In this unkind and rotten world ruled by Alphas, where might makes right the only fairness anyone could find was what they grabbed for themselves as they scratched and clawed their way to the top. Safety and comfort obtained while retaining one’s freedom and independence was a rare luxury that was jealously guarded by omegas like Shen Jiu who struggled so hard to achieve it.
Shen Jiu raised his fan to cover his nose when he passed by a glassy-eyed man who stumbled through the street coming from the other direction. Green eyes following the unstable figure as the overly sweet scent, like cakes or spun sugar, wafted off the wretched thing announcing for all the world the man's impending heat.
An escaped Omega whore, based on the fresh and still bleeding brand burned into the man's exposed hip he must have run away from black market slave traders. Shen Jiu tsked, turning up his nose when the distressed omega came too close before sneering and looking away, ignoring the phantom ache pulsing at his own hip as he continued on his way.
Flowy blue cloth fluttered in the air as his robes trailed behind him, picked up by the icy cold wind blowing in his direction that heralded an oncoming winter storm. He had more than enough problems of his own to deal with and he could not invite danger onto himself by trying to rescue every abused thing he saw or the uncountable shadows of who he was and the all too numerous reminders of what could have been had he not managed what he had.
“A-Jiu!” A female beta called. One of the long sleeves of her beautifully made but otherwise simple red and white robe fluttered in the wind as she waved at Shen Jiu from an upper window as he approached. She was the owner of this brothel, one that he frequented so much it had become more of a home to him than anywhere in Cang Qiong Sect, even his own bamboo house, as his short few years of ownership of that abode was still too new for him.
The stares of nosy people in the crowds milling about did not go unnoticed by Shen Jiu, nor did he miss the judgmental glares, or their haughty huffs. No matter, let them judge. Let them form their own conclusions and find him wanting, better that than the truth.
“Madam Zhou,” Shen Jiu greeted warmly, tucking his fan into place at his belt before offering his friend a small, but genuine smile.
“I’m so happy you’re here, we have missed you these past months,” Zhou Lifen greeted. The numerous ornaments decorating her dark hair jingled like little bells with every movement she made as she hooked her arm around Shen Jiu’s own and pulled at his elbow. She urged him deeper into the building and led him up to the second level before pushing him into a seat located in a sectioned off area. The beta woman began to fuss over him, patting at him with her smooth and impeccably manicured hands before softly pinching his cheek. “A-Jiu should take better care of himself, look at you, you’ve lost so much weight.”
For the first time in many months, Shen Jiu felt warmth fill his chest, the frigid numbness he had grown used to melting away like winters frost on the first days of spring at the familiar touch of his best and oldest friend. “It’s good to see you,” he sighed, both of his cheeks now cupped in Zhou Lifen palms as she squished at his flesh, an unsatisfied frown marring her beautiful features. “Have things been well?”
With the increasing raids on black market shops that catered to omegas such as him, he had been concerned for his friend's continued safety. As luck would have it, out of all the shops hit, none of them had been brothels. He owed these women so much, literally everything he has been able to do, the freedom he enjoyed, was all thanks to them.
“All is well and everyone is safe. There is nothing A-Jiu needs to concern himself with.” Zhou Lifen tilted his head back using the grip on his cheeks and pressed a kiss to his brow. Her petal soft lips sent the pleasant warmth of her affection zipping down his nerves and straight to his heart. No doubt the unnatural red of her painted lips had smeared off on to his own pale skin.
Skeptical of her reassurance, Shen Jiu said nothing, choosing to let his doubt be known through looks alone as he stared at his friend when she moved to sit across from him. Even during the best of times, there was always some danger or drama lurking around every corner. If it wasn’t their underground activities then their legal trade brought the usual havoc of upset Omega wives of Alpha noblemen, abusive patrons, and even the odd person with violent desires or murderous intent.
Prostitutes always made for a tempting target for those with violent appetites looking for someone they saw as disposable to take their urges out on. He had lost more than one dear friend to such violent ends and bloodied his hands each time as he ripped apart those scum responsible for their deaths. He made certain to inflict the pain the creatures had subjected his friends to thrice fold before finally granting the vile things the death he made them beg for. Sick pigs could never handle even a fraction of the pain they so loved to inflict on others. Sadists such as those that preyed on the weak and vulnerable were always cowards it seemed and they never failed to wet themselves long before Shen Jiu ended their pathetic little lives.
“Don’t look at me like that.” A hand over his chased the chill from his fingers, the warmth bringing attention to a long ignored ache in his bones. He had to clench his hand to resist turning it over and intertwining their fingers, his shameful burning need for human touch was not something he wished to acknowledge or give in to.
A server came by, dropping off food and drink, watching in bright eyed curiosity as Shen Jiu poured Zhou Lifen and himself tea before leaving them to their private meeting secluded away from prying ears and eyes when he shot the young beta boy an annoyed look.
”You’re too skinny,” Zhou Lifen complained as she insisted on filling up his bowl with the food she knew he favored. Despite his polite protesting, Shen Jiu couldn’t help the twitch at the edge of his lips as he fought against the smile that wished to form along with the swelling of his heart.
Finally, after nothing more than Shen Jiu’s continued look of doubt, Zhou Lifen sighed as she gave in. “The truth is, while we are indeed doing well, the raids have dwindled our supplies.” She paused, tapping her nails against the polished table before continuing, “without a fresh shipment, I’m afraid we will have to turn away all those who depend on us for...”
“What supplies do you need?” Shen Jiu interrupted before taking a sip of his fresh tea, eyeing the woman from over the brim of the cup as he drank. He set the cup down in the palm of his free hand, and cradled the hot porcelain between his fingers before sighing. “If you can provide a list I will get them for you.”
“Oh, A- Jiu.” She reached for him, but fell short as he pulled out of her range.
“Do not mistake me,” She Jiu said, taking another sip of his tea before continuing. “This is not a charitable act on my part. Without your wares, my life would return to whence it came and I do not relish the thought of losing all that I fought so hard to gain.”
“Of course,” She said softly, smiling warmly at him as she placed her hands in her lap. “It will only be a happy coincidence that our other patrons will not go without this month thanks to A-Jiu’s selfishness.” Shen Jiu pursed his lips at her coy tone, glaring at her as he drained the last of his tea from his cup.
And that's how Shen Jiu found himself on a hunt through many large markets arranging shipments, and traversing the wilds for the remaining ingredients that simply could never be found in the legal stores and marketplaces.
While returning from dropping off the final items on his list and picking up his purchase Shen Jiu had to pass through Huan Hua territory, the people of that sect were brutal enough in their pursuit of wayward omegas that they even set him on edge. He stuck to the cover of the brush as he made his way through, refraining from flying least it draws attention to himself and the bag of contraband in his possession. The bag slung over his shoulder and resting at his waist was heavy, filled to the brim with scent blocking soaps, lotions, and artificial Alpha pheromones disguised as perfume and mixed into special hair and bath oils.
Something had the Huan Hua Palace in an uproar he noticed as he passed by one of the smaller towns under their protection, their noisy panic was so distracting that Shen Jiu could no longer ignore his nagging curiosity. The brouhaha drew him to a town nearby. He stood on a rocky hill overlooking the riverside city and watched as Huan Hua's pathetic disciples ran amok, their torches dancing wildly against the dark of the night like frantic fireflies as their desperate angry shouting grated on his sensitive ears.
Seems like Huan Hua Palace had lost someone based on what Shen Jiu can make out from the cacophony assaulting his senses. His curiosity overrode his common sense that told him of the danger he would be in if caught with such contraband in his possession he found himself sliding down the gravelly hills. Everything was silent except for a few rocks that fell lose as he made his descent. Once at the bottom he crouched down, making himself as small as possible as he looked around for some decent cover.
Dense frost-covered foliage near the river seemed promising enough Shen Jiu decided as he crept over to it and hid amongst it. Shifting his weight he leaned forward to peek out from his hastily chosen hiding place and watch the yellow-clad noisemakers as the searched. “That woman is long gone by now, why are we still out here? It’s pointless, we will never find her,” one of the male disciples whined as he bent in half to pant and clutch at his knees in support.
She Jiu mentally snorted, a bunch of weaklings this pathetic lot are.
A taller disciple holding a torch turned on the whiner and grabbed him, harshly pulling him up by the collar of his robes to come face to face with the sneering man, “If we don’t find her we are as good as dead you idiot!” The man tsked before shoving the trembling disciple away causing the boy to fall his ass.
“He, he wouldn’t...would he?” The coward mumbled with a tremble before hastily getting up and chasing after his disappearing senior.
Holding as still as possible Shen Jiu waited, and listened as he watched the torches disperse. The ruckus dying down enough that it no longer drowned out the slow-running river, or the creaking and groaning of its ice flows. An odd mewing noise drew his gaze as an oddly shaped black blob floated by as glacially slow as the slush surrounding it.
Curious, Shen Jiu crept closer, hissing when his hand snagged a thorn as he brushed the dense foliage out of his way. He ignored the injury after a quick glance at the plant, it was just a simple berry bush, nothing to worry about, and continued forward before reaching out to snatch the blob from the river.
Lifting the thing from the water it becomes obvious that it is a wicker basket of some sort, how the thing managed to stay afloat is a mystery. By all rights, this heavy waterlogged thing should have sunk by now. A sneeze coming from inside startled Shen Jiu so badly he nearly dropped the thing. He stared at it wearily cursing his damnable curiosity for leading him here before a hiccuping cough made him rip the lid off the thing.
Shen Jiu stared down at what was obviously a newborn, his heart raced as he frowned at the creature. It whined and kicked as it mewed weekly before its eyes as dark as the night around them blinked up at him and its blue-tinted lips trembled.
Oh no, no, don’t cry!
The baby hiccoughed again, a weak pathetic and rasping cry leaving the shivering infant as it reached up for Shen Jiu. He considers tossing the thing back where he found it and leave the infant to its fate and lowers the basket back down.
An ice-cold and so, so tiny hand grabbed onto his finger, and Shen Jiu stares into the infant watery eyes as the baby smiles weekly at him with its too blue lips. He stared at the baby frozen with indecision, a pang in his heart whispering in his ear, hadn’t he himself been in the same position as this baby, dumped and abandoned like trash? But look what happened to him? Would it not be kinder to let the pathetic simpering thing die, right here, right now?
Footsteps coming his way limit his internal debate, and staring wide-eyed at the small hand clutching to his finger Shen Jiu’s decision is already made. He lifts the baby from what should have been its death cradle and pulls the infant to his chest as he flits away back up the hill. He looks back down at the riverside as he tucks the infant, a boy, into his robes to press the baby against the warmth of his skin and shivers when the child's freezing skin meets his own.
There is what looks to be a local woman putting around the river in whatever task she set for herself at this absurd, and frankly dangerous, hour. The woman finds the hastily discarded basket and picks it up too inspected it before shrugging and taking her discovery along with her.
A small contented sigh and a spattering of coos sang out from inside the safety of Shen Jiu’s robes. The baby's face just barely peeked up at him as the boy kicked and smiled sweetly up at him and waved a slowly pinking hand up in the air.
Shen Jiu huffed a laugh which sent a breathy cloud flying away with the chilly breeze as he engulfed the baby’s little hand with his own and gently rubbed warmth back into it. “Let's get you home, hmm,” he says as he uses a finger from his occupied hand to brush across his baby's chubby cheek.