and purposefully left behind, and would of course feel wary about going home, just to be abandoned again, this time in a different world without any hope of returning.  As each day passed, his prideful words emphasizing the greatness of his righteous sect sounded more and more unsure; by now, over six months later, he probably did not know what to expect if he showed up in his own world and was understandably reluctant to face another rejection.

“Wei Wuxian will absolutely get you home,” Jiang Cheng began, hoping he did not sound as uncertain as he felt.  “What you need to do is keep the image of home in your mind while we set up.”

“I’m not at the sect enough.”  If asked, Liu Qingge could not recall what his own house looked like to another person.

“Home is not just a place.  It’s also the people you care about most, that feeling… of belonging and safety and…”  Here was the hardest part of his task, and Jiang Cheng wished Wei Wuxian were here to support him if they were going to attempt such a folly.  He thought of his father’s unending patience, his mother’s forthright courage, his sister’s strength within her kindness… most of all his brother’s ability to connect to others that would bring out their best or worst, those heart-deep bonds even time and distance could not fully erase.  But he was not his family, and he could not do what they did.  He was Jiang Cheng, who told this god of war to be himself, and he would not make light of his own words.  He would do things his own way.

He would torture this god of war to (almost) death.

“Liu Qingge, I know you feel betrayed and abandoned,” Jiang Cheng said, keeping his voice neutral, logical, facing a little away from his guest.  “For your shixiong, you healed and protected him, fought for his honor and a way to bring his corpse back at the cost of your reputation and while in great danger.  But you found out later you had just been getting in the way of the person he truly loved this whole time, that unfilial disciple, that half-demon who dared join a rival sect, who continued to mock and torment you even after he left the sect with your shixiong.  You thought your sect leader would surely not tolerate such betrayals from his precious brothers, but instead he let the sect persist fractured and blackened, as had never been done before in its history.  You thought at least your shijie and shidi would commiserate with you, but they ignored everything about your shixiong in their frustration, including everything about you.  At the very end, you sought your sister and disciple for support, but they had kept you in the dark as well and defended everyone else’s actions, instead of defending the one they should have respected the most.” Pausing to let those words sink in, Jiang Cheng then said, “Is this not what you told me yourself, Liu Qingge?  This is what happened, right?”

Each cold, sharp word sliced at the humid air, and Liu Qingge shuddered deeply under the onslaught, his hands clenched into fists so tight, blue veins showed stark under his skin.  His simmering qi began to fluctuate as his conscience was forcibly confronted with the truth Jiang Cheng had pried out of him these past several days.  But Jiang Cheng was only getting started.

“Maybe you told yourself, if someone had just given me a hint of what they were thinking.  If they told me the truth from the start, I would have not felt like I was dying, kicked while I was down and at my lowest point.  If they had asked me for my help instead of patronizing me with pointless tasks…  Believing I was too stupid and reckless to be confided in as a friend or brother, laughing at me behind my back…” 

If Wei Wuxian had told him about his golden core.  If Nie Huaisang had let him in on his plots for revenge first so he could find some way to keep Jin Ling out of danger…  Didn’t he think about this countless times himself?  But like Liu Qingge, Jiang Cheng was too flawed, too undeserving somehow, to earn those answers or that trust.  The two of them were just disposable, simply too minor in other people’s eyes against the drama going on, mere stepping stones used for others to advance…

“What would you have done with that knowledge, Liu Qingge?” Jiang Cheng asked.  “Would it change your actions, or affect the end?”

“…No…  That end… was inevitable.  I could have changed nothing.”  Liu Qingge sounded like he truly was dying, his voice jagged and torn, all hopelessness and bitterness that had never really bothered him before, until that day he finally heard the entire truth, piece by painful piece, from everyone other than the one person he needed to hear it from.

“That’s because you were never that important,” Jiang Cheng told him impassively.  “Despite your beauty, your prestige and background and righteousness… for them, you were just a means to an end.”

“You… stop…  Stop!!!”

Closing his eyes, Liu Qingge clutched at his head, trying to hold himself back, that roiling anger, that bone-deep resentment, those negative feelings he always had to shove aside for the sake of the sect, because the sect was first and his own feelings were last.  But his heart demon, borne of years of suppressed emotions, now threatened to claim his life in a qi deviation just like before.

Jiang Cheng pitilessly watched Liu Qingge struggle with his demon of the heart.  The only evidence of his nervousness in the way he fiddled with Zidian on his finger. 

“Just say it,” Jiang Cheng thought ferociously, “just say what you want to say, let it out, stop holding it in.”  Because a good feeling could not take root in one’s heart if only bad feelings lingered within to nurture it.  That was why he had to purge out the heart demon, by the most effective, if cruel, way he knew how.

But Liu Qingge had always used few words; even in rage, he would just act, not bothering to yell or scream or shout if not needed.  So he could not say anything, could not make any words come out, and the storm of fury in his body only increased in strength.  Soon, he would not be able to tell what is false and what is real, his anger turned to crazed blood lust, and then finally, the last of his qi and life energy would explode from his core, and all that would remain after would be a beautiful lifeless corpse.

The air became dense and suffocating, but an ice-cold wind whipped through their robes and hair.  Jiang Cheng touched Zidian, purple sparks jumping from his fingertips, but still he did not move.

“Jiang Cheng… Can’t see you…” Liu Qingge called out in a voice distorted, mutilated.  “Don’t leave me, too,” all while reaching out blindly for him, already halfway taken over by the demon of his heart.

Still Jiang Cheng stayed beyond reach, even though everything inside him yearned to hold him close and comfort his little brother as soon as possible.  “I’m here, I’m here for you, I won’t leave, I promise I won’t,” he repeated in his mind over and over, trying to guide Liu Qingge away from all that tormented him.

Tears of blood began to drip from Liu Qingge’s eyes, and he screamed now, howled in pain, words deep from his heart.  “I really hate you!!  I’ll kill you!!”

As long as he didn’t say he’ll kill himself.  Ah, fuck, spoke too soon, Jiang Cheng thought glumly, as Liu Qingge proceeded to say exactly that.

“I’ll leave first then…” Liu Qingge sighed and began to sob into his hands, broken, child-like.  “I won’t come back… brother, I’ll go now… I won’t return.”

Panicking at last, Jiang Cheng strove forward, Zidian unleashing at the same time, but Liu Qingge fell into his arms first, coughing up a great stream of black blood that stained his veil even darker.  Before he passed out, he muttered, “Ugh… it’s you.”

“Yeah, it’s me.”  Jiang Cheng sank to the ground, resting the unconscious Liu Qingge partly on his lap.  For a moment there, he was almost caught up in Liu Qingge’s struggle, because he, too, had suppressed his emotions for years and never dealt with them properly, but today, fortune was on their side.  Liu Qingge had expelled the worst of his affliction, and while the heart demon surely persisted inside him, he had calmed down enough to nurture thoughts of going home to his sect.  This was the best possible outcome Jiang Cheng could predict, and he counted himself lucky the two of them were compatible.

Circulating qi to him through their clasped hands, Jiang Cheng briefly entertained thoughts of speeding up the process by spiritual transfer using mouth to mouth contact.  But then remembered Liu Qingge had just vomited blood, so he gave up on that idea for now.  Carefully, Jiang Cheng wet a handkerchief with water then rinsed out the worst from the veil and dabbed the blood stains from Liu Qingge’s face.  After a while, Liu Qingge woke up with a start. 

With a furious glare, Liu Qingge lightly punched him and said, “You are really good at torturing people.”

“This time, I had to,” Jiang Cheng said in defense of his foolhardy plan.  “If you didn’t acknowledge all that you had been holding in, the array would not work.”

After another moment, Liu Qingge asked gloomily, “…Why bother to keep going now?  When you know how I feel…?”

“Because that’s not all you feel regarding your own world,” Jiang Cheng told him decisively, before he could summon any argument.  “You still love your sect, it’s still your home, that place where your best memories reside.  Your family and friends are waiting for you there, praying for your safe return, wishing to apologize and make up to you however they can.”  It really was so easy to make shit up once you started, he began to see why Wei Wuxian was addicted to bullshitting, even suggesting these outright lies for him to relay in his letter.  “You know that, and you want to see them just as desperately.”

“I don’t know that.”

“You do know that.”

Mulishly, Liu Qingge tried to argue, but then fell silent.  “I’m… afraid to see them,” he confessed.  Afraid to come to terms with his own inadequacies, their low opinion of him, or both, should they reunite.

“I’ll be right there with you.  No need to fear.”

“En…”  After a short silence, Liu Qingge got up, sitting on his heels facing Jiang Cheng.  Tentatively, he put his arms around Jiang Cheng and rested his head on his shoulder in complete silence.  Jiang Cheng sheepishly held him close, looking off into the distance as he felt something hot drip onto the sleeve of his outer robe.

Jiang Cheng only spoke once he felt Liu Qingge stir in his arms.  He asked him, “You want to go home now, don’t you? To your real sect?”

“Yes, I really do,” Liu Qingge mumbled into the juncture of his neck and shoulder.  “To tell them sorry…”

“Good.  Now let’s get started on these talismans before it gets too dark.  We have to kill something tomorrow on the way home, remember?”

Immediately cheered up by the thought of committing imminent murder and getting paid for it, Liu Qingge put aside all thoughts of conflict with his own sect to deal with later and wiped at his eyes and nose roughly.  It did not take long for him to mark all of the talismans with his blood, watching them glow green once in acknowledgement.  With one gesture from Jiang Cheng, the talismans flew to their respective trees and formed three perfect concentric circles around the absolutely not-demonic banner.

“It’s set up now,” Jiang Cheng said.  “This nexus point is activated, I’ve sent the message on to Wei Wuxian.  Qinghe Nie sect will be ready in a few days once the book reaches Nie Huaisang’s territory.  Then we just wait for the summons to Gusu Lan.”

“Thank you.”  Still looking humbled, Liu Qingge went on, “While I was going through qi deviation… gege, you did not leave even though I could have killed you.”  That was important.

“If I died, it would have been my fault only,” Jiang Cheng responded matter-of-factly.  They were lucky this was an abandoned area, though. 

“You risked your life to help me.  I cannot pay you back enough.”  Even if Liu Qingge tried to, would he one day get rejected just like before with his shixiong?  He was not sure he could bear that again.

“Like I said, don’t worry about any of that.  Wei Wuxian and I do crazy shit like this all the time, it’s fun.  As long as you don’t make any more trouble for my sect, we’ll call it even.”  Patting Liu Qingge’s hand, Jiang Cheng said, “Now keep thinking with hope.  You’ll see your sister soon, and things won’t seem so bad then.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Liu Qingge was left to rinse the taste of iron out of his mouth by the lake, then washing his hands and face in the forbidding depths.  Swiping his fingers through the water to break up the haggard reflection staring up at him, he took a few deep breaths to center himself.  Already the visions he saw within his qi deviation starting slipping from his mind, whatever nightmares his heart demon decided to lure him into.  All Liu Qingge could be sure of was that Jiang Cheng remained close by the entire time despite the danger, and whatever he felt, Jiang Cheng also felt…

As he fully deserved for instigating Liu Qingge’s qi deviation in the first place.

Jiang Cheng truly owned the title of master torturer, to be able to assess the modest amount of qi Liu Qingge had regained and push him to the brink so brutally and yet so precisely, forcing him to speak his anguish, to name his demons aloud.  Every part of Liu Qingge’s body ached now, as if he had been trampled all over, and the qi in his meridians were drained to the last dregs.  But the toxic blood in his veins and the negative emotions comprising his heart demon had been expelled during the resolution of his qi deviation.  Expelled, though not fully erased, and likely never will be.  Liu Qingge was fine with that, though.  That all would become a part of him now, a testament to how he got dragged so low, and a reminder of how he was helped back to his feet.

Staying hopeful, believing that he could one day return home, and that home, the people he cared about, would welcome him back, and all would end well… If someone as negative as Jiang Cheng told him to stay hopeful, then he must.  Liu Qingge would not cause any more trouble for Yunmeng Jiang Sect, not that he really could, since apparently back then the leaders of the five sects already created as much trouble as the cultivation world could handle and then some.  But he would pay Jiang Cheng back ten times over, even though they said not to worry about it several times already, he vowed to not leave this world before making sure his debts were cleared.

Right now however, the matter of Jiang Cheng trying to kill him again and almost succeeding this second time had to be dealt with appropriately.  Liu Qingge got to his feet and grabbed onto Jiang Cheng’s waist sash to stop him from stepping onto Sandu, saying, “I can’t fly.”

“…Oh… Your qi…”  Jiang Cheng had not yet passed enough to Liu Qingge for him to fly that short distance to shore on his sword.  There were no boats on this deserted island either, which meant… “Then I’ll fly you on my sword.  Come here.”  Unlike before, Jiang Cheng did not let Liu Qingge hold onto him from behind; instead he wrapped his arms about his waist and awkwardly propped him up at his side, causing their legs to tangle as each sought a stable foothold on the blade.  With a shuddering leap into the air, Sandu proceeded quickly to shore, and Jiang Cheng practically dumped Liu Qingge on the ground before he fully stopped.  Ruefully, Jiang Cheng apologized and helped him back up, leading him to the waiting horses.

“Can’t ride, either,” Liu Qingge grumbled, eyeing his horse grimly, unsure if he can pull his aching body onto the saddle without looking like a fool.

“What are you talking about?”

“Just had a qi deviation???”  He didn’t have to use his cultivation to ride a horse like he would with flying a sword, but he had just vomited a lot of blood and would need some time for his vision and hearing and circulation to return to normal.  At this point, passing out and falling were very likely.

“Hmph, well, you are not riding on my horse with me,” Jiang Cheng stated in a flat tone.

“Why not?” Liu Qingge demanded.

“You ride, I’ll walk beside you…”  But then they would have to slow down to a walking pace and might not get to the inn before nightfall.  Realizing this, Jiang Cheng tsked and amended, “Then I will tie you to your horse with Zidian, and if you start nodding off, I’ll have Zidian shock you awake.”

For a long moment, Liu Qingge stared at him, trying to discern if his so-called rescuer looked related to his shijie because that was a classic shijie statement right there.  “…Are you sure you’re not a demonic cultivator?”

Rolling his eyes and sighing at this not inaccurate yet still unfair question, Jiang Cheng relented.  “Fine… ride with me on my horse until we get close to the town, by then you should be able to go the rest of the way on your own.”

Still a little red-faced, Jiang Cheng helped Liu Qingge clamber onto his horse, unlooped the reins from the second horse to tie them to the saddle, and finally mounted up behind Liu Qingge with extreme reluctance.  Threading his arms under Liu Qingge’s in order to cover his hands that were holding the reins, Jiang Cheng asked, “Are you comfortable?” Then under his breath, “Hope we don’t get blisters in weird places…”

Nodding curtly, Liu Qingge relaxed a little in Jiang Cheng’s embrace, basking in the qi trickling up through his hands and into the rest of his body, while Jiang Cheng sighed and made occasional unhappy noises the moment the horses worked up to a steady, ground-covering pace, which caused the god of war to hide a small smile.  Liu Qingge himself had been assigned numerous rescue missions in the past, being one of the more mobile of the peak lords and familiar with the outside world, and while he did not ever seek out physical contact, he had resigned himself to other people’s closeness as a necessary part of his job.  Jiang Cheng on the other hand… seemed to be suffering deeply from physical contact, judging by his continuous discomfited shifting in the saddle.

To pass the time (and to distract himself from his misery), Jiang Cheng soon brought up the subject of naming their horses.  Jiang Cheng had decided on Plum Blossom and Starlight as possible names but wanted to get Liu Qingge’s opinion, since the horses were a reward for “defeating” him, the White Ghost Concubine. 

“They should be named Killstrike and Black Thunder,” Liu Qingge suggested.

“Why Black Thunder?  They’re white horses!”

“And male.”  Who would name stallions something girly like Plum Blossom and Starlight???

Jiang Cheng snorted, offended by Liu Qingge’s rejection of perfectly suitable names.  Without any other recourse, he said, “So be it.  Then tell me, I’d like to know what names sound cool in your world.  Like, what was the name of your shixiong’s former disciple?  You know, the one you failed to defeat every day for five whole years?”

Brutally roundhouse-kicked to the face by this audacity, Liu Qingge eventually sputtered out, “Luo Binghe.” Previously he had not named anyone from his own world, not even his sister, to preserve what little dignity his sect had left, but he knew Jiang Cheng had already read up on him and realized there was no point now in hiding behind mostly empty titles and half-hearted uncreative insults.

“And what was the name of the demon king, the one who spirited away another shixiong of yours?”

“Mobei Jun…” Liu Qingge muttered sullenly.  A formidable demon who could slip past their most secure arrays and barriers with his abilities; his shijie hated him and mentioned shixiong equally.

“Hmm…  So they are both ice elementals?  The strongest demons are usually fire elementals, at least in the fairytales here.”

“….”  Liu Qingge had never noticed any such hierarchy, as the demon race encompassed a variety of origins and characteristics, only needing to keep a human-like form some of the time in order to be called a demon rather than a monster.  He didn’t even know what Luo Binghe’s father was like other than powerful, yet obviously not powerful enough to defeat his sect leader back when he was still a disciple.  Such was the unpredictable and ever-shifting nature of the demon world.

“What about that little demoness, the one who fought your sister?”

“Sha Hualing.”  Liu Qingge had actually fought her to avenge his sister’s honor, and yet could not recall if she had any singular elemental or characteristic.

“And the leader of the succubus coven you and your shixiong defeated?”

This time, Liu Qingge finally understood Jiang Cheng’s intent.  Literally naming one’s demons aloud.  To acknowledge the hurt in his heart, to own his emotions, to work through and overcome in order to fully live, unfettered by the past dragging him down.  “Madame Meiyin,” he said slowly, remembering that cavern, rose petals on cool water, yet not so much the accompanying frustration or self-doubt.

Of course as a righteous cultivator, Liu Qingge could never forgive the demon race after all the chaos and slaughter they had caused through the eons, but after enduring his demons of the heart, neither could he deny the influence they had on his life, how they shaped and honed him as much as his family and shizun and sect siblings and disciples did.  Especially that Luo Binghe… Liu Qingge must admit the one who might have become his first disciple grew up to become an unmatched shining star worthy to be his opponent… (As long as he was not defeated by anyone else other than sect leader, because if that happened, Liu Qingge sure as hell was going to kick his ass, shixiong’s feelings be damned.)

How was it this foolish and unpersonable sect leader, who allegedly cut off ties with demonic cultivation, could bring him to such a profound realization?  Liu Qingge did not know, he could only add that to his list of debts to be cleared.

Inspired by the answers given, Jiang Cheng was musing to himself.  “The ice elemental… sounds impressive even though it never really snows at home…  Hey, how about we call the horses Snowfall and Icestorm?”

Frowning, Liu Qingge considered this.  As long as he didn’t have to ride the likes of Luo Binghe nor Mobei Jun…  He countered with, “Snowstrike and Ice Thunder.”

“…You can call them that.”

“This one is Bloodsnowstrike and my horse will be Killing Ice Thunder.”

Jiang Cheng finally had to snort in amusement at such childishly overwrought names.

This whole time, Jiang Cheng had not stopped restoring qi into Liu Qingge’s empty meridians in a steady soothing stream.  He had worried that some part of his body working independently of his brain would react inappropriately to a person in his lap, but the lower half of his body, while deliriously happy to be nestled against the surprisingly plump peach that was Liu Qingge’s bottom, mostly behaved.  Considering the closeness and slight jostling due to the horse’s gait, one had to give his crotch some credit for self-control.

It was just very… warm with another man resting against his chest, sitting between his legs… holding both his hands.  So warm, Jiang Cheng began to feel his inner shirt sticking to his back in the still and humid environment.  He tried to lean back in the saddle to get some air, but Liu Qingge followed his movement, giving him no quarter.  Giving up, Jiang Cheng exhaled and set his chin on Liu Qingge’s shoulder, then noticing a faint coolness on his cheek.  He leaned hungrily into that coolness and paused, finding himself almost nuzzling at Liu Qingge’s throat behind his veil.  That was unexpected, as Liu Qingge’s hands were warm to the touch, and his cheek from where Jiang Cheng had poked him last night also felt normal.  Maybe the rest of the war god’s body not so exposed to air was indeed hard and cool as jade?  It did not make sense, but as uncomfortably stifled as he felt, Jiang Cheng was compelled to find out. 

“You’re not hot?” he asked as a clumsy segue. 

Liu Qingge shook his head no.

“Lucky you.  Should have packed a cooling jade,” Jiang Cheng sighed.

“Hmm…”  Liu Qingge turned his head to face Jiang Cheng and said, “Give me your hand.”  Taking the proffered hand, Liu Qingge slid it under his robe, placing it directly onto his chest, causing the somewhat crushed lotus blossom tucked there to slip out.

Now the two of them startled, as if shocked by Zidian.  A large wave of qi had poured into Liu Qingge, filling him with bright energy, and as for Jiang Cheng, he finally got to grope a beauty’s chest as Nie Huaisang had advised.

As much as he hated to do so, Jiang Cheng withdrew his hand from Liu Qingge’s firm yet not unpleasantly hard chest, clearing his throat awkwardly.  “Maybe hold off on that much until we are not both on a horse and liable to fall off.”

Liu Qingge, whose entire body had lit up pleasantly when Jiang Cheng touched his chest, just like when he was drunk on plum wine, nodded, and he let out a low laugh.  “At the inn?”

Jiang Cheng’s eyebrows raised at that first lovely rare sound and then raised even higher at Liu Qingge’s question.  “Y-you want to?” he stammered, not predicting this at all.

“Only as much as you want, gege.”

He wanted! Or at least the lower half of his body wanted, the rest of him was still reeling too much at Liu Qingge not shying away after that full-on squeeze.  “En…  We’ll see when we get there…”

If Wei Wuxian had been watching this gross scene, firstly he would gag, and secondly, he would feel abashed for having to subject other people to acts of flirting between him and Lan Wangji whenever they were in public and lastly, he would congratulate his brother three times for reaching this critical stage in the relationship with his captivating killer concubine.

Wei Wuxian would have really gagged at the next scene, as Jiang Cheng tried to get Liu Qingge to feed them lunch with the meatbuns packed in his qiankun pouch.  He held onto the reins while Liu Qingge rummaged around for the pouch and retrieved a still hot meatbun from its interior.  Liu Qingge twisted in the saddle to try to pop it into Jiang Cheng’s mouth, who misunderstood his intent and bit down on half of the bun the same moment Liu Qingge let go, so that the uneaten half fell to the roadside. 

“What the fuck did you do that for?!” Jiang Cheng asked once he swallowed the majority of his bite.  They were not going to stop and pick up that half eaten bun to eat later like some trash collector god, but he would like to know what the hell Liu Qingge was thinking.

“I thought you were going to eat the whole thing at once?”

“Are you insane, who would do that?!”  Oh right, Liu Qingge would do that, and he proceeded to do exactly that with the second meatbun, a stubborn expression on his face as he stuffed the rounded white bun behind his veil and into his mouth.

“Disgusting,” Jiang Cheng grumbled.  “Just bite it next time, please.  You’re going to choke.”

But Liu Qingge did not choke, apparently having no gag reflex whatsoever.  “Hmph!” he sniffed, having successfully defeated a meatbun in one fell swoop.

Suddenly, they heard a scuttling noise behind them and glanced back in surprise, seeing nothing except an empty spot on the dirt road where the half eaten meat bun had just lain.

“Damn trash pandas…” Jiang Cheng groused.  Then he turned his attention back to Liu Qingge.  “Get me another meatbun and feed it to me properly.  Unlike you, I won’t bite off people’s fingers.”

“Fine, only because you got me through the qi deviation.”  Liu Qingge broke the meatbun in half and did a much better job feeding this time, although his fingers did get mysteriously licked once or twice, causing him to jolt in agitation.

“Now I’m thirsty.”

“Then die of thirst.”

Having reached a comfortable truce by their standards, they rode in silence until they saw a sign announcing the town just ahead where they would stay the night.  Liu Qingge, having rested and collected enough qi by now, got onto his own horse, Bloodsnowstrike, with no difficulty and followed after Jiang Cheng and Killing Ice Thunder into town.

“Look, Mama, a fairy!” a little girl exclaimed, pointing at Liu Qingge, on his beautiful horse with flowers still twined into its mane.

The mother, noticing his dark robes and veil stained with blood, hurried her child away, saying, “Don’t look at the assassin, Meimei…”

“Bye-bye, fairy assassin!”

Jiang Cheng stared at the townspeople whispering amongst themselves and apologized.  “They’re not normally this stupid.”

Chapter Text

“Don’t you have a room with two beds?” Jiang Cheng asked the innkeeper.  He was fine with them both riding one horse to keep Liu Qingge from falling off, but they had no need to share a bed on top of that.

“We have a few rooms available with single beds each, young master.  We can’t move the beds into the same room, though.  Apologies for inconvenience.”

Jiang Cheng could just pay for two rooms, he brought plenty of money with him, but he also did not want Liu Qingge out of his sight.  Completely overlooking the fact that Liu Qingge had obviously been able to take care of himself for how many decades or centuries of his life he had lived and was still more physically fit and agile than most mortals could ever hope to become, Jiang Cheng could only think of his low levels of energy after suffering a serious qi deviation, how ruffians with evil intent could easily decide to prey upon a tempting beauty, and he would not want either his new little brother to be attacked… or those attackers to be slaughtered by either of them and the townspeople try to come after them for justice and then also be slaughtered as well, when he drew out the hypothetical situation to its inevitable bloody conclusion.

“I’ll just use a chair then.”  Jiang Cheng paid for the single bedroom and stabling of their horses then surveyed the common room where a handful of guests sat at tables eating their meals or drinking and conversing.  No obvious ruffians here, just a merchant with his retinue and a couple of rogue cultivators who, after noticing two sect-affiliated cultivators, soon left for their room.  Noticing Liu Qingge’s impatience, Jiang Cheng decided to accept the innkeeper’s offer of a free dinner, and he requested a serving girl bring the meal to their room instead of having Liu Qingge wrangle with eating while veiled in public.  They already garnered quite a few stares and whispers from the other guests, no need to gain more.

Liu Qingge, eager to change into less bloody clothes, followed the servant up the stairs to their room, Jiang Cheng close behind.  Here they bumped into the two rogue cultivators, the young man scowling at them in challenge, the maiden dragging her partner into the room next to theirs.  Jiang Cheng could not help glaring after them; at the same time, nearly all of the rogue cultivators in the realm had to endure countless miseries at the command of the great sects during the war, so he could not blame them their hostile attitude towards him and his sect.

 

After dinner with plenty of tea and wine and a quick wash out of a bucket to last them until they got home, Jiang Cheng took out the spare set of clothes he had the foresight to bring, which Liu Qingge accepted with relief.  He had to smile at Liu Qingge’s thankful look, about to advise him to prepare more carefully for future journeys, when he noticed Liu Qingge had not yet finished tying the new inner shirt closed…

 


 

The two rogue cultivators had not succeeded in their latest night hunt and by this time of the evening, their clipped conversation verged on argument.  Perhaps they were not as compatible as they had hoped, this may be time to part ways, though neither voiced their thoughts aloud yet.  The maiden Yun Er sat on the edge of the bed straight-backed, while Gong Sun Yun slouched sullenly in his chair facing away from her, each one waiting for the other to give in and apologize for slights both imagined and real.

Suddenly the couple heard an exclamation from the room next door, sounding like the voice of the local sect’s leader.  They had heard the rumors about Yunmeng Jiang sect and would be leaving the territory first thing tomorrow, wanting nothing to do with that clan’s dark reputation, Yun Er especially.  On the other hand, nothing could appeal more to a cultivator than finding out juicy gossip about other cultivators.  It has been recorded in the past fated rivals and sworn enemies throwing down their swords mid-duel to chase after whispers of a scandal or family drama or good old-fashioned cuckolding happening to someone else, so how could these two low-level cultivators resist such an enticing opportunity? Giving his partner a conspiratorial wink, Gong Sun Yun eagerly put his ear close to the adjoining wall, hearing just half of the most intriguing conversation, as the other person, possibly the sect leader’s shidi or partner, spoke too low or was too far away to make out clearly.

“I said put your clothes on, you don’t need to be shirtless for this, like some sort of fox demon.  …That’s better.”

“Here’s the ointment, now give me your hands.”  A length of silence, then, “Hmm… Keep this with you, then.  Whatever is fine with me…”

Some murmuring from the other party, then Gong Sun Yun heard through the wall, “I know, I need to fill you up soon.  But we better go slowly, you can’t drain me of qi, either.”  There was another momentary silence, then a cough and just a little more awkwardly than to be expected by one of the most infamous torturers of the cultivation world, “N-no, not on my lap, just… just get on the bed.”

By now even Yun Er standing near her beau could hear the louder voice through the wall and her cheeks reddened, her world view having changed abruptly this night.

“…Stop squirming and relax,” the sect leader’s voice continued.  “It’s like you’ve never received before…  You didn’t, really?  What is your shixiong doing, neglecting you like this?  Or shidi, shijie, whoever.”

Gong Sun Yun’s world view also changed at that last statement and suddenly whatever faults he found in Yun Er seemed awfully trivial compared to her smile, her sense of humor, her adaptability…

The two cultivators could not wish harder to achieve a higher cultivation level right that moment so they could discern what was going on in the next room more clearly, but sadly, they only had their overactive imaginations to determine the cause of the very extended silence. 

“That’s probably enough for now,” and this time the sect leader’s voice sounded low and even soothing.  “You look tired, don’t strain yourself.  I’ll keep giving you some every night, though, and if we get a chance, in the daytime, too.”

Every night, sometimes twice a day?!  Did they hear that right?  Even at the beginning of their relationship, during the height of their springtime romance, Yun Er and Gong Sun Yun barely managed every other day.  How could those two…?  Glancing at each other, the young cultivators hurried to the bed, discarding their sashes and outer robes as quickly as possible, and passionately reaffirmed their compatibility all through the night, incidentally breaking through to the next level of cultivation which, had they done so earlier, would have revealed the truth of what actually happened in the room next door.

 


 

 

While the two rogue cultivators were coming to wildly inaccurate conclusions about Yungmeng Jiang Sect’s leader and his beauty, Liu Qingge and Jiang Cheng’s night could not proceed any less pragmatically.

It was one thing for Liu Qingge to show his vulnerability to Jiang Cheng, choosing to trust him when he was most defenseless, an adolescent wolf exposing his belly to the pack leader (although again, it must be emphasized he was older than Jiang Cheng).  Hence why bathing felt natural in his company, instead of putting him on edge like it had back in his own world when he had been alone, because he knew Jiang Cheng, righteous and proper, would look out for him and he could truly relax.  But now that they must initiate further and much more prolonged physical contact for the purpose of replenishing his qi, Liu Qingge began to have some misgivings.  Even Jiang Cheng simply massaging the ointments and oils into his hands had his body thrum electric-warm to the ends of his hair.  Once more, Liu Qingge wondered how someone’s touch could possibly make him as drunk as if he had finished off three jars of wine.  It must be that wondrous fragrance of the ointment, he decided, lotus blossoms and amber musk with a slight undercurrent of herbal sharpness that reminded him of his shidi’s office in the infirmary, the packets of remedies he would bring to his shixiong…  That scent and sensation of comfort and healing and home.

Jiang Cheng then handed him the precious ointment jar, which he tried to give back but was refused.  Understanding now that his gege expected this commitment of him, Liu Qingge promised to use it daily, to bring pride to his shijie and his own sect as well.  The next part of the evening’s plans, he had to ask about, unsure of exactly what it entailed, too dazed still from the events of the day.

“En…” Liu Qingge assented upon hearing the explanation, then tried to resume their position back in the saddle earlier, which he felt was not awkward, but to which Jiang Cheng reacted by shooting to his feet and dumping Liu Qingge on the bed.  Yet neither of them could tolerate kneeling on the bed facing each other.  Having reached an impasse, Liu Qingge, who was not a cut-sleeve, ended up involuntarily reclined on his elbows away from Jiang Cheng, also not a cut-sleeve, and whose trembling hand had not moved any closer to bridge the distance between them.

They were never going to replenish his qi satisfactorily like this.  With a huff, Liu Qingge flopped onto his stomach, burying his face in the crook of his elbow while ruching up his shirt with the other hand to expose the skin of his lower back.

“Neither of us look,” he muttered.  This way, neither one would feel any awkwardness touching another man in bed.

Jiang Cheng made a strangled noise of agreement, then tentatively reached out with his eyes closed.  He missed.  His hand making contact with something noticeably softer and rounder than a waist, Jiang Cheng realized his error and opened his eyes to see his hand firmly and unquestionably touching Liu Qingge’s perfect butt.  Quickly Jiang Cheng moved his hand up to the bare lower back, but as Liu Qingge had already kicked at him, it meant he must have noticed.

“Sorry, was trying to not look,” Jiang Cheng mumbled in apology, doing his best to not draw attention to the fact that he was now straddling the other’s hips, hovering over his lean waist and touching his lower back, all to avoid touching his chest again.  Was this any better than fondling his chest?  This was way worse, wasn’t it?  If someone, namely Wei Wuxian, opened the door right now, how could he explain?  Jiang Cheng was obviously taking advantage of this naïve and gullible beauty, no one would believe anything else.

Probably because his hand was still slick from the oils, he started to massage at Liu Qingge’s waist as his mind wandered, and Liu Qingge began to curl into himself from the sensation.  Jiang Cheng promptly stopped stroking and focused on just passing qi to Liu Qingge, who had not uncurled, instead squirmed between his hips.  Trying to get him to stop writhing, Jiang Cheng then moved his hand to Liu Qingge’s stomach, concluding that Liu Qingge’s back must be ticklish.  But ah, seems like his front is also just as ticklish, judging from how much he was vibrating, holding himself back from laughing.

“Hey now,” he murmured, “you can tickle me back if you want after this, just hold on a little more.”  Jiang Cheng pushed one last wave of qi into Liu Qingge all at once, and like he was struck by lightning, Liu Qingge froze, body accepting the energy flooding into his meridians joyously.  Finally, when Jiang Cheng decided they had enough for the night and removed his grip on his waist, Liu Qingge, crimson-faced and lower lip gnawed to purplish-red, got up and pounced on Jiang Cheng in revenge.

However, Liu Qingge had not practiced wrestling enough to defeat Jiang Cheng, and he was easily caught up like a rowdy puppy into strong arms and laid back into bed, well before he got the chance to tickle Jiang Cheng.

“You promised!” Liu Qingge snapped, pulling his arms free from the other’s grip.

“Well, you really need to relax first and foremost,” Jiang Cheng told him with an amused smirk.  “Go to sleep for now, I’ll wake you up later if you still want to switch.”  Jiang Cheng had suggested they take turns keeping guard in case someone attempted suicide by trying to rob them. Wordlessly, he got off the bed and sat on a chair facing a good view of both the window and door to let his guest rest.

Without any other choice, Liu Qingge eventually fell asleep. He was woken up deep in the night, and feeling refreshed, he switched with Jiang Cheng, taking the chair while Jiang Cheng slid under the still warm blanket.

“Something to be said for a warm bed,” Jiang Cheng thought, reveling in the cozy residual heat, before realizing that he basically implied Liu Qingge was his bed-warmer, an actual concubine, and he immediately unthought his last few thoughts out of deference.  Too close, almost committed blasphemy against a god of war.  That being done, Jiang Cheng dozed off with no further worries clouding his mind… up until a rustling sound roused him from slumber.  He was then privy to the always divine vision of Liu Qingge redressing in the morning, the flash of his shoulder blades, the curve of the nape of his neck before a fall of black hair hid it from view.  If only Jiang Cheng had opened his eyes earlier, then he would have witnessed the white expanse of Liu Qingge’s muscular back, how it emphasized the slenderness of his waist which was not so fragile and thin like a woman’s that you could put your two hands around, but only seemed so compared to the thickness of his thighs, his juicy peach…

Smiling to himself, Jiang Cheng closed his eyes, to be immediately greeted with the sight of that peach, now completely naked of any pants, pressed obscenely into his own unclothed crotch.  Stifling a gasp, he opened his eyes as soon as he could.  In the waking world, he saw Liu Qingge meditating, fully dressed, in the chair, while he was definitely lying alone in bed, also not naked.  But the lucid dream felt real, as if they were really doing it for real.  Slowly, tentatively, Jiang Cheng lowered his eyelids, and as soon as blackness covered his sight, the vision returned, this time with the full spread of Liu Qingge sprawled out in bed, face down in a pillow, with Jiang Cheng himself to be seen shamelessly grinding his hips against that offered ass.  Horrified, Jiang Cheng opened his eyes, mentally cursing his brother, his brother’s husband, Nie Huaisang, Airplane-whoever, everyone he knew except probably the one person causing him this distress.  How could his mind and now a certain section of his body betray him so evilly?  Liu Qingge was right there, not more than ten steps away, and he was having dirty cut-sleeve fantasies about outright fucking him?  Did he want to die?!  Okay, maybe he always felt like dying, but die a horrific death as would surely happen if Liu Qingge found out???

It would be best that he got his miserable life over as quickly as possible then.

As Jiang Cheng reached into his pants to attend to a very awake and needy Little Jiang Cheng, he could only pray for his soul to not be reincarnated into an ant or something.  Grimly, he closed his eyes, let himself succumb to the dream, which returned full force this time with sounds, moans and grunts so obscene, he felt the blood rushing to his head like a tidal wave.  One part of his mind that could still think calmly during all this did wonder why they had switched, he always felt Liu Qingge would be the one on top, that was what the yellow book depicted, but either way, it would not feel this good in real life as both of them were… inexperienced… and also straight, extremely so!

Despite its vividness and his surreptitious attempt to stroke himself off, Jiang Cheng could not resolve his problem and was about to scream in frustration.  Each time this happened, he needed more and more.  One did not have to be the cultivation world’s number one genius to guess what all this lead to.  He just couldn’t understand why this was happening to him.

Liu Qingge noticed Jiang Cheng fidgeting in bed, sweaty and flushed.  Thinking he had gotten sick like in the morning and feeling guilty for taking up his qi, he called out softly, “Gege?”

“…”  Jiang Cheng could not trust himself to say anything, but at the same time he could not endure this any longer.  He won’t keep this secret.  “Bad dream…” he muttered hoarsely.

“About what?”

“…”  He could not in good conscience answer truthfully, so instead replied, “Uhh… me?”

“Doing…?”

“What wasn’t I doing to you,” Jiang Cheng thought hysterically.  “Bad things.”

“…”  Liu Qingge, to Jiang Cheng’s horror, approached the bed, watched him suffer in silence, then gently placed a cool hand on Jiang Cheng’s burning forehead. 

All at once, the dream disappeared.   Jiang Cheng, freed from his torture, wanted to thank Liu Qingge for his service.  Before he could do so, he sensed a small strand of his qi slip into Liu Qingge’s meridians through that skin to skin contact.  It was then that Jiang Cheng could confirm his worst fears coming true… “Demonic cultivation,” he whispered.  “I was… a demonic cultivator, I was… using you.  And… I was being used…”  I still am.

So tenderly, affectionately, Liu Qingge stroked his forehead and then smiled coldly before saying, “How terrible.  I also dreamed that I had become a demonic cultivator...”

Jiang Cheng fell out of bed and woke up for real this time upon crashing to the floor.  From where he was sitting, Liu Qingge watched him fall and just hmphed.  “Pathetic,” he scoffed.

This was the true world, his own world.  Nothing had happened after they switched places, but his own doubts had surfaced and created turmoil in his mind that he needed to acknowledge, through this terrifyingly realistic dream.  Jiang Cheng no longer doubted Liu Qingge’s talk of dream dimensions that felt so real one could not break free.  And he was never going to touch another yellow book ever again, not even to save his own life.

 


 

 

If asked, Liu Qingge and Jiang Cheng would both agree that such feelings that occasionally expressed themselves had to be at least partly demonic in origin, and would blame Luo Binghe and Wei Wuxian’s lingering influences, namely the pornography, and so they had to stick together to try to righteously cultivate and exorcise the impurity, something like that.

If one could ask Wei Wuxian’s original golden core, it would claim this was the natural result of its attempt to not be stuck in the body of a forty-year old virgin.

If one asked cultivation genius Wei Wuxian, he would chalk all of this tension up to Jiang Cheng and apparently Liu Qingge needing to dispel their heart demons before qi deviation befell either one or both of them, and it was only a matter of time before their compatible auras and frankly smoking hot looks would convince them to fuck it out, not that he was aware one could fuck away heart demons but if anyone should attempt it, it should be Jiang Cheng.

If one asked sect leader and up and coming chief cultivator Nie Huaisang, he would claim everything that had so far happened was due to Liu Qingge having teleported from a dangerous world full of monsters and demons to a relatively peaceful world, thus unwittingly transitioning from god of war to god of fertility (sex), thereby bringing up in everyone he met via pheromones or whatever persistent thoughts of marriage (sex), food such as fruits (sex), animals (sex), flowers (more sex), pornography (obviously sex), actual and imagined acts of sex, maybe even more references that he already forgot about.

If one asked Lan Wangji, he would just say, “They fell in love at first sight.”

Chapter Text

 Liu Qingge watched Jiang Cheng pick himself and the quilt that had fallen with him up off the ground, then crawl back into bed.  Sighing, Jiang Cheng tossed a few times under the covers in an attempt to relax.  Finally Liu Qingge moved the chair to his bedside, which had Jiang Cheng glancing up at him hopefully before promptly reversing course as soon as Liu Qingge offered, without any explanation, “Should I choke you?”

“…What?”  “The fucking fuck?!!!” part of that phrase went unsaid.

“Until you pass out.”  Liu Qingge began flexing his fingers.

“No, what the hell?” Jiang Cheng hissed, eyes wide in the dim light of the moon.  “What has gotten into you?!!”

“If you’re having trouble sleeping…”

His wild-eyed expression smoothing out slightly once he considered this well-meaning if bizarre angle, Jiang Cheng proceeded to enunciate very slowly and carefully, “Listen.  Liu Qingge.  Have you ever choked anyone out before?  Without trying to kill them?”

Liu Qingge eventually shook his head no.

“…I appreciate your willingness to help, but I can go to sleep much quicker if you promise never to suggest that again.”

Liu Qingge nodded, but the way his phoenix eyes stayed fixed on Jiang Cheng as he closed his eyes had him sweating under the sheets, remembering against his will too-realistic dreams, (although Jiang Cheng had not gotten around to dreaming a choking scenario, but he did not doubt one was already written in some other world at some other time)… those tantalizing visions of his most fervent and forbidden desires that he had no way of purging from his mind, at least not without exposing his weakness to wicked and selfish demonic influences, and causing Liu Qingge to look down on him and scorn his brotherhood.  He couldn’t bear that.

But he could not bear holding such shameful secrets to himself either.

After a few more moments of silence, Jiang Cheng confessed, somewhat strained, “Just now… I woke up because… I dreamt I was a demonic cultivator.  You were one as well.  The worst part wasn’t what we were doing, but that I loved it, and I didn’t want it to end, and I couldn’t care about anything else.”  That over with, Jiang Cheng let out a shaky breath, ashamed yet relieved to have gotten this out into the open between them.  “I… I won’t blame you if you are disgusted by me…”

“In your dream, were we killing?” Liu Qingge asked, interrupting.  If they were, he could understand the appeal, after all, extreme and unprejudiced violence could be still justified by righteous cultivators… if his shijie had any say in the matter, that is.

“Uh… no…”

“…Drinking human blood?”  Not the most sanitary of acts for those born into the world as humans, but a common enough practice among demons with their hardier stomachs.

“……Not so much…” Jiang Cheng murmured, his voice steeped in embarrassment.  “A little more… benign.”

That left only one last aspect of demonic cultivation…  “…Gege… burn that novel,” Liu Qingge said flatly.  His sister was wrong; just as Liu Qingge had suspected, novels truly were tools of the devil, with solid proof right in front of him of an upright mind getting corrupted by suggestive and immoral scripts.

Covering his face with both hands, disappointed in this expected reaction but a little amused that books were blamed first, Jiang Cheng muttered to the ceiling, “I know, I know, but we need it for the array.  Afterwards, I will burn it, I promise.”

“…Because of me, you had this nightmare.  I am sorry,” Liu Qingge said somberly.  After all, that yellow book would never have been brought over by Nie Huaisang if they had not tried to help him find a way back to his own world.

“It’s not your fault, you did nothing wrong.  I should be apologizing to you!” Jiang Cheng protested, sitting up in bed, his gaze averted, fists clenched tightly in the thin sheets.

“For what?”

“For disrespecting you?”  Now Jiang Cheng stared at him, confused.  “You and I were demonically cultivating together in my dream?  You hate demonic cultivation the most… am I right?”

Liu Qingge frowned, stating, “You didn’t mean disrespect.”  For whatever else Jiang Cheng could be guilty of, of which there seemed to be a lot, he always treated Liu Qingge with empathy, and if he hated what demonic cultivation did to his brother that much, then he would never purposely try to urge someone else’s brother to go down that same path.  As far as Liu Qingge could tell, Jiang Cheng’s nightmare arose from their suspicious natures and similar histories of fighting a demonic cultivator from within their own sect, not to mention the pall cast by pornography that could test even the strongest friendships.  Such a perfect storm of influences could easily brew a nightmare about that specific type of demonic cultivation in anyone’s mind, susceptible or not.  Jiang Cheng could hardly be blamed for succumbing.  “It was only a dream, no one was hurt.  Forget it.”

Jiang Cheng opened his mouth, closed it, then opened it and closed it again, face deeply flushed as he tried to sort out his next words.  “…I don’t think I can just forget it… But I swear, I did not mean to make you uncomfortable, Liu Qingge.  You are pure and righteous and don’t deserve to be associated with demonic cultivation, ever.  I am sorry to even have brought this up, but… I didn’t want to hide it from you and end up never dealing with it properly.”  Having seen and lived the consequences of keeping secrets to oneself, Jiang Cheng of course wanted to do better, even at the cost to his dignity in front of someone he deeply respected.  “I couldn’t… live with myself.”

Any annoyance Liu Qingge might have felt immediately crumbled in face of this straightforward honesty.  “Apology accepted.”  True, if this type of confession had been sprung on him two or three years ago, he would have definitely exploded and tried to fight Jiang Cheng to death, but now… well, he was still bothered, though after this recent qi deviation he had been adjusting better to those feelings of discomfort.  After all, he had to live with blackening of his sect for some time, the knowledge that he was considered a popular male romantic interest in a very successful trilogy of springtime novels sold throughout the land despite his destroying any stock he could find, his little sister suspiciously not as upset about this slander against the Liu name as she should have been…  And he recently discovered that if he also dumped out any knowledge of dual cultivation from his mind despite his shidi’s increasingly desperate questioning as to how he could possibly forget how babies were made, it’s been like seven times now, shixiong, sect leader and shijie are really worried, what if someone tried to take advantage of you, yes, I know you would simply just kill them, but consider if you couldn’t, for me, please…  He could almost tolerate the ignominy…

The only difference being that in this world, someone actually felt sorry for him, someone had thought about what it was like to be in his situation and agreed it was wrong and frankly a little invasive and disturbing and weird, had the courage to tell him so, had apologized for involving him even if only in a spring dream.  Liu Qingge’s heart softened by this heretofore unprecedented level of consideration for his feelings, he gruffly suggested, “Just… keep night-hunting with me, gege, and I will call it even.”

Jiang Cheng, whose shoulders had slumped in embarrassment and regret, seemed to break out of his trance of misery.  “…Of course, of course, I see,” he mumbled, brows creased in thought.  “After enough night-hunts, enough righteous cultivation to counteract, the subconscious association with demonic cultivation would go away on its own.” At this (again, not exactly correct but whatever, Wei Wuxian’s golden core would take whatever it can get) conclusion, Jiang Cheng had to let out a laugh of relief; he could see a light of hope in the distance, he would not suffer like this alone, not for too much longer.  “Great idea, Liu Qingge!  As soon as I can, I will look for night-hunts for us both to complete.”

Liu Qingge lowered his gaze humbly, though he could not prevent a heart-shatteringly beautiful smile lifting up the corners of his mouth at Jiang Cheng’s exclamation.  Not only was he being praised for his contribution, a rare enough occurrence, but he could also look forward to hunting and killing a lot more in the future with his gege.  That red blanket with the two luans the female cultivator gave him really was a good luck token; Liu Qingge vowed to bring back the corpses of either her enemies or her preferred wild game animal (or both) as his thanks for her generosity.

Jiang Cheng stretched his arms, let out a deep sigh and finally laid back on the pillow.  “Thanks.  For… listening to me.  And helping.”  Sleepily, he added, trailing off, “I think I will be fine now.  See you tomorrow morning, little brother…”

Liu Qingge nodded, made a soft sound of agreement, and for a long time, he watched Jiang Cheng sleep before reluctantly returning to keeping a look out.

 


 

 

They checked out of the inn in the early morning, but Jiang Cheng did not ask for the stable boy to bring out their horses.

“There is actually a night hunt in this town,” Jiang Cheng explained as he led the way to the outskirts of town, where the buildings gave way to a patchy field and a scraggly forest. 

Liu Qingge scanned over the jade token inscribed with the night hunt details, demonstrating that he, in fact, could read as well as any son of a semi-affluent clan could, but would not be bothered to unless it directly related to fighting and killing and if he should ever lay eyes on words not related to fighting or killing, he would immediately forget it like he forgot math and poetry and how babies were made.  “Wanted alive, a goose with a purple ribbon around its neck…”  He glanced at Jiang Cheng skeptically, first off disappointed the goose was wanted alive and not dead.  “Why are we chasing down a goose?”  They were cultivators, not policemen.

“I don’t know, but so far three sets of cultivators have not succeeded in capturing this goose, so there must be something more to this mission,” Jiang Cheng responded, slowing down in caution.

“A goose demon that has cultivated a human form?” Liu Qingge asked, now interested.

“Uhh… most likely not.”  Certain animals and monsters can over time develop supernatural attributes and understand human speech, such as spirit beasts, but none have yet cultivated to human forms.  In the past there were tales of dragons and fox demons and flower fairies and koi spirits living in the mortal world, but most of the demon and fairy kind had died out, with the survivors retreating from human knowledge these past millennia.  At any rate, Jiang Cheng would have heard if there was a goose demon cultivating to human form in his territory.

“Well, this was where the goose had last been seen by the other cultivators…”  They surveyed the clearing, and Liu Qingge spotted a few faint traces of webbed feet in a muddy area near the riverbank from the previous day.  For now, all they could do was wait in hiding for the goose to find the leftover grains from breakfast that Jiang Cheng set out. 

Then the two of them heard a rustling in the grass; the goose had emerged, drawn by a free meal.  Jiang Cheng and Liu Qingge quickly noticed the knife held in its bill, flakes of dried blood still clinging to the blade, and thought to themselves, “Ah…”

For five grueling years, Liu Qingge fought to the limits of his human strength against a half-demon cultivator trained by elite immortals and toughened by the most vicious among ancient demonkind with a powerful enchanted sword honed by a thousand cursed souls, and yet against a goose with a small knife, he experienced true fear for the first time after ascending.  First of all, Cheng Luan was useless if they wanted the bird alive, and secondly, with its long flexible neck, the goose could slash at any approaching arm well before they could get close enough to disarm it.  Once, just once, Liu Qingge attempted a sword array, and somehow that only pissed the bird off even more.

Jiang Cheng fared only a little better with his long range weapon, Zidian.  Without the lightning activated, he almost succeeded wrapping the whip’s length around the goose’s wings, but the bird figured out to insert the blade between Zidian and its body, giving it enough room to wriggle and twist free.

“Having trouble?” an unfamiliar male voice asked them, amused.

“You thought catching a goose would be so easy, didn’t you?” a maiden’s voice teased.

It was the two rogue cultivators from the inn, Jiang Cheng discovered, wisely standing some distance away from the killer goose brandishing its knife and holding its ground.  “Bold of you to mock us, when you two failed to catch it,” he retorted sarcastically.

“We just started night-hunting a year ago,” the maiden declared.  “We did not want to lose a finger for such a small amount of silver.”  It took only one encounter with a bad-tempered waterfowl to increase one’s wariness in the future.

“Fair enough,” Jiang Cheng returned.  “Then why don’t you help us?  If we get through this unscathed, I’ll give the entire reward to you.” 

“What do you know about the goose?” Liu Qingge asked, still keeping an eye on their quarry.

“There must be a reason why it is so fierce, but it belongs to a small household in town and we confirmed the goose has neither a mate nor any goslings out here.”

Eyes widening, Liu Qingge tugged at Jiang Cheng’s sleeve.  “It’s protecting the dead corpse of its shizun!”

For someone who claimed he was not obsessed with his shixiong who had defected with his former disciple now lover, Liu Qingge sure referenced him like every single fucking day.  “Again, it’s just a goose, it cannot cultivate…”  Also, animals usually cultivated by Buddhism, not Daoism, so it wouldn’t call its master shizun… he would assume.  “Did you two try using a net?” Jiang Cheng asked the rogue cultivators.

“Yes, but it just slashed at the net with its knife.”

“Clever…  There must be something else the goose is protecting.”  Not a mate, no goslings, definitely no shizun.  “Where did it go to after you two were defeated?”

“It went further into the clearing, by that tree with a hollow in its trunk, but we were retreating and did not see its nest,” the young man replied.

“Then you three hang back, keep low to the ground.  Take out the net in case it heads your way.  Hopefully it will not think to fly off since it’s protecting something, but Liu Qingge stay alert in case it does.”

“What are you going to do?” the maiden asked in awe.

“The only thing I know how to do.”

He’s going to torture it?!” the three of them thought.  Incorrectly, as it turned out.

Utilizing every last bit of experience he had in gentling and reassuring frightened creatures, Jiang Cheng and some cold millet grains convinced the goose that these four humans were not going to hurt it, nor whatever it was protecting.  After some time, the goose seemed less agitated, although it still kept the knife in its beak, it ruffled its feathers and made soft honking noises, which Jiang Cheng felt was a good sign.

He stepped towards the tree and the goose, noticing him, waddled ahead confidently.  The four of them kept pace after the goose and at last were able to find out what the goose was defending within the tree; a tiny treasure trove of assorted cultivator items.

Liu Qingge stared at Jiang Cheng, as if to say, “I told you it was cultivating.”  Meanwhile, the young man retrieved from the nest a small embroidered pouch filled with spirit stones that the maiden had made for him and he lost it soon after they had arrived in town, hence the reason for their bad tempers last night.  The maiden took out a rectangular carved wooden box she also recently misplaced, but did not show its contents to her curious partner until he begged her, and she opened the box to reveal her sword tassel that she had been intending to trade with him.

“D-do you still want to… b-be cultivation partners?” she stuttered, red-faced as she held the box in two trembling hands towards her beau.

“Of course I do!” the young rogue cultivator exclaimed.  He hurriedly undid his own sword tassel, and they happily exchanged their tassels before embracing and kissing and then realizing two other cultivators and a goose were watching them.

“I’m so happy for you two,” Jiang Cheng said dryly.

In silence, Liu Qingge rummaged through the nest to look for any cultivating item he might have lost.

“!!!”  He pulled out his lost hairpin and crown, utterly astounded that the goose could have found it buried within the island where he first arrived in this world, and also convinced the goose was a demon, it just had to be.  For now, he did not switch out his hair ornaments, just tucked it into his sleeve for that day he returned to his own world and would wear his peak’s crown once more.

Unfortunately for Jiang Cheng, he had not been in this area recently, and so he had not lost anything of that much value.  The goose picked out an item for him, a plain stalk of lotus, just like the thousands he could already find at his home.

“Uh… thanks,” Jiang Cheng muttered, accepting the goose’s gift.  Once he could look at it more closely, he noticed the lotus stalk was unusually pale and shimmering and warm to touch, and it seemed like the seeds within the pods gleamed like night pearls.   Perhaps it was enchanted?  He slid it into a qiankun pouch to inspect later.

Now that these cultivators it found worthy had received items of value to them, the goose honked again like some wise and gracious emperor holding court.

“Oh, we should give it some cultivating items in return!”  The rogue cultivators offered the goose some spirit grass for strengthening its meridians and one precious pill to increase qi and purify energy, which it happily gobbled up.

“I don’t have anything…” Liu Qingge muttered.  To his surprise, the goose just hopped into his lap and pulled his veil off.  Jiang Cheng of course did not have a spare veil with him, so the two rogue cultivators got to ogle Liu Qingge in all of his divine glory until he fumbled out a random straw hat in a qiankun pouch and plopped it on Liu Qingge’s head.

At this point, Jiang Cheng began to feel a little jealous of the attention the goose got, getting to snuggle Liu Qingge and obtain his veil, which the cooing maiden had tied around its neck, all while the young man indulgently fed it some more spirit grass.  Didn’t this web-footed monster terrorize them for the past day and a half?  Does everyone in Yunmeng just somehow suffer from short term memory?  Also, why was he feeling jealous of a goose?  He was Jiang Wanyin, the pride of Yunmeng Jiang sect, ranked fourth in the cultivation world, wielder of Sandu and Zidian.  Even if this goose found a wise shizun, which it couldn’t because it was not a demon, not even a half demon, it would never lead a sect out of ashes like he did.

The other three stared at him, waiting for him to give the goose something back.  Clearing his throat, Jiang Cheng took out his charm for luck in love and tied it to the veil around the goose’s neck.  “Not like it’s doing me any good,” he thought gloomily.

Appeased by these offerings, the goose gave a happy honk and retrieved its knife, though no longer as slash-happy as before.  Carefully, Liu Qingge picked it up and the four headed back to town to return the goose to its owner and pick up their reward.  On the way, the rogue cultivators introduced themselves properly as Gong Sun Yun and Wang Yun, saluting Jiang Cheng with a modicum of respect.  Before he could introduce himself and Liu Qingge, Yun Er went on to say, “You must be Yunmeng Jiang sect leader Jiang Wanyin.  And this is your Niang-niang?”

“Had we known you two were cultivating together, we would not have been so rude last night,” Gong Sun Yun said with a smile.  “Your spirited devotion, your passion to overcome any obstacle in order to cultivate, truly an inspiration.  We have to thank you for motivating us to cultivate together as well.”  Here he leaned over to kiss his Yun Er, who giggled and blushed.

Jiang Cheng’s eyes were bloodshot with suppressed rage, he could not even trust himself to correct them without going berserk, while Liu Qingge, understanding only the surface meaning of the words, just gave them his fake name as a correction.

 


 

 

It was the mother of the little girl who saw them arrive in town yesterday whose husband, the mayor, had sent out the night-hunt.  Standing at the threshold, she smiled at the four entire cultivators needed to retrieve their family goose from the wilds and offered them some tea and soup for their trouble. 

“Cultivating items?”  The mayor’s wife considered this as she counted out the silver set aside for the reward.  “My children have become interested in cultivating recently and they do play with the animals often, but I would have never guessed our goose wanted to cultivate as well.  If I see those cultivators from before, I will ask if they are missing anything and have my children retrieve their lost items.”

“That is very clever and kind of you, madame,” Jiang Cheng said, pushing their share of the silver to the two rogue cultivators.

“So what will you do with the goose?”

The mayor’s wife laughed.  “I never got past the first two chapters of a cultivating manual, I do not have the talent nor the build for cultivation.  But I can take care of my family’s goose now that I know what it wants.”  Her three children, who somehow all had little knives of their own which solved the mystery of how the goose got a fucking knife, had taken the goose to feed it and marvel over its new ribbon and charm.  “If I ever need any help, though, I know I can count on you, sect leader.”

Jiang Cheng, on realizing the mortal world suffered indirectly from the sect wars whenever they ran afoul of ghouls and monsters but could not call upon the cultivators to help them on account of all of the cultivators being dead (or in a few cases, temporarily undead only to really die soon afterwards), thus understood their taking on this night hunt had truly benefited not just the humans in the territory but also added to the prestige of their sect.  He answered, “My sect would be happy to help for any cultivation-related business, or find traveling cultivators nearby to aid you.  And if you decide to let your children train with Yunmeng Jiang…”

“I would rather die than let that happen,” the mayor’s wife answered honestly, while outside the house one of the boys yelled out, “Moooooom…”

“Wise, very wise,” Yun Er murmured, to Jiang Cheng’s continued humiliation.

“Rather, in return,” the mayor’s wife said, still smiling, “if you two ever decide to settle down, my town will be sure to light a hundred lanterns for your blessings.”

“Did you mean us?” Gong Yun Sun asked in confusion.  Rogue cultivators rarely settled down, even his second cousin who had a daughter did not live in a permanent home but instead wandered the land with her family.

“Oh no, those two,” the mayor’s wife pointed to Jiang Cheng and Liu Qingge, one of whom spat out the tea he was drinking, and the other, who had been watching the kids with the knives, did not know what was going on.

“You’re mistaken,” Jiang Cheng hastened to correct her. “Liu Cheng Luan and I are cultivating, I mean, we are sect brothers…  We are co-workers.”

“Not cultivation partners?  Weren’t you sleeping in the same room next to us at the inn?” Gong Yun Sun questioned, eyes narrowing.

“We are cultivating together,” Liu Qingge affirmed.

Jiang Cheng smacked his arm.  “Because we are co-workers!”  And he thought his own brother and Nie Huaisang were bad, these people had even bigger holes in their brains.

“Very well, if you ever decide to open a business together,” by her tone, the mayor’s wife heavily implied ‘get married’ as the end result of this entrepreneurship, “this town will light lanterns for your many years of happiness.”

“In bed.”  This came from Yun Er.

As Liu Qingge thought everything they said could be correct and therefore did not deny these claims, Jiang Cheng gave up trying to straighten things out.  He thanked the mayor’s wife for the tea and soup, thanked the rogue cultivators for their assistance, and then hurried back to the inn with Liu Qingge before anyone else could bother them with their crazy and completely unfounded ideas.

Not realizing this entire time, the barely functional luck in love charm Jiang Cheng gave to the goose had been traded with what had once been a five thousand year old magical lotus blossom that guaranteed to its owner not only luck in love, but also happy years of marriage and maybe even the pitter patter of little feet in the home, and that former lotus blossom was promptly putting in its best effort for its new owner, because damn, he really needed it.

Chapter Text

Liu Qingge got onto his horse, Bloodsnowstrike, then waited expectantly for Jiang Cheng to get on the saddle behind him so they could resume their qi replenishment from yesterday, but no such thing happened.  He watched in disappointment as Jiang Cheng swung up onto Killing Ice Thunder and led the way out of the little town by the river, never realizing that Jiang Cheng sensibly did not want to mess with both a large sword and a straw hat preventing his being able to safely see over Liu Qingge’s shoulder.  The truth being Jiang Cheng, for all that he rejected anything unseemly, his wariness of walking the dangerous path his brother had walked, his feeling of responsibility for a god of war’s safety and purity in the event this god’s sect leader would place the blame of anything happening on himself and wipe his sect off the map (or more likely, just look at him disappointedly but not actually say or do anything in reprimand)… For all that, Jiang Cheng still debated fiercely with himself, telling himself (specifically, his lower half, Wei Wuxian’s golden core, and now the thousand year lotus blossom in his sleeve for the ultimate trifecta of illogic) that he needed to be alert and ready to fend off bandits or monsters and riding with a beauty in his lap tall enough to block his view was not going to help matters, and also Liu Qingge looked perfectly healthy now and did not need his help riding, so why was this even a debate, what is going on?

“I know, I promised yesterday we would kill something on a night-hunt,” Jiang Cheng was saying to pass the time away in easy conversation, “but it might be better to stick to missions with less bloodshed.  Less opportunity for corruption.”

“…What if the goose becomes demonic later on?” Liu Qingge asked.  After all, animals that cultivated remained wild, not constrained by human morality even if they had come to cultivation by Buddhism or Daoism.  In his world, once a spirit beast assumed a human form, they would join forces with the demon courts far more often than they would assist the mortal cultivating world. “What then?”

Apparently life was really rough in Liu Qingge’s world, and the mortals there had to worry about the livestock they raised coming to get revenge for the slaughter and devouring of their mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters.  “…Look, even if the goose cultivates to gain sentience and so forth, in the house of such an upstanding family, a mayor, who would be looking out for his town most of all, the only path the goose can walk is that of righteousness.  However, should it stray from that path anytime soon, you would be the first person I’d send out to deal with it, permanently.” 

“Roast goose.”  Liu Qingge nodded and looked approving of this insightful decision.

Jiang Cheng laughed out loud despite his worries.  His little brother really had a one-track mind.  Amused but maybe also a little concerned, Jiang Cheng explained good-naturedly, “The goose was stealing cultivation items and secluding itself so it can practice cultivating.  It only wants to be with its family a little while longer.  Who can blame such mischief, so long as this goose and its family are happy in the end?  Doesn’t everyone want to be with their loved ones for as long as possible?”

Considering this, Liu Qingge then made a soft sound of agreement.  He moved Snowfall up to Ice Storm’s side and held out his hand for Jiang Cheng to hold, and Jiang Cheng grasped it tightly, unwilling to let go for as long as this person decided to remain by his side.  For a few moments, Jiang Cheng enjoyed that feeling of close companionship, of not being alone, of having someone just simply wanting to be with him once more, all the while absentmindedly rubbing Liu Qingge’s knuckles which did feel rather smooth today, he should give Ying Zhu a raise for her attentiveness… before he remembered he had to keep passing qi to Liu Qingge.

A good thing this was not Jiang Cheng’s own golden core, and instead Wei Wuxian’s even more efficient and energetic core that could regain and refine qi with barely any effort, allowing him to give freely to someone who accepted him just as freely, never feeling drained nor weakened.

They had to make a detour to the town from the direction of the lake, but keeping a steady speed, Jiang Cheng and Liu Qingge reached Lotus Pier just before sunset.  Upon arrival, Jiang Cheng glanced about nervously when no disciples came out to greet him, no servants nearby to take their horses, none of the usual bustle of activity and conversation to be seen amidst the gates and practice fields and outer buildings.  Jaw clenching, Jiang Cheng tried to suppress that frantic pressure under his breastbone, that sickening fear that they were all gone, again, he never should have left, too careless, what kind of sect leader…  Then Liu Qingge was dragging him along through the front gates into the central building, where they discovered the majority of the sect sitting down to a family style dinner in the main hall.

Jiang Cheng was the sect leader and yet somehow had forgotten this night was the one night of the month that the rebuilt Yunmeng Jiang sect set up this type of meal.  No elegantly plated separate dishes and bowls on little lacquered tables arranged an appropriate distance apart, accompanied by easily breakable cups of fine tea.  This was a communal hotpot, with boiling pots set right on the ground, everyone kneeling on their haunches haphazardly around each pot, grabbing whatever meat or vegetables from the plates continually refilled and passed around and cooking it however they liked, gulping down chilled juice and wine in between gobbling up their rice and noodles and broth.  It was chaotic and unmannerly and loud and messy.  Jiang Cheng immediately relaxed, shaking his head at the hubbub he had finally grown used to.  At that moment, Jiang Chengling noticed the two’s arrival, and he immediately got up to salute Jiang Cheng, exclaiming that they were not expecting them back before dinner, if they wanted him to make up two trays of noodles and broth to take back to their rooms.

“No, it’s fine.  We’ll just eat quickly while the food is hot, then go wash up.”

The entire time, Liu Qingge clung to Jiang Cheng’s side, his expression unreadable as he took in the scene.  Of course, he came from a mountain sect, they must rarely have time or room to eat together, and if they did, probably only bowls of congee with slivers of vegetables and thin strips of meat like they did in Gusu Lan, as if they had taken vows of ascetism.  Dinner on the peaks certainly would never become a noisy, sweltering, everyone-for-themselves affair like during hotpot night at Lotus Pier.

Tugging Liu Qingge to sit down on the ground beside him, Jiang Cheng demonstrated the finer techniques of eating hotpot, with young Jiang Chengling, the kitchen expert, enthusiastically chiming in every now and then.  With chopsticks swiftly darting from plate to pot to bowl, Jiang Cheng soon amassed a pile of sliced beef, whole shrimp, mussels, cabbages, lotus roots, greens and mushrooms on top of the noodles in Liu Qingge’s bowl.  Then he picked out seasonings and sauces to supplement the slightly spicy broth and to dip foods into.  And when Liu Qingge seemed uncertain about the shrimp, Jiang Cheng happily demonstrated tearing off their heads and sucking out their brains, skillfully deshelling one and holding the plump body up to Liu Qingge’s mouth.

“Eat it, it’s delicious.”

“It does not taste like mud at all, Master Liu,” Jiang Chengling assured him.

Convinced, Liu Qingge opened his mouth and let Jiang Cheng feed him the shrimp, chewing pensively and finally nodding his approval of its sweet taste and tender texture.  They did eat seafood in the sect, but mostly just river fish; his wolf pack of course did not have the opposable thumbs to eat shrimp or crab or mussels, and while out and about on his travels, if he could barbecue flesh of a beast, he would, rather than bother to scour the waters for shellfish.

“I knew you’d like it.  Go on and eat, I’ll prepare you some more.”

Every person in the main hall did their utmost to not openly stare at their cold and cruel sect leader indulgently babying his not-concubine in public.   For despite being shaded under the straw hat, Liu Qingge’s singular beauty gleamed pure like moonbeams and starlight, complementing Jiang Cheng’s sharply elegant good looks, drawing everyone’s eyes irresistibly towards them.  The two of them looked superbly splendid together, even while sucking noisily on shellfish guts, and their closeness, their pleased smiles as they shared food and drink between themselves and only themselves; such high quality dog food cannot be ignored, each and every person there thought.

“What are you all looking at?!” Jiang Cheng snapped, when the conversation had died out and he caught them all staring at Liu Qingge.  Every sect member present hurriedly went back to cooking and eating and talking not about their sect leader nor his niang-niang, but Jiang Cheng’s suspicions had been alerted.  A personal thrashing for each person was long overdue, he thought, vowing to get on that as soon as he had time.

Once Jiang Cheng and Liu Qingge had eaten their fill, Ying Zhu came over to apologize for not attending to them right away, and went ahead to get their rooms and a bath prepared while they finished sipping their wine.  Though they had not left Lotus Pier for that long, the site of familiar beds and a tub of steaming water and real soap never looked so welcoming.

Stopping Ying Zhu, Jiang Cheng told her, “Thank you for getting the ointments and oils to me before we left.  We used them last night at the inn, they worked very well.”

Eyes wide, Ying Zhu murmured, “It was my pleasure to be of assistance, sect leader.”

“And… I was thinking about what Wei Wuxian said…  I do need a larger bed in this room, something like my parents’.”  Jiang Cheng had been recalling last night at the inn, and while he doubted he would get married anytime soon, his current bed now looked much too cramped after he had lain down in that warmed inn bed Liu Qingge had been sleeping in… “It’s probably about time, better to do it now than rush it later.  Do you think you can get that arranged?”

“Of course, that is no problem at all!” Ying Zhu replied, tamping down her joy with some difficulty.  So they must have consummated their relationship at the inn and wanted to continue intimate activities at home?!  She would have the best carpenters put together a large and luxurious couple’s bed for the master bedroom, get that tiny cot of Jiang Cheng’s out of the way from back when he first reclaimed his home after the war.  “I think it will take a few days, will that be acceptable, sect leader?”

“No rush.  Here is some gold, take more from the coffers if you need.  Thank you again.”

Liu Qingge had returned from gathering his clothes and another veil from his room, ready to bathe.  He nodded to Ying Zhu, thanking her for the good luck blanket while Jiang Cheng went off to check on a few things before he could relax for the night.

“I’m glad to hear that.”  The double phoenix wedding blanket she saved for him undoubtedly brought them one step closer to the actual wedding day, she thought, proud of her foresight.

“If you need me to kill your enemies or track down an animal…” Liu Qingge offered.

Smiling, Ying Zhu shook her head.  “I am just a humble servant, I have no enemies, no need for a valuable animal.  All I want is for sect leader to be happy.”  She glanced at the door, saw that Jiang Cheng had not yet returned and continued softly, “Everyone in that hall you saw, only three of them had lived in Lotus Pier before that night over twenty years ago.  Sect leader lost almost every single person in his sect then, and is no longer close to the one person who once lived in his home.  I believe he cares for us deeply, for we are his clan and his sect now.  But we are not his family.  So if you could do me a favor… before you leave, make him smile a little more, like he did at you tonight.”  She grasped his hands pleadingly.  “That would make me happy, just that, Master Liu.” 

“I promise.”

“And… one last thing…”  This next part she had been wondering about and wanted to know for her own peace of mind, for even though she could interpret her master’s moods pretty well after so many years, she could not read this person at all.  “Are you happy?”

Liu Qingge nodded.

“If you aren’t, no one is forcing you to stay, not even sect leader,” she clarified.  Sect leader’s person was still just a guest lecturer without a sect, even if he did call sect leader ‘gege’ during dinner, at this point, no force in this world would prevent him from moving on if he wanted.

“I want to stay.  For as long as I can.”

“Then… that’s good.  I’m so glad.”

The moment Jiang Cheng returned with a stack of paperwork of hopefully more night-hunts, Liu Qingge promptly asked him, “Want to bathe together?”

“No!” Jiang Cheng yelled, red-faced, his expression the exact opposite of smiling.  “I told you, the bathtub is too small for that!  Just go first!”

Ying Zhu laughed softly and closed the door behind herself, before running like hell to grab someone who knew more about commissioning furniture than she did.


As they waited for their hair to dry, Jiang Cheng helped Liu Qingge with the ointment for his hands while the skin was still smooth and moist from the bath.  Then like last night, Liu Qingge laid on his stomach, leaving Jiang Cheng to squeeze on the bed beside him, lying on his side in order to continue passing more qi before they separated for the evening.

And just like before, Liu Qingge was still ticklish, trying to smother his laughter in the pillow of his arms while Jiang Cheng stroked the dip of his spine, his slender waist, the area around his navel…

“You’re teasing me on purpose,” Liu Qingge accused, his cheeks an angry shade of crimson as he finally looked up at Jiang Cheng, promising revenge someday, when he could defeat him in wrestling.

“Sorry,” Jiang Cheng said with a chuckle.  “I’ll do it properly now.”  He rested his hand squarely on Liu Qingge’s muscled back, between his shoulder blades, sending forth a small thread of qi from his palm into the body below.  Then he blinked and woke up with his hair in his mouth and his arm around a sleeping Liu Qingge’s waist and the mid-morning sun shining right in his eyes.

Jolting to his feet, Jiang Cheng twisted his hair out of his face and shook Liu Qingge awake.

“W-we must have fallen asleep, I didn’t know you were so tired.”  Jiang Cheng sounded annoyed, but inside he was relieved Liu Qingge did not wake up first, even though he always woke up at dawn before.  He must have been tired from battling the goose yesterday.

Liu Qingge, who did wake up at dawn but did not want to disturb the small smile from Jiang Cheng’s sleeping face, the beauty of which was marred only by the saliva-sodden strand of hair stuck in his mouth, said nothing.  Readjusting his inner shirt, Liu Qingge stretched and finally got up, redressing alongside Jiang Cheng. 

They had woken up too late to do a night-hunt this day, but Jiang Cheng allowed Liu Qingge to read over the papers and jade token requests for his own enlightenment while he attended to sect business.  Nothing stood out to him in that batch; nevertheless at lunch, Liu Qingge gave his advice regarding some missions similar to the ones he had done on behalf of his own sect leader, and Jiang Cheng passed the information onto the group of disciples assigned to assisting with night-hunts.

It was good Liu Qingge was not clingy and took charge of his day, Jiang Cheng thought, grinning to himself as he watched out of a window his little brother cornering the now fully healed disciples in order to break some new bones.  Unhesitating, Jiang Cheng set the account books aside and went out to help Liu Qingge deliver his latest “lessons” for the rest of the afternoon.

To avoid a repeat of last night and this morning, Jiang Cheng tried sitting in a chair while Liu Qingge laid in bed for their nightly qi replenishment.  It worked since he did not fall asleep, however, he felt the angle too awkward to hold for long.  But lying together in a narrow bed was much too dangerous and only one step away from dual cultivation and two steps away from demonic cultivation.   Would a bigger bed work out better, he wondered.  They would try again when the carpenters finished the new bed.


Just two uneventful days later, the commissioned bed was completed and ready to be assembled in the main bedroom.  When Jiang Cheng finally entered his bedroom after the workers left, he had to blink a few times at the new structure.  The large bed, constructed of the glossiest dark wood carved with birds amongst river blossoms with accents of silver, also had layers of gossamer curtains, a soft but supportive mattress, fresh down pillows and fragrant purple silk sheets.  It was like a heavenly divan, clouds in the Jade Palace.

“Do you like it?” Ying Zhu asked, and Jiang Cheng nodded.

“Now to see if Liu Qingge likes it, too…” he murmured, then realized what he just said aloud.  “I mean, we’ll just test if two people can fit on it comfortably.”

“I didn’t say anything…”  It was more than obvious that two people had plenty of room to roll around on such a magnificent bed, but if sect leader wanted Liu Qingge to test it with him, who was she to stop them?  “Then I will make sure you are not disturbed for the rest of the evening.”

“Uh… okay…” He watched her scamper off, then shrugged and got Liu Qingge from the side room where he had been sharpening Cheng Luan.

Liu Qingge had not seen such a large bed since the first and only time he saw the inside of his sect leader’s sleeping quarters in the Phoenix Mansion.  Like Jiang Cheng, he agreed it should be tested out.

First, they had a pillow fight, until the poor pillows needed to be reshaped from being tossed about so violently.  Then they checked Liu Qingge’s progress in wrestling, concluding he had advanced quite a bit being a god of war, but could use more experience with grappling and over-the-shoulder throws.  Finally, they just laid down on the bed and relaxed, giddy and pleasantly sore from their exertions.

“I can find no complaint,” Jiang Cheng admitted.  “I don’t think a wife would complain about this, either.”

Watching him through half-lidded eyes, Liu Qingge asked, “A wife?”

“Well, I haven’t gotten any new matches yet from the matchmakers, but with how the sect has been developing, it’s only a matter of time before I find one.”

“…What kind of wife?”

Jiang Cheng grinned, closing his eyes in contemplation.  Normally he would start listing from the extremely long list of qualifications needed for his perfect spouse, but he didn’t think Liu Qingge wanted to hear that.  “Someone I like, who likes me, I guess.”

“Hmm…  Difficult.  Impossible.”

“…Shut up.  Asshole.”  Which only made the two of them laugh, and Wei Wuxian’s golden core and the lotus blossom, if they had eyes, roll their eyes in frustration.

Chapter Text

All these years after the siege of Burial Mounds, sect leader Jiang Wanyin still had not adopted a dog.  They, the sect, all knew it was because he hoped in his heart Wei Wuxian would come back, just one last time, and he subconsciously never wanted to keep his brother away even if they no longer walked the same paths.  Jiang Cheng and Wei Ying, they had made a promise back then, did they not?  To always be together, the twin prides of Yunmeng Jiang sect.  But the former Yiling Patriarch had now joined with Gusu Lan sect, and secured for himself a loving husband and adopted family in Cloud Recesses, he had found his happy ending at last.  Wei Wuxian’s steps would never turn back to the winding wooden walkways of Lotus Pier.  There was nothing left for him there but sorrow and regret, mistakes of a lifetime.

The halls by the river of lotus blossoms that once rang with the laughter and shouts of two boys would now only ever be the home of the lone survivor.

They, the ones that would become his sect, had come at his summons, at his request, at his pleading; the handful that had not been on clan grounds the day of the invasion while escorting Jiang Yanli, descendants from the secondary branch of the Jiang clan split off generations ago, children of former sect members who had struck out on their own or who had married into other families, young cultivators and servants hailing from his mother’s clan.  They had heard of Jiang Wanyin’s fearsome reputation and fiery temper, but they were just as stubborn and resilient as he, and they wanted to make the impossible happen, too.  Gradually, the new Yunmeng Jiang sect fought its way back from near extinction to flourish in glory, and to nurture the growing blossom of Lanling Jin sect as well.

The only thing missing at Lotus Pier… a wife… a little one.   At least a dog, maybe a cat, a bird, something?  The sect leader remained alone, and any efforts to resolve this by various aunties and matchmakers dashed to pieces against the rock of his inability to curb his acid tongue.  The sect had almost given up hope of their bitter-hearted sect leader finding his solace, his soulmate, his reason to live, when out of nowhere, Liu Cheng Luan arrived at Lotus Pier on the recommendation of Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji.

From that moment on, everyone at Yunmeng Jiang sect had to endure constant scorn and almost daily beatings from not one but two beauties.  Had they possessed a little more common sense and a lot less masochism, Lotus Pier would have found its halls empty once more, but Yunmeng Jiang sect did not work like that, never did.  Besides, a lot of abuse could be endured for the sake of a male god, and also some really good dogfood.

No one would dare to gossip about sect leader and his not-concubine, of course, but lying on a cot in the infirmary after getting brutalized during training, one has to pass the time away somehow without further opening up wounds or straining muscles somehow.  If a few choice observations happened to be compared in hushed voices amongst the patients, who could fault them for reassuring each other so?

For example, today, Jiang Chengling saw with his own two eyes Liu Cheng Luan lingering by the door to the sect leader’s study after he had cleared the dishes from lunch.  The niang-niang usually spent his time “guest-lecturing,” helping out in the kitchens, or going hunting or horseback riding if the weather permitted, but oftentimes in between activities, he would watch sect leader performing his duties from the doorway in silence, waiting to be noticed, as if sect leader could possibly overlook such brilliant beauty.  Eventually, sect leader would get up and chase after him, and they would end up tussling in the halls, which a normal and sane and not-masochistic person with a functioning memory seeing that would think, ‘oh, they’re just rough-housing like brothers do,’ but Jiang Chengling would swear on his honor they were flirting, without even needing the aphrodisiacs he so carefully prepared.  Why else would his sect leader laugh and smile so freely like that?  Who had ever been allowed so close to him, to touch and hold without getting yelled at, ever since his nephew returned to Koi Tower?  He himself had never pursued someone romantically, but he knew what true love looked like when he saw it.

Jiang Chengling asked his family, who had moved to Lotus Pier when he was a child, just to be sure he did not assume wrong, and they agreed with his assessment unquestionably.  Sect leader has fallen in love, marriage is inevitable, the Jiang family would one day grow by one, perhaps even more.

Although unfortunately, the beatings will continue…

 


 

Jiang Cheng, not realizing he was being observed so closely by his sect, only noticed that his nightmares of “demonic cultivation” (but was really just about fucking (or getting fucked by) Liu Qingge) had completely stopped after the night hunt of the cultivating goose.  He attributed it to the lotus blossom artifact he received from the goose and decided it must have some sort of purifying effect on his mind and soul.  Which was only because the lotus blossom decided to bide its time for now, as it had rather the opposite effect of purification once it released its mesmerizing fragrance and activated its seeds.

Thus completely misled about the meaning of his dreams and the nature of the lotus blossom artifact, Jiang Cheng kept working on night hunts with Liu Qingge, the two of them taking on a few simple half-day missions and errands within the territory over the next several days, or sometimes guiding the disciples to their destination and making sure they would be all right before returning home.  Righteous cultivation to counteract the negative residual effect of associating with demonic cultivators, an ancient purifying artifact on his person at all times – everything seemed back to normal, as if he had never laid eyes on that cursed yellow book.  Now that he had resolved his biggest source of stress, Jiang Cheng could focus on his sect leader duties during the daytime, and spend the evenings with his adopted little brother to his heart’s content.

Although they did not sleep together again, they did set aside some time each night replenishing Liu Qingge’s qi on the new bed.

“Why am I not back to normal yet?” Liu Qingge grumbled, pulling his shirt down and putting his robe back on.  He peered at Jiang Cheng in suspicion, as if accusing Jiang Cheng of holding back.  Five days straight, he could account for, but they were nearing ten days and he still had a ways to go before feeling completely like himself before he ended up in this world.

“I don’t know if you know this or not, but I am not a god,” Jiang Cheng retorted, sensing that accusation without needing it to be said aloud.  “There are limits, I cannot drain myself completely and be at a disadvantage if something should happen to the sect.”

“Yes, but I’m not a true god, I’m an immortal.”  The difference between him and Jiang Cheng significant, but not insurmountable.

“God or immortal, they are the same thing.”  Here they were, getting slaughtered by fierce corpses so easily and needing to eat food and drink water until the very final stages of cultivation, while over in Liu Qingge’s world, they apparently all practiced inedia by the age of thirty and could avoid death by transferring souls to empty bodies as they pleased.  Even if Liu Qingge technically had not ascended, even if ascension meant physical death of the body, something that could permanently kill Jiang Cheng would not kill Liu Qingge.  So Liu Qingge was by definition a god, and a god needed worship and offerings and prayers, and that was what Jiang Cheng was going to provide, but only within reason, and only from himself.  “You’re getting what I can provide, deal with it.”

“Isn’t there a faster way?” Liu Qingge asked, sulking, starting to chafe at his powerlessness and inability to draw Cheng Luan to its fullest strength.  He did not mind being doted upon every day, but he also needed to pay Jiang Cheng back as soon as possible, before he returned, and there were only so many game animals he could hunt during an outing, a finite number of times he can train up the disciples before the physician in charge at the infirmary would yell at him.

“Of course there is,” Jiang Cheng answered shortly.  “But I would have to consult a book, a novel if you will, for that particular method.  We do not need to go to that extent.”  Sighing, he then reached out and smoothed Liu Qingge’s hair that had gotten a little frizzy in his upset.  “I know you must feel frustrated.  But I’m sure your family and sect are still looking for you.  Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji and Nie Huaisang are doing their best to meet them halfway.  We just have to wait a little longer for them to finish preparations.  In the meantime, conserve your strength, be prepared, don’t give up hope.  Don’t worry about paying me back.  I’ll be at your side until the end, no matter what, I promise.”

His eyelids lowering, feeling soothed from the petting, Liu Qingge nodded.  “If you say so, gege, I will trust you.”

If he had to be honest, Jiang Cheng was surprised and maybe a little concerned Cang Qiong sect had not retrieved Liu Qingge yet, had not spirited him out of Lotus Pier and straight into heavens above.  There had been some question in his mind about the competency and intelligence of the twelve peaks from what he gathered; for one thing, why would the previous generation of peak lords nominate a gang of obviously deranged and socially-stunted psychopaths to succeed them unless they wanted the sect to be destroyed after they ascended, even Nie Huaisang’s little finger had more awareness than those buffoons of sect siblings…  But whatever, regardless of what Jiang Cheng judged of their mental stability, in Liu Qingge’s world, there were twelve (eleven) entire peak lords with the wisdom and resources of millennia stored at their prestigious sect, plus demon lords and saints all experts in teleportation, plus an unbeatable prodigy cultivator combining the strengths of both the humans and demons and had wielded at one point the most powerful sword, one capable of bending time and reality, in that existence.  Surely if even just half of that group put their minds together, they would have figured out how to track Liu Qingge throughout the universes and bring him home by now.

Jiang Cheng refused to believe they did not want Liu Qingge back; his sister and disciple adored him even if they did not agree with him perfectly, that silly and overly forgiving sect leader had to at least be trying to retrieve a third absent peak lord if he did not want his sect to fall apart, his faithless shixiong… well… they had been fond of him once upon a time, that should count for something. 

Jiang Cheng personally would have never let go of Liu Qingge.  He would have never taken such a loyal and courageous and extraordinary (and also peerlessly beautiful) person for granted and let them slip through his fingers.  He thought those other peak lords were completely brain-damaged and must be smoking herbs with mind-altering properties to think so little of Liu Qingge.  He thought all of these things, rather than dwell on the fact that when, if they did send Liu Qingge back to his world, he would miss him fiercely, with all of his broken heart…

 


 

Jin Ling’s initial joy at seeing his uncle Wei again at his home soon meandered into polite disbelief that his jiujiu, that very same jiujiu, could have found true love so suddenly, and then outright suspicion that they were pranking him once the request was explained in full and the thick stack of paperwork for Jiang Cheng handed over.  He stared at Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji doubtfully, but Jin Ling was still inexperienced, helpless before Wei Wuxian’s self-assured confidence and Lan Wangji’s ability to give no hint away even if it could have been really helpful at the time.

“I don’t get it,” Jin Ling murmured, “you want Uncle to acknowledge his guest as a cultivation partner, but you also want to find a way to get that guest back to his own world… how is that helping Uncle at all?”  It just sounded like Wei Wuxian was torturing Jiang Cheng unnecessarily.

“Well, how else could we earn Niang-niang’s trust if we don’t try to help him get back home?”

Jin Ling was not convinced by such overstated altruism, and he frowned. 

“All right, all right,” Wei Wuxian relented, shrugging.  “I just really wanted to see what this other world looks like, I’m curious.  There, do you understand me now?”

Crossing his arms, Jin Ling waited for the rest of the explanation.

With a sigh, Wei Wuxian went on.  “And… because Jiang Cheng doesn’t feel like he deserves anything good in his life, not without suffering terribly for it.  All he does is for the sake of Yunmeng Jiang sect, you know as well as I do.  If this is what I have to do to get him to… to realize, to want something for himself, for his own happiness…”  Ever since they were children, Jiang Cheng was always giving in and giving up for the sect, because the sect was first and would always be first to someone like Jiang Cheng, who had lost everything else important to him and now believed in nothing else.  In order for Jiang Cheng to recognize and acknowledge his feelings for Liu Qingge rather than secretly hold onto them in his heart forever, considering all of the decidedly miserable and often tragic romantic experiences he witnessed firsthand, he definitely would need a push in the right direction.  That was the intent behind Nie Huaisang personally bringing the yellow book from Qinghe Nie sect, and this invitation to Lanling Jing sect from Jiang Cheng’s only other family, Jin Ling, and failing that, their last resort, the power of elder brother Lan Xichen when they all gathered to initiate the array at Gusu Lan sect.

“I won’t deny it,” Wei Wuxian stated, fiddling with the letter he had specially written for Jiang Cheng with his instructions for this furlough away from Lotus Pier before replacing it on top of the stack on Jin Ling’s desk, “this plan is more efficient than it is honorable, but it will work.  Your uncle won’t listen to advice from me or anyone else, he’s just too proud and stubborn to accept any kind of help, and he won’t be easily caught up in a scheme.  But he would relent for you, A-ling.  So only you can help him… recognize this person who gets along with him, and who likes being with him.”  A first, to Wei Wuxian’s knowledge.

“I don’t know…” Something of a spoiled little boy crept into Jin Ling’s voice, perilously close to that of a beloved son who did not want to accept the new stepmother his father brought home…

“Jin Ling, consider this, how likely do you think your uncle will find a wife?”  All three of them thought of the female cultivator’s blacklist featuring Jiang Cheng’s name prominently at the top, just not likely at all.

Continuing relentlessly, Wei Wuxian asked, “Do you want him to die lonely and resentful, without having ever experienced another moment of happiness just for himself?  You were there at Guanyin Temple, not mentioning women, you can guess for yourself how distrustful he must be now.”  Even all these months later, Jiang Cheng had not fully opened his heart to reconciliation with Wei Wuxian and by extension, Lan Wangji, that after having been suspected of putting Jin Ling’s life in danger, Nie Huaisang lost much of the regard Jiang Cheng once held for him, do not even speak of Wen Ning… and the only person left who still held any last shred of Jiang Cheng’s begrudging trust, Lan Xichen, had secluded himself, unwilling to rejoin the world that broke him apart.

How ironic that the one brother who walks the narrow and crooked path of demonic cultivation one day finds love and family and fulfillment (after dying a horrible death and getting reincarnated, to be fair), and the one brother who walks the broad and straight path of righteous cultivation is left tending the shrines of his family alone, with little hope of finding companionship to ease his pain…

“What if your uncle does suffer a fatal qi deviation and become a fierce corpse and I am not there to reach him in time?”  This was, in the end, the regret that haunted Wei Wuxian the most whenever he heard Yunmeng Jiang sect mentioned even in a good way.  That he caused his own little brother to become unstable, and that all of his cultivation skills and experience would not be nearly enough to counter the resentment born of thirteen years of broken promises.  “Are you able to put him down yourself?  A-Ling, can you live not knowing you have tried your best to help him avoid that end?”

“Of course you’re right,” Jin Ling said fretfully, “I know you’ve thought this through, uncle, so I do agree.  But if Uncle finds out you have been leading him around, if something did not work out as you planned, he would hate you even more.  That’s not what I am prepared to risk.”  Jin Ling only ever wanted his surviving uncles to be on good terms once again.  For his jiujiu who raised him alone all these years, he just wanted the very best.  And that included Wei Wuxian back in his life again, someday.

Wei Wuxian had the grace to look remorseful, saying, “…I know.  I know what all this sounds like, A-Ling, and if he thinks that poorly of me for it, I will accept the blame.  But for your uncle, my brother no matter how much he denies it… I have to try as much as I can, and for Niang-niang, too, who is also alone and who knows how he feels.”  Wei Wuxian could tell this from their first meeting, and Nie Huaisang’s and Yunmeng Jiang sect’s enthusiastically detailed reports only confirmed what he had guessed in his heart that fateful day.  Two people who could only look at each other, like the moon upon river waters, as Nie Huaisang had described ever so poetically.  Wei Wuxian had been the one to bring them together, and soon he might be the one to separate them, which he had to admit, did not make him look good at all.  Still, this was the least he could do in order to dispel Jiang Cheng’s bitterness, his heart demon.  To let him experience even if just for a few months what it felt like to be in love, to have a new wonderful memory to carry into the future, when all the good memories he had before were so distant in the past, blackened by suffering and loss and pain since then.

As Jin Ling was still wavering, Lan Wangji assured him, “When you see your uncle and his guest, then you will know what to do.”

“…somehow sounds so ominous,” Jin Ling thought worriedly.  Still, that convinced him to accept his uncles’ suggestions.  Lan Wangji may have a deep bias towards Wei Wuxian and would do, had done, things for his husband that Gusu Lan Sect would erase from their records if they could, but his righteousness was profoundly steadfast otherwise.  The two of them together worked diligently for what they felt was moral and good and just, albeit by unorthodox standards and with non-standard means.  That much he could depend on.  “Okay.  I’ll do my best.  And if I succeed… will you come back and visit me more often?”

“I promise, even if you don’t succeed,” Wei Wuxian said, ruffling Jin Ling’s hair fondly as if he were still that bratty fifteen year old boy he first met back then.  “We will see each other soon at Gusu Lan.  Good luck, A-ling.”

 


 

As they left Koi Tower, Wei Wuxian smacked Lan Wangji’s arm in annoyance.  “Why did you not stand up for me?”  It was unusual for his husband to not fully support him, even add in a white lie or two for flavor, so to tell Jin Ling to wait and see was tantamount to openly disagreeing with him.

“Because you don’t always know what’s right for someone else, even when you think you do.”

Stubbornly, Wei Wuxian shook his head, not willing to concede that he, a genius cultivator, could possibly be wrong about his own idiot brother.  Deep in his heart however, he admitted that in this matter, Lan Wangji was not wrong.

“Scram!  Go away!  Leave me the fuck alone!”

Wei Wuxian had been so stupid back then, before, and yes, even long after when he should have known better.  But now… he had someone who loved him, whom he loved, who would always look for the best possible path for them both if he should falter or doubt himself.

With one last pout of entreaty to Lan Wangji, Wei Wuxian asked, “But you do think I could be a little bit right regarding Jiang Cheng?”

“Hmm… A little bit.”

After all, even if Wei Wuxian did not believe as Lan Wangji did, that Jiang Cheng and Liu Qingge had fallen in love at first sight, he could acknowledge their high compatibility from the start.  Whatever heart demon his golden core had detected could be dealt with, the impeding qi deviation quelled, once Jiang Cheng accepted Liu Qingge into his heart or at least his bed, and they, you know, fucked.

Chapter Text

The next morning, Jiang Cheng received from a messenger bird an elegantly crafted invitation from his nephew.  To stay at Koi Tower for five days, for sect business of course, and also to work on preparations for Wei Wuxian’s grand plan.  Only, Jiang Cheng had to bring along his guest (scratched out here he could just make out the beginnings for the character for niang)…

This invitation seemed very suspicious, really had the mark of Wei Wuxian’s deviousness all over it.  Hopefully, Lan Wangji had reigned him in a little, or at least did not enable his madness beyond the point of no return.  Jiang Cheng would have refused; as Jin Ling had no significant role to play in the array, Wei Wuxian could have easily taken care of those preparations by himself, plus they had no need to ask Jiang Cheng for further assistance after he already took care of his own nexus point.  However, Jiang Cheng could not deny wanting to check how his nephew was doing as sect leader, then he’d return to Lotus Pier as soon as possible.

In the end, all of the excuses he crafted in his mind were simple excuses, nothing more, and Jiang Cheng could not come up with a non-petty reason to turn down the invitation.

After he discussed it with the other clan members, leaving a few of the older cultivators in charge along with Ying Zhu, informing the servants and disciples of their responsibilities while he was away, Jiang Cheng packed a few necessities into a bag and looked for Liu Qingge.

 


 

Jiang Cheng found him in the gardens his mother had called her own years ago.  All of the flowers had died when Madame Yu did, that day the lotus banners were replaced with pennants of the sun, but a few scattered seeds and buried roots sprouted a year later.  The revived garden now held more practical use, more medicinal herbs and fruit trees than ornamental begonias and rare orchids.  Still, flowers of all kinds thrived in the warm sun at Lotus Pier, drinking the plentiful dew, beckoning to butterflies and hummingbirds with a rainbow of colors as they scented the air with heady fragrances through the seasons.

Drifting among the riotous multitudes of blossoms, Liu Qingge in his white and silver robes appeared as a fairy, beautiful, ethereal, far above the cares of the mortal realm.  Jiang Cheng made his way towards him, entranced by this heavenly vision, and thus not noticing until too late that he had stepped on some blobs of old salty congee and a few shriveled slug corpses on the stone path not yet cleaned up by the gardener.

“Twenty-four dead slugs total,” Liu Qingge announced proudly as Jiang Cheng cursed under his breath and tried to wipe the sole of his boot clean on the edge of a rock.

As much as he wanted to, Jiang Cheng could not find it in himself to scold Liu Qingge for this; he was a god of war from a demon-inhabited realm, now unable to draw his sword fully or safely participate in the more dangerous night hunts, so naturally he would count prey from regular hunts and common garden pest extermination in place of his usual body counts.

“…I’m sure Jiang Chengling’s eggplants are grateful for your defense contributions,” Jiang Cheng eventually said.

Stepping serenely over the congee and dead slugs to walk by Jiang Cheng’s side, Liu Qingge nodded, happy to be useful even if he had intended to cook a meal that would surpass Luo Binghe’s.  He was not a god of domesticity, though.  The fact that his congee could kill, he considered it a feature, not a defect.

“You’re not… bored, are you?” Jiang Cheng asked as they meandered slowly back to the main building along the (slug-free) wood and stone walkways.

Liu Qingge shook his head.

Maybe he really was fine, although that could be debated since Liu Qingge did not express himself between “no feelings either way” and “destructive rage,” so it would not hurt for Jiang Cheng to probe more.  “Even if you’re not exactly bored right now,” he said carefully, “I think taking the opportunity to visit another sect couldn’t hurt, since we have to wait several more days for the array’s completion anyway.”

“Sabers?” Liu Qingge asked, expression brightening from its usual impassiveness.

“You mean visiting Nie Huaisang?  At Qinghe Nie sect?”  Jiang Cheng smiled a little tightly around the edges.  “That’s out of the way, unfortunately.”  Also where the porn was, which they had been taking great pains to avoid, along with murder and torture and other demonic-influenced acts.

“Then where?”

Jiang Cheng took out the folded paper from his sleeve, saying, “I have an invitation from A-Ling to spend a few days at Koi Tower, and was asked to bring you along, if you would like to join me.”

“Who’s A-Ling?” Liu Qingge asked instead.

“…My nephew, Jin Ling?”  The only A-ling he told him about, which he mentioned a mere fifty or so times since they first met.

Liu Qingge still looked confused.

“My older sister’s son with the former first heir of Lanling Jin sect?”  Great, this must be part of the “not knowing where babies came from” issue.  “You know, if your sister had a son, that would be your nephew.”

Finally, Liu Qingge nodded, but muttered under his breath, “Mingyan’s not going to have a child, though.”

“Ah… If she was going to adopt… No?”  Awkwardly, Jiang Cheng decided it best to avoid that topic, and he cleared his throat to say, “Anyway, I’ve packed for us both.  So if you are ready and want to come with me…”

“I want,” Liu Qingge answered promptly, despite the fact that he had not read of any interesting swords at this Lanling Jin sect.

 “All right, come here and hold onto me.”

“Are we flying?” Liu Qingge asked, moving to hold onto Jiang Cheng around his waist from behind.  

At this gesture, Jiang Cheng fought back another fond smile, remembering the day he brought the White Ghost not-concubine home on Sandu, recalling that sense of someone embracing him closely, pressing warm against his back.  Since then, it had been more of him holding onto Liu Qingge, which was fine, but… he liked this too, and felt certain Liu Qingge did as well.  “No, we will be teleporting,” Jiang Cheng explained, grasping Liu Qingge’s wrist tightly with one hand as he folded up the invitation to initiate the array.

“We what?”  By the time Liu Qingge finished his exclamation, the two of them ended up at the base of the alabaster stairs leading to the central pavilion of Koi Tower.  Liu Qingge’s face had turned white with shock, and he clutched fiercely to the only solid thing he could comprehend, which was Jiang Cheng.

Letting out a laugh, Jiang Cheng commented, “Don’t tell me you feel sick?  Can’t you teleport in your world?”  He pushed at Liu Qingge’s forehead amusedly.

“I can’t!  Otherwise, why would I need to fly my shixiong around?!”  Liu Qingge snapped in irritation, while simultaneously burying his face into Jiang Cheng’s shoulder.

“I was mistaken, I thought your sect would have figured out such a technique by now.”  Not that teleportation was especially simple or accessible, only the wealthiest sects with the most power to flaunt could utilize teleportation arrays with any regularity, but if the alleged demons in Liu Qingge’s world could teleport, he did not see why extremely high-level cultivators such as the peak lords could not.

“Hmph.”  Now feeling less dizzy, Liu Qingge detached himself, accusing, “If you knew how to teleport, why couldn’t you teleport away from the siege?  Or out of reach of the fierce corpses?  Why did so many have to die?”

“For the same reason why you and your sect siblings can communicate telepathically, but did not warn each other in time, or resolve any misunderstandings, and instead caused everyone to suffer needlessly for so many years,” Jiang Cheng countered sullenly.  Because no cultivator, not a single one, ever thought to use their incredible superhuman abilities during a crisis until long after it could have been useful.  If they could remember all of the time, they would be gods in heaven already and not scraping about in the lower realms with other mortals.  And even then, the gods still managed to get themselves into heaps of trouble, Jiang Cheng thought, narrowing his eyes, having not forgotten about the General Pei Ming and his sex escapades despite really wanting to…

“What... what misunderstandings?  I have never lied, ever.”

“Nothing, don’t worry about it.”  Jiang Cheng smiled the bitterest smile, as lacking of comfort as could be.  “You did nothing wrong, all right?”  It was everyone else who did wrong things, he thought darkly…

By now, they had been spotted by a group of cultivators wearing elaborately embroidered gold and white robes. Out of the corner of his eye, Jiang Cheng noticed Liu Qingge tense visibly, one hand reaching for Cheng Luan, and he made a calming gesture.  This particular tower was hardly the same as a certain notorious palace he had read of in a certain notorious book, but unfortunately fostered similar enough arrogant and judgmental attitudes.  If Liu Qingge’s previous exploits were any predictor, they would not be leaving Koi Tower without having sent several Jin sect cultivators into the infirmary…

“Welcome to Koi Tower, Sect Leader Jiang Wanyin,” the captain of the guard stated formally after saluting, “and to your niang– …er… who is this exactly?”

The four guards looked at Liu Qingge, determined he was indeed a man despite the lovely veiled face, then glanced skeptically at Jiang Cheng as if to ask, what the hell is going on.

“Master Liu Cheng Luan here is a guest lecturer at Yunmeng Jiang sect recommended by Masters Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji,” Jiang Cheng emphasized coldly, no mention of a niang-niang at all.  And even if he was also a concubine, so what?  These small-minded peacocks sure had a lot of audacity glaring at Liu Qingge with such disrespect, as if they had not learned their lesson by now to not judge a person too soon.  “Get us to sect leader Jin,” he ordered, “we have important business to discuss.”

“Apologies, Sect Leader Jiang,” the captain murmured, rather unsettled after being informed that this righteous sect leader would bring along his concubine (as if Jin sect’s previous leader had not fooled around even more flagrantly in public), but it turned out aforementioned concubine was more like an armed bodyguard… a very dangerous armed bodyguard whose steady glare promised a world of pain within the next few moments.  “We will bring you to him at once, follow me, please.”

“Thank you.” Jiang Cheng no sooner said that then a young man practically flew down the many steps of Koi Tower, launching himself into his arms, shouting for his jiujiu all the while a large fluffy dog barked and ran around them in deliriously happy circles. He had to laugh at his nearly grown nephew’s excited greeting, even more excited than that of Fairy’s, who, poor thing, must have had a lot of pent-up energy if they had to lock her in a room all while Wei Wuxian visited.  “Jin Ling, how improper… are you still a child?” he admonished, although he did not let go of Jin Ling either.

“I haven’t seen you in forever, jiujiu!” Jin Ling exclaimed, still hugging Jiang Cheng tightly.  “I’m so happy you made it here!  And your… guest, too, I guess.”  Now Jin Ling tore his adoring gaze away from his uncle to stare down Liu Qingge even as he gave a proper salute.  “Welcome.”

“Sect leader Jin…” Liu Qingge murmured, returning the salute.  Then he abruptly asked, “Why is your dog so fat?”

Whatever hope Jiang Cheng had of his nephew getting along with his newly adopted didi faded instantly.

“What did you say about Fairy?!” Jin Ling cried out.  “Fairy is a spirit beast and my loyal companion, given to me by my uncle---”

As for Fairy, who did not sense a speck of dishonesty or malice in this new wonderful-smelling human, she expectantly trotted up to Liu Qingge, who obliged and gave her a few pats on the head.

Feeling betrayed by his own spirit beast, but not yet discouraged by this temptress who had ensnared his uncle’s attentions but wasn’t even a woman, Jin Ling opened his mouth to start another tirade.

“It’s not chunk, it’s just fur,” Liu Qingge judged before anyone else could say anything.

“I was about to say that!”  Fairy was just big-boned, that’s all, how come no one believed him?

The four guards, not realizing how close they were to death or at least a severe ass-kicking, observed this scene with doubtful expressions.  The captain began politely, “Sect Leader Jin Rulan, we present Sect Leader Jiang Wanyin and his guest, Master Liu Cheng Luan, here by recommendation of Masters Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji.”

“Thank you, you are dismissed.  I will take care of my uncle and his guest myself,” Jin Ling told them.  The guards saluted and then split up to either side to escort the group up to the main doors of Koi Tower.  Rather, that was their intent, but Liu Qingge with Fairy bounding along at his side had advanced further up the steps and so they had to scurry to stay ahead of him.  Which only made Liu Qingge ascend the steps faster, and Jiang Cheng rolling his eyes had to run up after him with Jin Ling close behind, until finally the entire group ended up at the top of the stairs, somewhat breathless from shouting at Liu Qingge and Fairy to slow down, then watching in horror as Liu Qingge, who had not a hair out of place and looked ready to run another set of stairs, came to a stop against the tall wooden doors he assumed was unlocked but was indeed barred against intrusion, that is, for only the briefest moment before he “accidentally” destroyed them by pushing right through, leaving the massive pieces of wood and steel and gold to hang crookedly from the hinges.

“Sorry.”  Liu Qingge did not sound very sorry.

“Next time… just wait for everyone else to catch up,” Jiang Cheng said with a sigh.  At least he brought extra money to compensate for the inevitable damages Liu Qingge would wreck on property and persons.  “I’ll pay for the repairs, A-Ling, don’t worry.”

“It’s… okay, jiujiu.”  Jin Ling began to think himself fortunate he had learned some self-restraint and did not insult his uncle’s new person right at the start.  “Fairy is too full of energy today, and of course a guest would assume the doors would be left open after someone just came out of them.  Captain?”

“Sect Leader, we were at fault.  I will find some men to repair the doors immediately.”  Two of the guards scarpered away to fetch carpenters and workmen while the other two stood on either side of the doors to keep watch.

All Liu Qingge said was, “You all need to run more stairs,” to which everyone quietly groaned.  He was right, though, they were getting soft in this time of peace and just barely managed to keep from gasping for air while talking.

 


 

In one of the famed pleasure gardens of Koi Tower, beneath thoughtfully pruned trees, between dazzling plots of flowers and aesthetically placed boulders, they arrived at their destination, a lushly decorated golden pavilion facing a smoothed stone courtyard and a small koi pond.  A bevy of maids served tea and a light lunch at the main table, while a young female cultivator brought over the stack of paperwork Wei Wuxian left behind for Jiang Cheng, plus brushes and inkstones and spare paper.  They departed the garden silently, like flower petals on the breeze, their charming moon and porcelain faces tinged with worry upon discovering an even more dazzling beauty at Sect Leader Jiang’s side, so far above their level of understanding of what beauty was, if beauty was even real.   

After he had caught his breath, Jin Ling immediately began questioning Liu Qingge, who did not respond in anything more than a few one-word replies.  Wei Wuxian had told him the fake background story they had given everyone else, but also explained that Liu Cheng Luan (actually god of war Liu Qingge) was in truth an immortal from a different plane of existence, hence this elaborate effort to set up the arrays to open a portal to another dimension to try to send him back home. 

On the one hand, Liu Qingge may soon return to his own world, but on the other hand, his uncle had already devoted himself fully to his new person, pushing back any progress of finding a real, hopefully female wife, by several months if not years.  Not that Jin Ling had anything against cut-sleeves, not after reuniting with Wei Wuxian (in Mo Xuanyu’s body) and seeing the love between his other uncle and Lan Wangji grow and mature.

It was just… after the recent series of events involving uncles who 1) lied to him or 2) betrayed their clan or 3) up and died or 4) all of the above, Jin Ling wished for someone for his jiujiu with even the slightest bit of common sense and logic, who did not have a death wish, who could look at a situation and choose the less crazy and dangerous course of action.

This Liu Qingge… was absolutely not that someone.  Not only was he not prone to thinking deeply about the consequences of his choices, not only did not fit any one of his uncle’s stringent criteria for the perfect spouse, he did not even seem to show special attention to jiujiu or Jin Ling himself, although that more proved he was not angling for money or power…

Jiang Cheng seemed happy with Liu Qingge’s companionship, however temporary it may turn out to be, and so Jin Ling in the end decided to try to accept and support him, for his uncle’s sake, and apparently Fairy’s as well.

Uncle and nephew drank some tea and started on the snacks, small dumplings, fruits, floral scented cakes, a bone for Fairy, however Liu Qingge had not partaken of anything on the table. 

“If no one else is going to be in the garden for now…”  Jiang Cheng reached over and undid Liu Qingge’s face veil for him like he did this normally.  “Go eat, no need to ask permission.”

“En, gege.”

Averting his gaze, Jin Ling stared off into the distance, his mind blank for the time being.  Could he tolerate even this much from jiujiu after a whole day of being around Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji’s public displays of affections?

When he returned back to reality, Liu Qingge had finished eating all of the remaining snacks and was working on Jiang Cheng’s leftovers.  His uncle meanwhile began reviewing Wei Wuxian’s letter and the paperwork left behind.

“What do you need to do for Uncle Wei Wuxian?” Jin Ling asked, scooting over to Jiang Cheng’s side.

“I’m checking his work for anything he might have not accounted for.  Lan Wangji would have already done the first once-over, but an outsider could catch something both might have missed.”  Wei Wuxian would no longer be using demonic cultivation, not unless he wanted his legs broken, but even his own personal style of cultivation constantly innovated and reinvented itself as he came across new knowledge and experiences.  Only Lan Wangji and Jiang Cheng had much familiarity with Wei Wuxian’s non-demonic brand of cultivation, therefore they were the only (living) ones with the qualification for this task.

They must not make any mistakes.  Not only were several high-ranking cultivators attending to the array, but Liu Qingge’s safety also depended on their thoroughness.

“Can I help?” Jin Ling offered.

Jiang Cheng started to refuse, but he recalled his nephew had grown into a capable enough sect leader now, showing the results of years of strict training and tutelage, working on his weaknesses with commendable efforts.  Why couldn’t he help a little?  “Very well, A-Ling, go look over these diagrams for the arrays and compare it with the existing maps, make sure there are no discrepancies.”

Almost disbelieving, Jin Ling gaped at him and then nodded, beaming proudly.  “Of course!”  He got up and retrieved a set of maps from the closest study then sat back down to review the diagrams passed his way.

Watching them work on helping him return home with such dedication, Liu Qingge felt guilty for not contributing and he asked if he could also assist.

“Not unless you’re good at geometry.”

He was not.

“It’s fine, you can just keep me company.”  Jiang Cheng reached over to pull Liu Qingge closer but before he could put his arm about Liu Qingge’s shoulder, he found Fairy, by command of Jin Ling’s discreet under-the-table snap, snuggled in between their seats.  “Um… hello there, Fairy.”

“Good girl…” Jin Ling thought victoriously.  “Now beg them for belly rubs!”

Under the shade of the pavilion, the four of them spent the early afternoon looking over Wei Wuxian’s messy notes, annotated neatly on the margins with Lan Wangji’s addendums, all the while Fairy getting three times as much affection as usual.  Once Jin Ling was done with his own task, he slid the papers back to his uncle, explained that he found no discrepancies and each nexus was perfectly balanced and aligned with the other two.

Smiling, Jiang Cheng ruffled Jin Ling’s hair and told him to go play while he finished up.  Jin Ling dared to make a face, he wasn’t a kid to be indulged anymore, but decided this would be the perfect time to learn more about his new… aunt.

Said aunt’s eyes were glazing over in boredom, and he promptly agreed to an exercise session in the courtyard in front of the pavilion. 

“Uhh… no sparring,” Jin Ling said.  “I need my fingers for the initiation rites.”

Wordlessly, Liu Qingge sheathed Cheng Luan with a dismayed-sounding clang.

“But we can practice archery together, I do have one duty to perform for the set-up of the array.  So you can help me work on shooting targets.”

There was already a bow with a quiver of arrows along with a few target bales stashed in the pavilion, and they quickly set up target practice for Jin Ling in the courtyard.  For a moment, Jiang Cheng watched his nephew attempt to bond with Liu Qingge and the earnestness he observed made him smile.  For all that he personally disapproved of how Gusu Lan sect ran itself, those two Lan disciples’ friendship really did change Jin Ling for the better.

After hearing Liu Qingge never used long-range weaponry, being exclusively a sword cultivator, Jin Ling felt confident he would come out on top in a contest of skill in archery.  Unfortunately for his ego, Liu Qingge’s arrows hit the target’s center each time with ease.  All Jin Ling could do was ask for advice in hitting an especially distant target between trees, with a fine string tied to one end of the arrow, as had been asked of him by Wei Wuxian.

Later, as they collected the arrows scattered about the target and one marked up willow tree deep within the garden, Liu Qingge cleared his throat, as if summoning the courage to speak up.

“Jin Ling…” he began.  “…Why does your uncle treat me like a…”  Liu Qingge paused, reluctant, and finally said, “Dog,” the same exact moment Jin Ling suggested, “Woman?”

Backtracking, Jin Ling coughed and said, “Like… a female… dog?  Is what I meant.”

Liu Qingge glanced at him questioningly.  “Why female?”

“Because… the puppies he used to own were all female, so that would be all he knows.”  Clinging to this fact, Jin Ling nodded confidently.  “Anyway, how is jiujiu treating you like a… puppy?  Is it the hand-holding?”  Or more like hand-shaking.

Liu Qingge nodded.  For the sake of toe beans, which he did not have, but that did not stop Jiang Cheng.

“He feeds you himself, too?  Does he decide your bath time or what you wear?  Does he often try to do your hair?  Chase after you when he gets bored?”

Liu Qingge nodded to all of this, too, eyebrows raised.

“Oh, and does he let you sleep in his bed?”  Liu Qingge affirmed this as well and Jin Ling told him, “He only ever let his puppies or me sleep with him, so count yourself lucky.”  It was not until much later that evening that Jin Ling understood the magnitude of this particular statement and he sat up in his bed in anguish once he realized, clutching his hair.  Right now however, he went on naively and blithely, “You know jiujiu cares for dogs more than he cares for humans, right?”

Once more, Liu Qingge nodded, understanding slowly making itself known in his one brain cell, although still only partially at goal, as this single brain cell could only handle so much revelation at a time.

“Then I wouldn’t worry.  You are actually a very good person, if jiujiu treats you like a dog.”  Jin Ling smiled, for the first time since he greeted his uncle that day.  Because Liu Qingge was not really much like a dog, he was most like a cat, silent and sleek even when attacking your face for petting his tail too many times, who just happened to be in charge of his own pack of canines.  Regardless, his uncle obviously admired him, not for his looks or his skills or because he could wipe out a sect easily if he wished to even while under-powered, but because he was loyal.  That was the kind of person his jiujiu wanted most in his life, more than a spouse from a noble family, or a natural gentle beauty with soft voice and thrifty disposition, etcetera, or an actual woman who could give actually birth to the next Yunmeng Jiang sect heir.

“Hmm…”  Liu Qingge looked thoughtful, then his stern expression gentled.  “So… We’re both female dogs to your uncle?”

Surprised, Jin Ling broke out into laughter.  “Umm… sure, why not!”

Jiang Cheng looked up from his calculations to see a grinning Jin Ling pick a pink peony blossom from the garden and give it to Liu Qingge.  His hand clutching a tea cup very nearly broke it into fine dust, but he restrained himself with a deep, steadying breath.  He was already going to fight one seventeen-year old for Liu Qingge, that young man being his only disciple, Jiang Cheng did not need to add his own sister’s son to the long list of “people to fight on behalf of Liu Qingge except he was pretty sure he was going to die if he dared try but if he could survive he would.”

As it turned out, Liu Qingge gave him the peony flower, while Jin Ling snickered at them off to the side.  Jiang Cheng had to smile, red-faced, how could he not, but for the sake of his reputation and for that brief shameful moment he felt jealous of his nephew, he got up and chased them both around the courtyard for a couple of laps, Fairy darting in between their legs and barking happily.

After an overly elaborate dinner inside Koi Tower proper, consisting of richly flavored soups and rare beast flesh and perhaps one too many osmanthus flavored desserts, Jin Ling cheerfully led the way to the baths for later, and then showed them to their rooms.

“This room is yours, jiujiu,” Jin Ling announced, opening the door to the grandest guest suite in the entire complex, containing many elegant partitioned off sections and an extremely large imperial-style bed tucked into the back room. There was no second bed to be seen.

“So… where is Liu Qingge going to sleep?” Jiang Cheng asked, trying and failing to not sound worried.

“Master Liu Qingge will be in the seclusion tower.”

“…What?  Why?”

“Didn’t you read the back of Uncle Wei Wuxian’s letter?”

Jiang Cheng hurriedly retrieved the paper from his robe, then scanned the backside of the letter which he had missed earlier.  According to his brother, Liu Qingge must replenish his qi levels back to his normal, then advance to the next level?  Within the next ten days?  “This… this is impossible!  Ten days to ascend to the next level?!  What is Wei Wuxian thinking?!”

“That’s why I had the seclusion tower prepared,” Jin Ling explained.

“Even so…”  Meditating in seclusion just might get Liu Qingge back to normal within ten days, which he would need to be at if they wanted him to survive the ordeal of returning to his own world, but it would not get him to the next level when he was already so far along in cultivation.  “How much time do you think you’ll need to break through, Liu Qingge?”

“Half a year, at least.”  As a child, Liu Qingge advanced to the next levels fairly quickly in succession, but during the past several years, it had taken months of concentrated effort each time he wanted to break through.

“Then Master Liu Qingge, you must use additional special techniques to progress as much as you can before they start the array.”

…Wei Wuxian better not have suggested certain ‘special techniques’ to his nephew, Jiang Cheng thought, finally grasping the point of his visit to Koi Tower, feeling foolish for thinking his brother would not have planned further mischief.  “What… special techniques?” Jiang Cheng asked in a strained voice.

“Here!” Jin Ling whipped out from his sleeve, thankfully not a dual cultivation manual, but a jade box that he opened to reveal four carefully wrapped medicinal pills.  “These pills have been developed and refined in Gusu Lan sect by Lan Sizhui and umm... Wen Ning may have helped…” Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes but said nothing at the mention of a hated Wen.  “They are fairly generic pills,” Jin Ling said to Liu Qingge, “but swallowing one a day will help you absorb and refine qi at twenty times the usual speed.  Please do not worry about the cost, Lanling Jin sect has covered all of the expenses.”

Grudgingly, Jiang Cheng nodded his approval.  As long as he did not have to contemplate who explained the birds and the flowers (Or birds and birds? Or flowers and flowers?) to Jin Ling, because it certainly had not been him.  “Good work, A-ling.”

“Thank you, Jin Ling,” Liu Qingge took the box of pills and tucked them away safely.  “Where is the seclusion tower?”

“…Yes, where is it?  I never heard of such a place at Lanling Jin sect.”

“It’s a secret location meant only for members of the main branch of Jin clan.  But as this is an emergency, you have been cleared to use the Rose Tower.”  Jin Ling did not bother explaining that he wrote in a loophole, explaining this is his uncle’s person, in order for Liu Qingge to be accepted by the tower.  “Just be sure to take this token with you whenever you enter or leave the tower,” Jin Ling advised, handing over a white jade token on a cord.  He led them further out into the back courtyard, then pointed to a distant shimmer in the dusk sky.  The invisibility shield soon dropped away to reveal the silhouette of a very tall spire of white rock with a large blossom-shaped pedestal on top.  Isolated from the bustle of the mortal world, open to the light of the moon and stars yet easily protected from the elements or intrusion, this was indeed an ideal and elegant solution for a Jin sect member needing to go into seclusion.

“How do we enter?”  No steps could be glimpsed anywhere.

“There are no stairs, you have to fly to get to the top.”

Jiang Cheng let out an exasperated sigh.  When he reunited with his brother at Cloud Recesses, he really will kill him, for sure this time.  At least he will only have to fly Liu Qingge up once, afterwards, he should be able to fly his own self around.

“Is there anything else we should know?” Jiang Cheng asked tiredly.

“No, I think that’s it.”  Jin Ling looked especially proud of himself, as this had been the trickiest task he had been saddled with, but his uncle and the niang-niang accepted the logic of the situation and did not argue.  “So… to the baths now?  Or would you two like to be alone for a while, hmm?  Ow!”

 


 

They ended up washing Fairy, who was getting a little smelly, before cleaning up themselves.  Taking Liu Qingge up to the Rose Tower, Jiang Cheng gently set him down into the room.  Several cushions and rugs had been scattered around the cool jade and crystal floor, some under a central opening that let in the purest moonbeams and starlight, along with a soft bed off to the side and plenty of fresh water.  No food, no incense, no texts, nothing to distract a cultivator in seclusion.

“At least it’s not a cave, good if you have claustrophobia.”

“I don’t have claustrophobia,” Liu Qingge responded in the tone of someone who almost died at least twice in a cave so far.

“Then… good luck, Liu Qingge,” Jiang Cheng said softly.  “Jin Ling and I will check on you tomorrow.”

“Thank you, Jiang Cheng,” Liu Qingge murmured, just as quietly.  “Really cannot pay you back enough for this…”

“It’s fine.  Don’t worry about it.  Just do your best, Liu Qingge.”  Very reluctantly, Jiang Cheng backed away, and at the very last moment, turned to fly down on Sandu.

He could not sleep that night.  They were still in the same general area, but he felt a little lost and unsettled knowing Liu Qingge was not asleep next door.  Only ten more days until Liu Qingge (possibly) returned to his own world, and four of those days Jiang Cheng would not be seeing him for more than a few moments at a time.  Jiang Cheng did not know how he could survive the next few days, or any of the days after Liu Qingge left for good, but he still had his own work to do, he knew this would not last.  Very well, after they returned to Lotus Pier, Jiang Cheng promised he would… he would spend more time with Liu Qingge before saying goodbye forever.